Criterion Sunday 234: Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum, 1979)

I do sort of understand what’s going on here in this strange, carnivalesque, alternately gleeful and bleak evocation of pre-war and wartime Germany in the 1930s and 40s. Its protagonist is a young child, Oskar (David Bennent), who has foreseen his future and decided he wants to remain in the body of a 3-year-old (well, an 11-year-old for the purposes of the actor anyway), using the drum of the title to beat out his own tune as he first reacts against the encroaching Nazification and then finds himself dragged in as well. There are all kinds of sprightly filmmaking touches, the hand-cranked sped-up film of the intro flashing back many decades, the absurdist plot and character details, and of course the ridiculous perversity of this teenager-in-a-child’s-body growing, learning, reading and falling in love. Yet I never can quite connect with him or care about his story: he’s a nasty character — and yes, of course he is, that entirely makes sense — and his story is one with parallels in the bleak hopelessness of the Nazi era, but his childish, imp-like quality is just incessant, and it becomes grating. I never much take to magic realism or carnivalesque absurdity, and there’s plenty of the latter on show here.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Volker Schlöndorff; Writers Schlöndorff, Jean-Claude Carrière and Franz Seitz (based on the novel by Günter Grass); Cinematographer Igor Luther; Starring David Bennent, Mario Adorf, Angela Winkler; Length 163 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Tuesday 1 January 2019.

Criterion Sunday 215: Nóż w wodzie (Knife in the Water, 1962)

I’m not exactly rushing to watch old Roman Polanski films at this point in my life or his career, but it was up next in our Criterion watching, and, well, his debut is quite a taut piece about masculine brinkmanship. It’s a classic genre, of course, that genre wherein two men are vying over an attractive young woman (Jolanta Umecka) — in this case, one of them (the older man, played by Leon Niemczyk) is married to her and the other (Zygmunt Malanowicz) is a young hitchhiker and student who seems, well, a little bit sketchy, which means the title might start to suggest a horror/thriller film premise. Instead, what develops is a subtle story of shifting power dynamics aboard a pleasure yacht on a Polish lake, which never quite goes where you think it might, but also holds things in nice tension. There’s a fine use of tight close-ups and shots with several different planes of focus, but it’s a canny way to kick off a directing career (that really should consider wrapping itself up now).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Roman Polanski; Writer Polanski, Jakub Goldberg and Jerzy Skolimowski; Cinematographer Jerzy Lipman; Starring Leon Niemczyk, Jolanta Umecka, Zygmunt Malanowicz; Length 94 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Monday 30 April 2018.

Ida (2013)

It’s fair to say that I was never quite compelled by the subject matter of this film, which sounded altogether too dour, well-meaning and social realist to hold my interest. I could have seen it at last year’s London Film Festival (where it won the main prize) and I dragged my feet upon its eventual release on these shores, but I am happy to say that, having now gone along to a screening, I am quite wrong to have been unwilling to see it. It is a fantastic film, very much more than a simple plot synopsis could convey. For while on the one hand, it is indeed the story of the eponymous novitiate nun who is spending some time with her harder-willed aunt, it’s also a film about personal identity, about Poland’s involvement in World War II and its subsequent history, and about the precarious relationship between Europe and its Jewish population (a story still resonant in a modern era where anti-semitic attacks occur with troubling regularity). It is set in the early-1960s and filmed in a beautifully resonant monochrome recalling iconic Polish films of the post-War period by directors like Andrzej Wajda and Andrzej Munk. It’s understated, too, in the way it allows its themes to develop, as our nun (newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska), who has been raised as an orphan and is on the verge of taking her vows, is sent off from her convent to meet her only living relative for the first time, her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza). Wanda reveals to her niece that her real name is Ida, that she’s Jewish, and that her parents were killed during the war, and so they embark on a search for their graves so that Ida can have some closure. But both women have some connection to this terrible unseen event in their history, something the film slowly teases out. Wanda has had more exposure than most to her compatriots’ failures — having served for many years as a high court judge, hearing cases related to war crimes — while Ida is (silently) grappling with her faith. As a film it packs in all kinds of ideas into its concise running time, and is every bit as tightly controlled as any film by Krzysztof Kieślowski. There’s also a striking use of framing, with characters often decentred within shots, generally at the bottom of the image, giving the impression of them sliding away or drowning (there’s a particularly nice example of this when Ida goes to see the confirmation of some of her colleagues). I couldn’t say it exactly has a happy ending, but it all just feels very right.

Ida film posterCREDITS
Director Paweł Pawlikowski; Writers Rebecca Lenkiewicz and Pawlikowski; Cinematographers Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski; Starring Agata Trzebuchowska, Agata Kulesza; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 21 October 2014.

Wałęsa: Człowiek z nadziei (Wałęsa: Man of Hope, 2013)

I’m not sure how many biopics there are about trade unionists, but I’m willing to bet there aren’t many. Then again, Poland’s Lech Wałęsa was a particularly famous one, one that even the increasingly conservative Western governments of the era could embrace, for he was a pivotal figure in the collapse of Eastern European Communism in the 1980s. He later became a prominent figure in the post-Communist Polish government, but this film is the story of his union days and ends triumphantly in Washington DC. It’s a film that to some extent deals with the movement he led, Solidarność (Solidarity), but mostly it’s about the man himself.

Director Andrzej Wajda made his first feature in 1954, making him rather a veteran filmmaker and giving him an historical perspective on the events that younger filmmakers might lack; indeed, he made a couple of similarly-titled films during the era the film depicts — Człowiek z marmuru (Man of Marble, 1976) and Człowiek z żelaza (Man of Iron, 1981). For this one, he has co-opted a lot of the textures of archival film, in order to more seamlessly blend in period footage. There’s a lot of handheld camerawork, full of fuzzy out-of-focus shots, blurred framing and occasional lapses into black-and-white stock, giving a lot of the film the quality of a newsreel. This also ensures an up-close look at the man, played with wonderful conviction by Robert Więckiewicz. There are massed crowd scenes and group meetings, but for the most part this is Wałęsa at home with his wife (a beatific Agnieszka Grochowska) or in prison, being pressed by government interrogators (Zbigniew Zamachowski being only the most prominent of these).

It would be difficult to really convey in any film what is a very slow-moving struggle that took up almost two entire decades. Big events are depicted, like the 1980 strike originating at the Gdańsk shipyards which paralysed the country, and with such grand scenes it can be difficult to grasp their national importance (except for a few characters arriving to tell Lech what’s happening outside the shipyard’s walls). Instead it’s those periodic interrogations — the subtle movement of time tracking Wałęsa’s months spent in interment, putting on weight away from his family — that move the story forward. Wałęsa shows dogged resistance to the government, refusing to submit with a self-assured cockiness that he retains in a framing interview with journalist Oriana Fallaci.

It’s a film that seems to have rather slipped through into distribution in this country and it will probably disappear from cinemas rather quickly, but as a portrait of an era and of a defining figure in European history, it’s well worth watching. It also shows that even nearing his 90th birthday, Wajda is no slouch as a director.

Wałęsa: Man of Hope film posterCREDITS
Director Andrzej Wajda; Writer Janusz Głowacki; Cinematographer Paweł Edelman; Starring Robert Więckiewicz, Agnieszka Grochowska, Zbigniew Zamachowski; Length 124 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Edinburgh, Edinburgh, Monday 21 October 2013.