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The gulf between us

About the author
Rosemary Bechler is main site Editor of openDemocracy.

Two recent European films of human migration and disconnection, Paul Pawlikowski’s Last Resort and Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown, offer contrasting narratives of the immigrant-as-hero. But do they both give equal space to their characters and open up a true dialogue with their audiences?It is nearly half a century since, in his classic film essay The Gangster as Tragic Hero, Robert Warshow first drew the attention of cinema-goers to our perennial fascination with the hero-as-outsider. This ambivalent creature, snatched from stage to novel and thence to screen, dramatises the deepest conviction of the city-dweller, Warshow argued – the principle that “one must emerge from the crowd or else one is nothing”.

The outsider is at first sight a curious choice of hero for societies in which happiness is becoming “the only political issue”, where “nobody seriously questions the principle that it is the function of mass culture to maintain public morale”. But precisely herein lies his strength, Warshow explained. He can embody our deepest fears and ambitions, our most personal sources of alienation from modern society, and yet be delivered for a happy ending. Or, if the worst comes to the worst, and he is punished by death, “it is his death, not ours”’. We are in a no-lose situation.

When Pauline Kael wrote The Hero as Freak on Sidney Lumet’s Serpico twenty years later, this analysis was still as fresh as ever. And this summer, we in Europe had an opportunity to see whether the same triumphant formula could rise to its ultimate contemporary challenge. Could it bring that quintessential outsider, the figure of the immigrant-as-hero (or, more aptly, heroine) in from the cold? What could be more generous and cathartic? Two strong films, Pawel Pawlikowski’s Last Resort and Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown, afforded us a perfect opportunity – from opposite poles – to see some rather unexpected results.

Ways of escape

Last Resort, an award-winning, BBC-funded feature film, brings a talented young Russian illustrator of children’s books to Britain with her son and $85, in pursuit of love. Her savvy 10-year old (Artiom Strelnikov) isn’t surprised when the fiancé doesn’t show – “she only likes men who make her cry” - but can’t persuade her to turn tail back to Moscow. On the spur of the moment, Tanya (Dina Korzun) buys time by requesting political asylum, only to find Artiom and herself herded into vans and transferred under police escort to the seaside resort of Stonehaven (deserted Margate in winter), where they are imprisoned in a waking nightmare.

promotional picture for the film Last Resort

Taking its title from documentary photographer Martin Parr’s depiction of working-class life in a decaying seaside resort, the film draws attention to the terrible plight of asylum-seekers by attempting to combine the strengths of documentary with those of drama. This is Pawlikowski’s second feature film after a long and successful career making BBC documentaries. It is an act of reparation on behalf of its trapped heroine – a cinematic quest for a Third Way which will avoid both the implausible happy ending of a ‘little people’ movie, and the victimisation of the documentary gaze. But the Polish-born director, Houdini-like, doesn’t want to make it too easy for himself to effect this rescue.

And it almost works. Ryszard Lenczewski’s thoughtful camera alternates between long, empty, static shots of the seedy urban seascape, and intimate, verité-style handheld sequences which man-mark our protagonists as they tangle with arcade manager Alfie (Paddy Cosidine), and Les – a sleazy internet porn baron (played by real life pornographer Lindsay Honey). These relationships seem all the more vividly open-ended, thanks to Pawlikowski’s improvisatory working method, in which the cast reworked a basic story line thirty times over. Their acting is an escape route in itself. Korzun’s smile comes from nowhere to illuminate the screen and warm those around her. In Artiom we have all the miracle of a good child actor. People, we feel, are resilient, surprising and inventive. They deserve to get out of their cages, and sometimes, they do.

Reality bites

But not quite. Tanya and Alfie cannot quite be made to fall in love across their cultural and class divides. Despite a Zabriskie Point sequence, a place cannot be found for them to escape to. And as Pawlikowski subjects his drama to a Dogme-95-type exercise in naturalism and immediacy, fissures in the notoriously hybrid docu-drama genre inexorably reappear.

There is simply a little too much exceptionalism around for comfort. Tanya is desperate to reach her fiance, and Alfie shows her how to jump the miserable queue of refugees trying to phone home at the one wretched booth on the sea-front. Queues stretch behind her – refugees trailing through the airport, giving blood for extra cash, waiting in line for plates of inedible food. Artiom goes missing, and when Alfie finds him in a bad way, the hunched-up waifs who wait every grey morning for the arcade security gates to be opened, are waved aside while yet another rescue takes place.

Alfie is always singling out our two protagonists for special treatment from refugees or residents with whom there is almost nil communication. The wire-enclosed foreigners and bingo-playing natives, together with the small band of apprentice thieves and black marketeers who are Artiom’s playmates, will all be left behind when Tanya makes her escape.

Could this be, we wonder, because she is only posing as an asylum-seeker? Her yearnings, her imagination and her aspirations lift her out of the mass. When she succumbs to the temptation of the slimy porn hustler’s pay, she can’t go through with the filming and bursts into tears. In no time, another anonymous refugee queues up to replace her. (Yet one of the best moments of the film suggests that sensitivity will not in itself protect you from entrapment. Les turns up with a handsome offer of further work because the images of a severely distressed ‘schoolgirl’ have unexpectedly titillated the punters...).

Whenever realism prevails, Houdini is in trouble. In Lindsay Honey, Pawlikowski has bitten off more than he can chew. Alfie may be awarded a moment of redemptive thuggery when he flattens ‘Les’ and lays waste to his studio, but as the camera pans away, you expect the pornographer to spring from the floor, dust himself down and restart filming – so insidiously pollutive is he, so real. On the contrary, Honey’s mere presence asks – isn’t there something slightly salacious about Last Resort’s own ‘artistic’ lingering on a pretty woman in distress?

One image in particular sharpens up Pawlikowski’s dilemma. We find ourselves inside a government control room where walls of monitors reveal every street in ‘Stonehaven’ captured on CCTV cameras. Whether you are from the first, second or third world, everyone is trapped in these frames. Everyone is potentially criminalised. Measured against the sheer scale and indifferentiation of this systemic inhumanity, the film’s ultimately conventional hopes, indignations, and attempted rescues all pale into insignificance.

First among equals?

Where Last Resort falls short is precisely where Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys, Michael Haneke’s winner at Cannes 2000, hauntingly excels. The Austrian writer-director finally turned to a long-term ambition to make “a film about modern-day migration” in a multicultural Europe when Juliette Binoche asked him to work with her: “There are already two cities in Europe where a truly multi-cultural society has developed. One of them is Paris”.

His treatment of his heroine could not offer a greater contrast. From the exquisite nine-minute opening shot which tracks Binoche’s Anne – an actress on the brink of success in film – through the public spaces of her city, we are offered a star demoted to being ‘one of us’, the city-dwellers: “I play an actress, one of several Paris residents from different cultures and countries – African, Romanian, French countryside – whose lives inter-relate”. The shot unfolds a street incident momentarily linking the disparate experiences of Maria (a Romanian illegal immigrant), Amadou (teacher of deaf children and son of West African refugees), Anne herself, and Jean (her boyfriend’s younger brother who is in flight from their father and the family farm).

A sequence from the horror film Anne is shooting affords Binoche the opportunity for a tour-de-force of close-up acting, and the audience gets another powerful chance to ponder the relationship between representation and reality. But this time, only to wonder why we need to be entertained by fictional anguish, and what it means to be an actress – when all the characters meet quite enough tragedy and fear in their everyday lives, why go out looking for more? Yet this is precisely, for example, what Georges, Anne’s war-photographer boyfriend does. And how different are we?

Without roots – or standpoints

As we begin to compare and contrast these very different lives – the casual inhumanity, stark racism and acts of revenge between different groups in society who brush shoulders without communicating – find their own echo in the widening lack of communication between the two lovers. It is as if the very presence of the immigrant, treated as an equal, opens up for investigation every social custom, every film cliché, which Haneke’s camera alights upon.

For in this film and with this cast (as the title suggests), no life is more or less real than any other. Haneke counters the degradation of our sense of the real, by modulating with true virtuosity between various European realisms – the Romanian village community, the dying French countryside, war photography from Kosovo, the Paris metro. Each is a vignette in one continuous take that has equal, profound capacity for remorselessness and compassion.

There is nothing casual about this. The film sets about us, forcing us piece by piece into self-conscious vulnerability, reinvigorating a non-naive realism for the 21st century for a particular purpose – to make equal space for the reality of Maria, the economic migrant.

And it succeeds. The scene in which she confesses her shame at begging, her own disgust at a beggar-woman to whom she once gave money, and her recognition of the revulsion on the face of a well-to-do Parisian about to give her a 20-franc note, seals an extraordinary narrative process in which we are brought to acknowledge that we are all equally unknowing and unknown. This is a new and emotionally provocative European cinema.

When Haneke has been accused of being ‘cerebral’, his answer is that “people want to be reassured, not forced to think. But the purpose of art has always been to question the status quo”. We pick up the pieces and try to make sense of them. Sometimes, like us, those who are different from us communicate, despite the glacial de-humanisation and consumerism that separate us all. But there is no privileged standpoint from which any of us can effect a rescue: least of all, in the era of what Haneke calls ‘media manipulation’, that of the man behind the camera. That is both our shame and our common humanity.


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