Sam Mendes' World War I Drama "1917"
In "1917" Sam Mendes tells a long shot of the madness of the First World War. This creates great pull, but does it make sense?
The director Jean-Luc Godard once said: "Cinema, that's the truth 24 frames per second, and every cut is a lie." If you follow this statement, you would have to see Sam Mendes' war film "1917", the entire duration of which of 119 minutes does not make a single obvious cut, as an absolutely true film; as a definitive film about the horrors of the First World War, the senseless waste of human lives that were drawn up in endless battles, defending areas that had long been nothing more than scorched earth.
If you stumble after the two-hour steel storm from "1917", you can't help but congratulate Mendes, his cameraman Roger Deakins and the many other technicians on a technically breathtaking performance, but the question of why is less easy to answer , Why is a basically simple, clear, almost simple story exaggerated with this technical form?
That Mendes – for his directorial debut "American Beauty" has won many Oscar and most recently with the bond films "Skyfall" and "Specter" extremely successful commercially – family interests are in the First World War. His grandfather, to whom the film is dedicated, fought on the front in Flanders and kept telling stories to growing Sam.
Stories that didn't quite fit together, that had no beginning and no end, but above all that told of the irrationality of this particular war, of months in dilapidated trenches housed by rats, the senseless attacks that inevitably followed counterattacks.
The long shot became one of the hallmarks of the author's cinema
And of course also of heroism, of camaraderie, of the sacrifice that made the First World War in England a "Great War" in an unquestionably somewhat transfigured memory. From the stories of his grandfather, Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns formed a script that followed two young soldiers: Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), who were given a vital job.
They are supposed to fight their way through no man's land, past positions abandoned by the Germans, to prevent another British company from attacking. An attack the Germans are waiting for that would inevitably result in the deaths of hundreds of Britons, including, to make matters worse, Blake's brother.
Known motifs in film history
That this family turn to “Saving Private Ryan, ”is just a first indication of how much Mendes and Wilson-Cairns shared with well-known motifs from the war film serve. In the individual episodes through which Schofields and Blake's path is structured, they encounter ignorant superiors, snipers, a lovely local, underhanded enemies. They demonstrate heroism, save each other's lives, act selflessly and courageously. The fact that British actors such as Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch and Mark Strong appear in tiny roles reinforces the impression of the episodic, the lined up, which is shaped by the essential decision to make the whole film look like an attitude.
"1917". Directed by Sam Mendes. With George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman u. a. USA / Great Britain 2019, 119 min.
So the action takes place in real time, begins in the afternoon, is then interrupted by a longer blackout of one of the figures, jumps into the dawn of the following day, shortly before the start of the doomed attack. From a purely technical point of view, this is without question a breathtaking masterpiece.
How Deakins ’camera appears to weightlessly slide through barbed wire crates, over ponds, through catacombs creates a remarkable pull. Later you drive on a truck, fall down a river embankment and at night, when red flares rocket a completely destroyed city, you see how the war finally becomes hell on earth.
Is the Intoxication of this immersive experience however, the question of why is increasing. Because what Mendes achieves with this technical decision ends up being less thoughtful than the experiments with long shots that have always fascinated filmmakers.
In the 1940s, Orson Welles and William Wyler increasingly worked with long shots that no longer resolved sequences with cuts, but instead made it possible for the viewer to see what was happening from a distance. In the eyes of the great film critic André Bazin, this meant greater objectivity, in contrast to the suggestive montage cinema that controls the viewer's perception.
The long attitude thus became one of the hallmarks of the author's cinema, whose representatives were responsible for the most striking examples of this technology for a long time. Orson Welles began "In the Sign of Evil" with a shot that was almost three and a half minutes long, in which not only accompanied the route of a car bomb, but also crossed the Mexican-American border.
Troubles of Sisyphus
Unforgettable also one of the last shots of Andrei Tarkowski's "Nostalghia", in which a man tries to walk through the ruins of a water basin in the Tuscan town of Bagno Vignoni with a lit candle, fails again and again, the candle goes out, returns to the beginning, the candle reignited to succeed in the end, in a transcendent moment. This description alone suggests that Tarkowski's decision to show this action-packed nine uninterrupted minutes had more in mind than to show what was technically possible. The hardship of the plot, the stoicism reminiscent of Sisyphus, gain strength through the seemingly endless attitude.
Went further Theo Angelopoulos, whose films have become more and more meditative throughout his career, In his masterpiece "The Wandering Actors", he not only walks through space with long shots, but also through time: some shots begin in a decade and end years earlier. Just like in Alexander Sokurov's "Russian Ark", one of the first films that was actually shot in one shot thanks to digital technology. On a walk through the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, different epochs of Russian history flow into one another, practically becoming one; this is also an obviously political statement.
In the past, analog technology limited the length of a shot to the length of a film roll, i.e. a good ten minutes, now everything is possible: a 140-minute film like Sebastian Schippers "Victoria", who actually stumbles through a night in Berlin without a cut, but also Alejandro Iñárritus "Birdman" or László Nemes ’" Son of Saul ", who appear through hidden cuts as if they were shot in one shot. Nemes ’Holocaust film in particular had to endure similar criticism to Mendes: letting the audience experience the horrors of the Holocaust, the Auschwitz machinery of destruction in an immersive way, seemed to some critics like a questionable, even pretentious stunt.
While Nemes was entering cinematic territory with his film, Sam Mendes can not be blamed for this. In terms of content, "1917" no longer varies as scenes and motifs from countless war films. The stylistic approach alone makes this film extraordinary and special, depending on the point of view, a superficial World War II adventure course or an emotionally gripping, immersive event.