“When I studied, I met a filmmaker who decided for me, in a way , what I was going to become. It was Armand Gatti who brought us together.” –Jean-Pierre Dardenne at his 2009 Cannes masterclass
“Film is a system that allows Godard to be a novelist, Gatti to make theater, and me to make essays.” –Chris Marker
The name Armand Gatti hovers in the background of many filmmakers today. One of the most acclaimed theater writer/directors of the 20th century, Gatti was originally a member of the informal Left Bank group of filmmakers that included Alain Resnais, Chris Marker, Agnès Varda, Henri Colpi, and Jean Cayrol, but due to the fact that none of his films have been released on video in the US, he remains an elusive figure for many cinephiles. He appears in Resnais’ Toute la mémoire du monde (1956) and in Marker’s Immemory CD-Rom (reprinted this year); he wrote China (1956) for Marker’s Petite Planète collection and traveled with Marker in the making of Letter from Siberia (1957), which inspired his book Siberia — Zero + Infinity the following year.
According to his 1989 biographer, Dorothy Knowles, Gatti was born in 1924 in a shantytown in Monaco (his Italian anarchist father, who escaped murder in a Chicago slaughterhouse because of his political activities, fled Mussolini’s reign); during WWII, Gatti joined a small French resistance maquis. Captured, tortured, and sentenced to a concentration camp in Hamburg where he was forced to work in a diving bell at the bottom of the Baltic Sea, Gatti eventually escaped and joined a British SAS special forces team. After the war, he worked as an award-winning journalist for many years until he traveled with Marker, published his first plays, and directed his first film, The Enclosure (L’Enclos, 1961).
L’Enclos was screened out of competition at Cannes but it was hailed by Truffaut, Resnais, Cocteau and others. It’s available on DVD in France from Doriane Films. (My review follows.) Gatti went on to write and direct the satirical El otro Cristobal in Cuba in 1963 (which won the Critic’s Prize at Cannes but was never distributed in Europe), Der Übergang über den Ebro for German TV in 1970, a couple of video series for French TV in the late-’70s, and The Writing on the Wall (Nouse étions tous des noms d’arbe) in Ireland in 1982. While making these films, Gatti also established himself as a leading figure in the experimental popular theater, producing plays developed in “collective writing” workshops at universities, factories, youth rehab centers, and prisons. (As late as 2006, he wrote and directed a play at the Ville-Evrard psychiatry ward outside Paris.)
The Dardennes met Gatti in 1971 when Jean-Pierre was an acting student at the Institute of Diffusion Arts (IAD) at the Catholic University of Louvain in Brussels. Gatti had been invited by the student coordinator Henry Ingberg, who writes in the 2005 Belgian Dardenne program L’image, la vie that he spoke to Gatti about the “very strong desire to leave classic production behind in favor of a participative approach of research, encounter and dialogue with people, with militants, weirdos, suburbanites, and so forth; in short, of this desire to forge a bridge between the poetic creation and a world generally considered to be incompatible with it.” The rise of video technology encouraged this approach and the production research resulted in the student plays The Durutti Column (1971) and Adelin’s Ark (1972). Later subsidy-funded workshops allowed the Dardennes to expand this experience into ongoing documentary work, of which they eloquently spoke last week. (Their association with Gatti continued with The Writing on the Wall; Jean-Pierre served as assistant cameraman, Luc served as assistant director, and both were co-producers.)
From its bravura opening shot that disorients the viewer by rotating and tilting down from a picturesque cloud to a rock quarry, the credit sequence of L’Enclos is its most visually striking: lines of concentration camp prisoners silently trudge over the desolate landscape, the black-and-white imagery emphasizing the dry, dusty terrain and harsh shadows. (The cinematographer, Robert Julliard, had previously shot Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero and Clément’s Forbidden Games.) The muted sounds of crunching stone and falling gravel intensify the sense of physical toil, but the setting exists in an abstracted space with compositions that fragment prisoners and relegate guards to the background–a world both immediate and removed.
The first scene asserts the danger and cruelty of camp life when a kapo orders a prisoner to kill a weaker one or be killed himself–the classic prisoner’s dilemma–but unlike The Dark Knight, the scene is presented with such sobriety and naturalism that it registers as sad desperation rather than a thrilling plot device. An observing Nazi guard recommends the same strategy be used on a Communist German inmate suspected of harboring secrets, and soon an enclosure is populated by the burly Karl Schongauer (played with world-weary presence by Hans Christian Blech) and David Stein (Jean Negroni), a Jewish watchmaker. Stein is told he has twenty-four hours to “prove he is at least half a man” and kill or be killed; the Nazi commanders bet on who will win.
Gatti’s abstraction situates the action at a fictional camp called Tatenberg. His goal isn’t to document the grisly details of camp life (which he felt were unfilmable) but to highlight the culture of fear and psychological dehumanization that pervaded all the camps. “Before killing a man one kills his dignity,” he has said, and the film extends the active dispiriting of prisoners to the usage of signage hung from their necks and sexual slavery. Most of the drama pivots around the dialogue between the two men in the enclosure and their ultimate decisions. Gatti has attributed his survival of WWII in part because of his ability to retain his sanity, and impressively, the film isn’t an escape drama (though it does highlight organized resistance in the camp); rather, it asks whether it’s possible for a person to maintain his or her humanity in the face of certain death, perhaps the kind of question that only a survivor could pose with utter conviction.