Tuesday, February 14, 2012
The heart can think of no devotion
Greater than being shore to ocean -
Holding the curve of one position,
Counting an endless repetition.
Communism, while it might not have been such a good thing for the people living in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, was responsible for producing, under exceptionally straightened conditions in its Soviet-style film schools, some of the most interesting and challenging European films of the 1950s, '60s, and '70s. It's quite probable that political orthodoxy, which forced conformity to strict rules of plotting and characterization, also inspired several filmmakers to create their best work as a form of tacit dissent. How else to account for the many superb films from Poland, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Romania, and even Bulgaria? Films like Wajda's Kanal (1958) , Kawalerowicz's True End of the Great War (1957), Weiss's Romeo, Juliet, and the Darkness (1959), Jireš's The Cry (1963), Passer's Intimate Lighting (1965), Berković's Rondo (1966), Fábri's Two Halftimes in Hell (1962), and Gaal's The Falcons (1970)? Andrzej Wajda put it succinctly: "It's dangerous, but there are ways to get round political censorship. There are no ways to get round the censorship of money that you have in the west, which is much stronger." (1)
Károly Makk (b. 1925) tried for five years to make a film of Tibor Déry's 1956 novella Szerelem, known in English simply as Love. It was published the year of the Hungarian revolution, and Déry was imprisoned for his role in it. Sentenced to nine years, he was released in 1961 and granted amnesty in 1962.
Makk made his film of the novella in 1971. It is the story of Luca (Mari Törőcsik), whose husband János (Iván Darvas) is imprisoned for ten years for his political activities. Luca cares for János's old mother, played by the incomparable Lili Darvas. She doesn't tell her that János is in prison, and instead makes up an elaborate story about him making a movie in New York. She even writes letters, affixes American postage stamps to the envelopes, and mails them to the old woman's house. She carries on this hoax until the old woman's death. Without disclosing how long it has been (when the film opens it is the winter of János's first year in prison), the rest of the film shows us János's abrupt release and his reunion with Luca.
The film is a beautifully artful collection of stark black-and-white images, into which Makk throws us flashing glimpses of the memories and fantasies of the characters. When we see János's mother, there are momentary, fleeting images of the past, old photographs, advertisements, men in top hats on horseback. When Luca is onscreen, we see flashes of János's arrest, the inside of a prison.
The long sequence of János's release is one of the tenderest and most moving lovers' reunions on film. On a day not reserved for shaving inmates, a barber enters János's cell and shaves him without saying a word. They then take him to an office where a uniformed man asks him "Destination?"
"I don't know," János replies.
"What do you mean? You don't know your destination?"
"No. I don't know where they're taking me."
"They're not taking you anywhere. You can go home to your wife for lunch. Tonight you can even have some fun in bed. Clear? Well, then, destination?"
"17, Syilfa Street."
They give him back his effects, his wallet, his watch, the cash in his pockets on the day he was arrested. He signs for them. He waits. A doctor examines him. "Stand on the scales." János starts to remove his overcoat. "You needn't undress." Even fully clothes, he's lost weight.
Before we know it, János is standing outside the prison gate, a bundle of clothes in his hand. He boards a tram and, as it pulls away, we fleetingly see what János sees: a garden path, a lonely seat in the grass. He hires a taxi, tells the driver to take him to Buda, but can't remember what bridge to cross.(2) He asks to stop at a tobacconist's, telling the driver he wants "Kossuth" brand.(3)
"Political?" the driver asks discreetly as they resume their trip.
"And now they have released you."
"So it seems."
When he recognizes something, János tells the driver to stop. It's the same garden path from his thoughts on the tram. He comes to a familiar house - their house - and rings at the door. But no one answers. He walks around the yard, lies down in the grass. He tries again at the door. The caretaker finds him. "Good Lord! So you've come home!" She tells him that the house now has co-tenants and that his wife still lives there, though in just one room. She takes him inside. He finds Luca's blouse on the back of a chair, takes it in his hands and buries his face in it.
He sits, and looks around, noticing some of his mother's old things: books, paintings, her reading glasses. He goes to his mother's house and finds it shuttered, sealed against foreclosure. He gets caught in a downpour on his way back, and sits down by the stove to dry off.
He hears someone enter the gate. Luca comes in the front door and puts her open umbrella on the floor to dry. She notices the key in the door to her room and opens it. There is a strange bundle on her bed. She looks into the foyer and sees someone's coat is hanging on a hook. She touches it, and then looks back at her door. Through the opaque glass there is a shadow. Curious, perhaps, without dreaming it could be him, she steps past the door and looks at him.
Never has the pain of separation and the joy of its ending been summed up by two actors more movingly. And the way Makk shot it, shuttling us backward and forward in the moment, as if it were a broken spring suddenly exploding.
"When did my mother die?" János asks.
"It was an easy death."
Luca begins to wash him. He lies on his stomach on her bed. "Do you think you can get used to me again? I've grown old. Will you sleep with me?"
"Will you stay with me all night?"
"Yes. Every night. As long as I live."
The genius of Frost's short poem that I quote above is contained in the word "counting". Only love would bother to count an "endless repetition".
(1) See Derek Malcolm, The Guardian.
(2) Buda and Pest, are connected by bridges that cross the Danube.
(3) One of János's imaginary accomplishments told to his mother by Luca is winning the Kossuth Prize.