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TSPDT 2013: D’Est (From the East)

Posted by martinteller on April 27, 2013

Chantal Akerman’s document of the Eastern Bloc — East Germany, Poland, the Baltic states, Russia — after the fall of the Soviet Union.  There is no text except the credits.  There is no voiceover.  There is no soundtrack at all beyond the ambient sound of whatever was being filmed at the time.  If you want to know what any of the passing snatches of dialogue mean, you’ll need a translator.  There is no story, and no characters in any traditional sense.  No one ever tells you where a particular location is.

There are two types of shots of this film.  One is the tracking shot, always a slow, steady, unbroken shot.  The camera never pauses to pick out a particular person or detail.  The majority of these shots are right-to-left, which would literally be “from the east” if you think of the screen as a conventional map (however, I do say “majority”… there are plenty of counterexamples, so perhaps this is merely coincidence).  The other type of shot is the static shot.  Usually head-on, unmoving.  Sometimes an interior shot of someone at home — making a sandwich, watching TV or more often, just sitting staring into the lens.  Sometimes an exterior shot of a building entrance or a road.  Almost every shot in the film is one of these two: tracking or static.  But note that I say “almost” and we’ll get to that later.

With such a lack of apparent purpose, the viewer is forced to draw his or her own conclusions.  But the dominating motifs are movement and waiting.  We see unbelievably long lines of people waiting.  Sometimes it’s obvious that they’re waiting for a bus or a train… other times, it’s not clear.  Perhaps food.  Akerman isn’t telling.  The point is, folks are waiting for something.  And we see a lot of motion.  Many of the shots are on a busy street or sidewalk.  Cars go by, people are walking somewhere.  There’s a lot of hustle and bustle, but we never reach any destination.  And so the overwhelming portrait we get is of a region in transition, a society uncertain of where it’s going or what to do next.

But two shots stand out as different.  Early in the film, we see youths dancing at a rock concert.  Although I wouldn’t say the film is especially miserable, it’s the most joyful and active scene we witness.  It’s almost a static shot, but we catch some movement as the camera keeps the dancers in the frame.  And late in the film, we see a cellist perform a Tchaikovsky solo.  As she finishes to applause, the camera slowly moves to the edge of the stage, where admirers wait to present her with roses.  Both of these incongruous shots are centered around music.  Is Akerman suggesting that the appreciation of the arts is a source of hope and light for these people, a respite from the routine of waiting and uncertain motion?  Or is it simply a matter of being the best way to capture what she wanted to capture at those moments?  I don’t know, but when the movie otherwise has such rigid formal construction, these shots stand out and make you ponder.

But make no mistake, this is not an easy film to watch.  It’s hard to say whether or not it’s tougher than Jeanne Dielman.  It has more variety in its imagery, but no narrative whatsoever to hang your hat on.  It was so difficult that for the first half hour I wanted to scream “bullshit” at all of its champions (including Jonathan Rosenbaum, who never met a “difficult” film that he didn’t think was the greatest thing ever).  But after a while I stepped into the rhythms of the movie, and my mind started mulling it over.  And if nothing else, it’s an excellent piece of anthropological voyeurism, plopping you into the middle of a particular type of society at a particular time.  You can enjoy merely watching the reactions of people to the camera… some nonchalantly ignore it, some seem to be yelling at the operator, some gaze at it with curiosity, some don’t notice it at all.  There are many faces to take in, varying types of clothing, different locales.  And there is a kind of hypnotic, get-under-your-skin loveliness to the cinematography.

I can count on one hand the people I know who might want to see this movie, and frankly I doubt I’d sit through the whole thing again myself.  But if you like a challenge, there are rewards to be had.  Rating: Good (74)


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