By Robert Smart
Historical violence haunts the short films of Monika K. Adler. The bodies of her female protagonists are carriers of traumatic memory. Even apparently consensual encounters carry this residue of past horrors. The contagion of mass violence, invading waves of fanatics inspired by the pure rage of true belief to shattering acts of violation and subjugation inform every frame of Adler’s films.
Yet her short films are intimate and minimal, the majority of them limited to two figures, one male, one female; domestic melodramas of desire, estrangement, sorrow and rage. The males however continue to carry with them the threat or at least the echo of the past’s marauding ravagers or act as inheritors and enforcers of oppressive and brutal orthodoxies: The women appear perpetually trapped in scenarios of betrayal, disappointment, subjugation and reduction, frequently if unknowingly complicit in their own bad outcomes.
Love as conventionally understood is nowhere in view: only its aftermath, its failure. With the exception of Come back to the Trees the love attempted by the male-female pair has ended. In The Beauty of the Shadow and Mutability the failed love is viewed retrospectively, with mortified chagrin in the case of the former and with obsessive regret in the case of the latter. In Chernobyl of Love the pain of rejected, brutalized love escalates into violent revenge and uncontainable anguish. Only in the very short film, Purification, are the lovers are ever shown occupying the same physical space.
In Chernobyl of Love, the woman is alive the man dead; in Mutability, the man is alive, the woman dead, In Purification, though both alive and together on one room the couple enact a scenario of ambiguous and erotically charged subjugation. Only in is Come back to the Trees is there no dyad. Indeed no man is present unless he is embodied in the camera’s eye as a witness to the bizarre clutch of women that has congregated in the woods and is apparently engaged in a recondite and atavistic ritual as threatening as it is incomprehensible. If male, this stunned onlooker may be a modern day Pentheus watching in rapt terror the rites of thus Neo-Bacchae, who will tear him limb from limb before he can grasp the riddle of their weird conjurations.
Born in Poland in 1982, Monika K. Adler grew up in an Eastern Europe suffused with memories as well as more tangible reminders of large-scale assaults on human bodies, particularly female bodies, motivated by ideology and ethnic hatred. From the Nazis, to the Soviet invaders (who victimized her grandmother’s cousin) to the rape wars of nearby Serbia, the history of the degradation of the body haunts the imagination of this brilliant young photographer and filmmaker. Yet her works are not exercises in feminist or political filmmaking, such polemics are too obvious and reductive, failing to capture the deeper reality that she seeks to evoke: a reality that eludes easy definitions and explanations and that perhaps derives from – or more likely informs – the unconscious mind of human beings.
The specter of historical trauma, the manifestation of mystery and desire in the human body, the experience of women as objects and victims of outmoded and pernicious institutions which nonetheless continue to exercise an influence on our thoughts and behaviors, are just part of what Adler’s work addresses.
By far the majority of her career and reputation thus far is as a still photographer and one can trace the fraught male-female pairings back to the still photography that Adler composed from 1999 to 2010 before shooting her The Beauty of the Shadow in 2010. In many of these works, the majority of which are in black and white, two figures are presented in ambiguous relationship to each other: distance, position, and attitude suggestive of menace or disconnection or estrangement. Adler’s subjects more often than not have their backs to the camera and in other cases some other element, including the frame line, obscures their faces. In Adler’s photographs both human beings and objects emanate a sense of abandonment or otherness, strange and liminal manifestations existing on the border between our familiar world and some mysterious and ineffable dimension not amenable to full disclosure or to rational discourse. Twilight glimpses of the troubled dreams that infuse our apprehension of this world if not a phantasm of another realm that at moments of extremity or disruption impinges on this one.
A photograph of a couple making love in the Coyote sequence manifests this tension. At first glance a simple representation of sexual intimacy between a man and woman on a bed what quickly becomes apparent is the possibility of assault and dominance; the male body is so aggressively on top of and virtually enveloping the female body beneath. Is this the loving communion of two people or the smothering and suppression of one by the other? Is this yet another portrait of a world where the more powerful body rules the weaker? This photograph exemplifies the unsettling equivocality of Adler’s work.
Therefore, when watching one of the short films produced by Monika K. Adler, or contemplating one of her many still photographs, one is forced to struggle against the compulsion to interpret, to reach for kind of definitive theme or idea to which the images can be reduced.
The images that Adler confronts the viewer with remain not-quite-readable, subject to a multiplicity of interpretations, generated by a process that, partly unconscious on the part of the artist, elicits unconscious responses from each individual beholder: each apprehension or scenario is unique to each set of eyes that regards it. And yet the way that this troubling and pregnant indeterminacy is accomplished differs greatly from one medium to the other. If Adler’s prolific output of still photography served as a prolonged apprenticeship and preparation for the short films they are nevertheless imbued with a very particular set of attributes and a unique atmosphere of evocation, desire and dread all their own.
It was only after fully exploring and refining this visual language, this ongoing meditation on corporeality, anxiety, mystery and desire that Adler finally took the plunge into motion pictures. It is immediately obvious that Adler’s films represent a dramatic departure from her photographic work yet on close analysis it is clear they are informed by the same vision and informed by the same experiences and cultural, intellectual and aesthetic influences as the work that preceded it.
Among the numerous and varied artists and movements that influenced Adler’s work, in all its manifestations, she cites Ingmar Bergman, Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Albert Camus, Existentialism, Zen, Andzej Żuławski, Carravaggio, Vincent van Gogh, Camille Claudel, Francesca Woodman, Krzysztof Kieślowski, Michael Haneke, David Cronenberg, David Lynch, Nicholas Roeg, Quentin Tarantino and the Madonna of the ‘80s and ‘90s.
In Adler’s first film The Beauty of the Shadow, produced in 2011, the influence of Warhol and Madonna are perhaps most evident. Featuring Adler herself as the protagonist (with her narration voiced by Sofia-Karla Axelsson.), The twelve minute Shadow is ostensibly an Anias Nin-style “memoir” about the “unbearable lightness of life” of her Bohemian escapades in Paris, “a desert for the heart,” that provokes in our comely heroine a desperate need to love. Adler vamps with self-conscious sexiness, her movements highly eroticized, as her vocal double introduces us to the “loser” man who was to become the partner of Adler’s dead-end romance. The loser man is always presented in close up, his gestures and wet-lipped facial expressions suggesting vast universes of creepiness. His first appearance features him applying lipstick, an element of sexual ambiguity that will figure significantly as the film proceeds. Adler’s character apparently becomes enamored of him after he ejaculates on her expensive gold dress, immediately conveying the idea of devaluation and degradation that will characterize much of the images that follow.
We are told that once this amour fou is underway, the couple travels to Seville Spain to “sanctify our untrue love in front of God through B’s close friend Father Antonio.” Here the narration ends and we descend into a maelstrom of grainy or partially obscured images of religious processions, explicit sex, implied violence, transgression, squalor and religious mania punctuated with cynical and profane text that apparently stands in for the dialogue of the lovers and Father Antonio, all of it accompanied by a droning, distressing electronic score that will amplify the sense of malaise throughout this fragmentary and ambiguously presented downward spiral of Monika’s “great” romance.
The imagery of the film’s title sequence prefigures much of the imagery of the film’s second “act” with the exception of a brief shot of a hissing snake, a reference to Garden of Eden’s insidious tempter. The central narration segment of Shadow develops these associations, rife with Biblical references jarringly juxtaposed with grainy and graphic pornographic images as well as grotesque renderings of death and injury and rent flesh (such as the shots of a skinned dog that recur several times throughout the film). All of it manifesting a thematic concern with flesh versus spirit, temptation and sexual addiction (Suggested both by images from Adler’s You Are my Cocaine Photo sequence and by an explicit allusion to cocaine use during the opening Voice Over), compromise and fall from grace. If there is any difference between Eve and the protagonist of Shadow it consists in the likelihood that the latter actively seeks out her serpents.
What is most surprising about the central maelstrom of Adler’s doomed love story is how minimalist it is. The images are almost exclusively an alternation of still photographs, text and, deliberately diffused, fragmented or obscured shots, repeated with variations nearly all of them taken from a relatively fixed camera position. And yet Shadow does manage to convey a relatively coherent narrative trajectory. The imagery and tone of the film is reminiscent Cinema of Transgression movement.
The introduction of Father Antonio sets up an implied love triangle between “Monika,” the loser and the priest, who like the Holy Ghost is present but not seen. Brief dialogue exchanges between the protagonist and her lover and between her lover and Father Antonio are portrayed in text against a black screen. The first of these has one of the lovers asking, “What is the most important thing in life,” to which Antonio apparently replies: Sex and Money. His implied interlocutor then asks, “Where is the love?” “In my ASS!” is the reply. This exchange inaugurates what will be Shadow’s obsessive focus on anal sex.
Over grainy black and white footage of man and woman having sex the notion of using anal intercourse for birth control is introduced by the lover to which the woman retorts that she is already pregnant and the man responds with insults and anger. It is immediately clear that these people are not playing it straight with each other. Their relationship a kind of combat; It is deception, manic eroticism, manipulation and potentially explosive hostility. This exchange is followed by a shot of Adler’s still photograph, Every Thought is a Prayer, depicting a woman lying face down in a room strewn with debris, her upper body lost in shadow (Like so many of Adler’s photographs and films the face is concealed or obscured, the specific features, the individual identity obliterated, the expressively manipulative, dishonestly expressive face suppressed. Only the body, the universal condition we all share, is legible). The woman’s white dress is hiked up over one hip and a religious icon of the Virgin Mary is visible beyond and above her, continuing the film’s linkage of religious imagery and rhetoric with perverse sexuality and the specter of murderous rage. Indeed, wherever religious imagery is introduced, such as still photographs of graffiti stating “God is alive and loves you!” it is invariably presented in a milieu of abjection and squalor.
The consummation of “Monika’s” betrayal arrives when the sounds of two male voices engaged in some kind of sexual encounter commence. A brief shot of a woman, her face partially veiled, insouciantly and suggestively sticking out her tongue suggests either perverse complicity or cheeky resignation.
The aural sex between the two males continues on the film’s soundtrack with one of the men now exclaiming elevated religious rhetoric, counterpointed yet again by graffiti-like written text, a blackboard reading: “The Soul is the need of the Spirit.” Are we to infer from this that the individual soul seek to reach out, to lose itself, in the ineffable, the infinite? But given the context of carnality and squalor does the conjunction of images (And sounds) further intimate that ultimately the soul will almost inevitably seek that communion entangled in the body of another human being?
The encounter resumes with the voice of a male actor (Possibly appropriated from a Hollywood movie), quoting First Corinthians, extolling the virtues of true love (Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful…), which culminates in a graphic sequence in which one male strokes his erect cock to orgasm, depositing semen on his partner’s ass. Implied sodomy and ejaculation conjoined with the soaring Biblical rhetoric of ideal love pushes the collision between elevated spiritual rhetoric and idealized love against crass and luridly embodied images to its extreme.
In another abrupt change of tone yet another borrowed male voice proclaims: “Enough of this farce!” And then elaborates by explaining that when he farts it means he is not in love, goading his implied auditor, presumably “Monika,” to leave. This verbal attack and repudiation is punctuated by repeated shots of hands frenetically crossing themselves, as if in hysterical defense against both the unacceptable carnality and the sudden aggression that suffuse this passage.
As the male encounter reaches its crescendo, groans and grunts ambiguously suggestive of either rough sex or combat, we see a text crawl across the bottom of the screen which reads: “Goodbye my dolly with love from Father Antonio.” To whom is the addressed precisely? Is he dismissing his lover or his lover’s vanquished lover?
After another brief reprise of the skinned dog death’s head there appears a still photograph of a shirtless man in jeans lying face up in a bed, his face covered with a pillow, once again eliding individual identity, evoking the possibility of violence or humiliation and suggesting the fate of one of the narrative’s actors, though just as likely providing a more abstract relation, an image of emotional and spiritual depletion, the adulteration of the psyche via the vagaries of the flesh. This anonymous male body is followed by a rapid Montage reprising Shadow’s principal preoccupations: death, sexuality, betrayal, perversity, religious aspiration and compulsive ritual, all of it finally coming to rest with a shot of a woman’s legs dangling from above, alluding to one of Adler’s earlier still photographs Crucifixion.
Suddenly a quotation from The Gnostic Gospel of Saint Thomas appears: “Whoever knows the father and the mother, will be called the child of a whore.” The exact interpretation of this quote is in dispute. Some scholars insist that it means that since the soul is subject to the body it is “raped” by what happens to the body and is thus reduced to the level of a prostitute. One can just as easily infer that “Monika’s” spirit is martyred to the degradations visited on her body in her quest for love. Other interpretations having to do with Jesus’ being conceived by Mary’s union with a Roman Centurion or with allusions to a marriage between the Hebrew’s God the father, a sky god, to the earth goddess worshipped by rival tribes suggests yet another way the divided, compromised nature of human existence, torn between the terrestrial and the celestial, the high and low, adulterating the purity of the spirit with the squalor of the carnal – behaving like prostitutes.
