Category: East European Cinema

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. 

The Cremator (Spalovac mrtvol, Czechoslovakia 1969)

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The wordless woman gives an arthouse texture to the film

The Cremator probably lies on the edges of the Czech New Wave as co-writer and director, Juraj Herz (he co-wrote the film with Ladislav Fuks on whose novel it was based), didn’t attend FAMU (the national film school that nurtured many of the wave’s talent) but entered film through the Theatre Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (DAMU) alongside animator Jan Švankmajer. Whilst The Cremator sports the brilliant monochrome cinematography, by Stanislav Milota, associated with the ‘wave’, the style is more arthouse. This is particularly evident in the editing: rapidly cut montage sequences occur throughout including at the start. Here the protagonist and cremator, Kopfrkingl (superbly played as a slimeball by Rudolf Hrusínský), revisits the zoo where he started his relationship with his wife. Extreme close-ups use graphic matches to link humans to the animals; for example, the creases on Kopfrkingl’s forehead are juxtaposed with a snake. Other arthouse tropes, include the woman who wordlessly appears throughout the film; possibly a figment of Kopfrkingl’s imagination.

I can’t think of a film that uses dialogue so insistently that it appears to be a monologue. Kopfrkingl is constantly talking, justifying himself to friends and family as he seeks to expand the business of burning corpses. So although all his speech is diegetic (within the narrative world) it seems as if it is narrative voiceover. The effect is to expressionistically place us within Kopfrkingl’s consciousness and this is not a good place to be.

The film is set during the late ’30s as the Nazis consolidated their power in eastern Europe and Kopfrkingl’s bourgeois businessmen slowly sways toward supporting the fascists. As befits a person whose business is death, he does so with malign vigour. Hence the film slowly metamorphoses into horror.

It is also extremely sexually explicit for its time. The fascists treat themselves to a ‘club’ (brothel) were all the prostitutes are blonde; one is seen with her head bobbing in the lap of a male character. I’m surprised the censors in post-’68 Prague let the film through on this basis alone, ignoring political implications. I suppose the critique of the bourgeoisie as fascists was something to be celebrated and the arthouse aesthetic probably confused the bureaucrats.

There’s a touch of Švankmajer too with waxworks being embodied by humans in a circus sideshow. The uncanniness of this is as creepy as Kopfrkingl’s descent into madness. I saw the film on another excellent Second Run release though the extra of the Quay Brothers explaining their love of the film added little.

Larks on a String (Skrivánci na niti,, 1969 Czechslovakia)

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Making the most of their lot

Although I’ve dated the film 1969, it wasn’t shown complete until the Berlin Film Festival of 1990, where it won the Golden Bear. The film fell foul of the Soviet-Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in May 1968 and Dubček’s ‘socialism with a human face’ was taken over by totalitarian rule. It’s not surprising that bureaucrats disliked director Jirí Menzel’s satire on Czechoslovakian society. Menzel adapted the film from Bohumil Hrabal short stories; the writer had also provided the material for the director’s debut, the celebrated Closely Observed Trains (Ostre sledované vlaky, 1966). I think Larks on a String is better than that Oscar winner.

Mostly set in a junk yard, a metaphor for Czech society, male bourgeois ‘exiles’ and women prisoner’s, overseen by a guard (above), sort through the rubbish. L.K. Weston summarises the bourgeois:

Thrown together by circumstance in the name of re-education, the group includes a philosophy professor and former librarian (a wonderful Vlastimil Brodský, who also starred in Closely Observed Trains), who refuses to burn books; a prosecution lawyer (Leos Sucharípa) who believes in everyone’s right to a defence; a saxophonist (Eugen Jegorov) whose only crime was possession of an instrument deemed too bourgeois, and a young cook Pavel (Václav Neckár another Trains cast member) who is a Seventh-day Adventist and refuses to work on a Saturday. The only willing volunteer in the group is dairyman (Vladimír Ptácek), who closed his premises and came to ‘work for Socialism.

The women have been imprisoned for attempting to leave the country. Although the film is clearly allegorical, there’s no heavy-handedness to the satire. Most of the characters are primarily interested in members of the opposite sex, which requires circumventing the guard to even say ‘hello’. The guard has his own problems, we see him marrying a gypsy girl but is clueless about how to get her into bed to consummate their union. It’s light comedy, but also heartwarming to see characters carrying on in adverse circumstances.

