FestBeat: A rare chance to see The Magic Mountain on the big screen

We’re nearing the end of the Panorama. It’s getting quieter, with fewer people appearing even for the evening and night screenings. I am sure though that today’s (Friday’s) 3:45 pm screening of Good Night Sarajevo (Edu Marin and Olivier Algora, 2014) at Cinema Karim will be well attended and, of course, Amy (Asif Kapadia, 2015), which is playing only once at 6:45 pm at Zawya. So head early to the box office if you still need tickets.

Yesterday I watched the second installment of Romanian director and animator Anca Damian’s “tales of heroism” trilogy. The Magic Mountain (2015) is a mixed-media animation telling the story of Adam Jacek Winkler, a Pole who fled to Paris in the 1960s, and in the late 1970s fought alongside the Afghan mujahideen after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

I really recommend it. It’s one of those films that will never have a wide commercial release anywhere, so the Panorama may be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see it in a cinema with sound at full blast. If you can, catch the screening today at 1 pm at Cinema Karim.

Winkler was a real person, and the film is based on his artworks and journals. It starts with his voice, played hauntingly in the French-language version by Christophe Miossec, as he tells his daughter about his past at the very end of his life. In the film, Winkler’s exile from Poland is driven by a hatred of communism and the Red Army, whose soldiers killed his family. An anarchist, he works as a painter on the French black market, gets paid only in cash and pays his taxes on the streets directly to those who need them. He participates in the events of May 1968 in Paris, throws stones and demands a better government. He goes to Vietnam and Congo to help out, but quickly leaves because he can’t do much. He wants to change the world, he tells Anna. He’s a rare breed of romantic individualist with strong beliefs one can only marvel at. He’s an artist, a mountain climber, a fighter and a free spirit.

The film gains a real focus when Winkler leaves for Afghanistan to fight. As the proverb goes, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. So he learns a bit of Farsi, joins a sect of the mujahideen and fights the Soviets. He starts going by the name Adam Khan and makes friends with Massoud, a mujahid philosopher who speaks with great intelligence and eloquence.

The Magic Mountain tells the story in retrospect, but we start in the mountains and end in the mountains. The mountains that open the film are made from watercolor paper, and the camera moves through them. The mountains that end it are drawings animated through stop motion. Throughout, Damian shows great technical versatility, using drawing, clay, collage and other animation techniques.

Also noteworthy is the film’s score. Composed by Alexander Bălănescu, a Romanian composer and violinist working in London, it really brings the film together for me, giving it a forward momentum. The Magic Mountain wouldn’t have worked as well without it.

The film’s autobiographical aspect allows it to easily navigate its way from fact to fiction, and I didn’t really care whether everything said was true or not. The film is not governed by the expectations that come with either a documentary or an animated film. It creates a structure all of its own which, if governed by certain expectations, has its own internal logic, which gives birth to such expectations in the first place.

The film ends with a short scene showing the real Adam Winkler explaining to the filmmakers how he wants a particular sequence to look like. We see his actual face and hear his voice, speaking in Polish. It’s assumed that this happens before his death, which the film has already referred to, but does it really matter? Having him die in the mountains seems a powerful way to end the story. A character like Winkler is supposed to die high up in the mountains.

The Panorama of the European Film screens through December 5. See the full program here, our brief guide here, and all our film festival blog entries here.