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:
Kore-eda Hirokazu’s second fiction feature came after he had returned to his documentary roots to make the feature length TV documentary Without Memory in 1996. This featured a study of a man with a condition which prevented him from creating any new memories. It was caused by a failure of hospital procedures following an operation (actually a decision to withhold medication for budgetary reasons) and Kore-eda and his crew became involved with the man and his family in a form of participatory documentary. See this Senses of Cinema outline (with further links). The 84 minute documentary is available on YouTube with English subs and an introduction in English. Taking a camera crew to visit this young family man, Kore-eda discovered that each time they met him, Sekine Hiroshi would have no memory of their previous visit. By making the film, Kore-eda was in effect providing a form of memory for him. From a Guardian piece from 1999 by Jonathan Romney we learn that, from the age of six, Kore-eda had experienced the impact of Alzheimer’s disease on his grandfather and how as a high school student he had fashioned a script based on Richard Fleischer’s Fantastic Voyage (1966) in which he would shrink himself and enter his grandfather’s brain to trigger his lost memories. It’s worth noting that the impetus to make a documentary about memory loss is prompted by a personal experience and a desire to expose a social injustice caused by government failure. These two starting points are common for many of Kore-eda’s later films.
After Life was a surprise hit in North America and other international markets, possibly because of its presentation of a recognisable genre scenario – i.e. compared to most other Kore-eda films it seems immediately ‘universal’ as a narrative (and because it seems to refer back to Hollywood titles- the Japanese title is ‘Wonderful Life’). The film presents a ‘speculative fiction’ in which whenever somebody dies they find themselves in a ‘way station’, a kind of purgatory in the Roman Catholic sense, but without the connotations of suffering and usually confined to just seven days. Although there is no suffering as such, there is a task with deadlines. Each person is interviewed by one or two bureaucrats who require the newly deceased to select one important memory from their life. This is a memory that they will take with them into the after life. It will be their only memory, all others will be erased. They arrive on a Monday and they must decide by Wednesday. The staff will then produce a short film of the memory and these films are shown on the Saturday before the deceased are finally sent on their way. As reported in the Romney piece, Kore-eda explained that After Life is different from similar films in the West because there is no sense of ‘judgement’ at the time of death in Japan. This led to Kore-eda to find several non-professional actors and to treat them like documentary subjects. So in some cases the newly deceased characters are speaking for ‘real’ about their memories.
Kore-eda locates his way station in an old, nondescript institutional building, perhaps a school, on the outskirts of a city. The first arrivals walk up the steps, out of the mist and into the hallway where they are registered and asked to sit in the waiting room. I was reminded of two British films. Powell and Pressburger’s 1946 A Matter of Life and Death (known as Stairway to Heaven in the US) has a similarly bureaucratic welcome to heaven after the deceased have come up a long moving staircase. The very different and less well-known J. B. Priestley adaptation They Came to a City (1944) is not necessarily dealing with the deceased but takes a motley group of characters who climb through the mist to a gateway through which they are invited to visit a wonderful new city – a metaphor for a new (socialist) post-war world. Will they go to look? What will they think of it? Will they stay? In some ways this is linked to Kore-eda’s ideas.
While the idea of creating a film of a memory clearly derives from the Without Memory documentary, there are several other ideas being addressed in After Life. There is a limited number of characters in the cohort of the newly deceased (22) and they range from young to old, with a wide range of backgrounds, personalities and attitudes. What the narrative is really ‘about’ is a teasing out of what it means to be human or what it means to have ‘lived’. It’s difficult to imagine that anyone could watch this film without ever thinking, however fleetingly, “Which memory would I choose?”. The corollary might then be: “But whatever I choose, if that is the only memory I have for eternity, it’ll be hell!” But Kore-eda doesn’t really follow that through. What he does do, though, is to focus equally on the recently deceased and the bureaucrats who have to deal with them. I’ve termed them bureaucrats but really they are more like guides/helpers/counsellors. Eventually, you will start to wonder who these people are who carry out the interviews and organise the filming. All will be revealed if you haven’t guessed already.
The films that are made from the memories are interesting not just for the kinds of memories that are represented but also for the way in which the film production process is presented. A typical commercial science fiction or fantasy film would probably present these in ways which emphasised their generic qualities with special effects, music and extravagant art design. Kore-eda chooses instead to present a documentary-style glimpse of film production by a group akin to students shooting a film school studio exercise. Similarly, we get to see the ‘audience’ of the deceased and the counsellors trooping into a cinema to watch the results.
What is the overall impact of After Life? I think it very much depends on how an audience reacts to the quite personal challenges that the narrative poses and which of the characters and their thoughts about memories resonate most. There is also the parallel narrative about the bureaucrats/counsellors to consider. One outcome may be that we learn something about ourselves from seeing what happens to individuals and learning their stories. In that sense this is a deeply humanist film. I should also say that the film isn’t morbid in any way. It has sequences that are comic, some that are romantic. It might be summed up by a device in the ceiling of a corridor which uses different cut-outs in the sky-light to change the view of the sky. Some reviewers have suggested that the film is actually a study of filmmaking with Kore-eda deliberately using the juxtaposition of documentary and the artificiality of studio filmmaking to make us aware of how we engage with ideas on film and how films help us to develop memories.
