“People Tend to Push the Film Away”: Cristi Puiu on Malmkrog
There was nothing at Berlinale quite like Malmkrog. I say this first with the authority of having seen it almost immediately after my train arrived on the first of what would be ten disappointing days at the 70th edition of the festival. Relative to Malmkrog, the other big directors at the festival mostly played it safe. And having this behemoth—an adaptation of a 1900 Russian text by Vladimir Soloviev entitled War and Christianity: Three Conversations—as the inaugural film of the new Encounters section at the festival was one of the boldest decisions undertaken by the festival’s new artistic team. That the section as a whole didn’t live up to its first epic entry is understandable.
Malmkrog is broken into six sections, each named for one of the protagonists. Speech is the defining characteristic of the film: the back-and-forth between characters, and their long monologues about, say, the ethics of religious war, are more or less constant. But while they run on for startling lengths of time, these dialogues and monologues have a muscular quality, a compactness and concentration of purpose difficult to define. Far from being excessive, the film trembles with tension and pressure.
Throughout, Puiu pays as much attention to gesture and movement through the frame as he does to the words spoken by his characters. The singular way he pans to follow the simple movements of a waiter in the second section—darting backwards and forwards with uncertainty at his task—is as memorable as the protracted reading of a disquieting letter from the Armenian front in the section before it.
Puiu’s movie is a stark, wholly original work of adaptation that demands a Herculean degree of attention of its audience over the course of its 200 minute runtime. Yet its formal elegance is ample reward in itself: few working directors would have the daring to make such a harsh, violent, discursive film, and approach its subject with Puiu’s rigorously cultivated looseness of form.
Filmmaker caught up with Puiu, who has an intensity and focus all his own, shortly after the film’s premiere early in the festival. Malmkrog plays next as part of this year’s New York Film Festival
Filmmaker: This is such an exquisite, stately film—but so violent. And when the underlying tension bursts out from this suppressed place, it becomes a literal violence.
Puiu: You are a brave guy. People tend to push the film away, to stay at a certain distance—not only this film but cinema in general, looking from afar as if they don’t want to venture inside. When I chose to make a film out of this book by Soloviev, it was because while reading it I had this very strong feeling that he is somehow a dear friend, somebody I would talk about these matters with. His questions were my questions. I was 25 or 26 years old when I read it. When you are young, you don’t have the answers yet, but you have the questions. When I decided to make a film based on the book, I believed that there would be some other people that would identify the questions they are asking themselves. Because I don’t have the answers—Soloviev has the answers, and very strong ones. But because I don’t, I wanted to put some signs inside the film itself to signal this.
There is a moment towards the end of “Ingrida,” the first chapter, when they are facing the window. On the wall there are two images in frame: an engraving of Konigsberg and above it something that looks like an eye or a vertebrae or… something like that. Which is, in fact, a map of Konigsberg. At a certain point, I wanted to call the film The Seven Bridges of Konigsberg, the name of a mathematical problem that cannot be solved. At the beginning, the people inside the house are talking about the two monks. Behind Madeline, you have a portrait of Leonhard Euler, the mathematician who proved why this problem was unsolvable. For me it was consonant with the fact that—I don’t know about the others—I cannot solve this problem. The trigger for the film was my confusion.
Filmmaker: The text has this longstanding evolution for you. You read it when you were very young, you made another film of it—
Puiu: Well, almost. It was a consequence of a workshop. I believe you will understand more about filmmaking while making a film than while talking about films. I did these two workshops in France where I picked some of the actors and asked if they [wanted] to do the workshop like this or to talk about films. They said, “No, let’s make something.” So, in that case, it was a film only for a workshop. We didn’t hold the rights to the text—the film couldn’t be sold purely on the basis of rights. The workshop was sponsored by the syndicate of actors in France. It was an exercise that had to do with my doubts regarding the possibility of making a film out of this text. I had to have the proof that it could work, that a dialogue can become a film, even if I had it from watching the film by Louis Malle, My Dinner With Andre. But this was different because of the length and the arguments inside the text. One of the problems with the subtitles in Malmkrog is that one character comes up with an argument, then another comes up with an argument, then another and another. It’s hard to follow. Nevertheless, subtitling is only a choice, a solution. The ideal is to speak the language—then it would be difficult, but not to the same extent. But you cannot speak all the languages on this planet.
