21st 03 - 2012 | 5 comments »

Hell to Eternity (1960)

Director: Phil Karlson

By Roderick Heath

Phil Karlson is one of those indispensable figures for the enterprising movie fan in search of lost heroes: a jobbing studio hand with a chequered career whose touch, nonetheless, betrays for the attentive a wealth of individuality manifest in scattered gems. Karlson started off with C-grade screen filler in the ’40s, and finished up helming gaudy cult flicks like Ben (1972), Walking Tall (1973), and a couple of Matt Helm movies; in between, he managed to produce a run of deeply eccentric and richly textured little noir films, including the belatedly beloved likes of Kansas City Confidential (1952), 99 River Street (1953), 5 Against the House and The Phenix City Story (both 1955). Karlson’s vivid sense of storytelling, with a special feel for moments of intense violence, combined in his best work with a discursive approach to structuring scenes and absorbing character that was rare in the era’s cinema. Karlson anticipates the likes of Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese, the latter of whom has included Karlson in the long list of film influences on him. Karlson’s heroes tended to be cynical proto-hipsters or hard-scrabble, blue-collar guys and girls alienated from their own society, and several of his films dealt with racial persecution and social conflict.

Just as his noir films are joyfully strange, Hell to Eternity, a film based on the life story of Guy Gabaldon, is one I saw once many years ago and could never get out of my head. Revisiting it recently, I realized why: it’s a rowdy, dirty-minded, defiantly deromanticised film that’s a fascinating marker in the era of the decline of the old studios and the oncoming age of a new realism. Karlson’s best films greatly resemble Samuel Fuller’s in taking on meaty subjects with a hard wallop to the metaphorical jaw. Although Karlson ultimately lacked the spiky individualism that irresistibly endeared Fuller to critics and filmmakers even when his career almost entirely foundered, Karlson’s films, often just as bold in their subversion and raw in style, are just as deceptively sophisticated.

This film’s uniqueness is partly disguised by its god-awful title, which tries all too obviously to suggest a melding of the Audie Murphy biopic To Hell and Back (1955) and Fred Zinneman’s From Here to Eternity (1953). Karlson’s film commences during the Depression. Young Guy (Richard Eyer) is a member of a multiracial gang, getting into brawls with the blond Neanderthals in his California schoolyard. Japanese-American schoolteacher Kaz Une (George Shibata), father of Guy’s friend George, is disturbed by Guy’s semi-sadomasochistic displays of bravado and antisocial anger, and drives him home one day to discover he’s been living alone in his house because his gravely ill mother has been hospitalised. Kaz takes Guy to live with him, and Guy swiftly finds unexpected love and unity with the Une clan, including Kaz’s parents (Bob Okazaki and Tsuru Aoki), a couple of harmless, lovable old moths who could have stumbled in directly from an Ozu film. Mother Une begins teaching Guy Japanese, and Guy responds by helping her with her English, a task he’s surprised that none of Kaz’s younger siblings have tried. After his mother dies, Guy becomes a permanent member of the clan and remains virulently aggressive towards anyone turning racist epithets on his family as he matures into the virile form of Jeffrey Hunter. His life reaches a singular and historical crisis point when Guy, as a favor to George (played when grown by an absurdly young George Takei), takes George’s crush Ester (Miiko Taka) out to find out what she thinks of George. When they stop at a fast food joint, insults are thrown her way. Guy assaults the big mouth, only to learn that everyone’s hot under the collar because Pearl Harbor’s just been bombed.

The Unes are soon collectively bustled off to the American internment camps, or, as Guy angrily calls them, concentration camps by another name, in a blunt sequence that concludes with Guy left utterly alone, the bland and friendly suburb he’s grown up turned into a ghost town in the blink of an eye. Ironically, as his family adapts to their exiled circumstances and his brothers are able to join the famous 442nd Regiment, he’s rejected as a 4F. He eddies in frustration and anger at the government until he’s finally inducted into the Marines,because of the desperate need for translators. Guy, never particularly at ease with authority, clashes with raucous Sgt. Bill Hazen (David Janssen) and bests him in a judo match-up, which, of course, cements their subsequent friendship. They’re both attached to a special unit composed largely of skilled, hardened warriors from the Pacific theater being put together for a new campaign, and along with another friend from boot camp, Corp. Pete Lewis (Vic Damone), they raise hell in Honolulu before being shipped out to join in the landings on Saipan, an island colonised and garrisoned by huge numbers of Japanese, and about to become the site of a bloody and protracted death match.

Hell to Eternity bends aspects of Gabaldon’s tale a little: there’s no mention of the fact he was of Latino background, and the actual reason it took him so long to be accepted into the army was because he was still only 17 when he was accepted in 1943. But Gabaldon acted as advisor on the film, and presumably signed off on all that followed. The film fits nominally in with the run of ’50s war movies based on true stories, with their focus on interesting individual experiences of the war, and the sudden onrush of movies about racism and tolerance that began to increase in frequency, urgency, and bluntness throughout the decade. Karlson’s film in that regard is less like the message movies of Stanley Kramer and more reminiscent of the likes of Delmer Daves’ Broken Arrow (1950) and Kings Go Forth (1958), and Fuller’s The Crimson Kimono (1960), in blending the drama with other generic concerns. Karlson doesn’t merely present racial harmony as the only sane option, but fills the film with violently neurotic energy, as the characters are caught between world views and melodramatic crises that expose their conflicts on macrocosmic levels. But Karlson’s film, on another level, couldn’t give a damn about the message aspect of the story, compelled as Karlson really is by Gabaldon as a character, a man filled with anger at his own society and soon filled with it again by the enemy in a war zone, a man whose fractured psyche, informed by his strange, almost Candide-like variety of experiences and outsider perspective on the era, drives him to near nihilism and lunacy before finally turning him into a rare kind of hero. Hunter, an actor of whom I’ve never been greatly fond, gives what is almost certainly his best performance, coherently inhabiting Guy’s emotional extremes.

Most ’50s war films out of Hollywood sadly tended to be rather plastic, best if they stuck strictly to combat. A lot of solid war novels, like Leon Uris’ Battle Cry and Irwin Shaw’s The Young Lions, and other projects that tried to depict not merely raw warfare but the sexual and emotional lives of young men engaged in profound adventures of body and mind hit the screens so bogged down with prestige, prettification, and pandering that they finished up weak and interchangeable. Hell to Eternity is infinitely less self-important, possessed of a gamy vigour and a refreshingly disreputable, gritty, semi-anarchic feel, beyond even what Stanley Kubrick and David Lean then dared put in their war movies. Hell to Eternity instead looks forward, in its cruder way, to the raucous, earthy sensibility of Sam Peckinpah, whose ’60s films, like Major Dundee (1965) and The Wild Bunch (1969), have a similar feel for the overflowing joie de vivre of men who are ironically trapped in lethal situations, as well as the seamy reality of violence. Remember how Bonnie and Clyde (1967) was supposedly the first film to openly defy the Hays Code convention about not showing a gun fired and the person shot in the same frame? Well, Karlson does it here years earlier, and with the same DP, Burnett Guffey, in a sequence that’s amazing for other reasons too. Long before The Wild Bunch, Karlson depicts bursting bullet wounds close up in the midst of a grueling sequence in which Gabaldon, maddened by Hazen’s death, stalks the battlefield flushing out exhausted, wounded, and starving Japanese soldiers and shoots them in the back.

Hell to Eternity is therefore curiously anticipatory and modern in both aspects of technique, and in the tangle of raw violence and ripe sexuality that makes it into the film. Karlson had a peculiar, indulgent interest in simply watching his characters behave on screen, and a particular genius for depicting what I might call the intricacies of homosocial behaviour, or put more simply, guys hanging out. In this attribute, he is reminiscent of Ford and Hawks, but more distinctly modern in tone and attitude, less romanticised. 5 Against The House blended a heist drama not only with portraiture of the psychological damage and social difficulties of former soldiers, but also with a flip and funny collegiate playfulness, especially in its lengthy, discursive opening, that looks forward to the likes of Robert Altman’s MASH (1970) (in fact, 5 Against the House can be described glibly, but with some accuracy as “Animal House goes Rififi.” For its part, Hell to Eternity’s middle sequence in Honolulu offers for no particular reason, except to get some T&A into the tale and to suit Karlson’s taste for an epic, oddball sequence of pure behaviour, the quest of Guy, Hazen, and Lewis to get drunk and laid in roughly that order.

Guy scams a taxi driver out of a load of booze, and, hitting the nightclubs, Guy uses his linguistic skills to hook some Japanese-American B-girls, whilst Hazen points out to Lewis the Mount Everest of conquests, journalist Sheila Lincoln (Patricia Owens), stationed in Honolulu to report on the great enterprise of young men going off to war, and whose ability to brush off the most charming GI lothario has confounded all comers so far. “She writes that everyone should give their all to the enlisted man, but she don’t practice what she preaches!” Hazen murmurs with the ruefulness of one who’s tried. But Sheila does accept an invitation to a party from Lewis, only for the party to prove just a drunken orgy in a hotel room, where another one of the girls the boys have managed to pick up proves to be a former stripper who gives a show, whipping Hazen and Lewis into a frenzy. Sheila, after guzzling liquor with gusto whilst sitting apparently cold and disdainful all night, suddenly arises to do her own striptease, whereupon the males do a fair impression of Tex Avery’s big bad wolf, and Guy finishes up making out with Sheila on the veranda. This whole movement of the film is glorious in its unapologetically discursive, seamy fashion, lending the film an edge of B-movie sexploitation and superfluity. But Karlson lets it unfold as if it’s really the raison d’être of his film, possibly torn directly from somebody’s memory, maybe Gabaldon’s, maybe Karlson’s, maybe those of screenwriters Ted Sherdeman and Walter Roeber Schmidt—or perhaps they just wished it happened to them. What it clearly does is capture the explosive, incantatory sensual energy of the characters who soon will be venturing into war and the women close to them. It also feels like an attempt to show how the scenes with Frank Sinatra, Monty Clift, and Donna Reed in From Here to Eternity should really have played. In any event, Karlson offers the sexual gamesmanship, frank carnality, and almost blackly comic contrasts of character and situation—with Janssen’s excitement reaching near-lunacy, and Guy, already a practiced seducer, conquering Mount Everest almost casually—with a fearless intensity that lingers long in the mind. Either way, it’s like barely anything in Hollywood cinema between the late silent era and the mid ’60s.

Perhaps such carnality and camaraderie is so emphasised because Hell to Eternity isn’t in any sense a typical war movie celebrating a hero’s competence with violence, but whose gifts for bridging cultures and charming people give him a chance to transcend war. This film is the wicked twin to Sergeant York (1941), revolving as it does around a hero whose heroism is, surprisingly, about saving lives in the midst of carnage and finding unexpected common humanity—except Guy’s not a goody-two-shoes but a man furious with the world, and for whom love and hatred are forever closely related. When the warriors actually hit the beaches of Saipan, the film turns into a grueling, slaughter-clogged slog across country, anticipating Terence Malick’s version of it The Thin Red Line (1998), and in a set-piece sequence in which a band of Japanese defenders, rather than surrender, mass for a banzai charge that engulfs the Americans. Suddenly they’re hurled back into the warfare of centuries past where what hand-to-hand combat skills they have must keep them alive, and the film turns into a Kurosawa movie.

Lewis dies in this battle, and the survivors overlook the aftermath of astounding carnage, ground strewn with corpses. Hazen is killed shortly afterwards by enemy soldiers on the charge, and Guy becomes somewhat unhinged. Where before he had difficulty shooting anyone, he becomes near psychopathic, and where he had used his language skills to talk individual soldiers and pockets of resistance into surrender, he now drops grenades on them and flushes the exhausted and ruined men out to meet his gun. By the end of the ’60s perhaps it wouldn’t be so odd to see a movie protagonist acting in such a fashion, but even then, not usually a hero and a real war hero to boot. It’s revealing then that Gabaldon let himself be portrayed in such a fashion, and it gives force to the feeling, coming on top of the film’s frankness about unfairness of the internment camps and even the dirty playfulness of the Honolulu scenes, that Hell to Eternity is perhaps the most morally complex, honest, and tough-minded American war movie of its era, in its conception of war as a place where any individual can act on both the best and the most bestial impulses within themselves, depending on the pressures in any given moment.

