Cinema of Austria


Paradies: Glaube (2012) (Paradise: Faith)
Ulrich Seidl
German/Arabic

 

Paradise - FaithUlrich Seidl’s Paradise: Faith (2012), the second film in the Paradise trilogy, could be seen as a complement to its predecessor Paradise: Love (2012). While in Love, Klara (Margarethe Tiesel) tries to overcome a spiritual crisis through sex, here Anna Maria (Maria Hofstätter, in an intensely physical performance that rivals Tiesel’s brilliant portrayal) supplants physicality with Faith. What the previous film did with love, Faith does with religious belief, charting one person’s attempt to find Faith in a world that increasingly thwarts it. More precisely, the film refracts this quest through an Existentialist prism, producing a portrait of the search for meaning through Catholic values in a world where they have been rendered invalid.  Like Klara, Anna Maria discovers that Faith, which is considered a private commitment, is invariably shaped by the social and political systems they are practiced within. Seidl’s film subtly plays with our judgment of the central character and dodges any easy association of her character with her belief system. The contradiction between her catholic principles and her demeanour with her estranged Muslim husband (Nabil Saleh) is less an indication of the fickleness of her Faith than a demonstration of the difficulties of having Faith in our times. The film has been characterized as a comedy in some critical quarters and that very classification speaks volumes about our Enlightened epoch, in which irrational faith can’t be anything but a fodder for laughter. Seidl’s clinical detachment – typified by his head-on compositions where characters come across as subjects in a behavioural study – from Anna Maria’s rituals is genuine neutrality rather than condescending irony. For an unprejudiced eye, all her actions – be it the self-flagellating routine or her insistence that non-Catholics are leading a sinful life – would appear as gestures as valid, understandable and worthy of empathy as Klara’s attempts at finding love.

Die, die, die, 2012! Besides being a period of personal lows, it was a bad year at the movies for me. Not only did the quantity of the films I watched come down, but the enthusiasm with which I watched, read about and discussed films plummeted. That the amount of good films made this year pales in comparison to the last doesn’t help either. Not to mention the passing of Chris Marker. Unlike the years before, there are barely a handful of movies from 2012 that I’m really keen on seeing (most of them from Hollywood). The following list of favorite 2012 titles (world premiere only) was chalked with some struggle because I couldn’t name 10 films that I loved without reservations. Here’s to a better year ahead.

 

1. Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg, Canada)

 

CosmopolisSurely, it takes a bona fide auteur like David Cronenberg to locate his signature concerns in a text – such as Don Delillo’s – that deals with ideas hitherto unexplored by him and spin out the most exciting piece of cinema this year. Holed up in his stretch limo – an extension of his body, maneuvering through Manhattan inch by inch as though breathing – Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) comprehends the universe outside like cinema, through a series of moving images projected onto his car windows. Why not? This world, whose master he is, is experiencing the epistemological crisis of late capitalism: the increasing abstraction of tactile reality into digital commodities. Packer, like many Cronenberg characters, is more machine than man, attempts – against the suggestions of his asymmetrical prostate and of the protagonist of Cronenberg’s previous film – to construct a super-rational predictable model of world economy – a project whose failure prompts him to embark on an masochistic odyssey to reclaim the real, to experience physicality, to be vulnerable and to ultimately die. At the end of the film, one imagines Packer shouting: “Death to Cyber-capitalism! Long live the new flesh!

2. Holy Motors (Leos Carax, France)

 

Holy MotorsUn chant d’amour for cinema, Leos Carax’s Holy Motors is an ambitious speculation about the total transformation of life into cinema and cinema into life – the death of the actor, audience and the camera. The European cousin to Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), Carax’s return-to-zero work draws inspiration from the process of film itself – death, resurrection and persistence of vision – and takes cinema to its nascence – fairground attractions, popular theatre and zoopraxography – while opening up to its future possibilities. Uncle Oscar (Denis Lavant, the raison d’etre of Holy Motors), like Cronenberg’s Packer, cruises the streets of Paris in his limo in search of purely physical experiences – a series of performance pieces carried out solely for “the beauty of the act” – only to find that the city is a gigantic simulacrum in which everyone is a performer and a spectator (and thus no one is) and where the distinction between the real and the fictional becomes immaterial. At the very least, Holy Motors is a reflection on the passing of “things”, of physicality, of the beauty of real gesture, of the grace of movement of men and machines.

3. differently, Molussia (Nicolas Rey, France)

 

Differently, MolussiaNicolas Rey’s third feature, consisting of 9 short segments (reels, to be precise) projected in a random sequence, is a radical project that re-politicizes the cinematic image. Not only does the randomization of the order of projection of the reels circumvent the problem of the authoritarianism of a fixed narrative, it also exposes the seam between the semi-autonomous theses-like segments, thereby making the audience attentive to possible ideological aporias that are usually glossed over by the self-fashioned integrity of filmic texts. Furthermore, the existence of the film in the form separate reels is a breathing reminder of the material with which it was made: 16mm. The persistent dialectic between the visual – shots of highways, industries, farms and modernist suburban housing in the eponymous fictional city registering the sedate rhythm of everyday life – and the aural – snippets of conversations between two politicized industrial workers about the invisible tendons that enable a society to function smoothly – strongly drives home the chief, Althusserian concern of the film: the essential unity of the various, seemingly autonomous, strands of a state, contrary to claims of disjunction and autonomy.

4. Tabu (Miguel Gomes, Portugal)

 

TabuA film that is reminiscent of Weerasethakul’s many bipartite films, Miguel Gomes’ singular Tabu, too, works on a range of binaries – past/present, youth/old age, city/countryside, abundance/scarcity, modern/primitive, colonizer/colonized – and sets up a conversation between the carefree, profligate days of the empire full of love, laughter and danger and Eurocrisis-inflected, modern day Portugal marked by alienation and loneliness. The opening few minutes – a melancholy mini-mockumentary of sorts chronicling the adventures of a European explorer in Africa with a native entourage –announces that the film will be balancing distancing irony and classicist emotionality, donning an attitude that is in equal measure critical and sympathetic towards the past. In Gomes’ sensitive film, the heavy hand of the past weighs down on the present both on aesthetic (silent cinema stylistics, film stock, academy ratio, the excitement of classical genres) and thematic (collective colonial guilt, residual racism, punishment for forbidden love) levels and this inescapability of the past is also functions as (sometimes dangerous) nostalgia for the simplicity and innocence of a cinema lost and an entreaty for the necessity of exploring and preserving film history.

