(Reviews of Rare Beasts; Betrayed; The Auschwitz Escape; The Trial; and State Funeral)
Cinemas are open again, then. But not everyone is going to want to sit in the dark being distracted by the prospect of whether everyone else in the auditorium is following the social distancing guidelines as strictly as they are.
Consequently, the streaming platforms who have done rather well out of lockdown are going to keep up their good work for the time being at least. Therefore, in addition to subscription sites like Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI, Netflix and the BFI Player, the likes of iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation will be staying open for business. Whatever choice you make, stay safe.
Much fuss has been made about the ever-evolving Billie Piper's first feature as a writer-director. There's much to laud in her bold anti-romcom, Rare Beasts (2019), not least her vibrant performance. But, like many a debutant before her, Piper can't resist those directorial flourishes that enervate rather than embellish the action.
Mandy (Billie Piper) is on a date with Pete (Leo Brill) and draws the conclusion from his misogynist remarks over dinner that he's a potential rapist. Nevertheless, as they work together for a London media company run by the patronisingly sexist Dougie (Jonjo O'Neill), she gives him a chance to prove himself, while clinging to her personal mantra, `Even though I feel scared and angry, I still love and respect myself.'
Following a conflab over wine and cocaine with a cabal of close friends, Mandy gets home to discover that her chain-smoking mother, Marion (Kerry Fox), is furious with her hard-drinking father, Vic (David Thewlis), for spending the money to which she feels entitled on a holiday to Thailand. As a thirtysomething single mum, Mandy often has trouble controlling the emotional outbursts of her seven year-old son, Larch (Toby Woolf). He chases the pigeons when Mandy meets the self-professed `religious enthusiast' Pete outside his local church. But their Sunday out takes a harrowing turn for when Larch throws a tantrum about a balloon on the South Bank and Pete seeks to shame him by copying his behaviour.
After putting her son to bed, Mandy seeks out Pete downstairs and strips off in order to see if he shares her jaundiced views about her body. Despite his obnoxious manner, he manages to make Mandy feel good about herself and Marion is flabbergasted to see him shuffling into the kitchen and demanding breakfast. The brief encounter goes swimmingly compared to the lunch that Mandy endures with Pete's parents, Judith (Meryl Griffiths) and Bertie (Michael Elwyn), and his baiting sisters, Vanessa (Mariah Gale), Evelyn (Lucie Sword) and Becky (Emily Taaffe).
Yet, Mandy agrees to join Pete on a trip to a friend's wedding in Spain. He comes close to fraying when they have to turn the taxi back for Larch's iPad, but is in high spirits when they greet `post-post-post feminist' bride Cressida (Lily James) and her groom, Woody (Leo Flanagan), after an intimidatingly conservative service. Having developed a crush on an older girl, Larch tries to impress her with his dance moves and even Mandy throws off her inhibitions when Pete hits the floor. However, they wind up having a blazing row and slap each other's faces. Moreover, when he catches Mandy chatting to Larch's father, Matthew (Ben Dilloway), Pete slopes away to console himself with Meredith (Rosa Coduri).
Fed up with the way things are panning out, Mandy breaks into a run and fetches up at the Irish pub where Vic is drowning his sorrows. She informs him that he has ruined her life with his self-centred parenting. But he promises to make amends because Marion has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and he is going to look after her. They have an awkward conversation on a high-rise balcony overlooking St Paul's and another in Marion's bedroom, in which he promises that he didn't have an affair with her friend.
Chatting in the kitchen, Vic warns Pete that Mandy can be a handful and reminisces about the way she used to slip death threats into his pocket when she was a girl. He shuffles uncomfortably when Pete insists on saying a prayer for Marion, who still can't believe that Mandy is seeing such a chauvinist oddball. But she seems grateful he is willing to put up with the clutter on her life and she proposes to him on the Tube.
No sooner has Pete says yes than things start to unravel. Following Cathy (Antonia Campbell-Hughes), Carly (Alice Bailey Johnson) and Chloe (Kathryn O'Reilly) at a pitching session, Mandy is fired by Dougie for suggesting a programme about Beyoncé's suicide and she retaliates by throwing a chair through his office window. She then taunts Pete about a night of passion with a stranger she met in a coffee shop and he takes the confession seriously and sleeps with Meredith.
On hearing that his grandmother is dying, Larch fumes about Mandy's refusal to believe in heaven and only calms down when he injures a pigeon and gets to stroke it after his mother captures it. In the middle of her own meltdown, Mandy has a reverie in which her young and tweenage selves join her in tap-dancing on a small stage with everyone she knows watching her.
Shortly after Marion's funeral, she meets up with Pete at Alexandra Palace, where their argument causes a crowd of women to stop and spectate. They mock his excuses for the way he has treated her and are being fully supportive of Mandy's declaration of what she wants from life right up to the moment she reveals she'd like a good man. As the tutting onlookers disperse, Mandy takes Larch by the hand and they wander off to make the best of the future together.
Billie Piper clearly had plenty to get off her chest and she takes a valiant swing at modern life in this ambitious, furious and sometimes hilarious dramedy. She's at her best dissecting workplace manners, the tangles of family life and the romantic expectations of toxic men. Her honesty when it comes to her own neuroses is also commendable. But the full-on directorial gambits Piper employs don't always suit her slice of life approach, with the result that the storyline is reduced to being a flimsy chain linking set-pieces that veer from the slickly insightful to the self-consciously superficial.
There's a nice touch in the fact that Piper and Leo Bill are essentially playing parts that Kerry Fox and David Thewlis would have played three decades ago. Thus, echoes of Mike Leigh's Naked (1993) can be heard above the acknowledged borrowings from Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love (2002). But, while she is right to move away from the Bridget Jones kind of anti-heroine, Piper always seems to be straining for effect, as both writer and director. For all the gutsiness of the self-depreciation, there's a theatricality about the dialogue, while the camera-shaking rawness of Patrick Meller's visuals and the brusque briskness of Hazel Baillie's editing often feels more mannered than manic. Similarly, the counterpointing use of clappy pop songs over scenes of laceration and despair is clumsy rather than acute.
Given Piper's experiences on Sky Atlantic's I Hate Suzie, it's frustrating that her writing is so scattershot. No one's expecting her to be Phoebe Waller-Bridge or Michaela Coel. But, in harnessing the attitude of her 1998 hit, `Because We Want To', Piper might have been give more guidance by her producers, as this relatably painful paean to post-millennial womanhood is too often as excruciating as it is excoriating or exhilarating.
Promising boxer Charles Braude (Jakob Oftebro) lives in Oslo with siblings Harry (Carl Martin Eggesbø), Isak (Eilif Hartwig) and Helene (Silje Storstein), as well as their Lithuanian exile parents, Benzel (Michalis Koutsogiannakis) and Sara (Pia Halvorsen). However, shortly after Charles marries his Gentile sweetheart, Ragnhild (Kristine Kujath Thorp), the Nazis invade Norway and the male members of the family are rounded up and dispatched to the Berg concentration camp. While Helene manages to escape to Sweden, Ragnhild stays to help Sara, as she tries to find out news about her loved ones and cares for the daughters of her distraught neighbour, Maja (Hanna-Maria Grønneberg) .
At Berg, Charles is recognised by boxing fan Haakon Høst (Robert Skjærstad), who challenges him to a fight. On his father's advice, Charles turns down the bout and is savagely beaten by the furious officer. But he survives and the Braudes remain together until November 1942, when Knut Rød (Anders Danielsen Lie), the Oslo chief of the Statspolitiet, is ordered to arrest the Jews living in Oslo and deliver them to the SS Donau for deportation.
Having already endured the humiliation of having her belongings valued by a bailiff, Sara makes plans with Ragnhild to flee to neutral Sweden. But she is caught in the attic and bundled into a waiting car rather than the taxi whose driver had been bribed to feign a breakdown. Charles is detained at Berg because of his Aryan wife, but his kinfolk are delivered to the docks in time to catch a fleeting glimpse of Sara on the gangway.
As part of the 529 coerced passengers, the family reunites on the quayside before being loaded into the cattle trucks that will take them to Auschwitz. On their arrival, Benzel and Sara are sent to the showers and cling to each other naked, as they shuffle into a cramped room. Closing captions reveal that Harry and Isak also perished, but Charles returned to Oslo, where he continued to box and had four children with his second and third wives. He lived until 1991, outlasting Rød by five years after he was acquitted of collaborating with the Axis.
Although directed with sincerity (and a tad too much discretion) by Eirik Svensson, Betrayed relies heavily on Holocaust movie cliché to relate its true story. Drawing on Marte Michelet's book The Ultimate Crime: Victims and Perpetrators in the Norwegian Holocaust, screenwriters Lars Gudmestad and Harald Rosenløw-Eeg cleaves so closely to the Braude family that we get to learn nothing about the rise of Vidkun Quisling's Nasjonal Samling and the level of support it enjoyed among ordinary Norwegians.
