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Walter Murch on Editing and His Translations of Curzio Malaparte

Walter Murch Walter Murch

While editing The Unbearable Lightness of Being in France, Academy Award-winning film editor and sound designer Walter Murch came across a reference to Italian writer Curzio Malaparte’s description of horses being suddenly flash frozen in Lake Ladoga during the siege of Leningrad. He became intrigued by the startling image, and tracked down Malaparte’s 1944 novel Kaputt, the book the image came from. Over time Murch, best known for his work on films such as The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, read all of the obscure Italian writer’s translated writings, then brushed up on his Italian to read untranslated work. He eventually began translating pieces himself, which were recently collected in The Bird that Swallowed its Cage: The Selected Writings of Curzio Malaparte (Counterpoint, 2013).

Malaparte, born in Italy of a German father, was a soldier in both World Wars and author of some of the most stunning writing ever about World War II. His novels Kaputt (1944) and The Skin (1949) mix journalism and fiction and are marked by a disturbing use of surreal images (he was an influence on the magical realism of Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez). Although also a film director (his one feature, The Forbidden Christ, won a prize at the 1951 Berlin Film Festival), he is best known to film audiences for the home he designed for himself on the island of Capri, which featured prominently in Jean-Luc Godard’s film 1963 film Contempt, starring Brigitte Bardot, Michel Piccoli and Jack Palance.

Filmmaker: As a fan of Malaparte’s work, I very happy to come across your translations about 10 years ago. I understand you have some thoughts about Malaparte’s writing in relationship to filmmaking, or to your own practice as an editor, perhaps.

Murch: What interested me was that the mental state that I got into when translating turned out to be very similar to the mental state I get into when I’m editing, particularly when I’m editing something that has a script. The script has a plan and certain things are specified and certain things are not specified, and you are using that to guide you in the creation of something new. If you allow for a certain fuzziness around the edges it’s a kind of translation.

I also found that although Malaparte wrote in prose, I was spontaneously without any deliberation on my part reorganizing the words on the page so that it was a kind of scattered free verse. This has some relationship to editing, which is: “At what point do you decide to end a shot?” That’s my bread and butter, what I’ve done on a daily basis for the last 40 years. In editing, because of the nature of the way the human mind works, the image at the cut point has a little kind of mental flash bulb on it. You remember the last image of a shot. Maybe not consciously, but it imprints in a way and we use that as we structure a film. We want to leave audiences with these little flashbulb moments, which are key moments. It is sort of stating the obvious but I found that’s exactly the challenge when you’re doing free verse. The word that is hovering at the end of the line is kind of exposed to the blankness of the page, so there’s a kind of emphasis on it that may not be true if you just combine them all into a prose line where that word would be buried in a solid page of text.

Filmmaker: Your translations in particular seem to be more musical and to have more visual and sound elements. I didn’t realize until reading your versions how much description of weather, light and sound there is throughout Malaparte’s writing.

Murch: Yes. I was trying to emphasize this. In the opening piece in the book called “Murderer,” there is this horrible thing that happens. One of his fellow soldiers gets this fatal wound. He’s not dead yet but he’s clearly dying, and there’s no possibility of evacuation. In writing the piece, Malaparte alternates between the dilemma of this situation and taking the opportunity to look around himself and describe the weather and the forest that they are in, and the quality of the light. He’s making a literary comparison with brilliance of the light on that day and the fact that this kid is sinking into darkness as he’s dying. So the piece alternates between these kind of musical sections where he’s describing in a very lyrical way this strangely calm and beautiful landscape they’re in, knowing that they are surrounded by death and destruction.

BirdThatSwallowed_8.31Filmmaker: The way that you break this piece into distinct sections, using prose for the narrative parts and free verse for the lyrical parts reminded me a little of the way you handled music in The Godfather. In that film, you are in these real moments during the scenes without any music, and then music comes in at the end of the scene, after the action rather than on top of it.

Murch: Right. The Godfather for me is a very good example of good placement of music, because the music doesn’t tell you what to think as the scene is happening. Often, there is no music in those scenes, but music comes in at the end to help you to channel that emotion in the right direction – meaning in the right direction for the film. It’s as if the scene builds up an emotional charge, like an electrostatic charge where if you touch the slightest thing there’ll be a spark. The music comes in to bring that excess energy back to earth, to neutralize things in the right way so you can build up that energy for the next scene. That’s the way I love to use music in films. The other way is to have music during the scene. It’s undoubtedly effective, but the danger is that it’s effective in the way that using steroids is effective. It can definitely build up muscle, but it’s not good for you in the long run, and it’s cheating just by of the nature of bringing this artificial steroid into your body. Bringing in music to beef up the emotion of the scene is a little like putting a needle in and injecting the film with a musical steroid.

Filmmaker: That is what is different about reading your translations of Malaparte as opposed to the ones done after World War II. The relationship between the documentary aspects and the lyricism is more distinct. I’d love to see you translate Kaputt.

Murch: There is one story in this book, “The Gun Gone Mad,” which is a chapter from Kaputt, which was not translated into English. That particular chapter is full of sound, the sound of the bombs and the stutkas as they fly by, and then the silence of the bombed city with just the cats and the crushing of broken glass as he walks through the town. Ultimately the dog, the main character in the story, is driven mad by these explosions. The redemption of the dog also happens through sound, when he hears again just the crack of the hunting rifle – a clean, clear sound that relates to the dog’s chosen profession of hunting dog, rather than these chaotic cataclysmic sounds.

Filmmaker: Malaparte’s extensive use of sound in creating unforgettable images is very clear in your translation. There’s that part in your translation of Partisans, 1944, where the narrator describes the landscape as atonal and compares it to Schoenberg

Murch: Well, I’m a sound guy, but it’s in Malaparte. I’m not injecting that into the stories. I can see how somebody who was not interested in sound would translate it slightly differently if they were not tuned into those things, but Malaparte definitely was. He is a very cross-sensory author, and he was probably cross-sensory himself – one of those people who hears a musical note and sees a color. I don’t know, but looking at the evidence of his writing he talks about that frequently.

Filmmaker: Do you ever find inspiration in literature for how to create something in editing, or are you just responding to the material you are working with?

Murch: Sure, I’m a voracious reader, I’m a reader more than a moviegoer. There’s actually an example in the editing of The English Patient where I took an inspiration from something in Malaparte for the scene where Caravaggio is getting his thumbs cut off. Malaparte – who was half German himself – made an observation about German soldiers that the thing which drove them into a kind of frenzy was perceived weakness on the part of their opponent. The last thing you’d want to do in fighting a German is to appear weak or ask for mercy. In the structuring of that scene, there’s a moment where Caravaggio asks, “Please don’t.” An editor works on a scene following the script and responding to the material, but it also helps to have something underneath that, that audience might not even be aware of. I was playing with the idea in this scene that the German was threatening Caravaggio to scare him with this idea of, “I’m going to cut off your thumbs,” but didn’t really intend to do that. But thinking of Malaparte’s observation, I realized that Caravaggio just showed weakness by saying, “No, please don’t.” I then took another reading of that line and repeated it, which didn’t happen in the shooting, so he says, “Please don’t,” and then he says it again. There’s a wonderful German phrase that I use a lot, “Einmal ist keinmal.” If it happens once, it is as if it didn’t happen, but if it happens twice, it’s like: uh oh! So the fact that Caravaggio repeated that line meant, “Okay, you’re weak,” and it’s at that point that the German decides, “Oh, I am going to cut off your thumbs.” Then things spring into action. There’s a shift there. This is happening below street level and there’s been an unnoticed background noise of tanks above ground. When Caravaggio repeats the line, it suddenly goes very quiet. A couple of lines are exchanged, and then music comes in and he actually does cut off Caravaggio’s thumbs. Reading Malaparte informed my editing of that scene. I learned only later that when Willem Dafoe first met with Anthony Minghella to get a sense of who this character was, Anthony suggested Willem read Malaparte. Probably The Skin, which is Malaparte’s book novel about the American occupation of Italy.

Filmmaker: It might be a stretch, but I wonder if translating from one language to another could be compared to editing the same film starring a different actor. In The Conversations you talk about the lead role of Apocalypse Now being originally shot with Harvey Keitel, and how that was a totally different film because when you look at Keitel it’s not about watching him observe things. I’ve noticed that sometimes what doesn’t work in terms of the translation from script to screen is exactly what you were talking about – an actor’s physiology itself can alter what a film is about.

Murch: Yes, that’s a good point. Harvey Keitel is a wonderful actor but he is an act-or meaning he acts, he is action, he does things. And the character of Willard is a re-actor. He doesn’t do anything in the film as written. He is the observer, and you watch the film through his eyes and sensibility. I remember months before shooting, Francis told me, ‘I’ve cast Harvey Keitel,’ and I thought, ‘Great.’ I thought that would be a good thing, because he could play a convincing killer. But in fact I was wrong, because I didn’t really realize how little Willard does in the film. And it was clear to Francis after a month of shooting that it was just not the right chemistry for that role. Marty Sheen has very big eyes, and Harvey Keitel has thin eyes, and so it’s easier its easier to use Marty’s face as the lens through which you see this war than Harvey’s.

Filmmaker: So the editor/translator would have a very different job in each instance just because of the size of the actor’s eyes.

Murch: There’s a lovely aphorism by Bresson which says, “The little gleam of light caught in the actor’s eye gives meaning to his whole character,” and just exactly that what you’re saying, a little chance spark of light in an actor’s eye tells you what the character is thinking, or makes you think you know what he’s thinking. And the chances are with an actor who has big eyes that you’ll get more of those reflections rather than somebody whose eyes are in deep shadow or whose eyes are thin. It’s a very true observation, but its one that is completely uncommented on, so thank you for bringing it up.

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