5. Paradise: Love (Ulrich Seidl, Austria)

 

Paradise-LoveWhat partially elevates the first film of Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise trilogy from its rather undistinguished concerns about emotional alienation and old age loneliness is the nexus of intriguing cultural forces that it brings into the picture by having a relatively affluent, 50-year old Austrian single-mother (Margarete Tiesel, in a no-holds-barred performance) indulge in sex tourism in Kenya along with five other women friends. The result is a rich, provocative negotiation along class, gender, race and age divides that upsets conventional, convenient oppressor-oppressed relationships. In doing so, the film wrenches love from the realm of the universal and the ahistorical and demonstrates that between two people lies the entire universe. Seidl’s heightened, bright colour palette that provides a sharp chromatic contrast to the bodies of Kenyan natives and his confrontational, static, frontal compositions (Seidl’s nudes are antitheses to those of the Renaissance), which make indoor spaces appear like human aquariums, both invite the voyeuristic audience to take a peek into this world and place it on another axis of power – of the observer and the observed.

6. With You, Without You (Prasanna Vithanage, Sri Lanka)

 

With You, Without YouSri Lankan filmmaker Prasanna Vithanage’s exquisite, exceptional adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Meek One (1876) aptly locates the Russian tale of matrimonial discord between a bourgeois pawnbroker and the gentle creature he weds within the ethno-political conflict between nationalist and rebel factions of the country. Unlike humanist war dramas that, often naively, stress the underlying oneness among individuals on either side, Vithanage’s intelligent film underscores how the political haunts the personal and how the tragic weight of history impacts the compatibility between individuals here and now, while deftly retaining Dostoyevsky’s central theme of ownership of one human by another. Though liberal in narration and moderate in style compared to Mani Kaul’s and Robert Bresson’s adaptations of the short story, Vithanage, too, employs an attentive ambient soundtrack that counts down to an impending doom and numerous shots of hands to emphasize the centrality of transaction in interpersonal relationships. The metaphysical chasm between the possessor and the possessed finds seamless articulation in concrete sociopolitical relations between Sinhalese and Tamils, between the army and refugees, between the poor and the wealthy and between man and woman.

7. Walker (Tsai Ming-liang, Hong Kong)

 

WalkerThere has always been something intensely spiritual about Tsai’s films, even when they seem to wallow in post-apocalyptic cityscapes and defunct social constructions. In Tsai’s hands, it would seem, an empty subway corridor shot in cheap digital video becomes the holiest of spaces ever filmed. Walker, a high-def video short made as a part of the Beautiful 2012 project commissioned by Hong Kong International Film Festival, crystallizes this particular tendency in the director’s work and centers on a Buddhist monk played by Lee Kang-sheng (a muse like no other in 21st century cinema). As the monk walks the hyper-commercialized streets of Hong Kong at a phenomenally slow pace for two days and two nights, his red robe becomes a visual anchor in stark contrast to the greys of the urban jungle and the blacks of people’s winter clothing and his very being, his eternal presence, becomes a spiritual grounding point amidst the impersonal hustle-bustle of this super-capitalist Mecca. Part performance art with a gently cynical punch line, part an exploration of the limits of DV, Walker is a deeply soothing and often moving work from one of Asia’s finest.

8. Celluloid Man (Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, India)

 

Celluloid ManMoving unsteadily with the help of a walking stick, the 79-year old founder of the National Film Archive of India (NFAI), P. K. Nair, despite himself, becomes a metaphor for the state of film archiving in the country. It is of considerable irony that, in a nation that prides itself for its rich cultural heritage, film archiving is considered a useless exercise. During the three decades that Nair headed the NFAI, he was instrumental in discovering the silent works and early talkies of Bombay and south Indian cinema, including those of Dadasaheb Phalke, the “father of Indian cinema”. Celluloid Man, bookended by scenes from Citizen Kane (1941), draws inspiration from Welles’ film and sketches a fascinating if reverential portrait of Nair constructed from interviews with international filmmakers, scholars, historians and programmers and curiously hinged on the fact of Nair’s “Rosebud” – ticket stubs, promotional material and assorted film-related curios that the man collected during his childhood. Shivendra Singh’s film is a irresistible romp through early Indian cinema and an endlessly absorbing tribute to a man who is fittingly dubbed the “Henri Langlois of India”. To paraphrase one of the interviewees, Phalke gave Indian cinema a past, Nair gave it a history.

9. Laurence Anyways (Xavier Dolan, Canada)

 

Laurence AnywaysAlthough it might appear that it is perhaps the hollowness of Xavier Dolan’s previous feature that makes his latest, 160-minute music video look like a cinematic coup, Laurence Anyways really does succeed in accomplishing more than most of contemporary “LGBT-themed independent cinema”. While the latter – including this year’s Cahiers darling – almost invariably consists of realist, solidarity pictures that use social marginalization as shorthand for seriousness, Dolan’s emotionally charged film takes the game one step further and probes the inseparability of body and character, the effect of the physical transformation of a person on all his relationships – a transformation that is mirrored in the flamboyant, shape-shifting texture of the film – without sensationalizing the transformation itself. Rife, perhaps too much so, with unconventional aesthetic flourishes and personal scrapbook-ish inserts, the film rekindles and enriches the youthful verve of the Nouvelle Vague – a move that should only be welcome by film culture. If not anything more, Laurence Anyways establishes that critics need to stop using its author’s age as a cudgel and look at his cinema du look as something more than a compendium of adolescent affectations.

10. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, USA)

 

Moonrise KingdomLet me confess upfront that putting Wes Anderson’s (surprise!) whimsy, twee and self-conscious Moonrise Kingdom in my year-end list is less a full-hearted appreciation of the film than a confession that I find Anderson to be an important voice that I’m genuinely keen about, but can’t entirely celebrate. I don’t think I’ve seen any film that employs so many elements of industrial cinema yet feels meticulously artisanal, a film that, on the surface, seems to (literally) play to the gallery yet is so full of personality and one that is oddly familiar yet thoroughly refuses instant gratification. Moonrise Kingdom appears to have every ingredient of an obnoxious family comedy, but the unironic, straight-faced attitude and the single-minded conviction with which it moulds the material into an anti-realist examination of the anxieties of growing up, alone, is something not to be found either in cynical mainstream cinema or in the overwrought indie scene of America. Anderson’s neo-sincere film is, as it were, a classicist text couched within a postmodern shell, an emotional film without affect. Paper blossoms, but blossoms nonetheless.

 

Special Mention: The Queen Of Versailles (Lauren Greenfield, USA)

 

Instructions For A Light And Sound Machine (2005)
Peter Tscherkassky
Silent

 

Instructions for a Light and Sound MachineAustrian experimental filmmaker Peter Tscherkassky has the most bizarre working method I’ve come across. He apparently only works on found footage which he doesn’t merely reuse. Using a specialized laser beam, he transfers the images partially from the footage onto a fresh stock, working painstakingly on a frame-by-frame basis, leaving certain areas of the latter unexposed. In other words, he literally ‘sculpts’ his film from the raw footage he gathers and gives them a whole new appearance and meaning. One could say that he is essentially responsible for every single speck present in the frames of his films. This fact is of utmost importance since the medium is the message in his 16-minute wonder, Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine (2005), a work that packs a wallop like a few films do. That Tscherkassky chooses Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Western, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), for his project is vital. Like the Kinski-esque man in it who steps in front of the camera to gaze into it, the Leone film is a self-conscious masterpiece that keeps the narrative to its bare minimum, dissolving the genre and asking us to see through its own construction (If he was allowed, Leone would probably have included the boom mike in the frame as well). Like the Italian film, Instructions is a work that has both narrative and formal concerns, but it goes one further in the way it calls attention to its narrative, its aesthetic and its medium, all at once. And how often do we see experimental films being made in 35mm CinemaScope?!

Instructions consists of a bunch of shots from the Leone film, almost all of which deal with Ugly/Tuco (Eli Wallach) running – for the treasure and for his life. Tscherkassky takes the shots through his elaborate transfer process, extracting, distorting, stressing and degrading them. Sometimes he repeats, reverses, negates, overexposes and overlaps the shots, creating a highly familiar yet vastly different stream of images. The soundtrack, likewise, is a dense collage of diegetic sounds and extra-textual mechanical noises. We hear a clamorous storm of bullets, the hum of a rickety projector, the footsteps of the characters, alarming wail of sirens and other cyclic machine sounds put together by Dirk Schaeffer. Instructions begins with a man – the surrogate audience – opening a window and peering into the horizon through his telescope. An exposed ellipse reveals to us that it’s Tuco arriving on a horse. Soon there are bunch of these ellipses as if a crowd of such men has gathered. We are soon thrust into a duel, bullets fly by, the image jars and switches between negative and positive, with lots of flickering of image and sound. The violence in film parallels the violence on film and, somehow, the latter prevents us from enjoying the former. The film is, hence, also violence on us, an assault on our senses. It’s sadism that’s being exhibited on every level – not just the filmmaker’s, ours too. By exposing the process of the film running, we are made to notice the politics of the narrative, of the form and of the material itself.

Instructions for a Light and Sound MachineTscherkassky seems to have found an apt metaphor for the filmmaking process in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. An actor in a film dies at the end of each frame only to be born again in the next, like how Blondie (Clint Eastwood) – the director stand-in – surrenders Tuco to the sheriff for hanging only to save him again. This seemingly never-ending cycle of death and resurrection pervades the entire film as Tuco becomes the Sisyphus-ean man caught in the loop of film, never being able to escape the tyrannical circle. In the final scene, he finds himself in a cemetery full of graves, which might all well be his own. He runs from one grave to another trying to find the one that will redeem him. But what he does not know is that he is not in control of his situation. It is Blondie who makes him run from one grave to another. It is Tscherkassky who makes him run from one direction to another and back. Tuco tries to evade death by trying to jump onto the next frame and perhaps even out of the film, to no avail. He is puppet in the hands of the filmmaker who distorts Tuco’s figure to give it a phantom-like appearance, as if the man is on fire. Tuco vainly attempts to enforce his reality, to free himself from the machinations of the narrative, the filmmaker, the audience and the projection system. But, even after the ‘Finish’ frame has arrived (which is immediately juxtaposed with the ‘Start’ frame), he is still running, wandering the limbo between life and death, never to see real light.

Instructions is a meditation on the nature of film and its relationship to cinema in this world of digital video. Tscherkassky’s film is highly rooted in the ontology of the material using which it is made and this inseparability of the movie’s medium, aesthetic and content is what gives the work its special significance. In the director’s own words: “I attempt to create art works that can only be made with film. In other words, if there were nothing other than the computer, hard disk and magnetic tape, then these works would simply not exist”. More than anything, Instructions illustrates how the film medium is inherently a vehicle of personal expression and how it bears the authorial stamp more deeply than any other modern medium. A scratch on a piece of film denotes human authorship while a smudge on a piece of digital video does not. The scratch – be it a conscious distortion on the part of the filmmaker or a folly of the projectionist – proves and particularizes the existence of the piece of work in the real world. It stands witness to the human elements of the cinema enterprise – from the production of a film to its exhibition. It’s an existential question of sorts for the work being created, like for Tuco here. The medium of the work has to be palpable and has to be subject to physical impairment in order for it to testify its being. May be that’s why the combustion and destruction of film stock always has some romanticism associated with it. The death is what establishes its existence.

Instructions for a Light and Sound MachineA digital smudge, on the other hand, could happen anywhere within the production, distribution and exhibition systems. It might just be the corruption of a few thousand bits of data. It might purely be the work of a malfunctioning storage device. The smudge makes a film metaphysical by refusing to acknowledge its being in the real world (Tscherkassky’s film, in a way, could be read as an assault on digital video by film). In a sense, it sweeps the work off ground and makes it a bunch of floating images that find their meaning only in the minds of their beholders. Consequently, it is both interesting and problematic when one watches Tscherkassky’s film on the computer or on a DVD system. For one, the basic significance of the whole film is lost. It digitizes the analog. One is never sure if a particular defect in the image stream that we see is a part of the original film or a result of the inefficiency of the video encoder used. This additional dialectic goes to the extent of inverting the filmmaker’s and the spectator’s relationship with the film. The work ceases to be a set of instructions ‘for’ a light and sound machine and becomes a set of instructions ‘from’ a light and sound machine. We stop being the authors and the critics and become the passive screen on which the film projects itself back, assaulting and deceiving us with its glitches. Thanks to the proliferation of online video sites, we have managed to mass produce, more rapidly than ever, what was essentially to be found on a single reel of film. As Godard said, what we see is not even a copy of a reproduction.

In his seminal essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1935), Walter Benjamin optimistically examines how the invention of film (more or less coinciding with the birth of psychoanalysis) changed the perception of the world at large and redefined the function of art. He argues that cinema, by its inherent necessity to be reproduced on a large scale (owing to the sheer amount of financing that goes into it, unlike other arts), destroys the aura – to use Benjamin’s terminology – around a piece of art. The question of authenticity of a work of art, in such a case, becomes irrelevant. Thanks to such mass production, a work of art is no more the centre of the world that connoisseurs must travel miles to see. Art is now delivered at our doorstep, so to speak. It frees cultural expression from the confines of an arthouse by making it accessible to a large part of the public, hence making the perfect tool for political mobilization. He writes:

Mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility. From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the “authentic” print makes no sense. But the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice – politics.

