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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Vera Chytilová died in March and Daisies is probably her most celebrated film; it is brilliant. Two Marias (Ivana Karbanova and Jitka Cerhova) waltz through the film on an anarchic romp which starts off with them eating apples. The symbolism is obvious, as is the bananas, sausages and hardboiled egg that they snip at with scissors while a would-be lover claims he’s in love (by which he means lust). It’s slightly peculiar to say that the girls (Peter Hames in The Czechoslovak New Wave states they are 17) are trampling on bourgeois sensibilities in a so-called communist state, but the privileged middle classes obviously existed there too. In a nightclub, where the clientele are being entertained by the Charlston, the Marias randomly drink others wine and generally make a nuisance of themselves. They allow themselves to be taken to restaurants by older men only to bail out before the men have their ‘wicked way’. They also decimate a banquet, evidently laid out for an audience listening to Wagner’s Twilight of the Gods (where the bourgeoisie meet their fate).
The film’s epitaph sums it up: ‘This film is dedicated to those whose sole source of indignation is trampled on trifle’. There’s plenty of trifle in the final scene, flying around in true slapstick fashion and the anarchic comedy of Max Sennett is clearly a touchstone for Chytilová as parts of the film are speeded up in the manner that ‘silent movies’ used to be. Czech surrealism, such as Jan Svankmajer (in scenes of pixilation – animation using live actors), is also evident as some of the art movements of the 1960s, such as ‘cut ups’. It’s a terrific brew of full of humour and brio and, most of all, feminism.
The film opens, and ends, with images of bombing. I took them to be a reference to the Vietnam war. The girls’ adventure starts by them deciding that everything’s spoiled in the world. Hence, their assault on bourgeois sensibility is an attack on the way the world was at the time; and it’s still like that. Clearly Chytilová was attacking more than trifles.
I was reminiscing about university with a friend and she remembered that she was part of the ‘300 group’ that aimed to get 300 MPs into Parliament. That was over 30 years ago! This film’s nearly 50 years old and the battles for equality between the sexes still need fighting. Young women could do far worse than learn some attitude from these Marias.
The debut director, Cristian Nemescu, along with his sound editor Andrei Toncu, died in a car crash before this film was completed; hence the ‘endless’ (i.e. ‘unfinished’). The film world lost great talent because California Dreamin’ is a striking debut. It pits small town Romania against Americans, or specifically, NATO troops who are trying to get radar equipment, via train, to the Serbian border during the Civil War. However, the local station master, superbly played by Razvan Vasilescu) has a grudge against the US as they failed to liberate him, and his family, at the end of World War II. He keeps the train ‘grounded’ for five days while the laborious government bureaucracy tries to catch up with him. Even when the Minister for Transport arrives, he remains implacable.
He’s also bleeding the village dry through his corruption. It’s something then, that we can have a grudging admiration for this character, Doiaru, as he fights a losing battle with his 17 year-old daughter, seductively played by Maria Dinulescu, who falls for one of the Americans.
Nemescu, who co-wrote the screenplay with Tudor Voican, is equally scathing, and sympathetic to, both his native Romanians and the Americans, embodied particularly by the ‘no nonsense’ Captain Jones (Armand Assante). He never fails to exploit the humour of the situation; the Elvis impersonator at the village’s 100th anniversary celebrations (which is a repeat of one they had a few months earlier) is a particular highlight. Monica’s (Dinelescu) whirlwind ‘romance’ with the soldier is well portrayed; she’s convincingly far more knowing than her 17 years.
Its two and a half hour running town could, and may have been, cut but it was right that the producer put the film out in the state it was at Nemescu’s demise. If Nemescu’s eye for the absurd is sharp I was less impressed by the Dogma style handheld camera, occasionally using telephoto lens which created a great deal of shake.
