An ongoing column that looks at some of the most intriguing of recent, under-the-radar releases
While much of the melodrama on display in this extravagantly plotted Norwegian film must’ve seemed archaic even in 1929, I can imagine audiences being won over then, just as I am now, by its emotional honesty and sheer visual gorgeousness. Virtually unknown today, Laila, thanks to the folks at Flicker Alley, emerges as a classic.
Set (we’re assuming) sometime in the 19th century, the tale begins in a vast Finnmark1 snowscape with two reindeer-pulled sleds being chased by a hungry wolf pack. The endangered couple — a merchant and his wife — survives the ordeal, but one sled, with its precious cargo, their infant child, is lost. Heartbroken, the parents must face the gruesome reality that their baby has been carried off by wolves.
The baby, however, is found — snug and swaddled and wedged in the crook of a tree — by Jåmpa (Tryggve Larsen), a native Lapp, or Sami, who is characterized by an intertitle as “half-beast.” Jåmpa takes the child back to the camp of his master, Aslak Lågje (Peter Malberg), a wealthy nomadic Lapp who herds reindeer. Aslak and his wife begin to raise the girl as their own, but regretfully return the child to her parents when Aslak comes upon them still deep in grief — yet, soon enough, a tragic twist of plot device delivers the newly orphaned toddler, once again via Jåmpa, back into their hands. After a leap of the requisite number of years, we see the child transformed into the bright-eyed, nubile Laila (Mona Mårtensson), who seems destined to marry a handsome Lapp lad until she meets a stalwart Norwegian merchant, Anders (Harald Schwenzen), who unbeknownst to Laila, just happens to be her cousin . . .
By this time, if you’re not thoroughly engrossed in Schnéevoigt’s storytelling, you may as well stop the disc and go watch Law & Order reruns. Like his contemporary D. W. Griffith, Schnéevoigt, a cinematographer turned director,2 manages to pour new wine into old bottles by spiking the implausible happenstance of melodrama with gestures and locked gazes that telegraph real human emotion. And he has marvelous actors with which to accomplish this. In the film’s first half, a nuanced interplay of feeling occurs within and between the two Lapp men, Aslak and Jåmpa, who’ve developed powerful paternal feelings for the child. Both of them struggle with the moral duty that demands they return Laila to her parents, and Tryggve Larsen, as Jåmpa, projects a finely modulated blend of sorrow and anger when he travels to the trading post to hand off the girl, then a fierce joy when, orphaned for real, she re-enters his and Aslak’s life.
Essential to the film’s narrative arc is showing that, behind his primitive manners, Jåmpa’s hungry heart is as human as any Norwegian’s, yet, as adapted from a 1881 novel by J. A. Friis, a whiff of racism necessarily remains in the film, not only in this slightly patronizing (albeit moving) reveal of Jåmpa’s humanity, but in the conflict inherent in Anders’s feelings for Laila, whom he believes is a Lapp. A lot of soul searching and a near tragedy leads Anders to declare that he will marry Laila in spite of her race, but then, when all is revealed — Laila is 100 percent Norwegian! — he feels further emboldened and justified in publicly proclaiming his love for the girl and that, additionally, it’s now perfectly okay that he do so. (No problem, though, that he and Laila are first cousins: “she’s my relative!” he shouts to a crowded church gathering.)
If Mårtensson’s Laila, as white-girl-gone-native, is only marginally more convincing than Natalie Wood’s Debbie in The Searchers (1956), the Swedish actress excels within those margins. It may seem odd that none of the Norwegians can spot Laila as no more indigenous than, say, Anne of Green Gables, but her shy deference in front of her Norwegian “betters,” which conflicts with her assertive, headlong love for Anders, plays just right. A very touching scene features Mårtensson’s delicate features, in close-up and soft focus, as she nearly swoons in erotic response to Anders’s piano playing. Here she appears to channel the young Greta Garbo surrendering to similar love-struck ecstasies — and indeed the two played together in The Saga of Gösta Berling (1924). Sadly, unlike Garbo, an international film career was not in the cards for Mårtensson, a popular stage actress and a real beauty.
