Monday, March 27, 2017

204. Polish maestro Krzysztof Kieślowski’s film “Dekalog, Jeden” (Decalogue, One) (1989) (Poland): A fascinating debate on atheism versus faith in God/Yahweh/Allah

Frozen lake

The ten-part Dekalog is definitely one of the 10 best works of cinema ever made for this critic. Each segment of the ten-part film Dekalog is linked to the 10 Commandments given by God to Moses as believed by Christians, Jews and Muslims.

Now many who are not familiar with subtle changes introduced into various versions of the Bible over time would assume the Ten Commandments are written in stone and will have to be the same in all published versions. This, unfortunately, is not the case. One reason for the differences pertains to sources of the Commandments (The Septuagint, Philo’s Septuagint, The Samaritan Pentateuch, the Jewish Talmud, and The Holy Koran’s sura Al An’am and al Isra) and the second, the various interpreters (St Augustine, Martin Luther and John Calvin). (Ref: Wikipedia )

When Krzysztof Kieślowski made Dekalog in collaboration with co-scriptwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz one can guess each of the Ten Commandments, each episode refers to in broad terms.  But a detailed evaluation brings into the limelight the conflict of the tale of some episodes of Dekalog with various differences in the numbering of the Ten Commandments and the subtle differences of how each Commandment reads, depending on the particular faith of the viewer.

Now Dekalog, One refers to the First Commandment I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt have no other gods before me.  The story of Dekalog, One can be deconstructed to accommodate two conflicting views about God derived from two adults in the life of a 12 year old precocious boy called Pawel.  The father, Krzysztof, is a university professor who believes in reason and scientific methods. Pawel’s mother is apparently abroad.  Pawel has an aunt Irene (Krzysztof’s sister) who deeply believes in God unlike her brother.  

Pawel and his brilliant rational professor father, Krzysztof

Young Pawel is close to his father and shows off the computer skills he has learnt from his father to his aunt Irene. He can lock the door of his apartment using remote control with the help of the computer. He can even open water faucets by a similar method. However, the clever Pawel is also a sensitive boy who is shaken by the sight of a familiar stray dog that has died near his apartment.
When Pawel asks his father “Why do people die?” his father answers: “It depends—heart failure, cancer, accidents, old age..” 

The million dollar question from a 12-year old

Pawel persists: “I mean what is death?”

His father Krzysztof explains, “The heart stops pumping blood. It does not reach the brain. Movement ceases. Everything stops. It is the end.”

Pawel continues “So what is left?”

The father answers his son: “What a person has achieved; the memory of that person.  The memory is important. “

Now the film’s character Krzysztof could easily be associated with (or an extension of) its director Krzysztof Kieslowski, who had publicly stated that he was an atheist. The third Krzysztof of the film is the co-scriptwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz, who is publicly a Roman Catholic. This critic is convinced that Piesiewicz is possibly one of the finest scriptwriters in the history of cinema even though he is primarily a politician and a lawyer.

Pawel's aunt Irene is the optimistic theist 

In this amazing film, despite all the knowledge and scientific reasoning and calculations and a physical personal check of the ice that covers the frozen lake, the ice breaks.  There does seem to be a parameter beyond science and reason and physical reassurance that the calculations are correct.  Krzysztof, the father, calculated if his son’s weight could crack the ice and found the ice would hold. For the university professor, computers, mathematics and reason, is more trustworthy than God.  In 1989 Poland, computers and computation was the new God. As a good father, to reassure his own calculations, he himself goes on the ice to see if it could hold his adult weight.  He is reassured as the ice holds. Yet, tragedy follows.

There is sufficient evidence on the IMDB portal’s page on Piesiewicz that Dekalog, One, Two, Seven and Eight are four episodes that were originally written by Piesiewicz. These are four of the most intriguing episodes of the 10. Conversely the other six were originally written by Kieslowski, with additional inputs from Piesiewicz.

If we accept the Piesiewicz contribution to Dekalog, One being more than that of Kieslowski, plot wise, the end of this episode falls into place. The devastated, emotionally broken, rational father goes to the church under construction to make peace with God.  The makeshift wooden altar breaks.  The falling lighted candles drip white wax on the iconic figure of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, giving the impression that the Madonna was crying. (Dekalog, One opens with a shot of aunt Irene crying as she watches television breaking news on the streets.) As the emotionally broken father leaves the church, as a good Roman Catholic he dips his hand in the receptacle containing holy water. The water is partly frozen.   A former rational professor pulls out a piece of ice resembling a Host wafer from the receptacle and contritely presses it on his forehead by himself. What a wonderful symbol of accepting God above all his rational calculations. Was Kieslowski really an atheist as he claimed to be? 

P.S. Dekalog is included in the author's top 10 films. Three other episodes: Dekalog, Two; Dekalog, Fiveand Dekalog, Seven have been reviewed earlier on this blog. The reviews of  Dekalog, Two and Dekalog, Seven dwell on the intriguing interpretation of the relevant Commandment.

This critic was fortunate to have met and talked with director Kieslowski in Bengaluru, India, in January 1980 when his collaboration Piesiewicz had yet to begin. Dekalog, Three Colours: Blue, White and Red, and The Double Life of Veronique were yet to be made. This critic ardently hopes to meet with Piesiewicz to ask him about those films and Kieslowski, now that Kieslowski is no longer with us.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

203. French director Jean-Pierre Melville’s and cinematographer Henri Decaë’s début feature film “Le Silence de la Mer” (Silence of the Sea) (1949) (France): When silence (and the camera) talks and can be more effective than the spoken word

Some of the best films of celebrated filmmakers have been their debut films because they put in all their pent up creative energy in that effort to find recognition as a director. Examples are Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), Claude Chabrol’s Le Beau Serge (Handsome Serge) (1958), Mike Nichols' Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), Steven Spielberg’s Duel (1971), Sir Ridley Scott’s The Duellists (1977), and Tony Gilroy's Michael Clayton (2007). Unfortunately, they rarely are/were able to repeat or improve on that amazing quality that is often not tailored for commercial viability but more for artistic value. 

Very few cineastes would associate the director Jean-Pierre Melville with his debut film Silence of the Sea; most will associate him with his cops and robbers action films or noir crime films, such as The Samurai, films that have a wider appeal. That's because Silence of the Sea is essentially unusual and intense filmmaking so different from the rest of his films. The film mainly is built around three characters with one talking most of the time and the other two of them rarely or almost never speaking to the camera. It’s unforgettable film-making, with amazing play of light and shadow and camera angles that recall German expressionist cinema. Of course, each of the aforementioned debut films by the different directors too had exhibited that finesse of melding the plot with incredible unusual technical quality. All these are films for the lover of quality cinema not for the lover of escapist thrills.

The uninvited guest--a Nazi officer Lt von Ebrennac (Howard Vernon)--is
 thrust into the world of a French village household comprising an
uncle and his niece duo during the German occupation

Silence of the Sea is based on a French novel written 7 years before the film was made. The novel/short-story was written by Jean Marcel Bruller better known by his pen name “Vercors.” He was part of the French resistance against the Nazi invaders of during World War II. Director Jean-Pierre Melville was born Jean-Pierre Grumbach and, like Vercors, was also a part of the French resistance with a code name Melville (after the novelist Herman Melville). And his name “Grumbach” transformed officially into “Melville,” once he launched his career in cinema. Jean-Pierre Melville almost did not make this important debut feature film, first because Vercors did not think he could do justice to his novel and refused permission to film it. Melville coaxed Vercors to a wager that he would destroy the film if any in a jury of 24 French resistance workers disapproved the final film product. Vercors reluctantly agreed to that wager. Then the debutant director Melville had to face another hurdle: two of his cinematographers left the project, one after the other. Debutant cinematographer Henri Decaë was the third choice and this was his debut as well. And what a debut that turned out to be!

The speaker and the two silent listeners: note the shadows,
the books and the piano--all important facets of the film

As mentioned earlier Silence of the Sea revolves around three characters. One is a German Nazi Lieutenant  called Werner von Ebrennac (played by Howard Vernon) and the other two are French residents of a French village—an elderly pipe-smoking man living with his niece, shown cooking and knitting indoors in most of the film’s duration. They are nameless—the filmmakers/Vercors do not name them. They represent the proud but conquered French population. For some unknown reason the house of this French duo is chosen for the German officer to stay and as a conquered nation the French family obliges but refuses to communicate with their uninvited guest.

The German officer who's changed into his civilian dress gives regular
monologues on why he appreciates French literature, as the French 
elder (Jean-Marie Robain) seems to pay more attention to his pipe

Most of Silence of the Sea is filmed in the very house the author Vercors wrote the novel. The film thus gets reduced to regular pleasant monologues of the German officer to his silent hosts in the evenings as the old man either smokes or holds his pipe and his niece is preoccupied with her knitting. The victor in war tries to communicate with the vanquished. In return, all he gets is silence, not even a visual acceptance of his physical presence.  The old man is forever seemingly preoccupied tending his pipe, and the young lady busy with her knitting.  The German is an intruder in their daily lives. The silence is not to be interpreted as a social weapon but as a moral and patriotic response. And where is the sea? There is no sea in the film. The “sea” of French men and women who disliked the German occupation opted to be silent in their adversity—a smart, cultured passive resistance, when analyzed in retrospect.  A silent rebellion that hurts the victorious enemy!

The silent listener to the German's monologue in French,
not even acknowledging the presence of his uninvited guest

The difference Vercors/Jean-Pierre Melville presents in the novel/film will bother the viewer’s conscience. The German officer is not a brute; he is cultured, well mannered, well read, very knowledgeable about music, and actually admires French writers Moliere and Racine. He even states that he finds German girls to be coarse. [A good cineaste would be quick to note the parallels between Vencor’s von Ebernnac in Silence of the Sea and Konchalovsky/Kiselava’s Nazi officer in Paradise (2016) who admires the Russian literary giants as he deals with a Russian lady prisoner in the prison camps.] Director Melville allows the old man to speak off-camera in Silence of the Sea using a voice over narration and one of the most pertinent lines he utters is “It pains me to offend anyone even if he is my enemy.” Despite the silence and impassive faces there is visual evidence that the niece is possibly falling in love with the “Beast” (von Ebrennac had deliberately mentioned how he loved The Beauty and the Beast, a French fairy tale) as she pricks her finger while missing a stitch while knitting at the precise juncture when the German mentions his German woman-friends. The brilliance of Melville’s film is the ability to get the camera to pick up subtle details of the silent couple that talk more than words. Spielberg did just that in his film Duel.

A rare moment when the niece (Nicole Stephane) looks up from her knitting
--her hurt finger is of little concern

The camera captures three sets of hands
evoking a silent conversation  of their own

The subtlety of the filmmaking is astounding in Silence of the Sea. Was von Ebrennac in love with niece or was he merely wanting to discuss his views on how the French and the Germans could be united in “a beautiful marriage.” Did the niece make a muffled adieu to the German without looking up towards the end? These are details for the attentive viewer to pick up.

Director Melville won the wager with Vercors when the jury of 24 eminent French resistance fighters that included André Malraux and Jean Cocteau and the La Figaro editor voted on the final cinematic product. The La Figaro editor was the only one who voted against the release of the film because he found he was a last minute substitute on the ”24 person jury.”  Director Melville would have had to burn his film going by the wager.  Luckily for us, Vercors dismissed the scribe’s vote on realizing why he had voted against the film.

While much of the film is shot indoors, there is a wonderful sequence when the niece is walking alone on the snow and the German guest walks past her in the opposite direction. No words are spoken. The visuals speak more than words.

Another unforgettable sequence is when the French elder visits the office of his German guest for some trivial requirement and the host and the guest note each other’s presence.  Mirrors play a role. Who is the guest and who is the host?  The roles are reversed. Words are not spoken between the two—but what the camera captures speaks volumes. That is great cinema.

The body language of actors can be more expressive than words. Essays could be written on the the very subtle body language of the niece captured by Melville and Decaë.

A hot beverage is seemingly more interesting than a guest's monologue

On the other hand, von Ebernnac’s character is fleshed out more by words.  Imagine a German even today stating that Bach’s music is “inhuman” and that Germany has that “inhuman” character. Of course, Vercors was writing a novel that presented the French being superior to Germans in his subtle manner through the words of von Ebernnac. In Silence of the Sea, Vercors/Melville present the unusual German (recall again and compare the German Nazi of Konchalovsky/Kiselava in Paradise) which makes the intelligent viewer to realize that there is rarely a clear black and white distinction when we consider an enemy—there are more grey areas. That is why both Silence of the Sea and Paradise will remain great works of filmed screenplays.

The low-angle shot and lighting are equally as eloquent as the spoken words

Towards the end of the film—the old man gives his guest a verbal response and a virtual goodbye to von Ebrennac  leaving open a book  by Anatole France with the opening quote clearly visible to his guest: “It is a fine thing when a soldier disobeys criminal orders.

Director Melville took a big risk in attempting to make this film. If any of 23 jury members did not like it, the negatives of the film could have been burnt as a part of the wager with Vercors. This is without a doubt the crowning glory of Melville’s and Decaë’s respective careers.

P.S. The Silence of the Sea is included in the author’s top 100 films. The films Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,  The Duellists, Michael Clayton, and Paradise mentioned in the above review have been reviewed earlier on this blog.