Cinema of Germany


Serious Games (2009-10)
Harun Farocki
English

 

Serious GamesHarun Farocki’s four-part project Serious Games (2009-10) takes a look at the use of photorealistic computer-generated imagery in processes surrounding the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We see soldiers being trained before missions by demonstrative games that map out enemy terrain and climate in amazing detail – right down till the physical properties of the vegetation found in these geographies. We also see similar interactive programs that help PTSD-afflicted ex-servicemen revisit devastating moments and, in doing so, overcome their condition. There is an amalgamation of reality, fiction and simulation throughout the film. What appear to be documentary segments are revealed to be performances by amateur actor-salesmen demonstrating to soldiers the uses of their video games. In one segment, a mock Iraqi village is set up in Twentynine Palms, California with the help of local Iranian and Pakistani folk that seems directly modeled on a videogame. While not all of these games with reality and fiction pay off, it is intriguing to note how armies’ relationship to war has changed over the years. War appears to have ceased being a hard, irrational, unpredictable material reality and become a science that could be modeled, predicted and controlled. Farocki refers to this modern type of war as an asymmetric war, in which one side has a heavy advantage over the other and focuses on the biased representation and perceptual manipulation such simulations propagate. His fuzzy polemic, however, is not only compromised but also questionable because the kind of representation he is criticizing is, unlike the mass media, made specifically for the consumption of the army and is, itself, based on the army’s existing view of things. So not only does the commentary come across as self-evident, but also toothless because the position that the film locates itself in does not allow for insightful criticism in the first place.

The Turin Horse

The Turin Horse 
(Image Courtesy: MottoMagazinBlog)

There are 30 shots in all in Hungarian couple Béla Tarr’s and Ágnes Hranitzky’s The Turin Horse (2011), 29 of which involve a moving camera and most of which are elaborately choreographed amalgam of camera movements. The first and possibly the most exhilarating shot of the film is a compounded crane and tracking shot in which we are presented with a horse cart and its driver. The dolly tracks at the pace of the cart and its craning arm films the cart primarily from two directions perpendicular to each other: a view lateral to the line of action and a view of the horse head-on and up close. (This combination of lateral and head-on angles of the camera will form a major visual motif in the film.) We see the horse pushing hard against the gale, with its mane fluttering backward. We see the man, equally haggard, with his hair swept back by the wind like the mane. We also note that, by himself, the man is static while the horse is the one moving forward and taking him along – a minor detail but also an illustration of the film’s chief theme. The equivalence between the horse and its driver becomes even more pointed as the film cuts to the second shot, where we see the man – now on foot – pulling the horse into the stable (also reiterated in shot no.22 where the man’s daughter does the pulling). After the second shot, the film shifts indoors, where the major part of the film unfolds.

Inside, we follow the man, Ohlsdorfer (Janos Derzsi), and his daughter (Erika Bok, who plays a counterpoint of sorts to the character she played 17 years ago in Satantango (1994)) as they go about doing their daily work for 6 consecutive days: she gets up first, wears the countless number of clothes hanging on the wall, adds firewood to the hearth, fetches water from the well, dresses up the man, who has a paralyzed right hand, and boils the potatoes so that they can have lunch. Much of the action involves, as does the latest Dardennes feature, closing and opening of doors, necessitated by the beastly windstorm that plagues the outdoors. Their house is sparse and functionally furnished. Not only are the walls entirely unadorned, but the coating is coming off. The man seems to be a cobbler and he, possibly, sells the belts he makes in the town. The family does not seem to particularly religious. It does not have appear to any neighbours or visitors, save for the man (Mihály Kormos) who comes to their house to get his keg of country liquor filled, and the band of gypsies which arrives at their well for water, only to be shooed off by the old man.

The day-to-day events repeat over and over, of course, but Tarr (Please rest assured that I’m not forgetting the contribution of Hranitzky here and elsewhere) and regular DoP Fred Keleman photograph them from different setups each day, trying out various possible configurations and presentations and as if illustrating the Nietzsche’s concept of Eternal Recurrence that informs the structuring of the film. The effect of ritualization and repetition of everyday events with religiosity is bolstered by Mihaly Vig’s characteristically organ-laden cyclical soundtrack (reminiscent of the thematically apt Que Sera Sera of Almanac of Fall (1985)) that meets its counterpoint only in the boisterousness of the winds that sweep the plain. Keleman and Tarr light and shoot the interior of the house so painstakingly and evocatively, that even commonplace objects achieve a throbbing vitality of their own. They often light overhead, as they regularly do, imparting a luminous visual profile to the characters, who now seem like spectres haunting this dilapidated house. Unusually, there are also few instances of a voice over, which is new for Tarr, which acts as like the voice of an anti-God looking over the man and his daughter during the course of the film and their eventual fall.

It soon appears as though the horse (Risci) is neither at the centre of the film’s lean narrative nor at the focus of its apparent ideas. Indeed, it simply looms in the background like an unwelcome guest or an illness that is preventing the old man from riding into town to do business. However, actually, the animal not only provides a stark thematic contrast to the human characters of the film, it is at the very foundation of its metaphysics. The film opens with a hearsay anecdote about Friedrich Nietzsche. Apparently, in January 1889, when the philosopher was in Turin, he witnessed a cart driver flogging his recalcitrant horse. Nietzsche is said to have stopped him in haste and leapt on to the cart, embraced the horse and cried profusely. It is also said that this was the day after which he started losing control of his mental faculties. Of course, at the outset, what Nietzsche felt was simple empathy for a tormented creature, like any kind person would have. But because the person we are talking about is Nietzsche, the event holds a very special implication. What he was going through was also a sudden experience of intersubjectivity and, as importantly, the awareness of its existence.

A small detour to Dostoyevsky, a writer Nietzsche deeply admired, would be instructive here. In Crime and Punishment (1865), protagonist Rodion Raskolnikov, a bona-fide Nietzschean character, is haunted by dreams of a horse being cudgeled to death for the entertainment of those around it. It is, in addition, an expression of the owner’s power over and possession of it. Rodion, who believes that certain superior individuals have the right to disregard law and conventional morality if they feel that they are doing so for a greater good, discovers here the fallacy of his worldview. Like Nietzsche, he proposes a philosophy of guilt predicated on the effect of a “crime” on the conscience of the actor and not on the acted upon. But what this idea assumes is that moral consciousness of a person is a given, fully-formed whole, independent of other consciousnesses. Rodion realizes, in this nightmare, the toxicity of appointing oneself a superordinate being, especially when the relationship is that of master and slave, owner and owned. Nietzsche, in a classic case of life is imitating art, faces the same situation at Turin. His tears are an acknowledgement of the interconnectedness of all consciousnesses, an equivalence of each one of them.

