Philosophy 101 in Cristi Puiu’s Malmkrog (2020)
By Rodrigo Garay
I guess it makes sense that one of the films that stuck the most with me last year is about a group of people confined to a single house for an endless amount of time. A few days after missing Cristi Puiu’s latest feature at Berlinale 2020 (and hearing some of the ambivalent buzz it made over there), I was able to watch it back home at FICUNAM, a contemporary film festival that, in the course of ten years, has built a strong cinephile community in Mexico City. As of now, Malmkrog is also the last film I’ve seen at a movie theater (who knows how long that record will hold), as COVID-19 cases increased considerably around those days. My confinement began a week after the screening.
I started to work on this piece soon after. At first, I wanted to compare some of Vladimir Solovyov’s original passages from War and Christianity with its counterparts in Puiu’s film to try to reveal a modern reading of an old moral debate. Then I thought it would be better to focus on mise-en-scène and the thoughtful support of dialogue that intertwines the characters through its fluid panning shots. Not long after these first tries, however, I started to deal with the consequences of a lengthy quarantine in different aspects of my life and began to forget what I had seen. Reviews from the New York Film Festival suddenly showed up in my Twitter feed and, with them, the realization that summer had just ended and I was still locked in my apartment (for the most part). One of those reviews annoyed me just enough that I decided to go back to my notes and finally finish my draft, even if I had to struggle with the limits of my own remembrance: A.A. Dowd’s quick dismissal of Malmkrog’s discourse as “Philosophy 101” [Dowd, 2020].
Just to be clear: my annoyance had nothing to do with Mr. Dowd or The A.V. Club as a film criticism outlet (coming from abroad, I’m not familiar enough to comment on the matter), but more with how “Philosophy 101” poorly conveys more than three hours’ worth of dialogue in an almost exclusively spoken film. I heard very similar things from some of my friends after the screenings (“I’ve gone to uni, I don’t need a lecture when I go to the movies”), but dismissing such a big part of a film’s structure in a casual conversation is no matter. The problem comes when we decide to report on something without even attempting to internalize what it says. And if we’re not listening to something that relies on speech almost exclusively, of course it’s going to get boring pretty soon.
In Mr. Dowd’s behalf, Malmkrog does take something out of the very basics of Philosophy and structures its filmmaking around it: dialectic discourse. Most of what we hear is Bernard Marchadier’s French adaptation of Solovyov’s War and Christianity, a Socratic dialogue between five Russian aristocrats: the General, the Politician, the Lady, the Prince and Mr. Z. They have three conversations; one about war, one about European colonialism, and one about the Antichrist. Though each speaker seems to have a different standpoint, it’s clear from the start that the Prince’s point of view is the one that truly antagonizes the rest. The Prince is almost an extremist, a firm believer in the purity of the Gospel.
Socratic dialogue has been staged on film many times before, either by revered French filmmakers like Louis Malle (My Dinner with Andre, ) or Éric Rohmer (the Pascal debate in My Night at Maud’s [Ma nuit chez Maud, 1969]), radical historicists like Lav Diaz (see how he introduces the Filipino Raskolnikov in Norte, the End of History [Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan, 2013]) or even more mainstream directors like Steve McQueen (that famous exchange between Michael Fassbender and Liam Cunningham in Hunger ). Contrary to the narrative syntaxis that tries to further a conflict to the point of resolution in a regular dramatic conversation, I would say the purpose of these forms of dialogue is to further an argument instead.
This doesn’t necessarily solve any conflict related to a protagonic figure. The players are not so much characters, but the embodiments of thesis and antithesis, battling each other until something new arises as a consequence of their ideas. Madeleine in Malmkrog, like the Lady in War and Christianity, functions mostly as a moderator, a catalyst that keeps the conversations moving. She doesn’t defend an exclusive religious or political stance like her peers and even mocks them or stands by them depending on the situation. She gains nothing with her participation other than the sustenance of the conversation itself. In that regard, the main antithetic force of the whole film (the one that takes the Prince’s place) is Olga, a young devout Christian and editor of elite magazines for women. For her, the Word of God is clear and can’t be argued or negotiated with. That is the argument to beat.
