Chamissos Schatten (Chamisso’s Shadow, 2016)

Ulrike Ottinger is a filmmaker who came out of the 1970’s New German Cinema, making distinctive and odd films like Madame X and Ticket of No Return, before moving on to film a number of works in Mongolia and the furthest east, where she has shown a huge amount of interest in ethnography. This film fits in with that, and while it is in a sense a travelogue, it’s also very much a film about the way that history is latent in the present cultures of the Bering Sea, and the continuum of practices since the 18th century (when some of the texts she reads over these images are taken from). History, then, is indivisible from present-day life, and undoubtedly will continue to be for many generations.


An epic ethnographic documentary in four parts, this covers the cultures and people living around the Bering Sea, both on the Alaskan and Russian sides. As you might expect from the running length it does so in some detail, and as suggested by the title, it also links in historical perspectives. Specifically these come in the form of texts written by naturalist Georg Steller (who accompanied Bering on his exploits), then a century later by Adelbert von Chamisso, a poet and botanist, as well as a little bit from James Cook. However, it’s director Ulrike Ottinger’s voice and cinematic style which dominates the film, though in a respectful way, observing and allowing the people of the region to move about their lives and tell stories when they feel compelled.

It’s difficult to sum it all up in a short review, but the sense I got was of a continuity between Steller in the 18th century and the modern scenes, as a lot of the same practices and customs take place that he described, even if political changes have meant movements of the populations and the closure of the borders between the two nations (which come closest at the top of the world, between the Big and Little Diomede Islands, between which also runs the International Date Line). A lot of the shots of the expanse of this wilderness are breathtaking, but it’s in the simple details too that the film shines, in just pointing the camera at the people, and if some of the sequences seem too long for comfort (some hunters skinning and cutting up a seal), others you feel could go on for an entire chapter (the indigenous people demonstrating their dances was a particular highlight).

Chamisso's Shadow film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Ulrike Ottinger (based on texts by Adelbert von Chamisso and Georg Steller); Length 720 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 24 May 2020.

Two 2018 Films by Sergei Loznitsa: Victory Day and The Trial

For my history themed week, I’m focusing on a couple more films which are somewhat tangential to history, both made by a Ukrainian filmmaker. The Trial takes footage from the 1930s and uses it to make a point about the way that events are manipulated by the (state-controlled) media, whereas Victory Day is about the way that history informs the present, specifically World War II, taking a celebration of Soviet victory over Germany, but as it unfolds at a monument in Berlin itself. These are slow, self-effacing documentaries that nonetheless reveal something fairly interesting about the ways we relate to history, and the way it can be used.

Continue reading “Two 2018 Films by Sergei Loznitsa: Victory Day and The Trial”

Two Films by Kira Muratova: The Asthenic Syndrome (1989) and Chekhovian Motifs (aka Chekhov’s Motifs, 2002)

The Ukrainian director Kira Muratova died in 2018 after a long career starting in the 1960s. Her filmmaking is perplexing, perhaps wrought from the chaotic times she worked through, dense with allusion and busy with action, almost breathlessly so. I can’t pretend to understand all the details, and in some cases much of it seems to wash over me, but I can’t deny she was doing something fascinating and her films remain worth watching if you can (and they are not always easy to track down).

Continue reading “Two Films by Kira Muratova: The Asthenic Syndrome (1989) and Chekhovian Motifs (aka Chekhov’s Motifs, 2002)”

The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga (2014)

This documentary work is a co-production between USA and a number of Eastern European countries, Poland among them, so it only tangentially fits into my themed week. However, it touches on a common figure in the folk mythologies of all these countries.


A beautiful film, strange and haunting, which fits into the poetic documentary category, for if it doesn’t have a clear ostensible subject, it nevertheless touches on many things in an oblique and allusive way. It’s centred in Eastern Europe and Russia, blending in the fairy tale of the title (told via animation) with images illustrating the continuation of customs in rural and city living in this part of the world, and the tension that exists between them. If I found myself sleepy during the film I was perhaps lulled by the strong sense of calm suffusing the film’s telling. I would want to revisit this though, and other films by the director, because it seems to be doing something more than just documenting the world, reaching to something even rather profound about human existence and the need for fear as a basis for humanity’s place within the world.

The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jessica Oreck; Cinematographer Sean Price Williams; Length 73 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Monday 3 October 2016.

