In 2008, I interviewed Errol Morris about his then-new documentary, Standard Operating Procedure, which tried to make sense of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal of the Bush Jr. administration. We talked about why he thought one of the scapegoats who took the fall for the administration photographed the humiliations and torture in which she took part. He said:
In a way, it’s an essential question, and I don’t pretend that I have some definitive answer. I think, in general, we photograph things because reality is peculiar. Maybe we need to stop it and look at it and memorialize it so we can scrutinize it at some later time, refresh our memory of our own experiences.
This is certainly one of several possible reasons we take pictures, and tourists are especially keen to document and view themselves in places they may never visit again as a kind of highlights book of their life. What I find peculiar is not necessarily reality, as Morris suggests, but the urge not only to visit places like Auschwitz or Gettysburg, but to stand smiling before a camera at these sites of mass slaughter. Austerlitz, an unnarrated look at visitors to the Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg concentration camp in northeastern Germany, raises these and other issues, and causes a unique kind of self-questioning in audiences who view it.
There are few things more boring than looking at someone else’s vacation pictures, and it is perhaps with this wry thought in mind that director Sergei Loznitsa places his static camera just inside the camp gate to film a long opening sequence of arriving visitors. Several tour groups deposit large clots of tourists outside, many with cameras dangling around their necks or selfie sticks at the ready. We also see family groups pushing buggies and baby strollers, and couples having a day out together. All the visitors are dressed for summer in slogan- or logo-tagged t-shirts, shorts, tank tops, and other light gear.
Many are drawn to having their picture taken in front of or standing like inmates behind the bars of the wrought-iron gate into which the message “Arbeit Macht Frei” is twisted, including a man wearing a yarmulke. That infamous phrase assures us that we are not at just any tourist attraction, but one specifically linked to mass murder. Loznitsa’s choice to shoot the entire film in black and white recalls the monochrome pictures and newsreels that are many people’s only exposure to period images of Nazi prisoners; thus, this choice has the effect of marching these day trippers in the shoes of those who would never emerge from this camp again.
Loznitsa sets his camera up at various locations, but aside from crematory ovens and a tiled room that was probably an exam or autopsy room, we don’t see most of what the visitors see. We watch people standing and moving down a long corridor pocked with doors, some looking briefly inside one of the rooms and at least one woman examining the contents of one for a long time, obstructing other visitors who want to see it, too—is it curiosity about what she’s seeing or just another stop on the tour to be checked off? After she finishes her examination, the camera catches her in the corridor looking grave and isolated while foregrounded by a child moving swiftly in her direction.
It is truly remarkable how a static camera can capture people randomly arranging themselves in very artful compositions. A bridge over a closed-up half-square is empty as a lone figure positions herself in front of the sealed opening to listen to the explanation of what she is seeing on the handset for her self-guided tour. Caught in the narrative, she must stand in place until it is finished as the bridge fills up with tourists moving in either direction. We, then, are the observers of a pure abstraction of disquieting beauty.
Loznitsa offers some details about Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg by way of the tour guides who provide information about the camp to their groups. One Italian guide describes the treatment of the political prisoners who formed the majority of the camp’s residents and the agonizing pain they went through when they were tied to pillars in the yard, their screams unnerving the other prisoners who were being interrogated. Again we see the spontaneous pull of the narrative as one member of the group puts his back to one of the pillars and stretches his arms up as though tied to it to pose for a picture.
What are we to make of this action? It’s a kneejerk reaction to condemn the apparent insensitivity of so many of the people who walk like seemingly mindless cattle through the camp—but then, weren’t Jews mocked for being sheep to the slaughter? Perhaps the photo at the pillar offers a graphic “caption” of how these pillars were used for the edification of unknown viewers in the future. Loznitsa is careful to ensure that we see the look of horror on some visitors’ faces at certain points, particularly at one exhibit we know must be especially meaningful because a large bronze sculpture commemorating the dead and suffering inmates stands opposite it.
We can’t expect people who are not living in emergency to act as though they are. This is history, an edifice devoid of actual threat that, nonetheless, bears witness to the fact that atrocities under the Nazi regime took place here. Those who choose to visit concentration camps may just be along for the ride, to see but not learn. But I imagine many of them and those who watch this film are drawn to examine a side of humanity most have never seen, to learn more about what their ancestors went through, or even to search their souls for their own capacity to do evil. The film takes its title from German writer and academic W. G. Sebald’s 2001 novel Austerlitz. Like most of his works that deal with personal and collective memory, his novel depicts a man who fled Czechoslovakia during World War II as part of the kindertransport who works to reclaim his history, which had been banished from memory by the foster parents who took him in and adopted him. Although Loznitsa’s Austerlitz may try some viewers’ patience, it is an excellent reminder that all works of art ultimately are examinations of the relationship of human beings to themselves, each other, and to the world.
Austerlitz screens Sunday, March 26 at 3:15 p.m. and Wednesday, March 29 at 6 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.
Eva Nová: An alcoholic actress faces her family’s rejection and the harsh reality of being old in a profession that worships youth in this compassionate look at human fragility and the need to survive. (Slovakia)
J: Beyond Flamenco: Master dance filmmaker Carlos Saura offers up another fascinating look at dance styles from Spain, this time, jota, a folksy, upbeat style from his native province of Aragón. (Spain)
Portrait of a Garden: This contemplative documentary shows a year in the life of a 400-year-old estate garden and a loving look at two master gardeners trying to pass on the wisdom of many years of working with plants, soil, and climate. (The Netherlands)
Tomorrow, After the War: A detailed look at wartime betrayals that threaten the tranquility of a small village when a Resistance fighter returns home and starts digging into a murder case. (Luxembourg/Belgium)
My Name Is Emily: A teenager coping with the death of her mother and separation from her mentally ill father manages to be both sincere and funny when she sets off with a would-be boyfriend to spring her father from the asylum. (Ireland)
Paul Leni’s name might not be as instantly recognisable to movie lovers as his fellows in the legendary days of German “Expressionist” cinema, Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau. Nonetheless, Leni stands with them as one of the major creative figures of that style, of the budding horror film genre, and of the great mature phase of silent cinema in general. Leni beat both directors to the punch in emigrating to Hollywood in the mid-1920s, where he did vital work fusing the concerted visual effects of the UFA approach with the steady, rhythmically intense storytelling motifs of Hollywood, and so perhaps had the most immediate impact on a generation of directors emerging at the time, including Josef von Sternberg, John Ford, and Sergei Eisenstein. Like Murnau, he would die tragically young and at the peak of his talents, in his case from blood poisoning resulting from an abscessed tooth, a sad and ridiculous fate somehow in keeping with the tenor of Leni’s ripely morbid works. Leni’s initial work in cinema came as a set designer and decorator, a vocation he had learnt in the theatres of Berlin, and soon plied for directors including Joe May and E. A. Dupont. He continued to provide art direction for other filmmakers even after he made his debut as director, Dr Hart’s Diary (1917). Leni’s true calling card was however to be Waxworks, one of the near-mythical works springing from the king tide of Expressionism in German film.
Following Lang’s Der Muede Tod (1921), Waxworks similarly offers an early take on the anthology film, composed of short, distinct but stylistically and thematically related stories. His screenwriter on the project was Henrik Galeen, who penned several Expressionist classics including Paul Wegener’s Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (1920) and Murnau’s Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922). Waxworks commences with a young poet, played by William Dieterle, later to become a significant director himself, invited to visit a waxworks show that travels with a carnival that’s rolled into town: the carnival is popular but the waxworks is ignored. The poet speaks to the manager of the show (John Gottowt) and his daughter Eva (Olga Belajeff), and learns they want someone to write entertaining stories to lend mythos to the major figures in the show, which are Harun-Al-Raschid, the Caliph of Baghdad who featured in Arabian Nights, Ivan the Terrible, and Jack the Ripper, who is conflated here with Spring-Heeled Jack, the supernatural wayfarer who supposedly terrorised London in the late eighteenth century. The poet readily takes up the exhibitors’ offer, and even quickly and amusedly amends a proposed tale when the owner accidentally breaks a limb off the Harun figure; thus the poet begins to tell the story of how the Caliph lost his arm. Leni then begins to illustrate the poet’s historical fantasia, with Harun personified as a corpulent autocrat, played by Emil Jannings. Harun plays chess with his Grand Vizier on a terrace of his castle, only to be disturbed when a cloud of black smoke begins to spoil the day’s splendour. Angry because he was losing the match, Harun sends his Vizier out to track down whoever is making the smoke and execute them. The source of the pollution proves to be the chimney of a baker (Dieterle again), who is married to the most beautiful woman in Baghdad, Maimune (Belajeff again). Delighted with the glimpse he catches of her as she flirts with her husband and then him from her vantage, the Vizier forgets his vicious duty and instead returns to tell the Caliph of this desirable jewel.
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919), immortal as the founding work of the film Expressionist style, had a cunning metafictional device to frame it, as the protagonists in the central drama of mesmerism and murder were revealed to be lunatics in an asylum, reconfigured into actors in a psychotic’s fantasy. By comparison, Waxwork’s frame has a lighter, humorous quality, as the poet’s fancies are devices for flirting with Eva. Except that Waxworks’ chapters essentially tell the same story over in variances, becoming increasingly direct and intensified in figuring the lovers and the deadly threat. Woven in with this is an equal and increasingly nervous contemplation of the individual vulnerable in the face of ravening power, couched first social and political terms, in Harun and Ivan, and then in the lurking, miasmic pure dread of Jack the Ripper. This first episode offers the theme in a mildly comedic manner, as Harun and the baker make expeditions to claim what the other one has: Harun wants the baker’s wife and the baker, trying to appease her stoked desire for worldly rewards, decides to break into the palace and steal Harun’s wish-granting magic ring. The Vizier’s visit has stoked awareness in both baker and bride of their lowly, straitened circumstances, and their festering resentments break out afterwards, with the baker stomping out on his vainglorious mission with the declaration, “I am a man!” This talismanic phrase recurs with more specific force in Leni’s later film, The Man Who Laughs, but its implicit declaration of the innate rights and stature of the individual echoes throughout Waxworks. It’s not hard to look for its relevance to real-world circumstances at the time – Germany was deep in the grip of the post-war reparations-induced economic crisis. Murnau’s The Last Laugh the same year tackled, again with Jannings, the same theme of desperation and dehumanisation through fiscal crisis.
In the first chapter, this battle resolves comically after Leni intercuts Harun’s surprisingly clumsy, self-satisfied efforts to seduce Eva, with her husband’s adventures. He steals into the palace and penetrates the shadowy, cavernous reaches of his bedchamber, locating what he thinks is the Caliph but is actually a dummy he leaves in his bed when he goes out on such nocturnal adventures. Believing the dummy is the real Caliph, the baker slices off the figure’s arm and flees, dodging guards and finally escaping the palace with a daring leap onto a palm tree that swings him over the battlement. He returns to his home, as his wife hurriedly hides the Caliph in the only secret place available – the oven. The baker’s venture to steal a fake version of the seemingly mystical jewel proves just as vainglorious as the Caliph’s seduction, and it’s left to Maimune to conjure a fittingly advantageous end for all concerned as she pretends to use the stolen jewel to wish the Caliph to appear alive, whereupon he crawls out of the oven, covered in soot but saved from profound embarrassment, and to repay the favour he appoints the baker the official baker to the palace, leaving off with a final image of the Caliph embracing both partners, cheekily redolent of a ménage-a-trois in the offing. This chapter of Waxworks somewhat belies the film’s reputation as a classic specifically of horror cinema, instead signalling a link between the performative professionalism and flimflammer art of the carnival and the stage pantomime, as well as reaching back to the portmanteau storytelling tradition as represented by the Arabian Nights itself, as well as the labours of Germanic anthologists like Hoffmann and the Grimm brothers.
This sense of Waxworks as a cultural bridging point is important in itself. The major “characters” of the waxworks are introduced with the actors who embody them noted at the same time, reducing the great historical figures and the big stars to rigid figures, powerless without poets to animate them. Meanwhile the narrative performs a similar function, turning these real beings into functions of a private mythological and psychological universe. The stylisation of the settings, the quintessential flourish of the Expressionist style, aims not for realism but for a brand of minimalist, almost symbolic representation. Whereas with Dr Mabuse, The Gambler (1922) and Die Nibelungen (1924), Lang laboured to fuse together the dreamlike aspect of Expressionism’s already-familiar twisting reaches and heavy shadows with a three-dimensional sense of scale and stature, here Leni pushes in the opposite direction, reducing his setting and backdrop as close towards the insubstantial as he can without quite going entirely abstract. The curving minarets and bowing walls of the palace, up which snakes the black spout of the baker’s inconvenient chimney. The awesome yet almost melting halls of the palace interior, where minions steal between warped columns and smoke and incense dreamily fill the corridors, is definitely a place of the mind, an inner sanctum of libidinous greed, whereas the baker’s home is almost a cave, curved and womb-like. The second chapter, shorter than the first, repeats the motif of the mighty, arbitrary ruler of life and death imposing himself on a pair of young lovers. This time, however, the theme is Ivan the Terrible, presented as a glowing-eyed lunatic stricken with a compulsive, almost childlike fascination for the horrors he can reap on just about anyone he pleases. Where Jannings’ bluff, hammy performance was suited for the take on Harun as corpulent, casually murderous but actually easily tamed potentate, this chapter offers Conrad Veidt as an unnervingly fixated, spindly-limbed emanation of the sickliest part of the id, glimpsed moving in a stiff crouch along a dank passage that connects his apartments with the Kremlin’s torture chambers.
This tale, shorter and sharper than its predecessor, strips the bark off the fantasy figuration of lust and power. Leni presents Ivan as a monster governed and, to a degree, held in check by an elaborate network of irrational devices. In particular, a giant hourglass is used to measure how long his victims will be tortured, their names written on the glass. When the sand runs out, so does their tenure on Earth. Ivan’s astrologer, his closest confidant, inspires suspicions in the tyrant’s mind over the loyalty of his head poison-mixer, and so Ivan decides to have him arrested. The poisoner, in turn, vengefully writes Ivan’s name on the hourglass before he’s arrested. Ivan’s dubious pleasures are interrupted with a boyar arrives, asking him to attend his daughter’s wedding. The paranoid Tsar at first takes the old man’s entreaty as a set-up to lure him into an assassination, but then agrees to be a guest, with one codicil: he insists that the boyar dress in his clothes, and vice versa. The Tsar’s instincts prove right, as a hidden gang of assassins tries to skewer him with an arrow as he rides through Moscow, but their bolt, aimed at the regally-dressed figure, kills the boyar instead. Ivan arrives at the boyar’s house and triumphantly announces his arrival, forgetting the detail that the bride’s father is dead. The bride (Belajeff) weeps over his body and her husband (Dieterle) releases a tirade of fury at the Tsar, for which he is instantly imprisoned and tortured. The Tsar also has the bride spirited to his chambers to seduce her. She strikes him with a crop instead, so he drags her down to witness her husband’s sufferings. His pleasure is however cut short as his astrologer brings him the hourglass marked with his name, believing it means the poisoner successfully dosed the Tsar fatally. Ivan spirals into complete insanity as he thinks he’s dying, and he keeps turning the hourglass over, believing this will stay the moment of his death. A title card explains he kept doing this until the day he died.
Here the insistent correlation of the eroticised id with a will to worldly power becomes more distinctly maniacal and driving, whilst the watch-like parts of the story tick on with swift, precise effect. This chapter of Waxworks seems to have had an almost endless influence on many who have followed, most especially Eisenstein, who clearly drew upon it for his similarly arch take on the Tsar in Ivan the Terrible Parts I (1944) and II (1958), reproducing the angular sets and equally angular performances. Leni himself would build upon it with The Man Who Laughs, and Sternberg would draw on both, surely, for his own visit to the realm of the historical fantasia, The Scarlet Empress (1934). The last chapter of Waxworks is very short, almost an appendix, but it’s also the most bizarre and remarkable sequence. Here the poet imagines he and Eva are being stalked around the carnival and town by Jack the Ripper, who seems to disappear like a phantom and reappear, and even manifests in many places at once, as the world becomes increasingly strange and distorted. Finally the poet is shaken awake by Eva: he’s been having a nightmare, and he gratefully embraces his new lover. Here Leni slips all bonds of narrative precept and essentially offers a visualised nightmare, a plunge into a formless state of irrationality, where the poet’s invented enemies and rivals for Eva’s affections void all forms to become a blank, implacable engine of erotic threat. Here is both the seed for the image of the slasher killer who would later maraud his way across many a movie screen in the next century, a psychological conception of threat stripped out of all zone of actual human interest – Leatherface, Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees are distant descendants. But Leni’s flourishes of style here also veer into virtually experimental film style in his madly proliferating double exposures and increasingly formless sense of space, used to evoke the complete inward spiral of the psyche towards an ultimate confrontation with that dark character within. Here too is kinship with the lawless effects of filmmakers as diverse as Kenneth Anger, David Lynch, and Maya Deren.
Waxworks made Leni’s name, and within a couple of years he went to Hollywood on Carl Laemmle’s invitation. His sense of humour as well as style and menace might well have put in him good stead with Tinseltown, and his first American project was to film Crane Wilbur’s comedy-horror play The Cat and the Canary (1927). That film proved a big hit, laying down a template that would soon resolve into Universal’s house style of horror and offering fillips of style that still recur in horror films today, like its restless, entity-suggesting camerawork. Leni’s third Hollywood film, The Man Who Laughs, has a legendary lustre today, in part because of its pop cultural influence, particularly on that perennial enemy of Batman, The Joker. There’s an irony in there, as the eponymous hero of Leni’s film, adapted from the novel L’homme qui rit by Victor Hugo, couldn’t be more different to Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s enigmatic psychopath. Like Hugo’s other, more famous protagonists Quasimodo and Jean Valjean, The Man Who Laugh’s central figure Gwynplaine represents a politically abused but potentially powerful underclass, and like Quasimodo his exterior ugliness belies his fine, tortuously sensitive humanity. The film also reunited Leni with Veidt on new shores. The Man Who Laughs kicks off with a long prologue where, although the settings are more tangible and vivid, returns to the Ivan the Terrible episode of Waxworks as it depicts the English King James II (Samuel de Grasse) and his jester Barkilphedro (Brandon Hurst) descend from palace to dungeon at the news his soldiers have captured the rebellious Lord Clancharlie (Veidt). James gloats over Clancharlie for sadistic jollies as he informs him that, as a punishment in his father’s stead, his young son Gwynplaine has been handed over to a sect of gypsies known as comprachico, who specialise in creating deformed and disabled freaks for carnivals, with the instructions to carve his son’s face into a permanent grin, “to laugh forever at his fool father.”
The opening scenes of The Man Who Laughs are a remarkable string of images and settings. The statue-lined environs of James’ bedchamber. The jester’s malignant face looking out of a secret passage framed by carved monstrosities. The iron maiden closing around Lord Clancharlie as he prays for his son. The wind and snow-whipped shore where the comprachicos, sent into exile by James after they’ve done his gruesome bidding, flock onto a boat but abandon young Gwynplaine (Julius Molnar Jr) to the elements. The mutilated child gropes his way through a blizzard studded with hanged bodies dangling from gibbets, the harvest of James’ repressions. Gwynplaine comes across a woman, frozen to death but with her infant child still clutched to her breast. He saves the baby and brings her to the parked caravan of travelling actor Ursus (Cesare Gravina), who recognises that the baby is blind and demands of the boy, “Stop that laughing!” before he realises he cannot. Ursus takes both youngsters in and they make a living travelling between country fairs. By the time Gwynplaine (Veidt again) and the girl, named Dea (Mary Philbin), have grown into adults, Gwynplaine has gained fame, bordering on folk heroism, as a clown and entertainer. Along with a band of fellow players, he, Ursus, and Dea enact a play written by Ursus called “The Man Who Laughs.” But fate has a mean gag in store when they roll into Southwark Fair in London’s suburbs, a setting modelled after one of William Hogarth’s famously ebullient but also viciously satiric engravings. Here the comprachico surgeon who gave him his remarkable countenance, Dr Hardquanonne (George Siegmann), now living under a pseudonym, recognises his handiwork on Gwynplaine’s face, and writes a letter to the current holder of the Clancharlie estate, the Duchess Josiana (Olga Baclanova), a debauched aristocrat and illegitimate sister of the current ruler Queen Anne (Josephine Crowell). The message however is intercepted by Barkilphedro, now working for the court and visiting Josiana, and he alerts Anne to this strange and potentially propitious discovery: Josiana has been irritating Anne with her wilfully arrogant behaviour and wanton escapades, and a neat device of punishment is now open to her.
Le homme qui rit was written by Hugo when he was in exile from France for his harshly critical writings on the national authorities, and he wrote it to serve as much as an oddball political parable as a standard historical romance. Leni keeps intact both its nominal setting in English history but also its weird, Ruritanian aspect, using this just as Hugo did – as an excuse to indulge his weird fancies. Although the sorts of things they’re depicted as doing had been real practices in times much further past, the comprachicos were just the first of Hugo’s inventions. After the gruesome, outsized fairytale flourishes of the opening, The Man Who Laughs slowly resolves into something more like a melodrama, if one still laced with dimensions of perversity. Those dimensions resolve as Gwynplaine is tortured by Dea’s love for him, believing he has no right to impose someone of his grotesque stature on her, although she can’t see the affliction. He sees some hope, however, when Josiana visits the fair where he’s performing and, compelled by his strange appearance, invites him to her manor. Gwynplaine, convincing himself that if someone can actually love him in spite of his deformity than he has the right to love Dea, accepts the invitation. He finds himself the object of a fetishist’s electric, potently erotic blend of repulsion and fascination, as Josiana rejoices in his hideousness, clearly turned on by it in a sick way that Gwynplaine correctly senses is merely the flipside of the more familiar horror and mockery he receives rather than a negation of it. But then Josiana receives a letter from the Queen, informing her that now Gwynplaine has been found, he will be restored to his rightful inheritance, and she will be obligated to marry him. Josiana’s rueful laughter, signalling awareness she’s about to nailed to this particular point of her character as her cross just as surely as Gwynplaine’s face is his, sends Gwynplaine running.
This proves the catalyst for Gwynplaine finally allowing Dea to feel the nature of his disfigurement, a moment that resolves with Dea’s gorgeously corny line, “God took away my sight to see the real Gwynplaine!” Both Philbin and Baclanova featured in two other, quite different yet pertinent takes on the fundamental dichotomy presented here, as Philbin had previously played Christine in The Phantom of the Opera (1926), opposite Lon Chaney, and Baclanova would go on to again be the figure of taunting sensuality before the misshapen in Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). Even on the cusp of happiness, Gwynplaine can’t escape the peculiar trap that is identity: he’s arrested by royal soldiers and taken to prison, to be press-ganged into Anne’s plan for him. When Ursus follows him there, he mistakes a funeral procession for Hardquanonne, who had been captured and held there too, for Gwynplaine’s. Leni continues to stage remarkable sequences, as when the players pretend to be putting on a normal show to keep Dea from learning of his apparent death, and the lengthy finale in which Gwynplaine is presented to the House of Lords whilst Dea, realising he’s alive, gropes blindly to find her way to him. For all its facets of brilliance, however, The Man Who Laughs is peculiarly lumpy experience dramatically speaking, splitting the difference between gothic grandeur, sickly satire, and sentimental melodrama, before resolving in a manner fit for a Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler. The hoary plot never quite builds to any sequences as memorable as those in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (which, interestingly, Waxworks star Dieterle would film in 1939), whilst the attempt to go for a crowd-pleasing tone in the final lap is underlined when Barkilphedro gets his comeuppance, his throat ripped out by Ursus’ loyal dog.
That such a mixture doesn’t entirely blend isn’t surprising, as Laemmle’s determination to repeat the success of The Phantom of the Opera saw a few too many cooks adding to the broth on the script level. But The Man Who Laughs packs a wallop regardless because of the fervour Leni and Veidt invest in it. Here was the perfect role for Veidt and the perfect mythology for Leni. Veidt’s appearance, a dental plate used to make his permanent smile-snarl seem all the more unnatural, offers a face turned into a kabuki mask, rigid and lunatic. And yet watching how Veidt sketches emotions around the edges of this offers a master class in expressive performing. Perhaps the high point of the film, at once hallucinatory and unsparing in its gaze, comes when Gwynplaine first appears on stage at one of his shows. The smile he turns on his audiences gains delirious power, sending the crowd into convulsions and bringing Josiana under the spell of a peculiar charisma, her fixation communicated in a series of superimpositions and dissolves, beautiful (but ugly) man and ugly (but beautiful) man bound together, a visual etude of awareness that one must exist to give meaning the other. His hideousness sparks merriment, becomes a leer of mutual mockery, a telegraph to the common folk suggesting the dark side of the society they live in, and finally locating an accord with them, on the level of frail humanity, the embodiment of all absurdity. To see Gwynplaine is to have an existential crisis that can only be resolved in laughter, whilst the man himself experiences the sexual thrill of intense masochism being satisfied, and exultation in his rare fame.
The vividness of Leni and Veidt’s realisation of this theme surely was to echo on through Universal’s subsequent horror films with their tragic antiheroes. As Gwynplaine eventually rises from the status of clown to lord, he manages the more important evolution, finally voiced when bellows with righteous fury at the stunned toffs and fatuous queen: “A king made me a clown! A queen made me a lord! But God made me a man!” It’s the climactic moment of the film and of the revealing thread of interest that runs through from Waxworks to this film, the depiction of brutal power: Gwynplaine’s declaration of the rights of man is every bit as totemic, and instantly punishable, as the baker and bridegroom’s invective against their tyrants and the evils forced by life in the earlier film. Fortunately, Gwynplaine’s new status cuts a swathe through the stunned lords, giving him a brief window of escape before the Queen’s heavies move in, and he stages a successful flight across the rooftops of London. This sequence , as with the baker’s escape from the palace in Waxworks, reveals Leni’s gifts at the free rush of action as well in creating the tangled moods of psychic anxiety. In spite of the never-never setting of both films, or perhaps because of it, a genuine charge of palpable meaning emerges from such flourishes. Leni’s world is a place of wandering, rootless but free artists and yearning poets, twisted beings full of humanity, and monstrous forces of political and social power. But, most fundamentally, for both the poet and Gwynplaine, the man himself is his own enemy. Leni’s small but still vital oeuvre is charged with this sense of duality. The monster is stalking us; the monster is us.
Frank Wisbar is today a fairly obscure name in the roll of classic film directors, and yet lovers of horror cinema still remember him for making two of the genre’s finer deep cuts, each film a variation of the same story, made ten years and continents apart. Born in Tilsit, Wisbar (or Wysbar as his name was originally spelt) was conscripted in World War I and stayed in the army until the mid-1920s, before he went into the film industry. He served as production manager on Leontine Sagan’s legendary lesbian-themed drama Mädchen in Uniform (1931), a success that gave him a shot at directing, debuting with the adventure-comedy Im Bann des Eulenspiegels (1932). Wisbar quickly earned the ire of the oncoming Nazi authority by making Anna und Elisabeth (1933), a follow-up to Mädchen in Uniform with the same stars and gay subtext. To play nice with Goebbels’ new Ministry of Propaganda, Wisbar’s next film, Flag of the Righteous Seven (1934), was an adaptation of German-language Swiss writer Gottfried Keller about romance, bourgeois mores, and regional life in the 1800s. The film won an award at the Venice Film Festival, and Wisbar’s career struggled on for a few more years. Wisbar was however to remain deeply at odds with the Nazis, in part because his wife Eva was Jewish: the state stripped him of his passport and forced the couple to divorce, and after he was finally blacklisted in 1938, Wisbar fled the country. He became an American citizen and found a niche making low-budget features and then TV shows in Hollywood. Eventually returning to West Germany in the 1950s, Wisbar found new but strictly domestic success there again with works about dark chapters in the war like the Battle of Stalingrad and the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, an adaptation of Wolfgang Ott’s grim precursor to Das Boot, Sharks and Little Fish (1957), as well as post-war issue movies, before his death in 1967.
Fährmann Maria, or Ferryman Maria, could well stand as the last authentic product of the classic German cinema age, that time when the national industry that stood so tall between the Great War and doomed by the rise of Hitler. The great, endlessly influential German Expressionist movement in film kicked off by The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919) represented the kind of dark, sombre, highly psychologised drama the Nazis instinctively hated, and Fährmann Maria kept something of that style’s essence alive in a time when it had become verboten, although carefully mediated through a nominally more realistic, folksy approach, exploring a supernatural tale in a manner that also evokes a bygone sense of the Germanic landscape and communal identity: the word heimat, homeland, which was for the Nazis a talismanic phrase becomes a mystically tinged destination in the film. One supporting character, a boozy but good-natured fiddle-player (Carl de Vogt), evokes a cheery, open ideal of the parochial character as he’s constantly held up in his desire to return to his home by his love of the jug and a good time playing for people. And yet an undercurrent of intense unease and dislocation defines Fährmann Maria as it takes on a classic motif in German storytelling, the encounter of a young woman with Death personified in a battle between love and nihilism. That motif of Death and the Maiden was born in Renaissance art and transmitted through music like Schubert’s pieces of that title and Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman. Fritz Lang had used it as the basis of his omnibus film The Weary Death (1921), and F.W. Murnau had transformed Dracula into a variant on it in his Nosferatu (1922). Fährmann Maria’s exceptionally simple dramatic landscape, which isn’t actually based on any specific folk tale but evokes many, nonetheless aims to synthesise an ideal variant on this basic conflict that could well have dropped from the lips of some grandmother around the campfire some starlit walpurgisnacht.
The setting is a small village and the nearby ferry crossing that traverses a wide river, the few landmarks in the midst of a landscape of wavering, wind-ruffled pines and twitching reeds, and patches of sucking marshland. The rope-guided ferryboat is tended by an old man (Karl Platen), who maintains the service day in and day out, shuttling people from one bank to the other. The river is borderland between two unidentified regions. A mournful song about a ferry crossing resounds under the opening credits: in the transposition into the first proper scene this song is revealed this song is being performed by the fiddler as he’s shuttled across the river by the old ferryman. The ferryman mocks the fiddler for the ease with which he gets waylaid by his appetites and his rootless habits, and explains that the fiddler’s very coin represents the last payment he has to make to own the ferry outright. That night, the old ferryman is awakened by the dull ring of the ploughshare that serves as the gong for service on the far side of the bank, and he hauls himself out of bed to answer it. When he reaches the far shore, he is intimidated by the grim-faced, black-clad man (Peter Voß) he picks up, and as he labours to get the ferry back to the other side, his tugs on the guide rope become increasingly laborious and strained, until he keels over dead from heart failure, and the mysterious man in black begins to pull the ferry back the other way. The old man has been claimed by Death.
This early sequence is a superb display of technique from Wisbar. Having established the eerie, somnolent, exposed mood of the ferry’s surrounds, he intensifies for physical effect as he cuts between the old man’s face, his hands on the rope, and the implacable visage of Death, the lateral movement of the camera obeying a rigorous left-to-right viewpoint on the ferry’s motion, capturing the sense of strain and the failing pulse of the old man, matched to a shimmering, atonal score, until his hands cease to work properly. Death catches him and lays him down gently, a peaceful fate met at the very apotheosis of the old labourer’s life, his death at the moment of his triumph both a stinging irony but also a deliverance from any form of disappointment. Enter Maria (Sybille Schmitz), every bit the old man’s opposite, a young woman without a home or community, but destined to step into his shoes and face a rather different confrontation with Death. She wakes up after spending a night sleeping in the barn, pausing to listen to children singing in their school house, the pleasure and impossible distance of such inclusivity written on Maria’s face. Wisbar constantly evokes the folk tradition he’s burrowing into here through song and music, arts that bind together communities but also transcend such boundaries – the indolent fiddler is always half-heartedly trying to get home but is just as happy and seemingly more successful out of his native land – as a form of cultural currency people exchange. Maria enters the village and ducks the local policeman, long used as she is to trouble from such earthly powers. The mayor sees her doing this and makes light fun of her, before challenging her to take over the ferry, a job no-one else wants because “the Evil One haunts the far bank,” to prove she can make her stand.
Maria takes on the job, and quickly becomes an object of fascination for some, including a local landowner (Gerhard Bienert) who regards her and questions her brusquely, but soon proves to be establishing romantic rights over her. One night Maria, like her predecessor, hears the ploughshare ring on the far bank, and goes over to fetch her fare. At first she sees no-one, but then spots a man (Aribert Mog) crumpled on the ground: he mutters something fearful about being pursued, and she speeds him to the other bank as a squad of black-clad men on horseback dash through the neighbouring woods and line up on the shore, watching their quarry glide to safety. Maria stashes the young man in her hut and looks after him as he’s badly injured. The man recovers and they fall in love, but then he lapses into a fever and she’s forced to tend to him during his raving dissociation. She must also keep him hidden from locals like the fiddler, who, drunk and boisterous, wants to cross the river, and then the landowner when he comes around to invite her to a village dance. But during the night, Maria answers the gong and picks up the man in black, whose unnerving visage Maria instantly recognises as bringing evil intent for her lover, and the man quickly announces the fugitive is the object of his search. Trying to lead him astray, Maria escorts him into town and becomes his partner in the dance. This infuriates the farmer, who had deduced Maria had a man in her house, and, believing the man in black is him, publically brands her a slut whilst also inadvertently informing Death his prey is back in her abode.
Wisbar seems to have been chiefly under the influence of Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) with this film, adapting aspects of its aesthetic, like Dreyer’s use of carefully stylised location shooting to create a different brand of crepuscular atmosphere to the heavy stylisation more typical of the Expressionist mode, and utilising Schmitz, who had played a woman suffering a vampire’s attention in Dreyer’s film. The troubled Schmitz had difficulty landing lead roles in the Nazi-run film industry in spite of her talent because she hardly looked the Aryan heroine, but Wisbar’s casting of her here turned this into a strong subtext lurking behind her character’s yearning for a place and role in the world, whilst also exploiting her specific, wounded beauty in a manner that perfectly suits her character. Maria is caught in the void straddling zones cultural, political, sexual, even life and death. Her tentative smile and large, melancholy eyes describe the strain of her life even as she goes about her work with stoic resolve and tries to keep a flame alight in her spirit. It’s clear she’s fended off a hundred men of the landowner’s ilk, but lets a real smile appear like a spring dawn on her face as she falls for the handsome stranger who embodies all the things she has never had but is forced to join her in this psychic no-man’s-land. Maria, usually dressed in gypsy-like garb that suggest the reason why she’s such an outsider, appears before her lover clad in a new dress, albeit a piece of garb that, with its ruffled collar, seems almost anachronistic even for the film’s vaguely nineteenth century setting, as if casting herself in a role outside of time. And that’s exactly where she is: Maria, whose name instantly evokes religious dimensions, takes over from Charon, shuttling souls between worlds across the Styx, giving her some unspoken form of power that lets her challenge Death himself.
Wisbar’s off-screen troubles lend credence to the hints constantly given throughout Fährmann Maria that he’s not just describing some historical fantasia, however. Although possessed of some lightly used supernatural powers, Death is personified as a resolutely tangible force kept at bay by the rules of the physical world he manifests in, an implacable agent for a dark and oppressive realm. Maria’s lover is specifically characterised as fleeing a repressive government, hazily defined as an imposition of invaders he and his patriotic friends want to drive out, whilst the citizens of the village regard the far shore as a place where the Devil has made dominion. The film’s most powerful images, of the horsemen pursuing the young man ride out of the forest and perch on the shoreline staring at the couple in the ferry, and the first appearance of Death in his trim, black, semi-military uniform, regarding Maria with blood-freezing severity, evoke a definite sensation of totalitarian menace lurking just beyond the limits of the frame and definition. In one scene the young man, in his fever state, begins to enthusiastically sing one of the patriotic songs he and his fellows use as an anthem, suggesting the Nazi love of such anthems twisted into a grotesque dirge that drives Maria into weeping despair. Maria is left cut off from all communal aid as Death realises her deception, even muffling the sound of the church bell she tries to ring to rouse the villagers to the deadly being in their midst with his power, literalising the feeling of being stranded in the midst of a country suddenly wilfully deaf, dumb, and blind to the new predations of power quickly becoming everyday fact. Maria is compelled by Death to lead him through the swamp between the village and the ferry. Maria makes the self-sacrificing gesture that is always the key to the Death-and-the-Maiden tale, and as she prays that her gesture protect her lover, she leads Death along the treacherous path through the swamp, tricking him into falling into the black mud, where he sinks silently into the murk, whilst she manages to keep her footing and escape.
The final shots of Fährmann Maria see Maria and her lover crossing the river along with the fiddler and gazing out upon Maria’s new country, a grace note that seems a fulfilment of the patriotic dream of reclaiming the homeland, but with the vital, sneaky corollary that it’s a victory of the exiles and outcasts over the forces that oppress it. Wisbar’s visual sensibility is attuned to the horizontal in landscape and movement, a particularly tricky art to master for filmmakers working with the boxy classic Academy ratio, and fitted specifically to the environs Wisbar deals with here, the flat, semi-desolate spaces around the village and the glassy waters of the river, the to-and-fro motions of the boat and of Maria’s queasy dance with Death at the village dance filmed alike, the camera’s very range of movement communicating the stark, transfixing linearity of life in this space that finally, towards the end, gives way to the promise of gold sunlight on rolling mountains. Wisbar’s journey, at least for the time being, went in the opposite direction to his two heroic lovers, going into exile and soon finding his real reunion with his wife impossible. A decade later, Wisbar found a niche in the so-called “Poverty Row” studio PRC after a long period on the beach trying to get residency and a work permit. His first American film had been a teen crime potboiler, Secrets of a Sorority Girl (1945). For his second, he leveraged the notion of remaking his best-known work, and the result was entitled Strangler of the Swamp.
The basic plot remained the same: after the death of a ferryman serving a remote town, a young woman named Maria takes over his job and finds herself battling a malign spirit for the life of the man she loves. Working with one of PRC’s famously stringent budgets – none of their films, supposedly, cost more than $100,000 – Wisbar transposed the story into a much more overtly theatrical and classically spooky setting, a bayou swamp choked with reeds and vines traversed by the ferry. Strangler of the Swamp strongly contrasts Fährmann Maria in its approach even as its mood of dislocation and morbid romanticism is retained, whilst the alterations to the story point to a different set of animating concerns for this take. Here, the spectral figure isn’t Death itself but the shade of a man killed by his community, and the death he brings serves a programme of retribution. At the outset, the dead body of a villager who has died in the swamp is brought back to town, where the townsfolk begin to argue frantically about their circumstances: several similar deaths have taken place, all seemingly strangled by vines or reeds wrapped around their necks in grotesque approximation of a hangman’s noose. Many think they’ve been living under a curse ever since the former ferryman, Douglas (Charles Middleton), was lynched as a murderer.
Most of the men involved, including the mayor, Sanders (Robert Barratt), anxiously repudiate the notion even as they clearly live in fear of whatever lurks out in the bayou awaiting them, whilst the women of the village form a determined front, heading out into the swamp to strip down the noose that was used to kill Douglas. Joseph the ferryman (Frank Conlan), whose testimony was vital to identifying Douglas as a killer and who stepped into his post eagerly, sheepishly objects to the women’s proposals that he offers himself as sacrifice to the spectre to mollify its rage: “I’m only seventy! That’s not old for a man! I have plans for the future.” But soon enough, responding to the clang of the gong on the far side of the swamp, he encounters Douglas, a hollow-eyed wraith emanating from the shadows to deliver up stern pronouncements of waiting punishment: Joseph tries to toss the noose the women left on the ferry overboard, only for it to snare on a log, wrap around his neck, and strangle him, thus fulfilling Douglas’ design without any actual violent act. Amongst Joseph’s papers is discovered his written confession to the murder Douglas committed, as well as his admission that he framed Douglas to get his job. But the wraith is hardly satisfied with his death, and continues to await chances to kill off the rest of his lynch mob and their descendants. Joseph’s granddaughter Maria (Rosemary La Planche) arrives in town, hoping to find a place to settle after leaving a life of toil and alienation in the big city. Shocked to learn of her grandfather’s death, she nonetheless determines to take over his job as ferryman. She soon meets Sanders’ son Chris (Blake Edwards – yes, that Blake Edwards) and falls for him, but the curse is hardly averse to tormenting a pair of young lovers.
Wisbar had joined Edgar G. Ulmer in productive exile at PRC. Like another émigré Fritz Lang’s Hollywood debut, Fury (1936), Strangler reads in part as a condemnation of lynch culture in the US, whilst the decision to locate the story in one of his new country’s more primal backwaters echoes Jean Renoir’s venture into similar climes for his American debut, Swamp Water (1942). Strangler of the Swamp might also have represented an attempt by Wisbar and PRC to tap the same well Val Lewton’s horror films had so lucratively drilled for RKO, with a similarly literate, carefully stylised script to the kind Lewton liked, although Wisbar’s concrete approach to the supernatural stands somewhat at odds with the airier, more suggestive Lewton touch. The style here is also quite different to the restrained, deceptively naturalistic approach of Fährmann Maria, here turning the limitations of PRC’s productions into an asset by employing one spectacularly dreamlike, claustrophobic locale, where the totemic hangman’s noose dangles in the wind from an old gnarled tree, the rickety docks for the ferry jut into misty waters, an old, ruined church looms skeletally in the distance, and the town huddles on the fringes. Wisbar’s fluidic camerawork is still in evidence, tracking the course of the ferry across the swamp with cool regard, if not as carefully tailored to fit the geography physical and mental of the story. The guilt and paranoia experienced by the townsfolk has infected the land about them, and Wisbar goes more a sense of gothic entanglement befitting a dense and miasmic sense of corruption, the overgrown weeds of the psychic landscape. He often uses superimpositions to obscure the images, the appearances of Middleton’s withered, eyeless ghost masked by haze, the reeds and foliage of the bayou crowding the frame, as if animated and determined to invade the human world that clings to this landscape.
The result makes Strangler of the Swamp something like the platonic ideal of a dankly atmospheric, low-budget horror film. Severed from the culture and place that informed Fährmann Maria’s folkloric lustre, Strangler refits the story for a place that seems to hover right at the edge of liminal reality, a psychological neverland. That said, the story fits with surprising ease into the dramatic landscape of America’s backwood regions and the stark, moralistic, often supernatural flavour of songwriting in those areas – Woody Guthrie, Jean Ritchie, or Robert Johnson could readily have sung of a similarly elemental tale. Perhaps a seed was planted here for the later burgeoning of backwoods horror as a permanent sub-branch of Hollywood horror cinema. Thematically, Strangler of the Swamp diverges tellingly from its predecessor. Wisbar’s PRC stablemate Ulmer had made his statement of utter moral exhaustion with his famous noir Detour a few months earlier, and Strangler, although ultimately not as nihilistic, seems similarly like a meditation on the psychic landscape left by the war: by the time Strangler was made, the Nazis had fallen and their crimes had stained the soul of humanity. Whereas the community in Fährmann Maria is essentially ignorant and innocent of the uncanny drama unfolding in its midst, Strangler in the Swamp is about vengeance reaching out from beyond the grave to attack a communal guilt – the evil is no longer an invasive one but internal, and the theme of the sins of the father is introduced as Maria and Chris must fight to escape the debt of their parents.
In the climax, Wisbar revisits the moment from the original when Maria finds she can’t make a sound ringing the church bell and stages it more expressly as sequence depicting social exclusion, as Maria dashes through the village trying to find aid, only to have doors and windows slam shut and curtains drawn by the vengeful spirit’s power, shutting off all recourse for his outsider heroine. Both films obviously share a female protagonist who proves that love is stronger than death and offers her own life in place of her man’s, and in Strangler Wisbar takes this theme of feminine strength further. Maria here meets initial doubts she can do her job but readily adapts to it, but the menfolk of the town are variously foolish, self-deluding, and corrupt, where the women are generally wiser and try to act against the curse where their men obfuscate and deny the problem. Chris’s father objects to his relationship with Maria because he knows she’s the granddaughter of a killer, where his mother (Effie Parnell) recognises her character and encourages the match. When Sanders tells his son he can’t marry Maria, Chris retorts that his own father took just as big a part in murdering Douglas, setting in motion the first rumblings of the generational conflict that would define so much of the post-war age. The town lost its church to fire, the ruins standing in moody isolation out in the swamp embodying the wreckage of the local culture’s ethical standing, and Sanders proposes, instead of rebuilding it with the money the town has collected for the purpose, that they use the funds to drain the swamp instead, his onwards-and-upwards rhetoric exposed as an attempt to avoid reckoning with the past.
One significant disparity between Wisbar’s two films is that La Planche, although fairly good in the lead, isn’t nearly as enticingly enigmatic or camera-fixating a presence as Schmitz (sadly, both women also died young), and the standard of acting in Strangler, although competent, is merely customary for a low-budget film of the time and place – even the very young Edwards is too callow to make much of an impression. On the other hand, Strangler isn’t weighed down by the smarmy folksiness of the earlier film’s fiddler character. The finale suffers from the hampered staging dictated by the limited setting, involving a lot of stumbling around in dry ice-clogged corners of the set trying to make it look like action is happening. Nonetheless Strangler of the Swamp stands as an example of what a real director could manage with even the most cynically straitened production of the day, a delicious visual experience that offers a real jolt of Wisbar’s poetic streak, and one of the few major horror films of the ‘40s not to have Lewton’s name attached. As in Fährmann Maria, Strangler’s Maria, exhausted by her frantic and desperate efforts to help Sanders in protecting his injured son from the wraith, offers herself in her lover’s place fends off dark fate amidst the sanctified ruins of the church. But Strangler pushes the import of the sacrificial gesture more strongly than Fährmann Maria, in a narrative shaped by a more personal and urgent sense of responsibility: where in the earlier film Death is outwitted by a touch of native guile as well as the ardent honesty of Maria’s prayers, Douglas is mollified by the gesture and dissolves in the night as Maria gives a benediction for his aggrieved soul. In Strangler, the victory feels quite different, as Maria must redeem the whole community through a selfless act, receiving a forgiveness that cannot be asked for, only granted by the aggrieved dead. Maria triumphs over entropy in her personification, however straggly and assailed she seems, of the finer elements of human nature and of woman herself, a detail that points up the irony in her job title. She is the being who encompasses life, death, and rebirth, who spans both shores.
The title resolves amidst intersecting geometries that coalesce and create a cityscape, ranged with neo-Babylonian techno-ziggurats: Metropolis, instantly a statement worthy of Ozymandias. A super-city where trains and cars shuttle along spanning bridges and aircraft buzz between sky-nudging structures. A great machine that explodes and morphs into a dark god of ages past, accepting human sacrifice into a greedy, fiery maw. A great dial of switches becomes a massive clock crushing its operator. A dark and twisted fairytale abode left like a seed of corruption in the midst of this empire of the will. The outpost of an ancient brand of faith discovered underground, to where the beaten and exhausted tread in search of hope. A beam of light in the midst of a dank, labyrinthine catacomb, terrorising and pinioning a saintly young woman. A robot fashioned in the likeness of a human, all art-deco brass curves and blank features, wreathed by electric arcs, slowly taking on the likeness of the same young woman. The robotic simulacrum dancing like Salome reborn, stirring the lusts of men until their eyes join together in a great mass of rapacious gazing. Statues of the seven deadly sins lurching out of their stalls in a Gothic cathedral, announcing the coming of calamity and death. A mass of desperate children all reaching out for their saviours in the midst of surging flood waters. A rooftop struggle between hero and villain for the life of the heroine, the battle of good and evil staged as vertiginous graph written on the face of a civilisation.
These are some of the lodestone images of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and it’s still easy to feel their power even after intervening decades where their genetic material is woven into pop culture at large. If A Trip to the Moon was the seed of science fiction on screen, Metropolis is its green stem, and much more too. The floodtide of Fritz Lang’s visual techniques and the expanse of the film’s evocation of the future might have met resistance of mind and eye in its day, but even in an abused and truncated form enough of his vision remained to stun the eye and light the creative spark.
Director Lang and his creative and personal partner Thea Von Harbou had climbed swiftly to the peak of the German film industry thanks to highly ambitious, stylistically radical films that provided basic engineering for cinema as it found maturity and began to branch into different streams of genre and style. Lang, working under the influence of Louis Feuillade, had taken his template and pushed it into stranger places with his rollicking action-adventure diptych The Spiders (1919), and had written the script for the film that kicked off the Expressionist cinema style, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919). Lang’s first great opus, Dr Mabuse, the Gambler (1922), embodied the shock of the new in cinema, telling in the mode of epic melodrama a tale of crisis in modernity by depicting someone capable of manipulating its many aspects, and then his follow-up Die Nibelungen (1924) had delved into the foundational myth of Germany to explore the ructions that cause tragedy and the ideals and fidelities that make civilisations. Metropolis was destined to be the third chapter in this survey, a myth of the future if still based in the pressing quandaries of the present and articulated through a vast array of concepts from the cultural inheritance. Von Harbou wrote a novel specifically to use as the basis of the script, and the production took over Germany’s flagship film studio UFA in the midst of the national inflation travails that helped shake what little confidence there was in the Weimar republic. Lang’s lordly vision took a toll on cast and crew, fortunes were spent, and the reaction to the film’s initial was like cold water hitting hot metal, warping all perception of Lang’s achievement. Metropolis’s sniffy reception sounds familiar today, as many called it a giant would-be blockbuster that is all visual bluster and no substance. A film hated by no lesser personage in the budding science fiction genre than H.G. Wells. A film Lang himself later disowned, perhaps feeling that well had been too badly poisoned.
After barely recouping Metropolis’s massive expense upon release, UFA was compelled to let Paramount Pictures buy it out. Metropolis spent much of the next thirty years being cut down and reshaped, until what was left was so confused many thought it had always been that way. It was adopted as fetish object and style guide by the Nazis, who wanted to emulate its monumental aesthetic and absorb its message system into their own, and Von Harbou herself became an active party member. The film eventually became a pop art moveable feast, including being appropriated as a music video by Giorgio Moroder. Only in the past couple of decades has Metropolis been mostly restored to the point where it can be properly judged and studied according to Lang’s original intention. And yet, in spite of such manhandling, Metropolis still stands as one of the most influential films ever made. Metropolis provided a blueprint for envisioning a wing of the imagination encompassing dreamlike horizons, conjoining both the imminently possible and the ages of humankind so far into a grandiose survey of conceptual iconography. Much like the space opera that formed much of science fiction’s first popular phase on the page and which still survives chiefly thanks to Star Wars, Metropolis tries to comprehend the future and the present in terms of the past, envisioning an age of technical marvel and scientific miracle as a new version of the old alchemistic fantasia and the greatest dreams of imperial domain, whilst asking on what foundations such superstructures grow.
Metropolis is, of course, like most variations on the utopia-dystopia scale, actually an account of the moment of its making, thrown into sharp relief on a mimetic map. The tensions that termite Metropolis are the tensions lurking under the brittle façade of Weimar Germany, where, in the wake of World War I’s calamity, far left and far right agitators had clashed on the streets and nearly seized the machinery of government. The entire apparatus of state had been shaken, and reconstruction, the surge of newness pushing the nation forward, presented a political and social landscape few understood and felt at ease with. Even money wasn’t worth anything. The essential theme of labour versus management was more universal, and the new reality of much work in the early twentieth century, which turned humans into parts in huge assemblies, was taken into Metropolis to its logical conclusion, envisioning a carefully stratified human populace where some live in regimented, downcast, utterly slavish existences, doomed to run the infrastructure that allows more comfortable lives for the rest. Metropolis is the future itself, situated in no identified nation or age. Captain of this great project is Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), architect of the city and its Tyrant in the original sense, oligarchic master and civic administrator. Fredersen lives in the “New Tower of Babel,” a skyscraper at the city’s lofty hub.
Metropolis isn’t just a city he has been elected to run or master but his own brainchild, his ego-empire, the expression of human will essayed on the greatest scale. Metropolis is also in part a variation on a familiar conflict between fathers and sons, the stern and acquiescing pragmatism of age versus the idealism of youth, another universal topic also bound to gain impetus in the coming years. Fredersen’s son Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) is the child of privilege, anointed amongst the rich and blessed, free to train body and mind to maximum potential in his days before taking his ease with the procured lovelies invited to the pleasure gardens of the city’s rooftop expanses. But his life is set to be changed by the intrusion of a woman, Maria (Brigitte Helm), who ushers in a collective of urchins gathered from the lower reaches, to give them a look at the closest thing to heaven, the world Freder inhabits thoughtlessly. This gives the princeling his first sight of inequity and of the woman who becomes the instant lynchpin of his existence. Maria and her charges are quickly ushered out of this exalted sphere but Freder becomes determined both to find Maria and acquaint himself with the lives of Metropolis’s workers. The realm he ventures into proves to be a scene out of a fantasia where Dante co-authors with Dickens and Picasso. Here cowed and regimented workers trudge through blank, institutional corridors and take up work stations at hulking machines where they perform repetitive, arduous tasks for ten hour shifts.
An explosion in a massive machine inspires the horrified Freder to think of Moloch, the wicked god of Biblical lore. Seeing a young worker collapse at a station where he works a dial-like switching control, Freder rushes to take his place. The worker, whose name is Georgy but is snidely affixed merely with the title 11811 by the bosses, swaps clothes with Freder, who sends him to take refuge in his apartment. Freder struggles through the rest of his shift, almost broken trying to keep up with the vital task. Another worker, mistaking him for Georgy, whispers to him about a meeting Maria has called, and Freder joins the workers who descend into the ancient catacombs under the city to listen to Maria give a sermon. Fredersen, wishing to split Freder from Maria and to break her moral influence over the workers and gain an excuse to establish martial law, visits scientist and inventor C.A. Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), who has constructed a perfect humanoid robot, a Machine Man: Fredersen wants Rotwang to give it Maria’s appearance, and use it to stir up trouble.
Lang explained that the root of Metropolis lay in a visit he made to New York in 1924, confronted by the looming grandeur of the city’s skyscrapers, floating like a dream fashioned from glass and steel, erected with all the promise of the age’s new possibilities but also stirring some profound anxiety, a fear of being dwarfed and pinioned by the weight of such achievements. The novel version of Metropolis was then written by Von Harbou as a parable about winners and losers in the modern world and Metropolis still feels strikingly relevant in choosing this as subject matter, as it remains the basic, ever-urgent matter at the heart of the modern dream. The first target of criticism of Metropolis is usually its storyline, which is usually judged not just simple but simplistic and naïve to boot in its treatment of social schisms. And that’s undoubtedly true on some levels. The film’s recurring motto, “The mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart,” is on the face of it a purely humanistic, essentialist slogan. But it’s not such a great stretch of the imagination to link the magical thinking behind it in regards to social philosophy with openness to similarly trite thought that would soon seduce the screenwriter along with millions of others to the Nazi cause. The solution at the end of Metropolis indicts the troublemaker and presents rapprochement between upper and lower classes as a matter simply of mutual respect and good-heartedness. Fredersen, who has built a city on iniquity and laboured to find an excuse to permanently and violently oppress his working class, is let off the hook because he gets anxious over his own son.
Metropolis is in part an attack on a worker’s revolt as an aim, seeing it as prone to demagoguery and manipulation and destructive in it results. On the other hand, it’s also a fervent attack on capitalist power as self-perpetuating, blinding, and dehumanising. Metropolis proceeds with a plot that is certainly close to comic book. To comment on Metropolis on this level, though, is to misunderstand it crucially. Metropolis invokes a vast sprawl of mythopoeic associations, and represents a clear and direct continuation of Die Nibelungen’s obsessive attempts to grapple with social identity and construction, using the language of mythology as starting point for a work of conjuring that unfolds on levels not just of story and action but in design, costuming, lighting, the entire texture sprawling across the screen. Metropolis betrays an ambition towards creating a total work of art, the gesamtkunstwerk which had been Wagner’s ideal and also had become the credo of the Bauhaus movement, whose cultural vitality and concepts Lang surely had in mind whilst making the film. Metropolis sometimes recalls nothing less momentous than the religious paintings of Ravenna or the sculptures of the Parthenon: we are looking into a way of conceiving the world from side-on, as an illustrative, holistic sprawl. Many of these mythical refrains are biblical, including the parable of the prodigal son and the captivity in Babylon.
Both Maria and Fredersen conceive the world in terms of legend, each employing the tale of Babel to make their own statement: Fredersen’s New Tower, with his gleaming citadel, announces to man and heaven his lordship over all, whilst Maria recalls the calumny and division implied at the root of such mammoth human projects. The speech she gives to the gathered workers is not a literal political tract but a parable recalling the original myth of the Tower of Babel from Genesis, tweaking it into a tract where in the destruction of the great human project came about because the visionaries designing the tower could not speak the same language, literally and figuratively, as the people hired to build it, causing riot and destruction. She casts Freder in the role of mediator, the man who can link above and below both personally and symbolically. Maria herself recalls the history of early Christianity’s practice in the catacombs of Rome, with similarities to Henryk Sienkiewicz’s much-filmed novel Quo Vadis?, casting Maria as voice of Christian charity and brotherhood. Freder discovers her in her underground church amidst the dark and twisted reaches of the catacomb, the sacred an island in the nightmarish space.
Other aspects recall the mythology Lang and Von Harbou had examined on Die Nibelungen, as faces and identities are swapped. Freder cast as a young Siegfried-like hero who ventures out to battle with dragons and finds himself swiftly engaged in a much more profound battle for the future of a society where covert designs and mysterious doppelgangers manipulate events. And of course, that other great Germanic myth, Faust, could be the overarching frame – all this represents what happens when mankind sells its soul for progress. The subplot of the twin Marias echo of one variation of classical Greek legend, one that Euripides utilised in his play Helen, in which the real Helen was duplicated by the gods, with the real Helen being whisked away to Egypt where she lived in captivity and incognito whilst her malicious double caused the Trojan War. The way the Trojan myths entwine the cultural and political with the personal and in particular the sexual points to the similar ambition propelling Metropolis, which was in part designed by Von Harbou as a lampooning of the liberated Weimar “new woman” in the figure of the provocative, sensual, carelessly destructive cyborg Maria, a chimera created by the denizens of the new age to enact their not-so-secret desires. Whereas for Lang, this element fits rather into his career-long fascination with the power of the irrational to warp the sturdiest superstructure of ethics and security, of which sexual desire is the most readily apparent and eternally vexing manifestations.
The crux for the atavistic and futuristic is Rotwang, the archetype of the mad scientist with his wild hair and gloved cybernetic hand whose persona was set to echo on and on through pop culture to come. But he’s also a projection of the ancient figure of the dark magician into a contemporary realm, the alchemist who rewrites laws of nature and steals the power of gods and demons and who worships idols, having turned the visage of his great love into a monument and has pentagrams festooned around his laboratory. Rotwang lives in a twisted, ancient building at the centre of Metropolis. He is linked to Fredersen not just in rivalry as radically different versions of the same titan-genius, but through a very personal link: the lost love was a woman named Hel, who married Fredersen rather than him and died giving birth to Freder. Fredersen’s request of him to aid his designs in regaining total control present Rotwang with a way to destroy him instead, by attacking the city he has built and the son who is the living link to Hel. Rotwang’s name – red wing in English – invokes both satanic stature and political danger. Like Faust, he conjures the Hel(en) figure as incarnation of taunting desirability and illusory object of yearning. His house is a hangover of Gothic fantasia clinging like a weed to the flank of the supercity, but also sits atop a well that leads into the dank labyrinth below the city. Rotwang is the jilted and obsessive lover who has castrated himself in surrendering his hand in creating a facsimile of woman. He knows too well the dark drives of humankind, which allows him to occupy this place, the gateway into secret human motives and the power of the illogical white-anting Fredersen’s ego-empire.
Lang’s obsession with underworlds, first evinced in The Spiders which conceived of a Chinese colony lurking underneath San Francisco and recurring again and again in his cinema, here has bloomed into something close to a form of psychic architecture that conceives of the whole of Metropolis as a mind, complete with id, ego, and superego, rational stretches and irrational depths, its holy and profane women, its young crusader torn between three father figures, one mad but powerful in mind and emotion, one timid and entrapped, the last seemingly dead in all nerves but will. Similar ideas are evinced in a very different setting in Von Harbou’s The Indian Tomb, a novel set in an Indian city (which Lang would film much later) where the progressive Maharajah’s stirred erotic jealousy turns his world into a repressive state and the shiny bastions of the exterior conceal basements where zombie-like lepers. Rotwang chases down Maria after the workers depart, stalking her through the labyrinth and terrorising her with a torch beam, ironically inverts the image of light in darkness as the bringing of terror and the pitiless of eye of technology (the movie camera?) to the subterranean realm where emotion is truth, to torment the holy innocent.
Maria and Freder’s journey is linked with two men Freder helps release from their slots in the great machine, Georgy and Josaphat (Theodor Loos). The latter works as aide to Fredersen but gets fired for not being prompt enough in reports, a devastating act that will doom Josaphat to a degrading existence as unemployable pariah. But Freder, as he did with Georgy, throws him a lifeline by letting him take refuge in his apartment and taking him on as a partner in his venture to change Metropolis. Just as Georgy is a near-double for Freder, his less lucky, anointed brother in look and soul, Josaphat has been Freder’s more human surrogate father almost incidentally as the man who took care of his needs on his father’s behalf. Josaphat’s growth from toady to hero is one of the film’s most entertaining elements. But Georgy has been sidetracked by the allure of the high life, and, fuelled by the cash in the clothes Freder loaned him, he goes for a night on the town in the Yoshiwara Club, the favourite night spot for the city elite. Both Georgy and Josaphat come under the thumb of one of Fredersen’s agents, known only as the Thin Man (Fritz Rasp), who bullies and blackmails both men into retreating into the underworld. Freder himself is imprisoned in Rotwang’s house when he hears, by chance, Maria’s screams coming from inside. Entering the abode, he finds himself duelling with the automated doors that steadily shepherd him into the attic and lock him in. Rotwang places the unconscious Maria in a mechanism in his laboratory that steadily reconstructs the Machine Man’s exterior into a perfect double of Maria.
The resulting creation is a demonically sensual and taunting succubus operating under Rotwang’s command, and even Fredersen, who knows well what it is, can’t resist when it visits him. Freder breaks out of Rotwang’s house and arrives back at his father’s office in time to see what looks like his father and his lover embracing. The crisis of disillusion on top of his agonised and exhausting adventures is so great Freder collapses in a delirium. The Robot-Maria, sent out by Rotwang to stir up anarchy, performs before the uptown folk at the Yoshiwara Club, Whore of Babylon going jazz age burlesque priestess. The cyborg’s starkly erotic, physically frenetic performance stokes the ritzy crowd, all milk-fed whelps produced by the idealistic, Olympian reaches of the city like Freder, into a grotesque mass of lust. The veneer of civilisation is peeled off like a chrysalis, and soon they’re duelling each-other and staging mass orgies, distracting the scions of the governing class from the chaos about to be unleashed by Robot-Maria’s more pertinent campaign. It takes the place of the still-imprisoned Maria and now preaches destruction of Metropolis’s utility systems, to bring the oppressors low. Freder, Josaphat, and Georgy try to calm the crowd but the workers try to assault Freder, and Georgy is stabbed to death when he throws himself in front of him. Led by Robot-Maria, the workers swarm to assault the Metropolis systems, finally destroying the great “Heart Machine” that coordinates the utilities, paralysing the city. But the workers’ actions unleash a flood that begins to fill their own city with water, threatening to drown their children who have remained behind.
Metropolis would be remarkable enough for the beauty and ingenuity put into what Lang puts in front of his camera, the sets by Otto Hunte, Erich Kettelhut, and Karl Volbrecht, Eugen Schüfftan’s radically innovative model photography, and Walter Schulze-Mittendorff’s totemic design for the Machine Man. But the cinematic textures of Metropolis in cutting, shooting, and use of the camera are equally impressive and represent silent cinema at its most innovative, amassing into an artefact that proves, scarcely a decade after the crude yet sufficiently significant grammar of Birth of a Nation (1915) helped officially open up the true cinematic age, just how vigorous the new medium had become, and looking forward to the ebullient freedoms of Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927). Lang had Hollywood’s spectacles his sights, the colossi fashioned by Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille and laid out for stars like Douglas Fairbanks and Lon Chaney, hoping to prove European cinema could not just match such production heft but outdo it for artistry. Lang and his brilliant technical team, which also included cinematography greats Karl Freund and Günther Rittau, explored almost every facet of the medium possible in the time.
The surveys of Metropolis demanded the creation of a landscape through huge mock-ups and complex model work. The scenes of Robot-Maria’s creation and the destruction of the Heart Machine interpolation of photographic elements in a combination familiar in many respects now but still startling in their eye-filling beauty and inventiveness in context. Midway through the film, Lang launches into an astonishing movement after Freder’s discovery of his father with Robot-Maria. Freder’s mental disintegration is depicted in flourishes of abstract animation and herky-jerky editing that resembles the labours of experimental filmmakers. Robot-Maria’s dance is then intercut with Freder’s raving fantasies, in which he sees the Thin Man as evil priest repeating Maria’s sermon as rhapsodic incantation that stirs the forces of death and destruction into motion. The allegorical pantheon of the deadly sins and Death in Metropolis’s cathedral is seen jerking to life and striding out of their stalls. The film is split not into chapters or cantos like Die Nibelungen but into musical signatures – Prelude, Intermezzo, and Furioso.
Lang’s original concept was to have Rotwang literally conjure up magic forces to attack the modern, scientifically enabled world of Metropolis. This idea was mostly dropped but here something of this eruption of the irrational is still present, climaxing in the image out of medieval nightmare of Death slicing the air before Lang’s camera. Lang edges into the realm of outright surrealism here, and does again as he builds to a climactic shot during Robot-Maria’s dance when the screen is filled with that mass of eyes – the male gaze literalised as one great amorphous, greedy force, a shot reminiscent in execution of experimental photography. More subtly, perhaps, Lang’s filmmaking conveys a constant awareness of power relations throughout, befitting a film where the synergies of social relations, positive and negative, are translated throughout into concrete expressions. It’s quietly but surely present in conversational scenes like Freder’s first conversation with his father or the Thin Man’s confrontation of Josaphat, where attitudes of body and expressions define the characters (the latter scene building to the Thin Man’s physical as well as mental domination of Josaphat) in terms of their potency and the regard they show others – the hard line of Fredersen’s tilted jaw as he son appeals to him, only for the young man to realise his father is something like a monster. This aspect is illustrated more explicitly and spectacularly with Lang’s arrangements of human elements in the sequences where workers tread in close, robotic ranks.
The opening scenes depict the workers changing shifts in obedience to horns that blare out around the city, moving between their underground, near-featureless, pseudo-Berber city, the intermediary stage before Wells’ Morlock evolves and start eating the Eloi above, all scored to an unheard yet definite musical rhythm (no wonder musicians like Moroder have been drawn to the film). There are even moments of hand-held camerawork during Maria’s flight from Rotwang in the underground. One of Lang’s most insistent traits during the German phase of his career was the way he turned his awareness of and fascination for contemporary art styles and his utilisation of them to create cinematic effect. This trait had first made itself known in his plan for Dr Caligari’s Expressionistic effects, and in Die Nibelungen had seen him annexing Cubism and art nouveau for decorative and conceptual import. Here, the entire universe has become, on one level, a form of installation art, the marching ranks of workers elements arrayed in harmonies of line and form. Spaces are carefully diagrammed to open up vistas even within the boxy Academy ratio frame of the day, through use of height – Metropolis is a hierarchical tale on both the thematic and visual levels. The linear clarity and rigid control inherent in such stylisation is ironic considering that Metropolis’s concerns are closer to rather different European artists of the day, including the photomontage satire of John Hartfield and the bleak panoramas of Hans Baluschek.
Both Fröhlich and Helm were thrust into stardom specifically for this film, but whilst Fröhlich merely looks the part of ardent young hero, Helm, still a teenager during the shoot and yet attacking the role with astonishing gusto as she inhabits the Madonna-whore schism, is remarkable. Klein-Rogge, the hydra-headed star of Lang’s early films, wrote himself into film legend as Rotwang with his wild hair, gloved hand, and imperious gestures. His role is hurt by scenes still missing from the film, including a violent confrontation with Fredersen that gives Maria the chance to escape his house. The workers lay waste to the machinery that oppresses them but in a self-defeating way. Tellingly, Freder’s other self from the worker populace, Georgy, is defined by his dedication to his work, his understanding that he is in a way necessary to the survival of Metropolis even as it uses him up like an replaceable part. The shattering of order, celebrated by the workers who dance around the toppled idols of technocracy, soon gives way to panic as they realise their children are in danger, and they’re impotent to intervene. Fredersen, who has ordered the Heart Machine’s foreman and worker representative Grot (Heinrich George) to stand down and let the workers do their worst, is stricken himself with the seemingly imminent death of Freder in the flood. By this stage his machinations have even cost him the loyalty of the Thin Man, who responds to his desperate demand to know where his son is with the memorable retort, “Tomorrow thousands will ask in fury and desperation, ‘Joh Fredersen, where is my son?’” Meanwhile Robot-Maria is unbound, leading the frenetic, equally nihilistic revelry of the upper class out of the nightclubs and into the streets. Once the ambitions and pretences of Metropolis work themselves out, it becomes, in essence, a Boy’s Own adventure tale not that far from The Spiders’ cliffhanger suspense set-pieces. This is particularly plain in the finale as Freder, Maria, and Josaphat try desperately to save the workers’ children from the flooding, with Maria wrestling with the mechanism to set off the alarm gong in the town square, and the two men making arduous climbs up a shaft to reach her.
Lang’s acerbic perspective is still in constant evidence, as the climactic scenes hinge upon ideas that would preoccupy Lang in the next decade of his career or so are in play here in the likes of M (1931), The Testament of Dr Mabuse (1933), Fury (1936), and You Only Live Once (1937) – the terror of lynch mob justice, the accusation of the innocent, the reactive and self-consuming rage of the oppressed, the sinister manipulator of events, the rogue villain whose actions show up uneasy relationship of various social strata. The meeting of those strata is literalised almost comically here as the revelling scions of Metropolis’s upper levels, with Robot-Maria lifted shoulder high as their champion, collide with the mass of enraged workers, chasing the real Maria in the belief she is a witch who has led them to ruin. Somewhere amidst this is an eerie anticipating echo of the grim love affair that would soon come upon Nazi Germany with the almost ritualised, orgiastic invitation of destruction. Metropolis remains tantalising and enigmatic in this regard to this day, in spite of its optimistic depiction of a balance less restored than at last properly achieved. Robot-Maria is the film’s dancing Kali, whipping up the passions of the crowd as a brilliant mouthpiece for an insidious force and then leads the people rejoicing in the moment of pointless and delicious vandalism. In spite of the official message of Metropolis, the power of Robot-Maria’s wild, sexualised, anarchic insurrection feels more heroic than anything the nominal good guys accomplish here even if the result is the old conservative nightmare of such actions, the unleashing of uncontainable forces and unintended horrors. In a different time and different social mood, many a hero in the science fiction genre, from Logan to THX-1138 to Luke Skywalker to Neo, takes up the robot’s iconoclastic mantle rather than Freder’s even whilst stepping into his messianic shoes.
Luckily, the workers chasing the real Maria instead mistake the robot for her, tie her to an improvised pyre, and burnt. The skin is peeled by licking flame, the Machine-Man under the human guise revealed and with it not just the tricks of Rotwang and Fredersen but also the queasy face of the next stage of evolution. Rotwang’s degeneration from evil genius to lecher trying to escape Freder with Maria under arm across the rooftops is comparatively unconvincing and a nudge too far in the direction of gothic melodrama, perhaps inspired by the Lon Chaney version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1922) and surely laying ground for dozens of variations to come. But the staging of this sequence is impeccable, particularly in the moment when Maria falls over a railing and snatches onto a bell rope to dangle over a dizzying drop, the clang of the bell alerting Freder and others to this new drama. Like Rotwang’s house the cathedral is an island of the ancient amidst the city, and the sole place where the schizoid facets of Metropolis can still come together, crux of old and new, high and low, the bleak memento mori of medieval religious imagery gaining new potency in the context of Metropolis’s collapse. Rotwang falls to his death, Freder and Maria are reunited, and Freder literally becomes the mediator in showing Grot and his father how to overcome their pride and make piece. Again, certainly weak sociology, but also a perfect thumbnail for the fairy tale essence of Metropolis as a whole. Both the greatness and the difficulty of Metropolis lie in that essence, as a film that animates the dark and strident fantasies of its age without quite knowing how to critique or contain them. But even the most casual of glances around us at the world today shows that, where most films of its era have joined the ranks of playful relics, Metropolis still has something potent to say. And therein lies some of the deepest brilliance of Metropolis in tethering science fiction, the art of anticipation, with the method of myth, the primal storytelling form—both speak to that moment just over the horizon of experience and foresight. It is never; it is ever.
Freedom of speech. Has there ever been a more slippery phrase in modern times? In 2015, French cartoonists exercising their free speech to lampoon Islam were gunned down by offended Muslim extremists, causing worldwide mourning and defiant support for their work; yet, a French comedian was arrested for hate speech for making comments that appeared to sympathize with the gunmen. Americans condemn the repressions of the Iranian state, which has banned writers, filmmakers, and activists, imprisoning and executing some of them; yet, in recent years, Americans have seen major suppression of demonstrations and the killing of citizens, most notoriously in Ferguson, Missouri. Moreover, in the name of free speech, billionaires are now able to spend unlimited amounts of money in U.S. elections on politicians they favor. If there’s anything that’s certain, it’s that free speech is neither universally understood nor universally available, even in countries where it appears to be a core belief.
Film, of course, has a long history in the debate over free speech. From the Catholic Church to AMPAS and governments at all levels, films have come in for condemnation, censorship, and outright banning for everything from miscegenation of the races (Piccadilly ) to sexuality (Kiss Me, Stupid ). Implicit in these actions is the recognition—or fear—that films can be an effective tool for winning hearts and minds. As Hitler articulated in Mein Kampf:
One must also remember that of itself the multitude is mentally inert, that it remains attached to its old habits and that it is not naturally prone to read something which does not conform with its own pre-established beliefs when such writing does not contain what the multitude hopes to find there. … The picture, in all its forms, including the film, has better prospects. … In a much shorter time, at one stroke I might say, people will understand a pictorial presentation of something which it would take them a long and laborious effort of reading to understand.
With this assertion in mind, the Nazi Party included propaganda filmmaking in its plan, establishing a film department as early as 1930. Eventually, filmmaking was nationalized and administered by Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels. While only about 15 percent of the more than 1,000 films that were made in Germany from 1933 through 1945 were blatantly propagandistic, most films conformed to Goebbels’ Nazification program in some way.
Today, Germany still grapples with its Nazi past, including how to deal with the hundreds of propaganda films that unified the people of the Third Reich so effectively behind its mission to become masters of the universe. Forbidden Films deals specifically with the 40 or so Nazi-era motion pictures that are still banned from unrestricted public viewing. Director Felix Moeller isn’t as interested in the films themselves as in the debate surrounding whether it would be wise to loose them upon the general public. Although Forbidden Films wends its way through some of the “genres” with which Nazi propagandists concerned themselves, including anti-British, anti-Polish, youth indoctrination, pro-euthanasia, and, of course, anti-Semitic, with each topic prefaced by a quote from Goebbels (e.g., “Film is the educational tool to teach our young people” for films meant to delegitimize parental guidance in favor of Nazi ideology), he’s more interested in the reactions of those who attended supervised screenings of these films in Germany, France, and Israel and discussed them afterward.
Moeller consults a number of film scholars who foreground the films under discussion with their specific function and the elements that helped them work their magic on the movie-going public. Some films are blatant with their messages, which we see in the anti-Polish Homecoming (1941). Poles are shown discriminating against their German-minority population, climaxing with the gunning down of a family of five—an incredible act of projection that the Nazis used to justify their invasion of Poland. Homecoming fooled one German viewer, who said he never knew about the “merciless way that Poles terrorized minorities.”
Other films, the scholars say, are more suggestive. The Rothschilds (1940), which takes fictionalized biography to new territory, reinforces with subtle, repeated phrases the notion of a global Jewish conspiracy to control the world by controlling its banks, ending with the admittedly not-so-subtle image of a Star of David formed by connecting the dots representing centers of Rothschild domination. An even more disguised propaganda film, the pro-euthanasia I Accuse (1941), was designed to make the public comfortable with the Nazi plan to murder 70,000 physically and mentally disabled Germans. The film concerns a woman afflicted with multiple sclerosis who begs her physician husband to end her life before the disease leaves her unrecognizable. Right-to-die groups operating today might take a lesson from its persuasive melodrama and the star power of Heidemarie Hatheyer as the wife. Indeed, I Accuse is only one of the films that skillfully used well-known stars for their marquee value and acting talent. In addition to Hatheyer, Goebbels employed Paula Wessely (Homecoming and other films), Emil Jannings (Uncle Kruger  and other films) and Heinrich George (Kolberg  and other films). Many of the viewers are surprised at how entertaining and well produced they are.
The most notorious film Moeller takes on is Jew Süss (1940). Considered by many to be one of the most effective of the anti-Semitic films of the era, it takes place in the distant German past, during the 18th century reign of Duke Charles Alexander of Württemberg. The duke turns to Süss the Jew for financial help, and this allows Süss to infiltrate Christian society, where he subverts the rule of law and eventually rapes a Christian woman. The money-grubbing stereotype is paired with dangerous, lawless behavior to incite audiences and help them justify the persecution of Jews. A lot of money was spent on this film, and the high production values and quality performances and script made it a big hit.
Most of what I know about Jew Süss is what I’ve read because Forbidden Films provides only excerpts of that film that are not particularly edifying about why it is so heinous. On the whole, however, the film handles its excerpting quite well, and I found particularly interesting the edited-out footage—swastikas, Hitler, tanks, and planes—of films that then went on to be shown in theatres and on TV after the war.
Forbidden Films is hardly a well-crafted film itself. It opens somewhat inexplicably at a well-fortified storage facility for thousands of nitrate films. Apparently, the idea was to compare the flammable and explosive nature of nitrate with the incendiary nature of the banned films whose reel cans are displayed for Moeller’s camera. The audience discussions resemble C-SPAN televised lectures and discussions. Better are the individuals who are filmed outside the screening room for their take on what they have seen. These interviews go from unhelpful to illuminating: director Margarethe von Trotta, no doubt approached for her celebrity, adds nothing, while a French woman, interestingly, believes the films would be more dangerous in France, where the right-wing National Front is strong. Moeller also obscures the faces of two interviewees, former neo-Nazis, who offer little other than that these films were popular in their group and available through YouTube.
Unsurprisingly, opinions about the continued restrictions on these films are varied. In Israel, one man thought they should be shown to every school child so they can be understood and rejected. A Holocaust survivor in Germany did not want them shown on TV, as had been proposed, whereas free-speech advocates believed that people should be allowed to make up their own minds. Some people castigated film fans for wanting them released just to satisfy their cinephilia, and one scholar felt that editing the films was tantamount to mutilation. Knowing how carefully these films were crafted to sway public opinion and how susceptible all of us are to being manipulated, I personally favor erring on the side of caution by offering them only for educational purposes. Forbidden Films is not a great film, but it can be a great facilitator of conversation.
Forbidden Films screens Sunday, March 6 at 3 p.m. and Wednesday, March 9 at 6 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.
At least through February 28—Oscar night—it’s a pretty sure bet that people will be talking about Todd Haynes’ Carol (2015) and its six nominations, including Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in the best actress and supporting actress categories, respectively. Carol is the latest, but certainly not the only lesbian romance to hit the big screen in a big way; indeed, Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013) won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. As I started thinking about films that deal with this topic, my mind went to a feature directorial debut from Germany, Max Färberböck’s Aimée & Jaguar.
Like Carol, Aimée & Jaguar is based on a book. Unlike the former film, which derives from the semiautobiographical novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, the German film is based on the published correspondence of Lilly Wust and Felice Schragenheim, two Berliners whose love affair spanned the final two years of World War II. What makes their story especially compelling is that Wust was a middle-aged wife of a Nazi soldier and mother of four and Schragenheim was a 19-year-old Jew who hid her religion and worked at a Nazi propaganda newspaper from which she secreted information to the underground working to topple Hitler and his regime. Wust and Schragenheim don’t get the happy ending intimated in Carol—instead, the couple is ripped apart by the SS on an especially happy day for them, with Felice presumed dead following her deportation to Thereisenstadt and possible forced death march at the very end of the war.
As though to emphasize the real basis of his story, Färberböck bookends his story, quite unnecessarily, with an elderly Lilly (Inge Keller) moving into a retirement home and discovering that one of its residents is Ilse (Kyra Mladeck), her former housekeeper and a friend and lover of Felice (Maria Schrader) before Lilly came on the scene. A voiceover from Ilse leads us back to the dangerous and, at least for our characters, thrilling days of 1943 Germany. Felice, an orphan, lives with Ilse (Johanna Wokalek) and her parents, plays up to her unsuspecting and adoring boss (Peter Weck), and pals around with a coterie of lesbians who live like it’s the decadent ’20s, not the fascist ’40s. One night, at a concert, Ilse sees her employer, Lilly (Juliane Köhler), out with a German officer while her husband, Günther (Detlev Buck), is fighting on the eastern front. Felice comments to a jealous Ilse about how attractive Lilly is and contrives to make contact with her after the concert, a brief encounter that lets the women get a good look at each other.
