Fitzcarraldo, Lutz Koepnick, German Film Classics by Camden House, ISBN 9781640140363, £12.99, 92pp
An exciting new series for enthusiasts, students, and scholars of German film. Each concise volume analyses a single classic film, delving into such factors as genesis, production, reception, and key personnel. Each book entails archival research and provides not only an introduction to the film but the author’s own ‘take’ on it.
To date the series offers this volume and Wings of Desire, Phoenix and The Golem.
The author is the ‘Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of German, Cinema and Media Arts’ at Vanderbilt University. This ‘private research university’, was founded by the famous or even infamous C19th ‘robber baron’ magnate who specialised in railways and shipping. Gertrude Conaway was a member of the Vanderbilt family in the C20th and a ‘socialite and philanthropist’. So there is an ironic connection between this academic setting and the representation of C19th capitalism in Werner Hertzog’s film.
Lutz Koepnick appears to be a skilled linguist. He has published on film, media theory and aesthetics, including German cinema. Intriguingly one of his other publications is on the US director Michael Bay; ‘World Cinema in the Age of Populism’.
I found this a difficult book to read, taking it slowly and in sections. It is also a difficult book to review. This is partly because of the approach taken by the author..
It draws on recent writing on the Anthropocene to probe the relationship of art, civilization, and the natural world in Fitzcarraldo. (Publishers’ description).
Anthropocene is a relatively new discourse in academia. Helpfully, Wikipedia offers the following:
The Anthropocene is a proposed geological epoch dating from the commencement of significant human impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems, including, but not limited to, anthropogenic climate change.
The important word is ‘proposed’. There is not a consensus regarding this concept. And it has quite varied meanings; some argue that as an epoch it dates back to the earliest engagement between humans and the rest of nature. Others see it as a modern phenomenon which is only relevant to recent decades. What will be clear is that this is a concept that ties in to concerns about changes in nature and the climate and the whole issue of ‘climate change’.
Koepnick opens with ‘Spectacle in the Forest’ where the author discusses the production and release of the film. He notes the chronicle of the production in Burden of Dreams (1982) which detailed the treatment of indigenous communities and which created a volume of criticism of the director Werner Herzog. Koepnick also discusses how this and other issues around the film fed into its reception. An important aspect is his discussion of Herzog’s public statements and interviews on the film. Herzog has a tendency to talk in broad rhetorical terms rather than in concrete detail; and this did not always play well in the media.
In ‘Dreams (That Money Can’t Buy)’ Koepnick lays out the overall narrative of the film. He also introduces an aspect that in part structures his analysis; the idea that Herzog’s film work is centred on dream worlds. This is something that is found all over discussions of cinema. However, in Herzog’s film world,
. . . [it] is to think of dreams not as Freudian ciphers of repressed desire and distorted wish fantasies but as alternate realities, as engines of world building.
‘Beyond Nature and Culture’ discusses the film in its geographical aspects. Koepnick sets out how the protagonist, Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (Klaus Kinski), as an entrepreneur, relates to the these American lands and the way his venture impacts on these. Here Koepnick set out his sense of the Anthropocene;
The Anthropocene, as the reunion of human (historical) time and Earth (geological) time, between human agency and non-human agency, gives the lie to this – temporal, ontological, epistemological and institutional – great divide between nature and society that widened in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
This gives a sense of the generally academic style in the book. In terms of Herzog, Koepnick sees his film as an early example of an art work that critically dramatises the problems of what he calls the ‘anthropogenic’.
Throughout the book Koepnick focuses on particular sequences to illustrate his analysis and he frequently accompanies these with specific stills from the sequence. Here he looks at an exchange between Fitzgerald and the captain of the ship in which they sail up a river in pursuit of rubber wealth. The ship has been renamed the ‘Molly Aida’, a tribute to Fitzgerald’s amour, the owner of a bordello, and to opera. Here the author points up the disjunction between Fitzgerald’s use of maps and his awry sense of the lands. And here, as he does often, Koepnick draws a parallel with an earlier Herzog film, Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972). This film was also set in the Amazonian regions though back in the C16th, and it also starred Klaus Kinski as the main protagonist. In addition, as with Fitzcarraldo, there were problems about how Herzog used people and resources. He released monkeys featured in the final and famous sequence live into the jungle. And the film was shot on a camera that Herzog had purloined from the Munich Film School. Something, as with his behaviour on Fitzcarraldo, Herzog later justified.
