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.
Is it an exercise in futility to review short films, either animated or live action? Outside of film festivals, the chances of seeing any short films is slim to none—that is, if you’re thinking about standard film venues.
Of course, the fortunes of short films have never been better. We may never get those cartoons before the feature films anymore, but I’d argue that short films are more numerous and internationally available than any other type of film. The Internet has made distribution a reality for both fledgling filmmakers who want to go on to full-length films and veterans of the short form who have been producing high-quality work for decades. Animation specifically has exploded with the advent of affordable desktop technology and multitudes of media schools like Flashpoint, “The Academy of Media Arts and Sciences,” which is a sponsor of the CIFF and where I viewed screeners for the festival on wide screens using the best set of headphones I’m ever likely to clamp over my ears.
It’s important for cinephiles to support short films as the proving ground for the great filmmakers and innovators of tomorrow. I’ve enjoyed watching our very own Jonathan Lapper of Cinema Styles master the short form and get the interest and opinions of cinephiles around the globe. I don’t know if the traditional movie industry will ever truly embrace short films as they once did, but through virtual film festivals, websites, and various social networking venues, film fans will once again be able to experience the unique pleasure of the short stories of cinema.
Ferdy on Films, etc. is considering making short-film reviews part of our regular fare. We’d like your opinions on this possible new direction. Email us or comment here.
And now, reviews of the 11 short animated films that comprise Shorts 2: Animation Nations.
Hot Dog (2008) Director: Bill Plympton
The latest in Plympton’s “Dog” series—Guard Dog and Guide Dog being his previous efforts—has our erstwhile hound deciding to join the fire department. After a brush-off from the fire chief, Dog chases (as dogs do) a fire truck, manages literally to hop aboard, somehow ends up driving the truck to the site of a burning building, and saves a damsel in distress. Of course, Dog fouls it up in the end, but not before Plympton creates classic cartoon animation that stretches the limits of the physical world and takes us inside Dog’s mind with visual balloons of great hilarity. I’m not always fond of Plympton’s animations, but his Dog series is a real winner and the type of cartoon short I’d love to see at the front of a feature film if that practice ever returns to the cinema.
Hot Dog trailer
The Black Cabinet (2007) Director: Christine Rebet
Using a flickering, mainly static-image style, Christine Rebet very obliquely comments on complacency in a dangerous world. The aristocratic roulette players in the bottom half of the frame applaud with amusement at a puppet made to dance for their amusement, a scene that replays again and again. I was reminded of Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler, as disaster of the aristocrats’ making seems inevitable. I thought the illustrations were quite interesting, but there was little to suggest to viewers a “story,” and I found myself unpleasantly puzzled until the last frames of the film.
Kizi Mizi (2007) Director: Mariusz Wilczyński
This crudely drawn animation by a well-known Polish animator, framed to suit the proportions of each scene and shot with intentional blurs, depicts a noirish love triangle between two cats who love the same mouse. The mouse loves only one of the cats, but the cat travels frequently; in her loneliness, the mouse repeatedly plays a tape of Fleetwood Mac’s “Need Your Love So Bad”. She eventually succumbs to the seductions of another. If you can picture a cat and a mouse French-kissing, you’ll understand how distastefully weird this film can be. But it is important to keep in mind that the story is introduced in the credits as a bedtime story. When we return to the world outside the story, a delightful surprise awaits us. If you have the patience to wait out the repetitiveness of this overlong short, you might end up with a laugh at the end.
Procrastination (2007) Director: John Kelly
This short discusses what the director/illustrator is feeling as he tries to get to work. Perhaps the favorite of the audience, the narration provides examples with which we all can identify, and the animation style is, in a word, cool. I managed to find the entire film on YouTube. See for yourself.
Trepan Hole (2008) Director: Andy Cahill
An inventive stop-motion animation that doesn’t have a narrative, Cahill’s short film plays with form as two ropey creatures move in and out of holes and tweak each other in a style the reminded me of some of Plympton’s transforming heads. Since the word “trepan” usually refers to holes drilled into skulls as an primitive treatment for mental illness, the creatures suggest “The Hearse Song” (“The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, The worms play pinochle on your snout…”). Trepan Hole doesn’t mean anything—it’s just fun to watch.
