A unique nightmarish allegorical tale of corruption in Kazakhstan.
There have been a few Kazakhstan breakthrough films: Tulpan, The Gift to Stalin, Mongol, Kelin, Harmony Lessons and Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s downbeat 2014 film The Owners to name a few. The latter director/writer had the international premiere of his new film, The Plague at Karatas Village, at the Rotterdam festival, and in common with The Owners, this film deals – though more obliquely – with his deep disturbance at the lawlessness and corruption at every level of Kazakhstan society.
In this story, a well-intentioned young man with a mission to clean up the village arrives in Karatas to serve as the new mayor. In seeing a number of villagers in a state of illness, he recognises the symptoms as plague-related. The villagers, as well as the authorities, all insist that they have only the flu, and it becomes evident that the money that has been sent from central government to combat the disease has been pocketed by corrupt officials who have allowed the plague to rage unabated. As the new mayor inevitably and violently gets dragged down into this pit of corruption, with its attendant abuses of power and the resultant repression, and soon thereafter madness, he slowly but surely finds himself descending into a living hell.
That is the story, but the plot unfolds as a wildly surreal, weirdly mythological, elliptical aural and visual journey that is presented as a slow-burning fable where bizarre characters break into Saint Vitus-like dancing, fits and shakes, and make utterances and sounds like possessed ones speaking in tongues. The sets are darkly atmospheric with a subdued lighting and colour palette, while the performances range from zombie-like to overly theatrical, which gives the whole cinematic composition its uncanny feel. As it slips into a kind of expressionist horror scenario reflective of, according to its author, the rotten state of present-day Kazakhstan, the viewing of this film leaves one with the mixed sense of implausibility and surreal bewitchment. An opaque parable, and described by the jury who awarded it the Best Asian Film Award thus: ‘A story of corruption, the abuse of power and inertia are given an absurdist, Brechtian treatment. The director creates a totally unique universe, somewhere between Ionesco, Kafka and David Lynch.’
The Plague at Karatas Village is a curious fable that is not always successful at arousing – much less satisfying – the uncanny responses it hopes to stir in its intended audience, but is nonetheless the sort of committed filmmaking that needs making and rewards viewing.
In Mirror there’s always something happening, and it’s usually surprising and strange.
As I’m watching Tarkovsky’s 1975 masterpiece Mirror on the TV in the bedroom, the sounds of Warner Bros cartoons are echoing through from the living room, where my partner Fiona is watching the amorous adventures of animated skunk Pepe le Pew on YouTube. And I hold back a pang of jealousy, because I’ve been taught to associate Tarkovsky with effort and Chuck Jones cartoons with relaxation. But this is wrong: my whole cinematic philosophy is based on an unreasoning insistence that there’s no difference between films in which a black lady cat gets a stripe painted down her back due to an improbable plot contrivance and is mistaken for a skunk, and films in which a series of images form a stream of consciousness/unconsciousness, taking us from an exercise in mesmerism to a rainstorm outside a print works, to a book containing a Leonardo drawing left on a table outside in a wood.
A man who sold movie posters told me at an impressionable age that he gave up seeing Tarkovsky films after Andrei Rublev, because his interest in films was an interest in enjoyment. I also require some form of pleasure in cinema, but in fact I find, as I belatedly get to some kind of tentative grips with Mirror, that Tarkovsky, though not enjoyable in entirely the same way as a skunk who sounds like Charles Boyer, offers rare and interesting pleasures.
First, Mirror isn’t long in the way that Solaris (the first Tarkovsky film I saw, pan-and-scanned on Channel 4 when I was a teenager) undeniably is. At a modest 100 minutes it’s about the length of 15 Pepe le Pew cartoons. And while it’s customary to call Tarkovsky’s films slow, this one isn’t slow in the way that The Sacrifice, my second Tarkovsky viewing experience, is slow. By that time, Tark (I call him Tark) had evolved an approach almost calculated to alienate a sensation-hungry teenage boy, filming dialogue scenes from too far away to see the actors’ faces, with a camera that moved too slowly to really offer a discernible sense of momentum or development. You became aware that the composition had changed in the way that you notice that the minute hand of a clock has moved. My teenage self wasn’t impressed by Tark’s five-minute opening tracking shot, since I calculated that his camera covered less ground in that time than Max Ophüls would get through in a whole reel.
