Ivan’s Childhood: Reflections Beyond the River
There are things that will always be out of our grasps. Some of these things are tangible objects, a beautiful man or woman, a better job, more money, and the struggle seems all the more fruitless because you know, deep inside, these things can be obtained, have been by others. But not you. Then, there are those dreams for which we reach that we will never touch, impossible goals, conceivable, but, ultimately unattainable, and the struggle seems all the more beautiful for it. Andrey Tarkovskiy’s Ivan’s Childhood exists in this dreamscape. It is a film of smoke, of water, of substances that refuse to take shape. It is the past that can never be altered. It is the future that will never come.
Still, we reach.
Ivan (Nikolai Burlyayev) is a child of war, a soldier, courageous and agile and headstrong the way only an adolescent can be. He crosses through enemy swamps undetected. He refuses to cough up answers. Around him, his temporary guardians plot to send Ivan to military school, away from the front, and the inherent dangers of the battlefield, but Ivan will not be swayed. He has no concept of Ivan as child. There are vague recollections of youth that come to him in dreams, in which he’s playing with his mother, or a young girl who might be his sister, but these moments are gone. These people are dead. Ivan finds counterpoint in the company of adults. Will he be the braggadocios Captain Kholin? Or, perhaps he is more like the young Galtsev. Director of Photography Vadim Yusov shoots Galtsev and Ivan as equals from the moment the two are introduced, and Ivan stands tall in frame against Galtsev’s interrogations. Ivan meets his gaze. They are doubles. Later, as Ivan tells his story of escape from boarding school, Galtsev is seen in the mirror, listening intently, as if he, himself, is Ivan, reflecting back a decade, to some distant past, when he was someone else entirely.
Or maybe Ivan will turn out like the derelict he meets while attempting to go AWOL. The man is a crazy soul in wont of a nail, which he has misplaced ages ago. Still, he searches amongst the rubble of the house where his family, like Ivan’s, has been killed. “Oh, Lord,” he says. “When will this all end?” He locks himself behind what’s left of his gate. For him the war is lost. It has been for some time.
When Ivan dreams, he is staring down a well with his mother, looking at the impossible reflection of a star in the shape of a cross. He reaches, and his hands are in the water, so close, but the star is a mirage. Even in his sweetest dreams of youth, salvation is an abstract concept. “You needn’t get so worked up over the smallest things,” a voice advises, and now Ivan’s mother is gone, too, has become a symbol, far above Ivan, who, trapped by his longings, cannot escape the well he’s crawled into.
Ivan is a symbol, though, too. He is youth, and he is vitality, and for this reason Kholin (Valentin Zubkov), against all better judgment of, hey, having a prepubescent boy on the front-line fighting Germans is a stupid idea, keeps him close. When Ivan is around, there is still some semblance of hope and innocence. He is a glimpse beyond the war, perhaps to Kholin’s own childhood, when things were simpler. Kholin is trapped also, exhausted by battle, by disappointment and death. A beautiful nurse, Masha (Valentina Malyavina), catches his eye and Kholin pursues her in the woods, but there is nothing genial about his seduction. He is verbally aggressive, physically imposing. When the two kiss, it is against Masha’s will, and Kholin holds her tight, above a deep crevasse, as if, could he will himself to let go, she would disappear forever, perhaps never having existed to begin with.
A song, played in a devastated bunker on a battered phonograph, reminds the men of her. “They tell Masha not to go beyond the river” a voice croons, as Kholin and Galtsev sit in silence. “They tell Masha not to love the young man.” It is a song of transgression, of lost innocence, an innocence which Kholin destroyed in the woods, which the war destroyed in Kholin. The real Masha enters the room while the song plays, but Masha is being transferred, and Ivan has disappeared, and only the record is there to comfort them that, yes, at one time, there was more to life than this terrible bunker, this omnipresence of war, the quantity of which can only be measured by its own stinking void of loss.
The film ends with two juxtaposing sequences. The first is documentary footage of the aftermath of World War II, blown out buildings, corpses lining the street. The wife and daughters of the infamous Nazi, Joseph Goebbels, whom he poisoned with cyanide, lay next to his charred body. Ivan is now just a photograph in on a report, disposed from whatever file it was kept in. He’s been captured, tortured, killed. What did they expect?
Part of Ivan, though, is elsewhere, on a pristine beach, with his mother. He drinks from a bucket, a body of water easily consumed, contained, not like the well with its illusion of heaven, or the river of the song with its mysterious dangers, or the swamp, which looks so much like the sexual awaking of the woods, but offers only gunfire and bloodshed, or the ocean Ivan runs along in his dream, or in his death, chasing a young girl, his sister, his mother, Masha, until he outruns her (and what’s he chasing now?), his arm outstretched, so pathetic, so inexperienced, and we see ourselves in him, and he is real.
Posts tagged WWII
Ivan’s Childhood: Reflections Beyond the River
OSCAR MONTH: BEST BLACK & WHITE CINEMATOGRAPHY 1945 – THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY
There was no better time for Albert Lewin’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. The horror of the Second World War was slouching toward its terrible apex in Japan, and the American public was seeing it all on the big screen, but not in the newsreels. The ten minutes of lifeless propaganda, presenting a clear through line of hope and righteousness, to which film audiences were subjected before A-Pictures reflected little of the complexity and carnage on the battlefront. No, the truth was in the B-movies, the crime films, the noirs. Two sides to every story, and so on.
In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Hurd Hatfield’s laconic portrayal of the title character finds its footing in aesthetics. Gray is an Adonis, high cheekbones, perfect hair, his suits simple and elegant, but there is nothing behind his eyes that resembles the nuance of the human soul. Dorian Gray’s body is all form, restraint; he is a walking void. Upstairs, in his boyhood room, his spirit rots on canvas, the degeneration of the human condition splayed out in all its maddening truth, as complex and visceral as any noir film, and, in brief, terrifying glimpses, pulsing in full color.
Director of photography Harry Stradling is no stranger to the world of noir. Stradling’s work on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1941 thriller Suspicion set the groundwork for the intricate on and off-stage lighting and the strong emphasis on negative space and shadows in Dorian Gray. Gray’s greeting parlor, like the man himself, is stark and clinical, but the stairwell leading up to the hidden room, bright white with a bold black core, looms in the background, dominating the frame in every shot it’s featured. The hidden room in question is bathed almost completely in shadows, its small lamp and the vague implications of streetlights bleeding through window lattices providing little respite from its oppressive gloom.
Much of Harry Stradling’s technique concerns the deliberate obfuscation of facial features, especially eyes, focusing alternatively on the backs of character’s heads and torsos as they enter and exit rooms, or sit down for a round of vapid conversation, and always lingering in darkness. In the scene following Dorian’s farewell to his fiancée Gladys (Donna Reed), the shadow from Dorian’s top hat blackens his visage entirely. The next shot of Dorian approaching a waiting carriage is filmed at a downward angle through a looped whip, its resemblance to a hangman’s noose unmistakable, and Dorian’s gaze never turns to meet the driver, or the camera, while giving his destination. Later, in the seedy enclosure of a dive-bar, former Dorian acquaintance turned drug-addict, Adrian, sketches a chalk portrait of Gray on a table, the eyes nothing but vacant ellipses. Which portrait is a more accurate representation, the oozing color bedlam in the locked room, or the nothing? Is this art a simulacrum of one man, or a microcosm of humanity? Just how dangerous is it? Art, I mean.
There’s no moral here. Dorian Gray is just one of a number of men in his circle who have given themselves over to the lifestyle of hedonism, and unlike Lord Wotton (played impeccably by George Sanders), who tellingly goes unpunished throughout the story, Gray seems to have started his arc as a genuinely good person, a philanthropist who had no place enmeshed in the rigmarole of painting related curses. Instead, Albert Lewin’s adaptation ruminates coolly on societal dualities, what is perceived and what gets hidden away, in the underbelly of London streets, in the hypocritical colloquy of rich men across the dinner table, and in strange, sad rooms, locked up forever, clinging to the unperceivable texture of shadows. By 1945, filmgoers knew these shadows all too well, the duplicities they hid, and those they brought to light.
Das Boot: The Cutting Room Floor
Wolfgang Petersen’s epic submarine drama, Das Boot, is a film that joins Blade Runner and Close Encounters of the Third Kind when it comes to the diversity of its canonical formats. With recognized edits ranging from two and half to five hours, Das Boot’s various embodiments might as well be different films, or rather distinct categorical variants on the same wonderful story. Some prefer the sleek blockbuster approach of the theatrical cut, which streamlines the external submarine conflict into a series of nail-biting climaxes, while others, including myself, prefer the claustrophobic character study of the miniseries cut. Until now, the five hour miniseries cut was the only version of Das Boot I had seen, so when I popped in my new Blu-ray of the film’s director’s cut (a breezy three and a half hour edition), I was confronted with a void left by the edits, one that is apparent from the film’s first moments.
Das Boot opens with a party, a sloppy bedlam of horny, drunken soldiers celebrating their last night before leave. It’s an integral establishing scene in which many of the film’s main characters are introduced, including the cynical Captain and his Chief Engineer, war correspondent Werner, the prudish 1st Watch Officer and the ribald 2nd Watch Officer, and Thomsen, one of the “old guard” U-boat commanders newly decorated and legless with liquor.