Stand Up (2008) Director: Joseph Pierce
An angry film, Stand Up shows a stand-up comedian introduced as John J. Jones, everyone’s favorite everyman, bomb in front of an audience when he starts to insult them and dwell on serious topics. Pierce does a wonderful job of taking an initially warm audience and slowly turning them sour. He shows the bitterness behind every clown, eventually having Jones strip naked before storming off the stage. The black-and-white illustrations are grotesque and fluid. This is a short drama that goes for the jugular.
John and Karen (2007) Director: Matthew Walker
This trifle has a polar bear apologize to his angry penguin girlfriend for criticizing her swimming speed and the size of the fish she catches. There’s not much to this short film, though I liked the line, “So you don’t catch whales. Nor do you need to!” The illustration style is clean, sweet, children’s book material.
Keith Reynolds Can’t Make It Tonight (2007) Director: Felix Massie
The opening dialogue by voiceover narrator Scott Johnson is, “This is Keith Reynolds, and today is promotion day. Having worked at the company eight years, he is the most senior Junior Business Analyst in the building. He’s been waiting for this day for a very long time.” My favorite short of this series, the idea for Keith Reynolds came from the years British animator Massie spent in the corporate world. The insanity of the passed-over middle manager has been filmed before, but the animation makes it simultaneously more funny and more serious as the figures have a crash-test dummy quality to them. I’d love to have this film in my private collection.
Keith Reynolds Can’t Make It Tonight clip
Lavatory – Lovestory (2007) Director: Konstantin Bronzit
This touching short film from Russia tells the story of a lavatory attendant with a secret admirer. The woman who watches over and cleans the men’s lavatory collects the coins the men drop in an empty mayonnaise jar at a turnstile she guards. As she reads a newspaper called “Happy Women,” she looks longingly at pictures of women who have a loving man encircling them. When she puts down the newspaper, she finds a bunch of flowers in her jar. Much puzzlement and craziness ensues as she keeps throwing the flowers out, only to have them replaced. The ending is sweet and satisfying. But do lavatories in Russia really have opposite-sex attendants? That’s something to mull.
Lavatory – Lovestory in full (9:39 minutes)
Out of Control (Fuera de control, 2008) Director: Sofia Carillo
Honestly, I couldn’t make heads or tails out of this stop-motion animation from Mexico. The CIFF program says, “A chain reaction upsets the balance of a bizarre cycle.” OK, that sounds good to me, though I really didn’t see any cycle going before it got broken. The film has a deathlike quality and a very organic look. I liked the visuals even though that’s all I could appreciate in the noisy, but wordless, short film.
Lies (Lögner) Director: Jonas Odell
This strong, disturbing documentary from Sweden uses live-action animation to tell three stories of lies and deceitful lives—one of a burglar who managed to fool security guards at an office building and steal checks and merchandise, a young boy who confessed to a crime he didn’t commit and who then went on to become a thief, and a gypsy who was told by her mother never to reveal her true ethnicity and who bounced around the foster care system and became a drug addict. I found that this film from a young, but already celebrated, director, had an interesting and appropriate visual style—linear, mechanistic, muted in color. Because it uses interviews with the subjects themselves, the film is very dialogue-heavy and laden with subtitles, and that made actually watching the film difficult. Still, Lies is a compelling short. I couldn’t get this clip to download, but maybe you can.
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.”
This morning, as I got online to check my e-mail, my ISP’s infotainment service, Comcast News, flashed a headline that caught my attention: “Chicken Dies, Wife Shoots Husband.” Clicking through, I was greeting with the following opening paragraph:
Chesire, Ore. – A woman shot her husband in the back after he killed her pet chicken, the Lane County sheriff’s deputies said. Deputies said they were sure that Mary Gray, 58, intended to shoot her husband, Stephen Gray, 43. They weren’t certain if the husband meant to fire at the chicken.
I immediately thought of Hamsun.
Like the opening of that “news” story, Hamsun begins with an old man sitting at a desk and becoming increasingly annoyed with the cluckings of a chicken in the yard outside his window. He spritely races after the beast and beats it to death with the handle of his cane. His wife runs out to examine the remains of her pet and cries bitterly that everything, even her chicken, has to be sacrificed to his genius. The old man turns and walks unrepentantly back to his room, packs his bags, and moves to a hotel for some peace and quiet to work on his new novel.
The man is Knut Hamsun (Max von Sydow), chronicler of the soul of Norway and the country’s pride and joy as the winner of the 1920 Nobel Prize for Literature. The woman is Marie (Ghita Nørby), 22 years his junior, a former actress who constantly complains about giving up her promising career to marry Hamsun. She is a lonely woman who finds herself married more to an icon than a man and green with envy over his fame. The time is the late 1930s, and the specter of war in Europe has Norwegians worried about maintaining their neutrality and guarding their own safety.
Into this climate comes a man whose name is now synonymous with “traitor,” Vidkun Quisling (Sverre Anker Ousdal). He is in the rural village near the Hamsuns’ farm to speak about the principles of national socialism. The turnout for his talk is quite small, but one important person is in the audience–Marie. She is quite taken with the Nazi emphasis on the importance of women in nation building; she doesn’t seem to take in that this role is primarily to maintain the purity of the national bloodline. Quisling actively courts Marie as a way to get to the great man himself and attempt to secure his endorsement. When Hamsun learns that Germany is against England, a country he hates for causing starvation in Norway during World War I, he signs on to the Nazi cause as well. Marie, who is fluent in German, takes frequent trips to Germany to hobnob with the Nazi elite. She thoroughly enjoys shining under her own spotlight.
The Nazi takeover of Norway is complete by mid 1940, with Quisling at the helm and Hamsun a visible supporter in the flesh and in his editorials and letters to the editor of the nation’s most prominent newspapers. It is not long, of course, until the Nazis start their systematic oppression of the Norwegians. The outcry of a sell-out among the Norwegians puts Hamsun on the defensive. He is hounded by the press, his books are thrown into the streets by his neighbors, and worst of all, his own concerns about Hitler’s broken promises for Norwegian sovereignty alongside Germany worry him greatly.
He decides to visit the Fuhrer and meets the infamous leader in his mountain retreat, Berghof, where he is kept waiting by a scornful Hitler (Ernst Jacobi) and his minions. Hitler attempts to flatter and admire Hamsun into making the visit little more than a courtesy call, but Hamsun presses his cause for Norwegian sovereignty, reminding Hitler of his promises to Norway in exchange for its support. Hitler bristles and abruptly ends the visit, nearly throwing Hamsun out on his ear. Hamsun, thoroughly disillusioned, returns to Norway, Marie, and their troubled marriage.
From this brief description, it would be easy to think that Hamsun is more a political history than anything else. In fact, however, the film is chiefly occupied with the dysfunctional marriage between Knut and Marie and the dysfunctional family it spawned. It is easy to imagine that Hamsun was attracted to Marie’s vivacity as a contrast to his own reclusiveness, as well as her purported physical attractiveness, handsomely realized even in middle age by Ghita Nørby. But the marriage is a classic oil-and-water affair. A writer’s life is often a solitary and selfish one into which a live wire like Marie rarely can fit. In the case of a symbol like Hamsun, the private persona can be all but obliterated. When the Hamsun children show up to try to patch their parents’ marriage back together, childhood resentments against the father who was always absent, even when he was in the room, bubble up and over. Anette Hoff, as Knut’s favorite child Ellinor, gives a sympathetic reading on the old man in contrast to her siblings’ bitterness, but nothing seems to resolve. Eventually, Knut and Marie reunite to continue their inevitable dance until death.
Swedish director Jan Troell is best known, if he is known at all in places outside of Scandinavia, for his 1971 television miniseries The Emigrants. He has a real feel for Scandinavian history and manages to work an alchemy on his cast that is truly surprising, considering his two leads, von Sydow and Nørby, spoke their native Swedish and Danish, respectively, throughout filming. Jacobi as Hitler is one of the most effective screen Fuhrers I’ve seen, bringing his malevolence and egomania to life quickly and ferociously. Hamsun’s reputation was nearly ruined in Norway because of his wartime alliance, and the film suggests that it was his naivete, ultranationalism, and insularity that may have been to blame for his choice. Nonetheless, though Hamsun seems thoroughly reviled throughout much of this picture, von Sydow takes pains to show the vulnerable and often bewildered old man beneath the prim, three-piece suit. I found Hamsun to be a singular and convincing portrait of an artist who paved his own road to hell. This husband definitely meant to kill the chicken.
On January 27, millions of people all over the world celebrated the 250th birthday of one of the greatest composers ever to live, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. I listened to my radio, whose signal was made scratchy and fickle by the computer equipment and tall buildings in and around my place of work, to hear the live broadcast feed through my local classical radio station, WFMT-FM, from Salzburg, Austria, the place Mozart called home. Many luminaries of the classical music world were on hand in Salzburg to pay tribute to the glory of Mozart. I was moved to pay “Wolfie” homage in my own way, through film.
Amadeus was an obvious choice for viewing, but I have seen it several times and, frankly, I was more interested in Mozart’s music than in a fictional Mozart. Searching IMDb, I found what I was looking for–in spades! The Magic Flute, one of my very favorite pieces of music, had been filmed for television by none other than the great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. Fascinated by the possibilities of the joyous strains of Mozart’s fairytale opera as interpreted by one of cinema’s most penetratingly dour directors, I couldn’t wait to lay hands on the film. I located a DVD of it–a Criterion disc no less!–at my local library and snatched it up before some other Mozart fan claimed it for the day. Thus armed, I settled down for an evening of basking in the artistry of two geniuses.
Filming works meant for the stage has been problematic for directors throughout the years. Many early films, such as the 1924 silent version of Peter Pan, chose to record the stage play straight on, as though the crew and film’s audience were in the auditorium. Other films go to the opposite extreme of “opening up” the play and shooting in natural settings away from stages, such as Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 version of Much Ado About Nothing. It would have been easy to take the fanciful The Magic Flute into a forest or a castle and give it a more visceral feel, but Bergman chose a hybrid approach. He staged the opera in a replica of Stockholm’s Drottningholm Court Theatre, with sets and backdrops made to match that theatre’s whimsical creations. At the same time, he filmed the singers largely in close-up as they lipsynched to a soundtrack they recorded first, and edited to create an engaging movie that stands up respectably against the rest of his cinematic output. Thus, we are able to appreciate the medium of opera as it was meant to be seen—on a stage—but enjoy the dramatic possibilities of film, which can envelope us in the action, the better to involve us emotionally in the fate of the central characters.
The story revolves around the quest of Prince Tamino (Josef Köstlinger) to claim Princess Pamina (Irma Urrila) as his own. Pamina’s mother, the Queen of the Night (Birgit Nordin), has contrived for Tamino to fall in love with her at first sight by giving him a magic amulet that contains her animated picture. The queen has her own agenda–to gain the return of her daughter before she destroys the world of Pamina’s captor, Sarasto (Ulrik Cold), who is the queen’s husband and Pamina’s father. The queen gives Tamino a magic flute to protect him from Sarastro and also sends her love-starved birdcatcher Papageno (Håkan Hagegård) to help.
The opera mixes fancy with Freemasonry and the traditional hero’s quest—which had me thinking how glad I was not to be watching the ponderous Wagner operas (Siegfried or Parsifal, for example) dealing with similar quests. The libretto, translated into Swedish, retains the beautiful poetry and spirit of the original by Emanuel Schikaneder (and unfortunately, the misogyny). Bergman makes an unusual choice of using title cards under certain arias, like sub- or supertitles now common in opera houses but almost unheard of at the time this film was made. I really didn’t understand their inclusion, other than that they seemed to emphasize certain lessons Mozart wished to make clear about human nature and its joys and pitfalls. The singers seemed quite amused to be flipping these cards in front of them, and that lent to the general joviality of the presentation.
A less fortunate, but perhaps understandable choice, was to film a huge variety of faces—the audience, apparently—as they listened to the overture. I was reminded of the love Fellini had of faces and how he would audition hundreds of people in a day to find the right faces with which to populate his films. I think Bergman meant to suggest the universality of Mozart, though he chooses a very Swedish-looking child to be the audience representative to whom he cuts at various points of the scenario. In my opinion, these audience shots were unnecessary (but then what does one do about the overture?), but they might have had a welcoming effect in Swedish homes where classical music isn’t a high priority. His backstage revelations during the intermission of life imitating art (the singers who play Pamina and Tamino are actually in love; Papageno is actually a layabout) also were unnecessary and revealed a filmmaker a bit uncomfortable relying solely on music to entertain and instruct.
In the end, however, this film is an engrossing version of a delightful classic opera. The voices generally are good in both sound and interpretation, with special kudos to bass Ulrik Cold as Sarastro and tenor Håkan Hagegård, who was an irresistable Papageno. However, this is not thecomplete opera, and some of the cuts and watered-down characterizations, particularly the threatening characters of the Queen of the Night and the moor Monostatos, weaken the darker elements of the opera and make one wonder what all the fuss is about. But only hardcore opera fans will complain. This Magic Flute still bewitches.