A few anti-Semitic remarks are bandied around, but the sketchiness of the historical context and the scarcity of non-Jewish neighbours often leaves the action looking contrived and confused, especially where the subplots are concerned. Nevertheless, this is always markedly more convincing than another recent true-life Norwegian Holocaust picture, Ross Clarke's The Birdcatcher (2019).
The performances are solid enough, with Jakob Oftebro ably conveying Charles's struggle to conform to the Orthodox beliefs of his parents, who are played with affecting dignity by Michalis Koutsogiannakis and Pia Halvorsen. By contrast, Robert Skjærstad essays his uniformed sadist is a stock villain, while Anders Danielsen Lie personifies the banality of evil as the penpusher supervising the expulsion. That said, the scene in which he pretends to call headquarters to placate Jewish neighbor Inga Ibsdotter Lilleaas is spuriously melodramatic.
Johan Söderqvist's score can also err on the sentimental side, but the production values are uniformly credible. Karl Erik Brøndbo's sombre photography is particularly effective during the camp scenes, although Svensson directs with most finesse when alighting on small, but telling details like the bin of confiscated ID cards in the dockside processing hall. Moreover, he succeeds in reminding the audience that each one of the six million who died in the Shoah was a human being.
THE AUSCHWITZ ESCAPE.
On 7 April 1944, Slovak scribes Alfred Wetzler (Noel Czuczor ) and Rudolf Vrba (Peter Ondrejicka) are secreted in a hollowed space in the wood pile between the perimeter fences at the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp. They are wearing civilian clothes and carry in their bags two metal tubes containing information about the systematic slaughter of Jews using Zyklon B gas. While they bide their time in the freezing cold, Lagerführer Johann Schwarzhuber (Christian Bach) keeps their comrades from Barrack 9 on parade in the hope that someone will betray them. While Kaduk (Lars Rudolph) searches the camp, the sadistic Lausmann (Florian Panzner) takes out his fury on a Franciscan priest who has made it his vocation to share the suffering of his fellow men.
After the guard is called off, Wetzler and Vrba escape into the woods and live on berries as they make their way towards the Czechoslovakian border. Vrba's suffers with his feet and they lose the tube containing diagrams of the camp. But they receive help from Polish peasants who resent the Nazi occupation and are smuggled across the frontier and taken to Žilina for debriefing. Having typed up their report, they are interviewed by Warren (John Hannah), a Red Cross official who is sceptical about their claims because the Germans have allowed the camps to be inspected. Eventually, he is persuaded by the sheer weight of numbers.
Seven months after this meeting, a redacted version of the Auschwitz Report was published in the United States. Closing captions reveal that 2.5 million people were deported to the camp and that around a million lost their lives. However, Wetzler and Vrba's courage ensured that the Hungarian authorities decided against sending 120,000 Jews who had been destined for Poland.
Loosely, but soberly adapted from Wetzler's book, What Dante Did Not See, by director Peter Bebjak and co-writers Jozef Pastéka and Tomás Bombik, this is a harrowing recreation of a mission that has surprisingly not been filmed before. Much of the first half centres on the barbarism of the Germans running Auschwitz, with Lausmann riding his white horse over the prisoners buried up to their necks in the forest because his son has been killed on the Eastern Front. He also tries to make one resident of Barrack 9 crack by shooting a random woman in the darkness and claiming it's his wife. But the resistance holds firm.
Toning down colours to convey the bleakness of the reality they are depicting, Bebjak and cinematographer Martin Ziaran resist showing cruelty at close quarters. However, they occasionally employ canted angles to suggest the disorientated perspective of the fugitives and frequently linger on Noel Czuczor and Peter Ondrejicka's faces, whether they are recovering items buried in the floor of a shed stacked high with naked corpses, shivering in their hideaway or resting on tenterhooks in the woods.
Indeed, Czuczor even gets to stare accusingly into the lens while working on the report, while Ziaran's camera later glides slowly from a fixed side shot to close in on John Hannah's horrified expression, as the magnitude of the crime finally becomes apparent. He handles his cameo with discretion, although much of the acting is as functional as the characterisation. Marek Kralovsky's editing and Mario Schneider's score are equally restrained, as Bebjak emphasises the dignity shown in the face of evil whose banality retains the power to shock and appal eight decades on.
Having excelled throughout lockdown, MUBI continues its good work as cinemas re-open with a pair of compilation documentaries by Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa that bookend the reign of terror presided over by Joseph Stalin. While researching an exposé of the show trials, Loznitsa came across footage taken from a 1930 prosecution that had been recorded using a prototype camera that could capture synchronous sound on to a celluloid strip alongside the imagery. Further investigation revealed that the material had been shaped into a 42-minute propaganda item. But Loznitsa decided to present in The Trial over two hours of testimony and cross-examination without annotation to give audiences an insight into how justice was meted out in the early days of the Soviet Union.
As a bell tolls, hand-picked citizens file into the Hall of Columns in Moscow's House of Unions and take their places in the public gallery. This is a show trial, after all, and the cinema audience has to see that the proceedings beneath the magnificent crystal chandeliers are being observed by ordinary comrades like themselves. Presiding judge Andrei Vyshinsky and prosecutor Nikolai Krylenko sweep in and a hush descends as the eight defendants approach the microphone to enter their pleas.
They are Leonid Ramzin (43), former Professor of Moscow Higher College of Mechanical Machine Building; Ivan Kallinikov (56), former vice chairman of the Industrial department of Gosplan; Victor Larichev (43), member of the presiding board of Gosplan; Nikolai Charnovsky (62), former vice chairman of the Scientific and Technological Council for Machine Building; Alexander Fedotov (66), former chairman of the Scientific Research Institute for the Textile Industry; Sergei Kupriyanov (59), former director of Orgtextile; and Vladimir Ochkin (39), former Academic Secretary of the Institute of Thermal Engineering.
The men have been charged with various offences, the most grievous of which is membership of the Industrial Party, a nebulous organisation with links to exiled White Russians and French Prime Minister Raymond Poincaré, who hope to bring down the Communist regime by sabotaging the economic and industrial progress demanded by Stalin in the Five-Year Plan (1928-32). All eight diligently acknowledge their guilt and not only testify as to their role in the conspiracy, but also seek to clarify points to ensure the court is in possession of all of the facts.
However, there is no such thing as the Industrial Party and the plot hatched with reactionary émigrés is completely bogus. No wonder a number of defendants come to the microphone and seem bemused about the crimes they are supposed to have committed. A couple even dare to hint at the speciousness of the charges, with Sitnin protesting that he had no idea he had ever been a member of the Industrial Party. Yet they all realise they are in a trap and play their parts as ordered, even though the prospect of a death sentence hangs over them.
Peering through his round spectacles, the owlish Vyshinsky ensures that nobody can fail to recognise the power that has been vested in him and the sense of importance to which this entitles him. Always aware of the camera's position, he gives a commanding performance during the 13-day rigmarole that is broken up by footage of the demonstrations taking place in the streets outside demanding the maximum penalty against these heinous enemies of the state.
It all looks so real, especially when the prisoners make their closing appeals for clemency and the chance to make amends. But they know their words are futile as the verdicts are predestined, even though there are no demonstrable facts in Krylenko's theatrical closing statement, as he fulminates against traitors and brings the spectators to their feet with his reference to a firing squad.
By contrast, Vyshinsky reads the sentences like someone who hasn't had time to rehearse and he frequently rifles through the paper to ensure he's not omitted anything. Five of the accused are sentenced to death, while the other three receive 10 years of incarceration. As the court winds up after stamping its authority, closing captions reveal what actually happened next.
Like all of those facing capital punishment, Ramzin had his sentence commuted to 10 years, during which time, he worked for the Joint State Political Directorate (OGPU). He was pardoned in 1936 and won the prestigious Stalin Prize six years later before dying in 1946. Larichev followed the same route to his pardon in 1935 and he lived his last 12 years in obscurity. But, while Kallinikov also joined OGPU, he fell foul of the Party again and was executed by firing squad in 1937.
Charnovsky met the same fate the following year, while Fedotov died six months after his release later in 1938. Nothing more is known of the jailed trio of Ochkin, Kupriyanov and Sitnin, but Krylenko went on to become Minister of Justice from 1931-36. He was arrested in January 1938, however, and shot in July for belonging to the wholly fictitious Fascist Terrorist Organisation of Mountaineers and Tourists.
As for Vyshinsky, he was promoted to Prosecutor General and remained in the post until 1939 after overseeing the purge trials that Stalin ordered to remove his enemies. A decade later, he was appointed Minister for Foreign Affairs 1949 and, following Stalin's death in 1953, he became the USSR's representative at the United Nations. He succumbed a heart attack in New York on 22 November 1954, although the official Soviet record claims he committed suicide.
You couldn't make it up. But the same tactics are being used today, with Loznitsa's compatriot and fellow film-maker, Oleg Sentsov, currently serving a 20-year term for alleged terrorist activity in the Crimea. Why not look him up when you Google information about the background to the case that took place 90 years earlier under another dictator.
Following The Trial, Sergei Loznitsa returns to the Russian State Documentary Film and Photo Archive at Krasnogorsk for State Funeral, a compelling account of the events that transpired across the Soviet Union in the wake of Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin's demise on 5 March 1953.
In addition to 40 hours of monochrome and colour footage, Loznitsa also found recordings of the funereal eulogies and 24 hours of radio broadcasts. A Lithuanian team restored the imagery to give it a disconcerting sense of recency. But editor Danielius Kokanauskis and sound designer Vladimir Golovnitskiy played an equally crucial role in allowing Loznitsa to put his own spin on the five days that saw a multi-ethnic populace respond to the momentous happenings in Moscow in much the same way as the bemused members of the Council of Ministers in Armando Iannucci's The Death of Stalin (2017).
As Loznitsa presents the imagery without annotation, it's likely that few will know that the Communist Party took no chances in preserving the nation's grief. Rather than entrusting the task to newsreel crews, the hierarchy hired such acclaimed feature directors as Sergei Gerasimov, Grigori Aleksandrov and Mikhail Chiaureli, as well as the renowned documentarists Ilya Kopalin, Irina Setkina and Elizaveta Svilova, whose husband was Dziga Vertov.
The plan was to collate the footage into a memorial entitled, The Great Farewell. But the rapid pace of events in the corridors of power meant that the project was abandoned and the long-shelved reels were only discovered after the collapse of the USSR. A 73-minute DVD version was released in 2013, but Loznitsa has made his own selections in seeking both to expose the first cracks in the myth bolstering the dictator's cult of personality and to reveal the manner in which those who had been terrorised by Stalin were corralled by the state machine into mourning him for the consumption of their fellow citizens and the wider world.
There's an irony in the fact that several sequences take place in the same Hall of Columns that had appeared in very different circumstances in The Trial. Once again, ordinary people shuffle into this magisterial room to pay witness. But Loznitsa contrasts the reportagic black-and-white images of comrades (to paraphrase Evita) falling over themselves to get all of the misery right with lustrous colour shots that have been consciously composed to convey the grandeur of the occasion.
Indeed, the greenery surrounding the catafalque on which Stalin lay in state for three days seems ethereally lush in Agfacolor, the German stock that seems to have been preferred to Sovcolor. However, the foley work reinforces the sense of immediacy, as Loznitsa employs the creaking of the staircase floorboards, the sobs piercing the muffled murmurings, the drone of lugubrious music and the rasp of military boot leather conspire to satirise the solemnity of the charade.
At one point, we glimpse Stalin's children, Vasily and Svetlana, through the stacked wreaths and deep red floral tributes. One can only speculate about their feelings, as Stalin had hardly been a model father. But it's easier to read the rictus grimaces of the leaders from the Warsaw Pact members, as they are greeted at the airport and escorted to waiting cars to go and pay their respects. Whether by absence or design, nothing is shown of the mourning in the satellite states. Nor is there any mention of the 109 people who were killed in the crowd surge on Trubnaya Square.
Instead, we hear encomiums belting out of tinny tannoys in shipyards, factories, oil rigs and collective farms from Minsk to Khabarovsk and Azerbaijan to Tajikistan. Given that he would be airbrushed out of Soviet history within six years, it's difficult to suppress a wry smile at such rhetorical gushings as: `There is no death here! There is only eternal life! Immortality! Stalin's immortality is in his deeds. It is in Communism that we shall achieve. We shall certainly achieve it, for Stalin taught us how to!'
We see those who have survived the famines and purges that claimed 42 million lives reverentially raising Stalin's portrait like it was the closest thing the atheist Kremlin would allow to a religious icon. Occasionally, the camera catches someone looking into the lens before they trepidatiously avert their gaze and shuffle on. But, for the most part, everyone plays their part to perfection and the big lie of conformity and conviction is maintained, as Stalin is pulled across Red Square by horses and laid to rest (albeit temporarily) in Lenin's Mausoleum after interminable speeches from Nikita Khrushchev, Georgy Malenkov, Vyacheslav Molotov and Lavrentiy Beria (the secret police chief who would himself be liquidated by the end of the year).
In looking back so objectively on these scenes of obeisance, Loznitsa very much has his eyes on the present and the displays of power and support that are regularly choreographed in order to massage Vladimir Putin's ego and reinforce both his tough guy image and messianic status. Such totalitarian grandstanding may seem ridiculous to those in the supposedly politically sophisticated democracies. But how else has populism come to exert such a grip, despite being so demonstrably and dangerously absurd?