Deutschland, bleiche Mütter is a film by New German Cinema director, Helma Sanders-Brahms, released in 1980. It has recently had a release, in the UK, on BFI-sponsored Blu-ray DVD, giving a much wider audience the chance to see a film that has been considered a neglected classic.
Deutschland, bleiche Mütter intertwines the events of the war with the filmmaker’s own personal history. As such, its feminism and its political reassessment of the past is shaped by its German context. The story is based on Sanders-Brahms own parents’ war experiences. Lene (Eva Mattes) directly represents the director’s mother, Helene Sanders and the director’s own daughter, Anne is cast as Lene and Hans’ (Ernst Jacobi) daughter, Anna. The film focusses on three separate movements: courtship, marriage, war and motherhood, post-war family reunion. It is an ambitious blend of allegory and naturalism, creating a complex meditation on the war generation’s experience and culpability, especially in relation to Nazism. The layering of story and symbol is part of its action of vergangenheitsbewältigung, of ‘mastering the knowledge of the past’ which became intensely associated with New German Cinema. Formally, the film effects a very complex intertwining of documentary footage of the ravaged country with drama, which itself moves from realism to Brechtian detachment. Its family-centred narrative deals directly and self-reflexively with the complexity, in late 1970s Germany, of one generation looking back at another. Sanders-Brahms succeeds in sustaining the emotional naturalism, even with the film’s strong visual symbolism. She creates a moving and intimate family history; and even whilst the film focusses on the relations of mother to daughter, her portrait of Hans is sympathetic and rounded. The DVD release contains a film of Sanders-Brahms journey with her father back to France, where he was stationed during the war. She adopted the matrilineal surname of Brahms and, whilst the story is centred on the journey of mother and daughter across a war-torn Germany, her father’s emotional experience is not ignored.
The importance of intergenerational exchange is clear from the film’s title sequence, where we hear the voice of Brecht’s daughter reading his poem, ‘Deutschland, bleiche Mutter’ (written in exile, in 1933). Sanders-Brahms’ film is itself a daughter’s; it is her voice which addresses Lene in voice-over, merging the identity of director with a fictional adult daughter looking back. Fellow NGC director, Margarethe Von Trotta characterised the circumstances in which they were trying to write their own stories: ‘We felt that there was a past of which we were guilty as a nation but we weren’t told about in school. If you asked questions, you didn’t get answers’ (Knight, 2004, p.62). Von Trotta’s film, Die Bleierne Zeit (1981), creates a counterpoint to Sanders-Brahms’s film, because of her more direct engagement with her contemporary political history as part of a story of family, through the relationship of sisters Marianne (Barbara Sudowka) and Julianne (Jutta Lampe).
On its release Deutschland, bleiche Mütter received criticism for being too personal for a political film and too political for a personal one. Peter Hasenberg of film-dienst : “If it were a purely personal film one could not refuse it one’s sympathy. What makes it problematic is that the director does not limit herself to personal memories.” (quoted in Bammer, 1985). This was an uncomfortable blend in post-war Germany. The sympathy evident in Sanders-Brahms’ representation matches the filmmaker’s view that ‘I don’t live any differently from my parents; I just live in other times’ (Kaes, 1989, p.142). She describes another kind of inheritance regarding the ‘strength’ that their mothers had learnt they had during the war: ‘After the war, that strength in many cases was suddenly worthless. But we, children of that generation, who were born during the war, inherited it’ (quoted in Kaes, 1989, p.160).
Sanders-Brahms’ ability to deliver an affecting melodrama at the same time as critical dialectic – Lene’s face in the mirror will become symbolic of the greater ravages of war – shows that her work deserved greater acknowledgement. Her debut feature, Heinrich (1977) (the literary subject of Heinrich von Kleist), received the highest national film award, the ‘goldene Schale (‘the Golden Bowl). She had trained on set rather than at film school, her mentors consisting of Sergio Corbucci and Pier Paulo Pasolini. She then worked in television successfully before moving into film production. She talks with great passion about her career and life at a filmed seminar event here. Her work is intriguing because of its range, and its defiance of categorisation. She is, arguably, a European auteur very much in the mode of Chantal Akerman; a filmmaker who might be called feminist or written as a female filmmaker, but whose work ranges across forms and themes with a much wider perspective in her exploration of women and history. Chantal Akerman has adopted her own kind of ‘daughter’s gaze’ in certain of her films, such as Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) and, more recently, No Home Movie (2015). Sanders-Brahms left Paris, where she found the critical acclaim she lacked in Germany and offers of funding in the early 1980s, to return to Berlin because her young daughter was so unhappy living there. At the film event she commented: ‘movie is wonderful, but compared to a child, it’s nothing…your answer to the world will always will be your child and not your film.’
Leading German scholar Erica Carter’s brilliant and detailed notes on the film to accompany its DVD release can be found here.
These notes are adapted from the presentation for Reel Solutions Saturday School: War Babies: Women in Berlin in 1945 Information for future events can be found on the website.
Bammer, Angelika (1985) ‘Through a Daughter’s Eyes: Helma Sanders-Brahms’ Germany, Pale Mother’, New German Critique, No. 36 (Autumn, 1985), pp. 91-109.
Kaes, Anton (1989) From Hitler to Heimat. The Return of History as Film, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press.
Knight, Julia (2004) New German Cinema. Images of a Generation, London and New York: Wallflower Press.
The final screening in the Ida Lupino retrospective again proved to be a fascinating production and an absorbing film. I’m indebted to the excellent detailed study of Lupino’s work on the Cinema Scope website by Christoph Huber for some of the insights explored here. After The Hitch-Hiker was a sleeper hit (earning over $1 million dollars) Lupino was persuaded by her partners at The Filmakers, against her best instincts, to end the link with RKO and distribute The Bigamist independently. Although by all accounts they promoted the film well, it failed at the box office and sent The Filmakers into a decline it never recovered from. That’s a shame because The Bigamist is definitely worth seeing and we were able to watch a 35mm restoration by UCLA. I understand that some of the other films from The Filmakers are now in the public domain and only exist on poor quality video transfers.
The Bigamist is an example of how Ida Lupino managed to bring elements of film noir to bear on a social issue/problem film. The plot involves a couple, Harry (Edmond O’Brien) and Eve (Joan Fontaine) who want to adopt a child. An agency is pleased to help them and Mr Jordan (Edmund Gwenn) sets out to investigate whether the couple will be good parents. Jordan is a complex character drawing on Gwenn’s signature role as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street in 1947. He appears avuncular (he was 75 when the film came out) but also sharp as a tack when it comes to checking out a prospective parent. He follows Harry, a travelling salesman, from San Francisco to Los Angeles where he corners him and extracts a story, told in flashback in the best film noir style. Eve is the wife and Ida Lupino herself is Phyllis, the woman in another city who Harry turns to from loneliness. I don’t really need to say any more, except that Lupino handles the narrative with great skill and cleverly allows for an ‘open ending’ when the two women meet after the court hearing.
What I found fascinating was that Lupino injects a real sense of disturbance through Mr. Jordan’s investigation. Innocent actions by Harry can take on different meanings and eventually he will be ‘betrayed’. Lupino plays her part very well and she gives it a tone of the innocent young woman caught up in a film noir story. She knew all about that from her own acting career. She was 35 when she made the picture but feels younger. Having said that she has a mature woman’s playful response to Harry’s attempted pickup. Joan Fontaine is also well cast as Eve, unable to have children, super-efficient at building a business with Harry and concerned about her own parents. Harry’s actions are stupid perhaps, but not malicious. He tries to do his best for both women and that’s why it is oddly satisfying that we are denied a ‘resolution’. In the central role, Edmond O’Brien is very good indeed.
The Bigamist looks good and that’s probably down to the partnership of Ida Lupino as director and George Deskant as cinematographer. Deskant had been behind the camera at RKO since 1946 and he’d worked with Lupino, shooting On Dangerous Ground (1951) and another title from The Filmakers, Beware, My Lovely (1952). After The Bigamist he moved into TV – like Lupino herself and I think he must have shot several of the many TV episodes Ida Lupino directed. I suspect too that others from The Bigamist crew followed her into TV. Christoph Huber adds another twist, reporting that Lupino and Deskant decided to use a different camera crew for Eve’s and Phyllis’s scenes. I confess I’m not sure what this achieved. The other strange set of links about The Bigamist concerns Collier Young. His marriage to Lupino had ended in 1951 and in 1952 he married Joan Fontaine. Ida Lupino thus found herself directing her ex-husband’s new wife in a film he produced and for which he provided the original story and even took a bit part in a scene featuring Lupino. The landlady of the apartment house where Phyllis lives is played by Joan Fontaine’s mother Lilian. In one sense it sounds like a bewildering experience for Lupino yet I think it demonstrates how organised and disciplined she must have been. The result is a tight 80 minute feature with not a frame wasted. It’s not surprising that Ida Lupino was so prolific in directing episodes of TV series from 1956 until the late 1960s (during which time she also acted on TV). One other aspect of The Filmakers work that is interesting is an early embracing of product placement in The Bigamist – a clever way to make some extra money. I didn’t notice it until I found it mentioned in a useful Cineaste piece by Dan Georgakas (Vol XXV No. 3 June 2000).
