The times when the North was the place of dragons are long gone. Viking ships don’t sail off the Scandinavian frozen shores anymore. Nowadays Sweden could contend for the title of the friendliest country on Earth, and at the Göteborg International Film Festival the only reminder of the old days of mythological creatures and bearded sailors is the event’s main venue, named Draken after a medieval vessel that had a dragon’s head as its snout.
GIFF is the biggest and most important film event of not just Sweden, but of all Nordic countries, with the main feature competition reserved exclusively for films produced in the region. An important spot on the map of world cinema ever since the silent age – despite the relatively small population of these nations – Nordic cinema has developed its own idiosyncratic style. More often than not it is associated with politically- and socially-engaged realist cinema – willingly supported through public subsidising. All par for the course in the region where the Bechdel test was introduced to the official rating system (it happened in Sweden).
It has been noted, however, that politically-aware filmmakers often sacrifice aesthetics and profundity in order to express their agenda. While there were a few works of that kind in Göteborg’s program, at least one film offered a perfect example of a picture both politically-engaged and truly poetic. Pirjo Honkasalo’s Concrete Night – a film that, while we’re at it, doesn’t pass the Bechdel test while being made by a female director – uses the human condition as a starting point to touch subjects even more general than politics. Shot by Peter Flinckenberg in stunning contrastive monochrome, the film transforms the rather ordinary European capital of Helsinki into a noirish, claustrophobic concrete maze, a world on the eve of apocalypse akin to the saturnine universe where Béla Tarr’s films take place. It is seen through the eyes of a 14 year-old boy named Simo who lives in a slum house at the desperate outskirts of Helsinki. The end of the world is meditated on by the protagonist’s older brother Ilkka, a convict who is about to go into prison for a crime not known to us and who takes Simo for a wayfaring around town on the last evening before his incarceration. Ilkka envisions the world occupied by scorpions after the humanity’s gone, evoking a line from Crime and Punishment: “And what if there are only spiders there [in the future life], or something of that sort?” The Dostoyevskian prophecy is paralleled with a scene in a Russian church where the two brothers wander in – the almost empty cathedral where a mass is held for just a trickle of congregants looks like a house abandoned by God.
It is, though, as much an apocalyptic film as a coming of age story. Ilkka’s charisma and his combination of aloof and violent remind of Mickey Rourke’s character in Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumble Fish, as does Simo’s taking his cue from his older brother, for lack of a better role model. Adolescence is the age when we are most susceptible to influences, and Simo assumes his brother’s violent behaviour patterns along with his despair, which leads us to the disturbing ending. On this level, Concrete Night is a story of losing one’s innocence. But Honkasalo’s treatment of the subject also implies a projection of epic scale, to all humankind perhaps – the only way to be absolved of human bondage and return to purity is cease to exist, giving way to the scorpions.
Another striking example of unconventional cinema was to be found in Swedish competition entry The Quiet Roar. Second time writer/director Henrik Hellström takes on something as essentially cinematic as memory, designing his film as a remembrance. His protagonist is an elderly woman, Marianne, who is dying of a fatal disease several decades from now. With the assistance of a mysterious hallucinogenic potion offered at a German clinic, she sets off to a journey back through times inside her mind, reminiscing about the turning point of her life when she decided to break up with the father of her two children. It is a personal relationship drama then, but Hellström renders it estranged. The atemporal setting of Marianne’s remembrance – the fjords of Norway where she and her family came for a solitary vacation – suggests abstraction, and the film’s rhythm, with its slow camera movement and unhasting editing, is accordingly solemn. It doesn’t help the story, which remains personal and never elevates itself to the altitude of capital letter generalisations; somehow the mode of storytelling chosen by the director even makes it harder to follow Marianne’s relationship with her husband. That being said, the vertiginous landscapes shot in an inhumanly sharp HD as well as the film’s tempo and peculiar sound design – there’s no music whatsoever, unnerving silence with the titular, barely audible noise dominates the soundtrack – provide for something probably more interesting than just another relationship drama. Of these techniques Hellström successfully builds up a sense of a lucid dream, pensive and serene, yet at the same time aware of the eternity that Marianne will soon ascend to. For all the differences between the two films’ styles, The Quiet Roar’s mood is not unlike that of Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries – a film that Hellström cites as a source of inspiration, also following the memory of an aged person.
