Friday, April 6, 2007

Images of Circularity in Herzog and Kusturica

In his early feature Even Dwarfs Started Small and again in his 1977 masterpiece Stroszek, Werner Herzog employs images of circularity to embody the pointless repetition and futility of the characters and their quests. In the earlier picture, the image takes the form of a driverless truck that spins around in circles while the titular dwarfs bombard the vehicle with various objects. In Stroszek, the circularity is manifested both by a driverless truck and by a ski lift which transports Bruno S around in circles while he prepares to kill himself. Seizing Herzog's example, Emir Kusturica uses the circular journey of a burning wheelchair circumnavigating an upside down image of Christ to bring his 1995 film Underground to a climax, suggesting a similar futility in the fate of the former Yugoslavia. Although a circle is often used to represent a state of completeness and fulfillment, in these pictures, it is instead indicative of the sense of redundancy and frustration in the lives of the film's characters.

Taking place in an alternate universe in which every human is a dwarf, Herzog's 1970 picture, Even Dwarfs Started Small details, in episodic fashion, a rebellion staged by a group of dwarfs confined to an unspecified institution. The rebelling party capture the institution director (also a dwarf) and hold him prisoner, while they engage in a series of antics on the hospital ground. Among the grotesque activities performed by the rebelling dwarfs are the crucifixion of a monkey, the forced mating of two inmates and the setting on fire of a building, all punctuated by the oddly guttural laughter of one of the dwarfs (Helmut Doring).

Roughly two-thirds of the way through the film, the rebelling dwarfs break into a shed and obtain access to a truck. They drive the truck to a nearby courtyard and begin driving in circles. Throughout the remainder of the film, the truck continues on its circular path, periodically abandoned, but always rediscovered by the dwarfs, the pattern itself a circular progression. After the driver sets the truck on its path, he climbs out of his seat and onto the roof, before abandoning the vehicle altogether. The truck continues its perpetual circular motion, driverless, and continues its directionless journey until the end of the film, when the dwarfs push the truck into a ravine. The circular path of the truck mirrors the narrative arc of the rebellion and the film itself, since the picture's first scene shows one of the dwarfs being booked in a police station, indicating the ultimate failure of the rebellion and implying the return of the dwarfs to a state of institutionalization.

The rebellious dwarfs amuse themselves by engaging in a variety of antic behaviors involving the truck which take on an increasingly destructive nature. The dwarfs begin by placing objects in the truck's path and pelting it with eggs, neither activity able to deter the vehicle from its circular motion. The dwarfs then set up a feast near the truck's path. Herzog places the bottle-lined table in the screen's foreground, directly in front of the truck's circle. The feast soon degenerates into a food fight, and the dwarfs pelt the truck with bottles and plates, giving vent to their frustration at the ultimately futile nature of rebellion, expressed by the truck's endless circles. The truck's journey is occasionally intercut with images of chickens engaging in cannabilistic behavior, which culminates in the staging of a cockfight. This behavior is indicative of a world that has lost its balance, and the unnatural behavior of the chickens foreshadows their dancing and piano-playing counterparts at the end of Herzog's Stroszek. Finally, just before disposing of the truck, the dwarfs set fire to a row of flowerpots placed near the vehicle's path and lead a procession next to the truck carrying a monkey nailed to miniature cross. This grotesque imagery further suggests a world where absurdity reigns over any kind of human-imposed order. So potent are the images of fire and crucifixion that Serbian director Emir Kusturica would appropriate them 26 years later for the powerful climax of his film Underground.

Werner Herzog's 1977 film Stroszek details the journey of an ex-mental patient (Bruno S.), his elderly friend (Clemens Scheitz) and his prostitute girlfriend (Eva Mattes) from Germany to rural Wisconsin, where they attempt to establish themselves. At first they meet with some success, but by the end of the picture, the bank has foreclosed on their home, Eva Mattes has fled with a group of truckers and Bruno S. and Clemens Scheitz, broke, rob a barber shop for $32, which leads to the latter's prompt arrest at an adjacent convenience store. At the end of the picture, Bruno prepares for suicide, having found a similar level of futility to his life in America as during his long confinement at the institution in Germany. As he says earlier in the film, "in the reformatory, it was just like here [America]". He parks his truck in a parking lot and sets it in circular motion, similar to the dwarfs' vehicle in Herzog's earlier picture. As the truck continues its circular path, Bruno, who like the dwarfs, found no more fulfillment in freedom than in institutionalization, walks off, leaving the truck to express his feelings of futility.

Bruno next wanders into an abandoned entertainment arcade, where the attractions include a coin-operated dancing chicken and a piano-playing chicken. The chickens, forced to perform unnatural tasks, are suggested by their cannibalistic counterparts in Even Dwarfs Started Small, and parallel Bruno's fate, a man who bemoans the spiritual degradation he encounters in America, where he is forced to live contrary to his inclinations. Bruno makes his way to the back of the arcade, which opens onto an abandoned ski lift. He sets the switches in motion and boards the lift. Significantly, the back of Bruno's lift is covered with a sign which reads "is this really me?" further suggesting the displacement of his identity in America. The ski lift (an image appropriated by Bela Tarr in the opening scene of his 1988 picture Damnation) leads Bruno on a circular journey, as he rides the transport in a continual ellipse, until the lift's insistent circularity is abruptly halted by a gunshot, and Bruno commits suicide. As soon as the gunshot is heard, Herzog cuts back to the truck in the parking lot, now on fire and no longer in motion. As Bruno's circular journey through a futile existence comes to an end, the truck too stops. Only the dancing chicken and other performing animals continue, and the film's final shots linger on these creatures and their unnatural activities.

Emir Kusturica's 1995 epic Underground details the friendship and later animosity of two men in Belgrade from 1941 through the Balkan conflict of the 1990s. Blacky and Marko (Lazar Ristovki and Miki Manojlovic), along with their community are forced to live in an underground bunker during World War II. After the war's end, Marko convinces the members of the community (Blacky included) that the war is still going on and keeps them in the bunker for several decades, where they manufacture munitions which Marko sells to amass a personal fortune. Finally, Blacky and the other denizens of the bunker arise from the underground into Milosevic's war torn Serbia.

During the Yugoslav War, Marko continues selling munitions, while Blacky takes charge of a company of Serbian soldiers. As Marko negotiates weapons sales, his retarded brother Ivan (Slavko Stimac), suddenly appears to take his revenge on Marko for his years of imprisonment in the bunker. As Marko, now wheelchair bound, maneuvers away from Ivan, his brother delivers him a series of mortal wounds with his cane, before commiting suicide in a nearby church. Marko's wife Natalija (Mirjana Jokovic) arrives on the scene, and Marko, still alive, famously says "a war is not a war until a brother kills his brother". The statement, whose literal interpretation refers to Ivan's caning of Marko, also has larger implications for the Balkan Wars in which members of the former Yugoslavia engage in brutal warfare and genocide against each other. As Slant Magzine's Ed Gonzalez notes in his review, "the familial war... is the war between Bosnia and Serbia." Kusturica thus links the fate of his country to the personal warfare between brother and brother.

Finally, Serbian soldiers come upon Marko and Natalija, and radio their commander, Blacky, to find out what to do with the two "war profiteers". "Profiteers? Shoot them," says Blacky, unaware of their identity. Blacky, who had long enjoyed a familial relationship with his old friend Marko, thus becomes the second "brother" to account for Marko's death, as the soldier's bullets, on his order, deliver the coup de grace. The soldier then sets them on fire. Later, viewing the passports, and realizing the identity of the profiteers, Blacky proclaims "Marko, my brother".

When he finally arrives on the scene, he is confronted with the film's most powerful image. Marko's wheelchair, set afire, traces a circular path around a cross with a figure of Jesus hanging upside down. The image, clearly inspired by its counterparts in Herzog's films, evokes the horror and the futility of modern Serbian history. As Marko's wheelchair runs in its endless circle, Blacky can only look on and bemoan the fate that has caused such a familial rift in his personal history as well as that of his nation. The upside down Christ, recalling a similar perversion of the crucifixion imagery, the monkey in Even Dwarfs Started Small, suggests the inadequacy of religion to provide salvation in the face of history's horrors. As in Herzog, the fact of the circle embodies the redundancy of the characters lives. Here, the circle also suggests the patterns of history, which the film shows repeating throughout the 20th century, in World War II, the Cold War, and finally in the Balkan conflict. When brother kills his brother, the world has truly become perverse, and nowhere is the sense of repeating futility better evoked than in Kusturica's circular symbol.

1 comment:

Micah said...

The complex analysis of these films is worthy of publication Andrew. This reads like an academic paper to a certain degree. I could see you writing a thesis on this subject at SVA or Parsons on topics like these. Even Dwarfs started Small is made intriguing and mysterious by your adept observations
Micah...more more more to add to the texture of our film with your worldy knowledge