P.O.V. No.13 - On other short films

On Wind: a question of ethics[1]

Antti Pönni

Marcell Iványi's film Wind (Hungary, 1996) begins with an image of three women standing and looking at something off-screen left. Instead of showing what the women see, the camera starts to pan right. It gradually shows a flat, rural landscape (Hungarian puszta?) with birds flying over the fields (van Gogh's crows come to mind), a couple of houses, men pulling a small carriage, a lonely tree. Finally, as the camera begins to approach its original position, a disturbing scene is revealed: men with their heads covered by sacs are hanging from wooden posts. As the camera moves on, still another man is seen who is being prepared for hanging. His head is covered and the hangman kicks the stool out from under the feet of the victim. As the hanged man dies the camera keeps on moving until it reaches its original position, showing again the three women. The women turn and walk towards the house in the background. The image fades to white and is replaced by another image. A photograph by Lucien Hervé, The Three Women (Audincourt, France, 1951) fills the screen; it was the inspiration for this film.

This description is no doubt "true" in the sense that it tells what "happens" in the film, and perhaps even gives an idea of what the film is "about." It is, however, insufficient because it doesn't really capture the disturbing and powerful emotional effect of the film. This effect lasts long after the film has ended and, indeed, in my view actually reaches its full force only after the film has ended.

How does one grasp this emotional effect? I would like to argue that the film could be described as taking the form of a question, or more precisely: the form of a movement from one question to another. The film has a special kind of temporality that gradually moves one from seeing to feeling. Or, to put it in another way, the film moves from a dimension of factual knowledge and understanding to an ethical dimension – in the special sense that the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas has given to the term.

The first question
As the film begins, three old women are seen standing in a row outside a house. They all look intensely to the left. As the women keep on staring to the left, the camera slowly starts a panning movement to the right. Let us stop here for a moment.

The first image contains a very common cinematic figure: the gaze of a character (or in this case, the gaze of three characters) functions as a cue of an off-screen space. This cue might be described as a kind of question: "What do the women see?" The "answer" to that question would be a camera movement or a cut that would show the space they are looking at. At this point the image is a "question" only in a kind of casual "let's-wait-and-see" manner. There is perhaps mild curiosity about "what happens next" and about who these women are and what this film is about.

However, instead of moving to the left and showing what the women see, the camera starts panning in the opposite direction. As the camera begins its movement it becomes evident that no immediate answer to the expectation created by the characters' look will be given. At this moment, I would like to argue, a true "question" emerges.

What is the difference between these two "questions"? It is not that of content. What is being asked is the same thing: "What are these women looking at? What do they see?" The difference between the two kinds of questions is rather a difference of intensity, a difference of significance. As it becomes clear that no immediate answer will be given, the initial question comes to the foreground. An almost unnoticed expectation or curiosity about the next image now becomes a highly conscious, even burning, question: What are these women looking at? It becomes evident that the gaze of the women is no longer a mere cue that only links one image or one space to another, but rather a key (or perhaps even the key) that will give direction to the entire viewing of the film. The answer to the question created by the gaze of the women now emerges as the main issue of the film; it no longer merely "poses" a question, but, in a manner of speaking, becomes itself a question.

The movement
After the initial image the camera moves to the right. The movement is slow but steady.

Slow: it does not "answer" the question – show the unseen space – immediately. The movement of the camera is delaying movement; it works (or literally moves) against the impatience of the spectator. While the movement may be slow as such, its slowness is also due to the delay it creates.

Steady: while the movement delays the answer, it also promises it. The camera keeps on panning to the right without interruptions, without major changes of pace, and especially without change of direction. The movement slows down a bit, then speeds up again, but it never turns back. It becomes clear that eventually the camera will reach the point where the women are looking. Eventually the question will be answered.

What the camera shows as it pans to the right might be described as a series of tableaus or still photographs rather than moving images. There is movement, to be sure – birds flying over the field, men walking across the frame pulling a small carriage – but in general the movement within the frame is kept to a minimum. Also, the movement within the frame (at this point of the film) is not "action"; it doesn't make things happen and it is more like part of the scenery. Or it is as if a movement had been added to a still photograph. The wind that makes people's clothes move slightly while they themselves are standing still is at times the only indicator of the fact that we are watching a moving image rather than a still photograph. The main movement remains that of the camera.

This disparity between the steady movement of the camera and the virtual absence of movement within the frame gives the film a peculiar kind of temporality. On the one hand, there is the world of the film, which seems to be at a standstill. On the other hand, there is the movement that lets that world be seen, the movement of the camera. There is a world where time seems to have stopped. And there is the movement of a gaze, which is also the gaze of the impatient spectator, who is waiting for the moment of the answer, the moment of seeing. In a sense, the time of the film is not running on the screen but in the spectator's mind. It is the time of waiting, the time of a question about to be answered.

The answer...
Finally the camera reaches the scene toward which the women are looking. The scene is revealed only gradually. First, a group of people is seen looking to the right. In the background a man-like figure is seen hanging from a post. A scarecrow? Or a hanged man? As the camera moves forward more hanging figures are seen, and the latter guess is confirmed. Several men, dead, are hanging from wooden posts. People stand still, watching. Then a final post is seen. A man still alive, standing on a bench, is tied to it. Another man covers his head and the bench is kicked away. As the camera keeps moving to the right, the man's body shakes spasmodically as he dies. The camera leaves the dying man and again shows an empty landscape. The barking of dogs is heard. Finally the camera reaches its original position, showing again the three women. A song is heard with the words "open your eyes." The women turn and walk towards the house in the background.

Thus, the point toward which the women were looking in the beginning of the film is finally reached and the initial question is answered: the women were looking at a group of men being hanged (which is the only "action" that is seen in the film). But, in more ways than one, this answer is not satisfactory. The factual question – what the women were looking at – is answered. But the scene that is seen creates new questions that are much more disturbing than the original one. Not only is the hanging scene as such disturbing, but also the fact that after expectations have been built through the delay, it is shown in a seemingly very indifferent manner, and the reasons for the hanging are left unexplained. Who are these people? Why are they doing what they are doing? No clear answer to these questions is given.

The fact that the scene is presented to the viewer only after a delay gives it a kind of weight it would not otherwise have. The hanging would no doubt be a disturbing scene had there been, say, a direct cut from the three watching women to the hanging scene or had it been shown right from the start. The delay created by the camera movement, however, intensifies the viewing process by creating an expectation that underlines the significance of the scene.

But that is not all. The question that has been "asked" by the film so far has been a factual or a cognitive question, a question related to understanding and knowledge. The initial question ("What do the women see?") has led to other related questions like "What is this place?" and "What will happen next?" But the questions the hanging scene raises are questions of a different type. They are questions about the motives and identity of the people seen. "Who are these people?", "Who are the hangmen and who are the victims?", "Why are they doing what they are doing?" Unlike the factual "what" questions, these new questions – they might be called "why" questions – remain unanswered. All we get to know is that people who seem to be peasants are hanging other people who also seem to be peasants. Why they are doing this is not told. There are no clues, no emotional reactions that show how to relate to this horrific scene. Only a matter-of-fact process of hanging that takes place in silence.

The shocking scene doesn't halt the camera. As the hanging goes on, the camera keeps on moving, indifferently, until it reaches its original position. This kind of detached approach doesn't, however, create an indifferent relation to what is happening. On the contrary, the emotional power of the scene only increases because it is not emphasized but only seen (literally) in passing.

...becomes an enigma
What happens in the film is thus a movement from a question of factual understanding to a question that has no answer, to an open-ended question. At the end of the film we have the answer to our original question; we "know." But at the same time we do not really know anything. Our understanding has encountered a limit, a question that cannot be answered, an enigma that cannot be solved.

Is there really no answer? Couldn't we, in principle at least, find some kind of reason that would motivate what we have just seen, say, in psychological or political terms? Perhaps, but I believe that by refusing to give these kinds of "answers" the film points out that in the end they would all be insufficient. We cannot fully deal with the enigma of the hanging scene in terms of knowledge and understanding. By refusing all answers, keeping alive the question, the enigma, the film brings forth another dimension, a deeper dimension that could be called ethical.

The word "ethical" in this context refers to the special way the term has been used by the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. The key moment in the thinking of Levinas is the encounter with another person, the Other (autrui). The Other as truly other cannot ultimately be understood or appropriated. It is true that we can name or define the people we see in Wind as "men" or "women" or "peasants" or "the hangmen" or "the bystanders" or "the victims." But with these terms we cannot ultimately grasp who these people are. There is always something that escapes our ability to understand and to appropriate, to explain. According to Levinas, it is precisely this aspect in the Other that opens the ethical dimension.

Levinas calls the Other as other the Face. The Face, he says, speaks an ethical demand that can be expressed with the biblical formula "Thou shalt not kill." In terms of knowledge and understanding (or, as Levinas prefers to say, in ontological terms) the Other can indeed be defined as such and such, and even killed. But not ethically. Even if the Other was destroyed, annihilated, the ethical demand would remain, keeping the mind troubled. When speaking of the ethical relation with the Other, Levinas uses terms like "infinity", "enigma" or "obsession". It seems to me that these terms also describe quite well the disturbing effect created by Wind.

The film's "indifference" towards the hanging, its refusal to give any psychological or political explanation to what is happening, creates precisely that kind of disturbing effect that Levinas sees in the ethical relation. The killing is laid bare as nothing else but killing pure and simple. The people are seen not as representatives of some political movement that might in some way legitimize or explain what they are doing. They are simply people killing and being killed. Who they are and what their motives are remains an open question, an enigma. The question of the film, instead of dying when the "answer" is reached, is revived and stays alive long after the film has ended. Like the Face that speaks the words "Thou shalt not kill," Wind leaves us obsessed with the question without an answer, the enigma of the Other.

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1 Editor's note on Wind

In p.o.v. number 5 (March 1998), the reader will find the following material:


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