Friday, June 26, 2020

Der Student von Prag / The Student of Prague (1926) (2020 Filmmuseum München)

Henrik Galeen: Der Student von Prag / The Student of Prague (1926). Conrad Veidt in the title role as Balduin, "the best fencer of Prague", a master of Mensuren (academic fencing). Photo in IMDb and Wikipedia.

Henrik Galeen: Der Student von Prag / The Student of Prague (1926). Werner Krauss as Scapinelli. Gelatin silver print. Austrian Theatre Museum. From: Marcus Bunyan: Art Blart.

Henrik Galeen: Der Student von Prag / The Student of Prague (1926). Balduin (Conrad Veidt) meets his Doppelgänger. From: Lotte H. Eisner: L'Écran démoniaque (1952).

Henrik Galeen: Der Student von Prag / The Student of Prague (1926). A scene worthy of Herodotus (on Croesus) and Stroheim (Greed). Gold, gold, gold. Scapinelli opens his bottomless purse for Balduin (Conrad Veidt). My screenshot from the Filmmuseum München Vimeo account.

Henrik Galeen: Der Student von Prag / The Student of Prague (1926). The original art intertitles have been restored, as well. "Your mirror image... your second self!" My screenshot from the Filmmuseum München Vimeo account.

Henrik Galeen: Der Student von Prag / The Student of Prague (1926). Scapinelli's (Werner Krauss) part of the bargain: with his gold he purchases Balduin's reflection who steps out of the mirror and becomes his evil Doppelgänger (Conrad Veidt in a double role). My screenshot from the Filmmuseum München Vimeo account.

Prahan ylioppilas / Studenten från Prag.
    DE 1926. PC: Sokal-Film GmbH. P: Henry Sokal.
    D: Henrik Galeen. SC: Henrik Galeen, Hanns Heinz Ewers. DP: Günther Krampf. Camera: Erich Nitzschmann. AD: Hermann Warm. M for cinema orchestra: Willy Schmidt-Gentner.
    C: Conrad Veidt (Balduin, a student), Elizza La Porta (Lyduschka, the flower girl), Fritz Alberti (Imperial Count von Schwarzenberg), Gräfin Agnes Esterhazy (Margit, his daughter), Ferdinand von Alten (Baron von Waldis-Schwarzenberg, Margit's fiancé), Werner Krauss (Scapinelli, usurer), Erich Kober (student), Max Maximilian (student), Sylvia Torff, Marian Alma, Horst Wessel.
    3173 m
    Uraufführung: 25 Oct 1926 Berlin, Capitol.
    Finnish premiere: 20 March 1927.
    Restored and reconstructed by Filmmuseum München (2020) by combining two prints: a Spanish colour edition from Archivo Nacional de la Imagen y la Palabra – Sodre in Montevideo, preserved by L'Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna, and a German release print copied by Gosfilmofond (Belye Stolby). Image restored in 1999/2019. The music score composed and played with several instruments by Stephen Horne in 2020, recorded at Orpheus Studio (London). Reconstruction: Stefan Drössler, Gerhard Ullmann, Klaus Volkmer. Digitization and mastering: Thomas Bakels.
    134 min (2020 Filmmuseum München).
    Corona lockdown viewings / Restaurierungen des Filmmuseums München (Vimeo).
    Viewed from Filmmuseum München's Vimeo platform at a forest retreat in Punkaharju on a tv screen, 26 June 2020.

AA: A legendary Weimar film has been made available by Filmmuseum München in a better edition than ever in my lifetime. The restoration and the reconstruction has been conducted with loving care, including the original hand-painted art titles.

The original 1913 version of The Student of Prague has a place of honour in the history of the cinema, in German cinema and in cinefantastique. Directed by the Dane Stellan Rye, it came into being in early cinema mode. The Student of Prague was filmed even in the Nazi period as a sound film with a Theo Mackeben score.

But this 1926 Henrik Galeen film, full of Weimar glory, is the definitive adaptation of Hanns Heinz Ewers's original screenplay. Ewers was one of the early visionaries of the cinema. In a bit part is his fellow student Horst Wessel who wrote the Nazi anthem (1929) and about whom Ewers later wrote his novel Horst Wessel (1932). Both were veterans of Mensuren (academic fencing), featuring prominently in the film.

Conrad Veidt and Werner Krauss had had their international breakthrough together in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), but both were established stars by then and had even appeared together in Robert Reinert's Opium (1919). They are both great in The Student of Prague, two masters of the macabre at the peak of their craft. They know how to perform in nightmarish and exaggerated poses. It is a special art form, a mode of performance in which they excel. Their convulsive and cramped gestures seem to convey secret messages from the inside.

With good judgement, Henrik Galeen cast in the female leads two appealing actresses who perform in a sober and refined mode, Elizza La Porta as the flower maid and Agnes Esterhazy as the countess.

Visually, the film is stunning, as appreciated by Lotte H. Eisner in L'Écran démoniaque, channeling influences from the period of the tale (1820), masters of German Romanticism including Caspar David Friedrich. The designer Hermann Warm and the cinematographer Günther Krampf created some of the most potent images in Weimar cinema, of which there is an excellent digest in the special magazine Film-Kurier Der Student von Prag (1926). It can be examined in Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek on the page of Heinrich-Heine-Institut.

In the theme of gold the mythical resonance is comparable with Herodotus's tale of King Croesus and Erich von Stroheim's Greed (1924).

The theme of the Doppelgänger resonates with Chamisso (Peter Schlemihl, 1814), Hoffmann (Die Elixiere des Teufels, 1815), Poe ("William Wilson", 1839), Dostoevsky (The Double, 1846) and Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1890), and selling one's soul to the Devil belongs of course to the great German tradition of the Faustian pact (16th century). It also brings to mind Pushkin's The Queen of Spades (1833), interpreted on the screen by Ivan Mosjoukine (1916) in a performance that has affinities with Conrad Veidt. It was a remarkable achievement by Ewers to have created an original and engaging tale in such a lineage.

Henrik Galeen was a talented writer but not necessarily a great director. While much in Der Student von Prag is excellent, it is at its best in its many anthology moments and setpieces. There are problems of dramatic tension and sustained momentum. We understand what is being attempted but Galeen fails to deliver the full potential of his exciting material.

The restoration and production is state of the art. I cherish the passages with a subtle digital simulation of toning and, as always, have my problems with the contemporary simulation of tinting which obscures the images that have been painstakingly restored from the best remaining sources, as negatives have been lost.

Henrik Galeen: Der Student von Prag / The Student of Prague (1926). Having aimed at his reflection Balduin (Conrad Veidt) finds himself hit in the heart. In the broken mirror he witnesses his death throes. My screenshot from the Filmmuseum München Vimeo account.


Medena zemja / Honeyland

Медена земја / Bal Ülkesi / Hunajan maa / Honungslandet.
    A creative documentary.
    MK (Republic of North Macedonia) © 2019 PC: Apolo Media / Trice Films. P: Atanas Georgiev, Ljubomir Stefanov.
    D: Tamara Kotevska, Ljumobir Stefanov. Cin: Fejmi Daut, Samir Ljuma – digital – camera: Nikon DSLR – colour – 1,85:1 – release: DCP. M: Foltin. S: Rana Eid. ED: Atanas Georgiev. Additional documentary footage: Kristijan Karadjovski.
    Featuring: Hatidze Muratova, Nazife Muratova, Hussein Sam, Ljutvie Sam.
    Loc: North Macedonia: Bekirlija and Skopje.
    Language: Turkish ("an ancient Turkish vernacular" according to the official website)
    89 min
    Festival premiere: 28 Jan 2019 Sundance Film Festival.
    Finnish festival premiere: 12 June 2019 Midnight Sun Film Festival.
    Republic of North Macedonia premiere: 29 Aug 2019.
    Finnish telepremiere: 29 March 2020 Yle Teema.
    Corona lockdown viewings / Midnight Sun Film Festival (MSFF) online edition / Women Make Film.
    Viewed with Finnish subtitles by Seija Uuskoski and Sampsa Peltonen (Yle) from Yle Areena, viewed at a forest retreat in Punkaharju on a tv screen, 27 June 2020.

Official synopsis: "When a nomadic family moves in and breaks Honeyland’s basic rule, the last female wild beekeeper in Europe must save the bees and restore the natural balance."

AA: As far as I can tell Honeyland is the first film I have seen from the country called the Republic of North Macedonia. But I have seen and liked for instance Milcho Manchevski's Before the Rain / Pred dozhdot (1994) made in the same country while it was still known as plain Macedonia. Both films are distinguished.

The global existential crisis of the bees has been discussed in contemporary cinema by the likes of Alice Rohrwacher (Le meraviglie) and Markus Imhoof (Des abeilles et des hommes), both directors coming from beekeeping families. In Tamara Kotevska and Ljumobir Stefanov's Honeyland the existential implications are also present, but not explicitly.

Honeyland belongs to one of the noblest traditions in documentary cinema. It records an ancient trade with a loving care worthy of Robert Flaherty. A careful balance is observed between nature and humanity. Beekeeping takes place in a sustainable way, with attention paid to the surrounding milieu and to the long view of continuity.

The simple way of life of the beekeeper is very demanding. You need to devote all your life to the art and craft. Hatidze even becomes a member of the bee world. She talks with bees and sings with them.

This is not understood by a nomadic family that moves to the neighbouring house of the beekeeper veteran Hatidze Muratova. The new family's way of life is based on the depletion of resources. In beekeeping, this becomes calamitous also for the neighbour, because starved bees attack the surrounding beehives. By controlled burn the nomad family destroys the flora from the mountain slope, causing further damage to beekeeping. By breaking an ancient log bridge over a wild river they destroy yet another source of bees. Finally they pack their things and move on.

All this is witnessed by Hatidze. It's a tragic tale, and no viewer can fail to realize the allegory, although it is not telegraphed.

Digitally photographed with a Nikon DSLR camera by Fejmi Daut and Samir Ljuma, the visual experience is ravishing and painterly. There are breathtaking extreme long shots of mountain views. The beekeeping scenes have special documentary value. Mostly the film takes place in the mountain area, but there are also scenes from the market of Skopje, the capital of the country. Besides the gorgeous, panoramic landscape shots there are also many scenes with illuminating details. All seasons are covered, from the lush summer to the snowy winter. The colour is radiant and glowing in a most appealing way.

Humanly, the film is of the highest order, focusing on the veteran Hatidze and her blind and paralyzed mother of whom she takes loving care. Honeyland is a profoundly religious, Christian film, in an unobtrusive way. Faith is expressed in action, in the good deeds and the patience with which Hatidze weathers the calamities caused by greedy and shortsighted neighbours and in her commitment to restore the broken order.


Beethoven 250: Piano Sonata No. 9 (Stephen Kovacevich, 1997)

Cover art for CD 19/80: Carl Blechen: Waldlandschaft mit Wasserfall (1833). 31,1 × 35,5 cm. Gemälde. Öl auf Papier. Aufbewahrungsort: Berlin. Sammlung: Schloss Charlottenburg. Epoche: Romantik. Land: Deutschland. Permalink: Lizenz: Gemeinfrei. From:

Beethoven: The Complete Works (80 CD). Warner Classics / © 2019 Parlophone Records Limited. Also available on Spotify etc. I bought my box set from Fuga at Helsinki Music Centre.
    Ludwig van Beethoven 1770–1827.
    Beethoven 250 / corona lockdown listening.

From: CD 19/80  Piano Sonatas Nos. 8–11
Op. 14
Der Baronin Josefa von Braun gewidmet.
Stephen Kovacevich, 1997.

Opus 14 Nr. 1: Klaviersonate Nr. 9 in E-Dur (1799)
Erster Satz: Allegro, E-Dur, 4/4 Takt, 162 Takte
Zweiter Satz: Allegretto, e-Moll, 3/4 Takt, 116 Takte
Dritter Satz: Rondo, Allegro commodo, E-Dur, 4/4 Takt alla breve, 131 Takte.

Wikipedia: "Die zwei Sonaten op. 14 entstanden zur gleichen Zeit wie die Pathetique, bilden jedoch ein lyrisch-entspanntes Gegengewicht und sind von eher kammermusikalischem Charakter. Die Sonate op. 14 Nr. 1 hat Beethoven selbst 1801/1802 für Streichquartett umgearbeitet."

AA: Beethoven's ninth piano sonata is not among the best-known, but it is a sparkling masterpiece, like a string of pearls. The more I listen to it the more delightful it gets.

András Schiff emphasizes the fact that Beethoven also composed a string quartet based on this piano sonata (Streichquartett F-Dur nach Sonate op. 14,1) and that one can already hear a string quartet quality in the piano sonata itself.

He underlines that by now Beethoven's piano sonatas have acquired an integral psychological stage. The movements are no longer separate; they form a single psychological course. Schiff also repeats his conviction that it is important to play these sonatas in chronological order to appreciate their organic evolution and development.

Schiff tells that this sonata had no success, but it did not matter for the composer whose work was based on an inner urge. For Schiff, this sonata is "frightfully difficult to play and to interpret". It has to be played with a singing and imaginative approach.

From the gracious first movement we proceed to the second movement, characterized by Anton Rubinstein as "gloomy" ("мрачной", a word resonant in Pushkin, Dostoevsky and Chekhov). The third movement is in allegro commodo, a "comfortable allegro". All doubts are overcome. Despite being "comfortable", there is also a quality that has been called "Sturm und Drang", for the first time in Beethoven. The pre-classical period of the original Sturm und Drang (Werther, Die Räuber) had taken place over 20 years ago, and in Beethoven it transformed into a highly personal stance of facing the wildest storms in proud defiance.

Stephen Kovacevich plays this sonata with panache.


Thursday, June 25, 2020

Beethoven 250: Piano Sonata No. 8 "Pathétique" (Stephen Kovacevich, 1997)

Hildegard Koegler (1904–1981): Beethoven Sonate pathétique: Adagio. Etching. 40 x 30 cm. From: SJSU King Library Digital Collections.

Orfeo circondato dagli animali. Mosaico pavimentale romano, da Palermo. Museo archeologico regionale di Palermo. / Orpheus surrounded by animals. Ancient Roman floor mosaic, from Palermo, now in the Museo archeologico regionale di Palermo. Foto di Giovanni Dall'Orto, 28 Sep 2006. From: Wikipedia.

Beethoven: The Complete Works (80 CD). Warner Classics / © 2019 Parlophone Records Limited. Also available on Spotify etc. I bought my box set from Fuga at Helsinki Music Centre.
    Ludwig van Beethoven 1770–1827.
    Beethoven 250 / corona lockdown listening.

From: CD 19/80  Piano Sonatas Nos. 8–11
Stephen Kovacevich, 1997.

Opus 13: Klaviersonate Nr. 8 in c-Moll (1799)
Grande Sonate Pathétique.
Dem Fürsten Karl von Lichnowsky gewidmet.

Erster Satz: Grave / Allegro di molto e con brio, c-Moll, 4/4 Takt alla breve, 310 Takte
Zweiter Satz: Adagio cantabile, As-Dur, 2/4 Takt, 73 Takte
Dritter Satz: Rondo allegro, 4/4 Takt alla breve, 210 Takte.

AA: In June I have been listening to four piano sonatas, Nos. 8–11, by Ludwig van Beethoven, published by him in 1799–1800. Twelve days ago I moved to a forest retreat in Punkaharju, but that did not cause a break to my listening, on the contrary.

For the forest quarantine I bought a good portable CD stereo system with solid speakers and learned in the process that CD systems are becoming hard to come by due to the decline of the format.

Here Beethoven sounds better than at home. In the city I live in the middle of the heavy traffic of Tehtaankatu. The busiest tramline of the city passes by in both directions. Three motorcycles are parked in front of the house where I live. The house trembles and the windows rattle with the traffic.

Here I enjoy deep silence. I only hear the wind in the trees. Now in June, the forest is filled with birdsong. Birds are giving singing lessons to their offspring.

Beethoven's piano sonatas in the forest retreat are a perfect fit. There is no incongruity. During his daily three hour walks in Vienna woods Beethoven was inspired to compose, and I can hear that in his piano sonatas. Here I imagine that even the birds are listening.

I am thinking about Orpheus playing the lyre. His musical magic mesmerized all living things (and even stones). Väinämöinen, the great shaman of Finnish mythology, achieved the same with his kantele. The beloved Finnish composer Oskar Merikanto took his piano to his forest retreat, and it is told that the birds gathered around him to listen.

Beethoven's eighth piano sonata, la grande sonate pathétique, is a treasure of world culture, one of the best-known compositions of all times. I never tire of it. All Beethoven's piano sonatas are great, but melodically, this one is more engrossing than the previous ones. And more than in the preceding piano sonatas, there is a quintessentially Beethovenian sense of heroic and tragic grandeur, comparable with the composer's symphonies, piano concertos and the violin concerto.

This piano sonata is also a pop hit. Particularly the adagio cantabile has become widespread in popular culture. It is also one of the most beloved compositions in motion picture soundtracks. Even in films released in Finland this year I have heard it twice: in Greta Gerwig's Little Women (2019) and Lulu Wang's Farewell / Bie gaosu ta (2019).

Monday, June 22, 2020

Midnight Sun Film Festival 10–14 June, 2020

L'Année dernière à Sodankylä: Midnight Sun Film Festival, 2019. Photo: Juuso Hirvonen.

Due to the corona lockdown, Midnight Sun Film Festival (10–14 June, 2020) took place online as the first Finnish online film festival. It also became my first experience of an online film festival. The experience was far from the real thing, but the organization succeeded in creating access to a smoothly operating screening platform. I saw many great films.

In the middle of the festival I moved to a forest retreat by the lake. The sublime sunlight of the white nights was doubled by its reflection in the lake. Despite super weather, it was not necessary to close the curtains of the many windows of the lakeside viewing room at the forest cabin. The presence of the surrounding brilliant sunlight elevated the viewing experience.

These films I saw:

Abrir puertas y ventanas / Back to Stay (Milagros Mumenthaler, AR/CH 2012).

Adults in the Room (Costa-Gavras, FR/GR 2019).

El diablo entre las piernas / Devil Between the Legs (Arturo Ripstein, MX 2019).

Dylda / Beanpole (Kantemir Balagov, RU 2019).

Es gilt das gesprochene Wort / I Was, I Am, I Will Be (Ilker Çatak, DE/FR 2019).

L'extraordinaire voyage de Marona / Călătoria fantastică a Maronei / Marona's Fantastic Tale (Anca Damian, FR/BE/RO 2019).

Frantsuz / Француз / The Frenchman (Andrei Smirnov, RU 2019).

Intemperie / Out in the Open (Benito Zambrano, ES/PT 2019).

Le jeune Ahmed / Young Ahmed (Luc Dardenne & Jean-Pierre Dardenne, BE/FR 2019).

Medena zemja / Медена земја / Honeyland (Tamara Kotevska, Ljumobir Stefanov, MK 2019).

Official Secrets (Gavin Hood, GB/US/CH/CN 2018).

Peterloo (Mike Leigh, GB 2018).

Šarlatán / Charlatan (Agnieszka Holland, CZ/IE/PL/SK 2020).

Sid al-mghul / سيد المجهول / Le Miracle du saint inconnu / The Unknown Saint (Alaa Eddine Aljem, MA/FR 2019).

Sorkhpoost / سرخ‌پوست / The Warden (Nima Javidi, IR 2019).

Surematu / Nemirstīgie / Бессмертный / Immortal (Ksenia Okhapkina, EE/LV 2019).

Le Tableau / The Painting (Jean-François Laguionie, FR/BE/CA 2011).

Všechno bude / Winter Flies (Olmo Omerzu, CZ/SI/PL/SK/FR 2018).

Es gilt das gesprochene Wort / I Was, I Am, I Will Be

İlker Çatak: Es gilt das gesprochene Wort / I Was, I Am, I Will Be (2019) with Ogulcan Arman Uslu (Baran) and Anne Ratte-Polle (Marion).

DE/FR © 2019 if... Productions / LDO / ZDF/arte. P: Ingo Fliess.
    D: İlker Çatak. SC: Nils Mohl and İlker Çatak – from a story by İlker Çatak and Johannes Duncker. Cin: Florian Mag – digital – colour – 2,35:1. PD: Zazie Knepper. Cost: Christian Röhrs. Makeup: Barbara Kreuzer. VFX: Christoph Hierl. M: Marvin Miller. S: Christoph von Schönburg. ED: Sascha Gerlach, Jan Ruschke.
    C: Anne Ratte-Polle (Marion), Ogulcan Arman Uslu (Baran), Godehard Giese (Raphael), Jörg Schüttauf (Mark), Johanna Polley (Leonie), Sebastian Urzendowsky (Johann), Lina Wendel (Dr. Evi Stade), Sandra Bourdonnec (Colette), Ali Seçkiner Alici (Idris).
    Theme song: Franz Schubert: "Ständchen" ("Leise flehen meine Lieder") ("Serenade"), lyrics by Ludwig Rellstab, from Schwanengesang, D 957. Sung during the closing credits by Fritz Wunderlich (1966). Heard also in other interpretations.
    Loc: Bodrum, Mugla, Marmaris, Hamburg. Concert sequence: Eröffnungskonzert: Elbphilharmonie (Hamburg).
    In German and Turkish.
    120 min
    Festival premiere: 2 July 2019 Munich International Film Festival.
    German premiere: 1 Aug 2019.
    English subtitles by Matthew Way / Way Film Translation.
    Corona lockdown viewings / Midnight Sun Film Festival (MSFF) online edition.
    Viewed with English subtitles from the MSFF FestivalScope screening platform, viewed at a forest retreat in Punkaharju on a tv screen, 22 June 2020.

The title of the film is a quote from the German marriage vow in civil marriage. It means in English: "The Spoken Word Is Binding".

AA: İlker Çatak's excellent human drama across a chasm of cultures belongs to an established lineage of film narratives perhaps best known from Peter Weir's Green Card (1990) starring Andie MacDowell and Gérard Depardieu.

In İlker Çatak's original movie both protagonists are proud and edgy.

The young Kurd Baran (Ogulcan Arman Uslu) is a loner and outsider, marginalized and without possessions in Turkey trying to establish a life of his own. In the Marmaris beach paradise he finds a job at a restaurant and becomes a beach boy, available as a companion for European female tourists. It is a method of survival. Meanwhile he is actively pursuing marriage with a European woman as a way out from a life of discrimination and persecution.

Against all odds he succeeds with Marion (Anne Ratte-Polle). She is a pilot in command of the biggest airliners. She promises to help and get involved in a green card marriage to help Baran launch a better life. She is convinced of Baran's sincerity of enterprise, although she also knows that he is a thief.

Baran starts from scratch. He must learn the language, he must pass the test for a driver's licence, he must learn German workplace culture. He is required by Marion even to acquire musical culture by weekly visiting the Elbphilharmonie.

Although the deal is strictly Platonic, the inevitable happens, and to her amazement Marion finds herself pregnant, although the medicament she is taking after a breast cancer operation was supposed to prevent pregnancy.

İlker Çatak's film belongs also to the Pygmalion lineage of fiction. In the cinema it was something of a specialty of George Cukor, although his films were always about a male Pygmalion and a female Galatea. The world has changed.

İlker Çatak's film is unusual, unpredictable and genuinely moving. There is nothing ingratiating here. İlker Çatak shows his people with warts and all. The film starts like a slice of life, but it is a profoundly thought out accomplishment in which all details make sense.

The chemistry between the main couple is so convincing that if there would be no reunion we would still be left thinking that they would have deserved one more chance.


Sorkhpoost / The Warden

Nima Javidi: Sorkhpoost / سرخ‌پوست / The Warden (2019) with Navid Mohammadzadeh (Colonel Jahed) and Parinaz Izadyar (Susan Karimi).

Nima Javidi: Sorkhpoost / سرخ‌پوست / The Warden (2019) with Navid Mohammadzadeh (Colonel Jahed).

    IR 2019. P: Majid Motalebi.
    D+SC: Nima Javidi. Cin: Hooman Behmanesh – digital – 4K – 1,85:1 – Dolby Digital. PD: Mohsen Nasrollahi. Cost: Shima Mirhamidi. Makeup: Iman Omidvari. VFX: Javad Matouri. M: Ramin Kousha. S: Naeim Meschian. ED: Emad Khodabakhsh.
    C: Navid Mohammadzadeh (Major > Colonel Jahed), Parinaz Izadyar (Susan Karimi), Setareh Pesyani (Ahmad's wife), Mani Haghighi (Colonel Modabber), Habib Rezaei (prisoner), Atila Pesiani (airport manager), Yadollah Shademani (witness), Ali Mardaneh (doctor), Ismaeel Pourreza (Seyed Davoud), Amir Keyban Masoumi (Sergeant Naji).
    Loc: Tehran.
    100 min
    Festival premiere: 1 Feb 2019 Fajr Film Festival.
    Premiere in Iran: 5 June 2019.
    Corona lockdown viewings / Midnight Sun Film Festival (MSFF) online edition.
    Viewed with English subtitles from the MSFF FestivalScope screening platform, viewed at a forest retreat in Punkaharju on a tv screen, 22 June 2020.

Synopsis (IMDb): "A prison is about to be evacuated to make room for an airport expansion project. Colonel Jahed and his officers are busy transferring all inmates to the new facility, but one inmate is missing."

AA: The Warden, directed by Nima Javidi, is a first-rate political thriller set in the Iran of the 1960s, during the brutal dictatorship of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

The Warden belongs to the genre of the prison break movie. It is an Iranian Un condamné à mort s'est échappé, to evoke Robert Bresson's French Resistance classic which takes place in a high security Nazi prison. Nima Javidi acknowledges the conventions of the genre but does everything differently.

The protagonist, the prison warden Jahed, has set his sights in a long-awaited promotion. But just when it finally takes place, there is a mysterious prison break that threatens his very career.

A death row prisoner named Ahmad is found to be missing when a prison is evacuated. A female social worker, Susan Karimi, tells that the poor sharecropper Ahmad was framed for murder because an excuse was needed to have his land confiscated. During the film several other witnesses confirm this. Jahed ignores the statements because he is only doing his duty.

The Warden is also a man hunt movie and a detective story of the "locked room" variety. I was even reminded of Rian Johnson's Knives Out, which also brought fresh blood to the classic genre, the roots of which in fact go back to ancient Iran, the tale of "The Three Apples" in One Thousand and One Nights. Perhaps there is a touch of Scheherazade in Susan Karimi?

The laconic wit of The Warden invites comparison with Hollywood classics such as Don Siegel's Escape from Alcatraz, starring Clint Eastwood (and presumably also influenced by Bresson). Javidi relishes puzzling details such as Ahmad's pet toad and four boxes of shoe polish. His film is intelligent, refined and powerful, and the many surprises of the finale are not gimmicks but contribute to the social and ethical message.

The score is poetic, and there is a humoristic twist in the soundtrack when Jahed plays a sweet love song through the prison's loudspeakers to woo Susan. Susan, for her part, uses her considerable charm and sophistication to persuade Jahed to drop the matter of chasing Ahmad.

The cinematography by Hooman Behmanesh conveys the reign of terror of Shah's Iran, but at the same time there is a dimension of timeless magic in the refined, painterly colour palette.


L'extraordinaire voyage de Marona / Marona's Fantastic Tale

Anca Damian: L'extraordinaire voyage de Marona / Marona's Fantastic Tale (2019). Please click on the images to enlarge them!

Anca Damian: L'extraordinaire voyage de Marona / Marona's Fantastic Tale (2019). The dog Marona with Solange.

Anca Damian: L'extraordinaire voyage de Marona / Marona's Fantastic Tale (2019). Istvan and the dog Marona.

Călătoria fantastică a Maronei.
    FR/BE/RO © 2019 Aparte Film / Sacrebleu Productions / Minds Meet. PC: Sacrebleu Productions / Marmitafilms. P: Ron Dyens.
    D: Anca Damian. SC: Anghel Damian – based on the idea by Anca Damian. Colour – 1,85:1 – digital. Character design: Brecht Evens. AD: Gina Thorstensen, Sarah Mazzetti. AN: Dan Panaitescu, Hefang Wei, Loïc Espuche, Chloé Roux, Claudia Ilea, Marjorie Caup, Mathieu Labeye. M: Pablo Pico. S: Clément Badin, Mathieu Z'graggen, Régis Diebold. S mixer: Lionel Guenolin. ED: Boubkar Benzabat.
    Voice talent: Lizzie Brocheré (Marona), Bruno Salomone (Manole), Thierry Hancisse (Istvan), Isabelle Vitari (Madalina), Nathalie Boutefeu (Medeea), Shyrelle Mai Yvart (Solange enfant), Maïra Schmitt (Solange adolescente), Georges Claisse (grand-père Solange).
    Langue originale : français.
    92 min
    Festival premiere: 10 June 2019 Festival international du film d'animation d'Annecy
    France: date de sortie: 8 Jan 2020 (en salles).
    Corona lockdown viewings / Midnight Sun Film Festival (MSFF) online edition.
    Viewed with English subtitles by Sionann O'Neill from the MSFF FestivalScope screening platform, viewed at a forest retreat in Punkaharju on a tv screen, 22 June 2020.

AA: An animation masterpiece by Anca Damian, rich in invention, with wonderful colour solutions, expanding the possibilities of animation, profound in the nexus of animation and animism, and philosophical in its discourse of the categories of human understanding.

Sounds pompous, I know, this being the story of a little dog, the result of a stray love affair of glaring imbalance between two dogs who could not be more incongruous as mates.

The narrative concept is familiar from a long tradition of stories of pet animals (dogs, horses, etc.) who are passed from hand to hand. The way we treat animals reveals who we are. All the while a dog's unconditional love reminds us of what is most precious in life.

Among animated dog stories Anca Damian and her team certainly know Walt Disney's Lady and the Tramp and One Hundred and One Dalmatians. There are fleeting allusions to them.

Based on such traditions Anca Damian flies to the Moon. She updates, reverses, revolutionizes and creates something else.

Marona's masters include the rubber man Manole, the garbage man Istvan and the schoolgirl Solange who transforms into a teenager. The masters' different worlds are seen through Marona's eyes.

There is something fundamental and universal in this film. Animation is used as a creative device to express pure sensation, pure observation, pure perception. There is a drive to break free from cliché, from the customary, from the tried and true. This is about animating essences.

The film is a display of a joy of invention. New ideas and insights keep flowing at breakneck pace. Many visual registers are in use. The colour world is bold and vigorous. Anca Damian understands how to animate movement, the wind, dreams, and a huojuva talo (a tottering house).

Life is everywhere, and this is even revealed in an extraordinary near-death experience where the grandfather's spirit rises to the heaven (but he is revived as a shadow of his former self).

While Damian's vision of selfishness is sober and unsentimental, still this is a life-affirming film. A great achievement from the entire team, including the composer Pablo Pico.


Sunday, June 21, 2020

El diablo entre las piernas / Devil Between the Legs

MX © 2019 Alebrije Cine y Video S.A. de C.V. / Carnaval Films S.A. de C.V. / Estudios Churubusco Azteca S.A. / Oberon Cinematografica S.A. / Fondo de Inversion Estimulos al Cine (Fidecine). P: Antonio Chavarrarías, Marco Polo Constandse.
    D: Arturo Ripstein. SC: Paz Alicia Garciadiego. Cin: Alejandro Cantú. PD: Alejandro García. Makeup: Mari Paz Robles. M: David Mansfield. S: Pablo Lach. ED: Mariana Rodríguez.
    C: Sylvia Pasquel (Beatriz), Alejandro Suárez (El viejo), Greta Cervantes (Dinorah), Patricia Reyes Spindola (Isabel), Daniel Giménez-Cacho García (tango partner).
    Theme song: "Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuss mit Liebe eingestellt" (comp.+lyr. Friedrich Hollaender), sung by Marlene Dietrich (1930) and heard in instrumental variations by David Mansfield.
    "Perfume de gardenias" (Rafael Hernández Marín, 1935), a recording for this film in 2019.
    Language: Spanish.
    147 min
    Festival premiere: 12 Sep 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.
    Corona lockdown viewings / Midnight Sun Film Festival (MSFF) online edition.
    Viewed with English subtitles from the MSFF FestivalScope screening platform, viewed at a forest retreat in Punkaharju on a tv screen, 21 June 2020.

AA: Directed by Arturo Ripstein, the old Mexican master of "le cinéma de cruauté", and written by his wife Paz Alicia Garciadiego, his regular screenwriter since decades, El diablo entre las piernas is a harrowing account of sexual obsession.

The film is also a startling account of an old couple whose love has turned to hate. Nobody can torture each other as cruelly as an old married couple, because they know each other so well.

The classic of the theme is naturally August Strindberg's play The Dance of Death (1900), memorably filmed by Marcel Cravenne as La Danse de mort (1948) starring the real-life couple Erich von Stroheim and Denise Vernac.

Perhaps inspired by it Edward Albee wrote Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962); Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton starred in Mike Nichols's film adaptation. Let's also remember a cinema original, Sacha Guitry's La Poison (1951), and Pierre Granier-Deferre's Le Chat (1971) based on the novel by Georges Simenon and starring Simone Signoret and Jean Gabin.

Apparently Ripstein's claustrophobic film has been filmed at the same Estudios Churubusco where the director started his film career as an uncredited assistant to Luis Buñuel in El ángel exterminador, another claustrophobic tale of black humour.

I have been slow in getting acquainted with Arturo Ripstein's films. The claustrophobic quality and the vision of life as hell was hard for me to take in El lugar sin limites (Hell Without Limits). Paz Alicia Garciadiego was not yet writing his films at the time.

Touches of fetishism, morbid jealousy and obsessions with smells are hallmarks of El diablo entre las piernas. The obsession is sex, but there is no love. Or the love has become so twisted that is hard to recognize. In the most touching sequence Beatriz and El Viejo study their honeymoon photographs and agonize over their gliding into their "little tricks". "When did this happen?".

A record I often heard in my childhood was Alvin and the Chipmunks' spoof version of "Buffalo Gals" (1962, featuring, besides David Seville [Ross Bagdasarian] the guest stars Mel Blanc [as Buffalo Bill] and June Foray [as Buffalo Gal]; the original song by John Hodges being from 1844).
– You've got everything!
– No son, there is one thing missing.
– What's missing, Buffalo Bill?
– Here's what's missing, boy: love, boy, love!

El diablo entre las piernas is well written and acted, and it has a compelling, unique atmosphere. But there is that one thing missing.

The visual approach is a "digital Death Valley" in black and white. Thinking back at La Danse de mort (1948) its unique visual solution was to shoot in an actual castle so cold that one could see the vapour of the actors' breath while they spitted out their venomous dialogue. There is not even such vapour in the airless digital space of El diablo entre las piernas.


