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.
Perhaps this just plays much more strongly to American audiences, but the swelling orchestral music that comes in at key moments makes it pretty clear what a fundamentally honourable man this simple Abraham Lincoln was, even when he was a young man just starting out in the law. This would be nothing more than hagiography (or perhaps a superhero origin story) were it not for Henry Fonda’s performance and John Ford’s guiding hand that somehow keeps it from turning too mawkish, focusing instead on the justice he wrings from a case of two young lads getting into a dust-up with a local ruffian (and Deputy Sheriff). Still, simple values isn’t the same as simplistic, and for all its overwrought melodrama, this is a canny film about a national hero made at a time of global crisis.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director John Ford; Writer Lamar Trotti; Cinematographers Bert Glennon and Arthur C. Miller; Starring Henry Fonda, Alice Brady, Marjorie Weaver, Ward Bond; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Tuesday 26 May 2020.
The filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda has been turning out warmly-received films since his fiction feature debut Maborosi in 1995. Many of them — certainly, it seems, all of the most acclaimed — are warm-hearted family dramas, whether dealing with children directly as in I Wish (2011), with parents of kids in Like Father, Like Son (2013) or with young people in Our Little Sister (2015). However in many ways that’s only half his output, as he’s also made plenty of films that don’t fit quite so neatly into this framework. I was planning on writing a post about maybe one of these, but then I realised I had a vast cache of reviews of films that really aren’t very well known by this famous director, and I wonder how many great directors could have made great films if they’d been given as many chances. For one example not even covered here, there’s his latest English/French-language The Truth (to be reviewed here later this week), but there are also these four films reviewed below: a film about terrorists; a period drama; a sex drama; and a legal thriller.
Looking back at war films I’ve seen in the last few years (a genre I’m not a huge acolyte of), I find most of the ones I’ve seen cover World War II, during which conflict cinema became a powerful propaganda tool (perhaps not for the first time, but certainly more widely than ever before). This 1944 film takes the war film genre and spins it as a speculative fiction, addressing in real time the war crimes of the Nazis and how they will come to pay for them (as, indeed, they did).
A rather extraordinary speculative fiction, made in 1943 (or at least that’s the production date on the film; it was released the following year) but set in a future where the allies have won the war and put Nazi war criminals on trial. It focuses on one character, Wilhelm Grimm (Alexander Knox), and charts his descent from schoolteacher in Poland to, well, Nazi war criminal. The trial is the framing device introducing figures from his life like the priest who tells of how in 1919 he was going to marry Marja (Marsha Hunt), a Polish woman who taught alongside him, except that World War I had changed him, and now he felt as if the Germans could yet conquer the world. Then his brother Karl takes the stand and narrates how Wilhelm returned to stay with him in Munich in 1923, but was attracted by the rising star of one A. Hitler, whose ideology continued to warp his mind in successive flashbacks to 1929 and 1933, at which point Wilhelm has his brother sent to a concentration camp (which he has somehow survived to be giving testimony), at which point we move to some pretty full-on wartime scenes of Nazi atrocities (not least the burning of books, the murder of all the Jews along with the town’s rabbi, who recites the kaddish as he dies, and then the forced prostitution of the women). The final speech of the judge is directly into camera and explicitly addressed to the UN, so this is essentially a propaganda film, but it’s one that’s fairly prescient about the way that things would be for a long time to come — and which sadly makes it still fairly contemporary now. Nazis are bad.
Director Andre DeToth; Writers Lester Cole, Alfred Neumann and Joseph Than; Cinematographer Lee Garmes; Starring Marsha Hunt, Alexander Knox, Henry Travers; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Scorsese), Bologna, Wednesday 27 June 2018.
I don’t usually devote reviews to short films, but I really liked this short documentary subject and it was particularly good to see it with a panel discussion afterwards (with the filmmaker present) to talk out the issues it raised about sex, consent and the legal frameworks of justice. It can be watched on YouTube.
While the screening I saw this film at was in a partly academic setting, that’s not to say the film is only of academic interest, though the rather unusual A4 aspect ratio makes it feel tailored to that kind of audience — in formal respects, it is perhaps the most literal interpretation of “documentary”, in visually presenting only document-based evidence (reports, newspaper clippings). However, the images are accompanied by vocal testimony from someone involved in the case being covered (one from the early-1990s involving sado-masochistic sex acts amongst a group of consenting men), which in some senses has come to define the boundaries of p0rnography and the “acceptable” limits of sexuality in the UK, and still has troubling implications for consensuality quite aside from what it says about our toxic media and political debates. This voice we hear speaking is one of the men who participated in what we see in the documents described as a loathsome, morally depraved sex crime, but he is by some measure the voice of reason and stability against which the pictured voices of authority (of the police and the media and its commentators parroting the police’s official line) lose their power. The film, in its quiet way, effectively confronts and destabilises the accumulated power of the “official” accounts, suggesting the limitations not just of what we think to be true from what we read, but also the way that such assumptions are embedded into our very legal system, and the systems of control that are exercised over our (consensual) bodies and behaviours.
