Saturday, January 9, 2016

Neglected Gem #87: Metallic Blues (2004)

Avi Kushnir in Metallic Blues (2004).

I first saw Metallic Blues (2004) a decade ago when it had its run on the festival circuit, and, though I recall enjoying it, I mainly remembered it for its thematic and structural overlap with Eytan Fox's Walk on Water. It was striking to see two very different films coming out of Israel's relatively small film industry in the same year, both set primarily in contemporary Germany, each dealing with questions of Holocaust memory (and trauma) through the lens of characters of a later generation and with scripts that shifted confidently between Hebrew, English, and German. The ideas prompted by this confluence of features was, and remain, intriguing – but side by side, Metallic Blues seemed the smaller, and therefore, less memorable of the two films. No doubt Fox's movie remains as powerful, but I expect time and distance have done Metallic Blues more favours.

I saw Metallic Blues again this past December, when I lead a post-screening discussion for the Toronto Jewish Film Society, and the film – now viewed on its own terms – shone. It is still a small film, intimate and restrained despite its international mandate (it was filmed primarily in Germany, with funding from Israel, Germany and Canada), but that smallness only increases its impact for a contemporary audience. Metallic Blues was written and directed by Dan Verete, who had previously only directed one other dramatic feature, and – with the exception of the 2010 documentary Human Turbine (Ha Turbina ha Enosheet) – hasn't written or directed one since, despite Metallic Blues being lauded in Israel at the time (it was nominated for Best Picture and Best Screenplay at the Israeli equivalent of the Academy Awards). Verete's direction is solid, but it is really the screenplay (which Verete co-write with German writer/director Thomas Stiller) that makes Metallic Blues worth checking out.

Metallic Blues stars Avi Kushnir and Moshe Ivgy as Shmuel and Siso, two Tel Aviv used cars salesmen who make the fateful decision to purchase a vintage Lincoln Continental limousine, convinced they can sell it in Germany and turn a quick Euro. The film is many things at once, all of them powerfully enacted. On its surface, the story is a straight-ahead comedy-of-errors (reminiscent of Scorsese's 80s classic After Hours) with buddy film elements. By the end, it is a psychologically nuanced story about inherited trauma, an investigation into rich complications of national and ethnic and religious identity, as well as a painterly outsider portrait of Germany and Europe of the time.

For North American viewers, of the two leads, only Ivgy might be recognizable. (He played veteran Mossad agent Mike Harari in Spielberg's Munich in 2005.) But for Israeli audiences Kushnir would have been the better known: at the time of filming the comedian and actor was in the middle of a 9-year run starring in a popular Israeli sitcom, Ha-Chaim Ze Lo HaKol (Life is not All), which aired from 2001-2011. While Metallic Blues certainly had dark comic elements, it would be a stretch to call it a comedy, and no doubt Verete chose his actors carefully – and putting a comedian front and centre in this story certainly would have given the film a surreal psychological edge (perhaps akin to what Paul Thomas Anderson was going for when he cast Adam Sandler in the significantly less effective Punch-Drunk Love in 2002). Fortunately, the measured breaking down of Kushnir's on-screen persona in Metallic Blues, a bulldozer of a man who is all bluff and bluster, is quite apparent to any audience even without that pop cultural baggage.

Moshe Ivgy and Avi Kushnir in Metallic Blues (2004).

Both Kushnir and Ivgy hold their own, as circumstances (a lost wallet, the disappointing response of the Hamburg car dealership) conspire to throw Shmuel and Sosi further and further off course. When they leave Israel for Hamburg, there is no indication at all that Germany has any special status for the two Jewish men. (Shmuel's decision to take them to Germany is in fact entirely circumstantial: the first ad for a comparable limo Shmuel finds is from dealership in Hamburg.) The novelty of the trip appears to lie in the leave-taking itself: Sosi has never been aboard and Shmuel only once, decades earlier, for his brief honeymoon. The slow-burn way in which Germany evolves from being just another country in Europe to the setting of Shmuel's childhood nightmares is where the film is at its most subtle, and its most powerful.

The shifts for Shmuel begin almost imperceptively: the lingering glares from the officious German customs officers gives him the slightest pause, a nervous glance at a sprinkler system causes his heart to begin to beat a little faster, German voices bleating over loudspeakers at the train station keep him from sleeping. But each time, the real world reasserts itself, along with Shmuel's confidence and aplomb. These moments build organically over the course of the story; the more their plans go awry, the most the reality of where he is begins to weigh on him. These scenes are admittedly of varying success – especially as these 'memories' begin to emerge for Shmuel as sort of post-traumatic flashbacks. But in contrast to the heavy-handed flashback sequences, Verete's script is also full of beautiful, layered quiet moments, like when the two light makeshift Chanukah candles in their run-down motel room, or when Siso, in his halting English, desperately tries to buy a plane ticket. Yoram Millo's cinematography is also arresting, especially in its stark use of colour (the blue of the limousine stands strikingly against the stone and sand of Jerusalem in the film's opening shots, only to stand out quite differently against the rainy grey of Germany later on).

But what is most impressive – something that struck me powerfully on this viewing, and a point I feel was lost on me a decade earlier – is how deftly the film negotiates the very different experiences Shmuel and Sosi are having. The story holds tight to our two protagonists (they are separated only briefly), but it is becomes more and more clear that Sosi (of North African Jewish background) and Shmuel (born long after the end of the war, of German-Jewish descent whose parents barely survived the Holocaust to settle in Israel) are really in two different places the entire time. Siso, without no facility for German or English, relies almost entirely on Shmuel during their trip, and his experience of Germany is his experience of Shmuel's experience – one which because progressively more untenable as Shmuel's reactions become more unhinged. For Shmuel, Siso stands for a homeland (in all its familiarity and ambivalence) that he has only ever experienced through the shattered psyches of his parents. I'm not sure I've ever seen a buddy story bear such weight with any comparable success. Metallic Blues is an extraordinary film about two ordinary men, one which bears watching – and re-watching.

– Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.          

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