Nomura #4: Castle of Sand (Suna no utsuwa, Japan 1974)

The two detectives (from: http://rozmon.blogspot.co.uk)

The two detectives (from: http://rozmon.blogspot.co.uk)

portrait-without-bleedThis was presented at Bradford as the biggest hit for Nomura Yoshitaro, surprising his studio Shochiku since it was thought to be an old-fashioned film. The film is much longer than the others in the retrospective at 143 minutes. It’s an adaptation of Matsumoto’s 1961 novel. The English translation of 1989 gives the novel a new title – ‘Inspector Imanishi Investigates’. It also suggests that the direct translation of the Japanese title is ‘Vessel of Sand’. Nomura illustrates the title with a sequence in which a boy makes small castles of sand which crumble as they dry in the sun.

In one sense the film goes back to the straightforward police procedural found in Stakeout. Once again the narrative is full of train trips – criss-crossing the main island of Honshu from the North-East to the West and then to the South and the city of Ise before coming back to Tokyo. The length of the film is a result of a long final sequence in which the main suspect is engaged in playing his own composition for piano and orchestra in a public performance. As in the other films I was reminded of a Hitchcock film – The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) – with a grand set piece. But I didn’t get quite the ending I expected.

Inspector Imanishi is an unconventional character in the Matsumoto book who is made slightly more conventional in the film as played by Tanba Tetsuro, though he retains the book character’s doggedness and still writes poetry. He and his young assistant are called to a railway yard in Tokyo where a body has been found without any form of identification. The only clue comes from a bar assistant who had earlier heard the man talking to a second man in a ‘North-Eastern accent’. What follows is a satisfying procedural sequence in which the detectives eventually place the name the victim is supposed to have spoken in the bar and linked it to the accent, but this actually sends them West to a remote region. Another long slog, a slice of luck and good observation coupled with imagination leads them eventually to a possible suspect, a concert pianist played by Kato Go from The Shadow Within, but this time with fashionable sunglasses and looking quite suave. But still the detectives struggle to make links between their different sets of evidence. In the end it is Ryu Chisu, the great actor from Ozu’s films, who in the role of a village elder remembers a part of the long story of the murdered man that enables the detectives to finally make the breakthrough.

The 'excluded' figures venturing through the Japanese landscape (from: http://rozmon.blogspot.co.uk)

The ‘excluded’ figures venturing through the Japanese landscape (from: http://rozmon.blogspot.co.uk)

As in Matsumoto’s other crime stories, there is an important social issue at stake in the narrative. This time it is a particular form of social exclusion that still operated in the Japanese countryside in the early war years. Nomura shows the excluded figures kept out of villages, often in settings which connote the beauty and tranquility of Japanese rural life (see above). This ironic juxtapostion is then underpinned by the orchestral music which builds up the excessive emotion of the melodrama. The stigma that underpins this narrative was still prevalent in 1974 and the film ends with an explanation that there is no basis for its continuing social impact. Tom Vincent has suggested to me that it was this issue that helped to make the film a hit and that it was widely supported for its stand in this regard. A second issue is the rebuilding of lives following the devastation of war. The detectives discover that all public records in Osaka were destroyed by Allied fire-bombing – and that they could only be recovered by allowing the survivors to verify their own identities. What more could the writer of melodrama want than the perfect narrative device for switching identities?

I was totally convinced by this melodrama/police procedural but I spoke to other members of the audience who really couldn’t cope with the final section. It’s a shame that melodrama has become such a ‘dirty word’ in the UK and I still don’t understand how it happened. I guess that Castle of Sand is an old-fashioned film even for 1974. At one point I noticed that there was hand-held camerawork in a bar-room scene. How outlandish it seemed! Old-fashioned yes, but there is such a lot to admire from the performances and the script to the wonderful journeys across so many Japanese landscapes presented in colour and ‘Scope. We were very fortunate to watch a 35mm print produced by Shochiku after digital restoration in 2009 and it looked wonderful.

Here’s a trailer for a US release:

Nomura #3: The Shadow Within (Kage no kuruma, Japan 1970)

One of the disturbing sights facing the protagonist in THE SHADOW WITHIN. Is that a noose fashioned by the child or is he attempting to set up a swing? (from http://rozmon.blogspot.co.uk)

One of the disturbing sights facing the protagonist in THE SHADOW WITHIN. Is that a noose fashioned by the child or is he attempting to set up a swing? (from http://rozmon.blogspot.co.uk)

portrait-without-bleedThe third Nomura film at BIFF marks something of a change in style, though the narrative content, still based on a Matsumoto story, remains consistent. The colour 16mm Scope print was less buckled but the colour had faded badly. Unfortunately this film includes some flashback footage that is subject to various visual effects and they seem to have deteriorated more than the rest of the film creating some very odd images. More disturbing for me is the soundtrack now featuring what Festival Director Tom Vincent referred to as enka music. I don’t have the knowledge and experience to discuss this Japanese popular music form of the 1970s, but I’m usually happier with orchestral classical/jazz scores. I think Tom referred to ‘lounge music’ but that was a much later term in Western music – perhaps it originated in Japan?

1970 marks a high point when Japan was more affluent and more comfortable with ‘Japaneseness’ than in the first decades after the war. It was the year of the Osaka Expo and just six years on from the Tokyo Olympiad. Japan was now on a par with many developed countries and the future looked good. Only three years later the oil crisis would temper economic growth but the economy would continue to grow again from the late 1970s. Society too was changing and gradually ‘modernising’. However, the film industry was in crisis with the major studios losing money and smaller independents gaining ground alongside foreign imports (mostly from Hollywood). One impact on the traditional crime melodramas that were Nomura’s focus is the depiction of overt sexual activity. By 1970 the so-called pinku eiga or ‘pink films’ were beginning to establish soft porn as a major genre/mode in Japanese cinema. This doesn’t mean that The Shadow Within is soft porn – far from it –but we do see the central couple in bed making passionate love, mainly under the sheets and in some shots showing much more skin than would have been possible in mainstream Japanese genres in 1961, the date of the earlier Nomura title that we watched.

Tom Vincent and Chiaki Omori gave an introduction to the film and the work of Nomura and Matsumoto before each of the last four films.

Tom Vincent and Chiaki Omori of Shochiku International gave an introduction to the film and the work of Nomura and Matsumoto before each of the last four films.

The Shadow Within is a film about adultery and the difficulties faced by single parents attempting new relationships. However, unlike the earlier two Nomura films the narrative here focuses on the man as the ‘active’ player in the narrative. Now in his thirties, Hamajima Yukio (Katô Gô) is what I assume was seen as a ‘salary man’ in 1970s Japan, though he seems to have some degree of autonomy in running a busy travel agency in Tokyo. He works long hours and doesn’t get much support and comfort at home in the suburbs – where his wife is usually busy with one of her several local business ventures, most of which seem to involve her female friends invading the house. There might be an interesting narrative about the newly entrepreneurial woman here but that isn’t what concerns Matsumoto and Nomura. The couple is childless and outside of work Yukio doesn’t have any interests. One day, on the bus home, he spots a woman he thinks he knows and when they eventually speak he realises that they were at school together. Teiko (Iwashita Shima) is now a widow with a small son and it isn’t long before Yukio is invited to her house to meet the 6 year-old son, Ken. As in many Japanese films, little is said about childcare for the boy (is he at home on his own all day?), but as their relationship develops Yukio begins to visit the house before Teiko gets home and he looks after the boy when the child’s mother is kept out late selling insurance.

The central section of the narrative shows the developing relationship. Yukio spends more and more time with Teiko and her son – his own wife is seemingly too busy to notice. But gradually, Yukio begins to get the feeling that the boy resents him. This sounds like a conventional melodrama development but Nomura manages to develop the story in several interesting ways. The child playing the son is distinctly creepy, almost like a forerunner of the late 1990s J-horror children and gradually we realise that it is having an effect on Yukio. Is he becoming paranoid or is the child really trying to harm him? Is what we see actually happening or is this Yukio’s imagination? Around this point in the narrative Nomura introduces the flashbacks which show us Yukio as a small boy in a similar situation, living with his single mother when a man joins the family group. The final section of the film then moves into a full-blown psychological family melodrama.

The Shadow Within is a melodrama in which the criminal act which eventually requires police investigation comes from within the family melodrama – i.e. it itself does not ‘drive’ the narrative. The appearance of the police is thus quite brief at the end of the film. Again it’s very difficult not to think of Hitchcock in the final scenes when, during a police interview, we are invited to watch two or three large black crows, seemingly peering in the window. I enjoyed the film as much as the others in the Nomura retrospective and I was very taken by the performance of Iwashita Shima as the woman. Katô Gô as Yukio was able to move from stolid normalcy to become the focus for paranoia as the narrative developed.

Here is the Japanese trailer (no subs) which illustrates several of the style points discussed above (the effects footage, the music, more overt sexual activity etc.):

Nomura #2: Zero Focus (Zero no shoten, Japan 1961)

The three women at the centre of ZERO FOCUS in a promo pic, (from left) , Takachiho Hizuru as Sachiko, Kuga Yoshiko as Teiko and Arima Ineko as Hisako

The three women at the centre of ZERO FOCUS in a promo pic, (from left) Takachiho Hizuru as Sachiko, Kuga Yoshiko as Teiko and Arima Ineko as Hisako

portrait-without-bleedThis was actually the first of Bradford International Film Festival’s Nomura Yoshitaro films based on the published stories of Matsumoto Seicho to be screened. All the issues about the 16mm print for Stakeout also apply here. Although released three years after Stakeout, I thought this seemed like an earlier film. Part of that feeling came from the style of the film which much more resembled the films noirs of the 1940s in the US and Europe.

Tom Vincent’s notes in the festival brochure capture the noir elements well when he refers to: “voiceover, revelations, duplicitous characters . . . indebted to Hitchcock with a dual-identity plot and elevated showdowns reminiscent of both Vertigo and Rebecca, plus a Herrmann-like score”. We might add the use of flashbacks and the presence of a femme fatale. Many of these elements also signal melodrama and with the added presence of elements of the police procedural, Zero Focus is clearly related to the other four films in the festival package.

The convoluted plot involves a young couple who marry in difficult circumstances. Teiko is in Tokyo and Kenichi has been working on a job for his advertising company on the west coast of Japan in Kanazawa. Immediately after the wedding he returns to Kanazawa to tie up loose ends before taking up his new post in Tokyo – but he doesn’t return on the expected day. He can’t be contacted and after a few days his company send another employee, with Teiko, to investigate what they realise has become a ‘missing persons’ case. Gradually Teiko uncovers her husband’s ‘other life’ in Kanazawa and on the remote Noto peninsula with its rugged cliffs (which will provide a dramatic setting for the narrative climax). The police investigation hinges on a crucial memory of what happened in Japan under occupation (1946-52) when street prostitution to serve American GIs began to become a social issue. One of the police officers had been a ‘street guard’ who knew the women on the street. This notion of building social issues into crime fiction has been part of the attraction of Matsumoto’s stories for readers.

Confrontation on the cliffs

Confrontation on the cliffs

The film has been released on DVD in North America and there are some reviews on IMDB. Unfortunately most of them don’t realise what a gem the film is. As with Stakeout, Nomura and his scriptwriters are interested in the women in the story so it is literally the ‘voices’ of the three women shown at the head of this posting who effectively ‘drive’ the narrative through voiceovers. Teiko is a Tokyo girl at first well outside her comfort zone tramping through the snow in her high heels on the coast. But she gets down to it and adapts quickly (note the lined bootees in the photo). Kuga Yoshito who plays Teiko was by this time a veteran of Japanese cinema having made an early appearance for Kurosawa in Drunken Angel in 1948 and subsequently worked on Kurosawa’s The Idiot and films by both Mizoguchi and Ozu. She is slightly older than a ‘young bride’ might be and this makes her more interesting for me. She looks like she means business in the last reel! Working on the script was Hashimoto Shinobu who contributed to Kurosawa’s script for Rashomon and other films. The Rashomon connection here is a device whereby the final part of the film offers different versions of what actually happened in the story of Teiko’s husband’s disappearance.

Some of the more perceptive reviews of the film are found here:

http://www.sarudama.com/japanese_movies/zerofocus.shtml

http://wanderingkaijyu.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/zero-focus-aka-zero-no-shoten-1961.html

The harsh beauty of Noto is similar to the mountain spa region around Saga in Stakeout and Nomura tries to get what he can from it. I was struck by how the cliff top and the angry sea (in other parts of Japan) are settings that recur in more recent Japanese films including Ringu (1998) and Villain (2010). They also appear in two further Nomura films.

N.B. If you are looking for this film, don’t get confused by the 2009 remake which is easily available on DVD.

