The Passion of Joan of Arc: an experimental film let down by its narrow focus, story-line and characterisation

Carl Theodor Dreyer, “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928)

In itself, this silent film is remarkable for its lead actor Maria Falconetti’s acting from the neck up, portraying the anguish and suffering of the famous French heroine after she was captured by Burgundian forces who delivered her to the English for imprisonment and torture. Based on actual transcripts of Joan’s trial, the film covers the period from her incarceration to her death by burning at the stake. French clergymen loyal to the English cause try to force her to sign a confession admitting to being under Satanic influence and when that attempt fails, resort to blackmail and deception to compel her to sign. Threatened with burning, Joan allows a priest to guide her hand in signing the confession but later recants when given a life sentence. Having failed to break her resistance and spirit, the churchmen put Joan to death, and her public execution rouses the townsfolk into revolt against the religious and military authorities.

The film is noteworthy for its insistence on the use of facial close-ups of the lead character to convey her devotion to her king, her country and God, and to emphasise her spiritual purity and strength. Joan’s persecutors are filmed under harsh light that emphasises their craggy features (or soft facial padding as the case may be) and suggests that they are spiritually impoverished or corrupt. The clergy’s obsession with Joan wearing men’s clothes and the way in which they use the ritual of holy communion to trick Joan into signing the confession show the men are more interested in following empty forms of outward piety than pursuing spiritual enlightenment.

Unfortunately the film gives very little background (apart from title cards) to Joan’s imprisonment and says very little about the visions that inspired a simple peasant girl, unable to read and write, to take up arms and lead armies into battle against the English. Viewers can easily get the wrong idea about Joan’s character from watching Falconetti’s performance – there is little in her portrayal that suggests a forthright and determined character. Falconetti’s Joan makes an impression as a highly religious woman whose outward simplicity hides a fairly cunning mind. Occasionally she is given over to brief ecstatic episodes that might suggest she is hallucinating.

The film is not long but its narrow focus and minimal style can make it seem unbearably long for some viewers. Perhaps it might have worked better if several of the churchmen had been more devious and pretended to Joan that they desired to help her escape punishment – on conditions that they will make known at much, much later times. The film could have been as much an inquisition of Joan inside and outside of court, and emphasised a narrative of prison and trial as tests of Joan’s character and intelligence, as it is a portrayal of the “justice” meted out to her. We would see the qualities that made Joan an outstanding leader and a non-conformist whose very existence threatens the power hierarchy and values exemplified by the Roman Catholic Church. As an experimental film of a sort, it works well but the experimentation butts heads with a narrowly defined story-line and a heroine who turns out to be more conventional in character and portrayal than expected.

Festen: a rich film skewering Danish society and social hypocrisy, and delivering redemption

Thomas Vinterberg, “Festen” (1998)

“Festen” remains the best-known and most mainstream of the various films made under Dogme 95 movement rules. Even if audiences no longer remember what the goals and restrictions of Dogme 95 are, “Festen” still remains a powerful indictment of late 20th-century Danish society with its obsessions with social conventions and rituals, which serve to suppress and deny uncomfortable truths and secrets that have the power to destroy or at least derail people’s lives and prevent them from fulfilling their potential. The wealthy Klingenfeldt family is celebrating grand patriarch Helge’s 60th birthday at his country estate, and his surviving adult children Michael, Christian and Helene dutifully turn up despite Michael not having an official invitation after the last birthday celebration during which he drunkenly misbehaved himself. Now I say “surviving adult children” because the immediate Klingenfeldt family members soon start talking about their absent sister Linda who is revealed through dialogue and a clever device (in which Christian’s secret love Pia takes a bath) that she drowned herself in a bathtub full of water.

After the entire extended family arrives, everyone is called to dinner and speeches are made during which Christian (Ullrich Thomsen) reveals a shocking family secret involving himself, Linda and their father Helge (Henning Moritzen) and from that moment the film takes ever darker turns, reflected in the steady progress of the day from morning to afternoon to night, in which the family and guests reveal ever more hypocritical and crass sides of their characters and the equally pharisaical nature of Danish society generally in which social conventions, rituals and traditions mask coldness and cruelty, distance between parents and children, and put down children and stunt their growth and development. All of the Klingenfeldt children have somehow failed to meet their father Helge’s expectations of them, and all of them are stumbling through their lives trying to find meaning and purpose. Michael (Thomas Bo Larsen) has to learn discipline and control if his marriage is to survive and his children are to have a stable home environment. Helene (Paprika Steen) needs to stop waltzing from one foreign man to another and overcome her depression and pill-popping. Christian however cannot find meaning and purpose until he is able to confront his father with his crimes and his mother with her failure to protect him and Linda when they were chldren, and the film becomes as much about the way in which he grows and matures, overcoming one humiliation after another, and finally learns to take charge of his life and find love and purpose.

The adherence to Dogme 95 rules such as the use of hand-held cameras, grainy film of a particular size and various other restrictions gives “Festen” a raw immediacy that confronts audiences with the powerful emotions and the sheer enormity of Helge’s crimes and abuses against his children. The rules also throw the burden of carrying the film and its themes squarely onto the dialogue, the characters and the actors’ ability to carry everything off. The entire cast rises to the challenge and without exception performs magnificently. Thomsen is outstanding as the troubled son battling depression and other personal demons in order to stand up for Linda and himself, and to be able to go forward in life.

Minor characters in the film add to its depth and richness: the dotty elder relatives are sinister in their own ways and one feels for Helene’s African-American boyfriend who is the one sane and sensitive person in the entire birthday party debacle and who one senses will be thrown over like so many previous boyfriends. The servants are rich characters in themselves and push Christian in his endeavour to force his family to confront the truth about his father. Cleverly the film allows Helge’s wife (and the mother of Christian and his siblings) Elsie to condemn herself as an accessory to Helge’s past sins and she becomes a lonely and isolated figure scorned by family and guests alike.

While the film could have been made without Dogme 95 rules, and one does not need to know the rules to watch and appreciate the film’s power, “Festen” could have been a much lesser work without the rules. This film can be a terrifying experience with its depictions of violence, instability, depression and emotional pain, yet it unexpectedly also delivers forgiveness and redemption in amongst social criticism and black comedy. In years to come, this will be considered one of Denmark’s great films and a great film in the tradition of the comedy of manners, following films like Louis Renoir’s “The Rules of the Game”.

Breaking the Waves: a study of religious hypocrisy and oppression, and its effects on a naive woman, with a hollow heart

Lars von Trier, “Breaking the Waves” (1996)

For the most part this often nihilistic film is excruciating in its slow and exacting pace, and its drama is manipulative as well, but “Breaking the Waves” does raise very troubling questions about the nature of religious faith, Christian concepts about love, self-sacrifice and the role of women in conservative, fundamentalist Christian communities, and how Christianity offers both redemption and oppression to women if they believe in it. Its main character, Bess McNeill (Emily Watson in her film debut) is a naive young woman who has grown up in a severely authoritarian and insular Calvinist community in a remote part of Scotland. Quite how she meets Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), a hard-drinking, hard-living Swede working on a North Sea oil rig, is never explained but the two end up marrying, to the disapproval of Bess’s community. Only the girl’s mother and widowed sister-in-law, nurse Dodo (Katrin Cartlidge), grudgingly accept Jan. Through Jan, Bess experiences the joys and bliss of sexual intercourse and, having been starved of love and closeness all her life, becomes very needy and dependent on Jan.

Jan eventually has to return to the oil rig and Bess is thrown into despair. Her usual habit is to retreat to church or some place where no-one can observe her talking to God (in her own voice) and disputing with Him. She prays to God to return Jan and He apparently does so – by crippling Jan in an accident on the rig. Rendered paralysed from the neck down, Jan selfishly begs Bess to have affairs with other men and relay the details back to him so the couple can retain their carnal connection. Naturally Bess is repelled by Jan’s suggestion but as his condition goes from bad to worse, she starts to carry out his suggestions by masturbating men in buses and gradually whoring herself out to local men. Jan’s condition seems to improve after Bess tells him about her adventures and so she continues. Her behaviour antagonises Dodo and Dr Richardson who determine to keep her away from Jan and then to send her to a mental asylum as she appears to become more deluded about her ability to keep Jan alive and improve his condition. Needless to say, Bess’s family and church community are revolted by her activities and excommunicate her when she most needs emotional support and compassion for the arduous trials she believes God has imposed on her to demonstrate her love for Jan.

Watson’s acting as Bess is a tour-de-force that she has never been able to repeat in subsequent work and gives the character a depth that suggests the apparent naivete is a defence against the oppression and emotional coldness Bess has had to suffer all her life. It seems that only Jan is able to understand and appreciate what Bess is capable of. Dodo and Dr Richardson represent stereotypical well-meaning people who care for Bess but are blinded by the rationality drilled into them by nursing and medical school respectively. The rest of the cast pale into the background but do what they can to fill out a story that looks realistic but flies by its own Trierian logic. Von Trier milks the plot for all it can offer to create an emotional and moral dilemma for Bess: is Jan really out of his mind from all the drugs and surgical interventions? how can Bess tell if Dodo is telling her the truth about Jan’s day-to-day condition? does Jan sign the form approving Bess’s own interment into an asylum under duress from Dr Richardson?

The eventual resolution of the film’s plot sends up the central Christian belief in Jesus’ sacrifice for the love of humanity through crucifixion, his entombment, the disappearance of his body and his eventual resurrection. Significantly Dodo and Dr Richardson are converted to Bess’s cause after (spoiler alert) her agonising passion and persecution.

Love may be a mighty power indeed but at what cost to a person’s sanity and the values she lives by? The road that Bess is forced to travel and which strips her of love, support and finally God Himself is an unbelievably cruel and sadistic one. One suspects the reward she receives is not worth the degradation she is forced to undergo and the deity she worships is undeserving of her devotion. Despite the film’s excellent performances and the plot complications that enrich it, at its heart is a spiritual vacuum.

The Look of Silence: a grim and monotonous film about a personal quest but no context to make sense of it

Joshua Oppenheimer, “The Look of Silence” (2014)

A companion piece to Oppenheimer’s earlier documentary “The Act of Killing”, this film considers the effects of Indonesia’s purges of Communists and people suspected of being Communist in 1965 on society and the general public. Adi, a fortysomething eye doctor in his village, seeks out the people involved in the torture and killing of his brother Ramli, whom he has never known, the brother having died before he was born. His journey takes him around various families in his village. The murderers of his brother hold considerable power and respect in the village, and Adi’s questions have the potential to put him and his own family in danger for their lives. Indeed, a number of people, not the murderers themselves but their children and other relatives, do make threats towards Adi and Oppenheimer himself. Throughout the film, Adi conducts himself with quiet dignity, asking hard questions about how the killers themselves feel about living with lies, and how they think their victims and the victims’ families might feel about them.

It’s a gruelling and unrelenting film to watch, and one that could have been edited for length in parts: I confess I felt quite tired and drowsy during parts of the film. The film’s style is spare and its focus is on Adi’s unassuming yet quietly determined quest to gain some justice and peace for his brother and parents in a country that continues to glorify the mass murder and tortures and teaches schoolchildren highly distorted versions of this dark period of Indonesia’s history. The extreme minimalism can make proceedings quite monotonous and dreary. The film becomes more than one person’s search for answers about his brother’s fate: it’s also an investigation into the nature of denial and evasion, and how continued denial keeps families apart in society from one generation to the next. At the very least, Adi and Oppenheimer are able to get the killers to make idiots of themselves when they revel in the details of Ramli’s murder and how they drank the blood of their victims in the bizarre belief that this would stop them (the killers, that is) from going crazy.

The scale of the narrative, focused on Adi’s personal quest for answers and perhaps an apology or acknowledgement from the killers for how his family has suffered, does not address the issue of how Indonesia’s government and institutions continue to suppress inquiry into the 1965 mass murders and make the search for truth, justice, any reparations and above all reconciliation between the murderers and their victims, and their respective families, impossible. As with Oppenheimer’s previous film “The Act of Killing”, “The Look of Silence” gives no background information or context to Ramli’s murder or the 1965 mass killings generally, so viewers not familiar with Indonesia’s recent history come away knowing no more about this dark episode than they did before, or why the government still will not admit that wrongdoing and harm had been done during this period. That this situation continues more than 15 years after the resignation of President Suharto, whose rise to power had been enabled in part by the so-called Communist purges, after 31 years as the nation’s leader, and the part that Western nations may have played in encouraging and directing Suharto and his followers to kill people and take power, is the real puzzle that gnaws away at the film’s credibility.

A curious aspect of the two Oppenheimer films is how the director manages to get adult men and women, even Adi’s aged father, to act in childish ways. For most of these people also, acting like little children (boasting of their exploits, drinking blood in the belief it will protect them from harm)  incriminates them as murderers but viewers might question the methods that Oppenheimer uses to encourage these people to condemn themselves.

Manderlay: a not entirely satisfactory study of slavery in American society

Lars von Trier, “Manderlay” (2005)

The sequel to “Dogville” is an interesting philosophical if rather slower and less action-packed inquiry on the nature of freedom and democracy and on the insidious effects of imperialism and slavery on societies. In particular, the role of those individuals or countries that free people from oppression and then try to teach or demonstrate democracy to the newly freed, and the hypocrisies often inherent in such actions, comes under scrutiny. Lars von Trier’s pessimism about humanity and its potential to overcome its flaws becomes an asset here: no matter that an angel comes to free people from their shackles and to teach them a new way of life that will help them achieve their full potential as individuals, people end up backsliding into habits and destructive ways of thinking and behaving because these have been ingrained in them by custom and social pressure.

After leaving Dogville in flames, Grace and her entourage of gangsters travel through Depression-era America and enter Louisiana where they come across a cotton plantation that’s so remote that the Civil War has never touched the place and it’s still being run as a slave plantation. Grace insists on staying on at the plantation with her father’s lawyer and a small group of hitmen so she can free the slaves and educate them for their new roles as free people. The white family is reduced to chattel and the former slaves become joint owners of the plantation and its output under contracts drawn up by the lawyer. Grace finds a code of conduct called Mam’s Law which places all the adult slaves in a hierarchy that allocates each slave his/her particular role and set of expected behaviours; this code disgusts her and she does away with it.

As the film progresses, various problems beset the utopian community. Some of these issues are of Grace’s doing: she orders trees around the plantation to be felled for timber, leaving crops vulnerable to the severe dust storm that devastates everything and leaves everyone starving. The community is forced to kill their only donkey to feed a sick child while all the women including Grace are reduced to eating dirt. The child dies from hunger and malnutrition and one woman confesses she had secretly stolen and eaten the child’s meals. The community then hold a trial and sentence the guilty woman to death.

Manderlay’s affairs steadily improve and the cotton harvest is brought in and sold. However one ex-slave, Timothy, steals the money earned from the cotton sale and wastes it in drink. Grace not only learns of Timothy’s misdeed but also discovers who wrote Mam’s Law and the reason this was done: it was done to maintain the slave hierarchy set up by Mam to help the ex-slaves survive together in a white-dominated world hostile to them. Thus do the ex-slaves turn the tables upon Grace who does not find the truth about Manderlay and her own conduct at Manderlay at all palatable.

The minimal stage settings help to distance the audience from the characters and the plot (as does also John Hurt’s narration) and throws the emphasis onto the plot and its nuances. The acting performances are surprisingly good and the young Bryce Dallas Howard, the daughter of director Ron Howard, not only inhabits and fleshes out Grace fully as a well-meaning liberal innocent but even shows her Dogville predecessor Nicole Kidman a lesson or two about injecting warmth and life into the character. The cast which includes Danny Glover, Willem Dafoe and (in a very small role) Lauren Bacall gives good support to Howard who appears in nearly every scene as the film’s narrative is so focused on her character.

The plot does seem quite predictable: once Grace gets the socialist community up and running, and given that Lars von Trier is God in this little universe, one can expect various disasters to afflict this little utopia and break it apart. Von Trier deftly shows how one mishap leads to another as a result of a decision Grace makes: this serves to show how one crucial choice, made wrongly if innocently, can have severe consequences later down the track and lead to profound ethical dilemmas beyond Grace’s ability to solve. In an effort to mould her followers into a model democracy, she makes one mistake after another (in effect becoming another slave-master after Lauren Bacall’s Mam) and becomes mired in her own hypocrisy as the people apply her lessons a little too diligently and eventually catch her out.

The film appears to be critical of both the oppressor and the oppressed: the oppressor for enslaving people in the first place, then “freeing” them but expecting them to conform to a new set of rules and over-riding or punishing the freed people when they follow the lessons too literally or don’t perform as expected; and the oppressed for retaining the habits and attitudes learned during their enslavement, not really wanting freedom and democracy, or using those institutions and ideals to satisfy their immediate physical needs and doing no more to enrich themselves or contribute to the advance of democracy. Grace’s utopia ends up more or less back at square one and one can’t help but think that Mam before her tried something similar to what Grace has attempted with the people on the plantation before. To a point Lars von Trier is right in condemning the two sides but what is missing is a critique of the economic and social system that made the institution of slavery and the mindsets it fostered in slave-owners and the enslaved alike possible. Grace makes the mistakes she does because she has no understanding of the economic and social context in which Manderlay was operating before she took over the place. She does not listen to the ex-slaves and they for their part are reluctant to criticise her or warn her of what she’s doing wrong as their leader. She forges ahead with grand plans about how to run the plantation without consulting with the slaves and the former slave-owning family about how things were done and how they might be improved rather than tossed away.

A superficial parallel can be drawn between Grace and American attempts to impose democracy and freedom across the world over the past century: the reality is that the US has always been cynical in bringing abstract ideals to other countries as a cover for controlling other people’s land and resources and divesting them of their wealth to benefit a few individuals in the American political and economic elite. At this point in time, the US is aiding a so-called government reliant on gangs of fascist thugs and imported mercenaries to impose harsh control and economic austerity on an unwilling public in Ukraine. The end result of the EuroMaidan putsch against a legitimate if corrupt government with violence is far from bringing democracy, prosperity and freedom to the Ukrainians – it is to sack Ukraine of its wealth and to install NATO missiles right up against the border with Russia, Russia itself ultimately being the target for daring to follow its own political and economic path and to support Syria against Saudi and Qatari-funded “rebels”. There is quite a lot in “Manderlay” that echoes current events and will continue to do so as long as the US remains arrogant and regards itself as a superpower not bound by the lessons and warnings of history.

On another level, the fact that Manderlay despite Grace’s best attempts at reform winds up as impoverished as before, with the “slaves” as enslaved as ever – and insinuating that Manderlay for all its apparent pre-Grace innocence is the way it is simply because the slaves prefer to be be slaves – probably tells us much more about von Trier’s narrow and rather pig-headed view of humanity and its potential for change, and his failure to research very deeply into the institution of slavery and how it degraded both the slave-owners and the enslaved alike, than it does about people. (Perhaps it is a coincidence after all that von Trier’s film was released a couple of years after the US-led coalition forces invaded Iraq; in the time after the invasion and before the film, news of atrocities inflicted by US and UK troops on Iraqi civilians filtered out to the West.) Passivity and acting according to the letter of the law may not necessarily indicate lazy, pleasure-seeking, unredeemable natures; they may be forms of rebellion and resistance, and Manderlay’s people have every right to suspect Grace of having ulterior motives in trying to force freedom and democracy on them if she is not honest with them about why she is doing what she does. There is little in the film to suggest that she shares her previous experiences with them as a way of being open. To return to the point I’m making, even Steve McQueen’s recent “12 Years a Slave”, limited as it was by its director’s vision and his tendency to make mountains out of certain mole-hills, did a better job of exploring the psychology of the master-slave relationship. One might have expected von Trier with his greater experience as a director and the opportunity offered by the script to explore the institution of slavery and its effect on human psychology and culture in some depth.

The Backwater Gospel: a darkly grim Gothic satire on religious fanaticism, mob rule and the fear of death

Bo Mathorne, “The Backwater Gospel” (2011)

In a total running time of just over nine minutes, this raw and stark animation is a superb comment on the combined power of religious fanaticism, mob rule and scapegoating. In a tiny backwater town somewhere in 19th-century Gothic Americana, the Grim Reaper in the form of an undertaker with blazing lights for eyes arrives to the consternation of a fire ‘n’ brimstone preacher (voiced by Lucien Dodge), the local community leader. Death’s arrival brings fear to the desperate townsfolk, already crazed from poverty, hardship and a never-ending drought. The fiery reverend turns his maddened flock against the local tramp (Zebulon Whatley) for poking fun at the church sermons and the people stone and bludgeon the outsider dead. Still, grinning Death does not depart and his continued presence inflames the people even more. His cup soon runneth over with blood and when the rain stops, the sun shines once more and a rainbow forms in the distant horizon, Death pretty much finds his work all cut out in cleaning up Main Street.

The art-work is stunning in its contrasts of blinding light and sinister dark shadow and the tormented comic-book figures, gaunt and angular of body and twisted in face, express broken spirit, passivity and sudden anger and savagery from deep repressed wells of emotion and torment in turns very well. The gradual escalation of tension and hysteria is controlled and the eruption of fury is handled effectively in scenes of violence and horror. The denouement is shattering. The plot is very creepy and there is much grim black humour.

The laid-back guitar music suits the animation, its narrative and theme although I can’t help but think that Nick Cave would have given the short an even better musical soundtrack had he been asked to do one.

This is definitely not something for young children to watch due to the high violence and gore quotient. I found this very enjoyable indeed.

The Act of Killing: chilling documentary on mass murderers and the society that supports and celebrates their deeds

Joshua Oppenheimer, “The Act of Killing” (2012)

A chilling film, made all the more so by moments of black humour, kitsch and banality, “The Act of Killing” focuses on a group of elderly men in North Sumatra (Indonesia) who participated in the genocide of hundreds of thousands of people scapegoated as Communists in Indonesia over 1965 – 1966. This event occurred in the aftermath of the military overthrow of President Sukarno and the chaos that resulted. The military government arrested people suspected of Communist Party membership and affiliations, and many were tortured brutally and killed; their bodies were disposed of in equally horrific ways. In some parts of Indonesia, gangs of thugs and people belonging to the Pancasila Youth paramilitary organisation were hired to do the killing. The people killed included intellectuals, trade union members, landless farmers and ethnic Chinese.

The film centres around one ex-gangster, Anwar Congo, and his various buddies. The men are invited to make a movie re-enacting what they did in 1965, using any film genre they want for inspiration and to express their ideas and aims. The men fancy themselves as Hollywood mafia gangsters and cowboys and film various scenes for their flick dressed accordingly; they even import elements of Hollywood musicals such as a sappy music soundtrack and a chorus line of attractive young women dancers. For some strange reason, the chubby Herman Koto appears in outrageous drag in many scenes.

Over the course of making their film, Congo and Company explain why they did what they believe they had to do in the past. They believe that making the film will help explain to young generations of Indonesia that the killings did really happen, that the nation must face the truth of its history, and that in some way the bloodbath was necessary to extirpate the baleful Communist influence at its roots. They view themselves as heroic in the way John Wayne’s characters were heroic in his movies. Slowly though, another reason for the making of the movie is apparent: Congo and his pals admit to experiencing qualms and psychological issues over their past behaviour. Congo has nightmares and fellow killer Adi Zulkadry, in denial, tries to justify his actions by saying that winners make the rules and what constitutes moral actions or immoral actions changes all the time. However, as the film within a film progresses, Congo realises the true evil of his actions and he reacts viscerally (literally) when forced to face up to what he did.

The film is very long and meandering but its focus on Congo’s own coming to terms with what he did maintains viewer attention and provides the structure for further exploration of various issues that crop up throughout. Initially the old men treat their homemade film and its subject as one huge joke and strut about as would-be Hollywood film stars. There is the sense that these men have distanced themselves from their behaviour by viewing their deeds as a form of acting, as if participating in the killings was like participating in a Hollywood movie. Indeed, Congo began his criminal career as a ticket-scalper for Hollywood movies at his local cinema.

At times the home-made movie edges uncomfortably close to reality especially in those scenes where particular incidents are being re-enacted and actors, even extras, are overcome by the import of the scenes: a man playing a torture victim becomes visibly upset; and in a later scene various women and children playing villagers are also inconsolable with one woman collapsing and Koto’s daughter unable to stop crying. Actors playing Pancasila Youth paramilitaries throw themselves rather too enthusiastically into their roles for viewers’ comfort.

Viewers will be disturbed by the old men’s astonishingly childish and gleeful behaviour: they not only view their actions through Hollywood movie imagery and language but they also believe themselves entitled to the rewards given them by the Suharto government and its successors. Several killers including Congo have become wealthy men, able to travel overseas, go on hunting expeditions and shower gifts on their wives, children and grandchildren; some of these men have become politicians and have risen to high positions including Cabinet minister positions in the Indonesian government.

Although the documentary is by turns difficult to watch and can be horrifying, it has some value in demonstrating the complex psychology of mass murderers and how they cope with their past histories. The film also shows that the men’s crimes are still celebrated in modern Indonesia, as disturbingly evidenced by a TV interview Congo and his friends give to a fawning female interviewer. Scenes depicting Pancasila Youth rallies can be shocking to viewers. In one section of the film, Congo’s younger pal Herman Koto embarks on a campaign to get elected to parliament and viewers are able to see something of how political parties and candidates bribe voters with gifts, money and promises in order to gain influence. In one memorable scene Koto visits Chinese shopkeepers and all but threatens them if they do not hand over money. It becomes apparent that corruption is widespread in Indonesian society and is at its most insidious in the most ordinary everyday settings.

There is not much historical context given in the film – what is needed is given in titles in the documentary’s opening scenes – and Oppenheimer does not dwell much on contemporary Indonesian society and how its support of the thuggish murderers is a crucial part of how the men view themselves.

One thing that is absent in the film is the role that foreign powers, the United States most of all, played in encouraging the Indonesian military in 1965 to start hunting down so-called “Communists” which led to the hiring of thugs like Congo to kill anyone and everyone suspected of disloyalty to the military regime. This in turn provided an excuse to thump outsiders like ethnic Chinese who were seen as wealthy and preferring their own over native Indonesians. After all, the language, ideology and cultural values Congo and his pals use to demonise their victims and justify their acts came from the US, not from their own culture and society. Because that aspect is missing, Oppenheimer overlooks the fact that the United States and other Western countries like Australia continue to support the Indonesian government and military in shaping Indonesian society as a fascist society, one capable of future mass violence in which a new generation of thugs will re-enact Anwar Congo’s crimes – for real. By concentrating on small-time killers like Congo, the film misses a much greater and more horrific truth.

 

Medea (dir. Lars von Trier): human struggle against forces of Nature and God in a beautiful and emotional film

Lars von Trier, “Medea” (1988)

Originally made for TV and with a script based on that other famous Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s adaptation of Euripides’s play “Medea”, this Lars von Trier film is a beautiful and sombre piece where people struggle for existence in a harsh and unforgiving land. Here Nature is a sinister, unknowable force and those who, like the central figure Medea (Kristen Olesen), can command its control are regarded with awe, fear and hatred. In this version of the Greek legend, Jason (Udo Kier) is preparing to marry the princess Glauke to secure his future and that of his two small sons. The teenage Glauke is suspicious of Medea and fears Jason still loves her so the girl convinces her father King Creon to banish the older woman. The King allows Medea time to pack her things and leave Corinth with her children. Medea however has other plans which include destroying Creon and Glauke and denying Jason any chance of future happiness by refusing access to their children … alive.

The film is slow and highly absorbing with many outdoor scenes set in a flat, bleak landscape alive with rain, wind, sea water, sand and grass all alive, bleeding into one another and brimming with malevolent intent. There are at least two shots of lone figures walking in the distance over moving sand or grass: both are very surreal in look and atmosphere. Backgrounds may be bleached or coloured strangely and some scenes hark back to the 1920s – 1930s in their layering with more natural figures in the foreground against a pre-taped background in a homage to Dreyer who had planned to make the movie himself but never was able to work on it. Close-ups offer an intimate, immersive, almost voyeuristic tone to the movie. The film stock used reveals soft lines and a soft white outdoors light; a fairy-tale quality to the movie is the result. Colours are usually muted and limited to dark tones and brown and blue colours, and the style of the film is rustic in a way that suggests the action takes place in Iron Age Denmark, parallel with the Roman empire in time and space.

The acting from the two leads Olesen and Kier is superb: Olesen dominates much of the film with a highly expressive emotional range that covers grief, anguish, sullenness and desire for vengeance. Kier is almost as good as the cynical Jason who thinks he can score one over Medea, claim Glauke as his bride and keep the kids but ends up losing everything he treasures; in the film’s last ten minutes, completely dialogue-free, he madly dashes about in circles on his horse and then on foot in the blowy grasslands, finally stabbing blindly at the ground, his spirit broken while Medea prepares to sail away. The actors who play Creon (Henning Jensen) and Glauke (Ludmilla Glinska) are quite good in their limited roles.

In this famous story, the moment when Medea despatches her two sons is always chilling and needs care to act and film well; von Trier treats the scene with restraint and pathos. As with many other scenes there isn’t much dialogue and the pain on Medea’s face as the children die is too much to bear. It’s creepy to watch too as one of the children is a willing helper in both his and his brother’s deaths. The suffering and deaths of Glauke and Creon are cleverly foreshadowed by the behaviour of Jason’s horse which was scratched by the poisoned crown that Medea gives to Jason as Glauke’s bridal gift: the animal goes mad and races out of the palace to a beach where it convulses and dies.

Men are revealed as having no control over their destiny but are instead manipulated by women suspicious of one another and fearful that the other may steal her man. This might say something about the nature of the society in which Glauke and Medea live: a society where women surrender their lives completely to men and depend on them totally for their security and well-being. It’s a society where men call all the shots and women are helpless so they must resort to subterfuge to get their way. A man may plan well but all his plans will come to nought due to unseen deception and the Fates don’t care at all what happens to him.

Of all the films by Lars von Trier I have seen – I have seen five others (“Breaking the Waves”, “The Idiots”, “Dancer in the Dark”, “Dogville”, “Antichrist”) – “Medea” is the most emotionally moving, the most flowing without formal separation into chapters as with many of his films and the most visually beautiful and abstract. There is an authenticity here that his later work lacks and his treatment of women is more sympathetic and less ambiguous as well. “Medea” may well be the best film he has ever made.

Compared with Pier Aolo Pasolini’s version of “Medea”, the Danish film is smaller in scale and more intimate overall but nowhere near as complex and ambitious in concept.

 

Corruption, authoritarianism, oppression of women and intolerance are a hidden presence in “Häxan: Witchcraft through the Ages”

Benjamin Christensen, “Häxan: Witchcraft through the Ages” (1922)

Intended as a study on how superstition and lack of knowledge about mental illness could have led to the witch-hunt craze and persecutions in Europe during the period from the 1500’s to the mid-1700’s, this Danish / Swedish co-production is a remarkable silent film that mixes a documentary style with fictional enactments of mediaeval beliefs about witches and how a persecution of someone accused of witchcraft might have proceeded and led to more people being accused and charged of being witches. All the way through “Häxan …” is a very detailed, earnest approach that assumes its audience knows little about witches but is intelligent enough to absorb and understand the information presented here. Although the film deals with a topic that might be assumed to interest only historians studying European culture of the time mentioned above, aspects of the witch-hunt are sure to resonate with modern audiences: in particular, the use of torture to extract confessions, usually false, from people accused of witchcraft who would then implicate other people around them, often as a way of avenging themselves, might strike people as disturbingly similar to the methods used by the US and its allies to prosecute its wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and other parts of the world.

The film splits into four parts, all of them highly informative if perhaps heavy-handed with an attention level bordering on obsessive and fetishistic. The first part deals with ancient and mediaeval cosmologies and how these gave rise to beliefs in Heaven, Hell and the existence of Satan and devils. This can be dry and didactic with little pointers on the screen demonstrating the obvious on animated diagrams, reproductions of naive drawings and Christensen’s own reconstructions, and this might well be the point at which most people will tune out. Leaving of course those with an interest in the history of witch-hunts to stick out the rest of the movie where the real rewards lie. The second part consists of a series of fictional vignettes, some very comical and slapstick, of witches concocting love potions, riding brooms to celebrate their sabbat or dreaming of meeting the Devil. The special effects and animation used look primitive to modern eyes but are very effective in making coins come alive or creating the impression of an army of witches in flight.

A mini-movie in which a beggar woman is accused of having bewitched a printer and causing him to die by the women in his family constitutes the third part which makes up the bulk of “Häxan …”. Much of this drama involves the woman being forced under torture by monks to confess her “crime”. The most sinister aspects of this section illustrate how readily other innocent people can be dragged into a witch-hunt panic: in one scene, a monk has sexual fantasies about the printer’s wife so the woman ends up charged with having bewitched him. The film concludes by showing parallels between the witch-hunts of the past and modern practices in dealing with mental illness and phenomena such as mass hysteria and challenges us as viewers to consider whether we are just as prone as people were in the past to fall prey to prejudices and beliefs about the nature of certain mental phenomena like somnambulism and hallucinations that led to so many people being persecuted and killed as witches.

In spite of its broad range, the film flows fairly well from one part to the next which attests to Christensen’s concept and careful construction of it as a self-sufficient whole. The actual joins can be clumsy (especially between the last two parts) but all four parts connect through common themes in the subject areas of witchcraft and demonology and of the social attitudes towards witches and other outsiders. Production values look rudimentary and in some scenes the lighting is poor or the props and sets look the same in spite of the changed context. All the acting was done by amateurs and Christensen himself plays the part of the Devil so viewers shouldn’t expect much out of the cast used; it’s enough to say the actors look and act naturally in a period of film history where professional acting could be exaggerated and look hammy. Close-ups of actors’ faces invite sympathy from viewers; when the same filming method is also applied to various torture implements and how they are applied, the effect on viewers might be unsettling. That iron collar with the spikes pointing inwards certainly doesn’t look comfortable!

Depictions of the Devil and celebrations of the witches’ sabbat are lurid and there’s always the possibility the scenes were played up as much to titillate audiences in a po-faced way as to educate them. Some nudity is shown and witches are shown kissing the Devil’s bum and eating food obtained from corpses. What’s missing from these scenes and others which would have enriched the documentary and made it more relevant to the general public then and now is some historical context: the actions as portrayed visually and as described in the intertitles are a satire on Christian ritual and the practice of Holy Communion or Mass, and might suggest that, in many parts of Europe during the height of the witch-hunting craze, Christianity or its public face at least was resisted by many people for various reasons. After all, contrary to popular belief, the European witch-hunts didn’t actually take place during “mediaeval times”: they actually took place in a period that overlaps with the spread of the Renaissance in Europe outside Italy, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the rise of nation states like England, Spain, France, Sweden, Russia and the Netherlands and their empires in other parts of the world, and the beginnings of the Age of Enlightenment. The implication is that intolerance and authoritarian behaviour in Roman Catholic and Protestant Christianity increased with the rise of learning and alternative opinions that might have threatened the power of the clergy.

A sub-text of women suffering oppression within male-dominated structures and institutions in society, the results of which manifest in peculiar behaviour that might be interpreted as witchcraft practice, is present in “Häxan …” though whether Christensen was aware of this sub-text is another thing. Possibly he was but this was a touchy topic that was outside the scope of his research. At the time, psychology was still a new science and Sigmund Freud was still developing his theories of psychoanalysis. Certainly the fourth part of the film in which nuns are afflicted with a contagious dancing hysteria and young troubled women are diagnosed by male physicians as having hysteria suggests very strongly that incidents of mental illness in individuals and groups might have a cultural or social origin.  Had Christensen made his film at a later date, most likely he would have tried to incorporate some psychological theory and study to strengthen his argument about mental illness being a basis for suspicion of witchcraft and he might even address the question of why more women than men were persecuted as witches. There are also several scenes in the film showing monks and abbots denying their faults by placing the blame for them on women so there is an issue of corruption within the established Christian churches that Christensen could have addressed openly but most likely dared not.

The film can be slow in parts and the drama of the beggar woman and her accusers gets cut off just as it becomes really interesting. The visuals are perhaps the best part of the film and the last section that posits mental illness as a possible explanation for behaviour that got women in trouble as witches is interesting though limited in its scope. Christensen as a tubby Devil is laughable – WTF was he thinking when he took on that role? was he trying to make the Devil into something comic? – and scenes of the witches celebrating sabbat bring into question his aims in making the documentary: did Christensen just intend “Häxan …” as a documentary or could he have been striving for something else beyond? The film as is suggests that the art and creativity of movie-making could have gone far beyond both strictly fact-based documentary and the visual story-telling typical of most feature films that are taken for granted today: “Häxan …” is at once fact and fiction, and is more than the sum of two parts.

Pusher: highly recommended viewing about small-time heroin dealer

Nicolas Winding Refn, “Pusher” (1996)

Just managed to catch this film last night after seeing a video copy for loan in a video rent shop earlier in the day. This is a gritty and very distressing snapshot of a week in the life of a small-time middle-man heroin dealer, Frank (Kim Bodnia), in an unnamed inner-city district in Copenhagen, in Denmark. Early in the film, Frank meets Swedish ex-con Hasse to set up a large drug deal. Frank goes to see his boss Milo (Zlatko Buric) to get the heroin; he already owes Milo about 50,000 kroner but Milo lets him take the heroin provided that he return immediately with the money plus what he owes. As luck would have it, as Frank goes with Hasse to conduct the exchange, they cross paths with the police, forcing Frank to flee and jump into a lake where he dumps the heroin. He ends up spending the next 24 hours in the slammer during which time he is told his friend and usual partner-in-crime Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen) set him up. On leaving jail, Frank seeks out Tonny in a pub and vents his rage on him severely with a baseball bat. (Why are baseball bats always the first choice of weapon to beat up people?) Leaving Tonny unconscious and bleeding, Frank visits Milo who refuses to believe his story about his 24-hour absence and increases the amount Frank owes him – 170,000 kroner to 230,000 kroner including the past 50,000 kroner – which must be paid by the end of the week. From this point on, Frank calls on all his clients to demand money, becoming more and more frustrated and violent when they can’t pay up, and at the same time trying to placate his prostitute girlfriend Vic (Laura Drasbaek) and working out ways he can trick or evade Milo and his right-hand man Radovan (Slavko Labovic).

Milo does relent somewhat and tells Frank he will accept a token payment and forget all the other debts to end their quarrel. You’d think at this point Frank should be glad and be able to relax and think more clearly but then he tells Vic he won’t be going to Spain as they had planned so she steals all the money he had collected from some bodybuilders in a gym and flees. The last we see of Frank, he is waiting for Milo’s men and the bodybuilders to pounce on him all at once.

Shot entirely on a hand-held video-recorder, the film has a strong documentary or news article feel which gives it an air of “authenticity”. Much of the action and dialogue may well have been improvised though of course the scenes of violence and drug-taking will have been staged. Funnily, night-time and interior scenes during night seem a lot more real and hard-edged, probably because in the outdoor day-time scenes there is that soft natural light often seen in Scandinavian films, unaffected by air pollution and enhanced by open spaces and the distinctive clean lines of Scandinavian architecture and design, which endows people and objects with a purity and innocence they don’t need. At the time “Pusher” was being made, people were getting excited about the Dogme 95 manifesto that a few Danish directors including Lars von Trier had written up and signed to, and which was invigorating film-making in Denmark by laying down particular rules and restrictions that actually opened new ways of seeing and thinking about film scripting and direction. The film does look a little like a Dogme 95 film but the manifesto’s rules prohibited the use of weapons and did not allow murder to occur in any of the films made under its directions; some of the music used in the film also breaks the manifesto rule about not using music unless it happens to be part of the background scenery anyway.

The drug-dealer life-style portrayed here is unglamorous and degrading: the never-ending search for money to pay off outstanding debts and the stress, frustration, anger and violence that accompany it, along with the wreckage of friendships betrayed and love abused, strip people like Frank of their humanity as much as a job in a sweatshop factory in India, in a Chinese coal-mine or in other places recycling and chopping up discarded laptops, breathing in poisonous fumes, would do. There is a curious code of conduct that Frank and the other dealers follow, one based on people’s desire, however superficial or self-serving, to meet outstanding debt and other obligations, which helps to generate much of the tension, aggression and violence seen. A poignant and hilarious moment comes when Radovan admits to Frank that he’d like to get out of the junk-dealing business and open a restaurant as he loves to cook, and that Milo loves making cakes and dreams of owning a bakery. One lesson here is that any young person with ideas of making it big and acquiring easy riches and girlfriends in the world of drug-trafficking, or dealing in heroin anyway, ought to see this film to be disabused of such notions.

As Frank, Bodnia puts up a first-rate performance as a grubby criminal: you can’t help but sympathise with him and even root for him a bit in spite of often impulsive and self-defeating actions as he spirals lower and lower in a trap partly of his own making, a trap that squeezes him more and more to the point where he is totally stranded with no options or life-lines, and time is fast running out on him. The actors playing Milo and Radovan are notable as well, injecting some humanity, played for laughs, into their characters but Bodnia outshines the whole cast by far.

The plot may not be original and the treatment of the drug dealers as ordinary human beings with aspirations like the rest of us – why, even drug pushers might want to be on MasterChef programs! – may have been done over and over in past films. As an unflinching study of a character caught in an extreme situation by his own actions and those of others, and behaving in ways that drag him lower and lower and sap his strength, “Pusher” is hard to beat. There is no examination of Frank’s motives or why he chose to go into the business in the first place but that might have stalled the action of what basically is a brief view of how small-time dealers go about their work. While the film’s budget does not allow Refn to examine the wider Danish society and its attitude to drugs – after all, making drugs illegal drives them underground, encouraging the kind of criminal activity seen in “Pusher” – we do get something of the overall social indifference to people like Frank and Vic in the scene where Frank is being interviewed by the police: one officer insultingly tosses lollies at Frank while he is sitting mum and refusing to answer questions from the other officer.

I definitely recommend this film as a psychological character study of how an individual might react when caught in an increasingly difficult situation with no hope of escape. It’s like watching a fly zoom accidentally into a spider’s web and struggle for all it’s worth while the spider homes in on its vibrations for the kill; a certain voyeuristic thrill to see whether the victim can escape its fate in spite of the very heavy odds stacked against it comes out of that and so it is also with “Pusher”. Can Frank succeed against all the odds or will he crack up at the last minute?