An ongoing column that looks at some of the most intriguing of recent, under-the-radar releases
The four films contained in Second Run's splendid new collection all come from the work of a group of post-WWII Polish filmmakers dubbed, by French critics, the Polish Film School, which flourished roughly between 1955 and 1963. Yet, according to Andrzej Wajda in his 2011 interview included in the set, the Polish Film School group was, strictly speaking, dedicated to making films reflecting their experiences in the war; in that case only one title here, Munk's Eroica, fits the group's mission statement.
If any or all of these titles are unfamiliar — and three of them were to this writer — it's easy enough to ascribe a reason. With the possible exception of 1959's Night Train — the film that happened to inaugurate the very first entry (2007) of this ongoing column — the films are densely encoded with the profound cultural/political identity crisis in which Poles found themselves after the war, as Soviet oppression followed closely on the heels of the Nazi defeat. It seems plausible, then, that these three films, intimately tied as they are to a specific time and place, never found an international market when they were released, nor hardly any Western home video releases since then.
For the ever-enterprising independent company Second Run, however, postwar Eastern European filmmaking has proven a mainstay in their ever-growing catalog. Having received a review copy of this set, I dove right in and, before any subtextual backgrounding whatsoever — abundantly provided by the booklets accompanying each disc — became instantly transfixed by each film. However true that these films tackle this or that question of Polish identity, each of them offers compelling filmic unities above and beyond, for example, an aesthetic stance against Polish "romanticizing" or a prewar cinematic posturing of Polish "heroism." For one thing, they're simply beautifully made: elegantly photographed in black and white, without an ounce of narrative fat, and often leavened with a doleful wit.
When the womanizing Bazyli hooks up with the seemingly diffident ingénue, Pelagia (Krystyna Stypulskowska), the two of them spend the evening, and the rest of the night, fending off mutual desire with the feint and parry of self-conscious flirtation, word games, and other distancing mechanisms. But the masks come off, momentarily, when during a version of strip poker (involving a toss of matchbox), Pelagia loses several times in a row and thus is obligated to remove her dress, then an article of underwear. Suddenly, midst the threat of her nudity, not only Pelagia but Bazyli find their vulnerabilities exposed. When Bazyli, uncharacteristically gallant, tells her to back off from her strip, Pelagia puts her dress back on and calls him a fool. At this point dawn is right around the corner, but the tale still has a few more surprises in store. This film enchanted me, and I'll admit the ending felt just right to me, only to discover later from Wajda's interview that he was persuaded to change the ending he preferred in order to get the film off the censor's shelf and released to the public.
Enchantment followed me as I next watched Goodbye, See You Tomorrow (1960), directed by Janusz Morgenstern, but co-scripted (with actor Bogumil Kobiela) by its star, Zbigniew Cybulski, who inserted his '50s experiences with experimental theater into the screenplay. The story, as in Wajda's picture, is a forlorn romance. Artistic, poetic Jacek (Cybulski) — the creative force behind a struggling theater troupe — falls desperately in love with a young French girl, Marguerite (Teresa Tuszynska), who looks like she's stepped fresh out of a Vogue modeling session. Jacek pursues her doggedly, all the while realizing she's little more than an insubstantial vision, ensconced out of reach behind the wrought iron gates of her fancy, impermanent digs (her father being a French consul).
Playing the sophisticate (albeit too young to wholly pull it off), the rapturously beautiful Marguerite dangles promises of intimacy over Jacek only to withdraw them, most likely giving the poor guy the worst case of blue balls north of the Danube. And even though Marguerite becomes emotionally disarmed when she experiences one of Jacek's theater pieces and senses something genuinely authentic in him, she knows the score, too: East shall not meet West.
Indeed, it's hard to watch this film without thinking of Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colors: White (1994), in which a newly wedded French woman, Dominique (Julie Delpy), summarily dumps her Polish husband, the schlemiel Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski), because, once married to her, he'd become impotent. Both films enact man/woman conflicts to symbolize Poland's sense of inadequacy in the face of Western Europe economic and cultural superiority, but at different crucial historical junctures (Morgenstern/Cybulski's, the postwar era, and Kieslowski's, the reunification of Europe era). Where Kieslowski's show is a black comedy that is kind to neither of its characters, the earlier film plays wistful and charming against its mordant subtext, and Cybulski's Jacek emerges at film's end sadder but wiser but also recharged creatively, as Polish filmmaking seemed to become in the wake of Stalin's death.
Andrzej Munk's Eroica (1958) is the only film of the bunch that doesn't feature Zbigniew Cybulski (if only in a supporting role), and the single picture that, by taking on the Polish experience of WWII, fulfills Wajda's definition of the aim of the Polish Film School. Right up front, the title, Eroica — Italian for heroic — sets us up for the ironies unleashed in the two-part film. Quite deliberately, the title references the quasi-programmatic heading for Beethoven's 3rd Symphony in E Flat Major, and each of the two parts is given faux musical designations, like those for movements of a symphony (but not corresponding to any for Beethoven's 3rd): Scherzo alla pollaca (Scherzo in a Polish manner) and Ostinato lugubre (gloomy ostinato). Even before either story begins, we sense from these rather unlikely titles — how can an ostinato be gloomy, or a scherzo Polish, exactly? — that some kind of self-mockery is in store.
Although based on a short story, the film's Ostinato lugubre feels like an adaptation of a Theater of the Absurd-ist play, with its setting — the close confines of a prison camp barrack — easily adapted as a stage set. Our POV is that of a batch of new prisoners, taken near the end of the war, entering their new quarters and encountering older prisoners taken at the beginning, in 1939, during the failed Polish uprising. Having sat out the war incarcerated, the older soldiers remain obsessed with the rules and codes of wartime honor, especially that of an officer's duty to always try to escape. The war-weary newer group views the officers' tight grip on honor/duty/heroism as, well, absurdist.
Samuel Beckett himself could have dreamed the story's central irony: as most of the older prisoners sit about lionizing the only officer they consider as having seen his heroic duty through by escaping the camp, one of the newer inmates discovers that very same officer living secretly in a crawlspace above the ceiling; he in fact never left the camp at all. Here, as Ballester's notes help us understand, Munk symbolically intends the irony to fall squarely on the head of postwar, Soviet-held Poland, and he wants it to hurt.
The disc's bonus feature, an extract from a film about Kawalerowcz (My Seventeen Lives), emphasizes Night Train's technical achievements, but, when considering the film's expressive intent, this turns out all to the point. The majority of the film, which takes place almost exclusively on a crowded night express traveling from Łódź to a seaside resort location, was shot within two real sleeping cars, dragged into the studio and mounted on springs to simulate the train's hurtling motion. Rear-projection provided the landscape streaming by the windows, and a special trim-line camera was constructed to enable photography in the tight space of a sleeping car's corridor.
Without any of it calling attention to itself, the special effects work toward creating a very real and sweaty claustrophobic space that fuels the existential distress of its two main characters — Jerzy (Leon Niemcyk) and Marta (Lucyna Winnicka) — who want nothing more than to be left alone but instead are thrown together and forced to confront the wellsprings of each other's sorrows. Slyly, the film behaves like a suspense thriller, but when emergency brakes are pulled and the passengers spill out from the train's confines — thrillingly, like a shout of release — to chase a presumed murderer out onto a dawn landscape, Kawalerowcz stages a surprising, but resonant, anti-climax in the open air of a dilapidated country cemetery.
As with the other films, our enjoyment of Night Train is buttressed by the excellent notes in the accompanying booklet, in this instance by the best commentator of the bunch, Michael Brooke. In all, this is a mighty treasure of a set, a house with many mansions to explore.
A Trip to the Moon (Georges Méliès, 1902)
The latest silent film release from the enterprising folks at Flicker Alley centers around just one film, which clocks in at around 15 minutes, and while a list price of 40 bucks may seem steep for such a modest helping of cinema history, enthusiasts for the films of Georges Méliès have no cause for complaint. Here, offered as a limited edition, Méliès' most celebrated film, A Trip to the Moon, comes blazing forth in its original 1902 hand-tinted colors on both Blu-ray and standard discs. An accompanying documentary, The Extraordinary Voyage (2011), is four times as long as the Méliès feature; other bonus features include two similarly astronomically themed films by the French master and a B&W edition of A Trip to the Moon. A lovingly designed steelbook case houses the two discs, along with a 23-page booklet, all of it making for a prized objet d'estime to sit next to Flicker Alley's fairly conclusive collections of extant Méliès films.
The practice of colorizing black-and-white films is a recurring target of disdain for me, and while we do have a colorized film here, it's not a misguided Ted Turner product — like, say, a colorized It's a Wonderful Life — but instead a hand-tinted silent film from well over a century ago that delights the eye rather than offending it. Applied, with a brush, frame by frame, the colors create an effect that's more two-dimensionally graphic — graphic as applied to works on paper or canvas — than one meant as an equivalent to color as it's perceived retinally as real light and air. Early two-color Technicolor processes attempted such an equivalent, with limited success, but hand-tinting, by its very nature, is an inexact, even crude procedure; it's impossible, for example, for a skilled colorizer from 1902 to have sustained an exact register of a single color within an object's outline, as it moves from frame to frame. Hand-tinting, then, is a faulty, additive element to the image and thus has only decorative potential.
But decorative does necessarily equal inexpressive, any more than Méliès' use of hand-painted stage flats, lit starkly by diffused natural light, are ill chosen to represent a fantastical, psychically charged lunar landscape. Feverish in its brevity, Méliès' story is a mishmash of Jules Verne 1885 novel From the Earth to the Moon and H. G. Wells's just published The First Men in the Moon (1901). A motley group from an astronomer's club squeeze themselves into a bullet-shaped capsule, shot, after a brief ceremony, from a gigantic cannon.
A jump cut brings the film's most celebrated image: reaching its target, the capsule — rapturously out of scale — smacks the man in the moon square in the eye. The shot lasts just a few seconds, and it's still funny — but what makes it one of the most enduring images in the history of cinema is how, simultaneously, it still disturbs. Méliès liked imagining celestial objects — the sun or the moon — as pie-shaped human faces; indeed, the face of the live actor playing his man in the moon is fixed in the midst of an oval covered with a bumpy, viscous surface, like that of a cake with its frosting melting. When the capsule hits the eye, it goes in deep. As we watch (quoting John Lennon) "yellow matter dripping" down its face from the site of the embedded missile, one is also reminded of Gloucester's blinding in King Lear, when Cornwall exclaims, "Out vile jelly!"
Méliès' assault on the man in the moon is a more playful sadism than Buñuel/Dali's slicing of an eyeball with a razor in Un Chien Andalou (1929), but interestingly the tinting, by painting it red, declares the gush of matter to be blood, which may up the ante on discomfort (in B&W the flow is not dark, allowing a viewer to think, hopefully, that the eye is just excreting mucous in reaction to the foreign object). However jolly Méliès has intended his moon voyage, I'm sure the sight of the moon losing an eye over it has worried many a small child. Thinking too much about it might lead adult viewers to see in it a metaphor of the cost of human technological progress, or even of space travel itself: that is, the contamination and spoiling of untrammeled nature.
The timing of this release with Martin Scorsese's recent paean to Méliès and early silent film Hugo (2011) could hardly be serendipitous, but the restoration was in fact not completed until 2011. As told in the documentary, the restoration's story is a surprisingly poignant tale of an object's rescue from near oblivion. After finding the heavily corrupted — indeed, nearly fused together in a solid mass — state of the film roll in 1999, archivists had to wait over ten years for the technology to advance to the point that it could digitally restore the work to the vibrant condition we see here. Using a mysterious chemical vapor, it took months to unfuse the reel, with the surviving lengths of film degrading rapidly because of their exposure to the vapor. Because of this rapid decay, none of the physical hand-colored film now exists.
Flicker Alley opts for a single musical track for the colorized edition of the film, a percussive, synthesized mélange by the French electronica band Air, which may have been better as an alternate choice to the more musically adroit Robert Israel score for small orchestra that accompanies the bonus B&W version.
The Spiders (Fritz Lang, 1919-1920)
Kino's release (DVD only) of Lang's two-part serial takes us close to the very beginning of the director's career. The serial's first feature-length installment, The Golden Sea, was Lang's third film, an assignment that — as Carl Bennett points out in his Silent Era site (http://www.silentera.com/) — would pull Lang away from helming The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919).
