Man’s Hunger for Power in “Witchhammer”

Throughout the history of motion pictures, the witch trials of the 17th century have often been portrayed as an allegory of life under totalitarian rule. Films like Benjamin Christensen’s “Häxan”, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “Day of Wrath”, and Ken Russell’s “The Devils” used these horrific tales to criticize the political climate of their time. “Häxan” likened the torturous methods of the 17th century with that of the police. “Days of Wrath” drew parallels between the witch burning and the persecution of Jews during Nazi Germany. “The Devils” was a clear commentary on religious institutions. Otakar Vávra’s powerful magnum opus, “The Witchhammer” is a metaphor for the political trials during Communist rule.

In “Witchhammer”, the use of fear to attain confessions resembled the Stalinist methods of the communist regime in the 1950’s. The film was subsequently prohibited from screening, and only appeared on television decades later in 1989. But what makes “Witchhammer” stand the test of time is its incredibly detailed portrayal of the methods used within the process itself. Vávra based everything on actual texts of court records that took place in Velké Losiny⠀ and Šumperk from 1678 to 1695. Blackmailing, torture, and psychological manipulation was used to turn friends into foes, and the weak into prey. At one point, priest Lautner utters in frustration, “Your Grace, the Devil’s work lies in the brutality towards the superstitious and the uneducated.”

The film shows how the trials were orchestrated in a way so that once the process started, it was impossible to stop. Vávra also puts women at the forefront of his film. The 17th century was the worst time for any woman to be alive. They were thought of as sinful creatures, and Vávra makes a point to highlight how the Church exploited and oppressed them in the most heinous ways. Women were accused of being disciples of the Devil, when in fact men were the real corrupted souls unleashing hell on Earth. The film argues that the witch trials were never really about implementing the teachings of Christ or exposing witchcraft, but rather to feed man’s darkest desires – greed, lust and the hunger for absolute power.

Film Analysis: “Do the Right Thing”

On May 25, 2020, a video surfaced on the internet of George Floyd being choked to death by cops during an arrest in Minneapolis. His death caused global outrage, with chants of “I can’t breathe” heard from demonstrators everywhere. When I first watched the distressing footage, it filled me with anger, and frustration. It was sadly all too familiar. 

Anyone who has seen Spike Lee’s magnum opus, “Do the Right Thing”, will recall the similarities of this incident to the fate of Radio Raheem. In fact, shortly after the Floyd footage spread online, Lee himself released a short film called “3 Brothers,” in which he intercut scenes from his film with that of the arrests of George Floyd and Eric Garner. 

History is clearly repeating itself, and it appears little has changed when it comes to widespread police brutality. But if there’s one noticeable difference, it’s that today, everyone walks around with smartphones. With instant access to live streaming and video recording, the whole world is watching. The ripple effects are no longer constrained to riots in a single neighborhood; it has spread across the globe. 

After revisiting “Do the Right Thing,” I found that there’s a lot we can learn from the film today, particularly in how we analyze and dissect these horrific incidents. Usually all we see is the incident itself, but the real problem runs much deeper than that. The event itself is merely the aftermath of a much bigger and more problematic issue. Over 30 years later, Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” remains more relevant than ever. 

Lee’s filmography is composed of mostly independent films that address crucial contemporary issues such as racism, economic exploitation, police brutality, and multiculturalism. Despite the extensive political and social commentaries found in his work, Lee manages to both engage and appeal to popular audiences. Of all his work, “Do the Right Thing” is the most exemplary presentation of his seamless intertwining between unmistakable visual style and political philosophy.

“Do the Right Thing” revolves around a single hot summer day in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. Although the neighborhood is predominantly Black, Lee quickly introduces the viewer to the diverse populace inhabiting the area. Lee does this through episodic slice-of-life moments within the neighborhood. We meet the Puerto Ricans, the Koreans operating the local supermarket, the Italian Americans running Sal’s Pizzeria, and the white cops roaming around the streets on patrol. 

At first, these so called introductory occurrences to the inner city ethnic groups seem random and unrelated to the bigger picture. It isn’t until after the climax that we learn the significance of the small interactions we witness in the film’s first half. “Do the Right Thing” takes place during a heat wave, and this heat stands for the racial tension within the neighborhood. With so many ethnic groups intermingling, inner-city life feels like an everyday struggle to maintain order; a clash of cultures is inevitable. The climatic incident occurs the moment that characters Buggin’ Out, Smiley, and Radio Raheem march into the pizzeria with a blaring boombox. 

The three protesting neighbors demand Sal include African Americans on the pizzeria’s wall of fame. A verbal exchange quickly escalates into a physical one. Soon after, the cops get involved, a Black man is strangled to death, and a riot breaks loose. The tension finally reaches its breaking point, and the pizzeria bursts in flames. The ramification of the film’s title arises the minute we try to figure out what exactly could have been done to avoid how this all unfolded. 

Instinctively, the viewer’s first reaction is to break down the fight preceding the riot itself. But where did it all go wrong? At what precise moment did things go too far? Is it the moment the three characters disturbed the peaceful easygoing Sal with an imposing demand? Or perhaps it’s when they turned up the volume on the boombox? Is it the second Sal spurts out the “n-word”? Or the instant a verbal exchange turned physical? 

The moment we narrow down the film’s answers to a 30-minute window, we unconsciously overlook the significance of the film’s subtly composed build-up. Throughout the majority of the film, Lee merely documents everyday life in a Black neighborhood in neorealist fashion. When connecting the dots between the climax and the seemingly random episodes that prelude it, everything comes full circle. To pinpoint the answer, we have to look beyond the actual incident.

Lee presents perfectly likable characters, yet most of them are presented as sympathetically racist. The core of the problem is hidden within the problematic way ethnic groups perceive themselves and one another: it’s the way the three corner men judge the Koreans for stealing their jobs; it’s the gaze of patrolling police officers ever fixed on the Black community; it’s the Puerto Ricans group fending off Black bystanders; it’s the African Americans bullying the only white man living on their street. The problem is in how they all perceive one another. 

The clash at the end of “Do the Right Thing” is merely a window of opportunity for all of these characters to exercise and act on their views of “the other.” Lee presents the problem long before the actual boiling point, and in doing so we get the sense that racism is deeply rooted within society, and that the Black community is always at the receiving end of America’s systematic inequality. 

For history to stop repeating itself, punishment for those who commit these atrocities is not enough, because the punishment only addresses the incident itself. As much as Lee was asking viewers to look at the environment that led to the death of Radio Raheem, we should look beyond the 8 minutes and 46 seconds of recorded footage, and ask ourselves “How did we get here?”

Exposing the Ugly Truth in “Z”

Costa-Garvas opens his polarizing political masterpiece with an arresting statement that sets the tone for the rest of the film: “any resemblance to real events, to persons living or dead, is not accidental. It is DELIBERATE.” Right from the outset, you find yourself hooked and drawn into one of the most thrilling explorations of political corruption ever put on film. The influence of “Z” is still apparent today; everything from the documentary-like neorealist approach adopted in many films that followed, to the urgency and explosiveness of “Do the Right Thing” and the investigative structure of “JFK” and “Elite Squad: The Enemy Within”. With “Z”, Costa-Garvas single handedly established the modern political film.

The plot revolves around the planned killing of a left-wing politician during a demonstration. Even before his death gets announced, the government and army try to cover it all up in order to protect the image of their nation. Despite their clumsy efforts, the truth finds a way out under the curiosity of an investigative journalist who was there when it happened. This fast-paced, hard-hitting thriller is an exercise in courageous filmmaking. Costa-Garvas’ “Z” film exposes ugly truths and throttles forward with the efficiency of a sharpshooter.

It is such a shame that a film that holds up with so much relevancy is not not as widely discussed today as it was back when it was first released. “Z” should be essential viewing to every governmental official in every country around the world. This type of revolting cinema has the power to expose entire regimes and put governmental policies in place. The film’s true intentions are very clear. It calls for immediate change; it calls for a revolution.

The Monstrosity of War in “Come and See”

Few films capture the monstrosity of war like Elem Klimov’s prolific masterpiece, “Come and See”. It is a war film that doesn’t interest itself in showcasing combat. It features no adrenaline-charged battle scenes or action sequences. Instead, Klimov exposes some of the most disturbing and traumatizing human behavior ever recorded in history, the systematic persecution and murder of armless human beings by the Nazi regime in Belarus.⠀ ⠀

During the Nazi occupation of Byelorussia, known today as Belarus, women, children, and the elderly were exterminated in the most horrific way possible. The film is told from the perspective of a young boy who leaves his village behind to join the Soviet resistance movement. When he returns and comes face to face with German soldiers, the film takes a hellish turn. What makes this film so impossible to forget is that it is extremely artistic in its approach. Unlike most Western films about the holocaust, “Come and See” doesn’t follow a traditional narrative. For the most part, the film uses nightmarish surrealism to make an impression, but somewhere towards the end, Klimov bombards us with glimpses of reality. At that precise moment, the nightmare becomes all too real.⠀ ⠀

There is nothing entertaining or pleasant about this type of cinema. It exists as a warning, to remind us of our dark past and hopefully prevent it from ever happening again. Klimov’s film is constantly praised as one of the most unforgettable motion pictures ever made. And it’s true, there are moments in “Come and See” that will be stuck in your mind for as long as you can remember. I do not believe any human being can watch this alarming film and ever be the same. No words can prepare you for this experience. No matter what I write, the effect it will have on you remains the same; “Come and See” will shake you to the core.

The Simple Pleasures of Life in Abbas Kiarostami’s “Taste of Cherry”

Abbas Kiarostami fascinates me. He is a poet, humanitarian, and a master when it comes to blurring the line between art and reality. With his Palm D’or winning work, “Taste of Cherry”, the Iranian director challenges us to look at the forbidden subject of suicide in an Islamic state. It is a small independent film with a relatively straightforward plot, but the ideas it encompasses are as complex and big as life and death. Like many of his films, most of it takes place in a car on the road. It becomes a metaphor for the odyssey that the main character goes through.

Mr. Badii drives around in his dusty Range Rover searching for random strangers. He picks up the ones that seem to be going through financial difficulties and offers them a large sum of money for a simple task. He informs them that he has decided to commit suicide. All he needs is for them to bury him the morning after and to double check if he is indeed dead before doing so. In the many episodes, encounters and conversations he has with these strangers, he never reveals the reason he wants to kill himself. In fact, the reason is irrelevant; all we need to know is that the man is suffering.

Suicide is always a legitimate option in life, and many have chosen to take that path. No matter what anyone’s stance on the matter is, the living will never truly comprehend the extent of suffering the person has gone through to reach that point. “Taste of Cherry” doesn’t argue for or against the concept of suicide, but it does ask for a compassionate view on the desire to do so. The world has always been fixated that suicide is wrong, and indeed it may be, but what’s even worse is the suffering one has to endure to even contemplate the thought. What elevates this film to a whole new level of greatness, however, is when Kiarostami gently steers the wheel and the film becomes less about death and more about the simple pleasure of life itself.

Film Analysis: “The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On”

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It took Kazuo Hara five years to get “The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On” made, and it took me even longer than that to finally see it. For the longest time, this masterpiece was only available to watch in extremely low-resolution video or by purchasing a pricy out of print DVD that would occasionally pop up on eBay. Thankfully, Second Run just released a restoration of the relatively obscure documentary; it is one of the most important Blu-ray releases of the year. I highly recommend snatching a copy before it goes out of print again.

“The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On” paved the way for documentaries like Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing” and “The Look of Silence”. Like the aforementioned titles, the director uses the film camera as a weapon to obtain social justice. Everything unfolds live before your eyes. Hara uses the medium to put people on trial in front of the whole world. “The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On” is fearless and fascinating cinema. It forces you to think. It makes you ask questions about how we experience and record history.

