Dark Passage

A review of the film The Death of Mr. Lazarescu by Cristi Puiu which records the rapid passing of a man who has been living day to day an impoverished lonely life of drunken stalemate in a decrepit Bucharest apartment. The logic of his decline ends with his death on a trolley in a hospital’s operating theatre prep room.

A review of the film The Death of Mr. Lazarescu by Cristi Puiu

Some things shrill as they are about to cross a threshold. But it is strange how the ringing becomes melancholy; like a knell, when it heralds departure…

Walter Benjamin The Arcades Project(c3,5)

Every cultural artefact both internally records and externally actualises passages between different states. The artefact’s content records threshold transitions and border skirmishes: from life to death; from drunkenness to sobriety; from love to indifference; from revolt to acceptance; from one formal tone to another. At the same time it records the failure to traverse the connection between any, or all, of these  –  every passage closes. It also records those passages which do not manifest as oppositions or serial developments but which are purely associative in nature (As beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella). And without reference to any content, the artefact opens (inviting palynology) passages between its production as a historical object in the world and its subsequent receptions. That is to say, the artefact becomes a means for mediating social relations through multiple channels.

The film The Death Of Mr Lazarescu records the rapid passing of a  man who has been living day to day an impoverished lonely life of drunken stalemate in a decrepit Bucharest apartment. The logic of his decline ends with his death on a trolley in a hospital’s operating theatre prep room. Mr Dante Remus Lazarescu has liver cancer, but he also suffers a bleed on the brain following a drunken fall into his bath. After a long initial delay, he is eventually picked up by ambulance following the intervention of neighbours. From the outset, he is evaluated as a low medical priority. His type, as an old single male, with chronic alcoholism and a terminal illness, triggers every latent hostile reaction in the nightshift clinicians who attend upon him. No cure is possible in his case; within the discourse of medicine there is no answer to Dante Lazarescu’s problems; and where there is no hope, levels of care also dwindle. Therefore, in the logic of the film, Mr Lazarescu must function in his own story as Dante without a Virgil. His descent into non-existence, without hope of redemption, appears simultaneously in the domain of his own biology and in the register of institutional process.

From a paramedic’s first contact and filled in questionnaire, the responsibility for Mr Lazarescu’s existence passes from his own capacities, and that of the care of interested others, to the discretion of the ‘healthcare provider’ apparatus. At this point, the communist critic reaches for the theoretical term Biopower in his attempt to describe the absolute technical capacity for scrutiny of the individual’s existence by the institutional apparatus which seems always to be coupled with the delivery of that intimate indifference which such power engenders. As soon as he embarks on his long journey, Mr Lazarescu experiences the exacting procedures of institutional dehumanisation by which his person is deconstructed into his component organs. And each of his organs being the responsibility of a different departmental specialism.

Mr Lazarescu is also plunged into the internal politics and resource scarcity that consume the greater part of the health system’s energies. He is shunted between four different hospitals as a low priority case and receives no care over a 6 hour period whilst his condition steadily worsens. The structuring of the system ensures, rather than militates against, the neglect that he receives. That which appears as a right to the individual person, in this case the right to an appropriate and standard level of hospital care, is supplied, in the interest of the institutional service provider, as a secondary product of the healthcare apparatus.

The cybernetised institution prioritises the delivery of ‘rights’ (individual packets of care) in the form of a quantifiable output of its engineering of life processes at a population-wide scale, and responds not to individual claims upon it but only according to modifications of its written targets and protocols. The delivery of its product to individual consumers proceeds from the rationalisation process of its technocratic structure, that is to say, it manufactures a standard product for society-wide distribution, it does not enter into a nuanced patient-centred relation.  Any subsequent discrepancy between individual expectation and the system’s actual delivery may only be recorded within the system as an inevitable, if anomalous, consequence of standardised procedures. It monitors its effectiveness solely in terms of successfully meeting a mean distribution for achieved minimum thresholds. There is no inbuilt corrective feedback of, no interactivity for, complaint.

