Commissar (1967)


Even with the so-called Khrushchev Thaw, it’s pretty amazing that Commissar even got made and perhaps even more astounding that it made it to the viewer all these years later. Some of that might be because it originated from Russian Civil War literature and anything else we can attribute to luck.

It is, as it titles suggests, about a commissar: an official of the Communist party, but this one seems special. First of all, she’s a woman which in itself is an interesting piece of commentary, but perhaps more so is the transformation she goes through.

From the outset, she is what we conjure up in our minds. Brutal, tough as nails, masculinized and mechanized by the collectivist agenda of the party. She’s the perfect comrade cog in the communist machine. Except then she receives the startling news that she is pregnant, and she must seek refuge in the home of a nearby Jewish clan. They are forced to quarter her, serving the greater good. She’s aloof to the whole idea and their diminutive patriarch puts up a fuss.

You see, he already has five children, a wife, and a mother to look after. He can’t afford to have this unwanted extra baggage, and she’s no friend of theirs. In this sense, the film feels reminiscent of Melville’s Silence de la mer. However, Commissar evolves into its own creature, just as all parties involved change over time. Yefim and his wife make their guest comfortable the best they know how and following the pregnancy they take good care of her.

Seeing her with a newborn is an altogether strange and foreign image, and with the cult of motherhood, the commissar’s whole demeanor shifts. She looks on at this family with contented eyes and stares back at her former life with some reluctance. It seems impossible to traverse the same paths she once did.

Perhaps most frightening are the images that are interwoven into the plot. They are disorienting, paranoia-filled, listless dreams that swoop in during pregnancy and restless hours of sleep. In the present, there are the children playing their militant games, terrorizing their sister, a sad reflection of the things going on outside of their own homes. There are constant contributions and pogroms always hanging over God’s people.

Whether it’s a hopeful fairy tales or a truth which you are willing to die for, the film paints a fairly bleak picture of what it means to live life. Our commissar is wholly disillusioned and the shadows of the Holocaust hang over the narrative because they lurk in the near future, not the past.

Director Aleksandr Askoldov’s favors a  fluid camera that nevertheless feels unrefined more times than not in its blunt and most certainly chaotic movements throughout the frame. It’s as if it’s not confident keeping still  — needing to prove its mobility in all circumstances. Still, the film boasts a lasting power that feels counter-cultural. This is not the film we expect coming out of the USSR circa 1967. These characters feel conflicted, their story feels sobering at best. It also offers up a strangely haunting dance sequence like no other, but then again this is far from an ordinary film. The director would soon be fired, expelled from the party, and exiled. The KGB would lock his film away and throw away the key for 20 years. He undoubtedly struck a cord — then and now.

3.5/5 Stars

Phoenix (2014)


Speak low when you speak, love
Our summer day withers away too soon, too soon
Speak low when you speak, love
Our moment is swift
Like ships adrift we’re swept apart too soon
~ Speak Low (1943)

Anyone who’s watched a Christian Petzold film already knows that he crafts fascinating almost spellbinding films and that quality rests greatly on the laurels of Nina Hoss. Phoenix is yet another film that is a mesmerizing enigma.

It’s positively entrancing with its pacing — where you almost get lost within its minutes. Because although time never moves fast you quickly lose track as the mind is soon overwhelmed with a plethora of questions. In fact, all the time while you’re watching it all you can do is question. Implausibilities all but fade away in the presence of such uncertainty. If anything they get lost in the rubble.

It feels as if we’re trying to construct our own truth, which is almost maddeningly impossible because none of these characters seem ready to divulge any information. The past is a black shroud that everyone is reluctant to talk about. It makes sense because that soon after what do you say about the Holocaust? How do you cope or even begin to acknowledge the horrors that went on? It’s only 50, 60, 70 years later that we’ve finally been able to broach the subject as outsiders — people who did not experience those events firsthand. It’s easier for us to try and talk about it because we can never fully comprehend the climate. What would we have done? What would have happened to us? What would our lives have looked like in the aftermath?

