Monday, November 3, 2014

Les Salauds (Bastards) - dir. Claire Denis (2013)

 

One man's rigorouse sparseness is another's willful obscurity, so whether you find Denis’ penchant for withholding information revelatory or confusing will depend on your tolerance for the crepuscular. Les Salauds feels like the memory of a dream episode, and any attempt to recapitulate it must do it violence. Narrative abstraction makes Denis a great artist, but ineffective as a story-teller. She is too intent on hiding information to generate sequentially ordered plot-points accessible to ordinary mortals. As intriguing as her expectedly enigmatic foray into the crime genre is, her entropic approach threatens to eclipse the drama  emplotted. Putting her signature cryptic style on the proceedings like a strangle-hold yields the envisioned obscurity while frustrating our (boring) need for a minimum of disclosive clarity. Her diegetic parsimony may signal a lack of confidence in her ability to involve viewers without hypnotizing them into complete, uncomprehending submission. Having been confounded by Les Salauds' singular opacity, it remains an open question whether her eschewal of ready understanding is a mater of artistic principle (a reflection of the mysteriousness of existence) or simply an indication of incompetence.



I intend to revisit Denis' film, less to figure out the plot (which would go against her intention) than to immerse myself in its darkly claustrophobic pulse knowing what not to expect. Technically no one should essay a review after a single viewing. The point of view of trying to understand a story has the validity of all exploratory efforts, but it is nonetheless biased precisely by the need to piece together the evidence--the 'indications of reality.' The end of criticism may be to distill one's considered bias toward a film, but reviewing out of frustration inevitably puts one's interest in seeing a mystery resolved before the merits of the film as a totality. Such an approach instrumentalizes the work as a means to the satisfaction of solving a puzzle, whether or not it wants to be solved. 

Sage advise for any reviewer of a Denis film would be to disregard their interest in plot altogether. But the default orientation of first-time viewing probably cannot transcend such interest, which is, after all, just the interest in seeing what happens; following the unfoldings against a horizon of anticipated full disclosure with all its moral implications. Denis does not provide mystery resolving cadential closings. The whole point of the oneiric-perceptual aesthetic is to disallow claritive closure. The problem with that is that if one can't figure the plot out, there's nothing to resolve, just "one damn thing after another." What you get is cinema not as moral-instructive institution but as accessory to a crime. We're only expected to watch, stupefied, and to relish our stupefaction.

As a contemporary practitioner of the perceptual revolution introduced by Antonioni (a focus on events rather than plot points), Denis carries on in that modernist tradition. It is self-defeating to disregard the rules of that convention, which obstructs judgment by foregrounding the witness function. Feeling mostly defeated is how people are meant to emerge from Les Salauds!



Like many of the verité generation, Denis elides all clarifying distance between spectator and scenario. She unfolds the narrative from a first-person orientation whose privilege is one with its restrictiveness, dropping hints, but no more. If you don’t get the import of a scene, you probably don’t deserve to. Subtle-sublime elusiveness marks the mysteries only people of veritable psychic ability are able to discern. The rest can go watch Hitchcock.




Denis' will to immersive confusion negates over-sight and contextualization. It is achieved by framing and ellipsis. Right from the start we are sitting complicitly on the shoulders of characters we've never been properly introduced to. Tight close-ups annul our attempts to situate events in a recognizable social context. The lack of establishing shots, an example of spatial ellipsis, is another way of hiding information to impede comprehension and rob us of
super-ordinated insight. We are supposed to be dreaming, not gaining insight. Given that, my criticism of her want of expository panache may lack a target.

No need for a spoilers alert here! Denis' film will not enable a perspective that subsumes the subject-matter it emplots. It negates thought in favor of sensation. To spell out Denis’ transcendental-oneiric mysteries would be vulgar. Luckily, there is just enough of what isn't nothing to entice and entrap us. Just don't expect to be released from the snare. 



A big spot of incandescence is Vincent Landon, one of France’s preeminent contemporary male actors who somehow managed to become famous without looking like a zombie (Mathieu Amalric), a bedraggled scarecrow (Daniel Autueil), or a portly modern-day de Bergerac with bad skin (Depardieu). He may not be the picture of youth, but one can believe him as a tough-guy precisely because one senses the heart of a dreamer. And those eyes! If God had them they would be like Lindon’s—dopey-wise, compassionate, and infinitely triste. Eyes that convey everything one can ask of eyes, in striking contrasting to his slip of a mouth—taciturn-bitter, suppressing unspoken passions. Not least of all, one can watch him in a sex scene without shocked incredulity or the involuntary triggering of one’s gag-reflex. He freezes-up to project blankness, activates tender solicitude, and combusts explosive rage with palpable conviction.

