Tagged: social melodrama

Port of Call (Hamnstad, Sweden 1948)

This early Ingmar Bergman film is one of a group of titles that form part of MUBI’s long-running season on ‘The Inner Demons of Ingmar Bergman’. Port of Call has now left the UK MUBI stream but there are two more currently on stream. I prefer the early to the late Bergman so I am intrigued by these titles. As well as the director learning his craft, these films offer us a sense of Swedish cinema in the context of a global industry in the late 1940s. The focus is more on genre and less on Bergman as a distinctive ‘authorial voice’.

The ‘port of call’ is not, I think, named (I’m remembering my viewing from a few weeks back) but it was shot in Göteborg. The film title translates simply as ‘port city’. The narrative begins with the arrival of a ship in port and at around the same time a young woman leaps from the dock into the sea. She is rescued and later she will meet a sailor from the ship at a local dance. He is Gösta (Bengt Eklund) and she is Berit (Nine-Christine Jönsson). This is a familiar social melodrama or perhaps what in the UK in the 1950s and 1960s might have been called a ‘social problem picture’. Berit is a young woman at odds with her conservative mother after her father decided to spend as much time as possible at sea. She rebels by spending her time at dancehalls and ‘going with’ a variety of men. Eventually she falls foul of the Swedish police and welfare services because of her behaviour and she is sent to reform school. She is eventually released and found a job in a factory – but she must live with her mother again. Jumping into the harbour seems like a way out to her. But will meeting Gösta mean things take a turn for the better?

Gunnar Fischer on location in the docks

In this and the next few films we see Bergman moving between noirish studio sets and shooting on the streets in a style akin to the neo-realism which was becoming widely-known at the time with the release of Italian films around the world. The whole port area is shown through Gunnar Fischer’s wonderful cinematography. Gösta decides not to return to sea but to join the dock labour gangs. These seem to operate much as the British dock-workers of the period and Fischer shows us the hiring room and the quayside work as well as the factory floor where Berit works on a lathe. The factory scenes are reminiscent of British war-time propaganda films such as Millions Like Us (1943), though Berit is much less enthusiastic about the work and she complains about the damage to her fingers.

The girls in the Reform School

Inevitably, Berit’s mother will find out about her daughter’s new relationship and this will invoke emotional scenes within the household, but these will ultimately be less important perhaps than Berit’s chance encounter with a girl she first met in Reform School. The script, which Bergman developed from a story by Olle Länsberg, seems much more sociologically structured than in Bergman’s later films. Länsberg was a writer local to Göteborg and young, being born in 1922. I can’t find any corroboration of the suggestion that Port of Call was actually a novel before it became a film, but it is certainly the case that the film is longer than the other Bergman films of the period at around 100 minutes – suggesting a literary source perhaps. There is a form of triangular structure in the narrative in that both Berit and Gösta have belonged to groups, he to the male group of sailors and then dock-workers and she to the young women of the reformatory. The long-term relationship that the young people want (Gösta is not yet 30, Berit is 17/18) is to some extent threatened by their past in these groups. They must also cope with Berit’s mother and her desire for a strong family unit bolstered by her Lutheran values (and her own broken relationship with her absent husband). In one scene Bertil is all dressed up, waiting to go out with Gösta (who has accepted some overtime at the docks) and reading a magazine story which the subtitles translate as ‘The Road to Happiness’. Berit’s mother arrives home, guesses what is happening and taunts her daughter. As the scene develops it becomes a classic melodrama with mirror scenes of mother and daughter in different frames and ultimately turns into a flashback in which Berit remembers her childhood and the violent rows between her parents. Eventually she goes out, runs into Gösta by chance and the evening is saved.

