Saturday, 16 August 2014

Noise and Silence and Smoke and Stars: Jirí Weiss’s Romeo, Juliet and Darkness (1960)

(written for the Autumn 2007 issue of Vertigo)

Prague, 1942. A Jewish family, the Würms, are forced to leave their courtyard apartment building to go to the transport. As they leave, the son asks Pavel, a fellow lodger, to look after his guinea pig. When Pavel fetches it from their apartment, he meets a Jewish girl, Hanka, who has arrived too late to meet the family and who also must leave. However, when a German officer then arrives at the building to inspect the apartment for his mistress, Pavel decides to hide Hanka in his mother’s attic storeroom.

‘Just for now’

This phrase is often repeated through the film. Pavel gives Hanka the key to the storeroom ‘just for now’ and he makes up a bed for her there ‘just for now’. The German officer’s mistress declares it fruitless to think about the following day and Pavel’s mother, a seamstress, takes on the repugnant work of altering a coat she had previously made for Mrs Würm, now in Theresienstadt, for her. It is this time of just for now in which the film takes place.

By contrast, Pavel’s grandfather spends the days at his workbench, finessing a balance wheel for the timepieces that he makes and mends. He calls his invention, which he declares he will patent, the ‘Mrazek Balance Wheel’. It is what he hopes he will be remembered by.

This is not his moment though. For now, time has been uncoupled. It can hold only the pragmatism of the just for now, and nothing for the future. Whatever is forgotten and ignored; that will survive.

Noise and Silence

There is just enough ambiguity about the very beginning of Romeo, Juliet and Darkness, as Pavel rushes into the attic and hugs the suitcase of someone who is obviously not there, to lead to wonder whether it will follow the Shakespearean line of tragically mistaken assumptions. A piece of black cloth hanging from the window gives a foreboding note, and as Pavel hears someone approach, he locks the door and reflects over the events, all set in motion by a handshake with a young neighbour, that have brought him to this situation.

This is a noisy film, not in a conventional sense, but when sounds are laid down, they pierce the film. Early on, the sound of the Würm’s cart on the cobbles of a broad, empty, sunny street, as they walk away from the camera, fills the air of the film. There’s the infernal barking dog that belongs to the German officer's girlfriend, the banging door and squeaking toy that interrupt Pavel; there’s the rumbling of military equipment, troop carriers and motorcycles as they career through the city streets, and the loudspeakers that bark out instructions across the rooftops; there’s the sound of a scuttle being filled with water and the banging on a metal door. There is also the singing of a bird in a cage, at the beginning as the Jewish family pack up their cart and leave for the transport, and later, to warn of the approach of danger and harm. If we could only understand the language of birds we would hear its message, instead of just noting a sharp trilling.

Other noises are not so threatening – there is the sound of a cherished one bathing, with water you have fetched, just the other side of a closed door.

'Have you heard silence?' asks Hanka. 'It murmurs in my head all the time'. As she says these words, from somewhere a low uncanny sound maintains a drone. It sounds like a clapper being dragged slowly around a bell’s inside, it is the sound of iron on iron, of iron wheels on iron rails. Even when Pavel and Hanka dance and when they kiss, there is still the rumble of martial drums.

Smoke and Stars

As befits a story in which young love is crushed by the time in which it tries to grow, there is a certain naïveté about the film. If there is gaucheness in the nascent relationship between the two children, well that is the way it should be. It is the time that has altered the meaning of the language of innocence: 'Imagine you are on a trip', says Pavel to Hanka as he tries to bring the freshness of the countryside into her attic confinement. It of course awakens thoughts of the transport and her parents and it cannot be unsaid. 'I would like to go to sleep, and never wake up' says Hanka.

Something similar takes place early on when a child’s simple language intimates terrible fates.  As the family are leaving, the young girl asks her father:
- Is the train already waiting for us?
- Yes, it's waiting for us, he replies.
- Is it a very long one?
- Yes, a very long one.
- Will there be children too?
- Yes, lots of children.

Similarly, as Pavel sits in his windowsill, the bars of which look like a prison, he looks out as smoke rises from a single chimney. Later, his mother’s words to Hanka, ‘you don’t know what’s going on out there’, are followed immediately by a shot of steam rising from a train as Pavel searches out the railwayman he helped, and to whom he is looking for a favour.

The naïveté shows too in the sunflowers in the railwayman's garden, which remains as just a dream of sanctuary in the country, and which are symbolised by a print Van Gogh's Sunflowers on the attic wall.

All of this is guileless visual and spoken language. Such times demand that statements are made artlessly, even awkwardly, in contrast to the sureness of barked commands.

The film ends as it begins, with the pages of a book fluttering in a breeze, unread and waiting for another time – a time of learning and creation, a time that isn’t just for now, but one that looks to the future, and to the stars.

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