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Stanley Kauffmann's Final Film Review

On 'Nicky's Family,' 'The Artist and the Model' and 'The Act of Killing'

Drafthouse Films

Nicky's Family (directed by Matej Minac), The Artist and the Model (directed by Fernando Trueba), The Act of Killing (directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, and an anonymous co-director)

Nicky’s Family is a Czech tribute (stirringly deserved) to Nicholas Winton, the Englishman who organized the rescue of mostly Jewish Czech children from Prague when the Nazis invaded. His organization has been active ever since in similar work. Welcome as this picture is, the tribute is only part of its achievement. It has created a cinematic marvel: a reproduction of Prague in 1939.

Most of us have seen plenty of film of Nazi devastation, but this film’s director, Matej Mináč, apparently felt that the available footage is not good enough; and so he and his Czech editors proceeded to recreate that crisis. They used original material as they could and supplemented as they needed to. (For instance, the young Winton, played by an actor, visits Prague and gets involved. Eventually he rescued more than six hundred children.) By weaving originals and additions, the film creates the feeling of life in a territory where the Germans could pick up a section of the earth as if it were a blanket and toss it into disorder in the name of their order. Soldiers knock at apartment doors; children, accompanied or not, huddle on stairs and in groups; lines are formed, offices are visited, files and registers are paramount, there is a hell of rubber stamps. And of camps and buses.

In addition to the force and the officialdom, dizzying and stark, there are particularly sharp stabs of feeling. A three-year-old tags after his family’s cart. A mother at a Nazi-controlled train station puts her boy on a crowded train to escape, but as the train slowly moves out, she despairingly pulls him off the train, and then with different despair puts him back on the train again—to escape. Through all this, like huge consolations, a series of faces appears, all white-haired people, all rescued children who survived in various countries and differently made their ways. This set of interviews, set against the harried city, is just overwhelming.

The central cinematic marvel completed, the film returns to its tribute to Nicholas Winton today at his English headquarters, together with rescued children and their children from various countries. Winton is now 104, and as active as can be while his staff continues work in harried places. Britain has knighted him, many call for a Nobel Peace Prize for him. Meanwhile here is this outstanding film, with a filmic jewel center, rightly to celebrate him. 

Nudity—the nudity of a model in an artist’s studio—has often been a film subject, and here it is again in a French-language work unblushingly called The Artist and the Model. The screenplay was co-written by the director Fernando Trueba, who has style and taste, and Jean-Claude Carrière, one of the most highly regarded of French screenwriters. The setting is southern France in 1943, near the Spanish border, with World War II still raging.

The specific place is the home and studio and grounds of a famous (fictitious) old sculptor named Marc Cros. He is played by the invaluable Jean Rochefort, who has been enhancing French films for decades. Seeing Rochefort again reminds us that some film worlds treasure their veterans.

We first see Cros as he comes strolling in his grounds with a stick, picking up twisted twigs and things, not cleaning, just signaling that he is not presently engaged in much. Then we see his wife (played by the former luminary Claudia Cardinale) and maid in the nearby town. They discover a girl sleeping in a doorway, take her home and feed her, and learn that she is a fugitive from a refugee camp. The wife, who is a former model herself, sees at a glance that this girl, Mercè, has the sort of skin that her husband likes in models. One glance at Mercè by Cros confirms this.

In the studio, quickly convinced by Cros that she is not being inveigled, Mercè strips, and we enter this special world of nudity. It isn’t sexual; but it isn’t, of course, normal. It is a particular privileged area between them. He sets to work at once making charcoal sketches. Then, through the weeks, come figures, even an oil painting of Mercè bathing. Cros is searching for something that he is not yet sure of. We note that it is a sculptor’s basic task to make hard materials look soft.

While he works, licensed perhaps by this privacy and attuned to his searching work, Cros delivers grand pronouncements about life, often including the word “God.” We take these comments as part of his process. He is nearing completion of a kneeling figure of her.

Cohen Media Group
Aida Folch as Mercè.

One day, when she has been allowed to stroll about, she discovers a young man burying another young man. Both were escapees from that refugee camp, and the other man was killed. Mercè takes the surviving refugee back to Cros, who shelters him. Then a German army officer visits. When he and Cros meet, they embrace. The officer, in peacetime, was a professor of art history in a German university and is writing a book about Cros. He has come for more information. When he leaves, he tells Cros, who is of course an old friend, that he expects to be sent to the Russian front, a stroke of doom. He and Cros embrace and part.

Then comes the need to help the refugee escape. Mercè helps. Cros supplies money. Mercè, her modeling done, wants to go. She and Cros do come to one moment of intimacy, but it is in the nature of farewell. She will bicycle to Marseilles if Cros will give her his bicycle, and we last see her biking away. Cros is left alone in his studio. He gives a final touch to the kneeling figure of Mercè. Then he concludes the film—concludes everything. It is his closing statement. 

This film has its own nature, almost its own reality. It is as if some gifted people got together to make it, then arranged some themes in and around the gleaming box of that private nudity. The sudden finish almost seems meant to make it our responsibility to comprehend the whole.

In 2005 an American film-maker named Joshua Oppenheimer, together with a crew, began to make a movie that may shrivel many souls. In northern Indonesia he began shooting film of Anwar Congo, a local leader who during the 1960s mass-murdered his enemies, communists. Congo and his friends may have killed millions.

Now, in The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer presents a film of his experience there, a country in which death has been substituted for life, in which Congo’s chief regret is that his victims’ eyes were not closed. He himself is a cordial gray-haired man, not a toughie; most of his pals are obese and gloating. They all live in brightly colored houses, surrounded by luxuries, including women, and are eager only to prolong their regime.

The country has one national game—imitating tough guys of Hollywood films, wearing costumes, wigs, false teeth. All with a camera to record it. In the midst of this everyday horror, it is chilling to hear Pacino, Brando, and others being sanctified for all the wrong reasons. 

The effect of the film is to turn the universe upside down and to come up perversely smiling. Of course we think of Cambodia with its killing fields in the 1970s, and the way most of the world could do little about it. Here, just because we are figuratively present, the soul is wrung. I certainly do not move that the film should be suppressed, only that one should know what it is. It is a bath in a smiling madness. 

After the picture was well along, Oppenheimer got Errol Morris and Werner Herzog to come aboard as executive producers, men who have done some moderately comparable but vastly superior work. Oppenheimer’s is not a horror film in the usual commercial sense. It makes those films look even sillier. 

Stanley Kauffmann reviewed films for The New Republic for fifty-five years. He died on October 9.