Criterion Sunday 387: La Jetée (aka The Pier, 1962) and Sans soleil (aka Sunless, 1983)

Unquestionably a classic of the French New Wave, though it somewhat stands apart from the other familiar films of that period what with it being un photo-roman, driven by still photographs. It’s a canny technique for a low-budget science-fiction film, and director Chris Marker exploits it fully, with a range of photographic effects matched by the familiar poetic narrational style from his documentaries. The plot hinges on its central time-travelling dichotomy, which I think is well-known enough that it’s not exactly a spoiler any more (especially after its reimagining as 12 Monkeys, but look away if so): the man who remembers witnessing his own death. Having seen this sub-30 minute film several times, it’s still enormously affecting the way the film loops around to this, hopping back and forth through time, evoking an apocalyptic Paris through simple effects: dungeon-like settings, a bleak high-contrast photography and the simple foam pads over the eyes that hint at the only technological resources the future still possesses, whereas the present is in a softer monochrome, flickering briefly to life in the eyes of the woman our protagonist is fixated on. I think it’s Godard who is often quoted as saying his films have a beginning, a middle and an end though not necessarily in that order, but La Jetée exemplifies that in practice.

I think Chris Marker’s poetic documentary style of film essay has been incredibly influential, and Sans soleil (1983) is one of his key works, the title also translated on screen as Sunless (and, strangely, in Russian if I recall correctly). It’s a documentary after a fashion, but really it’s a reflective personal essay about memory and understanding, put into the words of a fictional Hungarian cameraman in letters to the narrator, who may be understood to be an alter ego for Marker himself I suppose, as this film was made after a period in which Marker and his New Wave compatriots had been in various leftist collectivist political groups that eschewed authorial credit. In any case, you can see a lot of what has been inspiring about the film though it remains something of a product of its times. It’s mostly concerned with a travelogue around Japan, from the point of view of someone who grew up during World War II, and so turns back every so often to the remnants of the war, probably more in the narrator’s mind than those he films, but it makes for slightly uncomfortably viewing. This kind of othering, or exoticising of foreign people (and the film also flits occasionally to Africa and Cape Verde), sits oddly but really it’s a film about memory that loops in travelogue and even a bit of film criticism (of one of Marker’s favourites, Vertigo, a film which had a strong formative role in La Jetée also) and as such occupies a sort of poetic imaginary. Certainly, it’s not a film that will necessarily help you understand Japan except as it figures in western consciousness of the mid-20th century perhaps.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection

La Jetée (aka The Pier, 1962)
Director/Writer Chris Marker; Cinematographers Jean Chiabaut and Marker; Starring Jean Négroni; Length 27 minutes.
Seen at the Paramount, Wellington, Wednesday 30 July 1997 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Thursday 7 January 2021).

Sans soleil (aka Sunless, 1983)
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Chris Marker; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at the Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Tuesday 10 June 2003 (and before that on VHS at home, Wellington, August 1997, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Saturday 9 January 2021).

In der Dämmerstunde Berlin de l’aube à la nuit (1980)

As part of my Belgian week, which has quickly become more about Belgian co-productions made and set in other countries, we move to Berlin in the late-1970s with this strange document of a vanished era, not widely available (screened in 16mm at the Deptford Cinema when I saw it), but capturing a real feeling for a place. The bilingual title hints at its dual origins, and the filmmaker is Belgian, which gives it that outsider’s-view feel.


This strange piece of celluloid feels like a time capsule from a different place, an irretrievable time, the alien landscape of Berlin in the late-1970s, with the Wall very much in evidence, train journeys that just end abruptly even as we see the track stretching out ahead of the camera, and little walks around town that the filmmaker takes (the back of her head becomes very familiar), what I suppose we would today call psychogeography. Occasionally we hear voices from those talking about post-war Germany, from a Jewish bookseller determined to return to the country which treated him so badly, and from old ladies talking about Hitler. But for the most part this is a densely-textured journey film, broken up by quotes and snatches of opera, and the presence of a clanking 16mm cinema projector at the back of the room where I saw it, seemed to lend it an almost spiritual quality, of a black-and-white document stolen from history.

CREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Annik Leroy; Length 67 minutes.
Seen at Deptford Cinema, London, Saturday 23 March 2019.

Two Films by Ulrike Ottinger: Ticket of No Return (1979) and Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia (1989)

Though Ulrike Ottinger is probably one of the key female figures in the New Germany Cinema that sprung up in the late-1960s, and one who started directing her own films by the early-1970s, she was a filmmaker who until recently was fairly unknown to me. I’ve seen three of her features just this year, and have already written about the epic documentary travelogue Chamisso’s Shadow (2016). Like a lot of filmmakers who are drawn to documentary, there’s a lot of it even in her fiction features, particularly the Mongolian-set Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia (with its very careful use of three different languages in its original title). Even the 1979 film I deal with below has little elements of real life, as I gather that one of the characters was a real-life homeless woman well-known in the area at the time, and it wilfully dispenses with narrative expectations as its central character gets even more messy (the German title translates as “diary of a drinker”). It was screened as part of an online film festival recently, and I look forward to catching up with more of Ottinger’s work.

Continue reading “Two Films by Ulrike Ottinger: Ticket of No Return (1979) and Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia (1989)”

Ein flüchtiger Zug nach dem Orient (A Fleeting Passage to the Orient, 1999)

Following on from my post about Ulrike Ottinger’s Chamisso’s Shadow earlier today, another filmmaker crafting a similar meeting between history and travel is Ruth Beckermann, whose work I discuss today takes the form of a travelogue but again uses historical texts and incidents to structure it, finding a little bit of the past in present actions perhaps, and revealing something of the world as it’s not perhaps frequently seen by the West.


An essay film with shades of Chantal Akerman I thought, in the way it elegantly constructs its telling of the story of the peripatetic later life travels of Empress Elisabeth of Austria in the 19th century with its own travelogue visions of Egypt. There are lateral tracking shots of markets and bridges across the Nile, among many other sights and sounds of the country, pulled together by a studied narration (available in both German and English). It seems like something that must be very deeply considered, and I confess that I watched it in probably less than the careful scrutiny it deserves, but I very much warmed to the sense of feeling it imparts (presumably somewhat like the Empress would herself have encountered) of peering somehow through the exoticised Othering of Egypt and its people that exists in the West, of getting a glimpse of life in this bustling world city, albeit with a certain distance.

A Fleeting Passage to the Orient film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Ruth Beckermann; Cinematographers Nurith Aviv נורית אביב and Sophie Cadet; Length 82 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 30 January 2020.

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.

January 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up

I don’t write full reviews of every film I see, because I’d spend more time writing than watching, probably, and I’ve been seeing quite a few things at home. However, I thought I should offer some brief thoughts about my other January viewing.

Big Eyes (2014, USA)
The Craft (1996, USA)
D’est (From the East) (1993, Belgium/France/Portugal)
Get Over It (2001, USA)
Holes (2003, USA)
I Could Never Be Your Woman (2007, USA)
Into the Woods (2014, USA)
Loser (2000, USA)
Sheen of Gold (2013, New Zealand)
Slap Her, She’s French! (aka She Gets What She Wants) (2002, USA)
Tabu (1931, USA)

Continue reading “January 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up”

Sicilia! (1999)

If you’ve been brought up on the action-oriented three-act-structured cinema of the classical Hollywood tradition with its star systems and psychological characterisation, then moving into the world of avant-garde European auteurism — with its loose sense of narrative structure and causation, and its use of non-professional actors — can sometimes prove difficult. I must say that I’ve been trying to watch films like this one for years with middling success, and the sense not that the films are bad as that I am not equal to enjoying them.

There’s a prominent strand of late-20th century cinema in Europe that I would characterise in terms of its relation to concepts of ennui and boredom, whether that’s at the level of subject matter (Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura springs to mind) or formal methods. Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, like their French compatriot Jacques Rivette to a certain extent, seem to fall into this latter camp, toying (if “toying” is indeed the most apposite word) with the aesthetics of duration — long takes and extended pauses — which can easily lead to accusations of boredom on the part of audiences and critics. I don’t mean, therefore, to come across as smugly superior when I say that there’s plenty of this cinematic tradition that I really enjoy — there’s no real reason why you should expect to like it, and I get the sense that these films and the filmmakers that make them don’t really seek anyone’s approval — but for those in the mood for something that unfolds at an almost catatonically unhurried pace, then Straub-Huillet are for you, and Sicilia! ranks among their more accessible works.

Not the least of the factors at play in this assessment is the film’s relatively short running time of just over an hour, though that’s not to say it’s exactly fast-moving. There are in fact only a handful of different scenes in the film, taking place in different (sometimes picturesque) locations, making it all feel a bit like a travelogue — and while it’s not in any sense a documentary, it does have traits in common with that style. At the heart of the film is a series of dialogues motivated by the travels of the central character (played by non-professional Gianni Buscarino), who says he has returned from New York after 15 years to visit his hometown in Sicily. We see him first, back to the camera, sitting on the docks where he has arrived, talking to a poor man selling oranges, in the course of which is discussed the different diet in Sicily. He is then seen talking to strangers on a train, at home with his mother discussing his childhood and her relationship with his absent father, and then finally on the steps of a church in his hometown conversing with a knife-grinder. The dialogues touch, I suppose, on what it is to be Sicilian and to live on the island, though more broadly it is about being an outsider to one’s own culture and sense of identity.

More immediately obvious, the film is ravishingly shot in highly-contrasted black-and-white by veteran cinematographer William Lubtchansky. Any given image could be taken from the film and framed, particularly the still lifes that punctuate the conversations, or the long takes of the countryside (in silence from a train window, or panning across the protagonist’s Sicilian hometown and back again from a hilltop vantage point), which act as a sort of extended visual chapter break at various points throughout the film. Shots of the rugged faces of these non-professional actors are held at length after they’ve finished talking, as Straub and Huillet hold out for some kind of feeling of closure to the dialogues. That and the pauses in the actors’ speeches form the most consistent aspect of the directors’ stylisation, which suggests a further level of dislocation in the central character’s journey, giving the film a kind of dream-like quality.

It is certainly difficult to describe just what makes the film enjoyable and fascinating, and it would be far easier to lay into it for being bloody-mindedly difficult and painfully slow, were I of that opinion. Instead I think the camera holds its subjects in a fascinated gaze that is as revelatory (after a fashion) as it is beautiful. I like the sense of awkwardness and otherworldliness that the acting style imparts, and the unrushed unfolding of the drama. It won’t be to everyone’s tastes I concede, but it’s an hour-long insight into a quite different way of making films.

Sicilia! film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub (based on the novel Conversazione in Sicilia by Elio Vittorini); Cinematographer William Lubtchansky; Starring Gianni Buscarino; Length 64 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 24 January 2014.

Allemagne année 90 neuf zéro (Germany Year 90 Nine Zero, 1991)

Following his great experimental Nouvelle Vague (1990), Godard did this shorter, rather more atypical piece set in Germany following the fall of the Berlin Wall. In it, he reunites with the star of Alphaville (1965), Eddie Constantine, again assuming his Lemmy Caution persona as he moves around Berlin, not unlike a time traveller, crossing past, present and future, and offering observations on the changes that have taken place.

I say it’s atypical, but that’s only because it goes on location, which the Godard of the 1980s onwards seemed less willing to do than the one who made, say, Le Mépris. However, it has most of the defining qualities of late-period Godard in its opacity and referentiality. It’s ostensibly a documentary, but takes in a lot more material, including interpolations of film clips and extensive quotes from literary and artistic sources, not to mention allusions and cryptic jokes. Therefore, it’s difficult for a viewer such as myself who is unfamiliar with a lot of the sources to make sense of this dense mélange, except in the broadest sensory terms.

Most notable perhaps is the presence of Constantine, who moves through the film’s largely depopulated spaces with a leathery old visage and basilisk stare. Echoing Germany’s own liminal state, it’s a film of uneasy spaces — border zones and shipyards and quarries — and Constantine seems appropriately out of place. He throws some flowers to the ground to join a battered street sign for Karl-Marx-Strasse that his car promptly drives over. The quarry in particular is accompanied by the most fantastic mining machine, a vast assemblage that could scarcely be contained in the mind of Terry Gilliam (it’s pictured in the poster included at the top of this review), and which threateningly towers over our narrator and guide.

It’s not just the weight of history and the bulk of machinery that seems to overwhelm the increasingly aged Constantine, for the film itself forcefully pursues its own formal strategies. Most striking is the soundtrack, which has its own dense sonic texture quite apart from (but at times working together with) the image track. Images and sounds weave into one another so densely that even the passing of a few days since I saw the film has made it difficult to recall any specifics. However, it’s fair to say that Godard isn’t really interested in just presenting a history of modern Germany in orthodox terms, but more as a assemblage of influences that reveal a state of mind, complete with some tendentious statements about the German national psyche as well as clips that pull in German poetry, painting, music, films and — of course — the politics that have defined its mid-20th century.

In the end it’s an experience that cannot easily be contained in a review. The Godard of this era — here and more so in the larger Histoire(s) du cinéma project — reasserts his role as a critic, marshalling evidence to support his sometimes rather too opaque claims. Just as the wall between East and West Berlin has fallen, and the borders between the two halves have opened, so the distinction between the two has become blurred — as our guide on this journey, Constantine is constantly seen asking those he meets “which way to the West?” to be met with at best confusion, but more usually totally blankness. At times, that’s the experience of the viewer too, but Godard’s richly layered filmmaking ensures that it’s never boring.

Next Up: Godard spent the rest of the decade focusing on his video work Histoire(s) du cinéma, but my next review will be of his 2001 return Éloge de l’amour (In Praise of Love), a densely poetic but ravishingly beautiful evocation of ageing that returns to some of the images and themes of his youth.

Germany Year 90 Nine Zero title cardCREDITS
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard (based on Nos solitudes: enquêtes sur un sentiment by Michel Hannoun); Cinematographers Stépan Benda, Andréas Erben and Christophe Pollock; Starring Eddie Constantine; Length 61 minutes.
Seen at Goethe Institut, London, Wednesday 11 September 2013.

The Epic of Everest (1924)

BFI London Film Festival 2013 This restored film is receiving its world premiere at the BFI Archive Gala on 18 October 2013 at the 57th London Film Festival. I was lucky enough to be able to attend a press screening preview.


When discussing films that are almost 90 years old — silent, black-and-white films from what seems like a dramatically remote era of modern history — you can apply different standards as to what makes them interesting: just the very existence of images from so long ago can be the cause of wonderment that wouldn’t be the case if the film had been made almost any time since. And though there are certainly aspects of that while watching this travelogue of a 1924 expedition to conquer Mount Everest, I think the majestic power of the images captured is at times as great as it would be in any subsequent film on the subject.

Part of the reason for the film’s power — and it does still have a marvellous capacity to create awe — is the newly-commissioned score by Simon Fisher Turner, who also recently worked on the re-release of another restored travelogue documentary of the era, The Great White Silence (1924). Vast shards of sweeping electronic tones locate us in that mythic territory that Popol Vuh explored in Werner Herzog’s similarly doomed epics of colonialist exploration in the 1970s and 1980s, but with a rougher overlay of sonic distortion, cracks and warping suggesting the greater age of the film. There’s also a more recognisably human element as snatches of naive local melodies and archival sounds from the era (provided via the director’s daughter) are interpolated into the score along with the subtle use of appropriate sonic cues to accompany on-screen action, such as flowing water when we see a river, or the scratch of a pen on paper in a letter-writing scene.

While the new music is marvellously fitting, it would not amount to much without Captain John Noel’s stunning images of Everest and the surrounding lands. I’ve already mentioned Herzog’s films, and there’s something here of the same grandeur and folly to shots of the explorers and their Sherpa guides wending a zig-zagged path across the vast barren snowscapes of Tibet. This is the terrain that the bulk of the film takes up — small, lonely figures set against the vastness of nature, interspersed with views of their camps and watchful shots of the mountainous challenges ahead. Noel in the film’s intertitles is very fond to emphasise the latest technology he’s employed to get these shots from great distances (the camera is unable to go beyond the camp at 22,000 feet), and the telephoto lens is put to good use towards the film’s climax.

But this is 1924, almost three decades before the first (verified) successful attempt on the mountain, and there’s still the need to locate the drama in an implacable fight of Man against Nature, the latter a vengeful, divine presence — for, after all, two of the mountaineers (George Mallory and Andrew Irvine) died in this attempt. Plentiful intertitles, most wearyingly towards the end of the film, make the connections plain, while also at times casting the enterprise in its more bare, colonialist light. Interludes featuring the local Sherpa population affect the patronising imperialist tone that one sometimes finds in travelogues of this long-ago era, the natives derided for being unwashed and not taking naturally to music. Though even here, it never quite becomes overbearing. This last point about their musicality, for example, is illustrated with plenty of evidence to the contrary, while elsewhere the Sherpas are clearly rather bemused by these pipe-smoking interlopers. The views we see too of their monasteries and hermitages perched precariously on the side of rocky mountainous outcroppings clearly give the lie to any implication about their backwardness.

Ultimately, music and images combine to create a fascinating document of a long-vanished era in exploration at one of the world’s harsher extremes. Projected on the big screen, the effect is one that is as wondrous and affecting as it must have originally been in 1924. I can recommend seeking it out if you have the chance.

CREDITS
Director/Cinematographer John Noel; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at BFI, London, Tuesday 3 September 2013.