Tag Archives: Eastern European Cinema

Deep End

Deep End

Format: Cinema

Release date: 6 May 2011

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: BFI

Director: Jerzy Skolimowski

Writers: Jerzy Skolimowski, Jerzy Gruza, Boleslaw Sulik

Cast: Jane Asher, John Moulder-Brown, Diana Dors

West Germany/UK 1970

90 mins

Deep End is a film driven by and dripping with discomfort, an effect that’s heightened by the 40-year interval between its original release and recent revamp by BFI’s Flipside imprint. The story of Mike, a London teenager working his first job as a public bath attendant, and his sexual obsession with his co-worker Susan, it is morally ambiguous in tone, pitched somewhere between psychosexual thriller and a dark coming-of-age comedy. In that sense it’s quite typical of the era in which it was made: particularly where working-class characters are concerned, the sexual liberation promised by the seismic cultural shifts of the 60s often translated in British film into an atmosphere of acute sexual tension, characterised by anxious promiscuity and voyeurism, casual misogyny played for comic value and a kind of nervous laughter that seems to signify fear more than pleasure. (The merriment generated by Rita Tushingham’s use of the word ‘rape!’ in Richard Lester’s 1965 The Knack… and How to Get It springs to mind, as does weirder fare like David Greene’s 1969 thriller I Start Counting, a claustrophobic murder story that doubles up as a slightly creepy study of suburban schoolgirl Jenny Agutter’s developing sexuality.)

But there is something more self-aware about Deep End. The uncomfortable mood is not just the by-product of its time and our latter-day perspective on it, but also, perhaps, of director Jerzy Skolimovski‘s own slightly distanced perspective on his subject. This might seem at first like a British film, but much of it is shot in Munich, and it’s a UK/German production by a Polish director whose previous credits included the script for Polanski’s sophisticated Knife in the Water. So, immediately, the setting doesn’t feel right; something is off-kilter - and I admit I wasted a good few minutes trying to work out ‘where’ in London the bath scenes were filmed, while knowing somehow they weren’t quite English-looking enough. Certain sequences, such as the film’s dénouement involving bin-bags full of snow and a lost diamond, have a touch of avant-garde European theatre about them, and the use of ‘Mother Sky’ by German band Can on the film’s soundtrack adds to the sense of displacement: instead of the lumpy late-60s grooves often flowed over party scenes of the time, we get Jaki Liebezeit’s metronomic drums and Damo Suzuki’s androgynous Japanese-English vocal. In addition, Skolimowski effects some neat shifts in perspective that feel very deliberate, initially inviting us to bond with his young lead (played with disarming fervour by John Moulder-Brown) and enjoy the initial friendship between him and Susan (an impressive, dispassionate Jane Asher) as they deal with the demands of their unappealing elders, in the form of sexually rapacious customers, Mike’s forlorn parents and the repulsive schoolteacher with whom Susan has an on-off affair. As Mike’s desires get more aggressive and delusional, and Susan attempts to move on and away from her mundane life via her proprietorial mod boyfriend, the viewer is left stranded in a quite nightmarish miasma of frustrated wants and needs, and can only dread the outcome.

Where Deep End really excels and discomfits - and this is one good reason to catch the cinema re-release - is when it homes in on the physicality of everyday life, the weirdness of existing in our bodies and environments. The camera pays forensic attention to both Mike and Susan’s bodies with an unusual equality - lingering as much over John Moulder-Brown’s skinny, downy adolescent limbs as Jane Asher’s slender body. Their natural, young beauty is sharply contrasted with the poverty of their surroundings and attitudes. Aside from the clammy coldness of the pool itself with its mouldy changing rooms and slippery sides and walls in need of repainting, Mike and Susan exist in a world of crap British weather, muddy grey snow, uncomfortable clothes, cheap shampoo and health education posters asking ‘What if a man could get pregnant?’ The brief exterior shots of London offer no escape, showing suburbs still ravaged by Second World War bomb damage, stuffy porno cinemas, overpriced clubs offering a sedated kind of fun, and a bland Soho where Mike meets a maternal prostitute with one leg in a plaster cast.

Of course, much of this is only apparent in retrospect - it’s almost half a century later and we are so used to cleaned-up, non-furtive depictions of bodies and sex and exercise, even when they’re supposed to be gritty and ‘real’, that the grubbiness of the 1960s and 70s comes as a shock. But even if something is the contemporary norm, it can still be commented upon, and Skolimowski’s choice of setting suggests that this is so. The pool itself is laden with meaning, even before you get to any Freudian water/sex interpretations. At the time, a public bath was not just a place to keep fit or have fun, as it is now: for poorer people in London, still living in pre-war housing, it was where you went to wash. (It was also one of the few places you’d actually see or be in proximity to other people’s almost-naked bodies.) Wryly bleak, Deep End suggests that not only are we in over our heads, but we will never quite get clean either.

Frances Morgan



Format: DVD

Release date: 11 October 2010

Distributor: Second Run

Screening on: 26 November 2010

Venue: Riverside Studios, London

Part of the 14th Czech Film Festival

Director: Juraj Herz

Writers: Vladimír Bor, Alexander Grin, Juraj Herz

Cast: Iva Janzurová, Josef Abrhám, Nina Divísková, Petr Cepek

Czechoslovakia 1972

99 mins

Juraj Herz, director of the acclaimed and creepy The Cremator, wants us to look upon Morgiana (1972) as a stylistic exercise. And certainly the aspect of the film that first hits is the disturbing, crazy-house visuals, a combination of fisheye lurch and decadent, Klimt-inspired design, with psychedelic colour experiments and shots taken from the point of view of a Siamese cat. Add in the sinister, seductive score and the extreme, silent-movie theatrics of lead actress Iva Janzurová, and the stylistic richness of the film might tend to overwhelm any content.

In fact, that content was surgically removed at the demand of the Czech censors who, in the years following the Prague Spring, were particularly sensitive. The film as it stands documents, or dreams, the melodramatic and murderous battle between two sisters (both played by Janzurová, normally a comedy actress), but Herz’s original plan, derived from the source novel by Alexander Grin, was to reveal halfway through the film that only one sister exists. A case of multiple personality disorder was apparently too disturbing for the state to accept, so the plot twist was deleted before filming was allowed. (MPD has been diagnosed almost exclusively in America, so perhaps the communist state could not accept the implication of it crossing the iron curtain?)

From Herz’s point of view, this undercut the whole point of the film, but he was forced to proceed anyway. He entertained himself by coming up with crazy visual ideas, although with the doubling of the main actress the shoot was already arduous enough. Should I have told you this? Does knowing that its author believes it to be senseless prejudice you against investigating the film’s meaning? I don’t think it should: the film pretty openly declares itself a piece of fin-de-siècle pop-art extravagance from the off. The warring sisters theme often invites comparisons with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), although The Dark Mirror (1946) and A Stolen Life (1946) more directly anticipate the use of one actress in two roles. Whatever the Western influence might be, melodrama is the keynote of Iva Iva Janzurová’s performances, Herz’s approach and the operatic tone set for the whole movie.

If the film’s intended meaning was killed by censorship, so that only the casting hints at Herz’s duality theme, can we divine our own meanings from the kaleidoscopic whirl of images? I think perhaps we can, but they are always going to be provisional and incomplete. Rather than risk encoding any subversive message into this work, the filmmaker has satisfied himself with an echoing void, surrounded by beautiful colours and striking scenes. Whatever we yell into this chasm will echo back to us, distorted and fragmented, and that will have to be our meaning.

Morgiana will be screened at Riverside Studios, London, on 26 November 2010 together with The Cremator in a Juraj Herz double bill as part of the 14th Czech Film Festival.

David Cairns



Format: Cinema + DVD

Screening as part of the František Vláčil season at the BFI Southbank

DVD release date: 23 August 2010

Distributor: Second Run

Director: František Vláčil

Writers: Vladimir Körner and František Vláčil

Cast: Petr &#268epek, Emma &#268erná

Czechoslovakia 1969

98 mins

The end of the 1960s was a time, in several countries, for seeking a corrective to comfortable views about the Second World War. In France, Le Chagrin et la pitié caused outrage with its documentary revelations about attitudes to collaboration in Vichy France. Meanwhile in America Catch-22 was being filmed, and in Italy Luchino Visconti unleashed a frontal assault on memory and taste with The Damned. Britain took a little longer - we were still ‘enjoying’ fare like The Battle of Britain, though this was countered by the Brecht-meets-music-hall satire of Oh! What a Lovely War! (our revisionism had only got as far as the First World War).

It is immediately clear that Adelheid is more subtle and sombre than any of these in its treatment of the war, or rather of its moral and emotional aftermath. (Not that this subtlety helped director František Vláčil win official approval: it was six years before he made another feature film.) The film opens memorably with a view from a train as it follows the curve of birch-wooded hills, accompanied by the transcendent sound of a choral work by Bach. The viewer is jolted out of this Germanic idyll as the train is halted by a group of armed men emerging from the shadows at the mouth of a tunnel: the atmosphere of doubt and unease is established and remains unbroken.

Adelheid has other features distinctive of this time. It shares with contemporary American films like Five Easy Pieces not just a palette of dull earth tones but a slow-moving taciturn realist style and a sense of depressed purposelessness. These are particularly suited to the aims of Vláčil’s film, with its evocation of loss, desolation, and estrangement.

In general, it seems to me that what a work of art is expressing cannot be satisfactorily stated in words. It is diminished as an aesthetic experience if you try to reduce it to a message. But in this case, for once I believe it is possible to be quite explicit about what the film is ‘saying’ without undermining its effect. The male lead Viktor represents the Czech people. He returns from the war sick and troubled, feeling out of place in the new order that has been established. He seeks to recover in a place once beautiful, but which has been taken over, degraded, and seized back: this place now needs to be opened up, restored to light, made to work again. The female lead Adelheid is a representative of the Germans of Czechoslovakia: she has a proprietary relation to this place, where she has always lived, but her right to be there is now no longer recognised. She is connected to those who have committed crimes against the Czech people, though she is not represented as herself implicated in those crimes. She is in Viktor’s power: he finds her presence disturbing but compelling, and he seeks uneasily to establish a relationship with her, though this seems transgressive and improper. They feel their way to some sort of human companionship and mutual trust. But this endeavour is blighted by their situation: for her it leads to despair, for him to emptiness.

Adelheid is a reminder that the moral dimensions of war and what follows are not simple. It was not the case that being on the right side made everything OK again, and it was not appropriate for Czechs to be complacent about their moral standing. But the film doesn’t seem knowingly contentious in the way that the films I mentioned in the first paragraph were. This is partly because the moral challenge of its subject matter was not so simple. And perhaps because a quiet, intimate human drama like Adelheid is a better way to make an audience feel unwelcome emotions without resentment.

Read reviews of other František Vláčil films: Marketa Lazarova and Valley of the Bees, also showing during the BFI Southbank František Vláčil season.

Peter Momtchiloff