- Christian Hain
Berlinale 2018 – The Films. Day 9: Twarz (Mug), In the Aisles, Ága
Day Nine - 23 February
The keyword of today is “countryside”. Believing the opening credits, Twarz (Mug) is set in the Polish “Nowhere”, a somewhere where an “Underwear Christmas Sale; with LCD TVs” will attract dozens of villagers to get half naked and fight over a handful of TVs. A place, where your brother in law may still tell “a gipsy, a Jew, and a negro” jokes, and nobody’s there who could be offended. Where four generations of a family live under one roof, on a run-down farm (yet there might be trouble brewing when Grandpa dies). Where children and dogs are playing with pigs’ heads, and people go to confession. Where an “everyday normal guy” counts for eccentric because he likes, dresses, and styles his hair, the heavy metal way. He not even owns a motorcycle.
Working on the construction site of “the world’s biggest Jesus statue – bigger than Rio”, Jacek falls victim to an accident that will prove life-changing as ever one did. Let me linger here for a moment, it’s brilliantly told. Before, the film’s a grotesque comedy (particularly that supermarket opener), and it will remain funny right through to the end. We never learn about the exact nature of Jacek’s injuries, only that he becomes the first face transplant patient on European soil, his body otherwise unhurt. Nor is the event itself made a big deal; we see Jacek working, stepping back, tripping, a fall and then, in first person view, standing up by himself, to the feet of the sculpture. The decision of Director Malgorzata Szumowska is stunning: It's not about gore, the event itself not that relevant, an incident so trivial, so casual, so - authentic. This is how accidents happen, not with a bang, but in a nano-second of distraction; and life changes. In Jacek’s case, it’s a fall from grace in every sense. Carrying a new face around the familiar eyes, his family no longer recognizes him, except a sister (and grandpa after some hesitation, still alive). His fiancé leaves, his mother calls the help of an exorcist, the villagers still take him for a curiosity, only amplified by sensational TV reports.
The story’s still told in light, funny, tones. In the beginning, Jacek’s dream was (supposedly) to leave for Western Europe, preferably the UK (so that’s no longer Europe, aye?), and in the end he will take a decision. But until then, we’re served a lot of insights into Poland, a most traditional country addicted to Catholicism, a country that got itself a new face for the last time in 1989 - you need a strong sense of tradition to preserve your identity through so many wars and divisions. Behind the transplant, it’s still the same old polack (not “offensive”: just the Polish term).
The problem is not so much that Jacek would look repulsive, or terrifying (he’s not comparable to that one character in yesterday’s Touch Me Not; interesting curatorial choice not to show both on the same day), but how he dares to be different from what he was - which is not even true. A country having known so many wars in history should be used to disfigured faces, they should be inscribed deep into the collective subconscious. But Jacek has changed, he – inadvertently - camouflages as somebody else, someone – something - new. That statue, of course, has a wider meaning, too: Poland is changing faces again, but in a turn to times past. In the end, a bishop notices, how the saviour is facing in the wrong direction and orders “the necessary” to be done.
The final image is the giant Jesus glancing over his shoulder, to the side: The head’s been turned by 180 degrees. It's a start, or a clever way out. No need to loose your face, just turn it around, change perspectives, take a look into another direction, the future.
One word about the makeup: Amazing. You wouldn’t believe that it’s only one actor (Mateusz Kósciukiewicz) pre and post accident, were it not for the eyes (I had to be told myself, I wasn’t sure to the end).
Prediction: Might not be obviously critical enough. But there’re still bears roaming those Polish woods.
Is it the same with you? Every time, I catch a note of Johan Strauß’s The Blue Danube, I think of Homer Simpson eating crisps in space. Thomas Stuber chose to accompany the opening scene of In The Aisles with it.
If Shaun of the Dead has created the RomZomCom genre - “A Romantic Comedy. With Zombies”, In the Aisles could almost be described as “a Romantic Comedy. With Nazis.” Almost, because it never becomes quite clear what sort of thugs Christian‘s (Franz Rogowski in his second main role in competition – take that, Udo Kier) friends really are, might be just common white trash. He’s tattooed too, but trying to brake off all ties to his former life when launching into a new job in a superstore in the rural areas of Eastern Germany. Let’s resort to traditional terms, and call it a tragicomedy. You’ll laugh out loud more than once – the premiere audience did in what was one of Berlinale '18’s best films (it's been a great day today, they really saved some of the best for last), and all the same, In the Aisles is extraordinarily meaningful. And extraordinarily sad.
The “newbie” (Rogowski) falls in love with a married colleague (the incredible Sandra Hüller, perfectly capturing every movement, and in particular: the walk, of a – maybe not exclusively German – superstore employee), and an almost wordless romance develops on the background of contemporary capitalism. Is this a life worth living? That’s the ultimate question it all boils down to.
These workers rarely see the sunlight, they live in an artificial space, alienated to life and the outside world, in a formerly socialist part of Europe. Does it differ much from a prison?
Small people, rarely described so truly, and with so much empathy, as here. No, it won’t be bad per se when their lives will be replaced by robots soon, only what will become of them? Thank God, there are the lighter tones, as mentioned above. Learning to steer a forklift can be as demanding as hilarious. Stuber even chose to include a clip from this cult classic. He masterly captures the desperation, the hopelessness, the trap of living in a modern microcosm. Everything feels, and is, true about this movie. Normal lives, normal people (call them “real” if you like). Franz Rogowski, the rising star, is actually outplayed by Peter Kurth whose "Bruno" is a guy all of us have met - those at least who’ve seen more of life than big cities, and a most enigmatic character. SPOILER:
It would be most modern, and immensely useful, to comment on his fate in the terms of “illness”, like of a virus: “He was suffering from depression, a serious condition - why would nobody help and cure him?!” And nothing could be farther from the truth. Bruno’s sickness is called life, or desperation, and it's caused by reality. Behind all humour, In the Aisles raises most fundamental questions: How do we want to live? And is it worth it? (you define “it”, both of them.)
Predictions: Could be it. The Bear. Best Supporting actor should be a close finish between Kurth and Kier...
In a shitty job I once had, I've met a Polish ex-model called Aga (short form for something longer). The first time she was yelling at me, a co-worker sent an email: “Welcome! You’ve just been Aga-nized!” It happened to everyone. I don’t know exactly why I’m telling you this, but: Beware of call centres. And Polish ex-models.
Ága is also the title of Bulgarian director Milko Lazarov’s film at Berlinale, set in the icy deserts of Siberia. It’s beautiful. A story told in even fewer words than In the Aisles, Lazarov places all his trust in the power of images, and rightly so, in lands even more desolate, comfortless, and immediate than Eastern Germany... Landscapes and faces speak for themselves, when an eskimo takes leave from his dying wife to try and bring their daughter home, who’s gone to work in a mine. Take away the story, and you get Robert Flaherty’s Nanouk (1922), the legendary documentary on life in infernal conditions. You don’t talk a lot where every breath takes some warmth away, and every word will let the cold in. Yet, in the solitary lands of always winter, where man is man as an animal, and at the utmost of his individual capacities, interhuman relations take on an importance that is lost in mass life. You cannot use, and change, your partner like your underwear, when there are no alternatives around; the "I" once again vanishes in the "we". A symbiosis that demands the surrender of something of your self, is established between two people, to be inevitably broken by life, in death. Prophetic dreams are still omnipresent where people listen to them and nature, maybe you’ve heard of those shamanic Siberians and if only by interest in Psychedelics. Be warned, though: The ending is hard to bear if you’ve lost somebody not long ago. This is how to pose relevant questions, not in idle (pseudo-)intellectual games à la My Brother's Name Is Robert and He’s an Idiot. There’s a difference between relevance and ridicule, and maybe it lies in the amount of words (and the quality of the actors). There’s still hope for German cinema, and his name is Thomas Stuber.
Prediction: Why in the world is this masterpiece shown out of competition? Are they afraid, it would crush all competition? Ága should be a serious contender for the (Polar) Bear. Possibly the most beautiful film at Berlinale this year, truly a revelation.
Berlinale, 15-25 February 2018
World of Arts Magazine - Contemporary Art Criticism