Search results for: spoor

Spoor (Pokot, Poland-Slovakia-Germany-Czech Republic-Sweden-France 2017)

The reacher with her English class ready for a new adventure . . .

Pokot is an entry in a recent genre cycle of ‘eco-thrillers’ – and like the Icelandic film Woman at War (2018) it has a central female character. In this case the film is also directed by a woman, the now veteran Polish auteur Agnieszka Holland who has recently directed episodes of well-known American ‘long-form TV narratives’ such as House of Cards (2015-17) and earlier The Wire (2004-8). Actually the directorial role is shared by Agnieszka Holland and her daughter Kasia Adamik and the script is by Holland and Olga Tokarczuk, adapted by the latter from her own novel. Pokot is also, as the title implies, a form of North European genre based on the hunt and the machismo of its male followers. There is a further set of generic elements but I don’t want to spoil the narrative so I’ll put them to one side for the moment.

Duszejko with an animal friend, shot by hunters

The central character is Janina Duszejko (Agnieszka Mandat), a woman in her sixties (IMDb calls her ‘elderly’ – harrumph!). She’s a mysterious character with a past who doesn’t like people using her personal name and is quick to correct pronunciation of her family name. I did wonder if this was an identity issue (i.e. a language/naming issue) as other characters stumble over it and repeatedly check it. Someone else at the screening suggested that this might be a hangover of the communist regime in Eastern Europe but I think it is significant that the narrative is located in a ‘contested’ region in South West Poland along the border with the Czech Republic. This is an area with National Parks on either side of the border. Designated a UNESCO ‘biosphere’ the area has plentiful wildlife, which moves across the borders. The local population is Polish but has also historically been part of German-Czech Bohemia.

One of Duszejko’s neighbours keeps local wildlife in cages on his farm

The narrative covers the four seasons with a short coda. Each section of the narrative has a title card for the month of the year and a listing of all the wildlife that can legally be hunted during the month. Duszejko has a house on the edge of the forest. She has a couple of neighbours, one who treats animals very badly and another she will later come to know better. Her past is not spelt out but there is a suggestion that she has been an engineer and that she worked overseas, possibly on forms of aid work. Perhaps she was a form of hippy traveller? Now she has three interests. She teaches English part-time in the school in town, she explores astrology and she cares passionately about the wildlife in the region. This brings her into confrontations with the hunters, i.e. most of the older male population, and the police to whom she regularly reports the ‘murder’ of animals killed by the hunters and rails against the absurdity of a legal killing one day that is illegal the next (i.e. at the end of the designated monthly season).

Duszejko meets a Slovakian entomologist Boros (Miroslav Krobot)

This is a familiar thematic of an ‘odd’ character (in the context of local culture) and conventionally, the narrative then provides Duszejko with a small team of potential collaborators who will help her against the strength of the local hunting lobby. She meets a young IT specialist and his girlfriend, Boros (Miroslav Krobot) a Czech entomologist, and her neighbour ‘Matoga’ (Wiktor Zborowski) who also has a back story. Each of these individuals has something in their past which makes them an outsider in the region. The narrative is an eco-thriller on the basis of the struggle to protect the wildlife from the hunters. But perhaps it is more a question of the brutality of hunting and the extension of that brutality across the local culture? I was struck by the difference between hunting in the UK (influenced by social class and the ecological damage caused by maintaining large populations of game species impacting on other flora and fauna) and the more widespread hunting culture in the rest of Europe which is more ‘open’ but more pervasive. I’m thinking about films such as The Hunters (Sweden 1996) or The Hunt (Denmark 2012) both of which share some elements with Pokot. The hunting crowd in Pokot includes most of the men in the district and the ‘club-like’ feel of this fraternity also has links to science fiction/horror narratives like The Stepford Wives (1975/2004) in which the men in a community secretly replace their wives with simulacra/android robots.

Duszejko dressed in a wolf skin finds the town’s mayor drunk after a ritual celebration. (He’s dressed in an 18th/19th century costume from the period of the famous Polish novel/film Pan Tadeusz)

But this film also draws on both crime fiction and fairy tales. An older woman who acts as a kind of animal detective investigating the murders of several hunters recalls Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, though the murders themselves might have taken place in the mythical world of Midsummer Murders. There is also a suggestion that the filmmakers have turned to Angela Carter and her ideas about traditional fairy tales – Little Red Riding Hood is referenced and, although I shouldn’t think it is intended, there seems to be a kind of reverse Wicker Man narrative in which the outsider, instead of being sacrificed, turns the tables on the local community of hunters.

I don’t want to spoil the narrative pleasure of the film, but I think most audiences will guess what has been happening re the murders. The coda offers what most of us would consider as a ‘happy ending’ though in the discussion which followed our screening some voices raised concerns about violent actions being condoned because the victims deserved to die. I’m interested in this resurgence of what I have termed the ‘eco-thriller’. Thinking about it, the eco-thriller is a much larger category than I have suggested, but in the past it has mostly been about large corporations threatening to damage the environment and it has linked in to the ‘technology gone wrong’ elements of science fiction or the ‘disaster’ narratives of climate change such as The Day After Tomorrow (US 2004). Pokot belongs to a more defined category in which ecology issues are presented in more subtle ways and lead to more individual actions. I suspect we will see more films like this. I also wonder if there is the suggestion of a new tendency in Polish cinema in which Poles who have been abroad and returned home bring a new perspective to life in modern Poland. I was reminded of my experience of watching The Birds Are Singing in Kigali (Poland 2017), a very different film dealing with PTSD suffered by a central character on her return from Rwanda.

Mainstream Polish films are getting released in the UK, targeting the large Polish diaspora community, but more art-orientated films are harder to find. Pokot is available on a Region 2 DVD. One last trivia point, Tomasz Kot, the star of Cold War (Poland 2018), which made £1 million at the UK box office, plays the town’s prosecutor in Pokot.

The Vanishing (Spoorloos, Netherlands-France-West Germany 1988)

Saskia (Johanna ter Steege) and Rex (Gene Bervoets) when they first arrive at the rest-stop

Confession time – when I booked for this film at the Leeds International Film Festival, I thought it was Vanishing Point (US 1971)! It’s all part of the fun of festivals. Sometimes you go to a screening just because you are already at the cinema and you don’t have to be anywhere else. In this case, I’m glad I made the mistake as I enjoyed the film which I didn’t see on its release. I did eventually remember something about both this film and its Hollywood remake by the same Dutch director – but with a stupid change to the film’s resolution.

The Vanishing is a psychological thriller built around an initial frightening occurrence and then a mystery with a psychological underpinning. I’ve seen comments that this is a very scary/frightening film. I’m not sure it is ‘scary’ but it is disturbing, entertaining and intriguing and the ending is definitely not to be revealed in case there are others like me who haven’t already seen it. The Vanishing has been re-released in the UK as part of the BFI Thriller touring season and there is a little mystery attached to the release. In 1990, the first UK release was given a ’12’ certificate. A year later the video was certificated as ’15’ and all subsequent releases have been ’15’s. The new DCP release for cinemas is 13 seconds longer than the 1990 release (the video timings have all differed by a minute or two). Is there something in those 13 seconds of real significance? It is unusual for a film to be re-classified upwards in this way.

The film narrative begins with a young couple looking forward to cycling in France during the time of the Tour de France. They drive down from Amsterdam with their bikes on the roof. They seem deeply in love but soon have a tiff before quickly making up. At a rest-stop near the city of Nîmes in Languedoc they become separated when Saskia (Johanna ter Steege) goes to the shop to buy drinks and doesn’t return. Rex (Gene Bervoets) soon becomes frantic but he can’t get the police to do anything immediately and Saskia seems to have just disappeared.

