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.

On films that end – Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet and Shinji Aoyama’s Eureka

Eureka, Aoyama still 2

Eureka, Aoyama still 1

„J’ai effectivement l’impression qu’il y avait dans les films d’il y a cinquante ans un art de la brièveté, de la condensation des événements, des idées, vertigineux et qui a été complètement perdu, parce que il y a des époques pour toutes les choses, enfin, parce qu’on est passé, comme le dirait Deleuze, dans une époque où le temps n’a plus la même vitesse, ni la même densité, ni le même temps, comme si il y avait un avant et un après Antonioni, qui a été un des cinéastes qui ont marqué cet infléchissement de la durée, et que maintenant, dans la durée des fictions contemporaines, il faut trois heures là où il en fallait une il y a cinquante ans.“

„I have the feeling that in the films of the 1950’s they mastered the art of brevity, the condensation of time and ideas in a way that was dizzying but has now been completely lost, because different eras necissitate different ways of expressing this time. But we’re now in an era, as Deleuze would say, wihtout that same brevity, nor the same density, nor the same concept of time – one different to that of the 1950’s. It’s as if there’s a before and after Antonioni, who was one of the first filmmakers to implement the notion of duration, so that now after him, in the today’s films, one needs to take three hours to approximate the density of an hour from fifty years ago.“

– Jacques Rivette, le veilleur

Two runtimes existed outside of something, sequestered away in the top corner of my living room and passing through with the outside light and foliage’s silhouettes. Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet and Shinji Aoyama’s Eureka are the complimentary film realities that – timed out differently – played out below this corner of the room, as I watched the outside move around them these past weeks.

In Loktev’s film, a couple – a man named Alex and a woman named Nika – are hiking in the Georgian mountains with a native guide named Dato. They meet a man –a shepherd of some kind – with his teenaged sons along the way, the father holding a rifle. Alex interrupts a conversation between the father and Dato and is answered by the father’s cocked rifle. Alex’s instinct is to push Nika into its line of sight, ducking behind her in the process. Attempting to correct his cowardice, Alex silently pushes again – now from behind Nika – and stands resolutely in front of the rifle’s barrel, trying and failing to stay there long enough, overcompensating for the stunned Nika and her role as his unwilling protector.

After the incident, Alex is locked into an inactive state, seldom speaking for the duration of the film. Nika attempts reparation, by proxy of Alex’s docility, working overtime to access him and his current disposition. She’s the first to begin where their conversations left off before the hold-up, instigating her broken Spanish lessons and asking about the correct conjugations between each phrase. They walk silently and at a distance at first, with Dato oscillating in and around their wanderings that appear bound by the push-pull of an invisible rubber band. Walking to and froe, they each – at different junctures – bring forth a shy hand to each other’s shoulders, pulling it away before the other one notices.

The incident will change their relationship irrevocably, but it’s also a synecdoche; a signifier that shows us, through a heightened example, how a change and its reconciliation can begin. It’s almost instructional; instructional as a microcosm, sure, but also reminding us that microcosms and their symbols are never quite apart from us. This is how the perpetual reconciliation is reinstated. It reminds me of something my Mum told me about becoming a parent. She told me that it’s easy to say: „I’d die for my child“. What matters is when and how often you’d die for this child, how many small „deaths“ you’re willing to entertain. It’s all the unseen and unacknowledged death that makes one fulfil their word to their loved one, their promise to this „death“ that is more than de-stigmatised – because this „death“ is just talk. This sentiment isn’t exceptional. But it is, in Loktev’s film, an exception that proves the rule of constancy. It’s highfalutin talk, acted against in the small moments that dismantle the posturing; these small moments when no one is watching, no one except us. It’s the moment when a relationship becomes bigger than the two people in it. The attempts to reconcile their scar will be many, countless of which – over however many years of Alex and Nika’s long-term relationship – will be fastened around this moment.

Where the film’s time and our time converge is at its conclusion. Alex wanders off from a campfire over which Nika and Dato share a flagon of hooch. Nika, using her innate skill as an interlocutor on a more willing partner, gets Dato to open up about his deceased wife and son. He seems content in his Georgian village, but there’s a longing in his demeanour. He asks for a kiss from Nika – a slovenly one on the cheek – after which their mouths quickly meet, almost as quick as when Alex became Nika’s protector. She draws herself away from the guide and continues the kiss with Alex in their tent, the first consummation between them after many shortened acts of intimacy – all touching, licking and stroking, intermingling as if connected through an unseen appendage. All this took place before the hold-up, the act that severed this appendage. Alex and Nika now fuck in their tent severed and apart from one another, their faces obscured and bodies covered as though shielded; shielded in the way couples shield themselves in inferior relationship movies, the filmmakers compensating for the uncommitted actors by getting them to moan into orgasm, achieved, somehow, through fully-clothed dry-humping. The act feels wrong for Alex and Nika, as though in the wrong movie, for the wrong couple. So Nika’s logical response is to stumble away and vomit. Alex, for the first time in the film, tends to her unerringly, holding back her hair while she convulses, ejecting whatever emotional bile has manifested in earnest within her since the hold-up. Alex and Nika are somehow connected again. Not through the severed appendage, though. Theirs is a connection now more scarred and calloused, yes, but simultaneously more difficult to sever. It’s the set-up for all that comes after, as we no longer have the privilege to see what they don’t. It’s their job to see from now on.

~

Shinji Aoyama’s Eureka begins with the incident. A hijacker attacks a bus half-filled with his fellow salarymen, its driver and two schoolchildren. An establishing shot of the bus – accompanied by the film’s writer/director credit – elides the shooting itself. We see the peace that precedes the attck and devastation that follows it, each structuring the absence of this offscreen shooting. Among the devastation, its three survivors are the bus driver named Makoto and two schoolchildren – an older brother and a younger sister named Naoki and Kozue, respectively.

Two years pass, years the survivors spend either in a state of unknown pursuit (Makoto) or silence (Naoki and Kozue). They’ve now all returned to the town, physically, but something from them is missing. This part that’s “missing” is accounted for partially by Makoto’s wanderings in these two years, across the coast of Japan, never seen nor elaborated upon by him nor the film. But his return to the town after these two years spent “wandering” is only a literal one, not accounting for the greater return that has failed to coalesce, one in which only he and the schoolchildren can partake. Naoki and Kozue – whose abusive father has died and whose mother has left them – can no longer speak nor go to school, but Makoto helps them begin this “return” by moving into their house, after his own family have all but rejected him and the trauma he carries. Naoki and Kozue’s cousin, Akihiko, stops by to help with housekeeping and to keep company. He tries to sympathise, straining to relate by sharing his own juvenile proximities to death.

So begins the remaining 3+ hours to fulfil this greater “return”. Three attempts are made to broach this return, all in the forms of: a serial killer movie, an impromptu caravan road trip movie and a dysfunctional, makeshift-family movie. But these movies merely begin. An uprooting eventually takes place, tearing out these films from their past three hours. This tear allows for another movie to interject, one with the intention of ending.

This interjecting film begins with Makoto and Naoki, riding in circles on a shared bicycle. Before this, it teases out both the serial-killer and road-trip movie to an unsurprising reveal before robbing each film of their conclusion. Naoki, whose nascent death drive coincided with local femicides back in his hometown, holds a knife and approaches a woman. He stops suddenly following from behind, then the woman gets in her car and drives away. With her out of sight, Makoto walks into frame with a bike, approaching Naoki, wresting the knife away blade-first and slashing him on the arm. Makoto and Naoki bleed from hand and arm over the life spared – that of the woman in her car – then share the bicycle. They ride in circles and consider murdering Kozue as the logical step forward in Naoki’s pathology (Makoto relates to the brother his own unfulfiled death drive since the bus hijacking), but so long as they cycle within the film’s anamorphic frame, nothing else will happen. So begins the fourth movie, the one that returns.

Makoto drops Naoki off at a police station, mournfully asking him neither to live nor die over the oncoming years. He must, instead, return to where Makoto and Kozue will be waiting. Wherever that is, only they could know.

Makoto coughs blood into a handkerchief. He has only Kozue to accompany him now, after Akihiko balks at Naoki’s lot in life. Makoto’s response is to punch Akihiko in the face and throw him from the van, stopping by the side of a winding road. Akihiko could never understand, anyway. Makoto and Kozue go to the beach, where she collects shells, throwing each away at a cliffside and ascribing them the names of Naoki, Akihiko, “bus hijacker man”, Makoto and herself.

The film’s logic elides on-screen deaths: the real ones are spoken of. The one we do see is that of the bus hijacker at the hands of local police, but this is annulled by the ensuing 3+ hours that allow the three survivors to continue, not only despite him, but for him.

~

Loktev’s film was a part, Aoyama’s apart. But I’m now unsure of the difference between the two.

Eureka, Aoyama still 2

The Middle Distance

Pierre Bonnard Autoportrait

Pierre Bonnard autoportrait

Bonnard Examining Leaves, Marthe Bonnard, 1900

~

„Bonnard, the great master of the blur. To create the blur in art, the hand must be precise, firm, like that of a surgeon.“

– David Perlov

yoman-naomi-perlov

„It is necessary to see them in the middle of the field, moist fingers raised to catch the wind and ears pricked up to hear what it’s saying. So the most naked sensations serve as a compass. Everything else, ethics and aesthetics, content and form, derives from this.

–  Serge Daney on  Trop tôt / Trop tard  (trans. Jonathan Rosenbaum)