983 (115). Le signe du lion / The Sign of Leo (1959, Eric Rohmer)

Screened November 7 2009 on Artificial Eye DVD TSPDT rank #939  IMDb Wiki

Eric Rohmer's debut feature suggests that there were many Eric Rohmers vying for the man's artistic identity, informed by the cinephilic breadth of influences one would expect of a Cahiers du Cinema critic having his turn behind the camera. In this film, the approaches threaten to partition the movie like a post-war European city. The first part, where American expat Pierre throws a party celebrating his inheritance, dances around the room with dolly shots, snatching pieces of conversation in the tradition of Renoir/Ophuls. When Pierre's inheritance proves bogus and he's turned on the street, the film goes Neo-Realist, tracing his demise first in shades of DeSican social pathos before confronting a Rossellinian existential void. An 11th hour force majeure feels more like Preston Sturges than Robert Bresson, in terms of feeling less emotionally invested in the forces of transcendence and more like a self-reflexive act of writerly intervention that brings attention to mechanism of the plot. This is something Rohmer tries on more than once throughout the film, peppering it with seemingly incongruous digressive moments (a reporter's trip to Africa, a car wreck in the French countryside), only to tie them back into the main storyline. It's a film that, in more than one sense, is all over the map.

Perhaps it took the film's unequivocal flop with critics and audiences for Rohmer to resolve this multivocal struggle over the years that followed, leading to his unmistakable way of looking and listening to people, so compositionally controlled, yet so light and in the moment, that's been with us for for over four decades. There are traces of that Rohmer throughout The Sign of Leo, like his documentarian's way of looking at things with an eye for lived-in detail. Or the moral preoccupations of the parable-like plot; in this case it verges on the predictable or the pathetic more than once, but is saved by the ever-shifting perspective (social realist? existentialist? metafictional farce?) Or how characters project their persona through their words; Pierre lives large so long as he talks large. When his assertion of impending wealth is proven false, he retreats into a increasingly wordless state, and the indomitable city, pulsing with life in an August swelter, looms so much over him it threatens to swallow him whole. This antagonism between people and their environments always seemed secondary to the interpersonal tensions that dominate Rohmer's films, but here it's so present that you want to rewatch all of his other films to see if it's been there throughout his career, and more than just a background to human characters.

The city of Paris is the most fascinating character in The Sign of Leo; the metropolitan equivalent of Fred Astaire, it takes a slobbery lout of a main character and makes him tread with divine grace down its streets and canals. The end finds Pierre financially redeemed, though with the sense that he hasn't learned a thing from his suffering. It's as if Rohmer posed him as a negative example of what path he as an artist should take, learning from his failure and coming out with a more singular sense of self.



Rohmer, the former Cahiers du Cinema critic and one of the principal intelligences of the old New Wave, is now to be recognized as one of the most interesting filmmaking talents to emerge from that long-ago period. Interesting and, in the context of that time, original. For Rohmer is a comparatively classical director who makes films about people of a certain worth and moral awareness, about people who talk well and respect each other's privacy, and who have within them the vestiges of now almost forgotten, established social orders.

In much the same way, Rohmer reflects these things in the manner in which he tells stories, with a civilized wit and style that come close to seeming austere. Pierre is really a bit of a bore (a major fault of the film), but he's basically decent, as are his friends, and Rohmer respects them by avoiding tricks, narnative or visual.

The last third of "The Sign of Leo" is one of the most effective, though unhysterical, depictions of emotional breakdown ever put on film. Pierre doesn't cry, or get drunk, or have hunger visions. Instead, he loses the sole of one shoe, which he has to tie with a string, and the world around him simply becomes increasingly clear and distant, as if seen through the wrong end of a telescope.

- Vincent Canby, The New York Times, May 6 1970 (New York Film Festival)

Le signe du lion, with Pierre's long slide into misery and final redemption, in many ways fits the structure of a parable more than the later films of his Six Moral Tales series. The sense of fate, which often influences Rohmer's stories, is dominant and heavy-handed here. Moreover, while later Rohmer male characters spend much of their time thinking and debating, Pierre seems to have no real mind of his own. The first private screenings of Le signe du lion were very disappointing, and its distribution was further complicated by financial problems at Chabrol's AYJM. Completed in October 1959, though later recut and rescored, it was not shown commercially until 1962 at the Pagoda in Paris, selling only five thousand tickets. Le signe du lion never earned any money, though it garnered a few sympathetic reviews. Magny points out that the biggest problems for the film were that it offered a thin story line, an unappealing protagonist, repetitive music, and insignificant details that were nonetheless granted excessive screen time. Magny does acknowledge that Rohmer's first feature fits the New Wave spirit in many ways, however, especially in its documentation of a Paris that is very different from the commercial cinema's stereotypical city of romance and monuments. Here, Paris in August is presented as a hostile place, and many images preserve Pierre's heavy boredom and emptiness via the aimless duration of time and cavernous deep space in striking long takes. Jean Collet praises Rohmer's city, arguing that Rohmer's first feature proves right away that he is as much an architect as a director: "Le signe du lion is nothing if not a meditation on the city, the indifference its inhabitants show for one another and the distance established, as in Rear Window, between the characters and the spectator-tourists."

Certainly Le signe du lion should be seen today as an interesting but failed experiment; some of its traits, such as the connection between appearances, setting, and character, will be worked out more elegantly in Rohmer's later Moral Tales. Here, the obsessive documentary-like observance of the decline of Pierre and the hard, cruel space of the unforgiving Paris around him become a bit too obvious and even preachy. Frodon, however, praises Rohmer's fascination with the concrete: "The mise-en-scene belongs firmly to the material side, granting a striking physical presence to the building walls, pavement, and cobblestones that surround this character, who could not have been named anything other than Pierre [stone]." But Crisp effectively sums up the problems: "The New Wave had accustomed the public to all sorts of frenzied and unpredictable outbursts, but not to the austerity and understatement of this film... [much less to] being told that men were drab, slack and uninteresting."

- Richard John Neupert, A History of the French New Wave Cinema. Univ of Wisconsin Press, 2007. Pages 253-254.


The Sign of Leo is a fascinating film that both anticipates Rohmer’s later work and in other respects is quite unlike it. Made at the height of the New Wave, it shares with the films made by Rohmer’s comrades its intense naturalism: lightweight cameras enabled filming on real streets. The film gives a palpable sense of Paris in a heatwave, crowded with tourists: it’s not hard to imagine Pierre getting filthier and sweatier and more unshaven and unkempt as the hour-long central section depicting his decline and fall progresses. Then, in a very un-Rohmerian camera flourish (a combination of a crane shot and a model shot seeming to send the camera soaring into space), fate takes a hand. The somewhat ironic workings of fate feature in later Rohmer works such as The Green Ray and A Winter’s Tale, but here Rohmer leaves it open-ended as to whether Pierre has learned from his experience – the final line of dialogue pointedly leaves us to decide that. The film is a moral tale before Rohmer embarked on the series of that name, and differs from those films by not framing its story as a love story between men and women.

The film is rather less dependent on its characters’ talk than many of Rohmer’s later films, partly explained by the presence of a co-writer, Paul Gégauff, who is specifically credited with the film’s dialogue. It also depends on a superb performance from Jess Hahn. Hahn was a genuine American (born in Terre Haute, Indiana) who never made a film in the country of his birth but had a lengthy career in Europe. Sadly, many of the ninety-odd films he made were undistinguished, because his work here shows that there was much more to him. He makes Pierre’s desperation quite tangible, and hard to shake off. In a small role is Stéphane Audran, later to be Claude Chabrol’s regular leading lady and also his wife. Jean-Luc Godard appears in a brief role, uncredited. Nicolas Hayer’s black-and-white camerawork and Louis Saguer’s score, dominated by a solo violin, are also very effective.

Gary CouzensDVD Times

Eric Rohmer’s first full length film is this tragicomic tale of one man’s spiral descent into poverty and isolation.  Whilst the film shows Rohmer’s inexperience as a filmmaker too clearly and also suffers from some quite obvious flaws – most notably the awkward references to astrology and preordained fate – it is a compelling and, on balance, poignant work which makes some valid statements about human nature.

Any film which broaches the issue of homeliness is unlikely to do justice to the subject and to capture fully the tragedy of this predicament, but this film goes some way towards achieving this aim.  Pierre’s increasingly desperate attempts to find food and to hold his shoes together are simultaneously funny and agonisingly moving – as in many of Rohmer’s later films, it is these small details which can have a big effect on the audience.

The film certainly lacks the playful spontaneity and realism of Rohmer’s more recent film - the contrived happy ending being a particular disappointment.  Despite the jarring artificiality of the narrative, the cinematography is quite impressive, almost as mesmerising as in Rohmer’s better known films.  The eloquent location filming in Paris manages to match very well the mood of the central character – vibrant and fun when Pierre is celebrating his assumed inheritance, melancholic when he realises he has inherited nothing after all, and cruel when he finds himself alone and penniless.  The photography is distinctively Nouvelle Vague, and, appropriately, one of Rohmer’s contemporaries, Jean-Luc Godard, makes a silent cameo appearance near the start of the film.

- James Travers, Films de France

With its depiction of one man's long physical and spiritual decline, Le Signe Du Lion recalls the great naturalist novels of Emile Zola as well as the works of American realists such as Theodore Dreiser. It marks Rohmer out as one of the most literary of New Wave directors - always devoting particular attention to his characters' complex emotions and inner thoughts. Later films, though usually lighter in tone, would adopt a similar approach.

- Chris Wiegand, kamera.co.uk


Eric Rohmer's Le Signe du Lion sees the light of DVD for the first time (English friendly). The transfer is much better than I anticipated. Shot on 35 mm film stock, this DVD is far from what it could be, but still a decent one! The most problematic thing is that overall it's a little bit soft, and the non anamorphic picture makes some low level noise visible. Some minor moire effects can be seen on the window shutter's and on the front of cars, but there is no reason why Eric Rohmer fans shouldn't pickup this title.

The DD 2.0 sound in mono is flawless and fairly clean. I appreciate the small subtitle font AE has used on these box-set.

- Gary Tooze, DVD Beaver

The Sign of Leo has an inbuilt qualitative advantage over everything else in this set by having been originated in 35mm. It’s transferred in 1.66:1 – a ratio that Rohmer would abandon in favour of Academy Ratio (1.37:1) until the early 1980s – and is not anamorphically enhanced. It’s a generally good transfer, given the film’s age: there is a general softness and some artefacting which may well have been avoided with anamorphic enhancement.

- Gary Couzens, DVD Times


IMDb Wiki

The following quotes are included in the TSPDT Director page for Eric Rohmer:

"All the literary content is peripheral to Rohmer's eye. It is in the quality of his imagery that we feel the intellectual appeal of experience. The camera style is classically simple, but Rohmer adores the effects of natural light, whether the reflections from snow in Maud, the rainy day in Claire, or the Côte d'Azur interiors in La Collectionneuse." - David Thomson (The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, 2002)

"Emerging from the crucible of the French New Wave, Rohmer has forged a style that combines the best qualities of Bresson and Renoir with distinctive traits of the Hollywood masters. And though he was never as flamboyant as Godard or Truffaut, Rohmer's appeal has proved much hardier." - Dennis Nastav (International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, 1991)

"In their own world, Rohmer's films are guaranteed to run and run. This may be because, although they are more or less conversation pieces, they are also cleverly constructed (he always writes his own screenplays) in such a way as to keep an audience's interest alive until matters dovetail at the end, by which time most of Rohmer's characters know more about themselves than when the film began." - David Quinlan (Quinlan's Film Directors, 1999)

"An important figure in the French new wave, Rohmer is known primarily for his "moral tales," which leisurely speak of men and women, and the things they do to each other." - William R. Meyer (The Film Buff's Catalog, 1978)

Biography on NewWaveFilm.com

By virtue of a tenure shared at Cahiers du Cinéma during the 1950s and early 1960s, Eric Rohmer is usually classified with Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, and Rivette as a member of the French New Wave. Yet, except for three early shorts made with Godard, Rohmer's films seem to share more with the traditional values of such directors as Renoir and Bresson than with the youthful flamboyance of his contemporaries. Much of this divergence is owed to an accident of birth. Born Jean-Marie Maurice Scherer in 1920, Rohmer was at least ten years older than any of the other critic/filmmakers in the Cahiers group. By the time he arrived in Paris in 1948, he was an established teacher of literature at the lycée in Nancy and had published a novel, Elizabeth (1946), under the pseudonym Gilbert Cordier. When he joined the Cahiers staff in 1951 Rohmer had already spent three years as a film critic with such prestigious journals as La Revue du Cinéma and Sartre's Les Temps modernes. Thus Rohmer's aesthetic preferences were more or less determined before he began writing for Cahiers. Still, the move proved decisive. At Cahiers he encountered an environment in which film critics and filmmaking were thought of as merely two aspects of the same activity. Consequently, the critics who wrote for Cahiers never doubted that they would become film directors. As it turned out, Rohmer was one of the first to realize this ambition. In 1951 he wrote and directed a short 16mm film called Charlotte and Her Steak in which Godard, the sole performer, plays a young man who tries to seduce a pair of offscreen women. Two of his next three films were experiments in literary adaptation. These inaugurated his long association with Barbet Schroeder, who produced or co-produced all of Rohmer's subsequent film projects.

Dennis Nastav, Film Reference.com

In 1948, two years before making his first film, in a piece for Les Temps modernes, arguing “For a Talking Cinema” Rohmer writes:

If talking film is an art, speech must play a role in conformity with its character as a sign and not appear only as a sound element, which, though privileged as compared with others, is but of secondary importance as compared with the visual element.

In this early article, Rohmer set out the manifesto he followed throughout his career. He sees speech as an integral part of both life and cinema. In his work the word is not used to impart information, but rather as a revelation of world and character—that is, it is used in exactly the same way as the image is used. The dialogue that fills Rohmer's films—its banalities, intricacies and lies, reveal the interior of his characters as much as their silent glances and physical hesitations. Words are never forced—he writes for the specific voice of each actor—they are used cinematically rather than literally.

It is through writing that Rohmer's films consistently question the nature of the cinematic. It is shocking sometimes to see these long conversations and not be bored by their simple, often static representation. How can so much talk be cinematic? But these conversations are more than just talk. This isn't radio. Neither is it an interview or televised debate. This is talk visually represented. Word and image work together to create a third thing, cinema. But cinema is a vague term (silent films are, of course, cinema) bringing up the idea of moving images rather than this sound/image combination. Defending his Contes moreaux Rohmer writes:

…neither the text of these commentaries, nor that of my dialogues, is my film: Rather, they are things that I film, just like the landscapes, faces, behavior and gesture….I do not say, I show. I show people who move and speak.

The concept of total cinema is often seen as one of pure image, the meaning so completely contained within that image that words are unnecessary. In his quiet way—within what he describes as “self imposed limitations” —Rohmer is one of the few directors who has managed to arrive at a cinema that is doubly total. His is a cinema where the word is more than a signal post in the plot or a neat catchphrase, but something integrated into the cinematic world. He writes, “a means must be found to integrate words not into the filmed world but into the film…” His work is a concerted and successful attempt to do this.

- Tamara Tracz, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography

In terms of consistency of both the content and form of his films, Eric Rohmer is without a doubt one of the most distinctive auteurs in the history of cinema. As with Japan’s Yasujiro Ozu, within min utes—seconds, even—of starting to watch one of his movies, it’s clear who made it. Not that his visual style is even remotely flashy; like Howard Hawks—one of the Hollywood directors Rohmer greatly admired when he was critic and editor, in the 1950s and early ’60s, for Cahiers du cinéma—Rohmer prefers to keep technology and technique invisible. Indeed, so decep tively simple and straightforward is his work that some dismiss it as “talking heads.” Such an assessment is right (but not particularly bright) to point to his love of conversation, and accurate insofar as it alludes— accidentally—to his fascination and skill in terms of exploring feelings, opinions, and thoughts, rather than depicting the kinds of actions (catching crooks, killing enemies, saving the world, seeing the light) favored by most directors. But it fatally ignores the remarkable emotional, intellectual, and dramaturgic subtlety of his work. A Rohmer movie is not simply a drama or a comedy, a love story or an exercise in suspense, a psychological study or a philosophical disquisition; it’s all these and considerably more. Whether an original piece or an adaptation, be it set in the present or the past, the city or the country, it’s always first and foremost a Rohmer film. In essence, he invented his own genre.

- Geoff Andrew, The Criterion Collection

Even more than Truffaut or Chabrol, Rohmer has always believed in the power of stories and storytelling. In his early "Moral Tales," the carefully calibrated narratives pushed his gallery of intellectuals toward a melancholy self-realization. As the director became more interested in young people at the beginning of the '80s, his focus shifted to the spiritual. Like Rossellini, one of his role models, the devoutly Catholic Rohmer tends to leave his heroes and heroines in a state of grace, framed within the most ordinary circumstances and settings (it's hard to imagine a more subtly enacted miracle than the climax of Tale of Winter). And, of course, they talk their way right up the spiritual ladder. Many people are driven around the bend by Rohmer's "dialogue-heavy" movies, which supposedly approach cinematic danger level. But in his case, talk always equals action: a form of therapeutic inquiry for the heroes of My Night at Maud's or Claire's Knee, a restless search for clarity in Pauline at the Beach or Le Beau Mariage, a wayward path toward enlightenment in the latest films. Moreover, Rohmer's talking cures are always firmly rooted in their settings: It's the pre-Christmas snowstorm in Clermont-Ferrand that keeps the skittish Jean-Louis Trintignant holed up with Françoise Fabian's game divorcée in Maud's, and it's the golden, sunlit southern countryside that fillsMarie Rivière with the knowledge of her own mature beauty in Autumn Tale.

With his three long series spanning six decades, broken up by excursions into documentaries, literary adaptations, and omnibus films, has Rohmer realized his ambition to be the Balzac of cinema? Maybe. It has to be said that his conservatism borders on nationalism: Unlike Pialat or Téchiné or even Rivette, he's never risen to the challenge of portraying the racial diversity of modern France. But for all its neatness and moral self-containment, his is a remarkable (and often remarkably funny) body of work, rich in natural wonders, bewitching interactions, and emotional passages. Maud's is still his meatiest film: Trintignant's wary self-exposure is perfectly matched by Fabian's seductive frankness, and Nestor Almendros never got a crisper black-and-white image. Depending on your tolerance for Jean-Claude Brialy, even at his least preening, Claire's Knee remains an intricately suspenseful movie: The buildup to that nonlecherous caress is one of the neatest inventions of the '70s. The "Comedies and Proverbs" of the '80s are more diaphanous, with the soulful exceptions of The Aviator's Wifeand the largely improvised Summer. But even the insubstantial Full Moon in Paris vibrates with the delicate beauty of the late Pascale OgierAutumn and Winter (his most purely Christian film) are the most vaunted of the later movies. My personal favorite is the undervalued Tale of Springtime, which works up a lively romantic intrigue against a background of suburban greenery under overcast skies. Also not to be missed: the painterly adaptation of Kleist's Marquise of O, with a devastating lead performance by the great Edith Clever; the early short The Baker of Monceau, the first of the moral tales, filled with new wave exuberance and featuring a young, handsome Barbet Schroeder; and the largely unknown feature debut, The Sign of Leo. A favorite of Fassbinder's, this beautifully elaborated tall tale offers a wonderful portrait of Paris in the late '50s. And, during a nicely detailed bohemian party scene, it features an unforgettable cameo. The young man in dark glasses sitting at a table, endlessly lifting the needle off a record to play and replay his favorite piece of music, is none other than Rohmer's opposite number, Jean-Luc Godard.

- Kent Jones, The Village Voice, February 6 2001

981 (113). The Ladies' Man (1961, Jerry Lewis)

Screened August 7 2009 on Paramount DVD in New York , NY IMDb Wiki


Maybe it's only in America where a man can act like an unrepentant juvenile and become a multimillionaire megastar... and a master filmmaker. Moreso than Spielberg, Lucas or early Judd Apatow, Jerry Lewis takes the boy-in-a-man's-world ethos to heart, and it powers his moviemaking at every level: not just in his performance, but in the very way his films are constructed. Here his trademark nebbish cowers in a boarding house full of women; it's less a coherent story than a series of one-offs riffing on Lewis' klutzy gynophobia. While the results range from flat misfires to riotous genius, the relentless repetition of these set-ups amount to as much of a compulsive ritual as Wile E. Coyote's pursuit of the Road Runner, and just as captivating in its flurried variations.

But unlike the Coyote's Sisyphean purgatory of ambition-cum-self-torment, what gets Lewis enacts again and again is a spasmodic rebelliousness that champions the eternal wellspring of boy-like wonder. It's a world where adult concerns for structure and story give way to childlike free play with objects in a seemingly elastic space. Something as rudimentary as narrative is regarded like a rigid schoolmarm that both threatens and gives form to Lewis' playtime. And for all his undeniably male preoccupations with the terrifying spectre known as woman (in this instance, an entire house full of them), the fact that Lewis' legendary million-dollar set amounts to a super-sized dollhouse suggests a boy who likes to play with dolls. The libido on display isn't hurtling towards manhood; it's actively resisting the obligation to fall into the pigeonhole of masculinity.

That said, there's plenty of male scopophilia on display, with the two knockout musical numbers near the beginning and end expressing breathless pleasure at watching how women move, set to vivacious jazz. It surprises me that in all the articles I've dug up about Jerry Lewis and The Ladies Man, not once do I find a reference about Lewis possibly being the most jazz-informed filmmaker of his time. Again, it's the sense of taking a bare-bones theme and freestyling it to the rafters, unafraid of hitting false notes (and there are not a few in this film) for the sake of striking golden ones (and there are not a few in this film). When Andrew Sarris complained that Lewis "never put one brilliant comedy from fade in to fade out," he missed the point entirely. Being a Hollywood classicalist, Sarris couldn't entertain the notion of a post-narrative comedy in the John Coltrane/Ornette Coleman era, where story comes second to the revelations of a spontaneous, inspired moment, as eruptive and unexpected as laughter itself.

Now, four decades later, Lewis' filmmaking feels even more apropo to the digital age, when classical storytelling, both in Hollywood and the arthouse, is yielding to the impulse for immediacy that rules the day, for better (e.g. Public Enemies) or worse (e.g. Transformers). But championing The Ladies Man as a template for a Cinema of Our Time doesn't mean we write a blank check to slack, formless filmmaking trying to catch cinematic moments with a torn butterfly net. Ultimately, The Ladies Man does have a profound reverence for form - though it's not classical story form, but the form of the two-dimensional movie screen. Like a pre-Columbian cartographer, Lewis accepts that the world is flat, but he takes that and goes the distance with it, with brilliant gags that open up new pockets of space within the frame (i.e. falling through his "bunk" bed; the play with non-existent mirrors in the girl-crazed morning number; encased butterflies that come to life). Working within limitations, his revelations hint at limitless discoveries, as well as a few paradoxes. His megalomanical control of spatial and character interactions explodes into a comic free-for all. Likewise, he validates his auteur status, a self-proclaimed "total filmmaker," by regressing wholeheartedly into a terminally narcissistic childhood.

WOULD YOU LIKE TO LEARN MORE?The following citations were counted towards the placement of The Ladies' Man among the top 1000 films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? Bettina Thienhaus, Steadycam (2007) Hans-Dieter Delkus, Steadycam (2007) Michael Althen, Steadycam (2007) Charles Tesson, Nouvel Observateur: Best Films 1953-2002 (2002) Jonathan Rosenbaum, Essential Cinema: Favourite 1,000 Films (2004) Jonathan Rosenbaum, Alternative 100 American Movies (to the AFI list) (1998) Jose Luis Guarner, Genre Favourites: Comedy (1993) Slant Magazine, 100 Essential Films (2003-2007) Various Critics, Book - 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die (2004) They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films


"THE LADIES MAN," with Jerry Lewis, needs more than just an apostrophe. As Mr. Lewis howls at one point during this color comedy from Paramount, "Boy, what a little imagination can do!" Boy! He can say that again.

Now, in all fairness to a frankly light-headed vehicle that dies on its feet, Mr. Lewis' latest gets off to a fresh and really funny beginning. And offhand, especially after those early bright moments, it would certainly sound as promising as any Lewis package in a long time...

But after half an hour it all folds like a tent. The remainder of the picture, with everyone else firmly relegated to the background, has Mr. Lewis shuffling and stumbling in full view, as if he and the movie were merely improvising.

- Howard Thompson, The New York Times, July 13 1961


The film's greatest fame rests not in the slim script nor in the inventive set-pieces, but in the set itself: a massive construct that swallowed up two soundstages at the Paramount lot. Lewis the director shows remarkable patience as he slowly reveals the magnificent construction to the audience over the morning routine of the household. The camera glides from room to room and cranes down the staircase as the girls rise and make their way down to breakfast, the trickle of individuals gathering into a herd of females. Finally Herbert awakens, gawking at the magnificent mansion on his way downstairs while the camera (mounted on a camera crane so big it took up another soundstage) slowly pulls back to fill the screen with the sprawling four story set, a life-size dollhouse with cutaway walls revealing a warren of bedrooms and hallways.

More than merely a visual inspiration, it was an engineering marvel: 60 rooms, each wired for sound with built-in mikes and individually illuminated with hidden lights, on the largest indoor set built up to that time. It gave Lewis the freedom to choreograph action through multiple rooms and follow it with fluid, unbroken camerawork, or to pull back to show the hive of activity in the honeycomb of a house.

Lewis was so proud of his accomplishment that he posted a sign outside the stage door: "This is NOT a closed set." He even erected bleachers for visitors to watch the shooting. "This was the film that Francis Ford Coppola visited," remembers Lewis (Coppola was an intern at Paramount at the time). "He was on the set almost every day of the shoot. He loved the set, he loved the girls, he loved the idea, and he was enamored with what I did with the video assist and the shoot." The video assist was a pioneering idea and Lewis was the first to make use of the technology on the film set. (Coppola took the video assist into the next generation when he brought video technology into his fledgling Zoetrope Studios decades later.) There was no videotape in 1961 but through the placement of monitors around the set, Lewis could see the camera eye while performing.

The ensemble scenes are choreographed (with the help of Bobby Van) as much as they are directed, with numerous scenes playing out wordlessly to the brassy swing soundtrack. Like much of the crew, composer Walter Scharf was a longtime Lewis collaborator and his energetic score helps set the pace and tone of the film. In one stand-out scene, a forbidden door opens into the all-white room of a seductive dancer who descends from the ceiling and as the walls expand and Harry James and his Orchestra perform on a balcony that doesn't exist anywhere but in Lewis' imagination. In another hilarious sequence, Herbert drives tough guy Buddy Lester into a quivering mass of jelly, creating a classic twist on the slow burn. Lester was subsequently cast as the bartender in the unforgettable Alaskan Polar Bear sequence of The Nutty Professor (1963).

Lewis bragged about the savings that his technological innovations brought to the ambitious production, but the film still finished over schedule and over budget, costing over $3 million. The set itself cost $1 million, according to Lewis. It was money well spent. American critics were (for the most part) impressed and the French were ecstatic. Yes, the cliché about the French proclaiming Lewis a genius was born here, but there is justification for the claim. While some may cringe at his spastic performance and baby-talk dialogue, it's hard not to be awed by the technological leaps of this production, and at their best his gags delve in to the realm of the surreal last visited by the Marx Brothers.

- Sean Axmaker, Turner Classic Movies

It's widely known Jerry Lewis hates to do multiple takes in his movies; if for no other reason, he feels it impedes the spontaneity of the work. This approach is very evident in The Ladies' Man.

  • There are frequent camera bobbles and hesitations as the operator fights to anticipate and follow the hyper comic.
  • At the tail of a ballroom dance number, strangely coupling Herbert and dapper screen legend George Raft (as himself), Jerry takes off goofily around the set, leaving an unprepared spotlight technician with the actor in the dark.
  • In the movie's running gags involving a ferocious pet named Baby, Herbert drags a whole side of beef from the kitchen to the animal's quarters. In the close-up, H. H. H. struggles to push the carcass through the doorway to the waiting beast, although we see Lewis is only pretending to hold the meat. His hands are empty, inadvertently caught in the picture.
  • In a balletHerbert dances the ballet sequence, clumsy, energetic Herbert prances with several ballerinas. He slips and takes a comedic pratfall. We see (but not hear) Jerry the director switch gears to yell "Cut!" to his crew at the same time a ballerina also falls down; his head jerks around to her in complete surprise. It's obviously a blooper, but the ballerina's stumble helps the scene, nonetheless.

I enjoy this looseness. What's important to me, first and foremost, are the laughs. Everything else is secondary. Besides if Lewis had deleted all the blemishes, we might not have the funniest sequence in the movie.

Hard-faced character actor Buddy Lester appears as tough guy Willard C. Gainsborough (the "C" is for "Killer"). Willard intimidates Herbert, until our hero accidentally sits on the man's hat. Herbert tries to repair the damage and reshape the brim after he places the hat on Willard's head. Lester's blank, exasperated facial expressions and delivery are hysterical as Jerry manipulates the hat and restyles the gangster's hair into as many unflattering positions as possible.

The camera is shooting over Lewis' shoulder, so we see most of this footage from the back of his head. The amazing thing to note is Lewis breaks character, cracking up at Lester's performance. We see and hear Jerry snort as he struggles to continue with the scene. Then, regaining his composure, Herbert plucks a thread dangling on Willard's forehead. He tells the man he's removing the thread. Willard deadpans, "That's my eyebrow." Jerry goes off again, expels air through his nose in burps and blatantly turns his face further away from the camera in a desperate attempt to save the shot.

All of this action is quite hilarious -- but, hey, we're looking at an A-list major motion picture. What other director would be so bold as to include a crack-up outtake? And get away with it!

With Jerry, these blemishes are business as usual. One of his strongest lures as an entertainer is danger, not playing by the rules. His meteoric, literally overnight, rise to stardom and cultural sensation with former partner Dean Martin was heavily indebted to frequent breaking of the "fourth wall" between the performers and their audiences, wherein lurked the tantalizing promise and fulfillment of uproarious ad-libs and asides. This device alone made him a household name and put untold millions into his pocket.

- Mike Durrett, About.com


The Ladies' ManLet us look briefly at that extraordinary tour de force of mise en scene, The Ladies' Man. Here, Jerry Lewis — Herbert Heebert — is kept prisoner in a spectacular set of his own making. He has built his maze, even employed video cameras behind the scenes (a Jerry Lewis invention) to spy on his every move. As in The Bellboy, he is here too a victim. But rather than being set in the swanky resort location of the Fontainebleau — the stomping grounds of Jerry Lewis the star — The Ladies' Man occurs clearly on a Hollywood set. Were this a populist film, we would expect to find in the cross-sectioned set a representative sample of humanity. But this cross-section is uniquely "Lewisian" in being a glossy, plastic house full of aspiring performers (into which walks George Raft, as he does also in The Patsy, a film directly about Hollywood). Herbert Heebert compulsively remains on this set with these Hollywood people. He is even drawn to the lair of the ultimately dehumanized performer — the woman in black. He is, in short, a prisoner of his own fascination with this extraordinary make-believe world.

The Ladies' Man shows Hollywood the trap once removed in the fictional context of Helen Welenmelon's house/set. It is a gigantic distortion of reality, threatening to consume and destroy the mild-mannered guy who cannot leave it.

Michael SternBright Lights Film Journal

Anyone wondering why Lewis is often cited for his technical prowess with a camera and a crane need only look at The Ladies Man to determine the filmmaker's dexterity with a dolly. Lewis's lens moves in and out of his man-made half-mansion, passing around absent walls and shooting through glassless mirror frames to give the story a kind of crazy, fairytale quality. Combining primary colors with intricate artistic touches, The Ladies Man is a marvel to behold, a film rich in visual flair and even more powerful production value.

Combined with the massive amount of narrative and visual invention is that same old Lewis desire to entertain and enliven. There is very little dead space in The Ladies Man, as if the filmmaker was trying to cram as much craziness into the story as he could. From the hilarious joke names given to the cast (Herbert Heebert, Helen Wellenmellon) to the reliance on cameos (by the likes of George Raft, oddly enough) and that comedy mainstay, drag (Jerry is one fugly female as Herbert's beloved "MA!"), this is a master class in old fashioned Hollywood hijinks. Add in the brilliant supporting performances (opera diva Helen Traubel is just terrific, as is Lewis regular Kathleen Freeman) and Jerry's own unique brand on brainless mugging, and you've got a sight gag filled frenzy that barely lets us rest.

There will be some who point out that Lewis never gives us a clear set of characters here. Performances are driven by personality quirks (the quiet girl, the lazy girl, the eccentric girl, the musical girl) and that the comic's typical overt sentimentalism is surprisingly kept in check. But the reality is that these are elements that actually make The Ladies Man a better movie. As long as we are centered on Herbert and his quest for perpetual bachelorhood, this film is a bright breeze of buffoonery. But the minute we drift off into to heart-tugging territory (for a couple of brief minutes at the end), the movie seems to go sour, if only for a second. It is this last-second dash for the melodramatic that keeps The Ladies Man from launching into a stratosphere of pure comic bliss. Unlike The Nutty Professor, which gave us a romance to root for in Professor Kelp and Ms. Purdy, Herbert has no such honey to hope for. Instead, he wants to avoid all the women in the hostel. So when Pat Stanley's Fay finally makes her play, it's far too little, way too late. Thankfully, Lewis avoids the obvious love affair to keep the film focused on the crazy and the crackpot. The result is something both sincere and very silly. Right up there with his best, more beloved works, The Ladies Man is pure, potent Jerry Lewis.

Bill GibronDVD Verdict

It opens in a studio re-creation of tenuous order ("a very nervous little community") razed by a daisy-chain of comic catastrophes -- Jerry Lewis's forthright declaration of modernism is further elucidated at the graduation-day assembly, a composition unsettled by the spazzing Jerry. As Herbert H. Heebert, he declares everlasting bachelorhood after seeing his beloved with another; Lewis on a red bus-stop bench wearing a gray suit that shows a good few inches of socks and cuffs is a grand sight, thrown into the world after a Freudian embrace from his mother (played by the total filmmaker himself). As if in danger of focusing exclusively on performance, Lewis rolls out his technical marvels: A jerky zoom that steers the protagonist towards the boarding house evolves into the tilt up Mona Freeman at the door and, finally, into the quicksilver floating crane that surveys the vast edifice as an ocean of femininity fills it. Herbert gazes at the 30 shapely occupants in horror, but the tears of the trilling owner (Helen Traubel) convince him to stay, next he's being spoonfed porridge in a high chair. Buddy Lester supplies a fearsome deadpan under a crushed hat and George Raft flubs his coin-flip yet aces his tango, but the majority of the gags are aimed at the estrogen overflowing in every room, and only Fellini and Peckinpah can rival Lewis as artists working through their misogyny via their art. Even after its transparency as a movie set is foregrounded when the TV crew crashes its atrium, the boarding home remains a dollhouse of the mind, its screens-within-screens hiding audacious sexual routines -- the offscreen, roaring pussy(cat) that splashes Herbert with milk and chews his offer of meat till there is only bone left, as well as the forbidden chamber where bat-laaaaaady Sylvia Lewis welcomes him with Gothic slinkiness and Harry James's orchestra. Pat Stanley spells out the treacly moral ("how nice to be really needed"), but this masterwork of demasculinization hinges much more trenchantly on the subversive despair of the Lewis schnook, always "alone with noise."

Fernando F. CroceCinepassion

In a career with its fair share of public relations blunders, probably the most notorious faux pas made by Jerry Lewis was his 2000 proclamation that he has never liked any female comedians and that he considers women's function in the general scheme of things "as a producing machine that brings babies in the world," either the woeful words of a severely disillusioned man battling various physical and mental ailments or a misguided, Andy Kaufman-esque attempt at performance art stand-up. At any rate, the comment isn't so radically out of step from the Jerry Lewis who made the masterpiece The Ladies' Man, which even though it could undoubtedly be taken as a manifesto on machismo, also happens to be a bizarre, sexually ambiguous, cantankerously skeptical burlesque on the ascent of feminine independence and the resulting commodification of masculinity, especially of the domesticated variety.

Lewis stars as a disconnected graduate from Milltown ("a very nervous little community") magnificently named Herbert H. Heebert (more than once, the shrill manner in which some of the female characters yell out his name ends up more closely resembling the epithet "pervert"). After discovering his girlfriend making out with a letterman, Lewis seems to regress on the spot into a total presexuality, an adolescent form of misogyny that dictates that he can't be around women, period. (Ten minutes in, Lewis is already wallowing in a Freudian quagmire of repressed homosexuality, amplified by Lewis's one-shot cameo in drag as his own mother.)

So where does he find his first job? In a women's boarding house, naturally. Lewis (the director) effectively validates Herbert's mistrust of women by having the boarding house's owner, the regal Miss Wellenmellon (Helen Traubel), and maid, Katie (Kathleen Freeman), go out of their way to obfuscate the nature of their establishment during Herbert's "job interview," which consists mainly of an impromptu psychoanalytical session wherein Herbert gets his disappointment in women off his chest. (It's worth noting that both women are portrayed as being emphatically past their sexual prime, so Herbert isn't threatened.) They hire him and sneak him up to his room through the back hallways. It isn't until the next morning that Lewis reveals not only the throng of 30 gorgeous women with whom Herbert will be sharing living space (the film's on-screen universe), but also the mind-bogglingly immense dimensions of the ant-farm set that is meant to represent Wellenmellon's mansion.

Lewis pulls the camera out as far as it will go while keeping the strutting lines of women in perspective, but he also cannily reveals the edges of the set to accentuate its artificiality, in effect showing the audience that the on-screen space isn't meant to be taken concretely, but also as an extension of Herbert's entrapped psychological state. There are basically two rooms that are emphatically privileged as "off-screen space," the room in which Wellenmellon and her girls keep "Baby," a roaring, unidentified creature (which almost surely represents its namesake: the consequences of heterosexual discovery), and a mysterious room belonging to a "Miss Cartilage" that Freeman nebbishly demands Herbert never enter.

- Eric Henderson, Slant

From its very first scene, depicting a mechanistic causality in which everyday life is figured as a linkage of moments of chaos and catastrophe, The Ladies Man signals its status as a calculated and rationally built object. Quickly, this depiction of the constructed nature of the narrative universe becomes a full-fledged self-reflexivity in the famous shot where, to a musical fanfare, the camera pulls back and reveals the ladies' boarding house as a large-scale cutaway. The set manifests itself explicitly as a set: lateral to the camera, the rooms of the boardinghouse are sliced open so that we can see into each and every one of them at the same time. This set, legendary in its status in film history, speaks of the act of creation in several ways. First, obviously, its artificiality and unreality signal the constructed nature of this narrative universe: this is decidedly, emphatically, a set. Secondly, the resemblance of the set to a dollhouse resonates with the thematics of the latter: the dollhouse is a form of creativity in which its owner manipulates reality as a godly figure lording over a controlled universe. The dollhouse set of The Ladies Man speaks not only of the creation of its narrative world but of the omnipresence and even omnipotence of its creator, the auteur who generated this fictional universe.

In keeping with these larger functions of the cutaway set, the division of the boardinghouse into a series of individual rooms allows for a self-reflexive commentary on the nature of narrative. As Herbert enters each room, a new story, a new sketch, can begin and signal the constructed nature of all such scenes, the way they are called into being by a narrational agent. (The set here bears obvious comparison to one used by another famous director whose films are often also about the director as a veritable authoring god: the courtyard of Hitchcock's Rear Window, where what Jeffries peers into is the world of narrativity itself, each window that is facing him a mini-story of life, love, or death.) Additionally, the multiplicity of rooms goes beyond narratological function to enable formal experimentation: each room has its own look, its own design, and its own coloration arranged according to unique and irreducible palettes. At the same time, it is important to note that each of the bedrooms reveals not any-story-whatsoever but stories or scenes specifically connected to a world of spectacle and showmanship, thereby signaling self-reflexively the film's emphasis on a world of performance: for example, in one room a woman auditions for the theater, while in the strangest of rooms, Herbert dances with a batlike woman while a band plays hip music, all of this in a decor that is highly stylized, offering hyperaware commentary on its own constructedness. When, toward the end of the film, a TV crew comes to the boardinghouse to film a documentary, the self-reflexive function of the set comes full circle and we participate in a film filming a filming (with Herbert Heebert then mimicking Jerry Lewis when he looks through the viewfinder and plays with the sound-recording technology).

- Dana Polan, "Working Hard Hardly Working." From Enfant Terrible! Jerry Lewis in American Film. Edited by Murray Provenance. NYU Press, 2002. Pages 219-220.

Two moments of fantasy in The Ladies Man are prime Lewis. In one scene, Herbert, dusting a living room, opens a case displaying a group of exotic butterflies, which take wing and vanish past the camera. Conscious of having done a bad thing, he whistles them back; miraculously they return to their places, and he shuts them back in their display case. This scene is a great metaphor both for the story of The Ladies Man and for Lewis' own activity as a director: a discoverer of beauty, he animates beauty by beholding it, but this animation is loss, so he summons the beautiful objects back to their place and resolves to keep them there.

Later in The Ladies Man, Herbert enters the forbidden room of the mysterious Miss Cartilage (Sylvia Lewis). Within the artificial universe of the boarding house, this room is a universe unto itself, with its own all-white decor; it also has its own spatial laws, since it proves to contain not just Miss Cartilage's bedroom but a vast ballroom with a bandstand, on which Harry James and his big band are gathered to give a private concert. Lewis reveals the ballroom to us by a cut that transforms not only space but costume: Herbert leaves one shot wearing his usual casual attire, to emerge in the next shot wearing a snazzy suit. The Miss Cartilage sequence encapsulates the whole film: a private episode for Herbert, self-contained and without antecedents or consequences in the narrative; a dangerous encounter with the figure of Sexual Woman, from which he has been in flight since his sweetheart's traumatizing betrayal; and a fantasy in which he momentarily asserts a mastery of performance (and a slick wardrobe) not revealed in the rest of the film.

This fantasy reveals Lewis' cinema as one of pure pleasure, expressed through the control of colour, decor and camera movement in a studio environment, and expressed also through dance and through the indulgence of his love of big-band swing (which features in many Lewis films, notably Cinderfella[1960, produced by Lewis and directed by Frank Tashlin], The Errand Boy and The Nutty Professor). In Lewis' work in general, all these elements are linked to the free exercise of the imagination, and they point to a conception of film as a medium of transformation and escape, aligned with a tradition of Hollywood luxury and artistry – a conception that prevails from his first film, The Bellboy, to his last feature to date, Cracking Up.

The characters of The Ladies Man have no exit from the film's world, and yet the exit is available at all times to the audience, who are granted the privilege of perceiving the constructedness of this world: it's a stage set, a doll's house, a charged space of libidinal drives surrounded by an emptiness that Lewis sometimes pulls his camera back far enough to let us see (as he nearly does again in the astonishing overhead crane shot in Kelp's laboratory in The Nutty Professor – in which the camera reaches a distance hard to reconcile with the supposed real dimensions of the space, letting us know explicitly that this is a fantasy space, a movie set, a space of transformation).

Chris FujiwaraSenses of Cinema

In the films of Lewis, the carefully delineated narrative situations and conflicts that constitute the logic of the syntagmatic chain inevitably fall victim to a degeneration into a series of isolated sketches unrelated to the main narrative. The discursive operations of these films are dominated by digression and repetition, rather than by causal logic and narrative closure, and are thus more easily linked to the associational language of the patient than to the telos of the narrator. This tendency is most emergent in Lewis' most "total" productions: the carefully prepared scenario of The Ladies Man, with gradually introduced characters, settings, and conflicts, disintegrates into a series of blackout sketches unrelated either through chains of causality or the impetus of narrative functions. In The Ladies Man, architectural structure replaces narrative structure, as the massive cutaway house (which is simultaneously open and closed) operates as the merest gesture of containment toward the multitude of frenetic actions taking place within.

- Andrew HortonComedy/Cinema/Theory. University of California Press, 1991. Pages 202-203


Jerry Lewis' second film as director is one of his greatest, with its star almost overwhelmed by his one major set, the split-level interior of a Hollywood boarding hotel for aspiring actresses, where one Herbert Heebert, practising misogynist, has been taken on in all innocence as a houseboy. Lewis' camera performs some virtuoso movement around the rooms (Jean-Luc Godard and Julien Temple were to borrow this device), and the ultra-loose plotline allows for some hilarious sequences, and even a touch of surrealism in one entirely white interior. Highlights include Lewis breaking up a television show and dancing a tango with George Raft.

- David ThomsonTime Out Film Guide

Jerry Lewis conjured up one of his simplest concepts for this 1961 hit, but it required a lot of scaffolding. The Ladies Man puts love-scarred Jerry (who has sworn off women) in an all-girl boarding house, infuriated by the constant temptation. Except for the opening sequences, the film is entirely shot in the four-story-high, cut-away set of the boarding house, one of the most elaborate indoor sets ever made in Hollywood up to that time. Lewis, as director, finds dozens of angles to shoot within the set; this movie is one of the reasons the French are always talking about his directorial genius. (Jean-Luc Godard, who once called Lewis "the only one in Hollywood who's doing something different, the only one who isn't falling in with the established categories," borrowed the cut-away building idea for his film Tout va bien.) There's some great physical stuff, such as Lewis trying desperately to save the crushed hat of visiting tough guy Buddy Lester, plus a lot of Lewis vocal whining, especially concerning his name: Herbert Heebert, not Herby Heebert. The film has its share of gags falling flat, but for Lewis fans it's prime stuff, not far from the high-water mark of The Nutty Professor.

--Robert Horton, Amazon.com

Never mind that The Ladies Man isn't all that funny. (And to be fair, it's much funnier than anything else so far in the Paramount collection.) A gag involving Herbert destroying a visiting boyfriend's hat goes on so long and is so demeaning that your eyes pop out of your head, while a sequence involving a black-clad resident and her all-white apartment (with accompaniment by Harry James) is so deeply strange that you can't believe it's from the same guy who does that telethon every Labor Day. Colour is used sparingly but shockingly, and I swear that the wide shots of the cross-sectioned house were the inspiration for the opening of Tout va bien. For once, Lewis himself is calling attention to the jokes instead of himself, making even the de rigueur saccharine interludes inoffensive. Weirdo cineastes, your ship has come in; see this one twice for sure.

-Travis Mackenzie Hoover, Film Freak Central

Jerry Lewis' The Ladies Man (1961) is yet another work of genius, featuring Lewis as a girl-hating bachelor who winds up working in a boarding house packed with sexy, available young women. Most of this virtually plotless film is set in the astonishing three-story set with open walls and winding staircases and Lewis' camera glides freely up and down, in and out all the rooms. Some of the gags go on too long, notably one in which Lewis deals with a tough guy gangster waiting for his girlfriend in the lobby, but others are pure delight. Lewis even plays a touching scene in which he cheers up one of the girls, depressed after a failed audition. As with The Nutty Professor, the richness of color makes this a visual feast.

- Jeffrey M. Anderson, Combustible Celluloid

The film ran out of gas well before the finish line, ending in Jerry's usual sentimentality--this time he must get confirmed that all the gals really needed the nebbish around because he's such a nice feller and not just to run errands. The episodic film had much energy early on and scored well, even though the gags were uneven, which showed me if you can reign Jerry in he could be funny without being too annoying. But for me, too much of Jerry is not a good thing; he does wear out his welcome, even in this above average Jerry film.

- Dennis Schwartz, Ozu's Movie World

In Lewis's work, identity is always performed; there is no private self, and an audience is always present. In The Ladies Man, Herbert refuses to believe guest star George Raft's claim of who he is and demands that Raft prove his identity by, in effect, playing Raft. Lewis uses Raft as an ideal masculine image in order to show that the image is not just "only" an image but first and foremost an image, one that not only the Lewis character, but George Raft himself, has trouble living up to. Lewis's direction of actors insists on an exaggeration that implies the awareness of an audience, suggesting that his characters (like those of John Cassavetes) are constantly involved in performances of themselves.



Video & Audio

Originally printed by (though not filmed in) Technicolor, Paramount's DVD of The Ladies Man looks very good, well above average, with great color and a sharp 16:9 anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) image. The Dolby Digital mono sound is likewise very strong; English and Spanish subtitles are included, as well as an alternate French audio track.

- Stuart Galbraith IV, DVD Talk

Something of a disappointment on this disc is the remarkably dull commentary track from Jerry Lewis and Steve Lawrence. Lots of silent gaps (I think at one point they may have left), and the conversational tone is very, very low key, with Lewis interjecting very little of substance. A few bits of salient insight on the large supporting female cast, but overall a snoozer.

Under the heading of Archival Materials Paramount has gathered up a curious mix of old promotional and studio footage that while low on content is at least interesting to look at. Included is a pair of deleted scenes, including a nearly nine-minute opera selection from Helen Traubel that is played completely and utterly serious. There is also a shorter scene entitled "Jerry Rains Confetti on Girls" (01m:27s), in which the female cast gets a mountain of torn paper poured on them by a very spastic Lewis. Outtakes has a couple of pure space fillers in the form "Jerry Asks Helen About Opera" (01m:44s) and Jerry Demonstrates the High Chair (:53s), two bits of behind-the-scenes clips that are essentially pointless aside from getting a quick glimpse at Lewis the director. A fast-motion Construction of The Ladies Man Set (:54s) shows the creation of the memorable dollhouse set, and an MDA Public Service Announcement (01m:52s) that features the same locale with Lewis using a stopwatch to make a genuinely heartfelt 60-second plea. Dance Rehearsal (:37s) shows Lewis hoofing it with one his co-stars, while the Auditions segment has the on-set tests for Pat Stanley (01m:03s) and Sylvia Lewis (03m:28s).

- Rich Rosell, Digitally Obsessed


IMDb Wiki

Jerry Lewis Comedy Museum and Store

Jerry Lewis' favorite films, according to They Shoot Pictures Don't They:

The Adventures of Robin Hood

An Affair to Remember

All About Eve

Breakfast at Tiffany's


Citizen Kane

The Fountainhead

On the Waterfront

Shadow of a Doubt

Was there ever a man or movie star less ordinary than Jerry Lewis? Even among screen comics, he would win few votes if we were electing that personality who best incarnated the common man. His public image is that of a gargantuan mutant outgrowth of the hot-house borscht-belt world of stand-up comedy. Listed in critical ledgers as either a sanctimonious retardate or an inspired genius — or both — Jerry Lewis is clearly and self-consciously extraordinary. But somewhere between the infant-fool and the towering renaissance film-man (both images that Jerry Lewis himself has promoted) is the notion of Jerry Lewis the average guy. And central to an understanding of his work is the myth that threads its way through his films with Frank Tashlin in the mid-1950s, and is developed with parabolic dynamism in his first five self-directed films, from The Bellboythrough The Patsy. That is the myth of the ordinary man in an extraordinary world — more specifically, of Joseph Levitch in Hollywood.

Dean and JerryBecause he did learn so much during the 1950s, it is worth a brief examination of Lewis' most fortuitous apprenticeship with Frank Tashlin. It is in Hollywood or Bust and Artists and Models, coming at the end of his partnership with Dean Martin and the start of his collaboration with Tashlin, that the dominant Jerry Lewis myth begins to clearly emerge. Jerry the simple idiot-boy of films like Scared Stiff orJumping Jacks starts to develop a self-consciousness. In Artists and Models he is — if only in his dreams — a creative comic book genius. And in Hollywood or Bust, the awareness he reveals of Dean Martin's duplicity is not merely a revelation pulled from Tashlin's hat. It is a sign (albeit still submerged) of an increasing self-awareness and distance from his stereotyped screen persona. Placed in Tashlin's surreal universe, where everything is a caricature of itself, Jerry's increased consciousness serves to reveal the world's (Dean Martin's) hypocrisy.

It is as commentaries on psychological dementia in the 1950s (bosom fixation, infantilism, obsession, regression, popular culture) that Tashlin's films succeed where Jerry Lewis' personal directorial efforts only tangentially venture. Although a wide range of socially determined targets is set up and blasted in Jerry Lewis' movies, it is Jerry who becomes the center of interest and the raison d'etre of his own films.

The central, developing issue in the self-directed films, from The Bellboy through The Patsy, and even to Which Way to the Front?, is the main character's attempted "normalization." Each film is an elaborately choreographed movement around the problem of Jerry's uncertain relationship to the world around him. It is revelatory to see this man's grappling with his own being in each film in terms of the conflicting concepts of Jerry the ordinary guy — or extraordinary genius — in a Hollywood world of complete insincerity — or of noble aspiration. The complexity of the problem assumes schizophrenic dimensions when, in order to deal with the extremes of self-awe (for his genius) and self-hate (for his insincerity), as well as sanctimonious self-love (for his ordinary humanity), Jerry Lewis begins to spin off personalities — up to seven in The Family Jewels — each of which forms one perspective on the central structure of his films — the dilemma of a life-sized man trapped on the larger-than-life Hollywood movie screen.

Michael SternBright Lights Film Journal

In American Cinema, in a section titled "Make Way for the Clowns," Sarris compared Lewis unfavorably to Blake Edwards, whose "The Pink Panther, A Shot in the Dark, and What Did You Do in the War, Daddy are funnier than all the Lewis-Tashlin movies." Among the twelve reasons for his skepticism about Lewis' "talent as a creator" Sarris listed that Lewis' "aspirations exceed his ability;" that his work reveals a disjunction between a "verbal sophistication in nightclubs and sometimes on television and... [a] simpering simplemindedness on screen;" and that his comedy lacks "verbal wit" and appeals mainy to "audiences in the sticks and to ungenteel audiences in the verbal slums." Sarris faulted Lewis for his weaknesses of narration and found "the feature length film an appropriate vehicle for farce," also commenting that in Lewis' remakes he has played "the innocent" with themes of "effeminacy and transvestitism." Critical as well of Lewis' "conformist, sentimental, and banal dialogue," he suggested that "he has never put one brilliant comedy together from fade in to fade out."

Gerald Mast wrote in The Comic Mind, "Jerry Lewis' primary failure is that he never discovered who he was." His gags "do not flow from any human or personal center" and he "cannot manage a plot." In one sense Mast's comments, and Sarris' even more, are neither wrong nor arbitrary. Rather, they are indicative of the substitution of judgment for analysis. They stop at evaluation where they should begin with examination. As John Russell Taylor summed up "Anglo-Saxon" critics in the 1950s, "When they were not moralizing about the overstressed sexuality of Elvis Presley and the dangers of his effect on the young, [they] were likey to be tut-tutting about Jerry Lewis' spastic humour and claiming that his moronic screen persona made cruel fun of the afflicted."

The philosopher Gilles Deleuze has written eloquently on Lewis' ingenious and unique contributions to the cinematic image, particularly pointing to the ways in which the comedian's films can be seen to belong to the post-World War II regime of the "time-image." Here, "the image no longer refers to a situation that is globalising and synthetic, but rather to one that is dispersive. The characters are multiple, with weak interferences and become principal or revert to being secondary." This cinema of the time-image no longer expresses the character to determine and overcome situations. Instead, character and situations constantly splinter (as in a dream) and metamorphose into different perspectives and mlieux. Deleuze also sees Lewis taking up "the classic figure of American cinema, that of the Loser, of the born loser, whose definition is 'he goes too far.' But it is precisely in the burlesque dimension that this 'too far' becomes movement of a world which saves him and will make him a winner." The new burlesque with which Deleuze associates Lewis belongs not to the Bergsonian comedy of the mechanical but to the electronic world: it "arises from the fact that the character places himself (involuntarily) on an energy band that carries him along... The comic is no longer something mechanical." Lewis is situated not as a star, personality, or individual but as a process. In comparing Lewis' films to those of Tati, Deleuze - like Bergson - seeks to identify the character of this new automatism that seems to transcend a national context. For him, Lewis becomes post-modern; his work precludes certain kinds of analysis (e.g., psychoanalysis) where unconscious motivation continues to play a role and reveals a dream world where boundaries between the real and imaginary dissolve. This regime of the time-image is symptomatic of a different form of cinema that exposes, if not undermines, the classical cinema of action and character of the pre-World War II era.

- Marcia Landy, "Jerry Agonistes." From Enfant Terrible! Jerry Lewis in American Film. Edited by Murray Provenance. NYU Press, 2002. Pages 64, 64.

What is it, then, that Jerry Lewis contributed to show business? I wouldn't deny that his ability to cause irritation is part of what he is doing as a comedian. Even back when I was a kid, Jerry's funny voices and facial contortions had the rare power to drive my parents out of the room. What grated on them, as it still does on viewers today, was the relentless infantilism of Jerry's act. Think of a small child's short attention span, its underdeveloped motor skills, its manic hyperactivity, its lack of inner restraint, its inability to acknowledge the needs of others or to resign itself to deferred gratification. These are the very elements that make up Lewis's comic persona. His slapstick routines have none of the grace and elegance that we find in the work of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, or for that matter Jackie Chan. Instead, Lewis wallows in klutziness. He has a very strange relation to machines and other physical objects. The slightest touch is enough to make everything go awry. The effect is always wildly disproportionate to the cause. Jerry pushes a button, and triggers an alarm clock that won't stop ringing. He pulls at a loose thread, and an entire fabric unravels. He sings a wrong note, and glass shatters everywhere. He takes a photo with a flashbulb, and night is suddenly transformed into day. I find these routines funny, but I suspect that they are also the very thing that many people find excruciating. Because they depend on a set-up in which everything is ever-so-slightly off. Lewis is a master of doing things just precisely at the wrong time. His body seems to flail about at random, triggering chain reactions of chaos in his surroundings. His personality, just like his body, has no center. Jerry is always teetering on the brink of complete disorganization.

All this is to say that Lewis's humor has a high discomfort factor. Often I laugh, but just as often it makes me nervous. That Jerry is infantile also means that he's excessive. Anything goes, without regard for norms of intelligence or taste. Even when Lewis has a good comic idea, you get the feeling he doesn't know when to stop. He pushes everything just a little too far. This excess is not an artistic mistake; it's the very point of Lewis's act. Most comedians create a sort of magical world, in which their particular brand of insanity rules. Such is the case for film comedy on nearly every level, all the way from the Three Stooges to Woody Allen. Lewis is nearly alone as an exception to this rule. His persona is never able to rearrange the world to his own liking. As a result, you don't get a sense of freedom from his films, the way you do, for instance, with the Marx Brothers or Monty Python. You never escape from that voice in the back of your mind that keeps on telling you how stupid this all is. There's always an air of shame and embarrassment to Lewis's films. The nerdy, wimpy Julius Kelp of The Nutty Professor can only escape his sense of inferiority by turning into something yet more obnoxious: the conceited bully Buddy Love. In Smorgasbord, Jerry's character is so messed up and so incompetent that he cannot even kill himself successfully. The film's a series of gags built around the fears and humiliations of an unsuccessful psychoanalytic treatment. But it is precisely this sense of discomfort, of being a square peg in a round hole, that Lewis' comedy captures so successfully.

Steven Shaviro

To note that the films of Jerry Lewis are a rich, pleasurable and endlessly fascinating meditation on their medium is to say little. With Lewis, it's necessary to specify which medium. Film, of course; but this is a medium that Lewis' work has changed and redefined – through such inventions as the video assist, which he introduced in 1960, and through the inventions of sound, image and performance that proliferate in his films. Then there's the medium of selfhood; and as Lewis' selfhood is public, intensely so, as well as private, his films meditate deeply on (and through) celebrity. He himself is a medium, a total one, to borrow the adjective he placed so significantly in the title of his book The Total Film-Maker, and no director has done more than Jerry Lewis to exploit the meaningful possibilities of that medium.

Isolating for commentary Lewis' work as a director is no simple procedure. Complications arise, in part, from Lewis' multiple status as actor, comic, entertainer, humanitarian, writer and producer; and trying to determine where Lewis leaves off in one of these roles and where he begins in the next can seem a pointless task. Merely establishing the corpus of Lewis' directorial work is difficult. If we see (as much urges us to) the Martin and Lewis films, though signed Marshall, Walker, Taurog, Pevney or even Tashlin, as having been co-directed by Lewis, we can't exclude the probability that Lewis also co-directed Martin and Lewis' many appearances on The Colgate Comedy Hour. If we hear “direction” as synonymous with “authorship”, then Lewis is, by his own completely credible claim, the director of the duo, having come up with its formative conception (“a handsome man and a monkey”) and guided its development. Moreover, after the break-up of the team, Lewis exercised creative control over his innumerable film, television and stage projects at a level evidently deserving the name “directorial”, even though frequently the credit, and many of the functions, of director were delegated to others. Who will deny that Lewis is the creator of the Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon which, despite advanced age and a raft of health problems, he continues to host every Labor Day? Is not then each Telethon part of Lewis' directorial work?

Chris FujiwaraSenses of Cinema

Jerry Lewis was born into a world of cinema, of images that fascinated him. Brought as a performer and star to the place where films are made, he learned film as a child learns the ways of the world. Like a child, obsessed with finding out things, he took apart the toys he was given, trying to see what was inside them and how they worked. When he won the chance to direct his own films, he used the opportunity to launch a relentless examination of his own relationship with filmic and verbal language.

Taking his curtain call (in character as goofy Professor Kelp) in The Nutty Professor(1963), Lewis stumbles and falls into the camera lens. Lewis's understanding of film is such that the lens is never merely a point in space, an abstract function that organizes images, or a metaphor for consciousness grasping the world. The lens is a physical thing, part of the great big mess of material existence. In The Family Jewels (1965), the photographer Julius (Lewis) repeatedly presses his finger onto the lens of his camera, to show his niece (Donna Butterworth) where she should look ("You'll have a face full of fingers," he even remarks). In The Bellboy (1960), Stanley (Lewis), realizing on entering a room that he is surrounded with female models in negligees, crosses to the foreground and prudishly covers the camera lens with the palm of his hand. In the ball sequence in One More Time (1970), the eruption of a long-suppressed sneeze causes Charlie (Sammy Davis Jr.) to lurch forward, Kelp-like, into the camera lens. The cut shows a reverse field where already—in the instant of the cut—the exaggerated force of Charlie's sneeze has toppled a group of party guests, who slowly start picking themselves up from the floor, like the animated suits of armor in a magnificent gag in The Errand Boy (1961).

In all these scenes, Lewis is concerned with two fundamental questions of cinema: How to see? and What should be seen? He uncovers the logic that makes seeing aggression, the logic of the look that topples the object (like Kelp's out-of-focus look in the bowling alley inThe Nutty Professor, when he mistakes a group of people for bowling pins) or of the object that topples the look (Herbert [Lewis] witnessing the infidelity of his beloved Fay in the graduation-day sequence of 1961's The Ladies Man). The look confronting its object (taking or mistaking it, or being taken by it) is one of the basic structures of Lewis's work, from which he forms spiraling long-term patterns of conflict, avoidance, and reversal, welcoming or ignoring contradiction, violating the premises of a scene or even a whole film in search of new experimental truths (as in the classic hat scene in The Ladies Man, the nightmarish Copa scene in 1964's The Patsy, or throughout the breathtaking entirety of 1970's Which Way to the Front?).

Chris FujiwaraThe Moving Image Source

Lionized by the French critics as a comic auteur equal to Chaplin and Keaton, Jerry Lewis has seldom found much favor with critics in his own country. While other comedians such as Abbott & Costello (even The Three Stooges) who were similarly dismissed by contemporary reviewers but have since achieved a degree of artistic respectability—in some quarters, more than that—with the passage of time, Lewis has yet to experience such reappraisal. He remains more honored in Europe—especially France, although Germany and Spain have showered him with honors, too—than at home despite a career as prolific in its output as those of his more esteemed comic colleagues.

The reason for this may be that Lewis's style of comedy—which, in its post-Dean Martin period, focused almost exclusively on Lewis himself, almost never the characters or events surrounding him—strikes people as self-indulgent, self-centered, even egotistical; this is a major turnoff, particularly to critics. Also, the screen character he created and lavished so much attention on—the child who never grew up, a mugging simpleton Lewis dubbed "the Kid"—is very much an acquired taste. Children, especially young tots, find the character amusingly simpatico. But many older viewers, from age 20 on, find it forced, grating, shallow, stupid, and excruciatingly witless.

John McCartyFilm Reference.com

In 2003, in Bertolucci's The Dreamers, there is a discussion on films between the French and American boys. At one point, the Frenchman says, "You Americans don't understand your own culture. No wonder you never got the point of Jerry Lewis." The American replies, "Don't even get me started on Jerry Lewis." This exchange crystallises the dichotomy that is supposed to exist between the attitudes of anglophones and francophones towards Jerry Lewis: American no-bullshit pragmatism v pretentious French theorising, or American philistinism v French enlightenment.

In fact, it was the critics of the influential magazine Cahiers du Cinema who first directed Americans' attention to Lewis as an auteur. It was also this same magazine that alerted Americans to the value of their own directors such as Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh and Nicholas Ray. Plus, it must be remembered that when Francois Truffaut's extended interview of Alfred Hitchcock was published in 1967, the director, with his best work behind him, was greatly underrated especially by American critics. Gradually, perceptive American and English critics have begun belatedly to reassess and credit Lewis's work.

As Gilbert Adair, who wrote the screenplay for The Dreamers, argued in his book Flickers, "For heaven's sake, how can Jerry Lewis be Art? And yet exactly as if a Saturday Evening Post cover by Norman Rockwell were to be exhibited in the Prado, where its usurped prominence would take some getting used to, but once you have got used to it, why yes, yes! It didn't seem at all incongruous beside the El Grecos and the Goyas and the Velasquezes."

In 2006, Lewis was presented with the Legion d'Honneur in France on his 80h birthday. But, as the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has written: "Lewis's popularity in America is far greater than any French love of Lewis ... American denial of the American love of Jerry Lewis is pathological." In a way, Lewis receiving the Jean Hersholt award at the Oscars could be seen as a back-handed compliment rather than an honour.

It suggests that Lewis, who has never been even nominated for an Academy Award, is being recognised for his annual telethons rather than for the films that made him famous enough to do them in the first place.

- Ronald Bergan, The Guardian

Beneath the struggle to control body, speech, and desire, there exists in Lewis' work an ongoing but finally failing struggle to control identity itself. Here lies the interest of the career of Jerry Lewis, in both its successes and failures. If the characteristic banality of Lewis' rhetoric on "love" and "being a somebody" suggests the presence of a recuperative function (which perhaps reaches its apotheosis in Lewis' role as a healing and uniting force on his annual telethon broadcast along the Love Network), a positivistic attempt to contain and define the subject then the maze of internal contradictions, displacements, and transformations that crosses these texts continually subverts such a function in a deeply and successfully ambivalent manner...

It is now a staple of cinematic theorization that the movie screen serves as a Lacanian mirror, providing the spectator with an ego-ideal. Our experience before this mirror reassures and resituates us at the perfect center of a stable world. The Lewis film, it should now be clear, often presents something quite different, and perhaps it is here that the American resistance to Lewis (text and figure) has its genesis. Jerry, far from the idealized and coherent self we are encouraged to see, is instead more closely aligned with the image of the infant, as Lacan put it, "still sunk in his motor incapacity and nursling dependence." An image of motor incapacity, sexual ambiguity, and unfixed identity: surely these are the precise phenomena that must be denied by the ego craving reinforcement. And so the spectators are palced in the radical position of searching into the mirror's depths, only to find reflected back the incoherent and fragmented, multiplied yet elusive image of Jerry Lewis.

- Andrew Horton, Comedy/Cinema/Theory. University of California Press, 1991. Pages 202-203

Through the years
1926: Born Joseph Levitch on March 26 in Newark, the only child of vaudevillian Danny and wife Rea.

1946: Teams with singer Dean Martin for the first time on July 25 at Atlantic City's 500 Club, becoming an overnight sensation in the second show after bombing in the first.

1949: Martin and Lewis become contract players at Paramount Pictures, leading to 16 phenomenally successful movies.

1950: On TV specials with Martin, Lewis begins his crusade on behalf of the recently formed Muscular Dystrophy Association.

1956: Wacky road pic Hollywood or Bust released, but partnership with Martin dissolves during final week of July, nearly 10 years after their teaming.

1960: Lewis' first directorial effort, The Bellboy, premieres in July, earning him previously eluded international acclaim.

1963: Jekyll-and-Hyde high jinks in The Nutty Professor, universally regarded as Lewis' best movie, which opens in June.

1965: Falls during a performance in March, injuring his spinal cord and leading to "37 years of pain."

1970: Appears in his last movie for 11 years, the poorly received Which Way to the Front?

1976: In a surprise arranged by Frank Sinatra, middle, Lewis is reunited with Dean Martin on live TV.

1977: Nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his work with muscular dystrophy.

1983: Receives critical acclaim for his dark role as TV talk-show host Jerry Langford in Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy.

1995: Premieres on Broadway in a revival of Damn Yankees, leading to a nationwide tour.

2002: Credits a surgical implant and its hand-held controlling device with making him pain-free for the first time since 1965.

Though he has long been chided for being abrasive and egomaniacal, Lewis can be uncommonly gracious and outgoing. He has finally reached that stage in his career when he can reflect and inspire others to do the same.

"From 1936 on," he explains, "I have taken more falls than any other 20 comedians put together. From the time I was 21, I've taken them on everything from clay courts to cement to wood floors, coming off pianos, going out a two-story window, landing on Dean, falling into the rough. You do that and you're gonna have problems. I had pain during the last eight films; I've had pain in 37 straight telethons. I've never had a day without pain since March 20, 1965."

That's when he took a professional fall that chipped a piece of his spine "that would have paralyzed me if it had been another 15th or 16th of an inch." As it was, the chip led to a much-publicized Percodan addiction at its worst in the early '70s — and more recently a domino effect of afflictions, including nerve damage and the pulmonary fibrosis that has mandated his taking of the steroid prednisone. The drug contributed to his 45-pound weight gain. Lewis says his longtime friend, famed heart surgeon Michael DeBakey, calls prednisone the "greatest worst drug in America." This is all atop past double-bypass surgery, prostate cancer, spinal meningitis and pneumonia.something like a TV remote. Manufactured by Minneapolis-based Medtronic, it's the controlling component of a surgically inserted battery pack that one can see vaguely outlined in his left side when he lifts up his shirt. ("I hate to show you this because I'm so fat," he says, "but look — see it?")

Doctors cut bone out of his spine and replaced it with two large electrodes. From the battery pack, he says, "the two electrical leads lock in and are naturally covered with scar tissue. I'm sitting here in pain, but in a minute, I'm not going to have it. When I turn it on like that (beep), I'm vibrating like a vibrator within my skin. I raise the level if it's not working totally. ... I've had no pain since April 20.

"It also opens my garage," he deadpans.

Earlier in the conversation, Lewis has been asked to name the biggest misconception people have of him. The question throws him, but later he returns to it. He doesn't quite answer it head-on, but what he says reveals something about the struggle to be a professional child but also an adult.

"My misconception," he explains, "is that I want you to remember I'm a monkey and that Martin and Lewis were 'sex and slapstick' unequivocally. That's my title, I wrote it. But Jesus, both men can have sensitivity, a brain, a point of view and certainly a component that made them say, 'I am here and pay attention.' All that is gone if you're a monkey with a banana on a chandelier. That's the misconception that bothers me. I'll be the monkey if you want. But you asked to meet the man, so I'll give you what you want."

Did this confuse the public for a while?

"Of course. Terrible confusion. Because when I would be myself, I was being big-headed. I was being egotistical. I was a megalomaniac, when it really was just having not to be a monkey for a few hours a day. And fulfilling the need to be a man."

- Mike Clark, USA Today

Jerry Lewis on Charlie Rose, March 17, 1995

A few years ago, I thought I might open a chain of eulogy stores where you could go in off the street and, for twenty bucks, they'll tell you all the nice things they're going to say about you after you croak.But I don't want people to say wonderful things about me when I can't hear them. Tell me now, while I'm still here.

- Lewis, Interviewed by Amy Wallace, Esquire, December 31, 2005

966 (108). Bad Timing (1980, Nicholas Roeg)

Screened April 17-18 on Criterion DVD in Berlin, Germany TSPDT rank #926 IMDb Wiki

A fairly simple break-up story told through a dizzyingly baroque narrative flashing back and forth, Bad Timing is a buzzing paradox, revealing Nicolas Roeg at his most controlled and most unhinged; this study of a relationship on life support is both coldly clinical and emotionally raw, sometimes in the same scene. Roeg slices and shuffles his film like a puzzle, putting the viewer in an obsessive mystery-solving mode not unlike that of Art Garfunkel's psychoanalyst researcher Alex as he tries to impose order on Milena, a wild-eyed, beautifully impulsive Theresa Russell.  The two have next to no romantic chemistry, which is just as well since the film aims to be the ultimate depiction of breaking up in all its brutal truth. It's obvious that the two have next to no business being together: Russell as a wolverine of an aimless twentysomething wishing for unbound adulthood but who falls apart without a steady paternal presence; Garfunkel (impressively understated) as a intellectual whose attempts to convey rational authority give way to smugness and acts of male insecurity. But the leads give in fully to the frustrations of their characters, making their frequent miscommunication painfully compelling, especially in the erotic charge to their desperate attempts to connect.

The eroticism of disconnection is also scored brilliantly through Roeg's associative editing: Garfunkel's raising of a cigarette in one shot recalls a similar moment in another (him catching Russell lighting up with another man) and whose emotional subtext (jealousy, insecurity) loops back to the first. The piece de resistance is one of the most unromantic yet cinematically sexy love scenes ever filmed, cutting between Alex and Milena's emphatic fornicating and a comatose Milena undergoing a bloody tracheotomy on an operating table.  She's is a numb body being vivisected, not unlike like her dead-end relationship under the surgical scalpel of Roeg's editing.

Bad Timing is as obsessed with sex as Don't Look Now was with death, substituting the moody gothicism of Don't Look Now's Venice with a Vienna that evokes a Freudian commingling of civilized living and ominous sensuality. In both cases, the strenuous leaping to and fro of the narrative leads to a stark naked moment of confrontation where one's dark dreams erupt into full enactment: in the case of Bad Timing, a climactic rape scene of unapologetic frankness, ugly, brutal, and heartbreaking.



The following citations were counted towards the placement of Bad Timing on They Shoot Pictures list of 1000 Greatest Films:

Dominik Graf, Steadycam (2007) Frank Arnold, Steadycam (2007) Lee Hill, Miscellaneous (2004) Simon Ward, Independent Cinema Office (2005) David Thomson, Have You Seen...? A Personal Introduction to 1000 Films (2008) Sight & Sound, Fistful of Five: Amour Fou (2006)

Wonderful Bad Timing photo essay from Rotating Corpse that showcases Theresa Russell's many looks and the often exquisite compositions.

Nicolas Roeg's Cuisinart cutting strains to create the impression of meaning in this rather dishonest 1980 thriller about a Freudian psychiatrist's destructive involvement with a mystery woman. Apparently the decision to jumble the time scheme was made after shooting was completed, which may explain the mysteriously misplaced emphases in the playing, yet the film's real problem is Roeg's willingness to sacrifice the logic of situation and character to facile shock effects. In his way he isn't much different from the director of Friday the 13th.

- Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader

When a film is structured like a puzzle, qualities that are merely bewildering can be made to seem mysterious, if only for a while. Nicolas Roeg, who habitually structures his films this way, has again relied on jumbled time sequences, allusive cutting and a wealth of similar techniques to give ''Bad Timing/A Sensual Obsession'' its suggestive, secretive air. But ''Bad Timing,'' unlike Mr. Roeg's ''Performance,'' ''Walkabout,'' ''Don't Look Now'' and ''The Man Who Fell to Earth,'' has a ponderous, trumped-up feeling. It lacks the shimmer of Mr. Roeg's best work. And it manages to seem both weighty and insubstantial.

The problems of ''Bad Timing'' can be traced, in part, to a screenplay that ascribes equal importance to all the incidentals of the love affair; they also stem from Mr. Roeg's confidence in the shaky proposition that these two characters hold a fascination for his audience. Dr. Alex Linden, played by Mr. Garfunkel, and Milena Flaherty, played by Miss Russell, are too often an unremarkable team. Alex, a celebrated professor of psychology, encounters Milena at a party, where she looks drunk and behaves brazenly; this is virtually her constant condition during the course of the film. ''If we're going to meet, it might as well be now,'' she says, blocking the doctor's exit with her leg. ''Why spoil the mystery?'' asks he. With that, they are off and running.

The struggle between Alex and Milena has to do with her desire for secrecy and his desire to know her, and with the contrast between her wantonness and his reserve. As the film begins, Milena has attempted suicide, which would suggest that their effort to bridge their differences has been unsuccessful. (If the suicide attempt doesn't do that, it at least gives Mr. Roeg occasion to cut repeatedly to the operating table, where Milena undergoes a grisly tracheotomy, and to juxtapose her cries of ecstasy with gasps from the operating room.) However, the events that lead her to such a desperate measure have no discernible momentum. The film is so jumbled it lacks a steady rhythm, and the story offers few clear highs or lows.

Mr. Garfunkel does a very creditable job of conveying Alex's reserve, but there is little in his performance to suggest a man in the grip of an obsession. And Miss Russell, who has also made memorable appearances in ''Straight Time'' and ''The Last Tycoon,'' brings to her role a reckless physicality that is both overwhelming and overused. Miss Russell makes gestures that involve her whole body, gestures that are almost frighteningly carefree; she is also capable of making almost any kind of behavior seem lewd. Her performance is hugely effective for a while, but Mr. Roeg allows her to repeat herself, and eventually monotony sets in. She and Mr. Garfunkel are given ample opportunity to connect, but they never manage this. Even in its moments of greatest urgency, their affair remains lukewarm.

Mr. Roeg goes to great lengths to make ''Bad Timing'' as exotic as he can. In a typically strained flourish, Alex and Milena are transported to Morocco, a transition Mr. Roeg accomplishes by letting sand pour out of a hollowed-out stone in Vienna, then cutting to the desert. And Alex is driven to commit a crime of passion, which is meant to be shocking, but hardly seems disturbing at all. The crime is uncovered by a detective, played by Harvey Keitel, whose movements are carefully integrated with Alex's, as if to establish a parallel, a duet, a duel. Like too many aspects of ''Bad Timing,'' this point is elaborately detailed, repeated frequently, and barely of any interest at all.

- Janet Maslin, The New York Times, September 21, 1980

Bad Timing (1980) is one of Nicolas Roeg's least seen films. The studio, Rank, hated it, publicly disowned it and briefly banned it from its own cinemas. This is particularly unfortunate, since it is a pivotal film in Roeg's career. The experiments in non-chronological storytelling that stretch back to Performance (co-d. Donald Cammell, 1970) blossom here in a film which is, on first viewing, difficult to follow, but is ultimately extraordinarily insightful and moving in its painfully close examination of a destructive love affair.

Abandoning chronology, Roeg jumps around, taking cues from objects, pieces of music, habitual gestures and various artworks, all of which link one moment in time to another. This makes the film a little disjointed at first, but also gives the relationship more of a sensory impact, as we go from highs to lows with little warning. The explicit sex, a Roeg commonplace since Performance, is interesting here for how un-erotic it is. There is a disgust throughout, about sex and about the human body, frequently distorted in mirrors, glass and paintings - the key moment being the intercutting of a bloody operation on Milena's throat with a particularly passionate sexual encounter.

The film marks the third collaboration between Roeg and Anthony Richmond, and the cinematography of Vienna is suitably cold and oppressive, which contrasts well with the brief excursion to Morocco. Tony Lawson's editing is exemplary, fracturing the narrative without rendering the film incoherent. Also noteworthy is the soundtrack, which mixes Pachelbel, The Who, Billie Holiday and, most memorably, Tom Waits, whose poignant 'Invitation To The Blues' sets the perfect tone.

- Mike Sutton, BFI Screen Online

Bad Timing is a clear example of a film way ahead of its time. What seemed obscure in 1980 is now crystal clear, and we follow Roeg's non-linear cutting patterns without the slightest confusion... The boundaries of normal flashbacks are clearly marked, allowing no confusion between the past and present. Roeg doesn't use flashbacks in the normal sense, but adapts film grammar to express a flowing state of consciousness. Past events become alive as we recall them. Colors, actions and dialogues trigger specific memories. Through the clarity and richness of Roeg's vision, they take on patterns that encourage meaningful interpretation. Artworks, music and objects are woven into the memory-fabric. Roeg 'encourages' some of these patterns to comment on the neurotic love relationship of Alex and Milena - the Kilmt paintings, for example, that center on brooding, intertwined lovers. At other times our attention is drawn to details given compositional stress, such as the pattern in a bed spread next to Linden's conflicted face. How many of our memories of important places and events are inexplicably dominated by images of unimportant details like wallpaper patterns, or cracks in a tile floor?

The density of Roeg's visuals enables reality to be eclipsed by an ever-changing set of visual interpretations. Alex Linden looks at a room, which pops back in forth between tidy and messy states, with and without Milena's drugged body as part of the decor. In his jealous delirium, a glimpse of her face will trigger memories of earlier moments - enigmatic smiles, provocative pouting. Netusil finds some photographs lying on a table, and comes up with another incorrect interpretation to add to Linden's own. Also, entire scenes are warped by a character's subjectivity. Linden confronts Milena in a college corridor, and her close-ups alter radically to match his inner turmoil - the focus becomes shallow, the background diffused.

Roeg also elects to change subjective viewpoints when he shows Milena's back story with her sad Czechoslovakian husband Stefan Vognic (Denholm Elliott). Lest we think her a helpless victim in this psychosexual drama, we see Milena toying with Stefan's affections. She pretends to be concerned, when she's actually amused by her ability to walk away from a man so hopelessly in love with her. Milena cherishes her sexual freedom, whereas Alex is rooted in the need to possess her, to make her exclusively his. Alex doesn't realize that he already 'has' Milena as much as she can be 'had', and it's his damning flaw (shared by most men) that he wants excusive rights. The conventional Alex is obsessed with Milena and can't stand the thought of her being with someone else, an attitude that naturally drives her into the arms of others. The movie is less about bad timing then it is about bad sexual chemistry. During a trip to French Morocco the lovers are in total harmony. She's ready to see their relationship go on forever, just as it is. But he wants to hurry to a position of control - a bill of sale in the form of marriage. Milena accuses Alex of being greedy in love, of demanding too much. Her continual question is, "What do you want?" (spoilers follow)

Art Garfunkel's poised inexpressiveness is perfectly suited to an intellectual accustomed to hiding his feelings to the point where he's not sure he still has any. Theresa Russell's performance is outstanding and as brave as can be imagined - one can picture a thousand actresses terrified by her ability to be truly uninhibited. Harvey Keitel would seem to be a terrible choice for an Austrian policeman. He underplays the role so thoroughly, we accept him without question.

Bad Timing is perhaps the culmination of the 70s idea of a director's picture. Ex-cameraman Roeg expresses more with his camera and cutting than any dialogue script could - the characters' attempts to use words to psychoanalyze each another repeatedly fail. Inspector Netusil bears down with a rational approach to the truth, like a Monk who has never seen a manifestation of God but knows his lot in life is to keep searching. Roeg and his cameraman Anthony Richmond get the maximum from their images. The visually precise Bad Timing outpaces even Roeg's earlier 'masterpieces' The Man Who Fell to Earth, Don't Look Now and Walkabout.

- Glenn Erickson, DVD Savant

Nicolas Roeg's Bad Timing is one of the most harrowing looks at human relationships ever told as a movie. In terms of sheer emotion and fortitude it ranks with Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage as a marvelous portrait of male-female relations, but it is far more cinematic than Bergman's film. The claustrophobic, hermetically sealed cinematography and performances are so strong, and the subject matter so compelling that the film will remain with you long after it finishes.

Art Garfunkel and Theresa Russell are stunning in the lead roles. Garfunkel is utterly convincing as Alex. He captures well the intellectual prowess of a psychologist and the primitive desire of men; the controlled aggression of Alex towards Milena is quietly portrayed in Garfunkel's performance. Russell is even more impressive, however, being utterly captivating every moment she's on screen. Her performance is filled with remarkable courage, but not merely because Russell is willing to display her body with tremendous candor. The strength in her portrayal of Milena comes from her willingness to play the emotional dichotomy of the character. Denholm Elliott and Harvey Keitel are also effective in their roles, though they receive little room to develop their characters. In terms of the narrative's focus on the disastrous relationship, the underdevelopment of the supporting characters is understandable. However, part of me wishes that Keitel's Inspector Netusil received more attention in order to make the final scenes stronger.

Bad Timing is another excellent study in human nature from Roeg. His unique visuals and storytelling style never feel forced, but aid the themes of the film. Indeed, the cinematography and production design are uncomfortable, but they reflect the events on the screen. This is not a picture interested in utilizing Vienna's beautiful scenery to achieve visceral effects; rather, Roeg and his crew prefer to externalize their characters through the film's look and sound. The music is an eclectic mix of classical music and pop songs of the 1970s, but it almost always strikes the underlying purpose of a scene.

Some viewers may be turned off by the emotionally exhausting experience of viewing this movie, while others will see it as a rewarding experience chronicling human flaws. I belong to the latter group, having been stirred by Roeg's film in a manner similar to Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris. If you are willing to commit yourself to these characters, you'll find they provide a fountain if insight.

- Nate Meyers, Digitally Obsessed

For me, Bad Timing, Roeg’s tale of erotic obsession starring Art Garfunkel and his wife, the actress Theresa Russell, has always been less of an unqualified success... Screenwriter Yale Udoff said that he wanted the film to be “Antonioni with humor,” but Roeg’s finished piece is not funny at all. It’s queasily disorienting, a film that feels like a hangover in which the good times are only hazily remembered.

Seen, however, 25 years after its release and in comparison to Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, which also invoked the Vienna of Sigmund Freud (that movie was based on Arthur Schnitzler’s Vienna-set novel Traumnovelle), Bad Timing seems the more truthful take on sexual obsession and the question of how much we can ever really know about a partner in a relationship.

- Scott Macaulay, Filmmaker

To hide the fact that this is all much ado about nothing (well, very little), Roeg cuts the film together so it's impossible to figure out what's going on until midway through the film. (Once you get there, you shrug -- "That's it?" -- and most viewers will tune out.) He also saddles the movie with subplots and side stories that never pay off: Milena is still married and her estranged husband (Denholm Elliott, the classiest thing in this movie) pops up from time to time. Milena is also under investigation by the American military, and Alex is called in to evaluate her file. Neither of these plots amount to anything. In fact, the whole government investigation thing is all but dropped midway through the movie.

Roeg was probably right to try to salvage the film this way, attempting to create a mystery with few other options left to him. But given his two leads, there's really nowhere special he could have gone. Russell is indistinguishable here than in nearly any other movie she's made, and Garfunkel, a bad actor of epic proportions, is impossible to believe as the lover of such a brazen hussy. Even Keitel overdoes it: It's impossible to believe he'd spend so much time trying to reconstruct this case (which ultimately turns out to be a question of rape), when the victim will be up and around in a few days to simply tell him what happened. Do cops in Austria have this much free time?

Roeg gives the film a unique look, and the snappy cutting at least gives it some energy. Less can be said for his penchant to suddenly zoom in on random objects in the frame (an out of focus lamp?), but as an example of what was both good and bad in 1980s filmmaking, Bad Timing is at least instructive.

- Christopher Null, Filmcritic.com

I didn't enjoy watching Bad Timing. It is, indeed, a sick film, sick to the core (though made by nonsick people for nonsick people, despite the famous quote). Its sickness will invade you as you watch it. If you've had a bad breakup, been a bad man or woman, or ever been with one, this film will open up old wounds and pour cheap liquor into them. It is voyeuristic, yet seems so personal that it makes you feel narcissistic. Even if you personally would never throw a mentally ill woman down onto the stairs and ravish her in front of her neighbors, Bad Timing makes you feel like you might. Top that uncomfortable dose of perceptive insight with an overly convoluted narrative and visual style, mix in a healthy dose of padding—Bad Timing becomes one bitter pill.

With that nastiness out of the way, let's step back a second and evaluate this thing clinically. Bad Timing is exceptionally multilayered; you could literally write volumes on the themes within its deeply nested plot. It is helmed by a great, if unfairly marginalized, director. Bad Timing is honest, gritty, and dense, with intense visual imagery. If you can get past the unwholesome core and irritating trappings, Bad Timing offers a challenging artistic experience.

In Bad Timing, Roeg elevates Walkabout's creepy Agutter riff into an in-your-face refrain. It is intentionally voyeuristic, intensely intimate, and highly creepy. Perhaps films should be judged solely on their own merit and not in comparison to similar works. Nonetheless, the temptation to compare Bad Timing to Walkabout is hard to ignore. Both films had intense sexual politics set within forbidding social environments. Both films highlighted voyeurism and victims. But Walkabout featured innocent victims who did not choose their circumstances. Bad Timing has the same undercurrents, but with consenting adults who are free to take different paths. If you took Kramer vs. Kramer's sunny interpersonal banter, then mixed in some psychological rape and the bunny from Fatal Attraction, you'd be close to the feeling you'll get from Bad Timing.

Despite Roeg's best attempts to keep us off guard, Bad Timing wears itself out by the middle act, which seems to go on forever. We're long past the point where we "get" Alex and Milena's interpersonal dynamic. Nonetheless, we must suffer through Alex's tedious path of clinical discovery, a side trip to Africa, several breakups and get-back-togethers, and exhaustive police questioning before the twist-riddled denouement arrives. It all piles on top of itself to make Bad Timing a draining journey..

Roeg graces these scenes with powerful visual style. Bad Timing is carefully rendered throughout, telling us what undercurrents are present simply through lighting and set decor. The interplay between characters and environment is nuanced and complex. It should come as no surprise that Criterion's transfer flawlessly captures this style. The famous 1970s film stock degradation, if it even exists in this 1980 print, has been erased. Colors are muted but saturated well, with deeper black levels than I expected. The detail is passed through without molestation. There are some strange blurred effects in the last few reels, and I cannot tell if these are intentional or not.

- Rob Lineberger, DVD Verdict


If something in the scheme of things has put them down for each other, then something else might equally have kept them apart—something called chance. As Roeg has said of their initial encounter at the party: “If he had left a little earlier or a little later—it’s just bad timing.” There are so many ambivalences in the scheme of things—so much shifting between the operations of hazard, choice, and predestination—and the dazzling, fragmented style of the film is designed to catch this play.

There’s play as well around the concept of “bad timing,” when it ceases to signal a romantic collision and becomes a matter of police investigation. A problem emerges—it becomes the framing drama for the story of the love affair itself—about Alex’s own timing, what he did and when, on the night that marked the convulsive end of their affair, when Milena was rushed to the hospital in a coma, from a drug overdose. This triggers the intervention of police inspector Netusil (Harvey Keitel), who is the third point in what becomes an unusual triangular relationship, as well as the man who owns a ball-in-a-maze puzzle to match Alex’s. There is a case to be solved here, but like the impasse that confounds Alex and Milena, Netusil also has his own identity puzzle to solve. In part, this is a doppelgänger story, but an incomplete one. The detective sees himself in the psychiatrist, but imperfectly reflected: the two men dress alike, but Netusil’s suit is, as Roeg puts it, “off the peg”; the policeman has a diploma from Harvard, but it’s for athletics. Netusil’s struggle—to better, to transform himself—seems almost to be a physical one, whereas Alex works only through mind games.

Roeg plays on the similarities between the two men in dress and mannerism, and in their disdain for the messiness of Milena’s life. But they have arrived at different points in life; at that moment they are, as Roeg puts it, “on opposite sides of the mirror.” For Netusil, “his demon was leading him somewhere else. I don’t know where he’d go, but I know he was in a lot of pain in the end, Inspector Netusil.” The name itself is a key. Roeg tells how it came from a visit to a painter friend, in the Ariadne Gallery, in Vienna. The owner of the gallery was Frederick Netusil, a Czech name. “He said, ‘Do you know what it means? It means “the man who didn’t know something.”’ And he laughed—that’s why he’s a gallery owner, because he doesn’t know about painting. I said, My inspector must be Inspector Netusil.”

Roeg’s achievement, through the seventies and eighties, was to construct a form that might not have approached Greed in physical length but whose glittering piecemeal construction was another way to create this density of suggestion. Many critics who only noticed the glitter accused Roeg of being merely a glorified cameraman, dressing up the job he had previously carried out for other directors. But photography is no more important in this scheme than editing and production design. The turn-of-the-century Viennese art world is part of the emotional texture of Bad Timing, the contrast between the romantic shimmer of Gustav Klimt and the psychological darkness of Egon Schiele.

Udoff has talked about how his and Roeg’s conceptions of the project did differ slightly in one respect. According to Udoff, some humor was lost. “I wanted to be the Antonioni with humor,” but Roeg’s drive was to make it more intense. “There was always a push to make Garfunkel really a heavy, to make him unbearable. As the script evolved, I got the feeling that Nic thought of himself as the Theresa Russell character, and I was, in his eyes, the Garfunkel character. Nic is always being pursued by the studios, by people with scripts, just as, in Garfunkel’s mind, Theresa is being pursued by all these people. And I think he felt, in a way, in his own career as a director, a fear of being devoured by people who want him to do their work rather than his work. That was, in a sense, what he saw in the Theresa Russell character. It’s in how he directed her.”

- Richard Combs, The Criterion Collection

The tragic reality of Alex and Milena’s affair is beautifully hinted at in the opening scene. As Tom Waits sings ‘An Invitation to the Blues’ (’She’s a moving violation from her conk down to her toes…’) on the soundtrack, Milena stands in a gallery, studying Klimt’s painting, The Kiss. At first, the artwork appears to be a study of an amorous clinch. But closer inspection reveals a chilling undercurrent: the man in the painting is passionately kissing the woman but his lover’s cheek is slightly turned, a disengaged gaze in her eyes. Klimt captures this fleeting moment forever. And in that suspended beat, the couple have never been further apart.

Like Klimt, Roeg is fascinated by these momentary incidentals. In his films, the edge of the frame, the split second is where the truth is hidden, or briefly held. This can be nothing more than a humorous aside: as in the scene where Alex meets with a tea-drinking diplomat to discuss the legalities of divorce in a foreign land. Roeg’s camera glimpses a bowl of heart-shaped sugar cubes: a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cry for sweet love perhaps. But Roeg also uses these flashes for unsettling purposes. And he does so with devastating effect early on in Bad Timing.

Alex is stood talking to a nurse in the hospital corridor, while a team of surgeons try to revive Milena. Netusil is led by the night duty officer past Alex. The two characters have not yet been introduced: they are strangers. Alex briefly looks up at Netusil and in that fraction, Netusil winks directly at him. It is nothing but, at the same time, everything. A link is made between the two: they are now somehow complicit in the events about to unfold. It is random, dazzling and confrontational. Just like the film.

- Ben Cobb, Electric Sheep

A corresponding sense of pressure-leading-to-fracture informs Roeg's visu­als. At first it looks in Bad Timing as if Roeg has gone for baroque, or, more ac­curately, for art nouveau. A Gustav Klimt portrait of a woman, her softly outlined head emerging from a razzle – dazzle mo­saic representing the sitter's dress, looms over the art gallery interior where Garfunkel and Russell meet. And it's not the film's last nod to that fin de siècle Aus­trian artist. Klimt was a painter who broke up the classical contours of oil painting into rainbow – hued fragments. In much the same way, Roeg has splintered and rear­ranged the linearity of orthodox movie storytelling.

If Klimt is a taking – off point for the film's style, the paintings of his pupil Egon Schiele add force and meaning to its content. Schiele's swirling expression­ist couples, bound in a morbid frenzy of lovemaking, were an offspring of art nou­veau, and it is no accident that Schiele's work is constantly glimpsed in the back­ground of Roeg's Vienna-set meditation on love and death.

The film's eye-blink editing and sudden juxtapositions create a running concatena­tion between Eros and Thanatos: Scenes of lovemaking between Garfunkel and Russell cut (in flash-forward) to scenes of Russell lying on the hospital operating table after her suicide attempt. And throughout the movie, structure is dictated less by the demands of linear chronology than by the polar attraction of opposite themes.

Furthermore, where Garfunkel and Russell are set against each other in the film, Garfunkel and Keitel – two ob­server-investigators – grow mysteriously together during the film as hero and doppelgänger, ghostly comrades. "One of the basic ideas of the film," says Roeg, "is observing, spying. In the scene where he lectures a university class, Garfunkel talks about the voyeur impulse. And he him­self, an analyst, is a spy of sorts. Every­body watches everybody. That's what we all do – not least film audiences. There's a voyeuristic appetite for detachment, for the vicarious, that's a key part of people's personalities. "

Roeg adds, "Keitel and Garfunkel in the film are really aspects of the same character. Keitel's a kind of alter ego. They're both watchers and analysts – men who want everything to be tidy, obedient, pliant to their wills."

This theme of moral manipulation runs right through Bad Timing. Allied to the film's recurring voyeur motif and to Roeg's use of erotic angles in the love scenes – the camera shooting over thighs or between legs – it virtually invites us to see an analogy with cinema itself, and perhaps with Roeg's own cinema in par­ticular. More than any living director, Roeg makes an audience feel that his film is not so much taking place on a flat screen, in finite space and time, as ex­ploding multidimensionally around them.

Roeg pursues this multidimensional­ism right from the beginning of his plan­ning on a film. I asked him if he story-boarded or meticulously prepared his films. He replied, "No, no, no, no. Not meticulously in that way. I like to get who the people are safely in my head, what their problems or their happiness or their sadness is from. After that, I like to keep a certain plasticity about them. Otherwise, they're no longer living. I like to keep them living right up to the time the print comes out of the lab."

- Harlan Kennedy, American Cinema 1980

To conclusively detail all this film’s stylistic quirks would be impossible in anything less than novella form.  As previously stated, flashbacks are integral to the film’s construction, and come in many forms: as quick two-or-three frame intercuts, as flashbacks within flashbacks and even flashforwards within flashbacks.  At one point Alex brutally reprimands Milena and then his mood abruptly changes...and we realize we’re watching the moments preceding the outburst we’ve just witnessed.  Disorientation seems to be Roeg’s overriding goal.  Note his preference for jarring music cues, in particular the song that plays over the opening shot: a view of a museum painting whose serene mood is broken by Tom Waits at most gravelly.  Waits’ voice is in turn cut off by the even more discordant tones of a siren...a perfect lead-in, it turns out, to a singularly bleak story.

- Adam Groves, Fright Site

"The ground that makes me nervous in Bad Timing," says Roeg, "the thought that makes me tremble, is that I don't want to see in this love affair that sentimental middle area that I think we all know. It's a real, very painful love affair. When one's in love, the moments of lyrical love are to me implicit in people's behavior. It's actually something in that other, pub­lic manner that makes you understand that they have those moments of lyrical love.

"I remember when I'd finished Don't Look Now, I was cutting it and looking at it. There's a love scene between Julie and Donald – it's only an interlude – and I wanted to see what I was doing with that scene, whether the intention was right. So I tried taking it out. Now, in that film the emphasis is on a state of mind; things aren't necessarily what they seem in life. Without that love scene, you never see them get happy together; they're always rowing, Julie's always grumbling and running beside this tall chap saying, 'You don't understand.' They seem so miserable all the time! But most people do seem miserable: Love is a very miser­able affair. And when I put that scene back in, suddenly you can't get confused about them. They're like a married couple. They are a proper married couple. They don't get up and open doors, they don't have candlelight dinners, but – in that scene after they've made love – he washes his toothbrush in her bathwater, she brushes up against him, he touches her. It makes you safe that they're happy, or, anyway, that they're real."

- Nicolas Roeg, interviewed by Harlan Kennedy, American Cinema 1980


Four days into the shoot his two tyro stars begged Roeg to let them leave, and he knew he was on the right track. "Theresa came first. She said, 'I don't think I'm up to this. I'm terribly nervous. Please let me leave.' I said, 'No. I won't let you. I'm glad you feel that way.' Then I asked Art in. I told them, 'This isn't like another movie. We're shooting fragments of scenes; there's nothing to rehearse. We're in a city none of us knows, an empty landscape. I must ask you to trust that I know where I'm going. It's a maze, but there is an end to it.' We had some Martinis, and they agreed. Somehow, it was a release. I felt all right about pushing them further and further."

One of the many emotional scatterbombs stumbled over was that Roeg and Russell fell in love (they later married). I wonder if the fearless chaos of her performance is what he fell for. "When you admire someone's work, you are amazed by who you think they are," he says. "But their real secret is masonic: they keep it right to the end. Very few people are prepared to let you all the way in - to Kafka's 'point of no return'. We went very far. As it turned out, not all the way. Theresa knew it was too dangerous. That's all in the movie."

It was worse for Garfunkel. Like his repressed character, he had little idea what was in store. "As we worked, I think he recognised a truth in his character's obsession in himself," says Roeg. "Then he had to decide whether to play it so people he knew would recognise it. It was like coming out. The actors were all nervous and guilty."

The actors' immersion into their parts became painful. At the film's half-way point, when Russell vengefully demands sex with Garfunkel on the stairs, and he looks up at what's on offer like a naughty schoolboy, fearfully grabbing her, her skin mottling and flushing, the old claims that there was real penetration on the set of Performance seem small beer: here, psyches are stripped. And soon the fever spread through the crew.

"Everybody was peeling themselves open," Roeg remembers. "It was a wild time, there was a great feeling of release - sexually, emotionally. It was exhilarating. I remember one day we shot for 24 hours. I think I was the one who said, 'I can't take it any more. I've had enough.' We were shooting six or seven days a week. It was claustrophobic - play the part, go to sleep, go back. I abandoned control, and something magical came in. Bad Timing began to live itself. I kept out of the way of its forcefield. It was a bit of suspended time. A parallel universe."

Everyone caught their breath when Garfunkel and Russell's characters took a break in Morocco. Shooting on the edge of the Sahara, they felt free, adventurous. But it was the calm before the storm - the long day, back in Vienna, spent filming the rape. It looks deeply uncomfortable - Russell's head hanging back from her bed, while Garfunkel tears her clothes with a penknife, and enters her over and over. Shooting it was "shocking", Roeg remembers. 'The actors were frightened when they realised the disgust you feel when you can't control yourself. It's an extraordinary, horrible crime, rape. And you don't often see the rape of the unconscious. Usually it's someone dragged screaming into the bushes. There's a lot of acting going on. There wasn't a lot of acting in that scene."

After a break, some of the crew reassembled for a final scene in New York. But Garfunkel's performance was distant. They'd left their parallel universe and couldn't go back. Roeg scrapped the scene. But he began post-production thrilled at the work they'd done, sure audiences would recognise the characters' emotions.

But, Roeg recalls, "it was received for the most part very poorly." At the first test screening in America, I was going to meet a friend, a quite well-known actor. Afterwards, he got into his car, drove it at me, and swerved off. He wouldn't speak to me for three years. I didn't realise till then how seriously people resent you holding a mirror to their face."

Keitel and Garfunkel became firm friends from the experience. Roeg and Russell returned to Bad Timing's themes in other undervalued work such as Cold Heaven (1993), in which Russell's half-dead, cuckolded husband recovers from the surgeon's scalpel to test their love.

- Nick Hasted, The Guardian


One of the most film-like transfers I have seen from Criterion.  I don't even think the screen captures give it true justice in this case. Everything seems perfectly balanced and exacting in the color dept. with a clean anamorphic, progressive transfer that produces a sharpness that appears acute. Extras speak for themselves - and I was most keen on the enigmatic Roeg being interviewed and discussing the film (I do suggest watching it after the film itself as it does give away a lot of the film's plot details). Theresa Russell comes across is a far better light as a serious actress than a lot of the T&A fluff that has become associated to her through her career. Strongly recommended DVD package from Criterion.

- Gary Tooze, DVD Beaver

The deleted scenes are interesting for historical context, but it is obvious why they were cut. The photo gallery and liner notes booklet seem to have taken uppers and turned into mega-gallery and super-booklet. The liner notes are particularly impressive, with an informative essay and a telling interview with Art Garfunkel from Rolling Stone, and more.

The interviews are the real heart of the extras. Theresa Russell is luminous and salty while discussing this soul-rending film. She seems refreshingly normal in comparison to the intensity she shows in her scenes. This is one of the most peppy, informative, and involving actor interviews I've seen. It goes on forever, and gets more interesting as the interview goes on. Roeg and producer Jeremy Thomas somehow manage to seem stuffy and maverick at the same time, which goes along with their jocular dismissal of the intense pain and frustration involved with Bad Timing's distribution. Their interview also goes on forever, and is as informative as Russell's but not as engaging. Maybe it has to do with Theresa's considerable screen presence, so the comparison is hardly fair. The point to take home is that this pair of interviews is as detailed as a full-length commentary, but even richer for the face time and stills from the production mixed in.

Roeg appreciators will be in heaven with this DVD package. This is one of his most hotly contested films, and it was a turning point for him artistically and commercially. For these reasons, Criterion's interest in the film is understandable. Nonetheless, some of the stylistic decisions are best left in the seventies—and it is a psychologically brutal film that will terrorize you if you've ever been in a bad relationship, or been the bad one yourself.

- Rob Lineberger, DVD Verdict


IMDb Wiki

Magician with a Movie Camera: Nicolas Roeg tribute at the 2009 British Academy of Film and Television Awards, with video clips of Roeg's acceptance speech, on-camera tributes by numerous directors and a tribute video by Steven Soderbergh

The following quotes are found on They Shoot PIctures' profile page for Nicolas Roeg:

"A former clapper boy, lighting cameraman and cinematographer who belatedly moved into directing, Roeg never seemed totally at ease in front of the camera (or, perhaps more accurately, beside it). His visuals are often wonderful, but his later scripts can be woeful, particularly in the case of Eureka (1983)...If this all sounds unduly critical, it shouldn't be taken as such, for Roeg's standards and his expectations of himself are high, and his is a genuinely eclectic talent which can provoke, puzzle and satisfy in roughly equal measures." -     Mario Reading (The Movie Companion, 2006)

"Nicolas Roeg is a visual trickster who plays havoc with conventional screen narratives. Choosing an oblique storytelling formula, he riddles his plots with ambiguous characters, blurred genres, distorted chronologies, and open-ended themes to invite warring interpretations." - Joseph Lanza & Rob Edelman (The St. James Film Directors Encyclopedia, 1998)

"From his directing debut Performance (made with Donald Cammell) onwards, Roeg deployed a fragmented, associative editing style to shift between reality and fantasy, fear and desire, past, present, and future in diverse genres...Excepting Walkabout and Don't Look Now, the results, while intriguing, have often lacked coherence; the narrative complexity and bold, baroque images can seem a gloss imposed on conventional stories." - Geoff Andrew (The Director's Vision, 1999)

"When I was 12 years old, my father said the most extraordinary thing to me. 'The day you're born is your only chance to really have tomorrow, because by the day after you've got yesterday.'"

- Roeg, interviewed by Richard T. Kelly for Film In Focus

"I  don't like the film business. I don't like the British film business. I don't like the American film business, I don't like the French, German … I don't like the film business. I like filming. I'm a filmmaker."

"I've always wanted to get my thoughts over in film visually, without the intermediary of literature. I actively prefer to be in the cinema, but not the cinema of literature, which is like Victorian picture books. Faced with that, I'd rather stay at home and read."

"Before the whole Gutenberg galaxy thing, storytelling was more intimate, more immediate – like film. Printing con­fined a story within a binding and imposed artificial limits. It made stories into lengths. But before that, in the oral tradi­tion, stories could continue forever. It's one of the basic concepts of living that stories are one great story of which all stories partake."

"When I was in India," Roeg con­tinues, "I watched storytellers on the street corner. They used a very different form from that postulated by the printed page. Although I couldn't understand a word, I was fascinated! The storyteller would entice his audience, first putting a hand in his pocket and then gradually taking out a packet of matches, then a candle, then a knife, and an old flower. And he talked, gradually telling a story of death – some old extraordinary raja, you know. And then the story would de­velop in his, and out of his, own person­ality – and that was the storyteller's life and world."

- Roeg, quoted in interview with Harlan Kennedy, American Cinema 1980

Another 1980 interview, from the Toronto Film Festival (where Bad Timing won the Audience Award) by Gerald Peary

Your work also has a marked juxtaposition of fantastic and realistic scenes. Is this unusual mixing of styles conscious or once again an intuitive thing?

Well, more a mixture of the two. At times I've consciously wanted to get within the 'mind' of the story, which has meant getting away from realism. In other times it has happened unconsciously, evolving from the situation, location or the direction of the performances, all of which have taken on an unreal state.

Do you bring any influences to bear when creating these juxtapositions?

I really liked the work of Michael Powell, and in particular films such as A Matter of Life and Death (1946) and Peeping Tom (1960). When you think of his work, it was also a mixture of realism and extravagance. I thought he was an extraordinary figure and a very daring director.

When you began experimenting with this gap between fantasy and reality, was 'realism' still deemed to be the 'accepted' form of British filmmaking?

Well, there was this idea of 'naturalistic' cinema, but it was very falsely realistic. It wasn't that true to the outside world because it was very controlled. You must remember that a film production is a living thing, as it is being shot it begins to have a life of its own. The director's role then is more like a jockey who is impatient to start the race; he just wants to go. But a film can never fully be controlled in any sense. Too much control kills anything!

- Interview with Roeg by Xavier Mendik for kamera.co.uk

"Everything has a price," reflects Roeg. "Is it the right price? I don't know. It depends what you want in life. I've never been rich and I've always done okay. The price I've paid is that I haven't been able to do all the pictures I'd have liked to do. That's the price. Maybe I've stuck with things too long that haven't been made, and the thing has exhausted itself or the idea has been done by somebody else. Sometimes people say to me, 'oh whatever happened to that old thing you were working on?' and I've dug it out, and found that its time has gone."

- interviewed by Matthew Sweet for The Independent

On the surface it would appear that Roeg has fallen distinctly out of fashion, but one only has to list the four films he made in the '70s to be reminded how important Roeg was and still is. In Walkabout (1971), Don't Look Now (1973), The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) and Bad Timing (1980), Roeg rendered the very real and specific locales of the Australian outback, the canals of Venice, the American Southwest, and Vienna with both an appreciation for their exotic appeal and a dread of their terrifying unknowability. Behind all of these films is a question about landscape: how can we even think we can understand the ones we love, when we can't even feel at ease in the places we live in? To the chagrin of many critics, Roeg did not delineate this existential paradox with the austere moralism of Bergman or the godlike minimalism of Bresson, but instead seemed to revel in the beauty of this horrifying enigma. In Roeg's films, characters don't realise they are in hell because they have been having too much fun for the most part. And by the time they do realise what is happening, they have resigned themselves to the fact that they are past the point of no return. When I first became enamoured of Roeg's work as an overenthusiastic teen cinephile in the '70s, I called him a "romantic nihilist." I think the label still applies and I think this combination of overreaching expressionism and elegant despair is what makes him such a fascinating director.

- Lee Hill, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography

Dissolves were a technique used during the early days of cinema that lead viewers from one image to another without losing the audience’s train of thought. The logic, thus, was to ease the viewers into scenes without startling them by a cut. However, if executed properly, viewers can certainly follow a story that is cut and mangled. On example is in Bad Timing, where a young woman and a doctor have a relationship that goes terribly wrong. The film opens with the young woman is in the hospital, and we watch as a doctor dances around the questions posed by the police. During this sequence, the doctor remembers aspects of his relationship with the young woman; a fight, a look, them having sex, etc. By the end of the film, we can piece together what happened to this young woman; although it feels disjointed and erratic, it’s actually quite logical. Roeg pointed out that the film is constructed according to the shape of human memory and, thus, doesn’t develop as one complete story but, rather, in pieces.

Order is something that Roeg likes to play with frequently, especially the flash-forward. In Performance, Mr. Turner is shown early in the film, long before he’s introduced. We don’t hear any dialogue, nor do we encounter any other significant information about him. But a connection is being created here between Turned and Chaz. Roeg uses the flash-forward in a way to temporarily disrupt continuity, or to give the illusion that things are out of sync when, in actuality, they aren’t.

There’s a particular scene in Don’t Look Now where John and Luara are having sex, but while they having sex the continuity is intercut with them dressing right after and it goes from them having sex to each of them dressing and back and forth until both acts are completed. Here, the illusion of time is suspended between the couple having sex and then re-dressing, but the cutting blends together the time of the couple having sex and of them dressing into one time frame, comparing the routine of their having sex with getting dressed.

There’s a definite arc to Roeg’s early films - from a visual director who captured counter-culture and beatniks in Performance, to a director who blended images and content to convey story and emotion in Walkabout, and to a complete dismantling of how continuity works in relation to what we are seeing. Roeg’s early work is a testament to a strong visual story and the progression of someone who wants to astound the audience by making them not want to look away from what they are seeing.

- Meseret Haddis, Tisch Film Review

960 (102). The Lusty Men (1952, Nicholas Ray)

Screened March 18 2009 on divx .avi in Weehawken NJ TSPDT rank #740 IMDb Wiki

Consciously or not, the characters in Nicholas Ray's cinema live as if heaven is just one step ahead, and hell just one step behind. What these tragic heroes learn - often too late - is that both heaven and hell are moving faster than they are. But that tragic pursuit amongst dreams and demons, filled with aspiration and anxiety, is what gives his films their kinetic charge. It's not even that his films are cinematically action-packed, though The Lusty Men, with its generous helpings of real rodeo footage, certainly packs a thrill. It's that even in the quietest, most meditative scenes, there's a restless waiting for what's next that keeps the viewer on edge, anticipating the revelations of the next moment. In other words, Nicholas Ray is the first existential action filmmaker.

Robert Mitchum's performance as an ex-rodeo champ, a stoic lump of washed-up man meat, attests to this aesthetic brilliantly. Seeming only to live for nothing more than whatever situation comes his way, his hulking, limping frame either ambles along or hangs upright in postures of cowboy confidence; his voice is even more rock steady. That leaves his eyes to play a virtuoso range of movements: glaring anger or downcast shame, lightning alarm or low-lidded arousal. His eyes are windows to the storm of unresolved feelings locked inside.

He’s complemented by a ranch couple, young but no less hard-nosed: Arthur Kennedy, an aspiring rodeo star whose teeth gleam with carnivorous ambition, and Susan Hayward, who turns a thankless wife-watching-from-the-sidelines role into a gravitational coil of skeptical worry. The three of them collectively map out a vast terrain of equivocal emotions, dubious dreams and miles of regrets. It’s a world of hurt from which even the young are unsheltered – for me the knockout blow comes in a flash cutaway that lasts just long enough for a teenage rodeo girl to silently mouth “I love you” to her dying idol. We hardly know anything about this girl, but her gesture both confirms and expands the universal heartbreak that drives Ray’s vision.


A masterpiece by Nicholas Ray--perhaps the most melancholy and reflective of his films (1952). This modern-dress western centers on Ray's perennial themes of disaffection and self-destruction: Arthur Kennedy is a young rodeo rider, eager for quick fame and easy money; Robert Mitchum is his older friend, a veteran who's been there and knows better. Working with the great cinematographer Lee Garmes, Ray creates an unstable atmosphere of dust and despair--trailer camps and broken-down ranches--that expresses the contradictory impulses of his characters: a lust for freedom balanced by a quest for security. With Susan Hayward, superb as Kennedy's wife.

- Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader

Nick Ray understood character and psychological pressures better than almost any of his contemporaries, and The Lusty Men was one of his happiest breaks: sympathetic producers, a great cameraman (Lee Garmes, who shot Sternberg's Dietrich movies), and one of Robert Mitchum's finest performances. The story isn't much (the security of family life versus the rootlessness and danger of working as a rodeo rider), but the situation is rich in emotional resonances which Ray conjures into life convincingly.

- Time Out

I love “The Lusty Men,” Ray’s saddest work, and, like every viewer before me, I am felled by the beauty of the shot that finds Mitchum—a rodeo rider—limping amid gusts of trash through a vacant arena, with the sharp, heartbreaking light of late afternoon slicing in from the side. At the same time, I cannot rid myself of an anecdote reported by Mitchum’s biographer, Lee Server. A leading lady was required, and Susan Hayward was brought in, on loan from Twentieth Century Fox, while the script was still being written. She sat and knitted for a while, as Ray spoke of his characters and their various plights. Finally, she put down her knitting and said, “Listen, I’m from Brooklyn. What’s the story?” ?

- Anthony Lane, The New Yorker

The first few brief sequences in Nicholas Ray’s rip-roaring rodeo flick The Lusty Men tell us visually almost everything that we need to know about the director’s interest in this story. We see legendary rider Jeff McCloud (Robert Mitchum) straddling a bucking bronco in a display of his masculine prowess. We see him as he’s thrown from that horse in a demonstration of how that masculinity becomes self-destructive. We see him limp across the deserted ring after the show as the debris from the bygone celebration swirls around him. Afterwards, McCloud returns to his childhood home to find it dilapidated and owned by another person. With no home to return to, he makes a literal attempt to recapture his childhood as he climbs under his raised house to find a stash of childhood treasures. This affecting, wordless scene shows how in Ray’s films, the protagonists speak most loudly with their actions. Though Jeff McCloud might not be a man of many words, we see that he’s a man with secrets who is capable of sentimentality. When he does finally start to open up verbally, to the man who has purchased the farm he grew up on, the two of them communicate in the language of the everyman, with simple but sincere platitudes and philosophies. Perhaps the most telling moment of all occurs when McCloud compares his calling to a career in horse riding to a preacher’s calling to the Lord. In Ray’s eyes, McCloud’s choice of profession might define him, but in no way does that choice limit his personal investment in the work he does. Even in the most seemingly mindless types of grunt work, the director sees the possibility of grace (a fitting stance for a man who frequently worked as a hired gun in the Hollywood studio system).

After McCloud’s personality is established, The Lusty Men becomes more plot-driven, focusing less on his loneliness and more on his relationship with a young married couple who are attempting to earn enough money to purchase McCloud’s old home. The breadwinner Wes (Arthur Kennedy) convinces McCloud to teach him the ropes of riding. Louise (Susan Hayward), Wes’ headstrong wife is initially reticent to allow her husband to risk his life in the rodeo ring, but she acquiesces when Wes tells her she lacks guts. Before long, the trio set off on the rodeo circuit, lodging at a series of trailer parks and spending their evenings in rowdy bars as they hustle from town to town chasing after prize money. The film presents a portrait of America's capitalist system as a never-ending series of competitions, and as a result, the characters are rarely able to relate to each other without the buzz of commerce drowning out what they say. The integrated stock footage of rodeo performances genuinely adds to the excitement because it is suggested that each ride could be the last for these cowboys. The pursuit of fame has rarely looked so gritty in a classic Hollywood film, but the journey still has its share of humor and affection toward its characters.

There’s a certain amount of comedy in watching the two leading macho men tussle over who gets to bed down with the macho, gravelly voiced Louise, a woman who seems tough enough to tangle with either of them. Still, Ray isn’t out to make fun of his characters. Shots such as the one where he raises a US flag between a composition featuring his two leading men in the foreground suggest an intangible feeling that they represent some larger, unsaid thing about the working men of America. There’s sadness in the observation that the men in this profession inevitably start drinking and gambling to hide from others how scared they feel every time they get on the saddle. Since they seemingly can only fully express their emotions though riding and fear is not an option during the ride, the internalization of that fear takes its toll, leading to a slow downward spiral toward regret in which the men don’t realize that their days of fame and wealth are passing them by. Ray does an excellent job of establishing these internal demons, so there’s genuine tension in McCloud’s struggles to save Wes from the fate that’s already ruined him. Because of The Lusty Men’s admirable emotional restraint, the quiet moment before the climactic ride where the men exchange a wink, a half-smile, and an affirmative “Good luck” has as much impact as any more emotive conversation could.

- Jeremy Heilman, Movie Martyr

Written by Horace McCoy and David Dortort from a Life magazine story by Claude Stanush, The Lusty Men is one of director Nicholas Ray’s three outstanding films; the others are In a Lonely Place(1950) and Johnny Guitar (1954). (His vapid, sentimental Rebel Without a Cause, 1955, indulges the whining self-pity of its adolescent characters.). It is also the most substantial thing starring “the Brooklyn Bernhardt,” plainspoken Susan Hayward, who gives what may be her most electric and captivating performance.

- Dennis Grunes

"I have two acting styles -- with or without a horse," once claimed the self-deprecating Robert Mitchum. One of the actor's best Westerns was The Lusty Men (1952), a look at contemporary rodeo riders co-starring Arthur Kennedy as a fellow broncobuster and Susan Hayward as the latter's wife and third member of an explosive romantic triangle. At that point in his career, Mitchum considered the film one of three favorites among his own work.

To give the film its gritty, semi-documentary feeling, Ray spent months shooting on the rodeo circuit. He reportedly had only the bare outline of a script when filming began, so that scenes were written one night and shot the following day. Despite the hectic pace, Ray took so much time with individual scenes that Mitchum nicknamed him "The Mystic" because of his habit of staring silently at the actors as he led them to probe the complexities of their characters.

Susan Hayward, who was borrowed from 20th-Century-Fox at great expense to RKO, was leery of the project from the start since her part was practically non-existent and had to be completely rewritten and expanded once she signed on. According to Lee Server in his biography, Robert Mitchum: Baby, I Don't Care, Nicholas Ray tried to stimulate her interest in the role: "He zeroed in on a mutual enjoyment of Thomas Wolfe - and certainly drew from her an excellent performance, but she remained typically tempestuous and cranky - Mitchum called her "the Old Gray Mare" - and on one occasion held up production when she refused to play a scene as written." She took issue with the dialogue proclaiming her character had the foulest mouth she'd ever heard in her life. Eventually, they managed to come up with new lines that met with Hayward's approval.

Unlike Hayward, Mitchum and Arthur Kennedy relished the macho rodeo atmosphere surrounding the shoot and even violated the terms of their studio's insurance coverage by performing some reckless stunts on horses and bulls. Mitchum recalled, (in Server's biography) "I get on...and they all say, 'It's OK, he's just a retired old bronc,' and this thing is turned loose...and I can't get off him. They'd go in and try and pick me off and my horse would turn around and kick the pickup horse...I'm bleeding from my hair by this time.." Even Ray felt compelled to show he had what it took, hopping aboard a bucking bronco at the San Francisco Cow Palace. "I guess," he said, "we all have a little of that wildness in us."

- Roger Fristoe, Turner Classic Movies

Ray worked very slowly, to the point where Robert Mitchum nicknamed him ‘the mystic’ because of the way he would stare at the actors, trying to probe them for psychological insight into a scene. Robert Mitchum was well-known for his ‘indifference’ about acting and filmmaking. ‘What page are we on and what’s my mark?’ and of course, my favourite Mitchum quote: ‘People say I have an interesting walk, but I’m just trying to hold in my gut.’

Although Ray was a serious artist, he was also a womanizer and a boozer and he and Mitchum connected on this film, both as loose cannons and as artists. Ray was the first to suspect that Mitchum’s supposed ‘indifference’ was just a masking of his real artistic and even poetic self.

THE LUSTY MEN is a great film. Interestingly, the parties involved knew it even before it was released. Mitchum, who normally couldn’t give a rip about his finished films (‘They don’t pay me to see ‘em’) actually asked to see some of the film before it was completed. Ray obliged and showed him two-thirds of the movie. Mitchum apparently left walking ten feet high, he was so proud. In typical macho man fashion, they went to a bar to celebrate. Ray later recalled, as he crawled home hours later, that his last memory of Mitchum that evening was of him regaling a couple of drunk FBI agents. Mitchum then proceeded to borrow one of the agent’s gun and started firing at the dirty dishes while the kitchen staff ‘got the heck out of Dodge’.

- Jon Ted Wynne, EInsiders.com

"This film is really a film about people who want a home of their own," Nicholas Ray said of The Lusty Men (1952).1 In this way the film's central characters (two men and a woman) recall the teenage trio in Ray's Rebel Without a Cause, who find their one interlude of pure happiness playing house in a deserted mansion. In both cases, only two can find a home. Here the odd man out is the hero, played by Robert Mitchum, who also reportedly co-wrote the film with Ray and an assortment of helpers, coming up with the scenes as they were shot.2

Arthur Kennedy's specialty was ambivalence, and he's brilliant as usual, balancing the weakness and decency in this callow, petulant man. Even Kennedy's looks were ambivalent; he's blonde and fine-featured, yet there's some subtle flaw that keeps his face from being handsome. His smile is too aggressive, his voice too close to a whine. He never has the calm self-assurance that Mitchum displays, so he's a perfect foil. Susan Hayward's pedal-to-the-metal style can get monotonous, but here it's well suited to her feisty, hard-headed character. It seems to be Louise's utter, grounded certainty of what she wants that attracts Jeff, who never seems sure of what he wants. That, and her cooking. From his start in Westerns Mitchum retained something of the cowboy's stance towards women in his movies. He is forever the lonesome drifter out in the cold, for whom a woman represents a warm hearth, a good meal, clean sheets, a home. He longs for these things but pursues them in a self-defeating way, often attaching himself to other men's families and falling in love with married women who won't leave their husbands. The closest thing he has to a family of his own in The Lusty Men is a little tomboy girl who travels with her father, a grizzled rodeo veteran, and who — in the film's only cloying touch — mouths "I love you" to Jeff as he lies dying.

Mitchum and director Nicholas RayIn a movie review in The New Yorker,4 David Denby stated, "an actor won't last as a leading man unless he plays characters who want something passionately." That sounds plausible, but then what about Robert Mitchum? What does Mitchum want? I've come to the conclusion that Mitchum's enduring power lies in the way he leaves that question open. The motivations of his characters may be clear, but his performances blur them. The script may say he wants a woman, or a home, or money, or revenge, but he doesn't really convey lust or greed or any kind of burning desire, any need. And yet you can't just say he wants nothing — baby, he doesn't care — because that would make him invulnerable, and you always believe that he can be hurt, that he has been hurt. This core of mystery is Mitchum's gift to his movies. He's always holding something back. Trying to figure him out is like dropping a stone into a well and listening for the splash. It falls and falls, and you never do find out how deep the well is.

- Imogen Sara Smith, Bright Lights Film Journal


Nicholas Ray gets his own stand-alone webliography


IMDb Wiki

Tribute Page on Classic Movies.org with links to many other tribute sites

Meredy's Robert Mitchum Trivia Mania: 25 questions to test your knowledge of the actor

Robert Peters' complete volume of poetry, Love Poems for Robert Mitchum

Before Mitchum was two years old, his father, a blue-collar railroad worker, was crushed to death between two goods vans and through much of the Thirties he rode the rods around Depression America as an itinerant labourer, doing some boxing and serving a stretch on a Deep South chain gang for vagrancy. He wound up in California and, in 1940, married the woman he'd stay with for the rest of his life, despite his endless philandering and the drinking that would eventually lead to the Betty Ford Clinic.

He drifted into acting, appearing in 19 of his 120 films in 1943, his first year in Hollywood, and getting an Oscar nomination for his first starring role in an A-movie as an infantry officer under stress in Italy in The Story of GI Joe (1945). On the brink of major stardom, he was the victim of a rigged drugs bust for marijuana possession in 1948 and served a second jail stretch. Miraculously, he survived, his reputation as a hellraiser enhanced.

Tall, thin, broad shouldered and languid, he moved gracefully, had heavily lidded eyes that could express contempt, menace and a deep sadness, a broken nose and a curiously eloquent dimpled chin that he could tilt, pull in and thrust out to dramatic effect. Though he affected indifference to his craft and claimed to be averse to work, he was greatly respected by the directors he worked for. Fred Zinnemann considered him 'one of the finest instinctive actors in the business, almost in the same class as Spencer Tracy', and John Huston called him 'a rarity among actors, hard-working, non-complaining, amazingly perceptive'.

He first made his name in Forties film noir thrillers, the finest being the doomed private eye falling for femme fatale Jane Greer in Out of the Past (1947), creating along with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas a new kind of doomed loser hero. But he was also at home in the saddle, especially in such brooding psychological westerns as Pursued (1947), The Lusty Men (1952) and Track of the Cat (1954).

Arguably, his two greatest performances were playing psychotic villains, the first as the homicidal preacher in Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter (1955), the second as the sadistic criminal terrorising Gregory Peck, the man who sent him to jail in Cape Fear (1962).

Most of his later films are indifferent, significant exceptions being his sad, small-time Boston crook in The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) and his outstanding Philip Marlowe in Farewell My Lovely (1975).

David Lean (who directed him in Ryan's Daughter): 'Other actors act. Mitchum is. He has true delicacy and expressiveness but his forte is his indelible identity. Mitchum, simply by being there, makes almost any other actor look like a hole in the screen.'

Mitchum on his career: 'I gave up being serious about making pictures years ago, around the time I made a film with Greer Garson [Desire Me, 1947] and she took 125 takes to say no.'

The 1948 drug bust Mitchum gave his occupation to the police as 'ex-actor'.

Charles Laughton: 'All the tough talk is a blind. He is a literate, gracious, kind man with wonderful manners and he speaks beautifully - when he wants to. He would make the best Macbeth of any actor living.'

- Philip French, The Guardian

Video Essay for 955 (97) Hitler: A Film from Germany featuring commentary by Susan Sontag

Visit the original entry for the film It's been 30 years since Susan Sontag published her essay that instantly became the definitive analysis of one of her all-time favorite films. I've taken choice excerpts from her essay, as found in A Susan Sontag Reader (published by Farrar/Strauss/Giroux) to produce the following video.

Thanks to Margaret Donabedian for giving voice to Sontag's words, and Cindi Rowell for her invaluable assistance in editing the video.

956 (98). Lucifer Rising (1972, Kenneth Anger)

screened Sunday February 22 on Google Video and fileshare .avi en route to New York City TSPDT rank #900 IMDb

Despite having its copious array of montage and staging techniques pilfered by hundreds of music videos and commercials over the years, Kenneth Anger's incantatory envisioning of a sacred rite spanning the world retains a hypnotic spell untouched by its imitators.  Unabashedly sexy and hypnotic as hell, the film joyously embraces its libidinal energies and demonic inspirations, channeling an arcane series of references to Egyptology and the occult practices of Aleister Crowley and expressing their power in purely cinematic terms. Summoning Lucifer as the bringer of light, the film celebrates that same light and its infusion into a rich, sumptuous cinema of opulent color schemes and geometries of clairvoyant precision.  Superimpositions, associative flash cuts, venetian wipes, seesaw tracking shots, a complex, oddly moving rock score by Bobby Beausoleil, and the special effect known as Marianne Faithfull (aka the saddest eyes in the world) are all woven into an effortlessly lucid stream of violence, sex, death and cosmic consummation.  As far as mythic worldmaking goes, Anger's work conveys a richer imagination and mystic wonder - never mind cinematic resourcefulness - in 30 minutes than the entire Star Wars and Lord of the Rings series combined.



"A film about the love generation - the birthday party of the Aquarian Age showing actual ceremonies to make Lucifer rise. Lucifer is the Light  god, not the devil - the Rebel Angel behind what's happening in the world today. His message is that the key of joy is disobedience. Isis (Nature) wakes. Osiris (Death) answers. Lilith (Destroyer) climbs to the place of Sacrifice. The Magus activates the circle and Lucifer - Bringer of Light - breaks through."

- Kenneth Anger on Lucifer Rising

Perhaps Anger's most elaborate film, Lucifer Rising takes place at various historically magick spots in Egypt, England and Germany. The odd rock-tinged soundtrack (composed and recorded by [Bobby] Beausoleil in prison, after a reconciliation with Anger) pulls viewers through a series of obsessively staged and hauntingly realized ceremonies, movements and rituals.  Experimental editing techniques, mixed with more traditional cinematic structures, add to the eerie and compelling visual quality of this avant-garde masterpiece.   Marianne Faithfull,  the Rolling Stones (Anger had wanted Jagger to play Lucifer), Satanism, lightning, pyramids and extravagant costumes are only a few of the contributing elements that bring this film to a fever pitch of strangeness and cultural abstraction.  Like other Anger films, it reads like a music video from outer space or Ancient Egypt ... or wherever the two may meet ...


Lucifer Rising is a departure from his previous major works. If Pleasure DomeScorpio Rising and Demon Brother remained fixated on death, Lucifer Rising is about rebirth, a celebration of the power of nature and of the ancient gods. It is a film of breathtaking beauty and power that supplants the closed worlds of Pleasure Dome and Scorpio Rising as well as Demon Brother's zone of all-pervading disorientation with an awesome sense of timelessness and spatial immensity, engendered at least in part by having been shot at often sacred sites all over the world. The 'ritual structure' of the previous films is present, but opened up. It now operates on two levels, encompassing the world of the gods as well as the efforts of the adept at summoning them. Linking Egyptian mythology, embodied by Isis (Miriam Gibril) and Osiris (Donald Cammell), with Crowleyan practices, it celebrates Lucifer not as the devil but as lord of light. 'Lucifer' Anger observes 'is the patron saint of the visual arts. Colour, form, all thee are the works of Lucifer.'

- Maximillian Le Cain, Senses of Cinema

It’s tempting to assume Lucifer Rising was a reaction to the times and his critics. He had certainly never made anything as epic before (or since), filming in exotic lands — Karnak, Luxor, Avebury, and Stonehenge — using tones and textures to blend primitive and contemporary images, building his way to a futuristic crescendo in which a coral-colored UFO hovers above ancient Egypt. Sedate and painterly if compared to the pace and character of most of his 60’s films, Lucifer Rising appears as a heartfelt, reverent celebration of creation and the act of worship. The less erudite (re: this viewer) may have to fall back on crib notes to distinguish the film’s characters and functions. We’re told that the scenario traces “the ascension of Lucifer (Horus), Bringer of Light, invoked by Isis, Osiris, Lucifer’s Adept, Lilith and the Magus.” (For further explanation, click here.) Color me mundane. To these eyes, Anger’s flat-out showmanship has never been more striking.
- Ray Young, Flickhead

Lucifer Rising exists as an intersection between two filmic ideas, and it is within this intersection that the film gains it's power: more than any other film, Kenneth Anger's Lucifer Rising is about spectacle and hypnosis.

From a level of spectacle the film is pure ritual, literally and figuratively. Juxtaposing mythological images of ancient Egyptian Gods with contemporary Thelemites, Anger delineates the progressive nature of time in order to present to the spectator the necessary elements of the ritualistic form his film is taking. But what makes the ritual appealing to the audience is divorced from this esotericism--it's the nature of the films' aesthetics. Anger's level of artifice is exemplary; hyper-pervasive primary colors permeate every frame, shockingly electrified negative images pop up for brief moments, highlighting both the phenomenon of nature (lightning, volcanic eruptions, the birth of an alligator/lizard) and the exclamation points of banal events (as we tour through the hallway a man absently shuffling a deck of cards suddenly throws them into the air).

Anger's camera--generally static at a fixed angle in all of his films leading up to this one--finally begins to move in the aforementioned hallway scene, which is one of the most enigmatic tracking scenes that I've encountered through all of cinema. As we move through Anger's many tableau with a steady tempo, echoed by the calm score, there is an abject atmosphere of anxiety that arises: the film is telling us that something is going to happen soon, and we don't know what that is, but it's going to be something important.

Bobby Beausoleil's score is another necessary element of the film: composed from his prison cell, Beausoleil's score provides the soundtrack for Anger's film in the only instance where specific music has been produced for the specific film (excluding Jagger's grating drone "composed" forInvocation of My Demon Brother, the rest of Anger's films, as popularly recognized, are simply coupled with 50s and 60s pop music, often to an ironic extent-- there is no irony present in Beausoleil's score for this film). The soundtrack itself is an excellent piece of work, with or without Anger's images married to it. It is a bit psychedelic and ambient, echoing both the naturalistic evocations brought about by Anger's pensive landscape shots, and the internal psychedelia that plays a pivotal role in the film...

The only problem with the film is that from what people expect of Anger (from a locus of popular culture), Lucifer Rising is more of less at odds with what has generated Anger's reputation: it, to a large extent, lacks the hyper structural editing that initially put Anger on the map, as well as being totally devoid of the pop music that Anger pioneered the music video with. It is also not necessarily indicative of the homosexual avant-garde that Anger often gets lumped in with. The often ridiculed "campy" costumes are merely ritualistic signifiers. They are just conduits to a larger idea that is inherent within a much larger system, and reading the images as nothing beyond camp is discredited Anger as an artist, as a magician. But these are all surface level details-- further exploration into Anger's oeuvre reveals that Lucifer Rising is more accurately a culmination of everything Anger learned in making films. The obsessive fetishism of objects and sensory details is present, as is the already mentioned religious strain that permeates all of Anger's films, and all of this makes it easy to see that this is Anger's best film.

- Magick Mike, Esotika Erotica Psychotica


An extended account of the production history of Lucifer Rising by Tony Rayns

From an interview with Roy Frumkes for Films in Review

FIR: This is the 30th anniversary of the theft of LUCIFER RISING which strikes me as an important moment in the history of experimental film in this country, and I would love to hear the truth about the event.

KA: I began LUCIFER in San Francisco, where I met Bobby Beausoleil. He was a teenager at the time and a guitarist in a psychedelic acid rock band called Love. He was of the astrological sign of Scorpio and I’m Scorpio rising. He had shoulder-length hair and a very charismatic character and a harem of girls, which is what gave him the nickname Cupid.

We seemed to hit it off well. One day he asked if he could take my van and go down to LA from San Francisco because he had a deal-something to do with his own band. I advanced him some cash and he disappeared with the van, and when he came back, he put these wrapped-up packages in my studio. Eventually I became suspicious and cut open a corner of a package with a razor blade, and there was a compressed kilo of grass, which he had scored somewhere down in southern California, or possibly Mexico, which placed me in jeopardy, not only because he was a minor, but if there was going to be any kind of bust or anything…

I was furious over this, and when he came back I said, “Look. You’ve betrayed me.” He was a very tricky character in my view, very much like the Indian Trickster in American Indian folklore. Anyway, I literally put him outside the door, but he had the keys to the van, and he took it. I said, “Well, we’ll worry about the car later.”

I went out to dinner a night or two later and he came back and took the film. It was enough for about an hour and a half feature; it was practically finished.

The van he stole from me finally expired on the edge of the San Fernando Valley, and the place where it stopped was right across the street from the Span Ranch. The Span and Iverson ranches are both movie locations, with a lot of recognizable boulders. They’ve been in dozens of westerns and serials. An interesting location, and a bit eerie. And, as a matter of fact, the Manson family, including Charlie, were holed up in the Span Ranch.

FIR: And Bobby just happened to break down there?

KA: Yes. It’s one of those coincidences that, if it were in a novel or screenplay, you’d be pushing it in the coincidence department. But that is how it happened and that is how he got mixed up with the Manson family, because he did move in.

At the time, they were dealing dope and so forth. That’s how they were living, as well as from petty theft. A musician had sold some marijuana, a rather large quantity of it, to Manson. And Manson, acting as a middleman, had resold it to a chapter of the Hell’s Angels. And the Hell’s Angels, when they smoked this stuff out in the desert somewhere, had nearly died.

It turned out at that time that the DEA - the Drug Enforcement Agency - were doing dirty tricks on hippies. They were treating drugs with cyanide, etc. So that if you smoked it you’d get sick almost to the point of expiring. The idea was that it would create a paranoid situation where you couldn’t trust the pot, so you wouldn’t smoke it anymore. In any case the Hell’s Angels got very sick and their girlfriends got very sick. They all turned green, started to have convulsions, and when they got over this enough so that they could make some coherence of their thoughts, a group of them went to see Manson, who said “Well, I got the dope from somebody else.” And they said, “Okay. You kill whoever you got it from.” So Manson, being the little chicken-shit coward that he is, chose Bobby and said, “As the newest member of the family…” to test him, I guess, “you go and kill Gary Hinman,” who was the musician, living in Topanga Canyon, who was also a Buddhist, ironically, considering that this tainted dope came from him. And so, Bobby, with one of the girls, (Susan, who later became notorious for being involved in the Sharon Tate massacre) killed him, after doing some very nasty things like cutting off an ear, while Gary recited some sort of Buddhist mantra the whole time.

FIR: Good lord.

KA: Bobby was an intelligent kid, but these guys were taking acid, smoking hashish and pot, and dropping pills all at once. They were out of it. Imagine killing someone, throwing the bloody knife in the back of the guy’s car and stealing the car - which may have been better than the old jalopy that Bobby had, but… He was caught the next day driving around in Gary’s car, with the knife that he killed Gary with still in the back seat, with the blood still on it. He was sent to jail in 1969. He was in prison a month before the Sharon Tate massacre, which was done by a group of the Manson family on the instructions of crazy Charlie. Charlie never did these things himself, but sent his zombies out to do them.

About a month after the reels were stolen, I received a call from a woman and was told I could have them back for 10 thousand dollars. I said, “Well, I don’t pay ransom. And I don’t have the ten grand, anyway. So get lost.” She said. “Charlie told me to tell you.” I didn’t know who Charlie was. I never met Manson. To me, they were just crazy hippies. I was getting pissed off at the whole scene. I thought, all these kids, representing so-called flower power, they’re all in a moral swamp. They don’t know good from bad or up from down. And they’re stoned all the time. I was older than they were by quite a bit. I was in my 30s and they were in their teens. That was about the time that the Gray Line tourist bus started to come around, the looky-loos, full of tourists gawking at the hippies, and that was really the end of it. It made them all self-conscious. And then the heroin moved into the scene.

I was crushed when my film was gone. Friends told me to leave California, and in a sense I’d always felt that anyway. If something bad happens somewhere and I can possibly get away from the actual place, I will. So I went to New York, and that’s when I took out the ad. I felt I either had to do that or I had to do something very strong to stabilize my inner psyche, because I was in a terrible state. I was actually quite suicidal. And I said, I will kill the artist in me. I won’t make any more films, it’s over. And I’ll do an obituary with a black border, with dates from FIREWORKS to the murdered LUCIFER RISING. It worked in the sense that I didn’t kill myself.

I then went to England and pieced together the scraps of LUCIFER RISING that had been left in the dutting bin and, just as a joke, showed them to Mick Jagger. And he said, “It’s great. I’ll do a score for it.” And he improvised on the Moog synthesizer for 11 minutes and created my score for INVOCATION OF MY DEMON BROTHER. And that’s how that film came about, culled from the scraps of LUCIFER RISING.

When I was in England - now we’re talking about the early ’70s - I was going to give up movie making completely after making one last film. I put everything I had into this new one. I sold my stocks and bonds. I wanted to make a feature. It was conceived like a dance film. The movements and the music would all be conceived at the same time. I basically remade the original using the same title, LUCIFER RISING, but with a cast including Mick Jagger’s brother, Chris, Marianne Faithfull, and my friend Donald Cammell, the director of PERFORMANCE, who played Cyrus. It evolved into something much more interesting. With my connections in London, I got, amazingly enough (I’m the only American who ever did), assistance from the National Film Finance Corporation, which was a (now-extinct) government bank for film projects. They had permission, as a branch of the government in England, to finance artistic projects that weren’t necessarily going to bring back their money. They had put up the money for UNDER MILKWOOD when that was made into a film. I submitted an outline to them, and I got the equivalent of $50,000, which was a considerable amount of money at the time, particularly for a 16mm experimental project.


Commissioning an original score for Lucifer Rising was a smart decision. His colorful introduction to Bobby BeauSoleil, running up to the musician after a show proclaiming “You are Lucifer!” is detailed in an account written by Michael Moynihan for an attractive, informative booklet included with the new, 2-CD Lucifer Rising soundtrack. Other than capturing the mood(swings) and sense of abandon prevailing in and around the Haight/Ashbury during the late-60’s, when the young musician was in the Bay Area bands The Orkustra and The Magick Powerhouse of Oz, Moynihan has a clear appreciation of his music. (You can read portions of their extensive interview sessions online.) Composed and recorded in prison between 1977 and 1979, BeauSoleil worked in a makeshift studio on bare bones equipment with an ensemble of fellow inmates. Collectors have circulated bootlegs of the sessions for years, copied from the limited vinyl pressing BeauSoleil once made for family and friends. But this new edition — authorized by BeauSoleil and Anger — has been cleaned up and digitally mastered. Tight budgets and antiquated technology notwithstanding, the music now has the breadth of a major studio recording. All things considered, this could be the most important soundtrack release of the year.

lr002AA Donald Cammell in Lucifer Rising
The complete soundtrack runs nearly forty minutes on one disc, and the second CD serves up stages of its evolution. Tapes thought to be lost (or nonexistent) were tracked down, including two unexpectedly clear instrumentals by The Orkustra. There’s also a 1967 session of the Magick Powerhouse of Oz doing an embryonic Lucifer Rising that shows the influence of jazz fusion, and rehearsal tapes of the Freedom Orchestra recorded ten years later, that occasionally drift into vibrant solo improvisations. Performed on mostly electric instruments by non-professionals, the music has a palpable organic texture and is rooted in the blues. The film could ask for no better accompaniment, and it’s nearly impossible to imagine Anger’s vision working as well as it does without this sound. “It not only perfectly suits the mood of Anger’s film,” wrote Michael Moynihan, “but even seems to have been scored precisely to coincide with certain visual images that occur onscreen.” This is either good fortune or symmetry with the gods, because there wasn’t a finished print of the film to work off of. BeauSoleil had to rely on description and a partial slash print. He supplies a few buoyant passages that invite movie Mickey Mousing (such as the playful “Part IV”), but the rejection here of Hollywood cliché is a given. (In the film, this piece accompanies Marianne Faithfull’s ascension of Star Mountain.) Offsetting the electronic foundation, a lone trumpet is used in moderation adding an underlying sense of melancholy — and brought to mind Ennio Morricone’s work of the 60’s. Most of the score revolves around a predominant riff, an infectious cascading chord progression that has the cyclical flow of an acid trip churning toward its peak. It may be nostalgia for some (it all bears a superficial resemblance to the late 60’s Pink Floyd of A Saucerful of Secrets), but these ears found the twenty-five-year-old music vital and alive . . . and prompted the question, whatever became of BeauSoleil? An interesting man with an interesting story, he continues to compose and record, and has managed to build something of a small recording career from prison. The samples of his work that can be heard for free online sound like mini-scores for films yet to be made, and are on a par with, if not superior to, most of the material now written for the movies.
- Ray Young, Flickhead

Led Zeppelin guitarist and leader Jimmy Page has been fired as composer for the soundtrack of the film "Lucifer Rising" by it's director, Kenneth Anger. Speaking in London on Friday, Anger decried Page for time-wasting and a lack of dedication to the project, and claimed that Page's personal problems had made him impossible to work with. Page has been working on the film for the past three years and has so far delivered some 28 minutes of completed tape. The story of the collaboration -and the ensuing rift- goes back to 1973 when Page first agreed to compose and perform the movie soundtrack. He and Anger first met at Sotheby's, at an auction of boots by the English Occultist/Magician Aleister Crowley. Both Page and Anger are students of Crowley's teachings. Anger is a practicing Magus (a priest/magician) and his films'of which "Scorpio Rising" is perhaps the best known --- are replete with occult symbolism. Anger himself describes them as "Spells and Invocations".

Page has often expressed interest in the teachings of Crowley. He owns the second largest collection of Crowley's books in the world, and one of his three houses is Crowley's former residence at Boleskine on the shores of Loch Ness. "Lucifer Rising", Anger's most ambitious project to date, deals with the "fallen angel" of orthodox Christian Mythology, who in Anger's film is restored to his Gnostic status as "the Bringer of Light"; an implicit part of Crowley's own teachings.

The collaboration has continued intermittently since their first meeting. Anger commuting between London and New York to oversee the publication of his book on film-star scandals, "Hollywood Babalon", and Page involved with Led Zeppelin performances and recording. For the past three months Anger has been using the film-editing facilities in the basement of Page's Victorian manse in London, to trim the 17 hours of film he has in the can down to 1 ½ hours. Page had the equipment installed to work on another project, "Zeppelin Live at Madison Square Garden" film, provisionally titled, "The Song Remains the Same". Anger's work at Page's house was terminated by an extraordinary sequence of events beginning Tuesday night when Anger apparently the unwitting victim of domestic fraces was ordered to leave the house by Page's girlfriend, who was staying there at the time. No reason was given for his eviction. He returned to the house Wednesday morning to collect his film material and belongings to find the door locked and bolted. The same afternoon, Anger, unable to reach Page himself, informed his management/record company Swansong that the film collaboration was off and that Page had been fired from the project. Thursday morning Anger was eventually able to recover some of his belongings and the film from Page's now empty London home. Jimmy Page, in town for a friend's funeral, was unavailable for comment, but a spokesperson from Swansong claimed to be totally mystified by the news that the guitarist had been fired from the Lucifer project; he even expressed surprised at the information that Anger was even in London.

Friday, morning, a piqued but by no means disconsolate Anger was to be found at Page's home removing the last of his belongings and film artifacts-including the crown of Lucifer, paste studded with rhinestones from a dress once worn by Mae West. "I haven't laid eyes on Jimmy Page since early June" he said. I've been trying to get in contact with him since then; I've fixed meetings through his office and been stood up half a dozen times. I've left messages on his Kafka-esque answering machine. All I've had is promises that the soundtrack is on it's way, but nothings materialized. I've got a fucking film to finish."

Page claims "Now whether he felt that he had to get me off his back I don't know. I mean I didn't start hassling, I just wanted to see the bloke finish the bloody film. I mean it's whole history is so absurd that it was unfinished because he was such a perfectionist and that he always ended up going over his budgets. All I can say is that Anger's time was all that was needed to finish that film. Nothing else'. Anger had also made allegations that his belongings had been held-impounded by Page and his cohorts. "What a snide bastard. His stuff was just all over the place and I just got some roadies to get it all together for him. Christ, he even turned that one against me." "I mean, I had a lot of respect for him. As an occultist he was defiantly in the vanguard. I just don't know what he's playing at. I'm totally bemused and really disgusted. It's truly pathetic. I mean, he is totally powerless-the only damage he can do is with his tongue."

- from uncredited article found here

CR: [Bobby Beausoleil] ended up scoring Lucifer Rising.

KA: After he was in prison--he’d been sentenced to death--he was reprieved because temporarily the death sentence was lifted in California and then it was put back. So he was, like, on death row and then taken off death row. Apparently there’s something like double jeopardy: once you’re on death row you can’t be put back on it again. I don’t know, the laws are in such a fuzzy mess, anyway. When I knew that he was finally in prison I--

One way or the other we began exchanging letters and so forth. And finally I went to visit him in prison [Tracy State Prison, California], and then I met the psychologist of the prison, who was a woman named Dr. Minerva Bertholf. She was a wonderful woman. And she said, "Well, Bobby has all this talent, and he has time on his hands." She was being ironic to say the least. "And he’d like to record the music for your movie now that’s he’s here." So she arranged for it to be possible a few days a week for the various musicians in prison to get together with Bobby and record the music. And that’s how it happened. It’s the only time it’s ever been done, and I never could have done it without the help of the head psychiatrist of the prison system. And she said it’s better that they’re recording music than rioting or whatever.

CR: Are you still in contact with him?

KA: No, because he’s married, he has several kids now. I can’t keep track of how many kids. He’s married a couple of times to prison groupies. They’re older women--well, not so old, but I mean they’re women who’ve probably been married once before, and that turned out to be the case. They probably have children by a former marriage. And there’s a certain type of woman who becomes--for psychological reasons that are probably suspect--they become enamored of killers in prison. Or notorious people in prison, in other words.

- Anger, interviewed by Carl Russo


As promised, here is our review of the 2nd Volume of Fantoma's The Films of Kenneth Anger, which immediately proves itself to be as essential a release as the first compilation.

All of the films look as fine as they ever will. "Scorpio Rising" starts the set and features a nice, film-like amount of grain, vivid colors and excellent contrast. The image of this film, as well as of all the others, is free of any digital noise or damage. Still, "Scorpio Rising" is an intentionally rough-looking film due to being the closest that Anger has ever come to making a documentary (as he says himself on the commentary). "Kustom Kar Kommandos" is a less improvisational film (visually, that is) than "Scorpio Rising". This carefully composed three-minute film about the fetishism of cars is presented in a very detailed transfer with strong colors. "Invocation of My Demon Brother" may very well have been the hardest transfer to get right. The film features many superimpositions and other distortions of the image, so we can be thankful that there is no ghosting or combing to be found. Instead we get a crystal-clear transfer with very vibrant colors. On this release we also get a different version of "Rabbit's Moon". This shortened cut of the film is set to a different piece of music and was made by Anger as a present to one of Stan Brakhage's children. The transfer though is the same as on the first DVD release, which means that it's pretty much flawless (it's the only film of Anger's Magick Lantern Cycle that was shot in 35mm). Next up is what many consider to be Anger's magnum opus, "Lucifer Rising". Here again, we get a sharp, detailed transfer with fine contrast and no artifacts whatsoever. Remarkable work all the way through.

The 2.0 soundtrack for all the films is excellent. There is no dialogue in these films, just the musical score, which sounds very strong in each movie. As I mentioned before, this disc's version of "Rabbit's Moon" features a different musical score. This time it's the catchy and quite rare pop tune "It Came in the Night" by A Raincoat. We also get an alternative audio track for "Invocation of My Demon Brother" that I have never heard before. Performed by the Magick Powerhouse of Oz (which can be glimpsed in the film) this is a piece of soundtrack recording that was done in 1967 at the Straight Theater in San Francisco for Anger's first version of "Lucifer Rising" (which wasn't completed and resulted in "Invocation of My Demon Brother", a re-edit of the left-over material, set to a Moog synthesizer score by Mick Jagger). While this is not intended as an alternate soundtrack choice for "Invocation of My Demon Brother", it is (according to the menu) "presented here to provide a glimpse into the times and atmosphere in which many of these images were created". It's an astonishing piece of music in its own right, very psychedelic and timely.

As on Volume 1 we get a full-length audio commentary by Kenneth Anger himself. The great man talks extensively about the production of his films, how they came about, what happened during the shooting and much more. He gives us background information on some of the bikers in "Scorpio Rising" and mentions his relationships to Jimmy Page and Bobby Beausoleil on the tracks for "Lucifer Rising" and "Invocation of My Demon Brother". There are still some expectable dead spots on the commentary, but Anger manages wonderfully to tell us as much about these films as he can. This is mandatory listening for any fan.

I recently voted for Fantoma's two Kenneth Anger Volumes as the best DVDs of the year and can only continue with my praise in this review. Fantoma has done a lot of fine work over the years, but this remains their greatest triumph. They were able to finally sort out the music rights issues of "Scorpio Rising", created phenomenal transfers of all the films, invited Anger himself to record audio commentaries and packaged it all in two beautiful digipacks with lovingly assembled booklets. To come to the point, this is one of the finest presentations of avant-garde film on DVD ever made, right up there with Criterion's By Brakhage: An Anthology. Essential viewing.

- Stan Czarnecki, DVD Beaver

Along with the restoration demonstrations, each film is accompanied by a commentary from Anger himself. Those expecting the man behind Hollywood Babylon to offer up juicy insights into his films are going to be largely disappointed, though he does have a few gossipy tidbits to offer about Marianne Faithful and her drug habits on Lucifer Rising. But more often than not Anger is matter-of-fact in his presentation, focused on interpreting his dense symbolism and obscure narrative threads (which is admittedly helpful), and occasionally commenting on these productions and people involved. The other bonus features include an alternate score for Invocation of My Demon Brother, which is made of fragments of Beausoleil's supposedly "lost" original score for the first version of Lucifer Rising; and the short film The Man We Want to Hang (2002), one of Anger's most recent forays into filmmaking, which is a documentary-like look at the colorful, rather grotestque artwork of Anger hero and famed occultist Aleister Crowley. The most valuable bonus feature is certainly the 40-page booklet accompanying this set. Containing an introduction by Martin Scorsese and essays by Gus Van Sant and Guy Maddin, the generally fawning comments and tributes offered up by these significant directors serve as further proof of Anger's profound and continuing influence on contemporary cinema. Also quite interesting and enlightening is an extensive interview with Beausoleil on his involvement in the first, fated production of Lucifer Rising(though he doesn't elaborate on some of the more fascinating rumors), as well as the production of his score for the second version. Overall, it's an extremely well presented booklet full of stills and loaded with great information.

- Jesse Ataide for DVD Verdict


Rich Rosell for Digitally Obsessed

Michael Den Boer for 10,000 Bullets

Cinema Strikes Back

Photograph by Mark Berry



When most contemporary film-critics think of underground cinema, Kenneth Anger's unique vision quickly springs to mind. Anger is mentioned in the same breath as Maya Deren and Stan Brakhage, and his canon are perennial film school student case-studies. Anger has had a major impact on avant-garde film artists and major-league film directors like Derek Jarman, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Francis Ford Coppola ('Apocalypse Now'), David Lynch ('Blue Velvet') and Martin Scorcese ('Mean Streets'). 'Fireworks' (1947) established Anger's reputation as a 'living myth' (Mike O'Pray), when the seventeen year-old film-maker shot moody homo-erotic footage during a weekend whilst his parents were away. The intense poetic images within 'Fireworks' attracted the attention of Maya Deren and Jean Cocteau. 'Rabbit's Moon' (1950) and 'Eaux D'Artifice' (1953) cemented Anger's critical reputation.

Alex Burns, Disinformation (with a long list of Anger-related links)

Kenneth Anger's fame with the general public is based almost exclusively on his best-selling 1960 book, "Hollywood Babylon," whose scandalous revelations transcended gossip. But a more limited audience knows Anger as a brilliant and stridently independent filmmaker. This reputation rests on nine short films totalling about three hours' length. Plagued by calamities that have included financial problems, threats, despair, lost films, stolen ones and seizure of footage by labs on the ground of obscenity, his output has not been prolific. But his impact on American film and television has been substantial.

- Mystic Fire

Anger is a high level practitioner of occult magic who regards the projection of his films as ceremonies capable of invoking spiritual forces. Cinema, he claims, is an evil force. Its point is to exert control over people and events and his filmmaking is carried out with precisely that intention.

Whatever one's view of this belief may be, what is undeniable is that in creating the nine films that he either managed to complete (Fireworks [1947], Eaux d'artifice [1953], Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome [1954-66], Scorpio Rising [1963], Invocation of My Demon Brother [1969], Lucifer Rising [1970-81]) or else released as self contained fragments (Puce Moment [1949], Rabbit's Moon [1950-79], Kustom Kar Kommandos [1965]), Anger forged a body of work as dazzlingly poetic in its unique visual intensity as it is narratively innovative. In many ways, these wordless films represent the resurgence and development of the uniquely cinematic qualities widely considered retarded or destroyed by the passing of the silent era, especially in the area of editing. According to Tony Rayns, “Anger has an amazing instinctive grasp of all the elements of filmmaking; his films actively work out much of Eisenstein's theoretical writing about the cinema…. [Anger] comes nearer [to Eisenstein's theories] than anything in commercial cinema and produces film-making as rich in resonance as anything of Eisenstein's own.” (1)

Anger's films are cinematic manifestations of his occult practices. As such, they are highly symbolical, either featuring characters directly portraying gods, forces and demons (Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, Lucifer Rising) or else finding an appropriate embodiment for them in the iconography of contemporary pop culture (Puce Moment, Scorpio Rising, Kustom Kar Kommandos, also Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome). This view of pop culture as vehicle for ancient archetypes is also the basis of Hollywood Babylon, his famous book about the seedier aspects of Hollywood history. In attempting to induce an altered state of consciousness in his viewers, Anger dispenses with traditional narrative devices, although his films definitely tell stories. Using powerful esoteric images and, especially in his later works, extremely complex editing strategies that frequently feature superimposition and the inclusion of subliminal images running just a few frames, Anger bypasses our rationality and appeals directly to our subconscious mind. The structure common to his major works is that of a ritual invoking or evoking spiritual forces, normally moving from a slow build up, resplendent with fetishistic detail, to a frenzied finale with the forces called forth running wild.

Maximillian Le CainSenses of Cinema Great Directors Biography

The complete Magick Lantern Cycle can be viewed as embeddable videos at Subterranean Cinema

In the art of film, the divine spark of intuition very quickly arouses the desire for total control. The studied composition of the epic leads us to the “frozen realms” of Eisenstein and late-period Dreyer, Sternberg and Bresson. We admire the formal beauty of these works but their coldness fails to move us. The spectator must “appreciate” the quality of these works before “feeling” them, competently analyse the ingenuity of the camera movements and the merits of the lighting before being involved in the action. The veil of judgment is drawn between the spectator and the drama.

Since it is now an imperative of the film industry that a film must be carefully prepared, designed and rehearsed in advance to avoid financial disaster, it is not surprising that the “greats” of cinema have tried to overcome these complication through a rigid intellectual control. But these proceedings increasingly take the form of rites, and in sacrificing freedom and spontaneity in this way the “icy masters” have at the same time stifled audience “response.” Their works are increasingly becoming “ends in themselves” exercises in highly refined style, but they lack the irreplaceable qualities of improvisation.

This widespread neutralising of the essential point of cinema - its power to simulate real experience - enshrines its more off-putting tendency. So we are now in the cul-de-sac of stylisation. From the mouths of the half-dead people who pronounce the oracles of the contemporary screen should come a freedom charter: the restoration of the persuasive poetics of the lyrical image. A freedom that is only possible through the artist’s intimate view through the lens of his camera, in a word through “personal cinema.”

It was precisely this “cinematic” potential for expressing spontaneity that attracted me as a form of personal art. I saw its disruptive strength: a way of bringing about a change. This means of expression can transcend the aesthetic to become experience. My ideal was a “living” cinema that explored the dynamism of the visual communication of beauty, fear and joy. I wanted my personal cinema to transmute the dance of my interior being into a poetry of moving images that would create a new climate of spiritual revelation where the spectator, forgetting that he or she was looking at a work of art, could only become one with the drama.

- Kenneth Anger, "Modesty and the Art of Film." First published in Cahiers du Cinéma, no. 5, September 1951, reprinted courtesy of Cahiers and Kenneth Anger. Translated by David Wilson

"Well, of course, people steal from me and it doesn't mean that I'm particularly happy about it, but there's nothing I can do about it and I can't copyright my images. I will say I'm "bemused," particularly by borrowings by MTV. And there are several groups that have done practically carbon copies of certain scenes from my films. And of course they've never given me a call saying, "Why don't you make a music video for us?" I could use the money. Unless I didn't absolutely despise the music, I might even think of doing it. But it's never happened. It's much easier for them just to steal. And the younger generation, people that are making MTV, some of them have moved into Hollywood films, but they are a generation of magpies, outrageous thieves, stealing ideas right and left. And they have amazingly little imagination of their own. If they didn't have people to steal from, I mean they'd really be hard up. And that's my opinion of them. I hope that doesn't sound bitter! I'm mostly just bemused."

- Anger interviewed by Claiborne K. H. Smith for Weekly Wire

Kenneth Anger on MySpace

955 (97). Hitler - ein Film aus Deutschland / Our Hitler / Hitler: a Film from Germany (1977, Hans Jurgen Syberberg)

screened February 4-14 on Facets DVD en route to, during, and back from the Berlin Film Festival IMDb Wiki

Lauded by the likes of Susan Sontag as one of the greatest works of 20th century art, while reviled by many both in Germany and abroad as a work of depraved reactionary nostalgia, Hans Jurgen Syberberg's epic rumination of Germany's Nazi past remains as troubling and troublesome today as it was thirty years ago. (Two top German critics I met in Berlin admitted to not having been able to sit through the film.)  Syberberg takes the old adage of confronting the mistakes of the past lest they be repeated and puts it to an extreme test, immersing its audience in seven-plus hours of Naziana drawn out to such length and breadth that it suggests a morbidly intractable fixation with its subject.

A historical zombie movie for intellectuals, the film fixes an unwavering gaze on reanimated Nazi figures like Holocaust architect Heinrich Himmler (whose obsession with a mythic Germany Syberberg seems to share), Hitler's personal valet, and Hitler himself, toga-clad and rising from Richard Wagner's tomb, as they deliver endless monologues amidst a landscape of kitschy Third Reich paraphernalia and atmospheric dry ice fog.  The film itself creeps like a mist, heavily influenced by a Wagnerian aesthetic of total immersion and seductive stasis whose registers of portentous yearning shift gradually from one motif to the next.  Other monologues delivered by contemporary performers often teeter into tedious, sermonizing self-absorption and effete irony (as if to counterpoint the passionate conviction of Nazi orators), bringing out an anti-cinematic element that denies pleasure and resists rapture.  The film comments on cinema itself through a series of rear projections of paintings, newsreel footage and other iconic imagery.  Sets cluttered with stuffed animals and uniformed mannequins suggest the basement of a Neo-Nazi taxidermist, the detritus of the past splayed out haphazardly yet betraying a precision of design, and an overall funkiness that becomes perversely appealing.

Also telling is the film's dual attributions of Nazism as both a precursor and an antidote to the 20th century American capitalism that, according to Syberberg, threatens the freedoms of the world. It's an argument often waged on the battleground of cinema, with Hitler posited as the greatest filmmaker of all time, and Syberberg actively deconstructing the "movie" that was the Third Reich, that massive production that was able, however temporarily, to break capitalist Hollywood's industrial and cultural stranglehold on world cinema. This thorough disenchantment with contemporary film culture is what has Syberberg reaching for his Nazi revolver, loading it with the ammunition of mythic enthrallment and redemptive cultural pride - and yet not quite willing to pull the trigger. It's a deeply ambivalent work, both longing to return to the lost Eden of a Germanic ideal while cautious of the consequences that such an impulse has already wrought on the world.

You can watch the entirety of Hitler: a Film from Germany (in German orEnglish, with or without subtitles) at Hans Jurgen Syberberg's website


Hans-Jürgen Syberberg's 429-minute historical pageant, conceiving Hitler as the logical end point of German romanticism. The film's American distributor, Francis Ford Coppola, retitled it Our Hitler: A Film From Germany, which proves that commercial genius can lie in the stroke of a pronoun: self-flagellating audiences made the film a sellout in most of its initial 1980 engagements.

- Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader

The third and longest part of Syberberg's extraordinary trilogy on German culture, history and nationalism (the two earlier films were Ludwig - Requiem for a Virgin King and Karl May), best described as a high camp, heavy-duty analysis of both history and historical analysis itself. The chosen method is to single out, act out, alter, and finally comment on the lives of a handful of 'awkward' German historical figures, from Ludwig of Bavaria through fantasy author Karl May to Hitler, the 'madman'. Behind aesthetic complexity lies a simple purpose: to show up the sort of historical contradictions solved by Marxists with bare economic models, and by others with suspect reference to the 'greatness' or 'madness' of the figures involved. Visually lyrical, the style is eclectic to the point of hysteria; and the tone oscillates between the operatic (Wagner figures large) and the colloquial (Hitler in conversation with his projectionist) without ever quite coming unstuck. Humour mixes with mythology and analysis in the attempt to reunite art, history and ideology. It's a quite remarkable film, with a sense of metaphor equal to its intellectual courage.

- Time Out

Hans-Jürgen Syberberg's Hitler: A Film from Germany is the most controversial film produced in post-war Germany. The central thesis of the film propounds the notion that Hitler is within all of us. Syberberg attempts to illuminate the German soul and German myth—and as such recalls romanticism's themes and preoccupations. Moreover, in his seven hour film, Nazi Germany is depicted as a gargantuan spectacle in which Hitler becomes the ultimate showman-filmmaker; thus Syberberg does not only challenge what a film about Hitler should be like, but also raises important questions about cinematic representation in general.

Hitler and the previously published book about the film had so annoyed the German critical establishment that when a section was previewed at Cannes in 1977, the film was virtually boycotted by all the major German reviewers. In protest, Syberberg, who felt himself deliberately misunderstood, withdrew the film from the Berlin Film Festival and blocked its screening in his native land for a couple of years. The world premier was held at the London Film Festival in 1977 and Hitler was awarded the B.F.I.'s annual prize for "the most original and imaginative film of the year." Subsequently the film was on general release for several months in Paris and Cahiers du Cinema enthusiastically devoted a whole issue to Syberberg and his film. Susan Sontag acclaimed Hitler "one of the great works of art of the twentieth century."

Syberberg wants to draw parallels to cinema on different levels. He makes reference to Melies's A Trip to the Moon, Welles's Citizen Kane, and Lang's M (the final scene, where Peter Lorre defends his evil deeds because he can't help himself, is here reenacted by Peter Kern dressed as an SS officer). Cardboard figures from Caligari to Nosferatu punctuate the film, therefore linking them to the idea of Hitler being a subject for projection of the most evil desires in us. Moreover, Syberberg perceives the trend towards ever-increasing conformity in the developments of cinematic codes as a further basis for his comparison with facism. Thus Greed and its botching by MGM becomes an example, but he also examines Sergei Eisenstein's persecution under Stalin. The figures of Hitler and Himmler are shown to be merelyrepresentations and not embodiments, when delegating their roles to various actors, historical personalities, and marionettes. The condemnation of commercial cinema culminates in the polemical comparison between Auschwitz and McCarthy's Hollywood. In Syberberg's view it was not the actual physical presence of Hitler which historically mobilized the masses, but Hitler as representation and Nazism as spectacle. He is convinced of the vitality of the myth, which is why he wants to break its fascination through mechanisms of estrangement and montage.

And this is the crux of the controversial German reception of Hitler. It is not so much Syberberg's aesthetics per se, but the fear that his aestheticisation of politics might seduce the spectator since it is bordering on aestheticising Nazism. His "creative irrationality," many critics argue, leads to further mystification and connects too problematically to Nazi-mythology.

Ulrike Sieglohr, Film Reference.com

About four hours into its nearly eight-hour running time (442 minutes), Hans-Jurgen Syberberg’s Our Hitler: A Film from Germany (1977) finally achieves liftoff. It comes, after hours of gassy cosmic gropings, in a welcome focus on the concrete: an excerpt from the memoir of Hitler’s valet and man-servant, Krause. The former sailor was assigned to attend to Hitler’s clothes, see that Der Fuhrer’s breakfast was delivered on time, arrange the day’s array of newspapers and dispatches, and otherwise make himself useful. So we get the devil in the details of Hitler’s routines, which not surprisingly make him emerge more vividly than the kind of epic breadth Syberberg is after here.

We’re told that Hitler could be surprisingly oblivious to clothes, and that the man who killed millions of human beings couldn’t bear to see a cat kill a bird. If no man is a hero to his valet, Hitler was human-sized to his, living simply, capable of a sentimentality that made him weep at the sight of a Christmas tree. Left to himself, he’d revert to looking baggier and more rumpled than you’d expect from the supreme being of the Third Reich, otherwise a genius at marketing himself. Hitler sensed what a shamed post-WW I Germany wanted and served it up on a massive scale, with an unerring instinct for theatrics. Although taking great pains to link himself to mytho-heroic antecedents, he was shrewd enough to stress that he was anti-elitist, a man of the masses in an age where mass culture was launching itself, especially through movies, of which Hitler was a great devotee. Social evenings at the Reichschancellory, we re told, ended with movie showings in Hitler’s private screening room. (Among his favorites:Broadway Melody, Disney animations, Die Nibelungen of Fritz Lang, who had the good sense to flee Germany.)

In making you shudder at the industrial scale of Hitler’s hate-fueled killing and lunatic ravings, the film also makes you shudder at Hitler’s perversion of language, the barbaric actions to which he affixed the labels bravery, heroism, nobility and so on. Syberberg knows his Orwell. The more horrible Hitler’s horrors, the loftier and more abstract the language became. It doesn’t help that Syberberg has his own language problems. Possibly he was doing an ironic riff on kitsch when he begins the film by telling us “The mysterious path goes inward, into night” or ends it by calling what we have just seen “a projection of the bloodbath of the future.” Although some of his pronouncements and connections are pretty contorted and others are simply bloated and shaky, he has a brain, but he doesn’t have much of an ear. One might almost say, with apologies to Cole Porter, down, down, down he goes, into the ground he goes, in a spin, loving the spin he’s in, loving that old black magic of death. Or at least transfixed by it.

- Jay Carr, Turner Classic Movies

A seven-hour-long film about Hitler caused quite a stir when it was shown in New York in January, 1980. Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s “Our Hitler” (a two-disk set from Facets) is anything but a bio-pic. Its original German title, which translates as “Hitler, A Film from Germany,” makes clear the scope of the director’s ambition: to investigate Hitler as a psychic and aesthetic phenomenon, or, as is said in the film, as “fantasies of the mind and their blood realization.”

Syberberg’s technique is as phantasmagorical as the approach demands. The film is a collage of skits and masques, featuring actors doing antic impersonations of Hitler borrowed from Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator,” cardboard cutouts and marionettes, monologues and pantomimes, accompanied by historical sound clips of speeches by Hitler, his associates, and his enemies. Shot in a studio, these theatrical sketches rely on a device that became an instant classic: the projection of slides and films onto screens behind the actors and the sets, providing backdrops that could change instantly.

One bravura sequence features a half-hour monologue by a character identified as Hitler’s valet (much time is spent on the foibles of the Führer’s color coördination); another shows an actor doing Hitler as the Peter Lorre character in Fritz Lang’s “M,” a child murderer who bewails his compulsion to a threatening mob. The film’s iconic image shows Hitler wearing a toga and rising from the grave of Richard Wagner. In Syberberg’s view, Hitler was not only the fulfillment of German culture but of “the whole Western culture and the Christian God,” and the defeat of Germany in the war did not mark Hitler’s defeat but, rather, inaugurated the triumph of his ideas throughout Europe and the world. The spread of Communism in the East and of materialism in the West, the resurgence of anti-Semitism and of the death penalty—and, over all, what he calls “freedom without a human face”—all strike him as the elements of Hitler’s victory.

Susan Sontag’s enthusiasm for the film (she called it “one of the great works of art of the twentieth century”) played a role in its American release. Francis Ford Coppola (who borrowed the rear-screen projection method for “One from the Heart”) picked it up for distribution, and it played to sold-out houses at Lincoln Center and at Hunter College. Yet the film’s influence was limited, perhaps due to its surprising impersonality. For all of his prodigious intellectual substance and theatrical ingenuity, Syberberg himself stays outside and above the fray, speculating invisibly on history from the hermetic enclosure of a studio. He may have got deep into the German psyche but he stayed resolutely outside his own.

- Richard Brody, The New Yorker

Syberberg’s metatext is not a self-flattering mirror but an injunction to self-judgment. “We’ll make it a commercial film, for after all, film has always been a commercial business,” Heinz Schubert’s sardonic circus barker remarks. Syberberg’s critique is an immanent one, knowingly mired in the Dantean muck of commercialism that has made Nazism a sellable brand name even as it scorns it. His boundless rage is directed as much against the contemporary consumer society of the West as against the historical atrocity of Hitlerism.

While Syberberg’s rhetoric indulges in the same rather simplistic linking of fascism to consumerism then common on both sides of the Iron Curtain—as witness Mikhail Romm’s Ordinary Fascism (1966), another moral treatise in documentary guise—this relates to his major theme: that Hitler simply activated currents already circulating through the realms of society, thought, and belief that with the assent of the world he made himself a compendium of the endless clichés of hate. For Syberberg, the pornographic consumer society of the “good old democracy” that emerged in the wake of Nazism, that now peddles the wares of that which it “defeated,” is consigned to the same Hell as Hitler—the Hell of ceaseless repetition envisioned by Walter Benjamin, where “precisely what is newest doesn’t change, where the ‘newest’ in all its pieces keeps remaining the same.”

Sontag, in her marvelous essay on Our Hitler, one of those rare pieces of criticism that has established itself as the authoritative (even if eternally disputed) starting point for its subject’s interpretation—think Sartre on Genet, Kael on Last Tango in Paris (1973), Lester Bangs on the Stooges’Fun House—quite sensibly points out that the Führer cannot be held accountable for the plastic consumer society that followed him, for it was well on its way to realization even as he railed against it. Syberberg, however, does not posit a direct causal relationship, but an even more damnable one of choice. In the wake of fascism’s dreadful legacy, to continue disseminating its myths in the name of profit is a moral renunciation, the same willing surrender to power—this time to that of the dollar—which allowed Hitler to rise to power in the first place. For Syberberg, the commodity society is the inverted mirror of fascism: where the latter sought to compress diversity into uniformity, the former markets uniformity in the guise of diversity.

This is not simply a polemical point, but an aesthetic quandary. How can an artwork be pure, how can art itself be possible when everything can be tagged for its niche market, when even the critical methods of modernism, as Sontag notes, can be assimilated into consumer society’s “huge variety of satisfactions—the unlimited proliferation, and devaluation, of satisfaction itself?” How to make a Great Work when the Great Work itself has become a saleable and readily available commodity; when, 30 years later, every new, shallow provocation is branded a masterpiece by someone, somewhere? With the temperament of a Romantic and the sardonic irony of a Brechtian, Syberberg tries to break through the conundrum by having it both ways. Like Godard’s own television-spawned monument Histoire(s)du Cinéma (1988-98), Our Hitler is a messianic work unmoored from any faith in the sacred, a purifying work littered with cultural detritus, a noble work steeped in vulgarity. It valourizes and romanticizes the unifying and totalizing power of cinema, that “new child of the century,” even as it derides that very power as the enabler of banalization, repetition, and commercialization. It is a work forever conscious of the hopeless contradiction, the impossibility of its chosen task, even as that very impossibility heightens the urgency of what it is compelled to say, over and over again.

- Andrew Tracy, Cinema-scope, Issue 33

Our Hitler speaks eloquently of societal tragedy on a grand scale. Syberberg wields hefty ironies provided by many disturbing and sometimes blackly humorous juxtapositions. Much of part two is taken by an actor's recitation of memories from Hitler's personal valet, who details the Furher's daily routine down to its most screamingly banal minutiae, climaxing in his preferences in underwear. Apparently Hitler demanded the shorter underpants not the longer — or was it the other way around? Earlier in the film, a rather chubby actor in full Nazi uniform enacts Peter Lorre's hysterical "I couldn't help it!" scene from Lang's M to brilliant effect — it's Germany itself as a pathetic child murderer with voices in his head.

Himmler expounds on The Final Solution while getting a full body massage — I get it, fine — but towards Syberberg's summing up in part four, the filmmaker veers toward some questionable intellectualizing. He accuses Hitler of killing the Wandering Jew, who previously, "pushed by disquiet" had "creat[ed] culture . . . Israel has no Kafka." Interesting point: that a displaced people would operate culturally in response to their outsider status. Would there be a Mahler without the shtetl? Still, Syberberg seems on thin ice here, especially when one puts these views in context with various statements he made in the '90s. Viewing Europe as currently living in the "Jewish Epoch," sanctioned and protected by an US/Israel axis, it seems he has his own "Jewish Question": Western art, Syberberg proposes, is stifled by "Jews and leftists." Sounds, as the magazine Der Spiegel pointed out, like a certain frustrated Austrian art student . .

- Gordon Thomas, Bright Lights Film Journal

Hans-Jürgen Syberberg made the seven-hour 1978 experimental epic Our Hitler, A Film From Germany for television, but he also anticipated the home-video revolution, and hoped patrons of the arts would one day run the film on the tiny boxes in their living rooms, like art installations. Brechtian to the extreme, Our Hitleris staged in a cavernous theater, where actors (and occasionally puppets) portray aspects of Adolf Hitler and other Third Reich leaders, delivering beat-poet monologues that Syberberg swaddles in snippets of Wagner and intersperses with original Nazi radio broadcasts. Sometimes Syberberg moves the camera around the big, boxy space, exploring its crannies; sometimes he holds still, using optical effects to create frames within frames. Throughout, he foregrounds the artifice, demanding that viewers divorce themselves of whatever emotions the name "Hitler" evokes, to see instead the way the dictator emerged naturally out of the German national character—a character that Syberberg still honors.

Whatever the filmmaker's intentions, Our Hitler seems diminished on even the biggest TV screen. It's a very chatty film, advancing a complex argument through historical anecdotes and vaudevillian spectacle, and it's the kind of piece that demands the trappings of an actual theater, and the mesmerizing flicker of light. Flattened out on video—and especially given the new double-disc DVD's crummy transfer—Our Hitler seems more self-indulgent in its length, and the associations between pop-culture phenomena and Nazi strategy appear more tenuous. Syberberg attempts to show how Hitler was both the apotheosis of multiple 20th-century movements and a petty little man, but by the time his monologists get to the end of their speeches, it's sometimes hard to remember their point.

That said, there's plenty here to support Susan Sontag's famous claim that Our Hitler is "on another scale from anything one has seen on film." The film's layers of theatricality and critical thought can be peeled back endlessly, but not without disturbing each other. Our Hitlercontains the seeds of cinema's future, blossoming in Lars von Trier's Dogville, Todd Haynes' dense pop essays, and even the epilogue to Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz, just a few years later. The film contains worlds, even if not all of them are worth visiting.

- Noel Murray, The Onion A/V Club

One remarkable segment: Does it correspond to actuality by dint of metaphor or historical accuracy? What revelation either way! Dressed as Caligari (1919), an actor lectures us, describing the schools for boys that the Nazis instituted. Hitler loved birds, he tells us, and, because cats eat birds, as part of their “education” schoolboys gouged out the eyes of cats. Darwin’s Nature is thus translated into politics “red in tooth and claw,” and self-pity and cruelty, both monstrously enlarged, become indistinguishable. Syberberg’s Caligari proceeds to draw the Nazi identification of Jews with rats.

Another segment draws upon past German cinema: Syberberg redoes the scene in Fritz Lang’s M (1931) in which Peter Lorre’s child-rapist/killer breaks down, explaining to the court that he cannot help doing what he does, that he is in the grip of a compulsion beyond his means to resist. In the new version, the man is a Nazi protesting his inability to resist his own politics! On second thought, though, we may wonder whether this constitutes a reimagined M or a critical analysis of M. What revelation either way!

- Dennis Grunes

"Syberberg’s Hitler is no discrete entity of Biblical evil. He is one of us and needs explication. Even his paintings are relevant. Recurrent images of the Black Maria, Thomas Edison’s first motion picture studio, suggest the role that mass media has contributed to the creation of Hitler. In fact Syberberg correlates the rise of mass media with the rise of fascism. And through it all he probes the question of the extent to which Hitler was a projection of his society’s madness, and the extent to which Hitler projected his own madness upon society. Syberberg clearly sees Hitler as an eternal and omnipresent force, with his policies living on in all nations and cultures, especially the United States. Pogo put the proposition more succinctly: ‘We met the enemy and he is us.’ Syberberg’s Our Hitlerfocuses on Germany but is a warning to all against potential complicity.”

- Shirley Goldberg, “Our Hitler: the Self-reflexive Image of Evil,Humanist Perspectives

Hitler: A Film from Germany is an attempt to divorce Hitler and the Third Reich from a simple narrative and historical summation through a marriage of the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk and the Brechtian alienation effect, an unlikely alliance but a profitable one: Film as the art form of the 20th century, the epic theater providing its principal dramaturgical devices. "I made the aesthetically scandalous attempt," Syberberg explained, "of combining Brecht's doctrine of the epic theater with Richard Wagner's musical aesthetics, of linking the epic system as anti-aristotelian cinema with the laws of the new myth."

Hence a circus metaphor; hence depth through duration; hence the episodic quality of the film. Hitler: A Film from Germany is a long series of monologues, film clips, puppet shows and tableaux, motifs emerging and re-emerging from episode to episode. Syberberg's most fascinating technique is to strip even these devices of their ability to enchant by laying them bare as cheap circus tricks. The "puppets" (no more than dolls, really, of Hitler, Goebbels and other historical and symbolic figures) are clumsily manipulated and their lines spoken on-screen by live actors. Even the device of quotation is exposed. In "Part I: The Grail," Austrian actor Peter Kern, costumed and made-up as Hitler (though Kern's considerable girth undermines the illusion of impersonation), delivers the final monologue of the child sex murderer in Fritz Lang's 1933 film M. Kern's delivery is overdramatic, like Peter Lorre's; Syberberg's parallel explicit; but in this shameless theatricality he makes the ease of narrative suspension-of-disbelief ambivalent. We must ask ourselves: What are we watching here? Any film student sees the cultural significance ofM to inter-war Germany; what does it mean to make this significance over-explicit in post-war Germany? Does it make our interpretation of M (and, for that matter, Hitler the film and Hitler the figure) easier, or are we made to face our mythologizing tendency to distance our most unpleasant natures from ourselves as observers?

- George Hunka, Superfluities

I have heard that Syberberg did not want to create a film that people could slip into as if into a dream, as with most films, but a film where you would have to remain conscious all the while about what was being addressed. He creates a stage magic that makes a point of letting you know it is stage magic. Single, excellent actors help create a certain reality, however, while they speak to mannequins, puppets, cardboard figures, with a bit of stage fog at times. By the end of the film this made sense too: The Jews were real human beings; their persecutors, having destroyed all love inside themselves, were really stick figures. The tragedy of millions of real humans being killed by stick figures who should have figured only in a comedy epitomizes the perversion that was Nazi Germany.

I never quite grasped before the Syberberg film that Hitler’s campaign to kill Jews was a clever political calculation, itself indifferent to the Jews, but the essential unifying element in his power. If all else was failing, he could count on the anti-Semitism in all European countries remaining the one unifying constant. The purpose of destroying Jews justified crossing national lines: As Jews are everywhere, his conquest must be universal. Syberberg also reveals that whether it was rumor or fact that Adolph Hitler was part Jewish that would alter nothing; in fact, would reinforce how he and the other anti-Semites identified Jewishness as a part of themselves, whatever parts of themselves that they fear or hated. That demon Jew was the mythical Jew created over a millennium in Europe that the mass of people believed to be real (that group in every country onto which people project their shadow sides) – supposed to be violence-proned, sex-obsessed, or too sensual; angry, resentful, and heartless like Shylock; apt to kill Christian children to mix their blood into the dough they will bake into bread. Whatever a German might hate himself projected onto the Jews. As Syberberg points out, Jews, while in Germany, were the greatest Germans.

I have always wondered how that odd figure, Adolph Hitler – himself a good choice to play a nibelung – could have such charisma. Hearing a person, as portrayed by an actor in the film, describe how, in his first experience hearing a still unknown Hitler speak, he went from despair to hope, it occurred to me that Hitler physically was a perfect representation of how Germans felt at the time: scrawny, belittled, failing at everything attempted, in the hole, crazed from World War I defeat and rigid surrender terms, enduring decades of severe economic depression. To hear scrawny, limp wristed HItler work himself into an ecstasy was to watch a failure swell himself up. They might defend the fastidious, moralistic, downright prissy runt and give him their loyalty as he looked the way they felt and maybe they could swell up in that same way – and they probably heard too the desire for revenge.

- James Eilers, The Blue Elephant


Some critics are such passionate pitchmen for certain films that the works become theirs. Lola Montez was Andrew Sarris' darling, and Last Tango in ParisPauline Kael's —she compared its U.S. premiere at the 1972 New York Film Festival to the first performance of Stavinsky's The Rite of Spring. Well, Francis Coppola may have attached the Our to the original title, Hitler: A Film from Germany, but this 6hr.50min. pageant is really Susan Sontag's. Once the distinguished essayist-novelist-filmmaker declared that Syberberg had made "the most extraordinary film I have ever seen," she owned it. And she wasn't the only critic moved to rapture when Coppola presented the movie in 1980 at New York's the Ziegfeld Theatre. Now, in a DVD edition supervised by the director, a new generation can see what all the kvelling was about.

Anyone, not just Sontag, could love Hitler for the scope of its intentions, the density of its images. "The film tries to be everything," she wrote. "Syberberg's unprecedented ambition in Hitler, a Film from Germany is on another scale from anything one has seen on film. It is work that demands a special kind of attention and partisanship; and invites being reflected upon, reseen. ... Syberberg's film belongs in the category of noble masterpieces which ask for fealty and can compel it. After seeing Hitler, a Film from Germany, there is Syberberg's film - and then there are the other films one admires. (Not too many these days, alas.)"

And even fewer these days. But it's unlikely that Hitler could win the devotion today that it received on its release. You had to be there —in the theater, submitting to an all-day immersion in Syberbergonomics. That way, Hitler could command you to follow its pace, its labyrinthine arguments and artistic strategies. Watching it on a TV screen, able to hit the Fast Forward or Stop button as your attention wanes, you are the director, the Fuehrer. Still, the cumulative experience —less than half the length of its TV-movie contemporary, Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz —is enthralling enough to invest in.

- Richard Corliss, Time

It was one of the most fabulous, rumored-about, challenging, psychotic film events of the modern age: Hans-Jürgen Syberberg's "Hitler, a Film from Germany" (1977), arriving in New York in 1980 as"Our Hitler," to be shown at the Ziegfeld theater in an unheard-of nearly seven-and-a-half-hour form (it was made as a four-part German TV program, but the networks rejected it), bearing hype as a brazenly non-narrative epic addressing the legacy of Hitler as a kind of cultural consciousness, carrying the crest of Francis Ford Coppola as "presenter," and trailing after it, in February 1980 in The New York Review of Books, Susan Sontag's immediately famous appreciation proclaiming the film to be "unprecedented" and "on another scale from anything one has seen on film." I was but a wee film-hungry shaver at the time, and never got to the Ziegfeld. But "Our Hitler," a film that promised a truly unique experience (every description I'd read about it left me still questioning what on earth the movie could be like), maintained the aura of an Atlantis among sought-after movies, elusive, humongous, too unwieldy and rich and profound for the average filmgoer, but a prize new world for the rest of us.

What Sontag neglected to mention, or, more accurately, didn't care about, was the slowness of the film, its longueurs and repetitions, its reliance on monologuing. For every five salient, revelatory postulates about "Hitler" the man, the ghost, the enigma, the dialectic inevitable, there's at least one that's fuzzy, inconclusive or silly. And of course the visual dynamic grows familiar, regardless of how much Syberberg tries to recreate the space with Hitler memorabilia clutter and new projected images on the back screen. But such criticisms, Sontag would surely argue, are irrelevant in the face of a film that strives for such massiveness, that dares so boldly, that creates its own way of watching. And she'd be right, as I could well be in suggesting that editing out a just few hours would make the film communicate better and test patience less. Whatever: it's an astounding, intellectually adventurous monument, and obviously a cinephile's required viewing, if in fact the cinephile in question wants to remain worthy of the label.

- Michael Atkinson, IFC.com

Sontag begins her analysis of Syberberg's film with the claim that the Romantic desire for the "great work" of art, thought by many to be impossible, returns in Syberberg's film in a powerful rereading that takes into account its own anachronism. Modernism, according to Sontag, has been stripped of its heroic nature as an adversary sensibility.(138) The untimely nature of Syberberg's undertaking is brought to the fore: it purports to be, once again, a "great work of art," one that has incorporated a self-reflection concerning what it means to construct such a "great work" in the late 20th century, and the complicity of this art-form with the grandiose staging of Nazi Germany.

Syberberg's two themes are film and Hitler, the art medium of the twentieth century and the subject of the twentieth century. One might include here all of the permutations of these two terms: Hitler as film, Hitler in film, film as Hitler's privileged medium, and our own, contemporary construction of Hitler as one that is, ultimately, cinematic in the sense that Hitler functions as a "screen" for many of the internal projection machanisms of modern mass culture, Germany in particular. These two themes in their entwinement are articulated and interrogated on a grand, even "mythic" scale, enacted theatrically on a stage, combining and mixing different modes, genres, media: the puppet show, the fairy tale, circus, morality play, philosophical dialogue, and, of course, film itself.

Syberberg dispenses with all realistic representation. According to Sontag, to simulate atrocity requires the passification of the audience, something that Syberberg struggles against. It also reinforces stereotypes and simplistic generalizations, and confirms our distance from the event and the practice of Nazism. For Syberberg, there is a morally appropriate or apt way to confront Nazi Germany and the Holocaust: one must dispense with realism and realistic conventionality. Simulation of the Genocide as fiction transforms realistic representation into a form of pornography.

Robert S. Leventhal Department of German University of Virginia

Susan Sontag's essay on the film is really one of her finest, worth reading even if you haven't seen the film. An extract here:

Although Syberberg draws on innumerable versions and impressions of Hitler, the film in fact offers very few ideas about Hitler. For the most part they are the theses formulated in the ruins of post-World War II Germany: the thesis that "Hitler's work" was "the eruption of the satanic principle in world history" (Meinecke's The German Catastrophe, written two years before Doctor Faustus); the thesis, expressed by Max Horkheimer in an essay written just after the war, that Hitler was the logical culmination of Western progress. Starting in the 1950s, when the ruins were rebuilt, more complex theses—political, sociological, economic—prevailed about Nazism. (Horkheimer, for example, repudiated his essay.) In reviving those unmodulated views of thirty years ago, their indignation, their pessimism, Syberberg's film makes a strong case for their moral appropriateness.

Syberberg asks that we really listen to what Hitler said—to the kind of cultural revolution Nazism was, or claimed to be; to the spiritual catastrophe it was, and still is. By Hitler Syberberg does not mean only the real historical monster, responsible for the deaths of tens of millions. He evokes a kind of Hitler-substance that outlives Hitler, a phantom presence in modern culture, a protean principle of evil that saturates the present and remakes the past. Syberberg's film alludes to familiar genealogies, real and symbolic: from Romanticism to Hitler, from Wagner to Hitler, from Caligari to Hitler, from kitsch to Hitler. And, in the hyperbole of woe, he insists on some new ones: from Hitler to pornography, from Hitler to the soulless consumer society of the Federal Republic, from Hitler to the rude coercions of the DDR.

In using Hitler thus, there is some truth and some unconvincing attributions. It is true that Hitler has contaminated romanticism and Wagner, that much of nineteenth-century German culture is, retroactively, haunted by Hitler. (As, say, nineteenth-century Russian culture is not haunted by Stalin.) But it is not true that Hitler engendered the modern, post-Hitlerian plastic consumer society. That was already well on the way when the Nazis took power. Indeed it could be argued—contra Syberberg—that Hitler was in the long run an irrelevance, an attempt to halt the historical clock; and that communism is what ultimately mattered in Europe, not fascism. Syberberg is more plausible when he asserts that the DDR resembles the Nazi state, a view for which he has been denounced by the left in West Germany. Like most intellectuals who grew up under a communist regime and moved to a bourgeois-democratic one, he is singularly free of left-wing pieties.

Syberberg's notion of history as catastrophe recalls the long German tradition of regarding history moralistically, as the history of the spirit. Comparable views today are more likely to be entertained in Eastern Europe than in Germany. Syberberg has the moral intransigence, the lack of respect for literal history, the heartbreaking seriousness of the great illiberal artists from the Russian empire—with their fierce convictions about the primacy of spiritual over material (economic, political) causation, the irrelevance of the categories "left" and "right," the existence of absolute evil. Appalled by the extensiveness of the German support for Hitler, Syberberg calls the Germans "a Satanic people."

And her final recommendation:

Syberberg is a genuine elegiast who knows how to use the allegorical props, the symbols and talismans of melancholy. But his film is tonic. The poetic, husky-voiced, diffident logorrhea of Godard's late films discloses a morose conviction that speaking will never exorcise anything, and an inhibition of feeling, both of sympathy and repulsion, that results from this sense of the impotence of speaking. Syberberg, with a temperament that seems the opposite of Godard's, has a supreme confidence in language, in discourse, in eloquence itself. The result is a film altogether exceptional in its emotional expressiveness, its novel aesthetic, its visual beauty, its moral passion, its concern with contemplative values.

The film tries to say everything. Syberberg belongs to the race of creators like Wagner, Artaud, Céline, the late Joyce, whose work annihilates other work. All are artists of endless speaking, endless melody—a voice that goes on and on. (Beckett would belong to this race too were it not for some inhibitory force—sanity? elegance? good manners? less energy? deeper despair?) Syberberg's unprecedented ambition in Hitler, A Film from Germany is on another scale than anything one has seen on film. It is work that demands a special kind of attention and partisanship; and invites being reflected upon, reseen. The more one recognizes of its stylistic references and lore, the more the film vibrates. Syberberg's film belongs in the category of noble master-pieces which ask for fealty and can compel it. After seeing Hitler, A Film from Germany, there is Syberberg's film—and then there are the other films one admires. (Not too many these days, alas.) As was said ruefully of Wagner, he spoils our tolerance for the others.

- Alok, Dispatches from Zembla

Replies to Susan Sontag's Essay on Hitler in New York Review of Books

What Syberberg has understood (if that is the right word to describe the psychic work that has gone into his film) is that, beyond desire for conquest and enrichment, and beyond the will to power, the main force that informed Hitler, his henchmen and his followers as well as parts of their ideology, was the fascination exerted over them by destruction and the love of death.

This love of death, not mentioned by Miss Sontag, is the theme and provides the recurrent motifs of Syberberg's film. He achieves the disquietingly intimate presentation of important aspects of national-socialist Germany—for instance in the very long SS monologues—precisely because his film reproduces and reenacts Hitler's appeal to his public and his followers; and this appeal I take to have been, increasingly as the war went on, an appeal to their hideous preoccupation with death.

The film is "dedicated, as it were, to grief," Miss Sontag writes. Grief—for whom? It seems to me that in any medium that permits that question—and this film is certainly such a medium—there must, for legitimate effect, be a discriminating answer. Perhaps in music things are different. But in any medium which relies for its effects on individuation through personal identities and personal acts, an indiscriminate answer is bound to perpetuate something of the original monstrosity.

J.P. Stern Department of German University College, London, England

The film, in fact, is relentlessly self-important; and the grandiose theme to which such unyielding importance is attributed represents one of the most disturbing aspects of the film (it's too hard to pick the most disturbing aspect): the predicament of the artist whose materials have been defiled. Poor Syberberg. One cannot listen to Wagner now without thinking of Hitler, or read Nietzsche, or even harmless Novalis. To seeHitler, one would think that the worst devastation of World War II was in the realm of art; it left debris, not material. Syberberg constructs with the debris but does not transform it; it remains garbage. Where Doktor Faustus was a sensitive, self-critical meditation on Germany gone mad, and where most of the pervasive irony is directed against Zeitblom, the ineffectual humanist who is Mann just as much as Leverkühn is, Hitler is an indictment of everyone but the artist. At best, it attempts to implicate everybody in the Nazi debacle; at worst (and I honestly believe this to be the case) it associates Nazism with popular rule in Germany, with massification or any other pejorative Jungian term that one may choose. Since Syberberg hardly mentions the strong internal resistance to fascism in the form of left-wing parties (if he did would simply equate fascism with communism in his neat way of reducing historical material), he can dismiss the value of all political activity and remain an aloof, bereaved genius. In fact, he treats the loss of his artistic heritage just as he might have treated the loss of his material legacy after it was expropriated by the East German State. His innocence is touching.

Susan Sontag says of Hitler that it is "like an unwanted baby in the era of zero population growth." It's more like a miscalculated abortion when everyone has been waiting for a birth.

Doris Sommer Departments of Literatures, Languages and Linguistics Livingston College Rutgers University New Brunswick, New Jersey

Susan Sontag replies:

These two letters, one civil and thoughtful, one not, make the same exemplary error. The form-content dichotomy is being used at its most simple-minded, with the predictable distortions. Not only have Mr. Stern and Ms. Sommer reduced the film to its putative content, but this reduction grossly misrepresents the actual complexity of Syberberg's views, and their formal and imaginative profundity. It is Mr. Stern, with his insistence on designating what Syberberg's film is "really about," in naming (as if it were obvious) "the main force that informed Hitler," who seems one-sided.

Eager to promote his own thesis about Nazism—"this love of death, not mentioned by Miss Sontag"—Mr. Stern first finds it in the film ("For what Syberberg has understood…"), and then reproaches Syberberg for not pressing that thesis only (his "indiscriminate answer"). I findHitler, a Film from Germany much more complex and, yes, dialectical. Love of death? Love of cinema, too. After the assertion that Syberberg's film is "really about" what Nazism is "really about" (the preoccupation with death), then comes the sleight-of-hand—and behold Syberberg's film charged with reproducing and reenacting Hitler's appeal to his public. It is a grave charge to say that Syberberg's "indiscriminate answer is bound to perpetuate something of the original monstrosity"—and a naïve one. Naïve, first of all, in its understanding of the possibilities open to art in general and cinema in particular (Mr. Stern's insipid certainty that film is a "medium which relies for its effects on individuation"). Moralizing about art in this way is pure demagogy. The polity is not seriously threatened by a film director who has thought somewhat more deeply about cinema; who makes films whose structure derives from that old debaucher of individuation, music.

The subject of Hitler makes moralists of us all—moralists with a facility that is perhaps the last of the corruptions which is Hitler's legacy. But Mr. Stern has let his license to moralize mislead him; he is not talking about what is, for seven hours, on the screen: a film designed as a critique of and antidote to the fascinations of fascism. There is no complicity, objective or subjective, between Hitler and Hitler; nothing in common between the appeal of this contemplative, ironic, learned, compassionate film and the Führer's appeal. Mr. Stern is projecting his own view of the secret theme of Nazism onto Syberberg, and then faulting Syberberg for making a case for this theme. But what makes Mr. Stern outside the preoccupation with death and Syberberg perniciously inside (the author of a potentially "dangerous" work)? That Syberberg is an artist? An expert in empathy? But that is precisely the point. Syberberg is not a professor of German Studies but a great artist. He is an artist, as well as a propagandist for the good. I sincerely doubt that we need to be protected from him by the "stability and sanity" of the Federal Republic.

To explain just how much she dislikes Syberberg's film, Ms. Sommer drags in Mann—asserting that there are echoes of Doctor Faustus in Hitler, a Film from Germany (which I'd said); thatDoctor Faustus is a great work; that Mann was no hero. Sorry, but Thomas Mann and Walter Benjamin were both enemies of fascism. Needless to say, Syberberg does not in his film "tell his audience" that; aristocrat that he is, he assumes they know. But Ms. Sommer has to turn Syberberg's argument into baby talk in order to launch her complaint that Walter Benjamin has been made "available" to the likes of Syberberg. I was under the impression that the greatest critic of the twentieth century is not the exclusive property of Marxists, particularly vulgar Marxists, and is available to us all.

Ms. Sommer did indeed miss the modernist ironies in Hitler, a Film from Germany—nothing to brag about, I should have thought. But it is not "the heavy aura of Mann's work" that makes me "imagine 'modernist ironies' in Hitler"; Mann is not, in my books, a modernist artist. No wonder Ms. Sommer missed the modernism of Syberberg's film, since she plainly doesn't know what modernism is. Nor does she appear to know anything about film.

- The New York Review of Books, Volume 27, Number 9 · May 29, 1980


What is interesting in Kracauer's book From Caligari to Hitler is that it shows how expressionist cinema reflected the rise of the Hitlerian automaton in the German soul. But it still took an external viewpoint, whilst Walter Benjamin's article set itself inside cinema in order to show how the art of automatic movement (or, as he ambiguously said, the art of reproduction) was itself to coincide with the automization of the masses, state direction, politics become 'art': Hitler as film-maker... And it is true that up to the end Nazism thinks of itself in competition with Hollywood. The revolutionary courtship of the movement-image and an art of the masses become subject was broken off, giving way to the masses subjected as psychological automaton, and to their leader as great spiritual automaton. This is what compels Syberberg to say that the end-product of the movement-image is Leni Riefenstahl, and if Hitler is to be put on trial by cinema, it must be inside cinema, against Hitler the film-maker, in order to 'defeat him cinematographically, turning his weapons against him'. It is as if Syberberg felt the need to add a second volume to Kracauer's book, but this second volume would be a film: not now from Caligari (or from a film from Germany) to Hitler, but from Hitler to A Film from Germany, the change taking place inside cinema, against Hitler, but also against Hollywood, against represented violence, against pornography, against business... But at what price? A true psychomechanics will not be found unless it is based on new associations, by reconstituting the great mental automata whose place was taken by Hitler, by reviving the psychological automata that he enslaved. The movement-image, that is, the bond that cinema had introduced between movement and image from the outset, would have to be abandoned, in order to set free other powers that it kept subordinate, and which had not had the time to develop their effects: projection and back-projection. There is also a more general problem: for projection and back-projection are only technical means which directly carry the time-image, which substitute the time-image for the movement-image. The film set is transformed, but in that 'space here is born from time' (Parsifal). Is there a new regime of images like that of automatism?

The modern world is that in which information replaces nature. It is what Jean-Pierre Oudart calls the 'media-effect' in Syberberg. And it is an essential aspect of syberberg's work, because the disjunction, the division of the visual and the sound, will be specifically entrusted with experiencing this complexity of informational space. This goes beyond the psychological individual just as it makes a whole impossible: a non-totalizable complexity, 'non-representable by a single individual', and which finds its representation only in the automaton. Syberberg takes the image of Hitler as enemy, not Hitler the individual, who does not exist, but neither a totality which could produce him according to relations of causality. 'Hitler in us' not only indicates that we made Hitler as much as he made us, or that we all have potential fascist elements, but that Hitler exists only through pieces of information which constitute his image in ourselves. It could be said that the Nazi regime, the war, the concentration camps, were not images, and that Syberbergs position is not without ambiguity. But Syberberg's powerful idea is that no information, whatever it might be, is sufficient to defeat Hitler. All the documents could be shown, all the testimonies could be heard, but in vain: what makes information all-powerful (the newspapers, and then the radio, and then the television) is its very nullity, its radical ineffectiveness. Information plays on its ineffectiveness in order to establish its power, its very power is to be ineffective, and thereby all the more dangerous. This is why it is necessary to go beyond information in order to defeat Hitler or turn the image over. Now, going beyond information is achieved on two sides at once, towards two questions: what is the source and what is the addressee? These are also the two questions of the Godardian pedagogy. Informatics replies to neither question, because the source of information is not a piece of information any more than is the person informed. If there is no debasement of information, it is because information itself is a debasement. It is thus necessary to go beyond all the pieces of spoken information; to extract from them a pure speech-act, creative story-telling which is at it were the obverse side of dominant myths, of current words and their supporters; an act capable of creating the myth instead of drawing profit or business from it. It is also necessary to go beyond all the visual layers; to set up a pure informed person capable of receiving into his visible body the pure act of speech.

- Gilles Deleuze. Cinema. Published by Continuum International Publishing Group. Pages 253, 257

"[Hitler] represents one of the few attempts to come to terms with the Nazi phenomenon in a way that challenges Hollywood storytelling and, above all, utilizes the specific potential of film as a representation of the past."

