Palindromes: dark comedy fable of Western society’s exploitation of children and value of life

Todd Solondz, “Palindromes” (2004)

A dark comedic fairy tale about a girl trapped in a life that goes around in circles, “Palindromes” does have the air of something unfinished (as it should, I suppose) but features some very strong and delicate acting performances. Aviva is a young girl on the verge of puberty who desperately wants to have a baby: we don’t know why as she never gets the opportunity to properly express her reason but we suspect that a baby would give her the unconditional love that Aviva’s parents assure Aviva they give. She loses her virginity to a family friend’s son, Judah (Robert Agri), and becomes pregnant. Aviva’s mum Joyce (Ellen Barkin) hits the roof and, between tearful bouts of smother love and shrill histrionics, forces the unwilling girl into having an abortion at a clinic. Complications during the procedure render Aviva permanently sterile and after the operation, she runs away from home. She hitches a ride with a truck driver, Bob (Stephen Adly Guirgis), who abandons her at a motel. Aviva wanders around the countryside and finds shelter and comfort in a foster home for disabled children run by a Christian evangelist, Mama Sunshine (Debra Monk), and her husband (Walter Bobbie).

Aviva is accepted into the family and even joins the children’s pop-singing group but soon discovers Papa Sunshine has engaged the truck driver, Bob, to kill a doctor who performs abortions. Aviva, infatuated with Bob, leaves the family and accompanies him on his assignment. They drive into a suburban neighbourhood and pull up at the home of the doctor who performed Aviva’s operation. Bob accidentally shoots the doctor’s young daughter as well as the intended victim and he and Aviva flee to a motel. The police soon surround them and Bob, anguished about what he has done, commits police-assisted suicide. The cops return Aviva to her parents who celebrate her 13th birthday by throwing a family party. Some time after the party, Aviva again meets Judah, now named Otto, and the two have sex. Aviva, believing she is pregnant, is happy and at peace.

The choice of eight actors to play Aviva illustrates how the character of Aviva essentially stays the same despite the different opinions others may have about her, how Aviva might feel about herself as her body undergoes puberty, and how changes in her circumstances might affect her behaviour and responses to people and situations. Such differences are reflected in the height, age and general appearance of the actors who play Aviva. Viewers quickly pick her out even when she lies to Mama Sunshine and her brood, and says her name is Henrietta. The girl seems passive and easily influenced by others, and her vague, generic character (her name is Hebrew for “life” so she must be taken as a representative of humanity generally) won’t endear her to viewers, though near film’s end when she meets her cousin Mark (Matthew Faber), who tells her free will and the ability to change are fictions and everyone’s actions are predetermined by their environment and genetic history, she argues fairly passionately in a faint, deadened way that people should have hope and can change. The most notable of the several Aviva players is Sharon Wilkins who plays the Mama Sunshine Aviva: her performance embodies the previous performances and experiences of the younger Avivas and adds genuine feeling, a sense of having suffered trauma and an attitude towards her adoptive family that varies from wariness to cautious enthusiasm in the family’s get-togethers. Though Wilkins is much bigger and taller than her fellow foster siblings in the family pop group, she conveys the sense of being a young girl so effectively that she blends in successfully with the weeny warblers.

Ellen Barkin is superb if creepy as the self-centred Joyce who, with her husband (Richard Masur), showers Aviva with toys and material possessions but fails to give her the two things she most needs: love and some form of spiritual or moral guidance. As viewers can guess, the mother is most genuine emotionally when told of Aviva’s abortion going awry; through Aviva’s dim, semi-conscious gaze as it were, we see the woman rage then collapse against the doctor. Debra Monk is also effective as the mother substitute Mama Sunshine who offers what Aviva’s mother doesn’t; her beaming smile, clucky mother-hen style and occasional tears may however mask a steely authoritarian nature that exploits her charges’ disabilities and charm as tweeny Christian pop singers for profit. Of the several child actors in the film, Alexander Brickel makes the most impression as the chirpy foster child Peter Paul who doesn’t miss a beat in cheerfulness even when he takes Aviva to the garbage dumps to look for aborted foetuses.

The film lampoons both the mainstream secular suburban life with its spiritual and moral sterility, and its mirror in the Christian evangelist family which, though accepting of people’s physical imperfections and embracing the unwanted disabled children with warmth and love, is just as much a moral desert where money and differences of opinion are involved. The extreme family types don’t seem very outlandish due to Solondz’s direction under which everyone tends towards a deadpan, almost frozen-faced standard of dialogue delivery unless a situation calls for emotiveness. If the film takes a stand at all on any moral issue, it may be to suggest that, regardless of religious or socio-economic background, children can be vulnerable victims of extreme indoctrination and exploitation by parents, especially if the parents use the children as tools to fulfill their own needs for self-worth and validation. This can create situations where children become trapped in a hell not of their own making, for which they don’t have the knowledge and resources to escape, and end up as adults recreating that hell for their own children.

Ultimately as the film’s title and the most significant characters’ names suggest, people here end up zinging between two extremes in a situation or two sides of a problem or issue but never achieve a resolution or breakthrough. Though not a work that will appeal to most people, “Palindromes” is a brave if not very successful attempt to address difficult and controversial issues about the value of life, how it is abused and exploited by others for personal gain, and the effect that such exploitation might have on people’s lives and society generally. Solondz seems to have a pessimistic view of humanity’s potential to break out of structures and patterns that no longer have any value or meaning, and this vision makes the movie bleak and hopeless.

North by Northwest: fun escapist enjoyment that encapsulates Hitchcock’s inner world

Alfred Hitchcock, “North by Northwest” (1959)

After the intense “Vertigo” which initially wasn’t a great box office success, Hitchcock chose to film a light-hearted chase thriller story featuring his familiar and favourite motifs and obsessions, a touch of romance and a climax that would take place on the famous Mount Rushmore monument. As with many of his films, the hero is an everyday man who may have a doppelgänger (in this instance, a non-existent one) and who is wrongly suspected of a crime for which he is pursued and which he is determined to solve himself. Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is a middle-aged New York advertising executive minding his own business when he is suddenly kidnapped by spies led by Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) and his chief henchman Leonard (Martin Landau) who mistake him for another man, George Kaplan. Vandamm and Leonard set up Thornhill to die in a car accident but Thornhill foils their plan in a hilarious driving sequence; sozzled on too much bourbon, he’s the only one to avoid hitting or crashing into anyone and anything and everyone else, driving sober, creates the chain of collisions. Through a series of misadventures, Thornhill ends up being chased by both unseen spies and the police so to evade them, he catches an inter-state train to Chicago. On the trip he meets a passenger, Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) who hides him from the police while on board and while leaving the train station in Chicago. Eve arranges for Thornhill to meet George Kaplan who presumably will explain everything to him and she gives Thornhill directions to the place where he’ll meet the mystery spy.

