What is it about fairy tales that still makes them so fascinating to us even though we have known their stories since our childhood? Is it nostalgia? Are we conservative if we like them because we need to be retold the same old tale over and over again? More than 200 years after the Grimm Brothers wrote Snow White, Spanish director Pablo Berger now retells the story of a young beautiful girl and her vicious stepmother for the cinema. The result might be based on a famous fairy tale, but it is so unique, original, and enchanting that you almost wish more filmmakers would use well-known stories to express their fresh artistic visions.
Though Blancanieves is the Spanish translation of Snow White, which was originally Schneewittchen (or Sneewittchen in Low German, to be super specific), Berger borrowed only the narrative core of the Grimms’ tale and made it into something much more exciting than a plain screen adaption, namely an affectionate homage to cinema and the power of its images. And oh, these images! Rich blacks and radiant whites, colourful greys in beautiful lights and expressive shadows, as if time had been turned back and the 1920s were alive again. Remember the 1920s in film? Exactly. Sound wasn’t invented yet and guess what – Blancanieves is a silent film, which only adds to its magic. We are lead by an upbeat score and once in a while text tells us the basic developments of the story. But other than that, it’s all about watching and marvelling.
As if spurred by the lack of dialogue, the camera is constantly in search of new and impressive perspectives and variations. It either follows the action from a bird’s perspective or at eye level or, often, comes close to the faces of its protagonists to show their fear, anger, suspicion, shock, and joy, a reference to the silent film era. Especially during the bullfighting scenes, we are reminded of classics like Dreyer’s Joan of Arc where one portrait of an excited audience member follows the next and soon we are looking at a beautiful gallery of fascinating human expressions.
Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention that this version of Snow White is set in Spain in the world of bullfighting. Nice twist: the manly (and obviously patriarchal) power of this über-macho Spanish tradition is subverted at the very beginning when Blancanieves’ father survives a bullfight only to be paralysed (the girl’s mother dies during childbirth). Apart from that, the film has some more nice gender role reversals in store. The evil queen (a to-die-for performance by Maribel Verdú who you might know from Pan’s Labyrinth or Y Tu Mamá También) is at first a sexy nurse that later turns into the empress of the ill father’s castle where she lives out not only her sadism but also her passion for being a dominatrix. Now talk about the same old fairy tale being retold! Without giving away too much, Blancanieves meets some little people from a circus who help her turn the wheel around and the last bullfight has some nice surprises in store…
Also, in case you are wondering, Blancanieves was planned way before The Artist, the last modern and extremely successful silent film that hit cinemas. Due to problems in financing his ambitious and eventually relatively high-cost project, Berger had to wait several years for the final green light and almost smashed his phone against the wall when he heard that someone else had a similar idea and made him look like a copycat. I guess the 10 Goyas (Spain’s Oscars) that the film won and the Oscar suggestion for best foreign film last year have made up for that shock and, in all fairness, though alike in style, the two films differ very much in what they are telling. Ultimately, however, Blancanieves, like The Artist, is heart-warming, extremely charming, feel-good in an artistic way, and all in all pretty much a perfect film.
Blancanieves (Blancanieves – Ein Märchen von Schwarz und Weiß), Spain/ France 2012, 104 min.
director: Pablo Berger, cinematography: Kiko de la Rica, actors: Maribel Verdú, Macarena García, Sofía Oria, Daniel Giménez Cacho, Ángela Molina, Pere Ponce, languages (text): Spanish, distribution: AV Visionen
Spanish text with English subtitles: Rollberg, Central (late screenings)
Spanish text with German subtitles: Central (evening screenings)
German text: Kino International, Filmkunst 66, CinemaxX Potsdamer Platz