Left: A view of “Tarkovsky Interruptus” at the New School, March 10, 2012. Right: Andrei Tarkovsky, Stalker, 1979, color film in 35 mm, 163 minutes. Production still.


OK, I CONFESS: I went to the Wikipedia page for Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) to double-check something for this piece. I did this despite the fact that, ontologically speaking, Tarkovsky and Wikipedia couldn’t be more incompatible: one man’s brilliant (if at times gnomic), expansive, autocratic vision vs. a mediocre, bite-size, consensus version of reality hashed out by a virtual rabble of bickering volunteer librarians. I wouldn’t risk admitting this if the page didn’t contain something as unbearably perfect for its subject as this generic Wiki admonishment: “This article’s plot summary may be too long or excessively detailed. Please help improve it by removing unnecessary details and making it more concise.” (Cue Tarkovsky groaning painfully from his grave.)

What makes this even funnier is that the Russian master director, known for his films’ glacial pace and insanely contemplative passages, was actually scolded in a similar way by the Soviet film board when they screened an early cut of Stalker. They felt the beginning was too slow and long. Bear in mind that by this point they’d already funded and released Solaris (1972) and Mirror (1975), neither exactly The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) in terms of tempo. Saying they were only taking the perspective of potential audiences, the officials were quickly set straight by Tarkovsky: “I am only interested in the views of two people: One is called Bresson and one called Bergman.” (I am endlessly amused by the idea of Tarkovsky taking a career advice meeting with Swifty Lazar.)

This was one of many anecdotes and off-the-cuff analyses about Stalker on offer during a screening-plus-panel-discussion last Saturday evening in a packed auditorium at the New School. Organized by the NYU Institute for the Humanities and keyed to a new book on the film by British author Geoff Dyer, Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room, the appropriately named “Tarkovsky Interruptus” consisted of a projected DVD showing of the film, periodically paused to allow the six-person panel to comment on what had just transpired on-screen. Dyer was joined by Walter Murch, the sound and film editor, best known for his 1970s work with Francis Coppola; novelist Francine Prose; filmmaker Michael Benson; author Philip Lopate; and film critic Dana Stevens.

Before the screening began, Dyer delivered a brief introduction. Calling the event’s format a “potentially irritating way to see Stalker,” he asked for a show of hands from those who’d previously seen it. About 50 percent. He warned the other half that the movie “does not move at the pace of a James Bond film, but is never more boring than a James Bond film.” (Dyer is a deliciously Bernhardian high priest of complaint, often about mainstream culture.) He apologized that the we wouldn’t be watching celluloid—apparently, not one print of Stalker currently resides on North American soil—and recounted the difficulties he and his publisher had had in finding a proper still for the book’s cover, an international intrigue that Dyer compared to a John le Carré novel.

Recalling his first viewing of the film during its initial run in England (1981), he said that Stalker changed the way he sees the world. “People like to think of Tarkovsky as persecuted by the [Soviet] system, but he got the money for films that couldn’t have been made in the West due to the other type of censorship—the censorship of the market.” He described the arduous, troubled production process of the film—a year’s worth of footage lost to a developing error, cinematographers leaving or being fired, the film board almost pulling the plug, etc.—and then the lights dimmed for the screening.

Left: Robert Polito, Francine Prose, Phillip Lopate, Michael Benson, Walter Murch, and Dana Stevens at “Tarkovsky Interruptus” at the New School, March 10, 2012. Right: Andrei Tarkovsky, Stalker, 1979, color film in 35 mm, 163 minutes. Production still.


I’ll spare you a plot summary that may be too long or excessively detailed. Suffice to say that the movie is about the titular Stalker, a poor, ascetic tour guide of sorts, who for a fee takes visitors to a forbidden Zone in the country that has been cordoned off and is guarded with lethal force by the military. Legend has it that a meteor or even a spaceship landed there years ago, and odd things started happening in the area. Unable to “tame” or figure out the secrets of the Zone’s invisible force, the military abandoned buildings, tanks and jeeps, and other industrial detritus to the creeping tendrils and severe water damage of nature. Legend also has it that in one of the rotting buildings is a room that will grant the innermost wish of any who enter it. In the film, Stalker takes Writer (an “in” novelist worried that he’s lost his inspiration) and Professor (a dour physicist) to the Zone, where they slowly and tortuously make their way to the threshold of the Room, all the while talking endlessly about art, science, life, doubt, and faith. It is relentlessly bleak, achingly beautiful, and truly one of the masterpieces of the medium.

The first pause came after the trio mounted the gas-propelled train trolley that would take them out of the city and into the Zone. The panel ascended to the stage. Murch, recounting the pacing dispute with the film board, said that he and Coppola had a similar argument, “capitalist style,” when they were making The Conversation (1974): “If you speed it up, you draw the wrong kind of audience” (one that doesn’t include Bresson and Bergman, presumably). Benson, who was partly raised in the Soviet Union by his scholar-diplomat parents, said Writer and Professor were near parodies of certain types of Brezhnev-era, late Soviet Muscovites, and noted that there was subtle sociopolitical commentary seeded throughout the film. Stalker’s various rules for negotiating the Zone, ostensibly to avoid invisible yet fatal “traps,” reminded Benson of the most common phrase he remembered hearing in Russian during his youth, “It is not allowed.”

The film was paused again at the end of Part I. Dyer and Stevens discussed how the camera POV is slightly off in the Zone, as if the Zone itself were sentient and “following” the three men, a horror cinematography trope that Tarkovsky raises to the level of art throughout. Queried about Stalker’s striking sound design—nature sounds processed through synthesizers, music blending ancient instruments with electronics, European melodies and Eastern instruments—Murch noted that all of the sound and dialogue was dubbed after the fact, with a unique use of sound effects that was inventive if technically a bit crude. Murch also recalled that Coppola wanted to build a surround-sound movie theater in the geographic center of the United States that would exclusively play Apocalypse Now (1979), a film with which Stalker has many parallels in content and creation.

Dyer said the film was “haunted by the Gulag” and “prophetic of Chernobyl.” Prose characterized an insecure rant by Writer, moaning about readers, critics, and sales, as “what all artists worry about late at night.” “It’s so Russian,” Lopate exclaimed. “They just sit around talking about their wasted lives. Chekhovian.” He continued, however, that he was sometimes resistant to Tarkovsky because some of the writing evoked Chekhov without being quite good enough to compete with him. After screening the coda of the film—a handful of scenes after the return from the Zone—Dyer announced that the trick shot of Stalker carrying his lame daughter on his shoulders (shot high and in profile, she appears to be “walking” until the camera pulls back) was for him one of the most profound moments in all of art. Benson said that his seven-year-old son, who was weaned on the quick-cut aesthetics of the Cartoon Network, once watched Stalker by himself, start to finish, without being able to read the subtitles, and later invited a young friend over to watch it with him again. The film is “constructed in a way to accommodate multiple interpretations,” Murch concurred.

Andrew Hultkrans

Left: Aleksei Guerman, My Friend Ivan Lapshin, 1984, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 100 minutes. Right: Aleksei Guerman and Grigori Aronov, The Seventh Companion, 1967, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 89 minutes.


AMONG THE MOST IMPORTANT RETROSPECTIVES IN YEARS, “War and Remembrance: The Films of Aleksei Guerman” is also a bracing, deeply satisfying cinematic experience. Though the Russian director’s output is small, his track record is flawless. All five of his features are being screened in this, his first retrospective in North America, along with The Fall of Otrar (1991, directed by Ardak Amirkulov), a curious, almost minimalist epic about Genghis Khan, which Guerman produced and cowrote in the lull between My Friend Ivan Lapshin (1984), his first international success, and Khrustalyov, My Car! (1998), an exhilarating comic masterpiece and one of the great films of the 1990s.

The series is an instructive journey through the Stalinist period of Soviet history as well as an illuminating chronicle of a filmmaker whose work, often plagued by forced delays and loss of funding, has been overshadowed, perhaps unfairly, by such masterful stylists as Andrei Tarkovsky and Aleksandr Sokurov. While those filmmakers often tended toward the metaphysical, Guerman’s reflections on war and ideology are grounded in a concrete social and political reality. Still, the stylistic shift from his first four films to Khrustalyov, My Car! is dazzling—like stumbling upon Fellini’s wildly dreamlike 8 1/2 (1963) after having seen his Neorealist films. Though all five of Guerman’s features warrant attention, space permits focus only on three.

While Guerman can be sardonic, his lack of rancor places him among the finest filmmaker-commentators on the human condition. This is evident in his parabolic first feature, The Seventh Companion (1967, codirected by Grigori Aronov), whose protagonist, retired general and lawyer Adamov (Andrei Popov), questions his role in czarist Russia when he is arrested by the Reds. Though Adamov is released when his captors learn that he acted in the proper revolutionary spirit in an incident of 1905, he finds himself ousted from his apartment by a proletarian housing committee. After visiting colleagues from the old days, he offers his services to the Bolsheviks, but this proves untenable when he witnesses violations of military law. The essence of Adamov’s moral plight in an ideologically driven, ethically confused society is poetically captured when, sitting astride a white horse, Red Army cap atop his head, he and the amiable partisan he has befriended journey unwittingly into the enemy’s camp. A displaced Don Quixote accompanied by his Sancho Panza, he refuses to explain his dilemma to an obtuse White officer and is summarily executed along with his comrade.

Ambivalence also haunts Lazarev (Vladimir Zamanskiy), the protagonist of Trial on the Road. (Although made in 1971, the film went unreleased until 1984 because of political objections.) Set during the Second World War, it begins when Lazarev, a partisan officer who deserted to the Germans for reasons never made clear, returns to become a prisoner in his own army. A man of few words, like Adamov, he declares, “I didn’t make the choice—the path chose me.” Guerman pits hard-line Soviets against compassionate ones. The same officer who refuses to blow up a bridge while a train of prisoners is crossing it entrusts Lazarev with missions, while a senior officer orders Lazarev to be executed as a traitor. Lazarev reaches a breaking point, botches a suicide attempt, and, in a final mission to derail enemy trains, is driven to an outburst of violence that vents his psychological torment while it perversely proves his “loyalty” to the revolution. Bravura filmmaking at its best, the final sequence exhibits Guerman’s command of perspective and orchestration of action, and an instinctive balance between cutting and long takes—all the time registering the maniacal state of his protagonist.

Aleksei Guerman, Khrustalyov, My Car!, 1998, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 150 minutes.


None of the earlier work prepares us for Khrustalyov, My Car!, Guerman’s phantasmagoric satire, conjuring a bizarre, nightmarish Moscow in 1953. Fleeting allusions to the “Doctors’ Plot”—a conspiracy, contrived by Stalin, accusing Jewish doctors of poisoning and misdiagnosing illnesses of high officials—account for the paranoia that pervades the atmosphere: Busts of the dictator are everywhere. Ultimately, it triggers the climactic fantasy in which the protagonist, Surgeon General Klensky (Yuri Tsurilo), is solicited to save the dying Stalin. With its relentless pace and myriad details, its farcical tone and brilliant camerawork, the film is impossible to digest in one viewing. Guerman narrates intermittently, shouting, “That’s me” as young Aleksei materializes just before the title. It’s a self-conscious gesture linked to occasional glances at the camera by several characters. Klensky, Aleksei’s father, is head of a hospital-cum-madhouse, where “unauthorized death is prohibited.” He’s a man who works on open skulls, and whose inspection tour of the maze of misfits and mishaps does not preclude pausing for a blow job from an idolizing staff member—eliciting Klensky’s bemused stare into the camera, as we glimpse the “great father” on a pedestal to the left.

While the camera’s incessant mobility strains to encompass the dizzying array of people, incidents, and places—moving about cluttered apartments as if they were mere extensions of hospital, bathhouse, and bar—there is more method than madness here. The Steadicam’s rush down corridors, off of which lie hidden rooms and secret spaces, constitutes a motif that culminates in a sequence in which Klensky—having absconded, only to be attacked by hooligans and raped by prisoners in a truck—is rescued, forced back into his Doctor/General mode, and led, circuitously and clandestinely, from car to car and place to place until, down a corridor past many rooms, he is ushered into the one where Stalin lies dying. At the heart of the film’s grand but frenetic architectural design, then—as of the society it depicts—is the body of its heartless tyrant. Clueless to his identity, Klensky asks the man in the room (another doctor?) if the patient is his father. “Father? That’s well said,” the fellow remarks. After the leader expires, the man thanks Klensky, declares that “a star has fallen,” and departs, shouting the mundane order that gives the film its title, “Khrustalyov, my car!”

The narrator tells us that when Stalin’s death was announced, his father’s name did not appear among those arrested or killed. But we last see Klensky, atop a train, amusing fellow prisoners on the way to a camp with acrobatic tricks—a role finally compatible with the circus that has been his life. His last words—or the narrator’s—are “Fuck it all!” Given the range of Guerman’s work and the unflagging inventiveness of Khrustalyov, one eagerly anticipates his new film, reportedly premiering at Cannes this spring.

Tony Pipolo

“War and Remembrance: The Films of Aleksei Guerman” runs Wednesday, March 14–Tuesday, March 20 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.

Queer Eyes

03.11.12

A. K. Burns and A. L. Steiner, Community Action Center, 2010, color video, 69 minutes. Production stills. Right: Rhys Ernst and Mai Khunt.


The little cretin shepardess was now ruined for normal love and she ran amok among the other freaks, inflaming them.
Jack Smith, “Normal Love,” 1963

SOME FEMININE PRODUCTS: Makeup, paint, and brushes. Floggers and Boston creams. Joints. Bananas that bleed when stabbed. Bloody pinkies poked through magazine pages and punctured beer cans held in taut tighty-whiteys. Watermelons split by samurai swords. Adult babies sprung from clay wombs.

FEMININE PRODUCTS says the sign, hoisted atop a stretched canvas above a slew of art supplies. It is both the literal and the conceptual establishing shot for A. K. Burns and A. L. Steiner’s sixty-nine-minute “sociosexual video” Community Action Center, 2010, which premiered in June at Taxter & Spengemann’s booth at Liste 15 in Basel. What follows is indeed a “feminine product,” but it is also a feminist evacuation of the term. The sign is a joke, but it’s also serious—funny because it’s true—a wry attitudinal kick-start to the work’s flaming sense and sensibility.

And what a sensation it is. CAC, as its cropped, punning title suggests, is a veritable graveyard of prostheses—phalli chopped, skewered, braided, cracked, peeled, crushed, punctured, axed, bitten off. Is it perverse to find all this sexy? To call CAC porn, as its authors sometimes do, is to admit that titillation is its purpose. But if it is a porno, it certainly isn’t a conventional one. Except for a brief bathtub musing by poet Eileen Myles, and Justin Bond’s reading of Jack Smith’s prose poem “Normal Love” in the video’s orgiastic prelude, there is no talking. Narrative, when there is any, is parodic. Lighting is mostly natural. “Literal sex was incidental to creative sexual activity,” Burns and Steiner note, and to be sure, CAC excels at delivering sex sans teleology. The witchy “pizza boy” episode with Stevie Lijks and Kasimir Solaj, to name one of the video’s seventeen or so scenes, is as much Un Chien Andalou as it is Nights in Black Leather. Pony and Stargëizer’s erotic embroidery climaxes with a large feather being sewn onto the latter’s face. There are few explicit orgasms—two in the penultimate episode—and only a single pop shot, though it’s a gushy one. (Jokes on the proverbial money shot, however, abound.) “From conception to final edit,” the artists note, the video took three years to make. There is no straight “fucking.”

