Train Driver’s Diary (2016)

Train Driver’s Diary is a Wes Anderson–like take on the spectre of death that comically hangs over the life of every train driver.

Train Driver's DiarySerbia
4*

Director:
Miloš Radović
Screenwriter:
Miloš Radović
Director of Photography:
Dušan Joksimović

Running time: 85 minutes

Original title: Dnevnik mašinovođe

There is something delightfully Wes Andersonian about the Serbian Train Driver’s Diary, even though the black humour of the story is inherently, unmistakably Balkan and would never make it past a Hollywood executive. The exuberantly staged sets are one reason for this – countless scenes take place inside redecorated train compartments that are a world unto themselves – but another is the symmetry inside the shots, to which train tracks visually lend themselves.

Narration is sparse and belongs to Ilija (Lazar Ristovski, who looks and behaves like a low-key version of John Cleese), a train driver and lifelong bachelor who in the prologue tells us how many people he has killed over the years. It’s not his fault, he assures us, it is just something that comes with the territory. And without missing a beat, we see him crash into a minivan filled with an entire Gypsy band that has got stuck on the tracks.

He visits two psychologists to assess how he is coping post-trauma, but his hilariously graphic retelling of the accident causes the one to throw up and the other to faint. For him, however, this is just part of life. He has clearly disconnected from the social fabric of existence and has no intimate relationship with almost anybody. That is, until he nearly runs over a 10-year-old orphan boy, Sima (Pavle Erić), who has decided to end his own life. For whatever reason, Ilija takes Sima under his wing, and before we know it, thanks to a wonderful cut that allows the director to change time but not place, the boy’s voice has broken.

The teenage Sima has but one dream: to become a train driver like “Uncle” Ilija. But Ilija will have none of it and persistently reminds Sima that he can do whatever he wants when Ilija is dead, but until then, he will not be a train driver. The main reason, of course, is the inherently homicidal nature of the job – a heavy burden that Ilija has had to shoulder for decades and from which he wants to spare the naïve Sima. But the latter has his heart set on the train industry, and so he gets sent to train as a dispatcher, before life inevitably intervenes.

The film is filled with oddball situations and eccentric characters, including a hairless dog with a mop of hair reminiscent of Donald Trump’s infamous coif. One particularly funny moment has Sima doing push-ups with the dog on his back providing very little extra weight.

Petar Korać provides a charming performance as the late-teen Sima, a blond-haired blue-eyed boy with a heart of gold who has always been cared for by Ilija but who has never received any physical intimacy from him – not even a hug. This has left the young man socially awkward but eminently likeable, although the scene in which he freaks out driving a train for the first time requires him to stretch his eyes as big as plates, pull his face like a clown and emote to a degree that speeds past acceptability into the domain of the histrionic.

Train Driver’s Diary could have done with a better title – perhaps “Love and Death: The Tragicomic Life of a Train Driver”? – but the film itself is a continuous joy that manages to squeeze a great deal of narrative and emotions into a relatively short running time. The characters are all very memorable, and although a final development regarding Ilija’s long-lost girlfriend Danica takes up too much time, it does provide a satisfying climax to his otherwise painfully slow emotional development.

Viewed at the Bratislava International Film Festival 2016.

Oslo, August 31st (2011)

Norwegian wunderkind director Joachim Trier’s second feature is devastatingly intimate as it gracefully follows its main character, a former drug addict, around the capital for one life-changing day.

oslo-31-augustNorway
4*

Director:
Joachim Trier

Screenwriters:
Eskil Vogt

Joachim Trier
Director of Photography:
Jakob Ihre

Running time: 90 minutes

Original title: Oslo, 31. august

The silence that bookends wunderkind Joachim Trier’s slightly ethereal but always solidly grounded Oslo, August 31st is potent. It channels our curiosity more than our emotions, but it also envelops this powerful film about life post-addiction in a soft bubble with a core that is complex and deeply felt.

The main character, 34-year-old Anders, does not even speak a word until more than 10 minutes into the film. By the time he does, however, we have already seen him try to commit suicide by weighting his clothes with rocks and walking into the river à la Virginia Woolf. He backs down and – in another subtle moment of bookending, this time intra-scenic – the camera, which has stayed on him throughout the scene and without cutting away, tracks back across the waters to the river bank. When he comes back out, we see he has lost his jacket, and this loss of a level of protective clothing is the first layer whose disappearance eventually reveals a man terrified of rejoining society.

The framework within which the action takes place is the special day, August 30, for which Anders has received permission to travel into Oslo. After an extended period of time recovering at a drug rehabilitation clinic, this marks the first time he is able to return to the city of his former, wilder self. While the purpose of his visit is to go for an interview at a magazine, he takes the opportunity to meet up with an old friend, Thomas.

Once they meet, the film suddenly reveals itself to be something very special indeed. “I’m a spoilt brat who fucked up”, Anders admits to his friend, who has recently become a father and thus part of the mould of the city’s social fabric, unlike Anders, who is single and whose clinic is located outside the city limits. Not coincidentally, Thomas is wearing a shirt while Anders has on a much more informal grey T-shirt.

The two men’s conversation is pointed and lightly skims over issues of life and death. They know they have to discuss these things, but they don’t quite know how. Above all, their words make it clear that Anders’s opinion of himself is scraping rock bottom. Thomas is kind and understanding, and he tries his best to be supportive, but he is walking on egg shells around Anders, and when his friend suggests he might commit suicide, Thomas is so stunned he has no idea how to react. These scenes, taking place on a peaceful summer morning in a park in the city centre, bring with them a mixture of tenderness, nostalgia and desperation whose power takes the viewer’s breath away.

Their meeting ends on a slightly surreal note, as the moment of their separation, albeit with the faint prospect of seeing each other at a party later in the evening, is replayed in front of our eyes. The result is both ominous and strikingly beautiful, as we can just about feel time slipping through our fingers as it turns from reality into a memory.

This first social interaction of the day, meant to console Anders, brings with it a surge of feelings that taint the rest of his day. Even though he arrives at the interview and appears to be connecting on an intellectual level with the magazine’s editor in chief, when the questions turn personal, he experiences intense humiliation and retreats into himself. It is one of the saddest moments in the film, as we realise that the possibilities are plentiful, but for Anders the greatest obstacle is overcoming the broken image he sees when he looks in the mirror. He doesn’t want anybody’s pity; what he really wants is a solution, but one that still makes him feel good about himself.

It is hard to ignore the sadness at the heart of Oslo, August 31st, especially during those moments when Anders looks at the people around him blissfully going about their lives, seemingly without a worry in the world. These scenes lead to a voice-over contemplation – heartfelt yet tinged with melancholy because of their absence – of his parents’ role in forming his life. 

The rest of the story develops with Anders walking on a knife’s edge as he tries to be the same guy as he was before, but different. A planned meeting with his sister doesn’t go as planned, and when the late-night party offers old friends who haven’t changed much, the past catches up with him. This final act is by far the most disappointing aspect of the film, as it veers towards territory we expect rather than the original, meticulously crafted dialogues, interactions and styles we relished up until this point. 

Anders Danielsen Lie shines in the lead role as his namesake. Determined to somehow make it through the day in a city he knows like the back of his hand but in a state that frequently has him on the verge of tears, the character is deeply affecting, even when the answers to our questions are often opaque. Trier’s film draws strength not only from the director’s empathetic view of humanity but also from Danielsen Lie’s sensitive performance that draws deep from the well of emotions inside the actor and washes over the story (and us) with the force of a silent tsunami.

In Your Arms (2015)

A man in his mid-30s, ravaged by disease, decides to end his life while encouraging his nurse to start living her own.

in-your-armsDenmark
3*

Director:
Samanou A. Sahlstrøm

Screenwriter:
Samanou A. Sahlstrøm
Director of Photography:
Brian Curt Petersen

Running time: 90 minutes

Original title: I dine hænder

Euthanasia is not an easy topic to wrap one’s head around, particularly because it is so often conflated with murder. When so many people are not even ready to accept suicide as a legitimate action, it is to be expected that euthanasia (the patient sanctions someone to kill him/her), or assisted suicide (the patient kills himself/herself with medication or counselling provided by a second party for this purpose) will be equally challenging notions for an audience. 

The Danish film In Your Arms, co-produced by Lars von Trier, is more of an intimate character study of a man who has decided to end his life than a critical examination of the moral or ethical issues surrounding or arising from this decision. In this respect, the film is a mostly sober representation of one man’s determination to eliminate the suffering that plagues him, instead of a dramatic contrivance that would involve our emotions. But it doesn’t make the audience’s job of empathising with the character easy at all.

One way in which the slight distance between the viewer and the film is achieved is through the use of snow. Symbolising a great number  of things (from ephemeral beauty to peace to a state of being untainted by the heartache and the natural shocks that flesh is heir to), snow accompanies a number of scenes, some of them potentially mere mental images, but at least one, which involves a brutal killing by a blubbering killer, is very real.

The film is centred on Niels, a man in his mid-30s whose body has been degenerating of late and is mostly paralysed. At the nursing home where he is experiencing a great deal of self-pity and has asked his family to stop visiting him, he tries to kill himself. “I can no longer walk. I can no longer masturbate. And soon I will no longer be able to breathe”, he says, and it is easy to understand his desire to put an end to this rapid, inexorable regression.

However, to his horror, he is saved by a young nurse, Maria. Anxious and terrible at any social interaction, she cleans herself by washing her armpits at the wash basin, and most of the time her pale face is taut as a drum. Even when she makes spontaneous decisions, there is no visible joy or passion in her expressions. Niels is not impressed, but although he always has sharp words at the ready for those around him, he needs help to get to Switzerland and end his life through an assisted dying organisation titled ASSIST. Having nothing better to do, now or ever, Maria sets off on the trip to accompany him.

This middle stretch of the film, which is a kind of road movie, is the most interesting part of the story, although it is at times very difficult to watch. The reason is right there in the producer’s credit, as the awkwardness Von Trier has long relished and made most palpable in The Idiots is also on display here. Niels gets a thrill by digging into Maria’s personal life and asking her about it, even when he knows that she finds these conversations excruciating. He also is not beneath embarrassing her in public for no good reason other than oblique self-pity.

We gradually realise that, as he approaches the hour of death, Niels is also grabbing on to his last moments of control in the midst of despair and apparent disarray. He tries to pull Maria out of her shell while he kicks up a fuss when she doesn’t do everything exactly as he orders her to, even if such orders are sometimes contradictory. He has good intentions, and Maria, who is afraid to look in the mirror, both literally and figuratively, would certainly be better off if she were socially better connected. Unfortunately, any assumption that these two characters who don’t fit into society would easily communicate all but blows up in our face, even though they rather pathetically hurtle into each other’s arms in the final act.

The big problem with the depiction of Maria is that the character is sobbing in nearly every single scene. She cries when she feels uncomfortable, she cries when she doesn’t have an answer, and she cries when life happens. She shows no sign of maturing or of dealing with her social and personal hang-ups, has very little development to speak of and is wholly incapable of being around people.

In a film that deals with euthanasia, the scene dealing with this topic in particular will illuminate the director’s talent as a storyteller, and here Samanou A. Sahlstrøm chooses to end his end his story not with lyricism but with extended discomfort. The process of dying by one’s own hand is almost never pretty, and while Sahlstrøm presents the character’s good-byes to his friends and family with great empathy, the act of suicide is filled with unpleasant hesitation, gasping, sniffling and anxious anticipation for the end to arrive sooner rather than later. While tough to watch, this final scene admirably undercuts any notion of this being a straightforward sanctioning of ending one’s own life.

Death very well spells the end to life, but even amidst the beautiful scenery of Switzerland, the transition from animate to inanimate is far from cheerful, and despite the many scenes with the snow that also signals a heavenly bright light, perhaps this example of the end of life pulls us back into the gritty realism that real death commands.

Viewed at the Black Nights Film Festival 2015