Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Krushtalyov, my car! (film essay)


1. A Winter’s Tale

Once in the winter of 1953, Alexei German’s father, a prominent Moscow novelist, greeted a man in the stairway of the Kommunalka (communal apartment) where the extended family lived. The man said that he had come from abroad and was carrying a letter for German’s father, Yuri German. Alexei German recalled that he father was appalled. Immediately, he kicked the man so hard that he plunged down the flight of steps leading to the Kommunalka. The visitor from abroad vanished into the snowy night. "Why did you do that?" Alexei asked his father. "He was an agent provocateur," Yuri German told his son. "To receive a letter from abroad now would be to sign my death sentence." "But how do you know he was an agent provocateur?" the 12 year-old Alexei asked his father. "I don’t know, but I can’t take the chance," his father told him.

This anecdote forms the core for German’s Krushtalyov, my car! The film is about the hysterical paranoia at the heart of Soviet Stalinism. It is one of the most uncompromising pictures ever made and considered by Russians to be the most penetrating account of the psychology of totalitarianism ever presented.


German began production of Krushtalyov in 1992. Work on the film continued sporadically, when money was available, through 1998. The movie is ostensibly based on a short story ("In a Room and a Half") by the Nobel laureate writer, Joseph Brodsky, an expatriate who died in New York City in 1996. (Like Nabokov, Brodsky, a famous Russian poet became an equally well-known and highly regarded American poet; after coming to the United States, he wrote his poetry in English.) The script is credited to German’s wife and collaborator, Svetlana Carmelita.

Alexei German demanded that all props and vehicles be authentic. He told Jim Hoberman in 1999, shortly after the film’s disastrous international premiere at Cannes, that it "took me a year of my life to find the 12 black ZIS -110 automobiles." In the film, as in real life, each of those cars carries one member of the 12-person Politburo. In Russian slang, these vehicles were called "Voronek" cars, harbingers of catastrophe just like the black ravens and crows that preside over the climax of Krushtalyov.


3. Alexei German

"I regard myself as an unrealized and, on the whole, an unhappy, failed man."

Alexei German

Soviet Russia was an experiment that lasted three generations. Yuri German, Alexei German’s father came of age in the first generation; he was born in 1910. Alexei (1938 - 2013) lived for more than fifty years as a citizen of the Soviet empire. His son, Alexei Alexeivich German was born in 1976 – he was 15 when the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991. All three men are notable Russian artists.

Yuri German was a very brave man. When he was 18 he accompanied his father, an artillery officer, to the Front in the Civil War. Much of life was spent reporting combat. German wrote his first novel at age 17, although he disavowed the book later. With his Maxim Gorky as his mentor, German published a number of novels during the decade of the thirties, including most famously Ivan Lapshin, my Friend, a novel about petty criminals and their punishment. Throughout World War II, Yuri German reported on various fronts from his headquarters in Arkhangelsk. (Arkhangelsk is the capitol of Oblast Province in the sub-Arctic and Arctic north of European Russia.) During the war, Yuri German wrote many short novels and stories. He also reported for TASS news agency, authoring many articles and essays.

Yuri German became a member of the Communist party in 1958. He died in Leningrad in 1967. German’s war novels are said to be beautifully written, but, essentially, adventure stories with compelling plots. He was never considered to be a "great writer" by his peers, but was said to be a "man of great moral courage and infinite kindness."

German was one of Stalin’s favorite novelists. Yuri German met Stalin on a number of occasions and participated in banquets held in the dictator’s honor. German wrote a number of screenplays for films produced in the forties and fifties. Although German was periodically honored by the regime, he also led a politically precarious existence. On several occasions, German was questioned by authorities with respect to so-called subversive elements in his writings. German’s household was a gathering place for the Leningrad intelligentsia and, on occasion, people who had visited the writer’s home simply vanished, arrested in the dark of night and either secretly executed or sent to Siberia.

Yuri German married a woman who was a prominent physician. Their child, Alexei was born in in Leningrad in 1938. However, for much of his childhood, Alexei lived with his parents in the far north either at Arkhangelsk or Poliarnoe, the Northern Fleet’s base near Murmansk. (One of his father’s assignments was covering the exploits of the Northern Fleet’s submarines.)

Alexei was 15 when Stalin died in 1953. After 1953, Alexei met many prisoners from the Gulag who were released after the dictator’s death. These men and women were guests in his father’s home in Leningrad and vividly described their experiences in the camps to Yuri and his son. Alexei described his father as a loyal Communist and a true believer – "he was more naive that I am and he had a harder time seeing bad things." Initially, Alexei planned to become a medical doctor like his mother. However, his father urged him to become involved in theater and consider directing films. Curiously, Alexei didn’t like working in the film industry: "I never wanted to be a cinema director...I wanted to be a doctor. I experience terror in the face of this profession. I’m always unhappy when I have to shoot...It’s as if every day – you had to drill teeth." Although the family lived in fear during the purges, as did everyone else in the Soviet Union, Alexei’s parents were well-to-do – his family had a chauffeur, nanny, and a maid.

Alexei studied with Gregorei Kozintzev, an important Soviet-era film maker. (Kozintzev made noteworthy films of Shakepeare’s King Lear and Dostoevski’s Crime and Punishment.) Alexei German was trained on the job, as a kind of apprentice, and did not have the typical film school experience of most Soviet directors – that is, education at VGIK (Moscow’s All Union State Institute for Cinematography). Instead, he worked throughout his entire career at Lenfilm in Leningrad, the place where he learned the trade from Kozintzev and other directors affiliated with that studio – many of his father’s film scripts were prepared to Kozintzev films made at Lenfilm and, it seems, that Yuri’s prestige resulted in Alexei finding employment at that studio. (Alexei says that his father’s influence was unavailing to win him good jobs in the movie industry; he claims to have worked as a "mouse wrangler" on one movie made in 1958 – "I had," German says "a stigma of talentlessness.")

Alexei German worked on a number of films directed by other men, as well as theatrical productions, until 1965. At that time, he worked with his father to adapt one of Yuri German’s short war novels, a story called Operation "Happy New Year". At this time, Yuri German was suffering from the cancer that would kill him in 1967. (During this period, German co-directed his first film, The Seventh Satellite with Gregorii Aronov, released in 1967). The script for his war film, ultimately called either The Road Block or Trial on the Road was finally completed in 1969. By that time, Alexei had married Svetlana Karmalita – she was a researcher for documentary films and has co-written the screenplays for all of German’s movies.

Trial on the Road, finally completed in 1971, was immediately censored and not released. The film concerns a Soviet POW who returns from German captivity during World War Two to join the partisans. At first, the partisans don’t trust the POW, but he proves his valor and, finally, dies heroically in brutal fire-fight at a railroad switching station. The problem with this scenario was that "officially" there were not Soviet POWs fighting with the Russian partisans. Stalin’s General Order 270 provided that any Red Army soldier captured by the Germans was to be deemed a traitor and executed immediately upon repatriation to the Russian army – Soviet soldiers were ordered to fight to the death and not allow themselves to be captured. Therefore, any film focusing on the experiences of a Soviet prisoner of war was thought to be deeply offensive. Even worse, Trial on the Road suggests that the POW had actually aided the Germans in the fighting and may have participated in attacks on the Red Army. Of course, this subject was highly controversial and "touched a nerve" – in fact, many anti-Communist members of the Russian military had joined the Germans and fought against the Red Army in the Ukraine, Estonia, and other areas at the fringe of the Russian empire. In the Soviet Union, films were subject the censorship of Goskino. The head of Goskino in 1971 vowed that the film would never be shown during his lifetime –"We have to congratulate LenFilm on a movie about the people who lost the Great Fatherland War" (the official name for W. W. II in the Soviet era). True to his oath, the film was suppressed – it was not shown until 1986, that is, fifteen years after its completion. Later Soviet films were allowed to express some ambiguity about the Great Fatherland War – a conflict, after all, in which hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens fought for the Germans. But Trial on the Road was about five years too early and, so, despite many revisions and resubmissions to Goskino, the picture was shelved. (I have seen the picture, regrettably in a DVD without English subtitles – it is a raw, visually effective, and exciting war movie made with a huge budget. One scene, famous in Russian cinema, shows thousands of prisoners of war on a barge slowly passing under bridges that the partisans have mined with explosives – the suspense is whether an approaching train will have to be blown-up when it is over the barges, thereby raining fire and death on the prisoners of war below. The ending of the film seems very conventional, the hero Lazarev, proving his mettle by mowing down dozens of Germans before expiring in a hail of gunfire in the midst of immense armored trains moving back and forth in a gloomy iron wasteland.) When Goskino finally authorized the movie’s release, it turned out to be very successful at the box office and was awarded a USSR State Prize in 1988.

(When Trial on the Road was finally released and after Perestroika, German says that he received many job offers from Hollywood. Hollywood executives contacted him and asked him to work in Los Angeles, reportedly on the basis of a single shot in the film. Lazarev has been killing Germans with a submachine gun; when he is shot, his weapon falls in the snow, its barrel so hot that it makes a hissing sound. German says that the Hollywood executives showed their fundamental immorality and superficial understanding of film by repeatedly praising that single shot while, apparently, understanding nothing of the film itself.)

For a couple years, German was unable to get anything produced. However, a writer-friend of his father, Konstantin Simonov, offered German a newly written novella, Twenty Days without War. German was attracted to the story, a rather conventional narrative about a journalist’s romance during his 20 days of leave during World War Two. The story is set in Tashkent, a city to which the traumatized journalist travels after reporting on combat at Stalingrad. The journalist goes to a movie set where Soviet authorities are producing a propaganda film about the war. Of course, the depiction of combat in the propaganda film, on which the journalist is asked to lend technical expertise, is ludicrously inaccurate. The journalist falls in love with a woman employed as a seamstress in the wardrobe department of the film’s production company.

German’s wife customarily researched historical details shown in her husband’s films and he was fanatical about literal accuracy. For Twenty Days without War, German delayed production until he could find a tram identical to those used in 1942 to transport troops from the front to Tashkent. Shooting was on-location using buildings still showing marks of war damage in the early ‘seventies. German’s attention to detail had always been obsessive – for instance, all firearms used in Trial on the Road were real Red Army weapons that could be used to fire real bullets – but he carried these techniques to an extreme in Twenty Days without War. Combat sequences were shot with Soviet naval assistance using live ammunition in many cases and at enormous cost. (Twenty Days without War is the only one of German’s films to use color – however, the film was processed in such way as to mute its colors so as to produce a monochrome effect. I’ve seen the film and it uses film stock so weathered and ancient-looking that it seems to have been disinterred from a mass grave on the Eastern front – the movie has an extraordinary distinctively crepuscular appearance, a kind of twilight murk envelopes everything. If I had not read reviews indicating that the film was shot in color, I likely would not have thought that the film contained any color footage at all).

And, once again, German’s film was banned by Goskino. The censors felt that German’s depiction of World War Two was too pessimistic, too unheroic, and too anti-war. In addition, German remained under a cloud due to the scandal enveloping Trial on the Road. Ultimately, the film was withheld from theatrical presentation until 1981, when Konstantin Simonov’s efforts finally resulted in the movie’s clearance for screening. The pattern existing with respect to Trial on the Road was repeated – the film was very successful at the box-office, universally acclaimed, and German received another Soviet film making prize for a film that the authorities had banned for five years.

Next, German adapted one of his father’s novels, Head of Operations, for the screen. The novel is set in Astrakhan in 1937 during the Purges. Yuri German’s book is based on recollections of a family friend, Ivan Bodunov,a retired police commissar. Bodunov was the sole survivor of a police team that had battled a criminal gang, in the mid-thirties in Leningrad – all of the other members of team were shot in 1937-1938 in the Purge. (Bodunov’s friend, a translator, important in the story and film was also executed at the same time.) The movie version of this novel was named My Friend, Ivan Lapshin – Ivan Lapshin is the name of the police commissar in the movie.

