11 OCTOBER 1969, Page 27


Topping show


Artistes at the Top of the Big Top: Dis- orientated (Ica, Nash House, 'X') Z (Curzon, 'A') Chef (Carlton, 'X') The Royal Hunt of the Sun (Odeon, St Mar- tin's Lane, `U').

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The most fascinating of the week's films is also, by a very long_chalk, the most like hard work. It isn't often that one feels actively tired in the cinema without siritltaneously being at least passively bored ; but having now seen Alexander Kluge's improbably titled Artistes at the Top of the Big Top: Disorientated twice, I've walked .away each time in that mood of slightly groggy exhilara- tion which one associates with a stiffish exam session. In a sense it is possibly. one's own fault: the cinema conditions us to expect total if not instant comprehension ; to make the effort, if confronted with a shattered mosaic, to fit all the pieces together. But Kluge's film doesn't really work that way : its contradic- tions and ambiguities, which are numerous, need to be left where they lie, as part of a critical dialectic.

Its story—for there is a story—concerns one Leni Peickert, a severely glowering girl who on the death of her trapeze artist father decides to become a circus proprietor. Her circus will be 'reformed' ; more daring and preposterous than ever (her father's dream was to hoist elephants up into the big top), but also with acts performed in full con- sciousness of their political, abstract or literary meanings. En route to Utopia, she accepts the transition from artist to entre- preneur. And when we last see her, with Utopia deferred, Leni has switched her aims. She is working in television, but her sights are set on the German Foreign Office.

The circus can be read as an analogy for the German cinema, put through its shabby hoops by Hitler and still in 1969 struggling for identity ; or as a sidelong view of Ger- - many itself ; or a parable on the state of the arts in general, the fraught alliances between artist and impresario, free impulse and economic necessity, and the artist's tempta- ion to invent 'ever more convoluted degrees f difficulty' so that he is always working breathlessly on the high trapeze. But the xhilarating aspect of Kluge's film is that it doesn't merely serve up its circus as a cut off he old joint of Teutonic all-purpose expres- ionism. The options are left validly open. nd underpinning them is the captivating dream-reality of Leni Peickert's enterprise : the monomaniac professionalism, the caged threat of circus tigers, the sad elephants set to marching across some dark frontier, the vhole evocative and melancholy imagery of he big top by night. In a bizarre way. Kluge's three-ring pattern of sophisticated argument, allusion and criticism is held up by his big top.

Admittedly, as with his previous Yesterday Girl, Kluge seems the sort of director who makes every film as though it might be his last : he has to cram it all in—quotation in word, music or picture, direct confrontation into camera, self-consciousness about the condition of being a German. Some of the allusions, to complicate matters further, are bound to fly straight over the heads of an English audience. But whatever else, this stimulating and strong-willed film never looks disoriented, and its images in themselves are consistently lucid and on occasion mockingly beautiful. One should probably take Kluge's advice: 'For discovering truth, as for pleasure, it is dangerous to have the tendency to swallow things whole.'

Z does rather demand to be swallowed whole: the political melodrama for all occa- sions. Adapted from Vassili Vassilikos's novel, which in turn took many of the facts of the Lambrakis case, the film has Alger- ian locations doing service for Greece, but becomes rather pointlessly coy about its identities when the camera moves slowly up photographs of royal personages to stop at about ,iffita level. The plot concerns an enormous cover-up to conceal police com- plicity in the murder—passed off as a traffic accident—of left-wing Deputy Yves Montand, and the efforts of a resolute little examining magistrate (the admirable Jean- Louis Trintignant) to arrive at the indigest- ible truth.

Undoubtedly, the cast seems over-starry for the occasion, comic turns among minor witnesses are exhaustively stretched, and there is a snapping-up of glib trifles which somewhat undercuts the gravity of Z's overt pretensions. But—and it is quite a but- Costa-Gavras's smart and busy direction does achieve the primary aim of involve- ment. The background of clandestine encounters and barely contained violence, and all the corrupting convolutions of the inquiry itself, are fairly compelling, at least the stuff of journalism with a ready eye to the look of a political intrigue. It is worth noting that Costa-Gavras's co-writer was Jorge Semprun, who wrote Resnais's La Guerre en' finie. As well as one or two Resnais time-tricks, there's at least a suggestion of the forlorn, inbred, con- spiratorial world of the finer film's Spanish Civil War exiles.

The other political melodrama is a kettle of very odd fish, as was probably to be ex- pected from a confrontation between the Hollywood establishment and the explosive legend of Che Guevara. Richard Fleischer and his writers on Che! seem to have had some notion of approaching their enigmatic hero through the evidence of witnesses to his life, the method Francesco Rosi followed with another legend in the exemplary Salva- tore Giuliano. But if that was the intention, it founders under a load of Hollywood bang- bang banditry, and the impossibility of accepting Jack Palance and Omar Sharif, howevat bravely bearded, as anything but a castingllirector's fantasy of Fidel and Che. Political points : a slightly plaintive sound- track voice suddenly announcing that the CIA had absolutely nothing to do with the Bolivian operations ; and the almost cosy view of latter-day Castro, who, freed from what the film seems on the whole to regard as the baleful influence of his Trotsky, is last seen in a very domestic tableau, reading Che's news from Bolivia to his wife as she sits over her needlework.

The Royal Hunt of the Sun is a respectable misfire : a decent attempt by Irving Lerner (director) and Philip Yordan (writer) to open out Peter Shaffer's play to modest epic pro- portions without losing its intellectual sub- stance. But if ever a play needed specific theatrical artifice it seems to be this one ; and in flattish cinema circumstances, the dialogue between Inca and Spaniard sounds discon- certingly like a replay of the Man for All Seasons conscience debate in the Inca stadium. Robert Shaw's Pizarro is on the quiet side, relying on a lot of quizzical head- cocking ; Christopher Plummer's sun king is the show performance, all feathers and torso, and enough vocal plumage to fill an aviary.