Asif Kapadia’s Film Of ‘Woyzeck’ Ballet Breathes New Life Into A Fiery Play [LFF]

Jan 11, 2023

When it first ran as an English National Ballet production in 2021, “Creature” received some fairly damning reviews from the UK theater critics. It was branded pitilessly inaccessible, muddled in its execution, and irredeemably gloomy in its outlook. A year later, and this invective could hardly be said to apply to Asif Kapadia’s new film adaption, whose shorter but otherwise faithful reproduction of its predecessor’s set design, choreography and poetic flourishes makes you wonder where—and by how much—those previous critics missed the mark.
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Those behind “Creature” have claimed that it’s inspired by both Georg Büchner’s play “Woyzeck” and Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” as well as various political folklore, including the US/Soviet space race. In reality, however, it is only the foremost of these that is consistently applicative. Büchner’s play—which was unfinished when he died suddenly of typhus in 1837, aged only twenty-three—has undergone countless adaptations and rearrangements in its long, illustrious history, and has received half a dozen or so endings, all of which swear to their Büchnerian authenticity. (The most famous of these was the soulless 1979 adaptation by Werner Herzog, which featured an even-more-volatile-than-usual Klaus Kinski in the title role.)
The play follows Woyzeck, a lowly and obedient soldier, who spends his time running errands in town and keeping up with his peas-only diet—and growing madder every day because of it—all at the behest of his cruel, experimenting doctor. To make matters worse, his wife, Marie, who has been ostracized by the church for bastardy, rejects his advances and falls into the arms of the village Drum Major. Towards the nadir of his mania and emotional distress, Woyzeck resolves to murder Marie, and thus put an end to both his love and his misery, foretelling the refrain of Wilde’s “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.”
Apart from a change of setting—provincial German cobbles to bracing Arctic weather station—there is an almost direct nominal translation between Büchner’s play and “Creature.” The doctor is played by the stern, straight-backed Stina Quagebeur; the predatorial Major by a towering, Prussian blue-uniformed Fabian Reimair; the captain, whom the original Woyzeck grooms and does odd jobs for, by a much more sympathetic, almost priestly Ken Saruhashi; and Marie, Woyzeck’s petite and pitiable love, by the ENB’s Lead Principal dancer Erina Takahashi, whose taciturnity constantly trembles on the verge of angelic grace. But Woyzeck himself does not exist. In what is the first of many deft alterations made by ballet director and choreographer Akram Khan, Büchner’s proletarian Werther is dehumanized and othered, reduced in rank and appearance—the latter thanks to Jeffrey Cirio’s strange vermicular movements—to the innominate, defenseless Creature.
Kapadia’s direction here is restrained and unobtrusive. There are occasional handheld camera shots, but most of the corps de ballet dances, for example, are (rightly) seen from a wide, slightly elevated front-row-seat perspective, so as to display the full extent of the barren set and thus preserve the illusion of Creature’s mental imprisonment. (A less competent director would surely have yielded to the urge to use every conceivable angle and effect afforded them by the new medium.) That’s not to say the direction is flawless, however. Where Kapadia falls short is in his over-indulgence in the film’s weaker themes, the most incoherent of which are the ballet’s non-explanations for the cause of Woyzeck’s (or Creature’s) madness and the rationale behind the Major’s blandishments to Marie. Creature seems to be the subject of some hyperborean human experimentation, since he is repeatedly thrown out into the cold, only to be hauled back in a few minutes later, half-dead, and looking like Jack Nicholson at the end of “The Shining.” During these experiments, Kapadia cuts to Creature struggling through the blizzard for no other reason, it seems, than that there’s nothing interesting happening indoors. Equally superfluous is the intercutting of the Apollo 11 take-off footage with the Major’s promises to Marie about leaving Earth and starting life afresh. The characters seem to think that these gestures are miscible, but what need is there for experimentation on a planet soon to be abandoned?
Without having seen the original ballet, it’s impossible to say what exactly was cut to condense the production from 2 hours to 80 minutes; but whatever it was, it seems to have brought a cogency to the story that wasn’t originally there (a story Stefan Kyriazis of the Express dubbed “so opaque you need the liner notes to make sense of it”). Apart from a few murky plot points, this film can easily be appreciated and understood without recourse to any supplementary materials. That being said, some of the ballet’s most beautiful passages achieve their transcendence through our knowing precisely where and how “Woyzeck” has been revised. The ending, for example, unlike Herzog’s gratuitous and unimaginative splatter-fest, turns the knife inward, to the soul, to excise the root of Marie and Creature’s ill-fated love. They dance a ghostly pas de deux, and the shimmer of the lights and the dark of the room reveal that each is the central object of the other’s madness, and that, as Lacan first epigrammed, they love because they give each other what they do not have—in this case, their shyness, loneliness, and frailty—and that this exchange is classically tragic because their love is inseparable from that madness.
Except, perhaps, for Creature’s friend Andres, who is a non-entity, and the Major, who makes a rather dull entrance and then spends his time pestering Marie with the same lascivious star-gazing and shoulder-touching, every performer here is uniquely expressive in their mannerisms. Quagebeur’s posture, tight-jawedness and cutting gaze, for example, warn of an unforgiving, sadistic disciplinarian, as do the sound effects Vincenzo Lamagna (who also contributed the film’s multiply droning synths) adds to her snipping fingers. More complicated is Takashi’s Marie. It’s true that she spends most of the film mopping the stage (as Guardian critic Sarah Compton bemoaned of the original ballet), and this would normally be inexcusable were it not for Marie’s visible dissatisfaction with her job, the sadness in her eyes and the turning of her lips, and then, to contrast, her sudden—and mesmerizing—terpsichorean outbursts when the drama comes to a head. And then there is Cirio—writhing, snapping, convulsing to each drum beat and buzz of radio static. He scurries about on all fours, his eyes amazed and receptive, his mouth frozen in a hideous rictus; and not once do you think him capable of anything other than a rabid howl.
Adapting plays to film is often fatal. The image takes precedence over the word, and this frequently robs the characters of that necessary, verbal inner space. But in “Creature” the transition has been natural and effective. Perhaps because the grounding of the drama in ballet means no loss, only transformation, from the verbal to the non-verbal, so that everything runs more like a silent poem than an abridged play. Add to that writers and choreographers capable of expanding on the swirling psychology of “Woyzeck,” and you have yourself something that burns, not with the crazed, virile sun of Büchner’s original, but with the pale fire of the moon. [B+]

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