The new Encounters competition launched this year at the Berlinale promises to deliver “aesthetically and structurally daring works” that “challenge traditional forms.” The program’s opening film, Cristi Puiu’s Malmkrog, in which five Russian aristocrats debate some of the most pressing philosophical issues of the late nineteenth century for nearly three and a half hours, fits the bill. Malmkrog is, all at once, stimulating and stultifying, handsomely composed and shot, occasionally funny, and frankly, a tough sit.
In 2011, Puiu (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Sieranevada) was invited to conduct an acting workshop in Toulouse, and as he told Aaron Cutler in Cinema Scope, on the morning of his departure for France, he made a quick decision to take along a book by the Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov published in the last year of his life, 1900. Solovyov declared that he wrote War, Progress, and the End of History: Three Conversations, Including a Short Story of the Anti-Christ “to show the deceptive face which hides the abyss of evil.” It’s a theme that comes through loud and clear in Malmkrog and one that probably resonates more discernibly now than in 2011. “I was going to the country of Descartes to meet a bunch of rationalistic French people,” Puiu told Cutler, “and we would build scenes together by talking about things like religion and the nature of morality.”
No one involved with the workshop intended to make a film but one took form nonetheless. “What we witness throughout the [Three Interpretation Exercises] is the difficulty of articulating broad philosophical ideas through dramatic dialogue, making the conversations sound spontaneous, or at least like the expounded views of the person delivering them,” wrote Michael Sicinski when the film screened in Toronto in 2013. “Can abstraction be the basis for character, or does the film have to stop in its tracks to become ‘something else’?” Reviewing Malmkrog for Variety—and offering some helpful historical context as well—Jay Weissberg asks a similar question: “Is cinema really the best means to delve deep into this level of intense philosophizing?”
Malmkrog would seem to take place over the course of a single afternoon and evening primarily within the stately rooms of a grand manor house, the actual Apafi mansion overlooking Mălâncrav, the Transylvanian village known to German speakers as Malmkrog. The film is divided into six chapters, five of them named after the debaters: Nikolai (Frédéric Schulz-Richard), the host with a penchant for needling Olga (Marina Palii), a devout Christian who doesn’t believe in the resurrection of Christ; Ingrida (Diana Sakalauskaité), who argues the case for the righteousness of war; Edouard (Ugo Broussot), a Franco-Russian with an unhealthy obsession with the supposed superiority of European culture; and Madeleine (Agathe Bosch), who gives voice to Solovyov’s belief that evil will ultimately win out. The sixth chapter focuses on the butler, István (István Téglás). Throughout Malmkrog, there’s an intriguing tension, albeit one barely sustained, between the haughty self-satisfaction of the debaters and the hushed subservience of István and his team as they silently swish from room to room.
There is also a greater, more mysterious tension between the persistently declarative nature of the conversation and the intermittent hint that there is more going on, maybe even a lot more going on, than what we see and hear. Well into the evening, there’s an incident that begins comically and quickly devolves into a threat to tear apart the very fabric of the world the film has already spent a couple of hours establishing. There’s music, then panic, possibly gunfire, and for a fleeting moment just before the quick fade to black, it looks as if at least one of the guests has met a fatal end. But as the lights go up on the next chapter, all are well and present, as smartly dressed as ever, and no one mentions the disruption.
In a video interview at Cineuropa, Puiu mentions framing the film as a series of “subjective memories” unreeling in the mind of Solovyov. This would explain the chronological disorder—in one chapter, there’s a Christmas tree, but in another, it’s gone—and perhaps other disturbances as well that contribute to the claustrophobic sense that we are trapped with these characters in some sort of Sartrean purgatory. Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962) has come to the minds of several reviewers.
If only Malmkrog were as much fun. I, for one, would like to watch it again (“You’ll need to watch it three times to get it all,” Puiu told Jordan Cronk this past weekend) but—and this may come off as heresy to some—at home, where I can stop, rewind, and catch a phrase or a movement I’ve almost surely missed the first time around. The arguments come at us fast, densely packed, and in French, so keeping up with the subtitles means missing out on a full appreciation of the performances, Puiu’s superb staging, and cinematographer Tudor Panduru’s wondrous use of the winter light pouring in through the tall windows. As Jay Weissberg puts it, “Puiu has pushed his trademark naturalism aside for a pronounced artificial theatricality—the glances between characters are anything but natural—that’s far more intriguing than the material itself.” In Screen, Jonathan Romney argues that “for all its directorial mastery, this austere cine-symposium feels like an artistic blind alley.”