As a dialogue film (or Socratic film, if you want to call it that), Malmkrog is an essay, not a drama. Puiu adapts Solovyov’s five characters with a couple of gender swaps but patent fidelity. Gathered in a beautiful mansion surrounded by winter, the aristocrats’ only form of diversion is to talk, and their only worry is a notion of evil that takes form in their minds: they are troubled with Russian contemporary morale and with hypothetical signals of the Antichrist. For elegance’s sake, they don’t seem to be taking it very close to heart, but all they talk about is good versus evil. If we had to identify Solovyov’s three conversations in Puiu’s adaptation, they would be like this:
1. The discussion about war and the dilemma of necessary violence comprises the entirety of the first act, a chapter named after Ingrida, the wife of a general that has just crushed the Ottoman irregular troops responsible for the Batak massacre. Ingrida takes the role of Solovyov’s General, as she expresses her distaste for the loss of popular respect towards the militia, a sector that she claims belongs to a higher order (pointing out that most saints were either monks or soldiers in life). The guests walk around a couple of small rooms and we follow the rhythm of a conversation that changes pace and tone depending on where the speakers are standing at the moment —a showcase of Puiu and Tudor Vladimir Panduru’s agile camerawork: in three or four very long shots, they achieve a wide array of framing variations of the same five people thanks to an acute sense of internal montage and blocking. If you’ve seen the clever arrangement of space in Sieranevada (Cristi Puiu, 2016), you know what I’m talking about—. After Ingrida reads a letter from her husband, in which he describes the horrors of the Batak massacre and how he violently dealt with its perpetrators, Olga discreetly condemns this act of heroic retribution as evil-doing, to the dismay of the other guests. According to her, a dignified soul would not have resorted to violence. Her words are, almost verbatim, the Prince’s:
He who is filled with the true spirit of the Gospel will find in himself, when necessary, the power, with words and gestures and with his whole appearance to act upon the mind of his unfortunate dark brother… [Solovyov, 1915, p. 36]
When they ask her how come Jesus wasn’t able to act upon the mind of Judas or Herod with only words and gestures, and died in the cross anyway, Olga refuses to answer. At this point, the five are framed together and the camera has stopped panning around. A clock sounds in the distance, signaling lunchtime. Olga faints after a moment of silence.
2. The discussion about Europe takes place in chapters II and III. Chapter II briefly follows István, the butler, and acts as an interval by being mostly silent, attentive to the movement and gestures of the house workers while they set the table or clean up the library. We can tell there’s a vertical power dynamic even in the ranks of the servants, where István is a harsh leader. Steadicam panning shots continue to follow the people coming and going while we listen to the beginning of Edouard’s views on politeness. Edouard is Solovyov’s Politician, an educated man that speaks highly of himself (even if he’s constantly chided by his friends for his love of gambling). In Olga’s absence, he dominates Chapter III: sitting at the tea table in a shot/reverse shot dynamic, Edouard declares it’s not through war or religion that humanity will achieve prosperity, but through high culture and thoughtful manners, two qualities that he attributes to European people. Ingrida seems to hate the notion of solidarity between nations, so he insists that, as Russians, they better listen to their elevated European nature instead of their Greco-Slavic heritage, which he considers Oriental and unsophisticated (I chuckled at the thought of some of my friends and colleagues ever seeing the movie and feeling horrified by what this man is saying). His bet on the unity of Europe to achieve prosperity through art and peaceful means —but in total defense and exclusion of what he calls “barbarous nations”— may sound intelligent and even advisable in the bubble of these people’s universe, but has proven to be pernicious and inhumane in modern times, so the tension between what we see on screen and what we live on the outside increases. When Edouard concludes his exposition, strange things start to happen in the soundtrack. A happy piano tune is heard in the upper floor, loud noises outside. Our characters remain seated, laughing nervously. The noises increase. Banging on the walls, running and grunting. Visibly distressed, Nikolai rings for István, to no answer. Suddenly, Puiu lets go of Solovyov and starts adapting something else: the last dream sequence in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie, 1972); instead of gangsters, a group of unseen assailants storms the house and shoots the aristocrats dead. Just like in Luis Buñuel’s film, we could assume that one of them might’ve been spared of this violent end by hiding. Moments before actual warfare entered their lives, Madeleine had just asked: “Where is Olga?”.
3. The rest of the film discusses evil and Antichrist. It’s nighttime. As if nothing had happened at the end of the previous act, all characters appear to be alive again, not a scratch left in the house. Chapter IV is named after Nikolai, War and Christianity’s Mr. Z. Nikolai is also a Christian, but he takes a more studied approach to the Gospels. Olga is still not around, but everyone keeps talking about her and what she said before lunch: humankind must follow the “true spirit” of God to inspire holiness in their brethren and achieve the Kingdom of Heaven. Nikolai believes death is the ultimate evil (are these the words of a dead man? Are these people in limbo now?) and, since it is unavoidable for every living being, it reigns supreme. No amount of prayer has ever defeated the power of Death in this world. And evil is coming for them. This sets the stage for Olga’s chapter, the most visually fragmented of all: a montage of medium shots where everyone, especially Nikolai, interrogates her during dinner. What does she make of the Bible’s ridiculous prohibitions on shellfish or tobacco? How can she be so sure of what God wants of them? She looks trapped, completely under siege. The climax comes with the innate goodness of God debate; Olga says that simply following God’s command is the essence of good, Nikolai cleverly responds that God asking good things from his servants doesn’t prove that God himself is good. The only valid proof for him would be resurrection, the victory of life over death, something that Olga doesn’t admit in her interpretation of the New Testament. The whole discussion turned out to be inspired by a very natural fear of dying. Olga remains silent and proud.
More than a hundred years between Solovyov’s text and Malmkrog, and yet the Prince’s point of view remains somewhat of an uncontested mystery against positivism. Even for the arts, which could be considered mystic to a certain degree, faith is strange. Olga is not around in the conversation about culture because the canon that has deified the Schillers and Shakespeares of the world has nothing to do with metaphysical inspiration or spirit anymore: Puiu points to a separation between compromise and truth; Nikolai’s articulate Christianity of the intellect, where everything can be negotiable and subject to analysis, versus Olga’s blind faith, residing outside logic and impervious to reason (even clerical one).
Fanaticism is practiced under these last terms. Someone like Olga in modern times would be very familiar to us, and that precise quality is what I think makes this movie work beyond its gorgeous textures or impressive camerawork. Puiu has found a middle ground between the social dramatism of someone like Cristian Mungiu and the Brechtian didacticism of Radu Jude’ Uppercase Print (2020), for example, to represent a world in the verge of crisis, where fanatics can hold their heads up high while logicians stumble in an attempt to readjust.
Because crisis is the underlying setting of Malmkrog. I think it’s no coincidence that Olga’s little speech in chapter one happens in front of a window, where the whiteness of the snowy outside filters into the room in a grayish cloud, darkening the standing guests against the feeble light of noon. This strange, opaque mood is referenced by the characters of both text [Solovyov, 1915, pp. 143-144] and film towards the end:
POLITICIAN.— I do not know what it is; either my eyesight is dimmed by old age, or something has happened in nature. Only, I notice that there are now no longer in any season, or in any place, any more of those bright and quite clear days, which formerly there were in all climates. Take to-day; not a cloud; we are far enough from the sea, and yet everything, as it were, is covered with something —something fine and intangible, and there is no absolute clearness. Have you noticed it, General?
GENERAL.— I have noticed it for many years.
LADY.— And I, for this past year, have begun to notice it also. Not only in the air but in the soul: for here there is no “absolute clearness”, as you say. Everywhere there is some sort of alarm, as if it were a foreboding of some evil. I am sure that you, Prince, feel the same thing.
PRINCE.— No, I have noticed nothing special. The air seems as usual.
There’s something sad about the older characters and something beautifully ominous about Olga’s determination. An end-of-the-world quality that had already sunk in the Western zeitgeist long before the horrors of 2020. Solovyov’s book finishes with the speakers taking notice of the Prince’s disappearance in the middle of a story that Mr. Z reads about the Antichrist. Not being an expert in Russian philosophy, I assumed this was Solovyov’s final attack on Leo Tolstoy, as the Prince seems to be a stand-in for the anarcho-Christian’s moral condemnation of violence. Him leaving meant two things for me: the Prince was unable to deal with his own image in the story and was, effectively, the Antichrist himself, running away once his cover had been blown.
Malmkrog is way kinder to Olga in the end. Mr. Z’s Antichrist story is completely omitted from the film, so the last chapter only reunites everyone around the piano with Madeleine playing one of Schubert’s 6 Moments musicaux, providing a friendly truce to all previous hostilities. Then they do the dimming of the age dialogue I quoted before. Unable to comprehend Olga’s certitude, I was left with a sense of dread when the credits started to roll. Perhaps an association of primal concepts like “Antichrist” and “winter” made me feel deeply sorry for these five, as if their cold dark fate were now tied to my own.