23rd 05 - 2014 | 2 comments »

Eroica (1957)

Director: Andrjez Munk

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Andrzej Wajda is arguably Poland’s best-known director, the much-revered chronicler of Nazi- and Soviet-occupied Poland with an honorary Academy Award under his belt and a slew of other recognitions from Cannes, Britain, Italy, and other parts of the cinematic world. While Wajda claims Luis Buñuel as his earliest inspiration, it is easier to see a resemblance between the scathing satire of Buñuel’s films and those of Andrjez Munk, a filmmaker whose life-ending car accident at the age of 40 foreshortened his film legacy and cast him into the long shadow of Wajda, his contemporary. Now, Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema has brought Munk back into the spotlight with a new restoration of the director’s film in two movements: Eroica.

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Riffing, no doubt, on Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the so-called “Eroica” (heroic) symphony in four movements, Munk’s two-movement “symphony” is only half as heroic: Scherzo alla polacca, referring to the brisk nature of the action, but also indicating, in a slang translation, “the Polish joke;” and Ostinato lugubre, indicating a persistent, mournful theme. Whatever heroism can be found in these two movements is strictly accidental, as the insanity of war is translated through the individual foibles of members of the Polish Uprising and Polish officers in a Nazi P.O.W. camp.

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The main protagonist of the scherzo movement is Dzidzius Gorkiewicz (Edward Dziewonski), or “Babyface” to the women in his life. He is a member of the Uprising who might become an accidental hero near the end of WWII by sneaking in and out of Warsaw to try to broker a deal between the leaders of his organization and Hungarian forces who are willing to join with the rebels to drive the Germans out. Babyface’s first action, however, is to break from the ragtag group of volunteers flubbing their formations to call the drill sergeant’s attention to an aircraft descending to strafe them. When the clueless sergeant finally yells to his “troops” to take cover, Babyface walks off, unwilling to risk his life just to run inane drills. He heads for his home away from his abandoned apartment in Warsaw—a country house that he finds has been requisitioned by some Hungarian officers, one of whom (Tomasz Zaliwski) Babyface’s wife Zosia (Barbara Polomska) has given their room—though she continues to occupy the bed. The officer asks Babyface to accompany him outside, and fearing that he will be shot so that the officer can have Zosia, he runs into a curtain of clothes that hides a cannon. The officer offers to join with the uprising—cannons and all—if Babyface can square it with his superiors. Overjoyed that he is not to be shot, Babyface indulges in his favorite pastime—drinking with whomever is nearby. The scene ends with Babyface shoving a half-empty bottle of booze down the cannon barrel.

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Walking through checkpoints, explosions, and gunfire with his off-white suit and glib excuses, Babyface seems a hapless freedom fighter indeed. He acts like someone who has been whisked from a vacation in Hawaii and dropped into a war zone: he keeps looking for the hula girls and the mai tais, and hopes to take advantage of every situation—drinking a case of booze he finds in a barn where his former sweetheart Jogodka (Zofia Czerwinska), codename “Blueberry,” is running a switchboard, trying to convince his fellows to take advantage of the Hungarian troops’ offer (“as long as they’re here”), and escaping from a group of townspeople being displaced while their German guards are chasing another escapee. The latter incident offers the movement’s most over-the-top burlesque, as Babyface, on orders from a Nazi officer, tries to carry an old woman’s (Eleonora Lorentz) bag, only to find it loaded down with heavy metal objects. As with most of the film, Dziewonski displays precise, comic movement as he buckles and weaves under the weight and then pays the old woman 5 rubles to leave it behind. Even more funny, she takes the money and then tries to lift the bag herself—as stubbornly unmovable as her bundle. If ever there was an illustration of “life goes on,” Babyface’s almost casual attitude to the insanity around him is it—ending with a decisive action of a personal nature that brings the battle of the sexes into the war.

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The second movement is equally absurd, but more desperate in tone. The action begins with the arrival of a new group of captured Polish officers at a mountain P.O.W. camp. Lt. Kursawa (Józef Nowak), an amiable, gentle-looking officer of about 30 and Lt. Szpakowski (Roman Klosowski), a brash youngster who moved up the ranks as officers above him were killed, join a cell block with veteran officers who have been locked up for about five years. Space is available in the block because Lt. Zawistowski (Tadeusz Lomnicki) has become the only person to escape the camp in its history. Zawistowski is held up as a paragon of bravery and ingenuity by the men on the block, but only two of them know the truth: Zawistowki, learning that the Gestapo were about to get their hands on him, went into hiding in an empty boiler in the ceiling. Kursawa learns of their deception by accident, but joins in the effort to keep him alive and undetected while the lives of the other members of the block spiral into madness.

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A fugitive from Grand Illusion, Lt. Krygier (Henryk Bak) is all about military protocol, wondering whether Szpakowski should be allowed to fraternize with officers and regurgitating the dictum that it is an officer’s duty to try to escape, something he and his toady, Lt. Dabecki (Bogumil Kobiela), have yet to attempt. He goads Lt. Zak (Józef Kostecki), half-mad at the impossibility of being alone in a quiet place, into attempting to escape. Zak successfully negotiates two rows of barbed wire in broad daylight while his fellow officers create a distraction, only to be grabbed by two women passing by the camp and returned to his hell hole. His failure seems to have been an inevitability for him, and he gives away the 1,000 cigarettes—valuable as barter currency—he won for completing the dare. He goes into a plywood box that looks like a half-finished latrine to retreat from his blockmates and slams the door, a tragicomic moment he repeats many times during the movement. As the curtain falls on this farce, Zak is the only officer who truly takes escape seriously.

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Munk’s penetrating gaze sees the touching humor in the maze of human relationships that we all must negotiate, no matter the circumstance. The possibility that the Hungarian troops could join the Polish Uprising is quashed because the Russians moving into Poland won’t work with the Hungarians. Babyface is rueful about the weakness of flesh as he watches the woman he married out of lust be true to her nature; she’s a slut, says Babyface, but that’s her appeal. Zak, Zawistowki’s best friend, is kept in the dark about the deception because he’s too unstable—or perhaps he’d try to take Zawistowki’s place in the ceiling just to get away from the other men. Life goes on, Munk tells, us, but the things it does to us in its course will have us weeping through our laughter.

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A word must be said about DP Jerzy Wójcik, whose widescreen work on Pharaoh (1966) was both epic in scope and yet quite intimate, a skill he certainly mastered with Eroica. I was enthralled by the way he filled the more traditional dimensions of this black-and-white film, creating a particular mise-en-scène that luxuriated in the stands of long grass as a fleeing man disappeared among the stalks, and communicated the cramped chaos of the cell block with bits of paper and clothes, objects crammed on ledges and hung on walls, and a small window with a sketch of the mountains framing it along the width of the room.

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The performances of the ensemble casts were peerless. Dziewonski was a perfect everyman who certainly would have been a hippie if he had been in the right place at the right time. Kostecki had a Felix Ungerish prissiness to him, but underneath, his tormented, highly insulted soul gave him the kind of substance one needs from a tragic clown. Lomnicki, though he had only one real scene, gave a very moving description of his isolation—rather than complain about the physical challenges, he seemed more bothered by the darkness and loneliness, the inability to see his own face. He brought home the human toll of war economically and effectively.

Eroica is a black comedy that never forgets it’s also a war flick. It’s one of the best of its kind I’ve ever seen.

Eroica is showing at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Sunday, May 25, and Wednesday, May 28. It’s perfect for this Memorial Day weekend.


2nd 07 - 2011 | 14 comments »

Carve Her Name with Pride (1958)

Director: Lewis Gilbert

By Marilyn Ferdinand

On the eve of the 2011 American Independence Day celebrations, I shake my head in disgust at the infighting and class warfare that has paralyzed our state and federal governments and caused at least one state government—Minnesota—to shut down this week. Our country seems to be tearing itself apart, and I wonder not only about our future, but also about how we came to this pass only 60-some years after working to end the most devastating conflagration and genocide in history. What has turned our people into stubborn, petty, self-entitled jerks who can’t even come up with a fair budget, when once we were willing to sacrifice our very lives to defeat the idea of an Übermensch? It would be my prescription to every last idiot in every government in this land, from the smallest village to Capitol Hill, to watch Carve Her Name with Pride to remember what human honor, dignity, and sacrifice look like and what they can accomplish.

I didn’t know anything about Carve Her Name with Pride, let alone the true story it tells, before I chose to watch it. I knew it was on a cable station that had commercials (a big minus) and that it would take 2-1/2 hours of my evening from start to finish. But I was attracted to the fact that it was a British film from the ’50s, I am currently reading a book that reproduces first-person accounts of the Blitz from the diaries of the “mass observers” in Britain during WWII, and that the chance to see this film ever again might be very slim. I was floored by the sad, moving, and genuinely inspiring tale that unfolded before my eyes.

