Friday, 20 August 2010

Second Runs indeed!

Some amazing films from Central Europe 1969-71 – once banned for a whole generation, then hailed and garlanded with praise and prizes post-1989 – have resurfaced during the new millennium as DVDs. These, along with fine extras, booklets, commentaries and interviews, stem from a company called Second Run, which should be congratulated and supported.

Two Czech gems, first of all. Jan Nemec's terrific debut Diamonds of the Night (1964). WW2 with a pair of young men escaping from a deportation train. Gritty B&W cinematography and a physically gruelling yet hallucinatory experience throughout its very economical running time. Nemec was only 28, and his career suffered badly after the 1968 Soviet invasion. He was allowed to leave, to France in 1974, had a difficult period there and went to the USA – since when, apart from a credit as consultant on The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, his career unfortunately seems to have almost petered out.

The Ear (Ucho) (1970) by an older film maker Karel Kachyna, is if anything even more harrowing and technically accomplished. This is a ferocious masterpiece (think of one of Ingmar Bergman's dissections of a marriage, plus a strong anti-totalitarian theme!) Time Out called it "by far the best of the Czech movies banned when Dubcek was toppled in 1969… the bitterest and most scathing account of what it takes to get ahead in a Communist bureaucracy." It's also one of the earliest but still most frightening, concise and creepily effective films about bugging: by comparison, movies like The Conversation and The Lives Of Others seem unconvincing commercial compromises that use well-known actors and reach neatly reassuring middle-of-the road conclusions. Kachyna (1924-2004) stayed in Czechoslovakia, despite this, his best work, being banned until after the Velvet Revolution, 20 years later. He then got his old job back at Prague Film Academy and made features and TV films till his death, though never with the force, assurance or eventual success of The Ear, which like Nemec's film belatedly won prizes at festivals here and there when it resurfaced…

A few excellent Czech filmmakers such as Jiri Menzel of Closely Observed Trains also stayed put, experiencing many difficult years of state disapproval, limbo and/or censorship; others, like Forman and Passer, took off via France and New York and ended up in Hollywood, with varying degrees of success. Best of all their emigré products is perhaps the finest film Ivan Passer ever directed, a poignant and gripping thriller called Cutter's Way (1981). It's adapted from a neglected noir classic, Newton Thornburg's novel Cutter And Bone: both film and book are highly recommended and both have stood the test of time, like all the works mentioned above.

Last but by no means least, the Polish director Andrzej Zulawski's stunning debut, an original masterpiece from 1971, The Third Part Of The Night. In superb colour, and with some quite extraordinary handheld camerawork (which incidentally, doesn't give you a headache, despite the fact that there was no steadicam then, and cameras weighed a ton!), this is a terrifying and terrific piece of work. Supervised by the great Andrzej Wajda – who had supported and worked with so many contemporaries and younger colleagues from the famous Lodz film school, Polanski, Munk, etc – TTPOTN seems hallucinatory enough, but is actually almost documentary to the core. In fact, this film, co-written by Zulawski and his father Miroslaw, is closely based on the latter's horrific wartime experiences. (Certain sequences involving lice, for instance, are not for the squeamish: if Lautréamont were a filmmaker alive today, this section of the film, and its apocalyptic, anti-authoritarian, sardonic tone would surely have appealed to him!) But it seems that Zulawski, born in the 1940s and thus the youngest of these three masterly Central European film directors, then ran into career problems similar to those encountered by most of the other filmmakers mentioned above. By all accounts he has never quite matched this first, shattering classic. He too moved to Paris and continues to make films there. I've ordered a copy of Possession (1981) his horror movie featuring Isabelle Adjani, Sam Neill and Fassbinder's Margit Carstensen, and shall expect some effective grand guignol gruesomeness, even if it can't rival his brilliant early achievement.

We watched these three superb works recently, having borrowed them from our excellent city Library. So, little Cleggerons and Camerleggs, whichever ambitious and uninformed bureaucrat within your fudging "coalition" is charged with cutting supposedly expensive luxuries – those perceived as soft targets (eg. literature and the performing arts) – kindly do not chop, or further squeeze, funding for the UK's hitherto wonderful public libraries! And on the subject of libraries and library borrowing, why be so miserably stingy year by year with Public Lending Right? If, in times of such austerity, the UK can still afford to finance distant, interminable and pointless wars, and to pour money into really useful and/or deprived areas like Trident, banker's bonuses, and the Pope's forthcoming visit, then why should books and films – so much less destructive and more enjoyable – miss out?

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