Why People Like Vertigo so Much 

Because they love intrigue (while concommitantly, hating the obvious) and nothing intrigues like a sequence of ambiguous events and misinterpreted intentions. People love trying to get to the bottom of things; to follow the trail of clues en route to final illumination. Film directors, and Hitchcock paradigmaticaly, oblige the desire for the half-lit by withholding, eliding, deferring and generally obstructing insight. When parts finally fit into a whole and plot strands coalesce in an intelligible pattern, the hidden order of the universe is miraculously restored. People love to be entrapped, provided the trap gets sprung in the fullness of time. Yet some film riddles resist the satisfaction of final resolution, even if we do more or less figure out the skein of motivations informing them. Vertigo is one of them. People love Vertigo because it's an enduring mystery in love with its own mysteriousness. 



They love it because its exemplifies the oneiric transformation of time, weaving past present and future in a mytho-poetic potentiation of simple linear sequentiality. Because it enacts the archetypal drama of man and woman from the male perspective, displaying the female as the unfathomable, enigmatic tease, the primordial trap, the ‘helpless’ snare. To whatever lengths Hitchcock goes to depict his Woman as the victim of her own delusions subsequently forced into impersonating whom she really is (or ought to be), the viewer recognizes the praying Mantis going about her business. In this regard choosing Novak, whose epic falsehood is so obvious, to embody the female reflected in the male, works to transmit the latent moral valence of dissimulation 'in stereo.' She expertly pulls off the hollowness at the center of the project of striving to resemble, to embody, a projected image. 

The endeavor to appear, someone once observed, is the striving of ghosts. Here it coalesces with Novak's striving to act natural as the mysterious cipher. Our reflecting light has to be trained just so lest her vision evaporate into the nothingness of mere pretending.

This is Hitchcock's final word on male-female interfacing: the female as dissembling semblance (altogether "vain"), the male as unwitting visionary and transformer. But lest one conclude that he was just another misogynist, recall that all genuine hatred springs from helplessness. His emplotment of Woman is neither a celebration nor an evisceration--it is an exorcism.   



Kim Novak reminds me of an Oldsmobile 98 attempting to maneuver through narrow European streets. She make it through, but there is a sense that disaster has been narrowly avoided. She never hits her marks without transmitting her well-thought-out preparation in the process. Her job was definitely simplified by the fact that she had to convey diffuseness, for which her thespian faculties mostly suffice. Or would have had she had the ability to forget, even for a milli-second, that she was in broadcast mode. To her credit, she models her evolving series of modish coiffeurs on par with the most accomplished mannequin.

Barbara bel Geddes sports a new nose, the fleshier aquiline proboscis of old now suitably curtailed to correspond to the pert proto-nose of mid-Century American mainstream tastes. Her temperament is correspondingly sassy yet resourceful as the advertising pragmatic cheering Stewart on to confront his phobia of dangling from gutters.

Stewart's Scottie gets sucked into the web of intrigue through no fault of his own. Besides being the wounded (enfeebled) warrior, he is the entangled innocent drawn into the web of faux-femalia--read as the interference pattern created by the collision of two pathic individuals. Hitchcock orchestrates the progressively more layered tale of intrigue around the equivocations of the Female’s labyrinthian surprises as Scottie's literal professional business. But on the surface of the film (= its symbolic depth) he remains, as host of an obsession, Madeleine's hapless prey. The most judicious characterization of their entanglement would probably be as a sad symbiosis of souls.



Vertigo is beloved in no small part because it holds fast a moment in history before feminism toppled the male ego from its hegemonic cultural perch; a moment when artifice and vulgarity ruled without any sense of shame, and America’s automobiles, skyscrapers and brasiers were the envy of the world. 

Oh, and because of Hitchcock's supreme mastery of pacing, narrative, and atmosphere. 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Innocents - Jack Clayton (1961)

 

‘Magical’ is highest accolade. Few films deserve it as much as Jack Clayton’s The Innocents. Based on Truman Capote & William Archibald's adapted screenplay of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screwthis late example of the classical era of film, majestically and somewhat incongruously mounted in the new technology of panoramic cinemascope, breaths the air of ageless youth. From its first frames to its hysteric denouement a cadence of andantic assurredness conveys us through the dream-like labyrinth of English Gothic psycho-drama. Yet at it's core Clayton's film is less about ghosts than the seduction of age by innocence. Albeit an innocence strangely knowing, and age unmarked by time's passage.


Megs Jenkins (Mrs. Grose) makes an effective and resonant foil for Deborah Kerr (Miss Giddens), whose acting seems perfectly calibrated for the intimate medium of film. This is important considering she is the focal point of every scene and we experience the mansion and its denizens through her perspective. 

