Wri/Dir: Christi Puiu | Cast: Agathe Bosch, Edith Alibec, Ugo Broussot, Marina Palli, Istvan Teglas, Diana Sakalauskaite, Vitaly Bichir, Judith State, Frederic Schulze-Richard | Romania, Serbia, Switzerland, Sweden, Bosnia, Macedonia 2020, Drama, 200 min.
This new drama from Romanian director and writer Christi Puiu (The Death of Mr Lazarescu) is based on works by the Russian philosopher, poet and mystic Vladimir Solovyov (1853-1900) Solovyov, a close friend of Dostoyevsky whose Brothers Karamazov were inspired by his compatriot. Solovyov’s main focus was to overturn the schism between the Catholic Church and The Russian Orthodoxy, later he worried about Russia losing its spiritual identity.
The Christimas tide setting for this austere discursive drama is an old Translyvanian Manor House belonging to Niklai (Teglas). Outside snow is falling, but the atmosphere inside is no less chilly, with conversation between the various guests – a politician, a young countess, a Russian General and his wife – an often vituperative and tight-lipped exchange about death and the Antichrist, progress and morality. Each lays out a vision of the world, history, and religion.
The film unfolds in six chapters: Ingrida (Sakalauskaite), the wife of the general, kicks off the debate opining on the true meaning of Christianity, and positing that all wars are holy. Some of the men call war a “necessary evil” and hope that it will be eventually abolished “by becoming obsolete” – but only Olga (Palii), by far the youngest of the guests, opposes Ingrida, and reads out a letter written by her husband, who has just returned from the war in Turkey, where “Russia is trying to tame a less civilised country”. Her husband reports of massacres committed by the Turks against Armenians, and the swift revenge taken by his troops. Again all present agree that such revenge is a true sign of Christianity, but Olga then reminds everyone that the Cossacks, part of the general’s army, are known for their brutality. She also tells them there is a part of goodness in every human being, which should be allowed to grow. They all rubbish her and called her naive.
Meanwhile, an army of servants slip silently between their masters, and are hardly given the time of day. Jansci (Geambasu), the head honcho, directs his underlings like a theatre troupe: they follow his orders with precision, more afraid of him than of their masters. And with good reason: when Jansci finds out one of the waiters has made a mistake, he slaps him and tells him that a repeat “would make him very angry indeed”. Nikolai’s ailing father is carried from the bath to his room on many occasions, a Dr. Blumenfeld is on call, even though it is Christmas Eve.
Olga continues her protests against the mostly male rationale: she accuses Edouard (Broussot), a politician, that he is a materialist. His planned trip to Nice, she says, will only end up in the casino of Monte Carlo. Edouard, a total cynic, agrees smiling. The discussion about pacifism versus self defence sees Olga defending the former, whilst Edouard claims nations with a high civilisation, including Russia, have the right to go to war against barbaric countries. “Sin, but do not repent” is the motto voiced by the mostly male majority. The discussion moves on, the focus on Russia’s identity: Is it a Greco/Slavian country, or part of European culture? The uprising in Transvaal against the British is called “Zulu savagery” and Edouard bemoans the lack of involvement by the Dutch in this conflict. Edouard again is in the centre of an attack on Olga, who insists that man has been put on earth for a purpose by God. She also is critical of their hedonistic lifestyle. Edouard is vicious in his reply claiming the real purpose in life is to have a mission: “I had an audience with Czar Alexander II, got a yearly salary of 30 000 Gold Roubles and a diplomatic mission”. He then returns to his argument claiming that the masses submit to evil, and want to kill everybody who are against them. Eduoard also ponders whether God really resurrects us, and if his kingdom is real, is it not just a Kingdom of Death. Finally, falling into the snare of their own discourse and believing that history never repeats itself, none of them is able to realise the extent of the event in which they have unwittingly become ensnared.
Puiu is able to reflect the three main topics of Solovyov’s philosophy – economic materialism, abstract Tolstoyan moralism and the hubris of Nietzsche’s nihilism – in all these debates. The only humane soul is Olga, who is attacked from all sides. DoP Tudor Panduru shows the splendour of the environment and the silent servants who keep their masters fed and watered, without a by your leave. The guests hardly touch their elaborate food, because they are more interested in showing off their verbal eloquence. In spite of its lengthy running time, Malmkrog is always engaging: this is radical entertainment, combining philosophy within the gorgeous surroundings of a dying class. AS
BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL 2020 | 20 FEBRUARY – 1 MARCH 2020