Diamonds of the Night (Démanty noci, Czechoslovakia, 1964)

On the run

One of the few things you can be sure about in Jan Němec’s debut film, and contribution to the then nascent Czech new wave, is that the protagonists are on the run from the Nazis. Co-scripted by Němec and Arnošt Lustig, based on the latter’s novel, the film strips the source material almost bare. here’s very little dialogue and the film is littered with might be flashbacks but also might be dreams.

Němec was in his early 20s when he went to FAMU, the film school in Prague, and apparently hadn’t seen any western art cinema to that date. It’s clear from Diamonds of the Night that he left the school admiring Luis Buñuel, Robert Bresson and Alain Robbe-Grillet. There’s even close-ups of ants on a hand, an obvious nod to Buñuel’s Un chien andalou (France, 1929), but there’s nothing in Němec’s film that feels derivative. The Robbe-Grillet influence is particularly from Last Year in Marienbad (France, 1961) where the same events are seen over and over again but with differences. It’s this play of memories that Němec draws on but in his film it seems to be about events that have just happened, or are about to happen, or maybe never happen. This ambiguity situates the film firmly in surrealism, a favourite of Czech cinema, though the dreamlike narrative is rooted in genuine fear of capture. In a bravura opening shot, the boys run from a train taking them to a concentration camp. The long take rushes up the hillside with them; the camerawork throughout is superb. The prime cinematographer is Jaroslav Kucera, who was married to Věra Chytilová; Miroslav Ondříček is also credited. Both went on to make significant contributions to the Czech New Wave.

You could read the boys’ (or is it just one of them?) dreamlike state as being a result of exhaustion. In one scene they spit out bread even though they are starving because it makes their dry mouths bleed. In another a farmer’s wife may be assaulted, sexually or otherwise, as different possibilities are shown. The stark black and white cinematography, sometimes over-exposed, adds a gritty feel to the dreamlike imagery. In one scene, the boys’ seem to spend an age clambering up a scree slope; in another, one of them seems to be chatting up a girl. As to their fate, I can’t spoil it because I don’t know.

Němec apparently ended up making wedding videos in California during the 1970s after being forced from Czechoslovakia after the demise of the Prague Spring; I doubt he brought his artistic sensibility to them but it was no surprise that he couldn’t find work in Hollywood as a director. He was a consultant on The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988). After the Velvet Revolution he returned to Europe and has continued to make films that, unfortunately, don’t seem to be available in the UK.

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In Between (Bar Bahar, Israel-France, 2016)

Stuck in the middle together

Maysaloun Hamoud’s fabulous feature debut (she wrote and directed) pitches three culturally different women into a flat share: Arab-Christian; devout Muslim; secular Muslim. Set in Tel Aviv, the film received some flack for using Israeli money; the director is of Palestinian descent. I like her argument that it is Palestinian money too! I understand the hatred of Israeli institutions, given how Palestinians are oppressed, however as long as the narrative isn’t compromised, such ‘supping with the enemy’ is pragmatic.

Mouna Hawa plays Leila (above right) a lawyer who takes no shit from men; she is a really empowering character. However Hamoud doesn’t downplay the difficulties of going against the grain and the final shot of the film makes it clear that battles will continue. Newcomer Sana Jammelieh is Salma (left) who schleps between jobs to support her DJing and Shaden Kanboura plays Noor, a computer student. Obviously the narrative drama comes from the culture clash between Noor and the ‘modern’ women but all three are embattled by patriarchy.

I try and check in my white male privilege in life but know that I’m forever tainted by self-serving ideology and I would appreciate Hamoud’s film even if all it did is present the lives of others who are strangers to me; it does more than that as it’s a thoroughly gripping film. Occasionally the narrative seems a little fragmented, as the film switches between the three lives on show, leaving ‘enigmas’ dangling maybe a little too long before being resolved. In addition, for one narrative strand, the resolution seems a little forced even if it is emotionally satisfying. These could be the peccadilloes of a neophyte filmmaker and shouldn’t get in the way of the fabulous achievement.

The performances are convincing and the direction never distracting. One particularly disturbing scene is superbly done as is its aftermath. Like Mustang and Our Little SisterIn Between is a celebration of sisterhood in the face of male stupidity.

Mustang (France-Germany-Turkey-Qatar, 2015)

In the shit

Not long after enjoying Kore-eda Hirokazi’s pean to sisterly love I came across another sister-centric film, this time directed by a woman, Deniz Gamze Ergüven. She grew up and was educated in France (her father was a Turkish diplomat) and was 37 by the time this, her first feature, was released. Hopefully, it will be the first of many however her second, Kings (France-Belgium-China-US, 2017) starring Halle Berry and Daniel Craig, hasn’t been released in the UK and scores 4.8 on imdb. Although the title Mustang refers to the North American horse, the film is firmly rooted in the conservative culture of Anatolia, Turkey.

The opening portrays the euphoria of the ‘school’s out for the summer’ moment and the five orphaned sisters, all brilliantly played, enjoy play-fighting with boys in the sea. A gossip tells their grandma and their house increasingly becomes a fortress to keep them away from boys before they are married off. The scenes of betrothal, in full view of the families who comment how the couple like one another (a version of fake news), are excruciating. The girls of forced to wear ‘shit coloured’, the youngest Lale’s term, clothes to cover themselves. What can’t be hidden, particularly in Lale’s case, is the girls’ life force that contrasts forcefully with the hidebound adults (with the exception of a friendly truck driver).

As a westerner it is easy to sympathise with the girls and in Turkey the film hit a discordant note with the forces of reaction, fuelled as they are by President Erdoğan. It’s a long time since I’ve been to Turkey where, in a tourist backwoods, I was struck by how many women toiled in the fields whilst the blokes put their feet up in the coffee houses: patriarchy feathering its comfort zone at the expense of women.

Mustang is a great rallying call for the oppressed and a lesson for the oppressors, if they’ll listen. It’s also a heart-filling portrayal of determination, through Lale’s character, that will not let the bastards get her down and she keeps on keeping on. I loved the last shot of the film suggesting that women can only save themselves.

The Ear (Ucho, Czechoslovakia, 1970) – LIFF9

What price freedom?

Like A Squandered Sunday, The Ear wasn’t released until the after end of the Cold War, in 1989, as its portrayal of Czechoslovakian political life, in the ‘Normalisation’ post-’68 period, is damningly satirical. When those in power can’t stand criticism you know you’re in trouble (see Trump). This is another of the Time Frames strand at the Leeds International Film Festival, The Ear narrates the squabbles of a government minister and his wife in the aftermath of an official reception at Prague Castle, which is shown in flashback.

The Ear’s writer, last films as he died of cancer in 1971. Procházka had done well to survive as a filmmaker for so long because he constantly pushed against official censorship. Director Karel Kachyňa continued to have a fruitful career (despite having made several films with the ‘frowned upon’ Procházka). Peter Hames, in The Czechoslovak New Wave, suggests that Kachyňa successfully portrayed Procházka as the ‘ideas man’ whilst he was merely a metteur en scene (he ‘just’ shot the script). Whether this was a betrayal I don’t know; it was just as likely to have been a pragmatic position to take against repression. Whatever the case, Kachyňa’s direction is perfect in its portrayal of Ludvik’s (the minister) growing conviction his days are numbered. 

He and his wife return from the party to find things aren’t as they should be at home. Doors are locked; then unlocked. Things have been moved and there are men in the garden (it is the middle of the night). Ludvik thinks back to the evening, using ‘subjective’ shots (we are Ludvik), trying to find clues that may signify his fall from favour. His wife, Anna, is both pissed (drunk) and pissed off because Ludvik has forgotten their wedding anniversary again. Radoslav Brzobohatý and Jirina Bohdalová are superb as the warring couple and their collapsing marriage mirrors the political paranoia of the time. The political is personal as Ludvik had only married her for convenience and all his actions as a government minister – and by extension true of all government ministers – are about self-survival.

The titular ‘ear’ are bugs the secret police have placed to listen for sedition. The couple even have to have sex in the kitchen to get some privacy. In the absurdist tradition of Czechoslovakian cinema, there are a number of batty scenes, including a toilet that won’t flush and an invasion by goons who want some booze.

The Ear is another example of the brilliant ‘new waves’ of eastern Europe during the ’50s and ’60s.

 

The White Reindeer (Valkoinen peura, Finland, 1952) – LIFF5

Vampiric lust in a cold climate

The White Reindeer is a weird amalgam of Finnish folklore and what appears to my untutored eyes to be ethnographic filmmaking. However, a quick glance along the casts’ filmographies shows that most of the cast are actors and their adeptness in the frozen north with reindeer and skis is obviously born of their culture. The glimpses of Sami life are probably the most fascinating aspect of the film from the reindeer races, the weddings and reindeer herding. Director Erik Blomberg (who also coproduced, co-wrote and photographed!) brings visual flare to what must have been a tough shoot. Only occasionally is the mise en scene compromised; for example, at the climax there are already ski-tracks visible – presumably from previous takes.

The narrative, a mythic tale designed to demonise (literally) sexually voracious women, is less than gripping. The startling images make up for the lack and Bergstrom seemed to me to use the top of the frame for more action than is usual. This gave a sense of the immense landscape; one exceptionally spectacular shot was of a herd of reindeer flowing into the distance (below).

Eyes are drawn to the top of the frame by the flowing reindeer

In addition, the transition scene – the cursed woman turns into a white reindeer – uses negative effectively. The soundtrack, which I take to be Finnish/Sami folksongs, adds to the eerie otherworldliness of the images though the sound was compromised by distortion in the bass (cinema’s fault – the Vue, Leeds – not the film’s). The White Reindeer was, for me, eye-opening drama in which the milieux is more important than the narrative.

A Squandered Sunday (Zabitá nedele, Czechoslovakia, 1969) – LIFF3

Post-’68 ennui

This film took 20 years to be seen because the post-’68 Soviet-backed of Czechslovakia government unsurprisingly didn’t like it. The film was Drahomíra Vihanová’s feature debut and the political fallout meant she only directed two more fiction films and they were after the end of the Cold War; she died two years ago. The film is based on Jiří Křenek’s autobiographical story, about a bored officer who wakes with a hangover regretting he’d spent all his money boozing, who spends the day wallowing in self pity.

Although he doesn’t do anything all day the film is incident packed with banality: swatting flies, killing rats, affectionately chatting to a young girl (a neighbour). Although the film is not expressionist, it is a representation of Arnost’s (Ivan Palúch) mental state which, in the days when going to church was the prime Sunday activity, was unlikely to be full of joie de vivre particularly with a regretted hangover. It’s part of the Time Frame strand of LIFF2018 where the films’ plots cover no more than 24 hours; though A Squandered Sunday chronology is sometimes confusing. The film starts with a memory of his mother’s funeral and a statement – by a girlfriend? – that he is ‘too far way’. This ‘far awayness’, it becomes clear, is ennui, not one precipitated solely by middle age but also by the Soviet invasion of 1968. Flashbacks to military lectures about nuclear annihilation give Arnost’s ennui a political dimension. When he wakes up Arnost puts on his radio and hears of natural disasters in Italy and Morocco. Clearly, it isn’t just his life that is shit.

Vihanová doesn’t present this in a straightforward way; after all everything is filtered through the disturbed consciousness of Arnost. He looks out of his window several times and there’s always a dog digging a hole next to a blind man. Or is it the same moment many times? She also favours Eisensteinean montage of repeating the same event in rapid succession. Confusion is fed by the repeating shot of the young woman we saw at the start who is mirrored by the young pre-pubescent neighbour and the middle-aged barmaid who wants to marry him. Are they the same person or three ages of women or three characters? Answer: probably all three.

This uncertainty, along with the formal devices, situate Squandered Sunday firmly in the Czech ‘new wave’ and, in a scene where Arnost finds himself interrogating two female sunbathers who’d wandered onto military property, it’s as if the protagonists of Daisies have shown up to wreak more havoc. Their sexy irreverence plant Arnost into even more misery. The absurdism of the film is typically Czech, at one point he tries to cut stale bread with a razor, and is perfect for puncturing the self-importance of officialdom. In the UK this was likely to be couched in humour, such as the Carry On series, but in Czechoslovakia it was much more painful as it has an existential edge that although you can laugh you know it won’t cure anything.

There a number of translations of the title. The subtitles at the screening suggested A Wasted Sunday, others include Deadly Sunday and Killing a Sunday. It doesn’t matter what it’s called, it is a classic of the Czech new wave.

Mother Joan of the Angels (Matka Joanna od Aniolów (Poland, 1961)

Taking the devil out of horror

Mother Joan of the Angels is a sort of sequel to The Devils (UK, 1971), Ken Russells’ hysterical and extravagant adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudon (1952) which was based on actual events that occurred in the 1630s. ‘Sequel’ because it deals with the aftermath of Grandier’s (Oliver Reed) death although it is based on Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz’s novella written in 1943 whilst incarcerated in a concentration camp. The stylistic contrasts between the film could not be more striking as director Jerzy Kawalerowicz and Tadeusz Konwicki’s adaptation eschews full frontal representation of sexual repression in favour of restraint. The stylisation in the earlier film is through Jerzy Wójcik’s stark and beautiful black and white cinematography and some striking set pieces (as in the still above).

This version of the ‘devils of Loudon’ focuses more on the conflicted, unworldly Father Suryn, who arrives to exorcise Mother Joan, rather than the sexual repression of the nuns. Mieczyslaw Voit’s haunted performance as Suryn makes it clear from the start that he is unlikely to be up to the task. In one heavily stylised scene he asks a local rabbi for help: the conversation between the two, where each character (both played by Voit) occupy the same space in the frame after the edit, emphasises the priest’s inner conflict. The rabbi asks if the devil ruled the world it would explain why there is so much evil.

Unlike the elaborate design (by Derek Jarman) of Russell’s film, the setting is a muddy and pitted expanse of ground between the locals’ inn and the convent. In the middle there’s a burnt out stake, that saw the last of Grandier, that is a reminder of the Church’s violence. Unsurprisingly the Catholic church condemned the film but the Polish authorities were happy with its anti-religious stance; Cannes awarded it the Special Jury Prize.

Apparently this is Kawalerowicz’s most stylised film as he was, predominantly, a commercial filmmaker; he’d made Night Train a couple of years before which is equally good. Mother Joan of the Angels is brilliant on so many levels: direction, performance, mise en scene and the portrayal of the psychological damage that religion can wreak. What stands out, however, is the chiaroscuro cinematography that seemingly effortlessly presents a real space as abstract.