So I'm down to the 1000th and final movie to complete this project. For those of you who've been following this blog over the years, I'd like to invite you to a special free screening of the film that I've arranged at Anthology Film Archives, 32 2nd Ave @ 2nd St, Thursday, April 8 at 8pm. For now, I'm leaving the identity of the film a secret, except that it's unavailable on DVD in the US, and that one of my favorite film critics calls it "the sort of work that can renew one's faith in movies."
Again, the screening is free. BYOB (and bring a few more if you're feeling generous). If you want me to save you a seat, just leave a comment here or email me at alsolikelife (at) gmail (dot) com.
Hope to see you there.
Films directed by Billy Wilder on the TSPDT Top 1000 films:
#22: Some Like It Hot #31: Sunset Blvd. #59: The Apartment #97: Double Indemnity #669: Ace in the Hole #742: The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes #761: Avanti! #991: One, Two, Three
Billy Wilder's Screenwriting Tips As told to Cameron Crowe:
1. The audience is fickle. 2. Grab 'em by the throat and never let 'em go. 3. Develop a clean line of action for your leading character. 4. Know where you’re going. 5. The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer. 6. If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act. 7. A tip from Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They'll love you forever. 8. In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they’'e seeing. 9. The event that occurs at the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie. 10. The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then -- that's it. Don’t hang around.
- Reported by Nitesh Patel, NPR
Almost all the 25 films Mr. Wilder made as a writer-director displayed his slashing wit and stinging social satire. Yet no other major filmmaker slipped so easily into so many genres.
Vincent Canby, the longtime chief film critic of The New York Times, once wrote: "Wilder is often called cynical, mostly, I think, because his movies seldom offer us helpful hints to better lives. There are few people in his movies one could model one's behavior on. He doesn't deal in redeeming social values. Instead, he sees the demeaning ones."
Mr. Wilder was a director who protected his scripts. The look of a movie was less important to him than its language. "I don't like the audience to be aware of camera tricks," he told one interviewer. "Why shoot a scene from a bird's-eye view, or a bug's? It's all done to astonish the bourgeois, to amaze the middle-class critic."
In postwar Germany, Mr. Wilder was a colonel in the United States Army who oversaw a program that prevented former Nazis from working on films or in the theater. When asked by the director of the traditional Passion play in the town of Oberammergau if a former Nazi, Anton Lang, could play Jesus, Mr. Wilder responded, "Permission granted, but the nails have to be real."
Diamond, who wrote the unforgettable "Nobody's perfect" last line in "Some Like It Hot," described his partner's approach to movie making as "a Middle-European attitude, a combination of cynicism and romanticism." The cynicism, he said, "is sort of disappointed romanticism at heart - someone once described it as whipped cream that's gotten slightly curdled."
- Aljean Harmetz, The New York Times, March 29, 2002
The biographical details of Wilder's life are as vibrant as his film scripts. Wilder was born Samuel Wilder in 1906 in Sucha, a village in Galicia, an Austro-Hungarian province that is now part of Poland. It is well documented that his mother loved all things American and nicknamed her son 'Billie' after Buffalo Bill. The young Billy briefly tried to fulfill his parents' other dreams by studying law. But he very quickly changed vocations and started working for a tabloid newspaper. Stories from this period in his life abound. Wilder was a big jazz fan as well as a dance gigolo. Both these pursuits found their way into his writing, as well as motivating his subsequent relocation to Berlin. From 1927 through to 1929, he learnt his craft by 'ghostwriting' on an estimated 200 scripts. His first official screenwriting credit was for The Devil's Reporter (Ernst Laemmle, 1929), and this was followed by writing and collaboration credits on a number of early sound films. In 1933 the Nazi ascendancy caused him to flee from Germany to Paris, and finally to emigrate to America in 1934. Wilder was the last surviving member of a group of similarly exiled 'magicians of the cinema' that included Fritz Lang, Max Ophüls, Otto Preminger, Douglas Sirk, Edgar Ulmer, Robert Siodmak and Fred Zinnemann.
Wilder's work has also received much criticism over the years, including the suggestion that his reputation would have been greater had he been more of a film stylist. But Wilder was intent on developing the classical principles of transparency and invisibility:
I would like to give the impression that the best mise en scène is the one you don't notice. You have to make the public forget that there's a screen. You have to lead them into the screen, until they forget the image only has two dimensions. If you try to be artistic or affected you miss everything. Richard Armstrong, in his excellent book, Billy Wilder, American Film Realist, emphasizes Wilder's use of real locations, real streets and actual urban settings – a practice not common at the time. Armstrong finds a poetic edge in this quest for a realistic mise en scène. He singles out sequences like the “dumping of Dietrichson's body at the railroad tracks” in Double Indemnity “shot 'night-for-night' for maximum gloom” as an example of poetic realism reminiscent of the work of Zola or Renoir. Wilder's realist aesthetic, his deep shadows, gritty hard-edged streets, railway tracks, baroque houses, dramatic staircases and barren desertscapes offered startling, moody, and evocative images. While always in the service of his story, they also describe a powerful expressive film style that we now appreciate as his own.
The other main criticism that has been directed against his films is that they are deeply cynical and bleak. Ace in the Hole (aka The Big Carnival, 1951) is the film that has most often been singled out in this way. A down-on-his-luck newspaper reporter Chuck Tatum sees his chance to get back to the big city newspapers when he stumbles across a man trapped in a desert cave-in. He unnecessarily prolongs the rescue operations, in order to build the story and his own fame, only to end up resulting in the death of the cave-in victim. The story is brutally tragic and the representation of media and society is vicious. Yet, it is also a powerfully entertaining film full of wit and sparkling dialogue with lines like “I never go to church; kneeling bags my nylons” or “I've met some hard-boiled eggs in my time, but you, you're twenty minutes”. Wilder's vision is certainly dark. However through the darkness we also discover, as Cameron Crowe says, “a clear eyed view of life in all its humour, and pain...”
I think Sikov says it best in his Wilder biography:
...not even Wilder, the master cynic, could foresee the kicker. The big joke is, with each passing decade Wilder's acerbic tales only seem more tender. At the end of our vicious and exhausted century, Wilder's nastiness has taken on a kind of romantic poignance. His movies are shockingly delicate…There was always decency there, even if no one could ever quite grasp it for good. There was love, however uncertain or tentative.
- Anna Dzenis, Senses of Cinema
First and foremost a writer, Billy Wilder, by his own admission, became a director to protect his scripts, having frequently bounced onto a set to express his fury at their misinterpretation in other hands. Sometimes criticized for tempering the harshness of his vision in deference to the box office, he operated with assurance across genre boundaries, compiling an impressive body of work featuring language over character, its wit and astringent bite setting his oeuvre refreshingly apart from mainstream Hollywood fare. With the help of co-writer Raymond Chandler, he produced a masterpiece of film noir, "Double Indemnity" (1944), which he followed with "The Lost Weekend" (1945), a social problem play that despite its unconvincing, upbeat ending delivers a brutally uncompromising look at an alcoholic. Wilder, who created a variation on the comedy of manners and seduction of his mentor Ernst Lubitsch in films such as "Sabrina" (1954) and "Love in the Afternoon" (1957), mixed black comedy with farce for "Some Like It Hot" (1959), his most purely entertaining movie, and alienated Hollywood with arguably the greatest Tinseltown insider's tale, the cruel and haunting "Sunset Boulevard" (1950).
The string of box-office failures forced Wilder reluctantly into retirement, but he remained a vibrant link to Old Hollywood, always ready to oblige with a trademark quip, especially when accepting the many lifetime achievement awards that came his way. A marvelous director of actors, he coaxed career performances out of Milland, Swanson, Holden, Curtis, Lemmon, Monroe and Rogers, to name only a few, and who can't love a guy that at one time or another infuriated almost every segment of the movie-going population. He brought to the screen an outsider's sharp satirical eye for American absurdity and cruelty, and a master scenarist's skill at rendering those absurdities within a dozen variations. Some were bitter, some sweet, but all were marked by intelligence, clarity and even affection, with just a touch of innocence. Whether you prefer the earlier darker version ("Double Indemnity", "Sunset Boulevard") or the more free-wheeling later one ("Some Like It Hot", "The Apartment"), there can be no denying Wilder was a master storyteller with a great ear for a memorable line.
Wilder's work is an amazing string of hits. From sarcastic and cynical social commentary to outrageous sex farce, Wilder pushed his audiences to look at their own values and morals. He was an outsider who wasn't afraid to point out the hypocrisy of his adopted home.
- Jeremy Geltzer, Turner Classic Movies
"My father told me once, nobody's an alchemist," added Wilder with a wink. "But if I was, I'd make a thriller. There was never one kind of picture I made. I went from 'Witness for the Prosecution' to 'One, Two, Three.' Mr. Hitchcock, he made only thrillers, and magnificently. But you know what a thriller is to me? It's the movie where the boss chases the secretary around the desk. . . . That's a thriller--and that's alchemy!"
- Wilder, interviewed by Paul Harnisch, The Los Angeles Times, March 2, 1986
During the course of his directorial career, Billy Wilder succeeded in offending just about everybody. He offended the public, who shunned several of his movies as decisively as they flocked to others; he offended the press with Ace in the Hole, the U.S. Congress with A Foreign Affair, the Hollywood establishment with Sunset Boulevard ("This Wilder should be horsewhipped!" fumed Louis B. Mayer), and religious leaders with Kiss Me, Stupid; he offended the critics, both those who found him too cynical and those who found him not cynical enough. And he himself, in the end, seems to have taken offence at the lukewarm reception of his last two films, and retired into morose silence.
Themes of impersonation and deception, especially emotional deception, pervade Wilder's work. People disguise themselves as others, or feign passions they do not feel, to gain some ulterior end. Frequently, though—all too frequently, perhaps—the counterfeit turns genuine, masquerade love conveniently developing into the real thing. For all his much-flaunted cynicism, Wilder often seems to lose the courage of his own disenchantment, resorting to unconvincing changes of heart to bring about a slick last-reel resolution. Some critics have seen this as blatant opportunism. "Billy Wilder," Andrew Sarris remarked, "is too cynical to believe even his own cynicism." Others have detected a sentimental undertow, one which surfaces in the unexpectedly mellow, almost benign late films like Avanti! andThe Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. But although, by comparison with a true moral subversive like Buñuel, Wilder can seem shallow and even facile, the best of his work retains a wit and astringent bite that sets it refreshingly off from the pieties of the Hollywood mainstream. When it comes to black comedy, he ranks at least the equal of his mentor, Lubitsch, whose audacity in wringing laughs out of concentration camps (To Be or Not to Be) is matched by Wilder's in pivoting Some Like It Hot around the St. Valentine's Day Massacre.
By his own admission, Wilder became a director only to protect his scripts, and his shooting style is essentially functional. But though short on intricate camerawork and stunning compositions, his films are by no means visually drab. Several of them contain scenes that lodge indelibly in the mind: Swanson as the deranged Norma Desmond, regally descending her final staircase; Jack Lemmon dwarfed by the monstrous perspectives of a vast open-plan office; Ray Milland (The Lost Weekend) trudging the parched length of Third Avenue in search of an open pawn-shop; Lemmon again, tangoing deliriously with Joe E. Brown, in full drag with a rose between his teeth. No filmmaker capable of creating images as potent—and as cinematic—as these can readily be written off.
- Philip Kemp, Film Reference.com
Wilder learned to forge compelling stories about a brutal world in the inflation-riddled Vienna of the ’20s. Rejecting the preferred vocation of middle-class Jewish parents, he dropped law and became a reporter. Dispensing with the flowery feuilletons of traditional Viennese reportage, Wilder wrote tough, realistic pieces on sporting personalities, local celebrities, and visiting jazz musicians. According to biographer Maurice Zolotow, he introduced sports writing into Austria single-handed.
In 1926, bandleader Paul Whiteman invited Wilder to be his guide on a tour of Berlin. Wilder never returned to Vienna and became a dapper Americaphile, driving a Chrysler and, reputedly, learning English by memorizing song lyrics. Drifting into screenwriting, his career will emulate that twentieth-century paradigm: the European Jew emigrates, buys into the American Dream, resells the dream in Europe.
Andrew Sarris, the American critic, dismissed Wilder in his 1968 American Cinema as a director who “is too cynical to believe even his own cynicism.” He made reference to the scene in Stalag 17 in which Holden’s character “bids a properly cynical adieu to his prison-camp buddies. He ducks into the escape tunnel for a second, then quickly pops up, out of character, with a boyish smile and a friendly wave, and then ducks down for good. Holden’s sentimental waste motion in a tensely timed melodrama demonstrates the cancellation principle in Wilder’s cinema.” He charged that Wilder’s “conception of political sophistication” added up to “a series of tasteless gags, half anti-Left and half anti-Right.” Sarris further asserted that even Wilder’s best films “are marred by the director’s penchant for gross caricature, especially with peripheral characters. All of Wilder’s films decline in retrospect because of visual and structural deficiencies.” Sarris later famously reversed his opinion, and, in his most recent work, apologetically paid tribute to Wilder, observing that he had “grossly under-rated Billy Wilder, perhaps more so than any other American director.” It is my view that Sarris underrated Wilder in 1968 and overrates his work now.
Millar comments: “The truth is that no one comes comfortably out of a Wilder picture. This refusal to betray sympathy or award moral marks has been reproved as coldness, bitterness, contempt for the audience, or, more generally, for humanity, and his critics have usually managed to indict Wilder at the same time on the grounds of bad taste.... More often he is simply abused for having told the truth about an unpleasant area of human behavior.”
While true in a general sense, this may be a little too generous, as is Sarris’s critical volte-face. There is no question that some of those who leveled criticisms at Wilder’s supposed cynicism simply did not care to take a hard look at the institutions or practices at which the filmmaker was taking satirical aim. That is to Wilder’s credit. There is no need to pull one’s punches in regard to the state of American life or morals.
That does not settle the issue, however. There are missing elements in nearly all of his films. Compassion, for example, and the sense of an alternative to existing reality, even a moral or emotional one. At times his targets seem a trifle obvious, the work as a whole a little brittle, like a bright and shiny object in the water that remains near or close to the surface. The films, by and large, lack extraordinary resonance, texture and depth, at least when compared with the greatest films.
Perhaps in the end one should not concern oneself so much with what is lacking in Wilder’s work, and appreciate what is present. Within the bounds of the commercial film industry, he represented the principle of satire and irony, legitimate tendencies, and ones that are sorely lacking in the contemporary cinema world. He is a giant when compared to nearly everyone involved in American filmmaking today.
- David Walsh, World Socialist Website
Playboy: Are you conscious of any kinship in your films or your philosophy, as several critics have suggested, with the savage satire of Bertolt Brecht, or with the intellectual cynicism he articulated for his generation?
Billy Wilder: I knew him in Germany, and I knew him when he lived for a time here in Hollywood, and I regard him with Mr. Shaw - George Bernard, not Irwin -- as one of the monumental dramatists of this first half-century, but I was never aware that he influenced me. Brecht was dealing with enormous subjects of the hungry, exploited masses which neither my brain nor my attention-span can cope with. His was a much vaster canvas than mine. After all, was Mickey Spillane influenced by Tolstoy? That's Leo Nikolaevich, not Irwin. If there was any influence on me in those days, it must have come more from American books and plays I read. One of the most popular writers was Upton Sinclair. I read him, and Sinclair Lewis, Bret Harte, Mark Twain. I was also influenced by Erich von Stroheim and by Ernst Lubitsch, with whom I first worked on Bluebeard's Eighth Wife. But I don't believe I have been influenced by the cynicism of the times or even shown any of it on the screen. When they say that I have, they could be referring to, say, Double Indemnity, but this was done from a short story by James M. Cain, an American. It is not sugar-coated, my work, but I certainly don't sit down and say, "Now I am going to make a vicious, unsentimental picture."
Playboy: A friend of yours once said "Billy's collaborators are $50,000 secretaries." Is your creative hand really that authoritative in writing a scenario?
Do you remember my telling you earlier about that rooming house I lived in when I first was trying to get into the movies in Berlin? Well, next to my room was the can, and in it was a toilet that was on the blink. The water kept running all night long. I would lie there and listen to it, and since I was young and romantic, I'd imagine it was a beautiful waterfall - just to get my mind off the monotony of it and the thought of its being a can. Now we dissolve to 25 years later and I am finally rich enough to take a cure at Badgastein, the Austrian spa, where there is the most beautiful waterfall in the whole world. There I am in bed, listening to the waterfall. And after all I have been through, all the trouble and all the money I've made, all the awards and everything else, there I am in that resort, and all I can think of is that goddamned toilet. That, like the man says, is the story of my life.
Wilder: First of all, whoever said that is no friend of mine. If that were the case I would hire my relatives and make the money I give them tax-deductible, at least. But my collaborator, Iz Diamond, and I work together from the word go, and after it's done it cannot be said that this was his idea, this was mine, this was my joke, this was his. It all occurs together, like playing a piano piece four-handed.
Playboy: Many moviemakers claim to have found an intellectual stimulation and creative freedom in Europe that's unattainable in Hollywood. Have you?
Wilder: Remember, the movie scripts that Hollywood people go to Europe to shoot are still written in Hollywood, don't forget. So they make La Dolce Vita in Rome; but they also make Hercules and the Seven Dwarfs. As for freedom, all the Mirisch Company asks me is the name of my picture, a vague outline of the story, and who's going to be in it. The rest is up to me; can you get more freedom than that? And as for there being more intellectual stimulation in Europe, some of my best friends have gone to Europe and then to seed intellectually. I don't believe any of that "intellectual stimulus" crap. Take Confucius - he said some pretty stimulating things, but he never got to Paris in his life.
Playboy: Hollywoodians often speak enviously of you as a man of uncompromising standards. How is it that you and a few other filmmakers have managed to resist the pressures of compromise?
Wilder: To me, it is a matter of dollars and cents. It doesn't have only to do with Hollywood, it has to do with a man's approach to the problem of making those dollars and cents. Some compromise, some do not. Look at Fellini. He cleaned up with La Dolce Vita. When I saw it I couldn't decide if it was the greatest or dreariest picture I'd ever seen, and finally I decided it was both. A remarkable film, excellent because he had stuck to his own principles.But the worst thing that can happen to us in this business is if a dog picture makes a hit, then we all have to make dog pictures because the people with the money trust dogs. But if one like Fellini's makes a hit, it is the greatest thing - as long as it is not loaded with the stars who are always advertising themselves in the trades.
It's a question of money, and yet it is not a question of money anymore in Hollywood. The beauty of our capitalist system is that you can't keep what you make even if you make a lousy picture that's a hit; so why not try to make something good? Today's capitalist system is for those who already have the money, not for those who are making it. There is really very little use in my working, since I can't keep the money. I can never get richer than I am. So why am I beating my brains out? I go to the studio because I can't stand listening to my wife's vacuum cleaner at home, and also because I can't find three bridge partners or somebody to go to the ball game with. Also I work to waylay some of the phonies from getting Academy Awards.
Playboy: Isn't it true that when you're between pictures you've been known to volunteer your services to other producers and directors?
Wilder: Only when asked. I enjoy making movies, I enjoy the problems. If I'm not working on something of my own and someone calls me up and says, "Look here, Billy, I have a problem," I will try to do what I can to help out. I'm restless. My stomach hurts when I'm working, but it also hurts when I'm not. It's exasperating - I should get into something else. But that's the way it is, and I'm stuck with it. After 30 years of making films I'm used to trouble and well-acquainted with grief.
- Interviewed by Richard German, Playboy, June 1 1963
Although this blog project covers only the films I haven't previously seen on the TSPDT 1000, when I saw that The Times of Harvey Milk was back on the list after last January's update, I just had to make room to write about it. The film constitutes one of my formative film-related memories, though the memory had nothing to do with watching the film. It was March 1985; I was 10 years old. The Oscars were airing on TV – this was the first time I’d ever watched them. I don’t remember much about that year’s telecast other than that for the Costume Design award they brought an elephant onto the stage to accessorize the costume models from A Passage to India, and that an Asian guy had won Best Supporting Actor. I also remember that when they announced that the winner for Best Documentary was The Times of Harvey Milk, I started jumping up and down and ran to the living room to tell my parents. I’m not sure why I did this. Somehow I knew about The Times of Harvey Milk, and somehow it was a big deal to me that it had won.
It might have been that the film had gotten a lot of coverage on the local news in San Francisco, since it was about recent events that took place in the city. So I might have equated the film’s Oscar moment to something like when the 49ers won the Super Bowl just two months before. I wouldn’t actually see the film until two years later, during our family's free home trial of HBO, but by that point Harvey Milk was already firmly imprinted in my mental mosaic of San Francisco, thanks in part to the film’s Oscar being touted by the news as a win for the city. Even after watching the film at age 12, I have to confess that I still didn’t know what “gay” really meant, other than some vague sense of men being in love with men, a concept that both repulsed and fascinated my parents (I remember long conversations about Boy George), and that my classmates would tease each other with homophobic epithets with such frequency, and with such perverse relish, that “fag” or “gaylord” became inverted into terms of endearment almost devoid of any denotative meaning (see Deadwood's liberal application of the word "cocksucker" as a point of comparison).
I bring up these somewhat embarrassing recollections for several reasons. First, to show what significance The Times of Harvey Milk had for me as a Bay Area native, even without having seen the film. Second, to illustrate what a quasi-schizophrenic jumble of attitudes one can have towards sexuality growing up in an SF immigrant suburb, exposed to Asian homophobia, AIDS scares, (mostly) progressive teachers and media and a prestigious Oscar-winning documentary. In a sense, as a child I was the perfect audience for The Times of Harvey Milk, because the film is the cinematic equivalent of that teacher many of us might have had in grade school or junior high: the one with the uncommonly centered demeanor and reassuring smile, who seemed to have a handle on the world in a way we aspired to attain someday.
It's really ironic then, that one of the documentary's "subplots" involves the defeat of Proposition 6, which would have made it illegal for gays to teach in public schools. The defeat of Prop 6 was a milestone for gay rights in the U.S. and one of the highlights of Harvey Milk's brief political career. In a way, the film confirms the fears of the conservatives who wanted to pass Prop 6, and who dreaded the influence that pro-gay pedagogues would have on their children. But the profoundness of that influence is less in the gay lifestyle itself than in the rhetoric used to present it, something that The Times of Harvey Milk makes vividly clear.
On the one hand, the film's presentation of Milk invokes a classic American archetype: an entrepreneurial idealogue determined to make a difference in the world and for the better. Through a series of biographical episodes and first-person anecdotes by historical witnesses, Harvey Milk is painted as an irrepressible optimist who runs for citywide office three times before finally succeeding, and who speaks with both fearlessness and flair on behalf of his constituents as well as his own principles. He's ultimately painted as a tragic Shakespearean figure, felled by a jealous, self-destructive right wing Iago with an almost too-symbolic name: Dan White. I remember seeing the film as a kid and my mind making a laserbeam connection with gays as another persecuted minority, another underdog to be championed against The Man.
On the other hand, the film doesn't cater to a sense of niche interest, but adopts an expansive embrace of a cross section of society. Take the film's casting, a veritable rainbow coalition of voices; it's the filmic embodiment of the State of the Union addresses that Bill Clinton mastered, touching on every demographic needed to score points across the board. Among the many talking heads speaking fondly of Milk, there's an Asian man to signify approval from racial minorities (yeah, I guess all of them):
Then there's Tom Ammiano, future successor to Milk as City Supervisor. He's an extension of Milk's off-the-cuff persona, flamboyant to the extent that he almost serves a quasi-minstrel role as comic relief. But the levity serves as setup for two sequences: when Ammiano talks about the impact that Prop 6 would have on him, a schoolteacher at the time, potentially costing him his job; and a when he talks about the impact that Milk's death had on him, the perils of his life come into sharp relief.
There's also a TV reporter who prominently covered much of Milk's tenure for the news - here she gives her off-camera impressions of Milk. What this does is foster a sense of community and candor behind the professional veneer; that despite the roles we play in society, we ultimately relate to each other as humans. It's a small touch but it makes a difference and it really reveals the humanist spirit of the film.
But the real lynchpin as far as connecting the story to a "mainstream" audience is a labor leader who more or less admits his homophobia, but gradually and begrudgingly comes to respect Milk for his determined advocacy on behalf of the issues they shared.
It’s worth considering how much the film is a reflection, even an homage, of Milk’s personality. Like Milk, the film uses humor and empathy, along with a sense of the dramatic to shape and tone its message. Also note how well lit these interviews are, with a consciously consistent effect of sunniness, achieved even in the choice of wardrobe. It's subtle, not overtly staged, but effectively warm and upbeat, seeing its subjects in the best possible light - was this the way Milk himself saw people?
In their commentary for the New Yorker DVD, director Rob Epstein and editor Deborah Hoffman discuss how they decided to retell the events of Harvey Milk and SF Mayor George Moscone's murders multiple times, first with raw footage, then with a chorus of voices alternately relating events and expressing emotional reactions. This is meant to mirror the natural waves of reaction experienced in times of trauma. This is another example of the canniness of the film, engaging the viewer on a deep level of empathy. It's so brilliant that I almost find it unsettling that all my buttons are getting pushed the right way. It's almost disenfranchising; I mean, how can you not like this movie or disagree with its message?
In sum, this is as much a polemical documentary of its time as Triumph of the Will was for the 1930s - though rather than persuade you with grandiose spectacles of fascist supermen, it's a more dialogic approach, informed by the rhetorical techniques of college seminars and group counseling sessions. It's open, embracing and incredibly potent, appealing to both reason and sentiment. While watching it at age twelve I came away with an appreciation of Milk and the gay rights movement, this time I stand in awe of the power of a masterfully constructed cinematic narrative to imbue people with a new outlook, its force a million times more powerful than the gun that took Harvey Milk's life.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO LEARN MORE?
The following citations were counted towards the placement of The Times of Harvey Milk among the 1000 Greatest Films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?
Daniel Barnz, IonCinema! (2009) Laura Gabbert, PBS Independent Lens (2007) Marco Williams, PBS Independent Lens (2008) Nakano Rie, Sight & Sound (1992) Vivian Kleiman, PopcornQ (1997) Empire, The 250 Greatest Films You've Never Seen - Documentary (2007) San Francisco Chronicle, Vintage Video - A Hot 100 From Out of the Past (1997) They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films Official film site
"If Dan White had only killed George Moscone, he would have gone up for life," one person says in the film. "But he killed a gay, and so they let him off easy."
This is not necessarily the case, and the weakest element in "The Times of Harvey Milk" is its willingness to let Milk's friends second-guess the jury, and impugn the jurors motives.
Many people who observed White's trial believe that White got a light sentence, not because of anti-gay sentiment, but because of incompetent prosecution. Some of the jurors were presumably available to the filmmakers, and the decision not to let them speak for themselves - to depend instead on the interpretations of Milk's friends and associates is a serious bias.
That objection aside, this is an enormously absorbing film, for the light it sheds on a decade in the life of a great American city and on the lives of Milk and Moscone, who made it a better, and certainly a more interesting, place to live.
- Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times, February 22 1985
The Times of Harvey Milk, though relatively undistinguished as filmmaking, is invaluable as a cinematic account of the life and legacy of Harvey Milk. It doesn’t tell everything about him- what movie could?- but it’s a great jumping-off point.
Much more interesting, and illuminating to Milk’s legacy, is a pair of public events that followed Milk’s death, the first a candlelight vigil a few days after Milk was shot, the second a full-scale riot in reaction to the White verdict. It’s in the second case that Milk’s absence is most profoundly felt. The Milk we get to know throughout the course of The Times of Harvey Milk was not about violence or fear, but a positive inspiration to others- as someone else once put it, “a uniter, not a divider.” In one of his most famous speeches, Milk said, “you gotta give ‘em hope,” a message that seems particularly relevant today, considering the hopeful message of change put forth by our recent President-elect. How unfortunate, then, that there was no Milk-like figure to lead the movement to defeat California’s Proposition 8. With anti-gay marriage laws being passed across the country, will we soon see the times of the next Harvey Milk? Only time will tell.
- Paul Clark, Nerve.com
The film is as much a portrait of San Francisco, the rise of its openly gay Castro Street district (even Boys in the Band is on the marquee of its landmark movie theater), but it is also a portrait of its diverse community. In one sense, the movie's universality hinges on one of its interview subjects, Jim Elliot, a middle-aged auto machinist and union rep once ambivalent to the violent police raids on the city's gay bars. But family man Elliot was impressed by Milk's support and activism for union causes and dedication to his marginalized neighbors -- not just gays but everyone. He was an advocate of senior citizen rights, rent control, and limitations on high-rise development. In many ways the film's issues haven't dated: one of Milk's achievements during his 11 months in office was to select voting machines most accessible to non-native English speakers, a stand that put him at odds with several of his Democratic colleagues.
- Stuart Galbraith IV, DVD Talk
FROM THE BEST REVIEW OF THE FILM:
Epstein's grandest coup, and what elevates Harvey Milk beyond being a stunning, emotional docudrama and into the realm of elegant social activism, is in the subtle parallels he draws between the Milk-White dichotomy and the concurrent, controversial battle over Proposition 6, which would grant California public schools permission to fire openly gay teachers. The coalescing Moral Majority brigade (which would form the first significant American movement in backlash against the gay community's gains since Stonewall) were putting all their chips on a wager that the American public's tolerance would only go so far, and the line in the sand: "the children." It was a bet that was paying off in elections across the country in the late '70s (to a musical accompaniment from Anita Bryant).
If their argument was that children's pre-sexuality is malleable and in jeopardy of being corrupted by "subversive influences," Epstein effectively pokes a hole in the logic by suggesting that White's fragile psychological state (one crucial detail in White's case history that occurred following the film's production was his suicide in 1985) is as much a product of the inadequate social upbringing that set him up to believe in a world where heterosexuals triumphed over homosexuals. When Harvey Milk emerged as a popular (and cunning) politician who was capable of beating White at his own game, White's petulance and irrationality seemed to finger him as a man reverting to a state of mental adolescence, reaching a climax with black-and-white video footage of White going ballistic in the council chambers and batting his microphone away in indignation.
Epstein's strategy pays off in the decision to allow White's teary courtroom breakdown, the one many feel let him off with the legal equivalent of a slap on the wrist, play out for a veritable eternity, even daring viewers to identify with his inner torment. (White's legal team's infamous "Twinkie defense" seems like the ultimate substantiation of this sort of developmental retardation, and the fact that homosexuality had only recently been removed from psychological classifications for mental illnesses is the sick punchline.) It's precisely this sort of benevolence to White, perhaps unwarranted in the eyes of Harvey Milk's target audience, that turns a story of predestination (Milk actually recorded his thoughts to be broadcast in the event of his assassination) into a demand for unqualified social openness—specifically, mandated public education—about the realities of sexual diversity. Without it, White was left without any sense of moral bearing and, yes, could conceivably not be held accountable for his actions. This concept gives greater gravity to Milk's own vigorous exhortations for all homosexuals to "come out of the closet! You must!" It's one thing for a documentary to claim a person great, it's something else entirely to convince the audience they have an active role in fulfilling his legacy.
- Eric Henderson, Slant
Review by Jonathan Kim, The Huffington Post:
"Twinkie defense" is a term that came into popular use after the murder trial. It is often mistakenly believed that White's lawyers claimed that their client's actions were motivated by his consumption of an unusually large amount of junk food. That's not quite true; the actual argument was that White was extremely depressed at the time of his murder, and that his out-of-character appetite for Twinkies and other sweets was simply evidence of his depression, not the cause. I'm not disputing a huge injustice was done at White's trial, but as a comprehensive documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk really should have set the record straight instead of repeating this misconception.
In Rob Epstein's interview at the Director's Guild, he explains that he intended this film to be a gay documentary that would reach to straight audiences. In this respect, Epstein has been completely successful, revealing Harvey Milk to be a passionate, charismatic politician who fought for what he believed in, and was cruelly murdered for his efforts. The Times of Harvey Milk is recommended for all viewers.
- Paul Corupe, DVD Verdict
This documentary starts with the end of Milk's life, with Dianne Feinstein's pained announcement to the press that Milk and Moscone were shot and killed. It's a curious thing to start with the film's big climax, but it turns out to be the best move documentary filmmaker Rob Epstein (The Celluloid Closet, Paragraph 175) could make, as it makes everything that follows all the more resonant. From then on, Epstein shows bit of interviews with several of Milk's peers, giving us some insight of the man behind the media image, showing his selflessness and interest in helping everyone he can, in his effort to promote unity and acceptance, not only for the gay community, but for everyone.
Epstein also manages to secure a wealth of television footage, from interviews of Milk himself, to key newscasts which has relevance to Milk's life. The interviews and footage are woven together perfectly, with a sequence of events that gives us a great feel for the man that Harvey Milk was, and what he meant to so many people. great care is taken to show Milk in the most human light possible, and not as a martyr or person who could do no wrong. It does concentrate on his strengths, however, which was mostly his ability to touch people's lives and gain their respect.
If there is any downside to this fantastic film, it's that it couldn't end on the heartfelt vigil held in Milk's honor shortly after his death, which provides perhaps the most emotionally poignant moment of the movie. Unfortunately, the trial of Milk's killer, Dan White, was so bizarre that it had to follow after, which does erase some of the momentum and shift away from Milk's life. Epstein does eventually tie it back together, though, by ending the film with the notion that Milk's sexuality might have played a role in his demise, which wasn't really that evident in the presentation here. The film was released shortly before White would take his own life, the following year.
INTERVIEW WITH ROB EPSTEIN
When did you decide to make a film about Milk's life?
I had already started the project before Harvey was killed. I started to do a film about the Briggs Initiative -- Proposition 6 -- for the very reasons we were just talking about. That's what I was interested in, that fight, which was new then, and then it all became embodied in Harvey's story. That was all part of it, which is why I ended up doing a film that was more about the times, and showing Harvey as a man of history - that particular history - than a biopic documentary.
How has audience reaction changed to the film over the years, or has it? When it first reached theaters, it really wasn't long after all of these events had happened.
People are still shocked by the whole trial, the results and the Twinkie defense -- that's still stunning people who are unfamiliar with it. People react to the film on different levels, but certainly I think the primary response to the film is that, up until now, it's where Harvey Milk has lived. For the past 20 years he's lived in the documentary, and that's continued for generations who weren't familiar with the story. Now, with "Milk," there's a whole other level of Harvey's story that will get out there, because "Milk" is a much more personal film, in a way.
How did "The Times of Harvey Milk" inform "Milk"? Quite a few scenes in the latter were direct reenactments of footage used in your documentary.
That's true. "The Times of Harvey Milk" was foundational, I would say. I was certainly a friend of the film and a good friend of Gus. We did oral histories with dozens of people, which helped us figure out what the essence of the story was and who we wanted to tell it. From our archive, we had a lot of oral histories with the characters that are in "Milk": Scott Smith and Cleve Jones and Danny Nicoletta and Anne Kronenberg. It was great to be able to offer those to the actors.
- Interviewed by Alison Willmore, IFC.com
ABOUT THE NEW YORKER DVD
To commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Harvey Milk's assassination, Telling Pictures and New Yorker Films have released this special DVD edition of Rob Epstein's landmark documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, with commentary by Rob and editor Deborah Hoffmann.
Excellent dual layered DVD from New Yorker. The image is as good as can be expected for a relatively low budget independent documentary film. Colors are true - some of the archival footage is damaged slightly but it has no effect on viewing enjoyment. Audio is clear. I would have preferred subtitles as an option to translate some background dialogue in newsreel footage. The Extras are endless, with commentary and a whole 2nd disc of detailed information. I would rank this up there with New Yorker "Jazz on a Summer's Day" as perhaps their best DVD release to date. This is a must-own disc. It is as eye-opening and enjoyable as any film/DVD I have seen all year.
- Gary W. Tooze, DVD Beaver.com
New Yorker Films, not exactly known for loading their discs with special features, should be commended for the extra effort that has gone into this release. On the first disc is a commentary with Rob Epstein, co-editor Deborah Hoffman, and Daniel Nicoletta, a photographer whose work is featured in the film. Focusing almost exclusively on the filmmaking process, this track contains a generally interesting discussion on putting together a documentary on a limited budget. Pop in the second disc for a better look at Milk's legacy. Best of the batch is a 15-minute Q&A session with Rob Epstein and Tom Ammiano from the Director's Guild, Los Angeles, reflecting on the significance of the film. "Harvey Speaks Out" is billed as an outtakes featurette, but it's doubtful that many of these short TV clips were actually considered for inclusion—they just feature Milk talking about different city issues. A four minute "Dan White Update" picks up where the film left off, and is mainly included to acknowledge White's parole and suicide. Self-explanatory are "Academy Awards Presentation" from 1985 and "San Francisco Premiere: Castro Theatre," which features a few short speeches of interest. A less effective "alternate ending," a lengthy trailer, and a photo gallery are also included.
Perhaps the most important extras are those that specifically look back at the murder of Harvey Milk and talk about what it that means to us today. "1st Anniversary" is just a short speech by then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein, but the "25th Anniversary Events" comprises the major portion of the second disc. Kicking it off is "Dan White Case Revisited," a 45-minute round table on the Dan White case and its impact. Next up are tributes offered by George Moscone's son Chris Moscone and Harvey Milk's nephew Stuart Milk, followed by a speech by the man appointed to fill Milk's seat after his death, Harry Britt. It all ends with more speeches at a candlelight memorial at the Castro. There may be a few too many talking heads in these bonus features for some people, but overall, this is a nice little package.
- Paul Corupe, DVD Verdict
First off, I want to encourage everyone in New York City to take advantage of an opportunity that I will sorely miss: an in-person appearance (alternative link to event) by Yuriy Norshteyn. This legendary 68-year old Russian animator rarely comes to the US; he may very well be traveling to raise funds for his first feature film The Overcoat, which he has been working on for nearly 30 years. In any case, please go in my place, as I will be on a flight to Berlin as he makes his appearance at the SVA Theater:
Monday, February 15: School of Visual Arts Theater (333 W. 23rd Street, between 8th/9th Ave.) This event is billed only as a Q&A so be aware that there may not be a screening. No price is indicated so I’m also assuming it’s free.
To be honest, I am a recent convert to Norstein, like, as of this week. He has been touted on this site before, as one of the 100 Most Important Directors of Animated Shorts, as voted on by my colleagues at IMDb. Still, when Tale of Tales appeared for the first time on the TSPDT 1000 upon its most recent update, I had never heard of the film, despite it being voted the greatest animated film of all time at polls conducted by two animation film festivals.
So I won't pretend to be an expert on this film when I've been acquainted with its filmmaker for all of a week, and when there is already a book length study by animation scholar Claire Kitson available, which I will seek out. I will only say that I've seen this half-hour masterpiece four times in four days, and it feels like it's stayed with me for four years. It's as if Norshteyn sat with these images all his life, drawing them with such lucidity and palpable depth of feeling, that they make even the untold hours of ingenuity and laborious craft behind Pixar films feel relatively disposable. It summons a concept of the fermented image: a vision that has stayed with a person for as long as they've been breathing, and perhaps beyond that, like the wolf that lurks throughout the film, a folkloric figure as old as Russian blood.
It's a vision that nurtures, like the suckling breast that satiates the infant who sees the wolf just as its eyes pull into sleep.
The whole film seems to be a drunken/lucid suckling of images, images that have nourished a lifetime of sublime melancholy and wonder, reflected in so much of what's on screen. And the way each image is rendered with a delicacy verging on dissolution conveys a yearning for that same image, as fragile as the decaying memorabilia of one's childhood:
or one's memory rendered through a ghostly gauze - such as these tangoing couples about to be severed by the War raging around them...
Another recurring motif feels slightly more contemporary (with sharper lines, brighter hues and more fashionable clothing), involving an apple-loving boy who fancies himself feeding crows in the tree boughs as his parents loiter on a bench below:
The film cycles through these visuals in such a way that the repetition invokes instant affection and nostalgia, as with films by Duras or Wong Kar-wai. The wolf figures as the protagonist, the only one who seems to traverse from one zone of memory to another, often by crossing through forests that at times give the only acknowledgment of late 20th century modernity:
But his experiences of the hopscotching bull, the dancing phantoms, even the snowbound family, are all mediated by some sort of illuminated threshold: an entrancing fire on the hearth, or light raptruously emanating from a doorway or from a manuscript, as if these visions are liminal states into which he is lulled repeatedly. But it still doesn't account for other images that seem to inhabit an interzone apart from the more sharply defined worlds, an eden blanketed in Tarkovskian dampness and mist:
And all these visuals still don't account for images that I didn't capture because they only make sense in motion: soldiers marching into a swallowing blackness; windows boarded up without hands or hammers; a pile of wood suddenly combusting; a tablecloth that seems to billow under the breezes of history. Or the sounds: a record skipping as men disappear from their lovers' embrace; the wolf blowing on his hands as he tries to handle a hot potato. And the lullaby that begins the film and tips the film's hand as a lullaby to all of us, whisking us to a world of beauty whose liquid lucidity can only exist in sleep, except when an artist is somehow able to extract these moments from a lifetime of dreaming. Again, it would be a privilege to meet such a person.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE (AND WATCH TALE OF TALES)?
Watch Tale of Tales on Veoh
The following citations were counted towards the placement of Tale of Tales among the top 1000 films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?
Doug Cummings, One-Line Review (2009) John Davies, One-Line Review (2009) Keith Griffiths, Time Out (1995) Annecy Festival, 100 Films for a Century of Animation (2006) Cinematheque Quebecoise, FIAF: Film History (1995) Film: The Critic's Choice, 150 Masterpieces of World Cinema-The Art of the Impossible (2001) Olympiad, The Champions of Animation (1984)
Despite its simple beauty, "Tale" was not made with children in mind. In the sequence imagining the huge losses Russia experienced in World War II, couples dance to the famous tango "Weary Sun." Every time the old record skips, one man disappears from the frame and then the women dance alone.
Norstein says "Tale of Tales" is a film about the way memory is conjured up. He says the role of the artist is to allow people to "experience life yet unlived. This is the most significant thing we can get from art."
Fans like to watch the film again and again. "I have seen it many times," says Yulia Zotova, 42, who attended the exhibit of Norstein's work in Moscow. " 'Tale of Tales' evokes these emotions in me. I've always been fascinated with the character Little Wolf because he's a symbol of wisdom and love. My impression is that spiritually we are searching for this wisdom and this love and we find it in his films."
In the last quarter of a century, the film has inspired filmmakers, animators and writers. In June 2002, the Zagreb International Animation Festival published the results of a poll of animators to establish the best animated film of all time. It was "Tale of Tales." A 1984 poll of animators came up with same result.
- Peter Finn, The Washington Post
Norstein’s initial script treatment for Tale of Tales was approved by the Soviets but he summarily dismissed it, producing a much more ambiguous and emotionally complex piece than was originally planned. Tale of Tales juxtaposes images of innocence and gaiety with images of war and vanishing soldiers, nostalgic visions of childhood with an alcoholic parent chugging a bottle of vodka. The Soviet film authorities, baffled by the film’s poetry, deemed it subversive for its lack of social realism, and demanded that Norstein make extensive changes. He refused, and luckily, had just been awarded a State honor that made it virtually impossible for the authorities to enforce their demands or suppress the work.
- Doug Cummings, Film Journey
Tale of Tales is laminated with enchantment. Layer by layer. A suckling baby is sung a lullaby, wooing it to sleep lest the little grey fox abduct him to take him into the scary woods where a green apple glows wet with rain.
The little grey fox is maligned. He is sweet, clever and curious. He flirts with himself in shiny hubcaps. The exhaust fumes of cars make him sneeze and his sneeze startles birds into flight. A hot potato burns his paws. A young girl jumps rope with a steer that, every now and then, likes to take its turn. A poet anguishes over what to envision, what to say. Women and men dance underneath a streetlight and each time the record skips another husband / father / son is lost to the ravages of war. A one-legged veteran plays a sad concertina. A fish floats in the sky catching the attention of an idle cat who, by caterwauling, teaches the poet how to orate. A boy imagines himself befriending winter birds on a tree limb above him. Is the baby dreaming all of this? Is this where the lullaby has taken him? Is this where it has taken us? Whimsical and poignant, Tale of Tales masterfully purveys a deep realm where images are deftly woven into feelings.
- Michael Guillen, The Evening Class
Like Tarkovsky’s The Mirror, figuring out a specific meaning for each scene is difficult if not impossible and useless. Norstein, like Tarkovsky a few years before him, is delving into his own memories and displaying the results (...) Thus, it could be said that the only one who truly understands Tale of Tales is Norstein. What keeps me from embracing this criticism is that, impermeability notwithstanding, I was constantly occupied with emotions and ideas throughout the film’s duration. Does it matter that I don’t understand every scene? Am I supposed to? I don’t think so. This film is going more for rhythms and moods, different drawing styles alternating between each other, each suggesting a different reality: there’s the parent storyline of the little wolf; there’s the poignant visual poem about the effects of wartime on civilians; there’s the aside to the apple-loving boy and his alcoholic father; and finally there’s that bit with minotaurs, jumping ropes, and harps. These sections weave together and combine. Memory and dreams emerge from the fantasy of the little wolf. We navigate each reality, notice melancholy patterns: departures, time lapses, destruction, burning, death, and other natural cycles. Free association takes us to random places, but there seems to be a structure, an emotional core. I have only seen Tale of Tales once. These kinds of films have a way of being new with every return. You find currents and threads that had been invisible during the introductory voyage.
Voted as the best animated film of all time by animators and critics at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Arts Festival, Yuri Norstein's Tale of Tales, is a personal, and often profound, statement of atavistic recollection. Norstein uses the animated form to recall primal and ancestral sources of human feeling and experience. Fusing folk-tale, memory and personal symbolism, Norstein achieves associative relations which move beyond the realms of standard representations of time and space, privileging the psychological and emotional as the focusing agents in relating images, rather than using orthodox modes of story-telling. As Norstein himself suggests, 'The sanctity of the image, or rather its construction, seems to move in gradually from all sides; the elements that coagulate create the image'.
Whilst the workings of an artist like Norstein may, in the first instance, seem impenetrable to the viewer, it is important to recognize that such methodologies foreground the idea of image-making as a tension between conscious and unconscious experience. This may be understood as a process which accepts and includes images which emerge from a number of sources and which seem at first to have no particular relationship. Further, such images, whether they are perceived constructions of real physical space, fragmentary recollections of dreams, half-remembered visions, hallucinations and fantasies, or pictures without past or purpose conjured in the mind, are not forced into a coherent story, though they do possess their own narrative which informs the relational conception of the film. The images possess an ontological equivalence, and in being valued as equally valid and important whatever their source, occupy a narrative space which refuses to categorise any one character or event as its presiding or dominant element. Tale of Tales refuses all obvious signposts of plot, preferring instead a system of leitmotifs, recurring images that play out their own subtle differences and developments as part of a wider scheme of recollection. It may be useful to stress that Norstein's work is recollection; a gathering of images which define the psyche and the act of memory as an act of creativity. As Mikhail Yampolsky has noted, 'What confronts us is not simply a film about memory, but a film built like memory itself, which imitates in its spatial composition the structural texture of our consciousness.'
Animation is especially suited to the process of associative linking, both as a methodology by which to create image systems, and as a mechanism by which to understand them. Understanding these images only comes from an active participation in the images as the repository of meaning in their own right, and not necessarily, in direct connection to other images. Norstein and Tarkovsky create works which ultimately require the viewer to empathise as well as analyse, and this dimension of feeling - what Norstein calls the 'spinal cord' of emotional recognition - is the quality which lyricises the image. The 'deductions' that are made possible by this kind of involvement are those which relate the personal to the universal. Norstein essentially engages with his childhood during the war, and through the accumulation of the everyday details and events (real and imagined) of his past life, given special emphasis by the selectivity of memory, he creates a text which elevates the expression of the psyche's own sense of history to the level of poetic insight and spiritual epiphany.
- Paul Wells, Understanding Animation. Routledge, 1998. Pages 93, 94
Widely acclaimed as the best animated film of all time, Tale of Tales is a poetic amalgam of Yuri Norstein's memories of his past and hopes and fears for the future: his post-war childhood, remnants of the personal tragedies of war, the little wolf character in the lullaby his mother used to sing, the neighbors in his crowded communal flat, the tango played in the park on summer evenings, and the small working-class boy's longing to emerge from the dark central corridor of the kommunalka into a luminous world of art and poetry. In Yuri Norstein and Tale of Tales: An Animator's Journey, Clare Kitson examines the passage of these motifs into the film and delves into later influences that also affected its genesis. More than merely a study of one animated film or a biography of its creator, Kitson's investigation encompasses the Soviet culture from which this landmark film emerged and sheds light on creative influences that shaped the work of this acclaimed filmmaker.
- From jacket description of Yuri Norstein and Tale of Tales: an Animator's Journey, by Claire Kitson. University of Indiana Press, 2005
ABOUT YURIY NORSHTEYN
Yuri Norstein, who has been working for years under the veteran Russian animator Ivan Ivanov-Vano, has emerged as one of the world's leading animators. His film, The Tale of Tales , was considered the most artistic production to come out of Eastern Europe in years. The success of this film, as well as others such as Hedgehog in the Mist , The Vixen and the Hare , and The Heron and the Crane , is due to his unique style of multidimensional figures and backgrounds that have depth, roundness, and shading, giving a visual quality to his scenes seldom seen in other films. His humor is full of human observation, contrasting emotion over a broad scale from gaiety and laughter to sadness and disappointment. The fact that these moods are happening to animals and birds with their own particular environment provides an element of magic, and once again proves that the art of animation can bridge the biological barrier between human and animal worlds.
Norstein considers animation to be a new field of art, but underestimated, its artistic plasticity and social significance not having been explored so far. According to him its principles are taken from life, avoiding a documentary approach in describing a social situation. Aristotle said, "art, above all teachers, allows people to enjoy life." This principle still holds. Norstein takes his own material from an ordinary situation and develops it in his own particular way. His material consists of human emotions: joy, tears, love, and all levels of emotion within the experiences of life. Norstein, apart from being a filmmaker, is also a good painter and brilliant illustrator, which explains the high visual quality of his backgrounds and the expressions of his characters. He has a close relationship with his young children and closely considers their reactions before making a film. He thinks that only those who understand children's psychology should make a film for them. If one has sympathy with them and can play with them, one is able to look at the world through their minds and eyes.
On the question of visual quality, he thinks that animated film directors should be interested in fine arts, especially painting, since films have a dual objective: the creation of a new and original setting and a defined dramatic action within the setting. The spectator should be able to adapt to such a background and participate in the film on the terms present in the subject. Norstein recognizes that a film is composed of various elements. It contains myth, fantasy, cosmographic ideas, sound, absolute realism, and naturalism. The combined quality of these elements could be of great value, lifting animation above all other media, but so far he has not seen any film, short or long, able to make full use of such total potentialities. He holds that a feature-length film should not only tell a story but present the richness of human life, make full use of the specific properties of animation, and look for its own way of development.
—John Halas, Film Reference.com
Norstein was born during World War II and spent his childhood in the northern suburbs of Moscow. Though Stalin’s reign of terror softened a bit in the postwar era, anti-Semitism and intense cultural control remained, constraining the young Norstein on many occasions. Luckily, his entry to adulthood coincided with the Soviet Thaw during the more liberal Khrushchev era of the late-’50s, which saw an influx of foreign art and an openness to experimentation. Films such as The Cranes Are Flying (1957), Ballad of a Soldier (1959), and Destiny of a Man (1959) were being produced which invigorated the cinematic milieu. (Unfortunately, history would reverse this opportunity when Russian resources dried up duringglasnost at the height of Norstein’s acclaim; he’s still trying to finish The Overcoat, a film he began in 1981 with his wife and longtime collaborator, Francesca Yarbusova.)
Norstein studied at the Soyuzmultfilm animation studio, which began producing a small but sophisticated body of work that appealed to adults as well as children in the ’60s. For years, he worked as an unassuming animator until he began directing his own films during the less-hospitable Brezhnev era of the ’70s, known for banning art and artists that weren’t deemed properly Social Realist. “In one word,” Norstein says, “[the era] was stuffy. We didn’t have enough air. But the strange thing is that when a lot of things outside you are closed off, you go inside yourself and find the freedom you need.” Norstein developed a highly complex and nuanced style of multiplane animation using paper cutouts on layers of glass; it produced the internationally venerated works The Fox and the Hare(1973), The Heron and the Crane (1974), and Hedgehog in the Fog (1975). (All of these films are available on DVD in the Masters of Russian Animation series.)
Glasnost and the collapse of the Soviet Union kept Norstein out-of-work for many years, but he was finally able to travel, and has spent the last couple decades lecturing and attending tributes to his career. He also continues producing The Overcoat (his first full-length feature) and occasionally provides short pieces for commercials and title sequences for Russian and Japanese television. Fervently in love with his homeland, Norstein has rejected several international offers to finish The Overcoat abroad, choosing instead to develop the film little by little, year after year, in the country of his birth. Let us hope the film materializes fully formed one day soon.
- Doug Cummings, Film Journey
See also Cummings' report of Norstein's visit and talk at the University of Southern Calfornia, Los Angeles
The nerve center of Norstein's life -- both as a filmmaker and as the husband of artist and collaborator Francesca Yarbusova -- is their studio. Drawings of little gray men scratching backs, scratching noses and picking up spoons cover the walls. Yarbusova draws the figures and imbues them with a haunting beauty and sense of loss.
"We are tied together and we are interdependent," Norstein says, sitting in his merrily cluttered kitchen, the walls covered with photos, sketches, an icon, bric-a-brac and shelving spilling over with videos. "I draw all the compositions, but this is the dry soil which must then be filled with feeling. We have scandals and rows. But now her work is on display and she says to me, 'It is all you -- you were guiding me.' "
"Francesca participates in the movies as much as Norstein," Bossart says. "The two of them are one artist. He couldn't exist without her."
- Peter Finn, The Washington Post
Be sure to also check out Ritwik Ghatak: An Online Primer
After watching the rigorously choreographed long-take mastery of Berlanga's Placido, my encounter with Ritwik Ghatak was a jolt. His splintered account of family dissolution in Bengal following the 1947 Partition feels perpetually jostled, mirroring its characters sense of displacement and desperation to resettle themselves both physically and emotionally.
Discombobulation is apparent from the first scene: displaced villagers from the Bangladeshi side of the partition have tried to carve a colony for themselves on the outskirts of Calcutta, to the chagrin of the locals. Even among the migrants there are factions of locality and caste as a way to prioritize resettlement; as one landlord asserts: "If we can't keep the differences, then what are we left with?"
Skip ahead to 3:30 in the following clip:
WATCH SUBARNAREKHA, PART 1:
Note how the sequence begins with a sense of patriotism and resolve: Haraprasad the teacher initiates a new school for the colony children.
It cuts from this composition that conveys a ceremonial sense of a community planting itself (note the flagpole squarely in the frame) to this more intimate shot giving a variation of the same idea, a child, hand planted on the adult.
But then there's an abrupt cut to a completely different space (is it the same village?) where a low-caste woman pleads a landlord to take her and her son.
After a quick refusal the film explodes into chaos: her son suddenly runs offscreen and people begin to scatter in all directions across the frame. A man grabs the woman and the camera sweeps leftward as he drags her to a truck ready to deport all the low-caste migrants from the village.
The camera finishes its leftward sweep by craning upward to look down at the truck; the gesture is simple but combined with the onscreen activity, it conveys a sense of epic tragedy.
Then the shot cuts back to the earlier shot of the teachers sitting planted, as if they were spectators to their own village's ethnic purging. Ghatak has established two visual spaces within the village and only now is he suturing them together, one fragmented space watching the other. It undermines the rosy words of peace and harmony uttered by the teacher, and establishes a theme of narrative, spatial and tonal fragmentation that continues throughout the film.
Another example: Ishwar, one of the villaged teachers, depressed over his lowly status as a migrant, runs into a college classmate, now a wealthy businessman and who offers him a job. Note how the angle on Ishwar shifts dramatically across the reverse shot at the moment he is offered the position:
The film is rife with angular shots expressing weird geometries; you would assume that Ghatak was co-opting his French New Wave contemporaries, but really it traces back to his love of Eisenstein and Soviet Constructivism.
A less propitious, but more striking example comes later, when Ishwar tells his sister Sita that she's been betrothed against her will. Skip to 0:30 in this clip and see what Ghatak does with cutting variations of essentially the same shot of Sita to convey her sense of alarm (see Omar Ahmed's comparison with how Scorsese uses the technique, after the break):
Again, the film is filled with these irruptions: one of the film's happiest sequences, of two children frolicking through an abandoned airstrip, is abruptly ended when one of them is called away. The other child plays on her own; the music resumes the mood that the two of them had established until WHAMMO!
The film's only real moments of sustained tonal clarity come in the songs sung by the adult Sita, which amount to arias in this historical opera. But even these songs can have a disruptive effect on the narrative. One of her most beautiful and mournful songs comes right after Ishwar has been awarded a promotion; he searches for her to share the news, finding her along the desolate banks of the river (1:50 in the following clip):
If anything, the protracted mood of this scene establishes the feeling of loss and longing that underlies the entire film.
Since I brought up the elements of the musical genre that Ghatak incorporates, I should also mention how unabashedly Ghatak embraces melodrama as well as Greek tragedy. The film is a roiling mix of genres as well as moods. And on a subtextual level, it's more densely packed than I can manage to unravel in this post, connecting Oedipus, Hindu mythology, Marxist theory and the tragedy of Indian history in such a way that only a cosmopolitan scholar, artist and activist such as Ghatak could manage. And yet, despite boiling all these elements into a raging stew that reflects the tumult of the world around him, he can also offer images of breathtaking simplicity, conveying all of his hope and sadness:
WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?
The following citations were counted towards the placement of Subarnarekha among the top 1000 films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?
Mark Puszicha, The Auteurs (2009) Rudiger Tomczak, Steadycam (2007) Srinivas Krishna, Sight & Sound (1992) Stephen Souter, The Auteurs (2009) Thomas Allenbach, Profil (2004) Cinemaya, Best Asian Films (1998) Jean-Loup Bourget, Positif: 10 Favourite Films 1952-2002 (2002) Rough Guide to Film, India: 5 Lesser-Known Gems (2007) Sight & Sound, 75 Hidden Gems (2007) Various Critics, Book - 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die (2004) They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films
SUBARNAREKHA, PART 2
Ritwik Ghatak's films are deeply haunted by the specter of the Partition of Bengal in 1947, and this sense of dislocation and self-inflicted human tragedy created by artificially imposed social division casts a pervasive sentiment of despair, instability, and perpetual exile through all the rended families and uprooted ancestral communities of Subarnarekha... Similarly, the Subarnarekha River (translated as the "Golden Line" River because of its proximity to rich ore deposits) becomes an implicit reflection of the inescapable social (and economic) disparity and cultural marginalization that continues to afflict the displaced refugees of the Partition... It is this pervasive complacency (if not outright willful ignorance) that inevitably lies at the core of Ghatak's impassioned social criticism on the fateful dynamics that led to the culturally self-inflicted tragedy of the Partition - an inextricable pattern of self-interest, insensitivity, and political apathy from the Bengali middle-class that not only enabled ideological fanaticism and sectarianism to shape the landscape of a post-colonial Indian nation, but also rendered the very idea of home as a sentimental place on an elusive other side that, like the distant, opposing banks of the Subarnarekha River, symbolically represents an idealized, and intranscendible, elsewhere.
- Acquarello, Strictly Film School
Subarnarekha, made in 1962 but released in 1965, is the last in a trilogy examining the socio-economic implications of partition, the other two being Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960) and Komal Ghandhar (1961). It is also perhaps Ritwik Ghatak's most complex film.
In the film Ghatak depicts the great economic and socio-political crisis eating up the very entrails of the existence of Bengal from 1948 - 1962; How the crisis has first and foremost left one bereft of one's conscience, one's moral sense. In the film, the problem of homelessness or rootlessness no more remains confined to the refugees from the partition. Ghatak extends it further as an important concept for the modern man, uprooted from his traditional moorings. The geographical sphere is thus merged into a wider generality.
Ghatak endows virtually every sequence with a wealth of historical overtones through an iconography of violation, destruction, industrialism and the disasters of famine and partition. Most of the dialogues and the visuals are a patchwork of literary and cinematic quotations enhanced by Ghatak's characteristic redemptive use of music. A famous example is the sequence set on an abandoned airstrip with the wreck of a WW2 airplane where the children playfully reconstruct its violence until they come up against the frightening image of the goddess Kali (who turns out to be a rather pathetic traveling performer). Later, in dappled light, the older Sita sings a dawn raga on the airstrip. In a classic dissolve, the old Iswar throws a newspaper showing Yuri Gagarin's Space Exploration into the foundry where it bursts into flames, which then dissolve into the rainwater outside Sita's hovel. Haraprasad, who had earlier rescued Iswar from committing suicide by quoting from Tagore's Shishu Tirtha, later in the nightclub parodies an episode from the Upanishads using an East Bengal dialect. Other quotes from this extraordinary sequence includes Eliot's The Waste Land (1922) and, through the music, Fellini's La Dolce Vita (1960). Fellini had used the 'Patricia' music in La Dolce Vita to lash out at a degenerate, decadent western civilization. Ghatak passes a similar judgement on Bengal by using the same music for the orgy in the bar. A torn and tattered Bengal enhances the grimness of Sita and her prostitution as it is a powerful metaphor of its inner degradation.
Sadly, like most of Ghatak's films, Subarnarekha was totally rejected by the public. Ironically, today the film is hailed as a classic and as an important landmark in the history of Indian Cinema.
SUBARNAREKHA, PART 3:
In The Cloud-Capped Star and THE GOLDEN LINE (also known as Subarnarekha; 1962), Ghatak draws on Brecht (whose The Life of Galileo and The Caucasian Chalk Circle he translated into Bengali) and melodrama to create a new national cinema, highlighting the trauma of the Bengali diaspora and the dilemmas of an independent India. The former film concerns the decline of a family who end up being sustained by (i.e., exploiting) their oldest daughter, who gives up her chances at higher education and love in order to work. In one of the great Brechtian moments in cinema, the near-demented father, on learning that his son has been injured in a factory accident, declaims, “This was expected; this is the rule.” The Golden Line is a lacerating epic about the fortunes of three Bengali refugees: a man, his younger sister, and the lower-caste boy they adopt. If the images deal in distance and discontinuity (as when the characters visit an abandoned British airstrip), the sounds are too close (especially in the scenes of disaster that accumulate in the last third of the film), creating a uniquely Ghatakian sensory overload.
- Chris Fujiwara, The Bpston Phoenix
An intense film of emphatic visual rhythms, Subarnarekha is composed mainly of short shots that suspend actors in close-to-middle camera space, creating uncomfortably direct images of crisis and confrontation. The plot moves farther and farther into poetic melodrama (including a brilliant alcoholic nightclub scene), finding room along the way for a stark, lyrical interlude in which the children discover an abandoned British airstrip. Add some of the most creative uses of music and sound in any film and you have a must-see.
- Chris Fujiwara, Boston Phoenix
SUBARNAREKHA, PART 4
Unlike Ray or others, Ghatak had always practiced complexity in his presentation pattern. The juxtaposition of the Jungian archetype of ‘Kalika‘ with melodramatic realism depicts diabolic terribleness of the degenerated society. The act of confrontation between young Sita and the travelling performer (bahurupi), made-up in the terrible image of the great-mother (Kali), gives an indication of the oncoming tempest on the civilisation. Subarnarekha ruthlessly exposes the philosophical waste of the post-independent Indian society. It chronicles the emptiness of mainstream politics where the communist party, congress party and other so-called political parties are united in minting. Ghatak suggests that the socio-political degeneration due to the Mountbatten Award is responsible for creating spiritual confusions among the people. A crude yet aesthetic dissection of the social broke makes Subarnarekha an unbearable statement against the worshipers of elitist aesthetics.
Subarnarekha is the only Indian film that aesthetically executes the genre of melodrama by joining different episodes into a story of coincidences. In Ritwik Ghatak’s own words – “I agree that coincidences virtually overflow in Subarnarekha. And yet the logic of the biggest coincidence, the brother arriving at his sister’s house provoked me to orchestrate coincidence per se in the very structuring of the film. It is a tricky but fascinating form verging on the epic. This coincidence is forceful in its logic as the brother going to any woman amounts to his going to somebody else’s sister.” The entire film propels forward through historical and mythical overtones, taking melodrama as its foundation.
Subarnarekha bestows Ghatak’s tremendous technical genius, aided with Bahadur Khan Sahib’s evocative compositions. The powerful montage of sight and sound that Ghatak constructs in Sita’s suicide scene is one of cinema’s phenomenal creations. Sound of Sita’s exaggerated breathing with the image of a kitchen knife juxtaposed with a big close-up of her painful unblinking eyes establishes a new dimension in Indian cinematography and montage.
– Basu Acharya, Bangalnama
Ghatak’s exacting control over the rhythm of his films extended from Eisenstein’s theoretical and cinematic experimentation's with political montage. Elliptical editing inevitably invites an ambiguity and fracture into linear narrative, creating discernible gaps that disorient the spectator. After what is an admittedly schizophrenic opening twenty minutes, Subarnarekha settles into a familiar classical rhythm and the focus of dramatic conflict becomes the relationship between brother and sister. Ishwar (Abhi Bhattacharya) is unable to come to terms with his sister, Sita (Madhabi Mukherjee), marrying Abhiram (Satindra Bhattacharya)who hails from a lower caste. Such caste prejudices come to the fore when Ishwar orders Abhiram to leave for Calcutta. When Ishwar orders Sita to meet the family which has come to see her for a possible marriage arrangement, Sita’s refusal is met with a kind of patriarchal violence.
The triple jump cut in Ghatak's 'Subarnarekha'.
However, prior to this moment of violence, Ghatak opens the sequence with what is a triple jump cut of Sita who turns to face her brother whilst sitting on the ground caressing the sitar for comfort. It is a rhythmically organic series of edits which rightly draws our attention to the reflexive nature of Ghatak’s approach. The violence inherent in the triple jump cut that begins with a close up and finishes on a mid shot signals a disruption in the narrative and also act as the trigger for Sita’s abandonment of her brother, choosing to elope with Abhiram. Ghatak’s ideologically intense use of the triple jump cut may seem a normalised practise today but it reminded me of Martin Scorsese’s breakthrough feature ‘Mean Streets’ which opens with another striking and creative example of elliptical editing immortalised in the three carefully juxtaposed edits of Charlie’s head hitting the pillow to the sound of ‘Be My Baby’ by The Ronettes.
The opening to 'Mean Streets' - Scorsese's use of the triple jump cut.
- Omar Ahmed, Ellipsis
SUBARNAREKHA, PART 5:
With Subarnarekha, Ritwik Ghatak completed the trilogy he had begun with Meghe Dhaka Tara (see above) and Komal Ghandhar (1961) about the human upheavals, strife and all-out war, famine and dire poverty created as a result of the 1947 Partition of India, the arbitrary line that the British drew on a map as its farewell colonialist act, dividing India into a secular state and Islamic Pakistan. Ghatak’s saga over many years focuses on a family of Bengali refugees from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) trying to establish new roots.
As with Meghe Dhaka Tara, Ghatak has fashioned a piece of powerful yearning—the desire of people to lead settled lives. An upwardly tilted shot suggests that sparsely adorned branches of a tree are reaching hopefully with all their fragile might into the heavens: a piercing image. “All year I’ve been yearning to come home,” Abhiram, who has been away at school, tells Seeta at the edge of a forest. Without realizing it, the boy is giving voice to the hearts of a shattered people.
In Meghe Dhaka Tara and Subarnarekha, Ghatak uses songs by Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), Bengal’s creative genius, who was a poet, playwright, novelist, short story writer, essayist, painter, song composer (0f both lyrics and music), philosopher, teacher, and Nobel Prize winner. Tagore wrote over 2,000 songs, known as Rabindra sangeet or Rabindra song, compositions that incorporated elements of Indian classical music and Bengali folk songs.[open notes in new window] In his biography of Tagore, Krishna Kripalani describes the impact of Tagore’s songs in Bengali culture:
“For each change of the season, each aspect of his country’s rich landscape, every undulation of the human heart, in sorrow or joy, has found its voice in some song of his.”
His songs often celebrate Nature and the Divine, specifically in the physical and spiritual context of Bengal.
As previously mentioned, in his films Ghatak utilizes a variety of musical forms, both Indian and non-Indian, and commonly uses Tagore’s music. As Ghatak stated in an interview just before his death:
“I cannot speak without Tagore. That man has culled all of my feelings from long before my birth. He has understood what I am and he has put in all the words. I read him and I find that all has been said and I have nothing new to say.”
Ghatak, like most Bengalis, considers Tagore as the embodiment of all that is great in Bengali culture, as the pinnacle of artistic expression in Bengal. When Ghatak uses a Tagore song in a film, it often evokes among Bengalis nostalgia and longing for an undivided, pre-Partition Bengal. Ghatak situates Tagore songs within the painful context of the struggle for survival of post-Independence Bengali families, and the songs serve to shape and give dimension to the characters of Nita and Sita. In both Meghe Dhaka Tara and Subarnarekha, Ghatak uses Tagore songs at climatic moments to express the joy and sorrow of the post-Independence Bengali woman, who must bear the burden of rebuilding the family in the aftermath of Partition.
- Erin O'Donnell, Jump Cut
SUBARNAREKHA, PART 6:
I’m taken by O’Donnell’s analysis of Ghatak’s use of melodrama. She suggests that it comes from drawing on a wide range of other melodrama forms including from European and Russian Cinemas as well as theatre. At the same time Ghatak makes use of traditional Indian stories from Hindu mythology. The result is this very cinematic camera, but an unusual mix of other influences placing the resultant films in this no-man’s land between the ’social’ films of Hindi Cinema (including the films of Guru Dutt and Raj Kapoor) and the art films of Ray and Sen.
The films work by using the family as metaphor for the impossibility of creating ‘home’ out of the despair created by partition and exile. Subarnarekha is contextualised by a series of historical events which mark the earlier part of the narrative – the terrible famine in Bengal in 1942, the successful halt of the Japanese advance into Northern Burma and then Bengal in the latter stages of the war, the partition and the exodus to Calcutta and finally the death of Ghandi. After this and the beginnings of a new life by the Subarnarekha River, the time period becomes less distinct and title cards merely refer to a few months or a few years later marking the period when Sita and Abhiram are growing up. I was struck, however, by the abandoned RAF base (i.e. from where the bombers left for Burma). This is where the children play and where Sita has various adventures. The hulks of abandoned aircraft and the few surviving parts of buildings (from only a few years ago) seem to act as a ‘doubling’ of the signifiers of a life that is no longer possible, of times that have irrevocably changed.
- venicelion, The Case for Global Film
SUBARNAREKHA, PART 7:
SUBARNAREKHA, PART 8:
SUBARNAREKHA, PART 9:
SUBARNAREKHA, PART 10:
SUBARNAREKHA, PART 11:
SUBARNAREKHA, PART 12:
SUBARNAREKHA, PART 13:
You might have been a bit more indulgent towards us if you only knew how many fences we have to cross to make a film. […] Filmmakers like us will be gratified if people just accept the fact that we are fenced in. […] You are a fence yourselves, the most ominous, perhaps.
- Ghatak, quoted by Megan Carrigy, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography
(More words from Ghatak at the bottom of this entry)
ABOUT RITWIK GHATAK
Ritwik Ghatak - an artist who exerted a profound influence on the modern Indian cinema but who was critically recognized abroad only after his untimely death in 1975. A native of East Bengal, Ghatak was shattered by the partition of that "orphan state" (later to become Bangladesh), and his stories and images are permeated with the personal urgency he felt for the people whose lives and culture were irreparably ruptured.
Yet his films also have a vital, regenerative power, fed by the artist's insatiable intelligence and his skillful integration of popular forms of culture - melodrama, songs, and dance - into politically radical themes. His major influence was Eisenstein, and he said, "I have wanted to use the cinema as a weapon". But if he shocks, he does so with photography that is thought made visible, editing that turns melodrama into a form of music, and music that tells its own bold and surprising story.
Through his films and his short tenure at the Film Institute in Pune, Ghatak influenced a generation of filmmakers including Kumar Sahani, Mani Kaul, Ketan Mehta, and Adoor Gopalakrishnan - names that today are synonymous with the Indian art film. Ghatak was a complex man who was much loved by his students but was viewed by the film establishment as an eccentric iconoclast; he died a chronic alcoholic at the age of 49.
Ritwik Ghatak's cinema vividly illustrates the idea that it is about the flow of time. It is memory that links his characters to themselves and others around them as they swim against the murderous tides of history and politics. Time and remembrance flow out of each other. Seldom has such a thought been expressed with greater feeling or perception than in the eight feature films Ghatak made between 1952 and '74.
There is lucidity in Ghatak's cinematic vision that renders complex ideas simple. Early training in his gentleman-scholar father's library reading the epics - namely Ramayana, Mahabharata, Puranas, Upanishads, Jatakas amongst others; and, soon after the writings of Marx, Engels and other western philosophers and a grounding in group theatre with Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA) - the cultural arm of the Communist Party of India - made him realize the value of communicating with very large audiences.
Unlike other film makers in the world espousing the Communist cause to whom religion was anathema and who took refuge in existentialism like Wajda and Godard, or a considered atheism like Eisenstein, political ideology and aesthetic expression were fused effortlessly in Ghatak's cinema. Long before Fidel Castro discovered the virtues of non-interference with the religious beliefs of his party members in Communist Cuba, Ghatak had informed the Committee examining the ideological positions of IPTA and the CPI 'song squad' it would be imperative to remember that the Indian people, and certainly the proletariat who had been sustained culturally/spiritually by the epics would be best served if the party and its operatives read and appreciated these great books.
- Partha Chatterjee, Outlook India
Ghatak's first film was Nagrik (1952) about a young man's search for a job and the erosion of his optimism and idealism as his family sinks into abject poverty and his love affair too turns sour. Ghatak then accepted a job with Filmistan Studio in Bombay but his 'different' ideas did not go down well there. He did however write the scripts of Musafir (1957) and Madhumati (1958) for Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Bimal Roy respectively, the latter becoming an all time evergreen hit.
Ghatak returned to Calcutta and made Ajantrik (1958) about a taxi driver in a small town in Bihar and his vehicle an old Chevrolet jalopy. An assortment of passengers gives the film a wider frame of reference and provided situations of drama, humour and irony.
But perhaps his best work was Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960),the first film in a trilogy examining the socio-economic implications of partition. The protagonist Neeta (played by Supriya Choudhury) is the breadwinner in a refugee family of five. Everyone exploits her and the strain proves too much. She succumbs to tuberculosis. In an unforgettable moment, as the dying Neeta cries out "I want to live…", the camera pans across the mountains accentuating the indifference and eternity of nature even as the echo reverberates over the shot.
Ghatak followed it up with Komal Gandhar (1961) concerning two rival touring theatre companies in Bengal and Subarnarekha (1965). The last is a strangely disturbing film using melodrama and coincidence as a form rather than mechanical reality.
Unfortunately for Ghatak his films were largely unsuccessful, many remained unreleased for years and he abandoned almost as many projects as he completed. Ultimately the intensity of his passion, which gave his films their power and emotion, took their toll on him, as did tuberculosis and alcoholism. However he has left behind a limited but rich body of work that no serious scholar of Indian Cinema can ignore.
Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak were in fact clearly admirers of each other's work. Praise from both sides can be found in print on a number of occasions. Indeed Ray, a member of the Ritwik Memorial Trust, provided the foreword to the published volume of Ghatak's writings on cinema in English, Cinema and I, reprinted in Rows and Rows of Fences. He is full of approval for Ghatak's work:
Likewise, in his Row and Rows of Fences, Ghatak's praise for Ray is high: “Satyajit Ray, and only Satyajit Ray in India, in his more inspired moments, can make us breathtakingly aware of truth, the individual, private truth”. Ray's Pather Panchali(1955) is lauded in Ghatak's essay on literary influence in Bengali cinema: It is true that this film was also based on a famous novel. But for the first time, the story was narrated in the filmic idiom. The language was sound. Artistic truth was upheld. The fundamental difference between the two art forms was delineated.
In the essay “Recollections of Bengal and a Single Vision”, Shampa Banerjee offers an interesting anecdote from Dopati Chakrabarty about the relationship between the cinemas of Ray and Ghatak: Satyajit Ray once said: Had Nagarik been released before his Pather Panchali,Nagarik would have been accepted as the first film of the alternative form of Bengali cinema.
Nagarik (The Citizen), the first film Ghatak ever made, was completed in 1953 but in fact released posthumously in 1977. Pather Panchali was released in 1955. The central character of Nagarik, Ramu, opens the film looking for a job in Calcutta, while his family struggles to make ends meet. Incredibly, in a memorial lecture on Ghatak, given after his death, Satyajit Ray had this to say: Ritwik was a Bengali director in heart and soul, a Bengali artist much more of a Bengali than myself. For me that is the last word about him, and that is his most valuable and distinctive characteristic.
- Megan Carrigy, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography
When one closely looks at any of his films, one can witness the chaos with which his movies are cut; from high, to abrupt low or from wide lens to his sudden shift to telephoto lens and vice-versa, but within the schema of such chaos lay the harmony. Ghatak’s mise en scène is the representation of such harmony, which was made amidst the chaos of money, depression and desire reflected beyond the mimesis that Ghatak’s captured and represented. His mise en scène that was largely built on the foundation of various influences – scars and nostalghia – which he had been bearing with him for years. Also his choice for every movement of the camera, every gesture of the character and every relationship that the shot, the setting and the subject expressed reflected his deep longing and desire. (...)
His usage of the wide angles lens in capturing and representing the exteriors that he so fondly captured is indebted to his memories of his growing years in Bangladesh. It’s precisely the reason why most of his characters in the trilogy are always lost in the spaces which they inhabit and are in incessant search for something or longing. The search and longing that were expressed through music were an important source, not just to add depth to his expression, but it also became a catalyst for exposing the inner truth when fused with his montages.(...)
Normally most melodramas are classically constructed and the mise en scène also moved in that pattern, Ghatak’s does just the opposite, his film cuts at odd angles; from high to low, low to high and juxtaposes odd angles. This is an important ‘distancing’ technique he has used in his montage. Now this shift from different odd angles creates a chaos that could have made his entire work and especially this trilogy unwatchable, but it’s the genius of Ghatak’s that he could blend seamlessly such distinctive angle and cuts, and form such poetic rhythm. Furthermore, his montage and his mise en scène were guided by his mastery over different modules of sound effects. That gave a distinctive tension to the expression he usually brought out from the sequences.
- Nitesh Pahwa, Indian Auteur
Ghatak took one rupture in the history he witnessed as central – the partition of Bengal. As he went on extending that event into a metaphor for everything that was alienating and destructive in the experience of his community, and talked about the pervasive degeneration of his country sometimes solely in terms of it, he faced puzzlement and even incomprehension from his contemporaries. Wasn't he being obsessed with a single event? Wasn't he living in the past, cutting himself off from the contemporary? The full irony of the situation is probably now coming to light: the Partition – a joint treachery committed by the colonial power and the nationalist leadership – cost millions of lives (mainly in Punjab and Bengal, but also in other provinces as the communal riots spread) and left millions homeless (11), but had hardly any thematic impact on film or literature. People forgot to talk about it. In the face of this silence the history model of narration itself had to be played with, it had to be crossed with elements borrowed from traditional community-centred forms – epic, chronicle play, allegory, musical theatre. But in the face of historical denial Ghatak would also resort to a drama where a few hapless characters would say just that – 'we deny it'. These are people who howl against the rocks that they want to live, who place negation against negation by closing the circle before violent interdictions of change. A particular kinship relation takes on an acute dimension in this drama. It works to defeat the melodrama of couple formation even as it destroys the logic of the other, pre-bourgeois melodrama: the feudal family romance.
- Moinak Biswas, "Her Mother's Son: Kinship and History in Ritwik Ghatak", Rouge.
There are two basic ways that a filmmaker can relate to film history: to work within an existing tradition or to proceed more radically as if no one else has ever made a film before. I think it would be safe to say that at least ninety-nine per cent of the films we see in theaters are made according to the first way. The Danish narrative filmmaker Carl Dreyer and the American experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage are two of the rare exceptions who might be said to have followed the second way. Even though they too both worked to some extent in existing traditions, their principles of editing and camera movement and tempo and visual texture are sufficiently different to require viewers to move beyond some of their own habits as spectators in order to appreciate fully what these filmmakers are doing artistically. Without making such an effort at adjustment, one’s encounters with the films of Brakhage and Dreyer are likely to be somewhat brutal in their potentiality for disorientation.
Ghatak, I believe, is another rare exception who followed the second route I have described, and one who provides comparable challenges of his own. And his methods of composing soundtracks for his films as well as his ways of interrelating his sounds and images are among the things I would point to first in order to describe his uniqueness as a filmmaker. One might conclude, in other words, that he reinvented the cinema for his own purposes both conceptually, in terms of his overall working methods, and practically, by rethinking the nature of certain shots he has already filmed – specifically, by starting and/or stopping certain kinds of sounds at unexpected moments, sometimes creating highly unorthodox ruptures in mood and tone.
It might be argued that these ruptures were not necessarily intentional. At least I’ve found no acknowledgment of them or of many of Ghatak’s other eccentric filmmaking practices in his lectures and essays such as ‘Experimental Cinema’, ‘Experimental Cinema and I’ and ‘Sound in Cinema’. (1) But by the same token, I find little if any acknowledgment by Carl Dreyer of his unorthodox editing practices in his own writings. And the issue of artistic intentionality remains a worrisome one in any case, because artists aren’t invariably the best people to consult about their own practices, and it can be argued that what artists do is far more important (at least in most cases) than what they say they do. And the radical effect of Ghatak’s ruptures in his soundtracks strike me as being far better illustrations of his manner of reinventing cinema than any of his theoretical statements. To put it as succinctly as possible, they reinvent cinema precisely by reinventing us as spectators, on a moment-to-moment basis, keeping us far more alert than any conventional soundtrack would. And this makes them moments of creation in the purest sense.
- Jonathan Rosenbaum, Rouge
In the 1960s, Ghatak translated Brecht’s The Life of Galileo and Caucasian Chalk Circle from English to Bengali. In numerous essays and interviews, he discusses the impact on his work of Brecht’s epic approach, alienation effect and use of coincidence. Ghatak draws upon the diverse theatrical traditions of IPTA, Brecht and Stanislavski, and the various cinematic visions of Eisenstein, Godard and Bunuel to come up with use own melodramatic vision. The technical details of Ghatak’s melodramatic style include the following stylistic traits: frequent use of a wide angle lens, placement of the camera at very high, low and irregular angles, dramatic lighting composition, expressionistic acting style and experimentation with songs and sound effects. With this combination of cinematic devices, Ghatak creates a melodramatic post-Partition world in which he constructs his vision of “Woman” and “Homeland” in post-Independence Bengal.
In cinema, the family, the home, with women — mothers, wives, daughters and sisters as the key players — is the primary site of domestic melodrama. In Bengali culture, the home houses the heart of Bengali society: the family. And at the core of the Bengali family is ma, the mother. Within the homes of Ghatak’s post-Independence Bengal lies the site of both ananda (joy) and dukkho (sorrow), emotions intensely expressed by his female characters, frequently through song. These songs and music distill the essence or rasa of the joy and sorrow that Ghatak’s characters experience, and the music track enables these emotions’ full force and weight to be communicated to the audience. The ability of music and song to express powerful emotions beyond the visual dimension of a film, even beyond the film text itself, is particularly evident in Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara, and Subarnarekha.The film sound scholar Caryl Flinn relates in her book Strains of Utopia:
“Melodrama critics assert that the non-representational register (i.e., music) reveals elements which cannot be conveyed through representational means alone, a fundamental split that seems to guarantee the genre’s potentially ‘subversive’ effects.”
- Erin O'Donnell, Jump Cut
I was drawn to consider Ritwik Ghatak because of the dedication by Mira Nair at the end of The Namesake, a film I am using again as part of a course on ‘diaspora cinema’. Nair was referring to the ‘Masters of Bengali Cinema’ – with Ghatak alongside Satyajit Ray. But she might also have been referring to a master of diaspora cinema or more properly ‘exilic cinema’. (...)
Ghatak is not as widely known as he should be (i.e. outside the circle of serious cinephiles and historians of Indian Cinema). He was at least as important as his contemporary Satyajit Ray and in some ways more so, given his brief stint teaching at the FTII (Film and Television Institute of India) at Pune in 1966 in which he influenced future directors such as Kumar Shahani and John Abraham. His fame has spread outside India over the thirty years and more since his death.
It’s perhaps not so surprising that Ghatak’s work is not immediately accessible to audiences. He avoids the populism of commercial cinema, yet doesn’t have a coherent humanist art cinema style like Ray, or even a committed political stance like Mrnal Sen. In the same sequence, he might move from what appears to be a conventional social realist approach to portraying village life/city life to a highly expressionistic portrayal of a moment of emotional tension. On closer inspection, however, his seemingly conventional realist camerawork is often undermined by staging in depth with disturbing angles and compositions. Music is integral to the trilogy of ‘exile’ films (which includes the earlier A Cloud-Capped Star (1960) and Komal Gandahar (1961)). Cloud-Capped Star shares with Subarnarekha a brother-sister relationship in which the woman is a singer of Bengali songs, many written by Rabindranath Tagore (1876-1941), the towering figure of Bengali literature.
- venicelion, The Case for Global Film
Some critics accuse Ghatak of being oversentimental about 'desh' or 'homeland'. With him, they feel, the experience of Partition remained imprisoned in nostalgia, never a noble emotion, however painful its portrayal may be. According to Iraban Basu Roy:
Partition was Ritwik's own passion but that passion did not get any creative inspiration or language in his films. Not that he was not aware of rootlessness; but whenever it came to representation of collective tragedy that surpassed personal pain, it seemed that Ritwik withdrew his passion... So Partition remained loosely attached to his films, never turning into the central motif. That the Partition was not of a particular moment, but had long drawn effects on the personal and collective consciousness is understood in a film like Shyam Benegal's Mammo; this extended influence is missing in Ritwik's films. Except for a few stray moments, there is no permanent depiction of the pain, harassment and nightmare of the Partition in his films. Like Bengali fiction, Ritwik's films too just make stray references to it. On the other hand, like many other 'myths' about Ritwik, a baseless myth about the Partition also got created.
Madhabi Mukherjee, the actress who played the role of Sita in Subarnarekha, once told her interviewers that when the film was being made she was too young to ascertain fully the intensity and depth of Ghatak's personal feelings about the Partition. But she mentions that at times Ghatak used to say, 'Lambu ('tall one', meaning Satyajit Ray) never experienced Partition'. She also emphasizes the fact that even in a traumatic film like Subarnarekha, Ghatak, the tragic bard of Partition, ends on a note of redemptive hope. In an interview published in The Statesman, commemorating forty years of the making of the film, Mukherjee syas:
No matter how deep the tragedy is, how intense the suffering, the filmmaker refused to end on a totally negative note. Remember the last phase of Subarnarekha where the child is pulling his uncle to take him to the land of butterflies and beauty? Or the unforgettable lines of Tagore: 'Joi hok manusher, oi nabajataker, oi chirajibiter' ('Glory be to man, to the newborn, to the eternal') with which the film ends?
Partition was indeed the single most traumatic experience for him, but Ritwikda did not stop there. He did not conform to any particular discipline. However, he was steadfast in one aspect - he refused to accept the defeat and degeneration of human beings as final. He hoped against hope.
- Somdatta Mandal, "Constructing Post-Partition Bengali Identity through Films". Published inPartitioned Lives: Narratives of Home, Displacement and Resettlement. Edited by Anjali Gera Roy, Nandi Bhatia. Published by Pearson Education India, 2008. pp 72-73
RITWIK GHATAK IN HIS OWN WORDS
Subaltern Cinema is proud to present an excerpt from the thesis submitted by noted Indian filmmaker Ritwik Kumar Ghatak to the Communist Party of India in 1954. It remained undiscovered till 1993. The thesis remained buried for many years, and was only discovered in old files in the Communist Party Office. Going through the thesis, it becomes vivid that the same situation persists even today. As a result, such a strong pen is relevant till this date.
The multicolored pattern of Ritwik Ghatak's life depicted a unique coherence of determination, a kind of necessary insubordination. In spite of all his rebellious activities, all his intemperance, he had an exclusive commitment, a single determination, a complete vision. The twists and turns of life never led him away from his true destination. Cinema for Ghatak was an instrument to reach the masses. His films reflected the frantic urge to communicate, to transform apathy into rebellion, to assert that truth, beauty and the human spirit will survive after all. He said: “I have done many things in my life. I ran away from home a few times. I took a job in the billing department of a textile mill in Kanpur. I hadn’t thought of films then. They dragged me back home from Kanpur. That was in 1942. Meanwhile, I had missed two years of my studies. I was fourteen when I ran away from home. ……I had a creative urge, and began my artistic career with a few useless pieces of verse. I realized later that I wasn't made for that sort of thing. I couldn't get within a thousand miles of true poetry. It was after this that I got involved with politics. This was 1943 to 1945. Those who remember these years will know of the quick transitions in the political scene of the day.... The anti-fascist movement, the Japanese attack, the British retreat, a great deal happened in quick succession. Life was placid in 1940 and ’41. Suddenly, during ’44 and ’45, a series of events took place the price of foodstuffs soared, then came famine things changed so fast that it gave a great jolt to people’s attitudes and thinking....By that time I was an active Marxist; not a cardholder, but a close sympathizer, a fellow traveler. I started writing short stories then. This was not like my earlier nebulous and false attempts to be a poet. The urge to write stories arose out of a desire to protest against the oppression and exploitation I saw around me…… But later, I came to feel that short stories are inadequate. They take a long time to reach the people, and then few are deeply stirred by them. I was a hot-blooded youngster then, impatient for immediate reaction…..I started taking an interest in drama, became a member of the IPTA. When, at the end of 1947, a revised version of Nabanna was produced, I acted in it. After that I was completely involved with the IPTA…..I was also leader of the Central Squad. I wrote plays myself. Drama elicited an immediate response, which I found very exciting. But after a while even drama seemed inadequate, limited…….. But, when I thought of the cinema, I thought of the million minds that I could reach at the same time. This is how I came into films, not because I wanted to make films. Tomorrow, if I find a better medium, I’ll abandon films…..I have wanted to use the cinema as a weapon, as a medium to express my views....”
- Premendra Mazumder, Ritwik Ghatak: The Committed Creator
It’s not just me, anyone in the world who is a serious artist, who has done any serious work in Bengal or elsewhere, anyone whose name you have heard -- each and every one of them is inspired by one individual and his name is Sergei Eisentein. We wouldn’t know “f” of filmmaking if Eisenstein were not there before us. He is our father. Godfather. When we were young, his writings, theses, and his films made us go nuts. And those were not easily available back then. We had to hide them and import them very carefully. This man Eisenstein -- and you can ask Satyajit Ray, too, and "he will admit that he is the father of us". From him, we learned how to cut – editing is the key to filmmaking. Then there is Pudovkin. He was here in 1949 and I was fortunate enough to meet him. Party instructed me to follow him, spend time with him and learn from him. Pudovkin told me something that is the basis of all of my education. He said: “films are not made, filmmaking does not make any sense – a film is built”. Brick by brick, exactly like building a house. That’s how you build films, by cutting one shot after another. It is built, not made. These two individuals and then there is Carl Dreyer. I watched his films in Pune long time ago. The Passion of Joan of Arc. I totally lost myself after watching that film. And there is another person who I must admit to be one of my gurus. Luis Buñuel. They are my true gurus. Oh, and Mizoguchi. After watching Ugetsu Monogatari, I was “staggered”, I mean I went completely crazy. That’s what a real film is! Everything I know about films, I have learned from these people.
Will you talk about a few of the greatest films that you have watched?
The greatest film – you want me to name it? Battleship Potemkin. There has not been a film which can top that. None. The Odessa Steps scene – no one will ever be able to shoot anything greater than that. Film is all about editing. Cutting, editing. The scissors are the films – when to throw away, after exactly how many frames. The whole film depends on that. No one has created anything greater than Battleship Potemkin.
As an industry, film is capital-intensive. So how much dissident can it really be?
Totally and absolutely. But it all depends on who are building the film. If an artist is fearless and not spineless, he or she can do anything. In their films, they can capture the struggles and plight of the entire universe. But what can we do if they don’t? And usually they don’t. That’s why our films have become so ridiculous.
There is a tendency among film society audience to only watch uncensored vulgar pornographic films. How can we resist this temptation and stop what has been hurting an important movement?
You can not really do anything because some of these rascals -- excuse my language --are only interested in that. And if they demand it, you will show those movies because you are thinking of getting some of your expenses back. "Film society has become another business". You need to "decry" this and loathe this completely, but you don't. This country is in a deep downward spiral. I am a drunk -- and I do not hide the fact; most people know quite well that I drink -- so leave me out of this, but you all need to be a lot more vocal and aggressive. You see, I -- and Satyajit as well -- do not go to watch your film society screenings any more because the films you are exhibiting can not be watched by gentlemen. I do not want to show them to my wife, my daughter. You will have to take up the fight. I can not. I have taken myself out of this. You know what is in my hand and that much I can do, but film society screenings and audience, you will have to...
Part of THE COLLOQUIUM FOR UNPOPULAR CULTURE: THE SPEED OF YOUR HAIR (A series on love)
“You eat,” Luke said, “at the speed of your hair.”
“What does that mean?” said Nicole.
It took an effort of will not to say, “It means I want to spend the rest of my life with you. I want to be with you when you are old, when your hair is grey…” What he actually said was: “I don’t know. It just seems true.” His plate was empty. He watched her eat, looked at her hair. He is in love with me, Nicole said to herself. She looked up again. Their eyes met. It felt as if they were kissing. Luke poured another glass of wine for himself.
“Gulp,” she said, touching his hand. “Gulp.”
LOVE STREAMS (dir. John Cassavetes, 1984)
WHEN: 7pm, Tuesday 9 February 2010 WHERE: Room 471, 20 Cooper Square (Bowery and East 5th) ALL WELCOME. Refreshments – stiff, copious - provided.
“Making a film has been compared, by many good directors, to a love affair. What hasn’t been said is that this film, the recipient of the love, is the victim of an organized orgy.” (Cassavetes)
LOVE STREAMS is John Cassavetes’s last film. He made it as he was dying of cirrhosis of the liver. Critically disavowed, yanked off screens after just a few weeks, only briefly available on video in the States, it’s the story of the close relationship between Robert, a feckless lush (played by Cassavetes) who’s “writing a book on night life”, and Sarah (Cassavetes’s real-life wife Gena Rowlands), who describes herself as a “very happy person”. Both are alive, lonely, lost. Both, in their different ways, are quietly howling with grief. Then comes the goat.
John Cassavetes’s films, Jim Jarmusch has written, are about “love, about trust and mistrust, about isolation, joy, sadness, ecstasy and stupidity”. For that reason, their stylistic distinctiveness, and for their fierce and galvanic independence, they’ve long been touchstones for equally fierce, equally galvanic directors such as Claire Denis, Olivier Assayas and Pedro Almodovar. LOVE STREAMS, in its rawness and desperation, its wild-eyed confrontation with human isolation and need, is hard to watch and equally hard to look away from.
LOVE STREAMS will be presented by Kevin B. Lee, a critic, filmmaker, and programming executive for dGenerate Films, a digital distribution channel for Chinese independent films. He contributes to ‘Time Out New York’, ‘Cineaste’, ‘The Moving Image Source’, and his blog Shooting Down Pictures, among other publications.
Screened January 27 2010 on DVR downloaded from the website that dare not speak its name in Brooklyn NY TSPDT rank #839 IMDb
As I mentioned in an earlier post, the one film on the TSPDT 1000 that I hadn't been able to locate in any form was this one, which had just been re-introduced to the list after the January update. Not long after that update, with the help of a couple of wonderful people from the French archival cinema community, I was able to track down a 35mm print of the film with the rights held by Gaumont. Unfortunately, Gaumont quoted me a ridiculous fee of several hundred Euros to rent the print, which made it pretty much impossible for me to access it. However, fortuitously at the same time, someone posted a DVR rip of the film, presumably from European television broadcast, to a site that will here remain unidentified. So I had my chance at last to watch this strangely inaccessible classic of French cinema.
The one catch was that the rip was unsubtitled, which presented me with the dilemma of whether I should proceed with watching, esp. given that reviews of the film mention the elegant script by Pierre Bost and Jean Aurenche. Fortunately, Marilyn Ferdinand provides a solid enough account of the plot on her site that I was encouraged to take the leap. All the same, I must acknowledge that my understanding of the film is by no means satisfactory. I can only hope that my opting to treat this as an experiment in watching a film without a grasping its dialogue might offer alternative insights focused more intently on its cinematic properties.
I should also mention that watching the film in this manner reminded me of many times as a child when I'd watch American comedy films and TV shows with my mother, and I'd laugh along with the punch lines only to turn to see my mom bearing an uncomprehending smile, aware that there was something to laugh about but not quite knowing what was funny. I think there were at least a couple of instances where I'd play the asshole and ask her if she got the joke. In some ways I was as confused as she was - ashamed at the wedge between us, irrationally resentful to her for making me feel alienated in my joy even as with the TV laugh track to egg me on. I dedicate this entry to her, that we may unshamefully derive our own pleasures from what we don't fully understand.
What strikes me most is how insular the film feels - it's all filmed on sets, largely interiors, with exteriors taking place in night streets and alleys taking place at night. Knowing that this was a production under German-controlled Vichy adds to this feeling of confinement. The stage-bound artifice also adds a dollhouse fairy-tale like quality. It's felt as early as the opening establishing shot, an ostentatious track across a model replica of 1880s Paris, featuring an Eiffel Tower still under construction:
For the most part the film takes place on a giant soundstage dressed as a grand aristocratic house, somewhat reminiscent of the Amberson estate in The Magnificent Ambersons. There are two levels, joined by a grand staircase as well as a newly installed elevator for the convenience of the aging matriarch that presides over the household. Some scenes make good dramatic use of the upward and downward motions of characters traversing the levels.
Graceful tracking shots help bring dynamism between these walls: they alternate in functions between scanning the interiors like a Martian probe and connecting characters' eyelines to objects. But the film repeatedly rests upon images of entrapment. From the opening scene a prison motif is introduced, as the title character (Odette Joyeux) first appears veiled an anonymous at a confessional booth rendered like prison bars:
A later scene between Douce and her governess, the scheming Irene (Madeleine Robinson) introduces another motif of fire that recurs (see title card) though less frequently. This fireplace POV shot (look carefully for the flame between them) symbolizes their respective romantic passions contained by 19th century decorum.
This shot moments later suggests the concealing of thoughts between them - unbeknownst to Douce, Irene is carrying on an affair with the man she fancies.
Mirrors are also used to create a sense of deflection in relationships - here Douce addresses Irene through a mirror at a moment where her trust of her has been broken irreparably:
Windows, doors, shadows and bars permeate the film, confining the characters throughout:
The servants in the house largely function as comic relief, with boorish dialogue and gestures:
There's even Jacques Tati as a servant, in one of his very earliest roles:
But there's room for the upper classes to be skewered visually as well. Marguerite Moreno as Madame de Bonafé is often dressed in oversized frills conveying her aristocratic excess, though her middle-class, kiss-ass estate manager Fabien (Roger Pigault) takes the cake with his ridiculous fur coat:
Yet over the course of the film the destructively selfish Fabien comes to be redeemed by Douce, a character so angelically pure that in one scene she sparkles:
While in this scene he literally has a cross of salvation cast upon him while in Douce's embrace:
There's enough going on visually to compensate for not understanding the dialogue; though in the more stagebound scenes a lot is riding on repartee. There are plenty of moments where the stagelike nature of the production gives the impression that this is largely a theater production captured on film with a modicum of tracking shots and lighting effects used to spice things up. But this is certainly worth watching again, especially if accompanied with a subtitle track.
The following citations were counted towards the placement of Douce / Love Story among the 1000 Greatest Films on the TSPDT 1000:
Bertrand Tavernier, Profil (2004) Frederic Vitoux, Libre Journal du Cinéma (2009) Lenny Borger, Libre Journal du Cinéma (2009) Lindsay Anderson, Sight & Sound (1992) Patrick Laurent, Libre Journal du Cinéma (2009) Philippe Ariotti, Libre Journal du Cinéma (2009) Bertrand Tavernier, 10 Overlooked French Films (2003) Sight & Sound, 360 Film Classics (1998) They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films
Director Claude Autant-Lara was one of the principal figures of the French “tradition of quality” that flourished during the Nazi occupation, and this 1943 masterpiece, which also introduced the writing team of Pierre Bost and Jean Aurenche, is the first of several great films he made. The radiant Odette Joyeux stars as the title heroine, a socialite who seeks to flee her lavish but suffocating environs with the handsome family caretaker, only to discover that the relationship is doomed. Autant-Lara's exquisite blend of social commentary, lush romanticism, and opulent sets and costumes—he began his career as a designer—vividly re-creates France's belle epoque and recalls Orson Welles's The Magnificent Ambersons both thematically and in its deep-focus exploration of interior space.
- Joshua Katzman, The Chicago Reader
It was under the Occupation that director Claude Autant-Lara proved his mettle and established himself as one of the finest directors of his generation. His best film, Douce, is a magnificent blend of romance, satire and dramatic irony, beautifully filmed, with some enchanting acting performances. Although the film is set in the late 19th century, its story of forbidden love between servants and masters from two totally different social strata was relevant to 1940s France, a country that was as divided by class as it was by the war.
The character Douce is played with great force and subtlety by Odette Joyeux, undoubtedly her best screen performance. Her portrayal of the love-sick adolescent who who makes a doomed attempt to cross the barriers of class and respectability is totally captivating, giving the film the tragic dimension that makes it a masterpiece.
Another noteworthy performance comes from Marguerite Moreno, who play’s Douce’s imperious grandmother. Well into her seventies, Moreno had become the archetypal eccentric ageing tyrant and this film sees one of her most spirited and charismatic performances. Her character epitomises everything that is wrong with the bourgeois elite – patronising, dictatorial, insensitive. The casting of Moreno is a stroke of genius because the strength of her character’s position and her inability to change her viewpoint reinforces the nobility of her son and grand-daughter, who opt for love before protocol. Moreno’s la comtesse de Bonafé is a grotesque caricature but it provides an entertaining and accurate satire of the French bourgeoisie.
- James Travers, Films de France
Douce was the first film scripted by the so-called “Tradition of Quality" team of Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost. Tradition of Quality films were dubbed as such by the leading critics of the 1940s and 1950s for their academic production values, basis in traditional literary classics, and theatrical scripting. I might add that the work of Aurenche and Bost, frequent collaborators of Autant-Lara, is where I would place the quality. Their writing is extremely witty and subtle when they are going for social commentary. Marguerite Moreno certainly had a plum role as the Grand Dame of the house. Her lines and actions would have been buffoonish if they hadn’t been closely observed and written. When she goes through her closet to choose items to give to the poor tenants on her land for Christmas, she holds back one jacket. “That’s too good," she instructs Irène, saying (I paraphrase), “It will only depress the people because they will see the heights to which they never can aspire." When she calls on her tenants, she brings Irène and Fabien with her to carry the clothes and soup. One tenant gets up to heat a bowl of soup for herself and her husband. “No, no," says Madame, “It’s my turn to serve you. Irène, put the soup on the stove."
Some quibbles. Joyeux looked too old to still be dressing like a child, and Joyeux, Robinson, and Pigaut have a severe, mannered acting style. The love talk between Pigaut and the two women is the ultimate in purple prose, as well. The film takes a somewhat predictable turn to tragedy, but it was startling to me because up until then I had been watching a very funny comedy of manners. The overly melodramatic elements made me all too aware that there was a moral to this story. I wonder, in fact, whether the German honchos might have insisted that the story reflect a superior/inferior class ethos to suggest the depravity of “mixing." But this is mere conjecture.
- Marilyn Ferdinand, Ferdy on Film
It was Autant-Lara who introduced Bost to Aurenche to help with the dialogue for his film Douce , taken from Michel Davet's simple story of a devoted governess in a bourgeois family. Their screen version cleverly subverts the original text by shifting the emphasis to expose middle-class complacency. Thereafter the two writers formed a unique partnership translating for the screen an impressive array of literary classics, including works by Aymé, Colette, Feydeau, Gide, Radiguet, Stendhal, and Zola. Their initial collaboration set the pattern for their approach to adaptation; Aurenche concerning himself mainly with the screenplay and Bost with the dialogue. Frequently their shared left-wing sympathies are reflected in the inflection given to their reworked film narratives. Although they worked for several directors their most memorable achievements are found in films by Delannoy, Clément, and Autant-Lara.
- R.F. Cousins, Film Reference.com
Truffaut denounces these men (as well as the cinema they represent) for their irreverence toward the literary works they adapt (most of the scripts and films in question were literary adaptations), their anti-clerical and anti-militarist stances, their pessimism and negativity, their “profanity” and “blasphemy.” His concerns here show the utter conventionality and the extreme cultural and political conservatism of his views’ on art. These scriptwriters’ irreverence toward their sources, the great French literary masterpieces (in some cases at least), reveals to Truffaut their lack of concern for tradition and conventional values, Truffaut sees the cinema d'auteurs as a return to the eternal verities and the classical French values of the enlightenment and romanticism. His opposition to their insertion of anti-militarist and anti-clerical stances into the works they adapted is a defense of art’s autonomy. No social or political views, those dreaded “messages,” are to mar the purity of art. Art must be free of all outside influences, Truffaut thought.
Truffaut also objects to pessimism and negativity because he holds the opposite view of the potentiality of (at least some) human beings. And these special human beings, not the common person, are to be the fit subject of art, Here Truffaut is also opposing the deterministic view of life which often prevailed in the French cinema of the 1940’s and 1950’s, a view of life which had its origin in Zola’s Naturalism. Finally by objecting to the “profanity” and “blasphemy” in many French films, Truffaut declares his allegiance to Catholicism, the continual target of the French Left. For, as stated in Part One of this article, la politique des auteurs was a recapitulation on the level of culture of the bourgeoisie’s forceful reassertion of power in the decade after the war. Aurenche and Bost were the products and representatives of the era of the Popular Front and the Resistance, the ethos of which Truffaut opposes.
- John Hess, "Politique des Auteurs, 2" Jump Cut
"A film without actors" reads the subtitle of this title card. You have to think about what a concept like that meant back in 1930 Germany, why it would be perceived as a selling point instead of a drawback. A desire to get away from the excesses of Weimar Expressionism (Caligari, Metropolis, Murnau) whose overt theatricality and expensively staged, light-and-shadow spectacle were perceived as out of touch with the reality of Germany. All the better for a band of up-and-coming German filmmakers to make a distinguishing statement for themselves. Ulmer, Zimmerman, Siodmark, Wilder, Schüfftan (whose pioneering work in special effects seems antithetical to the spirit of this particular production): no one at the time could have imagined what a dream team of legendary talent this would prove to be. (My deranged mind summons this as a contemporary hip-hop equivalent)
Wilder's silent dialogue screenplay doesn't give much indication of the verbal brilliance that would grace his future scripts; but the story, basically chronicling how two guys pick up and dump a couple of girls on a weekend tryst, does give a whiff of his trademark cynicism. The story, such as it is, was based on "reportage" by Robert Siodmark (I can see it now; Siodmark telling Wilder, "I know this guy...")
In the opening montage that introduces the main characters, Schüfftan's way of framing people flirts with the Soviet propaganda style, shooting ordinary working folk in a statuesque, heroic manner, like cab driver Erwin Splettstsser:
But when he gets around to the Erwin's friend Wolfgang von Waltershausen, an "officer, farmer, antique dealer, gigolo, wine trader..." the staging and lighting is less flattering:
One also might wonder if the multiple job labels appended to Wolfgang signify him as a Berlin Everyman, in that there's a shadiness in men of all stations, which makes them less inconographic and more complicated - and thus more real - than their Soviet onscreen counterparts.
When we get to Erwin's galpal Annie, an unemployed model who lounges all day in their apartment, we are back in the realm of G.W. Pabst/Louise Brooks decadence, though made less sensationalistic and more quotidian - she's less the symbol of Weimar moral depravation as just a girl killing time picking her fingernails, waiting for a job but too lazy/depressed to go and find it.
The plot kicks off at a bus stop with Christl, introduced as a real life movie extra - her casting as a lead here may be a conscious inversion of the pecking order of actors. Wolfgang picks her up and makes a date in this shot, shot in a telephoto on a bustling street with real pedestrians and presumably a real police officer who doesn't know he's being filmed.
It's a verite technique that (permits be damned) continues to this day, so long as the desire for street realism persists. The first time I was ever conscious of it was when Siskel and Ebert pointed it out in their review of Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies:
For an outstanding present-day example of this technique, check out Bradley Rust Gray's The Exploding Girl, which will be released this spring in the US. (The film's street cinematography is highly influenced by Hou Hsiao Hsien's use of the technique in Cafe Lumiere).
This is just one of several strategies used by the film to infuse its wisp of a narrative with a real-time, real-world immediacy and texture. Aside from cinematography, there's also montages of street shots that break in between scenes involving the main characters, as if to say, this story is just one plucked from the many people and experiences happening now. The montages also provide invaluable incidental details on Berlin circa 1930: how people got around (trolleys, cars), how streets looked:
But again, realism in narrative cinema isn't just a matter of shooting everyday streets and scenarios and leaving it up to whatever happens to pass in front of the camera, at least as far as this film is concerned. There's a distinct craft on display. All the technical resourcefulness and attentive eyes that blessed German filmmaking of this period is now trained not on outsized spectacle or melodrama but on capturing, staging and conveying an unmistakable impression of the real, and making it feel effortless and incidental. This paradoxical effort truly comes through in the scene where Edwin comes back home to find Annie lounging. Their mutual sense of malaise slowly simmers through a series of mundane actions that erupt into a shared tirade. Count how many shots are used in this sequence, moving deftly across the room, moving ever tighter, as if the walls were closing in as surely as that incessant dripping of the faucet:
At last, to get at each other's goat, they tear down a wall's worth of matinee idol lobby cards (actresses for him; actors for her), an arresting image and yet another dig at the wall of conventional moviemaking that this film attempts to undermine - as if all these fantasy images were symptomatic of the self-oppression and alienation from reality that may be plaguing this couple (and really, how far have we come?). But before they can really have it out, Wolfgang waltzes in and the buddies pick up a game of cards, leaving Annie looking on helplessly. We get one devastating close-up before the camera recedes from this tomb-like chamber of discord.
The next day Wolfgang and Erwin meet up with Christl and her friend Brigitte, a salesgirl, for a jaunt to Nikolassee, a grand park and recreation area on the outskirts of Berlin. In this extended passage the film is a world away from the tightly rendered naturalism of Erwin's apartment, and indulges in a series of bold ventures in alternative narrative cinema. To set things up there's a titillating sequence where the youngsters awkwardly undress, hiding in the rushes along a river.
Later on they picnic in a nearby spot, engaging in some jocularity leading to Erwin getting playfully spanked. This triggers a jarring jump to a scene of schoolboys spanking each other. Is it a cutaway to some other part of Berlin where this is happening? Is it a flashback to Erwin's school days?
This leads to an idyllic passage that roams the park landscape ripe with families picnicking with naked babies frolicking on the sunny grass - the film seems to be moving intuitively through a series of moods and associations of gaiety and youthful innocence...
But as the sun-drenched visuals continue, a sense of afternoon languor starts to creep in: the shots move back to the city, baking in the midday heat. Adults slump on park benches or slouch over windowsills. The montage comes to a rest back in the apartment of Annie, finding her sleeping:
And then leaps back to the park, where we find our party similarly resting in the sun. At least Erwin is behaving himself so far from his girl's sight, though that leaves Wolfgang to casually lay his paws on both girls at once:
Another vaguely associative cut, jumping back to the city and the shot of a mannequin in lingerie basking in the harsh shadows of late afternoon - seductive yet strangely deathly in its inertness. The death theme creeps in further as the montage shifts to shots of a gravesite:
Which then matches graphically with the windows of an apartment building:
and then the montage shifts to a scene where a beach photographer takes souvenir photos, which are incorporated in the montage. The internal logic of the sequence seems to be a desire to overcome a creeping sense of death and languidness that threatens to extinguish all this life...
Immortalized by the camera:
... or in a moment of sexual fantasy. A moment unlike any other before in cinema - clearly no love involved, at least on the male side, so for the viewer there's no pretense of romantic idealism attached to the moment.
It's just the pure erotic charge of a moment, where woman's common sense (I know this guy just wants to bone me, and yet...) puts up an initial resistence...
And yet... the intense sensation of touch, the warm breath of his nostrils under her palm, the sweat and pulse of sexual excitement. The moment where a girl and The Cinema both discover the feeling of sex...
... all in this shot...
And so, a film ostensibly about capturing the lives of everyday people funnels into a full-circle depiction of their desire to escape the everyday, if only for a moment...
Jump forward nearly 80 years - the push-pull explosive exertion of this moment hasn't been forgotten, at least not by Jean-Luc Godard. Witness his trailer for the 2008 Viennale:
And see also the films of this guy to see how the spirit of People on Sunday lives on... Everyday people, enraptured in everyday fantasy.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?
The following citations were counted towards the placement of People on Sunday among the 1000 Greatest Films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?
Arne Scheuermann, Senses of Cinema (2004) Erik Ulrichsen, Sight & Sound (1952) Guy Barefoot, One-Line Review (2009) Hans Helmut Prinzler, Steadycam (2007) Ludwig Gesek, Sight & Sound (1982) William Brown, One-Line Review (2009) Cinematheque Royale de Belgique FIAF: An Archival Viewpoint (1995) David Thomson, Have You Seen...? A Personal Introduction to 1000 Films (2008) Sight & Sound, 360 Film Classics (1998) Taschen Books, Movies of the 20s-90s (2003-2007) The Guardian, 1,000 Films to See Before You Die (2007) They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films
Five young filmmakers, unknowns at the time, but who would go on to have illustrious careers in Hollywood, collaborate on an experimental feature – part documentary, part narrative, and starring a cast of five Berliners playing themselves. Dubbed "A film without actors", People On Sunday (Menschen am Sonntag) is a surprisingly modern work that is a major document in the history of German avant-garde cinema.
The film originated from a reportage by Kurt Siodmak (screenwriter, The Wolf Man, I Walked With a Zombie) that became a screenplay by none other than the great Billy Wilder. It was shot by Eugen Schüfftan (cinematographer The Hustler, Eyes Without a Face) and Fred Zinnemann (High Noon), and directed by Robert Siodmak (The Killers) and Edgar G. Ulmer (Detour). With that much talent behind the camera, it's no wonder that the end result of this fortunate bit of happenstance is nothing short of fascinating.
Perhaps owing to its use of non-actors, People on Sunday has a remarkably modern feel to it, and the cast never employ the exaggerated gestures or acting style one tends to find in silent cinema. If anything, the film has more in common with the French New Wave than it does the New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit) that was dominating German cinema at the time (Lang, Pabst, Jutzi.) The boyish playfulness of Erwin and Wolfgang combined with their romantic machinations (and partner swapping) is right out of Masculin Féminin or Bande à Part.
Much of the narrative portion of the film is shot in close-up (Dreyer-esque at times), and Schüfftan's framing of the good-looking cast is nothing short of stunning, and fitting for the awkward intimacy of the foursome. This is in sharp contrast to the vérité style montages of Berlin that are interspersed throughout the film which aim to capture the breadth of the city. An unforgettable sequence of random faces from the POV of a portrait photographer makes use of the freeze-frame, which some credit as being pioneered by Schüfftan (though I believe Vertov may heave beaten him to it.)
Much more than a mere curiosity, People on Sunday is at once a final look at a great city that in a year's time would be forever changed, and a rare first glimpse into the minds of six artists who would leave a lasting imprint in the history of cinema.
- Filmbrain, Like Anna Karina's Sweater
The motion picture’s dual appeal as both an art and a pastime is tied up in the camera's ability to capture reality at the same time that it conveys fiction. Movies are an enchanting admixture of unvarnished truth and comforting anecdote, or, to paraphrase Alfred Hitchcock, they can offer a slice of life and a slice of cake. This seems particularly true of the 1929 German independent filmPeople on Sunday (Menschen am Sonntag). Shot on weekends, and on a shoestring budget, the film features five young Berliners essentially playing themselves. Its “plot” is gossamer thin, the action confined to a single day, roughly, and centered on a double-date outing to a park. The movie was a modest effort devised as a calling card for some would-be filmmakers with a rough-hewn aesthetic unlike anything coming out of Berlin’s prewar powerhouse film industry. Yet, in the history of film, it proved to be of major importance.
- Bruce Bennett, who offers a detailed account of the film's production in Humanities magazine
People on Sunday is as much a love letter to the proletariat as the films of the Bolshevik giants, but politics are ultimately pushed aside for a celebration of a pursuit of happiness that’s in some way about transcending social class. As a snapshot of the last wave of youthful abandonment before the Hitler era, it’s a heartbreaker.
Sunday takes several breaks from the flirt swirl of its four main protagonists to remind the viewer that their story is just one of hundreds taking place in Berlin’s parks and waterfronts on any given weekend. In shots reminiscent of Soviet cinema, workers begin their day-off by marching en masse to their chosen recreation locations. In a montage of photographs taken by a street portraitist, we see that Sunday leisure is not just for the young and pretty–even the old and haggard have smiles on their faces. For all, it’s the one day of the week to put daily drudgery aside and pursue personal dreams and desires. If the other six days are spent working to live, Sundays are not just restorative, but transformative: it’s the one day out of seven that the worker can devote to shaping his/her own identity.
- Karina Longworth, Spout
Edgar G. Ulmer and Robert Siodmak directed it, Billy Wilder wrote it, Fred Zinnemann handled the camera, and Eugen Schüfftan did the lighting -- a Rosetta stone of Germany's post-Lang-Lubitsch-Pabst wave, but first and foremost a bunch of guys meeting in a café and deciding to make a movie. The air-filled location shooting is closer to Nouvelle Vague more than to neorealism, the camera high as Wolfgang von Waltershausen picks up Christl Ehlers at a trolley stop, to catch passersby on both sides of the street, bustling their way through Berlin circa 1929. Just two of a quintet of "real" people picked to enact a little city-symphony drama for the lens; the others are taxi driver Erwin Splettstößer, record salesgirl Brigitte Borchert, and model Annie Schreyer. Shaving cream on movie-star portraits, dripping faucets and arguments over the brim of a hat signal domestic suffocation in the cramped flat, so Splettstößer leaves Schreyer oversleeping to spend Sunday with Waltershausen and the other gals by the lake. Crisscrossing flirtation during a picnic, one couple switches with the other, a kiss in the woods triggers a languid circular tilt left, over the trees and across the garbage cans, before returning to find Waltershausen fixing his tie and Borchert laying on the floor, grinning. In between, the notion of cinema as snapshots of life is literalized by taking random pics of people along the way, with screen freezing into portraits -- children and women striking mock-glamorous poses, a glimpse of Valeska Gert sneaked in. Images are easy to record, yet emotions are capricious, a cracked record and another pair of girls ending the day and spiking the lyricism with transience. Authorship remains diffuse with so many auteurs, so the movie belongs less to a single person than to an epoch, when Berlin could rank alongside Paris as a dream burg, or perhaps when budding artists could grab a camera and simply take to the streets. So back to work on Monday for these characters, and off to Hollywood for the makers.
- Fernando F. Croce, Cinepassion
A documentary fiction, a fictional documentary: Menschen am Sonntag, ein film ohne Schausppieler, written by Curt Siodmak and Billy Wilder, and directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, Robert and Curt Siodmak and, to a minor extent, Fred Zinnemann, is the last notable silent film from Germany—an experiment in which young filmmakers flex their love of cinema. It is indeed “a film without actors”; the five main characters are played by nonprofessionals, who, titles tell us, returned to their ordinary jobs the next day.
The brilliant cinematographer is Eugen Schüfftan, who would photograph seminal black-and-white films, including Marcel Carné’sQuai des brûmes (1938). He and the filmmakers collaborate on a spontaneous air and fresh, crisp, exuberant, sometimes volatile images. Much of the framing surprises—and yet makes total sense: for instance, when Brigitte changes into her swimsuit she occupies a small lower portion of the screen and is surrounded by tall reeds that fill up the screen.
Emerging from an experimental movement known as 'Neue Sachlichkeit' (or 'New Objectivity'), the young filmmakers involved in 'People on Sunday' (Robert and Curt Siodmak, Billy Wilder, Fred Zinneman, Edgar G. Ulmer - all of whom went on to have illustrious careers in the industry) wove their drama from the ordinary details of life, in a novel blend of feature and documentary - yet so little actually happens in traditional narrative terms, and so unaffected are the performances, that it is easy to forget this is a feature at all, although impossible not to be charmed by these characters' youthful clowning, courting and petty jealousies. The whole spirit of the enterprise is encapsulated in a central sequence in which people from all walks of life pose one-by-one in front of a beach photographer, their images then captured candidly in freeze frame (an effect not seen before this film) - for 'People on Sunday' is precisely a series of snapshots of common-or-garden reality, in which anyone and everyone can have their day on screen.
For all its revolutionary invention, 'People on Sunday' remains a timeless celebration of the meaningless pursuits that make life worth living - as well as an essential document of 1920s Berlin.
ABOUT THE BFI REGION 2 DVD
I'm going to do some speculation here - occasionally because of frame rate conversion from older silent films that are mastered in HD we can have 'trailing" or what we call "ghosting" as a process of the transfer of such an older film. I don't think though that this was transferred progressively (one frame at time) and can possibly be the same reason it shows limited 'ghosting' and 'combing' (see last capture). Regardless of that - the image looks marvelous - absolutely super. There was contrast flickering evident but it was often on the very last frame or 2 of certain scenes. I assume that the intertitles are new - and they look perfect as do the optional subtitles. There was minor dirt and scratches at times, but all 'flaws' of this image are more-or-less expected from a 75 year old film... but more - from a film virtually lost (original negative gone for good) and reconstructed. Amazing!
BFI have brought us an important film from cinema history and we applaud them for it. I'll admit it - I was mesmerized while viewing. I feel like locking this DVD in the safe every night (if I had a safe). The liner notes extras are great for appreciation of the film. The "This Year -London" short featurette has some relational camp. I think People on Sunday was worthy of a commentary being that it is quite short, but I won't be a nitpicker. An ESSENTIAL DVD!
- Gary Tooze, DVD Beaver
ABOUT CURT SIODMAK
Curt Siodmak was almost single-handedly responsible for the flowering of the second horror-film cycle. He wrote the best of Universal's 1940s horror films and influenced all the others. While by no means a great writer, Siodmak is a gifted, sometimes inspired hack, who, in the course of a prolific career, has created many striking and enduring characters and concepts. He has described himself as an idea man, and he has certainly come up with ideas on which he and others have rung variations, time and again.
ABOUT ROBERT SIODMAK
Quotes from TSPDT profile page:
"Siodmak's most successful projects - Phantom Lady, Christmas Holiday, The Suspect, Uncle Harry, The Spiral Staircase, The Killers - represent a fortuitous conjunction of such attractive actresses as Ella Raines, Dorothy McGuire, Ava Gardner, and even an absurdly lurid Deanna Durbin, with perverse subjects and expert technicians all whipped together with a heavy Teutonic sauce and served to the customers as offbeat art." - Andrew Sarris (The American Cinema, 1968)
"Being Jewish, Siodmak had to flee the Nazis, arriving in Hollywood in 1940. Film noir gave him the opportunity to use his pictorial sense and his narrative skills, and he directed a string of atmospheric thrillers, including Phantom Lady (1944), The Killers and The Dark Mirror (both 1946), Cry of the City (1948) and Criss Cross (1949)." - (The Movie Book, 1999)
"An innovative and cinematic director, he explored the criminal or psychotic impulses in his characters through the ambience of his elegant mise-en-scène. The control of all cinematic tools at his command - camera angle, lighting, composition, movement, and design - was used to establish effectively a world of fate, passion, obsession, and compulsion. Although his reputation has been elevated in recent years, his name deserves to be better known." - Jeanine Basinger (International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, 1991)
"During the 1940s, Siodmak developed into a formidable director of suspense and crime films. He was influenced by the German schools of expressionism and realism prevalent in the 20s. Both rubbed off into a blend which distinguishes his Hollywood period." - William R. Meyer (The Film Buff's Catalog, 1978)
Robert Siodmak's career is one of the more underrated and misunderstood in the history of Hollywood. The merit of Siodmak's cinematic art is also one of the most controversial. Among fanatic cinephiles, particularly those with a penchant for film noir thrillers, Siodmak is considered the primary architect of the genre. No other director has produced more quality film noir thrillers than Siodmak. His canon is a viewing list for any authentic study of the genre. His most notable film noirs include Phantom Lady, The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry, The Spiral Staircase, The Killers, The Dark Mirror, Cry of the City, Criss Cross and The File on Thelma Jordan. However, among a small minority of film critics, he is considered a one-dimensional “yes” man who simply followed marching orders established by studio executives. These critics suggest Siodmak's success was a direct product of the studio system and the cadre of filmmakers studios arranged for him. Lastly, Siodmak's popularity among casual movie fans is virtually nonexistent. Many have never heard of him, and when they have, they rarely can even pronounce his name (see-odd-mak – emphasis on the “odd”). The latter two assessments of Siodmak's career are inaccurate, because he was the primary auteur of one of America's most important film genres.
- Chris Justice, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography
ABOUT EDGAR G. ULMER
The films of Edgar G. Ulmer have generally been classified as "B" pictures. However, it might be more appropriate to reclassify some of these films as "Z" pictures. On an average, Ulmer's pictures were filmed on a six-day shooting schedule with budgets as small as $20,000. He often worked without a decent script, adequate sets, or convincing actors. But these hardships did not prevent Ulmer from creating an individual style within his films.
—Linda Obalil, Film Reference.com
This post is dedicated to Matthew Dessem, proprietor of The Criterion Contraption. I'm going to co-opt his lengthy, conversational approach to writing up films, to savor this film as well as the remaining entries of my own project...
WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?
"What separates us from yesterday is not a rift but a changed position." This enigmatic title that opens the film may sound like a distinction without a difference. But as we follow the travails of Anita G., an East German refugee trying and failing to get a foothold in West Berlin, the notion emerges that her sense of alienation (as well as the film's) is a rift caused by the shifting positions - economically, socially and intellectually - adopted by West Germans as they busily build a future. What's fascinating is how much this thesis is embedded in both the film's style and its lead performance by Alexandra Kluge (the director's sister), both indulging a dazzling display of rampant, disjointed eclecticism. Take the above shot beneath the title card, with Anita clearly out of place in a high class hotel lobby, and acting even more conspicuously by fussily changing chairs. It's as if she and the film are mimicking the shiftiness they see in polite West German society but stripped away of socially acceptable conventions.
Even before this shot, we as viewers are thrown off by the opening scene (really a fragment of a scene) where Anita is in the midst of an unexplained fit of laughter, before reading an unidentified text (possibly an account of Nazi officers separating Jewish families during the Holocaust) in an unsettling, specious tone.
For the most part, Anita's default demeanor is blank-faced incomprehension, smiling and nodding while trying to get along with others. In these shots, one can't help but think that Anita is modeled after Anna Karina's Nana in Godard's Vivre sa vie:
Here she's in a courtroom listening to a judge sift through certain facts of her life: that she's from East Germany; that she was caught pinching a sweater from a co-worker; yet she left the sweater in plain view which is how she was caught; that her parents were Jewish and were persecuted during the Holocaust. As the judge sifts through this data, it becomes clear how much of his verdict is pre-determined by his assumptions of her, as he repeatedly reads subtext into her ambiguous responses. (Judge: "Why did you move West? Because of certain incidents?" Anita: "Because of prior incidents." Judge: "You mean from '43-'44? I don't believe that. In my experience, they don't affect young people."). In the midst of this there's a disconcerting cut to the judge's stern, tight-lipped gaze, even as their dialogue continues, acting like a cutaway to his inner judgmental state:
He's but the first of several caricatures of social types that Anita encounters, none of which are portrayed with much charity. As such the film is clearly a polemic; yet its discombobulating array of stylistic approaches keep its rhetoric from being two-dimensional. A social worker is introduced with a Bergmanesque direct address to the camera:
Before she becomes a stand-in for an overt Christian moral-mindedness that all but stifles Anita during her probationary stint:
She eventually escapes to work for a sales manager of foreign-language recordings, who's also introduced in Bergmanesque direct-address manner. But whereas Bergman's characters bare their souls when facing the screen, these vignettes show their characters as they would like to see themselves, putting their best public face forward.
The manager isn't exactly Don Draper in terms of looks or charm, but his austere marketing spiel drives home a message of self-improvement that apparently works on Anita, as we come to learn that they're having an affair. This development is conveyed with an obliqueness that's brilliantly original. First we're given random shots of idealized German family life:
That gradually fold into these ambiguously nostalgic illustrations of old-style German towns:
culminating in a majestic shot of a dinner table revolving across vast Berlin cityscape. The world is literally yours for consumption, the modern consumerist fantasy par excellence.
This leads to a shot of Anita in a department store trying on fur coats, and expensing them on her boss' account. Not only do we now learn that she's a kept woman, but retrospectively we wonder if that skyscraper restaurant table was the site of one of their trysts. In any event the manager's wife catches wind of the affair and Anita is swiftly given the boot. But Anita won't give up on making it in this society, as this title (harkening to the silent age of film, a period of nascence and limitless potential) makes clear:
After getting fired from a subsequent hotel housekeeping job for suspected theft (or was she scapegoated?), Anita moves onto another dead-end tryst, this time with a much younger man, though their encounter is treated with an intimacy found nowhere else in the film, with shades of tender, desperate empathy.
In these moments the camera exposes the lines on Anita's face, bringing a vulnerability and rawness to their moments together:
Through their brief time together she resolves to make a go at attending university, and sits in on lectures, though the results aren't very encouraging:
She bluffs her way into enrolling by pretending that she's taken courses before; her good looks appear to compel one professor take her at her word, while also eliciting one of the weirdest come-on lines in cinema history:
Her efforts at entering academia prove to be a fiasco, while her habit of staying at hotels without paying starts catching up with her; she's recognized on the street as a deadbeat tenant, leading to an episode on the lam rendered in psychedelic police lights mixed with footage of police parades and carnivalesque exhibitions of their precision. This leads to scene of two men, presumably Nazis, forcing a woman to make an excruciating decision:
Could this be a flashback from Anita's childhood? We are never told the answer; it plays as much as an unaccounted, repressed memory for us as it might be for her, lurking like some demon kept in the basement of history only to seep out at an unexpected moment. Other unhinged images ensue:
Eventually she and the film return to the "real" world, and she takes up with Pichota, another married man, and a member of the Culture Ministry. She accompanies him on one of his appointments, where pleasantries are read from cue cards:
Kluge seems to save the best of his satircal venom for this guy, as he represents the cultural establishment and thus the forces of aimless ceremonialism and convention that Kluge dedicated himself to opposing (see the Oberhausen Manifesto). Pichota foregoes an official ceremony to unveil a rare Goethe notebook so he can go another round bedside with his paramour, then chastises her for not finding a flat of her own, but won't give her any money towards a deposit. Instead he decides to mold her in his own image, reading literature to her and teaching her an 19th century song of unrequited love. Guess what he does when she finds out she's pregnant?
Shots like this one above threaten to turn this girl's outcast status within a West German society that is unable to either fully understand or incorporate her into its own kind of mythography. It risks placing her in the category of romantic anti-establishment type, which, if it wasn't a ready-made cliche back then, certainly is these days. The saving grace is Alexandra Kluge's performance, no doubt a conceptual collaboration with her brother director, but in her hands the character Anita G. defies any easy categorization, vacillating incessantly between being an icon, a postulation and a flesh-and-blood human being. This results in an unstable dynamic between protagonist, her world and the viewer, who becomes as much an alienated observer of this world of surfaces and pretensions as she is. Dissonant in their dissidence, the shifting modes of filmmaking and onscreen behavior have an energy and engagement with its world, doggedly picking apart its assumptions and presumptions, that's as valuable today as ever.
The following citations were counted towards the placement of Yesterday Girl among the 1000 Greatest Films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?
Hans Gunther Pflaum, Steadycam (2007) Hans Helmut Prinzler, Steadycam (2007) Jeanine Meerapfel, Sight & Sound (1992) Ulrich von Thuna, Steadycam (2007) Wolfram Schutte, Steadycam (2007) Sight & Sound 360 Film Classics (1998) They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films
WATCHING the plight of "Yesterday Girl," a poor, buffeted young derelict in West Germany, some viewers may wistfully hark back to the teary but untangled sagas of Sylvia Sidney in Hollywood during the Depression years. Miss Sidney's cases, at least, were stated with soggy succinctness.
The hard-luck drama that unfolded last night at the New York Film Festival, the first feature directed by the German novelist Alexander Kluge, is so hell-bent on stylistic effects and so sauvely stingy in siphoning simple case-history facts that we learn little and subsequently care less about the heroine. A pity, too, for the hapless girl peering from the circuitous labyrinth of film footage is the director's sister, Alexandra. She even has Miss Sidney's stricken eyes and quivering under-lip. That much is obvious.
It seems—repeat, seems—that the girl has fled from East Germany and been arrested for shoplifting in the West. She serves a jail sentence, then starts a descent on the fringes of society in a succession of odd jobs, including a brief go at prostitution. Bruised by bureaucracy, fate and at least one lover who discards her, the girl slinks off into the night, clutching a suitcase, and has a baby at a state hospital.
Mr. Kluge's picture, with its down-and-out protagonist, is according to advance publicity, an ironic commentary on the West German's economic well-being. How? We see little evidence of prosperity in Miss Kluge's mouse-hole itinerary. Most of the people who speed her on her descent are glacial, urban stereotypes. And from what little is revealed about the heroine's true character, she appears to be a listless girl who would have a tough time mastering a job anywhere.
Whatever "Yesterday Girl" symbolizes, Mr. Kluge applies his camera like a clouded microscope, side-stepping simple compassion for bland, clinical detachment. A stethoscope, applied just once, would have conveyed much more.
- Bosley Crowther, The New York Times, September 22, 1967
Kluge's first feature traces the misadventures of Anita G. (played by his sister Alexandra), a young refugee from East Germany, as she wanders through the Economic Miracle but fails to find a place in it. Always penniless and often involved in petty crime, she meets a string of people who try to 'improve' and/or seduce her, but never gets to the root of her problems. Kluge makes it clear that she's a product of Germany's past, and his basic point is the simple one that Germany is trying to sweep its history under the carpet. But his Godardian wit and informality give the argument countless resonances, and keep the movie surprisingly fresh.
- Time Out
The film's tersely written preface, "What separates us from yesterday is not a rift but a change in position" reinforces this sense of subconscious, recursive inevitability, as the heroine, the titular Anita G, is introduced through incisive, cross cut images: initially reading a piece of paper in subtly varying intonation, then subsequently, from a high angle-shot title sequence as she repeatedly assesses her vantage point before changing seats at a hotel bar lounge. From the juxtaposition of these fractured opening images, Kluge establishes the idea of postwar collective memory as an empty shell game that has been essentially formed from the simple, but implicitly deliberated modulation, displacement, and reconstitution of latent, prevailing cultural mores.
This sense of an ingrained, un-rehabilitated, and perhaps even defiant national psyche is also reinforced in Anita's appearance in court before a judge over a theft charge stemming from a colleague's appropriated cardigan sweater. Reviewing Anna's background as a German Jew from Leipzig, now in (the former) East Germany whose family business was confiscated by the Third Reich, then reinstated after the war, the judge is eager to exonerate the possibility that the "certain incidents of 1943-44" had contributed to Anita G.'s current charge - an association that she, herself, never implied - attempting instead to trivialize her relocation to West Germany as a simple search for opportunity that, like any other outsider (despite being born in a unified Germany before the war), is an attempt to exploit the country's bourgeoning economy. Challenging her sense of guilt for the offense by her curious behavior in not hiding the cardigan - an inaction that Anita admits stemmed from confusion over "prior events" that the judge, once again, is quick to erroneously suggest that she is attempting to evoke the tragedy of the Holocaust in order to gain sympathy from the court - the inquisition itself reveals the underlying hypocrisy of German society after the war, where people who served in positions of power during the Third Reich (obtained through party loyalty) were often restored to their bureaucratic appointments. This contradictory behavior that is, at once, an all-too-ready admission of (factually verified) historical culpability and a trivialization of the consequences of its legacy reflects a culturally pervasive attitude, a tenuous co-existence between half-hearted acknowledgement and adamant denial that is encapsulated by the judge's curt dismissal in continuing the line of inquiry that raises the specter of the human tragedy (one that he, himself, has introduced out of apparent habit): a pre-emptive declaration of its particular - and implicitly broader - irrelevance towards the resurgence of an inclusive, tolerant, and transformed "New Germany". Ironically, it is a metamorphosis that, nevertheless, perpetuates a climate of exclusion (East versus West), moral imprisonment (the evangelical probationary officer attempts to convert her to Christianity), and dispossession (the landlady's decision to evict her from the boarding house by impounding her suitcase). Inevitably, perhaps the key to Kluge's fragmented, yet lucid and penetrating social interrogation is revealed in a university professor's sterile and philosophically dense lecture on the relativity of the Greek concept of aischron and the opposing corollary ideas that the greater shame resides either for the one who commits the transgression, or the one who suffers from it - a delusive posture of righteousness that re-invents collective history through the perspective of defiant transgressors as the greater victims of their own willful, moral complicity.
- Acquarello, Strictly Film School
Alexander Kluge's debut feature Yesterday Girl is a kaleidoscopic burst of energy, a frenetic but never haphazard film that gives the impression of an eager young director, unwilling to commit to any one storytelling mode or aesthetic, instead experimenting with anything he can think of. The result is a quickly paced collage, a jittery, jazzy patchwork that augments its sparse central narrative with myriad diversions and non sequiturs. The film owes much to the example of the French New Wave, and especially to the montage and stylistic catholicity of Jean-Luc Godard, but there is undeniably something distinctive about Kluge, something unmistakable. His rhythms are his own, as is his sense of playfulness, his unexpected detours into surrealism and absurdist farce. Kluge's sister Alexandra plays the heroine, Anita G., an obvious stand-in for the New Wave's young archetypes — she even has those big, black-lined Anna Karina eyes.
Kluge tells Anita's story through an astonishing variety of cinematic language. As in the first sequence, each scene throughout the film is methodically broken down, with blunt editing that serves to fragment Anita's story. Her experience of life is discontinuous, marked by abrupt breaks and disjunctions, and Kluge passes this experience on to his audience. He frequently resorts to extreme closeups, in which talking heads orate from an abstracted, empty gray space. But just as often he avoids showing the characters' faces at all, cutting to their hands or the backs of their heads or to the walls and objects around them. At other points, he inserts entire, seemingly unrelated sequences into the film, cutting away to visual non sequiturs like a shot of a rabbit that appears during a hallucinatory sequence in which Anita shoots, or more likely imagines she shoots, a police officer who's chasing her. Even time itself is malleable in Kluge's hands: the action frequently speeds up, with Anita and her pursuers racing around like Keystone Kops, and time-lapse photography condenses hours of time spent on a city street into a blurred, pulsating few seconds.
The effect of this elaborate montage aesthetic is to position Anita's story as just one element, one brick, in a mad societal structure. This also seems to be the point of the enigmatic final epigram, "we are all to blame for everything, but if everyone knew it, we would have paradise on earth." Kluge's vision of the world, on the other hand, is far from a paradise — if anything it's a dystopia — but his dense, free-associative aesthetic crafts a cogent and darkly funny critique of the systems that preside over this nonsensical world.
- Ed Howard, Only the Cinema
Already in Kluge's first feature, Yesterday Girl, the editing is very abrupt. Scenes are juxtaposed without transitions and, within scenes, jump cuts and other temporal elisions abound. A love scene becomes a wrestling montage. Sometimes parts of different scenes are intercut. Nonnarrative materials such as drawings of a city, an interview, or a child's storybook are interjected between and in the middle of scenes without motivation or explanation. Scenes of a Jewish cemetary are inserted, like documentary B-roll, into a conversation about German history. This quirky editing results in the brisk pace of this film and similar sequences in other Kluge films. But Kluge also employs a variety of techniques to slow down the ace. Shots are often held longer or started earlier than in classical Hollywood cinema, leading frequently to uncomfortable silences and strange facial expressions. Often, reaction shots do not seem to work because the timing is wrong.
- Peter C. Lutze, Alexander Kluge: The Last Modernist. Wayne State University Press, 1998. Page 112.
Viewers of conventional Hollywood films are accustomed to having certain expectations fulfilled in the course of the work: we assume the events portrayed on screen to have some causal, temporal, or spatial connection, we expect to have at least some sense of resolution at the end of a film, and we often premise our viewing on conventional styles of cinematography and mise-en-scène. In Alexander Kluge's 1966 film Yesterday Girl, however, the modern viewer is presented with a challenge. Many common cinematic assumptions are undermined by Kluge's deliberate refusal to follow Hollywood guidelines; at the same time, though, the film does not attempt a blanket refusal of all narrative conventions. Indeed, it is this very mixture of traditional and innovative narrative techniques that makes the film especially fascinating, and the sense of ambiguity that arises adds to the viewer's resulting insecurity and even confusion.
- Nancy Thuleen, University of Wisconsin
FROM INTERVIEW WITH ALEXANDER KLUGE
The theme of forgetting and remembering runs constantly throughout your films. In Yesterday Girl, Anita G. is encumbered with a double past that society is encouraging her to forget: at the beginning of the film she’s being told by a judge to forget her wartime experiences because they’re not “relevant” to her present situation; later, when she’s supposedly being rehabilitated for society, she’s told by one of the prison counsellors that she’ll soon be out and able to forget all about it. It seems obvious to me that, through your films, you’re attacking not just the politics of oblivion, but also the moral notion of absolution that this frequently implies. Experience is always a question of a specific situation. In this concrete situation, there is always future, past, and actual present: it’s the same. In a mass medium like the cinema, or in art, it seems as if you have a choice. A great deal of art—Proust, for example, or any of the 19th-century classic novels—attempts to counter the dominance of the present, to invent a second reality to serve as viceroy to the forgotten or demolished past. That’s one choice. The other choice, which is made by television and by the press, is the actuality principle. It’s also the choice made by the film camera, which can only photograph something that’s present. And I think it’s a false choice, because in a concrete situation, such as we actually live in, you can never make that separation: you can never give up the past, you can never exclude the future. Which is why I prefer the past or the future to the present. Whether I’m making a science-fiction film or historical film, using inserts, making a documentary or mixing fiction and nonfiction, it’s exactly the same. The three parts that exist in our minds and in our experience are always present. When Freud describes the way a person thinks and feels, he always talks about free association as the elementary unit. Grammar, for instance, is one of mankind’s most interesting illusions. It’s a sort of repression of an experience, like logic, or like rationalism. You have to understand that I’m never against grammar, rationality, or logic; it’s just that they’re only abstractions. In any concrete situation, these abstractions must be reduced to the concrete situation. And that’s the province of film. This sort of mass medium film has its basis in people’s minds and experience over several thousand years.
For instance, the title Abschied von Gestern [the German-language title for Yesterday Girl] provokes a contradiction. Because you never can say goodbye to yesterday. If you try to, you get as far as tomorrow only to discover yesterday all over again. The whole film is a contradiction of this title... What part of your question shall I answer now?
- Interviewed by Jan Dawson, Film Comment, May/June 2008
ABOUT ALEXANDER KLUGE
Anthony Nield reviews the Alexander Kluge Edition Filmmuseum 2008 Region 2 Box Set on DVD Times
The rumour that Alexander Kluge is supposed to have turned fifty recently is as persistent as that other absolutely ridiculous assertion that this very same Kluge got married sometime toward the end of the year! It is reported that he actually went ahead and had a private matter officially institutionalized by an official state institution. An absurd notion—several hours' worth of stirring movies by the filmmaker Kluge, as well as a whole lot of illuminating and stimulating prose by the writer Kluge, do document after all that it is one of his chief aims to call every kind of institution into question, particularly those of the state—if I interpret half way correctly—and if his work is not indeed even more radical, that is, designed to prove that basically Alexander Kluge is interested in the destruction of every type of institution. Furthermore—an anarchist just doesn't go and turn fifty, the age at which people celebrate you. Categories like that are meaningless to him. I mean, it is precisely rumors of this sort about one of us, serving the purposes of cooptation, that make various things clear, and at the very least remind us of the necessity of continuing to struggle for our cause and of the eternal danger of growing weary in the face of gray, streamlined reality.
- Rainer Werner Fassbinder, “Alexander Kluge is Supposed to Have Had a Birthday” in Michael Töteberg & Leo A. Lensing (eds.), The Anarchy of the Imagination, Baltimore & London, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992. Cited in Michelle Langford, Senses of Cinema Great Directors biography of Kluge
Alexander Kluge, the chief ideologue of the new German cinema, is the author of various books in the areas of sociology, contemporary philosophy, and social theory. In 1962 he helped initiate, and was the spokesman for, the "Oberhausen Manifesto," in which "Das Opas Kino" ("grandpa's cinema") was declared dead.
His method is grounded in a rich and representative mosaic of sources: fiction, public records and reports, essays, actual occurrences, news, quotations, observations, ideas, and free associations. The method is used by Kluge as a principle of construction in his best films, such as Abschied von gestern, Die Artisten in der Zirkuskuppel: ratlos , In Gefahr und grösster Not bringt der Mittelweg den Tod , and in the series of collective films: Deutschland im Herbst, Der Kandidat , and Krieg und Frieden. The theme of war, in particular the Second World War, appears in all his works.
Kluge's films probe reality—not by way of the fantastic fictions of Fassbinder, or film school pictures as with Wenders—but through establishing oppositions and connections between facts, artifacts, reflections, and bits of performance. The protagonists of his feature films are mostly women who seek to grasp and come to terms with their experiences. For the sake of continuity these women are played either by Alexandra Kluge, his sister, or by Hannelore Hoger. They move through the jungle of contemporary life, watching and witnessing, suffering and fighting. The director mirrors their experiences.
- Maria Racheva, Film Reference.com
"The old film is dead, we believe in the new one" - that is the concluding sentence of the Oberhausener Manifesto. Alexander Kluge was one of the authors of this legendary avowal from 1962 which marked the beginning of New German Cinema. No one meant this as earnestly as he, either at that time, when he was still making his mark on German cinema, or 45 years later. For Alexander Kluge, cinema is a constant development; the spirit of discovery and joy of experimentation are inherent to everything he touches. Then, he wanted to turn cinema upside down, and he still does. And he is probably the only filmmaker who still reflects seriously about how Internet and cinema can be united by more than the mere sales and distribution platform.
Kluge believes that the aesthetic and political possibilities of cinema should and can be based on subjective modes of experience. A term frequently used by Kluge in his writings on the notion of spectatorship in the cinema is that of 'Phantasie,' (literally, 'fantasy') and this term acquires a very particular meaning in the context of his work. Phantasie is not like the English term 'fantasy' in the sense described by psychoanalysis, but is more akin to imagination. It equates with the spectator's ability to make connections between disparate things and it hinges on Kluge's conception of montage.
…since every cut provokes phantasy, a storm of phantasy, you can even make a break in the film. It is exactly at such a point that information is conveyed. This is what Benjamin meant by the notion of shock. It would be wrong to say that a film should aim to shock the viewers—this would restrict their independence and powers of perception. The point here is the surprise which occurs when you suddenly—as if by subdominant thought processes—understand something in depth and then, out of this deepened perspective redirect your phantasy to the real course of events. (12)
In other words, Phantasie is that which lies beneath the guarded exterior of the stimulus shield, and it is Phantasie that is set free when shock is able to break through the barrier.
Kluge has often invoked the figure of the child as the ideal spectator of his films. Kluge contrasts his cinema with that of conventional narrative cinema with an evocation of two different kinds of landscape. He writes:
- Michelle Langford, Senses of Cinema Great Directors biography of Kluge
Though often acknowledged as one of the most important avant-gardists of his generation in Europe, Alexander Kluge does not think of himself as such. He considers himself a partisan of an “arriere-garde” whose project is not to push into new aesthetic territory or be the vanguard of a new kind of film art, but to “bring everything forward”—to bring forward all the lost utopian aspirations of past political and aesthetic projects, all the wishes and hopes that history has left unrealized. His is a project of redeeming past failures. This might seem an odd claim by Kluge, who was a pioneer of the German New Wave as it emerged in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, and a signatory and moving force behind the famous Oberhausen Manifesto of 1962 which declared “The old film is dead.” But like his intellectual precursor Walter Benjamin, Kluge has always thought any project for authentic renewal must consciously detour through the past in order to avoid creating what another of his great intellectual mentors, Bertolt Brecht, called the “bad new”—essentially the recreation of existing oppressive social relations and tired aesthetic forms in the guise of a glossy, marketable and illusory “New.” For Brecht, Fascism was the exemplary “bad new”; for Kluge, the “bad new” consisted of the dreary products of the “culture industry” and the tedious social conditions prevailing in Germany—about which he once said that they were bad enough that no one was really happy, but not bad enough to make anyone do anything about them.
- Christopher Pavsek, Cinema-scope, Issue 32
Kluge's feature films challenge customary patterns of recognition. German history provides a point of departure and a constant site of return for his endeavors; complex and conflicted, this history, maintains Kluge, does not readily lend itself to easy identification or transparent presentation. The bombing of his hometown, Halbersradt (80 percent of which was leveled by American and British planes on April 8, 1945), and the demise of the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad in February 1943 remain defining experiences in his films (and throughout his work), which must be thought of first and foremost as attempts to reflect truthfully the impossibly complicated and contested "reality" of postwar Germany--a task that could not be achieved, Kluge argued, by conventional means. Thus he eschewed the spurious sutures of continuity editing and the seamlessly neat, easily accessible narrative packages that they produce. For all its intellectual resolve, his cinema is also loath to the dynamics of Eisenstein's montage. The Soviet master's collision of attractions leads the spectator, through an appeal to the senses and the emotion, to an inevitable dialectical conclusion, which is, in the end, just a more sophisticated sort of other-direction, and therefore anathema to Kluge.
Reality and realism are central terms in Kluge's aesthetic conception and important for any understanding of his films. Neither a state of nature nor the way things are, reality is produced and not given; for that reason, it can be comprehended only in its constructedness and its connectedness, its Zusammenhang. Simply to document something, Kluge submits, is not realistic; reality does not exist without actions, fantasies, and wishes, which is to say, unless human senses and feelings are in motion. Feelings, to be sure, are anarchic and often unreliable; for that reason one tries to harness them, often with success (sometimes, as in the case of National Socialism, with too much success), and enjoys all the more indulging their power in the form of films, operas, plays, and novels. Inclusiveness and generosity figure seminally in Kluge's suggestive and elusive choreographies of sights and sounds. They generate networks of meaning linked by interrelation rather than by flow or continuity, bringing together things that do not seem to belong together at all. This higher realism aims to encourage responses that go beyond directorial design and authorialvolition
. Viewers should be free to pick and choose from a wealth of offerings so that films might arise "in the head of the spectator"--without question Kluge's key concept and best-known catchphrase
- Eric Rentschler, "A Cinema of Citation." Artforum, 2008
Gary Indiana In many of your films you show found footage from very early movies, archive photographs and drawings with the frame cropped in various ways, a Brechtian effect: the films are like free-ranging meditations rather than linear narratives. The viewer notices the cutting. What do you see as the advantages of these techniques?
Alexander Kluge I show the cutting because I don’t believe pictures have to do with one another, whether they’re contrasting or similar. They don’t carry the information, the information is carried by the cut, the splice. Therefore, the cut should be visible. This is an ideal of early Eisenstein; it’s an ideal in literature. In music also, you always reveal your effects. The early forms of cinema are better: before 1907, and before the sound track. The problem isn’t with sound, but with the theater principles and middle-class interests which came into the cinema and destroyed some of its rich possibilities. Theater is a little schematic, while epic texts, like Joyce’s, are rich.
GI Epic narrative is porous. In other words, you can cut into it at any point?
AK Yes. Nowadays, we live in something like the Babylonian Empire. One text doesn’t understand the other. People can understand each other but the texts they speak are, to some extent, autonomous. If I speak to you, and a policeman hears this text, it’s no longer the text you and I speak together. Texts have their own life, and images too. As I have to deal with the situation of the 80s, not of 1907 if we have this Babylonian confusion that one language doesn’t understand the other, it’s also necessary to bring more context into narration. For example, it isn’t useful to tell the story of a complete industry. Like the German chemical industry—there’s been a huge 12 hour film made on this subject, but in it you see the family life and the love stories of the bosses and their daughters and so on. All of that isn’t the reality of the German chemical industry in the ‘30s. It was a very cruel reality for some people. To be more realistic, you need more context.
GI One more question. You’ve often said that cinema exists inside our heads, that the repertoire of mental images and feelings that cinema creates corresponds to the mode of consciousness of human beings over the past several thousand years. How is that different than music?
AK Music is an elaborated art. It is more than we’ve carried within us for thousands of years. It’s more to do with the four billion years we’ve existed on earth—with our ancestors, who were very small. Music has to do with sounds within the belly, sounds within the ancient oceans, when the oceans were 37 degrees celsius, like our blood. Some people believe the cosmos is making music, and so on. Music is older and more differentiated. Film is very robust. It’s only 90 years old. It corresponds more with anthropology. Music is made in a very aristocratic way, never by majorities. Cinema, from the beginning, was made as a counter-effect to what our senses do all the time. It’s an imitation of what our brains do. Music is not an imitation of what our ears do.
- Alexander Kluge interviewed by Gary Indiana, BOMB Magazine
Since my last entry had some less-than-flattering commentary on the TSP1000 list, here's a post that highlights some of the best movies I saw last year, all thanks to the TSP1000 . You can click on the respective titles to see what I wrote about each. Unfortunately it seems that each one is on a slippery slope due to the new update, and a few have dropped out of the list entirely.
I'm also surprised and delighted by the number of comments that last entry received, and to know that others are using the TSP1000. So what films from the list have you seen in the past year that you enjoyed most? You can scan through the list to jog your memory if needed. In the meantime, here were my favorites:
Under the Bridges (1945, Helmut Kautner) (was #829, now #889) Limite (1931, Mario Peixoto) (was #683, now #732) Moonrise (1948, Frank Borzage) (no longer in the top 1000) Toute une nuit (1989, Chantal Akerman) (was #975, now #977) Bienvenido, Mister Marshall (1953, Luis Garcia Berlanga) (was #915, now #955) Lucifer Rising (1972, Kenneth Anger) (no longer in the top 1000) Video Essay Tout va bien (Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Gorin) (was #948, now #975) The Ladies' Man (1961, Jerry Lewis) (no longer in the top 1000) Starship Troopers (1997, Paul Verhoeven) (was #974, now #898) The Lusty Men (1952, Nicholas Ray) (was #740, now #760) Video Essay
First off, I want to commend Bill Georgaris on another monumental round of collecting, compiling and computating in delivering the latest update to the 1000 Greatest Films on They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? The January 2010 edition incorporates 216 more films than the previous update of December 2008, resulting in the replacement of 68 films in the list of 1000. The good news for me is that the update only sets me back four spots in my quest to see all 1000 films. My countdown will resume with Alexander Kluge's Yesterday Girl at #993 instead of #997.
I'm expecting the Shooting Down Pictures project to finally conclude in the weeks to come - though I'll be taking time to savor the remaining films as best as I can, at least as much as Matthew Dessem appears to in his entries on the Criterion Collection catalog. (Many thanks to him for giving me a mention in his profile by Roger Ebert.)
There is one film in the "left to see" column that has proven incredibly difficult to obtain, and that film is Douce / Love Story by Claude Autant-Lara. I can't find a video copy of this film anywhere, and as of now it's looking like I will have to spend a few hundred Euros to rent the film from France and then rent out a theater to screen it. If anyone out there knows of a way to access this film without considerable financial cost, please don't hesitate to contact me at alsolikelife at gmail dot com.
I feel that I should follow up on last year's version of this "state of the project" post (which itself was a rehash of issues I raised the year before), in which I offered a mild complaint that the list has consistently shown a lack of regard for world cinema (unless your idea of world cinema is Europe or Hollywood movies set in Middle Earth), as well as experimental films and films by women. Maybe I'm betraying my own biases towards films I consider underrepresented, but on the other hand there seem to be no shortage of supporters of the mainstream. The latest version of the list grimly bears this out. I don't so much mind that Jaws is now part of the top 100 films, even if it bumps off Bunuel's L'Age d'Or, a Surrealist equivalent of a cinematic shark attack on the unsuspecting viewer. I have more of an issue with the entire Lord of the Rings Trilogy being shoehorned in by however many fanboy lists taken from any number of popcorn geek sites.
The numbers offer further discouragement. The number of films from North America and Europe keep climbing, from 900 to 905. At least the number of films by women went up one notch - the list traded Jane Campion's Angel at My Table for Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark and Agnes Varda's The Gleaners and I, bringing that total to 17. The experimental field dropped to 18 films (Mothlight and Dog Star Man replaced Flaming Creatures, Scenes from Under Childhood and Lucifer Rising).
Last year I tried to make my move to buck this trend by calling out to world cinema and experimental film scholars to contribute their lists. Unfortunately, my calls were met with typical responses of "I don't do lists" and "how much does it matter anyway?" At the start of last year I considered the TSPDT 1000 a cultural landmark, something that people, especially young aspiring cinephiles, would turn to for guidance in their exploration of movies, and thus it was vital to make sure that the list represented a diversity of cinema. But after hearing so many film experts whose opinion I respect give a collective shrug to the project, I'm all but burned out on the idea of canons and their importance.
I do thank those individuals who sent lists my way, which I duly forwarded to Bill for inclusion. I would like to give a special thanks to one particular person, Nitish Pahwa, who took my call to action more to heart than just about anyone. He went to the trouble of transcribing an issue of Outlook magazine in which 25 Indian film directors were polled to pick their favorite Indian films of all time, the results of which were compiled. (Since this list doesn't exist anywhere online to my knowledge, I plan to post it sometime soon.) I considered this a major find, given that India continues to make more movies per year than any other country, and yet they receive very little exposure to a world audience. I dutifully forwarded the results to Bill, as well as the findings of a similar poll of South Asian cinema organized by the BFI some years ago. To my chagrin, neither of these polls were figured into the current update.
In an email, Bill had told me that he could only count top ten lists for all films, and not those only focused on national cinemas. But if you look at the PDF Companion to the current 1000 films, which lists every source cited in the compilations, you'll see numerous lists from the American Film Institute (AFI) that celebrate only American films: "America's 100 Most Thrilling"; "America's 10 Greatest Films in 10 Classic Genres". There are countless genre-specific lists as well that focus only on sci-fi, horror, comedy, even "Spiritually Significant Films."
If these topical lists can be considered, then why can't a list on Indian or African or Asian cinema? Especially if it's the only way for Indian film experts to be counted, given that these Indian specific lists are the only instance of their input on the subject? Otherwise, if you look at who voted for the Indian films, they're almost exclusively European or American critics. Really then, what is this list but an echo-chamber exercise touting whatever films a Euro-centric pool of "experts" happen to see? Maybe this would explain why several Satyajit Ray films remain on the list, while Mother India, arguably the most revered film among Indians, dropped out of the updated list of 1000 - despite being mentioned repeatedly in the lists I collected to give to Bill.
I really hope that Bill reconsiders his position on the lists I submitted him, because for me they embody a crucial underpinning to the cultural significance this list has to offer: to what extent it can truly claim to offer the "greatest" in "all" of cinema, according to a truly representative selection of film "experts." As someone who has followed this list for years, and has been one of its most ardent supporters, it pains me to raise these questions. But I wish to make the stakes clear: nothing less than ensuring the credibility and value of this list.
A white man on a trade expedition in an exotic tropical locale abandons his greedy merchant colonial companions to shack up with a native girl. He learns her people's ways and warns them of the encroaching enemy that threatens to wipe out their culture. All of this is presented in a groundbreaking cinematic format that will redefine the standard of motion pictures to come. Sound familiar?
This 1928 Tahitian excursion was the first MGM sound film (as well as the first to feature the famous MGM lion in the credit roll). Swap 3-D for sound innovation and you pretty much have a Tahitian template for Avatar. Not saying that James Cameron knowingly ripped off the plot; it's pretty much self-flagellating post-Colonialist drivel, the Eurocentric bullshit that even Terrence Malick isn't immune to. But at least instead of James Horner muzak, we get William Axt and David Mendoza's sub-equatorial symphonic jazz score (listening to it, you can practically see the palm trees swinging languidly in the breeze - trimmed with Art Deco tinsel):
This production was set to be Robert Flaherty's first feature for a Hollywood studio, but (as notes following the break detail) his ethnographic philosophy and methods clashed with his professional crew, led by assistant director W.S. "One Take" Van Dyke (The Thin Man). Flaherty eventually left the shoot (later to return to the Polynesians with F.W. Murnau to shoot Tabu) and Van Dyke took over, completing the shoot in swift succession and delivering what in many ways is a quintessential Hollywood entertainment: exotic adventure, love, gunfights, technical innovation, spectacle linked to pseudo-liberal social consciousness. Plus giant killer clams and a the unforgettable sight of a body washed ashore covered in horseshoe crabs. The film also skirts the issue of language barrier that forced Cameron to invent a whole new language, as White and Tahitian silent dialogues are translated into the universal language of English subtitles. Only in the movies, indeed.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?
The following citations were counted towards the placement of White Shadows in the South Seas among the 1000 greatest films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?
David Lean, Cinematheque Belgique (1952) Jean Gehret, Cinematheque Belgique (1952) Jean-Paul Le Chanois, Cinematheque Belgique (1952) Luis Bunuel, Cinematheque Belgique (1952)
Either by accident or design, MGM came up with the most unlikely partnership in the history of motion pictures in the late twenties. Imagine if you can a collaboration between Robert Flaherty, the filmmaker who pioneered the documentary form, and W. S. Van Dyke II, who was known in the industry as "One Take Woody" because of his quick, cost-saving shooting schedule. Flaherty's filmmaking method was just the opposite. His painstaking preparation for each film was legendary (BothNanook of the North (1922) and Moana (1926) took over two years to complete) and yet these two men were brought together by MGM mogul Irving J. Thalberg for White Shadows in the South Seas (1928).
Rumor has it that Thalberg bought Frederick O'Brien's book because he found the title intriguing and not because of its powerful story which was a bitter denunciation of white civilization and its destructive effects on the lifestyles and cultural traditions of a Polynesian paradise. The central focus ofWhite Shadows in the South Seas is Matthew Lloyd (Monte Blue), an alcoholic doctor who is shanghaied by an unscrupulous pearl trader and winds up being marooned on a Pacific island where the natives have never seen a white man before. As time passes, Lloyd is revered as a god but eventually his corrupt nature and inherent greed brings about the destruction of the island community through alcohol, lust, and disease.
Flaherty agreed to direct White Shadows in the South Seas because he was friends with the author Frederick O'Brien and was recognized as an expert on Pacific Island culture (He had spend over 20 months on the island of Savai'i in the Somoas filming Moana). Van Dyke was brought on board to head up the technical unit and the entire crew traveled to the island of Papeete in Tahiti for filming. Right from the beginning, things began to go wrong. The unit's interpreter was arrested a day after the crew arrived due to a past run-in with the local authorities. That situation immediately made the islanders suspicious of the movie people. Complicating the situation were tropical downpours that delayed filming, a climate that quickly spoiled food and basic edibles, and the unavailability of portable lights and generators for location shooting. And Flaherty's slow, meticulous method of filmmaking was trying the patience of the entire crew. In W. S. Van Dyke's Journal, the assistant director wrote, "Everyone hates everyone else's guts. They are fighting like mad. Flaherty doesn't know a thing....I have never seen a troop in a more deplorable condition. I am spending my days running around trying to pat them on the back and telling them to carry on as we will get home all the quicker. They are not sore at me, and when I am shooting they behave alright, but the minute Flaherty starts in, they start."
- Jeff Stafford, Turner Classic Movies
[W.S. Van Dyke's] writing expresses a desire to sever any links to Tahitians, "half-castes," Chinese - that is, those who cannot be assimilated into a self-reflecting sense of unified American and masculine selfhood. He writes to Chippo, "This place is sure a degenerate's paradise. Some of our gang are wallowing in it... These natives represent a very little different strata to me than the negro. And they smell about as bad except when they are all daubed with perfume."
For Van Dyke, shooting his film far from home, the islands refused to provide any object that he could seize upon, identify with, or offer up as an example that embodied the preconceived illusion of tropical paradise that continued to dominate in the US at the time. In his journals, Tahiti appears as a depressed and fallen place that encompasses the extremes of Dante's vision: paradise is called a "hell hole." Soon the metaphorical relationship between sexual and cultural alienation becomes even more closely interwoven, and the blurring of vice and disease is made explicit, perhaps thinly veiling a reference to Van Dyke's own strict sexual abstinence and the disappointed myth of potent primitive sexuality: "The men have the right idea down here. Everything droops. Even the foliage... Everything is tired. There doesn't seem to be a semblance of a native life left on the island. Everything is of the bastardized variety. The natives are not altogether French and the French are only partly native."
This bastardized offspring of colonial mixing seems somehow the fault of Tahiti itself. It is this impure, sexually fallen and literally infertile - "drooping - reality that the director finds himself constantly in need of disguising, making up, smoothing over and revitalizing in his film. White Shadows in the South Seas ultimately highlights the ways that film images can encode the relationship between desire and representation: appearing to penetrate the truth of the "passive" peoples and landscape of the South Pacific, it succeeds not so much in capturing others as in representing the idea of otherness in the US imagination.
Jeffrey Geiger, Facing the Pacifc: Polynesia and the US Imperial Imagination. University of Hawaii Press, 2007.
Opening credits, found on YouTube. "First time we heard the [MGM] Lion roar."
HISTORICAL REVIEWS (Courtesy of Silents are Golden)
MOTION PICTURE MAGAZINE, September, 1928:
A picture ravishing to the eye and appealing to the heart has been made in the South Seas. The theme is the destructive civilization that white men bring into the lives of the natives - destructive to happiness, and even to life. Almost all the actors are natives, with the exception of Monte Blue and Raquel Torres who have the leading roles. Monte is excellent as the vagabond doctor who tries to save one tribe of natives from the white shadows. And Raquel Torres, as the island girl, is so good and so sincere that I couldn't believe she was an actress. See this by all means. It's an absorbing story played against beautiful backgrounds. And it starts off with some pearl-diving scenes you can't afford to miss.
PHOTOPLAY, August, 1928:
If this opera has not gone to sleep under a cocoanut tree, it would have been the greatest South Sea drama ever filmed. This is the film that was started by Robert Flaherty. And the cameraman has caught rare beauty with his lens. Pearl diving and its perils are shown in wonderful under-sea shots and, although drama dies with the sinking of a plague ship in a thrilling typhoon, interest is sustained by a gorgeous travelogue.
THE FILM SPECTATOR, June 23, 1928:
Nothing finer than "White Shadows in the South Seas" ever has come to the screen. It is a Metro picture, directed by W.S. Van Dyke and featuring Monte Blue. Frederick O'Brien's charming book of the same name was the inspiration for the screen story. All the charm of the book is put on the screen. It is a soothing picture that makes one lazy, and instills a desire to dwell on a South Seas island and pick a living off a tree. We see stately palms waving their branches, languidly yielding to a lazy breeze; crescent beaches turning back rolls of foam which the sea sends to them; quiet pools which reflect the riot of foiliage that droops over their rims; brown gods of grace who glide through crystal-clear water in search of pearl oysters. We go into the homes of the nativees and see how they live, how they eat and work and play -- all things that we visualized when we read O'Brien, but which now come to us to alter our imaginings to square with facts. It is a photographic idyll of surpassing beauty, a poem which nature wrote and which the camera caught. And with it all we have a story, gripping, dramatic, that saddens us, for it shows how white men -- the White Shadoews -- grasping, debasing, went down there, destroyed the poetry in the name of commerce, and for a life gay, sweet, and innocent, traded a "civilization" that was sodden, immoral and corrupt. It was a splendid thing for Metro to do - the making of this picture - and splendidly has it done it. In it cinematic art touches one of its greatest heights. It was a big thing to do to send a company all the way to the South Seas, a venture in screen commercialism to make a great example of screen art, and so magnificently has the venture succeeded in its artistic quest that it will prove to be a commercial triumph. "White Shadows in the South Seas" willl be one of the outstanding financial successes of film hisitory, and as such should encourage Mr. Mayer to send forth more expeditions of the sort, and other producers to consider the advisability of emulating him. The picture will be a success, not because of its scenic beauty, not as a lesson in geography, not by virtue of its sociological value, but because it is a regular motion picture that makes us interested in people who move through it. It was wise of Metro to stress the story. Reduced to its essentials, it is nothing but story, the embellishments being things it picks up as it goes along. The viewer who is not intrugued by its pictorial splendor will follow with interest its romance and its drama. The viewer who can see nothing interesting in the life of the natives, will see much to interest him in the acting of Monte Blue. Monte gives a superb performance, one othat is sincere and powerful. It is a characterization of many different phases, and he is brilliant in all of them. I have seen nothing finer on the scren in a long time. This picture will bring to the front a young woman who is destined to become a great favorite. She is Raquel Torres, a Mexican, I believe, whom Hunt Stromberg discovered somewhere and gave her her opportunity. She is splendid. She has a spiritual quality that makes her screen personality charming. It is the same quality that Janet Gaynor has in such abundance, and Loretta Young, and a few others, the quality that suggests sweetness and goodness, and instills in the viewer confidence in a girl's intergrity and intelligence. Robert Anderson very capably plays the part of heavy, and there are many satisfactory performances given by natives. Van Dyke's direction is masterly. The story, splendidly written, brings out graphcially the misfortune that befell the South Sea Islanders when they were "civilized" by traders. I wish it had gone farther and shown the evil done by meddling missionaries, the unconscious accomplices of greed and alcohol in destroying a life a thousand times purer than the one that set forth to purify it.
Considered the pinnacle of '30s Austrian cinema, Maskerade embodies much of the best of 30s European filmmaking, in which the camera dances to a distinctly musical rhythm of movements and countermovements. It sits comfortably among the '30s films of Rene Clair, Max Ophuls and Jean Renoir, as well as Ernst Lubitsch's work in Hollywood. Compared to most of those films, its topic may seem relatively fluffy: an artist creates a minor scandal by painting a masked nude suspected to be an aristocrat's fiancee; when he names an innocent girl in an attempted cover-up, it leads to unexpected romantic entanglement. Willi Forst takes a well-worn continental costume milieu as a starting point, doing everything he can to breathe life into it. The camera darts with ease through ballroom scenes, connecting the eyelines of characters as they scope each other's movements. He laces the film with clever tricks both visual (dialogues filmed in silhouette) and aural (a montage of citizens making animal sounds while reading the gossip pages). Driving everything is a buoyant soundtrack of 19th century waltzes and opera, whose lilting rhythms can be found in the film's pacing even when the music subsides. The film itself feels like a symphony of varied movements: robust allegros, minuet-like montages, and a climactic rondo that brings everything to full circle. Overall, life is presented as an irresistible society ball, governed by status, gossip and decadent desire.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?
The following citations were counted towards the placement of Maskerade among the 1000 Greatest Films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?
Friedrich Luft, Sight & Sound (1952) Hans Schifferle, Steadycam (2007) Ludwig Gesek, Sight & Sound (1982) Kazakh Cinematheque World Poll - 100 Best Films (2006) They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films
It is unfortunate that we should have seen "Escapade" before having had an opportunity to admire "Masquerade in Vienna," the Viennese film which Metro copied in 1935 when it sought an introductory vehicle for Luise Rainer. "Escapade," we now realize, was a rather bad imitation. Like most copies, it tended to exaggerate the distinctive qualities of the original, understating one, overemphasizing another and throwing the entire theme slightly out of focus. "Masquerade," which opened yesterday at the Fifty-fifth Street Playhouse, has none of "Escapade's" defects. It steers a deftly guided course between farce and drama and it emerges as a frivolous, yet tender, romantic comedy.
Willy Forst's direction has kept his narrative spinning gayly, and an engaging cast, headed by the charming Paula Wessely in the Rainer rôle, has enlivened it with a series of deftly executed character studies. Miss Wessely, more self-contained than Miss Rainer, is wholly attractive as the shy little person innocently drawn into the spicy scandal of the lady in the mask. Particularly captivating is she in the scene where she timorously enters the artist's studio, expecting to find cushions, incense and drugged wine, and is, instead, subjected to a growling bullying by the conscience-stricken painter. I cannot find much virtue in Anton Walbrook's portrayal of the artist Heideneck, but Walter Janssen is knowingly comic as the badgered conductor whose wife has been indiscreet, Peter Petersen is excellent as the gruff Dr. Harrandt, and Olga Tschekowa, Julia Serda and Hilde von Stolz are faultless.
- Frank S. Nugent, The New York Times, January 26 1937
Maskerade (Masquerade) (1934), secured his reputation as a significant director and gave him the international recognition he did not quite have as an actor. It also made an instant star of Paula Wessely in her lead debut. A foremost figure in German language motion pictures and theatre for five decades and the wife of Attila Hörbiger, Laurence Olivier considered her to be the greatest film actress of the twentieth century, and Bette Davis was known to have studied her performances. Her role as the impoverished but morally upright art student Leopoldine in the decadent atmosphere of turn-of-the-century Vienna, set the tone for the female lead (along with Luise Ullrich in Lieder) in the Viennese Film, and it also typecast Wessely as the innocent or “good” woman for most of her work in the 1930s and '40s. The centrepiece of Maskerade is Leopoldine's meeting with the society painter Heideneck (Adolf Wohlbrück) at a lavish carnival ball. Its strikingly romantic-decadent, even erotic mood can be credited to the soft camera work of Franz Planer and to the seductive music arranged and composed by Willi Schmidt-Gentner. Maskerade received an award for best screenplay at the Venice Film Festival and ultimately proved to be so successful internationally, that Hollywood “borrowed” the story for a new, but less welcomed version entitled Escapade in 1935, with Luise Rainer.
- Robert von Dassanowsky, Senses of Cinema
Anton Walbrook, young and elegant, plays the artist who sketches the wife of a prominent Viennese surgeon in nothing but a mask and a muff, and then is forces to invent a model. Paula Wessely is the girl he invents. Walter Reisch's light, romantic screenplay is an almost perfect example of writing for the screen.
- Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies. Macmillan, 1991. Page 470
ABOUT WILLI FORST
A specific blend of historical and aesthetic sensibilities melded into a unique style in Austrian cinema during the early sound period in the 1930s. It soon became known as an entirely new and geographically focused genre in European cinema, the Viennese Film. The artist responsible more than any other for this concept was Willi Forst. He began his career at age 16 as an actor on the provincial stages in the Austria–Hungary and the German Empire, and appeared as a featured performer in the post World War I operetta theatres of Vienna and Berlin. His early career in Austrian silent film ranged from being an extra in Michael Kertesz's (Michael Curtiz) monumental Sodom und Gomorrha (1922) to a notable second lead in Gustav Ucicky's Café Elektric (1927) opposite a pre-Blue Angel Marlene Dietrich. He made his sound and singing film debut in Atlantic (Germany 1929) and soon became known for his distinctive velvety voice and “charming Viennese” persona (1) in German films usually directed by Geza von Bolvary. He subsequently appeared in two of the best Austrian comedies of the early 1930s: with the first-lady of the Viennese stage, Hedwig Bleibtreu, in Karl Hartl's Der Prinz von Arkadien (The Prince of Arcadia) (1932), written by his future production partner Walter Reisch; and in what Forst considered the best learning experience for his future role as director, So ein Mädel vergisst man nicht (Unforgettable Girl) (1933) directed by expressionist film actor-turned-director Fritz Kortner. Forst actively developed his reputation as a great screen lover, but his directorial debut in Leise flehen meine Lieder (The Unfinished Symphony) in 1933 brought to Austrian and Central European cinema one of its greatest filmmakers and influential industry figures, whose lack of presence in the international film “canon” of important directors today is one more casualty from the negligence that has greeted Austrian cinema since the collapse of its commercial film industry in the 1960s. International attention to New Austrian Film since the 1990s has also helped bring Austria's film heritage art to the fore, and Willi Forst is now gaining a very belated “comeback” with world cineastes.
-Robert von Dassanowsky, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography
Willi Forst to date is the greatest talent in Austrian film history, with the possible exception of Billy Wilder, who had to emigrate.
Together with Walter Reisch, an Austrian scriptwriter in Berlin who had tailored nearly all of Willi Forst's German roles for him, Forst coauthored the screenplay for the Schubert film Leise flehen meine Lieder (1933). Thus was the "Viennese film" born, with its inimitable blend of music and action. The film was romantic, but Forst did not dwell on a sugary Biedermeier image, but also showed the poor living conditions and class barriers. In 1934 he produced and directed the big production, Maskerade (1934), the film which launched Paula Wessely on her way to film stardom and Hans Moser as comic. This social comedy set in turn-ofthe-century Vienna featured the big ball scenes of which Willi Forst became the unsurpassed master, and a frivolous love story ending very conservatively: the famous painter (Adolf Wohlbrück) chooses not the jaded, elegant society lady (Olga Tschechowa) as his wife, but the plain, wholesome poor girl (Paula Wessely), thus reflecting the contemporary ideological attitude toward women in the Austrian corporate state. Beginning with this big success Forst as actor, director, screenwriter, and producer dominated the Austrian filmmaking scene for the next fifteen years. In life as in film, he was the quintessential elegant Viennese gentleman. As a film maker he aimed at perfection.
- Gertraud Steiner Daviau, Film Reference.com
ABOUT WIENER FILM
Wiener Film (German; plural: Wiener Filme; literally, "Viennese film") is an Austrian film genre, consisting of a combination of comedy, romance and melodrama in an historical setting, mostly, and typically, the Vienna of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Wiener Film genre was in production between the 1920s and the 1950s, with the 1930s as its high period.
These films are always set in the past, and achieve a high emotional impact by their oscillation between extreme emotional states, between hope and suffering, for example, or pleasure and loss. Most of them are set in the Vienna of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when as the capital of the multiracial monarchy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire it had its greatest social and cultural significance. The protagonists belong to a variety of social classes, which adds to the interest of the relationships between them. The concepts of honour and morality of the period are often of great significance in the development of the plots. The Wiener Film is almost always happy, life-affirming and relaxed. Music and song feature prominently, either in the form of orchestral and musical scenes or as interpolated songs by the characters. Humour often arises from misunderstandings, mistaken identity, misadventures and the resultant efforts to restore order, with often farcical consequences.
Dramaturgically the Wiener Film generally contains several principal characters and several more subsidiary characters, all of whom recur frequently throughout the film as the action develops. They do not always all know each other, but are nevertheless connected by the plots and sub-plots running in parallel. The action mostly centres on love affairs great and small, often with elements of the comedy of mistaken identity. The films are generally unchallenging in terms of the contemporary socio-political issues and environment (for some rare exceptions see below).
The first films that can be classed as Wiener Filme were created in the 1920s, in the days of the silent film. The genre trached its full potential however with sound film, when the specifically Viennese dialect (see below), verbal dexterity and the characteristically Viennese acid wit (Wiener Schmäh) were able to come into their own and made the genre popular not only in Austria but also in Germany. Willi Forst's production Leise flehen meine Lieder, a biography of Franz Schubert, was so successful that an English-language version was made, under the title Unfinished Symphony. Willi Forst is one of the most significant directors of Wiener Film, and made what is generally reckoned to be the best of the genre, the 1935 film Maskerade.
There's a strong suggestion of a great movie in Victor Erice's second feature, made 10 years after his celebrated debut The Spirit of the Beehive. Erice's breathtaking use of natural light demands comparison to Vermeer, while his ability to evoke a child's wonder and terror at the mysteries of the world make him an art cinema antecedent to Spielberg. But financing woes halted filming on this story of a girl's attempt to solve the riddle of her enigmatic father. While Erice edited the footage to what he considers a finished film, it's clearly lacking a satisfying final act (in which the daughter travels to the father's hometown carrying clues to his past).
But the narrative is just as compromised by moments that stray from the child's first-person perspective, Erice's strong suit. Scenes where the father corresponds to an old flame diffuse the suspense, though they give the film clarity in its truncated form. A running voiceover narration by the girl as an adult reinforces a sense of pastness that further dilutes the primacy of the moments Erice offers us, a number of them visually stunning.
It's strange that Erice would allow a voiceover to structure a film whose underlying thesis is the futility of words: the father's anguished letters leading to no good outcome; his awkward conversations with his daughter and virtual non-communication with his wife. Instead, it's objects, images and gestures that link the characters: an amulet, a drawing of a woman, a joyful communion dance, the incessant pounding of a cane on floorboard. These are also Erice's best forms of communicating, and what ultimately links this film to his viewers.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?
The following citations were counted towards the placement of El Sur among the 1000 Greatest Films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?
Javier Aguirresarobe, Nickel Odeon (1994) Mirito Torreiro, El Mundo (1995) Shiori Kazama, Kinema Junpo (1999) Ursula Vossen, Nickel Odeon (1997) Dirigido Por, Best Spanish Films (1992) Kinema Junpo, The Greatest Foreign Films (1999) Nickel Odeon Spanish Canon (1995) Nickel Odeon The Films of Our Life (1994) They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films
''EL SUR'' (''The South''), opening today at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema, is the second feature by Victor Erice, the Spanish director whose first film, ''The Spirit of the Beehive,'' was one of the critical hits of 1976.
As was Mr. Erice's method in ''The Spirit of the Beehive,'' the new film reveals its concerns in small, seemingly unimportant details, much in the manner of a traumatized psychiatric patient. Every gesture is loaded with associated meanings. Objects are symbolic. Yet the emotional inhibitions, which had political significance in the first film, aren't particularly provocative here. The movie seems to whisper when there seems no reason why it can't speak in a normal voice.
''El Sur'' is nicely acted by Omero Antonutti as Agustin and Iciar Bollan as the teen-age Estrella, though it lacks a dominating performance like that of Ana Torrent in ''Beehive.'' Everything about ''El Sur,'' including the highly theatrical lighting, is so artfully composed that it seems to be more about film making than characters or ideas.
-Bosley Crowther, The New York Times, January 15, 1988
On the surface, despite the presence of a different fictional source (a story by Adelaida Garcia Morales) and scriptwriter (Jose Luis Lopez Linares), Victor Erice’s second feature seems to bring back some of the haunting obsessions of his first, the wonderful Spirit of the Beehive (1973): the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, the magical spell exerted by movies over childhood, and a little girl’s preoccupation with her father and the past. But as English critic Tim Pulleine has observed, a reference to Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt in El sur (South, 1983) points to an elaborate system of doubling and duplication that underlies the film’s structure as a whole, operating on the level of shots and sequences as well as themes (north and south, father and daughter, real and imaginary). Although this subtle spellbinder ends somewhat abruptly, reportedly because the film’s budget ran out, it seems to form a nearly perfect whole as it is: a brooding tale about an intense father-daughter relationship and the unknowable past, mysterious and resonant, with the poetic ambience of a story by Faulkner.
- Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader
El Sur is a simple film, rich in interesting childhood observations and perspectives. It is marred, however, by underdeveloped characters and the lack of a sense of closure.
The character Estrella (Sonsoles Aranguren) is well developed and thoughtful. Estrella's actions and emotions are full of meaning and insight and not too na"ive. The film successfully explores a unique father-daughter relationship and the accepting nature of children.
Agustin (Omero Antonutti), however, is not fully developed as a character, despite his central role in the movie. Although the father character is meant to be mysterious, the reasoning behind many of his actions often needs more explanation. For example, his feelings for a past lover are never fully explained, leaving the viewers with an awful sense of being shut out. This and other underdeveloped aspects of the film ultimately affect the film's ending, which is unfulfilling, predictable, and not at all tragic.
- Ricardo Rodriguez, The MIT Tech, February 28, 1989
INTERVIEW WITH VICTOR ERICE
Geoff Andrew: I'd like to move on to your next film,The South [El Sur, Spain/France, 1983]. Some of you may remember it from when it was released in 1983. It's a quite wonderful film, I think, and is totally coherent, yet it's a film that was never finished. You weren't allowed to shoot everything that you wanted to, and it's shorter than it would have been as part of the story isn't there. Was that a very painful experience for you?
Victor Erice: Yes, it was very painful for the drama [of the film] but, of course, for film-makers this is quite a common occurrence. The film was interrupted for financial reasons. On the other hand, in terms of production it went very well, it was a happy time. Even in the state it is in, the film had a lot of commercial success in Spain, and especially from the critics. It should have been one hour longer, although many critics and spectators have applauded the fact that the south - which would be the south of the country - is never actually seen in the film. My taste is a little more common: I wanted to show it, especially as I was born in the north but lived many years of my life in the south. I felt that this was a wonderful opportunity to have the north and the south coming together in the film. Naturally this was a metaphor for the divisions that became apparent in the Civil War and, similarly, the divisions in a person who can't assimilate or join two parts of his own being.
The figure of the father in The South is a man divided between two loves: his romantic passion and his mundane life with his wife. It's about a man who always wants to go to the south but never manages to go. The train is always going past the station but he never manages to get on. He returns home like a clandestine person and he dies. And in a sense he leaves a mandate because, when he is about to die, he leaves under the pillow of his daughter the symbol of the communion, the thing that tied them together in their youth. This is the last thing that he does in his life so he is there, working like an impulse to provoke the daughter to make this trip that he was never able to make - and she does do what he could never do.
In the part that was never filmed, this girl does reach the south in Andalusia, where her father was born and lived his own childhood, so it completed the story of her father's death. In this way she was able to reconcile herself with the image of her father. This was the original project of the film. The film as it is now is still under the weight of the pain and, of course, the visit to the south was the redemption and she could grow up and become an adult. I can't say it would have been a happy film but there would have been a new energy and vitality because, in every story, to understand the history of one's parents is so important for every human being.
- Interview at the National Film Theatre, London, September 2 2003
Based on the novel by Adelaida García Morales, El Sur is a deceptively lyrical and delicately realized, yet haunting portrait of maturation, estrangement, alienation, and dislocation. Victor Erice achieves an atmosphere that is both naturalistic and mystical by shooting in natural light to visually reinforce hues and gradations that, in turn, reflect Estrella's gradual perceptional shift towards her father. Exploring similar themes that would also pervade Theo Angelopoulos' subsequent 1986 film, The Beekeeper, Victor Erice draws an implicit correlation between geographic division and the legacy of civil war: the parallel rites of passage between the marriage of Spyros' daughter in The Beekeeper and Estrella's first holy communion in El Sur; the profoundly isolated Spyros' apicultural migration to the south that represents a similar lure of an ephemeral (or unrequited) paradise lost to the melancholic and withdrawn Agustín (as well as both filmmakers' paradoxical characterization of the south as a destination that represents vitality and figurative death); the complex role of the cinema as a place of escape and also a contemplative medium for introspection and personal assessment. Erice further integrally incorporates cinema into the development of the multilayered narrative through a passing homage to Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (through a preview poster at the CineArcadia) that uncoincidentally bears a similar plot of a young woman's demystification of her idolized, charismatic uncle with whom she believes she shares a profound connection (also note a similar integration of homage and narrative Erice's earlier film, The Spirit of the Beehive and the James Whale film, Frankenstein). However, unlike the intrigue of the seminal Hitchcock film, the mystery of El Sur unravels with the imperceptible weight of a tossed skein of red yarn - exposing, not a barbarous crime, but the unendurable realization of being ordinary and unremarkably human.
- Acquarello, Strictly Film School
Víctor Erice’s second feature, shot 22 years ago, ten years after his first, El espíritu de la colmena (The Spirit of the Beehive), took as its starting point a 47-page story by Adelaida García Morales that was published two years earlier. I’d recommend reading it after watching El sur, mainly because its last 12 pages allow us to imagine how the film would have developed if Erice had been allowed to shoot his adapted script in its entirety (the story originally concludes in southern Spain). For reasons never sufficiently explained, or openly discussed – though I do have a theory of my own about these complex, deep motivations – the shooting of El sur was halted, allegedly for the Christmas holidays, never to be resumed. Perhaps naïvely hoping to finally be allowed to shoot a second part – which was never intended as such or to be a separate movie – Erice kept diplomatically quiet, and edited a coherent film from the material available to him; it was sent to the Cannes Film Festival where it was hailed as a masterpiece, and the second part was silently but definitely shelved.|
Once you know that what you’re going to see, or have just watched, is only half the movie Erice wanted to make, and despite the fact that there are some things which never get explained or fully developed, you should forget this knowledge and enjoy what there is to see and hear, which is plenty. Regardless of the understandable frustration Erice still feels about the issue, while shrinking from others descriptions of the film as a masterpiece, El sur is still substantively a great film like Stroheim’s Greed (1924) or Peckinpah’s Major Dundee (1965). If you haven’t read either the original screenplay or the tale, you might never imagine that the film is not a fully mastered and completed work. In fact, despite its unfinished state, El sur is for me – and others – one of the greatest films ever made in Spain, and perhaps Erice’s most refined and mature work as a director.
From the opening sequence – in my recollection the most impressive since Dreyer’s Ordet (1964) and Ford’s The Searchers (1956) – one gathers that everything in this picture has been thought through and carried out with extreme care and precision; that there can be no loose ends, only cut threads owing to the film being only half of what Erice intended at over three hours. If the South announced in the film’s title remains a felt, mythical presence, almost dreamt but never reached or seen (only glimpsed on postcards while accompanied by the chords of Enrique Granados’ piano music on the soundtrack), it nevertheless remains a key reference, a significant motif in the film’s narrative. Although uncompleted, El sur is a much more accomplished, richer, deeper, complex and moving picture than El espíritu de la colmena. It marks a decisive step forward in Erice’s progression as a filmmaker. El sur is much more dense and allows us to get much nearer to several of the characters; its silences are not of the same kind as those that are so significant in El espíritu de la colmena. There is more interaction, and much more feeling and confrontation too, in El sur. In contrast, most adults in El espíritu de la colmena, even the parents – who never exchange a word - are kept mainly at a distance, in a different, separate world from that inhabited by the two sisters who are so alone that they are ready to see ghosts. The relationships in El sur are more real and painful.
- Miguel Marais, Senses of Cinema
In The South we watch a group of mostly disconnected individuals try to deal with the legacy of a receding past; the Civil War and the divisions it has forged within families and between generations. Although this film is a somewhat truncated version of Erice's original vision—he conceived of a final section actually set and filmed in the 'south'—its refusal to move outside the isolated northern community which the family inhabits, in a kind of exile, leaves open the potentiality for the processes of imagination and creative subjectivity that define Erice's work (as well as his characters). In a scene reminiscent of the Stereoscope sequence in Malick's Badlands (1973), Estrella, the young girl who is the 'focus' of the story, uses the material things that surround her to create an understanding and sense of the somewhat inconceivable world beyond her immediate experience. Because her parents rarely discuss the past, she has to extrapolate from the old-fashioned hand-coloured photographs she finds in a family album, or imagine her father's past lover from a lobby card she picks up at the local cinema (as in The Spirit of the Beehive, cinema is used as a means to spark imagination and to create identity). The worlds of Erice's films emerge as a collection of disconnected but connected signs—aural and visual—that enable the characters to come into being.
It is the look and sound of Erice's films that is often their most remarkable and telling characteristic. His work is full of ambient, often isolated, perhaps not even adequately sourced, sounds. It is often these sounds which most clearly haunt and disturb the characters. These sounds are also an indication of a world outside of the explicitly framed—this is a cinema full of frames-within-frames, doorways, windows, metaphors of entrapment—and often boxed-in environments we are shown (gunshots, barking dogs, train whistles, vehicles shifting gear). Sound is often figured as a site of the imagination and the unknown, a trigger for processes of creativity, memory and identity formation. For example, early in The South the narrator tells of her first memory (assumedly 're'-constructed at a later time from a story told by her parents), in which her father mysteriously 'designates' her gender while she is still in the womb—the first of a series of uncanny connections that bind father and daughter together in this family romance. Thus, it is not just sounds but words that are central to the make up of the characters.
- Adrian Danks, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography
Erice is concerned with the exploration of myth, and the fragile balance that exists between its positive and negative qualities: the positive being the capacity of myth to provide explanations for the inexplicable, to help us to bear the unbearable, and the negative being its potential for aiding mass manipulation and subjugation. (Both qualities exploited freely by the Franco Regime, although that is not the focus here.) The godlike power of creation, control over human destiny and (to a greater or lesser extent) over the consumer form a basic link between cinema and the myth of the father in this film. The paradox lies in that, although we may not live so easily without them, if myths remain unquestioned, we run the risk of becoming their victims. Myth offers coherence and consolation, but should also provide a focus for the kind of curiosity aroused in Estrella that will, sooner or later, destroy it. El sur is a celebration of the way film constructs its own myths, and the cinema is an ideal vehicle for the analysis of our capacity and need to construct personal versions and visions of life as we 'see' it. It is also a moving illustration of the power of cinematic myth and of the paradox that we are safest in our enjoyment when we can acknowledge with more confidence than Agustín that 'las cosas que ocurren en el cine son mentira'.