The patient is subject to, and has no capacity to rectify, a layered hierarchy of system management, the great accumulated force of which is only delivered by ‘front-end’ staff to patients at the end of a very long cycle of strategic intervention at the population level. State targets and programmes are strategically planned by the designated departments and delivered on an integrated province wide scale according to assigned resources; tactical implementations and administration loops are effected on an institution by institution basis; and the priorities and limits placed on patient to patient decisions are made through a window on clinical intervention as that appears to medical staff under enormous topdown  directive pressure (proceeding always from abstract planning to individual case). That the optimum window, as far as the patient’s interests are concerned, is often missed is a direct consequence of the character of such ‘provison’. Institutionalised services in the end, and at the beginning, always serve as a matter of priority the programmed requirements for the processive reproduction of the systems themselves as distinct from any stated goal of the service; which becomes just one measurable output to be set against others. This means that the tolerable level of patient mortality is indexed to cost thresholds.

Within this, already weighted, environment, the patient becomes subject to those twists of fate and luck which highly rationalised systems seem to generate as decisive components of the apparatus. At the level of individual experience, what might be called, after Chekhov,  ‘Ward Six’ phenomena, immediately come into play. These are the extremely capricious variables in both care and outcomes which transform individual experience within  rationalised environments but which register as statistical exceptions for the systems’ monitors: one might, by stroke of life-enhancing luck, encounter the good nurse on the ward with a terrible reputation; one might, unluckily, have had a swab sewn into the wound; a norovirus outbreak might lead to the shut down of wards, having a ‘knock-on’ effect on operation timetables: or one might be reduced to a sort of football kicked between departments, none of which wishes to pick up the cost of treatment at a time where cut-backs are imminent and cost-cutting efficiency measures are demanded. The patient always appears within an institutional circumstance defined by its tumultuous turnover (of staff, of material, of patient flow, of money) which leads him to understand that if he had been taken ill one year, one month, one day earlier (or later) then his case might have turned out so much the better (or worse).

We are left in no doubt that Mr Lazarescu would have received different and better care, if he had not encountered those doctors at that moment under those conditions.  His situation is openly compared unfavourably with that of the victims of a coach crash who arrive at the hospital at the same time. From the perspective of those attempting to deliver an impoverished service, coach crash victims appear as innocent patients whereas Mr Lazarescu has nobody to blame for his misfortune but himself. He is an object of barely disguised disgust and revulsion. Medical staff criticise and mock him. He is incontinent of urine. There are never sufficient staff available to adequately attend to him. He is at the back of the queue until he is moved to the back of another queue. There are not enough operating theatres or MRI scanners. He is refused an operation because he cannot give consent to it. He is incontinent of faeces. He passes into an acute confusional state and his words make no sense. Doctors pull rank over the paramedic accompanying him and refuse him treatment even as she insists on it. They send him back out into the night. There will be no consequences. There will be no inquest. There will be no protest. Every decision has been made according to the protocols. The ambulance’s progress through tunnel-like streets of the Bucharest night is uncertain and directionless. By the time the paramedic has located a hospital which is prepared to treat him, he is in a coma, and it is too late.

The process by which Mr Dante Remus Lazarescu becomes neglected, is also that by which the film connects him to a dying potentiality which could only be realised through him. This flickering potential, a shadow in his shape, a shadow that is the image-object to which the care of others might be attached, and which has hitherto only appeared within a set of relations defined by his insignificance, is both realised by the film and closed out unrealised by the institution which it portrays.

Biopower forecloses on all discourses of redemption and seeks instead to realise, or manufacture, the tangible potentials which it identifies in individuals. Where no useful, achievable, measurable potential is identified its institutions find no purpose, nothing to work on – the shadow, the potential that is care for care’s sake, is dispersed. Mr Lazarescu’s lonely fate is also the fate of the potential that is his alone and which he might have realised in a life lived otherwise. At the end of his life he carries his shadow down into the void. And a potential for society, with him as one of its centres, an alternative circumstance structured on other relations, and other procedures, other means of caring and prioritising, dies with him.

So the tiny woman closed the shutter of the cottage window and fastened the door, and trembling from head to foot for fear that any one should suspect her, opened a very secret place and showed the Princess a shadow… It was the shadow of someone who had gone by long before: of someone who had gone on far away quite out of reach, never, never to come back. It was bright to look at; and when the tiny woman showed it to the Princess, she was proud of it with all her heart, as a great, great treasure. When the Princess had considered it a little while, she said to the tiny woman, And you keep watch over this every day? And she cast down her eyes, and whispered, Yes. Then the Princess said, Remind me why. To which the other replied, that no one so good and kind had ever passed that way…

Dickens Little Dorritt

As is often the case with people in his position, Mr Lazarescu has effectively ceased to exist long before the moment of his death. All that is left of him, at the end, is a poor, bare, fork’d animal, trapped somehow in an arbitrary and unhomely place; head shaven, naked, alone, lying under a thin sheet on a trolley in the company of unfamiliar others for whom he is little more than the pretext of their work. He appears before them, in the crepuscular glow of their non-recognition, at that threshold between the night and morning shifts, in the prep room adjacent to the operating theatre, as nothing more than their work. They attend upon him because they are paid to do so.

Mr Lazarescu, as an individual, has lost his autonomy (as this is paradoxically defined by the caring intervention of others). He has nobody at the end to carry forward his identity, his uniqueness, the memory of him.  He has become absolutely subject to his environment. It is no accident that two other characters of the film are named Virgil, as the importance of the witness, the companion, the guide, the one who will plead the case, is demonstrated throughout the film by his absence. Dante is an alcoholic. He lives alone with three cats in a dirty flat. He has no wife. He has a daughter but she lives in Canada. His neighbours are ambivalent. He has nobody who will accompany him in the ambulance as it descends into his purgatory.

Benjamin writes problematically, So difficult is it for man to relinquish his place and allow the apparatus to take over for him (S5a,2). And yet, also so easy. The communist critic assigns himself the task of reopening those meandering passages to the question of the difficult individual as an end in himself, precisely those passages which have been progressively filled in by apparatus-rationale as it pursues frictionless operations at the macro scale. The critic’s purpose is not only to subject capitalist instrumental rationality to critique but also to problematise the use-value based assumptions of left ideology as expressed in the advocacy of workers’ self-management of production.

Within the field of his commitments, every critic illuminates passages between the internal opposites that are belonging to his field; he is an anarchist to the communists and a communist to the anarchists; he connects the profusions of spectacular wealth to the abject reality which sustains it. He seeks to open passages to the real world from the fantastical and to reveal passages to the fantastical, the life lived otherwise, from works of social realism. But he is not merely a mining engineer of latent social connection. He also explores the passages that lead to answerlessness, that come to a dead-end, the labyrinths of the mute and immobile; the very non-passages and disconnects which thereby threaten the project he has undertaken.

At the end, at the very end of a long row of booths, as if — ashamed — he had exiled himself from all of these splendours, I saw a poor mountebank, stooped, decrepit, leaning his back against one of the posts of his hut, a hut more miserable than that of the most most brutalised savage, and whose poverty was illuminated yet all too well by two dripping, smoking candle butts.

Everywhere joy, success, debauchery; everywhere the certainty of bread for tomorrow; everywhere the frenetic explosion of vitality.  Here, absolute misery, misery decked out – as a crowning horror – in comic rags, upon which need rather than art had introduced contrast.  He didn’t laugh, this poor wretch!  He didn’t cry, he didn’t dance, he didn’t gesture, he didn’t shout; he sang no song, either happy or sad; he didn’t plead.  He was mute and immobile.  He had renounced, he had abdicated.  His fate was fixed.

le vieux saltimbanque Baudelaire


Unborn Grandsons

It seems these masters found themselves caught between the demands of two indispensable and previously harmonious elements of their culture which had lately come into conflict. On the one side they understood, as is the tradition, that knowledge descended strictly through the epochs from named masters to those students they had specially selected as being worthy of it. Knowledge was only passed to the next generation of future masters via the closed conduit of the masters’ lineage. In this way, accession to knowledge reinforced the stability of social hierarchy and the ordering of the temporal universe, the past held the present tightly in its grip. But on the other side of this model, the masters discovered, or perhaps merely suspected, that a particular circumstance might cause the knowledge content of the lineage to become dangerous to the viability of the lineage itself. And in the contradiction that thus arose between the form of established power and the knowledge content held by that power which of the two, the masters’ asked themselves, ought to triumph over the other?

