100 GREATEST FILMS FROM THE SOVIET UNION, RUSSIA, UKRAINE AND EASTERN EUROPE, PART II

This is the second half of the list. The first half is elsewhere on this site.

1969
52. THE FRUIT OF PARADISE. Ovoce stromu rajskych jime, Věra Chytilová’s follow-up to Daisies (see 1966), is prefaced by an experimental film based on Genesis. Superimpositions (to which are applied quick camera zigs and zags) evoke an Eden through which a naked pair make their way to the forbidden Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. But did this opulent Eve come from that scrawny Adam’s rib (or whatever), not vice versa? Colors are rich: deep, woody greens; orange fruit; red petals—everything (including Man and Woman) appears to be rotting to earth. Satan lurks about, and when the man and the woman lean in, it is an equal coming together, and sad, full of the kind of self-aware regret one associates with humanity after the Fall—a flip of the dogmatic mythological telescope, perhaps, wherein our original parents sacrificed their suspension of time in order to deliver us, their future, into life and death. Overall, the long shots identify the point of view; Chytilová gives us a God’s-eye view of our mythical fall into humanity, mortality, selfconsciousness.
     After this dazzling opening movement, a modern pair sits under a tree on the grounds of a resort. The guy, lazy, is unfazed by his environment; he has assumed God’s authority, self-righteousness. The gal is curious about everything, having assumed God’s endless curiosity in his own creation. The postal carrier brings letters—symbolically, connectedness to others and institutions. All the mail is for the guy. Meanwhile, a Satanic figure in red rides a bicycle (which he keeps falling off) and pursues the gal. While pleading for gender equality, Chytilová invokes Alice in Wonderland, La coquille et le clergyman (Germaine Dulac, 1926), Un chien andalou (Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dali, 1928), Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le fou (1965), and quotes Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Earth (see 1930).

53. THE STRUCTURE OF CRYSTALS. In a remote, rural outpost, Jan, trained as a physicist, lives with ebullient wife Anna, a local schoolteacher, and functions as a statistical meteorologist—a scientific hack. A former colleague visits. Marek, an urbane researcher, is a scientific star who travels widely and drives a sports car. Marek chides Jan for wasted potential, withered ambition. But Marek fails to take into account “the structure of crystals”—internal forces that compel individual “choices.” Ironically, given his freer time, Jan, it turns out, has maintained the richer, more committed intellectual life. Jan reads, studies, thinks, while busy Marek laments how little spare time he has. Jan discusses the nature of infinity; Marek notes he saw Marina Vlady in a Chekhov play in Paris.
     With Struktura krysztalu Krzysztof Zanussi brought a distinctive signature to cinema. The physicist and philosopher’s first feature weighs the disparate professional and personal lives of these two scientists in a Communist country, Poland, where a person’s contribution to society, from the national political perspective, trumps everything else. This is the film’s foundation, but there is no message-mongering. Yet no other film more forcefully conveys the situation. In truth, both scientists have been reduced to the state’s use of them.
     Employing black-and-white bleakness, where snow projects aridity (with the couple’s childlessness, accentuated by the scores of children with whom Anna works, adding an almost subliminal note of poignancy), Zanussi pursues momentous themes with mathematical precision and deep irony. (En route to a nearby city, the couple shows Marek a desolate fertilizer factory; but we never see anything grow.) Molecular drawings somehow disclose Zanussi’s fascination with the human condition. Zanussi’s love of cinema is equally apparent. Standing in front of a framed wall mirror, Jan and Marek miraculously suggest a celebrated shot from Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966).

1971
54. LOVE. It is a cold, wet spring in Budapest. Luca (Mari Töröcsik, brilliant), a schoolteacher, loses her job and is assigned apartment co-tenants; her husband, János (Iván Darvas, unshakably moving), is the cause. He is in prison over politics. Meanwhile, János’s old, bedridden, ill mother (Lili Darvas, Ferenc Molnár’s widow) believes that her son is in the United States making a film. The woman’s servant, Irén, has joined Luca in spinning this compassionate web of protection from the truth. Luca even writes letters to her mother-in-law that are presumably from János. What harm? The old woman, who has already lost another son (to war), will not live to see her János again.
     Written by Péter Bacsó from a novel by Tibor Déry, Szerelem is a work of poetry and great humanity. Witty and spirited, Luca has a complex relationship with her mother-in-law, whom she visits every day, with flowers. Her own problems she keeps to herself, not even burdening Irén. She wonders whether her husband is alive. The lies with which she comforts her mother-in-law, who possibly knows more than she is letting on, help Luca keep her husband’s spirit alive and cope with loneliness and her sense of hopelessness.
     The filmmaker is Károly Makk. His black-and-white film revolves around Luca’s reality and her mother-in-law’s difficult present, which is infiltrated by slivers of memory, including of her very long-ago past, and imaginings. The film’s rhythm and events do not conform to time; one scene to the next can represent, well, who knows? A week, a month. In this way Makk is able to convey both certain routines and uncertainty, fear, unpredictability. A glimpsed bench later reappears as a memory—or was it a memory in the first place? Bits of film create a haunting mosaic of gray existence.

1972
55. RED PSALM. “The land belongs to those who cultivate it.”
      People, circling in dance, are themselves encircled by mounted soldiers. An 1890s peasant uprising is about to be put down.
      The entirety of Miklós Jancsó’s Még kér a nép unfolds in a field—and unfolds is the right word, because it is a scene of constant and immediate motion—dancing, walking, shooting, falling down dead, horses trotting—and motion in all directions, and lines of motion interweaving, or one encircling another: continual movements; continuous motion. Cinema’s greatest post-silent formalist is at the top of his art, choreographing humanity more deftly, more intricately than ever—and, as in Winter Wind (1969), in color. Irony compounds irony; for the heartless nineteenth-century autocrats whose soldiers kill find Jancsó taking aim, in his own time, at ruling communists. The People Still Ask translates the Hungarian title; dressed in different ideologies, hiding behind different political masks, the powerful still oppress the masses, who must still ask, therefore, for change. Early on, a soldier shoots a girl’s hand; the bleeding is magically replaced with a red ribbon. One of the film’s final images: a panned mass of workers, a palm of each of them marked by a red ribbon.
      Defying socialist realism, Jancsó creates entrancing abstractions to accompany the film’s wealth of folk songs and dances and other movement. A church burns, but we aren’t shown the arson; people are killed, but we aren’t always shown the killing. The idea emerges that people are in the grip of historical forces; Jancsó focuses on outcomes rather than individual actions. Jancsó exhorts his audience to organize and oppose injustice and oppression en masse.
      Jancsó puts few objects into his long, fluid takes. Rather, he invests his frames with movement, motion, humanity—a moving redefining of mise-en-scène.

56. SOLARIS. Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solyaris, from Stanislaw Lem, opens with tentacles of grass swaying in a stream—an insinuation of the unconscious just below the surface. The image is part of a lush landscape whose natural beauty is nourished by falling rain: water. The land is attached to the dacha of Kris Kelvin, a psychologist still mourning the loss of his wife, Khari, seven years earlier. Kelvin is recruited to join the Solaris mission, one of whose cosmonauts has committed suicide; he is to investigate what is happening. “What am I expected to find there?” he asks. The response: “That may depend on you.”
     The planet Solaris is “out there” somewhere; but the vast, churning sentient ocean covering it, above which the space station hovers,—more and more water,—connects outer space to Earthly cottage, the mind of the ocean to Kelvin’s mind. The remaining two cosmonauts have already grappled with the ocean’s capacities; the ocean can birth forms—false appearances rooted in an individual’s deepest wish. His “wife,” Khari, now appears to Kelvin—only, he knows it/she isn’t really Khari (but how can one be sure?), as does it/she know. “Khari” is a phantom conjured by Kris’s heart’s desire. Is the ocean tempting Kris to the flood with his own yearning? Or is the ocean a projection of this yearning? Kris and “Khari” fall in love. Or do they? Is it his wife’s death that has conjured Kris’s memory of love?
     Tarkovsky’s space station is as (elegantly) sterile as the one in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), to which many think Solyaris is providing a humane, humanistic response. Just below the surface, though, is Tarkovsky’s critique of Soviet totalitarianism, which taints everything, including the most intimate aspects of a person’s existence, turning even love into a question mark.

1973
57. THE HOURGLASS SANATORIUM. It opens a bit like Dracula (Tod Browning, 1931). In slow motion, a black bird, like a bat, flaps in the sky, without lateral movement, amidst a tangle of bare tree branches against a sunless sky. (Lines from Paul Kesler’s poem about Caspar David Friedrich’s painting Abtei im Eichwald: “Branching,/ the roots of agony/ climb to the heavens;/ the broken husk/ of autumn/ lingers in their veins. . . .”) The camera slowly pans leftward to follow this symbol of death as it finally flies; but the bird is lost from view as the camera withdraws, entering the window of a dilapidated train whose passengers seem on the verge of mummification. One man, though, is young; Jozef is en route to visit his dying father in a remote sanatorium. “How will I find it?” he asks the conductor. The reply: “You will have to do that yourself.”
     Wojciech J. Has’s Sanatorium pod klepsydra is based on stories by Bruno Schulz, whom the Gestapo murdered in 1942. Jozef’s father is still (technically) alive because time has been slowed inside the sanatorium, which reeks of dying and decay. In all probability it is Jozef who is dying; what we see unfold is a fantasy of expiration. One Jewish death is all Jewish deaths; all Jewish deaths are one Jewish death. In Polish, klepsydra means both sandglass and obituary. At film’s end, Jozef crawls out of the earth. Back to life? To death?
     Has’s strange, darkly wonderful film somehow manages to be, visually, both spare and luxuriant. It follows Jozef’s odyssey, which may be to the underworld or the past. Jozef is immersed in a Hassidic community whose vibrance and reality, fragile, are measured against time. He sees his father young; down the rabbit hole, he becomes an archaeologist of ethnic memory.
     Ours.

