THE SHOE (Laila Pakalnina, 1998)

Liepaja, Latvia, the setting of The Shoe, from Latvia, Germany and France, is writer-director Laila Pakalnina’s hometown; the former documentarian’s first feature film, therefore, is personal. Yet it is bookended by extreme long-shots of the Baltic Sea beach that a surveillance vehicle traverses slowly in opposite directions, and a rigorous formalism mostly pervades the mise-en-scène: a show of impersonality. Perhaps the key to resolving this paradox is the time in which the film is set: the late 1950s—before, that is, Pakalnina herself was born. The “distance” that we detect perhaps corresponds to something of a legendary nature to the story which Pakalnina conjured imaginatively, or heard about, rather than saw unfold. It is a familiar story, after all. The discovery of a woman’s shoe has absurdly led to the single paranoid conclusion that the border has been violated. The foot that fits the shoe must be found. Her “Prince Charming” awaits the anonymous Cinderella—in this case, in the likely form of a Soviet gulag.
     Wittily, Pakalnina composes images of violation, intrusion. For instance, the closeup of the back of the thick neck of a police official unexpectedly finds out us when the man turns around and faces the camera menacingly for what seems the longest time. A laterally moving long-shot of the frozen, dreary shoreline landscape lands on an image of official state terrorism: in the foreground, suddenly turning the long-shot into a medium closeup, the German Shepard whose job is to sniff out the woman-in-hiding. Under threat of punishment, three bumbling cops are charged with “bringing in” the “criminal”; but the dog is no laughing matter. The quartet—the police; the dog—are shown as shadows without visible substance attached: the dog now renders the officers terrifying—and funny at the same parodic time. Pakalnina’s exquisite control of tone matches her fine intelligence.
     In their pursuit of the presumed border-crasher, our three guys invade various spaces of normal Latvian life under the Soviet regime: orphanage; slaughterhouse; factory; apartment building. Everywhere, people are hard at work—this includes child labor at the orphanage—as they go about their business, trying to ignore the official intrusion. Again, the whole situation is a laughing matter where the comedy congeals when a lateral camera movement—the film’s signature use of camera—reveals apartment residents behind police-opened doors standing still, as though frozen, tensely expressionless. The cops end up having to push their requisitioned car, having forgotten to gas-up, with their silent canine companion enthroned inside: a remarkable image.
     All the foot-testing with the shoe, here, in the background of the shot, there, in the foreground, sometimes with foot and shoe in closeup, helps convey a dehumanized existence.
     Appropriately, the black-and-white film goes on for an hour and a quarter. It’s long enough.
     In Russian and Latvian.

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