Forest of the Hanged


Romania / 1964 / Romanian

Directed by Liviu Ciulei

With Victor Rebengiuc, Anna Széles, Ștefan Ciubotărașu

Still from 'Forest of the Hanged'On a bare, wintry hillside, the camera tracks along a line of skeletal trees, tracing the indistinct line of the horizon, and stops at a noose hanging in the chalky sky. Two men are digging a grave right next to the makeshift gallows, digging through snow and muck; bitter, incessant wind. In spite of the shadows of gargantuan, cement clouds blanketing the Romanian countryside, the men continue their job with worn-out, routine seriousness. They are clearly making way for a pathetic creature, damned to the indignity of having one’s grave right next to one’s hanging ground.

A young lieutenant from the Austro-Hungarian army appears and begins ordering people around – the chair is unsteady, it isn’t high enough, etc. His name is Apostol Bologa, a philosophy student and reservist. He has the appearance of a rich child but with a soldier’s hardened visage and sinewy cheeks, the searching eyes of a marine mammal topped by a dollop of greased and sandy hair. The gravediggers and their overseer perhaps don’t understand why the soldier is asking for so much care in the gallows’ preparation. Then an older captain shows up, Otto Klapka, newly arrived to the area, a Czech lawyer. Klapka asks the lieutenant whom they will be executing – Svoboda, a deserter. On hearing the name, his face seizes up in recognition – either he knows the soldier personally or simply feels sorrow for a fellow Czech condemned. The tidy, precocious Bologa, who presided over the prisoner’s trial, describes the man’s reaction to hearing the sentencing: he displayed no emotions, at least none identifiably human – only stared, unhinged, around the room at his various accusers and judges. The camera jets around the nervous motion of bodies, settles on their backs as the rainclouds linger above the waiting grave.

Soldiers swarm unhappily through mud. Beyond, nebulous hills, with a town and sparse trees rising on distant undulations. A clutch of captains and generals is in attendance, and with them, the captive man Svoboda, no longer a soldier full of fight but a nervous pile of clothes. Either he is important or his death is, because several higher-ups have come to bear witness. Svoboda looks like a bedraggled salesman, with the same spent and sunken hat, wearing the bewildered gaze that Bologa described. Wild but also penetrating, his flickering stare defines the emotional palate of the rest of the story, a look that, seemingly contagious, more than one of the other characters will take on by the end of the film.

The accusation is read out: desertion, espionage – Svoboda never stops staring about him. The executioner has not shown up yet. This absence is quite noticeable, of course, and important because the process must go forward, performed by a civilian. Evidently a soldier in uniform cannot be the one to do the execution, so the general commands the gravediggers’ foreman to perform the job, which he carries out unquestioningly. The eyes – Bologa’s acquire that same uncontrollable flicker, darting about at the faces as the man swings, as if his terrified soul had leapt into Bologa’s body at the nexus with death. We only see the feet circling but, judging from Bologa’s expression, his eyes must have locked with the hangman’s before they were extinguished. In the very next shot the sky is already ashen, as though a great deal of time has passed in reflection. The line of soldiers flows back into that darkness.

Still from 'Forest of the Hanged'The details of this execution are arranged in order to personalize the process, to give the man brethren. But on the other hand it is also directed at the engaged soldiers, to make the results of betrayal immediate, to hear it and not just hear about it, to cause a traitor to materialize rather than simply disappear. Proud, just a moment ago, of his role in Svoboda’s conviction, Bologa now seems stunned. On returning to his boarding house he meets a young man from the front, his landlord’s son, who barely says a word to him, can hardly meet his gaze. The family with whom he’s staying eyes him with suspicion, as though he radiates fear, guilt, desperation. As workaday as the solders’ relationship with the townsfolk seems, there is an atmosphere of frightened reverence for the authority figures that they are, as though at any moment the executioner’s rope could swing unexpectedly in one’s own direction, into one’s home.

Bologa slumps, caped, through a town crisscrossed by plodding battalions, decrepit, dark, grimy, lively. He meets up with a sensitive and unashamedly peace-loving soldier named Müller, who takes him to his private paradise, a place of leather shoes and belts, of an abandoned coach from another era – florid art, not hard negativity or crumpled austerity. It seems as though it is of another world. Bologa repeats to him that the evidence against Svoboda was overwhelming, sounding like he is rehearsing a line for a speech that he doesn’t believe but that he wants to perfect so that others will. Müller urges him to “rise above the trenches of blood.” The atrocities to which he is referring are the ones the nation sends the young lieutenant to carry out. Bologa claims not to understand anything – he has the innocence of a thinking machine.

In their dining room the commanders are still talking about the execution from that morning. A pious captain says that agony is necessary. Someone asks why they are still talking about Svoboda, he points out that we still talk of Christ nearly 2,000 years on. From various nations and walks of life, these officers are united in spilling blood and then drinking wine. Bologa is Romanian, part of an army suppressing his ethnic brethren in Transylvania. Many of the captains are Czech, and didn’t bat an eyelash while watching a Czech hang. Klapka, the one most noticeably glazed-over since the morning, seems resigned to humanity’s blood-thirst, its need to feel secure through genocide, to prove its points through purging. There is a pervading sense of personal dissonance at this level even though they are not even the ones carrying out the murders. The ones who feel awful are just as culpable as the righteous ones; they all can philosophize, which is a greater luxury than soldiers at the front have.

The young lieutenant returns home and passes through the room of his friend. The soldier is spending a night with Rosa, a local woman who lends her company to the officers on a nightly basis. Bologa sits in the quarters he now shares with Klapka. A persistent, panoptic beacon shines on and off, over and through them from the Romanian side, separated by the front line. It floods their window, impossible to be blocked or ignored, a searchlight into the heart of each individual. Klapka tells him not to curse it – any light is good in the oppressive darkness. But Bologa goes mad with the that white blaze shrieking in through the glass, as though coming from one side of his personality to call out the other. It is trying to vaporize him – it goes out; surely the side for which he is fighting must have reached it, he thinks, destroyed it. Then it returns, harder than before, rending the dense, chaotic, broken world.

The next morning there is a covered body being wheeled to a burial spot. It is that of Cervenko, the pious, peacenik captain from the officers’ dinner of the night before, killed by friendly fire while attempting to identify the source of the light, to reach god among the killing. At a fancy breakfast with the head general, Klapka gets congratulated for attending the execution, for being so “patriotic”. The bowl of jelly on their table gets juxtaposed nicely with soldiers bailing water out of their trenches. In a tracking shot over cavitied, sodden battlefield, we see soldiers still and quiet in trenches, perched like cicadas in an anguished stillness. There is an opening up, a ballooning of landscapes through the tracking shots, a perpetual expansion of countryside in which even nature seems afraid to move a muscle. Set in 1916, the film gives a sense for the viral nature of modern war – all weaponry, cruelty, and automatism must always be of greater intensity than previous wars.

Still from 'Forest of the Hanged'In spite of his achievements thus far, Bologa rankles at being a paragon of bravery for others. Klapka delivers commands from the top for him to lead a mission to kill the light. This general seems intent on pitting the subordinate officers against their own countrymen. While they must be indifferent killers there is real and knowing sadism behind them, dictating what they do. Bologa sets off on this mission in the Transylvanian countryside. War has so far been remote to him because he has internalized national borders, which separate him from the people being killed. But now he is engaged in a battle with fellow Romanian-speakers. He and the other soldiers spend a lot of firepower trying to get rid of the light but it swings back at them, laying bare their fears, displaying their guilt.

Rosa forms an intriguing if not cozy bond with Bologa. They seem equally isolated, she giving herself to the soldiers, he to his superiors and the black mass of the war. And yet he remains aloof from her, preferring to be faithful to his fiance. The two of them make their way through commandeered churches and castles, and lie down cozily in a warm room in the palace where the general lives and, evidently, also avails himself of her company. She sees Bologa as representing an innocence that she could conquer to possess. In a dream-state he leaves her room fairly propelled by the light and gets turned into a silhouette. For Rosa he has to be disproportionately wounded – to personify the pain that soldiers don’t show in front of her or in front of anyone.

There is a scene in which Bologa is made to cross-examine three captured enemies. He freezes up, gives the party line to the prisoners, stumbles under their scrutiny and ceases to function. He offers his hand as a countryman – they’re horrified to learn he’s also Romanian – and then quickly retracts it. They call him a traitor and he yells at them to leave the room. It is unclear exactly how he joined the k.u.k. but it is evident that the prisoners from the Romanian side are ordinary soldiers whereas he had his station in the ranks bought for him with family money and influence. His attempt to impress the men with kindness and leniency were rejected. “Until their sentence,” he waxes, “they die one hundred times.” Bologa is unknowingly echoing a line that Rosa said earlier to another soldier, that she is one of those people only content with a hundred-fold death, whatever that means. For those cornered by an enemy or by their own consciences, death is an incremental process, beginning well before execution.

Still from 'Forest of the Hanged'To persist in his duties Bologa relies on pushing his personality underneath the cinders, wrecked carriage frames and gray trench water. Defeats cause him to redouble his dedication to the mission of putting out the light. An unwitting agent of the darkness, he is being sent to extinguish hope. One one foray he and his soldiers keep missing and are forced to dash away with their horses through exploding bogs. In being a shadow of a human being, he has surpassed Klapka, who is stinging from implications in treason, and who cannot even hold onto the appearance of a brave facade. Bologa’s trespasses against his people are acceptable to the establishment (laudable, even) whereas those of his friend are against the military itself, dating from an incident when he tried to help three men desert at the Italian front. Bologa tells him he has resolved to do just that, and risk condemnation. The captain cannot say anything in response, only look at him sorrowfully, helplessly. After the lieutenant gets congratulated by their general (again, patriotism), Müller sarcastically tears into him, telling him to go fulfill his wish and be transferred to Italy – “no brothers there, only here.”

The protagonist’s countenance changes completely from the beginning, wherein it seemed to defy gravity through impertinence, only to become recessed into stately, statue-like concentration. A journey from one side of judgment to the other, the film finishes before his turn to die has come. He has lived by the noose and had every small belief and drop of vitality wrung from him. This film is the definition of anti-war, not one hung up on battlefield procedure but a parable set against a shadow-crossed, photographically desolate war mindscape. And when we are not being pelted with music – that is to say, most of the time – the sound field is blunt, present; we hear the clicks of a telegraph, footsteps, the crinkle of clothing in murmured isolation. Gummy plot points reel out onto a bilious and discordant surface, one that is all grizzled, coagulated paranoia. The film’s blistered faience, muddled with dark tones, nonetheless retains integrity throughout, withstanding its own instinct for noveliness and too-obvious soapboxing. The hero’s remorse occupies everything; it makes his food taste of nickel and renders the sight of his ebullient fiance a graven image. The tearing-through of guilt, an agony from which no one can defect, is worse than corporal punishment – it is Apostol’s one hundred deaths before the real one. Klapka instructs him to lie at the trial, even offering to pronounce him insane – “in front of other insane people,” the lieutenant adds. The camera pivots around his head and he goes prone like a corpse carefully placed.

Based on a 1920 novel by Liviu Rebreanu, Ciulei’s film depicts war as an unending dark night of the soul, an impending void that civilizations peer into periodically before inevitably, at some point in their existence, tumbling into it all the way. An atmospheric clarte nocturne that telescopes bleak reality, the film stirs in a confluence of desperation and the exaggeratedly blasted feelings of wartime that are both somber and emotionally devastating. What goes on in the trenches is theatrical backdrop; Forest of the Hanged focuses on the minefield behind the eyes, within a warring soul, a gangrenous violence that perpetually turns itself over for fresher, purer fragrances of cannibalism.

Still from 'Forest of the Hanged'The looming imprint is one of tormented psychosis, but rendered with an icy clarity (as opposed to anxious expressionism) that seems antithetical. Many frames are Kertész compositions in black and white and decay, where every surface is mottled heavily like cold alabaster. Stabbing, frostbite music will either pinch the effect of the drab imagery or try to push it through the screen, to perforate horrible, angst-ridden closeups or the kiss of scattered light. Such generic elements as the score are laid on with impasto but nonetheless come off dramatically monochrome, ending up haunting and memorable to the last.

The classless war-romance that arises between Apostol and straw-bright Ilona (the farmhand daughter of his landlord) and suchlike regulation chapters (his stilted homecoming, his ruminating on war from a hospital bed) and overcooked symbols (frames stricken with barbed wire imagery, biblical overtones rumbling through Apostol’s name as he drives past the bodies of twelve hanged farmers) are all oxidized beyond flaky nostalgia, and are pervaded by the grim listlessness of the battlefield, the callous automatism of the courtroom. Even his amble with Ilona through halcyon fields – which have been continuously transformed by human conflict in one form or another – cannot escape bombardment. Negating the title, there is nary a forest to be seen, hardly a tree to shelter a person from the glaring realization of how all that makes them human has been be stripped away like dead bark, fragile and insubstantial beyond our imagining.


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