Remarkable Fate in Werner Herzog’s “Wings of Hope”

Werner Herzog has one of the most impressive filmographies of documentary filmmaking out there, and although his work as a documentarian covers a huge spectrum of topics, the common denominator always seems to be an existential exploration of humanity and truth. Herzog’s approach rejects the notion that documentaries fall within the sphere of journalism. He does not aspire to simply report facts on an incident or a historical event; instead, Herzog aims for something much more artistic in nature. His documentaries are best described as visual poems.⁣

In “Wings of Hope”, the subject matter tackles one of the most fascinating survival stories in recorded history, the story of Juliane Koepcke. Koepcke was the sole survivor of a Peruvian flight that was struck by lightning. After heavy turbulence, the aircraft plunged into a nose-dive freefall, and her seat was tossed out of the plane before she spiraled through the air. As if surviving a two-mile drop wasn’t enough, the then seventeen-year-old also had to survive eleven days alone in the Amazon rainforest.⁣

Throughout the film, she retraces her steps in the forest and this footage is intercut with recreated sequences representing her nightmares. Herzog’s almost lyrical narration turns an otherwise harrowing tale into a story of hope and beauty. Early in the film, we learn that Herzog was supposed to be on the same flight as Juliane but was denied a seat at the last minute. This remarkable coincidence makes the connection between the filmmaker and his subject all the more complex, for they were not brought together through interest, but rather fate.

Phantasmagoria in Yershov and Kropachyov’s “VIY”

After three seminary students get lost and wander into the countryside, they spot a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. They foolishly demand to spend the night there not knowing that it is home to a wicked witch. The old lady agrees to let them in under one condition, they all must sleep at separate places within the farm. Late into the night, our protagonist, Khoma Brutus, is visited by the old lady as she tries to seduce him. “Not for all the gold in the world would I let you tempt me.”

The witch casts a diabolic spell on him and starts to ride him like a horse before they take off into flight. When he realizes the disturbing nature of their behavior, he attempts to beat her to death before she turns into a young woman, and he flees in fright. Years later, the young man is summoned to spend three nights with the deceased witch who he met years ago. He is asked to pray for her, and if he manages to survive three long nights alone with her body, he’ll be gifted the one thing he said he would never accept from her- gold.

Konstantin Yershov and Georgi Kropachyov’s “Viy” is the first horror film made in the Soviet Union. The surreal Ukrainian folk horror was based on a short story by the famous Nikolai Gogol. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed watching this mischievous piece of cinema. Much credit should be given to the great Aleksandr Ptushko whose playful special effects take center stage. The last thirty minutes in particular is a sight to behold. The filmmakers use every trick in the book to flood the screen with ghoulishly grotesque imagery. I couldn’t help but smile all the way through. “Viy” is disturbing, absurd, bizarre, and outlandish at the same time. A real treat for anyone who wants to take a deep dive into a world of phantasmagoria.

Little Miracles in Carl Theodore Dreyer’s “Ordet”

Carl Theodore Dreyer belongs in the God-tier of film directors alongside Ozu, Bresson, Tarkovsky, Bergman, and Bunuel. The Danish master only made a handful of feature films over the course of his career, and I can only imagine how each momentous release must have felt like a historic event for film enthusiast at that time. After “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928), possibly the greatest silent film ever made, he would only make one feature film per decade or two. In the 1930’s, Dreyer made “Vampyr”, and in the 1940’s, “Day of Wrath” was released, both of which are masterpieces of cinema. “Ordet” is no different. It is in simplest terms, divine.⠀

“Ordet” revolves around two rural families who are constantly in dispute over theological matters, but when death looms near for one family member, everyone’s faith is put to test. The way things unfold in Dreyer’s film is truly miraculous. The characters respond to each event with a spontaneity that is rare in cinema. I was particularly drawn towards the character arc of the grandfather, Morten Borgen played by Henrik Malberg. At first, he comes across as incredibly stubborn and opinionated, but a simple turn of events changes his stance on matters of marriage and religion almost instantly. At one point his daughter in law proclaims, “I believe a lot of little miracles happen secretly.”⠀

Throughout the film, there are many religious arguments that unfold amongst a spectrum of characters with various degrees of faith. But I think Dreyer, who wasn’t very religious himself, was more interested in the idea of inner transformation, and how anything is possible depending on the circumstance life deals you. In “Ordet”, life is made up of small moments that shape who we are and how we think. I couldn’t help but feel enveloped by greatness as I watched this message being delivered in picturesque monochrome frames worthy of being placed in a museum.⠀

Longing for One Last Hurrah in Charlie Chaplin’s “Limelight”

“Time is the great author; it always writes the perfect ending.” _Calvero

Charlie Chaplin’s semi-autobiographical film about a washed-up vaudeville performer and a suicidal ballet dancer both in desperate search for hope and meaning in life, is perhaps his most philosophical film. Chaplin weaves in themes of depression, alcoholism, and the cruelty of time in the melancholic portrayal of Calvero, the great clown who once made audiences erupt into laughter.

Calvero, a drunk has-been, finds new purpose when he stumbles upon his neighbor, a young, paralyzed ballet-dancer who has given up on life. When Calvero finds out the paralysis is caused by a psychological condition, he takes it upon himself to nurture her back to health, both physically and mentally. Yet, one can’t help but wonder, is Calvero trying to talk the ballet-dancer into giving life another chance, or is Chaplin addressing himself and his own troubling thoughts through the character of Calvero. The parallels between the art and the artist are impossible to ignore.

By the time “Limelight” was made, Chaplin’s star had fallen significantly in Hollywood. He was perceived as a comedian who had lost his touch and was even banished from America for political reasons. This is Chaplin making a statement to an unforgiving industry. Tired and withered by age, Chaplin accepts the fact that the old eventually must make way for the new. Yet, his exit would come on his own terms in a film that looks back at the past with nostalgic eyes. The gag between the two giants of silent cinema, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, is one of the most magical moments in film history. “Limelight” is much more than a late-career masterpiece from the pioneer of the movies, it’s a beautiful exercise of cinematic self-therapy.

Memories of Lives Lost in Hector Babenco’s “Carandiru”

Hector Babenco’s utterly compelling “Carandiru” is as brutal and gut-wrenching as it gets; yet, despite its ruthless depiction of life inside a Brazilian prison, it’s also surprisingly heartwarming. The film is based on the real-life experiences of Dr. Drauzio Varella who worked in the Sao Paulo prison, and got to know the prisoners on a personal level in the years leading up to the 1992 massacre that shook the world. Babenco uses a series of vignettes flashbacks to tell us the induvial backstories of how the characters got locked up. By the end of the film’s two and half-hour runtime, it feels like we have spent quality time with them, which makes the film’s final moments all the more harrowing.

Why this film isn’t discussed more often is beyond me. “Carandiru” is raw, real, and enthralling, but I was most impressed by its sensitivity. In the midst of all the chaos and violence, there is humanity and a sense of community; and even though the film is set within the confines of a prison, it does feel like the lawlessness of the prison gave them a sense of freedom. Carandiru held 8000 prisoners, even though it was designed for 3000. In order to survive the crowded environment, the prisoners had to create their own system and make the most out of the limited resources provided to them.

The film features a strong ensemble of actors, and they did a tremendous job in depicting prisoners as individuals that you will genuinely care about. I was equally captivated by the film’s striking cinematography and memorable framing. The shots of the inmates sitting at the soccer field towards the end are incredibly picturesque. If you enjoyed epic Brazilian crime dramas such as “City of God”, “Pixote”, and the “Elite Squad” films, I urge you to seek out this underappreciated film from one of Brazil’s most renowned directors. “Carandiru” is much more than a retelling of the human rights violations that occurred on the 2nd of October 1992, it’s a film that encapsulates the memories of the people that lost their lives on that fateful day.

The Exquisite Cinematography of “The Cranes Are Flying”

At the beginning of Mikhail Kalatozov’s “The Cranes Are Flying”, Veronica played by the mesmerizing Tatiana Samoilova looks at her boyfriend before he goes off to war and declares, “Give me something I’ll remember as long as I live.” This is exactly what Kalatozov gifts film viewers with this exquisite piece of bravura filmmaking, a film to remember as long as we live.

What makes “The Cranes Are Flying” so unforgettable is the visual splendor of its cinematography. The fluid camera movement is simply put, astounding. It comes as no surprise that the film was shot by legendary cinematographer, Sergey Urusevsky, whose work in “Soy Cuba” is studied in film classes all around the world to this very day.

But Kalatozov’s Palme d’Or winning film is not just another technical marvel, it’s a truly an emotional rollercoaster of a film. What’s even more impressive is that most of the suspense has nothing to do with actual battle scenes. Instead of following the heroics of a soldier at war, the film stays with Veronika as she impatiently waits for her boyfriend’s return from the battlefield. The classic ‘young couple torn apart by war’ plotline has never been more immersive or personal. This tense ride of postwar Soviet cinema is one of the most beautiful war films I have ever seen; “The Cranes Are Flying” is pure cinema.

The Inventive Cinematography of “The Cranes Are Flying”

At the beginning of Mikhail Kalatozov’s “The Cranes Are Flying”, Veronica played by the mesmerizing Tatiana Samoilova looks at her boyfriend before he goes off to war and declares, “Give me something I’ll remember as long as I live.” This is exactly what Kalatozov gifts film viewers with this exquisite piece of bravura filmmaking, a film to remember as long as we live.

What makes “The Cranes Are Flying” so unforgettable is the visual splendor of its cinematography. The fluid camera movement is simply put, astounding. It comes as no surprise that the film was shot by legendary cinematographer, Sergey Urusevsky, whose work in “Soy Cuba” is studied in film classes all around the world to this very day.

But Kalatozov’s Palme d’Or winning film is not just another technical marvel, it’s a truly an emotional rollercoaster of a film. What’s even more impressive is that most of the suspense has nothing to do with actual battle scenes. Instead of following the heroics of a soldier at war, the film stays with Veronika as she impatiently waits for her boyfriend’s return from the battlefield. The classic ‘young couple torn apart by war’ plotline has never been more immersive or personal. This tense ride of postwar Soviet cinema is one of the most beautiful war films I have ever seen; “The Cranes Are Flying” is pure cinema.

Are we finite? – Larisa Sheptiko’s “The Ascent”

Larisa Shepitko is one of the lesser-known Soviet filmmakers, yet she’s up there with the greatest to ever do it. It is said that Shepitko started to feel her mortality after a horrible accident, and it is then that she felt an urgency to complete her most important work, “The Ascent”. The film masks itself as a war film, but it’s about so much more than that. “The Ascent” is one of the most spiritual films out there. It dabbles with complex existential questions we all ask ourselves during our brief time on Earth.

Is there more to life than our physical experience? Are we all mortal beings wandering around, or does our consciousness make us immortal? In one of the film’s most intellectually stimulating scenes, we see Anatoly Solonitsyn in the chilling role of a Nazi interrogator as he’s attempting to break the spirit of Sotnikov, played brilliantly by Boris Plotnikov. When Sotnikov refuses to give up the location of his troops claiming that there are things more important than the skin we live in, the Nazi interrogator laughs in response. “It’s all rubbish. We’re all finite. Everything ends with our death- our lives our selves, the whole world.”

Sheptiko draws many parallels between Christ and Sotnikov, and the title refers to spiritual transcendence. “The Ascent” suggests that even though our lives may be cut short at any given moment, we must live and die by our principles. After all, life holds no meaning when your choices lead to a life of suffering due to a guilty conscience. Larisa Sheptiko’s “The Ascent” has clearly influenced films like “Come and See” (which was directed by her husband), and yet it is a shame that it is not as revered by the film community. Those who discover Sheptiko’s work will be floored by how powerful her pictures are. Calling her arguably the greatest female director of her time would be an understatement, she’s one of the best directors to ever do it period, regardless of gender, time or place.

Facing Trauma in Raed Andoni’s “Ghost Hunting”

Raed Andoni’s “Ghost Hunting” is one of the most underrated documentaries out there, and the only reason it’s underrated is because it’s underseen. We have Second Run, the UK-based boutique label, to thank for re-releasing this beautiful work of humanitarian cinema on physical media. In the film, the Palestinian director experiments with re-enactment to allow individuals to come face to face with their traumas. The director invites Palestinians who previously got interrogated in Israeli detention centers and asks them to reconstruct their cells and re-enact their experience. The goal of the experiment allows tormented souls to heal in front of our eyes. In “Ghost Hunting”, the set is akin to a rehabilitation centre; and the director becomes the healer.

At one point, one of the actors/former prisoners asks the director why he’s making this film. “Because, what’s inside you, you beat it, or it beats you”. He’s referring to trauma of course, and how if you don’t face it, you’ll be stuck in the past. When we look at the troublesome chapters of our lives, we must always look back at that time with a new perspective; it’s the only way to grow out of the experience. At first, I thought the film would explore the torture methods used within the detention centers, but I was pleasantly surprised to see the film explore something much deeper.

Andoni seems less interested in the physical torture that people had to go through, and instead shines a light on the inner strength it took to survive the ordeal on a psychological level. Khattab, one of the former detainees, explains how the Israeli soldiers would deny him access to the toilet. The second he realized they were using the pressure of his bodily fluids against him during the interrogation, Khattab intentionally peed his pants and it felt like a trance. “Who cares about the pee? The strength is here”, Khattab says pointing to his head. Another prisoner used humor to withstand the horror. In many ways, “Ghost Hunting” is about psychological resilience and inner transformation, the transformation of suffering into strength, and trauma into rebirth.