The cabinet of Doctor Caligari

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There seems to be a fashion right now for silent films with a live accompaniment. With a series of rather dull-looking blockbusters lined up for the summer, these silents are possibly your best choice. If you go to the right venue, you can catch some of the most interesting, imaginative films ever made. The picturehouse cinema chain must be one of the best things to happen to London recently. In a dimly lit room, with a real club atmosphere, we watched The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari with a live score from “Minima”.

And it is a twisted jewel of a film. A study in mistrust, paranoia and madness, it is set largely in the tortured mind of the central character. The atmosphere is very Germanic, with a sort of macabre playfulness that calls to mind Tim Burton. There are some genuine chills, and a plot wrong-foots you at every turn-including (apparently) the first twist ending in cinema.

The hero and his friends encounter Caligari (Werner Krauss ), an evil showman, who has enslaved a sleepwalker. As the group get entangled in the mystery surrounding Caligari, a story of madness and murder follows.

The most striking feature is the films astonishing visuals. The scenery is a Burton-esque fantasy of sharp planes and angles. The main setting-a small German town-is a hallucinatory tangle of twisted streets, filled with menacing shadows. The action moves from one fantasy to another, from the bleak countryside to the halls of a mental hospital, but in every scene, the backdrop is a labyrinth. The actors fit right into these twisted surroundings. The exaggerated acting style and Gothic appearances help create a perfect fantasy world that hovers between comedy and menace.

Overall, a truly brilliant experience. The mainstream run of cinema has little to offer right now. Don’t waste your money on a so-so horror flick. Go to your nearest Picturehouse and book something truly brilliant.

The tour dates of “Minima” can be found at www.minimamusic.co.uk

The Phantom in time

A masked Claude Rains; Lavishly staged opera scenes; Two Oscar wins. The 1943 version of “Phantom of the Opera” certainly has a lot to recommend it. Despite veering wildly from the plot of Gaston Leroux’s novel, this film is a brilliant reworking of the story. So lavish that one of the opera scenes featured a horse, yes, an actual horse on the stage, this version made the most of then-new Technicolor filming. But more eye-catching to those who know the various versions is the altering of the roles. Now, it is a mistake to object to reworking of a story per se. “Blade runner” would be a very different film had Ridley Scott stuck closely to the source material. But it is fascinating to see how reinterpretation of the characters has altered the films meaning.

At its heart “Phantom of the Opera” is a fairytale. Specifically it is a variation on “Beauty and the Beast”. A man falls into trouble, is cursed with physical ugliness and becomes bestial as a result. His only hope is redemption in the shape of a woman’s love. But in the Phantom’s case, there is no hope of a transformation. Beauty rejects the Beast, and is rescued by the handsome prince, Raoul. The Phantom may be redeemed by his love of Christine, but is denied a happily ever after.

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Gerard Butler as the Phantom

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In the 1940s version Claude Rains portrays a different Phantom to Leroux’s original. Rains’s Phantom is a gentle, humane musician, pining for Susanna Foster’s coquettish Christine. He is treated unfairly by everyone, sacked, berated, insulted and finally driven to murder before having acid thrown in his face. Because of his ordeal he becomes the Phantom, and undergoes a complete character change. From passive, gentle and benevolent he becomes menacing, murderous and crazed. His only link to his former life is his love for Christine. It is fairytale imagery, again, wrapped in the conventions of gothic drama. It is the transformation from prince to beast, with only the hope of having the curse lifted. Christine now takes the part of a would-be rescuing princess.

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Lon Chaney as the Phantom

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The film of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical has a different take on the transformation. Gerard Butler’s Phantom was abused as a child, and kept as an exhibit in a freak show. Like Raine’s Phantom, he is turned into a killer by trauma. Emmy Rossum’s Christine hits the nail on the head with her diagnoses:

Christine: This haunted face/Holds no horror for me now. It’s in your soul/That the true distortion lies.

But while the 1940s film focuses on the contrast between prince and beast, Lloyd Webber’s version is concerned only with the Phantom’s predicament. There is no lingering over the protagonists’ former innocence. As for the 1920s film, there is barely any mention of the Phantom’s past, except to link him to crime and black magic. But what all of the films do is emphasise the redemptive quality of the Phantom’s love.

The 1920s version starring Lon Chaney revolves very tightly around the central relationship. The Phantom and Christine are permanently locked in a power struggle. Christine has to throw off her early illusions, and her quite real love. She makes the decisions which drive the plot, choosing handsome, respectable Raoul over the tortured, murderous Phantom. She later plays the role of damsel in distress, but is still active and central to the plot. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s version is similar. In the film of the musical, Christine (Emmy Rossum) even saves the Phantom’s life at one point. Both of these versions stick quite closely to the novel. Here is the deviation of 1940s version: Susanna Foster’s Christine is not in love with the Phantom, nor anyone else. Raoul is replaced by two young men, who she alternately flirts with, and discards at the end (the comic rivalry of her beaux is one of the films highlights). In a way Foster’s Christine is a more feminist portrayal, since she clearly needs none of these men (Christine’s real relationship in this film is with her career). But it does reduce her role in the plot hugely. It also weakens the power of the plot. The gesture of compassion crucial to the Phantom’s redemption comes only after his death-and in a very watered down form:

Christine: He was almost a stranger to me, and yet somehow I always felt drawn to him with…with a kind of pity…understanding…

Very mild indeed compared with this scene from the Lloyd Webber film:

Christine:  Pitiful creature of darkness/What kind of life have you known?/God give me courage to show you/You are not alone…(kisses the Phantom passionately).

In Webber’s version, Christine’s act of kindness comes as close to transforming the Phantom as the plot can allow. He lets her go and escapes, his good side having triumphed. The film even allows him a kind of marriage with Christine, when she gives him her engagement ring. Webber’s version comes closest to the formula of Beauty and the Beast; The lifting of the curse and the union of the characters both have a sort of parallel. There is no scene of retribution for the Phantom’s crimes because redeemed, he can be allowed to escape the mob.

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Claude Rains as the Phantom, with Christine

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The 1940s script gives just enough of a concession to Christine’s role as a rescuer to redeem the Phantom. Otherwise her active role is almost completely cut out. She is the only the object of an obsession. Having changed Christine into a passive figure, the film focuses on Raines’s version of the Phantom. This completely alters the story’s dynamics.  Rather than a passionate power struggle between characters, this is a character study. As the successor to Chaney, Raines is tasked with giving an equal performance in a totally different style. It is fair to say he succeeds. In contrast to Chaney’s grand acting, Rains is all nuance and convincing psychology. His version is a sympathetic anti-hero, who is trying to save himself. He pursues Christine, the passive object, a symbol of redemption. Part of this Phantom’s tragedy is his doomed attempt at self-rescue. This partly expresses itself in his crazed speech to Christine where he sublimates his life in the cellars:

“You’ll love it here, when you get used to the dark, and you’ll love the dark too. It’s friendly, and peaceful. It brings rest, and relief from pain. It’s right under the opera. The music comes down and the darkness distils it-cleanses it of the suffering that made it-then it’s all beauty. And life here is like a resurrection.”

Throughout his madness, Rains’s Phantom is always trying to recover something. Christine is clearly essential to his story, but only as a component. Apart from speaking the lines that grant the Phantom redemption, her only really active role is the unmasking. In the 1920 and Lloyd Webber films, the revelation of the Phantom’s hideousness is the catalyst. It causes the previously submissive Christine to disobey her “master” and choose Raoul over the Phantom. But this version serves a different purpose. In her new role as object and agent in the Phantoms story, she reveals to the audience the Phantoms real condition. The sight frightens her, but is not really a catalyst for anything. It is a revelation, and comes just before the Phantom’s tragic end.

Overall, I would say the Lloyd Webber version is the best, though all three films have their merits. The Webber version, somehow, it’s the only film which has properly looked at all of the issues; The fairytale plot of Leroux’s original. The suffering and transformation of the Phantom. The role of a female rescuer. The 1920s version is slightly truncated, in that it ignores or at least does not linger on the transformation. As for the 1940s version, it seems that female power just could not be acknowledged, even in a film. Why is open to speculation. Instead the film focuses on the male story, almost excessively so, in a depth the other two do not go into. Perhaps now, in a more equal society, all of the issues can be addressed. Lloyd Webber can and does address the story properly, with no need to alter the plot.

Unless you are in love with the original novel, it is possible to enjoy all of these versions for their own merits. And all of them are worth seeking out. Lloyd Webber may have conquered the west end with the musical, but as takes on a gothic fairytale none of these are to be missed. The 1940s take is a character study, not a love triangle, but there is nothing wrong with that. A fine story bears more than one interpretation. And it is nice to see a fairytale in which a woman rescues a man for a change. Just saying.

