La Antena

Format: Cinema

Sci-Fi London preview: 1 May 2008, Apollo West End (London)

Release date: 16 May 2008

Venues: ICA and key cities8

Distributor: Dogwoof Pictures

Director: Esteban Sapir

Writer: Esteban Sapir

Cast: Alejandro Urdapilleta, Valeria Bertuccelli

Argentina 2007

90 mins

The best film I’ve seen so far this year just happens to be one that pretends the last 80 years haven’t happened. I’m a big fan of silent movies, particularly ones which exemplify the avant-garde and the nebulous crossover between fine art and film – Buí±uel and Dulac, Wiene and Lang, Eisenstein and Vertov. With the birth of sound, few filmmakers whose work had links with fine art continued to let their films show this influence. There are exceptions to this rule – Jean Cocteau for one and more recently Peter Greenaway and Derek Jarman in this country – but generally ‘art’ films became relegated to the niche genre of ‘experimental’ cinema.

Perhaps film art needs to be silent or at least have a less distracting soundtrack than the multi-layered cacophony that increasingly dominates modern cinema. A soundtrack negates the need for words on screen beyond the brand names of objects and signposts; however, the absorption of words through the eye rather than the ear has perhaps a greater effect on the subconscious, as the viewer has to rely solely on visual interpretation rather than cadence for the meaning of language. In the modern world where arguments are generated by the lack of a smile or a raised eyebrow in an e-mail or text message, this is something that deserves greater attention. Many sound films lose something in translation due to either the schizophrenic need for the viewer to read text at the bottom of the screen while the action progresses, or dubbing, which loses the flavour of the original intent.

There has been the occasional silent movie in recent years – the terrific slapstick comedy I Woke Up Early the Day I Died, which never got a proper release due to problems with the distribution company, and an acclaimed episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (‘Hush’); there have been sound movies that used text on screen – Stille dage i Clichy (Quiet days in Clichy, 1970) and Batman (1966); but La Antena is possibly the most successful combination of visuals and text I’ve seen outside of a comic book. Ironically, since comics have recently become such a major source of inspiration for movies, it’s surprising that no one has used the text(ual) aspects of comics on screen, outside of the odd panel intro in Ang Lee’s confused Hulk adaptation.

In La Antena, even though we are dealing with a film that is self-consciously avant-garde and is bound to end up with a cult / niche following, the presence of text on screen and lack of spoken word is explained by a plot device rather than simply being part of the structure of the film. Perhaps the filmmakers were mindful of the career of Canadian director Guy Maddin, one of the few other modern proponents of silent movies, who even goes so far as using hand-cranked cameras for authenticity, and has been unable to attract an audience beyond his cult following. The world of the film is one that combines Tales of Hoffman and 1984, where a totalitarian regime has literally removed the voice of the people. When characters in this world speak, letters appear in the air in front of their faces and all the contrivances of speech are given a visual alternative – for example if one character wants to obscure the speech of another he’ll put his hand in front of the text in the air so another can’t read it. On top of this conceit, other surrealist touches are added – telephones have video screens that show the speaker’s lips in close-up (so presumably the person holding the phone can lip-read), as do loud hailers and face masks (which resemble oversized televisions). Elsewhere, the landscape itself is given a Borgesian / Gilliam-esque aspect with the topography literally made out of the pages from a book.

Visually, the film is stunning, but unlike many of the silent movies that influenced the film, the actors have the benefit of modern training and don’t have to resort to theatrical exaggeration the way their forebears might have. That said, the film isn’t perfect and some visual effects resort too heavily to artifice – the snow covering a sinister car looks a little too much like soap foam and the solid glycerine tears that form on some of the characters’ cheeks are too close to a pop video gag or an Andy Kaufman sketch. While a visual reference to Metropolis is just about reasonable in terms of historical reference, the uses of a Swastika and Star of David to represent good and evil is absurdly heavy-handed and pulls the viewer out of the meticulously formed fantasy world of the film.

These qualms aside, this is one of the bravest and most innovative films in years, one that combines the tools of the past and the latest technology to create a beguiling, timeless film.

