The War – Behind You, Beside You

in 48th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

by Latika Padgaonkar

It comes as no surprise that war — whether foregrounded or backgrounded — features in five of the 14 Competition films at Karlovy Vary this year. Decades after the Second World War ended, stories continue to be thrown up that relate directly or obliquely to the 40s in Europe, to the friction, changing personal relationships and family rearrangements it caused. Its effects continued to be felt imperceptibly well after the war had ended. It is in these nooks and crannies that filmmakers find their stories.

In an interview published in the Festival Daily, Israeli director Joseph Madmony stated that the image of war was as central to his film A Place in Heaven (Makom be gan Eden) as it was significant to Israel’s modern history. The film examines whatwar does to a successful, secular, unbearably stern father and how in the long runhis personality affects his son who comes into adulthood in the 70s. Heroic in war,the father fails as a parent at home. Values prevalent and upheld in times ofconflict, peter away once the conflict is over, and are replaced by ‘peacetime’values, in this case the son’s journey towards religion. A Place in Heaven is a filmof raw power and emotional intensity, as much in the battlefield as in the kitchen.

It’s not two but three generations of a family that figure in German director Oskar Roehler’s Sources of Life (Quellen des Lebens). The starting point of this family saga is the end of Second World War, as Erich Freytag, the father of the family — all hungry, exhausted and bedraggled — finds his way home from the front.

The family, in the meantime, appears to have adjusted to his absence. His return induces some disruptions and separations, yet from there, life does go on into the post war years. But the son and grandson follow very different paths, and who can say how much of this can be attributed to the father/grandfather’s wartime absence from home? Sources of Light is imbued with psychological violence and punctured by fetters and outbursts even when it dwells on the grandson’s search for personal freedom, love and stability.

Take what happens to a pair of 13 year-old twins in Hungarian director Janos Szász’s Le Grand Cahier (A nagy füzet). War is briefly seen and heard, bombs do explode and homes are burnt and people marched off to death camps. The father goes to war, returns from captivity, the mother tries to save her children by leaving them with an abusive grandmother in the countryside.

That, however, is only the context. Within it, the twin brothers (convincingly and endearingly played by Laszlo and Andras Gyemant) — on the threshold of adolescence — move from emotional and material comfort to displacement and distress, encounter evil in the world and learn to face it not just by toughening themselves in body and spirit but by using some of it themselves. War can harden children irrevocably, Le Grand Cahier tells us, but it can also stir protective emotions for people whom you are nearly ready to kill.

Some 15,000 of Poland’s 50,000 Roma survived the Second World War. Hounded and murdered by the Nazis, they were forced by the communist authorities after the war to abandon their nomadic existence and their traditions. Papusza, by well-known Polish directorial couple Joanna Kos-Krauze and Krzystof Krauze — who based themselves on the book ethnographer Jerzy Ficowsky wrote on them — evokes the life and times of the Romany culture that was humane and warm on the one hand, and cruel and unjust on the other. But to survive in the face of larger cultures and ideologies waiting to wipe it off the map or tame it into facelessness, it needed to keep itself intact and not give away the secrets of its uniqueness. And then one Roma girl — Papusza, meaning doll — teaches herself to read and write, and gradually begins setting down her ideas and feelings in verse.

The act proves to be double edged sword: her work is published (much later she will be glorified as a legend). But in the meantime, she is so vehemently castigated by her community that she starts regarding herself as the devil incarnate, and lives out her life in poverty and isolation. Splendidly shot in black-and-white with authentic Romany language and music, Papusza is a complex and ambitious film about one woman and one disappearing community, a victim of both political and social ideologies.

It’s difficult to be as clear about British director Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England. Shot in monochrome, it is a mix in a most surprising way of genres and styles, taking twists and turns that sometimes appear opaque. Alternating verbally and technically between comedy, hallucination (the result of some strange mushroom consumption!) and horror, the film begins with battle violence during the English Civil War in a field somewhere in the country.

That field will be the film’s only location, first physically, then metaphorically. Four deserters – heavily scarred by the raging action — march off straight from battle. They meet an Irishman who forces them to hunt for treasure. There is back-thumping, there are wounds and illnesses and shoot-outs. The civil war has been transformed into a battleground of power, cruelty and deceit.

The five films have very different trajectories. Some take war as a backdrop — near and distant — others view war as the trigger for stories to unfold. Whatever the choices made by the filmmakers, war is what unleashes emotions that run like an ocean’s deep currents. It is these emotions the directors have focused on with humanity and understanding.

Edited by Richard Mowe