The easy confidence of the exchanges between Miss Giddens, cheeky Master Miles (Martin Stephens) and gracious Flora (Pamela Franklin) renders the presence of the absent--this is a ghosting tale, after all--genuinely disturbing. The spectral dimension never feels extraneous, yet for all its eeriness it amounts to something like a surplus of significance next to the genteel sophistication of the main characters'  rapport. Their interactions account in large part for the enduring freshness and interest of Clayton's film. 

In the context of 21st Century manners, the mores of the Victorian mind-set, which British cinema has always been most adept at distilling, seem as other-worldly as the spirits haunting the Essex country estate--a form of historical science-fiction that grows more intriguingly 'other' with every viewing. 


Beside Freddie Francis’s stunning black and white cinematography and the bizarrely resonant performances, the audio dimension of The Innocents especially stands outIt's so distinctive one can imagine it completely absorbing a blind person's attention. The most complete films can hold their own as radio plays. Georges Auric’s atmospheric scoring, the lilt of the English dialogue, the little repeating melody O Willow Waly, and the echo effects of the mansion heighten the sense of irreality. Auditory augmentation is the special province of the horror genre; no other so relies upon and exploits the tonal dimension to unveil the essential mysteriousness of existence. 


Mile's insouciant grown-up teasing and provocatively knowing glances are both  sweet and strangely off-putting--a simultaneity of discordant emotions that exemplifies the ambivalence characteristic of consummate dramatic art. All genuinely intriguing embodiments of behavior evince this flickering of incommensurable valences. No wonder Miss Giddens suspects her charges are privy to the realm of departed spirits--the former care-takers Quint and Miss Jessel. She seems almost aroused by the force stirring within them. Miles's teasing evokes the erotic attachment of mothers and sons--in equal parts dimly intuited and fearfully sensed stirrings. Both point to the primordial, unknowable, and uncontrollable.

Reciting his poem (“What shall I sing to my lord from my window...”) while holding a candle and wearing a crown at an impromptu evening of entertainment, Miles enchants Miss Giddens to the point of stupefaction. I myself was dumbstruck by his precociously earnest display of lyrical possession. Poems themselves, of course, claim to be, among other things, re-presencings of the absent. Here a recitation serves as the vehicle of a haunting as bewitching as any ghost's filtering-through the night. It's impossible to feel oneself outside of this film and its characters at any point, thanks to the enveloping effect of the cinematography and the intimacy of the acting, but in this sequence we seem to enter the inner sanctum of sorcery itself. Miles' will-to-beguile culminates in his own version of revelation, one proclaiming that the spirit realm magic--and art--rule, is realest of the real. His trance-like invocation of the supernatural--the presence of what is absent, viz, his "lord"--is every poet-sorcerer's dream of re-presentation fulfilled


With his somnambulist recitation Miles conjures the banished patriarchal order into the context of his governess and maid's gynocratic governance. Beguiled by his uncanny eloquence and other-worldly demeanor, Miss Giddens momentarily submits to the confounding force channeling itself through him before reflexively and defensively recoiling in disbelief. The triumph of his grown-up authority finally confirms her suspicion that all cannot be right with Miles, while showing up the limits of her own grip on things. The scene represents her seduction, and by extension, the seduction of all mothers by their sons. No other scene in cinema approximates to the power with which Clayton accomplishes this conquest. Uncoincidentally it takes place in a film in which the disembodied channel themselves through their unwitting present day hosts.  

What makes Clayton's film so formally satisfying is the objectivity of his framing and his refusal to inject sensationalism via camera-movement or obtuse perspectives (though there are some breathtaking vertical shots). In other words, his classicism. Yet while his film-aesthetic is classically balanced, the film's thematic blossoms into a feverish romanticism to end on a note of rhapsodic transport.


Priest (1995) by Antonia Bird 

In which an attractive Catholic priest newly assigned to a parish finds his idealism (to wit: illusions) colliding with the church’s compromises and hypocrisy while becoming aware of his own forbidden homo-erotic longings.



Based on a story about as fraught with meaning and conflict as is conceivable--more than than we have a right to expect even of a melodrama--Antonia Bird's Priest packs a wallop that leaves one emotionally raw. It may be a very good rather than a truly great film (a circumstance I will attempt to account for below), but ultimately its value as a distillation of enduringly relevant themes outweighs its formal short-comings. Bird's courageous treatment of a fraught subject matter guarantees the film continued relevance.  

I was shattered by Bird's film on my initial viewing, which came during a period when being shattered at the cinema [thanks to films like Tavernier’s Béatrice, Téchiné’s Wild Reeds, August's Pelle the Conqueror, von Trier's Europa, and Rohmer's L'Ami de mon Ami] was a regular occurrence. I wouldn't hesitate to call it one of the most significant films of its decade, and certainly the most unflinching film ever made about the Catholic church's central thematic--if not by intention, by the accidents of history--: the love of man for man in all his valences. 

