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Tuesday, 14 June 2016

A Young Cinephile's Diary - Shaun Heenan retrieves Kon Ichikawa, Volker Schlondorff and (more) Louis Malle

Fandor’s Criterion selection this week focused on films set during World War II, and included films I’ve been meaning to get to for years. There was another Palme d’Or winner amongst them but, as it turns out, not one I’m especially fond of. I started the week with my first foray into the films of Kon Ichiwaka.

Ichiwaka is one of the curious group of filmmakers who have returned to remake one of their own films. The version of The Burmese Harp (Kon Ichikawa, Japan, 1956) I watched this week was his black and white original,  the more famous, but he remade it in colour in 1985. The film follows a group of Japanese soldiers stationed in Burma near the end of the war who have learned choral singing as a way to raise their spirits and remain positive. One soldier named Muzushima has crafted a harp and learned to play it in the local fashion. Another soldier jokes that Muzushima should take up the lifestyle of a local monk and, as the war ends, this is exactly what he does.

The film is most interesting as a rare portrayal of war from the losing side. It’s especially valuable as a snapshot of the frame of mind of Japanese people at the time, made so soon after the end of the war. There is a great deal of sadness and shame to it, but Muzushima’s journey shows hope for the future, that people might be better to one another going forward. The film’s other great asset is of course its great use of music. The Burmese Harp was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, but it was beaten by Fellini’s wonderful La Strada (1954).

I was less impressed by Oscar and Palme d’Or winner The Tin Drum (Volker Schlöndorff, West Germany/Yugoslavia/Poland/France, 1979). The somewhat convoluted story follows an unusually intelligent boy called Oskar, whose fatherhood is uncertain (the two candidates are German and Polish). At the age of three, he decides he’s had enough of hearing adults bicker, and magically causes himself to stop growing, though he continues to age. The child plays a toy drum at pretty much all times, and any time he doesn’t get his way, he shrieks piercingly enough to shatter glass. Imagine how annoying those two noises get when they occur over and over for almost three hours.

Leaning heavily on magical realism and its surreal elements, this is a story that can only be an allegory. Depending on which set of critics you agree with, Oskar represents the German people refusing to face the horrors being committed in their names, or he represents the Nazis themselves imposing their will on those around them, or he’s just an annoying kid. Maybe it’s all three. While the character is supposed to look like he’s three years old, he actually looks about seven, and the actor was almost twelve. This is a problem, since the mind of the character ages normally, and he’s shown in sex scenes with a few grown women. Maybe I’m crazy, but this was not to my taste, and neither was much else in the film.

The best film I saw from Criterion this week was (perhaps predictably, if you’ve been following these posts) Lacombe, Lucien (Louis Malle, France, 1974). This is the 6th Louis Malle film I’ve watched this year, and for my money it’s one of his very best. Lucien is a character it’s almost impossible to sympathise with. Malle prefers to lets us stare on in horror as this French teenager, who begins the film working at a hospice, discovers the world of Nazi collaboration completely by accident, and dives into it headfirst. He sees an opportunity to grasp and immediately abuse power, and he holds a blank face, just shy of a grin, as he sees others forced to follow his orders.


Lucien’s relationship with a young Jewish girl eventually leads him to the smallest hint of redemption, but even this only comes after extended cruelty. He forces the girl to date him and sleep with him under the implied threat of violence to her family. It’s interesting to note that Malle chose to tell this story, with its truly monstrous collaborator more than a decade before making Au Revoir, Les Enfants (1987), in which we see the impact of collaborators in Malle’s own childhood. Much like that film, Lacombe, Lucien closes with a sudden, matter-of-fact title card. These two films feel like a deliberate pairing, and they enrich one another.

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