I find myself feeling with great and greater certainty that being a cinephile, or living a cinephiliac life, necessitates a far greater life lesson than one restricted to the movies: Your journey will never be complete. A step taken towards more knowledge, more experience, only and always leads to the awareness of further, farther steps that multiply exponentially from those ones you choose. If on the most simple level, I attend an event like the International Film Festival Rotterdam in order to discover more, to encompass and comprehend a greater amount of cinema, what such a trip does instead of “closing the books”—this film seen, that filmography completed, this trend identified, that era or genre or whathaveyou familiarized—in fact is to open up the vast world even more. What one thought of as a narrowing tunnel turns out to be a fractal-branching tree, or, even worse, a journey through a funnel headed ever towards an unreachable widening end. Zeno's paradox of cinema: with each film watched you get closer to seeing them all, yet with each film you also retard your ability to reach that end. There is ever more of the unknown, ever more to learn. Multitudes.
What is but one of Rotterdam's potential lessons in cinephile humility, ignorance, and so on? Last year it was the discovery of prodigious German genre journeyman Dominik Graf. The 2014 festival's revelation—with great dismay shown mostly on subpar digital editions, and improperly matted at that, the latter a major and baffling error repeatedly perpetrated at the festival—was contemporary Danish filmmaker Nils Malmros. His latest feature, Sorrow and Joy, premiered like many of this festival's best films (Aleksei German's Hard to Be a God, Amit Dutta's The Seventh Walk, Vítor Gonçalves's A vida invisível) last fall in Rome, but here is called into the broader context of his entire body of work, minus a single amateur first film.
Malmros's autodidactic career began, with greater humility, after that short feature with 1973's Lars Ole 5.C, a perfectly modulated black and white, 16mm, self-produced portrait of young childhood caught in collage-like snatches of quasi-documentary fiction. Neither it nor the films which follow fit into the “art house” category, as a friend rightly pointed out to me, and this may somewhat explain the lack of prominence of Malmros's films at least in English-language film discourse, along with the fact of his Scandinavian country of origin, whose single “international auteur” slot is currently taken by the prankster-provocateur Lars von Trier. Yet Malmros's films are fundamentally far more provocative than those of Von Trier, and their modest but severe directness have created a quietly radical configuration of cinema.
The bulk of the director's twelve features—a career with gaps in it due to long shooting projects and personal tragedies, as well as a career as a practicing doctor—are made of autobiographical fiction and set in the past. But they are of a kind of drama that avoids the raw possibilities of telling personal stories, avoids the nostalgic gaze of recollections of earlier days, and, when approaching events and drama of true despair, keeps discreetly away from the exposé, of the confessional, of the egotistic or of the narcissistic. Malmros transmutes these pitfalls through a method of working that produces calmly ordered, compassionately directed, very human dramas of distinct, clear form and a narration akin to moral tales. The filmmaker tells and re-tells stories of reticent male sexual awakening and challenges through minorly differing and evolving circumstances based on the his life. Such experiences are revealed to be a gauntlet to run both in childhood and adult life whose psychological nuances and moral complexities are elemental and inexhaustible, and, when tied to the auteur's own experiences, take on a quality combining the personal with the mythic.
Beginning, as many young male filmmakers of his era have, with stories of his (male) childhood, Malmros has never left this filmmaking “phase,” and in fact has only matured it, turning with greater scrutiny, and greater resources (including an evolution from using non-professional actors to using pros), upon his life's experiences. In fact, increasingly Malmros' productions seemed to generate material—that is, inform his life—from which to create more films. The most profound, truly disturbing version of this is the tale of Line Arlien-Søborg, an actress who shows up as a child in the director's best known film, Tree of Knowledge (1981), and whose talent and appeal put her in Malmros's brilliant follow-up, Beauty and the Beast (1983), about a father's protective, conflicted feelings for his maturing and increasingly sexualized teenaged daughter. The man's relationship with the girl to a degree relates, fictionally, to the director's own, and during the production Malmros's wife, incensed by this relationship, went mad and killed the couple's newborn daughter. This tale is told, fictionally, in his new film Sorrow and Joy, but before that, after a hiatus of life and career during which Malmros finally completed his training, in his father's footsteps, as a neurosurgeon, he finally returned to cinema in 1988 with Århus by Night. This comedic view of a film production in Malmros's hometown recounts a director much like Malmros making a film in the 1970s much like one of his first, and in which stars, again, Line Arlien-Søborg, as the director's (in the film) object of affection. Yet none of these films feel like therapeutic expulsions of the self, cool analysis of close personal events, or even the seedy if not downright perverse re-enactments that they threaten to be in conception and often flirt with in the moment.
Falling in love with one but making love to another; jilted, cheated on, moved beyond or passed over; choosing the right girl for the wrong reasons, and vice versa: these films are predominantly concerned with sexual desire and repression, the choices made based on both, and the repercussions on one's character dealing with this repression through time—in thought, deed, mistake, acceptance, and understanding. Interactions between Malmros' naïve male characters—all boys at their core—and his beaming girls—all women, even when young—are subtly staccato-like playing fields of attempts and ripostes, casual words and actions between boy and girl quietly weighed by each character as vital to the way each wants to live his or her life.
There is as much dialog as there is observation of that dialog by its participants, a sense of interactions between males and females, adults and children, as gaining and losing ground in a mysterious negotiation whose outward appearance may be things like sex or freedom but which are but the top layer of complex human questions. It is no mistake that the Lars Ole 5.C structures itself around recess-time gameplaying (and girls vs. boys tag at that) and ends on a dance (dancing being a common motif in Malmros's cinema), as the kind of back-and-forth, gain-and-lose nature of these activities visualizes the moral territory of relationships through which these characters moves. These early films, as well as the later ones about older boys, and, eventually, adult men, reveal themselves to be constructed from a carefully measured series of decisions made by characters in particular life situations, decisions which ultimately aggregate to a dark, pointed edge. “It is a hazardous game you're playing; I admire the experiences you'll have,” says one character in Barbara (1997) to a young man on the precipice of deciding to getting married, and he could very well be talking, simply, of men navigating not just marriage and not just women but life, a treacherous but also thrilling embroilment of desires, reactions, and counter-reactions which may not create happiness but will create greater understanding.
Barbara appears as an anomaly in the director's filmography, as it seems impossible to be based on memories, being adapted from Jørgen-Frantz Jacobsen's classic 20th century eponymous novel of a tumultuous romance set on the Faroe Islands in the 17th century. And yet it, too, is predicated on a moral and sexual quandaries, that of a newly arrived pastor drawn to the vivacious sexuality of the woman who was married to not one but two of his predecessors, both of whom died. It stages the melancholic romantic “sorrow and joy” seen in most of Malmros's films on a sweeping scale that is both historical—and historically moral, as its repression has much to do with the period's deep religiousness—and, because of its windswept, destitute location, visualized in a more grandiose way: the director's interests almost reaching the level of archetypes.
The other anomaly in the retrospective, and possibly wisest film of all in the series, was 2002's black and white Facing the Truth, which dramatizes a medical scandal Mamros's father went through after it was revealed that one of his regular procedures during the Second World War in occupied Denmark later caused the deaths of many of his patients. This tremendously moving story of his father brings to a forefront all of these films' considerations of the impact of decisions taken, and while many of them find their core morality in if, when, with whom, and why a man has sex, Facing the Truth expands the scope to the life or death choices made on the operating table, with a child under the knife. Showing his father's upbringing, young marriage and practice, and intercutting it with the mid-80s scandal nearly a half century later, Facing the Truth—like Boys (1977), set across three ages of male youthfulness, Tree of Knowledge, tracking (and shot over) two years of childhood, and Aching Hearts (2009), set across (and also shot over) three years of a young man's high school experience—telescopes time to show how small but charged decisions so importantly impact and inform how later lives are led. This reaches what could only be the ultimate and most direct expression of this idea in Sorrow and Joy, which in flashing back to narrate a director's short relationship with the woman who would become his wife, looks not for the sense of his child's murder at his wife's hands, but for the what that created a situation where such horror was not only possible, but probable.
As is clear, there is a nearly self-perpetuating aspect to Malmros's career, past events inspiring productions which sometimes become past events which likewise inspire the future. (Sorrow and Joy, for example, re-creates, again fictionally, the shooting of scenes for Tree of Knowledge and Beauty and the Beast.) Such a thing isn't entirely unusual, except that with Malmros it is in combination with the extremity of both the director's life—the consideration of which is recounted fictionally in his films—and the steady, unfussy, and distinctly moral way these stories are then told through cinema. They are not the confessions of a cinema of sentimental or vulgar self-abasement. Nor are they cinema as therapy or art as catalyst for life as catalyst for art. No: this is a very strange thing, very compassionate and in pursuit of understanding. And the films are all the more strange because of their vivid, open compassion, and vice versa. It is way of working not through him, this man, the problems of “Nils Malmros,” but a way of understanding the larger world by looking at and constructing from that examination core aspects of the life humans live. (The films have tracked from boyhood to young adulthood to adulthood. The director claims Sorrow and Joy to be his final film, but there is clearly more of life left to understand.) Frightening but heartfelt, Malmros's cinema is, thus, a cinema for everyone. Which, coming from the very particular place of this man's life, is what appears so radical at the festival.