``White Nights'' must have looked great on the drawing board. Mikhail Baryshnikov, a great dancer and a good actor, plays a character not unlike himself: a Soviet defector who has built a new life and ballet career in the West.
A plane crash in Siberia plunges him back into the country he fled. There he meets a black American -- a tap-dancer, it so happens -- who defected from the United States during the Vietnam war. Also on hand is a crafty KGB man who'd give anything for the runaway Russian to redefect, and will try any nasty scheme to make it happen.
As story ideas go, this has more than its share of angles: East vs. West, white vs. black, art vs. politics, even classical ballet vs. jazzy tapping. There's also sexual drama, since each dancer has a woman in his life, and the KGB isn't above exploiting both of them to get its way. And the yarn couldn't be more timely, with real-life defection filling the headlines lately.
The movie starts with a wallop, too. First there's a long Baryshnikov dance sequence and then the plane-crash scene, which is electrifying. The filmmakers even add an ironic dimension to the story when they introduce their characters: We meet the classical dancer as he spins through ``Le Jeune homme et la Morte,'' prefiguring the risky pas de deux he's in for with the KGB; and when we first encounter the American, he's treating the Siberian boondocks to a rendition of ``There's a Boat That's Leaving Soo n for New York.'' Little does he know how soon he'll be looking for that boat.
After such a promising start, it's disappointing how soon and how badly the picture goes wrong. But director Taylor Hackford doesn't have the cinematic savvy to balance all those tensions (white vs. black, art vs. politics, and so on) over the long haul. Characters turn into caricatures -- the KGB man positively twinkles with malice -- and motivations get snarled up, especially when the American pulls an abrupt switch and decides he can't wait to see his native shores again. There are reasons for the bi zarre things that happen, but they seem forced. What probably made sense on the drawing board looks flat and facile on the screen. And the sound track doesn't help, with grating disco-type music replacing most of the classical score you might expect in a Baryshnikov picture.
The cast is fun, though. Baryshnikov is a natural for the movies as well as the stage. Gregory Hines is likable, if too low key, as the American tapper. Helen Mirren and Isabella Rossellini make their presences felt even though their roles are far from subtly conceived. On the other hand, I wasn't quite comfortable with the manipulative KGB man, who's played by Jerzy Skolomowski, one of Eastern Europe's best movie directors. He obviously had a terrific time with the part, maybe because he's a Pole with no great reasons to love the Soviet regime. But his mischievous energy (a virtue in itself) combines poorly with the overwritten script, and what could have been incisive political drama sinks into Red-baiting so heavy-handed that it borders on self-parody. `Shoah'
Films dealing with the Holocaust have taken every shape and tone imaginable, from the satire of ``The Great Dictator'' and the melodrama of ``Judgment at Nuremberg'' to the moodiness of ``Our Hitler'' and the passion of ``The Sorrow and the Pity.''
Looking back at such works in all their variety, I tend to agree with the view of cinema scholar Annette Insdorf in her important book, ``Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust.'' She has kind words for fiction movies that avoid Hollywood-style packaging in favor of stylization or spareness, as in ``Seven Beauties'' and ``The Boat Is Full,'' respectively. But she reserves her strongest praise for personal documentaries like ``Night and Fog'' and ``The Memory of Justice,'' which seek to ``preserve the
reality of the past while provoking the necessary questions of the present.''
No filmmaker has pursued the links between past and present more single-mindedly than Claude Lanzmann in ``Shoah,'' a monumental study that probes the Holocaust in all its horror for nearly 10 hours. Apart from its enormous length and unusual structure, what separates this from other documentaries is its exclusive use of present-tense material (interviews, visits to historical sites) and avoidance of the historical footage that normally fills out nonfiction works on 20th-century subjects. Since every f rame was photographed by Lanzmann and his crew, what emerges is not only a new account of the Holocaust but a vivid reminder of its relevance today -- in the memories of those who survived it, the consciences of those who helped bring it about, and the lingering shadows of bigotry and resentment in Western culture at large.
So personal and immediate are the terms of ``Shoah'' that the director himself cannot stay exempt from its relentless gaze. He shows himself perpetrating a brazen fraud during an interview with a former Nazi -- reassuring the man that he won't be named as an information source, when in fact Lanzmann is filming the conversation with a hidden camera for use (at great length, with a full statement of identity) in the finished movie. Lanzmann's testy attitude toward the remnants of Nazism shows even more p lainly when he traces a Holocaust participant to a present-day job as a bartender and taunts his quarry (``Do you remember the overflowing graves . . . ?'') with unmuted hostility.
Such highly charged moments cast the filmmaker into the harsh light of his own study, bringing into relief a proud bitterness that's rooted in the Holocaust as surely as the tattooed arm and anguished tears that serve as melancholy icons in other scenes.
As a historian of the Holocaust and its survivors, Lanzmann does not add a great deal to accounts found in earlier films. The interviews and monologues of ``Shoah'' are valuable more for their immediacy, clarity, and poignancy than for any fund of newly revealed facts. Even the movie's great length is approximately equaled by the combined footage of Marcel Ophuls's classic studies, ``The Sorrow and the Pity'' and ``The Memory of Justice.''
Yet the film's structure and content clearly spring from a unique sensibility. Lanzmann stresses the present-day plague of anti-Semitism more heavily than many Holocaust studies do, for example, and constructively chooses to culminate his work with references to the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto, an example of the Jewish resistance to Nazism that is often slighted in Holocaust movies.
``Shoah'' represents a radical departure from accepted documentary technique, moreover, in the extraordinary patience (and tenacity) of its editing style. More than any other filmmaker in memory, Lanzmann is prepared to watch and wait as his camera rolls -- allowing the thoughts and emotions of his subjects to unfold at their own pace, as tortured (or grudging) as this often turns out to be. His extremely long ``takes'' grind on regardless of silences, digressions, breakdowns, and evasions, bringing the
time-momentum of normal movies (continually forced ahead by editing) to a virtual halt. The result is a movie that wouldn't move if Lanzmann did not accompany his interviews with footage of sites where Holocaust suffering took place. Even these excursions are conducted at a sad and stately pace, however. ``Shoah'' leaves some nagging questions unanswered with regard to its own strategies. Although its occasional use of a hidden camera isn't concealed from us, the technology of the device is never reveal ed, leaving us to wonder just how sneaky Lanzmann actually was in obtaining his material. We have no way of knowing how interview subjects were chosen or who was excluded.
In a sense, such unresolved points serve as metaphors for the unresolvable complexity of the Holocaust itself. Similarly, the intermittent rudeness of Lanzmann's camera (poking most closely into people's faces when they feel most vulnerable and shaken) reminds us that there is no neat, polite, or antiseptic way of approaching the most overwhelming event in modern history.
How overwhelming it was -- and how recent, and how lasting in its effects -- all are underscored by this exhaustive and exhausting film.