The opening text of The Turin Horse tells us that we know what happened to Nietzsche after the incident but not the horse. The film’s recognition of the horse as a being as important as Nietzsche begins right there. The first image we see is that of a mare trotting against heavy wind, very close to the screen, dominating the frame – as if the camera is embracing it – suggesting its centrality to the film’s ideas. (Actually, we are never told that this animal is the same as the one Nietzsche wept for. The cut from the anecdote to the horse prompts us to assume that. This is only the first instance of lack of specificity that pervades the film.) The Turin Horse treats the horse as a fully-formed consciousness in itself – as vital as, if not more, its human counterparts – capable of understanding the world and, more crucially, reacting to it. The two human characters at the centre of the film do recognize the doom that surrounds them, but do not seem to do anything to change or respond to it. On the other hand, it is their horse that protests the cruelty of its master and offers resistance to the decay all around by refusing to eat or work. In other words, the mare seems to possess a higher degree of self-awareness than its human owners.  In one shot, the camera lingers on the horse long after the humans have left the scene, with the same solemnity that it displayed towards the people in the film. It is not some overblown anthropomorphism that we are dealing with here. It is a radical decentering of humanity as the locus of consciousness.

This tendency to displace humans as the centre of the universe also furthers Tarr’s and frequent collaborator László Krasznahorkai’s long-standing anti-Biblical programme. If, with the ending of Satantango and the upshot of the Nietzschean Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), the writer-director pair tried to overturn the Scripture, here they take on the Creation narrative itself. Divided into six days, which no doubt serve to echo the six days of the creation of earth, The Turin Horse chronicles in detail the progressive disintegration of the world back to nothingness before time. In this anti-Genesis-narrative, neither is man created in the image of God (one that’s not dead, that is), nor are beasts inferior beings to be tamed and controlled by man. (“Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.) In Tarr’s and Krasznahorkai’s Scripture, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate night from day, the seasons from each other. (There are only two seasons in the film’s world – windy and otherwise). Beings, instead of being fruitful and multiplying, become scarcer and scarcer. Earth returns to the formless void – the void that we witness in the evocative last shot – that it was at the Beginning. One imagines that the film would agree with Genesis on the seventh day: “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them”.

[The Turin Horse (2011) Trailer]

Commentators have noted the striking silent film-like appearance of The Turin Horse. Indeed, Tarr, who has never been as metafilmic, parallels the anti-Creation narrative with a similar trajectory on the cinematic plane. A number of sub-shots are presented with the set and character in full view, arranged against a flat background and shot head-on with the décor in parallel to the image plane, just like a silent movie. Many of the shots are parenthesized by vertical or horizontal bars of film grain that wipe across the screen. Father and daughter, themselves, resemble the monstrously mismatched prospectors of The Gold Rush (1925), eating a non-meal every day and the smaller one always drawing the shorter straw. This is compounded by the fact that the film is set in 1889, just about the time cinema came into being. Moreover, the two interruptions that disturb the routine of the silent family are marked by excessive talk and cacophony. The film begins with pure movement of cinema and ends in absolute stasis of photography. (It is telling, in this respect, that the only completely still shot of the film is the last one.) It is as though cinema, like the film’s world, has regressed into non-existence, from broad daylight to total darkness.

Judge him, but this affinity for depicting disintegration to rubble has permeated Béla Tarr’s filmography. In a way, each of his film is a document of structural destruction: of urban spaces (Family Nest, 1979), of the modern family (Prefab People, 1982), of society (Almanac of Fall, 1985), of political machinery (Satantango, 1994), of civility (Damnation, 1988) and of civilization (Prologue, 2004). The Turin Horse takes the logic further and locates itself at the probable end of humanity itself. If Tarr’s latest work appears to lack the analytical rigour or satirical edge of his previous films, it is because it distills key ideas of these earlier films into a highly abstract conceptual examination devoid of urgency and pointedness. Looking at the director’s oeuvre, one can see this coming. Tarr started with very topical, socially critical films made in vérité aesthetic. Realizing that surface realism could only get him this far, he took a stylistic as well as epistemological break with Almanac of Fall, after which, instead of recording reality as it appears, he dealt with increasingly abstracted forms removed from everyday experience and a philosophy that replaced materialism with metaphysics.

Such departicularization is the modus operandi of The Turin Horse. The film systematically removes any trace of specificity from within it and builds an extremely generic framework that one can liken to the confident broad strokes of a paintbrush. Such sucking away of particulars would have been fatal in a film with concrete political ambition. But The Turin Horse, in contrast, works in a philosophical and cinematic realm so rarified that such distillation seems tailor made for it. Beyond the very specific opening story (Who: Friedrich Nietzsche; Where: Door No. 6, Via Carlo Alberto, Turin; When: January 3rd, 1889), we are not sure about any narrative detail. The place could be Turin, or not. The year could be 1889, or not. It could be autumn, or not. The long monologue that the first visitor delivers is what Pauline Kael would call a Christmas tree speech: you can hang all your allegories on it. What is the threat he is talking about? Why is the town ruined? Who are “they”? We don’t get any answer. If, at all, Tarr makes another film and intends to take the idea further, he’s, in all possibility, going to find himself in the realm of pure avant-garde, with nothing concrete to hold on to except the truth of photography.

Undoubtedly, Tarr is as cynical as filmmakers can get. His cynicism, like Kubrick’s, is the cynicism of great art, to borrow a sentence from Rivette.  But with The Turin Horse, Tarr seems to have punched through to the zone beyond. We have, here, entered the realm of the absurd, where cynicism itself is rendered impotent. In this film, doom is a given, inevitable. Instead of charting people’s downward spiral into the abyss as in the previous films, Tarr and team observe with resignation the insularity of people from their situation. Foreboding gives way to fatalism, cynicism to amusement. Robert Koehler correctly compares the film to the works of Samuel Beckett and The Turin Horse is a veritable adaptation of Waiting for Godot (1953). Right from the lone tree on hill top, through the dilemmas of vegetable eating, the sudden logorrhea of a stranger, the perpetually cyclical nature of events, to the ritualization of actions, especially the changing of apparels, Tarr’s incomplete tragicomedy in 30 shots echoes Beckett’s incomplete tragicomedy in two acts. Like Beckett’s bickering pair, or Buñuel’s angels, father and daughter find themselves unable to leave the house for some reason. And like Vladmir and Estragon, or Pinky and Brain (“Tomorrow we’ll try again”), the two– stuck in their house for eternity with only each other to stand witness for their existence – sit by the window everyday gazing at, or waiting for, a Godot that could be anything ranging from revolution to death.

But there are two key cinematic predecessors to The Turin Horse as well. The first of them, Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1976), lends Tarr’s film its finely spiral structure, in which a continuous process of disintegration is made palpable by minute changes in what appear to be unchangeable routines. Like in Jeanne Dielman, another film with an inclination for culinary detailing, the aquarium-like world of the characters is pierced by changes in the outside world, leading to their downfall. Then there is Sohrab Shahid Saless’ Still Life (1974) with which The Turin Horse not only shares its strong comic undercurrent, but also the idea of rendering chronology and the passing of time irrelevant by making it go in loops; the eternal return if you will. But, unlike the makers of these two films, Tarr filters his film from any direct comment on contemporary social organization. (Akerman and Saless, on the other hand, are keenly focused on the issue of urban and rural alienation). But what these films, most critically, share is an acute eye for everyday details, for minor behavioral and physical variations and an unshakeable faith on inescapable specificity of the photographic image.