Raymonde (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu)

In the second part of the film the narrative seemingly moves forward and Rex has moved into a new relationship. But he can’t forget Saskia and he still makes visits back to Nîmes looking for traces of her. During this period we are introduced to Raymonde (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) who we suspect might be the cause of Saskia’s disappearance or might at least know something about it. Much of the narrative information we get comes from what appear to be flashbacks. Eventually Raymonde and Rex will meet but I won’t reveal any more if you are going to watch the film for the first time.

The Vanishing sets up several interesting psychological challenges. The original novel by Tim Krabbé had the title The Golden Egg and this seems to refer to a dream that Rex has some time after Saskia’s disappearance and which he tells an interviewer is the same dream that Saskia had the night before she disappeared. In the dream the couple are together in outer space inside a golden egg. Rex has an obsession about finding Saskia which mirrors Raymonde’s darker obsession. Cycling and chess are two of Tim Krabbé’s interests and both feature in the film, the first as background and the second symbolically in the psychological struggle between Rex and Raymonde. Many films are said to draw on Hitchcock but I think The Vanishing has a real claim to do so effectively. Strangers on a Train and Marnie are two different titles that seem to share some elements with Krabbé’s novel and the film by George Sluizer.

Rex and Raymonde are playing a game which feeds both their obsessions – but Raymonde knows more than Rex

Sluizer was born in France but as far as I can see spent his working life in the Netherlands. I was struck by this co-production which indeed did seem both French and Dutch with an interesting language exchange involving Saskia trying to speak French. The two locations feel different and so do the actors. Raymonde reminded me of characters in several French films, not just with his mysterious obsession, but also because of the insights into his childhood and his relationship with his family. We learn a lot less about Rex’s background. This means there are ‘holes’ in the plot. For instance, why is no one concerned about Saskia’s disappearance – doesn’t she have parents, siblings? That would complicate things of course. Raymonde’s family (two daughters) serves a double function. First, it enables him to develop some techniques and test out ideas on his wife and daughters in a seemingly innocent way and secondly his status as a loving family man to some extent diverts suspicion from him as a sociopath. All three lead actors are very good but I was fascinated by Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu and surprised that I haven’t seen him in other films.

Jeff Bridges as the Raymonde character and Kiefer Sutherland and Sandra Bullock as the couple feature in the remake which flopped. When will they ever learn? Never of course, because on some occasions it works (The Ring/Ringu?) and makes a lot of money. Keeping the same director means nothing if the producers have specific ideas for the American market. The Dutch original seems like a valid re-release for the UK and I hope a lot of young people are disturbed by the film (and have fun with it too).

Mr. Jones (Poland-UK-Ukraine 2019)

Gareth Jones record his first glimpse of conditions in Ukraine

Directed by Agniezska Holland, Mr Jones first appeared at Berlin a year ago to mixed reviews. I tried to book seats for one of its London Film Festival screenings but they must have sold out in minutes and I couldn’t get in. UK distributor Signature Entertainment, which usually goes straight to DVD/download after only a few theatrical screenings, opened slightly more widely on Friday 14th February. Bradford has significant Polish and Ukranian communities so it was good to see it at the National Media Museum. One of the causes of complaint at Berlin was that the film was too long at 141 minutes. The version we were shown appears to have been shorn of around 22 minutes and the press release gives 119 mins.

The film is based on the true story of Gareth Jones a young Welshman who in 1933 following a Cambridge degree in Russian had managed to get taken on as an ‘adviser’ to the ex-Prime Minister David Lloyd George and in that capacity to travel to Germany to interview Hitler and Goebbels after the Reichstag fire. But on his return to the UK he was unable to impress upon Lloyd George and his cronies the danger that Germany now posed. Undeterred he then pressed to be sent to Moscow to interview Stalin. But instead he found himself released from Lloyd George’s service. He decided to go to Moscow anyway. Later it is revealed that his mother had spent some time teaching in Ukraine and this is why Gareth was inspired to study Russian.

