I’m a Killer [2016] – A Psychological Thriller Set in the Time of Deceit




Maciej Pieprzyca’s crime/drama I’m a Killer (‘Jestem Morderca', 2016) is based on the real-life hunt for notorious Polish serial killer known as ‘Zaglebie Vampire’, ‘The Silesian Vampire’ or simply ‘The Vampire’. Between 1964 and early 1970s, Zdzislaw Marchwicki was alleged to have brutally killed fourteen women between the towns of Zaglebie Daborowskie and Upper Silesia (south & southeastern part of Poland). Zdzislaw Marchwicki was caught in 1972, sentenced to death in 1975 (after a long trial), and was executed in 1977. During the trial and even after Marchwicki’s execution there were many doubts about whether he is the real ‘vampire’ killer or just framed by prosecution and police officers. Director Maciej Pieprzyca in 1998 made a TV documentary under the same title to explore the truth behind Marchwicki’s conviction. He depicted how there were lot of inadequacies in the investigation and how some evidence were totally fabricated. Now the director returns to the same premise, but strongly focuses on human & societal side of the incidents. Although the background material for I’m a Killer (2016) remains the same, Mr. Pieprzyca has introduced fictional elements to smooth out the narrative flow and thematic reflections.

The movie opens in 1977 in a mortuary with a man making face cast from a fresh corpse. In the background Polish radio announces about strong, prosperous, and thriving new Poland. This was the Polish era of silent media as news programs were crowded with communist regime's propaganda of success. Although the ‘vampire’ serial-killer doesn’t boast a direct political connection, this perceived image of an ideal state is repeatedly proven to have obstructed the truthful path in the case. The prologue is cut to September 1972, a  grey morning set in the backdrop of wet industrial wasteland. A woman lies in the ground, her face caved in. She is the tenth victim of the elusive serial killer. But the identity of this latest victim brings huge media and government attention. She happens to be niece of First Secretary of the Communist Party. The regional militia faced with immense pressure, names young lieutenant Janusz Jasinski (MirosÅ‚aw Haniszewski) as the head of investigative team. The inexperienced Janusz feels he is up to the task, although would also be the  perfect scapegoat for militia if he fails.


Janusz is bestowed with largest team of detectives although apart from few rookie detectives most lack the sense of urgency to pursue the killer. Ambitious Janusz seeks the help of English criminologist’s guidance to psychologically profile the serial-killer, despite his superior’s disapproval. He also employs then ground-breaking technology of computers to narrow down the suspects. Janusz also announces a reward of one million zlotys for any one who could provide clues about the murderer. Yet his strong sense of duty doesn’t stop the killer’s lust for blood. The serial murderer breaks the skull of two more women, one in the park, right under the nose of a police sting operation. Eventually the police force zeroes-in on a bearded laborer Wieslaw Kalicki (Arkadiusz Jakubik) who initially seems to fit the killer’s profile. Kalicka’s unfaithful wife Lidia (Agata Kulesza) testifies that her husband burned some shoes at the house. Kalicka, apart from the thousand-yard stare and quick-temper, is characterized as a ardent football fan and a very loving father (he has three children).

Meanwhile, Janusz is hailed as the national hero for capturing ‘Vampire’. His celebrity status bestows him a new home, color TV, etc. Previously, Janusz, his wife and little son lived in an old apartment close to railway tracks which made the building shake whenever a train passes. Despite the rise in status, Janusz intuition says that Kalicks isn’t the serial-killer. His friend & colleague say they have got the man since the murders have totally stopped. Janusz only has circumstantial evidence and unreliable testimonies. Moreover, he couldn’t get a signed confession from Kalicka. The doubt that he hasn’t got the right man and the ensuing fear & guilt to face the consequences pushes Janusz into the dark side. He initiates an affair with a young hair-dresser. It naturally leads to strained relationship with his family. The members of the detective team are too divided in their opinion about Kalicka. Janusz will lose too much if he let the suspect off, but it would affects his conscience to send this seemingly innocent man to death. What follows is a distressing mental transformation, where Janusz is masterfully manipulated as well as metamorphose into a master manipulator.   


I’m a Killer starts off as the tale of serial-killer hunting, in the vein of Memories of Murder or Zodiac. There’s narrative thread dealing with police inefficiency in approaching serial murders and about the fog of lies that surrounded then Polish political situation. Movies like Citizen X and Memories of Murder similarly used serial-murders to explore the totalitarian societies’ loss of basic human dignity and empathy. But I’m a Killer soon distances itself from these specific notions of ineffective politicized hierarchy to depict an indelible portrait of a individual whose dilemmas could be seen as much from existential context than the historical context. However, director Maciej Pieprzyca states in an interview that the film seen from political viewpoint would highly resonate with Polish audience, since the country has again started to move towards the same totalitarianism dealt in the narrative. In fact, the protagonist's moral anxiety caused by morbid politics is compared to the early works of Kieslowski, Zanussi, and Agnieszka Holland.

Director Pieprzyca previous acclaimed feature Life Feels Good (2013) was an unsentimental yet uplifting tribute to human spirit. It revolved around an intelligent young man suffering from cerebral palsy. Life Feels Good enamored critics and movie-lovers, winning multiple-awards at Montreal and Gdynia Film Festival. It was second-feature film for Piperzyca who has praised for displaying artistic maturity so as to gracefully steer away from the pitfalls of sentimental melodrama. In his third feature, director Pieprzyca takes an entirely different path to exhibit the grim price one pays for upholding false sense of fulfillment and security. Furthermore, it is good that the director makes the protagonist Janusz a complex and ambiguous man. Janusz Janiski definitely surrenders himself to web of lies, but he doesn’t become a monster. There’s some remorse left in him and it was elegantly expressed in the final scene (with the glassy eyes of face cast staring back at him).  Mr. Pieprzyca’s creation of multilateral characters doesn’t just rest with Janusz. Even the secondary characters like Lidia – the crude wife of alleged vampire killer -- and Janusz’ friend Marek (Piotr Zulawski) isn’t trapped under one-dimensional writing. Renowned Polish actress Agata Kulesza brilliantly plays Lidia, conveying her own helplessness and hatred for husband in equal measures. Haniszewski adeptly portrays the transformation from hero to anti-hero. He effectively chronicles what it means for a remorseful person to trade morality & dignity for better social position. Arkadiusz Jakubik who played the father role in ‘Life Feels Good’ here dons the role of Kalicki. His poignant performance adds fuel to the perturbing morality play. 

Trailer


I’m a Killer (117 minutes) starts off as a crime thriller and ends up being a stirring drama, addressing the timeless themes of morality and justice.   




Wakefield [2016] – An Underwhelming Study of White Collar Dad’s Angst Salvaged by Good Performances




The exaggerated and partly interesting central crisis in Robin Swicord’s Wakefield (2016) originates from two contrasting elements: privileged social position and strained familial relationship. Howard Wakefield lives in a posh suburban neighborhood, occupies the top position in a firm, blessed with a beautiful wife and two daughters. Viewed from the outside, it’s a life of ethereal beauty. Most importantly Mr. Howard possesses the luxury of thinking. But one has to wonder if thinking or the perception of one’s own self would always lead to soothing personal evolution. Our mind wanders hungers or yearns for something new, even though we are grateful for what we have. The suburban life despite its opulence remains airtight and eventually fails to quench the inherent existential hunger. Nothing we achieve or buy can guarantee to fill our inner void. This inward frustration or existential angst propels us to see the banality within life’s alleged beauty or see the precarious nature of the alleged precious things. Such realization has the power enough to make us go insane. Yet the inner power to confront existential angst can possibly freshen up our airtight atmosphere. Wakefield is the story about a narcissistic upper middle-class middle-aged male confronting the nothingness of urban life. He decides to ‘put his life on hold for a moment’ and see what he has left through the binoculars from a dark attic.

