Since Cristi Puiu’s “Malmkrog” means to drown the viewer in a dense and arcane philosophical debate about Good and Evil, the nature of Christ, Europe and the direction of History, let’s add another strand to the discussion: How is cinema put to best use? It’s an especially pertinent question since Puiu’s always stunning use of space and light, so carefully calculated in every shot, so rigidly composed as if he’s used dioramas with dolls to ensure figures and objects will be exactly in the right place, makes even “Malmkrog” a cinematic experience despite a perverse amount of verbiage that demands absolute concentration for nearly three and a half hours. Yet given that he anxiously wants his audience — never more limited than with this film — to follow the calculatedly cruel intellectual jousting between his five main characters, is cinema really the best means to delve deep into this level of intense philosophizing?
Perhaps if the voluminous script were first made required reading, before watching, then more people could engage with the cascade of nonstop theorizing while the film rolls on. Viewing it on its own however, even more than once, leaves one with the sense of cinema’s limitations. Just as films about poets rarely ever work because we want to read the words at our own pace in order to savor the rhythms and imagery, so philosophy, whether moral, religious or both, as in this case, has difficulty transferring its power across the screen when the verbal sparring requires so much focus that a rewind button is required. Even people reasonably familiar with Gnosticism, Manichaeism and its offshoots, early 20th century history and the works of Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov, whose writings Puiu adapted, will find this punishing film, with its theatrical construct and off-putting running time, a challenge with few lasting rewards.
One can be forgiven at the start for thinking we’ve entered into a Chekhovian world: there’s the columned pink manor house grandly set in a clearing surrounded by snowy forests, inside of which are a group of aristocratic friends and a host of largely silent servants. The parallel to Chekhov ends there. There’s no yearning for love or fulfillment, not even a sense that this may be the last gasp of the aristocracy, though we know that to be the case. Puiu isn’t critiquing their refinement and cosmopolitanism, and there’s not even really a dig at class privilege — only the butler István (István Téglás) ill-treats a lower servant. This elite group, gathered at the Transylvanian country home of Nikolai (Frédéric Schulz-Richard) on Christmas Eve just around 1900, are the pinnacle of elegance, and yet their beautiful manners reveal an exquisite cruelty toward each other in the form of a lengthy intellectual fencing match in formal French that starts just before lunch and continues through dinner.
The film is divided into six chapters, each named for one of the main characters plus István the butler. The principals are Nikolai, former seminary student and wealthy landlord; Olga (Marina Palii), the youngest of the group, whose naive and unorthodox interpretation of the Gospels becomes the target for the others; Madeleine (Agathe Bosch), a dryly intellectual middle-aged woman, possibly a widow given her clothing; Edouard (Ugo Broussot), a wealthy, politically connected businessman; and Ingrida (Diana Sakalauskaité), the wife of a Russian General and an ardent believer in military might. Given Olga’s placement at the opposite end of the table head to Nikolai, and her ease with the house’s passages, one presumes she’s Nikolai’s wife, though this is never stated. Instead she’s condescended to by all, including Nikolai, as “my dear Olga.”
Chapter one, “Ingrida,” begins the religious discussion but mostly reveals Ingrida’s staunch faith in the holiness of the martial arts and a discussion of whether it’s possible to have a good war and a bad peace. It also lays out the distinct divide in their minds between the “superior” Christian West and the “inferior” non-believers of the East — a theory pushed by Solovyov — which will see an echo later in Edouard’s “enlightened” colonialist attitude. Olga is first put on the spot when Nikolai pointedly asks her to explain why Jesus, as the essence of Good, failed to use that Good to win Judas, Herod and the others away from Evil. A truly orthodox believer would have replied that it’s only through Jesus’ death and resurrection that the kingdom of Heaven is open to mankind, but Olga’s Gnostic vision of the Gospels denies the resurrection, thereby making it difficult to counter this fundamental point.
Lunch is served and the conversations continue, turning more serious again once tea is served and Edouard speaks of his conviction that war within a highly civilized Europe is a thing of the past (it’s important to keep in mind that this deeply European group would have had clear memories of the chaos of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870). Shortly after, the talk returns to the existence of Evil in the world, reflecting on various Manichean and Pelagian theories (without naming them as such), with Madeleine opining that since death conquers all, Evil is stronger than Good. While dinner is served, Nikolai fillets Olga’s interpretation of Biblical parables, and while Madeleine good-naturedly comes to her defense, the overall impression is that Olga’s true goodness is sacrificed to the sophistical arrogance of the others.
Puiu means to carefully draw a road map toward the catastrophes of the first half of the 20th century: the carnage of World War I that will sweep away the country, Austria-Hungary, where this all takes place together with the God-given right to rule by similar groups of aristocrats. Looming large as well is the shadow of strongmen (take your pick) whose adept use of Evil made it seem for long stretches of time that Good is indeed the weaker attribute. “Malmkrog” is also a warning about Europe, and how easy it is to feel smug about unity and peace when the belief in equality is an illusion, especially in its confrontation with the Muslim world. Yet extracting all of that out of the endless talk, the exquisite philosophizing, is a largely thankless task, requiring a stamina and concentration that very few audiences can muster.
What we’re left with, aside from heads spinning from the endless opaque dialogue, is an admiration for the visual details, most especially the meticulous staging. Puiu arranges his figures around the rooms with obsessive care, often keeping them with their backs to the camera, or placing them in window embrasures so they remain hidden while speaking. Their stillness suggests neoclassical painting, as does the lighting as it changes from midday to evening, while an oscillating camera imbues these formal compositions with dynamism. There’s a stunning shot early on taken from the main sitting room and looking toward the dining room, allowing us to understand the spaces involved, and another in the sitting room where two protagonists stand with their backs to us, two others face the other way and Ingrida (the sole character in a crimson gown) walks back and forth; it’s a marvel of composition. Puiu has pushed his trademark naturalism aside for a pronounced artificial theatricality — the glances between characters are anything but natural — that’s far more intriguing than the material itself.
One senses he’s also taken a page out of Visconti’s playbook, perhaps interviewing 120-year-old butlers to find out exactly how a lunch table was laid and then cleared. The meticulous sound design adds another level of information about what’s unseen in the house, specifically music and singing lessons (presumably with the child Zoya glimpsed briefly at the start); the manor remains a hermetic world but a world nonetheless, where servants bustle, the sick are tended, and the masters, convinced of their eminence, claim the knowledge of the Gospels as they coolly insert sharp knives into their peers’ richly robed flesh.