This Friday sees the UK release of war film 1917, so I’m looking at some war-themed films, though not all exactly in the ‘war film’ genre. Today, for example, is a fascinating and beautifully-shot documentary that is more about the visible presence of a history of war within the landscape, sometimes in quite subtle ways.
There’s such a range of documentaries in the world, it’s sad to think that some people might link the form solely with talking heads and archival footage. This strange Belgian piece (with many other countries co-producing) manages to sustain its enigmatic tone throughout its whole 90 minutes and four sections, such that it’s hard precisely to say what’s going on, just that all of it is related to the (sometimes unusual) ways in which a 20th century history of war has manifested itself throughout continental Europe. There’s a woman who sits in her flat in the morning eating breakfast, then puts on a military uniform and travels to the woods to some of kind of training facility — or maybe it’s just an elaborate ‘escape room’-type game for people with too much money — where she translates another instructor’s barked orders into English. There’s another where a man sits in his home basking in the dappled light coming through the windows before at length we discover it’s a former bunker. And then there is the inflatable weaponry. It’s all inscrutably presented, even a little comical at times, but it’s never boring thanks to the careful editing and very precise and lustrous framing of each shot.
Director/Writer Isabelle Tollenaere; Cinematographer Frédéric Noirhomme; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Tuesday 17 April 2018.
I’m still going to be covering some of my favourite films I saw during 2019 until at least the end of this week, as well as inevitable best-of lists. As it happens, the end of this month sees the UK release of another film called The Lighthouse, but not to be confused with that Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe psychodrama is this 2006 film by Armenian director Maria Saakyan, who died far too young in January 2018, from cancer. It’s expressionist and beautiful and weaves a poetic tableaux of rural Armenian life interrupted by war.
This poetic, beautiful film that touches on war and family in rural Armenia is very much my kind of thing, where the narrative almost takes a back seat to imagery that suggests via metaphor and allusion to inner states, as Lena (Anna Kapaleva) tries to get her family out of a war-strewn area. It feels very much like some Theo Angelopoulos films (but without the overweening self-importance) or the more elegiac films of Aleksandr Sokurov, and to be sure there’s a lot of beautiful and potent imagery that can feel almost abstract. And yet, focusing on the women of this village grounds it in customs and lived experienced in a successful way I think. It’s really very sad that the filmmaker didn’t live to make many more films, because as a debut feature this is extraordinary.
Director Maria Saakyan Мария Саакян; Writer Givi Shavgulidze Гиви Шавгулидзе; Cinematographer Maxim Drozdov Максим Дроздов; Starring Anna Kapaleva Анна Капалева; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 9 March 2019.
Obviously this Soviet comedy-musical from the 1950s is not about Christmas, because Christianity wasn’t exactly a state-sanctioned religion at the time. However, it’s set around the same time of year and deals instead with a New Year’s party. Still it feels somehow Christmassy, and was presented somewhat as such at a screening introduced by the Guardian‘s film critic Peter Bradshaw, so I’m including it here.
A delightful Soviet musical comedy about a bunch of plucky kids putting on a fun New Year’s party being constantly criticised and belittled by a pompous apparatchik bureaucrat (Igor Ilyinsky) determined to stamp out all the joy and replace it with long disquisitions on topics of pedagogical improvement: he intends a number of lectures, including from himself; he wants old men to play serious music rather than a young band of jazz neophytes; he wants a sad song from the librarian and a fable from the accountant; he completely reworks a bawdy clown routine in every element; the list goes on. So the entire film is just the kids finding ways to thwart this dull and lifeless man, who nevertheless manages to steal the show with his immaculate comic timing and ridiculously puffed-up self-importance. It manages to both satirise some of the humourless tendencies of the Soviet leadership, while also being genuinely rather fun.
Director Eldar Ryazanov Эльда́р Ряза́нов; Writers Boris Laskin Борис Ласкин and Vladimir Polyakov Влади́мир Поляко́в; Cinematographer Arkadi Koltsaty Аркадий Кольца́тый; Starring Igor Ilyinsky И́горь Ильи́нский, Lyudmila Gurchenko Людми́ла Гу́рченко, Yuri Belov Юрий Белов; Length 78 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 4 December 2018.
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.
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.
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.
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.
After some genre-defining silent films (which we’ll get to much later on in the Criterion Collection), Austro-Hungarian émigré director Josef von Sternberg did a run of films with Marlene Dietrich — the first in Germany (The Blue Angel, 1930) but the rest in the United States. In some ways these defined something else in cinema, every bit as important as a narrative structure, which is a sense of the fetishisation of the actor as icon. Obviously there had been stars before Dietrich, but the quality that Sternberg gets across in his run of films with her is something else, something more profound, something almost magical. His penultimate film with her was The Scarlet Empress, and alongside the shimmering beauty of Dietrich — the burnished close-ups, the flamboyant dress — this must rank as some kind of masterpiece of set design. Every image is crammed with baroque detail, every shot framed by grotesque sculptures presiding creepily over the action. This latter largely revolves around Dietrich on her road to becoming the Empress Catherine II, “Catherine the Great”, married into Russian nobility (the mad Peter, played with wide-eyed intensity by Sam Jaffe) and learning the ways of the court and methods of extending her power. The camerawork and lighting is bravura, but it’s those stylish set touches that only heighten the film’s giddy campness and emphasise how much Sternberg has given to the cinema in the 20th century. Stars would never again shine quite as brightly.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Josef von Sternberg; Writer Manuel Komroff (based on a diary by Catherine II Екатери́на Алексе́евна); Cinematographer Bert Glennon; Starring Marlene Dietrich, John Lodge, Louise Dresser, Sam Jaffe; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 31 July 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, April 2001).
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.
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).
Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky is certainly no stranger to grand portentous overlong films that seem to hold within their allegorical narratives some statement about society and the world, and in many ways this 1966 film (not released until 1969 due to problems with the Soviet censors) is the first of those to break through to an international audience. It did so in a series of increasingly shorter cuts of around 2.5 to 3 hours in length, but the full 205 minutes is restored here by Criterion and, assuming you’re already in for meandering stories about wandering monks in 14th century Russia, then it won’t disappoint. Although Rublev was a famous painter of icons in Russian Orthodox churches, there’s relatively little of that actually in the film (possibly the creation of art isn’t quite as compelling). However, it enacts a narrative of divine inspiration challenged by atheist philistines, and one can already sense why perhaps the atheist Communist Party of 1960s USSR might not have taken too kindly to Tarkovsky’s themes. The film is split into eight chapters, set in chronological order and dealing (if sometimes tangentially) with episodes from Rublev’s life — encountering a sarcastic jester, discussing art with his mentor Theophanes, enacting Christ’s passion, dealings with pagans and Tatars, et al. It’s probably best to think of these as each illustrating some allegorical lesson about Russia, but they are also quite often handsomely mounted and beautifully shot in sinuous long takes. The final section is perhaps the most impressive, wherein a young boy, the son of a bellfounder, is called on to forge an enormous bell for the Grand Prince, and does so by submitting blindly to faith, while Rublev watches from a distance in silence, having at this point given up on his art. Its message of the importance of artistic creation even under oppressive regimes is a valorous one, and though it may take some time to sink in, the film is a grand achievement.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Andrei Tarkovsky Андре́й Тарко́вский; Writer Andrei Konchalovsky Андре́й Михалко́в-Кончало́вский and Tarkovsky; Cinematographer Vadim Yusov Вадим Юсов; Starring Anatoly Solonitsyn Анатолий Солоницын; Length 205 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 3 May 2015 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, September 1997, and at the university library, Wellington, September 2000).