Directed by: Cristi Puiu | 201 minutes | drama, history | Actors: Agathe Bosch, Ugo Broussot, Frédéric Schulz-Richard, Diana Sakalauskaité, Marina Palii, István Téglás, Edith Alibec, Simona Ghita, Levente Nemes, Bogdan Geambasu, Sorin Dobrin, Vitalie Bichir, Judith State, Zoe Diaconu, Lucian Sabo, László Mátray, Bogdan Farcas, Jonathan Christy Thompson, Bogdan Zarnoianu
Politician Edouard, wife of General Ingrida (Diana Sakalauskaité), well-to-do woman Madeleine, landowner and distinguished aristocrat Nikolai (Frédéric Schulz-Richard) and devout Christian Olga gather for a sumptuous weekend of klessbebes on the latest trends in philosophy, theology and world politics. This intellectual tea party concerns a genuine salon meeting of the European-Russian bourgeoisie in a state mansion in Transylvania during the fin de siècle. The Romanian director Cristi Puiu based the script on the tract ‘War, Progress, And The End Of History: Three Conversations, Including A Short Story Of The Anti-Christ’ by the Russian philosopher and friend of Dostoevsky, Vladimir Solovyov. If you like endless tea parties – the viewer is bombarded with beautifully dressed static images of minutes-long explanations about war and peace – ‘Malmkrog’ guarantees a long session of lavish adversarial and a few crafty surprises for the West.
The haughty Edouard (Ugo Brousset) sees European civilization culture as the best that has yet occurred in world history. Moreover, the European spirit, once spread in all countries, will bring world peace: cultural progress is the end point. It will also liberate Russia from its Asian secrets (he is Franco-Russian himself). Olga (Marina Palii), the youngest of the bunch, is less optimistic about that European enlightened mind and prefers to bet high on the unifying forces of faith in Jesus. She presents to the company a story from the Bible about a paradise garden on earth, the origin and meaning of which some of the interlocutors immediately dispute. The garden has one master but many gardeners. What the gardeners don’t know about, however, is that they don’t own the piece of land they devote their entire lives to and can just be chased away. Once exposed to this knowledge, the gardeners, deeply mortified, hang up the master’s son.
Even though Madeleine (Agathe Bosch) sometimes jokingly refers to Edouard’s preference for trips to the gambling and party paradise of Monte Carlo, the prominent company in ‘Malmkrog’ seems to be locked up, just like the well-to-do citizens in ‘El ángel exterminador’ (Luis Buñuel, 1962). to be in a bubble. They are glued to innumerable traditions in standing and association. But while the doomsday thriller ‘New Order’ (Michel Franco, 2021) actively portrays the danger to the upper classes and social order, there is indeed danger lurking in Puiu’s static film. The local aristocracy is completely self-centered. Their opulent environment, made up of an arsenal of maids and butlers, is virtually invisible even to the camera. Perhaps this group should be too. In any case, the bosses pay little attention to the staff who ensure that the guests do not have a breath of wind. For the elite club, the servants are just oxygen, something that is always there, you breathe it in and out. The violent surprise about halfway through the film is therefore not entirely out of the blue.
Romanian New Wave captain Puiu flirts with drawing historical parallels. The salon meeting takes place in the town of Malancrav (Malmkrog is the German name), at the time squeezed between civilized Europe and wild vistas, and is about 700 kilometers from Odessa as the crow flies. The European spirit is slowly creeping east. But at what price? The oversized discussion group ends with a banal conversation about how the view has changed significantly in recent years due to the deteriorating weather. It used to be better, Edouard agrees, but maybe it’s because of my myopia. Olga immediately adds: it’s your myopia, nothing has really changed. The philosophical and theological discussions are occasionally more than fascinating, but Klaas Veel is always lurking. Either way, if you keep your eyes open and the mind free, you’ll get quite a challenge in return.