Malgorzata Szumowska has seen her profile as a leading European filmmaker gradually rise since her first feature in 2000. Twenty years later Never Gonna Snow Again won a prize at Venice and was recognised at several international festivals. For this feature she co-wrote, co-directed and co-produced with her long-term collaborator Michal Englert who also photographed the film. ‘Magic realism’ is one term that critics have used to describe the film and comedy-drama seems to be a standard categorisation. I’ve read a few reviews that don’t seem to do the film justice but I recognise that it is very hard to pin down.
The central character Zhenia (Alec Utgoff) appears from out of the dark forest and swans past a long queue waiting to see an official about staying in the country. The rather stern official soon succumbs to Zhenia’s ‘powers’ and, after giving him a gentle head massage, Zhenia stamps his own papers and sets off for a communist-era block of flats reminiscent of the setting for one of Kieslowski’s Dekalog tales. We then see him approaching a new estate of identical large mansions. The estate has a security gateway with guards who sometimes rove round the streets on Segway scooters. Zhenia carries the tools of his trade – a folding treatment table and mat. He has clearly been here before and the door of each mansion he visits is opened to him, mainly, but not entirely by the wealthy women on the estate. He seems to be a skilful masseur with extra powers, including hypnosis, as we discover later.
All his work seems to be on the estate and he returns at night to his cell-like room in the high-rise block. Gradually we learn something about his background. He was born in Chernobyl in the Ukraine SSR of the Soviet Union. His mother died of the effects of radiation from the reactor explosion when he was seven. His memory of the ash is remembered as being like falling snow. He experiences some xenophobic discrimination, but not from his grateful clients. He is also wary of immigration officers who seem to be lying in wait for him. Many reviews refer to the estate as ‘suburbia’ but for me the suburbs are the parts of a town or city characterised by dull conformity – although there can always be eccentricities behind the doors and windows and hoses are at least usually painted different colours or have different gardens. The mansions here are certainly uniform in design but the residents appear to relish not privacy but display as the massage table is often erected in front of the large windows which are often not curtained – and quite often the ‘clients’ are semi-naked. There are roughly half a dozen regular clients and Zhenia’s ‘treatment’ generally results in relief from depression or grief and sometimes a form of bliss follows.
Never Gonna Snow Again is beautifully photographed by Englert in ‘Scope. It is presented with a mainly slow pace, often with fades to black between scenes and with a classical score, including Rachmaninoff, Chopin and Shostakovich as well as modern pieces. Utgoff is very impressive and I was surprised to learn that he was educated and trained in England. The other leading players, Maja Ostaszewska, Agata Kulesza, Weronika Rosati and Katarzyna Figura as the women and Andrzej Chyra and Lukasz Simlat as the male clients are also excellent.The estate, though the houses represent a real location, are somehow surreal. I was reminded of futuristic estates such as the one in The Truman Show (US 1998) or the way Truffaut presented Roehampton in Fahrenheit 451 (UK 1966). There is just something unsettling about uniformity and exclusiveness. There are various references to Zhenia’s magical powers, including, as one reviewer noted, a kinetic power that is a reminder of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, as are some of the flashbacks to his childhood. But the real question for most audiences is what does all this mean?
In an interview at Venice, Szumowska said that it isn’t meant to be a specific metaphor for Poland, but rather for Eastern Europe in general. This makes sense. There seems to be a disregard for religion and more reliance not just on the masseur but also alcohol, synthetic recreational drugs and new diets amongst the bored women and retired men on the estate. There are links to American culture but also to French culture in the private school which the residents’ children attend. The setting appears to be in the weeks before Christmas with a highly commercialised and odd representation of American Halloween customs and similarly American-style universal Christmas preparations. An official sounding title suggests that the last snow will fall in 2025, which might be an eco-warning linked to other events in the film. I’m not sure what it all means but I watched and enjoyed the film and I agree with some commentators that while in the international marketplace it seems best described as an arthouse film without a clear narrative resolution, it could still be enjoyed by a popular genre audience. There are genuine comic moments among the more generalised ‘disturbance’ but perhaps slightly fewer sex scenes than I anticipated from the director of Elles (France 2011). I note that it did get a brief release aimed at Polish audiences in the UK during 2021. Such screenings were becoming quite regular before Brexit and the pandemic. I’m intrigued as to what is happening re Polish releases in the UK now but I’m still not sure about returning to multiplexes. Never Gonna Snow Again is now on MUBI and well worth watching. Here’s the trailer from the film’s sales agent.
This lovely little film is one of two recent South Korean titles to turn up on MUBI. It’s an interesting mix of romance, fantasy and gentle humour with an underlying dramatic edge. Writer-director Kim Cho-hee is making her feature début as a director after working for several years as producer for the celebrated auteur director Hong Sang-soo. I’ve only seen one of Hong’s films and I found it slightly irritating so I was at first apprehensive about Lucky Chan-sil, but I needn’t have worried.
The film opens with a celebratory drinking session for a film crew at which the director suddenly collapses with a fatal heart attack. The future for the crew looks uncertain. The title credits are offered as simple text against a hessian background, familiar from classical Japanese films from the 1950s and especially the later colour films of Ozu Yasujiro. We realise then that we’ve been watching an opening sequence in Academy ratio. With the last title the ratio widens to 1.85:1. (I was reminded of the sequence at the start of Frank Tashlin’s 1956 film The Girl Can’t Help It when Academy becomes CinemaScope and B&W becomes Technicolor.) We might guess that this Korean film is going to offer film references and we won’t be wrong
The film’s protagonist emerges as ‘Producer Lee’ or Lee Chan-sil (Kang Mal-Geum). This 40 year-old finds herself without a job and few prospects after working with the same arthouse director for some time. She realises that her job as producer was one that most people she meets don’t really see as important. “But what do you actually do?” She is forced to move to a room in a house on top of the hill overlooking the city. It’s such a steep climb that she must recruit three of her younger ex-colleagues to carry her belongings. When she gets to the house with its views out over the city, we meet her landlady played by Youn Yuh-Jung, the beloved grandma in Minari (US 2020). As Chan-sil gradually begins to understand her situation she realises she needs to earn some money and ends up cleaning house for her friend, a successful but empty-headed young actress named Sophie. Her relationships with Sophie and with her landlady (who is struggling to overcome her own illiteracy because of her poor education in the 1950s) help us to understand the changes in women’s lives in Korea but also the still powerful restrictions of traditions. Chan-sil has not had a relationship for a decade. Does she need one now? She could test one out with Sophie’s French teacher perhaps. But Chan-sil is not sure. Trying to push her into looking inside herself is a surprising extra character, the ghost of ‘Hong Kong Cinema Legend’ Leslie Cheung, played by a young Korean look-alike. Cheung was a beautiful young man who took his own life aged only 46 and depressed by the celebrity gossip about his sexual identity. He has been sorely missed by everyone who admired his great range of work in Hong Kong and later mainland Chinese cinemas. Cheung’s ghost is inappropriately dressed in the singlet and boxers he wore in one of his iconic roles in Wong Kar-Wai’s Days of Being Wild (HK 1991). He shivers in Korea with the coming of winter – he’s a very corporeal ghost.
I don’t want to say much more about the plot and, to be honest, there isn’t that much plot to discuss. If you are looking for a conventional romance, comedy or even psychological drama with a clear resolution, you won’t find it. But spending 95 minutes with Chan-sil was a real pleasure for me. Some reviewers seem concerned that the film might be too autobiographical and self-reflexive about cinema. I didn’t get that feeling. There is an entertaining comparison of Ozu and Christopher Nolan at one point and we learn later that Chan-sil’s love affair with cinema began with Emir Kusturica’s Time of the Gypsies (Yugoslavia-Italy-UK 1988). The final short sequence of the narrative is also a filmmaking reference, but in a more abstract sense, unless I’ve simply misread it.
All of the performances are very good and the presentation of naturalistic photography and well-chosen settings work well. Music is used sparingly but effectively. I was intrigued to read that the the lead actor had come to professional acting quite late. Overall this does seem to me a serious and sensitive portrayal of the possibilities for women in South Korean society presented as a moving personal story. I look forward to seeing more films by Kim Cho-hee.