Облако-рай Oblako-ray (Cloud-Paradise, 1990)

A rather delightful late-Soviet comedy about a small town, where Kolya (Andrei Zhigalov, doing a holy fool type character) bumbles around, annoying people with his insipid questions about the weather, before hitting on the notion that he’s going to move away to the East to get a job, a ploy to prove to them that he’s not the good-for-nothing they think. Thus a film that opens with the camera gliding down from the heavens to the ground of this grim apartment block to confront a sea of deadpan faces — Kaurismäki-style stares into the abyss of hopelessness and entropy — immediately does an about-turn as everyone Kolya knows becomes excited by his sudden news, and quickly enough he finds he can’t back out of the lie. There are a succession of these little set-piece scenes of celebration, and at times it feels like it could burst into musical numbers (the few songs that pepper the film were sadly untranslated, but had more of a solemn setting to them). It’s a film that metaphorically suggests the Soviet Union in a period of transition, desperate for any (even made-up) hope for change.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Nikolai Dostal Николай Досталь; Writer Georgi Nikolayev Георгий Николаев; Cinematographers Yuri Nevsky Юрий Невский and Pyotr Serebryakov Пётр Серебряков; Starring Andrei Zhigalov Андрей Жигалов, Sergey Batalov Сергей Баталов, Irina Rozanova Ири́на Роза́нова; Length 79 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Arlecchino, Bologna, Tuesday 25 June 2019.

Criterion Sunday 164: Солярис Solaris (1972)

Undoubtedly ponderous in its pacing, for me this still feels like Tarkovsky’s weakest film — which is to say, a lot better than most other films, but somehow thin, especially in comparison to his later science-fiction Stalker (1979). That said, it’s a film about grief and memory that happens to be partially set in space, as astronaut/psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is sent to figure out what’s going wrong on board the space station orbiting the title planet. It is beautifully shot, and it’s not even the pacing which mars it for me, so much as the sense of it being this choreography of people walking into and around the frame while grappling with some portentous metaphysics. Give me a few more decades on this one and I may come round.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Andrei Tarkovsky Андре́й Тарко́вский; Writers Fridrikh Gorenshtein Фридрих Горенштейн and Tarkovsky (based on the novel by Stanisław Lem); Cinematographer Vadim Yusov Вадим Юсов; Starring Donatas Banionis, Natalya Bondarchuk Наталья Бондарчук; Length 166 minutes.

Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Thursday 23 December 1999 (also before that on VHS at home, Wellington, June 1999, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 9 July 2017).

Criterion Sunday 148: Баллада о солдате Ballada o soldate (Ballad of a Soldier, 1959)

It seems to me that if you’re going to do an “anti-war” film, this is the best kind of template. Without any speechifying or overt statements, Ballad of a Soldier makes its position clear about how wrenching and difficult war can be, by the simple expedient of its unadorned story. A simple country lad (Vladimir Ivashov), thrust into a pan-European conflict, travels back home just to hug his mother for one last time. It’s sweet without being sentimental, and affecting without being bleak or angry.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Grigori Chukhrai Григо́рий Чухра́й; Writers Valentin Yezhov Валентин Ежов and Chukhrai; Cinematographers Vladimir Nikolayev Владимир Николаев and Era Savelyeva Эра Савельева; Starring Vladimir Ivashov Влади́мир Ивашо́в, Zhanna Prokhorenko Жанна Прохоренко; Length 88 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 2 April 2017.

Criterion Sunday 146: Летят журавли Letyat zhuravli (The Cranes Are Flying, 1957)

It’s worrying to recall that I’ve put off seeing this film for so long (a couple of decades since I studied film and first learned about it) because I just thought it looked a bit dull and earnest, in a typically propagandistic Soviet sort of way. Anyone who’s seen it will know this is totally the wrong idea to take of such a glorious work of almost pure cinema. Indeed, it far more presages the French New Wave in its lyrical flights of fancy, its crisp editing and remarkable monochrome cinematography. It’s a love story set against the backdrop of World War II — familiar enough — but it fights shy of any too obvious symbolism, and though you can somewhat predict how things will go, it also confounds some of those expectations. It really is a masterpiece.

Criterion Extras: [NB this section applies to the original DVD, although it has since been reissued on Blu-ray with further extras] Simply nothing, except an essay in the booklet. I’ve been critical of these bare-bones releases in the past (the sort of thing one imagines they started the Eclipse imprint to do), but it’s such a startling and beautiful film it almost needs nothing aside from a clean transfer of the print — which it has.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Mikhail Kalatozov Михаи́л Калато́зов; Writer Viktor Rozov Виктор Розов (based on his play); Cinematographer Sergey Urusevsky Серге́й Урусевский; Starring Tatiana Samoilova Татья́на Само́йлова, Aleksey Batalov Алексе́й Бата́лов; Length 97 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 February 2017.

Criterion Sunday 88: Иван Грозный Ivan Grozniy (Ivan the Terrible, 1944/1958)

Eisenstein’s final film (he’d planned a third part but died after starting to film it) follows the now very much de rigueur pattern of splitting its story into two separate films, though one would assume given its Soviet origins this wasn’t done for commercial reasons. Indeed, the second part was shelved for 12 years following its completion because apparently Stalin was disconcerted with the portrayal of his great hero Ivan. Knowing this obviously lends some compelling subtext to Nikolai Cherkasov’s portrayal of the increasingly paranoid and despotic ruler, though the first film has him posing far more innocently, adopting all those heroic poses he’d already mastered in Alexander Nevsky (1938). There’s a huge amount of beauty to Eisenstein’s framing, all glowering black-and-white close-ups of the principal characters — a huge amount of the drama is conveyed not through dialogue but by the movement of the actors’ eyes, and the frenetic mien of their expressionistic faces. In many ways, it’s like a modern soap opera, as bitter rivals grimace at one another, or go for hugs while revealing their true feelings to the camera over the other character’s shoulder. Much of the film takes place indoors, in cavernous chambers and long hallways, which means the lighting design and use of shadows is at times spectacular. The second part gets progressively darker, until, in a moment of surprise, there’s almost a dance sequence in (slightly reddishly-degraded) colour, before things lapse back to the previous stark monochrome. With a lot of the thematic development done via acting and staging, it’s the kind of film which would surely repay repeat viewings, but the central thrust of its thesis is nevertheless as evident to us as it must have been to Stalin.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Sergei Eisenstein Сергей Эйзенштейн; Cinematographer Andrei Moskvin Андрей Москвин and Eduard Tisse Эдуа́рд Тиссэ́; Starring Nikolai Cherkasov Никола́й Черка́сов; Length 187 minutes (split into two parts of 99 and 88 minutes respectively).

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Monday 2 May 2016.

Criterion Sunday 87: Алекса́ндр Не́вский Alexander Nevsky (1938)

By 1938, Sergei Eisenstein was already a celebrated filmmaker (not least for his masterful 1925 silent film Battleship Potemkin), but one increasingly held at arm’s length by the Soviet authorities. His previous film, Bezhin Meadow (1937, see extras below), was suppressed, so on the grand patriotic canvas of Alexander Nevsky, he was assigned a co-director (Dmitri Vasilyev) and a co-screenwriter to keep him in check. They needn’t have worried because he turns in a very watchable epic about the resistance mounted against the invading Teutons by the reassuringly ordinary Prince Alexander of the title (Nikolai Cherkasov). Of course, given the historical context, one can’t help but draw the parallels between the noble suffering Soviet people and the threat posed by Hitler’s Nazis (and Roman Catholics, besides) invading from the West. Nevsky is introduced as an ordinary man, fishing in a lake among the people, though as soon as the Mongols ride up to address him, he’s all arms akimbo against the sky, the heroic everyman who shines as a beacon of hope and strength. Indeed, the presentation of Nevsky is consistently as heroic as one can imagine, almost to the point of self-mocking campness, and perhaps this is Eisenstein’s point. In any case, the film moves ahead with a fairly straightforward narrative, and culminates with a frenzied battle scored to Prokofiev’s music, with a little romantic subplot along the way involving Nevsky’s compatriots Vasili (Nikolai Okhlopkov) and Gavrilo (Andrei Abrikosov).

Criterion Extras: There’s a significant section on Eisenstein’s lost previous film, with a reconstruction of it from what materials remain (the first and last frames of each shot), which can’t help but be a shadowy approximation of the original but does at least prove it had some gloriously beautiful images.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Sergei Eisenstein Сергей Эйзенштейн and Dmitri Vasilyev Дмитрий Васильев; Writers Eisenstein and Pyotr Pavlenko Пётр Павле́нко; Cinematographer Eduard Tisse Эдуа́рд Тиссэ́; Starring Nikolai Cherkasov Никола́й Черка́сов, Nikolai Okhlopkov Никола́й Охло́пков, Valentina Ivashova Валентина Ивашёва [as “Vera Ivashova”]; Length 111 minutes.

Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, June 1998 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 3 April 2016).