I always find directorial debuts interesting for what they tell me about the state of filmmaking and the mindset of budding filmmakers. The first-time feature director of How to Stop a Wedding, Drazen Kuljanin, was 34 when he made this film from his own screenplay. Like many freshman efforts, the film was done on the cheap, using only two actors and shooting with a Canon C300 handheld digital camera. Settings are borrowed—someone’s apartment, a nightclub, a train, and a train station and its immediate environs. It also relates a “tell what you know” personal story about a young man and young woman sharing the same train compartment who are traveling from Malmö to Stockholm to break up the weddings of their former sweethearts. The twist is that they learn they are planning to stop the same wedding.
Kuljanin shorthands Amanda’s (Lina Sundén) break-up by showing her and her former boyfriend arguing briefly in their apartment and then switching to a nightcub and Amanda crying in the bathroom. Kuljanin places large, black frames around these brief scenes, perhaps suggesting that we are watching them on a cellphone, but certainly giving the impression of constriction. The rest of the film takes place on the train.
When Philip (Christian Ehrnstén) boards, Amanda is asleep in a corner seat. He awakens her and tells her she is in his seat. Although Amanda says she gets motion sickness if she has to sit backwards, he stands his ground because he, too, can’t sit backwards. She tries to sleep in one of the forward-facing seats, but can’t get comfortable without a wall to lean against. She moves to the seat facing him and promptly gets up to vomit. Perhaps in retaliation, she lets him tell his tale of woe without letting him know that his former girlfriend is her best friend—well, perhaps not best, since she is marrying the love of Amanda’s life. Soon, she is sharing a bit about her relationship with the man she still loves and, now, passionately hates.
There are few films that are set almost entirely on a train, the most notable being Richard Fleischer’s The Narrow Margin (1952), a suspenseful noir filled with murder and mayhem. Kuljanin’s film offers no such drama, so he resorts to sex and visual tricks to keep us engaged. His film starts rather annoyingly with a look at Amanda’s naked boyfriend, certainly original in that we don’t get an actual sex scene or a naked woman, but nonetheless a gimmick to engage us immediately. His framing and effects also seek to keep us engaged, using a horizontal split screen to shoot a conversation between Philip and Amanda that avoids the usual two-shot approach but adds nothing to the presentation, and shooting through windows to obscure his characters with arty blurs and reflections. He also scrambles the chronology of the lengthy sex on the train scene that occupies most of the final fourth of the short, 72-minute film, again seemingly for the sake of doing something different with what’s becoming a tired cliché of modern filmmaking.
Kuljanin should have just trusted his script and his gifted, committed actors. The dialogue is fresh, with just the right amount of combativeness and an enormous amount of honesty that is the most original part of the film. Philip’s plan to win back his love is to imitate the cue card scene between Keira Knightley and Andrew Lincoln in Love Actually (2003); Amanda, who, to Philip’s amazement, has never seen the film, savages his idea for the ridiculous Hollywood device it is. She further taunts him by describing his girlfriend in a generic sense and wondering why men fall so hard for women like her, but ending with a reference to her “cupcake earrings” that reveals she’s known all along whom Philip is pining for. She believes they need to speak from the heart, so Amanda and Philip film each other on Amanda’s cellphone as they rehearse what they plan to say at the wedding. Sundén’s wrenching monlogue is devastating to watch and feels utterly spontaneous. Ehrnstén’s dialogue is more contained, but spurred by his acting partner’s vulnerability, he also finds Philip’s authentic voice amid his reaching for Hollywood clichés. If it weren’t for these two powerful moments, I would not have believed the energetic sex scene that follows Amanda’s seductive dance to the music pouring from her phone.
Indeed, Kuljanin’s scenario offers an absorbing look at the unnamed third character in the film—the cellphone. Technology is lifeblood to today’s youth. Although Amanda leaves her suitcase on the platform in Malmö with “everything,” she says, her phone was tucked neatly into her pocket, part of her second skin. Shooting cellphone frames to start the film and using the phone for everything from making calls to making videos and music—these actions show how integral technology is in helping the millennial generation express their feelings and share their views.
Ultimately, however, Kuljanin affirms the importance of real contact, not only by ending his film with sex but also when Amanda offers her arm to Philip as a place to write his phone number instead of storing it in her phone. The emotional basis of How to Stop a Wedding is reaffirmed and the possibility of living to love another day a hope Kuljanin shares with his audience. While How to Stop a Wedding shows the relative inexperience of its director, it should find a grateful, enthusiastic audience who needs to see it.
How to Stop a Wedding screens Saturday, March 26 at 4:15 p.m. and Monday, March 28 at 8:15 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St. Drazen Kuljanin will attend the screenings.
Anton Chekhov 1890: The final directorial effort of René Féret surveys six years in the life of Russian writer Anton Chekhov in the naturalist style Chekhov helped introduce to the modern world. (France)
Home Care: A home health nurse finds out she needs care every bit as much as her patients in this rueful look at small-town life and middle-age regret. (Czech Republic)
Forbidden Films: Free speech is debated in this somewhat crude documentary look at Nazi-era films that have been banned from public viewing. (Germany)
It’s the holidays, and in this part of the world at least, audiences finally have the opportunity to see the feel-good Swedish movie we’ve all been waiting for.
. . . . feel-good Swedish movie?
Yeah, not exactly what I was expecting either—but then, I’d be lying if I said you’d really feel all that good at the end of Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure. In true Swedish style, this closely observed parable about social roles and the lies we tell ourselves and others mixes an ounce of bitters with its liberal doses of comedy and leaves behind a queasy-making aftertaste.
Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) arrive at a frightfully luxurious ski resort in the French Alps with their two children, Vera (Clara Wettergren) and Harry (Vincent Wettergren), for a rare five days of quality family time. As with many modern families, Ebba pries Tomas and the children away from their electronic masters for a beautiful day on the slopes. The family cuts a fetching figure of togetherness as they shuss on a pure pillow of snow, pose for photos, and nap together in almost identical blue underwear on the king-size bed in the master bedroom.
Trouble stirs when a controlled avalanche is triggered by the report of cannons rimming the resort for just this purpose. The Swedish family and others dining on the resort’s outdoor terrace start snapping photos and shooting videos with their smartphones until they realize that the advancing snow seems to be coming perilously close to the resort. In the panic that ensues, Tomas runs away, leaving Ebba and the children to fend for themselves. Although only harmless spray from the avalanche reaches the café and dissipates quickly, something just as dangerous has been loosened between Tomas and his family. The remainder of the film watches this family as they blunder through their disillusionment at discovering the head of the household has feet of clay.
In 2014, the idea of a male protector seems almost prehistoric, particularly in Sweden, the divorce capital of the world, and Tomas and Ebba’s marriage is something of an anachronism compared with the friends they meet at the resort. For example, Charlotte (Karin Myrenberg Faber) has an open marriage and picks up at least two different men during the trip, astonishing Ebba by saying that if her husband were enjoying himself with another woman, she’d be happy for him. To Ebba’s question about whether she is afraid of being left alone, Charlotte says she doesn’t like the idea, but that her life doesn’t revolve around her husband and children. Ebba, on the other hand, is especially vulnerable to her family’s opinion. Harry and Vera, free of the many social layers that burden adults, initially despise their parents and throw them out of the master bedroom with torrents of jeers, causing Ebba to try to accept Tomas’ version of events—that he didn’t run off—to win back their children’s trust. Tomas’ continuing and fervent denials only set off a series of increasingly hilarious—and harrowing—episodes, as the children worry about divorce, Ebba’s anger repeatedly bubbles and bursts like a thermal hot spring, and Tomas crumbles into a blubbering mess of self-pity.
Relationship troubles have been the stuff of high comedy for centuries, and Östlund knows how to draw the absurdity of the situation out of his actors. Kuhnke’s sad-sack look is so cluelessly nonchalant that I cracked up every time I saw him; his embarrassment at being caught out as the self-centered guy he is makes his intense self-loathing and over-the-top crying jag two-thirds of the way through the film ring like a cracked bell. He confesses to cheating at games with his kids and being unfaithful to his wife—it’s like watching Bill Clinton begging forgiveness from his wife and the nation through his voluptuous smirk and twinkling eyes. Östlund ups the ante by introducing Mats (Kristofer Hivju), a divorced friend of Tomas’ from their bachelor days, and his 20-year-old girlfriend Fanny (Fanni Metelius), and the pair very nearly walks off with the entire picture. After he and Fanny have been drafted by Ebba into a little game of “Courtroom” and watch in growing discomfort the event captured on Tomas’ smartphone, Mats stammers out an unconvincing defense of Tomas’ actions as the force majeure (irresistible compulsion) alluded to by the film’s title. Infected with outrage but well aware of the cliché she and Mats are, Fanny scolds him for running off with her and ignoring his own children, and the two have a hilarious bedroom argument that is both absurd and painfully real.
While Force Majeure focuses most of its attention on the failings of men, especially bourgeois men, it ranges over the whole of humanity, contrasting our social constructs with our primal instincts. Modern conveniences, including exquisitely appointed apartments for the well-heeled vacationer, insulate this family from the snowy, rocky environment they have chosen to visit. Yet they depend on funiculars, chair lifts, covered conveyor belts, and tow chains get them to and from the ski runs—the effect is similar to Charlie Chaplin threading helplessly through a series of giant gears in Modern Times (1936). Watching Tomas and Ebba argue in the hall amid massive wooden beams or in a funicular with a craggy mountainside passing behind the window only confirms the pettiness of these two mortals, so protected by their wealth and technology that Tomas’ failure to think of his family before himself is actually all but irrelevant. It’s telling that their solution to restoring family faith and harmony occurs on the mountain, the only place where this instinct really has any use at all, and even that solution must be faked—another stab at Tomas’ loss of animal prowess.
Force Majeure isn’t perfect. In Bergmanesque fashion, the semi-tragedy of this family’s illusory happiness is laid on thick, in both appropriate and unfortunate ways. One of Ebba’s reactions to her husband’s fecklessness is to go skiing by herself, a potent symbol for both her vulnerability at this moment and her potential strength. But then she sees Tomas and the kids skiing on the other side of a wood and breaks down sobbing in a somewhat heavy-handed symbol of her lost state of grace. Tomas’ breakdown goes on for too long, mainly to set up a joke group hug, a joke that fell flat for me. Another joke in which two young women come over to Mats and Tomas and say their friend thinks they’re cute, and then return to say that their friend wasn’t pointing at them after all, seems an unlikely and schematic way to showcase the men’s considerable egos. Better was a nighttime swarm of drunken men screaming and jumping like apes, Tomas unwittingly caught in their bacchanal of raw testosterone.
The film drags on too long and includes an unnecessary and improbable emergency that panics Ebba in a false equivalency with Tomas’ fear and shows Tomas to be a changed man, willing to own up to who he really is. That he tells the truth to Harry may be a small glimmer of hope that the next generation will be better than Tomas’, but frankly, I wouldn’t bet on it.
A Thousand Times Good Night is likely to have a large audience because its stars are the luminous Juliette Binoche, who has been in some very good pictures indeed, and Game of Thrones hottie Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. Norwegian director Erik Poppe has crafted a fine-looking film that is well paced and watchable, and he’s thrown in some arty images of slow-motion near death that add tasteful cachet. But like Binoche’s patented ability to cry on demand, this film has a trick or two up its sleeve, and the insidious message for women that it delivers, while seeming to say the opposite, may be overlooked if someone does not speak up. That someone would be me.
The film revolves around Binoche’s character, Rebecca, a war photographer who infiltrates an Afghani insurgency that uses women as human bombs to wreck terror on the opposition. She photographs the odyssey of one bomber beginning with a mock funeral that offers her the oblations she will be denied after her mission because there will be no remains to bury. Rebecca drives with the bomber to a market in Kabul, where she makes the driver let her out. An instinct to keep photographing draws the attention of the police. Rebecca feels that the nervous bomber will press the button too soon and warns the bystanders in the market to flee. She is, of course, right. After emerging in a daze from the bombing, Rebecca pops off a few more frames, and then collapses, her punctured lung bringing her close to death.
Her marine biologist husband Marcus (Coster-Waldau) flies to Afghanistan to bring her back to their home and two daughters in Ireland. Shortly after arriving home, Marcus tells her that as soon as she is on her feet, he and the girls are leaving her. His reason is that they are all terrified that she will be killed on the job, and they can’t live with the tension. Rebecca tells her editor that she is through doing combat photography, but when her teenaged daughter Steph (Lauren Canny) wants to go to a “safe” refugee camp in Kenya with Rebecca as part of a school project, Marcus agrees. Of course, the camp is attacked, Rebecca’s work instincts kick in, Marcus finds out about it a few days after they come back, and he kicks Rebecca out of the house. Marcus is a lost cause, but can Rebecca win back her children’s affection? Will she return to war photography as the only place she has left? Will she enroll in Adrenaline Addicts Anonymous and be reunited with her family, taking it one day at a time? What’s a woman to do?
The sexist bias of this film should be obvious to anyone, but adding children to the mix will sufficiently camouflage the issue for many audience members for whom society has provided a handy default position for women set to “mom first.” If the subject of this film were Frank Capa or Ernie Pyle, we’d expect the wife and kiddies to suck it up for the greater good. Indeed, we expect that of military families every day. But when a woman’s passion, talent, and ambition take her away from her family, when her love of humanity sometimes outstrips her mother love, wifely love, or even her love of her own life, then Houston, we have a problem. Rebecca is ballsy (yes, manlike ballsy) enough to accept the risks, but Marcus decides not just for himself, but for the children that she has to choose; after some two decades together, she finally gets hurt, and he can’t deal. When Rebecca senses something is wrong, she asks if there is another woman. Well, you know what—I think there was or this change of heart after so much time actually makes no sense.
The film moves on to explore the relationship between Steph and her mother, one in which Steph comes to accept and admire the work her mother does. Rebecca gives her a camera in Kenya and encourages her to experiment with it. After the marriage bust-up, Steph invites her mother to see her African project at school. It ends up being a tribute to her mother and the harsh truths she exposes—indeed, her photos of the attack in Kenya garnered better security for the refugee camp, so we know she’s doing important work that gets results. So, yes, the film wants to assure us that war photography is good.
But Poppe just has to beat Rebecca up one more time. Rebecca returns to the insurgents in Afghanistan to take some final photos to wrap the story up. Why she has to see another suicide bomber prepare herself is unclear, except as a way to get to the moral of the story Poppe wants to emphasize in case we hadn’t learned our lesson about the greatest calling a woman can aspire to. Rebecca raises her camera to photograph a young girl being fitted with explosives and starts to cry. She can’t take even one photo, so overcome is she that a terrible ideology is now sacrificing girls. The underlying message, however, is that Steph may end up following in her mother’s footsteps. What a horrible fate that would be.
The title, A Thousand Times Good Night, comes from the balcony scene in Act Two of Romeo and Juliet, one of the most romantic moments in all of dramatic literature. Its choice for this film is a confusing one, offering mixed messages about love. On the one hand, Rebecca has a private life filled with people who love her and whom she loves. On the other hand, Rebecca’s love for humanity tugs her away from them time and time again. I think it’s clear which love director Poppe thinks is more appropriate.
A Thousand Times Good Night shows Saturday, October 12, 3:00 p.m, Monday, October 14, 8:15 p.m., and Wednesday October 16, 12:40 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St. in Chicago. www.chicagofilmfestival.com
Wałęsa: Man of Hope: Renowned Polish director Andrzej Wajda offers an informative and exhilarating look at the life of Solidarity founder, former Polish president, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Wałęsa. (Poland)
The Invisible Collection: A young man who has lost his friends in a car accident comes to terms with his grief through an encounter with a blind collector of rare prints. (Brazil)
Stranger by the Lake: A lake in summer is the setting for a close exploration of the mating rituals of gay cruisers and the fatal attraction that envelopes one of the regulars to the lake. (France)
The Phantom Carriage has a power which almost defies description, a sense of an overwhelming darkness crowding the edges of the frame and corroding the very flesh and spirit of the characters on screen. It’s a tale of damnation, for whatever remains after death but also on earth too, the poison of psychological fear and anger blighting life as surely as the tuberculosis bacilli eat away its protagonists inside out. Light, with all its redemptive promise, radiates by contrast from the centre of frames, burning candles and lamps stranded in the midst of shadowy rooms, and from the face of the benighted Sister Edit (Astrid Holm). Edit lies expiring on New Year’s Eve, desperately begs her mother (Concordia Selander) and fellow Salvation Army worker Maria (Lisa Lundholm) to track down the one soul and body she’s been trying to save more passionately than any other. That is the soul of David Holm (Victor Sjöstrom), a drunken wastrel tracked down not in the hovel where his wife (Hilda Borgström) and children are trying to stave off hunger and cold, but drinking in a graveyard with two vagrants who listen as David recounts with amusement the fate of his old drinking buddy Georges (Tore Svennberg), who was tormented by an anxiety that used to gnaw at him on New Year’s Eve. As the minutes tick towards midnight, David explains Georges’ obsession with a folk myth that whoever died at the stroke of twelve on New Year’s would be a cursed and sinful person, charged with driving the carriage that collects the souls of those who die during the year. And, as ill luck would have it, Georges died one year ago on the very night he feared. After David chases off the Salvation Army worker who tracks him down for Edit, he fights with his two companions, one of whom smashes a bottle over his head. David is left for dead, and Death’s carriage soon comes rolling around.
Victor Sjöstrom’s career in film climaxed famously with his role in Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1958). In casting the aged director and actor in his film, Bergman was paying tribute to Sjöstrom’s status as a father of the Swedish film industry, and as an artist to whom Bergman and others, both in Sweden and around the world, owed a lot. In his heyday, Sjöstrom’s gift for portraying psychological drama and capturing tones ranging from fulminating unease to outright hysteria was second to none, and his cinematic experiments were as rich and innovative as anything that would soon follow in Germany, France, and the US. Along with Mauritz Stiller, Sjöstrom was at the front rank of Swedish filmmakers well before the First World War, labouring like many great early directors on dozens of short features as the quintessential forms of cinema began to evolve, and finally with his 1921 hit The Phantom Carriage, Sjöstrom gained an invite to Hollywood, where he made great films, often with Lillian Gish, including The Scarlet Letter (1926) and The Wind (1928). But commercial success began to elude him, and his career essentially waned along with the silent film. Sjöstrom’s passionately visual, rhythmic, intimately composed ideal of cinema was at once highly stylised and fascinatingly realistic, as the director amongst other things helped to bridge early cinema with the Swedish stage and its tradition of dark, neurotic realist spectacle as exemplified by August Strindberg.
Today the horror film, in spite of patchy acceptance by mainstream critics, is still essentially considered a fringe genre. In the first quarter-century of cinema’s existence, however, it was a favourite field for directors who wanted to interrogate the possibilities of the medium, as they contemplated the intrinsic link between the mystery of film’s power and images of mortality, nebulous existence and concrete form. This was true of much important early cinema, including several of Georges Melies’ most striking works, Griffith’s The Avenging Conscience (1914), Murnau’s Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922), Wiene’s Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari (1919), Wegener’s Der Golem: Wie Er in die Welt Kam (1920), Lang’s Der Muede Tod (1921), Christensen’s Häxan (1922), and Leni’s Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (1924). The Phantom Carriage itself stands up amidst the most beautiful, eerie, and dazzlingly rendered movies of its time. One reason the horror genre, which was hardly a genre at the time and certainly not called that, attracted such a wealth of early talent was that it presented possibilities for experimenting with the kinds of special effects available to early cinema, in a fashion that later sci-fi, action, and fantasy films would invite, as a testing ground for evolutions in technology and the inspiration to use it. Whereas, apart from Tod Browning, it would take European directors working in Hollywood and, more crucially, the advent of the Depression to shock American horror cinema into its first golden age, in Europe a superlative glut of definitive moviemaking in this mould was closely aligned with the stylistic moment of what became known as German Expressionism. The time was in tune, too, for the great flowering of these films came in the period directly following the Great War, a time in which a great hole had been carved in European society, the pall of death was an everyday, invasive reality, and fascination with spiritualism exploded in a world that felt not at all metaphorically haunted.
But not all of these films were clear-cut in their exploitation of this mood, as many depict the birth struggles of modernism, as artists wrestled with remnants of folk traditions and the detritus of cultures going through painful evolutions, trying to reject the dead-weight of past truisms to embrace rationalism, but often rubbing fears raw in that process. Sjöstrom’s film was adapted a novel by 1909’s Nobel laureate Selma Lagerlöf, and the story is in many ways a familiar piece of post-Victorian abstemious moralism, playing like a darker version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in which a sinner sees the error of his ways through a supernatural encounter. For Sjöstrom, who had been adapting Lagerlöf’s novels regularly thanks to a deal she had made with the studio he worked for, the task was however to retain the complexity of the novel and depict the perverse, dramatically difficult elements onto the screen, precisely at a time when it was becoming clear that film was open to all challenges. The Phantom Carriage becomes a psychological epic about cruelty, fear, and pain, as experienced and exacted by David, an antihero who takes on Dostoyevskian dimensions in his anger at humanity even as he cringes before immutable forces. David, a former carpenter and craftsman, has long since slid into the gutter under the influence of the ironically well-educated Georges, whose habitual cynicism and florid bon vivant postures attracted both David and his younger brother (Einar Axelsson). Georges only ever registered disquiet when New Year’s rolled around and revived the folk tale figuration of the phantom carriage in his thoughts like an annual memento mori.
One of Sjöstrom’s significant flourishes in telling his tale is the complexity of the narrative, refusing to simplify Lagerlof’s storyline, shifting perspectives and offering layers of stories within stories in retracing the paths the key characters have taken to this converging night of fate. Starting with Edit’s plight and then shifting to David and his wayside buddies in the graveyard, Sjöstrom then segues into the past, as David recalls his time with Georges, and through Georges the mythology of the carriage is depicted. This cues a lengthy, sepulchral, superlatively realised sequence depicting the carriage and its hooded, scythe-clutching driver, going about their work. They watch over all varieties of human misery and misfortune, standing by as a plutocrat shoots himself in his immaculate mansion, and plucking the spirits of dead mean just drowned in the sea, the carriage trundling carelessly into the waves and the driver descending to the ocean floor for his prize. It’s easy to recognise the influence of these scenes on Bergman’s figuration of Death for The Seventh Seal (1957) and other elements of the visual design – one shot of the carriage travelling over a hilltop against a cloudy horizon recalls the famous shot of Death leading the dance of the dead that climaxed the Bergman work. Sjöstrom achieves his otherworldly emanations with that simplest and oldest of movie special effects, the double exposure, rendering with stark beauty the scenes of the carriage venturing onto the waves or trundling through the streets, and the spirits of dead wandering and conversing, the human world oblivious to their presence and the dead gazing back at the world they’re cut off from with forlorn impotence.
Yet whilst the film’s pictorial and emotional depictions of oneiric gloom are compelling, Sjöstrom is equally adept at capturing the grubby world its characters inhabit. Lagerglof’s novel had begun life when she was asked to write a treatise on tuberculosis control, but as she worked a narrative came to her with an aspect of social realism mediated by and reconceived through the veils of mysticism and mystery. Sjöstrom answered with its cinematic equivalent: the seamy taverns, fetid flophouses, low-rent apartments, midnight card games, the chilly graveyard, all are depicted with a care worthy of Von Stroheim’s Greed (1924), with which the film shares a subterranean mood of acidic reportage and neurotic intensity. One function that the narrative complexity serves is to give the tale a sense of haziness about the veracity of what is seen: it could all be David’s alcoholic horrors or dazed dream after getting walloped over the head. But it also suggests that such distinctions mean little in the face of how it summarises the struggle, and attraction, between the all-encompassing nihilism of David and the naïve yet powerful altruism of Edit. Caught between them are David’s victimised wife and brother, early casualties, emotionally and morally if not mortally, for David’s rage, and yet also participants in and causes for it. After David and his brother fell in with Georges, David did a short stretch in jail for drunken behaviour, and as he was released, the prison chaplain (Nils Aréhn) revealed to David with brutal condemnation that his brother is now also locked up, but for the far worse crime of killing a man in a drunken brawl: the chaplain stated that he was of the opinion David should be doing the time instead. David, horrified and chastened, returned home to his family, only to find they had left without any idea of where to find them, turning David’s ill feeling into an unshakeable and near-psychopathic misanthropy.
The existential angst of The Phantom Carriage is aligned with the pain of the post-war period, even if made in a country that was neutral during WWI, as it resembles the nightmare prophecies and structure of Abel Gance’s J’Accuse! (1919) which similarly climaxes with visions of the dead rising up, possibly hallucinated but still urgently meaningful. The difference is that the horror of The Phantom Carriage is microcosmic, a study in personal degradation and damage but with a reformist social agenda. And yet the film slips out of such limits: the notion that David travels deeper into his personal nightmare out of wilful determination and anger at the cheap pieties and soft options that leave him adrift in a bleak world, gives The Phantom Carriage more complexity. Sjöstrom imbues it with a hallucinatory unease that captures that mood of midnight agony anyone who’s drunk to forget the day’s pain might recognise. When David arises from his own sprawled, shattered body to be confronted by Georges, who has spent the last year driving the carriage, except for him every night has been “a hundred years”, collecting souls like a tired garbage man clearing away the refuse of human existence. There’s a quality approaching black comedy as the grim figure of death proves to be the middle-aged, familiar Georges, but his rank melancholia and sombre missives quickly diverge into a form of horror that penetrates far deeper than the later genre’s usual stock visions of psychos in masks killing sundry teenagers, asking instead, what are we most afraid of in life and in death? Whilst Georges ushers David away from Edit’s deathbed in telling him that the job of taking her soul belongs to other, presumably more exalted spirits, there’s no sight of better worlds or paradises in this vision, only of the afterlife as a place where people walk or trundle along in stunned misgiving, staring back at the life they’ve lived with awareness that hell is a place humans create for themselves.
Of course Georges tells David that he’s going to take his place as the driver for the next year, and when David protests, George binds him with invisible strands and forces him to accompany him to Edit’s deathbed, where Edit, not yet dead but standing at the edge of permeable reality, can see Georges, and greets him with confusion: “Death…but too early.” Edit has her own crosses to bear. Her mother had begged her fellow Salvation Army workers to ignore her frantic wish to see David before dying because having given up her life to the cause and now doesn’t want her death to be consumed by it too. As Georges stands over Edit’s bed, he explains her situation to David, thus commencing another lengthy flashback as the narrative retreats one year to the same New Year’s when Georges himself died, and David, drunk and sick, barged his way into the new shelter Edit and Maria had set up, and passed out on a bed. Edit set herself to fixing up David’s torn coat, oblivious to the fact that in doing so she was breathing in all the germs on it, including his chronic TB, which she’s expiring from at an accelerated rate. When he awakened, David ripped off the patches she had put on the coat, stating, “I’m used to it this way,” and she asked him to come see her in a year’s time to let her know how he was getting on. The pair continued to encounter each-other with a quality of combative aggression mixed with erotic fascination, as Edit confesses she fell in love with David, seemingly everything she isn’t, even as she determinedly wrested one of his friends away from him at a Salvation Army rally. David’s wife, for whom he’s been searching for months, was at the same rally, and after seeing Edit and David argue, explained her plight.
Edit, with selfless determination, set about reconciling the couple, but once returned to his family, David’s long-awaited revenge commenced as he refused to give up his drunken ways, preferring to taunt his wife and breathing precariously over his children. David’s vicious misanthropy is at its rarest when he tells a woman at the rally that she shouldn’t cover her mouth when she coughs, as he takes pride in breathing his lethal germs right in people’s faces. When his wife tried to rebel again and locked him in the bathroom whilst she tried to get the kids away, as she fumbled with the sleeping youngsters he hacked his way out with a hatchet, in a sequence that at once suggests a nod to Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (1919) but looks forward too with unavoidable similarity to the iconic “Here’s Johnny” scene in The Shining (1981), complete with the peculiarly intimate terror of the enraged father figure, a potent and toxic vision of masculine violence erupting in the home. And yet when his wife faints, unable to escape, and David gets free, he props her up on a pillow and feeds her water, greeting her awakening with the harshly knowing words, “It wasn’t as easy to run away this time!” To her exhausted reply, “Haven’t you had enough revenge?” As Edit expires, Georges takes David on to his next stop – the slum dwelling where David’s wife and children are living now, as Mrs Holm prepares to poison them all, a final recourse. Finally David’s self-absorption is shattered and he begs with Georges to save them even at the expense of his own total extinction.
The surprisingly naturalistic acting, particularly from Sjöstrom himself, whose husky physicality gives David the insolent charisma the role needs, is littered with gestural marvels that equal the filmmaking. In an early scene, Mrs Holm is brought to Edit’s bedside, the woman a fidgety, dead-eyed wraith who reaches out with clawing, Nosferatu-like fingers at the slumbering Edit in her anger, only for Edit to awaken and immediately smother the woman in kisses in submissive gratitude. When Maria first finds Mrs Holm, she keeps retreating to each corner of the room, standing with back to the room. Just as affecting is the anguished stroke of his brother’s face David gives when presented with him in his jail cell, and in David’s homecoming as he cringes and smoulders in rage as he stands in the midst of the jarringly empty flat, whilst two neighbour women laugh over his misfortune. One stark shot depicts Mrs Holm and her children standing over David who lies sprawled and passed out on the pavement. Sjöstrom’s best moment comes in one of David’s ugliest, as he first clasps eyes on Edit after learning she’s repaired his coat and she waits with eagerness to see his reaction: David’s expression turns as cold as the winter wind as he perceives the embodiment of everything he’s at war with and feels cannot be his, and his frenzied tearing at the patches of the coat delivers his message, but whilst startled, Edit refuses to be fazed, and her fascination for the simultaneously pathetic and grotesque, yet also powerful David is made weirdly coherent. Her subsequent effort to reunite David and his wife see her perpetuate the great Victorian delusion that all you had to do to normalise any experience, any anomaly, any fracture in human dealings, was to slap a pair of decent clothes on it. Thus the story is complicated by its concentration on the way good intentions often crash headlong into harsh realities.
The Phantom Carriage ends happily, after a fashion, but as in Bergman’s work there’s a sense that redemption and facing up to all that’s gone wrong in life can be exhausting, even counter-productive. David, restored to “life” and rushing to intervene in his wife’s seemingly imminent euthanasia, buckles and weeps when she reacts with aggression and disbelief in his sudden show of concern, and it’s clear that even if he really has seen the error of his ways, the same essential cause of both his good and bad behaviour remains a fretful terror of mortality, the disease still in his lungs and the pain that is his burden. The mood of The Phantom Carriage lingers long after it’s over, and its influence on filmmakers, both in the horror mode and outside it, feels deep: as well as Bergman and Kubrick, its atmosphere and original blend of precise psycho-social veracity and the otherworldly anticipates the qualities of Val Lewton’s epochal film series, whilst other aspects vibrate through the works of Murnau and G.W. Pabst, and prefigure a very different film about a misanthrope haunted by past loss, particularly the flashback to scenes of familial happiness for the Holms, in Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker (1964). Like many notable silent films, The Phantom Carriage has seen many editions and restorations over the years, but I recommend the version I saw with an aptly spare and eerie score by the electronic group KTL: where many match-ups between silent films and modern scores, like the several Metropolis (1926) has seen, feel arch in the long run, the KTL score expertly captures the sense of nocturnal foreboding, alienation, and bleak emotionalism that fuels the film. Either way, The Phantom Carriage is an early masterpiece of the medium.
At 81, Jan Troell, a contemporary of Ingmar Bergman, continues to make finely crafted films that plumb real figures of Scandinavian culture to illuminate seminal events in Troell’s life and world history. In 1996, Troell made a warts-and-all biopic of Nobel laureate Knut Hamsun, a beloved Norwegian novelist who felt appeasement was the best way to ensure Norway’s sovereignty in the face of German aggression under Adolf Hitler. With his latest film, The Last Sentence, Troell trods this same territory as he examines the life of Swedish newspaper editor Torgny Segerstedt, a vehement anti-Nazi who did all he could to end Swedish neutrality during World War II. Even moreso than in Hamsun, politics in The Last Sentence takes a back seat to the peculiarly Swedish preoccupation with unhappy marriages.
Troell sets the stage brilliantly in the opening credits with newsreel footage from 1932 of Hitler being named Germany’s chancellor, followed by a hand moving a fountain pen across a piece of paper, a linotype operator punching the words into his machine, and a compositor lifting the type sent out by the linotype machine, applying ink to it, and rolling a paper proof sheet over it. The column-wide proof is delivered into the hands of newspaper publisher Axel Forssman (Björn Granath), who chuckles at Torgny Segerstedt’s (Jesper Christensen) characterization of Hitler as “an insult.” Axel’s Jewish wife Maja (Pernilla August) joins the men in a celebratory drink at their “declaration of war” against Germany’s new chancellor and steals back to Torgny after her husband thinks he has left her at the elevator to give her lover his well-deserved kisses.
At the Segerstedt home, Torgny wife’s Puste (Ulla Skoog) worries absentmindedly over the place cards and glassware for a dinner they are hosting. Puste has been in a state of suspended grief since the death of her 13-year-old son seven years earlier; Torgny has forbidden any mention of the boy, driving Puste around the bend and creating an estrangement between the couple. Torgny and Maja flaunt their affair at the dinner party, with Maja rearranging the dinner cards and entertaining guests by asking them if her nose looks like the Jewish caricatures rampant in Germany. Talk of Sweden having good Jews who are more evolved that the kind in Germany underlines the fight Torgny will have as his crusade against Hitler proceeds all the way to the end of the war, when Torgny dies in bed moments after hearing the news of Hitler’s demise.
The Last Sentence is punctuated with war news that has the effect of coming as news flashes that immediately recede into the background as the drama of Torgny’s domestic affairs take center stage, yet there is a subtle parallel between the macro and micro in the film. Sweden faces subjugation not only from Nazi Germany but also Soviet Russia when the Red Army invades Finland. A panicked populace hangs onto its gossamer-thin lifeline of neutrality. In the same way, Torgny openly pursues his passion for Maja while holding Puste hostage with his contempt and, yes, his love. Axel has a surprisingly open attitude to the affair, embarrassed rather than angry when he comes home early and runs into Torgny taking his leave from Maja. Puste, a Norwegian, suffers where Torgny, Maja, and Axel do not, throwing into relief the apparent ability of Swedes to compartmentalize, thus allowing them to maintain their political neutrality in the face of overwhelming misery and threat from without.
One of the lovelier touches in the film is Torgny’s relationship with his three dogs, a Great Dane, a black lab, and a bulldog. Every day, his limousine takes Torgny and the dogs partway to his office, and then lets them out for their brisk walk the rest of the way. The bulldog, old and squat, can’t negotiate the steep hill and stairs on the route, so the car picks him up to take him up the hill, and he rides the elevator to Torgny’s office. The dogs are present throughout the film and add a dimension of unconditional love and devotion that balances the unhappiness between Torgny and Puste.
The acting is without peer, and I was very happy Troell decided to cast Christensen, a sexy and vital Danish actor who quite resembles Segerstedt, instead of his first choice, Max von Sydow. August lent a charismatic female presence to the film, whose lust for life and doing what she liked blew like a breath of fresh air through the rather conventional storytelling; equally, August deftly handles Maja’s fading light as her health begins to fail and Torgny takes up with his secretary Estrid (Birte Heribertson). While Puste is a fairly commonplace drudge, Skoog draws a line that refuses our pity; even when she sings a passionate love song to her husband, she remains emotionally true, the antithesis of a rejected mate open to our ridicule.
I have nothing but praise for the look of the film. The locations are sumptuous and perfectly appointed, the costumes add to the characterizations, and the luxurious HD black-and-white cinematography by Mischa Gavjusjov a good choice to accord with the newsreel footage and the opulence of the world Torgny inhabited. The excellent soundtrack, too, was meaningful in painting mood and feeling.
Although the film is based on two biographies of Segerstedt, neither of which has been translated into English, thus making fact-checking for this review a real challenge, facts have been altered for dramatic purposes. A number of names have been changed, persumably at the behest of the families involved, and Torgny died several months before Hitler, making his deathbed triumph satisfying only to the moviegoing audience. I’d venture to guess that a certain death did not actual occur as written, but rather was made to fit a Nazi movie cliché.
The Last Sentence is a worthy follow-up to Troell’s moving 2008 drama Everlasting Moments, and will satisfy most moviegoers with its superb craftsmanship and intriguing tale. For me, the film suffered because of its close likeness to Hamsun, which made the project seem more like one Troell felt capable of making rather than one he felt compelled to make as an artist. As I hold Troell in high regard, I felt a bit let down. On the other hand, this story offers a wonderful example of how necessary a truly free press peopled with brave journalists who will speak truth to power is to creating a just world. Torgny Segerstedt is virtually unknown outside of Scandinavia, but hopefully many people the world over will learn about him through this full-bodied work by one of Swedish cinema’s elder statesmen.
The Last Sentencescreens Tuesday, October 16, at 5 p.m., Friday, October 19, at 6 p.m. and Saturday, October 20, at 4:30 p.m. The director is scheduled to attend the October 19 and 20 screenings. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St., Chicago.
The Exam: In a taut thriller set in 1957 Hungary, a member of the secret police unknowingly undergoes a harrowing loyalty test under the watchful eye of his own mentor. (Hungary)
As the hubby and I made our way to International House at the University of Chicago to attend a free showing of The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, he said to me, “But you know, Angela Davis did shoot a man.” “Did he die?” I asked. “I don’t think so,” the hubby answered. This conversation alone justifies the existence of this film. Not only did we learn that Angela Davis never shot anyone—her legally owned and registered gun was used in an attack without her knowledge—but that she did 18 months in jail awaiting a trial that could have sent her to the gas chamber; she was subsequently acquitted.
Misinformation about the civil rights/black power movements in the United States is rampant among both opponents and supporters. That’s why Mixtape is an unusual and valuable look from an outside source—Sweden. During the years mentioned in the title, Swedish television journalists covered aspects of the movements both in the United States and abroad, providing a more in-depth and generally sympathetic look at the Black Panther Party and its allies than could ever have been found within the States, then or now. Indeed, the continued neglect of this important time in American and African-American history—the film opened on exactly two screens on September 11, 2011 and has not played on more than 13 screens during any week since—shows how frightened people still are of black power, even as a black-identifying president occupies the White House.
Rediscovery of this footage gave the film’s producers (including actor/director/political activist Danny Glover) and director Göran Olsson the very bright idea to offer today’s audiences a window on the past, as well as give contemporary African Americans a chance to reflect on the effect of this legacy on their lives and careers. During the panel discussion that followed the film, a number of Black Panthers reaffirmed the continued existence and activity of the Panthers, and young audience members showed their eagerness to commit to continuous transformation of society.
The film begins with a look at impoverished African Americans and segues into extensive footage of Stokely Carmichael, a handsome, educated, articulate spokesperson for black power. Carmichael is shown meeting with foreign dignitaries, including the king of Sweden, but his most affecting moment is in his mother’s apartment in Chicago. He grabs the microphone from the Swedes and interviews her about the cramped living conditions in which the Carmichael family struggled, teasing out with question after question the reasons for their poverty. Finally, his mother asserts that her husband was always the first laid off because he was “colored.” Carmichael was a separatist who broke with the Black Panthers over their decision to collaborate with white activists. In various interviews, he asserts his respect for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. while disagreeing with his belief in nonviolence.
In voiceover, hip-hop artist and poet Talib Kweli ruminates on the legacy of Stokely Carmichael. While confessing that he was not that aware of Carmichael, when reviewing the authors Carmichael read, Kweli sees they are more than brothers of the skin, learning as they did at the knee of many of the same people, including Richard Wright and Malcolm X. The extension of the black power movement through the artistry of hip-hop and rap artists is more inferred than stated in this film, but it is clear that the legacy has been carried forward and made relevant to young African Americans in a new way.
Panelist Dr. Charles Payne pointed out that the film takes a top-down view of the black power movement, focusing on such leaders as Carmichael, Angela Davis, Eldridge Cleaver, and Bobby Seale, and making some unfortunate factual errors, such as giving the incorrect dates for the murders of Medgar Evers (1963, not 1967) and Fred Hampton and Mark Clark (1969, not 1968). All of the panelists complained that the film gives little time to the “survival programs”—the free breakfast program, self-defense classes, free medical clinics and first-aid training, political and economic education, and other services—that made the Panthers a bulwark in the African-American community. Following up with contemporary commentary from the likes of Melvin Van Peebles, Erykah Badu, and Harry Belafonte continues this high-profile approach, though their faces are never seen and their comments are worth listening to.
Further, in the sensationalist style we’ve come to expect of modern journalism, the film shows a Panthers’ class in which the youngsters chant “take up the gun” repeatedly. Further questioning of Angela Davis in her prison cell by the journalists results in a takedown of epic proportions. Davis, angered by the continued focus on violence, recalls in harrowing detail the day the four little girls she knew during her childhood in Birmingham, Alabama were blown to bits by a racist bombing, an incident made most famous by Spike Lee’s 4 Little Girls. The horror that invades her eyes is memorable and fully explicates the need for the armed neighborhood watch that resulted to prevent further violence against African Americans. Indeed, a misunderstanding of the notion of nonviolence—not passivity in the face of attack, but rather a freeing of oneself from a desire to commit violence to further a cause—was elucidated by the post-screening panel. One of the panelists, Black Panther member Stanley McKinney, teaches martial arts to this day in accordance with the party’s 10-point program.
The film digresses rather humorously to a TV Guide article of the period that branded Sweden as the most anti-American country in the world because it shot and aired the footage we see in Mixtape, as well as of demonstrations against the war in Vietnam. Again, the bromide that the bad is not balanced with the good is trotted out to quell criticism by Swedes, but one criticism of their coverage does have some validity. It is rather hard to make sense of anything happening in the United States, then or now, without a thorough understanding of the country, and of the various factions of the civil rights/black power movements. While the footage provides a different perspective on well-known figures, it remains near the surface.
J. Edgar Hoover, founder of the dirty tricks infiltration of perceived subversive organizations known as Cointelpro (Covert Intelligence Programs) said, “The Breakfast for Children Program represents the best and most influential activity going for the BPP and, as such, is potentially the greatest threat to efforts by authorities to neutralize the BPP and destroy what it stands for.” The film repeats assertions that drugs were introduced into the African-American community as a way to destroy the momentum of the black power movement. Many Vietnam veterans, both black and white, came back to the States addicted to heroin; whether it was by design is beyond my powers to discern. That drugs created problems for community organizers is a given, and reinvigorating an effective movement was on the minds of everyone attending the screening. As the panelists said, there is no way to achieve unity in a country as diverse as the United States, and that it is better for the various groups to work toward converging goals to form a powerful coalition for change.
Despite its shortcomings, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 gives contemporary audiences back a piece of their history, not only setting some records straight but also offering the passion of past activists as inspiration to a new generation. A Harlem bookstore owner in the film mentions how some young people came into his store one day talking about black power. He told them, “Black is beautiful, but knowledge is power.” Applause erupted in the audience at that line.
Like many other “pennyheads” from “The Land of Lincoln,” when I want to get away from the urban bustle of Chicago, I look to the north. Wisconsin holds many delights for urbanites looking for an uncluttered landscape that still offers high-quality creature comforts—the North Woods for outdoor activities like fishing, cross-country skiing, and snowmobiling; artisan cheeses and beers, including one beer so desirable that a New York City bar owner lost his license and was fined $250,000 for selling it; and charming towns that cater to the tourist trade by peddling their heritage for fun and profit.
One such hamlet is Mount Horeb, home to about 7,000 people of mostly German and Norwegian ancestry. Until it moved to the Madison suburb of Middleton in 2009, the Mount Horeb Mustard Museum—in reality a shop where I used to stop to buy some of the hundreds of unusual mustards they stock—was the town’s big claim to fame. However, even before it lost the museum, in fear that the US 18/151 bypass would kill the downtown retail district, the town decided to market itself in a new way. Playing up the Norwegian part of its ancestry, Mount Horeb became the self-professed Troll Capital of the World. A number of businesses have put “troll” in their names, and Schubert’s Diner and Bakery, the most popular breakfast place in town and a must for visitors, is liberally decorated with trolls of every size and type.
The trolls are amusing and a bit nostalgic for anyone who received, as I did, a troll doll to play with when they were young. But following a viewing of Trollhunter, some might think twice about visiting Mount Horeb. Despite the mordant, self-deprecating humor on display, director André Øvredal manages to find a Cloverfield kind of horror movie inside this Norwegian mockumentary that offers audiences some real moments of dread.
Farmers near the Norwegian town of Volda have been plagued with livestock killings, and Finn Haugen (Hans Morten Hansen) from the Nature Management ministry has been sent to investigate. Amateur documentarians from the local university in Volda, Thomas (Glenn Erland Tosterud), Johanna (Johanna Mørck), and Kalle (Tomas Alf Larsen), are on the case, too. After pursuing Haugen, the trio notices a craggy man who seems to be everywhere Haugen is. After the discovery of the corpse of a bear blamed for the attacks—not killed on the spot, as Haugen tells the media, but obviously dumped there—the filmmakers smell a rat and begin following the man as he drives his beat-up Range Rover hauling an even more beat-up trailer to his encampment.
Despite his repeated brush-offs, they follow him into a wooded area, see some bright flashes of light among the trees, and then find themselves running for their lives after Hans screams “TROLL!!!” Their quarry, Hans (Otto Jespersen), finally decides to open up about his activities by introducing them to his quarry—trolls. Warning them that following him is dangerous, he agrees to talk about his work in order to expose the scorched-earth policy the Norwegian government, and specifically the TSS (Troll Security Service), has towards trolls. The rest of the film follows Hans and the film crew as they scour the countryside in search of trolls that have broken out of their territories and pose a threat to human populations.
Trollhunter is a dead-on mockumentary that creates its own relatively believable universe within the confines of troll and hero mythology. The film crew is initially skeptical about the existence of trolls, even after Thomas is bitten by one, and, incidentally, patched up with the universally useful duct tape. They greet the sight of a huge three-headed troll that is felling trees with a mere push of its hand with jubilant amazement, while Hans tells them that two of the heads are actually growths the troll uses to attract females and scare other trolls fighting for territory; the trolls, the film tells us, are animals, not oddly shaped people, and that they have territories just like wolves or bears. They can be killed by exposure to sunlight, which turns the older ones to stone and causes younger trolls to explode. Amusingly, a forensic scientist (Urmila Berg-Domaas) explains this reaction by asserting how intolerance to Vitamin D causes the two different molecular reactions in the troll’s body. Unlike the often-preposterous science in many horror/scifi films, this explanation sounds plausible, which shows the care with which Øvredal constructed his universe, and forms one of the links in a carefully forged chain that sucks us into believing the story.
Another part of troll mythology that gets a humorous workout is their supposed connection with dark paganism. Hans asks the students if they are Christian or believe in God—if so, the trolls will be able to smell them, even if they are cloaked in the putrid “troll scent” Hans gives them to rub all over themselves. When we see one of the crew members rubbing himself furiously with scent while hiding in a cave from some mountain trolls, his terrible secret (“I’m Christian!”) is revealed. He doesn’t fare well among the mountain trolls; his replacement is a Muslim, about which the mythology makes no mention. Hans says cavalierly, “I don’t know. Let’s give it a try!” It’s a funny send-up of belief systems, but also makes us nervous about what will happen to the replacement, thus ratcheting up the suspense.
The film also makes clever use of the physical landscape to advance its story. For example, the filmmakers make note of the power grid, which Hans explains is electrified fencing for the trolls—a hilarious assertion that could feed the mind of a conspiracy theorist for weeks. Trees that have been blown down by storms become convenient props to show that a troll was in the area. After Hans turns a troll to stone with one last blast of light from his “light saber,” he blasts it to bits with some land mines; thereafter, scattered rocks take on the aura of being troll remains.
Jespersen is excellent as Norway’s only trollhunter, a solitary ex-serviceman with no real life outside of his work (perhaps because he and his trailer stink of troll from the skins he has hung inside for camouflage?). In one scene in which he tries to extract blood from a rabid troll, he wears a jerry-rigged suit of armor, looking like low-rent version of a medieval knight of myth and legend. He goes after errant trolls in workmanlike fashion, deploring one government-ordered massacre within troll territory like a worn-out, disillusioned Indian fighter in an American Western. In a brief glimpse, the crew members see Hans without his shirt, his back cross-hatched with scar tissue. Again, the story is ridiculous, but Øvredal knows how to build suspense for the horror half of his film that keeps us with him all the way.
The film crew members seem like believable college kids, excited by their adventure at the same time as they are taking their role as reporters oh so seriously. Thomas doggedly pursues Hans after he has told them to get lost, and Kalle says from behind the camera that maybe they should give up. Thomas retorts, “Would Michael Moore give up if he didn’t get the story on the first try?” Almost simultaneously, the hubby and I had the same thought: No, he’d just make up something and call it a movie. It was a funny joke for us, but I’m not sure Øvredal was going for that punchline.
The camerawork of Hallvard Bræin is absolutely brilliant. Norway’s breathtaking scenery, cascading waterfalls, atmospheric snow fields are pure eye candy in front of his steady, albeit handheld, lens. He switches to the green haze of a night-vision camera for many of the great troll effects. Every scene that contains a troll is exciting, a little funny, and seemingly real. I genuinely bought into the reality of these creatures and the danger they represented to our stalwart crew.
Still, the real villain of the piece is (of course) Finn Haugen. The more the students wonder why the public is being kept in the dark about the TSS, the more threatening he becomes. Clownishly trying to explain why a Russian bear, its tongue sticking out like a cartoon creature, was found in Norway (a hilarious bit with a Polish delivery crew that supplied the bear “under the table” has to be seen to be appreciated), he turns into a bigger danger for the camera crew than the 200-foot-tall troll they just saw Hans dispatch. The obligatory title cards at the beginning and end of the film about the circumstances under which the footage that makes up Trollhunter was found, and pleas to help authorities locate the students shown in the film, give this horror film the mock/ironic edge that makes it so biting and fun.
Nonetheless, on the off chance that trolls do roam the earth, I’m going to write to the Norwegian authorities and suggest they search in Mount Horeb.
Melancholia, the film that garnered for its star, Kirsten Dunst, the award for best leading actress at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, has been finding both appreciative praise for its beauty and depth and indifferent and openly hostile reactions from audiences and critics alike for being slow, impenetrable, and just another uninspired investigation into Lars von Trier’s depression. While Melancholia is a quieter and more ordinary film in many respects than much of von Trier’s output, it shows a certain maturity in the way the director treats his twin obsessions of depression and the sorry lot of women in this world. He seems finally to have been able to put his bag of cherry bombs away and find a narrative that deals with these problems realistically.
Realistically? The film invents a planet called Melancholia that moves cometlike through our solar system and threatens to collide with Earth; it and its “dance of death” are “authenticated” by coming up in a Google search. However, if you accept von Trier’s statement that this is not really a scifi film about the end of the world, but rather a film about a state of mind, it’s easier to see this as a sensitive gestalt exercise by the director to locate the sources of his problems and attempt to exorcise them.
For von Trier, the bond between mother and child is the most beautiful and sacred, and disruptions to that bond have catastrophic consequences, often as the result of that love. We all know what happened to the children of Medea (1988) as a result of the ruthlessness of her husband Jason. In The Kingdom (1994/1997), Judith’s love for her bizarre baby, the product of impregnation by the devil, displaces any fear she might have of her baby’s physical repulsiveness and supernatural growth. In Dancer in the Dark (2000), a mother sacrifices her life for her son, perhaps without needing to.
And now we have Melancholia, which shows us both the positive and negative aspects of motherhood, and tellingly, of fatherhood as well, and how painful they each can be for children. In Part 1: Justine, the stunningly beautiful Justine (Dunst) has just gotten married. She is late getting to her wedding reception at her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and brother-in-law John’s (Kiefer Sutherland) massive estate because the stretch limo that carries her and her new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) is having trouble navigating the snaking approach road. With this symbol of a difficult birth at the outset, we are then confronted at the reception by Justine’s feckless father Dexter (John Hurt) and her mother Gaby (Charlotte Rampling), a version of Sleeping Beauty’s wicked witch who basically lays a curse on the marriage in her crazed hatred of her ex-husband and the institution of marriage. Justine starts to unravel, her father takes a powder, and by the end of the evening, her union with Michael is over.
Part 2: Claire focuses on the approach of Melancholia in its “fly-by” of Earth. John, an amateur astronomer, is thrilled by this celestial phenomenon and shares his excitement with his young son Leo (Cameron Spurr). Claire is frightened that the planet will strike the Earth, a notion John dismisses with the full weight of scientific calculations behind him. Into this tenuous situation comes Justine, dull-eyed, mousey, and so depressed she can barely walk. She hopes that Melancholia destroys the “evil” Earth, thus wiping out all life in the universe—Justine claims she “knows” things and that Earth alone is inhabited. Claire, trembling with fright, buys pills she can use to overdose the entire family, while at the same time wondering where Leo will grow up if their planet is pulverized. When it does indeed appear that Melancholia is not “friendly,” which Claire first thought of the planet when the crisis appeared to be over, she discovers that John has taken all the pills, leaving nothing for her and Leo. She frightens Leo by saying there is no escape, but Justine gives him back a ray of hope by building with him a magic cave of tree branches under which she, Leo, and Claire sit holding hands, waiting for their heavenly kiss.
What, then, is Melancholia? Von Trier offers a hallucinatory synopsis of the film to come with an ultra-slo-mo preamble of Claire holding Leo and sinking into the golf course their home overlooks, of Justine tangled in heavy yarn and skimming the surface of water in her wedding gown, of birds falling from the sky, of worlds crashing. It is as though the director were offering up a dream he had at the very beginning of the film, and then presenting us with his corporealization of his unconscious material—the gestalt of his anxieties and preoccupations. As such, both halves of his film constellate his concerns about families, showing the damage inadequate parents do to their children, and both the terrorizing and seductive aspects of depression itself.
For example, when Michael leaves the estate, Justine sends him off coldly with, “What did you expect?” Indeed, what did he expect from someone whose parents never gave her a positive image of marriage and who actively worked to destroy her happiness on this day? Her fragile ego was absolutely no match for them, and Michael wisely packed it in before he got caught in the maelstrom of their messed-up lives. Justine identifies with Leo, an only child in a house so large and isolated that he could be lost in it for days; there don’t seem to be more than a couple of servants to tend to the vast estate or the lives inside it. In dream psychology, the house is the symbol for the self, and this self is beautiful, but largely empty of life.
Claire is a loving mother, but she, too, came from the same damaged family as Justine. It is entirely possible that the approach of Melancholia is, in fact, her plunge into a soul-crushing depression. Notice that as she walks across one of the greens of the golf course, the pin flag reads “19,” a telling detail that picks up John’s repeated questioning of Justine about how many holes are on his golf course—18. Thus, we can’t take the events of Part 2 at face value even if we were to see this film as science fiction. And so, the Justine who tells Claire that her plan to go out nicely with a glass of wine on the terrace is shit could very well be a projection, and the horses who were nervously bucking in the stable suddenly going quiet as Melancholia looms at its largest in the sky could be Claire deciding to let go and fall down the rabbit hole. In a previous scene, she saw a naked Justine laying in a beautiful, forested area, looking at Melancholia in erotic bliss; could depression really be this beautiful and fulfilling? Most reviewers of this film have commented on the use of the prelude to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde throughout the film. The music is mournful, in keeping with the tragic love of the title characters, and Wagner preferred to refer to the prelude as the “liebestod,” or love-death. It’s certain that love and death are intimately connected in this film, whether of the body or the spirit, and Claire is flirting dangerously with it.
Von Trier isn’t the subtlest of filmmakers, but some people’s dreams are fairly straightforward (mine, for example). To prevent his vision from seeming trite, he surrounds himself with the best actors and knows how to get them to inhabit their roles with preternatural ferocity. I honestly don’t know what or how Kirsten Dunst made Justine breathe with the kind of magnetism mentally ill people generate, but she is astonishing and mesmerizing, by turns hateful, pitiable, sweet, and morose. It was interesting to see the father-son team of Stellan and Alexander Skarsgård fight for Justine’s attention, the former as her overbearing boss, the latter as her hunky, simple husband, but it did add a dimension of familial dysfunction to the proceedings. Gainsbourg did a nice job of falling to pieces, her more controlled facade to Justine’s angry intemperance an easily breachable wall, her anger limited to a simple “sometimes I really hate you, Justine.”
Melancholia is a long day’s journey into night that merges the beauty and horror of depression through its committed point of view, full-bodied performances, and precise visual sensibility. In backing away from his usual histrionics, Lars von Trier shows his serious and sincere desire to engage thoughtfully with his subject. My hat’s off to him.
They don’t make films like this anymore, and more’s the pity. King of Devil’s Island is old-fashioned—very well made, brilliantly shot with a real sense of place, a tip of the hat to the old Hollywood Production Code, and suspenseful without being sensational. In fact, the blurb in the festival program led me to believe I would need to prepare myself for a bloodbath at the climax of the film. Instead, I got a story of friendship and solidarity that Howard Hawks would have been proud to put his name on.
The setting is 1915 Norway. Two teenagers—stocky, brooding Erling (Benjamin Helstad) and slim, gentle-looking Ivar (Magnus Langlete)—are being transported to Bastøy Island, which hosts a detention center for boys. Erling, once a harpooner on a whaling vessel, recalls watching a whale 25 meters in length with three harpoons in it take a full day to die—we are treated to the sight of a whale rising in the water, its scarred flesh close to the camera. Erling himself sports several scars, including a fresh wound inflicted by the police. He and Ivar are moved into Barrack C and are given the new designations C19 and C5, respectively.
The governor of Bastøy (Stellan Skarsgård) meets with C19, whom he expects will be a problem, and tells him that if he follows the rules, he will become a better person and get a chance to return to the world. The governor puts Olav/C1 (Trond Nilssen), the leader of Barrack C whose release after six years is imminent, in charge of teaching C19 the rules. Erling’s only goal is to break out at his earliest opportunity.
Life on the island is harsh, with heavy labor, strict attention to the rules, and classwork the only activities the boys engage in. Infractions are punished with intense physical toil, half of their already-meager rations, floggings, and, at the worst, solitary confinement. Erling is told that one boy placed in solitary banged his head against the wall so incessantly that he lost the ability to speak. Nonetheless, Erling scopes out the boathouse in which the governor’s rowboat is kept and quickly finds a way to break in and escape. Even though he is soon captured, the boys have seen what they were told was impossible—an escape—and the embers of rebellion at their harsh treatment are fanned. Barrack C explodes after the suicide of a boy who was being raped by loathsome housefather Bråthen (Kristoffer Joner), and the final showdown of the rioting boys and a battalion of Norwegian troops summoned by the governor forms a frightening climax to a tense film of building outrages.
This film takes its time developing its story. We get the lay of the land, the primitive conditions of life, the cold and damp, the heavy manual labor used to build character. We don’t really get to know the characters, so some of their actions come more out of the machinations of the script than the performances, yet the faces of these boys, cast after a nationwide search for “1915 faces,” tell volumes. One small boy has no lines, but the camera goes back to his stern, serious face again and again. When he is the only boy who stands his ground against the troops—not killed, as we fear, but scooped up with one arm by a soldier as they capture the rebels—we are not surprised. Indeed, as we await this showdown, it comes as a huge surprise that not one boy is actually harmed by the troops.
In keeping with this view of the prisoners as boys, not enemies, Stellan Skarsgård offers us a very strict man whose desire to teach right conduct mixes punishment with some compassion. Unfortunately, he is compromised by his desire to keep his young wife Astrid (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) on the island by filching some of the funds meant for the boys’ welfare. It’s hard to condemn him outright because he does seem to have a mission and threatens Bråthen with prison for his disgusting crime; yet, he is also arrogant, telling Olav, who has turned against him for letting Bråthen go, that everything good in Olav came from him. It’s shocking to learn that Olav was sent to the island for stealing some money from a church collection box when he was 7. And what could poor, simple-minded Ivar have done to deserve this treatment?
Benjamin Helstad is a revelation, pulsing with contained energy, a survival instinct second to none, and street smarts in place of an ability to read. He’s the cocked hammer of a gun, ready to fire his fists at any outrage, but he’s not a complainer. Trond Nilssen’s turn from a composed leader to a twisted-faced shouter is abrupt and awkward, but the understanding that has grown up between the two boys does make them a fairly compatible team.
The film was shot in the cold of winter, and the cinematography makes excellent use of the snow, ice, and fog to measure out the bleakness of the prison. A shot we’ve seen in many films, but one I never get tired of, is of the massive naval vessel bearing troops appearing out of the fog, frightening Olav and Erling at the doom it foretells. This isn’t a heroic Custer’s last stand kind of story; we are still talking about boys who know they can’t fight back and do the only thing they can—run.
King of Devil’s Island will screen Friday, October 7, 5:45 p.m., and Friday, October 14, 5:00 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.
Cinema Komunisto: This entertaining and eye-opening documentary provides a loving look at the little-known national cinema of Yugoslavia and the film fanatic who made it happen: Marshall Josif Broz Tito, Yugoslavia’s president for life. (Serbia)
Inshallah, Football: One young man’s struggle to get a passport to play soccer in Brazil is the lens through which this documentary examines the Indian oppression of Muslims in the occupied region of Kashmir. (India)
George the Hedgehog: Irreverent and adult, this comic-book-based animated film pits George, a pleasure-loving hedgehog, against his clone, a stupid, vulgar internet superstar. (Poland)
The Kid with a Bike: What makes some people give unselfishly of themselves is the question examined in this intense tale by the Dardenne brothers of a boy abandoned by his father and the single woman who takes him in. (Belgium)
Without: A suspenseful story of guilt and loss slowly unfurls as a young woman acts as a temporary caregiver to a helpless elderly man in an isolated island home. (USA)
Madame X: A riotous satire on spy/superhero films that has a drag queen hairdresser transform into a crusader for freedom and equality against the forces of repressive morality. (Indonesia)
Southwest: A haunting, beautifully photographed journey of discovery, as a young woman who dies in childbirth gets a second chance to live to old age, but only one day in which to live it. (Brazil)
On the Bridge: Moving documentary about the torments of posttraumatic stress disorder suffered by Iraq veterans and the failure of the VA medical establishment to help them. (France/USA)
In 1967, Danish filmmaker Jørgen Leth released a seminal experimental short called The Perfect Human (Det perfekte menneske) that became something of a fetish film for another Danish director—Lars Von Trier. Leth’s film examines physical characteristics and capabilities of a representative man and woman (Claus Nissen and Majken Algren Nielsen), providing labels (“This is an ear. This is another ear.”) and descriptions of actions (“This is how the woman lays down.”) as though the film were a nature documentary for a bunch of anthropologists from another planet. Von Trier, one of the founders of the Dogme 95 movement, seemed both fascinated and cheesed off by the word “perfect” in the title of Leth’s film, as well as its artistry and unemotionalism. He set out with The Five Obstructions to save Leth from himself.
A statement I’ve quoted before from the Dogme manifesto is the driving objective behind The Five Obstructions:
Furthermore I swear as a director to refrain from personal taste! I am no longer an artist. I swear to refrain from creating a “work”, as I regard the instant as more important than the whole. My supreme goal is to force the truth out of my characters and settings. I swear to do so by all the means available and at the cost of any good taste and any aesthetic considerations.
It is Von Trier’s contention that Leth would be a more complete and truthful filmmaker if he could let go of imposing a vision on his material. To “help” Leth overcome this shortcoming, Von Trier devised an exercise to break Leth’s normal creative rhythms. Von Trier compels Leth to remake The Perfect Human five times, adhering to strict rules Von Trier devises. Brief moments from the original film are shown as the two directors discuss what obstructions will be put in place. After each film is finished, we and Von Trier view it in its entirety.
The first set of obstructions Von Trier devises includes sending Leth to a country he has never visited (Cuba), no built sets, and edits in post-production that can be no longer than 12 frames in length. Alas for Von Trier, these obstructions, particularly the 12-frame restriction, prove to be a gift to Leth. The staccato rhythm of Obstruction #1: Cuba adds a comic objectivity to Leth’s regard of his perfect humans, and the lush use of color creates a vibrant, tropical milieu that enlivens the repetitive moments and conveys the sensuality of the surroundings that seem to have inspired him.
Von Trier decides that Leth must have an encounter that will strike fear and loathing in him, reasoning that it will be difficult for Leth to be artistic if he is shaken up. Leth confesses that a previous trip to Bombay was very disagreeable; therefore, Von Trier sends him to Bombay and further requires that he film next to something very disturbing, but must not include the disturbance in the film. Leth decides to take the role of the perfect man himself, and the resulting film shows him acting out the dining and jumping scenes from the original film in the red light district of the city. Von Trier chastises him for placing the Indian residents behind a semi-opaque screen behind him, thereby violating the rule that they must remain off-camera. Once again, the film is intriguing and tasteful—the exact opposite of what Von Trier wants.