In this documentation, the focus is mainly on Kenzo Okuzaki, a complex man who will do anything to get veterans to confess to the barbaric atrocities committed in New Guinea towards the end of World War II. In his relentless campaign for truth and reconciliation, he tries to disclose facts about the deaths of two soldiers who got executed three weeks after the war was over. If you still have not seen this film, I suggest you stop reading at this point and return after having done so, as I’ll discuss some major plot points.

Throughout the film, Okuzaki visits one war veteran after the other to question them about what went down in the jungle long ago. Whenever the conversation doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, Okuzaki resorts to violence. He punches, kicks, and wrestles old war vets to get to the bottom of things. And although the morally ambiguous tactics used in pursuit of truth and justice will surely make any viewer feel uncomfortable, once you grasp the gravity of the situation, you begin to understand that the unorthodox methods he uses stem from years of suffering.

At one point, he looks to the camera and tells viewers that he is doing this “for the sake of mankind”, so that people would stop regarding war as heroic, and see it for what it truly is. This may be the most confrontational documentary ever made; it also feels like the most urgent one. What makes this work so compelling is that it is both an exposé and a character study at the same time. I found myself constantly reassessing my opinion on the slightly unhinged activist.

In Okuzaki’s mind, his unpredictable bursts of aggression are nothing compared to the horrific acts of cannibalism that he witnessed in the Pacific. In fact, throughout the film, he makes a point of taking responsibility for his actions. In one scene, he calls the police and informs them that he has hit an old man, and then proceeds to wait for their arrival. Okuzaki is clearly trying to make a point; we should take responsibility for our actions and own up to them.

At first, the chief of staff of the Japanese Seventeenth Army stands his ground. He gets cornered, threatened and beaten up, but won’t budge. He even tells them to read his book, in which he wrote it all down. The book claims that when the food supply ran low, he and his men had to resort to eating grass. I was reminded of Napoleon’s famous words, “What is history, but a fable agreed upon.” We only tell the story we want to be out there, not the one that actually happened.

In this case, the concealed truth is that isolated Japanese soldiers found themselves reduced to cannibalism. First, they tried to feast on the natives. They called this flesh “black pig”, but the natives were too hard to catch, so they tried to catch easier prey. “White pig” referred to Australian soldiers. When things got really bad, they turned against each other and ate their own. I find it so disturbing that they actually classified different human flesh based on skin color, but when the situation got desperate, none of that mattered. They started picking people off based on personality.

Everything leads to one of the most gripping sequences in cinema, the final confrontation. Something very interesting happens towards the end of the interrogation, Okuzaki changes tactics. Instead of attacking the accused, he begins opening up about his own crimes. He tells the person he is accusing of cannibalism that he too has killed but chose not to bottle it up. The director then captures a beautiful subtle moment. We see a closeup of the old man’s clenched fist loosening up. He is ready to confess.

As he started confessing, you can tell that part of his unwillingness to speak was because he didn’t want to face the consequences of his actions and another part is because he was trying to avoid reliving those deep traumatic days. The soldiers of the Japanese Seventh Army are not proud of what they have done, and they lived their days with buried shame. The truth is finally reached not through violence or guilt tripping, but a chance at redemption. When the old war veteran is told that he is the last living survivor and his account can save future generation from repeating the same mistakes, he tells it all. He does it for the sake of mankind.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Look at “The Exterminating Angel” During Times of Crisis

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It is not surprising that during these surreal times we live in, I find myself incredibly drawn to the work of Luis Buñuel, father of Surrealist cinema. Watching his 1962 masterpiece, “The Exterminating Angel” in the context of a nationwide quarantine has given this film a whole new meaning. Almost sixty years after it was originally released “The Exterminating Angel” has never been more relevant. His understanding of human behavior is timeless, and we can all learn a thing or two when examining his work with the current pandemic in mind.

The film takes place in the lavish mansion of Señor Edmundo Nobile. He has invited friends over for a fancy dinner party. As the party is about to get started, the servants disappear one by one. They hastily flee from the house like they know something big is about to happen. After dinner, the guests retire to the salon to socialize. They decide to sleep over, and in the morning, they find themselves incapable of leaving the room even though the door is open. As the days go by, they run low on food, water and medicine, which strips them from everything that makes them civilized. Before you know it, reason and sanity take a back seat to panic and madness.

Buñuel intended the house to be an allegory for the conventions of high society. His message was fairly straightforward. Stripped of these conventions, everything deteriorates, and human beings are reduced to animals. He even suggests in the iconic final frame, that we are all sheep following one another blindly. Not surprisingly, the film got banned in its initial release in fear of how people would react to it; it was deemed offensive and anti-government.

Much like COVID-19, an invisible force prevents the visitors from stepping outside the confines of the house. The title suggests that this is the work of an exterminating angel, I would never liken an infectious disease to an angel, but one can’t help but dwell on the eerie similarities of how this invisible force is affecting society as a whole. Like “The Exterminating Angel”, this outbreak feels like a wake-up call. Mother Nature is stepping in and exposing fragility of society and how easily the facade we’ve built around us can collapse.

Many have looked at this crisis as a test of our systems, and how years of social and economic progress can affect those farthest from wealth and power. In Buñuel’s film, the ones living on the margins of society are represented as the servants. They are exempted from this test and are given time to exit the house before entrapment. After all, the less privileged of the world are normally the victims of the situation that is forced upon them, and the whole point of the film is to switch roles and see how the elite would react to a desperate situation. The second people resort to an “every man for himself” mentality, chaos unfolds. In “The Exterminating Angel”, before all the chaos, dinner is served.

As the guests converse with one another at the dinner table, a servant walks in holding a big tray with a dish on it. He then falls to the ground and the food gets splattered all over the place. Suddenly the seated guests all break into laughter as the servant uncomfortably leaves the room. They laugh at the situation because they think it was a staged performance. One guest remarks, “Lucia has a flair for such chic surprises.” In other words, they are oblivious to the reality of the situation. Buñuel portrays those in power as delusional people with a rigid way of viewing the world. I couldn’t help but think of the powers that be, and how they are reacting to the current crisis we are in. At a time when social distancing to flatten the curve is most needed, some leaders are aiming for people to get back to work within weeks. They too are delusional to the reality of the situation.

In the following scene, Lucia catches one of the servants as they’re about to exit the mansion. “What is the meaning of this, Pablo? Are you leaving?” she says in a disappointed manner. “I must see my poor sister, madame.”, he replies. “What’s wrong with your sister? Is she ill?” The servant then confirms the fact: “She felt unwell this morning.” And Lucia fires back with: “Ridiculous. This is an insult to my guests.” All she cares about is keeping the house running, even if it’s at the expense of someone else’s health and wellbeing.

Throughout the film we witness the people let go of the social rules governing their behavior. It starts with them taking off their tuxedos to sleep on the floor, and escalates to sexual harassment, and people fighting each other for scarce resources. In the midst of a global pandemic that threatens our livelihood, people have reacted in similar fashion. Hoarding and stocking up on more than one needs has reached despicable levels. News reports claim that stores are running low on medicine, food, and medical supplies. Some are even taking advantage of the situation and selling them for ridiculous prices online. Reacting to a doomsday scenario selfishly without measuring our preparations can have dire consequences. Every crisis presents opportunity, and in the face of a common challenge, the world must work together as a global community.

Time spent in isolation should be time spent in reflection, and I could not help but wonder. What will happen after this global nightmare comes to an end and millions of families exit their homes. Will we emerge from our homes as changed people with a new awareness of the world, or will we fall back into the same trap? The film suggests that the door is always open, and it is up to us to find the courage to walk through it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Domestic Turmoil in John Cassavetes’ “A Woman Under the Influence”

John Cassavetes’ most revered film, “A Woman Under the Influence”, is one of cinema’s exemplary works of realism. The title refers to an urban housewife who is gradually losing her sanity. As this intense film unfolds, Cassavetes slowly shifts his focus to the eccentric husband. This subtle switch of the viewer’s gaze is absolute genius. Just like that, Cassavetes tells us everything we need to know about this particular case of domestic turmoil.

