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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (19/1/2024)

Updated: Jan 20

(Reviews of Werner Herzog: Radical Dreamer; Rojek; The March on Rome; After Work; and Pure Unknown)


Four decades have passed since Les Blank followed the short, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980), with one of the great `making of' documentaries, Burden of Dreams (1982). So, even though Werner Herzog has just published his autobiography, Every Man For Himself and God Against All, the time was right for a new cine-profile. However, the self-styled German maverick deserves better than Thomas von Steinaecker's brisk, sincere, but sketchy offering, Werner Herzog: Radical Dreamer.

After a caption reassures us that what we are about to see is `based on a true story', Werner Herzog admits that he doesn't really dream, although he does have the occasional vision. As a `good soldier of cinema', he has created indelible images that he claims derive from pain rather than pleasure. But talking heads Chloé Zhao, Joshua Oppenheimer, Nicole Kidman, Carl Weathers, and Christian Bale have less of note to impart, as Von Steinaecker reminds them of the time Herzog ate his shoe and was shot at with an air rifle while being interviewed by Mark Kermode.

Wife Lena Herzog recalls him calling the wound insignificant and unworthy of a police call, while Wim Wenders muses about the level of fame that has resulted in his old friend doing voiceovers on The Simpsons and Rick and Morty. He dubs him `The Lonesome Rider' before we're taken back to the childhood home in the Bavarian village of Sachrang, were Herzog and brothers Lucki Stipetiæ and Tilbert Herzog lived with their mother after their Munich building was bombed and they were abandoned by their father. Unconcerned by being raised without a `commander in chief', Herzog recalls the pleasure of growing up without rules - although he concedes that there is rarely such a thing as truth in memories.

He visits the waterfall that he insists is the landscape of his soul before watching his grandson on the snowless ski jumping slope that had obsessed the siblings in the 1950s. Over a clip from The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner (1974), Herzog complains that it's an injustice that he never became an athlete and bemoans the fact that humans are unable to fly. But he is unrepentant that he tried to run before he could walk when making shorts like Last Words (1968) at a time when West German cinema was all heimatfilme like Franz Josef Gottlieb's Die Försterchristel (1962), starring Sabine Sinjen. Wenders and Volker Schlöndorff despair at the refusal to show life on real streets before Alexander Kluge's Yesterday Girl (1965) showed young people and launched Junger Deutscher Film.

Having won a screenplay competition, Herzog made Signs of Life (1968) about an isolated Second World War soldier slowly going insane. This was championed by Lotte Eisner, who introduced him to the work of F.W. Murnau and reassured him that they were rebuilding German cinema after the Nazi interlude. As Eisner was such a mentor for him, Herzog now runs courses to pass on his knowledge to young film-makers and Lucía Lalor and Guillermo de Oliveira enthuse about his inspiration.

The latter references Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) and they revisit the scene of the shoot. On hearing a familiar rustle of leaves, Herzog appears overcome to realise that it all happened over half a century ago and strides off away from the camera. Archive footage shows him discussing the search for images that audiences had never seen before and this takes us to Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972). Oppenheimer gushes about the opening image being part of our DNA, while Schlöndorff marvels at the visionary boldness of putting the cast on rafts and seeing what happened. But actress and ex-wife Martje Grohmann and cinematographer Thomas Mauch remember the madness of the experience, although an old clip shows Herzog denying that he ever pulled a gun on Klaus Kinski to rein him in. He smiles at an audio recording of the actor raging at him, but looks back at the performance with pride, as he tamed the beast without breaking its spirit.

Patti Smith compares the picture to biting into a bitter fruit, while Mauch recalls how Eisner had to show it to French critics to get it noticed after it was ignored in Germany. Herzog also pays tribute to his brother, as Stipetiæ became his producer because he had the knack of remaining calm in oases of chaos. But Zhao and Schlöndorff opine that Herzog films would happen due to his sheer willpower because the likes of The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974), Stroszek (1977), and Woyzeck (1979) are essentially about him - an individual insisting on confronting life on his own terms.

He recalls walking from Munich to Paris on hearing that Eisner was seriously ill in 1974 because he was convinced his pilgrimage would save her. She lived another nine years and we see Herzog reading a passage from the journal he kept on his expedition in which he felt he could fly after arriving in Eisner's hospital room and finding her in recovery. Such single-mindedness (and foolhardiness) enabled him to get through the shoot for Fitzcarraldo (1982), which was beset by difficulties including plane crashes and a war between Ecuador and Peru.

Warren Oates and Jack Nicholson were consdered for the role of robber baron Carlos Fermín Fitzcarrald, but Jason Robards was paired with Mick Jagger and Claudia Cardinale before his health failed. Jagger went on tour, so his role was scrapped and Herzog turned to Kinski (with whom he had recently collaborated on Nosferatu the Vampyre, 1979), who caused his own customary problems on the set. Footage from Burden of Dreams reveals the conditions in which Herzog was forced to work, with his enterprise coming to match Fitzcarrald's own eccentric plan to take a dismantled ship across the land between two rivers. He shows Von Steinaecker the notebook that helped keep him sane, while Grohmann and Stipetiæ marvel at his fortitude.

Despite telling an interviewer that film-making isn't a good job, Herzog kept subjecting himself to attritional shoots, with Kinski being out of control on Cobra Verde (1987). However, having been accused for having aestheticised conflict in Lessons of Darkness (1992), he quit Germany and settled in Los Angeles with new photographer partner, Lena Pisetski.

Among the places he loves there is the Museum of Jurassic Technology, where he looks at exhibits and discusses knowledge and truth with curator David M. Wilson. He explains how he `gets' America and how he enjoys living in a society in a permanent state of gestation. But he remains as singular as the penguin who heads for the mountains in Encounters at the End of the World (2007). Cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger admits they have no idea where the penguin went, but Herzog denies his narration imposed meaning on the images. Oppenheimer similarly defends the decision to add figure skaters to a scene of monks praying in Bells From the Deep (1993).

But, as Paul Holdengräber notes, it was Grizzly Man (2005) that changed people's perceptions of Herzog and sent him in the direction of other documentaries like Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010). But Bale recalls working with him on Rescue Dawn (2006), while Kidman and Robert Pattinson wax lyrical about Queen of the Desert (2015). Shame Nicolas Cage didn't fancy discussing Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009) to complement Herzog's anecdote about the `ecstasy of evil'. More fun is the clip from Eric Darnell and Simon J. Smith's Penguins of Madagascar (2014), in which Herzog voices a documentarist willing to shape reality.

He does so without raising his voice and Carl Weathers, his co-star on The Mandalorian (2019), feels this makes him like Darth Vader. Herzog enjoyed this fanboy moment, but he is just as content hiding away to write books during Covid. As the film ends, he tells Lena that he doesn't want to know the source of his adored waterfall, as even the seeker of truths needs to have unknowns.

In his closing remarks, Wenders declares that Herzog has become every American's vision of `a likeable but somewhat fanatical German'. Von Steinaecker clearly buys into this notion and spends much of his film chatting to Hollywood celebrities who can reinforce the image. This is frustrating, as none of them has anything worthwhile to say, with even Oppenheimer and Zhao straining to come up with something deep. Much more intriguing are the contributions made by Herzog's family and friends, who are content simply to talk about him rather than strive to make an impression with their insight or sincerity.

It's also annoying that Von Steinaecker can't be bothered to label all the clips he uses. The decision to focus more on the man than the work is also frustrating, as the absence of critical overview and analysis leaves this feeling more like a primer for neophytes than an in-depth study. But Herzog clearly trusts the director enough to give him so much intimate access and some relishable quotes. Perhaps they will prove useful to whoever makes the definitive Herzog documentary.


Headline writers are notoriously restless and stories don't stay on the front page for long. With events in the Ukraine and Gaza currently competing with Yemen for column space, there's little room for the aftermath of the Syrian Civil War and what remains of the so-called War on Terror. Zaynê Akyol seeks to redress the balance and remind the world of the human toll these conflicts have taken in Rojek, which is being screened under the auspices of Bertha Dochouse.

Aided by the Global Coalition (as an opening caption calls it), Syrian Democratic Forces have dislodged Islamic State from its last stronghold. By rounding up several thousand jihadists, Syria has been forced to open camps for their wives and children and this documentary centres on a series of interviews with ISIS detainees and the decimated landscape that has been left behind by their activities.

Filmed in tight Academy ratio close-up, the first speaker from Beirut recalls his love of hunting and the art of catching goldfinches to sell as cage birds. A second declines to have an opinion on ISIS because it's every Muslim's duty to emulate the Prophet and take up arms against unbelievers. Following a scene at a roadblock, we meet Farid, who explains that he felt happier after following his religion. But when the off-camera Akyol asks if his heart still feels full, he smiles at the impossibility of answer such a simple, but loaded question.

After listening with quiet pride to a list of roles he had played in ISIS, another German named Nagi admits being a fan of Canadian singer Shawn Desman's and sings a snatch of `Spread My Wings'. He recalls joining a Turkish mosque in Wolfsburg and being convinced to join ISIS by a visiting iman. Smiling, he remembers how easy it had been to get to Syria, as though Turkey had thrown its doors open to jihadists.

After shots of women herding cows as fires burn in nearby fields, we meet a woman in a niqab, who describes her work teaching the Qu'aran, running reception houses, and translating in negotiations. She also explains how espionage is a capital offence in Islam and how women were frequently accused of spying. The Beirut birdman reveals that he ran errands for a house of ISIS wives and notes how restricted they were in their movements. A harvest scene reaffirms the subservient role that women are expected to play, as the men give all the orders.

A Libyan recruited by Osama bin Laden's personal chauffeur details his training in an Al-Qaeda camp before being sent to Syria, while an Iraqi comments on the importance of background to status within ISIS and how easy it often was to conquer villages, as a phone call to the chief was often enough to persuade him to surrender without a fight. Following some slow glides through rubbled villages, a man divulges how different faiths were treated by ISIS units.

Christians were allowed to pay a tax in order to remain, while Sunnis were ordered to undertake instruction. But Shia men had to be executed unless they were willing to convert and, even then, they were often consigned to camps.

Farid tells the story of a woman who converted to Islam in order to marry, only for her husband to be killed in an air strike. He doesn't know what happened to her and is about to say that he doesn't think married women should be rigidly controlled when he expresses a need for caution because ISIS sleeper cells are everywhere and he needs to protect his loved ones. At a busy checkpoint, uniformed women with and without head coverings stop and search vehicles for smuggled oil. They have no problem standing up to suspected drivers and are relentlessly rigorous in their task.

Nagi reflects on his time on a checkpoint and the brisk trade in smuggled military equipment. Money also moved around, with the Libyan insisting that ISIS sold antiquities stolen from Palmyra to European museums. The Iraqi follows up by outlining how fuel supplies were maintained in the face of the enemy and we see footage of oil being siphoned into tankers from a remote storage facility that is then set alight. The billowing black smoke continues into a second sequence, as two men try to put out a fire running through their field by beating the flames with sacks.

We hear the man who had discussed Shia executions talking about his training to be an assassin and how his emir ordered him to use car bombs or silenced guns depending on the victim. He also pauses while remembering those who had perished in suicide missions. By contrast, the Libyan recalls falling in love with a woman he had noticed while on patrol and had asked her father for her hand. His ISIS comrades had attended the wedding and he is now the proud father of Asia and Zainab. When he is asked about his sister's marriage to his cousin, the man with no opinion on ISIS breaks down on mention of his adored father, as he has no idea whether he is alive or dead. However, he notes that he taught him well despite being illiterate and that his generosity was renowned, even in the depths of poverty.

After a slow drone shot over the sprawling family camp, a woman in a niqab chronicles her two marriages to ISIS fighters, the first coming when she was 13 and her parents sold her to a Saudi. Having fathering three children, he was killed at Raqqa and she married a man who divorced her after nine months because he mistreated her. She is about to take a third husband, but doesn't say if he is also a jihadist. Following slow-motion street scenes from the camp, another woman relates how her spouse had decided to take a second wife to be company for her while he was away. However, she turned out to be possessed by a jinn and she was returned to her parents after they divorced.

Speaking in English, a man possessed by a jinn describes how it confuses him by speaking to him in his own voice and takes him over to the extent he is violent to the wife and child he loves. They know he is not being himself, but he has no control over his actions. Cursing himself for mentioning the names of his daughters, the Libyan explains that it's a matter of family honour to keep such matters secret and he admits he would have shot any comrade who had dared ask after his two wives.

A slow-motion sequence of people riding past on motorcycles and trucks is followed by a veiled woman recalling in English how she had been told on converting that a woman is valued like a diamond in Islam and she believes it's her duty to keep covered because Allah has said so and who is she to defy the deity who controls our destinies? Another woman claims in French that she treasured the freedom she had as a woman in ISIS and enjoyed doing what she wanted and going where she liked while feeling valued.

The birdman recalls seeing people executed for crimes like sodomy and adultery and he says it was easy to determine the conviction from the punishment, whether it was being thrown from a high building or being stoned. He remembers seeing a wizard beheaded in Raqqa. A devotee of Sharia law next insists that ISIS never killed fellow Muslims, as they only fought infidels. According to him, Ba'athists allowed foreigners into the Levant and had to pay, while many Kurds deserved to die because they worship the devil. Democrats also merit death, as it is not permitted under Sharia and he remains firm in his conviction that he has only done what his religion dictates. The jinn man is just as uncompromising and states that those who pick and choose what rules to obey will be disowned in the afterlife. He is proud to be a slave to his Lord because he knows what life as a disbeliever is like.

Editor Mathieu Bouchard-Malo's cross-cut to a flock of sheep feels a bit barbed, but the shot holds and a Kurdish unit on a training exercise pass in the opposite direction. We hear the commander outline the threat posed by Syria, Turkey, and ISIS and how vigilance has to be the watchword. On the subject of leaders, the Libyan wants to know why the footsoldiers are in prison when their superiors are left to roam free (often with purloined money) and cause fresh havoc while he is punished for merely carrying out their orders. The Frenchwoman, however, continues to worship the likes of bin Laden for trying to restore Islam to its former glory and for reviving jihad.

Birdman recollects how his spokesman brother, Adnani, was killed by a car bomb and how he had driven to the site after the explosion and, after firefighters had spent an hour extinguishing the blaze, he had recognised the shoe on his severed foot. After we see an elderly man identifying his accomplices in an execution video, Farid says that the identities of those who made the tapes was kept quiet. However, he suspects they were German.

Nagi admits to having done harm to a man, but doesn't want to discuss it because he was coerced and no longer believes in the ISIS agenda. The Sharia advocate is unflinching, however, in averring that slaughter is a sacred duty and that there is no time or place for fear. A clip from a battlefield video shows a man dedicating his kills to Allah before Farid insists that his presence in similar films was because he had just been holding the camera. When pressed he swears that he didn't kill anyone, as he was only ever armed with his fingernails.

Following shots of a unit guarding an oil installation shooting scorching flames into the night sky, the Sharia acolyte tries to suppress a smile, as he imagines the virgins that will be delivered to him in paradise. The beautiful scenery, fresh fruit, and palaces are all well and good. As is remaining young. But it's the idea of having untouched maidens at his beck and call that really appeals. The German woman also regards Jannah as a place where earned rewards will be repaid. But no one mentions being in the presence of Allah.

Fighting to the death doesn't appeal to everyone, however. Even the Sharia man admits that he had decided to leave Syria before his arrest. He reveals how Saudi Arabia helped those who reached Turkey and sought repatriation at the embassy, but wouldn't intervene elsewhere. As we see a female SDF attachment go after an ISIS cell, the Libyan declares that he no longer has anything to hope for. He feels betrayed by the cause for which he lost a leg, but is now bitter that his captors have kept him for 30 months while knowing he is no longer indoctrinated. Missing his wife and daughters, he has started to smoke heavily and can't understand why he's not allowed home now that he's clearly not an enemy combatant.

The film's second speaker declares that no good Muslim would give up the idea of jihad, while the Sharia adherent concludes that anyone who doesn't strive for the Islamic heaven deserves to spend eternity in hell. Outside, the nightmare continues, as the land burns and there is no end in sight to the misery and suffering that has become the daily reality for so many innocent people.

Eager to put a human face on a struggle that is invariably described in terms of fanaticism and evil, this is a boldly compassionate attempt to understand what drives ISIS members and what they hope to achieve from jihad. In truth, however, Akyol gets few clear answers, as there is more conviction and commitment on display here than comprehension and conclusivity. No one seems to perceive an overall ISIS strategy, in spite references to terms like `infidels' and `the Caliphate', while promises of pleasure appear to hold more appeal to those who have endured unspeakable hardship than proximity to God.

By exhibiting the confusion underlying the carnage, however, Akyol succeeds entirely in exposing the flaws and fragility that we all share as men and women in a modern world that seems to make less sense on a daily basis. She also makes it clear that we outsiders are scarcely fit to judge and prompts viewers to ask what responses they would give to justify their own choices in living lives of inexcusable comfort and complacency. They would be no less discomfiting, albeit for very different reasons.

The high-resolution images of the war-scarred landscape that cinematographers Nicolas Canniccioni and Arshia Shakiba achieve on the ground and by drone have a shocking poetry to match their graphic potency, while the latter also makes a telling contribution to the sound design, with Sylvain Brassard, that is chillingly complemented by Roger Tellier-Craig's unsettlingly pulsing score. Raised in Quebec, but born in Kurdistan, Akyol clearly has a personal investment in this conflict, as she had previously demonstrated with her debut documentary, Gulîstan, Land of Roses (2016), which told the story of the childhood mentor who joined the KPP revolutionary Kurdistan Workers' party. But, made over several years and with much behind-the-scenes negotiation, this is a tougher watch and makes many more demands on its audience - and is all the better for it.


Mark Cousins has been making films for 35 years. The majority have concerned cinema and ways of looking. But there have been surprises along the way, including 6 Desires: D.H. Lawrence and Sardinia (2014), I Am Belfast (2015), and Stockholm, My Love (2016). Showing as part of Bertha Dochouse's Italian season (27-28 January), The March on Rome (2022) represents something of a departure, as it's the most overtly political film that Cousins has made since Atomic, Living in Dread and Promise (2015) and Storm in My Heart (2017), which contrasted the lives of Susan Hayward and Lena Horne, who were born on the same day into very different parts of America (why was this so little seen?).

Co-written by Italian director Tony Saccucci, this hybrid documentary still has a cinematic element, as Cousins examines how Benito Mussolini used film propaganda to secure his position as Prime Minister of Italy in 1922. But it's primary purpose is to educate viewers about what to look out for when perusing content generated by populist politicians seeking to attract support by playing on the emotions of the electorate.

This intention is made clear in the opening clip of a TV interview in which Donald Trump tries to play down quoting Mussolini. But Cousins - who is no stranger to using hammers to crack things, viz the destruction of Bigger Than The Shining (2016) - opts for a more subtle approach in showing over the credits how Fascist architecture has left its mark on the Italian capital. He then takes us to Naples to show market and street party clips from Elvira Notari's È Piccerella (1922). Later this year, on 24 October, Umberto Paradisi will have his camera in the same city to record the Fascist rally that will be the starting point of A Noi! (aka To Us, 1922), a 44-minute account of Blackshirt activity in the days leading to Mussolini taking power.

A cutaway reveals Alba Rohwacher in period costume. She is going to be our eyewitness guide, although we are not to be told the factual source (if any) of Anna's recollections and opinions. Despite looking demurely into the lens, she confesses to having experienced a certain frisson when she saw A Noi! in Rome. But Cousins is quick to interject that Paradisi manufactured his own version of the truth and, in so doing provided inspiration for Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925) and Leni Riefenstahl's The Triumph of the Will (1935).

Mussolini wasn't in Naples when only half of the expected 30,000 came to hear his assertion that the Fascists would seize power if it wasn't to be handed to them. Paradisi alludes to Il Duce in the first third of his film, but doesn't show his face until 17 minutes in. Cousins suggests the posed portrait has something of the horror film about it and notes that the fasces symbol shown on the intertitles can still be found on drainage covers in Trastevere.

Anna was ready for a new order after the Great War and she believed Mussolini when he promised to bring prosperity and peace. As he films her speaking, Cousins moves the camera to catch a bit of flare in the top corner of the frame. It's an unnecessarily showy reminder of his directorial presence and further reduces the effectiveness and credibility of inserts that have a school special feel about them.

He's on safer ground in discussing Paradisi's use of angle and distance to frame the field in which the Neapolitan rally took place and in showing how he grouped enthusiastic advocates to make the scene look more dynamic and exhilarating. He also discloses that a caption intercut with footage of the so-called `March on Rome' had not been shot on 28-29 October, as the intertitle read, on 30-31 October, when it hadn't been raining. Bedraggled Blackshirts wouldn't have been good for the Fascist image.

Lingering on the backlot at Cinecittà to prove his point about how fakery can be made to seem real, Cousins nips off to the railway station to reveal that Mussolini had been waiting in a Milanese hotel before making his way to Rome, in case his coup failed and he needed to hop the border into Switzerland. But he was given encouragement when Prime Minister Luigi Facta (who had only taken office on 1 August) was forced into withdrawing the declaration of a state of emergency by King Victor Emmanuel III. Indeed, by the time Mussolini is show on the Piazza del Popolo before striding towards the Villa Borghese on 31 October, he had already been made Prime Minister by the monarch of 22 years in an off-camera signing ceremony.

Pausing to ponder what was going through Mussolini's mind as he walked, Cousins ushers us on to the Quirinale Palace while hinting that Paradisi was only telling part of the story in his film and using camera tricks to falsify the record. We see how shots were reused to give the impression of a bigger turnout, while a truck is seen in multiple locations to convey a bigger Fascist presence. Cousins points out how few Blackshirts there are in a watching crowd that is largely made up of the curious rather than the committed. He also alludes to the attempts that were made to block the March, which was anything but a triumphal entrance.

On 4 November 1921, an Unknown Soldier had been buried at the Altare della Patrie and the Blackshirts had marched there on 31 October in a display of patriotic pride. However, Paradisi uses the same shot containing two Blueshirts passing in front of the parade on three separate occasions to suggest a longer column of marchers. Noticing two cameras on the street in a long shot, Cousins deduces that Paradisi was giving himself editorial options so that he could manipulate the footage to show what he wanted people to see.

Mussolini's absence from this momentous episode is noted, as Cousins explains that he was busy cutting deals in a room in the Savoy Hotel. Back at the Altare della Patrie, he shows how the column had not mounted the steps to the tomb, as had been expected and wonders what had been behind this change of plan. It transpires that Facta had asked national hero Gabriele D'Annunzio to lead a march into Rome to mark the first anniversary of the Unknown Soldier's burial. The Fascist march had, therefore, been hastily arranged to steal his thunder and confer it on Il Duce. But he was busy scheming and his foot soldiers were denied their moment of glory at the Altare because their ascent would have upstaged the 39 year-old plotting to become the country's youngest prime minister.

But Paradisi kept the cameras running, as an empty show of power would look better in his film than none at all. Better still was a fabricated one, as the climactic shot of Mussolini at the Altare was taken on 4 November not 31 October. Moreover, the final shot of the tricolor with the royal crest fluttering over the skyline was removed after it became clear that the Fascists no longer needed the House of Savoy to legitimise their rule.

Following its premiere on 7 November 1922, A Noi! was widely seen. Cousins speculates what life was like for those in the audience, with archive clips heralding a scene from Augusto Tretti's Il Potere (1971), which details how tough life was for Italians living in a `wounded peace' after being sold short at the Treaty of Versailles. It also includes scenes featuring big cats sat on thrones representing the army, commerce, and the landowners and Cousins is taken by Tretti's suggestion that Mussolini was a stooge for vested interest, with the blessing of the king. He returns to A Noi! to show - just nine days before he took power - how Mussolini had to be pushed to the front of the dias by old soldier Cesare Maria de Vecchi because he had no sense that his time had come. De Vecchi would actually lead the March with Emilio De Bono, Italo Balbo, and Michele Bianchi.

Reinforcing the idea that Mussolini was the candidate of the elite eager to remove the Liberal/Socialist alliance was the presence in the Savoy of Raoul Palermi of the masonic Gran Loggia d'Italia, who had persuaded Victor Emmanuel to block the state of siege and provoke the Facta resignation that left Italy without a government. Cousins purrs conspiratorially that Palermi's role in the transfer of power is rarely mentioned. But he's in the Wikipedia entry on the March on Rome.

Following the infamous `Bivouac' speech of 16 November, newspapers were brutalised into acquiescence, prompting socialist leader Filippo Turati to proclaim the end of civilisation in the Chamber of Deputies. Former comrade Giacomo Matteotti denounced Mussolini in Parliament in May 1924 and accused him of taking bribes from the Sinclair company in the United States in return for access to African oil. As a clip from Florestano Vancini's The Assassination of Matteotti (1973) shows, he was kidnapped 11 days later and murdered, possibly on Mussolini's orders (but Cousins restricts himself to apportioning moral responsibility). Even the freemasons suffered when secret societies were banned in 1925 and Cousins notes that Filippo Tommaso Marinetti had highlighted the purifying nature of violence as early as 1912. Cross-cutting from images of carnage to a close-up of the extravagantly moustachio'd poet, Cousins reads his verses on the beauty of war in a hardly subtle, but effective passage.

Moving on to explore Mussolini's appeal to women, Cousins refers to French polymath Gustave Le Bon's The Psychology of the Masses (1895), which had taught the Italian how to play to the crowd. Lenin, Freud, and Hitler were all admirers, with Mussolini taking his advice that crowds had a tendency to be as hysterical as women. Ettore Scola's A Special Day (1977) is about gender and Fascism and Anna laments the fact that her four year-old is being made to wear a Blackshirt in school. She wonders if this what Garibaldi fought for (in his red shirt), as she shudders at the rumour that women who don't have five children will be sent to asylums.

Sneeringly mocking Mussolini's vision of himself as an artist shaping the destiny of his people, Cousins intercuts shots of Fascist edifices and street propaganda with newsreel depicting him as a man of action. We see the mosaics at the Foro Italico declaring `Many enemies, much honour' and see the Obelisco Mussolini in all its phallic `glory'. But Cousins's twice-made Viagra crack is limp, while his reference to Mussolini taking leaves from the papal playbook is a half-hearted throwaway.

Instead, he hops on to safer ground in condemning the Fascist adventure in Africa, as Mussolini sought to restore imperial pomp by conquering Abyssinia. We see Emperor Haile Selassie being booed by Italian journalists at the League of Nations and footage of mustard gas victims, as Cousins hisses about the civilising impetus of Fascism in Libya and Albania. Newsreels showed a warm welcome, but later films like Rikard Ljarja's Skëterrë '43 (1980) tell a very different story. As do film-makers from the former Yugoslavia, which was invaded in 1941 and concentration camps were sanctioned to quash resistance.

Anna (not looking a day older and in the same blouse) despairs that she has been let down by those she trusted who opted to use force when necessary rather than love when possible. Cousins describes how Pietro Badoglio was installed after Mussolini resigned on 25 July 1943. He was rescued from prison by the Nazis, with Hitler making him the leader of the Salò republic. But, as the newsreel footage of him inspecting troops in a field confirms, the old grandiosity had long gone - or is this Cousins getting a case of the Paradisis and selecting an image that suits his contention? Tricky business, this editing actuality.

After the Allies arrived, those who had supported the Fascists were punished. Mussolini's face was unrecognisable after being stomped after his corpse was dumped on to the Piazzale Loreto in Milan before being strung upside down. However, this wasn't where the March on Rome ended, as it was a `spreader event'. In 1922, Freud had called Mussolini `the hero of culture' in a book dedication, while Winston Churchill had dubbed him `the greatest legislator'. Papers fell over themselves to eulogise him, while aspiring dictators took careful notes before tilting for power in Germny, Portugal, Japan, and Spain.

We see Spanish Civil War veterans being paraded at the Altare, which was also visited by Adolf Hitler on a June 1934 trip that also included a military display in the contented presence of the king. Cousins wonders if Leni Riefenstahl was watching the regimented displays staged in Hitler's honour before crassly dubbing them `the balcony boys' in wondering whether they could have seen the death camps from their lofty vantage point over Naples in 1938.

As Lazio fans file past Fascist monuments en route to a game in the Olympic Stadium and we see the Square Colisseum in the EUR district of Rome, Cousins wonders why they were allowed to survive when similar buildings were demolished on Germany. He asks if they should be renamed (cue another Viagra gag) and whether A Noi! should be burned. However, he decides it's precious visual history that can be taught and he tells the story of the renovation of the Cinema Troisi in a former Fascist building in Rome. Mocking machismo to expose its flaws is a laudable aim and he cites more scenes from Il Potere before linking dance sequences in È Piccerella, Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist (1970), Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), and A Special Day.

Out of nowhere, Cousins reflects on the use of a mirror to cast light in Abel Gance's La Roue (1922). He tried the same set up with Rohrwacher, but got a different effect via a lucky torch beam. Returning to 1922, he shows clips from Carl Theodor Dreyer's Love One Another to show bigotry was being discussed in cinemas, although Charlie Chaplin's Pay Day could also show the lighter side. Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North shows how reality can be staged in a life-affirming way. He lists some of the notable events and famous births of 1922 and mutters something about these people being just like us.

The detour over, we cut to Anna fretting about the fate of her son after she perishes (she thinks) in 1943. Cousins refers to Rome being referred to as a stage set and calls Mussolini's March a performance that has entered the repertoire - hence the storming of the Capitol and the bombing of Mariupol and the rise of right-wing extremism in France, Italy, Hungary, and India. It's an important point on which to end, but it rings rather hollow because so much of the film's momentum has been sapped by the 1922 movie tutorial that fails to see the relevance of F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu to the discussion.

As is always the case with Cousins, his intelligence, insight, and commitment cannot be faulted. The centenary of the March on Rome made few headlines and he adroitly draws parallels between then and now. But his judgement can sometimes be called into question. He is also prone to being naive. The directorial flourishes in filming Anna's monologues, the smug Viagra jokes, the flaunting of filmic knowledge, and the culminating lack of focus are all pardonable. But the litany of camp names intoned over the Naples podium footage is inexcusable on so many levels.

