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The Sweet Hereafter (1997)
Willingly Seduced: The Attraction of the Pied Piper
"The Sweet Hereafter" is another denomination for paradise, as it is to be enjoyed in afterlife. In the Robert Browning poem about the Pied Piper, which is read by Nicole, the only child surviving the bus accident, one of the kids is lame and cannot follow the call of the Piper. It is therefore "bereft of all the pleasant sights they see" and henceforth has to endure the dullness of life in a town that has been deprived of all playmates.
The same happens to Nicole, who will be confined to a life in a wheelchair while the entire young population of the little town of Sam Dent, British Columbia, is now enjoying the pleasures of heaven. Her sadness is understandable, but it is equally plausible that it should lead to anger and the urge to revenge.
It is obviously the lawyer Mitchell Stephens that provokes her indignation. He can also be seen as a kind of pied piper, but not one whose commitment leads to the entrance of paradise. His goal is the fulfillment of earthly materialistic pleasures, and therefore he tries to persuade the relatives of the deceased children to file a lawsuit against the bus company for damage. In case of success, he would also benefit from the verdict and encash one third of the allocated sum.
The necessity of mourning for the bereaved ones has been substituted by sheer business matters, and the greed for money has become the new incentive. And it is Stephens who has to be blamed for that change of disposition.
But there is no compensation possible for the loss of human life. Nicole understands that and makes a fateful decision. Being chosen as a chief witness and asked in a pretrial-hearing about the circumstances of the bus accident, Nicole consciously gives a false testimony accusing the bus driver of having driven at excessive speed. Now the planned trial against the bus company cannot take place, and Mitchell Stephen's materialistic dreams are shattered.
Standing in clear opposition to the girl, whose desire it is to get access to heaven, that lawyer can truly be considered an advocate of hell. We get introduced to him when, right at the beginning, he is trapped in a car wash whose mechanism cannot be brought to a halt. It is here that he gets the first cellular phone call by his daughter Zoe who is equality trapped, as her drug addiction and her later-revealed AIDS infection has led her to a dead end of her life from which no deliverance route seems to be attainable.
Certainly her father can do nothing to help her. When Zoe, whose name ironically means "Life", tries to contact him, we can see that her phone booth is located in a rundown area of a larger city - an image that can be seen as a metaphor for the desolation of her inner state of mind. She addresses herself to her father out of utter helplessness, and it is deplorable to see that he is unable to respond. The only thing he can do for her is to "accept the charges" for the call - another indication of a mind set only on materialistic issues but not prepared to offer the much needed spiritual help.
Zoe nevertheless does make an attempt. She reminds her daddy of a childhood memory when they both were inside a car wash and she "started playing with the automatic window" - a story that, if we accept the car wash as an image for hell, reveals her strong desire of escape and thus approximates her character to the children willingly seduced by the Pied Piper.
However, Mitchell Stephens is incapable of establishing a meaningful communication with his daughter - he thinks that she is merely "calling for money". It is only much later that he comes to a heart-breaking insight. When accidentally meeting a former childhood friend of Zoe on an airplane, he recalls another memory from the past, this time when his then three-year-old daughter nearly died from a spider bite. Although he does not clearly reveal it, the spectator senses that Zoe has now finally succumbed to her drug addiction - and therefore become just another victim of the Pied Piper's power of attraction.
Investigations about Farrel
Some crew members are playing a video game, just to while away the time that is getting long on a ship journey such as this. In the background, a guy, probably in his late 30s, is sitting quietly, having a smoke. He does not participate in the game, does not even care to listen to the exclamations of his comrades. In fact, he does not do anything. After some time, seemingly bored, he gets up and leaves the room, unnoticed.
This scene, right at the beginning of Lisandro Alonso's 4th feature film, already says a lot about Farrel. He is a man that nobody cares about and, conversely, that does not care about anyone either. Or does he?
Does he have any passions? In his cabin, there is just one picture on the wall, probably cut out from a magazine, showing an Asian beauty. What is the connection between her and Farrel? The only thing that we now know for sure now is that he is a far-traveled man.
Does he have any human relationships? A few days later, we find out that he obviously has a daughter, a mentally handicapped one, called Analía. She lives in a remote part of Patagonia, together with her demented grandmother and an older guy called Trujillo who apparently looks after both of them. Where is Analía's mother? Has she left the country like her father did?
Because Farrel, and so much is certain, has definitely left the place of his childhood and ventured out into the big world even before his daughter was born. He became a seaman and has never felt the urge to come back and assume responsibilities. Until one day his ship approaches his native Patagonia again, and availing himself of the opportunity of its resting at the harbor of Ushuaia for a few days, he asks his superior for leave in order to find out "whether my mother is still alive."
Ushuaia, considered the world's southernmost city, is shown as an inhospitable place, abounding with frost and snow. The place, as well as the surrounding countryside, may well be seen as an effigy of Farrel's soul which is equally cold and uncommunicative. He is never seen in a friendly conversation with anyone or even trying to establish a contact that goes beyond a mere asking for the information that is needed in order to continue his journey. It is a significant scene when he is waiting to get a lift, a young woman, Mariela, is waiting in the same room, watching TV, while he is sipping a coffee. Then the truck that will take them is announced, and for a little while they are walking alongside towards it, but not a single word is exchanged. Mariela is then allowed to sit in the driver's cab, while Farrel has to content himself with the load floor. This physical separation is another indicator for Farrel's estrangement from humanity.
His behavior when finally at his home village is rather peculiar. Instead of revealing his identity, he prefers a secret approach, hiding himself in a shed. Just before freezing to death, he is found by Trujillo and brought into the house, where he slowly recovers but feigns to be unconscious when Trujillo addresses him, showing his recognition but also his disdain towards Farrel.
While his dying mother is unable to recognize her son, there is some indication that Analía has an understanding of the fact that she is confronted with her father. When Farrel places a freshly bought loaf of bread on the kitchen table, she does not touch it but instead requests some money, a demand that the visitor eventually grants her. Why should he do so? Is it a feeling of guilt that determines his actions? After all, he shirked his responsibility for the family when he decided to leave the village without leaving any trace.
Apart from the money, Farrel hands over another gift to the girl, before disappearing forever into the remoteness of the landscape: a key-chain, whose letters form the name of an English port city: L-I-V-E-R-P-O-O-L. It is unlikely that the retarded Analía knows the significance of this word, so it is up to the spectators to provide some meaning to it. Farrel has obviously bought it on one of his journeys, and more than just leaving a personal item of his as a sign of attachment it also conveys a message: It stands for his conscious decision to leave the limitations of his village and his family life behind and find a new destination - a resolution whose moral implications have to be judged individually by each viewer.
Racing through the novel at top speed
This film being released only two days ago, I haven't been able to read any reviews yet, so these first thoughts about my vision of it can be considered as absolutely virginal, so to speak
First of all, "Catching Fire" being a literary adaptation, the audience should be divided into two groups, the "virginal ones" who haven't even touched the novel and the so-called experienced readers. I count myself to the latter group, having read the book two years ago and even re-read the summaries of each chapter that I had written at that time as a sort of preparation for the movie session. It goes without saying that I also read the first part of the trilogy (twice) and seen the first movie (four times).
Profiting from all this expertise I was able to find my way through the new film easily. I got involved, or even "caught fire", right from the beginning, when, in a hunting episode, an appalling visualization of one of Katniss's nightmares was set on screen: when targeting a prey, she suddenly sees a tribute victim that she had killed in the past Games instead of the animal and gets a nervous breakdown.
As the traumatizing process of the protagonist was a big concern of the novel, this can be considered a good start of the movie. But later on the film does not really dwell on that, because there simply is not enough time. I can recall only one scene, when, being on the train, Katniss wakes up in the middle of a dream and shouts for help and is then comforted by Peeta, who crawls into her bed.
