Rope (1948)
Alfred Hitchcock
English

 

RopeFollowing the idyllic establishment shot of a quiet little street in Manhattan, which sets up the film’s notion of commonplaceness of evil, Alfred Hitchcock’s wonderful Rope (1948) presents us with an image from a murder that gives away the identities of both the victim and the killers. What follows is not a de-dramatized whodunit, but a taut psychological examination of the gruesome act that transcends its immediate settings. One criticism of the film that I can’t agree with is that it is too theatrical. Surely, a filmmaker with such refined cinematic sensibility as Hitchcock can never be content with merely filming a play. In fact, one could say that Rope is a seminal film that clearly defines where theatre ends and where cinema begins. Hitchcock’s rigorous framing scheme elucidates perfectly how cinema can, indeed, be more restrictive than theatre and how the fact that there lies a whole world beyond the cinematic frame can be harnessed for maximum effect. Hitchcock’s manipulation of space and his direction of the actors keep highlighting his central themes and character relationships. The shots are extremely long and fluid, giving a real sense of “being there” (not in the way those horrible shaky cams do). And, of course, there is the profundity of the text itself. Arthur Laurents’ script (in whose formation Hitch surely must have had a hand, considering how thematically consistent Rope is with the director’s filmography), probes the darkest corners of the human soul, analyzing the fascist tendencies inherent in all of us, however removed it is from our consciousness.

Il Conformista (1972) (aka The Conformist)
Bernardo Bertolucci
Italian

“That’s why a normal man is a true brother, a true citizen, a true patriot… A true fascist.

 

The ConformistBernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970) is everything that a viewer could ask for – a great story, interesting characters, stylish visuals and a purely cinematic language to convey them all. Using images that possess the judiciousness of a Tati, meaning of an Antonioni and elegance of an Ophuls, Bertolucci, not even 30 at that time, conjures up a film of both high mojo-quotient and long “shelf-life”. Evidently inspiring The Godfather series, The Conformist is the kind of film that persuades you to understand what the difference between direction and visual illustration is. The next time somebody kills you with that irritating “The book was better” act, hit them with this one. Not that The Conformist is better than its book version, but only that it makes such comparisons invalid.

Adapted from Alberto Moravia’s novel, Bertolucci’s script follows a young man, Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant), during the years just before the second big war. He is about to get married to a typical middle class woman, Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli), with “paltry, little ambitions – all bed and kitchen” in order to become a “normal” person in the society. He is also all set to be inducted into the Italian fascist party and has to carry out the assassination of an insurgent in Paris, Quadri (Enzo Tarascio), incidentally his professor during his college days. Employing ace cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s hypnotic tracking shots and handhelds and seamless, highly-stylized, tense cutting between various timelines, Bertolucci attempts to illustrate the reason for the rise of fascism by delving into the psyche of one man with a troubled past and an uncertain future.

The Conformist is a difficult film, not because its themes are heavy or its form too radical, but because the statement it proposes is a tad indigestible. Once you get over its slight simplification of ideas and reasons, it is a sweeping masterwork that you are looking at. I probably haven’t seen any film that as clearly reveal how we have all confused sexuality with morality, morality with religion, religion with politics and politics with security. The tension is palpable in almost every shot of the film. Consider the central scene of sheer cinematic awesomeness where Quadri and Clerici recollect what actually went wrong. Using staggering interplay of light and shadow, gestures and movements and room space and sound, Bertolucci develops the central motif of the film in pure film language, without ever betraying the diegesis of the film. Bertolucci’s script takes up Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, which suggests that humans are all prisoners inside a dark cave unable to differentiate between real objects and the shadows that they cast on the walls, and adapts it so as to examine the dark history of the country. It is after this point that every element of the film cries out for attention and the ambivalence of the central character brought to light. Especially remarkable is the final shot of the film where, after Italo is swept away by a Rossellinian crowd, Clerici sits on a low platform near the fire, looking towards a homosexual street dweller through prison-like iron bars, still unsure of his political, sexual and moral footing.

The ConformistIn fact, all the major characters in the film tantamount to prisoners of Plato’s cave. None of them actually know what their principles actually mean or what they want from it all. Clerici is confused with both his sexual orientation and political ideology. His wife, Giulia, does not see beyond the two things that Clerici mentions. The professor seems to spend an idyllic life like that of the bourgeoisie –the very people whom he is fighting against. Anna Quadri (Dominique Sanda) is none but a female counterpart of Clerici. Only that the mass she is conforming to happens to be the resistance group. The tragedy about Manganiello (Gastone Moschin) is that the people he despises is the very group he works for (“Cowards. Perverts, Jews. They are all the same. If I had my way, I’d put them all up against the wall. They should all be eliminated at birth”, he says). Even the blind Italo (José Quaglio) joins the group not because of his political leanings, but for “normalcy” and hence safety. It’s almost as if the people who oppose passive acceptance of political philosophies are themselves creating another form of fascism by unanimously scandalizing it – an idea ambiguously explored in Daldry’s The Reader (2008), where it is as much a taboo to humanely understand the people associated en masse with the Holocaust as it is to carry out the inhuman acts of fascism without questioning it.

What is brilliant is the way Bertolucci brings to surface this ambivalence of his characters. He regularly captures Clerici in the frame along with his reflection on mirrors, glass panes and windows. He places him behind wind shields and transparent surfaces and cuts in tandem between the views from both sides. He softly blurs out of focus and then into it when recording Clerici. He breaks both continuity and the 180 rule (also serving as a distancing tool) to have his characters oriented in opposite directions. At one point, Clerici even assumes two quirky firing stances – one symmetrically away from the other. Furthermore, throughout the film, Bertolucci takes Clerici through regions of light and darkness – knowledge and ignorance – thus elevating the already expressionistic tone of the film. It is as if this duality of Clerici’s is as inseparable as his features, perhaps because he never completely believes he is doing the right thing by trying to fit into pre-fabricated structures of the society. As Bertolucci rightly says in an interview:

“Marcello is really a very complex character, searching to conform because of his great, violent anti-conformism. A true conformist is someone who has no wish to change: to wish to conform is really to say that the truth is the contrary.”

As a matter of fact, Clerici is swappable with any character in the film, for he imbibes something from each of them. He behaves like Giulia in order to become one of them. He gradually finds himself moving towards Quadri’s ideologies than the fascists’ (In the layered scene at the ballroom, Bertolucci cuts to a photograph of Laurel and Hardy, indicating the frivolous and merely superficial antagonism between them). Clerici sees himself in Anna. His craving to become an acclaimed fascist comes in the form of Manganiello. One could even say that he meets his own future self in the form of his conformist father (Giuseppe Addobbati) at the asylum, whose political and (alleged) sexual contradictions are not far from Clerici’s own. But he is actually the closest to his friend Italo – insecure and scared because of a difference but unable to see beyond immediate refuge (Bertolucci once superimposes their faces, when Italo is reading a piece of text in praise of Mussolini and Goebbels). Italo even says early on in the film that they are, in a way, similar, after which we notice that he is wearing an unmatched pair of shoes. The idea of physical and ideological blindness recurs throughout in the film to reinforce the Plato allegory.

The ConformistI have always considered Lina Wertmüller’s Seven Beauties (1975) as one of the greatest movies ever made and the best one about the Holocaust that I have seen. Watching The Conformist, one can clearly see where Wertmüller’s movie gets its inspiration from. Both films seem to complement each other thematically. While Seven Beauties examines how man’s fake principles fade into oblivion when it comes down to survival, Bertolucci’s film shows how man can assume false policies in order to survive. However, formally, both the films seem very similar in the sense that both of them exaggerate melodrama to the point of caricaturing it and consequently, derive meaning out of that absurdity. Both use oversaturated colour palettes and chromatic shifts generously to keep reminding us of the phony nature of it all. In fact, Bertolucci keeps prodding us with theatricality. As Clerici recites his father’s past, three women are performing a song in the background (Incidentally called “Who’s happier than me?” – another allusion to the prisoners of the cave). He meets Anna in a ballet class. There is even an edited scene that involves blind people dancing to a piece of music.

Bertolucci is one of the biggest New Wave fans and it shows in the host of movie references that he places in the film. It wouldn’t be a coincidence if you spot allusions to The Little Soldier (1960) or Alphaville (1965) in the film, for the director himself tells us so in an interview. Not counting the humourous nods to neo-realism and Buñuel, Bertolucci is continuously in conversation with his mentor Jean-Luc Godard throughout the film. With anecdotes about the film’s first screening and the influence of Godard on his style, he mentions here how Quadri was modeled with the French director in mind and his assassination, in a way, signified the film’s stylistic and ideological shift from Godard’s. But clearly, the relationship is one of reverence. When Clerici tells Manganiello at point: “What a strange dream I’ve had. I was blind and you took me to a Swiss clinic for an operation. And professor Quadri performed the operation. It was successful. I regained my sight and went off with his wife who had fallen in love with me”, one suspects that this is not just a token of his wavering political and sexual stance, but Bertolucci’s own gratitude towards Godard for his influence.

The ConformistHowever, Bertolucci deviates from Godard by making The Conformist a highly individual-oriented film. While Godard’s is a study of the effect of social and political structures on the individual, Bertolucci’s is the exploration of the effect the psychology of (a generalized) individual has on socio-political norms. His Clerici is a character tailor made for in-depth psychoanalysis and many facets of the film clearly remain subjective. For instance, why does he “see” the same woman thrice, at different places, in the film? Why does no one else stalking Manganiello? Does he even exist? Why does Clerici marry Giulia, even though he hates her typically bourgeois mentality? Bertolucci’s mise en scène suggests that the answers are functions of Clerici’s psyche, which is evidently affected by his childhood trauma and sexual “deviation” (Although every reading of The Conformist insists that it illustrates the role of sexual deviance in the rise of fascism, a case could be made for any kind of difference – sexual as with Clerici, physical as with Italo and even religious, as with the mystic Hanussen). This way, Bertolucci calls for a reassessment of fascism as a force that has grown bottom-up because of individual insecurities, fears, motivations and ignorance rather than a mass hysteria initiated by an arbitrary single man.

(Pics Courtesy: mcnblogs.com, brynmawrfilm.org, dvdactive.com)

Werckmeister Harmóniák (2000) (aka Werckmeister Harmonies)
Béla Tarr
Hungarian

“And now, we’ll have an explanation that simple folks like us can also understand, about immortality. All I ask is that you step with me into the boundlessness, where constancy, quietude and peace, infinite emptiness reign. “

 

Werckmeister HarmoniesPick up the ordinary film that chronicles the rise of fascism prior to the second world war and you know what to expect – a nation penalized for the first war, a corporal in resentment, his becoming a key figure, formation of ideology, those mesmerizing speeches, rise to power and finally, the ruthless extermination of humans. Well, you know the routine. Rare is the case that such a film is historically inaccurate or morally flawed, but what is troubling is that a single person is made the focal point of such monumental passages of history – as if satisfying our need for a villain as we do for a hero. Not that I am in defense of any such individual, but how on earth can a single person independently cause the galvanization of a whole nation? However convincing his words and however significant his moves are, it is finally the mass and the intentions that run through it that make it possible. From what can be seen as an adversarial position, Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) chillingly exposes the other side of the loudspeaker – a film that is to the ordinary documentary what Goodfellas (1990) is to The Godfather (1972).

Like most films by Tarr and similar directors, Werckmeister Harmonies does not rely heavily on its plot. Based on a book, The Melancholy of Resistance by László Krasznahorkai, Werckmeister Harmonies plays out in an unnamed town in an unnamed country in an unspecified year (though images indicate a year in the eighties). The whole town seems to be in a state of total fear and insecurity after the arrival of a certain circus whose performers include a dead white whale and a man called The Prince. Unrest ensues as the town mailman János Valuska (Lars Rudolph) witnesses the place fall apart, unable to do anything about it. János is the epitome of curiosity and learning about nature and creation for him seems to bring abundant joy. He often attends to György Eszter (Peter Fitz), a music theorist whose interest lies in exposing mistakes of the past. At this terrible time, Tünde Eszter (Hanna Schygulla) – the Satan figure of the story – tells Valuska that she would restore “order and cleanliness” within the town if only he gets her ex-husband, the theorist, to gather a few important signatures. But “order” too, seems to be a subjective term.

Werckmeister Harmonies does form an interesting companion to Tarr’s magnum opus Sátántangó (1994) in some ways. While Sátántangó is about the disintegration of a collective will due to fear, passivity and plain ignorance, Werckmeister Harmonies is about the formation of one because of the same factors. The characters, too, seem to repeat themselves across the films. The working class in Werckmeister Harmonies (the foreign workers) succumbs supposedly to the speeches of The Prince owing to their ignorance and social condition whereas in Sátántangó, the same group (farmers) buckles under the conflict between personal and collective will and, simply, the inability to adhere to an objective. The inebriate doctor – the only sign of intelligence in Sátántangó – is not much different from the music theorist here. Tarr teases us with questions about the role of intellectuals in revolution in both films. Both the doctor and the music theorist, perhaps disillusioned by the state of the affairs, force themselves to become apolitical and into a personal shell out of which they come out only in order to maintain it so (The doctor leaves the house to get his quota of booze whereas the theorist, to avoid the return of his wife to his house). And the only “sane” person – Futaki in Sátántangó and János here- who sees the misfortune coming is completely helpless and battered about by the mindless workers and the spineless intelligentsia.

The element that seems to be a new addition in Werckmeister harmonies is the tangible presence of a middle class. Leftist filmmakers have maintained that the prime reason for the rise of fascism is the complacent nature of the bourgeoisie and the political and social passivity that it seems glad to wallow in. Here too, the bourgeois seems unwilling to give up that position. They are never seen outdoors in the film, they are contented with having sex and delivering monologues about the state of the world. Neither are they desperate and active enough to be The Prince’s followers nor do they seem capable of pursuing higher interests. The doctor notes about the farmers in Sátántangó: “They haven’t a clue that it is this idle passivity that leaves them at the mercy of what they fear most”. But here, it seems like it is the middle class that is too short-sighted to see the doom heading towards them and hence too happy maintain status quo.

Werckmeister HarmoniesIn the film, The Prince apparently quotes that people who are afraid do not understand. Tarr too seems to be concerned with the notion of fear, ignorance and violence being stimulants of fascism and presents them as the three sides of a triangle with each one perpetuating the others. Being the Wong Kar Wai of monochrome, Tarr employs black and white colours extensively and in an expressionistic fashion to juggle with the ideas of ignorance and knowledge, fear and courage and war and peace. János’ shuttling between his desire to learn and the inertia imposed upon him by the townsfolk culminates in his witnessing of the inevitable streak of violence. In what may be one of the most effective and chilling depiction of violence in cinema, we see the rabid folks enter a hospital and put down its inhabitants. There is complete detachment by the camera which continues to track away as ever to leave a lump in your throat. It’s a sequence that is so stunningly choreographed that it almost deserves to be called beautiful despite its nature.

In his superb article on the ontological entities of the filmic medium, Mani Kaul reflects upon the Deleuzian theory of time and movement in cinema. Watching Tarr’s later films, now, seems like a practical demonstration of the theory. It is a unanimous opinion that it is Tarr’s shot composition – seemingly endless, rich in detail and “atmospheric” – that captures the attention of the viewer first. Where other films subordinate time to the action and space under consideration, Tarr’s sequences have time as the primary axis on which movements are choreographed. Instead of questions like ‘What will he do next?’, we are forced to ask questions like ‘When will this motion end?’. What this does in essence is to make each second of the sequence precious and the audience conscious of the same. And why this seems to work exceedingly well in films like Werckmeister Harmonies is because it provides that sense of impending doom – of the inevitability of a massacre – throughout the film.

Tarr presents us an utterly bleak world where death seems to be the only destination for all its inhabitants. He creates a colourless land that is flat, barren and infinite – an isolated world where almost no two social classes are seen in the same frame, except János himself who seems to percolate everywhere. In my favorite of the 39 shots in the film, János and the theorist walk without speaking a single word for a long time. Tarr, unusually, frames them both, in profile, in the same frame such that they seem stationery with the world moving behind them – choking them into the frame and sealing the fate of their journey. The world in Werckmeister Harmonies is devoid of any notions of Faith and Karma. It’s a Godless universe like Tarr’s own (as the director has claimed in interviews). But perhaps there is God here, but not one that goes by the conventions. Towards the end, when János tries to flee the town, an enigmatic black helicopter – a possible nod, along with the army tank in the town, to the Spider God of Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and Silence (1963) respectively – forces him to return back. It’s worse than God’s indifference, it is Satan’s Tango. It is in this instability where people like The Prince – a distorted version of the circus director, whose troupe is the whole town – take advantage, create a symphony of destruction and well, play God.

But that is the exact kind of narrative that seems to suit our “ordinary documentary”. The Prince can easily be called the root cause of the entire disturbance, but that would only be too easy. We actually never know if The Prince (or the whale) is responsible for it at all. The whale is dead and hence a mute observer and The Prince, who speaks in a foreign language and whose words we obtain only secondhand, isn’t even seen in the film. In what may be a “whale” of a Macguffin, Tarr tempts us to pin the blame on the two foreign entities. But it eventually becomes evident that it is the people themselves – the workers and Tünde Eszter – who are the fascists, taking the mute and the invisible “guests” as pretext for violence. Violence that exterminates the apathetic bourgeois, persuades the hermetic clerisy out of its shell and makes the working class the pawns of a power game. One may remember Tarr’s sarcastic take on “Let there be Light” in Sátántangó, where the doctor seals off every possible entry of light into his hut (and where this film seems to take off from, in a way). At the end of Werckmeister Harmonies, the only survivor in this war, Tünde Eszter, who is the most patient and diabolically thoughtful of all the characters in the film, goes on to rule. I can see Mr. Tarr chuckling as he quotes “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth”!