‘Flow’ addresses the central setting of the river and the broader category of water. This discussion takes in comments on the ‘historical moment’ of the film and, importantly, Herzog’s psychology as it affects the film and the parallels between Herzog and his fictional creation. He references the German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel. The latter’s idea of ‘historical greatness as individuals who followed:
an unconscious impulse that occasioned the accomplishment of that for which the time was ripe.’
This gives a sense of the driven nature of Fitzgerald but also his domination not by the actual settings and situations but a personal sense of imminent possibilities. In this, Koepnick argues, the character attempts to use the existing world for a rather different purposes. In this story Fitzgerald’s navigation of the river ends not with his stated intent but the film’s finale when he returns to the town of Iquitos with an operatic troupe. Despite what appears to be failure Fitzgerald is ecstatic, apparently feeling that he has achieved a historical moment.
‘The Sounds of Music’ addresses the distinctive treatment of opera in the film.
It is finally time to address what Fitzcarraldo at heart is all about, namely the power of sound and music to express emotions, channel desire, connect different bodies, minds, and souls, and – most importantly – build alternate worlds within and in opposition to the dreary routines of the real.
Koepnick discusses this central plot and motif and focuses onto particular sequences. One is the famous moment when Fitzgerald plays a record of Caruso on the wind-up gramophone to the watching Indians.
The other is the final sequence with the operatic troupe arriving in Iquitos. Koepnick recognises how central is opera to Hertzog’s output; indeed his films have a strong operatic feel. But in term of this film he suggests whilst opera is an expression of the driven and romantic nature of the protagonist he also argues that it serves an alienating impulse which critiques the film itself.
‘On Dangerous Ground’ continues this as one aspect in discussing the way that Herzog and his team actually produced the visual spectacle of the film. The most famous sequences are those when Fitzgerald leads and cajoles the indigenous Indians into hauling a large steamship over an isthmus us between two rivers. It is well recorded that the production used an actual ship on an actual setting, eschewing some of the techniques of special effects to achieve this.
A lot of comment has been made on this, including the toll on the people involved. Koepnick notes these but then argues that for Herzog this ‘real’ effort both creates spectacle but also creates a reflexive take of the spectacle. He quotes from Herzog’s ‘Minnesota Manifesto’ (1999).
There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylisation.
‘In the Wake’ is the final section. Koepnick retreats to take an overview and to look back at the film. Here he uses several other artworks that have been influenced by the film. One is a Polish video construct, Halka /Haiti (2015) and a novel ‘Stromland’ (2018). I have not seen or read either. I could see the parallels that Koepnick drew between them and the film but I did not find this illuminating. This was another point when I found the academic stance of the book tricky to navigate.
Overall the book has an amount of stimulating commentary on the film. The author relates Herzog’s vision to the vision that the film presents of its protagonist. As you might expect there is a lot of discussion of the environmental aspects. Much of this is convincing though I did feel at times that whilst the comments revised the film for the present it was debatable how much all of this was in the minds of the filmmakers when the production took place. My other reservation was that the overall sense of the film that is presented is tied closely to the sense of an authorial vision. I think aspects of the film, for example the way the title privileged actual production over effects, is also a reflection of the times of the film. And the author does seem to accept Herzog’s later rationalisation regarding the way the production treated people; in particular the indigenous peoples. It has to be written that Herzog has a unacceptable record of this type of approach. Apart from Fitzcarraldo, there is the aspect of Aguirre the Wrath of God already mentioned; and there is the scandal that erupted over the rats used in the 1979 Nosferatu the Vampyre / Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht.
I also wondered about the choice of the title directed by Werner Herzog, presumably made by the publisher. Technically the film is a West German production, but whilst it addresses European C19th colonialism there is very little in the film which offers a sense of Germany. This reflects my personal estimation of Herzog output; I think the first six titles, ending with the 1977 Stroszek, are his best work. Since then I think his work has allowed uncontrolled expression of his vision; and indeed he has become a film wanderer across the globe. And I think the early films are more expressive of the New German Cinema.
The volume is quite brief, ninety pages. It includes detailed credits and notes, the latter are very helpful. There are sections rather than chapters and no index. There are 40 excellent film stills, well above the usual quality in contemporary publications,. They are in colour and either half-page or quarter page illustrations. And they are well chosen and carefully related to the discussion on the accompanying pages.
I noted this was a slightly tricky book to read but it is illuminating on the film. I suspect that the keener the reader is on this film the more they would take from the book.
Keith reviewed this film at Berlin earlier this year. Here are my thoughts on the film now in UK cinemas.
Agnès Varda’s last film opened locally with a ‘seniors’ morning screening. I wonder if many of those in the audience were watching their first Varda screening. All seemed to enjoy the show so Agnès judged her delivery well. She died earlier this year just a couple of months short of her 91st birthday, but as this film demonstrates she had lost none of her creative powers starting her tenth decade. In this personal statement about her own work she addresses us directly as part of the audience seated in several different auditoria. The film is an illustrated lecture taking us through nearly 70 years of work as a photographer, filmmaker and finally ‘visual artist’ (an English term she endorses). It isn’t a straightforward chronology. She jumps around a little but as far as I can see she covers all of her feature films and most of the shorts. The only disappointment for me was the short sequence on her photography (which preceded her first film in 1954) which comes towards the end of the film. I’d of liked to know a little more about this and how it informed her filmmaking. Her talk began with a statement about her three key ideas about filmmaking – here is how she describes them in the Press Notes:
INSPIRATION is why you make a film. The motivations, ideas, circumstances and happenstance that spark a desire and you set to work to make a film.
CREATION is how you make the film. What means do you use? What structure? Alone or not alone? In colour or not in colour? Creation is a job.
The third word is SHARING. You don’t make films to watch them alone, you make films to show them. An empty cinema: a filmmaker’s nightmare!
People are at the heart of my work. Real people. That’s how I’ve always referred to the people I film in cities or the countryside.
This gives you a good idea of how she set about ‘creating’ her story. In fact she made a statement at the Berlin press show when the film was screened saying that this film would now do her talking for her as personal appearances were becoming tiring. Varda’s presentation lasts nearly two hours and I could have taken double the time listening to her commentary and watching the clips. I’ve seen around half of her 23 features and now I feel more encouraged to seek out the shorter films, especially the earlier ones in California. The key to appreciating Varda is to tune in to her own fascination with the world and what she can do with her camera. Varda was true to the idea of the artisanal artist-filmmaker. She remains the definition of an auteur, developing her own company Ciné-Tamaris which has retained control of her films (and those of Jacques Demy and others) and re-released them on restored digital versions. She’s kept much of her filmmaking literally ‘in house’ with various production roles for her daughter Rosalie Varda and son Mathieu Demy and partnerships with a series of actors and crews. One of those who appears in this film is Sandrine Bonnaire, who reveals just how hard she was pushed as a 17 year-old in the lead role for Vagabond.
I would have liked to have seen a bit more about Varda’s marriage to Jacques Demy and how these two, in some ways very different, creative people bounced ideas off each other. She does discuss her documentary biopic Jacquot de Nantes (1991) made when Demy was very ill, but not the two documentaries she made after his death. The two were in California together during the 1960s but made very different films there.
Varda adapted to the possibilities of new technologies and embraced the use of digital cameras. Varda by Agnès is presented in two parts so that the early career is ‘analogue’ and the later career is ‘digital’. The split is also one of 20th and 21st century practice. The revelation for me was the ‘installation’ work in the second period when Varda became a visual artist. I wish now that I’d made more effort in 2018 to get to the Liverpool Biennial where there was a photographic exhibition, a new installation and a season of her films. As far as I can see this is the only time that Varda was received in the UK as a ‘visual artist’ and we might never get to see some of the intriguing installations glimpsed in Varda by Agnès such as Patatutopia from 2003 or the Cinema Shacks she built from old cans of her celluloid films in 2013.
Agnès Varda was one of the great filmmakers, photographers and visual artists of the last 70 years. We will be lucky to see her like again. All I can do is to urge you to see this hugely enjoyable current release and to dig out any DVDs or VODs from her catalogue that you can find. There are some posts you might find interesting on this blog.
This compendium/portmanteau film features the work of 13 European directors who were asked to represent aspects of Sarajevo’s turbulent history. The film was completed for the centenary of the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand which triggered the First World War. Since then the city, which had been in Austrian-Hungarian control since 1978 after centuries as part of the Ottoman Empire, experienced a period as part of the Kingdom of Serbia, occupation by the Nazis who set up a puppet fascist state during the Second World War, become part of the post-war Yugoslavian Republic and then experienced the horrors of the Balkan Wars of the 1990s with a siege lasting four years. Now it is the capital of the Republic of Bosnia-Herzogovina. Each director has around 8-9 minutes to say something about Sarajevo and its story and the separate contributions are linked by an animation featuring representations of Sarajevo’s bridges.
I need to confess first that my knowledge of the history of Sarajevo over the last 100 years is not what it should be and that the wars of the 1990s left me completely bewildered (having been a supporter of Tito’s Yugoslavia as a ‘non-aligned country’ in the Cold War). Perhaps because of this, I realised that I was drawing on my understanding of Michael Winterbottom’s Welcome to Sarajevo(UK 1997) in my attempts to understand these short films. I was surprised how much I’d absorbed from the script of that film by Frank Cottrell Boyce and how many of the incidents from that film were familiar in this new film.
The thirteen directors, as indicated by the production nationalities above, come from several different countries. The four names most familiar to me directed contributions clustered together in the middle of the film. They are each quite distinctive. Jean-Luc Godard’s familiar large ‘banner’ statements in white upper case type are presented against still images and a montage of clips (I recognised at least one from Eisenstein). Similarly, Angela Schanelec shows us big close-ups of a small group of characters translating the statements of the 1914 assassin Gavrilo Princip with an un-blinking camera eye. Cristi Puiu offers us a long shot of a middle-aged couple in bed reading at Christmastime from a book which prompts the man to make several prejudicial remarks about various ethnicities and national groups in the Balkans – apparently it’s all the fault of Hungarians. The most striking visual treatment is from Sergei Loznitsa who superimposes large still photographs of combatants over street scenes from Sarajevo (both images in black and white). These superimpositions are striking and provocative – see the image at the head of this posting.
I’m not going to go through all thirteen contributions (but see below for more details). Inevitably, in a compendium film, some contributions work better than others for specific viewers – not because they are necessarily superior in terms of aesthetics, emotional impact or political sensibility, but often because of how they are juxtaposed with other contributions and how the rhythm of the overall film works for the viewer. I found some of the simpler personal stories about memory and migration and about family relationships to be not only affective in helping me to feel the impact of war, but also to remind me of the ways in which the Balkan Wars made their presence felt elsewhere in the world.
If you want a detailed description and an analysis of all the contributions you could try this review by Jay Weissberg in Variety. Weissberg knows a great deal about the history (or he is a very good researcher). His explanations of each contribution are helpful but I found some of his judgements made me very angry. I was particularly interested in the contribution of Italian director Leonardo Di Costanzo. His film doesn’t mention Sarajevo directly in its focus on Italian recruits fighting in the Dolomites in the Great War. It features a harassed officer forced to send out men to eliminate a sniper, who kills each one in turn. At the end of his film Di Costanzo presents some text informing us about the young men drawn into war to fight for a nation state only 70 years old. Weissberg comments: ” . . . such a didactic, straightforward approach would be better in a film made for high-school students”. What a silly statement. I’ve always found the Italian involvement in 1914 difficult to follow and I found the text helpful. The Italians fought against the Austrian-Hungarian forces and this film sits alongside the Cristi Puiu film (that Weissberg maintains is the best contribution) in identifying the nationalist rivalries which erupted in the break-up of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire which together controlled the whole of the Balkans before the rise of Serbia in the 19th century.
I think this film is available on various online sites and it is certainly worth seeing if you want to learn more about the 20th century events in the Balkans which still reverberate with meanings today.
Trailer (with French subtitles):
What a pleasure it is to watch a film by a great director. This film by Abbas Kiarostami takes its title from a classic Jimmy van Huesen/Johnny Burke song and it has only a rudimentary plot, beginning and ending seemingly in the middle of something. Yet the simple events of the narrative, involving no more than seven speaking parts, are presented in such a way that concentration never lapses and the mundane appears extraordinary. The plot involves Akiko, a young woman from ‘out of town’ attending university in Tokyo and working as an escort/bar girl in the evenings. She should be meeting her grandmother who has come to the city for the day, but she should also be revising for an exam. She tries to put off her boss who wants her to visit a client – a man he ‘respects’. The boss is insistent, so she will have to go.
The whole narrative covers less than 24 hours and most of that time is taken up by conversations, recorded messages, phone calls etc. featuring Akiko, her boss, the elderly client and Akiko’s boyfriend. As in Kiarostami’s earlier films, it isn’t so much ‘what’ is said, but more the mode of speaking and the effectiveness (or not) of communication that carries the meaning. Kiarostami provides the audience with beautifully composed and arranged scenes in which questions are raised but not answered with any conviction and we are left to provide our own meanings.
Following Certified Copy (France-Italy 2010), this is another Kiarostami film in which the Iranian filmmaker makes a film outside his own language and in a completely different culture. There is always a question over how filmmakers from ‘outside’ will represent Japanese culture, but most non-Japanese watching this film will probably not notice that this is an external view. Much has been made of the possible Ozu connections in the use of the camera, especially given Kiarostami’s own comments on the Japanese master. I’m not sure about this but I did feel some connection with another Ozu disciple, the Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien, especially via his Tokyo-set Café Lumiere. Kiarostami chose Yanagijima Katsumi as his cinematographer and his background includes work for Kitano Takeshi. I also enjoyed his work on Dreams for Sale in the last London Film Festival screenings. It’s possibly the opening nightclub scene that makes me think of Hou, but much of the rest of the film utilises long takes inside a car (as in the image at the head of this posting) and these are very much part of Kiarostami’s own style.
The question most cinephiles will ask themselves when they leave the cinema is about how they should interpret the title. I went straight to YouTube to find the version of the song used in the film. It’s a glorious track by Ella Fitzgerald from 1957. Its use is, in Kiarostami’s own words, there to represent what a person of his generation (Kiarostami is in his early seventies) might still be listening to. This is reinforced in the film’s dialogue when the client, Professor Watanabe, sings a few lines of ‘Que sera, sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)’ which for me will always refer to Doris Day’s version in the Hitchcock 1956 re-make of his own The Man Who Knew Too Much. The suggestion is that the old man perhaps acts ‘like someone in love’ or that he experiences events ‘like someone in love’. On the other hand, Akiko is interested in the old man’s music and his copy of a well-known Japanese painting. But we can’t be sure what she feels and indeed the main discourse in the film is ‘miscommunication’ – perhaps caused by more than one ‘someone in love’. I should also report that there is an element of danger and violence lying beneath the surface. Overall this is a film that is pleasurable to watch but which will also make you think, especially after its provocative final shot.
The French director was a guest of the Bradford International Film Festival and joined in a ScreenTalk with Neil Young: he also received The Bradford International Film Festival Fellowship 2012, (he is the first foreign language filmmaker to receive this Award). This was followed by his 1996 film Irma Vep starring the Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung. At that time Maggie Cheung was not that well known among European audiences. Bringing her to the attention of this world was an appropriate action by Assayas, as he had established himself originally as a writer and editor for the prestigious Cahiers du cinéma. In his time there he steered the journal, and interest amongst European film critics, to the cinemas of Hong Kong, China and Taiwan. Those cinemas have subsequently become lauded for the films of directors like John Woo (Hong Kong) and Hou Xiaoxian (Taiwan). In keeping with his punk sensibility he expressed an antipathy to Film Theory, though he clearly believes in analysis. He suggested that what is known as Film Theory has been ‘reduced to a system of references, which had become academic’. Unfortunately he did not detail the particular critical writings he was talking about.
I found the interview rather diffuse. We got some sense of Assayas’ work with Cahiers du cinéma, but the conversation focused primarily on Irma Vep and the 2010 epic thriller Carlos. The talk opened with a clip from Irma Vep with a scene in which Maggie Cheung becomes increasingly disorientated. In the film she plays a Hong Kong actress bought to France to appear in an ‘art film’ remake of the classic silent French film serial Le Vampires (1916). Predictably, given my love of early film, I found the first part of the film, which revisits the 1916 silent, fascinating. But the later stages of the film focus on Cheung’s increasing alienation in the strange and backbiting arena of French film. The film was scripted fairly fast and shot even faster, and to be honest I shared Cheung’s disorientation in the later stages.
Neil Young asked Assayas about the use of a punk sound by the band Spiral (Sonic Youth) in the scene in question. Assayas clearly has a love of punk and shares some of their characteristics. Another festival dubbed him a ‘post-punk auteur’. I think this explains the mixture of critical and personal, which feature in Assay’s films, though I prefer a clearer focus on the critical. One comment by Assays summed this up: “I am standing nowhere channelling the chaos.” On the music itself he explained that this is written in the script: that he dislike conventional film scores and aims rather to produce collages.
Assayas does have a strong cinematic background. His father was a screenwriter, Jacques Rémy. He had a sort of apprenticeship in England at the Pinewood studio. One film he worked on was the original Superman: very different in scale and tone from his own films.
His career bears a resemblance to some of the young Turks in the Nouvelle Vague. After his stint on Cahiers du cinéma Assayas was fairly critical of the French cinema in which he emerged in the late 1980s. He expressed eclectic tastes, having praise for Clint Eastwood (especially Honky Tonk Man, 1982), early Cronenberg such as Videodrome (1982), John Carpenter’s Assault of Precinct 13 (1976), and the lesser known ‘sub porn’ filmmaker Jesús Franco. His own film work reflects this eclecticism, Demonlover (2002) tends towards horror with a plot constructed around Japanese anime: whilst Summer Hours (L’heure d’été, 2008 – also screened at the festival) is a family drama constructed round the death of a matriarch.
The latter part of the Talk focussed on Carlos, which tells the story of the ‘terrorist/revolutionary’ ‘The Jackal’ (Ilich Ramírez Sánchez). I find it difficult to judge this film as it was distributed in the UK (and screened at the Festival) in a version running 165 minutes: cut down from a five and half-hour television version. I was conscious of frequent lacunae in the film, which left important gaps in the story of Carlos and also appeared to weaken the political representation of his career. We were shown a clip from the film: a dynamic sequence where Carlos is surprised by the security police at a social gathering and with great aplomb shoots the two policemen and an informant. Both Assayas and Young saw this as the central sequence of the film, partly because this was the action for which Carlos was tried and imprisoned for in 1997. It seems that the longer version has material on German Revolutionary Cells, an attempted assassination of President Sadat and more detail on his relationship with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. I would hope that this gives greater political substance to the biopic, which in the UK released version tends to present Carlos in a schematic fashion and focuses as much on his inconsistencies as his convictions.
This film is though, like Irma Vep, fascinating and intriguing and the style has great panache. One could pay the same compliment to Assayas, who is a fascinating and talented filmmaker. I rather felt though that we might have learnt more with a tighter focus in the interview.
I did manage to ask him a quick question after the talk about his membership the 2011 Cannes Festival Jury. He said that he voted for Malik’s The Tree of Life for the Palme D’or, but that also he ‘worked very hard to get the Grand Prix for Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Bir zamanlar Anadolu`da)’: he certainly deserves credit for the latter award.
The Festival also screened Late August, Early September (Fin août, début setembre, 1998) with Mathieu Amalric and Virginie Ledoyen. The film also features actress and director Mia Hansen-Løve whose new film, Goodbye First Love, is just released.
The full five and half-hour miniseries has now been screened on British television Channel 4 twice. So it is possible to consider the complete film and the differences from the shorter versions distributed to UK cinemas. Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (Carlos) himself has denounced the film for its ‘deliberate falsifications of history’. I think this has some justification, but probably what is most problematic is the characterisation, with Carlos himself depicted as a womaniser and prone to political rhetoric. And the majority of other political activists in the film are not presented so much as political characters but as romanticists or hard-line ideologues.
I di not find the longer version made a lot of difference from this angle. We do get to see the actions of the Japanese Red Army, The German revolutionary Cells, and later their involvement with the Stasi and other EsterEuropeanRepublic’s secret services. But what political discussion or argument are heard tends to the rhetorical. I also thought here were more scenes of a sexual nature in this version.
The film is impressive technically and in managing to maintain narrative interest over such a length. Much of this is due to the cast, especially Edgar Ramírez in the lead role. However, the film fails to find a form that gives expression to the actual nature of the politics of Carlos and the individuals and groups with whom he worked. To be honest I don’t think this would have been a conscious aim of the producers or the director: this fits with the other films by Olivier Assayas.. The first part of Steven Soderberg’s Che is a much better example of how to treat the political discourse of violent opposition to the status quo. To be fair though, the liberation politics of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro do have more substance than that of the European fellow travellers of the Palestinian struggle of the 1960s to 1980s.
It was incongruous watching This Is Not a Film on the giant IMAX screen at the National Media Museum in Bradford. The image only filled the centre of the enormous screen but even so this was probably the biggest screen the film has played in the UK. And perhaps it isn’t that incongruous since Jafar Panahi’s film is either the cleverest film I’ve seen in a long time or a film that through circumstance has become the ultimate statement about films and filmmaking. (It was on the IMAX screen as part of the Museum’s response to current distribution developments in the UK – though not ideal, using the screen for current releases allows extra flexibility and extends the run of films like This Is Not a Film.)
For anyone unaware of the background to the film, I should point out that Jafar Panahi, one of the best-known and most celebrated of Iranian directors, was arrested in December 2010 and put under house arrest after committing the ‘crime’ of voicing his support for the Green opposition to President Mahmoud Ahmadinijad during the 2009 election. Panahi has been sentenced to imprisonment and banned from making films and engaging with foreign critics for 20 years. This film is therefore ‘not a film’ but an ‘effort’ put together by Panahi and his friend, the documentary producer and director Mojtaba Mirtahmasb.
Panahi is obliged to stay in his apartment in Tehran. It’s a very nice and certainly a spacious apartment but it is still a prison. The film details a day of his incarceration from breakfast until evening time. For most of the time Mirtahmasb operates a small professional digital camera while Panahi has his iPhone with its camera facility. Little in terms of conventional narrative action takes place but the events of the day are loaded with significance – starting with a call from Panahi’s lawyer about the appeal on his sentence. There are several visitors/calls at the door and more phone calls that are played through a speakerphone. Panahi analyses/comments on three scenes from his back catalogue of productions which he plays through his TV set. He also attempts to tell us the story of the film he would be making if he hadn’t been banned. This sounds like a typical Panahi neo-realist film in which a young woman from Isfahan who wants to go to university in Tehran is locked in her room by her father . . . but perhaps she is actually more interested in a potential relationship with a boy? The final section becomes a little mini-narrative in its own right in which Panahi, now operating the main camera, ventures a few feet outside the apartment, following a caretaker putting out the bins. The day in question is actually ‘Fireworks Wednesday’, the Persian New Year when people celebrate with bonfires on the streets as well as fireworks. The TV reports at some point that Ahmadinijad has outlawed such celebrations because they are not ‘Islamic’ (I think they are Zoroastrian – see Asghar Farhadi’s film Fireworks Wednesday.)
On the one hand, the whole film is about imprisonment. Panahi shares his space with his daughter’s pet iguana, ‘Igi’, an enormous and very endearing creature who at one point crawls behind a bookcase, threatening to topple hundreds of books. A neighbour asks Panahi to look after a yappy dog for a short while but dog and iguana don’t mix. But even imprisoned, Panahi can’t/won’t stop being a filmmaker. He and Mirtasmasb make fun of the definition of ‘not making’ a film. “You can’t say cut!”. “Just keep the camera running”. What is a film? How do we separate the ‘meaningful’ and the ‘meaningless’? Nothing in This Is Not a Film is ‘redundant’. Panahi looks up from his MacBook (plenty of product placement!) to watch the TV screen for a few moments as the 2011 tsunami devastates a coastal village in Japan. How do we ‘read’ this scene? Later on, when Panahi asks a few simple questions of the stand-in caretaker, the answers reveal something about life in Iran outside the comfortable middle-class flat. Here is a young man studying for a Masters, but having to work doing several jobs to pay for his education – some of them unpleasant and jobs that must be done full-time by somebody else. This isn’t a critique of Iranian society as such but simply an example of what a student might face and that’s probably enough to anger the authorities.
Each of the three sequences from his earlier films that are shown on his TV set allows Panahi to demonstrate how his realist approach throws up interesting questions about cinema, in particular about ‘amateur’ actors interacting with a script and how the accidental mise en scène of neo-realism sometimes creates strongly symbolic images. And in a sense of course, this is the tease of This Is Not a Film – 72 mins of what seems to be a ‘day in the life’ of an imprisoned filmmaker, but which is actually an artfully constructed essay on cinema. It will no doubt become a film school classic as a film to study. But as we sit back and enjoy it, there is the real worry in that completing the film and smuggling it out of the country for international exposure, Jafar Panahi might have goaded his tormentors into an even harsher regime of repression for filmmakers. I hope not.
The film’s official website in the US also carries details of screenings in the UK. It deserves a much bigger audience than it seems to have been getting so far, so please don’t miss it.