An ongoing column that looks at some of the most intriguing of recent, under-the-radar releases
Das Weib des Pharao (Ernst Lubitsch, 1922)
Shown theatrically in 2011 and released on DVD and Blu-ray earlier this year, Lubitsch’s large-scale Egyptian spectacle is yet another in an increasing number of miraculous silent film survival stories. Unlike Metropolis (1927), with its own tale of newly found footage, Das Weib des Pharao (US title: The Loves of Pharaoh) was considered lost in its entirety until 1970, when film archivist Enno Patalas secured a heavily damaged fragment with Russian intertitles.
Leaping ahead forty-plus years, we now have a nearly complete version of the film presented in such pristine shape — with an astonishing gray-scale range, level of resolution and detail, and original color tinting restored — that you might think the print had been struck from the original camera negative. Yet much of the new print consists of that beat-up Russian copy, restored via digital magic by Alpha-Omega and supplemented by 30 minutes of a newly discovered Italian print that pushes the film’s running time to 100 minutes, with stills and explanatory titles replacing the still-missing footage.
The gaps hardly impede the flow of Lubitsch’s narrative, which is a feverish melodrama of such heightened romanticism that it would’ve made a terrific 19th-century grand opera. Some of its particulars, in fact — e.g., Ancient Egypt at odds with Ethiopia, a beautiful slave girl caught in an Egyptian love triangle, who then becomes entombed — make it seem like a dream Giuseppe Verdi might have had while composing Aida back in 1870. For their release, Alpha-Omega recorded, with full orchestra, the film’s original score by — if not a composer of grand opera — the mostly forgotten but then popular composer of operetta, Eduard Künnecke.
The lynchpin of Lubitsch’s plot is the brash action of a commoner, Ramphis (Harry Liedke), the playboy son of the Pharaoh’s chief architect, who steals the slave girl, Theonis (Dagny Servaes), from her Ethiopian captors, simply because he thinks she’s hot. When, back in Egypt’s capitol, the two fall dangerously in love, the story hurtles toward tragedy. Lubitsch sets up a clear racial divide between its two peoples, with the Egyptians being white and the Ethiopians black; by making Theonis a Greek captive, the film avoids a mixed-race love affair that, however titillating it might have proved to its Weimar audience, would have alienated US moviegoers, a demographic that exported German spectacles of this sort sought to woo.
But neither the girl nor her randy boyfriend is the film’s center. That honor belongs to Amenes, the Pharaoh, played by Germany’s box-office magnet, Emil Jannings, who opens the film as a god/king attempting to hold onto his divine status by resembling, as much as possible, a statue.
Could this role be the Ur-text of Jannings’ future portrayals of authoritarian figures brought down to face humiliation and/or ignominious death — Tartuffe (Tartuffe, 1925), General Dolgorucki (The Last Command, 1928), Professor Rath (The Blue Angel, 1930)? Released the same year as Weib, Dimitri Buchowetzki’s film of Shakespeare’s Othello starred Jannings as the Moorish general/governor undone by his own hot-blooded irrationality. Two years later, in 1924 — in spite of its tacked-on, ironic happy ending — Jannings essayed his most painful portrayal of humiliated and defeated (hence, illusory) power, in Murnau’s The Last Laugh.
In Weib, Jannings’ Pharaoh walks and sits with such exaggerated, nearly ridiculous rigidity, it’s as if any deviance from the posture would betray the fact that he is, actually, just a lonely human being who’s forced to be mean and imperious by his role as Pharaoh, a role overseen and enforced by a malevolent high priest (Friedrich Kühne). Jannings, his protruding eyeballs working overtime from a masklike face, makes it clear that this Pharaoh only appears to be made of granite.
When the Ethiopians, led by their king, Samlak (Paul Wegener), travel to Egypt seeking alliance, they dump a pile of gifts in front of the throne, among them Samlak’s daughter, Makada (Lyda Salmonova), offered in marriage to the Pharaoh. Pharaoh eyes Makada and the rest of Samlak’s offerings with a steady poker face, but his control rapidly unravels when, on the night of the same day, he encounters Makada’s escaped Greek slave, Theonis, who is presented before him as a blasphemer, caught playing catch-me-if-you-can with lover boy Ramphis in front of the Pharaoh’s newly completed tomb, a trespass punishable by death.
Instantly and helplessly smitten with Theonis, Pharaoh saves her life and bargains Ramphis’ survival by making her pledge to be his queen. Now lovesick but made powerless by his newfound feelings, Pharaoh relinquishes his sexual dominion over Theonis, who keeps her side of the bargain by marrying him. With Amenes keeping his hands off her, she’s able to remain chaste in loving memory of Ramphis, whom she believes is dead but who actually has been kept alive for a lifetime of menial slavery in a mining pit. Meanwhile, Samlak, dishonored and snubbed by the Pharaoh’s marriage to one of his daughter’s former handmaidens, declares war on the Egyptians. After sealing Theonis in his tomb for safekeeping, Pharaoh goes reluctantly to battle and promptly gets himself killed.
Here, only somewhere midway through the film, I emitted a groan, feeling like we’ve lost one of the chief reasons to watch it. Emil Jannings, who, if not at his very best as Amenes, at least offers, like a similarly bald Brando in Apocalypse Now (1979), a highly charged, individuated, hammy contrariness to the spectacle that the script probably hadn’t anticipated. But there are reasons beyond Jannings to revel in this picture. Its production values are over the top, with huge sets, including a giant, rather kitsch Sphinx, built extra tall to hide the fact that they’ve been erected within a Berlin suburb. The cinematography, precociously for 1922, glories in backlighting and shadow, all velvety and gorgeous in Alpha-Omega’s transfer.
But with Janning’s departure midway, we’re stranded with the two rather bland lovers and an imminent happy ending that feels unearned. At least one on-line commentator feels that the movie was meant to conclude with the resurrected, freedom-fighting Ramphis being named Pharaoh, and that, when we see, midst the happy festivities, a resurrected, broken Amenes in rags, knocking at the city gates, we’re witnessing the results of an important star demanding a rewrite.
I’m not so sure. For one thing, I’m glad for Jannings’ rather implausible return, if only to see him, like Boris Godunov, rise up and tumble broken-hearted from his throne and land dead and useless at the feet of his high priest. Amenes’ return also causes the fickle Egyptian crowd to turn against Ramphis and Theonis, the newly elected — and populist — king and queen they’d been feting hours before. Throughout, the film depicts, with several exemplary crowd scenes, a populace simmering with discontent, and if the sudden, ironic violence inflicted on the lovers may come as a surprise, it feels apt. Lubitsch in fact seems to be offering what is especially relevant to our current election season: a wicked commentary on a body politic’s potential for aberrant thoughtlessness when it’s feeling either very unhappy or very entitled. Eleven years after this picture was released, the depression-ridden German electorate chose a certain frustrated watercolorist as chancellor.
If you seek a Lubitsch touch in this film, you might only find it in the original German title, translated properly as The Pharaoh’s Wife, which seems to wink at an unsuspecting viewer, leading him to frothy expectations, such as, perhaps, a pre-Ptolemaic chamber farce? Nothing witty about the misleading US title, however: like Othello, the Pharaoh has but one love, which swallows him whole.
Confidence (István Szabó, 1979)
Szabó’s tale begins in the dwindling daylight of an autumn day in the Nazi-held Budapest of 1944. As a young woman leaves a movie house bundled in an overcoat against the cold air of paranoia inhabiting the wet empty streets, Szabó’s camera somehow makes an atmosphere of malignancy visible. Kata (Ildikó Bánsági) needs to hurry home, but just as she reaches it, a man brusquely intercepts her, ordering her away from it, warning her: the Nazis are there, waiting. Instantly, Kata’s life evaporates. Having kept his involvement in the resistance a secret from his wife, her husband’s gone into hiding, with their young daughter spirited away to parts unknown.
With a nearly mute efficiency, Kata herself is whisked into hiding. Supplied with a password, she enters a tiny set of rooms in a house owned by an elderly couple, who accept her as a tenant without knowing her true identity or history. Here she’s forced to share the rooms and play a role, that of a wife to a total stranger already in residence.
Seen together — with János Birò (Péter Andorai), a young resistance fighter seemingly around the same age as Kata — the two of them make an attractive and quite credible couple, who pretend to yearn for a reunion with their absent, but phantom, child. With the doors shut, János and Kata sleep apart, recreating the conjugal illusion of a single mussed bed each morning to fool the landlords. Emotions are difficult, raw and often distraught between them until, as autumn turns to winter, the wall between them melts and they discover tender, erotic feelings for each other.
Still, they inhabit a claustrophobic, fear-invested space, and Szabó weaves a story of doomed love between two people who struggle to trust each other in an environment that doesn’t encourage it. Gaining mutual trust is a need common to all successful human relationships, but the film heightens the stakes of this romance through an intimate depiction of the disruption of societal norms during wartime.
Torn from their real marriages and, additionally in Kata’s case, from her real daughter, each of them seeks comfort from the other midst a morass of fear, confusion, grief, and finally, in their greedy passion for each other, ravaging guilt.
In a recent interview produced by Turner Classic Movies and included on Second Run’s disc, Szabó manages to articulate what he believes is the unique, expressive capability of cinema: the ability of the camera to capture the ever-shifting currents of emotion as they are transmitted by the human face. True to his belief, Confidence is a film of many intense close-ups; through them we see the elation growing in Kata as she glories in the giddy aspects of an illicit love affair or, in János, the self-loathing that comes with surviving the tides of death that constantly lap the sides of their safe house. With spring comes the end of the war and the film’s heartbroken conclusion, which, in its mournful sense of war-forged loss, reminds me of the ending to Forbidden Games (1952).
Utilizing a somber color palette that somehow avoids murk and cheap morbidity, the photography of cinematographer Lajos Kotaimuch makes expressive use of a darkling interior light that Second Run’s transfer does wonders in capturing.
The Navigator (Buster Keaton, Donald Crisp, 1924)
Kino Classics’ latest Keaton HD reboot is one of the master’s early features, and like most before The General (1925), he shared director’s credit, this time with burly Brit Donald Crisp, known more for accomplishments in front of the camera than behind it. In his featurette on the film, historian Bruce Lawton makes us wonder if Crisp’s involvement were minimal, directing a few “dramatic” scenes and leaving the complex comic sequences — the bulk of the film requiring the most skill — to Keaton.
Unlike any other Keaton silent, The Navigator‘s enchanting flow of physical comedy is a metaphorical arc for the stumbles and hazards — the emotional pratfalls — navigated by any newly minted pair of lovers. As Rollo Treadway, Keaton is once again a youth bereft of sense and sensibility, here a pampered rich boy who imagines himself in love with the rich girl across the street and therefore entitled to her hand in marriage. Arriving at her doorstep with a proposal and tickets for a sail to Honolulu, Rollo receives a summary rejection of both marriage and honeymoon from Betsy O’Brien (Kathryn McGuire) that sends him dejected to the docks at night, determined to take the voyage alone.
A few forgettable, and very brief, plot convolutions later, both Rollo and Betsy happen to find themselves stranded — but initially unaware of each other — on a large steamship cut from its moorings (by anti-American spies — don’t ask) to float adrift on the open seas. In the morning, both awaken to the empty ship but soon sense, then glimpse, the presence of the other, which leads to one of the funnier gambits of the picture, in which Rollo and Betsy chase each other, like a dog its tail, all over the ship. Keaton, for reasons difficult to analyze, is always hilarious when he breaks into a sprint, but the short, slightly built McGuire is fully his athletic equal here. Photographed increasingly undercranked, the pursuit, throughout all three decks of the ship, ends with girl and boy looking like wind-up toys whizzing toward and away from each other at a near blur. It’s laugh-out-loud slapstick, all right, but by zipping about as they do, they additionally both argue and define the space of the steamship, as massive a prop as Keaton ever took on.
When the two don sailor duds — she in shore whites, he in working blues — they become androgynous, innocent children. Overcoming their utter incompetence as homemakers, they concoct complex Rube Goldberg solutions to, say, making breakfast, and, so, with calm seas and no interruptions, they play house in a sexless idyll — until they become snagged on a reef and encounter a beach-load of hostile native islanders, a farcical familiarity to us now that here narrowly avoids vintage racism. As the natives clamber onboard the ship, Keaton prefigures his stupendous bit with the mounted cannon in The General, by loading and lighting the fuse on a much smaller, in fact tiny, cannon to fire on the invaders, but which then becomes squarely aimed at Rollo when his foot gets entangled in an attached rope.
Kino’s Blu-ray of the film isn’t the overwhelming retinal knockout offered by some of their earlier HD Keaton reboots, e.g., The General, but it still looks wonderful. Extras are confined to the disc — a commentary by film historians Robert Arkaus and Yair Solan and the aforementioned featurette. Robert Israel’s underscore, retained from the earlier DVD edition, is vibrant, beautifully performed, and knows to accommodate the action rather than showboat its own considerable virtues.
Casa de Lava (Pedro Costa, 1994)
With Costa’s second feature film (and his first in color), we enter into a difficult and often unsatisfying narrative that’s simultaneously supported by a neuronal feast of sumptuous visuals. We’re confused and beguiled throughout, but that might be where the filmmaker wants us, because that’s where he was when he made this film.
According to Costa’s newly filmed discussion included on the disc, confusion over his new project was precisely his own state of mind as he arrived on the Cape Verdean island of Fogo to begin shooting. Already beguiled by the islands and their people, Costa decided to abandon his screenplay — written as a remake of the 1943 Val Lewton/Jacques Tourneur horror feature, I Walked with a Zombie — and allow his own sense of being lost and purposeless to dictate the course and tenor of the film. Feeling drained of ideas after completing his first film, O Sangue (1989), the director had finally turned for inspiration to the Tourneur picture, which he’d loved as a child, but then, standing midst his assembled cast and crew for Casa de Lava, he “boycotted [his] own film.”
While he labels Casa de Lava his own Apocalypse Now (1979), he could also call it his own 8½ (1963). Although not operating in the direct autobiographical thematic manner of Fellini, Costa too was creatively alienated, and his film, arising from a similar disaffection with filmmaking, marked the beginning of a new, personally motivated direction, just as the ’63 film had announced Fellini’s new thematic and stylistic path. And like Fellini’s film, Costa’s resonates with the frustrated but activated desire of the blocked artist who manages to free up his creativity as he finds ways of expressing the crisis itself.
Costa’s splintered narrative begins in contemporary Lisbon, where in an elliptical sequence — in a film full of ellipses — an immigrant construction worker suffers a fall and succumbs to a coma, lying unresponsive in a hospital for two months. When the hospital receives a letter from Cape Verde demanding that the patient, Leão (Isaach De Bankolé), be sent home, a young nurse, Mariana (Inês de Madeiros), accompanies him on a military transport as he’s brusquely delivered to the island.
No one comes to claim Leão, nor visits him in the ramshackle hospital where he lies mute and inscrutable. As a nurse Mariana is unable to improve her patient’s state — i.e., to wake him up — nor to help the plight of the islanders, whom she attempts to inoculate against some sort of epidemic.
A manic teenage boy haunts the hospital and taunts Mariana with sexual threats, which seem immature and harmless until he actually attempts to rape her as she sleeps overnight on the beach. A dog saves her, but the dog is later murdered. When Mariana tries to connect with a tall, elegant, yet possibly demented white woman named Edith (Edith Scob) — who loudly grieves the dog’s death — she’s rebuffed, but then is drawn sexually to her isolated young son (Pedro Hestnes, also from O Sangue), who self-medicates his emotional wounds with binge drinking.
Secrets and uncertain connections between people abound. So do unresolved issues of colonialism. An old man who wanders the village playing the fiddle casually befriends Mariana and brings her out to a feast at a house full of sons who all plan to migrate to Lisbon, but who in the meantime join with their father — playing guitars and percussion — to form a lively dance band. Midst the partying, Mariana wonders, is Leão yet another son? But then why does Mariana seem to want to stay on the island (like an ersatz colonist) when all the native men want to leave it? And Edith — who is not demented at all — why is she so sad? Sad, that is, until she abruptly turns joyful as she appears to resume a lesbian relationship with one of the native women. Even more questions arise when the sleeper awakes, scaring a couple of superstitious teenagers who think Leão’s a walking dead man — otherwise known as a zombie.
As the co-star of Costa’s first film, Inês de Medeiros made a strong impression, but in Casa she ably carries the entire show. In spite of the incongruity of her presence there — and as something of an embodiment of the alienated Costa’s drive to create — the diminutive, delicately framed Medeiros walks the island’s austerely beautiful landscape radiating strongly held inner convictions. Although her stay on the island is supposedly only for a week, she’s increasingly drawn to its people and spaces, but with no sense of how she might fit in as a health care professional, a friend to the villagers, or as a lover to a lonely boy. The film grants no epiphany for Mariana, who nonetheless exudes a fierce will to insert herself where she’s not always welcome. Yet, if the islanders remain diffident or even angry toward her, they know that Mariana is no neo-colonist; one or two of them may even recognize an old soul with generous intentions, and the abrupt conclusion doesn’t preclude possibilities.
Casa de Lava demands repeated viewings, and Second Run’s extras are more than welcome, especially the aforementioned Costa interview, where the director explains that the film led to his subsequent multi-film series about emigrant Cape Verdeans in a dismal Lisbon shanty town. A mesmerizing slide show of Costa’s Casa de Lava Scrapebook — a visual diary of images and newspaper clippings collected during the filming — has been set to music by the film’s fiddler, Raul Andrade. (If Andrade and his sons have cut a CD of their string-band music, I’d like to know about it.) Second Run’s catalog contains Costa’s first film O Sangue (English title: Blood);1 it, too, should not be missed.