Screened January 19 2010 on BFI DVD rip downloaded from the website that dare not speak its name in Los Angeles, CA
TSPDT Rank #984 IMDbWiki
"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:
officer, farmer, antique dealer,
gigolo, wine trade
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
"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.
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.
Screened December 22 2009 on .avi downloaded from the Website that dare not speak its name in Brooklyn, NY
TSPDT Rank #955 IMDbWiki (German)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Wiener Film (German; plural: Wiener Filme; literally, "Viennese film") is an Austrianfilm 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Screened December 11 2009 on Columbia Tri-Star DVD in Brooklyn, NY
TSPDT Rank # 962 IMDbWiki
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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, reviewingFrank 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
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
It's A Wonderful Life28.8K | 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.
Screened January 23 2009 at the MoMA Education Center, New York NY
TSPDT rank #683 IMDb
The current wave of art cinema in Latin America - featuring the likes of Carlos Reygadas, Lucretia Martel, Lisandro Alsonso et al - boasts as much boldness of vision and cinematic lyricism as the region has ever seen. But even the best of these films can't match the breathtaking audacity of one of the earliest films from Brazil. Limite existed for decades as apocrypha, its only surviving print sequestered during a 20-plus-year restoration process interrupted by confiscation by the nation's military dictatorship. The only film by novelist Mario Peixoto looks like a summation of 1920s silent avant garde techniques that Peixoto absorbed while in Europe, but launches into new dimensions of synthesis that carries the viewer aloft on the feverish velocity of its inspiration. Peixoto practically exhausts the lexicon of silent cinematography with every shot conceivable from the era, but arranges them in a cascading visual pattern of sharp angles, deceptively vast vistas and sumptuous close-ups of worldly surfaces. I can't think of another film that savors its shots as much as this one, taking each one in long enough that even mundane images (train engines, spools of thread, telephone poles, a woman's silk stockinged calves) ooze with sinister energies. It’s a world turned upside down: a woman set atop an endless hilltop view of the Brazillian shoreline swoons, the camera spinning wildly in vertiginous ecstasy; a roomful of cinemagoers laughing at a Charlie Chaplin movie achieves a nightmarish lunacy. Each shot hangs in the air before evaporating into the next; the ghostly traces of each image build a sinuous path resisting the limits of worldly logic with the assured intuition of a dream. I desperately need to see this film again, but upon first glance, comparisons to Sunrise [TSPDT #12] are not unwarranted.
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ANALYSIS OF OPENING SEQUENCE
It was with one single image - the opening image of the film - of the face of a woman seen between cuffed hands, that the dream of Limite began. As Peixoto said in an interview recorded in 1983: 'The idea for Limite came about by chance. I was in Paris, having come over from England where I was studying, and I was passing by a newspaper stand when I saw a magazine with a photograph of a woman on the cover, with arms wrapped around her chest, handcuffed. A man's arms. And the magazine was called Vu (no. 74, 14 August 1929)... I carried on walking and I could not get the image out of my mind. And right after that, I saw this sea of fire and a woman clinging to the remnants of a sinking ship.'
The second image - the detail of the cuffed hands - grew out of the first; the third - the eyes - from the hands;
the sea of flames, from out of the eyes;
the eyes from out of the sea; the face of the woman with her eyes closed, from out of the wide open eyes; and the woman sitting on the edge of the boat, from out of the woman with her eyes closed. All these images are bound together in a series of fusions or visual links, that mirror how the idea for the film evolved in the mind of the director and how the film itself, as it emerges on the screen, must pass through the mind of the spectator. One image transforms into another through this extraordinary process of fusion. The eyes that emerge from the clinging hands sink into the sea of flames and return to the surface only to disappear and close in the face of the woman. Everything is designed to be seen, but seen by eyes that arise from between cuffed hands, and are consumed in a sea of flames. Everything, from the lines of composition to the texture of the image, reminds us that cinema does not open the eyes. On the contrary, it closes, narrows and limits them. Too little light - the murky darkness behind the face and the cuffed hands, focusing the eye on the foreground - and nothing else can be seen. Too much - the fierce sunlight sparkling on the waves - and the viewer is almost blinded and forced to close their eyes. A still shot, the focus is narrowed to one point: a section of measuring tape, cotton reel, scissors, An open shot and there is too much movement: the camera abandonging the woman on the rocks to career from one section of landscape to another, unable to settle on anything. The image conceals more than it reveals...
...In reality, cinema offers us a limited vision of the world. It causes us to see less, and less well. And this is its strength. Cinema, the film suggests, makes the visible invisible. It blurs and obscures. Everything in films begins with a cut, as if the cry 'Cut!' normally used to interrupt filming, here serves to begin the process; and the cry of 'Action!' to end it. The action belongs to the spectator.
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Kazakh Cinematheque World Poll - 100 Best Films (2006)
Limite: a hypnotic tale spun by a silent sphinx; the one and only film Mario Peixoto ever made; and one of the greatest expressions of the silent cinema, beyond borders, beyond time.
Sometimes cited as the greatest of all Brazilian films, this silent experimental feature (1931) by novelist Mario Peixoto, who never completed another film, was seen by Orson Welles and won the admiration of everyone from Sergei Eisenstein to Walter Salles. But its status as a poetic narrative--about a man and two women lost at sea in a rowboat, whose pasts are conveyed in flashbacks--has kept it in the margins of most film histories, where it's been known mainly as a provocative and legendary cult item. The remarkably luscious and mobile cinematography (for which cameraman Edgar Brazil had to build special equipment) alone makes it well worth seeing.
The restorer of the film, Sãulo Pereira de Mello, defines the film: "Limite is a cosmic tragedy, a cry of anguish, a piercing meditation on human limitations, a painful and icy acknowledgment of human defeat. It is a tragic film, a glacial tragedy."
More than a mere vehicle for one or three stories, Limite expresses defeat and desolation, and the impotence of the three characters, adrift forever, at outs with the forces of nature. This defeat is shown through the careful editing, paced and rhythmical, replete with dissolving images (such as the wheel of a train which becomes the wheel of a sewing machine) or the alternating close-ups which reshape parts of the body (feet, eyes, neck, mouths, hair) and inanimate objects (the magnificent sequence of the sewing accessories—buttons, cotton reels, scissors). Another example of skillful editing which produces a highly impactful scene takes place in a cinema, during a Chaplin screening. Mario Peixoto rapidly alternates clips from the film with shots of the cackling mouths of the audience, producing a sequence of high drama.
A young man's only film, in no manner does Limite appear to be the work of a novice. At every level the high standards and confidence of a director who had fully honed the tools of his trade are evident, as are his existentialist convictions. Today, Limite, available in video and shown at several international festivals, is exposed to fresh scrutiny which renews its impact and mystery. But the riddle of its creator, perhaps an unwitting victim of having reached his creative limits with his first film, persists; Mario Peixoto spent the next 60 years of his life as a voluntary castaway from his time, reliving the isolation of the characters of his first and only film.
The theme of Limite is stated in its title--the limits faced by man in the struggle for existence. The narrative concerns three shipwrecked people, two women and a man adrift in a small boat on the open sea. In a series of flashbacks, they reveal to each other their stories and what they were trying to escape when they took flight on the ship. The first woman (Olga Breno) escaped from prison with the help of her jailer but her life remained unhappy in the new town where she was trapped in a monotonous job as a seamstress. The second woman (Taciana Rey) was unhappily married to a drunken silent film pianist (Brutus Pedreira), who is shown accompanying Chaplin’s The Adventurer in the town’s small theatre. The man (Raul Schnoor) was a widower who had a love affair with a married woman. When he visited his wife’s grave, he encountered his lover’s husband (played by Peixoto himself) who told him that she had leprosy. The life boat in which they have taken refuge begins leaking. When they see a cask in the distance that might aid them, the man jumps into the water to go after it but never comes back to the surface as the second woman watches helplessly. There is a storm at sea and when it quiets down, only the first woman remains clinging to the wreckage of the boat before she, too, is engulfed by the ocean.
The technique Peixoto used to develop the narrative is highly inventive and experimental, requiring the kind of concentration one brings to a reading of Joyce or Faulkner to fully elucidate its meaning. Except for three dialogue titles closely spaced together (significantly, they are all spoken by the character enacted by Peixoto), there are no intertitles in the two-hour silent film. Continually, Peixoto focuses on huge close-ups of objects and faces, includes wide shots of landscapes and the sea, and utilizes throughout unusual compositions and camera movements. His approach is often abstract and surrealistic, evident from the second shot in the film recreating the image on the magazine cover of the staring woman and the man’s handcuffed hands. Peixoto’s technique was influenced by the legacy of French avant-garde films like Menilmontant (1926) by Dimitri Kirsanoff and Un Chien Andalou (1928) by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali, as well as such classics of French impressionism as Abel Gance’s La Roue and the works of Germaine Dulac and Marcel l’Herbier. German expressionist films with their strong emphasis on fate, along with the major examples of Soviet montage, were also part of the cultural background that foreshadowed Limite. Yet for all these clear technical antecedents, the ultimate source of Peixoto’s film is his own individual genius, shaped, too, by the cultural milieu of his country’s cinema. For while Limite is related to the work of the contemporary European avant-garde, it also has clear ties to other Brazilian silent films with their emphasis on regional production and natural backgrounds. In Cataguases, Humberto Mauro, aided by Peixoto’s cameraman, Edgar Brazil, had become the leading film artist in Brazil through a style that included dramatic photography of landscapes. Earlier, the Recife production company, with filmmakers such as Jota Soares and Gentil Roiz, had made major contributions to the development of Brazilian cinema. Roiz’s 1925 classic, Aitaré da Praia (Aitaré from the Beach), brought to the screen the poetry of the Brazilian seascape, depicting the lives of fishermen. Made entirely on location, Limite was thus heir to the Brazilian tradition of regional production, both in its striking use of beautiful natural settings and the informal, family-like atmosphere in which it was created. But Limite, reflecting the individual imagination of its auteur, broke entirely new ground in its thematics as well as in its elaborate, innovative symbolism and narrative construction. Produced when talkies had rendered the silent cinema an anachronism in the United States and Europe, Peixoto’s film appeared as a visual symphony, a consummation of the possibilities of silent film to realize a new, powerful language of images conveying complex ideas.
For a theoretical approach on Limite, one may think of fluidity and continuity as two central terms, not so much in regard to the structural concept which is based on visual and rhythmic variations and not continuation as the main filmic principle, but in regard to the underlying philosophical ambition: the oscillation between a fluid memory stream and solid, concrete objects and episodes, which emerge as fixed points in the continuity of time. This proposal is quite clearly formulated in the article by Peixoto A movie from South America - formerly attributed to Eisenstein - which I understand as one of his few theoretical statements. Here, Peixoto first emphasizes the role of the “camera-brain” and the “instinctive rhythmic film-structure” of Limite, and then defines the film as somewhere between a singular , outstanding work of art and a completely anonymous item, “unidentifiable in the inexpressive crowds” and which’s “poetic evasion is built on a vigorous plan of adaptation to the real” (Mello 2000: 85).
For Peixoto, the experience offered by Limite cannot be adequately captured by language, but was made to be felt. Therefore, the spectator should subjugate himself to the images as to “anguished cords of a synthetic and pure language of cinema” (88). According to the director, his film is “meticulously precise as invisible wheels of a clock”, where long shots are surrounded and linked by shorter ones as in a “planetary system” (88). Peixoto characterizes Limite as a “desperate scream” aiming for resonance instead of comprehension. “The movie does not want to analyze. It shows. It projects itself as a tuning fork, a pitch, a resonance of time itself” (88), capturing the flow between past and present, object details and contingence as if it had always “existed in the living and in the inanimate”, or detaching itself tacitly from them. Since Limiteis more of a state than an analysis, characters and narrative lines emerge, followed by a probing camera exploring angels, details, possibilities of access and fixation, only then to fade out back into the unknown, a visual stream with certain densifications or illustrations within the continues flow of time. According to Peixoto, all these poetic transpositions find “despair and impossibilities”; a “luminous pain” which unfolds in rhythm and coordinates the “images of rare precision and structure” (91). The oscillation between the fluid and the solid, the outstanding and the unidentifiable, the concrete object and the abstraction is a basic principle not only for this film but also for his literary work.
If we follow these outlines, we may see Limite as a film with a clear, elaborate and recognizable concept, maybe difficult to identify at first sight but emerging fuller at each screening one assists. This may explain Peixoto’s dislike for surrealistic movies, specifically those of Buñuel and the rejection of chance as an artistic principle as we find in Man Ray or Dada.
"Limite" doesn't exactly belong in the Museum of Modern Art's New Directors/New Films series, because it was first released almost 50 years ago and was directed by a Brazilian, Mario Peixoto, who is now almost 70 years old. However, its inclusion in the series can be explained by its relative obscurity, the praise it received from Sergei Eisenstein and its extraordinarily youthful energies. "Limite" is feverishly beautiful and desperately ambitious, even when it isn't clear.
Mr. Peixoto, who is reportedly at work on something new, anticipated in "Limite" a great many camera movements that have since become commonplace, and the air of discovery is one of the things that keeps "Limite" exciting. His camera zooms in on a subject even if that means zooming out of focus, or executes a dizzyingly precarious 360-degree whirl. He shoots up at his actors from such a low angle that a telephone pole appears to hover over them, or devotes long sections of the film exclusively to the players' feet. His choices are flashy, impetuous and never less than interesting.
However, "Limite" is of more technical than dramatic importance. Beginning with two women and a man adrift in an open boat, and following each of them through more-or-less imaginary adventures on land, the narrative is elusive at best. Despair is evidently meant to be the overriding sentiment, but despair is easily upstaged by the glorious Brazilian scenery. It's hard to share the misery of a woman contemplating suicide when the bay into which she may jump shimmers exquisitely and is bounded by a spectacular mountainside.
Mr. Peixoto appears briefly near the end of the film, sitting mysteriously in a graveyard and announcing something — on one of the few title cards — about leprosy. He is gaunt, intense-looking and faintly diabolical, as befits the author of so solemn and furious a first effort.
In 1929, Peixoto was visiting Paris when he was struck by a powerful illustration he saw on the cover of a French magazine, a woman’s face staring straight ahead with the handcuffed hands of a man in the foreground. This haunting image inspired Peixoto to write a scenario for a projected film in one night. Sometime after his return to Brazil in October 1929, he brought his scenario to the attention of a group of theatrical friends with ties to film circles in Rio de Janeiro. Most of them were uninterested, but one actor, Brutus Pedreira, was very enthusiastic about Peixoto’s scenario for the proposed film, Limite. With Pedreira’s encouragement, Peixoto tried to interest Adhemar Gonzaga and Humberto Mauro in directing the film for their company, Cinédia. However, Gonzaga was preoccupied with the organization of the new studio and Mauro was beginning to film Lábios sem Beijos. As a result, Peixoto decided to direct the film himself, and with Gonzaga’s support, his ambition was realized. Gonzaga recommended Peixoto choose as his cinematographer Edgar Brazil, the cameraman on Mauro’s classics, Braza Dormida and Sangue Mineiro. Gonzaga also obtained on loan the camera Brazil had used to shoot those films. Peixoto purchased a second camera for the production and began assembling his principal players: Raul Schnoor; Taciana Rey, an actress employed at Cinédia; Olga Breno, a recruit from the theatre; and Brutus Pedreira.
In May 1930, Peixoto and his cast and crew began shooting Limite on location on the Rio coast. During the filming, they stayed in Mangaratiba at the Santa Justina farm owned by Peixoto’s uncle, Victor Breves, whose support was crucial in completing Limite. The director detailed his plans for every take in his screenplay before shooting. Edgar Brazil’s brilliance as a cameraman enabled the 22-year-old director to realize the effects he envisioned. For example, Brazil built the special equipment Peixoto required for his elaborate use of camera movement. In order for the camera to follow the actors as they walked without swaying, it was placed on a kind of litter carried by four porters who synchronized their steps with those of the players. A wooden crane activated by ropes was also devised, enabling the camera to film from a lofty perch the action on the ground below. While Peixoto finished principal photography in October and began editing the film, he returned to the location for some additional takes between October 1930 and January 1931, including a scene in which the great actress, Carmen Santos, has a cameo as a prostitute. Brutus Pedreira, who played the role of a pianist in the film, was a musicologist offscreen as well and, under Peixoto’s supervision, prepared a musical score for the silent film using 78rpm. classical recordings of compositions by Erik Satie, Claude Debussy, Alexander Borodin, Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky, César Franck, and Sergei Prokofiev, carefully selected to match the mood of the scenes. Sponsored by the Chaplin Club, a Brazilian film society, Limite was first shown to the public in Rio de Janeiro on May 17, 1931.
With its avant-garde techniques and narrative approach, the somber majesty of its tragic theme, and its presentation at a time when talkies were all the rage, Limite was far from being a successful commercial venture. Indeed, the film’s premiere showing was coldly received by the mainstream critics, public and distributors alike. It was screened again in Rio in January 1932, but in spite of Adhemar Gonzaga’s best efforts, failed to find a distributor. The film disappeared from public view, but word of its qualities spread in experimental film circles, both in Brazil and Europe, where it developed a legendary reputation.
The reception given to Limite has been partially influenced by certain myths surrounding the movie... Due to the lengthy restoration process, it disappeared for almost 20 years, and there was speculation that the film had actually never existed. The fact is that, in 1959, the nitrate film began to deteriorate and two dedicated admirers, Plinio Süssekind and Saulo Pereira de Mello, started a frame-by-frame restoration of the last existing negative. Limite only returned to festivals and screenings in 1978. Even though hardly anybody could see the movie between 1959 and 1978 – as in the case of Sadoul and his unsuccessful trip to Rio de Janeiro in 1960 – it still served as a reference for controversial discussions and statements. In 1963, Glauber Rocha, a leading figure within the “new cinema”, the Cinema Novo, described Peixoto as “far from reality and history” and the unseen movie as “unable to comprehend the contradictions of bourgeois society”, and a “contradiction historically overcome”, only to confirm his judgement of Limite as a product of the intellectually decadent bourgeoisie again in 1978, after finally having seen it. Even though Cinema Novo and Limite do share common grounds with regard to low-cost production, financed partially by the actors, directors and producers involved in the respective project, and similar concepts of camera movements and angles can even be found overall, with regard to the use of a “untied” free-moving handheld camera as an important filmic element, Rocha and his colleagues did not merely have the intention of creating an æsthetic revolution within the national film scene. In his manifesto, “Aesthetics of hunger”, from 1965, he made it clear that the rejection of colonial, exotic and primitive views about Brazil that misinterpreted the social reality and contributed towards its present-day misery was the main objective of his artistic production. Cinema Novo “intended to show the violence of hunger through appropriate aesthetics of violence”, thereby replacing tropical clichés by images of poverty in all its aspects: landscapes, dialogues and lightning, or showing “people eating dirt, people killing to eat, people running away to eat, and dirty ugly filthy characters”.
