Friday, July 30, 2010

Bleak House

BBC TV 2005

The length of a movie is a relative thing. This one at eight hours viewed over a single day definitely left me with a tinge of disappointment because it ended too soon for me. It is a fifteen episode serial which was first shown twice a week and achieved a peak viewer-ship of seven millions and led the viewer figures in most of the episodes. The soap opera format is particularly appropriate since Dickens (1812-70) was targeting a mainstream audience and the novel was serialized in twenty segments in during 1852-3. It is a flawless film which sucks us into the enchanted vision of Dickens. It has the dignity, grace and balance of a painting and all the acting roles I can think of have been done with naturalness, sensitivity and realism. The English language flows limpidly and musically as it can only from British actors--between Dickens and the BBC the movie gives us a  portrait of the language in its most native habitat. After seeing scores of American films or many modern British ones with their hard to decipher accents and colloquialisms, it is a delight to encounter English of such crystalline purity.

The case of Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce, over the inheritance of a considerable fortune has been going on for generations. There are many conflicting wills. Claimants have died and new ones have been born but the wheels of justice grind on with no conclusion in sight. The film captures the intertwining lives of a group of characters --claimants, lawyers, policemen, a rag and bottle merchant, contentious aristocrats, maidservants and butlers, an opium addict with a romantic past--caught in the background of pre-Victorian England. To spice things up we have a murder mystery. Each of the segments ends at a cliff-hanger and the suspense and the eagerness to know what comes next never falters.

In this process we get a glimpse of British society of the era and I believe an insight into the British temperament. The strictly hierarchical character of British society comes out very forcefully. Hierarchical and yet egalitarian as we see a police inspector invade the house of an aristocrat with aplomb in the course of his duties and all but arrest the lady of the house--with due respect and ceremony of course. In fact the the hierarchical and casteist structure in British India, with the white-man as a kind of super albeit unclean cast at the apex of the power structure, may reflect the almost militaristic-ally rigid composition of British society. We in India seem to be stuck more or less in the hoary and rusty judicial system depicted. Dickens is said to be a social realist and a critic of the society in which he lived but even so, the setup comes out as one in which law and order is well established and crime may not be committed with nonchalant assurance of impunity. The fear of the law and order machinery is clearly visible.

Dicken's macabre sense of humor is insidiously omnipresent even in the most serious moments. Bucket the police inspector enjoys a few glasses of choice wine at the expense of the newly murdered corpse. The characters belonging to the lower rungs of society are sketched with exaggerated brush strokes but even the crooks are lovable and interesting. At the heart I think is Dickens love for humanity in all it's manifestations. He draws the entire spectrum of humanity--both prince and pauper-- into his enfolding embrace. None is spared from his gentle barbs of satire.

The acting is uniformly brilliant. The three female leads are outstanding in their restrained charisma. There is not one in the galaxy of characters who can be faulted or who is less than memorable, in many cases the minor characters even more than the major ones. Guppy, Skimpole, Miss Flite, Smallweed, Krook, Tulkinghorn are each of them unmistakeable in their Dickensian ancestry and created here for us by a  film-maker who knows his Dickens as well as he does film-making. One of the miracles of this film which makes it difficult to dispense praise is the fluidity of symbiosis which makes the machinery of the cast operate seamlessly like a lubricated machine. Well, half the credit goes to Charles Dickens for having created a universe growing so much out of it's native English soil that the actors slip into their roles as easily and comfortably as into a pair of worn shoes.

The Grey Zone

*Tim Blake Nelson *2001 *108m *

Of all holocaust films this one is the probably the closest close-up of the realities. This film is entirely takes place in a concentration camp. Set in Auschwitz-Birkenau, the action is in the midst of the Sonderkommando, the Jewish workforce, which, in return for a reprieve of four months, manned the day to day workings of the concentration camp. Their duties involve the "reception" of the human "cargoes", their undressing, hair-cutting, gassing and finally cremation in the ovens. The title probably refers to the moral choice faced by these commandos, who have to perform these ghoulish tasks on their own kith and kin, who are going to die anyway, in return for four extra months of life. To what extent have they sold their souls? The question is all the more sharply brought into focus in the shape of a girl who miraculously escapes the gassing process and these undeads risk their lives to save this child, who also is foredoomed under the circumstances. The torment of the kommandos culminates in this courageous act of redemption.

I am reminded of Hamlet, as he brushes aside Horatio's proposal to postpone events which seem headed for his death::

"Not a whit, we defy augury: there's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now,'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all: since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is't to leave betimes?"


Anton Chekhov (1860-1904)

Ivan Ivanich and Bourkin are caught in a heavy shower while walking in the countryside and seek refuge in the mansion of landlord Aliokhin who  welcomes them warmly. Aliokhin does not seem to have bathed for ages and is dirtily clothed as he returns home from his farming duties.They all bathe and change and as they converse in the evening, Ivan narrates the story of his own brother, a government official who spent half his life single mindedly pursuing and finally achieving his dream of living in the countryside. He turns into a ridiculous caricature of a "country gentleman" with all the foibles, pretensions and pomposity. Chekhov here questions Tolstoi's view that all that a man requires is six feet of ground. By running away from his life in the city to an idyllic nest, a haven far from tension and worry, the character in the story, and by implication Aliokhin the host, have cut themselves from the stream of life, the battlefield which is our human destiny.

"It is a common saying that a man needs only six feet of land. But surely a corpse wants that, not a man. And I hear that our intellectuals have a longing for the land and want to acquire farms. But it all comes down to the six feet of land. To leave town, and the struggle and the swim of life, and go and hide yourself in a farmhouse is not life -- it is egoism, laziness; it is a kind of monasticism, but monasticism without action. A man needs, not six feet of land, not a farm, but the whole earth, all Nature, where in full liberty he can display all the properties and qualities of the free spirit."

Ivanich's brother has lived out his life in the city dreaming of the day when he can eat gooseberries grown on his own land like the one's he enjoyed in his childhood. Perhaps few things are as dreary as a dream fulfilled, for happiness is an ever receding mirage.

".... I saw a happy man, one whose dearest dream had come true, who had attained his goal in life, who had got what he wanted, and was pleased with his destiny and with himself. In my idea of human life there is always some alloy of sadness, but now at the sight of a happy man I was filled with something like despair. ...Think of the people who go to the market for food: during the day they eat; at night they sleep, talk nonsense, marry, grow old, piously follow their dead to the cemetery; one never sees or hears those who suffer, and all the horror of life goes on somewhere behind the scenes. Everything is quiet, peaceful, and against it all there is only the silent protest of statistics; so many go mad, so many gallons are drunk, so many children die of starvation. . .  "don't be satisfied, don't let yourself be lulled to sleep! While you are young, strong, wealthy, do not cease to do good! Happiness does not exist, nor should it, and if there is any meaning or purpose in life, they are not in our peddling little happiness, but in something reasonable and grand. Do good!"

I thimk Chekhov is trying to tell us to do our best in the present for the land of gooseberries does not exist and even if we do get to the gooseberries they are not anything as sweet as we dreamt them to be. Gooseberries are just not worth living for, like Kane's Xanadu. Nor are gooseberries the purpose of life.

Thursday, July 22, 2010


Claude Lanzmann, 1985

Shoah in Hebrew means "catastrophe". It is a term for the Holocaust. This is widely regarded as the definitive film on the subject. At nine hours it is too short for the territory it covers. Moreover, film has never scaled such heights of verisimilitude.

It is a documentary with an unusual format. There is no use of  historical footage or images to which we have become immunized by familiarity, and which have over time become no more than a subject of morbid incredulous fascination. The movie consists entirely of interviews of people who directly or indirectly experienced the events as victims, perpetrators or bystanders. It takes the form of a non chronological mosaic and the same person appears more than once to take up the thread of narrative. It also takes us to the places where these things happened--the remains of the camps, crematoria and gas chambers and to the monuments erected in the memory of the vanished populations. Even stones can tell tales.

We relive these happenings along with the the persons interviewed.  It is said that the voice reaches out to the soul more than images. These are no actors as they recollect memories too intense, too personal, too sacred, oftentimes shameful and indeed so horrible that in many cases they have been pushed into the subconscious mind. We participate through their expressions, silences and tears. They break down in different ways. We see graying men breaking into tears and sobs and can surmise the ghastliness of their memories, as the reality of the past dawns anew like a landscape illuminated by shafts of lightning. It is a great service to the world to have captured and frozen for eternity this tale told by the real expressions of real men as they recollect what they lived through.

Many Jews were recruited from the victims-to-be as manpower to run the death factories. A few of them who survived are among those who testify. Of course no witness could emerge from the chambers. You have to keep reminding yourself that these are actual interviews of actual people and everything they are telling us really took place.

The film constructs the vast canvas of events spreading over many countries-- government departments, villages from which the Jewish community was evacuated before the vernichtung (extermination), inhabitants of the Warsaw ghetto, officials of the German government-- through a vast accumulation of detail. We come to understand with seemingly clinical detachment about how the bureaucratic machinery churned to achieve the logistically impossible target of wiping out an entire race, leaving no traces of the crime. We talk to a train driver who transported the suffocating, thirsty, dying men, women and children. We talk to the German deputy administrator of the ghetto, as he cringes and lies during his inquisition. We listen to a senior Nazi camp administrator, as he pours out with a measure of complacency his knowledge of intricate details of the system, unaware that the interview is being video-ed, contrary to the promise of anonymity given to him.

We learn the depth of the pits, the dimensions of the "funnel" leading to the chambers. We are told how the mass of bodies falls out of the doors to the gas chambers  like "asphalt" after the gas has done it's work, along with shit, vomit, blood, urine, torn flesh. The mangled bodies form into a pile in the course of the death struggle to reach the higher elevations in the chamber, since the gas rises upward from the pellets of Zyklon thrown on the floor. The entire process took about twenty minutes but could even be instantaneous depending on your location within the chamber. The area is cleaned spotlessly within minutes by the lucky temporarily reprieved Jewish slaves as the bodies progress along this assembly line towards the crematorium. From life to ashes is two to three hours.

I learnt for the first time about the screen of silence which enveloped the operation called the "Final Solution" so that each link in the chain knew only of it's own role. It went beyond secrecy. It was something which was simply never mentioned, either on paper or in spoken words. Everybody knew exactly what they had to do and bureaucratic momentum carried forth the entire operation like the most routine of official duties. It is this industrial efficiency and impersonality which distinguishes it from anything else in history. If so, the German people were largely unaware of the liquidations. Indeed, even the victims know of their intended fate only after they are literally pushed into the chambers--are not told, refuse to believe if they suspect and even refuse to believe when it becomes patently clear. One of the most illuminating testimonies is that of Raul Hilberg, the Austrian American  Jewish professor who immigrated in 1938, the world's foremost authority on the Holocaust.

We learn of the matter-of-fact tone of a directive to the manufacturers of gas-vans, the mobile gas chambers, ordering changes to be made in the designs so that the load-the human cargo-is "processed" efficiently with least cost and damage to the "facility". The concentration camps are factories where the product is death and production targets have to be met. We also visit the Warsaw ghetto along with Jan Karski, a Christian  professor, as he recalls the stench and sight of naked corpses festering in the street--a blazing inferno, as he recalls in considerable agitation (all but foaming at the mouth), "not of this world, not of this world!"

The interviews are punctuated with shots surveying the idyllic countrysides where this happened, the conifers swaying in the breeze in a kind of feigned ignorance. The black steam trains captured in a variety of moods criss-cross the film as a powerful metaphor.One of the compelling shots in the film is of a painting at the Auschwitz Museum depicting the contorted mass of naked bodies inside a gas chamber seen in the final throes. Another three dimensional model depicts the crematorium in all it's detail with the victims undressing prior to the gassing. This is the nearest we get to the actual events visually.

The length of the film is appropriate to it's aim. It shares with us a record dispassionate in it's clarity and truth and exhibiting these all too recent events in their different dimensions. I rub my eyes as I realize this was for real. And as Lanzmann remarks, it's not about the German's, it's about the claws hidden deep within human nature. Either way, it could have been either of us.

Roger Ebert's review
Richard Bernstein's review

Friday, July 16, 2010

City of Life and Death

Chuan Lu (director), made by the state owned China Film Group, 132m, 2009

Not even the Japanese deny the atrocities that took place in Nanking in the winter of 1937. The only debate is about the figures. For a film about the events coming from China, this is surprisingly balanced, and even though what we see is sickening, the realities must have been worse, since there are limits to what the camera may dare, or the human mind absorb. Both the victims and perpetrators are human beings, and history in that sense is a many sided mirror in which we can see ourselves kaleidoscoped. The devilish nature inherent in all human beings is the culprit in etching this inferno which seems right out of Dante.

This is a state sponsored film. It is all the more surprising that some of the Japanese officers are shown in a positive light. It shows the magnanimity and maturity of the film makers not to have painted the events in a monotone of nationalistic hate mongering propaganda. This more than compensates for the simplistic narrative which is justified since the film is obviously one with a high investment targeted at a mass market. The closing sequence of the movie is particularly moving . The truth must lie somewhere between the stubborn denials on the part of sections of the Japanese and the most lurid depictions. The Japanese as a race were no more unmitigated monsters than the Nazi's as the post war reversal shows. Such tragedies have been repeated in many places and merely show how helplessly and easily people can be sucked into committing the unspeakable by seemingly uncontrollable forces in the surroundings. War is a self perpetuating vicious cycle. A current of understatement and effort to understand runs through the film. This I find amazing, something quintessentially Oriental. Imagine a similar thing vis a vis the SS.

The black and white photography is luminescent as the camera roves through the smoking charred remains of the ancient city. The tanks rumble through the avenues. The clatter of marching boots fills the air. The citizens are reduced to wailing, shrieking helplessness. It is awesome to see how effectively we have learnt the art of harnessing human power to wage war and to subjugate others. We are shown how one group of people armed with superior instruments of slaughter united by a common purpose can hold another similar looking group less equipped and less organised in abject thralldom. The science of war is one of the most highly developed branches of know-how. We dignify war with song, dance and ritual. Those proficient in war constitute aristocracies. One of the most scary sequences in the movie is of a Japanese war dance, as the formation of soldiers advances with bizarre movements to the accompaniment of the beats of a giant drum as if to celebrate their victory before the sun god. It seems like a primordial ritual to accompany a blood bath. It is a celebration of naked aggression and the warlike spirit, the philosophy of the sword, the fruit of Japan's lightening westernization and adoption of "modern values". To paraphrase Voltaire, murder becomes laudable if committed in plurality and to the accompaniment of fife and drum. And by the victors.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Last Station

2009 *112m *Michael Hoffman, director *

Tolstoi walked out (on a horse carriage, actually, accompanied by a few others, and thoughtfully equipped with necessities like enema equipment) of his family estate Yasnaya Polyana due to differences with his wife Sofia in the winter of 1910. He was eighty two years old. He died of pneumonia just a few days later at a remote railway station, surrounded by associates and a swarm of press representatives, waiting to report the big news of his expected death. The present film provides the details and circumstances of the last year of his life which led to this well known and much made of but litttle understood tragedy. It is an engrossing drama specially for those with an interest in this author and argues Sofia's viewpoint making it clear that she was not the undiluted vixen many of us might have imagined her.

After achieving world fame as a novelist, fathering fourteen children, indulging in more than his share of philandering and participating in military expeditions, Tolstoi turned his mind to spiritual activism in his latter years. He became known as a sage winning the admiration of the much younger Gandhi, who named his own experiment in communal living in South Africa as Tolstoi Farm. Tolstoi's ideas involved divesting himself of his landed estates and the income from his literary works. In the film he wills the copyrights to the public domain on the persuasion of the leaders of the Tolstoyan movement, and this is the cause of the ferocious marital confrontation, fully capitalised in the high voltage histrionics of Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer, which make up in volume what mighy be lacking in depth.

The movie fails in bringing out the depth or stature of Tolstoi and there is no gleaning of the peasant milieu out of which his utopian activism must have originated. While Sofia's viewpoint as the recieving end of a great man's beneficence at the expense of his family is convincingly sketched even if overdone, Tolstoi's logic and philosophy is nowhere visible. The movie is worth seeing as a sugar coated and easy to swallow capsule which makes you a bit better informed about Tolstoi's life if not his well springs. The film does not do justice to the man. In fact, it barely falls short of ridiculing him, veering towards painting him as a mere jolly good fellow, slightly embarrassed by his own eccentricities. Mirren easily scores over Plummer.

Perhaps, in contrast to Gandhi and MLK, Tolstoi was no more than a genius aspiring to be a great man, a monumental talent without the substance of true humanism.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Nanking 2007

Of the three movies about the infamous massacre ( the others being City of Life and Death (2010), ARTE's Rape of Nanking),  the present one is the clearest, combining footage with the accounts of Chinese, Japanese and Western eye witnesses. Japan invaded China in 1937 and following the fall of Shanghai, Nanking was first brought to it's knees by aerial bombardment and then the army entered the capital city to carry out an unprecedented pogrom involving an estimated 200,000 deaths and 20,000 rapes over a period of several months. Due to the heroic efforts of a group of foreigners ( John Rabe, a saintly Nazi businessman, the Schindler of Nanking; Miss Vautrin, a Christian missionary; John Magee, another minister; Bob Wilson, a doctor) a Safety Zone was created in the heart of the city with UN concurrence leading to saving 250,000 lives.

In contrast to the industrial efficiency of the Nazi machine of extermination, the scene in Nanking is one of  bestiality at it's unimaginable lowest-women and girls bayoneted after rape, children bayoneted, crowds machine-gunned and the survivors bayonneted. It is alarming to discover that we human beings have such potential for bestiality, that evil can exist in such collectivised form, and even gain social sanction and admiration within the social mass comprising the perpetrators. The Japanese officers turn the eyes away, their embassy offers lame justification.

The film skillfully weaves narration and footage to present a coherent and adequate portrayal of one of the most goresome chapters of modern history. Since we have become immunized to images, the narrative form which the movie eloquently conveys the enormity through gestures, expressions, and tears. This enactment of the written words of the witnesses, victims and still nonchalant perpetrators ( the capacity for contrition seems ill-developed in human beings) is what gives the documentary it's force of reality. The film is balanced and engrossing, with no attempt at exaggeration or dramatization (there is no scope for that).

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Come and See

Elem Klimov, 1906-96, USSR, 1985, 2 hours

"And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see. And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth."...Bible

Few films depict the horror of war so powerfully as this one. It has been recently anointed a Great Movie by Ebert, which is what brought me to it. It describes the German invasion of Belarus during WW2. Two million lives were lost. The central sequence in the film depicts how the inhabitants of a Jewish village are burnt alive. This chronicles the historical fact of over six hundred villages which suffered this fate at the hand of the Nazis.

The beauty of the coniferous forest with shafts of sunlight pouring through the foliage into the lush undergrowth of ferns contrasts with the heaps of bodies and the gore of torn blood-splattered limbs. The hues of a lush sun sprayed woodland in an oblique way parallel the colors of a splattered body with the organs bulging out. The carnage becomes all the more terrible as we view it through the eyes of a pair of beautiful teenagers. Older people become immunized to anything and children may lack understanding but adolescence is an age when one's capacity for feeling is at a peak. The boy becomes partially deaf from the explosions and his muted humming world revolves dizzily as he wakes out of innocence in a short period. The stunning beauty of the countryside is captured in rainbow colors by the camera even as the enemy's murder machine closes like a vice and men, women and children are crammed into barns before being set aflame.

The sheer coldness of calculation and machine like efficiency of the invaders reveals the depths of evil to which human beings are capable of sinking. Such events seem to have been the rule rather than an exception in the annals of our past. Vindication comes with the gunning down of the chief Nazi officer and some others. The movie closes with a documentary like montage on the rise and fall of the Hitler-phenomenon. This is a film of breathtaking beauty and power and surely one which expands one's vision of the collective past.

Roger Ebert's review

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Human Condition-II & III (1960)

Kobayashi (1916-96), 1959-61, 3hrs+3 1/2 hours

The trilogy unfolds furthur as a sprawling historical and geographical drama wound around the life of the naive and idealistic hero Kaji. In it's vast canvas it resembles Dr Zhivago and Gone with the Wind. The film was made around 1960 and was a box-office success in Japan because it must have reflected the prevalent anti-war sentiments. It must have been a mirror for that country with Kaji representing the views with which a large fraction of Japanese would have found easy to identify--cathartic viewing, it's timeliness justifying it's length.

Kaji with his pro-labor views is found too troublesome as a civilian officer in the mines and  is conscripted. Part 3 (each of the films is divided into two parts so the first part of the second film is part 3 in the trilogy) is the training period, and we have a possibly caricaturised picture of the internal brutality in the imperial forces where slapping and belaboring seems an established routine. (The mutual slapping at times becomes a virtual Punch and Judy show.) Kaji with his anachronistic humanistic ideas stands out like a sore thumb.

The training is over in due course and he is despatched to the Manchurian border. We get a clear picture of the complex triangular military situation with the Chinese Reds, the Soviets and the  weakening Japanese pitted against each other. With rumblings from the West about the defeat of the fascists and Nazi's the morale of the Japanese is sinking and finally it is every man for himself and Kaji sets out on a long trek through the the forests and tundra towards his wife.

The English title of the film is a misnomer since the original has the connotation of how hard it is to be human. It is hard at any time to be a decent human being in a corrupt environment, and the protagonists effort is somewhat unconvincing and quixotic and foredoomed for disillusionment, and we are left to conclude that he is more a prototype of views prevailing after the war contrasted to the wartime jingoism, than a creature of flesh and blood. For a 1960 film it is prescient in it's portrayal of the in-humanism inherent in the Marxist ideology.

For whatever flaws it may have, it's movie well worth the effort of watching, for the grandeur of it's universal sweep and for it's portrayal of an era and a territory most of us are unfamiliar with.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Human Condition-Part 1

Kobayashi, 206m, 1959

Manchuria, the North Eastern part of China, was occupied by Japan in the thirties. The military machine ruthlessly exploited the resources as well as the labor. The present film is set in the closing years of the war. It is a long, lavish and for the most absorbing film which serves as a good history lesson. As a human drama it is bland.

Kaji, a young manager with his new bride takes over as a labor supervisor in an iron mine. With the ongoing war and the requirements of steel the Chinese are brutally driven to give increased production. Kaji is put in charge of a contingent of special labor comprising prisoners of war. His humanism comes into head-on clash with the methods of the management, which works under the surveillance of the military.

Kaji's character is unconvincing because the idealism is too undiluted and too much on the surface. It has no complexity like, say, Schindler, to make him interesting and convincing. His flaw is that he has too few flaws, making him an unlikely candidate even for a saint. The face is flat and expressionless, the mouth wide upon, eyes blank and staring into space, and of course he is given no chance to smile. The villains are wittier and more interesting. The film in it's sentimentality, overacting and melodrama has tinges of Bollywood of the black and white era.

The film is redeemed by it's accurate and well encapsulated historical information, since the director himself was in Manchuria during the period described. It is a chronicle of his own experience but he is not very successful in transmuting it into a truly great or universal film. I am not particularly inclined to continue with the remaining two parts of this trilogy having a combined duration of almost ten hours. I must add it has been widely acclaimed, even as the best film of all time.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Parting, a poem of adolescence, by AT

The cloud unfolded it’s golden wings
before the two of us
We both heard the mute song of parting
in the dying hours of the evening
- I, under the old cassia tree in the courtyard,
and you on the long road to freedom.
Alas! You could not hear the words it whispered to me.
And what it said to you was lost forever in the rising wind.