Vive les Docs! Cannes Serves Up Great Surprises, Old and New

Eighty-seven year old Claude Lanzmann's Le Dernier des Injustes, which screened in the Out of Competition section at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, was the most important film I saw this year—a monumental, groundbreaking masterpiece that digs right to the core of Germany's darkest period from 1938-1945, revealing new aspects of the Final Solution. Using 20 hours of personal testimony that he filmed in 1975 of the last and only Jewish "Elder" to survive, Lanzmann adds new scenes in 2012 of his return to the scenes of the crimes. His three-and-a-half hour story goes by swiftly.   

"I kill the Nazis with my camera," says Lanzmann, which he confirmed in his nine-hour
chef-d'oeuvre from 1985, Shoah, about the destruction of European Jews. In Le Dernier des Injustes, he tackles the subject of Jewish collaboration in their own death. Lanzmann questions Benjamin Murmelstein, Grand Rabbi of Vienna in 1938, and president of the Jewish Council (Judenrat), whose job it was to carry out horrific Nazi orders and administration in the ghetto. The ambiguity of Murmelstein's seven-year working relationship with Adolf Eichmann is analyzed; Lanzmann asks why Murmelstein stoked the lie that the notorious Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia was the "model town gifted to the Jews by Hitler"—a happy, healthy holiday village where German Jews could retire. Murmelstein adds
his own footnotes to history: He saw Eichmann destroy the synagogue in Kristallnacht, and pocket the money Americans paid to allow 121,000 Jews to emigrate from Austria, which Murmelstein
negotiated. After the war, Thereisenstadt survivors denounced Murmelstein as a collaborator. He was jailed but later acquitted by Czech courts, while many in Israel condemned him to death by hanging. He lived in isolation in Rome until his death in 1989.


Filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, from his documentary Le Dernier des Injustes. (c) Le Pacte


"This film is important so late in my life," explains Lanzmann. "It was an enormous effort. I have great sympathy for Murmelstein; he has exceptional intelligence and is extraordinarily courageous. He invested himself in a mission to keep the camp alive and he saved thousands of Jews."

French-Cambodian director Rithy Panh's L'image Manquante (The Missing Picture), which screened in the Un Certain Regard section, is an autobiographical essay about the genocide
in Cambodia that extinguished almost a third of the population, including his own family. Panh was 11 years old in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge evacuated cities and deported the population for "re-education" to harsh labor at internment camps, where his mother, father, sisters, brother and nephews perished before his eyes. Many years later, Panh travelled to Cambodia, tracked down cameramen and photographers who filmed for the Khmer Rouge, returned to the camp where he was deported, and found villagers in the town where he was interned. But he says in the film that  he could use none of this material. "I have been searching for a missing photograph taken between 1975 and 1979 by the Khmer Rouge when they controlled Cambodia," he explains. "On its own, this image does not prove the mass murder and crimes, but it forces one to think, to build a history. I know this image must remain missing, so I will no longer look for it; I will create it." And with voiceover narration and monochrome archive footage, Panh uses clay figurines with painted faces set in a landscape of huts and plastic palm trees to tell their very powerful and deeply moving story. "For 25 years I was unable to tell this story, now this documentary has freed me and I can turn the page," he asserts. When L'image Manquante received Un Certain Regard's  highest award, Rithy Panh dedicated it to Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who is under house arrest in Teheran, and banned from making films.


From Rithy Panh's L'image Manquante


Screening in the Cannes Classics section, the new reconstructed digitalized version of Chris Marker's Le Joli Mai (1963) was presented by cinematographer and co-director Pierre Lhomme, who supervised the edit after Marker died in Paris last July. After 100 years of colonial rule and an eight-year war with France, Algeria is the underlying subject of Le Joli Mai, referring to the first springtime, in 1962, when France is not at war with Algeria. In this context, Marker and Lhomme travelled with their new lightweight camera and direct sound, asking Parisians about their lives and how happy they are, what's most important to them, the value of money, if they believe in God, and their views on the war in Algeria. Marker solicits blunt, honest answers that show Parisians' apathy and disengagement with politics, as well as a strong undercurrent of racism and a rigid class system. The version of Le Joli Mai available in the US might have been puzzling; it was 30 minutes shorter because reference to Algeria was excluded, but this new version should correct that.

In the Director's Fortnight, Marcel Ophuls resurrected himself after a 19-year absence from Cannes in Le Voyageur, aka Ain't Misbehavin': A Marcel Ophuls Journey. This self-made portrait about the only child of the great German movie director Max Ophuls is an autobiographical travelogue of selective memories, emphasizing his intimacy with famous names of stage and screen that made up his very privileged life. Ophuls devotes the first half to his intensely dramatic and nomadic early life, when his family fled Nazi Germany for France, then Hollywood, and then returned to France after the war. The second half only brushes lightly upon the landmark documentaries he made under combative conditions: lawsuits with producers, betrayal from backers and bans from broadcasters. Ophuls is known for being uncompromising to the point of intransigence, but his best-known films—The Sorrow and the Pity (1969), A Sense
of Loss
(1973), The Memory of Justice (1976), Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie (1988), Veillées d'armes (1994)—exist in a league of their own and are mandatory viewing. Le Voyageur doesn't do justice to his outstanding contribution to
history and to documentary film; there is still a film to be made about the real life and times of Marcel Ophuls. 

Also in the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs section was Jodorowsky's Dune, a tremendously well researched and entertaining work by newcomer Frank Pavich, who received an enthusiastic standing ovation at the premiere. His film tells the story of the mad Chilean genius Alejandro Jodorowsky, whose visionary attempt to adapt Frank Herbert's science fiction classic Dune absorbed many years of research and millions of dollars in pre-production. Jodorowsky assembled a group of "spiritual warriors" for his creative team:  Jean "Mobius" Giraud, Dan O'Bannon, Chris Foss and Swiss artist H.R. Giger (all of whom later worked on Ridley Scott's Alien when Dune collapsed). Every Hollywood studio passed on the film; although impressed by the magnificent artwork and storyboard presentation, the moguls were scared of the $15 million budget and the surrealism of Jodorowsky's Quixotic persona. Other filmmakers, however, were inspired by Jodorowsky's ideas and imagery to go on to make what became the sci-fi blockbusters of the 1970s.


One of Chris Foss' designs for Alejandro Jodorowsky's ill-fated Dune. From Frank Pavich's Jodorowsky's Dune.


In the Out of Competition section was Weekend of a Champion, an endearing new portrait of Jackie Stewart, three-time world champion of Formula One racing, who appears as a handsome young man in the original 1971 film directed by Frank Simon and produced by Roman Polanski. We see the two friends reviewing the danger zones in the Monaco race course during
the three rainy days leading up to Sunday's Grand Prix race, masterfully photographed by Bill Brayne, but in quieter discussion, we learn just how close to death Formula One racers really came, as several of Stewart's closest friends literally crash and burn on camera, while Stewart continued his fight for safer conditions. Additional material, recently shot, shows the 79-year-old Polanski
and 73-year-old Stewart reflecting on those precarious times, and breathes new life into this exciting poignant racing film.    

Another excellent sports documentary, introduced by one of its original directors, Claude Lelouch, at a Special Screening, was Visions of Eight, about the 1972 Munich Olympics. Producer David Wolper assigned eight directors to chose their own theme, crew and music, and edit their 10-minute segments. Russia's Juri Ozerov presented "The Beginning," about the lighting of the torch; Sweden's Mai Zetterling focused on weightlifters in "The Strongest"; America's Arthur Penn chose pole vaulters for his "The Highest"; Japan's Kon Ichikawa captured the men's 100 meter dash in "The Fastest"; France's Lelouch studied "The Losers"; Germany's Michael Pfleghar focused on "The Women"; and Czechoslavakia's Milos Forman presented  "The Decathlon." Britain's John Schlesinger filmed marathon runners in "The Longest," which contains the only mention of the tragic Black September terrorist attack that killed 11 Israeli athletes and coaches and a West German policeman.


From Arthur Penn's "The Highest," one of eight short films from David Wolper's Visions of Eight.


Featured in Cannes Classics, and one of the few UK films invited to Cannes, was A Story of Children and Film from Belfast-born Mark Cousins, who illustrates aspects of kids' personalities by
using classic film excerpts from around the world that are all interestingly assembled. This compilation follows closely behind Cousins' 15-hour documentary series The Story of Film: An Odyssey, made in 2011.

Seduced and Abandoned, presented as a Special Screening, is James Toback and Alec Baldwin's farcical exercise filmed during the 2012 Cannes Festival, where the disheveled Hollywood duo waddle along the Croisette hoping to meet billionaires who will invest millions in their somewhat unconvincing project. The filmmakers are also able to elicit interesting interviews with Cannes A-listers before they hit the red carpet. Stories awaken us to the crass realities of the studio machinery. Quoting Orson Welles, who famously said, "Ninety-five percent of my time is spent looking for money to make a film and five percent of my time is left to make it," the film is a
sober and downward spiraling insight into an industry that is broken, dysfunctional, corrupt and out of touch.   


Based in Paris and London, Madelyn Grace Most develops independent feature films, writes about cinema and covers film festivals for European film magazines. She is a member of French Film Critics, Union of Cinema Journalists and the Foreign Press Association in Paris.