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Key Films #16

Angelus [Lech Majewski, 2000]:
It's difficult to adequately define the experience of the film; this work, which in many ways goes beyond the more commonly accepted conventions of genre, creating instead a loose narrative of sketches in which elements of comedy and fantasy, satirical allegory and scathing social critique are all brought together to create a statement on cultural identity, religious hysteria and the power of 'faith', in all of its various permutations, to persist; to persevere.  As much as I would like to describe, in-depth, the meaning(s) of the film and how brilliantly Majewski and his co-writers expose the tyranny and hypocrisy of these characters and the absurdity of their respective situations, too much of the greater political and social commentary - which provides a context for the film throughout - is beyond my reach.  In particular, the actual historical foundation of the film, which relates to certain specific periods of Polish heritage, from the formation of the country (or at least from the period beginning with the integration of the three former partitioning powers into a cohesive national state), through to the invasion of the country during the Second World War, the rise of communism and finally moving towards the eventual democratic rule of the current Third Polish Republic.

My reaction to the film was very much similar to my reactions to two other films that I recently saw; Wanda Gościmińska: A Textile Worker (1975) and ABC Book/The Primer (1976) both directed by Wojciech Wiszniewski.  These two films also approach both the history and cultural identity of Poland in the last half of the 20th century from a rather eccentric, somewhat sardonic perspective, and both are similarly difficult to describe, in any critical capacity, without possessing a further appreciation of the socio-political context that informs both the narrative and its critique.  However, even with some of the more specific references being lost in translation, the style of the film - the actual direction of it - is unforgettable.  There are hints of Derek Jarman in the mix of the modern and the antiquated, in the presence of art in every frame, and in the stylised 'tableau vivant' approach to composition, which frequently recalls the spectre of actual paintings and their ability to provide a commentary, through symbolism, that is consistent with the stylisation of the film itself.  The humour, which is also imperative to the film's point of view, is reminiscent of Roy Andersson, especially in the presentation of the central characters and in the almost Buñuelian lampoon of contemporary domesticity, which adds to the film's intelligent and often startling burlesque.

Larisa [Elem Klimov, 1980]:

A tribute to a woman who no longer exists, except in images, both moving and still.  The voice of this woman - conjured, phantom-like, from haunted recordings that suggest the continuation of a life when only the traces remain - speaks, in clear terms, about the difficulties faced by the individual, and of her own influences and ideological struggles, as both an artist and a woman, to remain true to her own creative ambitions and intent.  The film - in short, a kind of memorial piece, assembled by her husband as a response to his own state of tearful mourning - is a celebration of the talent of this young woman (only forty at the time of her death), and in essence becomes a declaration of love, from one artist to another.  It is a celebration as well as a lament that attempts, through the combination of sound and image, to honour the spirit of this woman, the filmmaker Larisa Shepitko, but also to present, through images edited from her own films, the sadness felt, not just by her husband - director Elem Klimov - but by her friends and associates left broken in the wake of her death.  In the gallery of sad and hopeless faces, or in the scenes of pure anguish found in Shepitko's own films - amongst them Krylya (1966) and The Ascent (1976) - Klimov is able to express, movingly, but without sentimentality, an outpouring of his own grief and admiration and the tragedy of his (and our) loss.

The presentation of the film suggests, through the use of its running commentary, both aural and visual, the strength of this woman, as expressed in her own words, but also her enthusiasm and commitment to making films with a passion and integrity that was distinct and entirely her own.  In conversation with Klimov, the voice of Shepitko outlines her conception of a "ladies' cinema", in opposition to the more dominant "male cinema", and free of its persistent influence.  As a hypothesis, this is both fascinating and inspirational, but the real power of the film is found, not in these snippets of conversation, but in the actual ability to show, through the arrangement of the images - as literal "recorded memories" - the journey of a life.  Beginning with a wordless montage of photographs of Shepitko - from birth to death, or near enough - the film progresses through the success and achievements of her professional career, beyond the last attempts to film an adaptation of Valentin Rasputin's novel Farewell to Matyora, and eventually reaching a kind of conclusion at the site of the accident that claimed her life.  The film ends with the very last piece of footage ever directed by Shepitko.  An image, described by Klimov himself as "an eternal tree, the symbol of perseverance and dignity, the symbol of faith in the endless continuation of what we call life."  A final elegy, suggestive of the lasting influence of this woman, as stoical and enduring as the tree itself.

The Niklashausen Journey [Rainer Werner Fassbinder & Michael Fengler, 1970]:

Like the earlier film, Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? (1970), The Niklashausen Journey is co-credited to Fassbinder and his occasional producer Michael Fengler.  Some of Fassbinder's closest collaborators, amongst them the actress Hanna Schygulla, have since claimed that the true "author" of Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? was in fact Fengler, and that Fassbinder's name was only added to the production to help secure the film's release.  With this in mind, it becomes even more difficult to ascertain the true authorship of a film as extraordinary as The Niklashausen Journey, which, as a work, is thematically unlike any other film that Fassbinder is best remembered for, and yet, at the same time, is a film very much reminiscent, in both its approach and technique, of some of the director's most significant and identifiable works.  While the earlier Fassbinder/Fengler collaboration had employed a loose cinéma vérité approach of drab colours, hand-held camera and harsh (seemingly) natural light, the look and feel of The Niklashausen Journey is comparatively much closer to the style of subsequent Fassbinder films, such as Beware of a Holy Whore (1971) and Fear Eats the Soul (1974).  In those films as well as here, there is a similar use of bold primary colours, lengthy tracking shots and the rigorous composition of actors within the frame, each expressive of that early Fassbinder style as it was developing through Love is Colder Than Death (1969) to The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (1972).

This approach is also consistent with Fassbinder's early adoration for the work of Jean-Luc Godard, with the influence of films like Week End (1967) and One Plus One (also known as Sympathy for the Devil, 1968) conspicuous in both the film's aggressive political dissertation and in the genuinely confrontational design.  Like the Godard of the late 1960s and early 1970s, The Niklashausen Journey is a loud, seemingly rambling and chaotic film, full of didactic sermonising, agitprop sloganeering and a propensity for pure provocation.  As such, it is often disregarded from the general discussion of Fassbinder's career, which to me seems a bit of a shame.  Although less powerful than the work he would eventually direct after swapping the influence of Godard for the influence of Sirk, The Niklashausen Journey is a no less a fascinating portrait of a specific time and place.  A portrait obfuscated by allegory and a loose theatrical evocation that recalls the Straub-Huillet of the analogous Othon (1970), but still redolent of the political situation as it existed in Germany at the time the film was produced.  As such, it now seems of specific interest, not just for the confident and imaginative direction of Fassbinder & Fengler, but for the historical context that it provides.


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