Nomura #1: Stakeout (Harikomi, Japan 1958)

The two detectives in tailing Sadako (from http://rozmon.blogspot.co.uk)

The two detectives tailing Sadako (from http://rozmon.blogspot.co.uk)

This was the earliest of the films by Nomura Yoshitaro to be screened at the 20th Bradford Film Festival. All five films at Bradford were adapted from stories by Matsumoto Seicho. Although I enjoyed all five films this was perhaps my favourite. It was screened second which meant that I’d already got some idea of what to expect (even if all five films adopt slightly different styles).

Stakeout was screened on a 16mm anamorphic print, always a difficult projection format even for the National Media Museum’s world-class projectionists. These are the only subtitled film prints available from the Japan Foundation Film Library. The print was buckled/warped and it was impossible to get the whole film in focus at the same time so we had to cope with a blurring of the right-hand quarter of the screen. Along with the relatively large subtitles and the loud and rather brash-sounding music score this made the screening experience less than ideal. It’s a tribute to Nomura’s filmmaking skill, therefore, that the next 116 minutes revealed a gripping film narrative that I thoroughly enjoyed.

The film opens with a lengthy pre-credit sequence, unusual for the period, in which we follow two Tokyo detectives as they catch the overnight (and very crowded) express to Saga City on the southernmost island of ‘mainland’ Japan, Kyushu – a journey of around 1,000 km. It’s a very hot Summer and the police officers have an uncomfortable journey before finding a ryokan (a small hotel/boarding house) which overlooks the house where they are to watch a woman. The woman is played by the great Takamine Hideko, one of the most popular stars of the period, often remembered for her roles in Naruse Mikio’s melodramas such as Floating Clouds  and When A Women Ascends the Stairs (1960). This is Sadako, a housewife married to an older businessman and stepmother to three small children. The police believe that she is the ex-lover of a murder suspect and that he will attempt to contact her. Their hotel room provides the perfect vantage point from which to watch her house – but it’s hot and their vigil might last a long time. The detectives are played by Oki Minoru (Yuki, the younger man) and Miyaguchi Seiji (the older man)

Nomura spent several years preparing this film, making sure he got it right. It doesn’t take too long during the stakeout for us to realise that there is more to this story than solving a crime. Nomura gives us flashbacks to explain how the investigation began in Tokyo but also to look at the home lives of the two police officers. The older of the two has three children at home, the oldest girl now a working woman who is seeking to marry – but a police officer’s pay means that her father is struggling financially. The younger officer is wondering about whether he should marry the daughter of the local bathhouse keeper. These thoughts trouble the detectives as they note that their target is a woman suffering in a loveless marriage with children who don’t really care about her. Nomura underlines these concerns by involving the proprietor of the ryokan and her maids. The three women are curious about their guests and try to involve them in the social life of the inn (the ryokan has public areas and a communal bathhouse). Because Nomura makes this effort it means that when the finale comes after Sadako’s lover eventually contacts her, we recognise that the younger detective who follows her on the fateful day is himself concerned about how Sadako responds to her lover. Nomura has constructed a discourse about marriage – its joys and possible pain – which he lays on top of the police procedural. The result of the stakeout will affect the lives of four human beings.

The initial set-up in Saga City is reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Rear Window (US 1954), even down to the broiling heat. The detectives watch the house across the street and think about their own problems. Later on during the chase, Nomura sets up a big street parade in which Sadako is able to elude Yuki (but she might not even have noticed him) . This is reminiscent of Hollywood (and European) crime films, but there is no clear indication that Nomura is directly referencing any Western films. When the film was shown in the US in 2002 it was included in a season of ‘Japanese noirs and neo-noirs‘. I’m not sure how useful these terms are. I can see that such arguments could be made but I find that the crime melodrama tag is more helpful. In effect here, the ‘crime’ is banal and the criminal is a weak man rather than a doomed hero. The woman is no femme fatale and indeed may be ignorant of the crime.

I would argue that although structurally a ‘police procedural’, Stakeout is fundamentally a crime melodrama in which we are invited to think about the personal and emotional lives of the central characters and that this becomes more important when we see how the narrative is resolved. For me, all of the Nomura films in Bradford are melodramas but the genre mix is slightly different in each case. Stakeout is a ‘realist melodrama’ and the finale takes place mainly in the mountains and at a spa resort. Melodrama is a difficult generic category to define and it may be simply a ‘mode’ of filmmaking. Some of my ideas about melodrama are contained in this post. There is music in the film but I would need a second viewing to discuss it in any detail. Nomura’s bravura style with camerawork by Inoue Seiji includes overhead shots, tracking shots, lots of good railway footage and also the rapid wipes for transitions so favoured by Kurosawa Akira at this time.

This trailer (no subtitles) gives a good idea of the visual look of Stakeout:

 

Introducing Nomura Yoshitaro

Nomura shooting The Castle of Sand (1974)

Nomura shooting The Castle of Sand (1974) (to the right behind the camera)

Bradford International Film Festival (BIFF) has organised a short retrospective of the work of the Japanese director Nomura Yoshitaro, put together by Festival Director Tom Vincent with the co-operation of Nomura’s studio Shochiku. Five films have played in Bradford and they will also go to the ICA in London for screenings between 18 April and 23 April. Before the first screening Alexander Jacoby, author of A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors: From the Silent Era to the Present Day, gave us some ideas about how to place Nomura as a Japanese director.

Nomura Yoshitaro (1919-2005) is barely known in the West, although some of his films were released in the US by Shochiku. In Japan however he was greatly admired and Alex told us that in the Kinema Jumpo ratings (from the most authoritative Japanese cinema journal) Nomura’s films were often placed higher than those of Kurosawa and other directors well-known to Western fans of Japanese cinema. Why didn’t this success lead to exports? Alex suggested two possible reasons. First, Nomura was unfortunate in that he did not become fully established as a ‘name’ director until the late 1950s/early 1960s. The Japanese ‘masters’ – Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Ichikawa, Naruse and Ozu began to see their films exported via film festivals and art house releases from the early 1950s and therefore Nomura missed the boat. By the early 1960s the Japanese New Wave headed by Oshima Nagisa was starting to make noises and Nomura was then too ‘old-fashioned’.

Second, Nomura was seen primarily as a ‘genre director’. He made films in many different genres but the films on show in Bradford are all based on stories by the very successful writer Matsumoto Seicho and mix crime fiction and melodrama. Alex suggested that actually Nomura was a director with ‘personal vision’ and that perhaps he worked in the same way as Howard Hawks. I’m not sure whether Hawks is the director I’d pick out but within any studio system there are bound to be directors capable of producing a genre film with the something extra that makes them recognisable as ‘personal’.

Nomura intended his films to be for the popular market but as soon as he was able to get more substantial budgets (his early films were low-budget programme-fillers in the early 1950s) he prepared carefully for his productions, especially in organising location shooting for Matsumoto’s stories which often featured scenes in different parts of Japan (and frequent train trips). Chaiki Omori from Shochiku’s international department helped to introduce the films and she emphasised that as far as possible Nomura tried to create the precise conditions for each locations described in the story. He would turn off the air-conditioning and make his actors really sweat if the story demanded it, he would shoot at noon if the script said it was noon etc.

The problems with making the distinction between an ‘auteur’ and a ‘genre director’ are immediately apparent when comparing Kurosawa Akira’s adaptation of an Evan Hunter crime novel in High and Low (1963) with Nomura’s policier/melodrama Stakeout (1958). All the critical praise for the former should be matched by that for the latter (my review to follow). There are differences between Kurosawa’s approach with its attention to historical/social details and references to other filmmaking and literary cultures and Nomura’s more directly Japanese focus but both directors are interested in the characters as much if not more than in the genre narrative. I think that Nomura’s films could have worked overseas and the Bradford season offers a useful opportunity to test out this theory.

BIFF 2011 #20: JH Engström Q&A

JH Engstrom in conversation with NMeM curator Greg Hobson (photo by Paul Thompson for NMeM)

JH Engström in conversation with NMeM curator Greg Hobson (photo by Paul Thompson for NMeM)

Following two earlier photography documentaries, BIFF offered a chance to explore photographic practice directly through a Q&A with the Swedish photographer JH Engström. For several weeks the National Media Museum had been showing an exhibition of photographs by Engström and his ‘mentor’ and later colleague and close friend Anders Petersen. The exhibition closed a few days after this Q&A, but there is a book of photographs available for ‘From Back Home’ – a substantial project concerned with presenting images of the people and places of Värmland in West Central Sweden. In conjunction with the exhibition, I’ve been offering an evening class on aspects of Swedish Cinema entitled ‘Home and Memory’ so I was very interested to hear from Engström in person.

The event as advertised included both photographers and a screening of a short film about the pair’s work. However, Anders Petersen was ill and unable to travel and so Engström showed his own film about Anders, A Film With and About Anders Petersen (Sweden 2006). He also showed a ‘rough cut’ of a slide presentation of photographs from his new project focusing on his own recent family life – an intimate portrait culminating in the birth of his child. I found the slide sequence to be filmic and very striking. The documentary on Petersen was also very engaging and took us into Petersen’s world of close contact with his subjects which enables his distinctive high contrast black and white portraits. I understand that Engström has trained as a documentary filmmaker and there was clear evidence of this in the way he presented his friend (who reminded me in some ways of the Swedish writer Henning Mankell).

JH Engström with Anders Petersen (left)

JH Engström proved to be an entertaining speaker with lots to say, often very forcefully. Since I don’t know that much about international photography culture I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but Engström is clearly a major figure and the small cinema was packed. We learned that Engström’s whole outlook has been influenced by his background. He lived in Paris as a boy and returned there as a young adult to be an assistant to photographer Mario Testino. Then he returned to Sweden to gain a photography qualification. This is when he first worked with Petersen. But eventually he found Stockholm to be too ‘organised’ and restrictive and for a time he lived and worked in New York where he produced work for a project called ‘Trying to Dance’ (2004). When he did return to Sweden it was to Värmland where he had been born and where he embarked on ‘From Back Home’ with Anders Petersen. Now based in Värmland he seems to travel widely to give workshops etc. (See his website for his background.)

One of Engström's images in the 'From Back Home' exhibition. This image seems to me to be rich in cultural meanings and it 'speaks' to me about 'home' and 'memory'.

The key word for Engström’s approach appears to be ‘intimacy’. There was discussion of what this might mean, but for me Engström demonstrates it very successfully in his work. He seems to have a loose and free approach – but of course he works very hard and very professionally to achieve his aims. He said that when he first worked for Marion Testino, he wasn’t interested in fashion but he was impressed by the professional approach that he saw. He works in both black and white and colour on different formats, but always analogue not digital. I gather from this that there is no rigid ‘technique’ to be applied. Rather, he goes with whatever feels right in capturing the feeling of intimacy. As he said – “photography is about everything except reality”. His first project was in fact concerned with ‘social documentary’ – creating images with members of a women’s shelter in Stockholm but his later work consciously moves towards less organised communities.

In relation to the discussion about ‘close’ and ‘intimate’ qualities in the work a perceptive comment from the audience suggested the idea of the photographer who oscillates between the ‘personal’ – being immersed in the environment and emotionally close to the human subject – and the observer who is ‘close’ but detached. I think I’ve got this right but certainly Engström himself thought that this was an interesting line of enquiry.

I was impressed by many of the ideas in this session. For instance, I was taken by aspects of Engström’s methodology. He said that in his projects, selecting and editing photographs for the book comes first and that this then informs what goes into the exhibition (and presumably how they are presented). The photographs themselves I found quite striking and in his new work I was interested in how willing he was to display both himself and his partner for the camera. He seems like a very confident and assured young man. When I first saw the ‘From Back Home’ exhibition, I was struck by how the characters in what were recognisably Swedish locales looked rather different from the stereotypes – or rather that they looked both distinctively Swedish and ‘not at all Swedish’ at the same time. This probably says more about my own lack of knowledge about Swedish culture. However, several of the students on our evening class on Swedish Cinema linked to the exhibition remarked on how at first the characters seemed unusual but that after we had watched films set in Värmland or adjacent counties they seemed very familiar.

Here’s a short YouTube clip taken during the ‘From Back Home’ exhibition’s stay in Angers (dialogue in French):

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BIFF 2011 #19: Goya (East Germany/Russia/Bulgaria/Yugoslavia/Poland 1971)

In one of the film's funniest sequences, Goya shuffles the line-up of the Spanish Royal Family for a famous (and satirical) painting.

