Before the inferno I had a light heart

This Must Be the Place 2011

Dir. Paolo Sorrentino

Stars: Sean Penn, Frances McDormand, Judd Hirsch

By Peter Hulm

How to make a film about the Holocaust in 2011?

Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List was one version, a cruel misjudgement for restaging the horrors, in the eyes of Jean-Luc Godard.

Claude Lanzmann's 9.5 hour Shoah did not attempt to dramatize the experience of camp victims or recreate the climate of fear in which they lived. He did something more difficult: he made viewers meditate on the experience of those who lived in and around the camps from the testimony of those who survived.

Godard declared, in one of his famous off-hand comments, that the only film to make about the Holocaust would show the quiet domestic life of a concentration camp guard.

This Must Be the Place is another answer, wholly successful in my view.

The director and co-writer Paolo Sorrentino has thought deeply about the problems before giving us this story of a man obsessed with finding his camp persecutor — to the point of driving his son away from him and leaving the son, in middle age, to pick up where the father had failed, as a kind of redemption.

It's not a film of horrors, despite this summary of its story. Instead Place is funny and sad by turns.

Showbiz in the realm of justice

The cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard thought it was impossible to think honestly about the Holocaust in our times, if it ever was. All we can do is construct fictions and lies, for ourselves and others.

But that does not help those whose lives have been blighted by such experiences. And Sorrentino has understood that Baudrillard's strictures do not mean that a good film cannot be made about the inferno.

What we have in Place is a 79-year-old Nazi hunter who recognizes he is still living in 1940 (Judd Hirsch as powerful as ever), the story of an unseen camp survivor who devoted his life to pursuing the camp guard who humiliated him.

On the way we meet a history teacher who often had to skip over the Holocaust in class because they ran out of time.

But the centre of the film is the benumbed son who takes over the pursuit himself because to the Nazi pursuer the guard was a "small fish". "Even Nazi hunters," concludes the ex-rockstar, "follow the rules of show business" by going after the killers who would get them most publicity.

More than a road movie

But the theme is so integrated into the story that many critics have taken Place to be solely a variation on the conventional road movie or a homage to Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas. Sorrentino denies any obvious connection (so do I), though both films have Harry Dean Stanton in key roles.

As a result, some viewers found the Nazi-hunter theme tacked on, or accused it of splitting the film into two. They seem not to realize that the second part explains everything that's odd and puzzling about the first. Sean Penn's character says several times: "There's something wrong here."

Sorrentino's film tries to explores what that something might be.

His style of film making — almost as slow as Tarkovsky's in its concentration on what is happening in front of the camera — has misled a number of viewers. It scores a measly 6.6 on imdb. Costing $25m to make, it took in only $142,000 despite being launched at Cannes.

The success of Sorrentino's failure

Sorrentino gives viewers almost all the answers you need, but not necessarily when you might expect them. They come when the characters feel the need to give us the information.

It's a style that makes it almost impossible to discuss his films without spoiling the hidden parts of the story.

So I won't even bother about spoiler alerts and just say that it is magnificently, idiosyncratically and gorgeously filmed (with camera work by Sorrentino's regular collaborator Luca Bigazzi). The script with Umberto Contarello, another Sorrentino regular, is hilarious and impeccable and often moving.


The result of Penn's hitting it off with Sorrentino at the Cannes film festival, when Penn chaired the jury and Sorrentio was a laureate, the film was reportedly bought for U.S. distribution and then held up for a year before being released in a truncated version.

Shea Wigham, star of a key scene to judge from the hole in the narrative, vanished completely from the picture.

I wonder what else was lost, and suspect that many of the holes in such a careful film have left us with tatters rather than whole cloth.

David Byrne, formerly of the Talking Heads, and co-creator of the 1984 hit "This Must Be the Place", giving the film its title, provides us with some of the most orignal use of music in film since when (Waking Life, 2001 — it, too, brings its performers onscreen).

Typically, all the cover versions of the original hit got under some viewers' skin (these versions are by folk-punk rocker Will Oldham). They didn't bother me and let you in on the joke when further on in the film a young boy insists that the song was first recorded by a later band.

The humor may be deadpan, but it is not obfuscating. If anything, Place reminds me of Byrne's own True Stories, a much underrated film about America.

Everything is illuminating

Place's opening tells you what to expect, if you pick up on its way with narrative, and realize that none of what happens in a Sorrentino film is accidental.

The first image, after scratchy radio tuning, is of a dog wearing a medical protective hood. It runs around on a lawn in front of a grey mansion. We cut to a middle-aged person carefully applying makeup. It is the 1980s rock star Cheyenne — Sean Penn in a mashup of Edward Scissorhands, Andy Warhol, Robert Smith of the Cure and Ozzie Osborne. He is preparing himself for another day of retirement.

Why is the dog wearing a hood? Cheyenne (and I think the name is more than a nod to Siouxsie and the Banshees) is asked later, as he sits on the edge of his empty swimming pool. He doesn't know, he says. His wife looks after the dog's needs.

It may not be the answer we expect, but it suggests we will also get an explanation of why Cheyenne devotes his days to doing nothing with such purpose.

The stupified man-child

Penn develops a stupified child's voice (Warhol, Michael Jackson, Truman Capote?) for much of what he has to say. He trudges around the streets with what the British call a wheelie (shopping bag on wheels: we never see what he could be hauling). His stoop (sciatica we learn later) is almost painful to watch.

At the same time, his wife (Frances McDormand), a Dublin firefighter and one-time Cheyenne groupie, plainly adores him, finds him funny, and their sex life after 35 years is still astonishingly fresh. This last point is important. His road trip to the U.S. is not a search for romance, as we learn in a key scene.

What is eating this Gilbert Grape? He thinks he might be "a tad depressed". His wife thinks its more likely he is bored.

But Cheyenne knows all too well what the problem is. It all comes out by chance when he goes to a David Byrne concert.

Bravura brilliance

This is a tour de force of bravura filming. It starts with a woman in knee-length white leather boots, sitting in a domestic scene, flipping a popular science magazine then tapping, dancing in her chair almost, to the rhythm of "This Must Be the Place". Then Byrne rises in front of her in extreme closeup and the camera pulls back to reveal the whole band and the woman as part of a set and then the scene as part of a live concert and then Cheyenne in the dark of the audience looking miserable and ecstatic with tears in his eyes.

The scene switches to Byrne's latest experimental use of building parts. He jokes: "One day I'll play the whole city." Then Cheyenne confesses he cannot understand how Byrne could think of him as a friend. They see each other so seldom and Byrne, he insists, is an artist with precise ideas of what he wants to achieve.

Byrne suggests Cheyenne was an artist too when he performed. Cheyenne sounds angry when he rejects this idea. All his career was exploitive, his despair was faked to make money, until the day two fans took his words seriously and killed themselves. Even his wife does not understand what a failure he has been, he shouts in agony.

This is the first time we see Cheyenne's indifference to life as a front, and the peeling back of all those masks is harrowing to see in Penn's masterly, uncanny performance.

The story behind the story

Some viewers found the scene redundant, Byrne's performance stilted. But this is Byrne's natural style, which he has identified as undiagnosed autism. And those who saw Byrne's full version of the song in the Cannes version were angry that others only got one-minute from a major performance. It's available on YouTube.

In fact there's a lot more to learn about the pop star's failure, and the film shows us this is not the whole story. There's a reason why he was unable to move on from his aporia.

The essential explanation of Cheyenne's condition that we learn from his outburst comes after we have already experienced his powerlessness to direct his life, his phobias about travel (he has to cross the Atlantic by boat), his extension of childhood into late middle age (as he later admits), and his isolation from all but misfits.

Fellini reloaded

I'm surprised no-one else sees the parallels with Fellini, and La Dolce Vita. Its grotesqueries are just in a different key, and to a more serious purpose.

Viewers who thought it was a road movie fail to understand how peculiar English-speaking culture looks to Europeans (think Antonioni's Blow Up). Yes, the U.S. is odd in its bigness everywhere, its emptiness, and the eccentricities of its people in this insurmountable indifference to human life: no wonder Scottish-born/U.S.-bred David Byrne can think and joke of playing the whole city.

But the English world's smallness on the other side of the Atlantic is equally weird. Massive glass sports stadiums loom over squashed-together houses, empty narrow streets and daily tragedies that go almost ignored. We see a mother's breakup when her son leaves and a promising pop group murdered by a bad guitarist who happens to be the singer's brother and therefore cannot be sacked. Sorrentino emcompasses both registers.

Closer to the foreground we see a young girl (Eve Hewson, the singer Bono's daughter) who can only escape on a skateboard from her mother's suffering. A pseudo-Goth, she hangs around with Cheyenne, who tries bumblingly to fix her up with an adoring waiter (Sam Keeley), who simply fails to interest her.

The scenes of Dublin, surely, are as disconcerting as any of the strange sights of America.

Expert weaver

It's worth taking note of how expertly Sorrentino ties the strands together. We see Cheyenne developing a purpose in his life, then dancing to himself, driving, flying home, but that's just narrative craftsmanship. It's on the same level as his brother (Liron Livo) telling him about the terminally obsessive father: "You two are exactly the same."

The father writes: "Before the inferno, I had a light heart." The film promises to help us understand, and does show us, what inferno swept through Cheyenne's soul and why he cannot move forward. Cheyenne has suffered his personal holocaust, the suicide of other people.

What starts as expert craftsmanship ends by pulling together these strands into an artistic whole (that raises questions rather than providing answers).

Just as artistically, Sorrentino gives us the voice of Obama offscreen declaring "we need fewer guns in the hands of people who shouldn't have them," and then we see Cheyenne buying a pistol that kills at 220 ft. The gun fanatic (Ron Coden) who stands beside him like a little devil and seems to egg him on points out that if we are given the power to be monsters, then all we start thinking about is how to become a monster. Almost immediately the television in the background shows us Sarah Palin.

Here be monsters

Is Sarah Palin offering us the power to become monsters? Or an example of what in American life is driving people to monsterdom?

We don't have to decide. The idea is simply in the air, hovering on the edge of articulation. And almost immediately we get to meet a monster, the old man who humiliated Cheyenne's father in Auschwitz.

The old man remembers the writings of the father, the persecution by the former victim that made the Nazi's life impossible in America, the beautiful vitriolic writing that spoke of the beautiful sky from the concentration camp

He recalls a description of the sky being like God.

"I can't remember any more," he says finally (a simply mind-blowing performance by Heinz Lieven). It sounds as if he is saying his memory is going. But perhaps he means he cannot remember any more of the father's writing (spoken in voice over beautifully by Fritz Weaver).

God's indifference

What he cannot remember is the father's description of God as lazy and unwilling to get involved.

And he doesn't seem even to recognize how significant the humiliation was for the father or why, amid the horrors of Auschwitz, this seemingly minor incident should scar a man's life.

This goes to the heart of the film: all the different valuations people give to incidents in their lives that other people cannot hope to share: the overweight tattoed girl who runs across an empty parking lot to find out whether the ex-singer is really Cheyenne, the young boy who insists that Cheyenne sing with him, the couple playing tabletop electronic curling in an empty motel, the young man who went missing in Dublin for no explicable reason.

God may be lazy and unwilling to get involved but maybe we don't need Him to get value out of our lives. As Cheyenne puts it, you just have to decide not to be afraid.


The film itself comes apart in the final minutes. Why does the old man stumble naked out into the snow? Has Cheyenne stripped him of his clothes? Does he want to kill himself? If so, why? (Perhaps this was another cut).

But several other questions remain.

How did he find the history teacher (from his father?), and why did she marry the ex-Nazi (though this may just be Sorrentino noting the quirks of life)?

What was Frances McDormand doing up on the fire ladder when Cheyenne sees her? Was it a flashback?

Does Cheyenne tell the daughter he is going after her father?

What is going on here?

Fifty minutes into the two-hour film he tells his wife on the phone he is boarding the ship in half an hour and will be home in a week. What is going on here? Is the scene misplaced? (He flies home in the end).

Unspoken, but perhaps important, is the idea that he might simply get lost in America. His wife asks whether he is trying to find himself. He protests: "This is not India" and she laughs.

Similarly puzzling and unspoken are the implicit references to those victims of American expansion, the Native Americans. Apart from Cheyenne, we have the town of Bad-Axe, Michigan, and the massacre-scarred history of Utah, where the final U.S. scenes take place. It might just be fortuitous.

The inventor of the wheeled suitcase

The most praised piece of American road-movie is the scene with Harry Dean Stanton, who announces himself as the (real) inventor of the wheeled suitcase, Robert Plath. It's the only real irrelevance in the movie.

But then it points up the odd way answers may come to decades-old questions. And his accidentally discovered sense of purpose parallels that of Cheyenne's.

Cheyenne's condition, we learn, comes from believing his father did not love him, spurring him to leave the U.S. and determining how he reacted to the suicide of kids inspired by his lyrics. But then he recognizes an "injustice", that the old Nazi outlived his father, and perhaps tries to right it by exposing the fugitive to concentration camp condition.

Growing up or growing old?

At the same time (I think), he realizes that whether his father loved him or not is irrelevant and it is time for him to live like an adult instead of a child. But the film fails to dramatize this adequately.

Having been told he never smoked because children are the only people who have no desire to smoke, we see him take a cigarette when back in Dublin. He stops wearing make-up and cuts off his Tim Burton hair. We get it. He is no longer a child. But it is not enough if he has forced an old man into the freezing cold.

It's another Fellini finale, a quick "moviemaker" way to end the film rather than the story, nodding towards importance through its implausible symbolism (think of the end of Antonioni's Blow Up). But it's really more Hollywood than Italy (think of l'Eclisse or l'Aventurra, 8 1/2 or Giuletta degli spiriti).

As it is, you find many viewers in love with individual scenes that they have posted on YouTube, and the acts of homage do not seem exaggerated.

Maybe one day we will see a director's cut. The sooner the better.