Hugo Emmerzael talks to Cristi Puiu about his latest film ‘Malmkrog’ (2020)
It is in some ways prophetic that low budget road movie Stuff and Dough / Marfa si banii (2001) is fueled by sudden economic opportunity and steers towards an uncertain future, for this debut feature by Cristi Puiu singlehandedly paved the way for a new generation of Romanian directors to storm the international film festival circuit.
Much in the same vein as Puiu’s early cinematic output, directors like Cristian Mungiu delivered raw and hyperrealist films about ordinary Romanians living in the margins of society. Because of a shared “Direct Cinema” approach to commonplace themes such as family relationships, economic hardships, and the delicate balance between legal and illegal solutions to problems, these directors were quickly piled together as the “Romanian New Wave” of cinema.
It’s a persistent denominator that spiritual godfather Puiu himself has consistently resisted. “There is not, not, not, not, not a Romanian New Wave… there is no Romanian film industry,” he had already remarked in 2008, when the term was solidified in the wake of his own successful The Death of Mister Lazarescu / Moartea domnului Lãzãrescu (2005) and Mungiu’s Palme d’Or winner, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days / 4 luni, 3 saptamâni si 2 zile (2007). “If it were to exist,” film professor Doru Pop slyly notes in Romanian New Wave Cinema: An Introduction (2014), “it would simply be the way Cristi Puiu makes movies.”
But the way Puiu makes movies has shifted significantly over the years. The cinéma vérité-styled verisimilitude of his earlier work has slowly allowed space for a more choreographed and rigorous mise-en-scène, which is especially noticeable in the terrific family symphony of Sieranevada (2016). The familiar themes of the Romanian New Wave are now also inhabited by more arcane influences that deal with the spiritual and esoteric.
Malmkrog, a stilted period drama that clocks in over three hours, is Puiu’s most daring testament of this developing cinematic sensibility. The dialogue-heavy film is set in a lavish Transylvania mansion at the onset of the 20th century, where landowner Nikolai (Frédéric Schulz-Richard) entertains a thoroughgoing debate with his esteemed guests Edoard (Ugo Broussot), Ingrida (Diana Sakalauskaité), Olga (Marina Palii), and Madelaine (Agathe Bosch).
On a textual level, Puiu lifts his discursive examination of religion, politics, race, colonialism, and environmentalism almost verbatim from the source: Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov’s novel War, Progress, and the End of History: Three Conversations, Including a Short Story of the Anti-Christ (1900). What he adds is a meticulous framing, though he isolates — and perhaps confronts — these philosophical waxings. Seen through this lens Solovyov’s text becomes a film about discursive trench warfare, one that may ultimately result in violence and death.
Perhaps not coincidentally, death was on Puiu’s mind when we sat down to talk with him during the 70th edition of Berlin International Film Festival. One can easily dismiss his existential ruminations, but his esoteric perspective on the inevitability of catastrophe does resonate in a period where the contemporary status quo is severely challenged by the outbreak of a global pandemic.
Electric Ghost Magazine: What struck me with Malmkrog is that the topics of debate seem uncannily contemporary. Was this part of the impetus to adapt Solovyov’s text?
Cristi Puiu: Somehow, yes. But for a different reason, I believe. Somewhere in the back of my head there was this fear of attacking a text that has maybe nothing to do with the present time. That would have really killed my audience. But accidentality, you have some kind of a prophetic moment. Thanks to this, people in the cinema will feel like, you know, a litte bit at home — they recognize some topics, some questions. But the reason for me choosing this setting has foremost to do with my admiration for the work of Solovyov, for this book in particular.
There is a moment where Eduardo says that we live in the age of peaceful expansion of European civilization and that all must become European. It’s fascinating to hear in today’s context.
Several times when actor Ugo Broussot speaks I have the feeling that he’s talking a bit like Nicolas Sarkozy. He belongs to this class of politicians in the way he’s emphasizing the accents and using his body to express his ideas. But the others are quite sceptical of this. I think this is rewarding for the audience. Anyway, it is for me, to watch the defence team reject his aggressive claims. It’s impossible for a human being to accept this kind of delirium. It’s all about power.
“Around that time, the survivors of the communist prisons in Romania were all talking about God. For someone like me who received an artistic education, this seemed like a strange situation with completely new ways of speaking.”
Solovyov was very much concerned with the place of contemporary Russia in history. What were your concerns regarding the text?
I think it is a legitimate question to ask yourself. It’s a question I am asking myself regarding Romania at this moment. I’m not writing books about it, but the text of Solovyov and the way I approach that text has above all else to do with my interest in Christianity. After the rise of Communism, it was banned in Romania. So they translated it only at the beginning of the 1990s. Around that time, the survivors of the communist prisons in Romania were all talking about God. For someone like me who received an artistic education, this seemed like a strange situation with completely new ways of speaking. The text did not really change my life as such, but it did change my way of thinking,
You know, when I was 17, there was this book that impressed me a lot, written by Bertrand Russell called Why I’m Not a Christian (1927). I read it, because of course the communists published it, and then I went to my grandmother with the proof that we descended from monkeys. My grandmother was very religious and said: “No, no, no. You are wrong. Don’t say these things. Never prove to me that it is so.” After the fall of the Soviet Union, they started publishing different books.
One of them was by Nicolae Steinhardt, this Romanian Jewish art critic, writer and thinker. He was in prison in the 1950s for six years where he converted to orthodoxy. After leaving the prison he went to a monastery and he wrote this book called Diary of Happiness (1991). Jumping to conclusions: when you are young and you are being controlled by your hormones, you are a boy and you have to fight like a small dog — you know barking all the time and biting everyone. But you realize that you are on the wrong side of history. Back then, I was studying to become a painter, but when I switched to cinema I didn’t propose yet to make a film, an adaptation, that contained these multitudes. I saw cinema as a testimonial, witnessing what you and others had lived through, a sharp depiction of experiences.
So what was the process like of adapting this work? If the book has had such a significant impact on your life, it must have put a big pressure on you.
When I describe it as life-changing in English, it doesn’t mean the same thing as in Romanian. It’s not the life that was changed by the book. It was the prospect, the way I watched things in this world. But the process was extremely painful; it was like the Calvary. I mean, I’m not going to get closer to the author, you know this from the start. You have to assume that you know nothing, that you just imagine everything you know about this book. It’s just a projection of your desires. It’s an act of humility, and you have to approach it like this. So, instead of stating things, you’re asking questions. So I had to make interventions, and I had to be a sinner.
“That’s why the mansion functions as a prison from the inside. I felt like the inside of the mansion was like hell, a possessed place.”
I’m wondering about the title and the location, Malmkrog.
In Dracula’s country.
I’m not getting at that, although, what I mean is that you seem to emphasize the seclusion of these characters. The original text took place in the more open French Riviera, right?
Ah yes, La belle vie! This is not true to life. Maybe it’s true for you or some other people, but not for me. People who survived communist prisons are saying that they left their smaller prison and entered a bigger prison which is the world. I do believe it’s more like this. Yeah, and of course I also lived in a neighbourhood with blocks of flats. Concrete and so on. Maybe it’s coming from that experience, but for me, even if I were to shoot the film somewhere in France, I would have chosen to shoot inside a mansion or castle during wintertime. For me, this is very important. I think it resonates with the short story of the Antichrist that you don’t find in the film.
I believe that what we’re talking about are very dark times that we have to live through. We just don’t want to assume, because we are being protected by our own destiny, to say so. But just remember that people, intelligent people and very sensitive people, are killed in Syria during this war that nobody understands anything about. What is this world? Why are we still killing people? We are being protected, but it will come here as well. It will happen. I mean, just check the history. I mean, it’s impossible, mathematically speaking, impossible that it will not happen on our soil.
So we wait?
Until we have a conflict or a serious problem, being a war, a crisis with heavy consequences on the population or an epidemic like we are living through now. But that’s not what touches us yet. We are not in Wuhan. We are in Berlin. So I believe this is also what the book of Solovyov is about. That’s why the mansion functions as a prison from the inside. I felt like the inside of the mansion was like hell, a possessed place.
How does that relate to Sieranevada? In many ways it’s also about a house that’s possessed by a darker presence, but I would say the textual relationships between people are very different. Do you see a dialogue between those two films?
I don’t know, but it’s a good question. Once somebody asked me what the best position of the camera is. I mean, what can you say? But I believed then and I believe now that the best position of the camera is the one where death is visible. And I think the best thing you can tell your actors is the thing that is going to trigger a reflection about death. I believe that this is the most important event we are facing in this world and this does not mean that other events aren’t important. But I do think this one is crucial. So maybe the real denominator of all my films is death.
Malmkrog premiered as part of the 70th Berlin International Film Festival. It does not currently have a UK release date.