Finally Guy’s CO, Capt. Schwabe (John Larch), tries to intervene, weakly at first (“I’m not saying what you’re doing is wrong, but…”), and then by trying to talk him into resuming his translation work by taking him to watch the spectacle of Japanese civilians hurling themselves off cliffs in obedience to the Emperor: Guy sees his family in the innocents casting themselves to their deaths, and this shocks him out his murderous phase. Finally, he and another soldier locate the underground dugout being used by the Japanese commander, Gen. Matsui (Sessue Hayakawa), and are able to eavesdrop on him ordering his men to stage one last suicide charge. Guy assaults the dugout and takes the general captive, the two men engaging in a duel of wits that, oddly, evokes the deceptions and gamesmanship of the Honolulu scenes, as Matsui, like the reporter, plays coy whilst testing the mettle of his opponent. Guy outsmarts him by not revealing his knowledge of Japanese until Matsui tries to trick him, and Guy finally convinces Matsui to forego the hopeless destruction of the remnant of his army, which, when they go out to see it, proves to be a mass of barely clothed, starving, ruined humans: “God, what a pathetic sight!” Guy says with a mix of disgust, contempt, and pity. Karlson stages an unforgettable climactic shot as Matsui commits seppuku after ordering his men to surrender, sinking to his knees and dying with Guy at his side and the column of his soldiers moving past, barely able to spare their dying commander a nod as they trudge toward the safety Guy has given them. All that’s left is for one of Guy’s fellow soldiers to bestow on him the unofficial title of “Pied Piper of Saipan” as his soldiers see him leading this unlikely exodus.

21st 01 - 2012 | 4 comments »

Floating Clouds (Ukigumo, 1955)

Director: Mikio Naruse

By Marilyn Ferdinand

There is a fine line between love and obsession, and perhaps cultural norms are the deciding factor. Here in the West, ex-lovers who can’t let go have been given a fairly new label—stalkers. Back when Floating Clouds was new, steadfastness in love wasn’t seen as something so sinister in either the West or the East; in fact, unrequited love was the basis for many satisfying love stories, including such classics as Jezebel, Gone with the Wind, and the ultra-romantic Wuthering Heights. Mikio Naruse, a man who lived a desperately unhappy life and whose protracted estrangement from his actress wife Sachiko Chiba during the 1940s led to divorce, offers a mainly unsentimental, even jaundiced look at love. Yet, no love affair starts unhappily; Naruse’s wistful look at the beginning of the affair is the flower struggling for light in a crowded field of weeds.

A flashback to the first meeting of Yukiko Koda (Hideko Takamine, Naruse’s regular leading lady) and Kengo Tomioka (Masayuki Mori) in a rural area of Japanese-occupied Indochina during World War II follows shortly after Yukiko has shown up at Tomioka’s Tokyo house, which he shares with his aging, sickly wife Kuniko (Chieko Nakakita). Yukiko knew he was married from the first, but she believes he will welcome her return to Japan and fulfill his promise to divorce Kuniko and marry her. Tomioka agrees to walk with her, one of many walks the couple will take during the film, but he says that their passion died when they left Dalat. Tomioka’s behavior during the film—sending Kuniko away so he can sell their house out from under her and start one of several doomed business ventures, enticing the young wife (Mariko Okada) of a gracious host (Nobuo Kaneko) away from him, using and rejecting Yukiko—marks him as an opportunistic cad who does not, maybe cannot, return Yukiko’s affection.

In a defeated and battered Japan, however, Yukiko has nothing to cling to but her bliss with Tomioka, born in the heightened reality of wartime and displacement. Keeping alive memories and feelings in the face of bitter disappointment, subsistence living, and distasteful alliances, Yukiko is emblematic of a country trying to survive and go on after a devastating war that unleashed the full fury of the atomic bomb on a civilian population. This film came out in 1955, the same year that Akira Kurosawa’s disturbing meditation on the bomb, I Live in Fear, debuted, and it seems no coincidence that both films traffick in irrational emotion and denial, though Naruse’s is based in romanticism.

Unlike Kurosawa’s deeply depressing film, Floating Clouds could be considered almost trite in its focus on claustrophobic emotional entanglement. Indeed, Yukiko’s hectoring bitterness toward Tomioka gets exasperatingly repetitive. Yet, the squalor of the characters’ history and circumstances tends to elevate the tale in a peculiarly compelling way. Yukiko briefly prostitutes herself to an American G.I., yet seems to be doing so more to make Tomioka jealous than to survive—that she succeeds confirms that there may be more under his callous surface than meets the eye. She continues to punish his faithlessness by going into the employ of the brother-in-law (Isao Yamagata) who raped her, a fact known to Tomioka. She stands in constant reproach to his every failure, a hurt but loving presence he tries fruitlessly to deny.

Takamine is a luminous presence in a vérité film with few visual graces. She is as beautiful in her moments of anger and despair as she is in the full bloom of her affair with Tomioka. Yet Naruse manages to find the age in her face, making Tomioka’s defection to a younger woman—as Yukiko once was in comparison with Kuniko—all the more banal and expected. Her nagging, her jealousy, her assertions that she knows Tomioka better than he knows himself strike an ordinary note for her character and their affair, and it is hard to believe that she really does love him or that he could have loved her so much. The Japanese reticence toward displays of affection make this passionate romance one of suggestion that may be too subtle for our sex-drenched Western appetites. However, a scene in which Tomioka goes to the public baths with the young wife with the full knowledge of her husband and Yukiko is startling in its own right to Western sensibilities.

One of the striking motifs of Floating Clouds is movement. Naruse trains his camera on Yukiko and Tomioka taking walks everywhere they are. Yukiko favors platform shoes, and her dainty, unsteady steps over some of the uneven surfaces she treads with Tomioka heighten her vulnerability. The restlessness of these scenes keeps the relationship provisional, homeless, but Tomioka almost never tries to outpace Yukiko. Perhaps he knows that to do so would be futile—everywhere he has gone, she has found him.

Finally, when all impediments to their union are gone, Tomioka more or less surrenders to her. It is not just that Yukiko has waited out all of his wrong turns and romantic distractions; Tomioka himself has found a purpose again by landing a job as a forest ranger on a distant island, mimicking the work and remoteness of his time in Dalat. Yukiko, saying she cannot live without him, seems a natural companion for Tomioka as he prepares again to exile himself from mainstream Japan. Finally, his remembrance of their love breaks through just as it finally seems to have a chance to take root and grow. But life is too cruel to offer true happiness to counteract all the misery each of them has suffered, and so we are left to reflect on whether a life of romantic illusion is one worth living at all. The answer to that question may depend on how one views the alternative.

9th 10 - 2011 | 5 comments »

CIFF 2011: What Love May Bring (aka, Ces amours-là; What War May Bring, 2010)

Director: Claude Lelouch

2011 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Claude Lelouch has been making films for 50 years. The hot tickets at the Chicago International Film Festival are not his two films From One Film to Another and What Love May Bring. That’s a shame. While I’m sure David Cronenberg’s and Lars von Trier’s new films are well worth seeing, there really is nothing like seeing the work of a master filmmaker completely in command of his form, not to mention a chance to see the man in the flesh and ask him questions. My experience of seeing What Love May Bring is one I will treasure forever.

What Love May Bring compresses everything Claude Lelouch knows and wants to say about cinema through a series of true stories that he has fashioned into a single narrative—the life and loves of Ilva Lemoine (Audrey Dana), the daughter of a filmmaker who was killed in World War I and the stepdaughter of Maurice Lemoine (Dominique Pinon), the projectionist at the fictional Eden Palace Cinema in Paris. The story begins in the present in a studio where the score for the film is being recorded. In the booth sit several people we will come to recognize as actors in the film, including Ilva (Gisèlle Casadesus) as a very old, blind, but still beautiful woman. As she hears the music, she nods in remembrance, and then we get a brief interlude (done as a silent film) of her parents meeting and her father’s death. Much of the rest of the story is told through the summation of Simon (Laurent Couson), an attorney who is defending Ilva from a charge of murder. His defense, basically, is that Ilva’s entire life has been in service to love, and it was love that drove her to shoot her husband, completing a suicide he was too cowardly to do himself. Only in France (or, possibly, only in a Claude Lelouch film) would such a defense be offered as legitimate.

Whatever conclusion you might come to about Ilva’s actual guilt or innocence in the case is overwhelmed by seeing how much life she has lived—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Living in occupied France, Ilva goes to the German high command to beg for the life of her stepfather, an innocent who is to be one of 20 random French citizens executed in retaliation for a Resistance bombing that killed two German soldiers. She ends up throwing over her boyfriend (Raphaël) and taking up with Horst (Samuel Labarthe), the Nazi who initially rejected her plea and then changed his mind. Just after the liberation of Paris, she will fall into bed and love with two men at the same time—Jim Singer (Gilles Lemaire), heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune, and Bob (Jacky Ido), a black boxing champion who saved Jim’s life and became his best friend. To reveal more would be to reveal too much; suffice to say that Ilva’s convoluted love life will continue, loop back on itself, and renew itself as the film progresses.

Lelouch has this to say about Ilva and his film:

I knew that the heroine of What Love May Bring would be a woman, and that the backbone for the film would be her portrait. All wars have helped to make the modern woman what she is, but it was during the Second World War that she really emerged. Who were the winners of that war? Women. The world we are living in today is the result of that victory by women. They know how to juggle their dreams and the hardships of daily life. They can take a blow and bounce back, they can heal. Love can kill them but it is also love that cures them. I understood very early on that women are ready to sacrifice themselves for love, that they were at the essential heart of things.

Ilva may be the backbone, but observations about the costs of human emotion and Lelouch’s own history are the appendages. Simon, for example, is a very gifted musician who can’t decide between music and law. He and his family are sent to a concentration camp because his neighbors want to be rid of his piano noise, yet his ability to play and entertain the camp soldiers saves his life and keeps his belly full. On the train to Auschwitz, he meets and instantly falls in love with the beautiful Salomé Blum (Salomé Lelouch), who, with her family, is denounced and sent to her death because the family are so successful at making wedding gowns that their concierge (Lise Lamétirie) never has a chance to use their sewing machine. After the war, Simon visits Madame DeBois and asks her the price of the sewing machine. She’s a bit confused at first, until he asks about the Blums and then says, “I know the price of that sewing machine.” He makes her squirm a bit, but chances are she won’t be eaten with guilt the way Jim is for the way he stole Ilva from Bob.

Lelouch’s story appears in the person of Coco, a Jewish boy who is hidden from the Gestapo in a basement but is kept from going stir-crazy and betraying his location when Ilva looks after him as he watches films at the Eden Palace. In an affecting scene, Coco at age 7 (Boaz Lelouch) goes up to the screen to see where the people are. Ilva redirects him to Maurice, who shows him how the magic lantern works and begins his apprenticeship. Later, Coco at age 19 (Sachka Lelouch) will film the first of many kisses to come when Ilva and the man who becomes her final, enduring love kiss for the first time. Lelouch has stated flatly that movies literally saved his life and that that kiss inspired all the ones that followed.

