BERLINALE 2022 (ENGLISH REPRISE): BEYOND THE EARNING OF BREAD
Unlike what happens in the case of newborn creatures, the first impression of the initial shot of a film is a sign that can contain the unfolding of all that is to come. It is enough to observe, attentively, the intensity of three shots of Unrueh(Unrest) to know that the composition rules the tale and is not something casual. Is there a formalist behind the camera? Yes. Is this an obsessive compulsive who wants to dominate the space that lies ahead and behind? Perhaps. Is this a whim? Never.
The opening shots previously mentioned present three aristocratic women talking about other people and, in particular, about a certain Kropotkin. To those accustomed to books that review the history of social unrest that had its splendor in the seventeenth century and its inimitable paroxysm in October 1917, the name of Kropotkin is not unknown. The cartographer, as he is called in Cyril Schäublin’s beautiful film, wrote greatly about anarchism and socialism, and felt that the times in which he lived could be those in which the ruthlessness of the unjust would ceaseto be invincible. The time period of the film coincides with his trip to Switzerland and also with the still recent events that sent an alarm the European world a few years earlier. In a later scene in the film, in a meeting of several workers in the watch factory where Josephine works – with whom Kropotkin is having a romantic relationship –, one of the women workers reminds the others that just six years earlier the Paris commune sustained a different social order during three months. She reminds them that the labor rights of women and men, in that brief moment when something entirely unimaginable happened, were the same. The year is 1877.
The conversation of the three women just mentioned moves away from the close up at the beginning for a few seconds, enough to understand a system of filming. There is a mysterious distance that is optically felt and becomes more and more pronounced as the film moves along unhurriedly. This is not the usual way of working with depth of field, because the dramatic weight almost always falls on the midpoint of the shot, without wasting the visual elements that extend into the background or those that are closer to the camera, often intercepted by trees halfway to thismidpoint. The optical experience is stealthily immersive. On this dominant configuration of the shot, a dialectic of the extreme close up is played out, in which an attempt is made to cover all the points of view associated with the microscopic work in the making of watches. The entire film takes place in public spaces, forests and especially in the watch factory. It is a poetic system conceived of to unweave the fragmentation of the divided maneuvers imposed byTaylorism, enlarging the infinitely small work of the manufacture of each piece of a watch, and counteracting it with general shots in which the workers remain united within the unity of the shot as a political subject. The story is undoubtedly one in which the workers are forging their own conscience as workers. Rarely is the poetics of a film its own politics. The shot translates the consciousness of the workers.
Unrueh‘s love story is outlined rather than developed. Kropotkin and Josephine’s walk in the woods at the end is more of a hint than a firm development that defines the film. It never stops being beautiful. A clock hanging on a tree and an unexpected tracking shot to the left of the shot that culminates in a shot of the forest is suggestive to say the least. The two of them are not seen and perhaps it is better that way. Intimacy has been deliberately elided throughout the film and if they are kissing it is fitting that the pleasure belongs only to them. That intimate life is not looked at or the homes are not known does not mean that they are not assigned a value. They do, and at the moment when an elderly woman is informed that she will have to go to jail for a few days for not paying her taxes, Schäublin introduces the legitimacy of that life and the importance of individual freedom. But its focus is the whole, the empathy of the workers and the desire to invent another possible society. In the scene in which all the workers donate 14% of their salary to send to their peers to Baltimore in the United States because they have stopped working and are suffering the consequences, the gesture refers to an experience of internationalism that has nothing to do with what we call globalization. There are several similar scenes, but this one is the first and is symbolically explicit. It is the time of the First International, and the film tries to be fair with the description of that experience in which common ground was perceived among those who use picks to build houses, plows to work the land and tiny tweezers to make clocks, no matter what flags they wave and how great the distances between them. Knowing that all they owned was the effort of their labor was enough for them to feel at one with others who dressed in overalls and labored far away.
The preference of the whole over the part can be seen in the narrative evolution itself articulated by collective situations: the moment of receiving the weekly salary, voting, moments of leisure in a tavern, communal games, the singing of hymns, and measurements of the terrain are the central episodes of the story. To this approach of prioritizing the collective narrative and the notable decisions of mise en scène that privileges the establishing or general shot, there is added a sound that is present in almost all the scenes, a factory sound that cannot be strictly delimited to a machine but to a location in which all the machines are in operation and produce a sound, as if there were an unstoppable murmur of production that demands the concentration of the operators and a chronometric efficiency. The sound is a scattered buzz that returns us to the sounds of natural life to a time that abjures leisure.
The big discussions in Unrueh are as predictable as they are necessary. Operators work all the time, on time and in time. The measurement of time is a central theme, enabling the occasional gag when Kropotkin goes to the post office and the employee asks him which time of all the times being used in the Vallée de Joux should she use when she prints the time of sending for his telegram. The inadequacy between measurements of time in the Swiss canton of Vaud is an acceptance of the time at stake, because no one who works to earn their bread is unaware that the experience of work is determined by time and by the enigmatic quantification, in a currency, with which the value of time is estimated. The other intermittent but essential discussion is the one that takes place around the role of the State and the concomitant hypothetical decentralization of all productive life in cooperatives. In an era like ours, in which words, perhaps due to distraction, are invested with meanings they never had, the past notion of anarchism can be clarified in the encounter with this beautiful film by Schäublin. The anarchists of the 18th century, and also those of the two following centuries, were far from thinking of themselves as isolated subjects who only had to avoid being intercepted by the State and its reasons. The petty use of the term by the parodic partisans of libertarianism perpetuates an egoism that has little understanding of how to govern one’s self and to understand that one is codependent with others. The political brilliance of Schäublin’s film resides in restoring a way of being in the world that today is as untimely as it is secretly necessary. It IS an ideal film to conjure up the rogue rhetoric that seduces the cynical and the desperate.
Behind the film Small, Slow but Steady (Keiko, me wo sumsete), the most delicate and moving film of the Berlinale, it is not centuries of revolutions that we feel throbbing, but rather everything that has happened in Japan since 1945. Shô Miyake’s extraordinary film has nothing to do with the nation that survived two atomic bombs just seven and a half decades ago, but without a doubt the gym where Keiko, the young boxer at the center of the story, practices is a surviving neighborhood of that time. In effect, the neighborhood of Arakawa is an indirect protagonist of the film. The number of shots that Miyaje lavishes on that section of Tokyo is far from a heap of transitional long shots of bridges, rivers, trains, and apartments to separate scenes from each other. There is a notion of space and time, and also of the history of a place. The city at night in the final credits is of paramount importance, to the point that the sound of the city is as imposing as the well-cared for plastic of that which is in sight. There is no doubt: the gym in which Keiko practices is an expression of construction that comes from a time already dissociated from the Japanese present. The ring and training areas are ancient, as are the anachronistic punching bag and checkered bag worn by the gym’s owner and Keiko’s mentor. Katsumi’s character is indisputably that of a 20th century man who, like so many others, has continued on living into this century of smartphones.
Boxing cinema is always a cinema that describes the lives of men and now also women whose choice of sport is a real and metaphorical extension of a disadvantaged social position. The boxer fights inside and outside the ring; the starting point is not one of privilege, beyond the fact that professionalization constitutes a promise of abundance if the blow on a decisive occasion is accurate and progress is made in the category in which she or he fights until she or he disputes and perhaps wins a title. The boxer represents the thousands of anonymous people who cannot even imagine a way of life that is not marked by the fight. Survival demands it. Sterile maintenance is the limit of brief and short-term satisfaction. The fighters do not rest.
In Keiko, me wo sumsete, the protagonist works as a waitress in a luxurious hotel, which is enough for her to rent an apartment that she shares with a musician her own age. The house and the gym, her work and the movements of her fists: these are the things that constitute Keiko’s life. Miyake pays due attention to both work and training, and he also doesn’t fail to observe the loneliness that the character feels and is able to express from time to time. When she manages to do so she is never alone, but being in company, even in good company, does not mean dimming a perception of herself in which she has understood that no one can sustain the life of another. In this sense, it is unusual that this paradox of awareness can be seen unequivocally. To understand one’s self alone and not completely. Those who are close to Keiko are characters as kind as she is: her roommate, the trainers, the mother who visits her when she can, her mentor and his wife, and even her co-workers.
There are two scenes that take place in the hotel that encapsulate the heart of the film and Miyake’s substantive sensibilities. At one point, one of the higher-ranking hotel employees professes all her admiration for Keiko as a boxer. That scene provides a great joke about the relationship between work and boxing, which for Keiko is a pleasant escape from her responsibility. In the other scene, also at the hotel, Keiko teaches a new co-worker how to correctly fold the sheets when assembling the bed. The young man has a hard time, Keiko notices and teaches him so she can then observe him on his first attempt. There is an imperceptibly funny detail: the young man who must learn how to manage the folds of the fabric, wears a wrinkled shirt that is not properly tucked into his pants. Before following Keiko’s advice, he adjusts his shirt so as not to clash with the task. The scene seems trivial, but paying attention to such details is not common and it reveals a meticulous awareness of this secondary level. Every time it dwells on what is seemingly unimportant, the film adds a quality of sensitivity. All actions, major and minor, are intended to configure a discreet utopia of affection in which all the characters participate, a form of generalized care against the rudeness and selfishness of contemporary Japanese films. A cruelty-free Japanese film is a true subversion. Here we have one.
As in all boxing movies, there is the big fight, always located at the presumed climax of the story, in which an attempt is made to endorse an effort and crown it with success. This is not what matters to Miyake, who desists from musicalizing all the training sessions, much less the two fights the film has. The temptation to musically dramatize Keiko’s performance in the ring is not even hinted at. The follow-up to the final contest gets its dramatic speed from what happens in the ring and what happens to everyone who loves Keiko and watches the fight from a distance. The only scene where a musical theme is added has a double function: it synthesizes the affection that can be perceived in all the connections, and introduces an ellipsis that allows the film to move on to the closing fight. The rhythm is unquestionable, but the secret of fluidity lies in the exact and necessary times of each scene and in the economy of links between all the sequences. There is nothing else. Nothing is given away. Need governs each shot and beauty is not lacking.
Two things remain to be said. The first defines the character completely: Keiko is unable to hear since her birth. It is a handicap that she gives to her opponents, whom she has to beat and always wants to because that is how the rival is respected, as Keiko’s mentor teaches her, in a moment in which the young woman has doubts about continuing to box. This mandate is linked to the nobility of sports, but it has a surprising counterpart that is only understood outside the ring. During the fight, Keiko receives a devastating uppercut. It arrives unannounced while everyone who loves her watches every round from their houses (a fight that takes place during the pandemic). Whether Keiko wins or loses doesn’t matter; what matters is what happens after some time later. One afternoon, Keiko is about to go for a run: one day of many in which she, after working, trains. Suddenly she realizes that the boxer with whom she fought is passing nearby. She stops, her factory worker helmet in hand, and reminds her that they fought a few days ago. They look at each other in silence and recognize each other, without saying a word, as equals. It is a mutual gaze in which all the resignation of those who have nothing except the will to continue fighting is concentrated. It is a union without symbols, a solidarity for knowing oneself in a position without privileges. As film critic Francisco Ferreira hinted, Keiko is Sisyphus. Someone who has to train to survive every day of his life, someone who knows that she must keep her guard up so that her face is not disfigured by blows, a perhaps unnecessary metaphor to explain the cost of existing.
Roger Koza / Copyleft 2022