It’s very exciting to see a Spike Lee film back in wide release in UK cinemas. BlacKkKlansman just scrapes in as a wide release with 217 cinemas but these had the highest average audience numbers of any film in UK cinemas last weekend. I have a great deal of time for Spike Lee as a filmmaker with passion, creativity and political intelligence to go with a deep knowledge of cinema and the skills to make memorable films. Having said that it’s also the case that he makes a wide range of features, shorts, documentaries and other types of moving image work and sometimes he chooses projects that puzzle me. Too often he falls foul of UK distribution companies and their notorious reluctance to release African-American films. All of this means that I hadn’t actually seen a Spike Lee ‘joint’ since I managed to import a US DVD of The Miracle at St. Anna in 2009. After all the build-up to the release of BlacKkKlansman and its Cannes Grand Prix I did worry that it could be a let-down, but it isn’t. This is Spike returning to the form that produced Do the Right Thing (1989) and Bamboozled (2000), the former universally acclaimed, the latter larger ignored – but both important films.
The first point to make about BlacKkKlansman is that it is packed with a great deal of material and ideas and I found that the 135 minutes flew by. I think it will take several more viewings to properly ‘read’ the film and come to any sensible conclusion about what it might mean to different audiences. Spike Lee at his best is always provocative and attempting to build a polemic using humour as well as political insight is often rejected by audiences looking for clear resolutions. My feeling at the moment is that BlacKkKlansman makes important political statements. It certainly made me think about strategies and ways to articulate arguments and it made me question some of my assumptions and ways of thinking about politics in the UK as well as the US and indeed universally. I did also wonder at moments whether Spike gets the balance right and whether his satire works – but in the circumstances I think that is inevitable.
I recommend the Sight and Sound (September) interview with Spike Lee (I have some arguments with the rather negative review of the film in the same print issue but the online piece by Sophie Monks Kaufman is also very good). Queried by Sight and Sound interviewer Kaleem Aftab about how much of the film is actually based on the real events described by Colorado Springs police officer Ron Stallworth, Lee simply re-iterates “[the film] is based on a true story”. It’s a reasonable question – and response. Some aspects of the narrative seem so fantastical that it is hard to believe that they ever happened, but at other moments the narrative seems only too ‘real’. Ron Stallworth (played with bravura by John David Washington, son of Lee regular Denzel Washington) was the first African-American to join the Colorado Springs force in 1972 as a cadet. It wasn’t until several years later that as an undercover cop he answered an advertisement for applications to join the Ku Klux Klan. Establishing himself on the phone as a ‘white supremacist’, it then required a white officer to physically attend KKK meetings posing as ‘Ron Stallworth’. This was ‘Flip’ Zimmerman (Adam Driver). Lee and his co-writers decided to compress the story so that the events seem to take place over a few months in 1973/4. Apart from a familiar strategy to speed up the pace of the narrative, this also allows Lee to highlight questions around black identity at the time of the ‘Blaxpoitation’ cycle of films in the early 1970s alongside the fashions, the music and the ‘Black Power’ iconography.
The wonderful Afros on display, the clothes and the music and the discussion of Shaft and Superfly and Pam Grier (complete with on-screen film posters) provide a rich mise en scène which allows Lee to explore issues within African-American culture. Ron’s first undercover job was to ‘infiltrate’ a student-organised event at which Kwame Ture (aka Stokeley Carmichael, played by Corey Hawkins) makes an impassioned plea to the students to prepare for revolution. That evening Ron meets Patrice (Laura Harrier) the student president and begins a relationship. This relationship is an invention which in genre terms allows Lee to explore a romance-thriller narrative thread. We worry about Patrice, although she is generally quite capable of looking after herself and her fellow students. But as Herb Boyd in Cineaste (Fall 2018) points out, we learn relatively little about Patrice and, apart from two or three key moments, the relationship between Ron and Flip is much more important. It is Flip who is in the most danger. The script emphasises how much the Klan are anti-semitic and Flip is someone who has never really thought about his own Jewish identity. This danger (of exposure) is an element of the romance thriller that also generates the possibility of comedy and it is these scenes (i.e. Flip among the Klan members) that test Lee’s ability to balance humour and anger. He’s helped by wonderful performances all round and especially by Jasper Pääkkönen as the most suspicious Klansman and Topher Grace as David Duke, the Klan ‘Grand Wizard’. These two are chilling and completely absurd at the same time.
While much of the film narrative remains within the familiar mode of ‘Hollywood realism’, Spike explores the legacy of racism in Hollywood through extracts from Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone With the Wind (1939). I don’t want to spoil the impact of how he does this, but the appearance of Harry Belafonte is thrilling for anyone old enough to remember one of the great figures of the Civil Rights movement. Alec Baldwin’s appearance might be more puzzling for some audiences outside North America, although I guess his YouTube appearances as ‘Donald Trump’ are easily accessible around the world. The crucial question is how does Spike Lee end his narrative? We know Ron Stallworth survived his involvement with the Klan because he wrote his memoir in 2014. But it would be dangerous to leave us laughing and feeling good about victory. In fact, I think there is a narrative thread running throughout which keeps us querying Ron’s actions and his motivations. When the final section comes I think it works very well and I hope that BlacKkKlansman will become a classic ‘joint’ like Do The Right Thing.
BlacKkKlansman took £1.2 million on its first UK weekend and it looks set to be one of Spike’s biggest hits. I’ve failed to mention the initiative of Get Out writer-director Jordan Peele who initially brought the project to Lee and also Blumhouse Productions the company which made Get Out. Peele and Blumhouse are both part of the production background for BlacKkKlansman, demonstrating that Spike Lee is very much still part of the cutting edge of African-American cinema. Terence Blanchard, Lee’s long-time collaborator is still on board composing a fine score and including an array of great 1970s tracks. Cinematographer Chayse Irvin is new to me but Spike Lee has a strong track record in working with exciting camera people and Irvin’s work contributes a great deal to the look of the film. I want to finish by urging you to see this film. I also want to emphasise that there is much, much more to say about it so I hope some of you will add your comments.
A must for genuine communists and recommended for anyone who is a fan of Karl Marx. The 200th anniversary of his birthday fell on May 5th 2018. 200 years on his ‘spectre’ still haunts the European (and now the world) bourgeoisie. That is perhaps the reason why the film had such a limited showing in Britain. The title is distributed on a DCP by the ICA Cinema, who frequently provide good service for film fans starved of quality cinema.. Unfortunately it seems that only nine exhibitors took up the offer. In Leeds/Bradford it was zero. You could have travelled over to the Hebden Bridge Picture House in West Yorkshire for an evening screening. For South Yorkshire there was a week of screenings at the Sheffield Showroom. And Lancastrians could have seen it at the HOME in Manchester. Leeds, which in decades gone by had an active Communist Party Branch, seems to have it in for Marxists. The Great October Socialist Revolution passed with only a solitary screening of The End of St Petersburg (Konets Sankt-Peterburga 1927 ) and that was part of a National Tour. The Leeds International Film Festival in November managed not a single film for the commemoration. Yet again the Hebden Bridge Picture House, the Sheffield Showroom and HOME surpassed Leeds/Bradford.
The newly released film by Raoul Peck is centred on the friendship and collaboration between Karl Marx (August Diehl ) and Friedrich Engel (Stefan Konarske), the two intellectual giants of the modern era. Note, the play ‘Young Marx’ apparently commences where this dramatisation leaves off. The film covers the period from 1841 to 1848 when these youthful rebels were finding their feet and their intellectual ground. We follow Marx from Germany to Paris, to Brussels to London. We see and hear his wife Jenny (Vicky Krieps) and watch as he develops a relationship with Engels, already in the throes of an affair with Mary Burns (Hannah Steele ).
Over this period Marx was writing for Rheinische Zeitung (Rhineland News); Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher (German-French Annals); Vorwärts! (Forward!), the last for the League of the Just. Engels had already published his famous The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844. Marx and Engels jointly published The Holy Family (1845). Marx followed up with The Poverty of Philosophy (1847). Note, The German Ideology (Die deutsche Ideologie), beloved of British academics, is a set of unfinished and unpublished manuscripts from 1846. Then early in 1848 he and Engels wrote for The Communist League (previously The League of the Just) The Communist Manifesto. This was published in February 1848 as a wave of proletarian revolutions swept across Europe. At this point the modern Communist movement was born and Marx and Engels continued their political activities whilst developing the analysis of Capitalism, an analysis that is as accurate today as it was when Das Kapital (Volume 1) was first published in 1867.
Marx and Engels dominate the film as do their political discussions. We do see both Jenny and Mary involved in political action and commenting on the political debates. A number of other famous activists and theorists of the period also appear in the film. We have Michael Bakunin briefly (Ivan Franek). More frequently we see and hear Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (Olivier Gourmet). Among the people debated with and criticised by Marx is Wilhelm Weitling (Alexander Scheer).
Only Marx and Engels are presented as rounded characters. But they and the supporting cast portray these revolutionaries in a convincing manner as they also do with their political debates and arguments. It is the strength of the acting that makes the film work. Intriguingly we see Karl and Jenny making love but not Friedrich and Mary.
In fact it is a fairly conventional treatment, an example of the modern film biopic which tends to dramatise a character through one aspect of their life and work. Essentially this film charts the friendship and the way that it leads up to the seminal manifesto. The narrative is linear; carefully structured to include action and drama. The basic plot, though using fictional elements, is broadly historically accurate. Where it less typical is in the amount of time that it allows for political statements and debates. Visually it is similar to many other costume dramas.
The film’s running time is 118 minutes. A more daring length, such as in Peter Watkins’ La Commune Paris 1871 (2000) which runs for 345 minutes, would have enabled a fuller treatment of the politics. Whilst an audience will get a sense of the radical ideas and analysis, what actually constitutes the contribution of Marx and Engels in this period will only be clear to people familiar with the written works. When we reach ‘The Communist Manifesto’ we hear the opening paragraphs but not the equally famous ending. The complete Manifesto would have been a better choice. Perhaps a more radical film-maker (Jean-Luc Godard?) might have essayed this.
A more serious omission in some ways is the absence of the voice of the proletariat. The film opens with a fine sequence as we watch rural proletarians hunted down as they attempt to gather kindling: and the voice of Marx explaining the relevance of the different meanings of theft to this situation When we reach the Manifesto there is an evening sequence as Marx, Engels, Jenny and Mary read the opening of the almost complete Manifesto. Then in a montage of stills we see groups of silent proletarians offering a direct gaze to the audience and the bourgeoisie. But their voice is mainly absent. There are some excellent scenes of factory exploitation; street meetings; and a Communist League meeting where proletarians are present. But they are only supporting where as in the work of Marx and Engels they are both the object and the subject. The Manifesto would make more sense if the proletarian impact on Marx and Engels was made clear. The film does though make clear that these two are not just isolated intellectuals but are involved in practical political action, as are both Jenny and Mary.
Within the limits of the genre, the production is well done. The design, editing and use of music is rather conventional but works well. The dialogue is in German, French and English with subtitles. The cinematography is generally well done and offers both black and white and colour in a ratio of 2.35:1. However, it does use the modern technique of filming characters standing before or beside windows. This reduces the clarity in the image of the character/s, and I suspect digital formats emphasise this. The DCP I saw was generally good but the contrast was lower than it might have been on 35mm. I think the film was probably shot in a digital format.
I enjoyed the film and I was genuinely moved at times. But after the sequence constructed around ‘The Communist Manifesto’ there are two end titles pointing forward to Das Kapital. Apparently, in an effort to emphasise the continuing relevance of the Manifesto there follows a second montage of well-known events and figures in the succeeding decades. These are not all well-chosen; several of the figures would have been roundly attacked by Marx and Engels if they were still around. Better would have been a montage illustrating the final and ringing declaration of the Manifesto, the working classes still have “nothing to lose but their chains!”.
Superstar Rajnikanth is unique in global cinema. Nobody else bestrides popular cinema in quite the same way. In 2016 he teamed up with a young and controversial Tamil director, Pa. Rajinth. The result was Kabali (India, Tamil 2016). As usual, that film tended to divide audiences with the suggestion that it might not have appealed to Tamil Cinema’s masses who worship Rajnikanth as the ultimate hero. Personally, I enjoyed the film, but I can see what might be the problem. Rajinth, according to Wikipedia, was influenced as a student by films like Battle of Algiers (Algeria-Italy 1966) and City of God (Brazil 2002) and his second feature, Madras (India, Tamil 2014), was a political drama based in North Chennai. Clearly, in Kabali, the politics were not foregrounded enough – and Rajnikanth played too complex a character for his fans. Kaala doesn’t suffer in the same way on either count.
Kaala takes on a host of political issues in contemporary India and I’m surprised that it has only, so far, been banned in one major market in Karnataka. It’s worth noting here that Rajnikanth has decided to do what his famous predecessors have done and move into politics. The attempted ban in Karnataka followed a statement Rajnikanth made about the decades long dispute about water from the Kaveri River which runs from Karnataka through Tamil Nadu (and Kerala). Or perhaps my surprise as an outsider perspective is not shared by many Indians? ‘Kaala’ or ‘black’ is the nickname of the Rajnikanth character. He is the leader of the Tamil clan in Dharavi, the biggest (and most famous) slum in Mumbai. These are Tamils from Tirunelveli District in Southern Tamil Nadu who migrated to Mumbai. In reality, the Tamils have been an important part of Dharavi since the 1920s and Tamil films have been set in the community before, notably Mani Ratnam’s Nayakan (1987) and Bombay (1995).
Kaala saw his father killed in Bombay and has fought to become the most powerful figure in Dharavi. As well as his close ties to his own Tamil community he has secured support from the whole area which includes migrants from different states. The local population is highly diverse with many dalits and a significant Muslim population, proportionately much bigger than in Maharashtra as a whole or the rest of India. Kaala was once a ‘rowdy’ but is now respected by all. At the start of the narrative his status is threatened by ‘Mumbai Pure’, a fascist-like organisation described as a ‘Nationalist’ political party (and waving orange flags like the BJP) which intends to take control of the slum, ‘clean it up’ (so it is ‘white and pure’) and redevelop the land. The film’s script draws on a long history of attempts to do this. Dharavi is now in the centre of Mumbai – highly desirable land that would command a high price for upper middle-class accommodation for those who currently face a long commute into the city.
The plot sees a personal confrontation between Kaala and Haridev Abhayankar (Nana Patekar), the Mumbai Pure leader, who has local politicians and police in his pocket. The ‘personal’ dimension refers to events long ago between the two men’s families. It is further complicated by a split in Kaala’s own family with his youngest son ‘Lenin’ opting for a different approach to improving the lot of Dharavi’s slum dwellers. When a local stooge for Mumbai Pure tries to demolish a washing area with police connivance, Lenin and his partner are there leading a peaceful protest. But it requires Kaala and his supporters to stop the police and the bulldozers. Lenin then brings in a specialist NGO worker who turns out to be an old flame of Kaala. She is Zareena (Huma Qureshi) and she presents another potential problem, this time between Kalaa and his wife Selvi (Easwari Rao). Lenin and Zareena attempt to find a ‘third way’ between Kaala and Mumbai Pure which will lead to development that helps the residents of Dharavi. But who knows best?
I enjoyed Kaala very much. Kabali had intrigued me because of its Malaysian setting. Kaala is, I think, a better ‘fit’ between Rajinth’s ambitions for a political film and Rajnikanth’s traditional role as hero for the masses. Reading some of the South Indian press reviews, I can see that there is a general feeling that the Rajinth-Rajnikanth pairing has this time got the balance right and in interesting ways. Rajnikanth is no longer the Superstar winning all the battles on his own. Instead he is ‘human’ – we first see him trying to cheat when he plays cricket with his grandchildren. His status is assured because he has helped his family members and others in the community to learn to fight for themselves – and he is prepared for them to argue with him, even if he still believes he has the right ideas. The community will triumph because his earlier actions have been revolutionary. At one point we even get the slogan ‘Educate, Agitate, Organise’.
I was also pleased to see three strong and differentiated roles for women in this action film. Huma Qureshi is perhaps under-used but Zareena is an interesting character as an educated woman with international experience and status gained through her work. Easwari Rao as Selvi is particularly good and has made a strong impression on audiences as an ‘older woman’ who can be involved in a romance. Rajnikanth the star actor rather than ‘Superstar’ spends much of his time arguing with his wife – and expressing how much he loves her. Anjali Patil as Lenin’s partner Puyal Charumathi is also excellent. It was only later that I realised Anjali Patil was one of the leads in Newton (India 2017) and one of the other leads from that film, Pankaj Tripathi plays an easily corrupted police inspector in Kaala.
There are many details in the dialogue, some of them seemingly playful ‘in jokes’ that collectively represent a certain kind of political text. Subtitles aren’t always the best way into the script but I noted a reference to Ilaiyaraaja, the legendary composer of Tamil film scores, including key Rajnikanth films. This links Rajnikanth to Tamil culture and its people (Rajnikanth was actually born in Karnataka). At another point someone jokingly refers to Kaala as being like ‘M.G.R’ – M. G. Ramachandran, the Tamil cinema superstar who became a leading politician and Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu from 1977 to 1987. This is in keeping with the film’s overall message – Kaala is a leader who will fight for the poor and the downtrodden. He makes the point forcefully that for the rich land is power (and money), but for the poor it is life. The central narrative is one that is crucial for all Indians. ‘Mumbai Pure’ is supposedly committed to helping the slum-dwellers, but in reality it will deliver wealth to the few. This is neatly symbolised when Abhayankar visits Kaala’s ‘castle’ and insults Selvi by refusing a glass of water. This is taken to be a refusal to drink from a vessel that might have been used by a lower caste person. Kaala is outraged and escalates the conflict but later he too will be humiliated when arrested.
Kaala is a long film (160 minutes) and there is a lot going on. I’ll just discuss a couple of further points. First, the plot is structured so that we get various action scenes and two sustained sequences, one leading up to the Intermission and a second which is longer and climactic (so the structural conventions of the masala film are still in place). In the first, Kaala finds himself trapped alone in his jeep on a flyover during a torrential downpour and armed only with his umbrella – quite enough for him to despatch several goons who approach him. This bravura sequence (which reminded me of Tony Leung as Ip Man in Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster (China 2013)) plays out to one of the several music tracks from Santhosh Narayanan. I’d like to show you the sequence but the best I can do is the soundtrack clip above which includes some still images of Rajnikanth in action in the rain. The film’s music is rock and rap-orientated. I was quite surprised by the rapping and by the Union Jacks on display. I’m completely out of touch with that music in the US/UK so I’m ‘twice removed’ in terms of Mumbai culture. Reviews suggest the score has been well-received.
The second half of the film becomes an extended symbolic play on the traditional battle between Rama and Ravanaan. ‘Kaala’ is black as Ravanaan, ‘The Demon King’, and Abhayankar is white for ‘Pure Mumbai’, but the moral positions are reversed – white is bad and black is good. The final battle is indeed epic. The Dharavi slum seems to have been recreated in a Chennai studio and cinematographer G. Murali Vardhan who also photographed the previous two films by Pa. Rajinth has used overhead shots (drones? helicopter shots?) to suggest the exploding world of Darhavi within the wider Mumbai landscape.
Rajnikanth deserves his superstar status. He is a fine actor and easily carries the film. I wonder how long he can continue at this level. Will the urge to go into politics divert him? Who knows, but we should support his films in the meantime. Pa. Rajinth is a director to watch. making a blockbuster film which organically incorporates fundamental political ideas is no mean feat. This will be in my list of the films of the year. One sobering thought about global film culture though – I was the only person in the audience in Bradford Cineworld (admittedly for a Sunday tea-time showing). The South Indian family behind me in the ticket queue were booking for Jurassic World.
I have to confess that I have only just informed myself of this network though probably quite a few readers are familiar with it. Formed in 2013 in London it is now fairly widespread across several continents. The objects are to further ‘radical film’ and participants are involved in production, exhibition and associated activities. Radical is defined as
“ . . . first and foremost to a political affiliation to progressive politics and struggles for social justice – from workers’ rights and environmental sustainability to gender, racial and sexual equality.”
A current and welcome project is ‘RFN 68’,
“Taking the radical uprisings and revolutionary fervour of this rare and volatile year as a source of inspiration, the RFN68 festival examines the legacy of the events of 1968 through an international programme of films, workshops, discussion and social events, organised by the Radical Film Network.”
Several events have taken place in Leeds and I attended a screening of In the Intense Now / No Intenso Agora (João Moreira Salles, Brazil, 2017 ) at the Hyde Park Picture House.
This is a documentary about 1968 but offering a distinctive approach. A compilation documentary it uses home movies from Salles’ family and found footage from films of the period, amateur film footage and some material from television, radio and printed sources. Some of the film soundtracks appear in the film but for most of the running time there is a commentative voice of the director. The film is in black and white and colour and in the Academy ratio: it is good to see a film where the makers resists the conventional re-framing of archive footage.
This is a fairly subjective but sympathetic revisiting of Paris in May 1968 and parallel places and events though the parallels are those felt by the director. The film opens with footage from a home movie shot by the director’s mother on a visit to China in 1966 followed by film of events in Prague in 1968 and then some more home movie, this time in a street in Brazil. These signal some of the preoccupations of the film-maker, though they are only clarified as the film progresses. The footage from China was filmed during the Cultural Revolution and features Red Guards who are surprisingly friendly to these bourgeois tourists. The footage from Brazil shows family members but also, as the narrative voice points out, the class situation in which they live.
The first part of the film is mainly devoted to events in Paris in May 1968. The film more or less follows the chronology of events but this is not a history of that month but a series of fragments that give a sense of what happened and offer [as one review suggested] ‘radical romanticism’.
Certain characters occupy the centre. Thus we see and hear General de Gaulle at the New Year of 1967; twice towards the end of May 1968; and finally at the New Year 1968. On television he seems a relic from the past but on radio he is the voice of tradition and moderation. The film thus includes television coverage of the mass demonstration of conservatives that followed the radio broadcast.
There is also ample coverage of Daniel Cohn-Bandit, mainly on film but also on radio. There is a certain identification with Daniel but also a strong note of irony as the film records his rather doubtful con-operation with ‘Paris Match’. And there is much film of the students, the workers and the street clashes that filled the city.
Part 2 includes more material from Paris but also extended coverage of the suppression of ‘The Prague Spring’ by the armies of the Warsaw Pact. Later in the film there is coverage of the funeral of Jan Palach, the student who immolated himself in protest. This leads into a series of films that deal with death and burial. These include a student who died in a protest in Rio de Janeiro in the summer of 1968; a suicide by a student during the protests in Paris; and a policeman killed during a demonstration in Lyon in the same period. In these passages there is none of the earlier irony but a note of quiet mourning. This seems to aim at generating a sense of loss over the upheavals.
The film ends with more footage from the home movie shot in China and then film of Mao Zedung and one of his poems. Finally we see the famous shot by the Lumière Brothers of workers leaving their factory: why I was unsure.
Whilst the ‘romantic’ does describe much of the treatment there is a continuing tone of irony. Thus at one point the commentary notes the provenance of the famous aphorism,
“Sous les pavés, la plage! (“Under the paving stones, the beach.”)”.
Was this a political slogan or an advertiser’s gimmick. At another point the commentary notes the predominance of short hair among the male protesters and compares this with the USA where the hair was longer and the events [according to the commentator] were more radical. It also notes the dominance of men in Paris 68, [not quite accurate if you watch the footage carefully].
The film offers a fascinating revisiting of these radical events. However it is structured round the personal rather than the analytical. In the end the significance of ’68 seems uncertain. I was struck by the inclusion of ‘The Prague Spring’. The other locations were significant for the director. His family came from Brazil, were living in Paris in May 1968 and his mother did visit China in 1966. But Czechoslovakia has no such relationship. I wondered, as Paris and Rio de Janeiro were protests essentially about capitalism that he felt the need to include a protest against ‘socialism’, in which case he misconstrues the significance of events in Prague.
And I would question the comparison between Paris and the USA. Currently ‘PBS America’ are broadcasting the Ken Burns Vietnam programme, in its entirety not cut as was the case with the BBC. What is apparent in the film is that while many voices supported the Liberation struggle in Vietnam the mass of the protest was against the effects of the war within the USA. Paris was more radical. One aspect of this was the influence of the radical politics in China’s Cultural Revolution. We do get footage of Mao and we do see some Maoists at work in Paris but the parallels are not really drawn out in this film.
Even so I was fascinated by the film which is definitely worth seeing. The research and selection of found footage is impressive. The structure of the film brings out interesting aspects and the editing makes both ironic and political comments. Among the footage in this film is some from the work of Chris Marker. His A Grin Without A Cat / Le fond de l’air est rouge (1977) remains the essential viewing on this period. It would be good if we could have an opportunity to revisit this film as well.
This was my fourth selection from my MUBI free trial and I realised that I’ve been waiting to see it since my first encounter with Mészáros Márta’s films in Kolkata in 2009. Mészáros, born in 1931, is one of global film’s major directors of documentaries and fiction features but it is difficult to see her films in UK cinemas. (Second Run, the East European specialist DVD label in the UK, do have this Mészáros film on offer, but none of the director’s other films.) Diary For My Children is an important film for several reasons. According to John Cunningham in his Hungarian Cinema book (Wallflower 2004) it was the director’s most popular film in her home market. It was also very controversial with its release delayed by two years because of problems with the Hungarian censors (because it portrays the ‘Stalinisation’ of Hungary in the late 1940s?). Mészáros had always been more popular in the international market up to this point and the film did win the Jury Prize at Cannes in 1984. It was also an important personal statement for the director as a semi-autobiographical film and the first of a four-part series of films over the next 15 years.
The central character is Juli, a teenage young woman flying back to Budapest in 1947 from the Soviet Union. Like Mészáros herself, Juli was born in Hungary and then taken to the Soviet Union as a child. Her mother is dead and she doesn’t know what has happened to her father. She is accompanied by an older couple who were friends of her parents and in Budapest she will be fostered by Magda, someone else who knew her parents and who is now in a senior position in the Hungarian Communist Party.
I enjoyed the film very much. Juli is played by Zsuzsa Czinkóczi. She had been a child star and had appeared in three films for Mészáros and two for Márta’s former husband Jancsó Miklós. Czinkóczi was 15 when Diary was completed. In the narrative she ages from 15 to 21. It is an extraordinary performance and it is because of her performance that I sometimes felt that I was watching a 1960s New Wave film. Juli has that mixture of vitality and confidence mixed with moments of immaturity and vulnerability that I associate with the young women of 1960s films. She finds herself living in the midst of Party privilege in a large house taken from the bourgeoisie. She is enrolled in the top school in Budapest. But she doesn’t want either of these privileges. Instead she wants to find out what has happened to her father and her other relatives. Magda keeps her on a very tight rein and she has to ‘borrow’ Magda’s pass to indulge her only vice – bunking off school to go to the cinema. Meanwhile, around her, the Stalinists increase their control over Budapest. I felt at a disadvantage because of my limited knowledge of Hungarian politics in 1947-49. At one point, Magda is firm in condemning Tito, the communist leader of Yugoslavia who broke away from the USSR, leading to banishment from the Cominform – the association of socialist states. Magda preaches the Stalinist line promoted by Rákosi Mátyás, the Hungarian leader whose image is central to government events in Budapest alongside those of Lenin and Stalin.
As the film’s title suggests, it is like a personal diary. Juli’s ideas, her fears and her desires are central and we see the political environment in the background. It isn’t until she begins digging that she uncovers clues to what happened to her parents. She has her own intimate memories which Mészáros inserts into the narrative without any warnings or clues. These are scenes that Juli is remembering or daydreaming about when she sees her father in a quarry selecting stone and working on a sculpture or when she accompanies her pregnant mother to the hospital. These are personal memories for Mészáros and she emphasises this by casting the Polish actor Jan Nowicki as both Juli’s father during the dream/memory sequences and János, her father’s friend who escaped to France in the 1930s but returned to Hungary after 1945. Mészáros later married Nowicki. Diary was photographed by Jancsó Miklós Jr., her son from her second marriage to the director Jancsó Miklós, perhaps the best-known Hungarian filmmaker of the period.
Little sense of Hungary as a defeated Axis supporter came across to me, but perhaps that is the point – everyone has to survive in the new system and the past is quickly forgotten if bringing it up would mean criticising the Russians. János does talk about the war and the (British?) air raids which killed his wife and disabled his son. He will become the character through whom Juli learns about the past. Juli’s ‘adopted’ grandparents are an odd couple. The man does provide Juli with some clues about the past, but the woman is a very sketchily-presented figure.
Juli’s story is in one sense a ‘coming of age’ story, though some of the most common elements of that genre are not followed up and the story is complicated by the political struggle. Juli changes when the evidence of how the system really works is brought home to her. At other times she does the kinds of things teenagers do. She has a boyfriend who she met at school, but she tells him from the start that she doesn’t love him. What she wants at this time is a friend of her own age. Mészáros Márta is an immensely important female filmmaker but there have been debates about the extent to which Diary for My Children is a feminist film. In one sense, simply making the film in the patriarchal Hungarian system, which still seems to have prevailed in the 1980s, is a feminist statement. In the next film in the series, Diary For My Lovers (1987) Juli travels to Russia to go to the Moscow Film School because the film schools in Hungary don’t admit women. This is again an autobiographical statement. Here is an extract from an essay by Catherine Portuges on the Second Run website (the full essay comes with the DVD):
. . . the film is neither purely fictional nor entirely autobiographical, nor, for that matter, strictly speaking a product of what has been called ‘women’s cinema’. Rather, by maintaining an intricate balance between personal exploration on the one hand and historical investigation on the other, Mészáros’ cinematic method transforms and expands its autobiographical dimension by alternating sequences in which the historical context, marked by the use of archival footage, is dominant. This structure positions the viewer in a way that avoids both the more complete distancing of documentary and the more individually-motivated conventions of autobiographical cinema. . . . Diary for My Children transcends traditional categories of genre, yet it functions as a kind of history . . . in which different angles of vision operate to analyse micro-history in order to generate ideas about a larger, macro-historical vision – a private message, in other words, which, in the public mind, becomes a collective one. (Catherine Portuges is the author of Screen Memories: The Hungarian Cinema of Marta Meszaros (Women Artists in Film), John Wiley and Sons, 1993
This is quite a persuasive argument, though for me the archival footage wasn’t so noticeable until towards the end of the film, by which time Juli is ‘aware’. In fact, I identified with Juli so strongly that the division didn’t really bother me. Juli stretches Magda’s patience and won’t listen to the older woman’s justifications – or at least her behaviour means Magda thinks that she just won’t listen. (It is this refusal to engage with Magda’s perspective which is perhaps the disadvantage of the ‘diary’ narrative. I was strongly reminded of a similar narrative in Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida (Poland-Denmark 2013). Ida is set in the 1960s and an 18 year-old young woman leaves a convent to meet her aunt who has been a judge in communist Poland. Juli could easily be in that 1960s-set film. I’d like to see what happens to her in the other three films, but availability looks a real problem. Perhaps MUBI can find them as well?
No Love for Johnnie is an interesting film, not often screened in the UK. I managed to watch it on Talking Pictures TV – otherwise it only exists as a 2011 DVD on an obscure label (Strawberry Media). Many years ago I had a hardback copy of the original novel but I don’t think I’d seen the film before now. The early 1960s is an odd period in British culture, caught between the Lady Chatterley trial and ‘the Beatles first LP’ (as Philip Larkin put it in his poem ‘Annus Mirabilis’) in 1963. It was supposedly a ‘dead’ period in pop music and in cinema everything was deemed to be happening in Northern towns and captured in the ‘realism’ of the British New Wave. So here is the first conundrum. No Love for Johnnie begins in the fictitious town of Earnley (modelled on Bradford, like the town in Room at the Top) where Johnnie Byrne has just been re-elected as the local Labour MP in a General Election campaign which Labour have won. (In reality, Labour lost the 1959 General Election but went on to win in 1964 and 1966.)
On his way back down to London, Johnnie gives an indication that he has become cynical about his supporters as he boards the train. Once in London, he has to answer a TV reporter’s questions about whether he is expecting a Cabinet post. Back in his flat, Johnnie’s love life is unravelling. His wife signals she is leaving, his neighbour is inviting his attention but he finds himself attracted instead to a 20 year-old model (Johnnie is 42). The film is presented in black & white ‘Scope (like the New Wave classic, Billy Liar (1963)) and as some reviews have pointed out Johnnie’s three women match the two of Joe Lampton in Room at the Top (1959). So, why isn’t No Love for Johnnie a New Wave film? The original novel was written by a Labour MP, Wilfred Fienburgh, who was killed in a car crash aged just 38. He held Islington North – now the seat of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Fienburgh had been brought up in Bradford, so in one sense he was a Northern novelist like the others whose novels became New Wave films – but he wasn’t a ‘literary novelist’. His was a more ‘workman-like’ novel – though Fienburgh was seen as a very intelligent working-class lad who had an excellent war record and the book was seen as perceptive about Labour politics.
The problems with the film from a New Wave perspective were two-fold. First the central character is too old at 42, he doesn’t fit the ‘angry young man’ or aspirant working-class/lower middle-class type in the other novels. At 42 he has the war-time experience behind him, whereas the New Wave (anti-)heroes were only children during the war – the exception is Room at the Top where the dating of the narrative is fudged to allow Joe Lampton to have been a POW. Johnnie is played by Peter Finch, the ‘wild’ Australian (though born in London) who was a leading actor/star of British cinema at the time and not a new working-class actor like Albert Finney or Tom Courtenay. Secondly the film was directed by Ralph Thomas for producer Betty Box. Thomas and Box had been a successful working partnership since 1950 and The Clouded Yellow, a wonderful thriller filmed on location across the North of England. But they were best known as the team behind the ‘Doctor’ series of Rank comedies in the 1950s. This condemned them in the eyes of some critics. I think it’s time they were given more attention (which has in fact gone to Betty Box as a successful female filmmaker with a solid track record during the most ‘commercial’ period of British filmmaking).
Box and Thomas were highly efficient at producing successful mainstream films. This production was shot, like most of their 1950s films by Ernest Steward and included many other regulars working at Pinewood, the base for the Box-Thomas productions. The team constructed a replica of the House of Commons chamber and Cabinet room on a Pinewood set, but much of the film was shot on London streets – and seeing the London of 1960 is one of the bonuses. There is a very strong cast of supporting character actors with the terrific Billie Whitelaw as the neighbour re-buffed by Johnnie and Mary Peach as the 20 year-old model. The House of Commons features Donald Pleasance and Geoffrey Keen and a host of other well-known faces. I was also amused to see Oliver Reed, uncredited as a drunk man at a party (the original Mr. Buckethead?).
Betty Box claimed to be uninterested in the politics as such and was aiming for an ‘entertaining film’. She was a young communist in her youth, but primarily for ‘social reasons’ – her older brother Sydney, head of Gainsborough Studios 1945-1950 was a committed Labour supporter. J. Arthur Rank who financed the film was a Conservative, but Betty Box was allowed to make her ‘personal projects’ as long as she also continued to produce the highly profitable comedies for which she is best known (e.g. the ‘Doctor’ series).
It is worth noting that dramatic narratives about Left-Labour MPs are more interesting in terms of personal morality. Tories, seen as less principled by many, have less to lose in some ways. No Love for Johnnie was followed in the 1970s by the TV serial Bill Brand (1976) an 11 x 1 hour episode narrative written by Trevor Griffiths and starring Jack Shepherd as a new left-wing MP. In 1988, A Very British Coup, based on a novel by Chris Mullin MP and scripted by Mullin and the great TV playwright Alan Plater was a three-part TV mini-series detailing the unlikely but ‘much wished for’ general election victory for a Labour Party led not by right-wing Blairites but by a working-class socialist played by Ray McAnally. The military and leading right-wingers plot against him.
As I’ve indicated, Wilfred Fienburgh was seen as a bright and perceptive politician, so the narrative of No Love for Johnnie has a strong base. The film script was written by Nicholas Phipps, a long-time collaborator with Box and Thomas as both actor and writer. He was joined, in a rather unlikely pairing, with the Canadian novelist Mordecai Richler. Richler had lived in the UK since 1954 and published several novels. (There were several Canadians in British film and TV.) The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz was published in 1959 and became a major film in 1974 with a young Richard Dreyfus in the lead. Richler had already written two films by 1960 and would go on to script Life at the Top (1965), the follow-up to the 1959 film. The representation of politics in No Love for Johnnie is both cynical and believable. There is a particularly good passage in which Johnnie has to cope with a ‘dressing-down’ by his constituency party and a crisis in his love life during a trip back to Earnley.
Unusually for a Betty Box production, the film did not become a box office hit, though many critics responded favourably and Peter Finch won a Berlinale prize and a BAFTA. I suspect that Talking Pictures TV will provide us with some more offerings that challenge the dubious canonisations of ‘British New Wave’ films and perhaps give us a better sense of the range of Betty Box productions. She stands as perhaps the most successful British film producer with a near 30 year career starting in 1946.
In this clip, the PM wants to see Jonnie who has been selected by Labour rebels to ask a an embarrassing question. The issue is one which is remarkably contemporary with Saudi Arabia moving into Yemen to attack rebels:
Why did I go to see Darkest Hour? I’m not sure, but I should make clear that I have resisted the fetishisation of Winston Churchill for at least fifty years. Possibly it was because I have time for Joe Wright’s approach to historical subjects and I was interested in seeing how his take on May 1940 differed from Christopher Nolan’s in Dunkirk (and indeed, Wright’s own take in Atonement). I’m not really interested in the Oscar nominations this week in which Darkest Hour features in several categories.
Two immediate responses: Darkest Hour is an anti-realist film full of Wright’s theatrical ideas (i.e. about staging the drama) and no matter how repugnant the politics, skilled direction can still invoke emotional responses. I found myself weeping at scenes, even though I rejected the ideological force of the arguments from a man I despise apart from two aspects of his long career – his mastery of the English language (as commented on in the narrative) and his peculiar ability to manage the moment of crisis in 1940. I’m old enough to remember Churchill’s funeral 53 years ago when we were given time off school to watch the state funeral. I knew even as a teenager that he had not always been a heroic figure. It was only later that I learned about his racism, rabid anti-communism, attacks on working people and complete disregard for the victims of imperial aggression.
The film’s script by Anthony McCarten is actually quite even-handed in the sense that it mentions Churchill’s previous failures (although this seems to be a strategy to ‘humanise’ the character and to demonstrate how he was able to put his failures behind him). The film interests itself in the drama of the moment and indulges itself in Gary Oldman’s playing. So many critics have picked out the sequence in which Churchill takes an Underground trip to meet ‘the British people’. Yes, it’s ridiculous, but it’s only one of the anti-realist scenes/sequences in the film. Ditto, the night-time meeting with the king. The simple point is – don’t look to Darkest Hour for historical analysis. Simply enjoy the dramaturgy. I know that the film has done well in North America and for overseas audiences I should just point out that ‘tube’ trains, like the one shown in the film, didn’t get anywhere near Westminster in 1940 – only District and Circle Line trains which were larger and less cramped as they ran on the ‘cut and cover’ tracks just below street level. The filmmakers must have known this, so it was a deliberate decision to use the confined space of the tube for the scene in which Churchill canvasses public opinion immediately before speaking in the House of Commons. The time between station stops would also be much shorter than the time taken for the discussions with ‘ordinary people’ on the tube. The real provocation is Churchill’s warm appreciation of the contribution of a young West Indian man in the carriage. (The character himself is believable, but it’s a stretch to imagine Churchill being so appreciative.)
The film has been tagged as pro-Brexit propaganda in various quarters – a kind of Daily Mail tribute to ‘Little England’. I don’t think that is justified. I note that it is photographed by a Frenchman and scored by an Italian. The narrative shows the French leaders thinking that Churchill is ‘delusional’ – which doesn’t seem too outlandish as an analysis of attitudes at the time. Most of the films criticised in this way were already in production before the Brexit referendum.
What is more interesting is to consider why so many films set in this period have emerged over the last few years, not just in the UK but across Europe. Partly it’s because we are now reaching the point where even the young people who experienced the 1939-45 war are coming to the end of their lives and there is a struggle over representations of the period for the generations who only know the war through secondary sources. But why the fascination with Churchill? I think that, whatever we may think of him, he represents a ‘conviction’ politician (contrasted in the film with Viscount Halifax, the vampiric, cold Foreign Secretary, well played by Stephen Dillane) and there aren’t many of those around anymore. We were spoiled in the 1960s-1980s to have the benefit of politicians in the UK who had themselves fought in the war – or at least experienced it and understood what it meant. The sorry lot we have now, especially the Tories, push us into looking back. The other question is why the film is succeeding in overseas markets. Box Office Mojo suggests it has taken over $5 million in China, $3.5 million in France and over $1 million in several other territories such as Brazil, Spain, Italy and Switzerland. Only some of these countries are interested in Brexit, so audiences must be attracted by something else.
Darkest Hour is a Focus Features-Working Title film. Working Title’s Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner represent the most successful producing partnership in the UK film industry, sustained since the 1980s. Since the 1990s, Working Title has had a relationship with Universal. Darkest Hour is a co-production with Perfect World Pictures, a Chinese partner for Universal and this perhaps explains the Chinese box office. The same production partners also combined on the rather less successful The Snowman in 2017. Gary Oldman certainly gives a bravura performance. Lily James is also very good as Churchill’s new secretary/typist, playing a crucial role in the narrative which enables the audience to get closer to Churchill as a man rather than a ‘politician’. The performances generally are very good. I can’t resist comparing the film as a production with The King’s Speech (2010), a film I didn’t like much which was extremely successful despite some strange performances. Darkest Hour is in my view a more coherent and aesthetically interesting film which uses atmospheric and expressionist images as well as authentic period detail – though its liberties with historical fact are probably more disturbing. Darkest Hour didn’t offend me as much as Nolan’s Dunkirk but it did make the final mistake of implying that all the Dunkirk evacuations were carried out by Churchill’s flotilla of little boats. I guess the other point to make is that the film opens with Clem Attlee destroying Chamberlain in the House and forcing his resignation. Despite the fact that Churchill then leads a ‘National Coalition’ with Attlee in the Cabinet, we never hear from Clem again. A few years ago I did see a savage and very interesting documentary reconstruction on BBC2 about what happened to Churchill in the last few months of the war and during the election won by Labour in July 1945. Churchill: When Britain Said No, (2015) is not on iPlayer and has not been repeated as far as I know. You can watch it for a small fee on YouTube or search for it online and it makes an interesting companion piece to Darkest Hour.
This was the third Costa-Gavras film to be shown in HOME’s States of Danger and Deceit season. Unlike Z and State of Siege, it deals with a historical period, but one in which similar kinds of anti-democratic and criminal behaviour in fascist regimes is exposed. The setting is Vichy France in August 1941 and this film, along with others such as Marcel Ophüls’ Le chagrin et la pitié (1969) and Louis Malle’s Lacombe Lucien (1974), helped to question the myths that had developed around resistance and collaboration in France following the German occupation of Paris and the Second Armistice of Compiègne in June 1940.
As in the earlier films, Costa-Gavras and his scriptwriter Jorge Semprún were dealing with historical facts and documents but they also used a secondary source, L’affaire de la Section Spéciale by Hervé Villeré. The story begins with the actions of a group of young men and women in Paris, who stage a seemingly impromptu demonstration/march in Paris with the Tricolour and singing of the Marseillaise – and with attempts by some to sing the Internationale. The march is disrupted by German troops and some marchers are shot in the confusion. Later, two of the young men are executed by firing squad. In retaliation, the group decide to kill a German officer. A naval officer is publicly assassinated in the Paris Metro and the youths escape. The German authorities then demand that the Vichy government take action very quickly. It’s worth noting the timing of these events. ‘Operation Barbaraossa’ was the codenmame for the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. The fascists in the Vichy government needed little encouragement to turn against communists in France – which included many of the young people in the march.
The key issue in the narrative is that, given seven days to respond, the Vichy authorities represented here by the Michel Lonsdale as ‘Le ministre de l’intérieur’ formulates a plan by which a ‘Special Section’ of senior judges searches back through recent court convictions to find six men whose sentences can be changed through new court hearings. These will be the sacrificial figures who will be guillotined in Paris to satisfy the Germans. The judges in the court hearing were willing to go along with this with only one exception and majority verdicts were accepted. The cases selected were all deemed to feature ‘Communists, Anarchists and Jews’.
I agree with Isabelle Vanderschelden who introduced the screening and suggested that Costa-Gavras took great care in presenting a very detailed mise en scène and marshalling a large and highly talented cast. There are many familiar faces on screen and many more drawn from French theatre and television, including some comic actors. This all makes sense in terms of the dialogue requirements – and some of the absurdist and frankly comic sequences. As Isabelle pointed out, this does feel like a return to the approach adopted in Z rather than the cooler and more distanced approach in State of Siege. There are two kinds of absurdity or almost surrealism. The first is prompted by Vichy as a location. This spa town in the centre of France with 25,000 or less residents had the largest concentration of hotels outside Paris, so the Vichy regime set up in the main hotels and used the art nouveau Opera House as its ‘debating’ chamber. Special Section actually opens in the Opera House with a recorded speech by Pétain played to the audience of dignitaries at the end of a performance of Boris Godunov. Later we see Michel Lonsdale attempting to work in a hotel where he is interrupted by his children and then by an escaped chicken being chased down the stairs. Through a window we see a promotion for a local Jockey Club event as a trap is driven down the street. (An interesting article by Julia Pascal in the Guardian was published in 2002 when a later Costa-Gavras film, Amen., was released and created controversy in France.) Later, during the court hearings, we are offered in short vignettes, flashbacks to the stories given in evidence by defendants. At least a couple of these are quite comic and in one, the hapless youth whose petty crimes are nearly always immediately uncovered by the police plays out like a silent cinema comedy.
What is the point of these absurdist moments? In relation to Z, Coast-Gavras said that what he actually showed was to a certain extent, toned down. He is referring here to the behaviour of the senior police officers interrogated at the end of the film. It does seem to me that the comic scenes make the representation of events seem more ‘real’ and therefore more chilling. Life is sometimes absurd and we struggle with that absurdity. Many mainstream films that remove that absurdity seem banal because of its lack. Costa-Gavras encourages audiences to become involved in political stories. He doesn’t attempt to use avant-garde techniques to expose those stories/issues. Instead he allows audiences to find them through his skilfully presented but conventional narratives. Special Section packs a real punch. In a further disturbing irony, Michel Lonsdale appeared earlier in the ‘States of Danger and Deceit’ season in the heroic figure of the Police Commissioner who finds the ‘Jackal’ in Day of the Jackal (UK-France 1973)