Thursday, November 23, 2006

DVD round-up

How to remember the Holocaust, the imagined assassination of George Bush and love throughout time: a round-up of recent DVD releases I've seen this month.

The Passenger (Dir: Andrzej Munk. Poland, 1961-1963. Released by Second Run DVD) - Films about the Holocaust don't come much closer to capturing the horror of Auschwitz and the concentration camps than Andrzej Munk's 1961-1963 The Passenger. Munk died in a car crash at the age of 39 in the middle of producing his film. His friend and colleague Witold Lesiewicz decided to complete the project to what he believed were Munk's intentions and assembled it using the existing footage, still protographs and a voice over. This method, used as a necessity, turned out to be very beneficial to the form of the film, with its mixture of documentary and representation. Its economic, pared-down narrative captures with sober poignancy the awful void and sadness of this monstrous episode, concentrating on details rather than the big picture. In this sense, it' s more of a humanist film than a historic piece, focusing on the banality of the everyday routine of the camps while showing in the background the gruesome signs of the carnage - children marching down to the gas chambers, the smoke billowing out of the chimneys, inmates playing music as new interns arrive. The place is hell but one with recognisable, realist features.

The film focuses on two main characters, a former SS officer called Liza and a Marta, a Polish prisoner of war who had been under Liza's vigilance in the camp. The two women's paths cross again on a cruise liner bound for South America a decade later. Worried that Marta will expose her past to her husband, Liza decides to tell her husband her real story, first giving him a version of facts whereby she tried to save Marta, but she retracts and tells him a more truthful account, which is that she was actually ambitious and loyal to the Nazi programme. There's no better description of the film than the one provided by Ewa Mazierska in her essay that accompanies this first-ever DVD release and it's worth quoting: "Not so much a film about the reality of the concentration camps, as about the power of memory to immortalise and distort what happened there, which, according to Claude Lanzmann, author of Shoah, should be the proper subject of any film about Holocaust." Dealing with the Holocaust on filmic terms is an enormous challenge, but The Passenger points to the appropriate route. A very important film.

Death of a President (Dir: Gabriel Range, UK, 2006. Released by Optimum Home Entertainment) - If some many people hate George Bush, it is likely that someone would try to kill him. Taking this probability as inspiration, Death of a President imagines the killing of George Bush on 19 October 2007 in Chicago. A skillfully confected docudrama, it adopts all the stylistics of big time, 'serious' drama of the kind Channel Four, the producer of the series, is fond of. Although the intention of the makers seems to provide an epistemological analysis of the truth as realised by the media, it is more like an illusionist's trick, but a very good one at that. The weaving together of fictionalised and real footage of George Bush and other figureheads of his administration is astounding; it really feels like you're watching a somber retrospective docudrama made after the event (with a good dash of thriller conventions thrown in). Largely moulded on the shooting of John Kennedy in 1964, arguably the ultimate presidential assassination, it uses the event to make a commentary on American politics and the predictability of the outcome of Bush's killing: a Muslim, who seems to be innocent, is singled out as the assassin, despite flimsy evidence; the American public wants someone to pay for it and a Muslim seems like an ideal scapegoat. It then suggests that an American may have done it, the father of a soldier killed in Iraq who blamed Bush for the death of his son. This is in fact the most depressive aspect of this film. Although it wouldn't be difficult to imagine this scenario, it is very plausible that this would be the outcome of the event if it did happen, regardless of how clich├ęd it is. We live in the days of dumbed-down politics and contrived media narratives that despite their complete lack of credibility, the public keeps buying.

Three Times (Dir: Hou Hsiao-Hsien. Taiwan, 2005. Released by Artificial Eye) - Three Times arrives on DVD with a recommendation by no one less than Jim Jarmusch, who describes it as Hsiao-Hsien's 'lastest masterpiece'. Divided into three segments set in different temporal zones (1966, 1911 and 2005), this triptych is about love relationships and the complications that come with it. Hardly masterpiece material, but Hsiao-Hsien's minimalist, elegant style (perhaps too polished at points) is a beauty, especially in the case of the 1911 episode, in which he updates very gracefully the visual grammar of silent cinema. As we pay increasing attention to Oriental cinema, Hsiao-Hsien is definitely a name to keep in mind.

All DVDs are out now:

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