1974
58. MIRROR. “And I can’t wait to see this dream/ In which I’ll be a child again/ . . . everything will still be ahead/ Still possible.” — Arsenii Tarkovsky, Andrei’s father
     Andrei Tarkovsky’s Zerkalo interweaves three time frames, the 1930s prior to the Second World War, wartime, and the 1960s, color and black and white, waking reality and dreams. Margarita Terekhova, superb, plays Masha, young Aleksei’s mother, and Natalia, the grown Aleksei’s wife; one actor plays young Aleksei and the grown Aleksei’s son, Ignat. This double imaging conforms to the metaphor of mirrors, which accumulates a sense of transaction, at times a quarrel, between past and present. An elderly woman appears to be approaching the camera, which is to say, us; approaching her is the young mother, who has just been abandoned by her spouse. When the two face one another close-up, young Masha smooths the mirror right in front of her, revealing that she is—or we are—glimpsing her future self. Aleksei dreams he is watching his mother wash her hair as his father leaves the frame; the day the father walks out, a barn burns down—a borderline image, one as real as it is dreamlike. Throughout, shots of successive doorways suggest mirrors that characters pass through. Even a television screen appears to Ignat as a kind of mirror.
     The abandoned Aleksei becomes an abandoning father; the grown Aleksei, kept off-screen, has become a disembodied voice, absent even when present. (Tarkovsky’s actual father, another disembodied voice, reads his poetry, and the film has an unseen narrator besides.)
     Tarkovsky’s haunting evocation of childhood and time-elastic symbolical autobiography blossom into a meditation on Soviet history, implying an antitotalitarian dialectic between personal and national histories wherein individuals become the prism through which a society is best understood and judged, thereby reversing the Soviet dogmatic telescope.

1976
59. ASCENT. With Esther Shub, Larisa Shepitko was one of two outstanding Soviet woman filmmakers. In 1979, while scouting locations, Shepitko and four members of her crew were killed in a road accident. Shepitko was 41 years old. Elem Klimov, her widower, made two films in tribute to her: the documentary Larisa (1980) and the film that his wife did not live to complete: Farewell (1981).
     The one film of Shepitko’s that is available in the U.S. is the most famous: Voskhozhdeniye. With its foot journey doubling as a journey into the snowy depths of self-knowledge and spirituality, Voskhozhdeniye depicts in stark black and white the German occupation of Byelorussia during World War II. Two Byelorussian soldiers venture ever deeper into occupied territory in search of supplies for their beleaguered troop. Captured, they face their certain fate differently, in ways corresponding to the historic conflict between humanity’s mind and soul.
     Based on Vasil Bykau’s story “Sotnikov,” Shepitko’s final work testifies to her profound religious feeling and the breadth of her philosophical engagement of experience encompassing universal truths regarding what might be described as the endless dialectic of life and death. Voskhozhdeniye achieves a serene contemplation of chaotic circumstance, avoiding both defeatism and bogus inspiration. It is a just consideration of both the reach and hard limits of human possibility.
     In an extraordinary shot, a blank screen is held for what seems an eternity. From below the screen, heads finally bob into view: partisans being marched uphill to their executions—humans headed for the eternity from whence they came.
     Ukrainian, Shepitko was mentored by Aleksandr Dovzhenko, cinema’s “Poet of the Ukraine,” whose final film, Poem of the Sea (1958), she assisted his widow, Yulia Solntseva, in completing. Shepitko was fond of quoting Dovzhenko: “Approach each film as though it were your last.”

60. PASTORALI. Otar Iosseliani’s Pastoral is the Georgian’s first truly signature work. It opens in the city—Iosseliani’s own Tbilisi—where arrangements are being made for a string quartet to spend the summer in the country. Whatever the reason for their visit, they end up as cultural anthropologists by recording the singing of kolhozniks.
     This is a film about work, including farm work: chopping this, hauling that, shepherding animals, etc. Upon arrival, one of the musicians kicks aside a bottle that had been upright in the road. A farmer lugging a huge hill of hay pauses at the spot in order to reset the bottle to a standing position—work inside work, and a very human interruption of seemingly animal labor. Women are shown endlessly cooking and cleaning. Moreover, everyday activities are shown to be work; for instance, a local teenager who has taken a shine to one of the musicians grooms her hair while looking into a mirror. Her earnest concentration turns this ordinary task into pressing work.
     Pastoral is mostly a black-and-white silent. Dialogue is minimal. We hear musical instruments, voices in song, and farm, domestic and wild animals’ squawking, mooing, oinking, barking, chattering. A large herd of sheep crosses the road. A bus disturbs part of the orderly procession up ahead, while another part of the herd, closer to the camera, remains uniformly intact, all this mirroring humanity: lives structured and controlled by the work they must attend to; boisterous lives bursting out of this controlling structure.
     Iosseliani shows great affection for his characters, who come in all ages, sizes and shapes. With the musicians, it avoids fish-out-of-water material; neither city nor country gives the other a comical beating. There is no bogus feeling of regret when the musicians are back in Tbilisi.
     Pastoral is a beautiful comedy.

1977
61. CAMOUFLAGE. A summertime graduate student linguistics competition is underway. Philosopher-physicist Krzysztof Zanussi’s satirical comedy Barwy ochronne (literally, Protective Colors) largely consists of exchanges between two academics, an assistant lecturer and the associate professor who presumably is trying to educate the former as to the realities of human nature and university politics—out of boredom, he maintains. The boy, Jarek, is an insufferably rigid, self-righteous soul who ascribes to notions of rules, justice, honesty, morality, ethics. These concepts, his self-appointed mentor points out, do not exist in nature. They deny humanity’s animal being and make sense only in the service of an individual’s pursuit of survival. Jakub argues seductively; Jarek parries. The similarity of their names suggests we are witnessing a dramatic translation of a debate between opposing forces in the human personality. On the other hand, Jakub’s example may predict Jarek’s own necessary evolution.
     Actually, Jarek is doubly mentored, for he was hired by the school’s vice chancellor, who has put the boy in charge of the contest, although a panel, headed by Jakub, selects the winners. (Jakub claims to have ghost-written the book that launched the vice chancellor’s career.) Against Jakub’s advice (advice that may be calculated to prod Jarek to take the contrary action), Jarek allows a submission into the competition that arrived a day late—and from a student at a school of which, Jakub claims, the vice chancellor disapproves. The author of an inferior paper is given first prize; at Jarek’s insistence, the late paper’s author, “honorable mention.” When the vice chancellor hands the latter his certificate, the student bites the vice chancellor’s ear. Meanwhile, Jarek’s scholarship to London hangs in the balance.
     With Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Marble (1977), Camouflage helped found Poland’s “kino moralnego niepokoju”—cinema of moral concern. It did so sparklingly, delightfully.

1978
62. PROVINCIAL ACTORS. Among Poland’s most brilliant films, Agnieszka Holland’s Aktorzy prowincjonalni revolves around a provincial theatrical troupe outside Warsaw. They’re rehearsing something called Liberation. The play is historical (“. . . 100 years in fetters”), but it reflects the Communist state of Poland. It is a dark tragicomedy that early on gives us the possible suicide of a cat and, later, has an elderly man right before he also falls, or jumps, to his death from an apartment building window describe Poland as “a country in which anyone can insult an old man.” He could not secure help for an assault by a dog inside a café because the police official he approached sided with the dog owner, a personal friend. Someone remarks, “Our future is written in nothingness.” Is he speaking about the theater company or Poland? Since one represents the other, it doesn’t matter which.
     Krzysztof Malewski and Anka Malewska’s ten-year marriage is falling apart as Krzysz locks horns with the visiting director who aims to avoid controversy and whose concern about the play’s length finds Krzysz’s role, while remaining the leading one, losing lines and scenes. Meanwhile, Anka has lost all standing in the troupe. Krzysz hasn’t noticed that Polish women have even more cause for anxiety than Polish men. A troupe member finds female employment reliant on male connections: “Do you think our actresses would get so many parts if their husbands weren’t directors and managers?” In a long scene between Anka and a school acquaintance, which is underlit (like numerous scenes) and punctuated by bursts of stressfully discordant music, the latter recalls how confident Anka had always seemed. We see that that confidence has evaporated.
     Two conflicting impulses drive Holland’s and co-author Witold Zatorski’s characters: the freedom of self-determination; security—freedom from constant worry, fear.

1979
63. STALKER. Adapted by Arkadi and Boris Strugatsky from their novel The Roadside Picnic, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, like much futuristic science fiction, reflects the present day. The anonymous city where the stalker lives: call it Moscow—here, some grim future police state. At dull dawn the stalker rises to do his illegal work: sneaking out and leading others into and across the Zone (Oz, degenerated), the wasteland that a meteorite created by wiping the previous place off the face of reality. This time, the stalker has two clients: a self-doubting writer; a truth-seeking scientist. Their destination is The Room, where the two men have been led to believe they will be granted their wishes. En route, they question themselves and dread the possibility that their wishes will come true. Suggesting the danger they are in is the history of the Zone. Others who have entered it have disappeared entirely. The man who trained the stalker lost his own brother, whom he had led into the Zone, and committed suicide days after his return.
     Like Tarkovsky’s Mirror (see 1974), Stalker translates into a symbolical journey into the past—that is, from the current Soviet Union back to the original Soviet promise, which at best is now bankrupt, and which may have always been a delusion or a hoax. Images turn up of an abandoned faith. One hallucinatory passage, for example, finds Orthodox Christian symbols, among other discarded artifacts, stirring remotely in deep, rank, sluggish water. Tarkovsky masterfully orchestrates elements—drab, drained color, an extremely slowly moving camera, mystical lighting—to evoke the “fallen meteor” of a state where religious and other practices it has expelled nevertheless survive underground and in the collective memory, holding out hope for their eventual revival.
     Tarkovsky himself left family and home. Stalker was his last Soviet film.

1980
64. THE CONSTANT FACTOR. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #21.

65. CONFIDENCE. Budapest 1944 is a bleak place. People are disappearing, in some cases on their own in order to escape Nazi capture. There is an Hungarian underground, but there are also Hungarian collaborationists. “János Bíro,” a burnt-out member of the resistance, is in hiding, along with Kata (Ildikó Bánsági, tremendous), whose spouse also has gone into hiding. Kata and János, who is also married, are pretending to be a couple as cover while renting a room from an elderly couple. János is full of fear and lacking confidence; “our only chance [for survival],” he tells Kata, “is to prepare for any and every betrayal.” Kata is impatient with what she calls her companion’s “cowardice.” Gradually the pair become lovers. When the war ends, back in her husband’s arms, Kata is full of fear at the prospect of unending separation from a man whose real name she doesn’t even know, while János, newly hopeful, tries to find his pretend-wife, hollering “Mrs. Bíro!” along a line of refugees in the street.
     Budapest-born István Szabó’s Bizalom is an existential study of risk and trust so cleverly enfolded in a detailed, almost documentary depiction of wartime survival that the insertion of black-and-white archival material causes not the slightest stylistic rupture. Szabó’s and cinematographer Lajos Koltai’s color scheme, in which browns and grays dominate, conveys the sense that fear and suspicion have squeezed the life out of people, making patches of light haunting and precious in a film that unfolds mostly in darkness.
     Szabó is at his most ironical when a former schoolmate, who has had her nose changed and hair dyed, begs Kata for a night’s hiding. She is convinced that Kata is only pretending not to recognize her; but Kata really does not recall her—when you think about it, a harsher circumstance.

1981; 1984
66. DIARY FOR MY CHILDREN. Writer-director Márta Mészáros’s autobiographical Napló gyermekeimnek is highly specific and detailed about daily life under Communism. Juli, 14, is brought back to Hungary from Soviet Russia, along with adoptive relations, by her “grandfather”’s sister, Magda, an editorial office Communist Party official. We see rebellious Juli at 16 and 20; as Juli grows to responsible womanhood, Magda rises to a position of punitive power. Juli and her foster-mother, who are constantly locking horns, lose much along the way: Juli, her fierce pride; Magda, all idealism and hopefulness. Bit by bit Magda has had to accommodate Hungary’s political reality in order to justify her lifelong commitment.
     The film opens with an airplane’s descent into Budapest: a gray, bleak landscape. Mirrors and mirror-images dot the mise-en-scène, suggesting lives led at a remove from reality and the need to confirm one’s existence. Magda, who has suffered imprisonment and torture, wants to be loved, but Juli recoils from Magda’s attempts to touch her. After Yugoslavia’s Tito declares independence from the Soviet Union, Magda says, “There are enemies everywhere.” She decides one such enemy is her oldest political ally, whom she wrongly feels is encouraging Juli to abandon her. She has János imprisoned. When Juli and his son visit János, they are separated by screens on either side of a pathway up and down which an officer walks while the three try to converse.
     Searing flashbacks show Juli as a child with her loving parents. Her father “disappears” after authorities take him away. Typhus does the same to her mother at hospital. Her father, a sculptor, is shown amidst sheafs of sparkling white stone; is it a marble quarry or the moon?
     The gorgeous black-and-white cinematography for this “diary for my children” is by Niyika Jancsó, Mészáros’s son.

1981
67. DO YOU REMEMBER DOLLY BELL? Emir Kusturíca’s Sjecas li se, Dolly Bell is about the Zoljes, a Sarajevo family in Tito’s Yugoslavia in the early 1960s. It is especially about 16-year-old Dino, whose coming of age involves a blonde-wigged stripper and prostitute who goes by the name of Dolly Bell. Kusturíca, a Bosnian Muslim like the Zoljes, has said the film is partly autobiographical.
     Maho (Slobodan Aligrudic, phenomenal), the family head, bears indignities well. While endlessly waiting for decent state housing, he and his family live in a one-room apartment dominated by a kitchen table. Maho, wife and daughter sleep in one bed, the three boys in the other. A true believer, Maho keeps waiting for true communism to kick in and transform all their lives. When Maho is dying of lung cancer, Dino helps roll him over for the nurse’s injection. Maho’s face at that moment reflects a lifetime of disappointment, humiliation, forbearance.
     Like his brothers, Dino is forbidden to smoke, but you know kids. Anyhow, Maho is on the threshold of death; Dino, on the threshold of maturity. The two are seated alone, and Maho is smoking a cigarette. He invites Dino to smoke one, too. “I don’t smoke,” Dino says—not out of fear of punishment, but gallantly, out of filial respect. However, the father’s gallantry exceeds his son’s. “I know,” Maho says, giving Dino a cigarette and lighting it with his own. Well practiced, Dino doesn’t cough, and the two share a piece of eternity together that may calm prodigious misfortunes ahead.
     Kusturíca’s rich, lovely comedy is sufficiently elastic to incorporate life’s tragedies. “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better”: this is the self-hypnotic mantra that Dino ritualistically repeats to counteract life’s bleakness for youth in Sarajevo.
     And then there is Dolly Bell. . . .

68. MAN OF IRON. From a brilliant script by Aleksander Scibor-Rylski, Andrzej Wajda’s sequel to Man of Marble (1977), Czlowiek z zelaza, is about a Polish labor strike and its organizer, Maciek Tomczyk, whom a radio newsman, at the behest of the Communist Party, investigates in order to discredit, only to become an admirer. The strike refers to the actual massive one in the summer of 1980 that gave birth to “Solidarność” (“Solidarity”), a federation of some fifty trade unions whose president, Lech Wałęsa, a Gdańsk Shipyard electrician, was (along with other labor leaders) imprisoned by the government, which had declared martial law. Other events past the film’s time frame: Wałęsa’s winning the presidency in a partially free 1989 election, the collapse of Communism in Poland, the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union. Wajda’s film references as far back as the student protests of 1968 and the brutally repressed strikes of 1970 (Tomczyk’s father, the hero of Man of Marble, was a fictional casualty)—events that appear in interwoven documentary footage—but, in retrospect, also embraces future history. One may say that the film’s aim is the same as that of “Solidarity”: to oppose and undo Poland’s communist incarnation, as well as expose the myth of such a dictatorship’s being a “workers’ paradise.”
     Wałęsa appears in a contemporary documentary insert in a montage accompanying a reading of the 1980 strikers’ (most reasonable) demands. Jerzy Radziwilowicz is magnificent—impassioned, direct, intelligent, complex—as the Tomczyks, son and father, with whose memory the former has quarrels. But the heart of the film may belong to Irina Byrska as an elderly woman, a strike supporter, whom the reporter interviews about the Tomczyks. The woman’s legs prevent her from demonstrating, but she has been reading Polish history. Her conclusion: “[T]here has to be justice.”

1982
69. THE PREFAB PEOPLE. Highlighted by his curve-around narrative form and long takes, but not imbued with his later Euro-lyricism, Béla Tarr’s Hungarian, Cassavetesian Panelkapcsolat essays the disintegration of a marriage. It opens with Róbi packing and leaving as his unnamed wife (Judit Pogány, phenomenal) becomes increasingly hysterical. At the door she begs, “If I get fed up, where can I go?”
     The next scene is a past anniversary; the “flashback” is Tarr’s. A failed feast results when Róbi turns a deaf ear to his wife’s pleas for a chance to work outside the home. (The couple have an infant and a small child.) She kvetches, he forbears; but the force of her protest is something we take in.
     A scene at the hairdresser’s cuts between the woman and a friend, both under dryers, and the loss of the long take underscores how odd such a sociable exchange is for the woman. The club scene that immediately follows explains the hairdo. Another failed feast results as Róbi ignores his wife, not even dancing with her (but dancing with some other woman!), as his wife retreats behind a mask of boredom before, unnoticed, dissolving into tears. In the next scene the couple quarrel. A job opportunity would take him away, alone, for two years. “It looks like we’d have a car inside a year,” he says. She responds, “The point isn’t how soon we’d have a car.”
     An imperfect narrative circle occurs when the earlier scene of stormy abandonment is reached, but begun earlier, reenacted rather than duplicated, and moved beyond. Soliloquizing, the woman says: “The only thing that might bring him back is the children. But it wouldn’t be the same.”
     They are back together, and it isn’t the same. Quarrel-free, they buy a washing machine. No conversation passes between them.

1983
70. THE PIT, THE PENDULUM AND HOPE. Czech stop-motion animator Jan Švankmajer’s Kyvadlo, jáma a nadeje is an eerie, powerful live-action adaptation of Poe’s story “The Pit and the Pendulum.” Sweeping back and forth as it descends to his heart, a sharp blade in the form of a clock’s pendulum measures the mortality of a man who is strapped to a table in a dark dungeon, a victim of the Spanish Inquisition.
     We never see the heretic’s face. The face of a thickly garbed and hooded cleric we do glimpse, in closeup, before he blows out a candle—an indication of the death sentence that has been dealt the heretic. This is followed by the subterranean journey leading to the torture chamber, a place of fear and dreadful execution. The camera shows the bumpy ceiling of the passageway; the heretic may be flat on his back, being carried to his fate. We hear the moans of the tormented in other rooms. A second closeup is of the heretic’s hand chafing against its confinement. The gears of the torture apparatus break the silence; out of the mouth of a painted skeleton the blade starts its descent.
     Another credited source is French symbolist Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, with whose work I am unfamiliar. But the Poe source is completely recognizable, with a few exceptions. For instance, whereas the narrator/protagonist is rescued in the original, here he ingeniously effects his own escape, enlisting the aid of the numerous rats about. Is it a trick of my eye? The animals’ faces, shown in closeup, resemble the face of the hooded monk. The black-and-white camera records the heretic’s flight by showing his scurrying bare feet. Outside, his face covered, a robed figure like that at the outset enfolds the escapee in pitch darkness.
     Is there any hope?

1984; 1992
71. PIEMULE. “Pigs will eat the corn, but we’ll go hungry.”
     Piemule is an ethnographic documentary by Jana Sevciková. It explores a community of rural Romanians, descendants of Czech immigrants in the 1820s. This is what the forefathers found: “Bare hills, sky, impenetrable forests.” “Dreams of a better life,” says the narrator, “ended in grief and despair . . . [and b]itter disillusionment.” In the mid-1980s, a woman unsteadily leading a horse smiles good-naturedly: “This wasteland is where we live. Why did those Czechs land us here?”
     This film shows people at work. Steep, rough hills, along with outdated tools and equipment, make the farm work nearly impossible. Heavy mists cast a veil of irony over scenes of plowing, hoeing, etc., consigning labor to the province of insubstantiality and illusion. Nicolae Ceauşescu, Romania’s Communist leader, at the time exported nearly all agricultural and industrial production in an effort to pay the country’s massive debt. Hunger and poverty gripped Romania. By decade’s end, Ceauşescu was overthrown, tried, executed.
     Sevciková shifts among sepia, color, and black and white, here again suggesting illusion and wobbling the distinction between past and present. Ordinary people’s singing fills the soundtrack; faces, the frames. The camera pans in a church, observing the faces of children as this captive audience is indoctrinated in the dogma of Original Sin. (A parallel scene at school shows children being taught allegiance to the State.) These faces disclose a vast variety of attitudes and personalities in contrast to the stricture of the priest’s instruction. Sevciková is a master ironist.
     The subject of her most heartrending interview is a handsome boy in his twenties who prefers pop music to waltzes and yearns for a less harsh life. He writes to foreign girls but isn’t permitted to leave Romania. He dreams of immigrating to Czechoslovakia.

1985
72. COME AND SEE. Byelosrussia, following the Nazi invasion. Partisans come for a 12-year-old recruit, Florya, in his shack, where his mother, a widow, has pleaded for him to kill her and his siblings if he is going to leave. Can a boy, though, resist the call of the Great Patriotic War? What the partisans want, however, is what Florya is required to bring with him: a gun. Florya is certain to be killed. No matter. He will leave behind the gun he worked so hard to dig up.
     Only, Florya doesn’t get killed. He lives and witnesses the horrors of war. Unsentimental, Elem Klimov’s Idi i smotri is among the most powerful films about war.
     Klimov moves desaturated colors into stunning near black and white; the carcass of a cow, a casualty of war, lies in a vacant field. Separated from his group, a solitary Florya passes the corpse that might have been his. His contorted face has lost its innocence. Its title from the Book of Revelation, Klimov’s masterpiece beckons us to look at what one of the twentieth century’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse has wrought. In stark, hallucinatory images, we along with Florya, his face transfixed in horror, witness the extermination of a mass of people. There are deep trenches in his brow. The village is torched. The air is filled with German cheers, shrieks of the burned-alive and, on the soundtrack, yodeling. German soldiers pose for a photograph, having grabbed Florya and put a gun to his head. On his knees, Florya, alone again, falls upon the ground, recalling the cow.
     A black-and-white storm of reverse motion, highlighted by documentary footage of Adolf Hitler, marks Florya’s slide into the freezing of his humanity.
     The Byelorussian holocaust: 628 villages burned, and all of the people in them.

1988
73. DEKALOG. Written by lawyer Krzysztof Piesiewicz and the director, Krzysztof Kieślowski’s ten-hour Dekalog consists of ten episodes, each of which reflects on one of the Ten Commandments. The action involves residents in a Warsaw apartment complex; another point of unity is a sad, silent observer who, appearing in most episodes, suggests a surrogate for Kieślowski or God, or both. Kieślowski’s moody, somber entries compose a probing portrait of humanity caught in moral dilemmas. The Ten Commandments aren’t always the guide by which human behavior can be morally measured. In the initial episode, a scientist unwittingly sacrifices his son by the faith he places in computers and calculations—a faith, though, that had helped father and son to bond. Often, the commandments seem a codification of moral standards that’s too rigid to provide much guidance through the complex maze of modern realities. Profound mystery permeates most everything we see in the film; but Kieślowski is a secularist, not a religionist, and certainly not a fundamentalist. His Dekalog never degenerates into judgmentalism or pat irony.
      In the second episode, Krystyna Janda brilliantly plays a woman with a lover and a hospitalized sick spouse. She is pregnant, and her husband cannot be the father. Should she have an abortion and choose her husband, or keep the fetus, banking on the fact that her husband will be dead soon, and choose her lover? She defers the impossible choice to her husband’s doctor—a marvelously elusive application of taking the Lord’s name in vain; but the doctor’s “decision” comes out of the complex of his own conflicted life, and the patient’s fate confounds everyone’s “choices” anyhow. All this is typical of the film’s rich procedure.
      Another episode finds the stricture “Thou shalt not kill” falling equally on the killer and the state.

74. DAYS OF ECLIPSE. Aleksandr Sokurov paid tribute to Andrei Tarkovsky with Dni zatmeniya, which is loosely based on Billion Years Before the End of the World by Boris and Arkadi Strugatsky, on whose Roadside Picnic Tarkovsky had based his Stalker (see 1979). Like Tarkovsky’s film, its futuristic vision actually refers to Soviet totalitarianism—or, rather, its emotional legacy.
     A young Russian doctor in a remote Asian outpost, Dmitri Malianov lives disconnected from family, locals, himself. He attends to patients who may be plagued by something from outer space. Piles of papers and photographs infest his flat; unwanted intrusions and visits abound; he keeps losing friends. His off-hours research into juvenile hypertension among believers underscores his own lack of religious faith. When he tries engaging the outside world, it is likely to be with children. He breaks up a street quarrel between two small boys, who turn on him instead, in an hilarious long shot. With another boy, who mysteriously shows up on his doorstep asking to be taken care of, he develops a close, affectionate relationship (actor Aleksei Ananishnov speaks to the child with the same tender cadences he would enlist in Sokurov’s 1997 Mother and Son); but then one day bodiless arms snatch the boy up away into the sky. This glorious hommage to the subjective balloon passage in Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (see 1966) suggests that the child, rather than real, is Dmitri’s child-self. Their separation is the most painful evidence of Dmitri’s alienation.
     Fear is pervasive, with people constantly admitting “I am afraid” or asking, “Are you afraid?” Yet, this masterpiece is nimble, playful, very funny. Formally, the film amazes. To its sepia-like frames and abundance of wide-angle shots Sokurov has applied a slightly stalled, hiccuping motion that distances us as correlative to Dmitri’s distance from a satisfying life.

75. ASHIK KERIB. “In the temple of cinema, there are images, light and reality. Sergei Parajanov was the master of that temple.” — Jean-Luc Godard
     Shortly after Andrei Tarkovsky’s death and shortly before his own, Sergei Parajanov made Ashug-Karibi, dedicating it to Tarkovsky, who died self-exiled from Soviet Russia. It is based on a story by nineteenth-century poet Mikhail Lermontov, from his period of exile in the Caucasus. Lermontov had had problems with his tsar; Parajanov, with the Soviet state. Imprisoned for five years for homosexuality, Parajanov spent fifteen years in exile. Ashug-Karibi is about a poor minstrel who must wander for a thousand days and nights in order to make enough money to marry Magul, a rich merchant’s daughter. Its piercing wail of poignancy derives from its spiritual biography of Lermontov and Tarkovsky and its spiritual autobiography. It is a Byronic romance of exile deepened to the quick by the dream of going home.
     Back home, Ashug-Karibi’s romantic rival offers stolen clothes as proof that Ashug-Karibi river-drowned. Magul weds herself to widow’s black; dressed in her own widow’s garb, Ashug-Karibi’s mother goes blind. (Believing her son dead, the light has gone out of her world.) Eventually, with a saintly sorcerer’s help, Ashug-Karibi travels back from “there” to “here” in one day, accompanied by the purse the sorcerer has given him, his faithful lute, and sufficient magic to restore his mother’s sight—the restoration of his own light and life.
     This richly ornamented film, with its exquisite tableaux, includes Islamic folk art: frescoes, dances, songs, garments, prayers. Parajanov finds the past exiled from the present, and he aims to bring it home. Successive shots home in on the blue bell tower, moving us from architectural form to sculpted detail. Characters speak in Azeri, but the translating voiceover brings the Georgian film home.

1990
76. TWILIGHT. A dynamic remake of the Swiss Es geschah am hellichten Tag (It Happened in Broad Daylight, Ladislao Vajda, 1958), based on Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s novel Das Versprechen, the Hungarian Szürkület opens with a long, continuous shot scaling upwards a dark expanse of the Black Forest until forlorn light is encountered above mountains. A serial killer, on the loose, seduces young girls with chocolates shaped like hedgehogs. Like much else in the film—nearly everything, in fact—the gorgeous opening is ambiguous. Is the light to which the camera comes with agonizing slowness the clarity for which the police investigators strive: the identity of the killer? Or is it a projection of the killer’s own tortured mind, struggling to reach in its isolation a calming quiet? Justifying the ambiguity, both possibilities apply. Throughout, György Fehér’s brilliant, fluid filmmaking identifies each side with the other. Ultimately both cops and killer pose equal danger to a village girl.
     The slow, deliberate camera movements, the deep shadows into which Fehér sets principal faces, the indeterminate content of certain frames, the gradual slippage into point-of-view shots (in an amazing one, we end up seeing through the killer’s eyes), the not-quite-point-of-view shots, where we see (in the same frame) people looking at something and the something they see: these and other elements create a dreadful, elusive vision. Mournful choral music that accompanies repeated shots of soft light above mountains contributes to a lament for the child victims, including the yet living ones whose innocence has been intruded upon.
     A caustic example of mise-en-scène: after a misguided interrogation drives a suspect to leap to his death, the investigators talk over the corpse about what to do next, one stepping over it, the corpse’s twisted, broken hand in the foreground silently commenting on their cold-bloodedness.

77. KORCZAK. “An ancient Jewish myth . . . has it that there must live on earth at one time thirty-six righteous people. Only the existence of these righteous ones justifies humanity’s continuation in the eyes of the Lord . . . [In our own time, one of these, Jewish physician and educator] Dr. Janusz Korczak, [head of the Jewish orphanage in Warsaw,] steadfastly rejected many offers to be saved from extermination in the death camps. He refused to desert in extremis the orphaned children to whose well-being he had devoted his life. As he said to those who beseeched him to save himself . . . ‘One does not leave children in a time like this.’” — Bruno Bettelheim
     Written by Agnieszka Holland and directed by Andrzej Wajda, Korczak is sober, spare and very gray (it is a black-and-white film), and absent the bug-eyed theatrics and sentimentality of self-acknowledged admirer-in-chief Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993). How does one find the courage to perish at Treblinka? One doesn’t “find” it because one isn’t looking for it. One is instead looking at other things—in this case, people: children, for whom the prospect of abandonment could only worsen the dire situation they faced. It isn’t courage that Wajda’s film has us contemplate; rather, it is decency, dedication, the love of children, humanity. How ironic; but for the monstrous historical context, Janusz Korczak might pass for an ordinary man.
     Jewish or non-Jewish, many of us put little store in ancient myths. Yet I do believe that Korczak justified our continuation—in the eyes of God, if one chooses to put it that way. The beauty of Wajda’s fictional film is that it demonstrates this justification. Inseparable from this accomplishment is the towering performance that Wojciech Pszoniak gives as Korczak—this, the same actor who brilliantly, and frighteningly, plays Robbespierre in Wajda’s Danton (1982).

1992
78. WE ARE GOING TO AMERICA. Drawing inspiration from stories by Sholom Aleichem, including “Boy Motl,” and paintings by Marc Chagall, Efim Gribov’s My yedem v Ameriku is a tapestry of present and past, hardship and hope, reality and reverie, humanity and ghosts. An impoverished Jewish family, along with neighbors, commit to a rough odyssey from their nineteenth-century Russian shtetl to America. Along the way they encounter a carnival of folks, trials, adventures. This is not an immigrant saga, focused on the group’s arrival at their destination; it is all about the journey, what moves it ahead and holds it together. There are discussions. Two children address what a pogrom is. Two other characters, before breaking into song and dance, discuss when the Messiah will come. Part of this part of the journey is by train; part of it, by foot. The group is robbed twice. “All Jews are rich!” one of the assailants insists.
     Heading the family is the widow of a cantor, who was killed. However, the film’s protagonist is 11-year-old Motl, her younger son, to whose heightened perception its surrealism and sense of wonder are keyed. This boy, who seems to inhabit both material and spiritual worlds, is associated with equally gentle wild birds. We watch him feed one seeds from his lips; we later watch him let the bird (or another) go. The bird’s upward translates into the boy’s onward, and the moment achieves a poignancy both light and momentous.
     The mostly sepia palette makes the film a continuous animated photograph—a richly populated memory. We bring to the film our own historical memory—of the pogroms, for instance. At the odyssey’s outset, when the family begs its way onto the train, we brave the terrible irony.
     We Are Going to America honors Jewish losses, Jewish survival.

1993
79. D’EST. Included because of its location and subject matter. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #8.

80. WHISPERING PAGES. Tikhiye stranitsy, which is called Whispering Pages in the U.S., translates more accurately as Silent Pages. Anticipating his Russian Ark (2002), Aleksandr Sokurov’s beauteous film journeys into the cavernous Russian soul, this time by way of literature rather than history: primarily, Dostoievski’s Crime and Punishment, scenes from which settle into the context of a peripatetic Raskolnikov (Aleksandr Cherednik, wonderful), weaving in and out of street crowds, boisterous and turbulent humanity, that appear from nowhere, a troubled dreamer slowly making his way at night through an impoverished, dilapidated part of a mid-nineteenth century city situated on lapping water that perpetually suggests the unconscious. The final encounter between him and Sonia, a Bergmanian two-shot in which the boy with fleeting poignancy smiles this one time, pierces.
     With Mother and Son (1997), this may be Sokurov’s most poetic, most humane and moving film. Slow pans and tracking shots create with their aura of deliberateness ironic tension with the boy’s lostness and apparent aimlessness, his suspension in a place both in and out of time. The film flows imperceptibly back and forth between black and white and a trace of color, with at least two stunning bursts of Turneresque lighting—one of the visual methods that the film employs to suggest a hovering spiritual presence poised to redeem the boy if only he will notice it as we do. Sokurov creates such long takes, measured and fluent, here, static, more often in motion, that when a cut arrives the bewitched viewer isn’t certain what has come and gone—whether there even was a cut. Watching this film, we also become a dreamer. Its silent pages whisper to us.
     This is a moody, entrancing, melancholy piece of work attuned to sung bursts of Mahler and Raskolnikov’s endless youth.

1994
81. SÁTÁNTANGÓ. The doctor in Béla Tarr’s 7¼-hour Satan’s Tango, from László Krasznahorkai’s novel, sits and observes the people in his rural Hungarian village, a prisoner of alcoholism, his fat body, the isolated community itself—and, stumbling outdoors in pursuit of another bottle, of the drenching autumn rain that, in conjunction with the mud below, fills his soul and the souls of his likewise impoverished, desperately unhappy neighbors: entrapment from the inside out. A herd of cows has slowly made its way away; but the human characters are stuck. Progress is an illusion: steps forward, steps back—like the steps of a tango.
     In that dance, a performance of which holds the black-and-white film’s imaginative center, the couple’s steps also occur simultaneously and even overlap; similarly, activities in Tarr’s film are parallel and overlapping, like its 12 “chapters.” Another such image is the dance by which spiders weave their entrapping webs. But not all animals have it better than the people here. A young girl, cheated out of money by her older brother and denied consolation from even her mother, a prostitute, murders her cat and, appalled by the loss of this one companion of hers, kills herself with the same poison.
     Expectation, betrayal; canceled trust: such events keep cropping up. The promise of financial riches for the villagers empties. Formally, long, fluid takes are betrayed by an eventual cut, brusquely signaling a new shot. Tarr’s narrative sometimes curves around, showing an event from another perspective—a compounding of subjectivity and complexity, but bereft of advancement: another illusion of progress.
     Communism has yielded to capitalism: six steps forward, six steps back, for the hope proffered has been taken back, and the film ends poised on the verge of a possible commune—a step forward into the past. Gray lives; cosmic betrayal.

82. WOYZECK. Based on Georg Büchner’s great unfinished play, János Szász’s Hungarian film is dark, cold, fastidiously brilliant. Updated not so much to the present as to an abstraction of an industrial time that could be the present in some backward stretch of Eastern Europe, the play exists as a point of reference for the film. Woyzeck is, for instance, no longer in the army, or a barber, yet he shaves his boss and addresses him as “Captain.”
     In the railway yard where Woyzeck now works as low-wage janitor, the tracks do not appear to have anywhere to go. Woyzeck is a dead-end piece, at the end of the world, a film of bleak days and nights suggesting the dark night of Woyzeck’s soul. Society is too apathetic and oblivious even to cast out Woyzeck, who, after all, has his uses. Monitoring his body’s responses during hard-driving push-up sessions and endlessly analyzing samples of his urine, “The Doctor” makes of Woyzeck an encapsulation of dehumanized humanity. “The Captain” also is constantly at Woyzeck, interrupting his quiet work, summoning him for “reports,” and lecturing him about his low morality. (Woyzeck lives with girlfriend Mari and their bastard infant son.) We see Woyzeck seething with resentment—a rare expression of feeling to which Szász applies slow motion, the better to anticipate the Captain’s end many shaves hence. Pushed and pulled and constantly called “stupid,” Woyzeck is a slave perpetually on the edge of revolt.
     Woyzeck sees odd shapes in the billowing smoke from trains that suggests to us, in an overhead shot, the clouding over, the pollution, of Woyzeck’s mind and sensibility—the consumption and extinction of possibility. Constantly reading his bible, Woyzeck talks to God, even hears him. “Go on, go on,” God tells him, urging Woyzeck to kill again and again.

1995
83. UNDERGROUND. Belgrade, 1941. Ivan, the young, simple zookeeper, tends to his animals. Luftwaffe bombs litter the ground with dead and wounded creatures. The animals, along with everyone else, are frantic. Ivan closes the eyes of a ripped-open chimpanzee and rescues Soni, another chimpanzee. (Soni will later blow up a wedding with heavy artillery, frightening himself, causing him to flee, causing Ivan to search for him for fifty years!) It is the German invasion; and, for animal lovers at least, Emir Kusturíca, following Dušan Kovačević’s story, has found a fresh, heartrending way to portray war’s horror.
     Bila jednom jedna zemlja—Serbo-Croatian for Once Upon a Time There Was a Country—covers regional history over more than five decades: Yugoslavia, to which Tito’s iron-handed communism brought stability following the war; the dissolution of that federation, unleashing ethnic and religious conflicts; the Bosnian War.
     In the main, Kusturíca’s sprawling, boisterous, rambunctious, intermittently surreal tragicomedy follows two black marketeers and romantic rivals, who begin by selling the arms they produce to the communists, but whose motive is profit, not politics. One is somewhat more humane than the other; but the participation of many other characters besides, some of them idiots, form a portrait of chaos, tumultuousness, and moral rudderlessness. It’s the insane twentieth century, a world of contentiousness and cinema (there is a film-within-the-film about the two men, and a collision between the films that results in murder), one punctuated by celebratory get-togethers, continuing on into heaven.
     Some note a Serbian bias in Kusturíca’s view of history. He has explained: “My father was an atheist, and he always described himself as a Serb. . . . we were Muslim for 250 years, but we were Orthodox before that, and deep down we were always Serbs. Religion cannot change that. We . . . became Muslims [only] to survive the Turks.”

84. SPIRITUAL VOICES: FROM THE DIARIES OF WAR. Dukhovnyye golosa. Iz dnevnikov voyny. Povestvovanie v pyati chastyakh chronicles a troop of soldiers that Aleksandr Sokurov and his two-person crew accompanied to a frontier post on the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border in 1994. Russia had inherited the Afghanistan conflict from the Soviet Union, whose dissolution has now rendered the conflict meaningless, providing Sokurov with a stunning metaphor for the absurdity of war. Boys and men go through the motions of soldiering in a remote place seemingly out of time, their Taliban enemy mostly lost to the eye amidst a primitive landscape of blowing sand and dust. “War is hideous,” Sokurov tells us in voiceover; “. . . There is nothing but dust, the smell of burning, stones, hot shrapnel, blood, and the hint of fear.”
     This 340-minute film is absorbing for every shot of its length. Its immaculate, haunting first “episode” consists of an angled long shot of frigid terrain in St. Petersburg before Sokurov has embarked on his documentary mission. (Of course, it may actually have been shot afterwards.) As the time-lapsed image very gradually transforms, at times with a burning fire in the distance, Sokurov guides us through an aural tour of classical music, including bits of Mozart and Beethoven, encapsulating the “civilization” Sokurov is about to leave behind for war. The final episode shows him packing for his return to Russia, leaving behind, in their monotonous, dutiful existence, soldiers who cannot return, and who have toasted with champagne, in their commander’s quarters (a cave), the coming of the new year—a point of withering irony. In between the bookending episodes, long takes and slow camera movements à la Andrei Tarkovsky, enjoined by a rocky terrain bleached of color, associate war with a dreamlike No-Man’s-Land. When snipers attack, though, the event is all too real.

85. CONCERTO FOR A RAT. “There was a red-haired man without eyes or ears./ Neither did he have hair, so he was ‘red-haired’ theoretically./ He couldn’t speak, since he didn’t have a mouth./ Neither did he have a nose./ Nor arms nor legs./ He had no stomach, and he had no back, and he had no spine, and he had no innards./ He had nothing at all!/ Thus there’s no knowing whom we are talking about./ It’s better then we say no more about him.”
     Born in 1905, Jewish avant-garde writer Daniil Ivanovich Kharms (Yuvachev) died of starvation in a Stalinist prison in 1942. Oleg Kovelov’s experimental Concert dlia Krisi evokes the radical young short story writer, poet, children’s author, his pressured, paranoid world, and things he wrote about. In black and white, sepia, and blue monochrome, it combines archival material, live-action dramatization, animation, jarring sound effects and bizarre camera angles, including long overhead shots that imply the filmmaker’s playfulness but not God, not even once.
     One shot is of a man washing his car window. The camera appears to be inside the car, or the camera itself may be doubling as the window. The sweep of soapy water seems meant for us. The film aims to cleanse our senses and wash away our inheritance of received notions about what art ought to be. Aerial news footage of World War II bombardments, along with documentary and fictional shots of heavy-handed leaders, reminds of political tyranny.
     Kovelov’s dazzling cinematic set-pieces accumulate irony, suggesting the early death that prevented Kharms from exploring other artistic possibilities. The film shows us who Kharms was and what he wasn’t.
     A caged rat refers to Kovelov, an “archive rat,” and to Kharms, twice imprisoned, always hounded by a state that disparaged artists who departed from socialist realism.

1996
86. BRIGANDS, CHAPTER VII. Otar Iosseliani made his hilarious black comedy Kachagebi, tavi VII in his adopted France but mostly in his homeland of Georgia. Charting a continuity of ordinary human misery, it follows Vano in three different time periods, including the present, which weaves in and out of the medieval period, when King Vano has the Queen’s head chopped off for adultery and his attempted murder, and the 1930s, when Vano was a hooligan who becomes a Stalinist official. Currently Vano is among the dispossessed in an upheaved post-Soviet society. It is possible that the earlier “times” are actually the vagrant’s own dreams. If so, reality and fantasy intersect; at one point, today’s down-and-out Vano confronts his royal image in a painting.
     An especial influence is another French immigrant, Luis Buñuel, whose Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1971), with its gunning down of dinner guests, is paid homage to.
     In one of Iosseliani’s Stalinist passages, a schoolteacher is hanging a picture of a Communist hero on the wall. Oops! The thing drops, glass shatters, and one of the schoolteacher’s heels tears the print. Espying this, a student denounces her, and she and her spouse are carted away by the police: a precise evocation of a terrorist state.
     An elderly woman is literally carried away by the Stalinist police. For a bit her vacant wheelchair follows the truck that is transporting her before veering to the curb and falling over—an echo of the 16th-century Queen’s lopped-off head.
     In a contemporary passage, explosives are attached to an automobile’s rear right tire. The owner gets in and drives out of frame. Explosion; the wheel, on fire, rolls back into the frame.
     Beautifully, fluently edited, the film is also full of heartache for oppressed humanity—for instance, in the singalong among the homeless.

87. PRISONER OF THE MOUNTAINS. This extraordinarily moving tragicomedy updates Tolstoi’s 1822 children’s story “Prisoner of the Caucasus”—the film is identically titled: Kavkazskiy plennik—to the Chechen War. Its protagonists are two Russian soldiers, a young conscript and a seasoned veteran; the only survivors of a massacre, they are chained together at the ankle and held as hostages by Abdul-Murat, a villager who wishes to exchange them for his captured son.
     The film portrays a cultural collision between the Russians, who are played by professional actors, and the Muslim peasants, who are played by Muslim peasants, inhabitants of the remote village where the film was shot, some twenty or so miles from actual fighting. (All the acting is excellent.) Needless to say, the Russians have nearly as much trouble with each other, in a more playful, antic, and also deeper version of The Defiant Ones (Stanley Kramer, 1958). Much of the film is hilarious; its most explosively funny moment involves the unintended, inopportune discharge of a stolen rifle after the Russian prisoners have made their escape.
     Still, director Sergei Bodrov keeps our attention on the surrounding conflict. The Russian boy’s mother journeys to the area, hoping to effect the necessary trade that will free her son. Meeting with Abdul-Murat, she notes that she is a teacher, like his son. His response is precise: “That doesn’t matter now. We are at war.” When his son is shot dead trying to escape, what is there left for Abdul-Murat to do but execute the woman’s son? Ah, but he has now met the woman, and his own 12-year-old daughter also pleads for the boy’s life.
     Bodrov once claimed that President Boris Yeltsin, who had ordered the invasion of Chechnya, withdrew forces after being moved by Bodrov’s film.
     Isn’t it pretty to think so?

1997
88. MOTHER AND SON. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #92.

1998
89. PHOTOGRAPHER. In 1987, in a Viennese antique shop, some four hundred color slides were discovered of activities inside the Lódź Ghetto, where Jewish men, women and children were held and put to work while Nazis determined their fate—if you will, a productive halfway concentration camp. The first voice we hear in Fotoamator (literally, Amateur Photographer), Dariusz Jablonski’s probing documentary, belongs to one of the 877 survivors from the 230,000 Lódź Jews, to which, during the course of the war, 25,000 others were added. This is Dr. Arnold Mostowicz, whom we actually see, who immediately informs us that the photographs do not show the truth. Rather, they compose a documentary record skewed by the outlook of their amateur photographer, the Ghetto’s chief Nazi accountant, Walter Genewein, an Austrian from whose written records an actor reads. Genewein explains that the purpose of the photos is to demonstrate the Nazis’ “achievement” in civilizing subhuman Jews. The camera used? Confiscated from a Jew.
     One principle of the film’s methodology is the discrepancy between the innocuousness of the slides and the horror of the Holocaust. “The Ghetto was not a death camp,” Genewein’s words insist. There, in the courtyard, children with a wheelbarrow! Mostowicz explains their fate: deportation; extermination. Moreover, Mostowicz vividly recalls sounds and odors—things that photographs cannot communicate.
     The role of Chaim Rumkowski, the Jew who orchestrated the Ghetto’s work ethic at the Germans’ behest, is exactingly addressed. Steven Spielberg (Schindler’s List, 1993) whitewashes Oskar Schindler, failing to note Schindler’s selection for extermination of people on his labor “list”; Jablonski gives us Rumkowski’s rationalizations, how the “limb” of Ghetto children had to be “sacrificed” to save the “body.”
     In the process of its investigation Jablonski’s film uncovers different strategies for coping with very different involvements in the enormity of the Holocaust.

90. OUTSKIRTS. An extremely dark, mordant satire of post-Soviet Russia, and of the political ties that bind this present to the Communist past, Pyotr Lutsik’s black-and-white, Dovzhenkonian Okraina is one of the best excoriations of privatization and capitalism I have seen.
     Near the Ural Mountains, the collective farm “Homeland” has been taken away from farmers and is being drilled for oil. Who is behind this? The farmers need their farmland to survive; now, their necessity has been trumped “legally,” at their expense, by pursuit of profit. A group of villagers sets out to discover what’s going on. Their long, difficult odyssey eventually takes them to Moscow, where they execute the callous oligarch behind their misery. Instead of lab jars filled with preserved body parts, this facsimile of Dr. Frankenstein is backed by banks of oil samples: a projection of his soullessness.
     Along the way, the band of comrades tortures (to elicit information) and kills, and sees its own number diminished. Lutsik’s deadpan attitude—even as one of the farmers slowly gnaws at a victim in a deep, dark pit—prompts reflection on the folk feelings that Sovietism channeled and that are now boiling beneath the surface. Okraina has been banned from view in Russia as being “too dangerous,” according to Raissa Fomina, who works for the film’s Russian distributor. “They say it will cause a revolution.” The film leaves Moscow in flames.
     Outskirts ends in a mock-elated mode, with the Homeland back in the care of the tractor-riding farmers smiling cheesily. Lutsik is sarcastically asking: Was Stalinism so good? Isn’t there something better for Russia than what we had then and what we have now?
     Blackness—ironically, the blackness of oil—is the film’s predominant shade, and faces are hard to see in it: the dehumanizing reality of the new Russia.

1996-2000
91. WEEKEND STORIES. An octet of works about individuals facing moral dilemmas, writer-director Krzysztof Zanussi’s Opowiesci weekendowe probes contemporary Polish life and the human condition.
     “Woman’s Business” (“Damski interes,” 1996) claims two protagonists: Zofia, a scientist whose life was ruined when her opposition to Communism led to the revocation of her passport, separating her from her French lover; Lukowska, the Party secretary who ordered the punishment largely out of spite. Since Communism’s fall, Lukowska has become a successful businesswoman; driven by selfishness rather than ideology, she remains as cheerful as Zofia is unhappy. Two of Zofia’s woman friends kidnap Lukowska, forcing her to confront Zofia, her own past, her nature, affording Zofia at last some measure of relief.
     “Little Faith” (“Slaba wiara,” 1996) is about a married couple. Tomasz is an engineer; Olga is devout. When preliminary tests indicate their young boy’s high white blood cell count, Olga, dreading leukemia, imagines that God’s indifference to their son’s fate is meant to punish their indifference to God; meanwhile, she pushes her spouse out of his shy passivity in pursuit of more tests and clearer medical results. We come to see Tomasz’s rationality at loving work as he employs it to enter Olga’s mindset in order to calm her fears. Zanussi, the former physics and philosophy student, creates a gorgeous ode to reason.
     In “Unwritten Law” (“Niepisane prawa,” 1996), a married chauffeur having an affair with his high-powered business boss must decide whether to risk his marriage by exposing his boss’s crooked deal. In “The Soul Sings” (“Dusza spiewa,” 1997), a neighbor begs a music teacher, the night before a public performance that could change his fortunes, to go out in bad weather to take her sick pet to a veterinarian. Should he risk losing his voice to help?
     Great stuff, beautifully acted.

2000
92. WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES. From László Krasznahorkai’s novel The Melancholy of Resistance, Béla Tarr and wife Ágnes Hranitzky’s Werckmeister harmóniák opens in a bar, at closing time, in a forlorn, wintry provincial town. János Valuska leads patrons in a representation-in-motion of a lunar eclipse. Afterwards, when the boy walks home, alone, in streetlamped darkness, his intrusion into space within the frame extends the idea of the disruption of cosmological order. Tarr and Hranitzky have in mind Hungarian communism, but also the absence of God and, the result of both, humanity’s loose-endedness. Evidence of all this: families are disappearing—“not natural,” someone remarks.
     That same night, down the same street that János walked, a huge truck moves, the low churn of its engine an intrusion into the silence. In the foreground, János faces the truck, watching; and, although he is standing still, the truck’s movement—we now see its striated metal siding: an image of imprisonment—makes it appear as though the boy is in motion. The truck brings a circus whose advertised centerpiece is a gigantic stuffed whale, the implication being it is humans who disrupt the natural order; some exploit the captured beast, while others gawk at it. An ominous figure known as The Prince, who prefers to remain hidden, will oversee the show that will attract people from all around. Does the whale hold up a mirror to them?
     János cares for his ailing uncle (Peter Fitz, brilliant), who is obsessed with the unnaturalness of Andreas Werckmeister’s 17th-century theory of tonalities, which he believes has undone humanity by undermining people’s faith. The recluse’s ex-wife (Hanna Schygulla, excellent), meanwhile, involves János in a questionable underground political movement.
     The bleak, languid black-and-white landscape of this poetic film erupts into apocalypse—not the world’s literal end, but a metaphor for upheaved order.

93. THE BIG ANIMAL. From the short story “Wielbłąd” by Kazimierz Orłos, Duże zwierzę was adapted in the 1970s by Krzysztof Kieślowski, who did not film it in Communist Poland presumably for political reasons. Following Kieślowski’s death in 1996, Jerzy Stuhr filmed it (rightly) in black-and-white—Pawel Edelman cinematographed—and cast himself in the lead role of a small-town bank clerk who adopts an orphaned double-humped camel that an itinerant circus has abandoned. Zygmunt and Marysia, childless, grow to love the animal, which endearingly sings along when Zygmunt plays the clarinet. Zygmunt evidences pride when he walks his pet; the animal suggests freedom (albeit on a leash), individualism, a spark of warm poetry amidst a prosaic existence. However, neighbors, consumed by fear, their own unhappiness and petty jealousy, turn on the couple and on their camel. The local bureaucracy officially declares the “culturally foreign” creature “useless and unnecessary,” as though living beauty and elegance, because of the joy these engender, do not constitute a form of utility. “Indignant residents” demand “law and order”; Zygmunt is advised to have the animal institutionalized and “put to work.” He should have been content, he is told, with “normal human animals.” Devastating: the scene where the camel no longer pipes in when Zygmunt plays the clarinet.
     Stupendously funny (reaction shots of the camel, often while munching, figure prominently here), Stuhr’s satirical comedy assumes a darker complexion as the couple are increasingly harassed, are robbed of their pet (which is likely liquidated) and left bereft. A boy’s hidden sculpted camel suggests his secret appetite for the political freedom that is lying in wait. The film ends tremendously, with Zygmunt and Marysia affectionately interacting with three camels.
     Indeed, the entire film, with its brilliant visual humor followed by growing melancholy, is wonderful and sharp.

