Spalovač mrtvol [1969)

This is one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen.

The Cremator.

Directed by Juraj Herz.

Even if you are familiar with the Czechoslovak New Wave, this film will still take you by surprise.

It is a mélange of times and themes.

And truly a horror story.

But there is a Brechtian detachment at work.

This would explain labels such as “comedy horror”.

It’s perhaps more absurd and surreal than it is funny.

But it is certainly frightening.

A very creepy piece of cinema.

Everything revolves around a crematory official/director named Kopfrkingl.

That name alone is enough to jar the most languid viewer at each pronunciation.

Historically speaking, this was not a successful film upon release.

No, it was too weird to be incorporated into the Czechoslovak communist pantheon moving forward.  And so the world would have to wait until 1989 to get a look at this thing.

The whole film feels like a dream.

A bad dream.  With some particularly vivid violence.  [Or vintage violence.]

Mr. Kopfrkingl is a truly, outrageously delusional man.

And he only becomes more so as the film goes on.

Modern viewers might notice a bit of Eric Cartman in Rudolf Hrušínský’s performance as Kopfrkingl.

Seen behind an iconic ribbon microphone, Kopfrkingl invokes the manic strains of Hitler and we feel the sick surge of idiocy grab hold of our dear cremator.

The strangest part of Kopfrkingl’s delusion is his obsession with Tibet.

It makes me wonder whether David Lynch saw this prior to Twin Peaks?

Thubten Gyatso dies, and Hitler comes to power.

1933.

Based on a novel by Ladislav Fuks, this tale must be seen to be believed.

There are short-circuit edits akin to Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker. 

Indeed, director Herz is himself Jewish.

Truth be told, there have been few films which deal with the Holocaust as effectively (if obliquely) as The Cremator

Every shot of Hrušínský from the back evokes the Peter Lorre of M. 

This is a thoroughly fascinating cinematic experience.

 

-PD

Všichni dobří rodáci [1968)

I did the best I could.

Tired.

We try and take the right road.

Or the left road.

But not the wrong road.

We want to be correct and offer our best service.

And we depend on our bodies.  Our eyes.  Our minds.

So I come back to Czech films tired.

Directed by Vojtěch Jasný.

This is All My Good Countrymen.

It rambles.  It woos us from slumber.

It progresses to higher levels of sublimation.

It doesn’t make sense.

But makes just enough sense.

We appreciate, but don’t fully understand.

We do, however, recognize Radoslav Brzobohatý from the wonderful Ucho.

There is just enough contrapuntal organ to shake the foundations.

You push on tired and forget about the guns.

The land mine.

It seems (to put it lightly) not a ringing endorsement for communism.

Just like any political system.

The people get fed up.

And which system has the flexibility to survive upheaval?

Tired.  Tired.

Farm collectivized.  A land owner is dispossessed.

Move out of your house, please.  We need your land.

Tired.  How did the merry widow get so?

Lehár.  Her red hair.

It took me a long time to get to omega from alpha.

You bet!

It would seem that Vladimír Menšík dropped acid.  On his foot.

Or poured.

A little bit of Amarcord magic…or Zéro de conduite (depending on the weather).

Icy peacock.  And the feather blossom tree pollen.

For a humorous confession.

You can’t break a law you don’t understand.

Even with a mere 10.

Refer to my previous answer.

And again.

Think of the Le déjeuner des canotiers of the Renoir we talk least about here:  Pierre-Auguste.

It is a shot of vodka perched on bottom lip.

A swig.  A slug.  In purgatory.

Resting because the boaters must be immortalized.

In their Italian boater hats.  And de Nîmes denim jeans.

Pamplona by delivery.

School districts in debt.  More prodigious than the municipalities in which they are located.

This would be lived out…this rebellion…”No.”–by our good director Mr. Jasný.

The good man starts over.  Like Sisyphus.  Camus’s best writing.

The people of the world.  They amaze me.  Every day a miracle.

Finding little motivations to care for their loved ones.

It is not cowardice.  It is compassion.

It is submission to love.  And the God of chaos has many wonderful things for us.

A daughter on a magical mystery tour.

We will get to the animal farm.  And the propaganda waiting.