There are many desires motivating the cameras, held by Burns and Steiner shooting simultaneously, except, presumably, when one of the artists is working within the frame, whipping or vamping or being fisted. The video responds to a perceived hole in the history of womyn-centered porn—porn being, due to whatever series of unfortunate historical accidents, a genre still almost exclusively dominated by the prerogatives of male desire. CAC is a work of, by, and about womyn and queers (the video is dedicated to an apotheosis—“the queerest of the queers”), and as such, it is filled mostly with bodies that read as female, some bodies that read as male, and a few glam androgynous bodies that read ambiguously. CAC is also a singular achievement, a thrilling, generous representation of a community of friends, lovers, and intimates. It is critique and satire and the thing itself. It is the question and its answer.

The video, recorded with various borrowed and rented cameras, often has a shrill sort of clarity, like the first gasp of cold air after a puff of Ventolin. If I could freeze one moment from CAC’s sexual “events,” it would be Pony’s ejaculation of an egg into a brook, the crushing of the egg’s shell, and the subsequent visual discharge: shots of a split papaya, an octopus, steaming artichokes. (Metonymy lubricates the work’s editorial impasses.) I also love the fraught butch-femme cruising scene between Max Hardhand and Stargëizer, Rhys Ernst and Mai Khunt’s riveting make-out session, Juggz’s T&A car wash.

These are just preferences, and, more exclusively, my preferences. But then, preferences are both what the video best describes and what it most fervently elicits, a form of taste that, on some base level, resists cultivation. (Preferences can be discovered or nourished or even managed, but they can’t be improved.) Indeed, to have a properly “critical” response to CAC would mean suspending one’s sexual response, and this would only jettison the work’s most valuable contributions and, in a way, engage the work in bad faith. This is not to insulate the video from analysis but simply to acknowledge that the most productive explorations of the work will likely be organized, like the community it represents, around visceral sympathies and stimulations, rejections and revulsions. My responses won’t be yours or anyone else’s. (Maybe somebody lucky else’s.)

Could we call all this “sex which is not one”? Particularly in the queerest scenes, one is reminded of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s epiphanic bemusement that gender of object-choice turned out, in the twentieth century, to be the defining dimension of the term “sexual orientation.” The video plunders queer theory, third-wave feminism, lesbian separatism, and gay-male Crisco Disco lucubrations, offering not a reconciliation of their differences but rather a site for their promiscuous entanglements. It’s porn with an agenda, and in a perfect world we’d play it in schools as a recruitment tool. (To complaints of cliquishness: The Big Bang was cliquish too.) “It is an action movie,” the artists add, winkingly. And in this sense it is meant to turn you on, to spark contagious identifications and disidentifications that might extend the reach of this roving “center.” Like Smith’s “cretin shepardess” and his saints and cupids and angels inspired to gang-fuck throughout heaven, we’re all ruined for normal love. Burns and Steiner find this conundrum cause for celebration. It is this optimistic engagement with the possibilities for sexual reorientation that makes CAC both art and something wilder.

David Velasco

Community Action Center screens at 7 PM on Monday, March 12, at the Museum of Modern Art as part of the museum's “Modern Mondays” series. This article originally appeared in the November 2010 issue of Artforum.

Barry Frydlender, Flood, 2003, color print, 49 3/16“ x 7' 10”.


EPOS, ISRAEL’S ANNUAL INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL of art film and film about art and artists, belongs to a small and exclusive club, of which FIFA, Montreal’s International Festival of Films on Art, is the best-known member. This year, Epos’s third, it clearly made its mark on the Israeli arts scene, hosting forty-nine films from seventeen countries and ten guest artists, drawing some twelve thousand spectators to the Tel Aviv Museum’s new building at the center of Israel’s culture kilometer. The festival’s mandate: to acknowledge the international, to support the periphery, to elevate the local.

As the screened films conversed, a number of questions arose: Is the art/artist firmly resident in one place, one culture, one nation? What is the impact of itinerant artists, forging alliances that span national borders? Are filmmakers and artists negotiating new forms of community? Are filmmakers and audiences interested in “genius,” “outsiders,” “my life/my art,” “buzz”? What Epos proposed was the possibility of entering into a meaningful intercultural meditation on the nature of artmaking. It was clear that the issue of “nation” was not at all as obsolete here as it is in certain artistic or political circles. Nation and community were core concepts, still perceived as relevant to imagination and key to understanding complex cultural structures. And so, Epos exists first of all for us, its audience, who packed the halls, who came to have art experiences different from daily life, to view world arts without an airline ticket, to tell ourselves our own stories, and, as Polish filmmaker Lech Majewski, auteur-in-residence, put it, “to spend time with artists.”