94. THE STARS’ CARAVAN. Finnish writer-director Arto Halonen made Taivasta vasten for Czech television in Kyrgyzstani and Russian. This documentary is set in the town of Naryn, in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan, which is preparing to celebrate the millennial anniversary of national hero Manas. One of the protagonists is Zarylbek, an itinerant film projectionist since Soviet days; “I am a Communist, but I am a Muslim,” he says, recalling the Soviet inhospitality to religious worship. Myrat, a much younger film enthusiast, has grown up in the post-Soviet era. He loves American rather than Soviet films. Both men’s voiceovers reflect on the old and the new.
     A man out of time on horseback sends his eagle to the skies at the opening of The Stars’ Caravan; at the close, the eagle returns and the two, their backs to the camera, ride off. Or is that precisely what happens? Actually, the film opens with the eagle’s return before the bird is sent back into flight. What we see at the finish: is it a new return, or the very one we witnessed at the outset? What is perhaps most haunting is that the bird returns twice empty clawed. Kyrgyzstan is in the throes of economic trials, and Zarylbek’s mission—“It was an honor to bring culture to the nomads,” he remarks—persists despite the evaporation of funding for the arts, which Halonen relates to the independent nation’s chaotic state.
     In more ways than one. Periodically we hear radio reports about invading Islamic fanatics, setting Kyrgyzstan on the verge of war. How long can Zarylbek continue? Or Kyrgyzstan stand? Periodically we see moments from an epic film about Manas—imagine Alexander Nevsky (see 1938) in beauteous color: the more distant past than Communism that unites Kyrgyzstan’s people. A folk legend; a dream.

2001
95. OLD BELIEVERS. In the seventeenth century a schism occurred in the Russian Orthodox Church as a result of its attempt to reconcile with the Greek Orthodox Church by altering or eliminating certain dogmas and practices. “Old Believers” are descendants of those who left the Church and formed Christian communities adhering to the old ways. Targets of Church and State, they scattered across the Earth.
     From the Czech Republic, Jana Sevciková’s Staroverci documents current Old Believers who live a medieval existence in the Danube Delta region. The gorgeous black-and-white film opens and closes with tracking shots of bare, twisted trees, their branches shooting off in every direction as if to cull every bit of oxygen from the air. By contrast, the Old Believers interviewed stand upright in the cold while a fixed camera records their thoughts and responses. One massive tree, its thick tentacle-like roots exposed, seems to embody their life and faith.
     Older people, especially devout, are nonetheless mentally agile, curious, questioning. One practical young man presages either the community’s continuation or demise. Refusing to grow a beard (as is prescribed for grown males), he will do so when he is old, and will go to church twice as often to repent the sins he is now committing!
     Tracking shots along the river capture gleaming reflections of trees in the water, suggesting the natural basis for belief in the hereafter. Indeed, the primitive landscape and the people each appear to extend the other. But Sevciková undercuts the impression of utter strength and calm in a number of ways. A classroom scene is out of tune. A bellringer exhausts himself pulling cords to ring two bells simultaneously at different paces. At a barbaric baptismal ritual, an infant, screaming and crying, is immersed three times—for the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

2002
96. SUPPLEMENT. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #97.

97. ALEXEI AND THE SPRING. See 100 Greatest Asian Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #87.

2005
98. SOLNTSE. Aleksandr Sokurov’s film about Emperor Hirohito (Issei Ogata, brilliant), Japanese emperor, during the time of his surrender to General MacArthur, is his most exquisite piece of work. The Sun proceeds along two tracks. One is Japanese defeat and humiliation as a result of the outcome of the Second World War. During an automobile ride taking the emperor to a meeting with the Allied commander, a tracking shot records Japan’s devastation; the sound engineer assigned to Hirohito’s announcement of defeat to the Japanese public, we learn, ritually disembowels himself immediately afterwards.
     The other track is ironical. Defeat means freedom for Hirohito. He renounces his status as deity. At the last he and the empress (Kaori Mamoi, superb) are shown running to their children, a couple with family straining to behave normally, but without practice or a road map.
     Working as his own cinematographer, Sokurov leans on grays and browns in his mostly medium long shots. Both the colors and camera distance undercut Hirohito’s exalted public status; rather, they imply his release into earthly humanity. When we finally see the sun, a blur in the sky, it is the abstraction from which Hirohito has been released.
     One of the film’s amazing shots follows Hirohito from his rooms to his office. It is a subterranean trek, with the unkempt passageways resembling a space ship. The imagery here impresses upon us the emperor’s insularity—and more: the unnaturalness of his station and existence.
     There is, actually, a third track: the obscene arrogance of the conquering and occupying Americans. Douglas MacArthur is portrayed as a boor, a monster. At one point he ridicules Hirohito for his alliance with Hitler. Hirohito’s ironic response: “We had only 50 out of 100 chances to win the war, but Germany had 100 out of 100 chances to win.”

99. FATELESS. From Nobel Laureate Imre Kertész’s autobiographical novel, Sorstalanság (literally, Fatelessness) is about a Jewish boy, living with his father and stepmother in Budapest, who, beginning in 1944, is sent to a series of concentration camps. This was routine, but the ultimate destination was usually a death camp; 14-year-old György (“Gyuri”) Köve moves instead from a death camp to one without gas chambers. His ordeal is nonetheless horrific (he nearly loses a leg after it becomes infected), but it appears he isn’t “fated” for extinction like the Six Million.
     However, Gyuri’s fate isn’t entirely out of his hands. At the first stop, Auschwitz, his lie that he is sixteen spares Gyuri immediate extermination. Surrounded by torture and death, the boy embraces this article of understanding: “I could be killed—anywhere, anytime.” This acceptance frees him to live in unliveable circumstances, becoming his mental, spiritual, existential “edge.” In addition, he is lucky; because he is inexplicably alive, he draws the help of others who want to help keep him alive.
     After being liberated and choosing to go home, Gyuri finds “hatred” being aimed at him. Neighbors want him, and the war memories for them that he embodies, to disappear. He misses Buchenwald, the last camp, which, after all, was his home, and was a place of kindness as well as cruelty. His father has died in a camp; but a pair of family friends, hilarious, also introduce an unexpected note—Jewish joy: hatred’s defeat.
     Celebrated cinematographer, first time-director Lajos Koltai mostly confines his palette to white, yellows and browns, but the intense golds of the opening movement turn dull in the camps. Koltai’s impressionistic style—numerous short scenes fading out—suggests mental snapshots of Gyuri’s sharp observation and subsequent memories.
     Fateless is one of the freshest fictional movies about the Holocaust.

2007
ALEKSANDRA. Aleksandra, an elderly Russian woman (Galina Vishnevskaya, magnificent), rarely admits to frailty or weakness. When she is asked if she is tired, right before nodding off she emphatically states, “No.”
     Widowed, estranged from her daughter, who finds her domineering, Aleksandra takes an arduous trip to an army camp in Chechnya, where her grandson, Denis, is an officer. Feeling close to death, she wishes to see the boy again. However young is he, and younger still those who are under his command, Aleksandra may outlive them. Indeed, ethereal lighting and other elements suggest the possibility that we are witnessing either Aleksandra’s or Denis’s dream—and, if the latter, possibly the dream of a dead man.
     Writer-director Aleksandr Sokurov’s brilliant Aleksandra treads a fine line where fiction seems to translate into documentary. Aleksandra keeps losing her way around the camp—a projection of how lost the young draftees feel away from home. (Many seem to have adopted Aleksandra as their grandmother because she represents a bit of home.) She wanders about, in effect interviewing the boys (Aleksandra = Aleksandr?), who share their feelings and reveal raw youth. One shows off by playing with his gun as if it were a toy. He may be wishing it were.
     Aleksandra exits to bring back cigarettes and cookies for the boys. At market, she befriends an elderly Chechen who invites her home for tea. Malika enlists a teenaged neighbor to walk Aleksandra back to camp. The boy, though respectful, asks: “I know it isn’t up to you, but can’t you leave us so we can be free?”
     Tenderly, Denis braids Aleksandra’s hair—and deftly, as though benefiting from prior experience. One is reminded of Sokurov’s Mother and Son (1997). In both films the son or grandson carries the older woman effortlessly.

please consider mailing me a check or money order in U.S. currency—to help pay rent, food, electricity, medicine—at the following address: Dennis Grunes, 5712 N. Interstate Ave., Apt. 3, Portland, OR 97217, USA. (12/21/09: please hurry.) thank you very much

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