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.

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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.

Phoenix (Germany-Poland, 2014)

Doppelgänger?

I’m sorry I missed this in cinemas as, after (for me) the disappointing Barbara (Germany, 2012), it was a return to the brilliance of Yella. In addition, the ghost of Fassbinder haunts the mise en scene and performance style, which can only be a good thing. The ‘phoenix’ is Nelly/Esther (Nina Hoss) who returns to a highly-stylised, rubble-strewn Berlin after World War II, and tries to pick up the pieces of her life. While the plot strains credulity, she’s no longer recognized after surgery, that matters not at all as the symbolic nature of the narrative is carried with great dexterity.

The ‘phoenix’ is also a nightclub shot in a lurid red that Fassbinder would have celebrated. Shades on pre-Nazi cabaret Berlin are also haunting the time and place. Hans Fromm’s cinematography emphasises the noir mood and The Third Man also looms in the shadows amongst the bombed-out sites.

Hoss isn’t a performer I warm too but she is absolutely perfect in this role. Hoss’ ‘not quite thereness’ suits Nelly/Esther’s character whose trauma, that of concentration camp victims, fundamentally altered her psyche. If her motivation, in seeking her lost husband, seems a tad unconvincing at the start, as we learn more about her (and his) circumstance the narrative makes perfect sense. It also has an absolutely brilliant ending.

Graduation (Bacalaureat , Romania-France-Belgium, 2016)

The sins of the fathers

I really enjoyed Cristian Mungiu’s Palme d’Or winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days and his later film as a director, Graduation, is also excellent. Both deal with post-Ceausescu Romania but its theme of corruption is obviously not unique to that country. Adrian Titieni plays Romeo (no ‘lover boy’ associations intended I think) whose daughter is about to sit exams that may seal her place at a UK university. As most parents do, he’s strained every sinew to do ‘best’ by his child but a sexual assault, just before the first exam, on Eliza (Maria Dragus) puts his dream at risk. As he attempts to get justice for his daughter, both in capturing the assailant and getting her ‘consideration’ in the exams, he finds himself drawn into a web of ‘favours’ that, the film suggests, dog Romania in its post-‘communist’ present.

Romeo is clearly a decent man but finds himself morally compromised and Mungiu (and Titieni) brilliantly portray the ‘easy’ slide into corruption. As in 4 Months, the camera often sits as an observer, watching the dialogue in long takes but Mungiu overlays this ‘simplicity’ with ‘arthouse’ symbolism. The first shot of the film, a drab estate where the successful doctor (who has a reputation for honesty) lives, shows a hole being dug; on one level it is obvious symbolism but actually works as an incidental detail. Similarly, the dialogue sometimes contains symbolism such as when he talks about the view, to his childhood friend (a police inspector), from a ski-lift : Romeo states he preferred the view from the other direction but you can’t see it now because of the trees. It’s a wonderful statement that reflects the disillusionment of adulthood.

There’s a touch of Michael Haneke in the random and unexplained attacks on Romeo’s house and car (fortunately worn a lot lighter than in the portentous Austrian director’s films) and the narrative has a Kafkaesque quality as the attempts to help his daughter suck him into more ever so slightly absurd situations (such as refusing cake at the wife of his daughter’s school’s headmaster’s party). The absurdity, however, isn’t institutional but inter-personal though the state is present in the public prosecutors’ investigators who are an equal mix of friend and intimidators.

Although it is about Romania, there’s a ‘universality’ about Romeo’s dilemmas; in the UK the ‘old boy’ network is similarly riven with favouritism. Although I’ve focused on the protagonist, women are also important: his estranged wife and lover, not to mention his daughter. Romeo is a complex character for whom first impressions are often altered as we learn more about him. A superb film.

It’s Only the End of the World (Juste la fin du monde, Canada-France, 2016)

Boiling point melodrama

I’ve only seen one of Xavier Dolan’s films, Heartbeats, and didn’t like his direction. This Grand Prize of the Jury prize winner at Cannes is much more surefooted as he places the camera close-up to individuals who are under-going a meltdown during a family reunion. Dolan’s screenplay is based on a play by Jean-Luc Lagarce and the tight framing is an elegant way of avoiding staginess; he also favours an expressive shallow depth of field by using rack focus to change the subject of the shot. There’s no doubt, however, that the key to the success of the film is its stellar cast: Nathalie Baye, Vincent Cassel, Marion Cotillard and Léa Seydoux. Gaspard Ulliel, too, is excellent as the protagonist who returns to his estranged family to announce his imminent death.

He hasn’t seen them for 12 years and has not been good at keeping in contact. It’s soon clear, Cassel’s character always seems to have his back to the action, that the pent up frustration of Louis’ absence is going to explode. The film is stagy in the sense that each of the characters get to have a private conversation with Louis that expose the history, of lack of, between them. However, as noted, such is the brilliance of the performances the scenes remain gripping. If Cassel’s rivets up his incendiary tendencies, Cotillard dials hers down to play Catherine as mousy but with a hint of steel. Baye breezes through as the mother who is determined to make the best of the occasion while not blind to Louis’ faults. Seydoux smoulders with resentment toward her brother (who’s a successful writer) that she barely knows.

If the ending, involving some fantastic symbolism with a suddenly animated cuckoo clock bird, is a little laboured, it otherwise doesn’t let down the preceding narrative. As the ironic title suggests, dying isn’t at all unusual so we shouldn’t forget living. Bradshaw suggests the film’s about the dysfunctionality of family life but I wonder if it’s more about how important family life is and what may happen if you neglect it.

The Party and the Guests (O slavnosti a hostech, Czechoslovakia, 1966)

Communist-bourgeoisie at play

The western translation of O slavnosti a hostech, (also known as A Report on the Party and Guests) made Jan Němec’s film’s allegorical intention obvious; Němec co-wrote the story with Ester Krumbachová who wrote the screenplay. It’s likely that the satire of the film would have been obvious to the censors of the time anyway even if the original title is better translated as Of Celebration and Guests (according to Michael Brooke’s excellent notes in the Second Run DVD). The film was ‘banned forever’ in 1973 and not seen in Czechoslovakia until 1989’s Velvet Revolution.

The seven characters we meet having a picnic find themselves dragooned into joining a wedding party (although it was possible they were meant to be guests anyway otherwise why would the women change into smart dress?) after being interrogated by a bullying, and slightly unhinged, character with accompanying ‘heavies’.

Creepily slightly unhinged

The picnickers respond differently to the bullying ranging from resistance (he gets beaten up – see above) to appeasement; the woman tend to respond passively. They seem to be saved when the host insists they join the party but the banquet in the forest is an obvious manifestation of a world out of joint. Whilst Němec was no doubt satirising ‘communist’ Czechoslovakia, the dinner party is strikingly bourgeois with its fancy trimmings and Luis Buñuel’s influence is apparent. Buñuel saved his bile for capitalist bourgeoisie: Němec is likely to have been familiar with The Exterminating Angel (El ángel exterminador, Mexico, 1962); The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie, France, 1972) and The Phantom of Liberty (Le fantôme de la liberté, France 1974), all featuring dinner parties, came later. Western critics usually viewed Cold War art as being critical of the ‘communist’ system (often accurately) but ignored the potential for critique of the west. There’s no doubt to me that Němec and Krumbachová were having a pop at the bourgeoisie in general. Krumbachová also co-wrote the brilliant Daisies and was a costume designer on the Němec directed Diamonds of the Night.

The comedy is based both on the surreal absurdity of the situation and bourgeois manners that seek to accommodate rather than challenge repressive forces. The latter is obvious in the UK at the moment in the BBC’s coverage of the resurgent right as it insists on giving a platform to deranged scumbags like Carl Benjamin and Stephan Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson) in the belief that this is a public service; in reality platforming fascists isn’t funny.

The Party and the Guests is funny, it shows Němec’s brilliance and retrospectively we can mourn his inability to make the films he wanted after being ‘disgraced’ by this wonderful example of the Czech New Wave.

Woman at War (Kona fer í stríð, Iceland-France-Ukraine, 2018)

Close to nature

We have Revolution Extinction to thank for raising the profile of immanent climate catastrophe and films like co-writer and director Benedikt Erlingsson’s Woman at War can only help, if it gets seen. Kermode points out that the protagonist, Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir), has much in common with the Mission: Impossible‘s resourceful Ethan Hunt; and this film is more thrilling because it deals with a potent threat to our existence.

Erlingsson’s previous feature, Of Horses and Men, was an affectionately surreal portrait of Iceland, and it is that country that is the focus of Woman at War; but here it’s land that stands in for the Earth as it is the planet that is under threat. If only we had a sense of the fragility of the ecosystems, as the astronauts of High Life do, serious action would have been taken years ago to ameliorate climate change. Like the folks of Extinction Rebellion, Halla decides to take responsibility for protecting the planet.

The script, co-written with Ólafur Egilsson, is superbly constructed and seamlessly integrates allegorical elements into the narrative; Halla wishes to adopt a Ukrainian 4 year-old, representing hope for the future. The non-diegetic music transpires to be diegetic as the folksy three piece, and Ukrainian trio of voices, often appear in the scene. I can’t recall a non-comedy being so Brechtian with the music and while it serves to remind us we are watching a film, I think it also serves to remind us that the issues raised are real. Incidentally, the music (particularly the singers) is fabulous.

The final image is truly chilling that caps an entertaining thriller with a dose of reality that might even give climate change deniers pause for thought (actually, it won’t as they live in an ideological landscape that denies reality).

Obviously Geirharðsdóttir’s performance is key to the success of the film and her 49 year-old protagonist reminds us that we need unconventional heroes to save us; take a bow Greta Thunberg. Geirharðsdóttir also seamlessly plays her twin sister.

I can’t recommend the film enough because it was both immensely entertaining and up front in portraying the risks that face us. This isn’t an ‘infinity war’ because the battle isn’t going to go on much longer unless we start wining it very soon.