For 60 minutes of screen time, the action is flowing and continuous: five characters – Ingrida (Diana Sakalauskaité), Edouard (Ugo Broussot), Madeleine (Agathe Bosch), Nikolai (Frédéric Schulz-Richard) and Olga (Marina Palii) – move elegantly, formally, as they converse, often heatedly. But it’s all done standing; sitting, it seems, is not permitted in this style of debate. The subtle, cumulative tension that this arrangement generates suddenly breaks at the hour mark: Olga collapses in a dead faint, and everybody rushes to her aid, eventually exiting the frame and leaving the set bare for a while. End of Part I (titled “Ingrida”), with five more to follow.
What’s going on in Cristi Puiu’s Malmkrog? – so named after the Transylvanian manor in which these talkative events take place. It helps to know that the hour of dialogue we have just heard and witnessed is taken, virtually word for word, from a Russian text of 1900, Vladimir Solovyof’s War and Christianity, translated into English in 1915 (and freely accessible online today). In its extreme, archaeological-archival devotion to presenting straight this old, historic text – to some peeved contemporary viewers, dated or anachronistic in the bad, alienating sense – Malmkrog seems to slot in with a tradition of radical cinema associated with Danièle Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub, or more recently John Gianvito: the texts of history – the more alien to our present day, the better – laid out in a line, simply presented, weighed up for our consideration and judgement (as Jean-Luc Godard or Harun Farocki would say).
At the same time, there’s something playful, almost perverse in Puiu’s project, not at all like the tradition just cited. An hour of tense standing-only, followed by a sudden crash to the floor? That has to be the long-deferred punchline to a strange, cerebral gag – the kind of gag that, as Raúl Ruiz once remarked, is stretched so far that it becomes tragic. And this playful/perverse aura only increases when one observes how this and certain other interventions introduced by Puiu serve to either literally truncate passages in Solovyof’s text or, obversely, insert long, semi-wordless caesurae (up to 10 minutes in length) between two consecutive spoken lines of the book.
Malmkrog offers what must be one of the most extraordinary cases of adaptation in cinema history. War and Christianity is, to say the least, an unusual book. It is more the setting-in-motion of a philosophical dialogue – like those zany essays where an author imagines, say, Kant and Plato having an extended chat across time – than a novel in any conventional sense or understanding of the word. Its narrator, a shadowy “silent listener”, reconstructs three lengthy conversations between five people. Their discussions – deeply bound to their particular time and place, and thus multiplying references that can seem fussy or esoteric to us today (bad luck, spectator!) – touch on lofty theological and philosophical questions (good and evil, faith and belief, the nature of God and the Antichrist), but always return to the central, burning, topic on Solovyof’s mind: whether one should adopt a non-violent approach to the organisation of society (Tolstoy’s attitude, which Solovyof abhorred), or approach the duty of fighting war in a fervently committed, Christian spirit.
So Solovyof’s book reads more like a play script – except that it lacks even the barest indications of stage action. Puiu read the book in the 1990s and, by his own account, was deeply affected by it; he subsequently used it as the basis for a workshop with actors, resulting in the little-seen Three Interpretation Exercises (2013). Returning to this source text in Malmkrog, Puiu condenses some passages (shaving off multiple examples used to back up some of the arguments) and – somewhat mercifully – omits its final 40-page reading-out of a “Short Narrative About Antichrist”. But, in everything he does use, Puiu remains scrupulously faithful to the letter of the text – almost every word spoken is derived verbatim from Solovyof (the few mundane additions have, deliberately, no “literary” quality at all) – while, at the same time, using its representational abstractness as the springboard for his creative imagination.
