Tuesday, 4 February 2020

1917: Landschap Verdriet [SPOILERS ALERT]

It's been a couple of weeks since I saw Sam Mendes' 1917 at the local flicks, but I'd still like to say a few words about it. It is one of the most powerful pieces of cinema, or even any kind of art, that I've seen. I came out of the cinema feeling sick, I found it that intense.

*I'll just take this moment to say 'watch out!' as there are spoilers from hereon out.*

I went in to the viewing with low expectations, thinking I was going to get a 'Saving Private Ryan, but set in World War One, full of teary-eyed Brexit-embrazened nationalistic sentiment', but I was so wrong. Whereas Saving Private Ryan is a story that follows a group of soldiers, each with distinct roles, as they cross through France in search of one man, punctuated with then state-of-the-art blood and pyrotechnic effects (trying to create a sensational viewing experience that conveyed the horror of war), 1917 is focussed, really, on one person's journey to deliver a message which will save many peoples' lives. There aren't the same group dynamics or character explorations. In that sense, 1917 is a bit more pared down, more sharply focussed. And as for the 'sensational'; yes, there is also gore, but the truly shocking and enduring images were of, for example, the way the bodies of soldiers and horses were decomposing into the sloppy mud and clay of the trenches, conveying a deep sense of how the wider war was creating landschap verdriet ('landscape grief'). I know it's a cliché to say that the film's location is a character in itself, but in this case, it is true that the surroundings did play a big part, creating calm or tension by itself.

I feel that SPR was more trying to be accurate and factual, filming along a route that real soldiers may have taken, whereas 1917 shows, yes, the horrors wrought in war, but uses the scenes more artfully than authentically, going from those sickeningly grim trenches sluiced with the dead, to farmhouse, to town, to river, to wood, to different trench systems - each chosen more for their emotional weight than historical accuracy. The journey is, if anything, more potent for that. Its other techniques (lighting in particular, especially during the town scene where pallid flickering flares punctuate the midnight blackness) that foster the sense of unending horror, as opposed to the action (firefights, mainly) in SPR.

One thought I had about the 'human war' facet of Mendes' film was how, at the beginning of the film we see dead bodies being reclaimed by the earth, those promising specimens of manhood reduced to barbed wire-based memento mori baubles. Indeed, our main protagonist Schofield is buried in rubble quite early on, but rescued by his pal, Blake. There seems to be a sense of humans and nature being inseparable. They are the killers and the killed, stuck in an inhuman (depending on how you define 'human', I guess...) process. Shortly after escaping the trenches, Scho has to move through a bombed-out town, lit only by the intermittent release of flares, and inconsistent flames. The town doesn't claim him like the rubble did, but it surrounds him closely, jaggedly looming. After an encounter with German soldiers, he runs away and jumps into a river rapid, which made me think there was an element of allegory there. The obvious point is that he's been baptised, and, especially because he threw his rifle away in his haste to evade the enemy, his focus changes from taking life to saving life. Maybe he's Jesus? Then, at the end, when Schofield's finally within reach of stopping this big battle going ahead, the soldiers' dark khaki uniforms stand out like print on a page against the trenches of loose, chalky stone, whiter than ashes, maybe suggesting they've regained their distinct humanity? I know that's a half-baked idea, but it's all I got...

Obviously a lot had been said in the media of Mendes' 'one-shot' look, and his collaboration with Roger Deakins who helped to achieve this. I think this absolutely contributes to the intensity of the film, and why I felt so viscerally affected by it afterwards. I don't want this to sound like a trite comparison, but it reminded me of playing one of my favourite ever games, DOOM. That is a first-person shooter (i.e. you look through the same eyes as the protagonist), and it is renowned not just for its blood 'n' guts, but also its ingenuity in level design. I am going somewhere with this, honestly... Imagine being completely alone in strange worlds, and every action you take leads inexorably to the next - for example, one of DOOM's fave moves is, upon picking up a key, a wall behind you that you thought was solid opening up to reveal monsters. At first, the sound shocks you, and then you start taking damage. You have to be sharp, turn around, and defend yourself - and it is this way in 1917. Especially in the town scene. That phosphorous hanging in the air provides this moment of sickly beauty, and for a moment we can breathe, but we have to move on, and within seconds, shots are raining down, and where is there to run? The sense, in both examples, is 'there is no turning back'. We can't in 1917 because the message needs to be delivered before it's too late. We can't in DOOM, because we simply want our nightmare to end, to find that elusive safety. 1917 really was a great vision, and superbly realised. I know it could never come too close to the real living grief that war is, but I was almost constantly disgusted - that this is what countries and their governments do to humans, put them through this hell that is completely made up by 'others'. Where is there to run? There is no safety from human nature, which, it seems, will always find conflict and inhuman cruelty. And Brexit.

Right. Ramble nearly over. I think I'd give 1917 four stars. It's so challenging and well-executed that I want to give it five, but I think some of the artistic contrivances (with respect to visuals, the inaccuracy of German soldiers' shooting that would cause even James Bond henchpeople to raise an eyebrow, and, y'know, clip sizes in guns (when will film-makers learn?), for example) took me out of things a bit. As I've said in other reviews, I look at things with such an unfairly keen eye sometimes, but, yeah, I think if the film could have been less of a 'gallery', it would have resonated that little bit more, but that's going to be near impossible to do, But hey, I considered five stars, so it's not like it's far off. Praise due to everyone who worked on it, and a million awards.

Since 1917, I've been to see Bad Boys for Life. Was alright.

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