Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Notes on A Hidden Life by Terrence Malick, Germany/USA: 2019

For my Indian friends

I am convinced that it is still best that I speak the truth, even if it costs me my life. For you will not find it written in any of the commandments of God or of the Church that a man is obliged under pain of sin to take an oath committing him to obey whatever might be commanded of him by his secular ruler.”
(Franz Jägerstätter,Berlin, 1943)

This is Terrence Malick´s first film based on reliable historic sources which are not yet blurred by myth or insufficient past on written records. The is almost entirely made in English language. The film is about the tragedy of the Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter who refuses to join Hitler´s army and who is imprisoned for that and executed in 1943.
There was a lot of talk about the role of the English language inn a film mostly cast with German speaking actors. Strangely the use of English in a film which was supposed to be entirely in German language did not irritate me as much as I expected. It even worked very well in the voice overs but one has to get a bit used to the dialogs. Only some background phrases are audible in German. But as soon as we get acquainted with this weird fact, we are open to the wonders the film will offer like they appear in each of his films from the last decade.

The often mentioned “beauty” of a film by Terrence Malick is often a painful reminder of the fleetingness of it. In this case, the beauty of the mountain landscape of an Austrian village with its seemingly intact social life collides already at the beginning with hints and images of terror and destruction.

The film begins with a memory of the couple Jägerstätter´s first encounter, the young love an excursion on the bike through a landscape of breathtaking beauty. To love and to be in the world in all its glory, these euphoric moments of happiness, only Malick can transform in unforgettable visual moments. Suddenly the flowing movement of the camera stops and the beauty of a beginning love is suspended by an excerpt of a propaganda film by Leni Riefenstahl. Centered in the middle of this mighty cinema scope format and transparent as a quotation between the film´s narration, Malick does not use it without a comment or better without an “attitude” ( a quite unsatisfying English pendant of the German words “Einstellung” or “Haltung” about something.)The sound design of Malick´s film like the cinema scope-format over proportional to the academy aspect ratio of Riefenstahl´s film let literally Hitler´s hate speech drown. The fatal hate speech appears as a miserable hardly understandable croak. This moment alone is Malick´s formal very sophisticated pendant to Chaplin´s mocking of Hitler in his The Great Dictator. But it is also an example of Malick´s aesthetic system which works like sometimes an organic immune system.

That stands also for an aspect in Malick´s work which is often denied or ignored and it stands for the fact that it is pure nonsense to label Malicks films as “esoteric”. Malick´s view on human civilizations deals always with the contrast between the beauty that mankind is able to create but as well its ability for cruelty and destruction. That brings A Hidden Life close to The Thin Red Line where the cruelty and destructive power of war is confronted with an island of breathtaking beauty. It is like the beauty of the light in his most underrated masterpiece To The Wonder contrasts with images of desperate poverty and decay of America with the country´s beautiful landscapes. Malick presents the world in an extremely bright scale between happiness and deepest despair. Malick´s christianity (often mocked in much spiteful reviews) and whenever it appears is the most non dogmatic religious point of view one can imagine. And even more his religious aspect is in now way in conflict with this often overlooked realistic aspect of all his films. Sometimes, Malick´s images can be disturbing the audience like they probably disturbed himself too but this specific moments of beauty are not understandable for people who believe in nothing.

It is true with A Hidden Life, Malick leaves for now the terrain of his most personal and often playfully autobiographical inspired films from up to The Tree of Life. But it nevertheless correspondents with all his previous films. Valerie Pachners “Fani” Franziska adds another unforgettable female character to his work. As she reminds in all of his female characters from Sissy Spacec, Linda Manz, Q´Orianka Kilcher, Jessica Chastain or Olga Kurylenko, she is also the closest Malick character to René Falconetti in Dreyers La Passion de Jeanne d´Arc. That reminds us that A Hidden Life is not only “The passion of Franz Jägerstätter” but the “Passion of the couple Jägerstätter”. At all one could collect shots of human faces from all Malick´films and one had a variety of human faces as landscapes like in the films by Dreyer but as well like the heartbreaking vulnerability in the human faces in the films by Ritwik Ghatak.

The rollicking of the lovers or playing with their little daughters on the porch at the beginning are revealed with a freely moving camera almost freed of the law of gravitation. The closer the fatal signs of history are coming the more the camera seems to turn into a prisoner itself. The moment, Jägerstätter is imprisoned, the view of the camera is leaning towards a miserably trace of light from the window like a desperate captured child or a captured animal. Even Fani lives from now on like a prisoner in her own village . Outlawed by most of the villagers who call her husband a traitor the mundane walks through the village become a running the gauntlet.
Hitler´s fascism did invade and conquer other countries but also poisoned his own country from inside. Seemingly casually, A Hidden Life is full of very wise observations about fascism and its impact on every day life.

There is one pan shot through a cathedral, a breathtaking movement which captures centuries of art and architecture. These cinematic admiration is again a contrast of news reel excerpts of the invaded and bombed cities the Nazis just conquered. As Jägerstätter looks for consultation from authorities of the church and when he tells them that he can´t support Hitler because he is evil, a bishop tells him “one has a duty to the own country because the church told you so.” (Very late, in 2007,Franz Jägerstätter got his beatification, more than 60 years after his execution).
Here also Malick distinguishes religious faith and it´s distortion, in this case of the institution church (which gave in the enormous pressure the Nazi-Regime put on the church) He did it also in The New World when British conquerors occupied the new world “in the name of God”. And he also distinguished between the two man made concepts of God in The Tree of Life, the angry god of the old testament who is to be feared and the other concept of God as eternal love and forgiveness in the characters of Mr. and Mrs. O` Brian.

The scenes when Jägerstätter is imprisoned and Fani outlawed by the villagers belong to the darkest moments in Malick´s work.
Even though there is no excessive display of violence, the moments when Jägerstätter is tortured and mocked by the prison guards are often hard to bear. They remind him cynically that his faith , his decision does not cause any effect at all. Separated from his family, his martyrdom is a very lonely one. Even if we already know that Jägerstätter´s death is a historic fact like we know already about Pocahontas in The New World or about the death of the younger brother in The Tree of Life, the emotional intensity of this scene is almost to big for my little soul.
The camera movements, especially this rollicking in landscapes without borders is suspended in Jägerstätter´s small prison cell and reduced on small pan shots and this point of view seems to me like the one of awed and captured children.
We see a man who is going to die literally what Jean Cocteau means with “watching the work of the death”. But the closer the film moves to Jägerstätter´s execution the more the narration splits in these claustrophobic prison scenes and fragmented flashbacks of lost times of happiness. They try to resist against the inevitable death.
Since Malick´s comeback 1998, his aesthetic system and all the moods and emotion it evokes appear as organic - despite or probably because his use of the most recent film technology. Since his collaboration with Mexican cinematographer Emanuel Lubezki, Malick cultivated a kind of cinematic dances between camera and acteurs, a very specific element of his recent films – and which is completely and congenial continued by Jörg Widmer, Malick´s new director of photography. It is evident in this rare and strange accordance between the image making technology and the performance of actors. Usually there is a lot of space and freedom for actors and camera. It is very striking that the suspended freedom of moving actors and camera in the prison scenes gives A Hidden Life for moments a nightmarish atmosphere. The camera, the protagonists and our own view is captured in it´s rollicking around suspended.

When Fani is allowed to visit Franz the first and last time, they sit on a table face to face. Touches and hugs are not allowed. When they try to hug each other for a last time, they are violently separated. Touches, physical signs of affection, essential in a film by Malick whose god is pure love, is suppressed. The last hour of the film is literally a tour de force between heaven and hell, a fight between hope and desperation.
As the film is by its subject more bound to linearity than other filmy by the director there is a special dynamic between more grounded elements and a camera which tries always free itself. Malick uses a lot of original letters between Fani and Franz Jägerstätter, mostly spoken in voice overs by August Diehl and Valerie Pachner. That creates this dynamic between a historical drama and a poem about an almost forgotten martyr.

After 3 hours the end credits begin with a quotation by George Eliot: The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
So ends the film, for my side one of the most emotionally exhausting cinematic requiem since The Tree of Life. But it is as well the end Malick´s most important decade of film making, the last film of a breathtaking series of 6 masterpieces in only 8 years. It is not only another example of his exquisite meditations about faith and religion, but it is as well one of the wisest meditations about fascism and its fatal impact on ordinary lives. Terrence Malick´s A Hidden Life is in good company with another masterpiece from 2019, Aparna Sen´s Tagore adaptation Ghawre Bairey Aaj (The Home and the World today) which is like Malick´s film a very rare symbiosis of a political comment and formal cinematic excellence.

Rüdiger Tomczak

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Notes on Aami ashbo Phirey (Coming back), by Anjan Dutt, India: 2018

Sometimes we know, sometimes we don't

Sometimes we give, sometimes we won't

Sometimes we're strong, sometimes we're wrong

Sometimes we cry.

(Sometimes we cry by Van Morrison)

The three film directors whose films occupied my mind most in this decade are Terrence Malick, Aparna Sen and Anjan Dutt. The films by Anjan Dutt or Aparna Sen are not available in my country, not to mention on the big screen and since some years even difficult or impossible to find even as an Indian DVD-release.
Aami ashbo Phirey, one of the most recent films by Anjan Dutt, I could see at my Bengali friends home in Idaho at Amazon Prime (available only for British, Indians and Americans). Ironically, the fact that the films by Aparna Sen or Anjan Dutt are nearly unavailable in Germany and to watch them on the big screen remains a dream – I always feel a strong awareness that they are made for the big screen and I always like to imagine them in a full packed theatre. This is a very strong feeling like a longing for a home for these films which had such an impact on me.

Aami ashbo phirey is one of Anjan Dutt´s more experimental films especially with the narrative form but it has the same intensity like his Dutta Vs Dutta.
I remember last year during my last passage to India when Anjan Dutt told me about his film and its synopsis and I even saw some excerpts which made me want to see the whole film. One years later, when I saw it finally in Idaho, it appeared to me as a kaleidoscope of different human stories interwoven with 7 songs composed by Neel Dutt and with lyrics by Anjan Dutt.

During watching this film and now when I remember this film, the songs are like an echo of this wonderful experience I had. I listened them often and used them like a key to reconstruct the mood I was in when I saw the film.

First of all, Aami ashbo Phirey is with his Hamlet-adaptation Hemanta, Dutt´s most melancholic film and surprisingly with little humour. Despite the thing Aparna Sen calls “Bengaliness” like others mentioned about Ozu the “Japaneseness” or the typical French gestures in the films by Jean Renoir, I felt a deep empathy with the characters. Sometimes I even had the strange sensation of a very personal film experience. And also there was this strange confidence in this film that made me giving in because all what I am even my vulnerability is with this film in good hands. It was a strange “Coming home” for me to all what I love in cinema. With these films, it is bit like with one of my favorite songs, Madame George by Van Morrison, I listen for more than 40 years in so much different times of my life that it almost became “my” song.

Anjan Dutts films often begin with endangered families or family like constellations and the endangerment can come from inside or outside. In any case familiar or family-like security is in the process to vanish. And there are often young people who struggle to try - despite the lack of security - to find their place in the world, if the young Anglo-Indian in Bow Barracks Forever, the young singer in Ranjana Amir Ashbo na or the young Rono in his autobiographical inspired Dutta Vs. Dutta. In Aami ashbo Phirey there are even several young persons struggling. For example the girl Ranjana who is traumatized after she was raped by a young man. But almost each character in this film appears as vulnerable and their life is on the edges. The disintegration of social security is tightened like in no other film by Anjan Dutt. These moments, often dialogs between arguing people causes a strange feeling of discomfort and it often reminds us in our own uneasiness while confronted with the world as a single individual. For a big part of the film we are very close to these lonely and often desperate characters.
As Aami ashbo Phirey is a kaleidoscope of so much different human feelings and moods, often visible in facial expressions and gestures of the whole excellent ensemble of actors. The stories always connected with certain characters are both, very concrete, sometimes very heartbreaking but at the same time the narrative style is an accomplishment of cinematic abstraction. There is often a subliminal connection between the characters and sometimes even a dialog between different lifetimes. The narrative style is very brave and it avoids focusing on only a few characters. It is among other things as well an ensemble film with a huge number of main characters.

A try to find my own orientation in this network of stories:
Rono is a failed musician. His son is in prison because he raped a young woman.
Ranjana, the victim is traumatized. She is refusing to leave her home.
Her lawyer , an ambitioned woman wants to win the case but she is stuck because Ranjana refuses to appear at the court. Her depressive daughter has a relationship with an elder man.
Rono´s divorced wife has a relationship with another man. She often argues with Rono about who is to blame for the son´s crime, who failed as a parent.
A young musician and his band who rented a room in Rono´s house for rehearsals is close to be thrown out by Rono.
A narrative twist changes radically the level of the film. Rono makes a deal with the young musician. After he found in a box from his imprisoned son some written songs, he frees the musician from rent arrears when he records these songs. He finally distributes the songs to the different characters of the film and these songs cause different impacts on each character. These songs circle through the episodic narration like the earrings in Max Ophül"s Madame de...
Of course between this very rough sketch of the film´s narration there are other stories, for example the mother of Rono´s ex wife who gets a stroke and dies later in the film. The narrative structure is much tighter than it seems.

For now and at the first sight, all characters appear like prisoners of their grieve, loss, fear , failure or guilt. Dutt reveals this with very intense chamber scenes which bring together the intensity of the moments in Dutta Vs Dutta which have as well a tendency to minimalism like in his Hemanta which actually translated Shakespeare´s Hamlet almost into a chamber piece.
Near the opening there is one of these arguments between Rono and his ex wife about their failure as parents. Anjan Dutt as Rono acts in front of a blueish empty wall. The dynamic of his acting is strangely running idle, his character seems dithering in front of a nightmarish empty stage. It left a strong visual impression on me like it is burnt in my memory.
Other chamber scenes evoke a strange feeling for the vanishing of light. Rono again arguing with his ex wife:.The shutter of the window is closed but a small shine of street light from the nocturnal Kolkata is visible. Another small lamp is on but the light seems to loose its fight against the darkness.
In several moments, Aami ashbo Phirey has the darkness of Ozu´s nightmarish bleak but masterfulTokyo Boshoku (Tokyo Twilight). Among the many moments which leaves us in a mood of heavy melancholy there are two shots taking place in bathrooms. Rono under the shower, extremely sad, I think he is even crying and in another shot we see the traumatized Ranjana under the shower but still dressed. These two little moments in one of the most intimate rooms we can imagine are as well quite precise images for a vulnerability the film evokes in us for the characters but as well for ourselves. If Rono retrieves himself under the shower from all his trouble, for Ranjana even the shower is not a hide way for her troubled soul and abused body.

The fact that the film is full of different currents and counter currents is evident in its changes of moods. One secret of the enormous richness of the film are the seven songs which were written and composed before the screenplay was written. They finally keep the promise of the Bob Marley quotation from the beginning: “Music when it hits you you feel no pain.”
Despite Anjan and Neel Dutt are passionate musicians, the songs are in Dutt´s films always included with most accuracy and economical. The songs change the whole chemistry of the film. They do not just reveal certain moods and feelings already evoked through the images, they sometimes paraphrase it, sometimes sad, sometimes slightly jaunty, but first of all they change our vision of the film. The songs punctuate the dominating sadness of the film with moments - if not happiness – than at least slight moments hope. The mood I compared with Ozu´s darkest film is for moments suspended. The songs do not really relativize the melancholy of this film but they open the the door for a different perception, an option of another look at life like, that includes the life as it is revealed in the film.
The songs do not seem to appear for a certain wanted effect but rather like an unexpected miracle.
The song texts like translated in the subtitles and as far as I was able to write them down are about hope after nightmares and often comforting. During , if I am not mistaken, the first song we see Rono alone walking through the city, as sad and lost like the jew Cohen in Aparna Sen´s Mr. And Mrs. Iyer. But the song actually is a slight counter current of the lostness. Another song, an elegy is about “an afternoon where the birds do not sing anymore” or about someone “who does not see the dawn anymore”. There is also a song about loneliness but it is not just an emphasis of the loneliness of the characters but an abstraction, poetry formed out of human feelings. Another song compares life with cigarettes, a rather light song but which actually later evokes a strong feeling for mortality. The feeling for mortality is always a shock especially in a medium like film which embalms a piece of time in the sense of André Bazin for the eternity. I think the song appears around the scene when an old woman dies. As the song reminds us that “we all have to die one day” it implied the strange dynamic of the film between very rough and naked emotions and poetic abstraction. The songs finally help the film through its movements between two aspects of film, the realism the mirror of our social life and the poetry, an imaged of the world but also how one can sing about the world. The songs and how they are integrated into in the fiction of Aami ashbo Phirey are from a dysfunctional person (the film leaves no doubt that the young man will stay in prison for a long time) and probably they are the only things he has to give to the world. At the end of the film, a short epilogue tells about the stories of the characters continue. Some of them are going on with their life, others disappear without a trace.

Aami ashbo Phirey is a film about pain and grieve which we can´t watch from a safe place or as a voyeur without being affected. But it is also great cinema between the recognition of what we call world and poetic abstraction, between action and contemplation.

This is a film which has a long “second life” in my memory long after I have watched it. Sometimes I recall some of these different moods and emotions the film evoked in my, sometimes I listen to the songs which sometimes seem like a secret code to open doors to other memories of this film.
It is a film which disappeared too fast from the public memory of the film world. That is a sad thing with so much films I care for. But that films like Dutta Vs. Dutta or Aami Ashbo Phirey (which has not even a DVD release) disappeared almost without any international festival screenings is a tragedy. While I am able to watch Dutta VS Dutta as often on DVD like I want, this, my other favorite film by Anjan Dutt Aami ashbo Phirey I have to entrust the film to my fallible organic memory. I already miss watching this film.

Rüdiger Tomczak

 I saw as well last year in Idaho his most recent film, Finally Bhalobasha from 2019, another film I would like to watch again and film about that I am sure which will grow after watching it again. This film and his Hemanta, an adaptation from Hamlet are available at the streaming channel hoichoi. It would be interesting to compare Hemanta with the American TV series Sons of Anarchy which is also based on Shakespeare´s drama and which also focuses like Anjan Dutt´s film on the destruction causes by revenge. But compared with the TV show, Anjan Dutt created almost a chamber piece which concentrates the intensity of the several seasons long TV series into less then 150 film minutes. I have seen Hemanta only once and without subtitles, but it left a strong impression on me.