Plunged into a misogynistic household, Mabel finds herself victim to the restrictions of a gendered role. In many ways, “A Woman Under the Influence” plays like a psychological horror film. The protagonist falls victim to her surroundings. Her sadness, insecurities, anxiety, and deteriorating mental health is caused by her failure to fulfill a role that society has assigned her. In this remarkable work, we witness two unpredictable human beings act incredibly out of norm, yet only one of them is perceived as unstable by the surrounding family members.

Cassavetes film is about the toxicity of gender roles in society, but there are no villains or heroes in this household. Characters are depicted with incredible complexity. We watch two frustrated individuals struggling to deal with one another, but never does it feel like the director is judging either one of them. Cassavetes’ tender approach makes you empathize with real people who have fallen victim to the faultiness of society. This is cinema at its most intimate and personal.

Paranoia in John Carpenter’s “The Thing”

⁣“Man is the warmest place to hide.”

“The Thing” is John Carpenter’s greatest work; it is also a strong contender for the most entertaining horror film ever made. The film takes place on a remote base camp stationed in Antarctica. Life gets disrupted when the scientists spot a helicopter chasing and attempting to shoot a sled dog on the run. The Americans take the dog in, and before you know it, all hell breaks loose. We get introduced to one of the most memorable movie monsters to ever grace the screen, the thing – a shapeshifting extra-terrestrial being that can assume the shape of its victims.

The practical effects used in this picture are second to none. Almost forty years after it was originally conceived, the wild and gruesome practical effects are more impressive than anything that we’ve seen since. In fact, the animatronic effects are worthy of purchasing this masterpiece alone. But what separates Carpenter’s film from every other gorefest out there is what it says about the human psyche. The most nerve-racking aspect about “The Thing” has nothing to do with the creature, but how the characters react to it.

As soon as the scientists discover the nature of the creature, heightened paranoia begins to feed the ever-growing presence of mistrust. The claustrophobic setting puts us face to face with mankind at his most dangerous. The thing is nothing but a catalyst that brings out the monster inside of us. This film is about the internal conflicts that arise when paranoia penetrates the psyche; it is about what happens when suspicion disturbs the sanity of an entire group. Ennio Morricone’s iconic score plays like an eerie heartbeat to the impending doom lurking inside. John Carpenter’s reimagining of “The Thing from Outer Space” (which was made shortly after World War II when Cold War paranoia was sweeping the United States of America) is the most blood-curdling version of John W. Campbell Jr. short story out there.

Reevaluating Humanity in Kazuo Hara’s “Goodbye CP”

There is absolutely no way anyone can watch Kazuo Hara’s “Goodbye CP” without getting deeply affected by it. That said, it is not an easy film to watch by any means. “Goodbye CP” documents what it is like to live in Japan while suffering from cerebral palsy. People with cerebral palsy are often mistreated by the general public. Bystanders either look away or give them change, even when they’re not begging. Some do it because they feel sorry, others simply want to feel better about themselves.

At the beginning of this powerful work of art, we learn that many parents commit suicide when they find out that their children will be born with this condition. It causes permanent movement disorders due to brain damage detected at an early stage. But Hara doesn’t concern himself with the medical side of things, instead his film is more interested in showing viewers an intimate perspective of how they live their lives. We learn who they are, what they do and how they feel about various topics including sex, work, and marriage. Much like Werner Herzog’s “Land of Silence and Darkness”, Hara takes us to a world very few people have seen.

What I admire most about this type of filmmaking is that the filmmaker does precisely what everyone else shies away from. I think the majority of people rarely make contact with people with such extreme conditions, not because they don’t want to deal with them, but simply because they don’t know how to deal with them. So when a filmmaker like Kazuo Hara tackles a subject as specific as cerebral palsy, the whole world is forced to understand them. If there is one film that I think everyone should see, it is this one. “Goodbye CP” is gut-wrenching and in your face; it makes you ponder whether you’ve been living life selfishly. It forces you reevaluate your own humanity. It is a film that will change anyone who chooses to see it.