Monday, February 19, 2018

Notes on 11x14 by James Benning, USA: 1977, Berlin Filmfestival2018-IV.-Forum

Cinema can tell stories or just evoke them depending on the imagination of the spectator. Between this very simple statement there are numberless shades of grey. In the Forum-program (the festival presented a restored version blown up on a 35 millimetre print) one can read: “11x14 is film theory in images.”
The more films we see the more books on film we read, over the years a certain accumulation about cinema is approached.
But what is this knowledge actually worth it if it is not paired with impartiality, a fresh mind which still preserve a certain kind of openness? Some years ago, I watched with a friend Benning´s RR, film composed of long static shots about trains passing by. Suddenly a person from the environment of my family came to my mind, someone who has nothing to do with art, avantgarde,- or experimental cinema but who is a passionate lover of everything which has to do with railroad or trains. I can imagine that he would have enjoyed the film at least as much as I did.

The screening of James Benning´s first long film 11x14 is not just a rediscovering of a part of film history but it seems to me as an audiovisual quest for the reason why we love watching films and what fascinates us that we can´t stop staring at the screen. Knowledge is a good thing as long as it does not interfere with a certain curiosity.

There is a long shot taking place in a local driving train on the way over suburbs to a big American city. I felt it was about 8 to 10 minutes long. If there was a cut between this long moment, I have not recognized it. We see a person dozing in front of the front window of this rail car. We can hardly recognize more of this person than a shadow. The front window becomes a screen itself and we see for now nothing else than the landscapes passing by: industrial regions, suburbs. The noise of the rail car sliding on the rails is omnipresent.
At first it looks like a visual demonstration of André Bazin´s thought that the apparatus and the filmmaker retreat in front of what they reveal, the piece of the real world displayed on the railcar´s front window. On the other hand it appears to me as poetry not far away from this long Bob Dylan song which appears at least twice in this film.

I have often thought and occasionally written about the affinity between the mechanical aspect of analog cinema ( both for recording and projecting) and trains, especially in the films by Ozu. Despite the differences in scenes for example like the famous train sequence in Ozu´s Banshun, the train scene in Hitchock´s North By Northwest and their different dealing with time, these moments came back to my mind. While Ozu´s and Hitchcock´s montage creates an artificial time, Benning uses a piece of real time. But despite these differences, all three train moments are intense and unforgettable. The windows of this train finally reveal a piece of world beyond the frame of the film.
The late 70s in Benning´s 11x14 is for me less abstract than Ozu´s post war Japan of the late 40s or Hitchcock´s thriller of the late 50s, because it takes place in my life time. It gives me an idea about time which has passed long ago within my existence.

Cracks in walls and buildings are visible. The noise of trains sliding on their rails is almost an acoustic memory of mine in the 1970s, signs of the fugacity of buildings and machines. The film itself seems like a laborious restored and preserved ruin. The sense for the mortality of all things, which is now nearly disturbed by digital image making devices, is very special here. This is another analogy I often thought the chemical memory of film and the biochemical of living beings.Once recorded the whole art, poetry and idea of a film like 11x14 is depending on the matter on which it is recorded like a human memory from a living body.

Another moment of this film stays with me. It takes place in a kitchen of an elderly couple. On the left side of the frame we see the woman making the dishes, on the right side the man is sitting on a table. Right in the middle of the picture, we see a corridor which leads into the “depth of the image” Another person is sensible at the end of the corridor, probably taking a shower in rooms which are hidden in this shot.This shot emphasizes at the same time the flatness of the film image but also its ability to create an illusion of space. In the same shot the film is what it is but also what it can evoke.

Film keeps time captured like amber”, German filmmaker Winfried Junge once said. The sentence in mind makes each moment in 11x14 unforgettable.

For minutes an image does not show anything but a big factory chimney which is blowing huge masses of smoke into the air. Again the Bob Dylan song. At first it seems like an endless loop of one of these “empty shots” of Ozu but the longer this moment lasts the stronger my feeling for its transience increases. Even though this shot seems to get rid of all traces of “meaning”, it seems very precious to me.

Young people enjoy a picnic in a park. On a big field, we see a combine harvester. This is a film where even the small transitions between every shot is memorable.

And often the films appears to me as a composition of recorded memories as authentic as film can capture memories.

The Austrian Film museum in Vienna restored this film in collaboration with the Arsenal Institute for Film and Video Art in Berlin.

Rüdiger Tomczak

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Notes on Tokyo Boshoku (Tokyo Twilight) by Yasujiro Ozu, Japan: 1957, Berlin Filmfestival2018, III.-Berlinale-Classics

I have a hard time to understand why this film is labelled under “Berlinale Classics”. In 1957 when Tokyo Boshoku had it´s premiere, almost no one neither in Berlin nor elsewhere outside of Japan had even an idea that Ozu existed at all. But than it is probably meaningless to think about the quite dumb use of a strange Neo-English which dominates the language of the Berlinale administration. But shall I complaint if something like a rare masterpiece by Ozu will be screened?

Tokyo Boshoku is Ozu´s last film in Black and White and the reason why he worked after since 1958 only with colours is well answered by this bleak film itself. The first thing which comes to my mind whenever I think about this film is the theory about the death of the universe by freezing in a very far distant future. The world of Ozu´s film itself seems here under the threat of death by freezing. Unusually for Ozu, Tokyo Boshoku is almost without any humour and whenever something like a gag appears a laughter will soon get stuck in the middle. Tokyo Boshoku is here a bit like Hitchcock´s Vertigo, at the first sight a typical theme of it`s director but at a closer look a very melancholic reflection.
It is winter ( a not so popular season in a film from his postwar period). The cold is omnipresent in the whole film. It is the perceptible cold but as well an analogy to the frostiness of the relationships between the characters. Whenever in most of Ozu´s films pubs, bars, or restaurants are frequented it means fun, social life and laughter. In Tokyo Boshoku it is only a place to get warm for a while – it is nothing more than the last reflex of the instinct of self preservation.

A fat elderly man drinks tea. At first he looks like one of his funny supporting characters. But a few seconds later we see on his face traces of a hopeless loneliness. The world of Ozu we know and which we even recognize here for moments seem slightly distorted.
To use another analogy from the astronomy. The characters in this film seem moving away from each other like the galaxies in our known universe. Each dialogue seems to take an endless effort and if there is any film in which you feel the silence, a cold and deadly silence than it is Tokyo Boshoku. The background music, mostly happy bar music increases this feeling even more. The balance of most postwar films by Ozu between humour, poetic observation of every day life and melancholy is broken here for the benefit of a breeding sadness which is hard to define and hard to bear. Each of the characters is almost isolated with their losses. The parents are divorced, the eldest daughter thinks about leaving her drinking husband, the youngest daughter is disturbed and confused. This constellation of a totally dysfunctional family does not promise anything good.

To understand early Japanese cinema but as well the old masters who worked in both of the great zeniths in Japanese film history, it is important to know that the cinema of this country has a lot to do with the Westernization of Japan. Ozu himself belonged to artists and intellectuals who experienced influences from America or Europe as liberating and inspiring. His passion for American cinema is legendary. This monstrous mixture of a former military dictatorship and the raising of a new westernized capitalism is the society´s self created monster. Even though Ozu´s civil courage during war and military government is as well legendary and even though I do not follow the interpretation of Chishu Ryu as Ozu´s Alter Ego, Chisu Ryu´s father is is one of his most unusual father figures. It is one of Ozu´s films which is as well a baseline study of Ozu´s generation. Ryu´s father is part of Ozu´s generation responsible (if not personally but as a generation) for both the war and the new economy and alienation following western patterns and that makes Tokyo Boshoku one of the most self reflecting films Ozu and probably the whole Japanese cinema ever created. A small hint suggest that the father´s marriage is destroyed by the consequences of the war. Beside so much other things, the film is also a process of coming to terms with one´s past.
I can´t say that I love Tokyo Boshoku as much as Tokyo monogatari, Banshun or especially Bakushu, but it is definitely one of his bravest film and probably one of the bravest Japanese film ever made. It might be often hard to bear in it´s drawing of desperate loneliness and alienation.
A small subtle moment reveals the dark and for Ozu unusual pessimistic mood. During an argument the father has with the youngest daughter, he says in anger:” You are not my daughter” In a film by Ozu this sentence from a parent is like a death threat or a verbal abortion.

If ever a film by Ozu scared me than this extremely sad and abysmal masterpiece called Tokyo Boshoku.

Rüdiger Tomczak

Sun, 25.2, Cinemaxx 8, 11.30

Notes on Interchange by Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky, Canada: 2018, Berlin Filmfestival2018-II.-Forum

The paradox of film is sometimes the transition between the natural ability of the photograph to record a piece of reality and the more artificial ones of the image making apparatus called cinema and it´s ability to modify.

Single, sometimes longer shots of an urban landscape at the edge of Montreal: Building lots, scaffolded Buildings. Deserted houses are for sale. Multi lane highways appear like the veins of a big city. Except in moments were some anonymous persons appear alone in front of the camera, this region appears almost deserted. An endless flood of vehicles are passing by. Occasionally rather atoms than traces of individuality appear. An elderly man behind a telephone booth. As we can´t hear if he really makes a call (he keeps the phone far away from eyes and mouth) the scene looks like a pantomime. Another man is phoning someone and the fragment from his conversation does not give any idea about him or to whom he is talking. Tiny fragments of human lives disappear almost completely after the next cut. They are literally drowned by the omnipresent noise of the traffic. One of the dominant colours is the red of the brick stones of some houses. Slightly accented, they evoke in me a delusive warmth and coziness in this down-and-out neighbourhood. Emblems and commercials often in form of neon signs or poster of Coca Cola promise a shine which already has left this quarter long time ago. In many shots, the environment is reflected in shop windows, windows of restaurants or coffee shops which are sparse frequented.

There are very few moments or better traces of landscape which give a small idea about the natural landscape which is almost totally suppressed by urban landscape. Nature absorbed by civilization.
What has won me over in this film is this strange subtle sliding between this very concrete region of a very concrete city and often it´s turn into a nearly dreamlike landscape. Especially in moments recorded at evenings or nights which are just lighted by the artificial light of the city and the neon light of shops, pubs or restaurants, the film appears like a dream.

The moments when single persons appear, children, old women, young women, old men and young men, are fascinating in a strange kind. The camera remains staring at their faces for a while. The people literally are doing nothing, than staring back, but obviously they are aware of the presence of camera and the filmmaker at the same time. And it is this staring back which finally preserve their anonymity.
They remain strangers like we encounter while strolling through foreign cities. The question the film evokes in my mind is - where is this joint between a rather prosaic film observation and the strange dreamlike engrossing aspect?

At the end we see again an endless avalanche of vehicles and a French-Canadian song is talking about the increasing speed of time when people get older.: “It´s not only cars that go to 100. Time too rushes by.”
Actually these verses remind me in this special feeling (probably only film can evoke) for the fleeting of time – for example in a film by Ozu. But the many drivers hidden in their cars again appear as impersonal, as anonymous like their vehicles.

Interchange is quite a proper film to open a film festival, because it deals at all with the core of cinema, the seeing itself. Sometimes the visual culture of cinema with it´s long and complex history has to go back ti it´s initial origin just to remind us that film is “the art of seeing”.

Rüdiger Tomczak

Sat, 17.2, 19.30 Cinestar IMAX
Mon, 19.2 14.00, Delphi
Sat, 24.2, 22.00, Cine Star 8

Friday, February 16, 2018

Notes on Sekala Niskala (The Seen and the Unseen) by Kamila Andini, Indonesia: 2017,Berlin Filmfestival2018-I.-Generation

Usually there is no Berlin Film festival for me without attending some films from the children-, and youth section. Here film and festival still belong together and and in recent years some of the films selected for this section were still with me at the end of the year.
Sekala Niskala, the second film by Indonesian filmmaker Mrs. Kamila Andini could be one of those films. It´s narrative style seems rather rising from a given situation than from a conventional story. Two twin children (the girl Tantri and the boy Tantra)somewhere in Indonesia: their amusement is to steal sacrificial offerings like eggs. For now it is a bit like in Hou Hsiao Hsien´s early films. This specific childlike living from day to day suddenly stops when the boy gets seriously ill. A new and rather dramatic situation develops where the episodic narration will be built on. But Andini avoids any dramatization and like the old Japanese masters the feelings the film will evoke by the sum of experiences and not through preformed dramatic effects. For a long time, the film is made of long static shots or shots where the camera movement is almost invisible. Sometimes the camera, especially in open air shots will move occasionally. The single episodes the film´s narration is based of are not just summing up to a story but offers options for a story. Beside a certain formal stringency, the film introduces another element, a playfulness. Dance performances by masked children with painted skin convert the prosaic aspect of the films for moments into dreamlike sequences. The film develops a dynamic between realism and dream between static and movement.

The hospital scenes follow the sober aspect of the first scenes. The whole family camps in the reception room to be with the sick boy. A small dialog between the parents suggest that the boy´s illness is very serious and they have to expect the worst.
There is for example one shot typical for the more prosaic aspect of the film but which gives through this very shot a subtle hint to feelings: The girl is in the left part of this frame, just on the edge of the frame while the sick boy on the opposite site, almost hidden by the curtains of his sickbed. The space between them accented through the mighty CinemaScope format.
The more the film develops, the more the foreshadow of inevitability dominates the mood of this film, the more the girl´s dance performances with masks based on animals appear. The initial situation of the film changes with rather surreal moments.
Sekala Niskala is a wise film about aspects of life we can understand and aspects we are defenseless exposed to.
The narration seems to move by itself without being forced.

There are some very impressive night scenes, a greyish darkness in which the world as displayed in this film is always threatened to disappear in this formless dark grey. It is a strong visual impression for a film which also deals with grieve, loss and fear from the perspective of a child. Sometimes we hear the mother singing. Her songs have something of a elegy to an inevitable loss. It is like a sad rebellion against death, literally against the fading of the light.

The paradox of cinema that even the the cultures most alien to me can become very close for a moment. As much as I am aware of the strangeness of this images from a culture far away from me, as much cinema always breaks always universal paths for me.
I have no idea when or if I will see this film again in my country, if it enters distribution or not. That is a reason more that to see films like Sekala Niskala seem rather as a fleeting privilege. About one thing I am very sure. Kamila Andini things and feels cinema, she experiments with the core of cinema itself. And even more important, a film like Sekala Niskala from a country which hardly appears at big festivals makes me believe in a future of cinema.

At the end I remember a beautiful short moment, a shadow play performed in one of these dreamlike sequences by the sick boy. A fleeting moment but a quite exact analogy to the scope of this film, which reminds me in one moment in Hou Hsiao Hsien and in the next in the amazing silhouette films by legendary German filmmaker Lotte Reiniger.

Rüdiger Tomczak

Sun, 18.2, 10.00 Zoo-Palast
Mon, 19.2, 15.30, Filmtheater am Friederichshain
Tue, 20.2, 12.30, Zoo-Palast
Fri, 23.2 10.00, Haus der Kulturen der Welt

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

My Favorite films of the year 2017

1.-Song to Song, Terrence Malick, USA: 2017

2.-Voyage of Time - Life´s Journey, Terrence Malick, USA: 2016

3.-Aus einem Jahr der Nichtereignisse (From a year of Non events), René Frölke, Ann-Carolin 
Renninger, Deutschland: 2017

4.-Songs of Revolution, Bill Mousoulis, Greece/Australia: 2017

5-Loving Lorna, Annica and Jessica Karlsson, Sweden: 2017

6-The Third Breast, Anamika Bandopadhyay, India/USA: 2017

7-A Death in the Gunj, Konkona Sensharma, India: 2016

8-Ekjon Kobir Mrityu (Death of a Poet), Abu Sayeed, Bangladesh: 2017

9-Diamond Island, Chou Davy, Cambodia/France: 2016

10-Certain Women, Kelly Reichardt, USA: 2015

11-Loving, Jeff Nichols, USA: 2016

12-Maman Colonel, Dieu Hamadi, Congo: 2017

13-Mon rot fai, Sompot Chidgasornpongse, Thailand: 2016

14-Dieste (Urugay), Heinz Emigholz, Deutschland: 2017

15-Dahlienfeuer, Stefan Hayn, Deutschland: 2016

respectfully mentioned: 
-A Ghost Story, David Lowery, USA: 2017
-Elle, Paul Verhoeven, France: 2016
-Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan, USA: 2017
-La La Land, Damien Chazelle, USA: 2016
-Barrage, Laura Schroeder, Luxemburg/Belgien/Frankreich: 2017

5 favorite shortfilms:

1.Aaba, Amar Kaushik, India: 2016 

2.Trapeze, Shamik Ghosh, India: 2017 

3-Nie wieder Klug (No more smart again), Stefan Hayn, Deutschland: 2015

4.Engiteng Larok Lukunya (Black-Headed Cow, Elisabeth Nichols, Tanzania: 2016 

5-Min Homosyster (My Homo sister), Lie Hitula, Sweden/Norway: 2017

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Notes on Ekjon Kobir Mrityu (Death of a Poet) by Abu Sayeed, Bangladesh: 2017

Abu Sayeed is one one of a few directors from Bangladesh whose films were shown on some international film festivals. His newest film Ekjon Kobir Mrityu is not only one of his most willful one. Three different kind of films came into my mind: first Citizen Kane by Orson Welles, Geschichtsunterricht (History Lesson) by Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet and the films by Marguerite Duras, her Aurelia-Steiner-films and Le Mains Negatives (The negative Hands). The puzzle-structure of Citizen Kane which recapitulate a human life, the work with text and images like Duras and Straub/Huillet seem to be united in Abu Sayeed´s most experimental film.

The film goes through several transformations. At the beginning there is a famous poet who suffers under insomnia. He has a strange dream about a woman dressed in white, a kind of death angel. On the next morning his son finds the poet dead. With the death of the only visible person, the narration takes only place in the off. While the family is busy to arrange the funeral ceremony, including to transport his corps to the place of his funeral, newspapers and television news are preparing special features on the death of this poet. What we see and about what the invisible acteurs are talking goes different ways. Several time we see a huge printing press and with a bit of imagination it sounds a bit like an analog film projectior. A human life has expired. Ekjon Kobir Mrityu becomes now what remains of a human identity. First of all we see the devices who conserve the collective memory, TV-cameras, audio tapes and the printing press. The dialogues by the acteurs which remain invisble are dealing from personal dialogues between the members of the family, interviews with his colleagues or contemporaries, editors and journalists are providing special features for TV and newspaper. Sometimes we hear dialogues from a phone conversation. If a dialogue takes place in a newspaper editorial office or in a TV-studio we see only fragments of persons. They remain totally anonymous. These dialogues from the off are providing the film with a kind of narration which will never be illustrated through images. This is exactly what Abu Sayeed´s film has to do with Duras`Aurelia Steiner-films and her Les Mains Negatives.

The heart of the film is an extremely long car ride on a street which is literally cut through the concrete and datable landscape of Bangladesh – but also through the whole film. There are traffic jams. Several construction places are visible. It is a journey through a disgraced and polluted landscape. When these car travels remind me in Straub/Huillet´s Geschichtsunterricht than because they are pure traces of reality which happens outside the limited frame and which remain equal to the element of fictive narration. In Straub Huillet´s film it was the real Rome of the 1970s and in Abu Sayeed´s film it is the presence the real landscape of Bangladesh. And it is exactly the collision of reality and fiction which gives this film a nearly dreamlike quality. The more prosaic the film becomes the more it inspired my imagination.

Ekjon Kobir Mrityu is a poetic film essay which works on several levels. First of all it tells about the point when a private life has expired and migrates first to the memories of the loved ones and later to the more complex collective memory of a society. As the organic and the spiritual life of the poet has lapsed, the film tells more and more about the remains. It is a little truck which has to transport the corps a long way. The printing press refers not only to the newspapers but as well to the printed words of the poet which remain like crystallized traces of his life. How his family deals with the loss and how the representatives of public life deals with a collective memory, the film is always looking for the relationship between the material and spiritual aspect of human lives. As film is, like Godard once said, “always a documentary about the visible things in the world”, Abu Sayeed´s Ekjon Kobir Mrityu is such a “documentary about the visible things” but it detects the traces of a fleeting human life and it´s poetry. At the end a poem of the dead poet is recited and it is about the beauty of stars. As stars are often subject of poetry they are also evident as the fusion reactor where all the elements arise we are finally made of. Abu Sayeed´s admirable film is as well a wise and exciting essay on cinema, it´s material but also it´s poetic and spiritual aspects.

Rüdiger Tomczak

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Notes on Voyage of Time - Life´s Journey, by Terrence Malick, USA: 2016


This is one of three versions of this project. The Imax-version i(narrated by Brad Pitt) s only 40 minutes long (and it seems to be rather a different film than another version) and there is a third one as long as Life´s Journey and projected with Live-music ( which is considered as Malick´s preferred version). The version Life´s Journey wonderfully narrated by Cate Blanchett (and the only which is available for me now – and that only thanks to the French Blue Ray -Release).

Another thing always confuses me: Voyage of Time is often mentioned as a heir of Malick´s legendary Project Q, another epic on the history of the world which he began and abandoned decades ago. After all what I have heard and read about this project, The Tree of Life refers as much to this Project Q as Voyage of Time. Both films are nurtured by this abandoned unfinished project. Considering Voyage of Time, I asked myself if this, Malick´s only non narrative film about birth and death of the world can work without the extreme dynamic of The Tree of Life between a very personal, even autobiographical inspired family story and the history of the universe. In a surprising way and despite its resemblance with the formation scene in The Tree of Life, Voyage of Time-Life´s Journey works on its own. It is not only a great companion piece for The Tree of Life, but also to most of his more recent films. The cosmic perspective is one important but only one of several different currents in his last 5 films which are best compared with complex living organisms. The fatal fashion among a lot of critics to ridicule these last films is the only unpleasant implication whenever a new film by America´s greatest living filmmaker is released.

As Voyage of Time-Life´s Journey (which I call for now the “Cate Blanchett”-Version) is the second new film by Malick I saw this year, and because of that 2017 will be a film year to remember. Song to Song is still very warm in my memory and it grew after every time I saw it.
Even though the “Cate Blanchett”- version is the only version I could see, it is hard to imagine a finer narrator than Cate Blanchett. It is like a recitation of a poem and a good example of what Christopher Nolan calls “the complex relationship between images and sound” (and in this case the narration included) The text often begins with Mother as an abstraction of this All.

As an admirer of his films since The New World, the biggest challenge was for me in Life´s Journey to get used to deal the lack of Lubezki`s permanently moving camera. Just alone the collaboration between Malick and Lubezki belongs to the most inspiring ones between a director and a cinematographer.