Speaking of Bergman, the legacy of Sweden’s most influential director – who was an honorary president of GIFF in his final years, although never visited the event – is, itself, explored in a documentary Trespassing Bergman by two film critics turned filmmakers, Jane Magnusson and Hynek Pallas. Göteborg’s non-fiction selection is among the strongest aspect of the festival – which is only natural for a country that has been noted for its quality non-fiction filmmaking. While festival ghettoes are still normally regarded as documentary’s natural habitat, several Swedish films of the genre have in recent years received considerable mainstream exposure, either locally – like 2012’s political biopic Palme – or internationally, like the Oscar-winning Searching for Sugar Man. Trespassing Bergman, also existing as a mini-series Bergmans Video, is another example of a Swedish documentary with wide public appeal. (Yes, it’s about Ingmar Bergman, but it’s Sweden we’re talking about – they watch Fanny and Alexander every Christmas Eve.)
Twenty talking heads taking turns to discuss the great auteur as inter-titles recount his biography in between sounds a bit boring, but Magnusson and Pallas’ work is anything but – if not inventive, the film is well structured and funny, thanks to the charismatic speakers. These are filmmakers whose movies Bergman had at his home at the small Baltic island of Fårö – ranging from Claire Denis and Michael Haneke to Ridley Scott and Wes Craven, all household names. Some of them, including Haneke and Denis, are shown visiting Bergman’s house – a secluded humble dwelling in the woods; Alejandro González Iñárritu, with his habitual grandiloquence, proclaims the place a Mecca and a Vatican simultaneously. Others are interviewed elsewhere. As said above, there’s as much as twenty or so of them for 100 minutes of running time – clearly not enough for anything insightful, so one thing that the film lacks is profundity. The interviews touch only those subjects that are associated with interviewees themselves – Wes Anderson and Woody Allen discuss comedy in Bergman’s films, Denis is interested in female perspective of Summer with Monica (while Scorsese and Allen admit to having watched it in youth just to see a naked woman on screen), Haneke speculates on the topic of fear. Granted, a great deal of direct speech was left out from the final cut, and the longer TV version of Trespassing, apparently, contains more, but what the film has to say about Bergman comes down, in the end, to the assertion that the classic was too big to be grasped in all his grandeur (all too consistent with Bergman’s name that translates as “mountain man”). It is summarised by the show-stealing Lars von Trier (interviewed before his vow of silence) who, with all his irreverent jesting, portrays his relationship to Bergman as that to a father figure.
GIFF is known for its audience-friendly posture, which, first and foremost, impacts on its programming policy. Every section of the festival is peppered with films that could easily go to a wide release (many of them eventually will). This year, the main competition had several such titles – such as the Icelandic Of Horses and Men, a crude-ish genre-mixing exploitation of stereotypes about the country, or the Norwegian I Am Yours, a rather cut-and-dried movie about a young woman of mixed background who tries to find herself, starring the Swedish star Ole Rapace as the heroine’s lover. However, of these “accessible” films the best one was to be found in a peripheral sidebar, Nordic Lights, showcasing Northern European titles that, for some reason, didn’t make it to the competition. Sorrow and Joy is the latest (said to be the last) film by the esteemed Danish director Nils Malmros whose whole body of work was, concurrently with GIFF, championed in a full retrospective at the Rotterdam film festival. Just like those of Philippe Garrel whose sublime Jealousy was also shown in Gothenburg, most Malmros films are autobiographical and auto-psychological; Sorrow and Joy is no exception (note how both re-enactments of real life events are titled after emotions).
The film centres itself around a horrible incident that, at the time, made Malmros quit filmmaking: when he was in his thirties, his mentally unstable wife, having relapsed to her illness, killed their nine month-old daughter. It is hard enough to conceive how someone can even talk about an incident so shocking, let alone make the story public through a film, yet Malmros does just that, some thirty years after the killing, and does so with complete and scrupulous honesty – both in terms of production quality and storytelling. The movie begins in media res, on the day of the killing, and the narrative progresses from there on, while flashbacks reveal the whole story of the couple’s relationship, starting from the day the director’s stand-in Johannes and his wife Signe first meet. These remembrances may be perceived as Johannes’ attempt to understand when things went so terribly wrong; as a result of this analysis, he finds that he’s probably more to blame than she is. From the very first day he – an older male, more rational and of higher social status – was posing himself as a leading partner in their relationship, but failed to bear the responsibility that comes with it. The tipping point after which Signe went into crisis was Johannes’ crush on his teenage actress who represents within a film Line Arlien-Søborg, the star of Malmros’ two early films – both coming of age pieces with which the director made a name for himself. Sorrow and Joy, in the final analysis, turns out to be a variation of the very same narrative – not as much a penance as a story of maturing through a horrible experience and learning to accept responsibility. Not only does Johannes forgive his wife’s doing, he stays with her, and helps her to overcome her illness.
Malmros implies objectivity with simple camerawork and editing, and that, in combination with his frankness, proves to be a better solution to achieve believability than manipulative techniques, which the director restrains from. In this sense, Sorrow and Joy debunks the fakery of social dramas like Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt. One scene from Malmros’ film even parallels – probably by accident – the Vinterberg’s picture: Signe is a schoolteacher, and at a certain point fathers of two of her students, upon learning about what has happened, pay a visit to Johannes. Of course, the viewer expects them to confront the protagonist more or less aggressively, but instead they show him a petition requesting Signe to come back to work, signed by every concerned parent.
The non-Nordic part of the Göteborg slate is usual for festivals that aren’t Cannes, Berlin or other top film destinations – a mixture of the previous year’s arthouse hits travelling between countries. In the 2014 edition’s motley selection, where the pompous para-Hollywood of The Zero Theorem met Corneliu Porumboiu’s intelligent meta-film When Evening Falls on Bucharest, or Metabolism, there was, however, a place for some conceptual programming, although the subject of it was rather conventional. Nation-in-focus sidebars are common, and had been used in Göteborg before, but for the first time the focus was significantly highlighted. The country in focus was Russia, Europe’s biggest neighbour and a rare example of a country even colder than Sweden; for this occasion GIFF even put aside their usual rule of assigning a local artist to design the poster. 2014’s artwork was created by Pussy Riot, so the ten days of the festival went under the sign of Venus with a fist inside – the art group’s logo.
Once among the world’s leading film industries, the present of Russian cinema is far from being bright. It is hard to say if the bleakness of the current political climate is the reason (there’s no rule: Iranian cinema is flourishing despite the country’s regime), but it’s equally hard not to acknowledge the fact that in modern Russia parallel cinema has more to offer than the more visible part of the industry. In most cases that will mean independent documentary filmmaking for which a search for the hidden truth is inherent, not to mention that certain facts of Russian life these days are more spectacular than fiction. Out of the 19 films in the Russian Focus, eight were docs, including those shedding light upon such headlines material as Sochi Olympics (Putin’s Games) and, needless to say, Pussy Riot (Pussy versus Putin). As for the fiction films, the neat programming designated several currently important trends that exist, each represented with one production. The Geographer Drank His Globe Away, one of Russia’s most popular domestic pictures of 2013, marks a reverse to the subject matter of the 1970s’ Soviet cinema – the protagonist of this sad comedy, a 40 year-old loser without any hope for a better life, could easily fit in a film of that era that was, just like the 21st century Russia, a time of political stagnation under an eternal country leader. Meanwhile, A Long and Happy Life by Boris Khlebnikov presents a new type of hero, firm and ready to action. Very loosely based on the classic High Noon, Khlebnikov’s work replaces Wild West with Russian North, and outlaws as the protagonist’s enemy with local officials.
However, one film stood out against the background of the Russian section and, probably, the whole festival. Alexei German’s Hard to Be a God is the final work of the Russian classic who passed away a year ago when the film was in the last stages of post-production, and it’s an ultimate manifestation of the director’s (in)famously maximalistic, larger-than-life visual style. Set on a distant planet very similar to Earth but “some 800 years behind” as the voice-over comments, the film is a three-hour journey through a nightmare of the Dark Ages. The hard to follow plot is secondary to the hyper-realist, spellbinding and at times – at many times – almost unbearable spectacle of medieval atrocity and detestation; it centres around a researcher from Earth who poses as a noble knight descending from a pagan god. He, indeed, possesses a godlike power in comparison to the aborigines, but, as a researcher, mustn’t use it. When he eventually does, he loses his symbolical status – there is no way back to Earth now, and he has to stay on the planet as a fallen god.
Göteborg International Film Festival
24 January – 3 February 2014
Festival website: http://www.giff.se/en