1.“According to Syberberg, Hitler served the Germans as a screen onto which they could project all their wishes, anxieties, and hopes. That is the point of the film’s central monologue, given to Hitler:

“After all, there was no one else who would, who could take over my desired role. And so they called upon me. First, the bourgeoisie, then the military, rubbing their hands in bliss and dirt, and also to defend their honor, do you imagine I did not take notice? Then, industry, to drive out Bolshevism, from whose Lenin I learned so much and whose Stalin could be venerated secretly. Then the petty bourgeois, the workers, for whom I could bring forth so much, and youth, to whom I gave a goal, and the students, who needed me, and the intellectuals, who were now liberated from the Jewish Mafia of their friends and foes, yes, and other countries, which were glad to have a pacified Europe again, strength and solemnity. And one should consider to how many people I gave something worth being against. And just compare the lives of so many people—listless, empty. I gave them what they put into me, what they wanted to hear, wanted to do, things they were afraid to do. I made and commanded for them, for it was all for them, not for me…I was and am the end of your most secret wishes, the legend and reality of your dreams, so we have to get through. Finally. The final time? Nightmares? Not by a long shot.””

2.”Syberberg obliquely asks the taboo question of why fascism attracted such a broad following, even among the elite. After decades of traditional research that explained fascism in moral or economic terms, it was only in recent years that the obvious fascination and the aesthetics of fascism have been openly acknowledged: fascism seemed to have elicited and fulfilled hidden wishes and desires of a people who, after the Versailles Treaty and the self-effacing politics of the Weimar Republic, felt deprived of their national pride and collective identity.”

3.”The mythic dimension of German history seemed forever devalued through Hitler’s misuse of it. The memory of the power of the medieval German empire and the dream of the return of the mythic Barbarossa, the often-evoked honor and loyalty of the Nibelungs, and the charisma of such leaders as Arminius and Frederick the Great—all had been appropriated by Hitler and integrated into the national myth of the Third Reich (itself a mythic idea). According to Syberberg, Hitler killed German identity at its roots by stealing and soiling all national myths. In Syberberg’s film, however, the loss of German identity gives way to a vision of apocalypse.”

4.”The more Weimar politics appeared as meek and “unsensuous,” the more the support for the National Socialists grew. More than any other political party, they knew how to appeal to the collective imagination and satisfy the need for the irrational with their nocturnal torchlight parades, uniforms, and archaic rituals. Already in the late 1920s, Ernst Bloch, a Marxist, correctly pointed out the mass appeal of irrational elements in National Socialism and warned about the consequences of ignoring these potentiality explosive forces. Irrationalism had always been present in German culture as the “dark side” of Reason; in 1933 it became, logically enough, the basis for a secular state religion.”

5.”In a similar way, Syberberg’s filmic work of mourning challenges the present. Hitler, according to the film, lives on in terrorism, in modern totalitarianism, in the pollution of the environment, in the ravaging of life through the entertainment industry, in the quantitative art-hating mass democracy. “Hitler himself is the theme and center of this past, which we must penetrate, this past so wounded and painful, yet so identifiable.””

- Anton Kaes, FROM HITLER TO HEIMAT: THE RETURN OF HISTORY AS FILM (1989). Found on Limitless Cinema

Syberberg's film is epic in length but of chamber-opera dimensions in its dramaturgy (in this, too, not unlike postwar reappraisal of more bombastic elements supposedly inherent in Wagner). The dominating composer on a prominent soundtrack is Wagner. This tallies with expectations aroused by the film's title alone, a cliched parallel both foregrounded and challenged by Syberberg. His project quickly dispels this triggered association and signals its intention to seek the roots of Wagner's music beneath the patina of Nazi reception. Through the saturation of its soundtrack and its own length, his film acquires a dramatic kinship with the composer. Yet the film's own balance diverges from that of opera, not just Wagnerian opera.

With Syberberg, music as cultural market becomes marked, even scarred, music. Like references to Romantic painting and cinema history, it is part of the cultural bric-a-brac of this film, but it is also tainted through its identification with artistically brilliant but politically compromised conductors like Knappertsbusch, Furtwangler, or von Karajan. With Syberberg, however, the thrust is frequently reversed, and the reduction of Wagner's Romantic aura by the tawdry attributes of Nazism becomes the real object of lament. Wagner is simply the most focused object of the director's sense of affront at the destruction of German art in the twentieth century.

While certainly not an apologist for Hitler, Syberberg thereby aligns himself with a politicaly blighted nineteenth-century tradition. In the wake of German history of the twentieth century, this stance seems willful. At one level, in his introduction to the script, he even links Wagner with Mozart as a common site of resistance to Hitler: "Hitler is to be fought, not with the statistics of Auschwitz or with sociological analyses of the Nazi economy, but with Richard Wagner and Mozart." Music per se is viewed here as legitimate irrationalism, the converse to Hitler's. But elsewhere his Hitler figure, having emerged from the grave of Wagner, acknowledges the alien mold of the cosmic laughter of Mozart. This is a more realistic acknowledgment of the ideological component of musical reception.

- Roger Hillman. Unsettling Scores: German Film, Music, and Ideology. Published by Indiana University Press, 2005. Pages 67, 68-69


Perhaps not seasonally appropriate but a gift all the same, Facets' 30th- anniversary release of Hans-Jürgen Syberberg's phantasmagoric, seven-and-a-half-hour Hitler, a Film From Germany makes one of the great, audacious, all-but-impossible-to-see movies of the 1970s generally available for the first time.

Syberberg's Hitler—which was misleadingly retitled Our Hitler by its American presenter, Francis Ford Coppola, and is now packaged in an infelicitous compromise as Our Hitler, a Film From Germany—was the culmination of Syberberg's ongoing meditation on the myths, fantasies, and desires that resulted in the Third Reich and continue to fuel fascination with the Nazi period. Following movies on Ludwig of Bavaria and Karl May and an extended interview with Winifred Wagner, Syberberg brought his mock-epic style—puppets, props, rear-screen projection—to bear on 20th-century Europe's most alarmingly seductive personality.

Syberberg is not without artistic antecedents, but nothing else in movies quite resembles this underground extravaganza—populated by stand-ins and shot entirely on a soundstage cluttered with the symbolic detritus of German culture. Syberberg was the only filmmaker of the German neue kino to successfully synthesize the spirit of Wagnerian romantic megalomania and that of Brecht's sardonic cabaret theatricality, infusing both with a sense of cosmic melancholy. Hitler often seems to be a circus staged by and for a single impoverished aristocrat pondering the mystery of Germany in the night.

The Facets transfer has an unexpectedly ethereal quality wholly appropriate to both the artist's anti-monumental aesthetic and his belief in cinema as an artifact. The two discs are accompanied by a booklet that includes Susan Sontag's early influential essay on the film; the major extra is a German video doc on Hitler's much-ballyhooed American premiere at Lincoln Center in 1979.

- J. Hoberman, The Village Voice

DVD Extras

The only extra feature is some historical video footage of the New York City premier ofHitler, A Film From Germany in 1978. The quality of the tape is poor, but I suppose it’s all we’ve got.

Picture and Sound

Picture and sound quality are uneven. Parts of the film are razor-sharp and beautiful, others look like badly dubbed video. Also the English subtitles are shot full of typos, misspellings, and in some cases, German words instead of the English equivalent. This film deserves better.

How to Use this DVD

Give yourself a couple of nights to watch this one. On the last night, go back and watch the first disk again to pick up on all the stuff you missed while you were learning how to watch the film.

- John Adams, Movie Habit


IMDb Wiki

The films of Hans-Jurgen Syberberg are at times annoying, confusing, and overlong—but they are also ambitious and compelling. In no way is he ever conventional or commercial: critics and audiences have alternately labeled his work brilliant and boring, absorbing and pretentious, and his films today are still rarely screened. Stylistically, it is difficult to link him with any other filmmaker or cinema tradition. In this regard he is an original, the most controversial of all the New German filmmakers and a figure who is at the vanguard of the resurgence of experimental filmmaking in his homeland.

Not unlike his contemporary, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Syberberg's most characteristic films examine recent German history: a documentary about Richard Wagner's daughter-in-law, a close friend of Hitler (The Confessions of Winifred Wagner); his trilogy covering 100 years of Germany's past (Ludwig II: Requiem for a Virgin King, Karl May, and, most famously, Hitler, A Film from Germany, also known asOur Hitler). These last are linked in their depictions of Germans as hypocrites, liars, and egocentrics, and in the final part he presents the rise of the Third Reich as an outgrowth of German romanticism.

"Aesthetics are connected with morals," Syberberg says. "Something like Holocaust is immoral because it's a bad film. Bad art can't do good things." He commented that "my three sins are that I believe Hitler came out of us, that he is one of us; that I am not interested in money, except to work with; and that I love Germany." Our Hitler, and his other films, clearly reflect these preferences.

In recent years, Syberberg has remained relatively inactive as a filmmaker. None of his latter work has earned him the visibility, let alone the acclaim, of his earlier films. Since Parsifal, his version of the Wagnerian opera which was his most widely seen film, he has collaborated only with one of that film's stars, Edith Clever. Their artistic ventures have included a number of theatrical monologues, a few of which have been videotaped or filmed. The series commenced with Die Nacht, a six-hour-long examination of how an individual may act or what an individual may ponder deep into the night.

Syberberg, however, has spoken out on issues relating to his homeland. He especially is troubled by the Americanization of world culture, and has hypothesized that the resurgence of neo-Nazism in Germany, especially among the nation's youth, is a natural response to the hollowness of the capitalist culture which enveloped Germany in the post-World War II years. Thus, even in the wake of German unification, the memory of Hitler—despite the fact that he ultimately brought catastrophe and anguish to Germany—continues to influence and mold the national psyche.

Rob Edelman, Film Reference.com

I went to see Mr Syberberg's Hitler films at the I.C.A in London. And then saw him speak. I took down everything he said, in order to use it in evidence against him...

- Esther Leslie, Militant Esthetix

Syberberg has been criticised for turning to such politically controversial subject matter, and has even been accused of harbouring Nazi sympathies. However, Syberberg is not a protofascist, but a critic of the way that attempts to understand romanticism have been marginalised within West German establishment and intellectual culture. For Syberberg, the modern German disavowal of the utopian longings which lie at the heart of romanticism has resulted in the 'emotional deadness of Contemporary German society.' Furthermore, he believes that failure to recover the tradition so corrupted by Nazism could lead to new outbreaks of violence, as the forces of the right seek to appropriate the romantic heritage for themselves. For Syberberg, therefore, it is crucial that the romantic legacy is addressed, and, in his films, he seeks to find a way back to the 'spiritual home of the Germans': one which has been lost to a combination of fascism, materialism and rationalism.

- Ian Aitken. European Film Theory and Cinema: A Critical Introduction. Published by Indiana University Press, 2001. Page 147

No contemporary German artist has been associated more consistently with the tasks of mourning than the filmmaker Hans Jurgen Syberberg. There is no major essay on Syberberg that does not at some point invoke the term Trauerabeit as the key to the metapsychological underpinnings of Syberberg's film aesthetics, as metaphor for the aesthetic and intellectual labor to which Syberberg invites his audience with each new film. This by now nearly automatic association of Syberbergs oeuvre with the tasks and procedures of collective mourning has been to a large extent the achievement of Syberberg himself. In his copious essayistic work, which includes long commentaries on and defenses of his own films, Syberberg has quite often used the word Trauerarbeit (along with other related terms) to describe the moral and psychological dimensions of his work. Indeed, at least one of the sources of Syberberg's isolation from his colleagues in the New German Cinema, as well as from the cultural scene generall, has been his insistence that he alone among German artists has been willing to take on the postwar burdens of mourning and repairing the damage to their nation's bereft cultural identity.

What makes Syberberg's work in general, and Hitler, a Film from Germany, in particular, so important in the present context is that Syberberg's meditations on and cinematic performances of Trauerabeit always situate the particulars of the postwar German tasks of (and impediments to) mourning in relation to other, more properly postmodern phenomena and considerations. Syberberg's attempt to operate at multiple levels of moral engagement and conceptualization in his films and writings warrants particular attention. Shifts from one level of discourse or analysis to another, for example, from discussion of the uniqueness of the Holocaust and the particular tasks of mourning it has left in its wake to meditations on the university of what made it possible, are always strategic and significant. As Edgar Reitz' Heimat demonstrates, such shifts, which may take the form of double plots, may reproduce patterns of thinking which are content simply to displace burdens of guilt and mourning, and allow one to rewrite one's position as that of the true victim without such a move necessarily signifying an act of solidarity or empathy with other more recognizable victims. One's own despair and losses become the central catastrophe, flooding out empathy for all others.

An example of such a problematic leap from one level of analysis to another is Syberberg's rhetorically charged remark concerning the screening of Holocaust on German television: "America now has its own reparations to pay [hat einiges wiedergutzumachen] after this Holocaust from Hollywood on German media." Such a claim suggests that for the maker of Hitler, a Film from Germany, the real violence of recent history has occurred not so much in the Holocaust as in the Holocausts, and thus that souls sensitive to Hollywood's cheap games with history and experience are the real victims of the twentieth century. The point behind such outrageous and deeply offensive rhetoric is, however, somewhat less outrageous, and one with which Syberberg, in often brilliant and compelling ways, forces viewers and readers to contend, namely that the psychological mechanisms that lead to the construction of places like Auschwitz are akin to those that continue to be deployed by what has come, since Adorno and Horkheimer, to be referred to as the culture industry. A corollary to this thesis is the claim that the psychological mechanisms of identity formation which helped to guarantee Hitler's success in Germany in the thirties and forties and, as Adorno and the Mitscherlichs have suggested, continue to inhibit the work of mourning in post-Hitler Germany, are of the same order as those that, to an even greater extent today, organize postmodern psyches. These mechanisms, so the argument goes, not only block one's capacities to carry out the work of mourning but, what is more, so numbe one's sensibilities that one is incapable of knowing any longer what human loss feels like. Syberberg aims to inscribe the so-called inability to mourn endemic to postwar Germany within a larger history of Western culture, understood as a series of shifts and transformations of the sites of identity formation. According to Syberberg, this history enters its modern stage in the European nineteenth century and continues into the present of postmodernity, though now centered, like a shifting meteorological turbulence, not in Europe but in America, whose capital city turns out to be, in this particular narrative, Hollywood.

- Eric L. Santner. Stranded Objects: Mourning, Memory, and Film in Postwar Germany. Published by Cornell University Press, 1993. Pages 103-105

954 (96). Starship Troopers (1997, Paul Verhoeven)

Screened January 30 2009 on Crackle TSPDT rank #898 IMDb Wiki

A commercial and critical flop upon its release, the virtues of Paul Verhoeven's satirical take on Robert Heinlein's Cold War sci-fi novel are stunningly clear in the context of 9-11 and the Iraq War. Few recent films tap into the underlying forces shaping today's world as piercingly as Verhoeven's vision of a thoroughly Americanized global civilization that exploits media and youth culture to wage endless war against an appointed enemy. With perverse, knowing affection, Verhoeven mashes cliched elements from 1940s war movies ("Come on you apes, you wanna live forever?") and 1990s teen soap opera (football game, senior prom) and splashes them with a futuristic paint job in an effort to link together the past, present and future of youth cultural propaganda. Most prescient is the framing device of an internet-type visual console that bombards the viewer with requests of "Would you like to know more?", paving a perpetual rabbit hole of Information Age captivity.

Verhoeven's Hollywood career can be divided between his wildly successful early half (RoboCop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct) and a wildly misunderstood second half (Showgirls, Starship Troopers, Hollow Man). Each successive effort found increasingly outrageous ways to subvert the sex-and-violence tropes simultaneously being exploited for entertainment profit, that is until the box office failure of Starship Troopers collapsed this ill-advised project of cultural signal jamming. Many critics (see Roger Ebert and Janet Maslin's reviews below, among others) counted Starship Troopers as endemic of Hollywood crassness, oblivious of the ways the war and teen movie genres were being inverted into critical reflections of themselves.  One might abjectively dismiss Verhoeven's send-up as another case of Hollywood having its cake and selling it. Further complicating the issue of satire, Verhoeven isn't adopting a scorched-earth approach to his subject matter; instead there's an odd, loving attention paid to the innovative special effects and the straight-faced execution of ersatz melodrama.  Reflecting a more complicated - and honest - fascination with Hollywood genres, Verhoeven interrogates both the seductive fantasy surfaces and the horrific real world outcomes of its mythmaking. In other words, this may be one of the few Hollywood blockbusters that functions as a work of film criticism as art.


The following citations were counted towards the placement of Starship Troopers on They Shoot Pictures 1000 Greatest Films:

Frank Schnelle, Steadycam (2007) Jurgen Egger, Steadycam (2007) Kevin Prin, ymdb.com (2002) Lars-Olav Beier, Steadycam (2007) Cinema-Scope Best Films of the 1990's (2000) Cinescape The Top 100 Sci-Fi, Horror & Fantasy Films (2000) Halliwell's Top 1000 Films (2005) Kent Jones, Film Comment: Ten Most Underrated of the 1990's (2000) Michael Atkinson, Counter Cultural Programming: The 50 Best Election Year Movies (2004) Nicole Brenez, Cinema-Scope: Best Films of the 1990's (2000) Online Film Critics (OFCS) Top 100 Sci-Fi Films (2002) Peter Travers 1000 Best Movies on DVD (2005) Premiere 100 Best Action Movies on DVD (2003) Rough Guide to Film Sci-Fi: 5 Lesser-Known Gems (2007) Stuff Magazine 50 Most Dangerous/Forgotten Movies (2001) The Guardian 1,000 Films to See Before You Die (2007)

Time Out Critics' Choice: Monsters (2006)

Full Text of Screenplay Adaptation by Edward Neumeier


Trooper PX: "The World's Most Complete Starship Troopers Reference Collection"

Starship Troopers.net

Visual Effects Headquarters (VFXHQ) has a couple of invaluable articles detailing the extensive, Oscar-nominated special effects work of Starship Troopers:

- Visual Effects Overview

- Behind the Scenes


``Starship Troopers'' is the most violent kiddie movie ever made. I call it a kiddie movie not to be insulting, but to be accurate: Its action, characters and values are pitched at 11-year-old science-fiction fans. That makes it true to its source. It's based on a novel for juveniles by Robert A. Heinlein. I read it to the point of memorization when I was in grade school. I have improved since then, but the story has not.

Heinlein intended his story for young boys, but wrote it more or less seriously. The one redeeming merit for director Paul Verhoeven's film is that by remaining faithful to Heinlein's material and period, it adds an element of sly satire. This is like the squarest but most technically advanced sci-fi movie of the 1950s, a film in which the sets and costumes look like a cross between Buck Rogers and the Archie comic books, and the characters look like they stepped out of Pepsodent ads.

The action sequences are heavily laden with special effects, but curiously joyless. We get the idea right away: Bugs will jump up, troopers will fire countless rounds at them, the Bugs will impale troopers with their spiny giant legs, and finally dissolve in a spray of goo. Later there are refinements, like firebreathing beetles, flying insects, and giant Bugs that erupt from the earth. All very elaborate, but the Bugs are not interesting in the way, say, that the villains in the ``Alien'' pictures were. Even their planets are boring; Bugs live on ugly rock worlds with no other living species, raising the question of what they eat.What's lacking is exhilaration and sheer entertainment. Unlike the ``Star Wars'' movies, which embraced a joyous vision and great comic invention, ``Starship Troopers'' doesn't resonate. It's one-dimensional. We smile at the satirical asides, but where's the warmth of human nature? The spark of genius or rebellion? If ``Star Wars'' is humanist, ``Starship Troopers'' is totalitarian.

- Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times, November 7 1997

The Sun-Times also has a collection of blurbs from different reviews that came out upon the film's release, including these two:

"...Starship Troopers is fatally lacking in lightness, play, invention. Human bodies are gutted and eviscerated, the limbs pulled off, the heads drilled. Are children supposed to enjoy this literal-minded, grisly bloodbath? As you watch the endless carnage, you become sure that Hollywood has gone completely, utterly mad. But how can you fight the success of 'ironic' stupidity? Verhoeven may have had his brains removed, but it's the audience that winds up with a hole in the head."

- David DenbyNew York Magazine (November 17, 1997)

"Verhoeven and Neumeier are alive to the absurdity and excess of Heinlein's military world, and though the sexy young male and female soldiers of the movie -- played mostly by TV hunks and babes from Melrose Place andBeverly Hills 90210 -- accept that world almost unconditionally, the filmmakers don't.... [T]he pulverizing good looks, high energy and skin-deep styles of these characters makes another comment -- not on the future world but on our own, where looks, packaging and self-salesmanship are so crucial. Starship Troopers begins and ends with satiric recruiting commercials, which send up the whole idea of the 'recruiting poster' movie, like Top Gun, which this one sometimes resembles."

- Michael WilmingtonThe Chicago Tribune (November 7, 1997)

Welcome to the retrofuture. It's a time when they're fighting a high-tech intergalactic war but talking about it in the kind of lowbrow rhetoric--hysterical jingoism--we haven't heard issuing from movie screens since World War II.

Besides the weaponry and the enemy--monstrous, profoundly malevolent bugs--a few other things have changed. There's a world government now, and the combat troops are fully gender integrated--to the point where they take showers together. This implies, of course, that more saltpeter than ever is being dumped into their rations...

Pretty funny. But not always very funny. For Starship Troopers contains an unexplored premise. There are two classes in this futureworld: civilians, who have sacrificed voting privileges for material ease, and warriors, who earn the right to rule by their willingness to die for the state. In short, we're looking at a happily fascist world. Maybe that's the movie's final, deadpan joke. Maybe it's saying that war inevitably makes fascists of us all. Or--best guess--maybe the filmmakers are so lost in their slambang visual effects that they don't give a hoot about the movie's scariest implications.

- Richard Schickel, Time, November 10, 1997

Not for the arachnophobic, this intergalactic Raid campaign is surely on Verhoeven's wavelength. After Robocop and Total Recall, Basic Instinct and Showgirls, the transplanted Dutchman has become something like our Fritz Lang - Hollywood's comic-book artist deluxe, the suavely brutal purveyor of hardcore pulp. Verhoeven may lack Lang's visionary conviction and cultural pessimism, but he has a boldly cartoonish graphic sensibility and a corresponding gusto for caricatured postmodern shibboleths. Somewhere beyond irony, Starship Trooper's clever opener dares the viewer to position the movie as kissing cousin to a Hitler Youth recruitment ad.

The most intense sci-fi combat film since James Cameron's Aliens, Starship Troopers subsumes a plot-driven class struggle between infantry and air force in the visceral excitement of all-out, hand-to-tendril interspecies warfare - most spectacularly in the sensationally animated, artfully corpse-splattered, nerve-wracking attacks of the scuttling, screaming crustacean-spider hordes

That the move has no more depth than the early eighties video games that were based on Heinlein's novel is Verhoeven's ultimate joke. Every planet not only resembles the Dakota badlands but has an earthling-compatible atmosphere. Oxygen is everywhere. Considering that the spider-monsters are apparently capable of targeting earth cities with meteors launched from deep space, it takes the Terra Federation a remarkably long time to realize that the Bugs might actually be intelligent.

- J. Hoberman, The Village Voice, November 11 1997

'Starship Troopers'' is the film version of Robert A. Heinlein's rabidly militaristic novel about a human infantry battling giant insects from the planet Klendathu. Speaking of other planets, where exactly are the hordes of moviegoers who will exclaim: ''Great idea! Let's go see the one about the cute young co-ed army and the big bugs from space.''

No doubt they're here somewhere, since the director Paul Verhoeven does have a way with crazed, lurid spectacle, from ''Total Recall'' to ''Showgirls.'' But ''Starship Troopers'' looks like reason to wonder how the big-ticket exploitation film mutated into its present form. The movie for everyone is, in this case, only for everyone who likes raw meat for breakfast. Still, it certainly can pander, what with pretty actors, grisly critters, brains sucked out of skulls, buckets of green slime and a plot that is half beach blanket bingo, half Iwo Jima. Gung-ho patriotism is also big here, what with cries of ''The only good bug is a dead bug!'' and ''You kill everything that has more than two legs, you get me?''

As written by Ed Neumeier, who also wrote Mr. Verhoeven's much tighter ''Robocop,'' ''Starship Troopers'' never gets over its 180-degree swivel from teen-age love story to murderous destruction. But coherence does not appear to be a major concern. This film simply piles on the bugs, lops off the limbs and provides a flaming catharsis that suits its ideology. By the end of the film, arachnid butt has been duly kicked and back-patting is in order. We won't have to worry about marauding bugs until, thanks to Hollywood, the next batch comes along.

- Janet Maslin, The New York Times, November 7 1997

Human culture and insect culture duel to the death in "Starship Troopers," a spectacularly gung-ho sci-fi epic that delivers two hours of good, nasty fun. The scope and abundance of the special effects --- from the countless and incredibly vivid marauding bugs to the plethora of agile aircraft of the Earth's space fleet --- may well surpass anything seen before, while the "just war" against an implacably hostile foe supplies plenty of rooting interest. The frequent violence has a grisliness that will put off some older viewers and may create a backlash against the picture in certain quarters, but sci-fi fans and younger general audiences always looking for the latest edge to be pushed will eat it up, creating strong B.O. worldwide for the first holiday blockbuster out of the box.

- Todd McCarthy, Variety, November 9 1997

What the hell is Starship Troopers? Is it a mindlessly violent slab of future jingoism:Melrose Place goes to war in space? Or is it a sly bit of leg pulling on the part of director Paul Verhoeven? Here's what I think:Starship Troopers is exactly what Star Warswould have looked like if Germany had won World War II.

Unfortunately, most audiences don't know how to do anything but take their movies straight up, and that gives an elitist stench to Verhoeven's little in-joke. But then, this director has never played according to the rules of either the art house or the megaplex. He was as controversial in his native Netherlands as he has been in Hollywood, and curiously, many of his early films have their later, American analogue. Basic Instinct (1992) is a bluntly obvious reinvention of his best film, 1984's The Fourth Man: same blond fatal femme, same flummoxed male victim, same kinky sense of play. 1981's Spetters (a crass, unpleasant tale about three guys on the motocross racing circuit) was as savaged by Dutch critics as 1995's Showgirls (a crass, unpleasant tale about two women on the Vegas show circuit) was in the U.S.

Following that logic, Starship Troopers could be read as Verhoeven's Hollywoodization of Soldier of Orange, the 1979 WWII Dutch Resistance drama that helped bring him international notice. Both films are about upper-class kids hardened by wartime experience, and both — realistically or sadistically, take your pick — mow their pretty young characters down one by one. But the predations of Nazis cut emotionally deeper than the carnage of F/X-derived insects, and Soldier's lead character, Erik (Rutger Hauer), comes to a more adult understanding of the world's complexities than the comic-book triumph of Johnny Rico.

Of course, maybe that's because the ''heroes'' in the later film are the Nazis. Verhoeven loses his feeling for tone toward the end of Troopers: It becomes more plainly satirical, especially when the Earth scientists start gleefully torturing an agonized-looking Brain Bug. Only a particularly twisted sensibility would spend $100 million to kick moviegoers in the keister while telling them it's entertainment, but Verhoeven is even more perverse than that. He's serious on both levels — and on neither.

- Ty Burr, Entertainment Weekly. Related interview with Chris Nashwaty

Based on a novel by classic, conservative SF writer Robert Heinlein and directed by Paul Verhoeven (you'll recall that he made Showgirls, another apocalyptic vision), Starship Troopers is something of a paradox, an exercise in and examination of mindlessness. I mean, it's not rocket science, but its cynicism is simultaneously smarmy and smart, exacting a cost for any pleasure you may take in its nasty-ass violence. In this respect it's not unlike Verhoeven's remarkable Robocop (1987), which was good gory fun as well as an astute look at Reaganomics, '80s corporate politics, privatization and the uncomfortable legacy of the Hollywood Western. The new film is less weighed down by major iconography (the robosuited Peter Weller seeking his identity had its heavy-handed moments), more relaxed and self-reflexive. For example, it lifts those "commercial spots" directly from Robocop: here these comedic insertions—appearing as if on television, commenting ironically on the progressively brutal action—make the point that the military's recruitment campaign is perpetual, that war is business, that bugs and recruits are similarly expendable.

It's not a little funny that Verhoeven calls it his most "romantic" film, noting that a character says "I love you" and means it, but the fact that the cast is (relatively) fresh meat lifted quite literally from Aaron Spelling's TV-soap-land, suggests that the director is either messing with his interviewer or seeing romance as one big cliché. Either way or both ways, the film does do a number on those romantic clichés that constitute traditional war imagery.

Starship Troopers may be less overt about its politics than Robocop, but any movie that turns Doogie Howser into a fascist has some serious cultural analysis going on. Its glib depictions of dismemberment, decapitation and horrendous evisceration can be alarming, but they can also be understood as the film's (rather visceral) assessment of—for instance—the current U.S. drive toward escalating militarization, incorporation and globalization. This picture is not pretty. "Whoo-hoo!"

- Cynthia Fuchs, Philadelphia City Paper

The question of how satire operates (if it operates at all) in starship troopers is also evidenced by a series of enlightening articles in the Los Angeles Times that appeared at around the time of the film’s premiere. An initial review of starship troopers by Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan on November 7, 1997 describes a “…jaw-dropping experience, so rigorously one-dimensional and free from even the pretense of intelligence it’s hard not to be astonished and even mesmerized by what is on screen”. Turan’s lukewarm review of the “cheerfully lobotomized” film that “offers no shortage of all manner of carnage” prompts a rebuttal a few weeks later in the Los Angeles Times by a guest writer named Jon Zelazny in an article entitled “Counterpunch: Amid ‘Troopers’ Gore, it’s Easy to Miss the Message”. Zelazny, in a call to recognize an especially audacious form of satire in starship troopers, argues that “[W]hat Verhoeven has created is nothing less than a total replica of a propaganda film that the futuristic government of earth would itself create, if in fact its goal were to recruit young men and women to swell the ranks of the starship troopers if they were engaged in a distant war”. Paramount to Zelazny’s argument is the understated nature of the satire in starship troopers, and he states that “…the oh-so-subtle warning Verhoeven slips us is that people can be swayed by even ‘dumb’ movies into supporting war and violence”. One week later, writer Michael Voss pens a response to Zelazny’s piece in the Los Angeles Times. The article questions the importance of Zelazny’s contention that viewers are taken in completely and do not comprehend satirical elements in the film. To Voss, Verhoeven’s entire project fails because the satirical aspect of the film is not clearly delineated for a “mass” audience: “[p]ity the poor, misunderstood filmmaker, who had to actually live under Nazi occupation as a child, yet who somehow fails to clearly present the satiric focus of his movie in a manner that the masses can appreciate and understand”. Presenting satire in an ambiguous way becomes problematic for Voss, who questions Zelazny’s claim that 99.9% of moviegoers missed the satire in the movie. Voss raises an interesting point in his criticism of the film’s satirical elements when he states, “is it no longer the director’s task to integrate his audience, to bring meaning to them, rather than the other way around?” The ideal for Voss is a film that removes ambiguity in relation to satire, so that a consistent reading of the film is possible. In the above debate, interpretations of starship troopers by the viewer are crucial, as is the possibility that contradictory readings of the film can coexist. An important question to ask regarding starship troopers and all of Verhoeven’s films is in relation to this acutely divided reception: is it still satire if the audience does not recognize satirical elements inherent in the story?

Roger Ebert’s oft-quoted and provocative line in his review that “starship troopers is the most violent kiddie movie ever made” suggests a level of violence surpassing socially acceptable standards for films aimed at youths. While some note that the violence of starship troopers is excessive for the genre, Sacramento Bee writer Joe Baltake contends that the violence has a satirical function. He writes, “while other contemporary movies sanctimoniously tell us that violence is a bad thing and then hypocritically wallow in it to prove their point, starship troopers giddily celebrates its own viciousness”. Film Journal International, in a decidedly negative review, finds blame and a twisted pleasure in the film’s supposed failure to fit into its genre:

"[p]erhaps the sole pleasure moviegoers over the age of 11 will derive fromstarship troopers […] is finding inventive ways to describe it to curious friends and loved ones. But even such attempts as ‘Leni Riefenstahl Meets Melrose Place,’ ‘Ayn Rand’s top gun 2,’ and ‘Gidget Goes gattaca’ fail to convey the staggering mindlessness of this huge-scale exercise in neo-Orwellian kitsch."

...For better or for worse,starship troopers is truly a film made for the people. As his films reach a mainstream audience, they reveal similar contradictions in the society that receives them. starship troopers is undoubtedly a film made for younger viewers with plenty of disposable income, but just as writers are unsure of how to place starship troopersstarship troopers is unsure how to place the viewer. A seemingly totalitarian film made by someone who lived under an oppressive Nazi occupation as a child, starship troopers leaves it unclear whether viewers will appreciate the bleak satire or “eat this gooey sci-fi thriller up with a spoon”.

Raising the issue of ‘communication to the masses’ is vital to Verhoeven’s work here; the message to the viewers is therefore deliberately compromised. For Verhoeven, this holds true especially for Hollywood summer blockbusters, films expressly made for wide audiences and which can easily be shaped into shameless propaganda. Thus, the discussion around the filmic text, the controversy, becomes as important as the film itself. Eliciting a varied response may support an audacious project that links the Hollywood product (of which starship troopers is a part) with blatant propaganda, Nazi and otherwise. I think that the reason for making a film in the vein of starship troopers may well be a wish to produce an opening to expose this problematic, to drive an alien probe straight into the forehead of the mainstream.

- Owen Livermore, Synoptique


Whatever else it is, which is plenty, Paul Verhoeven’s eye-popping 1997 epic Starship Troopers has to be the most misunderstood and underappreciated sci-fi blockbuster of all time.

What didn’t dawn on everyone at the time of Starship Troopers’s abbreviated theatrical run was that it was a comedy – a vicious, all-barrels-firing piece of social satire and by far the funniest Hollywood film of 1997. All satire runs the risk of evading an inattentive audience and being mistaken for the very thing it mocks, but few American movies have been as extreme in their methods and at the same time as miscomprehended as Verhoeven’s. In this film’s pointed but absurd idea of the future, the world has one fascist government, society is divided between the rabble "civilians" and the elite, vote-bearing "citizens," and the former can become the latter only by performing a term of service with the Mobile Infantry, an interstellar army devoted to battling "bugs," an alien race of house-sized arachnids who hurl their spore into space and thereby direct meteors toward Earth. If all that isn’t ludicrous enough, our protagonists are idealistic high schoolers hot to do their part: the jock, his bodacious girlfriend, the nerd, the opportunistic schemer, the dumb goofball, the girl who loves the football star but who stands silently aside. They train, travel the galaxy, combat monster-bugs, mature, experience casualties, triumph.

There were loads of cheesy pulp novels intended for 12-year-olds like this written in the ‘50s, but Heinlein’s book wasn’t one of them. Rather, the novel is an outrageous tract that rather unambiguously expounds the virtues of militaristic might, fascist order, violence and "earned" (not our Constitution’s "self-evident" and "unalienable") social rights. An ultra-conservative ex-Naval officer and vocal arms-race proponent, Heinlein had caught a lot of static for it over the years, but Verhoeven’s movie, made over a decade after Heinlein’s death, amounts to a flat-out rebuttal. The subversive wit on display is startling. (The screenplay is credited to Edward Neumeier; Verhoeven, for his part, says he tried to read the novel but got bored and tossed it aside.) In the film, a war-mutilated high school history teacher walks about the classroom dead-seriously extolling the virtues of naked violence, officers wear Nazi headgear, troopers freely paraphrase Hitler, drill sergeants regularly mutilate their troops to make a training point, and whole scenes and hunks of dialogue are robbed from the paradigmatic colonialist melodrama Zulu (1964)...

Starship Troopers certainly faced the problem of any satire of political war-mongering – that the vivid depiction of militaristic chaos can be so exciting that the scolding intention of it is obscured by the mayhem. And make no mistake, the film is vivid and appalling in ways that few films have been before or since. America needed a little distance, it seems, and since Verhoeven’s film went to video, it has been universally reappraised and hailed as a culty landmark. It certainly can lead you to reconsider the director’s other films – the entirety of Starship Troopersis the satirical TV commercials from Robocop (1987) writ large, and by the way, didn’t Basic Instinct (1992) andShowgirls (1995) also cakewalk the edge of absurdity in ways we couldn’t bring ourselves to believe were intentional? Doesn’t the whole does-he-mean-it-or-is-he-a-muttonhead? aesthetic hearken back to Verhoeven’s career-making font of nervous laughter, The Fourth Man(1983)? Verhoeven may be the bravest and most assured satirist in Hollywood, insofar as he succeeds in making big genre movies no one knows whether to take seriously or not. Maybe the interface with the humorless screenwriter Joe Eszterhas is what make Basic Instinct and particularlyShowgirls seem crude and dumb, even as they quite obviously mock themselves with every laughable line of dialogue and leering innuendo. However you slice it, Verhoeven has gotten a bum rap as a directorial miscreant, because there’s nothing misjudged or self-indulgent about Starship Troopers. It’s pure laughing gas.

- Michael Atkinson, TCM

Ironically, Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers – a special effects-infested sci-fi saga about humanity’s war against a race of giant bugs – is more effective as a satire than as an action extravaganza. Like in Robocop, Verhoeven employs the basic trappings of genre as a ruse to sneak in cynical criticisms about contemporary society, and his film’s first half – a parody of90210-style high school teen romances as well as rah-rah 1950s WWII films – is at once incisive and hilarious, in large part because his cast of bland, pretty ciphers (including Casper Van Diem, Denise Richards and Neil Patrick Harris) play their tongue-in-cheek material with straight faces. Given that Michael Ironside kicks things off by preaching about violence as the surest means to achieving peace, and Harris ends the film decked out in SS-style military garb, it’s not hard to grasp Verhoeven’s hit-you-over-the-head point about the inherent fascism of war. Yet his spot-on replication of both barking war movie dialogue and trademark love story moments nonetheless gives the film an entertaining cheesiness. Unfortunately, the combat-heavy latter half – despite some impressive CG work on the steroidal insects, especially during shots of them creeping across the rocky desert by the thousands – proves tepid and monotonous, and somewhat diminishes the overly long (130 minutes!) Starship Troopers' sardonic punch.

- Nick Schager, Lessons of Darkness

Starship Troopers is at once a thrilling, ultra-violent, energetically paced sci-fi action flick, and a viciously clever, uncompromising satire of exactly the kind of movie it purports to be, and of the militaristic, proto-fascist attitudes and assumptions underlying such films. It's the story of a war between an intelligent alien species of bugs and a human society of the future, when the world has been united under an international government in which citizenship is not assumed but granted only to those who earn it by serving in the military. The nature of this society is never thoroughly explored in the film, which instead focuses on the military itself, but director Paul Verhoeven makes it very easy to read between the lines and imagine the kind of society he's depicting here. It's a totalitarian world government with an iron grip on the media, which is used as a tool of indoctrination, encouraging military service and vilifying the enemy bugs to the extent that kids on earth senselessly stamp out harmless cockroaches as their mother enthusiastically cheers them on. The military leaders are the only figures of authority shown in the film, suggesting that the military and government are closely related if not interchangeable. And the leaders take no real responsibility for their actions; after a particularly grave military disaster, the "sky marshall" who had been in charge makes a show of calmly stepping aside, ushering in his replacement and then standing behind her on the podium as she delivers the newest commands. It's as much of a blatant mockery as the reasons for the war in the first place: the media continually blames the alien bugs on their distant planets for sending meteors towards Earth, but this never makes much sense even if the film neither explains nor explicitly questions it. The absurdities peddled by the media and the government are simply allowed to stand, their ridiculous contradictions and blatant non-sequiturs obvious to anyone who looks...

Still, Verhoeven keeps subtly reminding his audience that the aliens are not simply expendable cannon fodder: a bombing raid on their planet emphasizes the way huge swaths of the creatures, who are seemingly doing nothing aggressive for once, are simply obliterated by the waves of fire. It's the bug equivalent of a civilian massacre, and Verhoeven's composition deliberately recalls popular representations of the Pearl Harbor attack and of American napalm bombing raids in Vietnam. The bugs also cease being quite so intimidating in the film's increasingly lurid final sequence, in which the troops are tracking what's known as the "brain bug," the central intelligence driving the creatures. This turns out to be a massive, nearly immobile lump with a nakedly vaginal face, a row of curiously soulful black eyes surrounding its labial, muscus-squirting mouth. Once the troops capture this creature, Carl reads its thoughts, triumphantly declaring that "it's scared" to the cheers of the soldiers, who rejoice at the revelation that their enemy can feel emotions, and that they've frightened it. Finally, the scientists who study this captured bug complete the vaginal metaphor by inserting metallic probes into the creature's mouth, accompanied in the media propaganda by censorial black bars, a subtle joke that links top-secret military intelligence and low-grade smut. The victors complete their victory by literally fucking the enemy, a final act that definitively establishes Verhoeven's sympathy for the bugs rather than humans. At the same time, the human specificity of the film's actual protagonists is de-emphasized, not only by the wooden acting but by the way that human life is so casually expended in pointless battles. At one point, the military commanders knowingly send a small group of soldiers onto a planet where they're pretty sure the troops will be slaughtered — "that mission had a very low probability of survival" is the euphemistic explanation — just to prove a theory. The film is all about the low value of life in militaristic and totalitarian society, and the high costs of pointless wars fought by a docile, brainwashed populace.

- Ed Howard, Only the Cinema

Starship Troopers is so seamless and so unflinching in its vision of teeny-bopper totalitarianism that it's understandable why those going to a mindless bug-killing movie were confused when they had to check their heads afterwards: "Are we supposed to like these people?" But for anyone with an eye for parody, it still is baffling as to how they couldn't get the film's slick, WWII-inspired recruitment ads ("Join Now!") in which laughing soldiers hand bullets out to children, or little kids enthusiastically smash bugs while an approving mother looks on, as just one part of the film's clever caricature...

But let us not forget that Starship Troopers is saying something, commenting on the lure of fascism, the gung-ho ridiculousness of so many stupid action films and the plastic world of perfection. Many critics don't want to live in a world where women have smiles as gorgeously huge (and creepy) as Denise Richards', and yet part of them probably do, making Starship Troopers all the more cunning.

- Kim Morgan, DVD Journal

Starship Troopers was no big hit in 1997, but it has its fans, many of whom — judging by review postings on Amazon.com — confuse the film for a serious sci-fi epic with a "war is hell" message. (Not surprisingly, post-9/11 postings are more likely to "get it".)

But the clueless are out there. Unfamiliar with the book, smitten with the sexy stars, and repelled by the bugs, many didn't get the jokes. In practical terms, until 9/11 Starship Troopers was a satire without a target. The war hysteria following 9/11 provided just that; the players and events stepping tailor-made into the film's sites with amazing prescience, granting the film a powerful resonance that was lacking when it was first released.

There is the film's black female Sky Marshall, a kooky but satirically pointless joke in 1997. Yet it's a role tailormade for Condoleezza Rice. There are the TV war correspondents, absent in the book, but today stationed in Iraq. They pester the soldiers in battle, don't appreciate the threat, and are killed by the bugs. There are the TV pundits who would understand the bugs, woolly and ineffectual as seen through the film's fascist prism (the New World Order likes to see itself as tolerant).

Starship Troopers is a penetrating satire of post-9/11 war hysteria as might be imagined by an idealistic New World Order fascist. It's hard to believe it was made pre-9/11 and impossible to think it could be made post-9/11.

- Thomas M. Sipos, Blog Critics

Based on Robert Heinlein's well-received science fiction novel, Starship Troopers holds true to the tone of his pro-war writings. In this period fascist rule is a way of life, the price paid for a safe and crime-free society. Only citizens are allowed to vote and, almost, the sole route towards achieving this status is by serving in the forces; perpetuating the plethora of uniforms worn by those in power. No longer is there individual freedom and the sense that resolution can come from discussion, here violence is the solution. Such a scenario fits director Paul Verhoeven like a glove. The force behind Robocop and Total Recall, he is familiar with the idea of taking conservative US tendencies to their furthest extent. The bait for these journeys was satire and Starship Troopers is no exception to the trend. Stuffed full of inspired and often sick humour, Verhoeven's film is an entertaining ride for those who share in his vision.

- Damian Cannon, Movie Reviews UK

Starship Troopers is a movie that wants to have it both ways and fails miserably. The movie's structure is based on conventional ways of garnering excitement, in this case danger during war for a naive young man, but the movie then turns around and claims that audience interest in these conventions is reason enough to call everyone watching a fascist. Heinlein's original novel treated these themes in a serious manner (see myreview of the book), and fans of the book have every reason to feel betrayed by the utter inversion of this in the movie. I happen to dislike Heinlein's book intensely -- in my review, I argue that it posits the world of Orwell's 1984 as a good thing -- but I'm hard-pressed to think of a more disingenuous adaptation than this one. Starship Troopers the movie is actively undermining everything Starship Troopers the book stands for. Heinlein's book at least had all of its narrative points in order; Verhoeven's movie calls anyone who enjoys the surface story a moron or worse! Verhoeven himself is clearly not a militarist or a fascist, but he does have the greater handicap of bad storytelling.

The excessive violence of Starship Troopers is fairly typical of Verhoeven's science-fiction films. As mentioned, the satirical aspects of the film don't work, whereas they did in Verhoeven's Robocop, a movie which is arguably even more violent than this one. Violence is only one of the gadgets in the storyteller's toolkit, and you need to know how to use it; you can't safely ignore any one gadget, and you can't safely mistake the gadget for the story itself. Verhoeven often forgets that constant violence is in fact boring, and useless as a narrative device (he makes the same mistake several times with special effects development, such as the same bug attack over and over again, and how Carmen does the same spaceship moves more than a handful of times). Robocop made us care for its main character, the tragic ex-cop Murphy, and the violence seemed to reinforce this feeling. If anything, the death and dismemberment in Starship Troopers removes us further from the story.

Starship Troopers clearly does not care for scientific rigour, and it may be somewhat pointless to examine all of the logical flaws of the movie. This critic-proofing process has happened in too many recent science fiction movies to count, but Starship Troopers is based on a book that clearly cared about this material. Verhoeven tosses out the more meticulous speculation in the military tactics Heinlein devises, and gives us nonsense instead: ground troops with not a single tank in sight, air support only once, and not a single advanced bit of weaponry. Most of the crises on the human side seem to be self-induced, such as lining up capital ships in orbit like sardines in a can and then waiting for incoming fire. The whole race of bugs in this movie raises many questions. How did they fling an asteroid across the galaxy if they don't have starflight? What did these bugs eat if they live on such gritty planets? What use would a plasma bug, capable of firing projectiles into orbit out of its rear, have in normal life? I would have forgiven the movie a great deal if genetic engineering or some similar buzzword were mentioned, but one of the first things we are told (while Johnny and friends are still in high school) is that the bugs are the product of years of evolution. If Starship Troopers is in search of spectacle, it succeeds. The movie is simply spectacular and simply dumb.

- James Schellenberg, Challenging Destiny

Starship Troopers is a milestone film, if only because it shakes Sci-Fi free from the limp mythology of the Star Wars series, with its hand-me-down swashbuckling and wholesale borrowings from authors like Robert Heinlein and Frank Herbert.Troopers goes in for violent gore and grotesque images straight from old horror comics, as when a "Brain Bug" pierces a man's skull and sucks his brain matter out through a siphon. Audiences were shocked by jolts like that one, but they resented other aspects of the film. As in RoboCop the main object is political satire, but the dark ironies sailed over the heads of disgruntled critics, some of whom thought the film glorified fascism.

The world of Starship Troopers isn't an extrapolation of the Third Reich, it's an extension of today's post- Cold War realities. The world has been unified under an all-powerful Federation that limits democratic input and restricts voting to military veterans. The government controls all media. Racism has been abolished but minority cultures and languages have been eliminated: Carmen's last name is Ibanez, not Ibañez. Buenos Aires is as "American" as Beverly Hills. High School indoctrinations preach a kinder, gentler form of fascism: all political power stems from military power, in short, brute violence.

- Glenn Erickson, DVD Savant

Paul Verhoeven and his entire film crew seemed in on a joke only they knew the punch line to, if it was a commentary on media propaganda in a time when a war was being waged (Desert Storm), then that joke was lost on an worldwide audience that only saw green blips on a radar screen, which actually was the birth of a very popular news channel named CNN. An inherent problem was that it certainly featured a lot of blood and guts, and was as far removed from the actual perception of the conflict than it even is now, when the propaganda machine of the modern day news cycle makes itself more obvious than it did during the actual birth of the 24 hour news channel. Either way, the hilarious news segments certainly make more sense now than they did then.

He was a 'maverick' of sorts, because when all Hollywood was asking him to do was direct a big budget and thoughtless sci fi flick (at 100 million, this was a big film in 1997), he actually seems to have somehow subversively placed social commentary within the film itself, which only proves that probably many of the critics that originally reviewed the film and accused of either being blatantly racist (fascist) or downright dumb either didn't see the film, or (more likely), were completely oblivious to the type of media manipulation and BS he was trying to take a punch at. Either way, Hollywood can be confusing that way, either it is some independent film trying to seem mainstream, or it's the mainstream trying to seem indie. Either way, it confuses the audience. You may as well take the Oliver Stone route than try to hide subversive or unconventional attitudes into a blockbuster.

Starting with "Total Recall" in 1990, Verhoeven created a whole new era as far as intelligent science fiction based on credible source material (this being one of the first films rather loosely 'based on Philip K. Dick material). And the film was a groundbreaking and critical success here in the states (many of us reading can perhaps recall where they were when they first saw the film), it also started a rather interesting directing technique that included clips of fictional news stations based in a science fiction universe that appeared to not only mimic current foreign policy (the original Gulf War AKA 'Desert Storm', but also delved deeper into the origins of war and since we currently live in a world completely saturated with news networks, the joke is almost lost on us these days because it is simply so horrifically realistic, the sarcasm that was lost on a society blind is also lost on a society distrusting and aware of media manipulation.

- Chris Thompson, DVD Review


When did American action blockbusters stop being American? Sometime in the last two decades, in between the genocidal adventures of George Lucas's Star Wars and those of Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers, the national pedigree disappeared. True, Starship Troopers is a simplified, watered-down version of Robert A. Heinlein's all-American novel, and it's consciously modeled on Hollywood World War II features (as was much of Star Wars); it even boasts an "all-American" cast that could have sprung full-blown from a camp classic of Aryan physiognomy like Howard Hawks's Red Line 7000. But the only state it can be said to truly reflect or honor is one of drifting statelessness. If the alien bugs that populate Verhoeven's movie wanted to learn what American life and culture was like in 1977, Star Wars would have served as a useful and appropriate object of study; but if they wanted to know what American - or even global - life was like in 1997, Starship Troopers would tell them zip. Both movies might be loosely described as odes to American values set in a fanciful future mixed with the half-remembered midcentury past, but the similarity is only skin-deep--and not just because Verhoeven hails from the Netherlands. (Starship Troopers is probably even less Dutch than it is American.) Star Wars was made at a time when American pop cinema still belonged mainly to Americans; now it belongs mainly to global markets and overseas investors, and because so-called American cinema is the brand that sells best in international markets, that's what it says on the label. But what's inside the package is, properly speaking, multinational, not national--which in thematic terms involves subtracting ideas rather than adding them. Maybe that's why loss of identity was the very theme of Face/Off--another recent multinational action special, and one whose success perhaps marked the end of John Woo's career as a director of Hong Kong action films.

Verhoeven's 1987 RoboCop and 1990 Total Recall represent successive steps toward Starship Troopers; wacko fantasies like his Basic Instinct and Showgirls offer variations on the same rootlessness. All five films project different versions of the same hyperbolic comic-strip iconography, the same garish, overblown characters, and the same sarcastic and gloating contempt. In fact it was arguably Verhoeven's awkward attempt inShowgirls to say something about America--Hollywood in particular--that spelled its commercial doom: this is a film that fundamentally said "We're all whores, aren't we?" The American public answered, in effect, "Speak for yourself." Starship Troopers modifies that statement to read "We're all stupid apes and cannon fodder, aren't we?" And this time audiences all over the world, more accustomed to receiving such epithets as a natural part of their action kicks, are somewhat likelier to agree (though, depending mainly on gender and age group, some might disagree). But whether this movie excites the desired euphoria among potential warmongers, American and otherwise--at least to anything like the same degree as Star Wars--is another matter. In the Lucas scheme of things wiping out entire planets is clean, bloodless fun that never threatens the camaraderie between fuzzy creatures and humans, who trade affectionate wisecracks while zapping enemies from afar; mythical conceits derived from Joseph Campbell only enhance and ennoble the fun. Verhoevian genocide, by contrast, has no such pretensions: it's a messy affair involving extensive dismemberment on both sides, loads of blood and goo, loss of privacy and comfort, and only a modicum of emotional satisfaction--in short, none of the media pleasures offered by demolishing Baghdad. Most of us Americans probably know as little about Iraqis as the starship troopers do about the alien bugs they fight, and the topography of the bug planet, as Dave Kehr pointed out in the New York Daily News, "suggests the scene of the Gulf War." But there the similarities end--especially after one factors in the anachronistic weaponry and forms of combat in Verhoeven's movie, most of it derived from 40s and 50s war films, and the enemy's power to retaliate.

- Jonathan RosenbaumThe Chicago Reader

News tickers, streaming video, live feeds, web links: television news has truly embraced all that new media has to offer, resulting in the still-unfulfilled promise of viewer interactivity and, ultimately, content control. It’s no accident that FedNet (in and of itself titularly reminiscent of a website) is designed to resemble a network news homepage, complete with a spectral spectator guiding our digestion of Starship Troopers’s news with the visible click of a mouse. The film’s continual info-rally cry of “Would you like to know more?” is not merely a rhetorical question, it’s a commentary on society at large: past, present, and, in this case, future. We wouldn’t merely like to know more, the modern news consumer demands to know more. The news’ preoccupation with “liveness” (vampirically feeding off of the spectatorial paranoia of “missing something”) comes under close scrutiny in Starship Troopers. The public’s (real and fictional) ceaseless desire to be fed information takes on the apparent quality of media binging, with no purge in sight. There’s always more to know, thus there is more to fear, thus there is more to learn about what we have come to fear, and round and round the news ticker goes. What Starship Troopers promises, then, is a future where new media is no longer “new,” simply “media,” while simultaneously questioning what such technology has wrought, namely a news consumer who (much like the bugs themselves) is seemingly never satiated.

- Suzanne Scott, Reverse Shot

Verhoeven revels in his fascination with media presentation. Scenes like the parallel representations of the Klendathu attack, seen both from the mediated perspective of a news broadcast and the actual event taking place show how the media serve a "derealising function...how reality is distanced from us" (Telotte 1999-2000, 34). Shifting his focus away from television broadcast and video imaging, Verhoeven turns to a media technology that flourished after the release of Total recall: the internet, and particularly the central function it plays as a tool of propaganda. A Federation Mobile Infantry advertisement suggests: "to ensure the safety of our solar system, Klendathu must be eliminated". This is followed by a news story showing Bugs brutally attacking and dismembering humans, information that withholds the fact that the Terrans initiated the attack on Bug territory. Another net commercial (entitled "A world that works") shows the military displaying its latest weaponry to schoolchildren. As the kids take turns in fighting over the weapon and the soldiers laugh and distribute bullets, a voiceover narrator states: "citizen rule. People making a better tomorrow." Likewise, executions are advertised and broadcast through FedNet. Kids, through advertisments, are told to "do Your Part" and are seen hysterically stamping and squashing Bugs. Verhoeven states: "the point is simple, as well as a simply violent one: in this world, perceptions are always carefully guided, controlled, even obscured by video, teachers, by all of our training" (Telotte 1999-2000, 34).

In predicting future outcomes, Verhoeven also retraces the myth of America's frontier past. We are presented with Western allusions that include John Wayne-style dialogue ("saddle up!" and "come on you apes. Do you wanna live forever?"); the desert backdrop of Klendathu (that recalls the iconic wilderness expanses of Western landscapes such as Monument Valley); and dances and music, complete with toe-tapping fiddle music that plays to tune of "I wish I were in Dixie", harking back to movies such as John Ford's She wore a yellow ribbon(US 1949). In addition, we are also presented with battles that establish visual parallels between the American Indians and the Arachnids; forts such as Fort Joe Smith, which directly conjure images of the Western forts that housed cavalry communities and ensured protection from the Indians. The Arachnid planet, like the land of the American Indians, has been invaded by aggressive colonisers.

- Angela NdalianisScreening the Past


Video: Of course, the sight of multiple battles with swarms of giant insects shows up Blu-ray's capabilities nicely. The Sony engineers use an MPEG-4/AVC, 1080p encode spread out over a dual-layer BD50 for maximum picture quality. Like its standard-definition counterparts, the high-def, 1.85:1 ratio transfer is bright and clear, with excellent object delineation, deep black levels, and strong contrasts and shadings. In addition to the movie's sharp focus, its hues are vivid and natural. Although facial close-ups are a tad soft, a fine film grain provides enough texture to add to the picture's realism.

But the clincher is comparing it to the Superbit edition, which I had previously thought was quite good. And I guess it is...for standard definition. But switching between the Superbit (upscaled) and the BD, the high definition refinement becomes even more apparent. The Superbit looks faded, washed out, blurred, and jaggy by comparison. The Blu-ray looks crisper, cleaner, sharper, richer, deeper, more detailed, you name it. Faces look a bit smoothed out in both editions, so nothing seems lost in the new translation.

- John J. Puccio, DVD Town

The audio is equally impressive, as it features a bombastic and immersive Dolby TrueHD track that quite simply rocks the house! The surrounds are constantly active, and since this absurd futuristic thrill fest features so much bug splattering mayhem and outrageous violence (not to mention explosions), it is a disc you will want to put in to impress. The dialogue always comes through clear, never rendered inaudible and it sounds better than I even expected. This is certainly the version of "Starship Troopers" fans have been waiting for.

- Chris Thompson, DVD Review

In a clear improvement over the UK disc, Sony's Blu-ray carries over almost all of the bonus features from the out-of-print 2-disc Special Edition DVD released in 2002.

  • Audio Commentary with Paul Verhoeven and Ed Neumeier – Recorded for the original laserdisc and DVD releases of the movie back in 1998, this track finds the director and screenwriter spending a lot of time defending the film from criticism. Verhoeven's commentaries are often hit-or-miss in quality. He needs a strong moderator to keep the discussion on track, or else he tends to lose focus and let the conversation drift into dull tangents. Neumeier does a pretty good job in that regard, though there is an infamous stretch where Verhoeven gets stuck in a "Digital Johnny, real Johnny, digital Johnny, real Johnny, digital Johnny…" loop for a few minutes when explaining how a big visual effects sequence was created.
  • Director and Cast Commentary – Verhoeven returned for this later track recorded in 2002. Here he's joined by stars Casper Van Dien, Dina Meyer, and Neil Patrick Harris. The group has a good rapport, but nobody came prepared with anything in particular they wanted to say about the movie, and they all wind up straining to remember anecdotes about the production. NPH (before he came out!) makes a few wisecracks about the hot chicks in the cast.
  • Death from Above (SD, 32 min.) – This excellent documentary from Automat Pictures covers the movie's WWII influences, its use of irony, the changes made from the Robert Heinlein book (which is referred to respectfully, even though the movie ruthlessly satirizes everything Heinlein wrote about and believed in), and the negative critical reaction. Screenwriter Neumeier explains his concept for the picture: "I just had in mind that Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue go to outer space and fight giant bugs and become Nazis." That pretty much sums it up.
  • The Making of Starship Troopers (SD, 8 min.) – Recycled from the first DVD, this is typical EPK fluff with the expected cast and crew interviews. The piece provides a cursory look at the models and visual effects, as well as a glimpse of Verhoeven acting like a maniac on set.
  • The Spaceships of Starship Troopers (SD, 4 min.) – Coverage of the concept and design for the starships, the use of miniatures, the CGI, lighting, and early animatic renderings.
  • Bug Test Film: Don't Look Now (SD, 1 min.) – A pretty cool proof-of-concept test sequence featuring a random actor interacting with CGI bugs.
  • Know Your Foe (SD, 17 min.) – Broken into five segments that can be watched individually or with a "Play All" option, here we're given information about the design and execution of each of the bug species. The brain bug is referred to as "a cross between Orson Welles and a grub."
  • FX Comparisons (SD, 29 min.) – Raw production footage and animatics are shown contrasted against the final visual effects. It gets kind of boring after a couple minutes.
  • Scene Deconstructions with Paul Verhoeven (SD, 8 min.) – Preliminary scene animatics, storyboards, and behind-the-scenes material. In his commentary, Verhoeven likes to point out the difference between live action and digital footage over and over again.
  • Deleted Scenes (SD, 8 min.) – All five of these scenes that were deemed unworthy of the final cut feature Denise Richards. Are we expected to believe that's a coincidence? Casper Van Dien gets to feel her up in one of them. I bet he needed a lot of takes to get that one right.

In addition to all of the above, Sony has added a few new interactive features to the Blu-ray. In order to access all of them, your Blu-ray player must be Profile 2.0 compatible.

    Will Work in Any Blu-ray Player

  • Blu-Wizard – A common feature on previous Sony Blu-rays, Blu-Wizard allows you to select a series of the supplement featurettes from a checklist to watch in uninterrupted sequence rather than one at a time. You can also choose to view them during the movie playback. However, this is not a picture-in-picture function. The movie will pause and then branch out to each video segment, ultimately dragging out the length of the movie.
  • Recruitment Test – This silly set-top game asks a number of questions to determine your rank in the future military. The better your knowledge of the movie, the more likely you are to make pilot or Military Intelligence. The game is rather pointless and dumb.
    Bonus View: Requires Profile 1.1

  • FedNet Mode – This Picture-in-Picture feature places a border around the screen cleverly designed to mimic the FedNet broadcasts seen in the movie. Interviews and trivia facts will pop-up in small windows while the film plays. Some of the interviews are recent and others are extensions of those seen in the older featurettes, but all are new to the disc, with no outright repetition of content from the other supplements. Verhoeven states right up front that he thinks the Heinlein novel is Fascist propaganda. Pretty much everyone interviewed has a funny story to tell about working with the director (especially when it came to the famous shower scene). There are a few frustrating gaps here and there, but overall this is one of the better PiP features available on Blu-ray to date.
    BD-Live: Requires Profile 2.0

  • Put Yourself in the Movie: Join the Fight! – Kudos to Sony for incorporating genuine BD-Live content on the disc. Unfortunately, the "Put Yourself in the Movie" feature is just about the cheesiest thing I've ever seen in my life. Here's how it works: Via the disc's BD-Live option, access the Sony web portal. Using an agonizingly slow keypad simulator, you can register and have instructions for uploading a personal photo emailed to you. Follow the sizing recommendations as carefully as you can. Then go back into BD-Live and align your face onto an animated trooper's body (male or female). When you return to the disc's main menu, you will find a new option in the Bonus Features menu to view a half dozen clips from the movie (about 20 seconds each) where your cartoon avatar will pop into the frame, pasted on top of the live action footage, usually out of scale with the surroundings, and standing there stiff as a board. In some scenes it shoots a gun… while pointing towards the camera, even though the bugs it's supposed to be shooting at are behind it. It looks utterly stupid and ridiculous. To accomplish all this takes about an hour, and the affected clips run for a grand total of two minutes.
  • Download Exclusive Ringtones – Seriously, who cares?

Also included are some previews for unrelated Sony titles.

The Cutting Room Floor: What Didn't Make the Blu-ray?

A few items from the Special Edition DVD didn't make the transition to Blu-ray. Missing are some filmographies, storyboard comparisons, a theatrical trailer, the isolated score with commentary by composer Basil Poledouris, and a rather extensive gallery of conceptual art drawings. The Poledouris commentary is a big loss, considering that he has passed away since recording it. The conceptual art galleries were also quite interesting, and featured a number of preliminary designs (including power armor!) that were radically changed by the time the movie went into production.

- Josh Zyber, Hi-Def Digest

Additional reviews:

- Matt Brighton, DVD Authority

- Clark Douglas, DVD Verdict

- Dan Lopez, Digitally Obsessed


Video ****

The first Starship Troopers disc release was one of the very first discs I bought not long after getting my very first DVD player, and I remember labeling it as the first great looking movie on DVD I had experienced. This superb re-release is very much, from what I can tell, no different from the first disc, therefore remaining one of the most superior transfers you will ever encounter in this format. The picture image is nothing short of astonishing, never faltering for a single second. The futuristic setting is perfectly rendered and enhanced for this superb digital viewing, and colors deliver in every detail, as well. Quite simply one of CTS’s most shining moments in the history of DVD.

Audio ****

Again, no different from the original release, and Starship Troopers remains one of the true best, if not THE best, audio tracks I’ve ever heard. The 5.1 audio mix delivers in every imaginable aspect. First off, Basil Poledouris’s brilliant score to the film stands out as perhaps the single best musical score ever transferred to the DVD format. The sound of gunfire acquires about a good 70% of the movie, providing a remarkable opportunity for immense and rapid pick up. The attack sequences alone are one of the history books in terms of audio quality. Once again, illustrative proof that CTS is proud of this film, because they have applied perhaps their best transfer of all time here.

Features ****

The original disc did have its share of extras, but none exactly at four-star level. This new Special Edition 2-disc set delivers the goods, with a galaxy-conquering feat of superbly conceived extras.

Disc 1 contains three commentary tracks: the original commentary by Paul Verhoeven and screenwriter Ed Neumeier, a new commentary track with cast members Casper Van Dien, Dina Meyer and Neil Patrick Harris, and a new isolated music score with commentary by Basil Poledouris.

Disc 2 is endless with extras. Included is a new documentary titled “Death from Above”, two featurettes: “Know Your Foe”, and “The Starships of Starship Troopers”. Also featured are special effects and storyboard comparisons, a Vintage Featurette: “The Making of Starship Troopers”, conceptual art galleries, Scene Deconstructions with commentary by Paul Verhoeven, Deleted Scenes, Screen Tests, and trailers.

This Special Edition release also contains by far the most impressive use of menu screens I have seen thus far this year, making it a solid candidate at next year’s DMC Awards.


Sci-fi movies hardly get as fun and entertaining as Starship Troopers, which for me, forever remains of the best discoveries of the genre. Credit should to Paul Verhoeven for going all out with this bloody good masterpiece of visual effects and violence.

- Gordon Justesen, DVD Movie Central


DRE: I spoke to Takashi Miike a few years ago and I was surprised to find out that his favorite film is Starship Troopers.

Paul: That’s very nice. I always thought the movie was badly understood. There was an article in The Washington Post when it came out that was not written by a movie critic. One of the editors wrote it saying that this was a neo-Nazi movie and I was promoting Fascism. That same article was published in all the European newspapers. When I went to do the publicity tour in Europe, everybody was already looking through that lens. The Washington Post is not a reliable newspaper anyway but they said the film was written by a neo-Nazi or a Fascist and directed by one. I strongly disagree with that. I saw it as a critique of American society. It is done in an ironic way but not pushing it very hard, which I hate because then it becomes dogmatic and becomes something else other than filmmaking. It was more that the novel by Robert Heinlein is very militaristic and has a tendency to be pro-Fascist a bit. We took a lot of cues out of American society at that time, which was [President Bill] Clinton, not realizing that a couple years later this whole situation would be much more acute and now you can put the film as a blueprint over Iraq or Afghanistan. But of course, I didn’t know of bin Laden at that time.

- Interviewed by Daniel Robert Epstein for Suicide Girls

Basic Instinct was a terrific film noir and a vivid portrayal of contemporary American society. But you got flak for having a lesbian villain, the homicidal novelist played by Sharon Stone. Making science-fiction films solves the problem of the villain, doesn't it? Whoever you have as a villain today, some group will be upset, but if you have bugs--

We were very well aware of that. At least we had a politically correct enemy here. We could all say, "These guys are really evil, and killing them is good." We cannot say that about any human enemy anymore, because everybody is seeing the other side now, at least a bit more than they did forty years ago. But Starship Troopers is reflecting a little bit the situation in the second World War, when the Americans were fighting the Japanese and the Germans. Basically, the enemy was evil and had to be destroyed. Nobody had time or even could bring himself to [face] the fact that these were also human beings, motivated by other thoughts, but as human as ourselves. People had a strong tendency and inclination to deny that. The line in the movie, "The only good bug is a dead bug," was applied to the Japanese, wasn't it?

Originally it was applied to American Indians by General Philip H. Sheridan in 1869: "The only good Indian is a dead Indian."

Well, that's basically the same kind of thinking, that the enemy is not human.

When the bugs attack the fort in Starship Troopers, it's just like a scene in a Western, such as the scene in John Ford's Drums Along the Mohawk when the Indians are coming over the walls of the fort and the pioneers are trying to stop them.

It is a Western. It's a classical Western situation, absolutely. A lot of these cues were taken from Westerns and from movies like Gunga Din and The Charge of the Light Brigade. We studied these films. That is really American thinking, going back of course to the scriptwriter [of Starship Troopers, Ed Neumeier], who is American. I probably wouldn't have even thought about it that way. I know these movies, but it's a stronger part of his culture than mine.

The fascist society you portray also has some good aspects--racial mixing and the equality of men and women--which seems odd because in a fascist state you'd think they would be discriminating against people of color or against women.

Yeah, that's the interesting, disturbing thing. It's also a little bit looking at the fascist possibility even of American society. Because it's saying, "Under the surface there is always this possibility that you would get to a much more and more puritan state. Yes, you might abolish crime and, yes, you might get rid of all these things, but then are you aware how that can be achieved?" It doesn't interfere with the story, because I think the story is more about people that are really caring about each other. I don't think any of the characters, with the exception of Carl, express themselves in any fascistic way. They only believe in the citizenship [status awarded to warriors]. But they are supportive to each other; they are warm to each other; they sacrifice themselves for others. Our focus group in the movie is much more what you would call human, and not really, in my opinion, fascistic. That's the interesting thing--these [aspects] are correlated. And basically that's what I think about big societies like the American society. Look at the McCarthy period; that's a kind of a fascistic statement that was put forward, isn't it?

Even though the movie is R-rated, you know a lot of young kids are going to see it. Adolescents and teenagers will love this picture. Do you think they'll get the point about fascism?

No, not at all. I saw it in Sacramento with a very normal audience, and also in Granada Hills [California]. I feel that the most [young viewers] see is the kids with the guns. They all got the message; they all start laughing. They realize we're saying, "Everybody has a gun in this country." I think they all see the irony.

You don't think they will misinterpret it and think the young troopers are cool?

No, I didn't get that feeling at all. The exaggeration in the style goes so over the top, they realize we were, not spoofing, but looking at a hyperbole of reality. When I saw them getting excited in the movie, it was never about that. They got excited when Johnny [Casper Van Dien] was jumping on the Tanker Bug and blowing it to pieces. And when the bugs were attacking and the troops were holding the fortress. That's where I saw them really getting excited. That's where they participated. So I don't have the feeling that they would see it as a stimulation of fascistic feelings.

- From interview with Joseph McBride, Industry Central


IMDb Wiki

Paul Verhoeven Fan Page

Despite being embraced by the mainstream Hollywood system, Verhoeven has managed to retain a European sensibility. He has noted the lack of social critique in Hollywood product of recent years, viewing them as "all action, science fiction and over sentimental love stories". Then again, whereas European cinema may have more of a focus on social commentary, Verhoeven "finds these films exceedingly boring" (Van Sheers 1996, xii). Drawing on the best of both worlds, many of his American works immerse audiences in action and science fiction (SF) worlds - even "over-sentimental love stories" - but this always drapes itself over a biting social critique.

With the exceptions of his foray into film noir with Basic instinct and the underrated Showgirls, it is the SF works - RoboCopTotal recall,Starship troopers and Hollow man - for which Verhoeven is best known, and which form the subject of this essay. On his attraction to the SF genre, he has stated:

when I went to the United States to work, I knew that I did not know enough about the nuances of American culture to reflect it in film. I didn't want to have to worry about breaking rules of American society or making mistakes because I was not aware of certain expressions or social behaviour. I felt more secure working in science fiction. (Hollow man: Production Notes, n.p.)Like other European directors who were embraced by the Hollywood system - Fritz Lang, William Wyler, Douglas Sirk and, more recently, Roland Emmerich - Verhoeven's strength lies in his manipulation of generic systems, reflecting both an insight into and a ruthless critique of the American culture that has embraced him. Verhoeven's primary subversive tool comes from creating a dialogic relationship between SF conventions and other generic codes, in particular those of the Western.

- Angela Ndalianis, Screening the Past


Wikipedia entry for Heinlein's novel

Paradoxically, Heinlein's tiresome but genuinely American 1959 novel reveals a good deal more of international life than Verhoeven's ersatz American movie. But that's because 38 years of American history--including the cold war and its aftermath and the passage from both nationalism and internationalism to multinationalism--separate these two versions of the Good Fight. In the novel, boot camp for the fighting youth of earth's galactic empire includes the son of a Japanese colonel working on his black belt and two Germans with duelling scars; Johnnie Rico himself, also known as Juan, is the son of a Filipino tycoon and in one of the novel's delayed revelations turns out to be black. Boot camp in the movie, by contrast, is basically American white-bread with a few multicultural trimmings--a reflection of neither the 50s nor the 90s but an incoherent mishmash of the two. Boot camp is also coed, which is presumably supposed to reflect the future. (The novel featured women pilots, but not unisex showers and sleeping quarters.)

As critic H. Bruce Franklin rightly points out in his 1980 book Robert A. Heinlein: America as Science Fiction, the writer's "right-wing" militarism actually reflects the liberal ideology of John F. Kennedy, who was elected president a year after the novel was published. The armed force in Starship Troopers anticipates the creation of the elite Green Berets; Kennedy's signature "Ask not what your country can do for you" speech also seems to come straight out of the novel. Written as Heinlein's 13th in a juvenile series for Scribner's (a series celebrating the conquest of space whose first filmic incarnation was the

1950 DestinationMoon, adapted from Rocket Ship Galileo), the book was rejected for its extreme and unapologetic militarism, then published as an adult novel by Putnam. It's another indication of how much we've changed in 38 years that adults in 1959 had the quaint notion of shielding teenage boys from this sort of thing--though the novel lacked most of the movie's graphic gore (which is now aimed at them).

Franklin also points out that Starship Troopers--which is as steeped in cold war ideology as Heinlein's 1951 The Puppet Masters, and thus in striking contrast to his neo-hippie and neo-communist Stranger in a Strange Land (1961)--suggests that the alien bugs represent Chinese communists and that another humanoid race (the "Skinnies," omitted in the movie) reflects Russian communists. In fact the novel is crammed with pompous lectures about the communist menace and the errors of KarlMarx, most of them linked to the bugs' "hive" mentality--which makes it all the more ironic that the classless military utopia Heinlein proffers as an ideal alternative is no less socialist and totalitarian. The movie actually intensifies this paradox by showing how impossible it is for Johnny to speak to his girlfriend or his parents on the videophone without all his bunk mates being present.

- Jonathan RosenbaumThe Chicago Reader

I can't say that Heinlein's vision of war as the best crucible for the formation of good character ever persuaded me, but it was sobering, powerful, consistent and impossible to dismiss -- and it made "Starship Troopers" memorable to this day. The author's twists on old military-adventure-tale clichés were merely imaginative; the severity and anger behind the book's ideas were, in the field of science fiction, unique.

I know how tiresome it can be for critics to compare movies unfavorably to the books they're based upon. But in this case it's essential for an understanding of what goes wrong with Paul Verhoeven's new movie of "Starship Troopers." In this bizarrely discordant mixture of ultraviolent action footage, bad acting, crisp special effects and futuristic camp, the remnants of Heinlein's rhetoric of military pride stick out like a grimy Marine uniform at a high-toned Hollywood party.

Heinlein's writing sneered at the soft, easily deluded civilians and celebrated the male-bonded esprit de corps of his futuristic Mobile Infantry -- Green Berets of the future who dropped, paratrooper-style, onto enemy planets in powered suits, kept to tight formations, rained destruction on their foes and returned to their spaceships, all in a matter of minutes. Verhoeven's contempt draws no such distinctions; everyone in the movie is kind of dumb -- not least the Mobile Infantry themselves. Far from an elite, they come off as hapless, ill-disciplined grunts who can't wait for the battle to end so they can discard their machine-guns-on-steroids, roll out some beers and hop in the sack with their svelte comrades. (For a far more imaginative vision of a gender-blind military, see "Aliens.")

There's nothing wrong with good satire -- but it's self-defeatingly stupid to inject it into any story that expects us to care what happens to the characters. The creators of successful latter-day space operas, from "Star Wars" to "Independence Day," have always understood this. Nothing in "Starship Troopers" carries the conviction of the Force or even "Independence Day's" rah-rah-for-mankind idealism; the movie can't commit to the militarism it inherited from Heinlein, and it never finds a different ideal to substitute.

- Scott RosenbergSalon, November 7 1997

Paul Verhoeven's film Starship Troopers is on target for depicting Robert Heinlein's novel as a "fascist utopia." Did that get your attention, Heinlein fans?

Now, before you track me down and send me hate mail, yes, I have read the book.

"A lot of casual readers of the novel have a vague militaristic, fascist idea. It's not supported by the book," says James Gifford, a writer and publisher of numerous works about Heinlein.

Bill Patterson, editor of the Heinlein Journal, agrees, saying that "it's hard to find anything in the book that tends in the direction of fascism."

People hear the word "fascism" and get angry. It conjures images of an oppressive police state that's out to conquer the world -- Hitler, Mussolini, eugenics, the cult of the nation, 1984.

What do the dictionaries say?

Militarism, totalitarianism, aggressiveness, nationalism, plus a racist doctrine. By these definitions, Heinlein's Federation is a fascist government -- seductively, perhaps compellingly portrayed.

Aggressive, racist and belligerent. What I found most alarming -- and fascinating -- about Heinlein's novel was how he imagined a fascist society that incorporated these awful ideas, but worked all the same.

Heinlein showed me an intensely nationalistic, aggressively militaristic, totalitarian and racist ("speciesist?") society, and in spite of everything I believe in, I liked what I saw. When Verhoeven's film demonstrated the same traits in the source material, fans rejected it.

- Robert Peterson, Space.com

Starship Troopers isn't really a book about the military, being a soldier, or even government; it's a book about civic virtue, and what distinguishes a citizen -- in the sense of one who recognizes that with rights come responsibilities, and that the two are proportional -- from a non-citizen. The military is a good model for this discussion, because it involves (at least theoretically and, I think, usually in practice, at least in the US) a relatively straightforward instance of consciously placing the interests of your society above your own personal interests.

The differences between Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers and Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers can be grouped into two major categories: material and philosophical.

Materially, there are several ways in which Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers is an inaccurate rendition of Starship Troopers. First, and most noticeable to anyone who has read the book, is the total absence of powered armor. Verhoeven et al claim that it was left out of the $100 million movie because it would have been too expensive, and because they were unable to "do it right." So, instead of battlesuited MIs dropping from orbit, we have fairly conventionally equipped soldiers landed in contraptions that look an awful lot like freight containers.

Second, great liberties have been taken with the characterizations. Pivotal characters have been left out, unimportant characters have been "promoted" to star status, and new characters have been added. With the possible exception of the recruiting sergeant in the Federal building -- a role diminished in the movie to about three lines of dialogue -- none of the characters are recognizable as their book counterparts.

Third, the plot has been totally rewritten, so much so that only a few scenes here and there are reminiscent of the book, and in most cases even those scenes have been substantially reworked.

Overall, though, I am going to go on record -- against the vast majority of the Heinlein fans who have expressed outrage against the movie -- and say that these changes do not matter. Sure, I would love to have seen troopers with powered armor in a one-for-one translation of the book, but I understand why that couldn't happen. Different media have different strengths and weaknesses, and Starship Troopers, as written, makes a better book than it would a movie. Heck, one of the major surprises in the book -- that the fleet sergeant who captures the brain Bug during Johnny's OCS tour is Sergeant Zim -- works only because Heinlein doesn't tell us it's Zim until after the battle is over.

The differences that I think are important, on the other hand -- the differences which turn it from the same story told in a different medium into the book's Evil Twin (tm) -- are philosophical in nature, and are numerous and profound. The group making this movie clearly had their own agenda, and being faithful to their source wasnot part of it.

To begin with, while the Terran Federation in Starship Troopers is specifically stated to be a representative democracy, Ed Neumeier decided to make the government into a fascist state. This was not "doing justice to the author," no matter how many times Neumeier and Davison repeat this absurd claim. [Persons 1997; Sammon 1997; Warren 1997]

Second, the book was multi-racial, but not so the movie: all the non-anglo characters from the book have been replaced by characters who look like they stepped out of the Aryan edition of GQ.

Third, there is real element of sadism present in the movie which simply isn't present in the book... Sergeant Zim starts things out by asking the assembled recruits if any of them think they can beat him in a fight. One recruit, a good ol' boy named Breckinridge, accepts the challenge. In the process of sparing, Breckinridge is injured.

As presented in the book, the injury is clearly an accident:

The same scene in Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers plays out very differently. Zim has Breckenridge pinned by his arm, and he deliberately breaks the recruit's wrist.

Recently, though, it was pointed out to me that there was one area where Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers might actually be faithful to Heinlein's original: its treatment of women. In this movie, women and men appear to participate -- in sports, in academic work, and in the military -- on an equal footing. This is to be commended, even if it illustrates exactly how far short the movie falls in most other ways.

Christopher Weuve, kentaurus.com

953 (95). Heimat (1984, Edgar Reitz)

Screened over January 8-30, 2009 on Facets DVD on flight en route to Tokyo, Japan, in Taipei, Taiwan, on flight en route to Newark NJ, and in Weehawken NJ IMDb Wiki

It would be fascinating to see a compendium of landmarks in the history of television series from around the world, if only to discern any common themes or aesthetic approaches among them. Two qualities that I associate with television - intimacy and duration - lend themselves well to novelistic narratives that sprawl across time and space and yet stay trained on conversations and seemingly small moments that unfold into the next, and whose implications may take several episodes to fully register (yes I'm looking at you, The Wire). Such is the case with Heimat, a 15 hour series made for German television that covers a 63-year period from the end of World War I to the early 80s. Set in a quiet town in the picturesque pastoral Hunsruck valley, the film reconsiders - and ultimately renews - the heimat movie genre that celebrated a nostalgic German ideal of rustic home life, frankly depicting a provincialism among its denizens that compelled them to comply with the Nazi regime.

The film succeeds, especially over the first half of the series leading to World War II, in resurrecting a bygone way of life simply through quietly observed details - the sound of the blacksmith's anvil, the cumbersome lugging of a phonograph to an outdoor picnic - that fill the frame with textural authenticity. Family members come and go, and - like most great television series - the evolution of their relationships with each other is a major source of captivation.  As both individual and collective fortunes rise and fall, the response of each distinctly defined family member to the prevailing mores of each successive era accumulates into an awesome genealogical tapestry. While stuffed with dramatic incident, to its credit the series never succumbs to melodramatic excess, with nary a brawl or screaming match in sight; instead we get lingering resentments or quiet acts of abandonment, the accumulation of which leads to the spiritual disintegration of the clan and the way of life they've held dear. Its insistent focus on small, in-between moments is a key to its persuasive effect of life in the act of being lived.

At first it's puzzling to think that, despite the vivid, meticulous detail of ethnographic reconstruction of early 20th century small town life to behold, one can criticize the film, as many have, for holding a blinkered view of German history. Reitz barely makes mention of the Holocaust, though he does obliquely depict pre-War anti-Semitism and one Marxist family member being rounded up for re-education. His aim is to show life as it was lived and perceived by everyday rural middle class Germans, who implicitly stand in for the soul of the nation. Not unlike Forrest Gump, this approach yields a narrow, even self-satisfied approach to understanding the social forces that shaped the world around these people.

My other complaint with Heimat is that in its last few episodes it loses its focus on capturing the fabric of everyday life, instead succumbing to a dour view of present-day society presumably corrupted by the disposable values of American capitalism (symbolized by one family member who runs away to the US to become a millionaire). In this sense it truly is a heimat film, marked as it is by a comforting, restorative nostalgia for a past; this despite initially cataloging the many shortcomings of that era. It's just ironic that a film that ultimately declares itself as a statement on behalf of meticulous authenticity against superficial product ends up compromising its own claims to the former in trying to rail against the latter.

Would you like to learn more?

The following citations were counted towards the placement of Heimat among the TSPDT 1000 Greatest Films:

Callisto Cosulich, Sight & Sound (1992) Hans Gunther Pflaum, Steadycam (2007) John Pym, Time Out (1995) Kathleen Murphy, Steadycam (2007) Philip Haas, Sight & Sound (2002) Richard Barkley, John Kobal Book (1988) Tom Abell, PopcornQ (1997) Film (Eyewitness Companions) Top 100 Movies (2006) Halliwell's Top 1000 Films (2005) John Kobal Poll John Kobal Presents The Top 100 Movies (1988) Michael Wilmington 100 Best Films of the Century (1999) New York Times The Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made (2004) Sight & Sound Fistful of Five: The New German Cinema (2006) The Guardian 1,000 Films to See Before You Die (2007) They Shoot Pictures Highly Recommended Films

Website with summaries and links on the complete Heimat series. English/German frames version of the same

From the first site, here's an account of the film's historical reception in the United States:

Unlike the films of Fassbinder, Wenders and Herzog, Reitz's HEIMAT and DIE ZWEITE HEIMAT remain largely ignored in the United States. Undoubtedly the intimidating length and foreign language have had much to do with this neglect, however even within the rather specialized world of cinema critics and foreign film addicts, the works of Edgar Reitz are seldom cited. Now with its release on video in the United States it is possible HEIMAT will find the audience in America that has ignored it for the past twelve years.

HEIMAT received two national American television broadcasts: the first on the limited Bravo cable network in 1985 and the second on PBS during the fall of 1987. When I inquired of one of the programmers of Boston's WGBH (the sponsoring PBS affiliate) why HEIMAT was never rebroadcast, I was told, "Very simple: no one watched it." The PBS stations that did chose to pick it up broadcast HEIMAT in non-prime time schedules; in Boston it was shown at 11 PM or midnight on Saturday nights.

Prior to its broadcast incarnation in America HEIMAT also received very limited theatrical distribution. (Here it had a theater screening at Boston's Institute for Contemporary Art.) However unlike the nearly unanimous favorable critical reception in Europe, HEIMAT received a number of attacks by a few noted critics, criticism that has apparently colored the reception to the film in the United States in the years since 1985.

In particular essays by J. Hoberman, "Once in a Reich Time" in The Village Voice (16 April 1985) and Timothy Garton Ash, "The Life of Death" in The New York Review of Books (19 December 1985), both took HEIMAT to task for excluding important aspects of German history during the period of National Socialism. As part of his attack Ash wrote:

"When you show the 1930s as a golden age of prosperity and excitement in the German countryside, when you are shown the Germans as victims of the war, then you inevitably find yourself asking: But what about the other side? What about Auschwitz? Where is the director's moral judgment? To which the color filters insistently reply: 'Remember, remember, this is a film about what Germans remember. Some things they remember in full color. Some in sepia. Others they prefer to forget. Memory is selective. Memory is partial. Memory is amoral.'

With this simple trick, Reitz manages to escape from the chains that have weighed down most German artistic treatments of twentieth-century German history. 'We try to avoid making judgments,' he writes. Not for him the agonizing directorial evenhandedness, the earnest formulations of guilt, responsibility, or shame. Not for him the efforts to 'come to terms with' or 'master' the past. Not 'Vergangenheitsbewaltigung.' Not Bitburg. Just memory and forgetting."

In part it seems Reitz and his publicists may have brought this on themselves. When introduced in America, HEIMAT was described as "the German answer to NBC's HOLOCAUST." After these early reviews, the difficulty of actually locating a screening or airing of the film and the time investing while watching it deflected all but the most curious viewers.

Were one to search for literature on HEIMAT in an American library, there is little available. Two of the few scholarly books on German cinema currently available in America, FROM HITLER TO HEIMAT: The Return of History as Film by Anton Kaes (Harvard, 1989) and NAZI-RETRO FILM: How German Narrative Cinema Remembers the Past by Robert C. Reimer and Carol J. Reimer (Twayne, 1992), both cite Hoberman and Ash.

In addition Anton Kaes in his lengthy chapter, "Germany a Memory," points out the "near total exclusion of the Holocaust" from HEIMAT. "Five of the eleven episodes (episodes 3-7 ) take place during the Third Reich, and the second episode includes the year 1933. Three segments deal with the years before the war (1935, 1938, 1938-39), while two concentrate on the war at home and on the front ('The Home Front,' 1943 and 'Soldier's Love,' 1944).

Almost half of the film, a chronicle spanning sixty-three years of German history from 1919 to 1982, takes place during the twelve years of Hitler's regime; thus more narrative time is granted in HEIMAT to the exploration and visualization of the causes, progress, and consequences of German fascism than in most full-length feature films or documentaries on National Socialism." Like Ash, Kaes finds Reitz's failure to directly address the social and political origins of the Nazi past a fundamental, if not, corrupt flaw in the film.

A more reasoned American critical response can be found in Thomas Elsaesser's NEW GERMAN CINEMA: A History (Rutgers University Press, 1989).

Appropriately, the catalyst for Heimat was a cliche-ridden American TV miniseries called Holocaust that Reitz saw on television in the late-1970s, which he felt traduced German history in the Nazi era. At the time, Reitz had retreated to the North Sea island of Sylt in order to write poetry. He had ostensibly given up his career in cinema - one that started with a bang when his debut Mahlzeiten (Mealtimes), a love story about a couple that ends with the man's suicide, won the best first film award at Venice in 1967. Like Fassbinder and Herzog, he seemed to be a titan of the new German cinema. By the late-1970s, though, he appeared to be washed up: critically mauled for his 1978 film, The Tailor of Ulm, deep in debt and out of ideas. He vowed never to make another film. Snowed-in at his island retreat, however, he watched TV and saw something that revolted him back into film-making.

The sentimentalism of the Holocaust series made him reflect on German history, but also on his own biography. Reitz had been born in 1932 in a Rhineish village called Morbach, leaving home at 19 in order to pursue an artistic career. He had thus rejected his Heimat, a German word that means homeland, connoting one's spiritual roots, but that also signifies a place of innocence and childhood security. As with many of the characters in Heimat, he often felt an unfulfillable desire to return.

He started to make notes. Soon Reitz had a 250-page draft story set in a fictionalised version of his own village. He collaborated with writer Peter Steinbach, and that story became a 2,000-page screenplay. Released in 1984, Heimat 1 began with a young soldier, Paul Simon, walking home in 1919 from the battlefields of France, ostensibly to resume his life at his father's blacksmith's. But Paul casts off the stuffiness of his destiny: one day, despite having a wife and two young children, he leaves - and fetches up on Ellis Island.

Reitz was keen, in making his drama, to overthrow the traditional German genre of Heimat sagas that had focused invariably on German village life, and that had been used by the Nazis to romanticise the country's past. The genre had been revived during the 1950s when, as an anti dote to the so-called Trümmerfilme, or "rubble films", Heimat films became popular, if conservative, celebrations of Germany's rustic past. "When I chose the title it was, of course, an important debate with the use of the term Heimat," says Reitz. "I was countering two things - the pseudo-folklore form of Heimat used by the tourist industry, and its ideological use during the Nazi period. It was hard work to clean the term from the burden of history." How did he try to do that? "What I tried to achieve is a realism of observation. It's important not to be sentimental or engage in ideological preconceptions of one kind or another because all you achieve when you do that is put one ideology against another ideology."

For some sceptics, he did not succeed. Critic Leonie Naughton accused Reitz of having created a "bourgeois history of the Third Reich, a homespun tale of innocence". How does Reitz respond to claims that his work is reactionary and bourgeois? "These definitions are now outmoded," he argues. "In the 1960s and 1970s they were used as weapons, but now there are more important truths than these ideological truths. In life there are certain things that are important. They are a house, family, emotional connections through love. In all eras, all cultures have these things and that means if I tell a story using these things they can be understood worldwide. That's why Heimat has not just been a German phenomenon but something that has been watched and understood around the world."

- Stuart Jeffries, The UK Guardian

EDGAR REITZ'S ''HEIMAT'' is a cinematic event, if not quite a masterpiece. It's a massive, nearly 16-hour chronicle of life in Germany, from 1919 to 1982, as reflected in the fluctuating fortunes of the members of one family, initially peasant-farmers, in the fictitious village of Schabbach in the Rhineland. As literature, ''Heimat'' bears the same relationship to Rainer Werner Fassbinder's magnificent, equally long adaptation of Alfred Doblin's ''Berlin Alexanderplatz'' that Herman Wouk's ''Winds of War'' bears to Thomas Mann's ''Buddenbrooks.''

In spite of its length, ''Heimat'' is immensely, easily watchable, a succession of mostly ordinary events and characters - history seen from ground level - vividly acted by a huge cast. It is, most of the time, a work of imagination and feeling, a real achievement for Mr. Reitz, who conceived the project, wrote it, with Peter Steinbach, and then directed it, with the backing of German television interests.

As the stoicism and peasant manners of the people of Schabbach give way to the easier expression of emotions and even to a kind of middle-class sophistication, the style of the film becomes more complex. ''Heimat'' never looks like a television movie. It is beautifully photographed by Gernott Roll. Unlike television films, it does not place the most important information at the center of the image, in tight close-up. ''Heimat'' looks big.

Mr. Reitz switches back and forth between images in black and white, or monochrome, and images in full color. Sometimes he will print a scene entirely in black and white with only isolated objects - in one case, the brilliant red of the Nazi banners -seen in color. Occasionally, this is quite marvelous - it has the esthetic effect of physical movement. At other times, though, it seems to be redundant or just self-conscious, which is also the case with some of the references to Great Moments of History.

Mr. Reitz is not a firm, original stylist like Mr. Fassbinder, whose films - even ''Berlin Alexanderplatz'' - are breathtakingly concise. On the evidence of ''Heimat,'' Mr. Reitz is a looser sort of film maker, but he is certainly an organizer, and ''Heimat'' has a broad vision and a leisurely manner rarely seen in anybody else's movies.

- Vincent Canby, The New York Times, April 6 1985

When Heimat was shown in Germany it was a major media event, surpassed only by the television screening of the American miniseries Holocaust in 1979. In fact, the genesis of Heimat lay in its director Edgar Reitz's reaction to Holocaust. Reitz accused Holocaust of reducing the misery caused by the Nazis to a "welcome background spectacle for a sentimental family story," of trivializing German history and, indeed, of willfully expropriating it for simplistic, entertainment purposes. He argued that what Germans needed to do was to take "narrative possession of our past" thus "breaking free of the world of judgments and dealing with it through art." The way to do this, he argued, was to tell stories: "there are thousands of stories among our people worth filming, which are based on endless minutiae of experience. These stories individually rarely seem to contribute to the evaluation and explanation of history, but taken together they could compensate for this lack. We should no longer forbid ourselves to take our personal lives seriously." The source of the problem is, of course, the Nazi past: "we Germans have a hard time with our stories. It is our own history that is in our way. The year 1945, the nation's 'zero hour,' wiped out a lot, created a gap in people's ability to remember. As Mitscherlich put it, an entire people has been made 'unable to mourn.' In our case that means 'unable to tell stories' because our memories are obstructed by the great historical events they are connected with. Even now, 40 years after the war, we are still troubled by the weight of moral judgments, we are still afraid that our little personal stories could recall our Nazi past and remind us of our mass participation in the Third Reich. . . . Our film, Heimat, consists of these suppresed or forgotten little stories. It is a chronicle of both a family and a village and is an attempt of sorts to revive memories. . . .We try to avoid making judgements."

Reaction to the film in Germany, and elsewhere in Europe, was extremely positive. It was only when Heimat was shown in the United States that the negative opinions which had been expressed in Germany gained a wider hearing. In the light of the above this should not have been surprising; as Thomas Elsaesser noted, calling a German film Heimat was a "calculated provocation and was bound to be controversial." Likewise Anton Kaes: "scenes of provincial life are never innocent in Germany."

According to its critics, Heimat's main problems lie as much in what it does not show as what it does. The argument here is one leveled against any broadly realist text, namely, that it cannot escape from the mental horizons of its protagonists. The same criticism can be leveled at some versions of the "history from below" mentioned earlier. Major political events and wider economic factors, which undoubtedly have their influences on individual private lives, are ignored or glossed over because that is what the characters themselves do. This might matter rather less if that history did not include the Third Reich. Indeed, almost half of the film takes place in the years 1933–45. Writing in the New York Review of Books, Timothy Garten Ash stated: "when you show the 1930s as a golden age of prosperity and excitement in the German countryside, when you are shown Germans as victims of the war, then you inevitably find yourself asking: But what about the other side? What about Auschwitz?" Or as one of the film's sternest critics, Gertrud Koch, has it: "in order to tell the myth of 'Heimat,' the trauma of Auschwitz had to be shut out of the story." The Third Reich seems almost to take place off screen, and when Nazi activities are presented (which is not often) it's in a curiously elliptical fashion and usually without much explanation— on the grounds, presumably, that this is how they were actually experienced by the characters. Accommodation with the Nazi regime is shown largely as comical, or merely opportunistic, or as the result of seduction of one form or another. Admittedly one or two characters— a Jew, a Communist—disappear, but no one seems to show the slightest curiosity about this. Again, all this might matter less were it not for the historical fact that the countryside was extraordinarily important to the National Socialists ideologically, politically and economically, and found a good deal of support amongst the peasantry. Reitz himself has said that to have taken on the Jewish question would have "overburdened the narrative" and that "the story would have immediately taken a different turn." He has also argued that there were very few Jews in the Hunsruck and that people there were largely ignorant of Nazi genocide.

Unease about the representation of the Third Reich period is further compounded by the way in which postwar, modern Germany is shown. In short, it appears to be downhill all the way, and the main villain here is definitely America. (One begins to see why it was in America that misgivings about the film were voiced). But this is only the most extreme instance of a process throughout the film whereby no good comes from events, influences or people outside the Edenic, pastoral idyll of the Hunsruck. This comes dangerously close to a reactionary agrarian romanticism with disturbing similarities to the "Blood and Soil" ideology; moreover, it also seems to suggest that all of Germany's contemporary problems, whether it's the despoilation of the countryside or people's inability to connect with their past, can be laid at the door of the Americans, thereby neatly letting the past 100 years of German capitalism (in which the Third Reich and the "Wirtschaftswunder" were both highly significant episodes) neatly off the historical hook.

Julian Petley, Film Reference.com

Edgar Reitz's 15-hour film is an attempt to restore a sense of continuity to 20th-century German history by presenting 63 years, from 1919 to 1982, in the life of Schabbach, a small village in the Hunsruck region. The chief characters are the members of the Simon family--the grandfather is a blacksmith, the grandson will be the founder of a precision optical company--and the shape of the plot is dictated by the century's constantly changing economic and political conditions, driving some members of the family to emigrate, others to form alliances with the Nazis, others to find prosperity in the postwar "economic miracle." Reitz avoids the ceremonial events--births, deaths, marriages--that usually punctuate this sort of family chronicle, concentrating instead on the textures of daily existence and the shifting relationships among the characters. Though not without its longueurs (the treatment of the 50s, for example, is largely limited to an extremely conventional tale of adolescent frustration and romantic revolt) and marked by a rising nostalgia for the "good old days" as opposed to the debased present, Reitz's project stands as a monumental act of imagination, teeming with evocative incident and Proustian detail.

- Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader

If you can imagine a work that fuses the collective memory of an area with that of the authors’, and then renders it on film in all it’s wandering yet richly detailed glory, you can conceive of the accomplishment that is known as Heimat. Drawing not only from his memories growing up in the region, but also from interviewing and conversing with hundreds of people from the Hunsruck region, Edgar Reitz created this cinematic version of oral history. Though the 52 ½ hour Heimat trilogy is fictional, Reitz’s cinenovel is far more true to life than at least 99% of the stuff that passes as docudramas or “based on a true story”. A dense multilayered text covering all facets of life from many angles, Reitz’s aim is to tell compelling stories that realistically observe mankind without judging them. Thus his study of life, which is never sentimental or ideological, helps free us from the stereotypical misconceptions about German citizens while providing an alternative to the tired accounts that dominate our perception of the past.

What we normally consider as history - the ruling party, the not so great dictator, the pointless wars - are always on the periphery in Heimat. Reitz avoids the usual cliches, refusing to depict the big names and notable events. He instead allows their respective presence and occurrence to seep into if not shape the narrative as much as it could be expected to, which in peacetime isn’t very much. However, if you’ve already returned from war you are forever changed, even if only through a certain alienation that’s inherent in trying to feel comfortable in a place that’s gone on without you for a number of years.

Though critics so used to old hat they miss it criticized Edgar Reitz for downplaying certain aspects that are thought to define 20th century German history, whether it be the depression or the concentration camps, I find Reitz’s film refreshing as it’s neither political nor apolitical. Reitz and cowriter Peter F. Steinbach show that while politics effect [sic] the lives of ordinary citizens to a certain extent, it’s rarely in the kind of direct, easy to pin down ways we typically see in the few movies that actually want to be political. In fact, the silly fads of the day hoisted upon the public by mass marketers and their enabling subordinates have far more obvious and widespread effects, if for no other reason then everyone encounters them everyday until they are replaced by the next craze. One example Reitz & Steinbach use is having Ernst get into the home “improvement” business, replacing traditional quality with phony stonewall facings. In all cases though, Reitz shows positive and negative aspects of change, and just as his characters do, the audience interprets the events through their own perspective.

Reitz’s masterpiece simply can’t be compared to traditional television, as there’s not necessarily a specific reason people do what they do, treat someone in the manner they treat do, especially one that’s specifically related to that character. One thing Reitz has done is eliminate the simplistic cause and effect that dope opera is based on, the actions of the characters are never so obvious we come to them ages before they do. Heimat isn’t the usual judgmental television crap that’s based on action and reaction, for instance someone has an affair so their spouse or lover breaks up with them and then everyone close to both of them is forced to take sides. There’s none of the typical situations that pit saint against sinner, everything exists in gray areas. Reitz isn’t about the decision or the damage done, so much as root of the problem. We see a person with an ambition, a discomfort, some subtle disquiet that nags at their soul until they follow it. He won’t explain it, and in fact it’s difficult to really put into words, but the central conflict of Heimat is between man and his homeland. His decisions aren’t based on loving his family or not, but rather whether he can be comfortable spending his life in the region. Everything else is secondary, and thus there’s a tremendous amount of collateral damage.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything where the characters have so many varying aspects. Reitz & Steinbach quite simply obliterate the concept of likeable and dislikable, allowing life to shape the characters and situation to shape life rather than consistently imposing a set of morals, values, ideals, which they either live up to or contradict. We are allowed to feel so many positive and negative emotions toward each character, many times at once, but also to so often be neutral. The characters are always complex, sometimes troubling, but at the same time both ordinary and impressive. We rarely focus too much or too long on their strengths or weaknesses. It’s not about flip flopping the characters, they change credibly but the goal isn’t to show them evolve or devolve as individuals, this is of course part of most great movies or novels, but greatness is never attained by narrow definition. Heimat is more about pitting the specificness of your roots against the universality of human experience to show lives so unique yet so familiar, a mix of the unfathomable (unless you’ve actually lived it) and the incredibly familiar (from your own experience). Reitz once commented that, “The work itself gives no answers whatsoever, but the observer gives himself answers. The work gives him time, and again the key to unlocking those secret rooms (of your own soul)”

Heimat is filmed as a memory, imbued with echoes of the past, both obviously (flashbacks) and symbolically (repetition of objects, events, with similar light and framing). Scenes of walking down a long straight road or even making a phone call are staged to evoke occurrences of the same event in the past. Life is a series of repetitions, differentiation coming from the ever changing if not evolving manner in which we experience it. The act may be the same, but each incident is slightly different, the aspects that are noticed, that come to the forefront or are disregarded yielding variance.

-    Mike Lorefice, RB Movie Reviews

Films about World War II continue to consider the atrocities, suffering, and associated guilt over the Third Reich. And yet, in movies like Saving Private Ryan, Enemy at the Gates, and The Pianist history is often rewritten by means of stereotypes, neglecting the agonies endured by most Germans and the cultural complexities that led to Nazism. And when a movie like Downfall does portray detailed, even sympathetic German characters, it is met with controversy. It almost appears as if it is incorrect for Germans to talk about the misery they suffered as a consequence of Hitler’s regime.

Candidly portraying the economic prosperity brought by Hitler’s regime to the humble people of Schabbach, Heimat questions the impartiality of traditional history texts, and highlights the complexities associated with racism. Heimat further complicates its political discourse by observing U.S. segregation of African Americans during World War II, and pointing out that this was not different from German intolerance ideologies. The first U.S. Army soldiers who arrive in Schabbach, spearheading the battle against Nazi forces, are African American. But in the following months, after the fall of Berlin and once combat operations are over, only white officers appear in town. The next black character we see the African American chauffeur who drives Paul’s limousine, when he returns “triumphant” from the states in 1948, a wealthy entrepreneur (now played by Dieter Schaad).

With such details, Heimat offers a new perspective of historical events, showing how they continue to haunt our present. As much as the series addresses broad historical events, it remains focused on the Simons’ lives, losses, and regrets.

Marco Lanzagorta, Pop Matters


In addition to its origins within German romanticism, the idea of Heimat also has more recent historical derivations. The Heimat movement of the 1890s arose in opposition to the rapid expansion of urbanisation and capitalism in what remained a largely rural society, and was grounded in a conception of German national identity premised on rural, traditional and feudal values. During the 1930s and 1940s the values of the nineteenth-century Heimat movement were also assimilated into the xenophobic 'blood and soil' ideology of National Socialism, and, in the 1950s, the spirit of Heimat reemerged yet again, within the genre of the commercial Heimatfilm.

The radical political configuration which emerged in West Germany during the late 1970s and early 1980s was characterised by a degree of anti-Americanism, and by the rise of anti-nuclear, environmental and devolutionary regionalist movements. Within this latter grouping, the regional and local were elevated in value over a national culture which was perceived as increasingly dominated by the materialistic values of consumer capitalism. It was against this context of a renewed interest in regionalism, and reaction to what was perceived to be the increasingly materialistic culture of the Federal Republic, that intellectuals turned to the idea of Heimat must, therefore, be seen as part of this more widespread attempt to both locate authenticity within local and regional experience, and resist the threat posed to such experience by mass consumer culture.

Heimat's detailed perusal of the gradual destruction of the traditional and everyday by a commercially driven modernity complements the microscopic perspective adopted within the film. The small-scale, gradual changes which Reitz documents have a direct impact on the culture of the village, and so can be easily depicted within Heimat's mini-narratives of a commonplace world which is under constant threat. However, this focus upon the fine textures of familiar life also means that Heimat inevitably pays less attention to larger-scale historical events, and this aspect of the film has led to criticism that Heimat is a revisionary and reactionary text, which avoids the more problematic, darker aspects of recent German history.

The style of editing and photography employed in Heimat also complements Reitz's account of the gradual decline of heimat. The greater part of Heimat is shot in a realistic style using a black and white photography which confers a degree of documentary authenticity on its subject matter. At the beginning of the film, the camera-work and editing is often slow and meditative, and long-take, moving camera shots are much in evidence. However, in addition to this lyrical documentary realism, Reitz also employs more formative techniques in Heimat in order to poeticise his images, and infuse them with a sense of larger symbolism. In such scenes, the camera often lingers over objects, which then take on added, though ultimately enigmatic, significance. This focus on the poeticised materiality of objects recalls Kracauer's demand for a cinema which can 'redeem' the physical world, and Reitz's claim that, in Heimat, he wishes to 'defend things in a society that consumes them and throws them away' warrants further comparison to Kracauer.

Colour is also used in Heimat in a way which corresponds to Reitz's wish to poeticise the traditional life of the village. Colour is only used in brief sequences, in order to suffuse particular actions and objects with a more general significance. However, the use of color, like the use of special lighting effects, complex multi-narrative structures and extreme close-ups, also makes Heimat a reflexive film. In addition to its realism, therefore, Heimat employs a series of formative devices whose principal function is to reveal the film's artifice and formal construction. For example, as the film proceeds, and the traditional life of the village gradually gives way to the intrusion of a more modern, instrumental culture, the dominant realistic style of Heimat also breaks down. The meditative, poetic qualities which characterised the opening episodes of the film are gradually replaced by a more gaudy, abrasive and discordant style of film-making, which also signals the coming destruction of Heimat. These two contrasting styles of film-making not only symbolise the existence and loss of Heimat, but are also deployed in order to foreground the function and role of the film-making process.

- Ian Aitken, European Film Theory and Cinema: A Critical Introduction. Published by Indiana University Press, 2001. Pages 218-222

Heimat, I argue, is ultimately an uncritical reproduction of the Heimat myth, for Reitz does not critically explore the origins and functions of the myth, and is instead absorbed by it...

Reitz appropriated the Heimat discourse about the past whose legitimacy was based on the belief that memory is immutable: "I produce German memories because you cannot invent memories." Unlike Hollywood films, the Heimat discourse, according to Reitz, did not manufacture the past, it reflected it genuinely. And yet, alongside this notion Reitz developed an acute awareness of the ways reality is constructed, rather than simply reflected, in films: "Many people in our profession make the mistake of confusing film images with reality... The entire lot of terrible television programs and commercial offerings in cinemas is in reality the revenge of the camera on those stupid abusers who think they are reproducing reality." Heimat includes sensitive scenes of the ways in which the camera and technical instruments reproduce reality, whether by Paul and his radio, Eduard and the camera, Anton and cinema, Hermann and electronic music. The film calls upon viewers to be conscious of the deceptiveness of the camera...

The discrepancy between the claim to recover in Heimat genuine German memories and the inherent impossibility of representing reality on film creates a fascinating tension in Heimat. On the one hand, Heimat feels like a documentary that records life accurately through the use of black and white, the depiction of everyday life, and the centrality of quotidian material objects. Watching the film, we want to believe, and no doubt many do, that this was the way things really were. On the other hand, Reitz always alerts the viewer to the need to distrust the camera by showing how reality is reproduced and constructed by technical instruments. In fact, Reitz seems to tell us that while memories are cultural artifacts, they are at the same time genuinely ours. But as a project of national identity, Heimat gives priority to the ability of memory and experience to capture the past over the constructedness of film images. Although film cannot reproduce reality, Reitz appears to be saying, the memories reflected in it are closer to the truth when they stem from "real" experiences. Thus, Heimat implies, the experience and memory of Reitz and the people of Schabbach go a long way toward overcoming the obstacles of technology, they cannot be totally fake because they are based on "real" experience...

Reitz was influenced by the Heimat-film genre that reached its zenith in the 1950s, when more than 300 films were produced. The genre communicated a world of "little people" in villages between tradition and modernity. It conservatively emphasized stability of human relations, conformity to common values, and security in a familiar environment. Heimat films made it possible for people to "dream" of marriage and a happy family, prosperity, leisure, and, for the refugees from Eastern Europe and East Germany, of a new Heimat. The genre came under attack in the Oberhausen Manifesto in 1962, in which twenty-six young German directors, including Reitz, opposed the conventional German cinema and the primacy of commercial considerations. Vowing to create "a new language of film," the new German cinema developed the "anti-Heimat film," which critically raised social, political, and ecological issues and demonstrated keen awareness of conflicts and injustices in German society...

Heimat... belongs neither to the classic Heimat films nor to the anti-Heimat films, but instead is, as one scholar put it, a "highly ambivalent adoption of the genre." Reitz's motivation was to counter the made-in-Hollywood rendition of German history by using an indigenous genre that represents and defines German identity. He created a unique Heimat film. From the classic Heimat films he adopted cinematic motifs and narrative patterns that had been considered trditional and conservative, while infusing them with New Left meanings from the 1960s and 1970s, such as rejecting the embellishment of reality and highlighting the experience of "little people" through oral history. From the anti-Heimat films he adopted the depictino of reali life (Schabbach is composed of hard-working people, of messy living conditions, and of jealousy), although he departed from it by not passing judgment and keeping a nostalgic longing for a putatively lost Heimat. By selecting elements from Heimat films and anti-Heimat films, Reitz seems to tell us that the genre is neither inherently conservative nor inherently progressive, but - if properly used through memory, experience, and storytelling - can be a mirror of the German ways of life...

For Reitz, the past was an organic part of reality before the foundation of West Germany and became a commodity thereafter. But this view has more to do with Reitz's deep antipathy to West Germany than to any complex understanding of the modern perception of the past in general, and of German's perceptions of the past in particular. The connection between consmer culture and perceptions of the past was common long before the foundation of West Germany. Heimatlers in imperial Germany saw in the Heimat idea not only a source of local and national identity, but also a source of profit. The two were united by the development of tourism. Heimat museums exemplified the connection because they attempted to attract tourists by marketing their past as worthy of a visit. But Reitz believes in a dichotomy of unconditional totalities between German national society dominated by consumerism and rootlessness after 1949 and a national society of authentic relations to the past, while refusing to consider that the both elements can intermix. Often (perhaps always) nations construct an idea that there once existed a pure, homogeneous national identity, uncorrupted by modernity and its offspring, consumer culture. This idea exists as an ideology, a belief, and a propaganda. But the coexistence of consumer culture with notions of roots and authenticity, that is, making authenticity a commodity for mass consumption, is what really happens. Here Reitz's description of German identity is unsatisfactory not because he fails to include the Holocause, but because he fails to embrace the complexity of modernity.

- Alon Confino, Germany as a Culture of Remembrance: Promises and Limits of Writing History. Published by UNC Press, 2006. Pages 58, 70, 71, 77, 78, 79

Since [Heimat] is about German memory rather than history, and because it represents that memory as wholly turned upon itself, it leaves no room for those whom the Germans would rather forget or repress, that is, their victims.

And yet Reitz's work too is dependent for its coherence not merely on an absence of representation, but also on a representation of absence. Conscious of a context of prejudice and genocide, evil and complicity, it must escape to the environment of a remote anachronistic village, finally connected to modernity only following World War II and the (apparently lamentable) Americanization of Germany. And yet, even in that distant location, the film cannot completely ignore a presence that its own realistic and traditional technique must somehow acknowledge. Hence, Reitz feels obliged to make for a momentary appearance of the absent, if only in order to indicate that the absent remained absent for his protagonists, even while they were actually there. He must make the point that the Jews had no role in German (rural) memory, precisely because he knows that German memory is inseparably tied to visions of genocide. Indeed, the major motivation of Heimat, as Reitz himself argued, was to give back German history to the Germans, after it was taken away from them by the Jews, who are the main protagonists of both Holocaust, the mini-series, and the historical event of Nazi genocide.

I suggest that the absence of the Jews is the fundamental subtext of Heimat, its motivation and the unspoken arbiter of its content. Without this absence, the film would have been nothing more than a sentimental, overlong tale of rural life in a God forsaken province. It is that absence that gives it meaning, providing it with the context it so emphatically rejects. In this sense Heimat is a film not about memory but about amnesia, that is, about the absence of memory and all that can be remembered and must nevertheless be erased.

- Omer Bartov, Germany's War and the Holocaust: Disputed Histories. Published by Cornell University Press, 2003. Pages 229-230.


The Wiegand and Simon family trees, featuring all family members who appear in the complete series:

Heimat 1 was accused in some quarters of bypassing key aspects of German history (notably the Holocaust); in Heimat 2, contemporary music and film were counterpointed against the heady politics of the ‘60s. Heimat 3, for all its filtering of history and politics postdating the fall of the Wall, is studded with more references to art, film and music than its even more monumental predecessors. Ultimately Reitz’ summation of the twentieth century seems to be a salvaging of the nineteenth. That alone is no mean achievement, and the three Heimat series must constitute one of the major contributions to film to date. But Heimat 3 in a sense returns to what the New German Cinema was not historically in a position to reclaim. With Heimat 1, Reitz claimed to be reappropriating German history (concretely, from its representation in the US series Holocaust [1978]). Via Heimat 2, his final epic stakes claim to German art as Germany’s abiding historical heritage. The nation of poets and thinkers, whose remoteness from politics was viewed as a primary facilitator of Nazism, has become an ideal nation of artists, filmmakers and musicians, and its welcome back to the world stage is not without historical irony. The postwar stability of the old/new Federal Republic of course makes possible both finding Heimat in art, and gaining global acceptance. The fact that the Reunification Symphony evaporates might be a blow for contemporary music. It most certainly is a pessimistic historical gloss, and it is that which pitches us back to nineteenth century art.

-    Roger Hillman, Rouge


IMDb Wiki

Edgar Reitz was born on the 1st of November 1932 in Morbach*, a small town in the German Hunsrück Mountains. There his father Robert owned a small clockmakers shop, and his grandfather Johann Reitz worked as a Blacksmith in Morbach-Hundheim. Edgar Reitz has two younger siblings. His sister Heli, and his brother Guido who assumed his fathers trade and took over the Clock Shop.

During the time he attended school in Simmern, Reitz had already started acting and stage-managing in a theater subsidized by his German teacher Karl Windhäuser. After earning his Abitur (a diploma required to qualify for University entrance in Germany), he moved in 1952, motivated by Windhäuser, to Munich to study German language, literature, journalism, dramatics, and art history. During this time he was already sporadically publishing poems and narrations, and was a co-editor of a literary journal. He was fully engaged with the avant-garde of music, arts, literature and film, and in 1953 he was one of the founders of the "Studentisches Zimmertheater" (Small Student Theater), from which in 1954 the Studiobühne an der Universität München* emanated. However most of all Edgar was fascinated by Cinema and its technical side, and became a member of a film seminar, where film classics were analyzed and discussed. In other European countries, like in France or Poland, people attended film schools at that time to become filmmakers, but Reitz was learning to make films by actually making them. After his first attempts in 1953 he started opening doors to the professional world of filmmaking by working as a cameramans assistant, editors assistant, or production assistant. He started making his first own short films in 1958. In 1962 he joined the "Oberhausener Gruppe" around Alexander Kluge*. At the "Short-Film Days" of 1962 they published the "Oberhausener Manifest"* and declared the old german film as dead, promoting the "Young German Film". In the period 1962-1965 Reitz was working as the chief of the agency for development and experimentation at the Munich "Insel-Film". Together with Kluge and others in 1963, he founded the first German film school, the "Institut für Filmgestaltung"* at the HfG Ulm, where he taught direction and camera theory until it was closed in 1968.

In 1965/66 Reitz worked as cameraman for Alexander Klug’s Abschied von Gestern (Yesterdays Girl), in 1966 he produced his first own feature film Mahlzeiten (Lust for Love)* which in 1967 was awarded as the best debut feature at the Venice film Festival. For that film the camera work was done by Thomas Mauch, who 36 years later filmed the first four parts of HEIMAT 3. "Abschied von Gestern" and "Mahlzeiten" belong to the films, which influenced the "Young German Film" very intensely [besides: we can see the movie-posters of those two films in DIE ZWEITE HEIMAT, Film 13, at the wall of the bar he meets his assistant and Zielke]. In May and June of 1968 Reitz conducted a series of lectures in filming theory and practice at a Munich secondary school. This project was documented with the Film "Filmstunde" (Lesson in film). In 1971 he initiated the "Kneipenkino" (Pub Cinema), where visitors themselves were able to put together a program from 23 Kübelkind-Geschichten (Stories of the dumpster-child).

In 1971 Edgar Reitz founded the Edgar Reitz Filmproduktions GmbH* (short: ERFilm) in Munich, his own film production company, which since then produces not only his own projects, but also those films of other well-known directors. In the 70’s and 80’s they produced lots of documentaries, feature films and television plays, and were honored with numerous awards. Contemporaneously Reitz published many books and articles dealing with film-theory and film-aesthetics, but also narrations, essays, lyric poetry, and literal versions of his films.

After the flop of his most expensive film in 1978, Der Schneider von Ulm (The taylor from Ulm)*, Reitz turned away from feature film and his state-aided standards. He retired on the island Sylt in the north of Germany. There, after being poorly impressed by the American TV series Holocaust he developed his ideas for his most successful project, HEIMAT. With Heimat Reitz returned to his own homeland, the Hunsrück, and while working on the script for Heimat, released the documentary "Geschichten aus den Hunsrückdörfern" (Stories from the Hunsrück villages), which describes people’s life in the Hunsrück in an inimitable manner. After the release of HEIMAT in 1984, he immediately started working on DIE ZWEITE HEIMAT – The chronicle of a Youth, which internationally received even more attention than HEIMAT, but in Germany did not obtain that much acceptance.

In 1995 Reitz, among others, founded the European Institute of Cinema Karlsruhe (EIKK), and was appointed to a professorship at the Staatliche Hochschule für Gestaltung* Karlsruhe.

"HEIMAT 3 – Chronik einer Zeitenwende" was made in 2002-2004 despite being troubled by serious encroachments in Reitz’s artistic liberty from the financing tax supported broadcasting companies. In 2006 he combined previously unreleased scenes from all parts of the trilogy for "HEIMAT Fragmente - Die Frauen", a philosophical discourse about memory.

Edgar Reitz lives in Munich and is married with Salome Kammer since 1995. Together with his son Christian he founded the company Reitz & Reitz Medien.

- Thomas Honemann, Heimat 123

When people and things pass out of reach of our sensory perception, when they go away, die or we go away, or time takes them from us, we experience pain. This pain is born of the hopelessness of ever being able to truly make things our own, of being able to love them, use or possess them. Even eating, the most intensive form of appropriation, is a modality of leave-taking. But in parting from things, they pass over into our memory, become integrated into the spatio-temporal relation to which we too belong. In taking leave, in this passage from a sensuous relation to a relation of memory, we discover the origin of the legends and stories, of the images that live on independently of any particular human being, like the wound that exists without a body. When one looks closely, film always has something to do with parting. Film concerns itself with things and people that disappear from our sensory perception, with this pain that every good frame reproduces and produces... Parting is the great theme of every film.

- Edgar Reitz, quoted in Eric L. Santner, Stranded Objects: Mourning, Memory, and Film in Postwar Germany. Published by Cornell University Press, 1993. Pages 68-69

952 (54). Shin heike monogatari / New Tales of the Taira Clan (1955, Kenji Mizoguchi)

Screened Saturday January 17 2008 on .avi format on Continental Flight from Tokyo to Newark TSPDT rank #905IMDb

One of Kenji Mizoguchi's most lavish productions, this chronicle of the rise of the samurai amidst the oppression of 12th century Japan is heavy on plot and crowd scenes, but strangely inert at the center.  The Mizoguchi themes of class and authoritarian injustice, the burden of family legacies, and female bondage are all present to varying degrees, but seem at odds with an implicit samurai movie imperative to move the proceedings along briskly and noisily. The film isn't stuffed to the gills with swordfights; the sparring takes place mostly in terms of political maneuverings between the samurai, the ruling court and a powerful order of monks, with screen-cluttering armies being mustered less to wage combat than to intimidate (the viewer as well as their opponents).

Perhaps in this light Mizoguchi is subverting the genre, shifting his emphasis away from bloodshed to the hero's pseudo-Oedipal angst-ridden search for his true patrilineage involving the three factions.  Most of the thematic richness that emerges from this scenario can be traced to the script, adapted from a serialized novel by Eiji Yoshikawa. For his part Mizoguchi seems to be preoccupied with making tentative forays in color (this being one of two color films he directed in his career; the other, The Empress Yang Kwei Fei [TSPDT #617], also from 1955, achieves a more expressive palette), and with keeping the proceedings lively through a brisk editing scheme and a variety of compositions and camera movements that animate rather than contemplate. An effective, meaningful effort by most standards, it registers as a  kowtow to prestige picture impulses when considering the singular achievements of Mizoguchi's earlier works.

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The following citations were counted towards the placement of Shin Heike Monogatari among the They Shoot Pictures Don’t They? list of the 1000 Greatest Films:

Bernard Cohn, Positif (1991) George Robinson, Miscellaneous (2003) Ian Cameron, Sight & Sound (1972) John Davies, Senses of Cinema (2004) Mike Wallington, Sight & Sound (1972) Jonathan Rosenbaum, Essential Cinema: Favourite 1,000 Films (2004) Jose Luis Guarner, Genre Favourites: Adventure (1993) Sight & Sound, 360 Film Classics (1998)

One of Mizoguchi's two late films in colour, this describes a conflict between three power groups in feudal Japan: the priests, the court, and a clan of samurai. The samurai embody ideals of individual integrity, just service, and male prowess; the court, ideals of rightful authority, but equally, the faults of ministerial corruption; the clerics, the degeneration of institutionalised religion into factional Fascism (gang-like violence in support of political ends). Characteristically, the tale of the conflict is hinged round a courtesan figure's relations with the three groups ('mother' for the samurai, 'mistress' for the court, 'whore' for the priests). Needless to say, the 'personal' virtues of the samurai win out, the hero becomes superman. Shot with all the sensitivity and stylish trappings to be expected from Mizoguchi; also, some sharp observation of social relations, and some acute insights into the vagaries of the power boys' shit-games.

- Time Out

The same year he crafted the intimate period romance of Princess Yang Kwei-fei, Kenji Mizoguchi tackled the sprawling spectacle genre with this color epic -- virtually a ying/yang of cinematic storytelling, although with the two halves harmonized musically by the same artistic delicacy. Set in 1137 A.D., the narrative is a tapestry of feudalistic intrigue and decadent official cabals against which the director stages the spiritual growth of his impetuous young hero (Raizo Ichikawa), the son of dignified samurai leader Ichijiro Oya and heir to the Taira clan. Returning triumphantly from quelling the unrest of a divided nation, Oya and his warriors are humiliatingly denied any rewards by the cloistered government (for, as one palatial wag asserts, "only poor samurai are useful"), one in a series of episodes landing the Tairas in the middle of a power struggle between the aristocracy and the rebellious monks tearing up the land. The screen is scarcely less than bustling with conflict, all scrupulously captured by the majestically sweeping camera, but the genre's inherent muscularity is subtly (even subversively) femininized by Mizoguchi's emphasis on the moral and emotional quandaries of the characters -- even the most physical of confrontations (an ambush to foil an assassination plot, a melee erupting out of the spring festival) are painted not in Kurosawa's crossed-katana close-up of brawniness but in the long-shot of spiritual contemplation. To Mizoguchi, the expressive epiphanies of the hero's relationships with his warrior father and courtesan mother (pieced together via contrasting flashbacks; maybe a dig at Rashomon, one of the director's famous bêtes noires?) are no less epic than the historical shifts bringing a country together.

- Fernando Croce, Cinepassion

Unlike his contemporaries Kurosawa and Kinugasa (whose Gate of Hell was the sensation of the 1954 Cannes festival), Mizoguchi never mastered the use of colour. New Tales, the most famous of his two end-of-career colour films, is shot on what looks like soiled stock, a muddy yellowed Eastmancolor; faces, grass, buildings, skies all processed in the same pastel shade - pure laziness on the part of the cinematographer. It is a busy film in which nothing very much happens, and in which all but all the action takes place off screen. Stock actors in stock roles strike wide-eyed poses and they huff and they puff; the exception being Kogure as the classy and vulgar mistress of the Emperor, the mother of the stand-taking samurai, the whore of the declining aristocracy (silk dress swishing in gesiha-role cliche). The music score is grand and effective throughout and particularly striking during an atmospheric flashback processed in green.

- Paul Sutton, Cambridge University Camera Journal

Shin Heike Monogatari, a reasonably rare film among Mizoguchi’s late period works in not being centrally concerned with the social situation of victimised women figures (though this is peripherally present), dramatises an incident in the life of future Taira clan head, Kiyomori. He discovers that instead of being the son of a samurai as he had always thought to be the case, he may in fact be the son of either the current emperor or a monk. The three factions to which the young protagonist could be linked are those that are in conflict throughout the film, and each can be seen to represent a specific position: the monasteries and warrior monks emblematise the degeneration of institutionalised religion into politically-motivated violence and the oppression of the people; the Imperial court crystallise notions of (perceived) rightful rule and the self-preservation of authority; the samurai embody honour and individual integrity.

The relevance of such a scenario to mid-1950s Japan is manifold. Firstly, the forces of antagonism in the film are markedly anti-democratic (the monasteries and Imperial Court both wish to impose themselves politically and control the masses), a theme common to many films of the 1950s. Following the occupation period, democracy came to be widely regarded by the Japanese as the true way forward for the nation, and the government had swiftly banned anything transgressing this, even songs.

Kiyomori’s victory is, then, one of family, democratic idealism and altruistic action over elitism and the corruption of those in power. This chimes with Japan’s attempt in the post-war period to reinvent itself as a nation, to put its recent indiscretions behind it, move forward and open itself to the international community (something that would climax in the highly symbolic 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo). In other words, the trajectory of Kiyomori in overcoming a crisis in his identity and finding his true self amid social chaos, is a microcosm for Japan as a whole in the 1950s, caught between itself and its traditions on the one hand and the Western values fostered by the occupying SCAP forces on the other.

This is the situation explored in the film. Indeed, it is made clear from the very beginning: the opening shot – a virtuoso mobile long take of the kind for which Mizoguchi has long been celebrated (and criticised – see Noël Burch) – details peasants bemoaning the state of the nation. The most prominent complaint is that Japan has two rulers, two courts: the official Imperial court and the cloistered court exerting influence from behind the scenes through the puppet emperor.

- Adam Bingham, Senses of Cinema


IMDb Wiki

“The comparisons are as inevitable as they are unfashionable,” wrote James Quandt, introducing the centenary retrospective of the films of Kenji Mizoguchi. “Mizoguchi is cinema's Shakespeare, its Bach or Beethoven, its Rembrant, Titian or Picasso.” (1) If this remains a minority opinion, it's not because others have tried him and found him wanting. Mizoguchi is either admired or ignored. If he is, as I believe, the greatest of Japanese directors, then he has eluded general recognition as such only through unpropitious circumstances.

The first circumstance was historical. The bulk of Mizoguchi's work was produced years before Japanese films were widely shown in the West. When a handful of Japanese movies did play in France and Germany in the late '20s, Mizoguchi's Passion of a Woman Teacher(1926) received considerable praise. But whereas its contemporary, Crossways (Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1928) became (and remains) a staple repertory item in Europe, all trace of Mizoguchi's film has long since disappeared. Only in the '50s, as Japanese films again began to make their way into European festivals, did Mizoguchi win a belated international recognition for his late, bleak, yet beautiful and serenely moving period films. When he died, relatively young, in 1956, attention passed to such younger filmmakers as Kurosawa and Ichikawa, very much less distinguished artists who both profited from a fashionable brand of sentimental humanism and an obtrusive emphatic visual style consisting predominantly of rhetorical close ups and generally at the service of simplistic emotions.

Tales of the Pale and Silvery Moon After the Rain
Ugetsu Monogatari

The other circumstance, then, was artistic. Although a much more profound humanist than Kurosawa, Mizoguchi rarely, if ever, advertised his social concerns with the sort of condescending didacticsm which appealed to the message-hungry middlebrows of Sight and Sound and its ilk. As for his style, with its extraordinary elaboration, delicacy, beauty and grace, it must have struck the puritans who then dictated taste as decadent aestheticism. Naturally this sort of thing went down rather better in France, where Godard and Rohmer, then the Young Turk critics of Cahiers of Cinéma, hailed Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) as one of the cinema's supreme achievements and evoked comparisons with Homeric and Arthurian legend. But Mizoguchi's art eludes easy auteurist categorisation in a way that, say, Ozu's films do not. He vacilated politically between feudalism and feminism, militarism and Marxism. The essential features of his style – long takes, the rejection of close ups – remained constant for the last 20 years of his career, but the gulf between the stasis and austerity of Sisters of Gion (1936) and the roving camera and elaborate choreography of actors inSansho Dayu (1954) is wide indeed. In consequence, critical opinion has often been divided: the traditional liberal humanist line, as exemplified by the criticism of Donald Richie, exalts the postwar period films, while the Marxist formalist school of Noel Burch prefers the prewar work for its supposedly more radical formal qualities.

My own feeling is that masterpieces were produced throughout Mizoguchi's career, that a commitment to feminism and progressive politics is, despite his occasional flirtations with the right, the single most consistent trait of his oeuvre; and that the visible transformations in his style obscure a more profound integrity of method and meaning.

- Alexander Jacoby, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Bio

The roots of artistry are often sought in autobiography, and for filmmaker Kenji Mizoguchi, this seems an especially appropriate place to start. Mizoguchi, with Ozu and Kurosawa one of the three undisputed masters from the golden age of Japanese cinema, was born in 1898 in the middle class district of Hongo, in Tokyo. Two events occurred when the future director was seven that may have played a pivotal role in the kinds of films he would make. In the first, his family's fortunes were reversed when his overly ambitious father lost their money in a failed business scheme, forcing their move to the poorer district of Asakusa. In the second, which resulted from the first, his 14-year-old sister Suzu was put up for adoption and eventually sold to a geisha house. Mizoguchi's adoration of Suzu and of his mother, who died when he was 17, was balanced by an intense hatred of his father. The senior Mizoguchi's inability to support his family forced his son, who had already developed an arthritic condition that would plague him throughout his life, to be farmed out to relatives. It was only through the sacrifices of Suzu that he was able to study art, become a painter, and eventually direct films, starting with The Resurrection of Love (1923).

Sansho the Bailiff Sansho the Bailiff

These characters and events from his youth — a sudden rise or fall in class; the oppressive or self-deluded male authority figure; the selfless, self-sacrificing woman who's ultimately destroyed — became the basis for his greatest works: Osaka Elegy, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums, The Life of Oharu, Sansho the Bailiff, and Ugetsu. In these films Mizoguchi brilliantly uses long takes, moving camera, and shimmering tableaux to show the futility of the social and philosophical status quo, particularly as it related to women.

- Gary Morris, Bright Lights Film Journal


Kazuo Miyagawa was, quite simply, Japan's preeminent cinematographer. Commencing in the 1930s, he worked with some of his country's foremost directors, including Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, Akira Kurosawa, Kon Ichikawa, Daisuke Ito, Hiroshi Inagaki, and Masahiro Shinoda, and his credits include some of the all time greatest Japanese films, includingRashomon, Ugetsu, Sansho the Bailiff, Street of Shame, Yojimbo, Floating Weeds, Odd Obsession, and Kagemusha.

Beginning his study of cinematography in 1926, after several years as an art student, Miyagawa was particularly impressed by the high-contrast lighting used in the German expressionist films of the era. Starting as a focus puller and assistant cameraman at the Nikkatsu Kyoto Studio laboratory, Miyagawa utilized his knowledge of film chemistry to experiment with the composition of film stock and the degree of exposure before shooting. Thus, he was able to determine the optimum exposure despite the varied physical conditions of location shooting; in fact, he did not even work with a light meter until Rashomon, in 1950.

Between 1935 and 1943, Miyagawa was in charge of second-unit photography and special effects at the Nikkatsu Studio. His first great success as chief cinematographer came in 1943, with his work on Hiroshi Inagaki's The Rickshaw Man, in which his ambitious camerawork captures the vivid images of the life of a rough but straightforward rickshaw man in a small city, using montage to recreate the flow of time. While he has attributed his success to the traditionally high standards of the studio's cinematographers and camera mechanics—"Working in the film lab taught me the basics, the fundamental part of making pictures," he once explained—he also noted, "It was my training in [Japanese] ink painting that really taught me how to see."

Indeed, it was Miyagawa's early study of this art form that gave him the understanding of subtle shadings which was evident in his black-and-white films. His fluid camera movements, particularly the long takes in Mizoguchi's films, demonstrate his knowledge of the Japanese traditional emakinomo scroll painting style. In order to satisfy Mizoguchi's demand to draw out the tense moments of highly dramatic performances, Miyagawa conceived the technique of suspenseful long takes, which capture highly dramatic performances without interruptions. He used many crane shots to create the mysterious atmosphere of Ugetsu and the romantic escape scenes of A Story from Chikamatsu. Long and complicated pannings such as those of the garden scene and the last scene of Ugetsu and the ending of Sansho the Bailiff are breathtakingly inventive. Further, in the latter film, he experimented with shooting the entire film in counter-light, to create the cold image suggested by the subject of slavery.

Miyagawa also contributed his dynamic camera style to Kurosawa's work. Utilizing the light reflecting directly on a mirror, he captured in bright summer daylight the surging emotions of the characters of Rashomon. The image of sunlight flickering behind the trees became legendary. In Yojimbo Miyagawa used telephoto lenses to successfully convey the powerful images of swordplay in the swirling dust. He also used telephoto lenses effectively in Ichikawa'sTokyo Olympiad to capture the poetic moments of physical movement, often in combination with slow motion. Miyagawa's bold use of the CinemaScope screen is evident in other successful films of Ichikawa. Particularly important was Miyagawa's technique of inventing the "silver tone" in the chemical process to create a greenish-gray tone, appropriate for the turn-of-the-century atmosphere of Her Brother.

Miyagawa's sensitive and ingenious approach to the specific tones of each of his color films is evident in his work for Ozu, Ito, Shinoda, Kouzaburo Yoshimura, Masuzo Yasumura, and others. He studied each type of film stock for specific color effects according to the subject. For Floating Weeds, the only Ozu film on which Miyagawa worked, he used a light color scheme to recreate the atmosphere of a town in southern Japan. The tension of the scene of a hard rainstorm under which a couple quarrels from opposite sides of a street was accentuated by Miyagawa's usage of a large light source with the dripping water captured in counter-light. The combination of bold colors and lyrical night scenes of Kyoto in Yoshimura's Night River, the recreation of the world of Kabuki and the bright-colored woodprints in Ito's Benten Boy and Masumura's Tattoo, the magnificent landscape colors in Shinoda's Silence and Banished Orin, and the dazzling color spectacle of Kurosawa's Kagemusha are other highly acclaimed examples of Miyagawa's skill.

