SXSW FILM 2010
By Don Simpson | March 10, 2010
Director: Karel Žalud
Writer: Karel Žalud
The Phantom of Liberty (Le fantôme de la liberté) was a surrealist masterpiece directed by Luis Bunuel, released in 1974. Phantom of Liberty II – directed by Karel Žalud – is only related to Bunuel’s film in name and its surrealist kinship. Otherwise, the two films are completely different – for one, Phantom of Liberty II is a documentary of sorts.
It begins with a lightening storm. The camera finds its way to a cross which is burning over a tombstone. The tombstone has the inscription “You who are lost, keep you spirits up for hope is near.” From a close-up of the burning cross, we are transported to a close-up of a cremation furnace. Once we zoom out, we are inside a crematorium. We are the camera as we wander around the space. It seems a man is conducting an interview, and that man might be part of our filmmaking team. We (meaning the camera) wander outside, where we discover an undertaker delivering two coffins to the crematorium. We (meaning the camera) hop into the undertaker’s van and we drive away. The undertaker is having a discussion with us, and before we know it the undertaker has circled his van back around again and the preceding events occur once again.
(Hold on. What the hell is going on?! Well, maybe the film’s official synopsis will make some sense of it all: “In the so-called global age, man is caught in the trap of time he has set for himself and then got stuck in it along with his freedom.” Okay, I guess that helps…)
This time when the undertaker drives away (after delivering the same two coffins he delivered just moments ago), we (meaning the camera) stay behind. It seems the undertaker’s van was not the appropriate vehicle to take us from this place. So we (meaning the camera) walk to the highway, where we (meaning the camera) are catapulted into a passing police car, then to a car traveling the opposite direction, then we (meaning the camera) follow alongside a scooter. Soon we (meaning the camera) are on a train. Maybe this is where we (meaning the camera) are meant to be? This train seems to hold significance. We (meaning the camera) arrive at a train station, again this seems significant. We (meaning the camera) are supposed to be here. While at the train station, time jumps. It was winter, now it appears to be spring. Train tracks are overgrown and rusty… Is this the future? Or were we in the past and this now is the present?
To hold most of this story together, a question about a clock hand falling five years ago in a town center keeps coming up. No one seems to know about the history of that event. It seems that may be the event that we are trying to reach an understanding of.
One of the bases of surrealism is the use of free association or dream logic. Stories seem to wander, seemingly aimlessly, that may have some underlying meaning – perhaps in the subconscious mind. Connections – as in the ones that propel us from scene to scene in Phantom of Liberty II – are there, somewhere. Sometimes they make sense to the conscious self, other times the connections seem strangely unrelated.
One thing Phantom of Liberty II handles well is the camera and perspective. We are not limited to the hand-held POV angle; sometimes there are establishing exterior shots that provide us with place, purpose and sometimes even a sense of time. It is nice not to be trapped in our 1st person tunnel vision for the entire film and we have the opportunity to see ourselves from the outside.
Calling Phantom of Liberty II a documentary raises a lot of questions, as this seems to be a highly coordinated effort that would have required a lot of staging. At this point I could go on to discuss my opinions of what is “real” …but I’ll refrain for the sake of time and space. In the end, I think that is up to the individual viewer to make their own decision. (More specifically, each viewer probably has their own perspective on how the terms “documentary” and “reality” relate to each other?)
Nonetheless, Phantom of Liberty II reveals to us how various people perceive time as well as history. We have the opportunity to spend a slice of time with different types of people – and thanks to indiscriminate time loops we sometimes get to spend the same exact slice of time with multiple people in different places.
Running just shy of 60 minutes in length, Phantom of Liberty II will more than likely cause your head to spin for at least three more hours as you try to wrap your head around its meaning and purpose. I, for one, enjoy: thinking about the perception (and use) of time; contemplating perspective, opinion and reality; surrealist art (film, literature, painting, theater, etc.). So, in many ways, Phantom of Liberty II is right up my proverbial alley.