Silent Cinema for the 21st Century

And because you are aware of the fact that the 1920s were a golden era of film-making, and because directors like Fritz Lang or Sergei Eisenstein still have the power to move you, you would rather spend the evening at home than watch some arrogant young Spaniard cha-cha-cha on their graves. But happily, you will be wrong in this case, because director Esteban Sapir clearly admires the German expressionists as much as you do, while at the same time being driven to make a film whose value goes beyond the pure nostalgia.

Strangely enough, the analogy that first comes to mind here is Lars von Trier’s “Dogville.” Both films introduce the viewer to a landscape that is half fairy-tale and half historical, both subordinate a faithful reflection of reality to one of memory made somehow tangible and ? equally important in both “Dogville” and “Antenna” ? strip down the conventional frills of a film, disposing of the ballast that comes with 21st-Century film-making until what you are left with is what you might call the bones.

Of course, the bones Sapir digs up bear little resemblance to those found by von Trier. First of all, the history he is dealing with is one that exists strictly within film. This is self-reflexive enough, but the subject-matter of the narrative ? about a city whose people’s voices have been taken away, and who are controlled by the omnipotent television station ? goes even further, making this a film that is about film history, and which at the same time schizophrenically confuses this film history with the reality of the narrative. As such.

Here is a typical scene from near the beginning: a man in a helium balloon suit is floating in the air and tied to the ground by a tether; snow is falling. The tether snaps and the balloon-man goes shooting upwards, but a little girl notices and grabs the rope. She too is lifted up in the air, and her father (who spends the entire film with a long crack going down one lens of his glasses) runs after her. She falls head-first into a snow drift, her legs kick cartoonishly. The father runs to her and holds out the palm of his hand. She holds out hers; they have identical grotesque scars. A frozen teardrop clings to the girl’s face.

Much of the “mysteries” introduced in the above sequence go unsolved, though they are brought back in various contexts. To my mind this hits upon what in part gives the films of Murnau (“Nosferatu”) or Lang (“Metropolis”) such timeless appeal. It is this aspect of the irrational that occurs in their work, those elements which demand the viewer submit and make a leap of faith in the director, that everything need not be understood in a cause-effect way for the film’s more general interior logic to emerge. The 21st-Century cinema viewer, alas, is woefully untrained in leaps of faith, and so Sapir’s project is a risky one.

And inevitably, there are slips. The actors are sometimes made to imitate the movements of old-time silent-movie actors, and at these moments the film can verge dangerously on goofball satire. And the ending is a bit of a mess. The eyeless boy is strapped to a giant illuminated Jewish Star, a huge machine is introduced with a frantic teenage girl sucking on a soother and dancing about in a glass ball; she later becomes an old woman… Even the irrational logic I was mentioning earlier falls apart here, leaving the viewer to throw up his hands in despair.
But in this case, the slips are the sign of a very creative director experimenting as he goes along and ? this is the very nature of experimenting ? not getting everything exactly right. And so the viewer is eager to forgive. Ultimately, the real value of Antenna is that it reminds one of what might be called the magic of cinema.

In an era of computer manipulation everything is more or less possible. And when the realm of the impossible vanishes, so does something we might call magic, which functions on that gray terrain between the visually apparent and the intellectually impossible. Sapir has managed to make a film that imports the feeling of cinematic magic of the silent-film era, and to the viewer’s surprise Antenna’s minimalist dime-store tricks (a frowning face drawn on the condensation of a window-pane; an envelope with a hypnotic swirl spinning on the floor; a typewriter that sounds like a piano; machine guns that make the screen look like a film negative; exclamation marks coming out of a bullhorn; and so on) excite the imagination far more than those generated by a battery of supercomputers.

Antenna is playing every day at 15:15 in the “Salon” room of ARS Cinemas on ul. sw. Jana 6. The bits of text are in Spanish with Polish subtitles, but you should be able to piece things together without knowing either of these languages.

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