Mar 25, 2015
Rather unfortunately for me and other people that cannot stand frog-speak, Belgian filmmakers tend to film there works in French instead of Flemish Dutch because it makes the works much more commercially viable, yet master auteur André Delvaux dared to shoot his masterful first feature De man die zijn haar kort liet knippen (1966) aka The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short in the goofy Lowland Germanic language and the film ironically not only turned out to be the most commercially and critically successful film of the auteur filmmaker’s career, but also more or less singlehandedly put modern cinema from the culturally schizophrenic Lowland nation on the international map. Sadly, Delvaux would only shoot one more film, Een Vrouw Tussen Hond en Wolf (1979) aka Woman in a Twilight Garden, in Flemish, though some of his other works were partly shot in the Dutch, including the auteur filmmaker’s second feature and arguable magnum opus Un soir, un train (1968) aka One Night... a Train aka De trein der traagheid. A French-Belgian co-production featuring two relatively big French-language stars, including Italian-born leading man Yves Montand (Le salaire de la peur aka The Wages of Fear, Manon des sources aka Manon of the Spring) and exotic Fellini graduate Anouk Aimée (La Dolce Vita, 8 ½), Delvaux’s ominously oneiric second feature ultimately managed to receive frog commercial support because his debut The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short was so critically and commercially successful in France, with La Nouvelle Vague gatekeeper Jean-Luc Godard even giving the work great praise. Ironically, despite receiving French commercial support and featuring two relatively big name international film stars, One Night... a Train failed to receive Belgian ministerial support like the director's previous film for seemingly absurd linguistic reasons that also happen to be a major theme of the film. Indeed, conflicts between the Dutch-speaking Flemish and French-speaking Walloons in terms of linguistic turmoil and rivalry reached such a volatile level the same year that Delvaux’s film was released that the Belgian government actually managed to collapse. In One Night... a Train, a titular locomotive containing Belgians of various cultural backgrounds crashes and causes a ‘Danse Macabre’ in what is indubitably an allegory for a culturally schizophrenic nation on the verge of catastrophe where everyone, despite language or culture, burns in the end because, as the film demonstrates, there is nothing more universal than death. Centering around a reluctantly nationalistic and pathetically pedantic Flemish professor played by Montand whose once-seemingly-magical romance with his regrettably French theater director lover played by Aimée is beginning to wither away due to both political and personal reasons that largely have to do with the male protagonist's lack of real principles and seeming incapacity for embracing happiness, Delvaux’s second masterpiece is all the more forebodingly surreal as his first masterpiece The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short (which, incidentally, was also based on a work by Flemish magical realist writer Johan Daisne, though the first half of One Night... a Train was written entirely by Delvaux), as a sort of strangely narcotizing nightmare and ‘magical realist’ fever dream that is most certainly the closest thing to a European arthouse Carnival of Souls (1962), albeit more immaculately tragic, not to mention aberrantly allegorical.
A feverishly forlorn odyssey of figurative lost souls that become literal lost souls, One Night... a Train begins normally enough with middle-aged Flemish protagonist Mathias Bremen (Yves Montand) being bitched out by his exceedingly elderly and frail mother, who annoyingly complains “I never forgot about that” because he refused to go to the movies with her when he was ten years old because he didn’t like the hat she was wearing. Of course, Mathias' mother's seemingly irrelevant remark reveals a great deal about the protagonist's personality, as he is a curious man who, like many intellectuals, concerns himself with the more petty things in life while failing to be able to see the bigger picture. Mathias' mother also complains that he does not have children and then makes him promise that he will lay chrysanths on his belated father’s grave, but by the end of the film, not only will the protagonist fail put the flowers on his father’s grave because he is unable to find it, but it also becomes clear that he will never have children, at least no with his French ladylove Anne (Anouk Aimée). Mathias and Anne are total opposites as especially demonstrated by the fact that the former is a sort of pedantic softcore nihilist with no real strong principles or beliefs and the latter believes in god and is full of passion for life and love, hence her recent decided disillusionment with her relationship with the protagonist. At the beginning of the film after meeting with his mother, Mathias—a linguistics professor who lectures in French—heads to his classroom to teach, only to learn that only a handful of students, mostly negroes and Asians, have attended class that day, as the Flemish majority has decided to strike. A minute or so after beginning his lecture, an attractive female student comes into the classroom to tell Mathias that the Flemish teachers and students are leading a strike and that classes are cancelled, so the protagonist ends class by stating to his students, “I’m very sorry. I’m astonished to see so few here! It looks like your Flemish colleagues are on strike this afternoon. I understand their reactions against the ecclesiastical authorities in this affair, but I am more concerned about their position regarding their francophone colleagues. Otherwise I support them wholeheartedly. Well, I am most happy to discuss linguistic matters. Gentlemen, till next time!”
When a fellow professor comes up to Mathias after he cancels class and recommends that they both show support to the protesting Flemish students by joining a demonstration, the protagonist displays his glaring cowardice by self-righteously declaring, “Is it solidarity, to persecute a minority? Apartheid, racism, wait, doesn’t that remind you of something?,” thus revealing that he is certainly no Flemish chauvinist, but a loner of sorts that never joins sides, though it is more because he is a passive fellow with no heart and not because he is some sort virtuous individualist. Due to his influence as a professor, Mathias has managed to get his lover a job as a theater director via his friend Werner (Domien De Gruyter), so he decides to visit both of them while they are working. After leaving the university, Mathias goes to see Anne while she is working on rehearsals for a production of the 15th-century morality play Elckerlijc aka Elckerlyc aka Everyman by Flemish playwright Peter van Diest that the protagonist has specially adapted for her. Despite discussing his adaptation of Everyman for months with Mathias, Anne does not like his version because, as the protagonist states later in the film, “She thought that it was not enough to be conscious and lucid when confronted by Death.” Indeed, Death is one of the characters in the play and is described by Werner’s friend as being, “… neither Dracula nor Nosferatu, but a disquieting figure,” while the eponymous Everyman is depicted as stronger than both Death and God, which Anne rightfully thinks is patently absurd. While the Death character in the play version physically resembles a cross between Dracula and Nosferatu, both Mathias and Anne will later confront a real and literal ‘Death’ and it is certainly no vampiric fellow that looks like Anton LaVey sans goatee, thus revealing that the latter was certainly right when she complained to the protagonist that it was not enough to be conscious and lucid when confronted with it.
After leaving the rehearsal for Everyman, Mathias and Anne go home together and eat an extravagant meal at their cultivated, if somewhat bourgeois, apartment which is adorned with classical Greek and surrealist statues, as well as various foreshadowing images of ‘Death,’ but while the protagonist is deeply immersed in eating his oysters and drinking his wine, his lover seems quite melancholy and plagued by something that has long been on her mind. When Anne says that she thinks the most “beautiful” and “admirable” line from Everyman is, “The Angels spreads its wings and says, ‘I pluck the soul out from the body. Its substance is pure and light. I bear it skyward into the blue, there where we will all be reunited,’” and asks her clearly apathetic lover why he does not like it, Mathias disheartens her by tastelessly replying, “Angels have no sex.” Of course, Mathias does not believe in angels and has no problem mocking Anne’s superstitious beliefs, which she does not take lightly as demonstrated by the fact that she denies his overt sexual advances after he mocks her. Mathias is leaving for a trip to meet up with some “old nationalist” buddies at a Flemish university in the north and he does not want Anne to come because of her alien frog tongue and culture, even stating to her while on a bus ride, “You know how they react down there. Old school nationalists, closed minds. I can’t even introduce you.” Needless to say, Anne is not happy with the fact that the man who she loves most seems ashamed of her and her rather unfortunate heritage, so she starts a fight with him, even proposing they break up, stating, “It would be to the detriment of your career for us to be closely linked. I can’t be your French wife, because it’s immoral not to be Flemish.” Indeed, Anne defensively proclaims that she is “not an object” and “I feel so lonely in your land…I know nothing and nobody…No friends, no child.” Mathias attempts to comfort Anne after she claims that one day he will leave her and disappear, but she ultimately decides to act irrationally and run away, so he is forced to visit his father’s grave by himself. When Mathias arrives at the graveyard, he fails to locate his father’s grave, so he just gives up after searching for only a couple minutes, drops the flowers on a random place on the ground, and gets on a train so that he will not be late for meeting up with his old Flemish nationalist friends that evening as he planned.
