Friday, September 23, 2011

The New World - A pure masterpiece

The New World, USA: 2005, Terrence Malick (Berlin Filmfestival 2006, Out of competition)

I am writing on this film which was the most memorable cinema experience of the Berlin Film festival 2006.

The film shows what Northern America once was, an eternal wide nearly pure and eternal beautiful land. The film is going to show how soon it will change when it is discovered and acquired by the strangers, the Englishmen. Wit the first tree that falls and with the first native who are called here "Naturals) who will be killed, the changing begins. The English who come from a landscape which is mostly formed and changed by men do not understand this wild and beautiful landscape and they understand even less its habitants who live in harmony with this land formed by nature.

"Come spirit, help us sing the song of our land", we hear Pocahontas, daughter of an indian king praying on a river landscape at the beginning of the film. This prayer is the initial point of the film. Terrence Malick, an American can´t tell the story of this people and he never pretend in no part of the film to do so. But what he tries is to create himself an access over imagination manifested in this dream of an America in an Era far away back in time with a culture which exists today only marginal.

The Virginia of the 17th Century is reconstructed by Malick with all the cinematic technics available in the 21. Century. On the other hand he relinquished in a lot of technical tools which the contemporary cinema is used today like artificial light or computer-animated visual effects. What is told in this film is the legendary, deficient recorded love story between the Englishman Smith and Pocahontas. The film is partly reconstructed and partly an interpretation.

How men are moving in rooms or in the open landscape in places they know or in places strange to them gives an idea of the richness of this film. When the English step first time on this new discovered country where nature is nearly untouched or how Pocahontas and a member of her tribe discover for the first time the man made landscape of english cities brings this film exactly to the point. English like Natives are confused by places unknown to them and their orientation is irritated. Through a unique sense for space, Malick is able to transport us back into the past. This realized idea is one of so many miracles offered by this film.

The few war scenes between English and Natives are films with handheld camera. They confuse the audiences orientation. We are in the middle of an event but in a scary and disturbing way. Every movement brings insecurity. Fear and the ugly work of killing is all what we see. We are used to appreciate even the worst slaughter in films like LORD OF THE RING or TROY as an spectacle. The short scenes of violence in Malicks film are likely like in Kubricks BARRY LYNDON sudden interventions of terror in a film of a slow and meditative pace. And this scenes of violence are as well a foreseeing of the violence which will dominate in a bigger dimension the whole continent.

As the film begins with a prayer of Pocahontas even the images of landscapes appear to me as visual prayers: Landscapes, water, plants or birds which do not refer to the plot obviously seem to show at the same time nature unmoved by human actions. At the same time it is an evocation o of a paradise -like landscape like in Kurosawas DERSU UZALA. The images of them are upsetting because of our knowledge about their loss.

Where reconstruction through fragmentary historic sources is limited, Malick begins literally to dream in images. He can not know what Pocahontas has thought or felt. He is able to make images of her - or like it seems to me he dreams her out from the depth of time into his images. With the coincidental discovery of Q´Orianka who was hardly 15 years old at the time of the film was shot he got unexpected help from the reality. The unadorned face of the protagonist, which makes visible the inner changes of the protagonist is at least as impressing like the face of Renée Falconetti in Dreyers LA PASSION DE JEANNE D´ARC. The characteristics like intelligence or gentleness, described by the journals of Smith found here their evidentiary embodiment. The way she moves and especially the movement of her glances, her all-seeing eyes seem to be in a strange competition with the impressing handheld camera which finally though their technical perfection appears as a machine which is reproducing something. Pocahontas is not only seen (by the English and the point of view of the camera) but she is reacting immediately and appears from the first second of her appearance as a realized and a realizing person. The image, Malick made from Pocahaontas is impressing because her presence is always more than an image.

The use of the Adagio from Mozart's piano concert No. 23 as the "love-theme" of Pocahontas and Smith seems to be at the first sight an anachronism. This music with an almost singing piano a close relative to Mozart's Da Ponte-operas seems to be made for this film. It is known that Mozart (especially in his operas) was able to transform all possible human emotions into music. And here as well the use of Mozarts music is an interpretation. The strange combination of eloquent lightness and deep melancholy interconnects with Malicks Pocahontas-interpretation. The music is used 4 times, the first and second time in unadulterated moments of happiness and the last time at the last meeting between Pocahontas and Smith where this happiness is only a memory. But even at the first moments of happiness the music is as already an idea of a skepticism. We will remember these moments and Mozart's music when Pocahontas is banished by her tribe, uprooted and when she almost breaks mentally because of this unhappy love to Smith. When she dies at the end of the film as very young woman, we won´t hear the music of Mozart.

There is much more to say about this film. Among others there are the voice overs, monologues of single persons or the mostly very quite, almost whispered spoken dialogues which seem to be spoken in the zone between sleep and Awareness. That is also part of the dreamlike character of the film.

THE NEW WORLD is also an elegy on the american dream, the dream of the first, mostly impoverished settlers from Europe about the new world, the soon beginning nightmare of the genocide against the aborigines - but as well the Conquerors dreams of the expanding most powerful countries and the aggressive exploitation of the newly discovered continent.

In LA VIE SUR TERRE by Mauritanian Abderrahmane Sissako there is a Malick-like voice over-comment which says that not the encounter between Africa and Europe in itself was a tragedy but the time this encounter took place.. This is an attitude which I can imagine as well from THE NEW WORLD:

There are rumors that Malick at least for a DVD edition will release a three hour long version of this film. Until then and if the rumors become true I will be satisfied with the 135 minutes long version.

Rüdiger Tomczak (translation from german in shomingeki No. 18, October 2006)

NOTES on the extended version of Terrence Malicks THE NEW WORLD (translated from shomingeki No. 21, Summer 2009)

In October 2008 the 172 minutes long extended version of THE NEW WORLD, edited by Malick is released on DVD. Unfortunately this extended version of the film which was partly filmed in 65 Millimeter won´t get a theatrical release. I already loves the 135-minutes long version (the film was once edited from its first 150 minutes-version to 135 minutes) and there is nothing  have to regret in my very enthusiastic critic from shomingeki No. 18.The advantages of the long version are evident in fine details. It is less plot-oriented than the shorter version and like expected the voice-over monologues established by Malick since THE THIN RED LINE are more frequented. But more striking is the fact that Pocahontas is more in the center of the film and she is even more clear as the feeling but also reflecting individual. Except the last chapter which takes place in England (where only very few scenes are added)the 40 more minutes are often in small moments divided in the film. It makes not much sense to describe all the single moments of the added scenes. More important is the new impression. The relation between Pocahontas and the use of Mozart's piano concerts seems to be much clearer. Q´orianka Kilchers performance wins in Nuances. How Kilcher (just 14 when the film was made) lets her character Pocahontas maturating and  even aging seems to be almost uncanny and it will remain one of the secrets of this extraordinary rich  film. Even though the advantage of the long version is a matter of nuances - there is a small scene which appears at the first moment understated but at the second view it is probably the heart of the film. It is a dialogue between Pocahontas/Rebecca and her uncle from her former tribe. He is ordered by the native king to join the travel to England for "counting the white man" and for looking for the god "they talked so much about". In an english garden, Pocahontas/Rebecca tells him "that she made a lot of mistakes which brought her into this strange new world". The answer of her uncle is very laconic. He says that "there is nothing to do about because the white are as numerous like the grass.". She says "that she hopes that her people  will forgive her one day."(From the context of the film we learnt that Pocahontas was banished by her tribe and that she purposeless caused the victory of the English against her tribe. "Her heart", she continues "has dies several time with her people". She considers herself still as her fathers daughter. Her uncle leaves without answering her farewell greeting. And suddenly the smile in her face has vanished and replaced by a melancholic expression. This small scene is so unspectacular and subtle like a moment in a film by Yasujiro Ozu but as well as precise. The tragic of the Pocahontas-character comes exactly to the point. Pocahontas/Rebecca dies again one of her "many deaths". This is the most moving moment of the film.

THE NEW WORLD appears to me (at least in this long version) as one of the last miracles in contemporary cinema. The film  once was knocked down by a stupid film public. Among the only 4 films of his filmography (film No. 5 is in the process of post production) THE NEW WORLD is Terrence Malicks most beautiful film.

Rüdiger Tomczak

A text on THE TREE OF LIFE in my blog.

In my texts on Yang Yonghis documentaries, I also mentioned Malicks masterpiece from 1999, The Thin Red Line in the last parts of the chapter on SONA, THE OTHER MYSELF.

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