The next two Obstructions don’t go very well for Von Trier either, as Leth proves over and over how creative he can be—indeed, the obstructions seem to heighten his ingenuity. During his filming in a Brussels hotel, in which is he charged with answering the questions posed in The Perfect Human, he overhears a couple having loud sex. With this inspiration and the French-speaking actors he has cast, the film becomes something of a French noir. Obstruction #4: Cartoon results from Leth and Von Trier’s mutual hatred of cartoons. But again, employing Bob Sabiston, the animator of Waking Life, and sending him footage from the Bombay shoot results in the most artistic and interpretive film of the series.
The final obstruction, filmed at Leth’s home in the Dominican Republic, requires Leth to read a script that Von Trier has written—a script that admits defeat. Leth’s apparent perfection as a filmmaker precludes him from letting go and becoming a mere recorder of events. I, for one, was thrilled with his victory. I really enjoyed this fascinating experiment in boundary-testing, and confirm the pleasure I get from the creative output of a director like Leth. Each of his reimaginings of The Perfect Human is entertaining and occasionally thought-provoking.
Von Trier hasn’t always lived up to his ideals, for example, allowing the expressionism of music to communicate his characters’ truth in Dancer in the Dark. Because Dancer came out in 2000, it seems rather disingenuous for Von Trier to insist that his friend Leth eschew a similar artistry. While The Five Obstructions is something of a game between the two friends, it’s not without a philosophical purpose for Von Trier. Any filmmaker who has the nerve to issue a manifesto about the direction of cinema obviously has more than a mercenary or creative interest in his work.
Von Trier is interested in human truth, thus making Jørgen Leth and The Perfect Human ideal specimens for his “nature documentary” on “The Perfect Director.” Von Trier does not seem to want to give up creative narrative entirely, thus pushing filmmaking back to its “actuality” beginnings. But he is suspicious of the manipulations of narrative, and many cinephiles join him in a distaste for having their buttons pushed. Apparently, he does not consider the approach Robert Bresson took—of filming nonactors performing the same scene countless times until all inauthentic mannerisms and inflections were bored out of them—to have been successful. Or maybe he just wants to find another way that is not so time-consuming and precise.
Since Von Trier can’t seem to tame the creative impulse in himself, I would hazard a guess that his work now seems to be pushing audiences past their boundaries, refusing to let them tuck comfortably into a story, to arrive at this truth he keeps seeking. Maybe he’ll eventually have his breakthrough. In the meantime, successful or not, his works will continue to evolve, and that’s something that should excite any true film fan. l
Pity the poor efficiency expert. Reviled by wage earners the world over for everything from crackpot work redesigns to hopelessly unrealistic time/motion calculations to massive layoffs in the name of productivity, it’s the rare movie that takes up the efficiency expert’s cause. In fact, I can think of only one film in which these professionals were not the butt of ridicule—Cheaper by the Dozen (1950), in which Clifton Webb’s character is not only honored for his work, but also inspires his wife to enter the profession.
More typically, the efficiency expert’s work, spawned by the Industrial Revolution, is played for sight gags, most often the Rube Goldberg-esque contraptions rigged by everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Wallace and Gromit. Characteristically, perhaps, these send-ups of efficiency in repetitive tasks usually involve men. We forget that the unpaid workers with the vast majority of routine chores to perform—housewives—benefited greatly from the labor-saving designs and devices that come under the larger umbrella of efficiency. Kitchen Stories, set in the late 1940s, offers a wry Scandinavian twist on this blighted profession that doesn’t have much respect for the work efficiency experts do, but acknowledges that they can be pretty decent people, too.
Sweden’s Home Efficiency Institute labors on behalf of the poor domestic worker. Impressive demonstrations of the Institute’s work include a presentation of the results of a study of how housewives move about their kitchens—an elaborate spider web revealing the most heavily trafficked paths that will be used to reconfigure kitchen design. To further these studies, the Institute has arranged to study single men living alone in a small, rural community in Norway. A team of Swedish observers move toward the border in a tidy, evenly spaced caravan of cars pulling small, half-moon-shaped trailers. Once in the Norwegian town, the lead researcher, Dr. Ljungberg (Leif Andreé), must attend to an emergency in Finland, and places his trust in his second-in-command, Malmberg (Reine Brynolfsoon). Anxious to make good, Malmberg keeps a close watch on his charges, who fan out to their host sites, each bearing a gift—a charming dala horse—and intending to be silent observers.
A local, Grant (Bjørn Floberg), leads Folke Nilsson (Tomas Norström) to the farm of Isak Bjørvik (Joachim Calmeyer), who fails to answer Grant’s knocks. Grant advises Folke to be patient. Several days pass with Grant and Folke taking turns trying to persuade Isak to open up by standing on a ladder and shouting into Isak’s second-story bedroom window and another in which Folke’s offering of the dala horse is secreted into the house by a disembodied hand. Eventually, Isak leaves the front door ajar, and Folke sets up his towering observation chair in a corner of Isak’s kitchen and waits fruitlessly for Isak to do something other than drink coffee and leave him in the dark. Making a big mistake, Folke secretly borrows Isak’s salt shaker for his boiled egg and fails to return it to its proper place; the next day, Folke sits in a kitchen strung end to end with drying laundry. However, the ice eventually is broken when Isak, distraught over his horse’s illness, finds he has run out of pipe tobacco. Folke wordlessly tosses his tobacco pouch onto the table, and we witness the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Kitchen Stories trafficks in the incredible sight gags we’ve come to expect from Scandinavian directors, such as Roy Andersson, Aki Kaurismäki, and even Lars Von Trier. Hamer tends to mock contraptions and how awkward they are for the people who are supposed to use them, for example, a breathing apparatus attached to a woman doing housework to measure her exertions or the struggle Folke and Isak have climbing in and out of the stilt chair. Even Isak’s birthday becomes a surprisingly funny experience, as Folke presents his host with a cake made threatening with a forest of lit candles.
Hamer also takes gentle and not-so-gentle pokes at the relationship between the neighboring countries. Malmberg says he literally got nauseous the moment he crossed the border into Norway. Isak upbraids Folke for observing, but doing nothing, just as the Swedes did during the war. Folke answers sadly, “Unfortunately.” And, perhaps a portent of things to come, Folke wolfs down the Swedish delicacies his aunt has sent him by post and ends up vomiting the whole meal on the ground. In the next scene, Isak is happily feasting on these provisions with Folke’s blessing.
The sweetness of the relationships in this film—Folke and Isak, Isak and an increasingly jealous Grant, Isak and his horse—makes this a fascinating and touching look at single men and the bonds they form, even when they are forbidden to do so. One could look at this film, set in the post-World War II period, as a contemporary plea for peace. Or one could simply look at it as another raspberry blown in the face of efficiency and productivity. Either point of view works beautifully.
Ultimately, however, this film works best for me as a meditation on film itself. One night, Green (Lennart Jähkel), a worry to Malmberg because he is fraternizing with his host, comes to Folke’s trailer to see if he has any beer—he and his host have run out. Folke attempts to take a principled stand as a dispassionate observer and refuses, hiding the fact that he has spoken with his host, too. Green curses him and says, “How can we hope to learn anything if we don’t get to know the people we observe?” Watching this film, several odd occurrences happen: Isak lets the phone ring without answering it and says, “Grant is coming for coffee.” Grant comes over for a haircut and takes the clippings home with him. Without Folke’s probing questions about these actions, Isak and Grant would seem rather eccentric; instead we learn that the rings communicate the message without the expense of the phone call and that Grant uses the hair to repair dolls, a skill he picked up in a POW camp. Part of what I love about cinema is that it takes us to worlds we’d never know and asks questions we’d never think of. Hamer seems to recognize the value not only of entertaining, but also enlightening. This wonderful movie accomplishes his aims beautifully and, might I add, efficiently.
“We are the last dinosaurs of Swedish film,” complained Ingmar Bergman to Jan Troell in 1983. It is strange to see Bergman so down on his lot in the Swedish filmmaking industry, since the director was one of the most recognized and lauded ever in world cinema. His penultimate work, a TV movie called Saraband, was eagerly awaited by cinephiles all over the world, and when he died in 2007, the tributes poured in by the hundreds. Bergman never doubted that Troell was his equal, yet Troell hasn’t gained that same level of respect from the cinematic world. When Everlasting Moments, his first full-length feature film in seven years, came out, the Toronto International Film Festival didn’t even schedule it; it was shown there only as a last-minute replacement for another film. That never would have happened to Bergman.
It’s hard for me to comprehend why Troell doesn’t seem to have the reach and appeal of Bergman. When I saw The Emigrants (1971) his towering epic of the Swedish émigré experience in America when it, too, arrived in America three years after its initial release, I knew I was seeing greatness. But very few of his works ever followed it to these shores. It wasn’t until the very first Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival in 1999 that I got a chance to see another film by Troell, a fascinating look at the strange marriage of Nobel laureate Knut Hamsun and his wife Marie in Hamsun (1996).
Ghita Nørby played the frustrated Marie in that film, and she plays Miss Fagerdal, a rich wig maker whose home the central character in Everlasting Moments, Maria Larsson (Maria Heiskanen), used to clean. The Finnish-born actress plays the Finnish-born wife of Sigfrid “Sigge” Larsson (Mikael Persbrandt) and mother of his seven children. The story, derived from Agneta Ulfsäter Troell’s book of her family history, is told as a memory play by this couple’s eldest daughter Maja (played as young woman by Callin Öhrvall). There is an I Remember Mama quality to this turn of the 20th century saga spanning 40 years, but Sigge is no kindly Lars Hanson, and Maria Larsson’s biggest problem isn’t having her daughter reject a family heirloom for her graduation present but rather keeping Sigge from slitting her throat with a straight razor.
The legend of Sigge and Maria’s betrothal centers on a raffle in which they won a camera. Sigge said he should get the camera since he bought the ticket, but Maria said she was part of the idea. Maria said she’d let Sigge keep the camera, but he would have to marry her so that she could have it, too. He did. When we enter the story proper, Sigge is waiting along with other men for day work at the docks. Few men are chosen, but because he is strong as a horse, Sigge usually gets picked. Once the children start to arrive, Maria quits service with Miss Fagerdal. She takes in sewing to add to the family’s meager coffers.
Maja is a good student who loves school and wishes to be a writer. One day, her teacher honors her with a visit to her home. In the middle of the visit, a very drunk Sigge is delivered to his door by two friends. Maja is humiliated, Maria is furious, and all of them pay a visit later on to the local temperance club where Sigge takes the pledge yet again. When they return home, the handsome and charming Sigge invites his wife to love; she only relents when he promises never to drink again, and they conceive Elon, child number 6. Sigge tries to keep his word, but The Captain (Antti Reini), a man who works with Sigge on the docks, likes his drinking partner.
Influenced by his best friend, Englund (Emil Jensen), Sigge becomes a socialist and joins the dock workers union. When the union calls a strike, Sigge has plenty of idle time to spend in the union hall. He walks a vivacious young barmaid named Mathilda (Amanda Ooms) home one day and begins an affair with her.
With Sigge out of work, Maria tries to pawn the camera they won years ago to help pay the bills. Entering the photography shop of Sebastian Pedersen (Jesper Christiansen), Maria hears him behind a curtain playing a violin while accompanied by the howls of his dog Leo. He comes to the front, examines the camera, and says it’s a very fine one, a Contessa. It still has an unexposed photographic plate in it. Maria confesses the camera has never been used; she doesn’t understand how it could possibly make images. Pedersen shows her how the process works by removing the lens, holding it up to a window where a butterfly is fluttering, and casting its shadow through the lens onto Maria’s open hand. He closes her hand, showing that she can capture images through the camera lens. Maria is enchanted. Pedersen teaches her how to use the camera, and she takes it home and snaps a picture of her children. When she brings it to Pedersen to be developed, he is impressed with her eye. He sets her up with supplies, and says he will let her use the camera until he decides what to offer her for it.
Sigge changes jobs when a hauler finds out how good he is with horses and hires him. Finances are still tight, and domestic relations in the Larsson house remain tense as Sigge continues to drink and abuse Maria and the children. Maria, however, finds her photographic skills more and more in demand and her friendship with Pedersen a source of comfort. When Sigge suspects Maria is cuckolding him with Pederson, he flies into a rage, and that’s when the razor blade comes out. A defiant Maria dares him to use it, “just remember the children.” He lets go, but this is no simple domestic disturbance. He is thrown in jail for attempted murder, and we wonder if Maria might finally have a chance to break free of him now and find some real happiness.
Everlasting Memories has an old-fashioned feel to it, and not just because it is set in the past. The film tells its story in a straightforward, conventional manner, including a voiceover style that harkens from another time. The look and feel of the film are like an overstuffed, high-back chair—full, handsomely hued in rich, deep tones that grow soft at the edges. The subject matter—a troubled marriage, family, and emigration as exemplified by Maja’s expatriate aunt—is pure Troell. Perhaps his reaffirmation of his style confirms Bergman’s assessment of him as one of Sweden’s dinosaurs of film. Yet, Troell really knows how to dig into the heart of characters and families, expressing their longings without revealing all their secrets. He makes ordinary people in dreary circumstances intriguing and compelling.
Maria acts as our eyes onto the beauty of the world that can be found everywhere people normally find misery. A grieving mother asks Maria to photograph her dead daughter as a keepsake; Maria composes a picture of the young girl in repose that astounds the mother: “She never looked more beautiful.” A neighbor woman talks about her Down Syndrome child as one she’d have aborted had she known. Maria asks to photograph the child, bringing a luminous smile to her neighbor at the honor. Somehow, her appreciation for the good in all things extends even to her husband. “Maybe it was love,” a grown Maja tells us. It certainly is love that fills this film and reaffirms Jan Troell as a filmmaker who affirms life without sugar-coating it. I highly recommend this return of a true master.
This is going to seem like a very peculiar way to open a review about a vampire movie, but serendipity led me to it. The hubby put on a Beach Boys CD as I sat fumbling for words, and the song “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” came on. When I heard the lyrics “And wouldn’t it be nice to live together, in the kind of world where we belong,” I thought, yes, that’s a sentiment Let the Right One In taps. Unlike the kind of sunny romances the Beach Boys immortalized, however, this story of young love comes from Sweden, a land better known for darkness and melancholy. And then there’s that small issue of the lovers being a 12-year-old boy and a vampire who looks like a “12 year old, more or less” girl. This is no trite or gimmicky love story, however. A more emotionally rich, honest, and harrowing film—though properly wrapped in the conventions and graphic horrors of vampire tales—you’re not likely to see for some time.
The film opens in a dreary apartment block in a suburb of Stockholm. Snow covers the ground, and darkness covers the gloom. Moving inside one apartment, we see the back of a boy. He puts his hand to the window and smears a palm print down the pane. We see his face, wistful, pale, framed by fine, pale hair. He has a knife out and pretends to talk to someone, daring that someone to come forward to be stuck like a pig. The boy, Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), collects knives and newspaper clippings detailing crime and violence. He lives with his divorced mother, pines for his father who lives a good distance away, and goes to a school where his intelligence, shyness, and status as a child of divorce makes him an object of torment for bully Conny (Patrik Rydmark) and two lackeys. They chase him into a bathroom stall, threaten him, soak his pants in a urinal, and mock him in scenes of painful cruelty.
These bullies are the imaginary pigs at the end of Oskar’s knife, and Oskar goes into the wide courtyard of his apartment complex and repeatedly jabs his knife into a tree. The camera shifts to Oskar’s right to reveal a girl standing on a table, coatless in the frigid night. They have a brief conversation. Her name is Eli (Lina Leandersson), the girl who the neighbors said moved into the apartment next to Oskar’s with her father Håkan (Per Ragnar).
Inside the apartment, Håkan is packing a square case with a plastic bottle, a knife, some contraption fitted with a mask, and a plastic coat. He goes into an isolated wood where he encounters a teenage boy. Distracting the boy, Håkan places the mask over the boy’s face and renders him unconscious. He puts on his plastic coat, wraps a rope around the boy’s feet, tosses the rope over a tree limb, and hoists him up. He places the plastic bottle under the boy’s head, slits his throat, and catches the blood that pours from his neck.
Unfortunately for him, a dog out for a walk with his owner catches the scent of blood and runs barking toward Håkan. Håkan flees the scene when he hears human voices. Returning to the apartment, he unpacks his case, only then realizing he left the bottle of blood at the scene. Eli, furious, yells, “Do I have to do everything myself?” “Forgive me,” is Håkan’s only response. Håkan seems to be trying to make something up to her. Her insolence toward him suggests that he might not be her father after all.
On a street near a frozen lake, good friends Lacke (Peter Carlsberg) and Jocke (Mikael Rahm) bid each other a warm good-night after a pleasant night out. Jocke crosses under a bridge, where he encounters a girl cringing in the cold. He goes to her aid, lifting her up to carry her to shelter. The girl is Eli, and grabs him with great ferocity and drains his blood. A prissy, old bachelor with a houseful of cats witnesses the scene. By the time he calls for help, the body is gone—dragged by Håkan to a hole in the ice and dumped in. Only traces of blood are found buried under some soft snow where Jocke’s body fell.
With one confirmed and one suspected death and the townspeople on alert, Eli must remain at home. She spends time with Oskar, and one day, notices that he has a bandage on his cheek. He told his mother that he fell at recess, but in fact, the bullies whipped him with a tree switch and accidentally hit him in the face, leaving a long gash. “You have to fight back,” she counsels. “When they hit, you hit harder.” She also promises him that she will always have his back. When Oskar goes to school the next day, he asks the gym teacher if he can start doing weight training.
Eli’s need for blood sends Håkan out again looking for a “donor.” His attempt to drain a teen athlete while his friends wait for him outside the school goes awry. As the boy is rescued unharmed, Håkan, hiding in the showers of the locker room, pours acid on his face to disguise his identity and keep Eli safe from prying eyes. He is taken to the hospital, and Eli remains at home, hungry.
Her need for blood has weakened her, and her body is starting to give off an odor, which Oskar embarrasses her by commenting upon it. She determines to get what she needs from Håkan, who has been hospitalized. Removing her shoes, she crawls up the side of the building and to his window. In a truly horrifying scene, he unplugs his airway, opens the window, and offers his neck to her. When she is done, he falls lifelessly to the ground.
Others will fall to Eli, even as she falls for Oskar. She crawls into his bed one night, naked, and he remarks on how cold she is. “Is it gross?” she asks. He doesn’t really answer, but he doesn’t turn her away. They lay in silence for a short time, and then Oskar asks her to go steady. She wants things to remain as they are, but he says they can, only they will just be for each other. Since it’s clear they are already a conspiracy of two in a world that has little use for them, it’s easy for Eli to agree. They become more entwined in each other’s lives. Oskar finally asks her if she’s a vampire. “I live on blood, yes.” She invites him into her home, where they dance to pop records. He gains unfettered access to her home, and she watches over him as the bullies escalate their attacks on him.
John Ajvide Lindqvist’s 2007 novel, Let the Right One In, was a runaway best-seller in Sweden, has already received numerous translations, and has been optioned by United Artists for a mainstream Hollywood version. With so many actual and proposed versions of this story floating around, however, it’s hard to imagine a better version than this film, with a screenplay by the novelist himself. From what I’ve read about the novel, many things that were left vague in the film are explicitly spelled out. I think the story may be better served by the visual and aural mood of the film craft, the simple and sometimes inarticulate conversations of Oskar and Eli, and the faded, shadowy adults who react to events but never penetrate the true mystery of connectedness. Indeed, the most emotionally remote among the characters are the ones who suffer the most awful fate.
The land itself seems permeated with loneliness as depicted in glorious Cinemascope by camera artist Hoyte Van Hoytema. He captures flat, linear images—the exterior wall of the apartment building in which Oskar and Eli live with its square, symmetrical, characterless windows; the straight maze of white-trunked birches in which Håkan commits murder; the vast expanse of a frozen lake in a monochrome world. In such a void, every sound is magnified. The meticulously detailed sound design gives us Eli’s animal growl as she feeds. We hear the wet sounds of mouths eating or nervously salivating. We hear each blow of Oskar’s beating and the strange sounds of unseen action while Oskar is underwater. The musical score contributes a foreboding structure, yet yields to tenderness as the love story progresses. Special effects are spare, realistic for the givens of the story, and deeply affecting and startling. Watch for a brief moment when Eli asks Oskar to “be me,” and Eli’s face as she would appear if she looked her real age flashes briefly, showing not only the successful connection between the pair, but also a human longing in her “human” face.
The remarkable performances of Hedebrant and Leandersson as Oskar and Eli command the lion’s share of the attention in the film. Eli, who’s “been 12 for a long time,” never really had a chance to live as a human. She still has a thirst for life that has kept her going through the loneliness and rootlessness of a vampire’s existence. Her existence isn’t depicted as sinister or horror-mongering, however. She does what she has to do without making a big thing of it. When Oskar seems to judge her for killing people, she puts him in his place by saying he’s just like her. “The first time I ever heard you, you were talking about killing. I do it to live. You want revenge.” When they finally kiss, Eli’s mouth is stained with blood, enacting a version of the blood-mixing alliance Oskar attempted before he knew her true nature.
The trailer below showcases the amazing look of this film, with all the horror traditionally associated with a vampire story and only a hint of the vital heart beating at its center when both Eli and Oskar “let the right one in.”
A fine interview with the director by Todd Brown of Twitch is worth reading. It doesn’t contain major spoilers, but I’m glad I didn’t read it before I saw the film. This is a film that should be felt, not examined. l
Directors: Lars von Trier (Riget I & II) and Morten Arnfred (Riget II)
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Shortly after Breaking the Waves came out in 1996, I got a hold of the script at my local Barnes & Noble and read it. And, well, I was so revolted by it, I vowed to skip Lars von Trier’s career forever and ever. A few years later, cooler heads prevailed upon me to revisit my decision; after all, I hadn’t even seen any of his films! They assured me that I’d LOVE, LOVE, LOVE Dancer in the Dark (2000), so I rented it. I hated it. Now confident that my original judgment was sound, I felt free to cross this Danish poseur off my list of filmmakers I needed to know about.
Then, wouldn’t you know it? The hubby, who I didn’t know when all the Lars and the Angry Girl stuff was going down, is a huge fan of von Trier’s TV series The Kingdom. This two-season series was released as a movie in various parts of the world, but the hubby moved mountains and fiords to get his hands on the actual TV episodes. He begged me on bended knee to watch it with him, promising I could leave the room at any time and find something more worthwhile to do, like reading my spam mail. So, because I love him and because it’s embarrassing to see a grown man grovel right there on the floor in front of our silly, little cat, I agreed.
Who’s sorry now? Unbelievably, not me. This series—which really should be seen in TV format for the oddly chilling comments von Trier makes over the closing credits of each episode—won me over immediately.
The Kingdom is a massive hospital in Copenhagen, the national hospital of Denmark as a matter of fact. According to the introductory opening of each episode, this house of advanced medical technology was built over a swamp where, many years before, Danish peasants used to bleach their cloth. The opening shows medieval Danes in rustic dress draping long sheets of fabric among thickets of trees, with vapors enveloping them in a presumably toxic fog. I’ll tell you right now that if you try to relate these actions to anything in the story, you’re wasting your time. It’s a nifty, little mood setter, but it’s a complete non sequitur. It is within the swirl of activity in the hospital that the story originates; we are introduced swiftly to a fairly large cast of characters whom we will grow to love, loathe, and pity through the course of some very strange goings-on.
The literal nerve center of the story is the neurosurgery unit, presided over by a imperious, obnoxious, xenophobic Swede named Helmer, played with malevolent glee by Ernst-Hugo Järegård. Helmer hates Denmark and, therefore, all of his colleagues, but was forced to leave Sweden amid charges of malpractice and malfeasance. He’s already thought to have caused irreversible brain damage in a young patient named Mona (Laura Christiensen), who is shown throughout the series twisted and drooling in her hospital room. Despite his dubious reputation and actions, he feels completely free to hurl insults at anyone who comes near him. When we first meet him, he is tangling with Krogshøj (Søren Pilmark), nicknamed Hook, for ordering an expensive CT scan for Mrs. Drugge (Kirsten Rolffes), the mother of burly hospital orderly Bulder (Jens Okking), whom he correctly diagnoses as a malingerer. This confrontation takes place in the daily neurosurgery meeting, which the head of the hospital Moesgaard (Holger Juul Hansen) attends to launch his morale-boosting program Operation Morning Breeze with a cheerful song. Helmer stares at him with contempt, refusing to sing with the assembled doctors, and leaves. He discharges Mrs. Drugge immediately.
Mrs. Drugge is a spiritualist who, during her frequent hospitalizations for imaginary illnesses, conducts séances. As she heads down the elevator, she is visited by a ghostly presence. Determined to investigate, she goes into a bathroom, runs her hand under cold water for some minutes, returns to the emergency room complaining of numbness in her hand, which is confirmed by a needlestick test she can’t feel, and is readmitted. Her investigation will take on gothic proportions as she discovers that the presence was a young girl named Mary (Annevig Schelde Ebbe), who was the victim of foul play and whose body is still somewhere on the grounds of The Kingdom. The killer, a supernatural being shaped like a man named Aage Krüger (Udo Kier), is key to a plot development in the second season—the birth of a strange baby that pops out of Judith (Birgitte Raaberg), another neurosurgeon beloved by Hook, that is a full-grown man (Kier) covered with slime who grows abnormally long legs and arms. Watching Kier’s head pop from between two legs at birth is an image of startling silliness (and not a small amount of sympathetic pain on my part).
As you can see, The Kingdom is fantastical and farcical at the same time. In a brief rundown of a few story lines in this soap-opera-like series:
++ Hook threatens to make public proof of Helmer’s mistake in Mona’s surgery. Helmer, learning of a Haitian poison that will turn people into mindless zombies from his would-be lover Rigmor (Ghita Nørby, playing a character similar to her role in Hamsun), flies to Haiti to get his hands on it and spikes Hook’s coffee with it.
++ Moesgaard’s son Mogge (Peter Mygind), rejected by a nurse, cuts the head off a cadaver that resembles him, puts it in a bag, and drops it at her desk.
++ The hospital staff gamble night after night on the time of arrival of an ambulance driver speeding the wrong way down a highway to the hospital.
++ A pathologist named Bondo (Baard Owe), has been doing research on an almost nonexistent form of liver cancer. He finds a dying patient with a liver tumor like the one he is studying, but the patient’s family refuses to donate his liver to science. In one of the most twisted parts of the series, Bondo finds a legal way to secure the liver by transplanting it into his own body.
Most comical of all is the Sons of the Kingdom lodge, a semi-secret society of senior doctors that performs all the strange rituals one expects of these bastions of brotherhood. Helmer joins the lodge to protect his precarious position on staff, but deplores everything about them—naturally. Below is a clip from the night of his initiation:
So, what are we to make of this odd assemblage of supernatural and subhuman stories? Like the savage satire The Hospital, The Kingdom skewers the medical profession by suggesting they are a careless, feckless, useless club of pseudo-gods (best represented by Helmer) that is empty gas at best. Since The Kingdom is the national hospital of Denmark, however, von Trier seems to be siding ever so slightly with Helmer in his contempt for the Danes:
Letting a Danish Miss Marple with extraordinary spiritual powers run loose and solve crimes in a place run by a lodge that sees science as the one true power is an interesting speculation on natural law, and certainly one that was in vogue when this series aired. But von Trier is a playful bloke. He was a member of the Dogme95 group, whose Vow of Chastity barred the use of advanced technology in order to capture “reality.” Von Trier sticks to the rules in some instances—for example, the sepia tone of much of the series was caused by the use of natural lighting or a single light attached to his handheld camera. He avoids others by inserting himself into the film at the closing credits, thereby refusing to remain anonymous. In addition, he heightens the unreality of the series by employing two kitchen workers with Down’s syndrome as a sort of Greek chorus to illuminate or portend events. I rather liked them, though I didn’t feel they were all that necessary.
The last part of the vow is, I think, the key to von Trier’s vision for The Kingdom:
Furthermore I swear as a director to refrain from personal taste! I am no longer an artist. I swear to refrain from creating a “work”, as I regard the instant as more important than the whole. My supreme goal is to force the truth out of my characters and settings. I swear to do so by all the means available and at the cost of any good taste and any aesthetic considerations.
The expansiveness of a TV series allows its creators a chance to explore character, delve deep, and reveal truth. Although many of the actions in The Kingdom are outlandish or unbelievable, they do produce real moments. Judith’s love for her baby and her baby’s sacrifice to prevent more evil at The Kingdom is genuinely moving. Ernst-Hugo Järegård as Helmer is a tour-de-force depiction of a colossal asshole. I was also touched by Hook’s devotion to Judith, even accepting her baby and thereby proving himself to her. Bulder became one of my favorite characters, enduring his mother’s insults and after she is seriously injured, (Helmer’s comment: “Mrs. Drugge has become much more convincing.”) welcoming them back as a sign that she will be all right.
The Kingdom is an utterly original creation teeming with lively plots and performances. It taught me not to be too pigheaded in my opinions—Mr. von Trier is back on the list.
If ever there was a category that seems almost entirely irrelevant to the Oscars, it is Live Action Short Film. These nominees have been the province primarily of first-time directors, perhaps even projects for graduation from film school. They don’t get general releases in theatres, at least, not here in the States. In fact, the only short I can remember seeing in conjunction with regular theatrical runs was The Heart of the World (2000) by Canadian director and cult favorite Guy Maddin. In fact, it got played over and over with various films until I was pretty damn sick of it.
However, the very first films ever made were live action shorts. An entire industry was built on these short stories of the screen, which may be one reason the Academy has been reluctant to eliminate this category from its Oscar ballot. The first year of Oscar, two awards in this category were given: Comedy and Novelty. Novelty seemed to have encompassed adventure/documentary films, like the 1933 winner Krakatoa, which I presume showed the volcano exploding. Mack Sennett and Hal Roach films were well represented in the Comedy division.
By 1935, big-name studios like Warner Bros, Paramount, RKO, and MGM were being nominated in three new divisions: Color, One-reel, and Two-reel. (The Color division was eliminated in 1938, presumably because the technology was now well-established and not worthy of special technical recognition.) A producer for Warner Bros named Gordon Hollingshead dominated nominations in these categories for some time, with Disney Studios poking up its head now and then.
In 1957, the award got its current title, and although well-known names such as Disney, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, Ismael Merchant, Claude Berri, and Jim Henson could be found among the nominees, the category was headed toward obscurity. Today, the only short films we see at the movie theatres are commercials. I can tell you, after viewing the five nominees for the 2007 Live Action Short Film Oscar, I’m ready to start a movement to kick the commercial assault to our senses off the screen and replace it with the witty and often stunning works to be found among this neglected type of film. Here are the 2007 nominees for Best Short Film (Live Action):
Tanghi Argentini (Belgium)—Guido Thys (director) and Anja Daelemans (producer)
This 14-minute short set at Christmastime is about André (Dirk van Dijck), an officer worker who persuades his bah-humbug colleague Frans (Koen van Impe) to teach him to tango so that he can pursue an online romance with a woman who loves the dance. The characters are sketched quickly, but indelibly, with not a speech or movement wasted in telling this charming and surprising story. Director Thys has spent much of his time in television, so he’s got the experience to work this very short short for all its worth. A real crowd pleaser, it has won numerous international awards. It would be in keeping with the early history of this category to reward such a delightful comedy, but it may seem too slight to Academy voters, particularly against some of its competitors. (Very short clip here.)
Om Natten (At Night, Denmark)—Christian E. Christiansen (director) and Louise Vesth (producer)
Another Christmastime film, this 39-minute short has the kind of gravitas the Academy seems to like in its Best Pictures, but it’s a real downer that plays more like an Afterschool Special than a well-constructed short feature. Mette (Neel Rønholt), Sara (Laura Christiansen), and Stephanie (Julie Ølgaard) are three young women desperately ill with cancer who give each other companionship and strength on the hospital ward nicknamed Death Row. The women are types (the religious good girl, the woman allied with her divorced father against the world, and the troubled smoker/drinker/wearer of black nail polish who hasn’t seen her parents in five years). Christiansen, who has a couple of directing credits, has spent most of his film career as a production manager. He simply does not have a director’s touch, letting his actors flounder and his story meander and descend into cheap melodrama. The hubby was moved to tears, but then he spent a lot of time in a hospital and so identified with the characters. I, on the other hand, was bored to tears by this predictable, morose entry. Some people are picking it to win. They might be right, but if it does, it will show Oscar really has no taste whatsoever and is all about its image. (Trailer here.)
Il Supplente (The Substitute, Italy)—Andrea Jublin (director)
This 15-minute film that seems to say that we never really grow up makes its point in a bizarrely original fashion. We are taken to a high school, meeting up with the various nerds, stuck-ups, and artsy types who war away among themselves. Into one rowdy classroom comes a man (Jublin), a substitute teacher who behaves just as savagely with the students as they do with each other. He confiscates a toy soccer ball that has been autographed by an Italian player, locates the class ass kisser and gives him a bad score on his imitation of an ass-kissing snake, is told “no” by a student when he tells her to give him a poem she is writing, and incites the class to rough up the soccer-ball kid. He is found out to be not who he was presumed to be, and ends up confronting the same challenges in the adult world he forced on the kids in the classroom. This is well executed, with energetic performances by all the players, but a philosophical voiceover by the man ruins the anarchic tone of the short and sets us up for a predictable ending. This will not win the Oscar, nor does it deserve to, but it shows the makings of an original talent in first-time director Jublin. (Very short clip here.)
Le Mozart des Pickpockets (The Mozart of Pickpockets, France)—Philippe Pollet-Villard (director)
Pollet-Villard wrote, directed, and costars in this 31-minute romp through Paris’ petty criminal world. Philippe (Pollet-Villard) and Richard (Richard Morgiève) are crime partners who live in a tiny pension and barely survive as part of a pickpocket ring that works the various street markets. The pair is dumb and inept, but gets lucky one day when they evade the police that round up their partners, partly because a young boy (Matteo Razzouki-Safardi) inexplicably goes up to Richard and holds his hand. The boy follows them home. He doesn’t speak or seem to understand them, so they assume he is deaf. But they incorporate him into a new pickpocket ring, which ends as quickly as it began with Philippe getting punched in the nose. Fortunately, the boy has ideas of his own about how to lift wallets. Richard exclaims to Philippe, “I’d never have thought of it in 10 years.” Yes, these sad sacks need this boy prodigy far more than he needs them. Pollet-Villard plays a wonderful blowhard and directs his actors with great skill. The film has a spritely pace and great situational comedy that never feels cheap. Young Razzouki-Safardi is so cute that he melts your heart, and his gigantic smile at the end of the film is more than winning. This film could be a contender, though I don’t think it will win. Again, it might be too slight for the Academy, and it has stiff competition. (Clips and a “making of” in unsubtitled French here.)
The Tonto Woman (United Kingdom)—Daniel Barker (director) and Matthew Brown (producer)
This 36-minute adaptation of an Elmore Leonard short story is the best of the bunch—easily one of the best films of any length in 2007—and the one that should take the Oscar if there is any justice in the world. It’s hard to believe that this assured, taut drama about the redemption of a Mexican cattle rustler named Ruben Vega (Francesco Quinn, Anthony Quinn’s son) is the film debut of director Daniel Barker. Certainly, he had a lot of help from veteran cinematographer Ben Davis (Layer Cake, Miranda, Imagine Me & You), whose compositions are spectacularly beautiful and evocative. Film scorer Dan Jones also provides a soaring score that is definitely influenced by Elmer Bernstein. The film opens in a confessional, then is told entirely in flashback from an omniscient point of view. Vega hides on a hillside and watches a beautiful woman walk topless to a tub and water pump outside a desert shack. She pumps water into the tub and starts to wash up. After she goes back inside, Vega comes to call on her, the picture of benign politeness. She stands in the shadows for a while, then confronts him, saying that she knows he was watching her—just like all the others. She has a startling tattoo on her chin, a remnant of the 11 years she spent as a slave to the Tonto-Mohave Indians. She is Sarah Isham (Charlotte Asprey), wife of the largest cattle rancher in the area. Her husband searched for her, but when he found her, he couldn’t keep a woman who had been defiled by the “red niggers” at home with him. She remains exiled in the desert, watched over by three thugs, hired by her husband, who act as drovers of his human piece of property. Vega’s actions for the rest of the picture to redeem her back into society are also his redemption. Every scene is packed with emotional truth and dignity, acted out by a top-flight cast.
All these films and the nominated animated shorts are touring in select cities courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. I would expect a DVD release sometime soon. Perhaps home viewers will embrace this unique and wonderful form of cinema that the big studios and distributors have all but forgotten. l
Roy Andersson is an extremely individual director. His mordant perspective and visual sensibility put him in step with the grotesque commentaries of painter Ivan Albright (who, by the way, produced the painting used in the 1945 version of The Picture of Dorian Gray, which I’m sure Andersson must have seen during his formative years). I was knocked out by Andersson’s apocalyptic take on the year 2000 panic, Songs from the Second Floor. When I heard that this low-output filmmaker had a new picture that would be at the CIFF, it was Number One on my must-see list. Sadly, there’s no getting around it—I was kind of disappointed with You, the Living.
The film opens in a room. The camera lingers for a bit, then a man pops awake in terror. He says he’s had a dream that bombs were falling. Next, we see a fat biker chick sitting on a park bench and complaining that nobody understands her or likes her. Her enormous biker boyfriend stands to the rear of her telling her that he likes her and that their dog likes her. He encourages the dog to walk to her. She tells them both to go away. Repeatedly. Insultingly. She wants to get away. She would if she had a motorcycle. He says he’s having a veal roast later. She says she might come by.
A school teacher comes to class. She sits at her desk, then begins to sob. She runs out of the room. Her very young charges come out and ask her what’s wrong. “I had a fight with my husband. He called me a hag.” “What’s a hag?” asks one of the children. “Go ask him.” Switch to a carpet store where a couple asks a salesman for a 3-meter-long rug in green. “We don’t have green, but we have red.” He pulls the red carpet out and stretches it out. “Is that 3 meters?” asks the husband. The salesman measures. It’s 1 meter too short. He asks his coworker if he sold any of the red carpet. “Yes, I sold a meter this morning.” “You have to change the tags when you do that!” the man admonishes. “I had a fight with my wife,” he says to no one in particular, “and I called her a hag.” I don’t remember what she called him, but the female customer says, “Hag is worse.” They leave.
An older couple is in bed having sex. While the woman grinds away on top, all the man can do is talk about how the value of his retirement account has gone down 34 percent.
A man goes into a barber shop and asks for a trim. The Arabic barber starts trying to get creative, asking if he wants a part. The man says he’s in a hurry and that if he wanted a part he’d have asked for one. The barber says his hair falls to the left. The man, impatient, says, “Why to the left? Is that because you people read from right to left?” Insulted, the barber takes his electric clippers and cuts a stripe down the middle of the man’s head.
A young woman is infatuated with a musician named Micke Larsson. They have drinks, but he doesn’t call again. She goes to the tavern where they met. She has a dream about him in which they get married. Their home appears to be on a train track because it moves and comes into a station where a huge crowd of people have gathered to wish them good luck.
These and other vignettes, totaling 50 in all, comprise the gloomy and absurd world of Roy Andersson. What’s great about Roy Andersson films is their look. Andersson has fashioned a color palette that is washed-out blues and yellows, the colors of the Swedish flag. His characters look pasty or deformed. This film features a lot of short people, especially men. He revels in putting strange actions at the edges of the screen or in the background, making the experience of watching his films a bit like a game of Where’s Waldo.
However, You, the Living goes off the tracks in choosing its targets. In Songs from the Second Floor, Andersson took aim at corporate hot shots and government officials for their mendacious, clueless behavior. His satire was barbed and appropriately savage. Unfortunately, You, the Living takes aim at ordinary people. Andersson, who also wrote the script for the film, makes fun of curious customs (strange movements to a song sung at a formal banquet), infirmaties (a man using a walker pulling a dog hopelessly entangled in its leash), and annoying behaviors (playing a tuba in the house). These bits are laugh-out-loud funny, but they are cheap shots nonetheless and rather pointless. Yes, some people will never be satisfied, and we might just blow ourselves up because we don’t seem to know any better. But seeing the world as populated with miserable grotesques is more than a caricature; it’s a deeply misanthropic world view that really doesn’t offer much to movie audiences but a chance to feel mean and superior, too.
The film begins with a title card containing a quote by Goethe: “Be pleased then, you the living, in your delightfully warmed bed, before Lethe’s ice-cold wave will lick your escaping foot.” I think there is another not-so-lofty saying that’s a lot more to Andersson’s point: “Life’s a bitch, and then you die.”
Ingmar Bergman’s death last week was an event that swept with unusual speed and prominence through the news services. Yet, the bleakly amusing thing about many of the commentaries on his passing was the statement, or confession, by many critics of his rapidly fading importance. So-called young film fans apparently asked in their droves, “Ingmar who?” Not that Bergman’s works should be regarded without a healthy dash of skepticism, either. A review of Hour of the Wolf (Vargtimmen, 1968) in the Encyclopedia of the Horror Film, edited by Phil Hardy, pithily summarized Bergman’s oeuvre: “As (nearly) always, Bergman’s film is less about ‘great existential problems’ than about people unable to see further than the ends of their own noses who have all the time in the world to concentrate on their favourite (and only) world view.” Bergman stumbled into a fortunate situation that very few other directors of any stripe have ever achieved—he was allowed almost complete artistic freedom of expression for nearly 30 years. He treaded water more than few times in that period looking for something new to say. But his best, most galvanising films, are deep in their cultural scope as well as their visceral emotional impact.
Persona, Hour of the Wolf, and Shame (Skammen, 1969) form a loose trilogy analysing horror, as Conrad would understand it, though containing quite a bit of horror as Roger Corman would understand it, too. They chart a cycle of thought and reaction to the Atomic Age, of desire for complete retreat within the artistic psyche, the terrors within that psyche, and the effect of finally being unshelled and destroyed by a violent world. Each film centers on an artist who has retreated from the world. In Persona, an actress, Elisabeth Vogler (Liv Ullman, in her debut role for Bergman) goes mute, seemingly as a reaction to a cruel, existential dread evoked by images of violent death, and is placed in the care of a nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson). In Hour of the Wolf, a painter, Borg (Max Von Sydow) and his wife (Ullman) live in a remote cabin on an island, where Borg seems to go mad, and the wife cannot tell if the mad things she sees are real or merely a shared delusion. In Shame, Von Sydow and Ullman play married musicians who find their womb of privacy shattered by a real war erupting around their ears.
Persona could be Bergman’s most aggressively abstract film. Essentially, nothing happens, and yet a lot seems to go on. Elisabeth is stricken by her mute terror whilst giving a performance of Electra, an archetypal role ripe with meaning—a woman who kills her mother and runs from the avenging Furies—and disengages from the world. Whilst in a nursing home, she watches with utter desolation, whilst cowering in the corner, footage from Vietnam, including the famous image of a Buddhist Monk immolating himself as a protest.
Her psychiatrist (Margaretha Krook) believes she’s chosen silence as a kind of a new role—a guise to be worn in until her crisis resolves, and leaves her to the care of Alma, a very normal young woman, carelessly chatty, impressed by having a famous woman as her charge. Alma and Elisabeth move into the doctor’s summer house. Here, Alma learns, or rather fails to learn, that Elisabeth’s enigmatic silence offers a mirror that can seem both infinitely open and endlessly malevolent; Alma can write anything she wants onto eternally attentive features, but finds they sink like stones in a pool. Bergman fills the film with framings that feature reflections in mirrors and lakes.
Alma gleefully confesses all her secrets to Elisabeth—her troubled relationships and a beachside sexual escapade with her best friend and an anonymous young man that resulted in her boyfriend Henryk getting her an abortion. Elisabeth seems to listen with compassion, and Alma falls so deeply in their cocoon of confidence she almost kisses her. Moments of sexually charged intensity are rife between them. One night, Elisabeth comes into Alma’s room and embraces her, caressing her hair as they gaze at themselves in a mirror. The next day, however, Alma isn’t sure if it’s a memory or a dream. Delivering mail for Elisabeth, Alma sneaks a read of her condescending description of their relationship in a letter to the psychiatrist, and smoulders with resentment. She leaves a shard of glass for Elisabeth to walk on. Elisabeth does so, and their subsequent exchange of looks confirms its deliberation—whereupon the film breaks down briefly, a hole burning in the celluloid, with a short shard of a silent comic film, some of which was also shown at the start along with images of a film production beginning.
When the narrative returns, Sven Nykvist’s preternaturally sharp cinematography wanders in and out of focus as the women walk through the house. A chasm has been jumped from relationship to psychodrama. Alma alternates between pleading for forgiveness with Elisabeth and physically assaulting her. In the night, Alma awakens from a terrible dream to the sound of someone calling Elisabeth’s name; this proves to be Elisabeth’s husband (Günnar Bjornstrand) who’s blind, and thinks Alma is Elisabeth. Elisabeth seems to encourage Alma to continue the ruse, to the point of sleeping with him. When she finds Elisabeth studying a photo of her crippled son, Alma settles down in front of her coldly, mercilessly spinning out an incisive account of why Elisabeth had the child and her reaction to it, which causes Elisabeth to writhe and flinch. The same scene is repeated from the opposite angle, this time fixed on Alma’s face, until, in a grotesquely powerful moment in which the two women’s faces are joined by a split-screen effect, locked in a kind of mutant immobility. With her direct assault on Elisabeth’s psyche, Alma’s fallen right into the same rabbit hole.
The remaining narrative is impossible to judge. Alma seems to abuse Elisabeth further, except that she speaks about playing roles, and it seems perhaps she and Alma have swapped bodies. Or has Alma stolen Elisabeth’s power? Alma tears her arm with her nails, and Elisabeth sucks the welling blood from it, whereupon Alma repeatedly beats the cowering woman. Bergman intercuts between the two women packing to leave, but only Alma actually gets on board the bus to go. The film breaks down again, returning to boom cranes, cameras, and a fading arc light.
The impression of Persona is its meaning, and its impression is an evocation of dread of many things: sexuality, artistic barrenness, war, the pains of interpersonal communication. This last dread Bergman always insisted was the key to his films. Bergman weaves a tapestry that combines many influences and exports just as many. There are dashes of several Scandinavian masters’ influences: the erotic-horror expressionism of artist Gustav Munch, the psychodynamics of playwrights August Strindberg and Henrik Ibsen, the films of Carl Dreyer (whose Vampyr and Day of Wrath anticipate several Bergman works). Bergman was also an avid fan of gothic fiction and filmmaking, and Persona tracks like some of Poe’s crazier stories, like Morella or The Tomb of Ligeia, where a couple try so desperately to know each other, to join in the deepest, most spiritual sense, that it passes well beyond sexuality into obsessive mutual destruction.
The theme of psyches intertwining would be furthered in Hour of the Wolf, which explores the idea that perhaps in a marriage, couples begin not merely to look like each other, as the old canard goes, but also share the same thoughts, the same madness; in fact, Ullman’s character in that film cannot decide afterwards if the gothic terrors she has seen truly haunted her and her husband or were just her involving herself in her crazed husband’s delusions. In Persona, the entwining minds have the aspect of a sick love affair. The dread is thus highly sexualised, though nothing sexy is seen. The one heterosexual relationship in the film, the marriage between Elisabeth and Mr. Vogler, is a match of deficiencies. He is blind, and she has become mute. Each embodies a lack, not complementary, but instead causing permanent alienation, a complete divorcement from communication. A possible new human connection is found in the homosexual attraction of Alma and Elisabeth, except this is little more than glorified narcissism, a search to bathe in the reflection of a more perfect version of the self. The antiseptic chill of Persona is pervasive as he investigates lust as an aspect of emotional need.
The relationship between Alma and Elisabeth anticipates a modern fascination with the celebrity cult. Alma wants to find herself in the acting icon, and Elisabeth can absorb anything she wants through the subservient/idolising ordinary girl. Persona evokes anxieties about artistic responsibility and effort; when Elisabeth actually stoops to sucking Alma’s blood, it seems an ultimate fulfilment of an artist’s creed. Bergman was perhaps prophetic. Years later, Ullman would refuse to make any more films with her ex-lover because she was sick of having her psyche scoured in the process of making his art.
