Gilbey on Film: In praise of Patricio Guzmán

The Chilean documentary maker comes to London.

Do you think Andrew Rosindell gets out to the cinema much? The Tory MP expressed recently his admiration for the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, so he would possibly take away a different sort of experience than most of us from watching the films of Pablo Larrain (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and the forthcoming No), which address Pinochet’s rule from an imaginative variety of aghast perspectives. Most of all, I would like to see what a Pinochet apologist like Rosindell makes of Patricio Guzmán’s new film Nostalgia for the Light, a documentary essay which draws imaginative connections between the beginnings of the universe, advances in astronomy and the ongoing search for the bodies of those who were “disappeared” under Pinochet. I wouldn’t want to underestimate Rosindell’s ability to squirm and squelch his way out of a sticky spot, but I feel fairly confident that his admiration for the dictator would be challenged by this profound and quietly distressing film.

Until this week, I was unfamiliar with the work of Guzmán, a Chilean documentary maker who is celebrated in a season of films this month at London’s BFI Southbank. His key work is The Battle of Chile, a reportage-based trilogy made surreptitiously (the film stock was supplied secretly by Chris Marker) and smuggled out of the country in 1973 following the 11 September coup. Nostalgia for the Light, Guzmán’s latest picture, plays for two weeks within the season, and will be pitching up on the first day, 13 July, for a post-screening Q&A session.  

It’s a deceptively modest film which reveals only gradually its ambitious scope. “In the glow of the night,” says Guzmán in his narration, “the stars observe us.” That idea of a watchful presence in the universe is explored throughout the picture, and admirers of this director will not be surprised to discover that conscience, history and the act of remembering are afforded the omnipotence that a less secular film might have attributed to a deity. What starts as a product of his long-standing fascination with astronomy moves from the heavens to earth - deep into the earth, in fact - when the focus shifts to the relatives, mostly women, who continue to comb the Atacama desert looking for the remains of their loved ones. The Atacama is also a hunting-ground of astronomers and historians for reasons scientific or anthropological; Guzmán’s skill in bringing these interlinked motivations together is something to behold.

The imaginative leap between our quest for information about the universe and the hunt for answers in the dust and dirt, between celestial bodies and corporeal ones, is illuminating and elegantly made. There is the value of star-gazing as recalled by former prisoners of the desert’s Chacabuco concentration camp, some of whom created an astronomy club while incarcerated. The soldiers broke it up because they feared it would lead to escape. Their instincts were correct in one sense: an ex-prisoner talks of how the stars preserved his “inner freedom.” And the essence of looking at the stars - that is, admiring something which has already expired by the time it becomes visible to us - blurs into the search for the disappeared. Their bodies broken into shards and splinters, some remains still unsorted and unidentified in boxes which contain what Guzmán calls “the remains of remains”, they too transmit messages from the past which change how we regard the present, and our place in it.

There is no danger of the different quests in the film becoming directly equivalent, but it’s still helpful when one astronomer remarks on what separates his search for answers from the one carried out by the grieving women: “We can sleep peacefully,” he says. One woman, whose brother was killed, longs for the apparatus used by astronomers to be deployed for her own cause: “I wish the telescopes that look into the sky could see into the earth.”.

Nostalgia for the Light is a genuinely transformative piece of work, cinematically inventive and politically urgent. Once you’ve seen it, check out this  fascinating and through interview with Guzmán courtesy of Filmmaker magazine.

"Nostalgia for the Light" is released on 13 July. The Patricio Guzmán season runs at BFI Southbank from 13 to 28 July.

The beginning of Augusto Pinochet's coup in Chile, 11 September 1973 (Photo: Getty Images)

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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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit