Including, a Long Train Journey into the DTs
(Click on the underlined links where applicable. Click on the pictures to enlarge them or see them in a slideshow.)
OK – my enthusiasm for Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War may have been coloured because I saw it in Poland in the first week of its release. But it’s undeniably a fine film – and my enthusiasm sent me into Pawlikowski’s back catalogue. Ida (2013) certainly solidified his reputation in the awareness of many art-house goers. But what came before? Films and television in England and France.
Pawlikowski was born in Poland in 1957. When he was 14 Pawel went with his mother on what he thought was to be a holiday in England. Instead, he didn’t really return until he was an adult. He lived for some time in Germany before returning to England, where he studied Literature and Philosophy at Oxford University. He has taught film direction and screenwriting both in England and Poland. And he started a career in filmmaking with several documentaries in the late 1980s and early 1990s, around the time that Communism was collapsing in Russia and the Soviet Satellites.
Several of his early pieces made for British Television (and signed Paul Pawlikowski) are viewable in reasonably copies on YouTube. In my post Cold War euphoria I sought them out. They reflect his background as an East European and his studies in Literature. (They are each 40-50 minutes long.)
|Venedikt Yerofeev, the subject of |
MOSCOW TO PETUSHKI
Venedikt Yerofeev was a Russian writer, and his Moscow Stations was written in 1969. Certainly not the kind of writing approved of by Soviet authorities, it existed first in samizdat copies, passed from hand to hand as a typewritten manuscript until it was eventually published in an official magazine Sobriety and Culture in 1989. Yerofeev died of throat cancer the next year.
The book is a record of our narrator’s train journey from Moscow to Pietushki about 125 kms east of Moscow. The chapter divisions mark the stations along the way, as our alcoholic-intellectual narrator gets more and more inebriated, sharing with us thoughts on society, recipes for some lethal sounding concoctions for keeping up your alcohol intake and his growing delusions and nightmares. The observations are perceptive, and often also very funny. Perhaps comparisons can be made with William Burroughs, or Charles Bukowski, or a number of other writers whose addictions to drugs or alcohol seeped into, structured their prose.
Pawlikowski’s documentary is a fitting memory of this writer, made just before his death. Yerofeev’s contributions are made via an electro-larynx. He is a fascinating character, and Pawlikowski’s film captures this in a seemingly loosely structured way, one which explores his writing, his niche in Soviet Russia at the end of the Communist era, and in world literature in general. This is one of those documentaries that sent me to read the book (published in English by Faber) and then to sink myself into the documentary again.
|Dmitri Dostoevsky, Leningrad tramdriver,|
the subject of Pawlikowski's
This is one of those enjoyable little diversions. Yes, it’s true to title. But our traveler is not Fyodor of Crime and Punishment fame, but Dmitri his great-grandson and only living survivor. Dmitri is a tram driver in Leningrad (yes, we’re still in the Soviet era) but what’s in a name for him is that he gets invitations from literary societies in the West to come and address them. Dmitri really doesn’t seem to have much interest in literature, but he’d love to be able to take a car back to Russia. So we follow him from some of the stuffy literary soirees to used car yards where he hopes to buy something that is least working, giving that he only has a Soviet income.
Now, this one is something else. The passage of years has given it a bizarre taste. Here the protagonist is Radavan Karadzic, now a convicted war criminal. But that notoriety was in the future when this was made. Instead we have what could almost be a PR piece commissioned by Karadzic himself. Yet, it’s really not quite that. Some of the background to the making of the film can be seen ten minute excerpt from a Q&A with Pawlikowski. This is shot with a phone, and the visuals and sound are poor, but this is worth putting up with.
Pawlikowski reveals that he got funding from one of the Arts programs, not Current Affairs. So there is more discussion about some the treasures of Serbian literature. This summary is, I feel, fair.
‘Women don’t wage wars’, Radovan Karadzic’s mother says when her son comes to visit her and tells her about the military situation in Bosnia. A little later, SERBIAN EPICS shows a meeting of the Bosnian-Serbian war cabinet, in which the now notorious Ratko Mladic and Biljana Plavcic are seated. Initially, the tone of this portrait of Karadzic - psychiatrist, poet, businessman and leader of the Bosnian Serbs - is light-hearted, but gradually a shady world of power and delusion emerges. Without comment, with an almost anthropological eye, director Pawel Pawlikowski observes the besiegers of Sarajevo. The Serbian cultural heritage - centuries-old songs and poems - is used to justify the new ethnic struggle, and Karadzic loves to recite poetry.
Time has given this a weird feeling. It also makes a pair with his next piece.
|Tripping with Zhirinovsky|
Zhirinovsky is introduced by Wikipedia thus: Vladimir Volfovich Zhirinovsky is a Russian ultranationalist politician and leader of the LDPR party. He is fiercely nationalist and has been described as "a showman of Russian politics, blending populist and nationalist rhetoric, anti-Western invective and a brash, confrontational style"
Here we join Zhirinovsky as he goes out among the people and it’s a compelling, scary pageant. Pawlikowski doesn’t really editorialise, he just lets Zhirinovsky expose his ignorance and banalities. Though the frightening thing is that Zhirinovsky (a Trump before his time) is too self-centred to realise this.
His next major project seems to have been a work called Twockers (1998) but what is on YouTube, in these two parts one and two, doesn’t seem to be the whole piece. The same year he made a film called The Stringerfor the BBC. There is very little information about this, except it is about a young man with a (video) camera drifting around Moscow looking for material he hopes will interest Western News Agencies.
He was now moving into feature films, with Last Resort (2000) and My Summer of Love (2004) in the UK. His next film was made in France in 2011 Woman in the Fifth with Ethan Hawke and Kristin Scott Thomas. It is a solid thriller, entertaining but not really warning us that his next films, to be made in Poland, would be Ida and Cold War.