Violette Bushell (Virginia McKenna), a pretty 19-year-old, takes her friend Vera (Avice Landone) with her to Hyde Park in London as she looks for a French soldier to invite home for dinner to celebrate Bastille Day, 1940. This rather odd mission is an assignment from her mother, a French woman married to an Englishman she met in Paris during the First World War. The women hook up with a legionnaire, Etienne Szabó (Alain Saury), and it is virtually love at first sight for him and Violette. After an amusing montage of their brief courtship, with Vera the constant chaperone, the lovers marry and spend a few idyllic days in the country before Etienne is to report for duty in North Africa. During this trip, Etienne gives Violette a poem he was inspired to write on the eve of their parting.

The film fast-forwards to 1942. Violette and several neighbor women are gathered at her parents’ home. Violette is tending to Tania (Pauline Challoner), the daughter Etienne has never seen, when a messenger arrives with a telegram announcing that Etienne has been killed in action. Another fast-forward shows Violette going to the government pension bureau six months later, presumably to handle some details regarding her widow’s pension. Instead, she is met by a Mr. Potter (Sydney Tafler), who offers her a job as a secret agent in the Special Operations Executive (SOE). After weighing the sacrifices, particularly with regard to Tania, Violette determines that it’s her turn to do her part for the war effort. The rest of the film details her training and deployment to France on two separate missions to help shattered cells of the French resistance reorganize and carry out sabotage missions, and her capture shortly after D-Day.

Lewis Gilbert is a distinguished director with a very successful track record, including helming three James Bond films (You Only Live Twice [1967], The Spy Who Loved Me [1977], and Moonraker [1979]), and such popular female-centered films as Educating Rita (1983) and Shirley Valentine (1989). While the fanciful 007 stories are worlds away from the workaday depiction of SOE training in Carve Her Name, his confidence in handling female characters who come into their own certainly was presaged by his approach to Violette Szabó’s story. It is Gilbert’s strong focus on Violette, and Virginia McKenna’s brilliant performance, that make this film so compelling.

The film economically and effectively builds Violette’s life and character, centering them around her love and generosity, so that we are quickly drawn into caring about her. There is never a doubt that the love between Etienne and Violette is real. Gilbert frames Etienne as a fine figure of a man in a full-length shot of him in his uniform when Vera first points him out to Violette, a worthy figure of adoration. Their easy, fluent introductions in French cement the perfect fit. Violette’s determination to marry Etienne in the face of her father’s (Jack Warner) initial opposition at their short acquaintance, and then cheerful assent, telegraphs not only her strong personality and depth of feeling, but also the deep bonds of love and mutual support in the Bushell family. While the poem Etienne gives Violette is a bit of dramatic license—in fact, it was a code poem given to the real Violette by SOE cryptographer Leo Marks—its inclusion early on effectively sets the tone of the entire film, creating an indelible impression of eternal love that foreshadows not only the tragedies to befall the Szabós, but also their love of humanity that led to their sacrifices. In a scene where Violette is tortured by her Nazi captors, their attempt to extract the poem from her shows the perversion of humanity that such fascist movements truly are.

Another bit of dramatic license that is superfluous and undercuts somewhat the power of Violette’s love for Etienne is providing Violette with a romantic interest in the form of another SOE agent, Tony Fraser (Paul Scofield). The two agents meet during some wonderfully realistic training sessions, when Violette shores up Tony’s courage during paratrooper practice (he’s afraid of heights) and Tony helps Violette when she hurts her ankle after a hard landing. Tony and Violette are sent together on the two missions the film chronicles, with Violette narrowly evading the Nazis who suspect her of passing secrets to a contact in the underground in Rouen during the first one. She manages to keep her rendezvous with Tony in Paris, where, in a very touching scene, she buys a dress for her daughter as Etienne imagined they would do together after the war. On the second mission, when both are in Nazi hands and being transported to concentration camps in Germany, a gallows declaration of love between the pair seems melodramatic and unreal.

Where the film is most gripping is in its action sequences. Violette’s first mission seems to be a cakewalk until the shadow of danger falls over her as she goes to meet her contact in the underground. Two Gestapo agents follow her to the bicycle shop where her contact informs her that only three of 96 in the maquis cell are still alive or at liberty; when she is picked up and brought to the commander (Harold Lang) in Rouen, he is the same German who invited her to dinner the night before. He lets her go, but informs his agents that he wasn’t fooled by her deceptions. This scene accurately conveys how dangerous her work is and how the outcome of the war was never assured.