Jones meets Eric Blair , aka George Orwell (Joseph Mawle)

The film was written by Andrea Chalupa, whose website reveals that she is a history scholar in the US. Her Ukrainian grandparents survived Stalin’s theft of grain from Ukraine which caused the deaths of millions from famine. She first turned family history material into a book on George Orwell and Animal Farm which she argues has links to Gareth Jones and his visit to Moscow and Ukraine. In fact the narrative begins with Orwell (Joseph Mawle) typing the first few lines of Animal Farm by a window which offers a view of a sea of grain and a barn. This is the first of Holland’s devices which contest ideas about realism. The script also later invents a meeting between Orwell and Jones around the time when Orwell’s first book Down and Out in Paris and London was published in 1933. I’m not sure what Chalupa means when she claims that Animal Farm was a ‘gift’ to her family but I think she is referring to Orwell’s analysis of how Stalinism betrayed the Republicans and the Trotskyist or anti-Stalinist fighters of the POUM during the Spanish Civil War – and thus supported the critique of Stalin’s terror in the 1930s. It is the Orwell passages that some reviewers objected to in the Berlin screenings of the film. I suspect that some of them have been cut in the new print. I hope this doesn’t mean another case of ‘suppression’. What is clear though is that the film script shifts the timescale of events to create its narrative. Orwell’s Spanish experiences were not published until 1938 in Homage to Catalonia. He was actually in Spain from December in 1936 until June 1937.

The film is in three main sections. In the first Jones (a fine performance by James Norton) gets to Moscow and is disturbed by several of the situations in which he finds himself. In the second he finds himself on his way into ‘the Ukraine’ as it was known in English at the time. He experiences the horrors of the famine and perhaps discovers the village where his mother worked. In the third section he is back in Wales, still trying to get people to listen to his story. I don’t want to offer any more plot details as I found the film exciting and absorbing to watch. Since I don’t think many audiences will have come across Jones before (I hadn’t), the drama is not like many biopics in which we know the narrative highlights already. The film’s exposure of Stalin’s Soviet Union is still in parts a contested story even if we know aspects of the history. For the Ukranians it is, of course, a story they want people to know about. On this score I was surprised by some of the reviewers at Berlin who displayed some alarming gaps in their historical knowledge. One or two quite well-known critics refer to Lloyd George as the UK ‘Foreign Secretary’ and one even makes him Prime Minister. In 1933 the UK had a ‘National Government’ – a form of coalition led by the previous Labour Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald. Lloyd George had not held any kind of government office since 1922 although he did become ‘Father of the House’ (the longest continuously serving MP) in 1929. However, Lloyd George still had resources and a name known throughout Europe as the British Coalition Prime Minister and Wartime Leader from 1916-18. He is played in the film by Kenneth Cranham.

New York Times journalist Walther Daranty at one of the lavish Moscow parties

Some of the ‘real’ historical characters in the story are given credits and descriptions of what happened to them in the end titles. One of the most extraordinary was the New York Times journalist Walther Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard), an Englishman who moved to Paris after Cambridge and eventually stationed himself as an American in Moscow, winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1932. Gareth Jones’ meetings with Duranty and the subsequent events are an important part of the story. The third major character in the film is Ada Brooks, a journalist from Berlin (her nationality is not clear) who appears to be working with Daranty but who then becomes a potential romantic interest for Jones. This insertion of a ‘love interest’ could have worked out badly but as played by Vanessa Kirby seemed to work well. (I hadn’t seen Ms Kirby before, but she is well-known from the Netflix serial The Crown and other TV and mainstream cinema roles.)

Mr Jones is a shocking story but it is also an accomplished film. I’ve mentioned the director and leading players but I want also to pick out Tomasz Naumiuk, the Polish cinematographer who I note also shot the the Polish scenes for High Life by Claire Denis. The depiction of the Ukranian famine in the snow is remarkable with a very reduced palette of white and gray and dark greens and browns. There are other visual ‘devices’, all of which worked for me but I can see might irritate some audiences. What we can say is that this is not a conventional historical drama. I also liked  the music score by Antoni Komasa-Lazarkiewicz who also scored Agnieszka Holland’s earlier films In Darkness and Spoor and the editing by Michal Czarnecki, another former collaborator with Holland. I do see, however, that the film is a co-production with some of the possible drawbacks of the constraint to shoot in certain territories for funding purposes. The British partner in this case is Creative Scotland and Edinburgh has to become 1930s London and I presume the Welsh scenes are also shot in Scotland. The rest of the film was shot in Ukraine and in Poland with support from local funding schemes in Krakow and Silesia. I think that the film’s strong qualities of performance, direction and cinematography do manage to overcome any uneven moments created by the locations. (Some of you will note a Routemaster bus from the 1950s-60s in the trailer below.) The horror of the Ukrainian famine is known as the Holodomor and this film portrays the story of that horror vividly with real integrity. Do try and find it on the big screen. Otherwise it is widely available on download. 

World on Fire (UK 2019)

Harry Chase (JONAH HAUER-KING), Kasia Tomaszeski (ZOFIA WICHLAZ) © Mammoth Screen, Photographer: Gareth Gatrell

World on Fire is an example of the UK’s current ‘high-end’ TV production boom. This 7 x 60 mins episodes serial attempts to follow multiple characters, mainly young men and women, through the first year of the Second World War from the German invasion of Poland up to the Battle of Britain. It is a ‘long form narrative’ complementing recent ‘short form narratives’ such as State of the Union. As a formal project this differs from more typical British serials adapted from ‘classic’ (or not so classic) novels and feels more like the original serials developed for US cable TV. Surprisingly perhaps, World on Fire does not seem to have required US funding or to be an official co-production with a European partner. I think that the production has been sold to PBS in the US and I would expect it to sell to Poland and other territories. The production company Mammoth Screen is actually owned by ITV Studios but Mammoth’s projects are often, like this one, screened by the BBC. Presumably the production benefited from the tax schemes for high-end TV programmes. This is the new ecology of TV but does it work to produce interesting narratives?

Julia Brown as Lois, a working-class young woman in Manchester

The writer of the serial is Peter Bowker, a Northern lad with 25 years of writing for TV and many hits. My two favourites would be Blackpool (2004) and Eric and Ernie (2011) (from an idea by and starring Victoria Wood). More recently he has had success with three seasons of The A Word (2016-2019). My first thought was that Bowker might have been inspired by the German serial Generation War (Germany-Poland 2013). That controversial but very successful production took five young Berliners (men and women aged 18-21) in 1941, all friends before they set off on different ‘journeys’, mostly on the Eastern front. Three of the five survive to be re-united during the fall of Berlin in 1945. Bowker’s script for World on Fire focuses on a larger group of 8-10 characters, although interestingly it shares an interest in a young woman who is a singer, a young officer in the Army and a character acting as a guerrilla fighter in Poland. The German narrative had fewer characters and less time but was broadcast as three 90 minute episodes, i.e. each the equivalent of a cinema feature. It covered a longer time period, but not such a wide geographical spread. I mention these differences because at this point, after watching five out of seven episodes of World on Fire, I’m already worrying that there are too many separate stories, even though most of them are strongly linked together.

Sean Bean and Lesley Manville as the two single parents awaiting news at home

The promotional material suggests that the characters are ‘ordinary people’ whose lives are turned upside down by the outbreak of war. I’m not sure that is true for all the characters but it is important that the starting point for the narrative is a young middle-class man, Harry (Jonah Hauer-King) and a working-class young woman, Lois (Julia Brown) singing as a form of disruption of an Oswald Moseley fascist rally in Manchester in March 1939. Afterwards Lois will go back to work in a local factory and to her singing gigs at a local dancehall. Harry is sent to Warsaw as an interpreter for the British diplomatic mission. While there he will meet a young Polish woman Kasia (Zofia Wichlacz, who I saw recently in Spoor) and her family, her brothers and her parents. When the Nazis invade in September the stories of the Polish family (three separate stories) Harry’s mother (Lesley Manville) and Lois’s father (Sean Bean) and brother (Ewan Mitchell) will all develop. Also in Warsaw is an American correspondent Nancy Campbell (Helen Hunt) who, as the invasion starts decides to go to Berlin. She is also worried about her nephew in Paris whose story will be picked up later when Paris falls. There is another narrative involving Nancy with a family in her Berlin apartment block. This story exposes a brutal aspect of Nazi ‘family policy’ but it doesn’t, as far as I can see, connect with the other stories

