Fanny and Alexander: a film of many personas revisiting familiar Bergman themes

Ingmar Bergman, “Fanny and Alexander” (1982)

In part an autobiographical film based on his own childhood experiences of growing up with a severe Lutheran pastor father, “Fanny and Alexander” was Ingmar Bergman’s last major film and is a celebration of family and its continuity, and an affirmation of life and rebirth. The film under review is the 188-minute theatrical version and splits into three parts. The first part which takes up the first 90 minutes brings together the Ekdahl family members at their matriarch’s mansion for Christmas dinner in 1907. The Ekdahls are a theatrical family whose scion, Oskar (Allan Edwall), runs a drama company. Besides Grandma and Oskar, the family includes Uncle Gustav who carries on a secret affair with a young maid with his wife’s tacit acceptance, and Oskar’s wife Emilie (Ewa Froling) and their two children Alexander (Bertil Guve) and his younger sister Fanny (Pernilla Allwin). Through the way they celebrate Christmas, the Ekdahls are shown as lively and exuberant people who enjoy life and its luxuries, live for the moment and who are rather at a loss at dealing with the real world. Oskar worries about the debts his theatre company is accumulating and this concern puts a strain on his health. Grandma is having a secret affair with the family’s banker (Joseph Erlandsson) and seems unconcerned that the domestic staff are aware of it.

Although the film usually takes a third-person view of events, it generally revolves around the boy Alexander, a highly imaginative lad who enjoys showing his sister and cousins moving pictures on a kaleidoscope-like contraption. The boy is sensitive and becomes aware early on that his father’s days might be numbered. Sure enough Oskar falls ill and deteriorates rapidly. Emilie is devastated by Oskar’s death and finds coping without him difficult; she is drawn to the bishop Vergerus (Jan Malmsjo) for comfort and eventually agrees to marry him. After the wedding, Vergerus brings her and the two children to his home to live with his relatives in what becomes the second part of the film. Viewers will guess very quickly that Alexander and his step-father won’t be the best of friends as Vergerus imposes a severe regime on his new family and Alexander chafes not only at the physical restrictions but also the restrictions on his thinking and imagination. The two clash and Emilie begins to regret the haste with which she married Vergerus but she is pregnant with his child and Swedish law in the early 1900s did not favour women who divorced their husbands.

The film’s style ranges from lavish to minimal in a calm and understated way that one associates with Scandinavian film-making. Sven Nykvist’s cinematography is rich and beautiful and is one of the film’s major highlights. The actors fulfill their roles admirably whether they play main characters or supporting roles. Though the plot may be a simple and hackneyed Cinderella-style piece with an unbelievably happy ending, Bergman uses the three-part narrative not only to express the themes and ideas that have been dear to him throughout his directing career but also to underline his career and the people who have worked with him. The Ekdahls represent the family he would have liked to have had as a child and also the actors and technical crew Bergman relied on over the years of his career on stage and in film; Bishop Vergerus’ family on the other hand represents Bergman’s birth family.

The film can be slow and very understated. Viewers should rewatch it at least once to pick up and understand fully Bergman’s concerns with the life cycle and the fears of those facing the Grim Reaper sooner rather than later. As always in Bergman’s films, the plight of women in a society where the dice are loaded against them is of concern. The maid seduced by one of the Ekdahl men falls pregnant: in real life in Sweden at the dawn of the 20th century, she would have been turfed out from the Ekdahl household and either forced to put up the child for adoption or driven to live in the poorhouse with the baby.

Magic realist / gothic horror elements come thick and fast in the film’s second half and are associated with Alexander’s contact with his grandmother’s Jewish banker friend whose nephews run a puppet-making business and help the banker rescue Alexander and his sister on their grandmother’s behalf. The boy meets Ishmael (Stina Ekblad) who tells Alexander that his fantasies about his step-father’s death can come true as he visualises them; in eerie parallel, the bishop dies in a mysterious house fire. It would seem that with the Vergerus family out of their lives, Emilie and her children are finally reconciled with their Ekdahl relatives, and everyone can live happily ever after, but Alexander receives an unexpected visit from the bishop’s ghost who vows to give the boy a hard time from that moment on.

Bergman enthusiasts will find that “Fanny and Alexander” revisits familiar themes and aspects of the Swedish director’s past oeuvre: the film attacks the hypocrisy of institutional religion and social traditions that weigh heavily against mothers and their children; the film examines the different roles people play throughout their lives as they travel through the life cycle, and how role play reveals their inner characters; and it opposes Alexander and what he represents against Vergerus who, though a religious man, represents aspects of the restriction of life and nature, and ultimately of death. One can imagine Alexander constantly looking over his shoulder at the shadows that will follow him for the rest of his life; whether he can live his life in spite of Vergerus’ haunting or end up succumbing to the malign influence is left with the viewer as the film closes.

While the full 300-minute TV film would have cleared up the loose ends of the shorter film – there are many such loose ends and the fall-out between Vergerus and Emilie doesn’t seem quite convincing – as it is , the movie is very self-contained and its circular narrative is delineated very gracefully. The children are reunited with their family but they are not as innocent of the ways of the world as they were previously and there is a burden that Alexander must suffer in silence. The film has a low-key and graceful way of telling its dialogue-driven story – even the fire and the bishop’s demise are not nearly as startling as they could have been, thanks to the way the incidents are portrayed as report by a police officer – and this matter-of-fact style allows Bergman to explore the themes that were always important to him throughout his career. Admittedly the film is hokey in parts yet the silly bits co-exist well with scenes of horror in what turns out to be a work of many … well, personas itself: family drama, comedy, magic realism, gothic horror … it’s got it all.

Aliens (dir. A Gaponenko): the plight of Russians forced into twilight-zone lives as non-citizens in Latvia

Alexander Gaponenko, “Aliens” (2014)

In August 1991, the Soviet Union broke up after a failed coup d’état and 15 new countries arose from its remains. Latvia  was one such country, reclaiming independence after over 45 years of Communist rule from Moscow. One of its post-Soviet legacies was the multi-ethnic composition of its population: native Latvians constituted just over half the people and Russian speakers of various ethnicities from all over the Soviet Union made up most of the rest. This was a result of policies made by Soviet governments that included forced removal of Latvians from Latvia and distribution to other parts of the USSR and their replacement by Soviet immigrants, themselves often forcibly relocated from their homelands. The goal was to break down ethnic, religious and other differences which might serve as foci for self-determination and autonomy and to create new Soviet citizens.

After Latvian independence, about 300,000 Russian-language speakers (hereafter referred to as “Russians” for the sake of convenience) many of them concentrated in Riga the capital and eastern Latvia, especially in and around the city Daugavpils, found themselves subject to certain conditions demanded by Latvian nationalists in the new government if they wished to become citizens. These conditions included knowledge of the Latvian language to a level not always achieved by many native Latvian speakers themselves, taking an exam to prove their proficiency in Latvian and to give up Russian citizenship. Almost overnight these Russians became “non-citizens” – a category ironically invented by the Communists in the late 1980s for reasons of self-interest – and found themselves barred from public life: to this day, non-citizens cannot hold public office or own property, are barred from certain professions and may not serve in the military.

The 27-minute documentary takes the form of interviews of nine such non-citizens, director Gaponenko among them, and include a journalist who supported Latvian independence, a World War II veteran, a construction worker, a lawyer, a private detective and an unemployed single mother. Several interviewees admit to not applying for citizenship on the basis of principles: they were robbed of a choice to decide whether to retain Russian citizenship or apply for Latvian citizenship, and they do not agree with having to meet the conditions of applying for and acquiring Latvian citizenship. One interviewee organised protests against “reforms” of Russian-language schools proposed by Latvian nationalists and another currently campaigns against the rise of neo-Nazi groups. The single mother and her son have tried to adjust to the new situation by trying to learn Latvian but without much success.

Though their backgrounds are diverse, the interviewees are articulate and most of them are aware of what they are up against. They readily see parallels between their current twilight-zone lives and the situation in pre-1991 Latvia. A few of them speak of the fragmentation of Latvian society by nationalists who pit Latvians and Russians against one another over petty cultural and language issues while real problems go unnoticed.

At the end of the documentary, the film-makers chat to people on the street and ask them for their views on the Russians’ plight. Nearly everyone spoken to believes that Latvian citizenship should be extended to Russians. One man mentions that Estonia, Latvia’s northern neighbour, practises similar discrimination against its Russian communities. A few people say that Latvia’s population is falling and that the country needs more citizens.

