Saturday 28 October 2023

Man of Iron (Cxlowiek z Zelaza) (1981)



Andrzej Wajda’s “Man of Iron” (“Czlowiek z zelaza”) is a movie that is more interesting than good. It is a movie that drags and confuses, yes is enormously relevant and important.

Back in the eighties, the Polish “Solidarity” (“Solidarnosc”) movement was continuously a big story in the news media and Lech Walesa was a household name. If you could only name one Pole, it would likely be him. Denmark is close to Poland and although on the other side of the Iron Curtain, what happened there felt very important. “Man of Iron” sets out to tell that story, or rather the story as it was formed by 1981 when “Solidarity” seemed to have finally won concessions and recognition from the Polish communist government.

“Man of Iron” is however not a story about Lech Walesa, but of a proxy character, sharing many of the character features of the famous Walesa. This character is Maciek Tomczyk (Jerzy Radziwiłowicz), the son of Mateusz Birkut. And yes, if that rings familiar, it is because “Man of Iron” serves as a continuation of Wajda’s earlier movie “Man of Marble”. In that we learned that Birkut ended up at a shipyard near Gdansk and the film journalist Agnieszka (Krystyna Janda) found his son there. In “Man of Iron” the observer is no longer Agnieszka, but a radio journalist, Winkel (Marian Opania), who usually do government scripted radio pieces. He is sent to Gdansk by the authorities with the assignment to create a smear piece on Tomczyk. To that end, he is introduced to various people acquainted with Tomczyk who can tell his story from the late sixties to the present day. These are his student friend, Dzidek (Boguslaw Linda), Tomzcyk’s grandmother (?) and finally Agnieszka, who is herself in prison now.

Each story is told in flashback: how the students were beaten up in 68, how Birkut was killed in the strike in 70 and how, in the late seventies, Tomzcyk was arrested as a troublemaker and barred from the shipyard. All parts that mirror the story of Walesa himself. Winkel is a nervous guy, caught between the police state and the just cause, he is supposed to sabotage. The opposite pulls take a toll on him so when he finally takes side, it is a great relief for him, the feeling of freedom.

It is rare that a filmmaker catches a moment as it happens as well as Wajda does here. He is literally telling a story of history in the making. The movie includes clips from the actual strikes in both 1970 and 1980 with the actual Lech Walesa and the signing of the agreement with the government. It even includes the prophetic warning from the Party official in the closing moments, that the agreement is just a piece of paper. Shortly after the movie was released, the Polish government rolled back the agreement, outlawed “Solidary” and banned Wajda’s movie. Lech Walesa and “Solidarity” did not give up but were instrumental in the fall of communism less than a decade later and Walesa became the first democratically elected president of Poland since the Second World War.

One of the details that come through very clearly in the movie is that the strike slogans and demands are socialist at heart. This is a socialist rebellion against a socialist government, who cannot crack down on the strike without going up against its own stated policy. By doing so, it reveals itself as being the less socialist of the two, a simple police state. Therefore, this is most of all a fight over the narrative and the journalist is the foot soldier in that war. Wajda was extremely perceptive there.

What works less good for me as an outside viewer is the confusion of people, places and functions as well as the many references to past events. Elements that would make perfect sense to a contemporary Polish viewer, but had the effect on me to lose the thread several times. Add to that, that it seems as if we get the same story told several times without learning that much new and it feels like an unnecessarily long movie. Finally, every time the movie delves into the actual politics, we get a lot of socialist dialectics which is just so much mumbo-jumbo, talk with very little apparent content that I am left in some confusion on what the conflict was really about.

Thus, the odd combination of interesting but not great.

In 2016 I was in Gdansk for a conference on noise from wind turbines which took place at the “European Solidarity Center” (“Europejskie Centrum Solidarnosci”), the imposing and impressive exhibition and conference center commemorating these very events. Humbling and evocative.

Saturday 21 October 2023

Three Brothers (Tre Fratelli) (1981)


Tre Brødre

“Three Brothers” (“Tre fratelli”) is the second movie on the List by Italian director Francesco Rosi. Critiques may, with some right, claim that this is a boring movie with not much happening, but I found it engrossing and blissful to watch.

In a southern Italian village, an old man, Donato (Charles Vanel), has lost his wife. He telegrams his three sons to come for the wake and the funeral. The oldest of the three, Raffaelle (Phillipe Noiret), is a judge in Rome and involved in cases against terrorists, much to the chagrin of his wife. The second son, Rocco (Vittorio Mezzogiorno), is a social worker and runs a ward for troubled children in Naples. He never married, but has devoted his entire life to other people’s children. The youngest is Nicola (Michele Placido), a worker’s right activist in Turin, involved in strikes and disobedience in factories. He is separated from his wife (she was unfaithful) and arrives with his daughter, a child of 8-10 years.

The three brothers live each in their own reality, which in turn represents different versions of Italy: The sensible, the progressive and the humanitarian. This would and probably should be a basis for intense conflict, but Rosi takes a different view and tries to bring them together instead. All three have lost touch with the world they come from, the south Italian village, and returning to that place show them just how far they have moved and what they have lost. None of them feels at home anymore and they all feel deeply the loss. There is more at stake here for them than the loss of a parent.

A central scene in the movie is a bedroom where each brother lies on a bed dreaming. The dream of Raffaelle is of being assassinated and how it devastates his wife. Rocco dreams of becoming a hero of the children, wiping away all the threats to their existence (literally) and Nicola dreams of going back to his wife to be reconciled. His dream also formulates the alienation he feels with his past and the rootlessness that is the result for all emigrants.

I am still not entirely certain what is the conclusion of the movie and what Rosi’s message is. This has a lot to do with him not going the obvious way to create conflict, but to merely show how far away these people are from each other and yet be united in something that may be bigger. They do argue, it would not be an Italian movie if they did not, but it seems more like they are trying to explain themselves to people who have difficulty understanding their position. Especially Raffaelle comes through strongly, trying to explain that the judiciary system is by no means perfect, but a hopeful means to improve things and that the alternative is an abyss of anarchy. This is an interesting position given that Rosi has a reputation of left leaning activistic movies.

A lot of the juxtaposition is between Raffaelle and Nicola and that leaves Rocco as the third wheel. It is a bit difficult to see where he comes in, in a conflict which is bipolar and as a character he is far less developed than the other two. My guess is that in the conflict between the established and the progressive, humanity should not be forgotten. Maybe the church position?

The lasting impression however is one of beauty and peace. The cinematography is stunning and the pictures are crisp and soothing. It is a movie that gets me down in gear and leaves me content, even if I am not entirely certain what it is I have been watching. If you are looking for the Hollywood story arc, you look in vain This is not a movie to be experienced as a crisis and a resolution, but is rather an image of a microcosmos of Italy, sad, beautiful but also hopeful as the picture of old Donato and his young granddaughter left behind on the farm at the funeral.

I liked “Three Brothers” a lot more than I expected to and recommend it to anybody with the patience for this sort of movies.

Saturday 14 October 2023

An American Werewolf in London (1981)


An American Werewolf in London

“An American Werewolf in London” is one of those movies I missed in my early childhood. I only developed an affinity for horror comedies at a much later age, and at that time this was already off the radar again. It is, however, one of those movies you “know” even if you have never watched it, if, for no other reason, than that it founded the horror comedy genre.

David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) are American young men, backpacking through Europe, who find themselves lost on the North England moors. At nightfall they seek shelter at the pub of a small village. The locals are not exactly friendly and the name, “The Slaughtered Lamb” and the pentagram on the wall, should probably have warned the two boys. In any case, they are impolitely turned away, only to be attacked on the moors by a wild creature. The locals show up, shooting the creature in time to save the life of David but too late for Jack. The creature is seen to be a man.

David wakes up in a hospital where nobody believes his story. Not the police, nor the doctor or the nurses. Nurse Alex (Jenny Agutter) does take a liking to David, so when he gets released from hospital, he moves in with her. David is starting to get visitations from the undead Jack, who tells him that David has become a werewolf and when a full moon comes about, he will start killing people. The only way out is for David to kill himself. True enough, at the first full moon, David turns into a big-ass wolf and goes on a rampage. Is there any way for the doctor and Alex to save David from himself?

Director John Landis apparently brewed on the idea of a horror comedy since the late sixties, but found little understanding for this combo and although this has since become a very successful staple, “An American Werewolf in London” shows clear signs that this was a difficult match to make. There are periods of the movie where we are very clearly in the horror genre and others where it gets downright silly, such as with the inept assistant detective. But there are also periods where Landis got it right, such as David waking up naked in the zoo or the choice of the porn cinema for David’s final rampage. Jack in advanced decay and his other victims accusing him of their murder and shortly after his killing of all the patrons of the cinema to the sound and images of this cheap-looking porn movie. The juxtaposition is inspired. It also adds well to the horror-comedy mix that there are probably more people getting killed in the stampede to see the monster than are killed by the werewolf itself. It is a dark sort of humor, but that is the essence of horror comedy.

It still felt a bit uneven as if the script was half finished or if half the planned shots were ditched. The ending is sort of abrupt, though it is difficult to see it ending any other way, and I do not think it is up to the standards of Landis earlier movies, which are landmarks even today. Still, “An American Werewolf in London” was an instant hit and generated a flood of horror comedies. “Gremlins” probably would not have happened, had it not been for “An American Werewolf in London”.

The standout element of this movie is the transformation of David into a werewolf. In an age before CGI, this seamless and frightening transition is nothing less than astonishing and it earned “An American Werewolf in London” a well-deserved Academy award for Best Makeup.

I was not carried away by “An American Werewolf in London”. It did not manage to absorb me, but it is not a bad movie either. Today it has a high status, but I think it deserves it more for being a pioneer than for its qualities as a great movie. It was not scary enough or funny enough, but it is still worth watching.


Thursday 12 October 2023

700 Movie Anniversary


700 Movie Anniversary

With “Zu Früh, Zu Spät”, I have reached the 700 movie mark and I am in the habit of making a post marking these corners. It is not that I am in the mood for celebrating, though. Since Saturday I have been following what is going on in Israel and we are concerned for family and friends there. Fortunately, none of them are hurt, but the next few weeks are going to be hard.

I was of a mind to skip my usual top 10, but then I thought of making a top 10 of movies that deal with the fight of evil incarnate. I know it is a bit too early, some of the most notable movies on that theme belong to later periods, but although there was in earlier years of cinema a reluctance to deal with evil, the seventies started to change that, and I actually found movies enough for a top 20.

Star Wars

                Darth Vader and the Evil Empire is a classic, but maybe also a bit cartoonish. Certainly, he is evil, he kills an entire planet, but it be a bit too remote for us to be truly scared of it.


                “Alien” on the other hand is truly scary. The Xenomorph is evil because it is a top predator. It is also an invader of space and fighting it off requires extreme measures. Again though, the futuristic space environment is sufficiently remote to protect us.

The Searchers

                This might be an odd choice, but I was struck by the story of a home being raided and the children abducted and how difficult it was to track them down and rescue the survivors. It is a smaller scale evil, but absolutely relatable.

The Exorcist

                An evil demon with the sole purpose to destroy and torment and the almost hopeless struggle against it to stay sane and human. This is truly evil, but with the aid of the supernatural

The Shining

                That is also the case for “The Shining”. Possession may be an excuse, but the resulting terror and barbarism is no joke.


                We do not really need the supernatural to be evil and I never entirely worked out if the murderer in Halloween is possessed or simply evil beyond anything, but scary he is.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

I know this is a slasher movie, but the barbarism is almost Hamas level.

To Be or Not to Be

                Maybe an odd choice, but fighting indescribable evil by playing theater seems like a very heroic thing to do.

Night and Fog

                This could have been any Holocaust movie, really, but “Night and Fog” does not pull any punches and leaves you exhausted.

Apocalypse Now

                The journey into the Heart of Darkness is a journey into the insanity of human depravity when the barriers that make us humans fall down. No animal, alien monster or supernatural entity is as evil as a human with no humanity and that is why “Apocalypse Now” wins the title.



Monday 9 October 2023

Too Early, too Late (Zu Fruh, Zu Spat) (1981)


Zu Früh, Zu Spät

There are movies that are difficult to find and there are those that are downright impossible to track down. I was unable to buy, stream, or even find a dodgy download of “Zu Früh, Zu Spät” (“Too Early, Too Late”), and this might have been the first movie on the List that I would have had to skip. Then I discovered that the Cinematheque in Copenhagen would be screening it twice here in October, the first time being last night. What are the odds? It has been a terrible weekend, my wife and I have been following the news constantly since Saturday morning, so I was very close to cancelling the movie, yet it turned out to be exactly what we both needed.

“Zu Früh, Zu Spät” is a strange movie. 60% of the very brief Wikipedia entry on this movie says: “It is a sequence of shots of rural landscapes [in France] accompanied by readings of texts about the struggles of poor farmers, followed by another sequence of shots in Egypt.” And that is basically it.

The shots are long, sometimes static, sometimes a pan and, in the most exhilarating sequence of the movie, ten or so turns around Arc de Triumph in Paris. Nothing really happens in these shots, but they are long, some of them excruciatingly so. I find myself focusing on a bird passing from one side of the image to the other or the slow march of clouds across the frame. In the Egyptian part we also get a ride along a dirt road in the style of those Norwegian movies where they just place a camera on the front of a locomotive and let it film for hours.

Nothing much ties the images together, they are just scenery. In the French segment a heavily accented narrator reads excepts from what may be a census of poverty in France in the eighteenth century and at times we recognize the village name on the images so it is presumably a list of how many poor people lived here 200 years earlier. This is also the only connection between the images and the pictures. As these places are presented today (or in 1981) they are idyllic, even charming, and ancient poverty levels is my last thought looking at these pictures. I am thinking: vacation!.

In the Egyptian segment the disconnect is even more pronounced. Most of the images are of rural Egypt and while they are not as idyllic as the French images, they look like something out of National Geographics. Meanwhile, the narrator, with very long breaks, talks about a history of revolts and how they were put down from the Napoleonic era and until the fifties. In a last clip, we are watching a general (presumably) giving an untexted speech in Arabic for a few minutes after which the narrator mumbles something about that the new rulers betrayed the popular movement that brought them to power.

I am having a hard time associating the title with anything I watched, expect that the French “story” takes place a few hundred years ago and the Egyptian is more recent.

To me, it felt like a couple of hours browsing Google Street View and the radio going in the background, doing some dull political story. It sounds immensely boring, and I suppose it is by any standard, but it was also incredibly relaxing, and we did have some good laughs afterwards. Quite a relief after a stressful weekend.

Curiously, this movie was quite an attraction. I think there were three or four times more people in the cinema than when we watched Golda a few weeks ago. Some of them, I am afraid to say, were snoring.

Wednesday 4 October 2023

Reds (1981)



“Reds” is Warren Beatty’s biopic on John Reed and Louise Bryant, two people I had never heard of before, but who appear to have been two central characters in the socialist movement in the States in the second decade of the twentieth century. When I say it is Warren Beatty’s movie, I mean it quite literally. He was director, producer, screenwriter and lead actor on the movie. That pretty much makes it his.

John Reed (Warren Beatty) and Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton) meet in Portland, Oregon in 1915. Louise is a suffragist, and a journalist and John is a journalist just returned from the war in France. His reluctance for America to join the war piques Louise’ interest and before they know it, they are having an affair and Louise moves in with John in New York.

From here on the movie follows two tracks. One is the stormful relationship between the two of them. Both are idealists, including free love, and both find it hard to reconcile those ideals with a relationship. I lost count on the number of times they rushed out on each other, only to get reunited. This includes an affair with Gene O’Neill (Jack Nicholson).

The second track is the political and journalist work of Louise and John. What I understand is that John is a journalist for a left-wing newspaper and covering things like labor unions and the political process, first pursuing the anti-war position that Woodrow Wilson got elected on (and then abandoned) and then the socialist parties, which he got more and more involved in. At the time of the Russian revolution, he went to Russia to cover that event and his book about it became something of a bestseller (“Ten Days That Shook the World”). From then on, John is gripped by revolutionary fire and gets himself personally involved in the revolutionary wing of the American socialist party, which in turn splinters into fractional conflict. John returns to Russia to get his branch endorsed by the Russians, but gets stuck there in the ensuing civil war.

Meanwhile, Louise is pursuing her professional career with extensive writing, but except for the opening hour, it is a bit diffuse what she is actually doing and how successful she is at it. In terms of the movie, she increasingly becomes the spouse who is sacrificed on the fire of revolution.

I am a bit vague here because “Reds” suffer from the illness of most such movies. It is supposed to be about the work of these two people, but it seems like the authors (Warren Beatty?) thought that the topic would be way too complicated for its viewers, so it is always reduced to “something socialist” involving workers, progressive thinking and bloody revolution. The story of their professional work seems to have been plenty dramatic and with huge implications for the development of modern United States, but I am left with tons of questions here and the message that I am probably not smart enough to understand it anyway. Instead, the movie fills in a lot of human-interest elements, again a classic, because THAT we will understand. This takes up a lot of space and I am certain that Louise’ affair with Gene is way more important than the articles she wrote and her influence on the suffragist cause. That was sarcasm, by the way.

“Reds” is not a documentary, but Beatty frequently includes statements from people who were there and witnessed what went on. This lends a lot of authenticity to the story and is a nice touch. Tom Hanks did something similar to his “Band of Brother” with the same effect. I definitely liked it, but it was rare that it told me something I did not already get from the movie itself.

This is a very long movie, more than three hours long, and it has a lot of story to tell. I do not mind that, as long as there is a story and the second half is certainly dramatic enough to provide material for it. It is also here we get closest to learning what this is all about, which makes it the best part of the movie, but alas, only in snippets.

The subject matter is interesting, it is a story I never heard before and that alone tickles my interest. I am not particularly political myself, but it is people like these who shape the world, and their stories are worth telling. I just wonder if I would have preferred a documentary.

“Reds” harvested three Academy Awards for Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (Maureen Stapleton) and Best Cinematography.

Sunday 1 October 2023

Arthur (1981)


Off-List: Arthur

The third off-List movie of 1981 is “Arthur”. This was a suggestion of my wife, who loved this movie in her childhood. For me, this was first time I watched it and I do not think I had even heard about it until my wife mentioned it. So, a good opportunity to expand my horizon and watch a movie together.

“Arthur” is a comedy about a playboy, Arthur Bach (Dudley Moore), who refuses to grow up and take responsibility for his life but drowns his insecurities in copious amounts of alcohol. We learn that he is fabulously rich with family money, but that it is really his parents who are calling the shots. Arthur has people to do all his work, Mr. Hobson (John Gielgud) his butler and Mr. Bitterman (Ted Ross) his chauffeur, and everywhere he goes, nobody refuses him, smiles and mocks him when he leaves again. He lives in a bubble of money and no responsibility. He hates it, but is unable to do anything about it, but drinking. And drinking he does.

At the opening of the movie, we see him cruising through town with Mr. Bitterman and picking up hookers. He takes one of them to an expensive restaurant and makes a scene just to set the stage. At home, Mr. Hobson is clearly familiar with the scenario, gets the girl out and tries to boost a bit of adult sentiment into Arthur, though largely failing. Arthur does love Hobson like a father, but it is always easier to dodge responsibility. A crisis, however, is looming on the horizon. Arthur’s parents have found a wife, the well-connected Susan Johnson (Jill Eikenberry), for Arthur and he must marry her or get cut off from his wealth.

This is where the magic starts happening. Arthur meets Linda Marolla (Liza Minelli) while she is stealing a necktie from an expensive shop. He is fascinated with her and her devil-may-care attitude and steps in when she is apprehended by the shop detective. Athur falls in love with this person who cannot be bought and is finally doing something on his own, unfortunately at a time when it is almost too late.   Will Arthur truly man-up or is he doomed to an unhappy marriage?

What makes “Arthur” a comedy is the shenanigans of Arthur when he is drunk. His drunken antics are played to full effect and against an audience who is sober and very proper, so Arthur is like a bomb in a stuffed-up society. That is kind of funny, and definitely the sort of fun that from a child’s perspective works as hilarious. Unfortunately for me, I have found as I get older that drunk people are only really funny when you are drunk yourself and watching Arthur get stiff is almost painful. It is clearly a shield against the world and rather than enjoying his jokes, I feel his pain and despair. Poor rich kid is a cliché, and I know it is difficult to feel truly sorry for somebody with this much resource behind him, but Arthur is a sad case. The victim of always taking the easy way and throwing out your dignity in the process.

In another decade, “Arthur” would be a tragic or at least a moral tale, but in the early eighties (as in the early thirties) there was a window where this could be a comedy that actually worked. I can see it as funny and I can see the appeal, but the alcoholism element just means that it has not aged well. It feels almost inappropriate, yet my anarchistic side thinks that is actually a plus.

Gielgud won an Academy Award for best supporting actor and the theme song (by Burt Bacharach) won the award for Best Original Song. And it is a very catchy tune indeed.

I do love my eighties comedies and I want to like this, but maybe not so much as a comedy but as a social commentary.