Archive for November, 2008

Polish Traces

If all goes according to plan, by the time this post appears I’ll have just landed in Warsaw, where I’m spending what promises to be four fascinating days as a guest of the Filmoteka Narodowa, the main Polish film archive.

To mark this year’s centenary of Polish cinema, they wrote to their counterparts abroad to ask if they had any pre-1945 Polish films lurking in their vaults - the aim being to make at least a token attempt at filling some gaping holes in Polish film history caused by Nazi and Soviet destruction during World War II. Anyone familiar with the BFI’s Missing Believed Lost and Missing Believed Wiped initiatives in the 1990s will recognise what they’re trying to do - and, sensibly, the Filmoteka’s definition of ‘Polish films’ is pretty wide, encompassing films shot in Poland, films shot abroad by Poles, or even non-Polish films about Polish subjects or which happen to feature famous Poles.

I was charged with researching the BFI National Archive’s holdings, and after sending them a list of everything we had, they requested five specific titles, which I’ll be presenting in Warsaw on Friday as part of the Common Heritage – Polish traces in international film archives (Wspólne dziedzictwo – polonica w archiwach światowych) conference. Only one of the films is actually Polish - The Roof of America (Polska wyprawa na Andy, 1934), the official record of the famous 1934 Polish mountaineering expedition to the Argentinian Andes. The others consist of a fragment of a 1920 newsreel shot during the 1919-21 Polish-Bolshevik War, and three World War II propaganda films made by the British company Concanen Films (founded by the actors Derrick and Terence De Marney, much of its wartime output consisted of propaganda films about Poland, supervised by exiled filmmakers Eugeniusz Cękalski and Stefan Osiecki - the latter also shot the 1934 expedition). Picturesque Poland (1940) is essentially a travelogue made up of footage shot in Poland in the 1930s, the aim being to show British audiences what they were fighting to defend, The Poles Weigh Anchor (1942) is a study of life on a Polish destroyer as it fights alongside its British counterparts, while The Call of the Sea (1942) is a three-part study of famous naval Poles, starting with Joseph Conrad.

At the moment, those are the only films that I’ve actually seen, but that’s a very small part of the overall programme. The Filmoteka’s own website offers an overview in Polish, plus an English-language programme of events (PDF format) - which lists similar sessions hosted by the Deutsche Kinemathek Museum für Film und Fernsehen (Germany), the Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv (Germany), Gosfilmofond (Russia), the Archives Françaises du Film du Centre National de la Cinematographie (France), the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive (Israel) and the Imperial War Museum (UK), all of which seem to have their own distinctive flavour. But all I have to go on at the moment is the titles - I should be much better informed by the weekend.

Posted on 26th November 2008
Under: Poland, Retrospectives | 1 Comment »

The Investigator

A nyomozó
2008, colour, 110 mins

  • Director/Script: Attila Gigor
  • Camera: Máté Herbai
  • Production Design: Sandra Stevanovity
  • Editing: Zoltán Kovács
  • Sound: Zoltán Tóth, Attila Tőzsér, Csaba Major, Christian Holm
  • Costumes: Beáta Hoffmann
  • Music: László Melis
  • Producer: Ferenc Pusztai
  • Production Company: KMH Film
  • Cast: Zsolt Anger (Tibor Malkáv), Judit Rezes (Edit), Sándor Terhes (Ferenc Szirmai), Ildikó Tóth (Mrs. Szirmai), Éva Kerekes (Ágnes Noszfer), Zsolt Zágoni (Cyclops)

By some distance the most enjoyable new Hungarian film I’ve seen this year, Attila Gigor’s feature debut owes a huge amount to traditional noir-styled murder mysteries, but gives all the familiar ingredients a genuinely original spin - while injecting plenty of deliciously dry black comedy into the mix.

The surprises begin from the start, when the attractive blonde woman from the opening scene rapidly ends up on a mortuary slab, and the bald, warty man with a twitchy eye who’s cutting her up, sewing her back together and painstakingly applying make-up turns out to be the film’s hilariously taciturn protagonist. He’s 37-year-old Tibor Malkáv (Zsolt Anger, superb), who runs his life according to a few simple principles, and whose only truly meaningful relationship is with his mother, dying of cancer in the local hospital (and sharing a room with an equally elderly woman, her Playstation Portable and a vocabulary that would make a sailor’s parrot blanch - Gigor has a particular knack for creating memorable minor characters).

In Edit (Judit Rezes), Tibi has a girlfriend of sorts, but their relationship is restricted almost exclusively to cinema visits, and is conducted at such a low temperature as to make one of the romances in Aki Kaurismäki’s films look like torrid Latin passion. Gigor has great fun parodying various types of commercial and arthouse film - his budget was presumably too low for him to stage anything on camera, but he persuaded major Hungarian stars like Sándor Csányi to lend their voices to the inane drivel peppering their soundtracks, and there’s another perfect character sketch in the bored cinema cashier (Lilla Sárosdi) who reels off the complex co-production circumstances of the dreadful sounding Polish-Korean gore film to which Tibi subjects Edit with a certain amount of deadpan relish.

The narrative proper starts when Tibi is approached by a one-eyed man tastefully named Cyclops (Zsolt Zágoni), and offered a substantial sum of money (enough to pay for a pioneering Swedish cancer treatment for his mother) to kill someone. Tibi neither knows nor cares about the victim, and is happy to carry out the task: he presumably doesn’t regard it as any different from the accidents that led his various ‘clients’ to their final resting place on his slab (falling through a high window, crushing their windpipe with a barbell, climbing into the zoo’s wolf enclosure). It’s only when he gets a letter from his victim, one Ferenc Szirmai (Sándor Terhes), clearly posted just before the murder was committed, that he realises that they are in fact intimately connected…

This sets in train the investigation alluded to by the title - the twist being that instead of trying to establish the murderer’s identity, the murderer himself is probing the victim’s background and trying to work out the motives behind the assassination. On a straightforward thriller level, much of the film reminded me of the psychological journey undertaken by the hapless amnesiac protagonist of Dejan Zečević’s near-contemporaneous The Fourth Man (Četvrti čovjek, 2007), with the crucial difference that Tibi has perfect recall of all the details to which he is already privy.

But Zečević’s film was played with a largely straight face, whereas most of The Investigator’s best moments come from Gigor’s typically skewed, often flat-out surreal perspective. Tibi’s dreams are invaded by talking crabs (there’s a Hungarian pun at work here: the word for ‘crab’ is the same as that for ‘cancer’, which is just about translatable into English in zodiacal terms), the pivotal letter is depicted as though the text was printed on the floor, on which the already dead Szirmai is chatting to Tibi (a particularly clever dramatic touch, as it establishes the identity of Tibi’s victim without having to spell it out), and a sequence in which all the major characters spell out their various motivations recalls the classic Agatha Christie dénouement, only with the differences that Tibi is a passive listener, not a Poirot-like master of ceremonies, and it’s all taking place in his head.

Though the film eventually buckles under the weight of its increasingly elaborate narrative (whose climax feels a little too pat to be truly convincing), there are more than enough signs that Gigor could develop into a genuinely distinctive talent. In its drolly solemnised feeling for the absurd, much of The Investigator reminded me of the early work of the Coen Brothers (especially Blood Simple and Barton Fink), and Gigor shows a similarly precocious confidence with plotting, dialogue, characterisation, direction of actors and effective use of a clearly limited budget. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for his next feature.


As a footnote, I should mention that I saw this at London’s Hungarian Cultural Centre as part of its regular Film Club, hosted by László Heckenast (who did such a stunning job interpreting Miklós Jancsó at the Curzon event earlier this year). Uncomfortable seats and DVD projection were more than compensated by free admission and drinks and the very welcome presence of Attila Gigor himself, who gave us a lively Q&A afterwards. The next Film Club screening is Róbert Alföldi’s Tranquillity (Nyugalom, 2008) on Thursday 4 December, and admission is also free - you just need to RSVP in advance on 020 7240 6162 or press@hungary.org.uk.


Links

Posted on 22nd November 2008
Under: Reviews, Hungary, Attila Gigor | No Comments »

Remnants of the Black Wave

Via Popkitchen, a brief introduction to Yugoslav cinema’s 1960s ‘black wave’.

Posted on 8th November 2008
Under: Yugoslavia | No Comments »

What’s Art Doc?

18 November to 8 December sees the second What’s Art Doc? festival being staged across various London venues. It’s a collection of documentaries on the subject of artforms and artists made from all over Europe, and has been backed by the European Commission.

Unsurprisingly, central and eastern European cinema is very heavily represented, with films from Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovenia. A full list of titles can be found on the festival website.

Posted on 7th November 2008
Under: Retrospectives | No Comments »

Agnieszka Holland: Europe/America

From 10 December 2008 to 5 January 2009, MoMA in New York is mounting what I think is the most extensive Agnieszka Holland retrospective ever attempted - though the title ‘Agnieszka Holland: Europe/America’ arguably doesn’t go far enough, given that her career included stints in communist and capitalist Europe prior to crossing the Atlantic.

The Alliance of Women Film Journalists offers a handy overview of what’s in the season - but for those in the wrong part of the world, a four-film box set of Holland’s early Polish features came out on DVD in Poland a few weeks ago. It includes Screen Tests (Zdjęcia próbne, 1977), Provincial Actors (Aktorzy prowincjonalni, 1979), Fever (Gorączka, 1981) and A Woman Alone (Kobieta samotna, 1981) - and I believe they all have English subtitles.

Posted on 7th November 2008
Under: Poland, Agnieszka Holland | No Comments »

Seclusion Near a Forest

Na samotě u lesa
1976, colour, 93 mins

  • Director: Jiří Menzel
  • Script: Zdeněk Svěrák, Ladislav Smoljak
  • Camera: Jaromír Šofr
  • Production Design: Zbyněk Hloch
  • Editing: Jiřina Lukešová
  • Sound: Adam Kajzar
  • Music: Jiří Šust
  • Production Manager: Jan Šuster
  • Production Company: Barrandov Film Studios
  • Cast: Josef Kemr (Komárek); Zdeněk Svěrák (Oldřich Lavička); Daniela Kolářová (Věra Lavičková); Marta Hradílková (Zuzana); Martin Hradílek (Petr); Ladislav Smoljak (Zvon); Naďa Urbánková (Zvonová); Jan Tříska (Dr, Houdek); Zdeněk Blažek (Hruška); Alois Liškutín (Kos); František Řehák (Lorenc); Václav Trégl (Vondruška); Vlasta Jelínková (Vondrušková); Oldřich Vlach (Kokeš); František Kovářík (Komárek senior); Míla Myslíková (Božena); Evžen Jegorov (gamekeeper); Milan Štibich (Co-operative chairman); Petr Brukner (salesman)

First of all, some much-needed context. Seclusion Near a Forest (also known as A Cottage by the Wood, though the former title is closer to the original) was the second film that Jiří Menzel made after a five-year ban following the reception of Larks on a String (Skřivánci na niti, 1969), which was itself banned until 1990. The first, Who Looks For Gold? (Kdo hledá zlaté dno?, 1974) is generally regarded as a blatant (if understandable) attempt to curry favour with the Communist regime, and is rarely revived, though it did mark the first of four collaborations between Menzel as director and Zdeněk Svěrák as writer (Svěrák had also played minor roles in two of Menzel’s late 1960s films, including Larks on a String).

Seclusion Near a Forest is much closer to the Menzel of old, though it lacks the barbed edge of his adaptations of the work of novelist Bohumil Hrabal. Indeed, to the untrained eye, it resembles a straightforward domestic comedy in which a family of four (parents Oldřich and Věra Lavička and their children Zuzana and Petr) try to fulfil a dream about having their own summer cottage, only to find that the reality doesn’t match up to the fantasy. Much of the running time is taken up with low-level bickering (especially when they end up sharing the cottage with the elderly Mr Komárek and an assortment of fleas) and slapstick interludes (the wheelchair-bound Mr Lorenc involuntarily colliding with a haystack), before everyone comes together in what’s virtually a group hug.

So far so apparently bland - but there’s a fair bit more going on beneath the surface. Seclusion Near a Forest was made at the height of Gustav Husák’s “normalisation” period, which lasted from 1969-89, the year after the Soviet invasion to the Velvet Revolution. While repression in general and cultural repression in particular remained as rife as it had been in the Stalinist 1950s (albeit without the show trials and summary executions), Czechs were encouraged to live outwardly normal lives. They weren’t in any real sense “free”, but they were allowed to purchase consumer goods and holiday cottages in the countryside were by no means idle fantasy - as the film demonstrates. Andrew Roberts’ invaluable essay ‘Normalization and Normal Life in the Films of Ladislav Smoljak and Zdeněk Svěrák’ - see the links below for the full text - cites statistics claiming that by the late 1980s, fully 80% of the Czechoslovak population had at least some access to a summer cottage.

The film depicts the mechanism by which such a cottage might be acquired (including all the bureaucratic stages - Menzel doesn’t dwell on this, but nonetheless makes it clear that such transactions came tightly wrapped in red tape), and the potential drawbacks. By renting a room from the elderly farmer Komárek for 100 crowns a month, the Lavičkas establish themselves as potential purchasers of the entire cottage (for 20,000 crowns), the idea being that Komárek will move to Slovakia to live with his son. Other city-dwellers are doing something similar: the Zvons are pursuing a fantasy of working as millers by purchasing an old mill and paying lip service to the routines, though the flour sacks are actually filled with sand. (One of the film’s comic highlights involves Zvon, played by co-writer Ladislav Smoljak, attempting to lecture about the mill as it is operating, but his voice is inaudible over the clanking, grinding machinery). Meanwhile, the Kokešes have bought a cottage at a discount, achieved by allowing its elderly inhabitants to remain living there until they die - a running gag shows Mr Kokeš devising various stratagems to persuade them to leave early.

By contrast, the Lavičkas get on extremely well with the seventysomething Komárek (Josef Kemr): the children regard him as a substitute grandfather, while Lavička (Zdeněk Svěrák) is always happy to chat to him, and indeed everyone else in the village, with whom he goes out of his way to try to integrate. Věra Lavičková (Daniela Kolářová) takes on the Cassandra role: when she realises that Komárek has no plans to leave and is in robust health, she points out that buying the cottage will achieve nothing aside from a substantial dent in their funds. She’s also much less enamoured of the downside of country living, with its rotten planks, collapsing beds, defecating chickens, goats eating her freshly-baked bread and a plague of dog fleas defying the widely-expressed local adage that they don’t bite people.

Věra’s complaints give the film its dramatic tension, especially in the second half, but Menzel and his writers aren’t interested in family-rupturing rows. But, as Roberts points out, the film’s gentleness can be read in two ways: Menzel, Svěrák and Smoljak go out of their way to set up scenes in which people are given opportunities exploit others for their own gain - and then refuse to let their characters take the bait, as demonstrated by the brief scene in which the representative of the local farming collective is quite happy to sign and stamp Lavička’s form in the middle of the farmyard with no formalities. As with the later (also Svěrák-scripted) My Sweet Little Village (Vesničko má středisková, 1985), the film’s criticisms of the Husák regime are so subtle as to be barely discernible, but it’s likely that domestic audiences were more than capable of reading between the lines: true communal happiness comes from looking out for each other, and ignoring the authorities’ strictures as much as is feasible.

It’s primarily a writers’ and performers’ film, though Menzel’s own distinctive fingerprints can be discerned via the deceptively casual staging of such set-pieces as the opening traffic jam, Zvon’s milling lecture, the alfresco lunch (whose oldest guest is convinced that he’s met the new arrivals before) and quasi-slapstick moments such as the collapsing bed. Also characteristic of Menzel are a handful of seemingly throwaway cutaways, in one oddly memorable case to a close-up of a framed photograph of an elderly couple mounted on Komárek’s bedroom wall - as if to suggest not merely a lengthy ancestral thread but also that life goes on regardless of any day-to-day complications. It’s not quite a feelgood comedy, but it’s certainly closest to that than much of Menzel’s other work.


DVD Distribution: Centrum českého videa (Czech Republic), PAL, no region code

Picture: The source print is in adequate condition for a thirtysomething film - the colours are somewhat pasty, there are quite a few white dust spots, and occasional glimpses of more serious damage, but nothing that impedes viewing. The transfer appears to have been sourced from an analogue tape (there’s a telltale texturing to the image), its shortcomings becoming particularly clear during scenes in low light, where the lack of shadow detail becomes a problem. But none of it seriously affects viewing pleasure, and it’s a distinct cut above the same label’s My Sweet Little Village. The aspect ratio is 4:3, and there are no compositional or historical reasons why it should be anything else.

Sound: Two soundtracks are on offer: a Dolby Digital 5.1 remix and a Dolby Digital 2.0 track - probably the original mono. Both sounded virtually identical, so I stuck with 2.0 on the grounds that it was probably closest to the version original.

Subtitles: The English subtitles have a few typos, but the translation is always perfectly clear.

Extras: Most of the extras are off limits to non-Czech speakers, but consist of Czech filmographies of Jiří Menzel and his cast, unsubtitled interviews with Menzel (4:36), Zdeněk Svěrák (4:37) and Ladislav Smoljak (5:42), six very short scenes from the film (also unsubtitled) and a stills gallery that plays for 1:15 and is accompanied by the film’s score. There’s also a selection of promotional material from the DVD’s sponsors, and information about other discs in the series (again, all in Czech).


Links

Posted on 2nd November 2008
Under: Reviews, Czechoslovakia, Jiří Menzel | 1 Comment »

Tarr in Turin

Since 1988’s Damnation (Kárhozat) inaugurated his mature style, Béla Tarr’s films have been distinguished at least as much by Kubrick-like gaps between their release as by their intrinsic artistic qualities, with just Sátántangó (1994), Werckmeister Harmonies (Werckmeister harmóniák, 2000) and The Man From London (A Londoni férfi, 2007) topping up his filmography. A major reason for that is, unsurprisingly, the challenges of raising funds for such aggressively uncompromising films. (The suicide of The Man From London’s producer Humbert Balsan didn’t help either).

Which is why it’s good news that Tarr’s latest film, The Turin Horse (A torinoi lo), seems to have locked all its financing into place thanks to an eleventh-hour €240,000 Eurimages grant, and will start shooting in November, with the aim of a Cannes premiere in May - just two years after its predecessor. Collaborators from previous work include his long-term writing partner László Krasznahorkai and actors Miroslav Krobot and Erika Bók, both of whom were in The Man From London.

Talking of which, this is finally getting a UK theatrical release on December 12, nineteen months after its world premiere. Since it’s playing at the small-scale Renoir cinema and opening during film exhibition’s annual dead zone (pre-Christmas December was always the worst time of the year when I helped run a cinema for a living), it’s safe to assume it won’t be sticking around for long. Time permitting (no small deal when considering the length of Sátantángó, which I’ve only seen once thus far), I’ll try to write up some of his earlier films round about then.

Posted on 1st November 2008
Under: Hungary, Béla Tarr | No Comments »

Darkness visible?

This looks promising - Juraj Herz, director of the supremely culty The Cremator (Spalovač Mrtvol, 1968), is finally returning to his favourite genre with a new horror film called Darkness (Tma), scheduled for completion next year.

Here’s a short interview that Herz gave to Czech newspaper Mláda fronta DNES, though he doesn’t seem to be giving much away (sadly, my neanderthal Czech isn’t up to a translation). Anyway, let’s hope it’s better than the last horror film that I saw with that title - my Sight & Sound review isn’t online, but let’s just say I wasn’t keen.

Posted on 1st November 2008
Under: Juraj Herz, Czech Republic | No Comments »

Czech cinema in November

Thanks to an upcoming Riverside Studios Cinema season of the films of Jan and Zdeněk Svěrák, and the imminent release of the first English-subtitled DVD of Jiri Menzel’s I Served the King of England (Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále, 2007), I’ve decided to devote much of November to exploring the work of the two most internationally successful Czech directors after Milos Forman.

Despite being from different generations, Jiří Menzel (b. 1938) and Jan Svěrák (b. 1965) have a surprising amount in common. Their international profile notwithstanding (they’ve notched up two Best Foreign Film Oscar nominations and one win apiece), they’ve almost exclusively worked in their native country and language, they’ve regularly collaborated with writer/actor Zdeněk Svěrák (Jan’s father, Menzel’s contemporary), and most of their films are characterised by an agreeably old-fashioned humanist outlook that seems both quintessentially ‘Czech’ and yet has universal appeal.

These are the films I’m hoping to look at in more depth, all of which are available on English-subtitled DVDs.

Jiří Menzel

1965 - Pearls of the Deep (Perličky na dně)
1966 - Closely Observed Trains (Ostře sledované vlaky)
1967 - Capricious Summer (Rozmarné léto)
1969 - Larks on a String (Skřivánci na niti)
1976 - Seclusion near a Forest (Na samotě u lesa)
1981 - Cutting It Short (Postřižiny)
1983 - Snowdrop Festival (Slavnosti sněženek)
1985 - My Sweet Little Village (Vesničko má středisková)
2007 - I Served the King of England

Jan Svěrák

1988 - The Oil Gobblers (Ropáci)
1991 - The Elementary School (Obecná škola)
1994 - Accumulator 1 (Akumulátor 1)
1994 - The Ride (Jízda)
1996 - Kolya (Kolja)
2001 - Dark Blue World (Tmavomodrý svět)
2007 - Empties (Vratné lahve)

Zdeněk Svěrák

1969 - Larks on a String
1976 - Seclusion near a Forest
1983 - Three Veterans (Tři veteráni)
1985 - My Sweet Little Village
1991 - The Elementary School
1994 - Accumulator 1
1996 - Kolya
2001 - Dark Blue World
2007 - Empties

Because I want to get all the Riverside titles out of the way before the season starts on November 7th, I’ll start with those and then jump back to the 1960s to start exploring the great Menzel/Bohumil Hrabal collaborations. In the meantime, here’s my report from the Jiří Menzel Q&A that followed the London premiere of I Served the King of England.

Posted on 1st November 2008
Under: Jiří Menzel, Jan Svěrák | No Comments »

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