Bergman became one of the greatest of cinematic expressionists, that is, he knew how to use image and sound in such a way as to drag an overwhelmingly physical response, usually unsettling, out of his audience. He knew how, with his camera, and even more so, his editing, (kudos to Ulla Ryghe, the cutter on this picture), to mould cinematic space exactly to his needs. Bergman’s overpoweringly weird mise-en-scene commands attention, and in this regard, Bergman is second to none, even David Lynch, a major acolyte. You’re never entirely too sure of what you’re seeing or hearing in Persona, a film whose effects are as spare Swedish modern furniture.
Bergman’s stringent, unflinching attitude towards the toughest subjects demanded a fair amount of nerve of him and his audiences. As a man, he was nothing like the stern shaman that seemed to make these films, but a fiery, plain-spoken, sensual workaholic who remained haunted by his formative years. It was once said of Thomas Mann that he was a great novelist not because he tried to drum up brilliant answers, but because he asked the most interesting questions. This is perhaps, most fundamentally, what all great artists do, and it can be said of Bergman as a filmmaker. Even at their most opaque and peculiar, Bergman’s films always have the tone of urgent questioning. The sheer balls of his examinations, mixed with his peerless creative sense of cinema, mean their questions will be unnerving and problematic, affecting and hypnotic, for a long time to come.
I love a movie that takes my expectations, shakes them around for a couple of hours, and ushers me out of the theater thoroughly and pleasantly surprised. A film that blazes a new trail, as opposed to following a well-trod path, is all too rare and cause for celebration in my book.
After the Wedding is just such a film. Director Susanne Bier (who co-wrote the film with Anders Thomas Jensen) has crafted a tightly wound drama that twists and turns without ever feeling contrived, and earned the Danish film a Best Foreign Film Oscar nomination this past year.
The story centers on Jacob, a Danish ex-pat working at an Indian orphanage on the verge of shutting its doors. The children’s last hope lies with Jorgen, a Danish businessman who offers millions, but on one condition: that Jacob himself come to Copenhagen and shake hands on the deal. Why has Jorgen made such a personal request? And why is Jacob so reluctant to return to Copenhagen? These are just the first of many small mysteries that fuel the narrative.
Jacob arrives in Denmark where he’s set up in a posh hotel penthouse suite, a fish out of water among all the modern conveniences so foreign to his impoverished life in India. Awkward in a new suit and clutching a video tape of the children he hopes to save, he’s ill at ease during his first meeting with Jorgen, a confident man of wealth and power used to calling the shots, both professionally and personally. Jacob is lean, ruggedly handsome, and serious. We rarely see him smile. Jorgen is a large, gregarious man in the style of all successful businessmen who eat, drink, and socialize well. He talks more than he listens and rattles Jacob with his apparent lack of interest in Jacob’s earnest presentation. What, exactly, is his game?
When Jorgen makes the strange and seemingly innocuous request that Jacob attend his daughter’s wedding, the game, so to speak, is afoot.
Arriving late to the ceremony, Jacob recognizes someone from his past and then a secret revealed at the reception pulls the rug out from under him, casting his trip in an entirely different light. What follows is a compelling personal drama that eludes expectation. As one revelation dominoes into another, Jacob is led to a moral decision with ramifications felt halfway around the world.
It’s no disappointment to the audience that the “big reveal” comes early on in the story; there’s so much more to follow, holding our attention as we watch these characters grapple with each new development. The camera that frequently lingers on extreme close-ups of characters’ faces—especially the eyes—combined with a somber soundtrack, creates an air of uncertainty. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, and when it did, I was deeply moved.
Mad Mikkelsen (the bad guy poker player in Casino Royale) admirably carries the film on Jacob’s shoulders. Rolf Lassgard (as Jorgen) is wonderful in a role that easily could have had him chewing scenery at every turn. Sidse Babett Knudsen (as Jorgen’s wife Helene) and Stine Fischer Christensen (as his newlywed daughter) round out the fine ensemble. The strength and honesty of this acting quartet keeps the film from sinking in melodramatic waters. l
My Larsen (Trine Dyrholm) is a fictional documentary filmmaker who joins another fictional amateur filmmaker, Arne Thorsen (Kurt Ravn), and director Åke Sandgren in shooting what we identify as Flies on the Wall. The concept of films within a film and the plural title are the conceits around which Sandgren builds a tale of political intrigue in which, by definition, things are not what they seem.
The film starts in a police station in which the shadowy figure of a woman is standing with her back to us in an interview room. A detective comes into the main squad room and says that she won’t talk until they view a CD he has in his hand. He and two of his colleagues gather around a computer. He loads the CD, and they begin to watch a film that is a personal diary My has begun to discover her own truth. She has interviewed friends and ex-lovers, always with her camera running, about herself. We learn that My is a taker who keeps emotional engagement at a distance.
Into this personal meditation comes Peter (Henrik Prip), a former boyfriend who is a PR executive for Denmark’s Liberal Party. He asks her to profile a Liberal district, warning her that the mayor, Svend Balder (Lars Brygmann), will assume that the film is about him and try to control her actions. My does not hold with the Liberal agenda, but she is persuaded because Peter promises her total autonomy, a chance to expose the Liberals if that is what she wishes.
At first, My is treated with efficient deference by Balder’s staff, but the mayor dodges her attempts to speak with him. She finally catches up with him and three of his aides and follows them into a men’s locker room. They are preparing to take a dry sauna and jokingly suggest that if she wants to film them, she’ll have to join them. She strips and follows them into the sauna; only Balder stays in the sauna with her. He finally agrees to be completely accessible to her.
My, of course, does not expect him to be as transparent as he claims he will be. She plants cameras and microphones in his office and slowly unravels a secret. Balder and Arne, who has lost his personal life during his long service to Balder, have taken money promised for a beachfront development to benefit the city and used it to speculate in Asian investments. Their investments have been profitable, and proceeds were plowed back into the town’s schools, but not the beachfront project.
Arne invites My to his home. He used to fish and hunt with bow and arrow, but now concentrates on making film. He rigs a small camera on his chest so he can have his hands free to do other things. He shows her one of the fishing trips he filmed. He’s patient. That’s obvious. He has given up everything to rise with Balder. He suspects My may foul Balder’s future. Balder, however, feels Arne is a bigger risk, and fires him, promising to rehabilitate his career after a suitable amount of time has passed.
In fact, My begins an affair with the married mayor. What started as a cynical attempt to gain his confidence becomes a true love affair. When she is given documents that would incriminate him in the funds scandal, she holds onto them. Balder, out of love for My, decides to come clean about everything. This is certainly not something we expect from crooked politicians. Could love really be so powerful? Will we have a happy ending?
The answers to these questions hinge to some extent on what Balder tells My after one of their intimate meetings. He says honesty and truth are not necessarily the same. This we know instinctively to be true because we don’t all have access to the same information. The various points of view Sandgren sets up in this film—My’s, Arne’s, and his own—show clearly how people can be dupes while thinking they are deeply in the know. The modern world is one of artifice and shallow digging, well represented by My’s character. Once she becomes emotionally involved in her life, she truly sees how much she has missed, not only in terms of personal fulfillment, but also in how she interprets the world around her.
The film builds into an exciting thriller reminiscent of Silkwood. I had a little trouble with the bouncy handheld camera work, but overall, Sandgren uses the different looks of all the cameras he employs in telling this tale to great effect—not giving us easy information by clearly identifying whose version of the truth we are seeing. If this calculated confusion frustrates one at first, sticking with it reaps great rewards.
We live in time when surveillance and information are everywhere. As human beings, however, we’ve become less sophisticated about processing it. Just spend some time on a discussion board or in a chat room and find out how much we miss by not seeing the people with whom we are speaking. Flies on the Wall illuminates the confusion of our three-card monty world of enormous cynicism and even greater naivete. l
1931 was a watershed year for horror cinema. With Tod Browning’s crepuscular, but patchy Dracula, James Whale’s Gothic fairy tale Frankenstein, Rouben Mamoulian’s vivid Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Michael Curtiz’s flashy, absurd Doctor X, the genre found its feet in the Hollywood of sound, and made a big impact at the box office. At the time, they set the pace, created stars, and codified the film concept of Mary Shelley’s homunculus, Bram Stoker’s vampire, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s doppelganger (Doctor X purloined the mad scientist imagery of pulp magazine covers for the cinema). Yet despite their iconic status, the Universal-brand horror films have little relevance to the modern genre. Many of today’s films, however, owe something to another 1931 film.
Vampyr, supposedly inspired by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” and other stories in Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darkly collection (in truth it owes little but mood to Le Fanu), was at the time completely overshadowed. It was directed and written by Carl Theodor Dreyer, the Danish director who had begun with the hit Master of the House (1924). But as Dreyer became more formally rigorous and experimental, exemplified by his now-famous La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1927), he lost audiences. German and Scandinavian directors had a field day with macabre subjects, for visual rhapsodies and post-WWI expressions of mental anguish and collapse. These included Victor Sjöstrom (The Phantom Carriage, 1920), Benjamin Christensen (Häxan, 1921), F. W. Murnau (Nosferatu, of course, 1921), Abel Gance (Au Secours!, 1923), Paul Leni (Waxworks, 1924), and Fritz Lang (coauthor of Das Cabinet Des Dr Caligari, 1919, and director of Der Meude Tod,1921). Dreyer’s efforts with Vampyr were not about telling a story through the symbolic prisms of Expressionism, but pursuing the tantalizing challenge of Surrealism, to capture the essence of a dream as itself; to replicate the sensations, the elided realities and meanings, the disjunctive perspectives. The film’s dialogue is in English, German, and French, with an eye to making export easier, but also contributing to its “nowhere” mood.
Vampyr was produced privately by the film’s star, Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg (acting under the name Julian West). The sallow-faced Gunzburg plays wandering geek and professional busybody Allan Grey, loosely based on one of Le Fanu’s recurring heroes (he’s called David Gray in the English version), who tramps about the countryside in tweed suit, jaunty hat, with a net on his shoulder, suggesting a holidaying entomologist with a morphine habit and an unconventional sex life. He arrives in Courtempierre, an isolated Franco-German village, passing, at the ferry bell, a black figure carrying a scythe, a sight that would make most men turn and head in another direction. The opening scrawl tells us that Allan has had many strange encounters; he’s a kind of proto-Fox Mulder. He settles into a small hotel room, the walls of which are covered in macabre, medieval decorations. He hears someone muttering outside, and catches a brief glimpse of a gnarled-faced man haunting the upstairs. He is awoken at midnight by a visitor; not, as he may have been hoping, the innkeeper’s daughter, but aged local chatelaine (Maurice Schutz) who makes wordless entreaty to him, as an outsider and therefore apparently trustworthy, to care for a package, marked “Not To Be Opened Until My Death.”
Allan, knowing such packages never bode well, tries to follow the old man. He wanders the day-for-midnight wonderland of the village, where shadows without forms move by themselves and dogs and children moan constantly. Allan explores a ruined chateau, which, with its cavernous rooms and labyrinthine halls, exactly conjures those shifting space-time traps of dreams. It is vaguely inhabited by a soldier and a one-legged man, both of whom, when they sleep, have their shadows walk off and perform nefarious deeds at someone else’s bidding. There’s also an ancient crone (Henriette Gérard) wearing Flemish dress of the 1600s and a bespectacled, meek-looking but creepy doctor (Jan Hieronimko – what a name!). In the film’s most bizarre and wondrous moment, the camera explores a vast attic where a populace of shadows are dancing to snatches of Gypsy fiddle, until the crone, on a lower floor, framed by dangling, rotating cartwheels, angrily lifts her cane for silence, which she gains instantaneously. She hands the doctor a vial of poison. Clearly, they’re in league for some awful purpose.
Allan escapes the ruin and reaches the chatelaine’s house just in time to see the shadows of the soldier and one-legged man shoot the chatelaine. His assassination seems almost expected by the household, for he’s been fighting this oppressive, intangible evil. Allan is invited to stay and protect them, Gisele (Rena Mandel, an ex-nude model), the chatelaine’s daughter, Her sister Leone (Sybille Schmitz, the film’s only professional actor) is continually lured into the garden and drained of blood by the crone. In one of the most needle-sharp erotic-horror moments in cinema, Leone awakens from a delirium and latches eyes on her sister, her happy smile broadening into a grin of perverse lust, scaring Gisele away. A servant is sent by carriage to fetch the police; when it comes rolling back, the driver is bloody and lifeless. Allan, exhausted, falls asleep. He dreams Gisele has been kidnapped and tied up in the ruin, and then finds his own body in a coffin; in a bravura long POV shot, we are Allan as the lid of his coffin is nailed on and he is carried by the gloating faces of the doctor and the crone.
Allan awakens with a jolt as panic erupts in the house. The doctor, having called to check on Leone, has poisoned her. Allan and the chatelaine’s loyal servant (Albert Bras) open the package entrusted to Allan by the chatelaine. It’s a book on vampires from the 1770s, based on papers found in Faust’s collection. Despite this lip-smacking suggestion of forbidden lore, it only relates basic stake-in-the-heart stuff, and gives a clue to the vampire’s identity by detailing how, in the 1750s, an outbreak of vampire attacks in Courtempierre were blamed on a dead woman named Marguerite Chopin. Allan and the servant search the graveyard for Chopin’s grave and find it contains the crone. The servant stakes the vampire as Allan searches for Gisele in the ruin. He unties her, scares off the doctor, and gets her out of the haunted village by boat. The servant gets final revenge when he finds the doctor has cornered himself in a flour mill; he sets the machinery rolling and the perfidious medico slowly drowns in tons of white flour, shouting “I don’t want to die!” Might have thought of that before you started poisoning girls and mistreating dogs!
In developing this cryptic, often blackly comic film, Dreyer and cinematographer Rudolph Mate were inspired a flour mill wreathed in dusty clouds they passed while on a train, a sight that inspired the finale and the hazy, washed-out visuals produced by false light shone on the lens. Contributing was Nosferatu’s designer Hermann Warm, and like that film, Vampyr shares an appealing rejection of studio-created atmosphere for careful manipulation of real settings. Vampyr is technically primitive, with poor sound from an experimental system. Dreyer used this flaw to good effect, muting the dialogue and reduces the soundtrack to menacing rumbles and barely heard sonorous music, adding to the ruined look. Dreyer seems to have been the first director to seek an illusion of the uncanny by devolving the techniques of film, something now every film student tries at least once. Yet Dreyer’s camera is sublimely mobile, roaming halls and rooms with restless, hungry fascination.
Vampyr pilots the next few generations’ worth of experimental film in its attempts to capture the uncanny. In The Ring, when one character judges the mysterious videotape as good in a student film fashion, he’s absolutely right, but that tradition of experimental short, and, more recently, death metal music videos trying to recreate the ugly dissociations of nightmares, have some roots in Dreyer’s style. It’s hard to imagine David Lynch’s films, especially Eraserhead, without Dreyer. Much of what Lynch accomplished—weird soundtrack, disorientating editing, sickly half-seen visions—is present here. But Vampyr is gossamer in its invocation of the morbid, more in the key of Mahler than Evanescence.
Vampyr is modernist, in its war with perspective, reality, and the limitations of the senses, and feels particularly reminiscent of Kafka—especially in its dark humor, the way Allan keeps walking into the weirdest circumstances without blanching and falls in love with Gisele at the drop of a hat. It’s also a pure invocation of the spirit of the Gothic genre, that European sense of being enveloped and suffocated by history, something that ultimately was lost on Hollywood.
Vampyr envisions a world haunted by loss and a past only visible in shreds, entrapped by identity but adrift between realities. Although Allan and Gisele escape from the fog-shrouded bank, they arrive on the side that our scythe-wielding friend crossed to earlier; it’s hard to tell if the waking world will be better. That waking world was about to collapse in on itself. Under the Nazis, German horror cinema would be extinguished, thanks to their detestation of the psychological and the genre’s too-pointed realisation of what forces were stirring under the surface—Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari envisioned the country as a giant insane asylum waiting for an authoritative administrator.
Vampyr was ignored on release. Dreyer did not make another film for 13 years, until with Day of Wrath (1943) he returned to studying the legacies of historical evil and psychological oppression. Sybille Schmitz later starred in Frank Wisbar’s version of the death-and-the-maiden theme, Faehrmann Maria (1936), which Wisbar remade when he decamped stateside as PRC’s Strangler in the Swamp (1946). Nicholas de Gunzburg became an investment banker in New York, a notable sight for many years walking the streets displaying the same haunted, soulful expression he sports in Vampyr. l