'The Magic Mountain': Karlovy Vary Review

Magic Mounain Movie Still - H 2015

Magic Mounain Movie Still - H 2015

An endless variety of styles further obscures an unfocused story. 

Anca Damian's mixed-media animated feature recounts the harrowing life of Adam Jacek Winkler, a Paris-based Pole who ended up fighting the Soviets alongside the mujahideen in Afghanistan

A ruthlessly anti-Communist Pole escapes to Paris in the 1960s and ends up fighting the Soviets alongside the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s in The Magic Mountain, a mixed-media animated film from Romanian director Anca Damian. The second part of a trilogy dedicated to heroism, after her Locarno entry Crulic: The Path to Beyond, this is again something of an adult-oriented animated documentary in the sense that it chronicles the extraordinary life of someone who actually existed. After twin premieres at Annecy and Karlovy Vary, this beautifully assembled but narratively diffuse Mountain will move on to other festivals but faces an uphill battle for any kind of commercial release beyond Romania, Poland and France, where the film was produced.

The film dives straight into the turbulent life of Adam Jacek Winkler (voiced by Christophe Miossec in the French version, Jean-Marc Barr in the English version), a free spirit who left Poland during the Communist era for Paris, where he worked as a black-market painter. Several of his family members were killed in the 1940 Katyn Massacre by the Red Army, when he was just two years old, which seems to have instilled a lifelong hatred of the Communists.

These facts need to be distilled from a very messy first couple of reels, which is light on facts -- the significance of Katyn is not explored or contextualized, for example -- and which instead unfolds as a series of back-and-forths between Adam and his daughter, Anna (voiced by Lizzie Brochere in both versions), who actually co-wrote the film with Damian. The early going is somewhat structured by a list of the rules of survival -- “Rule one: Don’t die, if possible” --though like Anna’s comments, or the character of Anna’s mother, who ends up in prison when trying to smuggle things back into Poland, this idea appears and is just as suddenly dropped as the film advances.

Things start to get smoother when, in 1979, the Soviets invade Afghanistan and Winkler takes that age-old adage about the enemy’s enemy being your friend to extreme heights, finally traveling there, after several years of preparation, to fight alongside the mujahideen, despite the fact he didn’t speak their language. The character’s singular focus on just surviving from day to day in the mountains of Afghanistan, where he ends up fighting alongside Commander Massoud (who has no voice), finally gives the film something of a focal point as well.

What makes it even more difficult for audiences to find their bearings is the fact that Damian doesn’t use one animation approach for the film or even one scene but that there’s a constant mix of different techniques and styles. The camera pans over crumpled, water-colored sheets of paper in brown (mountains) and blue (sky), in one scene, while in the another, heads of the characters come from actual, unmoving black-and-white photographs, while their bodies are suggested by simple, animated stick drawings. A train seems to fly in 3D animation through a barely sketched out train station, while a dinner, complete with crockery and cutlery, is made out of cardboard elements, animated in what looks like stop-motion. Inspiration seems to have come from anything ranging from Winkler’s own naive drawings to Dadaist art.

While this approach shows off the versatility of Damian in different media and visually suggests something of the protagonist’s agitation and anarchic streak, this choice works against the film because the narrative itself is also restless and somewhat haphazard, at least for the film’s first half.

The mountain of the title is one of the film’s strongest ideas, as Winkler, an avid climber, died while scaling a mountain, a year after Massoud was killed and the West was heavily traumatized by 9/11, which in turn again put Afghanistan on the map in the Occident. But even though by the end of the film audiences will have an idea of some of the things Winkler did in his life, his emotional journey or journeys are never quite made tangible. This is something of a surprise, since the character of the daughter should have helped suggest something about his emotional life (what does it mean when you leave your daughter behind to go and fight an enemy in a country you don’t know, alongside people you don’t know and whose language you don’t speak?).   

Alexander Balanescu’s score, with its flutes and percussion, is not only atmospheric but also helps give the story forward momentum and is complemented by excellent sound and foley work.

Production companies: Aparte Film, Arizona Productions, Filmograf, Studio Miniatur Filmowych, Studio Video Art, Krakow Festival Office, Telewizja Polska, HBO Romania

Cast: Christophe Miossec, Lizzie Brochere

Director: Anca Damian

Screenplay: Anca Damian, Anna Winkler

Producers: Anca Damian, Guillaume de Seille, Benedicte Thomas, Joanna Ronikier and Wlodzimierz Matuszewski

Music: Alexander Balanescu

Sales: Arizona Productions


No rating, 89 minutes