Archive for the 'Reviews' Category

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 »

Polish Documentaries: Sopot 1957 (1957)


1957, black and white, 16 mins

  • Director/Script: Jerzy Hoffman, Edward Skórzewski
  • Camera: Antoni Staśkiewicz
  • Editor: Ludmila Godziaszwili
  • Sound: Bohdan Jankowski
  • Commentary Text: Stefania Grodzieńska
  • Narrator: Jerzy Wasowski
  • Production Manager: Andrzej Liwnicz
  • Production Company: WFD

Between 1954 and 1956, Jerzy Hoffman and Edward Skórzewski issued a series of hard-hitting cinematic challenges to a Polish documentary movement that was only just beginning to emerge from the crushing impact of World War II and the more consciously stifling period of Stalinism that followed. Films like Are You Among Them? (Czy jesteś wśród nich?, 1954) and especially Look Out, Hooligans! (Uwaga chuligani!, 1955) and The Children Accuse (Dzieci oskarżają, 1956) virtually rubbed their audiences’ noses in their various subjects (vandalism, hooliganism, crime, murder, alcoholism, child abuse) in a memorably head-on, calculatedly sensationalised fashion that was designed to be as bluntly provocative as possible.

As a result, it’s initially hard to believe that this relaxed and cheerful study of Poles holidaying at the popular Baltic beach resort of Sopot was made by the same directors. Whereas in the past the titles of Hoffman and Skórzewski’s films would slam onto the screen as if spraypainted, here they saunter from all directions, imprinted over the laughing, cheering faces of a crowd watching a decorative parade. Mikołaj Jazdon’s notes for PWA’s DVD release helpfully identify this as the opening ceremony of the second Polish Jazz Festival, staged in Sopot from 14-21 July 1957 - one of the banners advertises the Komeda Sextet, which can be seen performing in Andrzej Brzozowski’s film Jazz Talks (Rozmowy jazzowe), made the same year. This sequence, and the equally joyous one that follows in which Polish jazz bands perform with visiting American musicians Albert Nicholls and Big Bill Ramsey, couldn’t be further removed from Hoffman and Skórzewski’s alarmist use of jazz as a pounding, rhythmic accompaniment to violence and degeneracy in Look Out, Hooligans! - here, the crowd shrieks as though rehearsing for the possibility that the Beatles might turn up a few years later, and the atmosphere is wholly benign.

The most revealing indication of a change of direction comes in the subsequent sequence on Sopot beach, where Hoffman and Skórzewski make a point of showing how they concealed their cameraman, as though they were wildlife filmmakers shooting exotic but shy species. This is deceptive: there are plenty of camera angles and movements that could only have been obtained by shooting up close to their subjects (indeed, filming the cameraman himself would have necessitated a second camera positioned outside the ‘hide’), but the implied message is that unlike their previous films (which deliberately staged events for maximum impact, sometimes with actors), they’re trying to capture authentic slices of life which would go on regardless of their presence. The playful tone is carried over into the commentary, finding spurious anthropological justification for a montage of bare female legs before cutting to the male equivalent - and then panning up to reveal a shaven-headed quintet (Yul Brynner’s The King and I was a big recent hit). The filmmakers aren’t biased: they seem equally fascinated by young and old, fat and thin, and the naked breasts of comely young women and overweight middle-aged men get more or less equal screen time.

The camera then decamps to Sopot’s famous pier, followed by the town centre, through which assorted couples, some unmarried (as the commentator tartly highlights over a close-up of a roving male hand lacking a wedding ring) either promenade or relax. Relaxation isn’t on the minds of various Miss Poland beauty contestants, though, as a montage of assorted treatments, massages and applications of nameless unguents shows what they have to go through in order to look convincingly fresh and natural on the catwalk. When night falls, the inhabitants of Sopot come out to dance. The commentator hints darkly that we may be in for a re-run of Look Out, Hooligans! as he talks of “moving to the battlefield”, though it turns out to be an entirely metaphorical one, as couples dance the night away - aside from a lone man who’s apparently waiting for Brigitte Bardot (who just become a major star in Roger Vadim’s scandalous Et Dieu créa la femme, released a few months earlier).

The upbeat mood of the film’s first two-thirds of the film change when the rain starts falling, becoming more wistful and reflective, Sopot’s visitors and inhabitants distorted behind rivulets running down café windows. But this largely commentary-free introspection doesn’t last long, as the film concludes in the sweaty huddle of a basement jazz club, a spotlight swinging across performers and dancers to accentuate the high-contrast noirish feel. Finally, as a lone whistler segues to a full-on jazzed-up version of Kurt Weill’s ‘Mack the Knife’, the holiday ends.

Sopot 1957 could easily be mistaken for a travelogue, especially if watched with the sound turned down - but it’s worth noting what it leaves out, given that Hoffman and Skórzewski’s earlier films were rather keener on context. We’re not told, for instance, that this jazz-driven film (which infuses the entire soundtrack, not just the onscreen performances) is paying tribute to a musical art form that had been banned outright in Poland until very recently, and neither are we given any sense of Sopot’s long history. The commentary even eschews the kind of statistics that normally pepper images like this (such as the fact that the pier was and remains the longest wooden one in Europe), and any sociological observations are deliberately pitched at a trivial, jokey level. Hoffman and Skórzewski’s priority is to capture fleeting impressions from the summer of 1957, living very much for the moment.

The film is included on PWA’s Polish School of the Documentary: The Black Series double-DVD set (Region 0 PAL). Happily, this has one of the better source prints on these discs, with only a modicum of minor spots and scratches and a sharp, nicely contrasted image with plenty of detail even in the highlights and shadows. The soundtrack is the original mono, and technically perfectly adequate, neatly balancing the commentary with a near-continuous jazz-influenced accompaniment. There are a few typos in the subtitles, but their overall quality is generally above average for this release.

Posted on 22nd October 2008
Under: Documentary, Reviews, Poland, Jerzy Hoffman, Edward Skórzewski | No Comments »

Night Train

Pociąg
1959, black and white, 93 mins

  • Director: Jerzy Kawalerowicz
  • Script: Jerzy Lutowski, Jerzy Kawalerowicz
  • Camera: Jan Laskowski
  • Production Design: Ryszard Potocki
  • Editing: Wiesława Otocka
  • Sound: Józef Bartczak
  • Costumes: Michelle Zahorska
  • Production Manager: Jerzy Rutowicz
  • Production Company: Zespół Filmowy Kadr
  • Cast: Lucyna Winnicka (Marta), Leon Niemczyk (Jerzy), Teresa Szmigielówna (lawyer’s wife), Zbigniew Cybulski (Staszek), Helena Dąbrowska (conductress), Ignacy Machowski (passenger), Roland Głowacki (murderer), Aleksander Sewruk (lawyer), Zygmunt Zintel (insomniac passenger), Tadeusz Gwiazdowski (conductor), Witold Skaruch (priest), Michał Gazda (passenger flirting with lawyer’s wife), Zygmunt Malawski (policeman), Józef Łodyński (plain-clothes policeman), Kazimierz Wilamowski (passenger sleeping in the conductress’s car), Jerzy Zapiór (boy fooling around), Andrzej Herder (sailor), Barbara Horawianka (Jerzy’s wife), Joanna Jóźwiakówna (girl with a transistor), Ludwik Kasendra (passenger), Janusz Majewski (Janusz), Czesław Piaskowski, Henryk Staszewski, Mieczysław Waśkowski (passengers)

By the time Jerzy Kawalerowicz made his sixth feature in 1959, overnight trains had long been established as an ideal setting for scenarios of intrigue and suspense: Alfred Hitchcock in particular had very much made the genre his own. But although a fair amount of Night Train (also known as Baltic Express, both titles more evocative than the blunt Train, a literal translation of the original) seems to seems to be running along effectively Hitchcockian lines, Kawalerowicz seems more interested in the psychological make-up of his various characters and the way in which their behaviour and conversations reveal things about themselves that they’d rather keep hidden. Though there’s a murder subplot, it’s presented in a distinctly low-key fashion (the murder itself happened in the past), and is dispensed with long before the end.

The bulk of the film is set in a single sleeper carriage, and much of that within compartment 15/16. Due to a mix-up (one of the tickets was purchased on the black market), this is inadvertently occupied by two people of the opposite sex, who turn out to have much in common. Marta (Lucyna Winnicka, the director’s future wife) is simultaneously travelling to meet her former lover in the Baltic resort of Hel, and trying to escape the attentions of Staszek (Zbigniew Cybulski), a brief fling who has followed her onto the train and is bent on stalking her (at one point even hanging outside her window as the train is moving, a scene given additional - albeit unintended - tension given that Cybulski would meet his real-life death eight years later while running to catch a moving train). Physical evidence on her wrists suggests at least one suicide attempt, revealing a woman given to passions and impulses, swinging wildly between emotional peaks and troughs.

Her unexpected companion Jerzy (Leon Niemczyk) is harder to read, not least thanks to the dark glasses that he insists on wearing for much of the early part of the film. This ambiguity is key to much of the film’s psychological tension: it’s known from the start, thanks to a widely circulated newspaper article, that a murderer is on the loose, and Jerzy has turned up on the train in a hurry, requesting that he have a compartment to his own and being prepared to buy two berths for the privilege. Even though he eventually agrees to let Marta share with him, he says that this is because he doesn’t want the no-nonsense conductress (a scene-stealing Helena Dąbrowska) to cause a fuss. He’s also visibly jittery, erupting in fearful rage when he sees a white bedsheet over Marta’s feet, as though she was already lying in a morgue.

The film’s rich supporting cast is made up of several character types. Next door to Marta (Aleksander Sewruk) and Jerzy’s compartment is a lawyer and his wife (Teresa Szmigielówna) - he’s obsessed with an upcoming case, so she spends much of her time hanging around in the corridor behaving more than a little flirtatiously with the other passengers (and clearly has eyes on Jerzy - whenever his door is open, she’s invariably visible). The corridor on the right-hand side of compartment 15/16 is also permanently occupied by an insomniac (Zygmunt Zintel, the foreman in Wajda’s A Generation/Polokenie, 1954), and occasionally by a priest and various others, with almost everyone offering caustic comments on the proceedings at some point.

The suspense-thriller elements mean that I shouldn’t discuss the plot in too much detail, but it’s worth highlighting the way the film can also be read as an allegory of life in post-Stalinist Poland. The black market’s existence is acknowledged, and rules are no longer rigidly imposed (as demonstrated by the conductress’ willingness to allow Jerzy and Marta to continue sharing a compartment when they make it clear they don’t mind), but there’s still widespread concern about the knock on the door in the middle of the night - justifiably so, in Jerzy’s case, since he ends up handcuffed mere seconds later. Above all, a key set-piece two-thirds of the way through illustrates the terrifying power of a mob fired with righteous anger - emphasised visually by an aerial shot looking straight down on them as they wreak their revenge, and dramatically by the fact that we’ve come to know and like many of these people individually, though here they’re reduced to unreadable dots.

Kawalerowicz and his cameraman Jan Laskowski film these various encounters in an oppressively claustrophobic way, using wide-angle lenses to achieve greater depth of field while still making foreground characters stand out from their surroundings. The high-contrast lighting recalls film noir’s use of toned-down Expressionism. Ryszard Potocki’s production design is beyond praise - although created almost entirely in the studio, and some of the more elaborate camera movements clearly couldn’t have been shot on an actual moving train, the illusion is wholly convincing. The back projections are state of the art, augmented by carefully-designed lighting on the actual set, and whenever a character leans out of the window, powerful fans suggest high winds - small wonder that the film won the Venice Film Festival’s Georges Méliès award for its technical achievement.

Equally resourceful is the improvised jazz score, inspired by Artie Shaw’s ‘Moonglow’ and making extensive use of wordless female vocals and vibraphone. The effect is very similar to that of the Miles Davis score in Lift to the Scaffold (L’ascenseur pour l’échafaud, d. Louis Malle, 1957), which may have been its direct inspiration - but whatever the source, it works brilliantly here, not least because its upbeat, almost yearning tone contrasts so much with the crepuscular images and suggests that there’s much more to what we’re seeing than initially meets the eye. Which, presumably, is exactly what Kawalerowicz intended.


DVD Distribution: There are at least three DVD releases of Night Train, though the single-disc Polish edition (Best Film Co, Region 0 PAL) doesn’t appear to have English subtitles. However, the version included in the same company’s box set 50 Years of the Polish Film School volume 2 (50-lecie Polskiej Szkoły Filmowej 2 not only has English subtitles but also a well-produced 36-page booklet in Polish and English. There’s also a US edition available on the Polart label (Region 0 NTSC), which I haven’t seen.

Picture: The source print is in more than acceptable condition for a 50-year-old film - the occasional white dust spot can be tuned out, and more severe damage is kept to a minimum. However, shadow detail is virtually nonexistent in this extremely crepuscular film - this isn’t a major problem when we’re actually on the train, as the high-contrast lighting ensures that faces and other key details are always visible, but when the action shifts to a nearby field in the early dawn, it’s virtually impossible to make out what’s going on below the line of the horizon.

Sound: Two soundtracks are on offer: a Dolby Digital 5.1 remix and a Dolby Digital 2.0 track - probably the original mono. The latter has more hiss and crackle, but also sounded more “natural” to my ears - even over and above the artificial surround sound of the 5.1 track, it comes across as over-processed.

Subtitles: The English subtitles have a few typos, but the translation is always perfectly clear. Subtitles are also provided in French, German, Russian and Polish

Extras: The on-disc extra is a short six-minute featurette about the film, presented in unsubtitled Polish. Far more useful to English speakers is the accompanying booklet, a well-produced 36-page affair that includes a lot of background information about the film, a biography of Kawalerowicz, full credits and some very high quality stills (rather too high quality, in fact, as they put the DVD transfer to shame!).


Links

Posted on 16th October 2008
Under: Reviews, Poland, Jerzy Kawalerowicz | No Comments »

Polish Documentaries: From Powiśle… (1958)

Z Powiśla…
1958, black and white, 10 mins

  • Director/Script: Kazimierz Karabasz
  • Camera: Stanisław Niedbalski
  • Editor: Helena Białkowska
  • Sound: Halina Paszkowska
  • Music: Zbigniew Jeżewski
  • Narrator: Tadeusz Łomnicki
  • Production Manager: Jerzy Dorożyński
  • Production Company: WFD

After making short films at the Łódź Film School (among them Day In Day Out/Jak co dzień…, 1955) and collaborating with Władysław Ślesicki on Where the Devil Says Goodnight (Gdzie diabeł mówi dobranoc, 1956) and People from an Empty Zone (Ludzie z pustego obszaru, 1957), Kazimierz Karabasz made his solo professional directing debut with this lyrical, poeticised portrait of the run-down Warsaw suburb of Powiśle, originally part of a series entitled Walking Around Warsaw (Wędrówki po Warszawie). It touches on a lot of topics familiar from other Polish documentaries - notably the bombed-out ruins from Brzozowa Street (Ulica Brzozowa, 1947), Warsaw ‘56 (Warszawa 1956) and Lublin Old Town (Lubelska starówka, 1956) and the topographical concerns of City on Islands (Miasto na wyspach, 1958) - but Karabasz seems completely uninterested in exploring wider social/political issues. Indeed, the commentary here is reduced to mere wisps, and many of Karabasz’ subsequent films would dispense with it altogether.

This is hardly surprising, when one considers the eloquence of Stanisław Niedbalski’s images when married to Zbigniew Jeżewski’s wistful woodwind score (which runs more or less continuously throughout). This combination is first seen in the opening shot, as the camera adopts a high vantage point to pan around the city’s skyline before slowly zooming in to the buildings in Powiśle as the main title comes up on screen. A cat strolls across an otherwise deserted courtyard that is otherwise only populated by cushions. A tap drips aimlessly onto the ground, filling a visibly eroded dimple, and a small girl carries freshly-filled bottles of water (one of many simple, unforced images of children that pepper the running time). The music swaps woodwinds for a barrel-organ, and the soundtrack becomes diegetic, as an elderly man sets up in the courtyard and cranks old folk tunes out of it. The apartment block’s windows are mostly open, but there’s no visible sign of any appreciation.

In the commercial centre of Powiśle, Karabasz and Niedbalski seem as interested in a passing dog, a flock of pigeons or a pair of children’s overalls hanging outside a shop window, than they do in human passers-by. The music is occasionally interrupted by the sight and sound of a train passing on an overhead line, which the narrator highlights as the only visible means of counting the hours. A woman yawns and shields her eyes from the sun. A man pulls a heavy cart by himself, his female companion merely steering it. Two elderly women gossip, one grabbing the other’s wrist to emphasise a point. Patients in the Solec hospital sit on the balcony and look aimlessly out into the distance - one watches a blonde woman as she leans out of the window of one of the trains, a fleeting connection with the outside world.

Powiśle, according to Karabasz, seems frozen in time, though not in a way that seems especially attractive or useful to nostalgists. Several decades ago, an unnamed writer claimed that no other part of Warsaw had so much charm and ambience, but Powiśle was bombed almost flat during the Uprising of 1944 - this is dealt with obliquely, presumably because Karabasz assumed that a contemporary Polish audience wouldn’t need the details spelt out a mere fourteen years after the events. The signs of daily life amid the ruins recall similar images in Brzozowa Street, though the effect is inverted: instead of life thriving among the rubble, here narrator idly muses on why anyone would want to live in Powiśle when other parts of Warsaw are clearly more appealing.

Somewhat anthropomorphically, Karabasz attempts to ascribe human characteristics to Powiśle: it’s been “badly wounded”, and is “lonely”. City on Islands had a similar concern for the character of its locations, but Karabasz is more interested in poetry than polemic. His quiet, understated film is in sharp contrast to the stridency of many of the other documentaries in the so-called “black series”, but it points the way towards a far more lyrical approach to documentary that would burst into full flower with Karabasz’s masterpieces of the early 1960s (The Musicians/Muzykanci, People on the Road/Ludzie w drodze, both 1960), other films that show rather than tell, evoke rather than explain.

The film is included on PWA’s Polish School of the Documentary: The Black Series double-DVD set (Region 0 PAL). The source print is generally in good physical condition, though occasional exposure fluctuations cause the picture to flicker slightly, and there’s a modicum of minor surface damage. The soundtrack is fine by 1950s mono standards, with the music coming across well. Subtitles are generally easy to follow, the occasional typo notwithstanding - though the phrasing is occasionally somewhat awkward and there’s a jarring bit where the line “Ruiny jak rdza wżerają się w życie z tępym, milczącym uporem” is translated by the subtitles as “On each step, the ruins bite the life like rust, with dull, silent obstinacy” but in the booklet as “Like rust, the ruins come to life with dull and silent obstinacy.”

Posted on 4th October 2008
Under: Documentary, Reviews, Poland, Kazimierz Karabasz | No Comments »

Polish Documentaries: Place of Residence (1957)

Miejsce zamieszkania
1957, black and white, 16 mins

  • Director: Maksymilian Wrocławski
  • Script: Z. Wróbiewski, Maksymilian Wrocławski
  • Camera: Tadeusz Korecki
  • Editor: Jadwiga Zajiček
  • Sound: Halina Paszkowska
  • Music: Augustyn Bloch
  • Narrator: Tadeusz Łomnicki
  • Production Manager: Zygmunt Rybarski
  • Production Company: WFD

Of all the “black series” documentaries presented on PWA’s collection, Place of Residence is most explicitly indebted to the Socialist Realist tradition that dominated Polish cinema from the late 1940s to the mid 1950s. Taking its cue from wide-eyed celebrations such as Andrzej Munk’s Destination Nowa Huta! (Kierunek Nowa Huta, 1951), it takes a closer look at the actual lifestyle of the workers being eulogised as heroic exemplars of People’s Poland - and, to no-one’s surprise, uncovers what after three years of the “black series” is an all too familiar chasm between official rhetoric and observed reality.

We first see a group of men heading to what appears to be some kind of employment office - a nearby tannoy is broadcasting output statistics - but it’s actually a bar serving its customers through a small hatch. As the tannoy talks about “the great effort and dedication of our brave team who have stood at the construction site to create a city worthy of our epoch”, one purchaser laces his and his companions’ beer with what appears to be vodka. Something already seems awry. The tannoy goes on to boast about the workers’ new housing conditions, far superior to those in the villages from which they originally hailed, and equipped with the latest mod cons. So why are large numbers of them cooking soup outdoors using makeshift stoves comprising bricks, scraps of wood and a bucket? They don’t look like tramps, and indeed they’re not - they’re the workers who built the furnaces and steelworks of Nowa Huta, the industrial complex hailed as a model working and living environment.

The administrator of the housing estate of Pleszów gives us a carefully regulated guided tour, stressing the twin emphasis of culture and sanitation, showing off the impeccably maintained buildings, bedrooms and bathrooms. But then Augustyn Bloch’s music takes on a darker tone, pounding piano chords in the lower register matching an equivalent change in visual mood as we see a couple communicating, Romeo and Juliet-like, via her window. Actually, they’re married already, but they can’t live together, as they’re both required to live in segregated workers’ accommodation. Trysting in shared bedrooms is rendered impossible by fellow workers trying to sleep and - in a somewhat bathetic touch - a romantic stroll outdoors is ruined by rain. Later, a man frantically bangs on the door after hours - normally strictly verboten, but his wife is about to give birth.

A pan across a table crammed with cooking equipment reveals why many prefer the alfresco arrangement, especially when lengthy queues and resulting rows are thrown into the mix - the upshot of just one kitchen per five storeys, or forty families. Cultural facilities have been equally poorly thought out, allocated by timetable rather than individual need, so gangs of rowdy youths burst into a song recital and start a fight - an understandable way of relieving tension when they have to share tiny rooms and listen to snoring and dripping taps all night.

A great many classic Polish documentaries have highlighted the shortcomings of housing in 1950s Poland. But what separates this film from Brzozowa Street/Ulica Brzozowa (1947), Warsaw ‘56/Warszawa 1956 and The Lublin Old Town/Lubelska starówka (both 1956) is that while the earlier films highlighted the dangers of living in ancient, crumbling, war-blasted accommodation, Place of Residence is about facilities constructed within the last few years, allegedly according to the highest modern standards. Ironically, those parts of the Pleszów complex that really are up to scratch tend to be ignored, because the workers feel intimidated by the cavernous lounge. Far better to go to the bar, drink more vodka-laced beer and ignore the tannoy: after all, nothing it says has any relationship to their lives as they actually live them. Meanwhile, the anonymous administrator relaxes in his office, with its dual phone lines and padded door (to keep out the sound of disgruntled residents), writing works of fiction masquerading as official reports.

The film is included on PWA’s Polish School of the Documentary: The Black Series double-DVD set (Region 0 PAL). Aside from a few spots and scratches, the source print is generally in excellent condition, and the soundtrack perfectly acceptable, bar a modicum of faint hiss that’s absolutely characteristic of a late 1950s recording. The subtitles have quite a few typos and other idiosyncrasies, but they don’t significantly affect appreciation.

Posted on 1st October 2008
Under: Documentary, Reviews, Poland | No Comments »

Polish Documentaries: City on Islands (1958)

Miasto na wyspach
1958, black and white, 9 mins

  • Directors: Jan Dmowski, Bohdan Kosiński
  • Camera: Antoni Staśkiewicz
  • Editor: Marian Duszyński
  • Sound: Halina Paszkowska
  • Music: Zdzisław Szostak
  • Narrator: Janusz Kilański
  • Production Manager: Andrzej Liwnicz
  • Production Company: WFD

The rebuilding of the Polish capital is one of the most frequent themes encountered in Polish documentaries of the late 1940s and 1950s, as demonstrated by such films as Brzozowa Street/Ulica Brzozowa (1947), Return to the Old Town/Powrót na Stare Miasto (1954), Warsaw ‘56/Warszawa 1956 (1956) and Where the Devil Says Goodnight/Gdzie diabeł mówi dobranoc (1956), many of which use such tactics as realism, sarcasm and oblique social commentary to describe a process that was nowhere near as smooth as the government propagandists would have preferred the people to believe.

City on Islands reaches similar conclusions, but takes a different approach to constructing its thesis. Initially, it seems to be presenting a topographical study of Warsaw on several planes - the electric cables overhead, the tramlines cutting through the streets, and the various pipes under the surface. The opening high-angle shot of the junction of Aleje Jerozolimskie and Marzałkowska establishes the shape of a cross pointing in all four directions of the compass - an image that introduces the nearby signpost indicating the distances to other European capitals. “But where is Warsaw?”, the commentator wants to know, and it’s not as absurd a question as it seems, since the film’s disturbing central thesis is that ‘Warsaw’ as an entity has changed beyond recognition since 1939 - and not just because it was bombed flat in 1944.

A contrast is immediately drawn between the way the same tramline begins running through wide asphalt streets of the city centre, then along the more traditional cobblestones of the suburbs, and finally the grassy meadows of the outskirts. But far from consisting of old-fashioned villages, they actually feature large housing estates with thousands of inhabitants - and it’s standing (or rather clinging) room only on the trams at the end of the line. The commentator reveals that Varsovians use the trams six times more frequently than they did before the war, and as a result the city centre has essentially become a gigantic tram interchange - hardly anyone walks any more, they merely hop on another tram, and head out somewhere else. The commentator laments that “the city centre does not absorb those who commute there” over a montage of trams marked with suburban destinations, anonymously passing each other like the proverbial ships in the night.

So much for transport. Now, housing - and a lively upward xylophone glissando implies that new developments are springing up all over the place. But where? As far from the centre as possible, on the extreme periphery that was formerly occupied by meadows, clay pits, forests and villages, the old-fashioned dwellings now dwarfed by anonymous blocks of flats, anything up to an hour away from the centre. Can this also be called ‘Warsaw’?

A revelatory montage of photographs from 1939 shows how things have changed. Then, the streets of the city centre were crammed with pedestrians, and the city itself was a single homogenous unity. (The commentary could have made more of this, since Warsaw 1939 was also a far more multicultural environment than it was two decades later). This Warsaw also had suburbs, but they were only built once the centre was too full - “the rules of logic”. This domestic part of the city centre was destroyed in 1944, and while the rubble has been mostly cleared away, it now consists of vast empty spaces, practically denuded of people. A woman blithely pushes her pram along the middle of a road, since there is no visible traffic to pose a threat. It’s hard to believe that these are the same streets.

The film then takes us around various compass-points only a few hundred yards from the city centre. The area is still largely in ruins, and statues look down (one raising an admonishing finger) at people eking out an existence as aimless as that of the pigeons that alight on the roof of a makeshift shack. The commentary has almost fallen silent by this point, popping up only to identify the angle from the centre (north, north-west, west, etc.) - and this is understandable, as the images are more than eloquent: there’s no need for the shock tactics of Warsaw ‘56 or the sarcasm of co-director Bohdan Kosiński’s earlier The Lublin Old Town (Lubelska starówka, 1956).

Finally, after yet another shot of urban emptiness, the commentary quotes one Engineer Zelent, Deputy Chairman of the Steering Committee of the Social National Council: “In the centre, what is in the ground - the laying of gas, water and sewage pipes, electricity - is worth almost half the value of the development on the surface. Each unused square metre of ground will start screaming”. Fine words, but there’s not much screaming here - just supreme indifference of planning authority and inhabitants alike. This is Warsaw, 1958 - thirteen years after reconstruction began. As the title suggests, it’s no longer a city, merely an archipelago of only loosely connected islands.

The film is included on PWA’s Polish School of the Documentary: The Black Series double-DVD set (Region 0 PAL). The source print is one of the best ones on this set, with a very sharp, clear and generally blemish-free picture with a wide dynamic range from pure white to deep black without ever falling prey to overexposure or loss of shadow detail. The sound is typical 1950s mono, but otherwise fine. The subtitles, too, are above average, with only the very occasional idiomatic eccentricity (a reference to “subvarsovian villages”, for instance) betraying that their author may not have been a native English speaker.

Posted on 30th September 2008
Under: Documentary, Reviews, Poland, Bohdan Kosiński, Jan Dmowski | No Comments »

Polish Documentaries: Article Zero (1957)

Paragraf zero
1957, black and white, 16 mins

  • Director: Włodzimierz Borowik
  • Camera: Antoni Staśkiewicz
  • Editor: Maria Orlowska
  • Sound: Bohdan Kajan
  • Music Editor: Stefan Zawarski
  • Text: Jerzy Bossak (as Jerzy Szelubski)
  • Narrator: Tadeusz Łomnicki
  • Production Manager: Andrzej Liwnicz
  • Production Company: WFD

It says something for the social stigma associated with prostitution that this is apparently the only documentary of the ‘black series’ to tackle it. Very different in tone from Włodzimierz Borowik’s rural Rocky Soil (Skalna ziemia, 1956), this is set in a far more enclosed series of urban spaces: dimly-lit streets, squalid flats, interrogation cells. As with such films as Warsaw ‘56/Warszawa 1956 and The Lublin Old Town/Lubelska starówka (both 1956), the film begins by showing Warsaw as we would like to imagine it: populous and civilised, well-lit and regulated, even at night. But the narrator invites us to take a closer look at a particular coffee house - when a man approaches two young women sitting on their own, is it a straightforward chat-up situation or the prelude to a more businesslike arrangement?

At 11pm, the crowds have mostly gone home, leaving only a few lone women on street corners. We jump to the obvious conclusion, but the narrator admonishes us: “Prostitution does not exist in our country, our legislation has successfully eliminated it”. He goes on to explain that it’s precisely because of this official line that it’s impossible to come up with workable remedies: the state has no business enquiring after the health of a woman, even though her profession is obviously a risky one (and not just her sexual health: screams from a patch of derelict ground betray other dangers). It’s only when a non-prostitution-related crime such as assault or murder is committed that the militia is legally allowed to take action. They know perfectly well where the various assignations are conducted, but most of them are behind closed doors: they only have access to public spaces.

Antoni Staśkiewicz’s high-contrast cinematography relies, Weegee-like, on suddenly shining a spotlight onto the subject and watching them react - sometimes they hide their faces, at others they scuttle away, but they usually reveal something about themselves, whether it’s a group of empty bottles on the floor, discarded underwear, a bed made up of rags and old newspapers. Many of the prostitutes wear headscarves, which seems as much a means of preserving one’s anonymity as from protection against the elements (the street prostitutes are well beyond making any kind of fashion statement). There’s something uncomfortably voyeuristic about this approach, but it certainly reinforces Borowik’s overall message: if prostitution doesn’t exist, how come we’re getting material like this?

The film’s second half takes place in one of the buildings run by the Citizen’s Militia, its staff having to deal with a bevy of drunken prostitutes (and their pimps) on a nightly basis. Shooting from a concealed vantage point, the camera films the confrontations between the militia men and the women, who are often angry enough to trigger sporadic outbreaks of violence, though these are swiftly brought under control. The heart of the film lies in the subsequent interrogation scene in which a variety of women - their eyes obscured by a jittery black rectangle (virtually all the footage in the film features genuine prostitutes) - are asked their ages and social circumstances.

The first is just sixteen and hasn’t even finished school, and her mother (also present) wants her put in an institution - though the narrator tempers the bleakness by pointing out that sixteen isn’t too late to repair the damage. The second is older (twenty-three), more confident, and claims to be happy with her existence, though the narrator wonders whether this will still be the case a few years later. The third is older still, and works as a prostitute because her fiancé is in prison. When she claims she makes virtually no money from prostitution and that it’s cold and uncomfortable, the interrogator asks why she does it, and is told that she was forced into it by a friend who got her drunk on vodka. The fourth is middle-aged, and has been a prostitute since 1939 after leaving an unspecified institution - in one of the film’s rare moments of black comedy, she says that a friend of hers from that period is now a nun. The narrator predicts that this is how the younger prostitutes will end up, wandering among the ruins of Warsaw looking for clients.

Contrary to what was probably the popular view, the interrogators themselves are women, their questions and their demeanour suggesting that they’re not unsympathetic to the plight of their charges. But as the narrator points out, while some can certainly be saved, others can only be treated - but both remedies require legislation that admits to the existence of the problem in the first place (the film’s title refers to the absence of any such article in the Polish penal code). As with Jerzy Hoffman and Edward Skórzewski’s equally hard-hitting The Children Accuse (Dzieci oskarżają, 1956), the film’s final shots of cold, shivering women trying to get comfortable on a bare cell floor before being expelled en masse tell their own story and point an equally accusing finger at the system that permits it. The final shot, of a woman walking down an otherwise empty street into encroaching fog, would be eerily beautiful if divorced from the rest of the film, but instead it’s intensely unsettling - especially as an overlaid title confirms that every shot in the film aside from the coffee-house opening depicted actual situations.

The film is included on PWA’s Polish School of the Documentary: The Black Series double-DVD set (Region 0 PAL). The source print is generally in very good condition, bar the odd faint tramline and a brief splice at approx. 3:10: it’s probably safe to assume that the high-contrast images with their looming, noirish shadows are presented as intended, especially as the lighting in the second half is much softer. There’s a modicum of hiss underpinning the soundtrack, but this is easy enough to tune out. The subtitles have a few typos (”Militia uses gentle persuation”), but I never felt short-changed by the translation. The mid-point scene where the prostitutes argue with the militiamen is left unsubtitled, presumably because everyone’s yelling at once - but a translation is hardly necessary.

Posted on 30th September 2008
Under: Documentary, Reviews, Poland, Włodzimierz Borowik | No Comments »

Delta

Hungary, 2008, colour, 93 mins

  • Director: Kornél Mundruczó
  • Screenplay: Kornél Mundruczó, Yvette Bíró
  • Photography: Mátyás Erdély
  • Editor: David Jancsó
  • Costume Designer: János Breckl
  • Music: Félix Lajkó
  • Producer: Viktória Petrányi, Philippe Bober, Susanne Marian
  • Production Company: Essential Filmproduktion GmbH, Filmpartners, Proton Cinema
  • Cast: Félix Lajkó (young man), Orsi Tóth (his sister), Lili Monori (their mother), Sándor Gáspár (her lover)


By some distance the most sheerly beautiful film I saw in the 2006 Sarajevo Film Festival was the Croatian short Delta, an almost wordless study of the lives of people who live and fish by the mouth of the Danube. Kornél Mundruczó’s feature has the same title, is set in a near-identical (albeit unidentified) setting and ups the aesthetic ante yet further – in fact, if visual pleasure was the sole defining criterion of a film’s success, Delta would be hands-down one of the year’s triumphs. However, much like Mundruczó’s previous feature Johanna (2006), the film’s undeniable strengths are ultimately diluted by narrative weaknesses, with both films concluding with a final act so pat and predictable as to negate much of the power of what’s come before.

The premise could hardly be simpler. A young man returns from a long period of possibly self-imposed exile to meet his mother for the first time in what must be a good couple of decades – judging from the fact that he has an adult sister whom he’s never met. But there’s already tension in the air: the mother, possibly influenced by her suspicious boyfriend, refuses to allow him to stay with them at their place (the local watering hole, whose clientèle seems to be whiling away the long years between performing similar functions in Béla Tarr projects), and are taken aback when he not only proposes moving into his father’s hut, a derelict shack on the banks of the delta itself, but says that he’s staying for good. For much of the film’s running time he painstakingly constructs both a lengthy wooden pier and a house on stilts, growing increasingly closer to his sister in the process. Unsurprisingly, this doesn’t go down well with the local populace (and neither does the young man’s flouting of local administrative requirements), and they eventually make their feelings all too clear…

But this is not, to put it mildly, a film for those in search of narrative pleasure, as much of the running time is taken up with long, wordless sequences, often accompanied solely by natural sounds. Cinematographer Mátyás Erdély works miracles with light and colour – there are several shots, notably one of the delta at sunrise, the horizon a pale green brushstroke, that could have come straight out of a Turner painting. When one of the barflies dies (off camera), it seems merely an excuse for staging a breathtaking set-piece involving dozens of black-clad villagers taking to the water en masse, their boats gliding silently through the water. (It’s somewhat reminiscent of the aquatic masked parade in Joseph Losey’s 1979 film of Don Giovanni, the villagers’ faces just as fixed and expressionless). The sound similarly tends towards abstraction, consisting largely of insect chirps, frog croaks and bird calls, occasionally interspersed with lugubrious strings. The more than somewhat Herzogian feel is augmented by the use of a Popol Vuh track (‘On the Way’), and the polyrhythmic experiments of Mundruczó’s great compatriot György Ligeti are recalled in a scene where nails are banged into a timber roof strut by multiple hands (this goes on for so long that it’s entirely plausible that the nod to Ligeti’s notorious metronome piece ‘Poème Symphonique’ may well have been deliberate).

By contrast, the conversational scenes are gruffly matter-of-fact, as though Mundruczó wanted to get them over with as quickly as possible – this applies both to the encounters with the mother’s lover (where the hostility is palpable) and the ostensibly far friendlier chats between the young man and his uncle, who helps him with the construction. A rape is carried out in near-silent long-shot, so distant that it’s not immediately clear what’s going on until a close-up of the physical evidence eliminates all doubt. It’s at this point that the film starts veering towards melodrama (albeit of a slow, deep-frozen kind), finally boiling over in the penultimate scene, which might have been more effective if it hadn’t been essentially a re-run of the ending of Johanna. A coda, in which an orange lifejacket floats down the delta to the nudge-nudge accompaniment of the slow movement of Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’ quartet, returns the film to its earlier contemplative mode, as though the human intervention was a mere blip in millennia of natural history.

On the evidence of this and Johanna, Mundruczó is clearly one of the more interesting of the younger generation of Hungarian directors (he was born in 1975), though he still seems a little too indebted to his sometime producer Béla Tarr (a lengthy scene of silent trudging in Delta comes across as direct homage) and he’s overfond of archetypal ‘tragic’ narratives that tend more towards predictability than profundity. These flaws seem so consistent with Mundruczó’s earlier work that it seems unlikely that they were a side-effect of extensive reshooting caused by original lead actor Lajos Bertok dying during production (the film is dedicated to him): his replacement, violinist Félix Lajkó (who also wrote the film’s original score, one of its unarguable triumphs) is more than up to the task. So too is Mundruczó’s regular female muse Orsi Tóth (she played leads in Johanna and 2002’s Pleasant Days), though the acting standout is Lili Monori as their mother, conflicted emotions scudding across her face like clouds, her face and hands conveying a lifetime of drudgery and toil.

Posted on 23rd August 2008
Under: Reviews, Hungary, Kornél Mundruczó | 1 Comment »

Autumn

Sonbahar
Turkey/Germany, 2008, colour, 106 mins

  • Director/Screenplay: Özcan Alper
  • Photography: Feza Çaldiran
  • Editor: Thomas Balkenhol
  • Art Director: Canan Çayir
  • Sound: Mohammed Mokhtari
  • Music: Yuri Rydahencko, Ayşenur Kolivar, Sumru Agiryürüyen
  • Producers: F. Serkan Acar
  • Production Company: Kuzey Film Production
  • Cast: Onur Saylak, Raife Yenigül, Megi Kobaladze, Serkan Keskin, Nino Lejava, Sibel Öz, Cihan Çamkerten, Serhan Pir, Yaşar Güven


There were two films playing in the 2008 Sarajevo Film Festival revolving around the subject of a recently released convict trying and largely failing to resume a normal life - the other was Thanos Anastopoulos’ Correction (διόρθωση, Greece, 2007). Of the two, Özcan Alper’s feature debut Autumn was the more accomplished work, not least thanks to Feza Çaldiran’s ravishing landscape photography ensuring that there was plenty to look at even when the narrative ran out of steam in the final act.

The film begins with Yusuf’s release from prison, having spent ten years behind bars for his involvement in political protests while at university. He’s released on health grounds, and we’re told at the start that his lungs are barely functioning, signalling in advance that the events of the film will merely be a brief coda to a short life, a third of which was spent incarcerated. He moves back in with his elderly mother in a remote village in the mountainous region of eastern Turkey, and rapidly discovers that aside from the young schoolboy Onur (with whom he strikes up a brief rapport over the latter’s maths homework: Yusuf was a promising mathematician before fate intervened), virtually all the local inhabitants are from his mother’s generation due to the lack of opportunities, and he’s warned that if he stays with them he’ll become like them.

But despite an apparent job offer from his friend Cihan’s magazine, Yusuf does indeed stay with them, his mindset demonstrated by him tuning out the chatter of fellow villagers awaiting a minibus to stare at a slug on the ground (he later claims that everything moves too fast for him outside prison). His old friend Mikahil lives nearby, and attempts to liven things up by taking him out for the evening with two Georgian prostitutes, Maria and Eka, but instead Yusuf ends up having a long heart-to-heart with Eka about her own life as a single mother to a four-year-old girl.

Both similarly damaged by circumstances outside their control, Yusuf and Eka seem made for each other, but the distance between them seems unbridgeable by psychological issues that he can’t put into words, and which she lacks the Turkish to express (a revealing post-lovemaking shot sees them both curled up in a foetal position, simultaneously close and distant). He tries to take up music again after restoring a set of Turkish bagpipes, but his lungs aren’t up to the job - and it’s only a seemingly ill-advised trip to the top of the mountain accompanied by a reluctant Mikahil that gives him any kind of fulfilment.

Hints of Yusuf’s experience in prison are conveyed through brief video footage (random flashbacks can be triggered by anything, even slippered feet on a carpet take on the sound of hobnails on concrete) and overheard television news items about dangerous and insanitary conditions, but Alper generally eschews direct political comment - the only details of Yusuf’s “crime” are conveyed via cryptic one-liners delivered by others: he “wanted socialism”, he “got mixed up in this anarchist business”. While inside, his father died and his sister married and moved away, meaning that Yusuf becomes the primary focus of his mother’s life, and subjected to yet more pressure to marry and settle down.

But the narrative content generally plays second fiddle to some gorgeous images, usually framing Yusuf against the flora and fauna of the village hills. Autumn is signalled by a single yellow leaf drifting past a wooden window frame, and encroaching winter by a fog-blanket settling lower and lower down the slopes. A late encounter between Yusuf and Eka becomes a study in shades of blue, a funeral sees a red coffin carried along a snow-blown mountain path, while a beach encounter at sunset sees the screen split into three strips: deep orange sky, reflected by the texture of the water, the shore in the foreground almost black.

Towards the end, Alper overdoes it somewhat - a scene where Eka complains that Yusuf is like a character from a Russian novel feels like a scriptwriter’s contrivance, and a shot of Yusuf standing on a platform looking out to sea as the waves crash around him would be overwrought even without the swelling orchestral music - though this upping of the visual melodrama is possibly in self-conscious compensation for the fact that the narrative has almost entirely fizzled out by this stage. But for a debut, it’s a very promising piece of work, and it’ll be interesting to see where Alper goes from here.

Posted on 21st August 2008
Under: Reviews, Turkey, Özcan Alper | 2 Comments »

We’ve Never Been to Venice

Nikoli nisva šla v Benetke
Slovenia, 2008, colour, 62 mins

  • Director: Blaž Kutin
  • Screenplay: Blaž Kutin, Rolanda Rebrek
  • Photography: Mitjs Ličen
  • Editor: Jure Moškon
  • Music: Polona Janežič
  • Producer: Andrej Kregar, Rolanda Rebrek, Blaž Kutin
  • Production Company: Tomahavk
  • Cast: Aljoša Ternovšek (Maša), Ivan Krajnc (Grega), Peter Ternovšek (Tone), Tadej Toš (Samo)


The only world premiere in the 2008 Sarajevo Film Festival competition, Blaž Kutin’s debut feature was sadly also its biggest disappointment, a study of bereavement that offers so little dramatic meat to chew on that it barely sustains even 62 minutes. While it’s unfortunate that another Sarajevo competition film, Händl Klaus’s March/März, dealt with virtually the same theme in a far more complex and dramatically compelling fashion, Kutin’s film would struggle to make an impression even without that drawback.

The narrative premise sees middle-aged Tone visiting his son Grega and daughter-in-law Maša for 24 hours prior to what, judging from Tone’s black suit, seems likely to be a funeral. The tone and content of the entire film is encapsulated in the two opening shots: the first is a long sequence, shot through a car windscreen, of Tone driving to the couple’s home in Ljubljana, the natural sound of the falling rain broken by Polona Janežič’s simple, repetitive piano theme, which will make regular reappearances thereafter. The second shows Grega and Maša sitting expressionless on the futon - they wait for the third ring before admitting Tone, giving us plenty of time to scan the composition for situational clues: the broken clock on the floor, the small collection of children’s toys, the way the couple do anything but look at each other.

The rest of the film spans the time that Tone spends with the couple: although he initially attempts small talk (his first conversation is about their teeth, his apparently expert knowledge suggesting that he’s a dentist or hygienist), and suggests driving them to various places, it’s very clear very early that Grega and Maša are in no mood for conversation, so he stands back and lets them deal with their private traumas in whatever way they deem appropriate.

Much of the time, Kutin’s camera stares fixedly at Grega and Maša as they distract themselves by throwing stones (initially at offscreen metal objects, then, more alarmingly, at Tone as he swims), playing children’s ‘I Spy’ games, randomly assaulting tethered bicycles (presumably, this is a sign of the circumstances of their own child’s death), verbal and physical bickering, pushing each other away and then desperately embracing, all the while fantasising about travel plans - they clearly want to escape their present existence, but have no idea where to go.

About three-quarters of the way through, a fourth character is introduced when Grega impulsively pays a midnight visit to Samo, an old college friend, whom he clearly hasn’t seen for years, since he’s unaware of the couple’s present situation and tactlessly opines that Grega would be a great dad. Despite extensive travelling, Samo lets slip that he’s never been to Venice (only just over the Italian border), which inspires Grega and Maša to go there - but the combination of water and tolling bells proves emotionally overwhelming, or at least to them.

Although individual sequences can be very effective (the Venice scenes aside, there’s a tentative mid-point reconciliation in a forest, with the sun breaking through the rain - Mitjs Ličen’s cinematography is so beautiful here that the effect is nowhere near as clichéd in practice as it sounds in theory), the film ultimately has as little to say as Grega and Maša themselves. Because we’re given next to no context (Tone, the viewer’s onscreen surrogate, is presumably privy to far more information, but reveals little aside from a brief mobile phone conversation, presumably with his wife), it’s difficult to generate much empathy, especially when Grega’s behaviour towards Maša veers uncomfortably close to physical and psychological abuse.

The film’s central thesis, that the recently bereaved will often behave irrationally and impulsively, is scarcely a novel observation (and one that in any case is explored more imaginatively in March), and Kutin’s visual approach, whereby his camera stares fixedly at the couple in a series of long, static takes (the camera only moves when tracking a moving vehicle), creates an overall effect of voyeuristic eavesdropping on private grief. The net result is that we ultimately feel as uncomfortable as Tone - more so, in fact, since we have no reason for being there.

Posted on 21st August 2008
Under: Reviews, Slovenia, Blaž Kutin | 1 Comment »

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