Then there is a quick cut, and we move on to the next scene. Almost all important elements of the novel are at least mentioned, but not given the due time to be fully developed. As an example, let's just take Katniss's "torn-between-two-lovers-conflict", which is sufficiently explored in the novel by the means of introspection but which for the "virginal" group of movie spectators must feel like pretty much unexplainable.
The same happens to the characters. They are mostly present in the movie, though maybe at a low scale. Important new protagonists like Finnick and Johanna Mason are introduced in short key scenes which correspond exactly to the words of the novel. You get a good impression of Johanna's rebellious character when you see her undress in the elevator. But then there is not much room for further development, and minor characters like Wiress or Mags do not even get that kind of exposition and sadly do not leave a great deal of mental imprint in the end.
The problem is that the movie has hardly got more than two hours at its disposal in order to tell the whole story. It should have run at a slower pace, allowing itself to create more atmosphere. The first part of the trilogy, directed by Gary Ross in 2011, was better at this, for instance when it depicted the mood of decadence that was reigning in the Capitol in a way that even the Suzanne Collins novel was unable to perform.
Fortunately, the "Mockingbird" dish will be served in two mouthfuls. I can only hope that this decision was not motivated by economical reasons but by the intention to pay true cinematographic respect to an epic masterpiece.
Innocence Lost - or an Innocent Girl to Save the World?
17-year-old Jîn takes part in the Turkish-Kurdish conflict as a Kurdish guerrilla fighter. But she wants to leave it all behind and seek refuge in another part of the country...
But more than a documentary observation about an actual war conflict, "Jîn" can be taken as a universal story
According to the director's own declarations in the Q&A session following the screening of the movie at the 63rd edition of the Berlin Film Festival the title giving name has two different meanings: in Kurdish "Jîn" means "Life", while in Turkish, although without the circumflex, it means "Woman".
Therefore an explanation of the film could be given on various levels. Of course, Jîn, although not yet of age, is first of all seen as a woman, and, more than that, as a Kurdish woman, who - traveling alone – is considered an easy prey by the males that surround her. Several attempts of rape occur, and it is significant that Jîn always defends herself like a fierce animal in order to keep her innocence intact.
Innocence is lost nevertheless. This, however, is shown not by the girl herself, but by the landscape in which she has to survive. Being on the run and having no friends to save or protect her, Jîn is often seen as a lonely inhabitant of the forest or the mountain. But these apparently inhospitable places, in which for any human soul it would seem difficult to stay alive, develop into a kind of enchanted realm in which a secret communication takes place between the protagonist and its local dwellers: birds, sheep, turtles and even a bear. It is in this kingdom of animals that Jîn finds the protection that the human world cannot offer her.
The destruction of war, however, does not stop at the frontiers of paradise. When the detonations of artillery and bombs strike the remoteness of the land, we witness the bewilderment of the animals – as if they could not believe their eyes. Paradise all of a sudden is smeared by the sin of human insensitivity. Is all hope gone?
Fortunately Jîn, this time with the circumflex, is the owner of a speaking name and therefore opposed to the forces of death and destruction. She shows this by not killing the Turkish soldier, when she is alone with him in the forest. Her taking care of and eventually healing him, which took her a great deal of pain and effort, was not understandable to some parts of the audience: Why did she not take the chance to take revenge? After all, her father was killed by the Turks, when she was only two, and all the trouble of her life started back then!
But such an action would just provoke a continuation of the spiral of violence and not lead to a good end. It is thanks to film makers like Reha Erdem and the fictitious character invented by him that we are shown a pathway into a better world. Jîn, that innocent girl, at the end of the movie – though heavily wounded – is not dead. It is only up to the people in the world to revive her – so that she finally will get what she always wanted and what she fully deserves: a "Life".
Csak a szél (2012)
A quiet drama that slowly turns into a shout
Some people seem not to have liked this film. After seeing it myself I read a strange half-sentence by a renowned film critic, writing for an even more renowned international newspaper (I will not give away the name of the person in question, for his own benefit!), declaring that "Just the Wind" was accompanied by an unbearable sluggishness and confusion.
Such apparent misjudgment made me speechless at first, but then I simply recalled my own viewing experience. Although very far away from the screen, sitting just below the roof of the sumptuous Berlinale-Palast, there was never a second in which I was not absorbed by the action of the movie, feeling actually very close to the characters and by no means indifferent or confused. After the screening was over I remember walking through the streets without a purpose, just lost in thoughts and overpowered by a feeling of extreme sorrow for the fate of the protagonists and sheer helplessness against the ugly faces of racism.
"Csak a szél" is a very quiet drama that slowly turns into a shout. In a little Hungarian village the last day in the life of a small Romani family is shown, a family that only consists of the mother, her two children and the grandfather, because the head of the family has already emigrated to Canada, a place to which the others will follow as soon as they have raised the money. They all try to live a fairly normal and discrete life, at least the mother who is working as a cleaner in two different job places, and the girl who is conscientious about the necessity of attending school, whereas her younger brother is playing truant and prefers to play video games in the house of a neighborhood family or simply to roam about in the forest.
The film was inspired by an authentic case of racist attacks in Hungary which took place a few years ago and in which eight people lost their lives in less than a year. But it tells a fictitious story in which the artist decides to concentrate on the chronological events, however unimportant they may seem, of an entire day, from dawn to dusk. Soon we learn that a neighbor family has been killed, without apparent motive, just for racist reasons. The authors of the crime have not been found, and the police is not much of a help either. On the contrary, in the one scene where police agents are present, we witness that at least one of them is a racist himself. It is therefore not surprising that the whole place is dominated by a pogrom-like atmosphere manifesting itself by ugly little incidents, such as when a bus driver obliges a Romani member to run a few extra metres because he did not stop the bus at the exact spot where she was waiting.
However, there is but a quiet rebellion against these visible signs of discrimination. It may be a climate of lingering fear that impedes action. For example, when a girl is raped on the school toilet, Anna, the Romani girl, will do nothing but silently steal away without denouncing anybody. Has she been raped too? When a little later her father asks her in a video internet conversation whether she is pregnant, she leaves the question unanswered and can only speak about the fear that has invaded her.
In another key scene a suspicious looking black car is slowly following Rio, the boy. Rio halts and tries to hide behind some bushes unable to do anything else. His violent reaction comes out a little later when he is in the deep forest, running alone, cutting himself an aisle through the undergrowth. It seems to be something like a shout of despair, an outcry against the overwhelming menace, which sadly can only be heard by the film audience.
As in Bence Fliegauf's previous film "Womb" nature symbolism plays an important role. But instead of the boundless sea we find here the forest as an area of limitation for the human spirit of which to break free seems to be an almost impossible task. And nobody on this planet should claim that he does not consider himself concerned. Speaking of Germany, there is a recent series of neo-Nazi attacks against Turkish citizens whose swift clearing up was apparently impeded because of sheer negligence of the authorities so that Chancellor Angela Merkel had to publicly apologize.
But then, of course, there is also the wind. When the family members are huddling against each other in bed, at the end of the day and some noise is heard outside, the mother tries to comfort them by saying that it is "just the wind". And me in my cinema seat have got the strange thought that if the film ended just now, everything would be just fine. But the world is not like that, not even in the twenty-first century, in which the wind of racism is still around, arbitrary and blind, destroying the good nature of life and all the ambitious dreams that go with it.
Ben X (2007)
Ben X and Scarlite, or how an autist can survive in a hostile world
"Ben X" is a word pun in Belgian Dutch and could also be read as "ben niks", which means "I am nothing" in English. In fact, Ben, the teenage protagonist of Nic Baltazar's first feature film, has lost contact to the world that surrounds him and does not want to play any role in it. He lacks communication skills, and does not seem to be bothered by that. The sad result is that he is bullied by his classmates in the most atrocious ways, a treatment that he does not even try to resist.
On the other hand there is Scarlite, a beautiful girl, that seems to be in a way connected to Ben. When two of his classmates, Desmet and Bogaert, have taken his mobile phone away from him during another bully attack, they find a picture of Scarlite and a message telling him that she is going to meet him the next day at the train station. They are full of surprise: how could a guy that does not speak to anyone have such a lovely girlfriend? The answer is that Ben has created a parallel world of his own, playing online games. In cyber space he has met a girl who uses the name of "Scarlite", and who has become a collaborator in his adventures and even a kind of confidant or friend who intuitively guesses what is behind his plan to play the so-called "endgame": he is planning to commit suicide, and almost instantaneously she volunteers to be his "healer".
But the meeting in the real world turns out to take shape in the only way that seems to be possible for a guy that is suffering from the Asperger syndrome: Although Ben sees Scarlite at the train station, he is unable to communicate with her. It is as if suddenly a barrier has appeared which he cannot penetrate. The girl finally walks away, but Ben forces himself to follow her and steps into the train that she takes and even manages to sit down next to her. Then, noting that he is in some sort of pain, she simply asks him if he is fine. Ben again cannot respond in a way a non-autistic person would do, and he hurriedly escapes from the train and loses track of Scarlite.
Is this the end? In the next scene Ben is seen on a platform ready to jump. But when a train arrives and he is about to carry out his plan, he is miraculously saved by Scarlite who pulls him back. As it later becomes clear, this second appearance of Scarlite, in which she proves to be the "healer", preventing him from suicide, is no more than a construction of his imagination: Scarlite is present throughout most parts of the remaining footage, but she is never seen interacting with members of the real world, for instance Ben's parents, and in the final scene she virtually disappears, after seemingly having had a conversation with Ben the moment before.
It therefore seems as if Ben is sitting alone and talking to himself. Strange situation, but thinking about it well, this must be taken as the only possible solution for his life. As it is difficult to establish a well-working human relationship for most autistic people, the salvation could lie in the imaginative forces of the mind.
We might even call it love. Although the idea that autists are able to develop such a feeling must be new even to experts, the facts of the film are quite clear: Ben has become attached to Scarlite - or the idea of Scarlite - and after she saved him from suicide, he accepted her as a kind of personal healer. He has failed to approach her using the patterns of social behavior that a non-autistic person would use, but nonetheless nothing is lost. Using the forces of imagination, from that moment onwards Scarlite will be a part of his life. He will not stop loving her, and this imagined relationship might even prove to be more stable than a real one.
Lies and betrayals all around Is it still good to be born?
"4 luni, 3 saptamâni si 2 zile" is a film about betrayal and about a society in which a climate of fear prevails, and in which betrayal is regarded as a necessary weapon against it.
Right at the beginning a recurrent symbol for betrayal is introduced in a close shot: the cigarette. Throughout the movie it is never purchased legally, only on the black market, and is often used as means of bribe. Logically, all the movies' protagonists are heavy smokers
But smoking, especially when done by women, is also criticized at one point. When Otilia, the ever-present female protagonist, attempts to smoke at her boyfriend's mother's birthday party, she is reprimanded by a guest of the family for lacking respect. As a matter of fact, the same man later reveals that he was also against his son "dodging conscription"
He seems to be the only one who is condemning betrayal and, naturally, he is unable to impose his will. All other people are stricken with the disease, and occasionally show this in an absurd, sometimes comical way. For instance, Otilia and her friend Gabita, whom she helps to procure an abortion, both go to different bathrooms at different stages of the movie, but both do the same thing: they open the tap and let water run, without using it, only for fake. They do that, of course, because they are overwhelmed by the situation and can't cope with it. Gabita, because she knows that the malicious Mr Bebe, who has been engaged to carry out the abortion procedure, as a form of payment for his services is going to have sex with first Otilia and then herself. Otilia, later at the birthday party, because while having to confront all these people she is not allowed to reveal anything of the nightmare she has just gone through.
And although she will later speak in private at least about the abortion to her boyfriend Adi, she is committing another, even more serious betrayal at the same time: not mentioning the form of payment she agreed to with Mr Bebe. Confidence, after all, is shaken, and after Otilia's rather abrupt departure it is foreseeable that her relationship to Adi will never be the same as before.
There are betrayals all around, and it is significant that even the most repugnant character feels betrayed. Mr Bebe is upset by the facts that he is not met personally by Gabita at the first point of encounter, but by Otilia, whom he mistakes for Gabita's sister, and that he has to perform the abortion in a different hotel than he had wished. The spectator, not knowing anything yet about his preferred "form of payment", even feels a little bit sorry for him, especially when he learns that Bebe might have to go into jail, because, after having found out about another of Gabita's lies, it becomes obvious that the fetus he is asked to extract is older than three months.
Lies, betrayals, cheating there is no end to it, and not everything can be said, for there is a length limit to this article. But one character, and because of the choice of title obviously the most important one of the movie, should at least be mentioned. 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days, that is the age of the unborn fetus, which Otilia (and, a little later, the spectator) sees lying on the bathroom floor, helpless and dead, and not even covered. There is a human shape, there are eyes and a tiny head. It seems to sleep peacefully and will never wake up. Isn't that the utmost betrayal, to be deprived of life?
But then again, we see Otilia running around in the darkness of Bucharest, with the fetus crammed in a bag, trying to get rid of it and finally dropping it on the trash chute of a high rise building. Before that we see her gasping in panic as a stranger is following her. Dogs are howling menacingly, there seems to be no escape. It is a scene taken right out of hell, worse than our worst nightmares can imagine, but on the other hand also a fair reflection of Ceausescu's Rumania. A state of fear and loathing, based on betrayal and lacking the most basic values that could help to create a climate of trust and understanding. An icy and relentless society into which nobody wants to be born that easily.
Into the Deep Dark Forest
As in her previous film "Lovely Rita", Jessica Hausner creates a universe in which warm communication and deep understanding between human beings seems to be impossible. Irene arrives at the hotel, set right in the middle of a deep dark forest. She replaces an employee that has mysteriously disappeared
Those could be the core elements of a classic horror movie, but then we find out that "Hotel" is something more than just that.
The camera follows Irene closely on her lonely walks along the corridors of the hotel basement, into the forest or while she quietly breaststrokes in the deserted hotel swimming pool. But only once an unusual, "creepy" event takes place which could be typical for a horror movie: After one of her swims Irene finds her glasses on the floor, partly broken, and her chain, which she uses as a lucky charm and which a little earlier she had refused to lend to fellow employee Petra, has disappeared.
But there aren't any dramatic consequences. The chain reappears without much explication – it is said to have been found in the forest. This place, however, takes on a central significance in the film. People say that it is inhabited by a mysterious witch, although there is no actual evidence for that being more than just a legend. At least the witch can be seen as a puppet in a glass case somewhere in the hotel.
So the real horror is not a monster coming from the outside. It therefore must be innate in humans – just as Simon would put it in William Golding's famous novel "Lord of the Flies". But here the particular bad nature of mankind does not manifest itself in violent actions that can be seen on the surface. In "Hotel" humans behave in an even meaner way: their relationships are marked by the almost complete absence of warmth and mutual comprehension.
Nobody in the hotel is interested in establishing a friendly connection with Irene that goes beyond mere labor bonds. Being a newcomer in the hotel she nevertheless does not attract the curiosity of her companions. None of them wants to know anything about her circumstances of life. Irene, on the other hand, shows a longing for friendship, but is incapable of finding any fulfillment. On one occasion, she cannot find sleep because of some noise from the outside, and she eventually gets access to a room in which three people, Petra among them, are listening to music, drinking and smoking, pretending to have fun. But no real communication is going on, these people seem to be nothing more than ghosts. Finally Irene sits down in an armchair and falls asleep. When she wakes up, she finds those people gone, leaving behind nothing but the garbage they produced.
Another time, Irene is dancing alone in a disco, beside her a guy is doing the same, apparently longing for physical contact but unable to establish it. When later he has finally succeeded to do so, it becomes obvious that a physical connection is easier to have than an emotional or spiritual one. Some kisses are exchanged, significantly while exploring a deep dark cave, but not many words are spoken. So the relationship eventually is a failure and Irene's longings left unsatisfied.
Being deprived of a true love relationship and failing in her attempts to establish some kind of relationship to a colleague of the same sex, Irene decides to take a weekend off and return to the safe haven of humanity that might be represented by her parents. But also this attempt disappointingly breaks down. From a phone call to her parents, of which we can hear only Irene's part, it becomes evident that they are not exactly desperate to see her.
Bearing all this is mind, the final events of the movie become easily explainable. During an evening control walk in the hotel basement, Irene steps out into the fresh air to smoke a cigarette as she has done on previous occasions. And as also happened before, when she wants to get back inside, the entry door has mysteriously closed. But this time it is also locked What is there to do? Instead of screaming for help or trying to find another entrance, Irene chooses a different solution. Without reluctance or hesitation she walks into the dark forest, a place that throughout the movie has been portrayed as haunted and dreadful. But apparently this is a better way out than having to return to that cold and inhospitable place that is represented by the hotel. A place in which human ghosts walk alongside each other without even the remotest touch of what all humans deep in their heart long for: true love and understanding.
One Magic Moment
"Zemestan" ("It is Winter"), one of the two Iranian movies in this year's competition section of the Berlin Film Festival, certainly did not satisfy everybody of those who were around to see it and did not win any of the major prizes either. That was, in my opinion, only partly due to the film's pessimistic undertones. To a much higher extent this negative reception should be explained by the fact that mainstream viewers and critics are still not familiarized enough with the essence of Iranian film-making and therefore unable to fully grasp the value of certain techniques which are typical for this kind of cinema.
For example, the correspondent of Spain's principal newspaper EL PAIS, after having complained about the apparent lack of "swiftness" of the movie, even went a step further and denounced "this endogamous style of a certain type of Iranian cinema which pretends that ellipses or silences are worth more than a thousand words." But is this really all that bad? Or is it not, on the contrary, an artistic achievement of the highest value? An achievement which can best be understood in that memorable "two-second-scene of happiness". But for those who haven't seen the film or don't remember it well enough, I might just recap the storyline a little bit.
It's all about the current situation of the Iranian underclass, where people find it difficult to find work and position themselves in life. Same problem as elsewhere, we might say. But here conditions seem to be particularly crude: It is winter, and the world presents itself just as that, a cold and inhospitable place. A father of a small family has lost his job and emigrates to another country, leaving his wife and little daughter behind. He does not come back, does not write any letters, nor does he send any money – his mission seems to have turned out to be a complete failure. A migrant worker arrives from the North, looking for some work as a car mechanic, but here in the South conditions are equally bad. And still, he somehow manages to find a small job which is poorly paid. He is without a woman, a situation which in Iranian society apparently is particularly despised and placed little value on. He meets the emigrant's wife, finds out that this woman lives alone with her daughter and concludes that she must be a widow. He tries to court her, but she is not an easy prey.
Then, suddenly, the magic moment arrives. You can see that they are talking together in a friendly way, from afar, without being able to hear what they are saying. The scene barely lasts two or three seconds, and then, in the next scene we are already at the registry office, but we see nothing more than the corridor. For another two seconds.
Of course, it is not necessary to be told any more than this. All the rest wondrously develops in your mind. Every spectator can invent his own version of how the two fall in love. And we remember: the same happens or happened in plenty of other Iranian movies which have been acclaimed in the past. Just take Kiarostami's unforgettable "Through the Olive Trees" where cinematographic proceedings present themselves in an even more radical way, for not only don't we witness the moment of love between the two protagonists, we don't know either if a love scene has taken place at all. Therefore we become the most autonomous spectator possible, creating our own film ending, just as we think befitting.
In "Zemestan", as we have seen, the time of happiness is cut away almost entirely. What remains are ninety minutes of sadness and sorrow. A sadness that inexorably gains the upper hand over the happiness. The mechanic also loses his jobs and considers emigrating. That's when suddenly the ex-husband returns, walking on crutches, having lost a leg. He does not enter his old house, does not want to reveal his misfortune. He dies before having uttered a single word. The new husband, on the other hand, finally recoils from taking the train that could have taken him to a new destiny. He stays behind, lost in the white immensity of snow, pitiless reflection of a cold and uncaring universe. It's winter, definitely.
The Relentless Truth
At the last Berlin Film Festival I also watched "Stay", which was included in the "Panorama" section. It is one of those movies highly loaded with tension and mystery, in which you impatiently wait for the end, when hopefully everything will get solved, same as any picture of Night Shyamalan, or "The Others", that intriguing ghost story signed by Alejandro Amenábar.
A psychologist has to attend a patient who reveals to him that in three days' time he is going to kill himself, precisely on the day of his 21st birthday. He is an arts student and young painter and apparently wants to imitate a certain Tristan Rêveur, an imaginary artist who, according to the student, shot himself a bullet through the head, in the middle of Brooklyn Bridge. But then things get more complicated and gradually there appear things that by logical standards simply cannot be, and slowly you start to wonder which is reality and which is purely dream.
Although this is quite a commercial picture and destined to a mass audience, it is also clear that it requires an active and creative spectator, and therefore people who are just looking for entertainment as a means of evasion should abstain from attending the cinema.
So everybody is free to establish his own interpretation. At the beginning the message of the film's title seems to be clear: the psychologist does not want his patient to kill himself, he wants him to "stay" in this world. "If this is a dream, the whole world is inside it!" is his argument. He wants to underline the world's attractiveness, knowing that many suicide candidates insist on having the right to escape from the world, simply because it does not seem real to them.
You are kept in suspense all time, especially because you want to know how it all ends, and if the mystery will be solved. And also because you fear that the long-awaited solution finally might turn out to be a silly one that will never convince you. But fortunately this is not the case, in the end everything becomes clear, and everything turns around in such a way that you wish to watch the movie another time, for you perfectly know that you will watch it then with completely different eyes. Same happened with "The Others", although, if you think well about it, "The Others" was much more trivial than "Stay".
In the end you find out that the title's meaning has undergone a slight change, it has become more universal. Now there is not only one unfortunate man that we want to keep with us, but all people on earth, who are all destined to die. And although we know that we cannot do anything to change the unshakable laws of nature, we will never be able to accept the relentless truth.
Yi sa bui lai (2006)
The Perpetuation of Love
The final one of the sixteen pictures that I saw in this year's Berlin Film Festival strangely enough was the one I liked most. Which does not necessarily mean that it was also the best or the most widely acclaimed. But it was the one that took the most direct way right into my heart.
In the end it has gained only one of the major awards: best soundtrack. And deservedly it was, an amazing combination of sound and picture, and when in the end the immortal Amalia Rodríguez adds to it, singing her famous "O gente de minha terra", that really put the dots on the i's.
Why is there a Portuguese song in a Chinese film? Well, in fact, it is not purely Chinese, it is from Hongkong with the action taking place in Macao, in the year of the return, 1999. Therefore, the Portuguese are in it, and there is also a corruption plot that deals with them, and in which the male protagonist, police inspector Shing, is involved.
But this is very much on the outside of what the film really wants to tell. Its title is "Isabella", but that does not give us a clear hint either about its message. In a way this is even pretty misleading. It seems to refer to the name of a disappeared dog, but then again this dog does not play a big part in the development of the plot. Then surprisingly, when you happen to have a look at the casting list, you find out that the main actress is called "Isabella Leung". Now that must be a complete novelty in the history of cinema, just imagine that "Citizen Kane" would be renamed into a simple "Orson". Strange stuff.
Really this is a well developed love story that goes straight to the heart. Inspector Shing, a bachelor who must be in his mid thirties, wants to forget his problems in the arms of a young girl of about 17. He is given a snub, but nevertheless the girl sticks to him, just to surprise him by announcing that he actually is her father! Yan's mother has died of lung cancer (the movie is also a plea for a sane life without smoking!), and the girl is now moneyless and has therefore got kicked out of her flat. Shing begins to remember his past: when he was 17, he had left his pregnant girlfriend. He regrets what he has done and wants to change his life. But first he has to go into prison, because of the corruption affair.
As is also revealed, Yan's mother has had an abortion, and Yan's father actually is somebody else: a man from the neighborhood, without strong affective attachment to the mother. But what counts is love, and the mother has never stopped loving Shing, and Yan has taken account of that.
The film is mainly about the coming closer together of Shing and Yan, first due to Yan's taking the initiative, then also because Shing finds relief in this beginning relationship, which could be called platonic love. Or something more than platonic, but this is not quite evident at the end. Yan promises to wait until Shing will have completed his two-year prison sentence, and that's how the movie finishes. It seems as if the love of the mother has been perpetuated in the daughter.
This at last is a lovely story in the midst of all this misery. It brings on a flash of hope which lets you leave the cinema with your head high. Many people have compared Pang Ho-Cheung stylistically to Wong Kar-Wai, but while his fellow director incessantly and yearningly speaks of lost or inaccessible love, Pang tells us a much simpler story projecting a world in which the most daring dreams are likely to be fulfilled.
The Folly of Progress
Kenneth Branagh wanted to create a more faithful adaptation of Mary Shelley's novel, but it is far from being accurate. Too often he lets himself guide by pure sensationalism, he seems convinced that by filming more spectacular scenes than to be found either in the original novel or in the earlier film versions, he will attract a wide mass audience and thus push through his ideological message.
For instance Justine, the servant girl adopted by the Frankenstein family, is convicted without a trial and spectacularly hanged by a furious mob, pushing her downwards from a high building with her head tied to a rope. There is not even time to interview her, whereas in the novel she is forced to confess and sentenced to death in spite of passionate appeals by Victor and Elizabeth. However, the Branagh treatment does not seem to make much sense in terms of character development, as Justine has not been convincingly introduced into the film plot. She just has not had enough scenes before as to have become really known to the movie audience, and therefore her violent death won't cause too much emotional involvement.
A reasonable condensation of events and the omission of apparently superfluous details is a major problem in any adaptation of huge literary works. Branagh chose to cut down considerably the period of time that the Creature spends in the pigsty hiding from his host family near Ingolstadt. These people are now just poor peasants, and by no means French noblemen on the refuge, as in Shelley's version. And the attractive Arab lady, in love with young Felix, obviously has to disappear altogether from the plot.
The idea of Branagh was, of course, not to concentrate too much on the fate of the Creature but to highlight the folly of the scientist instead. And, indeed, to strike out at scientific progress as a whole. "Did you consider the consequences of your actions?" is one of the key questions the Creature asks a befuddled Frankenstein. Of course, he did not think about it all, he was just overwhelmed by his desire to overcome death, following the sad loss of his mother. The same way, innumerable scientists of the recent history, not only in the field of genetic engineering, might be carried away by the emotional impact of their inventions and discoveries without reflecting on possible ill effects.
Warning about the dangers of genetic modification might be one concern of the film. However, Kenneth Branagh has much more on his mind. This is proved by the inclusion of the "Arctic frame", not fully understood by some critics ("the movie is bracketed with an unnecessary prologue and epilogue", says even Roger Ebert). Here an explorer is heading north on his attempt to be the first man at the Pole. He is so determined that even an impending mutiny by his crew cannot put him off. It is only after having heard Victor's story and after having seen the hideous Creature with his own eyes that his mind slowly illuminates. He has seen to what folly the unleashed forces of scientific progress can lead to. The funeral pyre on the ice, in which the Creature burns his life away, finally leads to his decisive insight: the men must sail home instead of striving onwards. The same should be said to modern science and its followers.
A lonely walk into the future
This was just another marvelous film of the Berlin Festival. But unlike "Yes", by Sally Potter, which I had seen some days before, where after leaving the cinema I felt a strong desire of wishing to embrace the whole world and was just happy to be alive, this time quite the opposite thing happened: there was something that dragged me down, and the air suddenly felt cold and hard to breathe. It was as if, all of a sudden, there was nothing left, all hope, all future had been taken away to a dead place.
Nina's life seemed to be dismal and locked, but then, one lovely day, there appears that kind of luminosity that opens up the horizon and makes her believe in the fulfillment of her dreams. There was nobody at her side but suddenly she finds a companion, just out of nothing, someone who was able to share the most hidden feelings of her life. That person was Toni, a vagabond girl who does not seem to have any roots, just like herself.
But the film's title is "Ghosts", and ghosts appear and disappear as they wish, there is no way to retain them Ghosts also represent the hidden fantasies of people, strange ideas that occupy your mind and are only perceived by yourself, hiding away from all other people. Françoise, a French woman, is a victim of such ghosts. She once lost her child daughter in Berlin, who apparently had been robbed from her in a supermarket, in just one moment of inattentiveness. Now time has passed, and Françoise is back in Berlin, still looking for the missing child.
Nina could be that child, after all she has got that same scar at her ankle and the heart-shaped birthmark between her shoulder blades which seems to prove her true identity.
And Nina adopts that idea, after all she is not only in desperate need of a companion, she also longs for a mother. But in the end she is empty-handed, Toni has disappeared with a man, and her supposed mum turns out to be a sick woman. "Marie is dead," concludes Françoise's husband, and the statement could not be more disillusioning. Nina is just a "niña", a girl without name, there is no hope for any divine fulfillment. There is no Marie in this world to accompany our lonely lives. Therefore, in the end, we see Nina all alone, about to walk along the road that has opened up before her, into a future that seems joyless and uncertain.
Der Untergang (2004)
The Human Face of the Devil
Suddenly you are face to face with Adolf Hitler. He is in his subterranean fortress, the 'bunker', inside Berlin, surrounded by all his dear ones. Eva Braun, whom he marries just before they both commit suicide. His dog who is also doomed to die. The same as Goebbels and his family which includes seven kids. They have to die because Frau Goebbels does not think that it is worth living in a future without National Socialism. And, of course, there is Traudl Junge, his secretary, who manages to escape in the last moment, and who will later testify to an astonished and bewildered world that all these incredible things have really happened
Baffled you are in each and every moment of this film which lasts 155 minutes, a time which passes in a twinkling. Okay, you hadn't been born, some sixty years ago, but you have read lots of things, you know more or less all the details. And you have also forgotten about it, for plenty of years you have tried to bury the past. Although you live in Germany you were eager to make yourself believe that all Nazis were dead, that 'this' won't ever happen again. After all, Hitler was just an aberration, an accident of nature. Just a monster of the past which bears no meaning for our modern times.
Then you are right in front of him, as if you were just another member of his dinner party, listening to his xenophobic viewpoints, shaking your head in disbelief. It is pure authenticity, there are none of the effects that show you that this is just a movie. And then suddenly you see the human face of the devil, you become aware of the fact that this monster shows feelings such as anger and affection, and that he behaves in a perfectly normal fashion: caressing his dog, praising the cook for the spaghettis she prepared, and so on.
