Saturday, 16 August 2014

Fake! Orson Welles’ F for Fake (1973)

(written for MovieMail in 2007. Taking its cue from the film, it's possible that parts of this review are not exactly four-square to the truth.)

In 1996, the Fondation Pierre Gianadda in Martigny, Switzerland held an exhibition entitled Vérités et Mensonges, the name taken from the French title of Orson Welles’ film about fakery and deception, F for Fake. It collected together a remarkable assortment of forgeries and copies of paintings that were, by and large, created to deceive, confuse, or at the very least, gain notoriety and hope that resultant attention would increase the value of the piece.

All the usual suspects were there. There were van Meegeren Vermeers, including his Last Supper and Woman Taken in Adultery (past owner, one Field Marshal Hermann Goering – and how anyone thought they were the work of Johannes Vermeer of Delft becomes more incredible with every passing year). There was a de Hory van Dongen along with a brace each of his Matisse and Modigliani copies, and two David Stein Braques of similar composition, both entitled Still Life with Pitcher, with the only substantial difference being that one was signed G Braque, and the other, presumably painted during his incarceration, signed Stein, D.

These were joined by an excellent Lothar Malskat Chagall, an anonymous Courbet, a Tom Keating Degas (along with a fake Tom Keating Degas), a pair of Corots from the infamous collection of Dr. Jousseaume, (as well as a copy of the Newsweek magazine from 1940 which declared, jokingly, that ‘Of the 2,500 paintings Corot did in his lifetime, 7800 are to be found in America.’), and even a Van Gogh canvas that had passed through the hands of notorious art dealer Otto Wacker.

In sculpture, a number of fine Etruscan warriors were joined by their Chinese terracotta counterparts. Unfortunately, Michelangelo’s Sleeping Cupid, (a genuine fake which he artificially aged through burial in acid earth so he could command a higher price and with which he subsequently duped a Cardinal) was unavailable for display, having disappeared sometime in the 17th century, but there was instead a 19th century forgery of this earlier fake. (Interestingly, the sculptor of this later piece, Gianfranco Rinaldi, was himself a sculptor of some renown, making his piece a genuine artist’s forgery of a genuine artist’s forgery.)

Of ‘medieval’ exhibits, the finest was the fake ‘Anonymous’ (Master of Willisau) altarpiece. Or rather, the 15th-century altarpice was genuine, as were the pigments, mixed according to 15th century practice. Even the style and subject was convincing, with the daisies pricking through the grass in the manner of Jan van Eyck. The difference was of course that it was painted in the hope of monetary profit in the 20th century instead of religious benefit in the 15th.

Adding to the fun of the collection were the quotes and notes from the contemporary experts, placed alongside the exhibits and proclaiming that such a painting was ‘a notable addition to the artist’s canon’, or that it ‘demonstrated beyond question the refinement of the artist’s finesse’. Picasso’s quote that he could paint false Picassos as well as anyone else was placed next to one of his more derivative sketches – which in this case just happened to be a genuine, but rather dull, Picasso.

Anyway, of relevance to this current piece is the fact that also included in the exhibition was the painting that Elmyr de Hory did of Michelangelo on camera in F for Fake (and which he signed ‘Orson Wells’) as well as a canvas purportedly painted by Welles himself on his trip as a teenager to Ireland in 1930 (and which recalled the landscapes of Jack Butler Yeats by the by). Very few of Welles’ paintings from this era have come to light. More are undoubtedly waiting for discovery as I write.

Also included were three nudes, in oil, of Oja Kodar – Welles’s lover and collaborator on F for Fake, who is seen (along with her sister) in a little summer frock, turning covertly-filmed men’s heads as she not-so innocently walks among them throught the streets at the beginning of the film. All three of the paintings carry the signature ‘Elmyr’. The question is, did he really paint them? This would be of academic interest only if it weren’t for the fact that discovery of the actual painter would change how much the paintings are worth. De Hory pictures go for quite an amount, but if it could be proved that they were painted by Welles, due to their rarity, they would probably be worth more. As, again on camera in F for Fake, Welles signed a picture – a chalk and pastels caricature of a reclusive Howard Hughes – with the signature ‘Elmyr’, this would lend weight to this argument. Maybe we’ll never know for sure. Perhaps Welles and de Hory conspired and painted them together (which would be the best of all possible outcomes for the dealers one supposes).

The exhibition was very much in the mischievous spirit of Welles, Kodar, Graver and Reichenbach’s film F for Fake (aka Fake!, About Fakes and Truth and Lies), in which Orson Welles, proclaiming himself a charlatan with a beady twinkle in his eye, helps himself to great amusement at the expense of authority and experts. Cheerfully mixing sleight-of-hand and magic with the sharpest of editing (on which he spent a year), he concocts a multivalent work which is tricksy, complex and enormous fun. Numerous parties contribute to the conversation on the nature of fakes and fakery, with Welles, Elmyr de Hory, Clifford Irving (and his pet monkey) and Howard Hughes (or a microphone, or Don Ameche) engaged in a playful dialogue, both virtual and actual, that crosses continents and years. In the innovative brio with which F for Fake marshals all this found footage – from documentaries, films, staged scenes and set-ups, photographs, newsreel clips, interviews and Welles’s own narration – the film thoroughly reveals the hand of its showman maker, who is at least one step ahead of us right the way through. Just when we think we have the measure of his smiling, quizzical eyes, we realise that he is actually looking right past us over our shoulder. He notices we are distracted and pulls yet another trick out of his sleeve

Noise and Silence and Smoke and Stars: Jirí Weiss’s Romeo, Juliet and Darkness (1960)

(written for the Autumn 2007 issue of Vertigo)

Prague, 1942. A Jewish family, the Würms, are forced to leave their courtyard apartment building to go to the transport. As they leave, the son asks Pavel, a fellow lodger, to look after his guinea pig. When Pavel fetches it from their apartment, he meets a Jewish girl, Hanka, who has arrived too late to meet the family and who also must leave. However, when a German officer then arrives at the building to inspect the apartment for his mistress, Pavel decides to hide Hanka in his mother’s attic storeroom.

‘Just for now’

This phrase is often repeated through the film. Pavel gives Hanka the key to the storeroom ‘just for now’ and he makes up a bed for her there ‘just for now’. The German officer’s mistress declares it fruitless to think about the following day and Pavel’s mother, a seamstress, takes on the repugnant work of altering a coat she had previously made for Mrs Würm, now in Theresienstadt, for her. It is this time of just for now in which the film takes place.

By contrast, Pavel’s grandfather spends the days at his workbench, finessing a balance wheel for the timepieces that he makes and mends. He calls his invention, which he declares he will patent, the ‘Mrazek Balance Wheel’. It is what he hopes he will be remembered by.

This is not his moment though. For now, time has been uncoupled. It can hold only the pragmatism of the just for now, and nothing for the future. Whatever is forgotten and ignored; that will survive.

Noise and Silence

There is just enough ambiguity about the very beginning of Romeo, Juliet and Darkness, as Pavel rushes into the attic and hugs the suitcase of someone who is obviously not there, to lead to wonder whether it will follow the Shakespearean line of tragically mistaken assumptions. A piece of black cloth hanging from the window gives a foreboding note, and as Pavel hears someone approach, he locks the door and reflects over the events, all set in motion by a handshake with a young neighbour, that have brought him to this situation.

This is a noisy film, not in a conventional sense, but when sounds are laid down, they pierce the film. Early on, the sound of the Würm’s cart on the cobbles of a broad, empty, sunny street, as they walk away from the camera, fills the air of the film. There’s the infernal barking dog that belongs to the German officer's girlfriend, the banging door and squeaking toy that interrupt Pavel; there’s the rumbling of military equipment, troop carriers and motorcycles as they career through the city streets, and the loudspeakers that bark out instructions across the rooftops; there’s the sound of a scuttle being filled with water and the banging on a metal door. There is also the singing of a bird in a cage, at the beginning as the Jewish family pack up their cart and leave for the transport, and later, to warn of the approach of danger and harm. If we could only understand the language of birds we would hear its message, instead of just noting a sharp trilling.

Other noises are not so threatening – there is the sound of a cherished one bathing, with water you have fetched, just the other side of a closed door.

'Have you heard silence?' asks Hanka. 'It murmurs in my head all the time'. As she says these words, from somewhere a low uncanny sound maintains a drone. It sounds like a clapper being dragged slowly around a bell’s inside, it is the sound of iron on iron, of iron wheels on iron rails. Even when Pavel and Hanka dance and when they kiss, there is still the rumble of martial drums.

Smoke and Stars

As befits a story in which young love is crushed by the time in which it tries to grow, there is a certain naïveté about the film. If there is gaucheness in the nascent relationship between the two children, well that is the way it should be. It is the time that has altered the meaning of the language of innocence: 'Imagine you are on a trip', says Pavel to Hanka as he tries to bring the freshness of the countryside into her attic confinement. It of course awakens thoughts of the transport and her parents and it cannot be unsaid. 'I would like to go to sleep, and never wake up' says Hanka.

Something similar takes place early on when a child’s simple language intimates terrible fates.  As the family are leaving, the young girl asks her father:
- Is the train already waiting for us?
- Yes, it's waiting for us, he replies.
- Is it a very long one?
- Yes, a very long one.
- Will there be children too?
- Yes, lots of children.

