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Iron Curtain blues: A look back at the 11th European Film Panorama

In its 11th round, the annual European Film Panorama has become one of the most important cinematic events in Egypt

Hani Mustafa and Soha Hesham, Tuesday 20 Nov 2018
Cold War
(Photo: still from Cold War)

The 11th European Film Panorama which run between 7 and 17 November, opened with Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War. A romantic take on the life of folk artists under Soviet influence, like Pawlikowski’s previous film, the best foreign-language Academy Award winner Ida – the story of an orphan girl who is about to take her vows at a nunnery when she discovers she is actually the daughter of Jews killed during the Nazi occupation of Poland – it shows a fascination with history and is shot in black and white.

Cold War, which won the best director award at Cannes this year, is set between 1949 and 1964. It does not deal too directly with history, but rather employs the US-USSR polarisation as a backdrop. It opens with a shot of a folk musician singing and playing a local woodwind instrument in a remote torn-down church, preparing the viewer for the story of Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), a composer who, working with his team of musicians, is in search of folk songs that can be recomposed and developed for a major performance in Warsaw.

The script trails Wiktor and his assistant as they move from one village to the next looking for the perfect melody, a sequence that ends with a young peasant girl singing “Two hearts, four eyes, crying all day and all night”.

Now Wiktor is picking young talents to be part of a folk ensemble, and among them this passionate blonde girl named Zula (Joanna Kulig) with whom he falls in love. As the drama developed the couple are separated when Wiktor decides to seize the opportunity of the folk ensemble performing in Berlin and defect to the western side of the city and whence to Paris.

But Zula does not have the courage to follow him, and even when they finally reunite in Paris at the end of the film she feels so estranged she ends up returning to Warsaw and so forcing him to return – to be tortured and jailed before he joins her at the same remote church ruins.

The beautiful song that summarises the tragedy of the film is heard first as a folk song, performed by Zula and then the folk ensemble, before it is recomposed as a classical aria on stage and (later) performed by Zula as a jazz number at a nightclub. Each time it expresses a different emotion as the camera reveals Zula’s expression. The first time she is overwhelmed by the joy of an audience and of being in love.

The second time Wiktor has already fled, and her feelings of abandonment are evident. He attends the troupe’s performance in Yugoslavia in 1955, but must leave before they have a private moment together when local secret agents take him to the train station and urge him to return to Paris before he is deported back to Warsaw. Here as elsewhere in the film Pawlikowski’s shows the couple’s love and desire with astounding sensitivity.

The Death Of Stalin
(Photo: still from The Death Of Stalin)

The Cold War was the subject of another film in this year’s Panorama, The Death Of Stalin, British director Armando Iannucci’s dark satire about the battle for power in the aftermath of Stalin’s death on 6 March 1953. Marx’s famous maxim, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce” is enacted here to the letter.

The film opens following a Mozart concert on the radio with the director of Radio Moscow receiving a phone call from Josef Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) asking for a recording. He panics, since the concert was not recorded.

Already, as he starts yelling at everyone in the hall, musicians and audience alike, telling them to stay where they are, it is clear this is the farcical side of history. “Don’t worry, nobody’s going to get killed, I promise you. This is just a musical emergency!” In this way laughter reflects the fear that was state policy under Stalin.

Before the recording is handed to the presidential security personnel who will take it to Stalin, the pianist Maria Veniaminovna Yudina (Olga Kurylenko) manages to slip a piece of paper in the envelope. Reading the message on this piece of paper, “Josef Vissarionovich Stalin, you have betrayed our nation and destroyed its people. I pray for your end and ask the Lord to forgive you. Tyrant!”, the most powerful man in Russia chokes and falls on the floor. Truth literally kills him.

Now the deceased’s comrades in the Central Committee Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) and Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) try to find a doctor who can save him, but all the good doctors have been jailed or killed for conspiring to assassinate Soviet leaders.