In a sense, Puiu’s project has expanded from an acting workshop to a large-scale laboratory for mise en scène. Everything – from setting and costume to strategies of staging and sound design – has to be invented from scratch. But not in any conventionally naturalistic way, whatever Puiu may say about his research into the manners of the time (such as wealthy Russians in that area speaking German at home unless, for guests, they switched to French – thus rendering the dominant language of the film not quite as odd as it might at first seem). This process also includes characterisation, for there is hardly a whiff of individualised psychology in Solovyof’s mouthpiece-ciphers. So, while retaining the deliberately stiff, hieratic, “talking picture” approach to his material that is reminiscent of Manoel de Oliveira’s films or Carl Dreyer’s Gertrud (1964), Puiu also allows himself the freedom to rearrange certain core elements, such as gender consignment (a General and a Prince in the book both become women here) – and to dream up an elaborate, mostly silent background intrigue involving the entire servant class that regularly wafts in and out of the frame.
In the 1960s, Victor Perkins surmised that Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa vie (1962) was a formalist exercise that offered up “a string of suggestions as to how one might film a conversation”. Puiu stretches that string still further. In the first long conversation (the one that ends with Olga’s collapse) everyone is, as mentioned, on their feet, incessantly changing their individual position and overall configuration; in the next one, they are seated for dining and the camera assumes a static, long-take position at an insistently frustrating distance from the talking. In a later scene “at table”, Malmkrog makes the startling jump into conventional shot/reverse shot découpage – and, in this stylistic variant, the dense psychological ambience created by furtive glances and tense silences quickly takes shape. But Puiu never sticks to any one mode for very long.
The spectator has to be on strict alert for all the strange discrepancies and oddities in Malmkrog – Luis Buñuel’s surreal The Exterminating Angel (1962) rating (as Puiu has avowed) among its prime reference points. Conventional exposition is altogether omitted, and so the interrelationships between characters never become entirely clear – and certain additions by Puiu (like the elderly gentlemen being tended to in another room, who contributes a few non sequiturs in delirium) only make proceedings still more opaque and elusive. The film both is and is not a stately (or stuffy) period piece/costume picture (as it has been taken, and dismissed): certain props appear and disappear, indications of daytime or night time waver, the weather changes abruptly … and just what is going on with the bullets that, after a stately fade-out, seem to have left no character harmed or object broken?
Atop the linear recitation of Solovyof’s text, Puiu appears to successively conjure several fragmented, discontinuous films, possible or virtual variations on the given structure, and the nominal diegetic world. Cinematically, this is the terrain of Tsai Ming-liang (Stray Dogs, 2015) or Ruiz (Mysteries of Lisbon, 2010). The few glimpses of the snowy world beyond the house – rendered in long shots where figures move mysteriously in the distance – enhance this ambience of pieces or levels floating freely. It’s a step beyond what Puiu’s previously achieved in The Death of Mr Lăzărescu (2005), Aurora (2010) and Sieranevada (2016).
And (what would normally be considered) the “content” of this piece? Or the “substance” of its dialogues, which of course is what mattered most to the now-forgotten Solovyof in his day? In interviews, Puiu declares that all the problems canvassed in Russia at the end of the 19th century (such as the increasing presence of Asia in global culture and economy) are still the same ones we canvas today – thus demonstrating (to him) that so-called civilisation has not moved forward one inch in 120 years. Presumably, that’s what moved him in his initial reading of the book. Personally, I do not find the choice of historic material captivating on this level, beyond the few facile, comparative ironies that it inevitably prompts. To me, this sounds like Puiu trying on the “deeply relevant” justification for his abiding experimentation – just as some kindly but misguided reviewers labour to praise Malmkrog for either its worldly “seriousness” (the favourite word of chic New York intellectuals!) or its familiar Garden of the Finzi-Continis template of rich aristocrats idling while, outside the snowy gates, the terrible century looms … I’m not convinced – in this case, at any rate – by these particular appeals to dramatic significance.
Is Malmkrog thus an academic artwork? Insofar as much of what it achieves can only be appreciated with a copy of Solovyof’s text close at hand, the answer to that question has to be: yes. But is that a problem? Puiu is a devoted believer in intellectual cinema; he has confidently stated that his film three requires three viewings to really grasp what he’s doing. However true that may be, there is also an unlikely emotional payoff, albeit a frosty one: in its evocation of the politely chatty ghosts of a lost history, Malmkrog is also reminiscent of John Huston’s adaptation of James Joyce in The Dead (1987). And that is no small compliment.
© Adrian Martin February 2021