I watched Shoplifters on the day it opened in the UK over three weeks ago but was too busy to write about it. I worried that opportunities to see it might be limited but miracles do happen and it seems to be still going strong. I’ve been surprised to see mention of watching the film not just in film reviews but also in more general newspaper columns. It seems to have caught and held the attention of commentators who are not cinephiles and has become one of the few foreign language hits of the year. Obviously, I’m very pleased that one of global cinema’s most effective and affective directors is getting recognition – but it also begs the question of why many of his earlier films failed to make the breakthrough in the same way. Is it really down to winning the top Cannes prize? Is it the promotional clout of the still relatively new Canadian distributor Thunderbird Releasing (taking over Soda Pictures) or are there other reasons?
Kore-eda Hirokazu finally won the Palme d’Or with Shoplifters and in some ways it offers a summation of the group of his films that deals specifically with ‘families’ and young children. Starting with Nobody Knows (2004), the group would also include 2011’s I Wish and Like Father, Like Son (2013) and perhaps more marginally After the Storm (2016) and even Our Little Sister (2015). In his Sight and Sound review Trevor Johnson begins like this:
It’s a critical truism that Kore-eda Hirokazu’s domestic dramas have made him the modern heir to the likes of Ozu and Naruse. Those Japanese old masters, however, never cut and diced the nuclear family in the way Kore-eda has done so assiduously in the course of his expanding and increasingly valuable filmography.
Johnson’s review is a well-argued attempt to place the film in relation to Kore-eda’s previous work and also offers a sympathetic reading which doesn’t spoil too much of the story. And this is a film that works very effectively when the audience knows as little as possible in advance. I’m not going to spoil the pleasures of the storytelling but I will recommend the film if you’ve managed to avoid the commentaries so far. Instead I want to expand some of Johnson’s points and add my own questions about audience readings. Johnson points to the two Japanese directors who became celebrated for their contemporary-set films, defined in Japan as gendai-geki and particularly forms of melodrama, including what Western scholars have dubbed the shomin-geki – ‘realist films’ about the working-classes. The preferred Japanese term is actually shōshimin-eiga referring to ‘lower middle-class’ people and this distinction is important. Ozu Yasujiro and Naruse Mikio worked at more or less the same time over a period of 30 years from the 1930s to the 1960s, Ozu at Shochiku and Naruse at Toho (two of the three major Japanese studios between 1930 and the 1960s). They therefore worked through the very different periods in Japan of the growing militarism of the 1930s, the severe economic hardships of the Allied Occupation post-war and the recovery and growing affluence of the 1950s/early 1960s. They dealt (differently) with all kinds of family situations but perhaps mainly the lower middle-class. In the late 1940s in particular they did tend to deal with families that had suffered break-up in different ways. Ozu’s The Record of a Tenement Gentleman (1947) and A Hen in the Wind (1948) both feature families ‘broken’ or ‘constructed’ in different ways. Naruse’s films perhaps veer more towards adult relationships rather than families with children.
Kore-eda is working in a different Japanese context – in a society that has now lived with twenty years or more of ‘stagflation’ – economic stasis – but slow changes in family structures with rising divorce rates and an ageing population profile. This is evident in many of the families depicted in his films. Most of them are perhaps lower middle-class, though in Like Father, Like Son we get a narrative directly about two families from different social class positions. Some of these films seem more ‘Ozu-like’ and some more ‘Naruse-like’. But Shoplifters seems most like Nobody Knows in terms of its social setting. In this earlier film Kore-eda presents a story, based on a news report, about a woman who has four children with different fathers and who constantly moves accommodation. At the start of the film she moves her ‘family’ again and then abandons them, having placed the two older children in charge. This is the film that Shoplifters seem to refer back to, though I think the new film is not as immediately harrowing. It was only recently that I began to note Kore-eda’s comments about his interest in the films of Ken Loach and it looks as if Shoplifters is deliberately Loachian rather than related to Ozu or Naruse. Kore-eda says that this is his most ‘socially conscious’ film and that he felt angry making it. As is often the case, he starts from his own thoughts and feelings, often triggered by news stories.
The first thing that came to my mind was the tagline: “Only the crimes tied us together”. In Japan, crimes like pension frauds and parents making their children shoplift are criticised severely. Of course, these criminals should be criticised but I am wondering why people get so angry over such minor infractions even though there are many lawbreakers out there committing far more serious crimes without condemnation. Especially after the 2011 earthquakes, I didn’t feel comfortable with people saying repeatedly that a family bond is important. So I wanted to explore it by depicting a family linked by crime.
. . . I started to think about which elements were unfolded and would be examined deeply after the casting was settled. As a result, this film is packed with the various elements I have been thinking about and exploring these last 10 years. (See the Press Notes.)
As this quote suggests, Kore-eda introduces us to different members of a family who live in a decaying traditional house in a Tokyo suburb. We are told nothing and must watch and listen carefully to understand how the family survives. Some of the activities involve jobs that are on the surface conventional, others less so and some are clearly criminal as the father figure played by Kore-eda regular Lily Franky and the boy in the family expertly shoplift from stores that seem remarkably insecure. Other activities are less straightforward to fathom at first. The family also ‘adopts’ the little girl that they find and who appears to have been abandoned on a cold night. Inside the ramshackle home there appears to be warmth and a real feeling of working together for the benefit of all in the family group.
Shoplifters is beautifully made with fabulous performances by the great Kiki Kilin in her last film (she died earlier this year) and Lily Franky as Kore-eda regulars and by the rest of the principal cast, Ando Sakura as the mother figure, Matsuoka Mayu as the younger woman and Kairi Jyo and Sasaki Miyu as the children. As for the aesthetics of the film, Kore-eda again in the Press Notes:
Before the shoot, I was thinking of this film was kind of a fable and sought ways to find and build poetry within reality. Even if the film was realistic, I wanted to describe the poetry of human beings and both the cinematography and music came close to my vision.
Kore-eda chose the veteran musician Hosono Haroumi (one of the three founding members of Yellow Magic Orchestra in 1978) to compose the score and Kondô Ryûto as cinematographer. They clearly provided what he wanted. I loved the film and I can’t find fault with any aspect of it, but I do feel out of line with many of the reviews. The only thing I’d consciously absorbed about reactions to the film was that the final scenes presented a ‘twist’ on the narrative and that many audiences were emotionally overwhelmed by what they saw. Perhaps because I was waiting for the twist, I didn’t feel that it was really a twist at all – I’d been asking myself all along why social services hadn’t turned up or why nobody else in the neighbourhood had noticed the activities of the family. When the resolution came I found it sad and a little surprising in terms of what happened to the individuals in the family group, but not something overly dramatic. In an odd way, I found the situation vaguely familiar since similar settings and characters might be found in the J-horror films of the late 1900s and early 2000s (I’m particularly thinking of Ju-on (The Grudge 2002)). The one moment that struck me most was when the elderly shopkeeper, whose store was often the target for some petty pilfering, admonished Shota and pleaded with him not to teach his young companion the shoplifting tricks. Later, we see that the shop has closed.
But I’ve not answered my original question. Why has this film made more impact than earlier Kore-eda films, equally good in my estimation? Is it because this kind of almost social-realist melodrama is more familiar in the UK than some of the more subtle familial tensions in a film like Still Walking (2008)? Is the film read in some way as more ‘universal’ and less ‘Japanese’? The comparison then comes with Like Father, Like Son which is still apparently ‘meandering’ towards an American re-make (see this Slant Magazine interview for Kore-eda’s comments on this). Kore-eda tells us that many people around the world have told him that similar stories about these ‘invisible people’ could be found in many different countries. Perhaps because American films are so popular in Japan, Shoplifters and Like Father, Like Son, with their ‘universal’ and therefore ‘Hollywood relatable’ stories, have been Kore-eda’s biggest box office hits at home.
Kore-eda Hirokazu is a tremendously good filmmaker. I’m glad Shoplifters is so successful, but please dig out his back catalogue, much of which is available on DVD or digital download in the UK and US.
This is a long film (135 minutes) and, for its first thirty minutes or so, slow-paced with seemingly little narrative development. But gradually the narrative drive intensifies and we realise just how much we have absorbed so far. It’s also very beautiful, without ever succumbing to the chocolate-box beauty of so many ‘realist’ historical films. I found it very satisfying as well as thought-provoking. The director is Xavier Beauvois, best-known in the UK as director of Of Gods and Men (France 2010). As an actor I saw him in Claire Denis’ Let the Sunshine In (France-Belgium 2017) and it’s hard to equate the character he played in that film with the sensitive intellect behind Les gardiennes.
Xavier Beauvois wrote the film’s script with two women, Marie-Julie Maille and Frédérique Moreau as an adaptation of a 1924 novel by Ernest Pérochon. This is very much a film about three women. As the French title suggests the women are ‘guardians’ and the narrative explores who or what they might be protecting, what they did and what the repercussions might be. Pérochon was an interesting man who in 1914 was a schoolteacher in rural Western France in what is now ‘New Acquitaine’. Posted to the front in 1914 he was invalided out after suffering a heart attack and in 1920 wrote a novel which won the Prix Goncourt. In 1924 he published Les gardiennes. Beginning with a pan across the dead on the Western Front in 1915, a cut reveals the peace of rural Western France where a mother and her grown-up daughter are running the family farm of the Paridiers with three of their men in the Army and Hortense’s brother Henri, too arthritic to do much more than make alcohol. This leaves Hortense, Madame Paridier (Nathalie Baye), running the farm with her daughter Solange (Laura Smet, the real-life daughter of Nathalie Baye). The three men at the front are Constant and Georges, Hortense’s sons, and Clovis, Solange’s husband. There is also Marguerite, whose status isn’t clear to me, possibly she is the younger sister of Clovis? Certainly she is part of the extended family. With the men away, Hortense needs more help on the farm and she is offered Francine (Iris Bry) a strong healthy woman of 20 who has been ‘in care’ in the district, brought up in an orphanage and is now seeking a sense of ‘belonging’.
Francine is the external character whose arrival will have an impact on the family. Her impact is compounded by the war and, in 1917, by the arrival of some American troops. The narrative takes us from 1915 until after the war and the bulk of the film follows the seasons on the farm. Having proved her worth in the first few probationary months, Francine is kept on and begins to become part of the family. In this period the film becomes almost a procedural study of life on the farm. It develops into a film drawing on several genres or familiar narrative types. First it is a realist rural narrative with aspects of an observational documentary, next it is a rural ‘Home Front’ narrative (and thereby a female-centred narrative) and finally a romance melodrama since it is inevitable that Francine’s presence in this situation will offer the opportunity for romance and for conflict in the family. This mixture is unusual and I tried to think of similar films. One of the closest might be David Leland’s Land Girls (UK-France 1998), an under-rated romance drama which is a Second World War setting in which three land girls (the British auxiliary service providing extra labour for farms in wartime) are sent to a Dorset farm. Both films share an interest in social class differences but the British film aims for more humour to go with similar dramatic concerns.
Part of the interest in Les gardiennes is the way in which the management of the farm by the women leads to ‘modernisation’ in the form of farm machinery and power. This has the clear suggestion that the women are quite capable of running the farm and that there is potential for conflict when/if the men return from war. I also remembered that the key moment of modernisation is located in the immediate aftermath of the Great War in Bertolucci’s 1900 (Italy-France-West Germany 1976). 1900 is a political melodrama in which the machinery appears under the control of a fascist element which will gradually take control over the peasantry and replace the landowners. The harvest is a key symbol in this struggle since it was traditionally the most collective enterprise in any rural community involving many of the local population. The harvest is also a key narrative element in Far From the Madding Crowd, the Thomas Hardy novel twice adapted for major films in the UK. It’s from an earlier period but it is also a narrative about a woman running a farming operation.
Nathalie Baye and Laura Smet are very good as the two women running the farm but Iris Bry is a revelation in her first film (of any kind, it appears). I couldn’t believe she was a novice and that she was ‘discovered’ working for her library qualifications. She looks and sounds the part and also sings beautifully. No wonder director Beauvois was staggered by how lucky he was. He says in the Press Notes (only available in French unfortunately) that he didn’t want a ‘modern young woman’ with modern manners and tattoos. He wanted a young woman who could have been a peasant in the 1910s and who could grow into a twentieth century woman. Iris Bry has the healthy body of someone who could milk cows, bale corn and do all the jobs around the farm and do so with an open and attractive face – and in the last section of the film could cut her hair into a style that announces a young woman of 1920s cinema. I think in 1915 she would have been thought of as a ‘bonny lass’. The film’s cinematographer Caroline Champetier has said that no matter how she lit a scene, the light would always find Iris, because she is naturally photogenic. I like Ms Champetier’s work very much and here she catches the moments in the day on the farm when there is a special light, whether it is in the mists of an autumn morning or the ‘magic hour’ of a summer’s evening. She also utilises the ‘Scope frame . Unfortunately I could not find stills to illustrate either of these points but both are there in the trailer below. The other important aesthetic consideration is the sound and the music score. The latter is by Michel Legrand but used quite sparingly and I enjoyed the silence in many scenes. Make sure you stay through the credits to catch all of Iris Bry’s singing.
I enjoyed this film very much and I’ve thought about it a great deal since. It’s distributed by Curzon so it is available to stream now, but I urge you to see it on the biggest screen you can find. I saw it at HOME in Manchester where it is still showing this week alongside Sheffield Showroom and Tyneside, Newcastle in the North of England.
I read about this film many years ago but could never find it. I think it has now been restored in France, but the print I watched was OK (I don’t know its provenance). On its release in 1946, René Clément’s film was compared to the earliest works of Italian neo-realism, especially Rossellini’s Rome, Open City. Like that film it offers a narrative about the final years of occupation, this time in France. The neo-realist tag refers to both the number of non-professional actors, the location shooting and the use of long shot to encompass the contribution of many characters to the overall story. Once the euphoria of liberation and the promotion of the ‘myth’ of résistance had subsided, the film was then subject to a revisionist view and Clément found himself in the late 1950s/early 1960s subject to attacks from Truffaut and other Cahiers critics, despite his high reputation for films such as Jeux interdits (Forbidden Games, 1952). See, in particular, the discussion by critics in Cahiers 71, May 1957, included in Jim Hillier’s edited collection of Cahiers excerpts Vol 1: 1950s (BFI/Harvard UP 1985). They accuse Clément of taking a turn away from neo-realism and indulging in ‘academicism’ – going for expensive international films. Jacques Rivette is especially rude claiming that Clément (along with Henri Clouzot and Claude Autant-Lara) is a “coward . . . corrupted by money”.
When I first saw Plein de soleil (Purple Noon, 1960) I realised just how misguided Truffaut and co. were. The general revisionist view of French résistance and collaboration is a more complex issue. As we’ve noted several times on this blog, especially in our discussion of Un héros très discret (A Self-Made Hero, France 1996), the common myth circulated within French culture in the 1950s and up to the 1980s/90s was that most French people were actively engaged as résistance fighters or Nazi collaborators. Historians think now that most French people just tried to live their lives during the Occupation (or the closed world of collaborationist Vichy). Only a minority were actively resisting or collaborating. How individuals fared after 1940 was much more nuanced than the myth allowed.
Clément was unlucky in that one of the ‘godfathers’ of La nouvelle vague was Jean-Pierre Melville who had been active in the resistance and who went on to make important films set during the occupation including Le Silence de la mer (1949) and L’armée des ombres (Army of the Shadows, 1969). Clément himself had previously made short films, including short documentaries from the mid 1930s onwards (he was born in 1913). One of these shorts, Ceux de rail (1942) depicted a rail journey from Nice to Marseille and appears to have prompted the ‘National Résistance’ organisation to encourage Clément to make La Bataille du rail.
The ‘Battle’ depicts the efforts by French railway workers to sabotage train movements and to hinder by any means possible the contribution of the railway system to the German war effort. In the early part of the film, Clément offers a montage of incidents showing how resistance fighters could be smuggled past German checkpoints inside a locomotive tender or in compartments used to transport animals, how bombs could be planted on locomotives and brakes cut or fuel drained away. In these scenes it is difficult to identify any significant characters or a specific narrative. Instead, this part of the film functions almost as a documentary – a manual on how to subvert the railway system. It’s worth noting that Clément begins the film with a warning posted by the Germans forbidding Jews to cross the ‘demarcation line’ between Vichy and the Occupied Zone. We see a woman and child be led away from a train at the border checkpoint.
In the second part of the film there is a strong narrative and some individualised characters. The narrative is a form of the classic ‘locomotive chase’ (i.e. like the Buster Keaton film The General). It is June 1944 and the Allies have landed in Normandy. The Germans need to re-inforce their Atlantic defences. Various troop trains and trains carrying tanks and field artillery are marshalled to be sent to Normandy. The résistance charges the railway workers to stop the trains at all costs. Some are derailed or bridges are blown-up. Eventually the narrative focuses on one branch line and one small town and Clément revels in the details of the workers’ methods and then an attack on an armoured train by the maquis. This is a very accomplished technical achievement by Clément and his cinematographer Henri Alekan. The production had the full support of SNCF and I’ve rarely seen shots of freight yards and engine sheds/turntables etc. as extensive as these in a fiction film. Clément doesn’t get lost in technicalities. There are key scenes involving railway workers (cheminots) taken by the Germans as hostages and executed in an attempt to deter sabotage. The German armoured train was preceded by a flat car carrying forced labour. When sabotaged track was spotted, the forced labour would be required to re-lay the track under German guns. The presence of the forced labour was also a problem for the maquis, who needed to avoid killing the innocent. We do in this second narrative recognise the regional track controller who organises the sabotage and any other methods to thwart the Germans. We also see his ‘fixer’ who is sent out by motor bike to relay instructions.
Although there are these individuated characters, La Bataille du rail does differ from the films of Rossellini (i.e. Rome, Open City and Paisa) in the way that it avoids ‘personal, emotional stories’ and therefore melodrama. Instead, it appears that everyone is allied in the attempt to defeat the Germans – not something that was necessarily the case but certainly something that would be supported by the film’s producers and sponsors, the National Résistance Council and SNCF.
I hope to find more examples of René Clément’s work in the 1940s and 1950s in order to see if the Cahiers criticism is valid. Susan Hayward in French National Cinema (Routledge 1993) calls La Bataille du rail, the French résistance film, though she also makes the point that it can be misread as creating the myth of résistance. Clément went on to make several other films set during the war. The late 1940s was a key period for films like this.
There is a useful essay on the film by Adrian Danks on Senses of Cinema.
Here’s an extract from the film in which, having already derailed a train, a railway worker sets out to sabotage the crane which is being used to clear wagons from the track (the sequence is largely dialogue free):
Orly is the fourth Angela Schanelec film to be streamed on MUBI. A brief synopsis might suggest it has generic possibilities as a narrative but really it is almost anti-narrative in conventional terms. I wonder if watching Schanelec’s films is like developing addictive behaviour. I find the films frustrating because I’m so used to conventional narratives – but I can’t stop watching them, partly because I’m in awe of the camerawork and the editing and the overall choreography of movement and control of the fictional space.
The genre here ought to be that of the ‘waiting room’ film with several groups of characters, each with different stories and each with different relationships. But, conventionally, these would come together in some way and there would be an underlying theme. Schanelec offers us four pairs of characters and a handful of others who are more peripheral. The pairs don’t interact directly except for a fleeting moment and the film ends with a largely unexpected event which denies us a ‘resolution’ of any of the four central narratives.
There seem to be possible clues to Schanelec’s intentions that are introduced in subtle ways. The opening images of the film include half of a vinyl record sleeve which I took to be a 12″ of Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, which includes the lines:
And resentment rides high but emotions won’t grow
And we’re changing our ways, taking different roads
Love, love will tear us apart again
Each of the characters in the film are experiencing emotions as they wait in the departure hall.
The setting is mainly Orly Airport in Paris in Spring. Why did Schanelec choose Orly rather than Charles De Gaulle, Roissy? Probably because permissions were easier, but Orly does have significance for cinéastes. It was the setting for Chris Marker’s avant-garde science fiction short film La jetée (The Pier, 1962) – a film anyone with a film education is likely to be aware of. One of Schanelec’s couples has a digital camera and the woman looks at a succession of still images taken in Paris earlier that day – La jetée is entirely constructed from still photos.
The four couples are a mother and teenage son going to the funeral of the ex-husband and father, a pair of German tourists, a couple splitting up (one of whom we see at Orly as she reads the a letter from her husband) and two expats who meet by chance and discover that they are both returning to North America. The peripheral characters include a young woman on an airline counter, a young barman, taxi drivers etc. and a woman with a baby she is trying to comfort. Although there are brief moments of contact with these individuals by some of the couples, the main way in which Schanelec links her characters is through her camera (or rather the camera of her regular cinematographer Rheinold Vorschneider). For example, in one sequence we are offered a long shot across the departure waiting area with many people sat waiting and others moving in the background, but careful use of the field of focus is able to pick out one face in the crowd. This character will be identified later in the film as the man in the fourth couple. I recognised him as Jirka Zett from Schanelec’s earlier Nachmittag (Germany 2007). See also the shot above in which the same character briefly makes eye contact with the woman separating from her husband. I’m still not sure how this camera shot was achieved. At other times I wondered if Schanelec was using radio mikes for her characters. It is clear that in the Orly shots, the fictional characters are simply placed amongst the crowds of ordinary passengers at the airport. Vorschneider shoots from some distance away so that there are figures in the background and moving across the foreground. You can see this in the trailer below when the two expats (Natacha Régnier and Bruno Todeschini) are talking. The only way to capture ‘direct’ sound for dialogue would be to use concealed radio mikes. Does anyone know if Schanelec uses this method? I was first aware of it in Michael Winterbottom’s Wonderland (UK 1999), one of my favourite films for representing a city through a form of realism. Most of the time the soundtrack uses only dialogue plus the direct ambient sound of the airport. It is a shock therefore when after an hour of this we hear a voiceover reading a letter and Cat Power’s performance of the song ‘Remember Me’
In the interview here Angela Schanelec discusses how she works with ‘real’ spaces like the terminal in Orly:
The trailer below is mainly in French, subtitled in German but it is useful in showing the main characters and the ‘real’ space which Schanelec uses in her own distinctive ways:
Nachmittag is the third of six films by Angela Schanelec offered on my MUBI stream. I’ve posted on the first, Passing Summer (Germany 2001), but I was only able to watch the first part of the second film, Marseille (2010), before it disappeared from the stream during one of my busy periods. That’s the problem with MUBI, I fear. Still, perhaps I will be able to find it elsewhere later. Marseille did look a little different with its single central character – a photographer exploring the French city. In Nachmittag, Schanelec returns to a summer in Berlin, though the characters are rather different.
Angela Schanelec’s strategy seems to be ‘never explain’ – or give any background. MUBI have used the title ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ for the season of her films. I have assumed that the main location is a house by a lake in the Berlin region, possibly Potsdam. In a prologue, Schanelec’s familiar static camera offers us a view from the back of a stage in theatre during a rehearsal. On the stage is a woman who sorts out a prop with a stagehand and then walks towards a dog and pets the animal. We next see her in long shot arriving at the house by the lake where an older and younger man have been having a conversation. Later we will learn that this the woman is Irene, played by Schanelec herself (she began her career as an actor). Gradually we meet five other main characters but we must try to work out who they are and what the relationships are between them. It took me the whole 95 minutes and I still wasn’t certain by the end, but I’m fairly confident that MUBI’s synopsis of the film is inaccurate.
When I started watching the film I was unaware that its premise is taken from Chekhov’s play The Seagull. Perhaps that’s a good thing. I’m not a theatregoer and I don’t really know Chekhov. My thoughts instead turned to similar films in this setting. I thought of Thomas Arslan’s Vacation (Ferien, Germany 2007), on the reasonable basis that Arslan is another member of the ‘Berlin School’. I was also reminded of The Farewell (Abschied – Brechts letzter Sommer, Germany 2000). The point here is that the situation – a group of people meeting at a ‘summer place’ where their different relationships are explored – is potentially a familiar dramatic and even generic narrative proposition. Yet Angela Schanelec challenges our assumptions about how any drama might develop. She does this in several ways.The use of long shots and of close-ups by DoP Reinhold Vorschneider can sometimes mean that we are not quite sure who we are watching or where we are. But what is even more disruptive is her use of dialogue. We are used to mainstream cinema’s use of dialogue to provide ‘narrative data’ and to move forward the events of the narrative. Schalenec’s dialogue comes as a shock – it is so close to the ‘real’ conversations that we have with people we know (well at least I do!). There are seemingly inconsequential remarks that actually convey emotional relationships such as when Irene tells her son who is ironing shirts to dampen the collar. Often too, dialogue is with a character who is offscreen for long periods – sometimes wth responses coming from offscreen.
Critics have increasingly praised Schanelec’s aesthetic approach. Mattias Frey in a ‘Senses of Cinema’ festival report suggests that “Nachmittag is a challenging hypnotic that bespeaks further development in Schanelec’s craft”. Ekkehard Knörer in a ‘Sign and Sight’ report offers the most detailed critique. Knörer suggests that the opening shot of the stage introduces the sense of a theatrical space in the house looking out over the lake. He makes the point that the characters are so engrossed in their own concerns that dialogue is rarely about communicating but instead about each character’s ‘struggle with words’. Ironically, two of the characters are writers. If you know the Chekhov play you may wonder just how ‘free’ is this adaptation. The answer is very, but one action in the original play is obliquely presented in the closing moments of Schanelec’s script. I realise that the film is now gone from MUBI and I should have rewatched that ending. I’m certainly intrigued by this filmmaker and I will try to watch more.
Writer-director Angela Schanelec trained at the ‘Deutsche Film und Fernsehakademie Berlin’ (DFFB – German Academy of Film and Television Berlin) in the early 1990s which means that she has been seen as part of the so-called ‘Berlin School’ of filmmakers. In the UK the best known names of this group are Christian Petzold and Thomas Arslan. Valeska Grisebach trained at Vienna’s Film Academy but returned later to Berlin and has self-identified with some of the directors in the Berlin School. MUBI has started a streaming programme of Schanelec’s films, none of which I’d seen before. From my viewing of this first title, I can see some resemblance to Arslan’s early films, but Schanelec seems much more austere and eschews a conventional plot altogether. She doesn’t appear to be aiming at the kind of international festival attention that Petzold and Grisebach have achieved, though research suggests that she has found it on some occasions. Wikipedia’s entry suggests that she belongs alongside more avant-garde directors such as Chantal Akerman. Schanelec herself has mentioned the influence of Robert Bresson. A very useful account of the development of the Berlin School can be found on this Senses of Cinema page.
Passing Summer is an odd title. What on earth does it mean? Did Schanelec decide on the English title? Is there a careful play on words – a summer that literally ‘passes’, a summer of no consequence or a period of time ‘passing’ as summer? The German title is much more direct in translating as ‘my slow life’. The narrative comprises a series of ‘encounters’ of a group of people over six months, largely in Berlin. There is one character who seems to be at the centre of the group and seemingly it is Valerie who has the slow life. The other characters are friends, one of whom seems to be her current partner and at one point Valerie travels south to meet her brother and to go with him to see her father who is ill in hospital. There are children in the group and their care is one strand (as far as I can see, the two children are both moving between divorced/separated parents). There is also the marriage of one character. We know that six months ‘pass’ because the narrative begins with a meeting in a café between Valerie and her friend Sophie who then leaves for Rome. At the end of the film she returns to Berlin after her six month contract has been completed.
The focus is on the seemingly inconsequential details of daily life for the group and it is here that the aesthetic of the Berlin School suggests we will find some kind of insight into ‘reality’ rather than in the artifice and contrived narrative set-ups of conventional mainstream genre cinema. Having excised any conventional narrative devices from her film, Schanelec distances us from her ‘characters’ further by careful camerawork. The camera is nearly always static, though the shot sizes vary considerably. Within the compositions, figures are often placed closer to the edge rather than the centre of the frame and our view of them might be obscured by windows, doorframes or other characters/objects in the foreground. The static camera also means that characters will move out of frame but still be talking. In the image below Valerie arrives back in Berlin by train to be met by Thomas. We hear her voice over the static shot, presumably talking to Thomas, but we don’t see them meet. This is perhaps the most extreme example. Earlier the little girl swimming in the image above asks Marie to dance for her. We hear the music and assume Marie is dancing but the camera stays on the image of the girl listening – we never see Marie dancing.