I’m now on a search for more Ida Lupino films – those she directed and those she acted in. Thanks Glasgow FF!
Alan Hunter introduced this screening in the midst of Glasgow’s ‘whiteout’ as a frivolous French comedy perfectly suited to the need to raise our spirits. He was right – it is a very silly film, but also at times very funny and it’s blessed by a performance at its centre by the great Rossy de Palma, everyone’s favourite supporting player in Almodóvar’s films, given a much bigger role.
How to describe the film? It’s a romantic comedy of sorts and also a fairytale, a ‘big house’ story with a tiny bit of social commentary/class consciousness – played as an ensemble piece. The set-up is a familiar ‘Americans in Paris’ story. Anne (Toni Collette) and Bob (Harvey Keitel) are a (supposedly) very wealthy couple spicing up their faltering marriage by taking over a grand house and gardens – somewhere still in the city but also exclusive. Anne has organised a dinner party for some distinguished guests but at the last moment her stepson, Steven (Tom Hughes) has turned up and invited himself. There are 13 for dinner and an extra guest must be found at the last moment. Anne decides to transform her maid Maria (Rossy de Palma) into a mysterious Spanish noblewoman – and instructs her to say little and be aloof. But a nervous Maria can’t disguise her real personality and she makes an unlikely conquest in the form of David (Michael Smiley), an art consultant who is there to attest to the provenance of a painting Bob wishes to sell. You can probably guess much of the rest of the plot of this riff on Cinderella.
From the cast list, you will have worked out that this is one of those wholly French films that are made in English for the international market. Writer-director Amanda Sthers joins the likes of Luc Besson and Mathieu Kassovitz in this kind of production. Sthers (real name Amanda Queffélec-Maruani) is a celebrated novelist, playwright and screenwriter in France and this is her second directorial venture. Some of Luc Besson’s English-language films such as Lucy (France 2014) have succeeded and similarly, other EuropaCorp (Besson’s company) productions such as the Taken and Transporter franchises have made money despite poor reviews. These films explore universal genres that appeal directly to audiences. I feel that Madame, though mainstream and accessible, won’t have the same appeal and so far its critical reception has not been great. The film was presented by StudioCanal at GFF and I fear that it may suffer the fate of several other ‘popular’ French films in the UK. StudioCanal tends to open them on a few screens and then rush out a DVD a couple of weeks later. Part of the problem is that the ageing, and therefore shrinking, UK audience for French films will ignore this English-language romcom as being ‘too frivolous’ and the general audience will find the French context slightly too different to their usual Anglo-American fare. Having said that, I noticed that the film has done reasonable business (over $US400,000) in Australia. Is that because of Toni Collette?
If you’d like to read a sympathetic review, I recommend ‘Eye for Film‘. I enjoyed the early part of the film and I did find some scenes genuinely funny. I’m always happy to watch Rossy de Palma. The narrative does depend on a sense of class difference but I’m not sure how well that works. Michael Smiley is a fine actor but I wasn’t convinced that he was as upper middle-class as the narrative suggested and overall the narrative doesn’t seem to be able to sustain itself across 90 minutes and lost its way towards the end.
On Wednesday 28th February Scotland was given a Red warning of heavy snow. I was due to go home but found all the trains cancelled. Most of the Film Festival venues closed as Glasgow went into lock-down. But even snow storms can have a silver lining and next day, aware I couldn’t get home, I turned up at GFT to discover that the afternoon shows were on and that I would be able to see more of Ida Lupino’s in the festival’s centenary retrospective.
