Gilbey on Film: low-budget thrills

The star of Frownland breaks through the slickness of movie acting.

Oh, the giddy thrill of chancing upon a newcomer to screen acting. We've already marvelled at Tahar Rahim, who holds his own in every scene of A Prophet (and will be seen next year in Kevin Macdonald's The Eagle of the Ninth). And despite having four years' worth of zero-budget "mumblecore" films under her belt, Greta Gerwig came to most audiences' attention this year with her unguarded performance in Greenberg.

Now Dore Mann, in the new picture Frownland, breaks through the gloss and slickness generally associated with screen acting. I say the film is new, but that only applies to the UK. It was finished in 2007. Its writer-director, a former projectionist named Ronald Bronstein, hasn't confirmed how long the movie took to make, though he admits he stopped counting at three years.

In 2008, Bronstein distributed Frownland himself in the US after it played on the festival circuit. It begins at London's ICA this Friday, and screens until the end of the month.

The film concerns Keith (played by Mann), a psychotically dysfunctional Brooklyn coupon salesman, and the various warped or disintegrating relationships in his life. Bronstein was influenced by the early work of Mike Leigh, particularly Bleak Moments and Nuts in May, and it shows: the camera is unflinching in its inventory of Keith's emotional paralysis. (Any scene in which he succeeds in reaching the end of a sentence without stammering himself into a frenzy, or being crushingly humiliated, counts as upbeat.)

Bronstein describes Frownland as "a movie that, like me, can't quite tell whether it loves or hates people, and instead careens back and forth between the two in a queasy, confused kind of way."

I'm particularly fascinated by the fearless Mann, who appears to have done no other acting either before or since Frownland, but who radiates a raw authenticity untouched by technique. There is a downtrodden, slobby humour to his work here -- he makes Paul Giamatti look like George Clooney -- and yet no part of his performance is addressed to, or even explicitly acknowledges, the audience. Watching Mann makes you remember the first time it hit you that cinema is voyeurism.

"I met Dore at a family funeral," Bronstein has said, "and within a couple of minutes I knew I wanted to build a project around him... [He] is just a spastic powerhouse of talent. He was driven to basically expend every drop of his creative self for the sake of his role... to the point that we really haven't had all that much to say to each other since the production wound down."

He expands on this, and his own working process, in a fantastically thorough interview with Slant magazine:

I decided I want to be as surprised by the process of making a movie as I am by life itself. I found people that I thought were suited to the roles, and would feed the ideas to them and build the characters and concepts with them. Through massive amounts of rehearsals I would flesh out those scenes and the ideas of those scenes -- how best to communicate those ideas through their natural speech patterns -- and then I would go home and transcribe those rehearsal sessions. I ended up with hundreds and hundreds of pages, which I would then pare down, so it was like writing with somebody's brain instead of writing with a pen. [Dore]... is an amazing guy, and is not the guy in the movie. It's a performance, but he's still tapping into something in himself... I'm looking to sculpt characters out of raw personality, rather than try and knock a square peg through the round hole of whatever character I have pre-conceived. Dore is an insecure person, but very confident about expressing that insecurity in front of a camera. He was hell-bent on taking what he felt were the ugliest sides of his personality and purging them in the movie.

Explaining how the on-screen relationship between Keith and his sort-of girlfriend Mary was built up using off-camera improvisation (again harking back to Leigh's method), Bronstein reveals that he engineered an internet relationship between the respective actors:

They started meeting online every night, with me supervising and setting up the time. She had her little AOL profile, and Dore contacted Mary online, in character, and before I knew it that relationship sprung to life. I have a couple of hundred pages of transcripts of all their emails and instant messaging and all that nonsense. It got to the point where this was getting interesting, and they decided to meet. Again, in character, Dore was very nervous and excited about this, but the second that they met, everything started to fall apart very quickly. They just had no rapport, in a way that was interesting. I decided the entry point for them in the movie would be at a point where the relationship was beyond resuscitation. That's what happened. Once something terrible happened with them, to the point where he thought he would never see her again, the movie starts at exactly that point where she shows up.

Mann's performance has not wanted for acclaim. The sparky critic and writer Neil Young has made room for it in the upper reaches of his ongoing and diligent list of the finest performances of the decade. I haven't found any interviews with Mann, but a statement on his MySpace page , written shortly after completing Frownland, reads:

Just finished acting in and creatively contributing to a feature film (a Cassavetes-style character study if that means anything). I have a bottomless appetite for art, history, psychology and learning in general. Though perhaps that sounds a bit dry. Academia aside, I have a very active sense of humour and look for the same in others (just ask to see my Kabuki-style Bill Cosby impression and you'll see what I mean).

If he never acts again, and never wants to, his reputation is assured.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge