June 12, 2013
(Directed by Margarethe von Trotta, 2013)
by Marc van de Klashorst
Befehl ist Befehl. Almost seventy years after some of the most heinous crimes against humanity in history, this most banal of Nazi excuses is still sometimes used mockingly when someone tries to dodge responsibility. But what if that unspeakable evil was rooted precisely in the banality of a society and a system that was upheld by a strong belief in rules and regulations?
This was exactly what German-born philosopher Hannah Arendt, herself Jewish, proposed in a series of articles in The New Yorker in 1961, in which she reported for the magazine on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the top-ranking SS officers during the war and considered one of the architects of the Holocaust. Coining the term "the banality of evil" (also the subtitle of a book she wrote based on her articles), Arendt contended that Eichmann was not the psychopath that the world saw in him, but a bureaucrat whose 'evil' sprung from obeying orders without thinking through the consequences of his actions, instead conforming to a mass opinion and thus, either consciously or unconsciously, appeasing his own conscience.
Director Margarethe von Trotta (perhaps best known for Rosa Luxemburg) selects mainly this period in the life and career of Arendt to paint the portrait of an insightful but somewhat tactless woman whose constant struggle to identify the origin of evil made her the center of controversy on more than one occasion. Played by Barbara Sukowa (her fourth collaboration with Von Trotta in her long career, including the aforementioned Rosa Luxemburg) with just the right amount of unworldliness to place Arendt's lack of empathy in her approach to the philosophical questions underlying the trial of one of the biggest war criminals in history, Arendt faces a tsunami of criticism when her articles are finally published. This is not only because of her conclusion about Eichmann being a clown more than a monster, but also her assertion that an important role in the destruction of their own people was played by the so-called Judenräte, administrative bodies made up of Jewish leaders, required to assist the Nazi regime in the registration and deportation of Jews. While Arendt may have had a point, on an emotional level the criticism is certainly understandable, and it is a flaw of Von Trotta's film that this aspect is underexposed. Arendt's opponents are portrayed as one-dimensional blowhards, without giving much explanation of why they are so outraged, pitting them in the cinematic cliché of 'good guy vs. bad guy' instead of opting for a more nuanced view on the matter.
But it's not the only flaw of the film, a rather dry affair that takes a mighty long while to get to the dramatic meat of the story, which is the controversy that Arendt's work causes. And even then, the emphasis laid on her take on the Jewish leadership during the war, and the resulting criticism of that position, almost renders Arendt's thoughts on Eichmann insignificant in the turmoil over her work. The accusation of the Judenräte is the main point of contention, and Eichmann's portrayal by Arendt as a thoughtless clerk is barely touched upon. This lessens the impact of the sequences earlier in the film, in which Arendt follows the trial on a monitor from the pressroom in Jerusalem. This setup, historically accurate, allows Von Trotta to use archive material of the Eichmann hearings in the film, which effectively underline Arendt's point as we see the man bumbling through his remarks in officialese and stock answers. Eichmann's rather weaselly appearance contrasts with his image as a monster, strengthening Arendt's later hypothesis. By abandoning this and focusing on the question of the role of the Jewish leadership, Von Trotta undermines her own film.
The film gets stuck in too much typical biopic material anyway, painting a rosy picture of Arendt by emphasizing her strong relationship with her husband (philosopher and poet Heinrich Blücher, played by Axel Milberg), her warmth towards her assistant Lotte (Julia Jentsch, of Sophie Scholl fame) and her best friend Mary (a one-note but rather fun part by Janet McTeer), and using flashbacks to her relationship with the philosopher Martin Heidegger (himself a supporter of the Nazi party), which seem to be included only to assure us that yes, Arendt hated the Nazis too.
All of this material makes the second act drag on needlessly and move forward rather aimlessly, so when it finally comes to publication of the articles and the subsequent criticism, it almost feels like a tacked-on afterthought, while this should actually be the most interesting and fleshed-out part of the film. Combined with an at times clumsy mise-en-scene and cinematography choices that make little sense (slow zooms that are there for no apparent reason, for instance), one cannot help but feel that this is a missed opportunity to make a film that digs deeper into the fundamental points that Hannah Arendt touches upon, fundamental questions that would have juxtaposed the rational (Arendt) with the emotional (her opponents who feel offended), leading to a more interesting discourse about what evil is and how to approach it. Now we are left with a half-baked biopic that rarely goes beyond the surface into intellectual depths and shies away from acknowledging the controversy, a film that is only held together by a strong central performance by Sukowa and impressive period work by the art department.
May 26, 2013
CANNES 2013 - ICS PICKS THEIR CANNES FAVORITES
by Marc van de Klashorst
After a long and sometimes heated deliberation, the ICS members that were present at the 66th Cannes Film Festival decided on their own set of awards, a few hours before the actual jury, headed by Steven Spielberg, will announce the big prizes on Sunday night. The panel followed the exact same rules and model as the official jury, including taking the opportunity to create a special category.