The painter and naturalist, Rosenhof travelled West, taking Route 28 out of the Carpathian Mountains via Przemysl, and followed the northerly edge of the pine forests of the Lesser Poland Voivodeship. A few minutes after the crossroads at Szymbark, he swung the rented Peugeot 206 northwards into a narrow lane that climbed steeply through another dense wood. Rosenhof stopped before a pair of elaborate wickerwork gates which he got out to open, keeping the engine running.  He left the gates open, cautiously advanced the car up the potholed drive,  and took a right-angled turn just as he emerged from the treeline. Rosenhof turned off the engine outside a brightly painted wooden chalet that was set just below the peak of the promontory. He sat in the car for a few moments watching Trakl’ s ghost  sitting on a bench drinking tea with a man he would introduce as Westermann, a postman, but who Trakl had previously described in correspondence as ‘Walser’s go-between’.

The bench was positioned to make the most of the view over the village of Grodek which nestled quaintly in the pinewoods. Trakl and Westermann were talking of an apparently unsuccessful trip they had taken to a tract of arable land east of Kazimierz in search of the elusive corncrake. ‘We did not need to see it so much as witness its voice throwing.’ ‘You would have needed to see it to judge that,’ said Rosenhof. ‘Not if we found the empty place where we thought its call had come from,’ Westermann replied. ‘But you had no luck?’ ‘Ah, it’s always the same story, the 3rd Republic, ‘89 and all that. The land is becoming a desert; natural abundance shrinks; the corncrake population is just one small crash drowned out by so many others.’

Trakl made space on the bench, ‘Tell us the news of the big city, Rosenhof.’  ‘What would you like to know? For example, you might be pleased that, as it is Spring, even in the 3rd Republic,  the white storks are still to be seen working on their nests.’ ‘Yes, but paint us a picture of the modern people, en miniature. We don’t get as far as Przemysl nowadays,’ Westermann winked, and flickered, ‘as all  our roads seemingly lead to black decay.’

Rosenhof had a talent for portraying unpredicted encounters, ‘I overheard a conversation in Przemysl concerning a countertrend in the tides of ancient Chinese knowledge. That is if you are interested in hearing of it.‘ ‘O Good son of Wittgenstein, speak of it and we shall pretend to sip more of this tea. Do you think it has gone cold yet?’

Rosenhof paused as a pair of woodpigeon rose, clapping in display, and then plunged again into the canopy that stretched out below the chalet. It was evening over Grodek and the autumn woodland rang with hunters’ gunfire. ‘I had stopped to revive myself in the Aquarium café, it’s on the north bank of the San, do you know it? I couldn’t help but overhear two very Polish followers of the Oriental mysteries who it seems were locked  in deep contemplation over certain, shall we say, incomprehensibilities. The first was puzzling over the history of Tai Chi as recounted to her by a teacher of that ancient art. The teacher had told her that Tai Chi, as a body of knowledge, once amounted to a formidable martial art but that over time  it had progressively lost its key manoeuvres coinciding with the deaths of successive generations of its masters.

‘It seems these masters found themselves caught between the demands of two indispensable and previously harmonious elements of their culture which had lately come into conflict. On the one side they understood, as is the tradition, that knowledge descended strictly through the epochs from named masters to those students they had specially selected as being worthy of it. Knowledge was only passed to the next generation of future masters via the closed conduit of the masters’ lineage. In this way, accession to knowledge reinforced the stability of social hierarchy and the ordering of the temporal universe, the past held the present tightly in its grip. But on the other side of this model, the masters discovered, or perhaps merely suspected, that a particular circumstance might cause the knowledge content  of the lineage to become dangerous to the viability of the lineage itself. And in the contradiction that thus arose between the form of established power and the knowledge content held by that power which of the two, the masters asked themselves, ought to triumph over the other?

‘The historical context of the masters’ predicament occurred in that period where the the fall of the Ming dynasty to the peasant revolt was quickly succeeded by the rapid collapse of the Shun Dynasty. The crisis took the form of a fleeting historical relativisation of the traditional forms and in particular was expressed in the temporary failure of Neo-Confucianism to fix the younger generation quite as fastly as it once had into their subjected role within the great scheme of traditional culture. Or that at least was the anxiety of the Tai Chi masters as they became uncertain as to whether they should transmit potentially harmful information to possible future enemies. Might not an inappropriate access to secret powers lead to the overthrow of the proper ordering of society? The masters decided to take the path where they had to withhold crucial moves from the young in order to retain their superior tactical ability which they might be called on to deploy in defence of the lineage, if a confrontation should later break out with their descendants.

‘We cannot know now whether this decision averted conflict or simply removed the necessity for it. But when the younger generation matured and were admitted to the status of masters, they gained access to a corrupted inheritance, into the heart of which was written their forebears’ code for withholding knowledge from their students. The lineage was no longer a conduit for supplying a legacy of certainties but had become defined, in its control of the present, by the withholding of what it knew. The new masters of Tai Chi naturally also held back knowledge from the next generation which they thought might prove most decisive in the defence of the past against the seemingly growing threat of potential corruption by the present. And as this went on, the very structures that were designed to preserve certainty became the means by which it was progressively destroyed. The major concern of the lineage passed from the conservation of what had been written before to anticipatory acts of erasure, and thus the nature of the lineage’s power was transformed.  Today, the formal lineage appears to us locked in a death clinch with the content of its own legacy. And its knowledge, its raison d’etre, has been lost forever.’

‘Where inheritance dominates social relations all improvisation is absent,’ Westermann said, ‘the adherence of the Tai Chi masters to the formality of an unbroken lineage excluded the possibility of developing  innovative new moves which might have renewed it in the face of external challenges. They, perhaps not mistakenly, thought novelty of content would undermine the formality of the lineage itself. It is a classic example of the question successful traditions are set by changing external conditions and how they tend to respond against their own interest.’

‘But that is not the point of the story,’ said Rosenhof, ‘which is not really about the to and fro between Neo-Confucianism and the Chinese Imperial Examination system but concerns our two friends in the café. You have not yet heard what the other said in reply. In stories such as mine, credulity always seems ridiculous so I think you will find this provocatively amusing. She had listened to her friend, perhaps with dismay, perhaps without concern. But in response she said simply, and in a lofty and mysterious tone which allowed for no further discussion, ‘But the secrets have not been lost.’‘

‘Ah yes,’ Trakl said, ‘the secret knowledge has been preserved but secretly. In fact, I think I can go so far as saying that we lost souls emphatically demand that the Chinese have not lost any of their secrets.’ Westermann joined in, ‘If we don’t yet understand their science, that is because we have not reached the place where its secret might be revealed to us. The certainty of the Unknown sets minds at peace, the quest of the spirit is affirmed and a certain fragment of café society may continue to distract itself with the ornate embellishments of café truths. And speaking of truth, we assume the veracity of the teacher’s account… but in the mirrored kingdom which is traditional culture, the original potency of this knowledge, and the account of its loss, might only perform the function of a creation  myth which explains the directly experienced ongoing reduction of today’s lesser men.’

Westermann paused for a moment and then said, ‘But this reminds me somewhat of a story my grandfather told me. He was employed in Kiel as a machinist in the shipyards, and at the turn of the century, job insecurity coincided with the constant revolutionising of the means of production. No sooner had he mastered the techniques associated with one machine, than the whole plant was stripped out and a new line was brought in to replace it.

‘My grandfather was not an educated man and he was well aware how his position was vulnerable to younger, better trained but cheaper workers. At some point he encountered the idea which I suppose occurs to every other worker in the same situation… he took advantage of being transferred to a more specialised section on the line, memorised the manual for the machine he worked on and then destroyed the manual. In effect he became the only man in the factory who knew how his machine worked and if anyone was directed to be trained on it then he was the one to do the training but listen to this…’

‘He only trained them up to a point, and withheld vital information to keep his edge and so preserve his job,’  said Rosenhof. ‘Voila, the end of the story. And now, the night surrounds us.’  Westermann seemed to pour his gaze into that of Trakl who scanned the black sea of trees below them, ‘A sister’s shadow sways through the still grove…

‘You say they are building their nests again? The white storks. In Przemysl?’ ‘Yes, as they always did, and no doubt in Kraków too,’ said Rosenhof. ‘But recently they have been seen, for the first time, also to be scavenging in the rubbish dumps at the edge of town.’