Son of Saul (Saul fia, Hungary, 2015)

Harrowing testimony

I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau and found the experience disturbing though not just because of what the Nazis did there. The place was so rammed with tourists, listening to commentary on their headphones, being hurried along to the next exhibition, that I find myself entirely distanced from the place, surely the opposite of the desired effect. The queue for tickets were cooled by a light mist of water that I couldn’t help thinking looked like gas and the only photograph I could bring myself to take was the queue to get into the gas chambers. We must never forget the depths of depravity that humans are capable of but I don’t think the way the camps are run is the way to remember.

Far better are films like Son of Saul that lay out inhumanity and trauma; other films that are effective include The Counterfeiters (Die Fälscher , Austria-Germany, 2007), particularly the ending, and the beginning of Andrzej Wadja’s Landscape After Battle (Krajobraz po bitwie, Poland, 1970). Saul is Nemes László’s debut feature and he daringly uses an extremely shallow depth of field, from the protagonist’s point of view, throughout. I’m not sure I’d’ve coped with the disorientating effect on the big screen (though as I watched it on my iPad whilst suffering from ‘flu I can’t be sure of my reaction), as my eyes insisted occasionally on trying to get more of the image into focus. However, as a technique for emphasising Saul’s single-minded determination to lay his son’s body to rest, played with frightening intensity by film debutant Röhrig Géza, it works brilliantly. It’s also a tour de force of choreography as the long takes require a large cast to be on their marks as Saul moves through the camp.

For years I felt that humanity had put the depravities of the Nazis behind us; how naïve. Son of Saul is a harrowing testament of the Holocaust and therefore a landmark film.

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Ida (Poland-Denmark-France-UK, 2014)

In the bleak midwinter

It’s taken me a while to catch up with this extraordinary film and I have to berate myself for not seeing it in the cinema such is the power of the visual imagery. The image above is misleading as director Paweł Pawlikowski uses the 4:3 Academy ratio. This frame shape emphasises vertical composition and in this interview in Film Comment he suggests that the decision to tilt the camera up for many of shots was whimsical (he was bored). The effect is to leave protagonists ‘drowning’ in the bottom of the frame, oppressed by what’s above them; often the ‘big sky’ seen above.

Ida (debutant Agata Trzebuchowska) is sent by Mother Superior to her remaining family, an estranged aunt (Agata Kulesza brilliant), before taking her vows. Reluctantly Ida finds herself investigating her Jewishness and Polish collaboration with the Nazis; the film is set in 1961. This portentous theme is dealt with fairly matter of factly though when her family are dug up in an unmarked grave the anti-drama mise en scene finds itself ‘compromised’ for a moment. By this I mean, Pawlikowski’s restrained aesthetics, such as little camera movement and non diegetic music, allow the drama to play out with seemingly little comment from himself.

It’s only Pawlikowski’s third feature in 15 years; it’s wrong to think of him as anti-commercial but he is uncompromising in his vision. The fabulous ‘look’ (ironically it’s a drained out black and white) of the film almost makes it appear as if was made in the time it was set although the unconventional framing mentioned above means it avoids pastiche. Polish cinema at this time was awash with brilliance and the young saxophonist that Ida meets reminds me of the great Zbigniew Cybulski (see for example Ashes and Diamonds). So it’s an unusual experience watching Ida which seems at once old and new.

It’s a proper arthouse film that lets the audience think and opens a window on history.

Walesa: Man of Hope (Walesa. Czlowiek z nadziei, Poland, 2013)

Man for the people

Man for the people

Andrzej Wajda died last year having directed some of the greatest films ever produced; Walesa: Man of Hope was the last he completed. Appropriately for his oeuvre it is historically informed: a biopic eulogising the leading force of Solidarność (Solidarity), the union that led to the downfall of the Soviet-backed government in Poland in the 1980s. It was a strange at the time to see mainstream media  celebrating a trade union instead of demonising them.

Wajda’s first four films, including the famous ‘war trilogy’ (see Ashes and Diamonds), focused on the Second World War but he didn’t always deal in history – his Innocent Sorcerers tells a charming tale of ‘first love’. In my Innocent Sorcerers post I complained about the lack of availability of Wajda’s films in the UK; I particularly would like to see Landscape After Battle (Krajobraz po bitwie, Poland, 1971) again if only for its hallucinatory opening sequence. I’ll try not to bang on again about how the BBC is abnegating its Public Service responsibility by virtually ignoring film culture. Although I saw Walesa on BBC4, where’s the career retrospective and documentary on one of the great artists in cinema history!?

I really enjoyed Walesa partly because it reminded me of my introduction to Wajda’s films, Man of Marble (Czlowiek z marmuru, Poland, 1977) and its sequel – that dealt with the same events as this film – Man of Iron (Czlowiek z zelaza, Poland, 1981). It’s a sign of my age that these events, which were gripping viewing via television news at the time, are now history and no doubt part of Walesa‘s purpose is to educate young Poles about their recent past. Focusing solely on the figurehead Walesa necessarily limits the focus and it may be difficult to completely follow the story if you had no knowledge of the events of the time. However, the film brilliantly brings to life the historical moment through the fabulous performance of Robert Wieckiewicz as Walesa, an ordinary man of great strength and charisma. Wadja, however, does not neglect Walesa’s wife, Danuta (Agnieszka Grochowska), who might have been simply a domestic adjunct to the hero. In fact, the last shot of the film is of her suggesting that Walesa would not have succeeded without her support.

Come on BBC, where’re the retrospectives of Wadja’s films? Although we have more films available to us, including the more obscure, than ever a curated free-to-air presentation of cinema history is required or many people will never come across the gems of the past.

The Hourglass Sanatorium (Sanatorium pod clepsydra, Poland, 1973)

Mental mise en scene

Mental mise en scene

I was musing to a friend recently that I fancied watching an arthouse film where I had no idea what was going on. Perspicaciously The Hourglass Sanatorium appeared, Wojciech Has’ adaptation of Bruno Schulz short stories, which has some of the most mental mise en scene I’ve ever seen. I use ‘mental’ advisedly as the events probably take place in the protagonist’s, Józef (Jan Nowicki), mind.

The film starts with Józef on a bizarre train with a dreamlike landscape. He arrives at a sanatorium where, apparently, his father is staying, although in Józef’s world he is dead. You might be getting the picture of the bizarre narrative but what I can’t convey is the intricate detail of the settings which reminded me of Sebastian’s apartment in Blade Runnerthe whole film is crammed with clutter and paraphernalia.

The intricate detail of the mise en scene

The intricate detail of the mise en scene

But what is going on? The surrealist nature of the film suggests we shouldn’t try and make sense of the narrative; director Has often welds disparate scenes together with the logic of dream. On the other hand, if we are considering dreams then Freudian ideas are obviously present; Józef’s mother thinks he is still a child and the preponderance of women’s breasts, in some scenes, suggests infantilism. We are probably in Józef’s mind, maybe in the moments before death as he revisits his past, though not in any coherent order.  Jewish culture is clearly important but I don’t know why; this excellent article suggests it is a result of Schulz’s source material. However Has may have included Jewish iconography to upset the Polish authorities who were indulging in a bout of anti-semitism at the time of the film’s making. He succeeded and the film was banned; however it was smuggled to Cannes where it won a prize.

Jewish culture to the fore

Jewish culture to the fore

It’s difficult to sum up: it’s bonkers and brilliant.

Innocent Sorcerers (Niewinni czarodzieje, Poland, 1960)

The death of cynicism

The death of cynicism

Andrzej Wajda is one of my favourite directors and thanks to Second Run Innocent Sorcerers is available in a typically (from them) great print. Wadja had completed his great ‘war trilogy’ with Ashes and Diamonds two years earlier and, at first, you wonder why he bothered with such relatively ‘slight’ material of two rather ‘cool’ youngsters finding love. Wadja’s four films were typical of the Polish School as they had been about Poland in World War II. Of course the direction in Immaculate Sorcerors is immaculate and there’s some great location shooting in Warsaw but, like my previous post, Heartbeats, I wondered whether I was too old to be interested in young love. I was wrong.

The central section of the film takes place in Bazyli’s bedsit and consists of a long flirty, conversation between the protagonists. As part of their ‘cool’ playfulness they make up names for themselves; she says she’s Pelagia. The scene is strikingly similar to one in Godard’s seminal Breathless (France) of the same year but without the jump cuts and is far more engaging. Innocent Sorcerer, though, is modernist in a number of low-key ways: the opening credits run over a poster for the film; a song associated with the film is heard on the radio; the film’s composer, the great Krzysztof Komeda, plays himself as a member of Bazyli’s jazz group. Roman Polanski, incidentally, plays the band’s bassist; there’s a lot of talent in this film.

Bazyli (Tadeusz Lomnicki) is a doctor and jazz drummer who enjoys toying with women’s affections until he crashes into Krystyna Stypulkowska’s Pelagia; it was Stypulkowska’s first role and she only appeared in two other films. The brilliance of the film is that the development in their relationship is evident not by what they say to each other but through their behaviour and non verbal communication; and of course the actors’ performance.

Wadja, at the ‘old’ age of 33, was afraid he might be out of touch with young people and the 23 year old Jerzy Skolimowski, who has a small role as a boxer, was hired for rewrites. It’s a fascinating glimpse of Warsaw at the time, we see fashionable young people spending their time in jazz clubs; much like they were in the west then. The political situation is barely mentioned; the protagonists, at one point, joke about themselves as ‘model workers’. The Daily Telegraph‘s critic suggested:

‘Bazyli and Pelagia move with languid ease and listen to American jazz throughout Innocent Sorcerers, but, when push comes to shove, they’re not as free as they think they are. Pinned down by Poland’s bloody past and hemmed in by oppressive Soviet rule, both erect a stylised cool to cover for the emotional sterility that lies beneath.’

However, I wonder to what extent this is an example of western critics’ penchant for reading ‘Iron Curtain’ films, that they admire, as criticising the Soviet domination of the Eastern bloc. As Michał Oleszczyk notes ‘Pelagia says mid-way through the film: “Our generation has no illusions.”‘ I doubt the concerns of Polish youth in the early ’60s were much different from those of youngsters in western Europe: earning enough money to have a good time and sex. Come to think of it, it’s the same now. As to the rather awkward title, a Polish friend suggests a better translation would be Innocent Charmers; that certainly summarises the characters better.

Wadja’s still making films and it’s extremely irritating that most of his oeuvre is not available in the UK.

Eroica (Poland, 1958)

An accidental hero

An accidental hero

Eroica is an example of the Polish School, films made in the 1950s concerning World War II. It’s in two parts, originally meant to be three but the director, Andrzej Munk, was dissatisfied with the final section, and tells two stories of heroism. ‘Eroica’ is Italian for ‘heroic’ and, in the context of the film, refers to Beethoven’s third symphony; a brief extract from which is heard at the start of the film. I don’t think the musical reference is particularly important, but the film is clearly about heroism.

The first section is a funny tale of a chancer, Gorkiewicz, who we see at the start fleeing from being conscripted into the Polish Resistance; an entirely unheroic action. He blags his way back to Warsaw only to find his wife apparently ‘shacked up’ with a Hungarian officer. Gorkiewicz takes this philosophically and becomes embroiled in helping the Resistance anyway. The humour rises from Gorkiewicz’s behaviour as he finds himself in a number of precarious situations. At one point, whilst he’s boozing sitting on a river bank, a German tank fires a volley, making him jump, before moving on its way. The laughter of the German soldiers can be heard; the film humanises the conflict with humour.

Behind you!

Behind you!

The second part is sombre and is set in a POW camp. It portrays the relationships of men who’ve been incarcerated for the whole of the war and how they pin their faith on the one of their number who managed to escape.

The third part may have balanced the narrative of the film more; just two, basically unconnected, tales are little more than two short films, one after the other. The second film only tangentially deals with heroism. However, it is still an essential to see film if only because of the humour of the first part and some brilliant mise en scene: devastated settings form the backdrop to a number of the scenes. Munk’s career was curtailed by an early death, which was a loss to Polish, and World, cinema.

Father (Apa, Hungary, 1966)

The making of the man

The making of the man

Szabo Istvan’s second feature takes Billy Liar‘s (UK, 1963) premise and makes it philosophical rather than funny. Takó is growing up in post-War Budapest and trying to come to terms with his dead father; the same situation as Szabo found himself. However, the director insists that the film is not autobiographical because, he states, 60% of the children in his class had lost their fathers; it is, he says, ‘the autobiography of a generation’ (quoted in Hungarian Cinema: from coffee house to multiplex by John Cunningham). Takó’s, like Billy’s, fantasies are made flesh by being dramatised in the film but, unlike Billy, the father is the hero of the scenarios rather than himself.

The film starts with stunning archive footage from the war, including a devastated bridge and a man sawing off a dead horse’s leg, before segueing to his father’s funeral. Takó’s remark that he was impressed by how many people came to the funeral immediately marks him as an unreliable narrator as there are few there.

So Takó imagines his father in a variety of heroic roles that makes him a national hero. However, we learn right at the start, he only has three very brief memories of his dad who was an ordinary man; like Szabo’s father, a doctor. Although the fantasies, unlike in Billy Liar, do outstay their welcome the narrative conceit is quite brilliant, as coming to terms with the loss of fathers stands in for recreating a past after the devastation of war. The trauma of war has to be healed but Takó comes to realise, as a young adult, that he needs to deal with reality rather than fantasy. In a marvellous sequence, Takó interviews people who knew his father and most don’t have anything more to say than he was ‘nice’; a bland but positive epitaph.

Women aren’t completely marginalised in this entirely ‘vital’ Oedipal activity, Takó’s friend Anya is a Jew who would rather forget the past, her parents were victims of Auschwitz, in order to forge her identity as a Hungarian Jew. The print, of the Second Run DVD, is immaculate and shows Szabo’s imaginative direction, characterised by the use of telephoto lens, to best advantage.