Much of the comedy derives from exaggeration: Khrushchev is clownish, Stalin’s deputy Malenkov is the idiotic puppet of the internal affairs minister Beria and so on. While the funeral is being organised, Beria and Malenkov are scheming to take over before anybody else can do anything. But Khrushchev has already convinced Field Marshal Zhukov (Jason Isaacs) to support him against Beria as he accuses the latter of conspiracy and treason. Immediately after the funeral, as a result, Beria is executed.

The Guilty
(Photo: still from The Guilty)

The face of guilt

Danish filmmaker Gustav Möller’s low-budget drama, The Guilty has only one, indoor location. It has no gripping action or absorbing landscape photography. But the screenplay by Möller and Emil Nygaard Albertsen is so tight, the direction so effective and the performance of actor Jakob Cedergren as the emergency police dispatcher Asger Holm with his broad, unsympathetic face so perfect there is not a moment of boredom or frustration.

Asger is told off for taking a private call on his shift – an urgent matter apparently concerning a trial – after which he sticks with emergency calls. Gradually, as his impatience asserts itself, it becomes clear that this is not Asger’s usual duty and that the reason he is here has to do with the trial about which he received that private call.

He remains apathetic until he receives a strange call from a woman named Iben (the voice of Jessica Dinnage, who does not appear once on screen) calling him “sweetie” and pretending to know who he is.

With a patience and concern that astounds his colleagues, Asger listens and engages for a long time until he discovers that Iben has been kidnapped and is pretending to be putting her little daughter to sleep over the phone, the only way her kidnapper would allow her to make a phone call.

The mother of two small children, Iben’s kidnapper is her brutal husband, who is holding her at an unknown location. Using yes-or-no questions, Asger finds out she was taken in a van and as he calls her terrified five-year-old daughter, who is alone in the house with her baby brother, fellow policemen and eventually also Iben’s husband Michael, a fascinating twist is gradually revealed.

And in the process of discovering the guilty parties in this complex family drama, Asger is forced to reflect on his own guilt (it seems he is being tried for police brutality).

Möller’s debut feature, which received such awards as the the Audience and Youth Jury awards at the Rotterdam Film Festival and the Critics’ Choice Award at the Zurich Film Festival, could never have worked without Oskar Skriver’ brilliant soundtrack making the most of minor and background noises as well as variations in tone.

(Photo: still from Pororoca)

Romanian filmmaker Constantin Popescu’s Pororoca is named after a kind of tidal bore that travels at up to 800 km per hour with waves up to four metres high in the Amazon and adjacent rivers. In the Tupi language, it means “great roar”.

Popescu’s third feature, it offers an escalating drama in the life of a small family. Tudor (Bogdan Dumitrache) a banker, his wife Cristina (Iulia Lumânare), an accountant, their seven-year-old son Ilie (Stefan Raus) and five-year-old daughter Maria (Adela Marghidan) live in an upscale flat in suburbia, a ten-minute walk through beautiful forest to a nearby park where Tudor takes the children to play.

Tudor is a protective family man: he threatens a male client of his wife’s who appears to admire her without said wife’s knowledge. But while he is making phone calls at the busy playground he loses sight of Maria and she disappears – never to be found again.

Cinematographer Liviu Marghidan beautifully contrasts serenity with panic in the same setting as he shows Tudor with his children and then Tudor’s search for Maria up and down a small hill. After the police give up the search Cristina leaves with Ilie, blaming Tudor. And so Tudor begins his own search, identifying a possible abductor from pictures taken by other children’s parents of the playground that day.

Popescu’s strange style of having more than one tense conversation in the same scene – Tudor phoning while an old woman debates a young man about whether he should bring his dog to the park, for example – ends up being very difficult for viewers who are following subtitles. But Dumitrache and Lumânare’s performances are both brilliant as they depict the steady collapse of the family, both parents losing their minds – and Tudor’s final revenge.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 15 November 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Iron Curtain blues

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