German changed the film’s time-frame, setting the movie in 1935 – that is, before the Great Purge. In this way, German sought to avoid conflict with Goskino censors. Further, German even described the film as about "simple people working to build socialism" in a remote provincial city. But German was too honest to avoid foreshadowing the Stalinist terror and he suggests the comical, Chekhovian idyll is trembling on the verge of calamity. When the movie was completed in 1981, Goskino authorities summoned German to their offices. The officials explained that:

A myth exists about the 1930's. In Lapshin, you have chosen the happiest time period – 1935! And you try to dissect it. We won’t give up this period to you.

So, once again, German’s film was suppressed. Other Soviet film makers expressed horror at the movie – Elem Klimov is said to have screamed at German that he didn’t know how to set up a shot and that his mise-en-scene was indecipherable. My Friend Ivan Lapshin was not theatrically released until three years later – this was in 1984. As always, the movie was immediately acclaimed as a masterpiece, enormously successful at the box office, and, again, German received many prizes for his work on the movie. My Friend Ivan Lapshin is the Vertigo or Citizen Kane of Soviet films – it has repeatedly been acclaimed as the greatest film ever made in the Soviet Union. In fact, the film is also immensely popular with the Russian public. Last year, My Friend Ivan Lapshin was voted the most beloved and popular film ever produced during the Soviet era – the movie was also German’s personal favorite.

Krushtalyov, my Car! was made during a fantastically difficult time in Russian history. The movie was produced at LenFilm between 1991 and 1998 – repeatedly, work on the movie had to be halted because devaluation or inflation of the ruble made it impossible to pay the actors and crew for their services. The Russian economy staggered and almost fell in this period, the decade of the dissolution of the old Soviet empire. Regime changes imperiled German’s funding and his French backers repeatedly withdrew their funding when it seemed that the ambitious film would never be completed. The movie was premiered in Cannes in 1998 where it was detested, most of the audience walked out of the picture. At the time, the movie was made, Russian films had no international audience – there was no mechanism for distributing a film made in Moscow or St. Petersburg. Until the last five or six years, the movie was unavailable to study. It is now regarded as among the greatest of all Russian films and has been called a "grandiose close to Soviet cinema."

In 1966, German wrote a script based on a novel, Hard to be a God, by the science fiction writers, Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, the authors of the book on which Andrei Tarkovsky based Stalker. The script was ambitious and German was not able to begin work on the film until 2001. The picture was shot in the Czech republic over a period of six years – photography lasted so long that several of the older characters died during the production. Hard to be a God is a big-budget production, filmed on huge sets with armies of extras. The movie involves exploration of a planet that is 800 years behind Earth, a place trapped in a perpetual Dark Ages – "here," a voice-over says in an early scene, "there was no renaissance." Hard to be a God languished in post-production for another six years – it took 12 years all told for the film to be finished. German died of a heart attack in St. Petersburg in 2013. His son, and wife, Svetlana Karmelita, finished the movie and it was first shown in 2014. The American premiere of Hard to be a God at the New York Film Festival induced a world-wide revival of German’s films – he only made six pictures during his long career (he worked in the film industry for 53 years) and, soon, I hope it will be possible to study all of his work on DVD.


4. A Russian Greatcoat

When Alexei German was asked why he made his movies in black and white, he replied: "I am a realist. I want things to look real. It is almost impossible to shoot a Russian great-coat in color."


5. Cannes 1998

In 1998, the two most famous Russian directors had films in competition for the NIKA, the Russian equivalent of the Oscar. Nikita Mikhalkov’s Barber of Russia was nominated for a Best Feature Film award. Alexander Sokurov’s Moloch had been nominated for a Best Director award. When Mikhalkov and Sokurov saw Krushtalyov, My Car!, they silently withdrew their pictures from the competition, chastened by the daunting brilliance and ambition of German’s film.

At Cannes, more than half of the audience walked out on the movie. One critic said: "They couldn’t hear the soundtrack, but nobody had any difficulty hearing the seats snapping back up as people fled the auditorium." Stephen Holdin reviewing the film for the New York Times wrote: "(the film) is virtually impossible to decipher. It’s characters aren’t properly delineated, its politics not elucidated, its geography unclear — everything that isn’t inky black." Even today, the film is daunting; a Russian critic wrote: "Krushtalyov is a film threatened neither by oblivion nor by understanding."

Although ordinarily uncompromising, the debacle at Cannes resulted in German redubbing the film, improving the audio mix on the soundtrack, and, even, adding a voice-over – the voice of the 12 year-old narrator. Since the voice-over is not consistently used, and since the boy’s point-of-view is only periodically applicable, I doubt that this revision enhanced the film’s coherence, more likely just adding another level of difficulty to the movie. If the person who is narrating the film is central to what we are seeing, then, why does most of the film show us things that the child couldn’t have seen, or known, or, indeed, even imagined?

Ultimately, Krushtalyov was awarded the Nika for best picture in 1998. This award was granted on the basis of Sokurov and Mikhalkov’s endorsement of the film. However, one anonymous critic spoke for many when wrote:

To the respected academy members I have accumulated a sum-total of one single question: How could you choose as Best Feature Film something that almost no one has seen; almost no one has understood; from which the audience walked out; and which was not even widely printed due to its utter lack of commercial viability.


6. Discomfort

Audiences watching German’s mature films almost uniformly report severe discomfort. The experience is disorienting and, to some people, almost physically repellent. It is worthwhile to analyze how German’s films offend their viewers. (By "mature films," I identify German’s last three pictures: My Friend Ivan Lapshin, Krushtalyov, My Car!, and Hard to be a God.)

First, audiences complain about his soundtrack. German’s last three films have extraordinarily dense and cacophonous soundtracks. We hear an intricate aural tapestry of background noises – in Krushtalyov, for instance, calliope music, traffic noise, and a lion roaring in a nearby park. Typically, it is difficult to know what sounds are primary and what are merely noise in the background – in fact, German destabilizes that hierarchy: sometimes, the background noise is obscures the dialogue in the foreground. Furthermore, German records his soundtrack with complex overlapping dialogue – everyone is talking at the same time, coughing, or hacking up phlegm (in Krushtalyov everyone seems to have an awful head or sinus cold.) As in Robert Altman’s films, we are disoriented by the chorus of competing voices – Krushtalyov is polyphonic, many voices all sounding at the same time. In some respects, viewing the film with subtitles falsifies the experience – the subtitles pick out layers of sound from the complicated mix and prioritize them for us. A Russian audience will, undoubtedly, experience Krushtalyov as more difficult to understand than an audience reading subtitles.

Similarly, German’s photography doesn’t clearly differentiate between what is foreground and background. The plethora of background detail often overwhelms what is occurring in the foreground. Our eye is confounded like our ears. We don’t know where to look. Furthermore, we can’t tell what characters are important and what characters are purely peripheral – it takes the audience fifteen minutes to figure out that Yuri Kliensky is the film’s protagonist. Initially, we think that the boy who is perceiving events in his household will provide the primary perspective on the chaos that the movie shows. But, very quickly, we see that young Alexei’s perspective is not privileged – German shows us scenes that Alexei could not have witnessed. The movie either has no consistent point-of-view or multiple, unpredictable mutating points of view.

Goskino objected to German’s films for their "superfluity of background." German responded: "I always liked making the background...Goskino even wrote about me that I present the background as if it were the real cinema. But that background is indeed the most important: it is life itself. I do indeed film a ‘cinema of background’."

In addition, German doesn’t provide narrative clues as to the relationship of the characters to one another or to the story that the film presents. Who is Fedya the Stoker who is arrested in the first few minutes of the movie? What is his relationship, if any, to Yuri Kliensky? Who are the crowds of people jammed into frame when the camera tracks through the chaotic Kliensky household? German allows for no exposition and doesn’t clarify any of the action. We have no idea where the General is taken when he is arrested or why the people in the country instinctively attack him. In German’s later films, nothing makes sense.

But, of course, this confusion, the audience’s disorientation, is intentional. German is presenting a world in which there is nothing stable and in which decisive events simply can not be understood. This is a milieu in which people suddenly and mysteriously vanish forever, a society in which you can be arrested at any time – it is a world menaced by an immensely powerful, pervasive force that can’t exactly be seen or understood. The Stalinist threat comes from everywhere and nowhere in particular. The person with the "cosmopolitan" self-inflating umbrella at our door may be a remote relative or an agent of the KGB. It is impossible to know which is true. The menacing, indescribably antic atmosphere in a film like Krushtalyov apparently reproduces to some degree the experience of people living under Stalin’s terror. People seem trapped in a mode of carnival-like celebration – because, it seems, that human life is unpredictable and, at any moment, we might be inexplicably swept away. In Bulgakov’s comic masterpiece The Master and the Margarita, Satan stalks the streets of Moscow – people attend gluttonous feasts, drink to excess, and indulge in promiscuous sex, always expecting that each moment might be their last. Characters inform on one another inadvertently, everyone is a spy, and, sometimes, people just vanish – one moment they are with us, and the next moment they are gone. German’s carnival confusion reflects a world seething with inexplicable threats.

Like Fellini, a film maker German admired beyond all others, the director casts according to appearance – as a result German’s later films are crowded with grotesque-looking people, strange physiognomies, and downright ugly actors. Hollywood movies make everyone look more attractive, desirable and fit than real life. German’s later films depict an equally unrealistic world in which most are unattractive and some positively hideous. Of course, the effect is that of a prolonged nightmare – German’s vision of Soviet life during the Purges. Russian literature flirts often with the grotesque – there are nightmare passages of grotesque comedy in Gogol and Dostoevsky. The Soviet critic, Mikhail Bakhtin, identified this kind of corporeal grotesque with the carnival and with Rabelais – the "carnival" is the festival of the flesh and it is Bakhtin’s belief that the human body, together with its effluents, is the ultimate agent of revolution, the rebellion against the merely polite and the "civilized" veneer by which oppression masks its barbarity. Depicting bodily functions is revolutionary in that establishes a stratum of existence over which the oppressor has not power: even the mightiest King and Captain of Industry defecates. And, as Montaigne reminds us, all men are, more or less equal, when sitting on a toilet. In this light, German’s relish in depicting things that are disgusting, physically repellent, and, even, nauseating accords with subversive tendencies in Soviet literary criticism and film making – although Bakhtin’s criticism was thought to be Marxist in that it imputed a revolutionary sensibility to the profoundly conservative Dostoevski and unclassifiable figures like Rabelais and Gogol, no doubt exists that his radical critique is also equally applicable to Stalinism and the Soviet Polit-Buro. The fundamental gesture in Krushtalyov is to spit – just before the film’s title is announced, the 12-year old Alexei approaches a mirror and spits on his own image. In effect, German’s film spits in the eye of its audience.

Ultimately, audiences are baffled and disconcerted by the mercurial alternation between horror and comedy fundamental to German’s final movies. Sequences in these films are extremely funny – for instance, the "cosmopolitan" umbrella that keeps opening during the various calamities befalling the visitor to Moscow. But this gag leads to an image of the man who owns the umbrella being beaten to death. The giant and towering General, Yuri Klensky, a figure who is like Rabelais’ Pantagruel, a colossus of unbridled appetite and energy is reduced to a quivering, abject shadow of himself when he is raped in the champagne truck. For a moment, it seems that we are spectators on a particularly hectic domestic comedy, too many ill-matched people living in too small of an apartment, but before we can laugh something sinister or horrible occurs. The nightmare world of Soviet totalitarianism oscillates between the ridiculous and the horrible.