While on the train, Mathias is quite delighted when Anne randomly shows up, so he smiles at her and she warmly smirks back. While Anne apologizes for her somewhat hysterical behavior and blames it on being “under strain,” Mathias replies, “You know, probably it’s going to last forever this evening. You shouldn’t wait for me at the station” and she agrees to take the latest train back home. While on the train, Mathias becomes sleepy and begins recollecting past events from his relationship with Anne, including a melancholic trip to London that reminded both of them of the fact that they have no kids and probably never will, but also happier and more romantic moments like when they once kissed in a wooded area near a Bruegel-esque farm. As Mathias begins falling asleep, a montage appears that inter-splices images of a disastrous train wreck with shots of the protagonist warmly embracing his lover. When Mathias finally wakes up from his spontaneous slumber, he is startled to discover that Anne has disappeared and is nowhere to be found on the train. Although both Mathias and the viewer do not know it yet, the protagonist is no longer in reality. Indeed, aside from the last couple minutes of the film, the second half of One Night... a Train is set in an otherworldly dream realm where nothing is as it seems and the only thing that makes sense is no sense. On his temporary odyssey in a sort of nightmarish purgatory that is slightly more like hell than heaven, Mathias will meet up with two very different men of two very different ages that he knew at different points in his life and all three fellows will soon discover that they are trapped in an absurdist anti-Arcadia where people act like autistic somnambulists and speak insufferable gibberish.
While looking for Anne on the train, Mathias bumps into a retired teacher history of religion from Tubingen named Gotfried Hernhutter (Hector Camerlynck) that he used to know, though the old man does not at all remember him and seems offended by the fact that the protagonist recognizes that he used to be a professor, as if it shames the old man to be reminded of the fact that he spent his entire life reading and grading papers. While Mathias and Gotfried are talking, the train stops and a handsome young man with blond hair and a Nordic physique in his early 20s named Val (François Beukelaers) standing outside begins talking to them, so the two get out and speak with him, but when they do the locomotive suddenly begins moving again and ultimately leaves them behind. Just like Hernhutter does not remember him, Mathias fails to remember Val when the friendly young man informs him that he took a college course with him two years before. Stranded in the middle of nowhere after treading through mud, the three men, who are unquestionably symbolic of the three major stages of adulthood (early adulthood, middle-age, and old age), decide to start a fire at night to cook some potatoes since they are hungry and naturally they begin going into detail about their private lives, especially Mathias, who has a lot to be concerned about since he is on the brink of losing his great love. Of course, Mathias discusses his trouble with Anne to the two men and his fear that she might leave him for good if he does not get back the train station in time. After bragging that she is a “real woman” who has given him the “best years” of his life, Mathias describes how he was introduced to Anne several years ago around Christmas by some actor friends at a Catholic church on the Spanish border. When Val decides to go look for some help, Hernhutter warns him to be safe, to which the young man replies in a fashion that reveals one of the major philosophical themes of the film, “Everything that happens is foreordained. There is no risk.” While Val is away, Hernhutter rather perturbs Mathias by confessing to him, “My ancestors, the Hernhutters, were Protestants from Bohemia...very attached to the doctrines of Jan Hus. They never mourned because for them death was the occasion for great hope. The Hernhutter clan have a grand mausoleum in the commune garden. I have never done wrong to anyone, and when I visit that garden I feel less alone.” Luckily for Hernhutter, he will be permanently ‘relocating’ to the garden very soon.
After what seems like only a couple minutes or so, Val comes back and lets Mathias and Hernhutter know that he has located a nearby town, but when the three arrive there they find what amounts to an angst-inducing The Twilight Zone-esque ghost town where the only evidence of the presence life comes in the rather annoying form of an incessantly ringing alarm. Eventually, the noticeably disturbed yet equally intrigued threesome happens upon a dilapidated movie theater from virtual hell, which they enter and soon discover mostly elderly and foreign nonwhite people watching a terribly disturbing film featuring a skydiver falling through the sky juxtaposed with a sort of exceedingly unnerving ambient noise. When the film abruptly stops with no ending or credits sequence, the audience members nonsensically jump out of their seats in a spastic fashion and start a mini-riot-cum-brawl of sorts among one another as if they have rabies and are collectively high on a killer cocktail of crack, PCP, and cheap vodka. Upon leaving the theater, Mathias attempts to ask an Arab-like audience member for directions to a hotel but he does not understand him as he speaks some sort of gibberish language (apparently, the actual language used is Farsi). Ultimately, Mathias and his two new buddies end up at bizarre ancient two-floor bar that one might expect to see in an old school Hollywood western that is inhabited by mostly elderly people that also speak gibberish. When Mathias becomes agitated and loudly asks them in broken English, “What this place?,” every single person at the bar stares at him and his friends in an intimidating straight-faced fashion that clearly disturbs the protagonist and his two buds. Without even asking, a young male waiter serves Mathias and his two friends glasses of red wine and eventually an exotic chicken dinner that they do not have to pay money for. While they are eating and getting drunk, Mathias more or less reveals himself to being a nihilist without any ideals after explaining how he was initially proud to join the resistance at the conclusion of the Second World War, but eventually he stopped believing in the cause after he was involved in arresting female collaborators and imprisoning them in abandoned lions cage at the zoo since the local prison was closed. After telling his story about his short-lived association with the resistance, Mathias goes on to explain to Hernhutter and Val that his lover Anne began believing in god during the same war because she skipped school on the very same day that every single one of her classmates were killed after a bomb was dropped on their cafeteria.
While they are hanging at the bar, Val's youthful sex-drive kicks in and he becomes hopelessly obsessed with a super sexy and seductive, if not seemingly sinister, young statuesque blonde barmaid and against Mathias and Hernhutter’s advice, he goes up to her and she ultimately puts him in a sort of incredibly intense demonic trance and eventually gets him to follow her lead in a truly devilish dance set to evil yet undeniably hypnotic discordant music. In what amounts to both a literal and figurative ‘Danse Macabre’ aka ‘Dance of Death’—an allegory on the universality of death—every single person in the bar, both young and old, immediately stops what they are doing and begin dancing with Val and the bodacious blonde barmaid. Naturally, this strange display disturbs Mathias, so he goes up to Val and tries to stop him, but he merely ignores what he says and replies like a lobotomized madman in regard to his sinisterly sensual dancer partner, “Her name is Moira…And I understand her language. It’s a miracle!” When Mathias complains that he still does not know why the train stopped and left them, Val confidently replies, “I’ll explain it to you, Mathias,” but he ultimately never gets the chance. When a whistle randomly blows and the music stops, every single person stops dancing and leaves the bar in a hasty fashion as if they are under some sort of oppressive curfew, with Mathias and devilish diva Moira (played by Romanian actress Adriana Bogdan, who later played the eponymous role in André Delvaux’s Belle (1973)) being the sole two people left in the bar. Of course, against his better judgement, petrified Mathias walks up to menacing Moira and before he knows it, he is fainting on the strange woman, who attempts to reassure him by stating, “It’s nothing, you are not injured.” When Mathias regains his consciousness, he realizes that he is no longer at a bar in some strange otherworldly town, but at the site of a tragic train crash. Indeed, Mathias was in a dream realm but now he is stuck in a real-life living nightmare and naturally he immediately begins looking for his beloved Anne and soon notices that some of the paramedics and firefighters at the scene of the accident were some of the same people in the dream bar. After walking around in an exceedingly forlorn fashion while passing the inflamed wreckage, Mathias wanders into a sort of shed and finds third corpses covered with blankets lying on the ground, with two of the bodies obviously being Hernhutter and Val as indicated by the shoes they are wearing. When Mathias lifts the blanket off of the third corpse, he finds Anne, breaks down, and caresses her cold pale corpse. Obviously, it is now too late for Mathias to get his priorities straight and fix things with Anne, thus the protagonist might as well be dead like his lover, Hernhutter, and Val.
Although few pretentious limp-wristed cinephiles would be willing to admit it, One Night... a Train is unequivocally a horror flick and an exceedingly eerie, esoteric, and darkly erotic one at that that does not follow in the tradition of classics tales like Frankenstein and Dracula, but instead belongs to one much older and all the more morbid and morose. Indeed, as blatantly highlighted near the conclusion of the film during the waywardly ‘infernal’ dance scene, Delvaux’s devilishly delectable masterpiece is certainly a rare cinematic that closely follows in the late-medieval allegorical artistic genre of the ‘Danse Macabre,’ which emphasizes the universality of death and was designed to remind people of the fragility of morality and how vain the earthly glories of life are. Indeed, protagonist Mathias certainly learns this harsh lesson in the end as he spent his life caring about such petty things like his Flemish nationalist friends' opinions regarding his French lover, only to lose said lover before he could discover the error of his ways and reconcile with her. More importantly, to the longstanding chagrin and resentment of his much suffering lover, the protagonist spent his life caring about frivolous things instead of doing the things that, for most people, make life worth living, like getting married, having kids, starting a family, and, in turn, creating a genetic and cultural legacy. While the film arguably carries various pessimistic messages, including allusions to the decidedly deleterious and culturally corrosive nature of so-called ‘multiculturalism’ (indeed, I don't think it is coincidence that most of the people in the nightmarish movie theater scene are either Arabs or elderly, thus reflecting the changing demographics of Belgium), I think One Night... a Train ultimately carries at least one positive cautionary message about the need for one to live life to the fullest and to put one’s life in perspective so as to not let unimportant and arbitrary things get in the way of a great love and/or destiny. Of course, it is no coincidence that the protagonist of Delvaux’s film is a professor—a man that teaches instead of does and talks instead of creates—as he absolutely personifies the pedantic pussy who may be the most sophisticated linguist in town, but ultimately lacks the most rudimentary elements of common sense and cannot see the voluptuous human treasure that stands constantly before his eyes, as intellect oftentimes comes at the price of unhappiness and incapacitation. Indubitably, One Night... a Train is more relevant today than when it was released nearly half a century ago, as the protagonist absolutely personifies the archetypical contemporary Western European as a decadent, passive, nihilistic, unprincipled, deracinated, gluttonous, and overly sophisticated pansy who has no desire to get married, have children, and carry on the legacy that his ancestors bequeathed to him, hence why he is too lazy to even look for his father's grave and instead symbolically tosses the flowers in the dirt.
German auteur Hans-Jürgen Syberberg geared his filmmaking career towards following in Richard Wagner’s footsteps by attempting to create the ultimate celluloid ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ (or ‘total work of art’), but I think André Delvaux came closer to this artistic ideal as One Night... a Train is a work that seamlessly weaves elements of film, theater, literature, poetry, music, painting, and even the culinary arts (the film features a number of exquisite food scenes) in a cinematic ‘Danse Macabre’ with a stark Symbolist flair that manages to reconcile the works of Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder (whose 1562 painting The Triumph of Death arguably features the greatest portrayal of the ‘Dance of Death’ ever dreamed up by an artist) with the surrealist nocturnal erotica of the director’s Walloon namesake Paul Delvaux. Cinematically speaking, Delvaux’s work will either interest or bewilder fans of cinematic works as diverse as Walter Forde’s The Ghost Train (1941) adaptation, Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls (1962), Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz’s Messiah of Evil (1973) aka Dead People, Adrian Lyne’s Jacob's Ladder (1990), and M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense (1999), among various other, but of course One Night... a Train is a work that is innately superior to every single one of these films. Interestingly but not surprisingly considering the deep cultural roots that most Belgian filmmakers seem to have in comparison to their European counterparts, Walloon auteur Fabrice Du Welz would pay tribute to Delvaux’s film with the bizarre bar sequence in his brutal yet beauteous hit quasi-arthouse horror flick Calvaire (2004) aka The Ordeal. With all the films I see, I rarely come across a work that I would describe as an unquestionable masterpiece, but One Night... a Train is the real decidedly delectable celluloid deal as a work that is as romantic as it is cynical, eccentric as it is true to life, dark as it is sensitive, fiercely fatalistic as it is wonderfully fantastique, and beauteous as it is bleak. Indeed, the film is just another one of the various examples why Delvaux is one of the most criminally underrated filmmakers of all time.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 5:00 PM
Mar 24, 2015
When it comes to Germanic nations, I am going to have to assume that the Netherlands is the country that is the least in touch with its ancient pre-Christian pagan roots. Indeed, it should be noted that Sicilian philosopher Julius Evola—a man that had a more spiritual as opposed to biological view of race who was once contracted by Mussolini to start a journal entitled Sangue e Spirito aka Blood and Spirit that promoted a ‘Roman’ approach to race theory that contradicted the supposedly ‘materialistic’ view of race espoused by the racial theorists in National Socialist Germany—once argued in his work The Path of Cinnabar: An Intellectual Autobiography (1963) using the Dutch as an example of a people that, although racially pure in biological terms, had become completely spiritually uprooted, stating, “I rejected the fetish of merely physical racial purity, on the grounds that the purity of the external race of an individual is often preserved even when his inner race has dimmed or deteriorated (a common example of this is that of the Dutch and Scandinavians).” While the Dutch tend to be obnoxiously proud of their rampant irreligiousness and nihilistic atheism, their rigid approach to moral principles that they had adopted from centuries upon centuries of Calvinism seems to have became an innate part of their collective character, so the last European country that I would think would produce films with pre-Christian pagan themes is the Netherlands, yet there have been a couple of such unlikely cinematic works that have been produced there over the past decade or so and luckily they do not wallow in new age buffoonery. Indeed, aside from graphic novelist turned cinematic auteur Guido van Driel’s darkly comedic arthouse gangster flick De Wederopstanding van een Klootzak (2013) aka The Resurrection of a Bastard—a work set in Friesland that makes reference to the sacred Germanic pagan tree ‘Donar’s Oak’ aka ‘Thor's Oak’ (which has been linked to the ‘world tree’ of Norse mythology, Yggdrasil) and the murder of the Christian missionary that cut it down, Saint Boniface—the Netherlands is also responsible for producing the ‘experimental Heimatfilm-cum-mountainfilm’ Winterstilte (2008) aka Winter Silence directed by video artist turned filmmaker Sonja Wyss in what would ultimately be her debut feature. To be fair, Wyss’ film is not as decidedly Dutch as some might assume as the director is actually a Swiss woman who has been living in the Netherlands for about the past couple of decades or so, not to mention the fact that the work was shot in a snowy mountainous region of Switzerland that hardly looks like the Lowland Netherlands. My interest in the film came upon researching it after it was recommended to me by a Dutchman and subsequently reading comparisons to the Nazi era work Der verlorene Sohn (1934) aka The Prodigal Son directed by Luis Trenker, who also played the lead role as a Tyrolean mountaineer who comes from a small Catholic village that, much like the one featured in Wyss’ film, still holds onto some of its pre-Christian beliefs, myths, traditions, and customs. A rare work shot on HD digital video that radiates a certain classic beauty and refreshing traditionalist perspective that makes one temporarily forget all the ugliness, deracination, degeneracy, narcissism, noise, phony post-Christian moral systems, and nihilism that plagues the largely irreligious (post)modern Occidental world, Winter Silence ultimately offers the viewer an all too brief return to rustic simplicity that does not revolve around cheap beer and cheap women.
Notably, Wyss stated after finishing the film, “In my previous work I had no interest in working with dialogue, neither was there, from my point of view, any need for it. In WINTER SILENCE the essential is told with an eye movement or the gesture of a hand. Adding even a single word would have destroyed the tension of the gesture. So not only did I not have a need for dialogue in my work, it was worse, I disliked it.” Indeed, with next to nil dialogue yet featuring a meticulously constructed sound landscape that is as bold, intimidating, and entrancing as the literally and figuratively cold mountain region where the film is set, Winter Light is an eloquently and obsessively assembled experiment in cinematic composition that offers more in terms of poetry than storytelling, though it tells a story and has a message that will certainly appeal more to members of the fairer sex, especially those that have had a more traditional upbringing that involved a father, a mother, and some sort of traditional moral compass. Set in a remote forgotten world where atavistic pagan instincts begin to slowly but surely thwart Nazarene abstractions, the film tells the shockingly transcendental story of a newly widowed post-menopausal matriarch who is reluctant to let her four adult-aged daughters flee the nest and begin living real lives of their own.
Winter Silence begins with a shot of a rocky snowy mountain juxtaposed with an inter-title featuring the following lyrics from Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria” aka “Ellens Gesang III”: “Ave Maria! stainless styled. Foul demons of the earth and air, From this their wonted haunt exiled, Shall flee before thy presence fair. We bow us to our lot of care, Beneath thy guidance reconciled; Hear for a maid a maiden's prayer, And for a father hear a child! Ave Maria.” It should be noted that the lyrics were taken from Scottish poet/playwright Sir Walter Scott's once-popular six cantos epic poem The Lady of the Lake (1810). During the film, the mother character will ask for the intercession of the Virgin Mary after her daughters become the personal playthings of a group of mysterious deer-men who summon the girls at night in a fairly ritualistic fashion. Set in a small isolated Swiss mountain village during the beginning of the winter, the film immediately introduces the quaint morality of its characters near the beginning of the film when a young man playfully throws a snowball at a girl and she responds in an overtly flirtatious manner by slightly pulling up her dress to reveal a couple inches of bare skin on her calf. Ultimately the tiny isolated world of the central family is knocked out of equilibrium when the bearded patriarch (Werner Imhoff) accidentally slips and falls off the side of a snowy mountain and dies as a result, thus leaving his wife and their daughters to wallow in a sometimes nefarious nightmare of archaic superstition and folklore. Before she is even told of her husband’s accident, it seems as if the matriarch (Gerda Zangger) could sense that something had happened, just as she will later sense that a couple guys sporting cloaks and antlers are lurking outside her homestead and intend to inseminate her daughters with semen and a new-found sense of freedom. At the father’s funeral, a mysterious masked pagan female figure with a white festive suit covered with bells embroidered with flowers randomly appears as if to indicate that, with the patriarch no longer around to maintain order, the moral fabric of the family will be ripped to shreds and the four nameless sisters (Sandra Utzinger, Brigitta Weber, Katalin Liptak, Sarah Bühlmann) will enthusiastically succumb to their baser instincts, thereupon causing them to transform into independent women in the process. Indeed, it’s all over for the adult virgins when the ostensibly devilish deer-men cum.
After the patriarch perishes in a somewhat anti-climatic fashion, the somewhat overweight widow and her equally less than talkative and mostly homely daughters attempt to keep up appearances and go on with business as per usual, which includes things like killing, skinning, and eating rabbits, as well as regularly praying in an almost pathologically masochistic fashion. Indeed, while standing next to one another with their rosaries hanging from their hands, the girls and their mother collectively chant things like, “I confess to almighty God and to you my brothers and sisters…that I have failed to do good, and have done wrong. I have sinned in my thoughts, my words and my deeds. My thoughts, my words and my deeds. My thoughts, my thoughts, my words and my deeds.” The daughters also collectively knit together a large large white quilt featuring deer designs, but when a single drop of blood stains the cloth after one of the sisters pricks her fingers in a scene that could symbolize both menstruation and/or the breaking of hymen, things begin to get a little bit ominous around the small house full of assumedly horny and surely sexually mature yet sexually inexperienced young women who no longer have to worry about their father watching their every move. Of course, the seemingly all-knowing mother understands dark and potentially even demonic things are about to be unleashed on her humble abode, as she spots a band of seemingly menacing deer-men lurking outside her home while her daughters sew together the quilt, which may or may not have summoned the wild beast men, but she cannot do much in the way of defending her daughters aside from hailing Mary and treating her daughters like sacred porcelain dolls that must be guarded at all costs from being tarnished.
When bedtime arrives, a teenage neighbor girl arises from her sleep like a somnambulist and climbs out of a window where a mysterious owl had just been sitting previously, as if the bird summoned her to let her know that it is time for her to fly the coop. It should be noted that this scene is juxtaposed with a sorrowful folk song sung by a girl about a virginal Polish maid who kissed a “worthy cavalier” and ultimately paid for it with her life. The owl also later pays a couple visits to the widow as if to inform her that the time has come where her daughters must leave home. When the four sisters go to bed, one of them decides to look at herself in a mirror on their bedroom wall which is curiously covered with a piece of cloth, but when she takes off the cloth and proceeds to look at her reflection, she does not see her own face reflecting back at her but that of a young man that is about the same age as she is. Distressed yet seemingly equally enticed by the quasi-mystical experience, the girl decides to hide the mirror under her mattress and then proceeds to sleep with one of her sisters. Meanwhile, the mother goes to bed while holding a giant crucifix in her hands, as if it will protect her and/or her daughters from being raped by the deer-men. As the deer-men literally float across the landscape in an almost demonically poetic fashion in what is indubitably one of the most perniciously yet aesthetically pleasingly potent scenes in the entire film, two of the sisters decide to run outside as if lured there where they both meet ‘deer-men,’ though neither of them is wearing antlers and they are not beastly monsters but young men who the girls are quite happy to see. Needless to say, they have savage sex.
The next day as the sun rises, the entire lyrics to Handel’s “Ave Maria” are sung while one of the girls who got defiled by one of the deer-men smirks in ecstasy while her frigid sisters wash clothes in a rather robotic fashion. Indeed, it is quite obvious that the two girls that were deflowered by the deer-men have completely changed as a result of their erotic experiences, as they play around while doing their work and, unlike the other two sisters, actually smile instead of looking all morose and dead inside. When one of the sisters gets sick and vomits, it becomes obvious she is pregnant, so her mother decides to lock her in a barn where she cries and begs in vain to be let out. Meanwhile, the mother starts acting all the more eccentric and begins doing bizarre things like shaving flakes off of a ceramic Mother Mary statue and putting them into a cup of water which she makes one of her daughters drink as if to cure her of her undying thirst for cock and copulation. Of course, the mother’s efforts are ultimately in vain because by the end of the film, all four sisters are seemingly pregnant and locked in the barn, but they are certainly not sad. Indeed, not only do the sisters laugh amongst one another in an exceedingly jovial fashion, but they also use their bare feet to touch eggs that cover the barn floor that surely symbolize that they are gestating. Notably, the deer-men's antlers now lie on the beds where the girls once slept, thus reflecting that the sisters have finally left home, at least in the metaphysical sense. In a fairly happy flashback sequence that will certainly catch the viewer by surprise as it is quite unexpected and is in stark contrast to most of the rest of the film in terms of its wholly positive ethereal pulchritude, the widowed mother looks at an old portrait of her and her husband and remembers when she became a woman after her happy marriage to her belated spouse. In the end, the mother smiles after finding flower petals in the snow that seem to not only symbolize the changing of the seasons but also the new chapters in her daughters’ lives. In the end, each sister is depicted standing stoically on a different mountain while wearing a new fancy white pagan coat, as they have finally become ‘independent’ and are ready to lead their own lives and start their own families. Although paganism seems to prevail over Catholicism in the end, everyone is at least happy, including the widowed mother, who has also entered a new phase in her life.
Although a somewhat hermetic work that demands the viewer's undivided attention and really needs repeat viewings to be fully appreciated, Winter Silence, which might be best described as a ‘neo-fable,’ ultimately tells a relatively simple story in a exceedingly elegantly stylized and nicely nuanced way that is quite refreshing, especially considering all the static digital video twaddle that passes for European arthouse cinema nowadays. After all, nothing is more heretical in the contemporary Western European art and cinema world than works that attempt to establish a respectful link to one's cultural heritage and were the film directed by a man instead of a woman, I'm sure some sneering mainstream far-left film critic would have condemned the film for being ‘fascistic’ or something preposterous like that. Despite its sometimes dark and ominous themes and oftentimes strikingly foreboding tone, Winter Silence is ultimately a gentle and sensitive work with a discernible female touch that expresses a sort of sense of wonder that only women and children seem capable of. In fact, director Sonja Wyss’ own personal comments regarding the production express a certain childlike intrigue and rather refreshing lack of pretense, especially her remark, “The shooting period was nonetheless a dream which was being realised. Some people claim that it is better for dreams to remain dreams than that they become reality. In this case I do not agree. It was and is still terrific to see my story becoming reality. Sometimes magical moments occurred during shooting, where we, the crew, were spectators astonishedly looking at what was unfolding before the camera.” Indeed, I have no doubt in my mind that, in some sort of obfuscated way, the film is an expression of Wyss’ own transformation into woman, so it is only fitting that it was her first feature. Undoubtedly I think Wyss was being totally honest when she stated, “Trained as a visual artist, I've made one feature film and am working on a new one. I know where my strengths and talents lie, working in this medium that's new to me, but I also know my limits.” I can certainly see Wyss one day inhabiting a place somewhere in between Mai Zetterling and Leni Riefenstahl in terms of the great female filmmakers of cinema history, so lets hope that she maintains a sensible perspective regarding her strengths and weaknesses as a film director.
While one cannot be completely sure about everything, some of the pagan symbolism in Winter Silence is quite obvious, especially in regard to the deer-men, with many cultures having their own version of the man-beast with antlers, including the Pashupati of the Hindus and the Deer Kachina of the Hopi Indians, but clearly Wyss’ film is obviously in reference to a European spiritual tradition. Indeed, aside from the ‘Horned God’— one of the two primary deities found in the contemporary European neo-pagan ‘religion’ of Wicca—Europe also has the horned Gaulish god ‘Cernunnos’ aka ‘Hern the Hunter’ of Celtic polytheism. Like many deities of ancient pre-Christian European pagan religions, no one knows for sure what Cernunnos’ cult or significance was, but some have speculated that he is a god of nature and/or fertility. Of course, Wicca’s ‘Horned God’ was obviously influenced by Cernunnos and symbolizes nature, wilderness, sexuality, hunting, and the life cycle. Notably, Renaissance literature scholar Richard Sugg theorized that, in relation to it’s prominence as a recurring symbol in women’s literature, the Horned God is, in Jungian terms, a symbol of the ‘natural Eros’ and masculine lover that ‘subjugates’ the social-conformist nature of the female shadow, thus encompassing a combination of the shadow and animus. Certainly Sugg’s theory works in the context of the deer-men’s role in Winter Silence, though it might not have been a conscious idea on Wyss’ part. Indeed, I would actually find it more interesting if the film was more a product of Wyss’ collective unconscious than something she merely contrived by doing banal research. In terms of its mystifying, phantasmagoric, and slightly horror-tinged depiction of the female characters' bewildering transformation from virginal girls that are figuratively still attached to their mother's umbilical cord into grown women who have obtained spiritual and sexual womanhood, Winter Silence is in good company with Jaromil Jireš’s Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) and Richard Blackburn’s Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural (1973). In terms of its rarely sentimental but surely sensitive look at old pagan pre-Christian Europa, the film also makes a great double feature with Russian's Aleksei Fedorchenko’s rather underrated work Nebesnye zheny lugovykh mari (2012) aka Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari. While the work managed to earn a ‘Golden Calf’ (the Dutch equivalent to an Oscar) at the 2008 Netherlands Film Festival for sound design, it is doubtful that such a work would ever earn a large following in Holland or elsewhere, so Wyss might end up becoming an undervalued misfit of Dutch cinema like Victor Nieuwenhuijs and Maartje Seyferth, but I, for one, will certainly keep my eye on her already rather singular filmmaking career.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 7:29 AM
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