The cinematographer was employed by the same studio between 1926 and 1971, working elsewhere only twice: on Yojimbo, shot at the Toho Studio; and Tokyo Olympiad, produced independently. Before his death, his more notable credits were Kagemusha, and Shinoda's Gonza the Spearman and MacArthur's Children. He remained professionally active into his eighties. "A director and cameraman are like husband and wife," Miyagawa once declared. "Even though they may fight, all their films are their offspring." He added, proudly, "I am a cinematographer. I've never had any ambition to become a director. A film is not one individual's method of personal expression but a matter of teamwork, a cooperative venture."

Kyoko Hirano, updated by Rob Edelman, Film Reference.com


Fumio Hayasaka is among the most respected of Japanese composers. Beginning in the late 1930s he has worked for noted directors including Mikio Naruse, Yasujiro Shimazu, Tadashi Imai, Teinosuke Kinugasa, and Kon Ichikawa. However, he is most famous for his work for Kenji Mizoguchi and Akira Kurosawa.

Combining Japanese traditional instruments with Western instruments, Hayasaka wrote mysterious, stylized scores for Mizoguchi's Ugetsu, Sansho the Bailiff, and A Story from Chikamatsu. Interested in a wide variety of styles, he nonetheless sought to create a uniquely Japanese style of film music.

His collaboration with Kurosawa began in the late 1940s with Drunken Angel, and the two artists soon found each other indispensable. Their association continued in a spirit of mutual appreciation and respect until Hayasaka's death during the production of Record of a Living Being in 1955.

Kurosawa and Hayasaka both believed that film music should not always work to enhance the mood or the dramatic highlights of a scene, and that unexpected combinations of music and visual images would create more interesting effects. For instance, the lively spirit of the "Cuckoo Waltz" heard from a loudspeaker on a street in the black-market area starkly contrasts with the depressed psychological state of the hero of Drunken Angel. In Stray Dog the sound of a housewife practising piano is heard during the suspenseful confrontation of the criminal and the detective, and a children's song is heard in the scene of the criminal's arrest.

Hayasaka's bolero music for Rashomon is also uniquely effective. This theme music is used as a leitmotif, associated with the appearance of certain characters, and contrasts with the styles used in other scenes. Similarly, in Seven Samurai Hayasaka created powerful and emotional theme music for the samurai themselves, with more lyrical music used for the scenes of lovers and ominously rhythmical music for the battle scenes. The composer planned each of his scores by meticulously analyzing the structure and the mood of each scene. His constant experimentation, and his search to create a unique effect in each scene, won him wide acclaim.

Kyoko Hirano, Film Reference.com

951 (93). Limite (1931, Mario Peixoto)

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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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.

- Jose Carlos Avellar, The Cinema of Latin America. Edited by Alberto Elena, Marina Díaz López. Wallflower Press, 2003. Pages 17-18

The following citations were counted towards the placement of Limite among the They Shoot Pictures Don't They? list of the 1000 Greatest Films:

Carlos Alberto De Mattos -Epoca (2000) Nelson Pereira Dos Santos- Balaio (1996) Nicole Brenez - Kevin B. Lee Poll (2008) Paulo Betti - Epoca (2000) Pedro Butcher - Epoca (2000) Rogerio Sganzerla - Epoca (2000) Rubens Ewald Filho - Epoca (2000) Walter Salles - Epoca (2000) 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.

- Pacze Moj, Critical Culture, who offers an astounding scene by scene illustrated account of the film

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.

- Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader

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.

Susana SchildFilm Reference.com

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.

- William M. Drew

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.

- Michael KorfmannMarioPeixoto.com

"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.

Janet Maslin, The New York Times, April 21 1979


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.

- William M. Drew

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.

- Jose Carlos Avellar, The Cinema of Latin America. Edited by Alberto Elena, Marina Díaz López. Wallflower Press, 2003. 15-17



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.

A more detailed biography by Michael Korfmann on MarioPeixoto.com

Best of the Decade Derby: of cafes, balloons and camerawork

This post is dedicated to Chris Fujiwara, with whom I enjoyed a hotpot dinner and a morning double feature of Nikkatsu '60s New Wave porn at the CinemaVera arthouse in Shibuya during my recent stay in Tokyo. During our time together Chris expressed disdain over the preponderance of film writing in magazines and blogs these days that convey a "look how cool I am to be writing about this movie that I got to see" snobbishness to it. His complaint is that the tone of these pieces convey exclusivity and snobbish possessiveness over the works being discussed, which in the end does these films a great disservice, as these films need and deserve to be made understood to a wider audience. Chris' concerns are those I've had as I've spent many years trying to vindicate the virtues of Hou Hsiao Hsien to peers who would often reply with a dismissive "Who Hsiao Hsien?"  Now that Hou has unequivocably earned his day in the sun with American film critics, with Flight of the Red Balloon coming out at the top of the IndieWire critics poll (which seems to be missing from the new version of the IndieWire site), I find myself in a peculiar position of making a potentially snobbish argument questioning why Flight of the Red Balloon is so regarded while his earlier oeuvre remains fairly underappreciated. Perhaps I should just be grateful that the praise lavished on Hou's latest film may carry over into proper DVD releases of his earlier work, such as his hands-down greatest film City of Sadness, which to date is not available as an English-subtitled DVD.

It remains to be seen whether Flight's prominent poll position will translate to a slot on many critics end-of-decade top ten lists.  Thanks to its strong showing, it's the highest ranking 2008 release on the freshly updated (and, interestingly, Dark Knight-free) aggregate list of the decade's best films on They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, debuting at #30. In comparison, Cafe Lumiere is at #152, and Three Times at #199. I've been of the opinion that Cafe Lumiere is Hou's best film of the decade, the only one that comes close to being a masterpiece (in contrast, there are three Hou films from the 1990s that I consider masterpieces: The Puppetmaster, Goodbye South, Goodbye and Flowers of Shanghai), and I've stated before that Flight of the Red Balloon, while remarkable in many ways, strikes me as a European reconfiguring of much that can already be found in Cafe Lumiere - which makes me regard Flight's commercial and critical success with some suspicion, especially when compared to the relative lack thereof wth Cafe Lumiere.

Maybe it's snarky of me to come up with commercial reasons for Hou's long-deferred success with Flight of the Red Balloon, but I'll just get them off my chest:

- The breakthrough success of Hou's Three Times (which, as accomplished as it was in many respects, could be seen as a high-concept, audience-friendly intro to his worldview recycling much of his previous films) set the stage for his subsequent release to continue his commercial success in the US. - The baguette factor:  Juliette Binoche + Paris. As J. Hoberman once said, if Hou were French he'd be selling out the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. Turns out that J.Ho may have called this one right. - Lastly, for Flight of the Red Balloon, Hou adopts an arthouse-friendly color palette of warm reds and oranges, and employs some masterful long panning takes which situate his style squarely within the conventions of contemporary arthouse cinema more than any of his previous films.  Now, I don't suspect that Hou was as calculating as "let's shoot it this way so I can cash in on arthouse audience preferences." The panning takes of Flight of the Red Balloon are indeed masterful (more on that in a moment) and aesthetically they make sense, as they mimic the whimsical swinging trajectories of the balloon (and once I realized this, the balloon seemed much more than just a gimmicky link to French cinema history).

Having said all this, I rewatched Flight of the Red Balloon during my trip, and on a purely cinematic basis, I was floored. Hou's economy of filmmaking, the way he choreographs camerawork and staging to accomplish several things visually and dramatically in one take is astounding. The most brilliantly indisputable evidence of this comes at a dramatic highpoint in the film, when Juliette Binoche's character suffers something close to a nervous breakdown trying to find the legal paperwork that would allow her to finally separate materially from her ex-husband and allow her literally to get a new lease on life. Look at how this five minute scene plays out and guess how many shots are involved:

The answer: one. Hou and cinematographer Mark Li Ping Bing achieve in one camera setup what would require at least five unique setups by a conventional production. And the fact that it is just one camera setup gives the audience a real-time sense of how a scene unfolds, how figures move through it and around each other, how the space itself affects the mood of the scene. Respect.

The only thing I could possibly say against this (and it's not really against Flight of the Red Balloon, more against those who think it's the greatest thing since sliced bread) is that Hou's been doing this for at least a decade. Check out the final scene of Goodbye South Goodbye, in which two parties negotiate the release of the lead characters. Granted here he's working more with horizontal space than with the cool horizontal-vertical axis in the scene from Flight shown above, but it illustrates all the better how a space seems to continually unfold new manifestations, new wonders.

Notice how the two shots at the end of this one-take scene could be combined to form a master panorama view of the whole table - but dramatically the pan makes sense because the two shots depict the two sides of the negotiation taking place.

In Japan I also had hotpot with Shozo Ichiyama, the producer of so many of Hou's great films in the 1990s, including Goodbye South, Goodbye. Ichiyama-san told me that Hou is concentrating of producing his next project, which will be a martial arts film. These long takes may give one an idea of what Hou has in mind.

I also rescind the earlier assessment I made that Flight of the Red Balloon is essentially a European rehash of Cafe Lumiere, in that it takes the incidental, in-the-moment, contemporary life-in-the-making project of Cafe Lumiere's Tokyo and recontextualizes it in Paris (which, again, proved to be a commercially wise idea).  Having seen both in the past week, their differences are more striking than their similarities. Flight is shot voluptuously, with its rich warm hues, captivating panning shots, and busy interior scenes where anywhere between 2-5 characters will buzz around a space like bees.

When I think of Cafe Lumiere, the first word that comes to mind is "flat." The second is "impassive." The two words are closely linked, and I think have everything to do with not only how this movie looks, but what it thinks and feels about the world and about people, esp. its protagonist. In contrast the sequence shown above from Flight, where a single shot suggests many pockets of micro-spaces and dimensions within a scene, the shots of Cafe Lumiere are flat and direct. Part of this may have to do with the locations Hou shoots, such as the bookstore where Hajime (Tadanobu Asano - Japan's actor of the decade?) works:

Looking at these compositions, it's striking how Ozu-esque they are, shot at geometrically square angles - and maybe this has something to do with the resultant "flatness" of Cafe that I've described. But unlike Ozu, Hou doesn't do a lot of shot-reverse shot cutting or decoupage of a scene; he doesn't do much cutting at all, really. By my count, Cafe Lumiere has 49 scenes and 81 shots - that's an average of less than 2 shots per scene!

By my count, the number of shots in Cafe Lumiere and Flight of the Red Balloon is almost exactly the same. Flight has 80, Cafe has 81. But Cafe has 10 more scenes than Flight. I think this means that Cafe moves more from scene to scene than Flight, while Flight moves more within scenes (look at the sequence above for a clear example of what I mean). While Flight is fascinated with the bustle of activity within a given space,  Cafe follows one character on a mysterious journey of self-discovery that involves her friend's bookstore, her parent's house, various locations related to the Taiwanese composer she is researching, and any number of cafes and train stations in between.

Played by Japanese pop singer Yo Hitoto, Yoko is a remarkable character in that she manages to be appealing and engaging despite having her back turned to us for half the movie. Hitoto is dressed plainly compared to Juliette Binoche's tussled blond dyejob and boho threads in Flight. Often times we don't even see her face clearly - the above close-up is pretty much the only one in the film, though it comes at a key moment of emotional candor (well, as candid as this film of intentions veiled by common courtesies ever gets).  One can see why this film would do poorly with audiences: not only does it lack the warm, charismatic presence of Shu Qi or Juliette Binoche, but it doesn't even give much in the way of flattering closeups to bring us closer to its lead. Again, the overall effect is "flat" - she's just there, on screen, living her life, her performance not giving much consideration to the audience watching her.

This intractability, I argue, is the gateway to understanding this movie.  The plot, what there is of one, concerns a girl's search for the historical remnants of a late Taiwanese composer who lived in Japan many decades before. The search may or may not be related to the girl's own recent developments: getting pregnant by a Taiwanese boyfriend now living in Thailand, but deciding to break up with him and stay in Tokyo to have the baby. It's quite a melodramatic situation when one thinks about it, though you wouldn't guess it by the relatively placid way that the girl goes about her business (the only distressful moment she has is when she suffers morning sickness on the subway). But this quiet impassivity forces the viewer to look more carefully for slight clues or cues to the drama - and is the key to what's truly special about this film.

Take this scene, where Yoko tells her stepmother over a late night snack that she's pregnant. Compare the stepmother's face and body language before the announcement:

with after:

These are the two most extreme stills, mind you - I tried to go for extremes because you have to watch the frames in motion to get a sense of the full scope of her body language, a series of slight movements backwards (once she hears the announcement) and then forwards (when she recovers from the internal shock to ask questions).  It's worth noting that the changing registers of people's facial expressions was Ozu's bread and butter - except that he would sandwich these two shots above around a reverse shot of Yoko making the announcement. Here we have the integrity of a moment preserved in real time, and we get to witness one second wash into the next, seeing how movements, feelings, registers of light unfold in a constant stream.

My favorite character in the movie is Yoko's father, who never says a single word in the film, and whose rigid, mountainlike presence betrays a well of micro-emotions. Compare this shot of him sitting in his living room, enjoying a beer in front of the TV, his daughter just returned home:

The next afternoon we see him in a reverse shot of the one above - he's sitting on the opposite side of the table, this time facing the pposite direction (the window instead of the TV), his eyes closed and anxious. You'd have to watch the movie to get a sense of how his emotional state has changed overnight - the difference is that this is the morning after his daughter told his stepmom that she's pregnant. We never get a scene of the daughter telling the father - in all likelihood it wasn't communicated directly - but the ever so slight change of the father's body language is enough to tell us what he knows and feels.

Several scenes later, it's the next day and the parents have come to visit Yoko's apartment to discuss the matter of her pregnancy further. Father and daughter eat silently at the table - but you get a quick moment of the father putting a potato on Yoko's plate. I didn't even notice this moment the first time I watched the film. But if you hone in on it, it's an emotionally tidal moment that means the world to both of them, given all that's happened.

The feeling of connection is short-lived however, as the lunch leads to a discussion of the pregnancy, with stepmom now crowding the frame - a subtle way for Hou to suggest tension and discord through deep staging:

It remains to be seen whether Flight of the Red Balloon or Cafe Lumiere are strong enough to make my top ten of the decade.  I'm not even sure which film I think is better - the question may be moot, as I've gone to lengths to show how different they are and unique in their own respects. But even though I've rewatched Cafe more than Flight, I'm still more inclined to revisit Cafe. It's the rarer treasure, its mysteries seem more tightly packed underneath a seemingly banal surface, operating under a cinematic logic that in its own, quiet way, radically defies category or convention, reflecting the modestly willful, quietly independent spirit of its protagonist. It makes Flight look more ingratiating, like an amusement park ride in comparison - though don't get me wrong, it's a hell of a ride. I've come to appreciate that much...

For further reference, here are links to my original reviews to Hou's films of the 2000s. Which one sounds like "best of the decade" material to you?

Millennium Mambo

Cafe Lumiere

Three Times

Flight of the Red Balloon

Video Essay for 941 (82). The World According to Garp (1982, George Roy Hill)

For this video essay, I'm especially pleased to have as guest commentator someone who I've known for almost as long as I've been discussing movies on the internet.   Back when I was a frequent visitor on the iMDb Classic Film board, I considered Christianne Benedict - known there as Chris-435 - to be one of the most readable and down-to-earth participants around.  Chris' enthusiasm for movies really comes through in her writing, especially when it comes to horror.  You can find many of Chris' writings at krelllabs.blogspot.com If you like this video, please rate it!

At last - the final 50

The end is in sight.  After pushing hard through the holidays, we have now reached the magical 950 mark. With 50 films to go, I am poised to complete this project (assuming I can find access all the remaining titles) by the end of the year, at the rate of one film per week. There's no guarantee that I'll be able to keep that pace through the entire year (despite averaging two a week for the past two months), but it's a reasonable goal for the year. What's heartening is that despite the recent binge of viewing and reviewing for the project, I feel that my ability to describe something vital and essential about each film has held.  Posting my latest entry on Elia Kazan's Wild River prompted me to revisit my entry on Kazan's America, America from over a year ago, to see if there have been any developments in my writing.  The Wild River write-up is longer than my usual entries; lately I've taken a lot of pleasure in packing as much evocative detail into as few words as possible. But one thing I hope is evident by comparing the two reviews is a moving away from auteurist assumptions, reading into films as saying something about their maker, as if I were their shrink.  I'm much more interested these days in getting to concrete descriptions about how a film works and how it feels to watch it.  The third paragraph of the Wild River review is what I want to do more of, trying to get as precise as possible with what's happening. It may very well eventually lead to just writing about moments as opposed to films. We'll see.

I haven't posted a video essay lately, partly because of the increased pace of text entries, but I certainly have not been idle on the multimedia front. This week there will be four video essays posted here, one on a recent film entry and the other three as the video version of a critics roundtable in which I recently participated.  And I'm hoping that the video content will get more interesting and unique as the year goes on.

In the meantime, I thought I'd share the films that are remaining on the project (barring another shuffling of the deck by the list master). There may come a point when I ask for assistance in locating some of these titles.  Stay tuned...

TSPDT Rank - Title - Director

511    -    Hart of London, The    -    Chambers, Jack 610    -    Heimat [TV]    -    Reitz, Edgar 646    -    Hitler: A Film from Germany    -    Syberberg, Hans-Jürgen 683    -    Limite    -    Peixoto, Mario 740    -    Lusty Men, The    -    Ray, Nicholas 798    -    Plácido    -    Berlanga, Luis García 829    -    Under the Bridges    -    Kaütner, Helmut 865    -    Getaway, The [1972]    -    Peckinpah, Sam 866    -    Rocker [TV]    -    Lemke, Klaus 897    -    Yesterday Girl    -    Kluge, Alexander 898    -    Starship Troopers    -    Verhoeven, Paul 900    -    Lucifer Rising    -    Anger, Kenneth 903    -    Devil in the Flesh    -    Autant-Lara, Claude 905    -    Shin heike monogatari    -    Mizoguchi, Kenji 907    -    Sur, El    -    Erice, Victor 909    -    Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz, The    -    Buñuel, Luis 910    -    My Apprenticeship    -    Donskoi, Mark 915    -    King of the Children    -    Chen Kaige 919    -    Bienvenido Mister Marshall    -    Berlanga, Luis García 920    -    Luna    -    Bertolucci, Bernardo 925    -    Female Trouble    -    Waters, John 926    -    Bad Timing    -    Roeg, Nicolas 928    -    Second Breath    -    Melville, Jean-Pierre 930    -    Song of Ceylon    -    Wright, Basil 931    -    Pillow Book, The    -    Greenaway, Peter 934    -    My Friend Ivan Lapshin    -    Gherman, Alexei 939    -    Sign of Leo, The    -    Rohmer, Eric 944    -    Heaven Can Wait [1943]    -    Lubitsch, Ernst 945    -    Moonrise    -    Borzage, Frank 947    -    Seven Brides for Seven Brothers    -    Donen, Stanley 948    -    Tout va bien    -    Godard, Jean-Luc & Jean-Pierre Gorin 950    -    Passion of Anna, The    -    Bergman, Ingmar 955    -    Maskerade    -    Forst, Willi 957    -    Letter to Three Wives, A    -    Mankiewicz, Joseph L. 958    -    Far Country, The    -    Mann, Anthony 962    -    Lost Horizon    -    Capra, Frank 964    -    Dark Eyes    -    Mikhalkov, Nikita 965    -    Blast of Silence    -    Baron, Allen 966    -    Central Station [1998]    -    Salles, Walter 968    -    California Split    -    Altman, Robert 971    -    One, Two, Three    -    Wilder, Billy 970    -    Ladies' Man, The    -    Lewis, Jerry 974    -    Strangers When We Meet    -    Quine, Richard 975    -    Toute une nuit    -    Akerman, Chantal 978    -    Bells of St. Mary's, The    -    McCarey, Leo 986    -    White Shadows in the South Seas    -    Van Dyke II, W.S. 991    -    People on Sunday    -    Siodmak, Robert & Edgar G. Ulmer 994    -    Time to Love and a Time to Die, A    -    Sirk, Douglas 995    -    Dracula [1958]    -    Fisher, Terence 999    -    My Love Has Been Burning    -    Mizoguchi, Kenji

950 (92). Wild River (1960, Elia Kazan)

Screened January 3 2008 on DVD in Weehawken NJ TSPDT #896  IMDb Wiki

I generally groan at the creakily subjective categorizing of film directors employed by Andrew Sarris in his American Cinema, but in the case of Elia Kazan I tend to agree with his label of "less than meets the eye."  The often hysterical displays of moral angst and sexual neurosis among his Method ensemble in A Streetcar Named Desire [TSPDT #356], East of Eden [TSPDT #583] and On the Waterfront [TSPDT #104] (where the most histrionic performer is Leonard Bernstein's score) may have broken taboos in the Eisenhower era, but today they come off as Oscar bait bordering on camp, offering more heat than light.  In contrast to these films, Wild River is a revelation, both even-handed and even-headed, foregoing steroidal drama for the sake of taking in the full registers and rhythms of a way of life on the way of being literally drowned out of existence.

Kazan's empathy for his subject matter is embodied in Montgomery Clift's Tennesse Valley Authority agent charged with evacuating a prideful matriarch (Jo Van Fleet, magnificent) from her soon-to be submerged island on a newly-dammed stretch of the Mississippi. Clift occasionally succumbs to Method ham with a halting line delivery or twitchy mannerism, but mostly his eyes convey his character's liberal earnestness in trying to win through patient, reasoned conversation.  Similarly, Kazan's town hall pacing gives time for practically every contending point of view to have its say, and his autumnal location camerawork achieves an authenticity of place and way of life that's hardly to be found elsewhere in his oeuvre.

For once, Kazan's theater-bound allegiance to script and performance give way to moments of cinematic lyricism worthy of Ford, particularly in scenes between Clift and Lee Remick's wistful young widow, whose exchanges are performed with such exquisite timing that it's breathtaking.  For once, the pscyhological and romantic strife of Kazan's characters are largely internalized with nuanced body language, and expressed as equally by the film's masterful light. Clift and Remick's casual introduction elides into a wordless riverside passage where the distant sounds of hymns being sung over the current's gurgle, conveying a romanticism so subtly natural that it stealthily sets up a knockout blow in Remick's dilapidated house, where Remick's heartbreak and sexuality quietly arise among increasingly looming hues of sunset and shadow.

The film was an immediate flop upon release, its concern with the Depression-era South seeming hopelessly unfashionable, its quiet treatment of sex insufficient to arouse audiences. In retrospect, its measured concern with social progress in the South, especially in its attentiveness to racial politics, gives it a rare prescience towards the civil rights struggle that would dominate the decade to follow.  But above all, its sensitivity and beauty tower over much of Kazan's other work, and American cinema.

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I’d conceived this film years before as a homage to the spirit of FDR; my hero was to be a resolute New Dealer engaged in the difficult task of convincing "reactionary" country people that it was necessary, in the name of the public good, for them to move off their land and allow themselves to be relocated. Now I found my sympathies were with the obdurate old lady who lived on the island that was to be inundated and who refused to be patriotic, or whatever it took to allow herself to be moved. I was all for her. Something more than the shreds of my liberal ideology was at work now, something truer perhaps, and certainly stronger. While my man from Washington has the ‘social’ right on his side, the picture I made was in sympathy with the old woman obstructing progress.

Perhaps I was beginning to feel humanly, not think ideologically. The people in my life for whom I’d felt the deepest devotions were three old-fashioned women: my grandmother, my mother and my schoolteacher … I no longer had a taste for liberal intellectuals. I always knew what they were going to say about any subject. I simply didn’t like the reformers I’d been with since 1933, whether they were Communists or progressives or whoever else was out to change the world. I’d only believed I should like them. I’d followed the crowd, which during those years was going that way.

The film that resulted from all this is one of my favorites, possibly because of its social ambivalence. Jean Renoir’s famous phrase, "Everyone has his reasons" was true here. Both sides were "right." Wild River is also a favorite of certain French film critics [….] Skouras (the studio director) had an opposite view and treated the film deplorably, jerking it out of theatres before it had any chance to take hold and booking it thinly across the country. It was not exhibited in Europe until I staged a stormy scene in [the studio director’s] office and shamed him. I hope the negative is safe in one of Fox’s vaults, although I’ve heard a rumor that it was destroyed to make space for more successful films. This would not surprise me. Money makes the rules of the market, and by this rule, the film was a disaster."

- Elia Kazan, A Life. Page 596

DESPITE a tempestuous title, "Wild River," which came to both the Victoria and Sixty-eighth Street Playhouse yesterday, emerges as an interesting but strangely disturbing drama rather than a smashing study of a historic aspect of the changing American scene.

In focusing his color cameras on the South and the Southerners affected by the Tennessee Valley Authority in the early Nineteen Thirties, producer-director Elia Kazan, oddly, enough, distracts a viewer with a romance that shares importance with the social and economic upheaval that unquestionably is closest to the heart of this movie matter. In following two courses simultaneously, the potential force of "Wild River" has been diminished.

Mr. Kazan deserves real credit for not being partisan about the socio-economic aspects of his story. The similar accent on its romance dilutes its drama.

- A.H. Weiler, New York Times, May 27, 1960

Original Theatrical Trailer:

This 1960 drama is probably Elia Kazan's finest and deepest film, a meditation on how the past both inhibits and enriches the present. Lee Remick costars as Van Fleet's widowed daughter, giving one of the most affecting performances of her underrated career. The tone shifts from hysteria to reverie in the blinking of an eye, but Kazan handles it all with a sure touch.

- Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader

Maybe it's the location shooting, maybe it's the performances, but Kazan's lyrical, liberal account of a Tennessee Valley Authority agent (Clift) struggling to persuade an obstinate old woman (Fleet) to abandon her home before it is flooded by a new project, is one of his least theatrical and most affecting films. Partly that's because the battle lines - between city and country, old and new, expediency and commitment - are effectively blurred, making the conflict more dramatically complex than one might expect; but Kazan's evident nostalgia for the '30s (New Deal) setting also lends the film greater depth and scope than is usually to be found in his work.

- Time Out

Although the picture was directed by Elia Kazan, then a major American filmmaker, was produced by a major American studio (20th Century Fox) and starred Montgomery Clift and a particularly luminous Lee Remick, Fox at some point lost faith in the film, gave it a modest release in 1960 and, despite respectable reviews, let it die. Kazan was so disappointed by the way it was handled that he tried to buy the negative back from the studio and arrange an independent release, but he couldn’t afford the price.

Who cared, a quarter-century after the fact, about the creation of the vast system of dams that tamed the Tennessee River, which almost annually flooded, carrying away millions of dollars worth of land, buildings, livestock – not to mention people? Who cared, any more, that the TVA brought electricity to a seven-state region that had been nearly devoid of modern life’s most essential power source? That was stale news.

Forty-five years have passed since “Wild River’s” failed initial release. It could be argued that the TVA is even staler news now than it was. But I don’t think so. For more than 30 years, the argument against “big” government has been drummed into our ears by the right. It is inefficient. It crushes the spirit of individualism. Yadda, yadda yadda. But there are some things only a strong, centralized government can accomplish. A rational health insurance system instantly springs to mind. The stern enforcement of environmental (and workplace) protections is another. Yadda, yadda, yadda – again.

At the time, its supporters always called the TVA a “yardstick” by which we might measure the effect of government on our better, as opposed to our meanest – or Bushian – selves. In that, it succeeded beyond anyone’s dreams.

Wild River” exceeded Kazan’s highest hopes too – as a film that, fully aware of the pain implicit in the process of change, continues to summon us to our lost social consciousness. And conscience.

- Richard Schickel, The Los Angeles Times, November 6 2005

[Kazan] wanted to achieve what he called a "laconic, pictorial" style in the film, to "boil the words out of everything." He thought: "Art goes from peak to peak. Nature has valleys. Art should have none. Here in this picture you have a brilliant opportunity to do everything very, very pictorially and very much without words... Just have a succession of meaningful events... Go from peak to peak."

He did not quite achieve that. There are plenty of words in Wild River. But they are rarely abstract words. And they are rarely pitched at the high melodramatic level of, say, East of Eden or A Face in the Crowd. These people are soft-spoken in their contrasting stubbornness; their rages are more felt than openly expressed. And I think more effectively than he did in East of Eden, Kazan achieved the pastoral quality that [Michel] Ciment imputed to that picture. Indeed, I think Wild River comes close to being a great film - in its - yes, laconic - humanization of a large conflict, in its evocation of a lost American landscape and spirit, in the simple beauty of its imagery (its largely unsung cinematographer was Ellsworth Fredericks), in the force of its acting, in its almost Chekhovian realization of little lives under pressures they do not entirely comprehend.

- Richard Schickel, Elia Kazan: A Biography. Published by HarperCollins, 2005. Page 372

For Elia Kazan, the making of Wild River was the fulfilment of a 25-year long dream.  Ever since he visited the Tennessee Valley in the early 1930s, he had longed to make a film depicting what he saw: landowners being driven from the area to make way for a massive dam construction project.  The film Kazan ultimately made in 1960, adapted from two novels (William Bradford Huie’s Mud on the Stars and Borden Deal Dunbar's Cove) is one of his greatest achievements, a potent mix of melodrama and socio-economic study that is both informative and emotionally engaging.  It is also a thought-provoking work, since it questions the wisdom and morality of government schemes that irreversibly transform the landscape for socio-economic reasons.  The film also touches on racial issues, specifically the appalling way in which black workers were discriminated against in the southern states in the 1930s.

Kazan was a director who is renowned for the authenticity and realism he brought to his films - most notably in his 1954 masterpiece On the Waterfront, which starred one of his Actors Studio protégés, Marlon Brando.  Wild River is just as noteworthy for its realism, but it has also an alluring lyrical quality which the location (Lake Chickamauga and the Hiwassee River), beautifully shot in crisp autumnal hues, naturally provides.  Kazan’s use of non-professional actors for extras strengthens the film’s naturalism and lends an almost documentary-style feel in places, setting it apart from most American films of this period.

What makes Wild River particularly memorable are the outstanding contributions from its lead actors.   The chemistry between Montgomery Clift and Lee Remick is remarkable in that it conveys undercurrents of desire and emotional turbulence without explicit love scenes and overly dramatic confrontations.  At this time, Clift had begun his tragic downward slide that would soon result in a terrible facial disfigurement and an early death from combined drug and alcohol abuse.  In the last week of the shoot, he broke his promise to Kazan to stay away from hard liquor and very nearly put the kybosh on the film.

- James Travers, Films de France

Scene from film (thanks to Matt Parker):

This powerful historical drama about the clash between public necessity and private autonomy remains one of Elia Kazan’s finest films. The story opens with a real-life newscast depicting the devastation wrought on poor Tennessee farmers after the Mississippi River has once again flooded the area, thus establishing Clift’s TVA-sponsored presence as a necessary evil — yet it’s impossible not to side at least partially with crotchety Ella Garth (Van Fleet), whose entire identity is wrapped up in the island her family has owned for years. While it’s clear that Garth will somehow — eventually — be “convinced” to move, the story of how this happens remains compelling until the end.

Wild River is most memorable, however, for its remarkable performances — primarily by 46-year-old Van Fleet (her make-up artist deserves ample praise as well) and 25-year-old Lee Remick, who has never looked more stunning or been more affecting. This was purportedly Remick’s personal favorite of all the films she made, and it’s easy to see why: she invests her character with a lifetime of loss and hope, turning what is clearly a convenient “plot device” romance into a believable dimension of the story. Other supporting actors — and Clift himself — are fine as well, but it’s Van Fleet and Remick who really make this powerful film must-see viewing.

- Film Fanantic.org

In an apparent attempt to make the film more appealing to younger audiences, Kazan has created a romance between Glover and Mrs. Garth’s widowed daughter Carol. What might otherwise have been nothing more than adventitious Hollywood schlock is redeemed by Lee Remick’s compelling performance as Carol. If Chuck represents liberal progress and Ella conservative continuity, Carol is caught between these two worldviews. Although she finally sides with Chuck, we sense what has been lost in the process. It is altogether fitting that Ella dies shortly after she is removed from her land.

The mindless worship of technology that sometimes passes for conservatism in the modern era would object to the TVA only because it is a government program. As an artist, Kazan is able to appreciate a more fundamental conservative sensibility—one that recognizes the cost of progress. At the same time, he does not romanticize the rural folk. The petty cruelty and racism of some of these people are presented as lamentable facts of life. For a film that deals with profound moral issues, Wild River is remarkably free of tendentious moralizing. One cannot help thinking that the ambiguities of his own political struggles enabled Kazan to see the shades of gray in other contentious areas of American life.

- Mark Royden Winchell, God, Man and Hollywood

Elia Kazan ("America, America"/"Pinky"/"East Of Eden") directs this evocative sociological/historical melodrama getting across his old-fashioned liberal views. It's one of his best efforts and that has to do with it being less theatrical and more genuinely moving than his usual endeavors, as it features a battle of progress versus tradition.

- Dennis Schwartz, Ozu's Movie World Reviews

The 1960 movie Wild River by Elia Kazan is kind of The Fountainhead in reverse: The government is presented as the source of progress, while the individual provides the impediments. To paraphrase Ellsworth Toohey, all the wrong people are on the wrong sides. Despite this flawed premise, if understood correctly, Wild River hints at some valuable lessons on human rights.

Viewed casually, Wild River is a monument to the false dichotomy of progress versus individualism. The director Elia Kazan — a liberal despite his heroic HUAC testimony — may have had in mind apparently was: The deplorable but inevitable tragedy that for collective safety and progress individuals must be sacrificed. But of course progress doesn't come at the price of individual sacrifice — rather, it is the individual who makes all progress.

The whole problem is only caused by the TVA's own stupidity. They should have assembled their lot before building the dam. If someone refused to sell, they would have to build the dam elsewhere. But what if there is only one possible site? Even that is no excuse for eminent domain. Besides, with all the expenses for moving Ella, they might as well have built a levee around her island.

Now, someone might defend eminent domain by claiming reason only goes so far — or that Ella is insane to oppose the values of progress. That Glover was unable to reason with Ella doesn't mean reason is limited. It doesn't even mean she's insane. It is only that she values other things than Glover, me, and most of us. Instead of dams, electric power, and flood control, she values her farm. Some of her reasons are purely sentimental, like her wish to get buried on the island next to her husband. Other reasons, like not wanting the good soil submerged, are perfectly reasonable.

In the long run, however, progress is only possible through the work of the individual. The preconditions for his work are his absolute, inalienable rights to life, liberty, and property. That means in the short run we pay a price for our rights: The price is that we have to respect the rights of every other peaceable citizen — no matter what he values. If we cannot get a dam, a skyscraper, or a job without looting — then we cannot have that specific dam, skyscraper, or job.

- Alexander Butziger, The Ayn Rand Atlasphere


Wild River was shot entirely on location in Tennessee, in the towns of Cleveland, where the cast and crew were lodged, and Charleston, and on Lake Chickamauga and the Hwassee River. The large set used for the Garth farmhouse took two months to construct at a cost of $40,000 and was subsequently burnt down for one of the film's final scenes. Eighty percent of the film's approximately fifty speaking parts were filled by locals with no previous acting experience. According to an article published in LA Mirror-News in Nov 1959, Kazan sparked a controversy in Cleveland after he hired extras from a slum known as "Gum Hollow" to play Depression-era Southerners. A number of prominent townspeople were angered by Kazan's casting choice and allegedly claimed that the "white trash" of Gum Hollow did not accurately depict the area's Depression unemployed. Kazan reportedly had to reshoot a few scenes, this time using "respectiable, legitimate unemployed" in place of the "squatters."

- Within Our Gates: Ethnicity in American Feature Films, 1911-1960. By American film institute, Alan Gevinson. Published by University of California Press, 1997. Page 1143.

Cahiers du Cinema: People have said... about Wild River - that the photography was too exaggerated, was false. What do you think of that?

Elia Kazan: I feel that the photography was very good, especially in the exterior scenes. But I am not as fond of the photography of the dramatic scenes shot close up in interiors. I said to myself - his face is too orange, it looks too pleasant - especially that of the hero. As for Clift - who is dead no, and who was a great artist - at that time Monty Clift's skin was in very bad condition, and consequently he used too much makeup. Therefore the colors were at once too crude and too healthy. So I said to the cameraman - this man is an intellectual; he has never seen the sunlight before coming here; he has come down here among us straight from his office. Thus I want him to have the air of a bureaucrat, to have a touch of the bureaucrat about him. But that did not work very well... Oh, I do not want to blame anyone; merely, I failed and I regret it. All the more because I would have liked very much to get the contrast between his pallor and the wholesome glow of the girl.

- Interviewed by Michel Delahaye in Cahiers du Cinema, published in Elia Kazan: Interviews. By Elia Kazan, William Baer. Published by Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2000. Pages 82-83


Quotes found on TSPDT profile page for Elia Kazan:

"In works like Viva Zapata, On the Waterfront, East of Eden, Baby Doll and Wild River (his quietest and best film), he abandoned the studio for location shooting, but retained the services of Actors Studio stars like Brando, Dean and Steiger, effectively revolutionising film acting; in retrospect, however, many of the performances look less naturalistic than overwrought, just as the direction, despite the focus on 'serious' issues, often seems overemphatic." -  Geoff Andrew (The Director's Vision, 1999)

"As an archetypal auteur, he progressed from working on routine assignments to developing more personal themes, producing his own pictures, and ultimately directing his own scripts. At his peak during a period (1950–1965) of anxiety, gimmickry, and entropy in Hollywood, Kazan remained among the few American directors who continued to believe in the cinema as a medium for artistic expression and who brought forth films that consistently reflected his own creative vision." - Lloyd Michaels (The St. James Film Directors Encyclopedia, 1998)

"All of Elia Kazan's films have strong social themes, a keen sense of location and superb performances. Despite his betrayal of his friends at the McCarthy hearings in 1952, Kazan's reputation as one of the finest directors in the US has never wavered." - Ronald Bergan (Film - Eyewitness Companions, 2006)

"A social critic who examines Americans and the American dream, Kazan has turned out some of the most powerful cinema studies since World War II.." - William R. Meyer (The Film Buff's Catalog, 1978)

"When you know what an actor has, you can reach in and arouse it. If you don't know what he has, you don't know what the hell is going on." - Elia Kazan

His films have been most consistently concerned with the theme of power, expressed as either the restless yearning of the alienated or the uneasy arrangements of the strong. The struggle for power is generally manifested through wealth, sexuality, or, most often, violence. Perhaps because every Kazan film except A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and The Last Tycoon (excluding a one-punch knockout of the drunken protagonist) contains at least one violent scene, some critics have complained about the director’s “horrid vulgarity” (Lindsay Anderson) and “unremitting stridency” (Robin Wood), yet even his most “overheated” work contains striking examples of restrained yet resonant interludes: the rooftop scenes of Terry and his pigeons in On the Waterfront, the tentative reunion of Bud and Deanie at the end of Splendor in the Grass, the sequence in which Stavros tells his betrothed not to trust him in America America. Each of these scenes could be regarded not simply as a necessary lull in the drama, but as a privileged, lyrical moment in which the ambivalence underlying Kazan’s attitude toward his most pervasive themes seems to crystallize.

-Lloyd Michaels, Film Reference.com

Passion -- or, more specifically, intensity -- was the recurring motif of Kazan's career, as well as his preferred method. Beginning with his involvement with the Actors Studio during his theatrical days and the development of the so-called Method Acting (or, as Humphrey Bogart once tagged it, "the scratch-your-ass-and-mumble" school of acting), he was obsessed with pumping visceral physicality into scenes. To a firm believer in the dramatic power of two bodies slamming against each other, no argument would be complete without overturned tables and smashed china. Bracketed by the gentility of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in 1945 and The Last Tycoon in 1976 lies a wide variety of rows, collisions and eruptions -- a fortissimo style that, in the words of vintage iconoclast Dwight Macdonald, was "forthright the way a butcher is forthright when he slaps down a steak for a customer's inspection."

Meat slab or not, Kazan's handling of material could be maddening. For all the vividness of the details and the rawness of his players, the intensity of his direction was often, in the words of Andrew Sarris, "more excessive than expressive." It's difficult to believe, for instance, that the heightened mannerisms of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) were ever considered the latest word in naturalism, and A Face in the Crowd (1957) is so overloaded with Kazanian sweat and bellowing that it all but shatters the camera lenses. My own path with Kazan's movies has been bumpy. When I first encountered his many award-coddled classics, I thought he was sweating a little too much for effects -- as far as emotional intensity and ballsy idiosyncrasy were concerned, Nicholas Ray and Sam Fuller were much more to my liking.

I like his later, calmer, quieter movies far better: Wild River (1960), Splendor in the Grass (1961) and particularly America, America (1963) are, in one word, overwhelming. In them, one feels Kazan pruning his stylistic hysteria into a direct connection with audiences, achieving what he set out to do from the beginning -- that is, to speak through film in the first person. And that is why, no matter how I may feel about his actions and his intransigence toward them, I respect and admire Elia Kazan. He directed as he lived, full ahead with his guts, and if that made him a pariah to many, well, that wasn't his problem.

- Fernando F. Croce, Cinepassion

Richard Wall offers an extensive review of Richard Schickel's biography of Elia Kazan


IMDb Wiki

Official Website

The Montgomery Clift Shrine


Among the 17 films that Montgomery Clift appeared in, it is impossible to point to any one role as "defining" Clift's image on screen, in the way that A Streetcar Named Desire and Rebel without a Cause established Brando's and James Dean's personalities in the public's mind. Yet Clift was one of the first actors of his generation to capture the attention of moviegoing audiences with performances that were sensitive, complex, and deeply introspective in nature. The combination of intensity and vulnerability that he brought to his characters—qualities magnified in later years by the car accident that destroyed his matinee-idol good looks and compounded the problems of an already troubled personality—was unique in 1948, when Clift was catapulted to stardom by the release of his first two films, The Search (for which he received an Oscar nomination) and Red River.

With the recent revelation of the fact of Clift's bisexuality, one is able to see more into the correlation between his star personality (that of vulnerability, sensitivity, and almost effeminate masculinity closer to androgyny) and the real-life Clift (whose swinging sexuality and unsettling dissatisfaction throughout life mirrors and projects a troubled soul onto the big screen). Clift's own claim regarding this uncertainty in him reveals more than a touch of stubbornness and pride: "I don't want to be labeled as either a pansy or a heterosexual. Labeling is so self-limiting" (quoted by Graham McCann in Rebel Males). Throughout Clift's career, one sees a wide range of roles played, each of them nothing short of constant erotic tensions coming not only from the dramatic characters or his acting but also from a lifelong felt and lived conflict of an unsettled sexuality.

Janet E. Lorenz, updated by Guo-Juin Hong, Film Reference.com


Central to Lee Remick's complex and fascinating screen presence during the first phase of her career is a sense of erotic warmth, an irreducible sensuality, capable (when combined with her remarkable gifts as an actress) of the most diverse inflections, depending on the degree to which it is allowed or denied free expression. Consider two of her finest performances, in the two finest films in which she appeared, made within a year of each other: Anatomy of a Murder and Wild River. The former is built upon the character's sexual knowingness, seductiveness, promiscuity, the latter on the character's sexual deprivation and subsequent reawakening. Preminger uses Remick's sensuality as one aspect of his detailed, multifaceted exercise in sustained ambiguity: she plays a woman ready deliberately to exploit her attractiveness as a means of manipulation, yet the erotic charge she communicates is so strong that its genuineness is never in question. The character's uninhibited sensuality, which might have been presented as merely degenerate (the Hollywood stereotype of the "nymphomaniac"), becomes in Remick's performance engaging, oddly touching. Wild River seems easily Kazan's best film, the only one in which his self-conscious pretensions to social significance are completely assimilated into a fully realized dramatic texture, and Remick's performance as the young, uneducated, widowed mother is crucial to its success. In her earlier scenes, she movingly communicates a potential for life stifled by calamity and deprivation, above all by erotic starvation. She then beautifully realizes the gradual transition to rebirth, a rebirth at once sexual and spiritual, made possible by contact, not with an overt, macho sexuality, but with the sensitivity, diffidence, and gentleness rendered by Montgomery Clift with an inwardness that equals Remick's—creating one of Hollywood's finest love stories.

Robin Wood, updated by David E. Salamie, Film Reference.com

Wild River was not only Lee's favorite film to make, but Elia Kazan's as well. "I love Wild River," he said, "just the ease of it, the simplicity. I tried to deal more with my own sense of beauty. It’s purer, one of the two purest films I‘ve made."

Thinking back over her experience making Wild River, Lee said almost the same thing. "My interpretation of the role in Wild River," she recalled, "was the truest in my experience, and it was Kazan who enabled me to make it true."

Wild River was Lee's second film with Kazan, (her first was, A Face in the Crowd). "As for the love interest", Kazan explained, "I cast one of the finest younger actresses I knew, Lee Remick, then at the top of her strength and confidence."

The film was made on location in Cleveland, Tennessee – a little town of about 20,000. Many of the local townspeople had small parts or worked as extras, and there were usually a handful of locals on hand to watch the magic of movie-making. Lee remembers an amusing incident that involved a few young college boys who, having seen Lee's performance in Anatomy of a Murder, were surprised to see Lee's characterization of a backwoods Tennessee girl. The following is taken from an article by Joe Hyams called, The Notorious Adventures of a Nice Girl in Hollywood.

"When I was doing Wild River, Gadge [Elia Kazan] had me work without make-up, my hair hanging down to my shoulders and wearing sneakers. One day when we were just outside of Cleveland, Tennessee, I was in costume for the role, wearing a bedspread made into a dress. After we finished shooting I passed some college kids who had come to watch.

"Later that night my phone rang and it was one of the college boys saying he had a bet with the boys at school that it really was me they had seen that afternoon. I said it was and asked why there was any doubt. 'Last time we saw you in a picture you were wearing slacks and high heels and were very sexy,' he said. 'Tell me, Miss Remick, what's happened to you since that picture?'"

The young boys seemed to forget – Lee Remick was an actress!

- From Remembering Lee Remick

949 (91). Radio Days (1987, Woody Allen)

Screened January 2 2009 on MGM DVD in Weehawken NJ TSPDT rank #880  IMDb Wiki

A series of loosely connected anecdotes reminiscing over the heyday of radio programs and their effect on a Queens household modeled after that of Woody Allen's childhood, Radio Days resembles a standup routine more than any of the work of this legendary comedian-turned-actor/director.  Allen's buoyant voiceover accompanies a wall-to-wall soundtrack of period jazz, a fluid, hard-driving talk-and-tunes narrative approach that anticipates the first hour of Scorsese's GoodFellas [TSPDT #99] by a few years.  A third of the anecdotes lead nowhere other than to provide amusing flourishes to this vivid period portrait, but the general narrative disjunction makes sense in a film whose underlying philosophy is to resist the passage of time, though history registers gently with the onset of World War II and its effect on both the family and the radio industry. Its hometown nostalgia owes a debt to Fellini's Amarcord [TSPDT #82] and Allen's cartoonish cast is also Felliniesque, with not one but two Giulietta Masini holy fool types who are the only characters possessing a narrative arc (Mia Farrow as an aspiring radio star and Dianne Wiest as a spinster aunt looking for Mr. Right).

It's typical of the leveling tendency of Allen's social worldview to make the radio stars seem banal in their appearances and concerns, while the humble working class Jewish family and neighborhood denizens carry the aura of genuine experience, especially in a series of coarse but witty family arguments.  The stars only matter because of the feelings and fantasies they evoke among family members, leading to some gently lyrical moments such as a girl in a makeshift Carmen Miranda getup doing a bedroom cha-cha while family members look on.  Allen's attempt to bridge the gap between the glamorous radio world the outer boroughs comes through Farrow's cigarette girl looking for a break into the studio, a saga whose exaggerated incidents (involving gangster hits and Pearl Harbor) are largely unconvincing despite Farrow's best attempts to channel Judy Holliday.  A number of the punchlines are quaintly anachronistic (i.e. one of Wiest's suitors aborting date rape when he hears Orson Welles' panic-inducing War of the Worlds broadcast on the radio) and for that reason a number of them land limply (i.e. one of Wiest's dates turning out to be gay).

But even these anecdotes roll by in a rush of such nostalgic goodwill that it's hard not to embrace its immense charms.  Those charms are due in part to fluid camerawork and triumphant art direction, each set filled with loving detail and shot in brown tones as cozy as a hot cup of coffee.  Ironically - and fittingly - the lush visual design could vanish, leaving the rich soundtrack of Allen's voiceover, the airtight comic banter and music to thrive as a ninety minute radio program of its own.

Wanna go deeper?

The following citations were counted towards the placement of Radio Days among the TSPDT 1000 Greatest Films:

Jaume Figueras, Nickel Odeon (1994) Mike Leigh, Empire (2008) Sonke Wortmann, Steadycam (2007) Danny Peary, Guide for the Film Fanatic: Must-See Films  (1987) David Thomson, Have You Seen...? A Personal Introduction to 1000 Films (2008) They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films

Radio Days screenplay accessible at Drew's Script-o-Rama

Stig Bjorkman: Was Radio Days a story you'd been planning to make for a long time? Woody Allen: It originated from an idea that I wanted to pick out a group of songs that were meaningful to me, and each one of those songs suggested a memory. Then this idea started to evolve: how important radio was to me when I was growing up and how important and glamorous it seemed to everyone. SB: It's a very elaborate script, considering all the elements in it: the family, the school, the radio events, the radio personalities.. WA: A film like Radio Days presents a particular type of problem. When you don't have a 'What happens next?' story, when you're working with anecdotal material, the trick, I feel, is that you have to sustain each thing on its own brilliance, on its own rhythm, on its own style. So you really have to work very, very hard to make a movie like that, because you have to know that the anecdotes that you're relating to the audience an hour, an hour and a half into the film are not going to bore them. That they're still going to find them fresh and funny. It's a difficult kind of film to do, a non-plot, a non-conventional plot film.

- from Woody Allen on Woody Allen: In Conversation with Stig Bjorkman. Published by Grove Press, 1995. Page 158


''Radio Days,'' which opens today at the New York Twin and other theaters, is as free in form as it is generous of spirit. It's a chronicle of a family during the radio years, as well as a series of short-short stories. These follow, one after another, like the tales of Scheherazade, if Scheherazade had been a red-headed little Jewish boy in the Rockaways, born poor, star-struck, infinitely curious, and seriously incompetent as a juvenile criminal.

''Radio Days'' is so densely packed with vivid detail of place, time, music, event and character that it's virtually impossible to take them all in in one sitting. Carlo Di Palma is again responsible for the stunning photography, and Santo Loquasto for the production design.

The film is nothing if not generous with - and to - its talent. Miss Farrow is hilariously common-sensical as the ambitious cigarette girl (''Who is Pearl Harbor?'' she asks in bewilderment on Dec. 7, 1941), and Diane Keaton, on the screen only a few minutes, helps to bring the film to its magical conclusion with a lovely, absolutely straight rendition of ''You'd Be So Nice to Come Home to.'' It's New Year's Eve, 1943, and Mr. Allen's radio days are as numbered as those of Proust's old Prince de Guermantes.

At this point I can't think of any film maker of Mr. Allen's generation with whom he can be compared, certainly no one at work in American movies today. As the writer, director and star (even when he doesn't actually appear) of his films, Mr. Allen works more like a novelist who's able to pursue his own obsessions, fantasies and concerns without improvements imposed on him by committees.

At this point, too, his films can be seen as part of a rare continuum. Each of us has his favorite Allen movie, but to cite one over another as ''more important,'' ''bigger,'' ''smaller'' or ''less significant'' is to miss the joys of the entire body of work that is now taking shape. ''Radio Days'' is a joyful addition.

- Vincent Canby, The New York Times, January 30 1987

Excerpt: Opening

Woody Allen offers brief, casually brilliant parodies of radio performers and formats: an inspirational sports storyteller modeled on Bill Stern; a smarmy counselor like Mr. Anthony; and, of course, a superhero for boys, the "Masked Avenger." The slender thread holding this part of the movie together recounts the rise from cigarette girl to airwaves gossip star of Sally White (played with her customary comic poignance by Mia Farrow).

The other part is about the listening audience. Here Allen finds cross section enough in a single source, an extended lower-middle-class Jewish family in Rockaway, Queens. Among these dreamers by the glowing dial, the most touching and memorable is again a woman, Aunt Bea (played with becoming lack of sentiment by Dianne Wiest). Since this nameless clan lives near Allen's old neighborhood and includes a shy, slender, red-haired boy, the unwary may conclude that Allen is being autobiographical.

But Radio Days has larger ambitions. Rather than a personal history or an exercise in nostalgia, it is a meditation on the evanescence of seemingly permanent institutions. To a child like Joe (Seth Green), it is inconceivable that something as powerful as radio could ever disappear. Might as well tell him that one day his family will cease to be a similarly compelling reality. But here it is, 1987, and Joe is a voice-over narrator of a movie with no coherent narrative, only such anecdotes as groping memory can rescue from the receding past. In the most delicate way imaginable, the snippets drawn from the seemingly great world of broadcasting and those from the little world of listening shed the most affecting and provocative light on each other. Somehow, one thinks of Chekhov, and is once again astonished by the complexity and clarity of Woody Allen's vision.

- Richard Schickel, Time Magazine, February 2 1987

Allen is not concerned with creating a story with a beginning and an end, and his movie is more like a revue in which drama is followed by comedy and everything is tied together by music, by dozens of lush arrangements of the hit songs of the 1940s. He has always used popular music in his movies, but never more than this time, where the muscular, romantic confidence of the big-band sound reinforces every memory with the romance of the era.

In form and even in mood, it is closest to Federico Fellini's "Amarcord," which also was a memory of growing up - of family, religion, sex, local folk legends, scandalous developments and intense romantic yearn ings, underlined with wall-to-wall band music. In a way, both films have nostalgia itself as one of their subjects. What they evoke isn't the long-ago time itself, but the memory of it. There is something about it being past and gone and irretrievable that makes it more precious than it ever was at the time.

"Radio Days" is so ambitious and so audacious that it almost defies description. It's a kaleidoscope of dozens of characters, settings and scenes - the most elaborate production Allen has ever made - and it's inexhaustible, spinning out one delight after another.

Although there is no narrative thread from beginning to end, there is a buried emotional thread. Like music, the movie builds toward a climax we can't even guess is coming, and then Allen finds the perfect images for the last few minutes for a bittersweet evocation of goodbye to all that.

- Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times

Excerpt: A Lesson in Marxism

Didn't Neil Simon already do this? But there wasn't much radio consciousness to speak of in Brighton Beach Memoirs, and anyway Woody Allen's semiautobiographical Jewish family lives in Rockaway, Queens, rather than Brooklyn, so I guess not. The good news is that Allen has returned here to the broad anecdotal sources of his humor (after a dutiful Chekhov vacation with Hannah and Her Sisters); the bad news is that the obligations of being a serious film stylist have taken a heavy toll. Nothing's very fresh and nothing's very incisive, but everything bobs along blandly like a well-meaning exercise in therapeutic remembering (what Allen remembers mostly is a suffocating radio blanket of big band music: even Jesus stations have more programming variety than this). The bed-hopping fate of Mia Farrow's aspiring airwave starlet sums up the film's inconsequentiality: despite her career exertions, she still winds up on the same cabaret rooftop where she started. Plus ca change, Woody, and ho-hum.

- Pat Graham, The Chicago Reader

While the music gives the film a certain authenticity, it also serves to make one wonder how much of the rest of Allen's material is authentic. Either the radio shows Allen heard on the East Coast were entirely different from those heard during the '40s on the West Coast, or he simply made up a lot of them.

One is forced to think about authenticity after the laughs stop - about two-thirds of the way through the film. That's when Allen seems to run out of comic material, having exhausted the humor inherent in Joe's quirky family: his perennially battling parents, Aunt Bea's unsuccessful search for the perfect husband, Uncle Abe's fondness for fish.

When Allen tries to turn serious, it doesn't really work.

- Don Carter, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 30 1987

Excerpt: Carmen Miranda

Radio Days followed one of Allen's most ambitious films, Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), and seemed to be done for comic relief after the emotional complexity of the previous film. Allen himself told interviewer Stig Bjorkman, "I think of Radio Days basically as a cartoon. If you look at my mother, my Uncle Abe, my schoolteacher, my grandparents, they were supposed to be cartoon exaggerations of what my real-life people were like." Allen himself narrates the film, in the first person.

Allen's use of music in his films has always been masterful, and Radio Days is one of the finest examples of his mastery. In fact, he told Bjorkman, music was the original starting point for the film. "It originated from an idea that I wanted to pick out a group of songs that were meaningful to me, and each one of those songs suggested a memory. Then this idea started to evolve: how important radio was to me when I was growing up, and how important and glamorous it seemed to everyone." There are 43 songs used in the film, and some standout musical moments. In one scene, a teenage girl lip-synchs to a Carmen Miranda song, her head wrapped in a towel turban, watching herself in the mirror. Her father and uncle, charmed by her charade, join in. Near the end of the film, it's New Year's Eve 1943. Diane Keaton, in a cameo as a band vocalist, sings (in her own voice) the Cole Porter standard that expresses the longing of a war-weary nation: You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To. Allen says, "I wanted to make sure, since Diane was making one little appearance in the picture, that the song was potent." It was.

Radio Days marks the only time that Allen's two longtime companions and muses - former flame Diane Keaton and his then-current partner Mia Farrow - appeared in the same film. Keaton has remained friends with Allen over the years; Farrow has not. After a bitter, litigious, and highly publicized breakup, Farrow remains estranged from Allen and her daughter, Allen's wife Soon-Yi Previn.

Reviews for Radio Days were mostly raves, although there were a few dissenters, such as the always-acerbic John Simon of the National Review, who called it "really a congeries of blackout sketches barely bothering to make like a connected narrative, scoring now and then and falling flat the rest of the time." But Variety called it "One of Allen's most purely entertaining pictures. It's a visual monolog of bits and pieces from the glory days of radio and people who tuned in.... Radio Days is not simply about nostalgia, but the quality of memory and how what one remembers informs one's present life."  Allen's warm, funny screenplay and Santo Loquasto's nostalgic and detailed art direction both received Oscar® nominations.

- Margarita Landazuri, Turner Classic Movies


A trip down memory lane for Allen (The Purple Rose of Cairo, Broadway Danny Rose), who lovingly reconstructs the life and times of growing up during in Rockaway Beach, New York in the Golden Age of radio.  Radio Days is teeming with nostalgia value, and even if you didn't grow up in that era, Allen does a masterful job recreating the look and feel of the era, such that you'll also be nostalgic even if you've never lived it.

It's not all sunshine and roses, as Radio Days is more of a bittersweet experience.  The radio can bring both happiness, such as remembering a time when life was good, but also sadness, where a song will remind you of a long-gone loved one or inform you of the tragedies of the day.  Like many nostalgia films, it is very sentimentalized in its delivery, and as is typical of Allen's storytelling style, real-life events are altered and shaped for purposes of creating a funny scene or poignant dramatics.

You'll love it for the characters, the sweetness and Allen's wonderful blend of humor and heartfelt drama, making Radio Days one of the best films of his career.  It's not as substantial as some of his other works, and will probably quickly fade from memory once it's over, but that's ok...like any fond memory, this is the kind of film you'll probably revisit time and again.

- Vince Leo, Qwipster's Movie Reviews

Excerpt: Diane Keaton singing "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To"

John Baxter, who has written the definitive biography of Woody Allen, calls Radio Days “Allen’s most logistically ambitious film since Love & Death.” To include 150 performers in an Allen film is almost unheard of, and a daunting task for a filmmaker accustomed to casts numbering fewer than 20. Yet somehow, Allen handles his ensemble with ease and manages to pack the film with a wallop, particularly for a film that runs less than ninety minutes.

The film can loosely be divided into two parts, pre-Second World War innocence and then post-1941 optimism as characters like the Masked Avenger suddenly take on more political and patriotic roles. While I don’t want to give away all the vignettes, I should point out that the “Hitting Rabbi” scene should leave you in stitches and, as with all of Allen’s films, there are priceless one-liners that make repeated viewing a requirement.

- Jamie Gillies, Apollo Film Guide

To a generation raised in Top 40 and all-news formats, radio is often little more than background noise. But to an older generation, it connotes a magic theatre of sound and incident. Radio Days affectionately eavesdrops on the past and gives everyone a wonderful opportunity to re-imagine what it was like when this communications medium was king.

- Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, Spirituality and Practice

The film is a series of vignettes, clearly drawn from Allen's days as a youngster, and only tangentially interrelated. It's almost overly upbeat -- to the point where you wish Woody would get a little more miserable from time to time.

- Christopher Null, FilmCritic.com

Woody Allen has never disguised his love of the thirties and forties nor his love of old-time radio. I´ve never disguised my love of "Radio Days" as one of my favorite Woody Allen pictures. It´s a sweet, lighthearted, nostalgic look back at an era before the tube, when voices were king, when comedy was innocent, and when music was still listenable. "Radio Days" may not have the depth or insight of films like his "Annie Hall," "Manhattan," or "Crimes and Misdemeanors," but blessed with a plethora of fine tunes, fine characters, and fine jokes, it´s one of the most enjoyable things Allen´s ever done.

- John Puccio, DVD Town

Radio Days is a warm, sunny piece of American nostalgia told with the visual flair of Fellini, but with all the humor and intelligence of Woody Allen. It’s a film so rich in memory that every time I see it, I wax nostalgic for the times depicted in it, even though they were decades before my birth.

The whole nostalgia theme is beautifully and comically handled. The film is like walking through memories, even to the point of realizing that memories are sometimes even better than the real thing. When the radio stars ponder their futures on New Years’ Eve of 1944, they wonder if they will be remembered. And Allen himself dutifully points out that memories do in fact get fainter and fainter as the years pass.

The radio days are indeed gone forever. But they couldn’t have asked for a better tribute than this warm, funny film from Woody Allen.

- Michael Jacobson, DVD Movie Central

Radio Days is not about real history. This is the simplified world of a child's memories -- although Joe is no naïve waif -- and it is largely remembered with fondness. Woody Allen does not seem interested in exposing the "hypocrisy of simulation" or some such cliché about our immersion in popular culture. Frankfurt School theorists may find themselves at a loss at Woody's warm embrace of middle-class capitalist media. The film begins with an amusing story of burglars sidetracked on night by a phone call from "Guess That Tune." The next day, the family awakens to find their house robbed, but a driveway full of prizes won for them by the hapless burglars. In the end, the magic of popular media rewards its loyal followers, and everyone lives comfortably ever after.

Woody Allen has a difficult job in structuring this film around a series of anecdotes only loosely chronological in their order (the film's timeline runs roughly from the late 1930s until New Year's 1944, with the war still raging and the future uncertain), and in the hands of a less-able screenwriter, this film might have been a structural mess. But the rambling nature of the film ties in nicely with the sense that the narrator is merely another storyteller, conjuring whatever ghosts come most quickly to mind. Stories within stories within stories. How many of these things are true? Did Sally White really go from local girl to cultured star? Or does it even matter, if the stories are good enough on their own?

- Mike Pinsky, DVD Verdict

The script is really nothing but a dramatised collection of reminiscences, and as you'd expect from such a setup some are better than others. The biggest challenge of all is to make it hold together as a single entity. It works best as a box of treats to dip into whenever we feel like it, so unlike most films, catching five minutes here and there while channel surfing roughly equates to watching it in an 85 minute stretch. You could probably even watch it backwards, scene by scene, and it would still make about as much sense.

- Hal Astell, Apocalypse Later: a Cinematic Travelogue


We have come to expect a certain level of performance from MGM on these Woody Allen discs. In this case, the mono soundtrack is perfectly suited to the film, given the predominance of old music and voice-over dialogue. Any radio static or hissy old records that play in the background enhance the nostalgic feel of the film. Unfortunately, the anamorphic transfer seems to have made the film a bit dark and created some muddy and slightly overenhanced coloring (particularly the reds). This may add to the cartoony look of the film, but it does get somewhat annoying. And, as always, no extra content is offered other than some production notes and a faded trailer.

- Mike Pinsky, DVD Verdict


IMDb Wiki

Official Website

The following quotes found on the TSPDT profile page for Allen:

"While most other recent screen comics have aimed their lamebrain, slapdash spoofery at teenage audiences, Allen Stewart Konigsberg, as he was born, has alone been consistent in catering to more adult tastes. His is a comedy increasingly defined by character: notably, his own." - Geoff Andrew (The Film Handbook, 1989)

"Allen's genuinely original voice in the cinema recalls writer-directors like Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Preston Sturges, who dissect their portions of the American landscape primarily through comedy. In his creative virtuosity, Allen also resembles Orson Welles, whose visual and verbal wit, though contained in seemingly non-comic genres, in fact exposes the American character to satirical scrutiny." - Mark W. Estrin (International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, 1991)

"Great comedians almost always portray little men attempting to cope with the trappings of a civilization that is a bit too much for them, and Woody Allen is no exception. His insecurities - physical, sexual and emotional - are truly of monumental proportions." - (The Movie Makers, 1974)

"Blends nightclub jokes, visual humor, and literary references into a wild sense of comedy. Has a good pictorial sense." - William R. Meyer (The Film Buff's Catalog, 1978)

"If my films don't show a profit, I know I'm doing something right." - Woody Allen

"If my films make one more person miserable, I'll feel I have done my job." - Woody Allen

Additional choice quotes by Allen on The Quotations Page

Self-deprecating humor, classicly Jewish, boosts its audience as much as happy endings. Storytellers made self-doubting fools of themselves so their listeners -- other Jews who had no reason to feel better than anybody -- could have someone to feel one-up on, if only for the span of the joke. Similarly, Allen's viewers most likely feel as insecure and inept as his characters, but as he exaggerates his gaffs and lets us laugh at his expense we're assured we couldn't be as awful as that. If you've ever wondered why so much grief and tsuris flood Jewish humor (or why the Holocaust peppers so many of Allen's scripts), it's because, next to all that trouble, how bad could your life be? The Jewish talent for exaggerating life's bumps is the other side of fabricating impossibly smooth endings. Either way, audiences sigh a little in relief. (You'll recognize the sigh, too, as the archetypical Jewish response. Should some dour neighbor or relative sigh too deeply, as if to say life is indeed that bad, the story and the joke fall flat.)...

Allen's twenty-year body of work is a kitsch-en sink of Jewish storytelling, with the self-mockery and the paranoid, hypochondriacal exaggeration of difficulties thrown in, along with a taste for endings where evil is trounced and the good guys win -- even spectacled shlemiels like Allen. These tropes bend the course of the secular "Hannah" and "Another Woman" as surely as they do "Danny Rose" or "Radio Days", but in the former, the tradition and motive behind Allen's impulses aren't explicit. No one turns to the camera in "Hannah" and says, this adulterous mess may end hellishly in life but I need a happy ending onscreen so I'm going to conjure one up.

- Marcia Pally, Film Comment

In her review of Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) the late film critic Pauline Kael suggests that the reason New York critics love Woody Allen is that “they're applauding their fantasy of themselves”. In some of his films, including Stardust Memories (1980) and Deconstructing Harry (1997) Allen has explored being a prisoner of his own persona (whilst denying the likeness). Although the persona secured Allen a loyal audience, he has fallen in and out of favour with the film community partly, as Kael suggests, because of his appeal to the urbane quasi-intellectuals who critique cinema; a familiarity that has over time moved from intimate to contemptuous. Too often in recent years 'criticism' of Woody Allen's films has virtually forsaken content wherever it does not fit into a discussion of what seems to have become more important: his scandalous personal life.

Mighty Aphrodite
Mighty Aphrodite

With his strong background in writing, Allen's films, particularly the broadly comic ones, are dialogue-heavy (which Allen feels is more challenging than a film without dialogue). He works frequently with master shots and actor choreography, a technique more successfully realised in say Husbands and Wives (1992) than in Mighty Aphrodite (1996). Despite a widely perceived decline in the ambition and accomplishment of his films in the last decade he remains a key figure in the American film landscape. Both academic and popular film criticism on Allen most often employs psychoanalytic theory, as his subject matter corresponds easily to the Freudian concepts of desire, repression, and anxiety and sexuality. The thesis of The Denial of Death (a psychoanalytic text which Alvy buys Annie and reflects on after they separate in Annie Hall) cites as two strategies of evading mortality – sexuality, which Allen has embraced wholeheartedly in both his work and life, and the belief in and service to God, which he has not. Other critics have noted the parallels with philosophers such as Socrates and Jean-Paul Sartre, the latter with regard to the impossibility of authentic romantic commitment. *** What if everything is an illusion and nothing exists? In that case, I definitely overpaid for my carpet.

– Selections from the Allen Notebooks'

You have no values. Your whole life, it's nihilism, it's cynicism, it's sarcasm, and orgasm.Y'know, in France I could run on that slogan and win.

Deconstructing Harry

Natasha, to love is to suffer. To avoid suffering, one must not love. But, then one suffers from not loving. Therefore, to love is to suffer, not to love is to suffer, to suffer is to suffer. To be happy is to love, to be happy, then, is to suffer, but suffering makes one unhappy, therefore, to be unhappy one must love, or love to suffer, or suffer from too much happiness, I hope you're getting this down.

Love and Death

These quotes encapsulate Allen's philosophy – he undercuts his own existential angst with absurd humour that provides distraction or comic relief and is in its own way an answer to these unanswerable questions. It is almost as if he is sending up the more austere philosophers who formulated these enquiries. His films are largely comedies – but, as one of his characters maintains, what is comedy but tragedy, plus time? (5) The spectre of death haunts many of Allen's films, as thanatos, the essential flipside to the forces of life and love that are irresistible.

Doc: Why are you depressed, Alvy? Mother: Tell doctor [?] It's something he read. Doc: Something you read, heh? Alvy: The universe is expanding. Doc: The universe is expanding? Alvy: Well, the universe is everything, and if it's expanding, someday it will break apart and that would be the end of everything! Mother(shouting): What is that your business? (to doctor) He stopped doing his homework. Alvy: What's the point? Mother: What has the universe got to do with it? You're here in Brooklyn! Brooklyn is not expanding!

– Annie Hall
Annie Hall
Annie Hall

Allen appears fascinated by the fact that whether or not we choose to acknowledge it, death's constant presence is manifested in the idea of God and the possibility of moral order in the universe, the afterlife, fate. Throughout his career he has invested a scholar's commitment to the predicament of man in a doomed universe. For Allen these are all inescapable aspects of humanity and it is thus our lot to struggle with the paradoxes of desire and morality, freedom and faith, consummation and reflection. His films explore the perhaps pointless struggle to achieve resolution. Sometimes it appears, as in Annie Hall (1977), as the ironic dissatisfaction that comes when a much-yearned for ideal is attained and the reality is (necessarily) lacking. Play It Again, Sam (Herbert Ross, 1972) Annie Hall and Manhattan (1979) celebrate, nostalgically, the end of love. As a psychoanalytic notion nostalgia is a painful return, an uncanny pathology. In other films like Interiors (1978) Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) and Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) death is more patent – a mother commits suicide, a mistress is murdered in cold blood. The fatal aspect of romance for Allen is foregrounded. In Love and Death (1975), an earnest but comic take on the themes of sex, death and the possibility of an afterlife (set against a nineteenth century Russian literary landscape), Allen's character Boris cavorts through the woods with the Grim Reaper, both recalling and parodying the Death figure of Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957).

- Victoria Loy, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography

948 (90). Assault on Precinct 13 (1976, John Carpenter)

Screened December 31 2008 on Image DVD in New York NY

TSPDT #727 IMDb Wiki

John Carpenter's second feature is often cited as an object lesson in tight, tense low-budget action filmmaking where not a single frame is wasted in conveying suspense and drama. The irony is that the majority of the scenes run longer than is necessary, lingering on deliberate silences or stage movements; the first half of the film is padded with wordless interludes taking in locations or gazing at people driving to those locations. In interviews Carpenter has admitted to extending shots and scenes in order to fill up a feature running length with a limited budget and fairly simple story, but whether by design or necessity, the laid-back exposition generates an seductive air of fateful, impending doom.

Viewers may not notice the slow editing pace due to Carpenter's irresistibly cheesy but astoundingly effective synth score that pumps tension through a simple five note melody or a hanging chord. The slowness allows for characterizations both cinematic (police lieutenant Austin Stoker's eyes taking in his surroundings, conveying an attentiveness that will serve his character well later) and dramatic (death row convict Darwin Joston's Hawksian, jocular manner of sizing one person up after another with repeated requests for a smoke). Carpenter's use of expansive 'Scope frames would seem antithetical to shoestring filming, but they match the horizontal flatness of the Southern California setting, an urban wasteland conveying frontier desolation in which a ragtag police outfit finds itself utterly isolated.  While the near-senseless seige of the police station by a seemingly suicidal army of gangsters is the film's extended climactic setpiece, the film's most disturbing moment is an earlier inciting incident, the notorious ice cream truck massacre, a uniquely random act of horrific violence in broad suburban daylight that charges the subsequent nighttime siege with paranoid dread over unlimited possibilites of mayhem.

Unfortunately, the second half feels more conventional, relying on flash editing and walls of noise to provide easy scares in the dark, offset by the pornographic video game pleasure of turkey shooting zombie-like mauraders. Carpenter's innovation here is an ultraviolent intensification of the George Romero heroes-in-a-tincan setup that itself has been co-opted by any number of claustrophobic action thrillers since. Nonetheless, Carpenter remembers the power of anticipatory quiet in between rounds of bloodbaths, as the dwindling number of defenders regard each other with surprisingly touching gazes, a humanist admiration earned through cold, hard survivalist professionalism.

Wanna go deeper?


Hopelessly violent but exceedingly well made police thriller (1976), short on motivation but long on paranoia. The second film by John Carpenter, it has wit, flair, and movement, even though the hommages to Howard Hawks get a little heavy at times.

- Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader

"Assault on Precinct 13" is a much more complex film than Mr. Carpenter's "Halloween," though it's not really about anything more complicated than a scare down the spine. A lot of its eerie power comes from the kind of unexplained, almost supernatural events one expects to find in a horror movie but not in a melodrama of this sort.

The title tells the story, which is about a small group of people — a police officer, a couple of prisoners and several civilians — who find themselves besieged in a precinct station on the edge of a desolate Los Angeles slum. What makes the film so effective is that the attackers seem to be as motiveless, and relentless, as the zombies who stalk through "Dawn of the Dead."

If the movie is really about anything at all, it's about methods of urban warfare and defense. Mr. Carpenter is an extremely resourceful director whose ability to construct films entirely out of action and movement suggests that he may one day be a director to rank with Don Siegel.

- Vincent Canby, The New York Times, August 18, 1979

Before making the original Halloween into one of the most profitable independent films of all time, John Carpenter directed this riveting low-budget thriller from 1976, in which a nearly abandoned police station is held under siege by a heavily armed gang called Street Thunder. Inside the station, cut off from contact and isolated, cops and convicts who were headed for death row must now join forces or die. That's the basic plot, but it's what Carpenter does with it that's remarkable. Drawing specific inspiration from the classic Howard Hawks Western Rio Bravo (which included a similar siege on disadvantaged heroes), Carpenter used his simple setting for a tense, tightly constructed series of action sequences, emphasizing low-key character development and escalating tension. Few who've seen the film can forget the "ice cream cone" scene in which a young girl is caught up in the action by patronizing a seemingly harmless ice cream truck. It's here, and in other equally memorable scenes, that Carpenter demonstrates his singular knack for injecting terror into the mundane details of daily life, propelling this potent thriller to cult favorite status and long-standing critical acclaim.

-Jeff Shannon, Amazon.com

He went from being one of the masters of horror (''Halloween,'' ''The Thing'') to putting out loads of horrifyingly bad movies (''John Carpenter's Vampires'' and ''Ghosts of Mars''). But before director John Carpenter turned his attention almost completely to scary fare, he directed Assault On Precinct 13, a tight, tense thriller in which cops and cons join forces in an abandoned police station to fight off a mob of revenge-minded gang members. Sure, the acting (from never-really-heard-from-agains like Austin Stoker and Darwin Joston) is suspect, and certain plot points -- such as the fact that the so-called assault actually takes place at Precinct 9, not 13 -- range from confusing to nonsensical. Still, Carpenter's eerie score and Douglas Knapp's stylish cinematography give this low-budget shoot-out all the weight of an urban ''Rio Bravo'' (although it should be noted no one here is named Stumpy or Feathers). And trust me, you'll never look at an ice cream truck the same way again.

- Dalton Ross, Entertainment Weekly

Kent Jones of Film Comment has referred to horror maven John Carpenter as the last genre filmmaker working in America (indeed, while everyone else seems to move with the digital tide, Carpenter remains a resilient "analog man"). Joseph Kaufman, executive producer of Carpenter's thoroughly-modern western Assault on Precinct 13, wrote in a 1994 essay: "People have noticed that both Rio Bravo and Assault on Precinct 13 take place in besieged and isolated police stations, and that moral codes of behavior are important in the two films." Kaufman is careful to point out that Assault on Precinct 13 isn't a literal imitation of Howard Hawks's film, but there's no mistaking the modern racial and sexual politics encoded in the distinctly western elements of Carpenter's lean, mean, genre-defying masterpiece.

Less subtle though arguably more successful than Romero's Night of the Living Dead, the film evokes an ever-shifting political pecking order when a cultural cross-section of society trapped inside a Los Angeles police station wages war against a violent street gang named Street Thunder... Carpenter acknowledges that his protagonists are equally responsible for the choices they make. As a troubled black youth, Bishop walked out of the ghetto on his own, but thanks in part to the guidance of his father. Conversely, white prisoner Napoleon Wilson (the late Darwin Joston) turned to violence on his own, but no thanks to negative encouragement (a priest once told him: "You have something to do with death"). But what is the audience to make of Bishop fearfully observing a white officer as he loads his rifle, or the black prisoner, Wells (Tony Burton), who shoots his silencer at Street Thunder only to realize after one of the film's many mini-battles that his gun wasn't loaded? Carpenter's doesn't allow his characters to play any sort of blame games, and despite any lingering hang-ups they may have with each other's color, the director acknowledges that our problems with race are obscuring larger issues dealing with misguided authority and rampant political deception.

Because Assault on Precinct 13 is among one of the most remarkably composed films of all time, it's easy to look at Carpenter's rigorous framing techniques as their own acts of political resistance. The film's tight medium-shots position the characters in constant defiance of each other: blacks against whites, women against men, prisoners against officers. When Wells announces that he will attempt to escape Precinct 13 (he humorously calls his plan "Save Ass"), Bishop suggests a fairer approach. After a speedy lesson in trust and human decency, Wells and Wilson engage in a quickie game of Potatoes that positions Wells as the group's potential gateway out of the police station. Despite the tragic but inevitable human losses, no one group comes out on top because only their capacity for kindness reigns supreme in Carpenter's democratic kingdom.

- Ed Gonzalez, Slant

Carpenter had little time or money to meander off the point, so it possesses an expositional leanness that would not stand the loss of a single scene. Still, and as Carpenter observes more than once on this DVD’s commentary track, the film’s pace is slow; he takes almost a third of its 90 minute running time to set up his main characters and their relationships. Then, though he lets all hell break loose for the remainder of the picture, the action sequences maintain a deliberate, provocative spareness. For instance, the gang members use silencers on their weapons, and the repetitious thuds of their gunfire is more unnerving than the customary loud cracks of rapid fire weapons.

The cocky, expert shooter Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Justin), may be a convicted killer, but he does not lack for humanity or the desire to help others in peril. His repeated request for a cigarette appears to be his own way of assessing how fairly another person will treat him. And Leigh (Laurie Zimmer), the secretary, reminds one of the kind of unconscious insouciance that Hawks’ women possessed, for she takes care of her own needs even as she looks out for others, combining a sense of independence without losing of the needs of the group.

While Carpenter did recognize that the audience for low-budget cinema values aggressive action above all else, he made an effort not to allow violence to occur without a clear cause. While the plot contains a disturbing execution that sets out how amoral the protagonists’ assailants are, Carpenter rarely otherwise chooses to overplay savagery. Even if the three central characters take up arms out of necessity, not ideology or sadism, Carpenter refuses to reduce their violence to a sideshow of blood squibs or special effects pyrotechnics.

- David Sanjek, Pop Matters

Assault On Precinct 13 is one of the best low-budget action movies ever made and a model of good B-Movie filmmaking. It’s short, lean and agonisingly suspenseful, paying homage to its influences without ripping them off wholesale. Although it was only the second film directed by John Carpenter, it remains one of his most effective and it stands out as the movie where he began collecting together a reliable team of collaborators who stayed with him for the next few years, the period during which he made most of his classic films.

Carpenter’s use of real locations is masterful – the use of Venice Police Station as a location and the surrounding district of California, some kind of urban wasteland. The sense of sun-drenched day turning into seemingly endless night is beautifully evoked – the skies are often gorgeous – and this is something which links a number of Carpenter films, ranging from Halloween to Prince of Darkness. Indeed, the latter film is almost a remake of Assault on Precinct 13 with added supernatural bunkum. Also well in evidence is Carpenter’s ability to use the possibilities of the Panavision frame. This was his first film in 2.35:1 and his exploration of the far sides of the frame is one of the things which makes him a contemporary director as opposed to the directors who influenced him, most of whom hated having to use anything wider than 1.85:1 – and Ford and Hawks weren’t overly keen on anything wider than Academy ratio.

This attention to character is something which denotes all of Carpenter’s best work and even his least interesting films are often good in this respect – the oddball group of vampire hunters led by James Woods in Vampires for example. Again, this is a lesson learned from Howard Hawks and the three leading characters in the film are very much in the Hawksian tradition. Wilson, witty and reflective, is far from the usual stereotype of a killer bound for death row and becomes something of an anti-hero. Leigh, the secretary – presumably named in tribute to the screenwriter of The Big Sleep, El Dorado and Rio Lobo, Leigh Brackett – is a classic Hawksian woman, resourceful and fiercely independent. Lt. Bishop is humourous, wry, honourable and tough – not at all unlike a Wayne hero in one of Hawks’ westerns (among whom John T. Chance stands out, and Carpenter’s little tribute to this character is the editor credit).

Of course, Bishop is also black, and the fact that this is rarely an issue, with the exception of a joke he makes when Leigh offers him coffee, reminds the viewer of Night Of The Living Dead. Nor is this the only reminder, since the sequences in which the scarily numerous and anonymous thugs attempt to storm the police station through the doors and windows are highly endebted to the similar sequences in Romero’s film. There’s a certain amount of Hitchcock’s The Birds in these scenes too. You’ll also spot more than a touch of Straw Dogs, particularly in the plot line of a collection of brutal thugs wanting to get at a man who they perceive to owe them his life. I also have to point out the presence of Henry Brandon as the desk sergeant - Brandon played Scar in another of Carpenter's favourite films, The Searchers.

- Mike Sutton, DVD Times

Carpenter strips the notion of what a Hawksian film entails down to its very essence for Assault On Precinct 13. His men are resourceful and no matter the danger that surrounds them, not only look like heroes but sound like them too. They may not be quite the match of the soldiers of The Thing From Another World for an ability to laugh in the face of certain death, although few could, but Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston) is always ready with a, "Gotta smoke?" as the gunfire dies down. It becomes not only his refrain but also his way of assuring those around him that, for the moment at least, the danger has passed.

It's that sense of danger that becomes what is best and most memorable about Assault On Precinct 13. For all the dozens of gang members who are shot and killed by Stoker and his makeshift cops, not one of them says so much as a word. Instead, they are the urban nightmare that Walter Hill promised but never delivered. Heavily armed and as relentless as the creature in Carpenter's later The Thing or Michael Myers in Halloween, they just keep on coming, attacking several times, being forced back but always coming forward. For all those that Stoker shoots, a dozen more take their place with each glimpse outside of the station showing yet more gathering in the shadows. Even with a career that includes Halloween, The Thing and The Fog, Assault On Precinct 13 is one of the most unsettling of Carpenter's films, be it in the gang members sitting silently cradling their weapons before their killing spree begins, in their cold-blooded murder of a young girl or their circling of the police station. Carpenter makes their assaults simply terrifying.

It's not, though, as good a film as Rio Bravo but then few are. There's a warmth to Hawks' film that Carpenter's lacks. Similarly, Hawks finds the time for a great number of asides in his story, whereas Carpenter, having stripped his film to the bone, deviates not an inch from the Street Thunder gang preparing for the siege and the assault itself. So, a different film, then, but it remains a great one. And with time having been so kind to it, it remains as entertaining and thrilling a film now as it has ever been.

- Eamon McCusker, DVD Times

Carpenter's social commentary juices flow most strongly when he's deconstructing the genre's racial and gender roles, the Street Thunder gang being the great evil that forces our protagonists to join as one: black cop, white cop, black convict, white convict. Fate interplays, such as when death row convict Wells (Tony Burton) complains that he's always had bad luck, not moments before a bitter death. American society remains flawed in Carpenter's eye but the strive for justice is a victory all its own, the protagonists surviving only because of their ability to set aside their purported identities (male, female, etc.), remaining individuals as they unite as equals. Carpenter's almost mathematically structured framework itself defies any sense of bias, his characters on equal footing whether they remain in defiance of one another, or, in a climactic and revealing shot, stand side by side as a single force.

Because Carpenter's observations render Assault on Precinct 13 as one of the most transcendent of all action films, it's almost easy to glance over the razor sharp narrative precision and the efficiency of its lean, mean setpieces; absorbing the space of their locations, the camera itself feels like an occupant of the police station fortress, bullets ricocheting while gangsters attack not unlike the zombies from Night of the Living Dead. Carpenter is more subtle than Romero in his evocation of social conflict but his insight is as profound as that film's Vietnam-infused anger, the hopefully optimistic ying to Romero's learnedly pessimistic yang. Points for humor, however, go to Carpenter, who achieves—through the great performance that is Tony Burton's—what may be the most hilariously titled escape plan in movie history. Although there may be no greater isolated element than Carpenter's own soulful synth score, Assault on Precint 13's powerful exercise in democracy—which appropriately ends with our two male protagonists marching together up a flight of steps—is nothing short of one for the ages.

- Rob Humanick, The Projection Booth

The crime gang excepted (which is anonymous and expendable), no primary character in the film embodies his stereotype. The criminals exhibit trust and selflessness, the new policeman (the survivors’ hierarchal authority) is black, and the women are composed, always clothed, and never scream. It is responsible, dynamic characterization. Most every character is designed to contest traditional sexual and racial stereotyping. This ideology (or lack of stereotyping) dictates to some extent the film’s outcome: the survivors are reduced to an essential representation of the sexes, races, and opposing sides of law. (This racial and sexual acknowledgement also employed in George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead.) Success in their desire to live, in result, necessitates trust and collaboration between the party members, each of whom embodies traditionally segregated characterizations in ’70s film. As the body count escalates, notice the policeman’s face as it fills simultaneously with fear, desperation, and concern as he hands a loaded rifle to one of the convicts.

The suspense of this film relents only at the final minutes, once the smoke of gunfire clears to reveal the survivors without a bullet of ammunition between them. Survival is meaningless without a viewer’s sympathy — in Carpenter’s hands the latter trait is a transcendent element. Carpenter’s survivors are durable, and, as with those in this film, are not characterized by strength and determination inasmuch as they are by vulnerability and fear.

- Rumsey Taylor, Not Coming to a Theater Near You

Wringing tension from his water-tight premise, Carpenter goes on to deliver a template example of how to make the most out of your resources. Not a high-budget film by any stretch, Assault On Precinct 13 nonetheless uses its primary location in a wonderfully sinister way, with superb use of sound and light to ratchet up the tension at the right moments. Combined with shots of shadowy figures running around, and built on characters you end up giving a damn about (no matter how morally ambiguous they are), it’s a lean, exciting action thriller, and absolutely not the kind of film that anyone can make.

If you want proof of that, you can’t help but turn to the Ethan Hawke-headlined remake, which was released in 2005, and directed by Jean-Francois Richet. Remakes of Carpenter films are notoriously not very good, but Assault On Precinct 13 didn’t turn out too badly. That said, it lacked anywhere near the levels of tension and unease of its far cheaper predecessor, and it failed too to match the sheer feeling of claustrophobia of Carpenter’s original.

- Simon Brew, Den of Geek

Unfortunately, "Assault" is marked by one of the weaker scripts you're going to find this side of George Lucas, and the acting isn't much better. (What does it say when the most convincing line readings are given by Larry Burton as the convict Wells, an actor who is most famous as Apollo Creed's trainer from the "Rocky" movies? Nothing good, I assure you.) Napoleon Wells is played by Darwin Joston, and while everyone acts like Wells is the ultimate hard case, Joston completely fails to inject any of the rakish charm into Wells that the script labors so mightily to achieve. Austin Stoker plays the straight "white hat" lead as the top cop in the Precinct fairly well, but again he's handicapped by some incredibly wooden dialogue. Laurie Zimmer tries to inject some sultry sexuality into her role as Laurie, a secretary at the Precinct, but on a couple of moments you can actually see her looking at the floor to find her marks so she knows where to stand.

The gang members of "Street Thunder" are a mixed bag, as well. If you rate them against the gang members of "The Warriors," to choose another period piece about the gangs, or against any recent flick about gangs, they come across as almost comically impersonal and robotic (with the powerful exception of the ice cream cone scene, of course). But for 1976, "Street Thunder" was probably a pretty scary bunch. And if you view "Street Thunder" as a representation of the mindless evil prevalent in the disintegrating American society of the 1970's, they are pretty spooky as they just keep on coming in wave after wave. (But still, modern audiences may not be spooked by a gang where a couple of the members are clearly wearing pressed khakis.)

- Biohazard, The Deuce

Other reviews:

"The film is a great way to jump into the John Carpenter filmography -- it's sort of a Carpenter-land travel guide. " - Todd Doogan, The Digital Bits

"An inventive premise, lots of guns, heavy action, effective suspense, genuine laughs, a furious last half, and John Carpenter kicking B-Movie ass behind the camera while cracking skulls with his jiving score" - John Fallon, JoBlo.com

"If there was any indication of just how good a director John Carpenter was, Assault on Precinct 13 was a darn good sign." - Gordon Justesen, DVD Movie Central

"John Carpenter’s cult classic may be low budget, but more than 30 years on it remains brilliantly claustrophobic and eerily entertaining." - Maria Realf, Eye for Film

"Carpenter certainly knows how to play with his audience – he manages to supply the shocks that similar movies just can’t." - Wayne Southworth, The Spinning Image

"The growing tension of never knowing where the enemy is coming from makes for some great cinema, and the heavy gore adds to the proceedings." - Matt Paprocki, BlogCritics.com

"The film was quickly shot on little financing, and although certain scenes feel rushed and haphazardly put together, overall the film is brilliantly constructed and beautifully photographed in Carpenter’s patented 2.35:1 widescreen that always elevates seemingly mundane shots into iconic and grand statements, much like the classic westerns and horror films that continue to resonate today." - Richard X., Cinephile Magazine

"Although ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 is only John Carpenter’s second film and predates HALLOWEEN, it remains an entertaining movie, whose western influences have helped make it a cult classic." - The Cinema Laser


Shot on a shoestring, the movie uses a patchwork of locations around Los Angeles, and the interiors were filmed at the Producers Studio, now Raleigh Studios.

The streets near the station are in Watts, Los Angeles’s often-troubled South Central area; the view across the street from the precinct is North Hollywood, but ‘Anderson Police Station, Division 14’ itself is the old Police and Fire Station of Venice, 685 North Venice Boulevard, on the northeast corner of Pisani Drive, Venice, which was the only art deco police station in Los Angeles, and is now the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC), devoted to Los Angeles’s excellent tradition of multi-ethnic public art. Murals, that is.

- Patrick Naugle, DVD Verdict

- Movie-Locations.com

One of the most controversial sequences in the film concerns the shooting of an ice-cream seller and his customer, a little girl. They are shot in cold blood by a gang member (played with chilling detachment by Frank Doubleday), and the staging of the deaths beside an ice-cream van in broad daylight seems to undermine the aspects of society we all presume to be safe & protected, in a similar way to the siege on the police station later that day.This sequence upset the US censors so much that they demanded Carpenter remove the scene of the girl being shot or it would get an X certificate: his answer was to cut the scene in just the print to be sent back to the censors, and to leave it in every print that was to be distributed across America!

- Graham Hill, The John Carpenter Website


Listen to main theme via embedded video:

Like his contemporary, Brian De Palma, John Carpenter is a master at borrowing, reinterpreting, and occasionally stealing things from the best filmmakers of the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s. It’s apparent in Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 both in his filmmaking (he edits the film under the pseudonym “John T. Chance,” the name of John Wayne’s character in Rio Bravo, a clear Western influence) and in his music (he describes the soundtrack as a fusion of the theme from Dirty Harry and Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”). The Halloween soundtrack draws on The Exorcist’s piano theme in the same way.

The original film’s soundtrack is essentially just two pieces, repeated at different lengths throughout the movie. The first is little more than a reedy ticking noise, like a baseball card in a bicycle spoke. Whether it blends into the film by counting off precious seconds or just mimicking broken machinery varies from scene to scene. The second piece is a thick, hazy synthesizer riff that plugs lazily through the occasional relaxed sequences in the film. It’s as minimalist as anything, but the approach is less a matter of deliberate artistry and more a product of Carpenter’s short composing time (just a few days) and low budget (he was working with old vacuum tubes that produced an unusual tone).

- Erick Bierlitz, The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola

It’s curious how an accomplished composer can sweat blood creating an intricate, detailed and rich score for a huge orchestra without notice while another with less education and range can create a simple five note riff in his home studio and immediately have a popular hit on his hands. John Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13 proves that size doesn’t matter. It’s landing the musical hook that counts. If you have that, you have the audience. At only twenty-four minutes with synthesizer and two simple themes, and I mean simple, Carpenter creates massive impact with not a lot of material. His score is tense, atmospheric, and classic. The film, of course, depends on the careful mix of relentless pressure and respite, and the score serves it superbly. It’s a score that has gained cult status.

In the album notes, Carpenter quotes Herrmann, that master of repeated short phrases as a basis for suspense, as his inspiration. If there’s one thing that has served Carpenter well, it’s the awareness to look to his idols (Howard Hawkes as a director; Herrmann as a composer) to work out how the job is done. He reads his idols well, works them out correctly, and using the lessons they teach, he executes beautifully.

- Steven Woolston, Music from the Movies

The score isn't actually bad. Once Carpenter sinks you in slowly but surely into the film, the score mixes perfectly with everything else. The once-grating repetitive melody becomes akin to a heart beating profusely. You actually quite follow it --- you dread the score that dictates tension, and you treasure when it levitates to something easing. It's quite an effective score --- nothing fancy, nothing extravagant, just purely supportive of whatever else Carpenter is cooking up onscreen.

- Ogg, Lessons from the School of Inattention

As with most every John Carpenter film, Assault on Precinct 13 is complemented with a simplistic, minimalist score — it is his signature, exampled most famously by his three-note staccato for Halloween. Keep in mind that Carpenter is secondly a filmmaker, pursuing the profession after earning a degree in music. Directors customarily claim secondary credits, and Carpenter’s persists to be one of the more unique in “Director-Composer.”

For Carpenter, this has become a deteriorative element. His tactic in scoring is appropriate to suspense or horror and is attuned to the ’70s, favoring synthesizers and bass guitars. As with these instruments, Carpenter’s scoring has become an artifact of past decades.

- Rumsey Taylor, Not Coming to a Theater Near You

When "Assault" was made, synthesizers were not as common as they are today. In fact, the recording process was such that you had to record one track for each chord, or something along those lines. In other words, while now we would just use a keyboard, back then it was a long and arduous mixing process. With this information it makes the movie's musical score all the more impressive. For while it sounds like the base line for a bad 80's dance song, it is, in fact, pretty good considering what he had to work with.

- Jeremiah Sherman, ThreeGeek.com


Sharpness seemed solid. The movie remained nicely detailed and crisp at all times. Never did I discern any significant issues connected to softness or fuzziness. Jagged edges and moiré effects also created no concerns, though a smidgen of edge enhancement showed up at times. As one might expect, print flaws caused a mix of problems, though they remained fairly minor. I noticed occasional examples of specks and marks, and grain seemed heavier than normal sometimes. I also saw some examples of reel change markers. However, the movie came across as reasonably clean during much of the film.

Colors never excelled, but they rarely became a liability either. The film showed some hues that were a bit dense at times, and they also looked somewhat flat on other occasions. Still, they mostly appeared acceptably concise and natural. Black levels could seem slightly inky sometimes, but they usually were reasonably deep, and shadows followed suit. The low-light shots periodically seemed somewhat too thick, but most of them appeared quite easy to discern. Though no one will mistake Assault for a “reference level” image, it held up well after all these years.

I felt the same way about the monaural soundtrack of Assault on Precinct 13. Despite the lack of stereo or surround audio, the mix sounded quite good much of the time. Speech sounded natural and crisp, as those elements seemed above average for the era. Music also was nicely rich and dynamic. High-end came across as a little shrill, but the score presented good bass response. Effects occasionally demonstrated a little distortion, mostly due to gunshots. Otherwise those elements were fairly accurate and concise. In general, the track sounded a little thin, but when I factored in the movie’s age and budget, I felt that Assault provided a positive auditory experience.

In a negative move, Assault presents no form of text for those with hearing issues. The movie includes neither subtitles in any language nor closed-captioning. In this day and age, that seems absurd.

- Colin Jacobson, DVD Movie Guide


Q&A With John Carpenter (23m07s): The actual content of this Q&A is fine. Unfortunately, it's the presentation that lets it down. In this, Carpenter appears onstage beside Austin Stoker, filmed at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood in 2002. Much of Carpenter's answers do dwell on Assault On Precinct 13 but he does mention other films of his in passing. He also offers a very welcome glimpse at how he went about making his film, not only in his setting up the action (and actors) but in his use of Panavision and the problems that came with it and in the instruments that he used in scoring the movie. The problem, though, is that this was filmed from a position in the audience with a camcorder. It's in focus so long as it is zoomed in on Carpenter but, otherwise, tends to drift out of focus on wide shots. It also tends to drift around its subjects quite a bit and, at one point, gets switched off. Still, look past that and what Carpenter has to say and the questions he's asked are interesting.

Commentary: Carpenter is on his own for this track and while it's good enough, it's not a patch on those where he has someone to work off such as Kurt Russell (on The Thing). But Carpenter is still head and shoulders above many others when it comes to commentaries and while he does leave some gaps in his track, he also talks in detail about his step up to shooting this off this student film Dark Star, about the influence that Hawks had on the film and about the limitations of the production, such as why the cast don't just go upstairs to wait it out and how Carpenter tries to explain this with dialogue. Still an interesting track but it would have been very much better had it been a Carpenter and Stoker recording.

Production History (16m54s): This features pages of text explaining the production in between behind-the-scenes shots of the same, stills taken from the script and storyboards. The most interesting section of this feature is near the end where it shows news clippings from the UK, where it became much more of a success than it was in the US, and in Carpenter's reaction to how European audiences reacted to it so differently.

Finally, there are two Radio Spots (32s and 33s) and a very scratchy Original Theatrical Trailer (2m04s).

- Eamon McCusker, DVD Times


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John Carpenter Discussion Forum

John Carpenter is sometimes referred to as the “master of the horror film.” This is a reasonable title, bearing in mind that he has proved to be not only a director with a visually and thematically consistent body of work, but also a true visionary of the horror genre. Although usually misunderstood and under appreciated by audiences and film critics alike, John Carpenter has created some of the most intense, imaginative, influential and successful horror films in cinema history. Consider for example Halloween (1978), one of the most profitable independent films ever made. This one film spawned seven sequels, countless imitations, and ignited the slasher-film boom that flourished and dominated the horror film industry during the late 1970s and early 1980s. At the same time, it would be unfair to categorize John Carpenter as just a horror film director, as he has also created exceptional science fiction and action films. However, it is worth noticing that even if the majority of Carpenter's films belong to a fantastic genre, they all bear a strong influence from the western. Regardless of their subject matter, the films directed by John Carpenter are characterized by his mastery of the cinematographical craft, and by the showcasing of engaging narratives that convey a profound commentary on the many social, racial, gender and sexual anxieties of our modern world.

- Marco Lanzagorta, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Bio

With themes that range from a distrust of authority and absolutism, complete with the rebellious anti-hero as a lead (They Live, Escape From New York), to paying for the sins of the past… or the future (The Fog, Prince of Darkness), to simply the coming of the end of the world, Carpenter has covered a lot of ground over the course of his career. His “Apocalypse Trilogy” (The Thing, Prince of Darkness, and In the Mouth of Madness) represent a body of work that all deal with Armageddon resulting from supernatural or alien forces causing humans to turn on each other in some fashion, with grim, dark-hearted results. You’ll also find recurring actors — it’s clear that he’s had some successful working relationships, some of which even would go on to become close friendships, with his actors. Kurt Russell (hell, half the cast of Big Trouble in Little China), Jamie Lee Curtis, Keith David and Donald Pleasence have all had roles in multiple Carpenter films.

- Pajiba Guide to John Carpenter

947 (89). Judex (1963, Georges Franju)

Screened Thursday December 30 2008 on Something Weird VHS (courtesy of Kim's, sniff) in New York, NY TSPDT rank #  IMDb Wiki

This remake of pioneer cineaste Louis Feuillade's 1916 action serial featuring cinema's original caped crusader can function today as a surreal subversion of the modern superhero genre that dominates movie houses the world over. While Judex (played by real life magician Channing Pollack) makes a bold entrance in a tuxedoed bird costume to orchestrate the death of a greedy financier, he, unlike most contemporary superheroes, is mostly ineffectual for the remainder of the film.  He's upstaged by a slinky, shape-shifting minx (Francine Berge) who changes disguises at every step of a kidnapping plot so haphazard it slips like mercury through the viewer's grasp. No one character maintains control of the narrative, which operates like a soccer game, bouncing in jagged trajectories with every unexpected death, deception or deus ex machina revelation. But once in a while a stunning moment will materialize to sear itself into the memory: a masked ball of wealthy socialites wearing bird's heads; Francine Berge's lightning transformation from a sweet-faced nun to a sleek cat burglar outfit; Edith Scob's delicate body floating downstream; a boy staring transfixed at the fresh corpse of a woman who's fallen to her death. Feuillade's grand vision was of a world whose capacity for imminent, explosive chaos resisted the authoritative logic of 20th century narrative; Franju is clearly sympathetic to Feuillade, but goes further in imposing a new authority, one of the lyrical dream image. If only more summer blockbusters had that sense...

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Judex film poster

There's a world of difference between the natural, "found" surrealism of Louis Feuillade's lighthearted French serial (1914) and the darker, studied surrealism and campy piety of this 1964 remake by Georges Franju. Yet in Franju's hands the material has its own magic (and deadpan humor), which makes this one of the better features of his middle period. Judex (Channing Pollack) is a cloaked hero who abducts a villainous banker to prevent the evil Diana (Francine Bergé in black tights) from stealing a fortune from the banker's virtuous daughter. Some of what Franju finds here is worthy of Cocteau, and as he discovered when he attempted another pastiche of Feuillade's work in color, black and white is essential to the poetic ambience.

- Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader

Franju's superbly elegant and enjoyable tribute to the adventure fanatasies of Louis Feuillade sees the eponymous righter-of-wrongs (Pollack) abduct a wicked banker in order to prevent villainess Diana (Bergé, glorious in black cat suit) laying her hands on a fortune the banker's daughter (Scob) is due to inherit. Cue for a magical clash between good and evil, with the director revelling in poetic symbolism (the opening masked ball finds our hero, with forbidding bird mask, creating a dove out of thin air), black-and-white photography that thrills with its evocation of a lost, more innocent era, and surreal set pieces.

- Time Out

Judex adds a subtle, sophisticated and endearing chapter to the swollen literature of cinematic pop art. In homage to French Movie Pioneer Louis Feuillade, Director Georges Franju tenderly resurrects Judex, a formidable mass hero whose dime-novel adventures burgeoned on the silent screens of France between 1916 and 1918, decades before Superman got off the ground as a force for good. Happily, Franju never yields to the temptation of playing a soggy old classic for easy laughs as a smart-alecky spoof. Instead he celebrates it with sound, as a nostalgic song of innocence, an ode to an era when all the battles that Virtue waged against Vice were won without tricky compromise.

Wearing a black cloak and several delicious disguises, Channing Pollock portrays Judex with the stubborn, single-minded intensity of a reformed Dracula. The plot that roils around him is mostly post-Victorian gimcrackery, carried out in a pure period style that offers everything from mad little chases in vintage jalopies to the acrobatics of human flies, from reunions of long-lost sons and ruined fathers to the machinations of a rascally banker whose ill-gotten capital gains keep Judex awake nights. So does the banker's daughter (Edith Scob), a lovely wisp of a heroine. All crumpled organdy and helplessness yet clearly indestructible, she is drugged, chloroformed, kidnaped, nearly impaled on a hatpin, and at one point must be pulled out of the river after a prolonged dunking that would have drowned a plainer girl. Most of her woes are devised by a supple archvillainess (Francine Bergé) who revels in evil for its own sake, keeps slipping out of her period gowns to dart away in tights, only to reappear moments later as an apache dancer or murderous nun.

Judex has too much low-key charm and seriousness to be wildly funny, but Director Franju seems content to woo a minority taste. He affectionately thumbs through an album of thrills remembered from boyhood, shrewdly heightening the original and sometimes shading in his own touches of nightmarish reality—most strikingly at an eerie masked ball where all the guests are feathered out as birds, again in a cell where a rotter confronts his festering conscience in a mirror that swivels to catch his every move. The spare, clever background music by Composer Maurice Jarre is a pleasurable bonus in a movie that does not just dwell on the past but feelingly rediscovers it.

- Time Magazine, May 13, 1966

An unusual concoction, this 1963 Georges Franju picture, which goes about its business as if the nouvelle vague never existed, among other things. An homage to the 1915 Louis Feuillade serial about an almost super-powered crime fighter who nonetheless has a fairly arduous time bringing the main evildoes to justice (the defining paradox of such serials, I suppose), it honors Feuillade as a surrealist precursor by introducing (or at least we believe we haven't seen him before) the title character as something out of a Max Ernst collage.

Villainess Diana (Francine Berge) is quite the adventuress, thinking nothing of attempting murder whilst dressed in a nun's outfit. Seen above, she's making the first in a series of daring escapes. She's quite a contrast to the handsome but rather impassive Channing Pollock, the real-life stage magician playing Judex. And so, it's fun, fun, fun all the way for a while, as Franju's pastiche grows ever more thrillingly absurd and self-referential. We see the incompetent detective Cocantin reading an adventure of Fantomas, another famous subject for Feuillade...

The film's climax constitutes one of the most hilariously arbitrary flauntings of the deus ex machina ever. Judex is trapped by the villains on the top floor of a tallish building, the entrance to which is barred. Hence, Cocantin and the young fella known as "The Licorice Kid' in Feuillade's original are sitting outside, disconsolate. A circus caravan passes by, and one of its coaches is that of, what do you know, one Daisy—in this film an old flame of Cocantin's. The gorgeous Sylva Koscina's cameo is an almost ineffable delight. Sad-sack Cocantin's explanation of what's going on doesn't sit well with Diana. Why aren't you helping your friend, she asks. He would, he explains, but he can't get to where his friend is. After all, he's not an acrobat—"But you are!" he brightens, and sends Diana up to the roof for what will be a helluva catfight with the villainess.

And it's at this point the film changes. From almost out of nowhere, the Franju who made his name as an unblinking observer of horror (with films such as Le Sang des betes and the aforementioned  Les Yeux sans visage) suddenly asserts himself.

Hanging from the rim of the roof, Diana, once the personification of immorality's fearlessness, is now a pathetic, wide-eyed, impotent creature. And Franju doesn't let it go at that—her fall, its thud, her lifeless body, its horrific expression fixed on her face (and witnessed by that cute little Licorice Kid). The pall it casts hangs heavy even as we watch Judex finally unite with his beloved; their stroll on the beach somehow brings to mind a similar seascape in Murnau's Nosferatu...

- Glenn Kenny, The Auteurs Notebook

George Franju treats the horrific and the strange with the approach of a filmmaker directing the most rote literary adaptation. This produces a slowness to his scenes, to his pacing (Dan Sallitt recently wrote of a similar effect in Franju's Eyes Without a Face), a stolid, regular quality to the mise-en-scene that consequently makes that horror, that strangeness all the more uneasy and abrupt, a lyrical inclusion in what initially seems something regular, unremarkable.

This weight of normality, of unnotable cinema makes Franju's masterfully vignette based, tone-jumping 1963 revision of Louis Fuillade's serial Judex work all the more successfully. It allows the homage to start as a film tracking political terrorism in the guise of surrealist horror, and move from this to trapdoors and automobile getaways, deering-do numbers, a segment centered on the comedic duo of a tramp child and a goofy detective, and a death scene that grants the film's villainess more dignity than a million movie deaths before and after will ever condescend to treat their characters. All this wild divergence is treated with the same stolidness, and as such never seems inconsistent. The fantastic is always possible when it is treated as nothing fantastic at all.

Ending with a coda to the unhappy era that Feuillade's 1914 serial was produced in, Franju's seemingly standard "homage"—pre-pastiche, post-New Wave—predicts a Cold War global catastrophe and posits itself as a predecessor to this future catastrophe: so read into its not-so-equal doses of innocuous costume shenanigans and capitalist terrorism what you will.

- Daniel Kasman, The Auteurs Notebook

The ferocious poetics of Georges Franju's style have silent-film purity -- the use of pre-Griffith iconography studding many of his feature movies is no fashionable Nouvelle Vague hommage, but an artist acknowledging his stylistic roots and pondering their validity in modern times.  There are disguises, night raids and rooftop chases, though, as in Feuillade, Franju's lenses remain cool even as the action gets more delirious. Judex's first appearance, resurrecting doves at a costume ball while decked in a majestic bird mask, is an astonishing visual epiphany, yet the movie's vitality lies with Bergé's Diana, whose energy, whether climbing walls in tights or masquerading as a nun, puts the story's WWI-era patriarchy in '60s perspective. The picture's reverence notwithstanding, the two filmmakers are virtual polar opposites -- where the old master used documentary aesthetics to record the extraordinary, Franju filters the ordinary through the gauze of ominous lyricism. The results contain all the fascinating tensions that the collision implies.

- Fernando F. Croce, Cinepassion

French cinema of the mid-1960s saw something of a revival of interest in the old Louis Feuillade thriller serials of the 1910s.   Feuillade’s criminal mastermind Fantômas came back for a second round of murderous mayhem, and a certain amount of mirth, in a series of three films directed by André Hunebelle and starring Jean Marais and Louis de Funès, beginning with Fantômas (1964).  The previous year had seen the release of another remake of a Feuillade classic, Judex, directed by Georges Franju.  It would take another three decades before Irma Vep, the villainous queen of crime from Les Vampires (1914) would return to the big screen, played by Maggie Cheung in Olivier Assayas’s Irma Vep (1996) – although this hardly counts as a remake.

Georges Franju’s fascination and love of the silent Feuillade thrillers is evident from this inspired, and ever so slightly camp, reinterpretation of Judex.  The film is an obvious fan homage to Feuillade’s work – employing the episodic structure to almost ludicrous extremes whilst evoking the dark menace and poetry of Feuillade’s films through its stylish expressionistic design and lush black and white photography.  Feuillade’s grandson Jacques Champreux worked on the screenplay, which has many of the elements of the original 1916 Judex film, but curiously omits the justification for why Judex behaves as he does, and so the central character becomes an avenger without a cause.

Channing Pollock is a surprising yet effective casting choice for the role of Judex.  He had previously appeared in just three films and, with his stunning good looks, was being promoted as the next Rudolph Valentino of Italian cinema.  He was much better known as an illusionist and magic would be his metier for most of his career – Judex was to be his last screen credit.  What Pollock may lack in experience as an actor, he makes up for with charm and charisma, and the film certainly makes good use of his real talent, as a conjuror.   The svelte Francine Bergé revels in the part of the deadly female villain Diana Monti, the role that Musidora made her own in the original Feuillade serial.  Interestingly, Brigitte Bardot was briefly considered for this part...

The 1963 remake of Judex is regarded more highly today than when it was first released, partly because Franju’s reputation as a filmmaker has risen substantially in recent years.  It is true that Franju’s Judex is stylistically very different to that of Feuillade.  Whereas Feuillade sought to achieve a synthesis of fantasy and realism, Franju is clearly more preoccupied with the fantasy side of the equation.  In common with many of his films of this period – Les Yeux sans visage (1960) being another good example – Judex has the character of a Daliesque dream, with ill-defined characters shifting in and out of focus in a plot that is fantastic and barely coherent, but with stark, almost surreal images that make a strong impression on the spectator.   The film may lack the pace, darkness and narrative solidity of Feuillade’s film, but it makes up for this, at least in part, with its inspired visuals, which owe as much to Jean Cocteau as they do to Louis Feuillade.

- James Travers, Films de France

Judex... with its Ernstian feel for the surrealism of late Victorian iconography, is utterly anachronistic, as is Franju's fascination by the melodramatic scenario in which innocent daughters are plunged into distress by their father's nefarioius actions: the melodramatic pieties are subverted by a modernism that has no faith in knights in white armour. Franju's anachronisms testify to the intensity of his empathy with the forest's medieval dream world.

- Paul Coates, Film at the Intersection of High and Mass Culture. Published by CUP Archive, 1994. Page 79

Judex bird head

Franju vs. Feuillade

Franju sought in particular to recapture Feuillade's sense of documentary and his playfulness. He reproduced with as much exactitude as possible the costumes and settings which Feuillade filmed in scrupulous detail. Feuillade's street-scapes are now an invaluable documentary record, but Franju also paid particular attention to reproducing the elaborate interior designs and furnishings of the day, resulting in settings of quite extraordinary detail and clutter. Franju also sought, despite the playfulness, to avoid any camp satire of these elements by over-emphasis or any special attention being paid to them.

In the title role, Franju pulled off his most brilliant coup by casting the master prestidigator of his day, near godlike in his handsomeness, Channing Pollock. Pollock's skills as a magician were employed to produce a dazzling array of apparent magical occurrences involving, most particularly, disappearing doves, a plot device that Feuillade uses to enable the regular rescue of the heroine and others by Judex. Franju's Judex is a far livelier, less sombre, more inventive and more mysterious character than that of Feuillade.

- Geoff Gardner, Senses of Cinema

Judex shows his sensitivity to the atmospheric tension of Feuillade's serials while discovering an element of dramatic irony missing in the originals. Whereas Feuillade's serials seem to accentuate the murkiness of his lurid plots and his characters' romantic mystique, Judex balances its eerie tone with a more extravagant delineation of the characters' valor. The hero's walk through the ball with the dove is faithful to the original while isolating its most overtly romantic elements. Unlike Feuillade, who magnifies the fear and fatalism that surround his players, Franju reveals the vulnerability and resiliency of his heroes and villains. The slow, solemn pacing in Feuillade is an extension of the numerous plot complications; in Franju there is a methodical inquiry into both the charm and deviousness of the genre.

- Aaron Sultanik, Film, A Modern Art. Published by Associated University Presses, 1986. Page 396

Judex bears a dedication to Feuillade in its closing credits, and is nominally a remake of Feuillade's 1916-17 serial film of the same name (also remade as Judex 34 in 1934 by Feuillade's son-in-law, Maurice Champreux), but in interviews (collected in the booklet that accompanies this double-disc edition), Franju made no secret of the fact that he was much more interested in the character of arch-villain Fantômas (whose criminal enterprises were serialised by Feuillade in 1913-14) than of the rather bland avenger Judex. Unfortunately Franju and his screenwriter Jacques Champreux (Feuillade's grandson) were unable to afford the rights to Fantômas (which was in fact made into a black comedy by André Hunebelle in 1964), but Champreux includes in Judex a scene in which the bumblingly bookish Detective Cocantin (Jacques Jouanneau) is shown engrossed in a Fantômas pulp novel whose details (an empty coffin, nuns with guns) reflect elements of the plot that Cocantin is himself supposedly investigating. Meanwhile, Diana Monti (Francine Bergé), the catsuit-wearing, rooftop-climbing femme fatale in Champreux's reimagined Judex has been modeled on another Feuillade villain, Irma Vep from Les Vampires (1915-16).In Feuillade's original serial, Judex is sworn as a boy by his Corsican mother to seek vengeance for his father's suicide as a result of the wicked banker Favraux, but so thoroughly does Franju efface this original story that what remains is merely an avenger without a cause – who is also, adding to his aura of mystery, an accomplished magician. The art of the illusionist is key here, for Franju himself is less interested in the banal mechanics of his plot than in the uncanny spectacle of its execution, as he repeatedly wrongfoots the viewer with a series of false deaths, trick substitutions, and similar cinematic sleights of hand.

Courtesy of a cunning disguise, Judex has, in fact, already been onscreen, unbeknownst to either Favraux (Michel Vitold) or the viewer, since the film's opening scene, but when he makes his “first” recognisable appearance at a ball, wearing the mask of a bird of prey and conjuring an apparently dead dove back to life, his intention is to poison the host Favraux – but crucially, after Judex has handed him a glass, without even taking a single sip the banker drops down dead (albeit not really any more dead than the dove, as the sequel will show). The eeriness of the masque imagery and the irrationality of the sequence mark Franju himself as the master prestidigitator here, with Favraux, Diana, and even Judex himself just inferior pretenders to the throne of dissembling, manipulation, and bluff. The criss-crossing, episodic story that follows is full of sadistic incarcerations, ruthless crimes, improbable coincidences and miraculous resurrections, but really it is Franju's dream-like visuals that remain most memorable: a knife-wielding nun, a woman floating down the river, three men in black climbing a wall like spiders. As a hero, Judex may cut a somewhat dull figure once his true face has been revealed, but Franju has set him within a haunting shadow-world where vengeance is too strange to be sweet.

- Anton Bitel, Film International

Although just as beautiful, perhaps more so, Georges Franju’s remake of Louis Feuillade’s 1916 Judex is as different from the original as is night from day. It is slower and graver; it is also more darkly magical (Judex, this time, is a magician—a touch here of Fritz Lang’s 1921 Destiny?); its world isn’t ours, as it is in Feuillade’s version, but something stranger, more self-contained; it is a period-piece. It is also in black and white (Marcel Pradetal, his cinematographer, helps make Franju’s film by far the more gorgeous of the two); but Franju’s Judex is moody and mysterious, and also somewhat deterministic, while Feuillade’s is airier, freer, lighter and more open. Feuillade’s Judex is touched by dream(s); Franju’s whole film feels subterranean, as though playing out in his or somebody else’s unconscious. In both style and tone, the film is scarcely different from Franju’s grim, sorrowful Eyes Without a Face (1959), although here we get to see Edith Scob’s lovely face—and also likely determine that her profound performance far outdistances that of Feuillade’s Jacqueline, Yvette Andréyor. (On the other hand, Franju’s Jacques Jouanneau is no match for Feuillade’s Cocantin, Marcel Lévesque.) Of course, another difference is striking and omnipresent: Feuillade’s film is silent; Franju’s isn’t—although the absence of extraneous noise gives his Judex, at times, an eerier quiet. There is considerable talk in both versions, but few titles in Feuillade’s, where the pantomime-like acting more often conveys the gist of what people are saying. (Yes, film actors had faces then—but also hands.)

One thing more: Franju’s camera moves, and evocatively; Feuillade’s doesn’t.

- Dennis Grunes

Franju attempts to recreate the mood of the silent era with slow pacing and expressionist lighting (with great shadows) as well as decorative intertitles and even a few iris shots and a keyhole mask. However, he ignores the quality that made Feuillade’s style so distinctive – his stunning visual compositions. In the original, whole scenes were shot with little editing and a still camera (this was pre-Griffith of course), with the action beautifully framed, often in depth. In Franju’s revisitation, it is replaced with classic continuity editing. Yet, he equals if not betters Feuillade in achieving dreamlike expressionism from (unlike the German silents) real locations, finding the poetic and lyrical in reality much as he did in his documentaries.

The iconography of Feuillade’s world is perfectly captured – most notably in the moonlit rooftop scene where two women in leotards (one black and one white of course) fight to the death. Franju even trumps the original’s surrealist tendencies with the bizarre masked ball at the start of the film, in which all the guests wear creepily realistic bird heads - Judex a hawk and Favraux a vulture. Other moments of startling poetry include the scene in which a drugged Jacqueline (Franju regular and the masked star of Les Yeux sans visage Edith Scob, with her own face this time) is thrown from a bridge and floats down the river before being rescued by children. If Franju’s film has a major flaw it is in trying to cram five hours (12 episodes) of serial plot into a 90-minute movie. The silent era storyline must at times seem rather far-fetched to modern audiences but in such a magical film it almost works.

Perhaps the main difference between the two versions is one of intention. Feuillade is aiming for pulp entertainment and almost accidentally hits poetry whereas Franju sets out to make an enchanting lyrical film, paying little attention to the drama. Nevertheless, there are enough brilliant set pieces and beautiful cinematography to thrill the fans of Les Yeux sans visage.

- Paul Huckerby, Electric Sheep


Franju's aim in remaking Judex was primarily to create an aesthetically enhanced version of Feuillade's world that could communicate magic, poetry and the fantastique. Period interiors were precisely reconstructed, and some typical effects from Feuillade and his age - the arabesque flourishes framing the intertitles, irising in and out, even one keyhole shot - carefully retained. Plasticity was more important in Judex than in any other of his films. Franju stated. His photographer Marcel Fradetal went to extraordinary lengths to recreate the qualities of Feuillade's orthochromatic film, by imitating Feuillade's photographer Guerin and arranging lighting so that decor and the character(s) in shot could be lit at the same time, rather than one at the expense of another. The costumes for the film were designed by Christine Courcelles, who used magazines from the 1912-1918 period to get the styles exactly right. What carried the film was 'le cote decoratif esthetique.' Possibly as a consequence of Franju's concentration on style, plasticity and effect, however, his Judex has a perceptible lack of narrative drive remarked on by a number of reviewers at the time, who called his rhythm 'paresseux' and the directing 'nonchalante, pour ne pas dire laborieuse.' Impressive though its set pieces were, the film relied on them too much and seemed not to be able to link them up; its approach to the story's fantastic episodes and images was too studious, and lacked panache. The actors had an absent air that seemed to result from not identifying with their roles, and the mystery and poetry of Franju's mise-en-scene faded as the film progressed because it had been created too obediently, 'avec une piete de conservateur de cinematheque.' Perhaps the best summary of these weaknesses in narrative construction was given by Claude Mauriac in Le Figaro litteraire, who stated that the spectator of Judex was prevented from identifying with the action because the attention to single images and 'plastic beauty' demanded of him or her interfered too much with this process. Critical reception of the film was generally very admiring of the homage to early cinema Franju had created - its 'retro' mode - but aware too of problems that had resulted form an over-conscientious approach to style and atmosphere.

- Kate Ince, Georges Franju. Published by Manchester University Press, 2005. Pages 56-57.

Franju made his name as a director with the 1959 French horror film Les Yeux Sans Visage (aka: Eyes Without A Face), a film that earned him a reputation for being a director who could bring the fantastical and the eerie out of the most mundane settings. Judex is a film that continues very much within this tradition and the eeriness is portrayed in a number of powerfully expressionistic scenes that are, nonetheless, anchored in a strange form of realism.

The first of these two scenes is Judex's entrance into the house of the banker. In eveningwear and a giant bird's head, the scene opens with the camera panning slowly up his body to reveal the sinister head staring right into the camera. Judex then wanders through a masked ball with a dead dove in one hand. He climbs the stage and begins a magic act carried out in complete silence and which begins with the reanimation of the dove. Creepy, surreal, disturbing and utterly fantastical, this scene matches the otherworldliness of Jean Cocteau's 1947 adaptation of Beauty And The Beast, as well as the surreal decadence of Renoir's 1939 satire of upper class France, The Rules Of The Game. The second scene is shot on a roof in the dark, and scored with some beautiful and yet disturbing electronic music, as the femme fatale battles it out with an acrobat who, in true deus ex machina fashion, happened to be passing and decided to risk her life for the good guys. Again, conducted in silence, this scene is evocative of Fellini's taste for surrealism and fondness for circus folk. While these two scenes are beautifully shot and richly evocative, the other 80 minutes or so of the film are somewhat puzzling.

Despite being an adventure film, Judex is seriously lacking in pace or even excitement. Franju bloats the running time by showing the characters doing mundane things such as putting on hats and getting in and out of cars. This, along with the fact that the action scenes are clearly not in the least bit choreographed, gives the film a kind of amateurish feel that does not exactly capture the attention. The writing is also largely sub-par with the film lacking any real point or thrust; the characters are paper-thin and things just happen for little or no reason. Indeed, if this film had been made today, it would be tempting to see it as a kind of satire of the all-conquering superhero genre as none of the action/ thriller genre conventions are obeyed or even acknowledged.

Judex is dominated by an on-going battle between the film's more fantastical elements and the relative mundanity of its setting and characters. Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight (2008) draws attention to the fact that Batman (and the Joker who comes in his wake) is actually an utterly bizarre thing to have running around your city. The surreal nature of Batman is clearly what is behind the decision to make Gotham city seem a far more mundane place than it was in Batman Begins (2005). Judex mines a similar vein of surrealism by having Judex drive around in perfectly normal cars. Indeed, when he wanders around in his cape and hat people barely acknowledge the fact that he looks weird. Nor does anyone question how Judex found out about these injustices, let alone ask what business they are of his. If Judex existed in a world full of ninjas and castles, we would not question his presence but the fact that he exists unquestioned in a largely mundane world sets up a tension between realism and fantasy that actually makes the film and everything in it seem quite eerie. This eeriness is also increased by the film's frequently strange soundtrack, which includes incredibly loud birdsong whenever the characters are outside, including at night.

Ultimately, aside from a few admittedly beautiful scenes, Judex has little to offer. If judged as the action/ adventure film it was supposed to be it is a clear failure as the mundanity of the world, and the lack of any real pace or drama, make it a rather monotonous watch. As a work of film-as-art it is pretty enough and the scenes that clearly inspired Franju are undeniably well shot, but there simply is not enough here to support a film that is dangerously close to two hours long.

- Jonathan McCalmont, Video Vista

It never quite finds its feet after a strong, intriguing opening, probably because that hero fails to live up to his introduction, looking as if Franju simply wasn't that captivated by him. Who he was captivated by is the villainess, Diana Monti (Francine Bergé), a slinky and amoral brunette who, posing as Favraux's maid, has worked out a scheme involving his innocent daughter Jacqueline (Edith Scob) and young granddaughter.

So it's Diana who makes the most of her screen time, disguising herself as a nun to kidnap Jacqueline, who she then plans to murder after she realises the woman recognises her and therefore can lead the police to her. There's a delicate nostalgia here for the times when adventures like this were par for the course, but a more robust approach might have been to the project's benefit, and on occasion it seems as if a strong gust of wind could send this all flying. Still, there are images that linger in the mind, such as Sylva Koscina as a circus acrobat who scales the wall of the bad guys' hideout to save the day, or that great bad girl Diana stripping out of her habit and slipping into the river to escape. If only the rest of Judex had been as effective.

- Graeme Clark, The Spinning Image

Charming and entertaining as it is, Judex is never quite as good a film as it could have been for one very simple reason: the subject was not director Georges Franju's first choice. Knowing that a femme fatale and a diabolical master of disguise provided rather more interesting anti-heroic possibilities in tune with his own sensibilities, his preference was for two of silent serial director Louis Feuillade's other characters, Irma Vep of The Vampires – work out the anagram of her name, as a predecessor of "Johnny Alucard" – and the eponymous Fantômas...

The most telling scene with regard to the difference between the two men's sensibilities is one late here that sees Judex encounter Favraux . As Judex lurks outside Favraux expresses contrition for his old actions and indicates that he is does not want his old life back any longer. In part this is because he knows it suits several influential people for him to be dead to the world, with the implication that if he did dramatically reappear – a reappearance not outwith the realms of probability in the universe of these films – he would then soon wind up dead for real. Judex then bursts in regardless, still determined to act as judge, jury and executioner without evident regard for the clear selectiveness of his approach – a selectivity which becomes still more evident and compromised by the end of the film – but also his impotence in the face of what is clearly an endemic criminality amongst the respectable classes. As such, if Feuillade's Judex was a figure and a film acceptable to the establishment, here Franju pushes both that little bit further to bring the inherent contradictions of his predecessor's work to the forefront.

I would say that Franju's combination of new and old works better than that of Truffaut in Shoot The Pianist, as a film set in the present but making use of anachronistic techniques, and perhaps even Jules Et Jim, as a film set partly in the same period.

Whereas to me Truffaut's use of irising and suchlike can come across as somewhat mannered, Franju's assemblages always have a sense of authenticity. There's the sense that unlike his younger counterpart he was never trying to impress anybody with his knowledge of cinema history and technique but was simply expressing himself and the delight he found in the early cinema. (Whereas Truffaut 'studied' at the Paris Cinematheque, Franju, along with Henri Langlois, founded it.)

- Keith Hennessey Brown, Eye for Film

Other reviews:

Dennis Schwartz, Ozu's World Movie Reviews

Slarek, DVD Outsider

Adam Dugas, Log It

An illustrated entry by Brandon's Movie Memory

John Coulthart offers a historical rundown comparing three movie versions of Judex

About the Masters of Cinema DVD

This is a two disc affair with the first being the 1963 Judex - an homage/remake of the iconic Louis Feuillade 1916 serial. The Masters of Cinema DVD is anamorphically enhanced in the 1.66:1 aspect ratio, progressively transferred - residing on a dual-layered disc (taking up 7.44 GB.) It looks good but not pristine - which is actually more suitable to the silent-era homage sparking references that were constantly reminding me of Les Vampires or Fantomas. Franju's Judex is 45 years old now although the PAL image can look remarkably strong even if contrast can be slightly muddy at times. I loved all the Feuillade markers in both films with costumes, 'healthy' women, an intricate plot and a general emphasis on obtaining justice against wrongdoings. Franju's use of intertitles help evoke that aura in Judex.

Disc two has Nuits Rouges. The transfer is also in 1.66 and progressive but it is not 16X9 enhanced. Colors are wonderful and the image can appear extremely sharp. I should note that I am no expert on edge-enhancement and Gary could chip in once he receives his DVD(s). The film was made in 1973 but it didn't have the same appeal for me as Judex. Despite lack of anamorphic enhancement the image projected is an appealing visual presentation.

On the French mono audio - Judex had some inconsistencies in the sound department - perhaps reflecting its age. Nuits Rouges seemed stronger but had some background hiss although neither inferiority hindered my enjoyment. Optional English subtitles are available for both features.

Extras - Supplements sport two separate interviews (one per disc) with Jacques Champreux who is Louis Feuillade's grandson. They total about 20 minutes where he talks about Franju and his memories of the making of the films. Typical for masters of Cinema they include a healthy 40-page booklet with illustrations and interviews. It's a wonderful keepsake addition (as are all their liner notes booklets).

Over the past couple of years I've really come to treasure my Masters of Cinema DVD collection (although, unlike Gary, I don't have all of them). Judex/Nuits Rouges is another entertaining addition and I'd never have seen these films if not for their coverage.

- Geoff Gardner, DVD Beaver

VIDEO WATCHDOG contributor Brad Stevens informs me that Masters of Cinema's new Region 2 DVD release of Georges Franju's JUDEX is missing some minor footage that is present in Sinister Cinema's DVD-R/VHS release of the film's US theatrical version, as originally distributed by Continental Releasing. There are seven cuts in all:

1- 52m 58s. 33 seconds are missing; the end of the shot showing a man walking away from the camera; the whole of the following shot, showing the doctor walking behind a pair of children; the start of the next shot of the doctor.

2- 53m 11s. After the woman tells the children "This isn't a sight for you," they walk away. In the MoC edition, the shot ends here; in Sinister's tape, it continues for an additional 5 seconds with the boy turning around and shouting at the woman.

3- 53m 23s. The whole scene (46s) showing the man getting into a car and talking to the nun has been cut.

4- 54m 37s. A 35s shot has been cut; this shows two men carrying a stretcher into a room and placing a woman on it.

5- 55m 8s. Shot slightly shortened.

6- 57m 20s. A 3s shot showing a man getting out of a car is missing.

7- 58m 1s. 4s of dialogue is missing after the man says "It's quite a walk, you know."

The same cuts (amounting to roughly two minutes) are present in the earlier French release, with which the Masters of Cinema disc shares the same transfer. As both releases were licensed directly from the film's producer and struck from the original negative, it appears -- judging from the fact that all of the gaps occur within a 5m section of the picture -- that the negative suffered some damage during its decades of storage.

Mind you, the cuts are not disruptive or critical, and these Region 2 releases do offer the best quality for this important title we are likely to enjoy. That said, the completists in our audience may still wish to acquire the Sinister disc while it's still available as a reference copy of what now appears to be lost footage.

Update 9/9/08: Glenn Erickson of DVD Savant responds: "Your description of missing bits from the DVD of JUDEX doesn't read like the result of film damage. The choice of connecting tissue omitted indicates that someone trimmed 'unnecessary' footage to perk up the pace (the slow, 1901 pace we love). This happens more often than one would think, and to the original negative sometimes... a distributor or other nefarious party suddenly decides to 'improve' the film. First it's the 'unnecessary' beginnings and endings of scenes. Soon thereafter, they're cutting METROPOLIS in half! I remember the kid yelling... I hope the little pieces aren't gone forever."

- Tim Lucas, Video Watchdog

About Georges Franju

IMDb Wiki

Quotes found on the TSPDT profile page for Franju:

"Georges Franju combined realism and fantasy, poetry and polemics, savagery and tenderness to unique effect. Imbuing his films with a surrealist's antipathy to established notions of normality, he was one of cinema's most fiercely independent visionaries...His surrealism was not a matter of artifice, but of a highly personal vision that was at once elegant, horrific, provocative, becalmed and nostalgic." - Geoff Andrew (The Film Handbook, 1989)

"Franju's career falls clearly into two parts, marked by the format of the films: the early period of documentary shorts, and a subsequent period of fictional features. The parts are connected by many links of theme, imagery attitude, and iconography." - Robin Wood (International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, 1991)

"Some reckon him one of the greatest of all French film directors; others don't reckon him all. Franju is cult material par excellence, and from his first bravura documentary release, Le Sang Des Bêtes (1949), in which he casts an unswerving eye on the brutal business of meat slaughtering, it was obvious that Franju was not to be conveniently filed and docketed. A co-founder of the French national film archive, he alternately stimulates and shocks, as for example, with his sensationally surreal horror classic Eyes without a Face." - Mario Reading (The Movie Companion, 2006)

"First known as a documentarian, Franju has contributed some fine horror and suspense films." - William R. Meyer (The Film Buff's Catalog, 1978)

Franju's films are a witchlike fusion of melodrama and expressionism. When we watch a Franju film, eyes stare soulfully out of the screen at us. They belong to men and women in an iron mask: to the heroine of Eyes Without a Face, whose scientist father abducts young girls and lifts their faces in an effort to repair her ruined mask; to Therese Desqueyroux, betrayed by curiosity into a rural bourgeois life that shuts like a prison around her; to Francois Gerance in La Tete contre les murs, consigned to an asylum by a father outraged by his motorcycle-boy defiance. Only in Judex is the concealment of the face the sign of liberation: and its hero is the superhuman masked man of popular fantasy, Fantomas, the French outlaw Batman; liberation is a beautiful dream. With their lilting music, Franju's films are dark fairy tales in which people seeking to become themselves are rendered vulnerable by their hesitancy and suffer transformation into puppets by a bad sorcerer, a poetic version of the melodramatic villain. The girl wandering tentatively down a corridor, that key Franju image, is the soul trapped in a Gothic labyrinth expressionistically darkened by the impossibility of redemption. Only the eyes behind the mask tell us this person was once 'one of us.' As in German expressionist films, the mask is a trap glued to one's face by society, the father - in short, an authority whose insanity is evident in the blank rigidity of the eyes at the heart of its mask. Franju's heroes bang their heads against the asylum walls in an effort to dislodge the cage affixed to their faces. Like Francis in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, they have made a trip tot he fair that ended in a prison house.

- Paul Coates, Film at the Intersection of High and Mass Culture. Page 77

Despite, or because of , his links to the public institutions of cinema, Franju’s films sometimes occasioned scandal—Blood of the Beasts required the critical intervention of Jean Cocteau to speak up for its merits against controversy (Ince, 32), a defense which recalls Cocteau’s defense of Jean Genet, perhaps. (The letter Cocteau wrote with Jean-Paul Sartre, in defense of Genet, addressed to the President of the Republic, appeared in the same year as his defense of Blood, White, 1993, 334-335.) Nonetheless, Franju would later be dismissed as too ensconced inside the institution of culture, the view of some New Wave directors and the generation after 1968 (Ince, 7-8), for whom he was outmoded, a fuddy-duddy who favored literary adaptations and was part of a film establishment. His relation to what we might now, anachronistically, call splatter (for example, on-camera slaughter and dismemberment of a horse, cows, calves, and sheep in Blood; the notorious face removal in Eyes, the lingering depiction of a patient in straitjacket being force-fed in Head against the Walls [La tête contre les murs], 1958) apparently currently disqualifies him from any consideration other than as a cult film maker. Yet, one might argue that it is exactly his anomalous identity, part provocateur and part archivist, his lifelong alliance with a militant avant-garde while working in the mainstream of national cinematic culture, as well as his uncertain positioning between the institution and what it expels, that makes Franju a director who can speak with particular eloquence to contemporary concerns about social ambiguity and cultural ambivalence.

- Michael du Plessis, "Fantasies of the Institution: The Films of Georges Franju

and Ince's Georges Franju." Film Philosophy.com
Read Kate Ince's reply to Michael du Plessis' critique of her book on Georges Franju

About Cinematographer Marcel Fradetal

Although Marcel Fradetal is most readily identified with the director Georges Franju, his career has evolved through association with several filmmakers. In the 1930s he worked under various leading cameramen, notably Rudolph Maté on Dreyer's atmospheric Vampyr, Maurice Desfassieux on Henri Diamant-Berger's Les Trois Mousquetaires, and Ted Pahle on L'Herbier's Entente cordiale. Their influence is discernible in his work.

It is essentially his 30-year collaboration with Georges Franju, however, that has cemented Fradetal's reputation. The association began in the 1940s with Le Sang des bêtes, and a series of documentaries, features, and eventually television films followed. Franju initially hired Fradetal because of his work with Maté whose insistence on lighting and composition corresponded to Franju's own preoccupations.

Fradetal's camerawork is equally vital to Franju's features. In Pleins feux sur l'assassin an eerie son-et-lumière sequence at a castle is created, and in contrast an accelerated funeral, à la Clair, irreverently conveys the joy of the dead man's beneficiaries. In Judex, a homage to Feuillade and the early serial, Fradetal brilliantly reproduces the orthochromatic tonal qualities of the silent cinema to create a visual symphony of light and dark effects as good and evil join battle. The screen version of Cocteau's Thomas l'imposteur exposing the heroic myth renders concrete the writer's imagery, such as the horse with its mane ablaze, while beautifully composed luminous shots of Belgian beaches with sea mists rolling across the trenches combine to produce a hauntingly atmospheric film about the realities and the unreality of war. For Zola's La Faute de l'Abbé Mouret, Fradetal achieved powerful, almost surrealist images such as the statue of the Virgin appearing to rise spontaneously from a packing case, but the essentially poetic quality of Zola's work is often disappointingly labored in the visual transcription.

The quality of Fradetal's camerawork ultimately resides in his experienced, sensitive, and appropriate response to his material. Where his camera is required to observe unobtrusively it does so, and where images of pristine clarity are expected then Fradetal provides them. Nevertheless, where a synthesizing image, or a telling close-up, or an atmospheric composition, or a specifically paced tracking shot is needed, he imaginatively satisfies his director's wishes. A self-effacing professional, Fradetal has left his mark both on fictional as well as documentary cinema.

- R.F. Cousins, Film Reference.com

942 (83). Mädchen in Uniform (1931, Leontine Sagan)

Screened Thursday, December 18 2008 on YouTube TSPDT rank #919 IMDb Wiki

A fascinating war wages in a German girls' boarding school at the cusp of the Nazi era: not just between the hormonally-charged girls and their authoritarian teachers and schoolmistresses, but between the lively, chaotic movements and warm, supple textures of the girls striving against the film's encompassing form: coldly cavernous hallways, a camera obsessed with pinning subjects against its precise angles, and the lockstep rhythm of academic ritual.  The film's first act, where an emotionally unstable girl (Hertha Thiele) is matriculated into the institution, is dominated by a sense of enclosure within militaristic protocols, but gradually gives way to pockets of idleness and intimacy among the girls, who seek gratification for a variety of impulses in an even greater variety of ways: pin-up photos of movie stars, love notes from other girls, officially sanctioned bullying, and perceived favoritism from the headmistress. Played by Dorothea Wieck, the headmistress embodies the contradictions of this institution: her mannish shoulders and gait convey a domineering authority that the girls seek pleasure by satisfying, encouraged by her soft, flirtatious gaze suggesting a warm, maternal presence underneath. Her character knows the rules of discipline, and she knows how to bend them to her own advantage, most memorably in a perverse sequence where she bestows good night kisses on the faces of a roomful of grateful girls. The film's once-controversial status as anti-authoritarian, proto-feminist and ultimately pro-lesbian is by now a non-starter; more troubling is the glaring subtext of pedophilia that remains largely unaddressed. All the same, this is a landmark work, blessed by a stylistic rigor that serves its subject matter perfectly.

Want to go deeper?

The following ballots were counted towards the placement of Mädchen in Uniform in the TSPDT 1000 Greatest Films:

Yvonne Rainer, Sight & Sound (2002) Daniel & Susan Cohen, 500 Great Films (1987) Danny Peary, Guide for the Film Fanatic: Must-See Films (1987) They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films

Mädchen in Uniform is viewable in its entirety on YouTube. All nine parts can be viewed along this blog entry.

Mädchen in Uniform, Part One:

Key early German talkie: a powerful melodrama about life in a Prussian boarding school for the daughters of the bourgeoisie - a bastion of the ideology of 'strength through suffering'. The plot mechanics are predictable - unhappy pupil with crush on housemistress is driven to attempt suicide - but the atmosphere and sensitivity to teenage fears are not: stage actress Leontine Sagan brings an exceptionally warm touch to her depiction of female friendships, and her denunciation of the Prussian orthodoxy is more a matter of subtle imagery than shrill accusations. Whether it adds up to a precursor of militant lesbianism is another question...

- Time Out

The premise of the film (which simply drips atmosphere and angst) is simple and plays as the most dramatic and heart-wrenching of melodrama's. It is beautifully crafted and performed, evocatively lit, and sensitively directed by former Austrian stage actress Sagan - amazingly it was her début and given the political repercussions she subsequently suffered, something of a baptism of fire.

Although one may view this film as simply a great love story and an anti-fascist call to arms, it was quickly re-claimed as a landmark film in the evolution of Queer cinema, becoming an important and challenging piece of film-making in this context. But in whatever context one views it, the depth, beauty, and compassion of the film is undeniable and it will forever retain an important place in cinematic and sexual history.

- Jason Wood, BBC

Mädchen in Uniform, Part Two:

Maedchen in Uniform (Germany, 1931) is considered one of the first films ever to depict lesbian love. Not surprisingly, it has a long and controversial history. The original movie poster in Germany was forthright about the film’s rather racy subject matter, featuring the film's teacher and schoolgirl locked in an embrace. The American version of the poster depicted the girl alone, offering no clues that the central romantic tension lay between protagonists not only of different generations but of the same gender.

The homoeroticism of the original was likewise stripped away when the film was remade in 1958 in Germany. An attempt to re-release the original fell victim to a Hollywood code that prohibited works “possessing the flavor of sexual irregularity or perversion."

Besides portraying forbidden love, the movie functions as a commentary on the misguided ideals and rising nationalism of the time. One of the girls’ mothers writes to remind her daughter not to be lazy because the country needs “iron beings.” That exact phrase may be a peculiarity in the subtitling, but the ties between strength, stoicism and patriotism are clear.

- Shauna Swartz, AfterEllen

The May/September romance of The Reader ain’t got nothing on this fairly chaste but nonetheless steamy affair between the older, seductress/school “mistress” Fraulein von Bernburg and her fragile, fourteen-year-old student Manuela.  Set in an all-girl, Prussian boarding school, the film is adapted from a novel and play by (lesbian writer) Christa Winsloe and stars the raven-haired Dorothea Wieck, who seems to be carrying a dirty thought in her head at all times, and blond ingénue Hertha Thiele (who originated the role of Manuela onstage).  From the start when Manuela arrives at the school after the death of her mother she’s taken under the wing of the rambunctious Ilse, (played by Ellen Schwanneke who appropriately captures the drama of adolescence) who guides her through the many rules of the strict institution, one of which is to not “fall in love” with the breathtaking von Bernburg, the woman all the girls lustily worship like a rock star.  And these teens are not the least bit coy regarding their infatuation with their mistress – going so far as to sew her initials into a uniform, in one case even carve those initials into an arm!  That the girls are all attracted to a woman and not a man doesn’t even seem to register.  “Manuela, I demand absolute discipline,” the sexy Fraulein declares after shooting a lip-licking gaze upon the golden pupil when they first meet on the shadow-draped stairs.  Von Bernburg transcends gender; she’s simply the essence of dominant hot.

“What do they call what all the movie stars have?” Ilse inquires as she shows Manuela her secret (male) pinup collection inside her locker.  “Sex appeal,” another girl responds with embarrassed laughter before the dorm full of teens, hormones raging beneath those drab, striped uniforms, giggles over romantic pictures in a book.  The heightened sexual tension is broken only when they’re reprimanded for causing such a stir.  In fact, Mädchen in Uniform gracefully flows from “sin” in the form of lust and gluttony (the half-starved girls wax rhapsodic over favorite foods) to “salvation” through the discipline and punishment of military formations and drills, of forced group confessions – then back again...

No, there will be no “homo must die,” sacrificial dyke ending for Mädchen in Uniform.  Indeed, the most subversive aspect of Sagan’s lesbian flick is its finale, a harsh indictment of the principal, that stand-in for all who judge love, who set the near suicide in motion.  Yes, Manuela and von Bernburg will live while Frau Principal must face herself, come to terms with the lethal pain she has wrought.  The final image of her wandering into those Expressionist shadows alone, fading to black, is worth a thousand wonderful Weimar words.

- Lauren Wissot, Spout

Mädchen in Uniform, Part Three:

The Play vs. The Film

Christa Winsloe, born December 23rd, 1888 in Darmstadt as an officer's daughter, entered the Potsdam boarding school Kaiserin-Augusta-Stift as pupil after the early death of her mother. In this institution young noble girls were drilled to become mothers of soldiers and to learn discipline and submission. As an adult Winsloe had to write down this nightmare to get it off her chest. Yet the result, a play, does not end as positive as the film. Manuela is destroyed because of Fräulein von Bernburg's rejection. The teacher had not dared to side Manuela against the headmistress and to oppose the brutal educational methods. The pupil commits suicide. Nevertheless we owe Christa Winsloe the first sensitive play on female homosexuality in the Weimar Republic yet without a radical critique of the social discrimination of lesbian women.

The play came out in 1930 in Leipzig under the title Ritter Nérestan (Knight Nérestan) and in Berlin as Gestern und heute (Yesterday and Today). The success prompted the film version Mädchen in Uniform becoming the world's best film of the year. This was not only due to its ambitiously aesthetic form and the fact that only women performed. Equally important was the reduction of the lesbian aspects in this film version and their depiction as adolescent crush even though Winsloe co-authored the script and Leontine Sagan acted as director who in Gestern und heute had stressed the lesbian aspect.

But Carl Froelich held the artistic supervision. He not only changed the final scene but also put an emphasis on the critique of Prussian education and militarism. Contemporary critiques confirm this reduced and sexually toned down view. Lotte Eisner wrote after the opening in November 1931 in the Film-Kurier: "The almost unbelievable, a film only with woman actors grips us. A film concerning all of us because it socially goes to the bottom of a human theme, unsentimentally exceeding private interests. The film is about humanity, about the backgrounds of the system. A past world? It is yesterday and today; again it threatens to rise again, to overwhelm what a healthy youth education tries to create in a more modern time. (...) The inevitable consequences of narrow-minded life in a boarding school can be seen: one searches the other, suffering together grows into loving together in times of awakening desires. Adolescent disturbances or feelings for the same sex - the film leaves this open which is a good thing (...)."

The play and the film were shown all over Europe, in the USA and even in Japan made Winsloe world-famous over night. Already as a sculptor she had not been unknown. Against her family's consent she had been studying sculpture from 1909 on at the Munich arts and crafts school, a profession to be considered "unfeminine". Her interests had been especially in sculpting animals.

- Claudia Schoppmann, translated by Dagmar Heyman, Online-Projekt Lesbengeschichte

Madchen’s lesbianism is so obvious that it is hard to believe anyone could downplay it. Nor was it lost on contemporaries. For many viewers, it was a turn-on. Carl Froelich, who supervised the production, in part invited this by rejecting the title of the play the film is based on, Gestern und Heute, because, he said, ‘[w]e want to get back the money we’re investing, we’ll call it Girls in Uniform – then they’ll think, there’ll be girls in uniform playing about and showing their legs’. Hertha Thiele, who plays Manuela, became a popular star, receiving love letters from male and female fans. There were also more hostile reactions. In the USA, the film was only granted a certificate after the excision of shots showing the depth of Manuela’s lesbian emotions and vn Bernburg’s defence of lesbianism to the Principal. Thereafter, homophobic critics were free to argue that only perverts would see lesbianism in the film at all.

- Richard Dyer, Now You See it: Studies on Lesbian and Gay Film. Published by Routledge, 1990. Pages 29-30

Mädchen in Uniform, Part Four:

Actress Hertha Thiele on the authorship of the film

Interviewed by Heide Schlüpmann & Karola Gramman, Johan Wolfgang Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main, Germany. Translated by Leonie Naughton, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia. Published at Screening the Past

Hertha Thiele: It was also well-known that she put her signature to the film as its director, but she didn't have any idea about the medium. Leontine Sagan was a great actress, a very intelligent, very competent woman - yet she didn't understand anything at all about film. That we could have got the film together then in such a short time and with so little money was possible because, apart from Wieck, we had all played the roles in the theatre. Apart from that, we'd rehearsed for about three or four weeks before the filming started, rehearsing each morning in Sagan's apartment and even then she tried to change her directing style to switch over to film on the basis of the script. When the film was being shot, not one take went through which Froelich (in his capacity as artistic supervisor) didn't control. In his youth Froelich himself had been an excellent cameraman. He gave the film its finishing touches. Wieck favoured Sagan (over Froelich), but I certainly didn't.

Heide: Why not?

Hertha: I found Sagan to be too intellectual. From Froelich's side I felt a kind of love, and even though it was a man's love it was a form of love that I never felt from Sagan. I need love. I need a director or a crew with whom I have the feeling - we understand one another, we like one another, we want to work together. But it doesn't work for me when someone makes commands and never listens to what I have to bring to the work from the start. That was the way it was with Sagan actually. She delivered directives: `I want this and that and I want it this way', right from the start. She really didn't have the approach I needed - Sagan could have reduced me to tears really quickly. She had a callous attitude towards people, and at that time I couldn't cope with that at all. I only learnt to defend myself later. My sister always reproached me saying that I was too hard - but life only toughened me up later, after I had fallen flat on my face. But earlier I was as soft as butter. I had to be stroked gently, otherwise it was useless. With age it's probably even more important again - I still need to be caressed. I can't defend myself because I don't have so much strength any more.

In this regard, I always have to praise Carl Froelich. I continue to praise him, despite his political posture, even though he was involved in my expulsion from the Reichsfilmkammer (National Film Association). He never said, `That was bad' when we were making the film, but he always came and said `Kleene, det war wunderbar...', `Dear, that was wonderful, but I could imagine that if you do it this way, from there, and if you would...' and then I would really make an effort, and he would quietly take the second version. His criticisms of me were formulated in other terms, differently than those who deliver a sermon, foregrounding the importance of the spoken word, dialectic, and so on. I know these buzz-words, and I also know what they mean. But I'm not convinced that all directors know what these terms mean, and that's something I'd like to see put officially on the records for once.

Heide: Was there conflict between Carl Froelich and Leontine Sagan?

Hertha: You couldn't really call it conflict. Sagan was very modest, because she was quite aware that she knew nothing about film. Winsloe was also there the whole time and she didn't know anything about film either. It was really Carl Froelich, Walter Supper, Franz Weihmayr and Masolle, who did the sound, who brought about the film.

Mädchen in Uniform, Part Five:

Deeper readings

The structure of the film is a mixture of montage and narrative sequences which inform each other and create an atmosphere which perhaps could not have been achieved by the use of one of these methods alone. The montage sequence at the beginning of the film— stone towers, statues, and marching soldiers—sets up a compliance and strength, a tone that introduces the audience to the life of the girls at school. From the constricting montage shots, the camera turns immediately to the girls' school. Periodically, still shots of the militaristic, patriarchal world outside the school are interspersed with the narrative. The audience is reminded that although the school is a feminine space (indeed, there are no male characters in the film), it is surrounded and even permeated by ubiquitous male authority. Yet, that authority is itself called into question by the narrative, the defiance that continues despite the prevalence of authoritarianism. By its structure, the film succeeds in creating a feminine space enclosed in the literal walls (as exemplified by the montage) of the outside world.

In her utilization of the new sound medium, Sagan was the most advanced director in pre-war Germany. Lotte Eisner said: "With this work, the German sound film reached its highest level." Not only Sagan's precise use of dialogue but also her use of sound as metaphor (the sounding trumpet at the beginning and end of the film) and her creation of atmosphere, the whispers of the girls exchanging secrets, their final desperate chanting of Manuela's name—all attest to the accuracy of Eisner's statement.

Siegfried Kracauer also praised Sagan for her cinematography. He noted her ability to impart the "symbolic power of light" to her images. Sagan's use of shadows adds not only depth to the flat screen but also meaning and atmosphere. Sagan's cinematography is an excellent example of what Eisner calls "stimmung" (emotion), which suggests the vibrations of the soul through the use of light. The lighting and shooting of the stairway is a notable example. Its ascending shadows and its center depth create a tension in which the girls must operate, for the front, well-lighted stairs are off limits to them. The staircase is then a symbol of the girls' confinement, and its darkness literally shadows all of their activities.

Sagan also pioneered the cinematic convention of superimposition of one character's face over that of another to symbolize a deep psychological connection between them. She uses this technique in the film to convey moments of deep attraction between the teacher Fraulein von Bernburg and her student Manuela. The fusion of their images suggests the strength of their bond. It was a technique used 30 years later by Bergman in Persona to achieve the same effect.

- Gretchen Elsner-Sommer, Film Reference.com

It is a testimony to our ignorance of the period that Leontine Sagan's film, MAEDCHEN IN UNIFORM, is generally assumed to be an anomaly, a film without a context. Or else it is assumed to be a metaphor, a coded tale about something else, something other than what appears on screen. If we are to understand MAEDCHEN IN UNIFORM fully, it is important to keep in view the society within which it was made. It was the celebrated milieu of Berlin-avant-la-guerre, the Berlin with dozens of gay and lesbian bars and journals, the Berlin of a social tolerance so widespread that it nearly camouflaged the underlying legal restraints (which were to grow, rapidly, into massive repression). I would stop short of claiming an outlandish Rosetta Stone status for the film, no matter how tempting, lest the reader lose faith. Yet, it might be emphasized, MAEDCHEN IN UNIFORM is an exemplary work, not only for what it presents to us on the screen but also for the timely issues that its analysis must confront. It is the film revival most key to establishing a history of lesbian cinema.

In part, the film's reputation rests upon stylistic components. It is visually unusual due to Sagan's montage-inflected structure that manages to break away from the usually stagy and claustrophobic mise-en-scene of early sound films. Her montages, no doubt Soviet-influenced, establish a persuasive counterpoint to the more theatrical scenes and mold them into a cinematic rhythm. Dramatically, her use of a large cast of non-professional actresses lends the film a fresh and documentary-like tone, while the performances of the lead actresses won widespread praise. Aurally, Sagan was a pioneer in her use of sound, not only as a functional synchronous accompaniment, but also as a thematic element in its own right.

However, most important to the film's reputation through the years has been its significance as an antiauthoritarian and prophetically anti-fascist film. To be sure, the film has suitable credentials for such a claim. Any film so opposed to militarism, so anti-Prussian, so much in support of the emotional freedom of women, must be an anti-fascist film. Furthermore, it was made through the Deutsches Film Gemeinschaft, a cooperative production company specifically organized for this project — and the first German commercial film to be made collectively. Add to such factors the fact that the film was made on the very eve of Hitler's rise to power, just prior to the annexation of the film industry to Goebbel's cultural program, and the legend of Sagan's proto-subversive movie is secure. In emphasizing the film's progressive stance in relation to the Nazi assumption of power, however, film historians have tended to overlook, minimize, or trivialize the film's central concern with love between women.

Today, we must take issue with the heretofore unexamined critical assumption that the relations between women in the film are essentially a metaphor for the real power relations of which it treats, i.e. the struggle against fascism. I would suggest that MAEDCHEN IN UNIFORM is not only anti-fascist, but also anti-patriarchal, in its politics. Such a reading need not depend upon metaphor, but can be more forcefully demonstrated by a close attention to the film's literal text.

- B. Ruby Rich, from Maedchen in Uniform: From repressive tolerance to erotic liberation. Jump Cut, no. 24-25, March 1981, pp. 44-50. Also published in Out in Culture: Gay, Lesbian, and Queer Essays on Popular Culture. Edited by Corey K. Creekmur, Alexander Doty. Published by Duke University Press, 1995

Mädchen in Uniform, Part Six:

Leontine Sagan's 1931 film Mädchen in Uniform is often ignored in film histories and critical surveys, yet as a document of its time and of its society this film provides us with a fascinating subject for study. Filmed as it was in a year which does not fall neatly into any critic's chronological division, this film eludes classification as either a product of the Weimar Republic or of the fascist state which was yet to come. In many ways, in fact, the film stands alone, for it offers a glimpse into the considerations of many liberally-minded Germans at this time, who on the one hand feared the tide of repression which they saw growing around them, but on the other hand knew better than to attempt an outright statement of rebellion. Thus Mädchen in Uniform, in taking up themes of anti-authoritarianism and discontent, reveals precisely the dilemma faced by its creators, and can be analyzed along these lines.


On a narrative level, Mädchen in Uniform offers a rich palette of possible interpretations. Indeed, the film resists all attempts to deliver one definitive message or central theme: it seems instead to focus at times on the academy's autocratic disregard for human emotionality, at times on the pleasures of youthful friendship, and at times on the aspects of feminine warmth and love which lead to destruction.. Manuela's story has been seen by some critics as merely an allegory or analogy to the repressiveness of the coming German regime, or at least as a vehement criticism of repressive rule in any form. In this, the film has much in common with other anti-authoritarian protest narratives, such as Robert Musil's Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törleß or even Friedrich Schiller's Don Carlos, which itself figures prominently in this film. There are, of course, a number of points in the narrative which support this anti-fascist assessment. The dogmatic rules and discipline in the academy present a striking parallel to any militaristic regime, and the fact that it is precisely the blind enforcement of these regulations that leads to Manuela's attempted suicide speaks quite strongly for an anti-authoritarian reading. In addition, at several key moments in the film, the headmistress speaks lines rich in political allusion: at one point, for example, while discussing budgetary constraints with Fräulein von Kesten, the headmistress remarks: "Hunger? Wir Preußen haben uns gewohnt zu hungern! [...] Durch Hunger und Zucht werden wir wieder groß werden!" The sequences following this discussion -- the children longingly discussing holiday dinners and memories of their meals at home -- serve to increase the effect on the viewer and underscore the tragic ignorance inherent in the headmistress' view.

At the same time, though, the very nature of the story presented on screen precludes a purely political interpretation, as Rich has also explained. The central issue in the film is not, despite many critics' contentions, the autocratic nature of the headmistress and her academy, but rather the love affair between Manuela and her teacher. It is the sensuality, the aura of romance and affection, and the heartbreak of separation which pervade the atmosphere of the film. From the moment when Fräulein von Bernburg first sees Manuela on the stairs, the importance of the headmistress begins to wane. Indeed, the love affair reaches beyond the private sphere of Manuela and Fräulein von Bernburg: the other girls, too, are seen to display erotic and romantic affection towards each other and towards their teacher on numerous occasions. One girl has even chosen to tattoo her arm with her beloved teacher's initials, and the reaction of Ilse von Westhagen to Fräulein von Bernburg's attentions provides decisive proof of the focus on sensuality: after her letter is discovered and Ilse is forbidden to act in the school play, she begins to pack her things in a vain attempt to escape from the school. At this moment, Fräulein von Bernburg appears, hugs her, consoles her by speaking to her on her own terms ("Ich darf ja auch nicht mitspielen") and finally, emphatically, slaps Ilse from behind, which motivates Ilse not only to remain at school, but to sigh in blissful adoration of her teacher. Rich duly notes that this interference on the part of Fräulein von Bernburg is in fact a service to the very regime she comes into conflict with: "it is her presence as a confidante that permits her to discern and block any tentative moves in the direction of revolt." (69) The merging of Fräulein von Bernburg's sensuality, then, with the regulated life in the academy shows precisely the level at which the message of this film must be read, where the personal meets and indeed becomes the political.

The story elements here reflect clearly the possibility of bridging the dichotomy of feminist and historical layers in the film, but the characters themselves provide another opportunity for examining these levels, too. The exclusively female cast is, for instance, nevertheless remarkably varied in terms of on-screen femininity, sensuality, and approachability. The headmistress stands of course at one extreme: the archetype of the repressive tyrant, she is, as Rich states, "the ultimate incarnation of the absent but controlling patriarchy." [8] Her ever-present cane, from which she draws much of her support and even authority, can be seen as a phallic symbol, evidence of her reliance on 'masculine' methods of dominance and constraint. Her insistence on the "sinfulness" and the "scandal" of Manuela's love for Fräulein von Bernburg can be taken, on the one hand, as the reaction of a patriarchal leader to what amounts to insubordination: lesbian love does not fit within the militaristic tradition of a state designed to raise, as the headmistress says, "Soldatentöchter, und wenn Gott will, wieder Soldatenmütter." At the same time, though, she reflects not merely the patriarchal ruler, but a woman who, unable to find expression for her own sexuality and femininity, resorts to extinguishing all such expression amongst others, as well.

Cinematography and Editing

A feminist analysis of this film is sure to note Sagan's emphasis on facial expressions. At several crucial moments in the film, for instance, Manuela's face is shown in close-up, then contrasted (at one point superimposed) with Fräulein von Bernburg's face, bearing an identical expression. These scenes, which occur in the classroom and in Fräulein von Bernburg's own room, are clear indicators of the special bond between the two women: indeed, the final example occurs even when Manuela is not, in fact, present. We see Fräulein von Bernburg, in a heated discussion with the headmistress, suddenly freeze; a close-up of Manuela's face is then superimposed over her own, and then the image returns to Fräulein von Bernburg's room, where she cries "Manuela!" and runs off, aware of the imminent tragedy. This preoccupation with facial close-ups may, in fact, be evidence of a "female gaze" as an undercurrent throughout the film. It is noteworthy that, despite the overt sensuality perceived in many of the dressing-room scenes, there is not a single close-up of legs, chests, or any body part other than the face. The emphasis here is clearly not on women as objects, but as complete, aesthetic, and above all emotional beings. The position of the spectator, too, is significant: there are remarkably few examples of tilted camera angles, either high or low, in this film. Instead, nearly all the shots are level, and most are medium-range or even close-up shots. The spectator becomes in essence 'one of the girls,' on a level with and in close proximity to the characters in the film. In fact, the only extreme long-shot in the film is to be found outside the academy, in the introductory images, which portray soldiers marching in the distance, and then the girls in their prisoner-like striped uniforms marching through the gates into the school. Once inside, the viewer becomes confined, much as the girls, too, are restricted and restrained.

As noted, though, Sagan does not favor exclusively the use of 'feminine' camera techniques; she is equally adept at using harsher, more powerful strategies in appropriate sequences. The lighting, for instance, in nearly all the academy shots is harsh, bright, and clearly defined. In many cases there are strong vertical and horizontal shadows cast on the walls: the staircase, for example, calls to mind cell-like bars framing Manuela and the others; so too the ingenious emphasis on the vertical bar-like shadows in the infirmary, while Manuela is confined to bed, acting as both a reminder of her confinement and a critique of the oppressive regulations imposed on her. There are no obvious example of curves to be found in any of the film's shots: apart from the bodies of the girls, nearly all objects in the school are straight, precise, and inevitably phallic...

In addition to her expert use of cinematic and camera techniques, Sagan also brings out key aspects of her film through the use of sound. Considering the year in which this film was made, and the fact that experimentation with sound had necessarily been carried out to a rather limited extent, Rich is indeed correct in praising Sagan's "use of sound, not only as a functional synchronous accompaniment, but as a thematic element in its own right."  Indeed, the bugle calls, chiming bells, and marching feet provide telling examples of sound motifs: in many cases they contribute more to the film than an image could convey, and as such are vital in achieving the overall effect. Singing, too, is an important element: we first become acquainted with Ilse's perky and impetuous character by observing her parody of the hymn being sung. Sagan also makes masterful use of off-screen sound, as evidenced in examples such as those where Manuela speaks, but the camera remains focused on the face of Fräulein von Bernburg. In these and other instances, too, there are interesting connections to be found between the words being spoken and the on-screen images. The refusal of the headmistress to acknowledge any complaints of hunger among the girls is, as noted above, immediately followed by images of the girls themselves, discussing feasts and dishes previously relished. Surprisingly, though, this film is relatively sparse in its use of non-diegetic sound and, in particular, music. There are a few occasions on which a faint background melody can be determined, but overall, the only scene in which background music plays a key role is the nighttime "kiss" sequence, where a distant lullaby is repeated while Fräulein von Bernburg conducts her evening ritual. In many scenes, including some of the most tense or emotional moments, absolute silence prevails, and indeed, rightly so, for the viewer is left to concentrate entirely on the dialogue and images which are presented.

- Nancy Thuleen

Mädchen in Uniform, Part Seven:

About Leontine Sagan


Leontine Sagan (b. Leontine Schlesinger, February 13, 1889May 20, 1974) was an Austrian actress and theatre director.

Born in Budapest, Sagan trained with Max Reinhardt. The first and most widely known of her two films is Mädchen in Uniform (1931). It had an all-female cast and was ground-breaking not only for its portrayal of lesbian and pedagogical eros, but also for its co-operative and profit-sharing financial arrangements. Sagan herself was a lesbian.[1]

An alternate ending of the movie, which pandered to pro-Nazi ideals, enabled the film to be screened in Germany, but eventually even this version of the film was banned as 'decadent' by the Nazi regime and Sagan fled Germany soon after.

Sagan briefly worked on films with Alexander Korda in England, but then moved to South Africa and founded the National Theatre of Johannesburg.

The film Mädchen in Uniform, based on the novel by Christa Winsloe, survived but was much-censored until the 1970s. Eleanor Roosevelt is credited with helping to revoke its censorship in the USA. It was recently released in its surviving form as a video-tape, with English subtitles, in the USA in 1994 and in the UK in 2000. Even this version probably lacks sections that were in the original and for a full understanding of what may have been censored, viewing the film may best be followed by reading the original novel by Christa Winsloe.

She died in Pretoria, South Africa, in 1974 at the age of 85.

- Wikipedia

Mädchen in Uniform, Part Eight:

About Christa Winsloe


By marrying Baron Ludwig Hatvany (1880-1961), a rich Hungarian writer and landowner, she followed the conventions in 1913. After the war and the failure of her marriage she moved to Munich and started writing along with sculpturing. Her features were published in newspapers and periodicals like Vossische, Berliner Tageblatt and Querschnitt. But her first plays were not performed.

After Mädchen in Uniform had come out Christa Winsloe devoted herself totally to writing. In 1932 the play Schicksal nach Wunsch (Fate as wanted) had the first performance at the Berliner Kammerspiele. The play's main theme are traditional gender relations. But in the description of the lesbian senior physician Franziska "Franz" Schmitt as "modern spinster" the author confirms existing prejudices rather than criticizing them. Soon after she wrote the book of the film Mädchen in Uniform correcting the moderate happy end. As Das Mädchen Manuela (The Girl Manuela) it was published abroad as early as 1933 in the newly founded department for exile literature of the Amsterdam publisher Allert de Lange. Using the Vienna Tal publisher as front man Allert de Lange was even able to deliver a few copies to Germany until the beginning of 1936. The book was translated into many languages and became a bestseller. In Germany Christa Winsloe, the so called aristocratic rebel, did not publish any more. She could not accept the conditions (e.g. the "Aryan certificate") of minister of propaganda Goebbels' "Reichsschrifttumkammer" (German literature department).

Soon all Winsloe's books and articles were on the Nazi index of "undesired literature". The author was considered as "politically unreliable". Though Goebbels had described Mädchen in Uniform in his diary from February 2nd, 1932 as "magnificently directed, exceptionally natural and exciting film art" it was forbidden to be shown by now. Women's love was a taboo though not prosecuted.

In autumn of 1938 Winsloe got the chance to leave Germany for a longer period, yet again as an "expert for girl's themes". She wrote the script for Georg Wilhelm Pabst's Jeune filles en détresse (1939) on a child whose parents are about to divorce. The film was only a moderate success - and a few days later the Second World War broke out. Winsloe decided to stay in France. In October 1939 she moved to the south and settled in Cagnes near Nizza. There she met Simone Gentet, a Suisse ten years her junior. They stayed together during the following years.

In a letter to Dorothy Thompson from July 1941 she complained about her "flops of the last years" as author. As a reason she saw especially her "voluntary emigration". "It is no fun to write German when you want your work to be published." Simone Gentet translated some of her work into French but there were almost no possibilities to publish in occupied France. Still, writing was extremely important for Christa Winsloe. For her it was hope for life and work after the war. "Of course you think yourself as ridiculous, to hide your head in the sand of your imagination" she grumbled in 1944 in a letter to Hertha von Gerhardt (1896-1978) an author and friend in Berlin, „ but after the war there also must be books and plays“.

With increasing scarceness of food and money their struggle for survival got more and more difficult. Nevertheless Winsloe looked after refugees who were more at risk than herself. Her motto was "you have to help, when you can." Urgently (and not in vain) she asked Dorothy Thompson for help in March 1941. She asked for food and money: "This would be an incredible joy for a lot of pale humans and a few children of prisoners in Germany who I am looking after."

Because of an imminent evacuation order Christa Winsloe and Simone Gentet left the Cote d'Azur in February 1944 and travelled to Cluny in Burgundy. Winsloe planned to fight their way through to her sister-in-law in Hungary. Just before the landing of the allied troops in Normandy she got the necessary transit visa for Germany. Yet they never travelled. Both women were attacked by four Frenchmen on June 10th, 1944 and shot in a forest near Cluny. Later on the gang leader, a livestock dealer called Lambert, referred to an alleged order of the résistance. The women were supposed to have been spies and to have collaborated with the occupying power. Though these accusations were absolutely untenable and though Lambert proved to be an "ordinary criminal", he and his co-defendants were acquitted for lack of evidence in 1948.

Mädchen in Uniform, Part Nine:

About Hertha Thiele

Hertha Thiele was born in Leipzig in 1908, and died 5 August 1984. She was an acclaimed stage actor long before she made her screen debut in 1931 when she played the lead role in the film, Mädchen in Uniform. Set in a Prussian boarding school for girls, the film was directed by Leontine Sagan and included an all-female cast. Hertha Thiele played Manuela, a sensitive fourteen year old schoolgirl infatuated with her teacher, Fraülein von Bernburg, played by Dorothea Wieck. The film was released internationally and briefly turned Hertha Thiele into a star. She also played next to Ernst Busch in Bertolt Brecht's Kuhle Wampe (1932). In 1933 she starred in Kleiner Mann, was nun? and Anna und Elisabeth, the film which she considers to be the most important of her career. Her involvement with the theatre continued throughout the first half of the 1930s: she worked with Max Reinhardt (Harmonie, 1932) and the notorious Veit Harlan (Veronika, 1935).

Hertha Thiele's screen career was disrupted during the Third Reich. She refused the overtures of the National Socialists who expected her to contribute to state propaganda. In 1937 she left Nazi Germany on political grounds and settled in Switzerland where she made occasional theatre appearances. (The Jewish director of Mädchen in Uniform, Sagan, had already left Germany. She pursued a career in the theatre in England and later in South Africa.)

Hertha Thiele returned to Germany for a couple of years after the War, but spent the 1950s and most of the 1960s in Switzerland where she worked as a psychiatric nursing assistant. In 1966 she returned to the German Democratic Republic (GDR) for good and worked in stage productions in Magdeburg and Leipzig. Throughout the 1970s she was part of an acting ensemble for GDR television. She acted in a variety of TV series and tele-films, which were scarcely known in the Federal Republic. She had roles in the popular series Polizeiruf 110, and also had a small role in the GDR's most loved and most watched film, Heiner Carow's Die Legende von Paul und Paula (1973). In 1975, Hertha Thiele was the subject of a tele-documentary, Das Herz auf der linken Seite. In 1983, the Deutsche Kinematek published a monograph, focusing on her life and work.

- Heide Schlüpmann & Karola Gramman, Johan Wolfgang Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main, Germany. Translated by Leonie Naughton, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia. Published in Screening the Past

About Dorothea Wieck

Swiss actress Dorothea Wieck (1908-1986) became a major star and a lesbian idol with her role as the adored teacher Fräulein von Bernburg in the German classic Mädchen in Uniform. She made more than fifty films, but she was also a prominent stage actress of the Deutsche Theater, the Schillertheater and other main theatres in Berlin.

Dorothea Wieck German postcard by Ross Verlag, nr. 6846/1. Photo by Atelier Binder, Berlin.

Silent Films She studied with Max Reinhardt and began her film career already in 1926 with Die kleine Inge und ihre drei Väter/Little Inge and Her Three Fathers (1926, Franz Osten). Soon followed more silent films like Ich hab mein Herz in Heidelberg verloren/I Lost My Heart at Heidelberg (1926, Arthur Bergen), Sturmflut/Storm Tide (1927, Willy Reiber), and Der Fremdenlegionär/ Foreign Legionaire (1928, James Bauer).

International Success Her breakthrough followed with the talkies where she had an international success with Mädchen in Uniform/Girls in Uniform (1931, Leontine Sagan). First the lesbian themed film was banned when released in the United States, but First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt saw the importance of the movie and the ban was lifted. Later in Germany the Nazi regime tried to burn all the copies of the film, but they couldn't.

Dorothea Wieck, Hertha Thiele in Mädchen in Uniform Dutch Postcard by M. Bonnist & Zonen, Amsterdam, Z., nr. 104 e. Photo: Fim Film, Amsterdam.

Hollywood In the next years Dorothea Wieck took part in well-known productions like Gräfin Mariza/Countess Mariza (1932, Richard Oswald), and Anna und Elisabeth (1933, Frank Wisbar). The international success of Mädchen in Uniform led her to Hollywood where she starred in two films, Cradle Song (1933, Mitchell Leisen) and Miss Fane's Baby Is Stolen (1934, Alexander Hall). Neither significantly furthered her career.

Dorothea Wieck Dutch postcard, printed by Smeets & Schippers, Amsterdam. Photo: Paramount.

Noble Family Dorthea Wieck returned to Germany and married into a noble family. In the following years she played in such popular films as Der Student von Prag/The Student of Prague (1935, Arthur Robison) and Die gelbe Flagge/The Yellow Flagg (1937, Gerhard Lamprecht). During wartime she only occasionally appeared in front of the camera, but turned her attention to the theater. To her few movies of those years belong Andreas Schlüter (1942, Herbert Maisch) and the Italian production Inviati speciali/Special Guests (1943). She also worked as a stage director.

Supporting Roles After the war she first worked in the theatre, in Leipzig. In the 1950's followed interesting supporting roles in films like Herz der Welt/The Alfred Nobel Story (1952, Harald Braun), Man on a Tightrope(1953, Elia Kazan), Das Fräulein von Scuderi/The Miss from Scuderli (1955, Eugen York), Das Forsthaus in Tirol (1955, Hermann Kugelstadt), A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958, Douglas Sirk), and Menschen im Hotel/Grand Hotel (1959, Gottfried Reinhardt). After that she retired from the film business more or less. To her last films belong Die Schachnovelle/Brainwashed (1960, Gerd Oswald), Das Mädchen und der Staatsanwalt (1962, Jürgen Goslar), and two episodes of the crime tv series Der Kommissar in 1969 and 1973. In 1973 she was awarded for her work with the Filmband in Gold.

Dorothea Wieck

- European Film Star Postcards

938. Gösta Berlings saga / The Saga of Gosta Berling (1924, Mauritz Stiller)

Screened November 2, 2008 on Kino DVD in South San Francisco, CA

TSPDT rank #916 IMDb Wiki

Intended as the ultimate triumph of what in retrospect was the golden era of Swedish silent cinema, this long and expensive costume drama based on a nationally celebrated novel by Nobel laureate Selma Ottiliana Lovisa Lagerlöf looks today like a prototypical prestige picture. The saga of a defrocked minister's romantic mishaps within an estate of sexual hypocrites feels antiquated anywhere outside of red state America. The innate sensationalism of the plot is dignified by impeccable production design and stifled by methodical pacing. It's most lasting value is Greta Garbo making her screen debut, and all the more fascinating in that the film presents "The Immortal" as a work-in-progress.

Those looking for Garbo at her youngest and most radiant may be disappointed to initially find a pudgy, shapeless presence hiding in a loose-fitting gown, the flesh above her jaws overtaking the famous cheekbones. But there are moments when the light catches Garbo's features in just the right way, bathing her hair in a halo, glinting off her carnivorous smile, finding an otherworldly glimmer in her eyes. Eyes that open into a dual vortex, threatening to pull the viewer into its stare. The first gaze in cinema that gazes back, taking the audience beyond the mere experience of on-screen story or spectacle to a realm of pure desire.

Want to go deeper?

The following citations were counted towards the placement of The Saga of Gosta Berling in the TSPDT 1000:

Alberto Cavalcanti, Cinematheque Belgique (1952) Charles Frend, Cinematheque Belgique (1952) Helmut Kautner, Cinematheque Belgique (1952) Jean-Loup Bourget, Positif (1991) Ove Brusendorff, Sight & Sound (1952) Bosley Crowther, The 50 Best Films of All-Time (1967) Daniel & Susan Cohen, Book - 500 Great Films (1987) Danny Peary, Guide for the Film Fanatic: Must-See Films  (1987)

Gösta Berlings Saga is regarded by many as Sweden's Gone With the Wind. With an epic sweep, episodic structure, and numerous characters, it evokes 19th-century Swedish life and is imbued with a lyricism and vibrancy which places its director Mauritz Stiller among the masters of silent film. The film represents both the pinnacle and the swan song of the "golden age" of Swedish cinema— 1913–24. With its plot centering on the search for redemption by Gösta Berling, the defrocked priest, and the several women who disastrously fall in love with him, it numbers, along with Griffith's Intolerance, among the earliest important films of social protest and one of the masterpieces of silent cinema.

Gösta Berlings Saga was a formidable undertaking which encompassed many characters and themes, required elaborate sets and costumes and resulted in a four-hour production shown in two parts on consecutive evenings. Stiller eventually conceded this impracticality and edited the film to 137 minutes. His editing, while judiciously shortening many scenes rather than eliminating them, nonetheless imposed a disjunction which ultimately mars the continuity. Despite this shortcoming, Gösta Berlings Saga remains a remarkable evocation of life among the Swedish aristocracy and mirrors its repression and hypocrisy. The first half of the film is devoted to exposition and the introduction of the many characters while the second half is highlighted by the dramatic fire in Ekeby Hall, a flight from wolves by sleigh across a frozen lake, and the brilliant acting of the venerable Gerda Lundequist-Dahlstrom as the shamed mistress of the manor.

Stiller's directorial technique was displayed through an expressive visual lyricism, an artistic use of light contrasted with shadowy darker hues and a picturesque depiction of the beauty and variety of the Swedish landscape. These elements are particularly evident in his photographing (with the masterful cinematographer Julius Jaenzon) of the then unknown Greta Garbo, who played Elizabeth. Stiller's scenes of Garbo picking flowers in the garden, carrying a lamp through the mansion hallways at night, and her first close-up in the sleigh scene capture the luminescence and radiance that made her the most unique female screen image of all time.

The success of Gösta Berlings Saga resulted in both Stiller and Garbo being hired by MGM in 1925. His three years in Hollywood destroyed Stiller and he returned to Sweden to die at the age of 45 in 1928. That same year Gösta Berlings Saga was released in the United States where a number of religious groups denounced it as "a glorified Elmer Gantry."

Lagerlöf disdained Stiller's interpretation of her novel, claiming he had seen "too many poor serials." For the most part Gösta Berlings Saga is remembered today as the film which introduced Garbo to the screen. However, it is a major work of the silent screen and as French critic Jean Beranger wrote: "If all but one Swedish silent film were to perish, this, probably, would be the one to save as the best witness of its period. All the charm, intelligence, profound human resonance and technical dexterity, here blend into an indissoluble bloc."

—Ronald Bowers, Film Reference.com

The Novel

Swedes hold Gösta Berlings saga in the highest regard; Selma Lagerlöf had been the first writer to break the spell of stern realism cast over Scandinavian literature in the nineteenth century and make her stories a vehicle for a return to romanticism. Gösta Berling , her first and possibly finest work, was a heroic tale that proceeded through folklore, feuds, and fires – gathering up in its rich and sprawling narrative a tale of Värmland, the untamed land on the western perimeter of Sweden, at the end of the Napoleonic era. Finding the right actor to play the troubled hero of Lagerlöf's novel would be something of a national obsession and could only be equated with the search for Scarlett O'Hara fifteen years later in America .

Production started

Production finally began in mid-August. The delays with the film had as much to do with securing Selma Lagerlöf's approval on the screenplay by Stiller and Ragnar Hyltén-Cavallius as from the complications of casting. After a series of talks between Stiller and Lagerlöf, the writer agreed to Svensk Filmindustri's production of Gösta Berling – but not before a thorough examination of the screenplay and a written promise from the director that he would remain faithful to the approved adaptation.

Principal photography on Gösta Berlings saga was scheduled for August through October of 1923, with a break in mid-October and November while the company awaited the season's first snowfall; the winter shoot would continue through the beginning of February. Forty-eight sets would be constructed. With a budget rumoured to be the largest in Svensk Filmindistri's brief history.

Stiller's Creation

For some time Stiller had dreamed of molding an actress into his feminine ideal. As filming continued, Stiller would note with pride that the young actress was solely his creation and Stiller took a jealous care of Greta. He scarcely permitted anyone else even to speak to her, and would hardly leave her out of his sight for a moment. The pair inevitably earned a nickname: “Beauty” and “the Beast.” Stiller was always teaching and preaching, Greta solemnly listening and learning. According to an observer, however, the film was a tortuous experience for Greta – she was nervous, restless, and “she cried a great deal.” Stiller was, in his own words, merciless with her, pushing her farther and farther along. He fussed over her costumes; he needled her about what she ate until she was inclined not to eat at all; he studied her makeup, her walk, her gestures.

One day, she actually broke down in front of the company and cursed him. It was a scene made all the more memorable because the usually mild-mannered actress wasn't known to lose her temper. “It was a love-hate affair,” Greta stated, “at times he loved me as much as I hated him.” He pushed her hard because he believed the results would be worth it.


In October, during the film's hiatus, Stiller asked Greta to think about changing her name. It was not the first time she had considered it – in fact, many women during this period were adopting more distinctive surnames. Stiller had also pondered an appropriate name for her. Scenarist Arthur Nordén related that the director wanted a name that was “modern and elegant and international.” After a long search and many legends how the name was found, Anna Gustafson signed a petition, on November 9, asking the ministry to allow her daughter to legally change her name to Greta Garbo. The petition was formally approved by the Ministry of Justice on the twenty-first of December. By that time, Greta Garbo was back at work on Gösta Berlings saga.

The snow arrived in mid-December and the filming went on. It did not go unnoticed that Stiller had a proprietary interest in Greta. Their relationship would become to talk of the community as the director prepared his film for its March 1924 premiere. There were rumors of a romantic relationship. Some weeks later, filming was completed.

The Premiere

The final version of Gösta Berlings saga was nearly four hours (fourteen reels) long; Part I debuted on March 10, 1924, at the Röda Kvarn Theatre in Stockholm , Part II opened one week later. Stiller escorted his star to both premieres. Critical reaction in Sweden would be polite but restrained; the majority of reviews labeled the film “a beautifully staged failure.” While the director was complimented on his handling of the love scenes, critics still complained about the liberties he had taken in distilling Lagerlöf's epic down to a more manageable length; Selma Lagerlöf was also displeased. Stiller's discovery earned scattered praise in the Swedish press. One critic saw Garbo as “a promise for the future,” another as “ a semiplump and unseasoned bun.”

- From Garbo Forever.com

Stiller cast the 17-year-old Greta Garbo in The Atonement of Gösta Berling. Intended as the apotheosis of Swedish cinema up to that time, it became instead its swansong. The economic data alone demonstrate its failure: Erotikon had been bought by 45 territories outside Sweden, and yet in spite of a massive sales campaign, The Atonement of Gösta Berling found release in only 28 countries. The pace of this long, elaborate film was too slow by comparison with the French and American film that were now asserting their dominance over world markets. Garbo’s luminous beauty as the Italian girl who dotes on the handsome, defrocked parson, Gösta Berling, certainly distinguished many scenes. Elsewhere the film was handicapped by a lack of zest and narrative flexibility quite astonishing in a director of such energy as Stiller. The acting still looks theatrical, and scenes shot in the studios contrast embarrassingly with those out of doors (particularly in the long chase across the ice, as Lars Hanson and Greta Garbo, aboard a large sled, try to outpace a pack of pursuing wolves). Even the discovery of Garbo, usually credited to Stiller, belonged to Gustaf Molander. As head of the Royal Dramatic Theatre’s academy, he had selected her as one of the most talented of his pupils. Garbo’s first appearance on film, in a publicity short for fashion-wear, shows her as unrecognisably plump and exuberant. Stiller’s achievement was to isolate — and then magnify — the innate control and coolness of her expression.

- Peter Cowie, Scandinavian Cinema, London: The Tantivy Press, 1992.

Excerpt from interview conducted by TCM with Peter Cowie on the occasion of Kino's DVD release of The Saga of Gosta Berling:

TCM: It appears that many natural locations were used in GOSTA BERLING and not a heavy reliance on studio sets. Was this unusual for 1924?

Cowie: No, the greatest single achievement of Swedish silent film was to demonstrate how films could be shot on location, with a minimum of work being done in the studio. This, in turn, led to greater power for directors, who, far removed from the central office/studio, could shoot as they liked.

The Saga of Gosta Berling, Mauritz Stiller's epic adaptation of Selma Lagerlof's hugely popular novel, ran well over three hours when it was originally released in Sweden. Like Gone With the Wind, it was such a well-known book that Stiller felt the need to include most of its characters and incidents. In America, Gosta Berling has been seen in many shortened versions which have run from an hour to just under three hours, and this 184-minute Kino version is likely the longest and most complete print of Gosta Berling available, though it still feels disjointed. The film has long been overshadowed by the appearance of Stiller's protegee Greta Garbo in her first substantial role on screen. She turns up about 40 minutes into the film, disappears for most of the second hour, then steals the movie completely in the last 15 minutes. As an Italian Countess in love with Lars Hanson's sexy defrocked priest, Garbo is a bit tentative physically and seems scared when asked to interact with others, but she has several close-ups that stop the movie cold (she asked for champagne before her big scenes, and the resulting tipsiness in her eyes reads as voluptuous sensual abandon). In the movie's most famous sequence, a sleigh ride chase across icy tundra, Hanson and Garbo create a real erotic excitement based on the contrast between his assurance and her tingly, nervous submission. Aside from Garbo's scenes, Gosta Berling is basically just a long soap opera about despair, superstition, and redemption. Stiller's direction is only adequate most of the time, and there are a lot of mismatched eyelines and shots that feel off-balance and uncertain. Its theme of a hypocritical society dealing harshly with those who transgress against its rules is sketchy at best, so that a modern audience spends a lot of time just waiting for Garbo to reappear.

- Dan Callahan, Slant Magazine

About the Kino DVD

Image Transfer Review: The full frame picture is rather soft, and is lacking in clarity and detail. This could be a reflection of the state of the source materials, or it's possible that this is an older video transfer. In any event, whites in some sequences have a tendency to be blown out and greyscale is somewhat reduced. There is no PAL/NTSC ghosting, however, so that's positive. The source materials do appear to be in fine shape, with only the odd bit of dust or damage affecting it here and there. It's quite watchable, though not quite up to the standards of many recent silent film transfers.

Image Transfer Grade: B

Audio Transfer Review: Composer Matti Bye contributes a score for piano quintet (playing piano himself) that is an intriguing mix of folk-tinged material and 1920s era experimental sounds. It's an intriguing assemblage that works surprisingly well, given the subject matter. There's plenty of atmosphere to the recording, which has fine range and good bass extension. Harmonics on the violin come across quite well. There's a fair amount of surround activity, making it a quite immersive piece of accompaniment. Bye always keeps the onscreen action clearly in mind, on occasion using the small group to humorous effect to comment on the story.

Audio Transfer Grade: A- Extras Review: The same Stiller bio and filmography found on the DVDs of his Sir Arne's Treasure and Erotikon are repeated here. The same featurette on Stiller, narrated by Peter Cowie, found on those DVDs, reappears on this disc, with the option to play it together with a 5m:40s segment devoted specifically to Gosta Berling. It's quite solid, as one would expect from Cowie, though he does tend to spend more time talking about Garbo than the movie itself.

Garbo probably is the main attraction for most folks here, and there are several items that the Garbo devotee should cherish. The first is a 3m:55s set of 1920-21 advertising films starring a barely recognizable Garbo, which apparently constitutes her very first film footage. Second is a 9m:48s excerpt from Luffarpetter, which finds a slightly chubby but still recognizable Garbo (under the name Gustafsson) in bathing suit, frolicking with two other young women. If there's a plot, it's not discernable from this fragment; a short text summary of the story would have been most welcome. The final piece of film is newsreel footage from 1929, as Garbo, now a major Hollywood star, emotionally departs back to the United States. She's clearly not acting here, and the sense of loss and unhappiness is palpable during its short (1m:35s) running time.

Chaptering is a shade thin for such a long motion picture. This DVD is a rarity in that it uses dual layer technology, switching layers and moving the laser back to the center of the disc at the intermission, instead of utilizing the more standard RSDL method. As a result, a few more bits are available for the feature and the significant extras. But since it's at the intermission, the layer shift is hardly noticeable. Very thoughtfully done.

Extras Grade: B+

- Mark Hanson, Digitally Obsessed.com

About Greta Garbo

IMDb Wiki

Official Website, with trailers of several of her Hollywood features

An unforgettable face... perfect bone structure... hypnotic eyes... an impenetrable gaze... husky voice... a face capable of registering everything and yet... nothing

Greta Garbo was the ultimate Hollywood star, envied by millions of fans and co-workers. She was a woman who set her own standards and became a legend in her own time...

- Introduction by Phillip Oliver, administrator of Greta Garbo: The Ultimate Star

Another fan site with dozens of links to other Garbo resources

It was all in the face. Garbo's face made her body irrelevant. Men lusted for her. Women lusted for her. But mostly from the neck up.

Her beauty was a function of the screen. Garbo in casual snapshots and unretouched portraits looks like a robust Scandinavian girl. In formal studio portraits, she is striking, but no more so than a half-dozen other women of the era. It's only in motion that she becomes Garbo, a fact that disproves the notion that her onscreen power was an accident of looks. On screen, no one had what she had.

Since the 1980s, video has made Garbo's image accessible, around the clock, to anyone who owns a video recorder. But before the days of video, seeing a Garbo film in a theater was a singular and rather tense experience. With each close-up, a quiet panic would seize the audience. A whole theater would, all at once, stop breathing and watch, trying to take in as much of that face as it could. It was a face with a riddle to it. It was a face you could never fully know your way around. Garbo's face was, in a real sense, a special effect, something to be appreciated in and of itself, apart from whatever function it served in the story. Like morphing, fast-moving fireballs, and other special effects, its impact is diminished on television. Garbo needs the big screen.

- Mick LaSalle, Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood. Published by Macmillan, 2001. Page 37

September 18 2005 marks the centenary of the birth of Greta Garbo, an icon both resonant and remote to us. It feels a perilous centenary. In 20 years' time, no one will need to make an argument for the centenary of Marilyn Monroe, with her hourglass silhouette, her voluptuous blondness. It is different with Garbo: you have to make a case for Garbo. She resonates because hers was ultimately a career of photographs, and this we recognise. She is remote because the great photographs of Garbo are abstractions; they are not of a woman, they are of a face. Garbo's body was an irrelevance. From our 21st-century icons we demand bodies: bodies are to be admired, coveted and - if one works hard enough - gained. You can have something resembling Britney's body, if you try. But you cannot have Garbo's face. It was hers alone, a gift she used for as long as she could make it signify; and then, aged only 36, withdrew from public view, keeping it hidden until she died.

This face was memorably described by the philosopher Roland Barthes, who identified it as a transition between two semiological epochs, two ways of seeing women. Garbo marked the passage from awe to charm, from concept to substance: "The face of Garbo is an idea, that of Hepburn an event." There was something essential, Platonic and unindividuated in Greta's face. She was woman, as opposed to Audrey who was a woman, whom we loved precisely because her beauty was so quirky, so particular. Garbo has no quirks at all. A close-up of her face appears to reveal fewer features than the rest of us - such an expanse of white - punctuated by the minimum of detail, just enough to let you know that this is flesh, not spirit. Her vulnerable, changeable face is what comes prior to the emphatic mask of a beautiful woman - she is the ideal of beauty that those masks attempt to capture. Post-Garbo, we have taken what resonated in Garbo's fluid sexuality and mystery and hardened it, made it a commodity.

Take Garbo's heavy, deep-set eyelids: these have become the mark of the diva, passing down through Marlene, to Marilyn and, more recently, to Madonna, in whom they have become ironic. Hers is the ultimate modern Garbo face, attached to a worked-out body, and also to the idea of female ambition and talent. The idea of Garbo is somehow more elevated than that - it doesn't even condescend itself to the pursuit and fulfilment of talent. It merely "is". Let's face it: Garbo was not an actress in the way Bette Davis was an actress. Garbo was a presence. In fact, is it OK to say, 100 years on, that Garbo was not a very good actress? That some of her best work was still and silent? It could be said that her best director was, in fact, a still photographer, MGM's famous Clarence Bull. He did not try to know her or "uncover" her, as her movie directors sometimes did, giving her those awkward, wordy speeches that revealed less than one raised eyebrow could manage. Bull understood the attraction of her self-containment. Years later he recalled that where other photographers had tried to penetrate the mystery, "I accepted it for what it was - nature's work of art ... She was the face and I was the camera. We each tried to get the best out of our equipment."

Garbo's shots, lit with the "Rembrandt lighting" that would make her famous, are sculptural portraits, more Rodin than raunch. The Garbo image is yet unformed, but the beginnings of an iconic persona are here. She had a relationship with light like no other actress; wherever you directed it on her face, it created luminosity. She needed no soft or diffuse lighting to disguise defects. There were no defects. And then there is that sense of European ennui, of weltschmerz, that no MGM player had projected before. They had vamps, they had sex bombs, but they'd never had existential depression. "In America you are all so happy," she told a reporter. "Why are you all so happy all the time? I am not always happy. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. When I am angry, I am very bad. I shut my door and do not speak."

It is no story of tragedy. She wished to live, but not publicly. She dressed as she liked, and did as she liked. In her own later years, Crawford told a journalist: "I never go out unless I look like Joan Crawford the movie star. If you want to see the girl next door, go next door." Garbo didn't even look as good as the girl next door. Her face (though she refused to believe it) was still beautiful, her wardrobe less so: jumpers, hats, scarfs, slacks, raincoats. She kept a screwed-up piece of Kleenex in her left hand to cover her face should anyone try to photograph her. If she saw a fan approaching, she would say to her walking companion, "We've got a customer", and change direction. She wanted to be alone. Garbo, the icon, was over. Age made of Greta a person, and the personhood of Garbo was never for sale. She would be myth or nothing at all.

- Zadie Smith, The Guardian, September 25 2005

Garbo still belongs to that moment in cinema when capturing the human face still plunged audiences into the deepest ecstasy, when one literally lost oneself in a human image as one would in a philtre, when the face represented a kind of absolute state of the flesh, which could be neither reached nor renounced. A few years earlier the face of Valentino was causing suicides; that of Garbo still partakes of the same rule of Courtly Love, where the flesh gives rise to mystical feelings of perdition.

It is indeed an admirable face-object. In Queen Christina, a film which has again been shown in Paris in the last few years, the make-up has the snowy thickness of a mask: it is not a painted face, but one set in plaster, protected by the surface of the colour, not by its lineaments. Amid all this snow at once fragile and compact, the eyes alone, black like strange soft flesh, but not in the least expressive, are two faintly tremulous wounds. In spite of its extreme beauty, this face, not drawn but sculpted in something smooth and fragile, that is, at once perfect and ephemeral, comes to resemble the flour-white complexion of Charlie Chaplin, the dark vegetation of his eyes, his totem-like countenance.

Now the temptation of the absolute mask (the mask of antiquity, for instance) perhaps implies less the theme of the secret (as is the case with Italian half mask) than that of an archtype of the human face. Garbo offered to one's gaze a sort of Platonic Idea of the human creature, which explains why her face is almost sexually undefined, without however leaving one in doubt. It is true that this film (in which Queen Christina is by turns a woman and a young cavalier) lends itself to this lack of differentiation; but Garbo does not perform in it any feat of transvestism; she is always herself, and carries without pretence, under her crown or her wide-brimmed hats the same snowy solitary face. The name given to her, the Divine, probably aimed to convey less a superlative state of beauty than the essence of her corporeal person, descended form a heaven where all things are formed and perfected in the clearest light. She herself knew this: how many actresses have consented to let the crowd see the ominous maturing of their beauty. Not she, however; the essence was not to be degraded, her face was not to have any reality except that of its perfection, which was intellectual even more that formal. The Essence became gradually obscured, progressively veiled with dark glasses, broad hats and exiles: but it never deteriorated.

And yet, in this deified face, something sharper than a mask is looming: a kind of voluntary and therefore human relation between the curve of the nostrils and the arch of the eyebrows; a rare, individual function relating two regions of the face. A mask is but a sum of lines; a face, on the contrary, is above all their thematic harmony. Garbo's face represents this fragile moment when the cinema is about to draw an existential from an essential beauty, when the archtype leans towards the fascination of mortal faces, when clarity of the flesh as essence yields its place to a lyricism of Woman.

Viewed as a transition the face of Garbo reconciles two iconographic ages, it assures the passage from awe to charm. As is well known, we are today at the other pole of this evolution: the face of Audrey Hepburn, for instance, is individualized, not only because of its peculiar thematics (woman as child, woman as kitten) but also because of her person, of an almost unique specification of the face, which has nothing of the essence left in it, but is constiuted by an infinite complexity of morphological functions. As a language, Garbo's singularity was of the order of the concept, that of Audrey Hepburn is of the order of the substance. The face of Garbo is an Idea, that of Hepburn an Event.

- Roland Barthes, "The Face of Garbo." From Mythologies.  London: Vintage, 1993; pp. 56-7

About Mauritz Stiller

The curious and contradictory art of Mauritz Stiller sits as uncomfortably within the established modes of film criticism as the life of its author within the conventions of his day. Invariably cited alongside Victor Sjöström as the founding father of Swedish cinema, Stiller is generally slighted by the comparison. The Finnish-born director of Russian-Jewish ancestry, who would enjoy fame in Sweden and suffer frustration in Hollywood, and who was to write in his last months, “I have all my life wondered where I belong,” was certainly a voyager and a wanderer – yet to successive generations of critics, he has been a journeyman in contrast to Sjöström's “artist”. The serious and nationalistic concerns of Sjöström's work, its severe morality and literary prestige, ideally suited him for canonisation by critics seeking to promote an indigenous Scandinavian cinema in defiance of the Hollywood model, while his visual poetry and thematic consistency sustained his reputation in the age of auteurism. Stiller's output, by contrast, was largely too trivial for the former approach and too varied for the latter. In Richard Combs' phrase, he displayed “the versatility and lightness of a genre stylist.” If Sjöström's pre-eminence is not seriously challengeable, Stiller is, nonetheless, the more contemporary figure. The sophisticated ironies and satiric wit of his comedies, coupled with the subjectivity and self-criticism of his masterpiece in a more serious vein, Gunnar Hede's Saga (1923), should speak more directly to the concerns of the twenty-first century than Sjöström's stark morality plays and pastoral melodramas. It's also ironic that Stiller's relative neglect was scarcely challenged by a generation of critics who in the context of Hollywood cinema admired precisely the ability to stamp personal concerns on diverse material. Stiller's abiding themes – the function of the artist in society, the status of the outsider – span his work in all genres. He made assignments his own, and there are parallels to the single most obvious division in his work – that between comedy and epic – in the polarity between comedies and action films in the oeuvre of Howard Hawks.

Stiller's career path, however, most closely parallels that of a filmmaker like Nicholas Ray: an early period of popular yet critically scorned films in a variety of genres, interspersed with the occasional critical success; then a sequence of works in which generic plots became more clearly the vehicle for personal themes; graduation to bigger and more prestigious projects, which however proved less congenial to his talents; and a final period of exile, disappointment and failure. In fact the unhappiness of Stiller's years in Hollywood is not easily explicable, and it's curious that Sjöström's rather more austere style of filmmaking should have flourished at MGM, while Stiller was left unemployed and detached from his great discovery, Greta Garbo. His one surviving American film, Hotel Imperial (1927), is both stylish and commercially shrewd. MGM may have been reluctant to exploit his talents, but by the time worsening health forced his return to Sweden, he was under contract to Paramount, the most continental and cosmopolitan of Hollywood studios, and surely the most congenial environment for Sweden's Lubitsch. A sound remake of Erotikon with Fredric March, Roland Young and Kay Francis would be an agreeable hypothesis to go with those potential masterpieces that F.W. Murnau and Louise Brooks ought to have been producing at Paramount in the '30s.

- Alexander Jacoby, Senses of Cinema

Like the other two distinguished pioneers of the early Swedish cinema, Sjöström and Sjöberg, Mauritz Stiller had an essentially theatrical background. But it must be remembered that he was reared in Finland of Russian-Jewish stock, did not immigrate to Sweden until he was 27, and remained there only 15 years before going to Hollywood. He responded relatively late to the Swedish cultural tradition, so heavily influenced by the country's extreme northern climate and landscape, and by the fatalistic, puritanical literary and dramatic aura exerted most notably by the Swedish dramatist Strindberg and the Nobel prize-winning novelist Selma Lagerlöf. The latter's works—Herr Arne's Treasure, Gunnar Hede's Saga, and Gösta Berlings Saga—were inspired by tradition and legend, and were all to be adapted by Stiller for the silent screen.

- Roger Manvell, Film Reference.com

”Borg, people say that I am in love with Mauritz, don’t they? That is not true. Borg, I have never been anything to any man, not even Mauritz. I do not love him that way, nor he me. I am afraid of him and I think we are finished as it has been before, although I shall always think he is the greatest man in the world.

“You have seen me, Borg, sit on his lap and smoke with bins the same cigarette. You have seen him hold me like a child. It is so good when his arms are around me, for sometimes I am afraid. But it is not love, Borg.” And, in spite of all that has been said of Garbo’s love for Stiller, I believe her, for I have seen them often together. ,later, when Garbo and John Gilbert were “going places “ together, Stiller would cail me.

“Borg,” his low, deep voice would rumble, have you seen Greta?” ”I have not, Mr. Stiller,” I would reply. Is there any message?” ”No,” he would rumble, “ except to tell her to remember what I have taught her never to let life hurt her.”  He knew that she was going about with Gilbert, and his attitude was not that of a jealous man, but of a father who would shield his daughter from hurt Stiller was a strange man. His artistic soul loved the finer, more subtle forms of passion, and it is doubtful if he ever loved a woman—any woman.

- From Sven-Hugo Borg, The Private Life of Greta Garbo - By Her Most Intimate Friend. 1933, Amalgamated Press, London.

About Jules Jaenzon

The English film critic Caroline Lejeune, in an assessment of the early Swedish cinema, noted the sense of reality given by the feeling of texture in objects and clothing and the awareness of landscape. It is obvious that Sjöström and Stiller, the masters of this great period of Scandinavian cinema, owed much to the technical and artistic skills of their cameramen, the principal of whom was Julius Jaenzon.

Stiller used him to film his epic The Story of Gösta Berling, originally a two-part film. The range of Jaenzon's work is remarkable. In the exciting sequence of the sled chased across the frozen lake by wolves, or the lovely visions of Garbo in her first great success, and the cavaliers of Ekeby in their revels, the beauty of Jaenzon's work is unmistakable. One remembers the blazing eyes of Lars Hanson as he denounces his parishoners from the pulpit or the two lonely figures of Margarita Samzelius and her old mother pushing the great wooden levers of the old mill while no words pass between them.

- Liam O'Leary, Film Reference.com

About Selma Ottiliana Lovisa Lagerlöf

Biography on Books and Writers