Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Marketa Lazarová: Notes After a First Viewing


(written in 2007 as a response to Frantisek Vlácil's Marketa Lazarová, mirroring both my initial bewilderment and my excitement at seeing its medieval world so pungently realised)
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The lamb of god wandered through the mud of the early spring thaw and into an encampment, where it was slaughtered and eaten; eaten even by its own shepherd while he was drunk. Bereft, he then stumbled to the hills where he followed the bleats of an escaping thief. Later he took to the tracks once again and a goat served for his needs.

Winter is long here. When water drips from the melt on the rooves and we are told that the thaw is coming, our bodies are expectant for the tentative warmth of spring. Instead we see the cold glister of chain mail on a man’s back as he rides home. At dusk, horses’ silhouettes skitter across the thawing ground which has the sheen of mercury, a slippery bed for the rough violation of a stolen girl. Wet, claggy snow clings on cart wheels. Pied carriage dogs hold their ears alert.

Marketa’s sleeves extend to the base of her fingers, a comfort nearly as soft as the down of the dove she pulls from her breast, an offering for the devout, its feathers loosed to the wind. Alexandra offers a blood sacrifice and a necklace of beads and feathers to the skulls on the fetish tree, kisses her brother’s left arm. The seeds of the wild grasses ripen in the sunlight. A serpent watches.

The creaking of ice, the wind through stone passageways and windows, the muted hammering on an anvil, the clank of implements hanging from carts, the splitting of carcasses and the beating of hides, the thunk of stone on a head, a chain against a breast-plate, the clash of swords, bells on a sled, the splash through water and the rolling of wheels, the burning of wood, the howl of wolves. These are some of the sounds behind Zdenek Liska’s film music.

Clear air after snow, horses and their muck, burning brands, coltsfoot and butterburr, leather and hide, warmed skin, charred meat, pine woods, a bed of leaves, marsh mud, burning tallow tapers, burning logs, stale sweat, fear, blood. These are some of the smells in Frantisek Vlácil’s film.

Characters call out to each other and catch sight of one another across time and space. Premonitions and memories fly, land and flash into vision, as if the falcons tethered to branches had been loosed. Men and women are assailed by visions, and omens have as much bodily presence as any reality. Black beasts and deer approach. Kozlik’s antlers are bigger than branches. Man is transient as a shadow.

The air is thick with voices, arrowed from the darkness of a wood at dusk. The trees talk. Later, limbs are but logs among the twisted branches and the leaf mould. Voices are ever on the air, echoing through Straba’s delirium around the walls of Rohacek, along with cries, whip cracks and the faintest of knocks on a thick wooden door. A sister offers the warmth of fur, a brother feels the rough, thick knots of a cord garment across his shoulders.

There is much hiding here, behind scrub and lacerating thorn-thicket. A white mare struggles to escape from the marsh, leaps through the water, but cannot pull itself out from the suck of the mud, watches us, then grazes on the marsh grass as we look back over our shoulders. We are caught, like the wood mice that snuffle between apparently sleeping fingers.

On a blasted bone-strewn heath, love and certainty fought with cruelty and doubt for the issue of the children’s souls. As ever was.

May your house be filled with health and happiness. May your oxen thrive.

100 Years Min.: Heavy Water - A Film for Chernobyl


(originally written as a review in 2007, this revised version appeared in Artesian 2: Water (2010). Phil Grabsky and David Bickerstaff’s 2007 film Heavy Water is based on Mario Petrucci's 2004 Heavy Water: A Poem for Chernobyl (Enitharmon Press, 2004), published to mark the 18th anniversary of the Chernobyl explosion, which occurred on Saturday 26, April 1986, at 1.23am. The poem was derived from eyewitness accounts of the Chernobyl disaster collected by journalist Svetlana Alexievich in her book Voices from Chernobyl. Using the poem as narration, the film takes us inside the ‘Zone of Exclusion’ around the Chernobyl power plant, into Pripyat, the now deserted town built for workers at the plant, and the surrounding countryside, where a few people still live and farm. Italics denote Mario Petrucci’s words from Heavy Water, used as narration in the film.)
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White-coated scientists lean over boards of dials and switches, staring intently at screens as buttons flash red around them; rudimentry diagrams show the plant’s systems and processes: these images are now familiar as the stuff of kitsch, plundered at will for a collective ‘memory’ from which any act of memorial has been erased. Petrucci has said that he is ‘concerned for the past’s future’1. His poem, dedicated for all the bereaved, and this film, were made in tacit agreement with Chernobyl’s dead to ensure their remembrance. There was life, a life before…

A metal barrier descends below the bright surface of a lake; a red and white painted pole bars road access to the exclusion zone; a corrugated fence borders the land of local farmers. Borders, both real and invisible, occur repeatedly throughout Heavy Water, and their every mention brings a reminder that contamination through radiation respects none. This side of the fence is clean, that side is dirty. Understand? You must forget that soil is like skin, after which a dog pisses, as if to show the insulting stupidity of the advice. A flycatcher rests on the fence, respecting no such niceties; a cat peers over, readying to leap.

Radiation here is the unseen and undeniable constant. It erases divisions  between inside and outside, as when we are told of a dying man coughing out his guts, unable to digest his food, and his wife kissing him, as if he could digest the touch of my lips. It travels between neighbours – it moved from your child to mine – and between lovers – do not kiss him … each time you hold his hand is a year off your life. Others it takes to the border between death and life, as with the woman who has to be taught to inhale again after radiation sickness. Mama, when you go to sleep tonight, please don’t forget to breathe, says her son.

Nature is abundant here and beguiles with its appearance of health. The blue lake water sparkles in the sun and reflects the colours of trees in early autumn. There are rosehips and apples, and farmers harvest beets. Yet bees drop short of the hive, whose queen turns circles no worker can decipher.

Confusion is more evident in Pripyat, ‘the town of the future’ whose detritus of hurried abandonment is now a subject for video archaeology. Its children now play only in faded amateur cine-footage, from before it became a place where where even the robots refuse, bewildered by the interference that scrambles their instruction. Thus it was that thousands of ‘liquidators’ were called in to do their work, to bury and cover the town and plant, to ‘make it safe’.

The gallows humour of those involved in the clean-up is present. In the poem Grey Men, Petrucci writes of a man who commends the benefits of radiation to his colleagues:

                  But think, he says
of our genius children. They will be called

out of bed by their friends. Just to see them stand
there in nightclothes, a pale blue ember. A splinter

of dawn.


As these words are spoken in the film, we watch a child at a drawing book. Then, with the words’ end, the thinnest paring of a crescent moon rises through the sky. The film is good at this, hanging back when the spoken words are so strong that they do not need competition and then providing a striking image of its own. This happens in an earlier sequence, where the words it's the dreams, nothing prepares you for those dreams; me, as a boy, breaking up through liquid black are accompanied by footage of workers shown ascending through twisted wreckage to the light of the sky.

At their best, the images feed lightly on the lines of verse. We are told of a man whose eyelids swelled so tight with water they could not see for skin, and we see an abandoned cuddly toy rabbit, new moons of white eyes rising out of dark orbs, their crescent shape picking up on the mention of the lightest edge of thumbnail that follows. Likewise, a brief shot of one orange marigold among dried and dying foliage delicately links these word pictures, the first too grotesque to be literally depicted, from the poem Soldier,

                          A ginger kitten

stretched in a kitchen window, its head a dried
apricot. One old man was weeding, the very

day he had to leave. Why do you do that? I asked
Because he said, that is the work you do

in the summer


The film finds its own rhythms of poetic resonance too. A moon seen behind scudding clouds recalls the light of the bulb through a black lampshade seen a few moments earlier; the mention of an accordion that sets a geiger counter clicking recalls a man playing an accordion minutes before.

Pripyat was evacuated in just a few hours after the disaster; many people initially thought they would return after a week or so. Except for the looters, no-one returned, and now, Chernobyl has left, gone from the map, to flea-markets, second-hand stores, dachas. And everywhere, its radiation finds new borders to erase. The general says, ‘don’t worry, this world is one vast laboratory’.


Postscript: As of 2008, figures of deaths, mutations and health problems related to the Chernobyl disaster remain contested. With areas of land across Europe still contaminated from the accident and unable to support safely edible produce, and with contaminated villages in the area reduced to rubble that has been buried close to the water table, the consequences of the explosion at Chernobyl will continue to defy the physical and linguistic barriers erected to contain them, the most recent of which is ‘New Safe Confinement’. This is the name given to the final phase of the Chernobyl Shelter Implementation Plan, which seeks to ‘contain the radioactive inventory’ of the increasingly unstable temporary Shelter over Unit 4 at Chernobyl, prevent the intrusion of water and snow and provide equipment for the eventual ‘deconstruction’ of the destroyed reactor and the Shelter. As yet the exact methods for disposing of the radioactive waste are still to be determined and no long term solutions have yet been found. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development report on the project states that, ‘International experts conclude that identifying and constructing a final depository will take several decades.’

A related EBRD Fact Sheet gives the 'Confinement Fast Facts' in a box. The lifetime for the Confinement structure is ‘100 years min’, a lifetime suited to contractual human scale but wholly inadequate for the depradations of time and the danger of radioactive seep.

Aki Kaurismäki: Dogs Don’t Lie



(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2007)
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Speaking of his 1996 film Drifting Clouds, about a couple trying to rebuild their working lives after unemployment, Kaurismäki said that when writing the script he ‘placed the task of Frank Capra’s emotional rescue story It’s a Wonderful Life in one extreme corner and De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves in the other, and the Finnish reality in between’. This is a fair description of the tone that pervades his work. Pinioned between extremes of despair and delight, between heartlessness and consoling support there’s a middle ground of people taking the vicissitudes of fate in their stride, surviving somehow – sometimes on the compassion of others and sometimes simply enduring. It’s a world of deadpan stoicism, stonefaced comic melancholy and hangdog longing in which people are buoyed by improbable hope, fall flat on their face (sometimes literally), and then are buoyed by improbable hope all over again – as long as they aren’t too hungover to remember that is. And it’s a place whose musical accompaniment is often rock ‘n’ roll and accordion-based Finnish tango.

