Posts Tagged bourgeoisie

The Cremator (Herz, 1968)

Fascism is born in the mind. We live secure in the knowledge that such minds collectively form little more than insignificant minorities in contemporary Western societies – but how much of that knowledge is based upon material fact, and how much is self-delusion? The capacity for bigotry exists somewhere within us all. And although in most cases it lies dormant (or at least translucent enough to be wilfully ignored), such volcanoes of devolution may not need the strongest of catalysts to awaken from their respective slumbers. After all, for most the delineation between normality and brutality will remain forever untested. Could it be, then, that our moral boundaries are more precarious than we’d like to believe?

Juraj Herz’s The Cremator dives head-first into the degenerative psyche of one Karl Kopfrkingl – an eccentric, somewhat awkward bourgeois fantasist who lives for social advancement. This oily, rotund character rigidly maintains his aura of respectability, priding himself on his familial and professional roles (both, for him, are fundamental status symbols). In terms of the former, our protagonist appears nigh-on faultless: the patriarch of an immaculately nuclear household, his only visible “flaw” (in Czechoslovakia c. 1938) is an overly-effeminate son and heir. And with regards to the professional, few are likely to relish their careers as much as this eponymous cremator, who zealously forges fantastical links between his own incineration of the dead and the Tibetan Buddhism of the Dalai Lama in a sincere attempt to garner validation for his work. Unfortunately for Kopfrkingl, society is slow on the uptake when it comes to the self-perceived benevolence of his undertakings, leaving him with an inferiority complex that he’ll do anything (anything) to conquer.

Bulging at the seams with its director’s visual flair, The Cremator‘s primary intent is to disorientate the viewer into incertitude. Sharp, angular compositions; quasi-abstract montages; a random deployment of fish-eye lenses; extreme close-ups that dissect and distort the human body – all contrive to impair our comprehension of an otherwise straightforward narrative. Herz’s most cunning tactic finds him cannily abusing the audience’s trust in the integrity of the audio-visual relationship through his editing: by frequently resting his camera upon Kopfrkingl’s face (as the character espouses the garrulous monologues that so pervade the film), the director lures us into a misappropriated understanding of on-screen action. On certain, unpredictable instances however, the camera zooms out to reveal a backdrop which deliberately contradicts that of the preceding shot. Thus, the dialogue continuity enacted by the protagonist is deftly exposed as an illusive device that unsettlingly conceals scene-to-scene transitions, quietly disembowelling our awareness of space and time.

Such strategies prove emblematic of the director’s diegetic formation, conceived as a dynamic duplicate of the paranoia-inducing frameworks that one more commonly associates with the horror genre. And indeed, in many respects the gruesome content of the film lends credence to his designs: given its portrayal of Nazism’s inevitable onset and the consequent upending of a tenuous national order, The Cremator effectively invites murder and mayhem into its boudoir. Less expected, though, is the macabre humour that incises its way throughout the proceedings, perplexingly undercutting the emotional intensity of the drama at hand. Kopfrkingl is riddled with bizarre quirks and idiosyncrasies – consider his casual insistence upon removing cigarettes from others’ mouths, or the wryly comical over-ardour with which he discusses his “Temple of Death”, or especially his ritualised hair-combing procedure, in which he caresses the heads of his corpses before brushing his own thinning locks – and Herz doesn’t waste the opportunity to take potshots at those of his ilk. It’s soon discovered that this ‘perfect’ family man acquiesces to his adulterous impulses with laughably ordered regularity (“only on the first Thursday of the month!”); his fastidious observance of socially-sanctioned morality a mere ruse for the simmering amorality within.

Equal parts drama, horror and satire, Herz’s anxious synthesis of tones builds – alongside his stylistic erraticism – the backbone of a brazenly eclectic approach to his material. The director exploits this schizophrenic modus operandi for two immediate ends: first, to imaginatively mould his deranged protagonist’s fragmentary perspectives into a subjective narrative of insightful vigour; and second, to goad the viewer outside of his/her standardized comfort zone until they’re assailable enough to be ambushed by The Cremator‘s disturbed nucleus. This core displays an aggressively historical bent, with the film’s integration of its late-1930s political context giving rise to the condemnation, not to mention the allegories (the Third Reich can be substituted for any other totalitarian state), that one would envisage from so curious a premise. With these reference points in mind, Herz’s high-octane tributes to the German expressionism of yore play exequially, striking purposefully and powerfully at the cultural magnitude of all that was lost following Hitler’s rapid, ruthless ascendancy.

Of course, Herz’s bereavements go well beyond the artistic; his plot acting as an eerie pre-emptor of the human tolls that would eventually become synonymous with National Socialism in practice. The director’s shrewdest study however, concerns that more intrinsic element within the ideology’s (and, later, the regime’s) rise: the gaping void of compassion. We realise early on that Kopfrkingl is a morally-deficient hypocrite, but his idealistic fluidity nonetheless startles with its accelerated descent into opportunistic savagery. Notice, for example, the slippery transience of his patriotism: initially identifying himself as “purely Czech”, he then discovers “a drop of German blood” before allowing himself to be cast as a fully-fledged Übermenschen. It’s this final transformation which initiates a similarly mercurial attitude to his own family (all of whom have been “tainted” by his wife’s Jewish heritage), pointing the way towards a Final Solution with its contemptuous dismissal and subsequent destruction of these purest of human relationships.

Whilst nourishing a culture of audience bewilderment, The Cremator‘s surface flair dualistically invents a cinematic nightmare through its visual rendering of Kopfrkingl’s psychosis. Herz exploits his myriad of techniques to create an acute psychological proximity to his deranged antihero; the intimacy marking the disquieting pith of his thesis: the style in itself stupefies, but it’s the exposition of the internal hysteria which horrifies. The director swims deep into Kopfrkingl’s troubled pneuma, bringing each of the character’s malevolent ailments to the fore for audience scrutiny (one shouldn’t be surprised when confronting a mirror image or few). Understandably, the natural effect of such devotion is to inhibit character development elsewhere. But therein lies the strength of Herz’s achievement, for Kopfrkingl’s inundation of the narrative itself becomes a commentary on the subservience accorded to and extracted by the tyrannical lunatics of past and present – the incubus being, of course, that the character is not so much a lunatic as he is a capitalist everyman and overeager conformist. As the director lurches towards his frenzied finale, the reduction of human life to anonymous archetypes fails to diminish the harrowing implications of the injustices on-screen. We need not know people to comprehend the impact of their suffering. As Herz so persuasively argues beneath the hysterics: knowledge is overrated, and empathy is everything.

Perhaps the film’s most poignant ongoing thread is the conspicuous lack of a female presence to counter the fascistic manoeuvrings of the men. Kopfrkingl’s soliloquies saturate the narrative with his pseudo-tender male chauvinism, objectifying all women (only when viewed through the prism of sexual desire can they be granted the gift of speech) and relegating their voices to the non-diegetic orchestrations of the soundtrack. Composer Zdenek Liska imaginatively moulds the sounds and strains of this feminine oppression into choral harmonies of cherubic splendour – exalting the female voice as a communicative medium of unparalleled ethereality. As our protagonist sets about extinguishing this vital life-force with methodical precision then, the absurdities of the director’s vision gradually fade away to leave only the excruciating barbarity that they once sheltered. The Cremator thus bares its teeth as a tale of loss. A loss of values, a loss of integrity, and finally – most devastatingly – a loss of humanity: that virtue which needs to be upheld against all odds. In Juraj Herz’s spiritual replication of the Nazi terror, one man’s failure to do so allows the horrifying to swiftly, effectively morph into the tragic. And as Kopfrkingl’s numerous descendants continue to remind us, that tragedy very much remains an ongoing reality.

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The Cloud-Capped Star (Ghatak, 1960)

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Wearing its melodrama firmly on its sleeve, The Cloud-Capped Star takes aim at the pre-eminent cornerstone of Bengali life – the dreaded and revered family unit – and subsequently proceeds to chew it up and spit it out with unbridled venom. Resting his gaze upon the trials and tribulations of a relatively bourgeois home in post-Partition Kolkata, director Ritwik Ghatak unearths only desolation, degradation and despair. His tale is woefully familiar: a self-sacrificial heroine, too benevolent for the unforgiving world that so spitefully disregards her, suffers an elongated decline into anonymity. But Ghatak’s work is suffused with a generosity in spirit and an ingenuity in technique which aggrandises an otherwise predictable tragedy; the film ultimately attaining a stratum of effusive spiritualism that’s singular in essence and breathtaking in experience. Our characters’ various states of dysphoria thus find themselves illuminated by humanistic brushstrokes which tactfully balance empathy alongside the director’s acuminous critiques. Star‘s compendium of politics, psychology and passion consequently scales depths of feeling that belies its parentage, gradually filtering its genre’s embellishments before culminating in a conclusion that marks an apex in exorbitant realism.

With a narrative founded upon simplicity, Ghatak offers up a parade of types – fickle fiancé, superficial sister, artistic (read: lazy) brother, hapless father, bitch mother from Hell – and uses them to repudiate the standardised deference to the family (although the pessimistic depictions of the film’s peripheral characters quite probably extends the grievance towards society as a whole). His veneration of Nita (our ever-suffering protagonist) as some sort of downtrodden saint is thus contrasted with the reduction of her relatives’ personalities to digestible traits: avaricious, self-absorbed, even hateful. Whilst Star‘s early scenes establish an aura of playfulness and warmth in these familial interactions, Ghatak’s plotting is swift in exposing the callous heart of a desperately unhappy home: consider how the recurrent bickering of the parents, initially played for comedic value, finds itself tinged with genuine contempt as the film progresses; or how the amoral vanity of the sister eventually results in the collapse of the film’s key relationship. Constantly harassed by the feuding, rapacious clan that raised her, Nita finds herself driven into the misery of total subjugation; deluded by a misplaced obligation to a group of individuals intent solely upon devouring her already-overstretched income.

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Though seething with anger at the traditions that dictate subservience to a potentially detrimental institution, the director acknowledges that shared familial bonds are indubitably natural – and thus, the problem confronting our protagonist is that of escaping her own nature; the issue compounded by the contradictions and limitations of the society in which she lives. In one of the film’s bittersweet ironies, it’s Nita’s fellow females – the permanently-embittered mother and the jealous sister with their grossly overinflated senses of entitlement – who most vigorously wield the axe of the patriarchy against her. Indeed, the only characters who appear to offer genuine concern for her debilitating plight prove to be her father and elder brother – theoretically the film’s two foremost exemplars of male dominance. Ghatak’s conception of the patriarchal order is loaded with similar subversions, and one notes that not one of the men in Nita’s life conforms to our expectations of alpha masculinity. The qualities that unite these would-be patriarchs instead reveal themselves to be cowardice and weakness, thereby resulting in a glaring inability to head so unsettled a household. It’s accordingly left to Nita to unwillingly emerge as the breadwinner in a full-time, thankless role that extinguishes her private desires (ideals and sentiments are still very much a luxury in so precarious a middle class) whilst leaving her utterly at the mercy of an unsympathetic public domain. She abnegates out of ingrained beliefs in the power of duty and devotion (“We all love each other, but we shy from saying so”), but these beliefs will come to be ruthlessly dismissed as deceitful fallacies. Amidst this mishmash of personal and collective needs, Ghatak’s message resounds loud and clear: men are merely the faces of a system that’s incapacitated without the support of women like Nita – women who exist in the background, suffering silently, invisibly.

Just as inescapable as our heroine’s spiritual incarceration is the technical flair of our director, fearless in the exploration of his creative potential. Ghatak’s stylistic idiosyncrasies embolden the film, at times courting hagiography (low-angle shots during unwanted epiphanies immortalise Nita as a goddess in turmoil) whilst in other instances repelling it (at her lowest ebbs, she finds herself shrouded in the darkness of shadows – a tactic whose effect is heightened when recalling that one of Star‘s most noteworthy elements is its astounding depth of field). The director appears as adept when wallowing in the rich pastoralism of the Bengal landscape as he does when interrogating the disordered urbania of a developing metropolis. Thus, picturesque long shots contrast with near avant-garde flourishes, the oscillations in style alluding towards a bifurcated crisis that extends beyond Nita’s increasing hysteria. The clues to this turmoil’s source lie in Ghatak’s cluttered soundscapes, themselves roaming the boundaries of diegetic and non-diegetic space: the frenzied amalgam of drums and sitars; the howling horns of passing trains; the unsettling cracks of a not-distant whip; and always, always the mumblings of a vibrant, restless society. The director aurally embeds his protagonist’s suffering into the wider narrative of his divided homeland and, in his most inspired move, borrows from Bengal’s rich musical heritage to reinforce the point: Star explodes into cathartic relief when brother and sister engage in a sorrowful rendition of a poem by the region’s cultural hero, Rabindranath Tagore, a moment that completely upends contemporary understandings of music in Indian cinema. Ghatak’s manoeuvres posit the film as some sort of modernist Bengali folk opera; his measured deployment of temporal ellipses allowing his politicised sentiments to engulf the audience much like one of the torrid cyclones that so frequently batter his motherland’s terrain. The director’s pronouncements on Partition and its traumas – infiltrating and corrupting even the most sacred of human relationships – could not be more apparent. Behind this assessment however, there lies a tribute to the resilience of a sequestered populace, clinging to their dream of eventual unity. Nevertheless, as Ghatak’s harrowing coda so poignantly realises, there are certain dreams which simply cannot be.

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À nos amours (Pialat, 1983)

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L’enfer, c’est les autres.

No filmmaker could better navigate the minefield of raw, unfettered neurosis than Maurice Pialat. Indeed, few would prove as willing to dissect and examine the maladies of the mind (let alone the ailments of the heart) in so thorough a manner – and thus, it should come as no surprise to discover that À nos amours, his choleric contribution to the otherwise asinine plethora of 1980s teen-flicks, swims doggedly within the treacherous straits between love and hate. The director’s razor-sharp incisions into the socially-venerated ideal of the nuclear family unleash a myriad of fusillades that together encompass the entire gamut of emotional turmoil: ennui, melancholia and psychosis coexist in a cluttered asylum where happiness – even the illusion of happiness – is reduced to prehistoric myth. All the while, he nourishes the increasing sexual awareness of his teenage heroine, Suzanne; the character’s hormonal impulses prompting violent palpitations of feeling that tear apart her family’s fragile veneer of bourgeois respectability. Naturally, the director acknowledges our first act of intercourse as a (the) fundamental rite of passage in the grand scheme of life, but rather than viewing it as a pivotal junction in our ongoing maturation, he interprets it as a fallacious ticket into adulthood – a world in which the afflictions of youth are not cured, but instead exacerbated by new-found nuisances (norms, expectations and responsibilities) within an increasingly apathetic society. Innocence accordingly finds itself sacrificed in pursuit of a paradise that’s forever lost (if, that is, it even existed in the first place).

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L’enfer, c’est les autres.

À nos amours‘ divergence from the conventional mould of teen dramas is instantaneously apparent, though Pialat’s scrupulous attention to detail nonetheless confounds the issue. The film’s opening sequence meets Suzanne in mid-rehearsal for a performance of Musset’s On ne badine pas avec l’amour – a play where young, would-be lovers indulge in the duplicitous mind games of their elders with dire consequences; a play in which the transition to maturity is marked with both grief and sorrow, but also a recognition of life’s inherent value. Inevitably, Pialat draws inspiration from these themes, using the literary past to illustrate his intent: young people aren’t stupid, and tumultuous emotions transcend both age and the ages. He subsequently manipulates Musset’s text to evoke the rich history of dramatising youth and its follies (“We might be children, but we are not here to play!”), and in doing so embeds his work within a tradition that stands in marked contrast to popular, contemporaneous treatments of adolescence. Therefore, it’s no coincidence when, soon after the production is complete, Suzanne surrenders her virginity to an American tourist who appears amiable on the surface (and willing to espouse liberal values) but who’s ultimately exposed as distant, exploitative and utterly disposable. Hollywood – specifically, its copious contributions to consumer culture – plays its own discreetly malevolent part in the chaos that follows.

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L’enfer, c’est les autres.

Of course, Pialat’s cinematic freak-show is anything but disposable – it’s a morbidly edifying panacea; a cathartic  pilgrimage to disaster and beyond. Suzanne’s sexual awakening rebounds upon her family, instigating a summer of malcontent in which the carnal, the feral and the dysfunctional form a regressive triumvirate that pulverises an already precarious domicile. The director lurches head-first into this middle-class purgatory, masochistically inciting the paroxysms that paralyse its hostages (masochistic for he casts himself as the indomitable patriarch of the forever-feuding clan). À nos amours‘ familial breakdown is as excruciating as it is entrancing; a circuitous dance of anguish performed with relish by its lugubrious participants: an absent father, exasperated with the mundane; an everpresent mother, incapacitated with hysteria; an incompetent brother, predisposed to physical violence; all of them, frozen into solipsistic stupors and awash with the stench of their decaying hearts. Theirs is a union ruled by mutual resentment, where relationships are strained until they create fissures that discharge volcanic outbursts of barely-repressed hate – a loathing whose fervour proves so great that its architects are compelled into the silence of self-pity and despair following its eruption. (Lather, rinse, repeat.)

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L’enfer, c’est les autres.

Within this menagerie of malfunctioning adults, Suzanne finds her adolescent angst recast as the film’s most rational sentiment by default – though her troubles are perhaps all the more difficult to surmount as a result of her age and gender. Caught in the eternal conflict between tradition (family) and modernity (friends, lovers), our heroine finds herself stripped of any bargaining power within the free market of moral perceptions. Thus, her only escape from her home-as-Hell is to choose marriage – an option that she’s evidently ill-prepared for, and which itself leads only to a different kind of imprisonment. Examining these events from a distance, the director concludes that our formative years extend well beyond puberty, whilst recognising that Suzanne’s emotional detachment is a product of her tormented environment. So when, during a midnight confession session, he (as her father) states: “You don’t smile much anymore,” hints of guilt flicker across his weary visage – he knows all too clearly why this would be the case. In a moment of stark, naked clarity, the film’s central dilemma is laid bare before our eyes: its characters are aware of the extents to which they wound and scar one another, and yet they persist in doing so, as if helplessly shackled to their own reprehensibility.

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L’enfer, c’est les autres.

This psychological bloodbath is recorded with Pialat’s typical, refreshing candour. Though it deliberately avoids ostentations in style (rendered unnecessary by his emotional content), À nos amours remains incompatible with its presumed siblings in the school of cinematic realism. The director strives for an experience more authentic than such outdated templates can offer, and so he interpolates a series of invisible affectations that disturb our relations with his narrative. Central to this approach is the elliptical editing which forms the backbone of his oeuvre; ruptures of time into which his camera seeks out the intricacies of the human condition. It’s a method that esteems sentiment over story, exposing life in all its disordered glory: characters appear and disappear without explication, scenes begin halfway and end without resolution, and the contradictions intrinsic to the everyday experience are accentuated to the point of wicked irony. Moreover, key events find themselves excised completely – for a film where sex is so frequently alluded to, functioning as both a catalyst and (fugacious) remedy for Suzanne’s abjection, its absence on-screen proves egregious; Pialat opting to invoke another of his trademarks, the reaction shot, to esteem emotional aftermaths over the physical acts themselves. Embracing the insignificant minutiae of our most prosaic tendencies alongside the outrageous excesses of our most animalistic, the director’s fragmentary temporalism strives to replicate his characters’ collective malaise in all its dishevelled breadth. Few films can claim to so hypnotically encapsulate the sensation of being both dead and alive.

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L’enfer, c’est les autres.

Pialat has a tendency to orchestrate crescendos in his narrative, only to then abandon his ascents prior to their respective apogees, cutting swiftly to another scene entirely. It’s a tactic that yields a dense collage of brawling, multi-layered sentiments that shape his characters’ behaviours whilst handcuffing his film with the perpetual threat of catastrophe. That catastrophe arrives late into the drama, in a centrepiece that notably deviates from this strategy. After successfully integrating something that resembles a stream-of-consciousness device into the cinema, he decides to grind time to a painful halt. His story’s patriarch – who spends the vast midsection of the film off-screen, having departed his merry nest for unspecified reasons – makes a climactic return at an alcohol-fuelled family dinner, casually spewing intellectual bile at all those present in the room. In these painful few minutes, he calmly articulates the many, many failings of both his family and himself, before quoting the dying Van Gogh in an act of deliciously subdued melodrama that honours the film’s sternest belief: “There’ll always be sadness.” Pialat the actor excels in these chastening moments, but it’s Pialat the director who soars. Upon nurturing one of his crescendos to its apex at long last, his ruthless quest to discern the roots of despair finally crystallises into a misanthropic apotheosis. Having plundered the fields of sadness ad nauseam, he now concludes that despair is all that there is – and thus, it follows that this must be the fundamental building block of life. The director’s love for his characters – particularly the precocious Suzanne, whose exit at film’s end offers the slightest glimpse of hope in an ocean of resignation – is pure not in spite of this chronic frailty, but rather, because of it. Pain is triumphant, turning hate into love and love into hate, yet what astonishes with the richly nocuous experience of À nos amours is how it moulds this belief into a double negative: for is despair is all there is, then, Pialat argues, why not celebrate it? Why not toast it? Or better yet, why not live it? After all, it’s all that we’ve got.

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L’enfer, c’est nous.

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