Le Tableau / The Painting

FR/BE/CA © 2011 Blue Spirit Animation, BE-Films, Blue Spirit Studio, Sinematik, France 3 Cinéma, Rezo Productions, RTBF (Télévision Belge). PC: Blue Spirit Animation / BE-Films. P: Armelle Glorennec, Eric Jacquot.
    D: Jean-François Laguionie. SC: Anik Le Ray. Image: digital 3D – 1,85:1 – colour. AN: Hilere. M: Pascal Le Pennec. S: Alexandre Fleurant.
    Voice talent (Wikipédia): Jessica Monceau : Lola
    Adrien Larmande : Ramo
    Thierry Jahn : Plume
    Julien Bouanich : Gom
    Céline Ronté : Garance
    Thomas Sagols : Magenta
    Magali Rosenzweig : Orange de Mars
    Chloé Berthier : Claire
    Jean-François Laguionie : L'autoportrait et le peintre
    Jacques Roehrich : Le Grand Chandelier
    Jérémy Prévost : Monsieur Gris
    Michel Vigné : Le Capitaine
    Jean Barney : Le peintre de Venise
    Serge Faliu : Pierrot
    76 min
    Festival premiere: 12 Oct 2011 Festival International du Film de La Roche-sur-Yon.
    Date de sortie: 23 Nov 2011.
    Language: French.
    Corona lockdown viewings / Midnight Sun Film Festival (MSFF) online edition / Jennifer Barker masterclass.
    Viewed with English subtitles from the MSFF FestivalScope screening platform, viewed at a forest retreat in Punkaharju on a tv screen, 21 June 2020.

AA: A fascinating and original animation by Jean-François Laguionie.

The concept of a painting coming alive has been familiar in the cinema since Georges Méliès, but in Le Tableau, Laguionie and Anik Le Ray develop it further than any other movie I know.

The setting is an unfinished painting in which we meet characters in various stages of completion: the Alldunns, the Halfies and the Sketchies (les Toupins, les Pafinis et les Reufs).

A social order starts to form in which the Alldunns plan to marginalize and eliminate all others. But the meta-animation opens to new levels. The painted characters find their way to the atelier and other paintings, including the autoportrait of the painter. They gain access to paints and are able to complete each other. This is not the end: Lola finds a passage to the real world and the live action painter, the creator himself.

Le Tableau is not about being clever about many self-reflections. It is a story of social stratification. It is a story of persecution and liberation. It is a story of art as an endlessly evolving process of cognition. It is a story of the joy of creation.

It is a film with a sense of wonder.

It is a story of love which brings full colour to pale contours.

It is a wonderful fairy-tale. The chase leads to a magic forest with death flowers. The passage to different paintings brings us in the middle of a battlefield. We also enter the carnival of Venice. The story seems to take place in the 1920s, and in the painter's sketches we detect influences of Modigliani, Gauguin, Matisse, Chagall and Derain. Among the living paintings is a radiant odalisque called Garance, painted in a style between Renoir and Modigliani. The painter himself looks like Monet. He is finishing a cloud painting into which Lola would like to disappear.

The original score by Pascal Le Pennec is delightful and enchanting. There are touches reminiscent of Nino Rota's scores for Fellini and John Williams Star Wars theme, but the music remains original.


Saturday, June 20, 2020

Surematu / Immortal

Ksenia Okhapkina: Surematu / Immortal (2019).

Ksenia Okhapkina: Surematu / Immortal (2019).

Surematu / Nemirstīgie / Бессмертный.
    EE / LV © 2019 OU Vesilind / VFS Films. P: Riho Västrik. Co-P: Uldis Cekulis.
    D+SC: Ksenia Okhapkina. Cin: Aleksandr Demyanenko, Artem Ignatov, Ksenia Okhapkina – 1,85:1 – 25 fps – 4K – digital – release: D-Cinema. M: Robert Jurjendal, Arian Levin. S: Alexander Dudarev. ED: Stijn Deconinck, Ksenia Okhapkina.
    Among the advisors: Memorial.
    Soundtrack selections include: "State Anthem of the Russian Federation" (comp. Alexander Alexandrov, 1939, lyr. Sergei Mikhalkov, 2000).
    A creative documentary film.
    Location: Apatity (Murmansk Oblast, Russia). Apatity House of Culture, Angazhement, Zapolyarie, Theater Dialogue.
    Language: Russian.
    61 min
    Festival premiere: 2 July 2019 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
    Corona lockdown viewings / Midnight Sun Film Festival (MSFF) online edition.
    Viewed with English subtitles from the MSFF FestivalScope screening platform, viewed at a forest retreat in Punkaharju on a tv screen, 20 June 2020.

AA: An eternal night has set into an industrial town far north. Massive freight trains are passing through. Children enjoy neither family warmth or play. Little girls are drilled to dance. Little boys engage in military exercise. Between exercise children visit the war museum. Homes are in dismal barracks. Children sleep in severe dormitories. Barbed wire surrounds the premises. A stray dog wanders on the tracks in freezing cold.

This dystopian view is not Enki Bilal's Immortal (2004). This is a documentary film by Ksenia Okhapkina about the mining town of Apatity in the Murmansk Oblast in Russia. It is a center of heavy industry, essential for world economy in producing apatite. The famous Murmansk Railway traverses the town. It is also one of the most polluted districts in the world.

The apatite mines were opened in 1929, and during Stalin's Great Terror in 1935 a prison camp was established in Apatity, a major unit in the Gulag Archipelago. Prosperous peasants of North Russia were dispatched there for slave labour in the mines.

The Soviet Union was dissolved 29 years ago, but Ksenia Okhapina's film proves that it remains immortal at least in Apatity. Dilapidated Soviet symbols and slogans appear on walls, buildings and memorials. The time of the town seems to have stopped to an eternal Great Patriotic War. The ghostly figure of Putin hovers behind it all.

Apatity is not far away from Sodankylä: 435 kilometers, that is, within a drive of five and a half hours. The Eternal Night dystopia is being viewed at Midnight Sun Film Festival, albeit online.

Ksenia Okhapkina's artistic vision of a modern Sparta is strong, consistent and single-minded. A monolithic way of life is conveyed in a monolithic interpretation. There is no midnight sun in the movie. Viewers may want to react against attempts of mind control. But what Okhapkina shows us has true gravity.

PS. A meta-text of the movie is H. C. Andersen's fairy-tale The Snow Queen (Snedronningen, 1844). An evil troll has made a magic mirror that distorts the appearance of everything that it reflects. The magic mirror fails to reflect the good and the beautiful, and magnifies the bad and the ugly. The mirror falls from the sky, splinters are blown by the wind, freeze people's hearts like blocks of ice and make their eyes like the troll-mirror itself. In search of the ice-eyed Kai Gerda is carried away to the Snow Queen's palace in Lapland. Her tears of love melt the ice in Kai's eyes. When they stop dancing the splinters fall down to spell "eternity". (I riff on Wikipedia's formulations in this Snow Queen resume).

Russian Lapland belongs to the Murmansk Oblast like Apatity, but Apatity is just a little bit to the south of Lapland.


Sid al-mghul / Le Miracle du saint inconnu / The Unknown Saint

Alaa Eddine Aljem: سيد المجهول / Le Miracle du saint inconnu / The Unknown Saint  (2019).

Sid al-mghul / سيد المجهول
    MA/FR © 2019 Le Moindre Geste Productions / Altamar Films. P: Francesca Duca, Alexa Rivero. Assoc: Michael Weber, Georges Schoucair, Rabah Mezioud.
    D+SC: Alaa Eddine Aljem. Cin: Amine Berrada – colour – 1,85:1. PD: Kaoutar Haddioui. M: Amine Bouhafa. S: Yassine Bellouquid, Paul Jousselin, Matthieu Deniau. ED: Lilian Corbeille.
    C: Younes Bouab (the thief), Salah Bensalah (the brain), Bouchaib Essamak (Hassan), Mohamed Naimane (Brahim), Anas El Baz (the doctor), Hassan Ben Bdida (the nurse), Abdelghani Kitab (the guard), Ahmed Yarziz (the hairdresser).
    Loc: Agafay Desert, Morocco.
    In Arabic (Darija)
    100 min
    Festival premiere: Cannes Film Festival: Semaine de la critique and Caméra d'Or.
    A Match Factory screener with English subtitles.
    Corona lockdown viewings / Midnight Sun Film Festival (MSFF) online edition.
    30 minutes sampled from the MSFF FestivalScope screening platform, viewed at a forest retreat in Punkaharju on a tv screen, 20 June 2020.

Unifrance synopsis: "Moments before his capture by police, a thief digs a grave to hide a bag of money. Released from prison years later he returns to retrieve the bag, only to find a shrine to an Unknown Saint build directly over his loot, and a brand new village constructed all around it."

AA: In his feature film debut the Moroccan director Alaa Eddine Aljem displays talent in humoristic observation, satire and laconic wit. The Unknown Saint is based on themes of the false marabout (prophet) and the fake mausoleum that seem to be well-known in Moroccan comedy, also in popular films such as Tayeb Saddiki's Zeft (1984, see also Wikipedia: Zeft).

