Blesok no. 32, May-June, 2003
Victory Above the Fear of Death
- the active and the passive principle in the (film) creation -
The idea for this text's title came to me while I've been watching this year's German non-English speaking Oscar nominee for The Best Film Nowhere In Africa, directed by Caroline Link. It isn't such a bad film, maybe somewhere between good and solid film, at some moments boring and too long, and it speaks about certain Jewish family, which, during the Nazi government in Germany leaves to Kenya. There happens the scene when some ill African woman is left to die under the open sky, and the white woman, the mother in the above-mentioned Jewish family runs out and cries out for the dying woman, wondering why is this woman left alone to her destiny. While the audience expects the scene to continue with the same sentiment and sorrow as it started, when the dying woman's daughter enters the scene and says to the European woman:
“Please, lady, let my mother die peacefully, she's just leaving this world – and she'll just go to Heaven, to the other world, that's all”. In that moment I realized how much our Western (Christian or Pseudo-Christian) civilization is burdened with the fatalistic fear of the Death, with the notion that the end of our (human) life is the end of the world and our existence, and accordingly to that, the emotions of sorrow, depression, melancholy and dissatisfaction gain in strength up to the aggression and violence…
None of us wishes to see movies that bring us to unpleasant emotions. But, the real question is how much we've allowed to ourselves to go with the flow, and how much we've allow to such films – that aren't above the general average – to be meant as some great achievements.
I think that it doesn't matter would be chosen as a subject for the film, but the way of transposing the subject and the film story into the film deed in general; that is what matters when we speak of the film emotion that will be revealed on the big screen as a final product. The people feed themselves on emotions and it's natural that everyone wants to achieve the maximum of his abilities, but how can one realize that with “producing” depressive and melancholic emotions – what means, if one writes, directs and produces such kind of films? That's the actual difference between the qualities and the artistic levels of the film directors and their films. There is a certain type of art (and film) deeds that only record the general situation and conditions in certain societies, the general average of the human conscience and at that point they stop and they go no further with the issue: “Oh, how dark and difficult it is, how much dark and depressive, how much we suffer until we die, and the death, oh, my, how we fear death”! This thoughts and emotions seem to convey in so many film deeds thought as some great achievements…
For instance, the Nani Moretti's film The Son's Room, the Kan Winner about two years ago and then the Piano Teacher, directed by Michael Hanecke: in the first case, it's the sentimentality that highly resembles like that in the Nowhere In Africa, and the endless circling in the areas of violence and frustration in the second case, with no getting out, without any solution… Like the things in this world are inevitably made to be like that. I personally don't believe that the essence and the cause of our existence on this planet is down to the level of nonsense like the Piano Teacher offers – sexually frustrated woman that only continues to be even more frustrated and violent, and that's all to it, nothing more, the story ends exactly where it started. I do believe and I'm aware of what's happening in this world, but I don't believe that the pure counting and presenting of the cruel reality and he facts like that is some kind of art and some great (human) achievement. I also think that it's highly unproductive, in opposite of the films that offer some solutions whatsoever, like for instance, Pulp Fiction by Quentin Tarantino – the assassin realizes that he must become a good man; then Sex, Lies and Videotapes by Steven Soderberg – the main male character cures himself from his impotence, and the main female character becomes much firmer and much more determined as a person; also, The Raged Bull by Martin Scorsese – Jake La Motta says to Sugar Robinson in the ring: “You never made me go down, Ray”!; then, The Marriage of Maria Braun by W. R. Fasbinder – her marriage doesn't achieve the fulfilling love, the German people goes through a rough period of self-examination and getting back on its own feet, the main character most probably dies at the end of the film, but as a parallel to that, somewhere at the final scenes of the film, in the film's OFF sound (from the radio), we can hear the direct broadcast from the World's Football Cup finale (in 1954), and the reporter's voice cries “Germany is the World Champion!”; also, The Last Temptation Of Christ by Scorsese – Jesus understands the illusion of the material existence, and brings himself (symbolically) up the Cross to take upon himself all the sufferings and mistakes of the whole humanity…
I do consider that these films (as many others) succeed to make a break-through, a breech from the analytic towards the synthetic mentality, which couldn't be satisfied with the bare revealing of the situations and facts, but gets its steps in accordance with the human evolution and with the perfection of the goodness and positive existence we do strive to achieve (as for instance, 2001: The Space Odyssey, or the Eyes Wide Shut, both films by Stanley Cubrick).
The depressive films stand mainly with the passive principle, and the other category of films that breaks the barriers, dogmas, norms and fears (of death, mainly), I would name them as deeds with the active and dynamic principle, which is much different, much more subtle, much deeper and much, much more with love within, in general, than the engaged social-realistic art, or (the dominating) Hollywood “art” production. Watching the movies means identifying with the characters in them; the film is one of the arts where the consumers do identify with the fictional characters the most. According to that, the raged Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro) seems strongly inspirational in The Raged Bull, when he says in the ring “You never made me go down, Ray!”. Because that's the life's essence – one should remain standing after all strikes upon him – the passive people fall, the active ones remain standing (both with their optimism and their comprehension of life. death, etc.). How glorious are the life optimisms and the virtues of Andrei Rubljov and Amelie Poulain from the same-named films (Andrei Rubljov and Amelie Poulain), or the same things at the makers of those films – Andrei Tarkovski and Jean Pierre Jenneux?
“The Death isn't scary by itself, what's scary is the Fear of Death itself”, as the philosopher Francis Beckon wrote so long ago. In The Pianist, the latest film by Roman Polanski, the fear of Death is the main issue that emerges from the film story. The pianist Vladislav Spielman lives with his family in the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw. With some miracle, he succeeds to escape his imprisoning in the Nazi's “death camps” (Treblinka) and he continues to hide in the (occupied by the Nazi's) Poland capitol city. And, excluding the last half an hour of the film, when the appearance of the German high-ranked officer (pianist-amateur) brings dramatic tension, almost the whole film is got down to the action of avoiding the death, the living full of difficulties, shocking scenes of brutal violence and human cruelty, etc.
That's OK, really, every reasonable human can show empathy to the Jewish suffering and not only the Jewish ones, and every human individual can be hurt by any misfortune. But, how much interesting can be these two-and-a-half hours of this film, and to look and contemplate how the Jewish invalids were being thrown down the balcony in the ghetto, how the Nazi's were killing people only for the thrill of it, or how much abuse happens during the wars, etc. Those are already huge contingents of information within our heads – which we already know, besides the numerous similar information as those.
The Pianist also pictures the people from the Jewish Resistance who sacrifice themselves in those difficult times putting their lives at stake, and there is also the high-ranked German officer who saves Spielman's life at the end of the war. In that sense, the film offers something more than the sufferings and pure facts of misfortunes – that is very good, and also, for the technical and art segments of this film I just can't find any critical note, but in contrary.
But to me, what's problematic and questionable in this film is the idea that – when certain situations and events are being shown on the screen – we absorb them in the form of thoughts and emotions, as then, as for good (later and during our whole life). The difficulties and the depressiveness produced and shown on the screen are adequate to what emerges within the thoughts and emotions at the consumers' individual systems of thinking. So, our ideas and our efforts can be directed towards the fight against the evil – that's how I personally comprehend the Polanski's film The Pianist. On the other hand, the film Life Is Beautiful, directed by Roberto Benigni, who also treats the “Jewish theme” and the Nazi's “death camps”, but it has a completely different attitude and approach, as well. In this film, the main character sacrifices himself for the sake of his child; he saves his child's life in that way (with a sacrifice so great that is rarely seen) that the kid never becomes aware of the danger and the seriousness of their situation – during the whole duration of their stay at the “death camp”. The father
(the main character played by Benigni himself) constantly keeps the child blissful unawareness of the situation they're in, travestying the monstrous events into the comical and humoristic way in front of his son – inspired entirely by his overwhelming love for his son. This film I do see as a great contribution to the struggle for the Goodness, which is something decisively different then the struggle against Evil. Not “what one shouldn't do”, but “what one should do”! I think that Victim, a film by Tarkovski, has the same principle – with the love sacrifice one can overcome the fear of Death.
With The Pianist, Polanski gain the “Golden Palm” in Kan, won the Oscar for Best Directing, and the film also won another two Oscars by the decision of the American Film Academy, and with that, it became the most-awarded film of this Polish-French-Jewish film author. It' interesting that it happened with the film I do consider as one of his poorer films – namely, one of the less good ones by Polanski, in his, otherwise, extraordinary filmography.
The previous Polanski's film – The Ninth Gate, didn't do well at the film critic (and at the box-offices, some say). The film has the simply overwhelming film photography (by Darius Khondji), and it's a story of a tradesman and book reseller (played by Johnny Depp) that gets into the Devil-invoking “games”, but constantly followed by his Guardian Angel. The film shows the transformation of the main character from the cynical, egocentric and phlegmatic individual at the beginning – up to a person ready for the self-sacrifice, a person that can see so much deeper within the Truth at the end of the film.
In this way, Polanski gave the best possible answer to all of his previous films, but The Ninth Gate didn't gain wider popularity, in contrary of The Pianist… What a paradox!
Anyway, it only shows the valuing criteria of our (Western) civilization, which are up to us to change and improve…