Jaromír Ŝotr’s cinematography is beautiful: I can best describe it as having a polaroid quality (the instant photography of the early 1970s) giving the film a retro look. Menzel’s direction is impressively fluid as the location cannot have been easy to shoot on.

Despite its humour, the film’s devastating ending makes clear that regardless of the amount of human spirit people have to deal with their lot, the oppressors are self-serving scumbags who need consigning to history. In the UK at the moment, we are suffering from our own self-serving scumbags as Johnson’s regime prorogues Parliament to push its, and its right-wing backers’, agenda. Time to get on the streets.

The Shop on the High Street (Obchod na korze Czechoslovakia, 1965)

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Ida Kaminska and Jozef Kroner excel in their roles

With concentration camps on the America-Mexico border and white supremacists regularly being given a platform on the BBC, remembering the Holocaust is a vital activity in 2019. Education is a battleground and learning about the Nazi atrocities was a key part of growing up for many, in the west at least; always with the thought that it couldn’t happen again. How naive was that belief: in America a high school Principal is removed from his post because he refuses the acknowledge the Holocaust happenedThe Shop on the High Street (Main Street in America) is a Holocaust movie but without the camps and Nazis.

Whilst it’s nominally a Czechoslovakian film, it’s actually Slovakian in terms of its creative input, setting and language. During the war the Slovakian government supported the Nazis; their Hlinka Guard became the equivalent of the SS. Jozef Kroner plays Brtko, a small town carpenter who has the misfortune to be related, by marriage, to the town’s fascist leader. The latter gifts Brtko an elderly Jewish woman’s (Rozalia Lautmannová played by Ida Kaminska) shop, she’s going deaf and struggles to understand the situation. Kroner has some resemblance to Steve Carrell and shares the American’s talent for entwining seriousness with comedy. He’s too mild mannered and conflicted to take over the shop so pretends, after key ‘encouragement’ from a friend who opposes the fascists, to be Lautmannová’s assistant.

Spoiler alert: the first two thirds of the film is a mild comedy of Brtko trying to please his money-grubbing wife without upsetting anyone (though when pushed he does slap his wife; I’m unclear whether this is meant to show a dark side to Brtko or show how pushy his wife is – I fear the latter). I was mildly entertained thus far and wondered about the ethics of a comedy that had the Holocaust in its background (I still haven’t seen Life is Beautiful, La vita è bella, Italy, 1997, which like The Shop on the High Street won the Best Foreign Language Oscar). Then the film turns when the Hlinka Guards start rounding up the town’s Jewish population. Brtko can no longer finesse his ‘appeasement’ position’, trying to offend no one. The last half hour in particular, which takes place almost wholly in the shop where we can see the round-up going on outside, is truly devastating as an increasingly drunk Brtko tries to find the right course of action.

The immensity of the Holocaust is difficult to comprehend and Ladislav Grosman’s screenplay, by focusing on an ordinary man, enables us to understand how such an atrocity came about: few people are willing to make a stand against tyranny that would compromise their safety or economic well-being.

The film was co-directed by Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos, though accounts suggest that most of the creative decisions were made by Kadár. Despite the year of its release, it’s not a Czech New Wave film as it is, stylistically, conventional and both directors had been working in film well before the 1960s. It was a key film, though, in alerting the world to the brilliance of the films coming out of the country; its Oscar win was followed by three other films being nominated: A Blonde in LoveClosely Observed Trains (Ostre sledované vlaky) – which won –and The Fireman’s Ball (Horí, má panenko). The film, however, is stylistically interesting as the increasingly expressionist mise en scène, and febrile handheld camera, both signify Brtko’s mental breakdown. Mishearing his name, Lautmannová calls him Krtko which means ‘mole’ in Slovak and so stands for those who bury their heads in the sand rather than dealing with unpleasant reality.

Post-1945 the story ended well with the defeat of fascism though the ensuing Cold War ensured conflict for decades afterwards. It seems we’re now returning to the 1930s with a rise in right wing populism, economic stagnation and fascists in power in some places. The Shop on the High Street reminds us we have to take a stand.