Majewski’s haunting visual style in The Mill and the Cross, his dense, layered cinematic meeting with Bruegel’s masterful painting The Way to Calvary, 1564, held its audience in thrall, and his discussion of the artistic team’s work on the film, three years in the making, was a highlight of the festival’s artists’ talks and workshops. Majewski’s description of the figures in the painting—“they don’t give a flying fuck about you”—could perhaps only be delivered before an open mike in a seminar room filled with young filmmakers. “Bruegel draws you in by ignoring you,” Majewski continued, “just as he hid his hero, Christ, covering him with daily life.” Astonished at discovering seven different junctions of perspective in the Bruegel, each with its own POV, he noted the 147 layers then needed to bring these perspectives together on a computer, and the nine months to complete the editing. It’s an electronic alchemy of the painting’s activities and atrocities, allowing a leap from Mill to Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, compelling us to acknowledge the shock and awfulness of both looking and looking away. Mill brought a unique Polish intensity to a country that carries its own founders’-generation baggage. Just as Bruegel created a Flemish Calvary, Majewski created a Polish Flanders, borrowing the film’s language from a Polish village whose citizens, ancestors of sixteenth-century immigrants, spoke a fossilized Flamand, now recorded. On what burial mound of Poland, I asked him, does your work on Mill rest? “Ultimately,” he said, “you carry your nation and culture’s inner landscape, so that if you haven’t sold your soul, you bring back the music of your formative years. You are from where you are from; it’s inescapable.”

Left: Lech Majewski, The Mill and the Cross, 2011, still from a color film, 92 minutes. Right: Michal Rovner, Makom II and Makom IV, 2011. Installation view, the Louvre, Paris. Photo: Ardon Bar-Hama.


Art in Israel is not possible without political reflection. The local is violent and abnormal. Every artwork then becomes a model of how to construct meaning, creating art alongside unsolvable problems. Michal Rovner, one of the subjects of Karen Goodman and Kirk Simon’s Out in the World: Four Israeli Artists, gathers stones from the ruins of houses in Jerusalem, Nablus, Jenin, Ramallah, all problemed places. Calling her work Makom (Place), Rovner looks for a way to construct habitat from the stones, to speak of cultures destroyed and disappeared. She and her craftsmen—Arab, Jew, Druze—do the nigh impossible, for she will not cut the stones to have them fit one another. “I wanted the stones and the people who work with the stones to be from different places, to come together.” The ravaged and stunning structures she creates are neither Arab nor Israeli. Makom found its place on the huge public plaza before the pyramid entry to the Louvre in Paris, thus melding the artwork’s geographic specificity, its ties to its home-space, with a conferral of authority abroad.

Photographer Barry Frydlender shoots from out his window. A group of children wait to enter an army museum. The downtrodden Tel Aviv neighborhood is near the sea. It’s raining. The atmosphere is dark. Flood. Frydlender’s images are made over time: “It’s not one instant; it’s many instants put together,” he explains. There are lots of vantage points, hidden points of view, no one center. You actually have to read the image. His Flood is based on four hundred images that took two months to photograph, six months to edit. “During this time,” he says, “I introduce the meaning into the image. I always leave some marks to show the artifice that only the computer enables.” In 1988 Frydlender joined a group of photographers on a guided tour of the occupied territories. He photographed the photographers taking their shots. After that there were a few years in which he didn’t photograph at all. “My days: I wake, I walk, I sit with friends, I swim—a way to deal with the tension. There is not another city that has so many missiles targeting it as Tel Aviv.”

