Absolutely a Country for Old Men By Per Haddal

in 58th Berlinale

by Per Haddal

A country also for old men.

No Country for Old Men is the current claim of the Coen Brothers, by way of their film based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel. Is this bombastic conclusion also valid for the cinema? Is the cinema no country for old men?

Until recently I would have said, with sad conviction: The cinema is a reservation for young people, mostly even the youngest. The cinema is getting infantile, at least commercial cinema. Hopelessly lost.

This complaint may be construed as an old man’s grumbling, as old as the old Greeks. I willingly admit that I will retire next year, after 40 years of film criticism, sustained, I am happy to say, without loss of curiosity or enthusiasm. It will be a sad moment, nevertheless. But even so, the world will not exactly turn into a disaster area when this happens. This is also because I have noticed in recent months and even years some encouraging developments, a small but steady change, if one wants the cinema to span all aspects and ages of life.

In my native country, the spoiled state of Norway, the market calculations (young people only!) behind the official government subsidies of the film production, are no longer so dominant. For instance is our foremost filmmaker at the moment, Bent Hamer, allowed to make a bittersweet comedy about a train driver about to retire? O’Horten (2007) is wise, mildly satirical, sharply observed and very enjoyable. One would hope for this to be chosen for the coming Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes. Three of Hamer’s laconic films have made it there so far: Eggs, Kitchen Stories and Factotum, all about old men who are not without vitality and the courage to change their ambitions and habits. I will warmly recommend festival programmers and also fellow critics to have a look at this delightful film, a very rewarding experience, no matter one’s age.

Norway’s oldest director is the very articulate Knut Erik Jensen (69), the man behind the men’s choir in the charming documentary Cool and Crazy (Heftig og begeistret). Now he is making Ice Kiss, a film about the real life love story between a Norwegian embassy official in Moscow and her Russian boy friend, with the Cold War as a backdrop. There is no reason to doubt Jensen’s vitality.

Two years ago Liv Ullmann (67) was denied government subsidies. She planned to film Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and had signed on Cate Blanchett as Nora. Some bureaucrats found faults with the concept. I don’t think they would have dared today, with so much change in the attitudes going on. At least I hope I am right about this.

In Poland one sees that Andrzej Wajda has the power and ambition to treat the Katyn massacre with dignity and gravitas. Old soldiers never die, many of the best take their time fading away. Wajda’s film is an elegy, a very honest and necessary one, on behalf of a whole nation.

Some of the current repertoire of European cinema plays like elegies. The Spanish Isabel Coixet’s study of the old professor (Ben Kingsley) who falls in love with a much younger student (Penélope Cruz) is such a film. But most of all he is sadly in love with himself. The film is even called Elegy, if not yet on a country churchyard.

The German Dorris Dörrie let the Cherry Blossoms (Kirschblüten) bloom; the second part in Japan, hence the title. But to me Elmar Wepper’s precise portrait of an ordinary man, who suddenly realizes what he has missed through his routine life, is rather moving.

I suppose one can go on and on and on and be particularly pleased by what one finds outside the Hollywood sphere. But even in Hollywood films one will find a new and sometimes unsentimental consideration for weakness, sickness, ageing and death, not only romantic comedies, frenetic action, low comedy or midlife crises. One also notes a certain mapping of the heart of darkness, insights that sometimes come with ageing. Even in old men.