The characters in Phoenix are beings in that post-war wasteland with specters hanging over them, and lives scarred by pain and suffering. They’re trying to salvage their existences the best they can, but they’re hardly existing as they did before the war. But allow me to backtrack for a moment.

Nelly (Nina Hoss) is physically maimed so horribly that her face is constantly covered in bloody bandages. Petzold does us a favor by not showing her visage before she gets reconstructive surgery. Like the shadow of the Holocaust, we are forced to imagine it on our own which is far more powerful. This is what her face looks like and this is perhaps how it happened.

What we do know is that she was arrested on October 4th, 1944 and her husband Johnny was as well. But Nelly’s faithful friend and guardian angel Lene says that he betrayed her. That’s what she believes, and yet upon hearing this news it hardly alters Nelly’s response. She’s still intent on finding him and picking up all the pieces. When she has a little more strength she begins wandering about the American sector looking for any signs of her former beau.

It turns out that Johnny works as a waiter in a cabaret Hall called Phoenix. When he first sets eyes on Nelly — it’s not his wife that he sees, but a wonderful impostor. She’s a woman who is strikingly similar, but her face is different. She’s the perfect accomplice as Johnny, or Johannes as he now goes tries to secure his dead wife’s assets.

What follows is his mission to make her into his old wife.  In many ways, it works as an inversion of the Vertigo conundrum. He thinks he’s making this woman into his deceased wife, and he coaches, dresses, and shapes her more in the image of Nelly. However, this hardly feels like an obsessive desire of dashed love, but a project to get him closer to his final goal. It’s not that sentimental, but Nelly follows along with the whole thing benevolently. To be close to Johnny is enough. But how does she even begin to break the news? Perhaps most frightening of all what will Johnny’s reaction be? After all, the wartime has changed them both.

So if you want to break it down to its most basic roots, Phoenix feels rather like a Holocaust film meeting Vertigo. But in essence, it defies that type of simple categorization. It lacks the odious horror of flashbacks and the glossy Hollywood production values of the latter. It fills its own niche altogether that even channels some of the darkness of noir. And there is no cathartic moment of emotional release. Instead, we are forced to watch as the characters bury their thoughts and feelings deeper and deeper. Perhaps they lie there somewhere under the surface. However, these are not histrionic people. They feel common and every day led by the performances of Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld.

In this way, the performances are muted and repressed. In fact, there is little headway in the film and few epiphanies until the very end. That’s when for a few brief solitary moments things fall into place. We don’t know what will happen afterward, and in a way, we are suspended in the moment — left to ponder so many things. You could either make the case that Phoenix has shallow characters, or that there is so much depth within them that we cannot even begin to understand — like icebergs still partially submerged.

Many wonderful films lose so much of their magic because they dispel too much — give away too many of their hard-fought secrets. But Phoenix makes us work through everything, and it can be hard going certainly, and yet it is a thoroughly gratifying experience. We watch movies to be moved. We watch movies to be perplexed. We watch movies to acknowledge our wonderment in the human condition because it is a complex quandary that continually reveals new bits of enlightenment. Phoenix might leave us with more riddles than answers, and we should be content in that reality. That’s part of the magic.Like the mythical Phoenix of old, in a way, these characters try and die to their old selves, and rise out of the ashes a new.  Life is never that easy — always being clouded by doubts as our pasts come back to haunt us. It’s how we deal with that past that matters most.

4.5/5 Stars

Review: Schindler’s List (1993)

Schindler's_List_movieWhat is there to say about Schindler’s List except that it is necessary viewing for its depiction of Shoah, suggesting that, literally, out of the ashes beauty and hope will rise. It would be rather callous to call Steven Spielberg’s film pure entertainment. True, he comes with a pedigree that includes such escapist classics like Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Jurassic Park. However, Schindler’s List is a far different creature and it is arguably his most significant film. It is so moving on a heart-wrenchingly beautiful level. Because great films are more than entertainment, pure and simple. They are affecting, tapping into some deep well inside of us that causes us to laugh, to cry, and have feelings.

Schindler’s List shows us the horrors of the Holocaust without dumbing them down. We see those getting shot. We see the naked bodies. We see the mass graves and the billowing ashes. It can be hard to watch. Abrasive in its content, but not in its form. The film itself is beautifully cast in black-in-white with the most moving of compositions by John Williams and poignant performances by many. But permeating through all of this is, of course, the tragedy, but with the tragedy comes the hope which is crucial to a story such as this.

Spielberg’s reference point is one man named Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), who not only was a war profiteer and womanizer but a member of a Nazi party. He’s not afraid of ingratiating himself with the right people to make a pretty penny off the imminent war because in his mind it’s all good business acumen. And aside from his affiliations, what’s not to like about him? He’s well-groomed, a gentleman, and charismatic. It still would be a far cry to call him a hero, at least not yet.

With his main motive still being money, he makes contact with a Jewish man named Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) who not only has the bookkeeping abilities he is looking for but also connections to the black market and Jewish investors. So as the ghettos in Poland fill up to the brim, Schindler is quick to capitalize, offering the Jews more practical resources in exchange for their money. They get something, but he’s the big winner. He begins to set up his factory for the production of pots and pans which proves to be a lucrative business, especially with most of the bigwigs on his side. At the same time, he takes on Jewish laborers since they’re cheap, and Stein is able to save them from a fate of a concentration camp or being shot.

Our primary villain, Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) is ordered to start a new camp and just like that the ghettos are closed and the Jews are forced out. He is a despicable creature and a sadist to the max, exemplified by the many people he shoots from his balcony in the mornings. There’s no provocation for it. He just does it because he can. He is not the type of man you can seemingly deal with normally, and yet being a man with immense charisma, Schindler does just that, all in the name of business.

But Schindler too sees the chaos, destruction, and killing that is going on. He can not try to underplay it now since he has seen it all firsthand. But there is a point in the film where his focus slowly evolves from a desire to make money to actually saving Jews from complete annihilation. The most obvious moment occurs after he sees the little girl in the red coat lying in a wagon, dead. Moments earlier he had seen her scampering through the streets, an innocent beacon of color amidst the chaos. What is the world coming to when a girl such as this can be killed for no apparent reason? It begs for a response from Schindler. He can no longer be a passive observer and so he does take action.

With the aid of the ever faithful Stern, Schindler is able to construct a list of over a 1,000 Jews to save from the concentration camps. As the war is going poorly for the Germans, Goeth is ordered to transfer his prisoners to Auschwitz, and although Schindler almost loses all his workers, he is able to save them by literally buying all their lives from Goeth. He spends his entire fortune to save them as well as ensuring that his armament plant does not actually make any working shells. It’s bad business, but it is all in the name of one of the greatest acts of humanity he could perform.

In one final word to the people, Schindler protects his Jews one last time, daring the Nazis working at his factory to kill them or go home to their families as men. They silently choose the latter, and he flees the camp as a war profiteer.  He breaks down looking at the few possessions he has left suggesting that more Jews could have been saved with them, but the Jews in front of him, represented by Stern, point out the great good he did. They bestow upon him a ring with the inscription: “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.”

He is gone now and the story of Schindler’s Jews is not yet complete, because they do not know where to go, but they head out with purpose making their way towards the future. And it is in this moment that their story stops being a memory and breaks on into the present. It is a wonderfully powerful device from Spielberg that evokes an overwhelming flood of emotion. In a line of solidarity, the Schindler Jews walk forward toward the grave of Oskar Schindler. Nothing can quite explain the feelings pulsing through the body as we watch actors and their real-life counterparts laying stones on the grave of this man, much like the Israelites laying stones down in remembrance of what their God did for them.  In one final moment, Schindler’s wife lays one final stone and Liam Neeson lays downs a final rose and we see his imposing but solitary silhouette off in the distance. It’s magnificent, to say the least.

Out of the many scenes that become ingrained in the mind, there were two that especially resonated with me. One of them occurs when the children were trying to evade capture and imminent death. In such a life or death situation they willingly resolved to literally swim in the urine of the outhouse. Another scene that got an immense reaction from me was when all the naked women, with their hair now cut off, are herded into the showers. Both they and the audience think this is the end of their lives so it is almost a cruel trick when water begins flooding from the shower heads. I’m not sure the last time I have felt so much anxiety as an observer. It’s hard to discount.

There are so many great performances big and small, but Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes are both superb. We always love a good anti-hero or at least a complex one, and Oskar Schindler fits that bill beautifully. Also, we love the same in our villain, and I must say although I absolutely despised Goeth for all his evil, I must admit that somehow I still felt sorry for him. He was only a cog in the machine, a lonely man who was really so insignificant, in spite of what he wanted to believe. He shoots Jews, beats them, and yet can have such a twisted and somehow intimate relationship with his Jewish maid Helen.

For over 20 years this film has been a beacon of hope and fragment of truth from a period of history that contains so much darkness. Hopefully, it can continue being that touchstone to the past so that there is never the danger that anyone would forget these catastrophic events, but also the heroes like Oskar Schindler who through their actions were able to do a great deal of good.

5/5 Stars

Hangmen Also Die! (1943)

Hangmen_Also_Die_1943There are some fine pieces of intrigue in this modest WWII period film from Fritz Lang. The plot is based off real events in Czechoslovakia surrounding the assassination of Nazi Holocaust proponent Reinhold Heydrich. Mascha (Anna Lee) finds herself admidst a web of trouble when she helps a member of the underground after he commits the killing. But the Nazis are soon hounding her and it brings danger to her father’s household (Walter Brennan) . Ultimately she is forced to choose where her greatest allegiance stands.The film features Gene Lockhart playing the Nazi collaborator Czaka. Perhaps this film is not all that realistic and the casting is not perfect (although I did enjoy seeing Anna Lee in a leading role). At the time it came out this movie functioned as an anti-Nazi film and it still packs a decent punch from that perspective. It deserves some acknowledgement at the very least.

3.5/5 Stars

Ida (2013)

28ceb-ida1At hardly an hour and 20 minutes, you would think Ida has very little to offer, but that just is not the truth whatsoever. Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski blessed us with a nuanced film full of power and strangely pleasing visuals. It’s stark, yet crisp, black and white cinematography did not have to be that way, but it looks absolutely beautiful.

In the opening sequence, we see a young nun carving a statue and then carrying it to the grounds outside. We realize it depicts Christ and it feels rather reminiscent of La Dolce Vita and yet this film has a note of reverence.

We have been transposed to Poland during the 1960s where novice nun Ida lives a simple and disciplined lifestyle within a convent. The meager plot follows her pilgrimage to meet her only relative before taking her vows. It’s the aunt who refused to take her in after Ida’s parents passed. They have never met before now.

There doesn’t seem to be much to say. In fact, what can you say? Ida has taken up a religious calling and her aunt, a former judge named Wanda Gruz, lives life the way she pleases. Men, alcohol, and smoking are all a part of that lifestyle.

Thus, they have little in common until the moment when Gruz discloses the truth to Ida. Her real name is Ida Lebenstein. She is Jewish. Her parents were killed during the War, but the details are not too clear. They can probably guess how it happened.

Ida’s whole identity is rocked because she is now a Jew within a convent which seems like a gross incongruity. Ida’s resolve is to find her parents’ resting place and so the unlikely pair set off looking for answers.

That’s about all the film’s plot right there, and though it does not sound like much, it is far more engrossing than a lot of the other fair we come across. There are moments when it feels like we are watching something from Robert Bresson. It’s simple. There are not frills but it is chock full of humanity and seemingly real characters with real emotions.

Ida is very rarely in the center of the frame, more often than not her eyes are averted, looking away from the camera. Pawlikowski also has a curious habit of focusing on one character during a scene of dialogue. It seems to denote how isolated and confused many of these characters are. It’s one of those films that leaves us with more questions than answers and that lends itself to a truly insightful viewing experience.

4.5/5 Stars

This Jesus of yours adored people like me” ~ Wanda Gruz

The Pianist (2002)

e19e4-the_pianist_movieDirected by Roman Polanski and starring Adrien Brody, the film chronicles the life a brilliant pianist named Wladyslaw Szpilman, who has his life interrupted by the Nazis. It is 1939 and Wladyslaw is living with is family in Warsaw. However, because they are Jewish they become branded by the star of David, then they are sent to a ghetto, and finally concentration camps. They stay together as long as possible but then by pure luck Wladyslaw is saved from the camp. He gains help from non-Jewish friends and desperately struggles to survive. Eventually he is found is his hiding place by a German officer who actually spares him in part because of his musical skill. The Russians march in and Szpilman goes back to being a pianist. This film was near to Polish director Polanski’s heart. He might not be thought of as a hero and his survival may have been partly luck, but this does not make his story any less inspiring or powerful.
4.5/5 Stars


The Pawnbroker (1964)

Starring Rod Steiger with support from Jaime Sanchez and direction by Sidney Lumet, the film chronicles the present life of a Holocaust survivor turned pawnbroker. Sol Nazerman is a man who keeps to himself and he is callous to everyone who enters the doors of his shop. Under the surface, it is evident that the reason for his demeanor are his constant tormenting memories of the death camp as well as the loved ones he lost. In present day Haarlem Sol feels fear for the first time in a long while when he learns his shop is being used as a front for illegal activities. The energetic Ortiz (Sanchez) who eventually got fed up with his boss, shows his loyalty in the end. Despite his specters, Sol seemingly feels humanity after such a long time of being cut off from the world. Steiger gives a stunning performance and although sometimes it seems confused, I think this is an important film to see.

4/5 Stars

The Great Dictator (1940)

ac211-the_great_dictatorStarring Charlie Chaplin with Paulette Goddard, this satire blatantly critiques Hitler and the Nazis. The film opens during WWI where a little solider (Chaplin) saves an important military man. However, as a result he lands in a hospital with amnesia. All the while the power hungry dictator of Tomania, Adenoid Hynkel (also Chaplin) is on the rise. The man with amnesia returns to his barber shop in the Jewish ghetto and there he catches the eye of a beautiful girl Hannah. However, as Jews they are not safe, and even when things start improving, quickly Hynkel puts down his iron fist. The barber and another dissident are imprisoned, Hannah is in trouble, and Hynkel is ironing out his differences with Benzino Napaloni. However, after a gutsy escape, the barber poses as Hynkel and makes an impassioned plea to the people.

I see this film as a drama full of pathos. It is important to realize that is is not trying to make light of the situation but it is in fact condemning what Hitler was doing at the time. I think that is part of the brilliance and universality of Chaplin’s films. He could balance drama and comedy so aptly, making it possible for him to tackle this controversial topic head on. Furthermore, even though this was his first true talkie he still kept one foot in the silent age in his portrayal of the barber (very similar to the Tramp), and yet he also acknowledged the very present danger of Hitler. This film has some wonderful moments, but I think the two that really stick out are the opening speech by Hynkel which blatantly derides Hitler’s mannerisms and rhetoric. Then, in a complete 360, Chaplin gives his powerful speech aimed to rally mankind. Overall, it is a stellar duel performance from Chaplin and Goddard is as radiant as ever. That mustache certainly did not hurt the film either!

5/5 Stars