The opening of the film is very promising. Music trills expectantly against a black image and then the words of the title are heard as the lights come on. We may not be quite sure what we are seeing at first. I dislike the “dip to black” which comes before the next shot – a close up of shoes. Interesting – what is this? Then we see a newspaper with an oddly shaped hole in it. Was this hole the shape of a country? I could not match it to one. Then the text explains the background to the people. We now see they are performers on a stage. The formal words are made much more acceptable by the actions and funny faces the performers make. The final caption tells us these are the unemployed.
A written description of the film would make it seem dull, one of those “worthy” documentaries that we all believe “everyone should see” – but not us! In fact it quickly becomes spellbinding. There is a real cinema talent at work, giving us close-ups of the audience, little dramatic revelations of the performers and their director. (It is not strictly relevant to this critique, but Jirka Zacek speaks such clear German – and it is well recorded – that it is not too hard for a foreigner to understand. He is, of course, Czech!) The movie is built round Zacek, but as a thematic “hook” it also follows the progress of Andrea as she goes from nervous beginner to relaxed performer.
While the director is interviewed we see little of his “talking head” and a lot of the actors’ exercises. Such exercises are mildly interesting visual items but on their own would be boring. His words are interesting but not cinematic. Putting the two together makes a fascinating few minutes of cinema.
The skill of the film maker is obvious in all the little details that are perfect. Someone talking while sitting at a table in a busy room, shot from a low angle, is beautifully lit and in focus. Her words are clear despite the background noise. Many people attempt such shots but usually they look poor and you can hardly hear what is said.
Just when we have had enough lecture, the film cuts to a warm, female voice, music and some livelier movement exercises by the actors. I call this the “sequence of smiles” – for there are many smiling faces, but also we see people who are now relaxed and doing the silly dances we might do in private among a team with whom they feel comfortable. The sheer number of different images in this little montage gives the film a sense of richness.
And when that ends we do not return, as expected, to the interview with Zacek but to a scene of him talking to the class. Then we go on to a little background piece about him. Back to the class and we see them putting his instructions into action. There is a little artificial film moment when the image of Zacek freezes and the soundtrack begins another part of the interview with him. This trick helps to link the man-in-action with the theory he is talking about.
We see the start of a performance which seems acceptable to us … followed by his demonstration of how much more could be made of it. In this way the film maker shows us exactly how he teaches and how he adds value to the theatrical experience. By this point most other film makers will start wondering about how this has all been shot. The film addresses that question immediately with Andrea in the open air posing and working with the camera man. We cut back to the studio and see another cameraman in a corner recording the scene. Back to the actress outside and a caption tells us she is getting braver all the time. We also see and hear the group working with her. They are no longer just a class being taught, but a creative team working together. The scene intercuts later stages of the process as Andrea’s character grows and improves.
As the film goes on we see the show being built up in the studio and have interviews outside with some performers. These shots seem to be by a different camera operator for the heads are too near the bottom of the frame. This looks more like “home movie” material. Perhaps that is deliberate to suggest that the actors’ friends are taking an interest and interviewing them on camera. Then comes yet another change of gear in this amazing film – we see the more serious side of Zacek as he points out problems in performance and plans the public show. We also get his more serious comments on the freedom of coming from communist Czechoslovakia to Germany. This is a long shot of a “talking head” but it has been earned, so to speak, by all that has gone before. We know the author can keep us interested visually, so when he chooses to have a static shot, we trust that he does so for a good reason – in this case to show what motivates Zacek. The final minutes show the rehearsals for their public show – cold, wide shots from unmoving cameras which suggest problems. This is an old cinematic cliché: the rehearsals look bad, the show will be good. And indeed as the cry of “Licht an” comes again, we move into close shots of bright coloured clothes, confident actors and we are shown how well they work, we share the audience’s pleasure. The gypsy music of the closing montage is lively but perhaps echoes the view that many people have about the unemployed – that they are like the worst bigoted image of gypsies. We have all seen such topics covered badly – or in a pedestrian fashion. This film triumphantly proves that ideas of cinematic style which seem only suited to drama, can be applied to documentary with great success.
- Dave Watterson (Jury Member)
”Licht an” is well-produced, passionate, necessary and interesting. I have been involved in lots of film dealing with “something”. This film wants to tell us a story. Bravo.
Jeppe Hovman, member of the jury