The Heart of the World

The Heart of the World
Best Shorts, Experimental

Maddin pulls out all the stops in this dreamlike, hyperkinetic tribute to silent films.

‘The Heart of the World” could easily have been a throwaway film, given the circumstance of its origin. The Toronto Film Festival commissioned Maddin to make a brief film to fill a gap in their programming schedule. A mere time-passer. What Maddin gave them was utterly unexpected.

Maddin uses large-grain film stock and Klieg-style lighting techniques to replicate the look of silent film. Maddin’s production design (costumes, makeup, hairstyling) impeccably recreates the images of that period. It’s easy to believe that ‘Heart of the World’ is actually compiled from old UFA out-takes, circa 1925. Only just occasionally does Maddin’s grasp on the 1920s show the joins, and then those lapses are probably intentional.

‘The Hearts of the World’ depicts the rivalry of two brothers. Nikolai is an idealist engineer. Osip is playing Jesus Christ in a passion play, and seems to have developed a genuine messiah complex. Amusingly, Osip does his Jesus routine whilst toting a cross made from metal girders … an Art Deco crucifixion!

The brothers vie for the love of Anna, a beautiful scientist who has built a device which enables her to gaze into the Earth’s core, literally the heart of the world. Meanwhile, a bloated plutocrat named Akmatov lusts for Anna. All of this is explained in silent-film titles, in a 1920s typeface that looks vaguely Cyrillic. The actors employ authentic silent-film acting techniques while resisting the temptation to ‘guy’ those methods or exaggerate them. The only lapse occurs when Anna suddenly vibrates her eyes back and forth while attempting to choose between the two brothers. This seems to be Maddin’s intentional parody of silent-film acting. For the rest of the film, his homage to the past is sincere.

I spent a delightful six minutes trying to spot all the references and influences in this movie. Maddin is clearly influenced by ‘Metropolis’ (my favourite film), but I also spotted the influences of ‘Aelita’, ‘Vampyr’, ‘Potemkin’ and ‘Haxan’ in this frenzied melange. This is not to accuse Maddin of plagiarism. He displays his influences openly, using them as a foundation for a vision uniquely his own. It’s refreshing to see a 21st-century filmmaker who acknowledges a debt to silent films, in an industry filled with Tarantino wanna-bes and counterfeit Hitchcocks. imdb

Directed by Guy Maddin / Canada / 2000

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