Category: East European Cinema

Satantango (Sátántangó, Hungary, Germany, Switzerland, 1994).

In the beginning ...

In the beginning . . .

Fans of long slow movies can enjoy what is probably their ultimate cinematic treat with this film. It is screening at the Hyde Park Picture House on the 21st of September courtesy of Scalarama, which runs across the UK through September. As an added treat for real purists the screening will be using 35mm prints. Presumably these will be the same ones screened at the Leeds International Film Festival a few years ago. On that occasion the exhausted but completely satiated audience emerged into the grey light of evening. This time it will likely be twilight as the event starts at 11 a.m. It then runs for over seven hours, 435 minutes of films plus two intermissions.

The film is structured in two parts, the first being the longest: however, these break down into 12 chapters, which are the more important organising principle. The ‘tango’ in the title refers to a complex narrative structure, which like the fabulous Argentinean dance, moves in an intricate forward and reverse motion. The ‘Satan’ refers [along with other aspects] to a strain of millenarianism. The story, [and there is one], is challenging to follow. But filmgoers familiar with the other work of the director Bela Tarr will know that his films are as much about parables and metaphors as they are about stories. The Turin Horse (A torinói ló, 2011) was his most recent [and sadly his last] feature released in the UK. Satantango is adapted from a novel by László Krasznahorkai, which, apparently, is as complex as the film adapted from it.

A recent innovation in film studies is the concept of ‘slow cinema’. Tarr is the master of this form. After 90 seconds of credits Satantango opens with a sequence shot, running just over seven minutes, that tracks round a quiet and dilapidated village as cows in the early morning meander out into the field for grazing. This is folowed by a blank screen and a voiceover [subtitled] that opens the story. This style dominates the rest of the film. However the film uses parallel editing to set up counterpoint among the characters and situations; complicated by overlapping time frames. The sound design is equally complex, often seemingly naturalistic but evocative. The film is clearly an allegorical critique of changing face in Eastern Europe over the 1980s and early 1990s. It references the earlier system of state control and the new free-market capitalist economy, which replaced it, with strong parallels to the work of Miklós Jancsó.

Whilst this is an epic screening I think the film deserves viewing the complete chapters and running time. As we move into the reverse sequences of the later chapters [for me when I saw it] both characters and the contradictions in their situations started to achieve some clarity. It is also a film that one will need [and I think want] to consider and discuss for a considerable time after a viewing.

With the distance of time since I saw the film I think Werkmeister Harmonies (Werkmeister harmóniák, 2000) and The Turin Horse are Tarr’s finest achievements. However Satantango, partly because of its epic length and complexity, is a unique and masterful cinematic creation.

Innocent Sorcerers (Niewinni czarodzieje, Poland, 1960)

Innocent charmers

Innocent charmers

Andrzej Wajda is one of my favourite directors and thanks to Second Run Innocent Sorcerers is available in a typically (from them) great print. Wadja had completed his great ‘war trilogy’ with Ashes and Diamonds two years earlier and, at first, you wonder why he bothered with such relatively ‘slight’ material of two rather ‘cool’ youngsters finding love. Wadja’s four films were typical of the Polish School as they had been about Poland in World War II. Of course the direction in Immaculate Sorcerors is immaculate and there’s some great location shooting in Warsaw but, like my previous post, Heartbeats, I wondered whether I was too old to be interested in young love. I was wrong.

The central section of the film takes place in Bazyli’s bedsit and consists of a long flirty, conversation between the protagonists. As part of their ‘cool’ playfulness they make up names for themselves; she says she’s Pelagia. The scene is strikingly similar to one in Godard’s seminal Breathless (France) of the same year but without the jump cuts and is far more engaging. Innocent Sorcerer, though, is modernist in a number of low-key ways: the opening credits run over a poster for the film; a song associated with the film is heard on the radio; the film’s composer, the great Krzysztof Komeda, plays himself as a member of Bazyli’s jazz group. Roman Polanski, incidentally, plays the band’s bassist; there’s a lot of talent in this film.

Bazyli (Tadeusz Lomnicki) is a doctor and jazz drummer who enjoys toying with women’s affections until he crashes into Krystyna Stypulkowska’s Pelagia; it was Stypulkowska’s first role and she only appeared in two other films. The brilliance of the film is that the development in their relationship is evident not by what they say to each other but through their behaviour and non verbal communication; and of course the actors’ performance.

Wadja, at the ‘old’ age of 33, was afraid he might be out of touch with young people and the 23 year old Jerzy Skolimowski, who has a small role as a boxer, was hired for rewrites. It’s a fascinating glimpse of Warsaw at the time, we see fashionable young people spending their time in jazz clubs; much like they were in the west then. The political situation is barely mentioned; the protagonists, at one point, joke about themselves as ‘model workers’. The Daily Telegraph‘s critic suggested:

‘Bazyli and Pelagia move with languid ease and listen to American jazz throughout Innocent Sorcerers, but, when push comes to shove, they’re not as free as they think they are. Pinned down by Poland’s bloody past and hemmed in by oppressive Soviet rule, both erect a stylised cool to cover for the emotional sterility that lies beneath.’

However, I wonder to what extent this is an example of western critics’ penchant for reading ‘Iron Curtain’ films, that they admire, as criticising the Soviet domination of the Eastern bloc. As Michał Oleszczyk notes ‘Pelagia says mid-way through the film: “Our generation has no illusions.”‘ I doubt the concerns of Polish youth in the early ’60s were much different from those of youngsters in western Europe: earning enough money to have a good time and sex. Come to think of it, it’s the same now. As to the rather awkward title, a Polish friend suggests a better translation would be Innocent Charmers; that certainly summarises the characters better.

Wadja’s still making films and it’s extremely irritating that most of his oeuvre is not available in the UK.

Eroica (Poland, 1958)

Eroica

Unsurprising he needed a drink

Eroica is an example of the Polish School, films made in the 1950s concerning World War II. It’s in two parts, originally meant to be three but the director, Andrzej Munk, was dissatisfied with the final section, and tells two stories of heroism. ‘Eroica’ is Italian for ‘heroic’ and, in the context of the film, refers to Beethoven’s third symphony; a brief extract from which is heard at the start of the film. I don’t think the musical reference is particularly important, but the film is clearly about heroism.

The first section is a funny tale of a chancer, Gorkiewicz, who we see at the start fleeing from being conscripted into the Polish Resistance; an entirely unheroic action. He blags his way back to Warsaw only to find his wife apparently ‘shacked up’ with a Hungarian officer. Gorkiewicz takes this philosophically and becomes embroiled in helping the Resistance anyway. The humour rises from Gorkiewicz’s behaviour as he finds himself in a number of precarious situations. At one point, whilst he’s boozing sitting on a river bank, a German tank fires a volley, making him jump, before moving on its way. The laughter of the German soldiers can be heard; the film humanises the conflict with humour.

Behind you!

Behind you!

The second part is sombre and is set in a POW camp. It portrays the relationships of men who’ve been incarcerated for the whole of the war and how they pin their faith on the one of their number who managed to escape.

The third part may have balanced the narrative of the film more; just two, basically unconnected, tales are little more than two short films, one after the other. The second film only tangentially deals with heroism. However, it is still an essential to see film if only because of the humour of the first part and some brilliant mise en scene: devastated settings form the backdrop to a number of the scenes. Munk’s career was curtailed by an early death, which was a loss to Polish, and World, cinema.

Night Train (Pociag, Poland, 1959)

Humanity in microcosm

Humanity in microcosm

Like Knife in the Water Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s (he directed and co-wrote) Night Train emphasises the claustrophobic setting by utilising the space close to the camera through deep focus cinematography and, much in the same way 3D works, having characters appear in the frame, from the side, closer than you’d expect given the scene’s composition. That, and great black and white cinematography by Jan Laskowski, means I’m already likely to enjoy the film. However, Night Train also has a tense Hitchcockian narrative and an unhinged climactic chase through a graveyard (yes, most of the film is set on a train), making it an essential one to watch.

The promise ‘Polish Spring’ of 1956, when Gomulka’s government looked like it might break free of (the recently diseased) Stalin, had evaporated by 1959 and the petty voyeurism, and mob mentality of many passengers, who consist of what I take to be a cross section of Polish society, give the film a cynical edge that might reflect political disappointment.

Night Train is a film that grips immediately with the distinctive angle (see below), used for the credit sequence, which reminds me of Harry Lime’s speech, in The Third Man (UK, 1949), of how people look like ants from high above.

People swarm into the station

People swarm into the station

The protagonist, Jerzy, is played Leon Niemczyk who also appeared in Knife in the Water; Niemczyk is a powerful lead whose morally ambiguous character is in keeping with the cynicism of the film. Zbigniew Cybulski, who starred in the Polish classic Ashes and Diamonds (1958), plays, typically, a rebellious young man, Staszek, infatuated with Lucyna Winnicka’s Marta (see below); but she’s more interested in Jerzy.

Youth's desperate infatuation

Youth’s desperate infatuation

A couple of times in the film Staszek is warned about jumping onto a moving train; tragically Cybulski was to fall under a train when jumping off eight years later.