This is an overview of two fabulous films I watched recently. One is a brilliant film shown in Cannes, the other one is a cult classic featuring in the hall of fame of the flops.
I learned the name of Leviathan (2014) while trying to find about Deux Jours, Une Nuit. Like Deux Jours, Leviathan was also shown in Cannes in 2014 and was nominated for Palme d’Or. The poster of the film was equally eye-catching — a man sitting on a rock with a giant whale skeleton lying in front, on the seashore. I wanted to watch the film since, but the opportunity didn’t come until last month.
It was a stunning film. At the end of it, I was speechless. The protagonist of the film resembled a typical example of a Shakespearean tragedy. There are instances when you think that the situation couldn’t get any worse, but it does, and it’s relentless. It was an example of the power struggle on the fringes of Russia, where Moscow and its influence means nothing to the power sharks. It’s a tale of exploitation, desperation, disillusionment and betrayal. Shot in the Murmansk Oblast, Leviathan showcases the murky backdrops to set the dark tone of the film. The dilapidated infrastructure, symbolic shooting of the Soviet leaders’ portraits, the ostentatious focus on the word Pravda (truth) by the Orthodox Church priest — it heralded a Russia far away from the shining riches of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Here, despite the camaraderie in the working class people, they live in fear, they don’t go against the flow, although inherently, there is a deep-seated hatred and disappointment of being deserted in the past.
Leviathan won international accolades just as it did criticism from the Russian cultural ministry for wrongly depicting Russian rural lifestyle where people stay drunk all the time, they bicker and commit adultery, the church brainwashes corrupt politicians. We don’t know the truth, but I can draw parallels to another brilliant film I watched many years back called Manorama Six Feet Under. In both films, politics was shown as the source of power, and exploitation that the usurpers cherish to the fullest. In an Indian backdrop, there was no doubt that the film was based on truth. For Leviathan, I’d like to be proven wrong, but for now, I believe the story is almost a true depiction of life at the far reaches of Russia. However, internationally acclaimed films about Russia are perhaps needed to be taken with a pinch of salt, where most of the successful films are found to be castigating the Soviet past.
Apart from the worrying storyline, Leviathan features brilliant acting, some breathtaking views, and beautiful music scores. Although halfway into the film, you’d start to hope that something positive happens to the central character Kolya, and hope there is some justice, that justice doesn’t happen. Leviathan is not a story that fills the viewers with a feeling of optimism and hope. Instead it drives home the message that life is not fair and it is controlled by the people with power. For the rest, it’s just a story of survival. It is a remarkable film and I’m glad I finally managed to watch it, although it took me three years.
For the other film, I don’t know where to begin. I’ve often written about brilliant films, that change your whole perspective about cinema and its role in our lives. The Room (2003) is certainly not one of them. The Room is, on the contrary, something that’s known as SBIG — So Bad It’s Good. And when someone makes a film featuring the filmmaker of that original film, you’ll have to admit it must be spectacularly disastrous.
The Room is the brainchild of Tommy Wiseau. It was originally played in theatres, but Tommy was so inspired by it that he wrote a book. When nobody published it, he decided to produce a film. The end result is The Room, where Wiseau played the protagonist apart from his many other credits. When within five minutes into the film, Tommy has sex with Lisa, the female lead of the film, and within another ten minute, the same scene is repeated, you know that this is going to be hilarious. Even porns have a better script and acting on them. The Room has nothing to boast about. The film is all about a banker Johnny in San Francisco and his fiancée Lisa, who has an affair with Johnny’s friend Mark. The story revolves around Johnny’s obsession with Lisa, Lisa’s lack of love for Johnny, and then Mark’s hesitation in choosing between Johnny and Lisa. Outside this, many characters pop in and out but fail to play a significant role. The script is incoherent, the acting is amateurish, editing nonexistent. It felt as if a dictator trying to make a film about himself. Tommy kept changing the dialogues, forcibly inserted scenes that had no relevance to the film like men playing football in their tuxedos. The budget for the film apparently surpassed $6 million whereas the first two weeks taking in the box-office came to about merely $1900! The Room is an ultimate disaster movie, with Tommy Wiseau at the helm.
With such a catastrophic start, one would expect the film to end up in cold storage with some old DVDs turning up in 99p stores in some remote seaside town. Possibly with a two for one offer. But The Room was destined to become something else. A legend. A cult classic. So 15 years since it was first released, The Room has its range of arcane followers — it often had midnight screenings across San Francisco, where Tommy Wiseau attended many times and posed with fans. Apart from this, Tommy Wiseau was an enigma to the crowd. The Room is his only prominent screen appearance. Nothing is known about his past that he claimed, like being of Eastern European origin but growing up in Paris. There were speculations that he made the over-budgeted film to get rid of the black money earned from dubious sources. Speculations led to many researchers delve into Tommy’s past life. And when Greg Sestero, who played Tommy’s friend Mike, wrote Disaster Artist about making of The Room, that opened up many facets of Tommy as well as unknown facts about the film. Hollywood rejected Tommy Wiseau in The Room, but then, thanks to its eccentricity, The Room will be reborn in Disaster Artist (2017), the screen realisation of Sestero’s book.
Sometimes in our life, we encounter things that are good and things that are bad. It’s the way of life. Both have their own roles to play. The same applies to films. You watch Leviathan, and then watch The Room and realise how good or bad filmmaking could be. What puts these two films into perspective is their budget — The Room with its extravagant spendings coughed up nearly $6m, whereas Leviathan was made on a shoestring budget of c. $4m. This only serves as an example that good films should not cost a huge budget, and you can throw millions but can still end up making a car-crash like The Room. It was a pleasure watching Leviathan, and The Room was painful to watch, but both films will feature in the hall of fame of the epic films I’ve watched — but for very different reasons.
Yet, at one aspect they both seem equal. In The Room, despite the end result was hilarious, Tommy Wiseau gave more than 100% of his abilities. He was frivolous, but it can be seen that there was not shortage of his dedication. So was Andrey Zvyagintsev in making Leviathan. Even though the end results are polar opposites, both filmmakers would still get the kudos for their dedication to tell a story they wanted to tell, irrespective of the reception.
Logan died last night. In fact, he died on 1st March this year, or in a distant 2029 — whichever way you look at it. But I wasn’t aware of it. To me, Logan died yesterday. No tears were shed, no sleepless nights, but inside I just felt something has changed forever. There was a sense of emptiness. The 17-year stint when the X-men were a part of my life has come to an end. And I know that it’s only going to get worse.
I grew up in an imaginary world of superheroes. In my early childhood, it was the comic strips of the Phantom — the ghost who walks, Mandrake the magician, Flash Gordon and alike. Then there were Batman, Superman and Spiderman in comic books and with their film franchises. All these characters had one thing in common. They were infallible, invincible. They fought many battles, they lost some, but they came back like the phoenix from the ashes. At the end of each book, or each film, you’re left with a feeling that they are there — whichever imaginary city or country they were protecting. We knew that they will bounce back. They come back. Always. Except for Phantom of course, who’d die but pass on the legacy to his offspring, who’d become the next Phantom. Phantom dies, but Phantom lives on.
When the superheroes only meant Batman, Superman or Spiderman, back in 2000 entered a new franchise that I had no idea about before. Rather than a single protagonist, they were a bunch of people. Or mutants, to be precise. The mutants on the film had remarkable powers, but like many others, I became a fan of the Wolverine. He wasn’t endowed with supernatural abilities, but when you gave up hope, Wolverine was the one who was in charge. A hard grafter, almost fighting with a feral instinct. That’s why in films like The First Class, you end up waiting for more since you don’t see him much. Wolverine became the next sensational superhero. X-men is the only film series that I waited as eagerly as Harry Potter films, and that tells something about it. Now knowing that Wolverine dies, the interest in any further X-men film has ebbed away. X-men won’t be X-men without Wolverine. Period.
After the initial moments of numbness, I tried to think why have I been so upset? Ultimately, it’s just another fictional story, created to earn millions in the box offices across the world. It is a big franchise and the crew cannot continue forever. It had to come to a stop. Better this way than like The Last Airbender, that created a lot more expectation and then fail to follow through with the sequels. So, what was the root of this sadness? There are many reasons, as I thought about it. Death is perhaps the main factor. We saw Wolverine die, and Professor X. Death came as a finality. I’ve known people, who passed away unexpectedly, and it is difficult to come to terms with that. Perpetuity is something we probably seek unconsciously, and comic book characters that withstand the test of time could provide that permanence. Many Golden era heroes have passed that acid test and are still equally popular after possibly four generations of readers. The untimely deaths of Wolverine and Charles broke that promise of permanence. We watch throughout the film how Logan is struggling with his health. Although in many scenes it was alluded that he is really ill, viewers could still hope that by some miracle he’ll wake up again, and perhaps even rejuvenate. But that doesn’t happen.
And waiting for that miracle, we see how powerless Logan and Professor X has become. They are shadows of their past, or more precisely ghosts. They seemed like mere mortals. They lived hiding away in a disused factory. Even on the run, they don’t really stay on focus. They looked like a spent force. Expendables. They live in a virtually mutant free world. There wasn’t anything left to fight for. 2029 represented a world where no X-men are left other than Wolverine and Professor X. Charles possibly killed all the mutants in one of his bouts of uncontrollable mental waves.
But the more pertinent reason was the end of hope. Watching films or reading books about superheroes makes you push the boundaries of your imagination. They make you believe in the supernatural and that all these things are possible — at least for the duration of reading the book or watching the films. Watching them become powerless permanently — their commonness take away the sanctuary inside your mind that somewhere there is this person who can kick some ass to the bad guys. A concept similar to god in a way. More so because in your mind you know they can do bugger all; they don’t even exist. Logan featured this death of hope. He remained a tour de force in almost all X-men franchises but suddenly he’s gone. Not disappeared mysteriously so he could make a dramatic entrance later on like Jane in X-men three. But he died. And he was dying throughout the film, it was not a sudden shock. Like all death, Logan reached the finality of the Wolverine. That’s when the hope finally evaporates away.
The death of Wolverine may not mean much as far as the film franchise is concerned. Although Hugh Jackman hinted that he will no longer play Wolverine, with a right script and a right fee, he may change his mind. The possibility of Wolverine being featured in a film is still big. We know now that he dies in 2029. That’s still 12 years away, and there can be as many X-men films as possible. Even after 2029, films can be set in the past like we see The Wolverine set in 1945. As long as Hugh continue to look like the invincible Wolverine seventeen years back, he can carry on X-men film franchises. So, it is still possible to see Hugh play Wolverine in future.
But it won’t be the same. In the past films, you knew that Wolverine will be back again. He’s less of a mutant, but more savage. But after watching this film, no matter how savage Wolverine appear in the next film — if there is any — Logan with all his vulnerabilities and resignation will come back to mind. Death, as the great leveller, has claimed another victim, who will now fade into oblivion.