This invalidation of the question of authenticity by mass production, far from being a death knell for the arts as some purists may cry, obviates the need to own and collect works of art. Mass production, on the most basic level, thus seems to override socioeconomic disparities, freeing art of the classism and elitism inherent in a ritualistic approach to it (One could dig a little further to see the underlying contradictions within modern, assembly-line production and marketing). This liberation of the arts rings truer in the world of video streaming and peer-to-peer sharing, where even collection of reproductions of work of art, like DVDs, has become a futile exercise (the ritualist cinephile’s last hope is, then, boasting about the number of films she’s watched). So a work of art, essentially, is stripped down to being about its ideas and emotions and our responses to them than about its authenticity, ownership and geographical location.

Instructions for a Light and Sound MachineNow, one could argue that films such as Tscherkassky’s (and others’ such as those of Stan Brakhage, which literally have its author’s signature imprinted), which thrive on the existence of a physical medium, only bring back the ritual culture generally alien to cinema (The tendency is also manifest when certain experimental films are auctioned for tens of thousands of dollars and even in certain tenets of the auteur theory). But one could also say that it’s their way of asserting their individuality amidst the ruthless homogenization of commercial cinema, over the effacement of a personal vision by the financial objectives of studios (Tscherkassky’s is very much a work of Second Cinema). Instructions, in particular, resorts to this ritualism only to illustrate the tyranny of film, the olden days when the author could make his material transmute on whim and even impart a part of his personality to his film. Not anymore. Authorship can no longer exist on the frame, only within it. As far as the physical medium goes, the author is dead now, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The film even seems to look forward to a newer, less egotistic cinema as suggested by the strange overlapping of ‘Start’ and ‘Finish’ frames. Now that Tscherkassky has mourned the death of the despotism of film, it’s time for some filmmaker to celebrate the democracy of digital video.

 

(You can watch the film here. The password to the video is “theauteurs”.)

Workingman’s Death (2005)
Michael Glawogger
Pashtu/Yoruba/German/English/Ibo/Indonesian/Mandarin/Russian

We imitate the figures and pose like the soldiers and our ancestors up there. We think these poses look really funny and avant-garde.

 

Workingman's Death - HeroesMichael Glawogger’s Workingman’s Death (2005) is the kind of film that helps illustrate why an authorial viewpoint is so important in documentary filmmaking. More than anything, Glawogger’s film suffers from the absence of a voiceover. This occasional pseudo-neutrality and non-involvement of the filmmaker is troubling precisely because it runs the risk of alienating the subject from the filmmaker. When you set out to make a documentary on the lives of the oppressed and unprivileged, there are only two ways you can take. One, you film their situation from at a considerable distance, clinically analyzing the causes of their misery and, preferably, pointing out a way out of it. Or two, you go up, close and personal, empathize with them, understand them and document their condition as you would your own, always being critical of what they are going through. Merely gawking at their wretchedness, in the name of neutral observation, amounts to nothing more than crowding near a man run over by a car. Filmmakers such as Pedro Costa have tried to resolve the deadlock between the imperative to avoid exploitation of one’s subjects and the need to document their living condition by, as Michael Sicinski sharply notes, making them active participants in the creative process, by fictionalizing the documentary with the consent of its participants. What this effectively does is that it gives a voice to the subjects, as if they are expressing themselves through the film incidentally organized by the director. Additionally, other filmmakers like Werner Herzog (who has done some atrocious things as well) continually (and, some might say, overbearingly) intrude on their subject’s space – interrupting them, commenting upon them and essentially reducing what they’ve shot to the level of found footage – and hence display a deep personal commitment towards the topic at hand.

What is interesting about Workingman’s Death is that it assumes all the above attitudes in turn. There are phases in the film that are simply brilliant, some interesting, some insipid and some plainly worthy of contempt. There is nothing you learn from the film that’s not summed up in its title. What one expects from it, then, is to study the politico-historical reasons for the eponymous demise of the worker and what it means to the proletariat today. And the film starts on the right note. As the title credits play, we are shown a collage of news reels and archival footage, all depicting workers doing various strenuous activities, cut at a rapid pace reminiscent of the early Soviet films. Likewise, the soundtrack is a patchwork of drilling noise and ominous percussion-heavy music. This prelude ends with a clip depicting a pair of bubbling Soviet workers pledging that they will mine an amount of coal that is much more than is expected from them in a single year. They are filmed with the camera pointing upwards towards them. Following this, Glawogger cuts to the present, to the image of a tired worker, whose face is covered with coal dust, posing for the camera. An on-screen quote from Faulkner reads: “You can’t eat eight hours a day nor drink for eight hours a day nor make love for eight hours — all you can do for eight hours is work. Which is the reason why man makes himself and everybody else so miserable and unhappy”. The contrast that the subsequent image – a wintry, deserted townscape – provides to the preceding montage is jarring and drives home the point right away. That the town is in Ukraine – an erstwhile member of the Soviet Union – only reinforces the central idea, which is the failure of the Utopian socialist dream of the omnipotent worker.

Workingman's Death - GhostsHeroes’, this ironically titled and finely directed first part of the film, is set in Donbass, Ukraine, a former mining hub of Soviet Russia, and follows the working routine of a bunch of freelance miners who gather the last pieces of coal left in the mountains. We are told that the government-run mining industry has been shut down and these workers have been left with no choice other than to form small groups, dig out whatever coal they can, sell them and share the profits. Glawogger intercuts these snippets of interviews with a piece of propaganda that details Andrey Stakhanov’s record-breaking stint at the same mine in 1935 when his team collected 102 tons in a single shift, virtually triggering off the Stakhanovite movement. The image of charged workers carrying their drills over their shoulders like rifles and marching forward, heaving their chests and singing under the open sky stands in stark opposition to these handful of miners crawling in a mineshaft that is hardy a couple of feet high and which could collapse on the slightest of errors. We realize how the image of the worker as envisioned (and perhaps constructed) by the Stalinists became more of a self-deceiving prison than a liberating guide for the common worker (an idea that was superbly explored in Makavejev’s Man Is Not A Bird (1965)). Glawogger enters the mine along with the workers, crawling about just like them, to document them (It is an achievement that the movie is shot in film and not in video, which would have been logistically easier). It’s a Herzogian moment no doubt, but to bring in an auteurist dimension would be to undermine the vision of the film, which is nearly what Glawogger himself ends up doing later in the film.

We are also shown the women in the area, who, too, make money by mining and whose camaraderie reflects the men’s. They are more cynical about education and believe that they would have ended up at the same position even if they had gone to college. They laugh at the idea that a faith in God might save them. Perhaps this gender equality is all that remains of the socialist dream. The workers are no more the all-powerful beings in control of the machinery they operate and the nature they exploit. They are now gleaners squeezing every ounce of coal they can out the nearly exhausted mines. The 102 tons of coal that Stakhanov mined in a single shift has become the stuff of legends, much like Stakhanov himself. They are less like Stakhanov and more like Sisyphus – mining to live and living to mine – with seemingly no way out of this wearing circle. Much like the mythological hero, these people seem to have come to terms with their condition. Glawogger, too, ends the section on a note that isn’t much different from how Camus concludes his essay: “…one must imagine Sisyphus happy”. For the first time in the film, we see something that’s really cheerful – a wedding. The couple and their friends celebrate near the Stakhanov statue at the centre of the town. They have bonfires. They leave. Lest it should become a gesture of complacence, Glawogger signs off with the image of the Stakhanov statue standing alone in the wintry night, with the bride’s headwear hanging from his left arm – the answer to a question that will be asked at the end of the film.

Workingman's Death - LionsGhosts’ is shot in Kawahljen, Indonesia, where we see a group of workers chip away large chunks of Sulphur from a valley and carry them all the way to a factory where they get paid. Although the section stands in contrast to the claustrophobic undergrounds of the previous segment, it is equally suffocating to see these workers gagging themselves to avoid getting poisoned while mining these pieces of Sulphur. Glawogger directs the segment with traces of fiction, including what appear like rehearsed conversations and with dynamic camera movements which are simply too beautiful for their own good. There is even a thread consisting of what seems like a gay couple, which is clearly ridiculed by the other workers, that throws light upon the hierarchies of marginalization. We are also shown tourists who visit this breathtaking valley and have themselves photographed along with these workers or temporarily assuming their roles. These tourists humour the workers, treating them condescendingly. One of the workers even talks about a French woman who wanted to kiss him. Evidently, Glawogger is criticizing these middle-class folks for their hypocrisy and for glamorizing what is essentially a life of ordeals. The irony here is that Glawogger does the same thing later in the film. However, there is one sequence which shows one worker selling a improvised Sulphur curio to the tourists at exorbitant prices. For a moment the film attains remarkable density where, for once, the basic human elements of the film are not overshadowed by class-level analysis. However, the political context in this segment is weaker as compared to the previous segment. For one, there is no reason why the film must be set in Indonesia. The only reason for this deadly routine of these workers that we can think of is globalization. But unlike in ‘Heroes’, that connection is not stressed upon one bit (apart from the fact that one worker is wearing a football jersey!).

But it is in the third and fourth segments that the film really plummets. The middle section, ‘Lions’, takes place in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, and inside a slaughter-ground where hundreds of cattle are sacrificed, skinned and processed every day. Glawogger shows us all the killings in fine detail, without any restraint, spending considerable time chronicling the process of slaying, skinning and roasting the animals and lesser time talking to the people who do that. Of course, the reference point here is Franju’s Blood of the Beasts (1949, from which shots are borrowed by Glawogger for the title sequence), where the director took us through a graphic tour of Parisian slaughterhouses, revealing the opaqueness of our morality, among other things. But the subtle difference between the stylistics of Glawogger and of Franju reveals a world’s difference between the attitudes of both the filmmakers towards the killings. While Franju assembled the clips and provided a voice over that built on the material, Glawogger seems to treat the footage of the slaughter as an end in itself. As a result, Franju’s film became an analysis that based itself on the everyday work at the abattoirs whereas Glawogger’s film seems as if it merely wants to record workplace details (and possibly pass itself off as a “mature” film). The shots of animals being slit become the only destination for Glawogger here since his relationship between the people who carry out this task remains tenuous, at best, in this segment. The workers at the slaughter grounds mark the severed heads of the cattle they’ve slain so that they can reclaim them later. They ward off each other so that their share is not taken away. As indicated by the title of the segment and by its visual scheme where the workers appear nearly buried beneath the chunks of meat, Glawogger is actually comparing them with a pack of lions fiercely holding on to what they’ve hunted – quite a reproachable comparison I’d say.

Workingman's Death - BrothersThe fourth part of the film, titled ‘Brothers’, sees the film shift base from Africa back to Asia, this time to a shipyard in Gaddani, Pakistan. We witness workers dismantling large ships, piece by piece, where one false move could result in death (In fact, all the workers shown in the film stand on the verge of death. They risk their lives in order to survive). The group consists of a large number of native and immigrant workers – perhaps from Afghanistan – who help and motivate each other at the workplace. They pine for their beloveds, whom they get to see only during the year ends. We also get to see one photographer who visits the shipyard, offering people a chance to get photographed with a rifle for ten rupees. Are we supposed to pity these workers that they are misguidedly revering terrorists? Or are we supposed to see how deep the Islamic resistance to westernization goes? Glawogger doesn’t answer, and perhaps rightly so. The problem in this section, however, lies in its aesthetics. Glawogger shoots the dismantling work from various angles and distances, creating a symphony of destruction. He uses ultra slow motion and lets us see every speck of dust that rises as the pieces fall. The sense of awe near completely undoes the drudgery that we are witnessing. That Workingman’s Death is shot in film makes it all the more beautiful and hence very objectionable. But that is not the biggest flaw of this segment.

There is no apparent reason why both ‘Lions’ and ‘Brothers’ should be shot where they have been. The slogging that we witness at both the shipyard and the slaughter house is neither geopolitically specific nor a result of global politics. As Michael Atkinson says, there is no reason to believe that it the condition of these workers would have been much better during some other century (the film is subtitled “5 Portraits of Work in the 21st Century”) or if they were in some other country with similar political climate (one worker in Nigeria says that they would be better off if their country allowed them to export meat – a statement that called for further examination, even if it seems shortsighted). Perhaps Glawogger’s exploration is metaphysical rather than political, but the fact that he sets the film entirely in socialist or third world countries throws that argument into question (I guess it would have done the film some good had there been a segment chronicling workers living in developed countries). Moreover, three of the five segments document certain religious practices of the workers, two of which involve animal sacrifice. In all the three segments, the workers have a deep faith in God, deterministically accepting what God has preordained for them. The suffering is taken as a given and some of them are even proud of what they do. Perhaps they find solace and meaning in religion. That all the three countries are Islamic is somewhat troubling (the film was made in 2005 – a time when the demonizing of Muslims was at its peak), especially given that Glawogger could have chosen any three countries for his purpose since there is nothing very specific about Nigeria, Pakistan or Indonesia that he underscores.