After a brief cameo by Dorothy Parker (“The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.”) we are returned to Monika vamping in the same Medium Close shot as before, this time perhaps even more suggestively than in the opening sequence. The end recapitulates the beginning. Our Heroine has come full circle. The narrator asks gravely, “Were those orgasms worth all that? Love is sometimes difficult but death even more.” Who or what exactly has died? Or is it simply the pervasive anxiety of the flesh: The body, the vehicle for pleasure and experience perpetually haunted by the proximity and inevitability of death?
At the end of the credits a title card appears in large pink letters reading: “Don’t Fuck with Losers,” thus appearing to reduce the preceding to a kind of cautionary tale for restless and amorously desperate young women.
In Chernobyl of Love, we encounter yet another female victim of love gone wrong. Once again Adler herself plays the lead role as the romantic female suffering a profoundly singular “meltdown” after her male lover rejects her.
The film opens with a Close Shot of Monika’s fingers digging into a hole in the side of her dead lover’s head, apparently murdered at her hands. A male voice whispers portentously on the soundtrack, “I am death,” repeated twice over shots from two different angles of the methodically plucking fingers extracting gray matter out of the open skull, initiating the periodic irruptions of a diabolical male voice overs that punctuate key junctures in the film.
Chernobyl consists of a fairly simple counterpoint, alternating between one world and another, the indoor world containing the numbed Monika sitting with her murdered lover lying across her lap in a kind of morbid Pieta, absently gorging herself on her ex-paramour’s brain and the outdoor world in which a kind of symbolic double for Monika’s wounded soul, (played by Sasha) staggers around a constellation of derelict buildings and the primordial forest that surrounds it located near the actual site of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor – a man-made wasteland as stand-in for spiritual wasteland. As metaphorical proxy, the double enacts the protagonist’s tortured descent into emotional and spiritual hell, her pilgrimage through the stages of suffering, transfiguration and ascent. She writhes and runs, and sobs out her thwarted love, clinging to the need for connection, to fragments of memory. Monika’s naked psychic avatar’s face is concealed throughout, primarily with a piece of orange fabric, manifesting her as yet another of Adler’s naked universal bodies.
The subtitle for the film is Drink the Blood of your Sin, which, again, coupled with the compulsive brain-eating, suggests a kind of black communion. But whose sin is it, his or hers – or both? Is she drinking blood and eating flesh as penance or devouring the one who committed the sin against her – or both? We are again confronted with two opposed though simultaneously viable possibilities, the irresolvable ambiguity, that characterizes Adler’s work.
There is no need to choose which world is “real” as both worlds are just as likely to be phantasms, nightmarish projections of the protagonist’s insuperable emotional anguish, a parabola of interpenetrating metaphors for the overwhelming crisis of rejected love, both the fury and the despair of her cast off ardor manifesting in these dual allegorical projections. Both themes have their own distinct developmental arcs that reflect and amplify each other, events in one realm redounding in subtle and elusive ways in the other.
Her consumption of her lover’s body is accompanied by both music and imagery drawn from the Catholic religious tradition, thus reinforcing the motif of communion. The communion in this case has a decidedly terrestrial, corporeal and neurotic tenor, the dead lover both martyr and adversary, whom she simultaneously punishes and attempts to hang onto by incorporating him into herself so that they might never be separated.
The Double’s purgatorial ordeal follows its own distinct trajectory, moving between the despoiled industrial enclave replete with moldering accoutrements – rusted spoon, knife, containers – of a bereft domesticity becoming uncanny as it corrodes and the forbiddingly uninhabited and primeval forest that surrounds it. At all times she is intimately engaged with the earth, her suffering poured out onto the cold waste ground where she literally writhes and sobs out her pain, whether she is agonizingly chanting “I love you,” to her departed lover or running unsteadily up a lonely tree-lined road before collapsing into the dirt or most provocatively clutching a gristly animal fetus–reminiscent of the pathetic offspring in David Lynch’s Eraserhead or perhaps one of Chaim Soutine’s grotesque animal carcass paintings – which she rocks with frantic possessiveness, her ample breasts offered for succor that the lifeless carcass is incapable of accepting. A hole dug in the ground awaits this unformed body but the distraught woman is unable to let go. If not literally a lost or aborted child then this raw flesh is certainly symbolic of their lost union’s potential to come-to-fruition; now never-to-be – and nearly impossible to relinquish for this very reason. These travails are accompanied throughout by a mixture of religiously inflected music or female vocalist adult contemporary melancholia.
As Monika continues to devour her late lover’s brain a female voiceover makes overtly sexual noises, the entire structure of Monika’s cannibalistic interlude structured as one last erotic tryst, the female voice’s ejaculations escalating as Monika eats while an over-lit Close Up of her face instantiates her ascension to a state of transported vacancy. As she licks her fingers with lascivious avidity the camera Zooms in tight on her mouth; this necrophilic consumption and consummation grotesquely parodying past ecstasies.
This orgasmic repast is interrupted by a sudden scream on the soundtrack, the shock of which appears to vault us briefly back to the wasteland, where we glimpse a rosary discarded on the stair, suggesting the loss of faith, the repudiation of God, the rejection of traditional religious belief and conventional morality. We are returned immediately to Monika, seen from overhead. A guttural male voice speaks ominously on the sound track in Aramaic in a manner reminiscent of a demon-summoning incantation from some low-budget horror film. Her spirit is now allied with dark, underground forces; her descent into hell transcending the merely personal to the embrace of a cosmic antipathy. If the exalted emotional state of the romantic idyll has now plummeted to such depths of rage and abjection that Monika has aligned her spirit with hell while correspondingly her naked avatar has been cast out into the despoiled Eden of Wormwood; a formerly idyllic wood made desolate underworld. All the world’s hells are ruined paradises.
After a brief suicidal episode, the double threatening her wriest with a knife while a male voiceover urges her on, demanding a gesture of self-punishment or an admission that she can’t live without him, offering an escape from guilt and loss, Adler Pans to several large fleshy bones lying on the ground near the woman’s feet. It is hard to escape the uncanny suspicion that they are what remain of the cannibalized lover’s body. We are then surprised by the arrival of a big black dog that makes off with the bones and lies down to devour them. A demon at the service of the soul, tasked to eliminate the vestiges of trauma – the dog eats to forget, his predation cycling the present remnants of the dead lover into the past.
A series of shots in a cemetery, headstones and statues of angels, with female voice overs (“Can you keep my secret”) suggest the successful passage through the process of bereavement and mourning while at approximately the same time Monika’s consummation/consumption moving into slow motion and then halting as her face illuminated in Close Up is blanched white by meticulously deliberate over-lighting: It is an apotheosis. Tossing her head with a kind of erotic languor, she pauses to examine the tissue in her hand before carrying it to her mouth, hesitating, nearly surfeited, on the verge of regaining her senses.
Again, we enter the cemetery, zooming in on the marble memorial to a dead child, an echo of the inanimate fetus in the wasteland. The soft female voiceover recurs with the gentle exhortation: “Look into its eyes. It sees what we can’t.”
When we return to Monika she has arrived at the denouement of her cannibal tryst. Like a spent lover she pensively smokes a cigarette, voluptuous and preoccupied. The menacing male voice breaks in again disclaiming guttural Aramaic, ushering in a cacophony of demonic cries and screams: the sounds of hell. The nude double writhes on ground of in slow motion as if afflicted by the demonic choir. The conjunction of events in the two parallel realms, Monika and double, sound and image, suggest that the demons of despair are leaving her, one final irruption before fleeing back into the void. The hellish sounds end as Monika sits smoking, clouds of smoke drifting past her, obscuring her face.
The crisis has passed. Back in the wasteland the fetus is dropped into the hole and methodically covered over with earth, the past and its grief buried. After a subtle Jump Cut flowers are placed atop the grave. The Focus goes in and out on the flowers, alternating blur with resolution: Could these be the eyes of the mourning woman, intermittently overwhelmed with tears?
We are transported back to the cemetery one last time, approaching a colorful to Angel statue, its hand raised in a traditional beatific gesture. A new Female voice, sober and resolved, proclaims, “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome free will.” Church Bells Ring. Having lost control, overwhelmed with rage and despair, her consciousness fragmented, swept away by her own internal turmoil, her ability to decide in abatement, she has now, after a period of tribulation, achieved a resurrection of the spirit. It is possible to choose again, to move ahead.
To the sound of church bells Monika is now visible, present in the wilderness once occupied by her double, her back to the camera, carrying an ambiguous and suggestive bag, walking up a tree-lined highway away from Chernobyl, free again and embarking on a new life.
Adler’s next film, Purification, is short, just under five-minutes long. The description provided for the film states: Affliction, purify, virtue – Seville, December 2008. Cardinale Alessandro Zacchia II decided to purify a young Polish nun to free her from her sinful past. The specifics of this back story are not delineated in the body of the film itself, no titles or dialogue or visual shorthand spell out any of this, so left with only the evidence of the film itself one confronts a highly inscrutable and disquieting spectacle touching on these themes implicitly, the entire episode open to a wide range of potential interpretations and responses.
The photography in Purification is a stark black and white; the images startling in their simplicity, the action and settings reduced to a nearly absolute minimalism, bordering on still photography. Every scene is shot from a fixed camera position and there is no Zooming in or out, no alteration in the distance between camera and subject. The soundtrack is simple but profoundly effective, consisting of a recording of a Mass from a Croatian Cathedral. Given the situation and the religious trappings of the primary setting the use of religious music is completely congruent while at the same time given the erotic, violent and bizarre nature of the behaviors on display the use of this music is again, as it has been in other examples of Adler’s work, markedly ironic and disjunctive.
The Cardinal is a strapping, shirtless man in black pants, shown initially in an attitude of intense concentration, as if preparing for physical or spiritual trial, shoulders rounded, impressive musculature taut, resembling a brawler before a boxing match, his image reflected and repeated three times, possibly intended to suggest his role as representative of the Holy Trinity of the Patriarchal deity.
Before introducing the figure of the nun there is a brief return to the image of the skinned dog first seen in The Beauty of the Shadow, its exposed bone and gaping eyes the truth beneath the skin’s attractive surface. The nature of the nun’s past sin is revealed in pair of ambiguous images separated by a quick cut, both of them a tight two shot of the nun lying cradled in the arms of an unidentified nude woman. In the second shot her hand clutches at and her mouth is concealed behind the prominent nipple of one of the woman’s pendulous breasts, simultaneously evoking maternal solicitude or lesbian ardor.
For the second time Adler presents us with an echo of the Pieta. In Chernobyl of Love, the murdered male lay across the lap of his lover as she devoured his brain. In Purification the nun is held in the lap of another woman. This trope presents a multiplicity of connotations, lover and beloved, parent and child, assailant and victim, sadist and masochist, corporeal and spiritual, all embodied in the flesh of two people occupying a pose that refers, however obliquely, to classical art.
The Pieta is followed by a Close up the nun’s rapt, tear-streaked face, awestruck with either remorse or terror – or both – at the punishment that awaits her.
The action of the film moves to an ancient room of massive and decaying stone. There is a primitive wooden cross on the wall to one side of the Cardinal. The setting is as austere as anything in Bresson or Dreyer. The nun has her face pressed into a white wash basin held there by the strong arm of the Cardinal whose eyes are raised upward in a state of serene vacancy. After several seconds she is allowed to rise up, in extreme slow motion, hands spread, mouth agape in terror or rapture, and once upright, her wet white slip clinging to her breasts and revealing her nipples, turning toward this man who is either torturing her or delivering her – or both.
There is a cut on a quick dissolve and then they are embracing, his arms around her, hers pressed to his chest, head raised and canted upward, nestled into his neck. The height differential between the Cardinal and the nun emphasizes their inequality and elicits associations with father and daughter, the seeds of obedience, guilt, masochism and submission planted in childhood, the house of the father giving way to the house of God.
This embrace is held for several seconds before another dissolve and cut separates them, the man holding the woman’s face in his hands. He caresses her face and she moves her head toward him, her expression ambiguous. His hand slowly moves up to stroke her hair then gradually moves to the back of her head, drawing up a handful of hair as his other hand positions itself at her back and she braces herself for the resumption of her purification. He drives her head back down into the basin, her hands spreading to catch the sides of it, one hand seeming to count the seconds before surrendering and lying flat on the rim of the basin as the image fades to black. The sounds of the Mass continue throughout all of this and the closing credits.
The erotic charge of this sequence is inescapable and associations between the nun’s embrace of her tormenter carry echoes of Liliana Cavini’s controversial feature film The Night Porter, a film that Adler admires. The structure of ritual, authority and subjugation fuels the sexual frisson of the participants. The nun in Purification realizes a disturbingly erotic spiritual apotheosis in the grip of the oppressive system in which she willingly participates.
The idea of complicity between assailant and victim is disturbing and indeed for some people intolerable. Yet, as suggested by films like The Night Porter and Purification this complicity has roots that derive from deep in the culture itself, in the institutions of family and church and school, in the dynamics of authoritarianism, unquestioning obedience, brutal punishment and humiliation that was, as psychologists such as Alice Miller have demonstrated, a large part of pedagogy during much of European history. With such conditioning the horrifying events that wracked Europe were not inexplicable but inevitable.
The church with its polarized worldview dividing reality between lightness and darkness, the damned and the saved, the righteous and the just, the profane and the sacred, is a breeding ground for scapegoating, and for the assumption of roles like righteous attacker and perfidious victim. The pervasive misogyny of both the church and the wider traditional culture naturally reduce women to one of several profoundly delimiting and ultimately precarious positions within this society.
The nun’s complicity in her own subjugation, her enthrallment at the hands of the Cardinal are the manifestation of the discredited but persistent values and psychic structures of a dying order that nevertheless still contaminates our bodies and spirits.
One imagines that after the nun submissively counts out the seconds of her next submersion she will rise again in a state of enthralled terror to embrace the agent of her punishing purgation.
Come Back to the Trees may be Adler’s most elusive, evocative and effective film to date. Though still relatively minimal in means it features more dynamic cutting, camera movement and a larger cast than any of her other work. To a driving tribal beat a convocation of very nubile women dressed primarily in short white shifts perform an enigmatic and possibly lethal ritual in the solitude of a picturesque Eastern European forest. The camera Pans and tracks, veering and circling, then cutting into close ups of the women’s hands bearing small mounds of brain tissue in white muslin, carried with deliberate gravity, lifted to sensuous faces to be sniffed and tasted. The images frequently loses focus, the blurred perspective suggesting an intensity of experience that threatens to overwhelm the consciousness or possibly the presence of hallucinogenic aids to exaltation warping the unseen witnesses’ organs of perception.
The film begins with shot of a calla lily, a popular funeral flower in the region, on the ground next to what appears to be an outstretched male hand accompanied by the screeches of chimpanzees on the soundtrack, echoes of the primordial and atavistic.
After a brief credit sequence where the rhythmic percussive soundtrack is introduced we cut to the bleary image of a blonde woman (Milena Walczak), referred to as The Messenger in the closing credits, moving through the trees before quickly proceeding to close up of her what turns out to be her sacred offering, the handful of brains in white cloth. She advances through the forest in a state of weird transport, her offering shown several times from slightly different angles. There is a split-second glimpse of a troupe of women advancing toward her through the trees. They are identified in the credits as the Chamankas (Shamans) and are hastening to take up their positions for the uncanny ritual to follow. She stops to sniff and sample the offering. She is shown head tilted back, the residue of this appalling substance smeared about her face.
Vertiginous shots of blurred trees and a funereal obelisk alternate with the blonde continuing her rapt indulgence before shifting to the cadre of Chamankas which is headed by a brunette wearing black pants and a simple white brassiere with a mask of black cosmetics around her eyes, This “High Priestess” is identified as the She-Wolf, and is played by Adler herself.
The She Wolf advances in slow motion, rapid Close Ups of her and The Messenger punctuating the approach. The Messenger, eyes masked now in black like the priestess, approaches the She Wolf in a submissive crouch, the handful of brains proffered before her. Receiving the offering the She Wolf lowers her face to smell them as The Messenger had previously.
The brains are shared out among the Chamankas who consume their portions with relish before proceeding to entranced and ecstatic movements in time to the pounding of drums. The women, at times arrayed in formations, are with their minimal costumes and alluring appearance, reminiscent of a cross between the better instances of 1970’s erotic Euro-horror (Jean Rollin for example) and one of Vanessa Beecroft’s installation pieces.
The whirling glimpse of the trees once again serves as a transition to the next section preceding a Fade to Black that is followed rapidly by a shot of the discarded calla lily on the ground, the figures of the women barely visible in the distance. In hypnotic slow motion the women, specifically The Messenger, advance, their movement suddenly interrupted by a cut to an interior and to a raised gloved knife-wielding hand plunging down, then quickly cutting again to the bloodied arm of the apparent victim apparently lying prone on the floor and finally cutting back to a shot of the gloved hand gripping a bloodstained knife at her side. From this condensed, oblique flashback one can only infer that this is a how the offering was obtained.
Back in the woods the She Wolf once again sniffs the brains. She then leads the cadre of women back to the flower lying in the foreground. The She Wolf’s action of bending to pick up the flower is shown from several angles, as a howling high-pitched woodwind is erupts on the soundtrack. Accompanied by pagan flutes the Chamankas advance with the flower projected toward the camera fully in focus while the women remain indistinct, a nebulous mass, animated with a mysterious purpose. The She Wolf, in Medium Shot Profile, leads them, the flower held out before her like an erect parody of a phallus. The use of the calla lily, a flower associated with funerals in Poland, suggests the death and burial of one thing and birth of something new.
The final shot is blurred image of the cadre of women slowly walking away from the camera. The title is repeated and the end credits role. Come Back to the Trees is an invitation or exhortation to return to the wilderness and join this cabal of women in taking up again the sacrificial ceremonies of some secret primeval cult practicing their faith in grave and exhilarating opposition to the dominant culture beyond the forest.
The repetition of brains and their consumption by the female cultists appears to take the desperate, vengeful and incorporative despair of Monika in Chernobyl of Love to the level of fully conscious albeit symbolic act. The appropriation of the sacrificial male’s brains along with the flower held aloft like a phallus suggests the absorption of his essence – his power.
One imagines that when a sufficient number of sacrifices have been enacted and when enough power has been absorbed the adherents of this clandestine religion will be ready to assail the civilization beyond the trees. In every area: tone, rhythm, cutting, movement, framing, the ease with which its tantalizing suggestiveness is achieved, Come Back to the Trees is Adler’s most impressive film to date.
In Mutability, Adler’s most recent film features Adler as an alluring corpse laid out on an autopsy table while her obsessed former analyst carries out an illicit autopsy on her, attempting desperately to nail down the essence of the woman that eluded him in life, a riddle he was unable to solve, a body he can only possess by eviscerating it.
The film begins with a text relating that Monika “suffered from a complex, delusional disorder which manifested itself in the forging of numerous online identities and histories. Her demise is signaled during the brief opening credit sequence with the sound a heart monitor pulsing, accelerating and then flat-lining.
Mutability Intercuts repeated Close Ups of the expressionless Monika with shots of Doctor Adler, walking distractedly about the precincts of the Greenwich Observatory ruminative and haunted as his voice on the soundtrack recites a grim elegy, and a third element comprised of periodic sequences of scientific footage of microscopic blood cells – followed later by slides of other types of tissue, cascading and careening under the camera’s gaze. All of this is accompanied by the tolling of a death knell that will continue to sound throughout the film. The film’s very minimal array of images is counterpointed in a kind of minor fugue.
The name of the filmmaker is simultaneously the source of both lead “characters” names: Monika, the inscrutable deceased former patient and Karl Adler (K. Adler), the psychiatrist, portrayed by Aeon Rose, (longtime partner of the director), both physically and in voiceover, performing a text that he composed for the film.
In her biography the filmmaker Monika K. Adler relates that her grandmother was a holocaust survivor and a pioneering psychiatrist of women. In Mutability this grandmother appears to have been transposed to the figure of the contemporary male scientist whose desire to understand outstrips any real insight he might have.
Doctor Adler committed his assault on Monika’s corpse because, as the opening text relates, her death evoked in him, “a deep existential crisis,” compelling him to mediate “on the boundaries between life and death, attempting to deny spirituality by glorifying biology in its animal form – in this, his own delusion, his considers his patient ‘dead but still alive’ and decides to give her something which she can take with her to the afterlife…” The frustrated male doctor constructs a bizarre mythology of biological processes continuing after death, concocting a purely imaginary and still purely materialistic afterlife in which the lost woman can be controlled and defined. This biological hell that Doctor Adler declaims is rife with his own projected emotions: Angst, bitterness, loss and thwarted desire. The opening text composed by the filmmaker presents a dialectical negation of the text recited by Aeon Rose as Doctor Adler.
This is the first film in which Adler has given both the subjective position and voice to a male character. However, by immediately setting the terms and creating the context in which that voice is understood with the text that precedes the body of the film.
In this film Monika is silent, represented with concentrated minimalism, only by a series of Close Ups of her immobile “dead” face, caressed again and again by the doctor’s gloved hand. She is not the point-of-view, she is not the desiring subject and it is telling that as object of desire she presents herself as a cadaver. Is it possible that to be defined by a man or possessed by a man is tantamount to death? All of the anxiety about the vulnerability of the body, about death, and about the ever present danger of male aggression and depredation is concentrated in this image of Monika as inexpressive corpse. Does this imply that she has taken the only escape route from male systems of instrumental reason, materialism, power and control available to her? Is she a suicide?
Having already amassed an impressive array of images, both moving and still, Adler is currently attempting to mount her first feature film, pursuing the opportunity to further develop and amplify her explorations of trauma, history, gender, dread and mystery. Her challenge will be to maintain the ambiguity and suggestiveness, the provocation and originality, the complexity and rigor combined with the frankly erotic aura surrounding the aesthetic of her short films and photography into the realm of narrative features with its demands for exposition and comprehensibility. The success of this venture could signal the arrival of a major new talent in the world of International cinema.
Monika K. Adler