Alaa Eddine Aljem's touch is original, with precise mise-en-scène and timing without which such comedy would not work. However, perhaps due to flanking heavyweight Eastern European titles on my virtual Sodankylä menu, I fail to connect and am happy to sample the first half an hour and clips from the rest.

Alaa Eddine Aljem's rewarding interview in the film's press kit I copy beyond the jump break.


Friday, June 19, 2020

Frantsuz / The Frenchman

Andrei Smirnov: Frantsuz / The Frenchman (2019) with Evgenya Obraztsova (Kira Galkina) and Anton Rival (Pierre Durand).

Andrei Smirnov: Frantsuz / The Frenchman (2019) with Nina Drobysheva (Olga Obrezkova, Natalia Tenyakova (Maria Obrezkova) and Anton Rival (Pierre Durand). Gradually Pierre gets on track of his lost father. My screenshot. Please click to enlarge the image.

Француз / A Frenchman.
    RU © 2019 Ano "KADR". PC: Marmot-Film. P: Elena Prudnikova, Andrei Smirnov, Valeri Todorovski.
    D+SC: Andrei Smirnov. Cin: Yuri Shaygardanov – b&w – digital. PD: Vladimir Gudilin. Cost: Ludmila Gaintseva. Makeup: Elena Dmitrienko. VFX: CGF. S: Oleg Tatarinov. ED: Alla Strelnikova. Steadicam: Aleksandr Vdovenko. Quadcopter: Andrei Dontsov. Advisor: Arseni Roginsky (Memorial).
    Soundtrack selections include: Ludwig van Beethoven: Opus 27 Nr. 2: Klaviersonate Nr. 14 in cis-Moll „Mondschein“ (1801), played by Pierre Durand to his father at the Pereslavl-Zalessky House of Culture.
    "Bernie's Tune" (Bernie Miller, 1952) and "Donna Lee" (Charlie Parker, 1947) performed by the jazz quintet of Anton Rumyantsev.
    Poems: "Kogda ya ochen zatoskuyu" (Aleksandr Kushner), "Moroz segodnya krepki" (Igor Kholin), "Ivanovy" (Nikolai Zabolotski).
    Paintings by Oscar Rabin.
    C: Anton Rival (French exchange student Pierre Durand), Evgenia Obraztsova (Bolshoi ballerina Kira Galkina), Yevgeny Tkachuk (VGIK student, photographer Valeri Uspenski), Aleksandr Baluev (Tatishchev, night watchman at a bakery, former Count, former White Officer, Gulag survivor), Mikhail Efremov (Valeri Uspenski's dad, former teacher of Marxism-Leninism, Gulag survivor), Roman Madyanov (Chuhnovski, writer), Nina Drobysheva (Olga Obrezkova, former noblewoman, Gulag survivor), Natalia Tenyakova (Maria Obrezkova, former noblewoman, Gulag survivor), Vera Lashkova (Anna Fedorovna, manager of the house of culture), Evgeny Kharitonov (Oscar Rabin, painter), Thomas Alden (Louis), Anna Neverova (Marusya), Alexander Zamuraev (alcoholic), Manuel Sinor (restaurateur).
    Locations: Moscow, Paris.
    128 min
    Dedicated to the memory of Aleksandr Ginzburg.
    Festival premiere: 16 June 2019 Open Russian Film Festival Kinotavr.
    International Film Festival Rotterdam 2020.
    31 Oct 2019 Walt Disney Studios Sony Pictures Releasing (Russia) direct-to-consumer.
    Corona lockdown viewings / Midnight Sun Film Festival (MSFF) online edition / Films by former Sodankylä guests [Andrei Smirnov: 2006].
    From the MSFF FestivalScope screening platform with English subtitles, viewed at a forest retreat in Punkaharju on a tv screen, 19 June 2020.

Official synopsis: "In 1957, a French student, Pierre Durand, comes to Moscow for an internship at Moscow State University. Here he meets the Bolshoi Theater ballerina Kira Galkina and photographer Valera Uspensky. Thanks to these acquaintances, Pierre is immersed in the cultural life of Moscow, not only official, but also underground. For a year, Pierre has lived in Moscow for a lifetime, completely unlike anything he knew. But internship and acquaintance with different aspects of the life of Soviet people is not Pierre's only goal. He is looking for his father, white officer Tatishchev, who was arrested in the late 1930s." (Official synopsis).

International Film Festival Rotterdam: "By the end of the 1970s, Andrei Smirnov had had enough. One of the best and brightest auteurs to emerge from the Soviet 1960s couldn't stand constant harassment from the authorities anymore, and quit cinema for good. At least as a director; he stuck around as a screenwriter and actor. But then, after 32 years, he returned with Žila-byla odna baba (2011). Now A Frenchman suggests he's back to stay, and will continue directing."

"A Frenchman, the story of a French exchange student's adventures in late 1950s Moscow, makes us painfully aware what a formidable cinematic mind and soul Smirnov has: discrete, educated, good-humoured, politically poignant while never dogmatic – the kind of public intellectual we perhaps need these days more than ever. Watching this film is like looking at a lost world, in more ways than one.
" (Rotterdam)

AA: Andrei Smirnov belongs to the masters of Thaw cinema, debuting before the beginning of Brezhnev's era of stagnation. His most famous film is Belorusski Station, but my own personal favourite is Angel (1967), suppressed at the time along with the episode film The Beginning of an Unknown Era and only released during Glasnost. One of the greatest Russian films of all times.

After a break of over 30 years Smirnov returned to directing films in the 2010s. I have yet to see the acclaimed Once Upon a Time There Lived a Simple Woman. The Frenchman is such a distinguished achievement that it makes me look forward to seeing not only it but all Smirnov's films again.

The Frenchman combines a strong argument with complexity in its account of character and history. It is a historical drama about a young Frenchman in search of his Russian roots. Pierre Durand is a member of the PCF, the French Communist Party, coming to the Soviet Union for the first time in his life in 1957. His father, a French resistance fighter, has died as a prisoner of the Nazis.

Pierre is both an insider and an outsider. Because he has spoken Russian with his mother all his life, he can instantly connect with everybody. Khrushchev has given his speech denouncing Stalin in the previous year, in 1956, rehabilitated millions purged by Stalin and ousted Stalin hard-liners from the party. Durand is aware of this, but the USSR is still full of surprises for him. And yet somehow, however, he is not surprised. This film is not a satire in the Candide tradition. Smirnov avoids clichés and stereotypes while the message remains strong and clear.

The Thaw liberation is real, but we also meet an opportunistic author, happy to be conform, yet giving Pierre the advice: "Keep your mouth shut. Don't speak to anybody". We meet a KGB officer who tries to engage Pierre as an informer, and Pierre even signs a document but never provides anything (instead, he smuggles samizdat poetry upon his return to France). Spies are everywhere. The walls have ears.

We visit legendary official landmarks of culture: Moscow State University and Bolshoi Ballet (Pierre falls asleep during Swan Lake), but we are also taken to the clandestine atelier of the modernist painter Oscar Rabin, an underground jazz club where the sax virtuoso Zubov gives a brilliant performance of "Bernie's Tune", and most importantly, witness the excitement of samizdat poets such as Joseph Brodsky and Igor Kholin. Period detail feels accurate, including vintage radio broadcasts.

The horror of the recent past starts to emerge. Valeri Uspensky's dad, an ex-teacher of Marxism-Leninism, is a camp survivor. Remote relatives, the Obrezkova sisters, former noblewomen, tell about their Gulag ordeal across the Soviet Union, including the Solovki.

Finally Pierre is given the clue that leads him to Pereslavl-Zalessky, to his biological father, the former Count Tatischev, a White officer, believed lost in Gulag. He has survived Kolyma and other chambers of hell. An alumnus of Mikhailovskoe artilleriskoe uchilishche, a master school of mathematics, he has survived by focusing his mind on Gödel theorems and the Russell paradox. He now works the night shift as a bakery guard. It is not a happy reunion between son and father. Pierre is the result of a summer fling, after which mother left Russia and gave birth in France to Pierre whom the Count has never seen before.

Aleksandr Baluev, Nina Drobysheva, Natalia Tenyakova, Vera Lashkova and Mikhail Efremov give the most memorable performances in the film as the Gulag survivors. Their faces carry the legacy of a terrible past. The young ones lose their illusions but not their hope. The final gestures are full of defiance.

The Frenchman is one of the best films I have seen about life during the Thaw. It has been shot in black and white like contemporary classics by Danelia, Khutsiev and Tarkovsky, but in the digital presentation there is a glacial atmosphere like also for instance in Frantz by François Ozon. A lack of warmth emphasizes a probably unintentional sense of alienation including in the two romantic separations of the film, in Paris in the beginning and in Moscow in the finale.