Three colors blue

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“Three colours blue” is the first instalment of Kieslowskis’ famous trilogy exploring the French revolutionary ideals. The other two films in the trilogy, “Three colours white” and “Three colours red” explore equality and fraternity on the personal level. Like “Blue”, they show their protagonists go though a long personal struggle to achieve the films ideal, often at financial or emotional cost. “Three colours blue”, being a story of personal grief, charts a woman’s struggle for emotional liberation, and sees her suffering horrors in the process. These three ideals-liberty, equality and fraternity-are portrayed by Kieslowski as pure, almost sublimated targets, which can be reached only through hard work. His choice to use these themes-themes an entire country fought over in a bloody revolution-can only make the trilogy public art, art intended to speak to and for France, and the rest of humanity.

The plot is reasonably simple; Julie, (Juliette Binoche), loses her composer husband and child in an accident. Traumatised, she leaves her home and tries to discard her past, rejecting all love and friendship, which she now views as “traps”. Gradually though, she re-learns how to live, and finishes her husbands final work, the “Symphony for the unification of Europe”. The work proves to be a healing force, and she can finally rebuild her life. Binoche is wonderful in the part, delivering one of her career-making performances, which won the “best actress” at the 1993 Venice film festival.

As with all Kieslowski films, the cinematography is beautiful, but in this case shows reality from the protagonists point of view; the repeated use of close-ups expresses Julies wish to limit the world to her immediate environment. The repeated motifs Kieslowski uses, of glass, water and reflections, are relevant; they reflect Julies’ mindset, namely her desire to keep the world at a distance; Glass allows observation without contact: Julie observes the world, and allows it to observe her, but she does not allow anyone emotional contact. Water is used in a similar way in this film, but also reflect her wish to drown her emotions; Julie repeatedly visit’s a swimming pool, where she often stays submerged for a long time.

The journey from isolation to social integration is ferociously difficult for Julie, and mirrors the idea of an eternal struggle for freedom; Julie fights hard against an oppressive emotion, finding recourse in creative work, which is eventually a healing force; the plot is the story of a fierce human struggle to throw off the past, and by hard work, create a future. However detached the story seems on the surface, these peculiarly French ideals run through the very heart of it.

One of Kieslowskis’ abiding interests is in human connections, which he identifies with the three ideals throughout the trilogy; Julie’s initial rejection of society is repeatedly challenged by the director; He uses various tricks and motifs to remind us of the interconnectedness of everyone in society; For example, in one scene a busker plays the very music Julies husband was composing; He later reveals that he made up the tune himself. This scene serves to remind us that different people from different backgrounds, for different reasons might have identical thoughts. Julies’ journey away from voluntary isolation, and return to love, reflects the directors beliefs: The individual must always return to society, because life outside society is worthless.

“Three colours blue” is certainly a masterpiece, and won unanimous praise from critics when it was first released. Quite apart from Binoche’s perfect performance, it interprets emotional freedom as a high ideal. Woven in with this ideal is Kieslowskis’ vision of society as a unified whole, which offers love in its various forms, provided you accept it. Kieslowskis’ film is certainly public art, speaking on the most personal level. It speaks very well.

Damnation

Bela Tarr has a tendency to be demanding and introspective as a director. Since his beginning in Hungarian cinema, he has been a revolutionary force, determined to present his own picture of Hungarian reality. His determination to scrap the “lies” being shown on screen caused him to create a complete manifesto with regard to his new style of film-making; his emphasis on the importance of black and white, close-ups and hand-held camera-work formed the basis of his distinctive style.

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Though “Damnation” is not half as complex as his later film  “Werkmiester harmonies”, it reflects the directors rather dark and pessimistic view of humanity. The story is about a romance between Kerrer, a listless, brooding man and a married singer. Kerrer finds life as it is unbearable, and hopes for escape . The film follows his pursuit of the singer, and his eventual betrayal and despair.

Tarrs direction is incredibly stylish, specialising in slow long shots and composition; Tarr creates an atmosphere of brooding menace persistent through the whole film, where he uses the “film noir” imagery for all its worth. The combination of light and composition makes the whole visually stunning, though the very slow long shots can be demanding of the audience.

One of the most effective devices in this film is the way the crime is treated: The singer (Vali Kerekes) is very much the femme fatale, capable by her own admission, of terrible things. There are references to violence and smuggling, but suggestion is always the primary tool. The film lurks on the edge of  the criminal underworld, affording the viewer a glimpse of what the characters could be involved in.

Vali Kerekes low-key performance as the disillusioned singer is one of the highlights of the film; she radiates listless menace, nearly upstaging Miklos Szekley, who plays the infatuated Kerrer. The singer is really the star of the film, not through what she does, but by what Kerekes makes us believe she is capable of.

 

 

Kerrers story is a story of  rejection of society; since he feels society has nothing to offer him, he seeks out something else, which he feels is embodied in the singer. At one point, the director provides us with a visual metaphor precisely to illustrate this rejection; while the whole village is gathered in a great dance indoors, one madman chooses to dance alone in the rain outside.

At the beginning of the film, Kerrer has already isolated himself from the world; he has no job, almost no human contact, and is flirting with crime. What he is seeking, quite deliberately, is to discard the values of a society he finds oppressive. His hopes for the future lie in his idea of what he might find outside society, if he succeeds in escaping it. At one point the confides to the singer that she personifies the amoral freedom he longs for;

“Between you and a world forever out of reach, there is a strange and empty tunnel. I don’t know anyone else who knows that road. You’re standing alone at the entrance to that tunnel, because you know something I can’t even put a name on, something deeper and more ruthless than I can ever understand. I realise that I can never get closer to that world, I can only long for it, because it is hidden by I light and warmth I cannot bear. I have never been able to believe in it, nor to renounce it…if I were to lose you it would  be the unforgivable end of me, because I know nothing about that unnameable world. Since you are part of it, you mean the world to me.”

Kerrers pursuit of the singer is the malcontents pursuit of a state of freedom. What the film is ultimately about is the decent into damnation, and the motives of those who reject social values.

Cronos

 Del Toros’ breakthrough film is a sophisticated take on a legend that remains unexhausted by endless re-interpretation. The themes of greed, temptation and international politics permeate this film; Del Toro turns a gothic yarn into a dark political fable, using the vampire as a symbol of destructive craving and isolation.

The story is relatively simple: An ageing antiques dealer, Gris (Federico Luppi) and his little granddaughter stumble on a device that slowly turns the user into a vampire. A dying American billionaire and his nephew (Claudio Brook and Ron Perlman) are also in search of it, and try to terrorise Gris into giving it up. Gris, fascinated with the possibilities of the device, retains his hold on it. The story revolves around the conflict between temptation, addiction and fear of the consequences.

Visually the film is nearly faultless, especially the directors use of light, which is golden and misty in the domestic scenes. As the film grows darker, the colours are desaturated, and the lighting grows grimmer. Some frames are visually stunning, though others are a bit pedestrian, making the tone slightly uneven. The violence and horror is hard to bear, even if you allow that it makes the film more powerful, or brings the moral message home. As the device and the Americans infiltrate the protagonists life, the film grows correspondingly more violent.

On one level, the film is a clear allegory of U.S. Mexican relations, set firmly on the side of Mexico. The small shopkeeper suffers at the hands of heartless, wealthy Americans, who try to steal something valuable from him; Gris is a sympathetic representation of Mexico as the victim: He is the harmless, provincial family man, a personification of easygoing Mexican values. The American characters, by contrast, are a portrayal of a bad America, distanced from the Mexicans by repeated lapses into English. The billionaire and his nephew are brutal, greedy, materialistic and have no affection for each other whatsoever. Their emotional isolation from the world signifies the directors belief that wealth and greed can be fatal to human values. Their preoccupation with materialism reflects U.S. capitalism, which the film Del Toro portrays as potentially fatal to Mexico as personified in Gris. The more addicted he becomes to the device, the more Gris becomes a reflection of the Americans, who have lost their humanity already. In this way, the device represents wealth, in Del Toros’ terms, as a force which grants material well-being, yet destroys and transforms; by the end of the film, Gris has completely changed from a very human personification of the Mexican everyman to a reflection of the antagonists: Isolated, inhuman, and consumed with craving. The political narrative of the allegory has Mexico transformed by wealth into a reflection of America-and in the process lose its values and identity.

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On another level, the film goes further than political allegory; the narrative also represents the internal war in everyone between greed and innocence, which are portrayed as very much at odds. The granddaughter in the film personifies conscience, and the higher morals; She repeatedly tries to interrupt Gris’ addiction, which reflects the addiction of humanity to anything spiritually dangerous. As the film progresses, Gris first makes half-hearted reassurances to her, then shifts to wordless dependence on her forgiveness. The transformation Gris goes through, from man to vampire, is a shift away from humanity, towards the cruelty and brutality the Americans personify. As the narrative progresses, there is a reversal of roles: the first scenes are dominated by the granddaughter, and Gris’ home life; By the end of the film, the Americans are the centre of attention. The crucial moment, which decides Gris’ fate, comes at the end: Starved of blood, he comes close to killing the granddaughter. His choice-to die and thus protect the granddaughter-is a rejection of greed which we all have to make.

Cronos is essentially a dark fable, as well as a political allegory. But the presentation of it is very slightly unbelievable due to the symbolism-the Americans are so utterly, disgustingly foul it is hard to believe people like that exist. Overall, the film works, but the horror makes it hard to watch.

Bastards Law

This is the first episode of a theoretical nine-part series worked out for a college assignment.  I collaborated with Tina Tamarakar in writing this, so Tina, no need to reach for a copyright lawyer. I dont have the slightest idea how a series like this could end, but if you have any suggestions, do let me know. Images from Bela Tarrs’ “Werkmiester harmnoies” and “Damnation”.

Scene 1.
 
It is a dark night, and rain is pouring down from the sky. There is a solitary street lamp, which illuminates nothing but its own little circle of pavement on the dark little London street.
Maria walks into view. Barely more than twenty, she is dressed in a raincoat rather too big for her, carrying an  A-Z and an umbrella as well as a small scrap of paper. She pauses under the street lamp and tries to examine the A-Z, fumbling with the umbrella.
 
Two hoodies loom out of the shadows behind her. They grab her before she has time to think-only for Max to leap into the scene. He fends them off with some well-choreographed action and a knuckleduster.
 
The thugs run off, as Max stoops to help Maria to her feet.
Max: Well done. Its not even past midnight, and you did a good job of nearly getting killed just now. Who are you, walking around at this hour?
Maria: (Scrambling to the ground and searching desperately) The address…!
Max: Don’t mind me. (Watches in irritable bewilderment as she finds the paper and sighs with relief).
Maria: This could be my only chance of saving him.
Max: (With the air of someone who, having found a beetle in their salad, lifts the rest of the lettuce.)…Oh? (she turns to look at him. A strong-looking man in his mid thirties, Max is very much the policeman, apart from his clothes. Feeling awkward and grateful, she pushes her hair away from her face.)
Maria:…I forgot to thank you.
Max: Don’t worry, I never expect thanks. Now…I think its question time. (Tries to take the paper from her but she moves back.) I don’t mean you any harm. And you’re obviously in trouble. You can let me help you, or you can face this-whatever this is-on your own. (Takes the paper from her now unresisting hand. It has an address written on it in smudged pencil). What is this?
Maria: (On the edge of tears) I think it’s the place where they took him…
 
Scene 2. (Flashback)
 
Maria and her father, Doctor Smith are eating breakfast in their kitchen. He is middle-aged, mild, rather soft-looking, and does not deserve what is about to happen to him. Maria finishes her coffee at the table. He opens today’s post, dismissing the bills, and then stares in distaste at a letter from OMNICORPS. This sinister company-who primarily deal in nuclear weapons-has written AGAIN to offer him work.
 