Filmmaker: The text is so flat in a way—almost entirely just these dialogues. It is tight as a muscle. Individual words are so penetrating.
Puiu: You mean strictly their dialogues? Not the scene of actual violence?
Filmmaker: Even that makes total sense to me. The style is all about this feeling of pushing in, of winding something to a point of great tension. Of course, when you do that it has to release and explode outward at some point. It’s an almost random eruption.
Puiu: Almost. The text ends with this character—Nikolai in the film, in Soloviev’s book he is Mr. Z—going to look for a manuscript. In the book, he brings it back and reads a short story about the Antichrist. I cut it from the film and think I made the right choice. You have 30 pages of this story, a prophecy, in the book itself. We wanted to print it and bring it to Berlin, translated into six languages, and give it to the people who saw the film. We didn’t find the money, unfortunately.
Once I had finished the editing and was on the sound, I realized that maybe the one actually violent scene I included to state other things—mainly related to the way these worlds are violently crumbling at the time of the book because of the Bolshevik Revolution, the French Revolution—is itself the story of the Antichrist, told with mise-en-scene, staging, blah blah blah. It is a way of telling that story, giving a voice to that Antichrist, as he talks about the end of the world and the coming of the messiah, which you have in Christian eschatology, in Islam [and] in Judaism. It’s pretty much a part of our culture. Europe is a place where all these influences play. European culture is a consequence not just of the Romans and Greeks, but also of the Christians and Hebrews and Arabs. That brought to the Western world algebra, for instance. It all has something to do with this Mediterranean basin that Soloviev talks about in this short story of the Antichrist.
Filmmaker: And this arrived at a fortuitous time for you.
Puiu: Yes, for me it worked like a revelation when I was 25 or 26, because I couldn’t care less about all of this stuff I just mentioned. We were happy because Communism had collapsed and I was into painting, free to express myself as artist, blah blah blah. Bullshit. Then I read this book. I was educated in a very Cartesian way growing up in a Communist, atheistic state and all that. My grandparents were believers; we played jokes on them. When I was 17, I read this book by Bertrand Russell—the Communists published it of course—called Why I Am Not a Christian, [and] found arguments I used to fight with my grandmother, proving that we are descended from monkeys and all those things.
But later on, after the collapse of Communism, they published the testimonies of those who survived the Romanian gulag—people that had been imprisoned for fifteen, twenty years. Communist camps, extermination camps. We didn’t dare to talk about these things. There was one guy who did, [Aleksandr] Solzhenitsyn, and then another, [Varlam] Shalamov. We paid attention to it a little bit, but we didn’t want to enter there and realise the point at which this system was… malefic. I read these testimonies and people were talking about, well, God. I thought: “Something is wrong. There is an error in the matrix. It cannot be true. Most of those people who survived this believed in God?” I didn’t have an experience of this magnitude myself. I knew, and know, nothing of these things. So, I started paying attention. The book of Soloviev came at this exact moment, when I was deep into these testimonies.
Filmmaker: Who else were you reading?
Puiu: There is a Romanian literary and art critic, an intellectual from the ’30s and ’40s, who had later been imprisoned. A Jewish guy, Nicolae Steinhardt. He converted in prison to Christian Orthodoxy and became a monk once he was released. He wrote this book called Diary of Happiness. It was very hard. [Imagine:] You’re into painting, reading books that have more to do with literature, art, etc. Meaning: the trajectory of this guy, going from being interested in what humans brought to themselves—culture, literature, art, philosophy—is suddenly betraying that camp, my camp. [In that case] something is wrong, or something is wrong with me. Little by little I stopped being the person I was thirty years ago. In my last film, I made this priest who says certain things and some journalists said that I was mocking the church. It is not true. Not true. I know that it is pretty counterintuitive today to talk with somebody who is making films and closer to Christianity than Bertrand Russell, to pragmatism and positivism in thinking. But it is like this.
