At a time when a new wave of German cinema is making a significant impression on the map of world cinema, putting out strong statements about the current state of Germany, its integration with Europe, the world economy and its social impact on the traditional role of the family, Volker Schlöndorff’s relative classicism both in his approach and his subject matter would seem to be becoming increasingly anachronistic. Even when his work is somewhat mired in literary structure or looking back at key historical periods however, there remains political element in his committed stance against totalitarian tyranny and oppression.
Whatever one’s view of the relevance of Schlöndorff’s work, Ulzhan is going to do little to alter that impression. With a script by Jean-Claude Carrière and starring French actor Philippe Torreton as a troubled man from the West trying to lose himself in the barren deserts of central Asia, Ulzhan provides plenty of exoticism, mysticism, cultural and lifestyle issues and an underlying political undercurrent, with stunning vistas and issues of personal conflict to enthral international cinemagoers. Whether that’s enough is up to the individual viewer, but behind the beautifully crafted film, there is a relevant if somewhat vague statement to be made about current global issues.
What drives Charles out into the wilderness of the Kazakhstan steppes isn’t made explicitly clear, but there are plenty of clues – a crumpled photograph of a wife and children that is held as close as a treasure, Charles playing around with a model car – and enough antecedents in other films to hint at the cause of his distress. It’s clear from the moment he abandons his car and sets out on foot - leaving behind his phone, giving away his money and passport to revellers at a bar where he gives himself over to wild abandon through heavy consumption of vodka - that Charles wants to lose himself in the wilderness as the only way of killing the pain he feels inside. Even in Kazakhstan however, that proves more difficult than he imagined, with friendly truck drivers wanting to give him a lift, concerned oil businessmen (more concerned about his presence on their land than in Charles himself, it must be admitted) transporting him to sparkling new cities, and French embassy people who want to offer him assistance that he doesn’t want or need.
All of this is part of the world that Charles has rejected and wants to get as far away from as possible, but he finds some help along the way with other people who live on the land and who are more in touch with a different, alternate way of living. One of them is Shakuni (David Bennent), a character straight out of the Mahabarata (not coincidentally also developed into a screenplay by Jean-Claude Carrière for Peter Brook’s 1991 film), who retains memories of the land’s troubled past as well as preserving ancient words and wisdom as the tools of his trade. The other person he meets is Ulzhan (Ayanat Ksenbai), a young girl who teaches French in a remote village, who sells Charles a horse to help him reach his destination, but is concerned about the object of his journey and decides to follow him.
Charles’s journey through the wilderness is not however merely the conventional reflection of the torment of his soul – though it is that too - but is also intended by the filmmaker to make a statement about the incursion of Western values into the East. The point is emphatically made in the early part of the film, specifically showing the impact of oil and business on the country with its grand new city constructed in only five years, but underlined in the later part of the film which shows the loss and disregard for traditional ways, wisdom and the harsh but natural beauty of the environment, all personified in the characters of Ulzhan and Shakuni (fascinating incidentally to see Bennent here in this role, the original child actor who played Oscar in Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum).
If the symbols of the devastation caused are strong – the land still bears the scars and radiation of the 500 atomic bombs tested there – identification of who is exactly to blame for everything that is wrong with the world is less clear. As the evidence of the gulags and “kolkhozes” show, man’s folly in the name of progress and modernisation can’t be restricted to the capitalist greed of the West, and one suspects that if he wanted to the director could find plenty of historical evidence for equally large-scale self-inflicted atrocities in Central Asia’s past. If the themes then are somewhat unclear, vague and even politically neutral, they do at least meaningfully enrich the otherwise conventional but well-played dramatic conflicts in what remains a beautifully photographed and superbly crafted film.