But now we sing of Cardiff and Dublin.

When will the music come back?

We preserve it like a relic.

A holy repetition.

Spin that record again and make those sounds which speak to us of other planets.

This is a masterpiece of Eastern European cinema which is essential to a comprehensive understanding of the field.

I’m guessing multiple viewings are necessary.

 

-PD

 

Marketa Lazarová [1967)

The epic of Czech film.

Its reputation precedes it.

And I have much to say about this gargantuan length of film.

For when last I delved into the canon, I was greeted with a short watch.

It was pleasant.  It was complete.  Everything which needed to be said was said.

This film is in some ways the opposite.

Two hours and 42 minutes.

I have not had such trouble viewing a film since Jeanne Dielman…

And I want to say this is the equal of that Belgian gem.

Marketa Lazarová is played by the stunningly-beautiful Magda Vášáryová.

Magdaléna if you’re not into the whole brevity thing.

A Slovak actress.  Who lives!

But sadly Ms. Vášáryová is in this film far too little.

When she appears, she usurps the screen with her loveliness.

She is as fleeting as a lamb…

Visions fugitives…[…]

She is our lamb we try to save.

To no avail.

My beard is invisible.  I am twice my age.

Mostly from sitting through this film.

This is the Czech Gone with the Wind.

Overlong.  Underdone.

But there is a reward in its totality.

It’s as if Buñuel greets us upon the start of Part II.

Yes, there’s an intermission of sorts.

Good God…

The internal monologue of the Almighty.

When He’s least enamored with us.

Appreciates our simplicity.  And breaks the fourth wall with a critique of our oratory skills.

So director František Vláčil did have some truly genius tricks up his sleeve.

But most of this film is bleak.  Bare.  Plodding. More ennui than boredom.

Which is to say that misery sounds more artful in French.

The misery of a convoluted story told by a mediocre bard.

And so someone didn’t do somebody justice.

František Vláčil had real facility.

Then do we find fault with novelist Vladislav Vančura?

Perhaps it was just a bad match.

But it’s not a bad film.

It’s just not the greatness which so often accrues to length.

Long doesn’t necessarily mean important.

Did Kissinger really need 912 pages to relate Diplomacy?

I’m not even a fan of Tolstoy.

There are, in fact, few behemoths behind which I can get.

The Brothers Karamazov is one.

And I would argue that Marketa Lazarová has some of that pithy, earthy grit to it.

A little witchcraft.

Some battle-axes.

Missing limbs.

But Vláčil manages to add very faint, subtle hints of psychedelia to this story.

It was, after all, 1967.

But it’s more ergot than LSD.

Ennui/boredom.

A slight différance.

 

-PD

Každý den odvahu [1964)

I took a long time off.

Because the brain is delicate.

I have crammed so many facts into my noggin.

That a release valve was needed.

The escape of television.

Which is to say, I’m no better than anyone else.

In some ways, I’m no different.

And this film proves the point.

Courage for Every Day.

Goes nowhere.

Except to the sublime.

But you must work at it.

You just haven’t earned it yet, baby.

Maybe.

It’s not buddy holly.

But it bops along with capitalist incursion.

This isn’t Evald Schorm’s best work, but it showed his range.

For a first film, it’s damned good.

But it’s slow.

Not like slow cinema.

More like plodding.

Plotting clumsy Ulysses.

When all I ever want is Finnegans Wake.

Former makes too much sense.

For a first FICTION film.

Largely failure for first 50%.

And then the sublime emerges.

We’re not on TV anymore.

We’re in the realm of cinema.

And it’s a huge difference.

Time…to stretch out.

In which.

A bunch of boring communist functionaries.

Up against the magic of the feral masses.  Untamed.

Uneducated.  But free, almost.  Maybe.

Jana Brejchová just like Beth Behrs.

But there is heartbreak.

When she says, “Work it out for yourself.”

Something like that.

Human being lawnmower.

Morphs into Czech Breathless.  Existential vacuum of Antonioni.

He can’t be a normal person.

Because of the cause.

All causes are insane.

Including mine.

The cause…

Not to be confused with causal mechanism.

To be an idealist.  Circumspect.

There is no life outside commerce.  In the West.

We have lost.

But a sudden ray of hope…

Only defense against desperation.

Here I sit, over my Underwood.

Go talk to him…

He loves you.

Cook it and kill it!

Or vice versa.

At such a time that pulling rabbit from hat becomes the ultimate embarrassment.

Because ridicule has been wedged.

We are back to real films (if not standard criticism).

Can only be discussed in its own terms.

Every time.

Ekphrasis 24/7.  8 day s week.

Rachel Corrie is my inspiration.

As said Giles Corey:  “More weight!”

 

Ucho [1970)

A banned film.

From communist Czechoslovakia.

Party as nightmare (like O slavnosti a hostech).

But different.

Walls on all sides.

Claustrophobic.

As if Jeremy Bentham was tomorrow appointed head of the NSA.

From the single, centralized watchtower.

Stares out the embalmed ego of Bentham.

Auto-icon.

It’s just a skeleton stuffed with hay.  Dressed in Bentham’s clothes.

Like the panopticon.

A straw man prison.

Dear friends, I know of no film which conveys the horror of the 21st century.

Quite like this gem of resistance against totalitarianism.

This was the underbelly of communism.

The “evil empire” of which Reagan spoke.

His words seem funny today.  His unscientific, hypocritical words.

Because the Red Scare in the United States was typified by the same methods on display.

Here.

Surveillance.

Which I fear will not subside anytime soon.

Nor has this wave even crested.

“Mass surveillance doesn’t work,” Mr. Snowden wrote. “This bill will take money and liberty without improving safety.”

Finally The New York Times prints something worthwhile.

And even Hillary Clinton’s “History made.” ad can’t deflate the importance of Snowden’s words.

And so if you want to see the 12-tone paranoia of the communist “big brother” state (now that we are living in a “capitalist” big brother state), I would heartily recommend The Ear by director Karel Kachyňa.

It was banned for 19 years in Czechoslovakia.

Because it got real close to the truth.

It painted the communist party leaders as a bunch of jerks.

It portrayed the constant suspicion upon bureaucrats as a living nightmare.

The Ear.  Maybe some HUMINT at the party.

But largely this film deals with SIGINT (if author Jeffrey T. Richelson can be trusted).

The Ear deals primarily with what Richelson calls “clandestine SIGINT” in his book The U.S. Intelligence Community.

What we encounter in Ucho are “the oldest of these devices” (viz. “traditional audio surveillance devices”).

Wikipedia does a passable job outlining this area of inquiry in the article “Covert listening device”.

But dear friends…describing it so matter-of-factly does no justice to the strain which omnipresent surveillance puts on largely innocent people.

And therefore The Ear is a film which shows the psychological toll that governments exact when they make ethics secondary.

What we get from director Karel Kachyňa is the portrait of a society (his society) which assumes all citizens to be guilty until proven innocent.

This is ostensibly the opposite of the American system, but today’s Amerika is merely the other side of the coin:  same pervasion of surveillance (even if it is “capitalist”).

My hypothesis is that “free market” America has come to all-to-closely resemble the regimes it fought to defeat.  Those “victories”, then, were hollow.  We have appropriated the worst, most tortuous means of our past enemies.

But Kachyňa has another message for us in this masterpiece.

In such upside-down societies, promotion might be the worst form of punishment.

Beware, my coopted friends.

 

-PD

 

O slavnosti a hostech [1966)

This is one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen.

Rarely have I seen such uneasiness conveyed through cinema.

The really terrifying part is.

How mundane all of the symbols are.

Is/are.

Insane.

For a moment.

Like the Czech version of Deliverance.

We see “party” in English (in the context of Czechoslovakia), and we think.

Communist Party.

But the slavnosti in question translates to “feast”.

Google tells us.

And Google is never wrong.

Right?

Which is to say.

Hell is a party.

A party from which you wish to flee.

Beggar’s banquet.

There is no leaving communist Romania.

And Czechoslovakia?

I can’t tell you, dear friend.

But we know of the boy who swam the Danube.

Symbolic.

To nonaligned Yugoslavia.

And from there to Italy and Toblerone.

That’s Cum mi-am petrecut sfârşitul lumii.

But what we have here is A Report on the Party and the Guests.

Report.

Also sounds very bureaucratic.  Quintessentially communist.

Let’s take the popular notion that Kafka sums up bureaucracy.

In which work?

The Trial? With Josef K.?

Yes.  This is most applicable to O slavnosti a hostech.

We must learn to speak every language.

Like Pope John Paul II (slight exaggeration).

Because Kafka wrote in German.

Der Process.

It’s a process of ablaut-ish metamorphosis.

Prozess –> Proceß –> Prozeß

swimswamswum

Kafka died in 1924.  Age 40.  My age in six months.

1948/1949 Czechoslovakia becomes part of Soviet bloc.

Comecon.

Not to be confused with Comic-Con.

And never any Poto and Cabengo in San Diego.

Though they be in their own backyard.

Grace and Virginia were superheroes without costumes.

And they had their own language, by golly.

Brings tears to my eyes.

To see them playing potato.

“What are they saying?”

This is the absurdity of blogging about the absurdity of a film inspired by the absurdity of Kafka.

But likely unconscious.

This genius (director Jan Němec) died only a few months ago.

But he gave the world a belly laugh.

And an unnerving masterpiece.

It is not as obviously magnificent as Closely Watched Trains.

But it is supremely subversive.

In a totalitarian state (like Amerika)…which is completely ruled by commodity relations.

This is our last recourse.

England swings.

Like a pendulum.

From the gallows.

Frexit (France leaves NATO…again).

Hexit (Hungary curses continental Europe from Buddhapesht to Bookarrest)

Crexit (Croatia invents new correction fluid for computer screens)

Spexit (Spain certifies that said correction fluid meets ISO standards)

Esexit (Estonia doubles GDP overnight with racy dating service app)

Slexit (a dual rush for the doors by Slovakia and Slovenia)

Rexit (Holy Roman Emperor reestablished in Romania, confined to Bookarrest)

Fexit (Finland engages in creative destruction)

Pexit (Poland and Portugal [in that order] gobble seed with bobbing avian head motion)

Irexit (being both hungry and anorexic [morbidly hangry], Ireland joins the Brits in bolting)

Everyone else stays.

Until the Czexit.  [ooh la la]

Serbia accedes and secedes in same day simply to give the world the thrill of Sexit.

[I know I know]

This is the rearrangement of guests.

So many not at the world table.

In such times.

Only art can explain.

 

-PD

 

Návrat ztraceného syna [1966)

Black pearl.

Not black wave.

Tabu story of the south seas.

Of eastern Europe.

Some things will not allow you to name them in miniscule diminution.

Only majuscule.

Europe.

But not all Europe created equally.

Some want in, some want out.

Some have the missiles.  Some have the nukes.

Maybe someone has the launch codes.

A prison of protection.

Your interbank telecommunications are swiftly fleeted from La Hulpe, Belgium.

A founding nation.

Fair of skin.

Like milk.  Like lace.  Like the blue veins of Delft or Roquefort.

Jesus, this is some beautiful writing.

Is it mine?

If I claim it (as it comes out of my head), will I be sent home?

And home where?

To a Turkish circus.

I am at home in words.

Inseparable from thoughts.

And the film under consideration is a masterpiece of insanity:  Return of the Prodigal Son.

Director Evald Schorm was born the day after me.  And died on my birthday.

Which is to say (viz.) that he lived his life in reverse.  Like Midas.

Everything he touched turned to shit.

I know the feeling.

I practically invented it.

Were it not for The Hollies, I’d be a bumper sticker millionaire.

Shit happens.

Psychiatry.

And most importantly, Czechoslovakia.

Nuttier and nuttier.

Each line.  Each post.

We’ve become such experts that we are worthless (Elmyr de Hory).

I couldn’t run a business if my life depended on it.

Which is to say (c’est-à-dire), I’m perfect for the job.

Any job.

Particularly a hard job.

A job of balancing.

I put my own king in check.  With my queen.

From Czech mate to Czech please.

The eroticism of Czech New Wave hit pinnacle with Ostře sledované vlaky.

We closely watched.  Maybe you remember.

Long before Maggie Gyllenhaal got us going in Secretary.

And so here it is Jana Brejchová.

Flirtatious.  And positively nuts.

Maybe she’s the one who drove Jan Kacer bonkers.

Makes sense.

But Jan has deeper issues.

He might love his job.

But there’s nothing inside.

Something has been deranged.  Rearranged.

The furniture in his head is set up for a party.

And no thoughts arrived.

Because he forgot to send invitations.

And now he just wants to watch frotolimbic TV.

But the antimacassar massacre of feng shui violation is permanent.  For the time being.

Fichte and Hegel first made an assumption about time.

We are told.  In good time.

Regarding dialectics.

Problem reaction solution.

Thesis antithesis synthesis.

Forget not sublation.

There is no abolish preserve.  There is only transcend.

Riding to work in the year 2025 is a bitch when Ed Harris (Robert Duvall) decides to get all snooty.

What does Marsellus Wallace look like?

Say what one more time!

A tawdry age.  False flags happening every day.  Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

#1 the week Hitler died.

Or went to the Argentine version of Barvikha.

Divine right of kings…

Psychiatry.

First medicine, then further specialization.

But a different slant. (6)

Hippocratic (rule by horses) oath.

False friends linguistic jump to conclusions.

Like Novo ordo seclorum.

Spend a moment with the French emanation:  siècle.

Cycle.  Age.  Cycles.  Ages.

Still…

It moves.

 

-PD

Perličky na dně [1966)

I’ve never been much a fan of the omnibus film (or anthology film) genre.

Several directors.

One product.

But this one serves a very interesting purpose.

So far, we have only considered the work of Jiří Menzel (among Czech directors).

So now we will get to branch out a bit.

A sampler of sorts.

Funny enough, Menzel leads this whole thing off.

Start with your best speaker, they say.

Menzel’s contribution is fairly good.

It is closer in spirit to Capricious Summer than it is to the masterpiece Closely Watched Trains

Which is to say, it is largely “meh”.

But a true auteur is still engaging even when he or she is meh, and Menzel is interesting…even when he’s boring (as in Rozmarné léto).

If we want to know where the Belgian juggernaut Aaltra comes from, then we should look no further than Menzel’s short contribution on motorcycle racing.

As with all the stories in this omnibus, the author (in the literary sense) is Bohumil Hrabal.

We get our first bit of the “aging” theme in this installment.

The old man with his stories of Smetana and Dvořák.

The weird harpsichord music courtesy of Jan Klusák (or perhaps Jiří Šust).

It’s baroque, but just slightly off.  Anachronistic.  Neobaroque.  Like Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments (and just as rococonutty).

But the “aging” theme really comes to the fore in the next section which is directed by Jan Němec.  Němec sadly passed away but four months ago.

In this scene we meet two old men in a hospital.  It is a very touching piece of cinema.

They try to keep each other’s spirits up.

We also start to sense another theme in Hrabal’s writing:  lies.

Lies notwithstanding, Němec’s segment is perhaps the most poignant thing about this film.

In the middle we get a splash of color (the rest of the film being in black and white) courtesy of the radical Evald Schorm.

What makes Schorm’s segment so beautifully jarring is the music (extremely reminiscent of Olivier Messiaen):  organ dissonance ostensibly courtesy of the aforementioned Klusák and/or Šust.

We are presented with outsider art in its purest form.  A painter who paints every wall in his house.  It is certainly reminiscent of the one-of-a-kind Henry Darger.

Incidentally, the scene is deliciously dark humor directed at not only the bureaucracy of the Czechoslovak state but also at the legitimacy of the insurance industry.

Věra Chytilová contributes a dark-yet-dreamy vignette suffused with desperation throughout.  Her use of slow-motion photography captures some very special emotions and is reminiscent of Jean Vigo’s use of the same in Zéro de conduite.

Finally, we encounter gypsies for the first time thanks to the loving depiction of Jaromil Jireš.

A Czech boy does his best Jean-Paul Belmondo before the cracked mirror near the lobby cards.

Dana Valtová might be the most convincing actress in this entire feature.  Her role of the dark-skinned gypsy (who remains nameless) is quite astonishing.

And so we learn a bit more about the Czech people thanks to this defining mosaic from the Czech New Wave:  Pearls of the Deep.

And little by little we learn a new culture.

 

-PD

Rozmarné léto [1968)

I’m not going to blow smoke up your ass.

This one starts out slowly.

Too long at the first location.

The river bathhouse.

The dread of boredom begins to creep in.

No girl.  No gun.

Until Jana Preissová makes her first appearance.

It was unbearable.

A rainy summer.

Every day the same as the last.

In a small town.

A closed circle.

But like Fellini, the circus comes to town.

Thank God for the circus.

Cotton candy.  شعر البنات

Is it girl’s hair?  Pink.  A one-piece pajama.

Or a pig.

It is like the sweet words of the beautiful Haneen Elhaj in Bethlehem.

Girl’s hair.

Running on the electricity of a car battery.

Spinning sugary magic.

Sandy stone (when the mirror of translate is turned upon itself).

We want to know literally what Heidegger Derrida was talking about.

And so it only took director Jiří Menzel two years to lose his voice.

It was perfection in ’66.

Ostře sledované vlaky.

That is the cynical view.

But we must realize that Menzel was literally walking a tightrope.

It’s not funny.

It’s not engaging.

It’s slow.

It’s effective.

By the end you see that Fellini is the right reference.

Capricious Summer (our film) bridges the gap between the antics of La Strada and the lovable freak show of local color that would be Amarcord (1973).

But this was 1968.

A very serious year.

The Czech and Slovak (respectively) socialist republics came into being the following year.

We know the legend.

Mai ’68.

All hell broke luce.

Even Cannes was cancelled.

[Cannescelled]

But what is a film festival compared to an invasion?

Before our Capricious Summer was the Prague Spring of 1968.

Lasting well into the summer.

And blooming well before winter had ended.

January 5 – August 21.

Then the invasion.  The Warsaw Pact countries.

Operation Danube.

Romania (and Albania), to their credit, refused to participate.

108 Czechoslovak civilians killed.

Liberalization.  Decentralization.  Democratization.

Like the beautiful Anna.  Fleeting.

Because the circus always has to pack up and leave town.

Our film.

Released May 24.  During the Prague Spring.

Pražské jaro (or jar).

Czech.  Slovak.

The only difference between my bank balance and Bill Gates’.

More zeros at the end.

Infinitely more.

Later these “Springs” would become manufactured (if they weren’t already).

Libya…

We all know about color revolutions…but the Czechs would have a textured revolution in 1989.

From velvet…we could have had the corduroy revolution (ribbed, for her pleasure), silk revolution, cotton (the revolution of our lives)…etc.

The “nonviolent” Prague Spring resulted in the deaths of 96 Soviet soldiers.

84 of them by “accident” (friendly fire?)

and the accidental/”suicide” deaths of 10 Poles.

Apparently none of the Poles died conventionally.

At least the two Bulgar soldiers killed perished from intent.

The four Hungarians all slipped on banana peels in front of Škodas.

This is the tone.

Lola Montès.

Plucking the feathers from chickens.

The chubby wife returns.

Drench the nubile.

Menzel, then, was many months ahead.

Knowing that summer would really begin when autumn usually fell.

Another 20 years before the circus returned.

 

-PD

Deutschland im Jahre Null [1948)

The first thing film critics have to get right is the title.

Let me explain a bit.

On my site, I always list a film in its original language (to the best of my ability).

In my opinion, that is the best way of honoring the film.

So far, I have encountered the mild idiosyncrasies of Romanian, Serbo-Croat, Czech, and Polish in addition to the mind-blowing intricacy of Farsi and Japanese.

But with Deutschland im Jahre Null we are seeing a German-language film by an Italian director…sort of.

Italy has a very peculiar tradition concerning voiceovers and direct (or, conversely, indirect) sound.  It is an oddity which caught the attention of Godard in his role as film historian.

I cannot give you as erudite an explanation as my hero Jean-Luc, but suffice it to say that foreign (non-Italian) films in Italy have traditionally been overdubbed into Italian.  So, in other words, no subtitles.

This is distinct from an American viewer watching a Fellini film.  The “American” version (whether on DVD or as a film print in a theater) will be in Italian with subtitles in English.  This goes for almost all foreign-language (non-English) films marketed in the United States.

But getting back to Deutschland im Jahre Null…  It is similar to the Danish director Carl Th. Dreyer directing the French film La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc…with one major difference.  Dreyer’s film was a silent one (the only French being the intertitles).  Rossellini’s Deutschland im Jahre Null is very much in German.  We are hearing German actors speak (exclusively) German dialogue.

What is most interesting is the linguistic lineage of this film.  In English, this film is known as:

Germany, Year Zero

Which is quite similar to Rossellini’s preceding masterpiece (in linguistic parallel):

Rome, Open City

To be fair, let’s consider the Italian name (the real name) of Rome, Open CityRoma città aperta.  Fine.  That is the way I recognize the film.  The true name is (in my mind) Roma città aperta.

But with Deutschland im Jahre Null we come to a very strange case.  If we do not recognize the primacy of its English title (Germany, Year Zero), and I do not, then we are directed by that great arbiter of cultural legitimacy Wikipedia to consider our options exhausted by being cognizant of the Italian title (Germania anno zero).

What is the message of this omission by English Wikipedia?  I believe the message is that Germany was (and continues to be) a null.  A zero.  A conquered culture.

We see a similar thing in the kowtowing stereotype of conquered Japan.  And though Japan might be experiencing some moderate-to-light financial troubles in recent years, Germany is by all accounts the economic powerhouse of continental Europe.  Why do I bring economics into the discussion?  Because wealthy nations are able to assert themselves.

But let us step back a bit.  Wikipedia does have some tasty morsels of information concerning this film.  If the source can be trusted, this 1948 film was not shown in Germany (the country from whence the language of the film takes its name) until 1952.  After its single screening in München (Munich), it was not heard from again within those borders until it ran on German television in 1978. 

Wow…26 years.  Either this film was grossly misunderstood, or it was understood all too well.  From my reading, this is a very pro-German document.

Rossellini was not George Stevens making concentration camp propaganda.  Roberto was making art.  The sign of art is the admission of possibilities.  Art seduces us because it is subtle.  Art does not proclaim in blanket statements.  Art does not underestimate the intelligence of the viewer.

Roberto Rossellini did something with his “war films trilogy” which seems to have been unprecedented.  The desire of neorealism was to film fiction as if it were documentary.  This fiction would be, likewise, based on reality.

But why is it, then, that we have very different views of Roberto Rossellini and Robert Flaherty?

I will tell you my guess.  Flaherty’s sin was in the framing of his presentation.  To wit, he presented his staged documentaries (take the oil industry propaganda piece Louisiana Story for instance) as if they were naturally-occurring, spontaneous documentaries. The sin, then, was his duplicitous relationship with his subjects.  He actively made his human subjects into actors.

Rossellini takes a different tack.  There is no pretense that Deutschland im Jahre Null is an ACTUAL documentary.  It merely has the feel of that medium.  Likewise, Rossellini’s use of nonprofessional actors was likely more of a precursor to Robert Bresson than a twist on Flaherty’s bizarre formula (which predated Roberto in both Nanook of the North [1922] and Man of Aran [1934]).  No, Rossellini had created something new. 

It’s not so much the films of Flaherty to which I object as it is the idea of them.  At least one of his concoctions (perhaps thanks to director F.W. Murnau) is very fine indeed:  Tabu [1931].  Flaherty and Murnau co-wrote this ostensible documentary.  Indeed, with Flaherty we come into contact with inchoate, obscure film genres such as docudrama, docufiction, fictional documentary (ethnofiction), etc. etc. etc.

Most importantly, none of what I have written here has even scratched the surface of Deutschland im Jahre Null.   What ever became of the heartrending main child actor Edmund Moeschke?  I do not know.

One thing is certain to me:  no film before Rossellini’s “war trilogy” (Roma città aperta, Paisà, and Deutschland im Jahre Null) [1945/1946/1948] takes on such politically sensitive and important topics in such a raw way.  The closest would be the socialism of Eisenstein or the humanism of Chaplin. 

It is, therefore, no wonder at all that Rossellini spawned a million “new waves” the world over.

 

-PD