The biggest treat for me and many others in this year’s festival was a rare chance to see one of the epic productions from Eastern Europe that competed with Hollywood’s international productions in the 1960s and 1970s. We were told that this was probably the first time that the film had been shown in the UK and that the print was probably one prepared for a screening in Paris at its time of release. The fact that it was a 70mm print in good condition was arguably the main attraction for festivalgoers on the Widescreen Weekend. There was only one slight problem. This print had German dialogue and French subtitles. My French and German are both too poor to deal with complex dialogue so I did miss some aspects of the plot – I’ve had to research the life of Francisco Goya in order to try to sort out some scenes. Though I felt slightly frustrated, this didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the film. I hear German slightly better than French, but I found myself blotting out the dialogue and reading the subtitles. I think that this shows how ‘institutionalised’ one can be in reading subtitles. I also noted that because I was reading a language I only dimly remember learning, I often couldn’t decipher the whole subtitle line before it had disappeared. This at least means that I can now appreciate the difficulty slow readers have with subtitles. The film did actually include some dubbing since two language versions (German and Russian) were produced and actors came from several countries.

Goya is a biopic of the Spanish painter (1746-1828) who straddled the final years of the tradition of the old masters and the birth of modern fine art. The full German title of the film is Goya – oder Der arge Weg der Erkenntnis, which translates as Goya – or the Hard Way to Enlightenment. This full title gives a clue to what marks this film out from the several other Goya biopics (a Spanish film appeared in the same year and the most recent film to feature Goya was Milos Forman’s Goya’s Ghost (2006)). Goya as envisioned in Eastern Europe was a figure who had created for himself a position of some importance as a ‘court painter’ to Spain’s ancien régime. But he was also a man of sexual appetite, a believer in the rights of his Spanish compatriots and a supremely talented artist eager to try new ideas and develop new techniques. It was inevitable that he would struggle in a situation in which ‘enlightenment’, embodied in the French philosophes of the late 18th century, would come to Spain, first peacefully but eventually via war and occupation. In the meantime, Goya and other liberal figures faced not only the protocols of court but also the terrible power of the ‘Spanish Inquisition’. Being labelled a heretic could lead to flogging, imprisonment and then exile – even for those who ‘abjured’.

Goya was one of ten films made at the great DEFA studio in Berlin in a 70mm format. The sheer scale and cost of the film required resources from across Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Yugoslavia stood in for Spain but a genuine Spanish musical group contributed to the score. The original cut was some 164 mins (with an interval) but this print was 134 mins and we watched it straight through. This is described as the ‘director’s cut’ in the DVD promotional material but there was discussion around this screening as to what actually prompted the decision to cut the film. The popular theory was that because the film was quite complicated in terms of narrative, the cuts were made because there was a danger of audience alienation. This is interesting because in my experience cutting often makes a narrative more, not less, opaque.

The film was introduced by Wolfram Hanneman (see his introduction here) who told us we would find the film ‘difficult’ even without the language issues. I didn’t really take this on board at the time, but when I researched Goya’s life afterwards I realised that the film was non-linear in its presentation of events. Since the juxtaposition of scenes still made sense in terms of revealing Goya’s ‘path to enlightenment’, this didn’t bother me too much. I don’t really have any strong feelings about 70mm (the main interest for much of the audience) and I can’t really comment on the quality of the print, except that it seemed in pretty good nick. The production was indeed epic and there was plenty of visual feasting unencumbered by language difficulties. The remarkable set pieces around the procedures of the Spanish Inquisition work very well and, as Keith remarked afterwards, this is a biopic of an artist that really does seem to say something about creativity and the artistic process. DEFA employed a small army of illustrators and artists to copy Goya’s paintings at different stages of development.

Goya (Donatas Banionis) with The Duchess of Alba (the Yugoslav actress, Olivera Katarina)

The other major interest in the film is Konrad Wolf as director and Donatas Banionis as Goya. The Lithuanian actor Banionis is the cosmonaut in Solaris and I thought he was terrific as Goya (he also played Beethoven in another DEFA biopic). Wolf (1925-1982) is controversial as a German Jew who fled with his communist family to Moscow in the 1930s and was educated and trained in the Soviet Union before returning to Berlin to work at DEFA. Despite his high status within DEFA there must have been some concern that Wolf was pro-Soviet, although others thought that he had liberal tendencies. I found it difficult to discern any authorial thumbprints on the Goya story that might hint at ideological sub-texts. The film was an adaptation of a novel by Lion Feuchtwanger and Wolf shared screenplay credit with the Bulgarian Angel Vargenshtain. This isn’t my field but perhaps someone would like to comment on Wolf’s political views?

A Region 1 DVD of the film with a slightly cropped image is available on Amazon and I’m told some of the extras are interesting. It’ll have to go on my long list of movies to acquire so that I can re-watch it with English subs.