Alex Fitch

Terror’s Advocate

Terror's Advocate

Format: Cinema

Release date: 16 May 2008

Venues: Curzon Soho, Renoir (London) and key cities

Distributor: Artificial Eye

Director: Barbet Schroeder

Original title L’Avocat de la terreur

Cast: Jacques Vergès, Abderrahmane Benhamida, Hans-Joachim Klein, Magdalena Kopp

France 2007

135 minutes

Terror’s Advocate is a chilling study of one man’s role in the entangled web of twentieth-century terrorism. Told with the dramatic pacing of a political thriller, Barbet Schroeder’s intense and compelling documentary features an astonishing cast of characters, from resistance fighters to terrorists to war criminals, who have been witnesses and participants in decades of political upheaval, all linked by the same lawyer – Jacques Vergès. An undeniably charismatic and passionate advocate for anti-colonialist struggle and the right to a fair trial, he is a hero to some and a villain to others. This film truly exemplifies the cliché that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, a moral ambiguity that resonates throughout the documentary.

Vergès was born in Thailand in 1925 to a French diplomat from Réunion and a Vietnamese mother, and was educated in Paris, where he first met Pol Pot (indeed, the film opens with a disturbing scene of the eloquent, far-left lawyer blaming Cambodia’s genocide on virtually everything but the Khmer Rouge). Vergès began practising law in Algeria in the 1950s, at that time the forefront for nationalist struggles against the ‘imperialist oppressor’. Young and already remarkably egotistic, he took on as his first high-profile client Djamila Bouhired, a member of the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), who would go on to become a role model for nationalists and Islamists worldwide – and Vergès’s future wife. Bouhired planted the bomb at the fashionable Milk Bar in 1956, which killed eleven people and wounded five others, an incident famously immortalised in Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 film The Battle of Algiers.

The film goes on to spin out a complex web of connections and intrigue that ties together Algerian nationalists, German anarchists and pro-Palestinian, pro-Iranian terrorists. Vergès became the lawyer for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) after their attacks on the El Al aircraft in the 1960s; the PFLP would go on to form remarkable links with the infamous Carlos the Jackal (something of a terrorist for hire), as well as members of Germany’s Red Army Faction, creating a notorious terror network across Europe and the Middle East, much of whose activities were aided and financed by the notorious anti-Semite and Nazi sympathizer François Genoud, one of the more repellent figures to feature in the film.

As his career progresses, Vergès’s principles become corrupted: his clients become more controversial, his connections with terrorists more appalling. He seems more concerned with self-aggrandizement, fame and money than principle. Vergès is perhaps best known in Europe for defending Klaus Barbie, the Nazi SS officer famously known as ‘The Butcher of Lyon’, whose trial was also funded by Genoud. In the interviews with Vergès, mostly filmed in a plush study while he smokes a no doubt expensive cigar, he describes the trial with relish. Exhilarated at the opportunity to take on the establishment in such a high-profile case, he deflected the charges against Barbie by dramatically accusing the French government of carrying out war crimes in Algeria in the 1950s. He lost, and Barbie was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1987.

Though Schroeder is somewhat guilty of glamorizing terrorism (he treats the women active in the FLN, as well as Magdalena Kopp, who was once married to Carlos the Jackal, and was arrested in Paris in a car full of explosives in 1982, with kid gloves) there seems little doubt of his feelings for Vergès as the film builds towards its finale. Any kind of empathy with the lawyer and his clients is replaced by a sickening feeling that only intensifies in the final minutes of the film, as the credits roll over photographs of serial killers, Holocaust-deniers, African dictators and war criminals – all clients. Vergès remains a disturbing enigma to the very end in this riveting, must-see history lesson on terror.

Sarah Cronin

Watch the trailer:


Heartbeat Detector

Format: Cinema

Release date: 16 May 2008

Distributor: Trinity Filmed Entertainment

Director: Nicolas Klotz

Writers: Elisabeth Perceval, Franí§ois Emmanuel

Original title: La question humaine

Cast: Mathieu Amalric, Michael Lonsdale, Jean-Pierre Kalfon, Lou Castel

France 2007

135 mins

Playing the villain in a James Bond film can have calamitous consequences for an actor’s career. With that in mind and Quantum of Solace looming on the horizon, UK cinema-goers should treat Heartbeat Detector as a chance to see the great Mathieu Amalric in a good film while they still can.

Amalric plays Simon Kessler, an in-house recruiter and psychologist at the Paris subsidiary of a German chemical company who is tasked with assessing the mental health of his CEO, Mathias Jí¼st (Michael Lonsdale). However, Jí¼st’s response to Simon’s enquiries is that his disturbing behaviour is a result of something he knows about the executive who gave Simon his assignment, Karl Rose (Jean-Pierre Kalfon). Namely, that Rose was one of the orphans brought up in the Lebensborn camps built by Heinrich Himmler’s SS. To further complicate matters, in the course of his investigation Simon finds some anonymous letters which suggest that it is in fact Jí¼st, not Rose, who may have ties to the Holocaust.

