The Witness (A tanú)

Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish poet and Cold War dissident, explored the writer’s dilemma under Stalinism in The Captive Mind.

In the field of literature [socialist realism] forbids what has in every age been the writer’s essential task — to look at the world from his own independent viewpoint, to tell the truth as he sees it, and so to keep watch and ward in the interest of society as a whole.

Telling the truth could land you in jail if you were an Eastern European artist in the 1950s. Many compromised with the regime, betraying their ideals, along with their friends and associates. Worse still, acting the part of a loyal servant of the regime became natural. As Milosz warned, “After long acquaintance with his role, a man grows into it so closely that he can no longer differentiate his true self from the self he simulates, so that even the most intimate of individuals speak to each other in Party slogans.”

Honesty was impossible if you wished to survive. Your vision, the meaning you found in the world, could only be conveyed if it conformed to the party line. But in Péter Bacsó’s brilliant satire, The Witness, released in 1969 but banned in Hungary for ten years, the truth surfaces through black humor.

Kallai Ferenc plays a poor schlemiel, József Pelikán, a dike keeper  who is promoted by the Communist authorities into a series of positions for which he is totally unqualified. 090318-witnessHere he is, being arrested by the standard-issue secret police agents in their leather trench coats following the disastrous opening of his Great Socialist Fun Park.

One disaster leads to the next. The orange grove he oversees produces a single orange, which one of his children eats before it can be presented to the leader. Pelikán hastily substitutes a lemon at the ceremony, daring the assembled dignitaries to show him up in front of the crowd: “The new Hungarian orange. It’s slightly yellower, it’s slightly sharper, but our own.”

After each failure, Pelikán is thrown into prison, but others are persuaded to confess to his mistakes and he is given another chance to mess up. Eventually he learns why the authorities have taken such a kindly interest in his case. He is now complicit with the regime, and must show his gratitude by serving as a witness at the show trial of a former colleague from the Resistance.

The man has been accused of espionage, a charge that Pelikán has difficulty believing. There’s nothing suspicious about him, he protests.

“The suspicious thing about spies is that they are not suspicious,” his handler assures him.

“I’m not suspicious and I’m not a spy,” says Pelikán.

“How do you know?”

The hapless Pelikán stubbornly maintains his friend’s innocence. “Show me one man in this country whom I won’t be able to turn into a guilty person in five minutes,” his handler retorts.

Persuaded at last, Pelikán is given the script of his testimony to critique. Several aspects strike him as implausible, including the part where the so-called traitor jumped into the Danube and started to converse with some enemy frogmen. His objections are overruled, however (the scriptwriter claims artistic license). Pelikán is taken to a drama coach, who trains him to understand his character’s motivations so he can perform with genuine feeling. He is dressed for the part — “I’ve got it! Worker circa 1950,” the costumer exclaims — but cannot go through with it at the actual trial. Even with the judge prompting him, he refuses to stick to the script.

Meanwhile, the entire town is under water because nobody is manning the dike. People are floating by in boats loaded with their household possessions, including livestock. Pelikán and his family are in a tree, surrounded by rising floodwaters, and he is still spouting his testimony, the lies and slogans, oblivious to the reality that he is about to drown.

Kind of amazing, that Bacsó was allowed to make this picture in the first place.

Kind Hearts and Coronets

Gosh, is there any role Alec Guinness couldn’t play? From the highly-principled (but tragically misguided) Colonel Nicholson in “Bridge on the River Kwai” to George Smiley in the 1970s TV serializations of John le Carré’s novels, to his delightful turn as Professor Godbole in “Passage to India,” the man was a cameleon. And that’s without mentioning his memorable performances in “Great Expectations,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” and “Doctor Zhivago.” (He preferred not to be remembered for his recurring role in a certain George Lucas science fiction trilogy, so I will not name it here…)

In “Kind Hearts and Coronets” he plays eight members of the eccentric D’Ascoyne family, most of whom are dispatched by the last in line to the family title, the young Louis Mazzini (played by the superb Dennis Price).  First to go was the snooty playboy, Ascoyne D’Ascoyne, followed by the daft-but-likable Henry D’Ascoyne. Then we meet the tedious Reverend Lord Henry D’Ascoyne — and here is where Guinness really hits his stride.Next we have him as Lady AgathaLadyAgathaGuinness and Admiral Lord Horatio D’Ascoyne, followed by General Lord Rutherford, who is felled by an exploding jar of Beluga caviar. “Used to get a lot of this stuff in the crimea. One thing the Russkies do really well.”

One thing the Brits used to do VERY well was black humor, dry with a twist. Criterion released a remastered version of “Kind Hearts” in 2006, but it’s gone out-of-print. Rent it at your local library or DVD store, and be sure to watch the interview with Sir Alec.

Nights of Cabiria

NightsSometimes a film performance is so perfect that you take the character home and make her part of your life. Giulietta Masina isn’t the kind of person I’d ordinarily invite over for dinner. A low-class prostitute with quite a mouth on her, you wouldn’t guess that she’s a sweetheart underneath.

But look at how much fun she’s having in the posh nightclub, doing the mambo with the self-absorbed actor who picked her up after a snit with his girlfriend. “People want to watch her unrehearsed reaction to the world,” said one commentator on the Criterion DVD. Others have compared her—aptly—to Charlie Chaplin. The closing scene of “Nights of Cabiria” strikes the same chord as the end of “City Lights.”

Masina was a comic genius who moved with grace, but wasn’t too proud to take a pratfall. She could make you laugh one moment, break your heart the next. Her performance opposite Anthony Quinn in “La Strada” was so devastating I haven’t had the courage to watch that film again.

This one I could watch a hundred times.

Le Corbeau

Paris, StraßenszeneAll of France resisted the Nazis, if not actively, at least in their hearts. So argued Jean-Paul Sartre in “The Republic of Silence,” an uplifting little address he published a month after the Liberation. “Because the Nazi venom seeped even into our thoughts, every accurate thought was a conquest,” he wrote. “And here I am not speaking of the elite among us who were real Resistants, but of all Frenchmen who, at every hour of the night and day throughout four years, answered NO.”

Of course, Sartre knew better. In “Paris Under the Occupation,” published a few months later, he presented a different picture of the compromises that daily life under the thumb of the Germans entailed. Here he admitted that his countrymen, for the most part, were too demoralized to resist. And yet he couldn’t quite bring himself to acknowledge how eagerly many complied.

Millions of people denounced their neighbors in anonymous letters to the authorities during the Vichy era. You could say this was something of a patriotic tradition in France. During the ancien régime, secret letters led to the imprisonment of countless “enemies,” who would languish in jail, never knowing what crime they had been accused of, not even knowing the name of their accuser. The practice was stopped during the French Revolution, but the habit persisted. Under Napoleon Bonaparte it was said that half of France was paid to inform on the other half. Informers were also employed during the colonial struggles after the war.

Betrayal was an uncomfortable fact of life under the Occupation, and Henri-Georges Clouzot made it the subject of his 1943 suspense film, “Le Corbeau.” Remarkably, the film was produced by a German-owned company, Continental. More remarkably, early publicity for the picture highlighted the theme:  “Informing, the shame of the century!” Goodness, what were they thinking?Le_corbeau_release_poster

The film was a smash hit. The Catholic Church gave it a “6” on its moral scale—“1” being appropriate for all audiences, even children, and “6” being a film so pernicious that it deserved to be banned—ensuring that it would find an audience for decades to come. In fact, prominent critics on both ends of the political spectrum condemned “Le Corbeau.” Clouzot was accused of treason in the collaborationist newspaper Je Suis Partout; anonymous letters were “necessary” to maintain public order claimed fascist writer Lucien Rebatet. The Left, meanwhile, objected to the complete absence of admirable characters. Nobody comes off well. Not a single soul. Children, nuns, peasants, shopkeepers, teachers, workers: all are corrupted by the poison pen letters circulating in their small town.

“You think that the good are all good and the bad are all bad,” the head of the hospital, Vorzet, tells the film’s protagonist, Germain, in a famous scene. “The good is the light and the bad is the shadow.” (Here Vorzet swings a lightbulb that is dangling from a wire overhead.) Germain is having an affair with a woman in the town. He desires her, but says that he wouldn’t hesitate to turn her in if she were found to be the culprit sending the poison pen letters. “But where is the shadow, where is the light?” Vorget asks. (By now the zones of light and shadow are shifting crazily as the bulb swings back and forth.) “Do you know if you are in the light or in the shadows?”

It’s only natural to seek clarity, particularly during times of upheaval. Simone de Beauvoir argued in favor of the death penalty for war criminals for precisely this reason.  Salutary executions were the only means of restoring the moral certainties that were compromised during the Vichy era, she proclaimed in her essay, “An Eye for an Eye.” And yet both she and Sartre stood up for Clouzot when the postwar French government barred him from making any more films on account of his alleged ties with the Nazis. Sartre even worked with Clouzot on a screenplay during the two-year period before the ban was lifted.

clouzotFor his part, Clouzot seems to have been quite a piece of work. Germain’s intolerance for the hypocrisy of human nature seems to have mirrored the director’s own. He was not an easy man to work with; more than one actress complained of being slapped around on the set. On the other hand, he got fine performances out of his cast and is one of only three directors to have won the top prizes at Cannes, Venice and Berlin (the other two were Michelangelo Antonioni and Robert Altman).

So, where is the shadow and where is the light?

Welcome to Sarajevo

I knew about the siege of Sarajevo. I mean, I watched the news, saw the images of the bombed-out and burning city. I remember hearing on the radio the accounts of civilians who survived the first Markale massacre, when Serbs shelled a crowded open-air market. But the siege lasted for close to four years, and I will confess that the war in Bosnia was not uppermost in my thoughts for all that time.

The film focuses on the journalists who covered the war in the mid-1990s. They’re shocked by the carnage, and frustrated by the indifference of the public back in Britain, who can’t stay focused on the crisis. Not when the Duke and Duchess of York are getting divorced.

So watching “Welcome to Sarajevo” brought more than a pang of guilt. You see people getting shot, randomly, while going about their daily business. You see residents of the city running for their lives through “snipers alley”—risking their lives for water, or food. You see the bloody bodies of kids lying in the street. You see summary executions carried out casually by Serbian soldiers and the emaciated bodies of Bosnian men behind barbed wire in a concentration camp. You don’t see the rapes of Bosnian women, but we knew about those, too.

I found my mind wandering backwards and forward, to other times when the outside world proved indifferent to the suffering of innocent civilians and international bodies seemed powerless to prevent the carnage.

Following the second Markale massacre, the Serbs claimed that the Bosnians were shelling their own people, to build support for a NATO strike, and the Russians supported their claim. It took two years before NATO actually enforced the no-fly zone established to protect the Bosnian people, two months longer before the the United Nations Protection Force fought back against Bosnian-Serb forces. Before that happened, over 10,000 Sarajevo residents had already died and another 56,000 were wounded in the conflict, among them 15,000 children.

The film offers a glimpse of the trauma, but actual photos from the time tell the story much better.

Tess

I first read Tess of the d’Ubervilles during a long and lonely train ride through the French countryside. I was fifteen, returning from a summer language immersion, and Hardy’s tragedy struck a chord.

Maybe it was the feeling that Tess was stuck in a world whose rules were made by others. Honesty, innocence, goodness:  these counted for nothing. Not even love could save her. She was doomed from birth and she knew it. By the time I reached Paris, Hardy had me convinced, too.

Polanski’s film captures the spirit of the novel. The mood struck me as exactly right, and the fact that “Tess” was filmed in the French countryside didn’t hurt, even if the spell is broken whenever Nastassja Kinski opens her mouth.

Fortunately, she doesn’t say much. Watching her face, with its somber beauty, I was reminded of a line from the French Romantic poet, Alphonse de Lamartine:

I plunged myself into the abyss of sadness.  An illness, without a doubt, but an illness whose actual texture is seductive rather than painful, wherein death comes to seem like a voluptuous surrender into infinity.

Hardy himself considered Tess of the d’Ubervilles “an impression, not an argument.” Watch the film with this in mind and you may also find yourself surrendering to the voluptuous melancholy of Polanski’s vision.

 

Sunday Bloody Sunday

The kiss was the killer.  Peter Finch’s character, who shares a much younger (male) lover with Glenda Jackson’s character, kisses said lover (Murray Head) on the mouth.  In close-up.

The kiss is not particularly passionate—none of the sex in the film is passionate.  In fact, this is my complaint about “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”  The kiss shows that the two men are comfortable together as lovers, which was shocking to film audiences in 1971.  But we’re supposed to believe that Finch’s character is mad about the boy, or that Jackson’s character is mad about the boy.

They aren’t.  Finch got mad as hell in “Network.”  Mad enough to win an Oscar.  Here he’s just mildly disgruntled, even when his lover fails to call, or walks out on him during a party, or abandons him to go off to New York.  “People say to me, ‘he never made you happy.’  And I say, ‘but I am happy.  Apart from missing him,” Finch tells us at the end of the picture, in a poignant little monologue.  “We were something,” he concludes.  Well, yes.  But what, exactly?

As for Jackson, she’s nothing like the firebrand she played in “Women in Love.”  Sure, she’s involved in a love triangle, but she’s like a long-suffering wife who puts up with her husband’s philandering for the sake of appearances.  I guess she doesn’t want to appear like the lonely divorcée she is—although the way she drifts into bed with one of her clients, a married man who has come to her agency looking for a job, suggests otherwise.  She’s not particularly interested in sex with this guy, either.

I liked both Finch and Jackson.  I liked the cinéma vérité feel of the picture, which comes across in Penelope Gilliat’s dialogue and John Schlesinger’s direction.  It just says something that, minus the shock effect of that kiss, “Sunday Bloody Sunday” presents a thoroughly domesticated treatment of illicit love.

Death in Venice

You don’t watch this film for the story, you watch it to lose yourself in the sad beauty of decaying Venice, a metaphor for European grandeur just before World War I.  There’s the haute bourgeoisie, elegantly dressed men and women from all over Europe, vacationing with their families by the sea. They don’t seem to do much, other than sit and stare at one another in the hotel dining room or on the beach, making the occasional foray into the city to take in the sights. They seem like ghosts, moving through the scenes at a stately pace, leaving a vague impression of well-bred pleasure.

Into this tableau of hushed opulence arrives a German composer, Gustav von Aschenbach. He seems to be suffering from a case of nerves—a common fin-de-siècle affliction, particularly among artistic sorts—and is inclined to make a fuss about everything. But then he glimpses the beautiful adolescent son of an aristocratic Polish woman and everything changes. Obsessed, he follows the boy and convinces himself that his love is requited. Soon he is trying to reclaim his youth, a pathetic effort. Then he dies of cholera.

As I said, don’t worry about the plot. Visconti’s take on the Thomas Mann novella is a feast for the eyes, and the Mahler soundtrack enhances the lugubrious effect. When Venice has sunk into the Adriatic, we’ll still have this film to remember it by.

The Thirty-Nine Steps

Humor alternating with suspense, Alfred Hitchcock’s trademark, are on display in his 1935 thriller, “The Thirty-Nine Steps.” The opening vaudeville act in the music hall, with Mr. Memory being heckled by the crowd:

Heckler: How old is Mae West?

Mr. Memory: I know, sir, but I never tell a lady’s age.

Man in audience: What causes pip in poultry?

His wife: Don’t make yourself so common.

Man in audience: Our fowls have it, haven’t they?

This delightful anarchy is disrupted by gunshots, and the next thing you know, our Canadian hero, played by the suave Robert Donat, is escorting a lady (Lucie Mannheim) from the theater. A woman of mystery with a foreign accent, this lady turns out to be a spy. She’s the very person who fired the gun, hoping to escape her pursuers by creating a diversion, and Donat’s character will soon discover her with a knife in her back. Serious stuff, but Hitchcock can’t resist playing with us in their first encounter outside the theater.

Mannheim: May I come home with you?

Donat: What’s the idea?

Mannheim: I’d like to.

Donat: It’s your funeral.

We see Donat on the run, evading both the police (who suspect him of Mannheim’s murder) and the true killers, hopping onto the train to Scotland, sharing a compartment with a pair of corset salesmen and a clergyman who can’t resist ogling their wares. Another tense moment as he is spotted in the Edinburgh station, this one ruptured by a stolen kiss as Donat foists himself on the unsuspecting Madeleine Carroll, pretending to be her lover. Carroll promptly turns him in, but we know she’ll end up as his romantic interest, although it takes awhile for the two to get together (handcuffs are involved).

But, hey, what’s the hurry? You wouldn’t want to miss Donat delivering a political address on behalf of some Scottish candidate for M.P., improvising madly to stay on stage because the police and the bad guys are in the wings, ready to nab him. He does such a good job of giving the audience what they want to hear that he gets a standing ovation.

Mixed in with the comedy is a bit of melodrama reminiscent of the silent movie era. Donat takes refuge with a Scottish farmer and his wife (played by the young Dame Peggy Ashcroft). Ashcroft’s character believes his story and helps him to escape, knowing full well that she will incur her jealous husband’s wrath. Donat suspects as much, but allows himself to be persuaded otherwise. It’s a poignant scene that deepens the story and raises the stakes, somehow. A moment of real communication between two fine actors, well worth watching again all on its own.

Far From the Madding Crowd

You’d think that a movie based on one of Thomas Hardy’s cheerier novels, starring Julie Christie and Alan Bates in their prime, with Peter Finch and a surprisingly sexy Terrence Stamp, and directed by John Schlesinger, would be pretty great, but you’d be wrong.

I saw it years ago, and remember being bored, but decided to give it a second chance the other night.  Halfway through the three-hour epic, I found myself nodding off, so it took me two nights to finish the thing.  I’m just glad that it’s been thirty years since I read Far From the Madding Crowd—which I loved—so I don’t feel betrayed on that score.  I’ll probably reread the novel now, to get the film out of my head.

As Roger Ebert said in his review at the time, “The spacious landscape of Dorset is photographed in stunning beauty, and we get panoramas of hillsides with heroic characters running up and down them.”  That’s about it, I’m afraid.  Excellent cinematography by Nicolas Roeg and a nice soundtrack with plenty of English folksongs.

Here’s Stamp’s character, mourning his dead lover: