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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Cosi Fan Tutte and Other Stories: Haneke, Mendelssohn and Ozick

Today I'd like to tell a story in two parts. The first one begins like this:

I take the viewer seriously. That's why I know I can show him serious things on the screen. And there's no need for Michael Haneke to repeat those words. The images, the dialogues, the refusal to reduce the viewers discomfort; all of them are Haneke's.

It's all about observing closely; finding bits of reality that, woven together, make drama more intense, more immediate. It is the work of a craftsman.
This weekend I saw Michael H - Profession: Director, a documentary on the artist, the screenwriter, the drama professor.  

"There's no one like Chekhov for dialogue," says Haneke, rimless glasses on, ever serene in front of the camera. In the documentary we see him sitting behind a pupil's desk, observing how a young couple argues: he, pleading, she, firm and unmoved; they're giving all they have on this dialogue. Haneke then tells them to stop and, without holding back on the irony, explains why the scene is, simply not believable. He knows the reason too well; he knows what it means to sit in Chekhov's chair.
"When filming, sometimes I need a break after a dialogue scene," he says. "I just feel too much the pain in my characters."

Chekhov, the Doyen of all times at capturing our misunderstandings, was born in Taganrog, Russia. After being diagnosed with tuberculosis he left Moscow and spent the last seven years of his life in Yalta, Ukraine.

Bolekhiv, also in Ukraine, is where the second part of this story begins.
In the mirrored room of La Monnaie, we are all quiet, bedazzled by Daniel Mendelssohn's words - the interviewer, Annelies Beck tilts her head and keeps her microphone away.
He tells us about the time he went to Ukraine, to Bolekhiv, where his grandfather had been born. He goes on to describe the moment when he went for a walk just outside town.
He sees children playing, running around and chasing each other. He asks one of them, "do you know what this is?" The boy, almost chuckling answers, "why, of course: the Jewish cemetery."

He pauses for a moment, looks at Annelies, then goes on, "So I decided to ask him a second question: 'do you know what a Jew is?'"
There is silence.
"The boy didn't know," we hear him say.
His eyes are glazed, his stare lost somewhere amid the audience. He then clears his throat and continues: "If my grandfather knew; if he could see what has happened; see that nothing, nothing of what he knew is left, his heart would split."
He has nothing more to say; there are tears in his eyes.
Annelies, who's brought about the session expertly, leaves those words to linger, just enough so that our heads feel heavy, our backs are hunched; sadness now covers the room.

And that was just one of the moments, captured forever in memory, that Annelies Beck and Daniel Mendelssohn treated us with at the foyer of La Monnaie. During those two hours there was talk of Greek tragedy, our need for closure, the nature of desire, all of them revolving around one topic: Michael Haneke's production of Cossi Fan Tutte.
When I left I felt giddy, almost tripped on my way out. I had so many thoughts, so many ideas firing up in my head.

That evening, as I lay collapsed on my couch, a glass of Carménère in one hand, a book in the other, I read a short story by Cynthia Ozick called "Save My Child!" In it, Ruth Puttermesser, a Jewish Russian emigre in her sixties and living in New York, hosts her cousin Lidia, who's just decided to leave Soviet Russia.
A few pages in, I encountered this sentence and I couldn't help thinking of Daniel Mendelssohn, as it could have been his own mother's words:

"An ache fell over Puttermesser. It was grief for her papa's grief."

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