31 Days of Cinema 2.0, Day Five: “Les Rendezvous d’Anna”, A Sophomore Slump—Yet Also A Deliberate One

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Three excuses for the inexcusable delay:
1) It’s easier to be doing this when unemployed than when employed.
2) The Philadelphia Film Festival.
3) These films are blowing my mind. I am prepared to say that women on average make more consistently good and more provocative films than men. There’s so much I want to put down in these reviews, I can’t do it so quickly. So I will be extending this project into November. Also, while I promise you will hear my thoughts on all 31 films, the order I will publish them in will correspond not with my film schedule but rather with my whims and preferences.

Fame did not change Chantal Akerman. She got the attention of cinephiles everywhere with her radical experiment Jeanne Dielman (1975). She could have stepped up her game, scored a higher budget, made something even more ambitious—a dream project, perhaps. Nope. Her following work of fiction, Les Rendezvous d’Anna (’78), is simpler, not as challenging as, yet somehow more austere than Dielman—notwithstanding the name continental cast, and the themes of what it means to achieve fame as an artist, and what comes after. Anna Silver (Aurore Clément) is a filmmaker touring her latest film across Western Europe. She stays in well-off hotels, gives press interviews, has little trouble bringing men to her bed, and has friends, family and colleagues rather eager to have her as company. There is little doubt she is a thinly veiled Akerman promoting Dielman.

But there is no glitz to Anna’s fame. At 28, Akerman had already developed her signature motifs: immense long takes, voids of silence and of monologue, as few characters as possible, a Spartan narrative thread consumed by quotidian tasks and prolix travelling, a deep and genuine concern with base physical needs (food, shelter, sex, etc.), and an effectively stealthy feminism. We have a few scenes with a few actors to establish the exposition that Anna is an auteur of some esteem. That’s it. There is no ostentation to Anna’s/Akerman’s place in the world of cinema. There are merely tedious sojourns in the posh hotels and restaurants of urban Germany, Belgium and France, punctuated by tedious train and car rides, which it is not uncommon for Anna to spend sitting or lying around, eating, passively listening to whatever the hell the person she’s with is saying, sleeping, staving off sleep, waiting for something—anything—to happen. This is a filmmaker committed to her artistic vision, giving minimal thought to the demands that fame may place on it.

I know of no other filmmaker who depicts waiting—as a process, as a discipline, as an existential state—as well as Akerman. It’s been said and written that she impels her audience to feel time. I half-agree. Dielman clocks in at 3 1/3 hours, yet I can’t say I feel that much time go by as I watch that film (one of my all-time favorites), as time is folded in and made watchable by the domestic chores that set Dielman’s routine, and anyone who’s been through childhood can relate to some degree of necessary domestic duty. In her forty-five-year career, Akerman never made another film even close to that running time. Anna is a standard two hours, yet it is much more languid because of the energy that Anna expends on waiting—waiting to arrive at her destination, waiting for the next errand in her itinerary, waiting for whoever she’s with to shut the fuck up already. As the scope of her filmic projects contracts back to normal, Akerman demands reciprocity and asks her viewers to increase their patience. The shorter the film, the less that happens, of course. Granted, the soliloquies of the peripheral figures that Anna encounters on her travels are not as memorable nor as provocative as those few present in Dielman and in this auteur’s other early masterpiece Je Tu Il Elle. So Anna is a notch down from those efforts—and it is not surprising that critics expecting a match of or an improvement on Dielman’s galvanism (unlikely) were disappointed. The film’s thematic core nonetheless remains valid and poignant. The cult success of one project and the good graces of critics do not, nor should they, assuage Anna/Akerman of the burden of creating more and at-least-as-good art, of staying truthful to one’s aesthetic instincts, and of taking inspiration from real life—even when that may entail listening to someone in your proximity spin a near-insufferable yarn on family troubles and toxic masculinity.

Perhaps I ought to write that I know of no filmmaker who handles time and temporality—and, by extension, space and environment—as well as Akerman, not least for her acute understanding of making and viewing cinema as a time-consuming process, a perpetual self-enhancing feedback loop. That is a more confident statement. Watching her films on Hulu, lights off, snuggled up in my easy chair with laptop and headphones, I find it effortless to plunge into her intimate universe of narrow train corridors squeezed between windows and berths, of familiar hotel rooms and flats providing serene urban views and almost all needed amenities, of train stations and cars cutting modern forms and sharp neon æthers through dusky autobahns of steel and tarmac. (Jean Penzer is the cameraman responsible for this.) The ubiquity of windows and the areas observed beyond them steers us towards a meta-filmic commentary. Anna/Akerman here is the filmmaker as audience, seeing and hearing for ideas and signs of a new story to transmit through her calculated vessel-like self to the cineaste public.

Further, Anna’s/Akerman’s passive, quasi-gendered, ironic silence—comparable to Liv Ullmann’s selectively mute actress in Persona—points to the artist’s struggle to speak through film, or better yet to speak beyond and outside of film. If film is Anna’s/Akerman’s main means of subsistence and communication (which it is), then what does it say about ourselves and our increasingly tech-obsessed and tech-dependent society if we can only live and talk through technological media and membranes? To what extent are they a protective raincoat shielding us from our insecurities? Fame and privilege, travel and sightseeing have not alleviated Anna of her steely interiority—which the film adroitly reflects—and Clément’s enigmatic submission to the top-down wheel-spinning she is subjected to, by people and place alike, is a fitting complement for Akerman, a vulnerable and fearless artist who appears nude and has sex with man and woman in Je Tu Il Elle. The great final scene shows Anna at home, in bed, trying and failing to relax, listening to an answering machine full of friends and colleagues demanding further travel plans. Forever she will face down an audience full of wannabe storytellers who want her to tell the stories they want to be told—perhaps their stories—as opposed to her stories. For her and Akerman, there is no escape from the house of cinema. Ultimately, though, it is Akerman who has decided what stories to tell, and how she will tell them.

(I almost take it as a sign of approval from God—for this 31 Days of Female Cinema project, that is—that without realizing it, I slated myself to watch this—and watched it—on October 5, the first anniversary of Akerman’s death by suicide. She was a great auteur, one of The Greats, and I am only more eager to explore her back catalogue. That said, my advice for Akerman virgins is to start with Dielman, and don’t be intimidated by the running time.)

Grade: B+

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31 Days of Cinema 2.0, Day Five: “Les Rendezvous d’Anna”, A Sophomore Slump—Yet Also A Deliberate One

52 Weeks of Literature, Week Seven: “Transit” by Anna Seghers

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Transit is true-life Kafka—an account of refugees struggling to escape the Nazi invasion of France via the port city of Marseille, where they are imprisoned not by blunt despotism, but by simple paperwork and bureaucracy. The narrator, unreliably named “Seidler”, is an escaped German POW who comes into possession of the papers of Weidel, an author who has killed himself, and who travels to Marseille to return them to his widow Marie, all while blissfully dismissive of the chaos enveloping France. Once at the port, he is quickly indoctrinated into the Catch-22s that govern life as an asylum seeker in Marseille. You can’t stay in the city unless you can prove you intend to leave; otherwise, you must leave, but where can you go? To prove you mean to depart, you must acquire a series of documents—a visa to enter, a visa to travel, a visa to exit, etc.—in a certain order, and fast enough so that they don’t expire before you have them all, and if they do, that’s on you and the bureaucracy takes no responsibility for its bullshit. You get the picture. The Nazi lust for power, coupled with the international community’s long and storied suspicions of refugees (as pertinent in World War Two as it is today), creates a system that purports to tell those under its purview, “You may cross these borders, but you must first do this”—effectively insulting the intelligence of the refugees, who know fully that the “this” is a task designed to be near-impossible, to trap them in an inconstant theatre of the absurd, to make them feel that they are welcome nowhere and might as well perish. The Eagles said it best: “You can check out anytime you like…but you can never leave!

It is difficult to tell a story about an unmotivated character, steeped in ennui and world-weariness, since most readers demand a protagonist who wants something, for some reason, and who moves to achieve his/her goal with certain tactics that reveal just who (s)he is. I’m one of the few readers I know who empathizes with the guy who doesn’t ask for much, the objective and uninvolved observer, not passive but not desperate nor beholden to any plot machinations. Transit mostly succeeds in making Seidler this. He is a cipher, not caught up in the rush to get transit visas, only going through with the ridiculous process as a formality, adopting Weidel’s identity to facilitate the process for Marie and the doctor with whom she is having an affair, and to hint at a nuanced irony. In this Marseille, the deceased can be alive—in the minds of those who know him but aren’t up-to-date on his fate, as well as on paper. That a dead man has enough of a weight and an aura in this universe to gain transit visas more easily than most living people can is the novel’s most bitter indictment of WWII geopolitics. Nebulous identities are as free to cross borders as the papers and literature on which they are written, while our bodies imprison us and make us easy for governments to control and manipulate. Marie’s will to be unfaithful to Weidel (emotionally more than physically) with the doctor and with Seidler is made ethically dubious by her insistent belief that Weidel is alive and in Marseille, and this enrages Seidler even though he partakes in it and effectively betrays Weidel. Bodies do not matter in this political landscape because they are finite; only names and written/oral language are tangible.

Seidler’s objectivity makes him not a powerless spectator insomuch as it does a man who uses his power over Weidel’s identity in calculated, if amoral, ways. This makes it convenient for author Anna Seghers, a fervent Communist who based this novel on her own experiences as a Marseille refugee, to divert from Seidler/Weidel’s main thread and offer a panorama of immigrant lives. The most powerful anecdotes are the ones in which the characters have all the necessary papers and tickets and are ready to go, only to be swindled out of freedom at the last second—the conductor assured that the privilege of his profession will get him out of France easily, who succumbs to a heart attack over a bureaucratic fluke; not to mention, the extended family who stays behind for an elderly relative near death despite having everything in perfect order. Transit also has the peculiar quality of having benefits that on occasion work against its narrative. One would think that in this case of mistaken identity, Seidler would ease himself into the role of Weidel (if not outright embrace it, since we are talking about a less active narrator) and see how much he can get away with it, beyond the sphere of consuls and embassies. That he doesn’t, and that he merely sits in awe as Weidel shows his influence on the refugees’ lives beyond the grave, feels like a copout on Seghers’ part. The frenzy of characters, further, gives us no hint as to which figures are more important or more tertiary than the others, so that when Marie is introduced as a romantic waif flitting between cafés in search of Weidel, always running into Seidler by coincidence, the effect is hackneyed and saccharine and makes the novel’s ultimate focus on Marie and her adultery slightly jarring. None of this damages the novel’s power as a timeless testament to just how physical politics is—in place, in body, in language.

Grade: A-

52 Weeks of Literature, Week Seven: “Transit” by Anna Seghers

Review: “Victoria”

The film opens in a nightclub: blaring techno music, and an intense, blinking light that consumes the whole screen. Light, dark, light, dark—very rapidly. (If you have epilepsy, you’ve been warned.) The director of this film, Sebastian Schipper, and his photographer, Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, are letting us in on a secret here. They’re reminding us that cinema is nothing much more than a series of photographs stitched together and sped up—an elaborate trompe l’oeil. (Fernando Meirelles did similar in a great scene, also set in a nightclub, in City of God.) More than that: they’re reflecting the inside of their camera, starting up as the story begins, shudders opening and closing over the lens before they speed up so fast that we can’t notice them anymore. The photographs transform into film, and bodies writhing on the dance floor come into view. You could be forgiven for thinking that this scene is made of several quick takes, as would be the case with most movies. But no—this is one take, and the opening scene adopts a bracing irony when we realize that that one take is far from over. It goes on and on and on. In fact, it lasts the entire film. Yes, folks: this film is told in one take, lasting over two hours. Nay, it was filmed in one take, without the contrivance of editing. Schipper here does something astonishing: he shows us the illusion of film, and he makes us fall for it anyway. The construction he crafts is seamless.

The film is titled Victoria, and it is a masterpiece. Victoria (Laia Costa) is indeed the protagonist; the camera does not take long to find her on the dance floor, and it hardly strays from her thereafter. She is a Spanish girl in Berlin, maybe an exchange student, working in a café for four euros an hour, hopelessly naïve and easily swayed. On her way out of the nightclub, she runs into a quartet of uncooperative guys, led by Sonne (Frederick Lau), loitering in the early-morning streets. She catches them trying to jack a car and somehow takes a liking to them. She does not know German, so she talks with the guys in broken English—a universal language, here used in a primitive way to underlie primitive qualities and desires: intrigue, lust, greed, inexperience, lunacy, bluntness, desperation. She helps them shoplift some goodies and joins them in an impromptu roof party. Should Victoria really be around these men? They don’t seem dangerous, but do they have all their hinges on? The process of asking these questions is what draws us into the story. We are there with Victoria throughout as she makes one dubious decision after the other, and as the repercussions of each decision carry the story further and intensify the conflict. The film, as a single take in itself, is a total emotional investment; there is no turning away and no backing out. And about an hour in, at a moment when the story could end and Victoria wrap up the night in peace, it takes an abrupt shift that plunges her and the audience into an unholy nightmare.

Victoria is the film I’ve been at once anticipating and dreading for a while, the one-shot tour de force that would do what the very concept of the one-shot, I imagine, was invented to do—namely, to depict trauma and horror as unrelentingly as cinema can. First, we had Hitchcock’s Rope—not strictly a one-shot, but certainly a progenitor of the form, and not at all disappointing by the Master’s standards. Two generations later, we had Sokurov’s Russian Ark—mediocre, essentially a museum tour-cum-history lesson, but not without a devastating denouement. Then came Iñárritu’s Birdman—very well made, but far from its director’s best. Now, this—the apotheosis of the form thus far. Of course, too many cuts can be disorienting, but a montage with a measured pace and a moderate amount of cuts can imbue each cut with a sense of relief, of catharsis, of perfect timing fulfilled. There is no such relief here, only mounting dread as Victoria and the gang get drawn deeper into a maelstrom of their own making. There are moments, granted, where Victoria could walk away from it all and spare herself more agony, but she doesn’t. She sticks with her commitment and endures the shattering punishment. Why does she help out these guys who she barely knows, who got themselves into their mess? (I’ll give you one hint: there’s a protection racket involved.) Is she discovering a source of strength and stoicism buried within her, an urge to have a thrilling brush with danger and make her life more invigorating and unpredictable? Or is she just way out of her depth? I would answer Yes to both, and Costa helps us understand this while keeping her character lovable, tragically flawed and just plausible enough throughout. Her performance is remarkable, and thanks to that and more, this is one of the most exhausting, intense, harrowing films I’ve ever seen. The only true catharsis I felt came at the end, when the film finally cut to black.