Unfortunately very little is mentioned about how easy or how difficult it is for Russian-language speakers to learn Latvian to a level  where they could sit the compulsory exam and pass. I suspect that the Latvian authorities themselves do not care about extending Latvian-language classes and teaching resources to the Russian community and that their attitude is lazy indifference: they do not actively discriminate against the Russians (so that Russians themselves are unable to complain) but neither are they proactive in allocating money and resources towards lifting non-citizens to the level of citizens.

The section in the film in which a woman, Elizaveta Krivcova, states in detail the petty discriminations against non-citizens – non-citizens cannot work in the legal profession, they suffer restrictions on buying real estate and they cannot even work in forestry-related jobs – is quite chilling: the discriminations and the attitudes implied in them have their parallel in current Israeli treatment of Palestinians or the past treatment of Jews by various European governments. The ban on Russians working in forestry-related jobs possibly suggests a sinister tendency in current Latvian culture to romanticise and glorify peasant culture and nature, similar to the way in which past Nazi German ideology exalted nature, imbued it with mysticism and linked nature to racial purity and hygiene.

Bizarrely perhaps, the plight of the non-citizens has led them to create their own parliament and related institutions in which they can air their views and problems. The fact that the Latvian Russians have taken matters into their own hands and created underground institutions should fill us with hope. Since joining the EU in 2005 and some years later shifting into the eurozone, Latvia suffered severe hardship as a result of the Global Financial Crisis in 2008 and remains one of the poorest nations in the EU. The birth rate is falling and the ethnic Latvian population is decreasing as more people vote with their feet to find jobs overseas. Suspicion of Russia and Russians is apparently so strong that politicians in the Saeima wishing for more government regulation of the economy cannot voice their opinion for fear of being labelled disloyal to Latvia. As Latvian society falls into an existential crisis due to external economic and political pressures – at this time of writing in 2014, the country is preparing to host NATO troops, in effect becoming a likely warzone – perhaps the non-citizens might find they can play a useful role in offering an alternative way of doing things, one not following a US-style neoliberal economic and political path that enriches a few at the expense of many yet also one different from what Latvia experienced in the 20th century.

A recent article in European Business Review on this issue can be viewed at this link.


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.

Memoria: a tight closed narrative loop with no chance of forgiveness or redemption

Elísabet Ýr Atladóttir, “Memoria” (2013)

A creepy psychological character study, “Memoria” is very depressing to watch. The single protagonist, Vincent, is a young alcoholic and drug addict who is tormented by inner demons. He stumbles into an abandoned house and is quickly overwhelmed by a mysterious and invisible entity that forces him to revisit aspects of his past as he winds his way through the house’s labyrinthine corridors and secret rooms. He remembers his parents’ troubled marriage and the effects it has had on him. He remembers the rage he felt when his younger brother teased him and the punishment he brought down on the boy. Remorse washes over him and he reaches out for something that will end all his torment …

The 3D animation is well done though fairly conventional in its look and backgrounds. The abandoned house is no different from other haunted domiciles in its long dark and spooky passages, the cracks in the walls and the sense of dread present throughout. As you might expect in haunted-house scenarios, the weather outside is dark and stormy. The story is tight and insular with a limited number of characters and ends in a definite closed loop, thus cutting off the possibility of cosmic forgiveness and redemption. It seems no lesson has been learned and if the characters happen to reincarnate together, they’ll repeat their actions that lead to violence, mean-spiritedness and suicide. And so the cosmic vicious circle continues.

Ultimately the way in which the story is resolved, with no suggestion of hope or a chance to make amends, is something of a let-down for this short.

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.

Dancer in the Dark: a manipulative film with a conservative and disheartening message

Lars von Trier, “Dancer in the Dark” (2000)

Lars von Trier’s one attempt at making a tractor musical is the third and final installment in a fairy-tale trilogy of films in which the heroine is a good-hearted innocent who, believing she has committed a gross sin, makes amends by sacrificing everything she has even at the cost of her own life. In the trilogy, the heroine’s innocence arises from an inability to relate meaningfully to the world around her and von Trier makes no attempt to explain how this inability, which either comes across as stupidity or self-centredness, has come about originally. Whatever the source or cause of this inability, the heroine’s innocence leads her to make one blunder after another in the belief that she is being justly punished. She is eventually caught up in a vicious downward spiral that all but destroys her.

Von Trier uses this template to make sense of American society with its fascination for guns and gun-related violence and the legal and bureaucratic process that takes an innocent person from being framed for murder all the way to the gallows. Selma (Bjork) is a Czech immigrant working at a dreary and poorly paid job in a factory somewhere in rural America. She has come to the US in the hope of earning and saving enough money for her 10-year-old son to have an eye operation; he has inherited a genetic condition from Selma which is causing her own eyes to fail. In the meantime, Selma works furiously at the factory to earn extra money before her vision fades away completely, and in her spare time, she rehearses for an amateur production of a famous musical and goes to the cinema with her friend Cathy (Catherine Deneuve) to watch Hollywood musicals.

Selma and her son live in a trailer on the property of a police officer, Bill (David Morse), who is behind in his interest payments to his bank and whose wage cannot support his wife’s lavish life-style. Bill steals the money Selma has saved and this leads to an altercation between them that has disastrous consequences for Selma.

The plot has more holes than Swiss cheese attacked by machine guns and the entire set-up of the film is unbelievably crude and aimed at extracting the maximum amount of sentimentality, tears and melodrama. Characters are drawn in such a watery way that one feels no sympathy for any of them, least of all for the son on whom Selma pins all her hopes: the boy appears to feel no gratitude for his mum for all the sacrifices she is making on his behalf but wags school whenever he can to go fishing. Save for Jeff (Peter Stormare) and Cathy who bust their guts hauling Selma’s arse out of trouble throughout the film, all characters are single-minded and self-centred and viewers can feel no sympathy for Selma when, under stress, she blanks out into a surreal beautiful fantasy world of bright colour, singing and dancing. The actors do what they can to flesh out their characters but one gets the feeling their talents were wasted.

The most disturbing aspects of the film are the messages expressed through Selma’s behaviour and her excuses and justifications for doing what she does. She believes that in giving birth to her son, who is thus cursed with her genetic condition, because she wanted someone to love and to love her back, she has behaved selfishly and must therefore suffer whatever punishments befall her. In this way, she will achieve an inner peace. This horrific conservative message is one that has been peddled, and is still being peddled, by many if not most of the most rapacious and destructive institutions in Western society over the centuries: hundreds of millions of people have suffered and died, often in horrible and traumatic ways, because their political, social and religious leaders decreed that they should accept their destinies meekly as the will of God or some other external authority and not try to improve their lives. The absurdity of Selma’s beliefs reaches its peak in her refusal to hire a lawyer to defend her against criminal charges pressed on her because she believes her son needs her money more than she does, even though this refusal means she is certain to die an early death and leave her son an orphan.

Selma even appears to welcome going blind: in one of several silly songs she sings, she rejoices that she has seen enough of everything and that there’s nothing more for her to see. Presumably once she goes blind, she’ll stay permanently in Hollywood musical fantasy land, where she loves to be, while the rest of the world sails on by and leaves her behind. In this way, she will preserve her “innocence” and “purity”, both of which are really little more than self-interest and ignorance. Selma is not curious about the world around her and seems unconcerned about how her son will cope without her. When the world does intrude on her “reality”, she therefore is unable to deal with it at all; instead she zooms on ahead with little thought for the consequences. When she becomes teary-eyed, one is tempted to believe this is instinctive – the cry of an animal caught in a leg trap – and self-serving with no thought for how the son will survive on his own.

The real pity here is that in Selma’s tragic tale, there is plenty of material that von Trier could have made a half-decent film from: the exploitation of factory workers working their butts off in mind-numbing mass assembly line work; lower middle class people being stiffed by their employers and banks to breaking point; the legal system which chews up wrongly charged and convicted people without money or influence and spits them onto death row; American mainstream society’s dislike of alternative politics and economic organisation, especially socialist culture; and the apparently inexorable machine process that sends Selma to her death. I see the film as insulting to the people who do end up on death row without proper legal representation because they are poor and because the system and culture that put them on the train-track to death have always discriminated against them.  However von Trier, like his heroines, prefers to live cocooned in a world of fantasy where beautiful things are unspoilt by reality, a world in which people, if they are to be good, must quietly and uncomplainingly accept the political, social and economic context in which they live their lives and not question the injustices that arise in such a context. Such a message surely appeals to those disappointed with the current state of the world, in which democracy, the social welfare state and co-operative endeavours to improve well-being and eliminate poverty appear to have failed.

As it is, the film is unconvincing and manipulative, wallowing in misery and grimness merely for the sake of doing so, and with no message that would inspire hope or sympathy in viewers for its characters or for the predicament they find themselves in.

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.


The Seventh Seal: examining a man’s crisis of faith and his quest for meaning to his existence

Ingmar Bergman, “The Seventh Seal / Det Sjunde Inseglet” (1957)

Set in Sweden during the Black Death (1347 – 1350), this famous film examines a man’s crisis of faith and his personal quest for meaning to life and a reason to go on living when around him suffering, violence and death can strike suddenly, randomly and senselessly. The film is also a criticism of formal religion, the beliefs its priests or their equivalents proclaim and more or less coerce their flocks to follow, and how formal belief systems and ideologies can collapse so quickly after a major disaster like a disease epidemic. Having returned from the Crusades, the knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) is on his way home with his squire Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand) when he meets Death (Bengt Ekerot) on a beach. Block challenges Death to a chess game: if he can keep the game going by fair means or foul, he can earn extra time to find God and a meaning to his existence. Death, kept busy by plague victims dropping like flies, and not a little proud of his prowess as chess grandmaster, agrees to the challenge. Block successfully plays Death to check, and Death allows him respite.

During this period, Block and Jons meet several characters who attach themselves to the pair who promise to save them from the plague. Block meets a young family of actors and troubadours, Jof (Nils Poppe) who has visions, Mia (Bib Andersson) who cares for their baby son Mikael, and their manager Skat. Jons rescues a young woman from her would-be rapist whom Jons recognises as theologian Raval who, ten years earlier, had urged him and Block to join the crusade to the Holy Land. Jons’ disgust at seeing Raval suggests that he believes Raval to be a charlatan and liar for having sent knights on what turned out to be a futile and unnecessary quest of suffering and sacrifice. Later, Jons also saves Jof from Raval’s vicious behaviour and wounds the theologian. Skat has a fling with a blacksmith’s wife Lisa but she ends the affair and returns to her husband. Meanwhile Death pursues all of them.

The historical setting is not intended to be accurate, it is a metaphor and allegory, and all the characters are symbolic. The young family represents Joseph, Mary and the child Jesus: the embodiment of hope. Block is the man on a quest and Jons is his cynical atheist shadow. Raval represents the hypocrisy of religion. Other minor characters such as a girl (Maud Hansson) condemned to death for suspected witchcraft perhaps represent fear, ignorance and superstitious belief, and their tragic consequences. The acting ranges from fair to good to the often hammy, depending on the scene as the film features comedy, tragedy and melodrama in equal measures, but the major actors at least give their best to their roles.

Although Block cannot save himself and not all his questions are answered to his satisfaction, he does make good use of the time he gains by saving the young family from Death’s clutches and comforting the accused witch in the last moments of her life. In this act of gratitude for their hospitality, Block perhaps discovers the meaning of life and existence: our existence will have meaning only through our actions towards one another and to all other actors in our environment. Through his actions, Block expresses the compassion of God, a silent presence in much of the film (and to which the film’s title is an oblique reference).

Not a bad film but in my opinion this is not as good as “Wild Strawberries” which treated similar themes on a more intimate level – for such an iconic and mostly even-tempered film, the melodrama can be very heavy and bombastic. As the characters play symbolic roles, they lack depth and Block’s anguish may not appear very genuine to modern audiences. There isn’t much back-story to Block so viewers get no sense of how empty he might be at the beginning of the film, how spiritually dead and useless he feels, and so any triumph he achieves by the time he is claimed by Death has a reduced impact.


Persona: visually stunning minimalist meditation on identity, duality and the art of film-making

Ingmar Bergman, “Persona” (1966)

A visually stunning film, shot in black and white film and using contrasts of lighting and landscape to illustrate its themes of identity and the breakdown of boundaries between things thought to be separate, “Persona” is a minimalist film revolving almost entirely around two of Ingmar Bergman’s favourite actors. The plot is basic and in the hands of a hack Hollywood director could have become a campy horror lesbian porn flick. An actress, Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullman) is stricken with a psychosomatic illness that renders her completely unable to speak. A young nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson) is assigned to Elisabet’s care. The head nurse of the hospital where Alma is caring for Elisabet suggests the two might like to stay at her seaside cottage for a while so that Elisabet can recuperate better. The two women duly go there.

The area where the cottage is located seems very remote and Alma talks constantly to keep the catatonic Elisabet’s spirits up. At first Alma engages in idle chit-chat about herself, then she opens up with deep-seated anxieties about herself and her relationship with her boyfriend, and admits to having had a fling with two young boys behind her fiance’s back. Increasingly Alma feels herself being dominated by Elisabet – she happens upon a letter Elisabet has written to her therapist and discovers that the patient has been “studying” her – and though she fights against what she believes is Elisabet’s projection of herself onto her own personality, she repeatedly succumbs to the “domination”. Elisabet for her part withdraws more and more into herself until she is incapable of responding to anything around her except through Alma. Which of the two will find the strength to break out of this unhealthy loop?

The minimalist style of the film calls forth questions about the two women that will remain forever unresolved. Is Elisabet really manipulating Alma, is her muteness deliberate – or is Alma imagining that she is being dominated because of her own insecurity and mental fragility? In one scene, Alma believes Elisabet has crept up on her during the night yet Elisabet denies having visited her in her bedroom: who is to be believed here? Is each woman suffering from an emptiness that only the other can understand and fill? Alma has had to abort a baby she probably wanted while Elisabet (according to Alma) gave birth to a child she didn’t want: the two women complement and complete each other through their female reproductive function. Is Elisabet “studying” Alma as a character she might play in a future acting role? Is Alma projecting her own imagination and experiences onto Elisabet as though suggesting a role in a future stage play?

Other themes about family and the maintenance and continuation of family relationships and connections also come to the fore; it is likely that Elisabet’s mental problem that is causing her speech blockage stems in part from deep-seated family issues, of which her ambivalence towards her son is an illustration and symptom. Another possible cause for Elisabet’s speechlessness may be her inability to empathise deeply with the suffering she sees on television (a Buddhist monk sets himself on fire in protest at the US military intervention in Vietnam) and in a famous photograph of Jewish women and children being rounded up by German Nazi soldiers; this inability also affects her relationships with her husband and son. Once Alma has guessed what Elisabet’s real problem is, she tries to make her escape. The physical escape may be easy enough but the film makes no suggestion that the mental escape is as smooth and quick.

Bergman deliberately inserted abstract elements and collages of images at the beginning, end and in the middle of the film to suggest that “Persona” itself isn’t to be taken seriously. The film is very much also about the art of film-making and the art of acting, with a message that to be effective, actors must study other people and become other people. There is a risk that in becoming another person, the actor may lose her identity and real personality. Thus Elisabet becomes completely catatonic once Alma discovers the root of Elisabet’s sickness and decides to break free of Elisabet’s hold over her.

The cinematography by Sven Nykvist is at once stunning and subtle, and while it is probably overdone it certainly emphasises the duality in the film and its characters: shots of Ullmann and Andersson together are arranged so that the actors’ faces, hands and upper bodies are overshadowing each other or can be imagined combined. The cottage setting close to the seashore hints of the land and the sea competing for domination over the other. Contrasts between light and darkness are emphasised: the actors frequently wear dark clothes to highlight this polarity. The film’s self-referential quality is highlighted in Alma’s rant to Elisabet about the latter’s ambivalent feelings toward her son, done twice: the first time from Alma’s viewpoint and the second time from Elisabet’s. It’s as if Alma is now directing Elisabet in what to say and do, what her motivations are, so that the mute woman knows what her character is to do next.

Because the film is so spare in its narrative and so open-ended in its plot and in the way it was filmed, no two people will see this and come away with the same conclusions about it. “Persona” will remain as much an enigma to viewers as Elisabet is to Alma and others around her.




Wild Strawberries: a road trip into self-discovery and examination that leads to redemption and self-forgiveness

Ingmar Bergman, “Smultronstället /  Wild Strawberries” (1957)

Few movies feature 80 or 70-something actors as lead characters so to see Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries” with Viktor Sjöström in a lead role only a couple of years before his death at the age of 80 years is to see something special: an actor still at the peak of his powers and perhaps aware that his role will be his swansong piece. The film also features actors who regularly appear in many of Bergman’s films: Bibi Andersson, Gunnar Björnstrand, Ingrid Thulin, Max von Sydow. Although the title in Swedish refers to something of sentimental personal value, Bergman uses the strawberry patch that appears early in the film as the launch-pad for a journey of self-discovery and examination, and a final redemption and reconciliation with the realities of life and custom.

Professor Isak Borg (Sjöström) learns he is to be honoured by his old alma mater the University of Lund with an honorary doctorate for services to medicine so with his daughter-in-law Marianne (Thulin), who is estranged from his son Ewald, he sets out on the long car journey from Stockholm to Lund. Along the way he and Marianne stop to look at his old family holiday home with its strawberry patch and memories of his youthful romance with a girl called Sara (Andersson) come to him. The unlikely duo continue on their way and pick up three teenage hitch-hikers, one of whom is called Sara (Andersson again). The five then nearly collide with another car and have to take on the married couple as passengers. The husband and wife quarrel so much that Marianne forces them to leave. The couple reminds Borg of his own unhappy and tumultuous married life and his wife’s infidelity.

The journey continues and at each step of the way Borg is forced by daydreams, memories and knowledge of his own impending death to admit that he has never been a model lover, husband and father, and that his own son Ewald has become as cold, rationalistic and status-seeking as himself. He is forced to see that his coldness drove away his sweetheart Sara, who ended up married to his fun-loving brother Sigfrid, and his wife (Gertrud Fridh) into an affair. He and Marianne visit his aged mother (Naima Wifstrand) and Marianne is shocked to see the aged crone as a cold bitch.

The five reach Lund and Borg duly accepts his award in a sterile and lifeless ceremony of mumbo-jumbo Latin and starched-collar comic parody quality. Later Borg bids adieu to the teenage Sara and her boyfriends; in the short space of a few hours Borg and the second Sara have become close friends. Borg’s son Ewald (Björnstrand) later tells Borg that he and Marianne have decided to reconcile. When Borg retires for the night, he dreams of a picnic in which he sees his parents again and he is at peace.

The film is low-key and quite serene in presentation, masking the deep emotions and the quest for meaning to a long but empty and shallow life. In the space of a few hours’ ride in a car a dysfunctional family’s problems are laid out with the use of ingenious methods such as dream sequences in which Borg finds himself a voyeur into dioramas of family life, heart-felt conversations he should have had decades ago with Sara, his wife’s secret love affair and encounters with death. Significantly at the beginning of the film, Borg is spiritually lifeless and his connections to human beings are cold and formal but through his car journey, he is forced by experience and memory, and the way new associations with people such as the teenagers and the quarrelsome couple bleed into his reveries, to acknowledge his weaknesses and arrogance, and through that acknowledgement become human and alive at last. By the end of the film, he has forged a new and more caring relationship with his daughter-in-law and might be well on the way to reconciling with his son.

All the acting is good though Bibi as the teenage Sara is a bit unbelievable as a typical 1950s hipster jiving teen who declares her love for an old man while flirting with two boys. Considerable poetic licence must be allowed – the car journey itself can’t have taken such a short time from sunrise to early afternoon and allowed Borg to have prepared properly to receive his award. The near-collision scene strains credibility as well but it’s what happens afterwards that is most significant.

Symbolism is important in the film: Borg’s dreams, in particular his nightmare at the beginning of the film, carry prophetic elements and even props such as the coffin in the nightmare, slipping out of its carriage like a squalling newborn, or the funeral cortege-like car Borg and Marianne drive to Lund have been carefully selected. The country landscape with its quiet trees and sinuous roads is a stoic contrast to the turbulence roiling in Borg’s mind. Sometimes the symbolism can be a little too heavy and forced as when branches of a tree appear to encircle Borg’s head from one scene to the next. The use of dreams as a way to explore issues of existence and the worth of one’s life and values can be inspired; in one dream sequence, Bergman uses a common dream theme – returning to school for an exam – to demonstrate how rationalistic Borg became and how his humanity was reduced as a result.

This is a film to be experienced for its visual beauty, its intelligence and philosophical questioning as well as for the fine acting and story of self-discovery and redemption through a car-trip.