Criterion Sunday 454: Europa (aka Zentropa, 1991)

One of Lars von Trier’s earlier works, back when his focus was very much on being a wunderkind behind the camera and doing tricksy things with deep focus honouring his classical heroes, while also setting the stage to some extent for Guy Maddin and others, but for me it all lacks the thrill of Maddin. It certainly achieves a certain textural depth, with the graininess of the colour tinted film and the deep contrasts of the black-and-white working quite nicely with one another. The plot is a bit Hitchcockian, with its trains and machinations and a certain post-war gloominess about the idea of Europe along with Germany’s place within it. I didn’t feel an enormous amount of attachment to the characters or the story but as an exercise in style it’s persuasive.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Lars von Trier; Writers von Trier and Niels Vørsel; Cinematographers Henning Bendtsen, Edward Kłosiński and Jean-Paul Meurisse; Starring Jean-Marc Barr, Barbara Sukowa, Udo Kier, Ernst-Hugo Järegård, Max von Sydow; Length 107 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 22 August 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, June 1998).

Criterion Sunday 437: Vampyr – Der Traum des Allan Gray (Vampyr, 1932)

I can imagine this film at the time seeming quite quaint and old-fashioned. It very much still feels like a silent film: most of the exposition is done via text-heavy images of book pages like a silent film’s intertitles and there’s very little in the way of spoken dialogue. It also, even for the period, feels rather slow with a minimum of plot drama; much of the film revolves around the atmospherics that Dreyer and his production designer and cinematographer are able to evoke. It is the very cinematic expression of the uncanny/unheimlich, as many of the images are filmed with a heavy grain, almost washed out and shot through veils, like the title character’s dream (which is after all the subtitle of the full German original title). It’s a morbid, imagistic and fantastic dream or nightmare, a reverie of the waking dead, and vampirism just seems like part of the heavy folk stylistics being conjured here, only added to by the heavy somnabulistic movements of the amateur aristocratic socialite (Nicolas de Gunzberg, credited as Julian West) in the lead role. Certainly the vampirism doesn’t seem to connote the blood-sucking of capitalists as it can in more modern interpretations, but instead evokes the sense of an ancient rural curse and restless vengeful spirits. It’s all very mysterious and beautiful, whatever inspires the horror, and while it doesn’t conjure the same kind of frightfulness as modern works, it has its own sense of the uncanny.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Carl Theodor Dreyer; Writers Christen Jul and Dreyer (based on the collection of short stories In a Glass Darkly by Sheridan Le Fanu); Cinematographer Rudolph Maté; Starring Nicolas de Gunzberg [as “Julian West”], Maurice Schutz, Sybille Schmitz, Rena Mandel; Length 73 minutes.

Seen at the Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Sunday 29 June 2003 and at the BFI Southbank, London, Monday 19 March 2012 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Sunday 13 June 2021).

Criterion Sunday 405: Die 3 Groschen-Oper (The Threepenny Opera, aka L’Opéra de quat’sous, 1931)

There are two versions of this film by Pabst, filmed with different central casts but on the same sets on the same days. Both are included on the Criterion edition, but I watched the German one, and after also watching ten minutes of the French version, I do believe the former to be the better. The shadows are deeper and darker, and the lead character of Mackie Messer as played by Rudolf Forster is so much sterner and more forbidding a figure, plus he has a very evilly twirlable moustache unlike Albert Préjean’s clean-faced boyishly roguish criminal in the French version. Of course, I imagine we’re all familiar with the “Mack the Knife” song (“Die Moritat” in German), but aside from the songs the German film feels almost eerily devoid of sound. In this respect it differs from the kind of filmmaking, with orchestral scores to soften the empty moments, which we have since become used to — although it is perhaps also a choice, to emphasise the solitude and darkness of this vision of Victorian London, and the dangers within it. The greatest danger is withheld until the final shots, when Bertolt Brecht’s darkly cynical punchline is unveiled and of course it’s that capitalism is the greatest villain. Perhaps this seems a little old-fashioned, but it still has power.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Aside from the French alternate version, which in some respects could be considered a separate film, there’s a 20 minute comparison of the two versions by academic Charles O’Brien, which is very illuminating about both how it was done, but also the different choices Pabst and his collaborators made in bringing it to the screen, including lightening the tone and literally lighting the set more brightly, giving it a softer more comedic feeling than the darker German original.
  • There’s also a strange and very brief introduction from a 1950s reissue in which Fritz Rasp (who played Peachum) and Ernst Busch (the street singer of “Die Moritat”) look on from a theatre box and Busch sings the original final lyrics. It creates a mood, for sure.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director G. W. Pabst; Writers Béla Balázs, Léo Lania and Ladislaus Vajda (based on the play by Bertolt Brecht with music by Kurt Weill); Cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner; Starring Rudolf Forster, Carola Neher, Reinhold Schünzel, Lotte Lenya; Length 110 minutes [German version].

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 6 March 2021.

Criterion Sunday 401: Night on Earth (1991)

Jim Jarmusch wasn’t unfamiliar with making portmanteau movies (this one or Coffee and Cigarettes), and elsewhere at the very least has divided his films into distinct chapters, as he did in Stranger Than Paradise (one of which was initially released as a short film before he had funding for the rest of the feature). So it’s not unusual for him that here he covers people driving taxis in five different cities, two in the US (LA and NYC) as well as Paris, Rome and Helsinki.

It’s interesting to see people online responding quite differently to each of these five segments. The Roman section is probably the most divisive, but then again it largely depends how you feel about Roberto Benigni as a screen presence. He riffs away on various themes, mostly of the illicitly sexual variety, while driving a priest across Rome, and so the humour is largely broad and upfront. It’s not what Jarmusch is perhaps best known for, and it’s certainly not my favourite kind of humour, so it largely passes me by. NYC is also pretty broad in its humour, but it’s fun to see Giancarlo Esposito and Rosie Perez play off each other, so soon after Do the Right Thing, and they attack it with plenty of energy. Paris, meanwhile, uses one of Jarmusch’s favourite actors, Isaach de Bankolé, and I do always love just watching his face and the way he channels emotions — of course the taxi setup means that watching faces becomes much easier for us as an audience as everyone is facing forward and largely unmoving. That said, the blindness metaphor into which Béatrice Dalle is cast is a little heavy handed.

This leaves the first and last segments, probably my own favourites, because of the way they use the limited space (there is very little that takes place outside the taxi journeys), as well as the iconic actors in each: Gena Rowlands and Winona Ryder in the former; Matti Pellonpää in the latter. He has a face I could watch for ages, and so it’s a great way to wrap the film up, melancholy and doleful though he is.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The main extra is an almost hour-long audio recording of Jarmusch answering questions from fans which have been sent into and filtered by the Criterion office. He is generous with his answers and gives plenty of context to what he was doing with this film, as well as shedding light on his own artistic practice, so it’s well worth listening.
  • Another feature is a 5-minute piece from Belgian TV to mark the release of the film back in 1992, in which they bundle Jarmusch into the back of a Paris taxi and have him talk about the film. He actually hits a few of the same points as he did 15 years later in the Q&A featurette above, but it’s still a good interview.
  • The booklet has five writers linked to each of the cities in the film speak to their section of the film, with evident warmth from many, though they don’t always love their own city’s section the most within the film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jim Jarmusch; Cinematographer Frederick Elmes; Starring Gena Rowlands, Winona Ryder, Giancarlo Esposito, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Rosie Perez, Isaach de Bankolé, Béatrice Dalle, Roberto Benigni, Matti Pellonpää; Length 128 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 21 February 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, December 2000).

Talking About Trees (2019)

One of my favourite films of last year was a documentary about filmmaking, and about film culture, in a place where it’s been allowed to die. Four elderly men try to revive cinemagoing in Sudan, and it’s a film about life and the difficulty of living in certain political conditions, but the drive to keep on going anyway.


Although it’s a documentary, fairly straightforward as these things go, there’s something of a deeper resonance to it. Partly that’s the style, the way it unfolds at a leisurely pace. After all, it’s about four elderly filmmakers trying to bring back the cinema to their country of Sudan, trying to find a suitable space, getting the screen and cameras and sound sorted, looking for the right title, and getting the official permissions in order. And so if it feels unhurried, that’s partly because these are all men who don’t have anywhere else to be going, or so it seems. The passion, though, is real and very evident as they try to get their project going. As it moves along, the documentary also hints at some of the promise of Sudanese cinema, which died back when these men were young, and about the political state of their country. In one memorable scene, one of the men counts off all the times they lived through: “colonialism, the first democracy, the first dictatorship, the second democracy, the second dictatorship…” So in fact the film is not really talking about trees or insubstantial subjects, but dealing with something that feels more tragic in its hue. You hope for their success, but it seems to recede further the more the film plays.

Talking About Trees film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Suhaib Gasmelbari صهيب الباري; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 4 February 2020.

Global Cinema 26: Bulgaria – Sofia’s Last Ambulance (2012)

The Eastern European country of Bulgaria has a rather smaller film culture than some of its neighbours, though it still can boast a number of prominent international features, most notably The Lesson (2014) along with other films by its directors Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov. The film I’m focusing on here is a documentary, which suggests the Bulgarian economy is still in a period of post-Soviet recovery.


Bulgarian flagRepublic of Bulgaria (България)
population 6,951,000 | capital Sofia (София) (1.2m) | largest cities Sofia, Plovdiv (Пловдив) (338k), Varna (Варна) (335k), Burgas (Бургас) (200k), Ruse (Русе) (150k) | area 110,994 km2 | religion Bulgarian Orthodox Christianity (60%), none (9%), Islam (8%) | official language Bulgarian (български) | major ethnicity Bulgarian (85%), Turk (9%) | currency Lev лев (лв.) [BGN] | internet .bg

A country in southeast Europe that lies on the Black Sea, and is bordered by Romania, Serbia, North Macedonia, Greece and Turkey. The name derives from the Bulgars, a Turkic tribe which founded the country, and which itself may be derived from a proto-Turkic word for “revolt” (bulgak), suggesting a troublemaking people. Neanderthal remains date back to the Middle Paleolithic period, and the Neolithic society of the Karanovo arose around 6500 BCE, succeeded by the Varna culture, known for their gold metallurgy. Thracians arrived in the 12th century BCE, conquered in turn by the Persian Achaemenids in the 6th century BCE; a resurgence of Thracian unity was put paid to by first the Celts and then the Romans, who made it a province in 45 CE, and were succeeded by the Byzantines and then nomadic Slavic tribes. The First Bulgarian Empire was proclaimed in 681 CE, bringing in a written code of law and then Christianity in the mid-9th century (it had been around the region for a few centuries by that point). The Byzantines took back control in 1014, but an uprising formed the Second Bulgarian Empire in 1185. It disintegrated a few centuries later, to be conquered by the Ottomans in the 14th century, waning until the point of an uprising in 1876. With Russian help, an autonomous Bulgarian principality was signed into existence on 3 March 1878 (though this was rejected by the other Great Powers, and a subsequent treaty in July set out a smaller state); independence was proclaimed in 1908. A tumultuous political period saw it pulled between German and Russian influence, eventually falling under the Soviets after World War II, led by Todor Zhivkov for much of this period. The first free elections came in 1990, and the country is now led by a Prime Minister with a weaker Presidential role.

The first Bulgarian film dates back to 1910, and although there was some production early on, it was severely curtailed by World War II. There has been a bit of resurgence in Bulgarian film production, with a number of feature films and documentaries produced each year, and around 226 cinemas in the country. Sofia also hosts an international film festival.


Последната линейка на София Poslednata lineika na Sofia (Sofia’s Last Ambulance, 2012)

There’s a creeping sense of inevitable doom to this documentary about a single Bulgarian ambulance crew, dealing as it does with a medical system at the end of its tether, chronic underinvestment meaning this is one of the only ambulances left servicing the city. Without leaving the vehicle very much (we see the crew attend to a few cases, but never see those they’re helping, and there are few enough shots even from the front window), we get a picture of the many frustrations they face — faulty equipment, operators unwilling or unable to take their calls or give instructions, potholed roads, police who pull them out to the middle of nowhere to attend a long-dead woman, drivers who crash stupidly into them. It’d be funny if it weren’t life-or-death, but the crew have a grumbling sense of humour, while putting away plenty of cigarettes. Don’t get sick in Sofia.

Sofia's Last Ambulance film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Ilian Metev Илиян Метев; Length 75 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 12 December 2016.

Global Cinema 22: Bosnia and Herzegovina – Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams (2006)

I am currently in the process of moving halfway around the world, so some of my regularly scheduled reviews may be a little delayed, and that’s also the reason I haven’t been running my theme weeks. I’ll get back up to speed soon enough I’m sure, when I have better access to films and places to watch them. In the meantime, here’s an older review (and a rather short one) for a Bosnian film, as we’ve reached that country, which has gone through a tumultuous recent history, and emerged as its own sovereign state in recent years.


Bosnian and Herzegovinian flagBosnia and Herzegovina (Bosna i Hercegovina)
population 3,301,000 | capital Sarajevo (276k) | largest cities Sarajevo, Banja Luka (185k), Tuzla (110.9k), Zenica (110.6k), Bijeljina (108k) | area 51,129 km2 | religion Islam (51%), Christianity (46%) | official language Bosnian (bosanski), Serbian (srpski) and Croatian (hrvatski) | major ethnicity Bosniaks (50%), Serbs (31%), Croats (15%) | currency Convertible mark (konvertibilna marka) (KM) [BAM] | internet .ba

A Balkan country in southeast Europe, with a mountainous interior, flatlands in the northeast, and a Mediterranean climate in the southern (Herzegovina) region, and only 20km coastline on the Adriatic. The name can be traced back to the Byzantine emperor Constantine VII in the 10th century, who wrote of “Bosona”, deriving from the river Bosna, ultimately from Proto-Indo-European for “running water”; Herzegovina meanwhile derives from the German word for “duke” (herzog), in reference to a Mediaeval ruler. Settlement in the region can be traced back to the Upper Paleolithic era (late Stone Age), and has had permanent settlements since the Neolithic. Illyrian and Celtic people gave way to South Slavic, and the earliest existence of Bosnia as a polity was in the 7th century CE. The Banate of Bosnia was established in the C12th followed by the Kingdom in the C14th, then taken up as part of the Ottoman Empire until the 19th century, which is how Islam was introduced. After a brief period as part of Austria-Hungary, it became part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia following World War I, and gained full republic status after WW2. Independence was proclaimed on 1 March 1992, leading to a civil war with Bosnian Serbs that lasted until 1995, ended by the Dayton Agreement that year. The country is largely divided into two as a result (the Federation of B&H and Republika Srpska), with a three member presidency for its three main ethnic groups (Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats), among whom leadership rotates, a democractically-elected parliament, with oversight provided by an external High Representative (required under the terms of the Dayton Agreement to ensure that peace is kept).

The country’s film heritage goes back to its time as part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, with notable Bosnian film figures like Danis Tanović, Emir Kusturica and the director of the film I’ve reviewed below. The Sarajevo Film Festival was established in 1995 and continues to be a prominent part of film culture in the region.


Grbavica (Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams, aka Esma’s Secret, 2006)

Made over a decade after a bitter civil war, the effects of it are still powerfully felt in this Bosnian drama. It’s called Esma’s Secret in the UK, though quite what is that secret never really feels surprising, as the truth is always so painfully near the surface. The source of her trauma, rooted in the civil war, really radiates out from the lead actor’s eyes (Mirjana Karanović), her hollow expressiveness, and it affects particularly her relations with even ostensibly friendly men.

Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams film posterCREDITS
Director Jasmila Žbanić; Writers Žbanić and Barbara Albert; Cinematographer Christine A. Maier; Starring Mirjana Karanović, Luna Mijović; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 26 November 2016.

Un divan à New York (A Couch in New York, 1996)

Chantal Akerman is a filmmaker very much from Belgium and linked with that country, but this Franco-German-Belgian co-production isn’t even set in any of those places, which certainly makes it unusual. European films about America and its people are rarely particularly successful, I don’t think, and this romcom (not a genre most associated with Akerman, though she often veered quite close to it) is surely very odd. It’s on Mubi right now, and worth having a look at.


I’m not honestly sure what exactly I can say about Chantal Akerman’s romcom, given just how far it is outside her usual style and themes (though I suppose Tomorrow We Move had a story of comedic edge to it, even if it was about mothers and daughters, which you somewhat more expect with Akerman). It’s set mostly in New York City, with a bit in Paris, as William Hurt and Juliette Binoche’s characters swap apartments, and he is exposed to a rather bijou but artfully squalid Parisian flat (complete with overly passionate boyfriends stomping in and smacking him around), while she gets a plush, grand apartment in a block with a concierge, where his patients (for he is a psychoanalyst) just wander in and demand therapy. This, primarily, is where I suppose the comedy happens, in these encounters where it turns out Binoche’s character is ‘curing’ everyone, leading him to return and seek therapy from her himself. It’s all a little bit arch, and stretches credulity, but such is the generic framework of the romcom. It doesn’t really work, quite, at least not in the usual ways, but Binoche remains a delightful screen presence as ever.

A Couch in New York film posterCREDITS
Director Chantal Akerman; Writers Akerman and Jean-Louis Benoît; Cinematographer Dietrich Lohmann; Starring Juliette Binoche, William Hurt; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 17 January 2019.

Dreamaway (2018)

A recent film from Egypt (co-produced by Germany, with a German co-director and cinematographer) is this piece which sits somewhere between an evocatively artful documentary and something fictionalised, though quite where the boundaries between the two lie is open to interpretation. It was one of my favourite films of the London Film Festival in 2018, so I’m saddened there hasn’t been much distribution of it since then because I think it’s really interesting and beautiful, and I wonder if holiday resorts in the age of Covid-19 look somewhat similar right now?


Although billed as a documentary, Dreamaway (as it’s styled on screen, though often referred to as Dream Away) lies somewhere just between that and fiction, presenting stories of real people in a real place, but with just a slight hint that these are fictionalised versions, or reconstructions, workshopped with a non-professional cast (albeit people who have done and experienced the real life depicted). There are all these hints throughout that what we’re seeing is at one stage removed from pure observational documentary filmmaking — a sage-like man in a monkey costume asking questions from the back of a truck, or all the key characters trudging through the desert in search of nothing like the characters in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Partly this may be to stay on the right side of the censors, for after all it’s hardly the rosiest portrait of the Egyptian tourist industry at Sharm-el-Shaikh (we barely see any tourists at all, as all these service workers turn down beds, DJ music, and do fitness routines for an audience of no one). But it’s a canny move in a film that has much of the same feeling as Alma Har’el’s films (Bombay Beach or LoveTrue), somewhere at the interstices of reality and make-believe — then again, a lot of the world it depicts could be said to inhabit that same duality, creating this fake English-speaking zone of no conflict in a country consumed by it in recent years.

Dreamaway film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Marouan Omara مروان عمارة and Johanna Domke; Cinematographer Jakob Beurle; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Friday 19 October 2018.

بابا عزیز Bab’Aziz (2005)

The Tunisian director Nacer Khemir made this film, the third in his so-called ‘Desert Trilogy’ made over three decades, in both Tunisia and Iran, so it’s both a North African and a Middle Eastern film at the same time, in Arabic and Farsi. It tells a sort of pan-Islamic tale of mysticism, but it harks back to a storytelling tradition that’s based more on the journey and the details than on any particular destination.


This isn’t a period film (there are cars and roads and signs of modernity), but then again it also feels really unmoored from any specific time, or even place — some characters speak in Farsi, some reply in Arabic, and that’s just how it is, a sort of pan-Islamic world utopian vision of deserts and dervishes. It functions, then, less as a film about the world as a film of a spiritual journey or quest — if I knew more about Sufism (a sort of ecstatic, dance-focused branch of Islam), I might be able to pick up on more specific reference points. An old dervish (the father Aziz of the title, played by Parviz Shahinkhou) and his young granddaughter (Maryam Hamid) trek across a desert in search of a gathering of other dervishes (those practising Sufism), while he tells a story of a Narcissus-like prince. Gradually other people they meet add in their own stories, and by the end you realise that in fact nothing very much has really happened at a plot level, but it’s all in the telling. However, it’s a beautiful rendering of this environment, with many sweeping, gorgeous shots of the desert, rich colours and expressive performances. Plot, sometimes, really is a very minor consideration.

Bab'Aziz film posterCREDITS
Director Nacer Khemir ناصر خمير‎; Writers Tonino Guerra and Khemir; Cinematographer Mahmoud Kalari محمود کلاری; Starring Parviz Shahinkhou پرویز شاهین‌خو, Maryam Hamid مریم حمید, Golshifteh Farahani گلشیفته فراهانی‎; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 26 March 2018.