World Cinema lost one of it luminaries in October this year when the iconic career of this filmmaker came to an end. Wajda was one of the celebrated graduates of the Łódź Film School. This training ground for film actors as well as crafts people had a deservedly outstanding reputation.
Wajda first drew attention with his trilogy A Generation (Pokolenie, 1954), Kanał (1956) and Ashes and Diamonds (Popiół i diament 1958). These were founding works in what developed into the European art cinema. I saw them, as did many at the time, in a Film Society in 16 mm prints. I have since been able to revisit them again in 35mm prints. All remaining outstanding but the key film is Ashes and Diamonds with the character of Maciek played by the young iconic Polish actor Zbigniew Cybulski. There is a terrific sequence with fireworks lighting up the sky and a sequence which I have seen copied a number of times with sheets billowing from a clothesline.
Wajda turned out fine films decade after decade, and I still have to see a number of them. One that stood out was Landscape After the Battle (Krajobraz po bitwie, 1970), a film that deals with a Holocaust survivor and which includes some stunning exterior sequences. Two other memorable films that addressed the repressive regime that ran Poland in the 1960s and 1970s are Man of Marble (Człowiek z marmuru, 1977) and Man of Iron (Człowiek z żelaza, 1981). I saw at least one of them at the Academy Cinema in London, a fine but now lost venue for quality film.
More recently Katyń (2007), dealing with the Soviet massacre of Polish Officers in 1941, was extremely well done. I was able to catch The Promised Land (Ziemia obiecana, 1975) as part of the programme ‘Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema’. It was screened at the Sheffield Showroom in a good quality 35mm print. The film chronicled the development of the C19th capitalist textile firms in Łódź. There narrative was fascinating as were the characters and it included many fine sequences, one being an impressive factory fire.
We can still look forward to his final film Afterimage ( Powidoki, 2016), though it does not yet have a UK release date.
Les innocentes (previously titled ‘Agnus Dei’) proved to be a rather different film than I expected. I didn’t really have any expectations other than having enjoyed director Anne Fontaine’s earlier films such as Gemma Bovery (France 2014) and Coco avant Chanel (France 2009) and I wasn’t expecting such a powerful and deeply moving film. I found it harrowing but also deeply humanist as well as sensitive in dealing with issues of faith. It’s based on the experiences of a historical character – a French doctor who had worked with the Resistance in Paris in 1944 and risen to the rank of ‘Lieutenant Doctor’. In 1945 she became the chief doctor in the French Hospital in Warsaw, in charge of repatriation of French citizens who had been prisoners of war or wounded in Poland and the Soviet Union. Madeleine Pauliac led a team of female ambulance drivers, the ‘Blue Squadron’, searching for the soldiers who would her patients and this is how she came across the incidents developed in the film. In 1946 she died accidentally during her work. Her nephew, Philippe Maynial, was the source of this historical account which was then developed by a team of writers including Sabrina B. Karine and Alice Vial as well as the director Anne Fontaine and Pascal Bonitzer.
The film narrative focuses on Mathilde (Lou de Laâge), who is younger than Madeleine and an assistant rather than the doctor in charge (and therefore more vulnerable). One day in December 1945 she is working in the hospital when a Benedictine nun is brought to her by one of the street children. The novice wants a doctor to visit the convent but Mathilde tries to shoo her away because she is only supposed to treat French citizens. When she reflects on her decision she decides to go to the convent anyway and is shocked to discover a nun in the last stages of labour and a difficult birth. Eventually she will realise that several of the nuns are pregnant following repeated rapes by Red Army soldiers. She has entered the convent secretly because the Mother Superior (Agata Kulesza) would not approve of her presence but once inside she meets Sister Maria (Agata Buzek) who speaks French fluently and acts as her interpreter and guide. Mathilde now finds herself doubly ‘disobedient’ – absenting herself from the hospital and entering the convent. She will later also find herself confronted with a group of Red Army soldiers on the dark road out to the convent in the by the forest outside the town. But there is no way back once Mathilde is committed. She can’t allow women and children to die in the circumstances she discovers.
What follows is a drama that develops the conflict between faith, humanity and practicality that underpins Mathilde’s battle with the Mother Superior and individual pregnant nuns in the face of further contact with the Russians and Mathilde’s issues with her superiors. A parallel narrative follows Mathilde’s growing relationship with another doctor, Samuel (Vincent Macaigne) – a Jewish man who lost his parents in the camps while he was overseas with the Free French. At first, I thought this might be a step too far in adding another layer to the complexity of the central story but it won me over.
There is an excellent Press Kit for the film available from Films Distribution and some of the following comments are drawn from it.
The look of the film and the overall tone of the story is measured and astutely handled. Veteran cinematographer Caroline Champetier does an excellent job. She also shot the similarly themed but very differently located Of Gods and Men (France 2010). The setting is very distinctive with the isolated convent (a ‘real’ abandoned convent) set close to woods and snow-covered fields, the nuns in their blue and white habits and the shadows inside the convent. Anne Fontaine describes the look in these terms:
We wanted to give the impression of being in a painting – we were thinking, naturally, of the Quattrocentro period Madonna with Child paintings – while breathing life and movement into the scenes. The air had to be palpable.
This is a setting little changed from the Middle Ages suddenly disrupted by the arrival of khaki-clad men and women in jeeps and trucks. Anne Fontaine has constructed a narrative that moves effortlessly through dramatic confrontations, intimate scenes births and deaths and scenes of contemplation and prayer. I found the film’s 115 minutes sped by and I was reluctant to let it go when the credits rolled.
Praise must go to Anne Fontaine and her collaborators in a genuinely successful co-production. In must have been difficult to work for much of the time in a foreign language (and I note that quite a few discussions on set were conducted in English as a shared language for many actors and crew). She chose very well in casting two of Polish cinema’s most accomplished performers in Agata Buzek and Agata Kulesza. I always find convent-set stories slightly problematic since so many distinguishing features (hair, neck and shoulders) are covered. Both the lead actresses were familiar to me but couldn’t place them. Later I realised that Agata Kulesza gave a stellar performance as the judge and aunt of the novice nun in Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida (Poland-Denmark 2013) and that Agata Buzek was the lead in Rewers (Poland 2009), both great films. Lou de Laâge as Mathilde is one of the rising stars of French (and European) Cinema. In one or two scenes I wondered if she looked impossibly beautiful for a doctor under stress but Anne Fontaine comments about her:
She is graced with a strong, distinctive beauty. I sensed that this grace, combined with her slightly stubborn side, along with her freshness and a fragility that lie just beneath the surface, would well serve the film.
That seems a good call. I’d finally add that the music in the film which included Handel and Rossini alongside chants by Hildegard von Bingen is beautifully integrated with a score by Grégoire Hetzel which as, Anne Fontaine suggests, is minimal and never overwhelms a film that feels intimate and natural.
Planeta Singli is the latest Polish blockbuster to hit the UK in an attempt to find the large Polish diaspora audience. Polish is officially the UK’s leading second language (i.e. the first language of a million or more Poles resident in the UK). We’ve had Polish films on release in the UK over the last ten years or so, but usually from UK-based distributors. Planeta Singli follows Pitbull as a release from the US distributor Phoenix via an exclusive deal with Odeon (although I understand ‘second-run’ deals with other cinemas are a possibility). See Charles Gant in the Guardian for the full story.
The title of this new release refers to an internet dating app – ‘Planet Single’ – but the film’s narrative is much more complex than that single reference might suggest. This a rom-com that runs 136 mins –very long by UK/US rom-com standards. In fact, the film manages to combine two parallel family melodramas with a romance and a satire on talk shows as well as internet dating. Slovenian director Mitja Okorn already has form with his local Polish hit Letters to Santa (2011). Various European countries have local traditions involving comedies for particular seasons (e.g. the Christmas comedies in Italy) but Planeta Singli looks like a bid to challenge Hollywood directly (keeping Deadpool from top spot at the Polish box office). Ania (Agnieszka Wiedlocha) is a music teacher in an elementary school still ‘tied’ to her mother at 27 after her father’s death. Her friend Ola is married to the school’s head teacher who has a teenage daughter from his first marriage. Ola is glamorous but unable to hold down a job. Ania is responsible but seemingly rather ‘buttoned up’. Attempting internet dating for the first time, Ania finds herself somehow landed with Tomek (Maciej Stuhr), the presenter of an edgy TV talkshow which uses his skills as a puppeteer. Tomek does a deal with Ania – she will tell him the details of her dates that he will use for stories on his show and in return he will buy her a Steinway piano for her school music project.
What follows is in many ways quite conventional and the finale is also very sentimental (and invokes the music competition performance that has become something of a staple). Yet the writing is sharp, the film is genuinely funny and the performances are very good, especially from the two leads. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the film is the transformation in the presentation of Ania in terms of hair and make-up and especially costume. This ‘makeover’ reminded me of the Bette Davis character in Now Voyager. The film has the problem of presenting a beautiful woman as ‘dowdy’. The solution appears to be to dress her in loose tops and skirts, to pin her hair up and to give her oversize horn-rimmed glasses. As the transformation develops she lets her hair down, applies make-up and wears heels. Her costumes change to outfits that seemed to me to more like 60s and 70s fashion and several of them made me think of Audrey Hepburn. Fashion isn’t really my thing. Agnieszka Wiedlocha clearly is a beautiful woman who would still look great in jeans and a man’s shirt, preferably sans make-up – but that’s just my taste. I think someone interested in costume could have a field day with this film.
The music used in the film is another important element in the genre mix. A trailer for the next Polish release played before Planeta Singli, announcing ‘the first film to really use top Polish songs’. In Planeta Singli a couple of songs were in English including ‘The Man with an Unknown Soul’ by Polish singer Bovska and a striking version of Paul Simon’s ‘The Sound of Silence’ by Korean-American singer Nouela.
Overall this is an enjoyable rom-com and it’s easy to see why it has been such a big hit. I dread the thought of an American remake and in this respect the film made me think about the smash hit South Korean rom-com My Sassy Girl (2001) which was followed by less successful remakes in the US and India as well as a Chinese sequel. The Polish and Korean films are very different in some ways, though they share scenes associated with the drinking cultures of both countries. But what they both also do is offer genuine romance narratives with well thought-out characters and long complex narratives. If this film makes it to a DVD with subtitles, it would certainly be worth checking out. On subtitles, it’s worth noting that in a film with lots of texting between characters it’s quite difficult to subtitle all the exchanges flashing across the screen.
In the last six months I’ve now seen both Polish and Chinese blockbusters in Odeons outside London. Perhaps a Turkish film will be next?
Here’s the song by Bovska that has been edited to serve as a trailer for the film:
The Here After is a début feature from Magnus von Horn, a Swede who attended the famous Łódź film school in Poland where he teamed up with a Polish student, Mariusz Wlodarski. After several prize-winning short films and a documentary, The Here After produced by Wlodarski with a partly Polish crew was an official co-production, shot in Sweden, in Swedish. The film, like many other European films, tapped into the regional film fund of Film i Väst and the credits also suggest some form of support from the National Film and TV School in the UK and the French film school Fémis. The Swedish production company involved is Zentropa International, one of many ventures associated with Lars von Trier who started the Danish Zentropa with his colleague Peter Aalbæk in 1992. Zentropa is now 50% owned by Nordisk and ranks as the biggest Scandinavian producer. With this kind of muscle it isn’t surprising that The Here After screened in Cannes and that it has received a release in Poland, Scandinavia and UK with France due in May.
Von Horn has adopted the strategy of telling us nothing about the characters or the situation and forcing us to learn as much as we can as the action unfolds. We see a young man, John (played by a well-known young Swedish pop singer, Ulrik Munther) who appears to be being released from some kind of secure institution. His father has come to collect him and drives him home to a farm where we meet his younger brother, his grandfather and the family dog. John’s mother is never mentioned. There is a great deal of tension between John and the three other family members but his situation doesn’t become clear until he returns to school and an extremely hostile reception from the other students. What has he done? We will eventually find out, but again not directly, only through piecing together what’s said and following the action. John will make a new friend in Malin, a girl who is new to the school and doesn’t know the history (but who is inquisitive). Otherwise, virtually everyone is suspicious if not aggressively hostile.
At first, I felt quite hostile towards the film, partly because von Horn adopts a visual style with lots of shallow focus and which along with other devices such as shooting through windows/doors, often in long takes, helps to distance the audience from the narrative. I understand that this expresses John’s state of mind but it isn’t easy to watch. I was surprised to discover afterwards that the film was shot by Łukasz Żal, the Polish cinematographer who was one of the two contributors to the look of Ida (Poland-Denmark 2013), one of the most astounding visual treats of the last few years. Much is made on the film’s website about the meeting of Scandinavia aesthetics and Polish emotional intensity:
“An over-aesthetic Scandinavian world clashes in the film with Polish sensitivity, creating a new Polish-Swedish quality in world cinema.”
“Łukasz Żal’s cinematography, enclosed in the sombre, sophisticated visual layer of the movie, enables the transition of the pain which accompanies the main character of ‘The Here After’ into an aesthetic experience. The world where John is doomed to live is meticulously scrutinised by the director. Von Horn and Żal have managed to wrap the bitter story in a soft, poetic form, giving rise to a remarkable sensitivity and a coherent cinematic language.” (See http://www.the-here-after.com)
There is a danger here of getting just a little too precious. As far as I can work out, the images are either drained of colour or it is particularly gloomy in Sweden in March (or May? – I couldn’t quite read the calendar on the wall). Either way, this is a world of predominantly blues, greys and greens. I think that I did eventually manage to gain some kind of entry into John’s world and the struggle may well have been worthwhile to experience ‘poetry’ and ‘sensitivity’. But I’m not sure that is what I wanted or expected from the film. I want here to speculate on issues of genre and representation. The Here After signs itself as an art film and as such has succeeded in getting widespread support. But I was also reminded of two other relatively recent films with similar narrative elements. The Swedish film Flocken (2015) has a similar visual style, a not dissimilar location and concerns a younger school student ostracised in her small community because she accuses a boy of sexually assaulting her. Flocken has not got a UK distributor and I wonder if it is thought too generic and not sufficiently ‘arthouse’? Another film which has something of the tone of The Here After is Lenny Abrahamson’s What Richard Did (Ireland 2012). This latter film did get a release and Abrahamson has become a very successful director straddling arthouse and mainstream ‘quality film’. All three films share a narrative in which a teenager does something that ‘shocks’ a relatively small tightly-knit community, leading to disturbing group behaviour and the sense that the various social institutions involved are less effective than they should be – implying perhaps some kind of metaphorical statement about a failing society. I think this is potentially a genre topic and relates to a wide range of films that play with morality, group behaviour and sensitivity around youth and adolescence. Back in the 1960s this would have been classed as a ‘social problem film’ in the UK. Then the narrative would have been expected to deliver an authority figure who would ‘solve’ the problem, but in these recent films a lack of narrative resolution has almost become conventional.
The Here After takes place in an unspecified region, although both the director and the young lead are from Halland county in Western Sweden. It seems to me that there are several films which portray life for adolescents outside Sweden’s main cities as tedious and dull. One of the best known is Lukas Moodysson’s Fucking Åmål (Sweden 1998). The original title of the film is the cry of teenage girls bored to death with living in Åmål. (The film was sweetly re-titled Show Me Love for release in the US and UK.) The Here After focuses on the more violent behaviour of teenage boys, but also on the way in which some of them are supported by parents for whom group solidarity is more important than any form of moral behaviour or social justice. Like What Richard Did, The Here After is based on/inspired by a news story. Even if there is a ‘truth’ in such a narrative, it still seems to me that there is a danger of ‘typing’ small town Scandinavia as particularly dismal in terms of social relations. Perhaps there is some Swedish scholarship on these kinds of films?
The Here After has received almost universal acclaim – though not too many screenings. It opened on just 10 screens and on its first weekend took only £330 per screen. None of the reviews I’ve read seemed interested in the kinds of sociological questions I wanted to ask. If this is meant to be Sweden, the judicial system and the rehabilitation of offenders seems out of kilter somehow. Of the various reviews, Jonathan Romney makes the most telling point when he describes Ulrik Munther as ‘delicately handsome’ and suggests that his pop star profile is well exploited (at least in a Swedish cinema market context). But too many reviews simply see von Horn as a diligent student of Michael Haneke. I was impressed by Munther’s performance and I certainly appreciated the way tension was built up but I would have liked more in terms of narrative development and more for the audience to chew on.