Class Enemy is one of two standout films so far in my BIFF screening selections (Diego Star review coming up later). It was the Slovenian entry for the Foreign Languag Academy Award. I’m surprised that a film like this hasn’t got UK distribution. I can only assume that some kind of institutional inertia exists in UK distribution which prevents films from smaller territories like Slovenia from gaining a high profile. Perhaps the box office records of the two films which Class Enemy most resembles is helpful in thinking this through – Die Welle (The Wave, Germany 2008) and Entre les murs (The Class, France 2008). Die Welle was dismissed by leading UK broadsheet critics, seemingly unable to see beyond it as a popular youth picture whereas The Class was warmly embraced as an auterist film by Laurent Cantet and went on to do excellent business as a specialised film. I thought both films succeeded in their explorations of the classroom environment and the interactions of teachers and students. Class Enemy is aesthetically more like Die Welle – presented in CinemaScope with instantly identifiable teenage types. But its tight focus on teaching styles and classroom interactions and its complex narrative also align it towards The Class.
I don’t think that Class Enemy actually moves the action beyond the walls of the school until the closing scene. This insularity actually points towards its universality. Slovenia is in some ways the most affluent, liberal and generally ‘calm’ of the countries formed after the break-up of the Yugoslavian federation – at least that’s how it seems from the outside. In reality I understand that the trauma of the after effects of World War II and in particular the the conflict between quislings and partisans has had a lasting impact. Slovenia is also a country strategically placed at a crossroads between Western, Central and South-Eastern Europe with potential migratory flows and domination by different hegemonic powers throughout history. The class of students placed at the centre of the narrative reflects this diversity with students whose backgrounds suggest different European histories – and with the single East Asian student symbolising the globalised world now open to Slovenes. Given the region’s history it isn’t surprising that the central drama involves German culture and accusations of ‘Nazi behaviour’.
The film’s dramatic conflict is created conventionally by the arrival of an ‘outsider’ who disrupts the equilibrium of the school and this class of 17-18 year-olds in particular. Their ‘liberal’ friendly teacher is about to go on maternity leave and she introduces the new German teacher, Robert Zupan. The new teacher seems to have a very different teaching style – strict and possibly authoritarian. When a tragedy occurs affecting all the students in the class, Zupan is held responsible because of his methods and their impact on students. The class comes together (with at first just one dissenter) in a form of rebellion which gradually escalates. The school authorities are forced to try to find a solution which means facing the parents as well as the students and Robert Zupan.
Class Enemy is the first feature film by 29 year-old Rok Biček. The excellent Press Pack includes an interview in which he discusses his methods. His two main inspirations seem to be Michael Haneke and the Romanian director Cristian Mungiu, the former prompted the coldness and surgical precision with which the events are analysed and the latter the basic long take style. Given the single central location and the focus on one class and three or for teachers, casting was very important. Biček says he took his lead from the Palestinian-Israeli pairing of Scandar Copti and Zaron Shani and their approach to Ajami (2009). He decided to mainly use professional actors for the teachers and found non-professionals for the students. The latter then built their own performances around their reactions to the constructed performances of the teachers. The students were kept away from the ‘actor’ teachers until their scenes so that they responded as naturally as possible.
The whole story was based on a set of incidents during Biček’s own school career. His skill has been in developing these into a narrative structure that allows a complex drama to emerge. This is a film which at the same time gives ‘concrete’ explanations /resolutions to certain narrative strands but still leaves open the possibility of a different reading. There are no ‘right’ answers as such. For instance, the headteacher does eventually ‘solve’ the problem but the film can still be seen as an indictment of modern school administration which often seems better at handling PR than in finding the best ways to offer real education. Similarly the German teacher (brilliantly played by the leading Slovenian theatre actor Igor Samobor) does indeed act in a rigid and authoritarian manner – but his actions can be read as rational and supportive and ultimately of benefit to students. The students themselves behave as any group of individuals placed under stress and towards the end of the narrative Biček also brings in the parents who also present ambiguous responses to the situation.
The brilliance of Biček’s direction lies in first the ‘surgical precision’ with which he presents the drama and then in the careful balancing of the possible readings of the actions. I can see an argument for showing this film to all teachers training for work in secondary school classrooms (assuming that we have any training left in the bizarre English education system). The work that trainee teachers might do in attempting to read the film would be highly beneficial. Perhaps I’m biased as both an ex-teacher and ex-teacher trainer, but I’d give the Bradford European feature prize to this film. There is still one screening to go in the competition so I’ll hold my fire for the moment.