As for his filming regime, he says that he often shoots the rehearsal and prints that instead of the first take as the performances are fresher, which is also why he doesn’t let actors read the dialogue before the shoot. He says he doesn’t move the camera much because it’s hard to do it with a hangover, and that, although he likes seeing actors acting in other people's films, that really doesn’t fit in his own. Lastly, he says he has two rules for his films, nobody shouts and nobody laughs.

In The Match Factory Girl (1990), Kaurismäki’s regular actress Kati Outinen plays the sorely put-upon factory worker Iris. She lives with her mother and stepfather in their cramped apartment, bombarded by the output of the world’s news on their television. She cooks for them – only to have her mother shamelessly steal tasty morsels from her plate. Even when she makes an effort to bring a little love into her life by recklessly spending some of her wages on a pretty dress, her stepfather just gives her a slap and calls her a whore – which is exactly what the man who picks her up in the disco also takes her for. Misfortune compounds misery until all that she has left is the thought of vengeance.

There is a command of tone and material here from the very start, which  begins with the industrial processes of a match factory. We see logs stacked in the corner of a room and hear the circular saw that has cut them into these lengths. Then the bark is stripped and long sheets of wood are pulled, stamped and chopped into matches that are then washed, graded, dipped, sorted and packed. The actions of the machines are remorselessly, intrusively, efficiently violent, and even if you know nothing about the film except its title, The Match Factory Girl, you can intuit that we are to see this woman used and stripped down to her barest existence in a similar fashion. This dread feeling is leavened by an anthropomorphic ridiculousness regarding the actions of the machinery that is almost Tatiesque in its form. Likewise, the soundtrack is filled with the hums, rattles, shakes, riffles and clanks of the industrial processes, and this also recalls that low-frequency hum that permeates Tati’s Playtime.

After a couple of minutes of watching this heavy-duty machinery, we finally see the match factory girl herself – or rather her hands, whose light dabs at the labels of the match packets seem so delicate coming after the implacable force of the machinery we have just seen. Again, we intuit use and abuse. When the camera lifts to show her face, her heavily shadowed eyes make her look like she has fetched up from some expressionist drama from the silent era.

None of the characters in Kaurismäki’s films are exactly voluble, but in The Match Factory Girl, direct conversation in the film is reduced to almost nil. In fact, the only directly spoken line between people in the first quarter of the film is ‘a small beer please’. Likewise, it is the small details that are so telling and communicate so much about the characters, details such as Iris’s jaunty pink hairband, or the glass of orange juice that she leaves on the otherwise empty table when she gets up to dance, and that has an aura of pathetic hope about it, as does the little sprig of flowers in the corner of the sheet of notepaper on which she writes to Aarne.

It’s worth noting that Kaurismäki’s distinctive style and atmosphere comes about through details that aren’t shown too. After Iris is rejected by Aarne she lies on the sofa in her mother and stepfather’s flat. Her mother comes to console her, or if not console her then at least sit with her. She is smoking and we watch aghast as the ash on her cigarette gets ever longer. What happens to this ash is not shown – it doesn’t need to be, as the thought that it drops on Iris’s sleeve is so overwhelmingly probable given everything else that has happened to her that we create it in our minds, and then extend this thought by imagining Iris washing and ironing her blouse the next day.

With The Match Factory Girl, Kaurismäki’s cinema pares itself right down to the bone of human loneliness and endurance. The two elements are crucial. Without the second, the first would be, well, unendurable. As it is, the excrutiating heartlessness of Iris’s one-night stand Aarne, his remoreseless pitilessness, is so repugnant, that he is evil personified, and so takes his place as one of Kaurismäki’s favourite characters, the indifferent agent of another’s downfall, or maybe even their salvation. Kaurismäki is often compared to Bresson in elements of his cinematic style, but unlikely though it seems there is a spiritual comparison to be made here too. Kati Outinen too, with her look of long-suffering inscrutability, unrealised dreams and blighted naivety is perfect for the role. Just once we see her almost smile, hidden by the book she is reading on the bus.

The final part of Kaurismäki's 'losers' trilogy (following Drifting Clouds and The Man without a Past), Lights in the Dusk sees honest night watchman Koistinen – whose employer at Western Alarms still asks for his name out of spite after three years – ignored by colleagues, seduced by a mobster’s vamp, framed for robbery, and then get beaten nearly to death on his release from prison. All of which is unlooked-for, undeserved and utterly unjust. It seems perverse then to say that one can leave this film uplifted by a spirit of human endurance and the acts of kindness that can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Kaurismäki claims Chaplin (especially his City Lights) and Bresson as the godfathers of this film, which is entirely fitting; the heartless erasure of a man’s possibilities by an indifferent nemesis – in this case a deeply unpleasant hood named Lindholm – who may also prove to be the unexpected route to spiritual salvation, is familiar from Bresson, but this is balanced by – well, not happy-go-lucky Chaplinesque optimism, certainly not – but rather a stolid bloody-minded acceptance of the situation and tantalising glimpses of future promise.

Partly as a reaction to The Man Without a Past, which he describes as ‘insufferably sickly-sweet’, Kaurismäki said that his original idea for the film was to put his protagonist in an exceptionally bleak modern milieu – in this case the soulless commercial district of Ruoholahti in Helsinki – and then batter and bully him to death (to provide a ‘realistic’ vision of life in present-day Finland). He doesn’t quite go through with this. ‘Luckily for our protagonist, the author of the film has a reputation of being a soft-hearted old man, so we can assume there is a spark of hope illuminating the final scene’ says he in his accompanying notes to the film. And so there is. As Kaurismäki also says, ‘there’s a lot of hope in this film – but only in the last 18 frames.’ It’s not quantity but quality that counts here.

The colour schemes that Kaurismäki has his characters act out their dramas among are part of the film’s great appeal, even to the extent of (despairing) laugh-out-loud moments such as the meal that Koistinen provides for the blonde ‘femme fatale’ (blue stockings that give her legs the colour of death, long, vaguely threatening red blouse collars), which consists of 4 bagels on a plate and knives and forks with flesh-pink plastic handles. (‘The roast is in the oven,’ he says, improbably.)

Appropriately for a study of loneliness, the canvases of Edward Hopper provide another point of reference for the set designs, as when, after Koistinen has told the hot dog woman he has a date, and she sees a hopeful relationship suddenly extinguished, she turns off the red neon ‘Grilli’ sign above her stall, it gives a little fizzle and leaves her lit up like a point of light in the deep blue night. Like her, we feel we have lost something. (A similar scene occurs in Drifting Clouds as the final comment on a closing restaurant. That film also provides one of Kaurismaki’s loveliest Hopper moments, when the waitress and her tram-driving partner ride through the night-time streets, the only passengers on his yellow-green tram, the lights of the city reflected in the windows.

Dialogue is spare – and what need do you have of words when the characters, their faces, gestures and their situations make everything so plain? Janne Hyytiäinen (Koistinen), who played the bartender in Dogs Have No Hell (part of the Ten Minutes Older: The Trumpet anthology) has the perfect face for the role. One can imagine him as a child, eager to please, and something of that has survived to adulthood, but life and loneliness have sculpted an façade of slightly aggressive impassiveness on his face, from behind which this urge to connect with others makes tentative, slightly pathetic peeps, only to be met with abuse and rebuff.

There is an overriding feeling in Kaurismäki’s films of a tenderness between people that is buried so deep it barely surfaces. In his earlier film The Man Without a Past, after he gets fixed up with a container to live in and has electricity run over from the nearest pylon, he asks the electrician who has wired him up, ‘What do I owe you?’. The man replies, in the kind of grand statement which Kaurismäki’s characters are fond of pronouncing, ‘If I’m ever face down in the gutter, turn me over’.

Another feature of films such as Lights in the Dusk, The Man Without a Past and Drifting Clouds is their distinctively bold use of colour. Sets come first, the characters fit in. In other hands, this garishness could be considered kitsch, but Kaurismäki is not in the business of mockery. He never gives his unfortunate characters anything less than full respect. The colours are part of their world and curiously, placed somewhere beyond jest.

After watching a Kaurismäki film, it’s impossible not to feel a little better about the world – even with something as utterly downbeat as The Match Factory Girl. This is his intention. ‘It has always been my secret ambition to make films that the viewer walks out from feeling a little happier than when entering the cinema’, he says.

Last, but certainly not least, dogs. Lights in the Dusk features a performance from Paju. Her great-grandmother Laika played the role of Baudelaire in La Vie de Boheme, her grandmother, Piitu, was in Juha, and her mother, Tähti, won the Palme D’og prize in Cannes in 2002 for her role as Hannibal in The Man without a Past. Says Kaurismäki, ‘I like dogs, mankind I don't care for too much. You're supposed to like mankind because you're part of it, but I prefer dogs. They are honest and they don't lie.’

Edvard Munch (Peter Watkins, 1974)


(written as a review and part of a podcast for MovieMail in 2007)
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Leaf through any book of Edvard Munch’s work and one of the first things you notice are the eyes; eyes staring out of you from the paintings on nearly every page. Eyes that challenge you – as in the painting of the bohemian writer Hans Jaeger, eyes of startled, shameful fury, as in Puberty, eyes of terrifying, spectral blankness – Spring Evening on Karl Johan, tired, hooded eyes – Death in the Sick Room (1892) and eyes that are quietly demented by possessiveness, as in Jealousy (1895).

Eyes are one of the most immediately striking features of Peter Watkins’ film too in that the actors playing the characters break the accepted contract whereby we remain as passive spectators of a film and involve us in their actions. Indeed the very first shot we see is Munch looking straight at us as he dresses. It is a jarring moment, and to begin with it is a disconcerting experience, being included in the characters’ world. When, about 15 minutes in, Watkins says in his narration that in most of Munch’s family studies, faces are turned to the side, turned away, refusing human contact, it is then that all those eyes, looking at us self-consciously, hesitantly, nervously, come flooding in, in a kind of plea for recognition and understanding.

Without fuss or extended introductions, the film thoroughly immerses us in the world of Kristiania, later Oslo, in the late 19th century. Munch is dressing as the servant girl makes his bed. She leans over the back of his neck – in a pose that will recur many times through the film in a reference to his painting The Vampire – and whispers that he may come to her after dinner. Munch’s mother is shown coughing up blood (she died of TB when Munch was five) and a family talks about typical working conditions in the city – all within the first minute of the film! This is energising, thrilling filmmaking in which you can be immersed in Munch’s story and environment at the same time as admiring the skill and depth of knowledge with which it has been brought to the screen.

