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I have written some books on film (most in Icelandic) but also in English. I have been a board member of the local filmclub in Drammen since 2010.
I love most genres, from all corners of the world and from all decades. That being said, silent films and "poetic" films have a special place in my heart.
Some of my favorite directors are:
F. W. Murnau
Josef von Sternberg
Rainer Werner Fassbinder
My top 10 list is as follows:
The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Th. Dreyer: 1928)
Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean: 1962)
The Mirror (Andrey Tarkovskiy: 1975)
Blade Runner (Ridley Scott: 1982)
Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock: 1954)
The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola: 1972)
The Apartment (Billy Wilder: 1960)
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (F.W. Murnau: 1927)
Lost Highway (David Lynch: 1997)
Persona (Ingmar Bergman: 1966)
A trinity of holy fools
Tarkovsky's last film is one of those perfect last film, a last testament. Tarkovsky heard he had cancer when he was editing the film. Still, he had been sick for some time so who knows how fear of death influenced his script and filming or what he knew unconsciously?
It was made in Sweden. Tarkovsky was a refugee, missing his home country, his life there and especially his young son. Tarkovsky borrows many of Bergman's collaborators, including Sven Nykvist on camera and Erland Josephson as Alexander, the protagonist.
Alexander is really Tarkovsky's mouthpiece. He has the same religious and political views and the same taste in art. Sacrifice is in fact not very Swedish at all. It is a Russian film through and through, with very Russian characters speaking Swedish. Tarkovsky even filmed it in Gotland because it looked like Russia.
The whole film is very personal. The little boy is like his own son who he missed terribly. The wife in the film is just like his own wife in Russia and the story about how they found the house is in fact how he found his house in Russia (and the house in the film looks like the that house).
The original idea for the film is found in a script he wrote and called The Witch. In it a man dying of a cancer has sex with a witch and is cured. He leaves all his riches, family and friends and follows the witch into poverty.
While Tarkovsky was filming Nostalghia he got the idea of adding an apocalyptic scene to it, an all out nuclear war. While keeping the witch in the script he added a deal with God also, which has confused many viewers. I personally don't get the confusion. It can be read in at least three ways. One that he is a desperate man who makes deal with anyone willing to make it, to safe mankind and his family. Or that he makes a deal with God to safe mankind and the witch to safe his family. And there does not have to be a crash between the witch and God. Looking at her home we see that she is quite religious. She might be called a witch but she is more of a holy fool. Otto, the post man is another and Alexander turns into the third one in the end of the film, creating a holy trinity of holy fools in the film.
Then there is the whole question of what really happens in the film. Is there a nuclear war, is there any deal with God, does he really go to the witch? What is reality, what is hallucinations and what are dreams? It is hard to say. We get hints, like turning off the music and so on but even they don't work. Tarkovsky deliberately makes it impossible to determine what is real and what is a dream. He said that he wanted it that way. People would have to make up their own mind about those things.
I honestly think Tarkovsky would have been most pleased if we did not make up our mind. If we just lived in the mystery, the uncertainty, the dreamlike state of none logic. These things happen and they don't happen at the same time. We have to believe and not believe. Life is full of those moments. We don't know what would have happened if we acted differently, took a different path in life, even what happens at times in our life. Life is uncertainty and it is very modern to try to kill that. In fact this love of cold rationality is killing the world, creating atom bombs that can wipe out all life on earth.
Tarkovsky's answer to this cold rational anti human spirit of modernity is mysticism, art and faith. This is crystallized brilliantly in the end when Alexander wakes up. It looks like God has answered his prayer or was it the witch? Or was it all a dream? He can't be sure and he can't find out. If God has moved time back to yesterday then no one but he remembers what will happen. The telephone calls hints at that. Alexander has only one possible action in front of him. To keep his promise, no matter if it was a dream or not, if God did something or not. Otherwise God might make all of it happen again and he is for sure not going to get another chance to stop the horror. So without knowing if this was a dream Alexander burns down his house and takes a vow of silence. In the beginning was the world, in the end is the silence. And here we come back to how personal this film was. Tarkovsky had in fact sacrificed his house and his life in the Soviet Unions for his art, and he honestly hoped that art and his sacrifice could change the world.
This uncertainty is also reflected in the last shot of the tree. For a moment the dead tree looks alive. The hope here is in the next generation that waters this tree of life (I call it tree of life because Tarkovsky had previously shown us the tree of life in a painting, obviously to help us make the connection). Tree of life stands for hope eternal. It was one of the two trees in the Garden of Eden Adam and Eve could not eat off. They are kicked out in fear that they will also eat of it (and become like God) and it is only promised to mankind at the end of time. In Christianity Jesus Christ is often seen as the tree of life. So what we get in the end is a hope for mankind in the from of a tree which stands for mysticism, art and faith - a hope kept alive with every new generation.
Times Square (1980)
A flawed but good film with a rich soul and a desire for sincerity
This was a huge favorite of mine as a teenager. I have been looking for a copy of the film for the longest time and finally found one in Germany. It's strange that it's so hard to get a copy of a big cult film like this one.
The film captures well the essence of punk. It is about Nicky and Pamela, two teenage NYC girls. Nicky is from the streets with a dark past and from a broken home. She has serious anger issues but is street smart and has artistic talents. Pamela is from a rich (political) family, with the security that Nicky never had but suffers because her father does not understand her. She is a great poet and full of empathy but has never dared to live her life or take a chance. They meet at a hospital and run away. Together they start a mini punk renaissance in New York CIty.
Into this mix comes a radio host called Johnny LaGuardia (played by Tim Curry) who got a letter from Pamela before she ran away. When he finds out that Pamela is living on the streets he decides to use it to get a small scoop but also to fight against the politics Pamela's father stands for. Johnny LaGuardia wants NYC to stay as it is while Pamela's father wants to clean up the streets. Tim Curry is the weakest link in this film. It's hard to tell if it is because of the script or because he or the director did not understand Johnny LaGuardiahe. Tim Curry plays him as some kind of prophet while everything points to him being a self serving, fame seeking egocentric megalomaniac. Tim Curry is at least never a convincing prophet and we never get the feeling that Tim Curry is playing him sarcastically either.
Not every scene works in this film and it does not hold perfectly together but it has a very rich soul and a desire for sincerity which is very contagious. It also captures well the culture of NYC in the late 70s/early 80s and the reason why punk spoke to the youths. And it has one of the best sound track ever (including The Ramones, The Cure, XTC, Lou Reed, Gary Numan, Talking Heads, Garland Jeffreys, Joe Jackson, Suzi Quatro, Roxy Music, Patti Smith and The Pretenders.) and a lot of wonderful poetry, like this one:
"Dear Daddy, I am not kidnapped. I am me-napped, I am soul-napped, I am Nicky-napped, I am happy-napped.
We are having our own renaissance."
Glorious poetic and philosophic meditation on reality and technology
A cable programmer is looking for some rough porn for his local TV station. He stumbles upon a torture porn station called Videodrome and becomes hooked on it.
The 80s brought us video cassettes and with it came a chance for teenagers and youths to watch films they had never seen before, films that had age restrictions which prevented them from seeing them at cinema. Sometimes youths could even see films that were banned in their home country. Suddenly the censor board had lost their control and uncensored material flooded the market.
Religious groups and moralists were furious and declared a holy war on what came to be called "Video Nasty", that would destroy the youths and turn them into morally bankrupt monsters. Cronenberg had had his share of this hysteria. His films had been censored, and some of his films were considered down right dangerous.
Cronenberg asked, well, let's say they are right. Let's say technology can change us. How would that look like? Let's make a horror film about that.
Let's remember that this is before Internet so the film focuses on TV broadcasting. Still, there are few films that are as prophetic as this one. The Internet runs through this film, with interactive TV, way before that was possible. And if people watched TV too much back in the 80s it really has not gotten any better today. Now we also have the computer screens to watch and our mobile phone screens. Screens and the virtual world has become more part of our life than ever before.
And if we were "basically getting f... by TV" back in the 80s, as Cronenberg called it, well the F... has not become any more delicate, with the so called Reality TV, which for some is a greater reality than their daily life. Many admit that they realize that it is bad TV, that there is very little of any value there but they just can't stop watching. The some goes for those who watch Videodeome (the torture porn) in this film. We are addicted to trash.
And what happens when you work 7 hours in front of a computer screen. You come home, you check your emails, your Facebook, your mobile phone, your TV... What is reality? Is the screen not more real than the grass in front of your door which you hardly ever see?
And what affect does this have on us, physically? Neuroscientist say that modern technology is changing the way our brains work. Just Google it. Technology is changing us. We have become a hybrid humans, a mixture of technology and physicality. Technology has even taken over evolution. It is no longer the strongest who decides who lives. Technology extends life way before evolution has a chance to do anything about it.
Videodrome came out in 1983, a year before George Orwell's "1984" takes place. I remember well back then that people waited for 1984 with anticipation, wondering how much of the book would turnout to be true. Videodrome is strongly influenced by 1984, and it even got one thing right. Unlike the book were big brother is forced upon us, in reality we celebrate big brother and welcome him. We even pay for having him. The Internet, which is connected to our computers, our mobiles, our TVs, and sometimes even our cars, is the eyes of big brother who can follow us, listen to us and watch us with out even asking for our permission. Big brother is here and has been for a while. He can use information he has on us to silence us and destroy us. And we all love him, because each and every one of us are sure that we are on his good side.
It is interesting that Cronenberg was and is so hated by morality and religious groups. His horror should be their kind of tea. Instead of seeing evil in aliens, zombies or robots, Cronenberg sees horror in our sexual nature, our own flesh. Sounds like Christianity, Islam and in fact most religious and moral groups I know.
Maybe the reason why they don't fall for Cronenberg is that they sense that his horror is also deliciously fascinating, desirable, in fact often irresistible. This is a forbidden fruit you not only want to taste, once you have done so, you want more and more. Just like those who watch Videodrome (the torture porn program) in the film and just can't stop.
And what is the new flesh. Well if Videodrome controls us, takes over our life, then the new flesh is everything videodrome is not. It is freedom from big brother, from thought controls, small mindedness of the society, religious teachings, politics and what ever tries to tell us to look at the world only one way or follow only one road. The new flesh is what has happened with the Internet, information overload where the little man on the street has world knowledge at his fingertips and power to influence the world, even start a revolution.
The film was heavily censored and was a box office bomb, grossing $2,120,439 on a budget of $5.952 million. Critics did not like it either. Time has however been kind to Videodrome. It is a cult classic today, on many of the most respected film lists in the world. It influenced films like The Ring series and The Matrix series and has even such a huge cult status that Universal Pictures is making a remake of it, updated with modern technology, which would, sadly make Videodrome everything it was fighting against. Part of the recycled trash we are feed every day.
I have only one thing to say to that; "Long live the new flesh!"
Fényes szelek (1969)
The revolution is opium for the people
"By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion."
So sings a Jew who survived WW2 because priests protected him. This Jew is a student in a Christian cluster in Hungary just after the communist revolution. A group of communist youths have climbed over the fence of the school to start a dialog with the students and try to turn them to communism.
This exorcise goes out of hand. A young revolutionary woman (Laci) suggests that they shave the heads of the priests and burn their books. This is when the Jew step forth and tells them that the priests saved his life and the lives of many other Jews and then he sings Psalm 137, the Psalm of exiles, written in the memory of slave Jews in Babylon. The psalm is very fitting here, not only because it reflects the horrors Jews had to go through in the Holocaust but also because Christians are experiencing the same thing at this moment in the film.
The use of the Psalm becomes even more interesting when leaders of the communist party turn against Laci and expel her and then asks her if she has any new songs and she starts singing Psalm 137. She has now taken the role of the oppressed.
The Confrontation is Miklós Jancsó's first film in color. It is a musical, set in the 40s but reflects the student revolutions of the 60s. The use of Psalm 137 in the film captures the heart of the story. People confront each other and turn on each other, believing they are getting anywhere but are in fact just playing cowboys and Indians while others (the Police) have the real power. Turning people against each other, changing oppressors and victims regularly keeps people busy. The revolution is opium for the people, just as religion.
A Kövek Üzenete - Hegyalja (1994)
Jews in Hegyalja
Jews and Jewish themes are one of the most overlooked themes in Miklós Jancsó's body of work. He was not a Jew himself but was fascinated by their culture and struggle. He even made this three part documentary about their culture in three different places in Hungary (he had actually planed to make 5 films but for a reason unknown to me, ended with only three). The first one is about Jews in Budapest, the 2nd one is about Jews in Máramaros and the third one, this one here, about Jews in Hegyalja.
The first two films are almost without a dialog, but this one has a lot of, and long interviews. All of the documentaries are rather aimless and Jancsó has too much respect for his subject to dare do something interesting or show us anything out of the ordinary. Not among Miklós Jancsó's best.
A Kövek üzenete - Máramaros (1994)
Jews in Máramaros
Jews and Jewish themes are one of the most overlooked themes in Miklós Jancsó's body of work. He was not a Jew himself but was fascinated by their culture and struggle. He even made this three part documentary about their culture in three different places in Hungary (he had actually planed to make 5 films but for a reason unknown to me, ended with only three). The first one is about Jews in Budapest, the 2nd one, this one here, is about Jews in Máramaros and the third one about Jews in Hegyalja.
The first film and this one are almost without a dialog. All of the documentaries are rather aimless and Jancsó has too much respect for his subject to dare do something interesting or show us anything out of the ordinary. It feels like a polite confirmation video of family and friends. Not among Miklós Jancsó's best.