Berit and her mother in their flat in a typical melodrama composition

The narrative enigma is whether Berit and Gösta, who are clearly attracted to each other, can make it together when the society around them and in Berit’s case her past history, conspire to push them apart. The latter part of the film sees Berit involved in helping a friend who must seek an illegal abortion. This narrative device of the unwanted pregnancy occurs in another of these early Bergmans, many of which feature young women struggling against the constraints of a conservative society. The involvement of the police (abortion is illegal) and the probation/welfare services are for me the pointers towards a UK-style ‘problem picture’. In 1948 a similar British picture might be one of the ‘sensationalist’ melodramas such as The Goodtime Girl with Jean Kent as the young tearaway. The ‘problem’ is more the underworld crime milieu that the character is drawn to rather than her moral behaviour. The welfare services and the concept of ‘juvenile delinquency’ come more to the fore in the 1950s British films. This Swedish film seems both more ‘realist’ and more humanist than both British and American films of the period. Perhaps the realism of the sexual relationships is why it took several years for these early Bergman films to reach the UK. Port of Call was first released in the UK in 1959 as an ‘X’ film.

Berit and Gösta trying to work out their relationship

The narrative resolution works in two ways and I won’t spoil the outcome except to say that in one sense things come together and in another the future is uncertain but promising. I enjoyed Port of Call more than most other Bergman films partly because social realist melodramas are among my favourite genres. It’s also good to see Bergman’s (and Fischer’s) talent applied to working-class stories. Most of the reviews of the film seem to focus on looking for signs of Bergman’s authorial ‘vision’. I think I’ve taken the opposite tack and looked for the film’s generic roots. Apart from the cinematography and the direction I feel I should also commend the performances of the two leads. The only weakness I could find in the film is the way in which flashbacks are used. These are all about Berit – we learn little about Gösta’s back story. The flashbacks themselves are fine but they seem to be awkwardly introduced. At least, I sometimes found them difficult to sort out in terms of a linear plotline. In the clip below, we see the moment when Gösta first sees Berit at a dance.

The early Bergman films are included in Criterion’s Eclipse series of DVDs. Some are also available on streaming services.

LIFF 2019 #11: System Crasher (Systemsprenger Germany, 2019)

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Hannah Zengel is astonishing as Benni

The last film I saw at this year’s Leeds International Film Festival proved to be the best: it had me weeping. Are films that make you so sad that you cry the antithesis of escapism or do they (hopefully) make us feel better about our own lives and so escaping to a worse place makes us feel better? In System Crasher we are taken into the world of Benni (played with astonishing brilliance by Hannah Zengel), a traumatised nine-year-old that even the seemingly robust German social services system cannot contain. Aristotle argued that the purpose of narratives was catharsis: the audience is purged of emotion and so feels satisfied. System Crasher just left me feeling sad but, importantly, empathetic to people with mental health problems and those that try to help them. Watching a wide range of films aids empathy for others, something that our divided times lacks in many instances.

Writer-director Nora Fingscheidt has produced a gripping narrative that sees social workers trying to do their best for Benni; though there is an implicit critique of the use of drugs. Interestingly, the Variety review sees this criticism as divisive and presumably in America there is more belief in pharmacological solutions? There is a moment, early in the film, when Micha (Albrecht Schuch) takes Benni under his wing and they spend three weeks in the woods. I’m sure in an American retelling this sort-of Walden would lead to a resolution; we are in Europe and such sentimentality is thankfully absent from this film. Incidentally, Variety‘s jibe about the film not really blaming anyone, even Benni’s mum, is wide of the mark for there is a heartbreaking scene when the social worker breaks down because of the mother’s uselessness. That said, Fingscheidt does not go for designating anyone as evil; that would be too simplistic. My partner trained as a therapist and worked with disturbed children; she confirmed the utter authenticity of the portrayal of traumatised youngsters. If the film was set in the UK, no doubt, the cuts to social services by the Tory government would have also formed an impediment to helping these children.

If I have one quibble, it’s with the final freeze frame which didn’t, for me, sum up the film; that said, it opens in the UK next week and I strongly recommend it.

The only film I was disappointed by at the festival was Synonyms (Synonymes, France-Israel-Germany, 2019) where a self-indulgent male gets into various situations in Paris. At first it seemed as if it was going to be a critique of Israel, but co-writer and director Nadav Lapid eschews politics, as far as I could tell, and the film becomes a mush where everything disappoints the protagonist.

Sorry We Missed You (UK-France-Belgium 2019)

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Flexible-exploited worker

I, Daniel Blake told it how it is in Tory Britain; as does Sorry We Missed You. Tory Britain is a place of exploitation, discrimination and a callous, uncaring state that treats working people as an underclass. MP Rees-Mogg’s recent remarks about the Grenfell disaster (the victims didn’t show common sense) is emblematic of how the Conservatives are unfit to rule. There’s only one way that compassionate people who vote Tory will perceive this film: they won’t believe it. That, of course, is a mistake as scriptwriter Paul Laverty does the research and everything in this film has a ‘truth’ which is moulded into a melodrama.

Director Ken Loach is most famous for Cathy Come Home, a 1966 BBC TV drama that led to the creation of the charity Shelter for homeless people. In those days of three television channels a significant proportion of the population watched the same programme at the same time and roughly 12 million people saw the drama (about 25% of the UK population at the time). Nowadays it’s virtually impossible to make anywhere near the same impact. That said, both of Loach’s last two films should have led to the same outrage of 50 years ago.

Sorry We Missed You dramatises the ‘flexible workforce’ beloved of Tory businesses because it reduces their costs and increases profitability (and reduces prices for consumers). However, the human cost to the workers and their families is hidden, except in the liberal press and some Twitter circles; occasionally a tragedy reaches the BBC. For the first half hour of the film I felt I was watching a documentary (the content not the form of the film) as I learned nothing but once I became emotionally engaged with the family’s predicament the film turned into a heartbreaking melodrama (incidentally, once again used as a term of abuse in Mark Kermode’s otherwise reasonable review). The only false note in the film was the under-developed character of the ‘rebellious son’; he veered too much between surly and caring and there was no back story explaining his political awareness.

Typically for Loach’s films the mise en scene is a fairly ugly long lensed affair; he uses telephoto lenses that flatten the scene (so it looked like people were always about to be run over by passing vans in the depot) as a way of getting authentic performances. Moments of humour and lyricism are few but that’s not entirely inappropriate in a film that portrays what nine years of Tory government have done to the country.

Rafiki (Kenya-South Africa-Germany-Netherlands-France-Norway-Lebanon-UK 2018)

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Being told you are degenerate in church

This is an effective ‘coming of age’ film from an unlikely source: Kenya. Co-written and directed by Wanuri Kahiu the film was banned in its native country because it ‘promoted lesbianism’. If anything, the film shows how difficult gay love is in a homophobic society so ‘promotion’ doesn’t exactly cover it. The discriminatory formulation harks back to Thatcher’s disgusting ‘section 28’ that, in 1988, was designed to prevent local authorities in Britain from ‘promoting homosexuality’. So disgust with Kenya for banning such a tender, and not explicit, film must be tempered, in the UK, by the acknowledgement that 30 years ago our government was promoting similarly homophobic messages. No doubt our colonial laws, homosexuality was only ‘made legal’ in 1967 in the UK, contributed to the difficulties Kenya has in acknowledging different sexualities.

Samantha Mugatsia and Sheila Munyiva are superb as the unlikely couple: Kena quiet and withdrawn; Ziki loud and flamboyant. They are daughters of local electioneering politicians which adds a social dimension to the film’s melodrama. The importance of the Christian church in Kenyan society is acknowledged and so is its homophobia. The pastor’s sermon against difference is shown to encourage the attacks Kena and Ziki suffer; Kahiu shoots a mob scene in a genuinely scary manner. The film itself is as brave as its characters.

The film also portrays patriarchal society, particularly through Kena’s dad, as problematic. He seems to be a genuinely nice guy, he owns a shop and happily gives credit to shoppers that seems to be more than part of his campaign for reelection (presumably as a local councillor). However that hasn’t stopped him abandoning his wife for a ‘younger model’.

Ziki allows Kena to fulfil her potential by giving her confidence; initially her ambition was to be a nurse. However, she is obviously bright enough for even more challenging roles in health care. The ending of the film is nicely ambivalent for no matter how much the audience (I doubt homophobes will be still watching at this point) want the couple to be together, that is not a straightforward option in contemporary Kenya.