In January we went to the local cinema to watch three very different recent films, charting the struggles of three men trying to cope with the difficult circumstances imposed by the worlds in which they live. The films underline the power of the cinema in portraying the highs and lows of human behaviour in a range of settings: there are worlds of difference between Denmark in the 19th Century, mid-20th Century Poland and France and 21st Century Mexico and the USA. My notes on these films are in this chronological order.
Rural life in pre-industrial, semi-feudal Denmark is the theme of Before the Frost (Før Frosten), a film directed by Michael Noer. The well-known Scandinavian actor Jesper Christensen plays ”cowman Jens”, a smallholder farmer struggling to keep body and soul – and his family – together in the 1850s. Social hierarchies are rigorously enforced in the village church where the priest ranks the community according to wealth; beggars standing in the back row. Jens’ children’s hunger is almost palpable in the early scenes as the farmer realises the harvest is going to fail and there is nothing but crusts soaked in thin gruel to put on the dinner table. The frosts of winter will bring starvation. Neighbours offer escape routes, particularly as Jens has an attractive daughter Signe (Clara Rosager); having already sold his cows she is his main negotiable asset. His wife is long dead and the two boys in the household are his nephews, but neither is capable of bringing in much of value. Then, just as Jens is arranging to marry off his daughter to a rich Swedish landowner and his scheming mother, his farmhouse burns down under mysterious circumstances and the younger boy is killed in the blaze. There’s an insurance claim, a shocked and terse bride-to-be and some unpleasant fights in the cowshed. Other farmers in the village abandon their land and set off to go to America, labourers are mistreated and in a final twist the older boy is murdered and his body dumped in a swamp. Jens is silent in the closing sequences as he reckons up the costs of his survival.
Cold War is a magical journey around Europe from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s. It is a black and white film directed by Pawel Pawlikowski and overflowing with carefully selected images and musical scores. Post-war Poland is slowly getting back to normal and some artists are setting up a music and dance school in the countryside. One of the teachers, a musical director and pianist called Victor (Tomasz Kot), falls in love with an aspiring student Zula (Joanna Kulig) who has a beautiful voice and a seductive style. Their passion seems to know no bounds. However, when the Stalinists assert their influence on the world of music and theatre, Victor decides to head to the west and escapes from a school excursion to Berlin where the students are supposed to fraternise with the East German socialist youth (their erstwhile enemies). Then ensues a lengthy on-off relationship between the two lovers, torn between desire for each other and efforts to make their living in the jazz clubs of poetic Paris and the ritualistic singing and dancing circles of communist Warsaw. The physical and mental borders between east and west gradually become more and more oppressive. When Victor decides to return to Poland he is sent to a labour camp where his fingers are damaged so that he can no longer play the piano. Meanwhile Zula has taken to the bottle and stumbles around off stage. Finally coming full circle and trapped in a cold war from which they can see no way out, the star-crossed lovers re-visit the village where they first met, down some pills and die in the cornfields. The film ends with the opening bars of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.
There’s also a good deal of music in Clint Eastwood’s archetypal American road movie The Mule. It’s a film version of a story published in the New York Times about a 90 year-old man who became a drug courier for one of the biggest cartels in the business. Earl Stone has failed as a husband and father, but excelled at growing lilies, until his little business is undercut by internet-based flower companies. Forced to quit his home and his greenhouses, Earl is also rejected yet again by most of his family. But then he chances on the opportunity to earn easy money driving consignments of cocaine between shippers and dealers. Much of the film focuses on the old man at the wheel of his Ford pick-up, cruising the highways and listening to country music. With dollars in his pocket he re-connects with his veterans club and is able to help his granddaughter complete her studies. Unfortunately both the narcotics police (DEA) and assorted heavies in the Mexican gangs he is working for get on his trail, culminating in a prolonged chase as Earl “disappears” to be at his ex-wife’s side on her deathbed. In some ways a strangely low key film, with some scenes slipping across the boundaries of belief – the old man gets hooked up with two prostitutes in two separate scenes – the Mule combines the violence of lawlessness battling law enforcement with a simple message about the centrality of the family in the shifting sands of a brutal world. There’s also some well-tuned humour, notably about the difficulties for the older generation in adjusting to the world wide web and social media. In the closing scenes when captured and tried for drug smuggling, Earl pleads guilty to all charges, so he ends his days tending flowers in the prison gardens.
There are no happy endings: one old man bitterly surrenders to his superiors in order to survive, another commits suicide and the third is imprisoned. While the cowman and the mule are dark figures in hostile landscapes stalked by violence and death, the lovers in Cold War are unable to reconcile their passions for music and each other with compromises required to conform in a bleak, divided continent. The Danish and American films are solid and slightly plodding stories of old men struggling to make ends meet, while the Polish production soars high above them in an orgy of sights and sounds. There’s no doubt in my mind that the musical magic of Cold War captures the contradictions of the era in an extraordinary manner.