- Jo Evans, University College London
ABOUT VICTOR ERICE
Victor Erice has directed just three features and two shorts in a little over thirty years (the shorts, included in portmanteau films, bookend the three features he has made roughly ten years apart). (2) In its studied and contemplative approach to cinema, as well as its meagre productivity, Erice's career can be compared to that of Carl Dreyer and Terrence Malick. The connections to the work of these great, visionary filmmakers do not end there. Like Malick & Dreyer, Erice is a filmmaker who explores his environments through precise, lyrical, light-filled or filtered compositions. He also presents characters that are inseparable from or mired in particular times, spaces and historical moments. Erice's first two films (like Malick's) also feature strong, structurally central female characters forging their identity within masculine environments (a striving which often stages itself as act of speaking, of finding voice). (3) Although his films are artfully composed, Erice also shoots in a manner that, like Malick, is responsive to the sound-image possibilities and accidents that emerge on location. But whereas one can imagine, or even fantasise about, the philosophical questioning of Malick and the spiritual contemplation of Dreyer occupying them between films, Erice throws up another 'picture' all together. Although he actually has made his living writing film criticism, screenplays and directing for television (including a surprisingly large number of commercials) one would rather imagine, or at least easily conceive, that his films are the product of a deep, extended process of reflection, of repose, the outcome of an accretion of details and minute, precise observations captured over a sustained period of time (a process/practice suggested by the knowledge that he insisted on filming every day during the two-month shooting schedule of his third feature, The Quince Tree Sun —resorting to video when film stock, and the money for it, intermittently ran out).
The most remarked upon quality of Erice's cinema is its visual dimension. His films are dominated by the juxtaposition of often stark long shots and beautifully composed and lit vignette– or tableau–like compositions. His camera moves intermittently, but usually only to reframe or follow the characters. Thus, his films do have a studied, contemplative quality on a compositional level (they are full of repeated set-ups and move between a sense of closeness and distance). The most remarkable element of his films' visual dimension is the qualities of light that they capture—not unlike a painting by Vermeer or Valázquez (though modern, this also hints at the timeless, partly anachronistic quality of Erice's cinema). This light is often sculptural, its physical dimensions affecting both the perception of the spectator and the actions of the characters. (For example, the browns, burnt yellows and oranges that dominate the bleak interior and exterior landscapes of The South express the muted anguish of the characters, but also seem to shape their literal movement in space.)
Both The South and The Spirit of the Beehive are films about the experiential realities of characters, communities—and a country—in isolation. They each primarily focus on female characters attempting to forge their own identities within somewhat barren, chilly and mute environments. Erice's films are also remarkable for the space they give to all of their characters—even the woman (played by Aurore Clément) only seen in the film-within-a-film in The South is able to express herself through the long letter she sends to Estrella's father. This virtual dialectic, between specific, knowable entities/characters and the world that surrounds them, is carried over to a general understanding of the connections between images and sounds in Erice's cinema. Thus, although many of the images and sounds of his films seem to partly exist for themselves—highlighted by the common use of the fade to black, which tends to isolate shots—they are also part of a rich fabric of associations. In regard to this, Erice's films constantly play upon the tension between movement and stillness, ambulation and repose, the isolated observation and its macroscopic implications.
- Adrian Danks, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography
Geoff Andrew: You were a film critic yourself and you've always been a cinephile. What was it that attracted you to the cinema in the first place? When did you become interested in films?
Victor Erice: It's difficult to say. It's more like an experience. I don't feel that I chose cinema or films. I feel they chose me. I don't mean this to be pretentious. In my childhood, films were fundamentally important. In a country that, especially in the 1940s, was very isolated from the rest of the world and marked by the Civil War, films gave me an extraordinary possibility to be a citizen of the world.
GA: And did you always want to make films as well? Obviously, maybe not as a kid, but you did become a critic when you were quite young...
VE: It was an evolution, I suppose, and I became conscious of it when I was about 19. But you don't choose to be a film director when you are small. You would be a small monster. Also, you can say that nobody chooses whom to love.
- Interview at the National Film Theatre, London, September 2 2003
It was like this - through writing - that one day I began to think about cinema, and discovered another way of prolonging its vision, of realising it. It was in the summer of 1959, after having seen The 400 Blows at the San Sebastian Film Festival. At the end of the screening, I came out onto the street, moved. And that same night I felt the need to put into words the ideas and feelings that had been awoken in me by François Truffaut’s images. It was the first time that such a thing had happened to me. The years have passed and, though I have been able to shoot a few films, I continue to write every now and then.
We did know it, without a doubt, though perhaps we forgot: ‘Cinematography, art of the Century’. This is precisely what was once said of cinema when, in a gesture not exempt from bad faith, justice was sought by virtue of bestowing upon cinema all the privileges conferred by social recognition. Never, not even at that solemn moment, did we imagine that with the passing of years cinema would become an essential element of our memory, the container capable of holding the images that best reflect the human experience of the century that has just died. How could we not find in that gaze that we project backwards, suspended in the air, the figure of the angel of melancholy! It is, in some way, inevitable. Since that single history, that of cinema and the twentieth century, is confused, irremediably, with our own biography. I am referring to the people of my generation, born in the time of silence and ruin that followed our civil war. Orphans, real or symbolic, were adopted by cinema. It offered us an extraordinary consolation, a sense of belonging to a world: precisely that which, paradoxically, Communication, in its present state of maximum development, does not offer.
Cinema nowadays, since it is based on technical reproducibility and universal dissemination, features accelerated by the effects of video and television (both capable of multiplying these aspects ad infinitum); cinema as product and nothing more than product (according to the rules of the Market – more unrelenting than ever, to the extent that it has accomplished the alienation of the notion of the author), is merely allowed, socially and on a global scale, by the established powers, a sole destiny: a destiny proper to the entertainment industry [la industria del espectáculo]. It is for this reason that, at the present crossroads, cinema may have no alternative other than to fall back on itself so that it may, once it has assumed its solitude, affirm itself in its dignity: a dignity conferred onto it by virtue of being the last of the artistic languages invented by man. This is its differentiating quality, what truly distinguishes it from other audiovisual communication media.
Every now and then, transformed into ghosts, the bodies that are present in the images of those films that (as Jean Louis Schefer has written) ‘have looked at our childhood’ rise from their graves and appear on the small screen of the television, at the latest hours, nearing dawn. Offering themselves to our insomniac eyes, they seem to tell us something: what? Amongst other things, that cinema today exists so as to bring back what was once seen. Its future, in this sense, is its past, though on the condition that we contemplate it with an undeceiving eye, with no dread. Given that, as Jean-Luc Godard affirmed, ‘cinema authorises Orpheus to look back without letting Eurydice die.’
- Victor Erice. Originally published in Banda aparte no. 9/10 (Valencia, January 1998). Reprinted with permission of the author. Translated from the Spanish for Rouge by Carlos Morrero. Thanks to Alvaro Arroba.
For this film I felt less interested in my own thoughts than in those of two of my earliest friends in the world of online cinephilia. Back when I was a regular on the IMDb Classic Film board, Lee Price (Lee-109) and Christianne Benedict (Chris-435) were among the most knowledgeable and engaging peers, especially on the subject of horror films. In fact they were contributors to the anthology Horror 101. (Some of you may also know Christianne from our wonderful video essay on The World According to Garp; and Lee was behind the 100 Directors of Animated Shorts). So I thought to call them up and ask them what they thought of this film. What follows is 25 minutes of awesomeness. You can listen to the .mp3 here or right-click to download. Here's an index of topics for easy reference:
0:00 - Setting template of Hammer horror and post-'50s horror movies 6:24 - What do Hammer's Dracula and James Bond have in common? 8:20 - What Christopher Lee brought to Dracula 11:35 - Sex, vmpires and Victorian women 14:15 - Bram Stoker's paranoia 16:00 - Favorite Dracula films, and why no movie yet has gotten Dracula right 18:00 - What Hammer introduced to the Dracula myth and to the movies
WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?
The following citations were counted towards the placement of Dracula among They Shoot Pictures 1000 Greatest Films:
Evelyn Caron-Lowins, Positif (1991) Tomas Fernandez Valenti, Dirigido Por (1992) All-Time Movie Favourites (Book) Independents and Others: British Prestige (1975) Chicago Film Critics Association, The 100 Scariest Movies of All Time (2006) Cinescape The Top 100 Sci-Fi, Horror & Fantasy Films (2000) Danny Peary Guide for the Film Fanatic: Must-See Films (1987) Empire The 50 Greatest Horror Movies Ever (2000) Halliwell's Top 1000 Films (2005) Taschen Books Movies of the 20s-90s (2003-2007) The Guardian 1,000 Films to See Before You Die (2007) Total Film 50 Greatest British Movies Ever (2004) Various Critics Book - 501 Must-See Movies (2004) Various Critics Book - 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die (2004) They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films
One month prior to the commencement of filming, Producer Anthony Hinds submitted the draft script to the British Board of Film Censors for approval. The Board Reader's report contained complains about 'the uncouth, uneducated, disgusting and vulgar style of Mr Jimmy Sangster' and noted wryly: 'Why do vampires need to be messier feeders than anyone else?'.
The points of objection were summarised by John Nicholls, Board Secretary for the British Board of Film Censors. They requested that all women should be 'decently clad' and reminded Hammer that sex should not be emphasised in a horror movie. Additionally, the Board demanded that vampires' teeth should never be seen to sink into the neck, that Dracula should not fling the vampire woman across the room by her hair, and that stakes should be used 'out of frame' - shots of the vampires after staking or their screams during the act should be omitted. On viewing a black and white rough cut of the movie, the Board requested that the staking of Lucy, Dracula's seduction of Mina and the final disintegration of Dracula had to be either omitted entirely or significantly edited.
Managing Director of Hammer Studios, James Carreras wrote to the Board, asking for a compromise over certain shots, reminding them that the X certificate they were seeking would automatically prevent anyone under the age of 16 from seeing the film, that the dedicated audience would expect a certain amount of 'horror' and that the cuts the Board had requested would remove the very thrills the audience wanted to see. By the time the final colour edit was ready, the Board had been worn down to the point where they found only two shots objectionable; the gushing of blood during Lucy's staking, and a shot in the final scene of Dracula clawing his face off. These scenes were removed and Dracula was finally granted a BBFC 'X' Certificate in April 1958, but with a stern warning from John Nicholls to Anthony Hinds that he should never attempt to get similar material passed by the Board in the future.
Unsurprisingly, many critics were vitriolic in the extreme towards Dracula. CA Lejeune, writing for The Observer, was particularly damning:
I regret to hear that it is being shown in America with emphasis laid on its British origin, and feel inclined to apologise to all decent Americans for sending them a work in such sickening bad taste.
She added that although the poster advises you 'Don't Dare See It Alone!', she would 'prefer not to expose a companion to what seems to me a singularly repulsive piece of nonsense'.
Similarly, the Daily Telegraph's critic believed that Dracula was too nasty a film, even for adults:
This British film has an 'X' Certificate. This is too good for it. There should be a new certificate - 'S' for sadistic or just 'D' for disgusting. However, despite the largely negative press the movie received, there were a few critics who saw the merit in Hammer's production. Dudley Carew in The Times extolled:
Mr Christopher Lee makes a saturnine and malignant Count... and the part is played straight, as melodramatic parts should be played. Altogether this is a horrific film, and sometimes a crude film, but by no means an unimpressive piece of dramatic storytelling.
- BBC h2g2
Yesterday, sporting a somewhat redundant title, "Horror of Dracula," the durable old boy himself arrived from England to take up residence at the Mayfair. Perhaps the constant hunt for hemoglobin is slowing our villain down, for this time there are strong indications that the once gory plot is showing definite signs of anemia.
Say this for "Horror of Dracula," however, it does have its exotic aspects. It was filmed in vivid color, which makes its "undead" all the more lurid. Perhaps more disturbing is the fact that all of its principals speak with impeccable Oxonian accents, even though they appear to be citizens of some unnamed Transylvanian community.
For the record, the ominous Count's king-sized canines put their fatal trade marks on three luckless victims: John Van Eyssen and Carol Marsh and Valerie Gaunt, a pair of damsels who look delectable enough in diaphanous shifts to turn the head of a red-blooded observer. Christopher Lee is grim but not nearly so chilling as Bela Lugosi in the title role, and Peter Cushing is proper and precise as the meticulous researcher who finally turns our monster into dust.
This can't be the end, however. We bet the price of admission to the Mayfair against a sprig of garlic flowers (vampires hate 'em) that some moonlit night Count Dracula will rise again with the aid of another intrepid producer.
- A. H. Weiler, The New York Times, May 29 1958
EXCERPTS FROM TOP CONTEMPORARY REVIEWS
Dracula – usually better known under its American retitling, The Horror of Dracula – is the cornerstone of the Hammer Films legend. Although The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) the year before was beginning of Hammer’s success, The Horror of Dracula was the one that set Hammer on the map and marked the beginning of Hammer’s domination over the horror scene for the next fifteen years. The Horror of Dracula’s status, certainly in Anglo-horror fandom, is sacrosanct and its importance near-mythic. The essence of what the Hammer film was all about is here – the darkly magnetic presence and aristocratic haughtiness of Christopher Lee; the commanding, straight-arrow rationalism of Peter Cushing; the florid shock hand of director Terence Fisher; the essential British repressions of sexuality and convention that Anglo-horror would pierce a stake right through; and the laughably dated shocked critical outcry.
Where then to view The Horror of Dracula today? Hammer films, particularly the early ones, have regrettably not dated well. Today their pace seems slow; the shocks that caused such a critical outcry (and then quickly transformed into the expected mainstay of this particular genre) seem absurdly mannered, even laughable. The rich and floridly colourful sets seem flat and stagebound and James Bernard’s celebrated scores loud and unsubtle. Yet The Horror of Dracula holds undeniable effect. One must understand exactly what it represented to audiences back then. To an audience that had been raised on the Bela Lugosi Dracula (1931) and the cardboard, melodramatic figure that Dracula became among the Universal monsters lineup in the 1940s,The Horror of Dracula must have had an incredible shock value. For one it was in colour – which meant that one could see the blood in its rich, overripe scarlet detail – and that alone made it an immediately different film to the Bela Lugosi version. For another it was not as stagebound as the Lugosi version – within the rather static sets, Terence Fisher’s camera is kinetic and alive, always on the move.
As an attempt at adapting Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), The Horror of Dracula isn’t any better or worse than any other version. Screenwriter Jimmy Sangster liberally sacrifices parts here and there for the economy of plot and budget – out go Renfield and the asylum (although these later appeared in Hammer’s Dracula – Prince of Darkness ). Gone too is the magnificently ambient opening journey to Castle Dracula, the pursuit climax and set-pieces like the crashing of the Demeter. Gone too is Dracula as a supernatural being – “It is a common fallacy,” says Van Helsing, “that vampires can change into bats and wolves,” which conveniently does away with having to create costly effects sequences. (Although said fallacy seemed to have been disproven by later films). Despite the liberties he takes with Bram Stoker, Jimmy Sangster nevertheless preserves the essence of the book.
Britain's Hammer Studios was the first to bring Count Dracula to the screen in living, blood-red color. Reteaming Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, the stars of Hammer's 1957 hit Curse of Frankenstein, director Terence Fisher created what is arguably the best Dracula film out of the legion that have been made in the past 70 years. Lee, as had Bela Lugosi almost three decades before, fashioned a horror icon from Stoker's vampire for a whole new generation of international movie audiences.
While Horror of Dracula is seminal in the character's film canon, it's hardly faithful to the literary source. Only a bare outline of the original novel serves as the basis for Jimmy Sangster's economical script. Most of the characters have been jettisoned, notably Renfield, and the entire story takes place in Eastern Europe rather than shifting the main action to England. No sea voyage for Drac here, no lunatic asylum. Vampire hunter Van Helsing (Cushing) is nothing at all like the character in the book. Rather than an eccentric, thickly-accented Dutchman, Cushing plays the character as a younger man of action, quick-thinking and resolute, more scientist than mystic. Even with Lee's charismatic turn as Dracula, it is Cushing — one of the finest, most underrated actors in English language cinema — who carries the film with his intelligent, energetic portrayal of the Count's great nemesis.
Hammer detractors often chide the studio's films for their leisurely narrative. Horror of Dracula, clocking in at a compact 82 minutes, is briskly — at times even breathlessly — paced, especially when compared to the slow-as-molasses 1931 Lugosi version. The caliber of acting, handsome set design and marvelous use of color belie the movie's relatively low budget. Because of budgetary constraints, in fact, many classic elements of the Dracula story had to be dropped; the real reason the Count never turns into a mist or a bat in this version is because it was simply cheaper for him not to have these powers. (The script has Van Helsing dismissing such transmogrifications as a "common fallacy" about vampires.) Interestingly enough, it's because this Dracula cannot shapeshift that he comes across more as a terrifying, flesh-and-blood monster — to be grappled with at close quarters only at great peril to the hunters — than some ethereal, blood-drinking ghost in formal wear. The two moments that stand out in this regard are the confrontation at the castle, wherein the Count is first revealed as the undead creature he truly is, and the exciting battle between Van Helsing and Dracula at the climax. (The latter was used as a pre-titles sequence for 1966's Dracula — Prince of Darkness.) Any "monster kid" who grew up watching horror movies on TV in the '60s and '70s has these sequences emblazoned in their memory forever. It's primarily due to them that for many, (including me) the name "Dracula" immediately evokes an image of a feral, snarling Christopher Lee — not Bela Lugosi in a tux.
- Brian Lindsey, Eccentric Cinema
In a way, Lee’s Dracula is a missing link between the classic cinema vampire and his more contemporary brethren, who are often portrayed almost like human beings suffering from an uncontrollable addiction. Earlier horror films had emphasized Dracula’s allure by portraying the vampire almost like a hypnotic phantom. Bela Lugosi’s performance, in the 1931 DRACULA, emphasized the character’s foreign qualities and an uncanny otherworldliness that made the Count seem separate from humanity even while he moved unobtrusively among it. Lee’s portrayal, on the other hand, erases most of the character’s spooky nature (aided by the script, of course): in HORROR OF DRACULA, the Count does not turn into a bat or a cloud of mist; he seems more real, more physical – a flesh-and-blood being that the audience can more easily believe in. In a sense, he humanizes the vampire, not by making him sympathetic but by making him walk the Earth almost like a mortal – a super-powered, undying mortal, to be sure, but one subject to physical laws that limit his movements, just as they limit ours.
While advancing the Count’s evolution, Lee also captures some hints of Dracula as he appeared in novel Dracula. Author Bram Stoker’s physical description of the Count emphasizes not hypnotic fascination but physical strength. He is tall, his face a strong aquiline with a thin nose and a cruel-looking mouth. The literary character may be a fascinating monster, but he is definitely a horrible one. The air of cultured aristocracy (emphasized by Lugosi) is definitely there, especially in the early scenes at Castle Dracula as the Count plays charming host to his hapless guest, Jonathan Harker; however, this air is merely a deceptive cloud hiding the monstrous lining. Sophisticated he may be, but Stoker’s Dracula is better defined by the pride he exhibits when boasting of leading troops in warlike fury to fend off foreign invaders.
The more overt suggestions of savagery were absent from Lugosi’s Dracula, who never bared his fangs and seldom lost his temper (although he does snarl once or twice). Lee was afforded the luxury of allowing the character’s monstrous side to show more fully. Abetted with dripping fangs and red contact lenses, Lee portrays Dracula’s ferocity to the hilt. Also, in keeping with the novel, Dracula is never naively accepted into the society of his victims; instead, after the characterization is established in the opening scenes at Castle Dracula, he becomes almost a background character, infiltrating his victims’ homes like some sinister spy from beyond the grave.
- Steve Biodrowski, Cinefantastique Online
It is difficult to overemphasize how integral Technicolor is to the identity ofHorror Of Dracula. Murnau and Browning engaged the spiritual elements of the Dracula story, and black and white stressed the Victorian character of these films. This is an oversimplification, especially in the case of Nosferatu, in which the supposedly helpless woman acts in a way that is both enigmatic and heroic. Still, it is valid up to a point, and helpful in discussing Hammer's astonishing series of horror films. Preposterous and impossible to dislike, these films reveled in the sheer gaudiness of Technicolor, and it is fitting that the first shot after the opening titles features dripping red blood. And I'm not sure if blood has ever been so suggestively red.
Because, really, everything in this picture is terribly suggestive. Consider Dracula. We have moved from Schreck's compelling repulsiveness to Lugosi's eccentric whatever-it-is to the very handsome and very tall Christopher Lee. That is, Horror Of Dracula is a very sexy movie. Sex certainly existed in Browning's picture (remember Mina's attempt at seducing Jonathan), and the finale of Nosferatu can be viewed sexually (although it would be blasphemously reductive). Here, however, Dracula and his victims are eroticized so blatantly that they almost jump off the screen. The subtext (that if you have weird sex with tall handsome strange men your soul is damned) is so obvious that it doesn't really qualify as subtext, and it is subverted by the constant British camp of the film. The players are unquestionably having a hard time keeping a straight face, and there is real, clear artistic joy in their attempts to make something this absurd work. There is nothing conservative or cautionary about this film; for these filmmakers blood is clearly as arousing as the low necklines.
This extends to Peter Cushing's iconic and truly brilliant performance. As Van Helsing, Cushing both embodies the stereotypical English gentleman (he is as effeminate as the best of them) and transforms it, giving the character an assertiveness that goes beyond the merely intellectual. He has real physical presence, and no one doubts that he would thrust a stake through Lucy's or Jonathan's heart. Lee's physicality is even more impressive, and although he has few lines, he seems to rush through them, as if he's more comfortable dominating the scenes through presence alone, or outrageously smearing his face with blood.
- Doniphon, The Long Voyage Home
Most shocking – and successful – of all, however, is 'Horror of Dracula'’s handling of the original novel's latent eroticism. What was once sub-textual is here foregrounded, and there is now no doubt that the film’s women enjoy Dracula's advances. Indeed, in preparation for his nocturnal visits, the “victims” even open doors, remove crosses from their necks and arrange themselves artfully on their beds! This complicity highlights the fact that film’s menfolk are mere cuckolds, and paints their frantic efforts to stop Dracula as the laughable last stand of injured male pride. This is ‘Dracula’ as projected through the prism of Chaucer’s ‘Miller’s Tale’.
Yet these designs have much more serious undertones. Take, for example, the scene in which Mina Holmwood (Melissa Stribling) speaks to her husband, Arthur (Michael Gough), on the morning after her first encounter with Dracula. Gone is the dour housewife of previous scenes to be replaced by a more vivacious, sensual and – if her smiles are any indication – happier woman. This sparkling transformation indicates that the true enemy of the piece is the stifling Victorianism which has previously crushed Mina’s femininity and squandered her well-being. This interpretation is bolstered by Peter Cushing's wolfish and ambiguous turn as Van Helsing. Obsessed by his pursuit of Dracula and unmoved by the numerous stakings that he has to perform, Van Helsing is one of the screen’s most brutal and efficient reactionaries.
In contrast to all previous portrayals, then, Dracula actually catalyses life, and it is Arthur, Van Helsing and their fellows who preside over the true realm of the undead; a realm contoured by the same stuffy mannerisms and values that sadly prevailed in post-War Britain, at the time when the film was made.
In the end, the overall transaction isn’t bloodless for the viewer, and this is what may explain 'Horror of Dracula''s timeless appeal as a fright picture. Indeed, the film sets out to vandalize all preconceptions, conventions and comforts, particularly those that must have been held by contemporary audiences. Rather than portray Van Helsing's battles with Dracula as a straightforward tale of good versus evil, Fisher recasts the monster as a counter-cultural hero, and one whose values would soon make furtive progress during the upheaval and sexual revolution of the Sixties. However, that the changes of those years were to be largely undone by the forces of conservatism demonstrates that Fisher was right on yet another count: Van Helsing always wins in the end.
- Pete Hoskin, DVD Beaver
Horror of Dracula appeared at a pivotal time in British culture when it began to move away from the repressive world of the early 1950s – depicted in Mike Leigh's Vera Drake (2004) – and towards a different type of life (an era aptly evoked and encapsulated by the subsequent mantra of British Conservative Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan; “You never had it so good”). During this period, Britain experienced a more consumerist lifestyle, a youth culture influenced by Hollywood cinema and rock-and-roll, the aftermath of the 1956 Suez Canal crisis, and the “Angry Young Man” movement in British theatre. Horror of Dracula can be understood as horror's response to this turbulent social change. But, as an early example of Hammer horror, it contains conflicting cultural values.
Like the often critically despised films of The Archers and Gainsborough melodrama, Horror of Dracula offered contemporary viewers the taboo cinematic elements of spectacle and excess that offended establishment definitions of the proper “realist” nature of British cinema. In his pioneering study A Heritage of Horror, David Pirie recognised that Hammer horror represented the return of a repressed Romantic British literary tradition, with Christopher Lee's Count Dracula reincarnating Byron's Fatal Nobleman as a Vampire . When Lee speaks his first lines, he not only extinguishes the Universal Studios legacy of Bela Lugosi, but also returns the Count to his rightful place in British culture. But unlike Lugosi, Lee is definitely one of “us”. As in Bram Stoker's original novel, the Count speaks perfect English and does not need to struggle with his vowels. Lee's Dracula also evokes hidden desires within his victims, collapsing those British ideological barriers of repressive sexuality and “good taste”.
- Tony Williams, Senses of Cinema
Having hit the jackpot with The Curse of Frankenstein, Britain's Hammer Films updated another monster classic with this 1958 Dracula remake, which distinguished itself from earlier efforts with its dripping blood, bared fangs, women's cleavage, and compulsive gong banging on the soundtrack. This Grand Guignol treatment bowled people over in the 50s, and it still yields some potent shocks—the sudden cut to a rabid Christopher Lee in tight close-up during Dracula's first attack is particularly hair-raising. Peter Cushing carries most of the ho-hum script as Dr. Van Helsing, though the well-lit color photography, central to the Hammer formula, can't compare with the shadowy magnificence of Nosferatu (1922) or Dracula (1931).
- Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader
From the late ‘50s through the ‘70s, no one did horror like England’s Hammer studios, and the crown jewels in their terrifying oeuvre were the gothic Dracula pictures starring the incomparable Christopher Lee as the blood-sucking prince of darkness. Horror of Dracula (also known simply as Dracula) marks Lee’s first turn as the Count, as well as Peter Cushing’s initial performance as the indefatigable vampire hunter Van Helsing, and it’s likely the most tantalizingly creepy entry in this series of cinematic nightmares.
- Nick Schager, Lessons of Darkness
Much of the film's power lies in the haunting images presented, many of which have gone on to become the best-known and most definitive cinematic images of vampirism of all time: The opening of Dracula's eyes as nighttime falls; the flowing cape as Dracula strides down the walkway from the castle; the swirling leaves that announce the Count's arrival on the veranda outside Lucy's bedroom; and of course Dracula's unforgettable demise at the film's climax. While much of the atmosphere is due to Fisher's direction, it is important not to underestimate the contribution of other key elements of the Hammer ensemble. Jack Asher's eerie lighting combines brilliantly with Bernard Robinson's sets, and James Bernard's score superbly heightens the sense of terror, sexuality and fairy-tale fantasy that is at the centre of Fisher's vision.
- David Rattigan, Dictionary of Hammer Horror
Fisher is an extremely detail-orientated director and is the master of lighting and makeup. As Chris Lee was still quite young for the role of dead-since-before-Columbus-set-sail vampire, Terence used lighting and makeup to focus on Chris Lee’s more pronounced physical features while effectively hiding his more youthful attributes. Also, he is one of the few directors who effectively uses Chris Lee’s Sasquatchian height as an advantage. The audience is treated to several “towering” camera angles of the vampiric menace throughout the film which could possibly be some of the creepiest moments captured on celluloid.
- Jenn Dlugos, Classic-Horror.com
The Germanic eagle that fills the screen in the first moments of Fisher's remake of Todd Browning's 1931 "Dracula" resets the cultural barometer. No longer toying solely with the idea of outsiders and cultural subversion, "Horror of Dracula" is almost explicitly a post-World War II film, and it deals with Nazism.
Among Fisher's characters, the debate is not so much over belief in the supernatural, but more importantly over the need to act in the face of evil. Van Helsing spends little time trying to scientifically justify vampires – a la Browning's incarnation of the character -- Cushing's Van Helsing outright asks Holmwood what he is prepared to do in the face of the Count's onslaught. He describes the wider-reaching consequences of inertia. The equation is simpler and more imperative.
While "Horror of Dracula" absolutely represents a bloodied and visceral entry in the genre - Fisher's use of fluid and effects is pronounced for the time - it poses a more challenging addition to canon in that it is a political "Dracula." With blunt and uncomfortable words and pictures, Fisher opens the annals of recent history to his audience and asks if the vampire myth can any longer be about strangers creeping into bedchambers. He recommends, it seems, that Dracula is now the aggressor crossing national and moral borders.
- James O'Brien, Cinescare
Hammer's Dracula made much more explicit the seduction-rape fantasy that underlies vampire mythology. Christopher Lee is not a horrid ghoul like Nosferatu. He's an aristocrat like Lugosi, but more of a contemptous brute than someone who'd attend the opera. Lugosi's ladies trembled in uncomprehending fear, and their menfolk gallantly did their best to protect them. In Horror of Dracula, the female victims openly enjoy their master's visits, throwing wide their windows and lying back on their beds in anxious anticipation. They conspire with Dracula against their own fathers and husbands for the privilege of being savaged by the haughty, feral vampire king. The result is an artistic and commercial triumph over the censor: technically, all that's happening is that necks are being bitten, but what viewers experienced were sensual, mostly consentual rape scenes. This is still Christopher Lee's greatest performance, combining his knack for elitist hauteur, with his excellent pantomime skills. After a decade of mostly inappropriate casting, he shows unmistakable star power, commanding the screen with every appearance.
For victims, Horror of Dracula provides a trio of actresses who create portraits of eroticism rarely attempted by later 'liberated' vampire films. Valerie Gaunt was a token victim in The Curse of Frankenstein, but with just a few seconds of screen time as Dracula's bride, she etches a vibrant picture of duplicitous female wiles. The obsessive lust that comes over her eyes as she gets face-to-jugular with Jonathan Harker is unforgettable. Carol Marsh made film history starring with Richard Attenborough ten years earlier in the crime drama Brighton Rock; here her teen tragedy is played out in the Victorian era. To get her way, she falls back on childish petulance, but we read her precocious sexuality loud and clear. When she throws the doors open, the midnight chill enters her bedroom with the falling leaves (beautiful, but dead), yet she doesn't care ... the all important HE is coming. She awaits Dracula as if he were a teenaged lover - only sexier.
Melissa Stribling's Mina is even more interesting. She's first seen as a prim and conventional housewife, content to stand anonymously behind her bourgeois husband. But when Mina starts her affair with Dracula, the change is remarkable. She blooms to life, and her eyes and smile betray a satisfaction that doesn't come from keeping the silverware polished, or lighting Arthur's cigars. When she receives Dracula in her bedroom, breathless and dumbstruck, the scene is pure domination and submission.
- Glenn Erickson, DVD Savant
There was more to Hammer's version of Dracula than sexual innuendo and graphic violence. In addition to the extra shadings given the character of Dracula and the nature of his menace, Jimmy Sangster's screenplay,Terence Fisher's direction, and, especially, Peter Cushing's performance as Van Helsing, Dracula's obsessive nemesis, brought out heretofore untapped resonances in that character as well. In most screen versions of Stoker's book (indeed, in the book itself), Van Helsing is portrayed as an aging, kindly Dutch physician whose knowledge of the undead comes in very handy when the time arrives to bring the story to a close. In Horror of Dracula however, Van Helsing assumes a dominant role--and an unsettling one. Terence Fisher later said of the character: "An individual who never goes out without his hammer and stake is hardly a sensitive soul."
It is Van Helsing, much like Dr. Frankenstein, who comes of as the real villain of the piece. The Count, like Frankenstein's creature, has no free will and acts mainly out of instinct. In most versions of the story (as in the book), Dracula leaves Transylvania in search of new victims. In Horror of Dracula he leaves only after his domain has been intruded upon and his "bride" destroyed by Van Heising's surrogate, Jonathan Harker. He then seeks out Lucy to replace her and, when she too is destroyed (by Van Helsing) turns his teeth on Mina, sealing his own doom.
--from Horror of Dracula DVD supplementary material, Warner Bros., 2002. Posted by Eric B. Olsen on A History of Horror
The first scene in the library, when Dracula enters with a leering, blood-smeared face, is one of the greatest and most influential shock scenes in movie history. Audiences leaped when he hissed his challenge, but the challenge was really to moviemakers: let's see you jokers top THIS. "The Curse of Frankenstein" opened a door; "Horror of Dracula" went through the door with a confrontational confidence. There had never been a vampire movie remotely like this before, and audiences the world over were ready for it.
Horror movies changed direction after "The Curse of Frankenstein" and "Horror of Dracula" the next year. Not only were now both Cushing AND Lee established as horror stars and Hammer as a pre-eminent horror studio, but the Grand Guignol horror elements of both films were an affront and a challenge. As writer David Pirie has pointed out, sometimes more IS more; classically, not showing the horrifying elements in horror movies was the way to go, and horror movies were made in the visual style of German cinema of the 1920s. But Hammer movies were emphatically mid-twentieth century, vividly gruesome, packed with energy and sex, and altogether something different. The changes they began have never faded away; horror movies today would not be what they are without the impact of Hammer.
- Bill Warren, Audio Video Revolution
Fisher, as much as any single person, is the reason that Hammer became known for the remarkable quality of its Gothic horror. Now, we can argue whether Gothic horror is quite as exciting as the stylistic magnificence of German Expressionism, and stylistically, the Hammer Dracula simply can't compete with Nosferatu or Vampyr (or even Universal's Dracula, which is otherwise an exemplar of everything wrong with early sound filmmaking) for the title of "most visually exceptional vampire movie". We'll take that as given. Still, the Hammer Gothic style, at is best, is essentially without peer, and it was never better than in Fisher's hands. Despite a tendency towards being overlit, Dracula is a visual feast of rich production design, shot to its fullest effect in a series of unassuming but inevitably correct camera angles (which tend to be just slightly wider than you'd think, and so we're constantly aware of the space of the film), and a nearly breakneck pace that allows not a single moment of flabby excess.
As long as I've got this marvelous love-in happening, let's wrap it up with the final member of the Hammer horror dream team: Jimmy Sangster. Responsible for basically all of Hammer's best scripts, Sangster's work in Dracula isn't quite as good as his screenplay for Curse of Frankenstein; it's at least somewhat of a liability that Dracula is offscreen so much, and that when he appears at the end he's dispatched so quickly, and Holmwood and Harker are nothing but ciphers, no matter how well-acted. But the core of Dracula is pure genius; to the best of my knowledge, it's the first example anywhere of vampirism as a scientific problem, and as a result the story's Victorian setting has never been exploited quite the same way. In Sangster's hands, Van Helsing reaches his apotheosis as a character, devoted to the scientific method and as intelligent and competent as he could ever be. He's the great vampire hunter, because he represents the forces of modernity and the Enlightenment marching against superstition and fear, and if the nugget for that metaphor was already present in Stoker's novel, it never came close to being so beautifully expressed as it was in this film, as opposed to Van Helsing's traditional representation as a crackpot mystic with a proclivity towards leg-humping.
ABOUT THE WARNER BROTHERS DVD
This Warner release's anamorphic transfer is – like the disc's Dolby Digital mono soundtrack – serviceable enough. The print is clean; colours are rewardingly vibrant; and detail is sufficient, if perhaps a little hazy. The prime disappointment is that the 1.78:1 framing crops the film's original 1.66:1 aspect ratio.
Extras are limited to the film's theatrical trailer and a couple of text features (cast/crew biographies and 'Dracula Lives Again!', which chronicles the production's history).
There has been talk that Warner are to revisit their Hammer properties and release them in more lavish editions. Whilst this would certainly be welcome in the case of 'Horror of Dracula' – if only to afford the film an OAR presentation – this disc's faults are not so great as to prevent it from being a worthy stop-gap.
For such a crucial horror title, Horror of Dracula has not fared very well on home video. Much of its original luster has been dulled by muted and cropped video transfers, as well as a notorious laserdisc pressing which omitted part of a gruesome staking at the 55-minute mark. (For the record, all three stake hits and the blood-spewing are here on the DVD, though upon close analysis the reinstated footage appears to be lifted from a different and slightly more degraded print.) Though the film still betrays its age at times, Warner's anamorphic transfer looks comparatively polished and boasts some wonderfully striking colors; reds are appropriately saturated and balance nicely with director Terence Fisher's skillful incorporation of blue and gold into the set design. Flesh tones are also noticeably improved, and the graininess which has become part of the film's video fabric has been thankfully decreased. Resolution looks impressive on a standard monitor but when blown up to home theater size, detail can be quite soft in numerous shots, particularly the studio-bound exteriors. As with the theatrical prints, facial details sometimes appear blurred and overall the film will still look dated to those expected a crisp, megabudget Warner restoration on the order of North by Northwest. The film elements look clean and free from wear. As with their release of The Mummy, the decision to letterbox the film at 1.78:1 will no doubt ruffle a few feathers; the framing lops off as much on the top and bottom as it adds to the sides, but the compositions look more spacious and evenly composed than the claustrophobic full frame version. However, viewers with 16:9 capability may find the headroom awfully tight if their set overscans to 1.85:1, which shears off too much headroom for comfort. The mono audio is limited by the dated materials but sounds robust enough, with James Bernard's thunderous score coming through passably if lacking the stomach-rumbling bass that characterizes his theme on the CD soundtrack. Considering the past track record of Hammer titles on DVD it wouldn't be outrageous to expect a special edition treatment for a title this important, but alas the only extras are the familiar theatrical trailer (in much better shape than on previous compilations) and a few cursory text supplements hopping through the Hammer-Dracula history. Given Lee's fluctuating opinion on discussing his Dracula appearances, his absence here isn't too surprising, but a few goodies to put the film in context (or even a simple gallery) would have been a welcome gesture.
ABOUT HAMMER HORROR
Dictionary of Hammer Horror by David Rattigan - invaluable resource with dozens of Hammer-related entries
The Hammer Horror Crypt - Site boasting synopses and hundreds of photos for each Hammer production
AMC.tv has an interactive feature to allow people to vote up or down their favorite Hammer horror films.
Hammer Horror Posters - NSFW
More useful sites can be found on Hammer House of Horrors
Notwithstanding the works of Satyajit Ray and Sergei Eisenstein, few foreign independent influences have had as broad an effect on American cinema as England's Hammer Films Limited. Some might find that a far-reaching proclamation, but I'm confident that there's ample evidence to bear this out.
Having gone into television production in the 80s before closing its doors for good, Hammer nonetheless remains the most successful British film studio ever, producing more than 200 features over five decades. The studio is best remembered for its thrillers, particularly gothic and singularly British retellings of Universal Studios classic monster franchises - Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy and the Werewolf. Martin Scorsese,Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola are just some of the more apparent filmmakers to have borrowed a few of their more lurid tones (and actors) from Hammer's colourbox. Hammer produced far more than horror films over their long run, but here I will focus on their more exploitive, though no less artful, genre pictures.