Her second mission is even more compelling. From the moment she launches herself from the airplane to be picked up by the French maquis, to her volunteering to serve as a courier among the maquis cells, the tension is almost unbearable. She and her comrade Jacques (Maurice Ronet) are intercepted in a small town by a small battalion of Germans, and dart among the buildings trying to escape. Violette reinjures her ankle as they flee through the woods and holds off the Germans with Sten gun fire while Jacques tries to escape across a river to warn the maquis of the German approach. As the bullets fly toward Violette and Jacques, and Germans drop under Violette’s assault, the inextricable emotions of desperation and courage rise from the remarkable Virginia McKenna.

I can’t even begin to express how full-bodied McKenna’s performance is. Check, for example, a scene where Violette has a chance to escape the train taking her to Germany when it is bombed. Other prisoners beg for water as she crawls through the smoke to an exit. She stops, looks back, and the camera closes in on her face as a dance of hope, indecision, anger, and finally surrender crosses it; she goes to fetch water for the prisoners. It would be easy to criticize Violette for leaving her toddler to go fight a war, but McKenna’s demeanor in this and other scenes refuses such naysaying as her love goes beyond herself. Her concerns about Tania and careful consideration are well rendered, her farewell before her second mission more tormented, but also more practical, as she draws up her will as her personal act of love. I imagined how this scene must have played out thousands, even millions of times in all the warring countries of the world, how tragic that the madness of those in power forces people to make such difficult choices. At the same time, one senses the pride with which Violette goes to the aid of her mother’s countrymen and women, and how her own experiences preparing for German bombing, only hinted at in this film through the use of blackout curtains and her father’s civil defense uniform, steeled her resolve.

The supporting cast are wonderful, from the training sergeant (Bill Owen) through to the other female SOE agents (Anne Leon and Billie Whitelaw) who suffered Violette’s fate with her. Location shooting in London and the surrounding countryside, of course, gives a sense of veracity to the proceedings and serves to fill out the details of Violette’s life and actions. The Germans are almost completely free of the mustache-twisting villainy that often accompanies them in other films, though her interrogator (Noel Willman) dips into the stereotype a bit. Gilbert chose to cut immediately away from tragedy, preferring a more discreet approach, for example, showing Violette look up at her mother through a doorway when Mrs. Bushell comes to inform her about Etienne’s death, or simply showing Violette’s head resting on a desk after she has been tortured by sleep deprivation. Sometimes this cutting away feels a little abrupt, but it offers Szabó’s story an unmitigated dignity that creates the effect Gilbert wished to achieve.

For her part, Virginia McKenna was honored to play Violette and has supported efforts to keep the memory of her service alive. Here is a clip of McKenna reciting the poem that has justly lived on as a tribute to love and sacrifice.

You can watch Carve Her Name with Pride on YouTube starting here.


4th 06 - 2011 | 9 comments »

Famous Firsts: A Generation (Pokolenie, 1955)

Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film

Debut film of: Andrjez Wajda, director

By Roderick Heath

The agonies of the Second World War were, inevitably, a critical subject for Poland’s filmmakers after the war. Andrjez Wajda, who would become one of the country’s most admired and awarded filmmakers, emerged in the mid-1950s and reestablished Poland’s national cinema—at least as far as the rest of the world was concerned—with his epic “War Trilogy” about the travails of Polish partisans. His interest in the milieu was highly personal, having lost loved ones in the grand calamity, and his films are shot through with ironies, paying a certain lip-service to the triumph of the communists over the Nazis when his father had been executed along with thousands of other Polish army officers by the Russians. A Generation, featuring a teenaged Roman Polanski in the cast, certainly encapsulates the crucial mix of burgeoning energy in the postwar generation and its collectively haunted sensibility. Based on the autobiographical novel by Bohdan Czeszko, who also scripted A Generation, the film is as much noir thriller and coming-of-age tale as it is a war movie. The most affecting and original quality of A Generation, and its most influential aspect on subsequent decades of similar movies, is the way it manages without much sentimentalising to depict the regulation rites of passage of a young man in the context of an awesome, consuming struggle.

