Arresting trauma – Martti Helde’s In The Crosswinds (2014)

“On the night of 14 June 1941, more than 40,000 innocent people were deported from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The aim of this secret operation – done on Stalin’s orders – was to ethnically cleanse the Baltic countries of their native peoples.”

In the context of my research into the representation of post-trauma in the films of Lav Diaz, I have published a few posts here on this blog, which equally dealt with the subject. There is, first of all, a rather personal account of my dealing with PTSD and how Slow Cinema helped me to become more mindful. There is also an article on the link between Slow Cinema and Cultural Memory. In fact, throughout my research and my trying to come to terms with my own experience, I have realised that trauma research focuses almost exclusively on the aspect of speed (as mentioned in my PhD thesis). There is little doubt that life after trauma is different. Anxiety and panic introduce an aspect of speed to one’s life that seemingly spirals out of control. But there is also an aspect that tends to be forgotten: an aspect of duration and slowness. It can take a while before post-trauma, for instance, manifests itself in the body/psyche. Traumatic memories return over and over again, a circular repetition that makes the actual post-trauma life seem endless. You can read more about the aspect of slowness in the context of trauma in my thesis.

In my thesis, I have argued that Diaz’s use of absence and long duration effectively (and affectively!) represents post-trauma without ever showing the traumatic event that has led to the character’s suffering. What matters is the time spent on the character and on his/her suffering. Quite some time ago, I have come across an Estonian film, which I rewatched yesterday and I cannot not write about this film. Perhaps, it is not a traditional, straightforward slow film, and yet it is a film that uses slowness, duration and absence for a representation of post-trauma (or trauma-in-the-making), but in a completely different way.

The film begins with white letters on a black screen. There is no sound. The quietness reinforces the meaning of the dates and numbers that characterise the deportation of over 40,000 innocent people. Filmmaker Martti Helde sets a historical context and explains that his film In The Crosswinds (2014) is based on letters written by Erna Tamm, who had been writing to her husband from whom she was separated during the deportation. For me, Crosswinds stands out as a remarkable experiment on how trauma can be represented on screen without turning it into a spectacle, which is always an ethical problem filmmakers have to negotiate. There is one characteristic in which Diaz’s and Helde’s representation of traumatic events are similar: the directors’ use of absence. Neither Diaz nor Helde show traumatic events on screen. Even though Helde does focus on the actual deportation, his approach to its representation allows for empty space that needs to be filled by the spectator. Atrocities such as mass killings and rape are not shown on screen. Helde shows the before and after, or a voice over informs us about the traumatic event. Yet, the director positions us, confusingly, within the traumatic event without showing all the terrible details, all the while making sure that we cannot be mistaken about what’s really happening.

“Heldur, time has taken on another dimension. The temporary has passed. We measure time by the news that reaches us. That way the days and weeks seem shorter.”

All of this might sound like films I have spoken about before in the context of slowness and trauma. And yet, Crosswinds stands out in one specific way, and it addresses several themes I have mentioned on this blog before. The film has, in fact, two sides to it. Each follows its own temporality, its own aesthetic. Let’s begin with flashbacks, memories of the good times, times before the start of the deportation. The film starts in greyscale. A voice over says, “I received your letter. I’m in your homeland.” The camera, with its beautiful and graceful movements, explores a backyard. There is a blooming apple tree, Erna sorting the laundry. Inside the house, we see her, her husband Heldur and her daughter Eliide having breakfast. The sun is shining. It’s a wonderful image of peace. They talk to one another, but the viewer is excluded from their conversation. Helde silences the voices and focuses instead on ambient sound in order to reinforce this image of quietude and peace. These times of before return once or twice during the film. The main emphasis, however, is placed on the deportation, the journey to and life in Siberia, and the struggles of the deported to survive.

The deportation set something in motion that one would call traumatisme in French. The English language doesn’t have a clear-cut distinction between the traumatic event and the psychological reaction. Not all traumatic events lead to PTSD, albeit PTSD is the only term that makes it absolutely clear that you’re speaking about something post trauma. In Helde’s film, the impact of trauma (the event) is represented on screen by a literal arrest, a stoppage of time and of movement. Crosswinds is a film, in which, in the majority of scenes, characters do not move. They’re standing still, arrested in certain positions while the camera circles around them. It feels as though you’re walking through a haunted past, photographs that have arrested the atrocities committed on Stalin’s orders. It is as though the deported are put to rest (albeit not in a good way). When Erna’s family is arrested, we don’t see the actual arrest. Helde places all three characters on the back of a lorry, sitting still, watching in fear. The soundscape tells us that officers smash glass in the family house. But only the sound tells us of this violent attack. There is no image of it. When the lorry arrives at the local train station, the camera circles around hundreds of to-be-deported people: children, women, men, old and young, rich and poor. There seemed to have been no one who was spared. Everyone on the platform stands as though arrested. The violent scenes we know from Holocaust cinema, in which the spectator is confronted with crying children, begging mothers, shots in the air, forceful commands etc are not present here. What happens instead is that life comes to a halt. Trauma arrests time. Trauma disrupts the continuation of time towards the future. It’s a ghostly atmosphere. It is as though the people on the train platform are already dead, still, stiff, a mere memory of the past (to get a better idea of what I’m speaking of you should watch this scene!).

“We’re prisoners of nature. I wonder if there have ever been any prisoners with so much space that you long for boundaries.”

Crosswinds focuses on Erna’s story, her attempt at survival, the tragic loss of Eliide, who became weaker by the day. Starvation is rampant. So are diseases. Erna’s daughter is one of many who survive the deportation, but not life in Siberia. In a voice over, we’re told that of the 51 women in Erna’s train waggon, 42 made it to the destination. One mother killed herself and her child on the journey.

Every woman is expected to work. They chop wood day in day out, in freezing temperatures with little food that is not even enough for a child. Erna strikes up a friendship with Hermiine, but even she cannot protect Erna from sexual assault and rape in exchange for a loaf of bread. The camera is constantly in movement. It is as free as the camera in Béla Tarr’s films, but its function is different in Crosswinds. Helde’s camera is searching for something or someone. It is always looking for something, not knowing what it would find. There are a lot of empty frames which the camera uses as a cue to keep moving, to keep looking. Here again it might be worth returning to my post about the filmind in Tarkovsky’s Zerkalo in order to see how a film can be created in such a way that it appears to have its own mind, its own ways of thinking. Apart from ZerkaloCrosswinds stands out as the other great example of this.

It takes almost fifty minutes before we see Heldur again, separated from his wife on the platform. Because of Erna’s letter, we learn that the men were deported into another direction. Whereto – this isn’t mentioned at all, but those with knowledge about the war have an idea of what this means. Heldur, dressed almost in rags, head shaven, stands in front of a table behind which three Soviet officers are seated. Helde let’s us guess that this is a make-shift tribunal where Heldur is sentenced to death. The camera spins around the room, while everything else is in arrest. This sequence of scene is the clearest in which the film’s aesthetics represent the action on screen. The non-movement, the two-fold arrest of Heldur (as a prisoner and as a character who doesn’t move), the ghostly images, foreshadow his fate. His non-movement means nothing other than his death.

“Because what is freedom worth if you have to pay for it with solitude?”

It takes the death of Stalin for Erna to be able to return to Estonia. Although she had promised Heldur that she would try to find him after the war, she no longer has any idea of where to look for. “Maybe below the soil?” Erna’s words are poignant, and it took her 47 years to learn that her husband had been murdered. What remains are still, arresting and arrested images of the past that continue to haunt. Because of their stillness, the images Helde has created stay with you. The long duration of the scenes, the stillness of the image, the haunting (visual) absence of atrocities all contribute to a remarkable film experience that, to me, represents perhaps most adequately the post trauma.

Fresh from the press: new books on Chantal Akerman

I took a literary journey through the works of Chantal Akerman thanks to two new books that have been published on her work. Not so long ago, I wrote about Chantal Akerman, Passer la nuit by Corinne Rondeau, which I found to be a great book, something that gave you a sense of how a Chantal Akerman film feels. It wasn’t a dry description, it was a book about experience.

So from that point of view, it was a pleasant surprise to have yet another French-language book in my hand that dealt with feelingssensationsmemories. The most recent book on Akerman, Chantal Akerman – Dieu se reposa, mais pas nous, published just a week ago, was written by Jérôme Momcilovic, who also gave a lecture on the director as part of the major retrospective that is currently running at the Cinémathèque Française in Paris. What struck me first of all, from page one, is the way Momcilovic approached the task of writing about a director whose oeuvre is so vast and so complex (albeit it looks simple at first) that it would be easy to miss most of the essential stuff in a book of less than 100 pages.

Momcilovic begins his book with a quote by Sylvia Plath, American poet and writer: “Light, as white as bones, like death, after all things…” A description of a scene from Akerman’s New from Home (1976) follows, an interpretative description, rather than a mere statement of what one sees. Once more, here’s a book which is very much in line with my own writing. I see it so often that “analytical” books contain more film descriptions than analysis (as we will see later on in this post), and the uses of synopses are, nowadays at least, limited. Brief, two- or three-sentence synopses are fine if you want to give the reader something. All other details are online. Books can focus on the depth and the experiential nature of films if only more writers would do it. In any case, Momcilovic does a great job here, carefully using short paragraphs for each essential thought, an essential feeling that one might have when one sees a certain scene.

The book is not a description of Akerman’s films. Its a journey through it. Not necessarily going chronologically in his writing about her main works, Momcilovic follows thoughts, follows ideas, interrupted by Akerman’s own thoughts on specific films or her filmmaking career. He describes hers as “cinéma errant, nomade, vagabond” (nomad, wandering cinema) which is very much in line with Akerman’s being.

“Le temps n’est pas le même pour tout le monde, mais les films d’Akerman nous ont donné un temps à partager avec eux, temps électrique, dans l’hôtel et à l’arrêt de bus, un temps délimité par le miracle de l’apparition et le deuil de la disparition qui oblige de revenir pour effacer le deuil dans le miracle…On ne sort jamais des films d’Akerman, il faut y rester tout une vie.”

Everyone has a different perception of time, but, Momcilovic writes, Akerman’s films gives us a special time which we can share with her films, with her work, be it at a hotel or at a bus stop. What matters most, however, is that one can never leave a film by Akerman. One has to stay with them one’s entire life. I was struck by this powerful statement and noticed that, without ever expressing it this way, I had the same feelings about the films by Lav Diaz. As Momcilovic suggests in his writing, you can leave the auditorium for a cigarette or for a pee break, but you stay with the film, or rather the film stays with you for longer than any screen time at a cinema. That reminds me of a very important aspect Andrei Tarkovsky mentioned: a good film is never finished at the end of post-production. A good film lives on in its viewer and its meaning is created only by the viewer. This is, Momcilovic seems to suggest, precisely the nature of Akerman’s films.

“Par un réflexe facile à expliquer, parce que ses plans durent et nous font regarder longtemps, l’arbitraire des classements l’a rangée parmi les cinéastes “de la durée”. Mais dire ça, c’est toujours faire peser sur l’expérience des films le soupçon d’une douloureuse endurance, c’est voir les films comme une prison de temps, belle prison mais prison quand même.”

Akerman’s films are regularly classified as belonging to a group of films that focus on duration, Momcilovic says. And yet, this classification – and I agree wholeheartedly here – creates a tension, potentially a rejection on the part of the viewer because it sounds as though those films are an endurance test, a “prison of time”. But, he argues, quite the contrary is the case. Akerman’s films, and I’d like to add all slow films, liberate the view, liberate the viewer, and therefore invite an active engagement with the film text.

Momcilovic spends quite a good part of his books on recurring sounds in Akerman’s films, arguing at some point that no one has forced his/her viewers to listen to the silence of waiting the way Akerman had done in some of her films. And if it’s silence in some parts, then it is the outdoor noise that invades a room through wide open windows in others. I haven’t yet thought much about sound in Akerman’s films, but Momcilovic gave me a couple of ideas, which I’d like to investigate more in future.

I’d like to finish this part of my blog with another quote by Momcilovic, which I found touching and will stay with me for a while: “No Home Movie is not a film about death, but about a gradual obliteration of two images bound to disappear together.”

I wished I could finish this whole post with this quote, but there is still one more book I’d like to speak about briefly. Quite some time ago, I reviewed a book on Pedro Costa, an edited collection that appeared in edition text + kritik (Germany). They published one on Chantal Akerman last summer, edited by Fabienne Liptay and Margit Tröhler. The two books couldn’t be more different from another. One feels like a collection of thoughts, liberated and liberating. The other is a rather rigorous study of Akerman’s oeuvre that allows little room for the reader’s own thought. In nine chapters, various themes are explored, albeit I had the feeling that synopses and detailed descriptions played a major role, which, at times, put me off actually watching more of Akerman’s films because everything was said, and in such descriptive detail that, technically, I wouldn’t need to see the films anymore. This is a shame and something I always dislike about writers, academics, and especially editors who decide to publish stuff like this. Giving away everything from a film means ruining it for the reader, unless you want your readers to see everything beforehand or if you want readers without an intention to discover. That, for me, is a bit how Chantal Akerman felt at certain points.

At other times, the authors make several good points which are useful for my own work. Eric de Kuyper, for instance, argues that Akerman’s work is so extremely autobiographical that it’s no longer noticeable. It’s everywhere, and yet not always as visible or as easy to grasp as in other works either by herself or by other directors. Furthermore, his point on the use of a static camera is interesting. It’s something I had never thought about this way. Kuyper argues that the absolute stasis of the camera highlights the presence of the director, making his/her presence behind the image we see palpable. There is someone recording the scene we see, he writes. I personally always thought of a static camera in the context of an arresting image, of photography, of death in certain ways. Kuyper speaks of presence, meaning life, which makes me rethink a bit what I had argued in the past.

In her chapter on Hotel Monterey and Les Rendez-vous d’Anna, Michelle Koch suggests that the contemplative look at empty rooms and the way certains scenes are edited turns physical architecture into a mental space (or “room”, as Koch writes). I have seen neither of the two films yet, but Koch’s argument reminds me of something I myself have argued in my PhD thesis regarding the use of makeshift and run-down houses in the films of Lav Diaz to reinforce an image of despair and mental upheaval. I also wrote an unpublished essay on the uses of architecture and double framing in the films of Béla Tarr and who immediately comes to mind in this context is, in fact, Tsai Ming-liang. Akerman’s use of physical spaces to evoke a mental space, to me, is consistent with other directors’ uses of physical spaces in order to show their characters’ mental upheavals.

The longest chapter in the book, I believe, is Heike Klippel’s thoughts on Jeanne Dielman, which is situated somewhere between Momcilovic’s free thinking and this very book’s rigorous descriptions. Nevertheless, there are some points to take away from it. I’d like to point out just one here. Klippel suggests that the way Akerman films everything in detail would normally suggest an abundance of information. Her long takes show everything in detail. And yet, especially in Jeanne Dielman, you have this discrepancy between showing and not showing. One example is Jeanne doing the dishes, but she’s with her back towards us. We know what she’s doing, but we cannot see it. So, can we actually know what she’s really doing in detail? Akerman blurs the line between the visible and the invisible, between the idea of showing detailed everyday activities and hiding details, keeping secrets about what’s going on.

Overall, both books have their own way of approaching the rather comprehensive and complex oeuvre of Chantal Akerman. I believe that Momcilovic succeeded in getting to the depth of Akerman, really focusing on the vertical axis (the experiential, the emotional) in many cases, whereas the other book is more for people who prefer a rigorous reading of single scenes. One is French, the other in German. I hope that at least Momcilovic’s piece will be translated into English soon.