What to make of this aesthetic and how much we learn about Berlin life – and about cinema – seems to be the question. The first point to make is that I didn’t feel totally alienated. The static compositions are often strangely beautiful. Perhaps that’s not quite the right word, but looking at them for what seems like a minute or two is not annoying and I felt engaged throughout the film without the need for narrative drive. The camerawork is by Reinhold Vorschneider whose work I admired in Thomas Arslan’s Helle Nächte. He has worked with both Schanelec and Arslan on several projects and has presumably developed this ‘Berlin School’ technique with the directors. I should also note that the lack of artifice on the shoots extends to the use of diegetic sound only. The sequences in which characters dance have music from a disc, a DJ or a live performance. The actors in the film are a mixture of the experienced and inexperienced. Angela Schanelec was herself an actor first and she appears in the film in a minor role. Ursina Lardi as Valerie was in her first film but she has since gone on to significant roles in films like The White Ribbon (2009) and Lore (2012). The performances, the cinematography and the editing (by Schanelec herself and Bettina Böhler, a Petzold collaborator) work seamlessly. I’m happy to watch more Berlin School work and certainly more films by Angela Schalenec. But I’m not sure what I’ve learned about German culture or about cinema. Mostly. I think, I’ve got a sense of a calmness about watching ordinary lives. I’m puzzled though at the difference between the drama of Christian Petzold’s films and the approach of Angela Schanalec. It’s difficult in Schanelec’s film to follow the individual characters and how they relate to each other and there are frustrations in the way in which we find out something interesting about characters that is not followed up in any direct way – much like in ‘real life’ I suppose. I need to find out more about Berlin film culture. For a more detailed analysis of Angela Schanelec’s “notoriously evasive films” look at this paper by Blake Williams in CinemaScope.
MUBI also carries an essay on Angela Schanelec to accompany the season which extends to June 3rd with several films to come.
The Mattei Affair is one of the films screened at Leeds Film Festival in its ‘Retrospective’ section and also part of HOME’s States of Danger and Deceit touring season. The film deals with the mysterious death of the Italian industrialist Enrico Mattei in 1962. It begins and ends with a fatal aircrash in the fields as his private jet was approaching Milan’s Linate airport. The central narrative takes us back to the late 1940s. Mattei, a former member of the Fascist Party who had transformed himself into a well-respected Christian Democrat and accepted into the Partisans before the war ended, was given the task of winding up the Fascist state’s energy company AGIP. Instead Mattei re-launched the company under the nam ‘ENI’ and set out to make it a major international oil company, starting just with unexploited methane reserves in the Po valley. His aim from the outset was to exclude private companies from Italy’s energy market and eventually to do the same internationally by negotiating with what became known as ‘Third World producers’ in the Middle East. This immediately made him a challenger to the Anglo-American oil companies.
The film was co-written and directed by Francesco Rosi with script collaboration from Tonino Guerra. Rosi is one of the major directors interested in political intrigues in Italy in the 1970s. A second of his films, Illustrious Corpses (1977) about the mysterious murder of leading judges, is also included in the HOME season. In The Mattei Affair, Rosi constructs a narrative that at first looks as if it will be some kind of investigative reportage in the form of a documentary reconstruction. But the narrative is non-linear and it deals with events after the crash as well as before. The whole idea of a documentary approach is also undermined by another terrific performance by Gian Maria Volontè as Mattei – which is in turn presented dramatically via the camerawork of Pasqualino De Santis. The documentary idea is also challenged by the appearance of Rosi himself in the film, looking for evidence and acting like an early warning of the kind of ‘performative’ documentaries typified by Nick Broomfield’s work from the mid 1980s onwards.
The film operates on many levels. Volontè plays Mattei as a larger than life character, at times moving from self-deprecation to energetic oligarch and on to almost messianic leader in the trip to Sicily just before the crash. He makes a flamboyant tour of his company’s activities in Tunisia and Iran to display the multinational success of his business. Rosi enhances this by having a journalist tag along, possibly borrowing the idea from Citizen Kane. At other times we see Mattei negotiating and telling the stories which he uses to explain his motivation. He’s there in Moscow, queuing up to see Lenin’s tomb and at the same time working out how to buy cheap Russian oil – one of his ploys to frustrate the Americans. There is another fascinating scene in Monte Carlo where Mattei attempts to do a deal with one of the ‘Seven Sisters’, the US oil majors. The Americans don’t seem impressed and one theory is that the CIA might have been involved in the crash. Another blames the OAS in France, outraged by Mattei’s support for the Algerians. The scenes in Sicily suggest that Mattei could become too popular there and the Mafia might be involved in the crash. Rosi complicates the mystery further via the story of a journalist who was investigating the crash when he disappeared without trace.
It isn’t clear to me what Rosi thought of Mattei’s politics. Perhaps he saw Mattei as a form of populist. In the film we see Mattei being quizzed about his membership of the Fascist Party and then the Christian Democrats. Mattei replies that what he does, he does for Italy and Rosi emphasises the reaction he gets in Sicily when he promises jobs not just for the locals, but for their relatives who have had to travel far and wide to find work. Rosi himself is clearly concerned about the people of the South and their poverty compared with the wealth of the North. Mattei responds to charges that he works with ex-Fascists and authoritarian leaders by saying “I use them like a taxi. I get in, pay the fare and they take me where I want to go, then I get out of the taxi”.
The Mattei Affair won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1972 and the print seen in Leeds was restored with the support of
Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna. I was very impressed by the film and its potential links to other films in the HOME season and I’ll try at some point to write about Illustrious Corpses. The one absence in the film seemed to be anything about Mattei’s domestic life. We see his wife brought to the crash site, but I think that is her only appearance. The absence of the wife does tempt us to ask, did this man do anything else besides work at growing his company? Did he have no vices? He does clearly enjoy being the boss and talking about his exploits, but if what he achieves is good for Italians (and the oil producers of the ‘Middle East’) that’s OK, isn’t it? Well, possibly not, since we have little evidence of the impact of oil wealth and how it was distributed. That’s another story, but at least Rosi got us thinking about what was a genuine debate about how Europeans might resist American economic hegemony in the 1960s.
The film wasn’t released in the UK until the summer of 1975 when it appeared at the same time as the director’s ‘political gangster film’ Lucky Luciano (US/France/Italy 1973). My notes tell me I saw both films in 1975 but I have no memory – most disturbing. The Mattei Affair was reviewed in Sight and Sound Summer 1975 by Philip Strick. It’s an interesting review in which Strick sees Rosi as one of the surviving practitioners of ‘pure’ neo-realism. He praise the film’s production but sees it failing as a factual account. That made me reflect on my own take. I think I accept that it is Rosi’s fictionalised account of real events but that it definitely exposes something about Italy and the international oil business in the 1950s and 1960s which I find interesting and useful.
We saw The Eagle Huntress back in January and though I enjoyed the film there were several things about it that made me circumspect. It purported to be a documentary about a young teenage girl in Mongolia training an eagle, flying it at a festival and taking it on a hunt. The film was ‘presented by’ Daisy Ridley and championed as an example of ‘girl power’. When I began to research the background to the film I realised that it would make an interesting case study for film and media students and I wrote a short piece for the MediaMagazine (a publication for 16-19 year-olds taking A Level Film/Media Studies). Unfortunately MediaMagazine is only accessible online to subscribers and its production cycle is quite long. I feared that the film might disappear from view before the magazine reached schools and colleges.
What I hadn’t realised was just how strongly some of the film’s critics felt about what they were beginning to discover about the film’s production and distribution. After my original posting I began to receive tweets from one of the principal investigators, Meghan Fitz-James in Vancouver, and from others. I found myself re-writing the original post and also publishing some of the comments I received. You can find the post and comments on https://itpworld.wordpress.com/2017/01/09/the-eagle-huntress-uk-mongolia-us-2016/. Since then, Meghan has kept working and kept exposing more aspects of the story. You can access all of her work via her twitter feed @MeghanfjFitz. What she has discovered is another example of a familiar story that has been told about supposedly ‘documentary’ filmmaking going back 100 years or more, but in 2017 is seen in the context of social media and a new level of globalised exploitation of people and cultures.
The background to the controversy is neatly set out in the (English language) clip from France TV above. I’m not surprised by the evidence that has been uncovered but I am amazed by what it is possible to find using social media and internet searches (and a great deal of effort and no little expense). The research also includes visits to Mongolia and direct contact with some of the key figures in the story. Thinking about the ways in which the filmmaker Otto Bell and his various collaborators on the production and subsequent distribution of the film have gone about their business, I’m conscious of the failure of film studies to properly educate audiences about what they are watching.
Film studies has explored how documentaries have been made and has classified the different documentary modes that have developed since the 1920s. We’ve known and accepted for a long time that documentaries may include ‘re-constructions’. It’s not the practice itself that’s an issue, it’s the deception – the attempt to pass something off as ‘real’. In the last twenty to thirty years, two things have happened alongside the development of digital technologies. Firstly, the explosion of forms of ‘reality TV’ and ‘infotainment’ have undermined the sense and purpose of traditional documentary practice. Secondly, the ability to create digital images that appear ‘real’ but have actually been created not through a camera but by photo software has discredited ‘photographic realism’ so that for many, ‘realism’ is no longer an issue.
Alongside this undermining of documentary as a practice that can inform as well as create art is the gradual de-politicisation of film and media education. In this respect, the furore created by the investigators of the production of Eagle Huntress has demonstrated that film studies needs cultural studies and social anthropology to engage with the subjects of this kind of documentary narrative. It is also important to confront the adoption of ‘girlpower’ as a promotional and marketing tool rather than a liberating ideology for young women in different cultures and to recognise the perils of an ‘orientalist’ approach to stories set in parts of Asia that are not regularly represented in western media. What saddens me also is that a public agency such as the British Film Institute should have helped to fund distribution of a film like this without first investigating the story behind it. At least the BBC has carried reports that contest aspects of the film’s story. We all need to be careful as we watch and enjoy films and then sit down to write about them.