Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

16 April, 2010

WFF '10: Cooking History

Cooking History is, if my memory serves, the only documentary I'll be seeing this year at the WFF. I chose it because A) it sounded like an interesting topic and B) I was hoping for something other than a he said-she said bit of agit prop which the big names such as The Art of the Steal and The Most Dangerous Man in America promised to be. And the film didn't disappoint.

Conflicts of the second half of the 20th century are viewed from the bottom up as men and women who cooked for the combatants describe their experiences and their views of food as symbols of their side. It sounds like an odd premise and difficult to realize onscreen but director P├ęter Kerekes does a great job of combining testimony with staged footage and staged scenarios.

The film begins with a helicopter taking off with an army field kitchen as its payload. We then witness Russian soldiers being trained to cook on the battlefield. A voiceover from a soldier recalls eating mostly porridge during his tour in Chechnya until one day his fellow soldiers killed a cow belonging to a local. As you can imagine, this only made the situation worse. Over this recollection the trainees slit the throat of a cow and are shown butchering it. This opening epilogue gives us the template for the rest of the film as the airborne field kitchen returns periodically as does another element here: the recipe. In this case, it is for shashlik. Ingredient amounts are adjusted for the size of the army. In addition, it is notable that at least some of the scenes of the trainees are staged as evidenced by the camera angles.

We then jump back to World War II with an old German man who is measuring flour. He says, "German bread is the best in the world" and recalls the Kommist bread eaten by German soldiers during the war. His story is told side by side with that of an old Russian woman who declares that "bread is bread, regardless of nationality. She fed Russian soldiers bread and blini pancakes during the Seige of Stalingrad. (I think it was this battle, anyway.) The two talk of the horrific things that war brings and they both end up shedding tears.

I really appreciated how the interviews were done in staged scenes. One man who was a concentration camp survivor baked bread for captured SS officers and laced his loaves with arsenic. He killed about 300 of them. His interview is shown on a television that sits atop a counter in a kitchen. Another man, a cook on a German submarine in the 1960s, describes being the boat's only survivor after an accident on the North Sea. He talks of his experience as he prepares schnitzel on a beach with a rising tide. Eventually the water sweeps his food and takes the table away. In another instance, a French veteran of their conflict in Algeria has some toy figures of soldiers and they move briefly in an animated scene on the guy's coffee table.

In eschewing stock footage to illustrate the events at the time, such theatrical interviews personalize the accounts given by cooks in the front of the camera. The opening and its cow slaughter sequence reminded us of the dirty business that is war while the staged elements add a little humor to distance us a bit from the grim realities these people endured.

Food is also shown to have uses other than simply preparing men for war. The personal food taster for Joseph Tito, president of the former Yugoslavia, describes the deterioration of that country as Serbian and Croatian cuisines became weapons. During talks to keep the country from splitting apart, Serbs would serve food that was sure to displease the Croatian delegates and vice versa. We know how well that turned out.

The film ends with the story of the gentleman above who was the lone survivor of the submarine disaster. It stands as a stark reminder that, above all else, food is necessary for survival.
|| Palmer, 4:01 PM


This was the perhaps the best film I saw this year. There were a few minor things I wished were different (the conceit of the recipes on the army-scale was tiresome after two repetitions), but the interviews were very compelling, and presented in a simple, dramatic visual style.

I've commented elsewhere that I thought the description of the film in the guide was a mess. I was relieved to find that it was actually going to be more interesting than the guide suggested. I think, though, that there were people in the audience who were disappointed, or rather freaked out by how sad and intense much of it was.

I saw 9 documentaries this year, and this one and the Desert of Forbidden Art were far and away better than the others.
Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:04 AM  
This was certainly one of my faves as well. Caveat emptor, I guess. I mean, it is a movie about war so exactly how funny could one expect it to really be?

Oddly enough, I think this was the only doc I saw this year.
Blogger Palmer, at 10:54 AM  

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