Finally, there is Wisława Szymborska, Poland’s Nobel Laureate in Literature (1996) addressing film and art and artists in her acceptance speech:

Great films can be made of the lives of scientists and artists, but poets offer far less promising material. Their work is hopelessly unphotogenic. Someone sits at a table or lies on a sofa while staring motionless at a wall or ceiling. Once in a while this person writes down seven lines, only to cross out one of them fifteen minutes later, and then another hour passes during which nothing happens. Who could stand to watch this kind of thing?

Film seems to belong to us. Art, in its filmed evocations, assures us that parts of us will not collapse, that, as the title of Katarzyna Kolenda-Zaleska’s 2010 documentary on Szymborska declares, Life is bearable at times.

Annabelle Winograd

Epos 3 ran February 1–4, 2012 in Tel Aviv.

Past Lives

02.27.12

Héléna Klotz, L’Âge atomique (The Atomic Age), 2011, still from a color film, 67 minutes.


THE BERLINALE’S final week jerked to a close, with most of the Saturday afternoon screenings half-empty due to a citywide transit strike, only to be madly replenished on Sunday’s Audience Day, whose ticketing system favors the general public rather than festival badges. Half-felt tips, bets, and assertions were traded among friends and industry insiders, but no single endorsement resounded. Consensus affirmed that, while not terrible, this year’s festival featured a less-than-spectacular program. There was a discernible lack of gut-punching “Mmph!” moments, a fact that gradually gave even the most seasoned festivalgoer a sense of anxiety. (“Is it just that I’m somehow missing all the good films?”) In this context, few could take the awards very seriously; anyway, the Berlinale’s strongest moments were either out of competition or confined to the Panorama and Forum sections.

One such moment was L’Âge atomique (The Atomic Age), a beautiful vision of platonic love between two teenage outcasts in a dystopic Paris nightscape. The film’s lush sound track of witch house leads me to think that the underlying aesthetic ambition was a cinematicization of that musical genre; director Héléna Klotz seems to have grasped the fundamental romanticism of the sound and matched it with her two New New Romantics, who swim in the bile of present-tense uncertainty.

Another strong point was Matthias Glasner’s Gnade (Mercy). The film’s premise recalls Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman (2008) transposed onto the freezing, sunless winter of Hammerfest, Norway, which claims to be the northernmost city on the planet. What makes this psychological drama work is the way suspense is subtly, delicately knitted into the story, in which a young mother runs over a sixteen-year-old girl and gets away with it . . . Or does she? Billy Bob Thornton could learn a lot from Gnade’s script. His second feature, Jayne Mansfield’s Car, a hilarious probing of the 1960s via the culture clash between an old American Southern family and their British marital relatives, manages to fizzle out so flatly that the film would most certainly win Anticlimax of the Year, if such an award were offered.

This was a particularly weak edition for documentary film. One of the few exceptions was Werner Herzog, chair of last year’s jury, who returned for a special screening of his new series of Death Row portraits. Consisting largely of simple one-on-one interviews with prisoners awaiting their final injection, these films reveal that guilt and innocence are far from the black-and-white categories that the American justice system insists on. If there’s anything to complain about, it’s that the made-for-TV formatting lends some of the interviews a claustrophobic brevity; one yearns for more of the director’s interjections, which always succeed in mesmerizing the viewer in his feature-length documentaries.

I missed out on Iron Sky, the sci-fi Nazi-UFO B movie that elicited one of the few mass murmurs of interest during the festival. But I saw the real thing (Nazis, not UFOs) in Blut Muss Fliessen (Blood Must Flow), a documentary by Peter Ohlendorf consisting of secret footage shot by an undercover investigative journalist at neo-Nazi skinhead concerts in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, and Hungary over the past six years. The slightly hysterical Q&A following the screening was almost as fascinating as the material, and again reminded me of Germany’s ongoing struggle to come to terms with the horrors of its past. Similarly, Green Laser, John Greyson’s imaginative, short protest doc about struggles against oppression in the Gaza Strip, was greeted by dead silence from its audience of mostly middle-aged and older Germans, for whom any endorsement of the Palestinian cause implies a latent anti-Semitism. Showing Green Laser before Dagmar Schultz’s Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years was either a major programming blunder or an ingenious act of provocation, depending on your position.

