Quentin Tarantino used words to transcribe the initial slaughter of helpless Jews in Inglorious Basterds, while Steven Spielberg opened Saving Private Ryan with an iconic image representing their hope for salvation: a sepia-toned American flag waving in the wind. Amazingly, Tony Gatlif infers the devastating brutality of the former while deconstructing the overt symbolism of the latter with the staggering first shot of his WWII drama Korkoro, in which the separate rows of a barbed wire fence bob up and down mirroring the hopeful piano keys playing on the film’s enigmatic soundtrack. The image foreshadows a requiem for many dreams, none more so than the band of Roma gypsies populating the film’s disturbingly quiet landscape. Mostly though, the image retains a magical, almost organic feel to the horrific references just beyond the frame.
The roving Roma family of “undesirables” at the center of Korkoro (which means “freedom” in the Romani language) are economically impoverished but emotionally spirited, traversing the country roads of Nazi-occupied France circa 1943 with a defiant will to be independent of the conflicts raging around them. Through a loose series of vignettes, the film charts the Roma’s meandering and futile quest to survive outside the realm of fascist menace and national disenfranchisement. Of course, no minority is an island in the Nazi’s eyes, and while the group’s fate may be determined by a familiarly tragic tone, their strangely disjointed travails form a more personal WWII historiography.
At the center of the Roma clan is Taloche (James Thierree), a brilliantly volatile mad man who convinces his brethren to adopt a French orphan named Claude (Mathias Laliberte), also wondering the countryside surviving day to day. When the Roma reach a small French village, they are befriended by Theodore Rosier, the local veterinarian, who takes Claude in and often brings food to their caravan on the outskirts of town. Mademoiselle Lundi (Marie-Josee Croze), a spy for the French resistance posing as a teacher, also tries to aid the Roma as the town’s Vichy sympathizers and other farmers angry at their presence endlessly harass them. Despite the large amount of characters and possible scenarios, much of Korkoro avoids the melodramatic crescendos most films would dramatize. It’s the fissures and barriers dividing these characters that are most important, and Gatlif sees the potential for evil and hope in every corner of the frame.
Like its superstitious and unpredictable heroes, Korkoro’s narrative focus is scattered, panicked, lyrical, fleeting, and tangential, playing out like a memory as opposed to a more concrete version of historical recreation. This aesthetic approach is jarring at first, but soon develops a unique rhythm that is hard to ignore. Much of the film’s personality is gleaned from Taloche’s tormented soul, whose interior conflicts are presented in sudden bursts of outward expression. In one revelatory moment, the man rushes into the forest screaming, “Fuck the earth, fuck the water,” driven momentarily insane by the contradictions and injustices around him. Later, during a similar rant, he covers himself in moss while looking upward at the swaying trees pushed from side to side by a strong wind. Like Taloche, every character becomes a piece to an incomplete historical mosaic that initially seems familiar, but eventually becomes wonderfully ambiguous. In this sense, the Roma maneuver a social landscape that is never reliable and always uneasy, and all of this uncertainty makes the film a deceptively brutal analysis on the power of psychological bliztkrieg.
While much of Korkoro avoids stylistic flourishes, Gatlif picks his moments to use cinematic language to revel in the terror his characters experience. When the Roma are forced into a concentration camp midway through the film, Gatlif gracefully snakes down a long line of prisoners staring directly at the camera, ending on Taloche and his family walking through the barbed wire gates. It’s a tracking shot of grace and precision, but also one that directly points to the confrontational murmurs oppressed by the film’s suffocating context.
Such traces of style amid a mise-en-scène of numbing emotional destruction shows why Korkoro is a reserved but lasting examination of collectively silent horror, in many ways something altogether disarming for its duality between normalcy and fascism. When the physical violence finally does come to the Roma (naturally in a setting closer to the heavens), Gatlif leaves the viewer with another static painting of damning emptiness. But Claude, Taloche, and the rest of Korkoro’s characters transcend victimization, making an impression on the viewer through a loyalty to their makeshift extended family. Each gives a human face to Gatlif’s terrifying final obituary (intertitles illuminating the hundreds of thousands gypsies killed by the Nazi’s in Europe). All of their souls live on in the wind in the trees.