Christian Petzold is one of our favourite directors and Undine is a film that we couldn’t miss. It is being streamed by several platforms and I caught it on MUBI which is also offering a retrospective of Petzold’s earlier films. I was vaguely aware of the European myth and folktale/fairy tale about the water nymph Undine/Ondine, but I decided to leave my research until after I’d seen the film. I think now that perhaps I should have done the research first. On the other hand, my seeming struggle with the film narrative might simply be down to watching a streamer rather than sitting in a cinema watching the film on a big screen. Either way I still enjoyed the film and I will think about watching it again soon.
Undine is love story, a fantasy and a form of social commentary/historiography about Berlin. Its echoes in Petzold’s earlier work are most clearly there in Yella (2007) and also in Phoenix (2014) but there are also numerous references across European narratives more generally. Undine (Paula Beer) is a historian working as a freelance lecturer at a museum in Berlin. She delivers talks based on the dioramas of Berlin’s architecture at different periods in its history. We only hear snippets of her talks but that’s enough to learn something about the history of the city and especially its beginnings as a settlement built on a marsh. The modern city straddles the River Spree and much of it is given over to trees, parks and water. An eventful day sees Undine breaking up with her lover Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) and then meeting Christof (Franz Rogowski), an industrial diver who works maintaining underwater installations such as pipeworks etc. Christof and Undine rapidly fall in love but there is a lingering sense that Undine may not have finished with Johannes completely.
It’s difficult to discuss Undine without spoiling particular scenes which I have no desire to do, so I’ll limit myself to more general comments. The film has been generally well-received by critics but, even more than some earlier Petzold films, it poses problems for audiences. What is it ‘about’ and how should we approach a reading? My feeling is that it is definitely a love story and it is also saying something about history, the ‘layering’ of historical events and their changing interpretations over time. Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of films like this is the blending of a form of realist filmmaking with elements of fantasy in the narrative. Some audiences embrace this eagerly, others find it too difficult and it often becomes a reason to dismiss films. It is also something which spills over into the distinction between ideas about art cinema and commercial genre cinema. A good, relatively recent, example of a film which presents similar problems might be Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water (US 2017). OK, that film won 4 Oscars as a more obvious fantasy, but it represents an attempt to use fantasy as a vehicle to explore culture and social commentary. Petzold has been classified as part of the ‘Berlin School’ of German directors, a loose grouping that refers to directors who trained in Berlin in the 1990s and became recognised in the international art and festival film market from the 2000s on wards. One shared feature of the films of several of the directors is a depiction of life in contemporary Germany, often in Berlin itself (e.g. in some of the films of Angela Shanelec). Petzold constructs narratives presented in realist terms, but often drawing on intertextual references to other films, literature or historical events or periods. Yella concerns a young woman from former East Germany who travels to the West, becoming involved with the airless world of advanced capitalism – but is she really there, is she what she seems? I was reminded in that film of the introduction of ghosts in Japanese cinema which began to appear in realist environments in J-horror films of the late 1990s and early 2000s. In Phoenix, Petzold drew inspiration from a French novel that first became a British film. He transferred the narrative to a setting in the immediate post-war rubble of Berlin, thus perhaps stressing the generic ‘rubble-film’ as his realist base for what is a preposterous but highly engaging story.
After thinking about Undine for a long time, and reading many reviews, I’ve finally managed to get a handle on my own reading of the film. The myth of the nymph is present across many cultures and is probably most familiar via the mermaid or in the Celtic/Nordic form of the ‘selkie’ (seal-woman). The German folk tale of Undine appears to derive first from the work of the Swiss philosopher Paracelsus and was then formulated as a fairy tale novella in 1811 by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué as an example of German romanticism. In 1811 Berlin was the capital of Prussia – previously it had been the capital of Brandenburg. After 1871 it became the capital of Germany with the founding of the nation state. The layering of Berlin’s identities is represented in the museum which offers the dioramas of Berlin’s building phases described in her lectures by Undine. Petzold has been particularly scathing about the development of contemporary Berlin which attempts to sterilise the past even while presenting this history. A few years ago this might have been discussed as an an example of postmodernism. The romanticism of the Undine myth then becomes a disruptive force that constantly reminds us of the past. It also powers the love between Undine and Christof which negates the sterility of the recent urban development. It is this tension which makes the narrative so fascinating for me.
But I’m also bowled over by the romance itself. Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski are terrific together, even more so than in Transit (2018). I’ve been impressed with Rogowski since I saw him in his lead role In the Aisles (2018). Paula Beer blew me away with her performance in Frantz (2016) by François Ozon. As Undine she transforms herself again, making the most of her role as a freelance historian. She seems to be both efficient and organised but also hinting that she has come from ‘another place’ – and is about to go back there. As a reviewer remarked, her appearance in a white blouse and dark skirt and shoes is formal in the museum but her loose hair and slight dishevelment also indicates her fluidity. She won Best Actress when Undine screened at the Berlinale in 2020. I was intrigued to read that Beer was recommended to Petzold by Nina Hoss who featured in six of Petzold’s previous films. Petzold has hinted that one day Hoss and Beer might appear together. That would certainly be worth seeing. Petzold has spoken a great deal about Undine and here’s a quote from a Cineuropa interview:
Undine made me think of the relationship between directors and main actresses as well as the one between muses and artists. Isn’t it a sort of perpetual betrayed love for all the Undines of this world? Don’t men always dominate everything? It’s not that Undine wins in the story; she has to go back in the water and wait for the next man to come along. She exists only through men, and that is a horrible curse. Our story aims to explore an Undine who is struggling against this. Then along comes a man, a proletarian, an industrial diver, who interferes with the curse. He is not suspicious; he’s innocent and for the first time seems to see her primarily without any sexual desire and without wanting to dominate her. This is new for her, and a path to a new world seems possible.
I hope all these attempts to read the film don’t put you off. Undine is one of the best films I’ve seen since the lockdown began. It requires ‘work’ but it’s very much worth the effort. It is available to buy or rent from many outlets.
In this clip from the film we get a subtle reference to the underlying theme to the film and we experience the moment when Undine is with her new lover and sees her old lover:
I only recently caught Shinkai Makoto’s much lauded Your Name (Kimi no na wa, Japan 2016) whose gender-swapping premise, mixed with natural disasters, was a fascinating mix of teen pic and SF. Weathering With Me is even better, though I’m not sure how much my delight in the latter film was influenced by seeing it on an IMAX screen.
The last film I saw on the big screen format was Blade Runner 2049 which seemed to me to be diminished by the large screen. I have found it difficult to know where to look on the IMAX space and this uncertainty interrupts the flow of the filmic experience. As Weathering With You was limited to one screening in Bradford I’m grateful to my daughter for insisting we go, despite my reservations. Whilst I haven’t wholly changed my views on IMAX’s suitability as a medium for narrative cinema, I am pretty sure this anime benefited from the eyeball-encompassing space facilitated by the large screen: it is an exceptionally beautiful film. However, I found Blade Runner 2049‘s visuals superb too so I’m not sure what the difference is. If anything, watching Weathering, because the need to read subtitles necessitates an obvious movement of the gaze to the bottom of the screen, should have been an even less fulfilling experience but I was simply bowled over by the images.
Like Your Name, Weathering With You deals with a coming of age narrative but instead of a backdrop of natural disasters, here it is ecological disaster that affords the context to teenage travails: it is raining incessantly in Tokyo. At first it appeared that Makoto was making a point about climate change, Gaia is mentioned early on, but by the conclusion it seems, disappointingly, to have been more a metaphor for the difficulties of growing up and first love. Morishima runs away from the boring sticks to make his fortune in Tokyo and Amano finds she is ‘weather girl’, a modern shaman who can make the sun shine. How they get together is subject to many (sometimes implausible but who cares when you’re seeing such sumptuous images?) narrative obstacles, some of which are funny.
In one scene the protagonists fall slowly, upside down, from the sky and I can’t work out why that image affected me so much. Whilst falling from the sky is obviously not a good idea for everyday life, maybe the image is about connecting with the unearthly aspects of our planet; hence Amano is a shaman. In our ‘sophisticated’ capitalist world we have lost touch with Earth, hence most don’t notice the incremental changes as we destroy it. Science has often been at the service of capitalism, developing products, services and new markets, and when it has attempted to speak loudly about climate catastrophe its message has been mangled and muted by vested (money) interests. Although Weathering With Me isn’t directly an ecological parable it does evoke the power of nature in a spectacular, and scary, way. Two likely ‘films of the year’ in one week!
This is the first film on which Ingmar Bergman was both sole writer and director and thus had what would later be celebrated as ‘authorial control’. It’s therefore a film which Bergman’s auteurist fans see as the earliest authentic expression of Bergman’s major themes and ideas. The Swedish website devoted to Bergman’s work has some useful material on Prison. It was a rare opportunity for the still young Bergman to get a free hand to make a film. Producer Lorens Marmstedt gave him the chance to make a very low budget film in just 18 days of shooting. Marmstedt had his own production company Terrafilm which also distributed the film in Sweden. Marmstedt also managed to secure Hasse Ekman, Bergman’s rival as a ‘hot director’, to play a director in the film and also Ekman’s wife Eva Henning as a leading player. Prison is a film of its time and from the Swedish film industry of its time. I find it a little difficult to grasp how the Swedish industry worked in the late 1940s so I must try to work on what I recognise in the film and try to relate it to global cinema in the late 1940s – and in some ways that is quite productive.
Prison opens with a long shot of an elderly man walking quickly in an odd jerky fashion down a hill and into a group of buildings on the edge of town. His gait and the long shot composition immediately suggest a fantasy of some kind. I thought of the 1920s German Expressionist films Nosferatu or The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. But the man finally enters what turns out to be a film studio and the man approaches a director (Hasse Ekman) in order to tell him a story idea about “Hell – on earth”. The director later tells a pair of young writers (a young couple who live together) about the incident and Thomas (Birger Malmsten), the young man becomes excited and tells the director about a teenage prostitute he has interviewed who could be the subject of such a film. So far, so conventional. At this point, 10 minutes in, we might realise that there haven’t been any credits. Now we are offered a long moving camera shot following a curving narrow street in the central shopping district of Stockholm and a voiceover reads the film’s credits to us. The camera stops moving when it captures the teenage prostitute Birgitta Carolina Söderberg (Doris Svedlund) staggering in a doorway. She is about to have a baby. Does this mean that we are about to follow a melodrama narrative? Yes and no. Some of the familiar elements from Port of Call (Sweden 1948) are certainly present but Bergman gives free rein to representations of dreams and nightmares and offers us a commentary on filmmaking.
The remainder of the narrative sees Birgitta being investigated for her activity as a prostitute after her baby is taken from her by her boyfriend and her older sister. She will again meet Thomas who is on his own downward spiral caused by his excessive drinking. Perhaps these events signify that ‘Hell’ is what Birgitta and Thomas experience. The dream nightmare sequences reminded me of Michael Powell’s expressionist ‘visions’ as experienced by Sammy Rice (David Farrar) with the effects of pills and abstention from alcohol in The Small Back Room (UK 1949) and also the kinds of fantasy conjured up by Jean Cocteau around this time. At one point I was reminded of the representation of ‘Heaven’ in the musical Carousel (US 1956) with Gordon MacRae up a ladder hanging stars in the sky. Bergman’s Hell is much darker of course! Expressionist lighting and set design is a feature of film noir and melodrama in the 1940s so in that sense the film is familiar.
While Thomas and Birgitta are in Hell, Thomas’s partner Sofi (Eva Henning) is visting the studio where we experience the artificiality of a love scene set on a small boat bobbing about with back projection. This is Bergman commenting on the conventions of mainstream cinema. He also inserts a different kind of commentary by having Thomas and Birgitta find an old film projector and a film which turns out to be a silent slapstick comedy – a film made by Bergman with an Italian comedy troupe who create a contest with Death and the Devil attacking a hapless sleeper. A burglar/assassin and policeman also appear. Finally, in the mix, Bergman offers us the kind of melodrama we saw in Port of Call, with a story about another young couple worried by yet another pregnancy. The film ends with the re-appearance of the old teacher at the film studio where the lights are being switched off after another day’s shooting.
What can be said about this odd mixture of approaches to cinema? It certainly does ask questions about what we expect from mainstream cinema. It’s difficult to judge just how ‘innovative’ a film like this was in 1949, though as I’ve indicated some of the ideas were being explored elsewhere and it’s very difficult to really find something ‘new’ in cinema – so much was done in the first few decades of filmmaking. The constraints imposed by the budget are evident but praise must go to cinematographer Göran Strindberg, art director P.A. Lundgren and the whole crew as well as Bergman and his actors. As to what it all might mean, the existential angst and the religious and philosophical themes do seem to presage Bergman’s later concerns. He made seven very different films in the four years from 1946-47. It’s interesting that each title seems to have supporters and detractors and several, including this title are claimed as the first breakthrough/success. There are more available to watch so I’ll hang fire for the moment on which worked best for me.
Prison did have a few struggles with censors in Sweden, but emerged unscathed as a 78 minute feature. It seems to have been widely distributed outside Sweden, reaching the UK (like Port of Call) only in 1960, uncut but classified as an X film with the title The Devil’s Unwanton, which seems a rather damning term for either Thomas or Birgitta.
Border offers all kinds of challenges to the average film fan. It also challenges anyone who wants to write about it without spoilers. On this basis I’ll just offer clues without being explicit. The original idea is taken from a short story by John Ajvide Lindqvist, the Swedish fantasy author who became an international name with the publication of his novel Let the Right One in 2004 and its subsequent adaptation as both a Swedish film in 2008 (and then a US film) and an English-language stage production in 2013. The story, Gräns, was first published in Sweden in 2006 and the final script for the film was written by director Ali Abbasi, and Isabella Eklöf (whose new film as director is released in the UK soon). Fans of Lindqvist’s stories will know what to expect from Border, though I understand there are some additions to the literary narrative. Ali Abbasi is an Iranian who has lived in Sweden and now Denmark. His previous film, Shelley (Denmark 2017) suggests he might have pushed Lindqvist’s script in specific directions. The fact that he is a migrant may also be significant.
Tina (Eva Malender) is a customs official – a ‘border guard’ – at the ferry port of Kapellskär on the Baltic coast, north of Stockholm. Ferries come from Åland, Finland and Estonia. Tina has an unusual ability to ‘sniff out’ contraband. She may also have other unusual abilities to go with her appearance. These include a close affinity with wild animals and with the whole ecology of her forest home. Rather than me describing Tina, just look at her image and make up your own mind what her life might have been like up until now. She lives with a man who trains and ‘shows’ dogs, but her relationship seems not to be physical. Her only other contact is with her father who is in a care home. Work is the only part of her life which gives her satisfaction, partly because her special talent is appreciated by co-workers. One day she stops a man and discovers something which starts a criminal investigation in which she takes an active role. On another occasion she stops a man who turns out to share some of her own characteristics. She won’t be able to stop herself finding out more about Vore (Eero Milinoff). I won’t say any more except that the script manages to bring together three potential narratives. Tina and Vore must discover each other, Tina must discover herself (who or what is she?) and the criminal investigation must be resolved. Any understanding of her actions must also contend with Nordic folk tales.
Border manages to resolve all three narrative questions for me. I don’t want to make direct comparisons with Let the Right One In because that film seemed to me a unique film from a precise moment. Border does something slightly different and ‘fits’ another moment when film culture generally is focused on both gender and ecology as well as questions about migrants moving across physical ‘borders’. The acting performances of Eval Malender and Eero Milinoff are very good, especially given the make-up/prostheses they have to wear. I’ve seen Melander in other films but of course she was unrecognisable as Tina. Tina’s father is an interesting character. His role, as in many Swedish films, references the care system. He also represents a man from an earlier generation with a grown-up daughter – an important figure in different ways in the novels and film adaptations of Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson. Border seems to me a Nordic narrative with strong metaphorical references. It seems to have worked well with audiences and suggests that Nordic cinema still has much to offer. I watched the film on MUBI. I believe it is now available on other VOD services in the UK.
The short UK trailer: