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Out of the Past 2010: Ferronian Finds

We at MUBI think that celebrating the films of 2010 should be a celebration of film viewing in 2010.  Since all film and video is "old" one way or another, we present Out of a Past, a small (re-) collection of some of our favorite of 2010's retrospective viewings.

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Bouteille cassée (Father Piet Verstegen M. Afr., 1952)

One morning, TO1..., comrade Möller's phone rang and a young woman with a refreshingly spunky voice said something like, Hi!, I'm that student your friend told you about—the one who's working on a documentary about the White Fathers retirement home. Today I'll have a look at the order's film collection—do you have time to come along? I could need your advise and the monk who takes care of it as well. Of course he had time—and finally the opportunity to see some of the works discussed in a hefty tome he'd bought almost twenty years ago called Histoire du cinéma colonial au Zaïre, au Rwanda et au Burundi (Musée Royal de l'Afrique Centrale; Tervueren, 1985).

While watching a short with the admittedly unattractive title Bouteille cassée, TO1..., comrade Möller whispered to his companions for the day, This is fascinating—looks as if the film was made by someone who'd taken a close look at local narrative strategies and preferences, someone who really knew and cared about his audience. Which turned out to be true, only that it wasn't the director but his d.p.,: Father Roger de Vloo M. Afr., the order's most prolific and uniquely talented cinéaste. De Vloo, reportedly, took the emancipatory part of the order's agenda to quite unusual lengths—no wonder, that Bouteille cassée's closing scene—a Christian marriage—feels strikingly alien and tagged on...

Cóndores no entierran todos los días [A Man of Principle] (Francisco Norden, 1984)

It was one of those chance things: TO1..., comrade Möller faced a gaping hole in his Uherské Hradiště schedule—nothing doing in his programs of choice, so... The titles got his attention: the Spanish as well as the English have a self-assured and ballsy ring to them; promising. Besides, Francisco Norden sounded vaguely familiar—something, somewhere way, way back... Yep: Las murallas de Cartagena (Walls of Cartagena; 1963), a visually very beautiful art documentary short done the old way—at least that's what TO1..., comrade Möller remembered.

Cóndores no entierran todos los días became U.H.'s masterpiece experience. Norden tells his story about an ordinary middle-class conservative's rise to notoriety as a hitman and death squad leader for a right-wing government during Colombia's civil war-like 1940s and '50s in a fashion deserving to be called: exemplary. This guy is a type history's full of: the willing collaborator cum true believer turned mercenary with a cause; the situation in the country, again, is but another variation on a certain kind of power politics, its methods and structures—just have a look at Colombia today, Mexico, Iran... same shit, different brown. Which doesn't mean that the film is overly allegorical, far from it, only that the classically realist presentation of its tale is so clear-headed, determined and bared of all distracting details, that this very specific story becomes applicable to other situations. All that and: Extraordinary, artifice-free acting; remarkable, understated set-design; brilliant screenplay; crisp, to the point dialogues; and, let this be said once again, a direction to study.

Il federale [The Fascist] (Luciano Salce, 1961)

Pantheon alert! Writer-director Luciano Salce is overdue for rediscovery as one of the greats of Italian comedy, and for evidence you needn't look further than this early commedia capolavoro, which further twists the knife in the historical (war) wounds opened by such successful national taboo breakers as Mario Moncielli's La grande guerra [The Great War] (1959) and Luigi Comencini's Tutti a casa [Everybody Go Home] (1960). It's the enjoyable tale of an enthusiastic, but low-ranking blackshirt (Ugo Tognazzi, disconcertingly likable) entrusted—with hopes of eagerly anticipated promotion—in the late stages of World War II with escorting an antifascist philosopher (Georges Wilson) through the country to Rome. Their journey, accompanied by pratfalls and smart political barbs, is an anarchic delight and anticipates the classical structure of revolutionary Italo westerns: two ideologically opposed characters clash on the path to enlightenment (there's even Ennio Morricone music, in what seems to be his first official cinema credit). A great comedy, perfectly orchestrated, razor-sharp in its wit and analysis. Further proof of Salce's Ferronian humour: a successful actor in film and theatre himself, he makes an appearance here as German Lieutenant. Also, a dream come true for TO1..., comrade Möller, who finally could begin an introduction with: “Meine Damen und Herren, herzlich willkommen im Österreichischen Filmmuseum zu Der Gauleiter.”

Der lachende Mann – Bekenntnisse eines Mörders [The Laughing Man] (Walter Heynowski & Gerhard Scheumann, 1966) & Schlachtfelder [Battlefields] (Peter Voigt, 1985)

A double feature that left the audience in the Austrian Filmmuseum (where again, TO1..., comrade Möller had done some help to bring too-rarely-shown masterworks to the screen) thunderstruck: two great, anti-fascist German films about war, one slightly longer, the other slightly shorter than an hour, but both monumental in effect, one directed by Heynowski & Scheumann, the dynamite duo of polemical GDR documentary, and the other by their longtime companion Peter Voigt, one of the great modernists of the documentary form. Voigt's film, calmly contemplating the landscapes of Verdun and Stalingrad and drawing careful conclusions, is a little-known major work; another major work in a decidedly different register comes from Heynowski-Scheumann, once a bulwark of East German film, but by now for the most part decidedly neglected. Their titular hero is infamous mercenary Siegfried Müller, known as “Kongo-Müller”, who—graciously provided by the filmmakers with copious amounts of Pernod, his drink of choice—delivers an increasingly inebriated, outrageous monologue. An unsettling study of the mind (and appearance) of a gleeful perpetrator, meanwhile interested in inimitable agitator fashion in revealing certain colonial and other traditions that led to a scandal and the film's interim ban in the FRG. Müller, meanwhile not only declares himself “a defender of the West,”but also provides nuggets about West German institutions, as when he explains, that there are two types of war, the kind he is fighting, and another, cultural war: “The Goethe Institute really understands what the Kongo situation is about.”

Onna doreisen [Female Slave Ship] (Onoda Yoshiki, 1960)

In the Unstoppable-discussion, Nicole B. casually wondered what happened to TO1..., comrade Möller's annual Udine-report in senses of cinema. Well, it's simple: The retrospectives of Patrick Lung Kong and Shintōhō under Ōkura Mitsugu proved so towering that he lacked the drive to deal with the new stuff, what little there was that got his critical juices flowing; let's have a run through 'em, the mysterious Ms. B. shall get the information she seeks, everything to oblige a lady: Erik Matti showed yet another facet of his endearingly adventure-prone talent with the dreamy Pinoy-style shomin-geki The Arrival (2010); Edmond Pang Ho Cheung finally delivered for real with Wai do lei ah yat ho [Dream House] (2010), a politically alert cum madly gore-happy satire—a capsule phrasescription which s-o-m-e-h-o-w fits as well Aria Kusumadewa's unpredictable, perplexing, and off and on even deeply disturbing Identitas [Identity] (2009), this fest's sole revelation not of yore; finally, Inudo Isshin's cool, deliberately stylised mix of echt Japanese mystery, women's picture and socio-historical essay, the Matsumoto Seichō-based Zero no shōten [Zero Focus] (2009), saw to many creased eye-brows post screening—folks probably got lost in that painstakingly polished maze of (self) reflections...Good thing we now gave praise where praise was due.

Still, FEFF 12's true glories were either directed by master Lung or came courtesy of Shintōhō, with Onoda Yoshiki's Onna doreisen as the biggest revelation in an unexpectedly surprise-dense selection. The plot has twists 'n turns galore and is so out-right lurid et outré you want, nay: need, even crave to know what else these people could possibly come up with—and it's a lot: pirates, hookers, the Imperial navy, ominous vessels, tropical islands, bamboo huts, fetishism, cat fights, gun play, frenetic alliance-swapping... à la bonne heure: Fuller eternal, Foster ephemeral and very late von Sternberg all rolled into one, hastily but with the passionate pro's care. Nevertheless, Onna doreisen had every right to simply fall apart at some point, only serious Go for broke!-determination could keep that mad mess on course for somewhere in style, and that Onoda has it: each image sports the sleek deliberation of a well-placed punch, each scene is blocked and broken down in as economical a fashion as possible—and if one, perfectly executed travelling shot does the trick, then so be it, damn; action and dialogue are dealt with in similar fashion: efficient and visceral; finally, the pacing: furious, even when little happens. 83 minutes of prime primitive cinema. Those were the days.

Auteurist question: Could Onoda be an Expressive Esoterica-case? Watch us find out.

Komissary [Commissars] (Nikolay Maščenko, 1969)

You seem to know it, before you even see it. In this case (needless to say: a case of severe ferronian polit-korrektness) several contextual signals had added up to the highest form of trustworthiness in advance: The title, Komissary, an incarnation of the purist beauty in functionalist militarist Sov-speak; the studio (“Aleksandr Dovženko film studio”), birth place of “Ukrainian poetic cinema” in the 60s and 70s; the director, Nikolaj (Mykola) Maščenko, who some years after Komissary manifested his reputation as an outstanding figure in (Soviet) Ukrainian cinema with a 202 minute TV-adaptation of Nikolaj Ostrovskij’s Kak zakaljalas’ stal´ [How the Steel was Tempered], do I have to add—a ferroni-brigade-compatible revolutionary manifesto, written as early as 1932; the year of origin (1969)—just about the end point of a series of astounding hard-core revivals of revolutionary culture, putting Komissary in the immediate vicinity of Vremja, vpered (Sofija Mil’kina, Michail Švejcer, 1965), Pervorossijane (Aleksandr Ivanov, 1967) and Šestoe ijulja (Julij Karasik, 1968); and finally the promising placement of the film in a program sublimely called “Socialist Avant-Gardizm”, curated by Russia’s film historian number one, Evgenij Margolit, most likely another secret comrade of our brigade.

Yet even the “socialist in content, vanguard in form” formula cannot grasp the quintessential significance of Komissary, a film so explicit in deliberating upon the true political mission of a commissar that it was reportedly banned and shown only in perestroika times. The year 1921: When they come riding down their horses their world seems as clear cut as Čapaev’s potato maps. But once the group of leading Bolshevists settle in an old monastery for special instruction courses, the atmosphere of revolutionary romanticism is challenged by Maščenko’s fierce yet lyrical questioning of manhood/masculinity. “The party”, says Ivan Mikolajčuk alias Gromov a.k.a the “commissar of the commissars,” is “rotten to the core,” triggering off endless yet ultimately passionate debates about the nature of the revolutionary. Even those suspected as “dirty scums covering up with the name of Lenin” stand still, contemplate, speak. Word or deed. Life or death. Struggle or retreat. Never have the birch forests been a greater stage for the vivisection of an idea. Once they were united by the beautiful tune of a Cossack song...

Mr. Moller, it is an honor to be mentioned. And thank you for the indulgence :)

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