Something like 90 percent of the film seems to take place out of doors, where we’re allowed yet another wolf attack and a maiden about to be hurled over a waterfall, and the film’s photography, especially with the story’s prevalence of technically demanding snow scenes, captures it all with élan. Flicker Alley’s edition features a transfer of an astonishingly well-preserved print, while on solo piano, Robert Israel provides an all-Grieg underscore that proves exactly right for Schnéevoigt’s heart-on-its-sleeve tale.
Norway/1929/B&W/145 min./Tinted/Silent/1.37:1 OAR/New English, French, and Spanish titles. Released on DVD by Flicker Alley in 2011.
Švankmajer’s stop-action reimagining of the Lewis Carroll classic uses the author’s framing device, favored by the book’s numerous film adaptations, of Alice dreaming her adventures. But this time round, what fascinated me watching Švankmajer’s surrealist stagings was how much its flow of event is like the anarchic, often rather nasty, make-believe of a child’s imaginary daytime play, where kids mentally enter into the kind of chaotic free association to which adult minds allow free rein only when asleep and dreaming. This occurred to me after a weekend of listening to my two small nieces — aged three and five — dictating the chaotic, nonsensical, frequently mean-spirited script of whatever set of adventures they’d concocted for their own alter egos (usually princesses).
Švankmajer’s Alice is played by a live girl (Kristýna Kohoutová) except when she periodically turns into a doll, whose limbs and eyes take on a sort of muffled human consciousness that, to this adult anyway, dredges up obscure, regressive fears of a sudden malign metamorphosis to a stuffed animal or discarded plaything. All of the film’s animation, in fact, works to confirm a child’s suspicion that there’s continuity between the inanimate and animate worlds. While this is a familiar trope for children’s books and movies, it results, in Švankmajer’s hands, in imagery that’s neither huggable nor reassuring, but instead alien and terrifying.
To those weaned on CGI effects and Pixar toy stories, the stop action animation here, though exquisitely done, might appear jerky and unconvincing, but I wouldn’t bet on anyone, young or old, coming out of this film unscathed by its strangeness and by its often untethered cruelty. At the beginning, Alice’s voiceover, which will describe all the events as they occur, announces that “you will see a film for children — perhaps.” This is a wink on the part of Švankmajer; his film was surely not meant for children. Therefore, instructions for home viewing: if you’ve got kids, watch the disc after they’re in bed.
Just like the book, the film begins with an Alice bored by a lesson given by a grownup. Here she diverts herself by throwing pebbles into a clear stream, a witty nod at a Jungian symbol for the unconscious; left alone (being punished?) in some forgotten room, she likewise throws buttons into a cup of tea, thus signaling the start of her inland adventures. There is no rabbit hole; Alice follows the White Rabbit, a stuffed bunny that bleeds sawdust, into the shallow drawer of a small desk sitting in a barren field. From there she ends up, via a subterranean lift of sorts, in an underground pantry where she gets small, then big, and cries an ocean of tears.
Švankmajer fills his tale with things that need to be opened: drawers, doors, cans, and bottles, all of which resist Alice’s tampering. Knobs on doors come off in her hand, and keys don’t fit — but then, most often, Alice herself doesn’t fit. Entry is also hampered by the White Rabbit, who here is an oppressive, malignant force. One astonishing scene, inspired by Carroll, takes place as Alice, grown huge in the second floor of the rabbit’s house, is mistaken by him for a disobedient servant, whereupon, outside, a tiny death coach appears that emits skeletal animals that throw rocks at Alice’s giant arm, stuck extending out a window.
And just as in Carroll, the violence only escalates as Alice nears her rendezvous with the Queen of Hearts. The Tea Party features a scary, hollow wooden puppet as the Mad Hatter, whose utter malevolence in fomenting mindless repetition with the March Hare will erase forever the song-infested whimsy of the Disney version. With the pointless, repetitive brutality of this scene, you wonder if some political agenda is on the table along with the tea and cakes: memories of dealing with the Soviet bureaucracy perhaps?
There is of course enough thinly veiled malevolence in Carroll’s Alice to go around, and Švankmajer similarly dares to create a world that can be unpleasant even as it’s being playful: witness his version of the caterpillar sequence, which features a number of socks snaking in and out of holes in a floor before one of them lands on a desk top and contrives to form a talking larva. Once his advice is given, Alice attempts to leave, whereupon a sock comes flying out of a hole to suck the socks off Alice, leaving her feet bare. Alice gets her socks back, alright, but I found the sequence disquieting, as if the sock, which you could label as phallic, was out to sexually assault little Alice. It also made me think of the unsettled question of the true nature of Carroll’s obsessive attention, not only to Alice Liddell, but to the other prepubescent girls he befriended and photographed, with or without socks.
This is a brave film and a beautiful one, too, its dusty, moribund world surprisingly colorful, and all the more so in BFI’s fine-grained Blu-ray transfer. Extras include the purported first film adaptation of Alice from 1903, which is all of nine minutes long and features an oddly adult Alice; plus, a slew of animated short films, two of which are by the Quay Brothers.
Czechoslovakia, Switzerland, UK, and West Germany/Color/86 min./in Czech, with optional English subtitles/1.33:1 OAR. Released by BFI on DVD and Blu-ray in 2011.
As a low-budget, independent feature — long before anyone had conceptualized “independent film” — People on Sunday seemingly came out of nowhere with an idea no one had thought of: to film real people, non-actors, using documentarian techniques, in a fictional scenario of a real-life event with low dramatic potential; that is, a day-long Sunday outing taken by a foursome of twenty-something urban dwellers to a lakeside park near Berlin. Like Laila, People on Sunday dared to break with the then studio-bound norm by photographing nearly all its scenes outside and under the sun. With no built sets, the filmmakers staged everything on location, in Berlin or at Lake Wansee and its environs. Before the film begins, an intertitle declares it “an experiment.”
The filmmakers were nearly all twenty-somethings themselves, and, remarkably, nearly all of them were destined for varying degrees of greatness as émigré directors in Hollywood: co-directors Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer; writer Billy Wilder; and assistant cinematographer Fred Zinnemann. In 1929, however, they were a motley crew, held together by their youthful enthusiasm for their rather avant-garde project, which, much to their surprise, opened as a critical and popular success. Because of its acclaim, Siodmak was hired by UFA, Ulmer went to Hollywood, Wilder went to France, and the rest is cinema history.
Was People on Sunday the birth of cinema verité? Did the film prefigure Italian neo-realism or the French New Wave? Maybe so; but on the other hand, it may simply be a one-of-a-kind film, capturing, like a Cretaceous wasp preserved in amber, the lost culture of Weimar-era Berlin. Under Siodmak and Ulmer’s direction, the non-actors perform the through line of the scenario quite convincingly; the pitfalls of flat line readings are avoided by it being a silent film, which also allows Eugen Schüfftan’s on-the-fly photography a powerful subjectivity. One meaningful glance from girl to boy, captured in radiant close-up by Schüfftan, swiftly communicates what an awkward dialog exchange would muddle.
In an interview that’s part of a 2000 documentary included on the disc, a 90-year-old Brigitte Borchet, one of three women playing “herself,” recalls the action as being improvised daily with nary a script in sight, which may have been largely true, but the film’s story carries a strongly sustained emotional thread that points to some careful off-site preparation, possibly by Billy Wilder, whose responsibilities Brigitte contrariwise remembers as being limited to holding the reflector during shooting.
In the film, the 19-year-old Borchet, a record store clerk, is the friend of Christl Ehlers, a film extra, whom Wolfgang von Waltershausen, a wine salesman, manages to pick up Saturday afternoon at a Berlin streetcar stop. Over coffee, Christl accepts Wolfgang’s invite to a Sunday excursion. The next morning Christl, accompanied by Brigitte, meets up with Wolfgang, who has brought along his friend Erwin Splettstösser, a taxi driver whose wife, a fashion model, misses the whole thing by sleeping all day. The fun-in-the-sun destination, Lake Wansee, is a short tram ride away.
Once there, swim suits are revealed or donned — in the case of Christl’s, sewn-on — and the high concept begins: which of the two women will Wolfgang end up with? The group swims, then lunches, then lounges about; meanwhile, Wolfgang has his male ego bruised, Erwin plays the clown, Christl suffers abandonment, and Brigitte falls in love.
Some furtive erotic maneuvering resolves in an implicit coupling in the grass, and there’s a lyrical episode late in the afternoon as the four of them take a pedal boat out onto the lake; here, hurt feelings are assuaged, the lovers coo, and the jocular taxi driver smiles knowingly — he’s just old enough, probably pushing 30, to recognize the transience of summer idylls. For the pedal boat sequence, Rodney Sauer’s Mont Alto Orchestra’s score provides a beguiling languorous accompaniment. Elsewhere, Sauer’s elegantly arranged vintage pop tunes hang with the hormone-fueled push and pull, sometimes assuming symbolic duties if you know the lyrics, as in “Someday Sweetheart (. . . you’re gonna be sorry/for what you’ve done/to my poor heart”).
The aforementioned documentary, Weekend am Wannsee (Gerald Koll, 2000), is gritty and informative, but much more: it’s a poignant capstone to Brigitte Borchet’s performance. Speaking 70 years after its premiere, her memories and feelings about the experience still sharply in focus, she wonders about how the film treated her character. “It was rather cynical, wasn’t it?” she says of the denouement. She’s right; the film’s ending is dry and open-ended, with Brigitte’s feelings hung in lovelorn suspension, but Wolfgang, who agrees to a date next Sunday, has probably gotten what he wanted from the girl already.
Although Borchet never pursued a film career, other cast members did, but with only modest success. Christl Ehlers, who actually already had a job in the film industry, was Jewish and fled the country not long after the film’s completion. Indeed, it seems probable that everyone involved in the film sensed something horrific was in store for Germany, but our awareness of what the next 15 years would bring frames this small sunlit patch of fun, folly, and pheromones with a dark precariousness the filmmakers surely did not intend.
Germany/73 min./B&W/Silent, with musical accompaniment/German intertitles with English subtitles/1.33:1 OAR. Released by The Criterion Collection on Blu-ray disc and DVD in 2011.
Buster Keaton: The Short Films Collection, 1920-1923
Provocatively, film scholar Ken Gordon, in his brief visual essay accompanying The Scarecrow (also 1920), proposes a narrative created by linking three films: The Scarecrow, One Week, and The Boat (1921). All three feature Sybil Seely as, first, his intended sweetheart in The Scarecrow, then his bride in One Week, and finally the mother of his two children in The Boat. Because the films were not made in sequence, such a narrative was not intended by Keaton, but it’s a satisfying concept nonetheless. As I’m guessing Keaton did, as I watch these films, I too yearn for a narrative. And I agree with Gordon that Seely, a lovely, spirited comedian, makes an excellent partner and foil for Keaton, and yet, he pretty much ditched her for the less interesting Virginia Fox for most of the rest of the shorts.
Throughout One Week, Keaton and Seely do battle with the principles of gravity and inertia before matching their modest nautical skills with the malevolence of the wide open sea in The Boat. The latter film has one of the darkest endings of any Keaton short: Buster and family, shipwrecked on a beach in the dead of night, walk and disappear into the blackness of an unknown future.
As opposed to the features, where Keaton would play characters like Johnny Gray (The General) or Willie McKay (Our Hospitality, 1923) in appropriate period costume, the director and star of the shorts often calls himself “Buster” and keeps to his trademark wardrobe topped by porkpie hat, just as Chaplin would hold onto his regalia as the Little Tramp. Fundamental to the Buster persona was the unchanging “stone face,” of course, but, taken together throughout the shorts, the character we get to know is surprisingly saturnine, self-lacerating, even depressive. At the end of more than one film, Buster more or less just wants to die.
A happier tale is the penultimate short, The Balloonatic (1923), which co-stars a feisty Phyllis Haver. Within its scant 20 minutes or so, Keaton creates, along with its many physical, prop-oriented gags (featuring a hot-air balloon and an ingeniously modified canoe), a complex, conflicted boy/girl relationship between Buster and Haver, who plays a physically active independent gal camping next to the bumbling, sad sack balloonatic. The film has a charming fantastical ending in which Keaton is victorious, with girl and props, the way he so often would be in his features.
Although a few exist only as fragments, this set contains every short Keaton produced between 1920 to 1923, and Kino has fitted 15 of the 19 with brief but valuable visual essays, written (but not always narrated) by an assortment of Keatonian scholars. At around 5 minutes apiece these miniature documentaries amount to more than 75 minutes of supplemental material, sometimes concerning general matters, like Steve Massa’s excellent backgrounding on Keaton’s supporting players or musician Ben Model explaining how he scores a film.
As to the scores — well, they’re a mixed bag. The aforementioned soloist Ben Model backs many of the films, mostly with organ, which suits the proceedings just fine. Less enjoyable, for me at least, are Robert Israel’s arrangements using a vintage Fotoplayer, which is fundamentally a nickle-in-the-slot kind of contraption, mixing piano rolls, percussion, and sound effects, like a claxon and whistle, the difference from the nickelodeon being that these elements may be controlled by an operator to more or less fit what’s happening on the screen. Fotoplayers were used until the silent film was superseded by the talkies, so its use here is authentic enough, but I find the machine’s piano pounding out jerky, out of tune, mechanical ragtime headache-inducing, and its whistles timed for every pratfall the worst kind of mickey-mousing.
USA/1920-23/B&W with some color tinting/Silent, with musical accompaniment/1.33:1 OAR. Released on Blu-ray disc and DVD by Kino International in 2011.Szindbád (Zoltán Huszárik, 1971)
On Blu-ray, the clarity and detail of the films are often exhilarating; surprisingly, it’s the earlier films that seem in the best shape. Just a few are heavily damaged or from reduction prints, but these, too, benefit from the HD process.
In this stupefyingly beautiful color film, the sensualist Szindbád (Zoltán Latinovits) is never far from a woman’s rapt attention. After a brief montage of macro-focused images of flowers, old photographs, rain-dripping roof shingles, and pulsating embers, Huszárik’s film offers its framing conceit. With his corpse brusquely shoved into a horse-driven cart, which shuttles its cargo to and from destinations that reject it, Szindbád’s restless spirit meanders with a Joycean nonlinearity among memories of a lifetime of womanizing. Like his namesake, Sinbad the Sailor, he’s traveled a lot, had many adventures, but now he’s tired — or, rather, dead — and wants to come to terms.
The film offers no set-up for a time period or place, but in its course we learn that the aging Szindbád’s death is definitely some years before WWI, in Hungary, with his memories covering decades of skirt-chasing reaching well back into the 19th century, when his lovers are mostly young girls enshrouded in Romantic poesy or married women downcast with melancholic ennui and/or borderline insanity. More than one is suicidal.
“Why is it women love the sea?” the dandified Szindbád ponders at one point. A better question might be, why are they all so unhappy? The era being what it was for the status of women, there are a multitude of answers to this question, at which the film slyly hints. Stuck in loveless marriages or poverty, with no outlets for creative impulses other than the satisfying of men’s needs, the women, to Szindbád, are barely human beings, but instead lunar creatures, filled with occult knowledge that they engrave in unreadable script onto his tabula rasa. Other than providing Szindbád’s lifelong, presumptive sentimental education, they have no reason to exist.
But Huszárik, who took his fractured tale from stories by Gyula Krúdy, is not out to judge Szindbád’s lifestyle choices on feminist grounds. Late in the game, after more than one unsettling death — one young woman kills herself in front of Szindbád — the aging roué seeks some kind of redemption for his sins, which seem to boil down to an immersive self-involvement that precludes his ability to love. But postmortem, proclaiming that soon he will be “a sumac or a roadweed,” he is full of a nostalgic ache for his lost days, throughout which he had a predilection for assignations in cemeteries. Even as a youthful Lothario, it seems, Szindbád’s was a death-devoted heart. Well, death comes with the territory, as any Don Juan will tell you.
Huszárik allows Szindbád’s ruminations a contrapuntal flow. The memories of the dead man often take him into the parlor of an old inamorata, the brothel madam Majmunka (Margit Dayka), who coddles him with chicken soup, and with whom Szindbád likes to foster an illusion of domestic stability. From Majmunka’s cozy lap, Szindbád may travel to any rendezvous in the past, none of which ever involves the act of sex itself, but more often a woman’s soft resistance or a farewell that sends him time-traveling to another palpitating lover. With few exceptions, young, old, or in between, the women greet him in outrageously colorful hats.
The hats and the settings — including the eye-popping floral wallpaper in Majmunka’s dining room — are all photographed by cinematographer Sándor Sára in the most carefully crafted color design I ever recall seeing in a film; the gorgeousness simply never lets up, and that includes remarkable, painterly landscapes shot in difficult light. The lush, sometimes febrile, hues are how Szindbád colors his memories; the seasons are poetically heightened visions of autumn or winter, and the outrageous hats, a fetish, perhaps?
Szindbád would have made a fine candidate for Blu-ray, but Second Run’s standard disc is so lovely that I wasn’t missing the HD. On the disc, there’s an appreciation by director Peter Strickland, and the accompanying booklet contains a well-researched essay by film scholar Michael Brooke that provides a much needed background to the film. All in all, a phenomenal release.
Coeur Fidèle (Jean Epstein, 1923)
With this release, Masters of Cinema brings filmmaker Jean Epstein back from obscurity. Like his compatriot Abel Gance, whose La Roue (1923) strongly influenced Coeur Fidèle, Epstein thought of himself as on a mission to advance the art of cinema through technique, both behind the lens and in the editing room. Coeur Fidèle‘s plethora of rapid montage, extreme close-ups, and super-imposition of images did not find favor with the French public, but the film comes to us now as an astonishing tour de force and an emotional roller coaster, or, rather, merry-go-round, as I’ll get to later.
With the film’s story-line, however, Epstein thought he was giving audiences what they wanted. The simplistic, excitable melodrama, the scenario for which the filmmaker admitted he composed in a single night, has — to paraphrase Thelma Ritter in All About Eve — everything but the bloodhounds snappin’ at the heroine’s rear end. More so than La Roue, the hysterical extremity of the plot nearly crosses the line into a parody of both the Romanticism of Victor Hugo and the social realism of Balzac or Zola.
The film’s title translates into True Heart, and there are two of them. One, an orphaned girl, Marie (Gina Manès), is fundamentally Hugo’s Cosette, grownup and working as a drudge in the Hochons’ port-side tavern, as did Cosette at the Thenardiers’ inn. Like the Thenardiers, the Hochons are a coldhearted couple tired of housing the foundling Marie and all too willing to fob her off to a local, small-time hood, Petit Paul (Edmond Van Daële), of whose sadistic manner Marie is rightfully terrified.
Whenever Marie can contrive a block of time away from her barmaid duties, she meets up with the other true heart, her beloved Jean (Léon Mathot), who is stolidly handsome in the Gallic template of a young Jean Gabin. As the lovers, Manès and Mathot are called upon not so much to act for the camera as to peer into it, with Epstein managing close-ups of the performers’ faces that fill the entire screen. The results can be stunning, especially in the case of Manès, who has immense, tragic eyes expressive of a soul wounded by abuse yet sustained by moral strength. At their rendezvous out on a stone quay, the two clutch each other and stare into the distance as if they’re about to break into song like a working-class Tristan and Isolde.
As the two exit the ride, there’s a confrontation with Jean and a fight between the two men, edited with hair-raising efficiency by Epstein. When a cop gets involved in the melee, Jean gets arrested but Petit Paul escapes. A year later Jean is released from prison, bitter but still in love with Marie, whom he tracks down living with Petit Paul, the father of their baby. At this morose junction — the baby is sick and the alcoholic Petit Paul drinks up all the money needed for medicine — Epstein introduces a character we will know only as “the crippled girl,” a friend and confidant of Marie. As played by Marie Epstein, the sister of the filmmaker, the crippled girl ups the film’s pathos considerably, and Epstein looks like the real thing, an undernourished waif hollowed out by poverty and her infirmity — a true misérable, as well as a third coeur fidèle. She’s intensely loyal to Marie, and the director orchestrates a superb, suspenseful finish in which a soused Petit Paul and the crippled girl match wills.
Like their Blu-ray of Murnau’s City Girl, Master of Cinema’s Coeur Fidèle is another example of a silent film miraculously surviving in nearly pristine shape — as if nigh onto 90 years mattered not at all — and then, just as miraculously, made available to all in the video marketplace. What times we live in!