For its retrospective strand ('Signals') this year, the Rotterdam Film Festival chose to focus on two veterans, each of whom is still alive and working—from the Ukraine, writer-director Kira Muratova, and from Germany, the prolific but still largely-unknown Dominik Graf, described by the programme's curators, not entirely unreasonably, as 'the best-hidden secret of German cinema'.
The reason for this neglect is not hard to discern: though his filmography lists over 37 credits, the vast majority of Graf's output has been done for German television, rather than the cinema. Consequently, though features like The Red Cockatoo (2006) and A Map of the Heart (2002) have travelled the festival circuit, most of his best work—like the 1994 conspiracy drama Die Sieger, shown here to considerable acclaim—remains largely unknown outside his own country. (Recently, however, his international profile has risen slightly, since he contributed one segment to ARTE's three-part 'Dreileben' project, alongside Christoph Hochhäusler and Christian Petzold—from whose cool, Kubrickian reserve Graf's own style, nervy and accumulative, could hardly be more different.)
Certainly, his 2002 telemovie Die Freunde der Freunde, based on a short story by Henry James, was a revelation. Shot on Betacam Digi—a format chosen, Graf explained before the screening, for its degraded image-quality, the not-quite-real 'thinness' of its visuals—it depicted a series of missed meetings between the girlfriend and best friend of a wealthy young man, both of whom had recently experienced a supernatural manifestation. Somehow it managed, from the depiction of everyday encounters, to evoke a mood of profound spectral unease; watching, you began to wonder if one, or even both of these people, might themselves already be dead. As a feat of adaptation, too, it displayed unusual intelligence: apart from changing the protagonist from a woman to a man, all the Jamesian plot-elements were duly accounted for, but subtly updated to the modern age.
Graf, like his friend and colleague Petzold, is as much a theoretician as a practitioner, and the same cerebral quality could be found in one of the most satisfying American films to play this year's festival, Dan Sallitt's The Unspeakable Act (left). A comedy about a high school senior obsessed with her college-bound older brother to the point of considering an incestuous relationship with him (hence, the title), it managed to strike a fine balance between formalist rigour and emotional resonance—and featured, in lead actress Tallie Medell, a performance of unusual sensitivity and charm.
Sallitt is a film critic, one of the smartest and most omnivorous in America, in fact. He has now made three low-budget features, all erudite, insightful, and thoroughly accomplished. Remaining steadfastly outside even the US indie film establishment, he is, for better or worse, the model of the 'gentleman filmmaker'.
With its precise, almost anthropological depiction of upper-middle-class, hyper-articulate young bohemians in Brooklyn (this was very much a New York Review of Books and NPR-subscribing household), its awareness of words' ability to dissemble as well as to reveal, and its protagonist's reluctance to commit the very sin with which she's obsessed (reminiscent of My Night With Maud), his film made no secret of the influence of Eric Rohmer—a suspicion confirmed by a final onscreen dedication. But you also sensed a whole lifetime of watching and thinking about cinema, present in each elegant composition, each careful edit.
And refreshingly, given the self-pitying tone of much US indie fare, Jackie's confusion seemed less a symptom of unchecked solipsism (Lena Dunham, she ain't), than the outcome of various forces existing at the edge of the frame: her distant, wraith-like mother, a former drug-addict who maintains a similarly too-close relationship with her older son, off studying in France; her absent father (who may or may not have succumbed to addiction himself); her brusquely distant sister, focused solely on insulating herself from her family's dysfunction.
From South Korea, meanwhile, came Jiseul, an account of the real-life 1948 Jeju Massacre, when Nationalist soldiers executed as many as 30,000 civilians suspected of being communists. Shot in steely HD monochrome, the images had a formalist beauty somewhat at odds with the subject-matter; the actual incident, you sensed, might not have been quite so elegant.
But then, rather than the sustained howl of outrage that was probably intended (writer-director O. Muel is himself a native of the Jeju region), the film offered a frustrating string of individual moments—some beautifully directed, others awkward and didactic. And even at its most horrific, the tone remained austere, remote: an aesthetic rather than an emotional experience. (Likewise, Fien Troch's Kid, from Belgium—a display of meticulous, hyper-composed filmmaking that had had every ounce of life and energy squeezed out of it.)
Rather better, surprisingly, was the North Korean entry, Comrade Kim Goes Flying (left), a sunny parable about a female mine-worker (the most productive in her unit!) who yearns for a life as a circus trapeze artist—but fails, frightened of heights, and intimidated by her haughty male co-star, until she comes to the realisation that her dream exists, not to serve her own ego, but for the greater glory of her class.
Take away the collective dynamic, however, and its plot was pure Hollywood: the stage-struck ingénue who perseveres, despite setbacks, to become a star. And the film responded in kind: Pyongyang looked freshly-scrubbed, immaculate—its lustre rivalled only by the radiant smile of lead actress Han Jong-sim (in real life, a trained acrobat).
Inevitably, a post-screening Q&A saw the two foreign directors (who shared credit with a North Korean filmmaker) assailed by audience-members for making propaganda for the Kim dynasty. In the end, I felt compelled to interject. For one thing, the film was made for domestic rather than international audiences—locals who would presumably spot, without too much difficulty, the disconnect between its sunny, smiling worker's utopia (which announced itself, from the very start, as a fantasy) and the rather more downbeat terms of their daily lives.
And for another . . . so what? Isn't every romantic-comedy a work of advocacy for the culture which produces it? The Doris Day-Rock Hudson movies of the 1950s, for example, presented a creamy, Technicolor vision of all-American heterodoxy that would have rung insultingly false, were one a Mexican immigrant, a trade unionist, or just plain black. It's not excusing the regime to cherish this movie for what it was: a charming and ebullient piece of make-believe. Which was, last time I checked, what the movies are supposed to be about.