As the next generation matures, X-men will probably become a thing of the past, just as are the Arnie or Stallone films to the present generation. The tapes will remain, and their hay days will live on through the dusty memories of the parents and grandparents who once dreamt of doing what they were doing on the screen when they grew up. Wolverine is not there yet, but we can say Logan marked the end of that era. Memories of Wolverine are still vivid, and that’s how we’ll remember him — the pain in his eyes, yet the savage outlines of his face, always on alert, trusting no one and finally, with his shiny Adamantium claws that hadn’t become rusty with disuse. The Wolverine who dominated my cinema experience in my twenties and thirties. Logan has been the swan-song of an exciting seventeen-year stint. It’s a shame that he chose to end Wolverine’s legacy and dash any hope that Wolverine will live on, like all other superheroes that were created. But then, it’s Wolverine. He’s the perennial bad boy; since when did he play by the rules?
So 1st March 2017 is the day when the hope ended. That mutants and humans will live side by side. A vision that Logan himself was very sceptical of. Melancholy is a profound word, probably not applicable to superhero films. But it was melancholy that filled my heart, seeing something, that has been a part of me, end. The last scene was pretty symbolic when Logan’s daughter turns the cross over his grave into an X. It could be a symbol of optimism, similar to le Roi est mort, vive le Roi. Or, it may mean that the story of X-men ended there, with the last true X-men biting the dust. Who knows what’ll happen to the mutants now?
In my previous blogs, I have often mentioned about serendipity. It’s a magical word, and the effect of serendipity in our lives is even more astonishing. One such example would be how a great inning from the maestro Sachin Tendulkar would lead me to Blade Runner and the C-beams speech, and following that through to my revelation about the science fictions in Hollywood.
It was the summer of 1998 when I witnessed what is known as “The desert storm” — Sachin dismantling the ominous Aussie bowling attack in Sharjah. The ferocity and sheer brilliance cannot be explained to anyone who hasn’t witnessed it. It was devastating and lyrical. The next day as I still reminisced the flurry of strokes by the little master, I came across a compilation of musical scores. One of them caught my interest instantly as if it complemented the replays of the previous day going through my mind. I noticed that the music was called Chariots of Fire, a tune I had heard many times before, composed by none other than Vangelis.
Fast forward a few years, when I’m working and have all the money to splurge as I have no outgoings. Finding Vangelis albums in Calcutta was extremely difficult as the handful of well-known music stores mainly stocked what the most people wanted — 90’s boy bands, 80’s rock and 70’s pop. Who’d be interested in a Greek electro composer? Still, I found luck and the old love rekindled. Each CD cost equivalent of £50, but I still bought a few. Apart from albums like Chariots of Fire, China and Antarctica, there was another compilation album called Themes. That’s where I came across Blade Runner first. It was the title soundtrack of the film, and unlike the serene Antarctica or China, the music was strikingly different. The music seemed completely in sync with the name Blade Runner as though the protagonist running against time — the Laser beams shooting past him in a futuristic world. Learning from hearsay, later on, I thought it’ll be another cop film. But regardless the genre, Blade Runner compositions has been permanently etched in my memory.
Let’s blitz past another decade. The year is 2017. I came across reviews of the Blade Runner 2049, the sequel to the original film. The superlative reviews, about how the sequel befits the original film perfectly, made me want to watch Blade Runner, which, despite initial low earnings, is now hailed as a cult classic. However, a lesson I’ve learnt watching Tron: Legacy is that I should at least learn a little about the original film if I’m going to watch the sequel first. And that’s how I decided to watch Blade Runner.
This brings me to the role of serendipity again. I needed all these preludes to tell a story behind deciding to watch Blade Runner. The rest is pure magic. It is undoubtedly one of the best science fictions I’ve ever watched. Set in 2019, this doesn’t perhaps resemble the world we will be living in two years, that most of Earth’s populations will set sail to intergalactic colonies, and there will be flying cars and replicants. But when you think that the film was made in 1982, the concepts of the film and visual effects are mind-boggling. Most of the film features a bleak backdrop — a dystopian LA full of darkness and dereliction. And throughout the film, the music from Vangelis casts the web of magic that complements the feeling of noir in the film, yet in a dreamy world. He pulled all the stops in making the soundtrack for the film — from Indian classical instruments to techno-synth — and the result is magical.
I’m not writing a film review here, so I won’t go into the nitty-gritty of the film. But it was an amazing experience, even watching it on my iPad. All I would say is that it was a thought-provoking film, and asked many existential questions. Questions that are still unanswered and admirers are still looking for answers arising from the closing scene of the film. And then there was the C-beams speech. A speech that immortalised Rutger Hauer amongst the Blade Runner fan community. The sheer contrast of character that the viewers witness in Roy Batty during the closing climax was baffling enough when he saves Deckard from falling. Just as we begin to take in what had just happened, Hauer delivers the C-beams speech and blows us away!
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.”
The words were profound, but beyond those dramatic words superbly drafted by Rutger Hauer himself, the C-beams speech leads to another window or realisation. A realisation that the film, just like its enigmatic soundtrack, was way ahead of its time.
As we are left spellbound at the climax of the Batty vs Deckard duel — Roy Batty said his last words, the white pigeon fluttering away symbolic of his freedom, the downpour and the dark background and finally, the mesmerising music from Vangelis — the film seemed unmistakably 80’s. And it made me wonder. Was 80’s the best decade for science fiction movies? And you think of Tron, Blade Runner, Terminator, ET, Back to the future, Predator, Alien. The list goes on. And when you look at the visual effects and the concepts adopted in the films, the ideas are still fascinating even considering forty years of advancement in science and technology. At times it feels like we have let down those visionaries who depicted a picture of the future, by not advancing enough! I mean, there are brilliant science fictions since the eighties like Jurassic Park, Matrix trilogy, Inception. But the flurry of maverick ideas that we see in the 80’s seems to have been lost. The scripts are much more mainstream and cautious. We have talking robots like in Transformers, but they don’t make C-beams speech anymore.
Watching Blade Runner was nostalgic in another sense. Apart from marvelling at the concept behind the film, it reminded of the growing up, the teenage years, forbidden pleasures of going to the cinema without telling parents. I recently came across a term — Xennials, a generation born between 1977 and 1985, a crossover between Generation X and the Millennials. They are characterised by having the cynicism from the Gen X and optimism of the millennials. This unique combination is perhaps the result of an analogue childhood and a digital adulthood. Living in an analogue world meant the digital reality of today was science fiction then. The information was scarce, so science fictions opened the magic doors to a glimpse of the future. Blade Runner rekindled those memories of the past, and provide inspiration to explore the magical world of science fictions. All this due to a whirlwind inning nearly twenty years ago. Butterfly effect? I call it serendipity.
Josef Mengele. Der Todesengel. The angel of death. Just thinking of the name makes my skin crawl. I don’t know if it’s just the name, or remembering the atrocities carried out by Mengele with a fanatical glee in Auschwitz. So when I read the synopsis of the film about a German doctor in remote Patagonia, it took me a while to decide whether to watch it, after my mind immediately associated the story to that of Josef Mengele in his exile. Wakolda (The German Doctor in English) is a fascinating atmospheric thriller where the thin line between truth and fiction was aptly obscured by a brilliant storytelling, remarkable acting and breathtaking cinematography featuring an Andean backdrop. But beyond the taut storyline, the ominous presence of Mengele at the back of the viewers’ mind is what gave the film an eerie outlook. If you don’t know about Mengele, the film will fail to create the effect the director intended to. So, prior to watching the film, I’d recommend a little history lesson in WWII and the role of Josef Mengele in the extermination of the Jewish population. And it’s important, not just to understand the context, but to understand the horror of the WWII that torn millions of lives apart.
The story begins in around 1960 as an Argentinian family heads to a mountain retreat named Bariloche in Patagonia, when a strange person requests to follow their car. He seemed quite interested in their boisterous girl with a stunted growth. Reaching Bariloche, where the family is trying to open their inherited hotel business, the doctor — identified himself as Helmut Gregor, offers to stay for six months in their hotel, despite having a place to stay in the town. The doctor offered to treat the girl, Lilith, against the will of her father, as she kept getting bullied in her new German school. Lilith’s mother was found pregnant as well, and knowing that she’s having twins, the doctor looks quite interested and offers to help her with the medication. As Lilith suddenly becomes fond of the strange doctor and follows him everywhere, she learns little things about him that made her more curious. Things such as Sonnenmenschen (Sons of the sun/Aryans), Blut und Boden (Blood and soil) engraved in a knife. Lilith’s curiosity gets someone else interested as well. Nora Eldoc, the photographer at the German school Lilith went to, was suspicious of the new doctor who arrived in the German community, and he seemed to have a few fond supporters including Nora’s boyfriend. She takes Helmut’s photos and sends them as evidence that Mengele was in Bariloche. But the Israeli authorities were more interested in Eichmann. As Lilith started showing some signs of growth, Helmut increased the dose that caused Lilith to have a high fever. Meanwhile, he convinces Lilith’ father Enzo to mechanise production of dolls that Enzo makes. By this time Eichmann was caught and taken to trial in Israel and Mengele knew people have started to suspect. The day they visit the factory to see how the dolls are coming along, Enzo finds out from the delirious Lilith about the treatment and confronts the doctor. Enzo asks him to leave their hotel immediately but realises on his return that his wife Eva gave birth to twins prematurely and they are not breathing. Despite Enzo’s protest, Eva convinces her support to the Doctor. Helmut agrees and tells Enzo to get help from a secret address. He finds out a heavily guarded place, with a fully functional hospital, strange looking people with bandaged faces. A nurse comes with them and makes the twins stable, although it was clear that one is recovering better than the other. The next morning Eva finds out that one of the twins passed away. Helmut packs his bag and measures Lilith for the last time, showing a big growth in her height before he starts making his escape. As the Israeli officials close in on the hotel, Mengele escapes in a seaplane, heading towards Chile.
Wakolda is a strange film. You don’t see anything amiss, and that is what is more unsettling. It feels as if you’re watching a Cold War spy film, but there’s something more sinister in the plot there. It also gave a déjà vu feeling after I tried to find more about it. The film is written, produced and directed by Lucía Puenzo, the same author-director who made XXY. XXY is one of the most remarkable films I’ve watched and in my state of awe of having watched Wakolda, I thought that explains the fabulous story and filmmaking. Lucía Puenzo is one of the rare breed of filmmakers, who make films from their own stories. The entire minutiae that she must have thought of while writing the story are seamlessly translated into the scenes when she was making the film, without details getting lost in transition.
Apart from Lucía Puenzo’s phenomenal storytelling, Wakolda is a success with its casting as well. Like her previous film XXY, Lucía’s story revolves around a young character and Florencia Bado was flawless in portraying Lilith. Lilith’s character is the narrator and most part of the film is seen through Lilith’s eyes. As one of the main characters of the film, Florencia’s characterisation of Lilith, with her innocence, hesitations, her shame about her body, and yet showing her defiance, her adolescence – it was magnificent. Natalia Oreiro and Diego Peretti played crucial roles as Lilith’s parents. Natalia’s character Eva played a subdued role in the film and although she won a number of awards for the role, the character was not emphatic or significant enough in the film for such acclaim. In fact, Elena Roger, who played Nora Eldoc in the film was much more vivid than Natalie. But it was Àlex Brendemühl who stole the show. Àlex portrayed the central character of the film with a finesse. I didn’t manage to find out how Mengele’s character changed when he escaped to South America, but Mengele in this film didn’t show the devilish ecstasy that he was known to exhibit during his experiments. Except for his obsession in creating the perfect race — whether it’s the cattle, the dolls or Lilith and the twins of Eva. But perhaps, his subjects in this film were of the race he wanted to modify, and therefore was sympathetic towards them. Again, being an atmospheric thriller, Wakolda didn’t leave much scope for Àlex to express the panache of his acting ability, like we witness from Bruno Ganz in Der Untergang. Àlex’s ominous presence was expressed by his silence, curt dialogues with Lilith, his feverish scripts and notes, and above the conviction in everything he does — whether it is reserving the room in the hotel, or convincing Eva that Lilith will start growing, or getting Lilith’s father to start manufacturing factory made dolls. He possessed an imposing aura on anybody and everybody he interacted with. It seemed that Àlex was a natural choice for this role.
Los poetas escriben lo que ven, los pintores lo pintan. Yo mido y peso lo que me interesa (Poets write what they see; painters paint it. I measure and weigh the things that interest me) — Helmut Gregor on his obsessive detailing of human form.
And finally the cinematography by Nicolás Puenzo, without which, Wakolda would have been another long-winding character drama. The dramatic backdrop gave the film its momentum and created the perfect atmosphere for the suspense to evolve. Whether it was the awe-inspiring Andes mountains, the meandering roads, the tranquil lake of Nahuel Huapi and the pier, the treacherous pass to reach the toy factory — the imageries fitted into the gloomy backdrop of the film. Some of the long shots lasted for a little too long but that worked well with the slow-paced start of the story. The film also captured the seasonal changes of the region — from incessant downpours to thick snows to sparkling spring. Bariloche, which is a famous Argentinian holiday destination, is showcased with all its beauties to an audience spread across the world.
But beyond these elements that made Wakolda a grand success, it was the storyline itself that gave the film its addictive charm. In Lucía Puenzo’s own words, she tried to blur the lines between black and white, how the world wants us to see things. The viewers are left in a state of confusion whether to believe if Mengele was in fact in Bariloche during that period. Lucía chose a period when Mengele’s whereabouts were not known for six months, between the time Eichmann was caught and Mengele escaped to Chile. He was known to be seen in Bariloche. Apart from Mengele’s sightings in Bariloche, the location was perhaps chosen based on the fact that Bariloche became a safe haven for the Nazi war criminals. Lucía mixed facts with fiction so subtly that it created a thriller straight out of Forsyth books. Facts like Nora Eldoc being present in Bariloche. She was later found murdered in the mountains, and she was in Argentina to find Mengele, but the rest of the story is fiction. It looked like the murder of Nora Eldoc is covered in mystery, as was the silence of Israel government. Was she sent to hunt Mengele down by the government? It seems that we still don’t know that. Throughout the film, similar questions arise that keep us wondering how much of the story was actually true and how much falls in the realms of the imagination of the author? In his parting gesture to Lilith, Mengele takes his SS engraved knife out and flicks it over the scale where he was measuring her growth. It showed a big change in her height. Again, Lucía mentioned that even until the time of making the film, the hormone treatment for stunted growth is done pretty much as developed by Mengele. Now, not knowing Mengele and his atrocities, his departure in the film leaves the audience wondering whether he was a misunderstood person with excellent medical knowledge? Perhaps it does. But that is the success of the film. It’s like making a horror film without showing scary ghosts. The spectre of Mengele looms over the film in every scene. If it wasn’t Mengele, the film would not have been classed a thriller. It would have been a stale drama.
Serendipity is a word I learned a long time ago, and I found that best discoveries in our life are serendipities, we find them when we aren’t really looking for them. It’s most apt regarding the films I’ve watched in my life, and Wakolda was one of them. I just come across brilliant films by accident. But I only write a review when the film goes beyond the message it’s set to deliver and makes me wonder further. Especially when the thoughts are primarily regarding Nazism and it’s just last month when Germany has seen right-wing MPs to be present in the Bundestag for the first time since the WWII. Questions like how on earth the despicable criminals like Mengele have avoided the war crimes trial? It appeared that Mengele had even gone back to Germany carrying his own passport and travelled across Europe before going back to Argentina. Did the officials not know who he was or was the information kept hidden? Even 15-20 years after the end of the war, was there still an underlying pro-Nazi sympathy existing in the government ranks? Had the ghost of Nazism ever disappeared completely from Germany? Perhaps it did, and the new far-right politics is a completely new movement, but while the leaders of these new movements debunk the horrors of Nazism, it begs the question whether it was just hidden under the rug. Wakolda also showed in a brief shot a heavily guarded hospital and many people with their faced covered in bandages. It obviously hinted to the fact that many of the defected German war criminals underwent plastic surgery and avoided arrest for their life. We also see the lack of remorse in a lot of Germans featured in Bariloche, about the war, about the Holocaust, about Hitler. They lived their life as it was before, in a close-knit community, still thinking about the world order they could not build, still dreaming about the Sonnenmenschen. Amongst all such developments, one thing was strikingly evident; it was the naiveté of the Argentinian people about who they were. It seemed that the Nazis and their sympathisers had no worries from the authorities. And the Argentinians they lived around were happy to be integrated into the German lifestyle – proudly attending parties and singing Deutschland uber Alles, which was officially banned in Germany since the war. Although news didn’t spread so rapidly as it does now, it was surprising why the Argentinian government and people did not know about the horrors of Nazism and turned a blind eye. One thing that these Nazi war criminals had in abundance is wealth, amassed from the families they destroyed. It can be easily guessed where that wealth was channelled to, so they have a trouble-free life. Perhaps it was the fall of Peron regime and Eichmann’s arrest and trial that brought an end to the carte blanche the Nazis enjoyed so far.
Such questions arose and it’s never easy to find an answer. People perhaps spent their lifetime finding an answer to these mysteries. However, Wakolda also raised another question and I have an unequivocal answer to that. At the end of the film, Mengele leaves the audience wondering if he was right and his treatment was working. There might even be a small room for sympathy towards the German doctor who avoided arrest at the last minute by catching the plane. But the Josef Mengele depicted in Wakolda is not the person who he really was. He was a heinous criminal, with no respect for human life, and single-handedly murdered thousands of Jewish prisoners in Auschwitz. He is beneath any sympathy, or commendations for the discoveries he made, because of the cost of such findings. And that’s where the similarity between the film and real Mengele ends. Mengele, after all, was not worth turning into a misunderstood protagonist. Wakolda is, in fact, a historical fiction, not a real story.
Ich erinnere mich noch an die zeit bei Göthe Institut. Es gab ein Bild in unserem deutschen Kursbuch, Tangram Aktuell. Eine Frau steht an einem Bahnhof und trägt ein schwarze Kleider. Unser Klassenlehrer wollte, dass wir das Bild beschreiben. Ich erinnere mich, was ich geschrieben hatte. Und ich habe seit sieben Jahren nach dem Text gesucht. Letzte Woche ich habe mein Arbeitsbuch und Aufzeichnungen gefunden. Ich schreibe nicht gut deutsch wie im Jahr 2008. Aber der Text ließ mich fühlen, dass ich es wünschte. Es gibt drei Texte, erster von unserer Gruppe und zwei letzten sind von anderen…
Einen Winterabend auf dem Bahnhof. Der Zug war spät und es war kalt. Dort steht alleine eine hübsche Frau. Sie sieht traurig aus. Wer ist sie? Wie heißt sie? Und woher kommt sie? Wir wissen nichts. Vielleicht sie heißt Maria, Julia oder Pina? Ist sie verheiratet? Nein, mit allein schwarzen Kleidern, sie ist vielleicht verwitwet. Kommt sie aus Spanien oder Deutschland? Sie wartet auf den Zug. Wozu? Vielleicht für einen neuen Beruf oder ein neues Leben. Wir wissen das nicht. Geht sie nach Frankfurt, wie alle anderen? Wir können das nie wissen. Wir erinnern uns nur an die traurige Dame auf den Bahnhof an einen Winterabend.
Pedra wartet auf den Zug. Sie ist 24 Jahre alt. Vielleicht kommt sie aus Russland. Sie ist ledig und studiert Medizin. Ich glaube dass früher hatte sie viele Tagträume. Alle haben gebrochen. Jetzt hat sie keine Tagträume. Sie will von hier weggehen, irgendwohin sehr weit, wo niemand sie finden kann.
Sie ist India. Sie ist 24. sie wohnt in Deutschland und ist ledig. Vielleicht ist sie jetzt arbeitslos. Vielleicht hat sie sich von ihren Fremd getrennten. Deshalb wartet sie auf den Zug und möchte zu Eltern fahren. Sie hat Angst von ihrer Zukunft und wünscht sie in ihren Leben Erfolg hätte.
I recently came across a Russian film called I won’t come back, or Я Не Вернюсь (Ya ne vernus) in Russian. It took a while to decide which one to watch, from a list of films by the likes of Pedro Almodóvar and Michael Haneke. And I chose to watch the film by an unknown Estonian director Ilmar Raag. But after watching it, I can say the much-cliched phrase that you’ve only failed when you stopped trying. Failing, in this context, is not knowing the world of the parallel cinema, not knowing about a different world away from glitzy Hollywood and Bollywood, not witnessing life in another part of the world so less represented in the media. I won’t come back is a powerful film about two orphans fighting their corner in the world and their desperate search for love. The harsh realities of life, laced with short tales providing a poetic, magical, getaway from the sombre undertone of the storyline, and a brilliant cinematography spanning the vast expanse of the Russian countryside to the Altai mountains in Kazakhstan — the result of the eclectic mix is unforgettable. And above all, I won’t come back portrays career defining performances by Polina Pushkaruk and young Vika Lobacheva.
Polina portrays Anya, who grew up in an orphanage, and she becomes a lecturer in an university. There, she falls in love with a professor, but he has a family with children. One day she was accused of hiding drugs she didn’t know about, and she escapes the arrest. To avoid being taken in custody, Anya goes to an orphanage claiming she’s fifteen, and there she meets Kristine, a thirteen-year-old girl, who is bullied by other inmates. Anya defends her, and Kristine began to trust Anya. When Kristine tells Anya that she knows a secret way out, Anya runs away one day, only to find Kristine following her, pleading to take her to her grandma in Kazakhstan. Thus begins the voyage to Kazakhstan, with very little money between them. They had to hitchhike. On the way, Anya receives a call from Andrey, that all charges against her were dropped and she should come back to the uni. Thus begins the clash between the two characters, both desperate to find a tie, a sense of belonging and being loved — Anya, in her lover and Kristine, in her grandma. Anya tries to send Kristine to Kazakhstan in a train but fails. Through various dramatic sequences, it emerges that these two girls needed each other, more than they agreed to admit. But when Kristine said to Anya, she refused to admit it, resulting in Kristine running away and hitchhiking alone in a car leaving Anya behind. After a day of searching for her, Anya finds her alone, walking along the snow covered road in the upcoming winter. Anya finally realises how much she loved Kristine and decided to travel to Kazakhstan. Then in a sudden twist of fate, as they waited for a car, a drunk driver skids and hits the shed where Kristine was resting, killing her instantly. Anya in her grief realised that she’d become an orphan again, and lost the only human being who loved her unconditionally. The film then shows resolute Anya telling Andrey that she’s not coming back, and finally reaches the village in the Altai mountains. Kristine’ grandmother mistakes Anya to be Kristine, and Anya carried on with the lie, to finally find a place to call home.
Ya ne vernus a magical film, despite its dark and sad undertone. A number of scenes were truly emotional, and Polina and Vika made those instances realistic as though the tension between them was palpable. Instances worth specific mention are the time when Anya leaves a howling Kristine in the cemetery petrified of the wolves, or when Kristine kept asking Anya to admit she loved her but Anya kept refusing. Perhaps the most heart-rending scene was when Kristine suddenly dies. With the two girls finally agreeing to go to Kazakhstan, and the viewers expecting a journey to Kristine’a grandmother for a happily ever after, the suddenness of her death left us speechless. Perhaps Anya’s grief in the film moved at a faster pace than the viewers realising that Kristine, the eccentric and dreamy teenager is actually dead. No miracle is happening, Anya won’t be taking her to a farm where Vika would be treated and recover.
Yet, despite the dreary backdrop throughout the film, it also highlights the strength of a relationship. The mythical interjections in the film, mostly by the dreamy Kristine, gave the film a fantastic aura. These short intervals of fantasy take the viewers’ attention away from the harsh reality of the central theme. Scenes like Kristine introducing herself to Anya telling there are an eagle and a dog inside her who talk to her all the time, or that she had wings but they were broken and she couldn’t fly anymore because God only gives you wings once. We’ll remember Kristine pouring soda on the road so the road sends them a lift, and that of the swan and the girl kept us hoping that there is something positive happening to these girls. We see the relationship between Anya and Kristine evolve with a background of the out and about places in Russia, captured by the fabulous cinematography — from a busy city to the Altai mountains, from a dark, snow-laden cemetery at night, to busy service stations. The film presented slices of Russian life and culture through various imageries, perfectly blended into the storyline, such as the tale of the swan, as they walked past a deserted lake. As much as the unforgettable character portrayals of Polina Pushkaruk and Vika Lobacheva, the cinematography by Tuomo Hutri was a treat.
“There was a girl in the orphanage. One day she ran away from everyone. She came across a lake and saw a swan. She asked the swan to take her away. So the swan picked her up in his beak and flew away. The swan put the girl in his house. But he went away to see his kids and the girl saw him less and less. One day the girl jumped in the water. But she didn’t drown and turned into a fish. The swan came back and couldn’t see the girl. He began to cry. The fish-girl could see the swan but she couldn’t speak to him. From that day, the fish would come up to the surface every day and see her swan cry”
However, it’s the the relationship between the characters of Anya and Kristine — the turmoils and their love, is the tour de force in Ya ne vernus. Anya’s character is shown as an intelligent young woman, finding her place in the world putting the life in the orphanage behind her. However, as much as she appeared confident in professional life, she seemed helplessly desperate in her personal life. She was looking for stability throughout the film, and that’s why knowing that she had no hope of getting Andrey leave his family for her, Anya clung on to him. Her only hope, still, was to stay in the city she was living and pray that Andrey leaves his wife and family one day. Until then, at least she can still be in an affair with him. Kristine, on the other side, had nothing in the city. She has no relatives, she’s bullied by all the inmates of the orphanage. All she had was a small tin box, inside which was a crumpled photo with an address of a remote village in Kazakhstan, where her grandma lived. Living in a shelter knowing that she had a living relative made her flee one shelter to another until she met Anya who, unlike others, was ready to stand up to anyone harassing Kristine. Kristine saw her like a big sister, she felt loved and cared for. And she felt secure. But her ultimate goal was to reach Chemolgan, the village in Kazakhstan where her grandma lived. It appeared as though one of these girls will have to make a sacrifice or will be separated forever. If Anya goes to Kazakhstan, she’ll never see Andrey again, and if she went back to the city, Kristine will not see her Grandma. It was as if the destiny was playing a cruel roulette with their fate, where whichever path they chose, they will lose one significant person in their life. The director Ilmar Raag depicted through some unforgettable scenes how Anya opened up her feelings towards Kristine, and that the feeling she felt towards Andrey was slowly fading away.