Director Charlie Lyne; Length 14 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Goldsmiths, London, Thursday 21 November 2019 (and before that on YouTube streaming at home, London, Saturday 13 April 2019).
I don’t like to feature films I find a little disappointing, but both of these biopics failed to live up to the expectations created by the respective subjects and the many fine actors involved. Still, it’s worth shining some light on them as both are directed by women (albeit both written by men), and perhaps others will enjoy them more than I did. Both have a lot to commend them, after all, despite my tepid reviews.
The end of this week sees the release of The Last Black Man in San Francisco, which is directed by a white man but deals with the African-American experience in the United States (and reminds me of Barry Jenkins’ debut Medicine for Melancholy, also set in that city and grappling with gentrification and how it displaces longstanding communities). Given that racism has defined a large swath of American history, I thought it would be good to devote a themed week to films that deal with the African-American experience, whether from within the community or looking from outside. The first film I’m featuring is a documentary about a particularly racist incident in recent NYC history, dramatised this year by Ava DuVernay on Netflix.
The Central Park Five is a persuasive documentary that tracks the case of the rape and beating of a young woman running through NYC’s Central Park in 1989, and the subsequent arrest and trial of five boys which rested entirely on the evidence of their video-recorded testimony after days of interrogation, without any circumstantial evidence. Modern-day interviews are accompanied by archival clips from the era, and the vast holes in the prosecution’s case, not to mention the frequent corners cut by those involved, adds up to a fine entry in one of the most enduring genres of American documentary: an account of a wrongful conviction. It’s also very much a statement about the operation of race and class in American public and media life, about the way that certain facts about a case can conspire to increase or limit the audience, and the way the media reported on this particular case becomes as much a part of the context of the trial as anything said in court — to the extent that even now people still believe in the suspects’ guilt, against all persuasive evidence.
Directors/Writers Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon; Cinematographers Anthony Savini and Buddy Squires; Length 119 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 27 May 2019.
In my week focusing on Australian films, I’ve already covered some modern classics including Aboriginal director Tracey Moffatt’s beDevil (1993) and a number of documentaries interrogating Australia’s colonialist and racist societal dynamics, notably Another Country (2015). Warwick Thornton is probably the most prominent director from an Aboriginal background currently working in the country, and over the course of a number of short films and two features has burrowed into this history, stepping back to the 1920s with his most recent feature Sweet Country.
I don’t know there’s much more to add about this most famous of Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s films, a masterpiece of the late silent cinema and one of the greatest in all of film history. It may not even be my favourite Dreyer film (he had some fantastic later works in his native land), but it seems working in France with a bold and expansively modernist set, and some fine theatre actors, was no great obstacle to his vision. Amongst these actors are Antonin Artaud as one of the more sympathetic of Joan’s accusers, though of course — whatever Dreyer’s important contributions may have been to this film and to cinema as an art — it is Renée Falconetti in the title role who remains the film’s iconic and lasting presence (she was never to act in cinema again, preferring the stage). The film takes the transcript of Joan of Arc’s trial for heresy, and dramatises it, largely in a series of close-ups on the faces of these stern, judgemental men in their austere courtroom as Joan meets their gaze and responds with patience and unwavering belief in God, undiminshed by their taunts or by the mistreatment from her English captors. It’s a film which seems scarcely to have aged.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Carl Theodor Dreyer; Writers Joseph Delteil and Dreyer; Cinematographer Rudolph Maté; Starring Renée Falconetti; Length 82 minutes.
Seen at Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Friday 27 June 2003 (and earlier on VHS at the university library, Wellington, September 1999, and on several subsequent occasions at home, most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, Sunday 15 November 2015).
There’s a powerful intensity to the presentation of this film, which is essentially a courtroom drama. Partly that comes from the fact that it is pretty much confined to a single room, where wife Viviane (co-writer/director Ronit Elkabetz) is attempting to obtain a divorce agreement (or gett) from her husband Elisha (Simon Abkarian). The room has a bland, clean starkness, and there are only a few camera set-ups possible to capture the two benches where Viviane and Elisha sit with their respective counsels, and the three judges who sit listening to their arguments. But a lot of the intensity is to do with the mismatch between the unchanging solemnity of this bureaucratic setting and the absurdity of Viviane’s situation, which unfolds over five years, with frequent titles indicating the passage of months between appearances. It’s not just that divorce seems normalised to modern Western viewers, it’s that the religious demands of the Israeli society within which the Amsalems live place all the burden onto the wife, with the husband largely unpunished for making little effort to mount a defence. There are no grandstanding speeches (when Viviane’s lawyer or she herself attempt anything of this nature, they are quickly shut down by the stern men who sit in judgement), it just quietly goes about documenting the manifest absurdities of the process, meanwhile hinting at details of the couple’s life together and the reasons for her actions.
Directors/Writers Ronit Elkabetz רונית אלקבץ and Shlomi Elkabetz שלומי אלקבץ; Cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie; Starring Ronit Elkabetz רונית אלקבץ, Simon Abkarian Սիմոն Աբգարեան; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Sunday 3 January 2016.