Voyage of Time-Life´s Journey is recognizable as a recent film by Terrence Malick but it looks also like a kind of missing link between Malick´s early films from the 1970s and his films from up to 1998. It is his most scripted film since Days of Heaven but another aspect which distinguished it from other more recent films by Malick, is it´ essayistic aspect. It is like we see a typical film by Malick from an engrossed angle. Blanchett, the invisible narrator is something like a hybrid between Job quoted in The Tree of Life and the Pocahontas from the New World but also an abstraction of the always searching Malick-characters. The text is even rather structured in exact pointed verses evokes doubt, questions and tries to find orientation in the face of gigantic cosmic processes compared with the short life span of a human being.While music and words are references to culture rooted in human visions of the world, the images of exploding stars, cosmic dust cosmic gas and the giant natural forces hint to a world which existed long before human consciousness and probably will still there when all traces of culture are gone. Despite a certain opulence Malick´s first approach in essayistic non-narrative cinema reminds me in Marguerite Duras´ Les Mains Négatives. Both films work with this “complex relationship” of image and over voice narration and both films are dealing with the nakedness of men in contrast to the forces of nature. Like the nameless man who lived 30000 years ago in Les Mains Négatives, we are in Voyage of Time-Life´s Journey exposed to front of huge physical and chemical processes. In Malick´s films everything is exposed to the natural but also the socio cultural history of the human world, that includes his protagonists, here even the invisible narrator, us and Malick himself. At least in the use of over voice narration, Voyage of Time-Life´s Journey is deeply connected to his extraordinary films since his comeback with The Thin Red Line.

Blanchett´s over voice narration with its long pauses correlate with the rhythmic appearance of total darkness between the images and structure the whole film like in verse.
Where comes the voice of Cate Blanchett from? In this film literally all things begins or comes out of the darkness and they will disappear in it at the end. The newborn sun has to assert its light against clouds of dark dust. The film celebrates at the same time the victory of the light over darkness as the basic condition to the evolution of life but at the same time for cinema itself.

Malick´s famous over voices are here reduced on one single female voice and it is for most parts of the film the only human reference point in the vastness of cosmic processes.
Mother you walked with me before there was a world, before there was day or night.”
This is the opening sentence of the film which literally comes out of the darkness. The reason that Malick is often blamed by superficial critics as esoteric is a result of a disastrous ignorance of how Malick works with the visible and traceable matter of the world and cinema as the visualization of it but also with poetic abstraction and religious moment as possibilities of interpreting the world. Finally science, religion and poetry are never opposites in Malick´s films. As the film´s narration is like a poetic monologue which goes its own way. Sometimes science and poetry come together, sometimes not. Some aspects of my fascination for the films by Terrence Malick, I can describe, others come over me like a natural force.

Between the moments of the foundation of the universe and the evolution of life, there are small moments of coarse grained documentary clips about groups of people from cultures all over the world, mostly people in despair, refugees, extreme poor people or people in distress.Even a burning landscape will be shown. It refers to another aspect of the films by Terrence Malick, pain and mourning. That can be caused by natural events but also by these human civilizations.

Mother, will you abandon me?”
The text becomes sometimes a prayer and poetic abstraction at the same time but it is also crucial for Terrence Malick who does not only celebrate the life but who also reminds us in the vulnerability of life.
We remember how Brad Pitt describes Malick´s work on The Tree of Life like: “I call him an imperfectionist. He finds perfection in imperfection. He is like a documentarian that´s just waiting for the moment to happen (...) (Q&A with Brad Pitt on The Tree of Life) In its last consequence, this imperfectionism means for Malick the highest artictic freedom imaginable.

It is interesting that at least compared with the legendary Project Q or the epic The Tree of Life, Voyage of Time-Life´s Journey seems to me much more “unfinished” than anything else Malick has done despite the presence of the mighty IMAX images.And it is not the first time that seemingly limitations are actually the most inspiring. The magic, the whole richness of a film by Terrence Malick enfolds very often after several watchings. I remember there was a critic (obviously from the category Malick-hater) who ridiculed the scene with the first men who are moving naked through the landscape. One has to be quite demented to find this moment ridiculous. It does not only refer to Malick´s The New World but it is also the most essential expression in Malick´s work of the above mentioned vulnerability of human life. In all its opulence, in all its cinematic attractions, Malick always goes back to the nakedness of mankind confronted with a new culture and the still mystic power of nature.

It is not just a film on birth being and decline of the world, it is an offering to get an idea about this process through many perspectives. There are documented and created images, the music and the over voice narration. The montage integrates all these elements but keeps them as own units. Despite the use of Imax images, special effects (digital and analog) in the cinema of Terrence Malick, the whole complex cinematographic apparatus will always be a, imitation of our senses, a perfect one but still an imitation.
One of the seemingly least spectacular but very moving moments, – like so often in a film by Malick –occurs near the end. A lonely girl plays on a lawn. In the background we see modern contemporary buildings. It could have been a scene from The Tree of Life, To the Wonder or anything Malick made in the last years. This landscape seems very triste but the child seems to be so involved in its own imagination, an imagination we all had once, we all forgot so often and a film can often bring these lost mood back to our mind. In the background we hear the typical North American train signal. A shot of another girl, playing with a group of children in a strangely deserted urban landscape. A detail shot of a girl´s profile, the ear appears in a close up. It is an image of a human being who experiences the world with all her senses, theses senses depending on her physical existence. We remember from the beginning a close up of a female face focused on the eye and another shot of a close up of a reptil´s eye. My description how Malick always tracks back the most beautiful visions to the physical world might sound a bit sober but it is part of his unique poetical concept of cinema. The little girl´s ear remains in my memory like the huge physical and chemical processes which formed the universe and the landscapes of the earth. (1)

A last and small chapter deals with the decline of the universe, the death of the sun and its planets and finally the end of all things. I remember the moment when the family tragedy in The Tree of life turns into this amazing sequence of the birth of the universe. I remember how much some people were irritated by this but I was sure from the first time I saw it that it was placed exactly where it belonged, right after a shot on the devastated mourning mother and as a visual echo of the job quotation from the beginning. Here in Voyage of Time-Life´s Journey, Malick offers not only his complex relationship between image sound and spoken word but also between science and faith, between a factual and a poetic vision of the world, between the matter and what it evokes in our mind and soul. The last master who approached such thing was Jean Renoir in 1951 with The River.
As we see images of the dying sun who burns our planet to ashes, the over voice paraphrases these moment in a poetical abstract but nevertheless very moving text:
The shadows flee ashore,
Time goes back to her source.
(We see a Black Hole)
Mother, I take your hands.
I dream no more.”

The last image shows a clouded sky until it sinks back into the darkness of the ending credits. The “intervals” of darkness in Voyage of Time-Life´s Journey is close to the clay formed from the bottom of Renoir´s The River. The statues of gods and goddesses formed out of clay are brought back to the river after the ceremonies where it becomes again mud on the river´s bottom.

What remains is a more simple truth: in only 6 years Terrence Malick has released his 5 most beautiful films. And always when the last scoffs, slating reviews or misunderstandings caused by blind ideological prejudice fade away, all of these wonderful 5 last films are already turning into true classics of the cinema of the 21st. Century.

Rüdiger Tomczak


(1) It is not enough for me to be astonished about this film or to be impressed by it. There is so much more what is evoked in me by this work. Malick uses a lot of artifices. But the amazement and the emotion evoked by these artifices seems to me something that Malick is sharing with us. There is no moment in this film which I can imagine as something different as something real felt or experienced. Not till then – I imagine- Malick confides these experience, these perceptions or probably some of his own memories and  experiences to the apparatus of film making. While seeing this film and despite my awareness of these instruments which record, conserve and visualize -  these recorded moments seem to dissolve away themselves from them. This feeling for the authenticity of every single moment in The Tree of Life or his previous films The Thin Red Line and The New World are shining much brighter than all the complex and imposing instruments used in this film I would like to call „The Malick-Paradox”. (from my text on The Tree of Life)