The Poll Diaries
Details: 134 mins, Germany,
Synopsis: In 1914, with Europe on a war footing, 14-year-old Oda Scheafer returns to her family home on the Baltic coast in Estonia, with the remains of her mother who has passed away in Berlin. As Russian forces close in, Edo meets a wounded Estonian anarchist who she decides to nurse back to health at great risk.
A brilliant portrait of the artist as a young woman.
Though occasionally grotesque imagery overstates its themes of innocence lost and existential duality (one shot of the two-headed twin in formaldehyde would have sufficed), Chris Kraus’ grand yet intimate biopic of poet Oda Shaeffer’s formative teenage experiences is a deeply-involving, superbly-crafted film. Lushly cinematic (Silke Buhr’s set design is surely Oscar-bound) and centred by a world-class debut performance by teenager Paula Beer, the emotional scope and physical scale of The Poll Diaries (aka, Poll in its homeland) recalls the best works of Werner Herzog, Terence Malick, Régis Wargnier and Yimou Zhang.
The Poll Diaries contains some melodramatic visual flourishes that betray Kraus’ other job as one of Europe’s most renowned opera directors, but one surmises that the film is better for his professional insight into the melding of artistry and individuality (since these aspects are so crucial to Shaeffer’s story). When placed within the framework of the film’s eve-of-WWI setting and the subsequently brutal social and political restructuring of Eastern Europe, a gripping, beautiful, sad story emerges.
The picturesque coastline of rural Estonia – in particular, a majestic but crumbling seaside mansion owned by Oda’s widowed father Ebbo (Edgar Selge) – is the new home for 13-year-old Oda von Siering (Paula Beer) in the summer of 1914. It should be idyllic, but is not. Her father, once a professorial contender, now collects malformed curiosities and stores them in a saw-mill he has turned into a macabre laboratory; her stepmother Milla (Jeanette Hain) yearns for a life amongst the aristocracy but settles resentfully for an affair with the bitter caretaker, Mechmershausen (Richy Müller); and the Estonian countryside is patrolled by Russian soldiers, loyal to the Czar, ordered to flush out Estonian anarchists.
One such rebel is the wounded ‘Schnaps’ (Tambet Tuisk), the lone survivor of a young band of freedom fighters. (The group’s demise, rendered in dreamy flashback, is one of the director’s boldest, most brilliantly-realised sequences.) Oda hides him away in the loft of her father’s lab and mends him back to health; he, a writer when not bearing arms against his oppressors, inspires her spirit, character and talent in their stolen moments alone.
Whilst Kraus’ exploration of the period’s political tension imbues The Poll Diaries with a surging pulse, it is his staging of the relationship between Oda and Schnapps that gives the film its fiercely beating heart. Paula Beer is an extraordinarily mature actress, despite being all of 13 when the film was shot; her nuanced representation of a confused, blossoming, lonely and tempestuous young woman is on par with the great female performances of recent memory. One scene, in which she theatrically relates a thinly-veiled political allegory to a cocktail party thrown for the billeted Russian soldiers, captures an actress and her director in perfect unison.
Oda’s passionate friendship with Schnaps (an equally exemplary Tuisk) is rife with sexual tension (both actors are gloriously photogenic) but Kraus steadfastly refuses to allow the pair a physical love – carnalities are the indulgences of the crumbling aristocracy (as Oda discovers, when she witnesses her father rape her stepmother). Oda and Schnaps share a spiritual, heightened romantic attachment; in their journey together, Kraus has forged one of European film culture’s great love stories.
In wrapping up all the contextual and subtextual strands, Kraus stumbles slightly in the film’s final 20 minutes; some confusion and a slackening of the narrative’s tension suggests a tighter editorial touch (and greater use of Annette Focks’ rich but scantly utilised score) may have further amplified the already gripping fate of all involved. But such complaints pale against the visual dexterity Kraus and cinematographer Daniela Knapp employs throughout the third act – he is very clearly a film artist for whom words and images hold equal importance. The great-nephew of Oda Shaeffer, Chris Kraus’ The Poll Diaries does the memory of his bloodline proud and the world of cinema a great, big favour.
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