Polish film director Wojciech Jerzy Has died ten years ago – when the Era New Horizons International Film Festival in Wrocław, Poland was just celebrating its first birthday. For the festival’s tenth edition, a mammoth programme included hundreds of recent feature films, competition categories on films on art, new Turkish cinema, Polish short films and documentaries and a cluster of film-related exhibitions – including a major retrospective of Has – as well a strong music programme including performances by LA producer Gonjasufi and the South London-based Cooly G, was all squeezed into ten days. Amidst the dizzying array of films, the clear highlights were the major Has retrospective and an exhaustive 92-film Jean-Luc Godard retrospective, featuring his latest (and purportedly last), Film Socialisme. It premiered in Cannes a few months ago to a reception ranging from the fulsome to the outraged (read the Telegraph‘s film critic and respondent on our current round-table discussion on ‘super-hybridity’, Sukhdev Sandhu’s brief review here).
I hadn't heard of Has prior to seeing his lavish, surrealist masterpiece The Hourglass Sanitorium, an epic feature length film made in 1973 based on a collection of short stories by Bruno Schultz (Sanitorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, 1937). Opening upon a ghoulishly Brueghelian scene of emaciated, half-naked and vacant-eyed passengers aboard a rickety old train in the aftermath of some unexplained event, an old blind man carrying an oil lamp moves through the carriages of bare-chested women slumped in chairs, lifeless children at their feet and sallow men flung out on rickety bunks, eventually coming to the protagonist Józef, as yet untouched by the sickness of his fellow travellers and who disembarks at a remote sanitorium where his elderly father has been committed. Boarded up and seemingly empty, the forbidding hospital is inhabited by a coldly sinister doctor and nurse pairing and unseen patients who apparently spend the days asleep under the influence of drugs administered to keep them just-alive – their being seemingly restricted to a dream-world reality of fantastical scenes half-remembered, half-invented. The crumbling opulence of the set-designs make for a visual intensity that matches Has’ irreverent approach to narrative linearity: ‘My cinema, my film narratives are visual in nature,’ said Has, ‘their point of departure is always literature. Operating on time. Abbreviations of time. Jumps in time. Sidetracks and various layers. Space is the domain of painting; time is the domain of literature and film. Playing with time activates the imagination of film viewers [...] the fundamental topic of cinema to me is that of the journey.’
Also given a retrospective and similarly mining the work of Bruno Schulz for his peculiar dream-logic for their puppet-filled nightmare Street of Crocodiles (1986), British-based filmmakers and animators the Quay Brothers – whose Has inspired installations showed alongside screenings of the Polish director’s films at the ‘The Surrealist Visions of Wojciech Has’ at the Barbican, London in October last year – had a similarly comprehensive showing of their work as well as an exhibition of their films and cabinet of curiosity-style set designs at the Awangarda Design Gallery matching the exhibition of large-scale prints and ephemera from Has films in the Awangarda’s main gallery space a few streets away. Having to peer through peep holes to see the Quay brothers’ sets and having to stand way back to see the overblown Has stills were two very different viewing points into two equally singular worlds.
From journeys through the inner workings of two very particular visual worlds to Jean-Luc Godard and Film Socialisme(2010). I have never seen as many people leave a film as during the screening of this epic visual essay jumping off on a number of stops from a cruise ship in the Mediterranean to a small garage in the French countryside to Egypt, Palestine, Odessa, to Patti Smith through grainy low res youtube clips to colour-bled, ressed-up doctored images. Willfully opaque, complicated, multi-lingual and anti narrative, this film distills many of Godard’s lauded attributes as a filmmaker as well as fuelling the ire of his critics who find him haughtily unacommodating toward his non-Francophone audience, convoluted and disingenuous. Spectacular in its visual palette that has the same sloppily collaged and greedy inclusivity of images as in his Histoire(s) du Cinéma (1988–98), the film as the title suggests alludes to an examination of capitalism in relation to those countries bordering the Mediterranean and through the lens of a dusty library of leftist French philosophy. Garish scenes of a the cruise liner disco, its casino, a lecherous old man with a pretty young girl, an old couple dancing, a photographer at work add up to a flip-pad of visual associations that oscillate somewhere near criticality without ever nearing coherence– more a work in progress of visual research than any sort of sustained treatise. But this is Godard and that is his method.
And at least he and his films are interesting, if controversial. One film that wasn’t interesting but definitely controversial was the winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes this year, Xavier Beauvois’ Des hommes et des Dieux (Of Gods and Men, 2010) based on the true story of an order of French Trappist monks from the monastery of the remote village of Tibhirine in Algeria, who in March 1996 were kidnapped and later beheaded, allegedly by the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria (GIA) who were attempting to overthrow the military government at the time. The film centres on the monks’ dilemma of whether to stay or leave their monastery after two Croatian engineers are murdered by a local group of the GIA. A tragic story with memorable performances not least from Lambert Wilson playing from the leader of the order, the film itself is deadened by the repetitious editing of extended shots of the monks singing the liturgical chants interrupted by the thunderous wheels of a terrorist truck, police helicopter or other engines of outside force (repeated ad nauseum). This segueing between the spiritual inner life of the monks to the external situation of the ongoing struggle between the government and insurgent band – the monks struggling with their own fears of the terrorist band and the dilemma of whether their presence or absence would be better or worse for the local people, tending to an increasingly lengthy list of sick local people who come to them for medical aid – becomes tiresomely predictable about halfway through the film. The characterization of the local people is patronizingly thin in comparison to that of the monks who are displayed in glorious emotional technicolour – frail, scared of death yet standing by their convictions, serious, dutiful to the local community and their faith yet quick to laugh and joke at and amongst themselves. The ending is suitably vague and overblown. A saccharine movie, religious yet full of questionable morals.
A special mention in the category of Art films for cinema at the festival Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow (2010) Sophie Fiennes’ documentary of Anselm Kiefer’s extraordinary atelier complex in the South of France that he started building in the early 1990s and is soon to leave returns to her well trodden path of hagiographic biographies of celebrated artists in various cultural fields. Previous examples include her film that saw Slavoj Žižek expounding upon the Lacanian dimensions in Hitchcock’s films while in a little boat for The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (2006) a documentary on legendary dancer and choreographer Michael Clark (The Late Michael Clark, 2000) and a film about the the charismatic Pentecostal preaching of Rev Noel Jones (Hoover Street Revival, 2002). The film documents in canonizing terms the site of Kiefer’s post-industrial monoliths and tunnel networks at La Ribaute Barjac, a medieval town north of Avignon, with each buiding containing one of his artworks. Following the process of making and the installation of his huge paintings using cranes and an army of perspiring assistants, the site is itself incredible to view but the fact that Kiefer himself commissioned Fiennes to make and distribute a film about it and his process of working, rather than one for his own personal documentation, seems uncomfortably self-aggrandizing.
The winner of the Films on Art competition went to the documentary on 30 years of the Japanese noise scene We Don’t Care About Music Anyway (2009) by Cédric Dupire and Gaspard Kuentz which I didn’t see but from the title and trailer that I have seen, looks as if it couldn’t be further from Fiennes’ puff piece on Kiefer.