It's no more than fitting that most reviews of 'A Most Wanted Man', Anton Corbijn's slow-burning adaptation of John le Carré's novel, have centered on Philip Seymour Hoffman's swan song performance as a dogged, whisky-fueled German spy in a world where the rules have changed, or rather been thrown out.
However, arguably the film's greatest strength, faithfully transposed from the 2008 book, is the way it delivers its scathing political message purely through its plot. It is a masterful demonstration of 'show don't tell', embodied in the film by Hoffman's role as Günther Bachmann.
Warning: book & film spoilers ahead.
In the panicky post-9/11 spy world - especially in Hamburg, where the attacks were partly hatched - Bachmann's patient, follow-the-money efforts to infiltrate a global terrorist network are deemed old-fashioned. His German superiors, with the Americans breathing down their neck, demand quick and spectacular results, and the whole intricate story builds up to a collision between Bachmann's long view and the American need for action.
As Le Carré synopsized in retrospect:
Bachmann’s self-devised mission is to put the score straight: not by way of snatch teams, waterboards and extrajudicial killings, but by the artful penetration of spies, by espousal, by using the enemy’s own weight to bring him down, and the consequent disarming of jihadism from within.
But times have changed. When the clash comes, in an explosive final scene, its dramatic effect is as thwartingly disillusioning for Bachmann as it is for the audience - like a chess game whose every careful move we've followed, suddenly destroyed by a tantrum-throwing toddler.
The film then ends on a prolonged stunned silence, leaving the audience to conclude that this was not how chess is played, with collateral damage clearing the entire board. (Or more melancholy, that Bachmann and his fishing game had simply become outdated, his classic tradecraft an anachronism, which would make 'A Most Wanted Man' as much Le Carré's swan song as Hoffman's.)
But Le Carré's novel carried more political punch, as damning of modern state power as his earlier 'The Constant Gardener' was of corporate power.
At the very end of the book he permitted himself a short epilogue voicing what has happened. It is the only time the political dimension is made explicit, beyond the suggestion that the American intervention was just bad tradecraft.
'Where have you taken him?' Bachmann asked.
'Abdullah? Who gives a shit? Some hole in the desert, for all I know. Justice has been rendered, man. We can all go home.'
'Rendered?' [Bachmann] repeated stupidly. 'What's rendered? What justice are you talking about?'
'American justice, asshole. Whose do you think? Justice from the fucking hip, man. No-crap justice, that kind of justice! Justice with no fucking lawyers around to pervert the course. Have you never heard of extraordinary rendition? Time you Krauts had a word for it.'
Even if the film omitted this exchange, its culture shock is there, in subtext, and in Bachmann's final outburst of furious frustration.
One still has to count one's summers, pass
one's sentence, snow one's winter
one still has to get the shopping done before
dark asks the way, black candles for the cellar
one still has to give the sons a pep talk, measure the daughters
for their suits of armor, teach ice water to boil
one still has to show the photographer the pool of blood
get unused to one's house, change one's typewriter ribbon
one still has to dig a pit for a butterfly
trade the moment for one's father's watch –
- Gerrit Kouwenaar
Translation by Lloyd Haft. Dutch version 'Men moet' posted here years ago.
DOMIN: What sort of worker do you think is the best from a practical point of view?
HELENA: Perhaps the one who is most honest and hardworking.
DOMIN: No; the one that is the cheapest. The one whose requirements are the smallest. Young Rossum invented a worker with the minimum amount of requirements. He had to simplify him. He rejected everything that did not contribute directly to the progress of work - everything that makes man more expensive. In fact, he rejected man and made the Robot. My dear Miss Glory, the Robots are not people. Mechanically they are more perfect than we are, they have an enormously developed intelligence, but they have no soul.
HELENA: How do you know they've no soul?
DOMIN: Have you ever seen what a Robot looks like inside?
DOMIN: Very neat, very simple. Really, a beautiful piece of work. Not much in it, but everything in flawless order. The product of an engineer is technically at a higher pitch of perfection than a product of nature.
HELENA: But man is supposed to be the product of God.
DOMIN: All the worse. God hasn't the least notion of modern engineering.
Karel Čapek's 1920 play 'R.U.R.', or 'Rossum's Universal Robots', famously introduced the word 'robot' in English (from Czech 'robota', drudgery, forced labour). Its dark satire also explored a range of themes that today are staples of science fiction, and some that may soon become reality.
Čapek's robots are actually artifical people, androids rather than what we today view as robots, and they are created in an alchemistic process reminiscent of Frankenstein or the Golem. Soulless and efficient, they are perfect artificial workers who are rapidly rendering humans superfluous.
Set on an island production facility, the play describes a robot revolution that threatens to make mankind extinct. But before that happens, the factory engineers and managers explain - with very familiar-sounding hubris - the advantages of their robots to a visitor, Helena, who wants to bestow human rights on the robots.
Consider the grand vision of Domin, the plant's director, whose rhetoric echoes almost verbatim in contemporary rhapsodies on the advent of, say, self-driving cars or delivery drones.
DOMIN: ...in ten years Rossum's Universal Robots will produce so much corn, so much cloth, so much everything, that things will be practically without price. There will be no poverty. All work will be done by living machines. Everybody will be free from worry and liberated from the degradation of labor. Everybody will live only to perfect himself.
HELENA: Will he?
DOMIN: Of course. It's bound to happen. But then the servitude of man to man and the enslavement of man to matter will cease. Of course, terrible things may happen at first, but that simply can't be avoided. Nobody will get bread at the price of life and hatred. The Robots will wash the feet of the beggar and prepare a bed for him in his house.
ALQUIST: Domin, Domin. What you say sounds too much like Paradise. There was something good in service and something great in humility. There was some kind of virtue in toil and weariness.
DOMIN: Perhaps. But we cannot reckon with what is lost when we start out to transform the world. Man shall be free and supreme; he shall have no other aim, no other labor, no other care than to perfect himself. He shall serve neither matter nor man. He will not be a machine and a device for production. He will be Lord of creation.
We just have to wait for the beggar's-feet-washing robots to arrive...
(Quoted from the translation (pdf) by Paul Selver and Nigel Playfair.)
The summer exhibition 'Sky! - in Dutch Art since 1850' in De Hallen, Haarlem, brings together paintings along with photography, sculpture and video work, all dealing with the sky above the lowlands, and its artists below trying to capture it.
It's a very eclectic selection, ranging from classic polder views to Carel Willink's magical-realist landscapes to Guido van der Werve's 'The Day I Didn't Turn with the World', and there's even a cornered Mondrian. With its thematical rather than chronological presentation, the exhibition seems to overstretch itself at times, but it still includes quite a few rewarding works.
Here are three favorites, spanning almost the entire timeframe of the exhibition.
A great patch of far-off light, which is as close as a flat landscape comes to mystery, in 'Windmills in a Polder Landscape' ('Molens in een polderlandschap') by J.H. Weissenbruch, who observed, "The sky and the light are the great magicians. The sky determines a painting. Painters can never observe the sky enough."
An almost perfect balance of mosaic and landscape, flat and vast, sunburst and overclouded land, in Leo Gestel's post-impressionist, luminist 'Autumn' ('Herfst', 1909).
The only horizonless image from Wout Berger's photo series of the IJsselmeer, 'When I Open My Eyes' (2010-12), so technically it's only from the rest of the series of 60, which all have the horizon about centered in the image, that the sky can be inferred here.
The Klever Reichswald, a great stretch of dark beechwood between Nijmegen and Kleef, where the Dutch LAW 6 ends and the path continues as the European E8.
A strange sight, the allegorical bronze sculpture called 'Verity' by Damien Hirst looking out to sea in the North-Devon coastal town of Ilfracombe. Standing on law books and holding the traditional attributes of Justice, sword and scales (though hidden behind her back and off-balance), this symbol of truth is also very pregnant. A perhaps unintended effect of her placement is that the westering sun hides the controversial anatomy lesson of her exposed right side.
Names, science, history... not even the most adamantly down-to-earth botanist thinks of species and ecologies when he or she first stands at Wistman's Wood. It is too strange for that. The normal full-grown height of the common oak is thirty to forty metres. Here the very largest, and even though they are centuries old, rarely top five metres. They are just coming into leaf, long after their lowland kin, in every shade from yellow-green to bronze. Their dark branches grow to an extraordinary extent laterally; are endlessly angled, twisted, raked, interlocked, and reach quite as much downward as upwards. These trees are inconceivably different from the normal habit of their species, far more like specimens from a natural bonzai nursery. They seem, even though the day is windless, to be writhing, convulsed, each its own Laocoön, caught and frozen in some fanatically private struggle for existence.
The clitter of granite boulders, bare on the windswept moors, here provides a tumbling and chaotic floor of moss-covered mounds and humps, which add both to the impression of frozen movement and to that of an astounding internal fertility, since they seem to stain the upward air with their vivid green. This floor like a tilted emerald sea, the contorted trunks, the interlacing branches with their luxuriant secondary aerial gardens... there is only one true epithet to convey the first sight of Wistman's Wood, even today. It is fairy-like.
But it is the silence, the waitingness of the place, that is so haunting; a quality all woods will have on occasion, but which is overwhelming here - a drama, but of a time-span humanity cannot conceive. A pastness, a presentness, a skill with tenses the writer in me knows he will never know; partly out of his own inadequacies, partly because there are tenses human language has yet to invent.
- John Fowles, 'The Tree' (1979)
In his novella-length essay 'The Tree' John Fowles explores his relationship with nature, wilderness, and above all trees and woods, which he called "the last green churches and chapels outside the walled civilization and culture we have made with our tools."
Its climax is his evocative description of a visit to the Dartmoor high altitude oakwood copse Wistman's Wood, whose name perhaps derived from the old Devon 'wisht', meaning haunted.
Here is an impression of Wistman's Wood today, the trees just coming into leaf...
There runs, between Lyme Regis and Axmouth six miles to the west, one of the strangest coastal landscapes in Southern England. From the air it is not very striking; one notes merely that whereas elsewhere on the coast the fields run to the cliff-edge, here they stop a mile or so short of it. The cultivated chequer of green and red-brown breaks, with a kind of joyous indiscipline, into a dark cascade of trees and undergrowth. There are no roofs. If one flies low enough one can see that the terrain is very abrupt, cut by deep chasms and accented by strange bluffs and towers of chalk and flint, which loom over the lush foliage around them like the walls of ruined castles. From the air ... but on foot this seemingly unimportant wilderness gains a strange extension. People have been lost in it for hours, and cannot believe, when they see on the map where they were lost, that their sense of isolation - and if the weather be bad, desolation - could have seemed so great.
The Undercliff - for this land is really the mile-long slope caused by the erosion of the ancient vertical cliff-face - is very steep. Flat places are as rare as visitors in it. But this teepness in effect tilts it, and its vegetation, towards the sun; and it is this fact, together with the water from the countless springs that have caused the erosion, that lends the area its botanical strangeness - its wild arbutus and ilex and other trees rarely seen growing in England; its enormous ashes and beeches; its green Brazilian chasms choked with ivy and the liana of wild clamatis; its bracken that grows seven, eight feet tall; its flowers that bloom a month earlier than anywhere else in the district. In summer it is the nearest this country can offer to a tropical jungle. It has also, like all land that has never been worked or lived on by man, its mysteries, its shadows, its dangers - only too literal ones geologically, since there are crevices and sudden falls that can bring disaster, and in places where a man with a broken leg could shout all week and not be heard. Strange as it may seem, it was slightly less solitary a hundred years ago than it is today. There is not a single cottage in the Undercliff now; in 1867 there were several, lived in by gamekeepers, woodmen, a pigherd or two. The roedeer, sure proof of abundant solitude, then must have spent less peaceful days. Now the Undercliff has reverted to a state of total wildness. The cottage walls have reverted to ivied stumps, the old branch paths have gone; no car road goes near it, the one remaining track that traverses it is often impassable.
- Jown Fowles, 'The French Lieutenant's Woman' (1969)
Here's the Undercliff today, a well-trodden part of the South West Coast Path, though it continues to be unstable ground, and the track indeed proved impassable near Axmouth, blocked by ample warning signs...
These days a new Banksy piece might just be whisked off to the museum right away. This one, 'Mobile Lovers', is now on display at Bristol Museum. Here it was in the wild.
Elsewhere in Bristol (Clifton) the message is even more direct...
After all these landscape odes, here is a Dutch poem that has acquired a distinctly urban connotation, Lucebert's 'the very old one sings' ('de zeer oude zingt', 1954), its reputation depending mainly on a single line.
In fact, most people probably won't be familiar with the source of its famous aphorism, so here is the full poem, in the translation by Diane Butterman:
there is not more in little
nor is there less
still is uncertain what was
what is to be will be will-less
first when it is it is serious
fruitless it recollects itself
and stays in great haste
everything of worth is defenceless
grows rich from touchability
and equal to everything
like the heart of time
like the heart of time
The line that has become immortal is "everything of worth is defenceless", or "alles van waarde is weerloos" in the original Dutch, which for decades has towered over the centre of Rotterdam in red neon. Along with Zadkine's statue 'The Destroyed City' ('De verwoeste stad', 1953), it has come to symbolize Rotterdam's World War II destruction and its postwar struggle to find a new heart. Acting as a kind of 'memento mori', the quote reminds the city of the transience of all things – including its own newly erected futuristic skyline.
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