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Director: Péter Bergendy
2012 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Do the words “homeland security” make you feel protected? Do they make your skin crawl? Do you look around you in a bustling airport for unattended packages, or are you most interested in finding the food court? We may still say “It’s a free country,” but what citizens of the United States, and other countries as well, are more or less resigned to is the “new normal” of walking around in their stockinged feet as their shoes are x-rayed and their bags are randomly searched at the airport, going to museums that require they pass through metal detectors, or looking idly at Google Earth to see what their homes look like through the surveillance satellites and cameras that never sleep. We are all suspects now in an international game of terrorism, something the characters of Hungarian director Péter Bergendy’s second feature film must understand or face the consequences.
Hungarian screenwriting phenom Norbert Köbli has written a crackling thriller in which the main character is suspicion. Channeling the murderous paranoia of Stalinist rule in the year after the failed 1956 Hungarian counterrevolution, The Exam shows how oppressive regimes tend to eat their own tails by focusing on loyalty tests that were mandated for even the most zealously pro-Communist operatives in government.
The subject who is being tested on Christmas Eve—importantly, without his knowledge—is András Jung (Zsolt Nagy), a handsome young handler for the secret police. The opening credits cleverly show the double life Jung leads, toggling between close-ups of homey Christmas items like tree ornaments and candles and such tools of the spy trade as headphones and a gun being laid out for use. Jung poses as a German instructor who gives private lessons at an apartment maintained by the government as a less conspicuous way for Jung to contact his informants. We see him arrive home and carefully remove a matchstick he placed between the doors to inform him whether someone entered the apartment in his absence. He prepares to receive some of the informants he has been running by getting his hidden tape recorder and microphone set up and checking his list of agents. Before anyone arrives, his mentor Pál Márko (János Kulka) pays him a visit, inviting him for dinner and giving Jung a gift from his wife Janka (Mária Varga)—a ceramic angel to hang on his Christmas tree.
Thus begins Jung’s test. Márko goes across the street to an apartment where a surveillance team is set up to watch Jung, record his phone conversations from the tap placed in his telephone handset, and listen to his conversations with the informants he receives through the microphone hidden in the ceramic angel. The test proceeds uneventfully, and Márko is ready to call an end to it. The official test-runner, Emil Kulcsár (Péter Scherer), a nerdy, by-the-book member of the team who seems to idolize Márko, argues that they are required to watch the subject for 12 consecutive hours. Márko is dismissive of Kulcsár, consistently failing to remember his name, and wants to flaunt regulations so that he can get on with having a nice Christmas at home. That delightful possibility is definitively quashed when an unknown woman (Gabriella Hámori) arrives at Jung’s home and makes passionate love with him as the microphones and embarrassed spies catch every sigh.
Brutal and action-oriented, as befits his status as a war hero and early Soviet supporter, Márko follows up every lead, identifying the woman as Éva Gát, a music student with a questionable past whom Jung met at a concert. He becomes convinced that Jung is in love with her, and wonders how he can warn his surrogate son about the danger she poses to Jung’s position with the secret police. However, Jung is not the only agent in trouble; every main character, including the hapless Emil, has a personal, emotional tie that could jeopardize their position. Like many other films, books, and other works of art that deal with state oppression (e.g., Nineteen Eighty-Four), The Exam posits the personal and individual as major threats to the ruling order. As Jung tells a priest he has recruited to spy on another priest, guns are not the only weapons that can be used against the state.
In addition to the period detail, what I enjoyed so much about this exciting, cat-and-mouse film is that it was hard to decide who was the cat and who were the mice. In fact, from the landladies and enforcers who follow the orders of Márko and Emil to the humorless, intimidating Jung, we are never really sure whom to trust, what anyone is feeling, and what actions are real or staged. The actors play more than one role within their basic character, aware of living their cover stories, how they must behave to accord with the rules of the test, and holding their personal identities like precious water in a leaky bucket. Nagy particularly impresses as a cold operative with an equally passionate flipside and the capacity for sudden violence when his survival is threatened.
Like Jung, we, too, are being tested, asked to examine our loyalties by which character we identify with and root for. In the final scene, Márko and his wife finally sit down to Christmas dinner. The place setting for Jung remains empty until Janka at last removes it. The state has swallowed the personal, and we are left to consider the true cost of the “new normal” to our own lives.
The Exam won the Gold Hugo in the 2012 CIFF New Directors Competition.
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Director: Michael Haneke
By Roderick Heath
When The London Times newspaper named Michael Haneke’s Hidden the greatest film of the decade, I knew I’d have to finally watch it, but also doubted I’d agree with the assessment. Haneke’s undoubtedly a talented filmmaker, and I admired his taciturn adaptation of Elfriede Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher (2001) very much. Yet his original work tends to attract a kind of cognoscenti consensus about which I can’t help but be cynical. Modern European art cinema prides itself on maintaining certain distinctions from Hollywood and genre film, and Haneke himself helped define that distance with his Brechtian, yet somehow wrongheaded satire on slasher films, Funny Games (1997). Still, Haneke has developed a consistent nerve for dissecting the psyche of the Western Europe’s educated, middle-class-and-above populace, and subjecting them to random tortures to test their mettle, looking for perverse sexuality behind the chic façade of classical musicians or subjecting the bourgeoisie to post-apocalyptic wastelands and home-invading psychokillers who know the plot already.
Hidden, for its part, resembles a more metaphorical, pseudo-politicised edition of Oldboy. Successful television book show host Georges Laurent (Daniel Auteuil) and his publisher wife Anne (Juliette Binoche) begin to receive mysterious videotapes that at first, merely show their own house and then drop hints to follow a certain route to a mysterious doorway. The pictures that come with the tapes, childish scrawls of a boy with a bloodied mouth, evoke a memory for Georges that needles him. His family, which owned a large estate, had once nearly adopted Majid, the son of their Algerian caretakers who had been killed in the infamous October 17, 1961 police riot against protestors of the Algerian War. The six-year-old Georges conspired against Majid, tricking him into killing a chicken to prove his violent nature and eventually seeing him hauled away to an orphanage. Following the clues in the videotapes, Georges finds himself in Majid’s apartment, where the latter man appears to be a frayed, poor, wash-up. Georges automatically assumes he’s responsible for making and sending the tapes, and threatens him; later a new tape turns up showing this argument in Majid’s apartment.
When Georges and Anne’s 13-year-old son Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky) doesn’t come home one night, they assume he’s been kidnapped by their ambiguous persecutors, and have the police round up Majid and his grown son (Walid Afkir). But it soon proves that Pierrot was merely hanging out with a friend, and the hysterical act of rounding up Majid and his son proves to be the last straw: Majid next invites Georges around to witness the spectacle of Majid cutting his own throat. His son confronts Georges the next day. Georges refuses any complicity in Majid’s life and death and accuses the younger man of being the cameraman, while Majid’s son prods Georges for expressions of guilt whilst denying being the clandestine pest. In a cryptic final scene, Pierrot chats with Majid’s son outside his school, with Haneke relying on the audience to imagine a motivation and possible outcome of the encounter.
Hidden tiptoes with mischievous purpose, leaving everything upended in its wake, exposing the bullshit behind the lives of the superficially successful Laurents, with their dishonest exchanges, possible affairs, and finally confirmed moral cowardice. Communication is a major fixation of the film: the videotapes and drawings speak in the most undeclared, evocative terms to Georges, who responds with hyped-up refusals to engage or delve deeper than his own assumptions. The Laurents’ townhouse, with grilled gate and barred windows, is a modern urban fortress, displaying the ingrained paranoia and elegantly rationalised determination to keep the unpleasant aspects of the world out. Georges’ show is the ultimate cake-and-eat-too gig for the contemporary pseudo-intellectual, and the film merely records the distance between his fancy address and life of interviewing high-flying novelists and and Majid’s low-rent flat, concisely recording determinist observations about the nature of class and race.
The essential pitch isn’t a terribly great distance away from Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Corbeau (1943), which likewise skewered bourgeois smugness and prodded the conscience of the complacent modern human with shadowy socio-political overtones through an anonymous campaign threatening to expose secreted skeletons. Where Clouzot’s film described an author of poison pen letters who actively sought to accuse and mixed truth and lies to upset the landscape, the implications of the videotapes and the drawings are quite different. The devices in Hidden imply unacknowledged wrongs and evoke long-ago violence, essentially operating more as a mix of detective story and laboratory maze for the mouse that is Georges, testing his psychological reflexes and leading him to a certain conclusion all logic dictates he cannot avoid. Early in the film, at a dinner party the Laurents give for some friends, one of them tells an eerie story that ends in a joke that reveals how easy it is to construct a mood of nervous credulity; likewise, a momentary discrepancy in the usual run of Georges and Anne’s lives and Georges’ assumption of persecution sees him write himself a script for a paranoid thriller.
The basics of Clouzot’s template, indeed, have become endemic in contemporary French cinema, which is full of spoilt bourgeoisie getting it in the neck from some direction. A major problem of Hidden is that it relentlessly interrogates some already well-interrogated truths: the moral smugness and hermetic outlook of its chattering classes is a popular target. What is interesting and original about Haneke’s take is the way it describes the unconscious processes of marginalisation that corrode the middle-class hegemony’s attempts to be fair in describing its fear of losing its stability. Haneke carefully removes all elements of actual danger from the experiences the Laurents are subjected to, only the mysterious illustrations even hinting at some kind of violence, yet inviting interpretation according to half-realised anxieties and prejudices. Even the final shot plays a delicate game with the audience’s psyche, asking both those who perceive hope in it if they’re naïve, and those who see waiting danger if they’re not, deep down, still afraid the young brown man will inevitably bring danger rather than understanding to the young white man. It’s also amusing that the key plot element—the videotaping—inverts the nature of contemporary surveillance culture, which is defined by keeping an eye on the rough elements out there on the streets, by instead observing the bourgeois home. This inversion suggests its part in the construction of social divides and firm rest upon exploitation of other people.
Haneke’s penchant for playing with generic elements and conventions to explore problems of cognisance and conscience makes him seem like the Teutonic offspring of Hitchcock and Antonioni, and if nothing else, he’s a master of slow-burn pay-offs. Majid’s suicide, executed in one dramatic slash of his throat with a razor before Georges’ amazed, distraught, utterly edified gaze, is a supreme example of his keen sense of how to shoot eruptions of horror for maximum effect. And yet it has curiously little impact in real dramatic terms, because Haneke defines Majid so distantly that his tale is hard to perceive; Majid never entirely ceases to be a mere prop designed to set Georges’ world in turmoil. Hidden is executed with piss-elegant directorial poise, perhaps too piss-elegant, compared to, say, Claire Denis’ intimate portrait of immigrant lives in 35 Shots of Rum (2009), which raises a troubling suggestion that perhaps Haneke’s take is as short-sighted and spuriously analytical as the sensibility he’s putting down. There’s a contrived ambience to scenes like that in which Georges has an angry exchange with a black cyclist to encapsulate the racial themes lurking within the film’s deadpan, depopulated intent, and some fuzzy hints of parable between one case of lingering ghosts of colonial misadventure and more contemporary editions, by making sure we glimpse scenes of conflict in Israel and Iraq on the Laurents’ television.
Hidden is, then, a double-edged experience. It’s both an absorbing and compellingly articulated movie, supremely well-acted, especially by Auteuil, who, let’s face it, could give a great performance six feet underwater with a pillowcase over his head. Haneke is, finally, no poet of cinema or of people, but a filmmaker and thinker of clockwork sensibilities. Hitchcock could have conjured such a narrative with a depth of emotion far beyond Haneke’s capacity, and there’s a human drama screaming to escape from Hidden’s passive-aggression chic that Haneke suggests only in a late scene—a flashback to Georges’ country home when Majid was unwillingly dragged away by anonymous officials. In such moments, Hidden suggests a tragedy that remains stillborn—which is not to say that it’s bad or anything close to it. But it does manage to both dissemble and be didactic all at once, and that’s why for me, Hidden falls many rungs short of greatness. But Haneke does conjure a lingering sense of unease much like that which dogs Georges right until his final laying down to sleep, assailed by nightmares of a lingering threat emerging from a scarce-remembered past. l
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Director: Åke Sandgren
2007 European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
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