Those who hadn't been living in the times of the Nazi Reich always tended to put the blame for the atrocities committed in the name of Hitler on the fact that he was simply 'inhuman'. But what is humanity anyway? Does this not also imply that there is a dark side in ourselves, and that in special circumstances everybody might be prone to be such a devil?
A man like Hitler is by no means just the product of a peculiar waywardness of history that is dead and buried now. As a German you should be especially sensitive to a possible reawakening of Nazi ideologies of every shade. Recent developments show you that the resurrected devil is just outside the door. In the region where I live, the Ore Mountains, elections were held some weeks ago, and a Neonazi list gained about 12 per cent of all the votes, nourishing themselves predominantly from the young. Although the arts have never really led to but a slender change of people's awareness, 'Der Untergang' is a fair try and has appeared just in time to counteract a dangerously destructive tendency in our society.
Io non ho paura (2003)
A World That Has Not Changed
It is a film about that culminating moment of childhood, when you finally find out the real nature of the world you had been born into, when you discover the evil faces behind the masks of joyful light-heartedness. It is like a loss of paradise: you realize that the infant playgrounds inevitably have to be left behind. In this film this painful instant is illustrated by the sudden appearance of three terrifying combine harvesters which mow down Michele's grain field.
After I had left the projection room, I wondered if there had been a similar moment in my own childhood, almost forty years ago. Of course, my parents weren't any kidnappers or anything of the kind, and therefore I had had quite a protected childhood. And still there was fear. Somehow it must have crept in, presumably from the outside, pictures on the television maybe, which showed me the disheartening view of a world that is is no bed of roses. They were pictures from a remote country called Vietnam, they were pictures of war. And then, having returned to the present day, suddenly the bell rang, and it made me shiver with horror. It reminded me of that other war, the one that is imminent now, and which might start tomorrow. And I had to realize: the world has not changed a jot since the early days of my childhood.
We still have to feel fear, fear is all around us, it won't ever dissipate.
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
The Disenchantment of Waking Up in the Wrong World
Frankenstein, who everyone regards as a bloodthirsty monster killing at random and devoid of any kind of human feelings, is nevertheless a poor, oppressed creature that should be deplored instead of abhorred. Nobody realizes that in reality he is craving for love and friendship, apart from a hermit, who temporarily takes him in until the mob of hunters appears in order to seize him. But this man is unable to discern the creature's face for he is blind.
Frankenstein then hopes that a test-tube woman designed by his creators could finally fulfill the yearnings of his heart. But as soon as she opens her eyes and perceives the monster and his desire, she is overcome by a gush of terror and escapes from the extended arms of the would-be bridegroom, leaving him to the disheartening insight that in the world into which he was cast by the whims of some irresponsible scientists not a single being can be found that is willing to care for him and give him the love that he needs as much as anyone else. The consequence of this sudden knowledge is terrifying: It culminates in complete self-destruction.
This clearly represents the most powerful version of the Frankenstein myth, superior even to the recent Kenneth-Branagh-adaptation. We are made palpable the desperation of a being who has found out that he just isn't in the right place. And this should make us think. For the suffering that develops in front of our eyes doesn't merely belong to a remote past or to the queer imagination of some scriptwriter. You can find the horror in the headlines of today's newspapers as well. Genetic engineering is about to cause the same disgraceful scenario that we have just experienced on the screen. Or even worse.
The Truman Show (1998)
Truman: A True Human Representative
Of course you could do the same as most other people do: describe this movie as `a satirical and sometimes hilarious comment on the role of the modern media' or something of the kind. But you would do `The Truman Show' wrong if you left it like this, it contains many more truths than just that.
There are two opposing concepts of life which stand out. One is firmly anchored in the shores of Protection, it means that you do not feel any inclination to venture out into the unknown, for you are happy where you are, and by no means you want to alter the present state of things. For such people the town called `Seahaven' would be the ideal one: it is a haven against the dangerous outside world, here represented by the sea, a place where you can feel absolutely safe.
But Man, throughout his history, has always shown his discontent with staying at home and just maintaining the knowledge passed on to him by his ancestors. He has always felt a desperate craving for new experience. Explorers like Magellan, who was the first man to surround the Earth, stand for such endeavouring energies.
Truman Burbank, although his position as a life insurance salesman might let you presume the exact opposite, is a would-be explorer himself and worships men like Magellan. When he tells his friend Marlon that he wants to leave his secure `desk job' and go to Fiji he also mentions that `there are still islands in Fiji where no human being has ever set foot.' His aim is to see something of the unknown world, add new dimensions to his life.
But Truman's plan is counteracted by the requirements of the show in which he is the unsuspecting hero. By no means is he allowed to become aware of his true condition. Therefore all his attempts to leave Seahaven must inevitably fail. It is as if his life is guided by invisible strings, held together by the godlike Christof. It is only by a superhuman effort that he manages to set himself free, surmounting the fear of the element that he dreads most: water. By undertaking an unlikely escape voyage across the ocean that strikes the TV-program bosses by surprise he finally gets to the boundaries of the world that meant reality to him.
Now he has finally achieved what he always wanted: to find the exit door of Seahaven. And there is nobody who can stop him. He resists the entreaties of his `creator', Christof, and boldly advances into the land beyond the `iron curtain'.
Of course, we might be tempted to regard this scene as a metaphor for the passing of the ultimate threshold of human existence: from the land of the living to the land of the dead. That view seems coherent, but only if you exclude death as the end of the line. For what Truman has in mind is clearly continuity. He is carrying the identikit picture of Sylvia (the woman he once lost and always hoped to find in Fiji) and refers to it as his `map'. Thus his innate discoverer's energy is enhanced by the power of love. And it is this explosive combination that finally smoothes the way for his escape from the protected slavery into the realm of infinite freedom.
Honogurai mizu no soko kara (2002)
Life is the Real Horror
***SPOILERS*** ***SPOILERS*** Among the 16 movies that I watched during this year's Berlin Film Festival this was the one that impressed me most. Unfortunately though my voting in favor won't contribute to a distribution on a larger scale throughout the world. That is due mainly to the fact that Japanese Cinema doesn't seem to have many advocates: there are some big names such as Mizoguchi and Kurosawa or, more recently, Takeshi Kitano, but most of the rest is either completely silenced or banned from the big movie theaters and sent to smaller arts or repertory cinemas. Maybe the fact that a Japanese film (the cartoon "Spirited Away") shared the major prize of this year's festival will slightly change the situation - at least momentarily.
"Honogurai..." is a horror movie, but in contrast to many products of this genre we have never the sensation of departing from real life here. It is therefore impossible to relax and watch the action just from a spectator's point of view. We are firmly embedded in the story and willing to participate. Thus we feel sympathy with the female protagonist and even become her ally when she is accused of being mentally ill, at the beginning. It seems logical that she is perfectly sane and naturally is in the right when she claims the custody for her five-year-old daughter. She just seems a little fragile, a little lost in this hostile world. But we feel that she needs her child to gain self-confidence and to be able to cope with her life.
Then all these strange phenomena occur, the water that is dropping down from above coming from a flat that should be unoccupied, the red child's bag that appears and reappears under the strangest circumstances, the girl that is reported missing and that seems to walk around the dark and eerie apartment house. But everything gets explained and the lawyer becomes another ally of the female protagonist. It must be the ex-husband who is the villain because he wants to drive his ex-wife into madness in order to seize hold of the child.
But then all of a sudden there is a deluge of water all around, and fantastic events just can't be explained by pure logic. We now know that the woman, after all, was insane right from the beginning. All that we see on the screen must be a projection of the unfathomable abyss of her mind.