- Jeremy Wheat, Hammer House of Horror
Be sure to read "What I Owe to Hammer Horror" by John Potts in Senses of Cinema
Screened December 13 2009 on NYFA VHS (courtesy of the NYU Library) in Brooklyn NY TSPDT rank #910 IMDb
In the second installment of Mark Donskoi's coming-of-age trilogy, based on Maxim Gorky's childhood memoirs, teenage Maxim emerges from the ashes of his family's destitution, as chronicled in The Childhood of Maxim Gorky. Searching for a trade to apply himself, Gorky is repeatedly sabotaged by petty folk entrenched in each establishment he enters. Whereas Childhood held a quietly romanticized view of the masses suffering under the petty tyranny of pre-Revolutionary feudalism, My Apprenticeship shows the underclass exploiting each other.
These films are saddled with a Socialist Realist agenda that threatens to reduce each scene to a civics parable, denying it of the pulsing lyricism of that other landmark childhood film trilogy, Satyajit Ray's Apu films. But there's a strong humanist countercurrent that takes the film beyond mere didacticism. At its best moments the film resists the easy Soviet stereotyping of characters into desirable and undesirable social types. The most memorable characters engage with Maxim over books and ruminations about their waylaid ambitions; paradoxically, it is in relaxed conversational stasis, not in reform or production, that this Marxist propaganda film envisions a state of human fulfillment. The way Donskoi deploys music to freeze time and saturate a moment with lyrical pathos anticipates what John Ford would start doing around the same period. The ultimate motif is that of the Volga River, upon which the film stages more than a few knockout moments of wordless beauty. Its gentle, constant flow evokes a grace that transcends the turmoils and conflicts, grand or small, inflicted by humans upon each other throughout time.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?The following citations were counted towards the placement of My Apprenticeship among the 1000 Greatest Films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?
Derek Hill, Sight & Sound (1962) Dwight MacDonald, Sight & Sound (1962) Gilles Jacob, Sight & Sound (2002) Jean Queval, Sight & Sound (1962) Halliwell's Top 1000 Films (2005) They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films
Donskoi's Gorki Trilogy, completed by My Apprenticeship (1939, 98 min, b/w) and My Universities (1940, 104 min, b/w) is still widely revered as one of the all-time humanist classics, and it's true that the films' expert balance between guileless simplicity and rustic myth-making (seen to best advantage in Childhood) does give them a quality not often found outside the work of John Ford. But it's interesting to note that Donskoi's direction couldn't lie further from the mainstream of Russian film culture. Not only is he not very concerned about montage, but his concern with the lyricism of individual images leads him to neglect continuity of almost any sort: at one level, the films play like an anthology of continuity errors. That said, though, all three films do contain images of great strength in the Dovzhenko tradition. And Donskoi's handling of his actors (always encouraging them to play up to emotion, never shy of excess or sentimentality) certainly has the courage of its convictions.
A director with a similar approach to that of Pudovkin, and one who probably owes him a good deal, is Mark Donskoi who, on the strength of the Gorky Trilogy alone, must be rated as one of the world's truly great film-makers. The trilogy consists of The Childhood of Maxim Gorky (1938), MY APPRENTICESHIP (1939) - also known as Out in the World or Among People - and My Universities (1940). The first two, which were produced at the Children's Film Studio, are in fact one very big film split into two. The third, dealing as it does with Gorky's early manhood, differs in a number of respects from the other two, although the production team (Pyotr Ermolov, camera - I. Stepanov, art direction - Lev Schwartz, music) remains the same throughout. But the whole trilogy is a remarkable achievement in its solving of the problem of putting an autobiography, and a very famous one at that, onto the screen. The great quality of the Trilogy is that it contains no ideological 'types'. Donskoi, with Gorky, shows that it is not only wicked to be wicked: it is also sad.
The first two parts are in fact dominated by Gorky's grand-parents - the man vain, stupid, brutal and hysterical, the woman an image of eternal simplicity, instinctively understanding what life is, and able to describe it as beautiful even in the moment of her greatest suffering. The playing of these two characters, by Mark Troyanovski and Varvara Massalitinova, is a rare privilege to observe. Thanks to the grandfather's frenzied stupidity the family goes into a steady decline; and against this movement towards poverty and destitution the boy Gorky reacts, constantly seeking escape, seeking above all the rescue which can come from education.
It is this conflict between Maxim's ambition and the fatal course of events in which it is so nearly submerged that dominates Donskoi's construction of the films. He takes a series of episodes and treats them in one of two ways, either elaborating them into long and carefully-built sequences (and these form the backbone of the work) or, in contrast, using an extraordinary filmic shorthand which makes a momentary but extremely cogent impact - such as the extreme long shot in which a young apprentice falls and is crushed by the huge Cross he is carrying; in this single shot resides most of the history of Russia.
To all this, and especially in the first two parts, he adds the domination of the 'majestic river', the great Volga, with its constant traffic and its din of ships' sirens which, even more than Lev Schwartz's admirable music, becomes the theme-song. Over and over again Donskoi brings his characters to the banks of the Volga for scenes of great import; and there are too the episodes on the river itself. In one, where the boy Maxim is a dishwasher on a Volga steamer, the cook, an immensely fat and sentimental character, sits entranced as the boy reads Taras Bulba aloud to him while a sneakthief waiter throws the recently washed glasses back into the swill.
In another the desire of man for the simple dignity of a job is superbly shown in a long sequence where the down-and-outs get unexpected employment in unloading sacks of grain from a sinking barge. It is raining in torrents, but as they work on (in a passage remarkable for the rhythm of its cutting) a watery sun breaks through the clouds, and they salute it with the dignity and pride with which mythological heroes of past times might have saluted the Sun God in his chariot.
The immense richness of episode and detail in The Childhood of Maxim Gorky and MY APPRENTICESHIP is saved from chaos by the characters of the grandparents and by the images of the Volga. As MY APPRENTICESHIP ends, all these elements are brought together. Young Gorky is leaving, and as the huge paddlesteamer pulls away from the jetty the grandfather, senile, childish, petulant, turns away; but grandma, with a smile of infinite sweetness, waves gently to the departing Maxim and says, '1 shall never see you again'. Massalitinova here is sublime.
- Basil Wright, The Long View, Secker & Warburg 1974, cited on the Wellington Film Society website
Totalitarianism survives through its ability to insinuate itself into people's consciousness from the earliest age, which is why the 1920s saw so many changes to Soviet school curricula, and why, in the 1930s, the studio earmarked for the production of films for children enjoyed generous funding. Donskoi signalled the propagandistic importance of Gor'kii's trilogy by producing his adaptations in the Souiuzdetfilm studios, whose pedagogical remit readily accommodated tasks such as that of making accessible the achievements of a canonic Soviet writer to a new generation, and of paying tribute to an icon of Stalinist culture...
The acute self-awareness of the adult hero in My Apprenticeship represents a considerable challenge to the Stalinist film-maker... The director cannot ignore the book's central episode: the aborted suicide attempt ensuing from Peshkov's sense of desolation about his inability to engage with his fellow men. Yet the theme of suicide hardly befits a socialist realist legend. Unsurprisingly, Donskoi resorts to the use of intertitles, condensing Gor'kii's drawn-out account of Peshkov's despair at being unable to defend the students into the terse understatement: 'He was seized by a feeling of personal inadequacy', followed by words suggesting that the prime reason for the hero's suicide attempt was political. For this is the voice not of the mature Gor'kii, but of Stalinist ideology in which despair has no place.
- Stephen C. Hutchings, Russian Literary Culture in the Camera Age: The Word as Image. Published by Routledge, 2004. Pages 102, 108
ABOUT MARK DONSKOI
Mark Donskoi may not be as familiar to Western audiences as Eisenstein, Pudovkin, or Dovzhenko; his films are in no way as readily recalled as Battleship Potemkin, Mother, or Earth. Like other Soviet filmmakers, he propagandizes about the glories of the Bolshevik Revolution and highlights the life of Lenin. But Donskoi's great and unique contribution to Russian cinema is his adaption to the screen of Maxim Gorki's autobiographical trilogy: The Childhood of Gorki, My Apprenticeship, and My Universities, all based on the early life of the famed writer and shot during the late 1930s. (Years later, Donskoi adapted two other Gorki works, Mother—the same story filmed by Pudovkin in 1926—and Foma Gordeyev.)
In the trilogy, Donskoi chronicles the life of Gorki from childhood on, focusing on the experiences which alter his view of the world. At their best, these films are original and pleasing: the first presents a comprehensive and richly detailed view of rural life in Russia during the 1870s. While delineating the dreams of nineteenth-century Russian youth, Donskoi lovingly recreates the era. The characters are presented in terms of their conventional ambitions and relationships within the family structure. They are not revolutionaries, but rather farmers and other provincials with plump bodies and commonplace faces. The result is a very special sense of familiarity, of fidelity to a time and place. Of course, villains in Gorki's childhood are not innately evil, but products of a repressive czarist society. They are thus compassionately viewed. Donskoi pictures the Russian countryside with imagination, and sometimes even with grandeur.
—Rob Edelman, Film Reference.com
ABOUT MAXIM GORKY
Russian short story writer, novelist, autobiographer and essayist, whose life was deeply interwoven with the tumultuous revolutionary period of his own country. Gorky ended his long career as the preeminent spokesman for culture under the Soviet regime of Joseph Stalin. Gorky formulated the central principles of Socialist Realism, which became doctrine in Soviet literature. The rough, socially conscious naturalism of Gorky was described by Chekhov as "a destroyer bound to destroy everything that deserved destruction."
"The long files of dock labourers carrying on their backs hundreds of tons of grain to fill the iron bellies of the ships in order that they themselves might earn a few pounds of this grain to fill their own stomachs, looked so droll that they brought tears to one's eyes. The contrast between these tattered, perspiring men, benumbed with weariness, turmoil and heat, and the mighty machines glistening in the sun, the machines which these men had made, and which, after all is said and done, were set in motion not by steam, but by the blood and sinew of those who had created them - this contrast constituted an entire poem of cruel irony." (from 'Chelkash', 1895, trans. by J. Fineberg) Aleksei Peshkov (Maksim Gorky, also written Maksim Gor'kii) was born in Nizhnii Novgorod, the son of a journeyman upholster. Later the ancient city was named 'Gorky' in his honour, and in Moscow one of the leading thoroughfares was named Gorky Street. Gorky lost his parents at an early age - his father died of cholera and his mother died of tuberculosis. The scene of his mother, wailing and mourning over her dead husband, opens his book of memoir, My Childhood: "All her clothes were torn. Her hair, which was usually neatly combined into place like a large gray hat, was scattered over her bare shoulders, and hung over her face, and some of it, in the form of a large plait, dangled about, touching Father's sleeping face. For all the time I'd been standing in that room, not once did she so much as look at me, but just went on combing Father's hair, choking with tears and howling continually."
Orphaned at the age of 11, he experienced the deprivations of a poverty. The most important person in Gorky's life in those years was his grandmother, whose fondness for literature and compassion for the downtrodden influenced him deeply. Otherwise his relationships to his family members were strained, even violent. Gorky stabbed his stepfather, who regularly beat him. Gorky received little education but he was endowed with an astonishing memory. He left home at the age of 12, and followed from one profession to another. On a Volga steamer, he learned to read. In 1883 he was a worker in a biscuit factory, then a porter, baker's boy, fruit seller, railway employee, clerk to an advocate, and in 1891 an operative in a salt mill. Later Gorky used later material from his wandering years in his books. In 1884 he failed to enter Kazan University, and in the late 1880s he was arrested for revolutionary activities. At the age of 19 he attempted suicide but survived when the bullet missed his heart.
After travels through Ukraine, the Caucasus, and the Crimea Tiflis (late Tbilisi), Gorky published his first literary work, 'Makar Chudra' (1892), a short story. 'Chelkash', the story of a harbour thief, gained an immediate success. He started to write for newspapers, and his first book, the 3-volume Sketches and Stories (1898-1899), established his reputation as a writer. Gorky wrote with sympathy and optimism about the gypsies, hobos, and down-and-outs. He also started to analyze more deeply the plight of these people in a broad, social context. In these early stories Gorky skillfully mixed romantic exoticism and realism. Occasionally he glorified the rebels among his outcasts of Russian society. In his early writing career Gorky became friends with Anton Chekhov, Leo Tolstoy, and Vladimir Lenin. Encouraged by Chekhov, he composed his most famous play, The Lower Depths (1902), which took much of the material from his short stories. It was performed at the Moscow Art Theater under the direction of Konstantin Stanislavsky. The Lower Depths enjoyed a huge success, and was soon played in Western Europe and the United States.
Gorky was literary editor of Zhizn from 1899 and editor of Znanie publishing house in St. Petersburg from 1900. Foma Gordeyev (1899), his first novel, dealt with the new merchat class in Russia. The short story Dvadsat' shest' i odna (1899, Twenty-Six Men and a Girl) was about lost ideals. "There were twenty-six of us - twenty-six living machines locked in a damp basement where, from dawn to dusk, we kneaded dough for making into biscuits and pretzels. The window of our basement looked out onto a ditch dug in front of them and lined with brick that was green from damp; the windows were covered outside in fine wire netting and sunlight could not reach us through the flour-covered panes. Our boss had put the wire netting there so we could not give hand-outs of his bread to beggars or those comrades of ours who were without work and starving." (from 'Twenty-Six Men and a Girl', 1899) The joy in the lives of the bakers is the 16-year old Tania, who works in the same building. A handsome ex-soldier, one of the master bakers, boasts of his success with women. He is challenged to seduce Tania. When Tania succumbs, she is mocked by the men, who have lost the only bright spot in the darkness. Tania curses them and walks away, and is never again seen in the basement.
Gorky became involved in a secret printing press and was temporarily exiled to Arzamas, central Russia in 1902. In the same year he was elected to the Russian Academy, but election was declared invalid by the government and several members of the Academy resigned in protest. Because of his political activism, Gorky was constantly in trouble with the tsarists authorities. He joined the Social Democratic party's left wing, headed by Lenin. To raise money to Russian revolutionaries, Gorky went to the United States in 1906. However, he was compelled to leave his hotel, not because of his political opinions, but because he traveled with Mlle. Andreieva, with whom he was not legally married. At that time, he had not obtained divorce from his first wife, Ekaterina Pavlovna, with whom he had two children. The American author Mark Twain expressed his support to Gorky at a dinner party, saying, "My sympathies are with the Russian revolution, of course."
In 1906 Gorky settled in Capri. Lenin visited his villa in 1908, he fished there and played chess, becoming childishly angry when he lost a game. Gorky was disgusted by Lenin's smug Marxism and after reading only a few pages from his book Materialism and Empirio-Criticism he threw it on the wall. In the controversial novel The Confession (1908), which rapidly fell after the Revolution into relative obscurity, Gorky coined the term "God-building", by which he combined religion with Marxism.
During his ill-fated mission to America to raise funds for the Bolshevik cause, Gorky wrote in the Adirondack Mountains greater part of his classic novel, The Mother, which appeared in 1906-1907. Its heroine, Pelageia Nilovna, adopts the cause of socialism in a religious spirit after her son's arrest as a political activist. Pelageia's husband is a drunkard and her only consolation is her religious faith. Pelageia's husband dies, and her son Pavel changes from a thug to socialist role model and starts to bring his revolutionary friends to the house. Pavel is arrested on May day for carrying a forbidden banner. While continuing to believe in Christ's words, she joins revolutionaries, and is betrayed by a police spy. Gorky based her character on a real person, Anna Zalomova, who had travelled the country distributing revolutionary pamphlets after her son had been arrested during a demonstration. The novel, considered the pioneer of socialist realism, was later dramatized by Bertolt Brecht.
In 1913 Gorky returned to Russia, and helped to found the first Workers' and Peasants' University, the Petrograd Theater, and the World Literature Publishing House. The first part of his acclaimed autobiographical trilogy, My Childhood, appeared in 1913-14. It was followed by In the World (1916), and My Universities (1922), which was written in a different style. In these works the author looked through the observant eyes of Alyosha Peshkov his development and life in a Volga River town. When the war broke out, Gorky ridiculed the enthusiastic atmosphere and broke off all relations with his adopted son, Zinovy Peshkov, who joined the army.
First the author also rejected Lenin's hard-line policy, defending the Petrograd intelligentsia. "Lenin's power arrests and imprisons everyone who does not share his ideas, as the Romanovs' power used to do," he wrote in November of 1917. After Russian revolution Gorky enjoyed protected status, although in 1918 his protests against Bolsheviks dictatorial methods were silenced by Lenin's order. Gorky's memoir of Lev Tolstoy (1919) painted nearly a merciless portrait of the great writer.
When Anna Akhmatova's former husband Nikolai Gumilyov was arrested in 1921, Gorky rushed to Moscow to ask Lenin for a pardon for his old friend. However, Gumilyov had been shot without trial.
Dissatisfaction with the communist regime and its treatment of intellectuals lead to his voluntary exile during the 1920s. "To an old man any place that's warm is homeland," Gorky once wrote. He spent three years at various German and Czech spas, and was editor of Dialogue in Berlin (1923-25). On Capri in the 1920s Gorky wrote his best novel, The Artamov Business (1925), dealing with three generations of a pre-revolutionary merchant family. Gorky's essay 'V.I.Lenin' was written immediately after Lenin's death. The author expressed his great admiration for the Revolution leader and gave a lively account of their discussions in Paris and Capri. "You're an enigma," he once said to me with a chuckle. "You seem to be a good realist in literature, but a romantic where people are concerned. You think everybody is a victim of history, don't you? We know history and we say to the sacrificial victims; 'overthrow the altars, shatter the temples, and drive the gods out!' Yet you would like to convince me that a militant party of the working class is obliged to make the intellectuals comfortable, first and foremost."
In 1924-25 Gorky lived in Sorrento, but persuaded by Stalin, he returned in 1931 to Russia. He founded a number of journals and became head of the Writers' Union - his photograph in the congress hall was nearly as large as Stalin's. Gorky's speech at The First Congress of Soviet Writers in 1935 established the doctrine of socialist realism.
Although Gorky criticized the bureaucracy of the Writers' Union, but nothing changed. All the proposals of the congress were very soon buried when the Great Terror started. Writers were shot and Stalin showed personal interest in the activities of writers. Gorky's actions and statements before and after his return to Russia are controversial. When the poet Anna Akhmatova and many writers asked Gorky to help Nikolai Gumilev, a celebrated poet and Akhmatova's first husband, Gorky apparently did nothing to save him from execution.
Gorky died suddenly of pneumonia in his country home, dacha, near Moscow on June 18, 1936. In some source the cause of death was said to be heart desease. The author was buried in the Red Square and Stalin started earnest his Show Trials. Rumors have lived ever since that he may have been assassinated on Joseph Stalin orders. Genrikh Yagoda, Stalin's secret police chief during the great purges of 1936-38, made a "confession" at his own trial in 1938, that he had ordered Gorky's death. According to another rumor, Gorky had been administered 'heart stimulants in large quantities', and the ultimate culprits were 'Rightists and Trotskyites'. The murder of Gorky's son in 1934 was seen as an attempt to break the father. However, when the KGB literary archives were opened in the 1990s, not much evidence was found to support the wildest theories. Stalin visited the writer twice during his last illness. The most probable conclusion is that Gorky's death was natural.
As an essayist Gorky dealt with wide range of subjects. His underlying theme is a passionate humanistic message and political commitment to bolshevism. In Notes on the Bourgeois Mentality he accuses the bourgeoisie of self-absorption and concern only with its own comfort. On the Russian Peasantry sees peasants as resistant to the new social order. City of the Yellow Devil, written in New York, condemns American capitalism. On the other hand, Gorky early opposed Bolsheviks, criticizing their use of violence against their fellow men. Among Gorky's important essays are biographical sketches of such writers as Tolstoy, Leonid Andreev and Anton Chechov.
Frank Capra abandoned the vibrant American melee upon which he built his reputation to issue this queasy utopian treatise dressed as an exotic adventure fantasy. Shangri-la makes for both a visually and dramatically banal paradise. Proto-Bob Ross matte landscapes and manufactured nature sets alternate with knockoff Frank Lloyd Wright architecture cluttered with curios. It could be fun in a camp/surreal way if Capra wasn't so insistent that this Neverland was what Depression-era American needed, where fun times involve listening to Sam Jaffee's wrinkled Lama make longwinded pseudo-Buddhist platitudes bemoaning man's fate (I'll take spitfire banter with Claudette Colbert or Jean Arthur anyday). Jane Wyatt is easy on the eyes and Ronald Colman, that paradigm of 30s benevolent colonialism, somehow bestows dignity on his environs through his benevolent colonialist gaze. Thomas Mitchell and Edward Everett Horton bring some down-to-earth Capra back to the proceedings by virtue of their charming petty-mindedness, casting the warm glow of genuine human behavior amidst the lofty artifice.
The restored version of Lost Horizon can be viewed online on Google Reader (see after the break)
WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?
The following citations were counted towards the placement of Lost Horizon among the 1000 Greatest Films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?
Leslie Halliwell, Halliwell's Film Guide (1985) Nelson Pereira Dos Santos, Balaio (1996) Alain Resnais, Most Misappreciated American Films (1977) Daniel & Susan Cohen, Book - 500 Great Films (1987) Danny Peary, Guide for the Film Fanatic: Must-See Films (1987) Halliwell's Top 1000 Films (2005) Jose Luis Guarner, Genre Favourites: Adventure (1993) Leslie Halliwell, A Nostalgic Choice of 100 Films from the Golden Age (1982) New York Times, The Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made (2004) New York Times, 100 Recommended Children's Movies (2002) Taschen Books, Movies of the 20s-90s (2003-2007) Various Critics, Book - 501 Must-See Movies (2004)
Tim Dirks offers one of his patented enhanced summaries on Lost Horizon, in the Greatest Films section of his website FilmSite.org
Lost Horizon.org: "NonProfit Fan Club of James Hilton's Book and Inspired Arts"
Convinced that Hilton's novel had all the makings of a great film - fantasy, adventure, spectacle - director Frank Capra convinced Harry Cohn, head of Columbia, to advance him $2,000,000 for the production. Together with scenarist Robert Riskin, Capra researched everything from Tibetan culture, to language, to architecture, to clothing. Ten property men created over 700 props used in Tibetan daily life while droves of crewmen built 65 sets, raising Shangri-La over Columbia's Burbank ranch. When attention turned to casting, however, things would not move along so well. Putting Ronald Colman in the role of the elder Conway was easy enough. But casting the High Lama role would prove much more difficult. They first considered stage actor A. E. Anson, who was declared perfect after a screen test. Sadly, he died just after receiving news he got the part. Then Henry B. Walthall was chosen, but the Grim Reaper stepped in once again, before he could even be tested. After an exhaustive search, and numerous additional screen tests, Capra remembered 38 year old Shakespearean actor Sam Jaffe, who eventually got the role.
Shooting Lost Horizon took rather longer than expected. So long in fact, that the crew shot an entire film, Theodora Goes Wild (1936), during one of the breaks in the Lost Horizon schedule, and yet another picture, When You're In Love (1937), while Lost Horizon was being edited. Most of the production time was eaten up with the special requirements for re-creating the Himalayas in Los Angeles. For example, Capra shot snow scenes and airplane interiors inside a Cold Storage Warehouse, creating real snow and ice. A great move for credibility, but not so great for the equipment, which routinely froze up, cracked, split, stiffened, or shattered due to the cold temperatures of the set. Capra's shooting style also added to the delays. His habit for shooting multiple takes and angles led him to use over a million feet of film, causing constant confrontations with Harry Cohn. Though Cohn was willing to leave Capra alone to make his film, he frequently groused about the escalating costs, and at one point pleaded with the crew not to cash their checks for a week because Capra had used up all the money. The ending of Capra's Lost Horizon is one of the only glaring deviations from the novel. In Hilton's book, we are left to imagine for ourselves Conway's success or failure. In the film, Capra "relents to hope" and we are shown Conway struggling through the snow, finding the pass that will lead him back to paradise.
After a bad first screening, Capra cut the first two reels of the film completely, which made the audience more receptive. Still, at more than three hours, Cohn knew it wouldn't work, and he took control of the editing away from Capra completely. Though Capra never admitted that Cohn re-cut the film, Variety reported that it was one of the main reasons Capra later brought suit against Columbia as part of a grievance over his pay. When all was said and done, however, Lost Horizon was named one of the 10 best films of 1937 by The New York Times and later won two Academy Awards, for Best Film Editing, and Best Art Direction. But much like Conway's struggle to return to Shangri-La, Capra found out that sometimes you have to make great sacrifices in your search for paradise.
From Harrison Forman's photographs it was simple to design Tibetan costumes. But where would we find the people to wear them? Tibetans are Orientals, but taller, rangier than Chinese or Japanese. Again we had recourse to our non-Chinese but Oriental stand-bys - Pala Indians from the San Diego mountains.
Then, too, we would have to show some yaks. What the burro was to American sourdoughs of the West, the yak is to Tibetans. To badly simulate yaks, we covered yearling steers with long-haired, hoof-length blankets. To better simulate small Tibetan horses, we "haired up" the legs and chests of Shetland ponies.
- Frank Capra, The Name Above the Title: An Autobiography. Da Capo Press, 1997. Page 192-193
Screenwriter Richard Raskin discusses the three endings of Lost Horizon
Frank Capra talks to Dick Cavett (January 21 1972) about the Santa Barbara preview of Lost Horizon which led to the first two reels being cut from the film (on YouTube):
If you saw Lost Horizon alone or in a small group - this is philosophically very important for you to hear - a small group loved the picture the way it was. We had an example of that in the projection room. One individual would be entranced by the picture. We showed it to five hundred or a thousand people; no good. The third dimension of a film is a thousand people, a thousand pairs of ears and eyes looking at it, not one pair. There is something about a thousand people that is more acute, more sensitive, more reactive that one person or two persons or three persons.
You must never judge a picture in the projection room with one or two people. The line between the ridiculous and the sublime is very wide to an individual. The more people you get the finer the line becomes between the ridiculous and the sublime.
- Capra to James R. Silke and Bruce Henstell, 1971. Published in Frank Capra: Interviews. Edited by Leland A. Pogue, University of Mississippi Press, 2004. Page 78.
I was a little disappointed in Lost Horizon myself. It was my idea entirely to do it, but I was disappointed in the way it came out, because I'd hoped for more. Although it's been said that it's one of my best pictures (and perhaps I'd have to agree with them), I thought that the main part of the film - I should have done better, somehow. I got lost in architecture, in utopia, in the never-never-land, and it was only toward the end of the picture that I got back on track with human beings and individuals, where I began to feel that the story dealt with human beings again. This is common, for one who wants to exploit a theme, and gives the theme too much of the story.
- Capra to Arthur B. Friedman, 1957. Published in Frank Capra: Interviews. Page 55.
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer has no corner on the large-scale production market as Columbia Pictures proved last night when it presented its film of James Hilton's Lost Horizon at the Globe. There, and for the balance of its two-a-day run, is a grand adventure film, magnificently staged, beautifully photographed, and capitally played. It is the second outstanding picture of the season—the first, of course, being The Good Earth—and, unless the Ides of March are particularly portentous this year, it need have no fear of being omitted from the golden brackets of anyone's "best ten" list.
Columbia is supposed to have spent $2,000,000 on the picture. That may or may not be true, $2,000,000 being a round and round-eyed sum even in Hollywood. But there is no denying the opulence of the production, the impressiveness of the sets, the richness of the costuming, the satisfying attention to large and small detail which makes Hollywood at its best such a generous entertainer. We can deride the screen in its lesser moods, but when the West Coast impresarios decide to shoot the works the resulting pyrotechnics bathe us in a warm and cheerful glow.
Speaking belatedly of the cast, there is nothing but unqualified endorsement here of Mr. Colman's Conway, of Mr. Horton's Lovett, ofThomas Mitchell's grand performance as the fugitive from the police, of Isabel Jewell's Gloria, H. B. Warner's moderately philosophic Chang, Jane Wyatt's attractive Sondra, and Margo's Maria. That leaves Sam Jaffe's portrayal of the High Lama, and that leaves me of a mixed opinion. Mr. Jaffe's makeup is grotesque and horrible and solid; the High Lama of Mr. Hilton's novel was mystic, ethereal, almost Christlike. Yet the High Lama must be weird to make credible Conway's suspicion that he might be mad. Mr. Jaffe certainly is weird enough. I really don't know. Maybe he should have used less makeup.
- Frank S. Nugent, The New York Times, March 4 1937
To those honestly concerned with the development of the motion picture as an art, Frank Capra has endeared himself above most producers of films. One after another, his pictures have appealed both to the exacting few who have demanded that the screen be bright with truth as well as vivid motion, and to the many whose demands at the box office have made the whole art of the screen possible. But in Hollywood's mushroom growth there has always been the unfortunate obstacle of a tendency to run (as in the copying of ideas, forms, effects) before one could walk, and many of the most arty attempts have tripped over this obstacle. Frank Capra never tripped because he never came anywhere near such an obstacle.
But after getting himself a name for being a sort of magician in the movies, he apparently began to take seriously a lot of things the movies (as he knew them) had never heard of. In Lost Horizon he seemed to see both a smashing adventure story and an excursion into philosophy that would stun everybody. So he and his right-hand script writer (Robert Riskin) went to work on what is all too obviously an epic.
It is mounted with elaborate heaviness, but on tissue paper. It abandons action for thought, and then spreads the thought so cosmic and wide that it cannot be any deeper than half-way tide over mud flats. The sets constructed (to life size) for the strange region of Shangri-La are alone worthy of Ahs and Ohs: the evident care in casting and acting stands our above the average run of most productions; but then there comes all this serious statement of the improbable that could be set forth effectively only in burlesque, and these random light-comedy effects that become burlesque against such a background-and in the end a person doesn't know where he is, except that he is nowhere as far as pictures are concerned. This film was made with obvious care and expense; but it will be notable in the future only as the first wrong step in a career that till now has been a denial of the very tendencies in pictures which this film represents.
- Otis Ferguson, National Board of Review Magazine, 1937. Posted on eeweems.com
EXCERPTS FROM THE BEST REVIEW OF LOST HORIZON
Lost Horizon opened in March of 1937, the year after Mussolini annexed Ethiopia, Hitler occupied the Rhineland, and the Spanish Civil War started. It was a bad time for those who believed in the egalitarianism of a pluralist society of equal rights regardless of religion or ethnic origin. Capra was among the first of the big Hollywood directors to publicly denounce fascism and its persecution of minorities. For this reason, Lost Horizon is an important film, regardless of its clunky narrative and stagey situations (some of which can be blamed on the usual studio politics which led to editing compromises), as it clearly defines the gospel of social moderation that most Americans believed in.
There are a number of curious aspects to this film that Time has brought into focus. For example, the utopia is elitist despite its best intentions. It exists as an example of passive colonialism, complete with a class structure. While the term "native" is just the de facto terminology of the era, it nonetheless reinforces the Eurocentric aspect of the fantasy. Is the story racist? No, although the weary sentimentality of "the white man's burden" is clearly evident. The Lamasery has servants, and they're all Asian. Yet while the High Lama's No. 2 man is called Chang, he neither looks nor sounds Asian (in Hilton's novel, he is Chinese). In fact, he looks and sounds like a head butler imported from the Embassy Club to complete the colonial circle.
Modernism is really built on the principle of the straight line... and when applied to thinking, can easily become fascism. Direct action appeals to an intellectual elite just as much as an escapist community such as Shangri La. Just how far is the High Lama's art community of white Europeans and their docile Asian servants removed from the penthouse of the Berlin Chancellory where Hitler and Albert Speer discussed Art and developed The Theory of Ruin Value? The Art Deco isometrics are almost identical when drained of sentiment. As the main players enact their fantasy, the rank and file become ephemeral, mere markers of geometric space.
As a drama, Lost Horizon relies on many of the conventions and cliches of the period: a man of action (Conway), a fugitive swindler (Barnard), a terminal cynic (Gloria), a buffoon (Lovett), an impulsive young man (George), a femme fatale (Sondra)... all the essential personalities for creating or continuing a castaway society. The main difference between the screenplay and the novel is that the characters are Americanized to suit the target audience. Hilton has four castaways, Capra has five... and the absconding aircraft becomes a DC-2 rather than a small "high-altitude" plane belonging to an Indian Raj. Rooted in the romantic action novel of the late nineteenth century, Hilton's story raids the supernatural elements of Rider-Haggard's She, or even H.G. Wells' The Time Machine.
- Lawrence Russell, Culture Court
With two sentimentalists as crafty as director Frank Capra and novelist James Hilton collaborating on a project, the results could hardly be anything less than effective, yet this 1937 film has a swollen self-seriousness that drains most of my sympathy for it. Shangri-La, seductive but stifling, plays much too close for comfort to American anti-intellectualism; more than any other of his 30s classics, Lost Horizon gives credence to reports that Capra kept a bust of Mussolini in his office through the decade. Still, Ronald Colman's grace and charm excuse a lot of directorial heaviness.
- Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader
Capra was at the height of his game as a director with Lost Horizon. The film took more than two years to complete, and used what was (at the time) the largest set ever constructed in Hollywood. Lost Horizon moves at a swift pace thanks to clever editing, and features inventive cinematography and a terrific score by composer Dimitri Tiomkin. Coleman is perfect as the world-worn English diplomat on a fast-track political career. Jane Wyatt is charming as his love interest and one of the caretakers of the valley. And there are a couple of other familiar faces as well - or should I say, a familiar face and a familiar voice. That's Thomas Mitchell as the swindling Henry Barnard. Mitchell was a Capra favorite, appearing also in his Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It's a Wonderful Life. And you might recognize the voice of Edward Everett Horton. He plays Lovett here, but he's better known for narrating the Fractured Fairy Tales segments of TV's The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle.
- Bill Hunt, The Digital Bits
When director Frank Capra read James Hilton's best-selling fantasy adventure novel Lost Horizon, about a Utopian valley high in the Himalayas, he took it to Columbia boss Harry Cohn, as a potential vehicle for the studio. On Cohn's approval production began and the roles started to be cast. Capra wanted sophisticated and urbane actor Ronald Colman to play the lead role. From the beginning, the director felt Colman was born to play the intelligent and deep thinking Robert Conway. Indeed, just as many felt Clark Gable was the perfect fit for Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind, Colman wore the role of Conway like a glove.
As Robert Conway, Colman gives an elegant and poetic portrayal, one of the many highlights of his career. Young actress Jane Wyatt, best known for her role as Margaret Anderson in the popular TV series Father Knows Best (sadly, fewer and fewer know her from this show as more years go by) is cast as the enlightened young woman who is the impetus for Conway's presence in Shangri-La and his love interest once he arrives there. As one of the film's (and book's) more compelling though lesser characters is Mexican actress Margo (Mrs. Eddie Albert). She plays Maria, who by all outward appearances is a young Russian woman, no more than 20 years old, who falls for the younger Conway, George. Hers is a pivotal role in the history of the Utopian community and she does well with her part.
Lost Horizon was one of the most expensive films "poverty row" Columbia Studios had produced up to that time. But along with other Frank Capra/Columbia collaborations, it would help that organization rise above its lowly status. Alot was riding on its success, including Capra's reputation. Its anti-war sentiment got some flack by certain political view points and some of its footage hit the editing room floor upon its re-release but after all was said and done and a semi-complete restoration in more recent years, Lost Horizon has stood the test of time to become a bonafide classic in Hollywood annals.
The movies have always been an escapist recreation. In 1937 when Frank Capra's Lost Horizon hit theatres, the same year the United States' economy took a nosedive in the heart of the Great Depression, the need for this escape had never been greater. Taking a cue from James Hilton's novel, Capra translates the notion of Hilton's Tibetan Shangri-la into one accessible and palatable to the Western spectator's contemporary dream, that of a return to the pre-Depression prosperity of the Twenties. Symbolic and discreet mise-en-scène allow for an easy transition from screen to mind as Capra delivers, not the Shangri-La of Tibet, but that of an idyllic Western society.
With its modern, streamlined buildings filled to the brim with material possessions of diverse Western cultural importance, Capra's Shangri-La takes the best of Western civilization and attempts to shield it from corruption by its own creators. An impressive cache of worldly goods stands in opposition to the fact that the inhabitants of the city's access to the outside world lies with unscrupulous traders who visit only rarely.
Frank Capra's delight of a film Lost Horizon, in conclusion, is clearly not a viable representation of Tibet. However, as the film is not a documentary but a fictionalized adaptation, the intent was to inspire and uplift the downtrodden American masses, not to provide accurate details of life in a faraway land. Only by using Tibet, a land shrouded in mystery and virtually unknown to the average man, as a backdrop for the film, is Capra able to give rise to the notion that a Shangri-La may indeed still be waiting somewhere to be found.
- Zelda Zador, Associated Content
The movie changes many things about the book, and some of the most significant changes take place in the role and relationship of the various characters. The book had a decent female character, the even-keeled Miss Brinklow; her substitute character here is a hysterical woman, who shrieks and acts "irrationally." Her only function in the movie is to be healed by the stay at Shangri-La. The native woman Lo-Tsen gets split into two characters -- one becomes a white woman, who flirts with Conway (the ostensible main character) but stays at Shangri-La and waits for his return. The other woman tricks the two men into leaving with her, and she ages into a horrible old hag as her reward. The annoying Mallinson becomes Conway's brother, but remains as annoying. And in a significant change for the ending, Conway makes it back to Shangri-La, where his pet woman is patiently waiting for him. The movie adds some humour between the two characters created for comic relief; one of these is still named Barnard and the other is now a paleontologist. I got a few laughs from an unintentionally hilarious scene with some Sherpas who seemed not to understand the relationship between avalanches and loud noises, which would seem to be a survival trait for mountain inhabitants. Capra's Lost Horizon also changes the structure of the frame story. The movie begins with a bang, a revolution in which our man Conway acts heroically. Later, the British authorities get updates on Conway occasionally, and then a group of men discussing his life show up to give us a new bit of his story: Conway apparently steals, lies, and acts immorally in order to get back to his utopia and his girl. The Himalayan natives call Conway "the man who is not human" but this part is totally skipped over.
Some parts of the movie work well, such as Capra's emphasis on the apocalyptic vision of the High Lama, the leader of Shangri-La. The High Lama's lesson about the dangers of militarism is not one that the world took, but it's there on celluloid, pre-Atomic Era. I also liked the idea that our Western societies are too hasty, too busy -- the High Lama calls it indirect suicide. Another lesson that could be well taken by any of us, myself included. Unfortunately, most of this sharp insight is drowned in sexism and stereotyping, as well as the contrast between the lords of lamasery, who know they are "civilized" and living in utopia, and the people living in the valley. This difference between the lamasery and the valley is much more marked in the movie than in the book, and this further undercuts whatever positive message the viewer may have gained. On the whole, Capra's Lost Horizon is more of an artifact of a certain era of film than a work of art that has worth of its own; recommended for fans of Hilton's book or Capra's career but not a wider audience.
- James Schellenberg, Challenging Destiny
I am currently reading Joseph McBride's biography of Frank Capra, "The Catastrophe of Success". I'm not sure how I will be reacting when I see, or more precisely re-see, Capra's films. It is sad to read the portrait of the aging artist as a racist and anti-Semite. The split between an artist's works and the personal life of an artist has always been problematic. For myself, my favorite Capra films will probably remain from the early Thirties when the there was less of a schism between art and life for Capra. Specifically, my favorite titles are It Happened One Night and Bitter Tea of General Yen.
What prompted my writing about Capra now was reading about Lost Horizon. I don't know how the conservative Republican Capra would have reacted to the government fingerpointing, or if he would have, privately more likely than publicly, joined the ranks of several Republicans in their criticism of FEMA chief Michael Brown, if not George W. Bush. Screenwriter Robert Riskin, who identified as a New Deal Democrat would clearly have been critical of what occurred in New Orleans, most likely laying the blame on an administration that failed to protect its citizens. The idealist in me is longing for a real life Jefferson Smith to put things right.
What I want to share is this amazing quote from Lost Horizon. Although it refers to a fictional riot in a non-existent country, and is a criticism of British imperialism, I found this passage from the screenplay to be very appropriate at this time:
"Did you make that report out yet? Did you say we saved the lives of ninety white people? Good. Hooray for us! Did you say that we left ten thousand natives down there to be annihilated? No. No, you wouldn't say that. They don't count."
ABOUT THE COLUMBIA TRI-STAR DVD
As a DVD, Lost Horizon is outstanding. The commentary track with film critic Charles Champlin and film preservationist Robert Gitt is easily as entertaining as the film itself, as the two discuss the fine details and anecdotes of the restoration. Gitt also narrates a short documentary on the restoration process, which includes several deleted scenes that were recovered by the American Film Institute but not incorporated in the 138-minute cut, along with an alternate ending. An insightful behind-the-scenes photo-essay is narrated by film historian Kendall Miller, and even the original teaser trailer for Lost Horizon is included. If you're an admirer of this neglected classic, this DVD will probably be one of your favorites. And if (like me) you're not as fond of it and are more interested in film preservation, you will still find the supplements on Lost Horizon to be an illuminating experience.
— J. Jordan Burke, DVD Journal
One of the most difficult tasks in screening Lost Horizon is to come up with the technical rating for the picture. I have a very deep conflict in grading the picture quality as a "D", and a very lenient grade at that. This conflict arises from the fact that the film was almost lost due to deterioration and it took many years of exhuastive efforts to restore this classic that we can now experience. Robert Gitt, the UCLA film restoration expert, spent 25 years in researching, recovering, and restoring the film to its original running time. It would seem to be rather trivial, if not disrespectful, for me to slap a "D" rating on the restored picture. What is the next best alternative when the glory of the original print is forever lost? The next best thing is the newly restored and digitally remastered picture on DVD. In short, this is one circumstance where my low technical rating should not dissuade you one bit from watching the film.
The film is presented in its original full-screen ratio and running time. Before the film begins, there is a brief insert explaining the restoration process. Apparently, the film premiered with a running time of 132 minute. However, as the film went through subsequent re-releases and showings, it was trimmed and cut to various lengths. For instance, during the re-release in World War II, 24 minutes were cut with different opening sequences and scenes to tone down from the pacifist message. By 1967, the original nitrate camera negative had deteriorated and the trimmed footages were destroyed. For the restoration, the best available 35mm and 16mm prints were combined to the original running time, all but seven minutes of the picture. To replace the missing scenes, photograph stills are used with the original soundtrack.
Despite the best available prints, the quality ranges from very acceptable to poor. For the most part, the picture is a patchwork of fuzzy images, poor shadow details, terrible exposures, and noticeable grains. However, the restoration is a huge improvement over the theatrical prints. This example is clearly illustrated in the bonus material "Restoration: Before and After Comparison," where a split screen shows how the tears and instability of the original prints have been digitally restored. It really was an eye opener.
- Van T. Tran, DVD Magazine
ABOUT RONALD COLMAN
There are several Ronald Colman tribute sites - by far the most impressive is the Ronald Colman Pages, which has extensive synopses of each Ronald Colman film (including multimedia clips), a lengthy biography, photo galleries and more.
Another fascinating site is the Ronald Colman Saga, in which the proprietor impersonates Colman in first person anecdotes from the actor's glory days.
Other tribute sites:
Suave, debonair, a gentleman hero with dashing good looks, Ronald Colman is the quintessential Hollywood-Englishman. One of the few stars of the silent era to maintain and even increase their popularity after the transition to sound, Colman was a leading man for more than 20 years, for in addition to his handsome grace, Colman possessed a beautifully cultured and modulated voice. Colman is known for roles where he is above all polite and well-mannered, but the source of his success may lie beyond his ability to portray characters who are refined but sentimental, mysterious but thoughtful. As Sheridan Morley points out, Colman's sense of humor made him stand out from other good-looking Englishmen. Moreover, Colman was a consummate craftsman; director George Cukor explains that Colman knew more about acting for the camera than any actor he had worked with.
- Charles Affron, Film Reference.com
ABOUT ROBERT RISKIN
A writer of sophisticated stage plays in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Robert Riskin had over 20 screen credits in a career which lasted two-and-a-half decades. More than half of his work was with Frank Capra—a creative union which culminated in some of Riskin's best screenplays. Among these works are American Madnes, Lady for a Day ,It Happened One Night , Mr. Deeds Goes to Town , Lost Horizon , and Meet John Doe . Of these only Lost Horizon is an adaptation—and it is a solid translation of the novel that became a successful film that won popular and critical acclaim.
The collaboration of Capra and Riskin evidently became a vital force in creating a body of some of the best Capra films. While it is difficult to judge how much Riskin added to a Capra film, a close reading of the director's work indicates that his favorite writer probably influenced some of the satirical and sophisticated tone of the films—not necessarily changing Capra's overall vision, but polishing many of the aspects of his creation.
Some of the Riskin touch is evident in even his most atypical work, the adaptation of Lost Horizon. Two characters, played by Edward Everett Horton and Thomas Mitchell, were given comic characteristics that did not exist in the novel. In the 1940s Riskin became a producer-writer on his own and created the fifth in the series of "thin man" pictures, The Thin Man Goes Home , plus a film called Magic Town, a work that had many of the characteristics of a Capra picture. But the magic in Riskin's dialogue began to fade and he would never equal his best work of the past, when he had a marvelous symbiotic relationship with Frank Capra.
- Donald W. McCaffrey, Film Reference.com
ABOUT FRANK CAPRA
FRANK CAPRA WEBSITES
The following quotations are found on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? profile page for Frank Capra:
"Like Chaplin, Frank Capra began his film career as a simple, effective comic talent and progressed to 'message movies'. And, as with Chaplin, the populism of his later films demonstrated both a decline in humour and disturbing political ambiguities." - Geoff Andrew(The Film Handbook, 1989)
"Many of Capra's most famous films can be read as excessively sentimental and politically naive. These readings, however, tend to neglect the bases for Capra's success - his skill as a director of actors, the complexity of his staging configurations, his narrative economy and energy, and most of all, his understanding of the importance of the spoken word in sound film." - (Charles Affron(International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, 1991)
"Nowadays, the mere mention of Capra's name is enough to make literate and learned film-writers dip their pens in bile. But when, between director and actor, you actually pump the breath of life into impossibly idealized Everymen, as Gary Cooper, James Stewart, or Barbara Stanwyck did, a powerful emotional current is given out from the screen. The fact that they have nothing to do with the real world has absolutely no bearing on that." - David Quinlan (Quinlan's Illustrated Guide to Film Directors, 1999)
"Capra is a master of the socially significant film. His work is full of optimism, humor, love, patriotism, and respect for traditional values." - William R. Meyer (The Film Buff's Catalog, 1978)
"I think of the medium as a people-to-people medium, not cameraman-to-people, not direction-to-people, not writers-to-people, but people-to-people...You can only involve an audience with people. You can't involve them with gimmicks, with sunsets, with hand-held cameras, zoom shots, or anything else. They couldn't care less about those things. But you give them something to worry about, some person they can worry about, and care about, and you've got them, you've got them involved." - Frank Capra (Directing the Film, 1976)
Selected quotes from Frank Capra:
A hunch is creativity trying to tell you something.
I made mistakes in drama. I thought drama was when actors cried. But drama is when the audience cries.
If you want to send a message, try Western Union.
During the dark decade of the 1930s, Frank Capra became America's preeminent filmmaker, leavening Depression-era despair with the laughter of his irrepressible optimism. Packaging hope for the hopeless, his "fantasies of goodwill" were as important to national morale as FDR's "fireside chats" and well-deserving of the three Best Director Oscars they brought him. Twenty years later when the CAHIERS DU CINEMA critics launched an auteurist reassessment of American films, his reputation suffered, despite the unarguable fact that his "name above the title" signified his absolute artistic control of the project, a rarity in the studio-dominated Hollywood culture of his heyday. Subsequent voices followed suit, taking great delight in decrying his work as dangerously simplistic in its populism, its patriotism and its celebration of all-American values, but the content of his films should not be judged too harshly out of the context of their time, the pulse of which Capra accurately measured. Fortunately, most contemporary critics look past the ideology to his undeniable strengths as a filmmaker.
The critical stock of Frank Capra has fluctuated perhaps more wildly than that of any other major director. During his peak years, the 1930s, he was adored by the press, by the industry and, of course, by audiences. In 1934 It Happened One Night won nearly all the Oscars, and through the rest of the decade a film of Frank Capra was either the winner or the strong contender for that honor. Long before the formulation of the auteur theory, the Capra signature on a film was recognized. But after World War II his career went into serious decline. His first post-war film,It's a Wonderful Life , was not received with the enthusiasm he thought it deserved (although it has gone on to become one of his most-revered films). Of his last five films, two are remakes of material he treated in the thirties. Many contemporary critics are repelled by what they deem indigestible "Capracorn" and have even less tolerance for an ideology characterized as dangerously simplistic in its populism, its patriotism, its celebration of all-American values.
Indeed, many of Capra's most famous films can be read as excessively sentimental and politically naive. These readings, however, tend to neglect the bases for Capra's success—his skill as a director of actors, the complexity of his staging configurations, his narrative economy and energy, and most of all, his understanding of the importance of the spoken word in sound film. Capra captured the American voice in cinematic space. The words often serve the cause of apple pie, mom, the little man and other greeting card clichés (indeed, the hero of Mr. Deeds Goes to Townwrites verse for greeting cards). But often in the sound of the voice we hear uncertainties about those very clichés.
The sounds and sights of Capra's films bear the authority of a director whose autobiography is called The Name above the Title. With that authority comes an unsettling belief in authorial power, the power dramatized in his major films, the persuasiveness exercised in political and social contexts. That persuasion reflects back on the director's own power to engage the viewer in his fiction, to call upon a degree of belief in the fiction—even when we reject the meaning of the fable.
- Charles Affron, Film Reference.com
Frank Capra's career best illustrated the rising power of the producer-director that pushed the limitations of the studio system in the 1930s. Capra rose to prominence as a contract director at Columbia Pictures with his successful mixture of populist drama and sentimental comedy that defined depression-era attitudes and elevated Harry Cohn's studio from Poverty Row status to one of the Big Eight majors. Capra was suitably rewarded with his own production unit and an unusually high level of creative freedom. Producing about one picture a year, the Capra unit made quality, event pictures, not unlike the prestige films of Capra's independent producing counterparts. After the success of It Happened One Night (1934), his new five-picture contract with Columbia gave him 25 percent of the net profits, and even contained an anti-block booking provision that required all Capra films to be sold individually, beginning with Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1935).
Capra had adopted a "one man, one film" mantra which later generations would dub the auteur theory, which claimed that a film, like any other important work of art, should be largely the product of a single creative vision and not the offspring of a studio committee. He believed producer-director setups to be the answer to the generic, manufactured Hollywood film. He blamed the complacency of the well-paid contract directors for selling out their artistic responsibility to the studios. Ultimately, Capra concluded, the ideal position for ambitious, creative filmmakers was in independent production.
- J.A. Aberdeen, Hollywood Renegades
The rise of Frank Capra from sickly, abused, impoverished Sicilian immigrant to what one of his sons calls "a shaper of how we view America" is the subject of Kenneth Bowser’s Frank Capra’s American Dream. This biography, produced by Tom and Frank Capra, Jr., attempts to replace the simplistic image of Capra as a sort of undiscriminating, sentimental populist with a more complex reality.
What emerges from these interviews and film clips is an illuminating, if mostly uncritical, portrait of a tragically conflicted personality whose work, more than that of many directors, is barely veiled autobiography. The Capra seen here joins his fictional counterparts — Mr. Deeds, Mr. Smith, and John Doe — as an Everyman whose sudden wealth and fame, those driving myths of the "American Dream" that was Capra’s eternal subject, nearly destroy him.
- Gary Morris, reviewing Frank Capra's American Dream by Kenneth Bowser, Bright Lights Film Journal, December 1998
On January 9, 1999, during the annual American Historical Association (AHA) meeting in Washington DC, The Popular Culture Association, Film & History, and the AHA co-sponsored a conference session on the films and legacy of Frank Capra. The session was titled "Frank Capra's Populism: Timebound or Timeless?" Capra's films have made an indelible impact on 20th-century America, serving as both commentaries on and artifacts of American culture. Few historians are more able and competent to analyze them than Robert Brent Toplin, Lawrence Levine, and Dan T. Carter.:
Robert Brent Toplin: We remember Frank Capra for his fundamental optimism reflected in his movies. He expressed a faith in democracy, a confidence that good people could reform their society and their government, and make things work. He expressed a faith in the common man, the common woman—expressed in the movies often with the term "the little guy." These little guys and gals often came from small-town America, and they went up against the metropolis, usually represented by New York City. He seemed to suggest that these little people could succeed, to a degree, that they could make a difference; that they were not helpless as pessimists tend to conclude.
I asked the young men and women in my university classroom, the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, to discuss the relevance of Capra's perspectives for the nineties and I actually taught a class there with Frank Capra Jr. who runs the movie studio in the town. So we are asking about the relevance of Capra's perspective to the late nineties.. One student wrote the following – "Is this thought still relevant today? I argue, no. As a member of my generation, we know that the American Dream is dead. Another wrote, "I think that this populist vision is irrelevant today because people have lost faith in themselves, lost faith in the idea that they can make a change. People see themselves as helpless against the major issues that plague our country." So it should be evident that there's plenty of room for discussion about the relevance of Capra's vision, for the thirties and forties and for today.
Lawrence Levine: Capra, whose populism was always more cultural than political, was always one of those forces—and I use this term advisedly—forces that help to fix this image of the idyllic small town indelibly in our collective fields of vision. And he did it, interestingly, he did it while hardly ever actually depicting this cultural epicenter in his films. This immigrant from Italy attempted to explain America by portraying another series of immigrants, not from abroad, but from America’s small towns and villages, trooping into the great cities and immediately undergoing a cultural trial by fire. Thus, in Capra’s films we learn about the virtues of small-town life—and I think this is significant—we learn about the virtues of small-town America secondhand, not by actually seeing them and experiencing them, but much as Capra himself did in his own life, we learn about them by hearing about them. A salient paradox of Capra’s career was that he became one of the nation's most effective champions for small-town American way of life he himself never directly experienced.
Capra has frequently been accused of anti-intellectualism—a term that we often employ loosely and extend to cover struggles over intellectual legitimacy which is not quite the same thing as anti-intellectualism. There have been struggles throughout our history over intellectual legitimacy. Capra clearly felt that he was engaged in just such a struggle, "I’ve never had a very good standing
Crowd scene in Mr. Deeds Goes To Town. 28.8K | 56K
among American intellectuals with my films. Certainly sentiment is an almost verboten emotion with the intellectuals. . . . It’s perhaps too common, too ordinary . . . . Perhaps it’s too simple." The cultural significance of Frank Capra is that throughout the crisis of the 1930s he reiterated the virtues of traditional American values, not in the defensive tones of many of the old stock Americans but with an aggressiveness borne of his own newness and his own marginality, and initially born of his deep optimism. "I fell in love with Americans, just fell in love with them. These goddamned Americans I thought, they were so free on their own, individuals, not taking their hats off to anyone. If somebody got sick they’d do something about it, I thought Americans were the gods of the world." [Walter Karp, "The Patriotism of Frank Capra," Esquire 95 (February, 1981), 34.]
Capra had grave doubts about, and criticisms of, large-scale corporate enterprise. In most of his Depression films, he found ways to reproach powerful capitalists for their values and their actions. Nevertheless, Capra’s films seem to imply that the problems Americans faced were due less to imperfections in the system than to human fallibility: to madness, irrationality, selfishness, greed. The crisis of the Great Depression challenged the soundness of the system and Capra responded, not as the Populists of the late 19th century had, by demanding changes in the political and economic system, but rather by reasserting his faith in the traditional verities and demanding changes in the individual. In his defense of traditional values and lifestyles, in his fear of the dangers of large institutions, in his preoccupation with old-fashioned individualism, in his search for community, in his concentration on the themes of regeneration and redemption, and indeed in many of his contradictions and confusions, Frank Capra was representative of many aspects of his time and his culture and, for better or worse, of ours as well.
Dan T. Carter: In a way, Capra film critics from the opposite side, far opposite side of the ideological picket fence, beginning with the leftists of the thirties through hardball skeptics like Richard Griffith and Andrew Sarris—they see Capra
Anti-materialism in It's A Wonderful Life 28.8K | 56K
through much the same lens as modern cultural conservatives. For that very reason, they criticize Capra’s films for what they saw as their sentimentality, their optimism, and their worship of middle-class bourgeois values. Above all, they recoil from, again this is what they saw in Capra’s film, his naive faith that the brave and courageous individual would lead ordinary people to respond to crises with affection, kindliness and trust. As James Agee put it in a review in 1947, "Capra’s chief mistake or sin," and he called it that, "was his refusal to face the fact that evil is intrinsic in each individual and that no man may deliver his brother or make an agreement unto God for him."
Still, we live in a world separated by a great divide from that of Frank Capra and his contemporaries. In part, it is that great divide between the optimism and hopefulness of the 1930s and 1940s and even into the fifties and sixties and the cynicism of today's students, as Bob Toplin hasdescribed. But even the questions asked by a newer generation of scholars of film, and I'm certainly no expert on them, seem to be changing. One has only to read the critics, pro and con, of the 1930s, '40s, '50s and '60s, and compare them with more recent works like Raymond Carney's, American Visions: The Films of Frank Capra[Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1996], to see the contours of these different worlds. Critics who were unhappy with Capra’s films, critics like James Agee, took them seriously as sociological documents, as representations of a world of power or as evasions of a world of power, politics, and economics. It’s not just that we live in a different time in which the issues of feminism and questions of race make these films somewhat outdated. It seems to me that under the corrosive gaze of post-modernism, these very realities have dissolved into discourses. Films which were once considered representations of reality have become representations of representations—gestures, visions which reflect the imagination of the observer, the one who is seeing the film. And so for Carney, and I suspect for the rising generation of film historians, Freud, Derrida, and Foucault are far more interesting guides to this filmic terrain than Thorstein Veblen. The personal has not become the political, it has often replaced it.
- The Journal of Multimedia History, 1999.
Douglas Sirk's penultimate feature, and one of his most personal, brings his entire Hollywood career into stark relief. This adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque's novel of love in WWII Germany envisions a bombed-out wasteland that couldn't be further removed from the Technicolor gloss of affluent America seen in his most famous films. There are no vibrant pastels or lush interiors decorated with fine upholstery or shiny bric a brac; here, whether inside or outside, it's a seemingly monotonous ash gray or dirt brown. Whenever color arrives (usually a tree blossom or sprig of a leaf), it's a miracle.
This seems to invert the formula established in other Sirk films, where the abundance of attractive surfaces amounts to overcompensation for dissatisfied lives lurking underneath. Here, it's luxury that makes life worth living: the young lovers Ernst (John Gavin) and Elizabeth (Lilo Pulver) bluff their way into a fancy meal in an officer's club, in a scene that defies gravity. What's even more fascinating is how that famous Sirkian irony is turned on its ear. In films like All That Heaven Allows or Imitation or Life, Sirk lays ironic subtext into the dialogue or the mise-en-scene, such that it verges on mocking the characters' myopic pursuits of happiness (while priming hipster camp laughter). Here the script is flipped: cynicism and irony wrought by wartime cruelty are the fashion, a way for soldiers and civilians alike to numb themselves from the inhumanity that engulfs them. It's against this convention that the lovers fight, hanging on to a flickering sense of hope and earnestness (Gavin, a bit wooden, doesn't quite carry it off, but Pulver more than compensates - it's easy to see why Godard was smitten by her in his famous review of the film, as her doe-eyed litheness make her a prototype for Anna Karina).
What Sirk keeps consistent between this film and the American-set melodramas is his fixation with the fragility of what makes life worth living in a world of suffocating convention. Wealth and poverty prove to be equally dehumanizing. What matters are the frail bonds between people, enabled by fleeting moments of fantasy fulfillment. This isn't tied to any overt political or social agenda. Quite the opposite, there's a startling, paradoxical acceptance of the status quo as a fundamentally inescapable condition: it's ground that gives birth to its own acts of defiance - these moments of transcendent beauty - and it's the ground that smothers them out.
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The following citations were counted towards the placement of A Time to Love and a Time to Die among They Shoot Pictures Don't They's 1000 Greatest Films:
Antonio Jose Navarro, El Mundo (1995) Enrique Alberich, Dirigido Por (1992) Ian Cameron, Sight & Sound (1972) Jose Maria Prado, Nickel Odeon (1994) David Thomson, Have You Seen...? A Personal Introduction to 1000 Films (2008) Jonathan Rosenbaum, Essential Cinema: Favourite 1,000 Films (2004) Jose Luis Guarner, Genre Favourites: War (1993)
For more than two hours, this somber drama, taken from a novel by Erich Maria Remarque and put on display at the Mayfair and Little Carnegie yesterday, goes through a labored explanation of how a young Nazi soldier, home on leave, makes love to and marries a nubile maiden amid the exploding clutter of a German city in 1944. Then, after getting the new wife settled with a nice old lady and also with child, it takes the young husband back to the front in Russia. And there it gets him ironically killed.
That's all there is in this long picture—just an account of how two youngsters fall in love, despite air raids, food rationing, gauleiters and the fact that they don't know where or how their parents are. No theme is solidly stated, no philosophical comment is implied—other than the obvious one of General Sherman, and that's what nice Germans went through in World War II.
This again is a fault of this picture—it simply does not ring true. It has an air of studied contrivance and artificiality. Lilo Pulver, for instance, is winsome as the German girl, but she acts, under Douglas Sirk's direction, with the airs and manners of a well-fed ingénue. Except for a trace of German-accent, you'd never dream she's been near a bombed German city in World War II.
- Bosley Crowther, The New York Times, July 10, 1958
...Next to Le Plaisir [Pleasure, Max Ophuls, 195s], this is the greatest title in all cinema, sound or silent, and also to say that I heartily congratulate Universal-International on having changed the title of Erich Maria Remarque's novel, which was called A Time to Live and a Time to Die [Zeit zu leben und Zeit zu sterben, 1954]. In so doing, those dear old universal and international bandits have in effect set Douglas down in a circus which Boris Barnet would have been prodigiously happy to film, because it is ten times more battle-scarred and beautiful than Brooks's: in other words, by replacing the world 'live' by 'love', they implicitly posed their director the question - an admirable starting point for the script - 'Should one live to love, or love to live?'...
Before talking of form, let us speakof Liselotte Pulver's. Everyone scorns it. But I like it. You think she's skinny; but after all it is wartime, and the subject of the film is not: 'Off with your pullover, Lise.' For my part I have never found a German girl in the crumbling Third Reich so credible as I did in watching this young Swiss start nervously at each camera movement. I will go further. I have never found wartime Germany so credible as in watching this American film made in peacetime. Even more than Aldrick in Attack , Sirk can make things seem so close that we can touch them, that we can smell them. The face of a corpse frozen in the rime on the Russian front, bottles of wine, a brand-new apartment in a ruined city: one believes in them as though they had been filmed by a newsreel Camelflex instead of with a huge CinemaScope apparatus controlled by what one must call the hand of a master.
It is fashionable today to say that the wide screen is all window-dressing. Personally, my answer to all those Rene's who haven't got idees claires is a polite: 'My eye!'. One need only have seen the last two Sirk films to be finally convinced that CinemaScope adds as much again to the normal format. One should add here that our old filmmaker has regained his young legs and beats the young at their own game, panning happily all round, tracking back or forwards likewise. And the astonishingly beautiful thing about these camera movements, which tear away like racing-cars and where the blurring is masked by the speed with which they are executed, is that they give the impression of having been done by hand instead of with a crane, rather as if the mercurial brushwork of a Fragonard were the work of a complex machine. Conclusion: those who have not seen or loved Liselotte Pulver running along the bank of the Rhine or Danube or something, suddenly bending to pass under a barrier, then straightening up hop! with a thrust of the haunches - those who have not seen Douglas Sirk's big Mitchell camera bend at the same moment, then hop! straighten up with the same supple movement of the thighs, well, they haven't seen anything, or else they don't know beauty when they see it.
- Jean-Luc Godard, Cahiers du Cinema, 1959. Translated by Tom Milne and Craig Keller. Printed in Masters of Cinema DVD booklet.
[W]e slightly changed [the original title of Remarque's source novel A Time to Live and a Time to Die] for the non-German distribution into A Time to Love and a Time to Die. I was so insistent on this, for I felt it had to be a love story, mainly. The denunciation of Nazidom would have to take second place to the love story. You see, this picture was made in 1957. Hitler's empire of a thousand years was history. Furthermore, I thought 'die' balanced 'love' very well. And going back to my idea of a title being a kind of prologue, it announces the theme of the picture. The terrible incongruity of killing and young love. I was enchanted to see that in Cahiers Godard did get the point, and made the title almost the base for his excellent and unusual review [...] What was interesting to me was a landscape of ruins and the two lovers. But again, a strange kind of love story, a love conditioned. Two people are not allowed to have their love. The murderous breath of circumstances prevents them. They are hounded from ruin to ruin. The lovers have nowhere to go for their love. Do you remember the scene in the hold restaurant? The lovers are imitating the joyful life of a lost past. There is a moment of happiness. Seemingly. There is food. There are friendly lamps. There is light. Their love has restored the world. Bang! It is destroyed. I was striving for this relationship between their love and the ruins. I hope it came off: the portrayal of this young and desperate love. Not just a boy and girl story, but two lovers in extreme circumstances."
- Douglas Sirk, in Jon Halliday's Sirk on Sirk, pp. 141, 144. Printed in Masters of Cinema DVD booklet
"Life is the most melodramatic story of all," said Sirk. In 1929 in Germany he had divorced his first wife and married a Jew, a fact which the first wife used after Hitler won power to get a court order barring Sirk from contact with their son, then eight, whom she was turning into a Nazi and the top child star in German cinema: Claus Detlef Sierck. Sirk was able to see his son only in movies, sometimes as a Hitler Youth. And when he fled Germany, Sirk had to leave his son behind. Toward the end of the war Claus was drafted, sent to the Russian front, and reported missing in action. After the war Sirk came back to Germany, and searched in vain for traces of the son he had left behind. He asked interviewers not to publish these events during his lifetime. But he made a movie, A Time to Love and a Time to Die, that was autobiographical - about a boy who is sent to Russia and forced to commit atrocities, who meets a wonderful girl during a leave, then is quickly killed in Russia after a daring act of mercy. What more could such a father hope for such a dead son than that he had had the experience of a love like this before dying?
- Tag Gallagher, in Masters of Cinema DVD booklet.
Sirk's motives for returning to Berlin seem as scrambled as those for his flight 21 years earlier. The Russian Front setting of Remarque's source novel clearly had a personal significance, as Klaus Detlef Sierck (the son who had acted in several pro-Party pictures) had been killed in the Ukraine in 1944. However, it was never entirely certain whether Orin Jannings's screenplay was a plea for the victors to understand the suffering endured by the vanquished during the last days of the conflict or whether the killing of the Good German by a vengeful Communist guerilla was intended to be Cold War propaganda.
Regardless of its objectives, this touching study of the brevity of happiness was hailed as a masterpiece by Jean-Luc Godard in an effusive Cahiers du Cinéma review that launched the Sirkian cult that still attracts copious devotees. However, German audiences deeply resented a fugitive recreating their misery, while the film was banned in both Israel and the Soviet Union. It was somewhat fitting, therefore, that when Sirk quit the States in 1959, he settled in Switzerland - which had, of course, remained neutral during the war.
- David Parkinson, Film in Focus
A masterpiece of mise-en-scene (1958) by Douglas Sirk, transforming an Erich Maria Remarque melodrama into a haunting story of the search for beauty in a dead world. John Gavin and Lilo Pulver are lovers who meet among the ruins of a bombed-out German town during World War II. Despite their efforts to make contact, happiness hovers just beyond their reach in Sirk's metaphysically charged CinemaScope images. A stunning triumph of form, of the sort possible only in Hollywood. 132 min.
- Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader
Under the opening credits of Sirk's penultimate masterpiece, set during World War II and filmed on location in Germany, the camera rests on the branches of a tree, its blossom forced early by the heat of a nearby bomb blast. It is the perfect symbol for the love between John Gavin's German soldier on leave and a barely remembered childhood friend, Lilo Pulver: a love forced by the everyday facts of war. This superb adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque's novel rests on a painful symmetry between the scenes at the Russian front and the central section in the half-ruined home town, and on a typically tough-minded acknowledgment of the irony that the doomed romance exists not in spite of the war, but because of it.
- Time Out
In a way, the lack of a well-structured plot is a minor quibble, as the attraction of A Time to Love isn't in its story, it's in the fusion of the melodramatic with the nihilistic. The film is full of grimly beautiful imagery. Early on in the film Ernst's regiment makes its way through a frozen village, and discover a withered hand reaching out from beneath the snow. An argument occurs about whether or not the dead soldier the hand belongs to is a casualty of the November or January campaign that is almost blackly humorous. As the soldiers dig him out, a young private remarks that the corpse appears to be crying, to which Ernest responds 'His eyeballs were frozen. They're thawing now.' This kind of darkness pervades the film, particularly in these early moments with the frontline troops, who are represented as wearily cynical of the ongoing campaign…
The visual layout of A Time to Love and a Time to Die is much like Sirk's previous melodramas. Shards of light slice through frames, wrenching the characters away from each other; scenes are colour-coded to the emotions of the characters and tone of the world (here, mainly dull grey, brown and white); small camera movements track and nag the characters. Its emotive, heightened, passionate – the score swells and climaxes, the cinemascope photography is brilliantly vivid; the frames are filled with material detail. Its part of what makes Sirk's films so seductive – they are beautiful to look at, almost distractingly so. What is particularly interesting – and impressive – about this film is the way this aesthetic plan is mapped onto wartime Germany. Costumes and props look authentically worn, the characters are all suitably bedraggled (with the exception of the star couple). There is a lot of location shooting, amongst bombed out buildings and piles of rubble and muddy battlefields, but Sirk still manages to maintain his highly composed, painterly look. The emotional desolation of the characters bleeds into the landscape, and vice versa: the realism of those bombsites is harnessed into the melodramatic project.
- Adam Wilson, DVD Outsider
Remarque was a solid but second-rate writer who tended to recycle his own material; he turns up in Sirk’s movie as a forbidding-looking Professor who does a bit of preaching about God and responsibility in one heavy-handed scene toward the end. There are lots of sand traps like that in this script, but Sirk is a past master of handling the most dubious writing and acting and still somehow making it conform to his overall vision (surely he was made to handle the heavily seasoned works of a major writer like Thomas Mann, but Remarque will do in a pinch). There are echoes of Frank Borzage’s Remarque-inspired Three Comrades (1938) in the enclosing love story between Gavin and Pulver, but Sirk replaces Borzage’s warmth with his own stern detachment. He draws a charming performance from the German-born Pulver, and he tries his best with the pretty but very remote Gavin; these lovers are always ducking into cellars during air raids and either losing or stealing bottles of liquor, leaping from ruin to ruin until time, if not love, runs out.
Sirk said he liked the irony of the ending, but it comes across as a cheap attempt to copy the famous last shot of the film version of All Quiet on the Western Front, with a love letter substituted for a butterfly. Miklós Rózsca provides a stormy score that fits the forties time period, and the film has some amusing casting: A young Klaus Kinski has a film-halting bit as a Gestapo agent, and Dorothea Wieck, who played the sensual lesbian schoolteacher in the Weimar-era classic Mädchen in Uniform (1931) turns up briefly. The scenes depicting Gavin’s despicable Nazi school-hood friend are strangely handled, mainly because Sirk seems more interested in ridiculing the vulgarity of fascist cultural taste than in any more sweeping moral denunciation. This isn’t one of Sirk’s best films, but it is most likely one of his most personal. He was separated from his son by his first wife, who had wholeheartedly joined the Nazi party, and this lost son later died on the Russian front. In the last scenes of the movie, Sirk shows us several blond-haired boys ready to go off to war, and you don’t have to know his history to be moved by their forgone fate, or the artist who could use a small part of his own personal pain as a fully justified grace note in this, his penultimate Hollywood production.
- Dan Callahan, The House Next Door
Like the rough trilogy of films based on James Hilton's novels (Lost Horizon, Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Random Harvest), A Time To Love And A Time To Die is suffused with the inter-war desire to escape time - an escape that Sirk equates with his own characteristically intoxicating cinematography, with the result that Sgt Ernest Graeber's (John Gavin) search for his parents during the two-week long furlough that relieves him from the black-and-white monotony of the Russian Front is effectively the search for Technicolour; or, alternatively, the desire to immerse himself in a fantastic distance from the ravages of war that becomes continuous with cinema itself, as evinced in one of its surrogates - a wedding night in which his new wife, Elizabeth (Lilo Pulver) throws glasses against a wall because she "saw it done in a movie once", as well as the final, glassy screen, which beautifully combines his reflection with a confirmation that this intoxication is still just out of reach. As a result, all its surrogates - 'no such places', culminating with a suburban kitchen that has miraculously escaped desecration - fall short of the lurid aestheticism expected of Sirk by this stage - with the possible exception of the violent, periodic incursions of fire, whether literally or as an object of conversation, which tend to suggest that Technicolor can now only exist as an index of sheer horror - as if his irrealistic proclivities were so strong as to only admit of being indefinitely and tortuously postponed, rather than categorically excised.
- Billy Stevenson, A Film Canon
Maybe it's the use of Eastman Colour stock rather than Technicolor, but at first sight A Time to Love... seems less stylised in its look than the other two (which were studio/backlot productions shot in “flat” widescreen). That's not to say it doesn't avoid a certain glossiness in its presentation: but then stomach-churning realism was not on the agenda (for reasons of censorship amongst other things). That doesn't preclude a hard edge to this film: romantic it may be, soft-headed no. That's also not to deny that the film is very well directed: whole books have been written about Sirkian aesthetics and mise-en-scène, which is beyond the scope of this review. The final image is reminiscent of that in All Quiet on the Western Front and just as powerful.
- Gary Couzens, DVD Times
After making a series of vibrant melodramas in the United States (such as “All That Heaven Allows”), Douglas Sirk returned to his native Germany to shoot the bitter Second World War story “A Time to Love and a Time to Die” (1958), based on a novel by Erich Maria Remarque. A Wehrmacht private (John Gavin)—a good German, disgusted by Nazi atrocities—returns from the Russian front to his bombed-out town, falls in love with the daughter (Lilo Pulver) of a German dissident, and mixes with both committed Nazis and resisters. The romance has its longueurs, but both the battle and the home-front scenes, in which traces of beauty and friendship struggle against an overpowering sense of loss, are unusually well sustained and bitterly intelligent. Remarque himself appears as an anti-Nazi teacher who tells the hero that if he doesn’t return to the front his family will be threatened. Remarque knew what he was talking about: his sister was executed by the Nazis in 1943 as revenge against the writer, who was living in the United States.
- David Denby, The New Yorker
It was the penultimate Hollywood movie of the great German stylist Douglas Sirk and, like all his American films, the reputation of this quietly authoritative, initially undervalued picture has steadily grown since the 1960s. John Gavin plays the central character, Remarque himself has a small role as a liberal schoolteacher and the unforgettable ending echoes All Quiet. The movie has a poignant subtext. Sirk's son, a beautiful child star raised as a Nazi by his first wife, died fighting on the Russian front. The film is accompanied by a booklet and three worthwhile documentaries.
- Philip French, The Guardian
Adapted from a novel by EM Remarque (who also wrote All Quiet on the Western Front), this is perhaps the bravest and most beautiful of war films. There are many movies that remind us War Is Hell but few with the courage to humanise the losing side. Sirk was always a more restrained director than his reputation as master of melodrama suggests; here he eschews easy sentiment and emotional bombast and his film is all the more heartbreaking for it. He does more than show the horror of war; he evokes its anguish.
On one hand A Time to Love and a Time to Die is a great film, gorgeously photographed and really well written but, on the other, it fails to convince because of the cast. John Gavin is about as American as you can get so doesn’t really pass as a German soldier and there are so many Americans in the cast (including Keenan Wynn – Major Kong in Dr. Strangelove) that they look like Americans in German uniforms, not German soldiers. Swiss actress Liselotte Pulver is a different matter, sounding German and putting in a fine performance.
- David Beckett, My Reviewer.com
The film's urgent anti-war message is best captured in the premature bloom of tree blossoms in the hometown, caused not by nature but by the bombings. As for the film's belief in humanity overcoming evil, the answer it comes up with is taken from the lips of Erich Maria Remarque: "Without doubt, there would be no need for faith." There is a strange universal beauty found in the unlikely Hollywood film about a WW11 German soldier as the hero. The beauty is in the empirical images of the fearful symmetry between the horrors at the Russian front and the hometown in partial ruins, and in the doomed romantics trying to overcome the world gone crazy around them.
- Dennis Schwartz, Ozus' World Movie Reviews
An ordinary love and unexceptional people for the first time in Douglas Sirk. They watch what's happening around them with wide startled eyes. Everything is incomprehensible to them, the bombs, the Gestapo, the lunacy. In a situation like that love is the least complicated thing of all, the only thing you can understand. And you cling to it. But I wouldn't like to think about what would have happened to them if John had survived the war. The war and its horrors are only the décor. No one can make a film about war, as such. About how wars come about, what they do to people, what they leave behind, could well be important. The film is not pacifist, as there is not a second which lets us think: if it were not for this lousy war everything would be so wonderful or something. Remarque's novel A Time to Love and a Time to Die is pacifist. Remarque is saying that if it weren't for the war this would be eternal love. Sirk is saying if it weren't for the war this would not be love at all.
- Bruno Andrade, Signo do dragao