diametrical contrary ways to the same intention: the essence of cinema
the one end of the spectrum is Josef Von Sternberg 'morocco', his genius evocation of the desert in the aseptic atmosphere of the paramount studios of 1930, an artificial space, the completely cimematogaphic picture of eroticism, sexuality or yearning, the illusion of the dream factory, shortly cinema and nothing else.
on the other end of this spectrum stands Werner Herzog and his film 'fata Morgana'(1970): he shot on location, as he always does, but the place he creates, his view, his idea of the location is as unreal as Von Sternberg's, just in opposite approach: in his mind the Sahara is seen through the eyes of an alien, so it becomes to an enigmatic and pessimistic state deception, a super elevation of the preset; (some kind of a reverse angle of this film is his 'the wild blue yonder') however, Von Sternberg or Herzog, the intention is the same: the creation of the cinematographic room.
now Raymond Depardon, in his beginnings famous photo reporter, making movies over thirty years, always on the edge of documentary and fiction, with an especially passion for the continent Africa; alongside his other great works, is it this passionate relationship, which will be of interest for us now.
although or because of he shoots (like Herzog) always on location, in this film there are grades of alienation, let's say fractures or reflections, because the word alienation in this case seems too much Brecht: the pictures reflects the commentary, the commentary reflects the novel, the novel (maybe) the true events; it's the thing with the Russian puppets. the novel by Diego Brosset from a hundred year ago, the pictures by Depardon also a reconstruction, a convergence at the same place at another time. at large cinema often has to do with different action in the same time at different places (horizontal heterogeneity), or different action at the same place in different times (vertical heterogeneity).
a vertical heterogeneity in a similar conception as depardon's you can discover in 'operai, contadini'(2000), a genius masterpiece by jean Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet.
in both cases of course this special kind of vertical heterogeneity is far beyond the closed system of (filmic) dramaturgy, because it is based on the real places and the real events so it works in a much wider signification: it is realism, far away from any naturalistic attitude at all: a discrepancy to the highly artificial conception of Von Sternberg or to the dreamed extraterrestrial view of Herzog? yes and no. in all these examples it is the radical personal view of the filmmakers which creates the cinematographic space; comparable only within the family of the great masters and magicians of seventh art, but always unique.
different from the Straubs Depardon shot his film in black and white and this was his most radical decision. the first shot of the movie is the most abstract of all: the completely white screen. but it is a very concrete picture also, soon you can see black spots in the white, which become 'figures in a landscape'. the abstract in the concrete, out from the concrete, illusion and disillusionment, other inseparable pairs and antipodes in cinematography. the landscape here, the desert, is a waste land a 'empty quarter' if you want, and the way depardon shows us this void, is deeply shaking: a flamboyant nothing in which the human either is like a foreign substance in a hostile space (again Werner Herzog and his 'extraterrestrial' point of view in 'Fata Morgana'), this seems to apply mainly for the strangers, the colonialists, the occupying force, the natives attends rather as a kind of symbiotic mergence, which consequently results in vanishing. vanishing of people, vanishing of picture: the sandstorm, which in depardon's photography resembles a snowstorm, nearly solves the picture to the abstract white screen again.
the lost of surrounding is the lost of security; to slide, to fall: the storm blows sand over the dunes like in the apocalyptic last shot of (again) herzogs 'Nosferatu - Phantom Der Nacht', the humans are sliding down the shifting dunes without foothold, like in Jacques Rivette's 'merry-go-round', so the barely visible landscape is in constantly sliding too. no safeness at all. no safeness for the colonial troops in their forts, the invaders and oppressors; in terms of filmic semiotic this is the genre of western: they are the soldiers in their forts, the Tuareg are the Indians. left the fort means death: the natives struggle with nature is the principal theme of Flaherty: 'man of Aran', 'nanook of the north'..
the most shocking moment in Depardon's film is the change from day to night, in the middle; so far during the whole picture you solely have seen a crude brightness, which i at least have never seen before in cinema, and now there is the blackest black.
the brutal and abrupt change of day and night, let us physically feel the change of heat and cold. here we see the probably most genius shot of the whole film, again concrete although it looks like abstract 'cinéma absolute', like a shot made by Méliès or from an animation film: the completely black screen. through this blacking wanders a perfect white disc, which is in the concrete action the moon, which could be an abstract geometric field by Oskar Fischinger or Norman McLaren for example. of course it this the moon, but this ambiguity (illusion and disillusionment) is the key to the entire concept.
the human being is foaled Heidegger would say.
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