Thornhill narrowly escapes being killed by a crop-dusting biplane in remote prairie country and makes his way back to Chicago where he discovers Kendall is in cahoots with Vandamm and Leonard at an auction, buying a small statue. Thornhill, finding himself trapped at the auction by Vandamm’s men, creates uproar and ends up being arrested by police. The cops deliver him to a man called the Professor (Leo G Carroll) who tells him Kaplan doesn’t exist but was a ruse created to distract Vandamm away from Kendall. The Professor tries to keep an eye on Thornhill and help Kendall maintain her deception of Vandamm by flying Thornhill to Rapids City, South Dakota, then to the Mount Rushmore national park in a staged ruse that puts Thornhill in hospital. Our man escapes and makes his way to Vandamm’s hide-out. He discovers that Leonard has proved Kendall’s disloyalty to Vandamm by testing her gun for blanks and the two villains plan to dump her out of their plane once airborne. Thornhill successfully warns Kendall of the plan and manages to snatch her away at the last minute from Vandamm, Leonard and another man, Valerian (Adam Williams), while they are boarding the plane. Kendall has the good sense to grab the statue bought at the auction and she and Thornhill race away with it. They are forced to climb over and down the Mount Rushmore monument with the enemy spies hot on their heels. Meanwhile the Professor, having found out that Thornhill escaped his custody, is on his way to the Mount Rushmore monument to get both Thornhill and Kendall.

On one level “North by Northwest” is good escapist fun with spectacular settings, sequences that combine comedy, danger and nick-of-time good timing, and a fine if under-used cast of actors playing roles that would be milked by the later James Bond movies: a suave and debonair hero with a flair for double entendres and one-liners; a cool mystery woman, at once capable and vulnerable, whose loyalties may be in doubt; and secret enemy agents who have as much wit, intelligence and style as they have brawn and a vicious streak. While Grant doesn’t do ordinary, everyday mummy’s boy too well – Thornhill is supposed to develop from drab, commonplace office executive with an undistinguished background to a resourceful hero who discovers strengths and talents he never knew he had – the actor manages the transition smoothly and gives credibility to a character whose details initially seem contradictory and can stretch belief. As mother’s pet, Grant’s interpretation appears more rebellious and put-upon, and as for Thornhill’s awkwardness with women, the actor has obvious difficulty with that! The character though ends up impressing viewers with intelligence, curiosity and tenacity beneath a suave, almost unflappable veneer as he tries to prove his innocence and true identity.

Saint mixes the right amount of gutsiness, duplicity and vulnerability in her role, Mason makes his silkily cultured yet sinister villain Vandamm look like a cakewalk and Landau almost steals the villains’ corner of the show from Mason with his portrayal of a tough henchman who may secretly have the hots for his boss. Interesting that three actors in the cast (Martin Landau, Leo G Carroll, Edward Platt) would end up playing significant or at least regular roles in 1960’s TV spy-themed shows (“Mission Impossible”, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”, “Get Smart” respectively) which might reflect the impact “North …” made on audiences and the film industry on its release to the extent that members of its cast found themselves typecast. Even Grant and Mason were under consideration to play James Bond in the first film of the JB franchise in spite of their ages (they were both fiftysomething). This may say something for the quality of character actors Hitchcock assembled for his film.

On another level, “North …” may be a comment on deception as a tool in modern society: all significant characters in the film, Thornhill included, must pretend to be what they’re not to achieve their objectives, elude others or just to survive. Even the plot is deceptive as “North …” dives into sidelines that have no significance other than to provide extra thrills and chills up the spine, and the movie appears to lack direction. In an age in which the United States and the Soviet Union preferred to conduct their hostilities through propaganda, espionage, competing to send people into space, building up weapons and armies, and fighting proxy wars in Africa, Asia and Latin America through various client states, “North …” may be as political as Hitchcock dared to be in a commercial movie context. The auction scene in a way is revealing of the play-acting and deception prevailing in society: Thornhill intuits that the small statue on offer may not be what the auctioneers and most of the audience take it to be, and openly declares it a “fake”, not knowing its true value to Vandamm and Kendall.

As a film whose script was intended by scripter Ernest Lehman to be the Hitchcock film to end all Hitchcock films, “North …” is laden with the familiar Hitchcockian tropes of the wronged man, the possibility that he may have a double, the feisty blonde heroine, hidden homosexuality, fear and paranoia in everyday life, a character with a mother complex, romantic comedy laced with sexual innuendo, the control of women and their bodies by men, fear or defiance of figures of authority (fathers, the police), MacGuffin objects that everybody chases but which have no relevance to the plot, a twist in the story and trains as sexual metaphor.

Though the film wasn’t intended to have any symbolism, symbolism can be found in it depending on where viewers are coming from. Thornhill’s quest is as much a quest for his true inner self as it is a fight to clear his name and find out who George Kaplan is. Trains, especially US interstate passenger trains, in Hitchcock’s movies are sites of unexpected meetings with strangers, hidden secrets and transformation. (What Hitchcock might have made of something like “Snakes on a Plane” can only be guessed at.) Even the progress of action from New York, that centrepiece of deception via diplomacy and the capital of advertising and public relations, to Chicago to South Dakota where (presumably) people are more honest and as open as the cornfield and prairie landscapes, to the climax on a bare mountain, can be construed as a gradual lifting away of the veil of deception and play-acting to reveal truth and corruption. And what could be more open – or perhaps less “open” – than the granite facade of the Mount Rushmore monument which itself carries layered symbolism in the choice of four former US presidents, themselves controversial figures even now, to honour, and in its own conception, construction history and what it represents to different groups of people? The monument is located in an area seized by the US government from the native Lakota (Sioux) owners and it was sculpted under the supervision of artist Gutzon Borglum who was a Ku Klux Klan member; the project itself was conceived to promote tourism, an industry relying on deception and exploiting people’s dreams and preconceptions. Of all the people and objects in “North …” that aren’t what they seem, Mount Rushmore may be the most deceptive of them all.

From a technical point of view, “North …” is notable for its use of moving text in its opening credit sequence, created by Saul Bass, to suggest the outlines of the United Nations building in New York and hint at the climax in which people will have to climb down a mountain face. Camerawork features aerial points of view that prefigure the Mount Rushmore climbing scenes  are noteworthy in how they emphasise particular actions and advance the plot. In one significant scene, Thornhill on an internal catwalk flicks a message to Kendall that lands on the floor; from Thornhill’s elevated point of view, viewers see Leonard pick up the item and place it on a coffee table, then Kendall scoop it up after he turns his back on her, in masterly shots that generate maximum suspense. The orchestral music score by Bernard Herrmann is florid, melodramatic and even screechy in parts. (Hitchcock fanatics who insist on watching the director’s films in chronological order can see how “North …” fits between “Vertigo” and “Psycho” in its technical details.) The high technical quality and polish evident throughout the movie, not to mention its ideas, put Hitchcock in serious contention to direct the first James Bond movie but fortunately or unfortunately perhaps the then owners of the James Bond character decided he was better off in his own little world.

Of course, “North …” didn’t turn out to be the Hitchcock film that ended all Hitchcock films and there are other Hitchcock films that surpass it in visual presentation, technical flair and overall plot originality. Perhaps it only fulfils Lehman’s prediction in that it encapsulates more of Hitchcock’s inner world than Hitchcock’s other films do. For sheer playful enjoyment though, this film is a highlight in Hitchcock’s overall body of work.