The central exemplar of the title generation is Stach Mazur (Tadeusz Lomnicki), a slum brat edging into manhood in the context of the German occupation. At the outset he’s seen engaged in a competition of knife tricks with his friend, the more handsome and accomplished Kostek (Zbigniew Cybulski). But when Stach, Kostek, and Zyzio (Ryszard Ber) go about their favourite sport of stealing hunks of coal from the moving trains that pass by their shanty town, Zyzio is shot by a German guard, and Kostek runs off. Stach has to abandon Zyzio’s body on the train and jumps off, too. In a quietly mourning and confused state, he meets amongst abandoned brickworks Grzesio (Ludwik Benoit), an injured, homeless veteran who introduces him to some working men in a tavern. They offer to get him an apprenticeship at a nearby woodworking factory. He replaces Jasio Krone (Tadeusz Janczar), who’s just graduated as a journeyman, and whilst worked hard as a flunky around the factory perpetually fetching pots of glue for the craftsmen, he also finds friends, including Jasio and Mundek (Polanski), and is taken under the wing of communist coworker Sekula (Janusz Paluszkiewicz). Everyone at the factory is involved in something on the sly: some are smuggling, and others are members of two competing groups of resistance fighters. The boss (Janusz Sciwiarski) both gladhands the Germans who buy bunks for soldiers from him and funnels money to the resistance, and he’s especially nervous because of some of his workers who belong to the noncommunist army are keeping a load of weapons in his storerooms. Stach discovers a pistol from this stash, and when he’s inspired by Dorota (Urszula Modrzynska), a girl who makes an appeal to students on behalf of the resistance, starts moving toward becoming an underground warrior.

Whilst A Generation is clearly a product of a particular cultural moment and heightened artistic sensibility, it’s also a young film school brat’s ode to cinema. As such, it anticipates any number of neophyte directorial works from the likes of Breathless (1959) to Reservoir Dogs (1992), in trying to enthusiastically blend an observational tone, based on personal experience and sensibility, with a narrative mediated through generic quotes. A Generation is spotted with visual and story quotes from such canonical gangster films as Angels with Dirty Faces (1937), The Roaring Twenties (1939), and White Heat (1949), but blended with a terse, ambient approach to emotion and action reminiscent more of Roberto Rossellini and neorealism in general. There are the early petty crimes, the confederacy of the spurned, doomed outsiders, and the final “big heist.” There’s also a lot of the attitude characteristic of eastern European literary traditions of the coming-of-age tale. Stach goes through familiar rituals of becoming a man: finding a community of working men and learning a trade, being schooled in the unfairness of capitalist economics by Sekula, and meeting, romancing, and finally losing his virginity to Dorota. Dorota appears as a proverbial dream girl with a touch of the warrior that makes her all the more sexy and alluring, a valkyrie on a pushbike, as well as symbolising the call to arms of an elevated, politically radical creed.

Jerzy Lipman’s superbly clear, unaffected cinematography helps Wajda keep the world he presents lucid and contiguous yet frosted with the lightest edge of a semi-abstract menace in places, be it in the cheerily busy confines of the factory or in the eerily quiet streets. Wajda presents twinning moments when the battered remnants of defeated armies appear to the heroes, lurching out of or disappearing back into shadows like spirits to urge the commitment of the living, with an edge bordering on expressionism. The film’s first image, a long panning shot behind the opening credits depicting an industrial wasteland dotted by shacks that prove to be a resilient kind of community, possesses an anticipatory quality as well as an analytical one. One can sense the early impulses of the kind of modernism fascinated by the expressive possibilities inherent in superficially dead places and cinematic frames that filmmakers like Antonioni and Polanski himself would expand upon, even as the texture of Wajda’s subsequent film looks back as much as it looks forward. Later on, cityscapes, with their sparse, eerie, drab multiplicities of concrete and brick, begin to entrap and terrorise the characters with Kafkaesque efficiency, particularly in a climactic suspense sequence, and the horrors of the repression of the Warsaw Ghetto are conveyed only by rolling blankets of smoke glimpsed over high walls, and over a fairground operating in blithe ignorance.

Wajda’s influence on both the French and British New Waves is hard to estimate, but certain. Reportedly, A Generation was a favourite film of British director Lindsay Anderson, and aspects of it are encoded in the DNA of Anderson’s If…. (1968), inevitably recalling the images of youth in violent uprising. Indeed, Wajda’s vision seems, oddly enough, to present his “generation” as a distinct youth movement, politically aware, radicalised, and ill at ease with the status quo. A Generation possesses a contextual awareness that is rich and feels less related to the quality of many ’50s English-language war films, which viewed war as a way to restore stability and the status quo rather than as a process of dynamic reconstruction. In this regard, it’s striking and thought-provoking that Wajda, considering his history, presents here a tale in which the communist guerrillas are depicted as being in competition with a villainous nationalist underground whose representatives in the factory are the most unpleasant and insensitive—one makes a sarcastic crack about the “Yids” finally bothering to fight when the Ghetto revolts—and who finally threaten Stach in a manner indiscernible from any Gestapo thug.

