We Are People, Aren’t We?
Published on November 28th, 2011 | by Stephen Russell-Gebbett0
“Forest of the Hanged” (“Pӑdurea Spânzuraţilor”) opens on a dusty road. Hundreds of soldiers are marching. Suddenly one of them turns around and looks at us. Conscience, a challenge. He has turned against the tide and looked us in the eye, humanizing in an instant the whole machine of war.
This 1964 Romanian film is an adaptation of a novel written in 1922 by Liviu Rebreanu. The novel was inspired by the fate of the writer’s brother Emil, a soldier who was executed during the First World War for attempted desertion from the Austro-Hungarian army
In the story Emil is Apostol Bologa, a sub-lieutenant. We first meet him as he attends the hanging of a deserter; the look in the dying man’s eyes as he swings from the noose will come to haunt Apostol, a man who prides himself on his acute sense of duty.
The Austro-Hungarian Army comprises many different nationalities. This means that, across Europe, from Italy to Russia to Romania, men are being asked to fight against their own people. The General is aware of these temptations and complications. Loyalties are tested : friends asked to condemn friends, countrymen to kill countrymen. The man we saw hanged, Svoboda, was a Czech trying to cross to the Czech side. Now Apostol, a Romanian, has been transferred to the Romanian front.
What will Apostol choose, death for betrayal on one hand or moral death on the other?
Eventually, disgusted by the senseless carnage of war and by his part in the fate of his own kind, Apostol takes a stand and refuses to take part in the show trial of twelve Romanian farmers.
In the midst of his turmoil he had found love with a Romanian girl Ilona, the only purity still sparkling in the quagmire. Nonetheless, unable to live with himself, he chooses to die with his soul untouched : he is caught crossing to the Romanian side, an act for which he will pay with his life.
Apostol is taken off in a cart to be hanged. He is taken away smiling. They ride under the trees, from whose leafless branches hang dozens of men like strange fruit.
“Forest of the Hanged,” directed by Liviu Ciulei, is an especially evocative film. The characters not only debate their philosophical dilemmas but live them with every fiber of their beings. The world they inhabit is a dirty one in all senses of the word. It is hard to get out of the mud and find your way from darkness to light.
The black and white photography by Ovidiu Gologan is wonderful and runs deep with rich shades. Two examples : the carriage surrounded by a wall of old shoes in which Apostol’s friend Muller has made a home is a fantastical creation. Even in a black and white film it looks golden; the beautiful embraces that Apostol and Ilona share are bathed in a stunningly clear, virginal, light. Images such as these recall those of Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Ivan’s Childhood.” Both films place particular emphasis on quality and tone of light.
In the opening scenes of the film the camera seems too near to, or too far from, the action as if trying to get its bearings. Throughout the film it glides (for example into and out of mirrors – symbolic of reflection and introspection) but also turns violently or even swoons…sometimes the director will leave a part of the image deliberately out of focus. What, I think, helps make “Forest of the Hanged” so involving is that the film has both rawness and elegance to it; visualizing our worse and better natures.
We also come to find subtle religious allusions. The film makes an apostle of Emil by calling him Apostol. Furthermore, why, we may ask ourselves, are there twelve Romanian insubordinates?
Apostol, though, is no saint. He values some lives (Romanian), above others. Muller, on the other hand, finds all killing wrong and teases Apostol, who wants to be transferred away from his quandary to Italy, with biting sarcasm : “On the Italian front there are no brothers….only here there are brothers.”
With so much degradation and death around them, and when suffering reduces us to our basic, naked, human characteristics (those we all share), such discrimination on the basis of nationality suddenly seems ludicrous.
The film puts this across in quite brilliant fashion. At one point Apostol is asked to act as interpreter for three Romanian prisoners. All the characters in the film speak in Romanian. However, none of them, apart from Apostol (a Romanian), can understand the Romanian characters. In this way the director underlines the idea that the differences between sides and the reasons for lack of understanding (or indeed for war itself) might as well be imaginary (or at least are intentionally exaggerated). The distinctions between nations are confused and blurred again: Muller is heard musing to himself “Mozart…a great composer,” to which his companion responds: “Ah, one of your Germans.”
With Apostol’s fate secured, Ilona comes to bring him his last meal. All dressed in black, she prepares the little table as if it were an altar or a grave. She is honouring and mourning him. They look at each other without saying a word and eat. What caring and dignity…
A soldier stands watch over them. He says that she begged him to let her see Apostol. He gave in. “We are people, aren’t we?,” he explains. What beauty…
It is easy to see why “Forest of the Hanged” is considered one of Romanian Cinema’s greatest achievements. (It won the Best Director prize at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival, bringing it international recognition.) And its appearance at the Romanian Film Festival in New York City, along side contemporary flavors of the country’s cinema, gives us a rare opportunity to see Ciulei’s classic. It should not be missed.