21st 03 - 2017 | no comment »

Austerlitz (2016)

Director: Sergei Loznitsa

2017 European Union Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

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.

Previous coverage

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)


6th 03 - 2017 | no comment »

Tomorrow, After the War (Eng nei Zäit, 2015)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Christophe Wagner

2017 European Union Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Most countries in Europe suffered a lingering malaise after World War II that extended far beyond rebuilding physical, cultural, economic, and governmental structures. Most difficult to navigate was rebuilding trust and national unity. Human nature being what it is, feelings of loss, betrayal, and cruelty burn in the breast with something akin to an eternal flame if not confronted openly. In tiny Luxembourg, a landlocked country sandwiched between France and Germany that owes much of its national culture to both those neighbors, a return to normalcy often meant hiding from wartime crimes. In Tomorrow, After the War, director and coscreenwriter Christophe Wagner attempts to lance the wounds of the past.

A thin layer of snow covers the open fields through which newly freed Resistance fighter Jules Ternes (Luc Schlitz) trudges to his small village following the defeat of Germany and liberation of the lands they occupied, including Luxembourg. He tries the door of his family home, apparently as empty as the streets nearby. Suddenly, his sister Mathilde (Eugenie Anselin) comes around the corner and calls his name. They embrace, and she informs him that their father (Jean-Paul Maes) has not returned from the labor camp to which he was sent as punishment for Jules joining the Resistance. Jules gets more unwelcome news when Armand (Jules Werner), a shady functionary of the village government, comes in and kisses Mathilde, his fiancée.

Jules tries to pick up his life as it was before the war. When he learns his old boss, a Jew, was deported to a concentration camp, he hires on as an auxiliary police officer. He also resumes his romance with Léonie (Elsa Rauchs), who works for a German family who are running a successful farm confiscated during the war by the Nazis. She says they were not Nazis and lent money and protection when possible to locals in need. Of course, the family’s prosperity and nationality now mark them as targets by Luxembourgers wanting payback against Germans and collaborators. Jules, besotted with Léonie, is caught in the middle, a position that becomes even more uncomfortable when the family is found murdered. His probing into the crime, motivated by strong, personal feelings, turns up information that conflicts with the official story, jeopardizing futures throughout the village.

Tomorrow, After the War is fairly derivative of the better detective shows one might find on TV, with its accumulation of clues and lies to be uncovered, and a few sex scenes that no film seems able to do without these days. Nonetheless, Jules is no standard-issue moody detective. He was an ordinary man before the war who became a cop afterward—and not even a full-time cop at that—because there were no other jobs to be had and the chief of police (André Jung) put him on as a favor to Jules’ father, with whom he fought during World War I.

The very ordinariness of Jules gives the film a foundation to look realistically at the compromises that have to be made when life is not proceeding as usual, a lesson that should have ramifications for those of us who haven’t experienced a whole world in upheaval—yet. Almost all of the characters in this film bear some degree of guilt for their actions or complicity in the world order that overtook them during the war years. With one exception, none of them appear to be guilty of much more than wanting to live, however painful their circumstances have been, and none of them is headed for sainthood.

To underscore the real choices that have to be made in extremis, the film depicts violence quickly and effectively. For example, Jules’ comrade is shot in the head for refusing to give up the location of his Resistance cell to their Nazi captors, a graphic horror that terrorizes Jules. His father, semi-crippled in body and mind, is a verbally abusive drunk whose only “crime” was surviving the Battle of the Somme. The murder victims are shown in economical, but vivid detail with shotgun wounds and buzzing flies destroying the pastoral in which they lived.

The cinematography is exceptionally good, with breathtaking landscape shots that add to the moodiness of the story and fine attention to detail, for example, placing an abandoned German tank in exactly the same position as one shown in a still photo of the period. I liked how the opening scene in the snow seems to suggest a world purified after so much bloodshed, interrupted by the figure of a dead horse lying in the field as Jules passes by. As Jules seems to be putting his life back together, a lovely scene of him and Léonie cycling in a bath of sunlight offers them and us a reprieve from the background gloom in which their rekindled love began.

For me, the pièce de résistance is Mathilde and Armand’s wedding. All of the conspirators are gathered to celebrate a festive occasion at last, but Jules, too aware of the thin veneer of civilization all around him, has a final confrontation with his father. Heroism is the ideal, but neither his father nor Jules can live up to what the world expects of them. In the homely scene of a village wedding, we realize our real aspirations are none too lofty. In the end, if we grab for something more ambitious and ideological in dangerous times, we might very well end up paying the ultimate price.

Tomorrow, After the War screens Saturday, March 11 at 4 p.m. and Tuesday, March 14 at 7:45 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.

Previous coverage

My Name Is Emily: This film about a teenager coping with the death of her mother and separation from her mentally ill father manages to be both sincere and funny, as she sets off with a would-be boyfriend to spring her father from the asylum. (Ireland)


23rd 02 - 2014 | 7 comments »

The Night of the Generals (1967)

Director: Anatole Litvak

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By Roderick Heath

Peter O’Toole’s death last December was a hard blow. One of a formidable battery of theatre-trained talents who found movie stardom as a minor cultural explosion regenerated British performing and cinematic arts in the early ‘60s, O’Toole had electrifying skill and intelligence as an actor. Of course, tributes to O’Toole’s career zeroed in on inarguable highlights. His name-making lead performance in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is a textbook of what film star acting can be. His second turn as Henry II in The Lion in Winter (1968) combines dramatic largesse and cinematic intimacy with hypnotic finesse. His high-comedy roles in The Ruling Class (1972), The Stunt Man (1980), and My Favorite Year (1983) readily stir fond memories, and the frail but keen intelligence in his late performances in Troy (2004) and Venus (2006) was stirring all the more for the sense those turns were delivered against the resistance of much-abused flesh. O’Toole made quite a few bad movies in the course of his career, some in which he hammed it up or walked through with his contempt all too obvious. He also made many undervalued films, particularly in his post-Lawrence run when his star was at its height. He was epic in Lord Jim (1965), and funny and charming in How to Steal a Million (1966).

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O’Toole is ferocious in The Night of the Generals, a fascinating and very neglected film, one of the most singular by-products of the era’s tumultuous screen culture. Produced on a lavish scale by Sam Spiegel, who had fostered O’Toole’s stardom in producing Lawrence, it’s a big-budget war movie with scarcely any combat. Rather, it’s essentially military noir, combining an early variation on the serial killer hunt motif with a typically ’60s fascination for antiheroic and antiauthoritarian narratives. The Night of the Generals is also unusual as an English-language film about WWII from the German side, standing up with a relative handful of such works, like Sam Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron (1977) and Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie (2008). The film was based loosely on a novel by Hans Hellmut Kirst, a German writer who, although overshadowed by the likes of Gunther Grass and Heinrich Böll, was one of the first postwar writers to articulate disillusionment with and resentment of the Nazi era, portraying little guys and men of conscience struggling with the all-pervading evil of the regime, gaining particular attention for his much-loved Gunner Asche stories. Kirst, however, had legal problems with the book, which was partly drawn from work by thriller writer James Hadley Chase, and both are credited as the source of the film.

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The film kicks off in Warsaw, 1942. As Operation Barbarossa is nearing Moscow and Polish partisans are tormenting occupying forces, a tenement dweller, Wionczek (Charles Millot), hears an ugly scream on a higher floor, and fearfully hides in a toilet as someone descends the stairs. He catches a glimpse of the man’s military trousers, sporting a red stripe: the uniform of a German general. When he ventures out, he finds the body of a prostitute, Maria Kupiecka, savagely murdered in her apartment. Because she was an occasional informant for the Germans, Maj. Grau (Omar Sharif) of Wehrmacht Military Intelligence is sent to investigate whether it was a crime of punishment or passion. It’s immediately obvious to Grau he’s dealing with a sex killer. After extricating the witness’ testimony and believing it, Grau whittles down suspects to three generals whose whereabouts can’t be established. Gen. Von Seydlitz-Gabler (Charles Gray), head of the city’s military garrison, has a penchant for prostitutes. Gen. Kahlenberge (Donald Pleasance), his chief of staff, seems the most suspicious due to his habitual secrecy and lack of personal attachments. Gen. Tanz (O’Toole), in charge of the “Nibelungen” Division of the SS, is newly arrived in the city from the Russian front, personally detailed by Hitler to quell resistance.

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Spiegel threw his weight around a lot during the making of the film, alienating director Anatole Litvak and O’Toole considerably, as he tried to lay claim to ownership of the project. Yet the film represents a coherent culmination for Litvak’s career. The director had fled first from Soviet Ukraine and then from fascist Europe, where he made some notable works, including Mayerling (1936). He then landed in the United States, where he made the long-delayed opening salvo in Hollywood opposition to Nazism, Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939). Litvak wasn’t really a film noir director, but his instincts were sharpest with stories involving ordinary people faced with oppressive violence by tyrants and their own foundering sanity and decency, often with political overtones or an acidic contemplation of marriage. All This, and Heaven Too (1940) offered a lunatic wife who compels a hapless husband to murder. Out of the Fog (1941) shows two elderly men driven to contemplate homicide by a vicious gangster. Litvak remade Le Jour Se Leve (1939), Marcel Carne’s study in fatalism as a man awaits arrest and death after committing a crime of passion, as The Long Night (1947), and transposed Lucille Fletcher’s radio play to film with Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), depicting a woman who, through blind chance, finds her husband is planning to have her killed. The Snake Pit (1948) made headlines for highlighting treatment of the mentally ill, as an unstable young woman is cast into an asylum. In the ’50s, Litvak decamped back to Europe but remained a quasi-Hollywood filmmaker. The Deep Blue Sea (1955) studied suicidal impulse and transgressive romance, and Anastasia (1956) offered an amnesiac young woman whose past is rewritten to fill a political void. Five Miles to Midnight (1962) turns a dying marriage into a bleak Sartrean thriller.

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The Night of the Generals was Litvak’s penultimate film, and it treats his major themes on an epic expanse. The film’s chief liabilities are common to a lot of big-budget films of the era, with a production polished to brittleness and corny asides, like scenes in a tourist-board-approved Parisian night spot, complete with warbling Juliette Greco. But the film’s overlooked status is more due to its cool, cerebral approach to garish subject matter, via the script by Joseph Kessel, a collaborator of Litvak’s who dates back to Mayerling, Paul Dehn, and an uncredited Gore Vidal, who perhaps provided the film’s litany of quotable lines. Litvak eschews suspense sequences and action in favour of generating a trembling sense of neurotic repression and tension, less a whodunit than a study in competing pathologies. An individual’s will to kill is contrasted with an epoch that takes mass murder as an everyday reality and even a gallant activity. Grau’s peculiar sense of mission leads him first to confront his three suspects when they’re together at a reception thrown by Gabler’s haughty wife Eleanore (Coral Browne) for Tanz. Eleanore tries matchmaking by introducing Tanz to her daughter Ulrike (Joanna Pettet), a member of the German equivalent of the WAAFs. But this goes awry, as Ulrike is furious because of her mother’s plotting to have her sent back to Germany to work in a religious hospital, more out distaste for her newfound independence than concern for her safety. She questions Tanz about using dead bodies as sandbags at the siege of Leningrad: “The story has been exaggerated,” Tanz replies, but adds with chilling assurance, “Nobody rots with me.”

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The Night of the Generals charts the various social tensions and blocs within Nazi Germany, giving it a sociohistorical richness as it anatomizes the peculiar madness of the time and place. Gabler is described as a “Junker of the old school” and his aristocratic equivocations contrast both the internalized, ideological attitude of Hitlerian golden boy Tanz, and the intelligent, conscientious characters who keep their heads pulled in nervously whilst trying to work out how to resist. Ulrike is one of these, and another is introduced when Kahlenberge’s adjutant Otto (Nigel Stock) presents his cousin Kurt Hartmann (Tom Courtenay), a newly decorated war hero and an artistic, educated man all too happy to take a staff job under Kahlenberge’s wing. Assigned to program music for Eleanore’s soirée, Hartmann encounters Ulrike and quickly becomes her lover, confessing, to her delight, that he was only decorated because he ran away whilst the rest of his unit were killed in battle. The two lovers neatly fill in for the perspective of the late ’60s audience in their disdain for their elders and betters, and sense of unity in being endangered by the war, as Ulrike’s already lost two boyfriends in Russia. Grau, equally detached from the Nazi cause, makes it his mission within the delineations of his job, to punish hubris: “We live in an age in which dead bodies lie around in the street,” Kahlenberge barks at him, but Grau invokes the legend of the Eumenides and declares his intent: “Some general thought he could play God in the bedroom as well as on the battlefield. Well, I am going to prove to him that he is not God.”

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Tanz, on the other hand, articulates the mix of idealism and low chauvinism that defined the drug-like appeal for those who were on the “right” side of the Nazi ethos, airily declaring things for Ulrike’s benefit, like, “We’re building a new world order—women should not be exempt from playing their part,” and trying to win hearts and minds with food and sweets for the homeless children of Warsaw. At the same time, his plan to crush Polish resistance is characterised by Kahlenberge as monstrous, as it has a contingency to demolish the entire city if necessary. “What constitutes resistance?” Kahlenberge questions, “A rock thrown at his golden head?” Grau, trying to interview the overlord, becomes privy to the operation, as buildings are swept clear and partisans gunned down in the street, before Tanz casually has tanks pummel buildings to rubble in an orgiastic survey of destruction. There’s anticipation in Tanz (whose name implicitly evokes the tötentanz or death-dance from plague-era religious allegory), as a character and locus of thematic interest, of Apocalypse Now (1979) and Schindler’s List (1993), in the fascination with the almost mystical figure of a mad military leader who commits crimes that seem absurd against the backdrop of generally permitted murder, and whose power takes on hubristic scale. Grau sees Tanz is a megalomaniac, but is also persuaded that Tanz is not his killer: why would someone who can get their rocks off on such a scale need to kill a prostitute? Grau’s gambit at the soirée misfires, as Kahlenberge defensively has him transferred to Paris.

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Two years later, the players are reunited as the Allied landings at Normandy bring Tanz, Gabler, and Kahlenberge to Paris, stirring Grau to reopen his investigation. Tanz is assigned by the Fuhrer to mastermind retaliation, but Gabler and Kahlenberge insist that he take time off, supposedly to give them time to prepare military resources for him. Tanz reluctantly obeys, and Kahlenberge frustrates Hartmann’s impending reunion with Ulrike by insisting that he chauffeur Tanz about the city. As Hartmann is forced into close company with Tanz, he becomes privy to the deep veins of neurosis underlying Tanz’s self-willed image as the iron-willed, water-drinking, obsessive-compulsive übermensch, gets stinking drunk and smoking profusely whilst Hartmann gives him a tour of Paris. Much of the film’s middle third is dedicated to an intensely rhythmic portrait of mental upheaval and dread, building fascinating, troubling little scenes like orchestral movements. One such scene comes when Hartmann is distracted from his guide duties by the sight of Tanz guzzling spirits in the back seat, an intimate play of shots that compartmentalise the two men in separate universes. but unites them in the rearview mirror until the general notices and tells the corporal to keep his eye on the road. Most striking is a scene that’s repeated in ritualistic fashion, when Hartmann takes Tanz to an art gallery filled with paintings requisitioned for Nazi bigwigs.

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Tanz, intrigued by the gallery’s “decadent” modernist works, finds himself stricken with horrified self-recognition as he stares at Van Gogh’s “Vincent in Flames” self-portrait. Matching zooms and cuts between O’Toole’s sweat-swathed face and the portrait’s infernal flames and blue eyes with Maurice Jarre’s nerve-jangling score render an impression of the soldier’s wits turning inside out, in a superlative conflation of cinematic devices. The film also notes with malign humour the nature of the Nazi antipathy to “decadent” art, for its stylised, introspective exploration of the vagaries of human nature, that offend most particularly the psychopath. Tanz asks Hartmann to define “decadent” art, and Hartmann replies that according to his best definition, the potent art is anything but decadent, but then appends his reply with dry political awareness, “But I don’t really know what decadence is—not officially anyway.”

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Hartmann and Tanz’s relationship is unusually charged because Tanz generally has utmost contempt for his underlings, who fear his rages for good reason: he has one orderly confined to barracks for a month for getting polish on his boot laces and abuses another for having dirt under his fingernails. He finds in Hartmann a subordinate as intelligent as himself and more cultured, but still a subordinate, thus all the more pleasurable to destroy. Tanz seems to descend into a fugue state in his first encounter with the Van Gogh, and might have no memory of it the next day after a drinking binge. He nonetheless insists on a return and confronts the painting again, and this time seems to gain control over his stylised doppelgänger. Tanz even seems humanised after this, as he makes conversation with Hartmann and congratulates him on his “good taste” after forcing Hartmann to show his wallet photo of Ulrike. This conceals, however, Tanz forming a plan of attack so he can indulge his intimate homicidal side.

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Litvak, like many old studio dogs, was trying to learn new tricks, and he annexed flourishes of New Wave cinema with more success than many, giving the film a stylish instability as he conjoins theatrical actor blocking and glossily over-lit interiors with islets of modernist punch: dialogue becoming voiceover, jump cuts, and whip-pan transitions pepper the film. One shot takes in the former Polish royal residence as a tourist attraction in the present day, and then cuts to the same angle when depicting the palace’s days as Gabler’s headquarters. The film’s colour palate is intelligently muted, the blood reds of the generals’ uniform insignia isolated in fields of hard greys and browns, with other colours washed out. One of the film’s strongest images is Wionczek’s eye peering out through the fateful gap in the lavatory door, grain in the wood and terror in the eye captured as a precise emblem of the era’s paranoid, seamy, assailed mindset, reminiscent of the similarly surreal shots of the spying eyes in Robert Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962), but with the innocent spying out on the evil rather than the other way around. The stark and eerie opening credits play out the first murder as a fetishistic dreamscape, picking out details like fishnet stockings on glossy legs and squirming fingers in black leather gloves, flickering in and out of distorting shots, before the fatal knife swing hacks through a light bulb in slow motion, an eerie, technically accomplished touch that was stolen for the TV show Callan a few years later. The film has an uncommon flash-forward structure, as the film leaps between the 1940s and 1965, eschewing introduction via the present tense to emphasise not the past nature of events, but the still-vibrant connection between eras and the people reporting them, where consequences are still being played out.

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Tanz sets up Hartmann to be his patsy as he kills another prostitute (Véronique Vendell) and gives Hartmann the choice of either fleeing for his life or having his brains blown out. When Hartmann asks Tanz why he’s become a killer, Tanz replies, “Oh, the war, I suppose,” whilst espousing his confident belief that Hartmann would inevitably be executed for the murder instead of him because, naturally, he’s a general, and his word is worth more. Grau, however, realises exactly what’s happened when his contact in the Parisian police, Inspector Morand (Philippe Noiret), calls him to the crime scene and then learns Hartmann was assigned to Tanz.

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Whilst O’Toole is dominant in the film, he’s surrounded by a cast of mostly British and French actors of enormous vitality. It’s distinctly possible, for instance, that Grau is Sharif’s best performance. The Egyptian actor has wryly commented on the degree to which producers were willing to cast him in nonethnic roles according to his star status. Reunited here with O’Toole after Lawrence as they were both still contracted to Spiegel for frustratingly little pay, Sharif couldn’t have asked for a more different role to his image as swarthy lover, with Grau as a poised, electrically intelligent savant who has no interest either in hiding his smarts or his delight in making his superiors uncomfortable. Sharif relishes the dialogue thrown his way, from imploring a pathologist at a murder scene, “There’s no need to be vivid,” to charmingly telling Morand he knows his Resistance code name. Grau, like Hartmann, is absurdly out of place in this milieu: cold-shouldered by the German elite for his impolitic zeal, he finds friendship with Morand. The two men dine as gentlemanly enemies, with Grau cutting deals to release some of Morand’s men in exchange for gathering intelligence on the generals, whilst swapping oddball pearls of wisdom like, “Sex and great cuisine do not mix.”

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Indeed, the depth of quality in the cast is another of the film’s major assets, with mostly British actors modishly familiar at the time. Handed the lion’s share of good lines, Pleasence is superlative as Kahlenberge, who approaches a world that disgusts him with dripping cynicism and abuse of the bottle. Particularly good is his early interview with Hartmann, as he surveys his press clippings and notes with the finest edge of mockery, “I see that you are the reincarnation of Siegfried, a German hero of the Golden Age!” And, later, when assigning Hartmann to drive Tanz, telling him to satisfy the general’s taste with a very Vidal-esque twist: “Let us hope that whatever it is, it is not you, corporal. However, if it should be, remember that you’re serving the Fatherland.” There’s an obvious, but well-handled irony in the suspicious Kahlenberge turning out to be the film’s moral centre: he is involved in the July plot to kill Hitler, whilst Gabler knows what’s going on but wants to remain “usefully alive” sitting on the fence. The Night of the Generals also provides an amusing keepsake of the days when Tom Courtenay was considered a heartthrob, as Hartmann’s incredible appeal to women is spoken of even as his spindly physique is mocked. Courtenay is certainly fine as Hartmann, however, as he brings the right mix of doe-eyed sensitivity and discomforted acumen and angst to the role.

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The sadly neglected Pettet, who hit big in ’67 after her other highest-profile role that same year in Casino Royale, is more uncertain as the icily aristocratic Ulrike. She’s most effective when firing off arch rejoinders to Browne’s patented maternal monster and O’Toole’s marble demigod, aware of the contradiction that wartime has liberated her whilst condemning millions of others to horror, but as she’s slowly humanised by love for Hartmann, she becomes less interesting. Christopher Plummer has a strong cameo as Rommel, whose joining the plot is celebrated by Kahlenberge and the others. The film links Grau’s intent to catch the god-playing general with Rommel’s intent to deny Hitler the glory of a fiery apocalyptic end: both are heroic in motivation, but touched by hubris conjoined with the core problem of the Nazi cause, and thus both men are unable to prevent horror. Rommel’s wounding by a strafing Allied plane hurts their confidence. Four decades before Valkyrie, The Night of the Generals encompasses a brief, but sharp and accurate telling of Von Stauffenberg’s (Gérard Buhr) excruciatingly near miss at killing the Fuhrer. Once the bomb goes off and the plotters assume victory, Kahlenberge dispatches men to arrest Tanz at his division headquarters, but Grau gets there ahead of them to arrest him for murder. Tanz’s response is merely to shoot Grau and claim he was one of the traitors, and he accepts the Nazi salute from his massed soldiers as Hitler’s survival is announced. If the film had ended here, its portrait of an age of moral nullity would be bleak, but, of course, there’s another act to play out in peacetime, as the flashes to 1965 have promised.

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Morand, now an Interpol agent, is trying to piece together the crime to honour his dead friend, and he explores that peacetime landscape with its perspective-imbuing vignettes. Otto has become a fat and satisfied restaurateur, hailing the Marshall Plan. Kahlenberge, who fled ahead of the vicious reprisals for the assassination plot, is now a busy diplomat, recalling with fascination Grau’s obsession in the midst of a collapsing world. Gabler is still sitting on the fence, and he and his wife are alienated from Ulrike, with Eleanore sniping, “Our generation believed in being happy!” Tanz’s pompous adjutant Sandauer (John Gregson) has become a Volkswagen executive, exasperatedly bossing around Spanish and Italian labourers because he “can’t get Germans for real work anymore.” Ulrike has dropped out and become a farmer, married to a man named Luckner, who is, naturally, Hartmann, living under an alias. Tanz has just been released from prison after serving 20 years for war crimes, and now plans to attend a reunion of his division in a politically charged moment of fascist solidarity. Tanz looks like he’s calcified in prison, but he’s already committed another murder, one that has drawn Morand back to the case, and he and Inspector Hauser (Michael Goodliffe), the investigating officer, collaborate to confront Tanz with a greyed, frayed, but coldly intent Hartmann. Few film resolutions are more satisfying than this one, as Morand goads Tanz to shoot himself, his body left sprawled on the banquet table under Nazi paraphernalia under the stunned and silent eyes of his men—one last victim of the war and one delayed, but not denied, serving of justice.


13th 06 - 2012 | 4 comments »

Portrait of Wally (2012)

Director: Andrew Shea

By Marilyn Ferdinand

There is little in the world like the passion of the collector. Film history would be much different if it were not for this peculiarly obsessed group of people rescuing cans of film and squirreling them away for a rainy day. Films that were thought lost have now been found, either through the good auspices of professional collectors (aka, archives) or the greedy hoarding of individuals who like the idea that they have something no one else does (see my review of Beyond the Rocks [1922] for more on this). Thus is the double-edged sword of collecting—preservation and the possessiveness of ownership.

Let it not be said that only individuals can behave badly when it comes to collecting. Indeed, massive pilfering of everything from flowers to entire building facades has led to the collections many of us enjoy at museums, conservatories, and libraries. Here in Chicago, many people enjoy gawking at the parts of famous structures Col. Robert McCormick swiped and embedded in the exterior of the Tribune Tower—if you can’t actually visit Westminster Abbey or the Parthenon, this, I guess, is the next best thing.

In recent decades, some countries that have had many of their priceless treasures removed through the spoils of war and collectors’ lust have taken steps to retrieve them. For a look at recent, large-scale plundering, I recommend the documentary The Rape of Europa (2006). That film explicates, among other things, the attempt of a Jewish family to reclaim a stolen painting by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt. Interestingly, the film under consideration here, Portrait of Wally, details another cause célèbre in the art world involving Klimt’s protégé Egon Schiele.

Wally Neuzil was Schiele’s mistress and the subject of many of his works. The 1912 painting in question, titled “Portrait of Wally,” is a companion piece to a self-portrait Schiele did. Unlike his sexually graphic works, these two paintings reflect a certain romanticism and emotional intimacy that make them stand-outs. That is why Austrian art dealer Lea Bondi, who sold the works of Schiele and other cutting-edge artists and was herself painted by many of them, purchased the painting for her personal collection. Shortly after Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938, Bondi, a Jew, had her business confiscated and “Aryanized” by Friedrich Welz. Welz also went into Bondi’s home and coerced her into giving him “Portrait of Wally.” Bondi escaped from Austria and eventually settled in London.


Friedrich Welz, Rudolph Leopold

After the war, the art in Welz’s possession, including a collection of Schiele’s works Welz forced Dr. Heinrich Rieger to sell to him before Rieger was shipped off to die in a concentration camp, was recovered by American troops and turned over to the Austrian government. The government placed them in the permanent collection of the Belvedere, Austria’s National Gallery; “Portrait of Wally” was among the paintings, erroneously catalogued as part of the Rieger collection. In 1946, Bondi recovered her gallery and learned from Welz that the Belvedere had the painting. After failing to reclaim the painting on her own, she turned to noted Schiele collector and scholar Rudolph Leopold in 1953 to intercede on her behalf. Instead, Leopold, who owned the companion self-portrait, traded one of his Schieles for “Portrait of Wally.”

So Lea Bondi was screwed over by another Austrian and never saw her painting again—so what else is new? Well, actually, the story takes a unique and even more problematic turn. In 1998, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMa) arranged a special exhibition of the Schiele collection from the Leopold Museum in Vienna, including “Portrait of Wally.” When some of Bondi’s relatives saw the painting, they sought relief. In an extraordinary move, New York County District Attorney Robert Morgenthau sought to seize this and another Schiele as stolen art; eventually, the paintings were held in the United States under federal law, and the art world exploded in fear of the repercussions.

Portrait of Wally is a disturbing film for what it says about the guardians of culture. Despite a very clear trail of ownership—what viewers of Antiques Roadshow have learned is the all-important provenance of an object—running through Bondi’s correspondence, Welz’s writings, and a 1930s catalog of Schiele’s works by Otto Kallir, it seems clear that the Belvedere misidentified the painting as a drawing titled “Portrait of a Woman,” dubiously called a clerical error that upon discovery they took no pains to correct, and that Leopold erased Bondi from the provenance of the work in his definitive catalog of Schiele’s works to quash her persistent claims of ownership. The way the film documents the trail of ownership and falsification is a fine example why we all should care about and demand accurate documentation in the books, newspapers, websites, and other resources we consume.

What is even more disturbing is how museums across the United States stood with MoMA in fighting Morgenthau, claiming that if museums cannot guarantee the safe return of works on loan, it will have a chilling effect on the cultural education of the American people. This argument, on its face, seems not only sensible, but also altruistic—but only if the works on loan actually belong to the lender. Since the history of art is also the history of theft, what museum directors are really saying is that if they cannot be free to look the other way once in a while, they won’t be able to borrow collections they covet for their own walls. In essence, the acquisitive and exclusive mindset of the fanatical collector is part of a museum director’s job description.

Indeed, more scrutiny could send some works underground, perhaps never to be seen in public again—a real danger, but certainly a necessary trade-off in the interests of justice. Given the enormous prices pieces by Schiele and other artists command, collectors of ill-got goods are robbing families of their legitimate legacy. The fight Bondi’s heirs put up to regain “Portrait of Wally” was smeared as motivated by pure greed (another dig at its Jewish owner, perhaps?), but what then about Leopold, MoMA, and the rest of the art community that stood with them? Is their solidarity nothing more than collectors’ greed and a ploy to protect their own revenue streams from donors, museum attendees, and resale to acquire additional works?


Lea Bondi, by Christian Schad

The concept of ownership is one that has always given me trouble. When does a privately collected painting—or anything privately owned, like the land in last year’s film The Descendants—pass the threshold from personal pleasure to public interest? When corporate owners place onerous restrictions and prices on the use of their images and sounds, for example, charging independent animator Nina Paley $50,000 to use music they had shown no interest in making available, it seems that the ownership protections of current copyright laws are unnecessarily obstructionist. On the other hand, when a priceless painting is stolen and the rightful owner is systematically kept from reclaiming her property—even when that property is freely available for viewing in the public interest—it seems wrong. Should eminent domain or a statute of limitations apply to stolen art? I don’t have the answer. But this well-rounded documentary convinces me that at least in this case, Lea Bondi should not have died without her “Portrait of Wally” hanging in her home.


14th 11 - 2010 | 5 comments »

Verboten! (1959)

Director/Screenwriter: Samuel Fuller

By Roderick Heath

Dramatically terse and unsubtle, even by Samuel Fuller’s standards, Verboten!, one of his least-known films, explores the panorama of Germany Year Zero and wields the usual pressure-point Fuller melodrama with a social and historical conscience-raising purpose. Verboten! straddles the gamut of Fuller’s capacities and unevenness as a director. Made on a low budget, full of weird casting choices, curtailed ideas and fragmented story arcs, it still delivers with a force and clarity of intelligence the desired impact few other directors could ever muster, as it charges into the heady atmosphere of the post-War mixture of abject defeat and lingering horror. The undercurrent of menace that pervaded so much of the Western world in trying comprehend what kind of madness had overtaken it, what it meant to a society that had spent centuries building itself to an apotheosis only to come to a shattered and shameful ruin, and whether the forces and individuals who had contributed to it might lurk still within a landscape of seeming victims, is explored in a panoramic depth through a thriller plot.

Fuller commences with an excellent extended combat sequence (which anticipates in structure that epic duck-and-hunt finale in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket [1987]) in which Sgt. David Brent (James Best) and the remnants of his spearhead unit enter the bombed-out German town of Rothbach in pursuit of a cunning sniper. The sniper takes out Brent’s fellows and hits Brent in the leg, but the wounded man manages to corner his quarry and blow him away. Brent collapses and awakens to find he’s being sheltered and cared for by Helga Schiller (Susan Cummings), a young woman who’s determined to prove to him that “there’s a difference between a German and a Nazi.” She has been terrorized by bombing raids and her own side’s soldiers, embodied by the swagging, hypocritical SS officer (Robert Boon) who took over her house to use as an observation point. Helga lives with her invalid mother (Anna Hope) and her younger brother Franz (Harold Daye), a Hitler Youth member who lost an arm in an air raid and is understandably unhappy about it.

Brent and Helga manage to survive a few close grazes with the SS man’s fanatical, bullying, and half-suppressed lechery until the rest of Brent’s unit finally penetrates the town and drives out the remaining defenders. Brent spends time in hospital recovering from his wound, long enough for the war to officially end, and, when discharged, manages to land himself a civilian job in Rothbach aiding the military liaison so that he can marry Helga without fearing the army’s no-fraternisation policies. Just after Brent’s told Helga about his good fortune, a former neighbour of hers, Bruno Eckart (Tom Pittman), returns from his service weighed down by gear and completely exhausted: she has to tell him his former girlfriend is dead. Brent and Helga get married, and their lives proceed in relative calm until Helga becomes pregnant. But Bruno, Franz, and a collective of other angry, resentful veterans form an unofficial chapter of the pro-Nazi anti-occupation force known as “Werewolves” with an eye to both running the black market in the Rothbach district and to stirring up insurrection against the Americans. This puts Brent’s job in peril when he reacts to the insults of one of Otto’s followers in leading a protest march and gets into a fistfight.

Verboten! is as rough and ready as much of Fuller’s work, particularly from the latter half of the ’50s, but it also suggests a highly personal project, and not merely in how the raw material of the story and portrayal of the setting seem based in autobiography, anticipating his own The Big Red One (1980) as well as moving past the mere combat drama of several of his earlier films. The immediacy of Fuller’s interest is also apparent in its fierce eagerness to lay bare not only the wrongdoings of Nazism, but also the problems of peace, and the narrative’s attempts to reconcile given opposites: culture and barbarity, conqueror and conquered, idealist and cynic, Germanness and Americanness, victim and victimiser, male and female. One of the pleasures of Verboten! is the definite sense of detail that’s easy to perceive throughout, the small aspects that decorate the sets and performances in spite of the fairly low budget. The post-war landscape, in the microcosm of Rothbach, is one of huddled, cueing, hungry people; seamy profiteers; and survivors of the concentration and labour camps still wearing their striped uniforms. Buildings have messages from families to missing loved ones painted in big, bold letters amidst instantly dated propaganda expressions.

The titular word “verboten” has several connotations, applying both to the cross-cultural romance that is the first rule Brent breaks, leaving him dangerously vulnerable, and also to the underground survival of Nazism: painted on the wall of the rail car the Werewolves use as their HQ, and where Brent ended his own war by killing the sniper, are the words “Heil Hitler”—except that “Heil” is later painted out and “Verboten” painted beneath, the ironic concealment of the survival of Hitlerian ideals. Emblems of power and ideology are painstakingly replaced, but the true situation is far less obvious. A peculiar, recurring image, first seen looming over the spot where one of Brent’s squad mates is killed, is a silhouetted figure sporting a question mark and the words “Sieg Heil” written above. Later it appears all about town like some more sinister Nazi riposte to ubiquitous “Kilroy/Foo/Chad Was Here” graffiti craze: this is the emblem of the paranoia of the post-war period the film tries to recreate (the motif also suggestively evokes the poster for Fritz Lang’s M [1931]). One irony here is that whilst the black market and sabotage undoubtedly continued long after the war, the actual Werewolves only ever performed one combat mission and otherwise survived only as bogeymen to taunt the minds of the occupiers.

Although Brent and the American forces continue to try and peaceably govern the country, the drama at the heart of Verboten! is driven by its German characters and their efforts to contend with their poisoned, broken legacy. The liaison office is a place where the occupying bureaucrats have to deal with contentions and enmities between the Germans that resemble a civil war. One of their employees in charge of helping track down wanted Nazis, Eric Heiden (Sasha Harden), is alerted to the fact that his brother, a significant war criminal, has escaped from custody: Eric recounts to Brent the damage that his brother wrought on their family and, thus, why he’s as interested in seeing him nailed as anyone else.

Fuller’s journalistic, investigative sensibility is at play throughout Verboten!. He approaches his subject by stages, firstly immersively in following his American hero, then through a change of perspective that places his German protagonists at the forefront of the action, and then exploring the problems in rhetorical layers. Fuller repeatedly reverses perspectives, most cunningly in the single shot in which Helga bids Brent farewell after his first return visit, with Otto lumbering under a load of gear up the road behind him; Helga doesn’t notice him until Brent leaves the frame, and hurriedly ushers him into her house. There, they speak with the exhausted realism of survivors, Helga happy to admit she’ll contemplate marriage to an American because it will make survival easier, and Otto noting as they both begin to stuff their faces with Brent’s chocolate, “For the first time your sex has the advantage over mine.” This marvelously wry, matter-of-fact volte face, with its keen behavioural accuracy, has specific consequences later, when Otto tries to break up Brent and Helga’s marriage by telling him what she said at this moment. This revelation causes a violent, if temporary, split between the pair, as Brent’s sensibility, still unworldly in spite of his baptism under fire, is shocked by the notion that anything less than true love could have made Helga marry him.

But the scene’s less immediate, but more effective effect is to show up the self-satisfaction of the American conquerors, and signal the thin ice everyone’s sliding on. Otto, whose cool, slightly insolent charm conceals a fiery, utterly dedicated Nazi, initially, favourably contrasts Brent in his laidback charm (the faint whiff of the California surfer boy that comes off actor Pittman adds to this), seemingly schooled by years of warfare in how to sit still, take stock, and not waste energy. Otto’s deeply hardened, asocial expedience only emerges slowly, as he makes his pitch to his fellow veterans in an old rail car that becomes their headquarters and contends with the irritable Helmuth Strasser (Dick Kallman), who doesn’t want anything to do with Otto’s Fourth Reich hopes but is all too happy to do some serious black market profiteering and to stir up the occupiers. Young Franz becomes increasingly enthralled by Otto and entwined with the Werewolves operations. Otto’s plan proves effective in seizing shipments of food and supplies, thus both increasing his own power whilst undercutting the Americans’ attempts to prove the generous conquerors.

Fuller’s distinctive sense of form not only builds a narrative, but also creates portraitist vignettes, like those of Strasser’s initial rave to Otto and Eric’s talk with Brent, or a GI displaying a young woman who’s had her head shaved by her angry brother to the CO of the liaison, that serve their own rhetorical function, expanding the film’s social and moral landscape as inextricable from the individual protagonists, and avoiding wrapping everything up in neat bundles. Fuller attempts to encompass a whole epoch, both in immediate and philosophical terms, and in the broadest style, as he would later do closer to home with Shock Corridor (1963). Particularly acute is the way the drama keeps revolving around the same locales, particularly the town’s main public areas—Martin Luther Platz and Adolf Hitler Platz—entwining historical and contemporary Germany and their divergent values. The opening battle of Brent and his buddies and the sniper, and then the less recognisable war between the occupiers and the Werewolves play out through social posturing, until Brent amusingly loses his temper with the protestors after declaring, “We’re not here as liberators! We’re here as conquerors, and don’t you forget it!” and then tries to backpedal to put across the Marshall Plan ideals.

Otto’s efforts begin to unravel when he goes too far in stealing medicine intended for hospitals, something Strasser protests: Otto has the other Werewolves beat Strasser senseless and then executed with a knife to the heart. Franz, whilst still hero-worshipping Otto, is disturbed enough by both the theft and the murder that he talks about it in his sleep, alerting Helga to his involvement. Helga forces Franz to accompany her to the war crimes trials just starting up in Nuremberg, and Franz sees the filmed evidence of Nazi horrors, finally comprehending the obscene truth and turning him vehemently against Otto. Fuller’s employment of real concentration camp footage and his portrayal of the Nuremberg trials is more like an educational reel than a realistic recreation, but his attempts here are a great distance from the preachy genocide tourism of Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), and his desire to elicit passionate engagement in both Franz and the audience is linked and urgent: Helga grips Franz’s chin to stop him looking away. Franz is inspired enough to blow the lid off Otto’s operation. He tries to steal his list of confederates, leading to a final destructive fight between the two in the rail car that starts a conflagration that consumes the last of the Nazi cause.

Like many of Fuller’s films, Verboten! makes use of shorthand caricatures, like the sleazy SS man, the why-can’t-we-get-along town Burgemeister, and a cigar-chomping American officer, that are a bit cheesy, even if they do aid Fuller in establishing his texture and oppositions with crystal clarity. Verboten! isn’t as deliciously bizarre or full-bore powerful as Fuller’s best works, the production limitations do hamstring it, and the acting is uneven—neither Cummings nor Daye are convincing Germans. The quickie running time can’t contain everything Fuller tries to do, and the finish is unfairly abrupt, though in one sense, this abruptness is a fitting consummation of Fuller’s realism: one story may finish, but the true situation will take years to resolve. And then there’s the embarrassingly crappy Paul Anka theme song (“Our love is verboten!”—yes, it’s as bad as it sounds).

Nonetheless, Verboten! is a rip-roaring little film, and one that looks remarkably good thanks to Fuller’s vivid eye and the technically excellent work of DP Joseph Biroc. His carefully lit, heavily shadowed, deep-focus visuals seem to keep the energy and beauty of noir film alive long after most such intricacy had vanished from Hollywood cinema. Fuller’s stylistic creativity here seems, indeed, to have had an impact on other filmmakers, especially in his use of classical music throughout, still an uncommon practice at the time. The concussive strains of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, anticipating its similar usage in The Longest Day (1962) in establishing the apocalyptic struggle, give way to swooning quotes from Liszt and, most impressively, an electrifying montage of the Werewolves’ crimes and the occupiers’ hunt set to Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” 20 years before Apocalypse Now. Here Fuller’s ironic counterpoint of high culture and down-and-dirty business is at its most vital and synergistic. l


20th 08 - 2010 | 15 comments »

The Mortal Storm (1940)

Director: Frank Borzage

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The other afternoon, the hubby and I lunched at The Foundation, a vegetarian restaurant near Vancouver’s Antique Row. In addition to serving up great fare, the proprietors of the restaurant also offer inspiration. Looking like fortunes pulled from giant fortune cookies, quotes decorate the restaurant’s walls, including one from the great Illinois statesman, Adlai Stevenson II, that stared me in the face throughout my meal:

I consider a free society to be a society where it is safe to be unpopular.

Stevenson, of course, was rather unpopular with American voters of the 1950s, who thought his intellectual gifts, liberal ideals, and religious vagueness were suspicious and more than a little effete—twice they chose retired General Dwight D. Eisenhower as their president over Stevenson. I sometimes wonder how the course of history might have been changed had Stevenson outranked Joseph McCarthy and others of his ilk with more than a little sympathy for fascism.

The powerful anti-Nazi film The Mortal Storm was a rare show of strength from the Hollywood that later would be brought to its knees by McCarthy. At a time when the major studios were avoiding the subject, MGM took a stand. Hitler was peculiarly adept at understanding the power of seditious art; much to his annoyance, his “show trial” of “degenerate art” touring Germany was wildly popular. Not one to make that same mistake twice, after viewing The Mortal Storm, he banned all MGM films from screening in Germany.

It’s not hard to see why this film would have incensed him or any other good Nazi. While it exposed audiences to the truth of Nazi Germany in hopes of rousing them to action, modern audiences can only look at the film with a sense of foreboding as the happy and honorable Roth family is corralled and then strangled by the forces of madness.

Viktor Roth (Frank Morgan) awakens on his 60th birthday to the felicitations of his wife Amelie (Irene Roth), daughter Freya (Margaret Sullavan), young son Rudi (Gene Reynolds), and grown stepsons Erich and Otto von Rohn (William T. Orr and Robert Stack). Viktor, a professor of biology, heads off to work and drops several hints about his special day, only to be ignored by his colleagues. Crestfallen, he walks into his lecture hall to the resounding applause and stamping of feet of his students, his family, and his colleagues. Student Fritz Marberg (Robert Young) and long-time family friend Martin Breitner (James Stewart) present him with an engraved trophy of the torchbearer. Initially annoyed at believing his birthday to have been forgotten, Viktor melts into gratitude and gives a heartfelt speech of admiration for his students and colleagues.

The family holds a celebratory dinner that night and Fritz brashly announces that he and Freya are engaged, though Freya has not yet consented. Just then, the Roth’s maid Marta (Esther Dale) comes in with word that Hitler has been made Germany’s chancellor. Fritz, Erich, and Otto run to the next room to listen to the news on the radio; they are ecstatic. Amelie is worried because Viktor is a Jew, but Viktor simply prays that Hitler will govern Germany with wisdom. Martin’s mood, initially darkened by Freya’s engagement, grows positively black with the news of Hitler’s ascendancy. The fissures we see in this family scene grow over the course of the film, as Fritz, Erich, and Otto join the Nazi Party, Martin helps a Jewish schoolteacher escape to Austria and becomes a fugitive himself, Viktor is arrested and killed for being a Jew and teaching facts that contradict Hitler’s notions of a master race of Aryans, and Freya is detained for trying to take Viktor’s last manuscript out of the country.

Frank Borzage was the logical—and only—choice to direct this film. He had made two previous films on the rise of the Nazis, Little Man, What Now? (1933) and Three Comrades (1938), while no other director came near the topic. But aside from his familiarity with the subject matter, Borzage—a director with a “touch” as personal and romantic as Ernst Lubitsch’s, but with deeper undertones—makes the downfall of this family a personal tragedy that has universal meaning. The fracture between the Roths and the von Rohns and Fritz isn’t as clean as is often found in other such films. Fritz really loves Freya and is torn first by his ideals and then, when those are betrayed, by his sense of duty; when Freya breaks with him, his pain and longing at seeing her underscore every scene. Erich and Otto feel genuine love for Viktor, who has been a real father to them, but get ground up in the Nazi machine so that their individuality is nearly lost; only Otto, the younger of the two, sees the folly that has been set in motion. Dale is perfect as the maid who turns on the Roths without much reluctance—as a member of the serving class, one certainly resentful of a perceived Jewish wealth and power, her happiness at the rise of Hitler and the emotionless way she leaves her job of 10 years rings tragically true.

The complex of emotions the great Margaret Sullavan brought to her craft are on full display here. Her embarrassment at Fritz’s announcement of their engagement is tinged with anger, her attempt at clinging to her affection for him an inward struggle, her dawning realization of the depth of her love for family friend Martin as gradual as it would be in real life. Stewart isn’t given much room to do more than a short version of his aw-shucks good-guy routine, but my interest in his performance was deepened by the knowledge that he tried to enlist in the U.S. Army in 1940 and finally met the physical requirements in 1941. He really meant what he said in this film and put his life on the line to help people like the one he played here.

For me, Frank Morgan’s performance is the most heartbreaking. Although he was well-versed at playing kindly, sentimental roles, Viktor has an edge that, say, his Wizard of Oz never would have. There is nothing accidental about Viktor’s courageous actions. He refuses to teach anything other than what science has discovered, and shows up the caretaker at his university, whose limp “Heil Hitler” to a colleague is self-reproach enough. He says, “I’ve never prized safety, Erich, either for myself or my children. I prized courage.”

Borzage also could film action. As they attempt to ski to freedom in Austria, Freya and Martin are chased down a mountainside by a Nazi platoon led by Fritz. Recalling a more carefree ski they had early in the film, the irony and desperation of this scene keep one breathless with fear. The simple crumpling of one body far in the distance (which one is it?) after the platoon takes aim and fires is nauseatingly real.

The Mortal Storm is an exceedingly difficult film to watch. The attention to detail, the true performances, the inexorable rhythms of tragedy create an urgency that certainly must have been the aim of Borzage and his cast and crew. An important film in many ways in the careers of all those involved, it is the rare film that sends a message with a delicacy and artistry that any film enthusiast can appreciate.


31st 01 - 2010 | 7 comments »

The Damned (1969)

Director: Luchino Visconti

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

The Damned, Luchino Visconti’s loose history of Germany’s dynastic Krupps family during the consolidation of Hitler’s power in the mid 1930s is a difficult film to pigeonhole. Not a war film, it talks about munitions manufacture and Hitler’s plans for conquest. One of the few films to earn an X rating, its subject matter is more disturbing for censors than its nudity, and it almost certainly would not receive an NC-17 rating today. Italianate in its operatic richness and byzantine melodrama, it has a distinctly German feel, reveling in the drab, amoral squalor that infests the minds and actions of most of its characters. Most certainly a family drama, it indicts the entire, rotting hulk of privilege and shows how easily swayed and dominated it could be at the hands of common (in the class sense) thugs with uncommon ambition. Were we inclined to feel pity for the passing of a more genteel era, that impulse is squashed like a cockroach by Visconti’s extended scenes of depravity and decadence that almost seem to be the raison d’être for the film.

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The Damned begins, fittingly, with hellfire images of the steelworks on which the Von Essenbeck family (the Krupps steelworks were in Essen) has built its fortunes over the centuries fabricating, among other things, weapons. The family is set to celebrate patriarch Joaquin Von Essenbeck’s (Albrecht Schönhals) birthday with dinner and homemade entertainment provided Joaquin’s grandchildren: Thilde and Erika (Karin Mittendorf and Valentina Ricci), the young daughters of Joaquin’s daughter, Elisabeth Thallman (Charlotte Rampling) and her husband Herbert, vice president of the steelworks; Martin Von Essenbeck (Helmut Berger), son of Joaquin’s beloved, dead son and his widow Sophie (Ingrid Thulin); and Gunther Von Essenbeck (Renaud Verley), son of Joaquin’s son Konstantin (Reinhard Kolldehoff), a brownshirt SA officer who already sports a swastika on his lapel. Speeding toward the dinner are Frederick Bruckmann (Dirk Bogarde), an executive at the steelworks, and Herr Aschenbach (Helmut Griem), a cousin to the privileged family and an officer in the SS. Bruckmann and Aschenbach discuss how Frederick, who has been carrying on an affair with Sophie, can rise to power in the new Reich by stepping over the Von Essenbecks to assume control of the steelworks.

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The first shock of the evening comes when Joaquin, having enjoyed the recitations of his granddaughters and cello solo of Gunther, is confronted with Martin dressed like Sally Bowles and singing and strutting lasciviously for all he’s worth. The performance is cut short by the evening’s second shock—the announcement that the Reichstag has been set on fire. Joaquin delivers another blow, to Herbert, when he sizes up the political circumstances this attack on the Reichstag signals and announces that to curry favor with the Nazis, he is replacing Herbert as vice president with Konstantin. Herbert, a vehement anti-Nazi, storms off and prepares to leave the country, feeling his place is no longer secure. Indeed it isn’t. The SS storm the Von Essenbeck mansion that very night, and Herbert must flee for the nearby border. In the meantime, Frederick has taken Herbert’s gun and shot Joaquin, pinning the murder on Herbert.

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From this point on, Elisabeth is a virtual prisoner at the Von Essenbeck estate as Sophie plots like Lady MacBeth to see Frederick best Konstantin for total control of the steelworks. Like the MacBeths, Frederick and Sophie’s hubris will be their ruin, but indeed, the Von Essenbecks are as doomed as the Third Reich they tried oafishly to play. The full dinner table at which Joaquin was toasted will eventually seat only one diner, as the rest are killed, arrested, or driven mad.

The film is constructed as a series of extended set pieces. Visconti’s most elegantly filmed sequence—the birthday performance and dinner—is a signature one for him realized most fully in the ball sequence in The Leopard (1963). Unlike the Prince and his aristocratic family, however, the Von in Essenbeck is more window dressing than breeding; Joaquin and his forebears were industrialists who thought more about the steelworks than their honor. As such, their splendid festivities look rather shabby and bourgeois. In another contrasting sequence between the two films and families, whereas the Prince visits his mistress in town resplendently dressed and liveried, the perverted Martin, dressed like a dandy, visits a prostitute who has given him the key to her flat and finding a young Jewish girl next door, proceeds over successive days to seduce her. Watching the little girl throw her arms around his neck and plant kisses all over his face is a pretty disgusting display made worse by his ecstatic response.

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In a power play that parallels Frederick’s move for the steelworks, the SS, with Hitler’s blessing, prepares to liquidate its competition—the SA. Visconti shoots a very long scene of the SA gathering in Bad Wiessee that became known as the Night of the Long Knives. As SA officers pour into the town and the town’s alcohol pours into them, the link between the beer hall and German fascism comes blazing into focus. The men get drunker and drunker, start pawing the barmaids, attempt to rape one, dress up in slips, garters, and bras, and eventually end up having sex with each other in the brothel-like upstairs of the inn. Although the sequence is carefully edited to depict the events of the day and night, their cumulative effect and a fairly stripped-down, verité look make the scene seem like one (extremely) long take, one reminiscent of Visconti’s extravagantly decadent, though much less base scene in the Venus grotto in his 1971 film Ludwig (which, incidentally, also starred Helmut Berger in another sexually decadent, though much more sympathetic role as The Swan King).

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The liquidation represents the climax of the film, but Visconti lets it dribble on for about another half hour in order to ensure the complete destruction of the family. Unfortunately, the script kind of devolves as well, nearly destroying the film. Auschenbach becomes less a fanatical human and more a mustache-twisting cartoon, tempting Gunther to hate and tucking him under his black cape. Martin, having driven his mother mad by raping her, arranges a long-awaited marriage between her and Frederick. Sophie moves like a zombie into the grand ballroom where Martin first donned his drag outfit for the entertainment of Joaquin, her face ghostly white, as though she were a medieval victim of small pox covering her scars. Our last view of her is grotesque, which rather unfairly suggests that she deserves to be held up for special humiliation. None of the Von Essenbecks, including the beautifully elegant, but willfully blind Elisabeth, deserve our admiration, at least not in this film.

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The actors strain valiantly to realize this high melodrama with some semblance of truth, but none escapes unscathed, not even the great Dirk Bogarde, who is called on to depict shrill egomania. Schönhals acquits himself best of the entire cast, fully embodying a pragmatic man of appetites. Berger is to Visconti what Kinski is to Herzog, so it’s hard to judge his performance apart from his persona. The print I saw projected was atrocious—scratchy and pink, with the entire SA liquidation scene in unsubtitled German. Fortunately, Warner Home Video has released a decent DVD of the film.

This film has been panned by many people, but I found something hypnotic in the languorous set pieces whose utter decadence addressed the moral rot of the elites and power brokers of 1930s Germany in a way other approaches could not.


29th 11 - 2009 | 10 comments »

The Threepenny Opera (Die 3 Groschen-Oper, 1931)

Director: G. W. Pabst

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


30th 08 - 2009 | 6 comments »

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Director: Quentin Tarantino

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By Roderick Heath

Once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France, a French farmer (Denis Menochet) watched a German motorcade approach his property, bringing into his life one Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), an efficacious, polite, good-humoured SS enforcer who picks at any situation, character, and attendant appearances until the truth finally comes out—which in this case is that the farmer is concealing a Jewish family under his floorboards. Landa’s death squad fire into the floor, killing the family, except for one of their girls, Shoshanna (Mélanie Laurent), who flees. Landa, instead of gunning her down, calls after her in his pleasantly mocking way, “Au revoir, Shoshanna!”

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Four years later, Shoshanna, now a grown woman and running a movie theatre in Paris, finds the path of her life crossing not only with Landa again, but also a charming young Nazi war hero, Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), his patron Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth), and through Goebbels, the whole Nazi leadership. Also on a collision path with Shoshanna is a vengeful unit of Jewish-American commandos who have been spreading terror throughout the Reich with their unorthodox tactics, like scalping and baseball-bat beatings, using German film star and double agent Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) to forward their aims. Personages and events collide until the chance to end the entire war in one night falls into Shoshanna’s lap…or is it Landa’s?

I’ll crawl over barbed wire and eat turds to defend Quentin Tarantino, and I think I had to do that for Death Proof, so you’ll know I don’t count it lightly when I was initially tempted to call Inglourious Basterds Quentin Tarantino’s most original and least coherent film. His most original in that it plugs into a new current of creativity, sporting a finale quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. His least coherent in that although it sports scene after scene of intricately handled drama and humour, dynamic in its textures and incidents, it fails to add up to a grand and unequivocal whole.

Condemning any artwork for not delivering what one hopes for and ignoring what it does deliver is one of the cardinal sins of criticism. So wishing for Tarantino-does-Where Eagles Dare might not have been wise, but yeah, that’s what I was wishing for. If you think it’s headed for a taunting, thrilling, Alistair MacLean-esque battle of wits between Landa and the Basterds, think again. Tarantino has much bigger fish to fry, and the Basterds come across as a retained element of older drafts of the script.

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The film is not actually a war movie. Instead, it is as intimate and, in a curious way, as resolutely down to earth, as Reservoir Dogs or Jackie Brown, which may indeed have been a conscious choice in pushing as deeply into fantasy as he does here. As in his early films, violence comes in sudden, intimate eruptions; there are no set action pieces like the House of Blue Leaves battle in Kill Bill Vol. 1 or the climax of Death Proof. It has much in common with Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book and Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution, which also churn retro movie imagery, modernist force, raw melodrama, and femme fatale glamour into a lumpy, but lucid singularity. All three films reflect that the Second World War is now a long time ago, but its imagery and associated emotions still retain awesome power that infuse explorations of still-contemporary concerns from across the spectrum of the modern world—sex, class and race, the manipulation of imagery, the nature of political leadership—with eternal potency.

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The tenor of the film, confirmed by the disgust a protagonist feels for watching himself in a war movie, seems dismayed by the impersonal slaughter of the genre. It doesn’t suit Tarantino’s fetishist tendencies or his what-goes-around-comes-around moral schema, which is vital to all his films. Although the very end of the film sports random, injudicious killing, it’s tackled with a vengeful gusto that captures the nature of true wrath. Nor is it as much a comedy as Tarantino’s other films. Although often very funny, Tarantino’s jokes are sleights of hand concealing a punch to the belly that arrives with more force than ever before. Inglourious Basterds is, deep down, a rather serious movie, which is perhaps why it’s not quite as much fun as expected. It approaches with deadly intensity the confrontations where life and death depend on the smallest gestures, and finds real disgust in Goebbels playing the maestro of movie-making in serving up violent spectacles for propaganda, and in the final, metaphorical edition of the guilty, postwar habit of giving a pass to former Nazis when they were useful, as Landa tries to wrangle himself a hero’s welcome to the United States. As far as it departs from the historical record, Basterds is vitally interested in the spirit of the epoch it portrays.

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So what kind of film is it? I’m not really sure, hence my feeling that it’s something original. It’s easy, but also incredibly reductive, to say that it’s a movie-movie, but that is, in a way, not at all true. Independence Day is a movie-movie. Basterds is something far more complex. Like Tarantino’s Kill Bill diptych, it leaps off from the telling image of an orphaned child seeking redress, and balances on a knife edge between tactile and immediate realism and flourishes of raw fantasy—even more so because Tarantino resists stylistic flourish and visual digression more than in any other film. Much as Pvt. Donnie “The Bear Jew” Donowitz (Eli Roth) takes a baseball bat to Nazis, Tarantino takes one to the familiar beats of melodrama; what appears to be set-ups for long narrative arcs may instead end in a blink, with the offhand death of seemingly important characters, as Tarantino tries to keep a step ahead of expectations. And yet, finally, this begins to hurt his capacity to sell a story. So many potentially terrific characters vie for attention that they end up cancelling each other out, so that, for instance, Bridget’s startling demise at Landa’s enraged hands and the liebestod consummation of Shoshanna and Stoller’s charged relationship don’t quite carry the weight they ought to.

I’m not sure if the film’s relatively restrained tone is the product of personal consideration or the result of commercial necessities. Although the chattiness, profuse film and cultural references, and moments of utter fantasia comprise a work no one else could have served up, in sheer cinematic terms, it’s Tarantino’s most limited and least stylish work. It mostly lacks the balletic camerawork, the relish of staging, the ukiyo-ye colour and fairytale art direction that gave the Kill Bill films their pep or Death Proof its forceful action sequences. Inglourious Basterds has so much to do in its running time that it both adds up to a hell of a ride and slight letdown. The Basterds themselves barely do anything that’s necessary for the course of the film, which instead, takes refuge in a series of Leone-esque scenes that in a rather more dialogue-driven fashion than Leone, trace small power plays, ploys, and vagaries of intent between characters in charged situations, building to explosive outbursts. Tarantino almost entirely avoids showing the Basterds in action; there’s one scene of them terrorising and disposing of prisoners after a battle. Only right at the end do two of them, Donnie and Omar (Roth and Omar Doom playing the same two scrubs they played in Death Proof in period drag, which is pretty funny in itself) get into action.

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The three key—and best—sequences are queasy-making epics of expectation and violent pay-off: the opening in the farmhouse; a taut set piece in a bar in which British lieutenant and former film critic Archie Hickox (Michael Fassbender), who has been assigned to contact Bridget and accompany her to the premiere, tries to bluff his way through a conversation with a suspicious Gestapo officer (August Diehl); and the finale. The film’s pitch is to be a Jewish revenge fantasy by believably hijacking the rather grotesque propositions of ’70s Nazi exploitation films like Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS (1974) and Lager SS5: L’Inferno delle Donne (1976), and turning them inside out.

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And it is, finally, a hellish moment when the revenge finally arrives, Shoshanna’s filmed face, laughing mockery at the film audience being burnt alive and machine gunned from above by Donnie and Omar, whose faces are glazed with psychopathic indulgence. This comes after Shoshanna shares a kiss with her black projectionist and lover, Marcel (Jacky Ido), the ultimate slap at Nazi ideals. The whole sequence, whose orgiastic mixture of pop art and reverse-holocaust is something genuinely apocalyptic and disorienting, is distinctly less cynical than the finale of an obvious precursor, Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967). In the latter film, the indiscriminate slaughter of Germans and their whorish companions was detached from a context of the actual war, portraying instead a war of base, rugged individualism against oppressive culture; Tarantino’s film displays the revenge both a specific culture—Judaism—and a cultural trope— cinema—against abusers of both. Inglourious Basterds, both literally and in the textures of its filmmaking, sets itself against the appropriation of the raw potency of cinema, and it feels as much Tarantino’s “fuck you” to cultural dullards and the visual and conceptual blandness of much of contemporary cinema as it is to Nazism. In such a context, even Tarantino’s more wayward impulses service his messy idealism.

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I certainly won’t complain about the cast. Pitt, sporting a consciously pasted-on hillbilly accent (“Bon-jaw-no!”), is hilarious in the few scenes in which he has anything to do, but he’s far from the centre of this opus. Kruger, who’s grown exponentially as an actress since her underwhelming Helen of Troy (2004), might have stumbled directly out of a ’40s film with her alternations of bright-eyed bluff and gimlet-eyed grit. Mélanie Laurent is affecting as Shoshanna, rising star Fassbender is amusingly retro, and Brühl communicates both humanity and subtle prerogative in Stoller. Christoph Waltz’s Landa is as sublime as advertised. Anything Omar Doom does cracks me up. I’m not sure why Rod Taylor’s Winston Churchill or Mike Myers’ Lionel Mandrake-esque British general are there, but they are there, to be enjoyed in any fit manner.

Big, unwieldy, and eccentric, Inglourious Basterds will nonetheless stand as one of the signal movie events of the year.

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31st 12 - 2008 | 6 comments »

The Madwoman of Chaillot (1969)

Director: Bryan Forbes

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

By now you may know that I find year-end wrap-ups a difficult exercise. I don’t make lists, so I can’t fall back on that well-worn discussion starter. I hardly see any mainstream films, so I can’t form a common bond with the moviegoing audience at large. I look for the films in the attic, so to speak, so it’s not always easy to relate to even my most loyal readers. What I’ve decided to do to bid 2008 farewell is present you with a film that I think represents this moment in time—the fading of a dark and destructive era in the United States, and the rise of hope for a more peaceful, just, and generous country than we’ve seen in a long time.

The Madwoman of Chaillot started life as a play. Written in 1942 during the Nazi occupation of France and first mounted in Paris in 1945, Jean Giraudoux story imagines good triumphing over evil, life enduring against living death, and above all, the survival of France and all that is unique about the country. Its fantasy quality and 19th century nostalgia are reminiscent of the fairytale and period films French filmmakers were forced to retreat to during the Occupation to appease the German authorities. Some of these films conveyed a veiled message of resistance that only their French audiences would understand. Thus, I imagine these films influenced Giraudoux in his protest against the Nazis, lending weight to this exaggerated parable. It’s a message that was current when the film was made, and unfortunately, it still reverberates today.

The film announces visually the turbulence of the late 1960s and the forces that will join to set things right: a street protest violently broken up by the Paris police and a tall, elderly woman dressed in fin de siècle garb moving through the streets causing minor havoc—cutting a surveyor’s line so that she doesn’t have to walk around it, pouring a window washer’s bucket of water into a window box of flowers. The woman is our madwoman, Countess Aurelia (Katharine Hepburn), on her way to her favorite café in the Chaillot district. She will ally with one of the young protestors, Roderick (Richard Chamberlain), nephew of the rich and lunatic Prospector (Donald Pleasence) who sets the plot in motion.

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Roderick returns to his uncle’s home just as a new addition to The Prospector’s collection of toilets is being hung on the wall—a very rare outhouse from Johannesburg for which The Prospector paid 1.5 million francs. Roderick, bleeding from the blow he received from a policeman’s baton, goes up the stairs to tend to his wound. The Prospector complains that he is bleeding all over the towels. Roderick answers that he has been injured doing something that matters, to which The Prospector sneers that he’s all talk and no action. He then hands Roderick a large suitcase containing a bomb and tells him that if he really wants to take action, he should plant it in Room 22 of the Municipal Hall, where a truly nefarious bureaucrat is making plans for war.

The scene switches to a Chaillot café where The Reverend (John Gavin) and The Commissar (Oscar Homolka) sit at a table awaiting the arrival of the rest of “The Board.” The General (Paul Henreid) and The Chairman (Yul Brynner) arrive in a white limousine. Shortly thereafter, The Broker (Charles Boyer) arrives to tell The Chairman how, with a bit of market manipulation, he helped The General make 5.5 million francs. Happily, The Chairman announces he will pay for lunch, until he recalculates his profit and comes up with only 5 million francs: “You pay for lunch,” he instructs The Broker.

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The usual denizens of the café, including a juggler (Gaston Palmer), a flower seller (Harriet Ariel), and The Ragpicker (Danny Kaye), come to The Board’s table, as they do to all the tables. The Chairman rudely dismisses them and shouts insults and orders at their waitress Irma (Nanette Newman). He tells the rest of The Board that he is waiting to see a man he has never met to receive instructions for his twelfth successful campaign. This is no ordinary rendezvous: the stranger will have the very key to the scheme and the proper name for it, and they will recognize each other through some strange look in the eye. As it happens, the man The Chairman is looking for is The Prospector. Indeed, The Prospector comes over to their table and having secured enough dirty secrets from each of them to insure against a double-cross, reveals the secret. He has been all over Paris sniffing and sampling the tap water and finally found what he was looking for—the taste of petroleum at this very café. “There’s oil under the streets of Chaillot,” he declares. The Chairman’s eyes light up as he orders the Board into the café to sample the tap water at the bar, bothered by the appearance of an eccentric—The Countess—demanding her usual table from its current occupant.

The only thing standing in the way of drilling is a pesky clerk who won’t issue a permit. The Prospector has seen to that by sending his nephew to blow the man up. Unfortunately for The Board, Roderick sees a family with small children sitting outside of Room 22 and runs to a bridge over the Seine and tosses the bomb in. He is mistakenly thought to be jumping, and gets punched unconscious by a policeman. The Countess and Irma see to his care. When he comes to, he and Irma lock eyes and fall in love. When Roderick realizes his uncle planned to do away with a simple clerk and the reasons behind the assassination attempt, he reveals all to the good people of Chaillot. The Ragpicker—the philosopher of the group—must explain to the Countess how the world has changed. “I looked at people, and they looked back. Now, they stare back with dead eyes.” Realizing that they are now living in an age of The Golden Calf, the Countess lays a trap to stop The Board from destroying the world.

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The view from the café appears to be the same one used when little Pascal first finds his balloon companion in The Red Balloon, establishing Chaillot as a magical place for this viewer. Certainly to the “good guys” in this film, their world is indeed a wondrous place. For Countess Aurelia and her three similarly garbed friends—Gabrielle the virgin (Guiletta Massina, in a rare English-speaking role), Constance the Madwoman of Passy (Margaret Leighton), and Josephine the adjudicator (Edith Evans)—the world is an illusion into which they can slip when they aren’t living in their ancient memories of youth. The common men and women of Chaillot must break through this illusion to convince the Countess that the world has changed, grown coarse and mean, to rouse her to action. The Countess is, in fact, a representative of historical France—an aristocrat from the 19th century, when monarchy returned for a time to the French Republic. Her decision to exterminate the members of The Board is the type that an absolute monarch would make; it is Josephine who insists that a trial must take place, thus marrying the ideals of the Republic with the nostalgic place of the monarchy in France.

To lure her victims to her mansion, she plays on their greed. She visits each of them and shows them a sample of the oil that is under her home—in fact, a mixture created in the café kitchen. She has the opportunity to see for herself the darkness they spread. From The Broker she learns that to make futures trading profitable, crops that could feed thousands may be burned. She watches The General bumble around with nuclear missiles. The Reverend reveals himself to be an Elmer Gantry with an intolerance for other religions. And The Prospector and The Chairman are unbridled greed itself. These episodes may be preaching to the converted among many in the audience, but they are important in order for the Countess to enter the modern world and do what must be done.

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The members of The Board are delightfully villainous. Yul Brynner and Donald Pleasence are yin and yang as The Chairman and The Prospector, their bald heads nodding in unison, their madness perfectly matched. Brynner assumes a maniacal glee as he plays his role large, not an unpleasant caricature by any means. Pleasence, however, really convinces as a man who trusts his nose. When the others wonder at his prediction of oil under Paris, he wags his nose in their faces, turning profile to emphasize its impressive size, as a phallic symbol of his power over nature.

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The most compelling scene of the film—and also the most stagey—is the trial. Josephine (a shrill creation of Dame Edith) rules that the criminals can be tried in absentia as long as they are provided with proper counsel. The Ragpicker is chosen to defend them. This may be Danny Kaye’s finest hour on film. He presents arguments about the legitimacy of progress and the rights of innovators over those who would squander their resources, and wins Constance over. This alarming development encourages him, and he reveals more of his clients’ naked purposes. Revealing the true hubris of the oligarchs, The Ragpicker sums up his defense with, “We buy the legislators who make the law. We ARE the law!” Kaye’s performance taps the potential cruelty and arrogance in us all, infusing The Ragpicker with the integrity a defense attorney should have for his clients, but also their guilt. Those who only know Kaye as Hans Christian Andersen are in for a shock here.

Katharine Hepburn has a sufficiently imperial air to glide easily into the role of a nearly untouchable grand dame. Yet she fails to capture a real sense of madness, preferring to be a garden-variety eccentric in a role that calls upon her to commit some highly significant murders. We see moments of callousness in the Countess during the opening sequence and in her offhanded treatment of her mad women friends. But Hepburn softens her character so much, particularly by dissolving into tears early and often, that the strength and, yes, righteous cruelty she represents don’t come through. Her supporting cast offers little to bolster the sense of power that I always associate with a nation of commoners who could overthrow a monarch and establish a republic.

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Bryan Forbes is entirely too enamored of the keyhole shooting style that was popular in England at the time. He frequently shoots Hepburn through a “gauze” of leaves, scenery, and monuments, perhaps to suggest her illusory life; to me, however, it just looked like he got his framing wrong. The cinematography in the Countess’ mansion is appropriately gothic, but not nearly as horrifying as it could or should have been as, say, the kangaroo courtroom in M was. The film’s look is at its best in the streets of Paris, where the cause the Countess and her friends are fighting for can be seen and appreciated.

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While The Madwoman of Chaillot comes up short in various areas, the overall impression of a cautionary fable does its job. Standing at the doorway of 2009, I hope along with the rest of the world that the United States will be a better place in the coming year. But in keeping with the above title card, I’m not holding my breath.

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30th 04 - 2008 | 4 comments »

Douce (1943)

Director: Claude Autant-Lara
Screenwriters: Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost

By Marilyn Ferdinand

One of my favorite directors is Bertrand Tavernier. I haven’t come anywhere near to seeing all his films, but I’ve tried to take advantage of every opportunity that comes along. I was fortunate enough to see the terrific cop drama L.627 at the 2002 Ebertfest and watch Roger interview Tavernier. Little did I know that when his then-newest film, Laissez-passer (Safe Conduct), played at the Gene Siskel Film Center a few days later, I would see Tavernier again and get a chance to participate briefly in an informal chat he was having with some other film fans in the lobby of the theatre. It was easy for me to see why he can make such wonderful films—he’s a genuinely nice man.

The reason I bring Tavernier up here is that Laissez-passer chronicles the world of French filmmaking during the World War II German occupation of France. The film is based on a memoir of one of the screenwriters of that time, Jean-Devaivre, and features as one of its main characters Jean Aurenche, depicted as a bon vivant who manages to stay just the right side of the stern Germans who man Continental Films, the German production company that controlled the French film industry, in general, and its French employees, in particular. I was utterly captivated by Tavernier’s film, his comments about the period he was depicting, and a whole era of films I knew nothing about. I set about learning, seizing whatever opportunities I could to view the mainly escapist entertainment of the time that nonetheless bred some of the great French filmmakers to come—Jacques Becker, Robert Bresson, Jean-Pierre Melville, and others. Fortunately, the Siskel Center ran a series of these films in 2005, and now, DOC Films at the University of Chicago is doing the same on Tuesday nights this spring. The hubby and I took the long drive to the South Side to view Douce last night, and it was certainly worth the trip.

Douce, an historical drama typical of this era, tells a story of love and ambition in class-conscious 19th century Paris. The film takes place near Christmas. The story opens on snowfall created by trick photography—rather distracting—but settles down as the camera ventures into a church and into a confessional, where a heavily veiled woman is being grilled by a priest about a love affair she is having. Listing the various impediments to a happy union, the priest finally hits on the right one—low born. The priest is appalled and tells her a horrible fate awaits her and her lover if they should go through with their plan. “I want to be happy,” she answers defiantly. “Do you want me to grant you absolution?” he asks accusingly. “Well, I won’t.” She storms out of the confessional and the church, leaving her umbrella behind.

In a nifty segue, a feeble-minded young man is sent to return the umbrella to its owner. He is cautiously admitted through the gates of a stately home. When the front door opens for him, we are admitted into the opulent, pampered world of the wealthy de Bonafé family. Loyal servant Estelle (Gabrielle Fontan) fusses and musses about, then calls Mademoiselle Irène (Madeleine Robinson). A beautiful and elegant woman emerges onto the long, balustraded hallway of the upper floor. Estelle says a boy has come with the umbrella she left at church. “What did you give him?” a somewhat startled Irène asks. “My umbrella,” replies Estelle. “He needs something to get home.”

Irène returns to her needlepoint and hands Douce (Odette Joyeux), a young lady in her charge, a wooden egg used for darning socks. The egg has “Trouville,” a seaside resort, burned into its side. Douce gets very excited: “You know Trouville?” “No,” says Irène. “It was a gift from some people who had been there.” Douce listens to a thumping above her head. She is annoyed. “Doesn’t he know how it sounds?!” she says in exasperation. Irène warns her to be more respectful of her father and sympathetic with the fact that he has to walk on a wooden leg, and then questions her about the umbrella. At this point, it becomes clear that Irène is Douce’s governess, and Douce is the well-born young lady in love with an inferior.

This surprising reversal sets up a subtle dynamic that infuses the rest of the film with commentary on social climbing and stifling social roles. With great dexterity, Bost and Aurenche manipulate a simple love story with a hundred small, telling moments. The first, of course, is our assumption that Irène is the mistress of the house. Indeed, she is aiming exactly for that position, having noticed and cultivated widower Engelbert de Bonafé’s (Jean Debucourt) attraction to her. The fact that he is a cripple and considers himself a failure—his leg wasn’t even lost in war but in a riding accident that was his own fault—and Douce his only success marks him as a relic of the past being overtaken by the schemers of the present. We know that Irène, though very tightly self-controlled throughout the film, is one of those schemers because he finds her in his library reshelving a book she has finished, Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

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Her partner and lover is Fabien Marani (Roger Pigaut), manager of the family’s estate. Of course, Douce is in love with him, but he wants Irène to emigrate with him to Quebec and be out from under the humiliating, controlling thumb of the de Bonafés. With a financially advantageous marriage within her grasp, Irène rejects him. Marani pursues her, planning to tell all to Engelbert and his mother, the wickedly imperious Madame de Bonafé (Marguerite Moreno), but Douce intervenes. Les Liaisons Dangereuses does indeed seem to be the driving narrative of this film as it unwinds to a sad, inevitable conclusion. The classes should not, must not mix. The worst curse Madame de Bonafé can cast on Fabien and Irène is that they remain together, trapped in their low-born status.

Douce was the first film scripted by the so-called “Tradition of Quality” team of Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost. Tradition of Quality films were dubbed as such by the leading critics of the 1940s and 1950s for their academic production values, basis in traditional literary classics, and theatrical scripting. I might add that the work of Aurenche and Bost, frequent collaborators of Autant-Lara, is where I would place the quality. Their writing is extremely witty and subtle when they are going for social commentary. Marguerite Moreno certainly had a plum role as the Grand Dame of the house. Her lines and actions would have been buffoonish if they hadn’t been closely observed and written. When she goes through her closet to choose items to give to the poor tenants on her land for Christmas, she holds back one jacket. “That’s too good,” she instructs Irène, saying (I paraphrase), “It will only depress the people because they will see the heights to which they never can aspire.” When she calls on her tenants, she brings Irène and Fabien with her to carry the clothes and soup. One tenant gets up to heat a bowl of soup for herself and her husband. “No, no,” says Madame, “It’s my turn to serve you. Irène, put the soup on the stove.”

Douce_05.jpgSome quibbles. Joyeux looked too old to still be dressing like a child, and Joyeux, Robinson, and Pigaut have a severe, mannered acting style. The love talk between Pigaut and the two women is the ultimate in purple prose, as well. The film takes a somewhat predictable turn to tragedy, but it was startling to me because up until then I had been watching a very funny comedy of manners. The overly melodramatic elements made me all too aware that there was a moral to this story. I wonder, in fact, whether the German honchos might have insisted that the story reflect a superior/inferior class ethos to suggest the depravity of “mixing.” But this is mere conjecture.

Interestingly, Tradition of Quality films were condemned by André Bazin and his protégé, François Truffaut. This condemnation reflected the desire for a purely cinematic art form not beholden to literary tradition, ushering in the naturalism of the French New Wave and other film movements of the 1960s that took their inspiration from the French movement. However, according to John Hess:

Truffaut denounces these men (as well as the cinema they represent) for their irreverence toward the literary works they adapt (most of the scripts and films in question were literary adaptations), their anti-clerical and anti-militarist stances, their pessimism and negativity, their ‘profanity’ and ‘blasphemy.’ His concerns here show the utter conventionality and the extreme cultural and political conservatism of his views on art. These scriptwriters’ irreverence toward their sources, the great French literary masterpieces (in some cases at least), reveals to Truffaut their lack of concern for tradition and conventional values, Truffaut sees the cinema d’auteurs as a return to the eternal verities and the classical French values of the enlightenment and romanticism. His opposition to their insertion of anti-militarist and anti-clerical stances into the works they adapted is a defense of art’s autonomy. No social or political views, those dreaded ‘messages,’ are to mar the purity of art. Art must be free of all outside influences, Truffaut thought.

Truffaut also objects to pessimism and negativity because he holds the opposite view of the potentiality of (at least some) human beings. And these special human beings, not the common person, are to be the fit subject of art, Here Truffaut is also opposing the deterministic view of life which often prevailed in the French cinema of the 1940’s and 1950’s, a view of life which had its origin in Zola’s Naturalism. Finally by objecting to the ‘profanity’ and ‘blasphemy’ in many French films, Truffaut declares his allegiance to Catholicism, the continual target of the French Left. For, as stated in Part One of this article, la politique des auteurs was a recapitulation on the level of culture of the bourgeoisie’s forceful reassertion of power in the decade after the war. Aurenche and Bost were the products and representatives of the era of the Popular Front and the Resistance, the ethos of which Truffaut opposes.

It is interesting to read that the intellectuals and filmmakers who ushered in the breath of fresh air we think of as the French New Wave were, perhaps, the reactionaries, and that the German-controlled masters of the Tradition of Quality films were, perhaps, the revolutionaries. Douce is a highly entertaining, well-written, if somewhat mannered example of a very high quality of filmmaking indeed.l


25th 02 - 2008 | no comment »

The Rape of Europa (2006)

Directors: Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen, and Nicole Newnham

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By Marilyn Ferdinand In Greek mythology, the supreme god Zeus fell in love with Europa, a beautiful Greek woman, and decided to seduce (rape) her. He turned himself into a bull and carried her on his back to the island of Crete, where he revealed his true nature to her and made her queen of the island. This myth has been interpreted many times through the centuries by unknown fresco, mosaic, and decorative artists, as well as such known masters as Rembrandt van Rijn, Maarten de Vos, Francois Boucher, and Henri Matisse. The film The Rape of Europa, based on the nonfiction book, The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War by Lynn H. Nicholas, discusses a similar covetousness by Adolf Hitler and Hermann Göring for Europe’s great art and antiquities and their systematic plans to acquire thousands of pieces for themselves and a planned museum in Linz designed to be the grandest museum of art in the world. In this case, the contemporary use of the word “rape” applies.

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I have been fascinated with the art obsession of the Third Reich ever since I saw the traveling exhibit, “Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany,” at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1991. This exhibit reassembled many of the works by abstract and Jewish artists that Hitler labeled “degenerate” and toured through Germany to enforce Hitler’s preference for and ideology of a representational, romantic aesthetic. The exhibit reproduced as nearly as possible the original show as presented to Germans, including slanderous slogans painted on the walls and the arrangement of objects in the show.

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A painting by aspiring artist Adolf Hitler

I suppose Hitler’s thwarted plans to become a professional artist fed into his desire to impose his artistic vision on the world, but Hitler also understood the power of images. He sought to control them every bit as much as he attempted to dominate the world. Most world leaders are very aware of the power of art to move and transform; in present-day America, the suppression of “obscene” art by Robert Mapplethorpe and the financial strangling of the National Endowment for the Arts show a similar impulse to control artistic expressions and the emotions they evoke. The Rape of Europa begins by contrasting the astronomical selling prices of master works of art in today’s market with the “fire sale” prices these same kinds of works fetched during the Third Reich to help fund the war. So great were the number of precious paintings, sketches, sculptures, and objets d’arte looted and confiscated by the Nazis from all over Europe—Göring alone amassed more than 1,000 works of art—that whatever Hitler, Göring, and buyers at auction did not want was destroyed. Indeed, as part of their invasion campaigns, the Nazis drew up detailed plans that catalogued and listed where desired artworks could be found. Europa%20ermine.jpgThe film methodically describes the various targets for looting and destruction that occurred during the war—in Poland, the leveling of the perceived inferior Slavic city of Warsaw and the preservation of the Germanic Krakow, whose art museum was thoroughly looted of such objects as Leonardo da Vinci’s “Lady with an Ermine.” In the Soviet Union, curators of the great Hermitage Museum in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) evacuated more than 1 million pieces of art, but still had many more to protect. Museum staff hid in the cold basement for more than two years during the Siege of Leningrad to keep watch over the remaining works of art. After the siege ended, dozens of these workers were dead of starvation and exposure, along with an estimated 1.2 million citizens of the city. The Louvre in Paris was another gigantic art museum that mobilized an art evacuation of epic proportions. The film tells of the delicate, nerve-wracking task of moving “Winged Victory of Samothrace,” a large solid-looking statue that is actually an assembly of more than 1,000 pieces, down the long, central staircase of the museum. Paris was not bombed back to the Stone Age, as the French feared it would be, but the actions of the museum staff and especially a nondescript heroine of the art rescue named Rose Valland saved most of France’s treasures from falling into the hands of the Nazis. Mainly works in private collections and art galleries were confiscated.

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Perhaps the most intriguing story, one that bookends the film, is that of Austrian artist Gustav Klimt’s “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer,” which was confiscated along with the rest of the exquisite collection of the Jewish Bloch-Bauers after the Germans entered Austria. The painting ended up in the Austrian National Gallery because of a will Adele Bloch-Bauer left that said she wanted the painting to go there after her husband’s death (she died in 1925). However, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer had fled Austria and died in exile without ever reclaiming his property. Maria Altmann, niece to the Bloch-Bauers, disputed the museum’s claim of ownership, and the tangled details of the ongoing struggle—one mirrored by families all over the world—to reclaim her family’s property creates a certain amount of suspense (spoiler at the end of the article).

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Camposanto frescoes before fire shattered them. Restoration continues.

More stories abound, such as the dedication of a German to returning religious objects to their families and various Jewish communities and the advance U.S. soldiers called “the monument men,” who were sent into villages to try to save buildings and other works of art. In Italy, bombers received city plans drawn up by a team of art curators in Washington, DC, that led to the successful bombing of the central railway yard in Florence without destroying priceless buildings and art. Elsewhere in Italy, bombers eventually destroyed the monastery of Montecassino and the magnificent frescoes of the Camposanto cemetery in Pisa. The Rape of Europa breaks no new ground in documentary style, weaving archival footage with talking heads in a style reminiscent of History Channel offerings. What it lacks in style, however, it makes up for in comprehensiveness, in a longish, but interesting unspooling of its many stories. The film reminded me of The Longest Day in the way it covers virtually every Europa%20Young_man.jpgaspect of the struggle for the artistic heritage of Europe. It also manages to move. Watching two returned scroll caps being placed on a Torah in New York sent my heart to my throat. Seeing that Deane Keller, an artist and monument man who worked tirelessly in Italy, received a grave at the Camposanto was a tribute of appreciation I’ll never forget. Trying to reconcile the anger of soldiers at losing their friends to dug-in German and Italian forces while Allied forces decided whether to bomb Montecassino was troubling. Hearing how entire Jewish households were not only stripped of their occupants, but also of every mattress and teacup in order to erase the Jewish presence in Europe was a sober, bleak reminder of what has been lost. Indeed, many artworks also have disappeared, such as Raphael’s “Portrait of a Young Man.” Perhaps one day, these artworks will resurface and help restore the spirits of people damaged to the core by the savagery of World War II and every war thereafter. 

“The Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer” was finally returned to Adele’s niece. In 2006, it was auctioned to Ronald S. Lauder, the cosmetics magnate, for $135 million. It will reside in his Neue Galerie, a tiny museum in New York dedicated to displaying German and Austrian fine and decorative arts. There are no monument men in Iraq.


17th 10 - 2007 | 2 comments »

I Served the King of England (Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále, 2006)

Director: Jirí Menzel

2007 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Sometimes ignorance is bliss. I guess I should be ashamed of never having heard of Bohumil Hrabal, the novelist who wrote I Served the King of England (1971), considered by many to be one of the greatest works of Czech literature. Having never heard of Hrabal, it follows that I never read the book either. It seems that those who have were disappointed with this adaptation by Jirí Menzel, a film interpreter of five other works by Hrabal, including Closely Watched Trains, which won the Best Foreign-Language Picture Oscar in 1966. According to Kate Connelly, a film critic for the UK’s Guardian Unlimited, “The film has been attracting large audiences across the Czech Republic, but even there critics have admitted to its long-winded and sugary nature.”

I think I know what those flocks of audience members know—this film is a visual and emotional pleasure of the first order. If it does not live up to the lofty ambitions of the culture mavens who report on it or capture something edgier in the book (which I suspect it doesn’t), it certainly does create a sensuous, sumptuous world all its own. And after all, how often have all of us heard, “It’s not as good as the book.” Putting it in its true context—film—it is as good as the best films I’ve seen at this year’s festival, and that’s saying a lot.

I Served the King of England traverses the fascinating and full life of Jan Dítě (Oldřich Kaiser). The tale begins at the gate of a prison where a voiceover by Dítě tells that this is the day of his release. He was sentenced to 15 years, but due to a general amnesty, only served 14 years and 9 months. We watch as Dítě walks through the prison gate. The gate slams shut behind him, catching the strap of Dítě’s bag. We leave this scene with Dítě banging on the metal door to open up again. The smile this scene put on my face never left until the more serious parts of the film kicked in at about the halfway mark.

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Dítě has been given the keys to a property near the border between Czechoslovakia and East Germany. When he arrives, an abandoned, ramshackle pub stands before him. The door is broken. Dítě holds up the keys and tosses them away. He steadily cleans the place up and makes it habitable, intending eventually to reopen it as a pub and guesthouse. He crushes rocks himself to build a road. While he is wheeling the rocks, he encounters Marcela (Zuzana Fialová), a young woman who has accompanied a small group to the woods surrounding the pub to look for music in trees, that is, timber to build musical instruments. Marcela is attractive and flirtatious, and Dítě is pleased that she has managed to arouse passion in him after all those years in confinement. He returns to memories of his youth and his one desire in life—to become a millionaire.

King%205%20edit%201.JPGMost of the film from this point on is told in flashback with Ivan Barnev playing the young Dítě. He’s a very short, very blonde, odd-looking fellow who begins to build his fortune in the 1920s by failing to make change for a hundred for a train passenger who buys a hot dog from his makeshift stand. The train pulls away while Dítě pursues the passenger with the bills in his outstretched hand. He also inadvertently drops some coins on the ground. Several people scramble to pick them up. Fascinated by the willingness of perfectly respectable people to get down on their hands and knees for the sake of a few coins, Dítě starts tossing handfuls of them around town just to see the reaction.

He eventually lands a job in a guesthouse where he serves businessmen who have the money he covets. One day, a beautiful woman seeks shelter from the rain in his pub. Her name is Jaruska (Petra Hrebícková), a hooker at Paradise, the local brothel. All eyes are on her wet and shapely form. After giving the men an eyeful, she skips back out. Dítě determines to make her his. A virgin, Dítě says after his first time that “it’s nothing like doing it myself.” He visits her as frequently as possible, delighting her one day by covering her body artfully with flowers from a nearby vase. This type of decoration will become his playful art of love with all of the women he beds.

One day, a familiar face confronts Dítě from one of the booths in the pub. It is the man whose change he didn’t make, a certain Mr. Walden (Marián Labuda) who will turn out to be his benefactor throughout his career. Walden orders everything on the menu except the lungs and tells Dítě to bring four bottles of mineral water and a pound of salami up to his room later. Dítě thinks he’s off the hook about the change he failed to make, but Walden has not forgotten the incident. He tells Dítě that he’s seen him throwing coins. “You have to learn where to throw them so they’ll come back to you in bills.” When Dítě goes to his room to deliver the water and salami, he (and we) are greeted by a magical sight—Walden placing paper money in long rows to cover his entire floor. In a scene of comic grace, Walden, having run out of one stack of bills, stretches out and log rolls to a suitcase, where he removes another stack and rolls back to resume his pastime. Dítě, enchanted, decides to take up the pastime of laying his bills on the floor and leaves the guesthouse to make his fortune.

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He lands a job at the Hotel Tichota on Walden’s recommendation and serves the needs of the very rich and hedonistic, all under the watchful eye of Tichota (Rudolf Hrusínský), a small and pleasant fellow who wheels gracefully through the hotel in a motorized wheelchair. Tichota makes available a bevy of gorgeous prostitutes who pair off with the moguls, dancing, playing, teasing, and making love with them with delightful abandon. The General (Pavel Nový) brings his girl up to his room, sees another coming down the hall, turns her around to examine front and back, and pushes her into his room as well. In the morning, thoroughly “satisfied,” he pays for about 4,000 crowns worth of damage and, when left with a large stack of unspent bills, hands them to Dítě. “I knew it would be time to go,” Dítě observes ruefully.

He lands an even better job in the Hotel Pariz in Prague and meets the man who will be his great inspiration, Skrivánek (Martin Huba), the maitre d’. The man can predict what every patron will order and can apparently speak every language known to man. Dítě wonders how he became such a Hercules of the hospitality industry. “I served the King of England.”

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Sadly, hard times are soon to come. When the first Nazis show up in the dining room of the Hotel Pariz, Skrivánek refuses to serve them. Germans in the street are hassled, their uniform knee-high white stockings torn from their legs. Dítě goes to the aid of a young German woman whose stockings are in jeopardy, Líza (Julia Jentsch). They start a romance, with Líza trying to instruct poor Dítě on racial purity and Hitler’s master plan. Once Czechoslovakia capitulates to Hitler, property confiscations and deportations begin to occur. Dítě searches for evidence that he might have German blood so that he can marry Líza. Although tormented by the fate of his countrymen, he wants Líza, who’s the only woman short enough that he can look her in the eye.

The film grows more grim as Dítě sees old friends deported, the hotel Tichota confiscated and turned into a breeding laboratory for the Master Race, and Líza taking all the fun out of sex with her determination to provide a perfect Aryan to Herr Hitler. A scene where she and Dítě try to conceive is hilarious, as Líza moves Dítě’s head out of the way so that she can gaze on a heroic portrait of Hitler hanging on the wall. Dítě’s fortunes rise and fall during and after the war, but Communism puts him right back to square one.

King%20banquet%202.jpgThis film is literally a visual feast. If you go to see it hungry, you’ll be chewing your arm witnessing all the lavish meals served at all the fine establishments where Dítě works. There are some transcendent moments of visual trickery, such as when Dítě the elder empties a box of stamps and they float lifelike on the breeze. The Czechs do sexual playfulness extremely well, and each act of physical love is a rather complete and innocent delight, even between Dítě and Líza.

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Physical comedy abounds, such as when the Ethiopian ambassador, shorter even than Dítě, tries to place medals around Skrivánek’s neck in thanks for an exotic and sumptuous banquet and ends up awarding them to Dítě, who slowly bends his knees to clue Skrivánek to move to meet the ambassador’s eye level. Dítě and Head Waiter Karel (Jaromír Dulava) dip, spin, and weave in quick motion with their trays full of food as they serve their patrons in the Hotel Pariz. When Dítě trips Karel, and Karel loses one plate from his tray, he proceeds to smash plates and upend tables on his way to the exit. He grabs a small bud vase, ready to smash it, then looks tenderly at it, replaces it on the table, and leaves. “He had no choice,” says Dítě in voiceover, “it was a matter of honor.”

Líza’s character was, for me, the most horrifying in the film. Her reflexive racism, her rabid devotion to German purity, and her utter callousness in robbing from “deported” Jews all made me cringe every time she opened her mouth. Dítě is ambitious, but he is also playful and clearly revolted by the Nazis and their occupation of his country. Why he jumped through so many hoops for his Nazi lover, why he wanted to marry her in the first place, remain complete mysteries to me. The critics who called this film “sugary” may have been referring to this inconsistency. The rich men who made women their playthings and indulged their every whim also were more lovable than decadent. As seen through narrator Dítě’s eyes, however, these men were his heroes and role models, so this characterization is not inconsistent.

This densely packed film moves with the grace, speed, and charm of Dítě twirling his tray of delectables. I highly recommend I Served the King of England.


6th 05 - 2007 | 2 comments »

Black Book (Zwartboek, 2006)

Director: Paul Verhoeven

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

I like Paul Verhoeven’s style. I like his exuberance, his technical mastery and eye for beauty, his clear-eyed, rather pessimistic view of human nature, and his subtle, but insistent, political viewpoint. The fact that his films are like a lightning rod, provoking extreme hatred or backhanded compliments, shows just how challenging Verhoeven’s point of view can be. Now, I’m sure there are plenty of people who will say I see things in, say, Showgirls (1995), that just aren’t there. They are entitled to their opinion. I say there are things in Verhoeven’s films that they fail to see or refuse to accept. I say that approaching Verhoeven with an open mind—which the vast majority of the moviegoing population seems to be able to do—can yield great rewards.

Black Book, one of the most exciting, entertaining, and politically rounded films of the past year, achieved a respectable 75% approval rating from the critics on Rotten Tomatoes. But many of those critics still saw fit to jab him again as though reliving their reaction to Showgirls and Basic Instinct (1992). For example,

Black Book does not aspire to historical accuracy. Instead, Black Book is pure entertainment, of the hollow variety. Verhoeven gives you your money’s worth of titillation.”

In fact, events in the films, including the murder of Jews and the theft of their property, Nazi collaborators and their humiliation following Germany’s defeat, anti-Semitism, and rationing are entirely factual. Whether the specific story of a Jew who kept herself alive and helped the Dutch underground fight the Nazis during World War II is entirely accurate in every respect, there is no doubt that the spirit of the day and details surrounding this tale are true. On the other hand, I find Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed Schindler’s List (1993) much less accurate in terms of the clean death victims in his film received, and a last-minute reprieve of Jewish women in a shower room that spews water instead of gas.

“Stout-hearted celebration of the Dutch Resistance or total smut? Try both.”

Try neither. In this film, the Dutch Resistance is shown to be fairly ineffectual and rotten from within, and smut is in the eye of the beholder. I was expecting very graphic sex based on comments about the film; it has nothing of the sort—just nudity that works in context to illustrate moral decay, degradation, and a survival mechanism.

So just what have we got in Black Book? A memory film in which Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten), an émigré to Israel who is helping to build the infant nation comes face to face with her past when Ronnie (Halina Reijn), a woman she knew during the Nazi occupation of Holland, visits the kibbutz where Rachel lives. Rachel is taken back to the time when as a Dutch Jew from a rich family, she lived in hiding with a Dutch farmer who made her recite a verse from the New Testament from memory before he would feed her. He considered that Jews brought their current fate on themselves by not listening to Jesus in the first place.

blackbook20.jpgShortly after the story opens, we see Rachel spending some precious time outside, sunning herself near a lake and listening to American popular music on her portable victrola. Rob (Michiel Huisman), sailing on the lake, comes alongside her and chats her up. This lighthearted moment is shattered when a bomber flies above and drops a bomb on Rachel’s hiding place. This event sends her looking for a safe haven and in the process, becoming caught up in the Dutch Resistance.

I don’t want to give away too many details of how Rachel becomes Ellis de Vries and goes undercover, but suffice to say that greed for Jewish wealth lies behind it and most of the other events of this film. Once Rachel/Ellis does become involved in the Resistance at the behest of her employer Gerben Kuipers (Derek de Lint), she dyes her hair blonde and parlays a chance encounter with Gestapo officer Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch) into a job at SS headquarters in Rotterdam.

Black%20Book%206.jpgOnce inside, she befriends Ronnie, who is carrying on an affair with the odious Günther Franken (Waldemar Kobus), and becomes Müntze’s mistress. Müntze and Franken are at loggerheads over how to treat prisoners, with Müntze favoring a more humane negotiation with the “terrorists” to prevent mutual reprisals. He carries on these talks with notary Smaal (Dolf de Vries), who was entrusted with the Stein family fortune; Smaal, however, is a trusted member of the underground who gives Rachel/Ellis a bug to plant in Franken’s office. When a rescue of some of the resistance fighters, including Kuipers’ son, is planned, the bug is used to ensure success. Rachel/Ellis provides access to the building.
It is about this time that a series of crosses and double-crosses start making themselves apparent. We may have guessed some of them; others are more shrouded. Rachel/Ellis eventually doesn’t know whom to trust. What she needs is evidence of a conspiracy to prove that she is not a traitor, and this search leads to the denouement and a return to Rachel’s present life in Israel.

blackbook06.jpgBlack Book is a melodrama. As with all melodramas, our emotions are heightened through circumstance rather than character development. Rachel/Ellis—plucky, smart, and fatalistic—joins the Resistance because she has nothing to lose. She and the handsome and sympathetic Müntze fall in love because Müntze has lost his taste for war and victory. Both characters act on the horrible circumstances they have endured rather than truly make us feel them. The supporting characters play their parts like pawns on a chessboard, too. And perhaps this is part of Verhoeven’s plan. In war, individuals become “the enemy” or “friends” without necessarily earning either of those labels.

Black%20Book%201.jpgMelodrama is often maligned as somehow more manipulative than a more psychological drama, but I think this is extremely unfair. No films are “true,” and with this story in particular, the aspects of memory fused with the truly harrowing times through which Rachel lived create the heightened emotions that are best served by the conventions of melodrama. To go much deeper could invite a pornographic voyeurism regarding feelings most of us will never understand; Schindler’s List, unforgivably for me, allowed us to do just this. Better choice, in my opinion, to let us see some naked bodies than to subject these unfortunates to an emotional striptease.

There is perhaps a subversive commentary on current times as well. Black Book carries on in the tradition of Hollywood’s heroic war films. Yet the use of the word “terrorist” has a definite contemporary ring, and one that sounds hollow to the ears of Americans who think of terrorists as the bad guys. In this film, only Nazis use the word, applying it to the Resistance fighters. In addition, the Dutch all await the “Tommies” to liberate them, not the Yanks. When the occupying forces of the victorious Allies do set up shop in Holland, they are Canadian, not American or British. This “Hollywood” film in structure and gorgeous production values has cut America completely out of the picture.

Black Book is melodrama of the highest order, and one whose lack of prudishness is as un-American as its cast. Paul Verhoeven has done himself proud and told a story, in his native land, that is much more grown up than the films it seems to mimic. I hope one day that Verhoeven’s critics learn to look a little deeper, too.


3rd 03 - 2007 | 2 comments »

Four Minutes (Vier Minuten, 2006)

Director: Chris Kraus

2007 European Union Film Festival

Jenny.JPG

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Opening night of the European Union Film Festival brought us a lot of dignitaries from EU consulates, a lot of speechifying, and chastening comments about how much work goes into a festival like this. I have learned over the years that unlike most of the actors whose films they show, festival programmers always want people to see them sweat. At last, the lights dimmed, the black curtains parted, and the first film of the festival began with a shock opening.

A lot of barbed wire. It looks as though the Berlin Wall still stands, and this is the dividing point. Faces glimpsed in small, confining windows. Not the Wall. It’s a prison. Then bare feet suspended in air behind something. Yes, a bunk bed. The camera pans up to a young woman asleep on the top bunk. What of the feet? Is someone holding onto a bar or window ledge? No, we clearly make out from limp arms and a dropped head half cut out of the frame that a woman is hanged behind the bed. The sleeper awakes, glances at the body, and then grabs the dead woman’s cigarettes from her pocket and lights one up. Yes, Mr. Kraus, you have our attention.

Cut to some driving rock music. Is it the soundtrack signaling a mood change? No. Two large, tattooed men are in the cab of a truck, listening to a cranked radio. A withered old woman sits hugging the passenger door. She reaches over and changes the station to classical. The two men shrug and keep driving.

In these two scenes, we are introduced to the protagonists of the film—Jenny von Loeben (Hannah Herzsprung), an incarcerated murderer, and Traude Krüger (Monica Bleibtreu), a piano teacher and the organist for the church at Jenny’s prison. Their characters are shorthanded to us quickly and effectively. Both women are hard, no-nonsense, accustomed to rough, not smooth. This is going to be a barbed movie.

The two men—ex-cons who are not allowed on the prison grounds by the by-the-book guard Kowalski (Richy Müller)—are delivering a new piano for Frau Krüger. The prison warden, Meyerbeer, (Stefan Kurt), however, is threatening to cut the piano program. Krüger has only four students. Krüger says five. No, one of them has hanged herself. Krüger says her first warden was skeptical about the program, too. Who was that, asks Meyerbeer. “SS,” is the reply, and we are treated to one of many flashbacks that will piece together a story of Traude’s first love and loss in the final days of World War II.

One day, when Frau Krüger is playing organ in church, she spies in a broken piece of mirror she uses to watch the service Jenny, fingering the notes of the piece on the back of a pew. When it’s time for the piano lessons to recommence, Jenny is waiting outside the practice room—a cell on her block where she is taunted by another inmate who was upset that Jenny did nothing to stop her cellmate from hanging herself. “I was sleeping,” said Jenny.

After several disappointing lessons, Frau Krüger sees Jenny ushered into the room by Mütze (Sven Pippig), a guard with whom Krüger has a somewhat friendly relationship. In fact, Krüger is a brittle, prickly woman with no intimates. She has kept company with her loss for 50 years. Even so, she betrays an interest in Jenny. Although she refuses to teach Jenny that day because Jenny has picked the skin on her hands apart, Krüger has had a glimpse of Jenny’s extraordinary vier_minuten_jail.JPGmusical talent. Jenny protests that she wants her lesson. When Mütze grabs her to remove her from the practice room, Jenny loses control and beats him near to death. Krüger stands by, frozen like a statue, and moves wordlessly out as guards come rushing by. Krüger visits Jenny on her straitjacket bench and begins the delicate negotiation that will bring the two women into an alliance of music, culminating in a four-minute per- formance in the finals of a com- petition at the Berlin Opera House.

Kraus orchestrates this film like a fugue, cutting through time and space. He builds suspense about Jenny and the very real possibility that she might kill Traude or be killed herself by the revenge-minded Mütze and other prisoners. Unfortunately, his film’s technical originality and an extraordinary performance by Bleibtreu can’t quite overcome the incredibly clichéd story. A clash of a teacher insisting on discipline and forbidding anything but classical music, and her rebellious student who finds expression in modern music, is as old as the hills. Making the teacher and student such extreme characters dulls the cliché but still doesn’t rescue this story. In addition, there are many moments that happen strictly to cobble the story together and create moments that ring false from their opening chord.

Further, giving us Krüger’s entire backstory is really not necessary. We see a photo of Wilhelm Furtwängler on her wall. This extraordinary conductor was supposed to have been Traude’s teacher and mentor. He chose to continue his career in Germany during Hitler’s reign of terror and paid a heavy price for it. Most likely, it is his influence that has made Traude so dedicated to Jenny’s gift, overlooking her terrible crime and extremely dangerous temperment. The remarkable film Taking Sides (2001), with one of Harvey Keitel’s most compelling and original roles and performances, truly engages this ethical dilemma in a way that Four Minutes might have liked to, but didn’t. Instead, we are weighed down by the current vogue of lesbians on film and nonlinear story lines. We lose the greater significance of the ages-old debate of whether an artistic gift forgives all personal failings.

Despite these shortcomings, however, the final, redemptive composition Jenny performs is a truly exciting piece of music, and Herzsprung gives the performance her all. If you choose to see Jenny as a representative of the new generation of Germans—and this wouldn’t be the worst way to interpret this film—she does it very well. She shows their desire to be free of the crimes and culture of the past. If they are going to be criminals, let it be in the cause of fighting the rigidity of the German state and the oppression of patriarchy. So it seems that Kraus was bogged down by the past, but trying to break free. I’ll be interested to see what this young director comes up with next. l


27th 11 - 2006 | 2 comments »

The Two of Us (Le Vieil Homme et L’enfant, 1967)

Director: Claude Berri

By Marilyn Ferdinand

“I was 8 years old and already a Jew.”

This statement seems an odd way for a narrator to introduce us to his reminiscences of youth—odd, that is, for people who had little more to do as children than to be themselves. But, Claude Berri did not grow up during ordinary times. He turned 8 in 1944 Paris, and being a Jew was the fact that governed his every move. How he came to love a Vichyist anti-Semite during the last year of World War II is recounted in the joyful and touching The Two of Us.

The film begins with young Claude Langmann (Alain Cohen) casing a toy store with a friend. His friend causes a distraction, and Claude stuffs one metal truck, then another, under his coat and attempts to leave. A large hand moves into the frame and lands on Claude’s shoulder, and the chase is on. That evening, Claude’s father (Charles Denner) performs a similar chase around the family furniture to administer a spanking to the mischievous Claude. Mr. Langmann doesn’t have the usual worries of a father with a sticky-fingered son. The family’s life is extremely precarious, and Mr. Langmann worries that the attention his son is attracting will lead authorities to discover their secret and mean their doom. He laments that Claude doesn’t seem to understand the gravity of the situation and will not listen to him. Of course he doesn’t. He’s 8 and doesn’t really understand what it means to other people that he is Jewish.

In the next couple of scenes, it is apparent that the Langmanns have moved house twice. Another prank—this time, smoking in the landlady’s outhouse—is the final straw. Claude must be sent where he can do less harm. A woman who has taken the Langmanns in arranges for Claude to stay with her parents in the countryside, near Grenoble. She warns Claude’s parents that although her father is a good man, he is a vocal anti-Semite and that Claude must be careful not to reveal his faith. Claude learns that his new name will be Longuet, that he must always bathe alone to conceal his circumcized penis, and that he must say the “Our Father” prayer at night before he goes to sleep. Mr. Langmann drills Claude on the prayer even as his train begins to carry him away. It is hard not to view the moving train and think where else trains took Jews in 1944.

When Claude and his patroness arrive, the old man (Michel Simon) welcomes the boy to climb in his lap and call him “Grandpa.” He introduces Claude to his beloved dog Kinou, a sickly and ancient mongrel that seems to sense bombings and that the old man spoonfeeds at the dinner table. We are then treated to Sunday dinner, accompanied by Vichy propaganda on the radio and Grandpa’s denunciation of meat eaters (“cannibals”), the English, Jews, Freemasons, and Bolsheviks. The old man’s daughter quiets him with a sly reply, “You’d think you had a Jew living here.” He replies, “That’s all I need!” This sounds like a rocky start for the young Jewish boy.

But The Two of Us takes a different tack. Claude’s life in his adopted home isn’t at all disagreeable. In fact, it’s practically paradise. He is enrolled at school, gets happily into the lice-check circle, and laughs when one infested boy faces the teacher’s hair clipper. He is teased, too, as a “Paris brat, smells like a rat,” a taunt just a little too close to Jew-baiting for the audience, but a perfectly normal occurrence among children. The teasing turns into a fistfight that leaves Claude with a cut on his head. Grandpa bursts with pride at the young boy’s courage. “Grandma” (Luce Fabiole) predictably tells the old man not to encourage him.

Grandpa talks to Claude about his pride in the great Marshall Petain and about his own service in the first World War. He shows Claude a scar, a bayonet wound, he says. Claude says, “It’s on your back. Were you running away?” A flustered Grandpa then displays another wound in his gut. Claude says, “That’s your appendicitis. My dad has a scar there.” It’s a funny scene, and Grandpa never gets mad. He loves Claude almost as much as he loves his dog—maybe more. His wife, he says to Claude when the boy remarks on a naked woman tattooed to his arm, is another story. “The first years are great, then…” In this house, Grandma is the boss.

One order Grandma gives Claude is not obeyed. She pours him a bath and briefly leaves the room. Claude undresses quickly and begins to wash. Grandma returns and tells him to stand in the tub so she can wash him. They are already late for church. Remembering what his mother said, Claude refuses. “Don’t you want me to see your birdie?” she asks. “I’ve seen them before.” Claude is adamant, and Grandpa backs him up. “That’s right,” he says. “Don’t let her fool around with it.”

Claude asks Grandpa a lot of questions about Jews. “How can you tell a Jew?” “They smell.” “Even if they wash?” “It’s like a goat. You can wash it for 3 hours, and 15 minutes later, it stinks again.” Jews have hooked noses to smell out money. On the Sabbath, Jews use no electricity and eat by candlelight. Jews wear their hats indoors while they eat. They have curly hair and big ears. Later, Claude decides to play a joke on the old folks. He knocks at their bedroom door and announces ominously that he’s become one of them. “Who?” asks Grandpa. “A Jew.” Grandma scolds Grandpa for telling him stories about Jews and giving him nightmares. Grandpa assures him that he has a fine straight nose and couldn’t possibly bea Jew.

Inviting Claude to sleep with him, Grandpa says, “Now, would I let a Jew sleep in my bed?” That Claude can play this joke with such good humor shows a love and compassion for a man who clearly doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Later, when the electricity goes out during dinner, they must eat by candlelight. “We are eating like Jews,” says Claude. For once, Grandpa accepts this without comment. Love for the boy and the joy of being a grandfather seem to be lightening his reflexive bigotry.

But Claude never reveals his faith. Grandpa finds Kinou agitated one morning, and then goes to the calendar to pull off the slip of paper from the previous day. The new date, June 5, 1944, is D-Day and, according to Grandpa, the invasion kills the prescient Kinou. Liberation celebrants fill the streets of the small town. Grandpa and Grandma sadly remove Petain’s picture from their wall and put it away. They know that Claude, too, will be leaving soon. When Claude’s parents drive off with him on a bus, Claude smiles and waves out the back window to the sad couple who looked after him so well, loved him, and let him be a child for a few short months. Giving a little Jewish boy a childhood in the shadow of unspeakable death was a great gift indeed. It is no wonder that Berri paid them back with such a beautiful, funny, heartfelt film that doesn’t forget the seriousness of the times but never collapses into them.


8th 09 - 2006 | 2 comments »

Hamsun (1996)

Director: Jan Troell

By Marilyn Ferdinand

This morning, as I got online to check my e-mail, my ISP’s infotainment service, Comcast News, flashed a headline that caught my attention: “Chicken Dies, Wife Shoots Husband.” Clicking through, I was greeting with the following opening paragraph:

Chesire, Ore. – A woman shot her husband in the back after he killed her pet chicken, the Lane County sheriff’s deputies said. Deputies said they were sure that Mary Gray, 58, intended to shoot her husband, Stephen Gray, 43. They weren’t certain if the husband meant to fire at the chicken.

I immediately thought of Hamsun.

Like the opening of that “news” story, Hamsun begins with an old man sitting at a desk and becoming increasingly annoyed with the cluckings of a chicken in the yard outside his window. He spritely races after the beast and beats it to death with the handle of his cane. His wife runs out to examine the remains of her pet and cries bitterly that everything, even her chicken, has to be sacrificed to his genius. The old man turns and walks unrepentantly back to his room, packs his bags, and moves to a hotel for some peace and quiet to work on his new novel.

The man is Knut Hamsun (Max von Sydow), chronicler of the soul of Norway and the country’s pride and joy as the winner of the 1920 Nobel Prize for Literature. The woman is Marie (Ghita Nørby), 22 years his junior, a former actress who constantly complains about giving up her promising career to marry Hamsun. She is a lonely woman who finds herself married more to an icon than a man and green with envy over his fame. The time is the late 1930s, and the specter of war in Europe has Norwegians worried about maintaining their neutrality and guarding their own safety.

Into this climate comes a man whose name is now synonymous with “traitor,” Vidkun Quisling (Sverre Anker Ousdal). He is in the rural village near the Hamsuns’ farm to speak about the principles of national socialism. The turnout for his talk is quite small, but one important person is in the audience–Marie. She is quite taken with the Nazi emphasis on the importance of women in nation building; she doesn’t seem to take in that this role is primarily to maintain the purity of the national bloodline. Quisling actively courts Marie as a way to get to the great man himself and attempt to secure his endorsement. When Hamsun learns that Germany is against England, a country he hates for causing starvation in Norway during World War I, he signs on to the Nazi cause as well. Marie, who is fluent in German, takes frequent trips to Germany to hobnob with the Nazi elite. She thoroughly enjoys shining under her own spotlight.

The Nazi takeover of Norway is complete by mid 1940, with Quisling at the helm and Hamsun a visible supporter in the flesh and in his editorials and letters to the editor of the nation’s most prominent newspapers. It is not long, of course, until the Nazis start their systematic oppression of the Norwegians. The outcry of a sell-out among the Norwegians puts Hamsun on the defensive. He is hounded by the press, his books are thrown into the streets by his neighbors, and worst of all, his own concerns about Hitler’s broken promises for Norwegian sovereignty alongside Germany worry him greatly.

He decides to visit the Fuhrer and meets the infamous leader in his mountain retreat, Berghof, where he is kept waiting by a scornful Hitler (Ernst Jacobi) and his minions. Hitler attempts to flatter and admire Hamsun into making the visit little more than a courtesy call, but Hamsun presses his cause for Norwegian sovereignty, reminding Hitler of his promises to Norway in exchange for its support. Hitler bristles and abruptly ends the visit, nearly throwing Hamsun out on his ear. Hamsun, thoroughly disillusioned, returns to Norway, Marie, and their troubled marriage.

From this brief description, it would be easy to think that Hamsun is more a political history than anything else. In fact, however, the film is chiefly occupied with the dysfunctional marriage between Knut and Marie and the dysfunctional family it spawned. It is easy to imagine that Hamsun was attracted to Marie’s vivacity as a contrast to his own reclusiveness, as well as her purported physical attractiveness, handsomely realized even in middle age by Ghita Nørby. But the marriage is a classic oil-and-water affair. A writer’s life is often a solitary and selfish one into which a live wire like Marie rarely can fit. In the case of a symbol like Hamsun, the private persona can be all but obliterated. When the Hamsun children show up to try to patch their parents’ marriage back together, childhood resentments against the father who was always absent, even when he was in the room, bubble up and over. Anette Hoff, as Knut’s favorite child Ellinor, gives a sympathetic reading on the old man in contrast to her siblings’ bitterness, but nothing seems to resolve. Eventually, Knut and Marie reunite to continue their inevitable dance until death.

Swedish director Jan Troell is best known, if he is known at all in places outside of Scandinavia, for his 1971 television miniseries The Emigrants. He has a real feel for Scandinavian history and manages to work an alchemy on his cast that is truly surprising, considering his two leads, von Sydow and Nørby, spoke their native Swedish and Danish, respectively, throughout filming. Jacobi as Hitler is one of the most effective screen Fuhrers I’ve seen, bringing his malevolence and egomania to life quickly and ferociously. Hamsun’s reputation was nearly ruined in Norway because of his wartime alliance, and the film suggests that it was his naivete, ultranationalism, and insularity that may have been to blame for his choice. Nonetheless, though Hamsun seems thoroughly reviled throughout much of this picture, von Sydow takes pains to show the vulnerable and often bewildered old man beneath the prim, three-piece suit. I found Hamsun to be a singular and convincing portrait of an artist who paved his own road to hell. This husband definitely meant to kill the chicken.


6th 01 - 2006 | no comment »

The Ninth Day (2004)

Director: Volker Schlöndorff

ninth%20day%203.jpg

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Sixty years after the end of World War II, filmmakers are still wrestling with the legacy of Nazism and the horrors of the concentration camp. Documentaries such as Shoah and The Sorrow and the Pity take up the big picture with such brilliance and moral heat that later documentaries have been boxed into smaller corners of history, examining perceptions of Hitler by his secretary, for example, or the Kindertransport. Feature films, of course, do not face this possible handicap. Their nature is to focus on the particular to illuminate the universal; the moral agency of the main character normally puts the viewer in the seat of righteousness or pity, as with Schindler’s List and Au Revoir Les Enfants. See enough of these films and you’ll get to feeling very virtuous (I’m told that not even Downfall entirely escapes a certain level of pity for its main character, Adolf Hitler). The Ninth Day does not depart significantly from the feel of other films about Nazism, but it does something quite unique for films made these days—its narrative spine is firmly planted in philosophical debate.

Ninth%20day.jpgThe film’s protagonist is Rev. Henri Kremer, an influential priest from Luxembourg who has been sent to the priest block at Dachau for his activities opposing the Nazis. The beginning of the film sets out in relatively economical fashion to orient Kremer and the audience to his new environment—one filled with regimentation and horrifying cruelty resisted mainly by prayer. Kremer shows himself to have a bit more backbone when he runs to the aid of a Polish priest who is being beaten with a metal poker for being unable to sing a song in German. Ulrich Matthes, whose much-commented-upon hollow cheeks and black eyes make him seem born to play a witness/victim of atrocity, fills Kremer with a certitude of purpose that comes from being a member of a very influential family and a highly placed member of the Roman Catholic Church. It is for these reasons, apparently, that he is allowed the highly unusual privilege of being released from Dachau.

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Kremer is intercepted by an SS officer named Gebhardt (August Diehl) as he disembarks the train in his hometown and is told to report to SS headquarters the next day. When Kremer returns home, his sister informs him that their mother is dead. When Kremer reports to Gebhardt the following day, he is told his release is only for 9 days, supposedly a bereavement leave. Naturally, there is another reason for Kremer’s release—he is to convince the bishop of Luxembourg to endorse national socialism to legitimize the actions of Germany in the Catholic countries of Europe.

The film counts down each day of Kremer’s leave, adding a sense of doom to the grim, gray look of the film and putting a limit on the amount of moral debate Kremer can engage in with himself, his family, his fellow clergymen, and Gebhardt. Flashbacks to Dachau reveal a secret guilt Kremer has been harboring regarding the death of a fellow cleric whom he felt he might have been able to save if he had been less selfish. Is this sin the chink in the armor Gebhardt will be able to chip away at to secure what he is after? The men engage in a short and savage debate on the true meaning of the life and acts of Judas.

It is in this and other exchanges with Gebhardt that the audience is invited into areas I can’t remember visiting in this way since the release of A Man for All Seasons in 1966. It is one only philosophers and ethicists frequent with any regularity—the philosophical underpinning of social interactions, including moral utilitarianism and relativism. In trying to convince Kremer to capitulate, the bishop’s secretary says that resistance to the Nazis sent 20,000 Dutch non-Aryan Christians to their deaths. Wouldn’t it have been better to save those lives at little cost to the Church? We wonder along with Kremer what the true cost of capitulation would have been. Does an absolute moral good of condemning the Nazis demand blood sacrifice in the name of all humanity? In posing these questions within a true life-and-death situation for Kremer, the audience is forced to think in more than just a kneejerk way. This is the great strength of The Ninth Day.

Ultimately, Kremer utters a line that will linger with me for many years to come. In considering how he should decide, he poses a question to Gebhardt: “What does a killer want most from his victim after the victim is dead?” The answer may have little to do with Nazism, but it is a question individual Nazis may have asked themselves and one we all should to ask ourselves in considering how we conduct our lives.


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