Filmmaker: You had this text so long in your psychic make-up, when it came to the first day with the actors—
Puiu: Yes, but we worked before too.
Filmmaker: But when it finally comes to the first day, how do you orient yourself within this new living version of a text you’re so familiar with?
Puiu: It wasn’t easy. It was hard for me, yes, but a thousand times harder for them. We didn’t have money enough to make the film. I called Ugo Broussot; he plays the character Edouard. I said, “Listen, do you think we can make a film in Transylvania with you, French actors? I’m thinking of asking Agathe [Bosch], Frédéric [Schulz-Richard] to come and play in it with you. Wou’ll all receive a certain amount of money which is not like what you are used to receiving for a performance in France. We can give you, say, 20,000 Euros each. And you stay sixty days to rehearse and make this film.” He said, “I’m ready to do it. But I have to talk to the others.” So, he talked with them, I talked with them, and they accepted. I did not help them by sending the text. Because I needed to see them in order to distribute the roles. It was a problem. This happened in December and we started shooting at the beginning of February. Having two months at your disposal is heaven, but they didn’t have this time because I didn’t give them the roles. They came to Transylvania and we started. I wanted to work on the text with them, I wanted to hear the text in order to cut it down, to figure out what wasn’t necessary. We read it together, all of us, on and on and on. Then I realised that I made some wrong choices regarding the actors. While on set, reading and reading, I decided “OK, you are Mr. Z, you are the prince, you are the lady,” and so on.
Filmmaker: What were your interventions?
Puiu: In the text, you have four men and one woman. I switched the general and made [him] the wife of a general. The argument of the general in the book is strong: he experienced death, torture, atrocities, all in war. He was the single character to experience this. For me, this is not OK. All the others didn’t, meaning that their arguments aren’t solid enough—compared to his, I mean. So, I had to change it. I imagined the wife of a general advocating the position of the general without having been on the battlefield herself, talking about something that she didn’t know, but which she is learning through these letters, these discussions she might be having with her husband.
Filmmaker: Which every character has. The film is really about this; this world is very well-organised, very lived-in. But then you also have these servants—this outside world, only visible on the edges—but the fact that it exists in the film calls attention to the fact that your speakers have some degree of mediation between them and the world.
Puiu: And they are quite protected, somebody said, a critic, regarding the haves and the have-nots. My film is not a critique of the aristocracy—this is wrong. It is a critique of myself. I’m not an aristocrat, I come from a proletarian family. But indulging yourself in speculations regarding the world: this is something I am doing. And when the event is taking place and the evil unlocks… well, in ’89, when Communism collapsed, I was in the army in Bucharest. The special army: I had a bad file. I had been expelled from school. I had an aunt living in England—meaning: an imperialist country. A bad file meant you went to the army but working, no guns or anything like that. Then the revolution started, and people were being killed. These things I saw on TV in the ’80s in Lebanon—Beirut from ’82 was Bucharest in ’89. I couldn’t believe it. Didn’t know what to do. Blocked, trapped like prey. Still, we indulged ourselves in talks, dialogues regarding the world, the meaning of life and so on. Meanwhile evil unlocked the gates to all the horrors of humanity. You find yourself paralysed. It happened to me: I’m talking about my experience now. Some people behaved differently. They are more reactive—these are the heroes. Those people died. Heroes are dead. Up to ’89 all these horrors took place in other parts of the world but seemingly not Romania. Not in your house, not in shopping centers. People dying, blood, I see all this.
Filmmaker: In this way, a film about an insular world on the brink of implosion into violence is more than a little prescient.
Puiu: Yes, I’m afraid we’re going to experience these events again. Maybe not global but certainly local. Does it count if, say, the war is local or global for the Syrian people? For them, it doesn’t matter. They are the ones that are being killed. They listen to the radio: “This is a global war in Syria.” Doesn’t matter, matters only for historians. But for the victims: does not count. Anyway, I’m glad to hear that all this thinking obviously had an effect—through the film—on you at least. I’m glad it wasn’t all for nothing.