It’s difficult to exactly quantify the impact of Cristi Puiu’s second feature. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is a film about an ambulance worker’s attempts to get care for a dying man against the backdrop of a disinterested and bureaucratic healthcare system. It won Puiu the main award in Un Certain Regard at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival; kick-started what would become known as the Romanian New Wave; and paved the way for his compatriot Christian Mungiu to win the Palme d’Or with 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days just two years after. If Mungiu’s film was Romania’s Parasite, in a sense Puiu’s was its Oldboy.
His third feature, Aurora (2010), explored some similar themes but over the last decade Puiu branched out to experimental literary adaptation (Three Exercises of Interpretation, 2013) and dialogue-heavy chamber piece (Sieranevada, 2015). Those two threads come together in Malmkrog, an adaptation of three conversations by the Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov, set at the beginning of the 20th Century and portending the Bolshevik revolution to come. As dense as it is demanding, and coming in at a remarkable three-plus hours, the film’s Berlinale premiere was met with no shortage of frustrated walkouts. We rather liked it.
The Film Stage: The film appears to be taken almost verbatim from Solovyov’s book. How did you choose what would be added to the text or taken out?
Cristi Puiu: This is something you cannot explain. It’s like asking a musician to talk about what he hears. When you decide the sound of the violin is the right one in the economy of the whole sound; it’s very hard to explain this. At a certain point you realize: stop, we have it. We worked on the text together with the actors. They had to learn their lines but they didn’t know what we were going to shoot next day. And it applied to me as well.
[When] we were coming to the end of the first dialogue it just appeared to me that Olga has to fall. I didn’t know this from the beginning. At the beginning, I had lots of idea and there [remains] some residues of these ideas. For example, the exterior when they are outside in the park after the killing, you hear the horns of the hunting taking place and some dogs. I wanted to have that filled full of boars. I didn’t because I didn’t have the money. So it passed through different sorts of channels. I wanted, at a certain point, to have an astronaut enter in the frame in slow motion to Bee Gees music. I’m not joking.
So there are lots of ideas coming to you when you are shooting freestyle. I didn’t want to make the film in autumn, I told Anca–my wife, the producer–I said, we don’t have the money. I would prefer to adapt Demons, of Dostoyevsky, so I started reading Demons. Because the actors accepted this very tiny fee, I said okay, let’s go do it. It’s a matter of: this is important. In the end here is the film, a nightmare for most of the spectators.
The use of light and color feel significant throughout the film. What was the basis for this aesthetic?
Let’s put it like this: every time I make a film I have a set of references. It’s not that I’m taking account of these references. It’s unconscious. So when I made these films on my present life, films that are being called part of this “Romanian Realism,” the unconscious reference was the texture of documentary films. For this one, it settled more on the possible mind of someone who wrote a text in the beginning of the 20th century. The reference was more painting than cinema. So we tried to find the right balance between the characters moving inside the space and the background.
So that’s why this decision to install the series of Four Seasons of Nicolas Poussin, and this piano salon. That’s why I played with what is happening inside the frames of the paintings and photography that you have on the walls in the film. Every one of these paintings has a very solid significance for me and for the film itself. So it’s not just decoration for the film. The texture had to be very close to the texture you have in 19th-century paintings coming from Russia or Eastern Europe or Romania.
The texture is coming from the same root somehow. There’s an open door for fantasy, a limited one because there is a text and there is a meaning of the text. It goes together with this mansion. Because the mansion itself gives you the possibility to build up the mise-en-scène and to have different layers, like a sort of Matryoshka. And there is the important symbolism of the code of the colors that the characters are wearing. It is not by accident that Ingrida, for example, the wife of the general, is wearing red–which stands for royalty. As for the others, all the colors are having a sense. Like the politician who is dressed in the beginning in this suit, like being caught inside a cage.
The trailer for Malmkrog.
You mentioned that you based it more on painting than cinema. Can you talk more about that?
This question has nothing to do with painting. Why? Because it is not just visual. Cinema is not just image. Cinema is more than this. Cinema is not even the story. Cinema is not even the acting. Cinema is something else. As a painting is not the figure represented inside the frame. Painting is something else. Like poetry; it is not the words well organized on a sheet of paper. Cinema is something else.
To give a definition and translation of this would be extremely arrogant. I can give you an example. For me, the best art critic of a painting, just take Las Meninas of Velázquez’s, the interpretation from Picasso, so using the same tools in order to talk about a painting. It’s coming from the same family of thoughts. I know it is not an easy film and I didn’t expect it to be so. The book is not an easy book. It is not an incomprehensible book, it’s just from time to time we forget to ask ourselves these questions that I found to be extremely important, essentially. So people are free to leave the cinema when they wish. If you know my films, you know I couldn’t care less about this fact. You know why I don’t care? Because I respect the audience. So I do believe that the relationship of love, the relationship between humans, is to do with honesty. I’m not going to lie to you because I consider this text is extremely important.