Kövek üzenete - Budapest (1994)
Jews in Budapest
Jews and Jewish themes are one of the most overlooked themes in Miklós Jancsó's body of work. He was not a Jew himself but was fascinated by their culture and struggle. He even made this three part documentary about their culture in three different places in Hungary (he had actually planed to make 5 films but for a reason unknown to me, ended with only three). The first one, this one here, is about Jews in Budapest, the 2nd one is about Jews in Máramaros and the third one about Jews in Hegyalja.
This and the 2nd one are almost without a dialog. All of the documentaries are rather aimless and Jancsó has too much respect for his subject to dare do something interesting or show us anything out of the ordinary. It feels like a polite confirmation video of family and friends. Not among Miklós Jancsó's best.
Így jöttem (1965)
A beautiful cry for peace, love and understanding
My Way Home deals with very much the same themes as The Red and the White and The Round UP except here we have hope and an example of a way out.
All of the films deal with the randomness of violence. War does not pick out people because they deserve to live or die. And authority is not tempered with justice. It is arbitrary. Even your own country men are a danger in this world.
The landscape, bare plains in all directions, as far as the eye can see captures the hopelessness of trying to escape. There is nowhere to hide. You are like a leaf caught in a wind that blows you one way or another. The point is made with a beautiful homage to North by Northwest (1959) when a plain chases the boys in the naked landscape, while they try to catch up with a naked woman, who is probably running away from rapists. It is telling that we never find out where she came from or what became of her. She is like one of those leaves being blown around by the winds of war.
So all these films capture the evil of war, and how inhuman and cold it is (no wonder Kubrick loved Miklós Jancsó). This film however does show us how the world could be. A friendship of a Hungarian and Russian boy is formed when the Russian boy saves the Hungarian one from a minefield. They take care of each other (even though they don't speak each other language) and form a friendship and love that is stronger than anything he receives from his own country men.
And let's us not forget that this film was made during the Cold War, when nations refused to see each other as human and threatened each other with weapons of mass destruction. Into that world comes this beautiful cry for peace, love and understanding.
Csend és kiáltás (1968)
More, but nothing new, about misuse of power
The story takes place just after WW1. A right wing government has taken over after a short lived communist government. A young left wing leader is hiding at a farm where women behave like victims (which they are) but at the same time they are plotting against the arrogant and stupid men in power. Men who are proud of the fact that they would kill their own father if they were ordered to do so. In this right wing culture the capacity to obey is a bigger virtue than the capacity to love.
Miklós Jancsó is dealing with the same themes in this film as in The Red and the White (1967) and The Round-Up (1966). It is shot in the same style and is just as pessimistic. Silence and Cry is however far from as hard hitting as the other two. It is only 73 minutes long but I got restless while watching it. I felt Miklós Jancsó was just repeating himself here with nothing new or clever to say about misuse of power. It is only at the end of the film that something of interest starts to happen.
It is a little strange that this does not work as well as the other ones since this has more of a plot. Maybe the problem is that the plot is revealed too late. For most of the time we don't know what is happening and we don't get these wonderful atmosphere scenes as in The Round-Up and The Red and the White. We know there is a story here but we are never really a part of it (or at least I was not).
Még kér a nép (1972)
A Trojan horse of a musical, with hidden critical social commentary
Here is something you have never seen before. A war musical with dancing naked women, armed men, choreographed walking, communist folk songs and poetic settings.
The film is based on peasant uprisings in Hungary that occurred between 1980 and 1910. The style is like something from a poetic theater. People hardly talk and everything is very staged. You might even say fake. Well, I suspect the message of the film is in the style. It is fake because communism and its origin was fake. It was an Utopia based on a lie. Miklós Jancsó was a socialist but not a communist (most people confuse the two) and he was critical of the direction his country was taking (as can be seen in other films by him). Here he gets the communist government to finance a film that looks like a glorious praise of the origin of the party while the style is telling us that this is all a staged lie. Don't believe it, any more than you believe that all these scenes are a realistic account of what happened.
The music is brilliant. Folk songs, many probably used in the peasant uprisings. I also liked the staging and the poetic imagery, like how a stigmata wound in the hand turned into a red flower, which looks like a French Revolution rosette cockade pin. And how many will die only because of one shot fired. And the use of doves, as symbols of peace and harmony, was beautiful. And the naked women? I guess they represent the innocence and the beauty of the peasant, who in their ignorance believed in the promised land.
You might not enjoy this film if you watch it as a straight communist propaganda. Watch it as a clever Trojan horse, pretending to be one thing while smuggling critical social commentary and you might get much more out of it. I for one liked this film for its bravery, its message, poetic beauty and for being like no other musical out there.