Wednesday, January 27, 2010

19th NYJFF ends WITHIN THE WHIRLWIND and a Q&A with director Marleen Gorris and writer Nancy Larson

A long but hopeful cancellation line waited -- with some success -- for last-minute tickets to today's initial and sold-out screening of Marleen Gorris' biographical film about imprisoned poet/professor Evgenia Ginzberg WITHIN THE WHIRLWIND. The film was shown at the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater, where there will be two more screenings of the movie tomor-
row, Thursday, January 28, at 3:45 and 8:45. Although both showings are sold out, if today's was any indication, you might have some luck procuring seats.

Gorris' film (the director is shown at left) is worth the extra trouble, and although the filmmaker told her audience at the Q&A following the screening that her producers were currently in talks for possible U.S. distribution, you never know. Over the years, TrustMovies has found that seeing a film at the Walter Reade often becomes one's best and last chance -- and prevents frustration and disappointment later on.

You'll probably remember Ms Gorris (shown above) as the filmmaker whose movie Antonia's Line (for my money one of the great films of all time) won a deserved Oscar for 1996's Best Foreign Film.  She also made the interesting, if not totally successful, Mrs. Dalloway; The Luzhin Defence and the film that put her on the map, A Question of Silence.  Now, in Within the Whirlwind, Gorris is working at very close to her best, using her star, the very fine Emily Watson (who worked with the director previously on Luzhin) to excellent advantage.  Watson has her finest role since her film debut in Breaking the Waves, and this new movie is even better than what she made for the jokey Mr.von Trier.

Within the Whirlwind is a relatively conventional biopic, but one done with immaculate intelligence,  plenty of creativity and the kind of good taste that seems to know innately what and what not to stick up there on the screen. Written by Nancy Larson, from Ms Ginzburg's own memoir, the film tosses us, almost from the first, into the paranoid purges of Russian dictator Joseph Stalin and his apparatchiks (Ginzburg's chief adversary is played by Ian Hart, below). We quickly learn that Evgenia's husband is going to be of little help.  Whether he is frightened for his own skin or that of their children, Evgenia is soon on her own.  If you know history at all, you'll also know that few of the Russian intelligentsia of the time escaped these purges.  Imprisonment was preferable to death, and Ginzburg manages the former -- in the Siberian gulag.

For a film that deals mainly with a time of captivity in a place of wretched deprivation, Gorris and Larson contrive to show us a fair amount of small, kind -- sometimes quite surprising -- moments.  From a bowl of raspberries handed by a peasant girl into the boxcar in which our prisoners are being shipped to a dinner in the home of Russian camp commandant and the many acts of kindness between the women prisoners -- one of whom steps in front of a guard's rifle to protect her friend -- these tiny fragments build slowly, helping the women to survive and the audience to thrive.

Gorris has always been intensely interested in women and how they fit into the world. And if her men range from craven (the father of Evgenia's children -- though what else could he do when so few of his ilk got out alive) to barbaric (the prison guards), they can occasionally (like the German prison doctor, beautifully played by Ulrich Tukur, of yesterday's North Face post) be a source of joy and help.

As a writer and poet, Ginzburg is sustained through her imprisonment by the art of poetry.  One of Gorris' achievements is to give this poetry its proper place, along with the politics of the time, the horror of prison life and the sustaining love Ginzburg finds from both her women co-prisoners and her doctor.  That the filmmakers manage to honor all these with intelligence and feeling adds up to a quiet triumph.

At the audience Q&A following the screening, Ms Gorris and Ms Larson were asked some thoughtful questions which they answered with equal thought.  One viewer wanted to know how the director had become interested in this subject.  Gorris explained that her interest went back quite a long while.  Financing for the film took a very long time to raise, but this gave the director and the writer the chance to keeping working on the script while learning more about Ginzburg's life.

"You find out what you're really interested in, and then you pursue it," explained Larson.  For her part, Gorris was particularly intersted in how political paranoia could lead to something as awful as what we see here, in the process discovering also how one could find some humanity present.

"This was a particularly difficult script to get right," the director explained.  "So many people died in these labor camap, and yet, extermination did not seem to have been the goal.  So how to portray all this?  It demands a different focus, without placing too much empahsis on politics, or horror, or romance or even poetry.  So I hope the film did come out well, with the right balance," she told us.  At which point, via applause, the audience assured her that it had.

How did she incorporate the poetry so well?   "Poetry was so important to Evgenia, so it was equally imortant to us that we use the correct amount -- and make it fit within the film."

How did she come to choose Emily Watson for the role?   "I had worked with Emily on The Luzhin Defence and had loved her work ever since Breaking the Waves. Emily really wanted to be here with us today but could not come because she is making a film in Australia -- which is a long commute."

Will there be distribution her in the US?  "It looks like we will have US distribution -- and then of course a DVD."

Where was the film shot?  In Russia, perhaps?  "We shot the film in Poland and Germany.  We attempted to use Russia: I spent a fruitless weekend there, and our producer was arrested at the border for some very small reason and then had to pay an entire new air fare to get back home.  I don't think the authorities would have been helpful, had we have even been able to reach them.  But, of course, you never know."

Were the tensions between Evgenia and her husband also apparent in her memoir? "Not so much," Ms. Larson told us, " but they are there if you read between the lines."

The Anti-Semitism was not particularly underscored in the movie.  "No, it was certainly present, but Evgenia does not speak much about that.  I think she saw this as more directed against the intellectuals.  In the camp itself, there was a strong differentiation between the criminal prisoners and the intellectuals, and the latter were at the bottom of the pile and were preyed upon terribly by the criminal element."

Was the "I have a body" poem by Osid Mandelstam referred to in her memoir?  "No," explained the director, "but I felt it was so right and was necessary to have in the film."

Was the burying of the piece of candy also referred to in the memoir?  "No, that was not there, either. We just imagined it!"


Anonymous said...

I would like to ask you if you could please write down the poem "I have a body" because I haven´t been able to find it anywhere(maybe there is another title?). I saw the film and I was impressed by its beauty. Thank you very much.

TrustMovies said...

Hi, Anonymous --
I, too, tried to find this poem by Google-ing. But no luck. I think we will probably have to visit a local library to see if it has any more poems to look through.

I wonder if it is possible that this was from a poem by Ginsberg herself, and that I misunderstood what the director was saying. If so, sorry about that.

The only "body" poem of Mandelstam that I could find goes like this:

by Osip Mandelstam

What shall I do with this body they gave me,
so much my own, so intimate with me?

For being alive, for the joy of calm breath,
tell me, who should I bless?

I am the flower, and the gardener as well,
and am not solitary, in earth’s cell.

My living warmth, exhaled, you can see,
on the clear glass of eternity.

A pattern set down,
until now, unknown.

Breath evaporates without trace,
but form no one can deface.

Cristina Gomez said...

Hi James,

Thank you very much, I had found the same poem too. We will enjoy Mandelstam´s words while continue with the search.

Cristina (not anonymous anymore :)

TrustMovies said...

Hey, Cristina--
Isn't it so much nicer NOT to be anonymous?! Anyway, yes, and whoever finds the right poem first gets to post it...

Marc said...

Hi, I live in Australia. I am looking forward to a release of this extraordinary film with the brilliant Emily Watson. Is there any news on general release for Within the Whirlwind?

TrustMovies said...

Hi, Marc--
Where in Australia do you live? From my three visits to that country I've found it the closest in spirit (in both good and bad ways) to the USA of any country I've been to (even Canada).

I wish I had better news of Within the Whirlwind, but I have not heard of any release scheduled as yet. (That's here in the USA; you might get luckier down under.) One would think that with Watson and Tukur in the cast and Gorris directing, something might happen. But these days, you never know: good movies with good people attached to them disappear with little trace. If I hear of anything further, I'll post a comment about it.

Anonymous said...

Somebody gave me this body; what do I do with it now?
It's a very remarkable body, and nobody's body but mine.

I'm alive and I breathe, I'm strong and tall
Won't somebody tell me who to thank for it all?

I'm the gardener and the flower, too
And in this prison of a world I'm not alone.

When I move, when I breathe, I leave my mark
On the everlasting window pane that keeps out the dark.

It's the mark of myself! And that mark will remain
On the cold transparence of that window pane.

Life beyond the glass may darken, day to day
But my mark on that window pane will never go away.

– Osip Mandelstam

TrustMovies said...

Thanks, Anonymous --
I think I prefer the translation of this poem that you have sent, rather than I one I found last year (shown in a comment above).

For Marc -- I still have not seen hide nor hair of any release of this film, not in the US, at least. Maybe you've had better luck down under.

It is also possible that the film went to DVD in some territories, so maybe check