Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Goran Paskaljevic, Special Treatment, (1980).

Goran Paskaljevic, Special Treatment
Yugoslavia, 1980

Goran Paskaljevic’s film of 1980, Special Treatment, deals with a story about a group of recovering, so-called, alcoholics and their doctor. The group of alcoholics, throughout the film, are portrayed as submissive although not altogether necessarily in the need of such radically life altering treatment as is the Dr.’s program. They are though forced by the state to commit to the treatment fully, which means that they are not volunteers and that they have no life outside the treatment until they are “cured.”
Ultimately, though, the film is less about questions of disease and treatment than it is about issues concerning power and authority. The Dr. is controlling and domineering to almost absurd extents over the group of patients. The film picks up at the point where the Dr. has decided to take his patients on tour to lecture and show them off. He takes them to a brewery. The trip is excused as a demonstration of the patients’ newly acquired will power and presumably by extension to show off the “success” of his treatment, which is appropriate to the Dr.’s sadistic brand of egotism. Really though it is more in order to rub the patients’ noses in their weakness. It is a construction of power on the Dr.’s behalf.
There is through the course of the film a great premium and emphasis placed on the idea of will power by the Dr. and his supposed ability to instill it in others. In addition, the Dr.’s favorite song is a famous piece from Wagner and the film’s theme music is another piece by Wagner. Wagner, though his music may well be defended in exclusively musical terms, was the Nazi composer par excellence. His music was, and is, connected with Nazism. Furthermore, the Dr.’s insistence on the absolute importance of will power coupled with his controlling behavior as well as the fact that this is indeed a film, calls to mind Triumph of the Will from Leni Riefenstahl. Riefenstahl was, of course, Hitler’s filmmaker, and Triumph of the Will is her most important work and widely considered one of the most effective accomplishments in the cinema of propaganda. Especially in the images of his lecture the Dr. becomes an embodiment of Nazi, sadistic, domineering power and unreasonable authority. His lecture looks and sounds more like a screaming fascist speech than an academic, or intellectual, display.
The Dr.’s control over the patients does not include the imposition of physical violence or death, but the life-controlling treatment program, in its consuming character and in the complete removal of the patients from society, is a kind of death. They are no longer alive except for their involvement in the treatment. Also, the Dr. imposes his own domineering will upon the patients by forcing them to do totally unnecessary activities. The exercises, for example, seem useless and their true raison d’être is revealed at the end of the film. After the debacle propagated by the patients’ refusal to adhere to the Dr.’s play he takes revenge on them through the medium of forced exercise, the same that he had already been subjecting them to throughout the film. The exercise that the Dr. implements is all the more ridiculous because it is no kind of real or beneficiary exercise. The patients are made to run around in circles, flap their arms and jump around aimlessly and meaninglessly. At the final event of it, the reality of forced exercise as punishment is exclaimed by the fact that it comes immediately after the patients’ resistance to the Dr.’s power, but more so because the Dr. is very obviously angry as hell about it. He has the patient’s exercising, but he dictates exactly what they are to do in real time. He has control over their bodies and their movement and he shouts out the commands with fierce force and punishing conviction.
Another avenue by which the Dr. attains unreasonable power over the patients is through the forced play that they must rehearse and act out in front of strangers. The worst part of this is that the monologues that the patients give are regarding their own real and personal lives, or former lives. Not only that but they are designed to strike the speaker deep as they reveal damaging details and the most painful memories. The play is an imposition of restricting and domineering structure on a series of forced confessions. The confessions intended to completely humiliate the patients.


Slobodan Sijan, Who is SingingOver There? (1980).