This was the first of Kore-eda’s films to prompt an American remake, suggesting it has mass universal appeal. This would happen again with the later films, especially Like Father, Like Son (2013) but I’m not aware of any remakes actually emerging as yet. I realise I haven’t mentioned the performances (all good) or the crucial coming together of stories in the latter part of the film. I won’t spoil that moment but look out for the retired office worker Watanabe (Naitô Taketoshi) who can’t choose a memory, causing problems for the counsellor Mochizuki (Iura Arata) and his assistant Satonaka Shiori (Oda Erika), the young woman who seems to have a crush on him.
Here’s an unofficial trailer for the film:
I’ve recently published a study guide (you can buy it here). Here’s the introduction:
Pan’s Labyrinth is set in 1944, five years after the end of the Spanish civil war, when the last of the resistance to the fascist forces of General Franco were being crushed. However the inspiration for the film was the 11th September 2001 terrorist attacks on America. In his illuminating ‘Director’s commentary’ Guillermo del Toro states his perception of “brutality, innocence and war” changed after the destruction of the ‘two towers’ in New York. He saw that the response in America to the attacks was one of fear and obedience to a national authoritarian mandate. An example of this was when the American press failed to challenge President George W. Bush’s insistence that Iraq had to be invaded because Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of ‘mass destruction’. This proved to be a lie and although the military intervention deposed the dictator it resulted increased conflict in the region. More recently the authoritarian instincts of President Trump have further tarnished America’s reputation in the world.
In his commentary del Toro was emphasising that the film is not specifically about Spain in 1944, although it has much to tell us about the psychology of fascists. By using the tropes of the fairy tale the film juxtaposes the worldview of an 11-year-old girl, who is open to new experiences, and the restricted mind-set of her fascist stepfather. By mixing the ‘innocent’ world of the pre-pubescent girl with the grim realities of Franco’s repressive Spain, del Toro shows that the brutality inherent in the authoritarian mind-set has no place in civilised society.
Del Toro’s film blurs the boundaries between reality and fantasy and illustrates how close-mindedness and self-interest corrupt the human spirit. There is a feeling of doom hanging over the film because we know the resistance, who fought against the fascists, lost their battle and Spain suffered over 30 more years of Francoist rule. Because of this we may feel that Ofelia is better off dead as Princess Moana than alive in a corrupt world. Whether she is dead or actually transformed into a princess is a key question in the film. As we shall see for del Toro there’s no doubt that she survives but the film itself is more ambivalent.
Although the film isn’t about the Spanish civil war only it is helpful to understand the historical context.
The Spanish Civil War
The Second Spanish Republic was formed in 1931 and in 1936 the Popular Front, a coalition of left wing organisations, won power in an election. Later that year a coup d’etat was thwarted however this led to the start of the civil war where right wing groups, led by the military, rebelled against the democratically elected administration. In Morocco, part of which was at the time a protectorate of Spain, General Franco emerged as the rebel’s leader and, supported by Hitler and Mussolini, was victorious after nearly three years of war. The Catholic Church, highly influential in Spain, supported the fascists.
Franco ruled Spain as a dictator until his death in 1975. Afterwards, the monarchy was restored and democracy returned though only at the cost of burying the past. The ‘Pact of Forgetting’, instituted during the transition to democracy, meant that there could be no recriminations for crimes committed during the Franco years but also that memorials to Franco were no longer maintained. It wasn’t until the Law of Historical Memory was enacted in 2007 that it became possible to officially exhume the past, both actually and metaphorically. Attempts were made to identify victims buried in mass graves and to acknowledge the crimes of the Franco era. However, when a conservative government was elected in 2011 support for the law was withdrawn. When, in 2018, the socialists regained power they proposed a ‘truth commission’ to ensure, amongst other things, those with criminal records for opposing Franco would have their names cleared.
Unsurprisingly a number of Spanish films from these years focused on the theme of coming to terms with the past and ghosts were often used as a metaphor:
Their here-but-not-here borderline existence, between the dead and the living, blurs the binary divide that constructs our perception of reality. Ghosts remind us that we need to confront our past if we want to move ahead and construct a better future. (Colmeiro 2011)
Del Toro was responsible for two of these: his third film as a director, The Devil’s Backbone (El espinazo del Diablo, Spain-Mexico-France-Argentina, 2001), and The Orphanage (El orfanato, Spain, 2007), which he produced. The blurred ‘binary divide’ between reality and fantasy is important in Pan’s Labyrinth too. This film reminds us of those who fought a losing battle against fascism to ensure, hopefully, we do not allow fascists to take power again.
Although del Toro is Mexican, tens of thousands of Spaniards went into exile in his country so the war is also part of his heritage. This no doubt helped him represent a Spanish perspective on the war convincingly unlike Ken Loach whose Land and Freedom (UK-Spain-Germany-Italy-France, 1995), whilst a gripping film, is more obviously one made by an outsider.
Pan’s Labyrinth was a considerable box office success, even outside Spain. The hegemony of Hollywood in the west means that, generally, non-American films struggle to make an impact outside their home markets. Pan’s Labyrinth was successful because of the emotional engagement audiences had with Ofelia’s plight and the supreme craft of the film. It is a terrible state of affairs that his warning against the fascist mind set is even more relevant today than it was when the film was released. After the failure of ‘free market capitalism’, seen most obviously in the financial crash of 2008, right wing populism has made strides at the ballot box in many countries. Del Toro’s humanism is a potent antidote to this inward-looking politics and his film can be read as a warning, through Ofelia’s death, that we are in danger of giving in to the fear whipped up by demagogues.