Music is a very important part of every one of Lelouch’s film. He said in the Q&A that he has two actors that come first in his movies: the camera and the music. He developed the score for the film even before he shot a single frame, and he hit the jackpot when he cast Laurent Couson as Simon. Couson is actually a very accomplished musician, playing piano and trumpet simultaneous in a Paris nightclub in one scene and conducting the orchestra that is scoring What Love May Bring. A slightly amusing and effective scene shows him auditioning for a music academy after the war. He plays a very impassioned classical piece as images of Salomé, the gaunt faces of other camp survivors, the neighbors who betrayed him, flash through his mind; overwhelmed, he breaks into “Stormy Weather” (Ilva’s song, he will learn one day in the future) and other jazz tunes, only coming back to the classical piece in the last couple of bars. A judge says “Well?” and he only answers “I’ll study law.” He never closes himself off from his creative side, however, as he plays at the nightclub after every case he wins.

Dana is incredible as Ilva. She is very attractive and seduces us along with every man she meets in the loving close-ups Lelouch favors. Dana is bold in playing a survivor who uses sex to thank people for doing her favors, for example, saving her father or saving her from the partisans who are arresting collaborators. She, like Piaf, regrets nothing when it comes to love, though she realizes too late that her decision-making skills often cause quite a lot of hurt. In the end, Dana maintains Ilva’s character as a straight throughline, and she becomes, if not the most noble character, at least one deserving of respect for her personal integrity.

Anouk Aimée makes a brief and quite lovely appearance as an actress on her way to the death camp. We see her on the train talking into a telephone to someone who might be her agent. She says she is to appear in a Cocteau play and will clear it up with the authorities once they reach their destination. She seems terribly self-absorbed and self-important, as the other passengers stare at her impassively. Modern audiences used to using cellphones might be fooled into thinking she really is on the phone, but of course, she merely brought this prop to rehearse a performance she still thought she would be giving. The other passengers on the train applaud her at the end. The film is filled to overflowing with such wonderful vignettes that put people rather than film technique at center stage.

A last homage Lelouch pays to cinema comes at the end of the film, which contains images from his many films and the many great actors, including Aimée in her younger days, he immortalized. After watching this, Lelouch’s 43rd film, I had an overwhelming feeling that I never needed to see another film again. Of course, this was a fleeting emotion, but it did express how swept up I felt in this chronicle of many grand passions and how fulfilling the experience was for me. A veteran observer of love, Claude Lelouch dedicates this film in an opening intertitle to his seven children; anyone who sees this film will recognize the profound love of this gesture and feel it as part of Lelouch’s extended family—his audience.

*Here’s a personal shout-out to Mark and Tom, two people who live in Mt. Prospect who have a clue about cinema. Thanks for making our evening at the AMC more enjoyable with their company and conversation.

What Love May Bring will screen Tuesday, October 11, 3:30 p.m., at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

Good Bye: Mohammad Rasoulof, a director in prison for making films critical of the Iranian regime, gives viewers some insight into his ordeal through the story of a woman desperate to leave Iran, but feeling the noose tightening with each step she takes toward her escape. (Iran)

Le Havre: A gentle comedy in which an aged shoeshine hides a young illegal immigrant and works along with some generous neighbors to reunite the boy with his mother in London. (Finland)

King of Devil’s Island: Naturalistic and suspenseful look at life in an island detention center for boys and their rebellion against their harsh treatment. (Norway/France)

Cinema Komunisto: This entertaining and eye-opening documentary provides a loving look at the little-known national cinema of Yugoslavia and the film fanatic who made it happen: Marshall Josif Broz Tito, Yugoslavia’s president for life. (Serbia)

Inshallah, Football: One young man’s struggle to get a passport to play soccer in Brazil is the lens through which this documentary examines the Indian oppression of Muslims in the occupied region of Kashmir. (India)

George the Hedgehog: Irreverent and adult, this comic-book-based animated film pits George, a pleasure-loving hedgehog, against his clone, a stupid, vulgar internet superstar. (Poland)

The Kid with a Bike: What makes some people give unselfishly of themselves is the question examined in this intense tale by the Dardenne brothers of a boy abandoned by his father and the single woman who takes him in. (Belgium)

Without: A suspenseful story of guilt and loss slowly unfurls as a young woman acts as a temporary caregiver to a helpless elderly man in an isolated island home. (USA)

Madame X: A riotous satire on spy/superhero films that has a drag queen hairdresser transform into a crusader for freedom and equality against the forces of repressive morality. (Indonesia)

Southwest: A haunting, beautifully photographed journey of discovery, as a young woman who dies in childbirth gets a second chance to live to old age, but only one day in which to live it. (Brazil)

On the Bridge: Moving documentary about the torments of posttraumatic stress disorder suffered by Iraq veterans and the failure of the VA medical establishment to help them. (France/USA)

2nd 10 - 2011 | 7 comments »

CIFF 2011: Cinema Komunisto (2011)

Director: Mila Turajlić

2011 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

If you had to name the number one film fan who ever lived, who would it be? Film’s early inventors and innovators, like Thomas Edison and Georges Méliès? Director/collector/ preservationist Martin Scorsese? A collector of commercials, industrial films, and other off-the-beaten-path ephemera like Rick Prelinger? After seeing Cinema Komunisto, my answer would have to be Marshall Josip Broz Tito, president of Yugoslavia from 1953 until his death in 1980.

According to the records and recollections of his personal projectionist Leka (Aleksandar) Konstatinovic, Tito watched a movie nearly every night of his life, sometimes in the middle of the night, and was responsible for the construction of the Avala film studio, the largest in Europe. Tito greenlighted pictures, read and made notes on scripts, sat in on filming, spearheaded the Arena Film Festival in an ancient Roman coliseum in the seaside town of Pula, and even hand-picked Richard Burton to play him in Sutjeska (1973), a movie about one of Tito’s World War II experiences. My own admiration for the great cinema from the Balkans, indeed, the very existence of that great cinema, may be thanks to the opportunities Tito gave to so many young filmmakers before Yugoslavia broke into the pieces it had been before he glued its disparate countries together.

If you want a geopolitical look at Yugoslavia, find another movie. Cinema Komunisto gives only the barest background on the formation of Yugoslavia and its political ties to the Soviet Union before launching into what amounts to a history of Tito and the movies. The glory that once was Avala is surveyed by those who worked there. Steva Petrovic, a producer at the studio, and former director Veljko Bulajic take the documentary camera crew through the crumbling studio as they bemoan the ruin it has become. Petrovic talks about the studio’s first major co-production, The Long Ships (1964), a Viking saga directed by Jack Cardiff and starring Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier. The expensive production made a lot of money and put Yugoslavia on the map for film production. Petrovic proudly shows off a costume made for the film, still in use 50 years later, as well as the many artifacts moldering in the properties department.

Bulajic relates how the Oscar-nominated The Battle of Nerevta (1969) came to be. Tito had a home on the island of Brioni, near Pula, and would invite filmmakers showing their work at the Arena Film Festival to visit him and his wife Jorvanka for dinner and drinks. When Tito asked Bulajic what was next, he said he very much wanted to do a film about the World War II battle in which the Balkan partisans rescued 4,500 wounded prisoners of the Nazis. Of course, Tito was a major player in this battle. Tito stood quiet for an uncomfortable amount of time and finally told Bulajic, “My advisors think differently, but I think it’s important for people to know their history.” With this ultimate greenlight, Bulajic set to work on the most spectacular film shoot I’ve ever heard of. With Tito’s permission, Bulajic was able to set fire to dozens of tanks and jeeps and send them over cliffs. The pièce de résistance was filming the surprise the partisans pulled on the Germans. They blew up a bridge to confuse the enemy and then rebuilt it immediately to evacuate the wounded. Bulajic actually blew up a real bridge—a massive one at that—and had seven cameras rolling to capture its collapse into a deep gorge below. Believe it or not, not one of the cameras caught the bridge falling, and the production team had to shoot a model exploding. Nonetheless, shots of the partisans moving through the gorge are vivid, and the site has become a war memorial still visited by many thousands every year.

Cinema Komunisto makes ample use of archival footage, for example, newsreels showing Tito and Jorvanka meeting with Stalin, Sophia Loren and Carlo Ponti, and Kirk Douglas; press conferences of Orson Welles praising Tito while on location with The Battle of Nerevta; and interviews with Richard Burton about how it feels to wear Tito’s uniform. Images and footage from Belgrade’s Hotel Metropole, the luxury hotel to the stars, contrast with a man removing photos from the wall of fame after the 2007 closing of the hotel, and Leka bemoans the ruin of Tito’s beautiful home (seen in before-and-after photos from the same angles), bombed by NATO in 1999. Director Turajlić talks with Yugoslavia’s number one star Bata Živojinović, who mainly played partisan soldiers killing Germans in many of the 300 (“absolutely terrible,” says Zivojinovic) partisan films made at Avala, as he views the Tito display in a war museum and contrasts it with footage of Tito reviewing the museum upon its opening.

Tito favored accuracy in the telling of his personal stories, and was very pleased that his jeep had the correct number on it in one film. He also refused to allow a script change that would be more intelligible for audiences, but that would change history: “But they didn’t come looking for me!” There are allusions to the dark side of Tito, but the film does not explore them. Newsreel footage of his state funeral in 1980 shows a massive outpouring of grief and a fast-forward to 1991 and the end of Yugoslavia as war breaks out. The suggestion is clear—without Tito’s iron grip on the government and the hearts and minds of the people, Yugoslavia would never have been a fixture on world maps for so long.

Cinema Komunisto advertises itself as a look at propaganda cinema, and it is true that the propaganda messages embodied by the brave communist partisans come through loud and clear. But the film’s real aim is to celebrate the film industry in Yugoslavia—as vibrant and glamorous as anything Hollywood or Cannes had to offer and done on a grander scale than virtually any imaginable—and preserve its memory; there is a petition to the Serbian government to save Avala Film on the documentary’s excellent website. If you love film, you simply cannot miss this entertaining and valuable documentary.

Cinema Komunisto will screen Sunday, October 9, 8:30 p.m., Monday, October 10, 4:00 p.m., and Wednesday, October 12, 3:30 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

Inshallah, Football: One young man’s struggle to get a passport to play soccer in Brazil is the lens through which this documentary examines the Indian oppression of Muslims in the occupied region of Kashmir. (India)

George the Hedgehog: Irreverent and adult, this comic-book-based animated film pits George, a pleasure-loving hedgehog, against his clone, a stupid, vulgar internet superstar. (Poland)

The Kid with a Bike: What makes some people give unselfishly of themselves is the question examined in this intense tale by the Dardenne brothers of a boy abandoned by his father and the single woman who takes him in. (Belgium)

Without: A suspenseful story of guilt and loss slowly unfurls as a young woman acts as a temporary caregiver to a helpless elderly man in an isolated island home. (USA)

Madame X: A riotous satire on spy/superhero films that has a drag queen hairdresser transform into a crusader for freedom and equality against the forces of repressive morality. (Indonesia)

Southwest: A haunting, beautifully photographed journey of discovery, as a young woman who dies in childbirth gets a second chance to live to old age, but only one day in which to live it. (Brazil)

On the Bridge: Moving documentary about the torments of posttraumatic stress disorder suffered by Iraq veterans and the failure of the VA medical establishment to help them. (France/USA)

2nd 07 - 2011 | 14 comments »

Carve Her Name with Pride (1958)

Director: Lewis Gilbert

By Marilyn Ferdinand

On the eve of the 2011 American Independence Day celebrations, I shake my head in disgust at the infighting and class warfare that has paralyzed our state and federal governments and caused at least one state government—Minnesota—to shut down this week. Our country seems to be tearing itself apart, and I wonder not only about our future, but also about how we came to this pass only 60-some years after working to end the most devastating conflagration and genocide in history. What has turned our people into stubborn, petty, self-entitled jerks who can’t even come up with a fair budget, when once we were willing to sacrifice our very lives to defeat the idea of an Übermensch? It would be my prescription to every last idiot in every government in this land, from the smallest village to Capitol Hill, to watch Carve Her Name with Pride to remember what human honor, dignity, and sacrifice look like and what they can accomplish.

I didn’t know anything about Carve Her Name with Pride, let alone the true story it tells, before I chose to watch it. I knew it was on a cable station that had commercials (a big minus) and that it would take 2-1/2 hours of my evening from start to finish. But I was attracted to the fact that it was a British film from the ’50s, I am currently reading a book that reproduces first-person accounts of the Blitz from the diaries of the “mass observers” in Britain during WWII, and that the chance to see this film ever again might be very slim. I was floored by the sad, moving, and genuinely inspiring tale that unfolded before my eyes.

Violette Bushell (Virginia McKenna), a pretty 19-year-old, takes her friend Vera (Avice Landone) with her to Hyde Park in London as she looks for a French soldier to invite home for dinner to celebrate Bastille Day, 1940. This rather odd mission is an assignment from her mother, a French woman married to an Englishman she met in Paris during the First World War. The women hook up with a legionnaire, Etienne Szabó (Alain Saury), and it is virtually love at first sight for him and Violette. After an amusing montage of their brief courtship, with Vera the constant chaperone, the lovers marry and spend a few idyllic days in the country before Etienne is to report for duty in North Africa. During this trip, Etienne gives Violette a poem he was inspired to write on the eve of their parting.

The film fast-forwards to 1942. Violette and several neighbor women are gathered at her parents’ home. Violette is tending to Tania (Pauline Challoner), the daughter Etienne has never seen, when a messenger arrives with a telegram announcing that Etienne has been killed in action. Another fast-forward shows Violette going to the government pension bureau six months later, presumably to handle some details regarding her widow’s pension. Instead, she is met by a Mr. Potter (Sydney Tafler), who offers her a job as a secret agent in the Special Operations Executive (SOE). After weighing the sacrifices, particularly with regard to Tania, Violette determines that it’s her turn to do her part for the war effort. The rest of the film details her training and deployment to France on two separate missions to help shattered cells of the French resistance reorganize and carry out sabotage missions, and her capture shortly after D-Day.

Lewis Gilbert is a distinguished director with a very successful track record, including helming three James Bond films (You Only Live Twice [1967], The Spy Who Loved Me [1977], and Moonraker [1979]), and such popular female-centered films as Educating Rita (1983) and Shirley Valentine (1989). While the fanciful 007 stories are worlds away from the workaday depiction of SOE training in Carve Her Name, his confidence in handling female characters who come into their own certainly was presaged by his approach to Violette Szabó’s story. It is Gilbert’s strong focus on Violette, and Virginia McKenna’s brilliant performance, that make this film so compelling.

The film economically and effectively builds Violette’s life and character, centering them around her love and generosity, so that we are quickly drawn into caring about her. There is never a doubt that the love between Etienne and Violette is real. Gilbert frames Etienne as a fine figure of a man in a full-length shot of him in his uniform when Vera first points him out to Violette, a worthy figure of adoration. Their easy, fluent introductions in French cement the perfect fit. Violette’s determination to marry Etienne in the face of her father’s (Jack Warner) initial opposition at their short acquaintance, and then cheerful assent, telegraphs not only her strong personality and depth of feeling, but also the deep bonds of love and mutual support in the Bushell family. While the poem Etienne gives Violette is a bit of dramatic license—in fact, it was a code poem given to the real Violette by SOE cryptographer Leo Marks—its inclusion early on effectively sets the tone of the entire film, creating an indelible impression of eternal love that foreshadows not only the tragedies to befall the Szabós, but also their love of humanity that led to their sacrifices. In a scene where Violette is tortured by her Nazi captors, their attempt to extract the poem from her shows the perversion of humanity that such fascist movements truly are.

Another bit of dramatic license that is superfluous and undercuts somewhat the power of Violette’s love for Etienne is providing Violette with a romantic interest in the form of another SOE agent, Tony Fraser (Paul Scofield). The two agents meet during some wonderfully realistic training sessions, when Violette shores up Tony’s courage during paratrooper practice (he’s afraid of heights) and Tony helps Violette when she hurts her ankle after a hard landing. Tony and Violette are sent together on the two missions the film chronicles, with Violette narrowly evading the Nazis who suspect her of passing secrets to a contact in the underground in Rouen during the first one. She manages to keep her rendezvous with Tony in Paris, where, in a very touching scene, she buys a dress for her daughter as Etienne imagined they would do together after the war. On the second mission, when both are in Nazi hands and being transported to concentration camps in Germany, a gallows declaration of love between the pair seems melodramatic and unreal.

Where the film is most gripping is in its action sequences. Violette’s first mission seems to be a cakewalk until the shadow of danger falls over her as she goes to meet her contact in the underground. Two Gestapo agents follow her to the bicycle shop where her contact informs her that only three of 96 in the maquis cell are still alive or at liberty; when she is picked up and brought to the commander (Harold Lang) in Rouen, he is the same German who invited her to dinner the night before. He lets her go, but informs his agents that he wasn’t fooled by her deceptions. This scene accurately conveys how dangerous her work is and how the outcome of the war was never assured.

Her second mission is even more compelling. From the moment she launches herself from the airplane to be picked up by the French maquis, to her volunteering to serve as a courier among the maquis cells, the tension is almost unbearable. She and her comrade Jacques (Maurice Ronet) are intercepted in a small town by a small battalion of Germans, and dart among the buildings trying to escape. Violette reinjures her ankle as they flee through the woods and holds off the Germans with Sten gun fire while Jacques tries to escape across a river to warn the maquis of the German approach. As the bullets fly toward Violette and Jacques, and Germans drop under Violette’s assault, the inextricable emotions of desperation and courage rise from the remarkable Virginia McKenna.

I can’t even begin to express how full-bodied McKenna’s performance is. Check, for example, a scene where Violette has a chance to escape the train taking her to Germany when it is bombed. Other prisoners beg for water as she crawls through the smoke to an exit. She stops, looks back, and the camera closes in on her face as a dance of hope, indecision, anger, and finally surrender crosses it; she goes to fetch water for the prisoners. It would be easy to criticize Violette for leaving her toddler to go fight a war, but McKenna’s demeanor in this and other scenes refuses such naysaying as her love goes beyond herself. Her concerns about Tania and careful consideration are well rendered, her farewell before her second mission more tormented, but also more practical, as she draws up her will as her personal act of love. I imagined how this scene must have played out thousands, even millions of times in all the warring countries of the world, how tragic that the madness of those in power forces people to make such difficult choices. At the same time, one senses the pride with which Violette goes to the aid of her mother’s countrymen and women, and how her own experiences preparing for German bombing, only hinted at in this film through the use of blackout curtains and her father’s civil defense uniform, steeled her resolve.

The supporting cast are wonderful, from the training sergeant (Bill Owen) through to the other female SOE agents (Anne Leon and Billie Whitelaw) who suffered Violette’s fate with her. Location shooting in London and the surrounding countryside, of course, gives a sense of veracity to the proceedings and serves to fill out the details of Violette’s life and actions. The Germans are almost completely free of the mustache-twisting villainy that often accompanies them in other films, though her interrogator (Noel Willman) dips into the stereotype a bit. Gilbert chose to cut immediately away from tragedy, preferring a more discreet approach, for example, showing Violette look up at her mother through a doorway when Mrs. Bushell comes to inform her about Etienne’s death, or simply showing Violette’s head resting on a desk after she has been tortured by sleep deprivation. Sometimes this cutting away feels a little abrupt, but it offers Szabó’s story an unmitigated dignity that creates the effect Gilbert wished to achieve.

For her part, Virginia McKenna was honored to play Violette and has supported efforts to keep the memory of her service alive. Here is a clip of McKenna reciting the poem that has justly lived on as a tribute to love and sacrifice.

You can watch Carve Her Name with Pride on YouTube starting here.

4th 06 - 2011 | 9 comments »

Famous Firsts: A Generation (Pokolenie, 1955)

Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film

Debut film of: Andrjez Wajda, director

By Roderick Heath

The agonies of the Second World War were, inevitably, a critical subject for Poland’s filmmakers after the war. Andrjez Wajda, who would become one of the country’s most admired and awarded filmmakers, emerged in the mid-1950s and reestablished Poland’s national cinema—at least as far as the rest of the world was concerned—with his epic “War Trilogy” about the travails of Polish partisans. His interest in the milieu was highly personal, having lost loved ones in the grand calamity, and his films are shot through with ironies, paying a certain lip-service to the triumph of the communists over the Nazis when his father had been executed along with thousands of other Polish army officers by the Russians. A Generation, featuring a teenaged Roman Polanski in the cast, certainly encapsulates the crucial mix of burgeoning energy in the postwar generation and its collectively haunted sensibility. Based on the autobiographical novel by Bohdan Czeszko, who also scripted A Generation, the film is as much noir thriller and coming-of-age tale as it is a war movie. The most affecting and original quality of A Generation, and its most influential aspect on subsequent decades of similar movies, is the way it manages without much sentimentalising to depict the regulation rites of passage of a young man in the context of an awesome, consuming struggle.

The central exemplar of the title generation is Stach Mazur (Tadeusz Lomnicki), a slum brat edging into manhood in the context of the German occupation. At the outset he’s seen engaged in a competition of knife tricks with his friend, the more handsome and accomplished Kostek (Zbigniew Cybulski). But when Stach, Kostek, and Zyzio (Ryszard Ber) go about their favourite sport of stealing hunks of coal from the moving trains that pass by their shanty town, Zyzio is shot by a German guard, and Kostek runs off. Stach has to abandon Zyzio’s body on the train and jumps off, too. In a quietly mourning and confused state, he meets amongst abandoned brickworks Grzesio (Ludwik Benoit), an injured, homeless veteran who introduces him to some working men in a tavern. They offer to get him an apprenticeship at a nearby woodworking factory. He replaces Jasio Krone (Tadeusz Janczar), who’s just graduated as a journeyman, and whilst worked hard as a flunky around the factory perpetually fetching pots of glue for the craftsmen, he also finds friends, including Jasio and Mundek (Polanski), and is taken under the wing of communist coworker Sekula (Janusz Paluszkiewicz). Everyone at the factory is involved in something on the sly: some are smuggling, and others are members of two competing groups of resistance fighters. The boss (Janusz Sciwiarski) both gladhands the Germans who buy bunks for soldiers from him and funnels money to the resistance, and he’s especially nervous because of some of his workers who belong to the noncommunist army are keeping a load of weapons in his storerooms. Stach discovers a pistol from this stash, and when he’s inspired by Dorota (Urszula Modrzynska), a girl who makes an appeal to students on behalf of the resistance, starts moving toward becoming an underground warrior.

Whilst A Generation is clearly a product of a particular cultural moment and heightened artistic sensibility, it’s also a young film school brat’s ode to cinema. As such, it anticipates any number of neophyte directorial works from the likes of Breathless (1959) to Reservoir Dogs (1992), in trying to enthusiastically blend an observational tone, based on personal experience and sensibility, with a narrative mediated through generic quotes. A Generation is spotted with visual and story quotes from such canonical gangster films as Angels with Dirty Faces (1937), The Roaring Twenties (1939), and White Heat (1949), but blended with a terse, ambient approach to emotion and action reminiscent more of Roberto Rossellini and neorealism in general. There are the early petty crimes, the confederacy of the spurned, doomed outsiders, and the final “big heist.” There’s also a lot of the attitude characteristic of eastern European literary traditions of the coming-of-age tale. Stach goes through familiar rituals of becoming a man: finding a community of working men and learning a trade, being schooled in the unfairness of capitalist economics by Sekula, and meeting, romancing, and finally losing his virginity to Dorota. Dorota appears as a proverbial dream girl with a touch of the warrior that makes her all the more sexy and alluring, a valkyrie on a pushbike, as well as symbolising the call to arms of an elevated, politically radical creed.

Jerzy Lipman’s superbly clear, unaffected cinematography helps Wajda keep the world he presents lucid and contiguous yet frosted with the lightest edge of a semi-abstract menace in places, be it in the cheerily busy confines of the factory or in the eerily quiet streets. Wajda presents twinning moments when the battered remnants of defeated armies appear to the heroes, lurching out of or disappearing back into shadows like spirits to urge the commitment of the living, with an edge bordering on expressionism. The film’s first image, a long panning shot behind the opening credits depicting an industrial wasteland dotted by shacks that prove to be a resilient kind of community, possesses an anticipatory quality as well as an analytical one. One can sense the early impulses of the kind of modernism fascinated by the expressive possibilities inherent in superficially dead places and cinematic frames that filmmakers like Antonioni and Polanski himself would expand upon, even as the texture of Wajda’s subsequent film looks back as much as it looks forward. Later on, cityscapes, with their sparse, eerie, drab multiplicities of concrete and brick, begin to entrap and terrorise the characters with Kafkaesque efficiency, particularly in a climactic suspense sequence, and the horrors of the repression of the Warsaw Ghetto are conveyed only by rolling blankets of smoke glimpsed over high walls, and over a fairground operating in blithe ignorance.

Wajda’s influence on both the French and British New Waves is hard to estimate, but certain. Reportedly, A Generation was a favourite film of British director Lindsay Anderson, and aspects of it are encoded in the DNA of Anderson’s If…. (1968), inevitably recalling the images of youth in violent uprising. Indeed, Wajda’s vision seems, oddly enough, to present his “generation” as a distinct youth movement, politically aware, radicalised, and ill at ease with the status quo. A Generation possesses a contextual awareness that is rich and feels less related to the quality of many ’50s English-language war films, which viewed war as a way to restore stability and the status quo rather than as a process of dynamic reconstruction. In this regard, it’s striking and thought-provoking that Wajda, considering his history, presents here a tale in which the communist guerrillas are depicted as being in competition with a villainous nationalist underground whose representatives in the factory are the most unpleasant and insensitive—one makes a sarcastic crack about the “Yids” finally bothering to fight when the Ghetto revolts—and who finally threaten Stach in a manner indiscernible from any Gestapo thug.

The youths fight war with the trappings and disguises of the everyday, and familiar experiences of the young are all sharpened and heightened by war. The underclass heroes take delight in how the war gives their impulses to anarchic acts of violence and crime social legitimacy. This is at first basic, as Stach describes himself somewhat sarcastically as a “real patriotic thief” in stealing from the coal trains. The long opening shot presents the veritable wasteland on the edge where Stach has grown up, and his manner of dress, with a jacket spotted with dozens of patches, seems like something almost out of prehistory. Stach evolves, as do the film’s visuals, from the fringes to becoming the representative for the continuation of a culture of resistance. The initial decrepit isolation Stach suffers living alone with his mother (Hanna Skarzanka) gives way to slowly developing, almost familial relationships, as the value of community is both emphasised and even promoted by the wartime setting. The younger characters are contrasted with older ones, like the paternal, knowing Sekula, and Jasio’s talkative but pathetic father (Stanislaw Milski), who works in the factory as a night watchman but who’s being forcibly retired. He was a former soldier himself, a veteran of the Tsar’s army, who was posted in Manchuria when he was his son’s age. Stach finally decides to take action after a vividly personal humiliation: Having picked up a load of lumber, he had an altercation with a grumpy gate guard, who took revenge by falsely reporting Stach for stealing to the German reservist officer or “Werkschutz” (Kazimierz Wichniarz) supervising the lumber yard. Stach was beaten and hounded out by laughing Germans, and the enraged Stach talks his young friends into assassinating Werkschutz when he visits his favourite local prostitute. The boys pull off this mission, though it’s Jasio who does the actual killing.

Whilst Stach is the narrative’s focus, Wajda eventually seems more interested in the conflicted Jasio, who prefigures the existential angst of Zbigniew Cybulski’s character in Ashes and Diamonds (1956). Torn about the risks to his hard-won place in the proper working class and leaving his father without his income, Jasio, initially hysterically proud of himself for shooting the German, is actually the first of the young lads to test his mettle and discover the terrible ambivalence of murder for patriotism’s sake. Later, when he anxiously decides to opt out of helping Stach and the others when Sekula asks them to help in getting people out of the Jewish ghetto during the uprising, he has a haunting encounter with Abram (Zygmunt Hobot), a Jewish friend who used to live in the same building as Jasio and who escaped the battle consuming the ghetto, covered in soot and filth. When Jasio seems uneasy about the prospect of him hiding out there, Abram promptly leaves, deciding to head back to the battle. Jasio, in a sudden flurry of fellowship, chases after him, only to see him disappearing into the darkness. The next day he joins the other partisans in their mission, hauling ghetto escapees out of the sewer, but Jasio is cut off from his companions and chased down by the Germans in the film’s set-piece sequence, a stunningly staged chase through hemming laneways and inside buildings, with Jasio finally cornered at the top of a grandiose flight of circular stairs. Rather than be caught, Jasio, in a moment of Cagney-esque defiance, leaps to his death, plunging down the stairwell as the Germans gaze down over the rails in bewilderment.

It’s to Wajda’s credit that he’s capable of perceiving the tragic, the heroic, the absurd and grubby, and the deterministic pathos in his heroes all at once, achieving transcendence and humiliation in singular fleeting glimpses. Jasio, whose death is the result of accidents, fumbling, and ill-fortune, finally dies as the very image of resistance. Whilst the story doesn’t give any easy out clauses for its heroes who, once they commit to action, bear the consequences stoically—they are killed off with a chilling casualness that anticipates Jean-Pierre Melville’s equally grim, unsparing take on resistance warfare, Army of Shadows (1969)—nonetheless it retains a tone of humanistic good cheer that borders on the Capra-esque when the residents of Stach’s slum instantly rally when Stach and his mother are threatened by the rival resistance men looking for their stolen pistol, and see off the intruders with blunt implements. In spite of the seriousness of the subject, an effervescent humour bubbles throughout the film, as when Grzesio shows off his combat scar on his belly only to be told off by a barmaid for lewd behaviour, and Krone rambling on with old war stories distinguished by the fact that nothing actually happened to him. After the managers of the factory give Stach a lecture about the value of hard work, Krone assures him, “Work and pray, and you’ll grow a hump!”

Stach’s attempts to work up something more than awed, dutiful fellowship with Dorota edge gently into familiar teen romance fare, as he’s initially awed not only by Dorota’s looks and self-containment, but also by the fact that she knows what she’s doing in the war far more than he initially does, telling Stach and his buddies off for killing a man in their own area, and lecturing partisans of all stripes in their vital military and ideological matters. Nonetheless, he finally charms her enough so that she becomes his lover, at which point Wajda deliver his most devilish twist: bouncing out in the early morning from her apartment to buy what pathetic trifles he can at a wartime store to give her a surprise breakfast treat, he returns in time to see Dorota being led away by the Gestapo. A telling difference between the mood Wajda tries to conjure and most of the war films being made in the West at the time is the terse, stoic attitude of the heroes, the lack of tears and fireworks when tragedies and transcendences come, particularly apparent in this moment: Stach’s silent horror and despair as he watches her from behind a closed door, only his eyes visible through a grate, and Dorota’s unfussy cooperation with her captors highlight the awareness in the characters of the innate danger and transience of what they’re doing. The film’s final scene is a brilliant culmination, as Stach sits, alone in his grief, with a teenaged boy ambling towards him in curiosity in the background. He proves to be one of a new band of youths, looking distressingly young and cheery, looking to join the partisans, and Wajda fades out on the sight of Stach, now the wise leader for the next generation, facing up to his task and putting aside his sorrow.


31st 05 - 2011 | 10 comments »

They Were Expendable (1945)

Director: John Ford

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Memorial Day tends to bring out the tennis elbow in everyone. Flags are waved especially hard as though to fan away the stench of death the day represents. Once you’ve seen, as I have, a graveyard as endless as the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial at Omaha Beach, Memorial Day loses its heroic luster.

Nonetheless, war does make a certain kind of hero out of ordinary men and women—the kind who recognize their common humanity with people they don’t know and do what they can to act with compassion in the face of insanity. They Were Expendable is a war movie that takes viewers into the experience of war, but not to satisfy a need for vicarious thrills or glory. If anything, They Were Expendable shows us just how little we understand of the experience of those living and working in combat zones, how ideals and ambition often get lost in just trying to see the next day, and how confusing and uncertain the outcomes of battles and entire wars themselves really are. John Ford, an eminently humanist filmmaker, handles an enormous cast and confusing story that takes place over a large geographic area just about as well as any director who ever lived. That he resented doing this picture because it pulled him off active military service during World War II never upstages the emotional truth in the film.

Naval Lt. John “Brick” Brickley (Robert Montgomery) commands a small fleet of patrol torpedo (PT) boats—swift craft that launch torpedoes off their decks—at Manila Bay in the Philippines. Brick believes strongly in the value of the boats because they can intercept large destroyers and aircraft carriers with greater speed and lower risk that larger naval vessels. He parades his boats in front of Navy brass, who commend him on their maneuverability but think they are too slight for warfare. After this disappointment, his second in command, Lt. “Rusty” Ryan (John Wayne), decides that PT boats are not the ticket to furthering his naval career, and sits at the bar of the officers club writing to request a transfer while the rest of the Clark Field personnel enjoy dinner and dancing. An announcement comes in that the Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor and that all military personnel are to report to their posts immediately. Rusty crumples up his letter and heads to the harbor to await instructions.

Reflecting the prevailing attitude about the boats, one is assigned to patrol the harbor on a fixed schedule and one is made available to carry messages among the various island command posts. However, when enemy aircraft that are spotted in three deadly perfect V formations, the PT boats move into action. The gunners bring down three planes, lose one boat, and return to a base that has been completely pulverized. Little about the rest of the film proceeds in an orderly fashion. The boats and their crews move from base to base, engage enemy ships and airplanes, get bombed, lost, and beached, break down, get fixed up, and lose crew members to death and reassignment to army battalions badly outmanned by the Japanese.

War films rely heavily on action sequences, and They Were Expendable has its share, though far fewer than might have been expected. Footage of real PT boats firing their torpedoes and the missiles moving underwater is edited in with accurate continuity with the action Ford films with a sure hand. Unfortunately, heavy reliance on process shots, staged explosions that look staged, and stunt planes that don’t quite crash before a burst of flames issues from behind some palm trees mar the realism. However, the model ships the PT boats take out are seen far in the distance, which helps reestablish the illusion of reality.

It is in the less demonstrative scenes that reveal character where They Were Expendable excels brilliantly. For example, when the grumbling PT crews find out the alert they thought was a drill is the real thing, they scramble out the door, including “Squarehead” Larson (Harry Tenbrook), the cook, who hurriedly takes his pot of soup off the stove and throws a towel over the biscuit dough he was mixing. When the PT boats are assigned to take Gen. Douglas MacArthur to a protected airfield to be transported to Australia, one of the crewmen asks for his autograph, much to Rusty’s disgust. Ford also cast several teenagers as the kids who decided to make the Navy a career. I can’t remember ever seeing a war film in which combatants this young are part of the action, and where they are allowed to be scared.

Then there is nurse Sandy Davyss (Donna Reed), the only woman with a speaking part in the film. She is shown working on assembly-line surgery to care for 200 casualties from Bataan. Her face is subdued with concentration and repressed horror at what she is seeing; indeed, her entire performance is filled with the cares of the world, even her flirtatious scenes with Wayne, who meets her when he enters her infirmary suffering from blood poisoning. When she and Rusty say good-bye when he calls her to tell her he is shipping out, the conversation they know might be their last is plain-spoken: they had a “swell time,” and “it was nice,” and then two generals commandeer their phone line abruptly, and that’s that. There is no reunion at the end of the film; Sandy, stationed on Bataan when it fell to the Japanese, could be in hiding, dead, captured—nobody knows or will know. And when Rusty and his small band of surviving crew members go into a bar after burying two of their men and hear about the fall of Bataan from a San Francisco-based radio announcer, the looks on their faces say, “What am I doing here? How did I get from my sane, normal life to this hot, dirty place halfway around a world in flames?” And they are enlisted men, not draftees!

The film is helped enormously by Ford’s experiences making documentaries for the Navy during World War II. His familiarity with the rhythms and details of daily life for combatants and support personnel helps make a bit of sense out of the chaos; yet, he doesn’t hesitate to leave viewers in the dark about all the details. I watched this film twice in two days, thinking I’d get a better handle on the movements of the PT crews around the Philippine islands. I didn’t. When one missing crew show up after a long period, I had no idea where they had been, what island any of them were on, or how the lucky black cat that adopted the crew survived the loss of the boat. A comment Brick makes during horse trading for torpedoes about who played Tess in Tess of the D’Urbervilles in 1932, and “Does your crew know?” went over my head until I caught the crucial words “at the naval academy” during my second viewing. This scene hints at the secrets known between servicemen and women and how supplies and equipment moved outside of official channels through just such forms of blackmail.

Robert Montgomery brings a matter-of-factness to his role, again aided by his having served on a PT boat. He grits his teeth and follows orders, even when they mean leaving what’s left of his crew behind when he and Rusty are ordered to fly to Australia to strategize ways to find a larger role for PT boats in the war. And what of those men? We’ve been treated to highly inappropriate patriotic music throughout the film—the studio and the Navy intended the film to be a morale booster—including the playing of “Shenandoah” (?) as a civilian nicknamed Dad (Russell Simpson) who repairs boats prepares to stand his ground against the Japanese. We get more uplifting heroics from the crummy score, but Ford knows better. The men limp down a beach as the sun sets. Where are they going? What will they do? They’ve been abandoned like everyone else on the island, and while they fought their fear heroically and tried to do their job, they’ll probably die far from the home they seem to be fighting for.

15th 05 - 2011 | 6 comments »

Went the Day Well? (1942)

Director: Alberto Cavalcanti

By Roderick Heath

World War II is rightly regarded as a renaissance period for British cinema. A rare mixture of necessity, duty, urgency, and cramped invention stimulated British filmmakers like Michael Powell, Carol Reed, David Lean, Humphrey Jennings, Anthony Asquith, and many others to create ambitious, dramatic, and relevant cinema with a new sense of purpose. Long virtually forgotten, Alberto Cavalcanti’s Went the Day Well? was a film I had only heard trumpeted by the English critic Leslie Halliwell before it recently made Time Out magazine’s list of the 100 best British films of all time. It well deserves disinterment and admiration. Cavalcanti, a Brazilian-born director with leftist allegiances, had made experimental and avant-garde films in France in the 1920s, and then moved to Britain to work on documentaries with the famous film unit run by John Grierson. He graduated to making features, including the excellent Nicholas Nickelby (1948), which can stand up with Lean’s concurrent Dickens adaptations, and the two best chapters in the otherwise overrated Dead of Night (1945), before his wandering and his politics saw him edge off the mainstream map again.

Went the Day Well?, based on a short story by Graham Greene, is very much a product of the wartime atmosphere, portraying the potential for grit and resistance in the average English community in the face of intimidation and violence. Yet in a way, it’s also timeless, a perfect blueprint not only for something suspiciously similar like John Sturges’ The Eagle Has Landed (1977), but also for any action thriller where everyday people take on invading villains, with echoes through Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971) to Red Dawn (1984) to Die Hard (1988) and beyond. Went the Day Well? (the title comes from an epitaph by John Maxwell Edmonds) also shares some characteristics with some other good British movies of the period, like Asquith’s We Dive at Dawn (1942) and Reed’s The Way Ahead (1944), by depicting utterly ordinary people suddenly elevated into heroic roles by dint of necessity. Cavalcanti’s film is, however, a speculative fiction about the enemy coming right to the doorstep. The atmosphere he presents in the small, pacific village of Bramley End is very similar to what Powell and Pressburger captured for their A Canterbury Tale (1944), but whereas the latent communal strength of the latter film’s locale was chiefly spiritual, here it’s very literal.

The film commences with an interesting hook: using a first-person camera, Cavalcanti enters and explores the town, and comes upon church warder Charles Sims (Mervyn Johns) at what’s supposed to be some time after the war. Sims addresses the camera as if it’s an interested tourist, points out a gravestone marked with German names, and commences to tell the “famous” story behind them. Flashback to some time during the war, as a detachment of soldiers arrives in Bramley End, seemingly an ordinary group of sappers looking to ready the defences of the village in case of invasion. But they are, in fact, a force of Germans chosen because they speak English and can pass amongst them, some better than others, including their commander, “Major Hammond” (Basil Sydney), really Kommandant Orlter, and “Lt. Maxwell,” actually Jung (David Farrar).

The opening scenes carefully, but seemingly casually, lay out the persons and personas of the villagers as the strangers come into their midst: Hefty, cheery, local post office manager and telephone exchange operator Mr. Collins (Muriel George) and her shopgirl Daisy (Patricia Hayes); young sailor Tom Sturry (Frank Lawton) and his bride-to-be Peggy (Elizabeth Allan), a member of the Land Army along with Ivy Dawking (Thora Hird), charged with delivering milk in the locality; and hale, bossy lady of the local manor, Mrs. Fraser (Marie Lohr), who gets miffed when she finds out the local vicar, Ashton (C.V. France), and his spinster daughter Nora (Valerie Taylor) have beaten her to the trump of billeting the detachment’s CO. Nora has a secret crush on Oliver Wilsford (Leslie Banks), the commander of the local Home Guard, who liaises between the soldiers and the townsfolk, and, with his fellow Home Guard officer Harry Drew (Ellis Irving) from the next village of Upton, shows them the layout of the town’s defences. Of the town’s troupe of evacuee children, George Truscott (Harry Fowler) is the most accomplished scamp, having made friends with Bill Purvis (Edward Rigby), the accomplished local poacher. These characters and many others all have a part to play in the oncoming battle.

Signs of the hidden beastliness of the strangers are discernible, as when a glowering radio operator, catching George fiddling with his equipment, grabs him by the ears and wrenches them, and when one gets confused over landmarks in Manchester, where he says he comes from. But no one quite notices until Collins loses a telegram she’s supposed to deliver to Mrs. Fraser and finds the soldiers have been using it to score their card game on; when Mrs. Collins gets it to Mrs. Fraser, Nora recognises the soldiers’ numbers are written in the continental style. Later, when George nosily pokes through Hammond’s belongings, he finds a bar of Viennese chocolate. Nora, alarmed, goes to tell Wilsford, not knowing that he’s the agent guiding the invaders.

The unassuming realism and homey portraits of the village life, intriguingly tweaked by the social changes necessitated by war are, of course, necessary to ground such a drama—the general absence of young men and the women taking their place in keeping the gears of the society turning; the Home Guard warriors taking time out from doing their delivery rounds; the blurring of class boundaries in the collective effort. Went the Day Well? was produced by Michael Balcon for Ealing Studios, the company that went on to make the canonical series of low-key comedies, and Went the Day Well? feels almost like a rough draft for those, that is, if the cast of The Titfield Thunderbolt or Whiskey Galore! were abruptly tossed into Saving Private Ryan. The screenplay, by Angus MacPhail, makes their interactions and quirks familiar and charming without being too forced and stereotyped; indeed, the film takes some delight in undermining the stereotypical roles which the people, especially Nora, seem faintly, uncomfortably aware of inhabiting, or generating a shock when they suddenly behave in fashions contrary to that character. True to Cavalcanti’s socially progressive bent, he’s interested not just in the need to defend a settled order, but also in the transformative capacities and secret strength of ordinary people working together. There’s none of the subtlety to the Germans that there is in Powell and Pressburger’s not-dissimilar The 49th Parallel (1941), apart from Jung and the decision to kill children. But really they’re the great unknowable Other; they could be aliens.

Whilst there’s a lot of patriotic sentiment in the characters and their reasons for taking a stand, it’s subdued to a terse, survivalist necessity, as the English respond to intrusion and bullying with a feral force beyond imagining. The film also has a real claim to being, amongst other things, a true early feminist work in context, as the ladies of the village get stuck in to warfare, murder, and espionage with grit and competence. For contemporary filmmakers who congratulate themselves for sticking a gun in a chick’s hand and calling it empowerment, here’s someone who did it long before you. When Nora’s keen attention provokes Wilsford, it precipitates the Germans showing their hand earlier than they planned, waiting as they are for a general invasion. The locals are rounded up into the village hall, where the gloves come off. Vicar Ashton, appalled and refusing to obey Orlter, tries to ring the church bell—the signal to the Home Guard of parachutists—and gets a bullet in the back.

Having to keep their presence secret for two more days until the invasion starts, the Germans allow some of the townsfolk to go about their business under supervision, and they begin a tragicomic campaign of trying to get word to the people who pass through the village. Peggy and Ivy paint messages on the bottom of eggs they give to a young newspaper boy. Mrs. Fraser tries to sneak a note into the overcoat of her chirpy chanteuse sister who passes through on the way to a performance: she finishes up using the paper to jam her rattling car-door window. The evacuee kids are rounded up and kept in Mrs. Fraser’s manor, but George sneaks out and makes contact with Purvis, who is only convinced of the veracity of George’s story when a few bullets smack into a tree by his head. As is often a theme in these sorts of dramas, the traits of the characters which seem oddball and individual, from young George’s scampering, to Purvis’s asocial knowledge of all the secret paths through the woods, to Mrs. Fraser’s proprietorial sensibility towards the town and Nora’s repressed, heightened awareness, become weapons in the war.

The really startling quality of Went the Day Well? is in the potency and pointedness of its violence; whilst, in deference to the censorship of the time, there’s little actual gore on screen, the viciousness of what does happen is certainly not as aseptic as it often was in lesser war films, and indeed still packs a wallop, as the bodies piles up,and likeable characters are killed off with unsentimental rapidity. The Germans ambush the local Home Guard, blasting them off their bicycles and shooting the wounded in the back with revolvers. In a simply amazing moment, Mrs. Collins, treating the German charged with keeping an eye on her and the exchange to a meal, abruptly tosses a pot of pepper in his face and then wallops him in the face with a hatchet. Desperately trying to contact the exchange in the next town, she’s ignored by the gossiping girls there, and before they answer her, another German arrives and bayonets her. Purvis dies in a hail of bullets trying to cover George’s escape after taking out a German with his shotgun, and even the kid catches a bullet in the leg and squirms away in the mud. Mrs. Fraser, to stop the other evacuee kids being killed by a hand grenade, snatches it up and dives through a doorway; she’s blown to pieces, but saves the children. Ivy and Peggy, wielding arms with aplomb, propose keeping score of the Germans they shoot. The film possesses a kind of heady emotional heft under the stiff upper lip resolve, building to a head most brilliantly when Nora, knowing that Wilsford is a traitor, a fact he’s managed to keep hidden and to undermine the actions of the others, calmly takes a loaded revolver from the arsenal Tom has assembled, marches downstairs through the manor, and fills the villain with lead.

It’s not just amazing this stuff got by the British censors, who were notoriously fusty (they banned all horror films for the length of the war), but fascinating how much the film revels in the dreaded, apocalyptic spectacle of warfare erupting in England and consuming its populace. The film is both reassuring in the sense that it aimed to depict a scenario in which the difficulty in conquering Britain would be in the individualistic determination of its citizens, and also deeply disturbing in suggesting the way violence lingered so omnipresent in the age that its actual eruption might have been considered a relief. On at least one level, it’s almost less an entertainment than a training film, Cavalcanti emphasises the physical effort the English characters have to muster to overcome their humanist instinct, but also the determination they display once engaged, as displayed by Mrs. Collins as she fights a sobbing fit after killing the German, but resolute to make the vital telephone call that will bring rescue. The evolution of Nora, who seems at first a kind of Celia Johnson-esque sufferer, into a punitive assassin, both plays on and subverts that image of resilient formality, racking up the payment for a betrayal on both the personal and political levels. This hits a hysterical note that resounds elsewhere, most literally when Daisy momentarily gives in to a fit of blind frenzy after seeing Tom and his father (Norman Pierce) kill two Germans in front of her. There are more than hints of the expressive avant-gardist Cavalcanti had been in the bristling scenes of explosive violence and the portrayals of emotion and action clashing fiercely. It’s apparent on a tactile level in the suddenly rupturing of placid, almost bland shots in the character interactions and the quietly revelatory, documentary-like explications of the village geography, with sudden, intense displays of furious cutting, ultra-close-ups of pain-distorted faces and thrashing limbs, and swooping motion in and out of the frame.

There’s humour to alleviate the ferocity, particularly in the reaction of the children, who seem less fazed by invasion than the adults, and the excruciatingly chirpy song “Cherry Ripe” is as amusingly employed here as in Night of the Demon (1957), sung by Mrs. Fraser’s sister as she obliviously trundles to and from the captive town. The excellent cast works in harmony throughout; it’s amusing to note that Lawton and Allan, playing partners here, had played mother and son in George Cukor’s David Copperfield (1935). Tension ratchets up to impressive degrees in the finale as the villagers are forced into action when, after an escape attempt, Jung announces the occupiers will shoot five children in the morning for punishment. That proves a real mistake, as a core guard of the Sturrys, Ivy, Peggy, Sims, and some others manage to overpower and outwit their guards and fortify the manor house. The Germans planned to use that house themselves, necessitating an assault on the manor as real British soldiers close in, precipitating a battle to the death. Nora’s killing of the traitor in their midst as he tries to open up the house to the Germans only temporarily keeps the enemy from literally invading the living room, and the heroes, anticipating perhaps their children in If… (1968), rain death upon their enemies to the last bullet. It’s an exhilarating and hair-raising end to a masterpiece of its kind, but it also proves that an inspiring film can be alarming as well.

19th 03 - 2011 | 9 comments »

Castle Keep (1969)

Director: Sydney Pollack

By Roderick Heath

In the wake of the wishy-washy fare that clogged the latter part of his career, it is easy to forget just what a talented filmmaker Sydney Pollack had been. His excellent early dramas, like The Slender Thread (1965) and They Shoot Horses Don’t They? (1969), and his genre outings that offered up two of the best American films of the 1970s in The Yakuza (1974) and Three Days of the Condor (1975), display that talent in spades. His best work was defined by a fervent thread of black humour and a painterly verve, as he shot dramas like thrillers and thrillers like art films. Unfortunately, it was the polished nostalgia of The Way We Were (1973) that scored the biggest hit and pointed the way forward for Pollack to tone down his style and become best known for slick prestige pieces. In his later career, only the sleek pulp of The Firm (1993) stands out as a return to his roots. Looking more closely at the shape of his career, it’s easy to see two poles in Pollack’s films, rhapsodist and ironist, cynic and ardent romantic, duelling in his best work. At a time when oddball antiwar films were a dime a dozen, Castle Keep, his fourth film, didn’t get much admiration on release, but in finally catching up with it, I have to admit it floored me. Here, perhaps, are Pollack’s different, opposing temperaments in intricate balance. The result looks very much like a classic now.

The basic story, of the sort Samuel Fuller employed so well and often, is relatively conventional: a ragged bunch of military misfits is banded together under a gritty leader who melds them into a fighting force to carry out a dangerous, doomed mission—except Castle Keep immediately bellows its strangeness by commencing with the words “Once upon a time” in hinting that what follows will be a fairytale.

In the first few moments, a rapid montage of explosions devastating statues and ancient signifiers of culture give way to a glimpse of a battlement gargoyle with a raptor’s head, the cry of which seems to echo out across the wooded landscape and reach the ear of Pvt. Rossi (Peter Falk). Earthy former baker Rossi, former critic and intellectual Captain Beckman (Patrick O’Neal), green and angst-ridden Lt. Amberjack (Tony Bill), redneck Cpl. Clearboy (Scott Wilson), budding author Pvt. Allistair Piersall Benjamin (Al Freeman, Jr.), and the plebeian Elk (James Patterson) and DeVaca (Michael Conrad) have all been press-ganged into serving the formidably competent cyclops Major Abraham Falconer (Burt Lancaster). The eight men, collected together from the stragglers and survivors of the American advance into the Ardennes in the winter of 1944, try get to the crossroads town of Saint Croix and take command of the castle of Maldorais.

Trying to push a broken-down jeep along a muddy country road, these men are astounded to see a couple on horseback charging by, one a stunning female with a cape billowing behind her like a vision out of a chivalric romance, the other a neatly attired gentleman in a red hunting suit. The pair proves to be the Count of Maldorais (Jean-Pierre Aumont), and his wife Therese (Astrid Heeren). “We came to the wrong war!” Rossi blurts upon seeing this pair who seem to have ridden out of another age. The situation, and the dilemmas that will face the characters, are soon polarised. Falconer, predicting the German assault that will precipitate the Battle of the Bulge, recognises that Maldorais will be an important defensive position necessary for stemming an attack on the army’s main body, and determines to fortify the castle. Beckman is captivated by the Count’s trove of art and antiques from the last nine centuries of European civilisation. The Count wants to save them all, willing to make any compromise, be it bivouacking German or Allied soldiers or letting any man who can swing it bed the Countess to provide the heir he can’t. The enlisted men want to get laid and follow the Count’s directions to the local brothel, the Reine Rouge. Amberjack wonders if following them can help him rebel against his authoritarian father. Clearboy forms an obsession for a Volkswagen that belonged to the former German occupants of the castle. When Falconer’s predictions come true, however, the cost for everyone is bound to be high.

Castle Keep mediates between the first breed of more cynical war film, like Paths of Glory and Bridge on the River Kwai (both 1957), and the antic, counterculture-inflected breed like MASH, Catch-22, and Kelly’s Heroes (all 1970). One irony of this period was that these films were still being made on the theory that war movies were popular, even if the general mood was against war, and so the peculiar, invigorating quality was in watching such films trash the genre even whilst being produced on the biggest of scales: shot in Yugoslavia with incredible photography by Henri Decaë, Castle Keep employs a high-budget, cinematically walloping spectacle, with the huge main set of the castle and town ready to be pulverised. Castle Keep is ambivalent about the traditional hierarchical and moralistic assumptions of the war epic. Interestingly, Steven Spielberg specifically cited it as one of the strongest influences on his Saving Private Ryan (1998), and that influence is particularly evident in the harum-scarum, tragicomic battle scenes. Norman Mailer once commented that he had been glad to be posted to the Pacific, and therefore wrote The Naked and the Dead because he did not imagine himself equal to the greater challenge of writing about American intransigence crashing headlong into European culture, a spectacle inherent in WWII’s European theatre. Castle Keep, on the other hand, adapted from William Eastlake’s novel, dedicates itself to examining precisely that nexus, and more.

What renders Pollack’s film fascinatingly, perversely distinct is the way present, past, future, fact, and fiction are rendered in a state of flux. Castle Keep calls attention to its own artificiality throughout, as the story is mediating through a lapping structure; at the end, the story loops back again, and the fact that the story is being “written” and “recalled” by Benjamin is repeatedly iterated. Such a fact explains and mitigates the film’s loopy flourishes of anachronism and surrealism, and how it dips in and out of what might be fantasy, embellishment, or genuine rupture in reality. The notion that the characters are all embodiments of primal traits is soon outlined, as the landscape unveiled in the film populated by figures that could come from any century. The Major, with his one eye, channels ancient myth as a warrior incarnate. The Count is a virtual pharaoh in his elitist desire to conserve within his domain all possessions: even his wife is a relative, whether his niece and sister is not clarified, but still firmly suggested. Rossi, upon arriving in Saint Croix, seeks out not the brothel, but the bakery, on the theory that’s where there will be a baker’s wife. He finds one (Olga Bisera) and immediately steps into her dead husband’s place, taking over the shop and trying to drop out of the war.

Rossi’s understanding of war is one of a job. In a bizarre, haunting interlude, Amberjack and Rossi converse in the woods outside the castle. Amberjack tries to play his damaged flute when a German soldier’s voice sounds from the forest: he asks to fix Amberjack’s flute, and recognises Beckman’s name, recommending the book he wrote as a civilian professor. Rossi casually shoots the unseen German in spite of their amicable conversation: “That’s what we do for a living, lieutenant,” he tells the despondent Amberjack. He also tells off a flock of soldiers turned conscientious objectors led by the self-appointed apostle Lt. Billy Byron Bix (Bruce Dern), who haunt Saint Croix’s streets like stragglers from Peter the Hermit’s Crusade, singing hymns outside the bordello and preaching to columns of wounded and bewildered men bearing a rude crucifix of twigs. The idea that time is folding back on itself hovers with both humour and menace throughout, as the Major becomes the image of a knight-errant, riding a white horse in leading men to battle, with Bix screaming accusatory that he knows him, as the image of strife incarnate. A simple threat from the Major is all that’s needed, however, to turn these pacifists back into Crusaders; following the Major back to Maldorais, they’re instantly wiped out by a shell.

The Count exploits Beckman’s reverence for art to get him to labour to save the castle and its contents, and the petit bourgeois Beckman stands between the actually philistine sensibility of the Count, who regards himself much more as a warrior (“I am the bravest man I know”) and the gruffly debased, yet in many ways far more sensitive sensibility of the enlisted men, particularly Rossi. There’s a touch of genius in making the artist-witness figure, whose philosophical and psychological enquiries filter the film and its portrait of a civilisation’s Euclidian reboot, an African American. “I wonder if my moving in here will reduce the real estate prices,” Benjamin quips sardonically when first settling down in the castle. Castle Keep seems set up for a showdown between militaristic and cultural values. But the film cleverly elides such a simplistic central conflict. Instead, the running argument between Beckman and Falconer evolves as Falconer retorts to Beckman’s proposition that saving the things worth fighting for is the whole point of their mission with the coldly diagnostic statement that “Europe is dead. That’s why we’re here.” Instead of simply decrying the Major as a vandal, the film makes the not-negligible point that he’s also one of the last remnants of the potent spirit that built such a world, and he’s the one who mans the battlements to the last along with Beckman, and lending weight to the amazing ferocity of the film’s final 20 minutes.

The castle and the Countess, initially a passive-seeming love object whom the men aspire to and envy each other for having, are conflated in Benjamin’s estimation (“That was three weeks ago when the castle was occupied. Nobody knew when the Major occupied the Countess…”). In another of the film’s weirdly textured interludes, the Major and the Count, out riding on reconnaissance, realise the grounds of the estate have been infiltrated by a German patrol; they hole up in a summer house, and the Major takes out the patrol with lethal efficiency, only to realise they were missing their officer. He realises that the officer went straight to castle, tracks him there and kills him, and the Count confirms he was formerly bivouacked in the castle: he had led his men back merely so he could see the Countess, and the Major took his place. Beckman is jealous of the Major (“Bitch!” he declares after he’s had to interrupt them in bed together, and she indolently ignores him) and when Falconer calls Beckman a collector, the Captain admit that if he were poor “I’d probably collect old string…newspapers…fallen women.” To which Falconer retorts knowingly, “Don’t judge her. She’s not a painting.” The grazing roundelay of jealousy and vanity around a woman who sees them as all more or less the same is finally ended when the Countess proves to have different values to the Count and warns Falconer he intends to use one of the escape tunnels under the castle to reach the Germans and help them infiltrate in order to save the castle. The Count dies in a hail of long-distance bullets, viewed at a remote remove by the Countess through binoculars.

Like many films of the period, the temptation to crawl back into the nominally bawdy, yet rather oedipally boyish world of the brothel beckons the heroes. When they first arrive at the Reine Rouge, the women are sprawled like props in a wonderland, mirroring, with insolent eroticism, the corps of soldiers, who gaze on in gobsmacked wonder. Later on, both hookers and soldiers are sprawled about between jobs lazily sucking on cigarettes and wondering what the hell to do with themselves. Falconer arms the prostitutes with Molotov cocktails. Clearboy predicts their failure: “There’s been a lot of sentimental junk wrote about whores, but they’re just plain defeated women!” But they proceed to rain down with gleeful, punitive relish on the German soldiers. Amberjack and Elk attempt to capture a Leopard tank with a bazooka, luring the colossal vehicle into the church. Amberjack, praying as the juggernaut roles up the centre aisle crushing the pews, desperately tries to load and fire the bazooka before being crushed. He and Elk manage to knock out the tank’s crew, and commandeer it, completely demolishing the rest of the church, and then promptly ditching their hard-won prize when the order comes to abandon the town. Rossi has to be talked around from his equanimity as a baker, reciting philosophical meditations with his face caked in flour, to return to the fray.

The film’s flaws are easy to pick. Michel Legrand’s music score is sometimes in the right key of trippy elegy, but far too jazzy and modishly ’60s at other times. A comic interlude in which Amberjack and Benjamin try to destroy the Volkswagen to save Clearboy the tragedy of seeing it destroyed in battle seems to have stumbled in from a different movie. Heeren belongs to the vast number of good-looking nonentities who decorated ’60s cinema. I dare say the whole stew could seem ungainly and strange to many, and yet Castle Keep’s poetic streak is powerful and original. Pollack pulls off the last act with an authority that’s impeccable. The magic realism crystallises in a bizarrely beautiful scene in which, trapped in the castle’s rose garden, Amberjack, Clearboy, and Rossi try to decide on a strategy. Rossi heads off to swim the moat, and the remaining two are trapped, becoming increasingly badly wounded. The image becomes more ghostly and strange, until Benjamin, in voiceover, explains their next action to woozily beautiful images of star shells and gunfire flashing over the field of roses. This is immediately nullified as it proves only an authorial flourish, for Benjamin reports to Falconer that the trio are dead. The final moments possess something of the same orgiastic, apocalyptic flavour of its film contemporary The Wild Bunch. Falconer and a badly wounded Beckman hold the castle against Germans who try to scale the walls by using a fire engine ladder as Benjamin flees with the Countess, whom he has to carry away from the fray. The petrol-coated moat ignites and the entire scene is consumed in stygian flames. It’s a delirious end to a film that ought to be far better known.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20th 08 - 2010 | 17 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.

3rd 03 - 2010 | 16 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 Molasar (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 Molasar 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 Molasar are forestalled by Cuza, who’s still swallowing Molasar’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 Molasar, causing him to drop to the ground wailing for Jesus to protect him, brandishing a crucifix he took from Woermann. Molasar 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–a bone-chilling vignette no matter how often I see it.

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 Molasar 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 Molasar’s, he should be able to take it out himself. This marvellously climactic moment closes the loop on the moral drama before the supernatural battle can occur. Cuza’s faith in men proven right by his own deed, refuting the famous test of Abraham’s faith whilst sticking up for the nobility of the reasoning person. McKellen’s challenge to the monster, shouting “Take it!” with the ferocity of hero facing down a demon, is every bit as epic as McKellen’s confrontation in the guise of Gandalf with Balrog in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring some seventeen years later, and vitally similar in some ways. Infuriated, Molasar reduces Cuza to his crippled state again, but before he can kill Cuza and Eva, Glaeken walks in with his cosmic bazooka to scrub Molasar 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, the police chief 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. As he tries to uncover 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 immediately barks back—the first time in the film 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!”

This scene 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 already be giving the wrong impression here about what I thought of Bernhard Schlink’s novel and the film made from it: 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 (1956) and I Never Sang for My Father (1970). 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 (2005).


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 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.

2nd 07 - 2008 | 10 comments »

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

Director: Michael Curtiz


By Marilyn Ferdinand

My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I thank you.


So ended the popular vaudeville act of The Four Cohans, who entertained audiences across the country with their singing, dancing, and clowning around in the late 1800s. So, too, did those words burn into my impressionable adolescent brain and remain with me to this day as perhaps the most memorable line of that traditional 4th of July movie, Yankee Doodle Dandy. It’s not Independence Day yet, and Yankee Doodle Dandy is now only a traditional offering on Turner Classic Movies, but I’d like to put this movie out there for consideration by a new generation of film buffs, particularly those who might like to get a handle on films of the 40s, a rich and often misunderstood era.

James%20edit.JPGJames Cagney won his only Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of showbiz phenomenon George M. Cohan. Did he deserve it? Compared with the other nominees (Ronald Colman in Random Harvest, Gary Cooper in Pride of the Yankees, Walter Pidgeon in Mrs. Miniver, and Monty Woolley in The Pied Piper), I’d say that he probably did. Cornball and boisterous he was indeed, but that is exactly how Cohan was always described. Cagney was also charged with that special something he always got when he had the rare opportunity to perform in his favorite kind of film—a musical. Here was the intensity he brought to his gangsters—Tom Powers, Cody Garrett, Martin Snyder—in service of a tour de force performance of pure joy. His singing (not so hot, but expressive), his dancing (eccentric and strange to modern eyes, but masterfully entertaining and done in Cohan’s style), and, of course, his acting, which could turn from bravado to playful to soulful in just the right measure, all came together like a force of nature to tell perhaps the ultimate showbiz story.


The film opens in 1940, recounting the historic awarding of the Congressional Medal of Honor to Cohan for writing the patriotic song “Over There,” an unofficial fight song for military men who fought in World War I and then in World War II. Cohan, the ultimate flag waver, is intimidated as he follows the Negro footman (the frequently working but often uncredited Clinton Rosemund) up a winding staircase to meet President Roosevelt (voice of Art Gilmore). In broad tones, with his back to the camera, Roosevelt reminisces about The Four Cohans, and Cohan launches into a full-blown flashback, with voiceovers from time to time to connect the scenes.


We go all the way back to George’s father, Jerry (Walter Huston), on stage and waiting to hear word about his wife Nellie (Rosemary DeCamp), who is in labor. When the baby who would grow up to be George M. arrives, Jerry rushes through a 4th of July parade to Nellie’s bedside. Jerry suggests they name him George Washington, but must settle for George Michael. An unironic shot of baby George shows him with an American flag in his tiny fist.

We move swiftly through the birth of George’s sister Josie, who, grown-up, is played by Cagney’s real sister, Jeanne Cagney; stints on the vaudeville stage; and on to a production of “Peck’s Bad Boy,” with young George (Henry Blair) as star. George’s ego gets the better of him backstage when the Cohans get word that an important scout for a top vaudeville circuit wants to speak with them. He offers them a contract, but George fouls up the deal. He receives a spanking (“here’s a part without any talent”) after Nellie warns Jerry not to hit him in the mouth (“he has to sing”) or the hands (“he has to play the violin”).


The Cohans appear in a regional play, with George in white beard and wig playing his mother’s father. An 18-year-old girl named Mary (Joan Leslie) comes backstage to ask the advice of the wizened professional. She thinks she has talent and demonstrates her dancing abilities to George, who playfully gives her contradictory advice about her dancing style and then assures a beautiful chorine who sticks her head into his dressing room that their date for the evening is on. Mary, confused, asks if she’s his granddaughter. George replies, “Well, I do have to make up older than I really am,” and starts peeling off his whiskers and erasing his greasepaint wrinkles. When he pulls off his wig, Mary screams. He drops the wig to the floor, stomps on it, and says, “Got it.” Mary becomes part of the Cohan troupe.


George has begun writing plays. Our introduction to Cohan’s long-time partner Sam Harris (Richard Whorf) is a humorous meeting in the offices of theatrical agents Dietz & Goff (George Tobias and Chester Chute). Harris is trying to sell them a melodrama with Indians and flames and stampeding horses. George is pitching “Fifty Miles from Boston,” with Mary along to sing “Harrigan.” Dietz & Goff don’t like either of them. Both budding playwrights go separately to a tavern to drown their sorrows. Harris tries another pitch to German theatre angel Schwab (S.Z. Sakall). Schwab says he wants pretty dancing girls. George, overhearing their conversation, pretends that Harris is his partner and tells him Dietz & Goff may be interested in his musical. Schwab, disconcerted that Harris has been sitting on a musical, asks, “Why is Dietz’s wife’s money better than my wife’s money?” With a covert introduction and a handshake, Cohan & Harris is born, with one hit after another backed by the creative team. This scene is pure hokum and very far from the truth about the formation of the team, but it is extremely well-written and performed with the razor-sharp comic timing Cagney perfected with Pat O’Brien in Boy Meets Girl (1938) and Joan Blondell in Footlight Parade (1933).

Yankee%20templeton.gifCohan moves on to court Broadway star Fay Templeton (the marvelous Irene Manning) to headline his new musical. Templeton’s agent is urging her to hitch her wagon to the hottest thing on Broadway, but Templeton finds Cohan too vulgar for her refined image. When Cohan comes to call on her, she openly scorns him, but is won over by a song he wrote while she was on stage, “Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway,” which becomes the name of the show. She debuts the song “Mary, It’s a Grand Old Name,” in the show, while the real Mary, now Cohan’s wife and for whom the song supposedly was written, watches adoringly from her theatre box.

In 1904, Cohan opens the musical “Little Johnny Jones.” I think it’s interesting what a critic of the time says of this musical:

At the Providence Opera House last evening George M. Cohan, one of “the Four,” with a good-sized company, began a week’s engagement in his latest musical offense, “Little Johnny Jones.” The production still has “four Cohans,” although Josephine has deserted the fold. Father and mother are still with the show and so is Ethel Levey, who is Mrs. George M. in private life. The combination shows its familiar styles of varied talents neither better or worse than when last seen in this city and the entertainment is about of the usual Cohan standard, although there are features in this offering that have never been seen on any stage before. The extremely large audience present left no doubt as to its hearty approval of the whole affair. The applause was frequent and there were curtain calls and a speech by the “author actor.” All of which was in sad contrast to the comparatively slim and indifferent greeting extended to Miss Eleanor Robson, week before last, as well as to many of the previous attractions of marked artistic merit.

Now take a look at the Warner Bros version of this musical offense.

Certainly, we can see the cornball to which the reviewer objected, but this is a magnificent entertainment made even moreso by Cagney’s cocksure charisma.

The dramatic moments in the film are generally fine, though Leslie and Cagney generate all the fire of a wet match. Even a wholesome musical ought to make marriage look like a pleasure, not something you retire to. Some moments, however, are quite poignant. For example, Josie and George talk at the family farm, and Josie tells him she is getting married and retiring. This scene actually took place between Jeanne and James, who were a vaudeville team, and thus, there is a personal note that I find moving. In another scene, George, walking alongside some soldiers getting ready to ship out during World War II, is chided for not singing their marching song: “Don’t you remember it?” “Seems to me I do,” he answers, and joins in singing “Over There.” Most moving of all is when George rushes to his father’s death bed. His father is delirious, talking about the early days of the act, and George plays along. When Jerry finally expires, George tries to say the act’s closing line, “My mother thanks you…” but breaks down into tears. He’s the only one of the Four Cohans left.

The flag waving goes into overdrive for the final musical number that ends the film, “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” from “George Washington, Jr.,” ensuring the kind of show-stopping pleasure Cohan always loved to give the crowds. I’m a pretty well-developed cynic when it comes to patriotism, but the dedicated craft of all of those involved in creating Yankee Doodle Dandy never fails to put a smile on my face. I’m sure that in an America embroiled in war, this film, like so many others made at this time, helped ease the pain of parted loved ones, wartime rationing, and social uncertainty. James Cagney holds nothing back in portraying an American patriot who wasn’t afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve. Give it a try. You just might feel a little bit better about America afterward.

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