Travis Jeppesen

The 62nd Berlin International Film Festival ran February 9–19.

Morose Code

02.24.12

Joshua Marston, The Forgiveness of Blood, 2010, color film in HD, 109 minutes.


DIRECTOR JOSHUA MARSTON is nothing if not bold. Resistant to the usual foray into the provincial corners of Americana typical of so many independent filmmakers, he prefers grappling with foreign cultures. Though one might question the wisdom of this preference, Marston (who lived abroad and was a correspondent for ABC during the first Gulf War) has fared well, garnering critical acclaim and awards for his first feature, Maria Full of Grace (2004), about Colombian drug mules, and Best Screenplay—cowritten with Andamion Murataj—at the Berlin Film Festival for his new film. Set in Albania, The Forgiveness of Blood (2010) examines the paradox of a culture that bears the signs of encroaching capitalism while adhering to outdated methods of social interaction. Young people play video games and use cell phones, shadowed by archaic codes of conduct that endanger their very lives.

The story focuses on the effects of one such code on the children of a typical family of a small village. The patriarch, refused passageway on a road by a neighboring farmer, returns with his brother to murder the farmer. (The war between the Hatfields and the McCoys of a bygone era of American history comes to mind.) While the brother goes to jail for having done the actual killing, the father, alleging innocence, goes into hiding, making clandestine visits to his family. According to the Kanun, the Albanian code dating back to the fifteenth century that rules such conflicts, the injured family assumes the right to take revenge by killing a male member of the perpetrator’s family. In this case, the oldest son, Nik (Tristan Halilaj), as the likely target, must live under “voluntary” house arrest—at the expense of his education, his social life, and his newfound love interest—until such time as the feud is resolved by mediation or otherwise. The former proves difficult when a potential mediator asks for more money than the family can afford. It doesn’t help that Nik’s sister Rudina’s (Sindi Lacej) efforts to peddle her bread are thwarted and she is forced to sell the family horse for much less than it is worth.

Bored and disgusted with the absurdity of the system and his father’s complicit acceptance of it, Nik wonders whether the man should serve jail time rather than put his family through such an ordeal. But when his father is arrested and then released, the danger only increases. Desperate, Nik confronts the rival family, seeking peace, but is willing to die rather than live under these conditions. Impressed by his courage, the grandfather of that family tells him he must leave the village to avoid being killed. Against his mother’s wishes, but with his father’s blessing, he does just that. Rather than imply this is the best solution, however, Marston’s final shot is not of Nik walking off to a better life, but of Rudina, no less a victim of the backward culture, doomed to confront a dismal future.

Although Albanian films have dealt with blood feuds, their accent, according to Marston, is on the killings and the action around them. Marston is less interested in the inherent melodrama of the subject and the violence associated with it than with the young people whose lives are effectively ruined. In fact, the entire phenomenon would appear to be even more outlandish for recent generations since, according to press notes, “only one such blood feud was recorded during the forty-year reign of the communist regime,” while in the vacuum created by the collapse of communism, the Kanun code reemerged as an unsanctioned alternative to a convoluted legal system. Thus, for young people, the reappearance of such a code might well lack the enduring glue of an unchallenged tradition. Then there is the Kanun itself, which, unlike the Ten Commandments, for example, is hardly a text memorized and cited by everyone, but largely an oral tradition, subject to arbitrary interpretation and random misuse.

Compatible with the accent Marston has chosen, his film has a leisurely, almost uneventful pace—not unlike that of Maria Full of Grace—seemingly at odds with the tension and action-oriented potential of the material. This subdued dramatizing imposes an unsettling ordinariness on a horrific state of affairs, which nicely mirrors the unquestioning manner in which the elders accept the code. In general, it is easy to underestimate what Marston does: His actors are affecting and credible without being showy, and his camerawork is direct without being intrusive. That this restrained visual and narrative style works is a sure sign of a confidence that has served him well and should continue to do so.

Tony Pipolo

The Forgiveness of Blood opens in New York at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and in Los Angeles at Landmark Sunshine Cinema on Friday, February 24.