Aside from the direct acceptance and recognition of camera and audience, there are other particularities that give the film its character. There is no way I can fully communicate its subtlety of conception in this short review, but here are just a few guides. Firstly, the cast of the film is entirely made up of amateur actors, for the most part Norwegians participating in helping to recreate the story of one of their country’s great artists. In interviews to the camera they bring their own experiences to bear on the characters they portray. Indeed, the end credits read, ‘directed and edited by Peter Watkins, and written in collaboration with the cast, many of whom express their own opinions.’

Secondly, social background is foregrounded by characters talking of conditions for the different classes prevalant in Kristiania at the time. The prevailing orthodoxy of morals is given to Mrs Heiberg’s husband. ‘A woman is and ought to be a defenceless and beautiful little being, both in body and soul, who needs the protection and security of a man,’ says he. The enigmatic Mrs Heiberg, Munch’s sometime lover and object of his jealous, possessive affection, a character whom Watkins brought to life from the pages of Munch’s diary, simply stares at us while he pontificates.

Watkins also uses a voiceover commentary that gives the notable events for a particular year. For example, ‘The year 1885. General Gordon dies at Khartoum; Serbia invades Bulgaria, the British annexe Bechuanaland, Karl Marx writes volume 2 of Das Kapital, and the future General Patton, and DH Lawrence are born.’ In outlining the events of the passing years, and especially the rise in German militarism and the inventions of weapons, a shadow of world war is cast across the film. Munch’s art was of course declared by the Nazis in 1937 to be ‘degenerate’, eighty-two of his paintings were confiscated by the state and sold off. It is the last in the long line of abuse and incomprehension that greeted his work through his career.

Thirdly, in recognition that a life’s experiences can surface, break and flood through us at any time in our lives, the film is non-linear in its telling. In this, Watkins took his cue from Munch’s diaries (indeed, most of Munch’s words in the film and much of the narration comes directly from these diaries). Watkins makes the point that Munch’s writing used little punctuation apart from a dash, so that in whole blocks of text, as he ranges around his thoughts and experiences from different times of his life, he does not separate these experiences.

So, for example, the scene in which Edvard hesitates before knocking on the servant girl’s room one night, then turns, looks at us and walks back to his room, comes in the middle of scenes in a tavern, scenes of his childhood and of painting. Thus the themes of sex, guilt, shame and embarrassment – both at his puritan background which is mocked by his compatriots and his own ineffectuality – and the sublimation of his confused desire into painting, are fused together.

At one point we see a close up of Munch’s incredible canvas The Sick Child, with its heavily scored, scratched and overpainted surface. In its use of image and sounds, especially sounds, which leech, bleed and score into and through each other, disrupting the parcels of discrete neatness so often packaged up for our entertainment, the film is a little like this canvas.

The look of the film is dictated almost entirely by its substance. A knowledge of Munch’s paintings provokes more admiration for the film as it reveals how thoroughly steeped in Munch’s life and art it is. Atmospheres are created that recall the ambiance in certain of his canvases. The grainy blue cast to the light in the room above the café in Saint-Cloud resembles Munch’s painting Night in Saint-Cloud for example. Other scenes are shown, such as Girls on a Bridge, which would later be turned into paintings. At other times, relationships are more subtle. At one point Munch is shown talking with Mrs Heiberg in front of a window, their positioning recalling the window that Munch blacked out in his painting The Sick Child, and the window also features in his painting of Spring. These are the resonances that run throughout.

At the heart of Munch’s art was his complex relationship with women. Watkins talks of the temptress, the virgin and the mother for whom Munch had revulsion and longing, respect and compassion respectively. He says, ‘the complexity of Munch’s suffering, of his art, is that each of these three images for him are one and the same woman.’ In the film, Munch’s painting, entitled The Vampire by a friend, and which shows a woman kissing a man on his neck, is referenced time and again, even once with Munch taking the woman’s role.

As the painter Oscar Kokoschka said, ‘it was given to Edvard Munch’s deeply probing mind to diagnose panic and dread in what was apparently social progress.’ For many, Munch’s most famous painting is The Scream, or The Shriek as it is referred to here. Some of the most beautiful scenes, which are also some of the most disquieting, are those which capture on film something of that ‘great endless scream through nature’, the effect of rippling, quivering, pervasive light that seems to have become another element entirely.

When we are shown 13 year-old Edvard’s near death from a pulmonary haemmorrhage in 1875 as he coughs up blood onto his bed quilt and into a proffered cloth – an image that recurs through the film – there is one small notable feature. The shot circles away from the bed to the lighted candles of the christmas tree, where the candles are bright red, and even they in their small way, shriek back their echo of the colour of Munch’s blood.

There are no rousing scenes of creative artistic triumph here. Munch is shown more often in bars and music halls than he is alone in front of the easel, and even there he spends much of his time scratching out and erasing previous marks that he has made. Haggard, red-eyed exhaustion is the reward for finishing a painting, which is then savaged by the self-proclaimed arbiters of reactionary good taste in Kristiania’s critical establishment. ‘Painted by one almost mentally deranged’, says one; ‘the hallucinations of a sick mind,’ says another. ‘Abroad people will wonder what sort of morals we have,’ says yet another.

This is a collaborative film that also benefits from Watkins’ individual approach. He talks for example of his use of ‘floaters’ in the film; scenes such as Munch’s memories that Watkins kept on a shelf behind him when he was editing the film. On impulse, according to the scenes he was working on, he would reach for one of these memories, and without selection, insert it in the film.

This is no more than a thumbnail sketch of a complex and deeply rewarding film. I look through my scrawled notes and see there are whole areas of its conception and how the film relates to Watkins’ work as a whole that I haven’t even touched. I recommend a visit to Peter Watkins’ own website. He has said that Edvard Munch was his most personal film and there you can read just why this is so.

Lastly, do watch right to the very end, past the final credits.

Two Romanian Films: 12.08, East of Bucharest (Corneliu Porumboiu, 2006) & The Death of Mr Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu, 2005)


 (written as reviews and a podcast for MovieMail in 2007)
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Before a look at two Romanian films – Corneliu Porumboiu’s 12.08, East of Bucharest (2006) and Cristi Puiu’s 2005 film The Death of Mr Lazarescu – here is a Romanian joke of some vintage, told to me when I was there on an extended stay in 1993.

A man is travelling through Romania by train, which stops at an unscheduled station in a provincial town and doesn’t leave. The man is mystified so asks the guard why they aren’t moving. ‘We have to wait here while we change the engine,’ replies the guard. And so the passenger waits. One hour, then two hours pass, until he can wait no longer and he goes to ask the guard what is happening. He finds him at the front of the train with the driver and the engineer, surrounded by empty beer bottles and all getting drunk. ‘I thought you were going to change the engine?’ he says to the guard. ‘We did,’ the guard replies, ‘we changed it for a crate of beer.’

If you haven’t come across Romanian humour before, then 12:08, East of Bucharest is a good place to start. The film is suffused with a mordantly funny undercurrent of self-deprecating hopelessness that is punctuated by numerous laugh-out-loud moments. The targets may have changed now communism has gone, but the attitude remains.

In his debut feature, director Corneliu Porumboiu turns his attention to the momentous events of December 1989, when communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu fled from Bucharest. Provincial TV show host Virgil Jderescu announces that the topic for his afternoon talk show, ‘Issue of the Day’ will be what part the citizens of his town played in the revolution that happened 16 years previously. Given that the answer seems to be absolutely none, and that his hilariously ramshackle show degenerates into recriminations, threats and embarrassing revelations as one caller after another phones in to say that events were nothing like those recalled by guest Professor Tiberio Manescu, teacher and town drunk, who claims that he and his colleagues were in the town square on that day, shouting ‘Communism is dead!’ and ‘Down with Ceasescu!’, it seems that Virgil should have taken his production assistant’s advice. 'What's all the fuss about revolution? she says, No-one could care less anymore.' Nevertheless, he ploughs on regardless: 'Heraclitus said’ (he’s fond of the Heraclitus quote, using it to the consternation of his guests, twice in the same programme) ‘you can't step in the same river twice, but let us jump back to 16 years ago, because we love the truth, it's healthy’.

Bracketed by lovely scenes of streetlights going off in the blue-green light of dawn and then on again as snow covers the ground at dusk, this is a film of two halves. The first is a deft and humorous portrait of the interconections of small-town life – ‘old man’ Piscosi is plagued by kids with firecrackers, when he gets drunk Manescu insults the town's Chinese immigrant, from whose shop the children buy their firecrackers – marked by a finely-judged sense of timing and editing that led Porumboiu to win a number of international awards, not least the Camera d'Or at Cannes in 2006 for the best debut feature. The second half is the makeshift live show in which Manescu and Piscosi appear as replacement guests for the talk show.

There are serious points here too of course – about commemorating, mythmaking and forgetting, as Virgil aims to get to the kernel of truth regarding the events of that fateful day by aiming for a precise timing of events, specifically whether people came onto the streets after 12:08, when Ceasescu fled, or before. If afterwards, then ‘there was no revolution in the town’, he says. ‘The clearer the past, the clearer the future will be,’ says he, which is to say, not very clear at all. Piscosi probably has it about right when he says in an unregarded comment that, 'one makes whatever revolution one can, each in their own way'.

Near the end of the talk show a woman phones in to say that she lost her son in the events of 1989. However, that’s not why she is phoning. She wants to tell them that it is snowing outside, in big, white flakes. ‘Enjoy it now, tomorrow it will be mud,’ she says, which is a tantalising, and characteristically deadpan summation of the film’s spirit.

Comedy, if indeed that is what it is, of a very much darker sort – though it is closer in tone to an absurdist satire – comes with Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr Lazarescu, in which, through the course of one Saturday night, Mr Dante Remus Lazarescu, a 62 year-old widower living alone but for his three cats, is collected and ferried around in an ambulance as the nurse and her driver try to find a hospital that will take responsibility for him. As it is he plays the role of the unfortunate subject in a game of human pass the parcel. The ending of the film is never in doubt, it’s right there in the title, it’s how he gets there and people’s attitudes to him along the way that form the substance of the film. It is, as Puiu says, a film ‘about the extinction of an anonymous human being’.

People’s worst characteristics come to the fore (and frankly there is very little of their best). There are bickering neighbours upset that Lazarescu’s illness is going to ruin their evening of quince jelly-making. ‘Thanks for leaving me alone on Saturday night’ the woman hisses to her husband when it looks as if he will accompany Lazarescu to the hospital. Then there are the judgemental, patronising, facetious, moralising, uppity doctors in no mood to be told by a mere nurse what is wrong with the patient and who regard treatment as a personal favour. Even the nurse only comes because she fears Lazarescu might have meningitis.

As Lazarescu is shunted around from one hospital to another he, and his accompanying nurse, find that illness has a hierarchy. He is unfortunate to have been stricken on a busy night. A 62 year-old man who has been drinking and has soiled himself comes well below the undeserving victims of a coach accident. Time and again the same procedures are carried out – tell me your name, bend you knees, squeeze my hand, raise your arms, look at the light, follow the pen. Then there is a consultation in which the seriousness of his condition is confirmed. In medical terms he has a subdural haematoma that requires surgery, dysarthria, an engorged, cancerous liver and varicose veins. In Mr Lazarescu’s terms, which he manages to say to a doctor as he is slipping out of consciousness, ‘I have a headache and belly sir.’

At first sight, with its handheld camerawork in restricted locations of rooms, corridors, stairwells, an ambulance and wards, Lazarescu resembles a verite-style documentary of the night’s events, but there is more to the film than this. In the early scenes in Lazarescu’s flat, a washing machine anticipates the structure of the CAT scanner, the red liquid in the bottle on the table looks forward to the blood that will be taken from him, and the mention of the neighbour's drill anticipates the cranial surgery that Lazarescu will need. Sometimes the symbolism is a bit heavy-handed – the final doctor’s name is probably a joke too far, and the nurse drinking water to take a couple of tablets in the ambulance while pointedly ignoring Lazarescu who has just said he is thirsty doesn’t really ring true either, and by now we are well aware anyway that he hasn’t been offered a glass of water since he left his flat.

The colours of the film are those of unrelieved artificiality. This was probably unavoidable from the locations in which the film was shot, but it does much to help create an appropriate feeling of dissatisfaction. There’s the nicotine yellow of Lazarescu's apartment, the yellow-green of the ambulance interior, and the polar blue-whiteness of the wards and emergency rooms. It leads you to crave natural daylight, though as it takes place through the night, from 10pm to around 4am the following day, there is no hope of such a thing occurring. At one point peachy fluorescent roof lights flash through the ambulance as it goes through a tunnel, and these provide temporary relief by introducing another colour – but these are as artificial as all the other light in the film. When they finally reach Bagdasur hospital, the head doctor there is dressed in a dark burgundy robe which seems like the cloak of death itself.

Surprisingly for such a grim subject, there are a number of laugh-out-loud moments. In the accident and emergency ward the doctor is becoming annoyed by the noise of the patients waiting in the corridor. ‘Keep quiet or I’ll throw you all out’ he says. Later, when a spare operating surgery proves to be a problem, a doctor says, ‘I could take him to the crematorium. He keeps saying he’s cold anyway.’ (The same doctor has already told him to ‘jump up and down to warm up’ when he is on the stretcher waiting for his CAT scan.) At one point, Mioara, the nurse, who is weighing duty with compassion, exasperation and fatalism, says ‘I’ve been lugging him round all night’. ‘You’re exaggerating,’ says the doctor, ‘the night is still young’.

It's easy to forget, with Lazarescu’s spewing and his desecent into incoherence, and especially his final scenes in which he is stripped, washed and has his head shaved to be prepared for surgery, that this is actually a performance from an actor, Ion Fiscuteanu. Both he and the nurse, played by Luminita Gheorghiou, familiar from her role as the begging woman in Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown, do much to suspend our disbelief while we watch.

In interview, Puiu has said that The Death of Mr Lazarescu is one of 6 proposed films set in the Bucharest suburbs, all showing different aspects of love. (Shades of Kieslowski here.) Lazarescu is about love for your fellow man – or lack of it in this case. In part it was inspired by a real-life case from the mid 1990s in which a man was left to die in the street after being refused treatment at a number of hospitals. Lazarescu’s condition is so serious that death would have arrived soon anyway, so the concern is with a dying man’s final hours. Having been subjected to the rigours of a health service which has done its best to finish him off, he maybe should have stayed at home in the company of the regal indifference of Mirandolina, Nusu and Fritz, his three beloved, flea-ridden cats.

Black Sun (Gary Tarn, 2005)


(written as a review and podcast for MovieMail in 2007)
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Gary Tarn’s Black Sun is one of those films that, arriving unburdened with expectation, displayed its craft, honesty, modesty and beauty in such a way that it not only made the day a little better, but it has stayed with me and continues to glow its welcome light in my mind. It’s a film about a painter coming to terms with blindness and it is one of those rare films that you immediately want to tell others about and share with them.

The film tells the story of Hugues de Montalembert, a French painter who was living in New York in the 1970s. One night, out of nowhere, as he returned home, two burglars were waiting for him. In the confrontation that followed, one of the men threw paint stripper into his eyes. He tried to wash it out with water, but because of its nature it continued to burn into the eyes and could not be removed. By the following morning, his vision had gone completely.

Without a shred of self-pity, and in a very matter-of-fact way, which in no way lessens what is a profoundly inspirational story, he relates how he came to terms with his lack of vision. He tells of his early days of blindness, days in which he felt as if he had fallen ‘into a pot of dark honey’. He realised that things would change but that he would need patience. ‘Let’s do like an animaux’ he reasoned (and Montalembert’s lovely French-accented narration is not the least of the film’s pleasures), ‘sleep, wait, and don’t think, and don’t despair, it will change. Thanks God it has changed.’

In those early days when he was lying in his hospital bed, he would think about the blind. Where were they? In the run of normal daily affairs, or socially, how many blind people did he know, or even encounter? For him, as for the great majority of us I expect, the answer was none. He wondered where they all could be, and imagined them in a pit where society puts people that cause it inconvenience. Refusing the ‘protection’ offered to him by his friends and family as the surest route into that same pit, and fighting a primordial fear about going out into the world without sight, he forced himself to behave ‘naturally, and not blindly’ and to trust – himself, his instincts and other people. He had to learn everything again he said, but mainly ‘to walk alone’.

From then on, once he had conquered the worst fear of all, of initially going outside of his door, he continued to travel unaided through the world and found protection in life itself, or as he put it, he found a way ‘to dance with life’. When later he was robbed in Delhi airport, he found that everything was returned to him by beggars. On travelling for two months alone in the Himalayas, he said, ‘nothing wrong happened to me, absolutely nothing. On the contrary.’

In an extreme way that he never would have chosen he says that blindness led him to discover a profound truth about sight. As he says, ‘vision is a creation, not a perception ... people mainly use their eyes to avoid obstacles, not to look at the world or to understand something. Most people are not really interested in looking at all.’

Before his blindness, Montalembert’s life, as a painter and fimmaker, was based on seeing, on using his eyes (he had ‘the eyes of an assassin’ said a friend). Appropriately, composer and filmmaker Gary Tarn has created a film of intensified visual and aural beauty that approximates to what it is like to see through Montalembert's eyes. Images that show the shapes and the play of light, shadows, street scenes, reflections and faces comment, sometimes directly, sometimes obliquely, on Montalembert’s narration about the experience of ‘living in an abstract world’, composed mainly of sounds. The colour-manipulated scenes of life on a tropical island, where Montalembert wrote his autobiography, sometimes losing pages of writing because he did not know that his pen had run out of ink, are hallucinatory and recall Chris Marker’s travelogue Sans Soleil in their potency. The ending, simply that of a ferry leaving the shore, and turning to face the water, silvered with evening sunlight, is lovely indeed.

Some people may know the story already from Eclipse, the book that Hugues de Montalembert wrote in 1982 about his experience and trying to come to terms with the blindness. If that is so, then the film– made two decades later – may comes a quite a surprise. It comes from a different place and is very different in tone. Where the book is filled with details, the film has been purified to essentials; whereas in the book Montalembert’s relationship to himself, his new self and the world around him is still in the process of being formed and resolved (it was written in the years immediately following the attack and there is an obvious anger and frustration in his outlook), in the film his voice emanates a wisdom born of acceptance, resignation and the realisation that although there had been a rupture in his physical condition, his destiny had actually remained unchanged.

Tarn composed the film from a few hours of tapes that he had recorded of Montalembert talking about the events of his life. The sound of his voice in the film is soothing, rhythmical, the music fitting to its cadences. Edited down to 70 minutes, Tarn removed anything which didn’t advance the story or took it into areas of needless detail. The fact is that the story expands to one of universal meaning.

If you want an affirmative, uplifting and courageous tale that is neither sanctimonious nor saccharine, and leaves you considering your own attitude to life, and how little you really make use of all the senses you have, then this is it. Calling a film inspirational or heartening is normally to lay the dead grey hand of platitude upon it. Not so here – it would be impossible in a film so full of golden light. I watched it with the occasional tear rolling down my cheek, product of a number of emotions, but mainly born of a conviction, normally so dimly apprehended and so little acted upon, that life repays a hundrefold what you give to it.

Montalembert talks at one point of the sheer pleasure he gets from walking with a painter friend who describes the scenes in the street before them in wonderfully enlivening ways. Calling the world into being, into vision, in a way that makes it a gift to ourselves and others, is something we all can do every moment. And think how easily we can do that, having our own eyes with which to see.

Two African Films: Abouna (Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, 2002) & Waiting for Happiness (Abderrahmane Sissako, 2002)


(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2007)
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This week, I want to look at two films from Africa – Abouna (Our Father), which takes place in Chad and which was directed by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, and Waiting for Happiness, set in Mauritania and directed by Abderrahmane Sissako. Both were made in 2002.

I had been reading Ryszard Kapuscinski’s writings on his life as a journalist throughout Africa, collected in his book The Shadow of the Sun, and it struck me that some of the essential experiences of the continent that recur through his book and which he communicates so well, provide a background that can help with a fuller understanding of these two films.

To set them into context I want to quote from Kapuscinski’s book. He is in Ethiopia, near Gondar, and he meets a man who is walking south. Why is he walking south? Because his brother had set out from home long ago in that direction. He has been walking a long time. He has come from somewhere in the Eritrean mountains. Says Kapuscinski of him. ‘He knows about walking south: in the morning, you must head straight into the sun. When he meets someone, he asks whether they have seen, or know, Solomon (that’s his brother’s name). No one is surprised at such a question. All of Africa is in motion, on the road to somewhere, wandering. Some are running away from war, others from drought, still others from hunger. They are fleeing, straying, getting lost. This one, walking north to south, is an anonymous drop in the human deluge flooding the roads of the continent, a deluge driven either by fear of death or by the hope of finding a place under the sun.
 
Why does he want to find his brother? Why? He doesn’t understand the question. The reason is obvious, self-evident, not requiring an explanation. He shrugs his shoulders. It is possible that he feels pity for the man he has just encountered and who, though well dressed, is poorer than he in some important, priceless way.’

Both of the films I want to look at today touch on themes of seeking and belonging, the physical and spiritual qualities that make a home, and the necessary quest that may take a person away from that home.

First Abouna. Abouna begins with a man walking across a sand dune, turning to stare into the camera (with a look that dares us to judge him and that, to me anyway, recalls the scene of Harriett Andersson doing a similar thing in Bergman’s Summer with Monika), before becoming resolute, turning and descending rapidly out of the frame as he walks down a dune. He reappears briefly minutes later and then disappears again, walking to the horizon. This is the father and this is the last we see of him. The film is structured around his absence.

His two sons, Tahir and his younger brother, the asthmatic Amine, soon discover his absence and try to come to terms with the unaccustomed void in their lives. They wait for him at the bridge that forms the border between Chad and Cameroon. ‘Over this bridge, you’re already elsewhere’ says Tahir.

They go the factory where he works only to be told that he hasn’t worked there for over two years; they go to the cinema and see him, or imagine him they see him, on the screen, greeting them, or his children in the film. They do not find him on the celluloid that they subsequently steal but it is this act of thievery that causes their mother- who has a wonderfully dignified, regal bearing – to send them away to a school out in the bush, to remove them from temptation. ‘Be patient,’ she says when she leaves them, ‘God is looking after you.’

From there the boys dream of escape and seeking their father. There is a lovely moment when Tahir is bathing in a compound. He drops his flannel over the wall as a girl in a golden dress walks by. In his confusion at her presence, he hides his face, calling out ‘what is your name?’ only after she has walked by. She walks on without turning round until even her shadow has disappeared. In the wake of his father’s disappearance it is a poignant moment, telling of how quickly people arrive and depart until even their shadow has gone and all that is left is a dusty street.

The boys try to escape but are caught. Tahir is shackled and is given a choice. If he swears not to run off he will be released. If he lies in his oath however, he is warned that even after he dies, his soul will continue to wander. This is a real and significant threat – to risk such a punishment would be tempting fate indeed.

When Uncle Adoum arrives to see them for a day, he brings news of their father. He is on the coast, in Tangier, and there is a tangible sense of excitement at discovering the fact of a placename, no matter how fruitless it may be. ‘Can we go there on foot?’ asks Amine. Uncle Adoum just laughs. Their father has sent a poster which the boys put up on the wall of their hut. It’s a picture of the sea and a beach. The fascination it exerts can perhaps only truly be felt if you live in a landlocked, largely desert country in central Africa. From this moment, water enters the film. While Tahir finds love at the river when he comes across the girl with the golden dress bathing, Amine – soon after he has discovered that his elder brother no longer wants to leave –  is taunted by the reminder of water as a man walks past him on a street with tins of water hanging from a yoke across his shoulders.

The remainder of the film I leave to you to discover. Needless to say, Tahir’s quest and coming-of-age involves both sacrifice and exchange, loss and gain, as all good quests do. It’s a simple tale that wears its large themes lightly. Ali Farka Touré’s understated musical accompaniment is distinctly appealing too.

Another recurrent theme throughout Kapuscinski’s book is that of waiting, or abiding. Time and again he talks of that particular class of benumbed waiting that attends an event dependent on attaining a quotient of people, whether this be a meeting or discussion taking place or a combi or taxi leaving for its destination. It is a type of waiting that confounds a European worldview in which time is to be used and controlled. I mention this because waiting plays a large part of the next film I want to look at, Abderrahmane Sissako’s Waiting for Happiness, which features a young man, Abdallah, who has returned to visit his mother in her Mauritanian village next to the sea, before he leaves. To go where is not specified but it seems that he is thinking of Europe. His mother’s village is a place of buffetting wind and white sand, a place of arrivals – a Chinese watch and trinket seller – and a place of departures, as inhabitants think of leaving for Tangiers, and then Europe.

He does not fit in to any life or patterns in the village. His apartness is emphasised right from the very start when we are shown the broken down taxi – the ubiquitous, fully laden, overcrowded Peugeot 504. The other passengers sit and wait in the shade in exactly the attitude that Kapuscinski describes. Abdallah wants to get on, wonders why the motor doesn’t go. He doesn’t know how to wait.

He does not even know Hassanya, the local language, which leads to a scene of excrutiating embarrassment when he sits with his mocking female relatives, naming body parts that he has been taught – wrongly – by Khatra, the electrician’s assistant. ‘He just sits alone’, says his mother, ‘he thinks all the time’. He reads too, which sets him apart from the oral traditions of song and storytelling in the community. These are exemplified partly by the singer Nèma Mint Choueikh and her young accompanist, an amazing young singer named Petite Mamma Mint Lekbeid, to whom she is teaching the songs through repetition.

What remains is for Abdallah to observe, to watch his neighbours – his view often obscured by lines of washing, walls and doorways – instead of engaging in any meaningful interaction with them. From his low window he starts to recognise people from their footwear, something especially frustrating as he watches them go to and from his neighbour Nana’s room. Even when he is in the doctor’s waiting room his attitude of waiting there is different. He is unsettled, looking around.

This is a beautifully understated film about place, belonging, exile, the need to travel and the desire to stay at home. It’s ravishingly filmed – though it would be difficult not to create wonderful images given the light and clarity of colour – and there are some lovely deadpan moments too, for example the papers that keep falling out of the car’s sunshield and the two visits Abdallah makes to his uncle. During the first he is served with a cold drink and the television is put on in his honour. The programme is a French daytime quiz show. We watch and listen to a man from Auxerre talking about his leaisure activities of running half-marathons. When the scene cuts back to the room, it is empty, and the words of the facile game show host go out to a couch, a low table and the curtains keeping out the Mauritanian sunlight.

I must mention plastic water containers too. They are the kind of thing that is easily overlooked, but Kapuscinski rightly points out just how they revolutionized life in places where water had to be fetched. Anyone who has lived in a place where the water supply comes from a well or a standpipe will know of their importance. As Kapuscinski says, although they are relatively inexpensive, they are often the only objects of worth in a household. You get to know the containers intimately. This is what makes a scene such as the one in Waiting for Happiness in which Makan relates the details of his plastic containers to the policemen so understandable. Says Makan, ‘The big one is 60 litres, it lasts two weeks. It’s for cooking. The other one is 25 litres, 7 ½ days, and the other, 25, 7 ½ days. The smallest, 8 litres, for tea, 3 days.’

It is Nana who gives him a taste of the difference in attitude that he can expect if he makes it to Europe. She has been there, to Perpignan. She travelled there to tell her lover, Vincent, of the death of their little girl through fever. ‘Some things must be said face to face’ said she. ‘Why have you come?’, said he.

I began by quoting from Kapuscinski’s book about a man searching for his brother. I’ll end by describing a scene from Waiting for Happiness in which Maata, the electrician, talks of a friend, Ethmane, who many years previously, had come to him with plane tickets, one for each of them, so that they could leave. Maata didn’t want to leave, and didn’t want Ethmane to leave either, but he did. Now years later, he says, ‘This Ethmane. Today, I don’t know where he is. I still think of him. Maybe that’s what weighs on my heart.’ Simple words but enough to set a man seeking, or to break his spirit.

I revisited both of these films for this review. Before I watched them my memory had held them to be contrasting films, the one about movement and journeying, the other about frustrated waiting. Watching them again though, I am struck by their many similarities.

Mother and Son (Aleksandr Sokurov, 1997)

(the poem Mother and Son appeared in the Autumn 2007 issue of Vertigo magazine - Volume 3, number 7), while the text was written as part of a podcast for MovieMail in 2007)
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Mama, did you hear the wail of the train
when I fetched water?
It sang with the birds
and it drew the wind
and the wind stroked the grasses as it passed.
White smoke vanished
into a sky of rose-grey storms
and the grass was green and gold.

Mama, the plum blossom
is too white for this music that you hear
that sounds like shadows on the wall.
This wood that crackles
with the draw of air through the fire,
let it warm your thoughts
as I comb the tangles from your hair
and listen to your breath.

Mama, should I carry you now?
The swifts are shrieking
thunder is in the air
and sand is swirling from the paths.
Stay with me and I will read to you
rest your head on my arm
and I will read to you from your past.
We shall be still and we shall journey together.

Mama, while you were sleeping I wept.
I walked past the quarries
and into the beech woods.
I looked out to the ocean which was steel,
the air was thick with your faint singing
and I could not rise until a woodpecker
hammered a pathway for me
and I was no longer afraid.

Mama, do not be afraid.

·

I want to go for a walk.

A son lies with his dying mother who is breathing softly. He smiles to himself, then tells her a dream, the thread and the words of which she continues. He combs her hair. She says that she wants to go for a walk. Are you only pretending to be ill? he says. Yes, I’m pretending, she whispers.

Mother and Son is a place of intermingled dreams and memories, where the sound of waves heard behind the opening credits belongs to the lines from an old postcard or to a walk along the cliffs that the son takes by himself. It is a place where the wind that flows like water through the long grass recalls the mother’s hand gently ruffling her son’s hair as he reads the postcard from someone called Alexander. The piano and oboe music that plays through the credits and the opening scene already sounds like a memory. The film’s timescale is irrelevant, as time becomes during the dying of a loved one; it may take place over hours or days, the precedence of time ousted by the need to calmly usher in death by learning to let go and not be afraid. It takes place in a time of natural learning – of learning to leave a son, and of learning to live without a mother. This has its own time.

 
How small you are.

The son picks up his mother and carries her to a bench in woodland near her house. He leaves her to fetch letters and runs back to her, perhaps fearing she may already be dead. In his absence, as we watch, lying on a bench with the wind through the woodland plants, she becomes part of the natural world; as later, her son does when on his own walk he lays himself down on a woodland path and becomes invisible against the leaves.

One of the main sounds in the film is that of breathing, the breathing of both mother and son, the wheezing of constriction and the gentle breathing of sleep. There is also the sound of thunder, the sound of wind through the trees and the crackling of a fire. When he walks with her in his arms, the son does so to thunder and the shrieking of swifts.

As he carries her along the paths of the landscape, cradling her and protecting her from the dust stirred up by the wind, the path seems theirs alone; almost an expression of their shared inner world. There is the sight and sound of a distant train, and once, a person walking on the skyline, but otherwise nothing intrudes on their world of sounds, thoughts and memories, which we share on the level of their breath.

The lansdcape through which mother and son walk and the house in which they live are made to look like paintings, or a dream. Nothing was done to the images in post-production. They were instead filmed through anamorphic lenses, refractive panes of glass and smeared and painted transparent surfaces. Partly, the look of the film was inspired by the canvases of the German painter Caspar David Friedrich, with his silhouettes of trees against a peachy light, and his views of mountain paths with the distant landscape disappearing into mist. Sokurov has said that he was aiming for a deliberately two-dimensional effect in his film. In doing so he has achieved a look that embodies something of a painter’s art. This is shown well early on in the film, as the son watches the white smoke from a distant train being puffed into the air as it emerges from a wood to cut below windblown green-gold grassland, with the sky dark and looming and thunder in the air. It is a scene that recalls the way a good landscape painting not only captures a moment of light but also intimates the way the scene had been before that moment and the way it will change in the next. For a moving image to tremble with the potential of the stillness of a painting is remarkable.


Sleep, mother. I'll be back soon.

After leaving his mother to sleep in her house, the son goes out by himself to walk. His mother watches a butterfly that rests on her finger. It remains as she crosses her hands over her chest. The son walks to the cliffs. From there, he sees a sailing ship, far out on the grey sea, and as he watches from woodland, he begins to weep in animal grief. He remembers his mother singing and a woodpecker hammers at a tree. When he returns the butterfly is still on his mother’s finger.

Mother and Son is a film of the intimacy that comes only with illness or the approach of death. There is bodily intimacy – the son stroking his mother’s papery skin, lovingly combing the tangles from her hair, carrying her or wrapping her with a shawl – and the intimacy of the mind, as with their shared dreams and shared thoughts. At times in the film they speak to each other without their lips moving.

This is a film to hold you utterly rapt, and its atmosphere remains after leaving the screen. I watched the film, then went outside and it seemed as if the film had continued. It was April, and a warm evening easterly bustled the birches and the holly, and the early apple blossom seemed lit from within as the white haze of the sky grew darker with the coming night.


Mama, you can hear me. I know.

Partition (Ken McMullen, 1987)


(written as a review and podcast for MovieMail in 2007)
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On August 14th and 15th, 1947 (two days, so that the Governor General of India could attend both ceremonies in Karachi and Delhi), the British Indian Empire was partitioned on religious grounds into a secular union of India and a Muslim Dominion of Pakistan, and the two countries became independent nations. In the mass migration that followed, with over 14 million people changing countries, terrible violence betweens Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs erupted and hundreds of thousands were killed.

Ken McMullen's powerfully provocative film, adapted by Tariq Ali from Saadat Hasan Manto's famous short story, Toba Tek Singh, takes place immediately before and in the days following Partition. Set in both a lunatic asylum on the border and in a map room where government and colonial officials take decisions on the course of the new border, it takes as its subject the fact that even residents of asylums were forcefully separated on religious grounds. Scenes in the asylum are counterpointed by those in the map room, while throughout, a keen-eyed and keen-eared cleaning lady (Zohra Sehgal) provides a knowing commentary on proceedings. ‘Some of them don’t understand why they have to leave this India and go to another India’ she says of the inmates’ predicament. The same actors play dual roles as officials and asylum inmates with the one sometimes acting as a commentary on the other. (When the General is trying to rationalise the British Empire's actions in India, his alter-ego is riding circles on his bicycle.)

Appropriately for the film’s themes of division and the co-existence of several selves, mirrors, screens and veils play a large part in the production design. Theatrical rigour then combines with intricately plotted camerawork to thrilling effect – no more so than when Roshan Seth crosses the border between the film’s worlds, moving from the discussion in the map room to the harsh glare of light and the chattering of birds in the asylum in an unbroken 10 minute take that finds you holding your breath for its sheer audacity.

The film grows in conviction throughout and when Saeed Jaffrey (in one of his three roles), on learning that he must leave the asylum, climbs a tree, refuses to move, and delivers his impassioned ‘what have you done to my world?’ speech with a terrifying, primal force, the drama pierces to the core. ‘Even the monsoon is evil this year,’ he says, ‘it is raining red’. In the scene that follows, a devastatingly controlled conversation at the Gymkhana Club in Delhi between the British General and an Indian minister, the General says of the wholesale slaughter that followed Partition, that it was ‘one of the dreadful ironies of history’. Following the passion of Jaffrey’s speech, these words chill.

The staging is highly effective in its use of minimal but telling detail. As the General addresses the camera with the words: ‘the demons are now unleashed – that’s what we are leaving behind … our true legacy’, behind him two overhead fans are operating. After he finishes speaking and stares out of the screen, the only sound left is that of their blades swiping through the air.

Likewise, the theatricality of scenes is complemented by well-chosen filmic touches. Early on, after a minister makes a joke to the General, it is repeated on the soundtrack by the same actor in the tone of a self-satisified anecdote to be stored and told at a later date. Later, in the Gymkhana Club, we are shown two reactions to the General’s comment that it has been a ‘successful handover’. In the first, in black and white and to the sound of pouring rain, Saeed Jaffrey’s minister says, ‘successful – successful for you perhaps sir, but in this last year over a million Indians have died, killed without mercy,’ his face struggling to suppress the emotion in his words. Immediately we see the same scene again, in colour and without the rain. He says the same words (leaving out the ‘sir’), but this time they do not refer to the dead or anything outside of themselves; they are just words, polite trading items for talking in abstract terms.

‘For a hundred years the British held a veil between us and power. India and its realities appeared hazy, even to the likes of us. Now everything is stripped bare.’ So says Roshan Seth in his guise of a white-suited official before he begins his walk through to the other side, leaving behind the decisions of the map room to lie on the ground of the asylum. ‘Don’t go to India, don’t go to Pakistan. Don’t leave me brothers,’ says Jaffrey in his tree as the camera then tracks back with the appearance of the cleaning woman, sweeping the ground with her brush and raising another veil – this time one of dust.

At the end of the film, in archive footage, the British soldiers and officials board their boats and leave to the strains of Auld Lang Syne, but the unexpected and startling final image with its accompanying words, ‘what is broken is broken’, tell the real story here. Much of humanity lives in this frozen symbolic moment.

Of the many images that remain in my mind from this film, the one that keeps returning is the face of Zohra Sehgal as she wipes a mirror that, in the haze of distance, reflects the map of India that has been partitioned. Her eyes hold and confront our own, as on the soundtrack, Roshan Seth says, ‘we Indians have often considered that the outer world matters only insofar as it affects the inner. This may well have been our only defence against an imperial presence.’ Throughout the film, Sehgal’s eyes have the wisdom of ages. She knows much, says little, has seen everything broken and repaired, time and again across the centuries. She knows that divisions will come, and also that, like the reparations that follow, they are temporary.

By way of a postscript, while writing this review, I have been reading Hold Everything Dear, John Berger’s latest ‘Dispatches on Survival and Resistance’, in which he talks, in Stones, of an acquaintance who ‘learnt early on that life inevitably leads to separations’, and who therefore spent much of his energy on forging links – among them friendship, shared poetry and hospitality – ‘links which had a chance of surviving after the inevitable separations’. Most people on this earth live in the moment that follows the breakage at the end of Partition, whether on a personal, regional or national level. In such times, actions that bring people closer together come very near to an obligation.

Decasia (Bill Morrison, 2002)


(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2007)
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I was watching FW Murnau’s Nosferatu in a cinema a few years ago when something quite unexpected happened. It occured on the first night in Orlok’s castle, just after Hutter has cut himself with the bread knife on the stroke of midnight. Count Orlok extends his arm towards Hutter across the table. All of a sudden, the Count's arm started bubbling and fizzing. It was as if the poison of the vampire’s presence was eating away into the very medium that was depicting him. Though I’m sure whoever owned the print would have been horrified at such a sight, I was thoroughly delighted by such an apposite coincidence of print damage and subject matter (possibly because I had made similar experiments myself with 35mm transparencies many years previously). That’s by the by however, the important point is that it raised in my head a large and generally unexplored area of effect in film, whereby degraded and otherwise abused film stock could be used to heighten certain effects within what the film itself showed. You can imagine my happiness then on finding that Bill Morrison had made a film in exactly this area, Decasia, in which he pieced together what would normally be considered as utterly ruined sections of film stock to create a new film in which the interplay of surface damage with the subjects depicted became part of the film’s overall conception.

I’ve mentioned the happy accident of effect in Nosferatu. Decasia is filled with such images. At one point in his film there is a section of what looks like white-robed dancers of some kind, or even the meeting of a witches’ coven – it is extremely difficult to make out exactly, but that's beside the point. What it could be however, is one of the most atmospheric and mysterious representations of the meeting of the three weird sisters out of Macbeth that I have ever seen, with their ghostly, misty forms being more air than solid matter. These ghostly forms occur frequently throughout the film. Often the film is slowed down to the level of individual frames and so becomes a collection of phantoms, spectres, and ghoulish distorted presences. There is more to unnerve here than in many more traditional representations of ghost stories on screen.