"Valeri Uspensky mentions in a conversation with Pierre the name of "his sidekick Alik" and the independent magazine "Gramotei", which he publishes. This is a reference to the Samizdat poetic almanac Syntax, which Ginsburg produced, and for which he received his first term. All the verses read in the picture are from Syntax."

"In the role of Anna Fyodorovna, the manager of the house of culture in Pereslavl-Zalessky, where Pierre and Tatishchev have a conversation, stars Vera Lashkova, a comrade-in-arms of Alik Ginzburg, a typist who was engaged in reprinting the Samizdat collections “White Book” (files from the Sinyavsky and Daniel trials collected by Ginzburg). The dedication at the end of the film – “In memory of Alik Ginzburg and his friends who wanted to live not by lies” – is addressed to Vera Lashkova in particular."


Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Mr. Jones (2019)

Agnieszka Holland: Mr. Jones (2019) with Peter Sarsgaard (Walter Duranty), James Norton (Gareth Jones) and Vanessa Kirby (Ada Brooks).

Obywatel Jones / Ціна правди / Mr. Jones [Finnish and Swedish title] / Den sorte jord [Danish and Norwegian title]
    PL/GB/US © 2019 Film Producja / Parkhurst / Kinorob / Jones by Film / Krakow Festival Office / Studio Produkeyjne Orka / Kino Swiat / Silesia Film Institute in Katowice. P: Andrea Chalupa, Stanisław Dziedzic, Klaudia Śmieja-Rostworowska.
    D: Agnieszka Holland. SC: Andrea Chalupa. Cin: Tomasz Naumiuk – colour – 2,35:1 – release: D-Cinema. PD: Grzegorz Piątkowski. AD: Fiona Gavin. Set dec: Kinga Babczynska. Cost: Galina Otenko, Ola Staszko. Make up and hair: Janusz Kaleja. M: Antoni Komasa-Łazarkiewicz. S: Wojciec Mielimaka. ED: Michał Czarnecki. Casting: Colin Jones.
    Songs include: "Forces of Baba Yaga". "Piosenka głodnych dzieci" [The Song of the Hungry Children] (Antoni Komasa-Łazarkiewicz, lyr. DP), sung by the Choir of Ukrainian Orphans.
    Gareth Jones's theme poem: "Cad Goddeu" / "The Battle of the Trees" from the Book of Taliesin (14th century).
    C: James Norton (Gareth Jones), Vanessa Kirby (Ada Brooks), Peter Sarsgaard (Walter Duranty), Joseph Mawle (Eric Blair = George Orwell), Kenneth Cranham (Lloyd George), Celyn Jones (Matthew), Krzysztof Pieczyński (Maxim Litvinov), Beata Pozniak (Rhea Clyman), Martin Bishop (Sir Ernest Bennet), John Edmondson (J. E. B. Seely), Julian Lewis Jones (Major Jones), Patrycja Volny (Bonnie), Michalina Olszanska (Yulia), Marcin Czarnik (Paul Kleb), Michael O'Donnell (Malcolm Muggeridge), Matthew Marsh (William Randolph Hearst).
    Filmed in Ukraine, Poland and Scotland, 16 Feb – 30 July 2018.
    Languages: English, Russian, Ukrainian, Welsh.
    141 min (festival), 119 (theatrical).
    Festival premiere: 10 Feb 2019 Berlin International Film Festival
    Polish premiere: 25 Oct 2019.
    Ukrainian premiere: 28 Nov 2019.
    British premiere: 7 Feb 2020.
    Finnish premiere: 13 March 2020 [distribution interrupted by corona lockdown 17 March 2020], released by Future Film with Finnish / Swedish subtitles.
    Corona lockdown viewings.
    Draken Film, 119 min version with Swedish subtitles by Oneliner.
    Viewed on a tv screen at a forest retreat in Punkaharju, 17 June 2020.

BERLIN FILM FESTIVAL SYNOPSIS: "In March 1933, Welsh journalist Gareth Jones takes a train from Moscow to Kharkov in the Ukraine. He disembarks at a small station and sets off on foot on a journey through the country where he experiences at first hand the horrors of a famine. Everywhere there are dead people, and everywhere he goes he meets henchmen of the Soviet secret service who are determined to prevent news about the catastrophe from getting out to the general public. Stalin’s forced collectivisation of agriculture has resulted in misery and ruin; the policy is tantamount to mass murder. Supported by Ada Brooks, a New York Times reporter, Jones succeeds in spreading the shocking news in the West, thereby putting his powerful rival, the Pulitzer Prize-winning, pro-Stalin journalist Walter Duranty, firmly in his place."

"Shot in Poland, Scotland and in original locations in the Ukraine, Agnieszka Holland’s film recalls the legendary journalist Gareth Jones (1905
–1935) who, despite fierce resistance, could not be dissuaded from telling the truth. Jones’s encounter with the young George Orwell is said to have inspired the latter’s dystopian parable ‘Animal Farm’ (1945)." Berlin Film Festival 2019

AA: Having just watched Charlatan in Midnight Sun Film Festival's online edition I was inspired to see Mr. Jones, Agnieszka Holland's previous historical drama. It had its Finnish premiere on 13 March only to have its run interrupted during the premiere week by the corona lockdown.

Both films are well directed, produced, written and acted historical tragedies about Eastern European ordeals under the aegis of the Soviet Union. Charlatan takes place in Czechoslovakia in 1957, and Mr. Jones is an exposé of the Holodomor in Ukraine in 1933. Jan Mikolášek, the faith healer of Charlatan, treated four million patients. In Ukraine, at least an equal number of famine victims perished during the Holodomor.

Holodomor is a major historical catastrophe that has been discussed far from enough in the cinema. Nine years ago we mounted a Ukrainian film retrospective at Cinema Orion, curated by Dalia Stasevska. We screened the first Holodomor movie, Famine-33 (1991), a powerful, uncensored and unflinchingly horrifying account made in the Soviet Union during the last year of its existence. In the same year the Soviet Communist Party acknowledged its guilt in the catastrophe in which seven million people died. A Spring for the Thirsty and The Stone Cross are not Holodomor films but they carry poetic echoes of the primal shock.

Ukraine on the eve of the Holodomor was the home of some of the greatest masterpieces of film art including The Man with the Movie Camera by Dziga Vertov and Earth by Alexander Dovzhenko. What happened around 1933 was a devastating blow to the ideals of both masters.

Vertov had also directed in 1931 Enthusiasm: the Donbass Symphony about the industrial area that has a special meaning in the story of Mr. Jones. Gareth Jones's mother had worked as a teacher in her youth in Donetsk, called Hughesovka / Yuzovka in her youth and Stalino during Gareth's explorations.

The story of Mr. Jones is enormous, and I believe the case is more complicated than discussed in the film. As we know, but the film does not tell, the Western mainstream media was staunchly anti-Soviet, but, as the film tells, it nevertheless failed to convey the enormity of the Holodomor. A parallel case was the Holocaust during WWII. It sounded too incredible to be discussed with full gravity while it happened.

At the core of the film is Gareth Jones's voyage to the heart of darkness, "the bloodlands" (Timothy Snyder). Ostensibly he is on his way to document the miracle of the Five Year Plan in Kharkiv. But during the train ride he escapes from his "beard" to explore the countryside on his own and witness the horror of hunger and devastation. Encounters with starved children are the most memorable in the movie.

The account of the Western journalists' bubble in Stalin era Moscow is lurid and colourful in a movie-movie fashion. Even if it is true, it is told with a slick agenda that weakens the main argument. I would hope that the film-makers would be more Orwellian in trusting in the viewers' ability to think.

Many of the characters are real, starting with Gareth Jones. Malcolm Muggeridge was the first to expose the Holodomor (for Manchester Guardian). Walter Duranty was a mysterious persona: an anti-communist whose account of Stalin's terror had a tinge of racism. He saw Russians as inferior people who longed for a brutal tyrant. I sense that the mystery here would be worth exploring further. Perhaps it might provide clues even to the Stalin mystery itself, and the pseudomorphosis of Russia, to speak with Spengler. Duranty was an invalid: a part of his leg had been amputated after his injury in a train wreck, and he had been prescribed opium to alleviate the pain. He had also belonged to the circle of the Satanist Aleister Crowley. Might Duranty's attitude to Stalin be understood in terms of Satanism?

In this film about the year 1933 we see George Orwell writing Animal Farm, a book written over ten years later and published in 1945. Orwell is presented as the antithesis of Duranty, but isn't there a fundamental affinity in their views of humanity? Duranty's reports from Moscow were published in The New York Times, to the eternal disgrace of the newspaper. The editorials of the paper expressed the opposite view, unmentioned in the film.

The year 1933 was quite a year in world history because of Hitler's rise to power, also covered by Gareth Jones.

A fascinating character in the movie is Maxim Litvinov, USSR's Commissar for Foreign Affairs. His agenda in the 1930s was to build an anti-Fascist front to contain Hitler. When in the Munich Agreement the West chose a policy of appeasement, Litvinov was removed by Stalin and replaced with Molotov who launched the Machiavellian pact with the Devil (Hitler): instead of the USSR Hitler would attack the West first.

