The Lamp

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jul 9, 2015

Introducing one of the 20th century’s great artists of anxiety. Or of straight-out inescapable horror. The mis-en-scene (image composition) in this short film has a Wellesian, Hitchcockian exactitude to it. But this is more than just virtuosity, or putting the audience through it. (Fritz) Langian fatefulness? Sort of—but it’s not really that either. The Lamp suggests something more, or worse. To what do you ascribe this infernal feeling? Maybe we shouldn’t be looking to precedents or possible influences, but at Roman Polanski himself, or Roman Polanski’s life. Or the world itself.

With this roomful of dolls there are echoes, or counter-echoes, of the shoemaker’s elves. Except that there isn’t a worthy worker for them to help, nor any seemly task to turn themselves to. There’s a chill in the possibility that they may bear the fault as well. The dolls appear to come alive, after a fashion. But their seeming animation corresponds to no reassuring flights of fantasy, no imaginative delight. Rather, it strongly, viscerally suggests demonic possession. Or maybe the diabolic is not so much in the dolls, but in the chilling whispers that surround them. A parable’s symbols are exact, to the parable’s benefit. On other occasions, and in other settings, the symbol is multiple, though in its direction it tends to cohere. Here? Short of, independent of exact meaning, these are surely emblems of innocence endangered, or innocence accused, or tarnished, or even bringing the danger—even rightfully!—upon itself.

Whence the flames? Does the source matter when the Blitzkrieg rages? What follows this ignition is actually quite shocking, really some of the most appalling Holocaust imagery ever staged. The parallel has to have been intentional. The conflagration is detailed and elaborated, but it is not seen through to its close. Instead, Polanski gives us a circular or symmetrical conclusion. It is quite apt, and quite terrible. We’ve been hearing an anempathetic (Michel Chion, 1994) Beethoven cue. Up to this point it has been just a bit off. It had become uncomfortable. Now it is plainly perpendicular to the image, strains of godly beauty, and images of annihilation.

As the film comes to a close we are outside the building, facing it at a 90º angle. The shot is stable, balanced, with pedestrians passing by, and all the flames of hell raging just behind that seeming serene surface. Now the symbols seem to become more exact, more inescapable. Here are the neighbouring Poles, shrugging their shoulders outside the gates of Auschwitz. Here is the howling in every home.

One of the most frightening films ever made.