 

Rating: 

Pina (2011)
Wim Wenders
German/French/English/Spanish/Croatian/Italian/Portuguese/Russian/Korean

 

Maya Deren, committed perhaps more than anyone else to marrying choreography with film, once wrote: “There is a potential filmic dance form, in which the choreography and movement would be designed, precisely, for the mobility and other attributes of the camera, but this, too, requires an independence from theatrical dance conceptions.” This could well have been a mission statement for Wim Wenders’ Pina (2011), which attempts to re-imagine Bausch’s most famous works for a cinema audience and, specifically, for 3D technology. Consisting of an assortment of performances of Bausch’s famous pieces – performed on stage as well as outdoors in the choreographer’s home town – and interviews with her protégés, the film locates itself on this side of her passing and plays itself openly as a tribute rather than a cine-profile. Although it appears that art forms are being nested one inside another – Wenders’ film records Bausch’s choreography, which, in turn, is viewed as painting-on-stage – Pina comes across as collaboration between two art forms, as it is between two of its eminent practitioners – one feeding into another. Dance and cinema are presented as two universal forms bypassing verbal language, as is made explicit in the frequently interrupting (and consistently impoverishing) interviews in which we see Pina’s dancers – of different ethnicities, cultures and languages – sitting idly before the camera while their testimonies play as voiceovers, as though reducing both forms to their very basics – image and gesture. As for the dances themselves, we respond to the sheer physicality of them, more than their meaning, which is enhanced by Wenders’ restive, ever-tracking and craning camera that provides us the best of vantage points and brings us close to actually taking part in the performances.

Mani Kaul

Mani Kaul 
(1944-2011)

Mani Kaul is undoubtedly the Indian filmmaker who, along with Kumar Shahani, has succeeded in radically overhauling the relationship of image to form, of speech to narrative, with the objective of creating a ‘purely cinematic object’ that is above all visual and formal. He was born Rabindranath Kaul in Jodhpur in Rajasthan in 1942 into a family hailing from Kashmir. His uncle was the well-known actor-director Mahesh Kaul. Mani joined the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune initially as an acting student but then switched over to the direction course at the institute. He graduated from the FTII in 1966. Mani’s first film Uski Roti (1969) was one of the key films of the ‘New Indian Cinema’ or the Indian New Wave. The film created shock waves when it was released as viewers did not know what quite to make of it due to its complete departure from all Indian Cinema earlier in terms of technique, form and narrative. The film is ‘adapted’ from a short story by renowned Hindi author Mohan Rakesh and is widely regarded as the first formal experiment in Indian Cinema. While the original story used conventional stereotypes for its characters and situations, the film creates an internal yet distanced kind of feel reminiscent of the the great French Filmmaker, Robert Bresson. The film was financed by the Film Finance Corporation (FFC) responsible for initiating the New Indian Cinema with Bhuvan Shome (1969) and Uski Roti. It was violently attacked in the popular press for dispensing with standard cinematic norms and equally defended by India’s aesthetically sensitive intelligentsia. [Image & Bio Courtesy: Mubi]

 

I guess Mani Kaul could be called, with qualifications of course, the invisible man of Indian cinema. The home audience might find his films too ‘European’, too alien, and too cryptic, and might prefer instead the realist-humanist works of an artist like Ray. Foreign viewers, on the other hand, might complain that they are too culturally-rooted, too alien and too cryptic, and instead opt for a ‘universal’ filmmaker like Ray. Indeed, neither Kaul nor his pictures make any claim to ‘universality’. They are, undoubtedly, steeped in Indian classical art forms like how the Nouvelle Vague films were, with respect to the European classical tradition. Many of these films are adapted from literary works in Hindi, have a profound relationship with Hindustani music and exhibit an influence of representational forms from the country. In fact, his cinema, if not much else, is about these very forms, both in terms of subject matter and their construction. These films, to varying degrees, are literature (The Cloud Door), painting (Duvidha), architecture (Satah Se Uthata Aadmi), poetry (Siddheshwari) and music (Dhrupad). Right from his early documentary Forms and Design (1968), which sets up an opposition between functional forms of industrial age and decorative ones from Indian tradition, Kaul makes it, more or less, apparent that is he is interested in the possibilities of a form itself more than the question if it can convey a preconceived thesis. Like Godard, Kaul starts with the image and works his way into the text, if any.

Perhaps it is classical music, and specific strains of it, that exhibits strongest affinity with Kaul’s cinema. The director has mentioned that the trait that attracts him to it the most is that there are elements that just don’t fit into a system, notes that slip away and could find themselves elsewhere in the composition, Similarly, Kaul, admittedly, edits his films like composing music, moving a shot along the timeline, beyond logic, meaning or chronology, till it finds its right place, in terms of mood, rhythm or whatever parameter the director has in mind. (“And I know that when the shot finds its place, it has a quality of holding you. The position is its meaning”). He has, time and again, spoken elaborately on the systematization of fine art by European Renaissance and the need to find out alternate modes of expression free from its constraints. Convergence, be it in the perspective compositions of painting, the three-act structure of literature, or the climaxing of motifs in music, has always been an area of concern and investigation for him. (He admires Hum Aapke Hain Kaun (1994) for its insistence on spending a quarter hour fretting about a pair of shoes, at the expense of plot). Consequently, fragmentation becomes the central organizing principle of his aesthetic. Like Robert Bresson, one of his greatest influences, Kaul prefers filming parts of the body – hands, feet and head – and positions his actors such that they are facing away from the camera or are in profile, thereby disregarding the convention that the face is the centre of one’s body. (Kaul’s sketches, in that sense, are direct antithesis to the portraits of Renaissance). Accordingly, because the face is tied to the notion of a unique identity, Kaul’s actors are stripped off all natural expression and behaviour and de-identified. Many of his shots are ‘flat’, without any depth cues or perspectival lines. (He traces this to ‘perspectiveless’ Mughal miniature paintings and cites Cézanne as another major influence). None of the characters are Enlightenment heroes having a firm hold on their world. The narratives are decentered and distributed across multiple perspectives.

This resistance to convergence principles of Renaissance has also led him to radically reformulate his relationship to the spaces he films. He believes that filmic and social spaces have been conventionally divided into ‘the sacred’ – the perfect realization of an ideal, carefully framed and chiseled, with all the undesired elements out – and ‘the profane’ – accidental intrusions, random fluctuations and irreligious interruptions; that the moment a filmmaker looks through the viewfinder, he ‘appropriates’ the hitherto ‘neutral’ space to compose based a set of principles, polishes it and turns it into a ‘sacred’ space. Kaul, on the other hand, has increasingly been resistant to ‘perfecting’ an image or space, instead treating space as something neutral and unclassifiable in itself and concentrating on the tone, feeling and emotion of a shot. (This is also what Godard does in his latest work, where spaces and images of all kind are given equal importance). In his later films, he has asked his cameraman not to look through the viewfinder while filming. (This does not mean that one shoots blindly. The director has elaborated in his writings on how this could be practically implemented. “What needs to be determined by the director and the cameraman is the act of making the shot: attention being that aspect of time that deeply colours the emergent feeling in a shot”). He has, admittedly, been open to intrusions and one can see stray elements, like cat mews appearing unexpectedly, in some of his shots. Likewise, none of his “stories” converge, or even have a linear progression, and, in fact, keep diffusing and opening up new possibilities.

 

[There are numerous features not covered in this post. The entries will be added if and when I see those missing films. All short films are omitted here.]

 

Uski Roti (A Day’s Bread, 1969)

Uski RotiMade when he was 25, Mani Kaul’s first feature Uski Roti (1969) is what one might call a poetic film about waiting. Kaul takes a simple premise for the film – a woman who goes to the highway everyday to give lunch to her husband, whom she,  oddly enough, addresses using his full name – and strips it down to its skeleton, diverting our attention from what is represented to how it is represented. (Kaul likens this process to a painter emphasizing his brush strokes). Bresson’s influence is palpable in many aspects of filmmaking here: the delayed editing of shots that parenthesizes action, the de-dramatization of scenario, the atonal, unaccented line delivery by actors without forced expressions, the emphasis on objects rather than concepts, the numerous shots of hands and faces that have a grace of their own and, of course, the central, suffering woman. (There is even a direct homage to Pickpocket (1959)). Additionally, Kaul’s own training in short documentaries seems to have made its mark here, given how keen the film is on documenting purely physical activities such kneading dough, which becomes the central gesture. (This would be elaborated upon in the short A Historical Sketch Of Indian Women (1975)). Utilizing plethora of Ghatak-influenced wide angle shots, in high-contrast monochrome (if only the film had used European film stock, Pedro Costa would applaud), a hyperreal sound mix and a highly idiosyncratic grammar (horizontal asymmetry, characters facing away from camera, no reaction shots), Kaul makes an arresting if not totally underivative debut.

Duvidha (In Two Minds, 1973)

DuvidhaKaul’s most acclaimed film Duvidha (1973) opens with a rather flat, Godardian image of a woman in a red saree standing in front of a white wall, staring determinedly into the camera, as high-pitched Rajasthani ethnic vocals grace the audio. Like the frozen image of Truffaut’s juvenile delinquent, it suggests a predicament addressed to the audience. Based a folk tale, Duvidha speaks of a love that is beyond time and space. The presence of the ghost, which falls in love with the new bride, is not an exotic delicacy served to us but a given. And so is the ‘story’, which is read out verbatim to us by the narrator, freeing the film from the burden of storytelling, so to speak, instead allowing it to experiment with the imagery. Employing a number of photographs, freeze frames, jump cuts and replays, which illustrate the film’s central notion of temporal and geographical dislocation (and save on the budget) and manipulating time like an accordion player, Kaul weaves a narrative where the past, the present and the future are always in conversation. (The ghost is simply referred to as ‘Bhoot’ (ghost), which is, of course, the word for ‘past’ as well). The predicament of the title, then, involves a choice between the spiritual and the material, the bride’s past and future, her childhood and adulthood, her freedom and honour and her love and security. Bewitchingly shot like a Dovzhenko film (and composed like Cézanne‘s still lifes), and impressively designed, with a simple yet striking interplay of red and white, Duvidha builds on both Kaul’s feminist leanings and highly personalized aesthetic.

Satah Se Uthata Aadmi (Arising From The Surface, 1980)

Satah Se Uthata AadmiSatah Se Uthata Aadmi (1980) begins with a shot of a serene lakeside landscape being abruptly shut off from view by a closing window, following which camera gradually withdraws deeper into the eerily empty rooms of a dilapidating house where the central character of the film – a poet – resides. This notion of the artist being far removed from reality, and retreating further into himself, resonates throughout the film. Based on the deeply personal texts of Gajanan Mukthibodh, Satah Se Uthata Aadmi presents a world where the revolution has failed, idealism has died out in the name of practicality and the role of intellectuals and artists has been vehemently questioned. Rekindling the question of theory versus practice, the film attempts to examine if residing is certain social frameworks to make a living amounts to a sellout of oneself. (Like Godard-Truffaut, Ghatak-Ray, does Kaul have anyone in mind?). This fragmented, post-socialist state of society that the film depicts – through its vignettes of urban Indian individuals – is reflected in the Malick-like disunited voiceover which spans three characters and which conversely, unites the narrative together. A remarkably sustained tone poem, with brooding surreal passages (including a hypnotic documentary sequence inside a factory and an unabashedly allegorical finale) and minor experiments (sections from Muktibodh’s texts displayed on screen), reminiscent of Godard’s work of the 90s, rife with strong verticals and perspective compositions (which is odd, given Kaul’s resistance to it), Satah Se Uthata Aadmi is both Kaul’s most stringent and most affecting work.

Dhrupad (1982)

DhrupadDhrupad (1982) finds Kaul studying the eponymous classical music form, specifically the Dagarvani variation of it practiced by the Dagar family, with whom the director has close associations with. Apparently, the music the film examines is one without any form of notation since, reportedly, many of the tones don’t fit into existing notational systems and the transmission of tradition is done purely orally. (The vocal performances that we hear exhibit such malleability of human voice that one is convinced that no instrument can aspire to emulate its timbre). This trait of not conforming to the systematized models of Renaissance is of special interest to Kaul, who has long been aware of the need to discover non-reductive, discursive modes of expression. Likewise, Dhrupad, like many of the director’s pictures, eludes categorization or compartmentalization. Part historical study, part religious documentation of performances, part experiment with cinematic time (the sublime shot that spans a sunrise invokes contemporary ‘landscape filmmakers’ like Benning) and part exercise in thematically conglomerating classical Indian art forms – music, sculpture, architecture, painting and cinema – the self-referential film gives a vivid picture of what makes Dhrupad so striking, with its numerous mise en abymes and fractals. Like in the films of Resnais, with whom Kaul shares an affinity for ‘fragmentation’, the camera glides through the Mughal style corridors and courtyards, in which the veteran artistes of the Dagar family perform and teach – while the soundtrack takes off on its own – evoking a sense of history that is living and breathing.

Mati Manas (The Mind Of Clay, 1985)

Mati ManasCommissioned by NFDC and the handicrafts division of Ministry of Textiles, Mani Kaul’s Mati Manas centers on potters and terra cotta artisans located in and around Rajasthan and unfolds as a fictionalized version of Kaul’s journey into the region as an outsider and a documentary filmmaker. We have documentary passages that elaborately detail the art and business of terra cotta making and the way of life that revolves around it interspersed with sections where we see the in-movie documentary crew shuttling between museums showcasing earthenware from the Indus Valley civilization, excavation sites and various potter villages while narrating to us the various myths, legends and folk tales of the region that reveal how mud/earth has become, for these artisans, an element inextricable from imagination and practice and has gone on to develop maternal associations with its capacity to nurture, shelter and produce. Suffused with Cezanne-like still life and images of potters at work, especially the weary, skillful hands that lovingly, spontaneously shape raw earth into little, wondrous artifacts, Mati Manas comes across as a tribute to the dignity and grace of human labour. Perhaps more importantly, Kaul’s return-to-zero film unveils a society where people’s relationship to art is still habitual and tactile, a pre-reflective, non-reductive, phenomenological way of experiencing art that stands in opposition to modern, appropriative, optical approaches – a split that is reflected in the chasm between how ancient pottery is exhibited in museums and sketched in textbooks as icons of heritage and triumph of archaeology and how it might have been perceived by people of its time.

Siddheshwari (1989)

SiddheshwariWith Siddheshwari (1989), Kaul turns the typical artist-profile film (produced by Films Division) on its head. Not only does it eschew straightforward documentation of the titular singer’s artistry, but it almost completely does away with basic biographical details to arrive at something more exhilarating and revelatory. Instead of presenting music, the film presents the idea and experience of music. A bona fide avant-garde feature that amalgamates multiple timelines, geographies, realities and narrative modes, Siddheshwari brings together various art forms like literature (the chapterized film opens with a table of contents!), music (shifts in ragas, reflected in the filmmaking with hue and rhythm changes) and theatre (both in its production design and its emphasis on role-playing throughout). The camera is perpetually moving – dollies and cranes galore – as if reading an ancient scroll and acts like a force of time that moves Siddheshwari Devi through landscapes and times. The soundtrack, similarly, is a dense network of speech, whispers, vocal and instrumental music ad recited poetry. Siddheswari Devi is portrayed by a number of women, including some who enact her biography, some who depict her sensorial experiences and Devi herself. (This is only one of the reasons I’m reminded of Hou’s The Puppetmaster (1994)). One of them is Mita Vasisht, whom we see at an archive, at the end, watching tapes of Devi singing, possibly to prepare herself for the role. Like The Taste of Cherry (1997), fiction and reality bid adieu, with Kaul restoring things back to their original places, as though returning what he borrowed to create his greatest work.

Nazar (The Gaze, 1989)

NazarAdapted from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s short story, Nazar (1989) bears natural resemblance to Robert Bresson’s shining adaptation of the same, A Gentle Creature (1969) in its characteristically stylized direction of actors and the sacrificing drama for rhythm, mood and an intensity of observation. Kaul replaces the generally bright interiors of Bresson’s version of the couple’s high-rise housing, which cordons them off from the rest of the world and which is emphasized continuously in the film, with a low-lit (barely any artificial light) semi-dungeon marked dominated by black-blue and brown shades, suggestive of the moral malaise that marks both the psyche of the male character and the space the pair lives in. The ever-wandering camera hovers over characters who appear to be stationed in space – with barely any movement – as if frozen in time. Kaul’s ultra-minimal chamber drama, too, starts off with the suicide of a woman (Kaul’s daughter Shambhavi, an avant-garde filmmaker herself), although it is only alluded to by her husband (noted director Shekhar Kapur), who tries to recollect to us what might have moved her to commit this act. Kapur’s stream-of-consciousness delivery of lines is exceptionally fragmented, as if he’s trying to wrestle information from deep recesses of ‘actual and ’‘convenient’ memories. This narrative within the narrative is the man’s way of vindicating himself; of blinding himself to the fact that ‘ownership’ is what that mattered to him all along and that he is, like the antiques that he sells, a man stuck in time.

Naukar Ki Kameez (The Servant’s Shirt, 1999)

Naukar Ki KameezNaukar Ki Kameez (1999), as it appears, is a ‘conventional’ narrative film, by the director’s standards, with that generally-revered ‘naturalistic’ acting and speech, its relatively generous use of musical score and a general willingness to present a string of events, if not a plot. However, it is also one of Kaul’s most experimental features (Kaul couldn’t ideally be classified as an experimental filmmaker) and employs a fragmented narrative structure (which keeps spreading out to new directions) with constant chronological jumps back and forth, an absurd, magic realist tone (which reveals a tenderness towards his characters and his geography) and a potpourri of filmmaking modes (including canned laughter of sitcoms and internal monologues of low-end TV dramas). Set at the fag end of the 60s, Naukar Ki Kameez, which centers on a lower-middle class clerk, Santu, in a government office, and his wife, for most part, is a simple metaphorical tale of upward class mobility and its psychological and social impediments. Santu is a bundle of contradictions; he is conscious of class divisions and the need for revolution and yet harbours hope for social-climbing, he recognizes the need to respect the other, yet casually oppresses his wife, whom he genuinely loves as well. Like Aravindan’s Oridathu (1986), it gives us a nation with an identity crisis: one caught between extreme Westernization and dreams of a revolution – between tradition and modernity – posing a question to itself: To wear or to tear?

Een Aaps Regenjas (A Monkey’s Raincoat, 2005)

A Monkey's RaincoatMore fascinating than the fact that A Monkey’s Raincoat (2005) revitalizes the age-old question of purpose of art and its relationship to the real world is that low-end handheld DV, which the film is shot on, helps put nearly all of Kaul’s theoretical principles and inclinations into practice: the idea of not looking through the viewfinder while shooting, the rejection of the dichotomy between “sacred” and “profane” spaces, the notion of camera as an extension of one’s body and movement and a deep-seated interest in the experience of filming over filming itself. Adopting a loose, instinctive and continuous mode of shooting, Kaul inquisitively records an assortment of young painters at work at two places – Biennale, Venice and at their residency in Amsterdam, Netherlands – often interacting with them as he works. We see that Amsterdam is something of a dream destination for budding artists, a melting pot of cultures, where they can at least hope to find an audience. Though never taking potshots at art or its reception, Kaul’s film gently mocks an art scene where artists seem to be fond of ‘playing’ artists, with a set of personalized eccentricities and self-imposed clichés. As he samples their creations, he wonders in the voiceover if there is any purpose to art at all, given that it has been able to solve not one of the world’s problems. Kaul realizes that the question is moot and questions if art for humans is what a raincoat if for monkey: it might not stop the rain but at least it helps you to recognize it and shield yourself from it.

Allow me to begin with a cliché: 2010 has been an insipid year at the movies. I really struggled to come up with this list because it just didn’t feel like there were many contenders for it. The tail of this list is shaky at best and I wouldn’t want to defend it with all my heart, I think. I’m not saying that there were no great films made in 2010. One bizarre phenomenon of the recent years has been the growing time difference between the world premiere of a film and its distribution/release. Movie lists this year have been almost entirely made of films that actually premiered in 2009 (or earlier) and, going by the trend, it wouldn’t be really a surprise if the 2011 lists consisted wholly of movies that premiered in 2010. (This list, however, is based on world premieres alone). This is not a wild thought at all, considering how stellar the list of filmmakers who premiered their films this year, without a release, has been. (Trust me, there are about 50 big titles that haven’t been mentioned in many of the lists. My biggest misses this year include The Strange Case of Angelica, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, Nostalgia for the Light, The Ditch, Meek’s Cutoff, Get Out Of The Car, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Aurora and The Four Times, among others. Rest assured that I’ll drop an updated list here around March, hopefully). Given this, 2011 is truly going to be one hectic year for film buffs, with dozens of vital films from both years to be seen. Fasten your seat belts.

 

1. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand/UK/France/Germany/Spain/Netherlands)


Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past LivesThat Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is the greatest feature by the Thai director is only worthy of a footnote. It is, in fact, what Nathaniel Dorsky calls Devotional Cinema. Boonmee is a work that amalgamates the process of film, human metabolism and the intermittence of our being like no other. Treating life as one continuous entity without a beginning or an end, where death and reincarnation are just various modes of existence, Boonmee so lovingly examines how these modes are integral to functioning of film where, in each frame, the past dies, yet persists and projects itself into the future. Furthermore, the film is also Weerasethakul’s response to the recent upheavals in his country where the political past of the country seems to resist death, reincarnating itself in kindred happenings of the present. Weerasethakul’s picture is at once a tribute to national cinema of the past, an elegy for film and a welcome note to digital filmmaking. It is at once a return to nascence and a leap into the future. Uncle Boonmee is cinema. Uncle Boonmee is cinema.

2. Film Socialism (Jean-Luc Godard, France/​Switzerland)


Film SocialismEven if Godard confirms the rumour that he’s going to call it a day, there’s nothing really to get vexed about. That’s because he has produced a body of work that is yet to be discovered in its full form, qualitatively and quantitatively. Film Socialism is not his last film because it is his last set of films. Yes, like that gargantuan video work of the 90s about the history of cinema, Film Socialism is a work that reconfigures and renews itself every time one sees it. It might all seem like a loosely connected set of arbitrary images, sounds and words. But that’s because arbitrariness is in its very DNA. If not anything else, it is “about” arbitrariness – of value, of ideologies, of laws and of languages – and the death of grand truths. Itinerating between the 70s style agitation, 80s style humanism and 90s style lamentation of his works and with a novel appreciation for individual images, words and objects, Film Socialism is simultaneously a summation of his career and an undoing of it. From the self-deprecating opening line of his first feature, to the “No Comment” 50 years later, Godard has probably said everything in between. Film Socialism is his signature.

3. Honey (Semih Kaplanoglu, Turkey/Germany)


HoneyYoung Yusuf always looks up to his father. Literally. This might be partly due to his undernourishment, but it is also because he refuses to grow up. The final and the finest film in Kaplanoglu’s trilogy, Honey evokes the experience of childhood, or rather the experience of its end, like a few films do, intertwining reality, memories, dreams and anxieties of the age. It so affectingly captures what it means to be thrust into a fatherless world: a family without father, a film without a hero, a universe without God. (The previous film in the triad deals with Yusuf’s relationship with his mother). Yusuf’s conversations with his father, themselves, resemble private confessions to a higher power. Kaplonoglu’s picture is somewhat of a paradox. The reverse chronological structure of the trilogy prompts psychoanalysis while Honey itself is, cleverly, non-reductive. Like Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) and Kiarostami’s Where Is the Friend’s Home? (1987), Honey is a film about childhood confronting adulthood against its own wishes. Ana dares to leave behind her childhood. Ahmed survives the confrontation. Yusuf refuses to grow up.

4. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, Iran/France/Italy)


Certified CopyAbbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, at its worst, is a rundown of modern western philosophy, especially its key questions about perception, beauty and the self. So allow me to steal some from old Fred to sum up the film: “Artists alone hate this lazy procession in borrowed manners and left-over opinions and they reveal everyone’s secret bad conscience, the law that every man is a unique miracle; they dare to show us man as he is, unique even unto each move of his muscles; even more, that by strictly in consequence of this uniqueness, he is beautiful and worth regarding, new and incredible, as every work of nature, and never boring.”. Kiarostami probes the validity of every clause above and keeps examining what the ideal way to live is and whether there is an ideal way at all. Does one understand the world through grand mechanisms and regard what one sees and hears as abstractions of invisible truths or does one confront these concrete objects as they are and deem the ideas uniting them as abstract and removed from experience? Kiarostami’s film is an irresolvable tug-of-war between subtexts and surfaces, accidents and forethought, conservatism and radicalism and, well, form and content.

5. My Joy (Sergei Loznitsa, Ukraine/Germany/France/Netherlands)


My JoyI can’t believe I’m including this patently cynical, relentlessly dystopian and ideologically simplistic film in this list, but the talent and craft here are undeniably overwhelming. Sergei Loznitsa’s My Joy is a film that threatens the uniqueness of Uncle Boonmee in that it too collapses historical time to sketch the sociopolitical portrait of a country that has ceased to progress and is moving around in circles of betrayal, oppression and violence. Its causes might be varied – residual bureaucracy, newfound market economy, WW2, Cold War – the manifestations nevertheless, Loznistsa suggests, are the same. Echoes of a scene are felt in another, similar situations and outcomes permeate historically different periods and essentially nothing changes except costumes and period details. It’s as if the director and the set of actors are trying in vain to recreate another age that might offer escape. Loznitsa uses interruption itself as a stylistic device wherein the genre (road movie “detours” into a sci-fi nightmare) and the narrative (character identification killed) are disrupted for treatises on power and its abuse. As presaged in the opening scene, it is the director as tyrant and the audience as victim.

6. Of Gods And Men (Xavier Beauvois, France)


Of Gods And MenAt a time when blanket rejection of all religion is the most advertised and subscribed worldview, Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods and Men comes as a much needed dose of sobriety. A worthy successor to that staggering Winter Light (1963, plugs to Bergman galore), Of Gods and Men is a expertly mounted tightrope act that strikes a tense balance between faith and reason, individualism and collectivism, idealism and materialism and democracy and authoritarianism. True to this spirit of philosophical investigation, the best shots in the film are composed like tableaus from ancient Greece, of which either God or the audience is regularly made a part. The stance here is, clearly, neither pro-religion nor anti-terrorist. The film is neither a critique about the perversion of religion by politics nor a lamentation about the loss of faith in a Post-Enlightenment world. It is about what Faith means to the individual. The monks in the monastery are neither theists deluded by the promise of a paradise nor victims caught in the vortex of international events. They are merely Kierkegaardian knights who leap beyond rationality to discover what it means to be human, to be mortal, to believe.

7. Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese, USA)


Shutter IslandAn hommage to Alfred Hitchcock among others, and possibly a remake of Vertigo (1958) as well, Martin Scorsese’s atmospheric wonder Shutter Island is about the absolute loss of control, about not being able to know whether you’re awake or dreaming, about being swept off solid ground and left floating and about the agony of losing everything that was dear to you. For filmmakers, especially ones as authoritative as Hitch and Scorsese, this fear of losing hold is so palpable and justified. Set in post-war America, where red signaled danger in more ways than one and where either you were crazy or the entire world around you was, Scorsese’s film has someone or the other consciously playing roles throughout. The sense of artificiality and instability is accentuated all through with tribute-providing rear projection and matte backgrounds. As literalized in its story, Shutter Island is also a battle between modernist paranoia and postmodernist schizophrenia wherein the director’s playfulness is pitted against ambitions of serious, personal expression. And I’m sorry to spoil it for you, but there’s no twist in the film.

8. I Wish I Knew (Jia Zhang-ke, China)


I Wish I KnewThe greatest filmmaker of the last decade continues to do what he does best: make great films. Jia Zhang-ke’s I Wish I Knew, a cousin to his previous film, is a symphony of city symphonies. The sheer scope of Jia’s investigation and the humungous historical and geographical ground he covers is daunting. Walking a thin line between state propaganda and personal vision, dispassionate observation and critique and aesthetization and respectful documentation, Jia has created a film that might look like the most reverential and non-committed of all his works. Like his last film, Jia probes how the older Shangainese’s history and identity has inextricably been linked with that of the city and the state and how the younger generation seems to have found the luxury to be apolitical and the freedom to move beyond. Globalization isn’t so bad after all. Or is it? One could arrive at two wholly different films by just editing the film in two different ways – one film that the state wants Jia to make and the other that we want Jia to make. Jia’s probably made the film he wants.

9. The Social Network (David Fincher, USA)


The Social NetworkAs the marketers of old studio films would say, The Social Network is a film for everybody. It truly is a film for every ideology, every reading and every level of engagement. The film is whatever you want it to be. There’s something about Sorkin’s Zuckerberg that’s both seductive and repulsive. His triumph is one that’s both inspiring and horrifying. Barring the last scene of the film, which probably kills off the ambivalence thus far and impresses itself on our memory of the film a little too heavily, the film does a remarkable balancing act, placing immense trust on the details for the maintenance of this ambiguity. It doesn’t have as much to say about how we live our lives online as it does about how we generally live in a world infested by final clubs of every sort, all the time conforming to popular ideas about the price of genius. That’s why The Social Network works much better when read as a slightly metaphysical tale, displaced from its context, than as a critique of the new world. There’s a vicious, Greenberg-like bitterness about this new phenomenon no doubt, but there’s also a sense of optimism beyond its control which acknowledges that there might be a way out after all.

10. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (Edgar Wright, USA)


Scott Pilgrim vs The WorldA hundred years from now, when social researchers (or aliens, if you are a Mayan) attempt to find out about this little curiosity called the internet, they will refer not to Fincher’s white elephant but this wicked termite that has volumes to say about how most of us perceive the world today. If The Social Network is about Web 2.0 as seen from outside, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is the same experienced from within. If Fincher’s film is the Facebook movie, Wright’s is the Twitter movie. There is barely an action, a line or an event that is allowed to complete. Everything that is marginally superfluous or even implicit is edited out. Information travels at the speed of light and it is, more often than not, trivial, useless and self-parodying. Time and space melt down to form a unified, nearly irrational warp zone where there’s almost no difference between reality and dream. This confusion of identities, so typical of our era and often alluded to in the film, is reflected in the pastiche-like nature of the film which borrows as much from web design and TV commercials as it does from comic books and video games. Devilishly inventive, “sublime”.

 

(Image Courtesy: Various)

Nachrichten Aus Der Ideologischen Antike – Marx/Eisenstein/Das Kapital (2010) (News From Ideological Antiquity – Marx/Eisenstein/Capital) – THE THEATRICAL VERSION
Alexander Kluge
German

 

News From Ideological AntiquityThe theatrical cut of Alexander Kluge’s epic length video work News from Ideological Antiquity – Marx/Eisenstein/Capital (2008) could be considered as notes from notes from notes on Das Kapital. This inheritance of texts, across media and languages, is what informs the central discourse of Kluge’s 83-minute collage work. After the completion of October (1928), which he mostly edited partially-blind and under the influence, Eisenstein set out to adapt Karl Marx’s Das Kapital as filtered through James Joyce’s Ulysses. The project was, of course, not realized and this is precisely the fact from which Kluge’s launches his investigation as to whether the book can be adapted at all. Using archival footage, (seemingly endless amount of) on-screen text, reading sessions accompanied by piano scores, interviews with historians, agit-poetry by Bert Brecht based on The Communist Manifesto and even an overstaying, outsourced short film directed by Tom Tykwer, Kluge examines the possible ways in which the gargantuan socioeconomic text can be realized in popular art forms. Such an effort, as Kluge illustrates, becomes especially challenging in film since it would mean attempting to capture the abstract nature of capital in the concrete events and things around us. Kluge, it appears, likes to see this as an ever evolving process, driven by the development of technology (At least, unlike Eisenstein, Kluge doesn’t have to worry about film stock), in which he is but only a connecting link. (His film is, after all, far removed from the source: Marx-Engels-Eisenstein-Kluge). But there is a more fundamental question if one is to believe in such long-ranged projects: How much of Marx is still relevant today? Was Marx, like Kluge, a part of a longer chain, the beginning or the end of it?  Kluge, like Godard, sums up the predicament in a poignant image: the debris of Karl Marx’s real tombstone in London being overshadowed by a lionizing token monument nearby.

Carlos

Of Girls and Guns 
(Image Courtesy: DVDTalk)

Olivier Assayas’ ambitious five-and-a-half hour biopic Carlos (2010) is obsessed with movement. For one, it attempts to chronicle at length the activities and philosophy of those radical counterculture movements of Europe in the 60s and the 70s. It is also keen on charting the movement of history in relation to its central figure – an aspect that is perhaps the most fundamental part of the film’s text. Then there is its endless preoccupation with physical movement: of people and of goods. Some commentators might point out that Carlos plays out as a good history lesson. Actually, it makes for a better geography course. From South America to Europe, from Africa to Asia, Carlos is always on the move. One could say that, like the shark, he will perish the moment he stops moving. (In this respect, the picture’s last line, after Carlos is captured by French feds, is terribly befitting). He is almost entirely defined by his location and his political orientation at any given point in time can be deduced if the country he lives in is known, which is why Assayas’ film is as much a travelogue as it is a biography. For Carlos, men are no different from the countries they represent – a mentality that eventually turns against him for good. Carlos is always on the move too, with its syntax infested with zooms, pans, tilts and dollies, as though it’s breathlessly trying to catch up with its subject. That’s why the film’s most telling shot is almost purely photographic: a very gradual zoom-out shot of a plane standing still at the Tripoli airport after it has been denied permission to land. Following the juggernaut that the film hitherto was, this decidedly incongruent shot leaves the viewer gasping for air. This is probably how Carlos feels at that moment as well, for he stands on the brink of a massive failure. Till this point, the film’s heady trajectory and Carlos’ cardiograph would have looked exactly the same.

Now, all this talk about Carlos in the present tense might sound nonsensical given that the real Carlos is an old man serving life sentence in northeastern France. But one must also keep in mind that Assayas’ Carlos is purely a fictional character built upon the filmmaker’s vision and based only partially on the real Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, as is noted in a clear-worded disclaimer flashed at the beginning of each of the three segments of the movie. This deviation is what saves the film from becoming an insipid reportage like The Baader-Meinhof Complex (2009), another genre film that tried to tap into the zeitgeist of the age. (In fact, the first section of Assayas’ film is no better than Edel’s, with the director spending hours together reconstructing what could have been dispensed with an intertitle or a newsreel; but narrative telescoping is not even remotely a part of the agenda). Shot on 35 mm (although I bet at least a few shots were done on video) and spanning about 25 years, Carlos religiously charts the rise and fall of the eponymous terrorist/revolutionary, played by fellow Venezuelan Edgar Ramirez, in a surprisingly straightforward fashion. Painstaking production design that pays attention to period, geographical and cultural details – no mean job for a picture that spans numerous years and countries – and a nearly-anachronistic soundtrack which is almost always used in contrast to the imagery mark the major deviations from the genre. And Assayas’ camera is more than willing to parade these details, in addition to Ramirez’s seemingly malleable physique, and the result is a film with myriad empty, connecting shots.

