Malmkrog is streaming on Vimeo on Demand and in virtual cinemas from 26 March.

Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more

News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.

Malmkrog offers one of the most extraordinary cases of adaptation in cinema history. The philosopher Vladimir Solovyov’s War and Christianity, written in Russia in 1900 (the year of his death) and translated into English in 1915 (freely accessible online) is an unusual book. Its narrator, a shadowy “silent listener”, reconstructs three lengthy conversations between five people. Their discussions – very bound to their particular time and place – touch on lofty theological and philosophical questions (good and evil, faith and belief, the nature of God and the Antichrist), but always return to the central, burning topic on Solovyov’s mind: whether one should adopt a non-violent approach to the organisation of society (Tolstoy’s attitude, which Solovyov abhorred), or approach the duty of fighting war in a fervently committed, Christian spirit.

This novel (if it can be rightly called that) reads more like a play-script – except that it lacks even the barest indications of stage action. Cristi Puiu read the book in the 1990s and was, by his own account, deeply affected by it; he subsequently used it as the basis for a workshop with actors, resulting in the little-seen Three Interpretation Exercises (2013). Returning to this source text in Malmkrog, Puiu remains extremely faithful to it – almost every word spoken in the film is derived verbatim from the book – while at the same time using its abstractness as the springboard for his creative imagination.

In a sense, Puiu’s project has expanded from a performance workshop to a large-scale laboratory for mise en scène. Everything – from setting and costume to strategies of staging and sound design – has to be invented from scratch.

This process also includes characterisation, for there is hardly a whiff of individualised psychology in Solovyov’s mouthpiece-ciphers. So, while retaining the deliberately stiff, hieratic, ‘talking picture’ approach to his material that is reminiscent of Manoel de Oliveira’s films or Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Gertrud (1964), Puiu also allows himself the freedom to rearrange certain core elements, such as gender assignment (a General and a Prince in the book both become women here) – and to dream up an elaborate background intrigue involving the entire servant class that regularly wafts in and out of the frame.

In the 1960s, Victor Perkins surmised that Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa vie (1962) was a formalist exercise proposing “a string of suggestions as to how one might film a conversation”. Puiu stretches that string still further. In the first long conversation, everyone is on their feet, incessantly changing their individual position and overall configuration; in the next one, they are seated for dining and the camera assumes a static, long-take position at a deliberately frustrating distance from the talking. In a later scene “at table”, Malmkrog makes the startling jump into conventional shot/reverse shot découpage – and, in this stylistic variant, the dense psychological ambience created by furtive glances and tense silences quickly takes shape. But Puiu never sticks to any one mode for very long.

The spectator has to be on high alert for all the strange discrepancies and oddities in Malmkrog – Luis Buñuel’s surreal The Exterminating Angel (1962) numbering, as Puiu has avowed, among its prime reference points. Because conventional exposition is altogether omitted, the interrelationships between characters never become entirely clear. Certain props appear and disappear, indications of daytime or night time waver, the weather changes abruptly… and just what is going on with the bullets which, after a stately fade-out, seem to have left no character harmed or object broken?

On top of the linear recitation of Solovyov’s text, Puiu appears to successively conjure several fragmented, discontinuous films, possible or virtual variations on the given structure. Cinematically, this is the terrain of Tsai Ming-liang or Raúl Ruiz, and a step beyond the painstaking realism of Puiu’s previous The Death of Mr Lazarescu (2005), Aurora (2010) and Sieranevada (2016).

Is Malmkrog an ‘academic’ work? Insofar as much of what it achieves can only be appreciated with a copy of Solovyov’s text close at hand, the answer to that question has to be yes. But is that a problem? Puiu is a devoted believer in intellectual cinema; he has confidently stated that his film requires three viewings to really grasp what he’s doing.

However true that may be, there is also an unlikely emotional payoff, albeit a frosty one: in its evocation of the politely chatty but seething ghosts of a lost history, Malmkrog is also reminiscent of John Huston’s adaptation of James Joyce in The Dead (1987). And that is no small compliment.

Further reading

Sieranevada – first look

By Geoff Andrew

Sieranevada – first look

Film of the week: Aurora

By Ryan Gilbey

Film of the week: Aurora