The youths fight war with the trappings and disguises of the everyday, and familiar experiences of the young are all sharpened and heightened by war. The underclass heroes take delight in how the war gives their impulses to anarchic acts of violence and crime social legitimacy. This is at first basic, as Stach describes himself somewhat sarcastically as a “real patriotic thief” in stealing from the coal trains. The long opening shot presents the veritable wasteland on the edge where Stach has grown up, and his manner of dress, with a jacket spotted with dozens of patches, seems like something almost out of prehistory. Stach evolves, as do the film’s visuals, from the fringes to becoming the representative for the continuation of a culture of resistance. The initial decrepit isolation Stach suffers living alone with his mother (Hanna Skarzanka) gives way to slowly developing, almost familial relationships, as the value of community is both emphasised and even promoted by the wartime setting. The younger characters are contrasted with older ones, like the paternal, knowing Sekula, and Jasio’s talkative but pathetic father (Stanislaw Milski), who works in the factory as a night watchman but who’s being forcibly retired. He was a former soldier himself, a veteran of the Tsar’s army, who was posted in Manchuria when he was his son’s age. Stach finally decides to take action after a vividly personal humiliation: Having picked up a load of lumber, he had an altercation with a grumpy gate guard, who took revenge by falsely reporting Stach for stealing to the German reservist officer or “Werkschutz” (Kazimierz Wichniarz) supervising the lumber yard. Stach was beaten and hounded out by laughing Germans, and the enraged Stach talks his young friends into assassinating Werkschutz when he visits his favourite local prostitute. The boys pull off this mission, though it’s Jasio who does the actual killing.

Whilst Stach is the narrative’s focus, Wajda eventually seems more interested in the conflicted Jasio, who prefigures the existential angst of Zbigniew Cybulski’s character in Ashes and Diamonds (1956). Torn about the risks to his hard-won place in the proper working class and leaving his father without his income, Jasio, initially hysterically proud of himself for shooting the German, is actually the first of the young lads to test his mettle and discover the terrible ambivalence of murder for patriotism’s sake. Later, when he anxiously decides to opt out of helping Stach and the others when Sekula asks them to help in getting people out of the Jewish ghetto during the uprising, he has a haunting encounter with Abram (Zygmunt Hobot), a Jewish friend who used to live in the same building as Jasio and who escaped the battle consuming the ghetto, covered in soot and filth. When Jasio seems uneasy about the prospect of him hiding out there, Abram promptly leaves, deciding to head back to the battle. Jasio, in a sudden flurry of fellowship, chases after him, only to see him disappearing into the darkness. The next day he joins the other partisans in their mission, hauling ghetto escapees out of the sewer, but Jasio is cut off from his companions and chased down by the Germans in the film’s set-piece sequence, a stunningly staged chase through hemming laneways and inside buildings, with Jasio finally cornered at the top of a grandiose flight of circular stairs. Rather than be caught, Jasio, in a moment of Cagney-esque defiance, leaps to his death, plunging down the stairwell as the Germans gaze down over the rails in bewilderment.

It’s to Wajda’s credit that he’s capable of perceiving the tragic, the heroic, the absurd and grubby, and the deterministic pathos in his heroes all at once, achieving transcendence and humiliation in singular fleeting glimpses. Jasio, whose death is the result of accidents, fumbling, and ill-fortune, finally dies as the very image of resistance. Whilst the story doesn’t give any easy out clauses for its heroes who, once they commit to action, bear the consequences stoically—they are killed off with a chilling casualness that anticipates Jean-Pierre Melville’s equally grim, unsparing take on resistance warfare, Army of Shadows (1969)—nonetheless it retains a tone of humanistic good cheer that borders on the Capra-esque when the residents of Stach’s slum instantly rally when Stach and his mother are threatened by the rival resistance men looking for their stolen pistol, and see off the intruders with blunt implements. In spite of the seriousness of the subject, an effervescent humour bubbles throughout the film, as when Grzesio shows off his combat scar on his belly only to be told off by a barmaid for lewd behaviour, and Krone rambling on with old war stories distinguished by the fact that nothing actually happened to him. After the managers of the factory give Stach a lecture about the value of hard work, Krone assures him, “Work and pray, and you’ll grow a hump!”

Stach’s attempts to work up something more than awed, dutiful fellowship with Dorota edge gently into familiar teen romance fare, as he’s initially awed not only by Dorota’s looks and self-containment, but also by the fact that she knows what she’s doing in the war far more than he initially does, telling Stach and his buddies off for killing a man in their own area, and lecturing partisans of all stripes in their vital military and ideological matters. Nonetheless, he finally charms her enough so that she becomes his lover, at which point Wajda deliver his most devilish twist: bouncing out in the early morning from her apartment to buy what pathetic trifles he can at a wartime store to give her a surprise breakfast treat, he returns in time to see Dorota being led away by the Gestapo. A telling difference between the mood Wajda tries to conjure and most of the war films being made in the West at the time is the terse, stoic attitude of the heroes, the lack of tears and fireworks when tragedies and transcendences come, particularly apparent in this moment: Stach’s silent horror and despair as he watches her from behind a closed door, only his eyes visible through a grate, and Dorota’s unfussy cooperation with her captors highlight the awareness in the characters of the innate danger and transience of what they’re doing. The film’s final scene is a brilliant culmination, as Stach sits, alone in his grief, with a teenaged boy ambling towards him in curiosity in the background. He proves to be one of a new band of youths, looking distressingly young and cheery, looking to join the partisans, and Wajda fades out on the sight of Stach, now the wise leader for the next generation, facing up to his task and putting aside his sorrow.

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26th 07 - 2009 | 31 comments »

Defiance (2008)

Director: Edward Zwick

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

I have a complicated relationship/reaction to films about the Jewish experience during World War II. The vast majority of the stories deal with the Holocaust. It has even become something of a sick joke that making a good Holocaust film—fiction or documentary—is a fast track to an Oscar nomination. Certainly, an event so singular and dramatic has its own powerful magnetism to storytellers and viewers alike, and several of the best films of the past few years—Black Book, The Pianist—have added considerably to the depth and breadth of our understanding about this horrible time. Too often, however, filmmakers fail to understand that the Holocaust is not a fit topic for every type of film. Life Is Beautiful is a film that plays too fancy-free with the event. Schindler’s List milked it for cheap emotion that helped Gentiles in the audience feel good about themselves.

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My personal problem with these films is that as a Jew I feel unwillingly chained to the Holocaust. Is there any way mainstream filmmaking can catch up to contemporary Jewish issues? A Price Above Rubies was a rare film about the problems of Hasidic Jewish women in America; I loved it and wondered why I couldn’t find anything else like it among English-language films. Why must we be buried year after year under the mantle of Supreme Victimhood? Why must our story be used to distance audiences from the holocausts of the present?

Last year, Hollywood offered us yet another Holocaust-related story called Defiance. The film is based on historian Nechama Tec’s book Defiance: The Bielski Partisans, which tells the true story of the Bielski brothers of Belorussia who, in 1941, led a group of Jews from surrounding towns into hiding in the vast Naliboki Forest, where they lived, armed, and defended themselves—their numbers growing to 1,200—until the end of the war. A quote from a commenter on Amazon.com gives some hint about what is different about this film:

If one word could be used to describe the manner in which Jews are portrayed by mainstream history, it would be compliance. If one word could be used to describe the manner in which Jews are portrayed by Nechama Tec it would be, and is, Defiance. Her title is an apt one indeed.

The word “defiance” as applied to Jews is a difficult one to pin down. What does the film make of it? I’m not sure that defiance, as in the usual use of the word to describe Jews as stiffnecked about retaining their religion and customs, is right, nor is the implicit defiance of murder at the hands of the Nazis. Talk about the defiance of the stereotype of Jews not being willing to fight, of being delicate intellectuals and compliant women, and you’re getting closer. Ultimately, however, I’d say the Jews of this film defied the odds by surviving the harsh forest conditions for years.

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Our heroes are Tuvia Bielski (Daniel Craig) and his brother Zus (Liev Schreiber). Both strapping farmers, they discover that the local police, under orders from the Nazis, have been to their farm as part of their round-up of local Jews and have killed their father and mother. A young brother, Aron (George MacKay), hid successfully from the murderers. The Bielskis, later joined by brother Aseal (Jamie Bell), seek refuge in the woods. Soon, they stumble upon others like themselves. Tuvia goes to the home of a sympathetic Gentile to get food and weapons for the group. When the police show up looking for more Jews—and the bounty they will receive for them—Tuvia runs to the barn. There in the rafters are more Jews. Tuvia learns that the police chief (Sigitas Rackys) is responsible for his parents’ deaths. He takes the handgun and four bullets the farmer has given him and visits the police chief’s house. Pleading for his life, the police chief says he always looked the other way when the Bielskis went about smuggling for extra cash. “Ask your father.” “Ask him yourself,” says Tuvia, as he shoots the chief and his two sons.

The Bielskis ask for supplies from sympathetic locals, and failing that, steal what they need. They rob a milkman, who brings Soviet partisans to attack them. Zus and Tuvia have a major rift—Zus thinking they should have killed the milkman to prevent his betrayal when they had the chance, and Tuvia choosing a path he thinks will keep them human in a situation that could turn them all into animals in short order. Eventually, the brothers make a deal with the Red Army partisans to help them in exchange for protection. Zus and some of the other action-oriented men of the community leave to fight with the Soviets, while the Jews clean and repair their clothing and perform other support tasks back at the forest camp.

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As the camp grows, romance sparks. Tuvia and Zus have lost their wives and children to the Nazis. They begin romances with new arrivals Lilkas (Alexa Davalos) and Bella (Iben Hjejle), respectively. Aseal falls for Chaya (Mia Wasikowska), and the pair gets married in a traditional Jewish ceremony presided over by schoolteacher Shamon (Allan Corduner). The forest environs must have made the community feel very safe indeed for them to dance and party to the sounds of the musicians of the group playing their violins and clarinets. Of course, more threats to their safety arise, most seriously in a bombing raid, with Nazi troops hot on their heels. The disheartened Tuvia must be roused by Aseal to lead the community through a swamp, hoping that the troops and tanks will not be able to track and follow them.

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For me, there was an element of Swiss Family Robinson in the building of the log huts in which the community of Jews dwelled. But there was also a sense of the kibbutzim to follow in Israel, where I’m sure some of the survivors emigrated after the war. The stereotypical bad apples, inept sentry Lazar (Jonjo O’Neill), and intellectuals Shamon and Yitzchak (Iddo Goldberg) arguing over a game of chess played with pieces hewn from the surrounding trees suck some of the reality from the situation. It is reinfused, however, when the Jews fight over food after having gone without for days, and with the lovely, deadly flakes of the first snowfall of winter. Zus’ disillusionment with the Soviets after repeated anti-Semitic comments and attacks was inevitable, and sealed when the Red Army retreats with no consideration for the Jewish partisans. I loved that the cast actually learned Russian for scenes played between the Jews and Gentiles. (Among themselves, they spoke English.)

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The acting is uneven. I didn’t like Craig, who never really emerges from the pose he adopts for Tuvia as a strong, but silent type, perhaps with a small messiah complex. He was, for me, the least interesting of the main characters. The women never emerged from their stock characters, and the intellectuals seemed there primarily to populate the film with Jewish types. However, Liev Schreiber and Jamie Bell really knock their performances out of the park. Schreiber is a believable strongman with an observant and knowing streak—though his Russian comrades respect his fighting ability and fearlessness, he always behaves slightly uncomfortable around them, knowing that their hatred of Jews is never far from the surface. Bell goes from young and sweet to impassioned and adult, forced by circumstances to grow up quickly. He is fiery and inspirational—everything Craig could and should have been had the script been less dedicated to making him a reluctant hero.

As with all new films, this one is too damn long, though I have to say that it isn’t bloated with filler. The true story unspooled over three years, so there was plenty of material to work with, though clearly, many scenes are fictitious or embellished for dramatic effect. Interestingly, this film has been more or less savaged by film critics and has been the object of attack by anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers on the Internet who prefer to paint the Bielskis as nothing but common thugs who brutalized the surrounding Gentile communities to get what they needed and wanted. The latters’ motives are clear, but I’m not so sure what the critics are so upset about. It’s not a great film, but it is an engrossing one that tells its unfamiliar story using the conventions of cinema to pretty good effect. I would have liked the characters to emerge more as individuals and the battles to be a little more sloppy and believable, as it was hard to really feel deeply for the Bielski partisans. Most of all, Craig kind of did this picture in with his flat performance.

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Zwick was smart to shoot as near to location as possible, in Lithuania. With a script that doesn’t deviate too much from a standard action film with stock characterizations, what stands out as formidably real are the unforgiving winters, lack of access to a ready supply of food and medical care, and dangers from wolves, snakes, and other natural elements. Nature supplies the glue that bonds with the better aspects of this film. We might have had just another exploitative Holocaust film without this dispassionate “observer” of the Bielski partisans in action. Nonetheless, I think I’d be pretty happy not to view another of its genre ever again.


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