Lonsdale is one of the few exceptions to the Bond baddie rule mentioned above; in Moonraker, he played a billionaire industrial who tried to wipe out humanity using chemical weapons in order to repopulate the Earth with his own master race and director Nicolas Klotz makes full use of the associations he brings to the role of Jí¼st. However, while this is ostensibly a corporate thriller, Klotz is not saying that corporations commit genocide or that Nazis responsible for atrocities during the Second World War went into big business immediately afterwards. Instead, the film works on a more philosophical level. Thinking and even hallucinating about the Holocaust causes Simon to see the parallels between the dehumanising, dead language used by technicians at the Chelmno concentration camp – where the technique of feeding exhaust fumes back into vans to exterminate Jews was first used – and the language of corporate capitalism. Employees are not humans, they’re ‘units’. They’re not fired, the company is ‘downsized’. Klotz’s concern is that this suppressed humanity will find dark outlets, for example through mental illness and violence. Amalric is the perfect choice to play the product of this system as he has the same unpredictable, dangerous quality as other great actors such as Jack Nicholson.

Throughout the film Klotz offers several other possible languages, culminating in the final scene where Simon reads a list of the victims at Chelmno over a black screen, each name pregnant with meaning. The director also uses music to powerful effect with a soundtrack that includes Schubert and New Order as well as a great original score by the French musician Syd Matters. At 135 minutes the film is a bit too long, but this is cinema at its most thought-provoking.

Alexander Pashby



Format: Cinema

Release date: 8 May 2008

Distributor: Momentum Pictures

Director: Fumihiko Sori

Writers: Haruka Handa, Fumihiko Sori

Japan 2007

109 mins

Coming across as a greatest hits package of both recent animé and science fiction movies in general from the last 25 years, Vexille combines the clichés of Japanese manga and cartoons – soldiers in mecha suits, androids who debate the nature of humanity, evil conspiracies demonising the Japanese nation – with over-familiar imagery such as giant sand worms that eat everything in their path (Dune, Tremors, Beetlejuice etc.). You could over-intellectualise this conceptual thievery – most technological advancements are based on retrofitting previous knowledge or machinery – but just because the self-consciously hip soundtrack (Paul Oakenfold, Basement Jaxx, DJ Shadow et al.) is from a genre that uses samples and repetition to create something new, it doesn’t mean the plot should follow the same principle.

The story is set in 2077. Japan has been incommunicado from the rest of the world for a decade after refusing to comply with a world ban on android technology – it’s OK for us to use machines to better ourselves, but not for them to start looking like us – and no one has been able to penetrate the electronic shield raised around the country to see what they’ve been up to. After ten years have passed, a representative from the most powerful corporation in Japan arranges a meeting on American soil with leaders of the UN and it’s not long before Japanese android terrorists are fighting it out with SWORD, the UN’s special-ops division. Yet again, the self-destructive nature of Japanese culture during WWII casts a long shadow on that country’s speculative fiction. It seems almost perverse for a Japanese movie to cast Americans as the heroes and themselves as the villains – perhaps this is a comment on the loss of national identity in the face of soulless corporations, but the script isn’t subtle or incisive enough to make that idea apparent.

In the film’s defence, the action sequences are terrifically exciting, which is the very least you might expect from the director of the live action manga adaptation Ping Pong, a movie that presented a table top sport competition like a scene cut from The Matrix. The choice of Fumihiko Sori as director clearly indicates that Vexille is a project aiming to compete with live action blockbusters, and at times the film just about holds its own against the likes of last year’s Die Hard and Transformers updates. However, for a CGI film to be as successful as live action, (particularly as Robert Zemeckis’ motion-capture films are blurring the distinction between the two) everyone involved has to be at the top of their game, and too many scenes of this film are indistinguishable from generic inter-level sequences in computer games. Aesthetically, the high-contrast shading of the animation gives the CGI a distinctive look that is more pleasing to the eye than computer graphics that strive for perfect realism (pace Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within) but this look could have been pushed further, perhaps along the lines of the under-rated Renaissance.

Since the writer, producer and composer all collaborated on the recent remake of Appleseed, it’s difficult to understand why they didn’t pick a dated animé or an as-yet unfilmed manga for a CGI update instead of lavishing their efforts on such a derivative ‘new’ story. Central to the problem is the eponymous lead character: just like her Hollywood sisters Lara Croft and Catwoman, female agent Vexille is not much more than a fighting doll. Aside from a few exceptions – The Long Kiss Goodnight and Nikita come to mind – Hollywood doesn’t seem to realise that strong female characters need to be defined by more than pert breasts and a catsuit. Unfortunately, the makers of Vexille are so keen to emulate American blockbusters that they simply reproduce their most glaring failings.