Smith: (Over his shoulder) Will you look at this? Those disgusting people are really not giving up.
Maria: Another subtly menacing job offer? 
Smith: I think it’s a bit much, actually, if you can’t work in nuclear physics without getting job offers like this. Just listen to this! “Accepting our offer would see you enter an exiting and lucrative business with unlimited hopes for the future-”¬ yes, unlike the people they would drop the bombs on, whose future would be nonexistent! Its an insult, really, for them to expect you to accept jobs like that. The trouble with working in science now is that everywhere you turn you meet people who expect to buy and sell you. You’re young, you don’t know what its like, but being considered a commodity is…its…well, you don’t belong to yourself, that’s all I can say. Not to them. Even your thoughts-no, especially your thoughts-are company property. I went into science because I love it! And I wanted to serve humanity! Do these people give a damn about my reasons? If you have a mind and can be useful they see you as a thing. No rights, no will of your own. Like a computer…(Throws the letter on the table.) Now on top of it they’re making threats. 
Maria: What threats?
Smith: Oh, nothing very explicit. Everything that lot say is coded-its often like that with powerful companies-but basically they say that they could get very nasty if they don’t get what they want, and I should consider you.
Maria: (Alarmed)I don’t like the sound of that! What could they do?
Smith: Nothing! Oh, you mustn’t worry. I’ve got people backing me, there’s  not much they can do to hurt us. (Glances at the clock). You need to get going, go on, or you’ll be late. You’ll be back-when?
Maria: Around six.
Smith: Don’t come through the lab please, I’ll be working all day. (Kisses her cheek.) See you later.
(She leaves. The camera focuses on the discarded letter on the table. As Smith finishes his coffee in the background, the camera pans in on the letter, till first the white page, then the company logo, fill the screen. The logo gets bigger and bigger, a black circle in the centre gets wider, until the screen goes completely black.
 
Scene 3
 
The blackness remains for a moment then lightens. We are in a dark room. Matilda sits at a desk reading a letter from Smith. A ruthless non-human in allrespects, she advertises it in her appearance. A man, mostly hidden in the shadows, stands behind her.)


Matilda: He won’t accept the offer.
(She leans back and sighs.)
Man: Are you sure, Ma’am?
Matilda: Completely. I sent him that final offer purely as a sort of…sop. A last chance. Now I know it was a waste of paper. He’s refused so often, he won’t accept now, he’s not that type. (She lays the letter down carefully, takes out a small hand-mirror, and redoes her lipstick.) You know, I won’t even wait for a reply. Why bother? Just take him. (Pouts in the mirror.) Grab him. I’m tired of playing polite. He was given a chance. Many chances.
Man: What about the girl Ma’am?
Matilda: What about her?
Man: Yes Ma’am. 
 
He moves away. Scene darkens.
 
Scene 4
The camera peeks between some leaves outside a laboratory window. Through the window, Smith is working at a table, feverishly writing notes.
In another part of the house, a window is quietly prised open.
Smith completely fails to hear several pairs of feet on the stairway, and down the hall. He fails to hear a door quietly open behind him. Return to the shot through the window. Dark shapes surround Smith from behind, and one of them throws a hood over his head…
 
Scene darkens.
 
Return to the street with Maria and Max
 
Maria: I went home that night and the house was dark and empty. I searched and searched. The next morning I phoned all his friends. In the end I went to the police.
Max: And? What happened? What did the police do?
Maria: Well you can imagine. There was a search like you get when anyone goes missing-but then …it was just knocked down. No one explained. There were “orders from head office” apparently. But no one explained-why?
Max: Did anyone say who in head office?
Maria: No-one told me anything.
Max: (Shoves his hands deep in his pockets and paces a bit. Stops with his back to her.) You said your father was a scientist.
Maria: Yes?
Max: And someone, a very reticent someone, ordered that a search be dropped. A search for a scientist, and a missing scientist, is always an official worry. If you’ll excuse the term, its valuable national property gone missing. You need to look after it.
Maria: (Annoyed) That’s my father, don’t talk like that about him! Do you even have a point?
Max: My point is, they dropped the case for a reason, and reasons like that are always a lead! It comes back to power, and people-this person in head office. They cut you dead when it came to getting answers. They had something to hide. (Turns on her suddenly) But that wasn’t the end was it? What happened?
 
Scene 5
Flashback 
 
Marias sitting room. She is crying on a sofa, her face hidden in her hands. Her mobile phone is on a table beside her. She glances at it and reaches out but then withdraws her hand. Camera cuts to a shot of the letter box in the front door. A hand enters the shot and pushes a slip of paper through the slot. In the sitting room Maria hears the noise. Looking tearful but now curious she goes to the front door. The piece of paper is lying on the door mat. End flashback.
 
Return to the street
 
Maria: The address was the only clue I have ever had. And I have to find it.
Max: Well good luck there. You are out on your own, in the dead of night, and you haven’t even brought something to defend yourself with. I assume you didn’t tell the police.
Maria: I don’t think they would have helped. I told you about the strange way the case was knocked down. You clearly think I’m silly-but I think I would have gotten no help.
Max: That’s broadly true I think, after what you’ve told me. You wouldn’t be allowed help. Lucky you ran into me. (Holds out his hand). Give me that A-Z. I have nothing better to do tonight.
 
Scene 6
 
The two stand in front of a dark East End warehouse. It seems to be in complete disrepair. The rain is pouring down now and they stand together under her umbrella. A single street light illuminates the open front door.
Max: Are you sure about this? It would be easy now to turn around and go home. I can tell you from experience, things like this are often harder to get out of than you’d like.
Maria: Are you joking? I have to find my father.
Max: Just checking.
 
The two go in, Max leading, Maria following behind. Max produces a torch from somewhere in his coat. the beam illuminates a dark, cavernous room, and broken furniture. Suddenly he turns the torch beam onto something white on the floor.
Max: I don’t think he is here …but someone gave themselves away.
 
He holds up a small business card. The OMNICORPS logo is visible in the torch light.

The master and Margarita

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Margaria as the queen of the damned – Illustration by Retro Atelier

Demons. Vampires. Witches. Literary critics. Just some of the eerie and menacing creatures that populate Bulgakovs sweeping novel. Written during the darkest days of Stalin’s regime, the book combines grotesque comedy with a sense of omnipresent menace and secrecy.  Both a satire on soviet life and a tender examination of the human spirit, this is a book not to be overlooked.

The plot is a complex structure interweaving three stories: The Devils visit to Moscow with his Demons; A woman who sells her soul to save her lover; And the biblical story of Pontius Pilate, who had Christ executed. The third story weaves between the other two and provides a moral backdrop for the rest of the action.

The story of the Demons exploits is largely a satire of soviet life, told in the spirit of grotesque comedy. The Demons booze and gun sling their way through Moscow,  savaging the literary Elite. The motive seems to largely be retribution: publishers have fallen in with government policy and suppressed religious literature. Throughout the book bewildered publishers are evicted, beaten up, harassed with menacing phone calls, and set on by Vampires. The action climaxes in a grotesque Seance in which the Demons punish greed and vanity; They give women elaborate dresses-which vanish, leaving the wearer in their underwear. The whole plot presents a picture of mundane reality interrupted by unexplained bouts of violence.

Illustration by Retro Atelier http://www.masterandmargarita.eu

The story of Margarita is more complex and centered. It is a female Faust story centering on a demonic pact and its consequences-but Margarita is more complex and ambiguous than Faust. She represents the meeting point of good and evil, displaying good qualities at the most incongruous moments. True to form, she and her lover end up in purgatory, eternally hanging between good and evil. The couple represent all-too-worldly human love, both un-condemnable and un-savable.

Illustration by Elena Martynyuk http://www.masterandmargarita.eu


The only equal to Margarita in moral dubity is also the only character to reach redemption: Pontus Pilate is the brutal and conflicted anti-hero of the “flashback” plot set in ancient Jerusalem. Travelling through the moral spectrum, his story is the high point of the book, being a fable of guilt, cowardice and redemption. The brutal comedy and the worldly love of the other two plots are set against the third, in which a character is his own tormentor. Pilates story provides a context for Bulgakovs moral that “cowardice is tha greatest human vice”.

In parallel, the three plots represent three examples of sin and retribution, determined by the levels of recognition.  In the first plot, the literary elite are so desensitized to corruption, they are unconscious of having done anything wrong. Their bewilderment at the demonic attacks provides a lot of the comedy, but also defines the story. They represent a society gone morally blind.

The second story concerns guilt conscious but passive; Margarita makes her deal with her eyes open, absolutely complacent provided she gets what she wants. The lovers make no move towards redemption. There is no introspective debate in the story. The lovers do not  recognise that they have done wrong, and so end up in purgatory. Margaritas story presents a moral passivity that Bulgakov considered dangerous, personally and socially the unwillingness to become conscious of wrongdoing.

Pilate, who spends most of the book in a miasma of guilt, is the only one to reach redemption. There is no compromise or Demonic punishment in his story, because Pilate faces his own wrongdoing. There are attempts to make amends, internal debates, and a final reward. Bulgakovs moral is that, individually and  socially , we have to look our crimes full in the face. Then we can set them right.

“The Master and Margarita” may have political meaning, but it also has a far more permanent relevance. Bulgakov examines the moral ambiguity of human nature, the nature of sin, the importance of introspection. It is a lovely book, written with humour and intelligence, and deserves its place among the great classics.