A scene from Alberto Cavalcanti’s Went The Day Well? Courtesy Rialto Pictures/StudioCanal.
Brazilian-born Alberto Cavalcanti moved through the French avant-garde of the ’20s and the British documentary system of the ’30s before arriving at Ealing Studios in 1942 to direct Went the Day Well? a film that folds the former traditions into a wartime revenge thriller. Based on a short story by Graham Greene, the narrative concerns a sleepy British town cunningly infiltrated by German soldiers in disguise—they arrive, not brutes, but genteel and seductive, drinking tea and giggling with the ladies of the village. As the ruse is overturned, the film progresses unexpectedly toward the hard-edged and poetic. The villagers must fight back, and a flood of repressed violence erupts—in one scene, a woman takes an axe to a soldier, with jittery glee in her eyes, while in another two young women crack jokes as they sit perched at a window picking off the approaching enemy with rifles. Brilliant use is made of shadow and light, predicting the cycle of spiv films that would come out of the country a few years later (including Cavalcanti’s classic They Made Me A Fugitive), along with surrealist and expressionist flourishes that bring to mind Jean Vigo before and The Night of the Hunter later. It’s a bold film that is up to much more than mere sloganeering; the questions it raises about the nature of violence and the effect of wartime fever are still pertinent today.
Made over sixty years later in 2007, United Red Army concerns the memory of war, both physical and of the mind. It is a history lesson detailing, with a cutting precision, what went wrong. The labored, grueling film follows two revolutionary groups, the Red Army Faction and the Revolutionary Left Faction, as they take to the streets, combine, and escape to the woods. The narrative conceit is hectic and out of focus, a tangled web of intersecting wires racing through a time-line, with characters entering and exiting at any given moment. The confusion mirrors the inner lives of the characters on screen—this is a film told through facts and figures, statistics and rhetoric, but not devoid of emotion. Directed by Koji Wakamatsu, famous for his cheapo “pink” films, a genre of soft-porn popular in Japan for many decades, Red Army manages to cut through the dense fog of information, letting it circle all around the viewer. A variety of different formal avenues are followed: the film begins with a staggering run through Japanese revolutionary bullet points, all told with text, voice over, and stock footage. As other critics have mentioned, the middle section (the most vital and deeply felt) resembles a focused chamber play; the final third a chase as suspenseful requiem. The complicated politics are not lamented, but angrily stated, matter-of-factly: this is what happened, this is how we fucked up. But the ideas remain. The personal failed, not the political, and Wakamatsu’s criticism extends far beyond left or right. The film is more of an even-centered shot at the very notion of idealism, questioning the efficacy of any and all brands of pure politics.
*Went the Day Well? is currently screening at Film Forum through June 2nd.
United Red Army opens at IFC Center May 27th.*