Workingman's Death - FutureHowever, the film comes right back on track (or should I say, west of the track?!) in the final segment – the shortest and the best – of the film, “Future”, set in Liaoning, an industrial town in northeastern China. The segment opens with a bunch of men writing text on a platform at the town centre, moving backwards (Mandarin is written vertically), with what looks like volatile ink. The soundtrack plays the voice of chairman Mao extolling industrial workers. The point is clearly made: everything that we see and hear is transitory and is a relic of the past. This phenomenon of getting trapped in failed visions and unfulfilled promises of the past is what forms the central theme of ‘Future’ (in contrast to the disillusionment of ‘Heroes’). The focus soon shifts to the workers in the smelting factories of the township. The workers who are interviewed seem to have deep faith in their country and what it is doing for (and to) them. They acknowledge that times have changed, but retain that by equipping the factories with newer technologies, the nation could be back on the path of progress. These interview snippets are followed by a short conversation with a couple of youngsters standing near a people’s monument, located in the town, depicting workers enthusiastically toiling around a giant statue of Mao. The youngsters tell us that they like coming to this place and getting themselves photographed while assuming the poses of their ancestors. Of course, this attitude seems indicative of the workers as well, who insist on repeating rhetoric of the past even when the nation has moved into a market economy like the west.

There is also an epilog to the film, set in Duisburg-Nord Country Park, Germany – once the Duisburg-Meiderich Steelworks. The factory is evidently in a deplorable condition. We sense that only the phantom of the smelting plant remains. Kids have infested the rusted factory premises, hurling water balloons at each other. As night falls, we see teenagers making out. A narrator gives us the history of the smelting factory and what became of it later: “Then came the last shift. But not the end; rather a new beginning. The smelting plant was transformed into a unique leisure park. When night falls in Duisburg, the blast furnaces flare up. In neon green and fantastic colors. ARTificial light in the truest sense.” We realize that the factory was closed down, but we wonder what happened to the workers. Glawogger, meanwhile, seems to be wondering what happened to “the worker”. May be that’s what he was trying to ask – however objectionably, however inconsistently – throughout the film. As the attractions at the park wind down, as the teenagers and kids move out, as the neon lights fade to black, the manager at the theme park asks a question (which also happens to be the final line in the film), in the public announcement system, whose answer was already given by the image of the solitary statue of Andrey Stakhanov standing in the snow in the first segment: “Have we left anyone sitting in the dark?

The White Ribbon

At Loose Ends 
(Image courtesy: Empire Online)

Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon had to fight it out with quite a few heavyweights this year at Cannes for the Golden Palm including Ang Lee, Pedro Almodovar, Jim Jarmusch, Jane Campion, Lars von Trier and Quentin Tarantino. It has also been selected, but not without some controversy, as Germany’s official entry for the Oscars. All I can say is that Austria must be happy. Since the end of the Second World War, fascism has been studied and dissected on film many times over with varying degrees of success. With a veteran such as Haneke at the helm, writing an original script for the movie, I did expect more than what The White Ribbon presents here. Some reviewers have pointed out that being familiar to Haneke’s body of work will help one appreciate this film more. I had only seen his The Piano Teacher (2001) before this one and felt that The White Ribbon does not really succeed because Haneke undoes everything that he did right in the former film. Even his subtle, cerebral and gently commenting mise en scène is not able to heal the film from the blows dealt to it by its script. Sure, it is an ambitious film that many directors would not have been able to pull off, but it falls way too short of standard for a director who has established himself as one of the most important directors working.

The White Ribbon brings to us a chain of mysterious and violent events that occur in a village in Germany prior to the First World War as narrated by a teacher (Christian Friedel) who worked in that village during that period. We are presented with a host of characters from various walks of life – the Baron (Ulrich Tukur) and his wife (Ursina Lardi) who provide employment to majority of the village, the Fender family of peasants who have just lost the lady of the house in an accident at the Baron’s workplace, the village doctor (Rainer Bock), who has recently had an accident riding a horse, and his mistress and the midwife of the village (Maria-Victoria Dragus), the village priest (Burghart Klaußner) and his family and the narrators own love interest – the new nanny at the Baron’s – the seventeen year old Eva (Leonie Benesch). We are made privy to the happenings of each household and the dirty underbelly hiding behind the flawless exterior of the quiet and secluded village. Mishaps pile up one after the other, progressively violent, and suspicion soars in the village as the culprit is nowhere to be found. All these characters and events are held together on a single clothesline that consists of the children of the village. They are the witnesses and victims of the events that unfold. They are also the documents that would define the course of history – of the village, of the country and of the world – that is to come.

Primarily, Haneke’s film proposes political, social, religious and sexual repressions exhibited on a young generation by its predecessors as the roots of fascism and places this argument in the context of pre-war Germany. Although these forms of repressions have been studied individually and in considerable detail in many other films of the past, The White Ribbon attempts to integrate all these influences into a monolithic attitude that defines the course of a society. As observed by many reviewers, The White Ribbon bears remarkable resemblance to Clouzot’s wartime classic The Raven (1943), which scathingly exposes the changes in mentality of a collective during uncertain times and the hypocrisy and hate that such a political climate brings to surface, in its study of a group as a whole wherein disparaging threads eventually converge to draw out a single, coherent portrait of the group at a particular time. The class system is tangible, with the aristocracy, intelligentsia, the middle class and the peasantry being represented with clear demarcation.  The Baron and his wife – the upper class – have only their personal relationship and their property to worry about. The bourgeoisie is content in sticking to a set of middle-brow principles (there is way too much formality going on in the film) and maintaining status quo. The peasants can only worry about everyday survival. The apolitical intelligentsia – typified by the doctor and the teacher – is busy with its own romantic encounters and perversions. Cinematographed by Christian Berger, this isolation of the clerisy is summed up in two stunning shots in the film – one during the dance at the village fest (reminiscent of Ophüls’ magical Madame De… (1953)) and one on a horse carriage (reminiscent of Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), one of the best explorations of fascism on film) – in which the teacher and his love interest Eva are alienated from the village events. And whenever a member of any class tries to digress from these functions, they are berated and made to return to their position by either the class divide or the generation divide.

The White Ribbon presents us a seemingly pacific society which thrives on domestic bureaucracy for survival and maintains hierarchies to perpetuate that status. Haneke presents these power games not as a ping-pong rally, as we have seen in so many films, but as a chain of dominoes. In his world, there is no such thing as retaliation. Everybody has to conform to and perform specific roles in society – willingly or otherwise. The elder Fender has to play the role of a helpless farmer whereas his son, the radial, has to play the part of an obedient child irrespective of him being an adult. There is an obligation placed on everyone in the hierarchy by ones above them to conform to certain rules and to get punished upon transgressing those boundaries. The priest ties a white ribbon – another stereotype which symbolizes innocence (as defined by Protestant morals) – on his adolescent son’s arm to remind him of his duty to ward off worldly temptations and lays down an unwarranted responsibility upon him to play the role of a moral Christian. This seems to be the plight of every child and young adult in the village who can’t seem to counter their “masters” and are forced to channelize their reactionary violence through other means. Like Estike (Erica Bók) in Satan’s Tango (1994) and Isabel (Isabel Telleria) in The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), both of whose forced passivity and oppression translates into graphic violence on powerless creatures (I can imagine a restless Chris Marker tossing around in his seat), these children, too, exercise their power on those lower down the hierarchy (The White Ribbon could also be titled “The slap fest” for domestic violence in the film is commonplace).

[The White Ribbon trailer]

Moreover, this kind of contrived passivity that we observe within the village is reflected in the larger picture of Germany. The White Ribbon is set in a time just before the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand that triggered the Great War. History stands witness to the fact that Germany also went through such cycles of passivity followed by misguided violence like the children in the movie (the film is subtitled “A German Children’s Story”). If Germany’s army was curtailed after the first war and Alsace and Lorraine confiscated, it would give birth to a patriotic movement that would go on to mutate into a fascist force. If the second war resulted in a greater chastisement and imposition of eternal guilt on its citizens by the western world, it would explode into a misdirected “terrorist” movement – the RAF (“…punishing the children for the sins of their parents to the third and fourth generations” reads a note dropped at the scene of one of the crimes). Although Haneke shoots in black and white and has the narrator recite the story in the past tense, his film resonates in the contemporary world too. At one point in the film, the priest tells the doctor’s son, who asks his permission to shelter an injured bird, that the bird in his room is used to captivity while the one in the kid’s hand is used to freedom. The upper class in The White Ribbon flourishes by keeping the rest of the village engaged in the economic clockwork that it has setup and by ensuring that any subversion will only result in despair and struggle for livelihood for the insurgents. The elder Fender, although aware that the Baron is responsible for his wife’s death, cannot do anything about it for any action on his part will put the future of his kids in question. This situation isn’t much unlike those in today’s capitalistic societies which have a strong religious backbone.

Evidently, the film’s scope is large. Haneke attempts to study and integrate the very many factors responsible for the rise of fascist movements by actually having many threads in the narrative to illustrate each of these factors. And this seems to be one of the biggest drawbacks of the film. Haneke has way too many characters to have depth in each of them. What begins as an incisive study of a few characters goes on to become a document of the society at large, in which individual characters are sacrificed to drive forth Haneke’s idea. His work here turns out to be a film that is built on a set of judgments made by the writer-director rather than a keen exploration of issues. Compare it to the film that it pipped at Cannes this year for the Golden Palm – Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet (2009). Audiard’s film, which I think is one of the few brilliant films of the year, is sufficiently ambiguous and presents us with sketches from the protagonist’s life. Audiard does not give us an “idea” or a “message”. He lets us form any possible meaning out of the film’s observations. Haneke, on the other hand, sacrifices truth for meaning. He cuts from one vignette to another in a deterministic fashion to serve a set of preconceived ideas. His hop-step-and-jump approach works wonders in the initial part of the movie, when we find ourselves struggling to sort out an overarching theme, but it goes on to over-determine the central idea of the film, just falling short of being didactic. Eric Hynes’ review sums up with ease my complaints about the movie. It is true that the film, to a good extent, explores fascism as a phenomenon of the masses rather than that of a single evil soul, but Haneke dwells a bit too much on kindred events to remove any scope for thematic enrichment.

I do not intend to say that Haneke bites off much more than he can chew, but just that the way he goes about chewing seems inefficient. It seems to me that the film would have been better off had Haneke pruned down many of its narrative elements in order to provide depth instead of attempting to crystallize a meaning. By pruning down, I do not mean simplification of its themes or trivializing of the issues at hand, but that the number of characters could have been held at a bare minimum. One fatal blow for The White Ribbon is that, although there is a narrator who provides the basic “facts” about the film before Haneke illustrates the in-between events visually, the film lacks a constant perspective using which all the disparaging ideas could be integrated. It is true that Haneke denies emotional identification in the movie, but the problem is that he does not even provide a reference against which the audience can interpret the events. Haneke’s script, in essence, is a consolidation of the themes Bertolucci explored in detail in individual films. The White Ribbon shares with The Conformist (1970) the idea that sexual repression and social conformism may be the prime instigators of fascist drive. More importantly, the depiction of fascism as being perpetuated by religion and its minion unit – the family – is also that of the masterful The Last Tango in Paris (1972). And the master-slave relationship between the Baron and the Fenders is but a miniature version of 1900 (1976) – an ambitious film that strays off and moves into self-parody. In all the above cases, Bertolucci provides us with a constant perspective, even if he has multiple protagonists, so that we are able to clearly assimilate and make judgment. On the other hand, The White Ribbon lacks a single coherent perspective (or has only one perspective – Haneke’s) and individual scenes, although possessing enough ambiguity of their own to be called virtuoso, exist only to conform to Haneke’s meaning and judgment.

Because of this over-emphasis on the central theme, The White Ribbon eats up many of the other possibilities which the first half of the film puts forth.  Even at the end of the film, we do not know who commits these atrocities. It could well be some of the repressed members of one of the social classes and there are enough evidences to actually find a one-to-one matching. Haneke does not implicate them and finishes the movie with an open ending (“open” as far as the genre is concerned). Sure, it makes it clear that it is the whole society that is to blame. But Haneke’s writing prefers to lean towards and to underscore endlessly the idea of a repressed childhood and forced conformism to such an extent that it almost obscures the other dimensions of the movie. The film begins with the narrator confessing that many of the elements in the story he is gong to narrate are hearsay, preparing us for the narrative ambiguity in the film, but the film promptly repudiates that statement and removes any thematic ambiguity the first half may have offered. Scenes like the violent outbreak of one of the village boys on the Baron’s son and the priest’s daughter ripping apart her father’s pet bird are inserted into the narrative in a contrived and unsubtle fashion to be regarded as worthy. So are the scenes of the parents’ behaviour towards their children that end up seeming only like filler materials which aid to fatten a shallow analysis based on a single new idea. But even with a wafer-thin idea on text, the director has enough freedom to explore it cinematically. Bertolucci did it in The Conformist with its dynamic mise en scène, which took over the job of providing meaning and emphasizing the central idea, however simplistic it was on paper, unlike Haneke who relies here on his script to do that. That does not mean that Haneke’s film is technically unsound.  Right from the first shot, where a peaceful horse ride in a serene countryside is suddenly interrupted by a jolting moment, Haneke announces the soberness of his gaze. He keeps alienating us from the movie with his choice of B&W, the detached distance of the largely stationery camera, the painting-like stasis of the images and his restrictive framing (his indebtedness to Bertolt Brecht is discussed in detail here). Sure, he does very effectively disengage us from the narrative to make us reflect on the events rather than identify emotionally, but he also goes to the extent of denying omnipresence to the narrator for this purpose. And that hurts the film.

 
Verdict:

Unsere Afrikareise (1966) (aka Our Trip To Africa)
Peter Kubelka
Austria
13 Min.
 

Rare is the film where the idea of a director is revealed rather than expressed. Of course, the moment the camera chooses a position and an angle, the director has made a moral choice. But not often do wee see these images speaking about themselves. Our Trip to Africa (1966) is such a film where the how and what of its images tell us more about the “maker” than his ideologies. Overloaded with visuals from the “protagonist’s” safari in the African continent, the film could, at first glance, simply be called a badly shot tourist video. But soon, certain images repeat themselves at regular intervals and concoct a theme of sorts to establish that there is more to the film than meets the eye. We see shots of the natives, especially of their bare torsos, and of wild animals being killed for game. The photographer seems to be enjoying this thoroughly. Then, in complete contrast, there are also shots of other white people, presumably the photographer’s family, having a sunbath on their boat and who, too, seem to be happy to bask in the exotic wild that is now under their control. Our Trip to Africa could be easily panned for its decidedly imperialist (and, to an extent, racist) tone, if not for one simple fact – that it is a film within a film. That the function of Our Trip to Africa is not to act as a tourist video, but to show us one. That there’s a world’s difference between the outlook of the man behind the camera – the protagonist of the film – and of “the man behind the man behind the camera” – Peter Kubelka, the director.

(GRAPHIC CONTENT WARNING!)

[Part 1/2]

[Part 2/2]

Gaining The Upper Hand

Austria is presently the defending champion of the Best Foreign film Oscar following its dream run last year with The Counterfeiters. However, the inclusion of its contender this year, Götz Spielmann’s Revanche, has come as quite a big surprise. With the film pipping heavy-weight contenders like Italy’s (2008) and Romania’s Gomorra Rest is Silence (2008) , it does make me inquisitive as to why the Academy preferred this one. Now that I’ve seen the film, the curiosity still persists.

I’m not going to give away the plot here although I’m going to mention some interesting points in the film. But don’t worry. This is a film that doesn’t have spoilers, for it derives its glory, ironically, not from concealment of plot points.Revanche kicks off with an array of seemingly disparate sequences involving more than half a dozen individuals. We are forced to think that this is going to be one of those hyperlink films that deal with interconnected lives. But in a Hitchcockian twist to the story Spielmann kills off the central plot and steers the film, literally, into a completely new environment. He shifts a seemingly event-driven film into one that balances character and their actions very delicately.

Spielmann’s camera is reminiscent of the damn good contemporary films from countries like Germany and Romania. It takes up the position of a non-human character in each scene and captures the mise-en-scene with great detail. In most of the scenes, it is situated at a shady corner of a room, the end of a corridor or among the trees of a park. There are no unnecessary pans, hand held sequences or even drastic zooms. To use a cliché, it merely observes. A sizeable distance is maintained while documenting the characters and their actions. But what effect does all this produce? One could say that it provides us drama in its purest form.

Clearly, there is considerable drama in the character’s own lives. The ever-baffling twists of fate, luck and destiny by themselves provide enough fodder to keep one astonished. Spielmann cleverly retains it and never tries to externally dramatize it by employing soundtrack (there isn’t one at all in the film), spectacular camera movements or even by extremities of the character’s actions (although the parallel editing in the first half hour does impose itself on us). The bank robbery, that could easily have been made the central piece, lasts less a minute! Also, Spielmann never delves into the characters psychology for even a moment. He never claims to explore their motivations and intentions. Why doesAlex work at the farm at all? Why does Susanne visit the old man? Why doesAlex throw away the gun? Spielmann never intends to answer these questions though me makes all of it completely workable. Each of the characters here could be made into a complete melodramatic film. The old man, AlexTamara, Susanne and Robert are easy candidates for in-depth psychoanalysis. But Spielmann eschews from making even one.

Furthermore, Spielmann doesn’t even rely on the twists in the plot for attention. The audience can easily guess out what an action is going to result in much before it is revealed. When Alex pins the picture on the wall of his room, we know immediately that it is going to give him away. Spielmann deliberately does that. Consider the moment Alex comes to know that Susanne has found out his secret. There are no wide eyes or Vertigo shots over here! There is a long pause where Spielmann focuses on Alex’s face. That is all. Alex has assimilated what this means and what its consequences are going to be. That is the stuffRevanche is made of. The twists aren’t as important as the actions that they result in or those that precede them. And it is indeed these “actions” alone that help us piece together the characters’ motivations.

Interestingly, there are extended shots of Alex chopping the wood and his grandfather playing the accordion. What begins like an establishing technique goes on to become something more vital. The wood chopping becomes more than Alex’s work. It becomes a gesture by itself. It seems as if it is his interaction with the hermetic world. And same is the case with his grandfather. Both these characters are in complete loneliness even though they live together. They seldom talk and carry on with their “gestures” even if there is no one to receive them. There is something elusive in the presence of these actions. At times the wood-cutting seems like a token of atonement and at others, it seems like a representation of building resentment. In an case, it falls in resonance with the execution of the whole movie – Actions taking the place of words, gestures taking the place of dramatic cues.

Daldry’s Oscar contender The Reader (2008) mentions how European literature thrives on secrets to drive its characters’ lives. That how persons in power are the ones in possession of great secrets. Many a time, concealment of truth is the prime way to domination. Revanche is exactly that. Alex is pretty helpless and possibly a pawn of fate till the second half of the film. Once he knows that he is in possession of an exclusive piece of information, he is able to control his fate and of others. Susanne is very much an instrument controlled by Alex. And so is Robert. Note how the single secret can create or destroy vantage points. Objectively speaking, Alex is the one guilty of a crime. But the concealment of truth makes it look like Robert is the one. Alex is the one who is vulnerable to law. But because he has used his knowledge to suit his plan, it seems as ifSusanne is going to be the victim if everything comes to light. And this is the “Revenge” of the title – revenge without a single (well, one!) bullet fired.

Revanche opens with a shot of a placid lake followed by a startling fall of an object into it. There are ripples and then back to an unperturbed state. But what is buried into it now will be an object of tension for ever. This sequence is whatRevanche mirrors in the rest of the film. What the intrusion of the third personAlex into the peaceful life of a countryside couple has resulted in. The issues may be buried and done with amicably. But its consequences, the tension thatSusanne is thrown into and the fear that Robert is nudged into will echo for eternity.

I’m not sure if the Academy really considered Revanche as a contender or did they just use it as filler. It neither has the political grounding or the moral righteousness or even the emphatic statements that it looks for. Perhaps Waltz with Bashir already has the Oscar it in its kitty.

 

Verdict:

Next Page »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 199 other followers