For thirteen-year-old boys who’ve never seen a CGI or animé film aimed at them, this is passable entertainment. However, the choice of director and composer for this project suggests that the filmmakers wanted this movie to exceed the limitations of the medium, apparently unaware that they needed more than regurgitated clichés to achieve the sublime mastery of a Hayao Miyazaki or Mamoru Oshii. Sadly, Vexille will only confirm animé critics’ worst fears and stereotypes.

Alex Fitch


Shotgun Stories

Format: Cinema

Release date: 23 May 2008

Venues: London and key cities

Distributor: Vertigo Films

Director: Jeff Nichols

Writer: Jeff Nichols

Cast: Michael Shannon, Douglas Ligon, Barlow Jacobs

USA 2007

92 mins

The concept of revenge permeates popular fiction, often resulting in some form of self-redemption that eases one’s bottled rage and hostility. Throughout the history of cinema, audiences have typically travelled on this journey alongside the enraged protagonist, awaiting their moment of triumph with excited anticipation. Taking note of this narrative trend, first-time writer-director Jeff Nichols presents a film in which two distinctly related groups desire revenge on each other.

Set against the backdrop of rural Arkansas, Shotgun Stories follows an escalating feud between two sets of half-brothers who differ in every way save for one side of their parental heritage. We are first introduced to Son, Boy and Kid Hayes, born to a drunk father who didn’t have the dignity to give his offspring names and rejected by a mother who was too bitter to care for them. The father, who left the family home only to clean up, find God and start a new life, fathered four more sons who were given real names and the upbringing they deserved. When both sets of brothers hear of their father’s death and are brought together at the funeral, their previously harboured hostilities are revealed and escalate as each side makes their next move.

Taking what is an interesting premise, Nichols crafts a story that unfortunately lacks compelling characterisation. While his aim is clearly to demonstrate how revenge ultimately has no victors, each set of brothers are given few qualities that distinguish them from one another, to the extent where you don’t really care who receives the next inevitable strike. While the poorer, unkempt brothers are given more screen time, the film focusing on their bid to divulge the dark secrets of their father’s previous life, they are equally as unlikable as their more affluent siblings, who are dead set on upholding his clean image.

The film does have redeeming qualities, particularly in the way Nichols characterises the landscape through the narrative, creating a sense of the vast and ghostly nature of Southern Arkansas. However, next to this year’s giants No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, which also deal with masculine themes within a dusty, rural America, Shotgun Stories pales in comparison.

James Merchant


Spider Lilies

Format: Cinema

Screened as part of the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival

Director: Zero Chou

Writer: Singing Chen

Original title: Ci qing

Cast: Rainie Yang, Isabella Leong, John Shen, Jay Shih

Taiwan 2007

94 mins

A soft and tender tale of queer love and loneliness in modern Taiwan, Zero Chou’s second feature Spider Lilies was screened as part of this year’s London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, only a few weeks after her latest and strongest film to date, Drifting Flowers, premiered at the Berlinale. Though beautifully shot and acted, both films are far from being perfect. But nor would one, perhaps, want them to be. Their weaknesses and flaws indicate a thoughtful and promising filmmaker who gradually improves with every new production and consistently displays a marvellous sensitivity towards her characters.

Fuelled by metaphors and layered symbolism, Spider Lilies is essentially a film about desire in all its twisted complexity and the fleeting line between reality and imagination that goes with it. Jade (Rainie Yang) is a sweet and cheerful 18-year-old who lives with her senile grandmother. At the centre of her life is a webcam, which she operates out of her bedroom to make money in a soft-core chatroom, but which also allows her to escape from the drab monotony of real life into a brightly coloured fantasy world.

The film’s opening sequences detail Jade’s utter isolation. Using her webcam to create some sort of interactive diary, she carries on conversations with the dolls in her room or her internet clients, jumping in and out of the frame according to her fancy. Each time she moves out of sight though, one gets a glimpse of the grey loneliness that is looming at the boundaries of her faked, fluffy wonderland. When she meets tattoo artist Takeko (Isabella Leong), Jade recalls the crush she had on her as a child, and helplessly falls for her again.

Takeko is just as lonely as Jade, but while Jade’s loneliness merely seems to be a temporary stage she is eager to break out of, Takeko’s is an existential condition. The most notable evidence is her spider lily tattoo – copied from her father’s, who died in an earthquake. An important link between father and daughter, the image also becomes vital to Jade, who wants it tattooed on her own body as a mark of her undying love for Takeko.

Although it is explicitly about the tentative romance between two young women, Spider Lilies touches upon the polarities that underlie all human relationships: honesty and dishonesty, trust and distrust, concession and repression. But Chou explores these issues through a tangled storyline, and with no qualms about using somewhat tired clichés – a sensitive undercover police agent starts sympathising with Jade instead of tracking her down; Takeko has a cute younger brother traumatized by their father’s death. Although it offers a fantastic ride through the lush imagination and emotionally loaded memories of the protagonists, the problematic script eventually undermines the film’s potential impact.

Nevertheless, the film has a dreamlike quality that makes it an original, strangely fascinating and self-assured work. Some viewers might be put off by Jade’s excessively girlish attitude or Takeko’s meditative character and taciturn caginess, but for those willing to enter Jade’s candy-coloured webcam universe, Spider Lilies is nothing short of mesmerising.

Pamela Jahn

The Cremator

The Cremator
The Cremator

Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 11 December 2017

Distributor: Second Run

Director: Juraj Herz

Writer: Juraj Herz, Ladislav Fuks

Based on the novel by: Ladislav Fuks

Cast: Rudolf Hrušínský, Vlasta Chramostová, Ilja Prachar

Original title: Spalovač mrtvol

Czechoslovakia 1968

95 mins

A brand of Mitteleuropa murkiness and dark, jarring surrealism pervades what remains Juraj Herz’s most acclaimed work.

A family at the zoo. Close-ups of the parents’ eyes and mouths intercut with leopard fur, snake skin, crocodile hide, predators’ teeth. The two kids monkeying around in a cage. As they leave, it’s the occasion for a warped family portrait in a fisheye mirror above the gate. Then the animated credits. Faces split into four and dismembered body parts pile up around the names on the screen. From the start, The Cremator is about the inhuman, contaminating the human shape through parallels with the animal realm, or hacking it up into its meaningless, soulless constituents.

Director Juraj Herz had studied puppetry and theatre before coming to filmmaking and was a friend and collaborator of Jan Ŝvankmajer. Not surprising then that a similar brand of Mitteleuropa murkiness and dark, jarring surrealism pervades what remains Herz’s most acclaimed work. The interest in puppetry shows up in the film in the form of a waxwork dummies show that Karl Kopfrkingl, the cremator of the title, and his family, visit during an outing at a fair. The twist here is that the dummies are played by heavily made-up live actors mimicking the jerky, mechanical movements of automata. Again, here, the worlds of the animate and the inanimate are disturbingly blurred.

There is indeed something unwholesomely waxy in the texture of Kopfrkingl’s skin, something unnaturally neat in his greasy comb-over, something excessively glassy in his bulbous eyes. With unctuous, sinister bonhomie, Kopfrkingl guides us through his work at the crematorium – ‘The Temple of Death’ – all the while imparting his Buddhist-inspired belief that cremation is the sign of a humane society, as it helps ‘liberate’ the souls of the dead faster; his voice provides an oppressive near-constant explanation for everything we see, leaving little room for other characters to speak.

The only other voice that prevails is that of engineer Reinke, who urges Kopfrkingl to listen to his German blood and join the ‘Party’. This is 1939, the Nazis are gaining ground, and as Reinke insists, promising social promotion and the advantages of a private members’ club, Kopfrkingl soon comes to twist his earlier spiritual beliefs into the notion that Jews are poor souls that need to be liberated sooner rather than later through efficient mechanised cremation. Soon, he is visited by mystical apparitions and his exalted fanaticism threatens the safety of those around him.

Filmed in 1968, the film’s probing of the past found a chilling echo in current events. In August of that year, the shooting was interrupted by the Russian invasion. But although it was caught between the two ugly faces of twentieth-century European totalitarianism, The Cremator is about far more than its explicit historical reference and it cannot be reduced to a denunciation of the genocidal impulses of Nazi Germany specifically, or of totalitarian regimes in general. Neither can it simply be seen as a portrayal of a man’s increasingly deranged mental state. Much more disturbingly, Herz brings to the surface what lies under both the personal and historical madness, the predatory beastliness, the grotesque abomination, the pustulous corruption of human life, of which Kopfrkingl’s diseased mind and Nazi Germany or Communist Russia are simply the most visible manifestations.

In spite of such subject matter, The Cremator is no morbid downer and in addition to the astonishing visual inventiveness there is also a ferocious sense of humour in the details – Kopfrkingl and his children eagerly listening behind the bathroom door for the sound of their Christmas carp being killed with a mallet or the cat playing with the undone ribbon on his hanged mistress’s shoe. Disorientating, disquieting and darkly humorous, The Cremator remains one of the most richly resonant celluloid nightmares.

Virginie Sélavy

This review was first published in 2008 for Second Run’s original DVD release of the film.

The Party and the Guests

The Party and the Guests
The Party and the Guests

Screening in London on 11 November 2017 at Regent Street Cinema as part of the 21st Made in Prague Film Festival

Format: DVD

Part of The Czechoslovak New Wave Collection Vollume II DVD box-set

Release date: 7 December 2015

Distributor: Second Run

Director: Jan Němec

Writers: Ester Krumbachová, Jan Němec

Original title: O slavnosti a hostech

Cast: Ivan Vyskocil, Jan Klusák, Pavel Bosek, Karel Mares, Jana Pracharová

Czechoslovakia 1966

71 minutes

Jan Němec’s film is an engaging yarn about a small group of bourgeois people who set off for a picnic and soon find themselves in rather sadistic and perplexing company.

The Party and the Guests is an engaging yarn about a small group of bourgeois people or, perhaps, nomenklatura, who set off for a picnic and soon find themselves in rather sadistic and perplexing company; their party subsumed by an even larger and decidedly less sedate party. It was written by Ester Krumbachová and Jan Němec and directed by Jan Němec in 1966. Mr Němec was soon to fall foul of the Czechoslovakian Communist party, who promptly banned the film, and Němec’s life is entwined in a rather bittersweet history of art and censorship.

Visually, what it most resembles is a cinematic documentation of an al fresco theatrical event. There are essentially only three scenes and the mise en scène is pretty much constant forest. In terms of the camera choreography, The Party and the Guests is full of stillness; this, according to the short but thorough accompanying DVD booklet, is in contrast to Němec’s earlier films, which are renowned for their handheld, cinéma vérité jitteriness. This stillness is offset and reinforced by a subtle audio track that is spare but utterly seductive.

Silence and ‘natural’ sound are dominant. Throughout the first 30-plus minutes the most discernible sound other than speech and extra-vocal noises is the delicious friction of shoes against gravel as the guests tramp along country pathways. I imagine this is nothing other than a concrete by-product of shooting in country lanes strewn with shale but one is tempted to read it symbolically as a gnawing prelude to a grim and baffling denouement. As the movie continues it becomes apparent that the sound of rural Czechoslovakia – if indeed, it is Czechoslovakia – is obviously controlled. For instance, in one key scene the chief of what is implied to be the secret police sits at a desk in a clearing and interrogates the guests, guests who are in a state of Kafka-esque befuddlement as to what it is they are guilty of – trespassing? During his interrogation of the ‘guests’, the chief talks of nature and birds and their apparent freedom, and as he does so bird song and natural sounds are heard or rather conjured. As if the countryside is an illusion subject to the whims of a nebulous autocracy. It’s at that point that I realised that for me it is Němec’s graceful, restrained and symbolic use of sound and his subtle deployment of music that make this film so captivating. Without intending any disrespect to the camera operators or the cinematographer, I think this film would make a sparkling and captivating radio play or Hörspiel, albeit a very indirect one. It is dialogue-heavy, yet the dialogue is often inconsistent or fragmented. The soundtrack is layered with non sequiturs and inconsequential banter from which occasionally arise significant monologues and exchanges.

The Party and the Guests is usually interpreted in the West as an allegorical statement about the peculiarities of state dictatorships; the social orthodoxies imposed upon the mass and the implied threats that exist should one fail to conform. This complements quite nicely Western capitalist myths about post-Stalin Eastern bloc dictatorships. Yet when one thinks about it, it isn’t too long (say 30 seconds) before one recalls McCarthyism or thinks about extraordinary rendition and water boarding. Irrespective, I think a maverick figure like Jan Němec was probably railing against the conventions of cinema just as much as he was satirising the machinations of Antonín Novotný’s Czechoslovakia.

This review refers to the original DVD release of the film by Second Run in 2007. The special features on the new box-set edition include a filmed appreciation by Peter Hames. For a full list of extra contents, visit the Second Run website.

Philip Winter


Marketa Lazarova

Format: DVD

Release date: 3 December 2007

Distributor: Second Run

Director: Frantisek Vlí¡cil

Director: Frantisek Pavlicek, Frantisek Vlí¡cil

Based on: the novel by Vladislav Vancura

Cast: Magda Ví¡sí¡ryoví¡, Frantisek Veleckí­Â½, Josef Kemr, Michal Kozuch

Czechoslovakia 1967
159 mins

I had to sneak into work after hours to watch this one on a big screen. Distributors like Second Run are doing wonders in the way of DVD release of films you might otherwise never have had the chance to see. But some films make you more aware of the limitations of your laptop than others. Marketa Lazaroví¡ is on the grand scale from the opening frames. The camera dwells on a blinding snowscape fusing into a cold sky for a minute before some black specks become discernible; only when these have become wolves does it lurch into motion, tracking the sinuous loping forms across the unending white. In the laptop version, the screen is merely white, and the wolves remain specks. This does make a difference, as the sense of a vast and indifferent natural world is the cinematic keynote of the film. Throughout, human groups batter each other to smithereens, leaving isolated figures wandering, floundering in swamps, or crawling on all fours in the undergrowth of some of cinema’s most unnerving forestry. You need that feeling of everything just going on and on in every direction, on every side of the frame.

The story concerns the squabbles of neighbouring clans in a time before Christianity has successfully turned warlords into estate managers. The Kozlí­Â­k clan are hunters, of rich travellers as much as of game. Lazar, on the other hand, is a hypocritical yeoman, happy to scavenge after the Kozlí­Â­k boys have done their worst, but wheedlingly pious when he is caught at it. Think of my Marketa, he pleads, effectively pimping his daughter’s innocence to top Kozlí­Â­k son Mikolí¡s. A sudden radiance illuminates the doting father’s face as we share a vision of Marketa following a peloton of dove-toting nuns up a wind-blown hill to chapel. Even the grimly determined Mikolí¡s has to look uncertainly over his shoulder in an effort to locate the mysterious light source. Whether or not he sees, as we do, Marketa extricating a dove, and an inadvertent nipple, from her bodice, remains doubtful. Back in reality, a horse, inspired in a quite different way, licks the supplicant Lazar’s bouffant headgear.

All in a day’s work for the Kozlí­Â­k boys then, in a world they master as far as they can see. Unfortunately, however, this time they have gone too far: by raiding the caravan of a German Bishop, and abducting his son, they bring upon themselves the unwelcome attention of the King’s regional representatives. As fat old Hetman Pivo (Captain Beer) pursues the Kozlí­Â­ks, Lazar naturally does nothing to stand in his way. Kozlí­Â­k revenge costs him dear, however, as Mikolí¡s seizes his most treasured possession, Marketa. Guerilla warfare, and mutual annihilation, with some brutal, doomed romance along the way, ensue; pretty much the way of things for the hell-bent, werewolf-descended Kozlí­Â­k’s, but something of a journey for intending nun Marketa; from lamb of god to Czech art-house Sarah Connor.

Rhyming with the nomadic fury of the participants, the narrative method is nomadic and furious. A simple tale in its broadest strokes is skewed by narrative loops and interleaving; memories and moments of clairvoyance come out of nowhere in vertiginous dislocations of point of view. Holding it all together is exceptionally strong and coherent art direction on all fronts. Costume, in particular headwear, is the index of beast fable in this beastly world. Kozlí­Â­k’s lupine descent seems to be spreading over him like a fungal infection: starting from his claws, the fur has gained as far as the elbows, and his wolf-eared hood is surely only the first step towards prognathous developments. Conversely, as she gazes out from the back of the sled on her way home from the convent, Marketa’s face is framed by the heart-shaped opening of a woolly white snood. She has just been offered to Christ and somehow you already know this is a world in which lambkins get roasted. The range of lighting throughout is fantastic, much of it pointed at Marketa’s receptive face. Zdení„›k LiÅ¡ka’s soundtrack is curious and intense, ranging from the expected medieval plainchant to wild, incongruous outbursts of marimba. Sound in general is one of the film’s most distinctive features: every word, every movement whips back at you in a dry, staccato echo. Like bullets off armour plating, every act rebounds on you, every prayer is rebuffed. From the clattering courtyard of the Kozlí­Â­k homestead to the depths of the immemorial forest, the landscape is not listening, and it doesn’t care.

Stephen Thomson


Romeo, Juliet and Darkness

Format: DVD

Release date: 19 February 2007

Distributor: Second Run

Director: Jií…(TM)í­Â­ Weiss

Screenplay: Jí¡n Otcení¡sek, Jií…(TM)í­Â­ Weiss

Original title: Romeo, Julia a tma

Cast: Ivan Mistrí­Â­k, Daniela Smutní¡, Jirina Sejbaloví¡

Czechoslovakia 1960

92 minutes

Czechoslovakia, 1942, during the Nazi Occupation. Hanka, a Jewish girl, escapes the transports to Theresienstadt by hiding in the attic of a large apartment block. Hanka is helped by Pavel, an 18-year-old boy who uses his mother’s attic storeroom as a darkroom. Pavel brings her food, drink and books and his daily visits become her only contact with the outside world. Predictably, the two teenagers fall in love until Hanka is discovered by the mistress of a Nazi officer living in the house. While echoes of Anne Frank are present within the story, Romeo, Juliet and Darkness is not a wartime thriller but a love story set in the midst of the fear and violence of occupation.

Film director Jií…(TM)í­Â­ Weiss knew his topic intimately; as a Jewish refugee Weiss spent the war years in London and later fled Prague for the US after having established himself as an award-winning filmmaker. There are echoes of the nouvelle vague and Italian neo-realism in his style, and as in MiloÅ¡ Forman and Roman Polanski’s early work, there is a strong nod in the direction of a more politicised and yet consistently lyrical use of melodrama. The use of the house as a realist location is cunningly devised with much of the action taking place on the windy stairs, which separate as well as bring together, in both ethnic and social terms, the various occupants of the house. Even more impressive is the sparse use of sound effects that help to temper as well as accentuate what is naturally an overtly melodramatic story line. Throughout the plot, the melodic and at times piercing song of a caged canary evokes the situation that Hanka finds herself in; caged and kept by Pavel whom we first meet as he is about to recuperate an abandoned hamster in a flat previously occupied by a Jewish family.

Weiss was quoted as saying that he was attracted to the subject matter firstly as a love story, and only secondly because of its social and political implications. In reality, Weiss could just as well have said that he was motivated by cinema’s ability to affectionately portray the minutiae of human circumstance rather than the sturm und drang of forbidden and tragic love. Because of this, the love element in the film is almost downplayed and the two youngsters spend most of the time gazing at the stars from the attic window rather than engage in corporal pleasures. Miles apart from, for example, Bergman’s portrayal of young love in Summer with Monika, Romeo, Juliet and Darkness displays no fresh eroticism or vigour, and Weiss’s lovers are instead shy embodiments of dreams hindered by circumstance. As in that infinitely more extravagant version of Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story, the lovers here are caught in ethical and moral dilemmas that have more to do with larger affiliations than with intimacy. Even faced with his wholesome blonde girlfriend in a swimsuit at the local pool Pavel cannot forget that his fellow countrymen are simultaneously being executed by the Nazi occupiers.

Herein lies the film’s curious strength as well as its outdated-ness, perhaps, for more modern viewers. What seems to matter is not so much the relationship between these two young people as how a young boy is forced to make extraordinary decisions in the face of imminent danger. The camera lingers over actress Dana Smutní¡’s classically beautiful features as if to remind us that the character of Hanka is indeed the vessel for Pavel’s romantic yearnings but with little information to flesh her out as a person, she remains just that. Consequently, Ivan Mistrí­Â­k as Pavel is more effective in the scenes at home or at school, where he has to externalize his internal torment, than when he is looking at Hanka.

To a large extent, the story is told through the little details such as the balance wheel that Pavel’s watchmaker grandfather spends all day working on, or the incessant yapping of the Nazi mistress’s dog who nearly discloses Hanka’s whereabouts. The viewer is well aware that time is running out for Hanka, and in Shakespearean terms, it provides the lovers with no other opportunity than to turn night into day, when Pavel can visit Hanka unseen. Likewise, it is no coincidence that Pavel dreams of being an astronomer: the lovers are genuinely ‘star-crossed’, their fate determined by forces much larger and insurmountable than mere mortal love.

Despite such little nods in the direction of Shakespeare, the film, it seems, chooses to downplay whatever complex literary references one might expect in favour of a more guileless visual and spoken language. If it works, it is because the actual horrors of the Holocaust are left unspoken. Ultimately, the first image of the film is perhaps its most poignant as Pavel helplessly watches a Jewish family dragging their few possessions through the empty streets of Prague. Romeo and Juliet may have been the instigating factor for Weiss’s melancholy film but it is the darkness of the impending genocide that we are fittingly left with.