(A new feature where I review films in my queues on the major streaming platforms.)
At the beginning of the film, the director starts with the very definition of the titular word, followed by flashes of all the esteemed men and women the film will go on quoting for the next hour and a half. Julian Rosefeldt’s idea uses other texts rather than make a remark of his own. A manifesto is a literature, not cinema. Cinema as an art form does not sermonize, but develops a visual perspective via story or character or both. Rosefeldt takes preexisting manifestos and attempts to paint over them. While the results offer a new context to the works of others, it itself doesn’t seem to care to provide extra substance.
Perhaps a key scene illustrating Julian’s thesis is near the end of the picture; a scene where a schoolteacher lectures her young students, encouraging them to steal or borrow from others as they draw in class. It’s a novel approach to tout film theory directly at the audience. It’s not so much of a contextual stretch to then have a teacher teach film theory of Werner Herzog or Jim Jarmusch.
Another cornerstone of this essay of a film could be in the segment before this, with two Cate Blanchetts in the context of a news report. The discourse quotes several passages regarding conceptual arts. As it ends, the rain that is pouring over the reporter on location stops, and the camera witnesses a spraying machine turning off. How conceptual.
Or there’s the one showing a homeless man with a loudspeaker on top of a deserted building, postulating against capitalism. Each segment, or channel, pronounces, or regurgitates, eloquent philosophies directly to the audience. However, if the viewer, like me, is not as well versed in Bruno Taut’s architectural theories or the Cubism musings of Naum Gabo, then how can I react to the endless soliloquies without the original context? Homework should not be required for art. A text, or a picture, or a film, should stand on its own without meta-textual commentary. That said, upon further review and research, the mysteries of the film begin to open up. Second and third viewings, and reading original texts, made for a better experience, but the result remained the same. The glorified reading of the texts is not as obnoxious as a Terrence Malick voice-over against tall trees or running water. Rosefeldt elevates the imagery contrasting the voice-overs and monologues, but fails to find anything substantial.
The film doesn’t defend its existence in a visual medium. It is riddled with examples of combining older philosophy with contemporary visuals, yet the significance of the images is unclear. It’s unclear what the purpose of the architecture is. Is Rosefeldt promoting the manifestos in a modern world or offering a space for a discourse with his audience? Does he attest to the wisdom of others or does he hope to change the conversation by adding his own subliminal opinions; or does he present hypocritical world views that contradict one another? What’s the point?
The reason it’s unclear is its contradictory nature. It’s fascinating to look at and watch it again; there are no answers even though it wants to present truth. It feels underdeveloped because it doesn’t take a stand on anything… Or maybe it does. Maybe it doesn’t want to explain itself at the same time as hoping it’s explaining itself. Maybe my lukewarm feeling regarding the film, like Dadaism, is the point! As the manifesto of Tristan Tzara states:
“I’m writing this manifesto to show that you can perform contrary actions at the same time, in one single, fresh breath; I am against action; as for continual contradiction, and affirmation too, I am neither for nor against them, and I won’t explain myself because I hate common sense.”
On a technical level, the photography of the production design is a spectacle to watch, even if there isn’t much else TO watch; except for Cate Blanchett’s performance, of course. Borrowing a term coined by Evan Rachel Wood, the film is like the Acting Olympics. As the production design morphs from intimidating to luxurious to manic, so does Blanchett’s body. Her eyes contort and burst from their sockets; her body language is fluid or rigid when necessary; her voice ranges from baritone to soprano flawlessly. But beyond the gymnastics her and the art teams jump through, the film never stretches past what is essentially a heightened performance art like something off the street in a gallery or stage production.
Julian Rosefeldt manages in an hour and a half to play with other people’s dynamic work, but in the editing of his final product he stumbles to show anything profound. In the same school teacher scene, a quotation from Jean-Luc Goddard is used: the conclusion of Rosefeldt’s essay. “It’s not where you take things from ─ it’s where you take things to.” The final destination of these manifestos is an empty weigh station. He succeeded at taking my curiosity to read the original texts, but failed at taking me on a compelling journey. What’s worse, Manifesto doesn’t illuminate truth, which I know is something Rosefeldt had to have hoped to have done based on the collections he chose to have Blanchett perform. So does that mean I don’t understand him properly? Who am I to criticize?
(You can watch Manifesto on Amazon Prime Video right now.)