Felice insinuates herself into the Wust household, eventually organizing a party there with a group of her lesbian girlfriends. Günther, suddenly returned from the front, jumps into the middle of the lively goings-on. When Lilly catches him making out with Ilse, she brings her discovery rather excitedly to Felice. The younger woman takes the opportunity to kiss her, and earns a slap for her trouble. But the ice has been broken, and eventually Lilly succumbs to Felice’s seduction and sets up housekeeping with her in Lilly’s spacious apartment.
Aimée & Jaguar is an intriguing film that offers much food for thought, particularly in comparison with Carol. Whereas Haynes’ film is tightly produced and directed, with strong attention to period detail, Aimée & Jaguar is episodic and too beholden to the imagery of Weimar Germany and media depictions of the decadence of the time; Marlene Dietrich’s top hat and tails feature in a “wedding” ceremony between Lilly and Felice, and Felice and her friends pose for naughty pictures to be sent to the soldiers at the front in a scene that could have come from a Pabst film from the 1920s.
In other ways, Aimée & Jaguar captures a life force that the circumscribed Carol never really approaches. Felice and Carol are both predators, the former seeing if she can conquer a Nazi hausfrau of startling conventionality, the latter seeing an easy target in the fascinated and inexperienced store clerk she seduces. Both women are enigmatic, hiding their secrets from all but their intimates, and the extent to which either woman loves the new woman in her life is very much open to debate. But Carol is a fetishized mannequin of ’50s propriety, whereas Felice lives “now, now, now,” as excited as she is concerned about the closeness of death, delighted by the subversion of being welcomed into the anterooms of the Nazi power structure.
The choice to focus equally on both Lilly and Felice (Schrader and Köhler were both named best actress at the Bavarian Film Awards, the Berlin International Film Festival, and the German Film Awards) offers a strength Carol eschews in favor of privileging the female gaze of Carol’s lover, Therese. Lilly is an absorbing creature, welcoming ranking Nazis into her arms with a rather comic flourish after she sends her older children to the zoo with Ilse for the umpteenth time. She gets an inkling of the Nazi sting when her parents (Sarah Camp and Klaus Manchen) interrupt one of her trysts, sending the hapless officer (Jochen Stern) into hiding; when they make disparaging remarks about the country’s leadership, he emerges unashamed and menacing, warning them to watch what they think and say.
Lilly’s excitement at receiving a series of poetic and stirring love letters, signed only “Jaguar,” sends her into a tizzy guessing at their author. Felice certainly knows how to prime the pump of a conventionally romantic woman. When they finally end up in bed, Lilly holds her slip modestly over her breasts, trembling uncontrollably with fear and desire as Felice talks gently to her, asking whether she should stop, describing her feelings as matching Lilly’s. The scene is so tender, so erotic, everything the perfunctory, overly choreographed sex scene in Carol was not. Subsequent sex scenes are bold and frank, as Lilly experiences a love and joy she never thought was possible. Her fits of jealousy and anger at being shut out of complete knowledge of her lover are fierce and real. When Felice finally reveals that she is a Jew, Lilly’s response is breathtakingly knowing: “How could you love me?”
Aimée & Jaguar matches Carol in a certain kind of loveliness, a separation of the world of the lovers from the outside world, as when Lilly and Felice go swimming one bright day in a nearby lake surrounded by lush greenery. Yet, the ugliness of the time intrudes frequently. Rubble from repeated bombings of the city background many scenes, and one of Felice’s friends is gunned down in the street. Glowing red skies are both beautiful and horrible, a succinct reminder of the sickening bloodshed in and around Germany’s capital and throughout Europe. Felice’s friends warn her of the danger she has placed herself in, but some sort of compulsion—perhaps it is true love—keeps her at Lilly’s side. Unbelievably, Lilly visits Felice at Thereisenstadt as though it were just a town and not a deadly ghetto. Could this breach of the mass denial Germany was laboring under have hastened Felice’s death? No one can say for sure, though I personally don’t think it could have made much of a difference one way or the other.
On the downside, the film’s structure is a bit too loose. Günther pops in and out of his home so easily that it seems the eastern front he’s serving at is East Berlin. Lilly’s fourth child remains resolutely off-camera until near the end of the movie. Finally, the Berlin underground operates in such an obvious way in this film, I’m surprised it could have operated at all. On the upside, there is an equal mix of Germans who hew to the party line and those who maintain a relaxed, even helpful demeanor toward the “subversives” in their midst. The camaraderie of Felice and her friends is warm, youthful, and protective. Lilly’s rash actions—divorcing Günther and visiting Felice at the ghetto—show her naivete and are met with horror by Felice’s friends. When she says, “Now I’m one of you,” the women and we know she is too far separated by her experiences to ever understand what their lives have been like under Nazism. Aimée & Jaguar describes an intense pas de deux of love, but maintains a strong foothold in the world of its time. Its rich performances and balanced approach to its central couple make it a nourishing experience.
On October 3, 1990, East and West Germany were officially reunified, and Germans in both halves of the country looked forward to better times for the entire country. The hardships under which the East Germans lived for decades, however, did not vanish overnight, and integration of the two populations was fraught in many ways. Christian Schwochow, who was born and grew up in East Germany, has begun to examine this past. His 2012 miniseries The Tower dealt with the crumbling of communist rule in East Germany, observing life in the former Soviet bloc country near the final approach of reunification. West takes a step back to the 1970s for a look at life for East Germans who were granted permission to emigrate to the west.
The film opens with our main characters, Nelly Senff (Jördis Triebel) and her son Alexej (Tristan Göbel) bidding a loving farewell to the man of the house, Wassilij (Carlo Ljubek), who is leaving on a trip. The context of the trip is vague, and when he says that he will see them in a week, the furtiveness of the exchange made me wonder whether they were all going to try to escape to the west. Flash forward three years, and a worried-looking Nelly is indeed making for the border with Alexej to start a new life—but with the government’s blessings. Nelly, jittery that something will foul up the plan, tries to keep Alexej from the leaving the car to use the rest room. This action ironically arouses suspicions, and Nelly is asked to submit to questioning. Although her papers are in order, East Germany reserves one final indignity for her before she leaves—she is made to strip, jewelry and all, for a cavity search before she is released to West Berlin’s Marienfelde Refugee Center.
Mother and son are given room and board, and Alexej is enrolled in the local school. They are given a card that will need 12 stamps from various officials before they can leave the center and find a job and a place of their own. Slowly, Nelly begins to make friends, and Alexej latches onto a long-time resident of the center, Hans Pischke (Alexander Scheer), who distracts him when the boy witnesses a hanging suicide. Nelly, initially furious that Hans seems to be playing father to Alexej, relaxes when he tells her why and begins to trust him. Sadly, an American official, John Bird, (Jacky Ido) who refuses to stamp her card because he believes Wassilij was a Soviet courier who is still alive, derails her plan to get on with her life and stokes her paranoia to the point that she begins to suspect Hans of being a Stasi spy.
West is a film that cuts a lot of narrative corners and provides so little backstory on any of its characters that it’s hard to register them as anything but types. This sketchiness may be deliberate, as it helps us to identify somewhat with Nelly’s dislocation and distrust. Nonetheless, because we are shown things Nelly is not—Hans taking Alexej away from the scene of the suicide, Alexej buying flowers for his mother that he leaves as a surprise for her in their room—her anger and paranoia seem quite unreasonable. Schwochow further plays with our sense of reality by giving us a few brief glimpses of Wassilij, sometimes as Nelly’s delusions and then perhaps as a real person. He offers an American paranoic, a fairly predictable, but perhaps accurate touch, but puts Nelly in the position of using sex to find out what he knows about Wassilij; adding this cloak-and-dagger element and setting up the stereotype of the German woman desiring an African-American cheapens an already unflattering portrait of an intelligent, professional woman (a chemist) defined by her lover and mother roles.
Nonetheless, looking past the narrative weaknesses, West is a riveting experience thanks to the mesmerizing performances of Triebel and Göbel. Triebel won best actress awards at the 2014 German Film Awards and 2013 Montreal World Film Festival and was a best actress nominee of the German Film Critics Association in 2015 and the 2014 Seattle International Film Festival. Triebel is on camera almost constantly, and her intense, full-bodied performance makes up for the sometimes weak dialogue with which screenwriter Heide Schwochow, the director’s mother, saddled her. So focused is she that looking at screencaps for this film, I was extremely surprised how much her character smokes in the film—I just never noticed. At the same time that I felt her full-bore seductiveness toward Bird and deep love for Wassilij in their one brief scene together, there was a certain containedness that felt absolutely right for someone who lived under an oppressive, vigilant regime.
Göbel’s open face and innocence stand in contrast to his costar’s suspicions and fear. Alexej misses his father, a fact he and Nelly talk about openly. At the same time, his inability to deal honestly with his mother, standing bewildered, unable to say the flowers are his gift to her when she snatches them out of their vase and smashes them in a trashcan, rings painfully true. His relationship with Hans is wonderfully warm, untainted by the suspicions of others; we’re grateful he has Hans to turn to when the West German boys start to pick on him and break his glasses. Frankly, I could have looked at him the entire film and not have been bored at all.
Alexander Scheer has a tricky balancing act. Hans must be normally friendly but seem abnormally so to Nelly. He doesn’t quite pull it off, but I give him full marks for convincing me that he had been tortured by the Stasi and emotionally crippled as a result. It is important to realize that not everyone can be strong and put the past behind them.
Schwochow’s handheld work, getting right into the faces of his characters, creates an intimacy that draws us into the story, even as his muted, cool colors suggest the gray area between imprisonment and freedom. When Nelly’s world gradually starts to open up, it is a joyful relief, a reminder that despite its imperfections, unification made life better for a lot of people.
Westis showing Saturday, March 21 at 5:00 p.m. and Wednesday, March 25 at 6:00 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., Chicago.
This year, the Berlinale is paying tribute to one of Germany’s most creative native sons, Wim Wenders. Showing next week at the Berlinale Palast theatre is Everything Will Be Fine, Wenders’ brand-new feature film shot in 3D, and the “Homage” section of the festival will screen 10 of his works, including the film under consideration here, Pina. This documentary about one of the giants of German modern dance, Pina Bausch, was the first film Wenders shot in 3D. Clearly, he must have been intrigued by the form during his first outing and wondered how it could be applied to a fictional narrative. Like many of our finest directors, including Jean-Luc Godard and Martin Scorsese, Wenders has found a new toy to play with and has had to learn all over again how to shoot a movie. Pina is an interesting, often beautiful film that shows the learning curve for 3D cinematography is a sometimes steep and bumpy one.
Pina was a project nursed over the 20-year friendship of Wenders and Bausch, but it stayed as little more than an idea until 3D cinematography made its resurgence. In a 2011 interview with The Guardian, Wenders said, “I never knew, with all my knowledge of the craft of film-making, how to do justice to her work. It was only when 3D was added to the language of film that I could enter dance’s realm and language.” Although dance has been filmed since the very beginnings of motion pictures, Wenders’ appreciation of the importance of space as well as movement to dance is an interesting and vital addition to the representation of dance on film. The possibilities of allowing viewers to “enter” the spaces between dancers must have had great appeal for Bausch, for whom some level of audience involvement would be a natural fit with her convention-defying choreography and collaborative work method.
Sadly, Bausch died suddenly before principal photography began, so we will never know what influence the 3D effects would have had on her personal language of movement or what contributions she could have made to the visual approach and results Wenders achieved. But we do have her company, the Tanztheater Wuppertal, who were filmed in live performances before an audience and in sequences set up by Wenders in a variety of environments, including a warehouse, an overhead tram car, a glass house set in the midst of trees, a swimming pool deck, and a busy street, among other locations.
The place where Wenders achieves the potential of 3D is in the film’s opening. A topless woman wearing an accordion briefly sings about the seasons of the year, initiating a kind of snake dance in which the company, dressed in suits and evening wear, move onto the stage in a line repeating small hand gestures for spring, summer, fall, and winter as they cross the stage and double back behind a flowing scrim. The 3D effect actually seems to move us into the line and, at one point, elicits an urge to sweep the scrim out of our way. It’s an amazingly effective opening, giving the audience a stake in the film as a participant, not just the usual passive viewer of dance.
Wenders follows up by showing in slow time lapse workers dumping large containers of earth onto the stage and smoothing it into a giant square that covers the entire performance space. We are then treated to perhaps Bausch’s most famous piece of choreography, her interpretation of Igor Stravinsky’s composition The Rite of Spring. This is the only piece we see in its entirety, and indeed, it would be hard to cut away from this primal, frightening work whose power would pop off the screen with or without Wenders’ camera tricks. As the film moves on, however, Wenders is content to present fragments of dances, interspersing them with short vignettes of the dancers talking briefly about Bausch or sometimes saying nothing at all. He does not see fit to identify the dancers in any way, though he does relate them to the dances they perform. Bausch painted with a wide brush, and her company is polyglot and international, young and not so young, tall and tiny—the very opposite of the regimented sizes and shapes of traditional ballet and even more diverse than can be found in many modern dance companies.
As the film moves on, Wenders’ use of 3D is less obvious, and the film becomes less interactive as a result. He uses his power as director to become something of a choreographer, particularly in a performance of “Kontakthof,” a ballroom-dance-inflected piece concentrating on the awkwardness of finding intimacy transformed into an examination of aging by having three different casts—adolescents, adults, and mature adults—melting successively into each other, thus merging the three age-specific versions of this dance Bausch staged over the years.
The piece that gets the majority of Wenders’ attention is “Café Müller,” which introduced the director to Bausch’s work in 1985. It is also the piece where we get to see and hear Pina dance and talk about the language of dance. It’s poignant to hear her remark that the deep feeling she had for this piece vanished when she tried to dance it with her eyes open—once she closed them again, it all fell back into place emotionally. We see archival footage of Pina in the piece as well as a contemporary mounting with another dancer in Pina’s role. The dance certainly is remarkable, with two women moving through the space of a café peppered with round tables and chairs with their eyes closed, a male dancer rushing to remove the objects before the dancers run into them. Pina’s part was more minimal in this regard—she largely remained against a wall, moving slowly against the vertical plane, occasionally breaking away from it to shuffle behind a plexiglass wall and bash into it from time to time. This dance carries on Bausch’s habit of ritualized movement and repetition, seeming to turn people into machines that become habituated to their environment and frightened of separation.
Wenders recognizes this approach and chooses sites that emphasize a harrowing, hemmed-in quality to match the movements. One dance that particularly struck me begins in a factory of some kind that has metal cars moving on overhead rails along its periphery. A male dancer is swinging his female partner on a concrete floor boxed by I-beams, making this open, expansive movement appear dangerous. As they move out of the frame, a male dancer is filmed moving on the floor; he seems to be paralyzed from the waist down and must use his hands to manipulate his legs in fast, repetitive motions that create a box of his body. The effect is of a man turned into a machine, and the marriage of his frantically busy movements and his mechanical, industrial surroundings is a fortuitous one.
Other sites are less felicitous. Wenders films a younger dancer new to the company who barely had a chance to work with Pina before her death. The dancer talks about how Pina would give her little instruction—in fact, all the dancers remark on her reluctance to give them more than a line or two of direction—and how she realized that she would have to pull herself up by her own hair. Wenders films her dancing on the deck of a pool with a few swimmers in the water, a rather clichéd way to suggest her fear of drowning in her new environment. Interestingly, the choreography includes her pulling her hair up above her head, but whether Wenders suggested the gesture or the dancer improvised it is anyone’s guess.
This poolside dance was revealing of another aspect of Bausch and her company. A young woman with very little experience of or indoctrination into the cult of Pina showed more spirit and feeling in her dancing than the more established members, while still executing moves that were in keeping with Pina’s choreographic ethos. Pina’s dances are often described as cerebral, even cold, while her subject matter is about relationships, community, the fraught landscape of love and its discords. In “Café Müller,” she has a woman desperately hug a man, only to have another man break her grip and place her on her lover’s outstretched arms; when the lover’s arms grow tired and he drops her, she immediately goes back into her desperate clutch. The disruptive dancer again breaks her grip and places her on her lover’s arms, and the scene repeats over and over, moving faster and faster, until the couple repeat the sequence without prompting, a piece of conditioning that overtakes their genuine feelings. It was only when I saw Pina dance in the film’s archival footage that I understood that her choreography, for all its supposed collaborativeness, maps her feelings—every gesture she made was electric and alive. No matter how well-trained and devoted her dancers were to her, they could not duplicate her inner fire, and she could not articulate it to them in words. That Wenders’ 3D effects tended to wane the longer the film progressed may have had something to do with the difficulty even he was having finding the heart of Bausch’s art.
Wenders ends the film at a deep quarry, where a young male dancer runs into the frame from below the lip of the quarry. He is a whirling dervish of movement, thrilling and frightening to watch as he edges dangerously close to the lip. Suddenly he breaks and climbs a steep slope. The snake dance of elegantly dressed dancers miming “spring, summer, fall, winter” moves along the top of the slope. A long shot of them reveals them to be the dancers of death from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), a too-much imitated shot that, nonetheless, offers an appropriate finale in tribute to its departed central subject.
The entertainment world and fans of thoughtful, fine acting mourned mightily this past February when actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died of a heroin overdose at the age of 46. During a prolific career that encompassed small roles and large in crowd pleasers like Twister (1996) and Mission: Impossible III (2006), as well as serious-minded films like Capote (2005) and The Master (2012), Hoffman brought a complexity and intelligence to his creations that always made them memorable. A Most Wanted Man, his final film, was an apt one with which to end a career of great accomplishment thwarted by the weaknesses that flesh is heir to.
A Most Wanted Man promises an exciting story of international espionage from its opening sequence—a young, haggard-looking man dragging himself from the water at Hamburg, Germany and threading his way furtively through a lot of cars waiting overnight for the morning a ferry and finding one to sleep in. His entry into Germany has been observed by German intelligence and his identity confirmed as a Muslim rebel of Russian-Chechen background, Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin). What he is doing in Hamburg and how he will be dealt with becomes the concern of Günther Bachmann (Hoffman), the head of a small cell of intelligence operatives, whose low-key, painstaking tactics are at loggerheads with the punitive, action-oriented methods of Dieter Mohr (Rainer Bock), a heavy-handed colleague Günther openly ridicules. Günther’s approach wins out.
This development will be an enormous disappointment to the adrenalin junkies whose ideas about spy work have been shaped by the M:I, Bourne, and even James Bond franchises. However, fans of John le Carré, the author whose book formed the basis of this movie, will be right at home. Le Carré, the creator of George Smiley, a gray, anonymous member of Britain’s MI6, knows that spy work is more a drab waiting game than a thrill ride, a psychological gambit that preys insidiously on vulnerable informants and nervous targets. Although the powers that be—in this case, the Americans and Russians—have not abandoned brutal interrogation and imprisonment, Günther bucks the establishment to follow his leads upstream to what he hopes will be the heads of Islamist terrorist operations in the Middle East.
Günther and his team have gathered intelligence on a Muslim humanitarian named Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi) who appears to be using a shipping company to divert a portion of relief supplies to Islamist groups to sell to fund arms purchases. Günther learns that Karpov is the son of a Russian official notorious for his brutality and criminal activities, and that he has come to Hamburg to seek help from a banker named Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), whose father laundered money for the elder Karpov. Issa has a sizeable “inheritance” in Brue’s bank, but wants nothing to do with it—he only wants to be able to stay in the West and out of the reach of the Russians who tortured him. Günther uses his “friendly persuasion” to ensure Brue releases the money to Issa, who will then be persuaded by his attorney, Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), to transfer the money to Abdullah. Günther plans to seize Abdullah after the transaction and persuade him to reveal the Islamists to whom he has been diverting resources, but he must persuade skeptical German and American intelligence officials, led by American agent Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), to go along with his plan.
There is abundant, real-world evidence that “extraordinary rendition,” an extraordinarily obtuse term for government-sponsored kidnapping and torture, is highly ineffective in extracting useful information from suspected terrorists, and that Günther’s methodical approach—combining a mild threat with offers of help in exchange for cooperation—works. Günther knows how and how much pressure to bring to bear to get his reluctant informants to go along with his plans; he even manages to bring Abdullah’s son Jamal (Mehdi Debhi) into his network. But the violence of 9/11 and the racial and religious hatred that has only grown in the ensuing years has left the major powers with itchy trigger fingers. Sullivan has already blown Günther’s entire network in Beirut with her cowboy tactics, forcing his removal to Hamburg; Günther doesn’t want to trust her, but he really has no alternative.
A Most Wanted Man is slow and methodical, just like Günther and his team, making for a sometimes too sedate ride. Moments that could have been amped for more tension with music or quick cuts, like Annabel’s capture by Günther’s team, play out with a low unease. It’s true to life, which is its virtue, but rather undramatic. We’re not sure whether or not to root for Günther, who uses repugnant techniques like kidnapping, surveillance technology, and coercion to “make the world a safer place.” Yet, anyone who has watched “Law & Order” or any of its offshoots will recognize the same techniques and have to own up to the fact that we tend to sympathize with the cops because they are almost always on the side of the angels as those shows are written. The ambiguity of Günther’s position is that we see the seams of his good cop/bad cop routine, an act he shares with his civilian aide-de-camp Irna (the criminally underused Nina Hoss), and virtually all of the characters he is manipulating are fairly well-intentioned people who are completely out of their depth in the world of geopolitical espionage.
For example, Dobrygin plays Issa as a damaged, haunted man who took up the Chechen cause against Russia because of his father’s brutality to his Chechen mother and who, through Islam, has tried to find inner peace from his past and the horrible torture he endured. It would be tempting to think of him as another Raskolnikov, except that his crimes are those of a psychologically vulnerable freedom fighter, not a student with theories about human nature and moral relativism. Rachel McAdam is brilliant as an idealistic public-service attorney who goes above and beyond for Issa. Her attempts to assert her authority are as weak as her concern for Issa is strong and motherly, though she threatens to pull focus from the other characters simply because she’s so pretty and photogenic. Dafoe is his usual excellent self, creating a somewhat weak character who is trying to redeem his business from its nefarious past one client at a time.
Hoffman, playing an obese smoker and drinker, fits the mold of the intelligent outsider who blends into the background—the perfect guise for a spy. It is much to Hoffman’s credit that he manages to retain some of our sympathy while arousing a bit of our scorn. Hoffman keeps Günther’s motives somewhat obscure—is he just another kind of cop or is the spy game something that he does as a strange kind of sport? He takes incredible pride in his work, perhaps to the detriment of his cause when he openly insults people he believes to be his inferiors, and his belief in the rightness of his methods places a considerable blind spot in his way. When faced with Sullivan’s abrupt, cutting authority, he tries to work her the same way he does his informants by allying his interests with hers. Wright makes the most of this small, but crucial role, reviving the Ugly American in all its nasty glory. Yet it’s also easy to see that Sullivan and Günther are cut from the same cloth and know the same tricks—what separates them may be down to the very different roads Germany and the United States took with regard to the dignity of the individual over the last 30 or so years.
We see a bit of the Muslim community, and it is as work-a-day and ordinary as any other ethnic enclave. Abdullah is thought to be a good man with just a little bit of bad, enough for more radical Islamists to exploit. That, to Günther, makes him a useful side street to the center of terrorist activity. Abdullah’s sincere sympathy for Issa softens our hearts to these men who seek some kind of healing for their community, but are misguided in their methods. Dobrygin and Ershadi’s one significant scene together is perhaps the most moving of the film; only the horror of Issa’s badly scarred back—partial proof to Brue that he is who he says he is—is more moving.
The final scene of the film offers Hoffman the catharsis, the break from the even-toned professional, we knew was inevitable. He howls, hating his world. From that howl, we hear perhaps an echo of what drove him to his fatal addiction, a man too sensitive to face the world without a potent veil before his face.
The shadow of Fritz Lang’s early work still falls heavily not just upon many filmmakers, but also upon a swathe of modern pop culture. The remarkable run of movies he made before he was driven to leave Germany by the Nazi ascension helped define, if not originate, a handful of major film genres: the cliffhanger action film, with The Spiders (1919-20); the historical epic, with Die Nibelungen (1924); the science-fiction dystopia with Metropolis (1926); the spy thriller, with Spione (1927); the space opera, with The Woman in the Moon (1929); and even, in his first sound film, M (1931), the serial killer drama. Lang and his major collaborator and wife, the writer Thea Von Harbou, didn’t invent all of the elements loaded into these films, but their increasingly expensive and prestigious explorations of each mode codified these different genres in visual and narrative terms, becoming inescapable points of reference for genre artisans, apprentice filmmakers, and film scholars alike ever since.
Lang’s works also reveal common roots in a stock of archetypes, basic concepts, and linking thematic concerns that Lang was able to transfer onto almost any genre. When he made The Spiders, Lang had clearly been under the immediate influence of Louis Feuillade’s serials, with their secret criminal organisations and insidious masterminds at the centre of an international web of intrigue. With The Weary Death (1921) and Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, Lang developed that world into something deeper and richer. Dr. Mabuse became one (or, rather, two) of the most legendary works of the silent era, properly defining Lang’s artistry not only in its moment, but for the next 40 years, as he returned to the film’s evil genius twice more, each at a crucial moment in his career, including his swan song.
Luxembourg writer Norbert Jacques’ novel provided Lang and Von Harbou with a template for a new take on Feuillade’s semi-surreal universe, as Jacques had taken Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty and evolved him from the hero’s sketchy antagonist and mirror into a major protagonist, even antihero, overshadowing the law enforcers who chase him. His capacity for evil suddenly matches the modern world’s dark psyche, feeding off both its septic spirit and its dehumanised systems. Mabuse’s DNA is shared by the many nefarious protagonists who followed him—Superman’s Lex Luthor, Batman’s Joker, Ian Fleming’s Blofeld, George Lucas’ Palpatine, and even John le Carré’s KARLA. Whilst Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu did something similar almost concurrently to Jacques’ creation, Fu was more safely rendered as an Other, an exotic fiend, whereas Mabuse is the spidery genius who is both king and exile within his own society. The influence of Mabuse is not just restricted to comic books and pulp fiction, though. Lang helped create the artistic mode that became cinema’s first great aesthetic movement, German Expressionism, when he cowrote the script of Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari (1919) for director Robert Wiene. F. W. Murnau, Lang’s greatest rival in Germany at the time and a subtler visual stylist, took the style further with Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922) and codified the horror genre in the process.
With Dr. Mabuse, Lang began to render the expressionist visual language in a subtler, less pervasively unreal manner, continuing to cloak sets in chiaroscuro shadows and offering lighting and design effects that take on a quality of abstraction that acts only an overlay on otherwise lifelike methods. The result surely helped transfer Expressionism from a fantastic niche to mainstream cinema and planted seeds for French Poetic Realism and Hollywood’s widespread embrace of a similarly restrained Expressionism that culminated in film noir. The first part of Dr. Mabuse, subtitled “The Great Gambler: An Image of the Age (Der große Spieler: Ein Bild der Zeit),” kicks off with an epic sequence of analytical cinema that may well have pollinated Sergei Eisenstein and the Moscow film school’s imaginations as they were thinking about how to encode intellectual analysis into the structure of film, and left some ideas for generations of filmmakers making everything from heist movies to documentaries. With a title card kicking off the epic as “He – and his day,” as Lang depicts one of Mabuse’s plots in systematic detail, from when the villain wakes up in the morning through to the culmination of his plot. Along the way his henchmen stage an intricate robbery, knocking out a diplomatic envoy on a train and stealing a portfolio containing a secret commercial treaty between Switzerland and France from him. The theft has been arranged to send the stock market into a selling frenzy, allowing Mabuse to buy up stock cheaply. He does so whilst standing on a pillar above the churning mass of brokers who hysterically give themselves up to the panic Mabuse has inflicted on them.
Mabuse then contrives to have the treaty discovered. The market rises, and he sells his stock for a vast fortune. All in a day’s work for the extraordinary mastermind, but his thrill is not money, but power—power he works in subtle, intimate, interpersonal ways much more than on a national level. For a 1922 German audience, the inference here would have been clear and frightening, as the country was in the depth of an economic crisis with skyrocketing inflation. Early in the film, Lang depicts Mabuse readying himself for his enterprise by thumbing a set of photos of apparently highly disparate men like a set of tarot cards: this has a sequel at the conclusion of the opening, as Lang holds on a shot of the empty, desolate stock exchange and shows another succession of faces, each of which has been involved in the deception and each revealed to be a different disguise of Mabuse. Whilst aspects of Dr. Mabuse are ripe melodrama, this sense of the tale being based in the bleak realities and the vague but vital workings of modernity’s new, interconnected financial and industrial zones gave Lang’s film a peculiar and important stature. Paranoia was the underlying state of the German psyche, the sense that somebody, somewhere was responsible for the national collapse.
The beauty and alarming quality of Jacques’ creation was that Mabuse was able to take on more definitely political inferences than predecessors like Moriarty, Fantômas, Count Fosco, and Svengali—indeed, Jacques had intended him in that fashion. He sits upon modernism’s fault lines, easily tweaked to become a figure of left-wing paranoia as a titan of predatory capitalism, or more reactionary viewpoints, as he also offers an emblem of new-fangled psychiatry (his actual medical profession) and traditionally immoral pursuits like gambling, which the film presents as the last and greatest existential rush for a rotting society through its capacity to make or strip fortunes according to chance, but with Mabuse subverting this by getting his kicks from eliminating chance and playing the player. Lang already seems to be subverting a familiar structure even as he’s erecting it, as he introduces Mabuse and his aides up front, making them more familiar to the audience than the traditional hero figure whose perspective it is usually forced to take. In spite of his myriad sidelines, Mabuse continues to don disguises and delight in fleecing the indolent sons and daughters of the upper classes by mesmerically manipulating them into losing at cards. Mabuse’s network of agents includes his spindly, cocaine-addled manservant Spoerri (Robert Forster-Larrinaga); Pesch (Georg John), his driver and hitman; and Hawasch (Charles Puffy), who runs a counterfeiting operation for his overlord that employs a gaggle of blind men in a dingy cellar. Such a plot touch carries a hint of Edgar Wallace’s grotesquery and also a kind of grim psychological symbolism.
Another of Mabuse’s best agents is a Folies Bergère dancer, Cara Carozza (Aud Egede-Nissen), who is able to collect information on high rollers who come to see her performances and pass it on to Mabuse. Attending one of her shows, Mabuse sets his sights on a new victim she points out, young heir Edgar Hull (Paul Richter), and hypnotises him from afar. Calling himself Hugo Balling, Mabuse directs Hull to give him admittance to his gentleman’s club, and there begins to fleece the young man by forcing him to play badly. Once Mabuse has his fill, he gives Hull a card with the address where he can come to pay his debt. Hull, when he snaps out of his stupor, naturally puzzles over what’s happened, and begins to dig, visiting the address and finding that a real Hugo Balling lives there and has no idea what Hull wants. Word of Hull’s vexing enigma soon attracts the attention of State Attorney Norbert von Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke), who contacts the young man and begins to theorise about a hidden criminal mastermind he dubs “The Great Unknown.” Wenk’s entrance into the story gives Dr. Mabuse a hero, and his job, distinct from that of policeman or private eye, gives him both a level of power and status, and flexibility in investigating his white whale. Wenk strikes a deal with Hull to follow him into the city’s gambling communities (which city never quite stated) in search of the mysterious mastermind in an underworld, rubbing shoulders with social elite, gathering in seedy dives and upscale palaces, in search of the same secret nerve of a corrupt society that Mabuse himself has located and presses with sadistic pleasure.
With The Spiders, Lang had suggested a penchant for décor effects that lent his cinematic images a quality of stylisation close to cubism and other nascent forms of modern art, a quality that Caligari made far more explicit than Lang preferred. Here, Lang’s style comes into fuller fruition, before Die Nibelungen would see Lang push his stylisation to extremes. The world he creates in Mabuse is more restrained whilst grazing the edges of an equally strange and dreamy netherworld, full of framings that place characters in traps of space with mysterious design motifs and incipient shadows, and interiors replete with an art deco designer’s idea of limbo’s antechambers. Lang throws in an aesthetic in-joke that partly disguises a serious subtext, as a toff asks Mabuse in his professional guise what he thinks of Expressionism; Mabuse replies with sagacious dismissal, “Expressionism is a mere pastime — but why not? Everything today is a pastime!” Mabuse’s disdain for artistic fashion matches his contempt for the arts he himself has mastered as a healer, which he turns to the only pursuit he does not see as a pastime—the acquisition of power. But Lang’s mise-en-scène contradicts, entrapping and enfolding character, and seems to become all but animated and nearly literal by the diptych’s hallucinatory finale. Lang’s most dynamic cinematic effects are mostly employed to force the audience to share Mabuse’s viewpoint as he commits his criminal acts, with iris shots and crowding fields of black mimicking Mabuse’s intent as he zeroes in on new victims and begins to work his hypnotic will, usually intercut with the victim’s vision of Mabuse’s false faces in leering close-up. Mabuse’s hypnotic gifts coincide with Lang’s filmmaking vision, rupturing holes in reality.
The first encounter between Mabuse and Wenk takes place at the gaming table, except with the two men both in disguise: Mabuse wearing a perversely hooked nose and tufts of wild hair and Wenk done up as a middle-aged milquetoast. Mabuse tries to hypnotise Wenk with his pair of glasses, which Wenk recognises as Chinese-made. “Yes, from Tsi-Nan-Fu,” Mabuse replies. The name of this city becomes a charged and mystic utterance that takes over Wenk’s mind, appearing as printed words on his cars and glowing through the woodwork of the gaming table. Wenk manages to throw off Mabuse’s influence, and with it his disguise, chasing his quarry out of the den and to the Hotel Excelsior. But Wenk is foiled by one of Mabuse’s agents who drives a taxi fitted out with gas to knock out hapless passengers. Wenk, unconscious, is set adrift in a rowboat, but he’s rescued by the coast guard. The close call drives Mabuse to order the deaths of both Wenk and Hull as the duo continue their excursions to night spots. Mabuse assigns Carozza to get close to Hull. She pretends to respond to his playboy charms to insinuate her way into his house and find out what the dynamic duo are up to. When the trio visits a swanky new gambling house, Carozza leads them into a trap: Hull is shot by one of Mabuse’s men, but manages to tell Wenk of Carozza’s involvement before dying. Carozza, fleeing the scene, is encircled and captured by hordes of policemen.
In spite of its influence, Dr. Mabuse stands at a distance from the contemporary thirst for backstory and tales of formative influence on titanic heroes and villains. This is however not quite the same thing as the role-casting of rank melodrama, but something else again: Mabuse is not a type but a force, a product, a symbol. Mabuse’s background is unimportant; he comes from nowhere, and his motives are reduced to singular need, a fully formed monstrosity spat up by the diseased sectors of modernism’s psyche. He exists only insofar as he acts, dedicating himself entirely to mastery of any situation, and succeeds. He is infinitely malleable rather than specific, capable of becoming any figure of covert or overt power, from labour leader to stockbroker to mystic to physician, drawing secret analogies between such roles and conflating worlds that begin to mimic each other—the gaming table and the spiritualist’s séance, the aristocratic drawing room and the sailors’ pub. As physically real as Mabuse is, he retains emblematic power—indeed Lang’s later instalments took him to the edge of noncorporeal subsistence, surviving as a force of will. Wenk’s chief quality is his singular strength of mind which allows him to resist the villain, but even that only stretches so far.
The clash of Mabuse and Wenk hinges around two women and two men who represent uneasy partnerings loaded with deception. Carozza’s fake romance with Hull makes a mockery of the expected niceties of romance between pretty young things living the high life, because Carozza loves Mabuse with a fixated ardour, at once obsessively morbid and yet finally transcendent in her pure worship of Mabuse as a being of Nietzschean power amongst social cattle. Even when thrown into prison, Carozza’s obeisant loyalty cannot be shaken; indeed, it becomes all the more exultant in the chance to prove her sublime devotion. The second coupling is the Count Told (Alfred Abel) and his wife, Countess Dusy Told (Gertrude Welker). Their home life seems pleasantly dull, the Count a childish soul who delights in games and toys. As a result, the Countess haunts the gaming rooms to watch the gamblers in the throes of agony and ecstasy as a druglike salve for her own lack of sensation, almost a caricature of privileged weltschmerz as she opines, “I fear there is nothing in this world which can interest me for long – Everything that can be seen from a car or an opera box is partly disgusting, partly uninteresting, always boring!” Wenk meets her in the course of his journey through the underworld, and the two connect as outsiders fascinated by the underworld. Wenk even helps Dusy make a getaway when her husband unexpectedly turns up at one of the gambling dens.
Yet, Dusy is linked more precisely with Mabuse in their mutual pretensions to standing above the harrying world and studying the patterns created by the meshing human life driven by desire, greed, and the need for pleasure—except that Dusy remains aloof, whereas Mabuse manipulates. Not surprisingly, then, the Countess becomes an object of erotic obsession for Mabuse once he encounters her. One of Lang’s constant fascinations, especially in his films written by Von Harbou, comes to the fore as destabilising force of sexual obsession rattles humans with pretences to omnipotent power. When he is invited to the Tolds’ townhouse as Mabuse the reputed psychiatrist, the villain stands apart from the Count and his friends as they play cards, discovering kinship with Dusy as an observer with pretences to godlike disinterest and insight. He starts to school Dusy in the nature of his idea of godlike power as he hypnotises her husband and drives him to cheat during a game, prompting a walkout by his friends and the Count’s complete desolation. Then, he subdues Dusy and kidnaps her. The Tolds came into Mabuse’s sights when he attends a séance with the couple, and more properly because of Wenk, who asked Dusy to pose as a prisoner and be locked up with Carozza, a task that turns into an interlude of startling emotional intensity for the two women, as Carozza easily discerns Dusy’s purpose and dazzles the worldly cynic with her own transfiguring faith in Mabuse.
Dusy is profoundly affected, not in being awed by Mabuse, but by the spectacle of Carozza’s ardour, and she writes a letter to Wenk swearing off further involvement because, instead of encountering alienated evil, she met a source of overpowering emotional force that, regardless of its purpose, convinces her that love exists. It’s not a sentimental kind of love that Lang and Von Harbou envision: it’s a deep-riven blend of erotic and emotional sustenance that shatters strong psyches, cripples geniuses, and transfigures the mundane. In that regard, it’s the only force equal to Mabuse’s evil. For his part, once Mabuse ensnares Dusy, his own competence and psyche begin to slip. The great climax of the first part ends on a cliffhanger, with Mabuse apparently triumphant, with Dusy in his clutches and Wenk stymied. The second part, entitled “Inferno: A Game for the People of Our Age (Inferno: Ein Spiel von Menschen unserer Zeit),” sees his victories continue, but with intimations of growing hysteria, as he kills off anyone who could offer a lead to his whereabouts to Wenk, who is hunting him. These victims includes his agent Pesch (Georg John), who is captured after unsuccessfully bombing Wenk’s office, and is shot during a proletariat uprising stirred by Mabuse, and Carozza herself, who is ordered to commit suicide in her cell even after resisting all of Wenk’s entreaties.
If the driving motif of the first part is images of masses of people playing with fortune, whether in gambling houses, stock exchanges, or séances, then the second is dominated by two sequences of mental disintegration. The first comes as Mabuse, playing the psychiatrist again, manipulates Count Told, perfectly under his power, promising to control the compulsion that made him cheat, his bogus “helpful” advice turning him into a sequestered prisoner cut off from the outside world and Wenk’s help. Mabuse tries to blackmail the Countess into yielding to his erotic demands by promising to destroy the Count, and finally he does, sending Told off into a spiral of depressive hallucination where he sees his ancestors, all wearing his face, holding up card hands and displaying the black ace. Told cuts his throat in his bathroom, and his body is discovered by his servant. This maniacal achievement in sadistic legerdemain from Mabuse proves the start of his undoing, however, as it allows Wenk to connect Mabuse with the Count’s death.
Two filmmakers immediately inspired by Lang’s early work were Luis Buñuel and Alfred Hitchcock, who both laid down their involvement in film to the aesthetic impact of The Weary Death. Yet, here in Dr. Mabuse, innate and prototypical, I find Buñuel’s viscous, permeable sense of reality and amused punishment of material anomie and Hitchcock’s conspiratorial universe where ordinary people are ensnared in abstract webs. Here, too, is Carol Reed’s third man squirming his way through tightening nets of justice in the sewers, the churning, chiaroscuro moral maelstroms of Josef von Sternberg, Georg Pabst, and Orson Welles. Howard Hawks’ Scarface (1932) reflected the idiot-savant Mabuse, readying his urban fortress for attack. Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman explicitly drew on Lang’s model for his shadowy villains, whilst Ridley Scott’s American Gangster (2007) repainted its kingpin in shades of Lang as a shadowy unknown and tweaked the cabal of blind counterfeiters into a similar operation of naked women employed as cocaine sifters.
Lang’s edge of oneiric strangeness gives Dr. Mabuse immediate connection to the singular spiritual fable of The Weary Death, with its similar pivots between languid, otherworldly torpor and ecstatic, transcendental passions (Goetzke had played Death in that film). Mabuse’s fantastical present tense also connects inevitably with Lang’s upcoming parables of past and future. As in Die Nibelungen, Richter plays the traditional pretty-boy hero who finishes up as a sacrificial victim to insidious, merciless power-driven plotting. In the film’s coda, Mabuse envisions a monstrous mechanical creation as the image of his own machinations and his personal inferno, looking forward to Die Nibelungen’s dragon and Metropolis’ vision of a great engine as a monstrous visage swallowing workers: the supernatural, symbolic terrors of distant history become the consuming, mindless aspect of modernity, terrifying even Mabuse—or, perhaps, especially Mabuse, whose campaign to gain the untrammelled power of a feudal conqueror works a spell on those around him but finally is defeated not so much by the forces of modern statism, represented by Wenk, as by the impossibility of his ambition to become bigger than the systems surrounding him.
The inevitable, climactic revelation of Mabuse’s identit(ies) to Wenk finally arrives as Mabuse lures the State Attorney into a trap, cunningly approaching Wenk as himself, supposedly to warn him that Told died because he was under the influence of a strong and destructive mind. Mabuse offers a culprit, a stage hypnotist named Weltemann, and Wenk attends the man’s show, only to realise too late that Weltemann is Mabuse: the revelation echoes the early, successive superimpositions as Mabuse’s faces pass before Wenk’s eyes, peeling back each layer until he sees Mabuse for what he is just before he gives in to his mesmeric power. Mabuse sends Wenk out under hypnotic influence from the theatre to drive off to a fiery death, a relished plan to eliminate his enemy with an overt display of power while maintaining a seemingly perfect guise.
But the plot is forestalled by Wenk’s attentive men, who manage to prevent his death. The finales of Hitchcock’s first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), Scarface, and half of the Bond films, as well as the quiet note of assailed solitude of Marcel Carné’s Le Jour se Lève (1939), are all presaged as Wenk leads an attack on Mabuse’s lair. This tumultuous sequence comes in clashing perspectives, as troops pour from trucks to assault the lair, Mabuse’s foot soldiers dying one by one or collapsing in fear like papier-mâché without his will to hold them together amidst a hail of bullets and tear gas. Mabuse’s own attempt to flee with Dusy sees him forced to abandon her and escape by the skin of his teeth to plant seeds of evil somewhere else. Mabuse’s graduated schemes finally do him in as he reaches the hideout where the blind counterfeiters work and finds himself accidentally locked in by his minions’ excess cleverness: in this trap, the lunacy that’s been percolating under Mabuse’s surface emerges in a sequence where, like Shakespeare’s Richard III, the hallucinated shades of Carozza, Told, Hull, and Pesch appear, Told’s prosecutorial vision now Mabuse’s. The mastermind begins to hurl his counterfeit funds about like confetti before the vision of a mechanical monster chews his mind to pieces. The darkly sarcastic title card that greets Wenk’s arrival on the scene describes the husk on the floor as “The Man Who Was Mabuse,” and yet, this phrase signals it’s not exactly a total triumph. Whilst Mabuse the flesh-and-blood being has collapsed, Mabuse the idea, the entity, has slipped such bonds and become legend, perhaps even a world-spirit. Lang revisited the material next in 1933, but found the new film banned because something frighteningly like Mabuse had just taken control of his country.
This year, I’ve been granted the privilege of previewing the films as a member of the press. In deference to the awesome Lori Hile, who helped arrange my credentials, the format of my reviews will be abbreviated to conform with the Film Center’s requirements. I may return with full reviews after the festival.
So in fits and spurts, as I finish screeners or attend screenings, here is my coverage of some of the films on offer at this 2014 edition of the greatest show on State Street.
Tricked (2012, The Netherlands) Director: Paul Verhoeven
Paul Verhoeven hasn’t released a film in six years, so when I saw that Tricked was on the EU festival schedule, I was very excited to see the latest from this genre-bending, original director. Sadly, I almost missed the film, such as it is, because Verhoeven decided to preface it with a 45-minute documentary about the making of Tricked; I thought I had misread the program and considered walking out on this pedantic vanity exercise. The 74-year-old director must feel creatively blocked, because he decided to crowdsource the script, one scene at a time. The lengthy and cumbersome process did not bear the kind of fruit he wanted, and he ended up cowriting much of the film with Robert Alberdingk Thijm. The result is a very funny 50-minute sitcom/soap opera about a philandering husband whose affairs put him in hot water with his floundering construction company and his family. While not classic Verhoeven, Tricked still shows his flair for genre work and reflects his roots in television and early handheld camera work.
The Excursionist (2013, Lithuania) Director: Audrius Juzėnas
The national cinema of Lithuania is in rather sad shape, so the entry of an ambitious film like The Excursionist is certainly cause for celebration. The film purports to tell the true story of a Lithuanian girl who escaped the Soviet-ordered deportation (“excursion”) to the detention camps of the Gulag and traveled back to Vilnius over the course of more than two years. This type of story is more familiar to audiences in a Nazi-Jew format, and seeing stories of the hardships suffered by Soviet bloc countries on screen, as with the excellent Czech film Alois Nebel shown at the EU festival last year, is a welcome historical expansion. The film itself is hampered by its sense of its own importance and a cloying score that underlines in red the terrible hardships suffered by the protagonist. The film feels long, but it held my attention primarily due to the remarkable debut performance of Anastasija Marcenkaitė in the demanding title role. In the end, director Juzėnas transforms this personal story into an allegory for all conquered peoples who resist their oppressors.
Cycling with Molière (Alceste à bicyclette, 2013, France) Director/Screenwriter: Philippe Le Guay
For my money, the best bet of the festival is Cycling with Molière. This superbly acidic comedy affords its two superb leads, Lambert Wilson and Fabrice Luchini, every opportunity to use all the actorly tools at their disposal to enact a cinematic version of Molière’s The Misanthrope for a modern audience. Wilson plays a commercially successful actor on a hit TV show who wants to stretch himself by producing Molière’s famous play and playing Alceste, the title character. He goes to the Île de Ré, a fashionable vacation spot on the west coast of France, to try to convince a reclusive actor who lives there to play Philinte, Alceste’s pragmatic foil. Like Alceste, the actor has turned his back on his profession and everyone he knows after a serious betrayal. He refuses to commit himself until the two of them have rehearsed the play, switching roles each day to see who is the better Alceste. The film is full of uproarious physical comedy, and Wilson and Luchini find the peculiarities and narcissism that humans in the arts and in hiding are heir to. Even better is the chance to hear the poetry of Molière’s play in French, not something American audiences can experience every day. This is a wonderful film. DO NOT MISS IT!
The Strange Little Cat (2013, Germany) Director: Ramon Zürcher
It is best to approach this apparent slice of life as an experimental film to avoid frustration. The plot, such as it is, involves the interactions and reminiscences of a family gathering at a large Berlin apartment for dinner, perhaps a reunion. What Zürcher appears to be interested in is the magic of everyday life, as he trains his camera on the extraordinarily choreographed movements of the family members as they work across one another to pull dishes out of cabinets and weave in and out of each other’s paths. The fantastic enters the scene, such as when a bottle spins in a pot of hot water and a hacky sack flies through the open window from far down below on the street, an impossible kick for the small boy playing with it. Flashbacks occur when various family members tell stories; these stories, which could be spooky but end up not amounting to much, add a certain amount of suspense, another device Zürcher examines in his formalist approach to filmmaking. The wild cards in the deck are a dog and a cat whose behavior we never really see but who the characters assure us are crazy in what sounds like ad libbed dialog. Zürcher trains his camera on two children, particularly a boy, who observe everyone, clearly stand-ins for the director. What they—and he—think of the scene is largely inscrutable, and so may it be for the audience.
Clownwise (2013, Czech Republic) Director: Viktor Taus
Think a more fraught and loosely structured The Sunshine Boys meets The Best Years of Our Lives and you’ve about got the gist of this drama about three aged members of a legendary comedy troupe who are headed for one last show. The film is poignant about the passing of time, with members of the troupe and their families facing cancer, Alzheimer’s, estrangement from loved ones, and bitter memories. If the film had worked a little harder on delineating and integrating the stories in a tighter structure, it would have been more compelling to watch. The script has some good moments, and it’s always a pleasure to see Kati Outinen in a film, but there was neither enough clowning nor wisdom for my tastes.
Another One Opens (2013, Austria) Directors: Jim Libby and Nicolas Neuhold
Vienna’s improv theatre company English Lovers is responsible for this English-language dramedy that claims to be 100 percent improvised. Of course, improvisation with a well-established company isn’t really off the cuff, as the company members are very familiar with working scripts out together. Thus, Another One Opens is coherent, well paced, and quite intriguing, as a magic inn gives five troubled people who were friends in college a chance to repair their lives. The relationships didn’t feel as fleshed as I would have liked, but I was a sucker for the Enchanted April premise and healing passing down through generations of women. Recommended.
The Human Scale (2012, Denmark) Director: Andreas M. Dalsgaard
This documentary poses some incredibly interesting notions about the history of urban planning and the opportunities that exist to rethink cities both old and new. A cadre of architects from the firm of Danish architect Jan Gehl travel the globe to urbanizing China, crowded Dhaka in Bangladesh, New York City, and Copenhagen, revealing that urban landscapes have been designed to facilitate the movement of automobiles, not the needs of human beings. In a forward-thinking approach to rebuilding Christchurch, New Zealand, after earthquakes devastated its city center, a bottom-up approach to what the people wanted yielded a low-rise landscape with plenty of spaces for people to congregate. As our population explodes and our fossil fuels dwindle, human convenience and human-powered conveyances may be our most sustainable future. Highly recommended.
In this age of extreme practicality, the pursuit of a philosophy education may seem a useless self-indulgence. Yet, there is nothing more useful to an individual than being trained to really think. It is encouraging to know that as our public discourse seems to be increasingly prone to magic thinking and opinion as fact, the actual number of students getting formal training in philosophy is growing.
It was my great luck that my postsecondary education at a Jesuit university required me to immerse myself in philosophy to graduate. It was also my misfortune that I never encountered the writings of German political theorist Hannah Arendt. Even though I was a political science major, her seminal works on power and totalitarianism were not discussed in the classes I took. Perhaps I took the wrong classes. Perhaps sexism was at work. Perhaps her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil made her just too hot to handle. Whatever the reason, I came to Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt as ignorant of this woman and thinker as the average person seeking to know more.
Arendt, a secular German Jew, had a momentous early life. She studied philosophy at the University of Marburg and carried on an affair with her professor, Martin Heidegger, one of the great names in philosophy whose Being and Time is a standard text. She hit up against German anti-Semitism when she was disqualified from securing a university teaching post and soon fled to France in 1933. There she married Heinrich Blücher, a German poet and Marxist philosopher, but did not escape detention at Gurs, a camp the Vichy government used to hold non-French Jews. She escaped after only a few weeks and managed to obtain forged visas to get to the United States in 1941 with Blücher and her mother. She wrote for Jewish newspapers during the war and helped Zionist organizations to relocate young Jewish survivors of the war to Palestine. The remainder of her life was dedicated to teaching and writing, beginning with The Origins of Totalitarianism, published in 1951.
Hannah Arendt concentrates on the years 1961-1963. In 1961, William Shawn (Nicholas Woodeson), the editor of The New Yorker, hired Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) to cover Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem for crimes against the Jewish people. It took her two years to complete work on what became a five-part series in the magazine, commencing in February 1963, and her book, also published in 1963. While the trial and the violently negative reaction to Arendt’s report certainly are dramatic, the challenge for von Trotta and her coscreenwriter Pam Katz was to sustain a dramatic throughline for someone who, in essence, simply observed, thought, and wrote. To do this, they focused on Arendt’s personal life—her happy marriage to Blücher (Alex Milberg) and her friendships, which included American author Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer) and philosopher Hans Jonas (Ulrich Noethen), who attended Marburg with her and taught with her at New York’s New School for Social Research. There are several scenes of Arendt arguing politics with friends in German, and we end up feeling like non-German-speaking McCarthy at these gatherings—lost.
First, we aren’t introduced to any of the characters surrounding Arendt, so if you don’t know Arendt’s history and circle of friends, you’re just out of luck until the script happens to cough up some information. I had never heard of Gurs before this film, so when Heinrich tells Hannah that she was right to leave Gurs when she did to assuage her feelings of guilt about abandoning Europe’s Jews and freedom fighters, I thought he was talking about a lover or husband! It wasn’t until much later in the film that I got the information that corrected my mistake. We learn almost nothing about Heinrich himself, though Katz and von Trotta keep hinting that he may be having affairs with Hannah’s assistant Lotte (Julia Jentsch) and a woman named Charlotte (Victoria Trauttmansdorff) about whom I still have no information because I haven’t looked her up. It seems that through its assumptions of knowledge on the part of the audience, this movie was intended for an elite or German crowd, though its deep adherence to the stodgy conventions of the biopic would argue otherwise. It may be Katz’s inexperience as a screenwriter that led to so many creaky choices, such as the allusions to Heinrich’s possible adultery that are never resolved or the hissworthy villainy of Commentary writer and editor Norman Podhoretz (Matthias Bundschuh) in condemning Arendt as a woman without feelings. As though to counter that frequent slam on Arendt, it seems the script bends over backwards to show that she had a lot of feeling.
What works best in this film and what makes it worth seeking out is the very thing that may have made it seem undramatic in the eyes of its creators—the ideas Arendt formulated about the banality of evil. It is, perhaps, human nature to want to separate ourselves from people who commit great crimes and deny that we have the capacity to commit such evil ourselves. Arendt challenged the notion that only inhuman demons commit genocide by characterizing Eichmann as an efficient bureaucrat dedicated to helping Hitler accomplish the Final Solution without thinking about the moral implications of his actions. He was an ideologue whose one-track mind allowed him to carry out the deportations to the concentration camps, denying that he killed anyone—that part of the Final Solution just wasn’t his job. Arendt saw him as a mediocrity who had lost the ability to think, though his efficiency in transporting Jews to their doom was anything but mediocre.
Further, she had the temerity, the “self-hating” gall to suggest that the Jewish Councils that assisted in this efficiency should come in for condemnation, too. It is this assertion, accurate reporting with which we are assisted in sympathizing by having a Jewish member of the trial gallery curse the councils, that most riled people as an example of blaming the victim. Arendt lost friends, including Hans Jonas, over this cold-hearted assessment. Questions of appeasement are always hard to resolve—for example, if Neville Chamberlain hadn’t appeased Hitler, would he have been able to avert so much destruction—but given the deep-seeded animosity that still lives in France over the actions of Vichy officials, including sending French citizens of Jewish heritage to their deaths, I don’t think this line of reasoning on Arendt’s part is ill-conceived. It is when passions are running most hot that cool thinkers like Arendt are needed to help us make sense of what we are experiencing. Indeed, her notion of the banality of evil has entered our cultural lexicon, leading to much soul-searching in Germany and elsewhere about the average citizen’s complicity in crimes against humanity.
This film is aided enormously by the performance of Barbara Sukowa as Arendt. Von Trotta and Katz should have trusted her to humanize this courageous thinker and jettisoned all the feints of her intimates to defend her. Sukowa is as intelligent an actress as her character was a theorist, and you can actually see the wheels of thought turning as she watches a closed-circuit feed of Eichmann’s trial from the press room where she spent most of her time. She cows those less gifted than she merely with her presence, and argues with dispassionate passion the ideas she supports. Her final defense of her views on Eichmann and the Jewish Councils given in a class lecture near the end of the film is brilliantly delivered. Jonas, who attends the lecture, is not convinced and cuts Arendt out of his life, an action that seems completely irrational from this distance in time, when her ideas are now orthodoxy. I wish von Trotta and Katz had done more to develop the counter-arguments so that we could understand the reaction to her assertions; despite a jab at German Jews, whose secularization and assimilation brought their feelings of superiority over other Jews out in spades, not enough of this internecine battle is made clear.
Another stroke of brilliance was using the actual footage of Eichmann from the trial. It puts us in the position of trying to judge whether Arendt saw him correctly as a mediocrity who was only following orders or as a brilliant actor who fooled her into believing he was merely a mindless bureaucrat. Presenting us with the evidence itself, and not an actor’s interpretation, offers us a chance to think for ourselves, a very appropriate exercise for a film about thought. It’s hard to read into the hearts of others, particularly those who have everything to lose by exposing their true thoughts and feelings, but one remark Eichmann made convinces me that Arendt was right:
Q. In your police interrogation you said that if the Reichsfuehrer had told you that your father was a traitor, you would have shot him with your own hands. Is that true?
A. If he was a traitor, probably.
Q. No, if the Reichsfuehrer had told you, would you have shot him – your own father?
A. I would then assume that he would have had to prove it to me. If he had proved it, I would have been duty bound, according to my oath of loyalty.
Q. Was it proved to you that the Jews had to be exterminated?
A. I didn’t exterminate them.
Q. Did you never feel a conflict between your duty and your conscience?
A. One could call it a state of being split. A conscious split state where one could flee from one side to the other.
Q. One’s personal conscience was to be abandoned?
A. You could say that.
Q. If there had been more civil courage, things could have been different?
A. If civil courage had been hierarchically organized, then yes, absolutely.
According to this excerpt, the idea of acting on one’s personal conscience independent of the prevailing social structures does not exist in Eichmann’s universe. This reverence for hierarchy isn’t some trick on Eichmann’s part, but an integral part of societies around the world. Therefore, Eichmann’s guilt, his obedience to the chain of command, is a common and very dangerous flaw.
Hannah Arendt is a flawed film that tries to obey the laws of box office that demand familiarity of story structure and a sympathetic central character. Yet, it was the characteristics that made Arendt not dissimilar to her fellow Germans that also made her the perfect witness to the implications of Eichmann’s trial. The final words of Eichmann in Jerusalem sum up her passionate dispassion:
Just as you [Eichmann] supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations—as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world—we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.
The ancient Germanic and Scandinavian tales of Siegfried or Sigurd were vital building blocks for much middle and northern European folk culture. This was true long before Richard Wagner conflated them for his delirious, impossibly long, musically ostentatious opera cycle, and certainly long before J.R.R. Tolkien absorbed them into his The Lord of the Rings tales. Tolkien’s variation, in repositioning the material as a battle against tyrannical evil, tried to present a completely opposite contemporary tilt on the stories to that assumed by Hitler and the Nazis, who annexed aspects of them through Wagner as lynchpins for their own mythology. Siegfried, the pure, anointed hero who defeated the dragon and yet fell to a spear in the back, presented to post-WW1 German nationalists a powerful metaphor for what they saw as the betrayal of their great struggle by politicians. The possibly apocryphal story of director Fritz Lang’s encounter with Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, who as Lang later recounted asked him to become their master filmmaker, is today known by just about anyone with pretences to film scholarship. It’s one of those singular moments, as with Eisenstein’s contretemps with Stalin or Ronald Reagan’s co-opting a popular sci-fi adventure for a planned weapons system, where cinema history and political history suddenly unite with genuine import. In Lang’s account, he was approached on the back of their adoration of his two-part 1924 film of the epic poem Die Nibelungenlied, and its science-fiction follow-up Metropolis (1926), works riven with Lang’s malleable sense of human masses and colossal design bound together as expressive instruments that seem to dwarf individualism in the face of historic forces. The fact that Lang’s wife and collaborating screenwriter, Thea von Harbou, became a Nazi (albeit, so she said, to protect Indians, like her later lover, living in Germany), and that many of his cast and crew would be doomed, like or not, to keep working in a Goebbels-run film industry, deepened the seeming surety of Lang’s links to the new regime.
However, there were dimensions of Lang, half-Jewish and Austrian-born, and his aesthetics that the Nazis had not understood or had wilfully ignored, and this was one dragon he decided not to cuddle up to. Lang left Germany, arrived in Hollywood as an artistic hero, and finished up as a near-forgotten B-movie helmsman, albeit one who would be rediscovered just as his career was ending. Such is the lay of Lang’s fall from his pinnacle as the world-shaking cinema titan who bankrupted UFA and inspired the likes of Luis Buñuel and Alfred Hitchcock to become filmmakers. It’s neither fair nor entirely apt that the original mythology or Lang’s film of it should have to withstand such evil cultural and historical associations, but they still remain. Made nine years before Hitler’s rise to power, Die Nibelungen’s dedication “To the German People” in the earlier context reads as encomium to a beaten and deeply depressed nation trying to struggle its way out of a dreadful collapse in political structures, economic terrors, and appalling loss, whilst the film depicts the pre-war neo-classical movement’s love for mythology and fantasy now scratching beneath the fanciful veneer of the iconography, and finding the real emotion and hard lessons such surviving tales still contained. The tale’s depiction of a maddened clash not only of individuals and peoples, but also values and world-views, fighting each-other to a bloodily apocalyptic nullity, reflects the still sharp memory of the Great War as noble yet incoherent tragedy.
Lang himself hated Wagner’s chauvinistic mash-up, and based his films squarely on the saga written by an anonymous poet who was probably part of the court of the Bishop of Passau at the turn of the thirteenth century. The poem was a product of a phase in European history when rulers were attempting synthesise new loyalties and codes of behaviour, as well as put the burgeoning numbers of poets and troubadours to some use, through formalising national mythologies in the pattern of Homer’s epics: most of the Arthurian tales came out of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s court a little earlier. Like such works, Die Nibelungenlied, which obviously combined transmissions of Greek myth, passed on from hazy sources, with folk memories and legends, was a study in medieval ethics and social constructs, which stressed ambiguity on a human level by presenting cast-iron order and morality imbued on a cosmic level: heroes fall because of their blind spots, and the righteous often appear to be uglier than the villainous in attempting to assert an absolute ethic, and finally history, or fate, or society, wins over the individuals even as each venerate the fallen. The poem also neglected most of the oversized mythological details associated with other versions of the story, like Siegfried’s descent from the Norse gods, and instead presented a story squarely set in an historical context. In spite of fantastical touches like the dragon Siegfried kills and the magical helmet he wears, the tone is largely that of this earth.
The first part of Lang’s work thus kicks off, rather than climaxes with, Siegfried’s greatest mythical hits and, in the total scheme of the films, moves through them at lightning speed. Lang’s film preserves the feudal flavour and fearsome, atavistic sensations of the poem, and yet is also a prototypical version of the same modern moral universe, inflated in scale and resonance but still recognisable, as that Lang explored through less distant prisms in subsequent films as diverse as M (1931), Fury (1936), Scarlet Street (1945), and The Big Heat (1953). Such was a universe where a daemonic quality in human nature wreaks havoc, and mankind on a social level is often disturbingly mindless and reactive. The nobility and ethical strength of the individual barely keeps afloat when such forces are unleashed, the heroes’ loving impulses often transmuting into a hard and unforgiving vengefulness, one that risks becoming monstrous and inhuman in the name of maintaining a human, moral shape to the universe. Lang’s sensibility thus intuitively grasps some of the subtler inferences of the original myth and many like it. In the immediate context of Lang’s run of ‘20s work, where the Dr Mabuse films explored the paranoid mindset of the contemporary and Metropolis posited fables in the future, Die Nibelungen looked to the distant past. In each, a similar, sinister sense of plots laid and hatching evil is facilitated by borrowed guises as the means to insidious ends: Siegfried’s use of his magic helmet equates with Mabuse’s use of disguise and the robotic Maria in Metropolis. Lang’s personal art was perhaps most strongly defined in and contained by Die Nibelungen, because, as has been noted, the essential figurations of the tale recur again and again in Lang’s films. Clearly, for Lang, Die Nibelungen was more than a national myth: it was his own.
The early stages recount how Siegfried (Paul Richter), son of the king of Xanten, has been residing for years with bedraggled old blacksmith, Mime (Georg John), of a race of barely-human mountain men, learning hardiness and craft in a lofty cave. Siegfried is introduced forging a sword sharp enough to cut a feather that falls upon its edge, impressing Mime, who tells his charge that his apprenticeship is over, and that he can return to his father. But another mountain man speaks of the castle at Worms, seat of the king of Burgundy, and of the beauty of the princess Kriemhild (Margarete Schön). Siegfried decides instead to do deeds mighty enough to win Kriemhild. Fate gives him his chance right away, as he encounters, on his way, a colossal dragon that rules a mountain grove. Siegfried ventures into battle with the monster in order to present to the world his own vision for mankind’s conquest of death and terror. He kills the dragon and showers under the blood that runs from its carcass, making him impervious to physical wounding, except at one spot on his back where a leaf from a lime tree falls and sticks. This is the first and most overt moment in the film which seems like a progenitor with endless resonance through subsequent fantasy cinema, perhaps the first great leap forward from Georges Méliès’ rough sketches, with the proto-animatronic dragon moved by steam-powered puppetry, glimpsed drinking from a pool and lashing out at the miniscule but dogged attacker with tail and fire: just about every special-effects driven movie made subsequently owes something conceptually or technically to this scene, from King Kong (1933) through to Jurassic Park (1992) and on to the present.
Siegfried’s legend begins to precede his approach, as his deeds are recounted in Worms to Kriemhild, her mother Queen Ute (Gertrud Arnold), and her brothers, the King Gunther (Theodor Loos), and the younger Gernot (Hans Carl Mueller) and Giselher (Erwin Biswanger), by court troubadour Volker of Alzey (Bernhard Goetzke). Meanwhile Siegfried, continuing his journey, encounters Alberich (John again), a Nibelung or goblin metal-smith, who possesses a fabulous treasure as well as the magic helmet called the Tarnhelm, which confers invisibility. Alberich assaults Siegfried whilst wearing the helmet, but Siegfried overpowers and kills him, leaving Siegfried with his treasure and the great sword Balmung. Now, invincible and able to command the loyalty and needs of men, Siegfried conquers and then commands twelve petty kings, and brings them as his followers to Worms. Siegfried, a king in his own right, hopes to forge stronger bonds between the various European kingdoms. Whilst Siegfried and Gunther become friends, and the court’s band of fraternal warriors are dubbed ‘Nibelungen’ to celebrate the new compact, at the insistence of Gunther’s truculent advisor Hagen of Tronje (Hans Adalbert Schlettow), Siegfried won’t be allowed to marry Kriemhild until he helps Gunther marry too. For Hagen has convinced Gunther to expand his realm by wedding the Queen of Iceland, Brünhild (Hanna Ralph), who lives in a fire-ringed castle with an army of shield-maidens. The prodigious Queen has set no easy requirements for suitors: they have to beat her in three tests of strength, on pain of death. Gunther is anything but a champion, and he prevails upon Siegfried, donning his magic helmet, first to invisibly guide his actions in the joust, and then to take his own guise to subdue her on the wedding night when she continues to reject him. In gratitude, Gunther not only lets Siegfried marry Kriemhild, but also goes through a ceremony of blood brotherhood with him.
Lang’s eye, with the tools of the amazing set design and decoration by Otto Hunte, Karl Vollbrecht, and Erich Kettelhut, and the costuming by Paul Gerd Guderian and Aenne Willkomm, allows the essential conflicts and thematic tensions of the early stages of this drama accumulate through distilled signifiers. The initial sight of Worms as described by the mountain men appears like a dream vision, rising above the primal landscape of craggy mountains and colossal forest trees, tangles of wilderness and stygian depths of the unknown, through which Siegfried makes his heroic advance. It’s impossible to miss the similarity of imagery in the moment in which Siegfried follows Albrecht into his cavern to the scene in Metropolis where Fredersen follows Rotwang into the catacombs, although the journey is closer in spirit to that of Freder in the latter film, a trek into the underworld where the hero risks his life but emerges with riches. Siegfried, simultaneously, moves from the very fringes of the world, through the midst of the forest via the dragon and various semi-human races he encounters, to Worms, which, with its soaring battlements and radiating aura of centrifugal power and gravitas, seems like a bastion of all humans can achieve.
The formalistic world of the Burgundian court sees the characters and architecture arrayed in geometric precision, revealing the increasing influence of modern art styles like Cubism infiltrating Lang’s visuals, whilst also channelling the simple precepts of medieval heraldic decoration: such motifs do not however merely look impressive, but communicate ancient assumptions of hierarchy and power, encoded in the very scenery of the drama. Individuals are dwarfed by the might of the church and the palace, and they move into place with precision in obedience to feudal hierarchy at the court. When Siegfried, pretending to be Gunther, overwhelmed Brünhild, he did not actually deflower her, but he took her armlet, a symbol of chastity, and kept it as a trophy. When Kriemhild finds it and innocently sports it, Siegfried confesses his loyal act of deception. Meanwhile, Brünhild, still harbouring misgivings and gnawed at by her actual ardour for Siegfried, starts throwing her weight around in preferring to destroy what she can’t have. She describes Siegfried as a vassal and claims pre-eminence over Kriemhild upon entering the church, an act of contempt that angers Kriemhild so much she retaliates by telling Brünhild the truth about her wedding. Brünhild, maddened to mania, lies to Gunther that Siegfried actually slept with her when pretending to be him. Hagen, who has wanted an excuse to pilfer the Nibelungen treasure, sides with Brünhild when she demands Siegfried’s assassination.
The dialectic of values that permeates Die Nibelungen is reflected not only in the visuals, but in the opposition of characters. Siegfried, whilst embodying classical ideals of Germanic tribal youth, is also imbued with the nascent patina of Christian idealism in borrowing St George’s mantle (although some have also suggested, interestingly, that this aspect of the myth could have roots in the infamous defeat of the Romans by the Germanic tribes at the Battle of Teutoberg Forest, when the Romans wore scaled armour), penetrating the stygian depths of the forest and extending the bulwarks of civilisation, but utterly at a loss when drawn into the orbit of the political, human world. Defined against his virtue is Gunther, whose essential lack of personal direction and strength contrasts Siegfried’s meritocratic gifts carefully imbued by experience and upbringing, a warning against the dangers of mere inherited power. Even more polarised is Hagen, the unrefined old Teutonic, virile, amoral, fearless, shameless, and loyal to the interests of his nation and the improvement of his king, whether the king likes it or not. The demure Kriemhild seems, at first, the polar opposite of the awesome Brünhild: Kriemhild, quiet, eyes constantly downcast, appears the perfectly deferential, decorous medieval maid, whereas Brünhild is a more ancient kind of women, physically dynamic and wildly tribal, carrying associations with Greek mythical heroines and huntresses like Diana and the champion Atalanta, given superpowers by her intractable chasteness, and Lang and von Harbou stack her portrayal heavily towards hues of misanthropic lesbianism. Initial appearances are partly deceiving, as Brünhild proves increasingly volatile and vindictive once her virginity and sovereignty are surrendered, whilst Kriemhild, who early in the film interrupts a violent quarrel between Siegfried and Hagen with a pacific gesture, grows after marrying Siegfried exponentially in character and stature, until she becomes an all-powerful engine of wrath.
Siegfried and Kriemhild embody the persistence of idealism in civilisation, being reconstituted as the Roman world, distant and increasingly irrelevant, is assailed by Attila and his Huns. But idealism is not necessarily positivist in such a realm: it invokes justice and order as well as liberty and socialisation, and the occasional harshness of those concepts. Hagen and Brünhild, who are both, tellingly, constantly sporting helmets with winged crests that evoke more distant tribal roots and totemistic meaning, are refrains from older times, potent and powerful, but also destructive and self-defeating in their extreme sensibilities. Upon her arrival in Worms, Brünhild, who has before clearly been pagan, consulting an old völva who cast the runes, must kiss the cross in the first act of domestication. This historical world depends utterly on codes of behaviour and ritual that enforce and allow assumptions of trust. The gullibility of Siegfried and Kriemhild and the weakness of Gunther are heightened to amusing extremes, and yet of course it’s actually about demonstrating the level of trust invested in those one fights with and lives with. Hagen violates those presumptions in the most profound manner possible, as he tricks Kriemhild into sewing a cross on the back of Siegfried’s robe that marks out exactly where the leaf that despoiled his invincibility stuck, under the pretext of wanting to protect Siegfried in battle. Out on a hunt, whilst Siegfried drinks from a pool, Hagen spears him in the back.
Die Nibelungen is very long – the two chapters in their full-length cuts take five hours to unspool – in part because Lang plays every scene with a smouldering, slow-mounting intensity that registers with electric fixation and precise weightiness the characters’ actions and reactions. In the sequence of Kriemhild’s confrontation with her dead husband, the slow burn pays off for one of Lang’s brilliant little pirouettes of style, as Kriemhild awakens in the night and wanders from her bedroom, the castle now suddenly a trap of voluminous, haunted space, the hunting party returning from the stygian night with Siegfried’s body on his shield. When Kriemhild comes upon Siegfried laid out, she bends over his body in utter devastation. Whilst there’s much less of the overtly experimental and symbolic technique Lang would use in Metropolis here, Lang employs such elements sparingly and exactingly, and here interpolates a livid piece of imagery as Kriemhild envisions Siegfried standing before the blossoming tree where he was kissing her earlier, the tree of spring then waning in wintry fashion to take on the aspect of a glowing skull. Violent tragedy has been prefigured by an earlier dream Kriemhild had as Siegfried first entered her life, of a white bird being torn apart by black ones, rendered in abstracted animation. Kriemhild’s squall of shock soon segues into realisation that Hagen is the murderer, and she rises from Siegfried’s corpse pointing her finger at the warlord with abysses behind her electric eyes, demanding he be punished. But Gunther, who acquiesced to the crime, his brothers, and Volker all, for the sake of the loyalty that is their own, absolute value, step in front of Hagen, announcing their intention to stand by him. Kriemhild vows revenge, and later finds, when Siegfried’s body has been laid out in the cathedral, that Brünhild, having already revealed to her husband that she had lied about Siegfried’s actions, has killed herself there with a dagger in her heart, and rests bent over his corpse, bringing the curtain down on the first chapter.
The bipolar swing from the transcendental adventure of dragon-slaying to this ugly scene seems to chart a grimmer side to the evolution of human civilisation, out of the forest’s shadows and into the different shadows of human emotional and societal conflict. Kriemhild must evolve further and find a way to slay this entirely different kind of dragon. Like her dead husband, she embarks on a single-minded pilgrimage through the forests to fulfil a vow that will change the shape of the world. Strong female characters in Lang’s work were remarkably common even after his marriage to the imperious Von Harbou broke up, and although at first the drama is driven ironically by a clash of intemperate ladies, Kriemhild and Brünhild, later Kriemhild, like the diptych of Marias in Metropolis but contained within one body, is both goddess and succubus, saviour and annihilator, lording over men as she commits unremittingly to her programme no matter the horror that ensues. Whilst Brünhild comes to resemble a femme fatale of the order of Joan Bennett’s Kitty March in Scarlet Street, Kriemhild, like Spencer Tracy’s Joe Wilson in Fury, Henry Fonda’s title character in The Return of Frank James (1940), and Glenn Ford’s Dan Bannion and Gloria Grahame’s Debby Marsh in The Big Heat, is slowly transformed by her dedication to vengeance into a merciless, inhumane force.
If that dedication is held far higher than the mob mentality invoked throughout Lang’s films, here embodied by the Huns, it’s because such an ethic retains a fearful kind of beauty, a singular force that stands rigidly opposed to nihilism and defeatism. As such, it constitutes as sure a bulwark against utter moral chaos as Worms’ battlements, but which in any other setting but this demands better answers. The formerly demure, ultra-feminine Kriemhild now becomes the baleful icon, resembling Klimt’s vision of Pallas Athena, cowering grown men with her gaze, her brothers downcast and ashamedly tentative before her, as she accepts an offer from Attila (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) to become his new wife, as he promises to avenge any offence done to her: Kriemhild forces first Attila’s envoy, Rüdiger von Bechlarn (Rudolf Rittner), a Germanic vassal of the Asian conqueror, to swear this oath. She demands it again when she reaches Attila’s keep, in a spellbindingly intense sequence that sees the magnificently ugly Hun warlord and the beautifully icy German widow find a deep understanding in unflinching gazes and oaths of binding import. Attila is later so nervous about the well-being of his wife and his child she’s giving birth to, he can’t prosecute the siege of Rome he’s started, and when news comes of the baby’s safe delivery, he charges with his men back to his stronghold to cradle his babe with childish glee, and grants Kriemhild’s request to invite her brothers for a stay. Along the way he passes by the film’s oddest piece of symbolism, a gaggle of naked children dancing around the one tree in an otherwise blasted plain, emblems of the endangered but growing state of civilisation in this age.
Whilst Metropolis, with its genetic heritage passed on through so much of science fiction that followed and its giddy, frenetic sense of technique, is the most famous of Lang’s films, Die Nibelungen has all of its virtues and none of its faults, not simply in telling a more lucid story – it is admittedly easier to transcribe a work of great classical literature than compose one’s own parables – but also in conceptual depth, narrative integrity, and consistency of acting. The performing is practically cabalistic in its concentration, particularly from Schön, who does some of the most operatic eye-acting in the history of silent cinema, and that’s saying something. As Metropolis is to science fiction, watching Die Nibelungen feels very much like encountering the ür-text of just about the entire canon of historical fantasy-adventure cinema. Whilst many entries in these genres had been made before, Lang’s boldly composed visions seem to have sunk the deepest roots in the imagination of filmmakers, even those who have never seen them, but rather seen the films they inflected. Beyond the impact of his use of special effects, Lang’s visual alchemy presented an indelible model for anyone working with such material. The temptation to completely reinvent the world presented in a movie according to aesthetic choice and artistic desire is always theoretically open to filmmakers, but as it’s so often a realistic medium, few feel free to do so with material set in the modern world, a choice that is however less fraught in fantastic and historical settings. Thus Lang’s holistic sensibility, turning everything within the scope of his camera into an expressive instrument, could find free reign here, and gave to followers an expressive palate that could be used in endless and intricate variations. The influence spreads over a vast spectrum of cinematic icons: the compositions and stylisation of Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938) and Ivan the Terrible (1946-58), the historical swashbucklers of Michael Curtiz and epics of Cecil B. DeMille, the visual motifs of Alfred Hitchcock, Carol Reed, and Orson Welles, through to Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings (over and above the poem’s influence on Tolkien), John Boorman’s Zardoz (1974) and Excalibur (1981), and historical dramas like Anthony Mann’s El Cid (1961), Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971), and Fellini Satyricon (1969). Even sci-fi like Star Wars (1977) bears its imprint; Hagen – or is it Kriemhild? – can be called the absolute original Darth Vader. Lang’s way of settling his camera down to absorb a set composed in precise, static geometry prefigures the self-conscious reproduction of such effects by Sergei Paradjanov. The finale seems to have particularly inspired the core battle sequence in Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (1985).
Die Nibelungen moves with the relentless stateliness of classical tragedy, which is indeed a genre into which the story finally moves, even as the narrative finally erupts with action in an hour-long final sequence of transfixing force. Structurally, it is broken, like an epic poem, into “Cantos” that commence with brief explanatory, pre-empting notes. Kriemhild’s determination to uphold the values she considers sacred – justice and oaths of loyalty – runs headlong into Attila’s own specific absolutes, in this case the nomadic leader’s insistence that an offer of hospitality cannot be violated, so that even whilst he puts the Burgundians in his wife’s lap, he won’t prosecute the vengeance she wants. So, she carefully whips up the Hun warriors, who, wanting to aid the woman whose beauty and statuesque strength seems to them practically god-like, will do anything she asks, so that when the Burgundians arrive, a fight erupts between the partying soldiers of both sides. When a Burgundian soldier runs into Attila’s banquet hall in the keep, shouting, “Treason!”, Hagen promptly, punitively slaughters Attila and Kriemhild’s baby. At the pleading of another of Attila’s German vassals, Dietrich of Bern (Fritz Alberti), he’s allowed to lead Attila, Kriemhild, Rüdiger and others out of the keep, before the Nibelungen close the doors and defend themselves against the waves of Huns who try to hack through the doors and invade via ladders to the roof. The Nibelungen, with their shields and mail as well as fighting prowess, prove near-invincible for the unarmoured, swarming Huns, and so Kriemhild invokes Rüdiger’s oath and demands he lead his own men in, an act which entails the worst possible crisis of conscience: Rüdiger has promised his daughter in marriage to Giselher. But the power of the oath wins out, and Rüdiger moves ominously in to attack. When he tries to strike down Hagen, Giselher leaps in front of the villain in trying to plead with his would-be father-in-law, and dies instead. In the battle that follows, Volker kills Rüdiger, whilst the Huns swarm over Gernot as he pleads with his sister to call them off. Hagen mocks Kriemhild from the keep’s steps after another wave of attackers is beaten off, and finally Kriemhild gives the order to burn the keep to the ground with the remnant Nibelungen inside.
The power of these scenes is virtually indescribable in the infernal concision of the images, especially as the end comes for the Nibelungen, Volker defiantly playing his instrument – in pointed contrast to an earlier scene where he smashed another after Kriemhild left Worms without making peace with any of them – and leading the warriors in song. Attila, outside, in a maniacal trance, rocks his hands to the time of the song, and Kriemhild, at the suggestion from another German vassal that’s she’s been consumed by hate, gestures to the keep and states, “I’ve never been more filled with love,” in admiration for her brothers’ fidelity to their principles. They won’t even let Hagen go out to hand himself over when he proposes to do this. Finally, Dietrich, who, like Attila, is another real historical personage brought into the drama (his real-life analogue was Theodoric the Great, the Visigoth king who conquered Italy), ventures into the keep and overpowers Hagen, dragging him and the king, the last left alive, out to meet the final act of the tragedy. The bleak and dizzying beauty and emotional force of this ending come not simply from the feelings evoked within it and by it, but from the moral ambiguity of it all, as characters one despises suddenly prove themselves heroic beyond measure and true to their private code. Even Gunther gets himself wounded in trying desperately to pluck the fiery arrows from the roof, and Hagen tries to protect the prone king by standing over him with his shield as blocks of masonry crash upon it. The various postures of the characters, their world-ordering sensibilities, finally meet in a mutually annihilating showdown where each major character is forced, one way or another, to destroy what they love most. It’s the darkest possible ending in many ways, and yet bizarrely elating, and it makes, by comparison, most modern descendants of this truly great film experience look childish.
Films that use the ideas of the science fiction genre to genuinely serious investigatory or poetic ends are pretty few and far between in today’s cinema. If they are taking those ideas seriously at all, it’s more likely to be on a conceptual, rather than psychological or emotional plane. A coldly beautiful and quietly dazzling exercise in psychosexual provocation, as well as a meditation on mortality and personality with a blend of genre with high Freudian perversity, Womb easily bests the last mainstream film to tackle the moral and humanitarian ramifications of cloning, 2010’s unfocused and soapy Never Let Me Go, for narrative power and coherence. Fleigauf’s film expands its ideas with genuinely unsettling and affecting permutations that retain a touch of the otherworldly and yet also proceeds with a chilly, peculiar logic.
Strangely, Womb has gained little attention, though not too surprisingly, as it’s inevitably noncommercial; I only came across it by chance, dumped onto DVD, in spite of sporting two excellent young stars: Eva Green, an actress who embodies something intelligent yet provocative and insinuatingly decadent even in the most humdrum of parts, and the rubbery-limbed Matt Smith, currently inhabiting the role of Doctor Who. Indeed, it’s been a good year for dumped Green films, also including the lesser but still interesting Cracks.
At the outset of Fleigauf’s film, Green is a solitary woman sitting on the balcony of her remote house, perched on stilts in the midst of a tidal plain, cradling a belly bulging with pregnancy, thanking, in voiceover, someone for this gift. Fliegauf then jumps back many years in the past to when Green’s character, Rebecca, was nine years old (played at that age by Ruby O. Fee), and staying for a vacation with her grandfather. She encountered a boy, Thomas (Tristan Christopher), when he took a break from being chased about by local hooligans to say hello, and they swiftly became inseparable friends, with Rebecca practically absorbed by Thomas’ parents, Ralph and Judith (Mike Leigh regulars Peter Wight and Lesley Manville), into their family. The two children spent an idyllic vacation in spite of the typically northern European, tempestuous, and glowering atmosphere of the seaside locale, with its pebbly beaches and beautifully blasted shores and sands, until Rebecca finally had to leave to join her mother who was taking a job in Tokyo. The night before she leaves, Tom announces he’s going to see her off and give her a going-away present, but he never shows up.
Rebecca returns over a decade later, having gained a degree and a profession as a designer of software for acoustic devices, to take over her since-deceased grandfather’s house and to look for Tom. When she finds him, he’s grown into the agreeable adult form of Smith. When Rebecca finds his current abode, still in the same seaside town that he loves too much to leave, she finds Rose (Natalia Tena) sitting on the floor in her undies, reading a book. But she’s just a casual pick-up, and she gets frustrated and stomps out when faced with Rebecca and Tom’s instantaneously resumed mutual fascination: “Maybe you two should start sniffing each other.” Tom gives Rebecca the present she was supposed to receive, a matchbox containing a snail, now long dead.
Tom, who is now a biology student and an activist, is planning a demonstration at a new cloning centre called Sparkling Park, and has a crate full of cockroaches ready to release to cause alarm amongst the security staff. Rebecca joins him for this jaunt, but when she gets him to pull his car over so she can go take a pee in the grass, and he starts to get out after her, she hears the unmistakeable sound of another car hitting him at speed. Fleigauf and Green pull off this scene with terrific dispassion and a proper sense of the jarring shock of sudden, complete, irretrievable loss registered in the ever so slightly widening eyes of Rebecca as she surveys Tom’s broken body. Except that it’s not irretrievable, not anymore. As Tom’s parents grieve, Rebecca retains her sphinx-like smile, and presents them with a solution: that they clone Tom, and she will act his surrogate mother. Judith rejects the notion, stating that, “We’re atheists…but that doesn’t mean we can rummage in our deceased’s grave…we are not farm animals…we accept what life gives us!” Rebecca presses ahead, however, going to Sparkling Park, where Rose, who works there, catches sight of her. Months later, Rebecca gives birth to Tom redux, and begins to raise him as her own son.
What end such an act can possibly have, and all its manifold and troubling imputations, looms with constant tension throughout Womb, as Fleigauf describes young Tommy’s growth from bulge in Rebecca’s belly to upright young man. Whether Rebecca can continue to treat Tommy as simply her own child who happens to also be giving the genetic material of her great love a second chance at life, or if she’s nursing a darker, if still possibly inchoate, plan to make him a substitute, and what his reaction to the inevitable, practically Greek tragic moment of realisation will be is the crucial question, one that hovers as not entirely resolved until the very end.
In the meantime, Rebecca keeps the truth of Tommy’s origins from him, and when he has an encounter with another cloned youngster, Dima (Gina Stiebitz), he learns of the intense social hatred toward clones. Other concerned mothers, worried when Rebecca invites Dima unknowingly to Tommy’s birthday party, meet with her and explain, in a note-perfect transposition of such anxieties from more familiar worrisome types, how they don’t want their children exposed to the unknown influence of these strange, unnatural entities. But word soon reaches the parents of Tommy’s friends about his genetic origins, thanks to Rose, and when Tommy asks Rebecca why nobody came to his party, Rebecca only says, “Because they’re stupid!” The next day she packs up and moves them both out to the remote house glimpsed at the beginning, where Rebecca continues to live until Tommy is grown, burgeoning into a man eerily similar to his earlier incarnation, with a deep interest in nature and a loopy sense of childish fun. When he moves a girlfriend from college, Monica (Hannah Murray), into the house, the stage is set for possibly the strangest ménage-a-trois, seething beneath the surface and constantly sensed by all parties without quite taking shape, in cinema history.
Fliegauf maintains a tremendous formal control over Womb, which could easily have toppled into torpid psychodrama or arty sterility. His film bears a distinct resemblance, in setting as well as style and the chilly anthropological deconstruction, to the early work of Roman Polanski. Shot in the Sylt region in Germany, near the Danish border, with its many gradations in hazy beauty, the setting presents a perfect barometer for the oedipal drama unfolding with the mood of increasing isolation from the real world. As far as films that use natural settings to define and dominate the mood of a film, Womb stands far above just about any work of recent cinema, except maybe Polanski’s The Ghost Writer (2010).
The womb of the title is both Rebecca’s physical womb, of course, cradle and battlefield of this experiment in human intransigence and longing, but also the house into which she moves to continue her experiment in peace. Fliegauf pieces together telling detail as he effectively describes a warped family situation with cues, usually subliminal and yet constantly accumulating, occasionally to overflowing, as when Rebecca offers herself to a barely adolescent Tommy in a fashion he doesn’t at all understand. Simultaneously, there’s a distinct echo of biblical myth in the very Garden of Eden where the second-generation man Cain must marry his mother Eve as a precursor to new life: Rebecca retreats into her own little Eden. Images of mother and infant bearing distinct similarities to those seen in The Tree of Life flow by, except whereas there is mystery in familiar human growth—no one’s ever quite sure what a child will look like as it grows—here there is a chilly, preordained sense of how Tommy is going to grow up, what he’ll think, feel, what he’ll be excited by—and what he’ll be turned on by.
There’s a particularly keen condensation of parental affection, childish destructiveness, and unspoken suspicion in a movement in which Rebecca gives Tommy a toy robotic dinosaur, as cruelly adorable as possible, which Tommy along with a boy he befriends then buries in the sand: it’s the sort of thing a boy his age does to toys, an act that’s usually thoughtless but that parents can feel is somehow a rejection of them, and imbued here with another layer as Tommy acts out a detestation of simulacrums. Fliegauf relies on the audience blanching at a lifelike thing being treated in such a fashion, aware that Tommy himself would be considered such a thing, requiring Rebecca’s retreat to the edge of the earth to pillow him from that treatment. “Dima is the victim of artificial incest!” one of the village mothers says in a key, wryly amusing, yet highly discomforting scene: “Her mother gave birth to her own mother!” The ground seems set for another portrayal of small-mindedness and reactionary impulses through a gimmicky prism, but Fliegauf loads the situation thanks to the awareness that Rebecca’s intentions for her own clone are not entirely wholesome. Rebecca, sensing the danger of being caught outside the herd, immediately acquiesces and plays along. Where exactly all the ethics review panels went to in this brave new world isn’t stated, but it’s clear the act of cloning has already been commercialised out of sight, as one of the reasons Tom was protesting the cloning centre was its plan to make most of its money out of “cyberbitches”, cloned prostitutes, and endlessly reproduced household pets.
At the outset, Womb seems cast in the mould of something like Julio Medem’s Lovers of the Arctic Circle (1999) in portraying Rebecca and Tom’s intense connection as something almost sublime and preordained, and Tom’s quirky energy seems quite in line with that familiar variety of lively young man. Smith, however, has a gift for suggesting something slightly alien and asocial in his characters as well as charming and zany. When Rebecca walks back into Tom’s life after years, she doesn’t even need to say her name for him to recognise her, and soon they’re so fixated on each other that they completely ignore anyone else in their world. Their initial reuniting is painfully brief, so Rebecca seems to hope that this innate bond will be sustained as Tommy grows into a man. Yet, for the most part, she plays the almost-perfect mother, with a job that allows her to work from home and continue constant interaction; when Tommy’s grown, she tiptoes into his bedroom to lay down a breakfast tray for him and Monica, whom she’s never met. Monica’s arrival starts a breakdown in Rebecca’s equilibrium: she’s lived without any kind of sexual contact all these years—it’s revealed in the most alarming fashion possible that she’s still a virgin—and her still-manifest physical desire for Tommy, and, it becomes increasingly clear in spite of all his presuppositions, his for her, begins to boil over.
Incest seems to be emerging as a new subject for would-be provocateurs in the artier cinema brackets, whilst films that try to describe and encompass the repetitive chains of birth, growth, and creation that govern human life seem to reflect a current wave in the zeitgeist: some of the year’s other top films, include The Tree of Life, Hanna, Attenberg, and Mysteries of Lisbon, all present some consistent thematic concerns with this developmental theme, as children become products of, and vessels for, the ambitions and mistakes of their parents. Rarely has the most profound taboo been approached with such supple, nerveless skill as in this film, whilst the theme is carefully leavened by the story frame: there is awareness that Tommy is not a natural son as it would once have been defined, and yet he’s bound to Rebecca in the most intimate way as a product of her body, if not of her genes. Whether Tommy retains an actual bond with Rebecca that transcends the liminal, or whether he’s just responding to endless subtle signals in her manner over the years, is impossible to discern; nor, is it easy to tease apart the specific ramifications of the situation it presents, with their scifi impetus, from any normal mother’s relationship with a grown son who in some ways personifies her husband grown young again. In any event, Womb is a film infused with a sonorous cool and an emotional intensity that builds to an inevitable outburst, which comes when his other mother, Judith, turns up at the house, looking like a gorgon of gnawed conscience, not speaking a word as she partakes of this remake of her son and reels away with profound and baleful knowledge.
This episode lodges a fresh disquiet in Tommy which Smith realises as a marvellous climax of actorly slow burn. Tommy, Rebecca, and Monica are at the breakfast table, his final exhaustion with Rebecca’s evasions and estrangement exploding as he slams a clogged salt shaker repeatedly upon the table and turns the kitchen upside down until he procures a handful of salt to smother his meal, before pointing to his mother and saying the fateful words in regards to Judith, “I know her.” Monica’s pathos in trying to plead for her lover to emerge from the bathroom where he locks himself and realising that she’s the superfluous point in this triangle, causes her to flee. At last, Rebecca delivers self-knowledge to Tommy, and he rests for a bleak and terrible moment on an edge of powerful feeling that will resolve either in matricide or sex—either way, a primal taboo. As it happens, sex prevails. Tommy finally ends Rebecca’s virginity and then flees the house, having fulfilled exactly what Rebecca wanted—to have a real child by Tommy—and finally free to find some purpose for himself. The mood seems at last unbearable, except that in the final shot, as Tommy disappears into the murk, Rebecca switches on a light within the house: now, at last, each is only just recommencing life. Womb is a strange, troubling, fascinating waking dream.
The filmmakers of the Berlin School have caught the interested and often admiring eye of serious cinephiles around the world since they began releasing their deceptively simple films at the beginning of the new millennium. The Berlin School filmmakers, of whom Christian Petzold (The State I’m In , Yella ) is perhaps the most iconic, generally shun the overtly political breast-beating other German filmmakers have engaged in with regard to Germany’s fraught past; instead, their stories are quite personal in scope. Yet there is an underlying seriousness of purpose that often puts difficult choices and feelings of guilt at the center of their films, thereby coming at the problem of the moral legacy with which Germans are still struggling from a less sensational, but no less acute angle.
These films vary in the degree to which they work; sometimes stripping them down too much takes some of the urgency of the questions they pose out of them. Such was the case, I felt, with Longing (2006), Valeska Grisebach’s Lady or the Tiger parable that never really fleshed out its dilemma for me. So, too, Hans-Christian Schmid’s most recent film, Storm (2009), seemed a hybrid of the overtly political and the politics of personal betrayal that didn’t do either perspective much justice. However, with Schmid’s earlier film, Requiem, the tone is perfect, and its tale of possession leading to tragedy is a perfect allegory for Nazi Germany’s brutal mindset.
Requiem, which tells the story of a modern-day demonic possession and exorcism, is based on the true story of German college student Anneliese Michel. Schmid’s take on this story, which certainly must be well-known in his country, focuses intensely on the possessed woman herself. In using this approach, Schmid does a remarkable thing. He takes us inside the life of someone who eventually comes to believe she is possessed by demons.
Unlike the makers of another film released about the same time that is also based on this story, The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), Schmid isn’t interested in deciding for us—and especially for the woman herself—whether her claims of possession are real. If we want to draw our own conclusions, screenwriter Bernd Lange has provided “evidence.” It must be kept in mind at all times, however, that this so-called evidence is the interpretation of a writer, and therefore not truly factual.
Michaela Klingler (Sandra Huller) is a 21-year-old woman with a strong and completely natural desire to become independent of her family and start her own life. She receives a letter in the mail informing her that she has been accepted to a college in another town. Her father (Burghart Klaussner) and younger sister (Friederike Adolph) are happy for her. Her mother (Imogen Kogge) reacts by saying, “How can you go there with your thing?” and reminds her of her previous failed attempt. A predictable fight ensues, during which Michaela accuses her mother of not wanting her to have anything of her own. This could be any family, anywhere in the world.
Michaela prevails with the support of her father, who arranges a dorm room for her. He drops her at her new home with a smile and a hug, and Michaela begins her first steps into freedom. On her first day of class, she is late. The professor stops her on the steps of the lecture hall as he describes a theory of teaching. He then asks her if she agrees with the theory. She answers that she doesn’t know. He asks her what she does believe in. She says, “In God.” The room explodes in titters—this is the rebellious ’70s after all. The professor cautions them that their response means they may not believe in much of anything, and that is a problem. In this not terribly subtle, but effective, way, Schmid is cautioning the film audience to suspend judgment about spirituality and its power. It also, however, provides a much subtler set-up for the rest of the film that believing in something too deeply can have grave consequences.
Michaela sees a woman from her hometown leaving the lecture hall at the end of class. At first, Hanna (Anna Blomeier) rebuffs her, but when Michaela later gives her a cheat sheet during an exam, she warms up. They become fast friends, especially after Hanna finds Michaela collapsed in her room and learns her secret—she has epilepsy. Michaela and Hanna have some carefree times together, including going to a mixer at which Michaela meets Stefan (Nicholas Reinke), a handsome young man who appears merely to want to get in her pants. She ends up as his girlfriend, however.
Michaela confesses to Hanna that she hears voices. Hanna thinks Michaela should see a doctor. Michaela argues that she’s seen doctors, been to hospitals, and taken pills all her life, and they have done her no good. She decides to follow her instinct to seek spiritual help.
Michaela goes home to see her parish priest to complain about the voices. He sternly chastises her for believing in demons, calling God and the Devil symbols rather than facts. Michaela sees another priest, who wants to perform an exorcism once he sees how agitated she becomes when he tries to pray with her. She has lost the ability to pray, touch the cross, and hold a rosary.
Events snowball, including a major fight with her mother and a break-up with Stefan, and eventually, Michaela ends up at home. Her mother and father are now convinced she is possessed, and they call in the two priests to start the exorcisms. The movie is almost over by the time the exorcism begins.
We recognize Michaela’s swearing and rude behavior from The Exorcist (1973), and it does seem demonic coming from such a pious girl. But it’s not horrifying. It could be the result of many factors, such as being off medication, heartache, school pressures, her mother’s disapproval, her own identification with St. Katherine, who suffered possessions all her life. What becomes obvious is that medical science is as primitive as religion at this point in time, and that a troubled girl brings out the worst in everyone, from her long-suffering mother to an eager young priest in love with the idea of exorcism.
The cast is uniformly superb, but Huller, who is in nearly every frame, gives one of the great performances I have ever seen. She brings to life a complex woman with a view of her condition consistent with who she is. Schmid adds to the verite feel of this film by shooting with a handheld camera and concentrating on close-ups, making us feel as though we are trying to peer into Michaela’s soul. I don’t know what was going on in this girl, but I found this film to be a fitting requiem to her spirit.
I learned a couple of days ago that the venerable Howard University in Washington, D.C., a bastion of learning for African Americans at a time when they were barred entrance to other colleges and universities and still a educator of choice in the African-American community, is dropping its 90-year-old philosophy degree programs. Said Richard A. Jones, professor of philosophy at Howard, in a recent interview in The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, “The loss of this program—for fiscal considerations—reflects a growing trend: the elimination of humanities and social programs for more ‘practical’ training programs. It is a postmodern reenactment of the debate between W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington over liberal education versus vocational training.”
This is only the latest example of how educational programs that train the mind are losing ground in the United States. Those lucky enough to go to college these days no longer see value in taking classes that have no “practical” application, and given how expensive higher education is and how difficult it is to get a decent job, even with a college education, it’s hard to fault them.
Nonetheless, when people lose the ability to recognize issues that go beyond their basic concerns and, more important, to grope toward answers, we will truly be lost. It is with urgency over the loss of our intellectual capital at a time when globalism has brought acute problems from around the world to all of our doorsteps that organizers were inspired to create the dropping knowledge project. From their website:
Founded in the summer of 2003, the dropping knowledge project was initially based in Berlin, Germany, and San Francisco, USA.
After the Table of Free Voices, on September 10, 2006, the organization divided into two independent groups. The Berlin-based team became Mindpirates e.V. and the US-based team dropping knowledge International. Today, Mindpirates e.V. remains solely responsible for the curation of the Table of Free Voices and of this website.
It is the Table of Free Voices that forms the substance of the different kind of documentary that is Problema. The film “documents” a real-life circumstance, but it is the opposite of what I usually like in a documentary: it is nothing but talking heads. Problema records what happened when 112 people the organizers wanted to hear—primarily heads of nongovernmental organizations and activists like human-rights champion Bianca Jagger and physicist Hans-Peter Dürr, artists like Wim Wenders, and professional thinkers like Cornel West—talked about the great challenges of our day. The unusual format of the roundtable discussion (and yes, it literally was conducted at a round table in Berlin’s Bebelplatz, where Nazis burned books) was to have moderators Willem Dafoe and Nigerian human-rights advocate Hafsat Abiola alternately read each of the 100 questions culled from the dropping knowledge forums and have each participant give his or her answer simultaneously. A camera set up in front of each seat recorded their messages, and these messages, shots of the event taken by Schmerberg’s cameras, and thousands of images illustrating the various topics under consideration comprise the documentary.
Questions came from people of all ages from all parts of the world. A child’s question “What is God’s religion?” is treated with as much consideration as an adult asking “Is there a modern form of colonialism?” The answers vary. To the question, “Should a person have the right to live anywhere they want?”—a question near and dear to my heart as a person who thinks nationalism has outlived its usefulness—some gave a simple, “Yes, of course.” Others delved into the issue of resources versus need and how the exploding global population has made traditional strategies of nomadism impractical. The reverse question occurred to others—do people have the right to stay where they are?—and cited eminent domain and expulsions, such as what happened to Native Americans, as another population problem. In answer to the colonialism issue, one woman smiled and said, “Yes. It’s called debt.” We’re all concerned about economic policies in the United States, but the problems of smaller debtor nations could soon be ours.
It took me a while to realize that everyone was speaking at the same time. The din of voices was distracting before I came to this realization, and then it was like a symphony of the world, a perfect illustration of the dialogue the organizers of this event have orchestrated on the Internet and that they wish to encourage in face-to-face meetings. As cinema, the film leaves something to be desired. It seemed that the same faces kept popping up; a Maori woman was shown several times, but we don’t actually hear her speak until nearly the end of the film. The quick-cut images that show everything from the famous look at the earth from outer space and the Chinese student standing up to a tank in Tiananmen Square to film clips from Wings of Desire and Things to Come provide some visual interest, and one certainly has to credit the production team for tackling the permissions that must have been a nightmare to negotiate. But the montages didn’t add much. I think I would have preferred fewer images, more carefully chosen, and more questions.
The important thing about Problema is that it recognizes that the world needs to relearn how to talk about its common concerns. That does not mean leaving it all up to politicians to take care of for us—we’ve seen the folly of that. Indeed, Schmerberg deliberately left government officials out of the conversation because, he asserted in the Q&A, they have access to all the major media outlets and can have their say all they want. He offered the welcome news that all of the questions and answers will be available for download and recutting, so that communities can tailor presentations to specific issues they might want to address. Thus, the documentary I saw will never be the final documentary; like Sita Sings the Blues, the public is welcome to enter the creative process and use the materials to invent new uses for the footage. I’m planning to join the discussion. I hope you will, too. l
There are no more screenings of Problema, but the free worldwide online premiere of Problema will occur on December 6, 2010, here.
Previous CIFF coverage
The Happy Housewife: A buoyant young woman falls into a dangerous depression following the birth of her son and must deal with her past. (The Netherlands)
Southern District: The decline of the Bolivian upper class gets a very personal treatment in this close examination of one La Paz family and the natives who work for them. (Bolivia)
Asleep in the Sun: Ingenious period film that shows the transformation of a troubled woman into someone whose personality her husband doesn’t recognize after a stay in a mental health clinic. (Argentina)
Tuesday, After Christmas: A beautifully photographed story of adultery poses a potent metaphor for Romania in its new prosperity. (Romania)
On Tour: A French TV producer returns from “exile” in America with a troupe of burlesque dancers to try to get back on top in this amiable, improvisational comedy. (France)
Circus Kids: The St. Louis Arches youth circus travels to Israel to join forces with the Galilee Circus to help bridge the gap between Arabs and Jews in this optimistic documentary. (Israel/USA)
The Matchmaker: Magical coming-of-age drama in which a teenage boy learns a message of love and tolerance from a Holocaust survivor. (Israel)
Ten Winters: Emotionally honest and lyrical study of a man and a woman whose initial attraction goes through many changes as they experience 10 years worth of living. (Italy)
Certified Copy: Elliptical tale of seduction by renowned director Abbas Kiarostami in which two strangers pretend to be a married couple in crisis. (Iran/Italy/France)
The Princess of Montpensier: The French Catholic persecution of Protestants forms the backdrop for this period drama about the travails suffered by a beautiful noblewoman desired by four men. (France/Germany)
The Last Report on Anna: A dreamy, romantic film centering on Anna Kéthly, real-life Hungarian minister in exile, and a spy’s attempt to silence her by seducing her into returning to their communist-controlled country. (Hungary)
The Princess of Montpensier was booed by some critics at its Cannes press screening, and it’s not hard to understand why. The lavish, period, literary adaptation they had just seen must have seemed like a return to the “bad old days” of the “quality films” the Nouvelle Vague filmmakers were rebelling against. Indeed, in the United States, such films are often seen as Oscar bait—inert displays of wealth and old-fashioned values that have no relevance to modern life.
While it can’t be disputed that this film looks expensive, takes place in France’s far past (the 16th century), is based on a literary work from that period by Madame de Lafayette, and concentrates most of its 139 minutes on a sort of love story, there is nothing inert or irrelevant about it. The Princess of Montpensier may seem like just another costume ball concerned with a beautiful woman all want to possess. But that modern audiences accept as commonplace such a plot—a woman as a prize in a macho contest—is evidence that we haven’t progressed as far as we think. And the background of religious persecution and warfare also resonates in many parts of our world today.
The film opens on a battlefield. Survivors of a routed fighting force of French Protestants (Huguenots) attempt to hobble out of sight, but are cut down by a trio of soldiers on horseback who are fighting for the Catholic cause. As they ride off the battlefield, three Huguenots on horseback pursue them and confront them as they retreat into a farmhouse. “In the name of Christ,” yells the Count of Chabannes (Lambert Wilson) before they all fire pistols into the house and break in. Swords are crossed, and during the fray, Chabannes runs a pregnant woman trying to defend her dying child through with his sword. A close-up of her stricken face communicates the horror of the moment. After this terrifying fight, Chabannes deserts, disillusioned with the senseless slaughter in the name of a Christ both Protestants and Catholics worship. Banished by both the Catholic King Charles IX and his Protestant compatriots for deserting, Chabannes turns to his former pupil, the Prince of Montpensier (Grégoire LePrince-Ringuet), for sanctuary.
The prince and Chabannes have a surprise waiting for them when they return to the prince’s home. The Duke of Montpensier (Michel Vuillermoz) has persuaded the Marquis de Mézières (Phillippe Magnan) to end the betrothal of his daughter Marie (Mélanie Thierry) to Mayenne de Guise (Césare Domboy) and to give her to his son. This is a very serious breach of promise, one that Marie and Mayenne’s brother Henri (Gaspard Ulliel) take very badly—the two are in love and are tormented by the idea that they will be parted. Marie’s mother (Florence Thomassin) advises her to submit, telling her that she and Henri have been indiscreet and that being so close to Henri while married to Mayenne would bring ruin to her and her family. Reluctantly, Marie agrees and warns the headstrong Henri not to fight their fate.
Sadly, the prince and Marie are all but strangers, and he lacks the charm and confidence to woo her. While she dutifully mouths words of affection toward him, she cannot match them with her feelings. It is also Marie’s misfortune to be breathtakingly beautiful, causing the prince’s jealousy—particularly toward Henri—to bubble out of control, further alienating Marie. He is summoned to battle time and again, leaving her alone with only Chabannes, his trusted tutor and friend, as a companion, with instructions to educate her before she is presented at the court of Versailles. She is intelligent and eager to learn, easy around the older Chabannes, and therefore quite shocked when he tells her he, too, has fallen in love with her.
Her problems are compounded when the Duke of Anjou (Raphaël Personnaz) and Henri happen near the prince’s estate, encounter Marie, and she offers them the hospitality of her home. The duke covets her as well, quite openly, and poor Marie must contend with four men at the dinner table eyeing her like a prize goose. Things come to a head when Marie finally travels to Versailles and Henri tempts her to renew their love affair.
Bertrand Tavernier is a very versatile director who can make any subject he chooses to tackle come to life. You might catch yourself wanting to swat flies while watching the goings-on in the colonial backwater of his Coup de Torchon or rub your elbows in pain after a cop takes down a drug dealer in L.627. So, too, does The Princess of Montpensier put you into the times these characters lived through and make you identify with their struggles and restrictions. The warfare in this film is brutal and realistic; we watch a fighter on the ground stab a horse to death with a lance to unseat its rider and witness the lack of mercy shown to civilians, women, and children during battles and in the pogroms carried out in Protestant areas. The Duke of Anjou is shown studying Polish while encamped with his army, explaining to the prince and Chabannes that the Polish king is the weakest in Europe and his family thinks he should simply take the crown—he behaves similarly with Marie, yelling at Henri for wanting something that should rightfully have been his, and assuming his authority as heir to the throne will cause the prince to just step aside when the moment is right. This is the arrogance of hereditary rule that would see his kind lose their heads in France two centuries later.
One feels for the prince, hoping that his beautiful wife will love him, only to have her say she will if he “orders” her to, but his irrational explosions are horrible and his intentions to basically lock her away after he learns that Henri is back in the picture are barbarous. Marie, who has had little agency in the film, tells him she will ride back to their estate on horseback rather than be conveyed in a carriage to her confinement; when she arrives, she nearly falls off her horse in exhaustion, showing this act of free will to be merely masochistic. Marie’s life in this film is commodified at every step. Her wedding night, another excrutiatingly authentic scene, is a horror of having a crowd watch as her naked body is washed and perfumed—her father inspecting the proceedings as he would a horse being brushed down in his stable—and a group of family and servants waiting at the foot of her curtained bed for her cry of pain when her hymen is broken. The servants are sent immediately to the bedside to gather evidence that blood was shed, and the new fathers-in-law tip glasses at this sealing of the deal. Perhaps worst of all, the aggressive attentions this young, unsophisticated woman is subjected to by her admirers are covetous rather than sincere and are rather frightening to watch. Only Chabannes, because of his age and wisdom, remains chivalrous toward her, even sacrificing his place with the prince to save Henri. He will sacrifice more in defense of the innocent before the picture ends, acting as a moral compass in a rather immoral film.
I think it is to Tavernier’s credit that he continues to plumb the depths of French history and bring a less pretty sort of period drama to life. His message about the senselessness of religious warfare and the horror of “collateral damage” isn’t hinted at but plainly spoken and shown—a lack of subtlety that seems suitable, not something to criticize. His choice to tell a drawn-out love story has rankled many critics for its apparent puffery, but women at this time were little more than property, a specific situation that Western cultures have outdistanced but that still informs the inferior status women hold throughout the world. Finally, Tavernier has argued with French critics for ignoring the financial pressures of the European Union on the French film industry by denigrating the efforts of commercial filmmakers:
In a series of interviews and letters, Tavernier issued an impassioned attack on the state of film criticism in France. He accused critics, lost between the savage tastes of the public and their own self importance, of employing a cynical triple standard, giving a free pass to virtually all the Hollywood blockbusters, championing marginalised filmmakers from around the world, while ignoring or dismissing French commercial cinema. (Source: Carloss James Chamberlin, “Bertrand Tavernier,” Senses of Cinema)
The Princess of Montpensier, in the mold of the successful The Duchess, is a film that can compete in the world marketplace. Thierry is an appealing actress who holds the center of the film quite well. She is ably supported by the quartet of men who play her suitors. I especially liked LePrince-Ringuet, a handsome actor who manages to contain his charisma and appear a man more comfortable crossing swords in battle than exchanging words with his own wife. The film goes beyond its commercial appeal with its extraordinary attention to detail, as well as a dedicated and talented crew in front of and behind the camera.
The Princess of Montpensier screens Sunday, October 10, 8:15 p.m., and Tuesday, October 12, 8:15 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.
The Last Report on Anna: A dreamy, romantic film centering on Anna Kéthly, real-life Hungarian minister in exile, and a spy’s attempt to silence her by seducing her into returning to their communist-controlled country. (Hungary)
Among those in the wave of new German cinema to emerge from the mid-1960s and into the ’70s, the most restless, protean, and tragic figure was Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Fassbinder’s relentless pace of work between 1970 and his death in 1982 would have been admired by old studio pros, whilst maintaining the strictest standards of artistic experimentation and expressive engagement. Fassbinder’s importance as a film artist manifested on several levels: in his rummaging through cultural detritus and worship of Douglas Sirk, he was a pop ironist, but also a fearless innovator and a key inventor of queer cinema. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, an adaptation of his own play, is considered one of the pivotal works in his career in that he gained complete control over various themes and stylistic impulses here, ironically by zeroing in on the most limited drama imaginable: the film never leaves the ground floor of the title character’s house, and barely even moves from her bedroom space. As has proven true for many of the best directors, the challenge of such a limited, theatrical setting stimulated the most refined cinematic reflexes in Fassbinder: the visual style of Bitter Tears is subtly epic and consistently, arrestingly beautiful.
Petra (Margit Carstensen), our antiheroine whose capacious bed is the centrepiece of the film’s geography, story, and the fraught emotional and sexual warfare about to take place, is awakened by her servant Marlene (Irm Hermann), who draws up the blinds, abruptly showering Petra with sunlight. Petra’s at a crossroads in her life: a former model and jet-setting wife now gaining fame as a designer, she relishes requests for work from fashion houses that had turned her down not long ago. Petra’s marriage ended within the past couple of years, and she has a teenage daughter, Gabriele (Eva Mattes), who is a milk-fed calf of the most innocent and irritating sort.
Petra is visited at the outset by her sister, Sidonie (Katrin Schaake), who’s lodged comfortably in a standard relationship with her husband, a baron, and she attempts to understand Petra’s lengthy, abstract explanation of why her union with her once slavishly adored husband Lester failed. Sidonie trumpets her own success in achieving a familiar balance in her own union—she lets her husband maintain an illusion of authority, but gets her own way in the end. This is precisely the kind of dishonesty Petra dislikes, for the refusal to sink into such hypocrisies defined her marriage, which actually disintegrated when she began to outearn her husband. Accompanying Sidonie is a young friend of hers, Karin Thimm (Hanna Schygulla), who instantly fixates Petra. When Petra invites Karin to come back later, she does, dressed, like Petra, in the most ornate and displaying clothes imaginable. After a delicate process of teasing out Karin’s troubled past, including the fact she’s recently abandoned her Australian husband, Petra declares her love for the girl.
What follows is the definition of a chamber piece, but Fassbinder renders his limited setting almost impossibly lush by several tricks of décor, including, most obviously, a wall covered with a detail from Nicolas Poussin’s “Midas and Bacchus,” with a nymph’s feminine form prominently sprawled. Mannequins and busts to support Petra’s array of wigs lend a kind of immobile chorus to the proceedings, and later, to mock her own situation, Petra arranges those mannequins in sexual positions. Fassbinder uses the layout of the apartment for the most cunning effects of mise-en-scène, like having Marlene watch Sidonie and Petra from a another room via two windows and fingering the glass with hopeless, alienated angst, or, later, using a bench top to divide the frame in such a way as to perfectly realise the sudden schism between lovers. He even plays games with the amount of available space in the apartment: in early scenes, Petra’s bed dominates the set, but later it’s pushed away so that Petra’s bedroom is a great wilderness of white shag carpet in which she flounders in an alcohol-pickled rage. The almost maddening closeness of the space is pushed even further in the scene of Petra’s seduction of Karin, as Marlene, present as always yet rendered a nonperson by Petra’s regime, bangs away relentlessly on a typewriter, her noise almost omnipresent and yet unprocessed. Pointedly, Marlene only stops typing, as she had earlier stopped working, when Petra begins to speak of her own failed amours. Marlene’s desire for knowledge of Petra’s mental landscape is matched only by Petra’s complete uninterest in the mental landscape of others.
That’s not to say that Petra is intended as a villain, but she is a thoroughly flawed human whose prejudices, blind spots, and self-delusion are gnawed to the bone as if by a school of piranha. Fassbinder’s drama carefully warps perspective and emotional response with such skill that it’s possible to hate and empathise with every character. Petra is able to write herself into the role of the distraught Pygmalion spiralling in despair of the amoral, ice-cold work of art she’s given birth to and been betrayed in the lowest way when Karin abruptly abandons her to return to her husband, now armed with the contacts and experience she’s gained as a model. But Karin, even in her stony, apparently contemptuous kiss-off, insists she loved Petra in her own way—that of a blithe young swinger whose willingness to take advantage of situations she stumbles into shouldn’t be confused with Petra’s own still instinctively materialist concept of love: having spurned her husband for trying to assert economic control over her, Petra has simply repeated the process.
As a fashion designer, Petra is an artist after a fashion, but a lazy one—she has Marlene do the colouring in her sketches—and her art form is always implicitly one of altering surfaces as though those acts could reconstruct the interior. Thus, putting on make-up and dressing are elaborate and overt acts throughout: Petra, after her rude awakening by Marlene, goes through the paces of adorning herself until she’s the image of what she wants to be: an empress, in command of the erotic, the fiscal, the emotional, and the social. Later, when she meets Karin, they have both dressed up in a fashion that’s both flesh-revealing and ornate: they’re like super-stylised fantasies of ’30s high fashion, pagan priestesses forming a new cult of love and ditzy narcissists all at once. It’s camp, of course, but subtler and less overtly amusing than that form is usually seen to be: Fassbinder’s love of femme glamour and formalist aesthetics is tempered by a coolly unsentimental, relentless study of games, pretences, cruelties, and vulnerabilities.
Rhetorically, Fassbinder achieves a number of entwined, but distinct ends. Overt gay themes were still relatively fresh to the screen in 1972, and Fassbinder’s disquiet about exploring his own homosexuality is partly distilled through the use of lesbians (he’d get around to looking at gay men with 1974’s Fox and His Friends). But that is not to mistake the film for naïve or shy in any fashion, and it’s a choice he makes the most of, considering he could also encompass questions of women’s lib and social restructuring through his protagonists here in a uniquely holistic tale. Fassbinder manages to tease the strands apart with surprising care at the end, chiefly through the late entrant to the tale, Petra’s mother Valerie (Gisela Fackeldey), who separates her surprise and emotional uncertainty over her daughter’s homosexuality (“My daughter loves a girl…how peculiar!”) and her solicitous rebukes over Petra’s willingness to hurt others to make herself feel better. Thus, Petra’s sexuality and her personality are carefully distinguished. Petra’s in rebellion against familiar patriarchal structures and convenient fictions, but also utterly in thrall to them and, though she doesn’t perceive it, she’s actually an enforcer of a system of power. She emphasises the freedom that she and Lester sought in their marriage, which finally curdled when financial freedom was in her grasp (“That way, oppression lies, that’s obvious. It’s like this, ‘I hear what you’re saying, and, of course, I understand, but who brings home the bacon?’”), at which point she developed a loathing for what she describes as the “stink of men.” And yet, the tendency to turn a lover into a possession to be bought, however subtly and in whatever good faith, is one that Petra reproduces in her relationship with Karin.
In the third act, months after Petra and Karin’s relationship began, Petra needles a calmly indolent and purposefully resistant Karin about who she was with when she went out dancing the previous night until she delivers what is, tellingly, both the film’s funniest and most merciless line: she was with “a big black man with a big black dick.” It’s a memorable crux not only for the way the revelation acts like a bucket of cold water on their relationship, but also for the instantly codified racial and sexual anxieties with which Karin skewers Petra. The title’s specificity is worth noting: Petra von Kant weeps a lot of bitter tears indeed, but only for Petra von Kant. Even her name has meaning as one that marks her as a member of the German aristocracy (she herself notes with humoured weariness, “Nothing ever changes in Germany.”), and her rhetoric about freedom is entirely hypocritical: “It’s a waste of time being nice to servants,” she says with contempt for the slavishly devoted Marlene. Fassbinder here manages the genuinely sophisticated job of pointing out that liberation in one segment of a society quite often comes at the cost to someone else, and he refuses to let Petra off the hook for her sense of entitlement and personal arrogance.
If Petra is still doggedly interesting and compelling in spite of all her appalling behaviour, it’s because she’s absolutely fearless in confronting her shifting sexuality and is at least searching for a genuine alternative. The film’s course has an almost Buddhist logic to it, as it essentially strips her of everything she possesses at the start, until she’s left alone, dishevelled, and humiliated, but finally, fundamentally aware enough to smile as she watches Marlene pack her things and walk out on her. She even finally comes to doubt she loved Karin, but rather that she made her a doll to act out a psychodrama (Sidonie sparks Petra’s vicious final tirades with the gift of a blonde doll that resembles Karin), but the evidence that Petra’s emotional reflexes, intensity of feeling, and commitment to an ideal make everyone around her look puny is hard to ignore. Bitter Tears has a lot of similarities to the first mainstream, lesbian-themed film, The Killing of Sister George (1968), but unlike in Robert Aldrich’s film, where Beryl Reid’s George is left alone and devastated by her unremitting nonconformity, Petra’s journey to a similar end entails more contradictions and even a degree of desired necessity. Petra needs her betrayal to take the liberty to firebomb every smarmy platitude and straw-dummy social role around her, and the sequence in which she tries to terrorise and emotionally flay her mother, sister, and daughter with truly loathsome force,sees her spurning not just them, but also what they represent—the nagging, settled aspects of femininity and the inevitable of past and future.
Bitter Tears is a bitterly funny film in spite of, and partly in service to, its intensity of feeling, as in the spectacle Petra makes of herself and her insults to her family, at once mortifying and giddily hilarious as Petra is unspeakably honest in calling her daughter a nasty little monster and accusing her mother of having been a passive whore with a fancy title who never did a day’s work in her life. Although there’s nothing to entertain anyone searching for vicarious soft-core thrills detachable from context—Petra and Karin only even kiss once—it’s also a lividly erotic film. That’s because of the way everything on screen is charged with beauty through the terrific, crisp cinematography of Michael Ballhaus. The carefully coordinated colours in the set design and costuming start to resemble art nouveau in their careful clash of tones, and those great nude figures on the wall in turns mirror, mock, and contrast the characters in front of them. The film builds to a conclusion that seems initially funny and facile but is actually curiously cryptic: Marlene’s final walkout, packing away belongings including a revolver, in her declaration of independence, comes not from some final straw of humiliation, but because Petra, having attempted to free her, takes away even the dignity of Marlene’s masochism, a dignity Petra herself has indulged to the limit. l
When films were born, the inventiveness of the many, many film production companies that sprung up all over the world boggles the mind. In Berlin alone, in addition to the state-sponsored studio, there were nearly 300 independent film producers jostling for a place in front of a public eager to consume this new form of entertainment. Among them was a well-off fellow named Louis Hagen, who bought literal tons of film stock at a low price believing that his investment, a hedge against rising inflation, would grow exponentially as the demand for movies continued to grow. Lotte Reiniger, a gifted silhouette artist who ran in avant-garde art circles in Berlin, taught art to Hagen’s children and benefited from his largesse by being given film stock and a place in his attic to film what became The Adventures of Prince Achmed, the oldest surviving, feature-length animated film.
Reiniger apparently could create intricate silhouettes out of paper in nothing flat, and this ability gave her the confidence to create an entire Arabian Nights world, inspired by the fantasy novels she loved to read, using paper characters that had up to 50 hinged components. She and her small crew, including Carl Koch, her cinematographer and husband, bent for hours in the cramped attic, exposing 300,000 frames of stop action with the fragile and easily disturbed silhouettes and sets. Filming and editing took three years, and at first, no one would book the film. It took many years to earn back its investment, but there was no doubt that it eventually would when the standing-room-only audience for the first screening left the theatre dumbstruck at the marvel they had just seen. Some 84 years later, I and the hubby joined their ranks after we were privileged to attend a live-music screening of this important and awe-inspiring film at the Portage Theater, a surviving movie palace on Chicago’s Northwest Side that has done more than its part to keep vintage films alive and on display.
The Adventures of Prince Achmed tells interrelated stories, though they are mainly centered on Prince Achmed. He, his sister Princess Dinarzade, and their father The Caliph of Persia, hold a great reception on the palace grounds at which visiting dignitaries pay tribute with fine gifts. The finest of them all is a horse that can fly, offered by the scheming African Sorcerer. The Caliph offers bags of gold to buy the horse, but the Sorcerer will only accept Princess Dinarzade as his wife in exchange. When Achmed runs to her side to defend her, the Sorcerer has him mount the horse and sends him up in the air—without telling him how to return to Earth. The Sorcerer is imprisoned, but Achmed is set free to have the adventures he always dreamed of.
Achmed’s ascent is beautifully shot, with dark clouds obscuring his form as he rises higher and higher, then snow to reflect the cold outer atmosphere, and finally a blanket of stars. He discovers how to descend only after he has traveled far from his home—as the Sorcerer intended—and lands on the island of Wak Wak, home to spirits, including their beautiful ruler Pari Banu. They make him a warm welcome and fight for his attention in a scene of comic bawdiness, but once he sees their queen, he will have no other.
Interestingly, Achmed becomes a Peeping Tom when Pari Banu and her attendants fly with the aid of their bird-shaped cloaks to a pond where he is hiding and strip nude to bathe. Achmed is one of the few characters who has eyes, and they very expressively suggest his lust; the nude figures of the women even have nipples. It’s actually quite an erotic scene, and one that ends in outrage when Achmed steals Pari Banu’s cloak and forces her to leave with him on his flying horse.
The pair ends up in China, and Pari Banu must be rescued from being married off to the Emperor’s Fool. Achmed and Pari Banu meet the Witch of the Fiery Mountains. We marvel along with them as fire explodes from the mountain scenery, and the witch becomes their ally against her sworn enemy, the African Sorcerer. But the spirits return to recapture Pari Banu and bring her back to Wak Wak, where they intend to punish her for agreeing to leave them because she has fallen for Achmed. At this point, the story of Aladdin intrudes, as only the one who possesses the lamp may enter the spirits’ lair. We learn how he found the lamp and won Princess Dinarzade by created a palace and riches for her, but how the Sorcerer then stole the lamp, the palace, and the Princess in one fell swoop. An epic battle between Achmed, Aladdin, the Mountain Witch, and the Sorcerer ensues that’s really quite thrilling, and soon all is made right again.
The silhouettes themselves and the multiplane settings in which they interact are highly detailed and absolutely beautiful. For example, elaborate star-decorated robes, amazing in their cut-out detail, clothe Pari Banu and Princess Dinarzade, and set pieces such as the stolen palace floating on a cloud back to Persia have mystery and wonder written all over them. But I was most impressed by the amount of personality Reiniger was able to infuse through posture and natural-looking actions. When Pari Banu and Achmed kiss, it looks more real than many of the Hollywood kisses I’ve seen in countless movies of the Golden Era. Her attention to detail, not only in the forms but also in the actions the characters take, is astonishing. For example, Achmed is fighting a hydra-like demon summoned by the Sorcerer. Every time he cuts off one of its heads, it grows back. The Mountain Witch comes to help him by cauterizing each neck that has lost its head, thereby preventing it from growing a new one. This attention to a small plot point shows more care than many of the CGI action films we see today. And the color tints, restored to this film in 1998, give a jewel-like brilliance to this fantastical tale.
Reinigier, we were told before the screening, was a product of Victorian-era thinking, and her silhouette art comes from that era. Yet she was embraced by the avant garde and created a work that looks startlingly modern even today. Perhaps not coincidentally, animator Nina Paley used hinged forms (though they were not animated via stop action) and shadow puppets in her film Sita Sings the Blues, another tale of the exotic Orient that many consider ground-breaking for another reason—it is under a Creative Commons license. These two women showed the future the way, and I, for one, am thrilled and grateful.
Among the giants of theatre, I have always considered Bertolt Brecht to be at the top of the heap. A gifted poet, Brecht created a new theatre for a new, more threatening time, one that refused to allow audiences to melt into a naturalistic setting and identify sympathetically with the lives and morals of the play’s immoral characters. In the Germany that would soon succumb to blind devotion to the myth of the Übermensch peddled by a genocidal dictator, Brecht’s unreal realism and his and music collaborator Kurt Weill’s most successful drama, the cabaret-style musical The Threepenny Opera, would be banned.
Before that happened, director G. W. Pabst and producer Seymour Nebenzal attempted to capitalize on the phenomenal success of the musical by contracting with Brecht to film it. Brecht, moving even more radically to the left than he had been as a bohemian artist of the intelligensia, turned in a treatment oozing with communist ideology. Pabst and Nebenzal mainly discarded the transformed material and created still another, completely different work—a fully cinematic drama in the Expressionist mode that eliminated half of Kurt Weill’s songs, most of Brecht’s biting, poetic lyrics, and very nearly the one actor who breathes authenticity into the work, Lotte Lenya. We are left with a somewhat tepid tale of corruption, with evocative images and a searing, but too-brief performance by Lenya that isn’t all that different from the more bourgeois Marlene Dietrich vehicle of the same period, The Blue Angel (1930).
Rudolf Forster as Macheath, aka “Mackie Messer” (Mack the Knife), emerges from a brothel, with Jenny (Lenya), a whore he had once been close to, hanging on him lovingly. He shakes her off brusquely when two attractive women pass by, then disappears into a crowd that has gathered at the London dockside to hear a street singer (Ernst Busch) who will be our narrative guide through the film sing “Mack the Knife” and put up illustrations of the murderous deeds attributed to—but never pinned on— Mackie. Mackie sees a young lady (Carola Neher) and her friend admiring a wedding dress in a shop window. He engages them to have a drink with him. He stares at a pair of men sitting at his usual booth until they leave, orders a waiter to clean the table, and signals one of his burglary gang to come take the lady’s friend off his hands. Before they finish their drinks, Mackie and the woman are engaged. Mackie sends his gang scrambling to procure food, wine, and furnishings (“Don’t forget the grandfather clock”) for their wedding reception and love nest—an empty dockside warehouse—and a preacher (Hermann Thimig) to marry them. One of the gang steals the brocade wedding gown from the shop window for the occasion. Another hand-delivers an invitation to the police chief Tiger Brown (Reinhold Schünzel), who keeps Mackie out of jail for a small fee.
Mackie’s new bride is none other than Polly Peachum, daughter of the powerful beggar king (Fritz Rasp). Peachum and his wife (Valeska Gert) vow to see Mackie hanged rather than be husband to their daughter. Threatening to force Brown’s dismissal by unleashing an army of beggars to confront the queen during her pending coronation parade, Peachum convinces the police chief to arrest and hang Mackie. After a long chase, the police finally apprehend him with the help of Jenny, who is jealous that Mackie has married. But all turns out for the “best,” as Mackie, having escaped from jail, learns he needn’t have bothered. Polly has purchased a prestigious bank in Piccadilly and made him the bank president, whom no one would dare execute. All of their thieving will be done on the up and up from now on.
Much as my colleague, Rod Heath, commented in his review of Public Enemies (2009) about the odds against the lone outlaw battling corrupt overlords, Mackie, an unorganized, violent thug, is coopted—though not at all to his distress—by the organizational skills of Polly, learned from a father who created a empire of beggars forced to march to his commands. Yet, both he and Mackie learn a lesson—while both count on the cooperation of confederates who are personally loyal to them, when Peachum cannot stop the mob he organized to disrupt the parade, he learns the power of the people. Together, they come to understand that a marriage between corrupt overlords and dependent masses can move mountains. In a nutshell, Pabst has given us a picture of the evolution of National Socialism.
Yet far from horrifying us, we come to admire these genial rogues. Mackie, in his Brecht-prescribed stage make-up, casts a threatening gaze that Pabst’s camera sometimes captures. But more often, he is surrounded by adoring women and eager-to-please, cartoonish lackeys who are used by Pabst almost exclusively for laughs. Mackie dresses smartly, with a jaunty bowler hat and a cane whose hidden sword is never unsheathed after its first reveal in the opening minutes of the film. When I saw the full stage production of the original The Threepenny Opera, Mackie’s deep kiss and stabbing of his betrayer, Jenny Towler (it’s unclear whether Lenya’s Jenny is this murdered Jenny or destined to share her fate), brought the lyrics “Jenny Towler turned up lately / With a knife stuck through her breast / While Macheath, he walks the embankment, / Nonchalantly unimpressed” horribly to life. Despite Busch’s effective rendering of the song, the timid use of illustrations of Mackie’s crimes have no power to convey just what an animal we’re dealing with. It certainly can’t help that this dark song is known to contemporary audiences mainly as a tune popularized by a mainstream singer, Bobby Darin, who doesn’t seem to know what the words mean.
Nonetheless, the film passes muster on the strength of strongly impressionistic sets strongly lit and photographed and Lotte Lenya’s savage delivery of “Pirate Jenny,” a tune originally sung by Polly. In this context, of Jenny having been betrayed by Mackie and about to return the favor, the apocalyptic vision of an armada of pirate ships gunning down all but the brothel where Jenny lives and works is extremely effective. Once heard, Lenya’s voice and interpretation become unforgettable and definitive. And to think Lenya almost didn’t play this part because Pabst thought she was too ugly for movies. Indeed, this film could have used a lot more ugly and a little less art.