Mr Jones (Poland-UK-Ukraine, 2019)

Witnessing history

The last film directed by Agnieszka Holland that I’ve seen was In Darkness, a brilliant rendition of life under the Nazis in Warsaw. Since then she’s (co-)directed Spoor (Pokot, Poland-Germany-Czech Republic-Sweden-Slovakia-France, 2017) which wasn’t released in the UK and isn’t available on DVD here, and done a lot of television. I can’t comment on the latter but Holland’s cinematic eye deserves the big screen and, above everything else, Mr Jones is a visual treat. I don’t mean that it seduces with a beautiful mise en scene, as many of the scenes are hellish, but the vistas presented to the spectator are often eye-popping.

The film is the true story of Gareth Jones, a journalist who interviewed Hitler and the film portrays him trying to do the same with Stalin in the mid-1930s. In doing so he discovers what’s happening in Ukraine and the second part of the film, after establishing the milieux in Moscow, concerns his journey there and the aftermath. I’d never heard of Mr Jones and his story is compelling; it’s also entirely modern in the importance of speaking truth to power which corporate journalism has largely forgotten how to do. James Norton is excellent in the role of the somewhat diffident Welshman (are the Welsh always protrayed as such?) who doesn’t waver from his principles. If the film has a weakness, it’s the script by newcomer Andrea Chalupa, whose grandfather witnessed the events. There are occasions where it doesn’t quite gel, although to be fair it could be caused by the problem with biopics which are inevitably compromised by squeezing a life into narrative. That said, although it is about Jones, it’s not a conventional biopic, he’s more the witness through which history is portrayed.

Chalupa fictionalises a meeting with George Orwell (it isn’t beyond the bounds of possibility that the meeting took place) who was writing Animal Farm at the time; I read somewhere that the character in the novel may have been named after Gareth Jones. It’s a useful device as it reminds us how Stalin was, for a time, a hero of the left before disillusionment set in.

The main strengths of the film (apart from the performances) are Holland’s direction, Tomasz Naumiuk’s cinematography and the editing by Michal Czarnecki. At least three sequences of travel are characterised by editing influenced by Soviet theorist and filmmaker, Sergei Eisenstein: the montage is non realist and dynamic. During Jones’ first train journey it seemed as if there were shots interpolated from documentaries made at the time, such as Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera. The editing was so rapid that I couldn’t see them clearly but even if it wasn’t old footage, the allusion is clear. However, using similar techniques for a rushed journey on a bicycle comes across only as comic.

The cinematography of Jones’ journey into the Ukraine becomes almost, suitably, monochromatic. Fabulous widescreen extreme long shots show Jones as a small black coated figure ploughing his way through a field of snow in the bottom right of the screen. Although the acting is naturalistic throughout, the characters’ faces are sometimes caught (at the start or end of a shot) in an unusual expression. This creates a stylisation to the acting which Holland emphasises through editing; an early shot of a secretary cuts to her open-mouthed. This is particularly true of Peter Sarsgaard’s Walter Duranty, a Pulitzer winning journalist; he epitomises ‘slimy’ and Arendt’s phrase ‘the banality of evil’ springs to mind.

Vanessa Kirby is effective as Jone’s ‘love interest’ and the sexist characterisation is just about all we get of female characters. It was probably a strain on reality to make her role so big anyway, as the ’30s were obviously more male-dominated than today. And I was amused to see William Randolph Hurst being shown as a hero of press freedom.

The film’s already available on DVD and online but catch in cinemas if you can as Holland’s films deserve to be seen there.

The Cremator (Spalovac mrtvol, Czechoslovakia, 1969)

Everyday horror

The Cremator probably lies on the edges of the Czech New Wave as co-writer and director, Juraj Herz (he co-wrote the film with Ladislav Fuks on whose novel it was based), didn’t attend FAMU (the national film school that nurtured many of the wave’s talent) but entered film through the Theatre Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (DAMU) alongside animator Jan Švankmajer. Whilst The Cremator sports the brilliant monochrome cinematography, by Stanislav Milota, associated with the ‘wave’, the style is more arthouse. This is particularly evident in the editing: rapidly cut montage sequences occur throughout including at the start. Here the protagonist and cremator, Kopfrkingl (superbly played as a slimeball by Rudolf Hrusínský), revisits the zoo where he started his relationship with his wife. Extreme close-ups use graphic matches to link humans to the animals; for example, the creases on Kopfrkingl’s forehead are juxtaposed with a snake. Other arthouse tropes, include the woman who wordlessly appears throughout the film; possibly a figment of Kopfrkingl’s imagination.

I can’t think of a film that uses dialogue so insistently that it appears to be a monologue. Kopfrkingl is constantly talking, justifying himself to friends and family as he seeks to expand the business of burning corpses. So although all his speech is diegetic (within the narrative world) it seems as if it is narrative voiceover. The effect is to expressionistically place us within Kopfrkingl’s consciousness and this is not a good place to be.

The film is set during the late ’30s as the Nazis consolidated their power in eastern Europe and Kopfrkingl’s bourgeois businessmen slowly sways toward supporting the fascists. As befits a person whose business is death, he does so with malign vigour. Hence the film slowly metamorphoses into horror.

It is also extremely sexually explicit for its time. The fascists treat themselves to a ‘club’ (brothel) were all the prostitutes are blonde; one is seen with her head bobbing in the lap of a male character. I’m surprised the censors in post-’68 Prague let the film through on this basis alone, ignoring political implications. I suppose the critique of the bourgeoisie as fascists was something to be celebrated and the arthouse aesthetic probably confused the bureaucrats.

There’s a touch of Švankmajer too with waxworks being embodied by humans in a circus sideshow. The uncanniness of this is as creepy as Kopfrkingl’s descent into madness. I saw the film on another excellent Second Run release though the extra of the Quay Brothers explaining their love of the film added little.

Larks on a String (Skrivánci na niti,, 1969, Czechslovakia)

King of all he surveys

Although I’ve dated the film 1969, it wasn’t shown complete until the Berlin Film Festival of 1990, where it won the Golden Bear. The film fell foul of the Soviet-Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in May 1968 and Dubček’s ‘socialism with a human face’ was taken over by totalitarian rule. It’s not surprising that bureaucrats disliked director Jirí Menzel’s satire on Czechoslovakian society. Menzel adapted the film from Bohumil Hrabal short stories; the writer had also provided the material for the director’s debut, the celebrated Closely Observed Trains (Ostre sledované vlaky, 1966). I think Larks on a String is better than that Oscar winner.

Mostly set in a junk yard, a metaphor for Czech society, male bourgeois ‘exiles’ and women prisoner’s, overseen by a guard (above), sort through the rubbish. L.K. Weston summarises the bourgeois:

‘Thrown together by circumstance in the name of re-education, the group includes a philosophy professor and former librarian (a wonderful Vlastimil Brodský, who also starred in Closely Observed Trains), who refuses to burn books; a prosecution lawyer (Leos Sucharípa) who believes in everyone’s right to a defence; a saxophonist (Eugen Jegorov) whose only crime was possession of an instrument deemed too bourgeois, and a young cook Pavel (Václav Neckár another Trains cast member) who is a Seventh-day Adventist and refuses to work on a Saturday. The only willing volunteer in the group is dairyman (Vladimír Ptácek), who closed his premises and came to ‘work for Socialism.”

The women have been imprisoned for attempting to leave the country. Although the film is clearly allegorical, there’s no heavy-handedness to the satire. Most of the characters are primarily interested in members of the opposite sex, which requires circumventing the guard to even say ‘hello’. The guard has his own problems, we see him marrying a gypsy girl but is clueless about how to get her into bed to consummate their union. It’s light comedy, but also heartwarming to see characters carrying on in adverse circumstances.

Jaromír Ŝotr’s cinematography is beautiful: I can best describe it as having a polaroid quality (the instant photography of the early 1970s) giving the film a retro look. Menzel’s direction is impressively fluid as the location cannot have been easy to shoot on.

Despite its humour, the film’s devastating ending makes clear that regardless of the amount of human spirit people have to deal with their lot, the oppressors are self-serving scumbags who need consigning to history. In the UK at the moment, we are suffering from our own self-serving scumbags as Johnson’s regime prorogues Parliament to push its, and its right-wing backers’, agenda. Time to get on the streets.

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.

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.

The Miraculous Virgin (Panna zázracnica, Czechoslovakia, 1967)

Sinister fascists?

Štefan Uher’s Slovak film, that was banned post-’68, is an example of nadrealizam; a neologism conjured to avoid association with surrealism, which the right associated with Jewish culture (Sigmund Freud). Slovakia had sided with Hitler during the war. As such it can be expected to be a difficult film to follow as its dream-like narrative isn’t meant to be logical. However, it becomes clear that the artists’ infatuation with the ‘virgin’, Anabella (Jolanta Umecka), is an amour fou as they project their desires onto her. Anabella flits from one man to another vaguely amused by their attentions. Umecka made her debut in Knife in the Water and this was her last film, five years later. On the Second Run DVD there is a ‘finding Anabella’ extra: a short publicity film showing Uher’s quest for an actor to play the role. There are also excellent interviews with Slovak scholars about the film.

The film is set during the war, at the start there is an air raid where people take shelter in what is ostensibly Bratislava’s railway station but it was actually filmed in the amazing Brno conference hall, which has an extraordinary vaulted ceiling. As is common in eastern European ‘new wave’ films, the black and white cinematography, by Stanislav Szomolányi, is exceptional. As far as I can tell this is the only film by Uher available on DVD (in the UK at least) which is unfortunate as Peter Hames, in The Czechoslovak New Wave (IB Tauris), rates The Sun in the Net (Slnko v sieti, 1962) and The Organ (Organ, 1965) more highly.

I’m sure I missed a number of references in the film; in the picture above do the threatening men represent fascists? Artists who attempt to break conventions are always seen as fair game by reactionaries as they offer new ways of seeing rather than the old. The artists, mostly visual but including a poet, are mostly portrayed as pathetic in their infatuation or is that the way I’m reading the film? I presume the ‘virgin’ is a reference to Catholicism but religion seemed to be absent from the film.

Nadrealizam

The surrealism is superbly presented: a character’s hand suddenly turns into an eagle’s talons; another jumps through a mirror and so on. I’d love to see more nadrealizam.

Diary for My Children (Napló gyermekeimnek, Hungary, 1984)

Growing up politically

I’ve recently subscribed to the postal DVD rental service Cinema Paradiso as it houses many eastern European films that I haven’t seen. It’s always to good to put films to a name you’ve read in histories and this is the first Mészáros Márta (like the Japanese, Hungarians privilege their surname) movie I’ve seen. The date on the discs cover stated 1972 but the look of the film, for me, was 1960s so I assumed it was a late ‘entry’ into the ‘new wave’ of the region. However, I was surprised to discover it was completed in 1982 and took two years to be released due to censorship issues. As Mészáros says, in the interview accompanying the film on the Second Run DVD, she was encouraged to make the film quickly as authorities were not likely to approve the script. It became the first of her semi-autobiographical trilogy ‘diary’ films and is a striking representation of the time, 1947-53, and place, privileged party members in Budapest.

One of the things that attracts me to ’60s new wave eastern European cinema is the cinematography; that’s not to say it’s uniform. Diary was shot by Jancsó Nyika, son of Mészáros and Jancsó Miklós one of the great Hungarian directors (see The Red and the White). Some of the ‘old fashioned’ look of the film possibly derives from the use of documentary footage from the time the film is set. Mészáros started as a documentarist (though the footage isn’t hers; she was born in 1931 and still alive) and was educated as a filmmaker in the Soviet Union. Being a woman was clearly not an insurmountable barrier and Diary has a feminist sensibility  portraying Juli’s (Czinkóczi Zsuzsa) rebellion against her adoptive mother, a Party apparatchik. Czinkóczi was only 15 when the film was made so I was glad the scene where she admires her (semi-naked) breasts was directed by a woman; only a sexist man would dare shoot such a moment of appreciation as Juli understands she is growing up. Generically it’s closer to the ‘teen pic’ than any other genre.

My ignorance of the realpolitik of the time was only a mild obstacle in appreciating the film as it is more about the personal than the political; though the two can never be entirely separated. The flashback memories of Juli’s parents, about whom she is searching for knowledge (Mészáros’ father was a victim of a purge), are startlingly done: the vast quarry where he searches for stone (he is a sculptor) and her mother’s long walk to seek aid when in labour.

There doesn’t seem to be any more of Mészáros’ films available which is an indictment of the finances of film distribution. As she says in the interview, the financial censorship of the post-Cold War is as bad as the Party’s restrictions. In fact, arguably it’s even worse as many great films, that were not commercial, were made in eastern Europe during the post-war period.