Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

Playing for Time, Exploding Kazan and CinevardaDVD – DVDs of the Week

Playing For Time (Olive Films)

Television has offered epic portraits of the Holocaust, notably the excellent 1978 mini-series Holocaust. This 1980 TV movie, based on the memoir by Holocaust survivor Fania Fénelon and scripted for television by Arthur Miller, is a far more intimate drama and one of the most powerful TV events of its era.

Robin Bartlett, Vanessa Redgrave and Marisa Berenson

Vanessa Redgrave was a controversial choice to play the French nightclub singer in Auschwitz (this was a few years after her notorious pro-PLO speech at the Oscars) but her performance is a triumph of dignity and desperation, strength and weakness, resolve and guilt, as she sings for her survival as a member of a makeshift women’s orchestra made up of prisoners. The scene where Fania is brought in from the barracks to “audition” for the orchestra with a song from “Madame Butterfly” presents the simple but profound contradictions that run through the entire film. Weak and frail from the work details and starvation rations, Fania tentatively picks out the melody on a grand piano glaringly out of place in this anonymous building filled with reflexively obedient women. As her voice comes in clear and full of ache and emotion, their heads (all instinctively lowered, so as not to make eye contact with the German officer in the room) slowly rise, and their eyes open, awestruck and moved beyond their expectations by this beauty cutting through the horror of their circumstances for a brief moment.

A place in the orchestra is reprieve from the worst of the deprivations and brutality—and, most importantly, from the gas chambers—and it comes at a price. They play for the prisoners as they are marched to their deaths and for the camp officers in concerts organized by Frau Lagerfuhrerin Maria Mandel (Shirley Knight), a would-be aesthete in charge of the women’s barracks. “I prefer to think I’m saving my life and not trying to please the SS,” insists Fania to the orchestra’s taskmaster of a conductor Alma Rose (Jane Alexander), the niece of Gustav Mahler and an artist raised as a crisply professional German perfectionist. She answers simply, “Do you think you can do one without the other?” Is the why as important as the what one will do to survive a nightmare? Can you even separate them? Alma sees striving to create art the highest form of existence, no matter who the audience. But she also realizes that the orchestra is all that protects them from the gas chambers and it’s a tenuous reprieve that exists at the whim of ranking SS Officer Joseph Mengele (Max Wright).

Apart from sketches of the war outside the fences (presented in newsreel footage), the film focuses on the experience Fania from her cattle car journey to Auschwitz to the deprivations and ordeals in the camp through to liberation, and we are limited to what she sees and hears and experiences. It’s a gray, colorless world and all they know of what’s outside the wire comes via whispered rumors or the sounds of airplanes and bombs buzzing around them, heard but almost never seen. The small scale production keeps us largely within the barracks and avoids the graphic depictions presented in Holocaust and The Winds of War—the dead are suggested by small columns of women marched past the band and out of site, or in the piles of confiscated eyeglasses and other personal objects, and the deprivations in the sores and bruises on the sallow faces—but the intimacy of the production offers a harrowing portrait all its own.

Director Daniel Mann keeps the camera with Fania and scales the film to the characters and the group dynamics, whether it’s twenty characters in a room or two. In the most intimate scene, we watch Fania’s ideals and resolve struggle with her hunger and desperation when she’s offered food by Marianne (Melanie Mayron), the young woman she adopts on the train to the camp and watches (not without judgment) as she sacrifices all dignity and self respect to sell her body to the guards in exchange for food. Marianne drops potato on the desk where Fania toils over an orchestration, but her show of resolve—her lesson in how will can overcome hunger—crumbles when Marianne leaves and Fania (tentatively at first) reaches for the food, smells it, nibbles and finally eats, crying over how easily she weakened in the face of hunger. How can she judge Marianne when she too can give in so easily?

Miller’s screenplay, while designed to give voice to a breadth of experience and perspective through at time contrived debates within the barracks, delicately and painfully explores the emotional as well as the physical terrors of the camp. But just as importantly reminds us that their individual sense of identity has little to do with the Nazi stamps on their uniforms. Alexander’s unforgiving perfectionist of a conductor defines herself as a German, not a Jew, no matter what the badge of her camp uniform brands her. The Jews distance themselves from the Poles, who may be fellow prisoners but are Christians. Even as the musicians receive better treatment than the general camp population due to their position, some of them resent that others are offered preferred status due to their ethnicity. One Jewish woman identifies herself as a Communist, first and foremost, another is a Zionist, and they argue morality as if they were in a position to actually act upon their convictions. But ultimate it is Fania’s struggle that frames the film with the question that defies answer: how can one human do this to another?

The film, which runs just under 2 ½ hours, co-stars Maud Adams, Marisa Berenson, Christine Baranski, Verna Bloom, and Viveca Lindfors. It won four Emmy awards: for actresses Redgrave and Alexander, for Miller’s script and for Outstanding Drama Special. The DVD looks fine but not stellar, though the grim gray palette is served just fine with this edition. It’s presented at the original TV 1.33:1 aspect ratio with a mono soundtrack. No supplements.

The Exploding Girl (Oscilloscope)

Bradley Rust Gray’s film of a young college student (Zoe Kazan) home for the summer is a portrait in interlude. We don’t see Ivy’s life at school—the film is bracketed by the journeys to her New York home and her return trip to college—but this is clearly a break from routine. Suddenly back home, she’s not always sure what to do with her time. She wanders the streets, revisits old haunts, teaches kids in her mother’s dance studio, but succession of scenes suggests an aimlessness of experiences to pass the days. When her old buddy Al (Mark Rendall) crashes at their place (his mom sublet his room), it’s actually more comforting than being back with Mom, who is pretty much absent with her classes and recitals anyway. Ivy doesn’t even pick up on his puppyish crush on her. She’s too thrilled with her college romance, even if her boyfriend is now just a disembodied, mumbling voice on a cell phone, barely speaking even when he does call her back.

The Exploding Girl and her adoring best friend

Gray shoots it all as a long respite, the days dissolving together into relaxed conversations among friends, quiet respites of self-reflection, a short slide into debilitating depression and a few lovely moments of everyday beauty. The dialogue is an inarticulate naturalism of young adults not ready to express themselves, and Ivy and Al are the least declarative characters you’ll see in a film all year. And Gray perfectly captures the oddly dislocated feeling of returning home to discover the old environment no longer familiar and comforting. A long-distance break-up (which he hems and haws around over the phone, of course) doesn’t help things and the uncertainty and depression reverberates through her tricky health issues. She has epilepsy, a condition that doesn’t define her as a person—it’s just another aspect of her life—but does affect her choices.

The title, which sounds overly combustible for such an even-tempered film, is a reference to the epileptic fits she’s learning to keep at bay through diet and self-awareness. When one does come on, Gray tries to let us into her experience as a droning whine builds, an alarm that tells her she’s about to lose the fight with her body, and rather tenderly gives her a little privacy for the actual physical attack. The gesture seems less for us than for her, this fragile creature who looks like she could break under this kind of physical stress. And Kazan (the granddaughter of Elia) does looks fragile, almost ethereal, and even on the bustling streets of New York City appears like she’s protecting herself in a bubble, alone and apart in the crowds.

If Kazan’s Ivy doesn’t really emerge as a fully formed character, it’s partly because she’s so guarded and verbally inexpressive and partly out the film’s design of inaction. But that unformed quality has an authenticity of character of its own: a young college woman in transition who seem to suddenly put herself on hold during the summer break. And Kazan is as open with her emotional reactions as she is guarded about her feelings. It’s not a story as much as impressionistic slices of a summer of growing pains, the very definition of a small film: modest in scope and rich in texture.

The DVD features an interesting interview with writer/director Bradley Rust Gray and actress Zoe Kazan conducted on the streets of New York City, Gray’s 1997 short “Gray” and a music video.

Cinevardaphoto (Cinema Guild)

Three documentary shorts by French New Wave maverick Agnes Varda, stretching from 1963 to 2004, make up Cinevardaphoto (Cinema Guild), a triptych presentation released theatrically in 2004. Like Varda’s recent non-fiction films, these are more film essays than traditional documentaries and connected by the theme of photography and Varda’s cinematic exploration of the art and meaning of the still image.

Salut le Cubains

Salut le Cubains (1963), constructed entirely of still photos from Varda’s 1962 trip to Cuba a few years after the revolution, is a joyous and idealized celebration of this socialist ideal from a young artist intoxicated by the best of what she saw, and while it is organized and presented with the sensibility of an artist, it lacks the reflection of her later films. Ulysse (1982) is more introspective and contemplative, a rumination on a photo she took in 1954 that invites the remembrances of her models and the interpretations of others to mingle with her inspirations, intentions and working methods. It becomes a free association montage that weaves its portrait out of personal inspiration, reflection of the young artist by the older self, material revisits to the scene of the art and the commentary from the perspective of other eyes and sensibilities.

Ydess, Les Ours et Etc… (2004), a documentary on the Ydessa Hendeles-curated exhibition “The Teddy Bear Project,” is the closest the set has to a ttraditional documentary, and conversely it presents Varda at her most curious and creative. Hendeles, a Canadian artist and art collector and the child of Holocaust survivors, created this project after seeing a photo of a Jewish child during the Holocaust holding a teddy bear. The exhibit is constructed entirely of archival family photos from years past thematically linked only by the inclusion of a teddy bear in the image. The film is a portrait of the artist and her inspiration with Varda’s own imagination leading her journey through the thousands of photos, making connections and asking questions that the photos leave open to interpretation.

The films are presented in reverse chronology. The DVD makes this feature the foundation of a celebration of Varda’s short films, and includes six additional shorts as supplements: Elsa la Rose (1965), Reponse de Femmes (1975), Plaisir d’amour en Iran (1976), Les dites Cariatides (1984), 7 P., cuis., s. de b. (1984) and T’as de beaux escaliers, tu sais (1986). Also features “From the Rooster to the Donkey (Hands and Objects),” a 20-minute documentary on her short films, which she made in between her features all through her career, and a booklet with brief production notes.

Cinema Guild also recently released Abbas Kiarostami’s 2008 Shirin (Cinema Guild) on a disc that also includes his short films Roads of Kiarostami (2005) and Rug (2006) plus the 27-minute documentary “Taste of Shirin” by Hamideh Razavi and an accompanying essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum.

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Available at Amazon:
Playing for Time
The Exploding Girl