Reviews Short Documentary

The Angel of History (2019) – 4 stars

Director: Eric Esser

Writers: Eric Esser & Evelyn Rack

Running time: 11mins

The UK’s membership of the European Union was always an issue too complex for a simple ‘yes or no’ question. While first and foremost it remains a neo-liberal project with all the economic and political trappings that brings, it does also afford citizens in its member states a number of privileges, including free movement for work and leisure across its borders. It was for that reason I voted remain in 2016 – it’s not something I want a medal for though; the EU is far from inclusive when it comes to helping people in need beyond its increasingly militarised borders.

Indeed, the resolutely blind eye which liberal Europhiles turned to the matter of the refugee crisis is exemplary of why remainers failed so miserably to gain traction following their referendum defeat – even after three years of utter chaos saw the delivery of Brexit delayed on multiple occasions. The benign entity that many of these people painted the EU as (“Its founding goal is to promote peace via trade relations” etc.) has become utterly divorced from the daily reality of the institution.

Over the last decade, the EU has gleefully gutted the welfare states of members like Greece and Ireland to line the pockets of private interest – pushing many within its borders beyond breaking point. Meanwhile, particularly along its Mediterranean perimeter, the EU it has refused safe passage to those fleeing the poverty, climate crises and wars Europe’s economic and foreign policies have had a hand in creating. While there were other factors at play, refusing to own up to that legacy while claiming the EU project has resulted only in peace and freedom made those calling for Brexit to be cancelled to seem inherently untrustworthy (in cases like Tony Blair or John Major, this was true).

This is the critical contradiction that Eric Esser and credited ‘Co-Author’ Evelyn Rack so bravely grapple with in the commendable short film The Angel of History. This thought-provoking video essay takes us on the misty-eyed myths of fervent Europhiles, striking a perfect balance between recognising the progress that has been made in Europe since the EU’s inception, and its repetition of the same old mistakes on a continental basis.

As Esser and co. take us on an impressionistic guided meditation through the now-defunct border towns of France and Spain, it is hard not to read the English subtitles in the Bavarian lilt of Werner Herzog. Not wanting to tar all German filmmakers with the same brush however (especially as Esser is from Berlin), this comparison is not merely borne from my typically tone-deaf English ear; rather it is prompted largely by the film’s unconventional, dream-like approach to ‘documentary’.

For one thing, Esser does not seem especially concerned with building a film from talking heads. While many filmmakers feel this is a more authentic or organic way of presenting ‘truth’ on camera, the editing process means it can be manipulated as easily as something entirely scripted – so arguably it’s just as constructed as if you write and read an essay anyway. Instead, The Angel of History sees the Director construct his own narrative more overtly, referencing 1920s Weimar art, and building upon the eclectic philosophy of Walter Benjamin to craft an intellectually hefty yet stylised central argument.

Complimenting this a great deal, the film’s thesis is delivered over a series of moving postcards. This simple yet effective framing mechanism sees the camera focused on one lengthy shot of a deserted locale, with which an old photograph of the border communities in Spain and France is then aligned.

This not only allows for some eye-catching cinematography – for which Michael Zimmer deserves a great deal of credit – but it helps encapsulate the overarching message of the film; the more things change, the more they seem to stay the same – much to the despair of history’s observers. At the same time, it brings a welcome change in pace to catch us off guard, as the photographs of scenic streets which seemingly harked back to a peaceful past suddenly morph into bygone images of guarded migrant camps, of people being turned away or hounded by officials they’d dared hope might help them.

As Esser recounts a history of Europe failing to support those most in need, we see those fleeing Civil War in Spain appear in photos, fenced in on beaches with little shelter, held up to an otherwise picturesque modern beach. We see great lines of people – in what today seem to be quaint streets – hoping to escape the horrors of Nazi-occupied France into Spain, only to be told like Walter Benjamin himself that many would be met with threats of deportation.

Benjamin’s own musings on history, delivered via his thoughts on the Paul Klee painting Angelus Novus help this theme come alive further – as his same melancholy view of historical process as an unceasing cycle of despair is still sadly as relevant as it ever was. While he might have finished his 1940 essay on the matter with an assertion that the storm forces of “progress” will move us on in spite of the wreckage before, it is an assertion that has only partially been realised on the EU’s watch. 80 years after Benjamin took his own life, as a Jewish refugee facing deportation to Nazi territory, the bodies of thousands of men; women and children now line the Mediterranean. They have fled wars, poverty and environmental collapse fuelled by the policies of the EU, which now turns its back on them.

Illustrating this, photographs of nameless children adorn the modern day town square, whether these are simply people in the town or missing children is never stated, but regardless the board of pictures conjures up thoughts of the present day refugee crisis, and its horrific human cost. The EU might see Europeans better looked after, representing some glimmer of progress, but essentially it is now behaving like a larger version of the nation states which came before it.

Esser might have been better to make this point more overt. As it is the glimpse is all too fleeting – while images of this continuing nightmare might have served as a more powerful ending to the film, rather than potentially being lost in the midst of the action. At the same time, the positioning of a blank picture in front of the sea for the faceless, nameless dead might be less impactful than one of the countless and horrific images to have come out of this dark chapter in modern history. Regardless, The Angel of History is a marked achievement, a timely and timeless examination of the trappings of arbitrary national allegiances in an age of perpetual global crisis.

Making a short documentary which manages to commend Europe for opening itself up internally, while calling upon it to open up to those beyond its borders is a seemingly impossible balancing act, but one The Angel of History carries off with aplomb. Eric Esser and his team have taken a subject many would struggle to make a coherent film of in 90 minutes and condensed it into 11. While there are areas where it might do more, this perhaps begs the idea that the team might consider making a feature along these lines – one that I for one would be keen to see.

Submissions for the 2020 edition of the Indy Film Awards are now closed, and the new year of submissions will open in March. In the meantime, the very best of the films sent for review will be screened at a day-long event in Amsterdam. Tickets are available from FilmFreeway via the link below.

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