An excellent account of the cinematic technique in German’s mature work is this description, although written about My Friend Ivan Lapshin, equally relevant to Krushtalyov:

Loosely episodic, the film is remarkable in its resistance to linear narrative: dialogue is often drowned out by senseless chatter or the clanging of buckets; our view of important characters is frequently blocked by figures crossing the screen. In its cinematography, (German’s films) consistently refuse to accept established priorities, as though every element of each shot must be allowed its meaning. The camera often enters a room behind characters’ backs, like a guest, or at elbow level, like a curious child. There is no sense that the scenes are choreographed or pre-arranged, but, rather, a feeling that the camera wide-eyed is capturing what it can of a bewildering world.
Tony Wood, "Time Unfrozen – the Films of Alexei German" published in New Left Review, 2001.


7. Who is Krushtalyov?

Ivan Krushtalyov was one of Stalin’s bodyguards. He was appointed to this position a few weeks before Stalin suffered the series of cerebral hemorrhages that caused his death. Beria had selected Krushtalyov for the position and it has been alleged that this guard may, in fact, have administered poison to Stalin. Accounts of Stalin’s death vary, but several suggest that Krushtalyov gave the order to dismiss staff, including medical doctors and nurses attending on the dictator on the night that Stalin died – thereby, it seems, depriving Stalin of access to medical treatment that might have saved his life.

In Russian, the word "car" is "machina" – this word suggests in Russian, as in English, "machinations." When Stalin died, Beria is said to have shouted in a "loud, undisguisedly triumphant voice," the words "Krushtalyov, bring my car – or bring on the machine." In the words of one critic, Beria’s command signifies that the machinery of history has progressed beyond Stalin to a new phase.



8. Historical background

In the lexicon of Stalin’s tyranny, "rootless cosmopolitan" means "Jew." Throughout, Stalin’s reign, periodic anti-Semitic purges were instituted. The so-called "Doctors’ Plot," the subject of Krushtalyov was one of these episodes.

In 1942, the Jewish Bund or Anti-Fascist League was formed to oppose Hitler’s invasion of Russia. A number of prominent Jews, including many Yiddish poets and writers, joined this organization. After World War Two, the Jewish Anti-Fascist League took measures to publicize Hitler’s genocidal assaults on the Jews. This publicity ran contrary to Stalin’s propaganda that emphasized German atrocities against the Russian people as a whole and did not single out the Nazi war against the Jews for attention. The Bund was banned in the Soviet Union after the War and a number of its members were arrested, tortured, and shot.

In 1951, members of the MGB (the Ministry for General Security) alleged that several Jewish doctors previously connected with the Jewish Anti-Fascist League had committed medical malpractice on members of the Politburo, specifically Zhdanov (Stalin’s successor-in-waiting) and Shcherbakov (the head of the Soviet Writers Union). A couple of doctors were arrested and tortured. However, the leader of the MGB, Abakumov, disbelieved the allegations and suggested that there was no basis to proceed with further investigation. Abakumov’s subordinate accused him of "covering up" the conspiracy and, indeed, went so far as to claim that Abakumov had ordered that one of the prime suspects, a doctor named Etinger had been intentionally tortured to death to keep him from identifying other conspirators. (In fact, the subordinate had botched Etinger’s interrogation and accidentally killed him.) Abakumov was arrested and shot himself. Beria, then, appointed a commission to investigate the plot. The allegations were that nine Kremliln doctors had conspired to kill Zhdanov and Shcherbakov, both of whom had died as a result of their alcoholism. Of the nine doctors arrested, six were "rootless cosmopolitans" suspected of "bourgeois nationalism" – jargon for "Jewish."

Under Beria’s ruthless leadership, the purge expanded. Another 37 doctors were arrested. Ultimately hundreds of people, almost all of them Jewish, were implicated. Beria pursued the investigations zealously – at that time, he was attempting to deflect attention away from a scandal that affected him, the so-called Mingrelian affair. Under torture, more names were named. Several nurses provided evidence about the so-called "Doctor-Killers" including one who was awarded the Lenin Star in January 1953. Stalin’s instructions to his interrogators were to "beat, beat, and beat again." Soviet news agencies whipped the public into a state of hysteria claiming that Zionist "terrorists" had subverted the medical system, intentionally misdiagnosing patients and, then, murdering them with incompetent treatment. It seems that the Politburo was considering deporting Russian Jews at this time. The Jewish community was said to have been "bought by the Americans."

Stalin fell ill in late February 1953 when the purge of so-called "doctor-saboteurs" was at its height. (This posed a number of problems for his treatment – as shown in the film, imprisoned and half-dead doctors were hauled out of jail and brought to Stalin’s bedside to consult with his treating physicians; most of these doctors were cardiology specialists.) Stalin died on March 5, 1953. With his death, the purge ended. Later, Krushchev declared that he entire affair had been a hoax – there had never been any evidence of a conspiracy among Soviet doctors, either Jewish or not.


9. Doubles

The Moscow Show Trials occurred between 1936 and 1938. An embarrassing episode occurred during the so-called "Trial of the 21." A man named Krestinsky was accused of supporting Trotsky and working for the German secret service. Prosecutors claimed that Krestinsky had confessed and called him to testify as to his guilt. To everyone’s surprise, Krestinsky said that he was not guilty, that he had never support Trotsky, and that he was not in the pay of the German Secrete Service. The Judge gavelled the proceedings closed and adjourned. The next day, Krestinsky appeared again and acknowledged that "poor health" had misled him during the previous session and that he had accidentally uttered the words "I am not guilty." He acknowledged that he was guilty as charged and said that he hoped that his example would serve as a warning to other conspirators against the Soviets.

After Krestinsky’s execution, Soviet secret service personnel located "doubles" – that is, people who could credibly appear as men and women arrested by the State. The purpose of these doubles was to provide testimony at "Show Trials" – the doubles were not weakened by torture and not inclined to deviate from the script that they had been given acknowledging their guilt. General Kliensky knows that he is doomed in Krushtalyov when he encounters his double, a man who looks just like him who has been recruited presumably to read his confession at the trial on accusations pending against him.

In the film, Yuri Kliensky is composite figure – he has some characteristics of Alexei German’s father and other features associated with a family friend, a military doctor who spent time in Gulag. The role of the General is played by Yuri Tsurilo, a small-town blacksmith who also appeared, from time to time, in regional theater – local shows produced in small provincial towns. (German often casts against type – in Twenty Days without War, a bitter and morose anti-war film, German had the role of the cynical journalist and central character, Lopatin, played by a famous Moscow comedian who was also the director of the Moscow circus.)


10. Kommunalka

Krushtalyov shows life in a Kommunalka – that is, communal apartment. By the early fifties, private property and private ownership of real estate had been effectively abolished. Even professional people and elites were forced to live in crowded communal apartments. This living arrangement is shown in the chaotic domestic scenes in Krushtalyov. Although the General is an important man, he, nonetheless, has to live with a crowd of other people, some of them apparently informants for the KGB. One of the ways that Stalin’s secret police kept track of subversives and potential threats to the regime was by planting spies in the Kommunalka – that is, the communal apartments where urban elites lived.


11. Rape

German has said: "Krushtalyov is a metaphor for the terrible psychological trauma of national anal rape by the state, by tsars, and by the Bolsheviks."


12. Favorite films

What kind of cinema did Alexei German admire? In an interview, German said that, at his dacha, he and his wife and son endlessly watched and re-watched the films of Andrei Tarkovsky and Federico Fellini. German said that Federico Fellini was his favorite director and that the movies that he most admired by Fellini were Roma and Amarcord.


What Happens in Krushtalyov, My Car!

The action of Krushtalyov, My Car! occurs between about 10:00 pm on the night of February 28, 1953 to mid-morning March 2, 1953 – that is, a period of three days. Although official histories give Stalin’s death as March 5, 1953, some sources say March 2 – and, of course, German firmly believed, on the basis of his research, that Stalin died at his dacha on March 2. A coda in Siberia takes place ten years later – that is in 1963.


Part One
A voice-over announces that it is February 1953. (The voice is the adult Alexei recalling events from the 1953).

Fedya, the Condom, a stoker, gets arrested, possibly because he discovers a car full of secret police watching over the neighborhood where Yuri Kliensky, the famous general and military surgeon, lives. He is put in some kind of a small hut and simply abandoned there. (At the end of the film, we learn that he has been sent to Siberia and imprisoned there for ten years.)

A man with a beret happens on the place where Fedya is confined. With his umbrella, he pushes a dropped cigarette under Fedya’s door.

The 12 year old Alexei is messing with fire and causes a small explosion. He spits on a mirror. The title of the film is announced.

The man with the beret is knocked down by a vehicle on the snowy street. He gets a bloody nose. A big, aggressive woman, possibly his wife, intervenes. The man’s umbrella inflates – a sign that he is from abroad. (Umbrellas of that kind didn’t exist in Moscow in 1953).

At the Kommunalka, chaos reigns. Grandma wants to be sent to a poor-house. There is discussion about being Jewish. Cousins to the family are Jews, but family members regard themselves as Russian. A maid, or servant, announces to the lady of the house that something is an affront to "female dignity," earning a slap from her mistress. (She may be referring to Yuri Kliensky’s compulsive philandering.)

Alexei sits under the dining room table as the family bickers and eats, playing with a match. His father, Yuri does a headstand with two hanging gymnastic rings.

An insert shows black cars moving through the night, probably the black limousines of KGB officers.

In a snowy schoolyard, probably the next morning, children are fighting. They talk about the Jews and the Russians. Alexei gets beat up and, when his father comes along, slapped by Yuri as well, probably for losing the fight. (We will return to this school yard in the final part of the film where the kids continue, like the adults, to bully and beat one another).

At the hospital, there is a crisis. Someone has locked himself in the enema room. An axe is delivered to Yuri and he breaks down the door. (Yuri also encounters one of his girlfriends, a comically tiny, if belligerent, woman.) The morgue attendant seems to be called "Death." In the enema room, he sees his double. This leads him to conclude that he will likely be arrested by the KGB, tortured, and his double used to appear in public and confess to his crimes. However, Yuri doesn’t give any sign that he is afraid.

It is night once more – the camera pans through a public garden with a small zoo. From time to time, people say that they can hear the lion roaring – a sign, perhaps, for Stalin’s commands that govern everyone’s life.

The man with the beret is in a crowded place that looks like a restaurant. He is offered a ram but rejects the animal. There is discussion about ethnic identity in the Soviet Union. The man wearing the beret departs the restaurant in a bus or some kind of public conveyance. The bus crashes into the street car. Sonya, the beret-man’s wife apparently, appears and berates him – she is the large aggressive woman that we earlier saw at the first accident. Sonya takes the beret-man on a tour of a bathhouse and says that she is the "doctor of the bathhouse".

After leaving the bath-house, the man with the beret goes to Yuri Kliensky’s apartment. He claims to be an emissary from a Swedish relative of Kliensky. Yuri throws him out of the apartment.

Alexei is tormented by his sadistic sisters.

Out on the street, the man with the beret gets into a fight, possibly with KGB men, who seem to kill him. He is dragged away. This time his umbrella fails to inflate.

On the snowy street, a street car runs parallel to a vehicle taking Yuri Kliensky to a party of the doctors and other staff at his hospital. He sees a man in a street car balancing a glass of vodka on his head. A woman beckons to Yuri from a passing car.

Kliensky, who will be referred to as "the General," seems to know that he will be arrested. He goes "on the lam". We see him scaling a wall, sitting on its top, and, then, letting himself fall backward into the snow on the other side. (Earlier we saw someone fleeing over this wall with exactly the same gesture – the image seems to signify both desperation as well as a sense of being freed: the worst has now happened.)

The General throws the ring of one of his girlfriend’s into the air, saying that if finds it again, everything will be okay. We aren’t shown whether he finds the ring – presumably he does not.

Someone is let out of a shed in which he has been locked. Is the stoker, Fedya, the condom?

A battered bus pulls up and a comically large number of Soviet apparatchiks come forth, scurrying through the snowy streets and pouring into the General’s house. These are the secret police searching for the General.

The General goes to the flat of an ex-girlfriend, Varvara. Varvara has become fat but she still loves the General. "I’m an old maid and I’ve got sinusitis," Varvara tells the General. He drinks cognac or vodka and spits it into flame, causing a fireball. (The General like his son Alexei seems to enjoy causing small fires and explosions.) A cat tries to steal a big carp that is store in Varvara’s bathtub and she punishes the cat by half-drowning it. Then, Varvara implores the General to have sex with her so that she can bear his child. The General can’t manage the act.

Back the General’s apartment, all is chaos. The place has been searched and half-looted. Alexei is told by secret policeman to call a certain number to inform on his father if, and when, the General returns. Certain rooms in the house are officially sealed – including a room containing a family pet. One of the women contemptuously breaks the seal. The people in the house fight with one another over the government seal.

This is the end of the Part One of the Film

Part Two

The furrier is told that the stoker has been arrested.

Fleets of sinister-looking black sedans roll through the Moscow streets. The Voronek cars show that the Politburo is on the move – something is afoot. There are road-blocks.

The General has hitched a ride in an open truck with some agricultural produce and several roosters. The truck stops in a little village. A mob of boys attacks the general with sticks – they seem to sense that he is on the run. The secret police arrive and apprehend the General. In the fight, the General has lost a boot, and has one foot bare, but it is restored to him.

The General is locked in the back of champagne truck and hauled away.

Back in Moscow, the General’s family has moved into a ramshackle hovel of an apartment in which someone has stolen the toilet seats and door knobs. Alexei’s mother acts erratically and has, perhaps, gone insane.

At a crossroads, the champagne truck stops and a bunch of convicts from another lorry and put in the back with the General. The convicts rape the General and sodomize him with some sort of metal bar. Then, the champagne truck stops in dense fog. The guards say that the fearsome "boss" is coming. Another vehicle arrives full of secret police. The General’s double is also among these people. The Boss beats one of the convicts to death with metal pole used to sodomize the General. The General tries so drown himself in a hole in the ice and, then, cools his buttocks and rectum in a piel of snow. When the General is told to go with the Boss, there is a fight over shoes, the General clinging to a shoe that turns out to be "a kid’s shoe."

The caravan continues. They stop at an inn where there is a picture of Pushkin on the wall and the "doctor’s plot" against Stalin is mentioned. The General is cleaned-up and told that he can be a general again – he has somehow been briefly rehabilitated. Looking out a window, the General sees an ill-favored bird, a sinister omen.

The General watches a train crossing a river and bound for Astrakhan. There is another road block and the General is transferred into another one of the black Sedans. A bird of ill omen is seen in a tree.

The General has been brought to Stalin’s deathbed at the dictator’s dacha. Beria and Krushchev are present. Stalin is lying in his own excrement. A nurse is beaten for allowing this to happen. The General rubs Stalin’s belly and succeeds in eliciting a fart from the dying man. Stalin dies at 3:53 pm. Throughout these scenes, the General is dowsed in some kind of cologne or perfume.

The General is back in Moscow. Alexei, his son prays because he feels he must betray his father by placing a phone call to inform on him. The General collapses with nervous exhaustion. A boy in the household sings a Jewish song. Then, Alexei tells us in a voice-over that he never saw the General again.

A motorcycle with side-car vanishes in the distance of Moscow’s streets. Apparently, the motorcycle crashes. The mise-en-scene has led us to believe that the General is on the motorcycle but he is not. Alexei’s narrative says that his father’s name doesn’t appear on the list of those executed.

Ten years pass.

Prisoners are released from a camp to return to Moscow. A band plays

Fedya, the Stoker, is one of the prisoners to be released. He has spent his time learning English in the prison. But he hasn’t been taught to curse in English. Another prisoner says if you can’t curse in a language that language is useless to you.

The prisoners board a train. A whore is turning tricks in berth next to where the General is sleeping.

The General gets up. There is a contretemps with Fedya. Fedya is beat up. He cries out: "What did I do? All my life they beat me." In frustration, he slaps his own face.

On an open rail car, the General wagers that he can hold a glass of vodka on his bald head despite the shocks of the road. He balances the glass on his head. The car departs into the distance of the Siberian wilderness.

Someone gurgles phlegm and cries out "Fuckall!"


13. German: A final word

Do not consider my cinema gloomy, frightening, anti-Russian...(Krushtalyov) is simply a humorous film. Sometime in the future it will indeed be humorous, although very frightening. But it is cinema made with love. Once such a thing was called the Russia- Troika. We attempted to approach the genius fo Gogol.




The ‘little sparrow’ as she was called by her father, Stalin’s daughter Svetlana Alliluyeva died at 85 in 2011 in the town where she had lived for many years: ________________________. To the people in that town, she was known as Lana Peters.

Stalin’s granddaughter, Chrese Evans, runs a boutique in _____________________ and is a practicing _______________.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Jurassic World

In Spielberg-land, the price of divorce is that your kids get eaten alive (or almost) by dinosaurs.  Sent of to an amusement park near Costa Rica to avoid the emotional trauma of their parents divorce, two cute boys end up being chased up and down a tropical island by ravenous dinosaurs.  Spoiler alert:  despite their best efforts, the dinos don't manager to chow down on the boys.  Of course, with this movie, Jurassic World, you don't really need spoiler alerts because there is nothing new or different in this movie, nothing surprising, no plot twists that you can't intuit far in advance, no suspense and no thrills.  Certain rules apply in Jurassic World -- fat guys are always evil villains or negligent fools, but they end up eaten by dinosaurs so it doesn't really matter in the end; you can typically predict the fate of a character applying the old Star Trek test -- people of color tend to be expendable (there's one exception to this rule in Jurassic World, but the Jamaican or African who survives the dinosaur assault, despite being a major minor character is simply forgotten about when the monsters fail to eat him -- in other words, he's out of the movie without the dignity of being devoured alive.)  As the film progresses, the heroine will lose more and more of her clothing so as to better display her pneumatic figure, but, in the end, she will still face down the most vicious of the dinosaurs in her high heels -- the actress trapped in this thankless role, and cursed with the worst hairdo ever seen in a big-budget movie is Bryce Dallas Howard, Ron Howard's daughter; the robot chick in Ex Machina is warmer and more appealing than she is allowed to be in this movie.  And, of course, the last 25% of the film will be shot in bluish-green darkness to conceal the shabby special effects -- in the last part of the movie, the big battle between equally matched carnivorous dinosaurs is only a slight advance over similar scenes in old Godzilla monsters:  despite all the CGI, it still looks like guys in rubber suits battering one another.  (And one of the raptors in the last part of the film is very obviously a hand-puppet.) 

Every hoary stereotype imaginable is reprised in Jurassic World -- the problem is that all of this was all done better and with far greater wit and elan in Jurassic Park more than 20 years ago.  Genetically modified dinosaurs are bad; dinosaurs with natural genetics -- whatever that means in this context -- are good.  The military industrial complex remains, as always, up to its old tricks.  Although the genetically engineered dinosaur is supposed to be much larger and more vicious than the other monsters, the film doesn't provide any meaningful standard of comparison.  In fact, the more feral genetically modified monster merely has a few more stylish spikes and scales on his body -- very much like the forest of radioactive excrescences growing from Godzilla's back.  The end of the film is choreographed so poorly that we can't tell which dinosaur wins the battle or which big feller is snarfed down by the huge aquatic dragon.  In fact, the climax of dinosaur-on-dinosaur action relies upon a deus ex machina or deus ex Tyrannosaurus Rex, suddenly bringing that creature into the action when there has been no reference whatsoever to the animal before the final titanic (and unconvincing) battle. 

Chris Pratt, an extraordinarily likeable actor, is wholly wasted in the film.  And, if I'm not mistaken, Pratt has lost some weight and, unfortunately, has seems to have learned the classic, patronizing sneer of a typical movie action hero.  He no longer is the resourceful, comic, slightly overweight Everyman that audiences appreciated in Guardians of the Galaxy.  With a few more trips to the gym, Pratt will start to resemble the beefed-up Sylvester Stallone or Bruce Willis kind of super-hero -- and, accordingly, will entirely lose his charm.  (It reminds me of the ludicrous Jeff Goldblum required to appear in action films with his body encased in Schwartzenegger-like muscles -- the actor's unique qualities were utterly obscured by casting him in roles of that kind to the extent that his career completely collapsed.  The studios could put muscle mass on Jeff's arms and pectorals but couldn't do anything about his bulging Talmud-scholar compound eyes and nerdy features.)  The female lead with her pert upthrust breasts, high-heels, and skin-tight garments seems directed to put feminism back, at least, forty years -- she acts like a character in a low-budget 1950's monster movie.  The film, not exactly a mess and, probably, respectably made in some ways, was directed by Colin Trevorrow.  You get your money's worth, although I spent a lot of time wondering how much longer the increasingly absurd and poorly staged chase scenes could last.  (The movie feels much longer than its two-hour running time.)  The best scene in the film involves a pterodactyl attack on the crowded theme-park.  It's in the sequence that the film makers show their contempt for the audience that has parted with their money to see the movie.  The pterodactyls plunge out of the sky and savage the white middle-class people with their smug, pampered children, the same Orange county suburbanites imagined, I suppose, as the film's target audience -- an anonymous woman with a movie-star figure and movie-star clothes gets picked up by a pterodactyl who passes her to his buddies swooping nearby; the flying monsters hurl her from beak to beak as if she were a basketball in a Harlem globetrotter's game and, when she finally falls into the big Sea World tank, aquatic monsters dribble her up and down the court until she's gobbled up by the biggest sea monster of them all.  It's a sequence of breathtaking cruelty and clearly intended as rebuke to the audience -- take that, you pathetic fools!  After expending all the film's budget and ingenuity in the pterodactyl-attack sequence, the movie is left with a 30 minute climax filed in the blue-green murk. After the anonymous woman's comeuppance, it's pretty clear that the director has lost all interest in the film.

Why can't you hear a pterodactyl urinate?  Because the "p" is silent.

The Clouds of Sils Maria

Oliver Assayes The Clouds of Sils Maria is a complex meditation on aging that has some of the density of a play by Chekhov or Ibsen.  In fact, the movie sometimes seems to be a variant on Ibsen's The Master Builder, albeit from a female perspective.  The film is cerebral and relies on a series of emphatic (some might argue overly emphatic) correlations between art and the reality in which art is embedded.  The film features Juliette Binoche, as an aging actress, with Kirsten Stewart playing the part of her personal assistant and protégée.  The film interweaves three principle thematic strands:  the heroine's defiance in the face of age and, then, her resignation, the arrogance of youth, and natural phenomena as signifiers of mortality. 

Much of The Clouds of Sils Maria consists of exposition.  The situation is complicated by backstories occurring two decades before the events that the film portrays.  Juliette Binoche plays an actress named Maria Enders who is internationally famous for her talent and integrity.  When she was 18, Enders starred in a film version of a play by man named Wilhelm Melchior, apparently an Austrian or Swiss writer -- it's suggested that the writer is like Thomas Bernhard, a misanthrope hiding in his mountain retreat.  Melchior's play was about the toxic relationship between an older woman (Helene) and her protégée Sigrid. In the play, Sigrid seduces the Helene, a bourgeois factory-owner, and ultimately destroys her.  Throughout the film, characters argue about what this plot signifies:  Enders initially views the story as an account of the sexual connivance and evil of the younger woman; Enders' personal assistant, who is herself a much younger woman, believes that the story is about Helene grasping that she and Sigrid are kindred spirits, both of them open to subversive possibilities.  (This is obviously how the personal assistant sees her relationship with the older, famous actress -- she thinks that they are, in effect, sisters of a kind.)  Throughout the picture, the meaning of the clash between the generations is debated in various ways -- at the end of the film, a very young director who makes sci-fi pictures about a post-human future pronounces the movie's benediction:  "We are all of us all ages at once..." -- that is, what appears as a conflict between young and old is actually a reflection of perpetual combat in our souls between our young and old selves. 

The film begins with chill intimations of mortality.  Melchior, the playwright, dies on the eve of a commemoration in Zurich in his honor.  (In fact, he has committed suicide at a favorite overlook in Sils Maria).  Maria is approached by Klaus, a theater director planning to stage Melchior's play, The Snake of Majola, in London -- he wants Maria to play the role of the older woman, a commentary on her previous performance as the 18-year old seductress and, probably, a cynical publicity stunt.  (A subtext throughout the film is temptation of cheap publicity, the pursuit of paparazzi, and depredations of the scandal-mongering press.)  Maria turns down the part.  Even though she despises him, she makes a sexual offer to the man who co-starred in the play with her two decades earlier and who exploited her as a 18 year old girl.  He rejects her, inducing an emotional crisis in Maria.

The second and longest act in the film takes place in the Alpine valley at Sils Maria, the place where Nietzsche wrote some of his last books, and a place of almost supernatural splendor.  Maria decides to accept the role of the older woman in the play and rehearses the role with her personal assistant.  The two women occupy Melchior's house on a high ridge overlooking the glacial lake.  This part of the film is like a low-key version of Bergman's Persona -- the women come perilously close to a love affair, it seems, share confidences, and, ultimately, the play that they are rehearsing comes to control their lives.  The central metaphor in the film is the so-called "Snake" -- a cloud formation involving a huge tongue of vapor that rolls over a mountain pass from Italy, inundates the valley with roiling fogs, and, then, proceeds like a vast serpent across the surface of the lake.  This phenomenon, previewed in a showing of a silent film by the German "mountain-director", Dr. Arnold Fanck, occurs during the climax of this part of the film and coincides with the personal attendant's disappearance from the film.  The meaning of this imagery is debatable -- I think the "Snake", appearing as an evanescent river of fog, symbolizes death and inevitable progression of time.  (In fact, the silent footage of the Snake made in the late twenties also has the effect of highlighting the notion that cloud formation represents the passage of the years in a human life.)

The third, much shorter part of the movie is a kind of epilogue and focuses on the ruthless cruelty of the principal characters.  Maria now has a new personal assistant, also beautiful and briskly efficient, and it is as if the character played by Kirsten Stewart never existed -- there is something ruthless about the way that Maria never mentions the woman who has been in just about every shot in the film up to this point. The famous Hollywood actress recruited to play the part of the conniving femme fatale proves to be as nasty as reputed and disrespects the older woman exactly as Maria feared.  Maria meets with the young director to discuss the science fiction film and the Hollywood actress learns that her older boyfriend's wife has tried to commit suicide.  This news has an ambiguous cast -- it means that a scandal will attend the show and, probably, enhance its revenues.    

The Clouds of Sils Maria is an excellent film with many thought-provoking aspects.  It's weakness lies in Juliette Binoche's performance.  The actress is simply too highly intelligent for the part and seems, in my view, to be feigning stupidity.  Clearly, a woman of this intelligence would understand that she is too old to play the part of Sigrid and would not make herself appear foolish trying to secure that role.  The people in the film smoke a lot of cigarettes and drink a lot of wine -- Binoche is fairly convincing with the cigarettes but she is completely implausible as a drunk.  Simply put, her imitation of a woman who is giddy with booze is close to embarrassing.  In my view, the film would be better with a less self-consciously intelligent actress playing the main role.  Kirsten Stewart is excellent as the harried personal assistant and there are many minor roles all impeccably cast and acted.  The film is crammed with odd incidents and funny scenes (it's particularly funny to see Binoche wearing 3D goggles to watch the young actress cast as Sigrid in a Hollywood super-hero film).  I'm not sure it all adds up but it's fun to try to assemble the pieces. 

Friday, July 17, 2015

Shadows in Paradise (Film Group Essay)



from an interview with Aki Kaurismaki
Kaurismaki: Have you ever been to Finland?

Interviewer: No.

Kaurismaki: Don’t go. Life is boring enough.


Aki Kaurismaki

Aki Kaurismaki directed Shadows in Paradise in 1986. It was his third feature length film. Kaurismaki’s first full-length movie was an adaptation of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. He has since made a dozen additional movies. One of his films, Leningrad Cowboys go America (1989) has a cult following. Beyond any doubt, Kaurismaki is Finland’s leading film maker.

Kaurismaki and his brother, Miki (who often works with him) were raised in a provincial city in Finland. Kaurismaki took a degree from a Helsinki University in Media Studies and has spent his life making movies. He recalls that when he was a teenager, he attended a film club that screened a double feature of Luis Bunuel’s L’ Age d’Or and Flaherty’s Nanook of the North. Kaurismaki remarks that between those two films define the entire spectrum of what motion pictures can accomplish. (Not surprisingly, Kaurismaki is an admirer of the silent film comedians, particularly Buster Keaton – he has praised Keaton’s "pale silence.")

Kaurismaki spends half of each year in Portugal where he owns a house. Finland is cold and dark in the winter. Like most Finns, he is dour, pessimistic, misanthropic, reluctant to engage in any activity other than heavy drinking and chain smoking.

Kaurismaki’s best reviewed film The Man without a Past (2002) was nominated for an Oscar. The director refused to come to the Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles as a protest against the war in Iraq – "why would I go to party in a country that is at war?" His next film, Le Havre (2011) was selected for an American premiere at the New York Film Festival. Again, Kaurismaki was invited to attend. And, again, he refused to travel to the United States out of solidarity with the Iranian director, Abbas Kiastorami. (The State Department denied a entry visa to Kiastorami.)

Kaurismaki is married and his wife is said to be unfailingly cheerful, happy, and optimistic. Kaurismaki says that his wife is the only reason that he has not killed himself. When asked if he had any children, Kaurismaki said: "Too many." How many? he was asked. "None," he replied.

With his brother, Miki, Kaurismaki’s films comprise about one-fourth of the total production of movies made in Finland. Both Kaurismaki brothers are featured on their own Finnish stamps

from another interview with Aki Kaurismaki
Q (by interviewer): What defines the Finnish character?

A: (Kaurismaki): Melancholy.

Q: Why?

A: Lack of light. It’s biologically proven that you need light to survive. There is no light in Finland. When it is dark in the world, it is dark in the mind.

Q: Does this worry you?

A: I more or less know I will kill myself, but not yet.

Q: What would make you do that?

A: Misery.

Q: You are too much of a romantic .

A: Yeah, yeah. So I don’t shoot myself in the head. I shoot myself in the heart.


from another interview by Kaurismaki
Kaurismaki: I have made half my films sober and half my films drunk. But no one has ever been able to tell the difference.

The Proletarian Trilogy
Shadows in Paradise (1986) is the first film in a sequence of three movies that critics call Kaurismaki’s "Proletarian Trilogy." All films feature people employed in blue collar jobs yearning for an escape from their mundane existences. The other pictures in the trilogy are Ariel (1988) and The Matchfactory Girl (1990). These pictures are simply made and exemplify a sort of rock-ribbed classicism – the images are clear and the editing is, at once, lucid and emphatic. Although the films feature beautiful, and carefully designed compositions, there is nothing gratuitously pretty or ostentatious about the photography. Kaurismaki’s lights his shots for clarity and eschews anything like "atmospheric" effects. (He has said that he despises Martin Scorsese for his baroque style – he calls Scorsese’s bravura technique "disgusting" and says that Goodfellas, for instance, is the "worst film (he) has ever seen." If Kaurismaki hates Scorsese, his reaction to the kind of candied lighting in many of Spielberg’s films, those honey-like shafts of radiance piercing an oh-so-solemn Rembrandt-brown darkness, must be beyond words.) Kaurismaki doesn’t move the camera. He doesn’t track with his characters, or re-position to maintain focus on them – in general, Kaurismaki’s camera is static recording characters who are also, more or less, motionless. Notwithstanding the austerities of his style, however, Kaurismaki’s films are excitingly "cinematic" – his use of off-screen sound and space is impressive; he edits with razor-sharp exactitude, and employs the rawest of raw musical materials to underscore the mostly repressed emotional responses of his characters to the misfortunes that they face. Indeed, the director’s wild caterwauling soundtracks, often blues and rock-a-billy so primordial that the music seems to ooze blood, supply emotion that would otherwise be completely concealed. Kaurismaki, it seems, would be most comfortable making films with little or no dialogue and, instead, relying on musical cues that carry his meanings. In fact, Kaurismaki made a silent film in 1999, Juha, a 78 minute adaptation of a 1911 famous Finnish novel about a nasty city slicker who seduces and, then, enslaves a naive country girl. Similarly, Kaurismaki has made movies that consist mostly (or entirely) of musical numbers, most notably the Leningrad Cowboys trilogy, The Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989), The Leningrad Cowboys meet Moses (1994) and the astounding Total Balalaika Show (also 1994) that documents a concert in Helsinki attended by 70,000 people featuring the punk-rock Leningrad Cowboys and Russia’s Red Army chorus, the Alexandrov Chorus. With his brother Miki, Kaurismaki also made a concert show about three rock bands performing to audiences on a vessel cruising around Finland Lake Saimaa, The Saimaa Gesture (1981).

Kaurismaki’s extraordinarily disciplined style comports well with the characters that his films portray. The people in Kaurismaki’s films are mostly silent, inexpressive and emotionally reserved to the point of near-catatonia. In Ariel, the hero’s father blows out his brains in dingy café in a mining camp somewhere in Finland’s northwoods. The father’s last act is to hand his son the keys to his car, an impressively finned, American-built nineteen-fifties cruiser. After he hears, the gunshot, the hero goes into the toilet and impassively looks into the camera – he displays no more emotion than a person might show to a bit of particularly nasty road-kill. Kaurismaki’s precision, however, as a film maker is so great that we can generally understand exactly what the characters are thinking – even without them saying a word. Indeed, the director’s fidelity to images as opposed to words as the vehicle for meaning give his movies the sort of objective, unimpassioned narrative clarity that we see in the silent films of D. W. Griffith or the early movies of Erich von Stroheim (for instance 1919 film Blind Husbands). The pictures tell the story and Kaurismaki is content to present the material to us in an unembellished manner – his shots are held for extended periods of time, but never for a showy or gratuitous purpose; rather, Kaurismaki holds the images long enough to let us extract each and every bit of meaning from the picture before cutting to another shot. The director’s actors don’t look like movie-stars and they are often filmed in ways that are unflattering. (In fact, Kaurismaki’s actors are generally highly regarded stars from Finland’s TV and legitimate theater.) Although he uses professionals in his films, Kaurismaki’s performers are so accomplished that they seem "natural" – their acting is nuanced, understated, and so highly expressive that they generally don’t need to say anything to communicate what they are feeling. Kaurismaki never indulges in "showy" emotion, symbolism, or expressionistic depiction of events. There are no hidden meanings in his films, no pretentious allusions to other cinema, no subtexts. His camera-work is fantasically clear but inexpressive. In a movie like The Matchfactory Girl, Kaurismaki shows machines splintering wood so that matches can be manufactured – he photographs this industrial equipment with the same dispassionate clarity that he depicts the multiple murders that the heroine commits: whether he is shooting a car crash or a love scene or simply a still-life of drinks left on a bar in a tavern, Kaurismaki employs the same literal-minded emotionally remote style.

Certain images and themes connect the three so-called "Proletarian" films. All films involve characters who attempt to break away from their morose and dull daily existence. At the end of Shadows in Paradise, the lovers plan a honeymoon holiday in Tallinn, that is, beautiful Estonia and the films shows the sea and seagoing vessels signifying escape – at least, temporarily. Ariel, the title of the 2nd film in the trilogy, refers to name of another seagoing vessel, this boat bound for America. In the final scene in that movie, the protagonists plan to stowaway in the Ariel and, in that way, escape from Helsinki. Matti Pellonpaa, Nikander in Shadows in Paradise, appears as the best friend of the hero in Ariel. (Pellonpaa was, probably, Aki Kaurismaki’s best friend and his reliable drinking buddy – according to Kaurismaki, he was a true Bohemian, beholding to no man or institution, entirely free and fearless in expressing himself. He was a heavy drinker, chain-smoked, and died at age 44 of a heart attack. His greatest performance as the hero in Kaurismaki’s dead-pan adaptation of Henri Murger’s famous novel La Vie de Boheme, the source for Puccini’s opera La Boheme – Kaurismaki’s film based on the novel, shot in black and white, is least operatic imaginable.) The oppressed heroine in Shadows in Paradise is played by Kati Outinen who appears again as an even more intensely mistreated character in The Matchfactory Girl. All films feature a scrupulously mean, impoverished lower middle class milieu in Helsinki. The movies are uniformly very short – Shadows in Paradise is the longest at 74 minutes; Ariel is 72 minutes long and The Matchfactory Girl is a mere 69 minutes in duration. Despite their brevity, the films are crammed with action, although they never seem rushed – Ariel and The Matchfactory Girl have complex plots, involve crime, and, in the last film in the trilogy, there are a number of murders. The impression upon a viewer is similar in some ways the impressions that a reader derives from Joyce’s Dubliners – the characters are poor, entrapped, and the author of the work has complete, remorseless, and uncanny control over his material.

Kaurismaki’s films, like those of Ozu, generally resemble one another quite closely. The movies are wonderful but difficult to discuss. This is a characteristic of the classical style in film – there’s not a lot that can, or should be said, about a Howard Hawks’ picture or the mise-en-scene in a Buster Keaton movie. The classic style in films is hard to discuss because the film making seems completely effortless with effects that are achieved by seemingly invisible means – it is a kind of film making in which the director seems to submerge himself in the material, the opposite of a film by Fellini or Nuri Bilge Ceylan, a kind of "ego-less" moviemaking. Kaurismaki has continued to make the same kind of classically composed, serene, and dead-pan tragicomedies, although at a steadily diminishing rate. (Kaurismaki explains the long lapses between his pictures on the basis of his contempt for his films and his self-loathing – "I now know too much about movies and so it takes me forever to shoot something I would have accomplished in a few days twenty years ago," he has said.) People who interviewed him after the release of his most recent film, Le Havre (2011), have commented on his enormous intake of alcohol. Kaurismaki claims that Le Havre is the only one of his films that he can stand to watch. And, it is, indeed, a marvelous accomplishment – both beautiful and extremely funny, an ode to love among the unlovely in late middle-age. Like the films in his proletarian trilogy, much of Le Havre takes place in the shabby apartments and maritime bars around the titular French harbor. In this movie, people also are fleeing – but they are African immigrants seeking asylum in France. Le Havre stars Kati Outinen, who appears as the heroine in Shadows in Paradise and concludes with a rock and roll concert by Frenchman who calls himself "Little Bob." "Little Bob" looks like a midget version of Elvis Presley and must be in his sixties, but the man is all heart and his performance is a joy to behold. In my view, Le Havre, a tremendously humane and gentle film, is one of the very best pictures released in the last five years.

Kaurismaki claims that Le Havre is the first in a trilogy of three films about harbor-cities. But, so far, there’s no sign that these films will actually be made.

Twenty Days without War

The Russian film maker, Alexei German, directed only five pictures over a career that spanned more than 50 years.  Twenty Days without War, released after considerable censorship problems in 1976, was the director's second movie, although the first actually made available to the public.  (German's first movie, Trial on the Road, reviewed in an earlier note, was completed in 1971 but withheld from distribution by Goskino, the Soviet censorship agency, until 1985).  Notwithstanding its title, Twenty Days is a war picture (like Trial on the Road), beginning and ending with large-scale scenes showing combat.  The film is an adaptation of a story by a Soviet writer, Konstantin Simonov, a well-known author and a close friend of German's novelist father, Yuri German.  (Simonov authorized the adaptation of his story as a favor to Yuri German -- the movie was intended to revive Alexei German's career stalled as a result of the Goskino censorship of his first film.)  Twenty Days without War is set around New Year's Eve in 1942 - 1943; a war-correspondent, Lopatin, has been transferred from Stalingrad to another theater of the war and, then, is granted a 20 day leave for rest and relaxation in Tashkent.  Lopatin travels to Tashkent in crowded, claustrophobic railcar where he gathers stories from soldiers and refugees.  In Tashkent, he visits his ex-wife.  Apparently, Russian intelligentsia, including film makers and theater directors, have been sent into exile in Tashkent so that they can produce propaganda films there.  Lopatin's ex-wife has remarried and is associated with the film and theater people working in the city.  Lopatin argues with a technical advisor about accuracy in a film about Stalingrad that is being produced and gives an inspiring speech at a factory producing armaments.  He has a brief sexual encounter with a seamstress who works at the studio and, then, returns to the Front.  In the final scenes, Lopatin is huddled in a shell-hole under fire.  He tells himself that if the bombardment ceases after three more shells fall, then, all will be well.  The bombardment does, in fact, end on cue and Lopatin crawls out of the crater to march with other men across desolate war-ravaged moonscape of a battlefield.  The soldiers agree that it will take them a long time to march to Berlin but they are determined to make that effort. 

At one point in the film, someone says that Lopatin is fortunate to travel to Tashkent.  "It's very nice in Tashkent," someone else says.  "Nice," I suppose, must be viewed as a comparator -- "Nice compared to what?"  Tashkent, in fact, is shown to be a rubble-strewn ruin where featureless, battered walls line streets hip-deep with mud.  German's wide-screen shows a wasteland with columns of marching men in the distance, flares of fires, and, here and there, huddled figures of old women and children.  Soviet films demonstrate great inventiveness in using different kinds of film stock as an aesthetic resource:  Bondarchuk and Tarkovsky both, frequently, shifted from color to black-and-white in their films and Sokurov shot Moloch on film-stock specially compounded to simulate German Agfa-color processes used in Hitler's film industry.  The film used in Twenty Days looks as if it had been buried for twenty-years in a mass grave -- the images are crepuscular and, often, scarcely visible and the footage has a raw documentary immediacy:  it looks like the images were made at the very dawn of cinema; they are often ill-focused, exposed improperly, and action sometimes seems to accelerated, as if the cameras were handcranked.  Although some of the film is reputedly shot on color stock, the pictures have been developed as monochrome -- one has the uneasy sense that there are colors, even rich colors, lurking in the murk, but that they have been physically tamped down in the darkness.  German's images are frequently crammed with detail, but much of the detail is literally hard to see.  The film proceeds as a series of episodes that are only loosely related.  Peripheral characters have long, technically difficult monologues delivered staring straight into the camera and, then, they vanish from the film -- most impressive is a Red Army soldier who passionately complains about his wife's betrayal when he was fighting at the Front.  (This man's agony and passion -- he intends to murder his wife -- is implicitly compared with Lopatin's nonchalance with respect to his ex-wife's new husband.)  Lopatin gives a speech in a factory crammed with workers, almost all of them women -- there must be two-thousand people jammed into the big tin shed.  Then, a local commissar physically lifts into the air two workers who have greatly exceeded production quotas -- somewhat surrealistically, the feted workers turn out to be scrawny little boys in rags who seem to be half-dead from starvation.  The big Commissar with his shaved head has no trouble lifting them, one in each arm.  The movie is filled with extraordinary images:  there is a drunken New Year Eve's party and a quarrel on a film set where Lopatin challenges the accuracy of a movie portrayal of Stalingrad; this sequence is intercut with images from Lopatin's memories of Stalingrad, horrific stuff that looks nothing like the film that the long-haired propaganda director is producing.  In the end, Lopatin's leave is far less than 20 days and, with some relief, it seems, he goes back to the Front where German stages a huge battle scene -- vast columns of men moving across a snowy steppe with huge tanks firing into the distance, everything characteristically twilight, murky, the enormous army marching into an ill-focused, foggy haze. 

German's mature films have various remarkable characteristics.  In those pictures, the director doesn't differentiate the periphery from the center of action -- we can't tell what is peripheral and what is important to the narrative.  Further, German moves the camera through teeming crowds of people, most of them ugly, diseased, and ruined by their circumstances.  The director achieves alarming levels of realism, often, by fetishistic attention to detail.  (In Twenty Days, German insisted upon staging the railroad scenes on an actual train of the exact kind used to transport troops and refugees to and from the Front -- as a result, the scenes on the train have a kind of fetid immediacy; you can almost smell the claustrophobic train interiors.)  His characters are, generally, passive, prisoners of the historical situation in which they are trapped.  Although Twenty Days without War retains some vestiges of a standard war film -- it's superficially similar to other pictures about soldiers on leave in war, for instance, Vincent Minnelli's The Clock --  it is well-advanced along the path that would lead German to Krushtalyov, my Car! (1998) and Hard to be a God (2013).  The final sound in Krushtalyov is a gurgle of phlegm and a muttered obscenity; the first thing we hear on the soundtrack of Twenty Days is someone coughing loudly into a microphone, so close and near that it seems to be some kind of a mistake.  And, curiously, both Krushtalyov and Twenty Days feature some kind of Russian party-game involving balancing glasses of vodka on your head. 

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Better Angels

In Abel Gance's monstrous and great epic film, the nine-year-old Napoleon organizes the students in his dormitory into military phalanxes.  When the boys stage a pillow fight, it looks like Austerlitz.  Later a snowball fight seems to involve hundreds of combatants and complex flanking maneuvers.  Exhausted by the battle, the future man of destiny curls up to sleep on a cannon with a sentinel eagle guarding him.  With histrionic intensity, Gance insists that character and deeds of the future emperor are prefigured in the events of Napoleon's childhood.  In every respect, The Better Angels, a film about the boyhood of Abraham Lincoln, asserts a proposition precisely opposite to that dramatized in Gance's Napoleon (1927).  In The Better Angels, Lincoln's childhood on the frontier is shown to be almost completely uneventful -- it takes an attentive viewer 20 minutes (and the film is only 95 minutes long) to figure out which barefoot urchin is Abe Lincoln.  In fact, I don't think Lincoln's name is mentioned more than two or three times in the film.  There is something perversely heroic about the film's refusal to suggest that the core of Lincoln's greatness can be traced to his childhood.  Exemplary is a scene in which the boy encounters slaves.  Lincoln's brutal and indifferent father has sent the twelve-year old on an overnight trek to a tannery.  The boy sleeps in the open in the woods and is awakened by chains clanking.  Some ragged and battered-looking slaves stagger by led by a couple of white men.  Lincoln looks at the slaves who gaze at him with numb incomprehension.  There is no dialogue, no exposition, and the film maker doesn't even supply us with a reaction shot showing the boy.  Lincoln doesn't mention the incident to his father or stepmother and it is never mentioned in the dialogue.  Indeed, the film has almost no dialogue -- most of the movie consists of rapturous shots of natural phenomena:  trees and thunderstorms and creeks flowing between rocks, a turtle that boys capture and a large praying mantis that Lincoln's mother cradles in her hands.  About a quarter of the shots in the movie are taken looking up toward trees, capturing the fall of the sunlight through the canopy of the forest.  People wander through radiant-looking and dewy meadows collecting flowers.  On the soundtrack, we hear the sounds of the forest and classical music:  Mahler, Dvorak, Wagner.  From time to time, we see Lincoln or his father plowing, people drawing water from a well and the rough-looking interior of the log cabin where the people huddle together.  Dennis Hanks, a contemporary of Lincoln, narrates -- but mostly his commentary is about boyhood games and sicknesses that suddenly kill adults and children:  about a third of the way through the movie, Lincoln's beautiful and beloved mother dies (from "milk sickness") and is buried in rude casket.  We see Lincoln reading in a book by firelight and there is lots of log-splitting.  The film has no narrative, tells no story, and proves no points.  The design of the movie and its structure is like a parody of Terence Malick's recent films The Tree of Life and To the Glory -- there is a whispered voice-over, mostly transcendental musings or unanswered metaphysical questions, gorgeous (in this case black and white) nature photography, and somnolent characters standing in open fields or groves of tall, noble-looking trees. (Malick produced the film and its director A.J. Edwards has worked as a second-unit director on a number of the film makers recent pictures). The people are all movie-star handsome; the women wear neo-classical white gowns and look like Greek goddesses.  The tone of the film is expressed by the opening epigraph:  "Allthat I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother."  And, the film suggests that Lincoln was lucky to have two angel mothers -- first his natural mother who dies half-way through the picture and, then, his stepmother who seems to love him just as much as her own children and is uniformly kind and generous to him -- she isn't much older than the boy, but in her Grecian costume, his stepmother seems like a miraculous being from another world.  There are some beatings administered by Lincoln's father, but they are brief and not too savage -- we see a dignified Indian who helps to build a fence and a school master who speaks like Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Someone says that Lincoln was always "memorizing speeches by Henry Clay" but we don't ever see him reciting these speeches.  The dialogue and narration in the film is epitomized by a cousin, Dennis Hanks' voice-over saying:  "She (Lincoln's mother) was working all the time -- she didn't have much time to contemplate the Glory."  This film is a curious, frustrating, mostly tedious enigma -- if Lincoln's childhood was an idyll of nature worship and pantheism, then, how did he become a great lawyer and warrior and leader of men?  We see him wrestling a little bit and he seems a good sturdy lad but we have no sense at all of his inner nature or his character or hopes and dreams.  Among the stolid, ignorant peasants, Lincoln's mother can't read and his stepmother may also be mostly illiterate -- and his father is certainly illiterate -- the young Lincoln doesn't stand out and seems no different from those around him, only  a handful of people since the film takes place entirely in the remote wilderness in 1819.  The child Lincoln doesn't seem to age or grow -- we see several seasons pass but the boy doesn't change.  In a brief coda identified as Easter 1865, we see the same tiny and deserted cabins, the same old growth forest with the light falling through the trees and hear the same rustling leaves and wind with distant thunder.  The shots are all still lifes without people. The narrator says that he went to Lincoln's stepmother to tell her -- the assassination is only obliquely mentioned:  "I went to tell her.  They killed him.  I knew they would kill him.  She didn't say much.  I guess she was expecting to see him soon."  And, then, screen goes black.

After watching the film, I spent a half-hour on the internet trying to figure out the identity of the people in the film and some of the movie's historical sources.  I suppose it is a testimony to the picture that I was sufficiently interested to do this research.  But it is also noteworthy that to understand the film and the relationships of the people in it, I had to undertake this study.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

Once upon a Time in Anatolia is Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s sixth feature film. The Turkish movie was released in 2011 and won a Grand Prix at Cannes in that same year. (Ceylan’s next film, Winter Sleep, won the Palm d’Or, or top prize at Cannes in 2014; the director is a favorite at that film festival, an earlier film. Distant, also won the second place Grand Prix at Cannes in 2002 – he won a best director prize at Cannes in 2008 for his picture Three Monkeys.) Ceylan epitomizes the rare breed of internationally famous "cinema" or art film directors – he follows in the lineage of Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Michelangelo Antonioni. Ceylan’s films are beautifully shot, flawlessly acted, long, ultra-serious and, generally, humorless – he instructs and admonishes his audience and disdains mere entertainment. (Once upon a Time in Anatolia is a partial exception – it contains some moments of extremely funny, if grim, comedy.) Ceylan is also a byronically handsome figure, an aspect that explains, in part, his appeal at the ultra-fashionable Cannes film festival. Ceylan has a glamorous movie star wife, Ebru Ceylan (she is credited as one of the writers of Once upon...) and gives remarkably intelligent, if sobering, interviews. Like his country man, the novelist Orhan Pamek, Ceylan embodies Turkey’s claim to be the heir to great European traditions in the arts – his recent films have been heavily influenced by the work of Anton Chekhov.

In this context, the fairy tale name of the 2011 film, Once upon a Time in Anatolia strikes an odd note. Ceylan’s serious and philosophically dense film is, perhaps, the opposite of a fairy tale – although the premise of the movie, a group of men searching for a corpse in a wasteland at night, has a dream-like simplicity and resonance. Similarly, critics have labored, generally unsuccessfully in my view, to find connections between the movie and Sergio Leone’s films Once upon a Time in the West (1968) and Once upon a Time in America (1984), explorations of the pulp western and gangster film, respectively, as operatic epics. (And no one claims any connection to the Chinese kung fu and marital arts franchise Once upon a Time in China – there are five films with this name, as well as the Bollywood picture Once upon a Time in Mumbai and Robert Rodriguez’ Once upon a Time in Mexico.) Clearly, Ceylan means something by the reference, but what he means is unclear. Perhaps, the nature of a frontier and the desert, harkening back to the huge landscapes in Once upon a Time in the West, motivates the allusion – but the matter can be argued persuasively in various ways.


Nuri Bilge Ceylan ("Bill-jay Chay-lawn") was born in Istanbul in 1959. His father was an agricultural engineer employed by the Turkish government. Shortly after his birth, Ceylan’s father was transferred to the village of Yenice, a town in the Canakkalle district in Turkey. (Canakkalle is a province bounded by the Aegean Sea – it is where the Gallipoli peninsula and the ruins of Troy are located; Yenice is inland near mountains with scenic cliffs and gorges. The village is about four hours from Istanbul by bus ride.) Ceylan’s father seems to have been something like an agricultural extension agent. The future filmmaker lived in Yenice until reaching high school age. The small town didn’t have a high school and so the family moved back to Istanbul so that Ceylan could complete his education there. Ceylan has described his family’s life in Yenice (population 6500) as idyllic and say that this is where he learned about small towns and human nature.

Ceylan studied electrical engineering in college and graduated from an Istanbul university in 1985. While he was in school, Ceylan worked as a passport photographer; since his years in Yenice, the future film maker was interested in photography and exhibited some pictures, mostly landscapes, when he was in high school and college. Ceylan was not a good student and interrupted his education frequently to travel – he made a bike tour in Italy in 1982 and after college went to India and Nepal where he hiked in the mountains around Nepal. In 1987, Ceylan enlisted in the armed services for his compulsory military service. In the military, Ceylan apparently was involved in drama and making short films – in his biography on his web-page, Ceylan says that he decided to be film maker while serving in the army. After his service, Ceylan went to film school for a couple of years – but he was in a hurry to make movies (he was then 30 and the oldest student in the class) and so he dropped out to make films using an old Arriflex camera that he had purchased. His first feature films were about his boyhood in Yenice – Ceylan shot those films in the town and recruited local friends and family members to play parts in the movies. These films, The Small Town (1997) and Clouds of May (1999) were highly regarded in Turkey and Ceylan was able to wrangle a larger budget for his third movie, Distant (2002), the film that introduced him to international audiences. These three pictures are highly autobiographical and, in fact, feature Ceylan as an actor – Distant is about a young man enrolled in film school in Istanbul whose life is disrupted when a relative comes to visit him from the small town where both men previously lived.

On the strength of Distant (2002), Ceylan was able to produce more ambitious films; many of his more recent pictures are financed with significant amounts of European (mostly German) money. Climates (2006) stars Ceylan’s wife, Ebru, and concerns a marriage disintegrating on a vacation to a posh Black Sea resort. The Three Monkeys (2008) is an austere crime film, a sort of hommage to film noir. Once upon a Time in Anatolia (2011) won the Grand Prize at Cannes.

Ceylan’s recent film Winter Sleep (2014) also won the Grand Prize at Cannes. Winter Sleep is very long, 197 minutes, based on a short story by Anton Chekhov, and seems similar to Climates – it is about a marriage collapsing and has been compared favorably to works by Ingmar Bergman.

A critic once noted that on the evidence of the movies made by the Underground film maker Jonas Mekas, the climate in New York City features lots of snow. (In fact, it only rarely snows in New York City). Mekas liked images of the city blanketed in snow and so his movies are crammed with shots of snow falling and picturesquely snowy streets and parks. Ceylan is also fascinated with snow. Distant contains remarkable imagery of heavy, wet snow blanketing Istanbul and, apparently, Winter Sleep is also noteworthy for its snowy landscapes.

Ceylan continues to take photographs, using a wide format that seems to mimic the aspect ratio of his films. Pictures made during his student years show the handsome director brooding over barren landscapes; there are a number of nudes, the girls posed against the waters of the Black Sea. Ceylan has a web-site devoted to his photography. He has posted a moving series of pictures showing his elderly father, these images taken in Yenice. (In this respect, Ceylan is similar to Abbas Kiastorami, a director, who has also maintained a vigorous career as a still photographer.)


Traces of other films and other film makers mark Ceylan’s work in various ways. In my view, Ceylan’s work, although always engrossing and pictorially elegant, is often derivative. Critics have noted that the huge close-ups of craggy, male faces, many of them distinctive but not conventionally handsome, seems similar to the way that Sergio Leone constructs his films: instead of Jack Elam and Woody Strode, we are shown imposing close-ups of the police in the car, the sinister, but poetic countenance of the killer, the marred good looks of the prosecutor and doctor. The scene in which the men are entertained by Mukmar, the heavy-set and conniving headman of his tiny village, could be an episode in a cantina or frontier hostel in Once upon a Time in the West. The swarthy Turks with their exuberant moustaches resemble Leone’s Mexican brigands and cowboys. Similarly, the vision of the young girl by candle-light serving tea to the drowsy man may derive from the sequence at the end of Leone’s great Western in which Claudia Cardinale carries a bucket of water across a dusty wasteland to refresh the men working to build the transcontinental railroad.

In Ceylan’s Distant, a film about an urban film student and would-be director afflicted by visit from his country cousin, Ceylan explicitly announces his allegiance to Andrei Tarkovsky. In that semi-autobiographical film, the student torments his visitor by making him watch the Russian director’s Stalker. But when the bemused country cousin despairs of the slow-paced and difficult Russian film and goes to bed, the film student morosely shuts off Stalker and devotes his attention to watching a porno film. Climates, Ceylan’s study of decaying marriage, is clearly derived from similar films by Ingmar Bergman and uses the Swedish director’s characteristic cubist close-ups of the couple to demonstrate their disjunction. The Three Monkeys is a crime film but one that appears to me to be directed in the Mannerist style of Antonioni’s Blow Up or The Passenger.

The first half of Once upon a Time in Anatolia, the hunt for the corpse, clearly channels Abbas Kiastorami, with a tincture of a Wim Wenders road film like Im Lauf der Zeit. The shots of the vehicles creeping along sinuous gravel roads in a hilly country that looks something like South Dakota quote Kiastorami’s The Taste of Cherry, the Iranian director’s film about a man driving his Landrover through huge and barren mountains near Tehran looking for someone to help him commit suicide. And, of course, the black German shepherd dog guarding the haphazard grave of the murder victim cites the black dog wandering the Zone in Stalker.

Ceylan is guarded about acknowledging influences. He claims that the film has nothing to do with Sergio Leone’s Once upon a Time in the West. Rather, Ceylan asserts that the doctor involved in the real-life episode on which the movie is based reported that one of the cops muttered the words "once upon a time in Anatolia..." while driving the killer from place to place, a comment on the fact that the man seemed to be inventing "fairy tales" about the murder.



Once upon a Time in Anatolia was shot about 50 miles east of Ankara is Kirikkale province. The film’s story derives from an actual episode recounted by one of the screenwriters, Ercan Kesel. Kesel is a medical doctor and he served as coroner in the small town of Keskin. The search for the corpse recounted in the film recalls an incident in which Kesel spent a night with the police and a murder suspect searching for the man’s victim. The tiny village of Kavurgali where the men stop for a pre-dawn meal is located in a remote part of Kirikkale. You-Tube video featuring the village shows the many fountains in the area depicted in the film.

After the script was outlined by Kesel, Ceylan and his wife added to the scenario. Ceylan added quotes from short stories and plays by Chekhov to the script. The actors featured in the film are well-known in Turkey. In fact, Yilmaz Erdogan, who plays Commissioner Naci, is a famous and much-beloved comedian in Turkey. He is Kurdish and has appeared in many Turkish TV shows.


Buried Alive

"By the turn of the 19th century, small towns had become charnel houses and the country that surrounded thm had become places of dry bones. The land and its farms were filled with the guilty voices of women mourning for their children and the aimless mutterings of men asking about jobs..."
Michael Lesy in Wisconsin Death Trip

In his famous compilation of Victorian photographs from Black River Falls, Wisconsin, Michael Lesy melodramatically asserts that by 1900 the small towns in rural Wisconsin had become "charnel houses," gloomy asylums for the dead and dying. Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip cites Hamlin Garland and village newspapers for the proposition that big cities like Chicago, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis had robbed the small towns in Wisconsin of their vitality. Anyone who had ambition, good looks, or intelligence fled the stultifying life in rural villages for the bright lights and opportunities of the city. Small towns became places harboring only the elderly, the disabled, the mentally defective, the congenitally perverse, and the indolent. As the old men died, these villages were dominated by bitter, elderly widows. Progress stopped in its tracks and a once vibrant "settler culture" of yeoman farmers and small town merchants decayed into suicide, despair and madness. Sherwood Anderson’s short stories and Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street develops this theme as well, although less histrionically than Lesy’s horror-show of a book – actually his Phd thesis for a graduate degree in photography at the University of Wisconsin.

Ceylan’s Once upon a Time in Anatolia could well be styled Turkish Death Trip. The film’s major themes seem designed to highlight distinctions between life in small Turkish villages and the country’s prosperous, urbane, and European-style big cities. Ceylan’s concerns seem oddly prosaic – the film dramatizes certain disturbing characteristics of rural life in the backwaters of Anatolia. The movie embodies a contrast between periphery, the desolate landscape where the film takes place, and an unseen center – Ceylan’s sophisticated Istanbul.

Ceylan has described Once Upon a Time... as being about "small town people". At Cannes, he said that "...small town people are a very different people from me. They show you a different part of life, you learn a lot from them. If you only live in the city, I think you’re missing out on something in life." Of course, Ceylan doesn’t exactly define what it is that you miss by living only in a big city. On the evidence of the film, the experience that you miss is an encounter with the mystery and melancholy of death. For Ceylan, as for Lesy, the small town is Pluto’s kingdom, a netherworld involved with death and dying.

The proposition that Ceylan equates small-town and rural life with death is self-evident. The first half of his film is devoted to a search in desolate and vacant country for a corpse. The second half of the film is dominated by a lengthy autopsy. The autopsy sequence is heralded by long ceremonious tracking shots following the Prosecutor and Doctor, two representative men, to the room where the operation will take place – these shots use time and motion to highlight the importance of an inquiry conducted with a corpse. The bleak-looking steppes were once prosperous places and filled with thriving cities – this is demonstrated by the shot when the urinating doctor sees a great stone face in ruins exposed in the side of the ravine. But, now, no one lives on these high, desolate prairies. The people have gone away. When the doctor looks to the distant hillside, he sees a train passing in the darkness, no doubt conveying people from one brightly lit city to another or, perhaps, transporting farmers and small-town merchants to airports where they will fly away to Germany or other places in Western Europe. The small villages lost in the Anatolian hinterland are literally dark – the power fails in them. Both the doctor and prosecutor imagine themselves fleeing the boondocks for the big city and people are always surprised to find men of substance still residing in provinces.

Small town life is a miserable web of gossip, intrigue, and interbred hatreds. The murder is apparently motivated by a small-town scandal. Everyone is related to everyone else and no one much likes their relatives. The small-town’s reaction to the murder is to form a lynch mob that clashes in a desultory way with the cops when the killer is removed from the police car. The film is guarded by Cerberus, a black dog. We see the black dog in one of the first shots in the film. Later, the same dog of the Underworld defends the pathetically inadequate grave that the killers have scraped in the dirt. One of the murderers seems to be mentally retarded. And the film’s central, and disturbing, metaphor is the notion of being buried alive – the victim of the murder dies with dirt in his lungs and trachea. Like the doctor, the prosecutor, and the other denizens of the film who are figuratively buried alive in the small and impoverished villages of the Turkish hinterlands, the victim of the murder has been literally interred living in the soil of the denuded steppe.

Like Lesy’s Black River Falls, all the vigorous men have left the villages in the territory. Mukmar observes that the people have gone to Germany and don’t ever think about the village until someone dies. The only time the expatriates return to small-town Turkey is "when a relative has died." This phenomenon causes the head man to suggest that it is more important to his village to have a properly functioning morgue than to possess reliable electrical power. (The village is literally a charnel-house.) The conversation with the village mayor is mirrored later in the hospital at Keskin. Clearly, the place is thronged with the sick and elderly – the small town is shown as literally diseased. The autopsy attendant complains about his inadequate kit and yearns for a power saw to cut through bones. Like Mukmar, the head man in the village, he believes resources should be devoted the death, that is, to establishing a better venue and equipment for performing autopsies. A bit of tissue splashes out of the dead man’s belly and adheres to the doctor’s face – he is marked with a piece of corpse as he contemplatively peers out the window into the schoolyard. Thoughout the film, Ceylan’s imagery of death is overt, pervasive, and overwhelming.

Deliberation on death invokes melancholy. Ceylan has described his disposition as intrinsically melancholy. He asserts that his art is based on melancholy, an experience of nostalgia for a past that no longer exists. For Ceylan, the small towns and the desolate steppes, places where once lavish kingdoms reigned – the Anatolian peninsula was once a wealthy and populous place, the home of Croesus, Midas, and the sophisticated Lydians – are inducements to a dream-like state of reverie, an opportunity to contemplate the sweetness and terror of death. Ceylan shows us that the Underworld, Pluto’s realm, is also a place of great and mysterious wealth and the source of the film maker’s inspiration. Ancient fountains mark the landscape drizzling water from great underground rivers and reservoirs into the arid land. There is water moving under the earth. And where there is death, there is also the promise of an afterlife, a sort of heaven. Mukmar serves the men a feast when they visit his village – he serves his visitors honey on the comb. As the young woman moves among the men by candlelight offering them honeyed tea, she seems a houri in Muslim paradise – one of the forty virgins promised to the faithful and ministering to the weary men in the hour before dawn. (A clock shows us that the visit to the village takes place around 4:30 am.) As the men open their eyes to receive the tea that she offers, each of them thinks, momentarily, that he has died and awakened in paradise.

Like other great film makers, Ceylan works with the raw materials of space, time, and light. His film draws these elements into the foreground – this raw material is not incidental to his narrative but, in fact, key to Ceylan’s presentation of the mystery central to the film. In a fundamental way, all human beings are enveloped in elements of existence that we can’t control and that are beyond our rational understanding. Action unfolds in space – we don’t control the distances between places and Ceylan’s framing and narrative design highlights the arbitrary nature of space: the location of the corpse, for instance, has a legal significance and must be carefully defined, but, of course, the cadaver’s location is, more or less, haphazard – and on the Anatolian plain, every place looks like every place else. Nonetheless, dimensions are significant and the film attends to where things are located – the police complain about their distance from home and the time they spend on the road. And, of course, time is a coordinate of space – the time it takes to travel from one place to another is significant. Ceylan’s pacing is unhurried – indeed, at times painfully slow. His deployment of time in the first half of the film creates a sense of vastness and indirectly delineates the vast size of the Anatolian steppes. Events are highlighted by being embedded within long sequences that seem pointless, banter between the men that has no real narrative or thematic purpose – the appearance of the houri at the pre-dawn banquet has particular resonance because the scene appears at the center of the film and functions as a dividing point, a liminal or threshold moment between night and day, life and death, and this earthly existence and the promise of heaven. The epiphany of the girl’s arrival at the banquet seems more important because of the long quotidian sequence prior to her father summoning her to bring tea to the exhausted men. Similarly, the significance of the autopsy is highlighted by the length of the sequence and the fact that this part of the film is also inserted into a context of idle chatter punctuated by long tracking shots of the doctor and physician walking to operating room. Finally, Ceylan’s bravura lighting in the first hour of the film emphasizes that fact that no matter how powerful our artificial illumination, we are still dependant upon the sun and natural light, particularly when searching for something in a vast and barren landscape. A movie paints with light and Ceylan deploys the headlights of the caravan’s cars to illumine huge swaths of prairie – he uses the cars as if they were lights placed by a director on a set. In a real sense, a Manichean combat between light and darkness as the opposing terms in a moral universe motivates the imagery in the first half of the movie. Once the corpse has been found, the entire tenor of the film changes – we are now in a landscape devoted to analysis and rational understanding; accordingly, the light seems flatter, all-purpose, and cruelly dispassionate in what it reveals.

Ceylan’s master, AndreiTarkovsky often exploited the dual character of glass as both transparent (and translucent) and, also, reflective. In Anatolia’s opening, the camera approaches an opaque amber-colored surface – the camera’s focus is adjusted so that we don’t see through this scuffed and battered piece of glass. The glass first is posited as a barrier to our sight – what happens in small towns is opaque to outsiders, mysterious, something hidden from us. Then, the focal length of the lens is adjusted and we can see through the glass to the two murderers drinking with their victim. Ceylan’s opening shot establishes two perspective simultaneously true throughout the movie – we can’t know what is happening and, yet, we are also able to see some things of significance. The contrast between opacity and translucency is an emblem for the riddles, and the partial solutions to those riddles, that the film poses.

Finally, we must recall that one of Ceylan’s great themes is the mutual inability of men and women to understand one another. Damaged or failing marriages are central to a number of Ceylan’s films, including his most recent movie Winter Sleep. In Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, we are shown an exclusively male world, a fraternity of police and professional men estranged from women entirely. The sinister-looking widow with her dark skin and headscarf who appears in the film’s final half-hour is like a creature from another world. In fact, the two women shown in the movie are literally unearthly – the luminous houri with the tray of tea at the pre-dawn banquet and the distraught, desexualized widow. The men are indifferent to women – hence, perhaps, the temptation to suicide that seems to have affected the Prosecutor’s wife. Although Ceylan probably counts as a feminist in the world of Turkish film, in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, the women discussed obsessively by the men are almost entirely absent from the film. When the doctor and the prosecutor begin their autopsy, it seems as if they are doing something together that wholly excludes the woman – and, yet, she is the cause of the murder and, also, in some ways, it’s most poignant victim.

1. Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West is referenced when one of the men looks upward and sees _----------. In Leone’s movie, the plot involves the robber baron, Morton’s construction of the ____________. 2. Whose portrait hangs in the doctor’s office?
3. Two men who are somehow similar are equated by way of a common term – the prosecutor and the dead man both look like _____________.

4. A storm is approaching when the dead man is found. What is the result of the storm?