Slobodan Sijan, Who is Singing Over There? (Yugoslavia, 1980)

This film begins on April 6, 1941. April 7, 1941 was the Nazi bombing of Belgrade. The film is about a journey, an excursion that through its incompetence reaches pilgrimage-esque levels of importance for the characters involved. Each has urgent and personally important reasons for needing to reach Belgrade, which seems ever more distant because of the host of obstacles that continuously present themselves throughout the journey.
The film is set in pre-communist Yugoslavia at the onset of WWII. The characters desire to reach Belgrade, but little do they know that the very following day to when their journey begins Belgrade is to be bombed and Yugoslavia is to be dragged into a terrible war. However, it is a comedy. The plot is constructed around character types, and the comedy is employed to reveal tensions and contradictions as an undercurrent to the official Yugoslavian rhetoric of Brotherhood and Unity. As such the film evokes real and important problems.
The tension and the revelation of problems are transformed from being a constant undercurrent throughout the film to an overt and arresting explosion near the end of the film. In an ugly display of overt and violent racism, near the end of the film every character, as a mob, attacks the two Gypsies. They accuse the Gypsies of stealing, though they have absolutely no proof and though the spectator knows from a previous scene that they are in reality innocent. This incident occurs upon reaching the film’s goal, Belgrade, but the violent assault of the two Gypsies is interrupted by a Nazi air strike upon the city. This entire scene has an effect of opposition against everything that had come before it. The film as a comedy invites the spectator to relate to the cast of characters who represent a cross section of contemporary social types. Every one seems more or less likeable, that is up until the film’s final scene.
The film also comments on the superimposed bureaucratic superstructure of the society. It is examined through the isolation of this set of characters from said society. The entire bus ride is just short of being entirely disastrous but nonetheless the bus driver absolutely insists on following the rules and forms that are meant to govern public transportation, no matter how ridiculous. The extent of exaggeration renders many of the film’s elements to be satirical, like in Bacso’s The Witness.
Another interesting theme throughout the film is the secondary function of the two Gypsy characters as a kind of chorus. They provide a refrain to which the film’s action always returns. They act like the chorus in Greek theatre. They always play the same song but change the lyrics to comment on the present action of the narrative. As Gypsies they are outsiders, and as outsiders they are most fit to comment on the current situation.

Dusan Makavejev, (1971), WR: Mysteries of the Organism

WR: Mysteries of the Organism, Dusan Makavejev, 1971

Dusan Makavejev’s 1971 WR: Mysteries of the Organism is a film that at once embraces some of film’s most influential theories and simultaneously seems to reject all traditions of mainstream filmmaking.
WR seems to embrace Eisenstein’s theory of dialectical montage but pushes the notion of colliding juxtaposed images to absolute extremes. The film is complicated, dense and difficult to approach but it seems that it might be best illuminated in terms of montage and that it might too illuminate Eisenstein’s theories though they are employed to radical extremes. The film cuts between images and sequences that almost seem unrelated. However, by means of juxtaposing the opposed images they are made capable of alluding to and associating themselves with greater issues that they would not have had the force to evoke alone. The film asks its spectator to compare the images and think about them in relation to one another. Every scene throughout the film creates this sort of clash. In addition to creating the juxtaposition between individual images the film also invites comparison on larger scales. The spectator is asked to contrast between entire sections of the film, as several themes and quasi-narratives are also present, though they are constantly intertwined with seemingly freely associated, thematically unrelated sequences. The major plots that are spliced throughout the film are a documentary about Wilhelm Riech, a fictional quasi-narrative involving a Yugoslavian girl, Melena, and her romantic interest, a Russian performer, and sequences of a man in army fatigues who dances menacingly around American city streets while wielding a toy machine gun. The film juxtaposes the Yugoslav girl narrative with biographical information about Reich, fictional footage with documentary footage, the United States with Yugoslavia, Yugoslavia with Russia and, as did Reich in his own work, Marxist political liberation with psychoanalytic sexual liberation. The film creates complicated dialogues among these clashing themes and more.
WR is avant-garde in form and confrontationally controversial in content. In addition to taking after Eisensteinian montage theory, Makavejev seems to have also been interested in Eisenstein’s insistence that art must shock. For art, and especially the cinema, to be effective and fully realize its potential for conveying meaning it has to confront, jolt and rattle the spectator. The sometimes shocking imagery if of Makavejev’s film certainly conveys a great deal of force in the arresting effect that it has on the spectator. Eisenstein’s notion of shock is relayed in WR through offensiveness.
The idea of dialectical montage is that the collisions between images and ideas will evoke higher truths. In WR, though, none of the many, long sequences of fierce dialectical montage lead to anything definite at all. Their inconclusiveness is deliberate. Part of the point is that there are no objective answers and there is no objective truth. Instead the spectator is left to think the film through for him or herself. Melena’s speech about the inherent dangers and bad effects of political and sexual repression given in the courtyard of her building is crosscut with shots of her roommate having rather explicit sex. Melena’s speech is received with great applause but suddenly her ex-boyfriend shouting macho-sexist slander which is likewise received with great applause. Cut to communist Chairman Mau and an impossibly enormous gathering. Cut to a Stalin propaganda film showing him before a huge and greatly applauding crowd. Cut to a huge Nazi organization including a Nazi military march. What is the relationship between each of these mass movements? Makavejev provides no conclusion, but the succession of images does provide an incredibly interesting juxtaposition of images and ideas to think about.
Another reoccurring image in the film are scenes depicting Reich’s medical followers implementing the radical practice of scream therapy. These scenes are particularly difficult to watch, but they are presented within the framework of the film without any judgment. At one point, however, there is a horrific scene of electro-shock therapy thrown into the mix. It is visually similar, at least in its presentation, to the scenes of scream therapy. Is scream therapy implied here to be as bad as the electro-shock? Its difficult to say as even the shock therapy is represented rather ambiguously.
Makavejev withholds all conclusions and refuses to provide answers to his queries. WR is a splendidly complex and rich achievement, one that certainly requires a great deal of more time.

Marta Meszaros, Adoption, (1975).

Márta Mészáros, Adoption, (Hungary, 1975).

Adoption is about the value of making a real, meaningful connection and the beauty of honest friendship in a cold, despondent world where each can often be so hard to find.
Márta Mészáros has brilliantly conveyed a sad, depressing mood. Kata is an older woman who os involved with a married man, whom she has apparently been seeing for many years. Kata has decided she wants children. Her married boyfriend already has children of his own and doesn’t want to hear anything about it. The sensation that the spectator has entered Kata’s life at a time of great change is noticeable from the very start of the film. One gets the impression that her life has been very much the same for a long time and that in part a reason she has stayed with this married man already so long is that she is literally and figuratively stuck. She is stuck in the familiarity of routine, which is quite easy to let happen even if the routine is rather bad.
Anna is a younger girl, probably in her mid teens, from an orphanage near where Kata lives. When Anna goes out with her friends for breaks from the orphanage it seems that they often see Kata and that Kata has already become quite aware of them as well. When Anna runs away from the orphanage, she goes to Kata, hoping that she can stay with her for a while, at least long enough to see her boyfriend when he visits, and then she’ll go back. Before Anna enters Kata’s life it is apparent that Kata is suffering. She is all alone in the world and her man is quite distant and does nothing but reject her appeal for a chance at happiness through a child. Her mood is also conveyed through her stillness and her reluctance to ever smile. She says that she loves this man, but it is really part of the construction that she has built up around herself, over the years, of self imposed alienation and withdrawal. This is quite similar to what Anna has also grown accustomed to doing to herself. In discussing with Kata the possibility of a child, she advises against adoption, saying that all abandoned children are damaged. In this incredibly heartfelt and revealing line Anna is talking more about herself than anyone. Like Kata, Anna has also received a lot of damage to her self esteem.
Anna and Kata quickly develop a bond and take to each other in an almost mother daughter relationship. The mother daughter model, though, they both know can never be truly fulfilled. Nevertheless, they form a strong and significant relationship. This relationship is the most important in the entire film, more so than Kata’s oppressive relationship with the married man and even more so than Anna’s relation to her boyfriend, and eventual husband.
The conclusion of the film is quite interesting in that both Anna and Kata fulfill what each, throughout the film, desires the most. Anna, with Kata’s help, marries her boyfriend and Kata, in the film’s final scene is shown adopting a baby. Each momentous event, though, is represented as distant. Anna’s wedding is shown as a great and festive event but Anna does not seem happy. In her final shot the spectator sees her, but does not hear her. She seems to be fighting with her new husband and as he walks away Anna appears sad, hurt, entirely unfulfilled. Apparently the wedding that she wanted so bad does not in the end make her happy. In her final scene, in a room crowded with celebrating people she is shown alone and says nothing. In Kata’s final scene she finally adopts a baby, but even at this point she still does not smile. The final shot is of her running with the baby in her arms toward a bus and the film leaves questions about her future happiness inconclusive. Each of the women fulfills their dreams, their life-changing wishes. Through each event, though, each woman identifies herself in relation to a totally traditional female standard. Anna becomes a wife and Kata becomes a mother. Their dreams, what they thought would make them happy, what they expected would bring meaning and fulfillment to their lives, was defined and decided by societal and cultural preconceptions of female expectation. Each of the women was, at the film’s beginning, certainly unhappy and unconventional. They were like two resistances to social standards of how a woman is to behave. They were each, through circumstances out of their control, decided by third parties (for Anna, her parents and for Kata, the married man), denied their conventional cultural roles as women. This lack contributed significantly to the sense of loss that each felt and therefore to each woman’s unhappiness. At the film’s conclusion, though, they supply each of their lives with what it was that they had been denied and were lacking. However, when the film ends, neither of the two is by any means convincingly happy. Their futures seem as uncertain as ever. This inconclusiveness and absolute resistance to comedic form that Mészáros implements in Adoption seems to suggest that the antiquated societal and cultural ideals that have traditionally defined femininity, and the role of the woman, are no longer entirely valid. Each of the two women was most happy in the bond that they had alone established between the two. Unconventional, by most respects, as their relationship may have been, perhaps it was its unconventionality which made it work so well.

Peter Bacso, The Witness, Hungary (1969).

The Witness, Peter Bacso, (1969).

The Witness from Peter Bacso is a comedy about one of Hungary’s most hideous periods of history. The film takes place in Hungary during the Stalinist era, between 1948 and 1953, which was a time of terrible repression in Hungary. The genre of comedy is used to pointedly satirize these harsh years.
The film uses the focal point of a show-trial to criticize Stalinist Communism from within. During Communism people were not just shot and murdered without explanation the way that has always been such a staple of Fascist regimes. Instead, the government would put together elaborately staged court trials. The show-trials were often based on lies and orchestrated not to serve justice but to remove people. A realistic façade was important, presumably, to show political and national order. The trials were, essentially, theatrical productions with paid actors for witnesses and lawyers. In The Witness Pelikan, a common citizen and worker, is selected to testify in one of these show-trials by Virag who is presumably a rather high ranking member of the local government. The intention to have Pelikan testify as a witness, though, is not revealed up front. Instead when Pelikan is arrested he gets bailed out by Virag as a favor which Virag insists will need to be paid back “some day.” In the mean time Pelikan is given prestigious jobs to serve the government, all of which he fails miserably at.
The comedy of the film is served through how it comments on the incompetence of the system.
Pelikan is given the jobs not because he is qualified but because he is in favor. With each new job Pelikan ends up arrested and imprisoned anew. Pelikan’s incompetence in his jobs is mirrored by the incompetence of the state system. The film is keen about showing the absurdity in the system’s insistence to follow order and observe forms. Virag is the embodiment of the bizarre and twisted logic that everything tries to follow but that doesn’t work at all. The firemen reach Pelikan’s house fire after it has already consumed the home, when Virag and his team build Pelikan a new house they forget to include windows or doors. Everything is backwards. The best example is the trial which works least well of all. The show-trial does not in any way even attempt to fulfill the purpose of what a trial is supposed to be. A show trial is indeed an utter betrayal of the so called justice system and really defies the whole point of what a court system is meant to be all about.
The Witness uses exaggeration to satirize the state during the Stalinist era. The preparation leading up to the performance of the trial itself is phenomenally executed. The series of jobs that Virag consistently sets Pelikan up for is like a series of preparatory tests to attempt to familiarize Pelikan with the glorious Hungarian Communist system. However, the endeavor proves miserable and disastrous. Pelikan means well but does everything backwards, he is clueless. A the end of each job, Pelikan is back in prison, in the same social profile of a cell which includes Pelikan, the common worker, a priest and a former Nazi officer, who represents the past and old regime. Each time, Virag bails Pelikan out again. He is picked up by a black sedan in which he must ride with two quiet, very secretive and comical-looking officers. Each time they take him back to Virag’s office where Virag waits with big, elaborate dinners for him, of which Virag himself never partakes. It is in Virag’s office, while Pelikan eats, that the two main characters have there most revealing conversations. Virag is always worn down and tired looking. He constantly sighs and complains about how he never sleeps. His favorite slogan is to say “The international situation is intensifying,” and such things which suggest that there is urgency to act immediately. To act on what or for what reason is less clear. When Virag finally breaks the news o Pelikan that he is to be the star witness in a trial it is revealed that they want Pelikan to testify against an old friend of his. Pelikan resists and argument ensues. Pelican complains that there must be a mistake because he knows that his friend must be innocent. A heated Virag argues intensely that anyone anywhere can be guilty and that he can make a guilty party out of anyone in Hungary. Virag intently asks Pelikan if the last time he saw his friend he didn’t notice anything “suspicious” about him and the way he acted. When Pelikan says absolutely “no” Virag responds, decisively, with “exactly.” Confusingly Virag leads Pelikan astray from the argument and makes very little sense. Virag argues that “Not being suspicious at all is most suspicious of all.” Virag’s reasoning is bizarre much like the twisted logic that everything seems to be so serious about following pointlessly.
The trial is the culmination of the satire. Pelikan and Virag visit the writer in charge of formulating Pelikan’s statement. The statement is entirely full of outrageous lies, even mentioning that the defendant was seen conversing with “frog men” but Virag takes it very seriously. The writer is by no measure the kind of guy who should be working in the investigatory objective science of law. He writes as if it were a creative endeavor, and thinks himself quite good for fiction, which happens to be what this backwards, perverted trial is seeking. Perverted in the sense that it perverts away from its, supposedly, “real” or “intended” goal. The day of the trial, everybody is appropriately nervous. Virag hands Pelikan his statement to review before going out to testify. In his nerves he hands Pelikan the wrong paper, the verdict instead. Indeed, the verdict is decided and written before the trial even begins.

Miklos Jancso, The Red and the White

Miklos Jancso, The Red and the White (Hungary, 1968).

Jancso’s The Red and the White of 1968, Hungary, is a film that treats form and content with great deals of experimentation. Hungary, of all the Eastern European countries that were involved or affected by the Warsaw Pact had the unique possibility among them to experience the greatest extents on both sides of Soviet oppression. The film takes place in 1919 in Russian/Ukrainian territory during the Bolshevik Revolution and at a time when Hungary was Communist. After 1919 Hungary became Right Wing Nationalist and allied with the Nazis in World War II. After WWII and by 1948 Hungary was Communist again as a result of strong Soviet influence. Throughout the era of Stalin Hungary was the harshest dictatorship outside of the Soviet Union. Whereas for many countries 1956 marked the beginning of liberalization, the year meant a very different thing for Hungary. In Fall of 1956 the Hungarian Revolution overthrew the Communist regime and withdrew the country from the Warsaw Pact. The Soviet reaction to the revolution was to enter with crushing force, put out the successor, liberal government and instate a harsher oppression than most other Warsaw Pact countries were subjected to at the time. However, with the increasing liberalization of Communist countries into the 1960s, Hungary too became increasingly liberalized despite the Soviet backlash of ’56. By the late 60s Hungary enjoyed a greater degree of artistic freedom than did any other eastern European country, except for Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring. Artistic freedom in the late 60s made possible the production and release of more experimental film such as The Red and the White.
With such a turbulent history it is not altogether surprising that Hungarian art during a period of liberalization would look back critically on the events that were to shape the countries future. It is a film that criticizes war. The Red and the White uses the genre of the war film to criticize war by turning the genre on its head. It is a film that is intimately involved with its own form, so much so that the content is relegated to a level of obviously less importance. The only continuity in the film at all is through form. The similarity of shot sequences and their repetition throughout the film mirror the supposed ritualization of military order and rigid form. Though the action that is represented in the film, like its form, seem ruled and rigid, they also seem irrational. The film does give an insight into the rules and rigidity of military order through shots of the patterns and formations that the soldiers must organize into, always shot as through the shots themselves were also patterned according to a strict set of rules. However, the rules and their close adherence, both in the case of the warring soldiers as well as in the filmmaking itself, begin to appear illogical and completely absurd, as though they are totally arbitrary. There are apparently two sides in combat, supposedly the Reds and the Whites, but they are indistinguishable from one another. Furthermore it is constantly almost impossible to tell who is winning. Power and success constantly change hands, so quickly, that “winning” becomes meaningless and irrelevant. Moreover, because the camera deliberately and continuously misses the action that leads to success and power, the ideas of who’s who and who has the upper hand are made even more opaque. The action that in the war genre is traditionally most significant in The Red and the White constantly occurs off camera. Of course, this makes the action of what is indeed depicted on the screen even harder to follow. The film’s continuity and narrative are abstracted and obstructed. The only thing that is certain is that people are dying. In almost every scene multiple people are shot. The patterning of the cinematography and the soldier’s illogically murderous behavior are the only elements in the film that give it any unity or continuity. It is as though the entire film is made up of themes. These, though, are only fragmentary, and the result is that throughout the film the spectator is basically seeing the same thing over and over. Furthermore, like the placing of the most significant battle/war-action off camera, so the convention of the war-hero is also abolished. War films traditionally heroicize certain figures. In The Red and the White not only is nobody heroicized but there are no characters, certainly none of any significance. Almost all the shots are long and this total lack of close ups impedes identification with the characters. Emotional attachments which are often so important and central to war films are not allowed at all in Jancso’s film. The arbitrary, self-imposed rules that the film seems to follow are by no means conventional of filmmaking and they render the plot very difficult to approach or follow. Likewise, the arbitrary rules of war are rendered completely absurd and indeed meaningless. In war there are no good guys, no moments of valiant heroicism, no glories, no goals, no winners, no points, no understanding, no logic and no meanings. By turning the genre upside down, The Red and the White suggests a very different approach to war, that war cannot be measured in terms of positives, but rather that war should be measured in terms of inconclusive, fragmentary, meaningless negatives. The Red and the White is an anti war film and as such it does a phenomenal job of capturing the inherent absurdity and irrationality of war.