To recognize the many excellent child performances in Cannes this year (and it should be noted that this extended beyond the main competition), the ICS jury decided to create a special category this year, 'The Kids of Cannes'. The following performances will not be forgotten:
Pauline Burlet (Le Passé)
Elyes Aguis (Le Passé)
Jeanne Jestin (Le Passé)
Fantin Ravat (Jeune et Jolie)
Elve Lijbaart (Borgman)
Keita Ninomiya (Like Father, Like Son)
Shôgen Hwang (Like Father, Like Son)
In the 'official' categories, the following films were awarded:
Prix du Jury
The Immigrant (James Gray)
Le Passé (Asghar Farhadi, Massoumeh Lahidji)
Michael Douglas (Behind The Candelabra)
Jim Jarmusch (Only Lovers Left Alive)
Best Actress a tie, decided after five rounds of voting
Marion Cotillard (The Immigrant)
Emmanuelle Seigner (Venus In Fur)
A Touch Of Sin (Jia Zhang-ke)
Palme d'or a unanimous decision in the first round of voting
La Vie d'Adèle (Abdellatif Kechiche)
May 25, 2013
CANNES 2013 REVIEW - MANUSCRIPTS DON'T BURN (Directed by Mohammad Rasoulof)
by Marc van de Klashorst
Reviewing Mohammad Rasoulof's Manuscripts Don't Burn is more than just judging a film on its artistic merits. Clandestinely shot, since the director has been banned from filmmaking in his home country Iran for twenty years, this is a stinging indictment of the Iranian government's crackdown on anyone who doesn't abide by their rules, most notably intellectuals like Rasoulof. Sentenced in December 2010 to six years in prison (later reduced to one year on appeal), Rasoulof hadn't been seen in public since then, but he presented his film in UCR on Friday at the festival, which has always been supportive of persecuted Iranian filmmakers (Jafar Panahi's This Is Not A Film played out of competition two years ago, after famously being smuggled out of the country in a birthday cake).
Manuscripts Don't Burn tells the story of a trio of writers under scrutiny for writing as-yet-unpublished manuscripts about an incident many years ago, in which 21 members of the intellectual elite (including these writers) were almost murdered in a staged bus accident. Obviously, government officials aren't too thrilled about the prospect of these manuscripts actually going to press (clandestinely, of course), and so they are slowly but surely turning the screws on them. Rasoulof smartly chooses to put most of the focus on two low-ranking henchmen, Morteza and Khosrow. The latter in particular is given a streak of humanity, constantly worried about his young son who needs to be hospitalized, and the resulting financial burden that has led him to do this work. One cannot help but feel some sympathy towards this sad-eyed lump of a man who looks like the world's troubles are all on his shoulders. A subverting trick by Rasoulof, because it makes the actions Khosrow is shown capable of later on really hit home.
The film plays out as a slow-burning police thriller, only with the bad guys winning, but the film is bookended by two statements that elevate its importance to that of a political document. The opening card states that the film is based on actual events, and instead of closing credits we get a statement that to protect the innocence of all involved, none of the cast or crew will be credited. Of course there is a degree of artistic freedom at play (the henchman characters are probably largely fictitious), but the realization that this kind of state oppression is part of day-to-day life for some Iranians is saddening, and also instills the need to separate the quality of the filmmaking and storytelling (both pretty high as it is) from the film's importance as a textbook document about oppressive regimes. Rasoulof is a sly filmmaker for showing most of this from the perspective of the oppressors, even humanizing them to an extent. One cannot imagine that this film won't have serious repercussions for the director, but that doesn't make him back down from fighting his fight for freedom of speech in his own country. Normally we would apply the term 'brave' filmmaking to an auteur pushing the limits of the medium (something like Kechiche did a couple of days ago), but the real courage can be found in people like Rasoulof, who show that film can be more than just a few good hours at the movies.
May 24, 2013
CANNES 2013 REVIEW - MY SWEET PEPPER LAND (Directed by Hiner Saleem)
by Marc van de Klashorst
Iraqi Kurdistan, a remote village. A new sheriff comes to town. It is probably a very unexpected setting for a traditional Western, but Hiner Saleem makes it seem the most natural location in his Un Certain Regard entry My Sweet Pepper Land. Peppered (no pun intended) with humor, at times morbid, this conventional but utterly watchable tale of two outsiders finding each other in a close-knit community adds regional social commentary to a straightforward film to give it just that little extra.
Although Golshifteh Farahani as Govend is put front and center for all press materials for the film, actually Korkmaz Arslan as Baran is the slightly more leading character. A police officer from Erbil (the Kurdish capital since it became an autonomous region from Iraq in 2005) chooses to become the police commander in a small town in the 'Bermuda Triangle' of the border area between Iraq, Iran, and Turkey. On the last part of the trip, while on horseback, he meets Govend, a young elementary school teacher on her way to the same town. Upon arrival, both are regarded with suspicion by the townsfolk, certainly by local kingpin Aziz Aga (Tarik Akreyî) and his gang, who run the town and control smuggling in the surrounding mountains. Baran has come to lay down the law, and he is not easily cowed, even though the Aga gang tries to intimidate both him and the teacher. As the two grow closer together, rumors spread and soon the two are pitted against the rest of the town, with a confrontation with Aziz Aga and his band inevitable.
Director Hiner Saleem uses every Western trope known to man, right down to wide sunset shots, to create a sort of 'John Ford in the Middle East.' Some shots in the surrounding mountains are in fact right out of the John Ford playbook, as is the loner character of Baran. Add to that a soundtrack filled with Western motifs and Americana, and you have a film that could have been released by an American studio in the '50s.