The wondrous & dreadful atmospherics of war
THE WAY WE REMEMBER IS AS SIGNIFICANT AS WHAT WE REMEMBER...
IF there is a “new wave” that has a true aesthetic coherence, it’s to be found in the east of Europe, where filmmakers were rooted to the land and attuned to the centuries-old rhythms of repression baked into their collective consciousness.
Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Russia (to distinguish the dissident side of filmmaking there from its official identity as the USSR) were the places where this “revolution in black and white” took root, and our two glimpses at their meditations on the end-state of war show how memory can be crystallized by visual imagery, so that what we remember is shaped by the way a filmmaker depicts those events.
In KANAL (1957), Andrzej Wajda gathers his characters to depict the last days of a platoon in the doomed Warsaw Uprising to capture a kaleidoscope of human emotions. While critic John Simon notes that the film is suffused with “the dark radiance of doom,” what he doesn’t capture with that turn of phrase is that the doom is with us from the very first: it is the dark radiance which grows from the characters’ enveloping engagement with the wondrous, dreadful atmospherics of war—in particular, the sewer canals they are forced to employ as they try to escape certain death.
Love, loss and anguish are all foregrounded in KANAL, but the characters are restrained from putting those emotions on their sleeves, which bonds the audience to them at a level of remove that permits reflection and comparison between the parallel tales orbiting centripetally around the central impending tragedy.
And the characters attempt to saturate themselves with their memories, knowing that they need to assimilate them as fully as possible before the moment when their ability to remember will vanish.
KANAL had a rebirth in the digital age via Janus Films and the Criterion Collection, but like many films about war it has languished in the repertory world due to an understandable aversion that has built up regarding the genre—so it’s a bit of a stretch to screen it (and its companion film, CARRIAGE TO VIENNA) given that tendency and the current state of affairs in the world. That said, there are war films that transcend their subject matter due to the interaction of their characters and how the visual atmosphere builds toward something universal.
As we settle into CARRIAGE TO VIENNA (1966), we find ourselves with four characters: a young widow whose husband was killed by the Nazis, two soldiers—one badly wounded, the other engagingly hyperactive—and a vast forest that the three must traverse to escape from the chaos of WWII’s final throes. Dissident Czech director Karel Kachyna, a highly skilled technician, was a veteran—not a war veteran, but one with vast experience in having his films banned by the Czech government. (CARRIAGE TO VIENNA was no exception.)
The young woman, initially dressed in black from head to toe, is coerced by the able-bodied soldier (who makes pains to tell her that he’s Austrian and drafted into Hitler’s war) to carry him and his wounded friend through the forest to his homeland. She is consumed by thoughts of revenge for those who murdered her husband, and the first portion of the film shows her clandestinely evening the odds so that she might use her axe on these two.
But then the forest begins to take over the story, and a series of character changes occur as the journey is held captive by deep mists and eerie silences that are jarringly interrupted. This is not a good place for a wagon with just two horses, three mistrustful people, one rifle, and one axe.
But the forest seems to force them into a more complicated relationship, which goes through several wrenching peregrinations as they become more enmeshed in the forboding countryside. Actress Iva Janzurová is exceptional in orchestrating these changes, particularly since she is mostly bereft of dialogue throughout the film. But as you’ll see in our next image, she ultimately has a change of heart.
This is not so surprising, since the forest setting also contains elements that make us feel as though we are a strange kind of fairy tale.
But then … the other denizens of the forest have their way in the still, silent landscape. And we are forced to realize that even in the remotest of places, the end-state of war is the most dangerous time of all. The shattering denouement of CARRIAGE TO VIENNA brings us full circle, reminding us that deep, dark places are harbingers of the darkness in mankind.
One senses strongly that Kachyna had seen Andrey Tarkovksy’s grim war tale IVAN’S CHILDHOOD (1962) and had been captivated by the great Soviet director’s early use of wooded landscape as a symbol of the feral failings of men in times of war. It’s rare that a film with such an obvious antecedent can rise to the level of the original, but perhaps the fact that CARRIAGE TO VIENNA was banned for 23 years tells us that Kachyna did just that.
I have but one regret with respect to this film: that it cannot be seen on a giant screen, where the atmospherics of the forest could take over completely, and make the audience firmly believe that they were right there with the protagonists. But perhaps, as is so often the case, I am asking for too much…