Jan Kadar and Elmar Klos, The Shop on Main Street, 1966

Jan Kadar and Elmar Klos, The Shop on Main Street
Czechoslovakia, (1966).

Jan Kadar and Elmar Klos’ The Shop on Main Street is an amazingly sad portrayal of the disasters that the oppressions of an unjust, murderous, totalitarian regime can effect on individuals. The film is very much about individuals and there is a great premium and emphasis placed on character development. It is about individuals caught in the forcing and uncontrollable current of history. The film is beautiful and beautifully photographed. It deals with weighty themes and represents a powerful vision of tragedy.
The protagonist, Antonin Brtko, at the beginning of the film is a common citizen, most preoccupied with trying to make life easier and not too much interested in matters that don’t directly affect him. His biggest worries at the onset of the film are his nagging wife and his dog who follows him everywhere. His attitude is one of passivity, although it is revealed in degrees that he is against the war. The spectator later learns that he had refused to join the Nazi presence with his brother-in-law. It seems that the brother-in-law, Imro, had persuaded him to join but Brtko refused and has since, but not necessarily as a result, hated Imro profoundly. One of the first scenes of the film has Brtko asking his wife if she has heard about all the ships that had been recently sunk and all the soldiers that died, but he can’t seem to remember from which side the casualties were. He is obviously concerned, albeit in some passing sense, with the war but not involved or interested enough to remember what most might consider the most important facts about the casualties. Likewise, one wonders whether his refusal to join with Imro was more of a moral stand or a resistance to extra work. Brtko seems in these ways similar to Jiri Menzel’s character Milos from Closely Watched Trains. Both are a bit lazy and both are quite passive and often disinterested. The more significant similarity between the two is that in each film they are irreparably changed and overwhelmed by the issues and circumstances that exist out of their control and that are, ultimately, larger than either of their individual lives. They are each subsumed by the pull and current of history. However, in Shop on Main Street the effect is individualized and felt far more personally. Whereas in Menzel’s film, the jolt of reality at its finale does not really change the carefree sentiment of the film as a whole, in Shop on Main Street the tragedy is felt deeply and the mood changes dramatically.
The change in the character of Brtko begins to take its grip when his brother-in-law gives him a position as Arian Manager of a Jewish store owned by Rosalie Lautmann. Immediately upon her introduction it is evident that Lautmann is an amazingly sweet and genuinely good natured person. The result is that Brtko can’t tell her the real reason that he has come to work with her, he instead lets her go on believing that it is her store and that he is only helping. Lautmann takes him in with open arms as though he were her own child. Brtko becomes a part of the Jewish community, he makes friends and business arrangements while letting his greed stricken, opportunist, nagging wife believe that he as become a powerful, rich Arian overseer.
Lautmann is always telling Brtko of herself, her family and her past. She tells him stories of her late husband and of her family who never write. She is lonely, quite literally all alone. Brtko is also much the same, considering that he all but hates his life at home. The two get along famously, and not in the least for the lack they share, but also in part because they are both genuinely sad but good hearted people regardless of how different they might have been before meeting. Lautmann gives Brtko her husband’s suit and hat and she cooks for him nearly everyday despite her arthritis and Brtko, as a former carpenter fixes and cleans her furniture while she waits on customers.
Like the ever growing so-called Tower of Babylon in the town’s center, which Brtko passes each day with increasing anxiety, so grows the tension among the people in the town and within Brtko himself. The imposing tower, being built since the film’s beginning, is like a prefiguration of the horror to come. On the morning when the Nazis march into the town’s square to “round up” the Jews to, as they say, “cleanse the town” one feels sick knowing, with hindsight, the greater historical context. The fact that the film so dearly and closely portratys the bond between Brtko and Mrs. Lautmann, and in that she is made so sweet, personalizes and individualizes the horror of the Nazi oppression in a way that few films are capable. Lautmann, as old as she is, hardly is even aware that there is a war in the first place, she couldn’t even understand “Arian Manager,” her age inspired ignorance makes Brtko and the spectator all the sadder and more afraid for her and her possible fate. Shots like when Brtko is nervously rushing all about town to find Mrs. Lautmann and he passes a long line of marching Nazis are composed ingeniously. Brtko’s face takes up half of the entire frame as he moves straight to the left, and, in the background, the line of Nazis marches upward toward the right. The composition creates great dynamism in the contrast between the close up on Brtko’s individual face moving one way while the long line of anonymous soldiers moves, in the background, into the opposite direction, each in diagonals. A shot like this emphasizes Brtko’s psychology because it is a close-up but also because it is from one of the most psychologically rattling scenes of the film. It also shows the strong contrast between Brtko’s concern and the Nazi intention. The opposing diagonals also visually manifest the internal tension and conflicting sentiments within Brtko himself in that he wants to protect and save Mrs. Lautmann and at the same time knows that they will kill him for aiding her if he is found out.
At its tragic climax, the last few scenes of the film show the psychological torment that the fear the Nazis inspired in people could have on individuals. The Nazi terror is so huge that without ever even entering the shop, horror ensues nonetheless. With the deaths of both protagonists the end of The Shop on Main Street is a representation of the horror of war without the depiction of war. It is an incredibly powerful portrayal of injustice and fear.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Jaromil Jires, The Joke, 1969

The Joke, Jaromil Jires
Czechoslovakia, 1969

Jaromil Jires’, The Joke is arguably one of the Czech New Wave’s most highly politicized films. As might be expected, it was immediately banned upon the Soviet reinvasion of Prague in August of 1968. When Alexander Dubcek was kicked out of power and Czechoslovakia was taken back into the Soviet sphere of influence, the film was considered so controversial that, although Jires continued to work, it was held from his official filmography.
Like many Czech New Wave films, The Joke can be seen as a film that foregrounds the importance of the individual subject despite the communist insistence on community and the de-emphasis of individuality. Also, like is common of Czech New Wave, the individual in The Joke is caught up in history. The struggle to remain individual against the powerful currents of history and community is a central theme in the film. The main character, Ludvik, struggles to cope with his life and the world around him. He is obsessed and haunted by his past. What he obviously considers the horror and personal devastation of his past is inseparable from the pull of history. The past that Ludvik was forced to suffer through was imposed on him by forces that were far out of his control. Ludvik’s obsession with his past is expressed in the film as much through dialogue and characterization as it is visually through montage editing. Jires uses the language of continuity editing, shot and counter-shot, to visually connect Ludvik, in the present, with the experiences of his past.
The Joke is a film that creates meaning through juxtaposition. Meaningful comparisons are constantly set up through the main character’s, Ludvik’s, perspective. Ludvik’s past is played out through flashbacks. Jires presents the viewer with the image of Ludvik in the present but constantly thinking about and obsessing over the past. A central event in the narrative of the film is the past event of Ludvik being kicked out of the university. The event is played out in three parts. First, Ludvik wrote a postcard to his girlfriend which included a joke. The second is Ludvik’s inquisition by a university board. Third, and lastly, Ludvik is subjected to a university vote that decides his expulsion from college. The result is that Ludvik is kicked out of the university and sent to forced labor in the mines for six years. No small punishment. The audience, though, is presented with each of these past events through flashbacks. Though they are past events, and communicated through flashback, they are simultaneously, through the editing scheme, projected into the present.
The viewer sees Ludvik in the present, in his hotel room, when the flashback to his interview with the board begins. The interview is shown literally from Ludvik’s point of view. The camera takes Ludvik’s vantage point; it shows the scene through his eyes. The board talks into the camera, and when Ludvik speaks, he is not shown, but his voice seems to emanate from the camera itself, as though the viewer is experiencing the event firsthand. To heighten the scene’s impact and to highlight its significance to the main character, the language of continuity editing, of shot and counter-shot, is employed and manipulated. Jires gives the viewer the shot of the board, in the past, the shot of Ludvik’s flashback, or memory, of the board, questioning him. Jires juxtaposes these shots of the board with counter-shots of Ludvik but the counter-shots of Ludvik are not of him in the past at the inquisition but instead of Ludvik in the present, in his hotel room. Through traditional continuity editing the shots are intended to match up and to clarify. However, in The Joke these shots do not match up, and instead of merely clarifying, they tend to complicate. They complicate both the film’s accessibility and Ludvik’s psychology, a central aspect of the film being to represent this interior psychology on the screen. Jires’ manipulation of continuity editing techniques achieves an equation between what is understood as past and present in the film. However, this combining and equating of past and present through flashbacks is made conspicuously clear to be particular to Ludvik. It is Ludvik’s obsession with the past that brings its significance to the foreground in the present. Other juxtapositions in the film render the past and present as being at odds with one another. The irreconcilable differences between past and present are the most significant result of showing them together.
Ludvik’s obsession with the past is intricately tied to his desire for revenge against those who kicked him out of college, sent him to work and forever changed the course of his life. However, it becomes amply clear throughout the course of the film that the past has become irrelevant to all except Ludvik. Ludkik is disconnected from the realities of the present. He is represented as a creepy, dark, brooding, disturbed middle aged man. His personal horror is unfounded in the present, and he is all but lost. When Ludvik finds one of his arch rivals from the past, a man from the board, he sees an opportunity for enacting revenge upon him. Ludvik sleeps with the man’s wife in hopes that he will be devastated to learn of her betrayal. When Ludvik does sleep with her he learns that she is separated from her husband. When the man finally shows up he is accompanied by his girlfriend, a woman half his age. He is wealthy and almost happy to see Ludvik who shrinks in his presence. The past is gone to this man and irrelevant, as it is to everyone around Ludvik. Ludvik’s revenge was in complete futility. Toward the end of the film, Ludvik finally decides to play with an old friend in his band to a crowd of gathered youths. They play old folk songs and standard traditionals. These are songs that represent the past. The crowd, though, doesn’t care. They are loud and disrespectful of the band and their music. The songs are meaningless to this youth that has had such a very different set of experiences than people like Ludvik. It is again reemphasized that the past is obsolete to all except the obsessive and embittered Ludvik. Finally in the film’s finale, a youth who was in love with Helena, the woman who Ludvik slept with, appears to fight Ludvik for having hurt her. Ludvik beats up the youth, and exclaims “it was not you who I wanted to beat up!” and the film ends abruptly. The ending is abrupt and sudden, but appropriate. There is no resolution and no release from the build up. The film’s entire action and course of events culminate in futility. The horrors of Ludvik’s past are unfounded in the present. Ludvik’s particular past, though it haunts him, is meaningless to everyone else. Ludvik is a memento mori, much like his channeling of his vain and futile anger into the fight with the youth, he too is displaced.