Ida Lupino was always frustrated under contract at Warner Brothers and in 1948 she set up her own production company, ‘Emerald Productions’ (referring to her mother’s stage name) with partners including producer Collier Young who she married in 1948. Later the company was renamed as ‘The Filmakers’ (sic). During suspensions by Warner Bros for refusing parts, she had learned as much as she could about directing and become an admirer of the tough guy directors like Raoul Walsh and William Wellman. The Hitch-Hiker is one of the seven films that Lupino directed (two of them uncredited) between 1949 and 1954. Her later directing career took her into television, apart from one more film in 1966. Ida Lupino became known as a director who belonged to a modernist school of pre-New Wave auteurs. On a practical level her independent films were all short (70-80 minutes) and made quickly on low budgets of less than $200,000. The Hitch-Hiker lasts just 71 minutes – none of them wasted. It’s a cracker! Made as a co-production with RKO, the film benefits from some well-known RKO department heads including Nicholas Musuraca as cinematographer (one of the great film noir creatives) and C. Bakaleinikoff as music director (again a noir expert). Lupino and Young (now divorced) wrote the screenplay, though IMDb also lists Daniel Mainwaring (writer of Out of the Past and many more noirs) as an uncredited writer. The original story came from Robert Joseph. Mainwaring was one of the writers to suffer from the blacklist – which Lupino didn’t recognise.
The short running time for a film with so much creative talent working on the production is partly attributable to the difficulties Lupino faced with the subject matter. She decided to make a film based on a ‘true crime’ story about the serial killer Billy Cook who was in San Quentin awaiting execution. Lupino visited him there and arranged the rights to his story, planning a film which sounds something like In Cold Blood (1967), the film based on Truman Capote’s ‘faction’ novel. For various reasons, including problems with the production code, the final screenplay changed names and story elements but under Lupino’s direction still retained a documentary, or at least a ‘procedural’ feel. The killer, renamed Emmett Myers, is first seen in California, killing a couple who had offered him a lift and then similarly despatching a travelling salesman and taking his car. When that breaks down he again hitches a ride but this time doesn’t immediately kill the two men on a fishing trip but, holding them at gun-point, forces them to drive him down through Mexico. At some point they know he will kill again. Lupino shows only the killer’s feet and very brief shots of the victims in a swift opening to the narrative before we settle in to the psychological play between the three central characters.
As the killer, Lupino and Young cast William Talman (who later became well-known as the DA always defeated in court by Perry Mason on TV). Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy were cast as the two hostages. O’Brien was an excellent character actor who appeared again for Lupino in The Bigamist later in 1953. Lovejoy is best known to me as the police officer in Nick Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950). Lupino had a leading acting role in On Dangerous Ground (1950) for Nick Ray and claims have been made that she directed some scenes of that film when Ray was unwell. I imagine Lupino was very well-known in Hollywood and must have had a large network of people she had worked with and could rely on. She was an independent, but needed a studio like RKO to distribute her films so she still had to compromise on certain issues.
The Hitch-Hiker is usually described as a film noir and Lupino is often described as the first woman to make a noir – as well as being one of the great femmes fatales in several noirs. I understand why this has happened and it’s true that there are distinctly ‘noirish’ sequences in the film. However, I think it is more useful to consider the film as being in the ‘mode’ of a film noir but drawing on several other genres. Lupino herself was generally interested in films about ‘ordinary people’ – the bewildered folk who find themselves in difficult positions. She looked for that documentary feel. In The Hitch-Hiker there are conventional montages showing newspaper headlines, but also important procedural touches such as the co-operation between the US and Mexican police agencies, the use of radio transmissions to deceive Myers and coverage of the search techniques. I was also struck by how much the narrative resembled a Western, especially in the journey through the desert, the night-time camping and the encounters with small Mexican communities and travellers. It isn’t difficult to imagine the car replaced by horses or a buggy. But the prime generic ‘mover’ of the action is the psychological thriller. Collins (O’Brien) and Bowen (Lovejoy) are ‘ordinary guys’ on a fishing trip. They may well have been in the Second World War (and Bowen is a skilled rifleman) but now they live comfortable lives in the suburbs with wives and families (incidentally this is a very male story – there are no female characters). Myers knows that they can only act together. Neither will risk escaping alone as the other would certainly be killed. He plays games with them and unsettles them at every opportunity. Myers also has a damaged eye that will not close, so it’s almost impossible to tell if he’s sleeping with his staring eye clearly visible.
There are no real surprises in how the story ends but we don’t care because we are taken up with the tension and suspense. We know Myers will be caught but we are still concerned about the two hostages – who are different in their behaviour. I’ve rarely got so involved in a short feature like this.
The film was presented on a 35mm print from the National Film Archive in good condition. Since the railways showed no sign of re-opening, I knew I would have the chance to see The Bigamist the next day – post to follow.
This year’s Glasgow retrospective strand is devoted to Ida Lupino as Hollywood star and director on the centenary of her birth. Given the structure of the programme, I could only catch one of the screenings. I was happy though because it was a film in which Ms Lupino appeared as a twin lead with Jean Gabin in his first Hollywood role. I was then knocked back to discover the ‘troubled’ nature of the production – but as Alan Hunter observed in his introduction, the film has been gradually exonerated over time. I thoroughly enjoyed it and thought it had many fine features.
Moontide was screened from a National Film Archive 35mm print which seems to be in pretty good nick. It was a 20th Century Fox production for Mark Hellinger initially to have been directed by Fritz Lang who jumped ship after a few days of shooting to be replaced by Archie Mayo. Hunter suggested that Lang and Gabin were at odds over their interest in Marlene Dietrich. Archie Mayo proved to be a ‘safe pair of hands’ and with a script by John O’Hara from a novel by Hollywood actor Willard Robinson, a fine cast got the chance to shine. Ida Lupino was often suspended by Warner Bros and therefore available for loans and that is presumably why she ended up starring alongside Thomas Mitchell and Claude Rains as well as Gabin. I have to agree with Alan Hunter, however, in picking out the cinematography by Charles G. Clarke (which received an Oscar nomination).
The plot involves Gabin and Mitchell rolling into a small Southern Californian port as a pair of itinerants looking for work (or more accurately a fast buck). Bobo (Gabin) gets roaring drunk (a drunken binge celebrated by an expressionist sequence with the remnants of Salvador Dali’s work on the picture) and next morning there are clues to his possible involvement in the murder of an old sailor. Did Bobo do it? Meanwhile ‘Tiny’ (Mitchell) wants the pair to head north to San Francisco where work is more plentiful. But Bobo saves a young woman, Anna (Lupino), from the waves and seems to want to set up house with her. ‘Nutsy’ (Claude Rains), as a kind of ‘intellectual night-watchman who never sleeps’, becomes an all-seeing guardian angel.
It sounds nonsensical, but Clarke presents it as a Hollywood take on the ‘poetic realism’ of Gabin’s films with Carné and Duvivier in the late 1930s and, not surprisingly, the film has been hailed as an early Hollywood noir. Gabin and Mitchell make typical show-stopping entrances into the dockside bar at the start of the narrative but Lupino is not outshone and her gamin character has plenty of vim as well as a radiant beauty in a tawdry environment. She was only 24 when she made the film, but already a veteran of British and Hollywood cinema having started at 15, I’m going to have to go back and re-watch some of the classic Ida Lupino flicks. They would include High Sierra (1941) and They Live By Night (1940) both with Bogart (and both produced by Hellinger) and the later Nick Ray film On Dangerous Ground (1951) with the always dangerous Robert Ryan. Towards the end of her film career, she was Steve McQueen’s ma in one of my favourite melodramas, Sam Peckinpah’s Junior Bonner (1972). Lupino’s centenary was the prompt for the retrospective, but the current outrage about the lack of directing opportunities for women in Hollywood has pushed the Lupino celebrations way up the agenda. In the late 1940s and early 1950s as the studio system began its slow descent into obsolescence, Lupino became the only female feature director of the period and eventually directed six features. She also went on to direct many TV episodes in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. IMDb lists over 100 acting credits – not bad for a girl from Herne Hill, South East London, though she did go to RADA and had the support of an acting family with centuries of work behind it. I must also praise the work of Gabin. What a great star and what a shame he made only one other film in Hollywood (which I haven’t seen but must look for). Mitchell and Rains are terrific character actors. Gabin and Lupino are stars.
The introduction to this screening by co-director of the festival Allison Gardner suggested that “the film is very beautiful but difficult”. Which is actually quite a good description. It is visually very fine and it sounds good too – with several songs by Los Indios Tabajaras. (This was disconcerting because I recognised the music as being from the same performers who open and close Wong Kar-wai’s Days of Being Wild (HK 1990)). I learned subsequently that the original Zama novel by Antonio di Benedetto, first published in 1956, was only translated into English in 2016 and is considered as one of the great works of Argentinian literature. In Lucrecia Martel, one of Argentina’s most celebrated filmmakers. it has found a new champion for an international audience.
Diego de Zama is a corregidor (a Spanish title for an agent of the King) in the 1790s in a remote part of the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata in present day Paraguay. Zama feels trapped in a backwater and repeatedly asks the local Governor to write to Spain on his behalf to request a transfer. This becomes an endlessly repeated plea to the Governor who finds all kinds of excuses not to deliver. This perhaps is an indication of the ‘difficulty’ of the narrative as the process becomes something like that suffered by one of Kafka’s characters – or perhaps like Yossarian in Catch 22? “Have you written to the King?” becomes Zama’s mantra.
Zama has ‘status’ as a colonial figure (initially he appears to act as a magistrate) but no real discernible power except that conferred on a European by conquest. Martel presents the colonial world in a manner that is both terrifying and hypnotically beautiful. This is a film in which it pays to look and listen without trying too hard to find conventional film narrative cues as to what might happen next. The Kafkaesque world of the settlement in the first half of the narrative becomes the very beautiful but also terrifying world of the ‘unexplored’ territory where Zama finds himself supposedly searching for the possibly imaginary figure of a bandit/pirate. The only way I could make some kind of sense of what was happening in this second half was to draw on other similar films and stories. The closest parallel I could think of was another Argentinian film, Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja (Argentina 2014) in which a Danish engineer working for the Argentinian colonial forces in the 19th century becomes similarly deranged in the ‘jungles’ of Patagonia while searching for the ‘pirate’ who has kidnapped his daughter.
After the screening I found that the best way to get a handle on Zama came via this review-essay on the original novel by J. M. Coetzee. Lucretia Martel has changed some aspects in her adaptation but the essentials remain and Coetzee’s review explains quite a lot of the background. I was pleased to see that my identification of Kafkaesque features is backed up. Some of the promotional material for the film suggests that this an ‘existential drama’ but Coetzee argues for Borges and Kafka as the inspirations for the 1950s novel. The other point from the review that intrigued me is the reference to Zama as a Creole character. From a UK perspective this can sometimes mean a mixed race person, but here it means that although Zama is ‘European’, he was born in the Americas and his status is therefore between the indigenous people and those born in Spain. He has relationships with indigenous women and also seeks out Spanish women, one of whom is played by Lola Dueñas. In British colonial terms he seems to have ‘gone native’. Spanish colonialism was perhaps less rigid – though no less harmful. Also important is the new ‘division’ in the colony between the new metropolitan centre, Buenos Aires and the ‘marginal’ colonial outposts.
I’m not sure how Zama will sell in the UK. It is due for release by New Wave, an excellent independent distributor, on May 25th. This is a film that is backed by many major figures in Hispanic and Latin American cinema. Lola Dueñas and Daniel Giménez Cacho (Spanish and Mexican respectively) have both worked for Pedro Almodóvar’s company El Deseo which is a production partner. Leading actors from Argentina and Brazil are in the cast and executive producers include Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna. But yes – it is a difficult film. I hope audiences are willing to grapple with it and experience its splendours as a piece of filmmaking and a genuine attempt to tell us something about the history of Latin America. I look forward to exploring the film later on DVD but please do go and see it in the cinema if you get the chance. It’s one of the best films I’ve seen this year so far.
As a local, I had always slightly resisted the name-change that accompanied Cornerhouse Manchester’s location move, even though it was to a fantastic and purpose-built modern venue, integrating theatre, cinema and art gallery. Increasingly, however, I’ve had to admit that even the cinema alone has a right to call itself HOME, justified by the range of films showing and their frequent special events; they make me, happily, more of a stranger in my own.
The latest addition to these experiences was a screening, on Friday night, of Clio Barnard’s new film, Dark River (2017). The film was accompanied by a Q&A, chaired by Mia Bays of Bird’s Eye View, with Barnard and her producer (on this and for The Selfish Giant (2013)), Lila Rawlings.
The film itself is a portrayal of a sibling relationship, one existing under the shadow of traumatic past events. Avoiding any more detail, it is enough to say that this is a powerful story of the effects on those who survive abuse and of the complex legacy of secrecy, complicity and passivity that all of those involved are forced to carry with them. And, also, without attempting a detailed piece of writing on Barnard and her previous films (her work deserves greater contemplation) this is a call to encourage anyone reading to see this film.
Barnard’s first feature, The Arbor (2010), about the life of playwright Andrea Dunbar, was a blend of documentary footage and drama. The film layered real places and people, featuring the Arbor estate in Bradford where Dunbar lived; stylistically, this footage constantly intertwined with staged performance. Professionals acted out excerpts of her plays on the estate and actors lip-synched to audio-interviews with Dunbar’s friends and family, recalling her struggles and her troubled life. Despite its apparent artificiality and the strange dislocation of words and the person speaking them, or really because of it, those experiences were communicated in powerful, emotional terms. Mark Kermode, in introducing the film for the BFI Player, also commented on the ‘truth’ about memory that emerges through its innovation.
Dark River revolves around traumatic memory and represents it sensitively, sparingly and with great emotional power. The Q&A at HOME raised interesting questions which were answered thoughtfully by Barnard and Rawlings, both passionately engaged with the subject matter as well as the perennial challenges of low-budget filming in Britain. Barnard talked about the experience of working with such intuitive and professional actors in Ruth Wilson and Mark Stanley. Their ability to convey much about a relationship, one which has become wordless through the repression of intolerable feelings, gave her the luxury of being able to strip back the dialogue constantly through the filming. It is a very silent film; Lila Rawlings made a connection the siblings lack of communication and of working within a landscape depicting boundaries. It constructs an unsentimental portrait of this part of the world; Barnard emphasised her commitment to ‘rural realism’ – of her films as engaging with the realities for those who live in these places which can be romanticised in British (English) culture. Place works symbolically in this film, without ever losing touch. Filmed near Skipton, North Yorkshire and around Malham, Barnard, with Adriano Goldman as cinematographer, shoots it spare, rugged and visceral as if seen through its protagonists’ eyes. Janet’s Foss provided the filming location as the place where Alice can immerse herself under the water – literally and metaphorically. Dark River is part of a disparate, impromptu trilogy, through release timing, with The Levelling (2016) – about a girl returning to her family farm – and God’s Own Country (2017), a love story set in Yorkshire, which represents the countryside as a real world. However, each film has its own very specific qualities onscreen and in the narrative, a validation of the processes at work on each of them and their separate interpretations of ‘rural realism’.
In terms of representing the world of the farming community, I couldn’t help thinking of Far from the Madding Crowd – not just because of the sheep, but because of one point in relation to Thomas Hardy’s stories that I hope Barnard would find sympathetic. Hardy’s world is a difficult one, of people like Barnard’s characters – struggling, suffering, earning little and understanding their connection to the land in the most difficult way, not just through a superficial love of its beauty. Whilst Rose Tremain’s novel Trespass (2010) directly provided the point of inspiration for this film, it is Bathsheba Everdene who haunts it in the farming scenes at least. Alice (Ruth Wilson) has ambition and competence in what is still a man’s world. Interesting to place it next to director Thomas Vinterberg’s luxuriant 2015 adaptation of Hardy’s novel of a woman struggling, played very strongly by Carey Mulligan but set in glorious, colour-saturated countryside.[i] Hardy would approve of Barnard’s film, I believe.
This is, though, first and foremost about the central relationships, both those present and non-present, with Sean Bean playing the lost father. It was a lively Q&A (many thanks to Mia Bays) with questions and responses to the film including the soundtrack, the implications of the ending, the representation of the land. Christine Bottomley, who worked with Barnard on The Arbor, was in the audience and commented on the ‘calm space’ that Barnard could create that allowed actors the safety to explore all emotional possibilities. A quality of silence, then, informs her practice as well as her films. This is certainly visible in the deeply-observed relationships in Dark River. Lila Rawlings – when asked – gave up one key word to characterise Barnard’s work – ‘empathy.’
See here for Tony Earnshaw’s detailed report and interview on the set of the film.
Bird’s Eye View are piloting a scheme to recruit ‘influencers’ (‘BEVIs’) – people willing to champion female-centric films and spread the word, locally and online. The scheme is centred, at first, on HOME (Manchester), Genesis/Curzon Soho/PictureHouse Central (London), Tyneside Cinema (Newcastle), Plymouth Arts Centre. Influencers will receive free tickets to event screenings, DVDs, subscriptions and money-off codes. Anyone interested should contact BEV: firstname.lastname@example.org with the heading ‘BEVI’.
[i] In thinking about realism, this is the same Vinterberg who emerged in the Dogme film movement of the 1990s, with its manifesto establishing rules of aesthetic restraint, and who recently made the excoriating drama The Hunt (2012). His Hardy film, a beautiful adaptation with some strong performances, may be recent but it is arguably less innovative than John Schlesinger’s 1966 treatment of Hardy’s novel, which had Nicholas Roeg as cinematographer.
This is the second of a loose trilogy of Bulgarian films about social issues in one of the newer member countries of the EU by the team of Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov. I reviewed the couple’s earlier film The Lesson (2014) here. The second film follows the first in looking for ideas in local newspaper stories which are then used as a stimulus for developing more complex dramas. The first film seemed to me a social realist drama which used some familiar genre tropes at certain moments. I thought this second film was slightly different in bringing together two central characters whose stories mesh in interesting ways and which was mostly coherent in engaging with genre ideas. I’d need to go back to the first film to check, but it might be that the camerawork by Krum Rodriguez is this time ‘looser’ with hand-held shallow focus in the modern style rather than the ‘documentary observation’ of The Lesson. Some of the same crew and the two principal actors reappear from the first film.
The punning title needs translating to reveal its significance. It refers to both the recognition of a ‘hero’ in the tradition of the worker-heroes of the era under communism and to the object which is used to represent that recognition – a traditional Russian wristwatch with the brand-name ‘Slava’ or ‘Glory’. The worker in this case is Tzanko Petrov, a ‘linesman’ on the railway who checks the track and in particular the rails and their attachment to the sleepers. One day he discovers a pile of banknotes lying on the track. He quickly decides to alert the police. This action is brought to the attention of the ministry of transport and in particular the energetic and relentless Julia Staykova, the head of public relations. She immediately begins a media campaign which will see Tzanko summoned to Sofia where the minister will present him with a new watch. But Tzanko is not ideal PR material. He is a loner with a speech impediment. Julia herself is also distracted by her own personal issues and in particular her current infertility treatment. Added to this is the context of corruption in the operation of the railways – the reason why celebrating Tzanko’s public-spirited action is so important for good PR.
Out of this promising mixture of narrative threads Grozeva and Valchanov have created a black comedy which works on many levels, shifting from moments of near farce (more trousers being dropped for non-sexual reasons than I’ve seen for a long time) to sometimes quite sad and sometimes quite brutal episodes. There is an open ending, but one with little hope that all will end well.
Julia Staykova is played by Margita Gosheva, the teacher from The Lesson and again she gives an excellent performance as the driven Julia. Stefan Denolyubov, the moneylender in The Lesson unrecognisable behind long hair and a wild beard, plays Tzanko. His is an equally good performance in a role which, like Gosheva’s, requires a wide range of skills. In the Press Book on the New Wave Film website, the directors suggest that they first thought of the PR boss as a man. I was surprised because in the UK I tend to assume PR people are very often women. I think they made the right decision in the end.
The EU does play a role in the narrative, if only because the corruption on the railways might cause problems for future EU support which is being discussed in the background as the events unfold. Otherwise the main social issue in the film is perhaps the extent to which traditional (or perhaps ‘pre-1990’) Bulgarian society is coping with global modernity, whether it is mobile phones being answered in the fertility clinic in the midst of consultations with a doctor or the frantic attempts of a TV crew to present the best image of the railways in an online news report. Tzanko is a little behind these changes as a rural worker, though possibly only because he still has a human touch. Crucially it is the loss of his Russian watch with the engraving on the back representing his father’s love that he really cares about.
There were just a couple of puzzling moments in the film. At one point a prostitute appears and I wasn’t sure why. And the infertility treatment baffled me as I wasn’t quite sure what was going on. Otherwise I was engaged throughout. I watched the film in a new cinema, part of a multi-purpose arts centre. The disadvantage I discovered was that the removable seating (to convert the venue for theatre and music events) creaked and groaned as people came in late and I lost concentration during the opening scenes. I’m increasingly concerned by the new kinds of auditoria that are being opened – I haven’t yet ventured into an Everyman or an Odeon de Luxe with squidgy sofas and tables. Oh, how I pine for the artplex in Nimes with a comfortable seat, complete darkness and no distractions! Still I was grateful to see Glory in one of the handful of venues to risk a subtitled film in the ‘Awards’ season. Don’t miss it if it comes your way – this director couple have real talent.