God Parts

01.30.15

Aleksei German, Hard to Be a God, 2013, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 170 minutes.


FIRST LOOKING DOWN into the still water of a pond dusted with lightly falling snow—the photography is pure black-and-white, which is to say there’s nothing but black and white—the frame rears up to look out across a disorderly, frost-crusted landscape with a distinctly medieval aspect, dotted with a few ragged muzhiks. “This is not Earth, it’s another planet,” asserts a narrator, grumbling in Russian, though this claim is up against the evidence of our eyes.

This is the disorienting opening of Aleksei German’s Hard to Be a God, an epic at once claustrophobically immediate and otherworldly. The premise—thirty Russian scientists from an unidentified point in time have been sent to covertly observe life on a planet which is identical to Earth but lags centuries behind in development, never having experienced nor ever likely to experience a Renaissance or an Enlightenment—comes from a 1964 novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, two brothers whose science-fiction works were popular with Eastern Bloc readers, and whose Piknik na obochine (Roadside Picnic) was adapted by Andrei Tarkovsky into his 1979 Stalker. (The Strugatskys’ Hard to Be a God was reprinted last summer by Chicago Review Press.) In an opening narration tightly packed with vital exposition—pay attention, it won’t be repeated—we’re given a succinct rundown of the planet’s rival factions and nation-states (Oltregolfo, Irukan), and introduced to the film’s protagonist, Don Rumata, played by the brawny and swaggering Leonid Yarmolnik. Rumata is an earthling who poses as a nobleman “descended from Goran, a local pagan God,” and his brusque manner disguises an outraged sensitivity, for it is his fate to stand witness without intervention as another despot, Don Reba, carries out a purge of the local intelligentsia.

The first (and not last) execution in Hard to Be a God has a “wise guy” drowned in an outdoor latrine. Arbitrary acts of casual barbarism mount as we follow Rumata on his appointed rounds, while further dumps of exposition arrive as suddenly and torrentially as the cloudbursts which keep this planet’s inhabitants mired in mud, as they are mired in merry, brutish ignorance. A viewer is not less likely to be confused—clarifying matters of who and where and why for an audience is of secondary importance to German, who delights in shooting smothering banks of obfuscating fog, and whose principal occupation here is the construction of a total, inescapable environment in which to wallow. Where many a fantasy/sci-fi novel is preceded by pages of helpful maps which illustrate for the reader the borders of the imaginary terrain in which their scene is to be set, German flings his audience headfirst into the slops and expects them to make their own way.

Like many an agent to the colonies, Rumata has succumbed to the dissipation around him. He’s first introduced waking from a debauch, and through the course of a long day he grows steadily drunker on both toxic spirits and the sense of his own baffling invulnerability. As heavy and imposing as Rumata’s creaking carapace of armor, the film is welded together from wending Steadicam shots which closely explore his looming body and snuffle about his adopted home’s crevasses and cracks—as in an early shot where a hoodlum uses his pike to prod a bare ass hanging from a second-story outhouse—occasionally pulling back to reveal its expanses. One never has a sense here of a cordoned-off area where the camera cannot turn for fear of banishing the illusion, and the City of Arkanar gives an impression of interminable expanse while being perfect down to the last detail of tooled leather, weathered woodwork, and haphazard clutter.

When Rumata isn’t dominating the frame—and he quite often is—we experience the world through his point-of-view, complete with toadying subjects gawping, groveling, or presenting their broken idiot grins to the camera, fourth wall breaks which recall the Fellini of Satyricon. (The perspective will occasionally divert to the objective from a subjective POV in a single shot.) The film’s credits list two cinematographers (Vladimir Ilin and Yuriy Klimenko) and four camera operators, though it manages a remarkable visual consistency, space distinctly delineated into multiple planes by light and shadow as in a film by Von Sternberg, if Von Sternberg had ever decided to make a film about the scrofulous inhabitants of a sodden, squelching pigsty planet.

This tonal consistency is all the more remarkable when one considers that Hard to Be a God, German’s sixth and final film, was shot intermittently between 2000 and 2006, and was in postproduction for a still longer period. Its director did not survive to see the process through, dying in February of 2013—the same year that Hard to Be a God finally premiered at the Rome Film Festival, the sound mix having been completed by his son, director Aleksei A. German, and Svetlana Karmalita, his wife and coauthor of the film’s screenplay.

German completed his first feature in 1967, which should give you some idea of his prolificacy, or lack thereof. In conjunction with Anthology Film Archives’ weeklong run of Hard to Be a God, the theater will be screening three of his landmark earlier works. The wait between German films was not solely a result of his perfectionism, evident in the incredibly detailed sequence shots which make up his latest. Trial on the Road (1971), set during the German invasion of the USSR in World War II, shows a penchant for elaborately engineered, scrolling takes of troop transports and caravans of fleeing peasantry, but what held up its release fifteen years was its failure to conform to the ennobling version of Russian participation in the war, for the film’s antihero (a stone-faced Vladimir Zamansky) is a Soviet defector who has fought for both sides. Trial on the Road was based on a story by the novelist Yuri German, Aleksei’s father, whose work also provided the basis for Aleksei’s 1984 My Friend Ivan Lapshin—in the face of official amnesia, German deals in the transmission of history as a sort of family heirloom, something to be conveyed in textures, postures, and attitudes rather than in facts and figures. Ivan Lapshin is a memory piece which winds together the stories of the residents of a communal apartment and their circle—a police inspector, an itinerant actress, a journalist—in a typical provincial town in 1935. Watching it and 1998’s Khrustalyov, My Car!, you can trace the development of German’s muscular, thrashing style, as well as see the fondness for practical jokes, horseplay, and general prankishness which will turn antic in the grotesquerie of Hard to Be a God, rife with snot rockets, micturition, and pantomime humping.

Hard to Be a God is German’s only film not to be set in post-1917, pre-Khrushchev Russia, though its miasmic, moronic bog-planet may be taken as a flexible metaphor for the unfinished revolutionary Russia of 1964, when the Strugatsky brothers’ novel was published; the Putin kleptocracy, which German saw the beginning of; or a twenty-first-century slum planet devolved into peasant superstition and cackling cruelty. The urge for civilization struggles to survive in the sucking muck, though German shows little hope for the future. One “wise guy” approaches Don Rumata brandishing the broken wing of a crude Da Vinci–esque flying machine. “We’re learning to fly,” he says. “Mostly downwards.”

Nick Pinkerton

“Films by Aleksei German” plays January 31–February 10 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.

Agnès Troublé, My Name Is Hmmm..., 2013, color, sound, 121 minutes.


DELICATE, TOUGH, and heartbreakingly sad, My Name Is Hmmm… (2013) is the first feature by Agnès Troublé, better known as the fashion designer agnès b. You’ve probably seen—maybe even worn—her “j’aime le cinéma” T-shirt. You might not be aware, however, that through her production company Love Streams (named for John Cassavetes final film), she has helped finance movies by Harmony Korine, Claire Denis, and Jonas Mekas. Their influence is apparent in My Name Is Hmmm…, but the way Troublé tells a story and the story she tells are utterly personal. Her elliptical editing of both images and music can be startling, illuminating, or awkward, but it is always purposeful in expressing how the consciousness and memory of her heroine, an eleven-year-old girl, is shaped.

The oldest of three siblings, Céline (Lou-Lélia Demerliac) lives in a small French town hit hard by the recession. Her mother (Sylvie Testud) works long hours as a waitress; her unemployed father (Jacques Bonnaffé) has begun to sexually abuse Céline on a daily basis. On impulse, during a school outing to the beach, she runs away and takes refuge in a parked truck. The driver, a burly Scot named Pete (Douglas Gordon), is unaware of the girl hidden behind the front seat until he’s gone some distance, and by then it’s too late to turn back. He speaks hardly a word of French, but he senses that Céline, who refers to herself as “Hmmm,” has suffered a calamity, perhaps because he has as well. It takes only a glimpse of a photo of Pete with a woman and a child and the gentle fatherly encouragement he shows Céline to understand that Pete used to have a family, and then suddenly it was gone.

As they drive north through Bordeaux, the traumatized girl and the bereft man forge a bond. The cab of the truck is a safe, even magical space, its guardian spirit a glow-in-the-dark decal of a horse, mane flowing in full gallop, affixed to the windshield. Occasionally they get out to have a picnic, or to wander along the beach. Pete goes shopping to buy Céline a toothbrush and some underwear, they spend a night around a campfire with a wild assortment of travelers, among them the Italian philosopher Antonio Negri who’s walking the highways alone. Troublé mixes professional actors with personal friends and ordinary people she finds on location. A scene in a café with Jean-Pierre Kalfon as the argumentative proprietor is an improvisational gem, and it is also where the tone changes. Pete has been aware for a few days that the police are looking for Céline. He also knows—because Céline has shown him with a single graphic gesture—what her father did to her. Pete has a rescue fantasy but no practical plan to save Céline. The ephemeral freedom of the road movie vanishes and is replaced by the anxiety of the wrong-man narrative. Pete is the father that Céline should have had, but the authorities will not see it that way. The road they’ve taken can only end in tragedy.

It took Troublé three years to find a young actress with the resilience, emotional transparency, and intelligence necessary to play Céline. Demerliac is splendid in her solitary moments and in her give-and-take with Gordon, who is wonderfully unhurried and very real. Troublé proves a subtle director of actors. One of the most interesting aspects of the film is the application of a Cassavetes-like improvised, emotional realism to characters who are all behaviorally repressed, as Cassavetes’s characters never were.

A hands-on filmmaker, Troublé collaborated with Jean-Pol Fargeau on the script, with Jean-Philippe Bouyer on the cinematography, and with Jeff Nicorosi on the editing. She also was involved in the production design, which is virtually ethnographic in its detail. Fargeau frequently collaborates with Claire Denis on the scripts for her films, and it is Denis who is the strongest influence on My Name Is Hmmm…. Like Denis, Troublé has a strong, even tactile sense of place and of things: how a rough stone wall, or sunlight glinting through a dusty windshield, or a comb found in a communal shower and touched by a man and a girl who wish they were father and daughter can leave an impression beyond words.

Amy Taubin

My Name is Hmmm… is now at the Museum of Modern Art through February 3.

Céline Sciamma, Bande de Filles (Girlhood), 2014, HD video, color, sound, 112 minutes.


THOUGH IT MAY NOT BE THE BEST TRANSLATION, Girlhood, the US title affixed to Céline Sciamma’s Bande de filles—which would more accurately be rendered as “Girl Group” or “Girl Crew”—nonetheless aptly sums up this perceptive writer-director’s abiding interest. Water Lilies, Sciamma’s 2007 debut, centers on the erupting desire among a trio of fifteen-year-old female adolescents during a languorous summer; Tomboy (2010), her even more accomplished second feature, highlights a pubescent untethered to the rule-bound world of gender codes. Girlhood continues to probe the developmental stage when bodies and identities are still in flux, yet in a milieu much different from those of its predecessors: the impoverished banlieues that ring Paris and are home to many of its French-African denizens.

Sciamma has a particular gift for spectacular opening scenes. As in Water Lilies, which begins with the crazy pageantry of a synchronized-swimming completion, Girlhood also kicks off with a surprising display of athletics: the slo-mo tosses and tackles between two teams in an all-female, multiracial American-football league. Among those returning home from the game to a grim tower block is Marieme (Karidja Touré), a sixteen-year-old who assumes responsibility for her two beloved younger sisters while their mother works the night shift as an office cleaner; the teenager must also frequently absorb the wrath of her tyrannical slightly older brother, Djibril (Cyril Mendy). School provides no haven from these hardships: Having already repeated a grade twice, Marieme is told by a teacher—heard but never seen—that vocational training is her only option. Rather than accept this indignity, she falls in with a triad of tough girls, abandoning her braids for straightened hair, her hoodie for a leather jacket—and learning the pleasures of raising hell at malls in Les Halles, smack-talking, and impromptu dance-offs on the Métro.

Led by the swaggering alpha Lady (Assa Sylla), this foursome—whose members are all played by charismatic first-time performers—pools their (mostly pilfered) resources together for a one-night hotel stay, an occasion for pizza partying, bong hits, bubble baths, and, most rapturously, a lip-synched/sing-along performance to Rihanna’s “Diamonds.” Bathed in blue light, intoxicated by their own freedom, however temporary, the young women are, just as RiRi sings, “a vision of ecstasy.” (Sciamma, working with her regular cinematographer, Crystel Fournier, shot Girlhood in CinemaScope, its ample width ensuring that this quartet never feels crowded out or confined.) “You have to do what you want. Say it,” Lady, soaking in the tub, demands of Marieme, whom she has renamed Vic (“as in victory”). Although boosted by this hedonist mantra—the slogan of adolescence, really, and one touchingly put to practice during the shy teenager’s clandestine romance with her neighbor Ismaël (Idrissa Diabaté)—Vic will repeatedly be reminded of her severely limited options.

Yet if her opportunities are circumscribed, Vic’s chances for physical reinvention seem unlimited, especially in the film’s last quarter: Working for a drug kingpin in a nearby cité, she assumes a butch persona with bound breasts, then dons a high-femme ruby minidress and blond wig when making deliveries. Both times that I’ve seen Girlhood, this has struck me as one reincarnation too many, at odds with Sciamma’s otherwise at once loose and assured approach. These doubts dissolve, however, with the perfect, simple choreography of the final shot—when exiting the frame becomes the most radical instance of “doing what you want.”

Melissa Anderson

Girlhood opens in New York on January 30 and will be released in other US cities throughout the year.

Rowland V. Lee, I Am Suzanne!, 1933, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 100 minutes. Left: Suzanne (Lilian Harvey).


THE EXCITABLE PUNCTUATION MARK of its title instantly signaling the delirium to follow, I Am Suzanne! (1933), populated by an enormous cast of marionettes, will give pupaphobes night terrors. This bizarre pre-Code musical melodrama, directed and co-scripted by Rowland V. Lee—the other screenwriter, Edwin Justus Mayer, would collaborate nine years later with Ernst Lubitsch on the screwball paragon To Be or Not to Be—exists in the same uncanny valley where Hans Bellmer romped.

The film is set in the “Paris” of Fox Film Corporation soundstages. On the same street in the French capital, two entertainment venues attract vastly different numbers of audience members: The Théâtre des Marionettes is currently playing to crowds of seven, while the Revue de Paris, headlined by dancer Mlle. Suzanne (Lilian Harvey), sells out nightly, largely owing to the elaborate spectacle of what’s referred to as “the Saint Moritz number.” This showstopper features Suzanne gliding backward down a tightrope from the nosebleed seats onto the stage, ornately designed to resemble an Alpine ski resort. The figurante, whose skimpy attire suggests she should be in Saint-Tropez, builds and sings a love song to a snowman, the frosty creature coming to life after Suzanne is tossed about, flipped, and otherwise dramatically manipulated by two sets of wool-capped male hoofers.

“What’s a dancer? A human machine,” the impresario Baron Herring (Leslie Banks), Suzanne’s filching manager, scoffs. Suzanne’s endlessly pliable body in the outré Swiss set piece certainly supports his cynical belief, a corollary to which constitutes the Weltanschauung of Tony Malatini (Gene Raymond), a fifth-generation puppeteer who hopes to re-create the Saint Moritz number—including the sculpting of a wee, wooden Suzanne—for the marionette theater. Sidelined from dancing after taking a nasty tumble into the orchestra pit during her act one night, Suzanne joins Tony’s troupe, quite literally pulling her own strings as her miniature, hand-carved avatar prances about on a tiny stage. “I can dance again—through her!” she cries to Tony, her partner not just in wire-wielding but love. Yet Suzanne grows to despise her shrunken surrogate when it becomes clear that it is her romantic rival, Tony’s cathectic energy directed more toward creatures made of wood than flesh.

For her puppet hate-crimes, Suzanne will face a poupée populist uprising during a dream sequence in which a tribunal of bloodthirsty dolls chants, “Hang her! Hang her! Kill, kill, kill!” Her waking life proves even stranger, however. Soon to follow is a production number in which a (human) performer playing Satan operates a trapdoor to hell after learning the crimes, disclosed in verse, of various deviant marionettes. (A highlight: the butch, besuited puppet—strongly resembling Dorothy Arzner, the dyke director of Christopher Strong, which stars Katharine Hepburn as a robust and reckless aviatrix, and was released the same year as I Am Suzanne!—who confesses, “I’m a woman, alas. / But I fool nature’s plan. / I like to dress up as a man.”)

As for the impassioned declaration that serves as the title of Lee’s strange, though always absorbing, movie, it is spoken three times—in the first two instances by the Baron and Tony, clearly as a riff on Flaubert’s quote regarding his most famous literary creation. By the time Suzanne herself utters it, shortly before doing harm to her puppet-self, I found myself wondering, Who was Suzanne? Lilian Harvey, once a huge star in Germany, made no more films after 1940, though she is name-checked admiringly by the cinema-owner heroine in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds from 2009 (and appears on that movie’s sound track). In 1968, the actress died at age sixty-two in Antibes in the French Riviera, where, per her obituary in the New York Times, she was engaged in a profession far more rarefied than dancing or puppeteering: “operating a souvenir shop and raising edible snails.”

Melissa Anderson

I Am Suzanne! is now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York through February 1.

Borscht Belt

01.24.15

Bleeding Palm, Adventures of Christopher Bosh in the Multiverse, 2012, animation, color, sound, 11 minutes.


AMONG GROUPS OF BACKYARD, amateur filmmakers, it is common practice to create your own “studio,” an entity in name alone that serves as a password, an ego-bolstering sense of identity, a communally bonding inside joke. When I was making movies with friends in Cincinnati we used the name Technetium Enterprises. I have a friend who started his own BS company, Creatively Bankrupt, when he was at university. And around a decade ago, some kids in Miami, many of them graduates or current students at the New World School of the Arts, a magnet high school downtown, formed Borscht Corp.

I was thinking about this while walking along Biscayne Boulevard toward the Intercontinental Hotel in downtown Miami, whose external LED lights had been programmed to flash the Borscht Corp. logo (a kind of Ouroboros circle, but with two heads, a snake and an alligator), along with scrolling texts (“EVERYTHING YOU DO WILL BE FORGOTTEN”) reminiscent of the THE WORLD IS YOURS blimp text in that most seminal of Miami movies, Brian De Palma’s Scarface (1983). If not the world, than Borscht today have a decent claim on owning Miami—it turns out that if you keep working at your inside-joke fake studio thing for ten years, you can fool everyone else into believing it’s real as well.

The LED display and installations in the Intercontinental lobby were among the many site-specific elements of the event that is the raison d’être of Borscht Corp., the Borscht Film Festival. Now in its ninth semiannual appearance—2013 was a year off—this year’s festival was five days of screenings and associated events, with a program of shorts commissioned and produced by what their website describes as an “open source collaborative” as the centerpiece. Among the attractions: a screening of Scarface, interspersed with janky homemade, crowdsourced clips submitted by friends and fans, at the incongruously lavish Mansion Nightclub on Miami Beach; musical performances, replete with 3-D light shows, at the planetarium of the soon-to-be-shuttered Miami Museum of Science; a twentieth anniversary outdoor screening of the Miami-set Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994).

A film whose plot hinges on the kidnapping of Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino, Ace Ventura is actually relevant to the Borscht Corp. mission, for much of their practice has to do with creating a mythology for the Miamian scene and its indigenous celebrities, a neon Tolkien kind of thing. Coral Morphologic, a group whose multimedia works reference the coral reefs of the city’s urban waterways, are frequent Borscht collaborators, while one of the most widely seen shorts made under their auspices is Adventures of Christopher Bosh in the Multiverse, which was passed around on the Internet quite a bit last year. (Borscht works are designed as much for the laptop as the theater, as attuned to new media as to any traditional idea of cinema.) Attributed to “a Miami based mystic organization founded by Ronnie Rivera” called Bleeding Palm, Christopher Bosh has it that the Miami Heat power forward is in fact a deposed “twelve-dimensional God” from another galaxy, and it imagines the circumstances of the 2012 “Miami cannibal attack” as part of a skirmish in a battle for humanity’s survival.

A Christopher Bosh sequel was announced as missing in action on the eve of its premiere, or “on Miami time,” as the evening’s emcee had it, before he led the crowd in a chant of “MIAMI-DADE, BORN AND RAISED!” While the Fest would appear to be sponsored up and well funded—the shorts showcase was at the 2,200-seat Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, and Borscht Corp. has been the recipient of a handsome grant from the Miami-based Knight Foundation—it retains an air of by-the-seat-of-the-pants amateurishness in its improvised form (fun) and not-infrequent A/V gaffes (less so). This amateurishness extends to Borscht’s dedication to the short-film form—not as a stepping-stone to making that first feature, but as a perfectly legitimate medium in and of itself.

Bleeding Palm, Adventures of Christopher Bosh in the Multiverse, 2012.

Scanning the credits on the Borscht films, one finds the same names popping up time and again—musician Otto Von Schirach, the standard-bearer of the classic 808-driven booty bass sound, who performed one night at local bar–screening venue Gramps, or Julian Yuri Rodriguez, whose short Lake Mahar, described as “a nightmare of caucasian emasculation on Flagler Street,” was a convulsively funny work of caricatured typage. (A cartooned aesthetic prevails at Borscht—short Biscayne World combines smuggled vignettes from Miami city buses with animated drawings by regular rider Ahol Sniffs Glue.)

Most ubiquitous of all were the names Jillian Mayer and Lucas Leyva, who collaborate as Mayer\Leyva—they cowrote Bosh, and one or the other has a hand in nearly everything at the fest. This year’s Mayer\Leyva debut was Cool as Ice 2, which offers the purest distillation of the Borscht Corp. ethos, combining regional boosterism (“MIAMI-DADE, BORN AND RAISED!”) and cosmic remove (“EVERYTHING YOU DO WILL BE FORGOTTEN”). Like their 2012 The Life and Freaky Times of Uncle Luke, a sci-fi “biopic” of 2 Live Crew frontman Luther Campbell, Cool as Ice 2 plays fast and loose with the legend of a Miami hip-hop star, this time Robert van Winkle, aka Vanilla Ice. Where Uncle Luke was made with the participation of its subject, Cool as Ice 2 pirates Ice’s image, projecting his face onto that of a performer wearing a mask/screen. The film follows Ice through his youth, rise to fame, downfall, and beyond—a despondent Ice’s suicide jump is foiled when the sun expands into a red giant during his free-fall, leaving him as humanity’s lone survivor, drifting the cold cosmos in conversation with another exploded star. While Uncle Luke was billed as “Based on La Jetée by Chris Marker,” Cool as Ice 2 references texts by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Vladimir Mayakovsky, and Frank O’Hara, as well as Ice’s own manufactured backstory. (“The world I built around myself, same way you build your world around yourself.”) Mayer\Leyva approach their high-low culture mash-ups as though they’re the most natural thing in the world, so they’re never coy or cutesy, and Cool as Ice 2 proves them boundlessly resourceful artists, getting a maximum of coup de théâtre effect from a minimum of resources. It gets across more cinematic awe, feeling, unexpected humor, and take-home ideas than Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, in one-eighth the time and God knows what fraction of the budget.

Mayer\Leyva, Cool as Ice 2, 2014, color, sound.


Outside of the shorts showcase, Borscht Fest screened work by affiliated artists working in longer formats. New York–based dancer-slash-choreographer-slash-everything Celia Rowlson-Hall presented her dialogue-free feature MA, in which she stars as a modern Virgin Mary wandering the Death Valley desert, first appearing under a faded towel-cowl which evokes a Nan Goldin Madonna. (The version screened was a work in progress—more the rule than the exception here—so I will limit myself to saying that it’s chockablock with uncanny images.) Also on hand was a forty-five-odd-minute whatsit called Hector.LA, from Miami-raised, Los Angeles–based Nick Corirossi. Corirossi is on staff at the Web comedy site Funny or Die, but he has a sideline in creating unclassifiable Internet objects like his Miami 1996 (2012), a video that appeared without further explanation on a website made to look like a Geocities-era memorial, and which played out as a found-footage snuff film simulacra of a house party thrown during the heyday of booty bass, which ends in a brawl and a death.

Hector.LA is another period piece of a sort, taking place in 1993, 2014, 2022, and in the thirty-second century—loosely chronologically, though striated throughout with flashbacks and visions of the future(s), edited as though by a half-dozen different people with entirely different intentions, or one nut job desperate to appeal to a half-dozen different audiences. It may loosely be described as a movie about the making of a movie, in which Corirossi plays “Nick Corirossi,” a balding lecher and fraud director whose messianic delusions turn out to be true. The film-within-a-film is something billed as Henry Jaglom’s The 5th Belief, though there’s no clinical distance between it and Hector.LA, both full of clunky acting and gratuitous nudity, less a parody of the spirit of cinematically illiterate, casually misogynistic vanity projects of the Neil Breen/The Room/Eric Schaeffer school than a full embodiment of it. I can’t say if Corirossi takes himself seriously as an artist—essential to the success of Miami 1996 and Hector.LA is the fact that they don’t break character—but I certainly do.

Hector.LA begins in hotel conference rooms and antiseptic chain restaurants, largely shot in surreptitious stalker-POV, and ends imagining a future in which The 5th Belief is the only remaining artifact to represent the cultural achievements of preapocalyptic humanity. It has been given the appearance of a text which has, through the centuries, become covered in palimpsests—crass gags undermining authorial intention and Arabic subtitles. Like Cool as Ice 2, it’s a work that imagines what will happen once we have disappeared, leaving only our plastic culture behind, a wry fatalism that exists beyond Poptimism, and which now belongs to Miami as much as Uncle Luke’s 808s.

Nick Pinkerton

The 9th Borscht Film Festival took place December 17–21, 2014 in Miami.

Morten Tyldum, The Imitation Game, 2014, color, sound, 114 minutes.


BEFORE I SAW THE IMITATION GAME all I knew about Alan Turing was that President Obama, making a speech in England in 2012, named him as one of the three greatest British scientists, the others being Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin, and that the following year the Queen granted him a posthumous pardon for the crime of indecency. Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Turing in the film, remarked that it should have been left to Turing whether or not he wanted to pardon the British government. But of course he’d been dead since 1954.

Knowing little or nothing about Turing is the prerequisite for enjoying The Imitation Game, which thanks to the marketing savvy and big-bucks commitment of The Weinstein Company and the presence of Cumberbatch, the New Man sex symbol, is now having a wildly successful run in art-house cinemas. Weinstein is pulling out all the stops in the advertising campaign for his potential Oscar winner; the cost for the print ads alone probably equals the budgets of most independent films heading to Sundance this week. The early ads were filled with film-critic quotes praising the movie’s art and entertainment values. This was followed by an extravagant double-page ad in the Sunday, January 4 New York Times with Cumberbatch in profile on the right-hand page and a series of quotes from various Internet honchos testifying to Turing’s visionary genius as the inventor of a universal machine that is the basis of all contemporary computing. Three days later, the advertising narrative changed course and the film became the story of a gay man persecuted by a homophobic society, now restored to his place in history by The Imitation Game.

If the film does nothing else but send you, as it did me, to Alan Hodges’s Alan Turing: The Enigma (1983, newly prefaced in the 2014 Princeton University Press edition) it more than justifies its existence. A great read, Hodges’s intellectual biography depicts Turing as a brilliant mathematician; a crucial pioneering figure in the theorization and engineering of digital computing; and the biggest brain in Bletchley Park’s Hut #8, the unit in Britain’s World War II intelligence hub that succeeded in breaking the German’s Enigma code, thus shortening the war by as much as two years and saving as many as twenty-million lives.

That Turing, despite these accomplishments, was as little known as Ada Lovelace (look her up yourself) until the release of The Imitation Game is partly because every one of the nine thousand persons who worked at Bletchley Park during the war had to take a nondisclosure oath under penalty of high treason. (The cover story was that Bletchley was a radio factory.) The other, more appalling reason is that in 1952 Turing was convicted of engaging in homosexual acts, for which he was sentenced to chemical castration (the option he preferred to two years in prison). As a result not only were his brain and body messed up by high dosages of estrogen, he also was barred from the government funding he needed to continue his life’s work on artificial intelligence. His death, just a few days before his forty-second birthday, from arsenic poisoning was most likely a suicide although possibly an accident or even an assassination.

Indifferently directed by Morten Tyldum with a thin, clichéd, sentimental script by Graham Moore, The Imitation Game is nevertheless something of a pleasure, purely because the actors rise above the material, bringing to their characters their own knowledge of the complex actual persons they play on screen. The narrative is largely set at Bletchley during the war and is structured as a conventional heroic race against time, with our hero overcoming not only the formidable adversary of the Nazi’s “Enigma” machine but also all the disbelievers at Bletchley who think his “Bombe” decoding machine will never work.

There are occasional flashbacks to the barely adolescent Turing (Alex Lawther) at boarding school where he falls in love with the other math whizz in his class, Christopher Morcom (Jack Bannon). The young actors are wonderful (Tyldum has to be given credit for directing them) and there is no doubt that Turing was shaped by the loss of Morcom, who died suddenly of tuberculosis. His passion for cryptography and his understanding that all language is coded may well have been shaped by that early forbidden love even before his involvement with linguistic philosophy and logical positivism at Cambridge. The coded messages he exchanged with Christopher were written in the language of the closet. But there is no evidence that Turing named his intelligent machine “Christopher,” as he does in the film. That’s the scriptwriter’s fantasy and it well may bring tears to your eyes (it did mine) until you realize how it sentimentalizes Turing, who, more complicatedly, like Warhol sometimes wished he was a machine and probably preferred the company of his universal machine to any of his many lovers, whether casual or serious. That there is no sign of any of these lovers in the film is its gravest failing

Except, of course, for the absurd 1952 to 1954 framing story, in which Turing tells his life story to a deus-ex-machina, a completely fictional police detective (Rory Kinnear), whose unfounded suspicion that Turing is a Soviet spy leads to his arrest for having a piece of rough trade in his apartment. In actuality, Turing did not deny the charge, believing that homosexuality was about to be legalized. Even in this he was ahead of his time. The story that he tells the detective is the story that unfolds in the film; thus, in its entirety, The Imitation Game is a first-person narrative. What is preposterous about this ploy is that had Turing told the detective what he did at Bletchley, he would have been guilty of a crime more serious than homosexuality. He would have committed high treason for violating the Official Secrets Act.

As much as I wanted to suspend my disbelief and take pleasure in the actors’ brilliance, The Imitation Game lacks credibility on every level. Still, Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke (the woman whose mathematical genius made her part of Turing’s inner circle and, for a moment, his fiancée), and, as a composite character representing the all-powerful MI6, Mark Strong (no one leans against door frames as compellingly as he does) are terrific. It’s Cumberbatch, however, who has the burden of making us care about Turing, thus keeping us riveted on this perfectly silly film to the end. He succeeds because he is a great actor and, at the moment, a star. I can only wish him better scripts in the future. Such as Hamlet, in which he opens at London’s Barbican in August. Don’t try to buy tickets. The ten-week run sold out online in an hour.

Amy Taubin

Family Ties

01.19.15

Mati Diop, A Thousand Suns, 2013, color, sound, 45 minutes.


MATI DIOP’S LUSH AND ELEGANT A Thousand Suns requires only forty-five minutes to astutely consider weighty matters of history and legacy. Loosely described, this medium-length work is a portrait of Magaye Niang forty years after the Senegalese nonprofessional actor starred in Touki Bouki (1973), a milestone of African cinema directed by Djibril Diop Mambéty, Diop’s uncle. More provocatively, A Thousand Suns destabilizes the distinction between fact and fiction; as Diop herself told Cinema Scope magazine, “The friction and two-way shuttling between reality and myth is the main subject of my film.”

As Diop’s film begins, Niang is seen leading a herd of cattle across busy Dakar streets; on the sound track, Tex Ritter’s mournful theme song to the western classic High Noon (1952) plays. Despite Niang’s cowboy boots, the choice of music seems incongruous at first. But the relevance of the opening lyric of Ritter’s ditty—“Do not forsake me, oh my darlin’ ”—becomes clear soon enough. Themes of renunciation—of a country, a lover, an identity—recur throughout A Thousand Suns, echoing similar concerns brought up four decades earlier in Touki Bouki.

In the earlier film, a vibrant, lysergic, disjunctive look at Senegal, at the time only a little more than a decade removed from French rule, Niang plays Mory, a motorcycle-riding renegade who teams up with his university-student girlfriend, Anta (Mareme Niang), to steal the money needed to leave Dakar and travel by ocean liner to France. Mory abandons the voyage at the last minute, after Anta has already climbed aboard; on deck, she is surrounded by racist blancs who insist, “African art is a joke made up by journalists in need of copy.” Mory and Anta, lithe, haughty dandies who at times resemble brother and sister, are the coolest, most charismatic outlaw couple of the 1970s.

Forty years on, Niang, his gait considerably slower and his hair a nimbus of more salt than pepper, still retains much of the grace and allure of his younger self, even if his spouse—or is she simply an actress playing a part?—hectors him about his tattered clothes (“With your torn jeans, who do you think you are? Johnny Hallyday?”). She is concerned that Niang look presentable for an outdoor screening of Touki Bouki; in response to her browbeating, he boasts, “Where I am going, I am a star!” The cattle herder’s swagger, however, is inconstant—post-screening, Niang laments to his buddies, “I played a role, and that was it.”

Whether or not Niang is playing “himself” or another role in A Thousand Suns is impossible to answer and ultimately beside the point. In the Cinema Scope interview, Diop notes, “The sole element of reality that I kept in my film is that Magaye Niang stayed in Dakar and [Mareme] Niang”—Touki Bouki’s Anta—left for Alaska. That Mareme, just as the character she played in her only screen performance to date, moved abroad resonates with another permanent departure: Mambéty’s death, at age fifty-three, in 1998. (Ten years after her uncle died, Diop memorably made her screen debut in Claire Denis’s 35 Shots of Rum.) In a phone call between Magaye and Mareme, the former speaks this line, repurposed from James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room: “You don’t have a home until you leave it, and then, when you have left it, you never can go back.” In revisiting her relative’s masterwork, Diop resurrects those who might otherwise have been forgotten.

Melissa Anderson

Mati Diop’s A Thousand Suns, along with her 2009 short, Atlantiques, screens at New York’s Museum of Modern Art January 20–27; Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki Bouki screens at MoMA January 20, 24, and 25.

Ruben Östlund, Force Majeure, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 118 minutes.


FORCE MAJEURE, the Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s fourth feature, was along with Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida one of 2014’s handful of breakout foreign art-house successes. They are both movies whose qualities are on the surface self-evident, and Östlund’s puts its themes and roiling inner turmoil before a viewer with crystalline clarity. Force Majeure begins with a family on a ski holiday posing as a perfect unit for a photographer, and proceeds to reveal them as anything but, as their experience of a controlled physical avalanche induces an uncontrolled emotional one.

Force Majeure is a concise, relatively accessible arrangement of the same component themes which Östlund has been reworking for years now, a fact attested to by Film Society of Lincoln Center’s overview of his brief filmography. In his late teens and early twenties, Östlund distinguished himself with skiing videos, two of which, Free Radicals (1997) and Free Radicals 2 (1998), will play FSLC. Setting footage of headlong, sheer downhill dives to an adrenaline-pumping punk sound track, the Free Radicals tapes make foolhardy, death-defying heroes of his subjects, and heroism—or, more often, its failure to appear in high-pressure situations—will be the topic that Östlund returns to time and again.

A stint at the University of Gothenburg seems to have tamped down the joyousness evident in his ski videos, and Östlund emerged from school with The Guitar Mongoloid (2004), a collection of vignettes set on the grotty fringes of the city featuring nonprofessional performers held in framings that are unobtrusive to the point of seeming surreptitious. Vandalism and other antisocial behavior runs through the film, contextualized by scenes of boys egging one another on, though the real instigator is offscreen—the camera. Peer pressure is also the subject of Östlund’s intriguingly titled 2005 short Autobiographical Scene Number 6882, which enacts a double-dog-dare scenario playing on the old “If everyone else jumped off a bridge…” saying. By 2008’s sophomore effort, Involuntary, Östlund’s clinical behaviorist style is fully formed. The film is a succession of discreet fishbowl compositions in which group dynamics are observable in several disparate, intercut scenarios, connected only thematically: the misadventures of two sexually precocious tween girlfriends; a family gathering at which the patriarch, injured by a firework, refuses medical attention; a new teacher cold-shouldered by colleagues after standing up for a disruptive student.

The proximity between Östlund’s “detached” approach and surveillance camera mise-en-scène is made clear in his Golden Bear–winning 2009 short Incident by a Bank. It reenacts a failed bank robbery which occurred in Stockholm in 2006, filmed in a single ten-minute shot, panning and scanning from a fixed position above street level, observing the reactions of passersby and participants. It’s the immediate precedent for the opening shot of Play (2011), which looks out over the courtyard of a Gothenburg mall, where five black adolescents are preparing to ply a cell phone away from some younger white boys. It’s a scam that they’ve evidently practiced many times before, drawing on good cop/bad cop head games, anxiety about class and race, and old-fashioned physical intimidation.

As in Force Majeure, which depicts the craven loss and ceremonial recovery of manhood, Play is concerned with the process of constructing and maintaining roles. The additional element of race in this earlier film makes it an altogether chewier piece of work, Östlund’s most interesting to date, depicting his countrymen as hidebound by manners and liberal conscientiousness, reserved to the point of being incapacitated by “Don’t get involved” skittishness. Ever-so-slightly softening the austerity of Play, the popular success of Force Majeure makes it an undeniable benchmark for Östlund, though I wonder where he can go next—a behaviorist whose “studies” are foregone conclusions can only have so many breakthroughs.

Nick Pinkerton

“In Case of No Emergency: The Films of Ruben Östlund” runs through Thursday, January 22 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.

Mohammed Ali Atassi and Ziad Homsi, Our Terrible Country, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 85 minutes.


IN THE SUMMER OF 2013, the Syrian writer Yassin al-Haj Saleh took a dangerous journey from the rebel-held city of Douma to his hometown of Raqqa, now the headquarters of the so-called Islamic State, across the border to southern Turkey and on to Istanbul. One of the foremost intellectuals of his generation and widely considered the sage of the Syrian revolution (hakim al-thawra), Haj Saleh had been in hiding for two years. When he won a Prince Claus Award in 2012, he delivered his acceptance speech—an eloquent response to the twinned questions: why revolt and why write—from an undisclosed location in Damascus. “I am trying to pay back the debt I owe to the books I read in prison,” he said.

Haj Saleh’s texts on criminality, corruption, and the meaning of real freedom speak to the ability of books to bring history, experience, and imagination to the remotest corners of a repressive state. In 1980, when Haj Saleh was twenty and studying medicine in Aleppo, he was arrested for being a young communist and imprisoned for sixteen years. Released in 1996, he was never allowed to apply for a passport. In 2004, he was barred from leaving the country (until then, he had been able to enter Lebanon and spend time in Beirut). Now living in exile, Haj Saleh is one of the founding members of Hamisch (Arabic for margin or fringe), a new initiative in Istanbul using art, film, and literature—among other cultural effects—to debate the finer points of living an active, magnanimous political life.

Yassin al Haj Saleh accepts the 2012 Prince Claus Award.

Our Terrible Country, by Mohammad Ali Atassi and Ziad Homsi, tells the tale of Haj Saleh’s dramatic escape from Syria. The film, which won the grand prize at FIDMarseille last summer and is now part of the Museum of the Moving Image’s First Look 2015, pieces together a rueful portrait of a once-hopeful uprising, which began with nonviolent demands for reform and regime change before devolving into a grotesque, mercenary, multifactional civil war. It captures the moment when a man of words and ideas is propelled into a series of life-changing actions and events. And it offers a terrible early glimpse of the destruction wrought by four years of barrel bombs, gas attacks, and jihadi madness, all seen in the slow, panning shots of wrecked apartment blocks, a mangled chandelier, and a children’s swing set, blasted away.

Homsi, a photojournalist who fought for a time with the Free Syrian Army, catches up with Haj Saleh, on the run, and accompanies him into an exile he emphatically does not want. (“I wanted to stay not because my work was indispensable,” Haj Saleh says, “but rather because this is my place, and it is indispensable to me.”) Atassi, a documentary filmmaker known for his work on the elder Syrian activist Riad al-Turk and the Egyptian religious scholar Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, joins them in Raqqa. Soon after Atassi asks him he’s ever killed anyone (he hasn’t), Homsi makes the sudden, reckless decision to turn back and return to Douma. Along the way, he is kidnapped by ISIS. A month later, he is freed, makes his way to Istanbul, and finds Haj Saleh and Atassi on Taksim Square. Together they retire to a teahouse, where they drink and tell stories and cry.

Epic in more ways than one, Our Terrible Country borrows as much from the poetic conventions of ancient Greece as from the ease and ubiquity of smart phones, selfies, and Skype. A prologue drops in on a battle unfolding in the heart of Ghouta, a wasted landscape, emptied of inhabitants, where only snipers remain. Homsi carries a gun, then a camera. A battalion of fighters poses, as if for a portrait, but instead of gathering, pausing, and dispersing, one of them begins narrating the story of the battle just passed, a Homeric account for the digital age.

In Douma, Haj Saleh plays a round of indoor badminton, remarks on the life-and-death proximity of a morgue and a vegetable garden, and tries, with limited success, to organize a municipal cleanup campaign: “Collect the rubbish voluntarily and I swear you’ll gain legitimacy,” he says to a group of listless young men. When Homsi asks him: “Is this the freedom you want?” Haj Saleh replies: “If we were free to choose, then no. I would have preferred a more chic and less costly freedom. However, it seems this is the price we’re forced to pay.”

Haj Saleh was smuggled from Damascus into Ghouta through a network of tunnels. When the next escape route opens, we see him fleeing on foot, in the back of one truck, and in the cab of another. In the extreme heat of August, we see him sleeping under a tarp pinned down by rocks to an unrelenting desert. We see him alone, among fighters, in the dark, without water, ground down, and exhausted.

In Raqqa, Haj Saleh spends two and a half months in hiding. ISIS has taken two of his brothers. “Daesh,” he says, using the Arabic acronym for the group. “A fitting name for a monster from one of the tales we were told as children.” Across the border in Turkey, he seeks out a friend, who tells him that compared with their counterparts in Eastern Europe, Syrian intellectuals have no place in their revolution. “We are outside the movement,” the friend says. Using his brother’s passport, Haj Saleh takes a short flight to Istanbul. He’s never been on an airplane before.

Mohammed Ali Atassi and Ziad Homsi, Our Terrible Country, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 85 minutes.


Extreme topicality is a potential liability. The temptation to call Our Terrible Country an important document more readily than an amazing film is symptomatic of that, faint praise holding a place for the critique of poor form or impatient storytelling. This is a common enough conundrum for contemporary art, where there is often the worry that war-torn material—all bombed-out, tragic, and besieged—will bulldoze over the aesthetic riddles and critical faculties that exist in a work to make it art, or not. Homsi and Atassi have an interview style that at times veers toward bullying and badgering. Major twists in the plot are mentioned in passing with little to no explanation. One has to be a very close observer of Syrian affairs to grasp the significance of certain details. Despite making terrific use of the fighters’ videos and Haj Saleh’s intricate voice-over, Atassi blurts out the premise of his film—to portray the vulnerabilities and contradictions of a man better known as a thinker—but never really pulls together the strands of the incredible story he is holding in his hands.

And there is something uneasy, maybe even undignified, about seeing a man of Haj Saleh’s stature in pain, in tears, in his underwear. He’s the Vaclav Havel of Syria, except that where the dissident Czech playwright became the respected president of a democratic republic, in Our Terrible Country, Haj Saleh is left to quibble over a bill in a café run by refugees, arguing with a man deranged by grief and debt over the price of a plate of broad beans. When a voice offscreen says: “When [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad goes, everything will be fine,” the man growls in reply: “Assad is merely an illusion. The disaster is inside us.”

Perhaps what’s happening in Syria, and to Syria, with more than 200,000 dead and the country in ruins, is too devastating to be squeezed into a coherent storyline. Our Terrible Country is flawed, fractured, volatile, overwhelming, and unresolved because Syria today is all of those things. The film shows the phases of Syria’s revolution—keyed to the stages of Haj Saleh’s journey—and raises crucial questions about authorship, cinema, art, the secular left, and the failure of democracy movements in the Middle East’s most despotic states. It delves into the dilemmas of a writer, his relationship to a place, and his role in a conflict that is much larger and harder than his work. Most critically, the film illuminates how sidelined intellectuals have become, not only in Syria but throughout the Arab world. Perhaps it does so harshly so that we, as viewers, might do something about that fact.

The problem with Our Terrible Country is that it offers so little context. In Douma, Haj Saleh was working alongside his wife, Samira Khalil, and a colleague, Razan Zaitouneh, both of whom are major figures of the Syrian opposition. We learn only from a postscript that they disappeared before the film was complete, presumably kidnapped by Islamic militants. A year later, they are still missing. Atassi tells Haj Saleh that his ideas are known; they can be found in his books. But in fact Haj Saleh is less known than he should be. Few of his books have been translated into English. None are widely available. Looking back at Syria, Haj Saleh is himself bewildered by “the extremely modest place for culture in the lives of the people. There is no culture,” he says. “There are no books.”

In Istanbul, a youngster with wild curls and a Hand of Fatima pendant around her neck says of Haj Saleh’s exile: “Isn’t this a form of surrender?” He is baffled but clearly impressed. He blusters through a response about the priorities of culture, literature, and knowledge. She cuts him off. “You told us, anyone over fifty, don’t listen to what they say about the revolution.” He laughs. He smiles. He is fifty-four. “Apart from me,” he says.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie

Our Terrible Country plays Saturday, January 17 at 7 PM at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, New York.

Jon Jost, Coming to Terms, 2013, color, sound, 89 minutes. James Benning.


THERE’S PLENTY OF GENUINELY UNUSUAL FARE at this year’s First Look series at the Museum of the Moving Image. In addition to new works by American stalwarts Jon Jost and Ken Jacobs (whose 3-D venture The Guests is not to be missed) and the final film of the formidable Russian filmmaker Aleksei German, the series, as it has in the past, will premiere a number of offbeat narratives and documentaries.

Take Alone with My Horse in the Snow, Axel Bogousslavsky (France, 2014), Alexandre Barry’s singular portrait of a poet, actor, and artist who once collaborated with Marguerite Duras but who now lives like a hermit in a forest. Even ritual tasks to sustain existence seem preternatural, as does his drawing and music. Perhaps in response to an offscreen question about his choices, he exclaims that he does not care to be understood—things that are understood no longer exist—better to remain mysterious and unknown. So eerily intense and yet recessive is the man and so self-effacing the film’s director that it seems we are witness to an unmediated vision with nary a camera on site.

Equally eccentric but existing on the impoverished margins of society, Charlie, the protagonist of Charlie’s Country (Australia), is an aged aborigine living in a predominantly white community, far from the bush country where he was born. Dependent on public aid, he lives in a hovel, roams the countryside, and hobnobs with others like him, protesting mildly against laws that inhibit his old habits. Eventually, he loses his cool, attacks a police car, goes to prison, and in the end—inspired by memories of performing for the Queen at the opening of the Opera House decades earlier—agrees to teach aborigine children to dance. The film’s tone and pace suit Charlie’s demeanor, which, as persuasively and unpredictably conveyed by David Gulpilil, keeps it from falling into mere sermonizing.

Denis Côté’s ironically titled Joy of Man’s Desiring (Canada) is a subtly corrosive gaze at the soul-defeating nature of labor, which is personified here as a seductive woman (Emilie Sigouin) who promises everything in exchange for devotion, only to turn into a vengeful ogress if she is not efficiently served. The exchanges among factory workers bear out the underlying malaise of those locked into a bargain that requires they keep up the perennial dance between bosses and labor lest they risk expulsion.

Sanaz Azari’s I for Iran (Belgium) and Marie Voignier’s International Tourism (France) are documents about countries whose revolutions have led to tyrannical regimes. In the former, set in Brussels, the format is simple: A teacher (played by actor Behrouz Majidi) stands before a blackboard and instructs director Azari (who remains offscreen) in Persian, her mother tongue, using an illustrated textbook dating from the Islamic revolution. As they proceed, it becomes clear how and why the definitions of certain words were dictated by cultural and religious principles. The charm of the instructor and the quiet but determined efforts of the “student” create an exchange that is both moving and illuminating.

Voices and language undergo a transformation in International Tourism, in which the disastrous consequences of the communist revolution in North Korea are embedded in the very form of the film. Tourists are led across squares, around monuments, and into museums and film studios by guides whose lips move but whose voices we never hear. “The official line,” thus suppressed, is replaced by paraphrased generalities in intertitles. A wall of texts goes untranslated as a title innocuously summarizes, “the text and diagrams are painted by hand.” To preserve the controlling myths of the regime, photographs are replaced by garish paintings illustrating the atrocities of the prerevolutionary state. Presidential portraits are not offered to visitors, but we are told that a huge painting of “the home where Kim II-sung was born is a tourist site.” In a film studio, actors dub approved dialogue for banal imitations of Hollywood melodramas—the same unctuous schmaltz produced by the Soviet Union in the Stalinist era. In effect, Voignier has turned the censoring propaganda machine against itself, silencing its all-encompassing lies while retaining a resonant sound ambience that renders the tourist guides robotic mutes.

Aleksei German, Hard to Be a God, 2014, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 170 minutes.


Before We Go (Jorge Leon, Belgium), a documentary-like meditation on imminent death, follows three elderly people as they interact with younger dancers and singers of the Theatre Royale de Monnale in Brussels, a company, we assume, to which they once belonged. Ghostly reminders of age and the inevitable infirmities of the body, they move about, observe rehearsals, examine props, and even get a chance to dance with those still in their prime. Dialogue is minimal and would only overdo what is enacted in the piece’s pantomimic encounters and incidental touches: An HIV-positive man listens to a mordant account of an old colleague’s final moments in a hospital bed; one old man weaves throughout the building with a young figure dressed as death; a lovely rendition of Henry Purcell’s Dido’s Lament underlines the point.

A quite different focus on death is found in Jon Jost’s Coming to Terms, as a terminally ill old man (played by the filmmaker James Benning) asks the largely estranged members of his family, two ex-wives and two sons—one gay and one a Jesus freak—to help him die before unbearable pain sets in. They do so and debate the consequences afterward. Jost, who has conjured a number of unusual visions of Americana since the 1970s, manifests the same straightforward, unadorned cinematic style—static shots, long takes, no camera movement—alternating impressive vistas of the Montana landscape with intimate, though dissociatively framed and edited, encounters between mothers and sons. All of this is characterized by Jost’s predilection for deafening silence that allows the natural world to speak and suits the subject all too well. However stark and somber the film seems, one discerns an underlying bleak wit in the filmmaker’s farewell to a world he no longer recognizes and seems somewhat relieved to depart. As Benning, close in age and cut from the same cloth as his director, dissolves into the landscape near the end, a doubly resonant experience comes to a close in this paean to the American pastoral filmmaking tradition.

Yet another, wildly different, take on willed death, Jessica Hausner’s Amour Fou is liberally based on a double suicide pact between the great German writer Heinrich von Kleist and Henriette Vogel, a bourgeois housewife of the early 1800s. A stately period piece, the film is laced with subtle wit and a slightly sardonic tone befitting the dementedness of its premise. Far from a biopic, its absurdly one-note Kleist, obsessed with finding a woman willing to die with him, is a convenient vessel to explode Romantic myths. When his cousin opts out, he convinces poor Henriette, who, to avoid a painful death from a tumor diagnosed (incorrectly, it turns out) by the medical wise men of the day takes Heinrich up on his offer, in a sense killing two birds with one stone. Too passive, and far too hesitant to voice last-minute doubt brought on by a cure her husband learns of, she is about to speak when Heinrich’s pistol blows her away (the staging and editing of which is either lifted from or an allusion to the arranged suicide in Bresson’s 1977 The Devil, Probably). With its abundance of self-absorbed male characters of varying patriarchal stripes, the film could have been a unidimensional feminist tract, but Hausner, whose Lourdes (2009) was a similar blend of spiritual mystery and intelligent skepticism, has created another haunting work of labile, ambiguous beauty.

There’s no mistaking that Aleksei German, director of Hard to Be a God, is the same man who made Khrustalyov, My Car!, one of the masterpieces of the 1990s. Both films share a teeming, frenetic, often grotesque mise-en-scène, peppered with sly looks at the camera and allegorical political bite. At once in-your-face and close to unfathomable, the new film is more wild vision than coherent narrative. A narrator tells us in the first minute that the cluttered snow scene in front of us is not the Earth but another planet, eight hundred years behind ours. I’ll take his word for it. But, given the twelfth-century “you are there,” mud-and-rain-riddled look of the next 170 minutes, he could simply be joking. The film wallows in such reeking physicality that it’s a wonder we don’t smell every defecation, fart, urination, bloodletting, and intestinal spill that generously fills every frame. We might think we’re in Bruegel territory, but the canvas teeters at times toward a Bosch-like image of hell. Through it all, we glimpse political figures, armies, religious leaders, all indistinguishable from your average peasant, whose functions seem interchangeable and nebulous. Last but not least is God—or rather the son of God, or rather a strong, good-looking dude named Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik) who doubles as God—dispensing swift justice, and sometimes what seems the opposite, and who in the end sits wearily with his feet in a pond, declaring that everything that happens is really man’s fault, because it’s tough to be a God. It’s a bizarre, exasperating, exhausting experience of strenuously earned reward, and I can’t wait to see it again.

Tony Pipolo

First Look runs January 9–19 at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens. Aleksei German’s Hard to Be a God also has a run January 30 – February 8 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.

Toby Ashraf and Telemachos Alexiou at a screening of Ebo Hill's Bonking Berlin Bastards, 2001.


ONE OF THE TAWDRIER ENTRIES on the schedule of this year’s inaugural Berlin Art Film Festival was a screening of Ebo Hill’s Bonking Berlin Bastards, with live dubbing by a duo (critic-programmer Toby Ashraf and filmmaker Telemachos Alexiou) calling itself “White Boys in Crisis.” In the universe of gay porn, a strong argument could be made for Bonking Berlin Bastards’s status as a millennial cult classic. When it came out in 2001, it put Berlin on the map for gay sex tourism and endowed the city with a reputation as a place where you could do nearly anything and get away with it—a bit like Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin novels for the interwar gays, only Bonking aimed at Gen-Y sluts. And they came in droves—or buckets, depending on your perspective. Set to a hard techno sound track, the tattooed, mohawked, dick-pierced cast of Bonking Berlin Bastards engage in the kinkiest shenanigans right out in public—who needs a bed when you have a rooftop, a bridge, or a couch in some filthy sex club? Uncompromising in many ways, Bonking isn’t to everyone’s taste; one of the film’s earliest scenes serves as a warning for the fun to come, as the Kreuzberg punk protagonist rips a piercing out of his ear and proceeds to jerk off while bleeding all over himself.

The evening’s “expanded cinema” program kicked off with the world premiere of Please Relax Now, a short by Berlin favorite Vika Kirchenbauer’s, in which the filmmaker’s on-screen likeness coaches the audience through an in-cinema masturbation session while getting off herself. Okay, so it was all a bit more tongue-in-cheek than tool-in-hand, though most Berlin denizens are oversexed as it is and probably exhausted by the early winter. Once it gets to be that time of year, there is very little else to do. Except drink.

Thankfully, Ashraf was clever enough to secure the sponsorship of Partisan vodka. As the Bonking began, trays of free shots made their way around the cinema, and as the evening progressed, all pretensions to decorum were abandoned in favor of a classic camaraderie (and a touch of saliva swoppery), as the audience began swigging from full bottles being passed back and forth.

To begin, Ashraf introduced Jürgen Brüning, who was one of the founders of Cazzo, the gay porn company that produced the film. In the midst of the introduction, two assistants appeared, who commenced removing articles of Ashraf and Alexiu’s clothing while the former continued chatting away, until in the end both were in their undies. Brüning, who is perhaps best known as Bruce La Bruce’s producer, left Cazzo midway through the production to start a rival porn company. Understandably, then, he was somewhat ambivalent about the night. “I just want to say that I have very mixed feelings about this, because I think the film is a masterpiece and doesn’t need any ‘live dubbing,’ ” Brüning concluded, before taking his seat in the audience. And I guess he wasn’t lying, since he vacated it less than halfway through the performance.

A screening of Ebo Hill's Bonking Berlin Bastards, 2001.


Those who remained were treated to something that resembled a cross between a happening, a makeshift orgy, an early Iggy Pop show, and an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. The White Boys crawled over the cinema seats, their dubbing—occasionally more like a metacommentary on the on-screen action—resonated throughout the cinema on top of those sleazy late-’90s techno beats. In one memorable scene, a bottom raises a bottle of poppers to his nose, and the screen fragments into psychedelic shards—very early aughts! Almost on cue and IRL, the gentlemen seated in front of us produced their own bottle of poppers, which they promptly passed back to us. A young art student seated on my row eventually had to be removed—not for taking off his clothes, which everyone was fine with, but for continuously relighting his cigarette each time the manager asked him to put it out; the fire alarm kept fucking up the sound system.

“Oh, isn’t it a strange coincidence how we all are shaved and have piercings and wound up on this rooftop at the same time?” moaned Ashraf into the microphone as, on screen, a group of punked-out pole-smokers enjoyed themselves beneath the summer sun after a night out at some leathery hellhole. Juggling the poppers, vodka, cigarettes, and various other cylindrical objects being passed my way throughout the evening, I hardly had a hand free to take more detailed notes. Still, flashes of Bonking embedded themselves in my memory, leaving me nostalgic for a time when porn had plots, homos had safe sex, and Berlin was maybe a tiny bit wilder than it is today. (I still can’t decide whether the film’s best scene is when a gang of drag queens kidnaps some punk and rapes him with a dildo in the park, or when the drunk punk gang breaks into an indoor swimming pool at night and naked chaos ensues.) In the end, maybe no one in the audience physically got off. But at least most of us got drunk, high, and horny. And isn’t that what art’s all about?

The first Berlin Art Film Festival ran December 4–7, 2014 at fsk am Oranienplatz.

Travis Jeppesen