AFTER THE power and brilliance of recent Polish movies by Wajda and Zanussi, Kazimierz Kutz's study of normal old age at the heart of Beads of One Rosary ("A", Gate Notting Hill) is positively soothing. Not that the elderly miner, Habryka (Augustyn Halotta) and his wife (Marta Straszna) are unaware of, or unaffected by the progressivist bureaucracy in which they are called to spend their last years. Far from it.
The only pity, I think, is the apparent obscurity of the title. Nothing in the story and only the briefest glimpse of a subtitle suggest the relevance of the title to the monotonous everyday harmony, but for some fond bickerings of the couple living out their retirement with a married son and daughter-in-law, poultry, a pig and a dog in a too-crowded bungalow.
Progressive authority decrees a move to the new high-rise block of flats, while the miners' cottages are to be demolished. Habryka refuses to leave his old home. He is supported by his son and grandson; only the daughter-inlaw defects and has her furniture moved into the new flat. The old man remains stubborn like Edith Evans in The Last Days of Dolwyn and even threatens to blow up the place. Uncomprehending authorities, baffled by the obstinancy of a respected old worker, allocate him to a spotless new villa in a better part of town where Habryka and his wife will be isolated from all old friends and neighbours, and where all the mod cons and fancy gadgets feel set to trap them.
The whole simple story, like an engaging, touching fairy tale of a progressive bureaucracy might be a vivid illustration to a recent article in a Sunday Telegraph picture magazine by Millard, Professor of geriatric medicine at St George's Hospital, bearing witness that not only in Communist welfare States is the treatment of the old dehumanising.
Except possibly Mephisto (which I was shocked to find I had inadvertently omitted from my list of last year's best films) Death Is My Trade ("A", ParisPullman) is the first German film we've seen which tackles the question of how ordinary decent Germans could commit the atrocities of the concentration camps. Franz (George Gotz)sis a nice young man who gets recruited quite plausibly into the Nazi party. He is stationed in Pomerania and ordered to marry a girl he hardly knows. "You are both good Germans, you can raise a good German family." So they do, and we see them civilised, well-mannered, eating tidily at table with their growing family. From the occasional striped uniforms we see, and other hints, it becomes clear that Franz's unit is part of the German wartime occupation of Poland. Eventually it becomes clear to the audience and to the horrified German wife that Franz is in charge of the gassing of Jews arriving by the trainload. To any query as to how he could have administered such horrors he can only answer perfectly sincerely that he was only obeying orders: "I would be physically incapable of disobeying an order," he asserts. I know many people who in the best of faith believe that most ordinary Germans were quite unaware of the atrocities going on in their midst. Perhaps. I don't know Germany, so I don't know. Franz did know what he was doing but insisted he was obeying orders. The whole thing is a hideous mystery and this film is a persuasive small part of the attempt to solve it.
A different matter of live and death is raised in Whose Life Is It Anyway? ("AA", Plaza 2). This is John Badham's film of the play in which Tom Conti made such a hit on the stage. Richard Dreyfuss gives a very sound performance in the Conti part as Ken Harrison, sculptor, victim of a hideous motor smash which lands him in hospital as what is fashionably called a vegetable, having lost the use of his sculptor's hands and just about every other part of his body he needs for life, but not his wits.
He determines that life like that is not worth living and the
dramatic argument is whether the hospital should be allowed to give him the treatment it wants (in addition to the kidney machine), or whether he should be allowed to reject hospital treatment and be left to die. Good though the performances are of Dreyfuss and of John Cassavetes as the head doctor and of others, the film's theatrical origins show all too plainly — and not just the drop of the curtain showing beneath the screen.
It is inconceivable to me that a man should face such mortal and vital issues and decide them in terms of such conventional theatrical structure. Still more incredible perhaps that so many people — girl-friend, hospital staff, from black orderlies to psychiatrist, legal experts and a judge called in at last to adjudicate, are involved without any of them acknowledging that even if the life were now the cripple's, it had been a gift to him from God. Suicide may no longer be a crime against British law, but nobody can prevent it from being a sin against God. So the film remains an artificial contrivance like a play, though the actors, and especially Dreyfuss rise to the climax very effectively.
The Secret Policeman's Other Ball ("AA" ABC Shafestbury Avenue) is the latest extravaganza of the Monty Python team. I have never really liked this outfit or any of its progenitors right back to That Was The Week That Was though individual turns are irresistible. The latest is a vulgar, noisy, foulmouthed variety show with intermittent injections of wit. The golden boy called "Sting" can change his voice from raucious rock to sweetest tenor and it would be difficult for any woman not to admit some malicious enjoyment of Victoria Wood's number assuring us that she's "had men up to here," however vulgar the idiom. John Wells, Peter Cook, Billy Connolly, Donovan and the rest will no doubt delight faithful addicts who can stand the racket without too much embarrassment.
Freda Bruce Lockhart