A film that dares to be totally different from anything else you have seen.


It was in 2005 that the Romanian writer/director Cristi Puiu achieved international fame with his devastatingly downbeat and realistic tale of a dying man, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. Since then he has continued to make films, often ones of considerable length, but these works have not reached us. One of them, 2013's Three Interpretation Exercises, apparently featured actors in a workshop and was inspired by the writings of the Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov (1853-1900). In the last year of his life Solovyov produced a work entitled War and Christianity and it is that book to which Puiu now gives direct filmic form in Malmkrog. The screenplay is by Puiu himself but I am told that most of the words are drawn directly from the book which, although thought of as a novel, is in effect a series of conversational discourses between five individuals. As presented now on screen, these five are privileged figures found gathered one Christmas in the manor house after which the film is named and which is located in Transylvania. 


The period setting is that of the book's publication date and, far from telling a story or presenting characters who claim our interest in their own right, Malmkrog covers ground quite outside anything normally attempted in cinema. There may have been filmmakers who believed that a literary text could be offered as a key component in a film (Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet come to mind immediately) but personally I don't recall ever seeing philosophical disputation on film presented for its own sake. Yet that in essence is what Malmkrog offers and, in keeping with Puiu's liking for long works, it lasts all of 201 minutes.


The description of it that I have given makes it self-evidently clear that this is a film of specialised appeal. Nevertheless, I have to declare that, while I had never heard of Solovyov and have never read any books of philosophy, I found Malmkrog thoroughly intriguing. Some of the pleasure comes from incidentals. Here one can instance such matters as the art direction which is so precise in capturing the setting (there are a few exterior views but for the most part we are inside the manor house). Similarly, the cast are uniformly adept at portraying with conviction characters whose background and education render the discourse persuasive. It should be said here that the five characters who join together in all this talk consist of the owner of the house, Nikolai (Frédéric Schulz-Richard), a Countess, Ingrida (Diana Sakalauskaité), the politician Edouard (Ugo Broussot) and two other women, Madeleine (Agathe Bosch) and Olga (Marina Palii). Save for a bed-ridden colonel (Levente Nemes), the only others present throughout are the servants headed by István (István Téglás). The head servant and the five aforementioned disputants each in turn give their names to the six chapters that make up the film (that we are not told how many chapters there will be is surely a misjudgment since that information would help the viewer to pace the film). Also among the incidental pleasures is the astute direction which brings variety to the material. The first (and longest) chapter keeps the camera at a distance as the talk between the characters sees them moving around but subsequent conversations being at tea and at the dinner table are managed quite differently: the former features an overall static shot of the group and the second involves closer shots of the individuals with editing playing a substantial role.


However, all of this is subsidiary since the degree of interest that one finds in the film is ultimately entirely dependent on how appealing one finds the philosophical discussions that take place over the course of the day depicted. To my mind the impact is greatly helped by the fact that we are not being fed arguments in a way that tries to win us over to any one specific viewpoint. Instead, each of the five speakers has a different outlook which we are invited to ponder and to assess for ourselves. The period setting makes it natural that religious questions should feature strongly, but even so that does not make what is said feel irrelevant over a hundred years later. Early on the talk concerns war. Is war inherently evil or can an army be validly Christ-loving if it combats brutal acts by the enemy? Is it the case that "a good war is just as possible as a poor peace"? Does belief in the Christian God of necessity involve a belief in Christ's resurrection or could one claim to be a Christian if one seeks to live by Christ's moral principles without going beyond that? And, if God does exist, does that mean that he is necessarily totally good? Pacifism too comes up for debate.


Additional topics that arise include the validity of having absolute rules that govern society, the possibility of concern over self-guilt being unhelpful and therefore a sin and also issues both of equality (if forms of higher civilisation can be recognised is equality for all thereby rendered impossible?) and of nationalism. Just how topical Solovyov's words can still be is especially clear when we hear talk of animosity between nations and as to whether or not the people of Europe could ever show solidarity. What is presumably an addition created for the film is the way in which the servants function throughout in the background. Given that they are taken for granted in line with society's conventions at the time, their visible presence adds an irony to all the philosophical talk going on about how one can and should behave towards others. Over and above that, this element shows us how the head servant rules over the other servants in an echo of the upstairs/downstairs divide and there is also a hint of forthcoming rebellion against the masters.


This last touch is rather too vague to mean much and after 201 minutes some viewers may be disappointed by the cheekily open ending (the film breaks off without allowing Nikolai to return with evidence which he has gone to fetch and which will he claims clinch his argument). Yet to my mind this again echoes the rewarding refusal to be didactic that is so central to the film's appeal. Furthermore, by blending the words with images that bring variety without being distracting, Malmkrog enabled me to respond to philosophical ideas whereas a book of philosophy might well be too dense to draw me in. The experience offered by Malmkrog is odd indeed and it may be that my rating for the film is somewhat over-generous. I would nevertheless defend it by saying that I am judging Puiu's film for what it is, and what it is is unquestionably unique.




Cast: Frédéric Schulz-Richard, Diana Sakalauskaité, Ugo Broussot, Agathe Bosch, Marina Palii, István Téglás, Vitalie Bichir, Simona Ghita, Sorin Dobrin, Zoe Puiu, Judith State, Edith Alibec, Bogdan Geambasu.


Dir Cristi Puiu, Pro Anca Puiu and Smaranda Puiu, Screenplay Cristi Puiu, from the book War and Christianity by Vladimir Solovyov, Ph Tudor Panduru, Art Dir Cristina Paula and Ana Barbu, Ed Dragos Apetri, Andrei Iancu and Bogdan Zarnoianu, Costumes Oana Paunescu.


Shellac/Bord Cadre Films/Cinnamon Film/Doppelganger/Mandragora & Iadasarecasa/Sense Production/Film i Väst-Sovereign Film Distribution.
201 mins. Romania/Serbia/Switzerland/Sweden/Bosnia and Herzegovina/North Macedonia/UK/France. 2020. Rel: 26 March 2021. Available on Virtual Theatrical release and on VOD including Amazon and from 3 April on Mubi. Cert. 12.