Urban Legends


There’s a strain of high modernist hubris that, predicated on the act of remembering, attempts to grasp and single-handedly transform antiquity. As personified by James Joyce, it’s more evident in 20th-century literature than at the movies. But this week brings two ambitious epics working similar territory and clearing their own space on the scene: Ron Havilio’s 1996 Fragments * Jerusalem and Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 1989 Decalogue.

Havilio’s monumental home movie, which, showing in two three-hour cycles, gets its first theatrical run after several festival screenings, and Kieslowski’s 10-part telefilm, finally released here on video, both concern themselves with integrating an individual’s private history into a city’s (and by extension a civilization’s) collective past. Indeed, as Havilio’s title suggests, Fragments * Jerusalem is a conscious shoring up of ruins.

Twelve years in the making, at once a family photo-album and a national pageant, Havilio’s magnum opus is, in some ways, comparable to the ongoing personal film diaries with which Lithuanian-born Jonas Mekas documents his displacement in America and, in others, analogous to the form of cine-archival history developed by Ken Burns in his various PBS miniseries. Like Mekas, Havilio is a first-person filmmaker who serves as his own narrator—offering a guided tour through a self-curated museum whose ingenuity rivals that of Burns.

Exploring Jerusalem, Havilio is both a flaneur and a time traveler. Like the city he excavates, Fragments * Jerusalem is a film of unexpected byways. The streets are saturated with remembrance. One needn’t strain to make these phantoms contemporary. Jerusalem does not live in the past; its history and historical destiny exist in the present. Based on interpenetrated time strata and reveling in temporal match-cuts, the discontinuous here-and-now of Havilio’s “fragments” has intimations of biblical antiquity on the one hand and the millennial future on the other.

As in Jerusalem itself, all periods coexist. Scenes typically combine past and present. Fragments * Jerusalem is profoundly anachronistic—among other things, it preserves the sense that motion pictures are a medium of (and not only for) preservation. Childhood memories merge with the remote past. Fragments * Jerusalem opens with an hour-long meditation on the filmmaker’s birthplace, the no-longer-extant Mamila district—Jerusalem’s commercial center during the British mandate, divided by a wall after the 1948 war of independence. When the city was reunited under Israeli rule in 1967, the shattered neighborhood was demolished, and remained a deserted construction site for nearly two decades. That Havilio filmed much of his Mamila footage during the intifada emphasizes the no-man’s-land feel, even as the images of urban debris evoke the primal Jewish disaster—the destruction of the First Temple in 587 B.C.E.

In ways both significant and trivial, Havilio’s family history is entwined with that of the city. Expelled from Spain in 1492, the Havilios arrived in Jerusalem by way of the Balkans. Some were cabalists, others vendors of sweets. Fired by messianic expectation, Havilio’s maternal forebears came to Jerusalem from Vilnius three centuries later. The focus of millennial longing for nearly 2000 years, Jerusalem was again a majority Jewish city. Even before 1900, the overcrowded Jewish quarter spilled over and precipitated a wave of building outside the city walls—a geography mapped by the peregrinations of the Havilio family.

Again and again, the film recapitulates that passage through the Jaffa Gate, entering at various points between 1896 and 1996 the “dark, sloping alleys” of the labyrinthian old city with its incredible mix of Bedouins, Hasidim, Ottoman soldiers, and European tourists. The snowfall of January 1992 recalls the great winter storm of 1920 and the birth of the filmmaker’s father. The intifada harks back to the 1921 pogrom, in which, for the first time in centuries, Muslims attacked their Jewish neighbors. Yet, for all the tumult of wars, riots, and terrorist attacks (Jewish and Arab) that the movie records, Fragments * Jerusalem retains a serene detachment in its chronicle of daily life.

Intercut throughout with unpretentious domestic scenes, Fragments * Jerusalem suggests an enchanted picture-book in which time continually folds back on itself. Havilio mixes tinted postcards with old actualités and period lithographs, incorporating both his parents’ 8mm movies and archival footage from the period of Zionist idealism, reading from newspapers and period accounts, playing phonograph records (a mainly Mediterranean mix of Greek laments, Arabic pop, Israeli tangos, Hebrew prayers, and Portuguese fados). The presence of Havilio’s three young daughters also serves to mark the passage of time.

The film’s last image is of an illuminated Ferris wheel set up outside the old city walls in the wasteland of Mamila. The circle is unbroken but the film itself remains unfinished. Havilio has as yet been unable to raise funds for a third cycle that would evoke the Israel he missed while living abroad in the 1950s. It would also bring home Jerusalem’s most persistent issue of spatiotemporal authority by focusing on the house in Ein Karem, the once-Arab neighborhood where Havilio has lived with his family for the last quarter-century.

The Decalogue was the last film that Krzysztof Kieslowski would set entirely in his native Poland and, less flashy in its metaphysics than his subsequent French co-pros, it remains his masterpiece—a sardonic riff on the foundation laws that govern the Judeo-Christian cosmos. As conceived with coscreenwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz, each episode evokes one of the Ten Commandments as it impacts on the denizens of a massive Warsaw housing project.

With its sense of the modern city as a bleak totality dedicated to the erasure of the past, The Decalogue powerfully evokes the last, dispirited days of Polish communism. Populated by a gallery of unfaithful spouses and unhappy children, the movie is programmatically apolitical. Still, there’s an egalitarian aspect to the various characters—cabbies, doctors, clerks, professors—all living in the same drab apartment complex. (We might call it a common condition.) Typically, Kieslowski maintained that he deliberately chose Warsaw’s “most beautiful housing estate” as his location, adding, “You can imagine what the others are like.”

Made for TV, The Decalogue is an intimate work—characterized by relatively few establishing shots and an abundance of close-ups. The superb cast, which constitutes a virtual who’s who of Polish movie acting, is primed to dramatize psychological anguish. (The quintessential mood piece is the Christmas Eve bummer illustrating the commandment to honor the Sabbath.) Although the first episode is a cruel gloss on the story of Abraham and Isaac, Kieslowski’s seems a spirituality without God. Rather than grace, the mundane world is charged with mysterious coincidences, miraculous recoveries, free-floating identities, and terrible passions. The two central stories—dealing respectively with murder and adultery—were also released as stand-alone features (A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love) and together they represent the apex of Kieslowski’s filmmaking.

As the episodes echo each other in unexpected ways, so each provides a complex ethical conundrum. (The most extreme balances a horrendous, senseless killing with an excruciating, planned execution.) Given the overall emphasis on role-reversal and paradox, it makes sense that Kieslowski’s closing episode—a dark comedy in which two brothers attempt to cope with the legacy that is their late father’s stamp collection—would mock the vanity of a life project as well as the very idea of completing a series.

Per mutations: In condensing my remarks during the avant-garde roundtable (March 14), I dropped the conversation’s major reference to the Museum of Modern Art’s ongoing 8mm and Super-8 shows. My point was not just that the unexpected popularity of this program presaged current micro-cinemas but—along with such other instances as Stan Brakhage’s frame-by-frame painting or the very different projection pieces orchestrated by Ken Jacobs and Luis Recoder—that it served as an example of “film outliving its death.”