Model Shop (1969), directed by Jacques Demy, is often overlooked as a mere curiosity of the late 60’s Californian culture with little cinematic effort, though in reality appears as a bold and original film to any film lover familiar with the director’s work. Eight years have passed since Demy’s feature debut Lola (1961) and now, in his first film made in the States, he returns to similar themes, story and even character. Although some arguments about the low productional quality — as if that meant something — dialogue and thinness of the subject in Model Shop may have a basis, it still stands out as a significant landmark in Demy’s oeuvre and one of the best American films made in the late 1960’s.
The beginning dolly shot seen during the opening credits immediately triggers associations to Lola: it is as if the camera was attached to a car while it records the stagnant life of an industrial area until it stops by a run-down shack, which could, in fact, be any building. Such imagery of roads and cars becomes the basic aesthetics of the film — part of the Demyan iconography.
As stated, Demy’s first American feature bears a striking resemblance to his debut made eight years earlier in France. One can be certain that he could’ve done any kind of film after the great success of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967). But instead he made a very different film compared to his biggest hits. In a word, Model Shop is a chamber drama whose events are placed in one whole day. It is an interior of a fleeting moment, implemented with a few characters and milieus in the kammerspiel tradition.
The central milieu of the film is Los Angeles which is portrayed from its poor periphery to the rich hills and crowded downtown. The periphery is the industrial area already portrayed in the first dolly shot. In fact, Model Shop begins and ends there — the landfill of the dream factory — where the misfits, the abandoned and the forgotten wait for their turn. The turn which will just be another setback.
Not surprisingly, such a milieu is perfect for a portrayal of alienation and frustration, but at the same time Demy seems to make an elegiac homage to the tradition (that is before the late 50’s) of American cinema — its hope, dream and, above all, great humanism. In the atmosphere, which Demy always creates with his tender touch, there is a strong sensation of departure — exodus — and hope for freedom, the fulfillment of dreams, provided by it.
Generally speaking, one of the things, or perhaps the only thing, from which Model Shop is recognized of is its period picture. The year is 1969. The United States started bombing Vietnam few years ago. One generation of young males have grown up, knowing that some day they will be called. At the same time while a war is being fought on the other side of the globe, the American society is going through a socio-cultural transition. Young women have liberated from the kitchen ages ago, hippies are everywhere, and drugs are used carelessly. Nonetheless, this generation feels numb, frustrated. It is no accident that such haste liberalization brought such loneliness with it.
From these social and current themes Demy creates a veritably personal film, studying individual personality and freedom. The protagonist, played by Gary Lockwood, is a young man who, among many others, waits for his call-up to the war. He is afraid. He is fresh from university where he studied architecture, but feels frustrated on the brink of despair in front of the commercial nature of the trade and, therefore is out of job. Soon the viewer learns that he began studying architecture because he wanted to construct. But now he has met the real world, face to face, and seen the world’s incomprehensible desire to destroy beauty. On the top of all this, he is distressed due to living in a futile relationship with an alien spirit. The viewer is constantly reminded that the protagonist is surrounded by nice and helpful friends, but something is missing — a meaning.
To add insult to injury, a debt collection agency threatens the protagonist of taking his car away in twenty-four hours unless he comes up with a hundred dollars. He borrows the money from a musician friend of his, but ends up spending them on a mysterious woman, played by Anouk Aimée. After following this woman, to whom he ran by blind chance, he finds out that she works in a model shop — a place where customers can come to take pictures of models in a private room.
Later on he returns to the same shop to take pictures of the same woman. He reveals himself in front of her, and at the backyard of the shop, surrounded by garbage, confesses his love only to receive an embarrased chuckle in return. The woman can’t believe him, although this is probably the only real moment in the artificial milieu of the unreal where they live.
In fact, all the characters talk very roughly, in a simple, clumsy manner. This has made the viewing experience rather unpleasant for many, but to me the dialogue appeared as deliberate and authentic. The characters express the frustration of a generation which ought not to be embellished. The town remains silent. No one can really say anything.
When it comes to the similarities between Lola and Model Shop, the most integral element is the title character. As a matter of fact, Model Shop can be taken as a “direct” sequel to Lola. In Lola the viewer observes the events from Roland’s perspective, a lonely man who is desperately in love with Lola. In Model Shop the viewer’s point of reference, the protagonist, is almost an identical character to Roland, but more importantly Aimée plays the exact same role of Lola which she did eight years earlier. The reference isn’t subtle, and there is no need for it to be. It is precisely direct and unambiguous, making it veritably poignant and an essential element in characterization.
Thus, the viewer is allowed to see what happened to Lola after she chose Michel and her son over Roland’s desperate passion. Eight years have passed. Now Lola has divorced from her husband Michel. She has lost everything. The promised American dream was never fulfilled. Instead of a cabaret, Lola now works in a model shop — the salon of loneliness — where men come to drown their loneliness, to experience intimacy, power and meaning.
It is intriguing to ponder why Demy chose the shop as the title of his film. My take on the subject is that the model shop is the plastic heart of the milieu. It is the climax of artificiality that surrounds. A sad game with its own pathetic rules. Above all, it is a place which embodies inertia. It exhales human languor and fatigue. And Lola is one of its fallen angels who have burnt their wings.
Striking is what time has done to Lola. Eight years have aged her terribly. Naivety and faith in goodness have been replaced by grief and maturity brought by disappointment. However, one shouldn’t think that time had aged the actor, Anouk Aimée, at least in a negative fashion. In fact, a year earlier in A Man and a Woman (1968) she was charming (probably the only good thing in the film). Hence, it isn’t really the time that has aged Lola, but despair and misfortune have drawn their mark on her face. Agony and suffering have given odd, extraordinary, unique beauty to her look.
As stated above, the film includes a strong sensation of departure. This is mainly contructed on the level of characterization, but Demy enhances the effect by dissolving the soundscape of the protagonist’s appartment to airplane noises. Humonguous crafts fly above his house. Every discussion, every dash of hope is about to sink into the unforgiving din of hurry, technology and departure. It is as if the noise suffocated us. Beside the emotion of exodus, the airplane sounds represent the new, alienated world where the protagonist — the current generation — can’t fit in.
To solve his financial problems, the protagonist borrows a hundred from a friend of his to pay the debt, but ends up spending the money to get near Lola. He goes to the model shop twice. After confessing his love and having sex with her, he gives away the last remnants of the borrowed money for Lola’s voyage — her departure for the indeterminate.
Although this romantic affair ended abruptly, the protagonist feels for the first time in his young life the possibility of happiness. It was brief, but rewarding. In fact, such an encounter between two lonely ones is an essential theme for Demy and can be found not only in Lola but also in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Bay of Angels (1963). Two lonely people, who haven’t met before, but share a bond, can truly help each other even if it seemed artificial as inclined in the confession at the backyard.
In the end, the protagonist returns to his home. A whole day of twenty-four hours has passed from the beginning of the film. His girlfriend leaves him and so does his car, but he doesn’t care. Demy ends the film with a close-up of the protagonist while he is calling to say goodbye to Lola. Unfortunately, he is too late. However, this isn’t important. There is an authentic feeling of a new beginning as the echoes of the protagonist’s words reach the spectator. At least he is a little happier even if absolute destruction and new disappointment waited at the end of the road.
Although there are arguably distinct connections between Demy’s films, he always finds something new every time. If Lola and Bay of Angels were about people who were unable to move forward despite the distressing shadow of departure cast on them, then Model Shop is, above all, a film about inertia. It studies existential fatigue, stagnation, and how to rise from its dreary abyss. In a detailed and honest fashion, Demy depicts human inertia which is a consequence of frustration, lack of love and all meaning. The characters are tired. They can’t keep up any longer, but still there echoes a quiet, suffocated faith in the possibility that at least one can try the capacity of one’s wings.
“I am to provide the public with beneficial shocks. Civilization has become so protective that we’re no longer able to get our goose bumps instinctively. The only way to remove the numbness and revive our moral equilibrium is to use artificial means to bring about the shock. The best way to achieve that, it seems to me, is through a movie.” (Alfred Hitchcock, during a press conference in 1947)
Alfred Hitchcock often approached the theme of human and moral dichotomy through dialectical means to present reality in his films, but never as visually as in Strangers on a Train (1951) which is one of his most celebrated works. First and foremost, Strangers on a Train entices the viewer with its gripping atmosphere, but, as usual, the suspense is never mere suspense in its physical meaning for Hitchcock. It is precisely metaphysical, as the Cuban critic Guillermo Cabrera Infante once suggested, and always connected to the director’s cynical philosophy. Although I am sure that one can immerse into the poetic world of the film without accepting Hitchcock’s ethics, this doesn’t make it any less vital, quite on the contrary, because Hitchcock’s films’ cruel world view always includes us, the audience, making it even harder to accept. The viewer usually just prefers sitting on his seat, enjoying the ride — and it is exactly this where lies Hitchcock’s sheer mastery and macabre thought, which often seems to be close to misanthropy.
A lot of people see Strangers on a Train as the film which marked the most substantial turning point in Hitchcock’s oeuvre because it begun his greatest era of creative film making This is fairly understandable since most people don’t like (an attempt to embellish their vicious hatred) Under Capricorn (1949) nor Stage Fright (1950) which were made a few years earlier. Yet, I beg to differ. In fact, I find it hard to see Strangers on a Train as a new beginning for a director who had already made such masterpieces as Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and Notorious (1946). Perhaps more of a comeback, though I, personally, love Under Capricorn and Stage Fright. Nonetheless, Strangers on a Train is a remarkable film and at least meant a slight transition with regards to the cinematography in Hitchcock’s films as it began his long-time companionship with Robert Burks who shot all of his films until Marnie (1964) with the exception of Psycho (1960).
Strange Figures of Light and Darkness
In all its simplicity, Strangers on a Train is a story about partnership. It begins with a random encounter between a tennis player and an eccentric sociopath. The latter, named Bruno Anthony, presents the other, Guy Haines, a maniac plot of swapping murders with each other. The tennis player, who is also a high socialite, doesn’t take his proposition seriously until his ex-wife is found dead. Thus begins a perverse power game which is strongly dominated by factors of guilt, superiority and infatuation.
Although all this sounds very bleak and gloomy, Hitchcock’s approach to a serious topic is, as usual, extremely ironic. He makes fun out of everything, revealing not only his macabre nature but cynic philosophy. This vicious attitude is also constructed on the level of visuals as Hitchcock uses oblique camera angles in a striking fashion. Moreover, his heavy and precise use of shadows, let alone the mansion the madman lives in, is associated with German Expressionism which Hitchcock came across during the 1920’s. Given this, one can discuss dialectics of light and darkness which are present in the level of aesthetics, but also in Hitchcock’s peculiar outline of morality.
At any rate, no matter how developed, mature and innovative Hitchcock’s visual language was, it’s still extremely accessible which is precisely due to its external charm and the phenomenon of being able to immerse innocently into the Hitchcock universe, mentioned above. I think François Truffaut, perhaps the greatest interpreter of Hitchcock’s work, summarized this much more efficiently than I could in a dozen of paragraphs:
“Strangers on a Train is actually mapped out like a diagram. This degree of stylization is so exciting to the mind and to the eye that it’s fascinating even to a mass audience.”
One can do nothing but be astonished by the geometric perfection of forms and shapes which dominate the universe of Strangers on a Train, bearing a connection to its ethical content. Above all, the viewer’s attention is drawn to the theme of partnership which is presented in the very beginning: two pairs of shoes are associated with each other; railroad tracks collide, swapping two sets of murders is suggested; brandies are ordered — in double. In fact, the words “criss cross” play an integral role throughout the film’s dialogue. Then, it is carried further as both Bruno and Guy begin to use the expression “to double-cross” and name each other “double-crossers.” All this brilliantly written dialogue constantly takes the viewer back to the beginning images, enhancing their impact and thus making the meaning of the imagery more profound.As a matter of fact, Hitchcock never let go of his fascination for shapes, figures and their geometric relationship with one another. The cornfield sequence of North by Northwest (1959) is an excellent example of such stylization as Hitchcock’s continuous use of medium and full shots creates a distressed sensation associated with the forms presented during the opening credits. Enhancing the effect, the sequence is purely grateitious and has no narrative purpose whatsoever.
There are many films in the history of the cinema which have taken one theme being dealt with throughout the film. For example, everything that is heard and seen in The Rules of the Game (1939) is associated with the theme of game and its rules. In Strangers on a Train, however, it is the theme of partnership which passes across every shot and shift. Obviously, this refers to the dichotomy of the human nature, which Hitchcock had already studied efficiently in Shadow of a Doubt, but most of all it bears a significance regarding the pairs and contrasts of everything and, of course, their fusion and interweaving.
In this case, Hitchcock’s ontology suggests that nothing exists without a pair or contrast. There is good and evil, reason and emotion, madness and sanity, implusivity and self-control. Needless to point out that in the Hitchcock universe these are essentially inseparable. An emotion of a world where people are fiery, steaming beasts who are on the verge of aggressive explosion, but constantly try to fight against it, always seems to exhale from Hitchcock’s films. Without a word of exaggeration, I, personally, don’t think any other director has given a greater form for the Nietzschean world view when it comes to the concept of the “will to power” and the conflict of the animal and the Übermensch.
To this human conflict; that is to say, the theme of partnership between objects, concepts and all being — which is connected to the doppelgänger tradition — Hitchcock gives an intelligent and, above all, insightful visual interpretation. The theme radiates itself throughout the film and reveals how all have merged into one another and can no longer be separated.
The doppelgänger theme was presented famously in Shadow of a Doubt (even the names of the characters were the same!), but in Strangers on a Train it can be interpreted rather psychologically which, however, may insult the brilliant mind of Hitchcock. In a Freudian fashion, one can see that Bruno represents the id which Guy has rejected. One clue is the encounter in the train, which is the milieu of our subconsciousness, while the other clue lies in Bruno’s striking homosexuality.
By no means whatsoever can one draw the conclusion of Hitchcock’s psychology from this, however. Since, after all, Hitchcock isn’t, and how wonderful it is, interested in psychology. This is why, to my mind, Spellbound (1945) is one of his lesser films because it attempted to present the methods of psychoanalysis in an “intellectual” fashion. Above all, Hitchcock is interested in aesthetics. Each shot encapsulates the dialectics of reality. Each image is a metaphysical expression, a moral statement about man.
Although Strangers on a Train and Bruno’s character couldn’t be seen as a study on homosexuality (Robin Wood has written an article on “the murderous gays” in Hitchcock’s films), it’s an intriguing theme to say the least. The way I see it, Bruno’s homoerotic infatuation towards Guy is attached to his hedonism. The viewer might have noted that in the beginning of the film Bruno orders a precisely considered meal of delicacies, whereas Guy settles for a much simpler proportion. In a similar sense, Bruno’s sexual fascination for Guy is purely hedonistic as no one, I believe, feels the need to discuss romance in this case. Continuously, a murder is a mere means for Bruno to satisfy his needs. When Guy denies from playing along, Bruno’s fantasy of them having sex through murdering each other’s enemies collapses.
However, one should not think that such disappointment would lead Bruno to a breakdown of any kind. He is simply too “clever,” as many characters constantly honor him as, enhancing his incapability of any actual emotions. Bruno, wonderfully played by Robert Walker, is arguably among Hitchcock’s most interesting villains. Walker’s performance was, in fact, so impressive that his earlier performances as an innocent bachelor (for example, The Clock, 1945) are any longer hardly believable.
In his thought, Bruno bears a resemblance to the “heroes” in Dostoevsky’s novels, but in his pathological madness is closer to the great psychopaths of film-noir such as James Cagney in White Heat (1949). As Charlie, played by Joseph Cotten, in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt so is Bruno a cold-blooded murderer, but intelligent and charming enough to survive the challenges of social life.
In both the psychological aspect and the context of ethics, the relationship between Bruno and Guy is presented through Hitchcock’s masterful direction of gazes. In the beginning, their eyes meet after an inevitable collision of shoes under the table. The shot in which other people’s heads are turning as they’re watching tennis while Bruno looks directly at Guy is not only an exquisite example of Hitchcock’s diabolically black humor but also of the significance of gazes in his work. When Bruno stalks Miriam, Guy’s ex-wife, and eventually strangles her, the murder is filmed through Miriam’s glasses, one of the film’s many motifs, which are lying on the ground.
Perhaps most obviously this theme of gazes is expressed in the scene where Bruno becomes absorbed in an old lady’s eyes and therefore, is about to cause her death. To my mind, Hitchcock’s depiction of gazes isn’t so much about face-to-face ethics nor necessarily about humanism; but a dash of nihilism seems to hide in it. A thought of how behind every gaze there lies a murderer. How each pair of eyes is ready to become attached to a murder in cold blood. However, Hitchcock’s thought regarding gaze and face became even deeper in his next film I Confess (1953) which studied the transcendent of the human face.
Not only in aesthetics, which give a form to Hitchcock’s gray moral philosophy, but also in the characters of Strangers on a Train hides Hitchcock’s cynicism. In reality, Bruno murders Miriam only for the fun of it, and in Guy’s screams to the phone it is inclined that he was capable of murdering just as well. As the priest in I Confess struggles between religious and moral obligations, Guy fights between the moral superman and the beast; or the ego and the id if the psychological aspect is highlighted.
Hitchcock continues his cynicism even futher as he shows Guy feeling frustration when he sees two strangers meeting on a train, recalling the beginning of his ordeal. In addition, the ironic ending of the film is rather cynical as the viewer is left to wonder whether Guy has become a misantrophic individual who can no longer trust anyone. So why is all this expressed in a light-weight fashion, throwing a few casual jokes in every once in a while? Simply because the whole of our existence is a joke to Hitchcock, and this is true, and very amusing in a tragicomic sense.
Another common theme for Hitchcock, which playes an integral role in Strangers on a Train, is the transference of guilt. Hitchcock often portrays a situation where a person loses the balance and order of his everyday life (The Paradine Case, 1947; The Wrong Man, 1956; North by Northwest, for example) as he suddenly becomes a wanted, wrongly accused, man. In Strangers on a Train, the case is, however, slightly different.
It is as if Bruno infected Guy with his own guilt because, after all, Guy was the one who benefitted from it. Soon Guy begins to act like a criminal and so does his wife. This transference is brilliantly expressed through stripes of shadows which slowly move from characterizing Bruno’s face to haunt Guy’s.
In a sense, in fact, Guy is guilty. His guilt lies in his moral passivity as he doesn’t have the courage to fight against his personal demons, embodying in Bruno, but submits to the fear against his id or subconsciousness or immoral beast-like nature which scares the hell out of him. This is, of course, before the ending in which Guy revives his morality and plans a scheme to beat Bruno.
As a film-noir picture, Strangers on a Train might be best known for its famous murder scene which happens in an amusement park where Bruno strangles Miriam. The images, filmed through the glasses, work as an expression of the horror and anguish in a world where chaos reigns beneath a jolly facade. One can try to scream, but no one will hear.
This quiet despair of disconnection is expressed through the sheer brilliance of Hitchcock’s sound world which is specifically impressive in this particular sequence set in the amusement park. The carousel music, however, doesn’t merely express the horror of not being heard but also becomes an important indicator of guilt and its diffusion. Seeing Guy’s girlfriend’s (Ruth Roman) sister Barbara, who due to her thick glasses reminds Miriam, the carousel music invades Bruno’s mind; as it does when he is strangling the old lady, and when Roman’s character realizes the connection between Barbara and Miriam. The carousel has become the spiralic symbol of Bruno’s nightmare. It is, of course, his cruel fate to die precisely under the carousel.
The Hitchcock Universe
Only a few minutes in the Hitchcock universe and people want to kill each other, and the viewer is drawn to the game as well. The deeper one immerses into this macabre and rather poetic universe the more surrealistic the master’s films begin to look like. Not surprisingly, this coincides with the on-going fascination for his films: the more one watches them, the more one likes them. The strongest criticism which is aimed at his work actually enhances it: Hitchcock’s films are illogical and seem foolish because they follow the logic of nightmare.In this universe, random encounters, which seem to be dictated by fate, are typical for Hitchcock. In Psycho (1960), for instance, Marion Crane turns to an abandoned motel merely due to a heavy downpour; let alone the reason why she was on the road in the first place: because an affluent man happened to drop a load of cash in front of her face. Then there’s the abrupt, yet necessary, ending of Vertigo (1958) in which the resurrected Madeleine falls to her death on the account of a sudden appearance of a nun. In Strangers on a Train one can, however, find an even more evident example since it begins with parallel shots of shoes until the feet accidentally collide under a table and the persons’ eyes meet, leading to a ferocious battle of life and death.
Hitchcock’s films often have clever titles. Obviously the title of Strangers on a Train refers to the random encounter between Bruno and Guy — how they are strangers to each other, though their fates and personalities are also so interweaved that Bruno is often interpreted as Guy’s subconsciousness. Perhaps Guy had denied Bruno, pushed him into a dusty corner as a stranger, or hidden to a railway wagon.
This theme is associated with the events of blind chance which still seem to be dictated by inevitable fate. An ontological paradox that torments the characters in the Hitchcock universe. The possibility of a chaotic moment when, out of the blue, the beast emerges and overthrows the calm outward appearance of the person, his decency, the balance and order of his life; and thus begins to murder. Suddenly man can come across his id, the truth of his existence, which has been rejected by his ego, take fright at it and die. All this is veritably frightful due to its coincidental nature, but at the same so fateful, inevitable; something that is a consequence of the poetic logic of the Hitchcock universe.
Hitchcock once himself said that “the cinematic logic is to follow the rules of suspense,” and to understand this correctly one ought to understand the suspense in his films. He also proclaimed that “logic is dull,” which guides the viewer through the odd twists in his universe, but is also associated with the utter fear in it. The fear which emerges from ourselves. To Hitchcock suspense is always small (with the exception of The Birds, 1963) as it never covers more than few individuals and their personal conflicts, though it arguably feels enormous in the characters’ point of view. This is precisely a consequence of Hitchcock’s philosophical aspect which concerns the very existential experience of man. Hence, it’s of no surprise many have discussed metaphysical suspense in the context of Hitchcock’s work which is precisely evident in a film that focuses on a chain of dangerous events triggered by blind chance.
“And, if the soul is about to know itself, it must gaze into the soul.” (Plato)
Often declared as the last modernist or the greatest poet of our time, the acclaimed Greek filmmaker Theodoros ‘Theo’ Angelopoulos passed away exactly one year ago on 24th January, 2012. Run over by an off-duty police officer while crossing a busy road, Angelopoulos was taken to a hospital where he died of heart failure. He was at the age of 76. That day, the world of film wept. Filmmakers with true vision, artists of great individuality, are getting rarer and rarer. Angelopoulos was one of those few surviving masters who had the ability to form a fruitful synthesis of personal and collective experience. He was a poet of time, in an ontological sense, but also a vital interpreter of our time, giving a unique perception of reality which many of us share but find hard to express.
The day Angelopoulos died, the world lost an observant eye that never turned away. It would have been of priceless interest to see what he might have had to say about the current financial crisis of Greece which is making people turn to forms of right-wing extremism, a phenomenon which Angelopoulos always rebelled against. Although his films always had their political themes, it was never self-deliberate. The way I see it, politics was just a prism through which he observed reality as politics does, arguably, have an effect on our very existence. All in all, Angelopoulos’ work is a true discovery for anyone who truly loves the cinema.
Aesthetics of Landscape
It is often said that Angelopoulos’ early production is political whereas his later films are more abstract and philosophical. However, one must use brute force to put such films as The Travelling Players (1975) and The Hunters (1977) strictly into the area of political cinema. Even Angelopoulos’ debut The Reconstruction (1970) has a lot more to it rather than a mere political comment, though, on the other hand, everything is connected to the social aspect. As a story about a town suffering from migration, the film grows out to be a beautiful elegy for a diminishing culture.
At any rate, it is obvious that Angelopoulos’ films are ambiguous and poetic, perhaps abstract, but then again absolutely free from intellectual or other banal forms of interpretation. Alongside with a handful of other filmmakers, Angelopoulos seemed to be the only director after the death of Andrei Tarkovsky in 1986 who dared to make films as a personal journey without any attempts to satisfy or, in other words, pamper the viewer with works of hierarchical underestimation.
It must be said that it would be offensive to even try to analyze Angelopoulos’ oeuvre chronologically, film by film, thinking one had reached something because, all in all; this is something greater than life. Angelopoulos’ films are all about existential images that try to define the very nature of the world and all being. The viewer will always remember: a beekeeper overturning his last beehives, a dead man from the past being found in snow, the rising of a gigantic hand from the sea; a gloomy walkabout through the Yugoslavian wars; a suspended step on the threshold of the new world where history has died; and the dance of a man on a pier towards the ocean of eternity.
Not surprisingly, many have jotted down the trademarks of Angelopoulos’ style —use of long takes, silence, pale colors, characteristic aesthetic styling and pans of 360 degrees — without getting the hang of his work. For how can one approach it so coldly? On the other hand, how else can one, in fact, approach it? I can say that Angelopoulos always manages to discover beauty in misery without, however, reaching anything substantial; or that his composition is extremely precise but also utterly complex. Perhaps one can’t express Angelopoulos or the cinema in general by words. If one could, why would we make films?
Above all, Angelopoulos is a poet of random encounters with the past. His first film begins with a shot of a muddy landscape as the narrator tells how the town once was, during Ancient history, rich and crowded. And from this conflict, Angelopoulos draws the lines of a film about a land dusting away. Perhaps the most obvious emergence of encounter with the past is, however, the beginning of The Hunters in which a group of bourgeois hunters come across a dead communist from the Civil War which ended about 30 years ago. Has any other director, let me rephrase; any other artist, ever achieved such a tremendously moving fashion to depict the enduring sensation when one experiences the poignant presence of one’s own history? All of the hunters are bourgeois people and now, for the first time, coerced into facing their acts in a guilt-ridden session.
Although Angelopoulos can be regarded as a master of historical films, combining general events with personal experience from that time, he is much more interested in time itself. In most of his films, the viewer will come across shifts in time that take place in one shot. Again, a room of a hunting cabin — the central milieu of The Hunters — is an exquisite example of such phenomena, but perhaps more widely known is the shot in Eternity and a Day (1998) in which the protagonist walks across the space he himself created, in a tale he told to a boy, of 19th century Italy.
All the images of Angelopoulos’ films tell something more that they seem to at first glance. However, this is never dry nor dull since the images cannot be explained. Hence they are most likely interpreted differently by every viewer and after each viewing.
The sheer desolation of the heart-rending milieus always includes beauty. The images of rainy, snowy and windy roads do not give form to a mere landscape. For the landscape has a soul of its own. The viewer looks at the landscape and it gazes back to him. It is an elegiac moment of cohesion.
After Tarkovsky, Angelopoulos was one of the few who could make the viewer experience universal fellowship with the world. But, in this case, parallels drawn to other filmmakers are futile since Angelopoulos’ depiction of landscape is utterly unique. Landscape always plays an integral role in the poetics of his cinematic universe. So often the viewer observes human groups seeking into the comforting depths of the figures of landscape; thus merging into its depths and creating new figures. Most likely this is what Angelopoulos refers to as “human geography.”
It is obvious that Angelopoulos’ aesthetics partially emerges from social reality, but most of it is an idea stemming from existentialist philosophy. Making the viewer see the beauty in the most mundane things — the sweep of exhaust fumes through space; the lustrous gleam of headlights on moist asphalt; a spider’s web on a light bulb; frozen grass and fog over sea — Angelopoulos manages to touch the very essence of our being.
Quiet Journeys and the Intensity of Emptiness
Carrying out the philosophic-aesthetic principles of the early 20th century, one can surely call Angelopoulos a modernist, but this should gain no associations whatsoever to Cartesian philosophy. The way I see it, Angelopoulos’ later work includes severe self-criticism of postmodernism. In the 1980’s, especially in his trilogy of silence (Voyage to Cythera, 1984; The Beekeeper, 1986, Landscape in the Mist, 1988), he moved from dealing with the social reality of Greece to depict an age without history. The age which lacked an objective perspective. The age which had no ideology nor historical sense; hence suffering from alienation, loneliness and rootlessness.
An unforgettable allegory for its time, ambiguous in visuals and unforgiving in narrative, Landscape in the Mist remains as one of Angelopoulos’ finest works regarding the age without history. To hopeless misery Angelopoulos manages to attach breathtaking, though heart-breaking, beauty. The draining blood on the girl’s ties after being raped is an image which tears the viewer apart. It horrifies and leaves an impact on the spectator’s mind, but at the same with its emotional power makes one weep of sensational beauty.
The film is a poetic odyssey of quest and yearn. The visual narrative is lingering and meditative, the colors pale and the image composition strongly horizontal. Angelopoulos paints the world with simple strokes as the children come across an unsuccessful group of theater actors in the country where the art was once born.
Above all, Landscape in the Mist is about the search for something; in this case, for the promised land where life suddenly ought to become tolerable. The theme of searching is, in fact, an elemental part of the whole of Angelopoulos’ oeuvre, spanning from The Reconstruction to The Dust of Time (2008), appearing most luminously, however, in Eternity and a Day which portrays a journey to death — let alone The Travelling Players which presents a dusty walk through Greek history. A more abstract example is presented by the breathtakingly beautiful The Suspended Step of the Stork (1991) in which the protagonist, a reporter, becomes acquainted with a politician, wonderfully played by Marcello Mastroianni, who has lost himself on a voyage to somewhere.
In fact, Mastroianni played a similar character earlier in The Beekeeper whose protagonist is also on a voyage. Both the characters are strangers, both of whom have lost connection with the world. In The Beekeeper he is travelling towards spring — the beginning of everything — and in The Suspended Step of the Stork he remains in the autumn of his years. In the latter Angelopoulos attempted to portray a historical moment of emptiness, but in The Beekeeper the emptiness simply emerges from the fact that the protagonist’s voyage equals letting go of everything, including life.
When it comes to Angelopoulos’ philosophical approach to the postmodern age, he deals with alienation from life; and the transience of human relationships; that is to say, the transience of happiness. Most intriguing expression of the time might just be the fact that the beekeeper’s only point of reference for life is a girl who suffers from severe rootlessness. In a word, he is like a seaman holding to a mast that has been detached from the ship. Not surprisingly, their tenuous relationship tosses irrationally between total disregard and fiery, erotic passion.
Aren’t the phenomena the children of Landscape in the Mist come across truly of similar nature: stagnated people standing in lingering snowfall, a bribe crying of despair; a dying horse and, of course, the humongous hand which rises from the sea? These are metaphorical reflections of the modern world. They are, in fact, so poetic that they cannot be put in words. It’s like trying to explain why the bird lands on the boy’s head in Tarkovsky’s The Mirror (1975).
With regards to mystified meaning and visually affecting images, nearly all of Angelopoulos’ films include dancing in one way or another. In The Travelling Players there is the New Year’s sequence and in Landscape in the Mist the disco sequence. To my mind, this is associated with Angelopoulos’ intensity of emptiness. In order to get to the core of this odd repetitive element, I am going to present two examples.
The first covers a scene in The Suspended Step of the Stork where the reporter walks across dancing couples to an empty table, thus making the viewer feel, quite inevitably, rather lonely. Soon the reporter notices a young woman and without uttering a word they go to his apartment and have sex. During this bleak sexual act they, however, create no real connection whatsoever with each other. The second example is from Ulysses’ Gaze (1995).
As a matter of fact, there are two dance sequences in Ulysses’ Gaze. First there is the family ball in which, within the same frame, we travel back and forth in time — an extremely profound expression of everything. Secondly, there is a scene where the protagonist, unforgettably interpreted by Harvey Keitel, dances with a woman in the mist before she gets killed by impersonal forces. To Angelopoulos dance seems to appear as a comforting force. It’s an allegory for hope. In musicals dancing expresses emotional experience and, at its heart, it’s the case in Angelopoulos’ films as well. The images of dragging, insecure and slow dance are expressions of paramount depth of both the mentality of the individual and the historical conditions.
A common element which is discussed concerning Angelopoulos is the intensity of emptiness. This enhances the constant presence of death and destruction in his films, but also carries an existentialist meaning. The slow-paced, lingering and deliberately alienating — Brechtian, if you please — takes in which the characters vanish behind objects or other, background characters.
In fact, the visual theme of appearance and disappearance is extremely significant in such aesthetics. It creates tension in the lived space, but also bears an impression on the fragility of human existence.
One great, and truly postmodern, scene in particular must be mentioned in The Suspended Step of the Stork when it comes to the intensity of emptiness. The camera is filming a TV-screen in the reporter’s car. The screen supplies a close-up shot of a space. Jeanne Moreau, the politician’s ex-lover, comes in. She doesn’t recognize the politician and therefore leaves the space. Now that the framed space remains empty, the politician appears in it. The viewer is shocked and touched with an emotion of distance and sheer helplessness.
The Death of History
In his so-called Balkan trilogy (The Suspended Step of the Stork, Ulysses’ Gaze, Eternity and a Day) Angelopoulos dealt with the relation between history and the present time in Eastern Europe after the Cold War. He drilled down to themes of boundaries and communities and their powerful impact on people. Such themes he treated not only in a philosophical tone but also with beautifully poetic, social sensibility. In his own words, he wanted to discover “new humanism” — a new way to approach the variety of language and culture in the Balkan; or the cultural differences all over the world.
At its heart, The Suspended Step of the Stork, first in the trilogy, portrays a world where borders restrict the worlds and identities of people. By contemplating on the difficulty of understanding and creating a connection, the film becomes probably the most timeless and, at the same, the most timely film in Angelopoulos’ entire oeuvre. In brief, it’s a story about a reporter who tries to discover the truth of the life of a politician who disappeared mysteriously. Thus it turns into a profound meditation on quest, borders and home.
On a social level, Angelopoulos very often deals with statelessness — the loss of one’s nationality — and the problems of refugees in general. Needless to point out the philosophical dimensions of this theme, Angelopoulos manages to create a coherent outline in all of his films. In The Suspended Step of the Stork a long take sweeping in front of crowded trucks full of refugees as fog passes by is recorded to the spectator’s mind. Each and every one who have seen Eternity and a Day remember the Albanian orphan. In this case, however, the refugee theme has an existentialist connotation because the protagonist has escaped life — other people — to art, but then discovers harmony.
If Voyage to Cythera marked a turning point to a more ethereal and abstract style, then Ulysses’ Gaze was finally Angelopoulos’ return to his past as a political filmmaker. Although the film is still extremely profound and ambiguous, it does deal with the fall of the Soviet Block; and the legacy of communism in Europe. This is simply due to the fact that the protagonist is a leftist director who processes his mourning in the ruins of fallen idealism. Moreover, Angelopoulos provides the viewer with unforgettable images of a destroyed statue of Vladimir Lenin.
Above all, Ulysses’ Gaze is an elegy for lost Europe. As in Tarr’s Sátántangó (1994) and Kusturica’s Underground (1995) this melancholic theme bears an apocalyptic meaning of the destruction of humanity; and the beginning of the end. Historically fascinating is the striking difference between these works. Without getting into too much detail, I wish to enhance that Kusturica’s amusing farce focuses on the profuse chaos of the historical situation while Angelopoulos creates an intense concentration on emptiness which the death of history left behind. It is as if a wind had passed the space and changed it forever.
Definitely one of Angelopoulos’ best works, Ulysses’ Gaze was his eight and a half (though in chronology his 10th). It’s a meta-cinematic meditation on the mission of film; and its possibilities to depict our reality in a brand new, ubiquitous fashion. Angelopoulos ponders the role of a director in history and the world in general by telling a story of a man travelling to the very origins of the seventh art. Beautifully and unforgettably, Angelopoulos manages to raise the question whether a director is, as Erland Josephson’s character puts it, a man who collects lost gazes.
Similar themes can be found in Voyage to Cythera whose protagonist was also a director going through severe self-examination. To Angelopoulos he seems to represent the new trend in the cinema which began in the 1980’s: how the cinema turned back from Marxism and political art to existentialism; to study man himself. The director struggles with the past and tries to let go of it. He is the symbol of the new age in the cinema which tried to put man in the focus once again.
Many have stated that the later oeuvre of Angelopoulos is artificial, too blatant and pretentious. I, personally, find the statement impossible to believe. I think those who think like that only watch Angelopoulos’ films from a historical, political or social point of view. For how could one say such a thing when gazing into the depths of his poetics? Difference in taste is another thing than understanding art.
The way I see it, Angelopoulos’ highly original poetics of space expresses the beauty of our existence, touching the truth of it all. His perception of time, his sense of rhythm, is something entirely of his own. Parallels drawn to Tarr or others are insignificant and have no purpose whatsoever. For this is something individual. Each image is a beautiful expression in itself, revealing the personality of its creator, and taking the viewer to the core of reality.
Wintry sights, snowfall and rain, gleam of sunlight; the dust of time sweeping across a landscape in the mist are all elements that cannot be forgotten once seen. The images of the sea in Eternity and a Day form a poem of man gazing out to the sea, to infinity, and back to himself. Intense silence prevails, continuously while nothingness remains. Each image is as though a cloth, hiding the absolute image which shall never be seen. Beauty — in its most sublime meaning; in the sense the Greek philosophers used it — is utterly present. It is something that needs not to be questioned. Beauty, as Oscar Wilde once put it, has its “divine right for sovereignty” and thus, shall live on long after Angelopoulos’ passing away.
What makes a good crime film? That is if one even wants to contemplate on such a commercial basis. Does it have to be suspenseful? Does it need surprising twists? Is a clear and logical structure essential? If the answer to all these, and especially to the third one, was yes, then Heaven and Hell (1963) by Akira Kurosawa is a good crime film. In fact, it is not just one of the best crime films ever made but an excellent masterpiece of the cinema in general. The film could arguably be praised merely for its aesthetic unity and utter beauty but, moreover, it’s one of Kurosawa’s most insightful works. It is a film of moral brutality, existentialist anxiety and social grimness which leaves the viewer speechless.
The masterful structure of Heaven and Hell, its precision, serves well the simple crime plot which is, however, interpreted in an entirely original fashion by Kurosawa. Not surprisingly, the title has a social connotation, referring to the bourgeoisie, who live close to heaven, and the proletariat, who suffer on the surface of hell. During the opening credits the viewer sees overview images of industrial Tokyo and the reality of the society which the criticism of the dichotomous structure, suggested by the title, is aimed at. Immediately after the credits, Kurosawa takes a closer look.
The first part of the film happens almost entirely in one apartment, a luxury chateau on a hill. Kurosawa begins the film by depicting the heaven of the rich. Gondo, an executive of a shoe company, has schemed a plan to buy the majority of the company in order to gain full control over it but, out of the blue, he hears that his son has been kidnapped. The kidnapper demands 30 million yen. Gondo is ready to pay even at the risk of losing charge over the company. However, soon it turns out that the crook kidnapped the wrong child, the son of Gondo’s chauffeur, but the threat remains: 30 million yen or the boy dies.
After the ransom has been delivered and the chauffeur’s son is at home once again, the film makes a shift as the second part begins. Kurosawa’s camera moves to hell, among people — to the area of life which is blissfully unknown to the residents of heaven. Thus begins an exciting manhunt for the captor at the gates of hell until, in the end, justice is done, or is it?
The shift from heaven to hell is all in all absolutely brilliant but also cinematically in relation with everything. In hell, the cosy chill of heaven turns into unbearable heat, calm editing to hectic, lingering harmonic rhythm to quick, mise-en-scène from reduced to profuse, although still extremely precise. Moreover, silence is replaced by Schubert’s melodies. In the heaven sequence, the music would have probably been associated with visual clarity and, therefore, the reason for its use would’ve been more aesthetic. However, in the hell sequence, I believe, the impact is more dramatic, for it is merely in relation to the emotional power of the chain of events and not necessarily to the visuals.
In addition to music, noises become more important in the second part. For it was, in fact, very quiet in heaven. The sounds of hell were only heard when the windows of the chateau were opened and even then as elusive and distant. In the hell sequence, the sound world becomes noisy and almost chaotic. The din of the crowd, factories and public transport creates an intense aura to say the least.
The way I see it, it is precisely the performance of Toshirô Mifune as Gondo which connects these two parts. I don’t merely mean his character but his intimate acting throughout. It is really his ferocious vigor which offers a sustainable contrast to the chill of heaven but also keeps the viewer at the edge of his or her seat from the very beginning to the unforgettable end.
As stated, the visuals of the film constantly support the story and its structure as well as Kurosawa’s social criticism. The criticism, however, for the social order referred by the title isn’t probably anything new to the viewer, but Kurosawa’s way of dealing with it most likely is. His passion, his fiery frenzy, which flames against capitalism and the class society is what makes the social criticism of Heaven and Hell essentially efficient and venomous. Kurosawa cuts an incision with his camera to a society which is based on crime and competition, deceit and betrayal. Such poignant analysis is very similar to the crime films by Otto Preminger and Robert Aldrich but when it comes to Kurosawa, the grip is much deeper. It seems as if Kurosawa created a symphony of the modern world in which people try to solve all of their problems — even the impurity of their souls — with money and material. In a word, the characters lack the ability to see.
This world view of Kurosawa is presented in the very beginning through characters. As soon as the mistake of the wrong boy is revealed, the chauffeur is brushed aside. But this isn’t anything unusual. It’s perfectly natural, in fact a necessity, for the chauffeur belongs to a lower class. Furthermore, he isn’t allowed to the phone. He is constantly in the back. He must observe the situation behind the shoulders of others as his master is negotiating with the kidnapper about the fate of his son. By the end, he must humble himself and pray Gondo to save his son. After the boy has been returned to his father, he tries desperately to recollect the last remnants of his glory by helping to find the kidnapper. Yet, he is still in the side. He isn’t in the news, Gondo is. He isn’t an interest.
