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Film review: Malmkrog

23 April 2021

Stephen Brown views a philosophical feast set in 19th-century Transylvania

© Mandragora 2020

SOCRATIC dialogue lasting 201 minutes is an unlikely cinematic enterprise. Yet Malmkrog (Cert. 12) pulls off an extraordinarily fascinating experience. Publicists have aptly billed it as Downton Abbey meets Dostoyevsky. That’s because it was inspired by a work of Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov, a close friend and mentor of the novelist.

In the late 19th century, visitors arrive for Christmas at the mansion of the aristocratic landowner and former seminarian Nikolai (Frédéric Schulz-Richard). Each has a chapter of the film named after him or her. Guests converse in French, the nobility’s practice then. They dine together and discuss religion, the state of the world, ethics, and death. With one exception, the servants attending to them utter not a word, even when out of earshot of their master.

By and large, the house party is optimistic about Western progress. Edouard (Ugo Broussot), in particular, takes the view that Europe represents the highest civilisation and is a manifestation of the Kingdom of God. The divine is now to be discerned through cultural expression, not organised religion, and will lead to everlasting peace on earth and goodwill to all men, he naïvely declares. World war and the Russian Revolution are not that far away.

The guests get a hint of the shape of things to come when one meal is disrupted by gunfire near by. They subsequently behave as if nothing had happened.

Towards the end of the film, Nikolai assesses the pros and cons of guests’ positions. He cannot see that warfare is entirely avoidable in a fallen world. He does distinguish between a good peace when the purpose of war is achieved and a bad one when it isn’t. Evil loses strength, Nikolai argues, when good predominates. Even so, he taunts the Gnostic Olga (Marina Palii), asking why the goodness of Jesus didn’t overcome the wickedness in Judas, Herod, et al. Her creed, unlike his, prevents her acknowledging crucifixion and resurrection as the gateway to salvation.

There is, of course, much more than the above snippets can do justice to. The challenge is how the Romanian director Cristi Puiu makes this a worthwhile movie. Ever since The Death of Mr Lazarescu (2005), his films have gained many awards.

Malmkrog is a visually elegant piece. The arrangement of furniture and personnel is reminiscent of the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi. The main characters, often sidelined in favour of the setting, exude strong elements of social distancing, representative of deep chasms between the individuals’ respective ideas. Noises off from people such as a child practising music, or servants clattering dishes, speak volumes about these patricians’ indifference to the world surrounding them.

Probably the most prescient guest is an aged army officer, too ill to join them for meals. He personifies the soon-to-be overthrown ancien régime, pondering lines from The Internationale and fearing that this socialist song heralds the Antichrist. These not unlikeable aristocrats’ elitist views of the Gospels epitomise words inscribed on Karl Marx’s tomb: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” The poor little talkative Christianity of Malmkrog will never achieve that.

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