But in Mirror there’s always something happening, and it’s usually surprising and strange. And Margharita Terekhova’s face is paid close attention by the camera, her baleful eyes fixing us and her unconsciously active mouth, chewing her own lips or twitching through smiles and frowns at double-speed, creating an effect just as hypnotic as those slightly slo-mo tracks down corridors in the printing plant.
And I was also noting the weird and possibly destructive influence the film had obviously exerted on other filmmakers. The child, backlit in a doorway by a blaze of orange, must have caught Spielberg’s eye because he used it in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. A shot where Tarkovsky moves from a reflection of the window, opening on what seems to be a dry day, to the window itself, which reveals a rainstorm, as if an amount of time had passed (hours, days, years?) during that single shot, bending time in quite an Ophülsian way, might explain what’s usually thought of as a continuity error in Spielberg’s UFO epic, although if it’s a homage it’s a resolutely inexplicable and pointless one. And the oneiric, almost paranormal rainstorm that breaks out, advancing like an invisible monster across the landscape, reminded me of Lars von Trier’s Tarkovsky dedication on his ill-thought-out film Antichrist, which features, in one scene, an inane walnut downpour. And a palm print slowly fading from a shiny surface, and a child viewed from a window advancing into a rural landscape, made me suspect that Lynn Ramsay had based her entire film Ratcatcher on a series of pilfered moments from Mirror.
What all those filmmakers do succeed at, I suppose, is presenting their swipes with a level of confidence that inspires trust, which Tarkovsky also does with his own, original images. Rather than following the logic of cause-and-effect storytelling, or openly interpretable symbolism, he assembles sequences answerable only to his inner sense of cinematic beauty, whose meaning is irreducible and can only be got at by looking at what’s there, and listening to it. So he’s not a difficult filmmaker, really, but the light bulb will go off probably at the end, or after the end, and not from interrogating the action for meaning but by meditatively subjecting yourself to it.
There is stuff you can figure out. Since Mirror‘s protagonist is essentially an off-screen presence, talking to the actors from behind the camera, it’s a moment of revelation to spot the Andrei Rublev poster in his home and realise he’s Tarkovsky. Knowing that the poetry read on the soundtrack is written and read by Tarkovsky’s father only comes from reading up on the film afterwards, but I did manage to recognise the opening of Dante’s Divine Comedy in there, which helped me see the film as an artist’s journey through the imagery and personalities of their world, inner and outer life interweaving and blurring.
I think my teenage self might have liked Mirror, because he was impressed by technical feats, and the film is full of them. Tarkovsky likes long takes, and he likes the impression of things happening naturally, and the way he creates the latter effect, which might seem to be ruled out by the choreography of a long, complex camera move, is to do things so technically troublesome that the mind simply refuses to accept that they could have been engineered, so they must have just happened. A wind ripples the grass at just the right moment; and an unattended bottle rolls off a table of its own accord, in the middle of a long camera move that will reveal to us a building on fire. Like a magician, Tarkovsky deceives us by taking such an improbable amount of trouble to do something that we are forced to assume it must have been achieved some other way.
And it all follows the logic of sound and image and has a unique rhythm. Through Mirror, I feel like I’m coming to Tarkovsky for the first time, and am intrigued to return to the films that frustrated me when I was too immature to accept them.
This review was first published for the release of Mirror as part of Artificial Eye’s Andrei Tarkovsky Collection box set in June 2011.
Writers: Vladimir Bogomolov, Mihkail Papava, Andrei Konchalovsky, Andrei Tarkovsky
Cast: Nikolai Burlyaev, Valentin Zubkov, Yevgeni Zharikov
Original title:Ivanovo detstvo
Tarkovsky’s first feature-length film established him immediately as a major new talent in Soviet and world cinema.
A boy, a war orphan, dressed in tattered clothing and shivering, is brought before a young officer, who tries to find out who he is. The boy insists that the captain alert his superiors and upbraids the captain for his scepticism, warning him of repercussions. Disconcerted, the captain finally gets through to the right officer and he is told to treat Ivan well, and that someone will pick him up. Ivan, apparently, is an asset and something of a hero. He is also the result of total war. His family has been killed in the conflict and his only function now is to help facilitate the military operations of the Soviet army. With his blond hair and ferocious and obstinate zeal he could just as easily be a poster boy for the Hitler youth, except that youth is a superficial accident with Ivan. In fact, the childhood of the title is problematic, a part of his life that seems as distant and unapproachable to Ivan as it is to any of the war-weary adults with whom he fits in. And yet he is still a child, who has dreams and on occasions nightmares, and who greets his officers, his handlers, with a hitherto unsuspected emotional warmth, leaping into Captain Kohlin’s arms when he arrives at the dugout.
It is the adults who define childhood for Ivan. It is the young captain who alone in the film (and then only at the beginning) treats Ivan like a child, doubting and scolding him and finally carrying the exhausted boy to his bunk. Ivan’s superiors are obviously emotionally invested in him, desperate that he be removed from the front to a military academy in the rear, a plan Ivan predictably has no time for. Ivan had joined a band of partisans earlier in the war, has witnessed a death camp and has run a number of missions across the river: what could a military academy possibly teach him about war? Ivan runs away when they appear intent on this plan. In a startling vignette, he meets an old man standing in the ruins of his house, looking for a nail with which to hang a picture. The futility of attempting to maintain ordinary life seems confirmed, and once Ivan is found, it is agreed he will be sent on another mission.
Ivan’s pre-war childhood is given to us in a series of dreams: a beautiful opening sequence of Ivan taking flight, his mother at a well, on an apple cart with a girl in ridiculously torrential rain, horses on the beach eating apples. Each sequence has an understandable oddness - the too heavy rain, his mother’s poetic story about the star in the deep well, ‘it’s day for us but night for the star’ - and the summery quality of the brightly lit imagery contrasts with the darkness and wintery grey of war. And yet, the uncanny nature of dream seeps into the portrayal of war, not least in Ivan’s own status as a hardened war veteran who the adults ultimately defer to. The dugout is a rag-and-bone shop of the soul, a place where men wait to go and die, bored, tinkering with gramophones and listening for the bombs. Outside, trucks lurch about in the mud, and flares are sent up and drift one after the other with numbing regularity. The quick stab at a romance seems half-hearted and desperate at the same time. Masha is in charge of the hospital, ineffectively in charge, according to the young captain who is obviously in love with her and looking for any excuse to send her away from the fighting. Captain Kohlin also makes a pass at her, kissing her as he holds her over a trench, her feet dangling. The wish for love is as forlorn as the wish for a normal childhood for Ivan or the old man’s search for a nail.
The culmination comes with the final crossing of the river, a sequence that takes on a mythological resonance. It is after all an actual Styx, with two dead Russian soldiers hung at the bank with a placard proclaiming ‘welcome’ in German. To this is added the mist, the flares that land ever closer, the relentless panning shot that accompanies the soldiers and Ivan in the boat, and Tarkovsky’s masterful use of sound. Throughout the film, sound has played a role; the dripping of rain water or the cracking of logs in a stove evoke not only place, but the heightened perceptions of men who are living every day as if it were their last.
Tarkovsky’s first feature-length film, Ivan’s Childhood established him immediately as a major new talent in Soviet and world cinema. It won prizes at several festivals as well as taking the top prize, the Golden Lion, at the Venice Film Festival where it premiered in 1962. Tarkovsky benefited from circumstance; a thawing of the political situation allowed for the film’s more critical depiction of the war, and an earlier version of the story had been abandoned, leaving the door open for him. In a way it was a false dawn for Tarkovsky, whose relationship with the Soviet authorities would become increasingly problematic, leading him to make his last film, The Sacrifice, in Sweden. Ivan’s Childhood remains a stunning debut, a moving and immersive film that both denounces war and evokes its dreamlike beauty.
This review was first published for the release of Ivan’s Childhood as part of Artificial Eye’s Andrei Tarkovsky Collection box set in June 2011.
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