To a large extent, Assayas’ film views Carlos as a chronic narcissistic turned on by weapons and women. “Weapons are an extension of my body” he tells a woman before thrusting a grenade under her skirt. He caresses firearms as if they were his lovers and kicks around women as though they were his handguns. Throughout, Carlos’ physical prowess and virility are equated with his military power. Scenes depicting his military exploits are interspersed with his conquests in bed. His political career in the film is bracketed by shots of him standing stark naked in front of a mirror and admiring well-built body and him lying on a stretcher clutching his private parts under the paunch. All this sounds awfully contrived on paper, but the fact that Assayas derives these metaphors from undisputed biographical details helps turn such tepid arthouse tricks into a clever piece of artistry. However, all this is made evident an hour into the film and Carlos remains more or less an unchanging protagonist for the rest of the film. Like Sorkin’s Mark Zuckerberg, Carlos is the fixed centre of the film around which the universe rearranges itself, in turn redefining and reshaping him. (In retrospect, the last line of Fincher’s film describes him to a T). Does he hypocritically change sides despite his apparently unchanging cause or is it the volatile course of events that have remapped his loyalties? Is the world too dynamic for an old timer like him to catch up or is he a mere mercenary – a selfish, two-bit petit-bourgeois, as his friend puts it – afraid of death? It is probably the latter, although he would like to think not.

Curtained and distorted by wisps of cigarette smoke, Carlos is an amorphous figure, with ever changing identities, loyalties and worldviews, and a master of disguises (like Assayas himself, who seems to be hopping genres and feeding on them). Like your typical movie star, he appears to be always conscious of what he’s wearing and not half as much about what he is speaking or doing. As a matter of fact, the film illustrates, he is more a performer than a revolutionary or a terrorist. Throughout, Carlos revels in theatricality. Like Edgar Ramirez, he is a polyglot and before one thinks that he might not know a particular language, he delights himself with a mini-performance delivered in that very language. Fifteen minutes into the film, in its first explosive conversation, we get a sneak peek into the five-hour play that is to come. Carlos’ friend points out to him that he is only craving for applause. He tells her, “You’ll be hearing my name a lot”, and asks her to look at him when he’s talking. During the OPEC raid, he models himself after Che Guevara, complete with the beard and the beret (an actor playing a half-actor-half-revolutionary playing a revolutionary), and introduces himself as “My name is Carlos. You may have heard of me”. The conference room itself resembles a theatre, where he directs his seated audience-actors and performs before them from the end of the hall, Elsewhere, regularly, he shouts, he throws tantrums and he flips, occasionally spouting hyperbole without apparently understanding them a la actor extraordinaire Jules Winnfield.

[Carlos (2010) Trailer]

Without newspapers you don’t exist”, says one interviewer to him – a day before he finds a bullet in his medulla – winning a half-affirmative smile from Carlos. And why not? It is, after all, of his doing. He is the writer, director, the actor and the PR man of his life. He is, also, his own audience. Carlos lives outside himself. If his inner life comes across as something enigmatic to us in the film, it must be the same to him as well. Assayas does not push hard on the psychological front and is concerned more with the “what” of the story than the speculative “why”. It is not a human character, but the totality of events involving Carlos that is the hero of his film. He does not try to delve into the psyche of the man, or some such thing, to make his point. Instead, he lets Carlos’ actions reveal how self-contradictory a person he is. (Ramirez’s non-Method portrayal itself comes across as all surface and no center, as if he’s playing a mummy that’s been totally hollowed out) One might wonder whether he really believes in all those flowery platitudes that he mouths off now and then. (After all, he respects the truth value of clichés). It doesn’t really matter, suggests Assayas’ film, for his actions turn out to be far removed from the directives of these rhetorical remarks. He announces that he is a man of peace and that he loves life while he is more than happy to lodge an extra bullet or two into a man who only tried to resist him. He tells the interviewer that he studied dialectics in Moscow but also insists that no one tell him what to do. He speaks to the Saudi Arabian oil minister in fatalistic terms while, elsewhere, he comments that he is entirely responsible for his men. Possibly the greatest irony that marks Carlos’ life, which one federal agent notes towards that end, is that, for all his anti-capitalistic, anti-American baloney, he really had no criminal records against America.

In fact, this whole enterprise that Carlos sets up and develops is more symptomatic of corporate capitalism than anti-capitalistic revolution. Missions are throttled and determined by the inflowing funds rather than their agenda. A delayed assassination plan allows for competition to seal the deal. We witness countries nourishing anti-state organizations for political gains in the exact manner that corporations fund parties for fiscal benefits. The world is a market and revolution, a business. Pretty much like modern economics, Carlos illustrates how the numerous political maneuvers in different parts of the world are linked intricately to each other and often in contradicting ways (which reminds one of Godard’s observation regarding Jews, Hollywood, cinema halls and Mecca in his last). The film, itself, is directed and edited like a corporate thriller full of roundtable discussions and cutthroat business strategies. Moreover, Carlos is ostensibly a “gangster movie” as well, with its detailed account of the rise of an underdog, his notoriety and his disgraceful fall (in addition to its multiple nods to The Godfather (1972)). But then, there’s only a little difference between the two genres anyway. Mike Wayne notes in his book Political Film: The Dialectics of Third Cinema that the gangster figure – a man who steals from the rich and keeps it for himself – in popular cinema is emblematic of the dark side of capitalism while the bandit – the Robin Hood variant – represents a subversive if temporary threat to the same system. One could take this further and observe that the revolutionary goes one better than the bandit in that he is interested in not merely providing temporary monetary relief for the poor, but in toppling the establishment that creates a need for bandits. The tragedy about Carlos (and many of his cohorts) is that he fails to recognize if he is being the revolutionary that he wants, an ineffective bandit out of touch with the masses or a parasitic gangster running a reign of terror.

Placing Carlos’ example in a broader context, Assayas’ film makes a strong if not the ideal case against armed struggle. It probes, as does Bellocchio’s masterful Vincere (2009) (although Assayas’ ideological investment is relatively insubstantial), into a hermetic passage in history and opens it up for present day-analysis. Like Edel’s film, but with a far more focus and detachment, Carlos examines how an armed movement with an urgent, uncompromising objective is bound to foster authoritarianism and how a revolution is deemed to go against itself when its operative hierarchy branches out from a single spearhead – the father, if you will. Make no mistake, whatever organizations Carlos was associated with, they were, thanks to their pigheaded adherence to a shallow and monolithic view of the world,  undemocratic (“soldiers must fear their leader” goes the rule of thumb), racist (anti-Zionism easily mutates into anti-Semitism), sexist (especially when radicalism is uncritically married to certain religions, one of which Carlos is reportedly a proponent of), imperial (a pro-Palestine stance, it seems, reads as an anti-Kurdish one), bourgeois (by forming a bohemian clique far removed from the lumpenproletariat, the group it pretends to champion) and downright fascist. All these symptoms are even more relevant in the post-9/11 world where the resistance to occupation has translated into such a blanket rejection of western traditions that movements often lose sight of what is genuinely progressive and what is not.

 

Rating:

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?

Triumph of the Will

Triumph of the Will (1935)

The Fall of Berlin

The Fall of Berlin (1949)

The Ghost Writer

The Ghost Writer (2010)

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:

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