Author: Jessica Schneider

Jessica is a novelist and poet. Visit her Amazon Book page for a glimpse into what she's shared. Her unreleased works include several trilogies and poetic novels on religious themes. She is currently working on a poetry collection on French painters. She also runs a YouTube channel on the arts.
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A stylized shot from Andrzej Wajda's "A Generation", depicting the protagonist as he observes Nazi soldiers walking towards him. There is text of the director's name and the film title.

Gathering Resistance: Andrzej Wajda’s “A Generation” (1955)

It is always interesting to watch a film trilogy where one can see the progression of a director’s talent. However, unlike Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colors Trilogy, which consists of three film narratives interdependent upon one another, Andrzej Wajda’s War Trilogy connects only through its similar theme—resistance. Before Kanal and Ashes and Diamonds, Wajda directed A Generation, which is set around the survival of a group of young men during the Nazi occupation of Poland. The film’s straightforward narrative details a young protagonist, Stach, who joins an underground communist resistance movement once he learns what little value his wages offer vis-à-vis those his employer makes off his labor. Young enough to still carry idealism, it is this idealism that Stach uses to comfort his depressed mother who lives in squalor with a rabbit that runs loose. He reassures her that he will find work, and in doing so, this young, idealistic man joins the resistance believing that this will be for some greater good because, as is, life can’t get any worse.

The opening scene contains Stach’s first-person voiceover informing us that he grew up in a slum outside Warsaw, and that to entertain himself, he and his friends (one played by Zbigniew Cybulski from Ashes and Diamonds) flick knives into the haystacks. The three seem to be enjoying this last moment of playfulness as rebellious youths who were forced to grow up too fast. […]

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A stylized shot from Andrzej Wajda's "Ashes and Diamonds", depicting an upside down crucifix.

Perilous Betweens: On Andrzej Wajda’s “Ashes and Diamonds” (1958)

Before an abandoned church in a patch of sunned, country grass, two men wait to assassinate the Secretary to the Polish Workers’ Party. The assassination takes place, except their target is the wrong man.

This is the opening scene of Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds, the third installment within Wajda’s War Trilogy. (The first two are A Generation and Kanal, respectively.) Based on the novel by Polish writer Jerzy Andrzejewski, I immediately was struck by the film’s presence of hierarchy. For what does one exist? Is individuality merely a function of action? Through the effective use of shadow and low shots, an astounding modernism pervades throughout that, much like Orson Welles’s Citizen Cane, creates a bleak interior landscape. Set on the last day of World War II in Poland, the Germans have lost and are vacating the city. Despite this time of celebration, there is, however, something tragic about not only the ending of life when history indicates it should be a beginning, but also the dearth of opportunity for the protagonists. Following Wajda’s earlier film, Kanal, Ashes and Diamonds introduces a more complex sphere of human nature—not just survival, as is the case within Kanal, but the prevalence of power and to whom should one answer? […]

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A stylized shot from Andrej Wajda's 1957 film, "Kanal".

Labyrinth of Hell: On Andrzej Wajda’s “Kanal” (1957)

What to say about the passion of human resistance and the desire for survival? How could a film accurately portray this—the passion, albeit not the triumph, of human resistance? I watched Andrzej Wajda’s Kanal once before, but admittedly it hit me more the second time. While an excellent film, I found myself cringing throughout and even had to pause a few times. Kanal tells the story of the Warsaw Uprising where, surrounded by German soldiers, the citizens have been forced to revolt. But unlike most Hollywood films that would instead detail the battle scenes from start to finish, we’re presented with the after-the-fact—a war-torn city with tired insurgents who will be undergoing the last few hours of their lives. How we know this is that the prologue informs us. Already, there can be no happy ending.

What remains of this tattered, Polish city is burned-out buildings, broken rock, and only a small window of time. The Germans are approaching and soon the citizens will be surrounded. So, in a desperate attempt to save his men, Lieutenant Zadra instructs them to take refuge in the sewers. Now, even without the prologue’s words, this already seems like a doomed attempt. Firstly, setting aside the health hazard of wading through filthy water polluted with feces, oxygen will be limited, claustrophobia will take hold, flashlight batteries will likely run out, and it is too easy to get lost. One might think it better to just take their chances above ground, but roughly 30 minutes into the film, the men and women descend underground and this is where the real hell begins. […]

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A stylized shot of Michelangelo Antonioni's "The Passenger", depicting Jack Nicholson's and Maria Schneider's characters looking at each other in a car.

Traveling Ephemera: On Michelangelo Antonioni’s “The Passenger” (1975)

Michelangelo Antonioni is a director whose characters, more or less, travel within an assorted ephemera. Life unfolds in the moment and they are not left pondering the consequences. Humans are presented as a small species—lost and without a higher purpose. As example, in L’Avventura, a woman goes missing on an island only to then have her friends abandon her search midway through the film. We never see her again, and presumably neither do they, but in those moments of searching, her friends manage to seek a destination beyond their affluent lives. However, upon leaving the island, they ultimately return to their shallow endeavors. Likewise, in La Notte, which takes place over a single night, socialites breeze in and out of rooms while at a party as the evening keeps them contained. Over time, the night consumes, and it becomes the very thing that holds them in—unending and aimless. Once daylight arrives, all has gone.

The Passenger is a film where one’s identity is easily replaced by another. Have you ever wondered what it might be like to travel as someone else, and in that travel become someone else? How the story unfolds is this: David Locke (Jack Nicholson) is a reporter who is stuck in a remote town in Africa, wishing to create a political documentary. In the room across from him is Mr. Robertson (Charles Mulvehill), a man who says he has no close friends or family. The two chat in flashback after Locke uncovers Robertson’s dead body. Yet rather than inform the hotel staff that the man in the next room is dead, Locke drags the corpse across the hall and into his room. Exchanging passport photos, he assumes Robertson’s identity. Why he is willing to assume his life we don’t know, other than perhaps a plane ticket out? By remaining a short-term stranger to everyone around him, Locke can pull it off. […]

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Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) confronting his men in Werner Herzog's "Aguirre, Wrath of God". There is bright white text with the film's title against a green background.

Stones & Tears: on Werner Herzog’s “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” (1972)

Of all the scenes most haunting within Werner Herzog’s 1972 drama, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, is the scene when a horse is shoved off the wooden raft and left to die alone in the Amazon jungle. Then, as the camera pulls away at the same pace as the river itself, the horse remains still, standing, and solitary. We never see the animal die, but like the doomed men on the raft, we know that death awaits. Perhaps we must tell ourselves that abandonment is a better fate for the helpless creature than continuing on this ill-fated expedition.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God is a visionary film both in approach and style, as it presents an eye-level realism of what might have transpired among a group of tired, starving explorers in search of the nebulously located ‘gold city’ of El Dorado during each passing day in 1560. Commencing on New Year, they hike down a foggy mountain through the drizzle and toil, and we see their tiredness, their discomfort. They are damp and dirty and running out of patience. In terms of maps, no one knows exactly where they are headed, but their idealism leads them, regardless. The journey treks on without any promise of arrival—do they know they are going in circles? Little do they know that after succumbing to hunger and fatigue, they will grow delusional when nothing presented seems real, be it a poisoned arrow to the body or a boat stuck in a tree. […]

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A shot of Rupert Pupkin's closing monologue speech, as seen on a stack of televisions, in Martin Scorsese's "The King of Comedy"

Delusional Yet Determined: On Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy” (1983)

What if success was not measured in quality but in popularity? Where achievement resided not within the honing of one’s craft but within fame itself? Where spending years in obscurity gets tossed aside in favor of shallow recognition and immediacy? Oh wait, if this isn’t the culture we live in, then what is it? Perhaps it is also the mindset of wannabe standup comic Rupert Pupkin (Robert DeNiro) in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy. Granted, Rupert really does believe he is great and ready for the big stage (we witness this via his many fantasies) but fame seems to be the thing he longs for more than anything else. He wants to be known and to ultimately prove his worth to those who believe he’d not amount to anything more than a ‘hill of beans.’ Add to this his brazen, belligerent manner and it’s no wonder he ultimately gets what he gets—and no, I don’t mean jail.

The King of Comedy has remained an overlooked work despite its 40-year run, yet this is not only one of his best films but one that has proved to be prophetic in terms of how this business we call show business operates. Fame, ratings, who you know—this is what matters, and Rupert realizes this. The film opens with late-night talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) escaping into a limo from a crowd of aggressive fans. Thinking he has privacy at last, Rupert pushes his way in. Already, they are on a forced first-name basis, as Rupert speaks to Jerry as though he’s always known him. ‘What is your name again?’ Jerry asks. […]

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A stylized shot from Roman Polanski's "Repulsion", which features a dim-eyed Catherine Deneuve walking aimlessly on a bridge.

A World as Violent and Predatory: Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion” (1965)

When it comes to praise, anyone who is familiar with Roman Polanski also knows that he’s never going to win any awards for his person. An individual who fled the US to avoid jail, to put it kindly, the man is no Fred Rogers. While a talented director at his best, as with the work of any quality artist, his best still deserves to be addressed irrespective of his shitty nature as a person.

Which brings me to his great 1965 film Repulsion. ‘Pay attention to what she does,’ might be the best advice when experiencing this film for the first time. Few screenplays achieve such a level of depth through minimal use of dialogue. Firstly, let us examine the subject. Carole (Catherine Deneuve) is a beautiful young woman who shares a London flat with her sister Helen (Yvonne Furneaux). Right away, we notice there is something off about her. She works as a manicurist for a high-end salon and is prone to ‘spacing out.’ She appears easily distracted and distant. Meanwhile, Helen is having an affair with a married man whom Carole does not like. ‘So this is the beautiful younger sister,’ he says patronizingly while pinching her cheek. Disgusted, Carole pulls away. She also does not like that he places his toothbrush and razor in her cup, which she comes to throw away, and is ultimately chastised by Helen as a result. […]