Duranty is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, and in a nice twist in the finale Jones meets Pulitzer's arch rival, William Randolph Hearst, to publish his Holodomor exposé.

Into historical dramas Agnieszka Holland inserts fascinating mythical dimensions: Taliesin in Mr. Jones ("The Battle of the Trees") and Rusalka in Charlatan ("The Song to the Moon").

To sum up: the core is powerful, and the film would be even stronger without some of the honey trappings.

David Rooney (The Hollywood Reporter, 10 Feb 2019): "For [Andrea] Chalupa, this piece of history has personal significance. His grandfather was born on a farm in Eastern Ukraine and survived the Holodomor, only to be arrested and tortured by Soviet secret police during Stalin's purges."


"Cad Goddeu" / "The Battle of the Trees" from the Book of Taliesin (14th century) (a poem)

"The Druid Grove" (1845). Wikiwand: "Many types of trees found in the Celtic nations are considered to be sacred, whether as symbols, or due to medicinal properties, or because they are seen as the abode of particular nature spirits. Historically and in folklore, the respect given to trees varies in different parts of the Celtic world. On the Isle of Man, the phrase 'fairy tree' often refers to the elder tree. The medieval Welsh poem Cad Goddeu (The Battle of the Trees) is believed to contain Celtic tree lore, possibly relating to the crann ogham, the branch of the ogham alphabet where tree names are used as mnemonic devices." Wikiwand: Celtic Sacred Trees.

Facsimile of a page from the Book of Taliesin (folio 13 recto), showing the last lines of the poem Cad Goddeu and the beginning of the poem Mabgyfreu Taliesin (= BT 27). Medieval, facsimile published in 1868. Source: William Forbes Skene, The Four Ancient Books of Wales. Vol. 2. 1868. Following page 108. Author: medieval scribe. From: Wikimedia Commons.

I HAVE been in a multitude of shapes,
Before I assumed a consistent form.
I have been a sword, narrow, variegated,
I will believe when it is apparent.
I have been a tear in the air,
I have been the dullest of stars.
I have been a word among letters,
I have been a book in the origin.
I have been the light of lanterns,
A year and a half.
I have been a continuing bridge,
Over three score Abers.
I have been a course, I have been an eagle.
I have been a coracle in the seas:
I have been compliant in the banquet.
I have been a drop in a shower;
I have been a sword in the grasp of the hand
I have been a shield in battle.
I have been a string in a harp,
Disguised for nine years.
in water, in foam.
I have been sponge in the fire,
I have been wood in the covert.
I am not he who will not sing of
A combat though small,
The conflict in the battle of Godeu of sprigs.
Against the Guledig of Prydain,
There passed central horses,
Fleets full of riches.
There passed an animal with wide jaws,
On it there were a hundred heads.
And a battle was contested
Under the root of his tongue;
And another battle there is
In his occiput.
A black sprawling toad,
With a hundred claws on it.
A snake speckled, crested.
A hundred souls through sin
Shall be tormented in its flesh
I have been in Caer Vevenir
Thither hastened grass and trees
Minstrels were singing
Warrior-bands were wondering
At the exaltation of the Brython,
That Gwydyon6 affected.
There was a calling on the Creator,
Upon Christ for causes,
Until when the Eternal
Should deliver those whom he had made.
The Lord answered them,
Through language and elements:
Take the forms of time prinncipal trees,
Arranging yourselves in battle array,
And restraining the public.
Inexperienced in battle hand to hand.
When the trees were enchanted,
In the expectation of not being trees,
The trees uttered their voices
From strings of harmony,
The disputes ceased.
Let us cut short heavy days,
A female restrained the din.
She came forth altogether lovely.
The head of the line, the head was a female.
The advantage of a sleepless cow
Would not make us give way.
The blood of men up to our thighs,
The greatest of importunate mental exertions
Sported in the world.
And one has ended
From considering the deluge,
And Christ crucified
And the day of judgement near at hand
The alder trees, the head of the line,
Formed the van.
The willows and quicken trees
Came late to the army.
Plum-trees, that are scarce,
Unlonged for of men
The elaborate medlar-trees
Tue objects of contention.
The prickly rose-bushes,
Against a host, of giants,
The raspberry brake did
What is better failed
For the security of life.
Privet and woodbine
And ivy on its front,
Like furze to the combat
The cherry-tree was provoked.
The birch, notwithstanding his high mind,
Was late before he was arrayed.
Not because of his cowardice,
But on account of his greatness.
The laburnuin held in mind,
That your wild nature was foreign.
Pine-trees in the porch,
The chair of disputation,
By me greatly exalted,
In the presence of kings
The elm with his retinue,
Did not go aside a foot
He would fight with the centre,
And the flanks, and the rear.
Hazel-trees, it was judged,
That ample was thy mental exertion
The privet, happy his lot,
The bull of battle, the lord of the world
Morawg and Morydd
Were made prosperous in pines.
Holly, it was tinted with green,
He was the hero.
The hawthorn, surrounded by prickles,
With pain at his hand.
The aspen-wood has been topped,
It was topped in battle.
The fern that was plundered
The broom, in the van of the army, in the trenches he was hurt.
The gorse did not do well,
Notwithstanding let it overspread.
The heath was victorious, keeping off on all sides.
The common people were charmed,
During time proceeding of the men.
The oak, quickly moving,
Before him, tremble heaven and earth.
A valiant door-keeper against an enenly,
his name is considered.
The blue-bells combined,
And caused a consternation.
In rejecting, were rejected,
Others, that were perforated.
Pear-trees, the best intruders
In time conflict of the plain.
A very wrathful wood,
The chestnut is bashful,
The opponent of happiness,
The jet has become black,
The mountain has become crooked,
The woods have become a kiln,
Existing formerly in the great seas
Since was heard the shout:--
The tops of the birch covered us with leaves,
And transformed us, and changed our faded state.
The branches of the oak have ensnared us
From the Gwarchan of Maelderw.
Laughing on the side of the rock,
The lord is not of an ardent nature.
Not of mother and father,
When I was made,
Did my Creator create me.
Of nine-formed faculties,
Of the fruit of fruits,
Of the fruit of the primordial God,
Of primroses and blossoms of time hill,
Of the flowers of trees and shrubs.
Of earth, of an earthly course,
When I was formed.
Of the flower of nettles,
Of the water of the ninth wave.
I was enchanted by Math,
Before I became immortal,
I was enchanted by Gwydyon
The great purifier of the Brython,
Of Eurwys, of Euron,
Of Euron, of Modron.
Of five battalions of scientific ones.
Teachers, children of Math.
When the removal occurred,
I was enchanted by the Guledig.
When he was half-burnt,
I was enchanted by the sage
Of sages, in the primitive world.
When I had a being;
When the host of the world was in dignity,
The bard was accustomed to benefits.
To the song of praise I am inclined, which the tongue recites.
I played in the twilight,
I slept in purple;
I was truly in the enchantment
With Dylan, the son of the wave.
In the circumference, in the middle,
Between the knees of kings,
Scattering spears not keen,
From heaven when came,
To the great deep, floods,
In the battle there will be
Four score hundreds,
That will divide according to their will.
They are neither older nor younger,
Than myself in their divisions.
A wonder, Canhwr are born, every one of nine hundred.
He was with me also,
With my sword spotted with blood.
honour was allotted to me
By the Lord, and protection (was) where he was.
If I come to where the boar was killed,
He will compose, he will decompose,
He will form languages.
The strong-handed gleamer, his name,
With a gleam he rules his numbers.
They would spread out. in a flame,
When I shall go on high.
I have been a speckled snake on the hill,
I have been a viper in the Llyn.
I have been a bill-hook crooked that cuts,
I have been a ferocious spear
With my chasuble and bowl
I will prophesy not badly,
Four score smokes
On every one what will bring.
Five battalions of arms
Will be caught by my knife.
Six steeds of yellow hue
A hundred times better is
My cream-coloured steed,
Swift as the sea-mew
Which will not pass
Between the sea and the shore.
Am I not pre-eminent in the field of blood?
Over it are a hundred chieftains.
Crimson (is) the gem of my belt,
Gold my shield border.
There has not been born, in the gap,
That has been visiting me,
Except Goronwy,
From the dales of Edrywy.
Long white my fingers,
It is long since I have been a herdsman.
I travelled in the earth,
Before I was a proficient in learning.
I travelled, I made a circuit,
I slept in a hundred islands
A hundred Caers I have dwelt in.
Ye intelligent Druids,
Declare to Arthur,
What is there more early
Than I that they sing of.
And one is come
From considering the deluge,
And Christ crucified,
And the day of future doom.
A golden gem in a golden jewel.
I am splendid
And shall be wanton
From the oppression of the metal-workers.