23rd 02 - 2016 | 13 comments »

Forbidden Films (2014)

Director/Screenwriter: Felix Moeller

2016 European Union Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

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.

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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 [1929]) to sexuality (Kiss Me, Stupid [1964]). 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.

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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.

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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.”

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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 [1941] and other films) and Heinrich George (Kolberg [1945] and other films). Many of the viewers are surprised at how entertaining and well produced they are.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


7th 06 - 2009 | 17 comments »

The Devils (1971)

Director: Ken Russell

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Necessarily graphic or exploitative trash? Blasphemous or truthful? All the fuss that has accompanied Antichrist, the pas du tout-est of the pas du touts at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, put me in mind of another film that raised hackles so high that it was released only after heavy censoring and nonetheless still was banned in many places. I’m talking, of course, about The Devils, Ken Russell’s account of events that took place in Loudon, France, in the 17th century that marked the end of independent city-states and the beginning of a united France under royal rule.

Ken Russell is the most operatic of film directors, and with the The Devils, he made his most impassioned statement about power, corruption, human degradation, and the possibility of redemption to date—indeed, it’s hard to think of another film that matches the sheer ferocity of its vision. I’ve seen the film maybe four times, and it never gets easier. This latest viewing was the hardest by far because it included a number of banned scenes I’d never seen before, including the infamous “Rape of Christ” sequence. Russell and all supporters of the film who saw it—including a Catholic priest who sat on the Legion of Decency board in the United States and saw it prerelease—consider this scene to be the very heart of the film, and so it is a welcome inclusion indeed.

After many fruitless searches, a canister of film showed up in England that contained this and several other deleted scenes. Eurocult issued a cheaply produced, muddy DVD of the film in 2007 that includes this footage but does nothing to restore the sharpness and vibrant colors created by DP David Watkin and the textures of the famous Derek Jarman set. Until this deficit can be corrected, this DVD stands as must-see viewing for cinephiles, in general, and Russell fans, in particular.

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Russell introduces us to the world in which the story takes place, fittingly, on a stage. A roiling sea, created by moving pieces of scenery shaped like waves back and forth, brings forth a majestic figure in a geometric fan of a cloak. When the cloak is removed, we see a heavily made-up man wearing a gold seashell bra and codpiece—Botticelli’s Venus in drag. Cruel, dissipated King Louis XIII (Graham Armitage) and his politically astute adviser Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue) applaud the performance tableau and retire to consider the destruction of the walls and independence of the fortified city-states of France. Richelieu has his eye on the most powerful of them all, Loudon, whose popular governor has just died, making it vulnerable. He will learn when he moves against the city that he will have a formidable enemy in Father Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed), who forcefully protects the city’s right to self-rule.

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Unfortunately, Grandier has opened himself to attack by his sexually promiscuous lifestyle. He has impregnated and abandoned the daughter (Georgina Hale) of a powerful city elder, and virtually every woman in Loudon has the hots for him (“Now there’s a man worth going to hell for!”), including the head of the Ursulline convent, Mother Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave). A hunchback with no prospects for marriage, Mother Jeanne had no alternative but a nunnery. She and many of the other throwaway women in the convent are starved for human contact and very sexually frustrated.

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She has fixated on Grandier, and has had vivid sexual fantasies about him; Russell films one amazing fantasy in which Grandier, as Christ, steps off the cross on which he has been crucified so that Mother Jeanne can lick his wounds—a portent of things to come. When she overhears news that Grandier has married himself to a beautiful orphan named Madeleine (Gemma Jones), whose dying mother he attended to, she goes quite mad. She tells Father Mignon (Murray Melvin), the convent’s new confessor, that Grandier has bewitched her and violated her sexually. This is all that Richelieu’s agent, Baron De Laubardemont (Dudley Sutton, in a swelteringly brilliant performance), needs to bring Grandier to trial for witchcraft and have him condemned to the stake.

It’s hard to know where to begin in describing this stunning and disturbing film, but several scenes stand out not only for their visual audacity, but also for the way they communicate character. Madeleine’s mother is attended to by two sadistic “doctors” who put wasps under glass directly onto the plague boils that afflict her, causing her enormous suffering. Grandier tosses the pair down a long staircase and removes the cupping jars from the poor woman so that she can die in peace. The opposition of these men and Grandier is made clear in this scene; on another level, the bloodthirsty “doctors” show the worm in the apple of Grandier’s eye—Loudon—and the “doctors” will get a turn at Grandier when he is tortured to determine if he is a minion of the devil. However, they do their worst against Mother Jeanne.

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Russell told Jarman that he wanted Mother Jeanne’s physical examination for proof of sexual violation to be like a rape in a public toilet. This Jarman realized beautifully by creating a Loudon made of white tile. The nave of the convent’s church even has a white-tile altar; the doctors sweep the religious artifacts used for mass off it with a rough arm and lay Mother Jeanne upon it, where they penetrate her with their instruments. Her screams and blood-soaked habit, followed by the verdict, “Yes, definite signs of violation,” come as no surprise to Mignon, De Laubardemont, or us.

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Grandier’s execution is another vividly disturbing scene. Dragged through the streets on a sledge because his legs have been shattered by torture, he is made to crawl to the stake. The executioner promises to strangle him before the fires can reach him, but the impetuous exorcist Father Barre (Michael Gothard) lights the flames before the executioner can position the noose. As the crowd (according to reports of the time, the largest ever assembled at a public execution) celebrates, Grandier’s flesh blisters and chars in graphic horror. Father Mignon, heretofore a crazed zealot against Grandier, becomes convinced of the priest’s innocence and twists his amazing face into an image of despair. Peter Maxwell Davies, the great English modernist composer, said that members of his orchestra were in tears as they played his discordant, plaintive score in synching the film.

devils_nun.jpgThe most disturbing and meaningful scene of all is the rape of Christ. While Grandier is pleading Loudon’s case with the king, Barre has been whipping the nuns and town into a frenzy. He holds an exorcism in Loudon’s cathedral attended by masked townspeople. The Ursulline nuns strip off their habits and cavort naked and wonton among the horde. One nun is shown licking and rubbing herself against an altar candle. Others allow themselves to be groped, and tear at and rape a priest. The scene climaxes when several nuns lift an enormous crucifix off the church altar and begin licking it; one woman fucks its wooden genitalia. Father Mignon climbs a staircase on the wall, watches the women groping the figure of Christ below, and masturbates desperately. Intercut with this scene of blasphemy is Father Grandier holding a simple mass for himself on a river bank, with a voiceover narration of a letter to Madeleine in which he asks for her prayers that he may fulfill his wish to serve the people of Loudon. Besides being, as Russell calls it, a “mindblowing” scene to watch, it embodies the outrage at the perversion of Christian teachings of forgiveness and love. A cynical government used and abused some already used and abused women to distract and put the town in the mood for a lynching; these “exorcisms” would continue throughout France to allow the Crown to destroy the independent city-states and those who would oppose them.

After Grandier’s execution, Baron De Laubardemont visits Mother Jeanne preparing for her exorcism act in a neighboring town; this road show reverberates with the birth of Venus at the film’s opening—both theatrical perversions of the birth of love. He throws her a bone, “a souvenir” he calls it; it is, literally, a charred bone from Grandier’s body that looks very much like a cock and balls. In another censored scene restored, Mother Jeanne uses it as a dildo to commune with the man she loved and destroyed.

Among the DVD extras is a fine documentary hosted by BBC film critic Mark Kermode, who led one search for the deleted scenes, that details the film’s battle with the censors and critics and shows Russell and two of the film’s stars, Georgina Hale and Murray Melvin, viewing the rape of Christ scene for the first time in more than 30 years. The film critic of The Evening Standard at the time, Alexander Walker, reads from his review and recounts how Russell bashed him over the head with a rolled-up copy of that week’s paper when they met on a talk show. Russell relates that after that incident, Walker was good-naturedly trounced with rolled-up newspapers by his colleagues: “Too bad there were no lead pipes in them,” Russell says bitterly.

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While Russell’s film clearly shows his obsessions with sex and excess, and his occasional silly hamminess (for example, the king shoots men dressed as crows for amusement and says into the camera, “bye bye blackbird”), the events portrayed in the film are not exaggerated. Censors always worry about excessive nudity, but their concerns merely reinforce the sexual repression that set the stage for the sexually explicit exorcisms of 17th century France. The blasphemy of the nuns is juxtaposed with the piety of Grandier, but in exercising their prudish prerogatives, the censors also succeeded in preventing the public from seeing the disturbing complexities of faith this scene evokes. In the end, nakedness is much less arousing than the idea that Church and State can conspire to rob the people of their freedom.l


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