Wakefield is based on E.L. Doctorow’s 2008 short story (published in New Yorker) which was actually inspired (modern update) by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1835 short story of the same name. The entire story unfurls from the perspective of the protagonist – an obnoxious self-centered man who observes and reassesses the people around him from his self-imprisoned space. Enchantingly performed by Bryan Cranston, Howard Wakefield, one usual week-day leaves his Manhattan law firm, takes the train, and due to odd power outage arrives at home late and exhausted. He stands outside his home, annoyed by the calls from wife Diana (Jennifer Garner) and at the sight of a racoon loitering around the yard, before running up the attic of carrier-house garage. Wakefield chases off the racoon resting at the attic, watches his wife and two teenage daughters from the attic window. Diana remains tense (may be about her husband not returning the calls or due to the fight they had) and Wakefield decides to stay there for few minutes until things cool off. Alas, he sleeps the night there and wonders if Diana would believe his story (wouldn’t she think of him having an affair?). So he decides to delay his return until she goes off to her job. 



As time passes, Wakefield enjoys being a voyeur and narrates few details of the unpleasant squabble they have these days. Wakefield acknowledges that his jealousy is affecting their 15 year old marriage. Yet, he kind of blames Diana for looking beautiful or being (sexually) suggestive when talking with other men. Diana is clearly irritated by her husband’s absence and calls the police, doubting whether he has left her after harvesting all the money from the accounts. But the checks remain intact and car is inside the garage. The unexplainable disappearance of Wakefield raises genuine concern within Diana. For some odd reasons, Wakefield decides to continue his experimentation: to remain hidden in the garage attic. He forages through neighborhood’s garbage bin for food, making the odd malevolent or funny remarks about his strained relationship with Diana; and about the other stoic family members or colleagues. 
 
Before long, his hair and beard grows long. At one point, he walks around the town like a homeless guy without fear of being recognized. Throughout it all, Wakefield spies on his wife, every male member entering their abode is a potential nemesis to make him a cuckold. Subsequently, he narrates how he won over (or conquered) Diana from his friend Dirk Morrison. Months pass by and the endless humiliation and loneliness seem to free him from his envious 'self'. He contemplates how his cynicism towards the familial life inflict sense of entrapment that's entirely his own making. Nevertheless he seems to have gone too far and remains in sync with wild natural world. Can he return back to the ‘normal’ life? Most importantly, will this absurd experiment bring unbridled compassion for his wife and daughters? Has he become wise or lost his self to madness?   
 

The unpardonable problem with the film lies in the conception of its protagonist. He is a man with zero ability to grasp others’ human experiences. He neither showcases iota of empathy towards his wife nor feels guilt about his prolonged experiment. What’s more shocking is Wakefield’s unbelievable level of indifference towards the young daughters. Director Swicord’s visual flair is commendable as much as her emotional grasp of the material is irritable. She definitely provides some food for thought but from emotional perspective, the narrative is muddled or terribly hollow. We never understand Wakefield’s conflicting emotions or the man’s complex feelings. He is simply embroiled inside his toxic masculinity and never comes out of it even after the frequent bouts of revelatory episodes. Does Swicord’s movie intend to address this deep-seated aspect of toxic masculinity? If it is, the director/writer has done bungled job at it. There are strains of Wakefield’s existential angst which I can definitely relate to, but overall he comes across as a manipulative egocentric guy not worth the shot at redemption. The guy’s prism of self-loathing doesn’t allow room for any humane feelings.  As the final punchline of critic Derek Smith’s review (in Slant magazine) says, “Howard isn’t a mystery worth solving. He’s just an asshole”. Still, there are two things I loved in the film: Swicord’s graceful handling of the brief friendship between mentally challenged youngsters (from neighbor’s house) and Howard; and then the brilliant performances. Bryan Cranston definitely steers the unsatisfying character study into watchable territory. Jennifer Garner imbues her under-written character with grace and honesty (if only she was given little more leeway!).  

 Trailer



The Balkan Spy [1984] – A Tragicomedy on the Politics of Paranoia




“Everyone thought of themselves as a victim, never a willing accomplice”, goes a line in Svetlana Alexievich’s spellbinding non-fiction “Second-Hand Time” (chronicles generations of people’s joyous and tragic experiences before and after the disintegration of Soviet Russia). Yugoslavia citizen Ilija Cvorovic, a middle-aged family man with heart disease, and a rehabilitated Stalinist in Dusan Kovacevic & Bozidar Nikolic’s The Balkan Spy (Balkanski spijun,1984) has the similar, aforementioned line of thought about his current predicament. At the start of the film, Ilija (Danila Stojkovic) restlessly sits in the secret police headquarters. He returns home in agitated manner and hysterically explains to his wife Danica about the secret police questioning. They have asked him about his tenant Petar (Boro Todorovic), who has returned home from Paris (to open a tailor shop) and has a son in New York. Ilija has spent two years in jail in his youth (for political reasons during Stalinist era). He doesn’t want to be victimized once again for the mistake of others or for some careless comments. Although the police have forgotten about the inquiry, paranoid deeply takes root in Ilija’s mind. For days, Ilija follows Petar and concludes every little gesture made by the tailor as a preparation to stage a terrorist act. Petar’s Paris and New York connections strongly convince Ilija that he is on the verge of unmasking a great conspiracy. He staunchly beliefs on his victim status and in his maddening perception so as to hurt people, and readily become an accomplice to the state’s oppression.

Dusan Kovicevic is a celebrated Serbian playwright and scenarist, who wrote the script (based on his own play) for three good satirical Yugoslav films in the 1980s (Yugoslavia was the federation of six republics – including Serbia – which broke up in 1991 after the bloody inter-ethnic wars) – Who’s Singing Over There? (1980), The Marathon Family (1982), and The Balkan Spy (1984). Of the three biting satires, Mr. Kovicevic took over the directorial rein in Balkan Spy, sharing it with talented Serbian cinematographer Bozidar Nikolic (Kovicevic has directed only one other film – a brilliant dramedy titled The Professional (2003)). Perhaps, Kovicevic is best known for his involvement (wrote the story) in Emir Kusturica’s Palme d’Or award winning Underground (1995). In The Balkan Spy, Mr. Kovicevic uniquely approaches the dangerous plus lasting legacy of Stalinism. Ilija Cvorovic is the embodiment of paranoia of the past, which perceived enemies in every nook and corner of the society and even inside family. 


Kovicevic draws in viewers through hilarious showcase of this paranoia, only to later agitate us with the profound, real-time dangers surrounding such circumstances. In one scene, Petar and his well-dressed friends stand near the shore of a river, pointing in different directions. Ilija watches them from a distance with a city map. He draws arrows on the map based on the direction of their pointed fingers and interprets it as the plan of action. These manic paranoid deciphering has not just been the part of Stalinist era; it followed throughout the Cold War, continued with America’s war on terror, Putin's reemergence, and will persist in the future too. On a basic level, this paranoia could be seen as a commentary on dissident people’s attitude over anything ‘foreign’. Ilija and his fraternal twin Djura’s uncompromising and ludicrous Stalinist overview on Petar the ‘Spy’ progresses from simple comedy of errors (marked with absurdism and irony) to tragedy, laced with bloody violence. Viewers expecting out and out comedy would be taken aback by the sudden change of tone, which starts to leave a bitter aftertaste. Similar to Czech New Wave films, Kovicevic mocks the nature of militarism and unbridled patriotism in the first-half and then deviates from comical tone to instill a scalding social commentary. The film doesn’t often take a very subtle approach (lacks the extraordinary & singular film-form of Czech movies), but remains effective to the end, especially in showcasing emotional degradation of a man with multiple delusions.


Directors Kovicevic and Nikolic perfectly realize the atmosphere that constitutes to Ilija’s manic paranoia. From the clanging typewriters in the bureaucratic office to the music in the crematorium (situated opposite Ilija’s house), every small element creates unrest within Ilija’s mind. The physical injury he sustains is often related with his burgeoning emotional agitation. The placement of red light in the living room (the stores only ration red lights to households) could be associated with Ilija’s sparkly rise of Stalinist sympathies. Ilija and Djura go to the basement to unearth their ‘rotten’ ideology, kept inside a box, holding couple of guns and portrait of Stalin. Through this depiction of physical actions and little changes in atmosphere, the directors evoke a fine picture of Ilija’s inner turmoil. Moreover, the very best of the visuals are drawn out in the taut, open ending. The haunting final image of Ilija ‘on all fours’ (accompanied by a dog) clearly invokes Kovicevic’s message: a man without rational thinking is akin to a four-legged creature. Danila Stojkovic’s effusive and frantic performance is another potent factor for the film (Stojkovic acted in the other two great satires scripted by Kovicevic). He skillfully extracts laughs as well as terror (particularly in the climax interrogation) from his character’s tormented existence.  

Trailer

 

The Balkan Spy (95 minutes) is a part-hilarious and part-disturbing social commentary on the absurdities provoked within an individual by a repressive system. Although the film doesn’t profoundly reflect on the communist apparatus like Czech New Wave or (the recent) Romanian New Wave, it whips up few thought-provoking questions. 


Destiny [1921] – The Origination of Fritz Lang’s Genius




Destiny (aka ‘Der mude Tod’, 1921) was eighth film for FritzLang, one of the luminaries of silent-era film-making. He made his directorial debut in 1919 (the first two of his films are lost). His first successful film was ‘The Spiders Part I: The Golden Sea’ (1920). But it was from the influential expressionist movie Destiny, Lang started to deeply focus upon his favorite visual and thematic motifs (which later became his trademark elements). Mr. Lang’s films repeatedly hover around themes of life, love, salvation, death, and afterlife. From a visual standpoint, he deftly employed expressionistic imagery to attune to the emotions of his characters. Lang’s visual concepts and perfect execution proves us why silent films provide greatest visual experience than many of the sound pictures. The surreal and mythical quality found in Destiny were later found in vast proportions in his future silent masterpieces like Dr. Mabuse (1922), Die Nibelungen (1924), and Metropolis (1927). 

The German Expressionist movement mostly delved in horror and crime genres and the making of Destiny alleged to have caused its shift towards fanciful realms. Moreover, the film is now accompanied with tagline ‘The movie that inspired Hitchcock and Bunuel’. Destiny didn’t enjoy commercial success immediately after its release. Swashbuckling American hero Douglas Fairbanks bought the film’s American rights in order to liberally borrow scenes for his ‘The Thief of Baghdad’ (1924). Structurally, Lang’s movie was inspired by D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916 – which was also a big commercial failure and had more complex structure than Destiny) and Carl Dreyer’s Leaves from Satan’s Book (1920). Lang and his wife/co-scriptwriter Thea von Harbou designed the story by foraying through mythological works and tales of Brothers Grimm. Although the film has influenced many great masters of cinema through its visual specter, its story line is very simple. In fact, Destiny makes up for one of Lang’s most accessible work (he made 46 movies including post-silent era classics like M, Fury, The Big Heat and few very dry art movies).


The film was digitally restored by using fragments of various prints. The orchestral score by Cornelius Schwehr impeccably sets up the mood to experience the haunting visuals. The film opens with an interesting subtitle: ‘A German folk story in 6 verses’, indicating the traditional folklore structure. From a narrative standpoint, each divided verses neatly formulate the fanciful story. The central tale is set in European rural town, where a young happy couple (Walter Janssen and Lil Dagover) traveling in a stage coach meet a tall, mysterious stranger (Bernhard Goetzke). A short flashback reveals that the intimidating stranger has taken up residence in the small town near the cemetery. He chipped off the initial resistance of the local Councillors to sell the land by paying with gold. Once the municipal sold the land, the stranger builds a towering wall with no visible entrance. The Councillors are left to gossip in the town’s favorite local inn -- the Golden Unicorn. The couple and the stranger arrive to the inn, where soon the young woman’s fiance disappears along with the stranger.


The woman soon finds the secret behind the stranger’s huge wall. She comes across ghosts and spirits approaching near the wall and her fiance is part of the group. The woman is rescued by an old apothecarist. Later, the young woman drinks vial of poison with the hope of seeing her fiance. However, the tall stranger says that her time hasn’t yet arrived. She begs the stranger or grim-reaper or death to give back her fiance, citing the Bible verse “love is stronger than death”. The death takes her to his domain – a huge room filled with candles of different size. The flickering candles symbolize the life burning away in each person. In a special effect that’s reminiscent of George Meiles’ camera trick, the death moves the flame from the candle upwards which dissolves into the body of a naked child that soon vanishes in order to indicate that the child has passed away. Furthermore, moved by the woman’s appeals the weary death puts forth a challenge: three people are soon destined to die in three different realms and death asks her to save them, if possible, through love. The narrative then leads to three separate stories, set in a Muslim country, Renaissance-era Italy, and mythical China (Maurice Tourneur, who largely influenced Lang, made a classic silent movie titled ‘The Blue Bird’ (1918) which also had similar enjoyable flights of fantasy).  

What’s astounding about Lang’s silent films are the visual scale and details which even the modern film-makers couldn’t dream of achieving, despite all the state-of-the-art technologies. The shot of death’s humongous room with candles and the giant door-less wall is really an enchanting achievement for its time. The artifice in the three miniature fantasy tales plus its racial stereotyping seems largely out-dated, but even in those scenes the geometrical precision in the staging continues to fascinate us. Furthermore, each of these exotic tales has distinct sets and costumes (for the Arabic tale the inter-titles are presented in pseudo-Arabic style). Set designers Walter Rohrig and Robert Herth were responsible for creating the majestic abstract imagery of expressionist movement (their works include Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), The Last Laugh (1924), Faust (1926), etc). One of Lang’s trademark imagery (also confirms to expressionist movement’s imagery) that originated in ‘Destiny’ is staircases, clocks, and bridges -- the elements which indicate the character’s passage or journey (external as well as internal). Of the three fantasy tales within the central story, my favorite one is the Chinese magician’s tale. Although all the three tales are about star-crossed lovers stricken by fate, the Chinese one had many intriguing special effects: for example, the march of miniature soldiers and surrealistic shot of old magician transformed into a cactus. Director Lang also experimented on lot of shots in the movie. The best among them is the final visualization of a burning house shot at night time.


Apart from the awesome visual style, the film’s enduring appeal resides in the humans’ persistent fight or negotiation (and eventual loss) with unappeasable death. The lovers (Dagover and Janssen) in the central tale reprise similar roles in the three fantasy tales, while daunting death play the role of villainous fate. The performances of lovers are easily forgettable, but Goetzke’s personification of death is so powerful. This character later served as inspiration for Bengkt Ekerot’s popular portrayal of death in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957). Goetzke’s eerie presence, hard stares, and tired external features precedes other haunting faces of the era (like Max Schreck (Nosferatu), Emil Jannings (Faust), Maria Falconetti (Passion of Joan of Arc), Peter Lorre (M), Boris Karloff (Frankenstein), etc). In the Senses of Cinema article on Destiny, Mr. Michael Koller describes Goetzke’s performance through these spellbinding words: “When Goetzke stares blankly at the camera, an eerie extra-diegetic element is added to the film. Goetzke is staring at the audience, but also into the void that is eternity and death……….Death’s loneliness is palpable and frightening. And truly unforgettable.”

Trailer

 

Fritz Lang’s Destiny (98 minutes) is a remarkable classic of German Expressionism. It’s got lot of emotions and innovative aesthetic motifs which must relish silent-film lovers. It’s one of the earliest cinematic works to entertain us through the splendid art form and also makes a valid statement about humanity.