Gaaah! I’ve been overwhelmed by an incredibly nasty cold, which is putting a crimp in my ability to see films. I’m trying to take care of myself, so no films last night, but tonight I’ve already purchased tickets for several films. Hopefully I’ll be up to see them.
I’m also finding myself frustrated with assigning “star ratings” to what I see. I’ve always held that kind of thing with suspicion. They’re a distorted shorthand for people who don’t want to read the reviews. Still, I’m trying my hand at the genre of more conventional “reviews,” so I thought I would include them as a matter of form. But so many movies that I’ve seen have been so highly rated from me that I’m unsure if that’s the result of some kind of “film festival” bump, or if they’re really that good.
What has been a pleasant surprise this year has been the incredible quality of the documentaries I’ve seen so far. Manakamana, the one I saw Monday afternoon, took me by surprise. I’d never heard of it. I was just seeing it because it fit in my schedule. It is a formally austere, humane film that I can’t say enough about. See it.
The Last of the Unjust
***1/2 (out of 4 stars)
In 1975, Claude Lanzmann, the director of Shoah, interviewed Benjamin Murmelstein, the last surviving of the “Elder of the Jews,” a title bestowed by the Nazis upon men they chose to run the Jewish Ghettos who worked closely with upper-echelon Nazis in order to best help their communities or mostly to make it good for themselves, depending on whom you ask. Lanzmann was going to include the interview in Shoah but decided against it. As one might imagine, Murmelstein has been a controversial figure, made more so by the fact that he was not only the last surviving but the sole surviving “Elder of the Jews.” People were suspicious: how come he survived when the others were executed by the Nazis? Adding to Murmelstein’s difficulties was his association with Adolf Eichmann, who had been the mastermind for the infamous “model ghetto” that Murmelstein oversaw: Theriesenstadt. Located near Auschwitz, where many residents were eventually sent, it was touted as an idyllic community where residents worked, played, and bettered themselves, in spite of the fact that it actually was responsible for the deaths of over 30,000 residents due to terrible living conditions. While Murmelstein doesn’t accept the accusation that he was a war criminal, he doesn’t fully exonerate himself, either. As he says at one point in the film, “An Elder of the Jews can be condemned. In fact, he must be condemned.” But Murmelstein also warns us, “But he can’t be judged. Because one cannot take his place.” In fact, Murmelstein, through his stories, makes clear his heroism and the difficult, perhaps even morally compromising, decisions his situation put him in. One can understand why, after all these years, Lanzmann put this film together—Murmelstein is a compelling, witty embodiment of the moral complexities of life under the Nazi regime.
***1/2 (out of 4 stars)
Closed Curtain is Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s second film after being banned from making movies by the Iranian government, the first being 2011’s This is Not a Film. Whereas that movie was more or less a documentary, featuring footage filmed on digital camcorder and smart phone of Panahi responding to being on house arrest, Closed Curtain is a work of fiction. The story begins with middle-aged writer having shut himself into a friend’s beach house, curtains closed, to write and to save his dog Boy, since dogs are rounded up and slaughtered by the government because they are viewed as unclean. Soon, a young man and woman barge into the house uninvited, and the writer becomes understandably paranoid. The story is intense and mysterious, but it becomes something a lot stranger and deeper when Panahi enters the film. We get the sense that the earlier characters were fictional, whereas he and the people with whom he interacts are not, working with and against traditional ideas of fiction and non-fiction to become a complex working out of the role of art, film in particular, in an oppressive regime, and the necessity, perhaps, of tearing down those closed curtains behind which one is safe, at least for a while, to reach out to those beyond them. As the fictional young woman asks the protesting shut-in writer as she tears down his curtains, “How are you going to communicate?” Most surprisingly, given the restrictions put upon Panahi, the film is as formally sophisticated as it is thematically suggestive, the moment Panahi appears shown to us in a disorienting framing that makes us feel like the whole world is backwards, as it certainly must feel to Panahi.
**** (out of 4 stars)
The premise of the film is simple: mount a camera in a cable car that takes people up to the temple of the Hindu goddess Manakamana in Nepal and record what happens. The movie is made up of approximately twelve shots—twelve mini-movies, in a way—with one shot per roughly ten minute ride to or from the temple. The result is as austere as it is incredible. Without being bound to a plot or a thesis, the film asks the viewer simply to observe. And since that’s all there is to do, it’s remarkable what can be seen, which depends not only on who is in the car, but also what one looks at and how one takes what one hears. There is joy and laughter—one of my favorite scenes involves a middle-aged woman and her mother eating an ice cream bar—as well as silence and reflection. One also gets, in glimpses, a personal history of the area, as some recall the days when they had to walk two to three days to get to the temple in what is now a ten minute ride in a machine that, one character speculates, was funded by one person. Apparently this documentary is from the Harvard Sensory Ethnographic Laboratory who, according to their website, “promotes innovative combinations of aesthetics and ethnography. It uses analog and digital media to explore the aesthetics and ontology of the natural and unnatural world.” They were also responsible for the documentaries Sweetgrass and last year’s Academy Award nominated Leviathan. Let’s hope they have many more to come.