Polina Pushkaruk was phenomenal in portraying the role of Anya but it’s the young Vika Lobacheva who stole the heart away of the viewers. She made the character of dreamy and feisty Kristine very real to the audience. It was amazing acting by a young actor and I wonder why she wasn’t nominated for the best young actors. I was surprised to find out later that Vika Lobacheva actually spent a large part of her childhood in social care. Ya ne vernus is an exceptional film, magically woven by talented Ilmar Raag and supported by the lead actors Polina and Vika. Adding the cinematography featuring the vast expanse of the Russian countryside, it made I won’t come back one of the phenomenal films I’ve watched recently. Many would argue that this may be classed as a road movie, but I’d strongly oppose that notion. It’s true that a large part of the film is about the journey for the two women towards Kazakhstan, but it’s much more than a road movie — it’s a tale about finding home and love. To me, it was a fable, a string of magical moments joined together to a bleak storyline. I’m glad that I made the choice to watch Я Не Вернюсь (Ya ne vernus) over the other films I was tempted by, or else I would have missed this rare gem. It was a lesson, that sometimes it’s worth following a hunch, and not just for choosing which films to watch.
I was a dreamer when I was growing up. I lived in my world of imagination where I was a superhero, a star cricketer, footballer and tennis player, a lover with many girlfriends, a Mafia don, or a vagabond. Whatever suited me, and whoever I wanted to be at that time. Living inside my world of dreams meant at times the imaginations became pretences, and pretences became lies. Almost reminiscent of a remarkable film featuring Audrey Tautou, À la folie, pas du tout. I was a cricketer, and I had to be wounded by a bouncer from Patrick Patterson, and I had to throw the ball ricochet off the wall to hit my jaw. I was a dedicated pretender. I was true to myself.
But I never was obsessed with it, so the lies didn’t have to spiral out of proportion. For some people, it did. To an extent that is beyond imagination. Take the example of Frank W. Dux.
So you don’t know about Frank W. Dux? A surname that sounds like Dukes, not ducks? So you probably don’t know anything about dim mak? Yeah, you are right, it’s a Gen X thing, continuous wallow in nostalgia about the eighties. Frank W. Dux was the inspiration behind one of the most remarkable martial art films in the eighties, Bloodsport. Jean-Claude Van Damme portrayed the role of Frank Dux, who goes to Hong Kong to take part in the fabled Kumite championship, to honour his master, Shidoshi Tanaka. When Frank went to Kumite registration, declaration of the fact that he belonged to Shidoshi school of martial art, that raised a few eyebrows. “If you’re a Shidoshi, show us Dim Mak”. The death touch. And then the pin drop silence when the judge asked “The bottom one”, a task to break the last of a block of five bricks, without breaking the top four. Then the film follows a typical storyline, with Van Damme defeating the vile Chong Li. I know the story and perhaps could retell the film frame by frame. But what was different the last time I watched it, was a statement in the end, that the film was based on real-life story of Lt. Frank W. Dux.
The difference between nineties and the present is that we have passed the years of naïveté, we have seen the world change, and we became so cynical that we probably don’t even trust ourselves. So, in 1992-93 Frank W. Dux would have become a legend in my imaginary world. Last week, I went straight to Wikipedia. And I could see that the pieces of evidence point to that fact that Frank W. Dux wasn’t the Kumite champion, in fact, no such tournament existed in HK. The address he gave where the Kumite took place was actually the place he lived. And the trophy he claimed to have won was bought from a local shop. The account Frank Dux gave was blatant lies.
Why did Frank make the story up? We can only speculate. Because he became a successful martial art trainer, a fascinating story of an American winning a martial art trophy in a far away land must have bolstered claims of his capabilities. With his book, he became a celebrity, published books, and success of Bloodsport must have made his name known in wider spheres. He went on selling other stories that also ended in films. So there is an obvious motive, of spreading his name, his brand, and thereby spreading the reach of his martial art school. And there’s no doubt whether he won a trophy or not, he had the skills of a black belt.
But was it all for money and fame? Looking through the sources, military records of Dux mentioned that he’s been flighty and over-imaginative at times. Was he a pathological liar? Who knows? But sharing similar instances where I’d have a fight with probably a boy of my age and then that story getting many makeovers as though I fought three super-muscular blokes in their twenties, it lends me another perspective to the claims made by Frank Dux. Was he a pretender? Did he just start telling his pupils that he won this trophy as a kind of braggadocio which then became part of his life? The more famous his stories grew, he had to offer more evidence, and more cracks started to appear. And he had to keep inventing his web of lies so the entire house of cards that he made up so far didn’t come crashing down? And more importantly, did Frank Dux tell the story how he wanted to be, rather than how his life actually was? What if he just did that? There are many theories, most questioning the truth of his evidence, but of late some highlighting the credibility of Frank’s stories, but we’ll never know the truth. Unless at a ripe old age, conscience drives Fran Dux to provide a true account of his claims, with most of the minute details faded away into oblivion by then.
It’s been nearly thirty years since Bloodsport was released. The story of Frank Dux reached the peak of its popularity and was soon forgotten. Apart from some now middle-aged Gen X nostalgics who reminisce the name to their teenage years and how things have suddenly changed. The myths of their early years are broken, the legends turn out to be mere mortals…the facts keep on surfacing. There’s nowhere to hide. Ultimately, Frank Dux lied about all his army decorations and martial art conquests. It cannot be condoned, especially when he earned a lot of favours on the back of these claims. But in a time when we hear many more lies every day from the people we trust, I’d raise a glass to Frank W. Dux and say, “Your story may well be a lie, but it helped many to believe in themselves, that they can do impossible things, if only they persevere”. Perhaps the Frank Dux in real life is an imposter, but his persona on the screen will remain as a legend for a generation of viewers. After all, he will always be remembered as the master of the Dim Mak!