Monday, June 30, 2008

67. Russian (former Soviet) director Elem Klimov's "Agoniya (Agony)" (1981): An intriguing film

There is much that would intrigue a viewer of Agoniya.

Many may not be aware that this film was considered “worthless” in the Soviet Union after it was made and shelved for years. Director Elem Klimov made several changes to the 1975 original version and it was ultimately released in 1981 and shown at the Venice Film Festival 1982 (where it won the FIPRESCI prize) out of competition. Soon after this period, Klimov emerged as a top executive in the Soviet film hierarchy at a time when other peers, the Soviet directors Tarkovsky and Paradjanov, were considered politically “incorrect” filmmakers in that country. Interestingly, following the sudden burst of publicity following Agoniya's release, Klimov was even selected to serve on the Berlin Festival Jury in 1983 and, later, on the Venice and Cannes juries as well.

The original name of the film was Agony (Agoniya) and not Rasputin, a name by which the film was marketed for a while. The title Agony was evidently in line with what the director had in mind. If we were to accept that argument, was the director’s original film about the spiritual agony of the controversial holy man? Or was it meant to reflect the agony of Czar Nicholas, who could not go against the Czarina's total faith in Rasputin? Was the title meant to depict the agony of a great nation afflicted by the abysmal corruption among the monarchists who were there to make money while the poor starved and the indecisive Czar painted flowers to distract himself from the more pressing political problems (One fine sequence in the film soon after the Duma castigates the Czar shows the silent but mentally tortured Czar, with tear filled eyes looking for comfort in the sympathetic gaze of his loyal butler). Was the title also meant to depict the agony of the Russian Orthodox Church which was suddenly losing its grip on the lay worshippers with the rise of the Bolsheviks and “holy men” like Rasputin? We will never know unless we see the original version the director made. My guess is that the director wanted to combine all these agonies and that Rasputin, the individual, dominated only a segment of the agonizing events. What we do know is that this film and its many versions that were put out by Soviet and the post-Perestroika Russian authorities were at no point of time expected to depict Rasputin as the sole villain that led to the to the 1916 October Revolution.

The film does offer several insights into the enigmatic character of Rasputin. He did indeed accept bribes from those wanting favors from the Czar, while the film distinctly indicates that it is debatable that he loved money and wealth. He was least concerned about getting rich, because he could get what he desired without pelf. Rasputin had an ability to foresee the future but could totally misread his dreams (The film includes an interesting sequence where he rolls in a pool of stagnant water, as he can foresee his fall from grace at the Czar’s palace). He could perform small miracles, could utter saintly statements (“the cowl does not make a monk”) and believed like a village bumpkin that you could sin and then start life with a clean slate! No wonder the Russian Orthodox Church saw in him an evil rascal. What happens to him after the Church's clergy traps him is totally unclear in the version of the film I saw. Was he castrated? Klimov's Rasputin is unusual--he is an animal waiting to ravish a beautiful woman one moment, and then a religious zealot throwing out the woman for having tried to seduce him the very next moment.

While a lot has been written about actor Aleksei Petrenko’s interpretation of Rasputin, I found actor Tom Baker’s version of the historical figure in the Oscar-winning US film Nicholas and Alexandra (1971) equally fascinating. (Baker incidentally was nominated for two Golden globes for this performance--Best supporting Actor and Best newcomer). Even after Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini picked Baker for his film The Canterbury Tales (1972) following his performance in the US film, Baker found comfort in performing less-demanding TV roles.

I am convinced that Klimov’s film is less about Rasputin than about the people that surrounded him. Take the Czar, for one.

Klimov’s cinematic essay shows him scurrying away from a meeting on war preparations in dark passageways behind wall-maps worried equally about his haemophiliac son Alexei, the crown prince who is depicted as a brat. The personal worries of the Czar (in the photography dark room, in his relationship with the Orthodox Church, his empathies for his worried wife doting on her children) have been given importance, unlike Franklin Schaffner’s Nicholas and Alexandra that seemed to focus on the Czarina (Janet Suzman) more than the Czar. Interestingly, Klimov’s film downplays the Czarina’s role focusing more on the Czar.

Klimov’s range of agonies does not end here. Even the assassins of Rasputin are agonizingly guilt-ridden. Most Russians are Church-going Orthodox Christians and Klimov understood his audience quite well. The dubious role of the Orthodox Church in those troubled times are pitch forked into prominence—the film shows the burial of Rasputin officiated by the Church in the presence of the Czar.

Finally, Klimov has wonderfully used documentary footage to show the agonies of the common man—by splicing documentary footage with acted sections at every given interval to add validity to his essay on the various agonies he captured on celluloid.

While Klimov’s film shows patches of brilliance, one needs to recall that he initially made his mark as filmmaker decades before Agoniya having made remarkable satirical comedies like Adventures of a dentist. (I have yet to see the latter film; however, what both films have in common is that wonderful Russian actress Alisa Frejnlikh, who played the Stalker's wife in Tarkovsky's Stalker.) His last few films Agoniya and Idi o simotri (Go and see/Come and see) proved that he was now looking at life grimly. He was then working closely with his wife, actor and director Larisa Shepitko and was reported to be a devoted husband. Equally enigmatic is the role of Lady Vyrubova played by Alisa Frejnlikh. What was the relationship between Rasputin and Vyrubova? Probably the answers lie in the director's cut of Agoniya, which is possibly lost for ever.

I was privileged to have met Klimov at Hyderabad, India, in 1986 during a Film Festival. It was after his wife’s death. I recall that he was withdrawn and less than forthcoming to questions. Was he afraid to talk? Was he a genius who was never allowed to prove it, because of political pressures? This is probably why both Agoniya and Klimov remain enigmatic for me to this day.

Interestingly, the current Russian Prime Minister Putin was reported to have attended Klimov's wife Larisa's funeral, a very rare honor. Soon after this, Klimov who made “worthless” films was accepted within the Russian film hierarchy and even given rare prominence. But this film is definitely not "worthless," if you keep in perspective the conditions under which the film was made and under which the various versions of the film were subsequently marketed.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

66. German filmmaker Christian Petzold’s “Yella” (2007): Life beyond death

Germany’s Christian Petzold belongs to the new breed of European directors that loves to make films layered with meaning for the astute viewer. Russia’s Andrei Zvyagintsev mesmerized serious film-goers with his multi-layered films that urge film-goers to approach cinema as one would approach a challenging and intelligent puzzle to derive maximum entertainment. Spain’s multi-talented Alejandro Amenabar has proved that a holistic mix of good screenplay, music and direction can result in films that recall the precocious brilliance of the young Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane made so many decades ago. These are films that are delectable for the intelligent and patient viewer who does not demand to be spoon-fed by the director. Members of this exclusive club of directors include Austria’s Michael Haneke and Finland’s Aki Kaurismaki. In Yella, Petzold throws morsels of visual treats at the viewer. The attentive viewer will ask for more, for the less attentive it will be an invitation to snore.


“Yella” is the name of the main character of the film. (Yella is creatively linked to Wim Wender’s key character in his film Alice in the Cities, a character without a mother moving from city to city.). Petzold’s Yella has a father but the mother is either absent or not discussed, not far removed from Wender’s Yella.

Yella wears red most of the time. Now bright red is worn by many women in Europe but the color acquires a different meaning when you realize its political association with East Germany. Petzold’s Yella lives in former East Germany, full of birds, trees, rustic atmosphere and warmth. Petzold’s Yella yearns to make big bucks in the former West Germany, less populated, richer and more corrupt at corporate and personal levels.

Halfway into the film, there is a suicidal motor accident. What follows teases the mind of an attentive viewer. A desperate woman boards a train with empty compartments. A male person peeks into her compartment but leaves her alone. Much later, she realizes that the train has reached its destination and has been parked in a yard. As she strolls into town, her eyes meet with those of a woman, who is apparently well off financially and secure in an urban house. This was in my view the most powerful and enigmatic sequence in the film. Who is this woman? Is it Yella comparing what she would be like in future? When her future benefactor turns out to be a crook, Yella “helps” him. Yella herself slowly transforms into a crooked woman as a chameleon would in new surroundings, all the while yearning for the old life of her father and financially crippled husband.










The second half of the film with its almost empty hotels provides clues to understand the film, just as Amenabar progressively provided several clues in his well-made ghost movie The Others that there is something unreal. Can characters enter locked hotel rooms, eat food and disappear? Would characters who once stalked Yella be transformed into characters that Yella would herself pursue in dark alleyways outside her hotel instead of hiding from them? Who is alive and who is dead? What is real and what is imaginary? Why is the sale price of the husband’s business, eerily the same figure as the figure quoted to purchase computers? You are coaxed by your own inquisitiveness to go backwards in the film to figure that out. Somewhere floating in the water after the accident you can spot an empty can of Coca-cola, a symbol of western materialism and prosperity.

There are aspects of the film that bothers me. Why did Yella leave her husband? Because he was obsessed with her? Why is the mother figure absent? Is true love absent?



Yella is portrayed by actor Nina Hoss and the performance won her a Silver Bear for the Best Actress at the Berlin Film Festival. The film’s editor, cinematographer, and director—all three have been separately honored with minor awards for their contributions in this film. The surprise for me was that the story was written by first time writer Simone Baer, basically an established casting director. It is remarkable that Baer and Petzold should weave an interesting film around personal guilt, aspirations and quality of life. I was intrigued how a male director could delve inside the female psyche so well until I was amused to spot that the original writer was Simone Baer, a woman.

Petzold and the "club" of like-minded European directors invite the audience to think and reflect about themselves after they view these movies. These films offer interesting views on politics, ethics, business and love. They may or may not be obvious. It is for the viewer to spot them. They are not served on a platter. The story on screen remains as a pivotal point for the debate to begin among viewers. These films urge you to consider your own situation in life and reflect how you would react under similar circumstances shown in these films. Even though I viewed Yella while on a trans-Atlantic flight, I found the film worthy to be included on this blog. Petzold is definitely worth your time if you are a viewer of serious, quality cinema.



P.S. Works of Michael Haneke, Wim Winders, Aki Kaurismaki, and Andrei Zvygintsev have been reviewed earlier on this blog.
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