The Shop on the High Street (Obchod na korze, Czechoslovakia, 1965)

Two buffoons

With concentration camps on the America-Mexico border and white supremacists regularly being given a platform on the BBC, remembering the Holocaust is a vital activity in 2019. Education is a battleground and learning about the Nazi atrocities was a key part of growing up for many, in the west at least; always with the thought that it couldn’t happen again. How naive was that belief: in America a high school Principal is removed from his post because he refuses the acknowledge the Holocaust happenedThe Shop on the High Street (Main Street in America) is a Holocaust movie but without the camps and Nazis.

Whilst it’s nominally a Czechoslovakian film, it’s actually Slovakian in terms of its creative input, setting and language. During the war the Slovakian government supported the Nazis; their Hlinka Guard became the equivalent of the SS. Jozef Kroner plays Brtko, a small town carpenter who has the misfortune to be related, by marriage, to the town’s fascist leader. The latter gifts Brtko an elderly Jewish woman’s (Rozalia Lautmannová played by Ida Kaminska) shop, she’s going deaf and struggles to understand the situation. Kroner has some resemblance to Steve Carrell and shares the American’s talent for entwining seriousness with comedy. He’s too mild mannered and conflicted to take over the shop so pretends, after key ‘encouragement’ from a friend who opposes the fascists, to be Lautmannová’s assistant.

Spoiler alert: the first two thirds of the film is a mild comedy of Brtko trying to please his money-grubbing wife without upsetting anyone (though when pushed he does slap his wife; I’m unclear whether this is meant to show a dark side to Brtko or show how pushy his wife is – I fear the latter). I was mildly entertained thus far and wondered about the ethics of a comedy that had the Holocaust in its background (I still haven’t seen Life is Beautiful, La vita è bella, Italy, 1997, which like The Shop on the High Street won the Best Foreign Language Oscar). Then the film turns when the Hlinka Guards start rounding up the town’s Jewish population. Brtko can no longer finesse his ‘appeasement’ position’, trying to offend no one. The last half hour in particular, which takes place almost wholly in the shop where we can see the round-up going on outside, is truly devastating as an increasingly drunk Brtko tries to find the right course of action.

The immensity of the Holocaust is difficult to comprehend and Ladislav Grosman’s screenplay, by focusing on an ordinary man, enables us to understand how such an atrocity came about: few people are willing to make a stand against tyranny that would compromise their safety or economic well-being.

The film was co-directed by Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos, though accounts suggest that most of the creative decisions were made by Kadár. Despite the year of its release, it’s not a Czech New Wave film as it is, stylistically, conventional and both directors had been working in film well before the 1960s. It was a key film, though, in alerting the world to the brilliance of the films coming out of the country; its Oscar win was followed by three other films being nominated: A Blonde in LoveClosely Observed Trains (Ostre sledované vlaky) – which won – and The Fireman’s Ball (Horí, má panenko). The film, however, is stylistically interesting as the increasingly expressionist mise en scene, and febrile handheld camera, both signify Brtko’s mental breakdown. Mishearing his name, Lautmannová calls him Krtko which means ‘mole’ in Slovak and so stands for those who bury their heads in the sand rather than dealing with unpleasant reality.

Post-1945 the story ended well with the defeat of fascism though the ensuing Cold War ensured conflict for decades afterwards. It seems we’re now returning to the 1930s with a rise in right wing populism, economic stagnation and fascists in power in some places. The Shop on the High Street reminds us we have to take a stand.

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If… (UK, 1968)

Relevance returning

I first saw If…, rather bizarrely, at school as part of an English lesson. Presumably the whole year (4, I think – 10 in ‘new money’) was seeing it as there was a buzz about the ‘sex’ scene. Unfortunately our teacher stopped it at the point Malcolm McDowell and Christine Noonen wrestle naked, explaining to us that we wouldn’t understand the symbolism. It was an all boys class and we weren’t interested in the symbolism. I’m not sure why they showed us the film and don’t remember any follow-up lessons; maybe these Comprehensive teachers (though we were a Secondary Modern year having failed our 11+s) were being subversive. This would have been 1976-7 so nearly ten years after the film was released; I guess it had recently been shown on TV and recorded to videotape. My only other memory was puzzlement about the ending, but then I did live a life ‘sheltered’ from any sense of the Swinging Sixties and Punk which was getting going at the time.

40+ years on If… has lost none of its power; if anything, its relevance has returned given the extreme public school bozos currently in office in the UK. In recent years a few victims of the ‘public school’ system, such as George Monbiot, have gone public about the trauma they suffered whilst being educated. Certainly the beating McDowell’s rebel Mick takes is grotesque, but it is the mental cruelty the system imposes that has a greater impact. I remember when we went to Secondary School the rumours were we would have a head put down a toilet; in If… it happens.

The self-perpetuating oligarchy, seen in the ‘old boys’ network’ and employment practices of many influential institutions (such as the Press), that is so damaging to the life chances of those outside the ‘gilded circle’ and the country as a whole. The Othering of anyone not like themselves allows the ruling classes to create such obscenities as the Universal Credit in the belief it is the right thing to do.

Lindsay Anderson is an interesting director who made few feature films; I notice he directed some of the TV series The Adventures of Robin Hood (1955-60). His filmic roots were in Free Cinema, where the representation of working class life was less patronising than mainstream productions of the time. This fed into the ‘gritty realism’ of the British New Wave, though my memory of This Sporting Life (1963), Anderson’s first feature, is that it has expressionist elements as well. By the time of If…, his second feature after the short The White Bus (1967), surrealism had become integral to the narrative; it’s present in the short too.

Anderson had taken This Sporting Life to the Karlovy Vary film festival, in Czechoslovakia, where he met director Miloš Forman and cinematographer Miroslav Ondříček who were shooting A Blonde in Love. Anderson invited Ondříček, who with Forman fell foul of the censors after The Fireman’s Ball (Horí, má panenko, 1967), to shoot in the UK. Ondříček told Anderson he couldn’t guarantee the colour consistency in the chapel scenes of If… so they were shot in black and white. Ondříček also shot The White Bus which also mixes film stock.

Capriciously Anderson decided to shoot other scenes in monochrome too and this adds to the decidedly Eastern European new wave look of the film; something that also is accentuated by the surreal moments. The first of which is the aforementioned ‘sex’ scene where the characters are suddenly naked and roaring like tigers; apparently McDowell suggested to Anderson they do the wrestling naked and Anderson said ‘Okay in Noonan agreed.’ Of course McDowell put the suggestion to Noonan as Anderson’s idea… Some commentators seem to think the sex scene is ‘real’: Mick’s mate, Wallace, places a saucer on the coffee to keep it warm while it’s happening. However, I think that act is motivated by Mick putting Missa Luba (played by Les Troubadours du Roi Baudouin in an arrangement by Father Guido Haazen) which he seems obsessed by. Wallace knows that Mick’s going to be absorbed in the music for its duration; the naked wrestling is the fantasy he has while listening.

Whether the wrestling happens or not is immaterial, but ‘the Girl’, as she is known in the dismissive ‘sixties’ way, is clearly a fantasy figure. Her second appearance is through a telescope leaning out of her window which cannot possibly be in Mick’s view. She turns up at the conflagration at the end too. In this film calling her ‘the girl’ works because she is a figment of imagination.

The marginalisation of women in the film is understandable given its milieux. Mary McLeod plays the apparently buttoned-up wife of housemaster (Arthur Lowe at his lugubrious best portraying ineptitude) is seen wandering around the boys’ quarters naked whilst they are all watching a rugby match. It is a brilliant scene emphasising the repression of women, both sexually and as individuals, in the school..

The surrealism highlights the ludicrousness of the public school rituals of fags and ceremonial beatings. These probably appear more ridiculous now than they would have at the time (you could get caned at the school I attended) but Anderson clearly has nothing but contempt for the ‘system’. It certainly chimed with the zeitgeist as it was a box office success, coming out in the year of youthful rebellions across the world as the forces of reaction met an end game. Unfortunately the right has been in the ascendent since the ’70s and are having to be fought again.

McDowell’s Mick reappeared in Anderson’s O Lucky Man! (1973) and Britannia Hospital (1982).

The Great Hack (US, 2019)

Pod person takes over planet

The Great Hack tells an essential tale of the corruption of, the already wonky, democratic process; however it does so in such an incompetent way the detail is lost in the broad sweep. It could be that the complexity of Cambridge Analytica’s debasement of the democracy is so complicated that a two-hour documentary will only be able to offer a vague impression. However, I think the decision to structure the information via two individuals, the admirable David Carroll and the conflicted Brittany Kaiser, has compromised the film. I’m not a fan of ‘expository’ documentaries, which employ an omnipotent ‘voice of god’ voiceover to anchor the meaning, but in this case it was probably the only way to ensure understanding.

However, the film has been well reviewed, The Guardian gave it five stars, and my difficulty with it may be because, having followed Carole Cadwalladr’s diligent reporting, I knew most of the content. In other words, I’ve now got my own way of understanding what happened. That said, there are moments where the documentary is opaque: for example, when a top executive of Cambridge Analytica talks about his devastation when C4 news reported Alexander Nix’s mendacity: was he devastated because his boss lied or because the company was about to go up in smoke? Steve Bannon gets a sound bite but the links between him, Farage, Trump and the Mercer family are not dealt with. The only thing I learned was that Cambridge Analytica had also screwed the 2010 election in Trinidad and Tobago..

Tech companies’ hegemony over information is a key issue of our time. The fraudulent Leave.EU has been under investigation for over a year by the Metropolitan Police and the chances of Banks, Wigmore, Bilney and co. being held to account have greatly diminished given the British Cabinet is now constituted with many of those implicated with the lies used to prise the UK out of the EU.

One sane response to The Great Hack is to get rid of your Facebook account (as I did over a year ago). PM Johnson is already using the platform to gain information prior to disseminating propaganda during the next election. It would be great to know how many people watch the film to try and assess its impact but Netflix is now also a tech company and the only time it releases figures are for PR purposes. The next General Elections in western countries are all going to be key for if the right consolidates its power then the tech companies will have no regulation to fear and authoritarianism will rule while the planet burns.

 

Loveless (Nelyubov (Russia-France-Germany-Belgium, 2017)

Haunting absence

I found Andrey Zvyagintsev’s first film, The Return, absolutely gripping but, despite the critical plaudits, Leviathan (Leviafan, Russia, 2014) left me cold (I probably need to see it again). It also failed to impress the Russian Minster for Culture as it wasn’t patriotic enough so Loveless turned to European money to be made. Whilst Loveless doesn’t match The Return, it is a gripping and beautiful film; the beauty is rather austere deriving from its compositions and bleak winter landscapes. It concerns a divorcing couple whose 12-year-old son is seen to be an impediment to the new lives they plan to pursue.

Some critics (for example, the Sight & Sound review) complained about what they saw as heavy-handed symbolism; and even Jonathan Romney, who is sympathetic to the film, argued that the use of mobile phones and laptops as signifiers of modern alienation is clichéd (both March 2018). While Zvyagintsev is not a realist filmmaker he does situate his films in particular times and places (most of the action takes place in a Moscow suburb in 2012) and so if his characters are umbilically linked to their computer technology it is difficult not to show it. The sugar-rush of notifications and messages have addicted a fair proportion of humanity it seems and a film about alienation would struggle not include this technology.

I liked the film but it rarely seemed to transcend the characters’ banality (not a criticism). There are a few virtuoso moments when we see altruistic volunteers (who actually exist, they help people find missing persons as the police are able to do little) seek the missing son: an abandoned and decrepit Soviet-era swimming pool and a massive military satellite dish loom out of the woods. Misinformation features in news reports, about the end of the world and the war in Ukraine, showing Russia suffers similar news problems to our own.

The performances, particularly Maryana Spivak and Aleksey Rozin as the rotting couple, are excellent; Rozin also appeared in Zvyagintsev’s Elena (Russia, 2011), which I enjoyed. Loveless features more explicit sex than I’ve seen in any Russian film (maybe I’ve not been watching the right ones!) and it not shot voyeuristically but as another signifier of decadence (in the sense that the result of sex, the son, is neglected).

Romney also suggests that arthouse films no longer appeal to a younger generation that have grown up in the postmodern world of accelerated imagery. Although that is a statement of fogeyism, it may be true. Box office for arthouse films, that is those that are self-consciously portentous, is rapidly diminishing suggesting that bourgeois tastes have migrated to something else; it doesn’t matter what it is, just that it be fashionable.

Defence of the Realm (UK, 1985)

When the fourth estate meant something

As I remember it, Defence of the Realm was well-received when it was released; I certainly enjoyed it at the time. The film follows investigative journalist Nick Mullen (Gabriel Byrne) as he digs into a politician compromised as a possible spy. What’s striking now is how naive the film seems (or is it me?), although the idea that the security services use the press to disseminate propaganda wasn’t new it seems to suggest it is surprising (The Sunday Times‘ ‘death on the rock’ story rubbishing witnesses to the state-approved assassination of IRA members in Gibraltar was just around the corner). I suppose you could take Mullen’s naiveté to be a narrative device, though the ‘world weariness’ of Byrne’s persona makes it difficult to believe he would be so gullible, to lead the unsuspecting in the audience through to the ‘horrific’ realisation about the corruption of the British Establishment.

The film is an effective thriller, though the newsroom and printing presses are oddly ‘unbusy’ too often. Denhom Elliott is excellent as the ‘shabby malcontent’ who has seen it all but now observes the world through the bottom of a glass. Another aspect that dates the film is the marginalisation of women: Greta Scacchi doesn’t get much to do.

Are people more aware nowadays about how the press is both compromised by proprietors’ commercial interests (noted in the film) and their links to the security services? Whilst social media has facilitated the expulsion of bile into the ‘public sphere’ it has also served as a tool of education. Media Lens‘ analysis, for example, must surely have lifted the scales from many people’s eyes about the corruption of the fourth estate (which is meant to hold those in power to account) and Mark Curtis is always informative on foreign policy.

It’s easy to assume that things were better in the past but I find it hard to believe any newspaper would have had the front to suggest that Boris Johnson is fit to be Prime Minister before the ‘post-truth’ age. Fake news is not new but brazen lying by politicians, and not getting held to account for it, is a curse of our times. Part of the problem we have in the UK is the complete failure of the BBC as a news organisation (Tom Mills is an excellent commentator on this); whilst it’s always been an Establishment mouthpiece (one Director General who tried to fulfil the BBC’s news role, Alisdair Milne, was forced to resign by a Thatcher appointee) its editorial decisions have shifted so far to the right that it can no longer be considered centrist (there are too many examples: giving a platform to the ‘far right’; not only the failure to investigate Leave.EU’s criminality but inviting them to spin their version whilst ignoring their accusers; the vilification of Julian Assange; hit jobs on Corbyn and so on.

Defence of the Realm reminds us of the controversy of nuclear weapons on British soil that precipitated the Greenham Women protests. How they were vilified by the press at the time, just as Extinction Rebellion is now! There’s a, not particularly good, exhibition on at Manchester Art Gallery, Get Together and Get Things Done, that shows us what the Establishment vilifies as an unacceptable attack on the status quo, is often later eulogised (co-opted) if the protest succeeds.

On Dangerous Ground (US, 1951)

The dark soul of noir

Nick Ray’s On Dangerous Ground is a brilliant hybrid noir-melodrama where the join between the genres is obvious. The first part of the film takes place in the darkness of the city as Robert Ryan’s troubled cop, Jim Wilson, beats the shit out of ‘pond life’ is followed by a snowy landscape and the blind Mary (Ida Lupino) who may redeem him. Ryan is his usual volcanic self; even when he’s calm an explosion is in the offing. Lupino’s role is a difficult one to pull off; trying to be not sympathetic just because she is blind. Ward Bond,  a right-winger is perfectly cast by left-winger Ray, is the gun-toting vigilante seeking vengeance for his daughter’s death. They are all excellent.

George E Diskant’s cinematography is brilliant: capturing the ink black darkness of the city streets and the almost white-out of snow covered landscape. According to Bernard Eisenschitz, in his biography of Ray, some of the camerawork is handheld. It certainly looked like that in one scene of a beating being meted out by Wilson’s fractured psyche; that must have taken some doing with the heavy cameras. The score is one of Bernard Herrmann’s best so no superlatives need to be used in describing it.

I first saw the film, under the late Victor Perkins’ tutelage, at Warwick University in 1980 and remember thinking the ending ‘corny’. Apparently Lupino and Ryan improvised the final scene, not finding the scripted (by Ray and AI Bezzerides) return of Jim to the city satisfactory. Although it seems to reconcile the two, Ray’s final shot is of a snowbound landscape suggesting that all may not be well.

The antithesis of noir setting

Bezzerides also scripted Kiss Me Deadly (1955), one of the grimmest of noirs, and On Dangerous Ground dips into the same territory: the ‘under-age’ prostitute (top pic) ejected from the bar by Wilson is seen to be followed out by a man; utilising the code of dissolve/cigarette smoking, Wilson has sex with an informant who is later beaten up for her troubles. There’s a superb opening sequence of Wilson’s ‘team’ preparing for work: two have loving families whilst he lives alone. Ed Begley has a telling cameo as the police Captain who’s more concerned about the quality of his breakfast than on-going investigations.

Ray struggled in the constraints of Hollywood; his career started as the industry started its slow decline which, arguably, is still going on (not financially) but artistically with its over-reliance of remakes and sequels (although the North American box office is creaking under the heap of banality). Ray’s films crop up on television with some regularity but The Lusty Men (1952) is nowhere to be seen.

The Promised Land (Ziemia obiecana, Poland, 1975)

Capitalists on the make

I saw the 140 minute release of The Promised Land, it was originally three hours but Polish TV broadcast an eight-part version in one hour episodes; a bit like the reworking of the first two Godfather films I imagine. It is certainly a film of epic scope, based on a classic Polish novel by Władysław Stanisław Reymont, detailing the febrile atmosphere in Łódź in the latter years of the 19th century. Karol, Moryc and Maks are, respectively, Polish, Jewish and German friends who are determined to build a cotton factory. Given a number of mills are being burned down for insurance purposes at the time, this is a dicey undertaking.

I must admit to struggling to follow the narrative in some parts. It covers a number of years, but it wasn’t clear how many, and eschews straightforward characterisation; I’m not sure if Moryc was at some points conspiring against his friends and Karol’s infatuation with a married woman is not entirely convincing. However, this is an Andrzej Wadja film and the direction is often stupendous as is the art direction by Andrzej Halinsk; the use of colour is often stunning. As is the setting; Łódź, Wadja discovered when making the film despite having been a student in the city, retained many of its old factories and the scenes in the mill, with the looms, have a documentary quality (see below). Tonally, though, the film is varied and melodrama crops up throughout, particularly toward the end. I’ve nothing against melodrama, but the mix with the sometimes elliptic narrative, and realism of the factory scenes, is somewhat uneasy. Very uneasy is the characterisation of the Jewish money lenders. Apparently the film was accused of anti-semitism in America when it was nominated for an Oscar though the accusation was articulated, at a press conference, by someone who hadn’t seen the film. I doubt Wadja was anti-semitic as the money-grubbing isn’t limited to Jews in the film; indeed it is Karol, a son of a Polish aristocrat, who is seen as the most corrupt in the devastating ending of the film.

Looming disaster

The comparison to The Godfather is also relevant given the three are characterised as gangsters on some occasions. The scene where Moryc faces down the money lender emphasises this as we watch him prepare for the meeting by choosing carefully his clothes; particularly his hat. At the end of the scene he winks at the camera.

A lot is packed into the film, maybe the three hour version would make the narrative clearer, and it would no doubt reward a second viewing.