Inju, the Beast in the Shadow: a standard crime thriller with unrealised potential

Barbet Schroeder, “Inju, la bête dans l’ombre” (2008)

Enjoyably silly movie about a literature academic and aspiring crime fiction writer whose career, night-time as well as day-time, seems to revolve mostly around a mysterious and reclusive Japanese pulp crime fiction author who may be mentally disturbed and perhaps even psychotic, “Inju …” poses food for thought about the way films can be constructed and how Westerners view foreign societies and their institutions. Alex Fayard (Benoît Magimel) has just had his first novel published and translated into several languages and it becomes a  best-seller around the world, especially in Japan. His Japanese publisher organises a promotional trip so after wrapping up his last lecture for the term with a screening of a film based on a gruesome novel by Shundei Oe, that famous hermit writer, Fayard jets off to Japan for TV and radio interviews and book-signing sessions. While in Japan, among his marketing duties and sight-seeing trips organised by the publisher and his guide Ken Honda, Fayard meets and falls in love with a geisha, Tamao (Lika Minamoto), who seeks his help as she is being pursued by a vengeful and violent ex-boyfriend Ichiro Hirata who coincidentally happens to be the strange and disturbed Shundei Oe.

The film starts impressively with a visually striking and melodramatic mise-en-scène of the closing scenes of the crime drama Fayard screens for his students and for a while you may wonder whether “Inju …” will delve into issues like authors’ responsibility to readers to show the triumph of good over evil in fictional worlds where society flounders in moral ambiguity, evil is often disguised as good, good people are cut down and evil ones profit, and the universe itself appears not to care either way. At least Fayard hopes to meet his idol and argue that point; the movie appears to travel that way, setting up Fayard as a crusader using Oe’s plot constructions and arguments against themselves in his novel, and Oe as a sinister force who may test Fayard’s stand and moral mettle with the same weapons, and perhaps leave the Frenchman a changed man of stronger steel. Tamao may be the innocent mystery woman compromised by a past romance and her current relationship with her rich but violent and abusive patron Ryuji Mogi (Ryo Ishibashi). Clues and warnings are left for Fayard to discover and he gets swept up in piecing together a puzzle of Tamao’s dangerous liaisons and the mystery of Shundei Oe’s identity, nature and what he intends for Tamao, Mogi and Fayard himself.

Well folks, the plot doesn’t go quite as expected in a conventional, suspenseful, noirish way and astute viewers will pick up enough clues to crack Oe’s identity before all is revealed in the twist ending. Some people might feel a bit cheated by the MacGuffin device that drives what turns out to be a soap opera plot. Admittedly the set-up is ingenious and clever if far-fetched and Fayard turns out to be no more than a puppet manipulated by Oe in a not very complex web. “Inju …” is more clever and intellectual mystery crime drama of the kind Agatha Christie and her ilk might have written if they were alive today and used elements of psychological horror / slasher and fiction / film noir genres, than a noirish psychological study. Everything that happens to Fayard from the moment he leaves his apartment is a test of his character and intelligence in some way in a tight construction by Oe, and whether the Frenchman wins or not depends on if he can recognise the sequence of events happening around him as Oe’s next novel with himself as protagonist.

The acting isn’t anything special and Magimel who looks mostly shell-shocked has done far better work in films like Michael Haneke’s “The Piano Teacher” in which he played the manipulator student. There are very lovely scenes of modern Japanese life that are reminiscent of the style of Seijun Suzuki’s 1960’s gangster flick “Kanto Wanderer” and “Inju …” could be viewed as a travelogue of the exotic and perverse in modern Japanese culture with sometimes voyeuristic emphasis on its underbelly (the rich yakuza lifestyle, the use of ropes and knots in sadomasochistic sex) and the mix of native traditions and institutions with Western-style cultural sophistication.

“Inju …” could have been a riveting cat-and-mouse game in which Oe and Fayard try to outwit each other, trying to understand one another’s motives and Fayard himself questioning his own morality and original motivation in championing and criticising Oe’s body of fiction where evil always trounces good. Instead it’s a standard crime thriller with considerable potential left unrealised that Hollywood could do better if the right hack director (say,  Ridley Scott) were thrown into Schroeder’s hot seat. The opening scenes make “Inju …” worth at least one viewing.

At the very least, the movie can be viewed on one level as an intellectual subversion of Western presumptions about Japanese society, its treatment of women and the institution and of geishas and the roles they play vis-à-vis their male clients, and how one woman  uses her supposed victim status and passivity to play two men and their weaknesses against each other.

Se7en: well-made if not great film about good and evil in an indifferent universe

David Fincher, “Se7en” (1995)

“Se7en” is a well-made film with some excellent acting performances and an ingenious if implausible premise of a literate serial killer who plans and executes murders of undeserving people, or at least those he considers undeserving. What prevents “Se7en” from being a really great movie is a script that takes its leisurely time building up significant characters and the relationships among them only to try to come to a quick resolution in the last 30 minutes by bringing in the murderer who then has to rattle off on how the series of murders will be completed. The slow build-up is appreciated but perhaps it could have been cut back a bit to allow for a fuller development of the serial killer John Doe (Kevin Spacey) in his character and motivations, and his relationship to the detectives on his trail, William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and David Mills (Brad Pitt).

The action takes place in a generic city of grimy derelict buildings and social problems of poverty, crime, prostitution and drug-dealing networks. Rain falls constantly on this city and occasionally the weather brightens up to reveal a bit of sunshine but the sleaze and filth remain after repeated clean-up attempts. Here, Somerset has been investigating and solving crime but after many years he is planning to retire and move to a less crime-ridden place. In its infinite wisdom worthy of a cosmic joker or Hollywood TV crime show writers, the police department pairs him with rookie cop Mills, a recent transfer from out of town, who proves to be the complete opposite of Somerset in personality, character and approach to the job: where Somerset is level-headed, keeps his cool and does meticulous research at libraries as well as in police files, Mills is hot-headed, acts before he thinks and rarely delves into a world beyond pop culture. While sorting out their good cop / bad cop routine, the two have to grimace their way through and make sense of three crimes, two of which involve murders, each illustrating one of the Seven Deadly Sins referenced in Dante Alighieri’s “The Divine Comedy”. A montage sequence in the movie that flits back and forth between Somerset and Mills doing their separate investigations establishes the two men’s differences nicely.

The detectives track down a man called John Doe to his apartment; he starts shooting at them and flees. Mills gives chase through the building and outside but is outwitted by Doe who holds him at gunpoint. Inexplicably Doe spares his life and leaves the scene. The detectives later determine from examining books and papers in Doe’s apartment that he is planning a fourth murder but they are too late to prevent it. They then discover a fifth murder which doesn’t tell them anything new about the killer.

Between investigating the crimes, Somerset becomes acquainted with Mills’ wife Tracey (Gwyneth Paltrow) who warms to him as a father figure and confidante. She tells him she is unhappy with Mills’ recent transfer and reveals that she had thought of leaving him but is pregnant. Learning that Mills hasn’t been told of the pregnancy, Somerset offers his opinion that the city isn’t a good place to raise a child and tells Tracey he once convinced an ex-girlfriend to abort her pregnancy. The diner scene in which Paltrow and Somerset talk together is very moving with Paltrow’s acting demonstrating considerable if restrained emotional depth in the short film space she is given. This scene is a pivotal one in the film as Tracey herself becomes involved in the series of seven crimes.

Freeman brings substance to a role that admittedly makes few demands on his experience and skill as an actor. Perhaps if he had played the role less straight-faced and enjoyed investigating the crimes – and perhaps the film could have shown him receiving the odd cryptic note or two from Doe about the crimes or future crimes so that there’s an indication that the two might be knowingly sparring together – Freeman’s performance might have had more depth as Somerset becomes a more morally ambiguous and questionable character and that in itself would have pushed the actor to give more to the role. Pitt plays Mills in a straightforward manner, to the point where the character becomes stereotyped, until the film’s climax where, wrestling with his emotions and Somerset’s warnings, he gives way to his impulses and literally becomes a broken man. Pitt’s performance here is at once emotional yet restrained as his character struggles with giving in to his anger and controlling himself. The scene is artfully set up: Mills ends up behaving as his nature dictates and becomes Doe’s unwilling accomplice and executioner, yet finds hollowness as his reward. The setting in which the climax takes place is significant: for some reason never revealed to the detectives or the audience, Doe has arranged for the detectives to pick up a box at a site in the open countryside far from the city near some towers. The sky is blue and the sun shines strongly. Yet the most shocking manipulation and crimes, involving the killing of innocents and Mills’s “forced” participation, occur on a bright and beautiful day just dawning.

Of the minor roles, Paltrow provides the movie’s heart and soul as a woman trapped in marriage to a selfish child-man with anger management issues and Spacey is chilling and excellent as the cold-blooded yet ordinary-looking sociopath who frees her from her particular hell. I’d have liked to see Doe’s relationships to Somerset, Mills and his wife more clearly established throughout the film: Somerset as Doe’s intellectual equal and sparring partner who understands Doe’s literary and cultural references and where he is coming from; Mills as Doe’s unwilling plaything; and Tracey as an idealisation of what Doe desires and envies. There is irony in that Doe believes Mills and Tracey have the perfect married life when in fact one of the two feels imprisoned and wants out.

There are plot details that aren’t entirely consistent and Doe must have moved around at lightning speed in the early hours of the final morning of the 7-day period over which the movie takes place. Some of the police procedural and forensic collection details may be dicey in their accuracy too. The theme of the movie – that good people can’t just walk away from the evil that exists in the world but must do what they can to resist and fight it – is strong yet the characters and events that occur constantly subvert it. Doe sees himself as a crusader who must sweep away the filth he sees: his early victims are people who have exploited others or encouraged others to sin; his choice of later victims suggests he wants the police to see that they too are corruptible and can commit sin as well. As a mentally disturbed sociopath, Doe is as self-serving as Mills is self-centred and Somerset is removed from ordinary human affairs; in a twisted way, Doe forces both Mills and Somerset to get more involved with the world as it is with all its imperfections and messiness, and perhaps to see their place in it. Mills ends up broken and Somerset reconsiders his decision to leave the police force. The world is awash in filth and grime, and what is good and what is evil may not be clear-cut and might even mimic each other, but people whose motives are uncorrupted must do what they can to make the world a better place.

Worth seeing at least once for those of strong stomach as the murders, though they occur off-screen, are gruesome and the detectives’ reactions on seeing the bodies are as upsetting as the scenes themselves. The film’s emphasis is on following Mills and Somerset’s investigations into the murders, the choices and decisions they make, and how these reflect their different personalities and characters; the result is a movie that can be slow in building up to the climax and then rushing it once Doe approaches the detectives. This could have been a great film about how well-intentioned but fallible people must try to combat complex and protean forms of evil in an indifferent universe but as it is, it’s quite a good effort when I consider that this was Fincher’s second movie after the debacle that was “Alien 3”.

The Man without a Past: heart-warming comedy about need for “identity” to survive in modern society

Aki Kaurismäki, “The Man without a Past” (2002)

A heart-warming comedy about a man who is beaten up and left for dead but survives only to find he has no memory of his name or of his previous life, “The Man without a Past” is a showcase of Finnish stoicism, wry deadpan humour and eccentricity beneath an apparently conformist veneer. The unnamed everyman hero, played by Markku Peltola, has just got off a train with a large case and goes to sit in a city park. He dozes off and while asleep, is attacked and viciously beaten by thugs who take his wallet. The victim, whom we’ll call M, is taken to hospital where the medical staff pronounce him dead and leave him alone in bed. At that point, M springs up and leaves the hospital, bandaged face and all, and ventures out into the city streets and along the harbour front where he is found by two boys. They take him home which turns out to be an old shipping container where they and their parents have had to live while waiting to join the queue for public housing. So begins the new life of M among a community of homeless city people in a world that operates under the radar of mainstream society and visited only by charities like the Salvation Army, one of whose members, Irma (Kati Ouitnen), forms a romantic relationship with M.

The visual style of the film looks very clear and clean, almost innocent even; it shows a world where everything is taken at face value and any search for meaning or logic to the things that destiny dishes out to you is fruitless. The absurdism of M’s world is reflected in his encounters with representatives of mainstream society: the office manager at the construction site where M tries to apply for work tells him he can’t be paid in cash but must have a bank account so the banks can keep tabs on his spending; the bank clerk tells him he can have a Swiss bank account with just a number but he must still give his name and address details; the bank robber shoots out the CCTV camera (which wasn’t working anyway) but steals money only from his own account; and the police inspector and the lawyer appointed to defend M pull out large tomes, flip thin pages and argue over detailed technical aspects and exemptions to the law that requires M to be detained as a vagrant or possible trouble-maker. The comedy arising from these incidents is very dry and poker-faced, slightly sinister and satirical, and may say something pointed and terse about the nature of bureaucracy in Finland or bureaucracy generally.

Characters as directed have a calm, even slightly robotic, nature to them with deadpan voices and facial expressions. People accept disappointment and disaster stoically and if and when good luck comes to them, their reaction is hardly more expressive. What dialogue there is, is in the form of speeches or statements of fact; rarely do people express what and how they feel. Even in intimate scenes between M and Irma, the emotion tends to be sensed in the mood of the scene and in the characters’ very minimal body language; there is a kissing scene but the camera doesn’t hold it for long and the actions are very matter-of-fact. The scene in which M is reunited with his wife, who informs him of the divorce while he was missing, and meets her new beau is amazingly (though logical given the kind of universe the film operates in) calm and civilised; the two men debate whether they should get upset and punch each other’s lights out, then make their decision, shake hands and depart on friendly terms. Perhaps the measure of acting skill lies in actors’ ability not to crack up or smirk while delivering funny lines in comic situations and in this, the whole cast including two small boys and a dog passes the test with ease.

Some viewers might see a strong if pedantic Christian message in the film: among other things, Irma persuades M to go back to his wife even though M doesn’t remember the woman and Irma herself would become a lonely singleton again. Those passages in the movie that deal with Salvation Army characters fall in line with the absurdist nature of the universe presented: the SA members on the whole act very much like the secular characters in the film, winking at ideas and practices that possibly conflict with SA ideals and beliefs but which do no harm to others or bring non-believers into the SA fold. Scenes in which M persuades the SA musicians to update their repertoire of songs to include more rock and pop standards and to use electric guitars and a full drum-kit are droll and touching. The music in “The Man …” is very eclectic and whimsical, going from Christian hymns to rockabilly, and though the eclecticism of music choice and the result might seem weird to people outside Finland, as a proud owner of a stack of Finnish rock and pop albums ranging from electronic folk pop to black metal, I can vouch for the music soundtrack being the kind of creature Finnish society and culture accept as within the range of normal music.

The message that most viewers will go away with is that life continually goes forward and you do what you can to keep going in the face of official indifference but there is a deeper, perhaps more sinister theme. In a way, “The Man …” is a sad film: it emphasises that without an official identity, people don’t exist. M is forced by circumstances to make a new life for himself in an underground community that accepts him with no hesitation and whose values make it more alive than mainstream society where you are “alive” only because you have a name, a social security number or ongoing credit card transactions that your bank can trace. In the film, everything becomes inverted to reflect the contrast between the two societies: cold becomes warm, lack of outward emotion demonstrates inner warmth and Hannibal the fierce guardian dog is really just a friendly pooch. By the same token, outward warmth and expressiveness mask inner cold and inhumanity. Venturing into mainstream society in order to get a job and earn money to pay his rent for his own shipping container home, M falls into a world more completely Kafkaesque than anything the famous Czech writer wrote.

Perhaps not a film for everyone, and not very realistic, but in its modest way this is a very optimistic film of hope and salvation in which a character undergoes a major change and rediscovers life and humanity.

Spider Forest: amusing psych horror / art-house drama that maps an amnesiac mind’s networks

Song Ilgon, “Spider Forest” (2004)

Amusing if eccentric film that straddles a grey zone between art-house drama and psychological horror thriller, “Spider Forest” carries themes about the role of memory and memory networks in forming people’s identities and how the mind under amnesia tries to reconstruct identity and reality. It starts innocently enough looking like a psych horror / slasher flick in which a lone everyday man, Kang Min (Kam Woosung), by occupation a TV producer who makes a mystery show series, finds himself in a remote forest and sees a cabin some distance away. Walking and entering the cabin, Kang is horrified to discover the body of a man brutally and frenziedly hacked to death in one room and a dying woman in another part of the building. He recognises the woman as a friend, Suyoung, as she dies in his arms. Kang is then chased back into the forest by a shadowy intruder who beats him around the head with a bat. Dazed, Kang later stumbles into a traffic tunnel where he is hit by a car. The last thing he sees is a blurry image of someone looking down at him before he lapses into a coma.

When he wakes up again, Kang is in hospital. He requests that police investigate two murders in the forest, known as Spider Forest. Detective Choi (Jang Hyunsung) comes to see him in the hospital and Kang tells him what he knows. The police conduct a search of the cabin and identify the two dead people as persons Kang knows: the man is his ex-boss (Choi Sungha) at the TV station and the woman, Suyoung (Kang Kyunghun), is his co-worker with whom Kang had been having a romance.

From this point on, Kang, urged on by Choi, tries to remember the events leading up to his discovery of the bodies in the cabin in Spider Forest. People who Kang remembers from the past – his wife, for example, who died in a plane crash – intrude into his attempts to remember and retrace what happened that might lead Choi and the other police to the killer. Along the way Kang meets Sujin (Suh Jung), an enigmatic photography shop assistant, who may be an imaginary construct in his mind as it struggles to restore hiis “reality”.

The structure of the plot, moving from present to bits and pieces of the past that run in parallel and back, bouncing from one time period to another, revisitng various memories, mirrors the way Kang’s fractured mind works to restore his memories and sense of self. How much that is restored reflects actual reality and how much is or should be linked to the Spider Forest murders is the puzzle for viewers to consider. There’s the possibility that Kang’s mind is working to prevent him from feeling any guilt or responsibility for what happened in the cabin or to deny what part he might have played. Scenes in which Kang edits his TV show while it is broadcasting and his boss fires him for doing so among others suggest Kang has often avoided responsibility for serious mistakes or fled problems when they should be confronted. Denial definitely plays a part in his flight response: the legend Sujin tells Kang about a boy and a girl who witness a murder in the Spider Forest cabin turns out to be partly based on something that actually occurred in Kang’s childhood which forced him and his father to leave their community. Denial and avoidance thus became part of Kang’s mental arsenal of dealing with life and its problems at an early age.

Kang’s need to visit Spider Forest in spite of his injuries and the constant replay of death and murder in his mind suggest a growing realisation that he can no longer live his life by old mental habits and must face up to his ultimate responsbility, portrayed in the movie by what he discovers behind a metal door in a cave deep in Spider Forest in the climax. This is the loopiest (literally) scene in the movie, very much like what I’d expect to see in a David Lynch film, yet it makes good sense if “Spider Forest” is read as a film about memory, the process of remembering, and people learning to live with losses and to confront and tackle things and issues they have tried to deny or evade in the past.

There’s much visual beauty in the film, particularly in the daytime scenes filmed in the forest that serves as Spider Forest and in the scenes where Kang and Sujin take a ski-lift ride and are briefly suspended in the blue sky overlooking the mountain scenery. In the evening scenes, the forest appears as tall spindly ghostly beings that might well harbour creepy spiders (representing the dark niches of memory that store unpleasant secrets) and vengeful killers. The acting is understated with Suh Jung notable in playing two roles, the impassive, almost anaemic Sujin and the lively, laughing wife Eun-ah. Kam is impressive also, having to carry the entire film as a man having difficulties in accepting his wife’s death and being forced to face up to denial, failure and responsbility in his life, and then on top of all that, being knocked over physically and enduring serious head injuries and problems.

The atmosphere can be creepy and often has an ethereal, spiritual feel throughout the film. Some viewers may find the pace quite slow and the tension builds up little by little for a resolution to the murder that many people will be able to solve about halfway through the movie. Being billed as just a horror movie does “Spider Forest” no favour as, in spite of the name and the first several minutes, there’s really nothing about the film at all that fits the conventional horror movie template: calm, even laidback in some ways, the obvious “horror” aspects like the mysterious cellphone caller and the ghost forest appearance appearing like McGuffins that in the end add nothing to the plot, “Spider Forest” turns out to be a well-dressed and visually stunning art-house puzzle. Recommended for those with no preconceptions of what a psychological study / horror / art-house drama should run like, the movie should be seen at least twice or three times for its meaning to be properly understood.