Editor Timo Langer does an impeccable job in linking the archival footage and the colour views filmed by Cousins and Timoty Aliprandi. However, they never solve the problem that as A Noi! won't have been seen by many people, even in Italy, its forensic deconstruction will mean little to those unfamiliar with its content and structure. The lessons are invaluable, but the require more context. Perhaps Paradisi's film should have been incorporated in its entirety as a preamble, with the running time being reduced by the removal of Anna and the 1922 cine-retrospective? Who knows. But, quibbles aside, Cousins has to be credited for tackling such a pressing issue as weaponised misinformation in an age of ignorance and inattentiveness and for reminding us that history teaches lessons for a reason.


Italian-Swedish documentarist Erik Gandini is probably better known for Gitmo (2005) and Videocracy (2009) than for more recent items like The Swedish Theory of Love (2016). However, he provides much food for thought in After Work, which is showing as part of the Bertha Dochouse Italian season.

In the first half of the film, Gandini focusses on those obsessed with their jobs. Forever proclaiming himself to be so very busy, Josh Davis, the CEO of the Centre for Work Ethic Development, reveals that 578 million hours of paid vacation are annually declined by the American workforce. During a lively presentation, he also divulges that employers are less interested in a good education than a good attitude and dependability. He notes that enjoying a job isn't necessarily a prerequisite for workaholism and worries that so many people define themselves by what they do that they risk having no self-esteem if they are forced to ease up.

South Korean teacher Yoo Ga-Yeon certainly thinks this is true of her father, Yoo Deug-Young, who works 15 hour days and only manages five hours sleep a night before he's back at his desk. Clearly he's not daunted by the government's initiative to power down all computers by 6pm. Ga-Yeon is grateful for the sacrifices he has made to give her a good start in life, but she would rather have had more of his time growing up and now worries that he has missed out on so much in a life that is all-too short.

Armando Pizzoni reached the conclusion that he didn't like fun and that life was pointless without honest toil while watching his millionaire father devote his life to leisure and luxury. Rather than live of an allowance, he decided to become a gardener and we see him trimming the hedges of the maze at Garden Valsanzibio, which he now owns. He takes pride in his work and derives pleasure from the order he brings to a majestic setting.

Philosopher Elisabeth Anderson, who is a professor at the University of Michigan, empathises with this need to stay profitably busy. She loves her job, but is also aware that the work ethic that drives so much of modern society is the invention of 17th-century Calvinists, who persuaded believers that hard work on Earth was a way of guaranteeing a place in the next world.

Gallup pollster Pa Sinyan explains that there are eight billion people on the planet and that one billion of them have regular, paid work. In each country, however, only 15% of the labour force is `positively engaged', with the remainder being divided between the `not engaged', who show up and do what's expected of them, and the `actively disengaged', who are frustrated and angry to the extent of making the daily grind miserable for everyone else. Asked by Gandini if a concentration camp guard could be engaged in their work, Sinyan ducks the question, but concedes that Adolf Hitler understood the power of inspirational leadership.

African-American Amazon driver Astrid Moss feels she makes a contribution to her community because she changes lives each day with her deliveries. She takes 15 minutes to recharge on her route, as she refuses to pee in bottles in the van. However, her enjoyment has been compromised by the introduction of cab cameras that generate admonitory message for even reaching for a water bottle. As she sometimes has 300 deliveries to make on the clock, she feels that her work is coming closer to slavery all the time.

One of the problems facing those disillusioned by their jobs is the fact that they may soon find they no longer exist. Elon Musk and Noam Chomsky discuss the ever-growing role of mechanisation in factories and the creep of artificial intelligence into once sacrosanct professions like accountancy, insurance, and the law. The notion of universal basic income is raised before we're whisked off to Kuwait to learn about the state policy of employing multiple people to do a single job. As author Mai Al-Nakib and aspiring screenwriter Meqss Al-Kout reveal, this means that employees spend long hours in an office space with nothing to do. Al-Kout got so bored that he stared bringing his laptop to work to watch movies. As he strolls through a deserted shopping mall, he highlights that Kuwaitis leave a lot of undesirable jobs for migrant workers and it worries him that a generation of inexperienced and ignorant people are going to be left facing a crisis when the oil money runs out and will simply not have the wherewithal to respond to it.

Socliologist Luca Ricolfi echoes this concern in explaining how Italy is being overrun by NEETs, in other words, young people who are `not in education, employment or training'. He claims that a third of millennials are voluntarily opting out of work and devoting themselves to socialising and sport. Anderson hopes that Gen Z will eventually become sufficiently curious to find better ways to occupy their time, although her husband teases her that she spends more thinking time than ever before in her new La-Z-Boy chair.

Padovan horse-breeding heiress Cristiana Marzotto can't fathom the concept of boredom, as she always has something to fascinate her around the estate she shares with businessman husband, Ferdinando Businaro. He is happy to devote much of his time to working and joshes Marzotto about how much easier it is to potter when you don't have a single money worry. Anxiety caused Korean twentysomething Jeong Boseong to quit his job and his parents struggle to understand how he can look himself in the mirror. As Gandini concludes, this generational attitude to employment is going to put a strain on society, as it readjusts to its new realities as work ceases to be a four-letter word.

Despite raising lots of intriguing points, Gandini never quite gets round to constructing a thesis about either the work/life balance or the future of labour. Following in the footsteps of Shannon Walsh's The Gig Is Up (2021) and John Webster's The Happy Worker, or How Work Was Sabotaged (2022), he has certainly found some interesting interviewees, with each speaking with insight and wit about their experiences. The saddest pair are the Yoos, who don't even speak to each other on camera to reinforce Ga-Yeon's contention that her father has become so detached in his obsession to be a good employee, husband, and father. However, Al-Kout cuts a sorry figure, as the weight of getting something for nothing bears down on him.

The most amusing contributor is Davis, whose seminar patter is a mix of expertise and chutzpah. He's like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland in the way he keeps alluding to how busy he is and how many irons he has in the fire. However, Anderson is razor sharp and it's a pity we get so little Chomsky. But Sinyan's pause for thought over the thorny issue of Nazi job satisfaction is a showstopper.

If you think the visuals look good, it's because Ruben Östlund's regular cinematographer, Fredrik Wenzel, is behind the camera. The views of the Italian gardens are particularly impressive, but Wenzel also captures the atmosphere within empty office suites and shopping malls, as well as bustling streets and NEET-strewn beaches. Jørgen Bergsund and Rikard Strømsodd's sound design is equally effective in conjunction with Johan Söderberg and Christoffer Berg's score. The former does an equally smooth job in doubling up as editor. Surely a machine could have done some of the work for him?


Having served as editor on I Wanna Sleep With You (2015) and writer/editor on Il Posto: A Steady Job (2022), Valentina Cicogna has been promoted to co-director on Mattia Colombo's Pure Unknown. A study into the human right of posthumous identity, this is showing in London as part of Bertha Dochouse's Italian season.

A professor at the University of Milan, forensic anthropologist Cristina Cattaneo has established the Medical-Legal Labanof Institute in a bid to improve the techniques used to identify the anonymous cadavers she calls `sconosciuti puri'. We see her at a crime scene and teaching students and discover her connection to `Barca Nostra', an artwork exhibited at the 2019 Venice Biennale that utilised a boat that had sunk in the Mediterranean with 700 migrants aboard.

Such cases distress her on a human level, but also because she believes that dignity in death is associated with identity. Moreover, she wants loved ones to be able to claim remains, but at €250 per DNA test, she would need €800,000 to examine the 325 skulls recovered from the boat. She photographs recovered belongings, including water-damaged photographs, in the hope that someone will recognise items and come forward.

With appeals for funding and action falling on deaf ears, Cattaneo turns to other matters, including an examination of the bones of Milan's former bishop, St Ambrose. When not walking her two devoted dogs, she also continues to work on the bodies of homeless people, sex workers, and teenage runaways who are found on the streets of Milan. Always thorough, she works with a committed team on the corpse of an old man and there is much relief when a pacemaker is found, as they should be able to identify him from the serial number.

At a conference, Cattaneo agrees that resources should be spent on the living first, especially with 100,000 coming to Italy each year. She wants cross-border sharing of missing people data to speed up identification and make it a legal requirement to try and match bodies with loved ones. But the dead should not be forgotten and, as bodies keep washing up on the coastline and Covid strikes, we see her updating cases with her team led by Debora Mazzarelli, as they seek to piece together scraps of evidence with information submitted by the families.

A telling sequence contrasts the blessing of St Ambrose's skeleton in luxurious robes with the belongings of an unknown soul being packed into a cardboard box after an autopsy. People are buried without mourners during lockdown and Cattaneo keeps plugging away with her solemn duties and her activism, which takes a new turn when she gains the support of MEP Pierfrancisco Majorino, who promises to get her hearing in Brussels.

Following an item on Federica Sciarelli's missing persons show, Chi l'ha visto?, she also claims the bones of an exhumed Albanian teenager named Mbaresa who had been forced into prostitution in the 1990s and contacts the producers so that they can pass her findings to the deceased's sister. She comes to Milan for a DNA test and Cattaneo breaks the news of a positive match and leaves her to grieve with a male relative, who pats her on the shoulder as she sobs.

Despite her address to a committee at the European Parliament, Cattaneo's campaign for international co-operation on identifying pure unknowns remains unsuccessful. Moreover, public opinion against the migrant dead has hardened since the pandemic, even though many got to experience the agony of being away from loved ones when they past and were buried. She is aware this is an emotive issue, while the fact people would rather contact a TV show than the police shows her how little will there is to do something about it within the Italian establishment. But this remarkable woman will continue on her methodical way because she knows the dead deserve their dignity and need her in their corner.

Taking advantage of their intimate access, Colombo and Cicogna have created a poignant piece of observational cinema. They use the odd caption, while some of the shots of Cattaneo typing or reading at her computer feel composed. But Jacopo Lolodice's camera is vigilantly discreet and only feels intrusive when following the bereft Albanian woman into the glass-partitioned room containing her sister's bones. Zeno Gabaglio's restrained piano and string score is equally affecting and effective.

Dr Cattaneo's work is painstaking and psychologically demanding. The reluctance of national and transcontinental institutions to make her task easier is dismaying and one is tempted to suggest that someone makes an equivalent programme to Mr Bates vs The Post Office in order to shift public opinion into creating a groundswell. But the vox pops included here suggest shamefully that too few Italians care that much about sconoscuiti puri for them to rally to their cause.

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