20th 11 - 2010 | no comment »

Women of the Night (Yoru no onnatachi, 1948)

Director: Kenji Mizoguchi

By Roderick Heath

Women of the Night, a panoramic drama of the shattered society of Japan after decades of repressive government and the grim final months of World War II, perhaps represents a turning point for the later career of Kenji Mizoguchi. The director, as well as attempting like all of his industry colleagues to rebuild Japanese cinema as a commercial and artistic brand, began seeking new spiritual and emotional paradigms and aesthetic qualities distinct in some regards from his pre-war films. The casual brilliance of those earlier films, with their cosmopolitan themes, question-mark resolutions, and succinct, epigrammatic stories, gives way here to something at once more declarative and expansive in vision: presented amongst the Eclipse series “Mizoguchi’s Fallen Women,” it points towards Mizoguchi’s great last film Street of Shame (1956). Whilst perhaps the least aesthetically coherent of the four films in that collection, it’s also the most overtly powerful in its simultaneous compassion and hard-earned transcendence, at odds with a devastated and inhumane landscape in which all pretence to community and mutual responsibility has been nullified and the relations of the powerful to the weak have achieved a quotidian extremity.

An irony of Mizoguchi’s life was that he was a rootless man who often took refuge amongst geishas, throwing into fascinating relief his constant refrain of worrying about the lot of women who took that line of work, or the less privileged one of prostitution nominally beneath it, because he was implicit in the power disparity he portrayed with such acid intensity. But he had also been deeply affected by he fact that his own sister had been sold as a geisha when he was a boy. The world of Women of the Night, an adaptation of a novel by Eijirô Hisaita, has lost the shape it had in pre-war works like Naniwa Elegy and Sisters of the Gion (both 1936). Everyone’s fair game now in a world in which vital loved ones have vanished, some to return, some forever. Fusako Owada (Kinuyo Tanaka) deals with both, having waited years to learn of her husband’s fate, living in the slums and resisting the suggestions of the woman who buys and sells clothing that she take up prostitution to provide for her consumptive baby son. She learns of her husband’s death from Kuriyama (Mitsuo Nagata), the owner of the trading firm he used to work for. Some months later, she encounters her sister Natsuko (Sanae Takasugi), who had gone to live in Korea as a colonist, where she was raped during the evacuation, and now works as a taxi dancer at a nightclub. Natsuko moves in with Fusako, who’s since landed a secretarial job at Kuriyama’s company, but whose son has died.

The sisters’ momentary prosperity and harmony are broken when it becomes apparent that Kuriyama is romancing both of them. Fusako, enraged, walks away from sister and lover and determines to become a streetwalker. Meanwhile Fusako’s sister-in-law, the still-adolescent Kumiko (Tomie Tsunoda), decides to leave home but stays in the slum and is dominated by her self-pitying brother, a black marketeer. But Kumiko, excruciatingly naïve, is take in by Kiyoshi, a petty thief who’s posing as a caring student. He fools her into coming back to the restaurant he and other young refuse use as an HQ, where he pours liquor into her, rapes her, and lets the young tarts from his gang strip her of her clothes: they offer her the choice of joining their number or going back home half-naked. Meanwhile, Natsuko, upon learning that Fusako’s been spotted amongst streetwalkers, goes to search her out and gets netted in a police raid. Natsuko encounters the embittered Fusako in a combination prison and VD clinic; Fusako soon breaks out on her own, whilst Natsuko is freed when Kuriyama comes to collect her. But he takes no responsibility for the baby and is soon imprisoned for smuggling morphine, stripping Natusko of support.

Copies of this film available in the West had some 20 minutes cut out, and this accounts for some abrupt continuity leaps and emphasises a somewhat episodic quality in the story. Women of the Night is also melodramatic by Mizoguchi’s standards, and in many ways it anticipates works like On The Waterfront (1954)—particularly in the finale—that used melodrama in service of social portraiture. Mizoguchi handles his exciting moments with hypnotic, yet rigorously simple flare: Fusako smuggling an illegal stock of morphine away from Kuriyama’s warehouse under the nose of investigating police; her later escape from the VD centre, hastily utilising an old bed and her belt to scale the barbed wire; Kumiko’s increasingly dreadful encounter with Kiyoshi and his gang; the final Calvary-like struggle between camps of prostitutes. But it’s also a tough, expressive, and deeply paradoxical film, like his later Sanshô the Bailiff (1954), an odyssey through degradation and a drama of family ties that are strained and warped, but finally not broken. The sisters fight to hold onto what little self-direction they possess. After learning of her betrayal by Kuriyama, Fusako tries to give her prostitution the veneer of revenge against men, knowing full well she’ll soon be a carrier of disease. Kumiko’s decision to join the waifs who just assaulted her possesses the same illusion of empowerment. When Natusko finishes up in jail with Fusako, she’s confident she’ll be released as soon as she undergoes a medical test, but the doctors find that Kuriyama has made her pregnant and also infected her with syphilis.

Mizoguchi claimed William Wyler as an influence on his cinema, and the deep-focus framing in his film does evoke that, although Mizoguchi’s own particular aesthetic developed more or less concurrently with Wyler’s. Either way, the deep-focus work is particularly revealing in scenes that invert the dramatic focus, like that in which Kuriyama eyes Fusako with appraising interest from the background whilst she stands in fumbling grief in the foreground, and later when Fusako’s son has convulsions, Mizoguchi keeps his camera outside the house, Fusako’s desperate reaction within distant and hopeless as the men in the foreground go racing off to fetch aid. This technique gave him a way of easing up on his usual exhausting long takes whilst retaining a fluidic, integrated mise-en-scène, as well as giving his dramatic style an ironic distance. The overall structure also bears similarity to John Ford’s adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath (1940), for Mizoguchi was also a Ford fan. The progress of the sisters towards finding temporary refuge and safety with a home for women run by conscientious men that offers shelter and food in exchange for labour echoes the way the Joads finally find the government farm in Ford’s film. Simultaneously, in its rigorous honesty, blasted imagery and vital humanism, Mizoguchi’s film certainly seems part of the post-War neorealist movement; indeed, his effortless fusion of the artistic and urgent sentiment is easily the equal of, and possibly superior to, what even the best of the neorealists were accomplishing at the time.

Mizoguchi charts the steady downfall of the sisters with remorseless logic, whilst also confirming how (comparatively) easy options consistently give way to bottomless pits. The extended scene of Kumiko’s degradation is rare in its concise nastiness: the way Kiyoshi forces drink down her throat and then eyes her like a cat does a chicken when it comes time to deflower her, and her own utterly clueless state afterwards, unsure whether she’s been loved or murdered after a fashion. The relationship between the sisters is the linchpin of the film, blending love and resentment, fear, and anger. Particularly fascinating in the way they alternate attitudes, Fusako and Natsuko take turns as the bitter, vengeful, self-destructive party, rebelling by assaulting their own bodies, their only remaining vessels for expressing hate. They evoke the sibling protagonists in Sisters of the Gion, but that film’s clean divide between the cynic and the idealist has been rendered much more blurred, inevitably, by a calamity that’s absorbed everyone. Fusako’s initial retreat into prostitution as her repudiation of dominance gives way to her attempts to drag a drunken and suicidal Natusko to the women’s refuge from the apartment Kuriyama left her with, but which she can’t afford. I love the moment when Fusako, trying to get Natsuko to cease her drunken lolling, strips the cigarette from her sister’s mouth, jams it in her own, and then manhandles her off the floor. Mizoguchi’s actresses smoke like those in modern films use guns. Equally amusing and acerbic is the scene in the VD centre when a representative of a “purity society” lectures a doctor on the virtues the women are missing out on and the collected whores lend their choral disdain of a ludicrous voice of morality and responsibility that echoes more concertedly and urgently from the doctors at the women’s refuge, with true moral weight but still without understanding that some things are unavoidable.

That’s partly because the alternatives can be degrading: staying at the women’s refuge is harder work and because there’s a rigorous dog-eat-dog truth to the world of the prostitutes themselves. Whilst there may be honour amongst thieves, there’s precious little amongst these hookers, who are regimented by the toughest and most psychopathic into turf-controlling gangs. When she’s first brought to the VD centre, Natusko is immediately set upon by the toughest ladies, who demand respect. Mizoguchi’s contempt for men who use women as a playground and then spurn them, and, worse, judge them, is condensed into the figure of Kuruyama, who’s as crooked as a corkscrew and yet maintains the most upright of affectations. But he’s implicated with the failure of an entire social philosophy and form of government that’s led to ruination. And Mizoguchi also offers ironies. The devastating scene in which Natusko gives birth to a still-born baby on the floor at the refuge presages the statement of one of the managers in trying to make the hardened floozies understand what’s at stake, “Life in all its beauty struggles to be born.” The men here have been rendered more maternal than the women.

In the delirious final scene, Fusako is horrified to be reunited with Kumiko when she’s caught and roughed up by the gang Fusako works with. Fusako is so shocked and outraged to find the ludicrously young girl is also a prostitute that she unleashes a flurry of anger and pain on Kumiko, slapping her in rage whilst screaming implorements and threats, love and rage in a remarkable confluence. “Give birth to a monster!” Fusako screams, meaning babies malformed by syphilis, but also invoking the perversion of common humanity: “Feel yourself rot inside and out!” Fusako’s subsequent determination to take Kumiko home and to stay there with her sees her bundled up and furiously beaten by a queen bee who wields a whip with hysterical rage: life on the edge is driving everyone mad, and a kind of nadir is reached in this scene that purposefully evokes a crucifixion image—the scene takes place in a bombed-out lot next to a Christian church, a stained-glass Madonna above it all.

It’s here that Women of the Night turns almost surreal in its cruel intensity, and anticipates the deeply fetishised, amoral turn that a lot of Japanese filmmakers would push at the end of the ’60s in portraying humanity’s capacity for baseness. But the spirituality offered by the religious imagery, couched in Christian terms possibly designed to please Occupation authorities also seems linked to both Mizoguchi’s love for such transcendental Christian writing as that of Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy, whose works he had adapted at the start of his career, and to his later Zen and Confucian themes in Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) and Sanshô the Bailiff, strive to synthesise a new sense of the ideals that sustain people through loss and horror. The spectacle of Fusako’s beating has, like Christ’s suffering, a positive effect: the watching whores who tackle and suppress the tyrants rediscover a shared sense of humanity, and the exhausted women lie sprawled afterwards like the wounded survivors of the war their mostly dead menfolk just fought, giving Fusako and Kumiko the chance to get away. It’s a bizarrely breathtaking end to a deeply compelling film, and one that asks as many questions as it answers. Fusako and Kumiko will go back home, but the future that awaits them there is still one that’s deadly to the foolish and the weak. l

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!’s 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 | 14 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.

1st 06 - 2010 | 6 comments »

Brute Force (1947)

Director: Jules Dassin

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The 1940s were an interesting time for motion pictures. The first half of the decade was given over to patriotic fare and escapist entertainment to aid the morale of a nation embroiled in World War II. In the aftermath of the war, as revelations of the depth of the horror in Europe and the Far East came home with the battle-scarred men, the movies took a turn to the dark side. Proto-noir films like Detour presaged the coming paranoia of the 1950s, and films like The Best Years of Our Lives and Gentleman’s Agreement were frank about postwar realities like housing shortages, scarce jobs, a growing awareness of bigotry, and veterans broken in body, mind, and spirit. Brute Force teamed Jules Dassin, a master of crime films, and Richard Brooks, a screenwriter whose uncompromising gaze filled theatres with such forceful fare as Key Largo, Blackboard Jungle, and Elmer Gantry, for a look at postwar crime and punishment. While adhering to the Production Code dictum that crime must not pay, Brooks and Dassin took a sharp detour from the early 1940s notion of clearly defined good and evil and punished both the convicted criminals and their lawless jailors, reflecting the shadow of the concentration camp on American psyches.

Brute Force centers its action on the convicts of cell R17 in Westgate Penitentiary, which is headed by career bureaucrat Warden Barnes (Roman Bohnen) but run by a cop named Munsey (Hume Cronyn), whose slight body and soft-spoken manner belie his ruthlessness and ambition. When we first enter the cellblock, inmates are looking out their barred windows at a long car and saying their good-byes to one of the inmates. His stretch is up all right, but only because a hole 6 feet deep is waiting for him on the outside. Munsey had the older convict work in the dreaded drain pipe, where many convicts find illness and death.

As the car pulls away, a couple of guards escort an inmate who was absent from roll call that morning, Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster), back to R17. He has spent 10 days in the hole for carrying a shiv. The prison grapevine has fingered Wilson (James O’Rear) as the source of the planted weapon, and preparations are underway to see that he gets his. Despite Wilson’s petition for leniency to inmate power broker Gallagher (Charles Bickford), the instruction “Wilson, 10:30” gets passed around. Collins manages to be in Dr. Walters’ (Art Smith) office when Wilson is cornered in the prison license-plate shop by cons with blow torches and forced into the punch press in a scene of desperate brutality. Wilson is only one of the inmates whose death can be traced back to Munsey, who ordered him to plant the shiv on Collins. The captain has forced dozens of inmates to bend to his will, or take the consequences. One of the occupants of R17 will become his next victim, the warden will bend to a new get-tough policy handed down from on high or lose his job, and cancelled parole hearings prompt Collins, his cellmates, and even the compromise-oriented Gallagher to hatch an escape plan.

Brute Force has an interesting, if occasionally stylistically jarring device for taking us inside the lives of some of the cellmates. We flash back with them to the women they left on the outside and learn a little about their crimes. Tom Lister (Whit Bissell) feared his beautiful wife Cora (Ella Raines) would leave him because he was barely scraping by as a lowly accountant. By juggling the books, he was able to embezzle enough money to buy her the fur coat she’d always wanted, but police sirens interrupted their happy moment. Collins is worried about his wife Ruth (Anne Blyth), who he learns from his lawyer is not getting a cancer operation because she won’t act without him at her side. Collins’ flashback shows him stopping to see Ruth, a paraplegic, before pulling that “one last job” that does all crooks in in the movies. The most entertaining flashback is provided by Spencer (John Hoyt), a con artist who got conned by a beautiful blonde named Flossie (Anita Colby) in a Runyon-esque short story of pithy grace. Soldier (Howard Duff, in his impressive screen debut) just wants to get back to Italy, where he hopes his girl Gina (Yvonne de Carlo) is waiting for him—sadly, his flashback shows Gina shooting her own father to protect Soldier, and she is probably in jail herself.

It is in the prison where this film is most compelling. The grind of a convict’s daily life is shown in a bleak fullness that seems real. The prison is severely overcrowded, with six or seven men in a cell. The food served up in the mess hall looks fit to hang wallpaper, not eat. The oppressiveness of the surroundings is beautifully captured in the art direction of John DeCuir and Bernard Herzbrun: the barbed wire, the guns, the medieval drawbridge to the outside that only lets men out when they’ve finished their sentence, died, or are going to work in the drain pipe. While it doesn’t match the cruel conditions of Caspar Wrede’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, that film was made in the harsh winter of northern Norway. For a set-bound Hollywood production, Brute Force does a very good job.

Dassin puts the pedal to the metal when Munsey goes about uncovering Collins’ plan. He scores a rubber-hose beating of one of Gallagher’s men with the uber-mensch strains of Wagner, a decided contrast with the tasteful undertones of film scorer Miklos Rozsa. Cronyn conducts this beating shirtless, revealing some toned muscle on his formerly unimposing form and visually suggesting the physical ideal of the Third Reich. It’s a bit over the top for a scene that would have been just as effective by focusing on the stiff rubber hose and the steadily more battered face of Munsey’s victim, but cutaways to the cringing guards outside of Munsey’s office create a nice indirect source of unease.

Lancaster, in only his second screen role, capably ushers in the new breed of physical, downscale leading men to come. Character actor Jack Overman plays a punch-drunk boxer in R17 so poignantly that he made me want to see more of him. Bickford doesn’t have a lot to do, but he’s authoritative doing it. Art Smith has the philosopher’s role in this film, and he plays it to the hilt. A drunk who has reached the end of the line working at the prison (did the prison drive him to drink or did drink limit his options to prison work?) he sees through Munsey’s plan to become warden and mocks his ambitions. He doesn’t wonder, as another character does, why men try prison breaks even though they are doomed to failure. The conditions under which the prisoners live say it all, and the film refers to real prison breaks that had been tried at San Quentin and other U.S. facilities. Interestingly, virtually all of the prisoners are Irish; the only other ethnic type called out in the script is a Caribbean inmate nicknamed Calypso (Sir Lancelot), whose off-the-cuff songs describe actions in the story. Prisons would never be this white again.

The climax of the film, of course, is the prison break attempt. It’s action-packed, thrilling, and very, very cruel. A mob of cons in the prison yard swarm guards and await their chance. It never comes, but the vision of a restless population of men must have shook postwar America by the nape of the neck. Dassin’s politics, evident in this film, proved sadly prophetic. The repression that came in the following decade forced him to flee the United States to escape the Hollywood blacklist so he could keep turning out great films like Brute Force. l

3rd 03 - 2010 | 10 comments »

The Keep (1983)

Director: Michael Mann

By Roderick Heath

A convoy of armoured vehicles transports a unit of German Wehrmacht soldiers through the rugged twists and passes and gloomy, fog-shrouded forests of a Carpathian mountain road, late in 1941. In command is Captain Klaus Woermann, embodied in rugged, sagging melancholy by Jürgen Prochnow, leading his men into a tiny Romanian hamlet clinging to the jagged walls of the narrow Dinu Pass. One of his soldiers complains about this unimportant detail when Germany’s soldiers are near to taking Moscow, but Woermann assures him the real fighting is over and Germany is now master of Europe: “Does that enthrall you?” he enquires with theatrical enthusiasm. But Woermann, a tempered fighter who cares for his men, is an antifascist who wanted to fight for the Republicans in Spain but never got around to it. Since then, he’s been fighting for his country, and now he’s to take command of an ancient keep of unknown origin that guards the pass. As he notes, however, the building is not a defensive structure, but designed like a prison. The walls are lined with silvery, crosslike markings that the Keep’s caretaker, Alexandru (Morgan Sheppard), warns are not to be touched.

On the unit’s first night stationed in the Keep, however, two avaricious soldiers are fascinated when one of the crosses begins to glow. Thinking it’s silver, they gouge out the block it’s attached to, hoping more treasure might be hidden within. In one of the greatest shots in the history of fantastic cinema, one of them crawls down the revealed shaft behind and almost plunges into a colossal cavern beyond, as director Michael Mann’s camera retreats a seemingly infinite distance away from the soldier’s dwindling torch into the furthest depths of the abyss, which conceals mysterious, ancient ruins. A ball of light shoots out of the dark toward the solider, and when his comrade drags him out, he finds only a steaming, headless trunk, before being flung away with bone-shattering force as a mysterious power floods out of the shaft and infests the Keep with a shapeless evil that begins killing Woermann’s men. Woermann requests a transfer, but instead attracts a unit of SS thugs under the command of Major Kaempfler (Gabriel Byrne), ready to shoot hostage villagers to drive out the partisans he believes are responsible.

When a dead soldier is discovered under a wall sporting ancient, untranslatable writing burnt into the masonry, the local priest, Father Mikhail Fonescu (Robert Prosky), suggests to Kaempfler that the only person who might be able to read it is the frail, prematurely aged Dr. Theodore Cuza (Ian McKellen), a Jewish historian who grew up in the village and who made a study of the Keep: he and his daughter Eva (Alberta Watson) are awaiting deportation along with assorted fellow Jews, Gypsies, and the rest of the suddenly verboten victims of Romania’s alliance with Germany. Kaempfler has Cuza and Eva brought to the Keep, and tells Cuza to find a way to be of use. When Eva is sexually assaulted by two of Kaempfler’s men in the Keep’s corridors, she is saved by the unnatural entity, which is rapidly taking on a human form and delivers her back to Cuza. The entity speaks in outrage of what’s being done to “My people!”, promises to annihilate the Nazis, and accuses Cuza of collaboration, an accusation Cuza vehemently denies: he agrees to aid the entity by fetching for him a talisman of his power that’s buried within the cavern and that is keeping him locked within the Keep.

Mann had emerged with a terrific debut, 1981’s Thief, and this, his second film, was a high-budget adaptation of a popular novel by F. Paul Wilson. The result was a flop that almost killed Mann’s career before it got going, and at first glance The Keep does seem an intriguing, bewildering miss. Repeat viewings, however, confirm it as a unique emissary from a time when horror cinema was declining into a parade of sloppy slasher flicks and the few genuinely creative, grown-up works being essayed in the genre, like Kubrick’s The Shining (1981) and Neil Jordan’s equally dreamlike The Company of Wolves (1984), largely failed to connect with audiences. Mann had set out with The Keep to pay tribute to Expressionist cinema, stripping down the plot of Wilson’s novel with its back story of a mythological age to construct a fable of pure menace and mood.

In particular, Mann seemed interested in investigating through visual and thematic refrains the link suggested by German film historian Siegfried Krakauer in his book From Caligari to Hitler between the psychic anxieties communicated in the imagery of classic German Expressionist films and the oncoming fascist mindset. The German Expressionist era was replete with contradictions, like future Nazi Paul Wegener’s obsession with the Jewish myth of the Golem that caused him to make two films on the subject. Here, the creature poses as a Golem-like saviour to please and manipulate Cuza, who’s desperate to find a way to halt the Nazi onslaught; the thought that the entity can defeat them overcomes the misgivings that Eva has, especially once the creature cures the disease that’s killing Cuza and allows him to rise from his wheelchair. Nor is it coincidental that the story is set simultaneous to WWII’s supreme tipping point of the furthest Nazi advance.

In the course of The Keep, the link between the overt evil of the Nazis, particularly the icicle-hearted Kaempfler, played with unnerving conviction by Byrne, and the entity as manifestation and overlord of their diseased ideals, is constantly reiterated; Woermann likens the twisted psyches of the Nazis to the illogical forms of the Keep’s architecture, and the entity itself is a mere stand-in for their disgusting fantasies. The film’s visual schemes, full of disorientating jump cuts and discordant camera angles, work to sever a clear sense of chronological and physical context, as precise measures of time and place cease to be relevant as if within an explosion of the innermost Id, whilst relating back to classic genre cinema and the sense imbued by works from Fritz Lang through to Val Lewton of a world gone mad: indeed the cumulative sense of isolated paranoia closely resembles Isle of the Dead (1945). In another fashion, too, it plays like an extended cross-genre riff on the supernatural motif that capped off the revenge fantasy of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).

There is however nothing old-fashioned about Mann’s stylisation, which both evokes the imagery of cinema past whilst being utterly (1983) modern in its crisp, fluent photography (by the great Alex Thomson, who had imbued John Boorman’s Excalibur with a very different mythic sheen) and love of backlighting and slow-motion effects. The cryptic visuals offer brief, alarming impressions of bodies fused to walls, heads exploding, and most deliriously, the monster, currently a glowing pair of eyes and skinless musculature wrapped in a wreath of steam, carrying the unconscious Eva, a particularly strange distillation of the classic image of the monster and the maiden. Infusing the texture of the entire film is a brilliant score by Tangerine Dream, a high point for the use of intelligent electronic music in movies.

Mann’s career-long obsession with doppelganger protagonists who share similar souls yet clash violently, and others of disparate creeds who find surprising kinship, is readily apparent, most literally in the conflict between Woermann and Kaempfler, representing Nazi Germany’s armed forces and yet divided by completely different life philosophies, and atheist Jew Cuza and Orthodox priest Fonescu who’s desperate to do anything to keep his learned friend safe. The shaded oppositions cast Woermann as a pawn of the necessities of patriotism in the same way the entity turns Cuza into his Faustian representative—only an uncorrupted soul can even approach the imprisoning talisman. Mann’s enigmatic approach to the entity and the supernatural drama at stake avoids the kind of literalising that makes a story comfortable to an audience, instead stripping it back to an elemental conflict of good and evil incarnate, with the humans in between enacting its gradations.

In opposition to the entity, whose name is eventually revealed to be Radu Malasar (Michael Carter), comes heroism in the form of solitary, intense, otherworldly warrior Glaeken (Scott Glenn), seemingly left to wander the earth until needed to exterminate Malasar once and for all. In an act that has the flavour of ritual, Glaeken quickly seduces Eva upon encountering her in the village, but his preparations to take on the Malasar are forestalled by Cuza, who’s still swallowing Malasar’s story, by alerting Kaempfler to his presence. When the SS soldiers fetch Glaeken for interrogation, Eva chases them, and Glaeken, to protect her, begins tossing the soldiers about like nine-pins, only to be machine-gunned and then plunging into the ravine.

“You believe in Gods, I’ll believe in men,’ Cuza tells Fonescu, and yet both material and emblematic conflicts have to play out to their bitter end. The film’s centrepiece arrives as Kaempfler turns on Woermann and tells him he’s the kind of well-meaning but gutless liberal he despises. Woermann answers him that yes, he is weak, but Kaempfler’s version of strength has become literal in the Keep, and it’s a force of evil that is beyond imagining, the complete manifestation of all the sick psyches that have been given guns and carte blanche to slaughter. Kaempfler shoots Woermann in the back but returns to find all his men killed, some fused into the walls, others scattered in smouldering chunks across the floor. Kaempfler is confronted by the Malasar, causing him to drop to the ground wailing for Jesus to protect him, brandishing a crucifix he took from Woermann. The Malasar seems momentarily afraid of the icon, which, with its top broken resembles the talisman, so Kaempfler is able to stand and face the thing. “What are you?” he demands. “What am I?” the amused hulk asks: “I am you.” He takes the cross from Kaempfler, crushes it, and casually sucks the life from him with the same pitiless ease with which Kaempfler murdered.

Like Ridley Scott, Terence Malick, and a few other visually oriented directors of the time, Mann experimented with dispensing with the traditional brackets of narrative and tried to realise story through a kind of running montage. The Keep builds to one of Mann’s most hypnotic climaxes, cutting between Cuza bringing a gleaming talisman out of the cavern, and Glaeken climbing out of the ravine to save the day. The human and elemental dramas dovetail at last when Eva tries to prevent her father from removing the talisman from the Keep, prompting Malasar to demand of Cuza that he kill her and move on. As if in humanistic rewrite of the Abraham and Isaac myth, Cuza turns on the beast and demands of it, “Who are you that I should prove myself by killing my daughter?” before insisting that if the talisman is Malasar’s, he should be able to take it out himself. Infuriated, Malasar reduces Cuza to his crippled state again, but before he can kill Cuza and Eva, Glaeken walks in with his cosmic bazooka to scrub Malasar out, even at the cost of his own life on earth.

The Keep’s narrative gaps sometimes feel less the result of careful deliberation than of a director still learning his craft (and some significant post-production tampering by the studio), but it’s still easily apparent that Mann was trying something new and rare in mainstream cinema, creating a sublimely weird and atmospheric movie. Mann has never returned to the horror genre, and I for one am sorry for that, though his next film, the 1987 thriller Manhunter, returned to some of the motifs and images explored here. l

15th 11 - 2009 | 2 comments »

PFFAmerica 2009: Operation Danube (Operace Dunaj, 2009)

Director: Janek Glomb

2009 Polish Film Festival in America


By Marilyn Ferdinand

There’s a subgenre of war film that likes to emphasize the absurdity of war by showing how people who have no quarrel with each other and exist in the backwaters of battle react, not like dehumanized enemies, but rather as quirky individuals who dare to think for themselves. Mediterraneo, The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, and even MASH turn soldiers into hapless sensualists easily coopted by the life-loving populace of the invariably small towns onto whose proverbial shores they land. Operation Danube slots itself firmly in this template to chronicle the 1968 crackdown of Warsaw Pact forces on the liberalized Czechoslovakia of reform-minded president Alexander Dubček.

The film starts on a Polish army base near the Czech border. The commander is cuckolding her lower-ranking husband with an enlisted man, Romek (Przemsław Bluszcz). In retaliation, when the call comes to “liberate” their noble Czech brothers from the dreaded Hun, the captain assigns Romek to an outmoded “mascot” tank. He and three comrades fall far behind the tank convoy once they cross the border, lose their way because Czech partisans have removed the road signs, and end up crashing their tank through the front of a tavern in which a retirement party for Kulka (Rudolf Hrusínský), the local postmaster, is underway.


There’s nothing that happens from here on out that would be a surprise to anyone. Petra (Martha Ossivá), a Czech patriot, alienates her sophisticated boyfriend from Prague who can’t get their Radio Free Czechoslovakia station off the ground and falls for a more technically adept adversary from the tank crew. Romek finds love with a Czech beauty who is aroused by a tattoo on his arm. And the Czechs help the Poles get their tank moving to evade a Russian tank crew that is coming to their “rescue”. Predictably, a face-off between the two tanks results in the death of an innocent, just to remind us that war is hell. Except in movies like this.


None of the actors are asked to transcend their stereotypes, and they are engaging only so far as their characters are. I liked Jiří Menzel, director of I Served the King of England as the philosophical stationmaster Oskar and Rudolf Hrusínský as Kulka, who locks himself in a closet and then pretends to be dead when he is forgotten by the others, eliciting a New Orleans-style funeral procession to compensate for the slight. The film can be fun for people who have little experience with the Czech sense of the absurd and the Polish sense of suicidal honor. For the rest of us, this film is a yawn. l

26th 07 - 2009 | 31 comments »

Defiance (2008)

Director: Edward Zwick


By Marilyn Ferdinand

I have a complicated relationship/reaction to films about the Jewish experience during World War II. The vast majority of the stories deal with the Holocaust. It has even become something of a sick joke that making a good Holocaust film—fiction or documentary—is a fast track to an Oscar nomination. Certainly, an event so singular and dramatic has its own powerful magnetism to storytellers and viewers alike, and several of the best films of the past few years—Black Book, The Pianist—have added considerably to the depth and breadth of our understanding about this horrible time. Too often, however, filmmakers fail to understand that the Holocaust is not a fit topic for every type of film. Life Is Beautiful is a film that plays too fancy-free with the event. Schindler’s List milked it for cheap emotion that helped Gentiles in the audience feel good about themselves.


My personal problem with these films is that as a Jew I feel unwillingly chained to the Holocaust. Is there any way mainstream filmmaking can catch up to contemporary Jewish issues? A Price Above Rubies was a rare film about the problems of Hasidic Jewish women in America; I loved it and wondered why I couldn’t find anything else like it among English-language films. Why must we be buried year after year under the mantle of Supreme Victimhood? Why must our story be used to distance audiences from the holocausts of the present?

Last year, Hollywood offered us yet another Holocaust-related story called Defiance. The film is based on historian Nechama Tec’s book Defiance: The Bielski Partisans, which tells the true story of the Bielski brothers of Belorussia who, in 1941, led a group of Jews from surrounding towns into hiding in the vast Naliboki Forest, where they lived, armed, and defended themselves—their numbers growing to 1,200—until the end of the war. A quote from a commenter on Amazon.com gives some hint about what is different about this film:

If one word could be used to describe the manner in which Jews are portrayed by mainstream history, it would be compliance. If one word could be used to describe the manner in which Jews are portrayed by Nechama Tec it would be, and is, Defiance. Her title is an apt one indeed.

The word “defiance” as applied to Jews is a difficult one to pin down. What does the film make of it? I’m not sure that defiance, as in the usual use of the word to describe Jews as stiffnecked about retaining their religion and customs, is right, nor is the implicit defiance of murder at the hands of the Nazis. Talk about the defiance of the stereotype of Jews not being willing to fight, of being delicate intellectuals and compliant women, and you’re getting closer. Ultimately, however, I’d say the Jews of this film defied the odds by surviving the harsh forest conditions for years.


Our heroes are Tuvia Bielski (Daniel Craig) and his brother Zus (Liev Schreiber). Both strapping farmers, they discover that the local police, under orders from the Nazis, have been to their farm as part of their round-up of local Jews and have killed their father and mother. A young brother, Aron (George MacKay), hid successfully from the murderers. The Bielskis, later joined by brother Aseal (Jamie Bell), seek refuge in the woods. Soon, they stumble upon others like themselves. Tuvia goes to the home of a sympathetic Gentile to get food and weapons for the group. When the police show up looking for more Jews—and the bounty they will receive for them—Tuvia runs to the barn. There in the rafters are more Jews. Tuvia learns that the police chief (Sigitas Rackys) is responsible for his parents’ deaths. He takes the handgun and four bullets the farmer has given him and visits the police chief’s house. Pleading for his life, he says he always looked the other way when the Bielskis went about smuggling for extra cash. “Ask your father.” “Ask him yourself,” says Tuvia, as he shoots the chief and his two sons.

The Bielskis ask for supplies from sympathetic locals, and failing that, steal what they need. They rob a milkman, who brings Soviet partisans to attack them. Zus and Tuvia have a major rift—Zus thinking they should have killed the milkman to prevent his betrayal when they had the chance, and Tuvia choosing a path he thinks will keep them human in a situation that could turn them all into animals in short order. Eventually, the brothers make a deal with the Red Army partisans to help them in exchange for protection. Zus and some of the other action-oriented men of the community leave to fight with the Soviets, while the Jews clean and repair their clothing and perform other support tasks back at the forest camp.


As the camp grows, romance sparks. Tuvia and Zus have lost their wives and children to the Nazis. They begin romances with new arrivals Lilkas (Alexa Davalos) and Bella (Iben Hjejle), respectively. Aseal falls for Chaya (Mia Wasikowska), and the pair gets married in a traditional Jewish ceremony presided over by schoolteacher Shamon (Allan Corduner). The forest environs must have made the community feel very safe indeed for them to dance and party to the sounds of the musicians of the group playing their violins and clarinets. Of course, more threats to their safety arise, most seriously in a bombing raid, with Nazi troops hot on their heels. The disheartened Tuvia must be roused by Aseal to lead the community through a swamp, hoping that the troops and tanks will not be able to track and follow them.


For me, there was an element of Swiss Family Robinson in the building of the log huts in which the community of Jews dwelled. But there was also a sense of the kibbutzim to follow in Israel, where I’m sure some of the survivors emigrated after the war. The stereotypical bad apples, inept sentry Lazar (Jonjo O’Neill), and intellectuals Shamon and Yitzchak (Iddo Goldberg) arguing over a game of chess played with pieces hewn from the surrounding trees suck some of the reality from the situation. It is reinfused, however, when the Jews fight over food after having gone without for days, and with the lovely, deadly flakes of the first snowfall of winter. Zus’ disillusionment with the Soviets after repeated anti-Semitic comments and attacks was inevitable, and sealed when the Red Army retreats with no consideration for the Jewish partisans. I loved that the cast actually learned Russian for scenes played between the Jews and Gentiles. (Among themselves, they spoke English.)


The acting is uneven. I didn’t like Craig, who never really emerges from the pose he adopts for Tuvia as a strong, but silent type, perhaps with a small messiah complex. He was, for me, the least interesting of the main characters. The women never emerged from their stock characters, and the intellectuals seemed there primarily to populate the film with Jewish types. However, Liev Schreiber and Jamie Bell really knock their performances out of the park. Schreiber is a believable strongman with an observant and knowing streak—though his Russian comrades respect his fighting ability and fearlessness, he always behaves slightly uncomfortable around them, knowing that their hatred of Jews is never far from the surface. Bell goes from young and sweet to impassioned and adult, forced by circumstances to grow up quickly. He is fiery and inspirational—everything Craig could and should have been had the script been less dedicated to making him a reluctant hero.

As with all new films, this one is too damn long, though I have to say that it isn’t bloated with filler. The true story unspooled over three years, so there was plenty of material to work with, though clearly, many scenes are fictitious or embellished for dramatic effect. Interestingly, this film has been more or less savaged by film critics and has been the object of attack by anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers on the Internet who prefer to paint the Bielskis as nothing but common thugs who brutalized the surrounding Gentile communities to get what they needed and wanted. The latters’ motives are clear, but I’m not so sure what the critics are so upset about. It’s not a great film, but it is an engrossing one that tells its unfamiliar story using the conventions of cinema to pretty good effect. I would have liked the characters to emerge more as individuals and the battles to be a little more sloppy and believable, as it was hard to really feel deeply for the Bielski partisans. Most of all, Craig kind of did this picture in with his flat performance.


Zwick was smart to shoot as near to location as possible, in Lithuania. With a script that doesn’t deviate too much from a standard action film with stock characterizations, what stands out as formidably real are the unforgiving winters, lack of access to a ready supply of food and medical care, and dangers from wolves, snakes, and other natural elements. Nature supplies the glue that bonds with the better aspects of this film. We might have had just another exploitative Holocaust film without this dispassionate “observer” of the Bielski partisans in action. Nonetheless, I think I’d be pretty happy not to view another of its genre ever again.

15th 05 - 2009 | 4 comments »

The Reader (2008)

Director: Stephen Daldry


By Roderick Heath

In the film version of Ira Levin’s pulp fantasy-revenge novel The Boys from Brazil (1978), Laurence Olivier plays a fictionalised version of Simon Weisenthal dubbed Ezra Leiberman. In trying to discover the machinations of fugitive war criminal Josef Mengele, he visits a jailed female SS guard he caught, Frieda Maloney (Uta Hagen). Their interview proceeds uneasily until Leiberman gets to the point of his visit, at which point Frieda loses her temper and unleashes undimmed, venomous hatred at Leiberman. He barks back—the first time his voice has lifted above a pleasant whisper—“You are not a guard now Madame! You are a prisoner! I may walk through that door, but you are not going anywhere!”

It’s a moment that kept creeping into my head watching Stephen Daldry’s The Reader, and not just because it’s more fun. It’s an exchange that keeps our after-the-fact moral assumptions of the situation intact and satisfying: righteous survivor faces down the evil Nazi bitch-queen. Toy with this balance and, as some of the reactions to this film show, you’re soon in deep water. In the last Oscar season, Daldry’s film became something of the appointed sacrificial lamb for our contemporary culture’s heightened distaste for eating its greens. The Reader, however, pushes into rich and darkly confronting territory about the nature of responsibility and circumstance.

I might be giving the wrong impression here, about what I thought of Bernhard Schlink’s novel and the film made from: neither is particularly good. But I have empathy for what both are getting at. I’ve always been decidedly in the camp that feels artistic explorations of the Holocaust are necessary and desirable, even if not pleasant, and the more the better. I feel about this as I do because art is often the only way to stab at the truth left out of history texts. Schlink does, too. As he puts it in an interesting if gracelessly essayistic passage:

When I think about those years, I realize how little direct observation there actually was, how few photographs that made life and murder in the camps real…We were familiar with some of the testimony of prisoners, but many of them were published soon after the war and not reassured until the 1980s, and in intervening years they were out of print. Today there are so many books and films that the world of the camps is part of our collective imagination and completes our ordinary everyday one. Our imagination knows its way around it, and since the television series Holocaust and movies like Sophie’s Choice and especially Schindler’s List, actually moves it, not just registering, but supplementing and embellishing it. Back then, the imagination was almost static: the shattering fact of the world of the camps seemed properly beyond its operations.

Self-evidently, the trouble this opens up is that one has to be very careful about how one is embellishing. If one creates a work of art to explore a nadir of human existence as a work of moral searching, then one must be very clear about how one approaches that sanctum. Despite the sex scenes, Schlink’s novel is the perfect book for high school teachers to give to teenagers to study (it is a set text in German high schools). It’s short, the writing is simple to the point of tedium, the narration is opaquely self-analytical, and the ambling meditations such as that quoted above are laid out in such a way that’s easy to quote in essays.


The basic narrative is that old wheezy The Devil and the Flesh business of the sexually awakening boy who has an affair with an older woman with a dark secret, married to a Holocaust guilt theme. Here, the boy is Michael Berg (David Kross), the son of an elderly, disengaged philosophy professor, and the older woman is Hannah Schmitz (Kate Winslet), a tram conductor living out of a cramped, seamy, but impeccably neat flat in Neustadt in 1959. Schlink’s psychological insight is shallow: he never convincingly paints a portrait either of a normal woman who found herself in an intolerable situation and lived with the consequences or of the man who is tied to her to the point where it infects all his future relationships. Schlink genuinely strains to define some obscured truths that inevitably have the most resonance for modern Germans: the limitations of the righteous fury his generation adopted in confronting an evil committed by people they loved. The climactic scene of both novel and film comes when Berg goes to visit a Holocaust survivor (Lena Olin), whose brittle, pleasant refusal to countenance the intricacies of Hannah’s story is bound to hit hardest for a people who feel guilty and yet live with contradictions.


The foreground elements in Daldry’s film of Schlink’s novel, especially Kate Winslet’s bravura performance as antiheroine Hannah and Ralph Fiennes’ haunted turn as the older Michael, make the film worthwhile. Daldry, a wishy-washy director who painted The Hours (2002) in shades of diuretic pastel as a kind of symphony of constipated suffering, mostly does his job by keeping his scenes framed and free of dangling boom mikes. He serves up the dreary obviousness of summery sunlight for days of carefree youth and drizzling dourness in wearied middle age. Daldry and screenwriter David Hare exacerbate faults of Schlink’s novel and invent their own. It’s one of those stories about ambiguity where the ambiguity is artfully contrived. Rather than offer new substance, the film is happy to transcribe almost verbatim. In filming The Reader, it becomes more apparent that it’s largely a standard-issue love story with a darker than usual gimmick for separating and torturing the lovers.

The tale’s crucial Macguffin is the fact that Hannah is a functioning illiterate, a fact that pushed her into situations— from leaving a job at Siemens and joining the SS, through to her final punitive conviction at a war crimes trial. It’s not terribly convincing that she’d be so ashamed of her illiteracy and so unaware of the pain it’s caused her that she’d let it go so far. But leaving that aside, that she learns to read in prison and thus finds a measure of self-respect has been handily dismissed by some critics as a specious celebration of “reading is good” that betrays the gravity of the subject matter—which is itself a pretty stupid assumption. Schlink’s point is about power: the command inherent in education, the possibilities offered by communicative skill, and the lack of liberty imposed by inequality. “Knowledge is power,” we say, without paying much attention to those without power. It’s not the most deeply pursued point in the novel or film. Plenty of educated, entirely self-motivated people got themselves into the thick of the Holocaust, too. But it’s legitimate, nonetheless, that The Reader takes aim at the tendency of societies to use its disadvantaged, malleable members to do their dirty work.


That Hannah can’t read cuts her off from both history and culture—the whole Western canon that Michael reads to her is a new world—and also from clear lines of empathy. The world is full of incoherent signs and gaps in understanding for her. It’s clear in Schlink’s novel that she uses her new talent to read texts like Primo Levi’s autobiography and other Holocaust survivor tales to understand what she herself, despite participating, only had an outside perspective on: reading is implicitly an act of outreach and understanding. This is an aspect the film fails very badly in realising, to the point of obfuscating Schlink’s core character point. Hannah hangs herself on the eve of being released as an act of guilt: because she is a moral being caught in a situation without clear moral choice, and is no psychopath, she judges herself in a final, moral way. In the book, this is clear. In the film, it seems to be because Michael wasn’t demonstrative enough at their reunion.

Then again, in both book and film, just what Hannah represents seems ill-conceived. Schlink tries to have his cake and eat it, too, by presenting Hannah as both an avatar of guilt and a suffering martyr. In the film and rather more cheaply in the book, Hannah is pushed forward at her trial both by her own honesty and by the other ex-female guards with whom she’s tried as the mastermind behind the death of 300 Jews who were burned in a church. Schlink describes the other guards as fat, ugly, and immoral. Compared to Hannah’s desperate composure and comely features, it’s the cheapest of effects to render her a victim. In the film, this comparison is softened slightly—the other defendants look like women who disappeared into the middle class—but the point is just as obnoxious. Whatever the idea is about the fraught relationship of elders and youth in post-War Germany, it is repeatedly softened and rendered moot by the incompetent melding of the sentimental genre it’s inspired by and the very unsentimental exigencies of the problem at hand.


Hannah’s brusque sensuality both hypnotises and appalls Michael, and one of the crueler twists comes when he discovers that her habit of making him read to her placed him in the same position as the favourites Hannah would adopt in the concentration camp; likewise a strange analogy is made between Hannah’s complicity in mass murder and her willful use of a teenage boy. That this sits uneasily and unresolvedly with the manipulation to perceive her as tragic victim is something neither Schlink nor Hare and Daldry attempt to resolve. Still, Schlink was well aware of the kink value inherent in the idea of an affair with a Nazi woman, preempting in his novel the many Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS quips fired at the film, when Michael confesses to fantasies of a “hard, imperious, cruel” Hannah and realising the gulf between fantasy and fact. The film has no such wit; indeed, no feel at all for the swirl of culture beyond its own immediate shoals. There are some scenes in a hippie-era university dorm (we know it’s the ’60s because the girls have long straight hair and guitar music wails), and one of Michael’s fellow students gets hot under the collar and speechy about the trial’s lack of moral expedience. But the social resonance is of the academically reduced variety. Only in the inevitably affecting moments when Michael visits Auschwitz and confronts a cold, rough-hewn reality does the film pack real punch.

The Reader is also about sexual intimacy. The film sports copious nudity in the first third, but it’s that curiously aseptic, pseudo-art-film sex where the erotic fumbling is as carefully poised as the camera to keep the dick shots to the permissible minimum. Where The Reader desperately needs some sense of the kind of passion and pain that upends lives, it has only studious, tasteful distance. The film finally feels exactly like the kind of muted, bourgeois, meandering effort of empathy that it’s supposed to be decrying. Kross, with his puffy cheeks and lack of any suggestion of emotional and intellectual depth, is the film’s weakest element, but he represents its lack of chutzpah well. The filmmakers recast the tale under the new generic format of Brokeback Mountain—an aging man forging a relationship with a rejected daughter by revealing a hidden, forbidden love.


The other actors keep the film buoyant, from Winslet, who gives her ill-defined character as much of her body and spirit as she can, and Fiennes, who plays repressed feeling like a master conductor, even on so small a stage, through to smaller contributions from Olin, and Bruno Ganz, as Berg’s intellectually forceful law professor. Ganz played the same role, more or less, in The Boys from Brazil—the knowing professor who leads the hero into understanding the Nazi plan. This is where I came in. l

8th 05 - 2009 | 15 comments »

Julia (1977)

Director: Fred Zinnemann


By Marilyn Ferdinand

In voiceover, Jane Fonda as American playwright Lillian Hellman, approaches a person, a story from her past as a painting that, through fading, shows lines of the artist’s original ideas revised and reshaped to form the final image, or even an entirely different picture. This is, of course, the definition of the word “pentimento,” which is the title of Hellman’s 1973 memoir in which she recounts the story of Julia. It has since been reported that while “Julia” was real, Hellman never knew her. According to Collin Kelley in his review of the 2006 DVD release of Julia:

Muriel Gardener, a psychologist who shared an attorney with Hellman, claimed to be the real Julia and that the playwright lifted her story for Pentimento. The similarities between Gardener’s tale and Julia are striking: both studied pre-med at Oxford, went on to Vienna to study with Freud, became active in anti-fascist groups and helped smuggle money and people in and out of Nazi-occupied territories. Rather than $50,000, Muriel had a close friend smuggle fake American passports into Germany in a stylish hat. Gardener, who wrote her story in Code Name Mary and told it in the documentary The Real Julia, said she believed the lawyer they shared gave Hellman details about her World War II adventures (who) then appropriated them for Julia. Gardener and Hellman never met.

However you approach this lie, which is more serious when presented in a memoir than it would be in, say, the self-referential spoofs of Guy Maddin, there’s no question that Hellman had a eye for a great story and the dramatic flair that made her such a sensational playwright. Screenwriter Alvin Sargent took this story and spun a taut, absorbing screenplay that garnered him an Oscar. Add the Oscar-nominated work of director Fred Zinnemann, who takes his affinity for trains, close-ups, and ability to coax iconic performances to dizzying heights, and the cinematography of Douglas Slocombe, which evokes nostalgia and melancholy without ever entirely succumbing to them, and Julia becomes more than a story about two women. Julia stands as a monument to courage and compassion by helping viewers understand what it might feel like to risk everything for a cause.


When we enter Hellman’s life, she is living with writer Dashiell Hammett (Jason Robards) in a beachfront idyll and struggling to write her first play. Hammett, singularly unhelpful in the writing area, suggests that she get a change of scene. “Why don’t you go visit your friend Julia?” Memories of her girlhood basking in the world of privilege, but, more importantly, in the gently strong company of Julia come flooding back. A scene of the young Julia (Lisa Pelikan) and Lillian (Susan Jones) dining at a massively long table in the mansion of Julia’s grandparents telegraphs a world of stiff formality distanced from the problems of everyday life. Julia is a creative, lively girl with whom Lillian enjoys playing word games and fashioning narratives. Rather surprisingly, Julia says she hates her grandparents. On a trip to Cairo, they told her to ignore the poverty and suffering around her. Her deep humanity not only was offended, but also mobilized into action. Eventually, she goes to medical school at Oxford.


When Hellman takes Dash’s advice, she remarks that the year she visited Julia in England was, for Julia, what I always call the dewy moment in a woman’s life—the one in which the purest essence of a woman’s inner beauty corresponds with her outer form. Slocombe shoots the adult Julia (Vanessa Redgrave) walking directly into the camera, a rather goofy grin on her face. Sorry, she didn’t look dewy in that shot, and it is only through Redgrave’s great charisma that Hellman’s words approximate the image we see. The pair have a wonderful time together, playing the same word games they did as children and talking about relationships. Julia tells Lillian of her plans to go to Vienna to study with Sigmund Freud.


Lillian returns to America and continues her writing odyssey. Julia sends her disturbing letters from Europe about the rise of fascism. In a horrifying scene, young men in oddly festive hats storm Julia’s medical school and begin attacking the largely Jewish faculty and student body. Swarming like red ants, they rip one young man from the hold he has on a faucet and toss him over a railing. The sound cuts off as we watch his body fall out of the frame. Julia and several others march into the middle of the mob, swinging boards and furniture. Lillian receives a call asking her to come to Paris; Julia is in the hospital. Lillian visits the very badly injured Julia in Vienna and is told she will have to have surgery. The next day, the hospital denies that Julia was ever a patient.


Lillian returns to the States, completes her play, The Children’s Hour, and becomes the toast of Broadway. She is invited to a theatre festival in Moscow and accepts. Stopping in Paris, she is contacted by a Mr. Johann (Maximillian Schell), an emissary from Julia, who asks if she will help them smuggled $50,000 into Berlin to bribe officials to release some prisoners. The mission is especially dangerous because Lillian is a Jew, but the underground is willing to take the risk if she is. After an afternoon of soul searching, Lillian agrees. The rest of the film concerns the smuggling operation and its aftermath.


Jane Fonda is not my favorite actress, but she brings a lot of shading to this role. Her friendship with Julia really feels close and heartfelt, and a scene in which a frustrated Hellman throws her typewriter out a window is so true that it has stuck with me ever since I first saw the film in 1977. I like her scenes with Robards, which, with their minimalism, show an easy, underplayed bond between the two writers. When she waits nervously for Hammett’s assessment of her second draft, you can feel the expansion and relaxation of her moods.

Most spectacularly, Fonda handles Lillian as amateur courier with just the right blend of fear, frustration over not knowing exactly what she is expected to do, and curiosity. Lillian has been given a hat and a box of candy: “Wear the hat. Leave the candy on the seat.” Her instinct is to take all her belongings into the dining car with her, but two women (beautifully played by Dora Doll and Elisabeth Mortensen) who are sent to watch over her correct her mistakes. Lillian, her nerves frayed to breaking, leaves the dining car and goes to the toilet. There, she removes her hat and feels the lining. Perfect. She’ll never really know what’s going on—and that is for her own safety—but she wants to assert some control.


Vanessa Redgrave projects her usual air of authority and commitment, a perfect fit for the character she is playing. She switches gears from strong to vulnerable in the reunion scene in a Berlin café in which Lillian delivers the hat to her. She seems depleted physically and emotionally. The warmth that characterized the characters’ earlier scenes is muted and only emerges—very effectively—when Julia reveals that she has a baby daughter whom she has named Lilly.


I mentioned Zinnemann’s affinity for trains, for using them to create and build emotion. We all saw it in High Noon (1952), when the train carrying Gary Cooper’s nemesis began as a dot on the horizon and grew in size, billowing black smoke as it pulled close to the station. In this film, Hellman travels by train from Paris to Berlin to Moscow. Through judicious cuts that quicken the breath, Zinnemann uses the train’s movements to up the ante for us. By the time Lillian alights in Berlin, we feel the menace. The crowd through which she moves is a potential mob, the café she enters, a mousetrap.

Julia was a controversial undertaking at the time, pairing as it did two politically outspoken actresses, particularly Redgrave, a vocal critic of Israel’s Palestinian policies. It is possible that the personal convictions of these two women helped infuse their performances with urgency and power. Whatever the reason, this highly honored film works on all levels.

11th 02 - 2009 | 8 comments »

The Nun’s Story (1959)

Director: Fred Zinnemann
Screenwriter: Robert Anderson


By Marilyn Ferdinand

Robert Anderson, the man who wrote the screen adaptation of Kathryn Hulme’s fictionalized account of her lover Mary Louise Habets’ experiences as a nun, died on Tuesday at the age of 91. Anderson, who always considered himself a playwright (movies were what he did for money), produced serious-minded works that respected the intelligence and maturity of audiences to deal with such hot-button topics as homosexuality, aging, and the loss of faith. Called “a gentleman in an age of assassins,” Anderson produced such sensitive and powerful works as Tea and Sympathy and I Never Sang for My Father. The Nun’s Story is a rich and rewarding look at religious life that eschews pious platitudes to explore both its mysteries and its cold, hard facts.


Gabrielle van der Mal (Audrey Hepburn), the eldest daughter of a renowned Belgian surgeon (Dean Jagger), is about to embark on a long journey that she hopes will take her into a close relationship with God and enable her to do His work as a nurse in the Congo. The film opens as she fingers her engagement ring, then resolutely removes it and places it on the desk in her bedroom along with some other items atop a note that says, “Return to Jean.” She hears her father plinking out some Mozart on the piano in the drawing room. She quietly descends the stairs, comes up behind him, and joins him at the keyboard. When he turns to face her, he says “Your hat is on crooked.” “I’ve been trying to practice putting things on without…” The words “a mirror” are left unsaid. The pair goes into town and views the convent across the square. “I can see you poor. I can see you chaste. But I can’t see you obeying their Rule,” Dr. van der Mal says. “You don’t have to go through with it if you don’t want to.” Gabrielle merely looks down, deflecting his implied question with a demure but determined gesture. They walk to the door and enter a room filled with parents and daughters. After some tearful farewells, the would-be nuns pass behind the door of the inner sanctum and into a world where they will be taught to create internal silence to better devote themselves to prayer and learn obedience to the Holy Rule.


The film takes us on the journey from Gabrielle to Sister Luke at a deliberate pace, missing few fascinating details that form the strict lives of discipline and striving for perfection that make a girl into a nun and a nun into a representative of Christ on Earth. At first, the postulants learn mere behaviors, such as hiding their hands when they are not being used for prayer or work, standing near the walls as they move through the halls as an act of humility, writing their transgressions in a small notebook, publicly accusing themselves of everything from being late to prayer, to feeling proud about doing a task properly and talking during the Grand Silence. Observing how they live, for example, sleeping in a common room with each bed surrounded by curtains, and their behavior, from using the sign language that allows them to communicate, to bowing and kneeling before higher-ranking nuns, to donning their habit for the first time in a rote and ritualized way, compares favorably with the experience I had viewing the lives of real Carthusian monks in Into Great Silence.


In short order, Simone (Patricia Bosworth), Gabrielle’s closest companion in the convent, gives up her vocation, while assuring Gabrielle that she is strong enough to complete the journey. “I’m the weakest of us all!” Gabrielle protests, saying she is constantly in error. Nonetheless, Simone’s prediction comes true as we watch the truly beautiful and awe-inspiring investiture of Sister Luke and her fellow novices as brides of Christ, again, with the close, unhurried observation of a way of life that has been centuries in the making.

Sister Luke is sent for training to an institute for tropical medicine to prepare her for working in the Congo. She’s an outstanding student, but put upon by Sister Pauline (Margaret Phillips), a veteran of the Congo and an average student who fears Sister Luke will take her place. Sister Luke takes her problem to Mother Marcella (Ruth White), who tells Sister Luke she has been given a golden opportunity to prove her humility; Mother Marcella then asks her to fail her final exam. The scene in front of her examiners is one of high drama, as Hepburn so evokes Sister Luke’s inner struggle that she actually breaks a sweat. That the charge from Mother Marcella was a particularly cruel Gordian Knot makes no difference; for passing her exam (in fact, placing fourth in a class of 80), Sister Luke is denied a posting to the Congo and is sent instead to work in a sanatorium for the mentally ill. The waste of her talent seems stupid, considering the great need of the Congolese and their overworked medical staff.


After a somewhat harrowing stint at the sanatorium, including being attacked by a dangerous patient called the Archangel (Colleen Dewhurst) for disobediently tending to her without help, Sister Luke finally gets posted to the Congo. Her happiness while moving among the natives in the black hospital and holding the babies of Congolese mothers breaks her nun’s proper reserve. Yet still she is to be tested. When she learns she is to work at the white hospital under Dr. Fortunati (Peter Finch), she is devastated. The scenes in the Congo are a bit too picture-perfect, but this idealization is tempered by filming real lepers in a downriver leper colony Sister Luke visits.


Sister Luke buries her disappointment in work to such an extent that she weakens her entire system and develops early-stage tuberculosis. Hepburn’s darkly circled eyes, drawn face, taut and nervous frame, and constant edge of fatigue work brutally to reflect Sister Luke’s worry that should her disease be uncovered, she will be sent back to Belgium for good. Fortunati, initially jaundiced about working with yet another nun, then surprised at her competence and increasingly reliant on her great skill, manages to keep her in country and cure her TB. Unfortunately, when an important benefactor who has fallen ill must be sent back to Belgium, Sister Luke is the only logical choice to accompany him. With World War II brewing, she fears she will never be able to return to the Congo. And indeed, Rev. Mother Emmanuel (Dame Edith Evans), the highest-ranking nun in the order, refuses to send her back. Her struggles in Belgium, her painful war losses, and her acknowledgment that she has never found the internal silence to become a great nun finally force her, with all the determination she had when entering the convent, to give up her vocation and return to the world.


This 2.5 hour film has the time and the ambition to take us all the way into Sister Luke’s world and experience with her the joys, disappointments, and, most of all, the pain of trying to bend her will to that of God and the sisters. Dr. Fortunati tells her that he’s worked with nuns as long as he can remember and found there are two kinds: the obedient ones without a stitch of imagination and the worldly ones. Sister Luke, he says, is the latter and not cut out to be a nun. When Rev. Mother Emmanuel refuses to allow Sister Luke to work at the local hospital when she returns from the Congo, her reason is that Sister Luke must attend to her vocation—she joined the order to become a nun, not a nurse, and her spiritual life must always come first.

Herein lies the conflict Anderson and Zinnemann have highlighted in obvious and subtle ways—Gabrielle wanted to become a nun, but she wanted to practice medicine in the Congo even more. In the strict and arbitrary world of the convent, God is the only master. Like army training, all convent exercises, teachings, and assignments are designed to root out individuality and create vessels to carry out God’s wishes. There was nothing half-hearted about Gabrielle’s attempts to become Sister Luke—all or nothing, she says, was her Rule before she entered the convent—and we can see through Audrey Hepburn’s remarkable performance the deep sincerity in Sister Luke’s dedication to being a nun, the automatic behaviors she has adopted over the two decades of her vocation and her anguish at all her faults.


The supporting performances are wonderful, particularly all of the ranking sisters whose guidance rules the lives of Sister Luke and her fellow sisters. Mildred Dunnock is here a placid and patient mistress of the postulants. Dame Peggy Ashcroft is a compassionate, but obedient head of the mission in Aftica. And Dame Edith Evans is old-school Catholicism at its best, firmly guiding her nuns in a clear-eyed manner than can look, but is not meant to be, cruel.


Peter Finch is young and dashing—a prototype of the rude doctors we see on TV all the time. Other viewers of this film detect some sexual tension between Hepburn and Finch’s Dr. Fortunati, but I didn’t see it. Hepburn’s Sister Luke truly seems modest, even asexual, to me. When a native man asks her why a young woman like her doesn’t have a husband, rather than try to explain the difficult concepts of Catholicism, she says quite believably, “I do have a husband. But, He’s in heaven.”


Zinnemann’s direction is very full-bodied, more so than many of his films. There’s hardly a stock type in the film, and he strives to bring as much realism as Hollywood would allow to his African scenes. I was incredibly impressed with the cinematography of Franz Planer, who is a master of shadow and color, creating beauty in every scene while still somehow making everything look real. There’s very little of the crescendo-music-soaring-looks-heavenward that many religious films are made of. His work with Hepburn’s radiant face brings out so many looks that have nothing to do with glamor and everything to do with the truth of her character.

Finally, of course, is The Word. Read this remarkable exchange between Sister Luke and Rev. Mother Emmanuel:

Rev. Mother Emmanuel: Have you struggled long enough to say surely that you’ve come to the end?
Sister Luke: I think I’ve been struggling all these years, Reverend Mother. In the beginning each struggle seemed different from the one before it. But then they began to repeat, and I saw they all had the same core: obedience. Without question, without inner murmuring. Perfect obedience as Christ practiced it. As I no longer can.
Rev. Mother Emmanuel: Yes?
Sister Luke: There are times when my conscience asks which has priority. It or the Holy Rule? When the bell calls me to chapel, I often have to sacrifice what might be the decisive moment in a spiritual talk with a patient. I’m late every day for chapel or refectory or both. When I have night duty I break the Grand Silence because I can no longer cut short a talk with a patient who seems to need me. Mother, why must God’s helpers be struck dumb by five bells in the very hours when men in trouble want to talk about their souls?

Anderson truly made this film more than the sum of its many magnificent parts.

The Nun’s Story was nominated for eight Oscars the same year that the moribund Ben-Hur cleaned up. It won not a one—yet more evidence that even back in 1959, the Oscars were a joke. On Oscar night this year, skip the broadcast and watch this movie; it’s long, but not as long as the Oscars, and infinitely more deserving of your attention and admiration.

25th 02 - 2008 | no comment »

The Rape of Europa (2006)

Directors: Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen, and Nicole Newnham


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.


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.

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.


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).

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.

9th 01 - 2008 | 10 comments »

Persons of Interest: Fred Waller

A semi-regular feature on the underappreciated, the promising, and the very cool

My Dinner with… Fred Waller


By Marilyn Ferdinand

I know in this “look at me” world in which we’re living, the lot of those who largely remain in the shadows may not seem to be a very happy one. Certainly some resentment at being overlooked can’t be avoided, but as a person who is very attracted to the world behind the scenes, I can say that, in general, standing a bit below eye level is a wonderful place to be. As part of the Lazy Eye Theatre Meme: My Dinner With…, I’ve chosen to break bread with one of the most fascinating movie persons you’ve never heard of: Fred Waller.

fredwaller-r.jpgWaller cut his teeth in the film business as cinematographer for five silents by the estimable director Frank Tuttle. He also did visual effects for D.W. Griffith’s The Sorrows of Satan. He turned his hand to directing in the ’30s. He specialized in making short music films featuring America’s great jazz musicians, beginning with Duke Ellington in A Bundle of Blues in 1933. The man had great musical taste, the foresight to see that these great performers needed to be captured on film for future generations, and an uncommon notion that filming African Americans being themselves was nothing out of the ordinary.

But what really sets Waller apart for me—in the immortal words of Henry Graham, “Every science has its fans.”—is that he was an engineering wizard. You’ll see the link for the American Widescreen Museum site on my blogroll, alphabetically first but also one of my very favorite websites, period. Fred Waller is responsible for that site’s very existence because he invented widescreen movie formats. He debuted the first widescreen process, called Vitarama, at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, where it made a huge sensation. He later extended and refined that process by inventing the most famous widescreen technology of them all—Cinerama. Listen to Waller describe the process.


That’s Clara Bow on the left hawking Waller’s AKWA SKEES.

Waller’s mind was too active to give it just to Hollywood. For example, if you had a relative who was a WWII pilot who returned safely from the war, you both probably can thank Fred Waller for helping to make that safe return possible. He invented the first virtual-reality technology, based on the Vitarama process, and applied it to flight simulation, allowing pilots to gain valuable flight time. Oh, and if you’ve ever water skied, yes, thank Fred Waller for perfecting and patenting the first water skis. In all, Fred Waller held about 1,000 patents. He’s as close to a modern-day Leonardo da Vinci as they get.

I’m a pretty good cook with a brand-new kitchen and a love of entertaining, so naturally, I’d invite Mr. Waller to my home. I’d set out all the good crystal on the formal dining table and set up lots of jazz from the ’30s and ’40s for the CD player. I imagine Mr. Waller would like fine American food, so I’d serve cider-onion soup, homemade rustic bread, herbed lamb chops over orzo, and candied yams—all served with a medium-aged Beaujolais. For dessert—cherries jubilee and cognac.

I’m not one for a list of questions normally—I like to see where the conversation leads—but Piper asked me to, so I’d ask:

1. Mr. Waller, tell me why you decided to film jazz musicians and what the musicians you worked with were like? Any good stories to tell about them?

2. What were the challenges of transitioning to sound, and particularly, recording musicians? Did you invent anything to improve sound recording quality and reliability to help you and others?

3. What do you see as the purpose of movies?

4. As someone who spent a lifetime trying to improve movie images, are you a believer in the primacy of the picture in motion pictures? Why or why not?

5. Tell me more about your favorite inventions, what they do, how they work, and how long it took you to invent them? What drew you to want to solve these particular problems?

And wait for all the answers—for as long as it takes!

The six bloggers I have invited to participate in the meme are:

Joe Valdez of This Distracted Globe
Pat at Doodad Kind of Town
Peter Nellhaus of Coffee, Coffee, and More Coffee
Ed Howard at Only the Cinema
Campaspe at Self-Styled Siren
Kimberly Lindbergs at Cinebeats

17th 10 - 2007 | 2 comments »

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

Director: Jirí Menzel

2007 Chicago International Film Festival


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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


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, 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. 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 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


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

24th 12 - 2006 | 4 comments »

The Conformist (Il Conformista, 1970)

Director: Bernardo Bertolucci

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The Conformist is a film that has attained legendary status. A beautiful and surprisingly assured work by preeminent director Bernardo Bertolucci and equally respected cinematographer Vittorio Storaro when they were just in their 20s, The Conformist dropped quickly from sight after its rave reception at several film festivals. It only got a very, very limited run in the United States after the likes of Francis Ford Coppola urged Paramount to release it. The film also was scarce in its native country because of its depiction of the popularity of fascism in 1930s Italy.

At long last, Paramount has released a DVD of The Conformist, including a three-part special on the making of the film that includes interviews with Bertolucci and Storaro. This DVD, the most anticipated foreign-film release of the year, does justice to the film (which I saw on the big screen early in 2006) and sheds light on its sometimes frustratingly oblique approach.

The title character is Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant). We first meet him in a hotel room fitted out with ornate, antique furniture, surrounding his nervous movements and ’30s private-eye appearance with traditional elegance. Already there seems to be some sort of disconnect between Marcello and his surroundings. Marcello soon is shown riding in a car with Manganiello (Gastone Moschin), an affably viperish operative for the Italian fascists. From here on, most of the film is shown in flashback as we watch Marcello move from privileged childhood to fledgling spy for the Italian government.

Marcello is friends with a blind fascist named Italo (José Quaglio). This not-very-subtle symbol for Italy under Mussolini broadcasts fascist propaganda on the radio and introduces an eager Marcello to the Colonel (Fosco Giachetti), who can help Marcello realize his ambitions. Marcello enters a monumental building, his tiny figure like an ant moving across a vast marble expanse. He enters the wrong room for a brief moment and catches a glimpse of a ranking fascist seducing a woman in mourning attire who is laying across his desk. Marcello’s and the woman’s eyes meet for an instant. Excusing himself quietly, Marcello goes on to the Colonel’s office.

Marcello offers to try to infiltrate the antifascist movement through his former philosophy professor, a middle-aged man named Quadri (Enzo Tarascio) who is a self-exile in Paris. The Colonel knows Marcello is not a true believer, nor is he being bribed to work for the fascists. The Colonel cannot guess Marcello’s motive for signing on to the cause, but he willingly accepts. When the Colonel learns Marcello is soon to be married, he considers a honeymoon in Paris as the ideal cover.

A happy Marcello goes to dine with his fiancee Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli) and her mother (Yvonne Sanson). Giulia is a simple-minded bourgeois whom Marcello chose because of her sheer ordinariness, her good looks, and her sexually eager nature. He teases her about their honeymoon destination, and she teases him with an invitation to love right on the carpet of the sitting room. (This invitation must have been the inspiration for a similar offer from Angelica Huston to Jack Nicholson in Prizzi’s Honor.) Giulia’s black-and-white striped dress and the shadows created by the light coming through the blinds suggest a noirish atmosphere, but moreso a rigid geometry surrounding Marcello. His desire, like all fascists, is for strict order.

The Clericis’ train makes a stop before they proceed to Paris. Marcello moves quickly along a dock, moving behind a painting at an outdoor market of a boat on a dockside, and emerging from behind the painting into the exact scene it depicted. Marcello meets Manganiello in a boathouse where the older fascist is being entertained by a red-haired whore. Manganiello sends her over to greet his friend. He takes one look at her and hugs her close. Marcello is given a handgun, and in a move that frightens Manganiello, points it straight at the him. Marcello then assumes a couple more attitudes with the gun, practicing not only how to hold and aim it, but also to look like a man who holds, aims, and fires guns. Instead of infiltrating the Quadri antifascist cell, he is ordered to kill the man.

Once the newlyweds are ensconced in their hotel room (the room we saw in the opening scene), Marcello phones Quadri to suggest a meeting for old times’ sake. Quadri invites the Clericis over for tea. They are greeted at the door by a large dog and Anna Quadri (Dominique Sanda). Marcello seems thunderstruck by her, and we get the distinct impression that they know each other. In fact, Sanda played the woman in black and the whore. She is clearly the woman of Marcello’s dreams, and he spends the rest of his trip to Paris pursuing her.

For her part, Anna distrusts Marcello and has her eye on Giulia. The two women go out shopping for gowns they can wear dancing, and while they prepare for the evening out, Anna has sexual contact with an initially angry and then willing Giulia. Immediately after this encounter, Anna goes to Marcello and falls into his arms. Her interest in Marcello, however, is to plead with him to spare her life and that of her husband.

Manganiello has tried to contact Marcello, but having lost his taste for his task because it puts Anna in danger, Marcello dodges him. Finally, there can be no more delay. We return to the present, as the two men follow the Quadris up a snow-covered mountain road as they make their way to their vacation home outside of Paris. The Quadris’ way is blocked by a car that has skidded in front of them, the driver apparently stricken. Manganiello blocks their way from behind. Against Anna’s cautions, her husband leaves the car to check on the other driver. At that moment, a number of trench-coated fascists – Marcello’s and Manganiello’s coconspirators – emerge from the surrounding woods and set upon Quadri with knifes in a scene reminiscent of the assassination of Julius Caesar. Anna flees her car and spies Marcello in the backseat of the rear car. She bangs on his window, wailing like an animal for his help. He might have helped her or mercifully shot her to end her misery, but he sits by and does nothing. She runs off and is stalked and shot dead in a scene of utter brutality.

The film fast-forwards to the end of the war. Marcello plays with his young daughter as the household listens to the radio in their house in Rome as news of Mussolini’s arrest and demonstrations throughout the city rings out. Giulia reminisces regretfully about the Quadris, but forgives Marcello for his fascist loyalty. “It was good for your career,” she says in unreflexive, bourgeois justification. Italo calls Marcello for help, and Marcello grabs his coat, though it is dangerous for known fascists to be in the streets. Giulia tries to stop him, but he says he must go, that he wants to see what it looks like when a dictatorship falls. On the street, he has an encounter that upsets everything he ever believed about himself and turns him into a raging lunatic. His fascist control is gone from inside him as well as from the city that swallows him up in the night.

So what is it that drives Marcello? What is it that he believes about himself that leads him to pursue social conformity in spite of the irrational urges that spill forth when he is confronted with Anna and her lookalikes? We are led to believe that a homosexual encounter Marcello had when he was 14 that resulted in him shooting his seducer has made him feel different. Bertolucci and Storaro state in the DVD interviews that it is the shooting that set him apart as a killer in his own mind, but I think there is much more going on than that. The man who seduced him was his chauffeur, and this man rescued the young Marcello from the tauntings of his schoolmates, who had attempted to remove his pants. So, we see right away that he doesn’t fit in, perhaps because of his family’s wealth, perhaps because he has betrayed some hint of homosexual longing.

Before Marcello marries Giulia, he goes with his morphine-addicted mother (Milly) to see his father (Giuseppe Addobbati), who has been institutionalized in an insane asylum (in fact, a massive building constructed at Mussolini’s orders). It would certainly not surprise me if Marcello was a little touched himself, or at the very least, fearful of being overtaken by the madness that felled his father and drove his mother’s addiction. Those who seek to fence out the irrational will naturally gravitate to the safe, narrow tracks of society’s rules, and certainly to fascism. (It’s easy to see how the neoconservatism of modern times that bears a strong resemblance to fascism might have arisen from the sexually and politically open 1960s and ’70s.)

Marcello’s attitude toward women is at least as repressed as his other urges. When the Quadris and Clericis go out for Chinese food and dancing, Anna asks Giulia to dance. The two do a seductive tango that disturbs the conventional couples on the dance floor and scandalizes Marcello. Quadri is content with their behavior: “They both look so pretty.” He has accepted the bisexual Anna as she is, whereas Marcello holds his wife in contempt and thinks nothing of abandoning her on their honeymoon for Anna. While he may feel an irresistible regard for Anna, it is, perhaps, more threatening to think that his conventional wife is more sexually liberated that he could have imagined. As the ultimate irrational in a man’s psyche, women must be as predictable as possible for the man Marcello desperately wants to become.

The central metaphor of this film is Plato’s cave. When Marcello and his old professor meet, Marcello reminds Quadri of the lesson about the prisoners chained to face the back of a cave, seeing only the shadows of the objects moving behind them. As in Plato’s cave, Marcello himself seems to be a shadow. This is emphasized when Marcello’s shadow on the wall of Quadri’s study vanishes when the professor opens the window blinds.

Like all of Bertolucci’s films, The Conformist is deeply sensual. Storaro provides sumptuous visual effects that make the film appear to be a dream inside a dream. Bertolucci says in the DVD interview that he always thought it was a shame that films had to be edited from the daily rushes. For him, the rushes represent the unfiltered creativity of the entire enterprise. Nonetheless, Storaro and film editor Franco Arcalli manage to keep an impressionistic, almost surrealist feel even as they create a mood and narrative drive that build from illusion to horror. Lead actor Jean-Louis Trintignant is just a little too cryptic for my tastes. He doesn’t suggest depths under still waters, and I think that would have helped this film in its first half. Marcello is a part made for Matt Damon. As heretical is this may seem, Alberto Moravia’s novel on which this film is based may be due for a reinterpretation. Of course, no one should, or will, ever remake The Conformist. 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. l

13th 08 - 2006 | 2 comments »

The Singing Detective (TV, 1986)

Director: Jon Amiel
Writer: Dennis Potter


By Marilyn Ferdinand

There are songs to sing, there are feelings to feel, there are thoughts to think. That makes three things, and you can’t do three things at the same time. The singing is easy, syrup in my mouth, and the thinking comes with the tune, so that leaves only the feelings. Am I right, or am I right? I can sing the singing. I can think the thinking. But you’re not going to catch me feeling the feeling. No, sir. —Detective Philip Marlow, The Singing Detective

In 1986, the 6-part miniseries The Singing Detective exploded onto British TV screens like a bomb during the Blitz—a bold, inventive exploration into the heart of darkness and the rise to redemption of one man, Philip E. Marlow, a writer of detective novels who suffers from a horrifying case of psoriatic arthropathy. Reactions were equally strong, and mixed. Some viewers decried the play (as writer Dennis Potter and his colleagues always called them) as obscene and an unpleasant way to relax at home. Others were moved by the raw emotional journey of a deeply troubled man. When the series came to U.S. television the following year, the raves were unanimous. Dennis Potter had conquered America.

Dennis Potter was the son of a miner who grew up in the Forest of Dean, on the English side of the border with Wales in Glochestershire. A rural, isolated place with a unique, archaic dialect, the Forest was Potter’s refuge and creative source after he had left it for an education at Oxford and a successful career as a writer of television plays during the golden age of television drama at the BBC. While all of Potter’s plays deal with his obsessions, particularly sex, The Singing Detective is his most autobiographical work.

Potter suffered from chronic psoriatic arthropathy, a disfiguring illness characterized by inflamed, flaking skin and pain and stiffness in the joints. Potter had to wear pajamas under his clothes with their pantlegs tucked into his socks to prevent a trail of dead skin from following him wherever he went. He spent considerable time in hospital, and that is where his stand-in, Marlow (Michael Gambon), spends the duration of this series, lost in a sea of memories, fever-induced delirium, and battles with patients, doctors, nurses, and his wife Nicola (Janet Suzman).

When we first encounter Marlow, it is on his admittance to the mockingly named Sherpa Tensay ward of a London hospital inhabited primarily by cardiac patients. Most have been confined to their beds there for a long time, and their peculiarities are on full display. Mr. Hall (David Ryall) is a fussy, lonely complainer who is irritated routinely with Reginald (Gerard Horan), whose bed is next to Hall’s but who constantly has his nose in a detective novel. (Later, Reggie and Hall will be surprised that the author of the book Reggie is reading, The Singing Detective, has been sharing their ward with them.) We get an immediate sense of the boredom and rhythms of the ward as Hall squabbles to a half-listening Reggie and mumbles across the room at the loathsome Nurse White (Imelda Staunton), who has yet again started the beverage trolley rounds on the other side of the room.

Marlow arrives bellowing in pain and yelling at the orderly to draw the curtains around his bed as he changes into his pajama top. When we see the horrible flaking on his back, we understand the humiliation Marlow must be feeling. It is compounded when the pretty Nurse Mills (Joanne Whalley) rubs grease on his thighs, causing him to have an erection and climax on her. He tries to explain, but only succeeds in embarrassing her and himself more. Marlow is emotionally and sexually repressed, and it is tempting to consider his outward appearance a reflection of an inner filth.

Soon thereafter, a team of doctors comes to visit him. The senior physician asks questions of Marlow, only to be answered by the attending doctors who flank him. In a fit of pique, Marlow interjects, “Why is it when you lose your health the entire medical profession takes it as axiomatic you’ve also lost your mind?” and then begins a tearful, impassioned plea for understanding. The doctors, bone dry of the milk of human kindness, immediately discuss a mental health consult and start naming medications to improve his attitude. At this point, Marlow hallucinates an incredible production number to the song “Dry Bones” and featuring lip-synching and dancing doctors, nurses in white showgirl costumes, and gaudy lighting.

The musical numbers are a large part of this work, all songs from the 30s, and all lip-synched as Marlow’s father used to do at a local Forest pub. Potter was a man who believed in the ideals expressed in these songs, that life really was full of love and purest longing. The contrasting of such tunes as “After You’ve Gone,” “The Teddy Bear Picnic,” and “We’ll Meet Again,” with the harsh realities of the ward, Marlow’s condition, and the crucible traumas Marlow suffered as a boy both reflect and deflect real events.

Marlow also writes a new Singing Detective novel in his head to pass the time, a tale of espionage that involves a client named Mark Binney (Patrick Malahide) who comes to the character of Detective Marlow after a Russian whore he met the night before in the Skinskapes nighclub and slept with ends up dead in the Thames. The imaginative scenes use the language of a Raymond Chandler novel, not the sort of thing Marlow had set out to write. When asked by Dr. Gibbon (Bill Paterson), the psychotherapist he finally agrees to see, what sort of writer he really would have wanted to be, Marlow gives the somewhat surprising answer that he would have wanted to write praises to a loving and merciful god. Yet he heaps contempt upon some evangelical Christians led by one of the doctors who invade the ward for a revival meeting. When the doctor loses his temper and says, “those who are not with us are against us,” we realize that Marlow may not be as jaded as he seems and can smell a phony a mile away.

Or can he? He is also filled with paranoia, particularly toward his wife, whom he believes is trying to steal a screenplay from him for her lover, Finney (Malahide), to pass off as his own to a Hollywood producer. This paranoid fantasy intercuts with memories Dr. Gibbon stirs of his childhood in the Forest, his parents’ unhappy marriage, and an injustice he committed against a schoolmate that has haunted him all his life. The series intercuts each thread–the present, the hallucinations, the past, and the novel–as a kind of detective story of its own. We try to piece together the “truth” along with Marlow, and are fed clues—fragments of scenes that grow longer and more revealing as the series moves along and we watch Marlow progress physically and emotionally. It boggles the mind how Potter sustained and expanded upon all these threads over the course of nearly seven hours. The writing is literate and absolutely brilliant, and the cinematography and direction give us parallel movements (a raised hand reminds Marlow of his father [Jim Carter] waving good-bye at a train station) and line readings that can be interpreted in more than one way. He even leaves us with one “truth” about Philip’s mother of which we may never be sure.

The cast is first-rate. I found Lyndon Davies, the young actor who plays Philip at age 10, particularly spellbinding. His earnest, open feelings and sad face while he prays to God from the top of a tree give the poignancy needed to feel sympathy for the adult Marlow at his most venomous. Michael Gambon’s tour de force performance ranks among the finest you will ever see on stage, screen, or television.

A work of this magnitude has many, many surprises and rewards I will leave for the viewer to discover, not the least of which is the exquisite evocation of the Forest of Dean and its people. What is most important about The Singing Detective is the profoundly unsparing humanity it offers its audience. No, this is not a show of escapism. This is meat and sinew, bone and blood. This is nourishment for the mind and the soul, both of which were deeply precious to Potter. Thank goodness there was a time when television writers talked up, not down, to their audience. Let’s hope such a time comes again. l

Dennis Potter contributed the screenplay for the 2003 film The Singing Detective, starring Robert Downey, Jr. This is a highly truncated, but still interesting work that I enjoyed. DVD recordings of The Singing Detective miniseries are available. The BBC Video version has a nice extras disc with reactions to the show from the time, an interview with Potter, and a short documentary about Potter, among other features. Finally, a viewing of Dennis Potter: The Last Interview is a must.

30th 06 - 2006 | 2 comments »

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

Directors: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

By Marilyn Ferdinand

It is my considered opinion that the collaboration between Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger was the greatest of its kind in the history of entertainment. How many directors could claim such genuine masterpieces as I Know Where I’m Going!, Black Narcissus, A Matter of Life and Death, The Red Shoes, One of Our Aircraft Is Missing, and of course, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp—Pressburger’s favorite film—and serve as writers and producers for many of their films? I could have chosen any of these films, which I view regularly, to write about, but Colonel Blimp is so decidedly British that I think of it as an ideal introduction to this decidedly British team. (Never mind that Pressburger was Hungarian. He was a fervent Anglophile most of his life.)

Colonel Blimp is an early entry in the Powell/Pressburger canon, but it already has a consistent point of view that would be a hallmark of the team. It also includes a number of their informal stock company—Roger Livesey, previously seen in I Know Where I’m Going!; Anton Walbrook, cast later in The Red Shoes; Deborah Kerr, later the star of Black Narcissus; John Laurie, also from I Know Where I’m Going!; and second-unit cameraman Jack Cardiff, whose distinguished career as a cinematographer would include several Powell/Pressburger films, most notably Black Narcissus.

A Powell/Pressburger film always seems wistful, watching its characters balance between tradition, honor, and simplicity and a magnetic modern world. Interestingly, Powell/Pressburger women generally are very strong-minded and ambitious, a focal point for the tension between modernity and tradition in most of the team’s films. Colonel Blimp, therefore, is a bit of an anomaly by placing General Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey) at the center of the vortex, a career soldier whose fair-fight ethos slams up against the ruthlessness of 20th century warfare. Nonetheless, the three women in Wynne-Candy’s life during the 40-year span of the film—all played by Deborah Kerr—become the embodiment for him of the ideal, the never-changing aspects of his world view.


The film begins in the present, with a messenger speeding on a motorbike to deliver a message to a young British officer awaiting orders about a military exercise, the very picture of the revved-up modern world. “War starts at midnight. Make it real,” the message says. The officer decides to make it very real by launching a sneak attack before midnight. He surprises Wynne-Candy, the head of the Home Guard, in his club’s Turkish bath and declares him and every other sweating body in view prisoners of war. Wynne-Candy protests that the war doesn’t start until midnight, to which the brash officer replies that by launching a surprise attack, he was making it “real.” He adds insult to injury by declaring that he will never become as complacent as the fat, moustachioed Wynne-Candy. This remark enrages the general, and he dunks the officer in the bath while upbraiding him that he has no idea how Wynne-Candy came to have his belly and his moustache. Since we in the audience don’t know either, Powell and Pressburger oblige us with the rest of the movie, a flashback begining in the Turkish bath wherein lingers a young Clive Candy just back from the Boer War, humming an opera tune, “Je suis Titania,” from Ambroise Thomas’ Mignon that will create an incident later in the film.


Candy has written about his experiences in South Africa for a London newspaper, and a letter from an English tutor in Germany, Edith Hunter (Kerr), finds its way to him. The letter urges him to come to Berlin and stop horrible rumors of torture and other atrocities being spread about the British forces in South Africa. Against his CO’s directive, Candy travels to Berlin, where he meets Miss Hunter. She takes him to a cafe frequented by the rumor monger Kaunitz (David Ward) where Candy can confront him. Kaunitz’s crowd and Candy alternately bribe the cafe band to play their respective songs (“Je suis Titania” in Candy’s case), and Kaunitz at last becomes enraged by Candy’s interference. The two men trade insults until Kaunitz spits in Candy’s face, and Candy punches him. The incident results in a formal challenge to a duel.

The rituals attendant to the duel are laid out very carefully and in great detail. The courtesies observed for this barbaric feud-settler give the viewer a very clear idea of how seriously the phrase “officer and gentleman” was taken when Candy cut his teeth. Because Candy’s insult was to the entire German army, any of its officers can duel with him. The task falls to a reluctant Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook), whom Candy has never met.


The audience is treated to only the opening parries of the duel as the camera dollies up and out a high window of the gymnasium where it is taking place. The directors let a nurse relate the results. Candy has nearly had his upper lip cut off. This injury is the reason behind Candy’s moustache. Edith attends him and Theo, who is recuperating from a slashed forehead at the same nursing home. Candy and Theo become fast friends who share the same sense of duty while recognizing that they never had a real quarrel. When at last Candy and Edith are able to return to England, Theo sheepishly confesses that he and Edith have fallen in love. Candy enthusiastically congratulates Theo, but when Edith gives him a kiss good-bye, Candy realizes that he has fallen in love with her.

The second act takes us to World War I, and Candy is on the move in France. Unable to reach his destination, he finds food and shelter at a French convent, where he spies a nurse, Barbara Wynne (Kerr), who bears a striking resemblance to Edith. He ascertains some particulars about her which he will use to track her down at home. Soon, he receives the news that the Armistice has been negotiated, and Candy is delighted that victory was won without resort to dirty pool.


His sportsmanlike regard for the Germans seems naive and even moreso when he meets up with Theo in a POW camp some months later, after he has wooed and won Barbara. Theo snubs him, but later phones before he is shipped back to Germany to apologize. Wynne-Candy invites him over to dine with some distinguished gentlemen. All express supreme confidence that England will bail Germany out of its difficulties. Theo sneers at this assembly when he is with his fellow officers on the train, calling them children. Theo recognizes that the rules of the game are changed, and were changing as early as Theo and Clive’s first meeting when vicious slurs were being used in Germany to discredit the English.

Act III is, of course, set during World War II. The home Clive and Barbara inherited from Clive’s beloved Aunt Margaret (Muriel Aked) is bombed. No longer able to fight in combat, Wynne-Candy becomes head of the Home Guards. He encounters Theo yet again as he is trying to enter England as a refugee. Edith has died and their two sons have become Nazis. He says he grew “homesick” for England, pure and simple, the home of his beloved wife. Clive pulls some strings to see that he is granted asylum but fails to grasp the evil and lawlessness of Nazism that Theo begs him to see. Clive still believes that a war fought fairly is a winning strategy and the only honorable conduct for military men. When their evening together has passed, Wynne-Candy asks his driver Angela “Johnny” Cannon (Kerr) to take Theo to his hotel. Theo is struck by Johnny’s resemblance to Edith and realizes that what Clive told him is true—Clive never got over his love for Edith. The closing scene has Clive standing near the site of his bombed house, which is now a water reservoir. He is reminded of a promise he made Barbara on the steps of that house, and announces his compliance: “I still haven’t changed.”


I realize I may have tried your patience with this lengthy synopsis, but I didn’t convey even the half of it. This is a rich and intricate look at 40 years in the life of a career soldier from England’s upper class, but curiously titled. During the period in which Clive Wynne-Candy lived, a cartoon character named Colonel Blimp was created by David Low. Blimp was a snobbish, reactionary buffoon whose preposterous statements were barbs aimed directly at the anti-democratic policies of the British government. It’s hard to reconcile the cartoon Colonel Blimp with the honorable and lovable Wynne-Candy. They live as one in one respect—a blindness to change and a stubborn belief in the rightness of their own convictions. I surmise, therefore, that the title refers to the life and death of an ideal as the ritualistic honor of the career soldier gave way to a people’s army and the brutality of modern warfare. In this respect, Colonel Blimp is a much more realistic and unblinking look at the passing of a modern age of chivalry than the similarly themed Grand Illusion.

The performances are uniformly outstanding. Indeed, Kerr was never better, creating three distinct women that Clive never really sees for what they are. The look of this film is lush on the homefront and gritty on the field of battle. A fine example of the film’s exquisite economy of storytelling is the sequence in which we see Aunt Margaret’s blank study walls fill up, scattershot, with the heads of wild animals Candy bagged during peacetime to keep himself occupied. This sequence, shot by Jack Cardiff, sealed his fate alongside Powell and Pressburger making several movie masterpieces. An extra on the DVD of the film mentions that Winston Churchill tried to suppress the movie for its sympathetic and nuanced portrayal of a German and because Churchill wanted to dispel the notion that Colonel Blimps still had a place in the modern British army. Actor/director Stephen Fry, who was filmed for this extra, mused that, in fact, Churchill himself was Blimp. Whatever you may think of that assessment, there can be no doubt that the “Blimp” of this extraordinary film is anything but a blustering windbag. He does the British Army and his creators, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, proud. l

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