Victoria also seems to be the apotheosis, I daresay, of a greater and more prolific artistic movement: cinéma vérité. The story is told in real time from about 4am to about 7am—easier for filming because that’s when most of the public is stirring if not sleeping—yet, sprawling as it does across a fair swath of Berlin, the fictional story is permeable to several wild, unavoidable nonfiction detours. These could’ve easily wrecked the narrative, yet the narrative turns them to its benefit. The cop car cruising by as the actors misbehave? Real. The bystanders walking into the shot by accident and reacting to what’s going on? Real. The train rumbling over the café as Victoria and Sonne discuss their lives? Real. Victoria dangling off the edge of that roof, X stories above ground, risking at least serious injury? Real. That way, the terror of the story’s second half feels all the more real. And as one may guess, Schipper made this film without a solid script, using just a threadbare treatment, so much of Grøvlen’s camerawork and the acting is improvised. It’s astonishing how Grøvlen is able to capture such subtleties under such formal restraints. Look at how he contrasts the black piano with the white wall in that café scene, at his tact in filming nude male bodies, and at how he uses the cramped spaces of the elevators and cars to the film’s advantage. Grøvlen, a Norwegian, is cited first in the closing credits, before Schipper, and rightly so; he and Costa are the true stars here. It must be added that the ensemble joining Costa is just as brilliant as she is; the quartet is rounded out by Franz Rogowski, Burak Yigit and Max Mauff, all worth naming. The tension they must’ve felt trying to pull this single take off without any screw-ups is very palpable.

A lot of reviews give away more about the story. I won’t, and I encourage readers of this to see the film before reading anything else about it. The flip side of that coin is that some dissenting critics have accused the film of predictability. To that, I respond that there is a difference between predictability and inevitability. The former is monotonous, and the latter—when executed well—is momentous. Victoria is an exercise in inevitability of the highest order, drawn to 140 minutes (making it the longest one-shot yet), its scenes dragged out to gain an air of realism and patience and to bring the tension just below the threshold of bearability. The climax and the catharsis are well-earned. As for those people who complain that the story would mean nothing without its main conceit, let me remind you of Marshall McLuhan’s immortal dictum: “The medium is the message.” The way a story is told affects the story. A story in this vein told with multiple takes would likely not have played out in real time, and would have taken more forethought and more creative liberties that were unavailable to Schipper and crew, and would not have been nearly as enthralling without all the formal constraints and their cumulative payoff. In one essay, I wrote: “Montage by itself—the very concepts of shot, cut and editing—is fallacious. Your life consists of one take, one irreversible decades-long tracking shot made up of…the gaze of your eyes, interrupted by blinks and dreams, but always constant, singular, isolated and harrowing.” Victoria, exquisitely painful and exhilarating, is destined to be the cinema’s best manifestation of that idea for a long, long time.

Grade: A+

Review: “Victoria”

Great Film: “Landscape in the Mist”, The Greatest Film You’ve Never Heard Of

Landscape in the Mist is elemental. It begins with two kids, an adolescent girl and her younger brother, walking towards a train station. They are unsupervised—a bizarre sight in the U.S., yet a familiar one in Europe, and as it turns out, we’re in Greece. The girl, Voula, asks her brother, Alexander, if he’s afraid; he says no, and they’re off. In two long takes, we see them head to the platform, but they’re interrupted by an adult and just miss boarding the train. We’re later given to understand that they’ve been told their father is in Germany, and they’d like to go meet him. Minutes later, they return to the station, in what at first feels like a total retread of the opening scene—only this time, there are no adult obstacles, and they board the train without conflict. This one simple change creates an exhilarating sensation. These two kids are indeed unafraid. They’re motivated, and we’re more than thrilled to join them on their journey, whatever the nature of it. Few if any films have as indelible and as effortless a hook as this one.

More through mood and implication than through dialogue, we learn early on that their mother told them on a whim that their father’s in Germany. In reality, she doesn’t know who the father is. Voula overhears an uncle speak to the effect of this—dismissively, talking to a railroad officer, while toying with knobs in his power plant—and accuses him of lying. Does she believe he’s lying? Or is she in denial of what her uncle says, and preferring to cling onto the myth of having a father? It doesn’t matter. We believe in the myth, too, because it’s what gives these scrappy young kids—and this film—their drive and their will to live, not to mention that film is myth. Landscape was made in 1988, in the twilight of the Cold War, but geopolitics mean nothing to our two protagonists and don’t discourage them. They may as well mean nothing to us, either. The USSR was on the verge of dismantling for good. Not unlike Kieslowski—who would move from his native Poland to France in The Double Life of Véronique one year later—this film’s director, Theo Angelopoulos, gazes westward. Horace Greeley’s urge to “Go West” applies well to the Europe of this time. For these kids, that urge is primal, and we root for them without thought. They are innocent, unadorned, precocious, and beautiful. No setup need be contrived to make them likable to an audience. We can jump into their lives and their travels without a second wasted.

You don’t need to be a film expert to understand why the train is the most critical symbol in all of cinema. Film as we know it owes its existence to the railroad industry more than anything else. Lynne Kirby’s Parallel Tracks, a two-pronged case study of the railroad and its rôle in developing early cinema, is a useful primer on this subject, and I will not sully it by summarizing it. (I used it extensively for my Haverford senior thesis.) So when Angelopoulos shows several interludes of Voula and Alexander riding trains through the Hellenic country—sitting in the aisle, sans tickets, cold and lonely, thinking of what they would say to their father—he’s cluing us in on how their journey is, among other things, a journey through film. The ever-forward movements of people, vehicles and film reels are one and the same in Angelopoulos’ eye, and this is the proper viewpoint. Landscape—like all, not most, all great films—is a commentary on film and hence on itself—its fallacy, its fragmentation, its sense of coming into these lives at a random moment in time, for a random length of time, only to capture an unsatisfying sliver of an eternity. Look at how keenly Angelopoulos isolates and calls attention to each of the bare bones of film production: theatre costumes hanging off a bus roof just like clothes hang off bodies, a violinist who steps into a restaurant to perform the film’s main musical theme for Alexander, a building floor plan in front of which one character holds up a scrap of film found in a pile of trash. That scrap shows a few frames of the title landscape, shrouded in mist, and we’ll see them again later, not as a separate film but as apart of this story. Like the floor plan, Angelopoulos here reveals his story’s structure: it’s a Möbius strip, allowing us to glimpse across at where the end will circle back around to the beginning.

It makes sense, too, for Voula and Alexander’s cinematic journey to intersect with cinematic journeys of past. A biker named Orestes meets them by chance on the road, takes a liking to them, and decides to guide them to the border. He’s an update of a character from another Angelopoulos film, The Traveling Players, a four-hour historical epic in which an acting troupe traverses Greece putting on productions of the show “Golfo the Shepherdess”, which are ceaselessly interrupted by WWII, the Communist coup and lesser quibbles. (The troupe itself is a modernization of the cast of characters from the Oresteia.) We of course see the troupe again here, and they’re in even worse shape than in the first story. They hold an open rehearsal for the two kids on a beach, and they don’t even get beyond their show’s prologue before the news comes that they’ve lost their venue. Later, to Orestes’ chagrin, they pawn their costumes. You see, interruptions are crucial to Angelopoulos—pitch-blackly comical interruptions that stop narratives before they can end, that mercifully stop narratives that seem to never end, yet that initiate their own Sisyphean process by which a story is repeated and dragged out for an eternity. (Compare to the kids trying to retell the Book of Genesis, then admitting, “This story will never end.”) The director’s writing partner here is Tonino Guerra, who also wrote for Fellini. Into this framework, Guerra inserts a jarringly random scene in which Voula, Alexander and Orestes watch as a helicopter lifts a large stone hand out of a bay. This is of course a riff on the opening of La Dolce Vita, in which a chopper, while transporting a statue of Christ across town, pauses above a rooftop to give the paparazzi a chance to flirt with the sunbathers. Here, the statue is reduced to a single appendage, stripped of all religious context and irony, opaquely and pathetically reaching towards land it can never grasp. The erosion of history is inexorable.

So, fragmented as it is, the story is by essence told in vignettes, which are paced with extreme care across just eighty-five takes (give or take a couple) in a hair over two hours. I could wax rhapsodic about any one vignette. Instead, I’ll focus on three, which stand out as some of cinema’s greatest set pieces:

#1: The horse. Like all journeys, Voula and Alexander’s involves experience, learning, coming of age. Film often portrays such things through sentiment and cliché. Yet, the lessons that these characters learn in this narrative are often painful and challenging, and Angelopoulos does not shy away from them. This is clear from one miniature mortality drama, in which the kids stumble into a town and find their path crossed by a carriage dragging a dying horse behind it. The horse’s suffering moves Alexander to tears. Meanwhile, a jubilant wedding party goes by, dancing, drinking, laughing, unaware of a life coming to an end nearby them. (Weddings are a big deal to this filmmaker, too.) They’ll never know that they could’ve witnessed this animal’s death, yet it is telling that Angelopoulos includes them in the scene, as he refuses to let their oblivion stand as an excuse to their ignorance. We must be vigilant, he seems to say. We must understand and never deny that there is death amidst life. Voula and Alexander understand that, and they take the time to mourn the horse and exhaust their grief, even when it hurts. The way Angelopoulos melds and juxtaposes these two spheres of feeling—joy and agony—is ingenious. 

#2: The truck. [Trigger warning.] The people who the kids encounter on their odyssey run the gamut from humane and genuine to vile and predatory. At the low end of that spectrum is a truck driver who the kids hitch a ride from in a rainstorm. The driver’s a creep—that much is made clear rather quickly—but that’s little preparation for the scene when he pulls off the road and orders Voula to get out. She senses something afoot and runs away, but the driver outruns her, carries her into the container, and rapes her. The incident takes place in one long static shot on the back of the truck, which has a tarp covering it. We see nothing. The truck itself looks hideous, but if you were flipping the channels and coming upon this scene and taking it out of context, you wouldn’t know what was going on. Nothing seems to happen. Cars keep driving. Alexander leaves the truck and calls for his sister. Two of them pull to the curb, and a brief exchange occurs between their passengers before they get back on the highway, oblivious to the trauma occurring nearby them. Our suspicions are only confirmed after the truck driver reemerges from the container, unfazed yet unsatisfied, followed by Voula, bleeding from the legs and stunned. There’s a case to be made for this being the best depiction of rape in cinema—not for the purity with which it fulfills the Hitchcockian ideal of leaving the trauma off-screen to make it even more terrifying, but for its perfect demystification of rape as a real-world issue. We as the audience are the drivers on the highway, absorbed in mundane banality. Somewhere in this world right now, as I write this and as you read this, someone is likely getting raped, and we may well never know a thing about it.

#3: The dance. Voula’s innocence protects her, somewhat. She’s been hurt physically, yes, but she cannot yet fully register the significance of her trauma, as she does not yet comprehend sex. Neither she nor the film dwell on her rape; she and Alexander abandon the truck driver and keep on heading north, pressing towards the border, eventually reuniting with Orestes. The assault is only referred obliquely, in two more scenes. The first is set on a beach, on which some furniture is set. Nearby speakers are playing a Western punk tune—of course, since as the kids go further west, so does the music. Orestes invites a hesitant Voula to dance with him, and he barely does a two-step before she is moved to run away and collapse in tears. One might think that she’s struggling to trust him because of what she has endured. But when one listens to what Orestes tells a concerned Alexander right after, another shade of meaning is added to the scene: Voula is in love with Orestes. The pain of her trauma doubles the pain she feels amidst falling in love with her guardian, and Voula—once an innocent blank slate—is transformed into a character of enormous depth and palpability. This is not least because—and I think she knows this—her romance with Orestes is doomed from the start, as he is older and intends to join the Greek army soon, and the later scene of their final parting is shattering. Oh yeah, and there’s that second scene, when Voula runs into a figure that has been called the antithesis of the truck driver, the other end of the moral spectrum, a figure of charity and honor. This scene, which I better not spoil, portrays a complex scenario of misunderstanding with little dialogue and provides a tremendous emotional payoff.

Landscape is among the rare breed of film that’s so good, you cherish all the small details: the way a snowfall slowly freezes everyone in a town, the way Yorgos Arvanitis’ camera and Yannis Tsitsopoulos’ editing juxtaposes columns on a train station platform with mammoth smokestacks, the haunting motif of long roads curving off to the right and disappearing in mists of fog and darkness. You wonder about all the little people captured on film and where they are today and what they might be doing right now if they’re still alive, as if this were a documentary. That long row of cars driving along Thessaloniki Bay as the stone hand broods over them—who are their drivers? Where did they come from? What errands are they on? Where did they go? Such is the power of this film, to seem like life even at its most fantastical moments, to make you imagine the abstract and unknowable. Even this film’s principal actors have a touch of obscurity to them, at least here in the U.S. Stratos Tzortzoglou (Orestes) has had a solid acting career, yet Tania Palaiologou (Voula) has only had a few other roles, all of them in Greece, and this is the only known film role of Michalis Zeke (Alexander), on whom the Internet hardly has any information. All three give dynamite performances here. It’s astonishing how much these young actors put their bodies into the task of fleshing out the lumbering gravitas of the journey, and the physical toll of time. It would be an honor to get in touch with any one of them today. As for the late Angelopoulos, he was and remains honored in Europe—having won the Silver Lion at Venice and the Best European Film Award for this—and has been championed by the likes of Scorsese and Kurosawa. In the U.S., he is criminally unknown; no film of his but this one has been distributed in U.S. theaters. I imagine he felt that neglect. Observe the scene where the violinist plays the main theme (by Eleni Karaindrou), and the owner of the diner kicks him out midway, favoring economy over art. A rude interruption, indeed, even if he gets some applause from Alexander. Film buff or not, you owe it to yourself to watch this movie.

What happens at the end is unshakable. It’s tragic, it’s beautiful, I haven’t figured it out, and I don’t think I want to. Are Voula and Alexander in Germany? Eden? Both? Their ideal versions of either? Have they left reality and entered the myth of cinema? Or where they ever in reality to begin with?

This film is available for free on Amazon Prime, with English subtitles.

Great Film: “Landscape in the Mist”, The Greatest Film You’ve Never Heard Of

31 Days of Cinema, Day Nineteen: “Lore”

Two days after watching Aguirre—a German film made on the outside, I felt vindicated in watching Lore—a German film made by an outsider, Australian filmmaker Cate Shortland. It’s refreshing to have an outside commentary; an exclusively local perspective risks too much bias. Lore takes as its subject the Holocaust, with which modern-day Germany is still wrangling, and the Allies’ subsequent denazification of the nation, which is rarely studied. There are some perceptions of the Holocaust as an isolated, uncanny outburst of psychopathy, and others of it as a careful exploitation of military industry to facilitate genocide, with much historical precedent. The latter has more truth to it than the former. Lore takes an even more daring—and, in my mind, more accurate—point-of-view: that most Germans of the era were enamored with and confident in Nazism to the extent that they adored Hitler and were willing to trust his prejudice against the Jews, the Roma and the rest, and to ignore if not support whatever he was up to with them. Crucial to this portrayal of modern history’s greatest catastrophe is the focus on children who grew up knowing and cherishing only Nazism, and who faced a most agonizing coming-of-age in the years following World War Two.

The English word “lore” refers to fictive legend, oral education, myth of perhaps national proportion, hereditary distortion. The pun is valid, but the title Lore is really a German female name (pronounced like “Laura”) belonging to the protagonist, played with neither fear nor flaw by Saskia Rosendahl. The film introduces her taking a bath in her spacious Black Forest home, counting along as her little sister Liesel (Nele Trebs) plays hopscotch outside. There is a playful naïveté to Lore’s youth, but also a classically paradoxical sexual component. The film makes no secret of Lore’s beauty; the sight of her rising from the bathtub and moving to the window has a troubling allure, erotic but not vulgar. You can tell that this is a feminine perspective in how it uses the female body and sex to gain attention, not to titillate but rather to perturb and provoke thought—for Lore is foremost a beauty in the Aryan sense. There’s a term out there called “body fascism,” which I find redundant. Nazism at its core was always about the perfection of the Nordic anatomy—its physique and its genes—and the ugliness of all other figures, and it was as much about the propagation of the Aryan race as it was about wiping out Judaism. You don’t believe me? Do some research on Lebensborn and Leni Riefenstahl.

Shortland has thus made a very moral, very ingenious choice in making Lore’s coming-of-age tale a mainly sexual one, and in challenging her adolescent romanticizing of Nazism with a mature erotic conflict. Abandoned by their parents, she, Liesel and their little twin brothers Günther and Jürgen (André Frid and Mika Seidel) flee Allied persecution and head north on foot to Jutland, to their grandmother’s house. They obtain a guide through the wilderness in Thomas (Kai Malina, subtle and unsentimental), a Jew and a concentration camp escapee who knows a thing or two about survival. The sexual attraction between Lore and Thomas—buttressed by them being young and alone in the middle of rural Bavaria—is underscored by their sociopolitical and racial convictions. Lore’s taunting of Thomas’ Judaism comes off less as genuine Nazism than as a girl in a schoolyard feigning open disgust at a boy she’s crushing on, so as not to embarrass herself in front of her chums, or maybe so as to deploy a half-sane reverse psychology. Meanwhile, the kids take a liking to Thomas and decide not to take his merciful assistance of them for granted. They are still quite young, open to influence and to new horizons, not as hardened to right-wing philosophy and urban creature comforts as Lore is. The film reminded me of another Australian film, Walkabout, in which a teen girl and her little brother are stranded in the Outback and depend on an Aborigine youth to survive. There is a sexual interest between the Aborigine and the girl that goes unfulfilled because of cultural disassociation, and the boy has less difficulty adapting to the desert than his sister. But that film is overrated, ruined by a style-over-substance approach and lazy characterizations. Lore is a massive improvement.

I’m slowly putting together a long-form literary project—a satire that plays on the sexual connotation of Nazism—and Lore was an invaluable source of research, but besides that, it’s great art. We pity the title character for her constricted worldview, but we understand that she must go through hell if she is to be saved from it. Several passages stand out in her journey: her pawning of gewgaws for food; her and Thomas’ intense, multi-dimensional encounter with a predatory oarsman; her obsession with a figurine of a deer, a classic symbol of innocence lost (recall Bambi, made in 1942); her tragic run-in with Soviet soldiers; her unspoken reaction to a stunning revelation about Thomas. Denazification is seen taking shape at intermittent moments. The Allies post photos of Jewish mass graves across the countryside for all to see, and German bit roles debate whether they are authentic. At that, bear in mind: if the Nazis did hate the Jews so much, wouldn’t genocide be a logical conclusion? Did they not? Was it not? Bravely, Lore makes no blunt effort to condemn Nazism. That is the right approach. There are no clichés, no platitudes, no judgments, no maudlin manipulations. The film trusts its images to speak for themselves, and the audience to have the moral aptitude to recognize that Lore’s half-assed Nazism holds no water against her childish, even primal, emotional and physical reliance on Thomas. Shortland has only one other film to her credit: Somersault. I am now quite eager to see it. Of all the films I will have watched this month, Lore will likely go down as my favorite.

Grade: A+

To Do: No longer any use bothering to predict what I’m going to do tomorrow, since at the rate I’m going, if I say I’ll do it tomorrow, I probably won’t. All things considered, Lore was a strong enough film to earn its own entry. I owe my readers reviews of Memories of Underdevelopment, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums and Nostalghia. On that note, I’m off to watch Eternity and a Day.

31 Days of Cinema, Day Nineteen: “Lore”

31 Days of Cinema, Days Seventeen and Eighteen: “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” | “Bicycle Thieves”

Where does power emerge from? From other people, of course. A leader of a nation is not so without the support and submission of his/her military, fellow politicians, and electorates—who are thus endowed with their own power. Which begs the question: if power is cyclical, does it have an origin? Well, perhaps it does, in a top-down environment where the strong holds total power over the weak—a situation that I find innately corrupt—but most political climates are more complex than that, I like to think. Power comes off as arbitrary and nebulous the more one contemplates it, the power of bureaucracy in particular. Who infuses all of these paper trails, historical traces, personal recollections and jurisprudential decisions with trust and influence? We do. But can we rely on them? What grants them significance? Better yet, can we be confident they have any significance at all? Werner Herzog’s film Aguirre, the Wrath of God takes these inquiries as its central theme. Based on the real-life accounts of the missionary Gaspar de Carvajal (here played by Del Negro), Aguirre tells of an offshoot of Pizarro’s army, in 1560s modern-day Peru, trekking through the Andean tropics in search of El Dorado, a city of gold that exists only in these guys’ imaginations. These Spaniards establish a dominion over the land—never mind the Incans prowling around them—and declare King Philip II overthrown. Yet, what power do they have over the king if he’s an ocean across from them? What power does the king have over them hence? What is the point of all these officious embellishments? Ego, I guess.

The main strength of Aguirre is its absurdist bent; a theme of performativity has been running throughout most if not all of the films I’ve watched this month, and here, it is especially prominent (and set perfectly to the music of Popol Vuh, the electronic band named for the Mexican epic). These wannabe conquistadores declare hegemony over the land as if they were walking into a bathroom. Laws are signed in; a trial results in a death sentence followed by a pardon; a civilization, albeit a short-lived and poorly run one, takes shape from this chaos. Inéz (Helena Rojo), the girlfriend of expedition head Pedro de Ursúa (Ruy Guerra), has her servants schlep her around in a litter—a clichéd symbol, but a valid one for demonstrating the isolated, oblivious, ideal Spanish sphere of influence that these nutcases wish to impose on the Andes. Power changes hands as cards in blackjack; the title character (Herzog’s muse, the tacitly wild Klaus Kinski) has a great speech in which he emphasizes that those who rebel against power—those who recognize power’s abstraction—are ultimately history’s biggest winners, and that’s the end of Ursúa. The barely seen Incans, meanwhile, seem to hold the most power, with their awareness of the landscape, its borderless quality, and its myriad opportunities for hiding. Characters are alive and kicking in one shot and dead with arrows sticking out of them the next. The futile hunt for El Dorado continues throughout—which Aguirre may not mind, as the pursuit is more vital than the destination. Yet, how does he allow himself to fall so hard for such a myth? How does he have such faith in his mortal civilization? How can we believe that power and its apparatuses are concrete when they really aren’t?

Grade: A-

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A little part of me worries that I am not yet qualified to review Bicycle Thieves, because the version I watched (on Hulu) was dubbed into English. So allow me to take the chance to say: I despise dubbing. When I watch a film, I want the authentic aural experience as well as the visual one, and that means being able to hear the actors’ actual voices and judge their performances based on that. It does not mean having to listen to a bunch of fourth-rate radio actors try and fail to contort the actors’ mouths into English with stereotypical, insultingly bad accents. Subtitles or bust. (Curious, how Aguirre was filmed in English and dubbed in German—with actors pretending to be Spanish, no less.) That said, Bicycle Thieves was strong enough that I enjoyed it and got sucked into watching Hulu’s copy of it, even with the dubbing. If you know cinema, you know this film: it’s about a poor man named Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani), who needs a bicycle for a job—and hence for social mobility, so to speak—and gets it, only to have it stolen from him, an event that leads him on an impossible citywide hunt to reclaim the bike. The film was directed by Vittorio de Sica and was the vanguard of Italian neorealism. I was worried it might be too simple, but it isn’t.

I admired the photography (by Carlo Montuori) and how it constantly frames its characters within the trappings of urbanity. Bicycles, windows, ladders, grilles, benches, buses, wheels, spokes, beds, posters—all of these seem to constrict on Antonio and his family (Lianella Carell as the wife, and young Enzo Staiola as the son) as their economic situation grows more dire by the second. Capitalism is presented as artificial, a two-dimensional construct, whereas nature is one-dimensional, linear, simple: the trees, the grass, the rain, the buildings and pathways, the people and the lines and crowds they form—they’re so straight, the city of Rome can’t seem to accommodate them all, and it can’t. There are only so many bicycles to give and so much money to get. The film also has a keen eye for the silent, unspoken social behaviors and codes of crowds, overseeing the rituals of everyday metropolitan life: queueing for bus rides and tarot readings, gathering for sport and meals and mass, protecting and defending those in their own economic class. There is a human fabric visible, a way of connecting while staying disconnected, of fulfilling the social contract amidst acidic class competition, and much of the conflict arises from Antonio disrupting this fabric with his insistence that his bike be returned and the thief brought to justice. The ending, what with its blunt cyclicality (pun intended), is predictable but moving, and it doesn’t cop out from the cruelty of Antonio’s predicament. You can feel his longing for his bike, his humble job, his family, for just a few hundred more lira, long after the credits have rolled.

Grade: A-

Tomorrow: God willing, I’ll get through Lore, Memories of Underdevelopment and The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums.

31 Days of Cinema, Days Seventeen and Eighteen: “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” | “Bicycle Thieves”