A Shadow that Speaks: Varastettu Kuolema by Nyrki Tapiovaara

 

“It’s normal: when the cinema was “silent,” we were free to lend it all the noises, the tiniest as well as the most intimate. It was when it set about talking, and especially after the invention of dubbing (1935), that nothing remained to challenge the victory of dialogue and music. Weak, imperceptible noises no longer had a chance. It was genocide.” – Serge Daney, Cinemeteorology

The new restoration of Nyrki Tapiovaara’s Varastettu kuolema happened without much notice last year, released on DVD in Finland from a new digital transfer, a restoration of the original cut released theatrically. Unavailable until now, it was then-criticised by the social-democratic magazine, Kulttuuriskandaali, for including insert shots of decadent objects owned by two of the film’s principal characters. In 1954, 16 years later, the film was re-released with changes made by Tapiovaara’s editor/cinematographer, Erik Blomberg. Blomberg elected to cut all the high angle and insert shots from the film for the reasons above, deeming them too extravagant and inspired by a French Avant-Garde cinema irrelevant to the film’s narrative of Finnish resistance fighters. Tapiovaara couldn’t approve of these edits, however, as he’d died two years after the film’s original release fighting for Finnish independence in the Winter War of 1940.

Opening with the machinations of a covert, student-activist printing press, Robert (the film’s initial protagonist), leads his comrades through the streets of Helsinki, before being tailed by a constantly-looming Russian force, attempting to overthrow their grassroots resistance against Soviet rule. Robert and his comrades are eager to increase their partisan efforts by transporting weapons to fellow comrades on the Russian/Finnish front. Only the local arms-dealer, Jonni, stands in their way – offering them weapons and passports by way of blackmail, holding Robert’s list of partisan names as collateral. Both parties are well-aware that Jonni’s the only feasible way of purchasing and transporting weapons out of the country. If Robert and his partisan cohort refuse to buy Jonni’s weapons (with money that they don’t even have), the list of names will be released to Soviet authorities and they’ll be sent to death. Even still, they rebuff Jonni’s advances and opt to transport the weapons themselves – but with few means to do so. The film’s characters are among one of two factions: collaborators or dissidents. The collaborators are made up of Jonni, Robert’s bourgeois family, the aforementioned gendarmes looming among the spare Helsinki streets and their higher-up czarist officers unerringly chasing down our leads in the film’s climax. The revolutionaries are an even smaller group, primarily made up of Robert and his comrades, Jonni’s former accomplice Manja, a shoemaker who shelters Robert from the gendarmes and the dispirited trinket shop-owner with whom Robert covertly deals in black-market passports.

The film’s focus eventually shifts to Manja, one of the great partisans I can recall in cinema. Upon meeting Robert, she turns his printing press into an arms trading post, flouting Jonni’s grip over her in the process. She helps Robert – with her knowledge of Jonni’s weapons and their whereabouts – to transport guns in coffins and haul ammunition belts beneath her many hats and dresses. In this time, she’s now been fully radicalised and still experiences the majority of the film’s indignities both firsthand and undeterred. Firstly, she’s shunned to her face by Robert’s mother as a working-class wastrel and – when running a gun hidden in a baby carriage – is swarmed by the gropes and advances of a lurking gendarme officer. Still, through her, both the film’s noir and melodramatic trappings manifest – then quickly metamorphose beyond themselves and into a higher purpose. When faced with the film’s potential noir narrative, Manja the femme fatale is summarily left behind by Manja the revolutionary. As the primary example of this, when first left alone with Robert, she describes to him her upbringing and life thus far: having been a seamstress in rural Finland, she’s now adorned with shiny jewellery and tea gowns from Jonni (the same gowns she uses to transport guns), donning this bourgeois-collaborator facade with a simmering contempt. She then approaches Robert like the „femme fatale“, insinuated through her longing glances and the shadow-filled room they’re cast in. But this (additional) facade is undone-then-re-established within the movement of their embrace, all for a greater purpose; that of her newfound revolutionary drive, one she sees in Robert.