Death imbues its presence throughout the screen. At one point we see standing nuns depicted in negative. This reversal is shocking and, with the line of children they are shepherding pictured advancing towards them, turns them into angels of death counting departed souls instead of anything particularly beneficent. Later, riders on a big wheel at a fairground are subject to a similar sinister operation as an enveloping blackness clouds across the image. The accompanying horn blasts on the soundtrack make it seem as if some deity or other is dispensing random, indifferent fates to the riders – this one, this one, not this one.

This darkness covers the sea too. We see footage shot from the mast of a ship, the film recalling Der Magische Gürtel, the First World War record of a U-Boat’s matter of fact destruction of merchant shipping. That film is shocking because the sinking of ships and goods is so plainly shown. Here, with bow of the ship shown in negative beneath swathes and swatches of damage, it appears as if it could be one of the very merchant ships destroyed, and heading towards its destiny.

This interplay between surface and image throughout maintains constant interest. After the whirling dervish at the commencement of the film (which sets up one of the film’s recurrent visual themes of spinning, turning and spooling) there is then a puff of cloud like an effect in an early Ali Baba film, after which the clouds gradually roll back to reveal the delights on offer. Later, in a shot of waves breaking on rocks, the surface of the film itself bubbles and cockles in liquid ferment. In the final section, as parachutists are pictured falling through the air – which is at the same time an exercise in falling through the uncooperative texture of decaying nitrate film, the film moves into a tracking shot as a black sun glints through the trees on the horizon. he parachutists have established a wartime theme, and suddenly the film itself erupts in shapes reminiscent of WW1 bomb blasts, followed by their spray of dirt.

There’s humour here too though, as with the boxer battling with the damage itself (and landing a knockout blow that causes the film to erupt into another scene); the painter in his studio where the damage of the print can stand for either the white heat of creative composition or the fact that he is so perturbed by his model that he is in a stew; and the miners knocking to see if they can hear life below, with the print damage resembling the noise waves that give them hope.

Tthere are some exquisitely lovely images too, such as the shot of people and camels travelling across the horizon, in a scene that calls to mind something similar in Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. The nitrate damage also has its own beauty regardless of interplay with the images it obscures. At times it is like watching a monochrome Stan Brakhage or Norman McLaren film.

In fact, one becomes a connoisseur of damage and patterning watching Decasia, watching the different effects, the filigree and the fronds, the coral and speckle and blotch and smudge, the solarisation and flare, the snakeskin patterning and staining, the wrinkles and buckles, the scratches and the scumbles, tears, blisters and puckers, the bubbling, the bloating and the crimping.

At the end of the film, the dervish is still turning, as if he is spinning his own decay, or even trying to prevent it as long as he keeps moving.

The Third Part of the Night (Andrzej Zulawski, 1971)


(written as a review for MovieMail in 2007 and also used as part of a MovieMail podcast in 2008)
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A disorienting, disjointed fever dream in which colours convey as much of a route to truth as words, this charged, supernatural film of the Resistance and lice-feeding in wartime Poland has an unruly energy that frequently erupts into spasms of violence, but just as often produces scenes of eerie, surreal beauty. Bookended by readings from the Book of Revelation, it portrays a country during a time of doom-laden darkness.

In a country retreat, Michal witnesses the brutal slaughter of his wife Helena and child Lukasz at the hands of armed horsemen, though his wife seems to expect her death and even dresses for the occasion. After laying their bodies out with his father, who intones a Black Mass, (‘Oh God, who does not lead us … oh God, who allows the fragile to be killed and who elevates blind hatred … oh God, who allows cruelty to be propagated and people to torment each other … oh God, who elevates the most evil ones and puts the whip in their hands … oh merciless God, have no mercy upon us.’), he escapes to the city, takes refuge for his life in an apartment, and there aids a birth by a woman, Marta, who seems to be an incarnation of his wife. He spends the remainder of the film unwittingly chasing after his own death, surrounded by symbols that he only dimly grasps. And if this sounds portentous, it is offset by a memorably lurid stylisation more asociated with Hammer horror, by the punctuation of occasional fuzz guitar in the soundtrack and some thrilling, involving, hand-held camerawork around and through the back streets, alleyways and institutes of Krakow.

This freedom of mobility in the camerawork (by Witold Sobocinski) gives the film a visceral, emotional impact well suited to the strange reality of the film’s subject. Zulawski talks of feeling liberated from any academic tradition of cinema when making the film, and away from the dead hand of party interference, he, along with his cast and crew, also felt freed from producing anything ponderous or mannered – though given the story, based on a script by Zulawski’s father about his experiences in wartime Nazi-occupied Poland, this would have been unlikely anyway.

It takes as its central situation, and metaphor, that of lice-feeding. (Says Zulawski of this, ‘The second world war seen through a microscope about lice sucking blood from very naive young people seems to me, up to today, as interesting at least as the battle of Berlin, planes, tanks…’) Curiously, for this is certainly the strangely unsettling part of the film, it was a situation based on fact. During the war, Polish intellectuals found shelter of a kind with the Rudolf Weigl Institute, which manufactured typhus vaccine for the German armed forces. As is depicted in the film, lice cages were attached to people’s legs to fed on their blood. They were then injected with typhus germs which bred in the lice’s intestines, and these intestines were then processed to obtain the vaccine. Those people working at the Institute and infected with typhoid were shunned as untouchables by the Germans and provided with papers that were good against deportation, arrest and hunger. As an apparition of Marta explains to Michal while he is feeding, ‘lice are important as they keep you alive’. As lice-feeding only occupied an hour or so of the day (though the itching lasted much longer), it thus became a convenient core of resistance activities, with which, in the film, Michal becomes involved.

These experiences of a bureacracy dedicated to the nurture and use of lice are expertly and consistently realised on screen, from the shots of the equipment used and the microscopically detailed close-ups of procedures with the lice, to the feeders’ feverish and reddened eye-rims standing out against the background of dingy mustard-yellow walls in the Institute. Despite their being based in fact, it is the matter-of-fact acceptance from all the participants of the oddness of the situation that makes these scenes seem so surreal.

Of course, the skein of the film’s story is also at times twisted and tightened into something far more maniacal. At one point in the film, a lice-feeder says that he will feed well today because he is feverish; ‘Feverish blood has bubbles and it fizzes like champagne,’ he says. The film itself is somewhat like that; its images get under your skin like the fever from a biting louse, and begin to work on your imagination. It’s not a film you can forget.

I said earlier that colour held as much of a clue to the film as words. Against the film’s consistently blue-grey pallor – the blue of oily smoke from cars, of ash and wet pavements, railings and rain and reinforced glass, there is the purity of Lukasz's cornflower blue outfit, an unsullied purity of colour that amounts to something like moral justification and encouragement.

The lice that keep Michal alive, for a while anyway, in the film, are representative of the lice that kept Zulawski’s father alive during the war. When Zulawski says, ‘the blood of contaminated lice flows in my veins,’ he is only partly joking.

Dust Drifts Through Sunlight: Into Great Silence (Philip Gröning, 2005)


(the poem Dust Drifts Through Sunlight appeared in Artesian 3: Time (2011), while the text was written as part of a podcast for MovieMail in 2007)
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dust drifts through sunlight
like snowfall, the cell’s bare wood
lit with flame, orange as a crocus

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a warming chimney ticks its heat
as air draws through the stove,
twigs crackling like snow-melt

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a bow saw snags in a beech log
ringing out the weight of its warmth
through these mountain walls

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their grain sung into being by woodland birds
floorboards creak a man’s weight
as chaffinch song tumbles through tea wisps

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cell windows open at dusk to the grain of the sky
this cowl is stone and book paper
winter mist, a dawn dark stream

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rain drops imprint themselves in water
as bells scour the corridors and chambers
their green stone a river in flood

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wetted fingers to a white cloth
leave it transparent to the light
an airy pendulum dried by the breeze

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around the monastery
stars fall like snow
silently through the sky

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around the monastery
stars fall like snow
silently through the sky


In 1984, Philip Gröning asked for permission to film life inside La Grande Chartreuse, the mother house of the Carthusian Order in the French Alps. Sixteen years later, he was granted a unique shooting permit. As no visitors or tourists are allowed on the premises, and the last shots from inside the monastery were taken in 1960, (and these were only permitted as long as no monks were depicted) this was a rare opportunity, based on a longstanding and trusted relationship between Gröning and the General Prior, to show the daily rituals and requirements of a cloistered, contemplative life. The Prior’s only restrictions on the film were that no artificial light should be used while filming, there should be no additional film crew, and the film should have no additional music and no commentaries – conditions which corresponded exactly with Gröning’s original concept of the film, and to which he readily assented.

Into Great Silence is almost entirely without speech. Instead, usually overlooked sounds come to the fore – the draw of air through a fire, the crackle of wood, the pendulum of a clock, even the falling of snow. Surprisingly, instead of making this a somnolent film, it heightens your awareness so you are receptive to the smallest noises, and even to the atmosphere of silence. Indeed, when a louder noise such as a bell rings, it has a startling effect. Gröning talks of the monks being in a state of permanent concentration due to their regime, in which every moment is filled with tasks, duties and prayer, and in which they never sleep more than three hours at a time. The heightened awareness that this ordered life brings is one area in which Gröning has achieved his stated aim of going beyond mere depiction of the monastery to create an absolute congruence between content and form, so that in a way, the film actually becomes the experience of the monastery, an experience in which the viewer is thoroughly immersed.

At one point, late on in the film, an elderly blind monk says that, “the past is human. In God there is no past; solely the present remains.” This partly communicates the experience of watching the film, in that it takes place permanently in the present. Curiously, this effect is enhanced by the repetitions of actions we see and hear throughout. Sometimes, Gröning varies the form, as when sounds heard earlier in the film are repeated with different, allied images. This is done with a light touch, as when we hear the sound of a washed metal bowl settling to drain allied to a shot of water drips.

There is nothing in the film that is unrelated to its overall conception. Even relaxed or apparently picturesque moments serve a purpose. Throughout we see sunlight illuminating the wooden surfaces of the monks’ cells, the floors and the stone walls of the cloisters, on the monks’ faces, and on fruit. The images are pleasing in a conventional sense but they also serve to illustrate a lesson that we learn about some way through the film, when a monk talks of equating the holy spirit with the sunbeam, and that as the sun shines on all equally but brings light and happiness to individuals, so the spirit gives to each one as if it were in possession of that person alone. From that moment the sunlight that floods the desks and benches, floors and walls, making the wood glow orange, takes on a symbolic hue and turns the film itself into a lesson. More literal lessons are written on the screen and repeated throughout the film, reflecting the recurrent psalms that inform a monk’s life, and in which insight is gained through repetition.

As a moment of relaxation and a change of palette, Gröning inserts a rural interlude in which our eyes are refreshed by the green of spring fields. This is a visual equivalent to the lesson that we have heard earlier in which the Order recommends a walk in the country once a week as a refreshment from the rigorously austere routines of the monastery. It is a nice touch that it is on one of these walks that we hear the monks discussing the importance of living symbolically.

We follow the monks’ lives through the seasons as they live, pray, work, and in one sequence that is surprising (but given the blind monk’s talk of happiness, really shouldn’t be), play in the snow. As Gröning says in his notes on the film, this is a demanding lifestyle with continual claims on your time – a lifestyle in which he partook whilst filming, as he lived in a cell and joined in with the daily routines, formed by necessity and prayer. It is no coincidence that a sound we hear repeatedly throughout the film is that of air drawing through the fire in a burner, which is an object of central importance in each monk’s cell. If the fire goes out, it gets cold (the monastery itself is 1300 metres up in the Charteuse mountains), so you keep the fire in. It allows you to pray.

Of the many images I can call to mind from the film, there are two which keep coming back to me, both of which are related to temporality, impermanence and an eternal present and which can remain as visual lessons in contemplation to return to time and again. Like any good lessons too they are profoundly simple. The first is motes of dust in the air, illuminated in a ray of sunlight. The second was filmed through the course of one clear night, in which time-lapse photography makes the stars of the universe fall like snow, silently across the sky above the monastery.

Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1973-1985)


(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2007)
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Marcel Ophuls called at Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah ‘the greatest documentary about contemporary history ever made, bar none’. It is a film of active listening made by a man trying to understand an archaeology of genocide, of the systematic destruction of Jewish people in Europe during the second world war. Its title, ‘Shoah’, comes from the Hebrew word used for the Holocaust, and which can be translated as ‘catastrophe’ or ‘annihilation’.

I’ll begin with a quote from Simon Schama, who, in his 1995 book Landscape and Memory, describes his visit to Treblinka. He says, ‘In our mind's eye we are accustomed to think of the Holocaust as having no landscape – or at least one emptied of features and colour, shrouded in night and fog, blanketed by perpetual winter, collapsed into shades of dun and grey; the grey of smoke, of ash, of pulverized bones, of quicklime. It is shocking, then, to realise that Treblinka, too, belongs to a brilliantly vivid countryside; the riverland of the Bug and the Vistula; rolling, gentle land, lined by avenues of poplar and aspen.’

This is partly what does Claude Lanzmann does in Shoah, he shows locations, people, hears eye-witness accounts – from survivors, from nearby villagers, from farmers who worked near the camps, and unremittingly pursues telling details on a human scale. These details are important. We hear from men who had to dig up the thousands of corpses so that these could then be burned. As it stands, horrific as it is, this last sentence can be read without comprehension of what this involves. The details – that the workers had to open the graves without tools, with their hands (and were told they should get used to it), that the deeper they dug, the flatter the corpses were, that when they picked up a body it would sometimes crumble in their hands, that they were ordered not to refer to the bodies as corpses or victims, but instead as ‘figuren’ – dolls, or shit, or rags, that when these bodies were burned, they burned in flames of every imaginable colour, flames of red, of yellow, green and purple – these are the details which ground the events in the everyday, making such systematic destruction of life simultaneously more comprehensible and more terrible. These are the details that should never be lost. Similarly, one of the first men we see in the film, Simon Srebnik, a survivor of Chelmno, talks of human bones that were too large to be succesfully burned, such as the large foot bones, which were instead ground to a fine powder and taken in sacks to be emptied into the Narew river. Much of Srebnik's testimony was not used by Lanzmann as it was too graphically disturbing and would have not achieved his purpose of transmission – transmission of facts, details and evidence. The fact of a foot bone is what sticks in the mind longer than numerical abstractions. As Lanzmann says, ‘Shoah is a fight against generalities’.

In this ‘fight against generalities’ we hear SS officer Franz Suchomel, secretly recorded, saying that on his first day in Treblinka, he saw people fall out like kartoffeln – potatoes – from the gas chambers. This descriptive detail is echoed by Filip Mueller, a worker in the ‘special detail’ in Auschwitz, who talks of the sight of people after the opening of the gas chambers. People, he says, ‘were packed together like basalt, like blocks of stone’. When they fell out of the chambers, they fell out ‘like rocks out of a truck’.

We learn the sardonic language of Treblinka (described by Suchomel as ‘a primitive but efficient production line of death’); the ‘infirmary’ was a 12 ft deep pit of corpses, where the elderly and infirm were taken to be ‘cured with a single pill’ – shot through the neck as they stood or sat on a board over the pit. We learn too of the signs and posters in the undressing room at Auschwitz, made to look like an ‘International Information Centre’, to persuade people that the ‘disinfection’ process was just that: ‘Rein ist fein’ (‘Clean is good’), ‘Lice Can Kill’.

Sometimes the words used in the interviews shade into the language of politicians. Franz Grassler, Nazi deputy commissioner of the Warsaw ghetto, says that although the ghetto was being ‘maintained’ to supply a working Jewish population, the fact that 5,000 a month were dying there through starvation and disease was ‘a paradox’.

Grassler also provides a valuable insight into the workings of memory, when he says that he recalls his prewar mountaineering trips more clearly than the Warsaw ghetto and the entire war period’. For him, the ability to forget is a luxury. It is certainly a luxury out of the reach of Simha Rottem, a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto, who says to Lanzmann, ‘if you could lick my heart, it would poison you.’

The historian Raul Hilberg sets the persecution of Jews in the context of centuries of European anti-semitism. He says, ‘I’ve avoided asking big questions, in case I get small answers’. Again, this resonates with the approach of Lanzmann, who asks simple, candid questions of those left to bear witness: ‘Where are we now?’, ‘Why did he make that gesture?’, ‘Did the farmers continue to work the fields near the camp?’, ‘Did the locomotive driver hear screams?’, ‘Did the farmer understand the Jewish language?’, ‘Was it a fine day?’, ‘What colour were the gas vans?’. By doing this he has created a film of active listening made by a man trying to create a historical record of an archaeology and an oral history of genocide, the systematic destruction of a people.

Some of the answers are unpalatable, not through detail but through a dismissive attitude. The wife of a Nazi schoolteacher in Chelmno says of the Jews chained in workgroups in the village, that it ‘gets on your nerves, seeing that every day … day after day, the same spectacle’. When asked how many Jews were killed in Chelmno she is unsure if it is 400,000 or 40,000, ‘I knew it had a four in it,’ she says. However dismaying or unpleasant the answers are, this is valuable and revealing oral history.

Lanzmann insists that his film is a work of art and not merely a documentary. Certain sequences are testament to this, for example the interview with Abraham Bomba in a barber’s shop as Bomba tells of cutting people’s hair inside the gas chamber at Treblinka. There is a palpable tension as Bomba tries to tell the details, loudly and publicly as he cuts a customer’s hair, without breaking. It is an undeniably powerful sequence that imprints his story more thoroughly on the viewer’s mind. Crucially, it does not get in the way of ‘transmission’, which for Lanzmann is key. When asked why he filmed Bomba cutting a man’s hair instead of a woman’s, as he would have done in Treblinka, he says that ‘It would not have transmitted … would have been obscene’.

There are details which beggar belief in the film, such as the Gestapo organising group or excursion fares with the German railways for Jews travelling to Treblinka, as 400 or more passengers travelling together went at half-price, as did children under 10 on normal trains. Children under the age of 4 went for free. The money for the transport came from the Jews’ belongings. It was, as Raul Hilberg says, ‘a self-finacing operation’ on the part of the Gestapo as there was no budget for such destruction.

At one point the camera accompanying Lanzmann glides into a bar to interview former SS officer at Belzec Joseph Oberhauser, who refuses to answer any questions other than how many quarts of beer he serves. The camera’s movement unnervingly recalls its earlier glide through the gate, around the building and into the Auschwitz crematorium's incineration chamber, as Filip Müller describes his first experience of the place, noticing the low building and the smokestack.

A screen of trees in Sobibor, planted as 3 or 4 year old saplings over mass graves, are filmed as mature trees in the golden hour before sunset. Again at Sobibor, the camera films the surrounding woodland, leaves rustling in the trees, on a beautiful day. ‘I suppose there were fine days like today?’ Lanzmann asks a man who worked in the railway station. Yes, even better days than this, he responds. This placing of such destruction on indifferently beautiful days is disconcerting, but is backed up by Simon Srebnik, who, when he revisits the site of the extermination camp at Chelmno, talks of how the extermination happened on some days. ‘No one shouted, everyone went about his work. It was silent. Peaceful.’

Lanzmann walks the land of the camps, drives the roads on the routes gas vans took, rides the rails and travels the waterways. By showing us these places as they are now, he has made a film that can change your relationship with the landscape and adds significant depth to the experience of knowing Europe, from the shoreline of Corfu to the forests of Poland. It makes you poignantly aware of the memories buried in the land, in the grass, the now anonymous fields and the trees; in the buildings – the churches and synagogues where people were held, the offices where bureaucrats signed forms and organised special trains, the travel agents where special rates were arranged, the rails on which people travelled and the stations where they were processed, and the balconies of houses from where people watched Jews being collected together for transportation, and behind net curtains where people watched chained work gangs walking down the street. It also makes you aware of the memories held in people’s minds, behind the faces and expressions that you meet every day.

Throughout the film we hear the breeze rustling the leaves of the trees, as if the very land is trying to tell us its story. This happens on the river near Chelmno and in Grabow, and on the drive through the forest outside of Chelmno. The autumn leaves rustle in Treblinka, near the station and as the camera moves through the stones that form part of the Treblinka memorial, and the leaves whisper around Bełżec.

After nearly 10 hours of film and testimonies from death camp and ghetto survivors, locomotive drivers, SS men, railway workers, villagers, I am left with the feeling of just how little I have heard, how few individual histories have been told, and how many millions of experiences never now will be told.