Another interesting visual expression when it comes to the social message lies in the architecture — in the relation between the chateau and the city. This is associated with the distant sounds mentioned above but also with the distant landscape unfolding in the horizon. As Gondo looks outside of his windows he looks like a king observing his kingdom. But the film focuses on an occurrence when the situation has been turned upside down since the kingdom of several unknown eyes is now observing Gondo, and he doesn’t like it. He hides behind curtains. The police (the king’s minions) dig up the criminal, who caused this disharmony between the castle and the town, and return order once and for all.
During the film the viewer constantly comes across with one striking element, the curtains. Together with the police, Gondo and his family hide behind the curtains of the house. They stay there, planning for their next move. They cover the view to heaven until the captor’s suspicions rise. Even in their investigation the police hides to darkness to study evidence. Then there is of course the ending in which this brilliant visual motif climaxes: an iron curtain descends between Gondo and the captor whose screams are still echoing in the space — these screams from hell are once again covered behind the curtain, and Gondo is left to stare, helpless and alone, the teary reflection of his soul on the glass between heaven and hell.
I guess one could, in fact, talk ages on the visuals of the film but I’m not sure whether it would actually elaborate anything. Since all in all, Heaven and Hell is an extremely simple film and precisely due to that a work of sheer brilliance. Each image is in relation with the story line, each visual detail with the aesthetic content and each theme with the thesis. There is not a single detached, or “poetic”, moment or even shot in the film because, just as in the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, poetry exists in the film form itself and, consequently, doesn’t have to be added from the outside — a phenomenon which is far too common these days, resulting in banal pseudo-intellectual cinema. Discussing a Japanese artist, I guess it would be reasonable to associate this with haikku (the purest art of simplicity?) which, also to Tarkovsky’s mind, bears a philosophical resemblance to the cinema in its poetic particularity.
There is something truly enchanting in Heaven and Hell and it’s not merely the 60’s Japan where it takes the modern viewer. There’s something more. Its psychological tension and seedy mood draws parallels to American detective stories: the purgatorial conditions which the captor lives in — Chinatown, the dance hall, the drug cave, the streets and the hotel — are like straight from Raymond Chandler’s universe. As a matter of fact, Heaven and Hell is loosely based on a crime novel by Ed McBain. There’s simply something utterly unique in the mood of the film. There’s a dash of film-noir, a little bit of classic Greek drama and a background of a ransom thriller. However, trying to list different genres that have merged in the film is futile. For there is only one word to describe it: Kurosawa.
The most suspenseful sequence of the film, in which the tension is at its extreme, takes place in a Japanese high-speed rail. The clatter and speed of the train bring a new dimension to Kurosawa’s poetics of space. As if the travellers were prisoners, and power was used outside of the prison. It is precisely a train of fate because Gondo knows what will happen. Holding two briefcases of cash, he is heading towards self-destruction, his financial catastrophe. What is more, the sequence provides a brilliant shift from heaven to hell.
At his heart, Gondo is a weak individual who still has his own ethical convictions. Although money presses him to moral regardless whereas his wife, the chauffeur and the police to friendliness, it is necessary to realize that, in the end, Gondo makes his decision by himself and for the sake of his conscience. It’s a decision which concerns his entire existence in both social and moral context. Beaten down, he gains the sympathy of the general public. But slowly the big picture unfolds to the viewer: the distinct precision of the investigation sequence highlights that maybe the police wouldn’t have been this interested in helping a citizen of hell; and perhaps the public’s sympathy would’ve have remained unattainable without the help of the media. Sure, the capturer acted in a cruel fashion but only because there is nothing but cruelty in his world. Or, as Kurosawa once himself proclaimed, “in a mad world, only the mad are sane.”
One might want to take a closer look at the captor because he’s really one of Kurosawa’s most interesting characters. He seems to be a social casualty, vulnerable and weak. He is connected with the drug scene. He lives in a world where people die like stray dogs. He is, like the protagonist of Albert Camus’ The Stranger (1942), enslaved by the sun that eats his soul and entire existence. Needless to point out the obvious but just as Camus’ hero so has the captor lost his mother to death. If one pays attention to the words he utters, one will note that they are like straight from Camus’ pen which have, nonetheless, travelled through Kurosawa’s poetic consciousness.
However, the case isn’t all black and white because the viewer does feel sorry for Gondo as well. This counterpoint climaxes in the ending which offers the viewer an existentialist conclusion. A reflection of Gondo’s disillusioned face drills down to the spectator’s mind. Gondo didn’t encounter a monster but a broken down individual.
Above all, the finale is a moment when the viewer realizes that Gondo and the captor aren’t very different after all. They’re both abandoned loners, one by the society and the other by the power of money. Like Camus’ Mersault, the captor is regardless and distressed even though he sees himself as honest. However, unlike Mersault, he doesn’t collapse due to a priest’s visit, from which he denies, but due to the encounter with Gondo which he hoped for. The viewer identifies with Gondo and therefore, experiences existential helplessness. How dared we hate the captor? In the end, our desire for Gondo’s survival and helping the captor collide. Yet, Kurosawa doesn’t feed us with a satisfying moral solution but throws the reality in front of our eyes because all this concerns something much more wider and unsettled.
PS: this was my 100th post. Thanks for the support and all the feedback I’ve received!
There are films that touch me. There are films that teach me. There are films that change who I am, films that haunt and stay with me. Then there are films that inspire me to a large extent. The latter is a group which Alain Resnais’ fourth feature La guerre est finie (1966, The War Is Over) has always belonged to. This of course doesn’t mean that the film couldn’t have touched me, let alone changing me, but its unquenchable source of inspiration has always been the element I’ve admired the most. It remains as one of my favorite Nouvelle Vague pictures. Such admiration isn’t, however, merely due to its inspirational style of editing and structure, but emerges from Resnais’ ability to transfer the rhythmic back-and-forth flow of time, made famous by Vertigo (1958), into a completely different film without losing its melancholic, wistful and rather romantic sense of the past.
Let us first declare the fact: La guerre est finie requires multiple viewings. I believe that it is impossible to be understood in a coherent sense on the first view. But understanding the details of the story line isn’t what’s important. What is vital, is to see beneath the surface, to hear the sounds of the past, and to immerse into the Resnais universe — to the poetic world where Resnais took us with the famous opening dolly shot of Last Year at Marienbad (1961).
First Encounters: Perplexed and Amazed
I remember when I first saw La guerre est finie and didn’t understand practically any of it. Now a few years later, having seen it a couple of times, the film has really grown onto me. To my mind, this is precisely due to the fact that it’s not a portrayal of characters nor of situations. It’s a flow; more of a duration rather than a story. Though quite paradoxically, I also think La guerre est finie can be called Resnais’ most straight-forward film of the 60’s. Perhaps this is why it took time for me to appreciate it. Marienbad is easy to digest. It’s emotions. But this is politics. Above all, I guess the reason was probably that it takes time to understand time, doesn’t it?
The film is basically a story about a man, Diego Mora, played by Yves Montand, who flees to France, where he lives, as a Spanish refugee, only to return to his native soil in the end. During his visit, Diego meets a lot of his old comrades from the Spanish Civil War who are now planning a general strike in Paris. However, Diego doesn’t fit in. He tries to adapt to the young radicals but finds their views too contradictory to his. The only thing that seems to be working is his relationship with the woman he loves, Marianne, wonderfully played by Ingrid Thulin, although he is still sexually attracted to a younger girl.
In a sense, La guerre est finie belongs to the same category with The Rules of the Game (1939) and Un chien Andalou (1929) because it is something entirely new to the viewer. It’s all about the expression of emotions and thoughts, events and their casual links rather than the depiction of situations (Hawks) or even, at least in the conventional sense, characters (Renoir). The films by Resnais must be approached as the paintings of Pablo Picasso. Noteworthy is that Picasso also made a piece of work dealing with the Spanish Civil War (Guernica, 1937) and perhaps even more fascinating is that Resnais made a documentary of that particular painting (Guernica, 1950). Still it’s not really about the cubism of the aesthetics of the images in La guerre est finie but of the film form — of how time is structured in it; how the entirety is constructed through editing.
Furthermore, the collage-like complexity of time is purely an expression of the mechanisms of human memory. A theme which Resnais had already studied in Hiroshima, mon amour (1959) and Last Year at Marienbad. By extraordinary means of editing Resnais characterizes the relation between the past and present on an aesthetic level. Although editing isn’t necessarily the most integral element in film making, it is the element which gives the film its structure — the assembly of shots — and thus Resnais, through the rhythm created by the rapid pace between the shots, gives out his perception of time.
Unlike Godard, in Breathless (1960) for one, Resnais doesn’t use jump cuts merely because they’re beautiful. Alexandr Dovzhenko used jump cuts in Arsenal (1929) to reflect the movement of the human mind but for Resnais the reason is, above all, to express the shattered nature of memory. Through jump cuts, back-and-forth dolly shots, inner monologue and shifts in time and space, Resnais characterizes the existential experience of his protagonist (how Diego cannot see the big picture but only details), the position of Diego’s generation (how the left-wing has fragmented) and historical situation (how the relation between past and present remains unsolved). Needless to say, all of these levels are overlapping and thus coincide.
The shattered time structure — or its cubism — is never self-deliberately perplexed but requires what we call emotional intelligence. In cinematic means Resnais depicts what the flow of time feels like. The camera withdraws from a hallway, tracks towards a woman’s face and withdraws from a gate. Similar back-and-forth flow repeats all over the film. Even though this might seem somewhat revolutionary and incomprehensibly abstract, such rhythm and poetics of time was inspired by none other than Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo,whose greatest fans the new wave directors were. I believe that in Vertigo the viewer is precisely enchanted not by the mysterious story but by Hitchcock’s perception of time, in other words, his sense of rhythm. By the enigma how one looks down into the abyss as the abyss, at the same, lifts up as one falls down to it. How one is trapped in a never-ending spiral of going back and forth, up and down. Such themes are, of course, nothing new to a director who has made a film like Last Year at Marienbad.
Memories of the Past
In La guerre est finie, by all means, Resnais settles to deal with memory and oblivion, independently and absolutely, for politics and the characters themselves have broken down in the flow of time. Yet, no matter how chaotic Resnais’ editing was and how difficult it would be to understand this thematic treatment, the viewer can always rely on Yves Montand.
I think Andrew Sarris was right when he called La guerre est finie Resnais’ most satisfying film, and added that it was due to Montand’s vivid and honest performance as a Spanish revolutionary. He interprets the hopes, fears and frustrations of his character in an impressively integrated fashion despite the film’s fragmentary nature. No matter how fragmented and opaque Resnais’ thoughts were, Montand serves his function as a cornerstone. In a word, Sarris wrote that Montand’s humanity tames Resnais’ editing. Moreover, he pointed out how the viewer is no longer touched by the flamboyant counterpoints in the story and montage, but precisely by Diego’s doubts, fears, hopes and fantasies. It is through Montand’s character how the viewer understands the political theme of the film: Resnais’ portrayal of the dying old left.
The main conflict of the film is how to come to terms with one’s past so that one can head towards the future. As a matter of fact, Resnais shows exceptional fascination for the future by analyzing the past in La guerre est finie. So often we have seen films by him where he is merely interested in the past without being interested in the future. Even Je t’aime, je t’aime (1968) which is a science fiction story set in the future is much more interested in studying the time that has gone by rather than the present. This main conflict of La guerre est finie is structured on not only the character of Diego, who spent his youth in the Spanish Civil War and adulthood in the resistance, but also Spain which offers as vivid memories from the past as Berlin or Auschwitz, for instance.
All in all, Resnais’ thesis, if there is one, exists in the title of the film. For the true tragedy of the old left wasn’t the Spanish Civil War but the fact that the war ended. Since the war is over, nothing can be done. The dream was never redeemed and therefore these tired old men have become prisoners of the broken dream. They are doomed to dream, to live in the past, but also never to understand the present reality. They feel no connection with the young Bolsheviks. The dream in Spain has died and has become, in Diego’s words, “the dream of tourists” — the symbol of the war.
Thus Resnais tells us about the tragedy of the old left. He talks of communists who can’t accept that the war is over. However, one should bear in mind that Resnais was a Marxist himself and one of the most politically aware directors of the Left Bank. He understands his characters and the reasons why they can’t forget. Perhaps it’s their duty not to forget? They all wait for the situation to settle, to solve on its own so that they could return to Spain. Hereby, La guerre est finie turns into a melancholic ode to the old left or, in fact, to the whole generation that lived during Franco’s reign: to the generation which was, on the one hand, regardless but, on the other, distressed and helpless. Hence, this is precisely a generation film and maybe because of that I can never fully understand it.
All the Spanish members of the Parisian resistance are living in the past and so is Diego. But soon he has a moment of realization as he understands that Spain is no longer the dream of 1936 but the truth of 1966. After this, he decides to travel back to Spain in order to help a friend. But the other members suggest him to rest and think it over because his perspective is too subjective. In the end, Diego doesn’t listen to them and, consequently, Marianne is sent to get him back from Spain.
When it comes to the political theme and Diego’s inner drama, Resnais constantly counterpoints fantasy with reality. As said, Diego and his comrades live in illusion. They are still living in 1936 and wish to win the war. When Diego is ready to give up on these illusions, he rises against the leaders of the resistance and goes to save his friend. However, this isn’t a happy moment, though breaking out from illusion and attaining reality would seem to be. All this is very tragic and everything is dealt with in an elegiac tone.
This contrast of fantasy and reality is highlighted in characterization as well. Nadine, the younger girl played by Geneviève Bujold, represents fantasy for Diego. Diego lifts up her blouse and touches her soft skin. Thus the viewer is allowed to enter Diego’s fantasy: we see Nadine, nude, against a white background of nothingness; we see her shoulders, her spreading legs, we imagine and fantasize with Diego. The viewer instantly associates the sequence with Godard’s Une Femme Mariée (1964), in which a woman’s body is chopped in pieces, although Resnais’ method in fact bears a stronger resemblance to Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1967) in which the female body is constructed in a cubist fashion.
Not surprisingly, Marianne (the “wife”) represents reality for Diego. Not to mention the striking differences in the women’s outward appearances, fantasy and reality are contrasted in the sequence, described above, and the romantic scene between Diego and Marianne. In the latter, details are not longer detached, for they are in a fruitful relation with the entirety. Diego lifts up Marianne’s skirt and touches her aged skin. These visual observations can be associated thematically since Marianne is meant to save Diego, whereas Nadine to drive him into doom.
This set-up of fantasy and reality is highlighted by Diego’s life which is controlled by counterfeited IDs and secret messages in toothpaste. These elements bring certain ambiguity to his existence — a surreal tone of the unreal but not merely in a Kafkaesque context but in relation to Resnais’ melancholic social vision, to the whole hopelessness of the situation.
In one particularly expressive image Diego is walking in a street. He ambles further, deeper into the frame, as a group of children pass him by, going out of the frame. This is a strong visual expression of Diego living in the past, of him sinking deeper, as if he went backwards in time. The vision established by this image is continued by the scenes where Diego argues with the young Bolsheviks as well as the old rebels. He experiences severe not only political but existential detachment from everything.
The film ends in an unforgettable superimposition: Diego is sitting in a car, driving to his friend, and Marianne is walking in a hallway of an airport, travelling to warn him. Accompanied by wistful musical score, the image seals this elegiac tragedy. Although the narrative reason for this image remains clear, on an emotional level it’s more subjective. The reason for Diego’s departure is that he can’t live anywhere else but, tragically yes, he can’t live in his homeland either. In the final superimposition the tender, nostalgic melancholy of despair that Resnais has been portraying for two hours climaxes. The desperation for the condition of the old left.
What is sad in the film is what it reveals. Resnais portrays the final form of solidarity, the last surviving fraternity, which is practiced at graveyards as comrades are escorted to death. The fraternity which is experienced at customs, kitchens and streets. The fraternity which ought to live forever but is determined to die in front of the faceless and impersonal eyes of neo-fascism.
The last time I saw La guerre est finie was just a few minutes after watching Ken Loach’s Fatherland (1986). A film that is actually surprisingly similar — in a thematic sense — dealing with collective memories and the power of the past over present reality. Every time I see the film by Resnais I find something new. After each viewing, I’m always left with the feeling that I didn’t reach something. That there’s still more to look. That I missed something. And this is amazing. And that’s why I can’t wait for the next time I get a chance to see La guerre est finie.
An old review on IMDb
“Don’t rejoice in his defeat, you men. For though the world stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again.” (Bertolt Brecht)
Sam Peckinpah’s third last film Cross of Iron (1977), portraying the difficult decisions of Nazi officers during their retreat after the Battle of Stalingrad, is a dirty picture shot in seedy Yugoslavian landscapes. To my mind, it’s a film of distinct genre awareness. According to the genre’s conventional guidelines, war is often depicted through the eyes of an individual. The individual may, however, turn into a hero, consequently, a war film can easily stumble on its own pacifism. Yet, in Cross of Iron such banality has been eluded. Although war films usually tend to be therapeutic self-examination for the director, this doesn’t seem to be the case when it comes to Peckinpah. In fact, Cross of Iron appears to the spectator as more of a surge in nihilism rather than a pursue of ethical solutions.
The film meant a voyage to doom for Peckinpah and thus was poorly received in the States but surprisingly well in Europe where critics have, by the way, always commended the poetic and beautiful moments in the director’s work over the strikingly obnoxious and violent scenes. Even though Cross of Iron doesn’t necessarily belong to this particular group of elegance, one can appreciate its sensibility, provided that he or she is familiar with the author’s oeuvre. It’s a spaghetti-western-like war film that laughs behind tears.
To put it bluntly, Peckinpah is often seen as a madman who idealized violence. He is most well remembered for his notorious westerns that depict the destruction of the Wild West and reveals the ugly behavior of people behind the glorified myth. Nonetheless, in Cross of Iron, which is a war film by Peckinpah, the conflicts between the characters are solved by dialogue and not with guns. Hence the film has also often been called the least recognizable film for the director’s style but, in addition, his last great picture. Certain is that Peckinpah always reacted to his art with despise and deprecation. He saw it — like many American novelists did their work — as nothing which is quite well pointed out by his remark in an interview dealing with The Getaway (1972): “We’re not doing War and Peace. Tolstoy is not writing this thing. We’re here to be pros — get it on, get it over with and get the fuck out.”
Although Peckinpah is known for his graphic and even sexual portrayal of violence, his films are also filled with poetic moments of love, friendship and humanity in general. Even if one wished to use the word “commercial” describing his work, it would seem that Peckinpah reveals himself in each of his films. Still brutal behavior, energetic editing and slow-motion images of splattering blood are pure Peckinpah and also characterize the aesthetic look of Cross of Iron.
To a somewhat large extent, Cross of Iron is constructed on class conflicts. Known as a true individualist, Peckinpah doesn’t, however, treat this theme in a Marxist tone. Although he focuses on the inequality between people, it isn’t necessarily social, or at least that aspect isn’t highlighted. It’s something much more “natural” — something uglier to Peckinpah. Something which Thomas Hobbes referred to when he discussed the evil of man.
During the opening credits, the viewer sees newsreel footage of Nazi propaganda and WWII, accompanied by the famous nursery rhyme Little Hans. Not surprisingly, the harmony is constantly broken down by sudden freeze-frames. This sequence works as a brilliant introduction to the film’s topic: the degradation of the magnitude of the Third Reich in the winter of 1943.
At both the beginning and the end of the film, this combination of Nazi footage and nursery rhyme is experienced. Thus Peckinpah contrasts the horror of war with the juvenile admiration for Nazi superiority. Furthermore, he seems to discuss the evil of children. As if he said that the children participated in the cruelty as well. To Peckinpah women and children — that is to say the greatest saints of the western genre — are never innocent. Children are usually characters who are still learning the rules of the game, the rules of violence prevailing in the world. But women are already willing to kill helpless men. Women such as Grace Kelly (High Noon, 1952) who maintain civilization and spiritual health are completely nonexistent in Peckinpah’s films. Just like men, women are dirt.
In the films of Sam Peckinpah, women are either whores or saints. Above all, they are extremely caricatured characters who reveal more about the men’s desires and conceptions of women rather than women themselves. As a matter of fact, there are only few women in Cross of Iron — in the hospital and at the Russian camp — but in both places the relation between men and women is illustrated on the axle of the superior and the inferior.
To Peckinpah, that is to say in his universe, women appear as diabolic beasts. They are cruel, they are usually naked, they very often get raped and, remembering the infamous scene in Straw Dogs (1971), tend to enjoy it. Many books have been written on Peckinpah’s chauvinism but this isn’t the right place to discuss it. For, to my mind, unsolved conflicts are the essence of Peckinpah’s art. He was both a madman, who admired violence, and a poet who told wistful stories about the dignity of life. The latter element is precisely present in such moving films as Ride the High Country (1962) and The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) which tell more about love and aging rather than sadism and brutality.
Another common theme for Peckinpah which also appears in Cross of Iron and has intrigued film scholars is homosexuality. After Stransky’s (played by Maximillian Schell) chauvinistic speech, innuendo is made about a more intimate relationship between two German soldiers who once visited South-Africa. This particular scene can be, by all means, associated with Peckinpah’s chauvinism or even misogyny — his interest for the intimacy and fraternity between men, without women. However, I myself don’t like to use words which are attached to hostility when it comes to Peckinpah. Since beneath the lyric scenes, one can clearly see a tender individual who loved beauty and poetry. An individual who is far from all forms of hatred.
In the focus of Cross of Iron are sergeant Steiner (played by James Coburn), his platoon and captain Stransky. In many ways, the film is constructed on the personal and professional conflicts between Steiner and Stransky. Steiner is a misanthropic, self-loathing individualist, a rebel who hates commanding officers, whereas Stransky is a chauvinist fascist who despises the common people and to whom the claim of the iron crass has become an obsession.
Steiner is a man who hates everyone and has lost all respect for not only Germany and Führer but also himself. In the character of Stransky one can still sense an admiration for Nazism but, on the other hand, he comes out as rather hypocrite, merely looking for his own benefit. In comparison with Stransky and Steiner, both of whom appear as boldly insane, colonel Brandt (played by James Mason) is an intelligent soldier who is contrasted to his commanders.
The legend has it that during the making of Cross of Iron Peckinpah was constantly drunk. He didn’t sleep much either. In fact, one could say that his life was on a downhill when the film was being made. These prevailing circumstances behind the screen were actually quite becoming for Cross of Iron which is a pessimistic, naturalist portrayal of war. For doesn’t the whole history of the Second World War remind a night of delirium? As if humanity was first high as a kite and then experiencing the remorseful morning of lifelong hangover.
Enhancing the naturalism of the story, Cross of Iron was shot in dull, gray-green landscapes of former Yugoslavia. Mud, blood and black smoke — an image of a soldier squashed by a tank — characterize the miserable paths of defeat as the Germans withdraw from Russia after the Battle of Stalingrad. Although Peckinpah never became a pet of the studios who had an integral style and product, such mentality would always be present in his aesthetics.
In many ways, Peckinpah was a director who fell in between of two generations and therefore never truly found his place. On the one hand, he was precisely born from the old Hollywood and the classics of its systems but, on the other, he was a drug-addicted hippie who attacked on conservative movie-making and conventional morality. To my mind, this is essential to understand while watching Cross of Iron. To see the man, conflicted and disturbed, behind it. To see the reluctance to form a coherent message.
Furthermore, there is strong feeling of personal experience in Steiner’s scenes of madness, which resemble the later works of Federico Fellini, who Peckinpah by the way admired. The collage of the inner and external world in the hospital sequence fits well for the mindless reality of war. Since if the Second World War was a man, it would be a schizophrenic wearing a straight jacket alone in his dark cell.
An important observation, when it comes to Peckinpah, is that all of his westerns take place during the final years of the Wild West rather than the years of liberty when the myth was constructed. Above all The Wild Bunch (1969), Ride the High Country and The Ballad of Cable Hogue are films that shatter the mythological image but still in a wistful fashion. Bearing this in mind, it’s not surprising why a war film by Peckinpah portrays not only WWII in general but the year of loss and destruction as well.
In 1943 the German army faced its first major defeat in the Battle of Stalingrad which marked a substantial turning point in the war. Hitler had made a fatal misjudgment regarding the Soviet army. After the battle, the continuous warfare of the German army turned into withdrawal and then soon became a chaotic escape from snowy hell.
To me, there has always been something lyrical in the way how Peckinpah portrays the faces of the German soldiers. The faces that are constantly shadowed by defeat — by the waiting for death. In a powerfully dark fashion, Peckinpah depicts men at the gates of purgatory, fighting for the first ticket. All this bears a striking resemblance to Andrzej Wajda’s Kanal (1957) which is an allegorical film about Poles trying to escape war through filthy sewers.
In Cross of Iron the post-Stalingrad battlefields of mud, snow, smoke and blood reflect the gloomy mood of the historical conditions. However, in all its chaos, the film also includes some of Peckinpah’s finest achievement in mise-en-scène through which the psychology of losing moral integrity and meaning is expressed.
What is more, Nazism was a perfect topic for a Peckinpah film since already in his earliest features one can see his fascination for individuality and how people try to slaughter it in different forms of totalitarianism — by coercing an individual into a community. The Third Reich was, of course, an excellent example of such phenomenon. Let alone Peckinpah’s interest for sadistic behavior which was also suiting for a film about Nazis, this philosophical aspect is also highlighted by the final quote of Bertolt Brecht. It refers to the historical situation depicted here. How such means of oppression haven’t vanished. How they are still strong and elusive, hiding beneath the jolly facade of nursery rhymes.
In the end the film isn’t, however, so much about the decline of the Third Reich, Nazism nor even the ethical decisions of the officers. It’s about humanity in general. It shows how low it has sunk into the abyss that it has become hard to differ man from beast. Noteworthy is also that Peckinpah tells this without any forms of idealism. All sentimentality, exaggeration, pity and moral disapproval are gone because Peckinpah counts himself among the monsters. Even though his self-disgust had already reached its climax in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), he continued examining it in Cross of Iron through the misanthropic character of Steiner. In this sense, I feel that the famous quote by Friedrich Nietzsche in his book Beyond Good and Evil (1886) quite well summarizes the core of Peckinpah’s personal and professional life or, in other words, the essence of his art:
“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you.”
As a matter of fact, isn’t this quote a perfect expression of all the forms of human cruelty? How people often become what they strive against. One could say that in Cross of Iron Peckinpah fights against the monsters of humanity — the monsters emerging from himself; from the conflicts of his mind.
According to one interpretation, Nietzsche’s quote means that one should be careful when looking into the abyss, for one can easily immerse in it and become a part of the abyss that is to say, a monster. In Cross of Iron Peckinpah looks into the abyss. He studies the filthiness of morality, which gazes back at him. He doesn’t offer us any answers. So why make a film like this? Why deal with unsolved enigmas of the human nature? Perhaps to be able to live with the monsters — to live in the abyss once you can’t get up.
Nietzschean ethical nihilism can, in fact, be seen all over the place in Cross of Iron. For example, the scene in which Steiner helps a young Russian boy to escape only to push him into the fiery death of gunfire; or the scene where a German soldier experiences a brief moment of comfort and trust next to a Russian woman who then immediately stabs him in the belly. The way I see it, Peckinpah’s characters can make their first moral choice only after they have accepted the impossibility of morality. For, to a large extent, Peckinpahian violence is always a reaction to losing all meaning in moral. I shall use a few examples to: Why does Bennie start shooting everyone after he has brought the head at the end of Alfredo Garcia? Why does David go berserk at the end of Straw Dogs? Why does Steiner kill a man towards the end in Cross of Iron? Or, why did the Germans go to fight a war in the first place? Thus Peckinpah shows surprisingly profound social sense of the human condition.