Roughly six minutes have been eschewed from the director’s cut, and with them a nuance and pacing that mark the miniseries as the definitive edit and elevate an excellent war drama to a flawless work of art. The miniseries cut lingers. It lingers on the sexy, middle-aged cabaret singer, flirting with the soldiers, many of them virgins, reminding the audience that these clean-shaven young men are barely ready for sex, let alone war. The singer is their mother, and their girlfriends, everything they will leave behind. Werner’s flirtation with the singer is interrupted by the 2nd Watch Officer, who asks if Werner has planned his last will and testament, and reminds him of the high mortality rate for U-boat crews.
Also missing from the director’s cut, and the party, is Fähnrich, who is shown in the midst of a romantic interlude with his pregnant French girlfriend. These early scenes not only give the frenetic escalation of the party much needed contemplative beats, but add texture and depth to Fähnrich, who, in the film’s shorter edit, is reduced to a stereotype “got one waiting back home for me” character, given barely enough screen time to flash the girl’s photograph around.
The most devastating cut, however, is one of the smallest. Thomsen, piss drunk at the bar with the Captain, hears a telephone ring and screams “alarm!” This sad, Pavlovian response adds several important components to the opening sequence, and the film as a whole. First, it exposes the merriment of the party as an unstable illusion, one that could slip at any minute, revealing the fear and desperation in every soldier’s face. It’s an alarm to the young soldiers, who cannot possibly see themselves in Thomsen’s disheveled demeanor yet (but will), and it’s an alarm to the audience, indicating that the wars fought in this film will be largely psychological ones. When the first legitimate alarm sounds in the U-boat, the moment is given more weight by its foreshadowing. U-boat alarms, and the unbearable tension of their continuous repetition, destroyed Thomsen as a human being. The outburst at the party is the commander’s lowest point, even lower than his post-vomit declaration that he’s in “no condition to fuck” (again, women, and virility, at the forefront of every soldier’s mind), and serves as a magnificent juxtaposition to his reintroduction mid-way through the film, in action, sharp, articulate, and in control of a situation the likes of which have come to shape his entire life. At the helm of a U-boat, Thomsen is a god. On land, he is a self-destructive waste, waiting to die.
This single moment, a drunken wreck of a man, screaming “alarm”, impressed me so much, it came to define the entire opening of the film, and when I saw this moment was missing from the director’s cut, my heart sank a little. The director’s cut, with its jarring editing and obtrusive score, wasn’t the film I remembered. It wasn’t the film I revered. Yes, in many ways, even the director’s cut is a masterpiece, the movie is that tenacious, and the ending is still one of the most powerful climaxes in cinema history, but it’s the getting there that matters. The long periods of silence, of intimate moments, where a shave becomes a thought provoking event in a soldier’s day, these are the details that enrich Das Boot as a film, and the details that engage me, and exalt me, as a film lover.
Day Two: The Hays Code, Femme Fatales, and Bette Davis’ Scarlet Letter
The United States, finally breaking its non-interventionism policy and deploying troops in World War II, now faced another problem, how to fill the thousands of employment positions abandoned by men during their enlistment. “Do the job he left behind,” the posters read, and women across America stepped into factory overalls to work.
This, of course, did little to preserve the delicate, patriarchal power paradigm so intricate to the American way of life. Women were to stay at home, and raise families, and be faithful, and stand very still on their pedestals. They were not to be parading about in trousers, making money, and keeping the great Capitalist machine running, while their husbands and boyfriends ate bullets and shrapnel on Japanese beaches. What would happen when the men came home? Would they still be men?
Enter William Wyler’s The Letter, based on the W. Somerset Maugham play of the same name from the 1920s, another time when feminist ideals threatened the status quo of masculine agency. The film’s narrative is taken from a real life scandal in which the wife of a British colonial headmaster shot a male friend dead. “Was sex involved?” an all-male, probably sex-starved jury demanded to know.
Wyler’s film contains two very significant changes in the case. The first, the addition of the titular letter, as the evidence of adultery that could make-or-break the murder trial, and the second, a dark ending, in which the murderess in question, Bette Davis’ femme fatale, Leslie Crosbie, is killed. The letter itself is an invention of Maugham, but Crosbie’s death is an element exclusive to the 1940 film, and for this, The Hays Code can be thanked.
The Motion Picture Production Code (The Hays Code), active from the 1930s through the 1960s, enforced what the United States public could and could not see on the silver screen. Under the Hays Code, murder and adultery could not go unpunished. Therefore, The Letter’s bleak ending, much more disturbing than the original, is the result of a moral watchdog meant to keep this sort of bleakness out of the cinema in the first place. Crosbie kills a man, and she must be killed for it, simple as that. Or, maybe the censors were just weary of the implied ambiguity of Crosbie’ crime, and that someone might connect Crosbie’s stifling marriage with the dovetailing epilogue of British Colonialism that serves as a backdrop to the picture. Perhaps the censors were afraid the adulteress was in the right.
On screen, Bette Davis embodied a new screen role for women of the 1940s. The femme fatale, cunning, sexually aggressive, and deadly, personified growing masculine fears of a degenerative gender structure, and became a well-known trope of the film noir genre. No longer would women play merely love interests, or damsels in distress, but intelligent antagonists who could out-quip, and outgun their male counterparts. But were these roles breaking the mold, or just enforcing the sexual stereotypes that had been used to persecute women since American colonialism? Either way, the tide was shifting. Overseas, posters warning of venereal diseases proclaimed that “loose women” could actually kill a man, while back home, wives and girlfriends found keeping their promises of fidelity to a soldier they might never see again was a concept they couldn’t get behind. Oh, and they weren’t leaving the workforce, or Sunset Blvd, any time soon.
…and say she steps out of the shadows, and there’s her holster, empty, as it seems. When she comes in for a kiss, you step back, or she steps forward again. This could be a dance, and now you’re kissing, too, but only because you’re buying time, because you’re afraid. Because where’s the pistol?
This is Noir Week, an artistic conspiracy between Ill Stills, Arison Cain, and Magnum Opus, and if you follow the trail long enough, you just might catch a killer, or a spy, or a bullet. This week, we’ll be seeped in the tenebrous pulp of film noir, giving Ill Stills readers a crash course in femme fatales, the denigration of the American justice system, and feverous, Word War II paranoia. As always, be wary of spoilers, though no amount of information could ever ruin these classics. Before we begin, do yourself a favor and check out early Ill Stills noir (The Third Man, Rebecca) and neo-noir (Memento, Fallen Angels) posts.
DAY ONE: Fritz Lang’s Fury and the Immolation of the Old Guard
In, 1934, following a meeting with then propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, Fritz Lang fled a Germany teeming with Nazi corruption and careening toward a war the horrors of which the United States public, and government, was fervently attempting to ignore. Lang had been labeled a Jew. Another year in Germany, he could have been head of UFA, as Goebbels promised, or he could have been killed, shot dead for a word, one with which he did not even identify. Escape was a Hobson’s choice.
So, it’s no surprise that Lang’s first film in the United States would be Fury, in which the justice system collapses on itself, and men are (hard) boiled down to one of two words - innocent, or guilty. Spencer Tracy plays Joe Wilson, aw shucking his way through an honest life, when a police officer pulls a gun on, and incarcerates him. The evidence? Five dollars of counterfeit cash and a pocket full of peanuts. This is happening, America, Lang said with his lens. These are dark time, America, he screamed with his mise-en-scène. That aw-shucks shit ain’t gonna cut it, he threatened as, on screen, even the public has turned against Wilson, defenseless in his jail cell, while the swell of something monstrous mutated overseas.
In a small town, in the heart of the United States, a lynch mob forms and burns Joe Wilson alive, because, to them, he’s guilty, and after all, they must protect their town from these internal threats, threats who may even seem familiar, like a forgotten face from the grocery store, or the man who pumps the gasoline, but they are not familiar. They are others. Now, two new words are worth killing over, “us” and “them.”
Wilson isn’t dead, however, and in a quintessentially noir moment, brilliantly captured by cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg, he arrives in the doorway of his old apartment, obscured by shadows and a tilted brim, face twisted in a heart-stopping grimace, and yeah, probably packing heat. He’s not the same man he once was. In fact, he’s not a man at all. Now, he’s just a word, “guilty”. He’s one of “them”.
It only took a moment in American cinema for the hero to become the villain, a new era was ushered into the theaters, and the old guard was done for. Just a few years earlier, films like Public Enemy and Scarface reassured the audience, often with advisories or disclaimers, that the men they were seeing on the screen was one of “them”, a crook, an infestation in the heart of American values, in American justice. Fritz Lang exposed the lie, and said “Joe Wilson is you,” and he said “Joe Wilson is me, too,” and he said “the line between a good man and a public enemy is very, very thin.”
Welcome to Noir Week, the forecast is black.
The Thin Red Line (1998, Terrence Malick; Cinematographer: John Toll)
Sometimes, the picture speaks for itself.