Posts Tagged ‘history’

Karelia: Internacional with Monument (2019) *** FID Marseille 2019

Dir.: Andres Duque; Documentary with the Pankatrev family, Katherina Klodt; Spain 2019, 90 min.

Born in Venezuela and now operating from Spain, director/writer Andres Duque (Dress Rehearsal for Utopia) has created a melancholic portrait of the Finnish/(Russian region of Karelia, which has been at the centre of Finnish nationalism – no lesser patriot than Jean Sibelius composed the Karelia Suite, a document of deep sorrow and longing for the lost souls in the battle for control of the region. Duque opens with a long study of a Karelian family, before suddenly switching to contemporary Russian interference in the affairs of the present, caused by the bitter historical past.

Arma and Arkady Pankatrev live with their five children in an idyllic country location, where the children often roam free – like a mix of Rudolf Steiner philosophy and Summerhill (non) schooling. The parents are Shamanists and the children join in the sessions, where old books are read, and everyone is encouraged to free-associate about the magic of paganism. “Tell us, what you see”, Arkday encourages the children, “we are with you”. There is much poetry, like “A flower springs up for some reason”.

Then we learn about the building of the Belomorsk Canal in the late 1930s, and costing many lives, particularly those of the Gulag prisoners. Nikita Khrushchev held a eulogy on Stalin in 1937 – twenty years later he would denounce him as a tyrant. Arkady talks about how the Stalinist destroyed the Orthodox churches. Urjo, one of the young boys, is catching frogs and spiders, at night he holds on to his worms and ants. ”You think like a human”, his mother tells him, implying that animals might be a more developed species.

There is a huge stone memorial for the victims of Sandarmoh: between 1934 and 1941 over 7000 innocent people were killed in the Stalinist purges. “Birds have never sung again in Sandarmoh”. Today this history is being repressed by Putin: Katherina Klodt, the daughter of Yuri Dmitriev, bemoans the trials he has to face, for keeping the memory alive. He is accused of having abused his step daughter, even so the evidence is more than flimsy. Katherina tells an audience that the former acquittals of his father have been squashed. “It started with his speeches in 2014”, she said, when he talked about the many nationalities who suffered, like the Ukrainians. Putin has created a Military Historical Society in December 2012, which is used to cover up genocides by the Soviets.

Whilst Karelia is very informative, the change from the poetic country setting to the nitti-gritty of Putin’s contemporary revisionism is hard to take. They are obviously connected, but the aesthetic clash is rather jarring. AS


Robert the Bruce (2019) ** Edinburgh Film Festival 2019

Dir: Richard Gray | Cast: Angus MacFadyen, Gabriel Bateman, Macaulay Callard, Jared Harris, Zach McGowan | US Drama

Headlining Edinburgh Film Festival’s latest edition this very Scottish saga is unconvincing and lacklustre, and far too ambitious for its limited resources. Directed by the Australian Richard Gray and made in the US it comes hot on the heels of another disappointing exploration of the Hibernian legend of machismo – Outlaw King from last October’s London Film Festival.

Setting itself up as a sequel to the superlative original interpretation of the story, Braveheart starring Mel Gibson, Robert the Bruce is much anticipated, particularly by the Scots. And with Angus MacFadyen in the leading role as the swashbuckling Scottish king – what could go wrong?. The answer is a great deal.  Co-scripter Eric Belgau sets the epic during the interregnum between the death of hero William Wallace and the First War of Scottish Independence. Heavy-handed and decidedly dour this is a film with an overinflated sense of its own importance despite its lack of authenticity and dodgy Scottish accents (due to a largely US cast). A restricted budget and pallid performances across the board further ensure that Robert the Bruce will fall on the sword of its predecessor.

In 1306 the war-weary Robert has been violently attacked by his former henchmen keen to get their hands on the bounty of 50 gold sovereigns offered as a reward for his death by the English King, Edward I. A family of crofters take the injured nobleman turned outlaw under their wing and he sallies forth again keen to avoid further ado with the bounty seekers. But brutal scuffles continue to break out as he goes on his lonely way plagued by doubt and desperate to survive the inclement winter of discontent. Rather than make the best of its indie low budget credentials with a pared down, gritty character study about a beaten down hero, the film tries to channel Braveheart‘s epic quality with a smattering of wide screen set pieces, while the Robert ruminates introspectively with squirrelly speeches about honour and duty.  And that lack of cohesion is ultimately the film’s downfall. MT

EIFF 2019 | 19 -30 JUNE 2019 

Jan Palach (2018) ****

Dir.: Robert Sedlacek; Cast: Victor Zavadi, Denisa Baresova, Zuzana Bydzovska, Kristina Kanatova; Czech Republic 2018, 124 min.

Robert Sedlacek (Rule of Lies) transforms Eva Kanturkova’s concise script into a complex psychological study of the Czech hero and political activist Jan Palach who killed himself in January 1969 in protest of the Soviet invasion of his country in August of the previous year. Palach’s death was a particularly horrific one but director and writer steer away from hagiography, sensationalism or dry political drama to tell the human story exploring the complex personality and motives of the 20-year old student of history and philosophy.

1968 saw students all over the world on the barricades: in Paris, Berlin, Berkeley and Mexico City, where hundreds were shot just before the start of the Olympic Games. In Prague, students were the backbone of the resistance movement against the Soviet tanks, which rolled into Prague ending the Prague Spring of Prime Minister Dubcek, and dragging the country back into soulless, authoritarian Stalinism. The Prague students shared with their counterparts abroad, a love of spontaneous action and a lack of long-term strategy. They also fatally underestimated the powers they opposed. But theirs was not only an uprising against the state, but also against the values of their parent generation. In the case of Jan Palach, the target was his mother Libuse (Bydzovska), who lived in the small town of Vsetaty. She was hardly a staunch supporter of the communist regime, but having seen her husband, an entrepreneur, being punished by the authorities, she towed the line in order to make her son’s life easier. Since Jan’s father was classified as a bourgeois, only his mother’s ‘class-conscious’ behaviour made it possible for him to study at the Charles University of Prague. Whilst Jan was extremely obedient for his age – when he visited with his girl friend Helenka (Baresova), he slept in a separate bed, before Helenka asked him to join her – but deep down he blamed Libuse for her appeasement of the regime; and even the early death of his father, who lost his business and his drive. This did not prevent him from downing a puppy born to his beloved childhood dog Lassie. They could only find homes for the rest of the litter, so he obeyed his mother’s orders. 

Palach, like many of his believers, was more interested in the concept of equality than in a personal relationship with others. Whilst he supported a Russian comrade in a ‘Youth Camp’ in Kazakhstan, who rebelled against the sub-standard food, he felt much safer in groups, uncomfortable with one-to-one relationships. When he went to France to work for a few weeks picking grapes, he cut himself off from his co-workers. Jan always kept a slight distance from Helenka, who suffered from polio; he was more her helper than her lover. And when tempted, he fell easily for the advances of her attractive room mate Eva (Kanatova). Palach neither drunk nor smoked, his attitude was always to adopt the passive-aggressiveness of a martyr. Sedlacek plays this out in a scene where Palach has just been beaten up severely by a security officer in civilian clothes, and is examined by a medical student: Jan seems to revel in his injuries. In his farewell letter he suggests that there are many like him, willing to die by self-immolation, a boast which is untrue. It is much more reasonable to assume that Palach was inspired by Thich Quang Due, the first Buddhist monk who self-immolated in Saigon, and the Polish activist Ryszard Siwiee, who did the same as a protest against the Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia in September 1968. Jan Palach left behind his mother, girl-friends and his studies. He also left a stain on his relatives, friends and fellow students: they felt guilty for not having prevented his suicide, but decided to “wait” for a change, something Jan was not able to countenance. Finally, every suicide is half a murder – in this case a very violent one: proof of the enormous latent anger the young man was concealing behind his unexceptional facade. He was not only the victim of an authoritarian regime, but also of his own, unsolved contradictions. We feel his humanity poignantly, but never is this over-stated in Sedlacek’s treatment.

Victor Zavadi is convincing in the title role, and so is Bydzovska as his mother Libuse. They are likeable characters and decent people. Baresova’s Helenka is very much aware that Jan’s feels pity for her, rather than love or even lust. DoP Jan Suster evokes a bland but classically-styled Prague, the university halls seem uninhabited by the ghost from the past. Vsetaty looks like a bucolic pre-war village, the food supply behind the overriding concern of the day. Overall, this traditionally-styled feature has very much the feel of a Chekhov drama: an intransigent hero, full of great words, but finding no real human contact, until there is only one way out. AS

SCREENED AT THE CZECH EMBASSY | LONDON W11 | January 17th 2019.    


The King’s Choice (2017)

Dir: Erik Poppe | Writers: Harald Rosenlow-Eeg, Jan Trygve Royneland | Cast: Jesper Christensen, Anders Baasmo Christiansen, Karl Markovics | History Biopic | Norway | 133′

Royalty makes a stand against Hitler in this solidly-crafted and deeply humanist Oscar hopeful from Norwegian director Erik Poppe.

Norway’s popular King Haakon VII (a dignified Jesper Christensen) is brought to his knees, quite literally, during three dramatic days in 1940 when he is presented with an unimaginable ultimatum from Nazi Germany: surrender or die. The action revolves during a diplomatic crisis that sees Norway suddenly and unexpectedly plunged into hostilities, despite neutrality and previous good relations with its invaders. The German’s approach, via the Fjords, is announced during Radio reports and telephone exchanges that telegraph Norway’s entrance into the Second World War.

Poppe’s film works both as an intimate portrait of a loving family man, who hailed originally from Denmark, and a rousing and visually stunning WWII epic illuminating a little known episode of Norwegian history. We get a glimpse of the ageing king from all aspects – he would go on to live for another 17 years despite declining health – playing with his grandchildren; dealing with matters of state and even engaging with a young soldier (Private Seeberg/Arthur Hakalahti) on the enemy battle lines. The tension quietly mounts as the Royal family are forced to separate. Haakon and his son, Crown Prince Olav are taken under cover of darkness to refuge, where the king makes his solitary final decision in a coruscating showdown with Karl Markovics’s bristling German envoy. THE KING’S CHOICE is a captivating cinematic adventure, despite its lengthy running time, largely due to impressive handheld camerawork, magnificent snowbound set pieces and the rousing human story at its core. MT


Rey (2017) ****

Dir: Niles Atallah | Biopic Drama | Chile/France | 91′

California-born, Chile-based Niles Atallah’s King (Rey) is a surreal imagined drama with roots in the largely forgotten history of Patagonia and based on the life of the French country lawyer Orélie-Antoine de Tounens (1825-1878), who travelled in 1860 to a remote part of southern Chile, where Mapuche Indians were in fierce battle for survival with Chilean military forces keen on expansion. Mapuche folklore told them to expect a white visitor who would help them  to unite their native Indian population in the region into the new Kingdom of Araucania and Patagonia, and so agreed to make him the hereditary monarch of this realm that is typically accepted as part of Chile and Argentina. The story of how far he got in realising his dreams is shrouded in mystery, but Atallah is not so much interested in facts, but in the mindset of the man who wanted to be King.

Told in five chapters and an epilogue, we first meet de Tounens (Lisboa) riding on horseback through the Patagonian wilderness, holding in his hand a self-made flag: the self-declared King is on the way to meet Mapuche chief Manil, to discuss the foundation of the kingdom. But Manil has died, and his son Quilipan, is not willing to meet Tounens, because he is a white man (winka) and the Gods would be angry if he stayed. Tounens is accompanied by the scout Rosales (Riveros), who soon betrays him to the Chilean authorities. Imprisoned, Tounens is put on trail; in the courtroom, everyone is wearing a mask. Tounens is accused of plotting the overthrow of the Chilean government with the help of France, supported by his fellow countrymen Lachaise and Desfontaines, who are “ministers’ in his cabinet. Threatened with the death penalty, Tounens is finally deported to France.

Atallah asks the question: why would a rather ordinary man from the Dordogne want to become the monarch of a wild region of South America? During his research, Atallah discovered how Tounens had promised the government in Paris a new colony, called “New France”, three times the size of the motherland, and full of mineral wealth. Yet to the director this is only part of the story, because nobody recorded the tale from the Mapuche’s perspective. Even today, along with the other indigenous inhabitants, the Mapuche don’t feel like being part of Chile or Argentina; they are discriminated against, and live in fear of the authorities.

Atallah has created the fictional aspect of history re-told in his own way: in 2011 he buried the film stock of 35mm, 16 mm and Super Eight in his garden, to see for himself what history does to film. Furthermore, he used stop-motion and puppetry in the deliriously feverish passages of his feature; on top, images are scratched and disfigured to give the feature the historic quality he was aiming for. Somehow reminiscent of the work of Guy Maddin, along with Eraserhead, Aguirre and Zama, Rey is inventively creative: a nightmare vision of history with a protagonist who created his own apocalypse. AS

PRINCE ANTOINE IV, the latest heir and pretender to the throne of Araucania and Patagonia died on December 16, 2017 aged 75. 



Maidan (2014) | DVD | Blu release

Maidan 3D DVDDir.: Sergei Loznitsa; Documentary; Netherlands/Ukraine 2014, 133 min.

After his impressive feature films MY JOY and IN THE FOG  Sergei Loznitsa returns to documentary filmmaking with MAIDAN. Even though he captures a historical event – the removal of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych from power – viewers might mistake MAIDAN for a well-directed feature, shot in the style of Eisenstein.

In November 2013 Yanukovych declined to sign an agreement for Ukraine’s associate membership with the European Union, obviously under pressure from Russia. Nationalist protesters started gathering around Maidan Square (Maidan roughly translates into “independence”). At first the mass meetings were peaceful but they escalated in January 2014 into fighting after the introduction of a law to curb the activities of the ever-growing number of protesters. Only one month later, after over hundred nationalist protesters had died, Yanukovych fled the country, leading the way to new elections. The rest is history still in the making.

MAIDAN is shot with a static camera (just one movement, caused by teargas, when the cameraman had to flee), a small number of inter-titles give sparse information, no interviews, just crowd scenes, and mostly off-screen speeches and poetry readings. Loznitsa really has taken his Eisenstein to heart: the crowd is everything. He frames their milling around; their running; the panic; the singing and the eating and drinking. The majority of them are middle-aged or even older citizens, grey is definitely the dominant hair colour. They sing anthems and other traditional songs with gusto, unashamed nationalism pores out. Somehow it feels like a delayed settlement with Russia  because these men and women must have marched in countless Stalinist rituals on the same square. Yes, their nationalism is over-the-top, the involvement of the church leaders perhaps not that appropriate, the invocation of the “Cosack” nation leaves a rather nasty taste – but at no point does Loznitsa succumb to agitation: his painterly style shows us pure emotion whatever the historical background. In his detachment, Loznitsa iis more interested in small details of the ad-hoc organisation, in near still images of people gathering to eat, creating a commune-like feeling in the first part of the documentary.

MAIDAN is, ironically, a triumph of soviet documentary style. But this is not old-fashioned, because the protesters are, for the most part, not the young angry crowd of the Arab spring and other recent uprisings but citizens whose memories go back a long time, and their anger is not just a spur of the moment, but the result of decades of Russian domination. Their cringing nationalism and the huge presence of Russians in the Ukraine, which might lead to a partition of the country, is another issue. But, in the true style of Eisenstein, Loznitsa has captured the will of the people, with all their emotional might. We should not begrudge them this moment of triumph, because they might have to pay for it with the loss of large parts of their country. AS



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