For a moment the movie seems to be in danger to slip into madness, too, and we fear that, after all, it is just another trash horror movie. But then a magical time shift takes place and a fifteen-year-old girl appears in front of the same dark building. "I remember that there was a very brief period in which I was living together with my mother," she says. She goes inside, straight to the former flat where nothing much seems to have changed during the past ten years and where even her mother is waiting for her. We share the girl's joy when she sees her mother again. Why has she never informed her that she went on living in that house? We realize that the life with her father hasn't been a particularly blissful one for the girl. And again we believe in the conspiracy theory: This mother must have been silenced by her ex-husband.
The climactic moment lasts just until the delusive images disappear and the girl finds herself all alone again. The horror movie has converted into drama: We are confronted with the tragedy of a girl that has been robbed of her childhood and has to cope with life without the consoling assistance of a mother.
The Pledge (2001)
A World without Heroes is a Senseless World
CONTAINS SPOILERS Although "The Pledge" is the American adaptation of a classical European movie ("Es geschah am helllichten Tag", Ladislao Vajda, 1958), which in turn is based on a script by the famous Swiss author Friedrich Dürrenmatt, the film is not typically American. In fact, we have got in front of us the rare case of an American version whose spirit is more European than the original.
And yet it seems at first as if everything might amount to a positive, Hollywood-like ending including a special message for the American soul, one which could even be applied to current world events and which could read like this: "We must defeat and destroy the devil at all costs, even if innocent blood has to be spilled!"
The devil as a symbolization of all evil is indeed mentioned in the film, and therefore script and camera work are at pains not to show any picture of the human who committed the abominable murders of the little girls. He is like an abstract undeterminable force hidden away somewhere in our world, but which can burst out at any time and at any possible location in order to pursue his destructive purposes.
At the end of the film, however, it is not the retired police inspector Jerry Black who catches the devil, but pure coincidence: When he is driving to a meeting with the little girl that has been set up as a lure, the murderer has a fatal accident, being gruesomely burnt to death after colliding with an oncoming truck-trailer. Therefore the inspector, who is lying in ambush together with a contingent of policemen, is waiting in vain, and all his careful investigations, which have put him onto the track of the offender, come to nothing, for although the devil is duly punished, he isn't recognized by society as such, just as little as the inspector can keep the promise given to the mother of a preceding child victim "on the salvation of his soul".
Now not only the feeling of triumph that he had already been sure of is denied him. By such conduct he has also gained the contempt of the mother who had believed that she might have been able to slip into a new life together with the policeman and who now has to realize that he has abused her. He therefore sees no other exit but initiating a process of disintegration which leads him to madness. At the end he stands alone at the decayed gas station which once had been his hunting ground for glory and recognition and where he now has fallen prey of imaginary voices and senseless monologues.
That is purest European cinema, in succession to Bergman and Kieslowski. We are inside a world which is devoid of all sense, in which we are unable to discern any divine structures. Everything is determined by pure chance and coincidence, and whether a man is successful or not in his strivings does not depend on him. However hard he may try to give the slightest touch of significance to his existence, he will have to recognize in the end that he is no more than a tender plaything, at the mercy of the inscrutable waves, absurdly tossed about in the infinite ocean, without any support, only kept in motion by dark forces, by an obscure motor of whose intentions we know nothing.
Wo de fu qin mu qin (1999)
Paradise On Earth
The film starts in a joyless black and white and is thus reflecting the initially sad situation of the protagonist, who has to travel back to his home village after a long residence in town, because his father has died and he has to bury him.
Then our film journey arrives at its first heartrending scene, when the man finds his mourning mother, bowed headed, who then suddenly turns her old and wrinkled face around and shows him her grief, pronouncing to her son the irreversible truth that his father is gone forever, that they won't see him ever again, just as if he had not comprehended yet.
But for cinematic art it is possible to surmount the dull grey of present time and go backwards to a brilliant past, using bright and shimmering colors. Now that long ago period in which life was most intensely lived comes back as if by magic: the unforgotten time of youth and love which of course includes the desperate but relentless striving for the realization of love.
Luo, a young teacher from the town, who has been transferred to the little village, triggers off an ardent desire in Zhao Di, obviously the most beautiful girl around. At first, she does not know anything about him nor is she able to see him at close range. It must be the appeal of the unknown which fascinates her, but then she might also be attracted by the position the man holds and which gains him a high reputation in the village. The admiration quickly turns into unconditional affection and love. It is a feeling that becomes obsessive for she turns a deaf ear to all the admonitory advice she eventually gets and willingly accepts even physical pain.
Zhao Di's illness, which almost leads to her death, finally convinces Luo that her love is serious and unique. A remarkably intense relationship develops that only Death is able to dissolve, some forty years later.
The message of this film is rather simple: If you possess a key called "love", then you get access to nothing less than Paradise on Earth. Therefore it is not surprising that the most urgent worry of the mother after the funeral of her husband is whether her son has got a girlfriend or not. But she does not get a positive answer. It seems as if the son, in his striving for material fulfillment in the town, has missed out on something essential: the sensual fulfillment through love.
Still, there is a drop of bitterness that manages to crawl into the goblet of joy, a dark shadow which spreads out in this apparently flawless paradise. It is Death who painfully reminds us of something that we all know but always wish to deny as long as we possibly could: the finite nature of happiness in our world. Therefore there is not much more we can do but to get enraptured by these joyful images of someone else's existence which, somehow, might lead us backwards to the most blissful moments of our own life.
Dancer in the Dark (2000)
Denying Reality, Defying Death
Selma, a Czech woman, who now lives in the USA, once mentions that she always leaves a musical film while the penultimate song is being performed. That way the film would go on forever in her imagination, whereas it would inevitably stop if she waited until the very end.
It is mainly in apparently hopeless conflict situations that she displays her unshakeable capability of converting an undesirable reality into something more positive. Then she imagines her life to be a musical, in which she has taken the leading role. But there is a flaw: Her escape from reality has the length of a song only, and instead of definitely solving her problems she achieves nothing but a short-term delay. In the end she has to accept the tragic turns of her life without resistance: the dismissal from her job in the factory, the death of her landlord, which actually is a suicide, but which is presented as a murder committed by her, and, finally, her execution by hanging.
The contrast between the imaginary musical scenes and reality is shown by the use of different film material: The hopelessness of Selma's existence, which is marked by the sheer impossibility of the fulfillment of her life ambition (to save the eyesight of her son Gene by means of an operation financed by her), is reflected by dim, subdued colors, whereas the dream passages are depicted in clear and bright colors. The very choice shows which of the two levels is to be emphasized as the more attractive and more desirable one.
Selma succeeds in defying reality almost to the point of denying the finality of death. Even in the moment when she feels the noose tying around her neck she is capable of converting the whole scenery into a single musical song of liberating force, thanks to her strength of mind. And this gigantic release of life-saving energy should just be enough to prevent her from dying: "It's only the last song if we let it be."
But ironically it is us, the spectators, who, simply by not observing the aforementioned rule, condemn Selma to death. Precisely because we sympathize with the protagonist and are interested in her destiny, we are not capable of leaving the projection room before she has completed her "next-to-last-song". Therefore we are not spared the final moment in which the music stops playing and the tools of death start working noiselessly. The moment in which a brave heart stops beating, and the silent screen is invaded by complete darkness.
Le huitième jour (1996)
The Hazards Of Opting Out
On the eighth day God created Georges. But the same as an eighth day doesn't fit into the week, Georges doesn't fit into the modern world: He has Down syndrome and is therefore marginalized by society, shunted off to an asylum after his mother's death four years ago. She was the only one who loved him.
Harry is another man that isn't loved anymore. His wife has left him, for reasons that she is unable to explain. He loses the love of his daughters, too, when he arrives too late at the railway station to collect the two kids, who wanted to spend the weekend with their father.
Harry is a highly ranked businessman. He knows all the rules that enable us to succeed in our modern meritocracy. But he has entered a state of crisis, which reaches a climax after the loss of the love of his daughters. He questions the sense of his life, without obtaining any definite results.
Harry and Georges meet. At first Harry tries to get rid of Georges, the same as all the others do. But Georges can't be shaken off. And it gradually dawns on Harry, how much he needs Georges, if he wants to get over his identity crisis. It is Georges who opens a new access to the world for him and who makes him view his life with different eyes. Friendship and human warmth take the place of calculating striving for success. It is no surprise that Harry now cannot avoid failing in his job.
Georges helps Harry to regain the recognition of the daughters. Even his wife has to admit that the fireworks which he organized were worth seeing. Nonetheless a reintegration into the old life is no longer possible. And the new one turns out to be nothing more than a dream with a time limit, which unstoppably will reach its end. The camera watches Harry and Georges from above, for one long minute, as they are both lying down in the grass, just savoring the moment. But the same as this minute will unavoidably go by, the friendship of the two men, which came into being in such a wondrous fashion, will not be long-lasting. Georges is destroyed by the impossibility of love to the opposite sex and can see no other way out but to commit suicide. Harry turns into a city tramp, who asks the car drivers that are waiting in front of the traffic lights for charity.
The movie describes modern meritocracy as a disastrous mechanism which devours positive values such as human warmheartedness or friendship. It is Georges, the mongol, who seems to be capable of showing the way out of the dilemma, but unfortunately his plea comes to a bad end. However, his failure does not necessarily have to mean that it is impossible or not desirable to reach the aspired goal. The way he shows us is surely passable, although it requires a huge amount of willpower and, above all, the courage to apply a radical nonconformism.
Lost and Delirious (2001)
Hunters Of Passion
Is life still worth living when passion is irretrievably gone? A passion that filled your heart until it nearly burst, a passion that you wanted to stay forever. And so you fought against convention, you tried to ignore the rigid rules of society. But it was all in vain.
There was another passion in your life, the love for a falcon with injured wings, which you saved from sure death. Now it can fly again, it spreads its wings on a high roof top, hurls itself into a new destiny. And, although you know you can't follow it, you run behind your passion and leap from the roof top, too, for you know that once it's gone it will never come back and everything else won't matter.
There were people in a crowded Berlin cinema, people that admired you when they saw you jump, and they understood that you didn't want to become like your old teacher, who had once lost another passion, but who tried to live on, alleviating her grief in the inexhaustible fountain of literature.
Just like we all live on, somehow, somewhere, thinking about some private passion we are running after or which we might have lost at some point of the past and which is not yet buried.
Le signe du lion (1962)
The Failure To Understand
Pierre Wesselrin, a German American resident in Paris, was born under the sign of Leo and therefore thinks that luck is on his side. This attitude seems to be confirmed right at the beginning, when the message of his rich aunt's decease is delivered. Wesselrin celebrates a big party, for which his friends pay the expenses, expecting that they will soon get their money back. At the end of the party he joyfully fires a rifle bullet at the starlit sky, being convinced that he has conquered the world and that from now on it will always be his.
The setback strikes him unexpectedly and reveals his state of utter helplessness and subjection in this world. His half-brother, who lives in Germany, is named only heir, and his rich Parisian friends abandon the capital one after the other in order to embark upon their sum-mer vacations. Now the dependence of the parasite on his fellow creatures is clearly shown: he has to rely on their kindness even if he wants nothing else but a roof over his head.
But as the hotel manageress isn't among these kind and generous friends, she denies him the right to stay. And there is no other hotel in which he could live just on terms of confidence. The only thing that is left for him to do is to roam about in the open air, on tourist tracks. Just that he gets infinitely more lonely than a tourist, the more his state of neglect progresses. And he can't help it either, as he is struck by quite a number of odd misfortunes: the spilling of a tin of sardines on his only trousers, the loss of a metro ticket, the disintegration of his footwear.
At this point Wesselrin suddenly starts fighting: he gets himself some turpentine from his last money, he desperately looks for some string which might hold his decomposing shoe together. But all kind of revolt against the inevitable is pointless, just as his stubbly beard is now allowed to grow without hindrance his descent into the depths of disaster is unstoppable and can only be subdued a little by the charitable acts of a few benefactors: A baker sells him the baguette for 6 francs instead of 9, a tramp lets him participate in his tourist show and saves Wesselrin from starvation that way, for he himself is literally incapable of doing anything, he doesn't even succeed in stealing an apple and is too proud to beg.
Therefore the final turning point (the half-brother dies in a car crash, and Wesselrin, who is literally lying in the gutter, is discovered by two friends) has actually to be seen more tragic than positive: Wesselrin hasn't learned anything from his experience and when he hears about the regained heritage he talks big again, like at the beginning of the movie. It seems just logical to him: Fortune can't do anything else but smile upon someone who was born under the sign of Leo.
Are Germans human?
First of all an almost unthinkable idyll is presented to the spectator, considering that we are in times of war: A sergeant named Walter and his superior Kurt are far off the combat action and supervise civil workers in a small Bulgarian town, where they are also responsible for a community of Greek Jews, waiting to be transported to their final destination. This happy constellation encourages Kurt to nothing else but to find intensified sensual pleasures in dissipated carousals, gluttonous feasts or with local prostitutes, whereas Walter experiences an important dawning of consciousness that will change his life.
The decisive turning point is his encounter with Ruth, a Jewish girl that asks for his help when a pregnant woman of the captivated community is about to give birth. It is her who succeeds in getting going again the humanitarian mechanisms that Walter seemed to have forgotten. For he quite unexpectedly smuggles a civilian obstetrician into the camp, just one day after he has refused her request in the curt coldness that is typical for Third Reich soldiers. Could it be possible that Germans are human, after all?
Or maybe it's just another love adventure that Sergeant Walter is after. At least there are night dates about which the sensual Kurt goes green with envy: Walter and Ruth meet several times for an extensive walk across the deserted streets of the town, where they are unnecessarily guarded by a soldier, who is walking discreetly behind.
Surely, this provokes certain expectations of the public, but, of course, we definitely aren't in a Hollywood movie. The usual boy-meets-girl-plot, which almost in any case culminates in some sort of physical love making, is replaced by long-winded dialogues of philosophical content, which in the end are responsible for a spiritual approximation of two characters who initially seemed to be incompatible. These verbal encounters become the true highlights of a quiet and smoothly developing movie that deliberately abstains from intricate plot movements.
Walter and Ruth predominantly discuss the question, whether there is room for any changes. Is it possible to eradicate evil? In view of the impending deportation of the Jewish community to Auschwitz every kind of hope seems nonsensical and foolish. "Evil is eternal, that's exactly what it is," Walter disheartenedly insists. But Ruth convinces him that it is the duty and the responsibility of every human being to revolt against the evil forces.
Man left to his own devices is powerless though. Walter finally has to recognize this when he reaches the railway station a moment too late: The train with the Jews has just left, and he can only run behind, without the slightest chance to catch up with it. The only thing that remains and reminds him of Ruth is her torn off star of David, which is lying neglectedly in a dark puddle, only slightly illuminated by the cold light of the night sky. It is the ironic confirmation of what she has said before: "Every human being has got a protective star in the sky, but once you rip it off from its place, Man can do nothing but perish."
Nevertheless Walter isn't to be discouraged by that saddening realization and the subsequent tragedy which he is unable to prevent. At the end of the movie he continues on the road once taken and the determination with which he supports the Bulgarian partisans seems logical. Maybe through the collaboration with others he will achieve something which was denied to him when he was still fighting on his own: to defy evil and help to create a more humane world.