Similarly, as Pavel sits in his windowsill, the bars of which look like a prison, he looks out as smoke rises from a single chimney. Later, his mother’s words to Hanka, ‘you don’t know what’s going on out there’, are followed immediately by a shot of steam rising from a train as Pavel searches out the railwayman he helped, and to whom he is looking for a favour.

The naïveté shows too in the sunflowers in the railwayman's garden, which remains as just a dream of sanctuary in the country, and which are symbolised by a print Van Gogh's Sunflowers on the attic wall.

All of this is guileless visual and spoken language. Such times demand that statements are made artlessly, even awkwardly, in contrast to the sureness of barked commands.

The film ends as it begins, with the pages of a book fluttering in a breeze, unread and waiting for another time – a time of learning and creation, a time that isn’t just for now, but one that looks to the future, and to the stars.

The Party and the Guests (Jan Nemec, 1966)

(A three-way conversational review of Jan Nemec's absurdist theatrical satire on enforced one-party politics, The Party and the Guests. The review is in the spirit of Nemec's statement, 'If, from the first scene, it is apparent that any superficial resemblance to reality is not important at all, the audience will give up their favourite comparisons and concentrate on what the director really tries to convey. Written in 2007.)

 - Now we can talk. Speak for a while, it can do no harm.
 - Yes, now you should listen. You see, this man...this Nemec, along with his friends, they made a sort of joke, a satire about the system with which we were trying to shape our country into something...effective. Together, they made, really, something unwholesome, something that criticized, made mock.
 - So?
 - What do you mean, ‘so’? It was a deviant piece of work, wholly decadent and reliant on imported forms of absurd entertainment. They were laughing at us.
 - I didn't see much laughter in the film.
 - Well that's the point you see, it was the wrong kind of laughter. It wasn't funny laughter, it was a needling kind of work.
 - Really.
 - Yes. I mean look at the actors. Who is this Rudolf in his plus fours? He is an imbecile -  a petulant, smirking, ingratiating child. And who is this man in charge, the one who resembles a dumpy Lenin? This is not constructive humour. And then to make some kind of a dissident hero out of that other filmmaker, that Schorm man, who does nothing in the film but look sceptical and disappear…well, I think you see my point.
 - You're on the wrong track.
 - How so? Look at that simpleton Rudolf again with his barrel-organ, mocking a military parade, or those caricatures of heavies who can’t even put a desk up the right way round. At least there were one or two lines of truth in the film, but that is all: 'People belong to people'; 'One for all and all for one.'

- If I could just interject...I find those statements rather ambivalent, even threatening, in the context of the film, especially the latter. Actually, if you don't mind me taking a little of your time I think it would be useful to point out a few of the meaningful characteristics of the film while I'm here. For instance, did you notice Straw Hat - Pepa - stroking his chin early on, after the guests have been rounded up, copying the gesture from Leather Hat, the man from the secret police? This is what is at the heart of the film. Forget the words that are said and watch the people. That conversation about the birds between Pepa and Rudolf - highly symbolic of the way one learns a new language - a language that uses the same words, the same gestures and the same intonation as normal language, but which carries no meaning whatsoever except the sole requirement that the words should be agreed with. It makes me think of that conversation between Winston and O'Brien in the Ministry of Love in Orwell's 1984, when Winston is adamant that two and two are four. Says O’Brien: ‘Sometimes, Winston. Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. it’s not easy to become sane.’

- Can't you make him shut up?
 - Leave him be, he'll blow himself out soon.

- Also, it has often been remarked how all the comments between the guests in the idyllic first scene are banal, with no-one really listening to one another (they recall to me the dinner-party conversations based on advertising slogans from Godard's Pierrot le Fou - a very different context but a similar effect), but there are hints there even among the non sequiturs at how a system can take hold in a populace that desires order but relinquishes its involvement. These symbolic hints occur later too, after the charades with Rudolf, as the guests walk down through the wood, and the Host mentions such aggrandising schemes as improbably massive commemorative sculptures ('I want this rock for a garden') and inappropriate schemes on a similar scale, such as turning a wood into a playing field.

- Have you finished?

- No, not quite, I must say something about the candelabras – is this the only film in which candelabras are mentioned as a veiled threat? And the ending is chilling, with all of those candles being snuffed out one by one – by ordinary people as well as members of the secret service – as the sound of snarling dogs takes over the soundtrack. In a way it reminds me of the ending in Karel Kachyna's The Ear, made four years later and also long banned, where it is made clear exactly the process by which you gain control over someone in a position of power.

- Are you done now?

- Yes.

- Good. Have some flan. You know, I'm sure all that's in there but frankly I've forgotten most of it. Actually, I only have one thing to say now. What does ‘banned forever’ mean? I'm only asking, it's a good phrase, you see. I like it. It's a big selling point these days. And who knows, the film may come in useful all over again. Things can change very quickly you know, in the middle of a pleasant afternoon picnic among friends maybe, two bottles to the good and drowsy with the heat. Anyway, for now, have some chicken. It's cooked - right to the bone. You’ll see.

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (Martin Ritt, 1965)

(written for MovieMail in 2006)

‘This new girl, she never warms the pot. Hm. She’s called Patrice; imagine.’

The Spy who came in from the Cold is a cold war espionage film of the highest class. Richard Burton is Leamas, station head in Berlin, powerless to prevent his agents losing their lives. Control (Cyril Cusack) asks him back to London and wonders if he should ‘come in from the cold’; then invites him to stay out in it, just for a little longer. He says, ‘Our work is based on a single assumption that the West is never going to be the aggressor. Thus, we do disagreeable things, but we’re defensive. Our policies are peaceful, but our methods can’t afford to be less ruthless than those of the opposition.’ So begins a poker-faced section of elisions and uncertainty over Leamas’s actions – which is the last I’ll say about the plot.

Burton’s presence is magnetic – but crucially not at the expense of the overall atmosphere of the film, which is one of shabby existential torpor. He plays a man who has been too long in a world where the only loyalty is to expediency. Ever-watchful, at points his self-composed stillness explodes into a snarling intensity. Spies are ‘a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me’ he says. Claire Bloom plays the earnest, perkily innocent librarian who gets drawn into his connections. There’s no glamour here though – his is a world of smoky boozers and rain, the labour exchange and tinned tomato soup from the corner shop.

Other elements of the film maintain the atmosphere. A superb cast means that even relatively minor roles – Pitt, Ashe, the Personnel officer who picks up Leamas from the airport – are clearly delineated and carry conviction. Peter van Eyck’s Mundt too is impossible to forget, his characterisation based on a line from le Carré’s Call for the Dead in which he is described as having the ‘look of complete negation that reposes in the eyes of a young killer’. Oswald Morris’s camera roams softly around, laying out the geography of offices, cells and the puddly courtyards with an oily darkness to their ground. This seemingly picks up on a line from le Carré’s novel when Leamas reflects that he and the girl from the library ‘might have been anywhere – Berlin, London, any town where paving stones turn to lakes of light in the evening rain, and the traffic shuffles despondently through wet streets.’ Sol Kaplan’s score is sparing and appropriate; often though there is no sound at all except the quietness of a room in which two people try to second-guess each other, wondering how much the other knows and how much they should tell.

However, the most impressive element of the film for me is Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper’s screenplay, from John le Carré’s source novel of the same name. Their script is in fact even more impressive when compared with the original book. Their changes are wholesale – of necessity they have removed anything that would muddy or lengthen the narrative too much but they have then added scenes, such as Nan meeting Leamas when he comes out of prison, as ways of covering these gaps. Pieces of description are transposed from one scene to another and names are changed; Liz Gold becomes Nan Perry for example. Overall however, Dehn and Trosper manage to preserve wholesale the atmosphere and the integrity of the original.

Sure, in a couple of places they dot the i’s and cross the t’s (for example with regard to ‘operation Rolling Stone’, but this is evened out by those places where they leave the viewer to join the dots. As with the appearance of Mr. Pitt at the Labour Exchange. Leamas gives him a glance as he enters the building. When called he says, ‘The last time and the time before I was seen by Mr. Melrose’ to which he gets the reponse, ‘My name’s Pitt, Melrose has ‘flu.’ And that’s it, but it’s just enough to set the doubt in our minds that he is a plant and part of some larger plan. The mention that Melrose has ‘flu is the key detail though. It’s extraneous to the plot but it aids the damp and down-at-heel atmosphere of this section of the film. It’s these apparently offhand details that do so much for the atmosphere of the film.

There’s another good example of this early on, in the scene already mentioned between Control and Leamas. The line is, again, simple and offhand: ‘This new girl, she never warms the pot. Hm. She’s called Patrice; imagine.’ Everything in it is entirely an invention of the screenwriters. Le Carré’s novel makes has no mention of the girl’s name and Control serves coffee instead of tea. Yet the line works. It locates a certain time and place perfectly, marrying a certain quaintness (warming the teapot) with notions of exoticism – the name Patrice. I think the reason it really sticks though is down to Cusack’s delivery, which is masterly; his pause after ‘pot’, his nod as he says ‘Patrice’, his brief sniff at the end. And all the while Burton is staring at him intently, wondering why he’s there, trying to see past this preamble and waiting for the point of the meeting. Burton fixes our attention on Cusack and as he waits for the point, so do we and hang on his every word.

Further comparison with the book also reveals that nearly all of the memorable lines in the film are the screenwriters’ invention too. This is partly due to the difference in format of course, as long conversations need replacing with shorter, pithier remarks, redolent with meaning. Nevertheless, it’s impressive that so many stick in the mind. Near the end, Mundt tells Leamas and Nan of the the plan to get them back to their own side, adding: ‘the boy meets you there. He’s quite young but he knows the war.’ It’s another casual remark that slips by almost without notice, but it assumes terrible retrospective meaning. You could call it the conversational equivalent of a loaded gun.

And Now the Children of this Land...

(written for MovieMail in 2006)

Hana Makhmalbaf’s Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame begins with archive footage of people worshipping at the base of the two giant sandstone Buddhas of Bamyan in Afghanistan, in existence there since the fifth century. Before 30 seconds has passed, a dynamite burst and thick, pummelling clouds of grey-black smoke announce the statues’ destruction by the Taliban in March 2001. The film that follows takes place in the space of this destruction and the statues’ absence. Its characters tread underfoot the dust of generations of prayers and dreams.

Buddha Collapsed out of Shame is the latest film made in areas of recent and present conflict– Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Kurdistan; films such as Bahman Ghobadi’s Turtles Can Fly, Marzieh Meshkini’s Stray Dogs, Siddiq Barmak’s Osama – in which children take the leading roles. The concentration on their lives is crucial; by showing their present experiences and the extent of their betrayal by adults in their lives, they reveal the depth of the wounds – in their bodies and in the very language they have been taught to use – that they will take into our shared future.


Turtles can Fly was filmed in and around a refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan in the weeks leading up to and during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. As in Ghobadi’s debut feature The Time for Drunken Horses, his concentration is on the lives and relationships between children; adults are peripheral figures. This begets an atmosphere of raw immediacy, sometimes on the edge of chaos, that takes you into the heart, the confusion and even the humour of the place. In particular he follows ‘Satellite’ – an adolescent fixer named after the satellite dishes he arranges for surrounding villages so that inhabitants can get news of the impending war, and who also organises gangs of children for their daily work of clearing landmines from villagers’ fields. To begin with, he resells the mines for a few dinars; later, with war imminent, the mines are swapped for machine guns for the villagers. He also strikes up a relationship with a family of three refugee children – a boy who has lost his arms through a landmine and who has the gift of prophecy, his troubled young sister Agrin and the blind infant for whom they care.

There are scenes in this film that will silence you: the blind toddler wandering through a minefield, or crying for its father among the spent shells of a weapons dump; the same child standing in the rain and touching the barbed wire at the edge of his refugee camp; the orphaned girl tying the child to a rock; the child’s armless uncle defusing a land mine with his teeth.

Ghobadi said he intended to make a different film, ‘a movie in the city about adults’, but when he ‘saw so many children with such desperation, these children without limbs, he could not deny their cry’. He says that, ‘this film is not about children. It's about these young people who have become adults prematurely, who have never had a childhood.’ Agrin is one such girl. Her childhood ended with the murder of her parents and her rape by Saddam’s soldiers. Their barbarity is channelled through her blank stare; the stare of a young girl who understands everything only too well.

Turtles Can Fly shows the resilience and ingenuity that go hand in hand with the mental and physical ruination of children’s lives. Though rooted entirely in a certain place at a certain time, the film is also allegorical. These are the world’s forgotten children, the children of some mined borderland, caught up in the wreckage of violent history; here, elsewhere, time and again.

War Orphans

The children in Marzieh Meshkini’s Stray Dogs, filmed in Kabul in 2003, are not forgotten, but their presence is a nuisance to the authorities. The film is based on a true story that Meshkini came across when she was in Afghanistan with Samira Makhmalbaf, scouting for locations and actors for Makhmalbaf’s At Five in the Afternoon. While in a prison in Kabul, Meshkini encountered a number of children whom she initially took to be prisoners. She subsequently learned that they spent the nights there with their mothers as they had nowhere else to go, and were then released onto the streets for the day. It is around this situation that Meshkini based her film.

With their Talib father in prison, Gol Ghotai and her brother Zahed have to fend for themselves. Their mother had married again after his five year absence so that she could feed her starving children; she is also now in prison, for being ‘a whore’. The children sleep with her during the night, and by day, join the thousands of others who make a living by rummaging through the rubbish dumps on the banks of the river, looking for something, anything, to sell. (In the very first scene we see Gol Ghotai pick up a book from a heap of rubbish through which she is rifling. I’ve found a book – should we sell it or burn it?’ she asks Zahed.) Then, after they have been told they can no longer stay with their mother as 'night prisoners', they try to commit a robbery so they can be arrested and sent to prison too.