Gasland: intelligent and unassuming documentary on fracking

Josh Fox, “Gasland” (2010)

Written, filmed, narrated and directed by Josh Fox, this documentary is a personal journey investigating the nature and environmental impact of the hydraulic fracturing process (fracking) used by natural gas companies to drill for gas in parts of the United States. The project arose when Fox received a letter from one such company offering to lease his family’s property in a rural part of Pennsylvania for $100,000 to drill for natural gas. Curious about what the offer involved, Fox researched natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale area that underlies his neighbourhood and much of the northeastern US as far as Ohio. He met families who’d already signed such leases and, after drilling had started, could set their tap water on fire, were suffering from health problems and believed their water supplies were contaminated with methane and other toxins. This discovery led him to drive to Colorado, Wyoming and Texas where projects drilling for natural gas have been operating for several years and to meet farmers, ranchers and other rural folk who also had health problems arising from contaminated water and were worried about the environmental problems the drilling was causing.

Interspersed in the home-movie documentary are interviews with scientists, politicians and gas industry representatives who give their sides to the issue. Along with the personal stories of the communities affected by the drilling, this makes for a low-key, even-handed if repetitive presentation. Near the end of the documentary, Fox records a discussion by a US Congressional subcommittee into legislation to amend an act, originally introduced by former US Vice-President Dick Cheney in 2005, that gave exemptions to gas and other energy companies from acts regulating water quality and protecting the enrvironment, and allowed them to prospect and drill for resources with impunity.

The documentary’s emphasis is on the stories of people and communities affected by fracking and how it devastates their livelihood and the countryside around them. One cattle rancher’s story in particular I found very touching as he spoke of his property having been in his and his wife’s families for a long time and of his concern about the effects of the fracking – there were over 20 drilling wells on the land – on the cows and their calves, and on the land gemerally. The stories tend to be very similar which makes the film repetitive but they all strongly suggest that certain phenomena have occurred in connection with the fracking which should be followed and documented by a proper and independent scientific study. I have the impression that “Gasland” is intended to serve as a witness for the people interviewed and to the events occurring as a possible result of fracking, and the film could be used to launch such an investigation.

Fox adopts a low-key approach to interviewing his subjects and making the documentary so it has the feel of news reporting as it might have been done once upon a time before information became infotainment. His voice-over narration might be too fast for some viewers to follow, especially when he talks about the fracking process and what inputs it requires (lots of water and nearly 600 different chemcials injected into rock to bring the gas to the surface), but dry humour and modesty are present. The quality of the filming isn’t great – much of it was filmed by Fox himself using handheld cameras so it’s jumpy in parts and often looks very washed out and slightly blurred – but there is a homely feel as well, helped by the inclusion of Fox strumming a banjo and a sparing country music soundtrack. He fits in shots of the countryside as well: beautiful mountain landscapes under snow, broad grassy plains across Wyoming and lush green forests in Pennsylvania; and the whole time you’re watching the scenery pass by as Fox drives along you’ll be thinking of the destruction and pollution that are sure to occur in these pristine areas if energy companies are allowed to drill there: very clever film-making indeed.

Maybe “Gasland” isn’t as slick and slapstick as some of Michael Moore’s documentaries but its unassuming approach with its first-person viewpoint and emphasis on the personal connection Fox has with the fracking issue brings the subject and its opposed sides to the fore and forces viewers to take a stand. Fox doesn’t offer any solutions; he simply says it’s up to individual viewers to decide what to do after the end credits roll onto the screen. Some people might see this as a weakness, that Fox doesn’t advocate a particular stand or suggest ways in which viewers might help the people interviewed or mobilise against gas companies should they come knocking at the front door with papers full of tiny print to sign, as they did to Fox. There may well be inaccuracies and bending of the truth in the some of the stories presented and various US state politicians and natural gas companies have already emphasised many of them in a defensive way. For all its faults – and we have to remember it was made on a small budget – “Gasland” is an intelligent film that treats its subject, interviewees and audiences with respect and encourages viewers to find out more about fracking and its consequences for people, communities and the environment.

Balibo: film that forces viewers to think and ask questions about tragic fate of six news reporters

Robert Connolly, “Balibo” (2009)

Imaginatively constructed as three stories that initially fit into one another like Russian matryoshka dolls, of which two more or less spread out and run parallel for much of the film, “Balibo” recounts the fate of five Australian TV reporters who disappeared in Balibo in East Timor in October 1975, and of their compatriot journalist Roger East who investigated the men’s deaths and was himself killed by Indonesian soldiers a few weeks after the original murders. Often billed as a political thriller, the film also dramatises several accounts and stories by East Timorese people, represented by the fictional character of Juliana da Costa, and pays tribute to them and the heroic struggle of their people for independence from Portugal and then Indonesia. The film acts on another level as a road movie in which Roger East, played by Anthony LaPaglia, becomes a close friend of young revolutionary Jose Ramos-Horta (Oscar Isaacs), the founder of the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor aka Fretelin, who invited East to come to East Timor to see and report on the events there.

LaPaglia carries much of “Balibo” as the veteran journalist who could have had a cushy public relations job back in Australia but chose instead to go rough in abandoned villages and tropical countryside to find the five reporters after Ramos-Horta shows him their photographs and tells him they are missing. LaPaglia’s performance is understated and matter-of-fact in the manner of stony-faced, hard-nosed Australian news reporting of the 1970’s; later in the film, when he has been to Balibo, seen some horrific sights and returned to Dili, the full impact of what happened to the reporters hits him and he breaks down silently in tears. LaPaglia plays his part quietly and well, giving a good impression of a seasoned reporter who refuses to take no for an answer, pushes himself to walk through thick forest and grassland under army fire and banters with Ramos-Horta on their trek.

As Ramos-Horta, Isaacs doesn’t have a lot to do beyond looking good, being a fired-up revolutionary and bickering with East as they walk to Balibo. He disappears from the film after they reach the town and his character doesn’t appear again until the very end. The actors who play the five TV reporters in the film’s recreation of their journey to Balibo to document the Indonesian invasion are portrayed as chummy (though their employers are rival TV stations – in those days, Australian free-to-air TV channels were more co-operative and less competitive), drinking and laughing together, doing the best job they can filming and reporting on what they see under difficult and stressful conditions, and collecting stories from the local people. Their death scene is painful and shocking in its casual and brutal nature; the men’s fear and near-hysteria as the killers pursue them are very real but not overly dramatic, particularly in a scene in which one man, hiding behind a door, panics and considers his options wordlessly before bravely opening the door to face his killers.

All other significant roles in “Balibo” are played by East Timorese amateurs. The role of Juliana is well played by a young girl who as the eight-year-old Juliana makes friends with East and later sees him being killed, and by an older woman in her 30’s who tells of her life under Indonesian occupation to an Australian man at the time of East Timor’s independence in 1999. Viewers will warm to the young girl who is very charming in the small amount of screen-time she gets.

Filmed on a small budget, the movie relies partly on handheld camera work which means a lot of it looks jumpy to viewers. The story of the five Australian reporters appears in bleached-out, over-bright colours: the film-makers use lenses typical of what was used in Australian news reporting in 1975 to film that part of the plot. Unfortunately, many historical details are glossed over and the despicable role of the Australian and American governments in tacitly approving the invasion – it’s known that US president Gerald Ford and his national security advisor Henry Kissinger passed through Indonesia a few days before the invasion took place, and that then Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam believed East Timor should be “integrated” into Indonesia – is reduced to Ramos-Horta’s scatological comment on a photo of Whitlam and Indonesian president Suharto in a newspaper. What happens to Ramos-Horta after he and East arrive in Balibo isn’t made clear though viewers who don’t know much about East Timor’s current politics will be relieved to find he survived the Indonesian occupation in exile and became president of East Timor in 2007. As president, Ramos-Horta has so far been lukewarm on the idea of prosecuting members of the Indonesian military for war crimes against East Timor that left over 180,000 of his people dead.

Apart from its limitations, “Balibo” is an excellent movie that is worth watching. It doesn’t provide much historical background to the tragic events but as drama it’s intended to get audiences thinking about the fate of the Balibo Five and East, and to demand answers from the Australian, American and Indonesian governments about why the six men were killed and their deaths covered up for so long.

Strangers on a Train (dir. Alfred Hitchcock): film labours under director’s favourite themes and obsessions

Alfred Hitchcock, “Strangers on a Train” (1951)

As with many other films made by English-American director Alfred Hitchcock, “Strangers on a Train” plumbs the theme of two men twinned together by unusual circumstances, each man the other’s doppelgänger, and with one man blamed and pursued for the crimes of his dark twin. In “Strangers …”, the presumed hero Guy Haines (Farley Granger) is an all-American good guy: born into the working-class, through talent and hard work he becomes a successful and famous amateur tennis player who through his friendship with a senator’s family is destined for a career in politics; the villain Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) is a spoilt high society playboy who stalks Guy and tries to blackmail him through his murder of Guy’s wife Miriam (Kasey Rogers aka Laura Elliott). Had the film been directed by anyone else in the 1950’s, the roles of Guy and Bruno would be clear-cut: the naive Guy might make mistakes of judgement that would compromise him and draw him into Bruno’s web of blackmail and threats, but would learn from his errors and be a better, stronger person at the end, and Bruno might be a one-dimensional sinister criminal from the underworld. Under the Hitchcock blowtorch, these two men, their backgrounds and their relationship become a running commentary on American politics, culture and society of the time and turn conventional Hollywood movie notions of love, sexual attraction, good guys and bad guys on their head.

Guy and Bruno meet accidentally in the dining-room part of a fast train, sitting almost opposite each other casually, as we might do in a crowded food-court at a shopping mall for lunch, and Guy’s foot accidentally brushing against Bruno’s. A subtle homoerotic sub-text is set up immediately and it’s significant that Guy initiates the meeting unconsciously. Bruno already knows much about Guy from reading the newspapers and is aware of the athlete’s unhappy marriage; he proposes that he, Bruno, can get rid of Miriam if Guy can get rid of his (Bruno’s) brutal father. Guy wants no part of the arrangement but his resistance is weak and is interpreted by Bruno as agreement. After this meeting, the movie then explores the nature of Guy and Miriam’s marriage in some detail and viewers learn that Miriam refuses divorce because she wants to live off Guy’s earnings and stop him marrying Anna Morton (Ruth Roman), the daughter of a senator (Leo G Carroll) whose patronage Guy might need. Already we see Guy will benefit from Miriam being out of the way; and a phone conversation between Guy and Anna, interrupted by background train noises, reveals Guy’s unconscious wish of strangling Miriam. Bruno soon carries out his part of the “deal” and starts pressuring Guy to complete his part or to reject it and have Bruno tailing him and reminding him of his “guilt”.

As portrayed by Granger, Guy is a conventional, well-meaning but rather naive bunny lacking in moral fibre and strength: Granger definitely isn’t leading-man material but his style and lack of charisma work for the role. Guy is obsessed with keeping up appearances, keeping his public image squeaky-clean and safeguarding his entry into politics, all of which make him vulnerable to Bruno’s suggestions. Walker all but walks off with the movie: he clearly revels in his role as spoilt, rich mummy’s boy Bruno who lives off his parents and dreams of remaking the world either through half-baked inventions or murder according to his particular pseudo-Nietzschean moral code. His mind works methodically, logically: in conversation with two society matrons at a ball, he deftly steers the talk to committing the perfect murder and demolishes the two crones’ suggestions of the best way to knock off people with persuasive yet obvious counter-arguments. Having killed Miriam, he kindly posts a gun, a key and instructions to Guy to help him murder his own dad; innocent that he is and conscious of his wish for Miriam’s death, Guy keeps the weapon and instructions instead of turning them over to the police. Bruno is both sinister and amusing: his murder of Miriam, viewed indirectly as a mirror image in the victim’s dropped spectacles in the grass, is cold-blooded and vicious enough but from then on, the memory of the killing starts to play on his conscience with darkly hilarious and gruesome results at the aforementioned party. He pops up in Guy’s life at unexpected moments: at the evening ball, at Guy’s home and at his tennis matches – in one memorable if fantastic scene, Bruno sits in the middle of a crowd watching the tennis and is the only person who stares straight ahead at Guy on the sidelines while others around him are following the flying ball with their heads; the scene is suggestive on different levels and on one level, Bruno could be said to be a free-thinking, independent individual in a herd of sheep who follow every political trend.

The film encourages audiences to sympathise with Bruno: who doesn’t feel like popping a child’s balloon when rudely accosted by its owner? if you drop an expensive cigarette lighter down a grate, wouldn’t you also bust an arm to get it out? and on watching someone’s wife flirt shamelessly with two strange men she’s picked up off the street and who expect sexual favours from her, wouldn’t you think you were doing the husband a favour (and maybe the hussy as well – she might get raped) by killing her?

The acting support shines in “Strangers …” by flavouring the backgrounds of Bruno and Guy, enriching their relationship and conflict. Bruno’s mother (Marion Lorne) seems dotty with more than one foot in the land of the fairies but this may be a mask for denying her husband and son’s natures; only the portrait she paints of Bruno’s dad hints at the man’s brutality and explains why Bruno is so keen for Guy to kill him. From Bruno’s viewpoint, both he and Guy are oppressed by the institution of Family and they should help free each other in ways that won’t attract the attention of the incompetent police force in the movie. Miriam and Anna’s characters together are a comment on Guy’s attempt to transit from one world to another: Miriam is a free spirit, uninhibited and independent while Anna, otherwise cluey and smart, is demure and knows her place in the Washington DC social set. Interestingly Barbara (Patricia Hitchcock – yes, Hitchcock gave his daughter a job) seems a lot like Miriam in looks, character and tendency to speak out so there’s a possibility that Guy might end up two-timing Anna with the young sister in a life beyond the movie’s confines. Though Miriam and Anna appear older than Guy – the contrast between their characters and Guy’s indecisive nature might be intentional – their actors achieve a good balance between delineating the women, playing up their contrasts which are as much due to social class differences as in individual outlook and psychology, on the one hand and overshadowing Guy’s passiveness on the other.

Stand-out scenes in “Strangers …” include Bruno’s pursuit and murder of Miriam, filmed as a shadow play; the alternating scenes of Guy’s drawn-out tennis match and Bruno striving to retrieve Guy’s cigarette lighter from under the grate, each man pitted against the other in a cosmic joke duel which drags the tension out and bogs the movie down while it lasts; and the hysterically over-the-top climax in which a merry-go-round is accidentally set on overdrive as Bruno and Guy leap onto it and punch each other over the incriminating lighter. The sexual connotations of the whirring merry-go-round (complete with a little old guy crawling underneath it so he can get to the lever in the middle and turn it off, and all those wooden horses pumping up and down on the poles), who punches whose lights out first and the whole contraption crashing down and mortally crushing one of the two men, sending him off into something resembling a post-orgasmic dream reverie, are screamingly funny! Indeed the whole lead-up to and the carousel climax, starting with Anna’s report to Guy that Bruno has his lighter, plus the death scene, might be seen as an act of homoerotic consummation.

For a movie that initially looks and runs like a mainstream popcorn thriller, there’s a lot happening under the radar that comments on aspects of early 1950’s American society as Hitchcock found it. My impression is he went over the top himself and loaded too many themes and issues that took his fancy onto the film: in common with other Hitchcock movies, the plot comes over as implausible and the movie ends up a bit lightweight because of the heavy layering of symbolism. The merry-go-round climax does look like a jokey, self-indulgent afterthought and its slapstick nature doesn’t really fit in with the low-key suspense and subtle comedy in the rest of the film. In a way it’s a pity that “Strangers …” is a black-and-white film (technically speaking): colour would bring out a lot of the visual puns and the scenes relying on shadow play might even be creepier with layered shades of dark and black rather than just grey. The movie’s worth a look at least for Walker’s riveting performance as Bruno.

Downfall: masterly if flawed fictional account of Adolf Hitler’s last days

Oliver Hirschbiegel, “Downfall” (2004)

This is an incredible and masterly fictional dramatisation of the last 14 days in the life of Adolf Hitler over April – May, 1945, during the dying days of Nazi Germany and the Second World War in Europe. “Downfall” captures a whole world, an era, going down in flames, chaos and desperation as the Soviet army invades Berlin, leaving death and ruin in its wake, the German armed forces collapse for lack of manpower, supplies and coherent strategy, and civilians and soldiers alike scrabble and fight over food and shelter in the destroyed capital. While this is happening, the remnants of Hitler’s regime hide in an underground bunker where Hitler himself, aged and suffering from Parkinson’s disease, persists in his fantasies of leading Germany to victory and creating a new glorious Berlin, a citadel of (kitsch) art and culture, as the country burns around him.

History texts and documentaries can give us the blow-by-blow details of Nazi Germany’s death but what they can’t do is give a psychological portrait of Hitler and his closest supporters like Eva Braun, architect Albert Speer and propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and his wife Magda. The film focusses on the characters of these people by structuring itself around the viewpoint (in part) of Hitler’s young personal secretary Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara) who appears as a passive observer doing her job and staying steadfast to Hitler to his dying day and beyond; any qualms she might have about her boss’s state of mind and his ways of thinking, she suppresses for the sake of duty and devotion to a man who has always treated her with fatherly kindness and gentleness. Skilfully woven into the drama is a parallel story of a fictional child soldier called Peter who represents both Germany’s manic desperation to fight the war to the very end, exemplified by the recruitment of himself and his young friends in the Hitler Youth as soldiers, and Germany’s hope for renewal as he survives the war and finds a companion in Junge herself after he discovers his parents have killed themselves in despair. Other parallel stories include those of the Goebbels, Braun, Speer, the army doctor Schenck and various military officers, all of whom are torn in some way between what they believe or think is right and wrong, what they know they should do and their loyalty to Hitler.

Students of psychology keen to know how people cope and behave in extreme situations in a virtual prison will find a feast here: Hitler (Bruno Ganz) zings constantly between denial and flights into fantasy – he imagines moving armies into positions to crush the Reds – on the one hand, and tirades about the supposed incompetence of advisors and officers he thought he could trust, and how the German people deserve to die for their weaknesses and inability to uphold and witness for Nazi ideals. He issues ever more eccentric orders to execute competent men and, as news of Soviet encroachment on the bunker comes, makes arrangements to marry Eva and to commit suicide with her. The retreat into fantasy as a way of coping with reality, staving off despair and covering up one’s own incompetence and responsibility for failures by blaming others and wishing evil on them becomes understandable. By doing this though, Hitler becomes a degraded and contemptible human being. We see, through Ganz’s intense and electrifying performance, the kind of “monster” Hitler is: egotistic, self-pitying, volatile and unstable, brutal, charming, kind and affectionate in an empty sort of way. His best friend is his dog Blondi yet he orders the dog killed in a pitiless manner.

Also as extreme and puzzling is the behaviour of people like the Goebbels and various minor characters who regard Hitler as a god and have such faith in his leadership and abilities that they’d rather die with him than live. Normally we’d admire people who place honour, integrity and devotion to ideals above personal interest and ambitions but what can we make of intelligent and capable people like Magda Goebbels (Corinna Harfouch) who has such a sincere and child-like if deluded faith in Hitler and Nazism that, unable to imagine a different Germany, kills all her children? What background and psychological history does she have, that on the one hand she idolises Hitler and clings to him in a way at once shocking and demeaning of herself, and on the other moulds her children into perfect little Nazi angels only to despatch of them in a steely and cold-blood manner?

The acting performances, particularly those of Ganz and Harfouch, are strong and riveting. The film loses some spark after Hitler and Braun’s deaths but the knowledge that the Goebbels plan to die and take their six children with them sustains tension to the end. My main gripe is the “happy” ending in which Junge and Peter cycle on a bike away from Berlin through a forest.  For me, this ending is a cop-out to cheer up audiences; the reality is that several of the women who left the bunker along with Junge were captured, raped and brutalised by Soviet Army soldiers. It’s possible Junge was raped and tortured as well though she did not mention if she was raped or not in her memoir, on which “Downfall” is partly based.

The film’s narrow focus on Hitler’s last 14 days, while it demonstrates the mind-set of Hitler and his followers, doesn’t say anything about the kind of society or psychological culture of Germany that allowed Hitler and his National Socialist party to achieve power originally, maintain that power while junking democratic processes and crushing opposition, industrialise the country and restore its pride only to take it into a prolonged war that destroyed its manufacturing achievements. For all his charm and charisma, and his promises, there’s no way Hitler and the Nazis could have just taken over Germany the way they did without support from most major institutions, like the armed forces, industry, the churches and other prominent organisations and individuals. If “Downfall” had included a few flashbacks to Hitler’s early days as a campaigning politician, bidding for the position of Chancellor in the early 1930’s, viewers might have got some idea of how Germany was seduced into trading a failing democracy for a psychopathic dictatorship. It could be said though that we have history text-books and documentaries to give us that background!

As it is, “Downfall” is a significant cinematic achievement which humanises Hitler and his followers without glorifying them; if anything, the movie shows how degraded, pitiful and even stupid they make themselves. Though the film isn’t a completely accurate historical record – some characters like Fegelein and Schenk are shown sympathetically – it demonstrates effectively the horrors of war, the suffering of ordinary people and the indifference of politicians to that suffering. The psychology of individuals like Hitler, Eva Braun and the Goebbels shown provide some insight into the thinking and actions of people caught up in a situation that’s rapidly and chaotically spinning out of their control and beyond their understanding.