With The Spiders, the German studio Decla was clearly playing catch-up with the popular French serial films directed by Gaumont's Louis Feuillade, such as Fantomas (1913-14) and Les Vampires (1915). According to the credits, Lang also wrote The Spiders, not in itself his most notable achievement, but fascinating in how the various elements of this rather crude pulp, crime/thriller scenario prefigure not only more sophisticated serial-inspired ventures just down the road, like Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922), but also pulp elements in his mythic sci-fi epic Metropolis (1927), in Spies (1928), and in later Mabuse films — the last, The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960), being his career's penultimate project.
The serial's collective title, The Spiders, refers to the moniker of a nefarious crime organization, a group of apparently well-off, top-hatted gentlemen who include in their midst a dark-eyed femme, Lio Sha, played by the rather zaftig actress, Ressel Orla. Whenever committing a crime, be it murder or burglary, the group leaves its symbolic calling card, a little metal sculpture of a spider. A nice Langian detail is how the discoverer of the crime always recoils a bit at the sight of the fake, but realistically rendered, spider.
Even our hero, the lanky, tanned, and wealthy sportsman Kay Hoog (Carl de Vogt), is visibly grossed out the first time he sees one on (a bit of a spoiler here) the freshly murdered body of his girlfriend. Earlier, however, in the first installment, The Golden Sea, Lio Sha establishes herself as Hoog's nemesis. Turns out — in spite of suspicions of a different sexual proclivity brought on by her propensity for masculine outfits — Lio has a big crush on the finely chiseled Kay Hoog, who, by forcibly rejecting her advances near the end of the first installment, will ensure his own participation in the events of the second, The Diamond Ship.
Hoog's initial adventure involves a motley band of Incas surviving in the wilds of South America that still practices rites of blood sacrifice on any treasure hunter stupid enough to venture into their neighborhood — like Lio Sha (accompanied by hired goons), who is trailed by the wilier Kay Hoog. Dropped into the action from a hot-air balloon, Hoog himself appears to make a tactical error by falling in love with the only Incan woman in sight, the priestess destined to perform the blood rites (Lil Dagover), but you can't blame him. Appearing that same year in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the exquisite Dagover is the chief reason to see this first episode.
Part one's Incan exotica is fun, but part two's oriental confection is more beguiling, especially in its depiction of an entire underground city — complete with prostitutes and opium dens — lying beneath San Francisco's Chinatown, a concept that seems to prefigure the urban substrata of Metropolis, with its whorehouse destination Yoshiwara. Plot convolutions in The Diamond Ship are extreme, as if Lang were frantically contriving the entire story as he photographed it, but there are vivid pockets midst the confusion, like a spookily lit telepathic hypnosis session with an Indian swami.
One of the best bits has Hoog stow away on a ship ensconced in a wooden crate with some of the accoutrements of a home study, e.g., a small library, bottles of wine, and a reading lamp. When Hoog emerges from his crate, Lang — obviously inspired by Feuillade's Fantomas — has de Vogt costumed in a black full body stocking, so that he may perform his derring-do as a spooky phantom, thus scaring the bejesus out of the black cook, this last shtick an unfortunate example of period racism.
Lang makes the coveted object of his second part — a large diamond of untold value that flashes within it the image of the Buddha — the engine driving a conspiracy with international implications. The film's legend would have it that the immense monetary worth of the Buddha Head Diamond would free all Asia from European domination. Hoog's race to retrieve it seems to imply that such liberation would, by upsetting the world's balance, not be such a good idea (although there's an abducted girl to worry over, too). Or it may be that the legend is merely an opium den pipe dream.
Regardless, Lang's mixing his cliff-hanging mechanisms with the eroding tenure of European colonialism in Asia is an intriguing bit of topicality that was certainly current to the film's era. The Boxer Rebellion was only twenty years in the past, and Indian nationalism, by 1920, was already well on its way to forcing the issue of India's independence in the 1940s. But two years after directing The Diamond Ship, Lang would manage with much greater success the mingling of pulp and topicality with Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler.
Both parts of The Spiders derive from 35mm elements restored by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung, and while the image is fairly strong in detail and gray scale, the films remain in rough shape. As Carl Bennett notes, there seem to be many missing frames, causing some unexplained gaps in the narratives; so it's possible to optimistically blame the jerky, ill-timed rhythms of the editing on missing footage, but more likely Lang was still learning his craft. It's astonishing how rapidly he progressed in the manipulation of film grammar by the time he directed Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler. Ben Model supplies a synthesized underscore that works quite well.