Couched as a dialogue between Adam Jacek Winkler (1937-2002), a Polish expat and Don Quixote-like figure who fought with the mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviets, and his daughter Anna, the animated docudrama “The Magic Mountain” is a work of overwhelming artistry. Indeed, so relentless is the riot of fast-changing images and animation techniques and the almost nonstop, time-jumping, voiceover narration that it becomes difficult to engage with what is happening. The second of Romanian animator Anca Damian’s self-dubbed “tales of heroism,” following her poignant “Crulic: The Path to Beyond” (2011), will be best appreciated at festivals and specialty venues.
The screenplay (by helmer Damian and Winkler fille) is based on Winkler pere’s journals, artwork and the story of his life, which he once recorded on a Dictaphone. It evokes the powerful personality of an individualist and a romantic, who sometimes lives outside the law due to his love of independence and his beliefs. An artist, photographer, mountain climber and free spirit who wants to change the world, he comes across as extremely brave, but also impulsive, cynical and naive, someone who lives off adrenaline. He frequently compares himself to a guileless but passionate character from Polish children’s literature, the Goat Motolek, and the way in which he tells the story of his life includes plenty of humor and self-irony.
In recounting his early life, Winkler mentions an uncle and a cousin — Polish officers killed by the Soviets in the 1940 Katyn forest massacre — as part of the reason he becomes a fervent anti-communist. He eventually leaves Poland for Paris where he becomes actively involved in the fight against communism, sometimes working on his own, sometimes with other groups of anti-communist emigres from the East (though he never becomes part of their organizations). As soon as the Solidarity movement appears, he steps back, due to the fact that he, personally, in no way felt proletarian and was no great admirer of crowds.
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The mention of a wife, who receives a prison sentence for her part in the movement, frustratingly remains just that: a mere mention. Nor is there any description of how involved he is in Anna’s upbringing. An expansion of these family connections might have offered a stronger emotional hook into Winkler’s story.
When he hears about the Soviet army’s invasion of Afghanistan, Winkler identifies with the Afghan cause. After two years of preparation, he leaves France to fight alongside Commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, also known as the Lion of the Panjshir. Ultimately, the mujahideen accept him as one of their own, giving him the title Adam Khan. But his Afghan “story” ends with the assassination of Massoud on Sept. 9, 2001, two days before the day that changes the world. One year later, back in Europe, Winkler dies on Mount Maudit, during the course of a solo ascent.
For the rich and varied visual style, Damian and her crack team of animators take inspiration from Winkler’s naive paintings and photos from Afghanistan, alongside a multitude of elements from Afghan art and landscapes, as well as images from war and the activism of the 1960s. They graphically modify them in various styles: sometimes merely as sketches, at other times in eye-catching gouache or watercolor, and elsewhere via animated sequences in 2D and 3D. There are also references to the history of film, if one can catch them amid the deluge of images, which are perfectly complemented by a haunting score from the Bucharest-born, London-based composer-violinist Alexander Balanescu.
In the French-language version screened at Karlovy Vary, Christophe Miossec’s voice is mesmerizing, although quite different from that of the real Winkler shown speaking in Polish at the conclusion of the pic. The film also exists in an English-language version with Jean-Marc Barr and Lizzie Brochere voicing the father and daughter, respectively, and in Polish with Jerzy Radziwilowicz and Julia Kijowska.