The Land Beyond the Sunset: a very moving and thoughtful film on achieving happiness and peace

Harold M Shaw, “The Land Beyond the Sunset” (1912)

Made in 1912 – the same year in which the Titanic set sail for its fateful meeting with the Iceberg – this short, seemingly simple live-action film is still a very moving and thoughtful drama. Young Joe is a poor newsboy who lives in a city slum neighbourhood with his alcoholic and abusive grandmother. One day he gets the opportunity to join a picnic for underprivileged children organised by middle-class women working for a charity, the Fresh Air Fund. The picnic organisers take Joe and other poor children to the countryside near the sea where they play and make friends, and eat nutritious picnic food. One of the organisers then proceeds to tell the children a fairy-tale about a boy being harassed by a witch. Some fairies rescue the boy and put him in a boat. The boy and the fairies then sail away to a fantasy place known only as the Land Beyond the Sunset. Thrilled and inspired by the story, Joe contrives to stay behind when the adults take the children back to the city and their slum communities; he goes wandering along the beach and spies an empty boat resting on the shore. An idea comes into his head at this point and he makes a choice that will undoubtedly affect the rest of his life forever …

For its age, the film still looks astonishingly clear, with none of the blur and the markings one might expect on old films. Title cards are few but viewers can follow the narrative easily: the story is straightforward but also relies on viewers’ imaginations to piece together the different scenes into the intended narrative. The end scenes are breathtaking and instill awed feelings at the natural world; however much humans may dominate and control Nature, the scale of Nature itself, especially of the seas and oceans, is still far beyond human understanding and domination. The boy can be seen to be partaking of the bounty of Nature by seizing an opportunity and opening himself up to all possibilities; yet the scenes can be interpreted differently and more negatively, by suggesting that the boy is deluded and does not realise he is going into an early death. After all, in some countries’ mythologies, the land beyond where the sun sets is often the land of the dead.

The very open-ended vagueness of the film’s climax and ending may astound and horrify viewers, but it also plays a large part in the film’s thoughtful and melancholy character. A boy from a dreary, unfulfilling and oppressive background is given a choice between two very different worlds and the decision he makes is momentous. How brave or foolhardy would we be, if we too came from a background of poverty and abuse, and we also were faced with the same choice? The heart-breaking story is told without sentiment, and this ensures the film’s continuing attraction for viewers more than 100 years later.

The film was originally made to promote the Fresh Air Fund, a charity founded to help underprivileged city children and improve their health by taking them on short breaks to the country so they could breathe fresh air and enjoy sunshine. The charity may have long gone but the film survives and has taken a life of its own.

The Beautiful Leukanida: early animated fable of love, jealousy, war and annihilation in an insect universe

Wladyslaw Starewicz, “The Beautiful Leukanida / Prekrasnaya Lyukanida” (1912)

In a long career spanning some 55 years in stop-motion puppet animation, Russian-Polish animator produced a fair few stand-out films. “The Beautiful Leukanida” is a very early example of Starewicz’s style and vision: trained in entomology, Starewicz was already familiar with preparing dried insects for study so using a ready-made if unusual cast to appear in his dramas and act out little fables of human foibles must have seemed the next logical step. The story here is one straight out of a Romantic fairy-tale universe, as re-enacted by beetles: two beetles duel over a noble lady beetle, the winner claiming her as his own and taking her back to his castle, the stag beetle loser swearing revenge and doing all he can to get her regardless of her feelings and opinions. The duel escalates into outright warfare between two kingdoms climaxing in an explosion that ultimately resolves nothing and kills everyone. Starewicz seems to have had quite a dark sense of humour.

The animation is very well done, the insects moving as bipeds but otherwise acting and moving in ways we might expect insects to move and to hold heavy swords in their claws (rather clumsily, as it turns out). The backgrounds and sets are minimal in style but quaint enough for stories of insect derring-do. Viewers may find one scene in which the noble lady beetle and her lover being fanned by attendants bearing huge feathery fans especially endearing. The messenger bearing a letter from the rival is given a kick and forced to return to his master in abject ignominy.

No matter how eccentric and Ruritanian the beetles’ universe is, with two rivals duelling for a lady’s favour, and their armies fighting desperately, ultimately the rival kingdoms are subject to the whims of the Cosmic Joker – in their case, Starewicz himself – who sees fit to destroy both kingdoms, all for nothing more than jealousy over a lady. Human wars have often been fought over even more trivial and / or less worthy causes. Ultimately there will be no winners. Had Starewicz known of the destruction that was later to come in a few years, no doubt he would have been horrified at his own prescience.

“The Beautiful Leukanida” appears to be one of the earliest stop-motion animation films by Starewicz still in existence, and is worth watching mainly to see the high technical standard the animator had already achieved early in his career.

The Mascot: a puppet dog’s mission of self-sacrifice results in an amazing masterpiece of stop-motion animation

Wladyslaw Starewicz, “The Mascot / Fétiche Mascotte ” (1933)

An amazing and brilliant short work of stop-motion animation, “The Mascot” is one of several masterpieces made by Russian-Polish animator over a long period from 1909 to 1965, the year of his death. Starewicz began his career in Kaunas, then a part of Russian Poland, before moving to Moscow in 1911 and working there until 1918. After the Bolshevik Revolution in November 2017, Starewicz fled to Yalta in Crimea, and moved to Paris in 1920 where he spent the rest of his life making stop-motion animated films, short and feature-length, his career spanning the silent-film period and films with sound.

This brief 25-minute film was intended to be the first film in a series featuring a dog puppet called Duffy. Riffing on themes of self-sacrifice and the search for goodness in an uncertain and chaotic world, the film follows Duffy on an odyssey that takes him quite literally through hell. Duffy comes to life when a woman toy-maker, caring for an invalid daughter, weeps and a teardrop falls onto his body. He contrives to hop into bed with the child and manages to hear that she wants an orange, before the toy-maker mother packs him into a box along with several other toys and they are all put into the back of a car to be taken to a toy-shop. The other toys, which include a ballerina, a clown and a thuggish tramp already living in a sort of menage a trois at the toy-maker’s apartment, see their chance to escape and bolt for it through a hole the thug tramp makes in the box leading to a gap in the car’s boot. Only Duffy decides to remain in the car. The toys tumble out into the street with various results: the ballerina ends up in the gutter and the clown no sooner hits the dirt than he is decapitated by another car. Ouch!

Later sold to a car owner who hangs him from his rear-view mirror, Duffy falls out of the car through an unexpected accident. He seizes the opportunity to obtain an orange for the little invalid girl and then tries to retrace his journey back to the toy-maker; but not before falling in with a devil character who holds a grand and grotesque party with many guests, several of whom are the toys who had escaped from the car. The thug character treats his ballerina amour roughly and violently, and even stabs his devil host. Duffy loses the orange a few times before he is able to escape with it from the party. The other toys chase him down the road but Duffy is saved in the nick of time by the toy-maker’s army of toy soldiers. He is able to fulfill his mission but his reward and joy turn out to be all too brief in an unexpected plot twist that must have appealed to Starewicz’s dark sense of humour but is unlikely to appeal to most other people’s sense of humour.

The animation is excellent: the various characters move smoothly and well, and their faces are very expressive, even if they can’t talk much. The toys move in the way viewers might expect them to move, that is to say, stiffly at times, though Duffy is able to run bipedally on his hind-legs and kick his orange like a football when the need arises! Clever editing and fast-paced backgrounds make the chase scene thrilling and tense, with the toys racing from left to right on the screen before the soldiers push them right to left. The nightmarish party, straight out of Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Devil and Margarita”, scenes of death and gory violence, and Duffy’s continued suffering even in the midst of triumph and joy rule this film out as a children’s film.

The narrative does linger too long in the second half of the film which is dominated by the devil’s party. One might have thought that negotiating his way through Paris car and foot traffic would be sufficient hard work for Duffy but no, Starewicz decided to add a most incongruous mediaeval fantasy plot twist. Perhaps at this point Starewicz was a bit too carried away by what he could do with his puppet characters; the gags in this part of the film can be distasteful for some viewers, and Duffy’s skin and orange are saved by a deus ex machina device. The subplot involving the ballerina, the clown and the thug is resolved, but tragically. On the plus side, the film is not at all sentimental in its portrayal of Duffy’s journey and mission.

The film deserves to be better known for its technological advances and the potential it demonstrates in the genre of stop-motion animation at the time of its making.

Tales from Earthsea: a fantasy film lacking in sparkle and wonder

Goro Miyazaki, “Tales from Earthsea / Gedo senki” (2006)

Watching this film, gorgeous as it is visually, I couldn’t help but feel that it’s a classic example of “style over substance” – the original Earthsea book series is heavily squeezed and mashed into a hybrid that probably bears very little resemblance to the characters, plots and themes of the books. All the characters in this film seem cut from the same mould as so many other Studio Ghibli movie characters are: the heroes are children, one a feisty young girl on the cusp of puberty, the other a youth with a troubled past or a character flaw; the adults are either villains, of whom some are buffoons and the others genuinely malevolent but not without some degree of sympathy, or they are parental mentors playing second fiddle to the heroes. The plot usually pushes themes enjoining environmental balance and harmony, pointing out the suffering that occurs if the balance is disrupted; the dangers of using power irresponsibly; and young people discovering their purpose in life. Take away the Studio Ghibli visuals and you find a dreary film overburdened by its Studio Ghibli legacy.

The lands of Earthsea are afflicted by disasters brought about by an imbalance in the world: crops are failing, livestock are dying and people are suffering from a mysterious deadly disease. The wizard Sparrowhawk (voiced by Timothy Dalton in the English-language dubbing) determines to find the cause of this imbalance. In his travels he meets young Prince Arren, fleeing the kingdom of Enlad for having killed his royal father and haunted by a mysterious Shadow. Passing through Hort Town, the two separate briefly and Arren saves a young orphan girl, Therru, from slave-traders led by Hare (Cheech Marin). After various adventures, in which Arren is briefly enslaved, he and Sparrowhawk find refuge with a wise woman, Tenar (Mariska Hargitay), who has been raising Therru as her own daughter after finding her abandoned by her parents who mistreated the child.

Sparrowhawk determines (in a way that the film does not make very clear) that his sorcerer rival Cob (Willem Dafoe) is responsible for creating the imbalance in the universe that is ruining Earthsea through his dangerous quest to cheat death and achieve immortality. Cob knows through his raven spy that Sparrowhawk is looking for him so he makes his rival’s job that much easier and faster by kidnapping and imprisoning Tenar. He takes Arren hostage as well and casts a spell over him using his real name Lebannen. Through various plot twists the children Arren and Therru come to save Sparrowhawk and Tenar and to defeat Cob.

For the most part, the plot is slow with a huge middle section where very little happens and most of the action (and revelations) packed into the last half hour of the film. Cob’s motive for wanting to control Arren is not very clear – but then generally the motives of all the characters for doing what they do are very vague. The characters are typical Studio Ghibli stereotypes and lack individuality and substance. Only Therru is likely to make much of an impression on viewers with her surliness, bad temper and (later) her steadfast loyalty. The dragons that should be the film’s highlight appear seldom.

While backgrounds look good, the animation is uneven – some characters look badly drawn – and the music soundtrack is pver-loud kitsch Celtic folk to the extreme. The whole film lacks freshness, spark and a sense of fun. This film is definitely not one to watch unless viewers are diehard Studio Ghibli fans.

 

Over Your Dead Body: an extreme, almost cartoon-ish horror ghost film homage where life imitates art

Takashi Miike, “Over Your Dead  Body” (2014)

From the incredibly prolific director Takashi Miike, who never met a film genre he couldn’t make an insanely extreme film for (and with the body count to prove its perversity), comes this homage of sorts to the famous Japanese ghost story “Yotsuya Kaidan”, horror films featuring vengeful or hateful female ghosts generally and the theatre. Toss in a love triangle involving three actors appearing in a drama production and we have a recipe for an almost Shakespearean work in which vengeance, the quest for happiness in a sterile world and life that imitates art revolve around each other as surely as the circular stage set on which the theatre troupe presents its interpretation of “Yotsuya Kaidan” rotates to emphasise the dark, disturbing atmosphere and the intensity of the emotions and actions of the characters in the play.

Star Miyuki Goto (Ko Shibasaki) is cast as the tragic heroine Oiwa in a new production of “Yotsuya Kaidan” and schemes to get her lover Kosuke (Ebizo Ichikawa XI) cast as Iemon, the unfaithful ronin husband of Oiwa. Other actors in the cast soon lust after Miyuki and Iemon, who themselves are having difficulties in their relationship, both of them emotionally remote from one another in spite of their love-making. The actors’ obsessions with one another and the love affairs that develop and which are conducted secretly lead to a situation in which the murder and mayhem rehearsed continuously on the stage spill over into the cast’s lives offstage.

The film begins ordinarily enough and the first half-hour is a character study in which we come to see how distant Miyuki and Iemon are, and how their emotional remoteness is reflected in the elegantly and minimally furnished modern apartment where Miyuki lives. Much attention is given over to the elaborate stage set-ups, the care with which the cast of actors act out their roles in the play, the costumes and hair fashions of mediaeval Japan, and their rather stylised actions. Curiously the director of the play is a very minor character indeed and one gets no sense of when rehearsals for the play started, when they will finish and when the play itself will have its opening night. Once there is a hint that a doll used as a prop is possessed by a demon, the pace quickens, the action becomes brisk and the film detours from delineating ordinary everyday scenes (albeit with some eccentricities on the part of Miyuki: she boils several saucepans of pasta all at once in one scene, for example) into a wacky direction in which nightmare dreams that afflict people spill out into their waking lives, a woman mutilates herself to find her unborn child and actors start disappearing from the production as they fall victim to the ghosts of the play.

The extreme and intense violence contrasts strongly with the minimal style of various background sets, with the suggestion that beneath the po-faced facades that people present to the outside world lurks roiling emotions that they have difficulty accepting and which they cannot name, yet which eventually must have their outlet. Shibasaki, Ichikawa and the rest of the film’s cast perform their roles capably as people more or less divorced from their emotions and feelings which erupt through the medium of the ghost play and play havoc with their lives, to say nothing of the play itself as the most significant cast member disappears. Audiences may breathe a huge sigh of relief when Kosuke gets his just desserts both in the play and outside the play but horror fans might feel a little cheated at what “horror” has actually emerged and that Kosuke’s executioner literally gets away with murder.

The film closes off in its own hermetic world and seems much smaller than it ought to have been.

 

Steppenwolf: a stodgy and soporific adaptation of a cult counter-culture novel

Fred Haines, “Steppenwolf” (1974)

There was a period in the 1960s when this 1927 novel was the darling of the psychedelic counter-culture in the United States, due in part to its depiction of drug use and free sex, and to its themes of introspection and self-examination, a quest for a more authentic way of living as opposed to living like an automaton in a society of frivolity and shallow values, and the possibility of personal transformation and hope. No surprise then, that in spite of the novel’s fantastic plot and its metaphysical themes, a film adaptation was made in the mid-1970s: the major problem with the making of “Steppenwolf” seems to have been its financing and the question of its ownership which ruined the marketing of the film and sent it straight into art-house obscurity.

Having read the novel a long time ago, I don’t remember much of it but I do think the film follows the novel fairly closely. Solitary intellectual Harry Haller (Max von Sydow) despairs of ever fitting into bourgeois society with its shallow people and values, and contemplates suicide. By chance he is given a book called “Treatise on the Steppenwolf” by a man carrying an advertisement for the Magic Theatre. Astonishingly, the book is addressed to Haller personally and describes his state of unease accurately: he is of two natures, one being human and spiritual and the other being that of the Steppenwolf, the lone steppe wolf, essentially animalist. Haller’s problem is that he is unable to recognise his dual nature and thus reconcile both these aspects. He resolves to commit suicide on his 50th birthday but before the big day arrives, he meets a mysterious woman (Dominique Sanda) at a dance hall. The woman sees Haller’s distress and arranges to meet him a second time. On this occasion Haller discovers the woman’s name is Hermine, and Hermine starts to introduce Haller to aspects of what he had previously regarded as frivolous: he learns to dance, to listen and appreciate jazz music, to indulge in drugs and to take a young woman, Maria (Carla Romanelli), as a lover. All of these activities are presented as aspects of a worthy life. Haller later meets jazz saxophonist Pablo (Pierre Clementi) who runs the mysterious Magic Theatre. Once in the Magic Theatre, Haller is confronted by all his fears, anxieties and fantasies of his mind.

While Max von Sydow has no problem playing the angst-ridden Haller – having acted in no fewer than eleven films directed by Ingemar Bergman, von Sydow should have regarded “Steppenwolf” as a walkover – Sanda and Romanelli’s portrayals of their respective characters come close to being soporific. One would think that Hermine would be alternating between acting flirtatiously with Haller and being serious and concerned for him. Clementi does a fine job as the flamboyant and sexually ambiguous Pablo in the few minutes allotted to the character. The real attraction of “Steppenwolf” though is in its surreal animation: it may look very outdated to modern viewers, and is of a piece with films of its time that also relied on surreal / psychedelic animation, but nevertheless it can be quite imaginative. The cartoon that is the “Treatise on the Steppenwolf” is fun to watch with animated cut-outs and collages reminiscent of the animation used on the Monty Python and the Flying Circus comedy series; the later animation used in the Magic Theatre scenes is more psychedelic than surreal but is surprisingly easy to follow and digest. There are scenes in the film which used bleached film stock to emphasise their dream-like, hallucinatory nature.

By contrast the live action parts of the film are stodgy and slow with uneven acting and dialogue that is harder to understand than it should be due to the cast’s different accents. (The entire cast speaks in English, yet English is not the first language of any of the major actors.) Fans of animation must wait until the film is well past its halfway point. At least the plot is not difficult to follow and viewers following Haller right to the end will be relieved to know he does find some peace with himself. On the other hand, viewers may not find much peace in the music soundtrack in the film’s later scenes: there is too much boring blaring synthesiser in the psychedelic prog-rock instrumental sections playing over the Magic Theatre scenes, and not enough dissonant jazz to set the mood in earlier parts of the film.

The film has achieved cult status due to its obscure viewing history but that does not mean it’s a great film. Readers of the original novel are likely to find the film a disappointment and need to set their expectations low.

Formulaic coming-of-age heroic fantasy blends with Thai Buddhist beliefs in “The Legend of Muay Thai: 9 Satra”

Pongsa Kornsri, Gun Phansuwon, Nat Yoswatananont, “The Legend of Muay Thai: 9 Satra” (2018)

Not known for its animation industry, Thailand nevertheless seems to be pinning its hopes on this film, recently released in Australia and New Zealand, to garner some attention (and maybe lots of money!) for the industry’s further development. The plot is standard Hollywood formula: the principality of Ramthep is conquered by a demon race called the Yaksas and an old blind sage prophesies that a hero will save Ramthep and restore its rightful Prince, and destroy Yaksa leader Dehayaksa into the bargain. A general in the Ramthep army escapes the Yaksas carrying the kingdom’s most sacred weapon, the Ninth Satra, and a peasant baby called Ott. The general is gravely paralysed by the Yaksas while escaping but finds refuge on the remote island of Nok Ann. There, Ott grows up and is trained in the Thai martial art of muay thai as part of the general’s mission to return the Ninth Satra to its Prince so Ramthep may be restored. The Yaksas find and destroy Nok Ann village but not before Ott escapes with the Ninth Satra. With his adoptive father the general dead and all of Nok Ann village gone, Ott has to find his way to a homeland he barely knows. With luck, he is picked up by two friends, Red Asura, a yaksa who is friendly towards humans, and Va-ta, a monkey king, and later by a pirate ship captained by Chinese pirate queen Xiaolan. Together the foursome lead the pirate fleet to Ramthep on a journey fraught with several dangers including being harassed by Dehayaksa’s scout Black Jagger and having to navigate the pirate ship through a treacherously narrow passage.

The film rockets along at a good pace, neither too fast nor too slow, though the fight scenes are too quick and flashy to show off the style and movements of muay thai at its best.  Still, for a film that cost US$7 million to make, the computer animation is well done with characters that move smoothly and naturally, and background scenes, especially those that showcase Thai Buddhist architecture and the country’s islands, are gorgeous in their colour and detail. The aerial chase and fight scenes are spectacular to watch and are perhaps the major highlight of the film. (Of course there is the overblown Saturday morning children’s cartoon showdown between Ott and Dehayaksa and as may be expected it’s full of fire and fury and not a great deal else.) The animators pay considerable attention to character development, especially the characters of Ott, Red Asura and Xiaolan, with the result that viewers come to care a great deal about these particular figures as they battle their inner demons as well as the greater demon in Dehayaksa and his forces.

What really distinguishes this film though is the way in which the plot blends a formulaic coming-of-age fantasy epic with elements of Thai myth and Thai Buddhism. For Ott to be able to deploy the Ninth Satra weapon effectively, he must demonstrate the nine virtues associated with it, virtues such as courage, steadfastness, moral integrity and faith; he’s actually not tested on these virtues but viewers have to assume he’s in full possession of them all when he meets Dehayaksa. Ultimately the film’s message that a lowly village boy can become a saviour of his people by freeing them from enslavement by the demonic Yaksas, if he is of good moral character and trusts in his religious faith, will make an impression on its target audience of teenagers and primary school-age children and their families.

Movie fans will be able to spot obvious influences from Hollywood and Japanese anime films, and guess that the inclusion of a group of sky-riding pirates and a monkey prince is a sop to Chinese and Indian movie audiences. Still, the stitching together of the various influences and elements from other movies is done smoothly and the quality and energy of the animation are exuberant enough that viewers will readily overlook the derivative quality of the film’s plot, its characters and some visual pieces. While the film could have drawn on Thai culture and artistic media (traditional and modern) more than it does here, it’s still a very good-looking and energetic work.

Your Name: teenage romance comedy drama comes with an unexpected twist sending it into disaster sci-fi fantasy

Makoto Shinkai, “Your Name” (2016)

At first this teenage romance drama seems to be just as sappy and sentimental as any other such film – especially if it’s a Japanese anime film – but it turns out to be quite a moving fantasy in which the two young protagonists try to save a community (and its traditions and culture) from sudden catastrophic extinction. How the girl Mitsuha and the boy Taki meet is ingenious: they meet each other in dreams in which they flip out of their own bodies and end up in the other person’s body. This creates a fair amount of havoc for them, their families and their friends, at least until the two become aware of each other and what is happening so they leave notes for each other on their mobile phones, in their diaries and around their bedrooms for whenever they change places again.

The two youngsters then help each other gain confidence in their social circles: Taki works up the courage to ask a co-worker at the restaurant where he works part-time out on a date, and Mitsuha becomes more popular at school. At the same time, Mitsuha participates in old family and community traditions in her village, as instructed by her grandmother, and is taught to leave sake offerings at the shrine of the village guardian deity near a lake. Later on in the film, Taki tries to meet Mitsuha and travels to her village, only to be told on the way there that the village was destroyed by a comet shower three years previously. To make matters worse, Taki later looks up fatality records for the village and discovers Mitsuha’s name is among them.

Thanks to highly detailed background animation, the film is never less than beautiful to watch though most human characters still look typically cartoonish in the way Japanese anime films portray them, with huge shining eyes and tiny button noses and small mouths and ears. Aspects of local village traditions are well researched and depicted. The film tends to be quite slow in its first half – this part of the film is mostly exposition, showing where the main characters live, what they do, how they spend their time, and what they yearn for (Mitsuha yearning to escape the village with its set routines and ways, Taki wondering about the world beyond Tokyo) – but the main characters thus established end up rather one-dimensional and bland. The pace picks up once Taki figures he can warn Mitsuha in the past of the comet strike and save her and her village. Much of the rest of the film then becomes Mitsuha’s quest, along with some of her school-friends, to convince, then force the villagers to evacuate by staging a power strike at the local electricity station that erupts into a wildfire.

The romance between Mitsuha and Taki tends to be shallow and sappy, with the characters obsessed with talking about their feelings, and by the end of the film the strength of this romance is still as vague and half-hearted as it was earlier when the characters became aware of the body-swapping. As though to compensate for the wishy-washy characters, the film brings in the plot twist that throws everything coming afterwards onto a different trajectory, and the romance takes distant second place to the disaster movie that unfolds.

The film’s saving grace is the various themes that it tackles with grace more or less successfully: loss, and how individuals deal with loss, whether it is personal loss, the loss of a relationship, or the loss of culture, history and tradition due to a catastrophe; yearning for connection, to be part of a world greater than one’s own immediate surrounds; and exploring identity through gender, social connections, time and space, and family and cultural background. If it were not for the themes informing the plot and the characters, the film would be no more than a typical teenage romance comedy drama with the unexpected plot twist that sends it off into disaster movie / sci-fi fantasy.

On Body and Soul: a quiet and quirky character study / romance drama founders on a thin and manipulative plot

Ildiko Endelyi, “On Body and Soul / Teströl és lélekröl ” (2017)

A quirky romance drama on the universal human desire for connection with others, and the struggles that must be overcome due to the interplay of individual disadvantages and the realities of everyday life in a machine-like society, this film starts with much creative potential, two unusual main characters and beautiful cinematography but founders on an insubstantial story that borders on being manipulative and creepiness. Much of the film is a character study revolving around two people who are socially isolated and/or crippled in their communication. Endre (Geza Morcsanyi) is chief financial officer and Maria (Alexandra Borbely) a newly appointed quality inspector at an abattoir when a theft occurs and the incident is reported to police. The police recommend that the staff be psychologically evaluated in order to find the culprit and a psychologist is hired to question everyone and create personality profiles for all employees. She discovers that Endre and Maria have been having the same dream every night – the two have been dreaming about two deer (a stag and a doe) sharing the same small territory around a pond during winter – and suspects them of playing a joke on her.

The psychologist’s suspicions bring Endre and Maria together and the two begin to develop a relationship. However the psychological baggage each brings to the friendship – while highly intelligent and imaginative, Maria appears to have Asperger’s syndrome, and Endre himself has been through various failed relationships with women that have left him alone and cynical, and his crippled left arm is something of an embarrassment – drives them apart with almost devastating results. Endre is not sure if he really loves Maria and Maria, endeavouring to learn what love and physical contact are, is on the verge of committing suicide when Endre rejects her.

The graceful, poetic scenes of the two deer meeting and touching each other’s nose and close-ups of often gory slaughterhouse scenes balance one another and drive home the contrast between what two isolated individuals aspire to and the reality in which they are forced to live, where they may be socially rejected, bullied or forced to tolerate other people’s gossip, infidelities and cynicism about human relationships. There may be a subtle comment on how humans are trapped within a brutal, repetitive, machine-like society (epitomised by the daily routine of the abattoir) where gentle creatures closely related to the deer are slaughtered and cut into pieces: in such a society, is it not natural that only those who are autistic, like Maria with her infallible memory and extreme exactitude, can function so well? Only when humans reconnect with their souls’ desires as expressed in their dreams can they overcome the limitations that their machine worlds place on them and join with one another at last.

The plot is very thin and moves slowly and repetitively towards a predictable if forced climax in which Endre and Maria finally come together emotionally and physically, and their shared dream, in which the two deer (representing their souls and aspirations) finally disappear and winter (representing their obstacles) begins to thaw, can fade away. Endre and Maria’s behaviour towards each other near the end strikes this viewer as out of character (for Maria anyway) and not a little manipulative of audience sympathies. The suicide attempt brings unwanted forced drama; there is no need for Maria to physically emulate Endre in having a crippled left arm. A sub-plot involving a newly hired butcher Sanyi (Ervin Nagy), who may represent a threat to Maria, dissipates very quickly and a running gag about Endre’s fellow manager Jeno (Zoltan Schneider) and his relationship with an unfaithful wife goes nowhere.

The acting is good and restrained, and the domestic settings of the main characters (which reflect their characters) are tasteful and well done. The film does seem very insular and hermetic with its narrow focus on the two characters. Director Endelyi seems uninterested in portraying a wider view of Hungarian society and how the public might view abattoirs and the people who work in them. In a film where metaphors about how dreams might reflect aspects of reality and can be used to influence reality are already quite overburdened, the metaphor of the abattoir as representing society in miniature, and how public opinion of abattoir and abattoir workers might be reflected in the workers’ attitudes toward Maria, would have been no extra baggage.

Faust: a visually stunning film with many magnificent scenes – but a thin story weakens it

F W Murnau, “Faust” (1926)

Visually powerful and stunning, with an incredible opening scene of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse riding high in the sky, “Faust” is an ambitious film that retells the story of Faust and the pact he made with the devil Mephistopheles. Special effects abound in this movie; modern audiences will be flabbergasted that, back in the 1920s, special effects were rarely used in films generally.  Even though the plot is thin and predictable – even those not familiar with the original “Faust” tale can guess how the plot will turn out – the passion and energy with which it is told, at brisk place, are evident. The acting may appear exaggerated to modern Western audiences but actors playing the main characters do their utmost to portray their characters’ feelings, emotions and pet fears.

The plot may remind readers here of the Book of Job in the Bible, Job being a fellow hit by many calamities – his children dying, his enterprises going bust – and undergoing trials set by God to test his faith. The Archangel Gabriel rebukes  Mephisto (for Mephistopheles) for glorying in war, violence and bloodshed. Both agree to make an example of Faust (Gösta Ekman), an ageing alchemist and healer, and subject him to a trial of his spiritual faith, with Mephisto (Emil Jannings) declaring that he will own Faust’s soul at the end. The deal having been struck, Mephisto promptly blasts the plague over Faust’s home town and Faust is helpless to prevent mass deaths. He casts all his books of knowledge into a bonfire but one book reveals a path out of his dilemma: he can appeal to the Prince of Darkness to gain power. Faust takes this path and meets Mephisto who gives him great power to heal others. Faust promptly starts using this power to bring people back to life but when they discover him shunning the cross, they reject him. Faust then appeals to Mephisto to take him away and give him youth; Mephisto does so, under certain conditions.

In his new youthful guise and living in a new country, Faust seduces an aristocratic woman, whose seduction comes to be the ruin of her marriage. Eventually tiring of the woman, Faust wishes to go home. Mephisto takes him back and Faust meets a young woman, Gretchen (Camilla Horn), of pure heart and soul. His desire and lust for Gretchen leads Faust to seduce her as well – but as with the aristocrat, so too does Faust’s desire cause destruction of Gretchen’s family and ruin the girl’s reputation. Gretchen is punished for harlotry and, much later, is tried and convicted for the murder of her child. She is condemned to burning at the stake. On hearing that Gretchen is to be burned, Faust rushes to save her.

Ekman plays both the old and the young Faust well but (as viewers might expect), Jannings steals the film as the malevolent yet often comic Mephisto. Horn’s performance as Gretchen is not bad but the character is definitely very stereotyped as a fallen innocent girl. The real stars of the film though are the sets, influenced as they are by German expressionism, the cinematography and the special effects.  A highly memorable early scene shows Mephisto, grown giant, spreading his black wings over Faust’s town and blowing black clouds of plague through it. The special effects which include animation are bold and incredible for the period in which the film was made.

While the film’s message of the redeeming power of love and self-sacrifice may be heartening, in its own way the film is also quite bleak. In order to understand the true power of God’s love and compassion for humanity, Faust is forced to experience the deepest despair possible and the corruption that having power over others and objects can bring. One might ask if it was really all that necessary for so much suffering and death to occur just so Faust can realise the error and selfishness of his behaviour and actions. Gretchen loses all her family and ultimately her life as a result of Faust’s actions towards her. Also, if God is willing to horse-trade humans with the Devil just to prove a point about love and redemption, is He really worthy of worship?