Needless to say, Peckinpah’s cynical idea of man is truly present here in its nihilist manifestations. For instance, in one scene a soldier forces a Russian woman to perform fellatio on him; and then, after she has bitten his penis off, Steiner releases a group of women to kill the soldier. Not to mention the motif of the drama, the iron cross, which is the only reason why Stransky is fighting. The iron cross, a cold object due to which men kill each other, might just be the most concrete element of Peckinpah’s world view in his entire oeuvre. Ever enhancing the unpleasantness of morality, the viewer is coerced into choosing the object of identification from two characters: a fascistic cynic or a misanthropic psychopath.
In many ways, Peckinpah was a great sculptor of death, but in Cross of Iron he focused more on the impact of death on the minds of the people who it surrounds. Death becomes an integral part of the inhuman habitat and therefore people begin to apply death in their own lives as well. In brief, they start killing each other.
Just as in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, in Cross of Iron Peckinpah’s editing is at its finest. He has even said that these two films are the films that he managed to get to the closest with his original vision. Through the rhythm of montage, the ominous signs of the apocalyptic doom of civilization are drawn in a fashion of sheer brilliance.
At the end of Cross of Iron, the film doesn’t only return to the beginning but it also shifts from a tragedy into a deranged farce. Recalling the opening credits, the images are halted in sudden freeze-frames as Steiner and Stransky begin their insane gunfight. A brief segment of Little Hans is heard. Steiner laughs his diabolic laughter and the viewer is forced to watch a slide show of the Holocaust.
One might see the end as a reconciliation of Steiner and Stransky, as a dramatic solution of their conflicts, but one surely can’t talk about any kind of synthesis because Peckinpah doesn’t, consciously and deliberately, reach a conclusion. If he does, it’s paradoxically a nihilist one. The entire film is actually a tragedy. Or at least before the ending when it turns into a grotesque farce. As many great naturalists, Peckinpah seems to say fuck you to humanity and consider our whole existence to be a cruel joke. It is as if Peckinpah said that all is fair in love and war and in everything. Since in the end, nothing matters.
Unlike many others arguably would have, Peckinpah doesn’t preach about the evils of Nazism in Cross of Iron. He contemplates his own relation with fascism which is, characteristically for the director, conflicting. Many academics have said how Straw Dogs was, in fact, the first American fascist film. Although this might be true, one shouldn’t draw the conclusion of Peckinpah being a Nazi. To an extent, he is an anarchist-individualist but at the same, he demolishes the justifications for his beliefs. Through Coburn’s character, Peckinpah studies his own self-loathe, his personal moral crisis, which is inevitably also universal. It’s not just about the loss of moral integrity but about the moment when all meaning vanishes into thin air of black smoke. For a study on the cesspool of human morality, the Second World War, of course, works as a perfect stage. It’s a basis for morality without bases. As stated, Peckinpah depicts the soldiers’ grim faces, dim souls and gloomy hearts after the Battle of Stalingrad: the beaten men in 1943, walking the road to eternity on a voyage to self-destruction, sinking deeper and deeper to the darkness of the abyss.
A gleam of sunlight sparkling through treetops into dark woods as silence prevails in the atmosphere. A new day begins. An elderly man, handicapped and unable to move, lies on a run-down couch. His grown-up daughter, mother of two, goes to clean the roadsides of a highway. Her daughter takes a nap at the school bench whereas her brother skips the whole thing and spends his time building a secret safe house in a forest. This is the life of a Romani family, living in a remote Hungarian village. Many racist murders have been committed due to which the family lives in constant fear of being the next victim. Thus begins Just the Wind (2012), directed by Benedek Fliegauf, which will most likely be one of the best films of the year. In a few or more paragraphs I shall prove why.
Just the Wind is, in all its simplicity, a deterministic tragedy. It’s a strikingly quiet film whose drama, however, is inevitably leading to an uncompromising catastrophe. As ominous elements culminate, the dark-themed sorrow of the film explodes in front of the spectator. In the beginning, during the opening credits, it is stated that the film was inspired by published newspapers about the Romani murders in 2007-2009. Severely, without an attempt of embellishment, Fliegauf portrays a day in the life of a family. The family has constructed their life on the hope of moving away to Canada where their father is already living. However, there is no reason for the viewer to believe why things would actually be any better on the other side of the globe.
The Position of Just the Wind in Contemporary Social Cinema
Not surprisingly, a lot of viewers have been irritated by the provocative nature of Just the Wind. Some say that Fliegauf didn’t have the right amount of knowledge regarding the events to make a film about the case. This is typical. The contemporary sense of realism in the cinema has become twisted. Average movie-goers often think that a film must be realistic. Not only, however, in dramaturgy but also in every single detail. They think that a film based on a true story is a fictive documentary. Well it isn’t. Film has the ultimate, unlimited right to be poetic. Marlene Dietrich can walk through Arabian deserts in high heels if she wants to. Nor are historical films necessarily about the facts. History can be mere material. Fliegauf, in his own words, has said that those who criticize don’t want to remember what happened. They only want to forget.
After the film was released, Fliegauf said that people began to see him as an expert in the problems of the Romani people. Once again some show inability to understand the film and cinema in general. For Just the Wind is just a small film about an issue that is probably insignificant on an international level, but humanely of paramount importance. The film doesn’t offer any solutions nor answers to the viewer’s questions. It doesn’t preach. It only agitates and shows. It asks why.
These examples of the naivety of the modern viewer (I’m not accusing people; I accuse the film industry that has raised them) prove something: Just the Wind will continue dividing the audience to lovers and haters. Some blame it for demagogy, creating black-and-white illusions and a one-sided portrayal of a national issue while others, on the other hand, praise the film for sincere sensibility and social sense of responsibility.
First of all, filming reality as it is doesn’t qualify as demagogy. Georges Franju’s The Blood of the Beasts (1949) nor Ryszard Bugajski’s Interrogation (1989) are under the category. Propaganda films that build a strong moral pathos in the spectator and then peddle an ideology are. Secondly, films such as Slumdog Millionaire (2008), which ask the audience to munch on popcorn while watching people living in misery, marketing itself as a feel-good movie, are the closest to what one might call social pornography. I guess it is needless to highlight how vastly Just the Wind differs from such movie-making.
Noteworthy is also that Just the Wind isn’t a one-sided portrayal, for it is merely a simple look at an issue. Furthermore, Fliegauf never idealizes the Romani people. With maturity, he depicts a certain regression — the final stage of alienation — where people have been divided to friends and foes. After this, guns talk. On the behalf of the Romani as well as of the Hungarians.
Perhaps needless to say, Just the Wind received no decent funding from the Hungarian Film Foundation. As in many other European countries, right-wing populism is gaining ground in Hungary too, often leaving culture without money. A few years ago, the famous American-Hungarian film producer Andrew Vajna, who is remembered for financing such blockbusters as First Blood (1982) and Total Recall (1990), arrived to Hungary to save national film industry.
Vajna established a mission which was set to renew the film industry into a more factory-like production. The quick production of hits is what the foundation should focus on, according to his ideas. Let alone the artistic travesty of this, such way of thinking strongly contradicts to the traditional mentality when it comes to film production in Hungary. Vajna tries to infiltrate the American method to Hungary where people aren’t used to working by Hollywood standards. One obvious example is that neither of the two greatest filmmakers of the nation — Miklós Jancsó and Béla Tarr — have ever worked with a real script. They both represent what we might call an intuitive filmmaker. And so does Fliegauf. Therefore, it seems that Vajna has spent too much time in Hollywood and hence forgotten how things are done in Europe. For, ever since the new wave, improvisation has been a key word in European cinema.
A Fictive Presentation
There is one integral element in Just the Wind which makes it look especially improvised. The fact that all the actors and actresses of the film are amateurs, actually living in such shabby conditions, creates a close connection to fictive documentary. To the genre or cinematic phenomenon which we have observed in films such as The Human Pyramid (1961) and I Am Curious (1967). However, Just the Wind is not a documentary, although it is surprisingly real in the most poignant and descriptive meaning of the word. Enhancing documentary realism, the entire film has been shot with a hand-held camera and in natural lighting.
With its documentary-like fiber, Just the Wind not only highlights the authenticity of the milieu, and the fact that this is a true story, but also creates a tension so strong that it keeps the viewer in its grip and forces him or her to identify with the bleak reality portrayed. The film coerces the viewer into identifying with the characters and truly experience, for an hour and a half, what they go through every single day.
In the visual portrayal of reality, created by hand-held camerawork and composition of a deliberately improvised feel to it, nature plays an essential role. It’s a vital element. It’s an active part of the drama and especially the colors of green and yellow drill down to the spectator’s consciousness. The colors will be remembered. And they will be associated with what has been presented.
To my mind, it is astonishing how Fliegauf has succeeded to make everyday realism (there’s something extremely neo-realist in the camerawork and aesthetic grain of the film) so utterly beautiful. In a sensual fashion, Fliegauf has captured the essence of summer. The heat, feel and scent of it. In fact, images of dawn, sunlight, fields, water and dusk reign the visual world. While Just the Wind, however, dazzles with its breathtaking aesthetics it also horrifies with its uncompromising content.
Obviously, the darkness of the mood in the film is precisely due to the social reality and the conditions emerging from it. In other words, the dreary atmosphere is a consequence of certain events in a certain environment. Unlike in the films of Andrei Tarkovsky and Robert Bresson, for example, the desolate misery of Just the Wind is specifically social, not metaphysical. As is the unending injustice portrayed in it. For some viewers this might seem superficial (the arrogant police officers and graphic cruelty may feel a bit forced) but for others it equals authentic, aware and mature engagement to a social situation. A way of showing courage to take responsibility in a country where democracy seems to be fading into the shadows of political opportunism.
When it comes to the social content of Just the Wind, one scene in particular comes to my mind. The scene, in which the girl of the Romani family sees a classmate of hers getting raped, is shattering and extremely provocative. The girl leaves the place, on the quiet, and greets a teacher as if nothing had happened. The scene, however, doesn’t merely tell about the character’s regardless attitude but more about the conditions where she has grown up. An environment which forces the individual to be unkind and insensitive. With clarity, Fliegauf shows how the society itself divides its members to “us” and “them”. How it encourages its citizens to indulge in fascism. What is more, the girl’s behavior is explained by — and counterpointed — by the scene where the police officers are discussing the justification for the racist murders committed. No help, no way out, nothing at all is offered.
The gloomy dark-themed mood of the film is created not only by the remote village as the central milieu and the shadow cast on it by the racist murders but also by efficient sound design and long takes that are framed in a distressingly narrow fashion. The impressive atmosphere, which practically exhales misery, is at times interrupted by lyric shots of natural landscapes. These images are an excellent demonstration on the director’s sense for rhythmic composition.
As a contrast of nature, the film’s aesthetics is also controlled by architecture of destruction which enhances the mood of the beginning of an end. Simply, of course, on a social level. People live in shattered ruins whose grown-ups are practically living dead. Trash, rotten food, cast-off objects and flatten coffee infiltrate through the screen to the sense organs of the spectator. Only children are capable of brief joyful moments in such an environment — the daughter of the family plays with an abandoned girl and the son plays a video game console and fights with other boys — but, at the same, adult-like responsibility is required not only for their own but also their neighbors’ lives.
A Wind That Shan’t Be Forgotten
The lyric and eerie title of the film refers to a dialogue at the end of the film as the family is going to bed. The boy is distracted by noises from the outside but his mother comforts him by saying that it’s just the wind. These words are of course associated with the integral role of nature in the drama of the film. As if it meant the transient wind of life. However, a more valid interpretation might be to talk about the wind of racism. Showing cinematic sense, Fliegauf seems to say that the racist murders of 2007-2009 were just a wind above earth. They were nothing eternal — and they never will be — but, therefore, even more mindless and mad. On the other hand, the wind of racism is strong and even if calmed down a bit after a fiery storm, remains in the attitudes and thoughts of people.
In addition, the title refers to the characters’ life — which is based on the hope of an opportunity for better life in the promised land — and its tragic transience. Above all, such a title leaves the viewer quite speechless because it gathers a connotation of paramount significance and sentiment just a few minutes before the end. The viewer is inevitably left with a melancholic emotion, thinking about the social position of the family which has been completely pushed out of the society. They are invisible and elusive as the wind.
However, to my mind (and for some reason I feel that this needs to be said), Just the Wind isn’t a masterpiece. It lacks on something. I, personally, felt like Fliegauf could have developed the aesthetic conflict of inner horror and external beauty to a wider and more profound cinematic world view. On the other hand, it’s difficult to give a concrete example. The film is very good as it is and manages to leave an enduring impact. It’s merely a simple look, which doesn’t try to be epic nor melodramatic, at human cruelty. Not at sadistic violence in general but a case by case study on a social phenomenon of cruelty.
At the end of the film, ominous elements — dogs’ barking, grasshoppers’ buzz, the burial of a dead hog, the anxiety of the invalid father and the slow descent of darkness — climax towards the tragic solution. The murderers arrive to the yard with shotguns. The boy jumps out of the window. He hides behind bushes and hears the shots that kill his family. Soon he is noted too and after a brief attempt to escape gets shot as well. The scene is a ferocious moment as the sorrow almost becomes physical. The viewer is left staring, in sheer silence, with a pounding heart.
In the epilogue-like ending, fancy-looking clothes are put on the bodies, perforated by bullets, of the family. Once dead, they are treated better than ever before. In the final frame of the film they are transported away in coffins. A nurse walks by. The camera leaves to explore and palpate the space of an empty corridor as if to wait for something. But nothing happens. Nothing is said nor indicated beside emptiness.
A review on IMDb
A few months ago the British film magazine Sight & Sound published the results of the 2012 poll which tried to list the best 250 movies of all times. Hundreds of directors, critics and academics participated. This poll, which has been organized by the British Film Institute every decade since 1952, has gained a reputation as a respectable list that both gathers and declares the canon of the greatest films. Such lowbrow events of popular culture always remind me of the juvenile nature of the cinema. For one can’t surely observe similar behavior — the constant need to list and vote who’s best — in any other arts. This realization forces one to contemplate whether we need canon in cinema or, as a matter of fact, at all?