Without the burden of boy-meets-girl inner conflicts or this bi-polar, femme fatale persona, she very readily leaves Jonni shortly after this encounter and even more readily kills him when kept from Robert in the final act. Though these femme-fatale/love interest constructs are bypassed altogether, one can sense the spectres of their narrative constructs floating through the film’s darkened palette: the glint of Manja’s earring in a close-up that merely traces the outline of her face in a silvery light; the glaring white spotlight of a streetlamp that punctures through the pitch-black fabric of a night-time-set, overhead shot; the swinging light that sways over Jonni’s dead body, splayed atop his taxidermied panther – among these images, the film’s iridescent whites burn with a greater mystery than anything said or inferred through conventional narrative incident or spoken dialogue. Tapiovaara understood, at a point when noir cinema was in its nascency, that it’s the swipe of a hand, a sliver of light that reveals an eye or the passing of currency in close-up that keeps a mystery alive, not the narratives that incite it all.

Mandated by the time and technical means, the above incidents are set to one of two sounds at any given moment: either a tinny, interpersonal dialogue spoken in the film’s interiors or a degraded-sounding orchestra underscoring the exterior set pieces (a bipartite limitation set by its early post-sync sound, monaural soundtrack). Tapiovaara, by necessity most likely, wasn’t tempted to overwhelm his film with overdubbed dialogue or foley work in a time when Northern/Eastern European cinema was first learning how to speak. Set only to the orchestra’s swells, the film’s final set piece reunites Robert and Manja as they speed through in a carriage – machine gun in tow – to a getaway boat on the Finnish/Russian border. Manja is shot by the trailing gendarmes and dies a slow death on the way to these Finnish borders. Having been pilfered, cheated, masqueraded and used as a form of transportation, a true death has manifested through a soldier of the revolution. As Robert closes Manja’s eyes, the film fades to black, without an “end” title card. Eliding spoken and written text, there’s the sense in the film’s conclusion that there’s no time left for explanations and – as a result – no time for a film that speaks of a then-unforeseen national independence; only time for one that shows it.

The Stars and the Okefenokee: Swamp Water by Jean Renoir

I was drawn to watch Jean Renoir’s Swamp Water because I read it was filmed in the Okefenokee, a huge swampland in Georgia, not far from where I grew up. I’d been there once as a kid with my dad on a canoeing trip and we saw lots of gators. It’s an eerie, desolate, and inhospitable place. But in Renoir’s film a character, Tom Keefer, manages to live there. We first see him lurking around in the shadows, watching a group of trappers traveling through, looking for game. One of the trapper’s dogs gets spooked and runs away. Its owner, a young man named Ben, goes into the swamp to find him. Keefer assumes Ben is trying to track him down and knocks him out. When he comes to, Ben explains that he was just looking for his dog. He lives in the town Keefer is from, and heard stories about Keefer having murdered someone and broken out of jail, so when he figures out the identity of the mysterious man who kidnapped him, he is naturally very scared. He says everyone in the town thought he ran away to Savannah. It’s inconceivable that anyone would live in the swamp, and the danger isn’t just the cotton-mouths, gators, panthers, and bears, but the danger of getting lost. The Cyprus trees form an enormous, disorientating labyrinth. Keefer tells Ben, “You can get lost, and go plain crazy trying to find your way out. And you gotta know the things that live here before you can get along with them.” Keefer has become immune to these dangers, because he’s one of these epic characters who has been wronged and lives beyond fear. He adapted himself to the harsh, inhuman climate after being spit out by a corrupt society; he was falsely accused of murder by the the two men who committed the murder themselves. He explains that the reason he stays in the swamp instead of running away to another town is to be close to the daughter he was forced to leave behind. 

The film was mostly shot in a studio, but Renoir insisted on shooting a few scenes on location. This was one of the concessions Renoir was given by the executives at Fox. It was the first film he made in America. He later disowned the film, claiming it was “was Mr. Zanuck’s film, not mine.” He wasn’t allowed to have a hand in writing the screenplay, was only able to cast a few actors for the roles he wanted, couldn’t choose the music, was reprimanded for lagging behind schedule because his directing style took too long, and had zero say in the editing process. The studio system was very different from what he was used to in France, and the executives there were nothing like the bourgeoisie of his homeland. Fox wanted him to make films about the French, but he insisted on making a film about Americans, and was given the opportunity to direct Swamp Water. He went to Georgia to scout locations and make research photographs for set designs. The people living there were the first Americans he met outside of Hollywood. He felt a great affinity with them and wrote fond and sincere stories about his encounters in his autobiography. They reminded him of the peasants in Brittany “Georgians think of Hollywood as a much more bizarre and distant place than France.” He respected how rooted they were in their homes; “The families have no idea of leaving their wooden farmhouses. The tree which shades the porch has been planted by some ancestor. There are peaceful conversations while swaying on the swing hung by ropes from the beams of the flat roof.” Southerners can be hostile to outsiders, I’m surprised anyone talked to Renoir. They clearly must have sensed the deep humanism within him.

The only shots he was able to make in the Okefenokee were with Dana Andrews, who played the character of Ben. Renoir and his cinematographer, John Peverell Marley, shot Andrews poling his canoe around while looking for his dog, deep in the thick of the cypress trees, just before stumbling upon Tom Keefer. There is a realism to the images in these scenes, a realism beyond the scenography and acting. Zanuck later reprimanded Renoir: “You are wasting entirely too much time on non-essential details in your background.” But for Renoir the background wasn’t a superfluous geography to give a local accent to otherwise universally applicable stories. And shooting on location wasn’t just about the visual authenticity of the place, either. There was the dream of cinema being able to represent something essential; a linkage between a people, a place, and a time. This relationship was being undermined and uprooted by the movements of industry, and films couldn’t put back together the pieces torn apart themselves, but they could at least make its alienation felt. Ben and Keefer reflect on the mystery of the place they found themselves in after making peace with one another. They’re sitting by the campfire and looking into the night sky: “Like another world in here, ain’t it?” Ben asks. Keefer responds, “I heard tell that stars is other worlds too. Big, shining rafts a-floating in the ocean of God’s night. With living things on every raft, just like there is on this one they call the Earth. Living alone in this swamp’s just like living on another star.” Swamp Water, in its failure, embodies Renoir’s conviction to craft a story with a commitment to a place, and to render this place as strange and beautiful and complex as though it were another planet in another solar system revolving around a distant star.

Unruhiges Kino: Auf dem Weg von Peter Schreiner

Auf dem Weg von Peter Schreiner handelt, anders als der Titel vermuten ließe, weniger von der Verfilmung einer Reise, als eher vom Versuch, den zerbrechlichen Zustand vergehender Zeit in einer Kapsel zu verwahren. Was es heißt, auf dem Weg zu sein, lässt sich mit den Mitteln eines Films zwar beschreiben oder in Bildern wieder herstellen, aber lässt es sich auch empfinden, so als könnte man mit einer Hand im Vorübergehen eine Wand streifen? Es scheint, als versuche Peter Schreiner dieser Berührung mit den intimen Bildern der eigenen Familie oder Erlebnissen seiner Freunde nahezukommen. Über den Film hinweg, verstreuen sich offenbar zusammenhanglos Szenen, die wie Momentaufnahmen aus einem Fotoalbum heraustreten. Der Film erfährt tatsächlich eine gewisse taktile Dimension und erinnert so vielleicht an das Blättern zwischen den Seiten. Als wolle man sich vergewissern, ob der Eindruck der Erinnerung noch mit dem Bild übereinstimmt, entsteht zwischen den filmischen Fragmenten eine suchende Bewegung, die kein bestimmtes Ziel kennt, außer womöglich sich selbst.

Vereinzelt blickt Peter Schreiner selbst vom Bildrand in die Kamera. In dieser Hinsicht zeugt der Film nicht nur von der Perspektive einer Suche, sondern wohl auch von der einer Entdeckung. Man hat zunächst Mühe, diesem Blick zu folgen. Erst allmählich stellt sich ein gewisses Vertrauen zu den Bildern ein, was paradox ist, da sich letztlich Schreiner mit diesen Bildern dem Publikum anvertraut. Anstatt sich den Bildern hinzugeben, stürzen sie auf einen herein. Infolgedessen verhielt sich auch das Publikum ungewöhnlich unruhig, vor dem der Film anlässlich des dok.at-Jubiläums im Filmmuseum gezeigt wurde. Die Bilder, so subtil und verträglich sie auch wirken mögen, verlangen etwas ab. Etwas, das man vielleicht vor dem Kino zurückgelassen hat? Über zwei Stunden hinweg verließen nach und nach Personen ihre Plätze. Es fällt schwer, dem keine Aufmerksamkeit zu schenken, denn die Unruhe – im Widerspruch zur Elegie des Films – mischt sich mit der Frage, welche Verbindung sich der Film zu seinem Publikum erwartet. Wäre es den Bildern angemessen, sie einfach nur anzuerkennen oder muss das Auge ihnen eine besondere Bedeutung zukommen lassen?

Springt der Funke des Films zwischen Autor und Publikum nur über, wenn beide eine bestimmte Vorstellung von Film im Allgemeinen teilen? Oder ist das Gegenteil der Fall: Sie müssen sich aneinander reiben?

Ein Film sei ein Haus, sagte Peter Schreiner im anschließenden Gespräch mit Barbara Wurm. Ein Haus ist ein Ort, in dem man sich einrichten kann, den man nach eigenem Belieben gestaltet. Aber ein Haus ist auch ein Ort, bei dem man in der Regel die Tür schließt, nach dem man über die Schwelle getreten ist. Ein Haus hat eine Adresse, einen Anfahrtsweg und manchmal auch eine Hecke, über die man hinwegspähen kann. Aus dem Gestrüpp des Gartens ragt versteckt eine Fassade heraus. Durch die Fenster lässt sich Leben in den beleuchteten Zimmern erahnen. Immer wieder ertappe ich mich selbst bei einem nächtlichen Heimweg, mit Blicken einen Moment zu lang an den Fenstern festzuhängen, meinen Vorstellungen über die Fremden nachzuhängen. Angekommen, schaue ich aus dem Fenster zurück auf die Haltestelle vor unserem Haus – tagsüber gefüllt von Menschen, die sich auf die Füße treten und nachts wie leergefegt. Ohne Zweifel liegt der Unterschied zwischen Filme machen und Filme schauen darin, an welcher Stelle man sich befindet, die Frage ist vielleicht nur, ob man über die Schwelle tritt, auch wenn die Tür offensteht.

Erinnerungen eines Anderen: München – Berlin Wanderung von Oskar Fischinger

Manche Filme wirken, als wären sie aus ihrer Zeit gefallen. München – Berlin Wanderung von Oskar Fischinger aus dem Jahr 1927 scheint einen anderen Filmemacher schon vorwegzunehmen. Man kann sich beim Sehen des Filmes kaum davon abhalten, an die Filme von Jonas Mekas zu denken. 

Der Film dokumentiert eine dreieinhalbwöchige Wanderung von München nach Berlin, die Oskar Fischinger unternahm. Er könnte als eine Art travelogue, also als Reisefilm bezeichnet werden. Doch der Film arbeitet nicht mit den üblichen Methoden dieses Genres. Die meisten Reisedokumentationen sind länger als dieser Film, der nur dreieinhalb Minuten dauert. Viele dieser Filme haben eine erklärende Stimme, dieser Film erklärt sich nicht. München – Berlin Wanderung wirkt dabei weniger, wie eine genaue Dokumentation, sondern eher, wie die Erinnerung an diese Reise. Die Bilder flackern nur kurz auf, bevor sie wieder verschwinden. Sie brennen sich direkt in unser Unterbewusstsein. Der Film überfällt und überrumpelt. Man will sich jedes Bild einprägen, doch die schiere Flut überwältigt. Es bleibt nur ein Gefühl. Man weiß, dass ein Mensch etwas gesehen hat. Fischinger hat auf seiner Wanderung Dinge gesehen und er hat Zeugnis davon abgelegt. Wir jedoch können nur noch erahnen, was das Gesehene wirklich war, nur noch einen Eindruck davon bekommen. Es existiert nur noch als eine Folge von Erinnerungsbildern, die vor uns aufblitzen und wieder verschwinden. 

Oskar Fischinger ist eigentlich als ein Filmemacher der Bewegung des absoluten Filmes bekannt. Er wird oft  zusammen mit Walter Ruttmann und Hans Richter genannt. Dieser Film ist ein untypischer Einzelfall. Erst Jahrzehnte später wurde fortgesetzt was er angefangen hat. Diese schnelle Abfolge von Porträts und Landschaften findet man in den Filmen von Jonas Mekas wieder, den dieser Film angeblich inspiriert haben soll. Wer München – Berlin Wanderung gesehen hat, wird nicht überrascht sein. Er wirkt wie eine Blaupause.

Einige Motive und Bilder bleiben hängen oder wiederholen sich: Das erste Bild zeigt Zugschienen, die sich in die Ferne ziehen. Schienen, die für diese Reise nicht verwendet wurden, welche zur Gänze zu Fuß stattfand. Dann sehen wir immer wieder: Dörfer, Kirchen, Häuser, Blumen und weite Wiesen. Fischingers Kamera trifft auch auf verschiedene Tiere: Schafe und Ochsen, Hunde und Katzen. Doch am stärksten prägen sich die Menschen ein, die wir im Film sehen. Sie posieren für Porträts, die kurz aufleuchten, bevor auch sie, wie alle anderen Bilder, wieder verschwinden: alte Bauern grinsen, junge Mütter stehen mit ihren Kindern vor ihren Häusern , ein kleines Mädchen hält eine Katze in ihren Armen und scheint sich vor der Kamera zu fürchten. Eine Frau wird aus mehreren Blickwinkeln gefilmt. Die Bilder erscheinen in schneller Abfolge. Wir sehen diese Menschen auch bei der Arbeit. Zwischen den Menschen sehen wir immer wieder die schon besagten Dörfer und Gebäude, die Tiere und Landschaften. Das letzte Bild zeigt Wolken im Himmel. In nur dreieinhalb Minuten sehen wir all diese Dinge. 

Die Form hinterlässt den Eindruck, dass man gerade die Erinnerung eines Anderen sehen würde. Man stellt sich vor, dass so der Film aussehen muss, den man sieht, wenn man stirbt und das Leben vor einem vorbeizieht. 

 

The FIlmic Glissando – Out of the Blue by Holly Fisher

At one point in Holly Fisher’s feature film Out of the Blue, an on-screen text appears which reads, „Bring out all glissandi. They are not just ‚ornaments.‘ ” This is an instruction by composer Lois V Vierk regarding the interpretation of her piece Words Fail Me, written in the score’s legend as direction to the musicians preparing for performance of this work. Fisher includes several such instructions in addition to the full 20-minute music composition within her film. To me these words apply not only to this film as a whole, but to many of her other films as well (thinking Ghost Dance; Here Today Gone Tomorrow aka Rushlight; Softshoe for Bartok).

In Western music tradition, glissandi – the sliding towards or into certain notes, thus foregrounding them – are indeed used as ornaments; they are a means by which the performer may add some warmth, charm, or „personality“ to their interpretation. Glissandi in that tradition demonstrate the player’s virtuosity and confidence, making sure listeners deem themselves to be “in good hands”.

Here, however, the glissandi have become emancipated. In the first movement of Words Fail Me, they seem braided into the melodic lines, melodies, into the phrases themselves, and made a fundamental part of their expression – standing next to stable notes, equal to them instead of heightening their importance. In the second movement, slow glissandi are broken up into jagged fragments, shards, relentlessly driving forward, downward, upward, as if in a frenzy. I think that Fisher’s expressive description of Vierk’s music as “uncanny movement through space” stems from, among other things, the composer’s use of glissando. Both music and film build a sort of fictional architecture, opening up rooms which might not be possible in reality, where askew angles, warped walls abound. The glissandi can be regarded as warped walls connecting past, present, and future in a single line, and which is analogous to what is happening with images in the hands of the filmmaker/editor. The glissando is about transitioning or mediating between two stable notes, one in the process of fading away, the other in the process of emerging. The feeling of in-between-ness, as conjured up by the glissando reverberates throughout the film. The question arises, is there a filmic glissando? And if so, what would it look like?

I believe the glissandi in Out of the Blue are to be taken both in a literal and in a broader sense. They are central to they way the film moves forward. Considering the broader sense of this concept, it seems no coincidence that Vierk’s instruction to bring out all glissandi appears over one of the film’s most crucial images.

The sky and snowy landscape as seen from an airplane are superimposed upon a “snowy”, noisy malfunctioning television, while the shadow of a hand seems to touch this mixture, this “fictional architecture” of imaginary and unbuilt structures, as an onscreen text states, of earth and sky, of reality and (lacking) image, of real and fictitious snow, of beauty and noise, of order and disruption. It is an impossible touch, but one that reforms those disparate elements into a unity, a unity which is not just rigidly imposed upon its elements but is alive, moving, shifting, scintillating. All of its elements at other points in the film are linked with their own distinct chains of associations; the lacking image, in particular, is connected to an image lost in the editing room, as well as to 9/11. Other associations include the plane trip crossing the Atlantic during which real life seems to be suspended, the haze between waking and sleeping, doing laundry, or the “need to talk” (hinted at by both on-screen texts and the sound of a calmly ringing phone): in-between spaces, phases of transition, all brought together yet preserved in their autonomy by this touch which works as a glissando: a realm of connection, letting both the eye and the mind wander, indeed glide between its various parts. These elements are connected not to smooth a transition to a new image or a new idea, but invite the viewer/listener to dwell on the connection itself.

A narrower translation of the concept of glissando into film language is perhaps obvious. In Out of the Blue as well as in Fisher’s work in general, one can find many instances where a film shot lingers, and slowly glides into the next one; where the image is abstracted, where movement crystallizes, or where one image-box which makes up only part of the screen interacts with either the full screen or another image-box. The beauty of a “gliding” image lies not in perfect proportions or perceived order, but in this abstraction of well-known sights which leads the viewer to discover uncharted viewpoints; as if one would take a step back from one’s personhood, only to become awash with surprising sensations (there is a car wash scene in Blue which illustrates this point perfectly).

The most literal instances of glissando in the film are the many images of gliding, of being afloat. Falling leaves, a swimming goose, a plane hovering over the coast line, recurring shots of continuous pulling back of an island and of moving towards an obscure door, cartoon characters stuck in an air bubble – these moments all recall a glissando.

The performance of Words Fail Me is at the very center of Blue. The rest of the film revolves around it, appears, in hindsight, to be structured by it, by its two contrasting movements. Until the first notes arise, a cloud, a haze of contrasting images, texts, associations is being built, or set afloat; a fluid framework from which the music is borne, airborne. But it is only much later that one realizes how music and film inform each other, without one even remotely illustrating the other. Both keep their independence, their own, contrasting rhythm, and their own ways of moving uncannily forward as they still mirror each other. At times, the musical glissando becomes a filmic glissando, and vice versa.