What should be clear, even from this brief outline, is that there are many stories and there isn’t much space to develop any one story without losing track of others. It also means that a major battle, the confrontation between the German pocket-battleship The Graf Spee and the British cruisers Ajax, Achilles and Exeter is over in a few spectacular and shocking minutes. I’ve seen the famous Powell & Pressburger film many times, but audiences without detailed knowledge may find the scenes difficult to comprehend. (Most take place below decks or on deck with only a few shots of CGI ships.) Kasia’s parents in Warsaw are played by the two top Polish actors who appeared in Pawel Pawlikowski’s award-winning films Ida and Cold War – but they appear only fleetingly. Comments like this appear in several negative reviews of the serial but it isn’t my aim to be negative, I’m simply pointing out some of the outcomes of the narrative structure. On the plus side, a piece in the Observer a few weeks ago praised the serial for its attention to the stories set in Poland. As I’ve noted the cast includes some well-known Polish cinema actors and although the main dialogue is in English, there is subtitling for much of the Polish, German (and later French) exchanges. Subtitled drama on BBC1 is rare.

Two BAME actors get parts as RAF personnel in this scene

Episode 5 sees the main narratives converging in the evacuation of Allied troops at Dunkirk. I think that this episode demonstrates the strengths and possible weaknesses of Bowker’s script. But my personal view is that the strengths outweigh the weaknesses. An unlikely group of characters are on the beaches during a 24 hour period. They include a British sailor, a Polish soldier, an American jazz musician and Harry, now a British infantry officer, with an oddly assorted group of soldiers he as taken under his wing (although Harry himself is not always totally in control). These include shell-shocked British soldiers and a couple of Senegalese soldiers. At one point several of the disparate characters are brought together through song. Harry joins his men in singing (quietly and plaintively, but with a sense of strength through solidarity) ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’. The tune is picked up by the African-American jazz musician close to the beach and then by Lois who is singing as an ENSA entertainer in an RAF hangar. The editing has connected this moment to Kasia in Warsaw and to Harry and Lois’s parents in Manchester listening to the radio and reading the newspaper. This narrative device recall’s Bowker’s Blackpool which used similar devices from musicals. The whole Dunkirk sequence also links back to the debates around Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk (2017). Bowker seems to have picked out characters such as the Senegalese soldiers to address contemporary concerns about representation. He does this throughout the serial, so Lois’s female partner from her singing career in Manchester is a Black British woman who joins Lois in ENSA. And while Lois sings we see that there are two other ‘people of colour’ in the RAF audience. I’m in effect naming Peter Bowker as auteur here, simply because he has written the whole serial. There are three different directors of separate episodes but the casting decisions may have been taken by producers or Mammoth executives, I simply don’t know. The point is that there was great diversity in the Allied forces, even in 1940. But in a sense it doesn’t matter if World on Fire is completely authentic. The casting may be colour blind or to seek that historical diversity. Either way it can be seen as an attempt to engage contemporary younger audiences with wartime narratives through human stories. I prefer this to the more technologically-driven ‘immersive’ cinema of Nolan. It’s also worth going back to Generation War and the debate after the screening involving historians discussing the accuracy of the representations and the importance of access to younger viewers. I also want to give credit to the four cinematographers on the serial with their mix of backgrounds and experience – Søren Bay (2 episodes), Suzie Lavelle (2 episodes), Mika Orasmaa (2 episodes), John de Borman (1 episode)

I’m going to watch the last two episodes and the first five are currently available in the UK on iPlayer. I’ve enjoyed all the performances but especially Julia Brown’s and the feuding between Lesley Manville’s ‘lady of the manor’ and Sean Bean’s shell-shocked First World War veteran. Here’s the ‘Benelux trailer’, stressing the attempt to produce a ‘European story’: