Credit: Berlinale
by Ryan Swen Film

Best Films of 2021: Malmkrog

January 8, 2022

#9. Cristi Puiu’s fifth fiction feature, Malmkrog, represents a further entrenchment in the oeuvre of perhaps the Romanian New Wave’s most dedicated portrayer of claustrophobic incidents and the web of personal interactions that can result in such confined spaces and at such long durations. Malmkrog represents something of an extreme in both regards: his first period film, it is set entirely in a luxurious, secluded manor in fin de siècle Transylvania and runs a full three hours and twenty minutes. These further extended stretches of time also contain little of the life-and-death drama of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, the methodical killings of Aurora, or the deft family interplay of Sieranevada. Instead, Malmkrog confines itself almost exclusively to the philosophical, ethical, and ecumenical debates of five aristocrats, which principally cover those two inevitably intertwined constants in any empire: war and religion. But far from an arid exercise — ironic, considering the film’s foundations in Puiu’s prior staging of excerpts from Vladimir Solovyov’s novel War, Progress, and the End of History: Three Conversations, Including a Short Story of the Anti-Christ at an acting workshop in Toulouse that was later compiled into his Three Interpretation Exercises (2013) — Malmkrog emerges as uniquely cinematic, as much in Puiu’s sense for blocking and motion as in the words and tone that are adopted over the vast bulk of 200 minutes. Split into six discrete segments, the film is careful to ensure a continuity of rigor and playfulness while varying its approach: the first segment is taken up mostly by a 44-minute long-take, which vacillates between static, stately frames and sudden pivots to catch the change in positions of each participant in the conversation, while two of the other segments are shot in individual close-ups as the speakers sit at a dinner table, cutting constantly with a marked literalism.

Yet despite the potential realism of what is being depicted, save for a few spectral images and one tremendously disorienting rupture, the film’s affect lies somewhere in between. The plain absurdity of the situation, which draws dinner guests into meals that they sit down for but barely touch, instead preferring to prattle on for hours, only grows as the night draws on, and yet it would totally overstate the situation to say that Puiu mostly uses these words as a means to lampoon the self-importance of the rich. The looming world wars are but the most obvious lenses upon which to view the relevance of these extended conversations, and it is apparent from Puiu’s watchful gaze that he finds something inherently fascinating about, say, the way the host reads from the Gospel According to Luke in order to refute one of the guests’ assertions; in many ways, this is one of the great recent films about religion and the particular ways in which believers interact with each other. And there is just as much care paid to certain details, like the interplay between the aristocrats and their servants — the second chapter is dedicated to the lead servant — or the choice of language: despite the Romanian setting, most of the film is conducted in French, the de facto language of the aristocrats at the time. Such signifiers pile up over time, and yet Malmkrog remains an immediate, bracing experience from the get-go, so monomaniacally focused is it upon the pleasures and pain of verbal one-upmanship and discourse. Puiu’s graceful direction remains consistent as an essential ballast, and the purposeful irresolution at the close only feels fitting for the existence of those in perpetual suspension, cloistered and secure in their ideologies.