- Michael Korfmann, "On Brazilian Cinema: From Mario Peixoto's Limite to Walter Salles," Senses of Cinema
Saulo Pereira de Mello, who dedicated his life to the film; who persevered, studied and restored it, and who realised his dream as no other spectator ever has.
To see Limite today is to see the film through Saulo's eyes. Seventy years after the first screening and fifty after Saulo first saw it, it is impossible to separate the film from the myth that has grown up around it; to separate it from the spectator who never tired of repeating that 'no film is more beautiful, intense, pognant and powerful,' and that the experience of seeing it is 'an unforgettable experience... and intense, transcendent pleasure because it is a work of art of enormous stature.'
Saulo's story begins in the early 1950s. A physics student with a vague interest in dating a literature student accepts an invitation from the would-be girlfriend to stay on campus and see a film due to be screened later that evening. Saulo remembers accepting the invitation more out of a desire to spend some time with the girl than because he wanted to watch a silent Brazilian movie. The prospective girlfriend remained exactly that but since that screening, Saulo - seduced by the images projected before him - spurned physics in order to dedicate himself to cinema. More specifically, silent cinema and the film that first aroused his passion for the medium. Not only did he see the film countless times, he kept the only existing nitrate copy at his home until he was able to make another negative. The restoration completed, he threw himself into studying the creative process behind the film.
Saulo has said that all his work on the film has been inspired by 'feelings experienced during its projection.' The session was one of those organized every year by Professor Plinio Sussekind Rocha at the National Faculty of Philosophy. One of the founders of the Chaplin Club, created in June 1928, the professor helped organize the first screening of Limite, in May 1931.
'Do you think there's a chance Limite might be lost? Is there anything you can do with this film? This was asked in 1954 after a screening without the second reel, the nitrate print having deteriorated to the point where it could no longer be passed through a projector. Professor Rocha - at this time the sole guardian of the film - contacted Saulo and pleaded with him to help him save the film. The original negative had long since been lost and Edgar Brazil, the film's cinematographer, who had been responsible for preserving the only existing copy, had recently died. The print was then kept at the National Faculty of Philosophy until 1966 when it was impounded by the order of Federal Police under the military dictatorship, together with Mat (Mother, 1926) by Vsevolod Pudovkin and Segei Eisenstein's Bronienosets Potemkin (Battleship Potemkin, 1926).
Released by the police, the film ended up in the hands of Saulo, who stepped up the fight against decomposition and hardly managed to raise funds for its restoration. At the end of the 1970s, a new negative was taken of the nitrate copy and the restoration was almost complete, but as Saulo writes 'it was no possible to save the section where the First Man helps the Second Woman, and so in the version in circulation today this section has been replaced by a caption.' Saulo then decided that in order to better understand the film, he should photograph 'the only nitrate copy still in existence, made under the supervision of Edgar Brazil.' He erected a special table in his apartment, with spools and a rough back-lit screen. He placed his camera in front of the table and photographed every scene of the film, frame by frame, taking many pictures of each scene to capture the internal movement of the image.
For many, the first genius of Brazilian cinema and its most individual and daring author. Born in 1910 in Rio de Janeiro, he spent part of his youth in London and Paris, where he came into contact with the European vanguard, the Soviet revolutionary cinema and German expressionism. Poet, romantic writer and author of one single film, Limite, Mário Peixoto spent most of his life as a recluse in the region of Angra dos Reis, on the south coast of Rio de Janeiro. Before its restoration in the 70s, Limite had been little seen but much admired, including abroad, where it gained the admiration of the Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisentein, amongst others. Mysterious, accursed, obscure, sublime - these were the adjectives most used to describe Limite since its début in 1930. Peixoto left two films unfinished in 1931 (Onde a Terra Acaba - Where the Land Ends, and Maré - Tide) and collaborated anonymously on the script of Estrela da Manhã (Morning Star, by Jornal, 1950). In the 50s he was not able to carry on with a project titled A Alma Segundo Salustre (The Soul According to Salustre), whose script had been published in book form in 1953. Peixoto died in 1991.