The way I see it, canon is a natural reaction to cultural phenomena. Over the years certain artists and works are bound to become generally appreciated. This is simply due to the fact that these artists have managed to tell something timeless about the human nature. Knowledge has been recorded and passed to next generations. To my mind, no one really decides what the canon of an art form is — and this is precisely a question of power — for it is something that evolves by itself in the course of time. However, someone, that is to say the art community, does maintain it.
But the question remains: how come, when it comes to the cinema, polls are necessary? In literature, for instance, no one wonders whether Crime and Punishment (1866) and The Iliad belong to the greatest, but in film we are forced not only to list our favorites but to create a coherent view on the movies that are “objectively” the best. Is it because of the large quantity of films that have been made? Or due to the puerility of film lovers? I believe the reason is much more simple — the lack of knowledge. In literature one can easily use Franz Kafka or Macbeth as a reference because people are familiar with them. Same can be observed in painting as people discuss Vermeerian light. Although canon doesn’t merely equal language to describe art, points of reference are an elemental part of it.
In film, I feel, we have lost our collective language. How many critics would dare to mention Bressonian aesthetics or refer to Dreyer’s distinct use of close-ups in their recent reviews? The fear of the reader shaking his head in confusion takes over. What is more, I don’t think most critics are familiar with either of these. At least they don’t seem to be. Only last and this week’s blockbusters are classics to them. The situation is even worse among film students. In other words, among the people who should be the next filmmakers. People barely know Hitchcock. Star Wars (1977) and The Godfather (1972) are known but that’s about it. Charlie Chaplin is recognized but mainly for his “resemblance” with Adolf Hitler.
Canon is a necessity for the survival of the arts. In this sense, art bears a resemblance to philosophy, for it lives by constantly commenting on its own history. Canon has never been as important for the cinema as it is now. This is why I, for one, completely support such polls as the one of Sight & Sound’s. It at least tries to relay essential information to the general public. It tries to give out the (relative) facts. Although it may be a little silly or even childish, I believe in the power of list-making when it comes to films. So, does it really matter which film wins? No, but as an entirety the results can serve as guidance to a hungry movie lover searching for authentic cinema. Moreover, I think the enjoyment of reading such lists is quite pleasing. The number of associations might even be excessive but I love recalling all the films to my mind which appear on the particular list.
The biggest buzz of the Sight & Sound 2012 poll was the fact that Vertigo (1958) was elected as the number one for the first time. Reporters proclaimed how the fifty-year reign of Citizen Kane (1941) was now over. In my opinion, the change was for the better because it managed to break conventions. For there can never be a consensus on what is the greatest film. Both films are masterful and, in fact, quite incomparable. The only connective factors seem to be that both discuss love and use revolutionary technique. All in all, it doesn’t matter which one of these wins because they are both as close as one can be to what we might call the perfect film.
Another thing that has caused heated discussion is the fact that the top 50 list only includes two films from the 21st century: In the Mood for Love (2000) by Wong Kar-Wai and Mulholland Drive (2001) by David Lynch. For many it might seem odd why the old prevails and the new is neglected but the reason is extremely simple. There haven’t been that much good films in the past twelve years. It’s certain that disliking newer films isn’t a common phenomenon which I shall prove with one example: Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Adventure (1960) managed to reach the top five only two years after its release. The decline of film is partly due to the lack of knowledge, which I referred earlier, but it’s also a consequence of the growing power of the television, Internet and the markets as the visual media.
In addition, the two films prove that newer films can rise up if they are good enough. I could list a few films which are, in my opinion, better than these two but there’s no room for real quarrel because both of them — In the Mood for Love and Mulholland Drive — are excellent films, and the fact that they have been so widely loved makes me cheer. However, I think more interesting than the low number of new films is the total lack of early films on the list of 250 titles. I’m not surprised there aren’t tens of pre-1920 films on the list but not even one? Not even A Man There Was (1917), The Immigrant (1917) or Les Vampires (1915)?
Nonetheless, the past prevails powerfully in the list. Perhaps it’s the low quality of today which makes people rely on yesterday. Or maybe films like Tokyo Story (1953), 8½ (1963) and The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) have reached something so true and beautiful that time can’t hurt. Year after year people who are familiar with the seventh art and its means fall in love with these films. It can’t just be about the time which has passed by. There’s something more. Besides, when a director or a critic is asked to participate they probably list films that mean the most to them, personally. At least I hope they do so. For if one tries to weigh different titles by relying on so called “objective analysis”, the list becomes obscure and unimportant. I am quite sure that when people honestly vote for the films they love, the list comes out as natural and truthful. Not surprisingly, most of the top films are always masterful even when “analyzed objectively”. This is simply due to the fact that a film which touches one is likely to touch another as well.
Hereby, one can summarize by saying that canon is needed for both maintaining general knowledge and collecting the achievements of human existence on each field of art. Canon of films is a strategic network and an aesthetic bundle of associations. To conclude, I shall participate myself in this puerility of listing. The following list should not be taken as a guide nor as an attempt to gather the greatest twenty (the lowest number I can do right now) films. It’s merely a subjective collection of important, life-enhancing and masterful pictures. I haven’t given as much thought to it as one could — it would look different on another week with the exception of a few permanent denominators — and if I had the pleasure to actually participate in an official poll, things would also be different. But, for now, I’ll leave you with this whether you enjoyed it or not.
The following twenty films are in no particular order:
1. The Mirror (Zerkalo, 1975, Andrei Tarkovsky)
2. Tokyo Story (Tôkyô monogatari, 1953, Yasujirô Ozu)
3. Vertigo (1958, Alfred Hitchcock)
4. Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potyomkin, 1925, Sergei M. Eisenstein)
5. Los olvidados (1950, Luis Buñuel)
6. Au hasard Balthazar (1966, Robert Bresson)
7. Landscape in the Mist (Topio stin omichli, 1988, Theo Angelopoulos)
8. The Adventure (L’Avventura, 1960, Michelangelo Antonioni)
9. Man with a Movie Camera (Chelovek s kino-apparatom, 1929, Dziga Vertov)
10. L’Atalante (1934, Jean Vigo)
11. The Searchers (1958, John Ford)
12. City Lights (1931, Charlie Chaplin)
13. Earth (Zemlya, 1930, Aleksandr Dovzhenko)
14. The Rules of the Game (La règle du jeu, 1939, Jean Renoir)
15. The Last Laugh (Der letzte Mann, 1924, F.W. Murnau)
16. The Life of Oharu (Saikaku ichidai onna, 1952, Kenji Mizoguchi)
17. Rocco and His Brothers (Rocco e i suoi fratelli, 1960, Luchino Visconti)
18. Vivre sa vie (1962, Jean-Luc Godard)
19. Rome, Open City (Roma, città aperta, 1945, Roberto Rossellini)
20. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Tini zabutykh predkiv, 1965, Sergei Parajanov)
Sight & Sound Poll
More Lists by Me:
The Top 20 of the 1920’s
The Top 50 of the 1950’s
“Chahine’s strength, ever since Cairo Station, has been the ability to look at, with the same eye, equal curiosity and warmth, typical persons and marginal characters, small details, and the grand turmoil of history and politics, all this merged into dramaturgy and montage, both of which are much more polished than they externally seem to be. Above all, Chahine is one of the great living (died in 2008) filmmakers who is never theoretic nor dry and whose work is known far too little.” (Jacques Lourcelles)
Bab el hadid or Cairo Station (1958) is one of the most famous Egyptian films in the history of motion picture and is often celebrated as the magnum opus of its director Youssef Chahine. Not surprisingly, in a country where people had merely seen lightweight melodrama and comedy, the film was immediately banned for its dark sexual thematics and gloomy atmosphere. Yet, Cairo Station found its way to the hearts of the audience and, especially in Europe, gained a lot of critical admiration. The sympathetic story about a lonely peddler, who lives in a hectic environment of a railway station, turns into an utterly beautiful study on poverty and its consequences. It is a film where simplicity turns into poetry. It breathes heavily, and with a quick tempo throws not only ferocious outbursts but also harrowing silence at us. To put it briefly, Cairo Station is a film that must be seen. It is the Bicycle Thieves of the third world.
First a few words about film in Egypt. As many other countries of the Arabic world, Egypt was also under control of the imperialist states. The first Egyptian films were made during the silent era but production was extremely limited. All the films were, in a way, products of the mother country, England. In the 1930’s, first national films were made in Egypt and thus, the tradition was born. Already in the early 1920’s, England had granted Egypt formal independence but technically Egypt remained a “colony” until the death of Nasser in 1970. One could consider the late 50’s and the early 60’s as one kind of a golden age in Egyptian cinema (in 1961 state film production was established) because a lot of films reached the international public. However, in the 1970’s Egyptian film was driven to recession, for the new wave of the 60’s failed to flourish freely in the Arabic world.
Youssef Chahine is often celebrated as the first film director of the Arabic world who rose to international awareness. Cairo Station was even nominated for substantial awards at some European festivals. Chahine’s oeuvre is wide and extremely variable, although I must confess having a limited knowledge of it. To a non-Arab viewer, his films show how similar people and their problems are all over the world, despite their location. On the other hand, Chahine’s production — and especially Cairo Station — is a demonstration on the integral differences of western and Arabic culture which are, however, marginal in front of humanity. All in all, what we’re dealing with here is a very Stoic filmmaker. Speaking of which, Chahine was an Arab but also a Catholic. He is a cultural mixture due to which, to quote Christian Bosséno, he manages to reveal “the heterogeneous reality of the many cultures and religions in Egypt.”
Cairo Station begins with the protagonist’s, played by the director Chahine, verbal presentation of the milieu: “The Cairo station, the heart of the capital, where thousands of people meet and separate.” The protagonist is Qinawi, a poor peddler at the Cairo station, who falls in love with a voluptuous beverage saleswoman, played by Hind Rostom. His sexual (inevitably also emotional?) desire confronts repression and, therefore, turns into despair. Qinawi decides to commit a murder in order to eliminate an obstacle between him and the woman. Not surprisingly, this negligible man fails miserably.
One can do nothing but commend Chahine’s performance as Qinawi. To my mind, this isn’t unusual: when the director acts, if he or she truly can act, the result is often marvelous. The director knows what is needed. By all odds, Qinawi is a real life Mersault. He is an individual who has not only alienated from the world but also from himself. He experiences severe anxiety of existence. He is an abandoned stranger of a contradictory milieu which exhales erotic phenomena. He is a collector of pornographic images. A slave of lust, completely driven by his impulses, so to speak. This thematic dimension creates a psycho-sexual undertone, merging into the vertiginous delirium of the film which isn’t, however, self-deliberate but precisely an integral part of the social milieu and its psychology.
The central station of Cairo is a social milieu that boils. An atmospheric place, boiling with conflicts. In this milieu, the protagonist appears as Chahine’s profound and personal study on rejection, unfulfilled love and the psychology of repression. Chahine takes his cinematic analysis on social humiliation almost to the same spheres with F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924). Dirt, sweat and blood on a face that has been trampled so many times it has become impossible for the man to distinguish right from wrong.
In the milieu of Cairo Station, train is an essential element. On a concrete level, it creates an anguished mood; an effect of distress and hurry where there is no time for the nature of man, from which humanity has alienated. There’s something similar in the trains of Cairo Station as in The World of Apu (1959): trespassing zone, fleeting images as the engine runs, a way out. What is more, on a social level, the train enhances the atmosphere of waiting, passing and randomness in life. The trains breathe. They’re old and tired. Train has become one of the characters. When it comes to the social aspect of the film, one is inevitably reminded by Vittorio De Sica’s melodramatic picture Terminal Station (1953) which also focuses on the neo-realist portrayal of a railway station as an allegory for the world.
Railway station is an integral milieu in all films which happen around trains. Both Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959) and Vincente Minnelli’s The Clock (1945) feature excellent station sequences in which waiting is in the focus. Train is an element that enthralls us. It manages to touch our being and the core of so many things. “Fleeting”, “transient” and “random” are words which pop in our heads as we try to figure out the logic of train. Railway station, on the other hand, is a meeting place of the down-and-out and bourgeois gentlemen. It is a place of both stragglers and people who (at least to their own view) have a clear destination. Yet, the place is always and inseparably characterized by magical chance.
Many of us remember David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945) as the ultimate station film. It portrays newly discovered love as the old has flatten. The fragility of everything — happiness, grief and life — is illustrated in a touching fashion. However, sometimes a short fragment, one scene, at a station can be more impressive. The ending of Federico Fellini’s I vitelloni (1953) or the beginning of Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers (1960) for instance. In the latter, the station appears as a place where all the odds are still open. The cards of capitalism haven’t been given yet. Brand new life in the big city awaits. Work and sports, career and success. There is still hope but it probably isn’t a surprise that all happiness is brief and transient.
Such emotions and thoughts seem to prevail in all station sequences, but I think I’m bold enough to say that Cairo Station is the best of all the films that take entirely place at a station. For the director, station is a stage for his philosophical pursue but also for the crossroads of Egypt’s historical space. The station, so often, flashes images of life which passes by, poignantly in front of us. In this case, however, the station is, above all, a scene for humiliation and abasement.
The steam of the train engine, the sound of the horn and the clatter of the tracks as well as the poetry of several details — the dusty land, the dripping blood, the cries of the hounds and cats — create humane, sensual and true-to-life mood that enchants the viewer and keeps in its grip. The mood is enhanced by the use of the subjective camera and expressionistic language of shadows. Let alone the haunting close-ups of Qiwani’s eyes. The eyes that are capable of love and hate. Eyes which are, above all, eyes of passion. This intriguing visual motif climaxes in the frenetic scene where Qiwani is hugging his cat after being rejected by his object of desire. Suddenly, the cat scratches him and jumps off his lap. Hence follows a fiery montage of the gazes of man and animal, of their external difference and inner, profound, resemblance.
