It seems to me that f 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 | Writers Valentin Yezhov and Grigori Chukhrai | Cinematographers Vladimir Nikolayev and Era Savelyeva | Starring Vladimir Ivashov, Zhanna Prokhorenko | Length 88 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday
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: 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 | Writer Viktor Rozov (based on his play) | Cinematographer Sergey Urusevsky | Starring Tatiana Samoilova, Aleksey Batalov | Length 97 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 February 2017
I hardly expected to like this. It looks like the kind of unadventurous, softly patriotic nonsense that leads to dull dirges like that Vera Brittain adaptation with Alicia Vikander in it whose title I’ve already forgotten (it’s Testament of Youth now that I look it up), or thin jaunts like that one with Bel Powley as Princess Margaret and a bunch of other less enjoyable people that I sort of half-remember the title of (A Royal Night Out, it turns out). Well anyway, I might actually remember the title of Their Finest because I generally found it to be superior, and though it’s hardly a film for the ages, it does have a spirited Gemma Arterton playing Catrin, a Welsh screenwriter, with a scene-stealing Bill Nighy as, um… Bill Nighy, I guess (he plays an actor). A love story is present (not with Nighy, I should point out), but it feels to me that this film is about more than the romance, even if there is a certain romanticism to the idea of wartime England. I was manipulated duly by the film, overlong as it was (and that despite an actual line in the film about movies ideally being an hour and a half long!), and I feel fine about it, for it was all very jolly.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW Director Lone Scherfig | Writer Gaby Chiappe (based on the novel Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans) | Cinematographer Sebastian Blenkov | Starring Gemma Arterton, Bill Nighy, Sam Claflin | Length 117 minutes || Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Sunday 7 May 2017
There was a real passion to tell untold women’s stories coming out of the 70s, not in a flashy way but just, as here, on a relatively recent but largely overlooked subject, using archival clips, period music and interviews with the surviving women while they were still around to tell their stories. And they do that, very well. The film takes its name from an iconic figure of the woman factory worker used during World War II, and the women interviewed here tell of their recruitment to the war effort in factories and shipyards et al., then about the issues they faced around discrimination and (for the black workers) racism. The filmmaker cuts in some smug 40s patriarchal voiceover from a contemporary media source to tell us how hard women found the work (with such choice snippets as the women being “not used to working so hard”), as the women recall how after 8-10 hours on the assembly lines they had to come home to cook dinner for their husbands (if around) and families. There’s plenty of other recollections like this, and then about the struggle to keep the same kind of work after the war. It’s all affecting because it’s direct and from the women themselves. It also remains a fascinating story.
FILM REVIEW Director Connie Field | Cinematographers Bonnie Friedman, Robert Handley, Emiko Omori and Cathy Zheutlin | Length 65 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Monday 8 May 2017
A simple film in many ways, it takes the form of a provincial sex comedy as a young man serving as a train station guard for reasons of avoiding doing any hard work tries but mostly fails to be more successful with women. But there’s also a war going on, and Czechoslovakia is controlled by the Nazis, so that becomes an increasingly important part of what the film is trying to do — equating, at some level, the coming of age story with the work of the resistance. In retrospect, it could hardly end any other way, and it’s reminiscent of the previous Criterion Collection film (The Shop on Main Street) in locating all the dramas and horrors of wartime life amongst everyday characters and in mundane situations. Also, there’s a memorable rubber stamping scene.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director/Writer Jiří Menzel (based on the novel by Bohumil Hrabal) | Cinematographer Jaromír Šofr | Starring Václav Neckář, Josef Somr | Length 92 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 23 October 2016
When the fascists come they’ll offer to let you take back one of those jobs the immigrants have ‘stolen’ but you won’t have to hurt anyone so you’ll probably go along with it. It might even lead to a bit of cross-cultural comedy of misunderstandings but you just want everyone to be fine and for things to be better, and the fascists seem tolerable enough. One of them might even be a family member. But when the fascists start taking names, passing laws, and packing people on transports out of town, by then it’ll be too late and there’s really nothing you can do except get drunk and watch it all go to hell.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Directors Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos | Writers Ladislav Grosman, Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos (based on the novel by Grosman) | Cinematographer Vladimír Novotný | Starring Jozef Kroner, Ida Kamińska | Length 125 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 16 October 2016
There’s a certain kind of ‘cinema of quality’ prestige big budget production, especially from the UK, that I am somewhat allergic towards, and for many years I’d lumped The Third Man in with that. However, rewatching it again recently I realise the problem is with me when it comes to this film, because it’s not only glorious — and it truly is spectacular, even if just for the depth of its shadows and the luminosity of the light in those sewer sequences, though it’s sustained throughout by canted framings and canny compositions — but it’s also rather less triumphalist and morally clear-cut than you might expect from its American-in-Europe plotline. The film’s world is one of moral grey areas, a position staked out by the Harry Lime character (Orson Welles, in what amounts to a brief but memorable cameo), and constantly questioned by its pulp novelist protagonist Holly (Joseph Cotten). He has come from the US to Vienna just after the end of World War II looking for a job with his friend Harry, only to find himself at Harry’s funeral wondering what happened. No one has a clear story, and the details seem to be being hidden by the various forces — the city is split between four occupying armies, with their own respective languages — as well as various shadowy characters who interact with them at an official or semi-official level. It’s a film about profiteering, which makes clear the moral equivalency between wartime acts and those same acts outside wartime. It also features some excellent performances by Cotten as well as Alida Valli as Lime’s girlfriend Anna, but primarily it’s a triumph of writing and direction, whatever snobby canards towards Carol Reed’s “non-auteur” status the critics might throw.
Criterion Extras: A packed reissue includes an introduction by Peter Bogdanovich, retailing the Reed-as-non-auteur line pretty hard.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director Carol Reed | Writer Graham Greene | Cinematographer Robert Krasker | Starring Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli [as “Valli”], Trevor Howard, Orson Welles | Length 104 minutes || Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Saturday 2 May 1998 (and most recently at a friend’s home on DVD, London, Sunday 29 November 2015)
This screening at the UK Jewish Film Festival was introduced by the Festival’s director, who, given the screening location and the film’s subject, also briefly addressed and offered condolences for the recent events in Paris. It was followed by a Q&A session involving a number of prominent British film critics (for which I did not stay).
Ever since details of it first emerged, there’s been a powerful cinematic history of representing the Holocaust (or Shoah) on screen. Many of these works can be quite oblique, whether Chantal Akerman’s documentaries that touch on her mother’s experiences, or dramas that evoke the horrors through a structuring absence or by focusing on audience-surrogate characters who come into touch with those affected. Films such as Resnais’s Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog, 1955) used archival footage, while Spielberg recreated the ghettoes and camps wholesale in Schindler’s List (1993), yet there’s generally been a sense since Claude Lanzmann’s epic documentary Shoah (1985) of the impossibility of providing a visual depiction of the Shoah. Needless to say, much has been passionately written on the subject and I’m very far from an expert, but it must be challenging to any filmmaker intending to broach the subject. That said, it’s not enough to laud Hungarian director László Nemes merely for his attempt — many have tried and failed, however noble their intentions — but for what he achieves in doing so.
Nemes deploys a distinctive visual strategy of focusing his camera in on the face of protagonist Saul (Géza Röhrig) and pushing the atrocities beyond the frame or out of focus in the background. The effect of the camera following Saul’s constant movement is reminiscent of the Dardenne’s Rosetta (1999), albeit if that film had been set in a Nazi concentration camp. Saul is working as part of a Sonderkommando in Auschwitz-Birkenau when he comes across a young man while cleaning out the the gas chambers, who it transpires may be his son; quite whether this is literally true, or an effect of his working conditions, is never answered and in a sense isn’t truly important. However, Saul immediately seeks to try and preserve the boy’s body and find a rabbi to conduct the proper funerary rites. In following this quest, Nemes gives a peripatetic tour of the camp and its environs, providing an overview of the horrific existence that Saul and his fellow inmates experienced and which gives an emotional pull that is so notably repressed in Saul’s expressions — his stony face in response to even the most horrific events undoubtedly deriving from the survival instincts necessary in such an environment.
Given the subject matter and setting, Son of Saul makes for difficult viewing. There’s no particular hope for the salvation of those shown onscreen, though the film does close with a curious form of redemption, which links in with the phantasmic theme of fathers and sons that has built up over the film’s running time. A worthy inclusion on the short list of great films about this most terrifying aspect of 20th century history.
FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: UK Jewish Film Festival Director László Nemes | Writers László Nemes and Clara Royer | Cinematographer Mátyás Erdély | Starring Géza Röhrig | Length 107 minutes || Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Saturday 14 November 2015
This film was presented at the London Film Festival, presented by the CEO of the BFI along with the film’s director and producers, who stayed for a Q&A afterwards (though I had to dash off to my next film).
It may be based on real people (the parents of film star Jackie Chan, apparently), but this sweeping historical romance in fact subsumes itself into a familiar overheady melodramatic register, making it a struggle to glimpse the reality behind the burnished cinematography and period set recreations. Still, it’s never boring and occasionally even transcendent at evoking Anhui (a province, not a city, as far as I can tell) and Shanghai during World War II. The third city of the title is Hong Kong, to which the family escapes after the coming of the Communists, and it’s where the film starts out, which may head off worries about our lead characters’ survival, though there’s still plenty of nail-biting tension in the backstory which the following two hours builds up. At the heart of the piece are Sean Lau and Wei Tang as the lovers Daolong and Yuerong, who first meet in a small fishing village when she is caught by him smuggling opium but then released because things are too chaotic and he feels a tug of pity. Like any good epic, the setting changes from scene to scene such that recounting the twists and turns of the plot is difficult, suffice that between Shanghai and their homes in Anhui province, they are reunited once again and fall in love. They each have two kids from previous marriages, but those seem like the story’s losers (certainly their fate is not dwelt upon), as Daolong and Yuerong struggle to make a home for themselves somewhere away from the threat of violence and governmental oppression. Perhaps the past is the safest place to tell a story of people who were openly working against the Communists, but it still imparts a frisson of topicality, and whatever the film’s weaknesses, a fondness for grand storytelling in the David Lean style is not one of them.
FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival Director Mabel Cheung | Writers Mabel Cheung and Alex Law | Cinematographer Yu Wang | Starring Sean Lau, Wei Tang | Length 130 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Thursday 15 October 2015
We’ve all seen a hundred films set amongst the European ruins and detritus of World War II, but this film from Australian director Cate Shortland has an interesting angle to it, as it tracks the travails of Hannelore (Saskia Rosendahl), a young woman living out in the Black Forest, who finds herself as head of the family when her apparently fairly senior Nazi parents are taken into custody by the Allies. However, it’s filmed from her point-of-view, so the war itself is a spectral background presence and her parents’ fates are mysterious and elliptically presented. The film settles down to being a sort of fractured road movie, as this new family unit moves across the country towards Hamburg and the home of their grandmother. The abiding quality of these (blonde and blue-eyed) children making their way through the contested space of post-war Germany is akin to that of The Road or other similar apocalyptic visions, as every space seems to be suffused by the constant fear of death, or worse. It’s interesting that despite its Australian genesis, the film is shot in German and acted by German actors, which would usually be the kind of weirdly international co-production that should act as a red flag to potential viewers, and yet it’s all done very well and with plenty of emotional power, as Lore finally comes to get a sense of the new reality from which she and her family had until then been so isolated.
FILM REVIEW Director Cate Shortland | Writers Robin Mukherjee and Cate Shortland (based on the novel The Dark Room by Rachel Seiffert) | Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw | Starring Saskia Rosendahl | Length 109 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 24 August 2015