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Karlovy Vary Film Festival 2012: Beyond the Hill, Barbara, Holy Motors, & More

The global economic maelstrom found a way to creep its way into the 47th edition of the festival—but only for a moment.

Karlovy Vary International Film Festival 2012: The Joke, The Silence of the Sea, Beyond the Hill, Room 514, Barbara, Holy Motors, & More
Photo: Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

The global economic maelstrom found a way to creep its way into the 47th edition of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival—but only for a moment. The first few days saw slower ticket sales than usual: In past years, all of the (non-industry/press) tickets for next-day screenings would be gone by 10 in the morning, while this year it was still possible to find tickets for less hotly anticipated titles the day of. And on the third day of the festival I saw Claude Miller’s The Best Way to Walk in a theater with at least 20 empty seats—which is almost unheard of for this festival. However, since July 5 and 6 are national holidays in the Czech Republic, there was a swell in attendance and the festival became its usual teeming not-a-seat-left-empty place. And so, as always, the city hosted nine days of cine-paradise.

The festival’s dedication to keeping the images of its country’s rapturous cinematic history alive never ceases to amaze. This year saw screenings of four Czech classics: Milos Forman’s The Firemen’s Ball, Jiří Trnka’s Old Czech Legends, Štefan Uher’s The Sun in a Net, and Jaromil Jireš’s boldy anti-communist The Joke. Jireš’s film, based on Milan Kundera’s first novel, swishes back in forth in time between the ‘40s and ‘60s to tell the story of Ludvik (Josef Somr), a man who’s bitterly held onto a grudge from decades ago, when old friends construed a joke he made as an anti-communist attack and voted to kick him out of the university. This betrayal resulted in Ludvik landing in the (politically) “unfit” section of the army, having to work in the mines for six years. The sorrowful thing is that, while this is a film about a man’s attempt to get over the wounds of the past, by crosscutting between the two decades, Jireš, by way of Kundera, suggests that the crippling post-war communist ballyhooing and herd mentality of the ‘40s, which led to the trampling of anyone on the “outside” of the accepted ideology, is far from gone—which, at the time of the film’s release, following the Soviet invasion of Prague in August 1968, couldn’t have been closer to the truth. Thus, old wounds have to heal so that new ones can be cut open.

This year’s festival also held retrospectives of Turkish auteur Reha Erdem, Michaelangelo Antonioni’s documentaries, and nine of Jean-Pierre Melville’s films (regrettably, the four not shown were Un Flic and the ultra-rare Magnet of Doom, Two Men in Manhattan, and When You Read This Letter). Melville’s first feature, The Silence of the Sea, is set during Nazi-occupied France. Werner Von Ebrennac (Howard Vernon) is a German soldier who becomes a boarder in a house belonging to an uncle, who narrates the film, and niece in a small provincial town. The two of them refuse to speak to Von Ebrennac while he makes it a nightly ritual to come talk to—and at—them as the two sit by the fire. He likes to tell them about the glory the war will bring for France and Germany, as well as his great love for French literature. Von Ebrennac isn’t a Nazi, simply a blinded soldier who doesn’t realize the horrendous depths to which his fellow countrymen have fallen and the type of annihilative fate they’ve planned for France and its culture. Intermittently throughout the film, Melville lights and frames von Ebrennac’s face as if he were the cyborg out of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. In his first appearance on screen, the man is hit full in the face by bright light as he stands on the doorstep of the house, the light sculpting and bouncing off the angles of his face to create a harsh, almost nonhuman physiognomy. While always suspicious of this man (to the cryptic end), Melville carefully, tentatively, proposes the possibility for the healing of German-Franco relations, at some point in future history.

Emin Alper’s feature debut, Beyond the Hill (not to be confused with Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills, which also played here), is a study of male obstinacy, fallibility, and the fruitless (dangerous) need to prove ones dominance. The patriarch of a family lives far out in the Turkish countryside with a family who helps him take care of his vast land. His son and two grandchildren come to visit and all of the testosterone turns the film into a standoff between male egos, boiling down to a conflict with the nomads who live over the hill—and who no one ever actually sees on screen, tellingly so. The film ends with bursts of tragedy and violence that threaten to bloom and bleed forever on, as the ironically—and jarringly—merry rhythm of a-hunting-we-will-go melody accompanies the final images.

Room 514, one of few Israeli films to play at the festival, is Sharon Bar-Ziv’s look at corruption within the Israeli army. When an Arab family files a complaint against an Israeli soldier for unwarranted brutality, no one wants to investigate the matter, and, as the film implicitly suggests, the Israeli army is all too happy to sweep such cries of injustice under the rug. Except, that is, for Anna (Asia Naifeld), who takes it upon herself to flush out the truth. Nearly all of the scenes are handheld shots of one-on-one meetings between Anna and soldiers/co-workers. Bar-Ziv foregrounds Anna’s femaleness as a central sticking point between her and the hot-headed, scared soldiers she’s interrogating by often starting a scene with the male figure off screen, the camera hovering just over his shoulder so Anna is the focus of the frame, before finally cutting to reveal the object of her aggravation. Her interrogations are frequently and comically interrupted by her mother’s phone calls, which threaten to break her credibility as an imposing source of authority, and the soldier accused of the violent acts, who derisively refers to her as a princess, suggests that he protects the country so that people like her can sleep easy in their beds.

While there’s a clear formal strategy at play, with the handheld movement of the camera often closing in on Anna’s face (especially when the film inexplicably turns to black and white for “meditative” shots of Anna washing her face or drinking coffee), sometimes the loose movements betray an ineptness of framing and staging. Nonetheless, Naifeld turns in a strong performance, and this low-budget film strives not to point fingers or cast victims and villains (the resolution of the conflict further clouding the ideas of “right” and “wrong”—and at what price—of justice), but to present a plea for the need for transparency in internal army dealings.

Christian Petzold’s Barbara, for which Petzold won a richly deserved Silver Bear for Best Director at this year’s Berlinale, stars Nina Hoss in the eponymous role as a doctor who’s been sent to work at a tiny village hospital as punishment for having tried to escape from East Germany. The lush colorscape (saturated forest greens, Barbara’s dark blue dress, pink curtains) is a wonder to behold, each frame becoming a place for aesthetic rejoicing—and a reminder why 35mm should never be allowed to die. André (Ronald Zehrfeld), the good-hearted head doctor at the hospital, tries to befriend the initially cold and reserved Barbara, who, with the aide of her West German boyfriend, is planning on once again trying to clandestinely sneak across the Iron Curtain.

But Barbara is under close surveillance by the local authorities, who make a practice of showing up unannounced to search her apartment. Petzold turns the ringing of a doorbell and a car driving by into sounds of menace and fear, potential disruptions of her carefully laid plans of escape. As the crude injustices pile up, it becomes horrifically clear why Barbara must escape, but an encounter with a former female patient who’s run away from what Barbara describes as a Socialist extermination camp turns the denouement into a crushing exhibition of the ability of a person to transcend themselves and achieve a state of grace.

Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, the film I anticipated the most, but the one that game me the most trouble, has a maddening amount of ideas stuffed into it, and makes one want to spend years pouring over its images before attempting to come down with any final judgment. So, consider this phase one of a view that’s already flip-flopped and evolved more over the course of a week than any other opinion I’ve ever had on a film.

Denis Lavant plays an actor who spends the day being driven around in a limousine on assignments to different places where he transforms into various characters (a stooped old woman, a dying old man, an assassin, the leader of an accordion group, etc.) and acts out non-sequitur scenes whose connection to one another I’ve yet to grasp. Of the many cinema-related questions Carax seems to be addressing, one of his primary concerns seems to be examining what happens to the actor in the age of the death of the mechanical. Michel Piccoli, who appears to be Lavant’s boss, pops up in the limo halfway through the film to say that it doesn’t seem like Lavant’s heart is in it anymore. Lavant wistfully responds about how he misses the cameras, for they are now so small as to be rendered almost invisible. The maddening rate of production in the era of near-invisible recording apparatuses leads to the obfuscation and obliteration of an actor’s identity. (If there are no large cameras that one has to load with film, and light properly, think of all the time saved on setups, blocking, and rehearsal!) Lavant slips in and out of costumes and characters at such a fast pace that he hardly exists outside of the makeup and affectations of a character. We, perhaps, get to see a sliver of his real self in the Kylie Minogue-starring section of the film, but this, too, could just be an act.

Some scenes, such as Lavant playing a wild hair-munching troll, then later the leader of a group of accordion players, are either formally or narratively interesting, while others, such as Lavant as a man on his deathbed, or as an aggravated father having picked up his daughter from a party, are simply banal. But maybe that’s precisely the point. As much as Holy Motors is a goodbye kiss to the mechanical, to the physical and corporeal nature of things related to film production (cameras, film stock, etc.), it doesn’t believe in an end to cinema. Rather, despite the changes, Carax foresees a future for the art—a future which, much like the past, offers a full range of stories, characters, and aesthetic choices, some of which are triumphant successes, others barely there efforts. Holy Motors isn’t a dirge, but a waltz that begins in the late 19th century and plays through the 21st and beyond.

Furthermore, Carax proposes that cinema may be a dream of the collective unconscious (one of the first shots of the film is of a dozing audience in a theater)—or perchance cinema is the dream of one being. A man awakens from his sleep and goes over to his bedroom wall, which serves as a portal into the theater full of dozing patrons. Perhaps it’s this man who’s dreamed not just the movie but the spectators as well. (He’s created the world.) And so, tangibly mechanical objects (Bolex, RedCam, and so on) have slowly become obsolete because cinema isn’t the recording of life, but life itself.

The Karlovy Vary International Film Festival ran from June 29—July 7.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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