Beneath all this, pounds a fierce psycho-sexual undertone of desire, passion and repression. A similar erotic element can be found from Hiroshi Teshigara’s classic Woman in the Dunes (1964) whose tension also features an odd emotion of yearn and melancholy. Both films could be interpreted as portrayals of an individual who is fighting against a hostile environment. Moreover, in Cairo Station the brutal nature of human sexuality has a connotation of gloomy morale which prevails in the world, wonderfully expressed via mise-en-scène — or the art of direction.
In Cairo Station the Egyptian tradition meets a profoundly stylized visual expression which is a mixture of documentary and distinct film aesthetics, realist style and psychological drama. The way I see it, Cairo Station is a strangely poetic combination of Italian neo-realism, American film-noir and universal melodrama. The neo-realist approach appears in not only the themes of injustice, poverty and oppression but also in the portrayal of social conflicts: the women’s association against marriage and Qiwani’s struggle to be normal. In the neo-realist tradition (Chahine is far closer to De Sica’s lyricism than Rossellini’s objective reportage-like narrative) a cynical social analysis emerges from naturalist depiction of the milieu.
Moreover, the iconography of the visual world triggers an association with American film-noir. Not to mention the poetics of the milieu (alleys, dim lighting, dreary night, claustrophobia of space), and the tragedy of crime — Qiwani tries to save the situation, his desire, by murder but is determined to fail and perish. Thirdly, Cairo Station is a wild melodrama which most obviously appears in the scenes where flamboyant musical score is used to enhance the emotion. Specifically memorable are the scenes with the young girl who is constantly waiting for her boyfriend to arrive. Let alone the passionate scenes where Chahine shows similar poetic language of gestures that Montgomery Clift in Terminal Station. It is as if the emotion of yearn was an inseparable part of the railway milieu. A phantom that haunts the details of it. A phantom that will not leave.
These three clear manifestations of genres, of course, prove that Chahine had seen a great number of films but, first and foremost, the free poetry of Cairo Station is evidence of the director’s unique personality and original ability to draw wide associations — to create ambiguous dimensions — from a simple story line. On a social level, Cairo Station can be interpreted as a documentary-like realist study on alienation. The protagonist wants to be proud and get married but the society offers no possibilities for him. On the other hand, social conditions have caused a situation where women don’t want to get married. Overall, however, the film is an existentialist melodrama of loneliness.
In the final scene, Qiwani is lying on the rails, holding the woman, who he is threatening by a knife, next to him. Together they wait the train to escort them to death. Suddenly, the police arrive and the train stops. Qiwani’s father comes and tells him how everyone is ready to celebrate Qiwani’s wedding. Qiwani buys the bait and in a sharp, and boldly melodramatic, close-up the bloody knife is deprived from his hand. In a confusing state, Qiwani is put in a straight jacket. He is taken away by the police. Qiwani’s agonized screams invade space. Failure and exploitation, rejection and fatal disappointment tear the viewer apart. In the last image, the girl is once again seen, waiting for her boyfriend. She is one of those who are doomed to wait forever. To wait for something real, alone. Needless to say, perhaps, the bitter, desperate and panic-stricken screams are of existentialist nature. They are precisely screams of loneliness. They are passionate cries for mercy.
The moment when all dignity is deprived from a human being isn’t that uncommon these days and has been dealt with several times in art. The ending of Cairo Station awakes associations with the finest works of realist literature — recall Akaky Akakievich once his overcoat has been savagely stolen — as well as the suffocated cries in Rome, Open City (1945) or Los Olvidados (1950). But no comparison will, however, do right to this completely original and personal journey. It is passionate and raw, beautiful and filthy, steamy and silent, profound and accessible. My dearest wish is that this fiery yet dusty piece of work will not be forgotten. Its beauty resembles that of old books which have been left in the attic to collect spiderweb and mold. But once rediscovered they won’t or at least shouldn’t ever be put back there again. Embrace and love Cairo Station.
A mentally deficient boy checks the condition of an invisible trolley and starts his daily journey across the town. Everything is in order even if the servicemen could take a better care of the facilities. Fortunately, the boy is a diligent, hard-working tram driver and can see to that the work of the day gets done. All this is, however, a product of childlike imagination. In reality, the boy is just one of the people who are living in the outskirts of life, observing the joyful success of others, and settling for the role of the stranger in society. Many might recognize this visual memoir from the beginning of Akira Kurosawa’s later film Dodes’ka-den (1970) which centers around a social landfill where superfluous and unnecessary objects are thrown to — even human beings.
Akira Kurosawa is the most legendary auteur of the postwar generation of Japanese filmmakers. He attained such a stable reputation with his samurai-films that people tend to forget the other films he made. Although most of Kurosawa’s historical epics are extraordinary and undeniably masterful, his true unique originality is present in the profoundly moral and humanistic tales he made. Such films as Ikiru (1952), Red Beard (1965) and Dodes’ka-den have proven this in an unchallenged fashion. Ikiru turns into an ambiguous voyage to humanity by asking its viewer how he or she should live to live righteously? In fact, the film asks how should one be? Red Beard continued on similar issues regarding human existence but expanded the thematic dimension by contemplating on the true meaning of work and community.
In the 1970’s the Japanese film industry began to change as it did in the west, and the masters of the older generation didn’t get the appreciation they deserved. The critical and financial failure of Dodes’ka-den even drew Kurosawa on the verge of suicide. Fortunately, suicide was left as an attempt and Kurosawa continued his career. After his death in 1998, we can observe the wide range of his oeuvre and see how he managed to depict the postwar Japanese society (Drunken Angel, 1948; Stray Dog, 1949), timeless tales from universal masters (Dostoevsky, The Idiot, 1951; Shakespeare, Throne of Blood, 1957) and the poor proletariat (Red Beard, Dodes’ka-den) of Japan. In many occasions, Kurosawa combines national and universal history with the timeliness of the present. Kagemusha (1980), for example, is a story of a mighty samurai but associations to many ruthless politicians of the 20th century are obvious and inevitable.
At every turn, Kurosawa was reaching towards the forms of total realism where nothing but the image mattered. Thus, the moods of the German films from the Weimar Republic and French Poetic Realism in the 1930’s are strongly present. In Dodes’ka-den this is strengthened by a posthumous yet powerful touch by Maxim Gorky. His raw, humane presence can truly be felt. In the beginning of the film, the mentally deficient boy yells gibberish in front of a small home-made altar together with his mother. The scene is unpleasant and distressing but the viewer must accept it as the only remaining source of hope and comfort for the characters.
By portraying people at the bottom of the society — at the landfill of civilization under the vast shadow of a big city — Kurosawa attains inner realism. For he is very true to life. To the lives of the characters; their inner world and existential experience. The wide character gallery of Dodes’ka-den includes, for example, two alcoholic men who change wives with each other, a father and a son who construct an imaginary chateau, a lonely old man who helps a burgular, a shoemaker who has adopted a group of orphans, a man suffering from involuntary movements who still has the energy to be loyal to a cranky wife of his, a flower girl who a sake-boy has a crush on, and, of course, the boy who drives the invisible trolley. Although the film is plot-less and mainly constructed on sudden shifts from one character to another, there is certain gripping movement and rhythmic composition in Dodes’ka-den. And, above all, the distinct structure is true to the thematic context; the philosophy; or Kurosawa’s essential idea.
Ever since Kurosawa’s legendary masterpiece Seven Samurai (1954) the realism of the logic of dream has been an elemental part in his work: the importance of constructing the so-called ‘factual truth’ in dream and reality. One might have also noticed that Kurosawa very rarely, if ever, separates what is real and what is not. The most complex example being Rashomon (1950) in which each character has a subjective view of reality and the truth. This relativist philosophy, which is predominant in Kurosawa’s aesthetics, also influences on the fact that the different levels of reality are always present in his films. Thus is in Dodes’ka-den as well.
First, there is the objective level of reality. The objective level shows what has happened. It shows the external or the factual truth. Or, in other words, the objective level tells us what might have happened. Think of Rashomon, for example, where the levels can’t be separated, where the truth and the untruth can’t be distinguished. Then there is the subjective level of reality which is strongly characterized by the illusions and desires of the individual. That is to say, it is constructed by the mind. It shows what we call in psychology the inner world. Not surprisingly, for a Marxist filmmaker, this juxtaposition bears a social connotation. I am, of course, referring to the base and the superstructure — the material reality and the consciousness — which I shall return later on.
The rhythm of discreet and explosive behavior, hence the primitively simple characters, is another essential element in Kurosawa’s style and, to my mind, highlights his continuing theme of the relation between man and nature. In one scene of Dodes’ka-den, a woman touches a dead tree as orange-red sunlight pours down on her face like golden honey. The particular image is an extremely beautiful, existentialist definition of man. Such (expressionistic) nature imagery characterizes all of Kurosawa’s films but the vision of the unity of man and nature was taken to its most perfect form in his next film Derzu Uzala (1975).
Moreover, painting had an enormous effect on Kurosawa’s construction and composition of space. In turn, the way how Kurosawa splatters colors on the canvas of cinema has strongly influenced the visual world of Japanese animation. Dodes’ka-den was, in fact, Kurosawa’s first color film, and it shows. Color is used in an elaborate fashion to portray man’s inner world, hopes and dreams just as well as mundane life, suffering and pain. The classical contrasts of life and death, joy and grief are illustrated with simplicity. In Kurosawa’s world of colors, zen-aesthetics blooms as elements of openness and orange-red invade the screen. In addition, Kurosawa uses the landfill — the architecture of destruction and decay — in depicting existential experience in a world, which also controls the consciousness, where injustice and wrongdoing reign.
With regards to the polarization of the objective and the subjective reality, Kurosawa, in addition, treats humanity on two other contradictory levels. On an existential level it’s about authenticity, anxiety and right consciousness whereas on a social level it’s about inauthenticity, alienation and distorted consciousness. In the tension between these two deeper levels, the contrasts of loneliness (decomposition of community) and cohesion are put against.
However, a strong connection prevails in between of the existential and the social level; and that connection is empathy or identification. At times the characters show great ability for solidarity as they identify with the sorrow of their fellow men. Furthermore, the camera is also able to empathize with the characters and their inner world. For example, in the scene, where the homeless man’s son suffers to death from food poisoning, the visual world almost turns into surrealism. Earlier, we saw the blue face of the man in yellow light which gave an indelible impression whose harrowing visual power remains as an echo in the spectator’s mind and thus, casts its impact on the death scene. Mise-en-scène of that particular scene turns into expressionistic stylized and the color world becomes deliberately exaggerated. The distinctly distorted reality reflects the man’s subjective level — his existential experience of suffering.
This poetic, and rather opaque, element in Dodes’ka-den doesn’t, however, make its cinematography excessively complex and, therefore, banal. Kurosawa tells about the existence of the oppressed in direct images. All visual effects of camera trickery have been left out. The images talk clear, undisguised language. Both misery and fraternity take shape in front of the viewer’s eyes — honestly and sincerely, with nothing undue or extravagant. Just the plain, factual truth. And this is, to my mind, the essential idea which Kurosawa followed throughout his career and made him such a genius.
Although Kurosawa’s simplicity in Dodes’ka-den is characterized by a dash of naturalist twists, his realism, which is of inner kind, features magical, fairytale-like elements. The scene in which the small boy begs for food in the big city is, for instance, a very Dickensian picture. In addition, Kurosawa’s portrayal of the mentally deficient boy has nostalgic sadness and real beauty in it. The scenes with him are true manifestations of Kurosawa’s humane philosophy.
The whole film is a brilliant presentation on how the underprivileged of the society must look for an alternative life from the inner world — the subjective reality. The sympathetic boy tries to find satisfaction and acceptance from another world where he is a hard-working tram driver; moreover, the homeless father and son try to discover beauty, luxury and human value from a reality constructed by their consciousness.
These people must kneel in front of the gates of the mind and the spirit, for the material reality, which is dominated by the bourgeois society, has forsaken them. They have been thrown out from Tokyo to a social landfill of superfluous culture as if to await their doom. The father and the son co-imagine a lustrous, glorious palace until the boy dies of food poisoning. Hence, not even the mind could save them because the superstructure of the society, that is to say the bourgeois culture, controls the consciousness and mental state of the proletariat. This is precisely highlighted by the fact that the father wants to build a glamorous chateau instead of an ordinary house. He wants to live like the rest of us, in an unjust world, which is leading to inevitable doom. A melancholy, haunting echo is left beneath the surface, asking us whether a similar fate awaits the boy with the trolley.
Thus, Dodes’ka-den is a profound study on capitalism and poverty and their effect on man and his community. The inhabitants of the landfill are the people who have lost the rat race of the class society. They lie on the ground, tired and weak, as others shout “deal with it”. Two men become alcoholics due to this; father and son, in order to solve their problem with homelessness, settle for imagination; which the mentally deficient boy must also rely on. To be part of the society, he imagines that he is efficient and working hard. From dawn to dusk he drives the trolley, to be human, because the society refuses to offer anything real for him. These people are like sentenced convicts, who are serving their penalty, but will never be forgiven. Let alone the fact that their only crime was being human.
In this sense, Dodes’ka-den is a magnificent picture of social abasement. Portraying a desolate situation where the oppressed are put against each other. One scene in particular comes to my mind: the viewer finds out that the flower girl has revenged a horrible act (her stepfather took advantage of her) to the only person who truly cared for her. The scene is devastating in its authenticity and features true Dostoevskian agony of despair. Beneath the scene pounds a teary prayer to all good that is left in mankind.
Through various details and separate stories, which have been tuned to the tension of the comic and the tragic, Dodes’ka-den grows out to be a desperate cry for beauty. In the final scene, the camera pans across the boy’s drawings of trolleys on run-down walls. Characterized by strikingly touching musical score, the emotional impact of the end is enormous. The viewer can do nothing but cry, yet still a tiny glimmer of hope shines in the eye of everyone who leaves the cinema after Dodes’ka-den.