Everything about the children’s world is upside-down, as if a new and terrible logic has taken hold. Adults generally play no constructive roles in the film. They are shown as the guardians of doorways – jailing, locking and, mostly, refusing entry, though sometimes giving grudging access. The only time that adult men engage in communal action is to organise a fight between vicious dogs (an unscripted event incorporated into the final film). These are children who are part of a generation of war orphans, even though their parents are still alive.

When Gol Ghotai goes to visit her mother in prison she has to knock on the massive padlocked metal doors. The ring that serves as both handle and door knocker is larger than her own head. She can just about reach it, knocks it, and then again when she receives no answer. She is a symbol of young defiance, refusing to accept unsatisfactory answers and continuing to question those in authority. She is resilient, resourceful and has the look of justice in her eyes. At the time of filming, she was 7 years old.

The Stoning Game

Buddha Collapsed out of Shame, scripted by Marzieh Meshkini and filmed by her then 18 year-old daughter, Hana Makhmalbaf, shows the effects of this poisoning of a generation’s actions and – most destructively – words.

In the caves of Bamyan, 6 year-old Baktay, left in charge of her mother’s baby, tells Abbas, a child from the neighbouring cave, to read his alphabet quietly so as not to wake the sleeping infant. He responds by challenging the bright-eyed girl to read. This is not a challenge she can refuse, though she holds the proffered book upside-down as she recites the names of the pictures in its pages. Abbas then tells her a short, funny story: A man was sleeping under a tree. A walnut fell on his head. The man got up and said, ‘Lucky it wasn’t a pumpkin or I’d be dead!’. Baktay’s eyes are filled with rapt attention and she responds with words that would put a warm glow inside any teacher of whatever age. Read some more, she says, but Abbas only knows this one story, so she then says, will you take me to school?

This is where her problems start, as – showing the resourcefulness and innocent determination of the young – she embarks on an absurd runaround to find a notebook and pencil for class. For this, she needs twenty rupees. Abbas tells her to sell four eggs, which the shopkeeper then tells her to sell in the market, where she wanders the muddy streets and is ignored and refused. She follows a man to try and get money from him for the eggs he has jogged out of her hand, and she is reduced to sitting on a wall, next to a caged quail, holding out her remaining two eggs to passers-by. At one point she watches the hands of two men at a stall counting out thousands of rupees. What will you do with all that money?, she asks. The blacksmith tells her to swap eggs for bread which he will then buy, though to do this, foreshadowing her torment to come, she has to pass a vicious barking dog. Don’t eat me, I need to buy a notebook, she says. The smile in her eyes when eventually she exchanges the ten rupee note for the notebook is genuine, the yellow of the book’s cover reflecting the sunlight onto her face. The pen she needs was the two eggs broken in the marketplace, so she takes her mother’s lipstick to write with.

Abbas takes her to school – and is told to stand on one leg for being late. Baktay is told to go to the girl’s school across the river. In a show of guileless innocence, mistaken for impudence by the teacher, she keeps returning to the boys’ school, pressing the teacher for the story she wishes to hear. What do you want with a man sleeping under a tree? is the teacher’s only response, and he sends her on her way.

She is then ambushed, by a gang of boys pretending to be Taliban, using sticks for guns, ripping up her notebook to make paper warplanes. Hold your hands up they say, as they prod her with their sticks in front of the absent Buddha. Her initial look of amused consternation turns to fear when the boy’s leader says, you are a sinner, we’ll stone you, and commands his gang to collect ‘the Buddha’s toenails’. I won’t play the stoning game says Baktay. It’s not a game says the boy’s leader, following this with words that no child should ever know, let alone say with conviction; they are digging your grave.

Repent! You are a sinner! the boy commands, in words that are unhelpful when spoken by adults, but grotesque in the mouths of children. Let me go to school to learn funny stories says Baktay as she is lowered into her grave by the Taliban boys. Readying themselves to stone her, they hold rocks above their heads, their eyes aflame with spite and fevered hate. Though the children’s sticks are rifles, the grave is a grave, and the rocks are rocks. This is no game. Baktay is 6, the boys a little older.

Abbas, walking along the path, is then tricked into and trapped in a mud pit, where he is interrogated. The conversation between Abbas and the Talib boy recalls that between Winston Smith and O'Brien in the Ministry of Love in Orwell's 1984. What is crucial here, is that whatever answer Abbas or Smith gives, it will never be right. Questions here are a means of retaining power, not a way of eliciting information. As he stands there, covered from head to toe in yellow mud and muck, this perpetual learner, who speaks the alphabet wherever he goes, is reduced to stuttering out letters, not knowing the words that are required of him.

By the end, both Abbas and Baktay have died, symbolically, as a way out of their present troubles. Encircling Baktay where she falls are men winnowing grain. As they throw it to the wind, the air is filled with chaff from which they protect their eyes with the same brown paper bags that the Taliban boys put over young girls’ heads.

Of Buddha Collpased Out of Shame, Hana Makhmalbaf said, ‘Now the children of this land in their games fire at each other with wooden arms and play the stoning game with little girls and place mines under each other’s feet in humour.
How will these children who mock the game of war in childhood play with each other and the future of humanity?’

If we fail to see just what is happening to this generation of children, orphaned and traumatised by war and violence, and how their experiences and disaffection will transmute into future action, then God help us all.

A Lesson in Looks: Andrzej Munk's Passenger (1963)

(written for MovieMail in 2006)

Director Andrzej Munk died in a car accident during the filming of Passenger,  his 1963 film about a chance postwar encounter on a liner between a former prisoner at Auschwitz and her female supervisor. Munk’s colleaugues then combined the existing film footage along with stills and narration to ‘present the questions he wished to pose’. Their preamble is worth quoting at length: ‘We have no intention of adding to what he did not say himself. We are not searching for solutions which might not have been his, nor seeking to conclude the plots which his death left unresolved. We merely wish to present what was filmed, with all the gaps and reticence, in an attempt to grasp whatever is alive and significant.’

The gaps and reticence are important, as the film’s real subject is the apparent void of memory, both personal and collective, that allows a man or woman to distance themselves from the past and re-present it as they would prefer. The gap between Munk’s intentions and the resulting film collage, reconstructed by others, is thus fitting for the processes that are the film’s subject. Completed films are too often reduced to the intentions of the director, or are written away in a phrase or a sentence; Passenger, an incomplete, fragmentary mix of fact and fiction, defies singular ownership and cannot be further reduced.

‘the life of the camp family’

The lengths to which Liza, an overseer at the Auschwitz stores, goes to justify her past to her husband, are incredible. ‘I had nothing to do with the prisoners, only their things,’ she says. She needs an assistant and chooses Marta from a courtyard inspection. ‘It was a pleasure to watch her change back to a normal girl,’ she says. Jealousy comes when Liza discovers Marta’s lover is also in the camp. ‘She had what I lacked,’ she says. When Tadeusz and Marta have the temerity to show their love for each other, Liza is uncertain of how to act. ‘I, an SS overseer, was as powerless as she was,’ she says. When Marta writes a note to her lover, Liza at first refuses to believe that she could have betrayed her trust. ‘She wanted to destroy me, I had to defend myself,’ she says.

We should thank her for being honest in her lies, and revealing the limitless contortions of self-deception.


Concentration camp scenes in Passenger were filmed during a month at Auschwitz. It is immediately established as a place of ending with its railway tracks leading into a building and its piles of emptied suitcases in the fog. Simplicity of presentation is paramount here and the camera follows the geometry of the place. A horizontal tracking shot takes in a long, low building and four vents; a pan upwards then shows a smoking, flaring chimney.

We return to this place later, as Liza watches through a barbed-wire fence as nurses lead children and babies into the camp, and an officer casually receives a delivery of poison, pulls on a gas mask and gloves and pours the contents of the canister down a vent, the children’s voices bubbling away in the background. Behind Liza the poplars lean in the wind; before her the smoke from the chimney casts cloud shadows on the ground. It is a sunny, blowy day. The scene recalls the mundane unreality of Auden’s ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’, and this theme is later referred to by the filmmakers in their narration: ‘in the vague, unreal background, people die, silently, casually, anonymously, as others perform their duty.’ Then Marta addresses Liza, and Liza, slightly discomposed for a short time, turns away from the scene and to her.


Passenger gives a valuable lesson in looks. In essence, people in Passenger regard each other in three ways. The first way is in a look that assumes power. It is the weasel-eyed look that Liza wears as she struts around the muddy camp in her boots. The countering look of the prisoners sometimes shows fear, it sometimes pleads, but more often it is defiant. (‘Anna, lift your head up!’ says Marta to a naked prisoner, an example past whom other prisoners are made to march.) Both are closed, tight looks that cannot risk giving anything away.

The second look is that of love. It occurs at the four moments that Marta and Tadeusz are shown together. It is a look that hides nothing from the other. When Marta first sees Tadeusz looking at her, she covers her shorn head with her scarf. Even this act reveals more than it hides, and we know that Tadeusz, though his face is half-hidden by a glare of light on the window pane, is gazing at her with the tenderness that is at the heart of love. In Marta’s note to Tadeusz, she writes, ‘It’s good that you exist.’ This is the unspoken message of all their looks between each other. At one point he sketches her and her eyes are alive with the joy of being seen.

The third look hardly features in the film, yet it is the most chilling, against which the look of power is banal. It is the look of polite dissimulation that we can imagine Liza wears for her husband and the other passengers on the cruise ship. It is a look of blankness that renders people unfathomable, and that can hide even atrocities. It is a look that will only break when it has to, to say such words as, ‘I wasn’t a prisoner, I was an overseer,’ to a husband. It is a look that you can encounter any day, and anywhere. 

Et Alors? Michael Haneke's Hidden (2005)

(written for MovieMail in 2006)

Someone is sending videotapes to Georges and Anne Laurent. Nothing significant happens in these tapes but they announce that their house is being watched. The tapes then take on more personal significance for Georges and are accompanied by childish drawings that seem to refer to an unpleasant episode in his past, and his actions in finding out who is sending the parcels are clouded by this past as well as his own troubled conscience.

One of the most impressive aspects of Hidden is how it marries the personal with the symbolic. Through his story of a couple and their son, and the husband’s relation with Majid, an Algerian man he knew as a 6 year-old boy, and his son, he has fashioned a story that says much about current tensions over immigration and integration at large in European society today. In some ways the concentration on surveillance in the film, and the question of just who sent the tapes are red herrings. With this stripped away, what you are left with seems to have grown from the potent 5 minute confrontation between a young Arab, Anne Laurent (again) and an older man in the metro near the end of Code Unknown. That scene also features three of the same actors – Juliette Binoche, and Maurice Bénichou and Walid Afkir, who play Majid and his son respectively in Hidden.

At the heart of the film is the fundamental question of communication. In so many of George’s exchanges, this is what is lacking. When he visits Majid to confront him about the tapes, Majid is hurt that he uses ‘vous’ with him. ‘Why do you talk like we’re strangers?’ he says. Georges threatens him, to which Majid responds that beating him ‘wouldn’t leave you any wiser about me’. Like the scene with the cyclist outside the police station, it is symbolic of how the bourgeoisie regard ‘others’ in their midst and also of the blind spot a nation’s people can develop to people who are not like them – immigrants in HLM housing for example – but who have spent decades, or even generations in the country. It’s no coincidence that Georges works in the media. It also leads to the question that if you are one of the overlooked or politely ignored, just how do you penetrate the gates, the doors and the walls of books that block your way?

There are two filmic relations to Hidden that may not be readily apparent. The first (that came to me in an uncharitable moment after the film didn’t live up to the extraordinary hype it had received) was that in some ways it was a 21st century update of Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, though at least in Hidden the characters get to eat. Quite a lot in fact, as meals punctuate the film. Watching it a second time, the comparison didn’t seem so extraordinary, there is a certain element of satire in its approach to the comfortable, and rather unpleasant, central couple (the latest adoption of Haneke’s ‘Georges & Anne Laurent’ personas). After Georges has been caught lying about the visit to Majid’s flat for example, Auteuil and Binoche bicker like a comedy double-act with their little glances and facial tics. Some of the other characters are little more than caricatures too – Georges’ boss for one, the loud pseud at the book launch who drops Baudrillard’s name into a casual conversation for another. Also, the film has been labelled, rather misleadingly, a ‘whodunnit’. It resembles more the shaggy-dog story that is told by a guest at the dinner-party. Oh, and then there’s the filming of the house that takes place from ‘Rue des Iris’.

The second film it calls to mind is Antonioni’s Blow-Up, which resonates with the footage from the second tape of the Laurents’ house. The wind through the hedge outside their house sounds much like the wind in the park in Blow-Up. Both are outwardly peaceful, calm scenes that conceal sinister happenings. Much like the enlarging of the photographs in Blow-Up too, we are forced into scanning the video footage and the film for clues, looking for an answer, and, in Hidden at least, missing the bigger picture.

Small details are effective. When Georges leaves Majid’s flat we see him leaving the room and shutting the door behind him. With the camera on Majid, Haneke cuts before we hear the door shutting. Allowing the camera to remain on Majid with the hollow sound that follows the shutting of the door would have confirmed his loneliness. Instead it cuts and the film preserves its – and Majid’s – inscrutability. It also sets up the replay of the scene that soon follows.

A number of scenes take place in doorways, which seems significant in a film that questions equal access and treatment in a society. The Laurents’ house has three layers of protection – gate, door and, inside the house the walls of books (that surround a tv). None are protection against past injustice or a bad conscience – though the books may muffle it for a while. It’s why the scene where Majid’s son goes into George’s workplace feels like such an edgily invigorating incursion. The doorway scenes find their match in the language used, especially between Georges and Anne, whose conversation is littered with ‘comment cela?’ and ‘et alors?’, phrases encouraging the other to tell more, reveal more, to go a little further into the explanations found behind the doors of conscience or deception.

For all the obfuscation about the film, Haneke in fact states the problem quite clearly. If recognition of equal worth between all members of a society (egalité, fraternité) is not given, and with that an equal validity to people’s stories and heritage, then in that space is born disaffection and violence.