The script touches upon fundamental issues faced by modern faith communities. Beside the specifically Catholic dilemma of whether celibacy is God’s will, there are the questions of what a religious vocation constitutes; under what circumstances one is permitted to break the seal of the confessional; by whose power the church excludes; how far the authority of the institution extends into congregants' lives; in whose name and to what end it is served; what sin, loyalty, justice, and forgiveness signify, etc. A veritable smorgasbord of issues. The fact that it embroiders this quilt of issues with the thread of homoerotic desire ought to be enough to to get it banned. Its truth is blasphemous and unforgivable. (Rather like Christ himself in his day, come to think of...)


The film isn't equal to the depths evoked--and it would be foolish to expect it to be as only a dissertation or novel could adequately address the themes in play. It is the nature of the cinematic beast that it must unfold intellectual conflict as a series of dramatic episodes. Priest has the merits of an exceptionally powerful British television drama. Since that alone puts it head and shoulders over the vast majority of psycho-dramas produced as feature films, it seems niggardly to withhold the final half star. Put it down to my focus on style, a focus central to critical evaluation but mostly irrelevant to the 'moral of the story,' and if Priest is emblematic of anything it is the tradition of the ethical focus of the English novel.

Priest's shortcoming lies not in the performances, which are uniformly as good as they need to be, but its cadence. The impact of numerous scenes is undermined by sudden cuts away, as when Greg walks off into the countryside with his bicycle. To yield their maximal significance shots need to be held. If there is no slackening of tension it’s hard to sustain must less augment interest. Just as an over-stimulating personality, a hypo-manic film induces withdrawal, while a self-contained one draws us into it. Great film-makers know how exploit our desire to be absorbed by withholding information, the practice of diegetic entropy.  

So leaving aside the questionable selection of music, the basic shortcoming of Priest is the pace: the film seems at times to race through (or past) its plot-points, undermining our ability to take up residence in the interiors, landscapes and emotional states inhabited by the characters. It is, perhaps too much in the head and not enough in the body, a circumstance that invites contrastive comparison with Claire Denis' resolutely anti-expository mis-en-scène. The Andante pace was likely suggested by the amount of character needing development, and the fact of the inherently ideological/intellectual nature of the conflict dramatized, which necessitated a lot of dialogue. In film such development does not occur in privileged first-person narrative but through incident. 
We must be given time to absorb the import of developing events, a process augmented only if the momentum is allowed to abate periodically. The ideal cadence increases gravity by reducing mobility, allowing events to resonate in such a way as to implicate us in the proceedings rather than leaving looking in from outside the vortex. (To be made aware of one's spectatorship always indicates a failure of absorption.) The point of character driven drama is to transport us out of the role of the spectator and into the characters'--our alter-selves'--suffering. 

During the initial viewing when we're trying to figure out what happens to whom, the unstinting momentum serves that interest, but it short-changes one who returns to immerse himself in Priest's characters and atmosphere, which turn out to be only sort of 'there.' In her desire to be 'in your face' politically, to be iconoclastic and provocative, Bird seemed prepared to sacrifice nuances of character. It would have benefited from letting us get closer to the ordinariness of its personages, but this is only possible up to a point in a feature film. Priest could easily have been a two-part Masterpiece Theater production without exhausting its themes. 


That being said, what strikes one on second or third viewings may melt into insignificance on the fourth, whence the perspectival and tentative nature of this review and reviewing generally. If one never steps into the same river twice, how could one be expected to do so with film unspooling at 24 frames a second?

Excursus:

Great acting does not a great film make. Greatness arises out of the happy convergence of sundry elements of the film-maker’s craft. In addition to the fortuities of location, casting and degree of thespian accomplishment, film style emerges from of the interplay of cinematography, editing, and scoring (the audio dimension in general). Cinema is a Gesamtkunstwerk--totality in which every element co-determines the effectiveness of the other. I like to conceive of styles as ranging from minimal to maximal, a distinction which in no way corresponds to that between the artless and the artful. One can err on the side of stylistic poverty as well as stylistic excess. It is a supreme achievement of any art to conceal itself. A barrage of stylistic devices, on the other hand, tends to impress principally as a barbaric and tasteless over-determination of content. There are great examples of cinematic art at both ends of the spectrum. Both the use of flash-montage and hand-held camerawork at one extreme, and the aversion to cutting evinced by “slow cinema” at the other, constitute excesses of style that call attention to themselves rather than serving primarily the emplotment of a story. I associate any extreme with youth, which is constitutionally romantic and eager to impress. It is generally fairly easy to distinguish styles geared to impress from styles determined to erase any trace of style. The distinction partially corresponds to those techniques that raise the temperature of a film and those that lower it. One's preference for one or other convention is a question of age and temperament. 

Just as a Largo movement is ‘deeper’ than an Andante or Scherzo, a deliberately paced film gains the most traction in the least manipulative way, affectively speaking. It determines the depth of the groove into which one's attentional needle drops to drag along, so to speak. The editing of a film doesn't have to be a dazzling display or completely seamless. The conspicuousness of editing may reflect both a shortcoming on the editor's part and the cultivated awareness of the critic. A discerning body will detect what is effective, though it may also resist being manipulated to feel a particular emotion. (It's complicated!)

The amount of cutting doesn’t stand in any symmetrical relation to whether a film is fast-paced or contemplative. A fast-paced action sequence shot in a single take will still be experienced as a Scherzo, while a long drawn out conversation chopped up into shot/counter-shot will retain its amplitude (and possible longuer). Though these examples that may also constitute exceptions to the rule (viz, that single takes augment amplitude and therewith decelerate momentum while discontinuous montage, as the name suggests, accelerates the sense of forward momentum by contrastive means.) A preference for the long take indicates a reluctance to be forced into seeing confrontation by purely formal means. In other words, a preference for ambiguity, continuity, and holism (totality). 



If the criterion of stylistic maximalism (most of Orson Welles' films of the 40's and 50's, all of Godard and Hitchcock) were the measure of cinematic greatness, a lot of classical cinema [early Preminger, the works of Wyler, Besson, Ozon] would be out of the running. My own preference is for technique that does not call attention to itself. Kazan's America, America also comes to mind as an example of the exuberant maximalism that makes one forget the point of what one is watching.

I'm not suggesting cinematic maximalism is an exact concept or that it excludes either greatness or films I personally love. The case of Sergio Leone is a sublime exception to the rule, his Once Upon a Time films being in many ways the apotheosis of cinema qua Gesamtkunstwerk. 

Eisenstein observed that montage is the "nerve of cinema." And that "to determine the nature of montage is to solve the specific problem of cinema." I accept those observations as axiomatic. But if montage generates conflict, it does so, as Bazin notes, by manipulating film sequences and the viewer's perception. There is something at once dazzling/captivating and deeply off-putting about rapid montage sequences. Like hand-held camera-work, it is the technique that allows for the least amount of reflection. This makes it the most cinematic and least novelistic aspect of cinematic style

Psycho-drama is the instance of maximal codetermination of character development and plot. As such, it’s the most perfectly satisfying kind of film for adults. 

There isn’t enough consideration given to the comings and goings of people in the real world in Priest. We are sort of plopped down in the middle of things. It is a film about ideas told in the style of a thriller. There are no formal introductions to places and people, though there are establishment shots. They just appear. The film is blunt and self-consciously in-your-face. As it moves into its concluding 15 minutes there's a noticeable relenting of the forward momentum. Greg’s stay in the country with Father Matthew is a little eddy in the torrent of conflicts and confrontations. A moment of coming to terms. The heart of great melodrama is as much about re-acting as about taking action, and here we are given an opportunity to immerse ourselves in the dilemma faced by both priests. It is a welcome respite. 


In conclusion, my reservations are largely but not merely formal. Form is content, after all. As any work of art, a film must make an impression and can do so only by selecting some aspect of the world from a particular angle--thereby creating structure. A shortfall in the how of a film cannot but impact its what. However, Priest may be seen as a thematically over-loaded film whose construction, perhaps fittingly and by a necessary constraint, is 'merely' functional. But both of these considerations pale to insignificance in light of the tour de force this drama of tortured consciences unleashes upon us.
 

Schindler’s List - Spielberg (1993)

 

Schindler’s List, which might have been called Schindler’s Memorial, would have benefited from some old-school studio intervention. Spielberg wasn't going for an edge-of-your seat thriller but something between an action-packed biopic and a period drama with an epilogue, so the observation that he allows the punch of the film, which is considerable, to dissipate in the solemn commemorative festivities that conclude it, is somewhat gratuitous, if not disrespectful. It nonetheless points to a flaw of the work as an aesthetic totality. The documentary style present-day homage feels tacked-on, like a special feature incorporated into the body of the film. You can't append a sermon to a drama, even a wordless sermon to a fact-based world-historical tragedy, and avoid tendentiousness. Especially when the film itself includes an explicitly stated moral in the form of a speech from the mouth of its eponymous 'hero.' Spielberg's humanitarian gesture thus constitutes a dual violation--it detracts from the film's formal dramatic integrity and the genuine solemnity of honoring extermination victims

But lest I dissuade anyone from seeing the film: rest assured, there is plenty of killing. The victims, for the most part, are Jews who find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong historical hour facing resolutely eliminative Nazis. The hokum with the tribute doesn't detract from the power of the film that precedes it. Spielberg's emplotment of the annihilation of the Continent's ill-fated Jews, carried out with casual efficiency--not to mention beauty--makes Schindler’s List an instant, if not seminal, classic. It's originality outside the context of its prototypes--Jakubowska's The Last Stage (1947), Pentecorvo's Kapo (1959)--is easily overstated, but it's iconography of Holocaust horrors is unique.



There isn't any actual shooting until forty minutes into the film, which is remarkable considering it's reputation as an endless series of artfully staged executions. The wait is well-calibrated for optimal effect, though the actual sequence feels almost like a slight-of-hand. Its matter-of-fact precision and great visual beauty are noteworthy, so don't blink at the wrong moment. 

In it the figure of an old man--the one-armed man Stern managed to have transferred to Schindler's workforce at the eleventh hour--is framed by columns of ghetto residents clearing the street in zoom. He stands slumped over facing a wall between two implacable SS officers as shovel-fulls of snow are thrown left and right, briefly obscuring our view. Culled from the line of workers for his want of productivity (assuming his selection wasn't pure caprice), the man points out his special status but makes no further appeal for mercy, standing frozen where his over-seers have positioned him. Having for all purposes already exited the world of humanity, his execution is a mere formality.



The conscripted Jews assiduously apply themselves to shoveling. When two siblings pear in the direction of the three men their mother, attempting to redirect their curiosity, exhorts them to ‘look at the snow!' In deep focus one officer stands imperiously just behind the old man, his pistol-wielding arm stretched out in the direction of his head. Snow is flying across the screen as the shot is fired. A dot of white signaling the bullet’s ejection is answered by what looks like black ink shooting out of the man’s head just before his body sinks to the ground like a wet sheet from a cloths-line. It's a kinesthetic marvel in a film replete with masterful visuals. 

Cut to Schindler in an office decrying the loss of work-force and demanding compensation. Then back to the old man lying face-up, slowly imbuing the snow with his blood.

Spielberg himself makes no attempt to spell out what made killing Jews irresistible to Deaths' Head functionaries. It suffices that the perpetrators of the slaughter are there--as ciphers of Pure Evil. His film focuses instead on explaining why a man, untouched by eliminationist zeal, would go out of his way to throw a monkey wrench in the orderly process of ethnic cleansing. Though it's made quite clear that Schindler’s motivation was largely economic. Or in some perhaps ungaugable proportion moral and economic. 

The night-time arrival of a train in Aushwitz, with people descending into the bowels of the crematoria as snow falls and the chimneys glow, throwing up clouds of glowing ash, is unforgettable. On repeat viewing I discovered that my memory had assembled a single master-shot of the sequence that exists on film only as separate shots of the various elements. A fact for which I credit the magic of film-construction (editing) rather than the resourcefulness of my memory. The two work in tandem to create such totalizations, a fact that perfectly illustrates the synergy of spontaneity and convention at the assimmilative end of artistic creation.

It is during this scene that the disparity between a formal, shot-analytic (aesthetic) approach to the horror of the Holocaust becomes conspicuous. One could of course just acknowledge that the spectacle of mass extermination has its own distinct beauty qua mounted visual production, but then one must also accept that the aesthetic point-of-view, as either pre- or post-moral, over-rides the moral. This displacement is precisely what the taboo against cinematic treatments of the holocaust was concerned to obviate. The visual-auditory perspective's pleasures are beyond the morally crucial disjunction of good vs. evil. Not because it is cynical or immoral, but because it is abstractive; it brings to bear the same power of concentration (focus/ selection and therewith omission/elimination) informing both the artist's construction and, here, the act (art) of making entire communities disappear.  



Has Spielberg put this dilemma to rest? has he vindicated the capacity of the medium of cinema to 'mount' the Holocaust in such a manner as not to dishonor or trivialize the memory of its victims? Perhaps. I'm not certain, but at least I am not convinced that he has traduced that memory. It is his prerogative and perhaps even his duty as an artist to conceive the inconceivable. For is there not a danger comparable to misconceiving the inconceivable? namely to mythologize as irreducibly unique the brutalization of Jews during the Holocaust? to institutionalize it as untouchable and sacred?

The film celebrates lighting effects, of which it is a kind of compendium. One obvious example: the panning beam that illuminates Goeth’s villa in the background while Schindler and Stern negotiate. Some of the indoor shots are elaborately lit with all the nuance of German expressionist aesthetic adopted by so-called film noir cinematography, with figures obviously standing in spot-lights that have no source in the "actual" locations the occupy. The high-contrast luminescence flattens features and obliterats detail. 

The zoom lensing during Schindler’s hill-top epiphany evokes the documentary feel of films like The Battle of Algiers, with its epic crowd scenes. I was frequently reminded of Toland’s use of ceilings to frame his figures. A rather mannered approach, but then Kane was the brain-child of one of cinema’s most turgid over-the-toppers (stylistic maximalists). There is a shot in the sewers that looks like a wide-screen version of the famous sequence in The Third Man. Near the end there are a couple of miraculous shots of snow-covered rural wonderlands traversed by a smoke-spewing locomotive that call to mind the conclusion of Grand Illusion. Not just a work of remembrance and a gesture of tribal solidarity, Schindler’s List, in its black & white neue Sachlichkeit, is a magisterial homage to the art of cinematography. 

The duality of light and dark enforces moral clarity. Or at least--the polarity that informs a dualistic version of the world riven by the forces of good and evil. A vision which, in its Judaic embodiment, is inseparable from the dialectic of obedience and transgression, repentance and forgiveness. It is a tribute to his post-dualistic appreciation of the grey zone that mediates and complicates simple oppositions that the portrait of Schindler emerges as ambiguously as it does. The portrait of an opportunistic profiteer and well-nigh unwitting humanitarian who embraces his philanthropic potential almost as an after-thought. But the bottom line is that lives set for extinction are saved, and that fact strikes us as miraculous. No wonder his beneficiaries were moved to pay solemn tribute, leavened though it must be with a portion of bitterness. 

During he evacuation of the ghetto a father obstructs the line of fire of an SS man attempting to shoot his fleeing son only to be shot down himself to blood-curdling and horrific effect. It is the first time in the film when I felt over-taxed by the excess of violence, though the frisson that surged through me was as much a response to the formal brilliance of this wallop-packing sequence as to the abrupt brutality of the SS man’s "order-keeping." A dovetailing of executions (literal and formal) that will only seem problematical to men of conscience (those who should pen sermons, not write about art).

The cinema-vérité approach is perfect in such instances, canceling any distance between audience, perpetrator and victim. It was intended for precisely such moments of heightened immediacy, acting as a kind of exclamation point. The default use of this technique, where every sequence is rendered to significance-heightening effect, is arch, hysterical and mannered. Thankfully, it is a mannerism Spielberg avoids. 

As for the cast, Kingsley just looks too jewish, while Liam Nesson resembles a hapless bear and has difficulty conveying a believable level of callousness. Fiennes a bloated fairy-prince who appeals to pre-pubescent girls, is a bit too delicate to portray the colossal Goeth. He does manage to convey the appropriate malice, progressively modulated by a sense of compassion inspired by his friendship with Schindler, who informs him that real power resides in refraining from the gratuitous violence to which the situation of the work-camp tempts some. It's enough to make him question his proclivity to randomly torment and shoot Plaszow inmates. Though not to the point of canceling his need to randomly pick them off from his perch above the campground. Besides his spell of clemency we don’t get any sense of his ideals as a person (Goeth can be seen hailing his Leader seconds before a chair is kicked out from under him in archival footage of his execution). Instead, the film shows us a man who is clearly insane. 

There is one brilliant sequence which plays with our expectations of moral regeneration that I can’t praise enough. Having pardoned a young servant for using soap instead of lye in his bathtub, Goeth sends him away. The boy descends from the villa while Goeth in close-up stands scrutinizing his dark reflection in a mirror. He raises two fingers in a Christ-like gesture and in mesmerized incantation announces, “I...pardon you.” As if he were trying on the part of pardoning judge to gauge it's potential to empower before reverting to the baser but more accessible thrill of playing executioner. Cut to the boy at the bottom of the flight of stairs as he proceeds across the camp grounds. Then back to Goeth; his faux-transcendent moment dissolving back to the here and now as he examines his fingers for what appears to be an irritating spar. He looks pensively up in the direction of the youth. Shots are fired. The youth pauses briefly, casting a glance in the direction of the villa before continuing on his way. Just then Stern passes. In a tracking shot we now follow him as he overtakes the youth lying face-down in the dirt. Cut to an extreme close-up of Goeth’s hands being manicured by his Jewish servant and love-interest. The scene ends on a close-up of Goeth looking almost innocent. He is in love. 

We have come a long way since Adorno’s post-war exhortation that to write poetry after Aushwitz would be barbarous. Evil seems less and less ineffable these days. It has been on the tip of cinema’s tongue with increasing sang-froid since the early days of crime & detective stories shot in German expressionist style. Now we have finally advanced into the inner sanctum of the holocaust itself--the "Brausebad"). In Schindler’s List we are led in with the huddling masses covering their nakedness in a modern-day expulsion from paradise, expect that paradise is here life per se.  They wail and moan awaiting a fate no one ever quite believed, even at the 11th hour, a human mind could dream up. A "final solution" with no exit, beyond mercy.

But this is Hollywood,  so rather than Xyclon-B, actual water streams down out of the shower-heads, to the ecstatic relief of all and sundry. For this group of Schindler Jews the end-of-the-road has not yet come. They really are being disinfected. However historically accurate the scene may be, it feels like the kind of vicarious collective miracle cinema’s miracle-workers strive to produce. The fact that it is staged with such sweeping gestures and swelling chords makes it all the more effective--and, strangely, offensive.    

This film might have ended less tendentiously had Spielberg saved his commemoration for an extra features of a DVD release. As it is, he has made a masterful film with an epilogue that seems tacked-on, and sanctimoniously manipulative. What made this film exceptional was the relative absence of sentimentality, so its implementation at the end seems like the return of the repressed, and it returns with a vengeance. Granted, there are notable lapses in the rest of the film, mostly pertaining to the scoring (the children’s choir during the liquidation of the ghetto; a chorus and soaring strings accompanying the exhumation and burning of corpses at Chujow Gorka, etc.). They would be less objectionable in the absence of Schindler’s indulgent, self-reproach filled speech and the grave-site tribute of modern day survivors. The film already had enough pensive self-reflective moments slowing things down (viz. the drinking scene with Stern). It is as if Spielberg could not leave well enough alone and felt compelled to spell out what should have been left to the viewer’s imagination. Such explicitness does not make the film any more moral, just more formally commemorative.

As it is a film that matter-of-factly emplots the systematic depersonalization and destruction of persons and goes to great lengths to show Schindler in all his pragmatic fallibility, ends with a paean to character. And instead of returning home in a state of shocked outrage, we leave the theater with a sense of surfeit, a fact that would be forgivable were final impressions not so crucial to a film’s legacy. 

As descendant of the Tätervolk I feel the shame of the perpetrators more intimately than those whose ethnic identifications allow them to view the Holocaust as the unique derangement of a hateful foreign people. I have never been one who could see it as the logical out-come of Germany's history, authoritarian or otherwise. The obligation to attempt to comprehend the motivation of Hitler's henchmen, as grotesque as it seems, imposes itself. But this self-imposed duty is effective in the context of attempting to understand crimes and sacrifices on the part of those who would have been my brothers in arms had I been their contemporary. Yet there are limits to understanding. To see an entire ethnicity as carrier of a contagious degenerative disease threatening the health of the Volk is just too fanciful. Though no more fanciful than the belief the 'the' Germans were Jew-haters of eliminative propensity one and all. That kind of madness is reserved for true believers, and it is at least questionable whether they were any more numerous among Germans than Europeans of other nations. Ethnic identification that is anything more than a linguistic-territorial sense of belonging always runs the risk of distortion and xenophobia (witness present day Israel). 

I do not subscribe to the idea that one can humanize National Socialists too much. A film that normalized the unthinkable by putting us in the hearts and minds of its perpetrators (viz. demythologizing them) would actually further humanize the victims. Paradoxical as that may seem. It would drive home not just the evil of those who murdered, but the absurdity of the whole racist distortion of culture, in addition to showing what an arbitrary and tragic waste the German (or rather Hitler's) war effort was. Perhaps it is unavoidable that the work of mourning confronting anyone who contemplates the fate of Europe during the Second World War picks and chooses its victims.That Spielberg's film does so by focusing one his own people rather than Poles, gypsies, Jehovah's witnesses, POWS, or any other victim group, is understandable given that he was telling a specific story. Its specific fate is emblematic of the fate of humanity writ large.

WWII is an inexhaustible source of drama. Someone a bit more cynical should develop a triptych dealing with the Ilse Kochs, Maria Mandels, and Irma Greses of that world conflagration. To the best of my knowledge no one has tackled Goebbels, Hess, or Speer. Presumably because an effort of such expense and magnitude is only justified if it edifies.

In spite of its shortcomings, Schindler belongs on the short list of great World War II films. Its camp-scenes are incomparable. Polanski may have been able to avoid the melodrama of Schindler’s confession, but it’s hard to imagine he or anyone could have improved on the mis-en-scène of concentration camp life.

Other films on my list of war fims: Rome: Open City, Paisan, Germany Year Zero, Le Silence de la Mer, Murderers Are Among Us, Decision before Dawn, The One that Got Away, Mr. Klein, Lacomb, Lucien,  The Ascent, Das Boot, Come and See, The Tin Drum, The Wannsee Conference, Europa (Zentropa), Les Misérables (Lelouch), Black Book.