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Stanley Kauffmann on Films: Kinds of War

Where Soldiers Come From
International Film Circuit

Point Blank
Magnolia Pictures

Iron Crows
Min-Chul Kim

No, it won’t. That is the answer as to whether the flood of documentaries about current wars will lessen. Why should it? Don’t we all frequently wish that film had been invented in time for Troy?

Where Soldiers Come From is unique. It is about war, about Afghanistan in particular, but it is more about civilization than about combat. An American woman named Heather Courtney, experienced in documentary, was struck some four years ago by the sight of high school seniors joining the armed services in upper Michigan where she lives. She resolved to film some of them as time touched these youngsters. We prepare ourselves for inevitabilities—death and harsh injuries. These do not come. We see bits of combat, and one young man gets a Purple Heart for an endurable wound. We see training camps and military leaves and returns to duty and discharges. But what we really see is a basic hard fact, integral to civilization. Peace and peacemaking are common enough terms, easy to sing about and lofty in tone; yet peace, as anyone can see, is an interval in history. The patterns we are watching are more usual—the patterns of conflict.

Two high school buddies, by joining up, enter a large and ancient world. Yes, there is a world of people without military service: I happen to be part of it. But to follow these two friends through their uniformed years and shortly after is to see how “normal” their lives are. Scarcely any event in their lives is extraordinary. But the very fact that we have seen it all before, gathered under the mantle of large political purpose, is in itself fateful.

John Huston’s San Pietro and many another documentary are carved into our brains with horror. Courtney’s film is meant to shake us with its diurnality. She is observing those who have not been physically or otherwise greatly hurt but who cannot be said to be unmarked. They have done and seen, as men together, things that have rendered them somewhat more historically usual than the rest of us.

LATELY FRANCE sent us Rapt, a ransom film that used the kidnap genre as a chance for exploration of ethics. Now from France comes Point Blank, a ransom film with absolutely no thematic content at all. It exists merely to prove—yet again—that an example of a genre, well-executed, is its own reason for being.

The very first shot of the film sets its tone. Two men burst through doors toward us and chase a victim down some dreary corridors, trying to reach and kill him. They chase him into an underground roadway, where he is hit accidentally by a motorbike. The two chasers, fearful of witnesses, disappear. The motorbike victim, badly injured, is taken to a hospital, where he is under the care of a nurse’s aide, a handsome young fellow named Samuel. Samuel discovers a plan to murder the bike victim in his hospital bed. He reports the plan, and very soon he himself gets word that his pregnant wife has been kidnapped and will be killed if he doesn’t shut up and do his best to get rid of that patient.

How this complicated plot got set up in this short time is one of its wonders. But we want these devices to multiply because the film needs them, and we respect its self-sufficiency. The director-writer, Fred Cavayé, keeps weaving filament after filament of conflict until what one might call the original plot becomes a web of tricks and corruptions that entangles the financial world, politics, and even the Paris police department. What started as a peculiar mess that Samuel had bumbled into becomes an indictment of a society—revealed with an air of non-surprise. Who figured otherwise?

What helps the film dynamically is Cavayé’s editing. Each cut to a new sequence includes a surprise: a door is open when we thought it would be shut, a gun is fired unexpectedly. And these phenomenological slaps are heightened by the quality that Cavayé uses in the acting—underplaying. Thus, while doors are slamming and brakes are shrieking in the film around them, the actors are merely muttering. The contrast edges the air.

Eventually we see a light that does not always gleam in discussions of the Point Blank sort of film. This sort came into being more or less in the 1940s, along with Hammett-Chandler fiction, and was judged to be the epitome of film realism. But it is the exact opposite. Everything in a Hammett or Chandler novel is credible—the smallest details, such as a cigarette puff, are as they actually would be. But in the films derived from that fiction this is not always so. In Point Blank things keep happening that are quite incredible. Allow the early swift tumescence of plot: how about when a mature man, maturely dressed, runs full force down a Paris street and hardly anyone looks? Or when a man takes another man at gunpoint through the street, again scarcely noted by passers-by? Point Blank is a prime example of the truth about these films: they are surreal. Instead of showing us what reality is, they show us how to play with it.

Cavayé’s film has an epilogue that is meant to give the picture some moral heft. It doesn’t. It only emphasizes the fact that the bare-knuckle shoot-and-slug fest can, in the right hands, be turned into one of the chief fairy-tale forms of our time.

BUT THIS IS far from a chief paradox of form in the arts. Much more awesome is a simple truth: most of what we know about the ugliness of human beings was brought to us by people in search of beauty. My chief instance—one out of thousands—is Goya’s work about Spanish prisoners. A great artist, pursuing the beauties of art itself, in that very pursuit tells us about agonies beyond endurance.

A pertinent further example, though not quite Goya, is a new documentary called Iron Crows. It was made in Bangladesh by the knowledgeable Korean director Bong-Nam Park and the superb cinematographers Syed Munna and Yeon-Taek Seo, and it bothers us exactly as it was meant to do. Bangladesh is now a center for ship-breaking. Old tankers and such are sent there to be demolished and sold for their steel. One port, Chittagong, has an immense yard, four or five times the size of a football field, where ships are beached and dismembered. Park obviously took one look at what was going on there and decided it was a film.

His first reaction, we can assume, was visual—he saw pictures. Huge chunks of ship superstructures topple to the ground. Squads of workers endlessly lug heavy chains and big hunks of stuff. They all seem to be rushing this world to an ending, especially since the entire yard is often sloshed in a sea of thick, threatening mud. Park, we may further assume, finds that what he is watching is an immense ballet of sweat.

But this reaction is altered when he discovers that the workers in that yard are virtual slaves, living in appalling squalor, working for pennies because other work is not available. (There is also a family subplot that ought to be dropped: it has nothing to do with either of the main aspects—beauty and exploitation—of the shipyard.)

Soon Iron Crows becomes two films intertwined: a record of commercial brutality and a treat for the eye. (Curiously, many of the men are young and quite good-looking, and all have the same haircut. We even get a glimpse of their barbershop.) Stunningly framed shots, varying tempers of lighting, counterpointed rhythms—all these qualities make the film a pleasure to watch. Then we are reminded, often, that these pleasures are made possible by grossly exploited slaves. Their lives are being used as the base of art.

This is a familiar contradiction, one revealed earlier in documentaries from Central America and China. Wretched lives can evoke beautiful films. At one moment here I felt a bit guilty watching the proles make this picture attractive. Then there was a cut to two little girls walking past the immense rudder of a beached ship—a shot of such marvelous proportions and charm that it numbed my shred of guilt.

So Iron Crows joins the centuries-long parade of works whose intent is beauty but which achieve it in part through ugliness. By the way, a couple of crows do live in the shipyard: they build nests from bits of wire. Their accommodation to grimness is the film’s one touch of humor.

Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic. This article originally ran in the October 6, 2011, issue of the magazine.