The cinema device is important because it somehow shaped the period after the Second World War. And not just this, you know pretty well that cinema can be used as propaganda. You know pretty well Eisenstein made propaganda films, like Leni Riefenstahl. A lot of filmmakers did this. They are important because Eisenstein is a great filmmaker, but you can’t separate the two. For me there are just two possibilities in the cinema world: if you are not an author, you are a propagandist. As simple as this, commercial cinema is propaganda. But if you care about what you think, I think you have to testify it.
Did the amount of dialogue create a challenge for you?
For everyone. You know it is the wrong idea to consider the author of the film is the guy who is controlling everything. You control some things but you cannot [control any more] than a fisherman. You cannot control the fish in your net. But you have to wake up early, you have to prepare for this, you have to throw the net in the sea and then to wait. And this applies to cinema, to poetry, to everything. The best things that are in my films, and I believe in all films being made on this planet, are not coming from the authors. I mean not consciously, it is coming from these channels of inspiration. It’s mysterious.
So for me, a great film is a film that is new for the author, as a consequence of it. I know the text, I read it at the beginning of the 90s and afterwards I did a workshop based on this text. I read it on this film, I staged it, and I directed it, and I heard it during the editing and working on the sound. So it means that I saw it a lot, from the beginning to the end. And every time I watched it I realized at what point I was misled by my own thoughts, considering that I got it. I didn’t. And every time something new; a revelation. And I thought this is something that might happen to all the other people. You have to be aware of this but it’s difficult, especially in a festival. My position regarding this selection was to have the film out of competition, to be presented in Berlin to trigger the distribution. I think it’s the best position to be put. To be presented in Viennale, it’s great. You present the film, it’s cool, it is not in competition. People are not put in the position of comparing and evaluating by comparison–which is killing all the films.
I know it is difficult today because it’s very difficult today to talk about Jesus Christ. It’s not like I’m part of some kind of church, I grew up in a family that was atheistic. At a certain point you realize that the world you live in is not what it appears to be. There’s more to it than your senses allow you to get. Every time you are entering this field people are starting to be skeptical now because the inertia of the scientific model is so huge. It’s coming from the age of enlightenment, extremely rational persons. I am an extremely rational person myself but I experience the boundaries of rational thinking quite often.
In which way do you experience them?
Like for example, how stupid you are when you talk about your experience of love. You hear the words you are saying and it’s stupid. You cannot put a set of words on an emotion. Maybe the best way to express your feelings is to push the verbal expression to its limits by going to poetry. And then you put something, like writing with your heart, not a poem, just like automatic. And then you’ll put on paper something that is quite abstract for other people. So my claim is that this experience, you cannot give it to others, through words or through paint. If you get to the point where you are satisfied with the words on the paper, maybe you paint a painting or compose a sonata; it will stay abstract for all the other ears. Everyone will take it and imagine a completely different world. Meaning there are some experiences that are limited to your own self. So this is a boundary for rational thinking and it applies to the relationship you might have with God, or the big bang. Everybody has their choices.
What about the element of time? The idea of time, especially in this film, comes to mind. Not the length, necessarily, but recovering and reconstructing an era and the pace of that life.
We tried to do our best but of course you have some limits, you check the photos, you check everything, but at the same time, it has to pass through your sense anyway. Everything was controlled; I didn’t want to put an emphasis on what they’re eating. Everything was extremely documented. They had to have things people were eating but the intention was not to restore a period, the intention was to block the speculation of the viewer. Like, when you have an error in the matrix you tend to miss the essential.
The way the guests interact with the servants felt quite significant. How authentic did you want this to be?
“They are servants… fuck them all.” I believe it was like this. I believe all these books of memories that we have from the period. There’s no interaction. It’s like living in two separate worlds. It is true, I was asking myself the same questions, serious questions, and I checked the films that were made on this period, or close to. So besides the fact that they are doing things, they never interfere in the conversation of the aristocrats, coming up with their opinion regarding subjects. So there is a clear cut between these two levels of small tiny society inside this mansion. Otherwise, they are the origin, somehow part of the Bolshevik revolution that is coming and sweeping everything, all the ideas. It’s coming to kill everyone. You [cannot] forget the communists killed themselves. Not just in Russia, in Romania as well. At a certain point, they start eating each other.
Malmkrog premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival.