Bright Lights Film Journal

Bright Sights: Recent DVDs: An ongoing column that looks at some of the most intriguing of recent, under-the-radar releases

Night Train (Jerzy Kawalerowicz, 1959)

Call it Train of Fools. In Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s masterwork, a crowded night express travels overbooked with the despairing, the lovelorn, the lustful, a handful of priests and a concentration camp survivor. Bound for the Baltic coast, it also carries a wife-murderer fleeing from the police.

Among those boarding the train in the late afternoon sunlight is a tall, good-looking, rather dapper man in sunglasses, Jerzy (Leon Niemczyk), who sweats profusely as he tries to make himself invisible. This of course could be our murderer.

In his desperate need for privacy, Jerzy reminds us of the fugitive Roger Thornhill played by Cary Grant, another tall dapper man, in North by Northwest (1959). Like Cary, the mystery man in Night Train ends up in a sleeping car with a mysterious blonde, but finds a different sort of wrinkle in the sheets. The blonde, Marta, has a bit of the sang-froid about her that might remind you of Eva Marie Sainte, except that she can’t hide the emotional bruising that’s settled in around her eyes. What’s her story? And, in spite of his distractions, Jerzy is instantly attracted to her voluptuous mystery, as she is to his. Why the sweat-soaked armpits in his Arrow shirt? The aura of sexual intrigue brings Night Train in line with other rail journey allegories with mysterious blondes, like von Sternberg’s exquisite Shanghai Express (1932). For a while, in Night Train, the anticipation rides not on who the murderer is, but, as the train settles in for sleep, on when Jerzy and Marta will begin making love.

Kawalerowicz’s film, though released in 1959, has a detached, sixties cool about it. The main theme here is really the spaces between people, the isolation of identity — existential business that Italian masters like Antonioni took on in the following decade. The film’s metaphorical conceit, which presents us a microcosm of suffering humanity, well, that idea goes at least as far back as Grand Hotel (1932).

Night Train was shot in gorgeous black and white, seemingly using mostly ambient light. The elegant framing, which has people disappearing into and emerging from deep shadow, makes for hipster visuals of lonely disconnect. Mostly, though, the shadows seem a bit too dark on this DVD; perhaps the film was shot this way, but I suspect the print, or how it was mastered for video, allows the darks too little detail. Regardless, this film is visually magnificent and mostly well served by this disc.

The score, by Andrej Trzaskowski, is fifties cool jazz, featuring vibes and sax. Woven within the fabric is a female scat vocal, with a lilting, lullaby feel, which is so reminiscent of the wordless vocal that underscored much of Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) that you wonder if Kawalerowicz’s compatriot may have remembered it and ordered its near likeness for his film.

Polart’s DVD comes with short biographies of the director and its two main stars. From Kawalerowicz’s biography we learn that the director, born in 1922, made a lot of enemies among his Polish peers when, in 1983, he signed a communist document condemning all filmmakers aligned with the Solidarity movement.

English subtitles are available, but only through the subtitle button on your player’s remote.

Poland, 1959, black and white, full screen, 102 minutes. Issued on DVD by Polart, 2006; distributed in US by Facets Video; Region 1, NTSC. Available now.

Edi (Piotr Trzaskalski, 2002)

Henryk Golebiewski, who plays the title character in Piotr Trzaskalski’s remarkable film, has a face of dented metal — as dinged up as any of the discarded water heaters and stoves that Edi and his friend Jurek (Jacek Braciak) haul to the salvage yard.

But Edi (Eddie) is a stalwart fellow — contained, bookish, and self-aware — whose life has taught him to accept every disaster before it strikes. Committed to routine and kindness, he steadfastly takes care of his sickly friend as both live below subsistence in an unheated, abandoned building with no electricity.

We’re in modern-day Poland, and, in the city at least, a roughhouse capitalist economy has created an entire community of scavengers like Edi and Jurek. These guys look after each other, which is a good thing because when they’re not behind their pushcarts, they’re falling-down drunk. A couple of small-time hoods, known as “the brothers,” have the local “illegal” liquor market cornered, and Edi and his street compatriots must necessarily rub up against these goons on a daily basis, sometimes falling victim to the brothers’ casual violence.

In a nice neighborhood, the brothers share deluxe digs with their teenage sister, Princess, a pouting nubile with no inclination to finish high school. Desperate for Princess’ graduation, the brothers hire Edi as a tutor, but Princess has just one thing on her mind, sex with boyfriend Gypsy. In a blink, she’s pregnant, and protecting Gypsy from the brothers’ violence, Princess fingers Edi as the father. After the brothers do to him what they would’ve done to Gypsy, Edi is additionally saddled with the newborn, torn from the arms of her mother.

And baby makes three. With Jurek in tow, mutilated Edi and mewling infant take to the country, and this is where a transformative healing begins to take place. To contrast Edi’s scabrous urban environs, Trzaskalski’s camera captures with startling but lush exactitude a field of green rye swaying in the sun. Edi, we’ve known all along, is a nurturer, and now he’s found his calling, albeit with more shocks and displacements on their way …

Edi is screenwriter Trzaskalski’s first outing as writer/director, and he shines. The film is sentimental but the right kind of sentimental, earned the old-fashioned way, by first conjuring a credible world of desperate poverty and then, like Dickens, establishing a deep empathy for the discarded and displaced. When Edi suddenly finds great meaning in caring for the infant and love blossoms on his corrugated face, it’s not cheap manipulation we feel — just a swoon in the belly at the tenderness on the screen.

The MGE disc features an impeccable transfer of this luxuriantly photographed film. English subtitles are available (in yellow). The one special feature is a making-of, in Polish, with no subtitles. On the case a commentary (“narration”) is promised, but not delivered on the disc.

Poland, 2002, color, widescreen (16.9), 97minutes. Issued on DVD by MGE; distributed by Facets Video; Region 1, NTSC. Available now.

The Red and the White (Miklós Jancsó, 1969)

Miklós Jancsó’s The Red and the White (Csillagosok, katonák) sets the viewer smack down in a landscape of considerable emptiness. It’s the Russia of 1919, near the border of Hungary, and the Bolsheviks and the White Russians are doing what they can to eradicate each other. At first you might wonder which is which, but soon it’s clear: the Reds are scruffy, hungry and a little undisciplined in their reluctance to kill, whereas the Whites, in their immaculate dark uniforms, are almost machinelike in their drive to murder every Red they can get their hands on.

The Whites, when they round up prisoners, like to play mind games. First they carefully weed the rebel Russians from the Hungarians. The Hungarians, who have taken the side of the Bolsheviks in the civil war, are sent home — with an admonition: “This is our war. Stay out of it.” For the Russians it’s a setup straight out of a nightmare: the Whites give them a fifteen minutes head start before beginning a summary execution. When the time is up, a few have escaped, but most are gathered into a small crowd and picked off at close range — you hear the staccato of pops in the distance as the escapees run like hell into the grassy flatland. The film follows the adventures of these few escaped Reds as most of them are either hunted down and killed, or left to limp to a refuge — a small hospital built of logs and mortar set beside a river. If you’re expecting the excitement of A Great Escape — weren’t those guys ingenious? — forget it. The Red and the White is unlike any other war movie ever made.

Jancsó’s tone is dispassionate. Events, like the picture’s many executions, happen quickly, or in long shot — many times off screen. When a small band of Whites terrorize a peasant family, the camera observes coolly as — in the open air — the father is shot, and the elder females (a mother, grandmother?) are told to strip the pretty daughter and then wash her, presumably in preparation for gang rape.

Thus, in this and another key scene, female nudity plays a meaningful role, similar to that of the male nudity in Goya’s Disasters of War prints. The nakedness is always carefully de-eroticized, but there’s no denying the vulnerability and degradation on display. Yet Jancso allows for no close identification with his characters, which are all being swept to this or that fate as if by a gigantic broom. The detachment undercuts any sexiness in the violence or the humiliations, and, somewhat amazingly, there is no musical underscore. But in no way does Jancsó push a documentary style here.

Instead it’s controlled, virtuosic and very expressive filmmaking. And, to my eyes, unique. Jancsó favors very long takes in which the camera travels with reptilian dexterity among the action, allowing the director can go from one scene to the next without an edit. Like Goya’s aquatints, the black and white photography is formally astute and lovely in its middle value grays and whites, but, in the end, the film’s a horrific, 87-minute picture show of atrocity and waste. Maybe it’s this distanced formality — putting the viewer in a position of contemplating horror as one does with a print by Goya — that allows Jancsó’s film to remain long in the mind’s eye.

Second Run presents a good, if somewhat soft, anamorphic transfer of this Hungarian classic, and several special features: the 54-minute first film in Jancsó’s documentary series, Message of Stones, and a booklet featuring an interview with Jancsó by Andrew James Horton.

Hungary, 1969, black and white, 87 minutes. Issued on DVD by Second Run, 2006. Region 0, PAL. Available now.

The Edgar G. Ulmer Archive (All Day, 2006)

In a generous, three-disc set, All Day Entertainment has gathered up five films by everyone’s favorite auteur maudit, Edgar G. Ulmer. Three of the films, The Strange Woman (1946), Bluebeard (1944), and Moon Over Harlem (1939) have been issued before by All Day, with two titles,Strange Illusion (1945), and Daughter of Dr. Jeykll (1957), making their debut on the label. (Bright Lights’ review of earlier All Day Entertainment’s Ulmer releases here.

David Kalat, claiming a fresh transfer for The Strange Woman, has also given the film a brand new audio commentary that, among other things, psychoanalyzes the anti-heroine, Jenny Hager. One of the best commentators in the business, Kalat proceeds to sort out the differences between the novel, the screenplay, and Ulmer’s final cut — which sent the material climbing toward the director’s uniquely psychosexual base camp.

Where The Strange Woman was an A-list production, Ulmer was back at PRC (Producers’ Releasing Corp.) to direct Strange Illusion, which was adapted from a stage play Ulmer saw in New York. The film’s setup unabashedly derives from Hamlet: a boy from a well-to-do family, Paul Cartwright (Jimmy Lydon) is still grieving the suspicious death of his Lieutenant-Governor father when he comes home to find his young mother dating a man with an untrustworthy mustache, Brett Curtis (Warren William).

Ulmer deftly inserts some incestuous Hamlet/Gertrude agenda into the mother/son scene reunion. There’s clearly heat between the two — gripping her at the waist for a full body hug, Paul calls his mother “Princess.” In a brief interview included with the set, Ulmer’s daughter talks about her father’s perennial fascination with Oedipal relationships, and it’s fully on display here.

From the beginning of the film, Paul is haunted by a vivid dream that portends danger for mom (Sally Eilers, a sort of frumpy Lana Turner). The dream seems to be coming true, but is Paul’s prescience caused (or clouded) by his unnatural desire for The Princess? As the unctuous psychiatrist, Professor Muhlbach (Charles Arnt), puts it: “Filial devotion leads to hallucination”.

William (Julius Caesar in DeMille’s 1934 Cleopatra) plays Brett Curtis as a murderous con man with a predator’s eye for young female flesh. When Paul and his girlfriend Lydia (a waifish Mary McLeod) run up against this truly nasty piece of business, we start feeling we’re in Blue Velvet land. Like Lynch’s confident man-child, Jeffrey, Paul gets in plenty of juvenile sleuthing before he confronts his nemesis in the finale. Here, Paul gets bonked in the head and has a new, improved dream in which his world is set right. In Lynch’s masterpiece, Jeffrey sees the robins return, the fulfillment of Sandy’s dream of evil vanquished.

Then there’s the dissociative feel you get from Ulmer’s tone, caused probably by juxtaposing a B-movie’s undernourished scripting and performance levels with the director’s own sophisticated but off-balance sensibility. In such films as Blue Velvet, Mr. Lynch seems to instill this tonal disconnect quite deliberately. Whether our postmodernist auteur is an Ulmer fan, I don’t know. Anyone?

As befits their mostly B-film status, the visual quality of these films vary widely, with the worst looking like an old TV broadcast and the best, predictably The Strange Woman, looking pretty damn good. Special features are sprinkled throughout the discs; these include short featurettes, making-of footage (Bluebeard), and an isolated music and sound-effects track for Daughter of Dr. Jeykll. As a bonus, Kalat includes the pilot for an abortive TV series, Swiss Family Robinson (1958), directed by Ulmer.

USA, 1939-1958, full screen, approx. 6 ½ hours. Issued by All Day Entertainment; distributed exclusively by Image Entertainment, 2006, Region 1, NTSC. Available now.

A Long Weekend in Pest and Buda (Károly Makk, 2003)

Károly Makk, a Hungarian director with more than thirty films to his credit, conjures the ghost of Hungary’s 1956 uprising in his 2003 film, A Long Weekend in Pest and Buda (Egy hét Pesten és Budán).

For Iván (Iván Darvas), a retired petro-chemical engineer living a cushioned existence in Switzerland, the ghost has been long since exorcised — until a phone call at dawn tells him that his former lover, Mari, lies terminally ill in a Budapest hospital. Hiding the revelation from his brittle English wife (Eileen Atkins), Iván flies to greet his past in the Hungarian capital, a place he’s not set foot in since being released as a political prisoner shortly after the ’56 revolution.

From here on in, you might expect a bittersweet reunion for the lovers, a hash of tender remembrances, tearful farewells, and then, capped by a gentle passing, the end credits — had a good cry? — but no, as much as this is a coming-to-terms story, the Kleenex stays put (well, mostly). The day after Iván arrives, Mari is not only better, but strong enough to unburden herself of an old secret.

The actress playing Mari is Mari Törõcsik, one of the stars of Makk’s 1971 classic film, Love (on DVD from Second Run), which also starred Iván Darvas, the old man now sitting thunderstruck at Mari’s bedside. Turns out they’d met, 40 odd years ago, only because she’d been an agent for the Hungarian KGB — she got him thrown into prison — and yet she’d fallen desperately in love with him. And did he know he had a daughter? Brief clips from Love allow poignant glimpses of the young Iván and Mari, as their elder selves struggle with old wounds, new revelations, and forgiveness.

Darvas gets more screen time in this film, but Törõcsik’s performance becomes its emotional core. The petite actress, who is still a beauty, can freeze up with stone cold hurt and then suddenly melt it all with a young girl’s smile.

Another beauty here is Eszter Nagy-Kálózy, playing Anna, the forty-ish daughter of the two leads. Nagy-Kálózy resembles the young Ingrid Thulin of Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957), not only in her looks but also in her role as a moral sounding board for her recalcitrant father. Darvas is terrific, too: scared, rueful, and a little angry. Iván gets a taste of how things don’t change when a young nurse, assuming that Mari is his wife and will die, pleads with him to take her with him to Switzerland, as a lover, nurse, anything. Iván’s face, exhaling cigarette smoke, becomes porous with disgust.

Károly Makk, in an interview included on Second Run’s DVD, says the film shows what kind of damage the past can cause, but as we watch Iván and Mari dismantle their carefully rebuilt lives, it shows also what damage the past can do to the present — regardless of any reconstruction the future offers.

Second Run includes two video interviews, one each with the director and the producer and co-writer, Mark Vlessing. Beware of watching Makk’s interview before viewing the film for the first time, as it contains major spoilers. A ten-page booklet, containing an affectionate appreciation of Makk by his actress, Mari Törõcsik, accompanies the disc.

Hungary, 2003, color with black and white sequences, 16.9, 1.77:1, 86 minutes. Issued by Second Run, 2006, Region 0, PAL

Hunger (Henning Carlsen, 1966)

Knut Hamsun’s novel, Hunger, may not have created the paradigm of the alienated suffering artist, but it certainly sent it packing into the 20th century. Books like Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, and even Charles Bukowski’s Factotum, are indebted to it.

Hunger‘s year of publication, 1890, also found Vincent Van Gogh, that most sainted of marginalized artists, dead by his own hand. Vincent once wrote his brother Theo, “My art…well, I am risking my life for it.”

In Henning Carlsen’s film of the novel, young Pontus, played by Per Oscarsson, risks his life, too, in order to sustain a rather naive artistic integrity. Without knowing exactly how or when, the writer finds himself crossing the line into self-perpetuating poverty. Too far gone to snag even the most menial of jobs, he also has difficulty writing coherently — a newspaper editor tells him his article, though showing merit, is “excitable” and not quite publishable.

Basically, this man needs a hospital. After upchucking desiccated threads of meat torn from a discarded bone, Pontus breaks into tears of frustration. He’s like a sinner in a circle of Dante’s hell, doomed to wander starving and borderline psychotic midst the disaffected, debased and well-fed souls of Kristiana.

As much as anything, book and film are about a young man’s desperate hold on dignity as he descends to a place where he must yield it. He’s fast becoming one of those people that “normal” citizens cross the street to avoid. Oscarsson’s performance is uncomfortably authentic, reminiscent of any number of homeless people who angrily declaim nonsense — but then we know that Pontus is some kind of genius, like…well, like Knut Hamsun. For Hamsun, the book must’ve been a remembrance of a very bad time. Starvation doesn’t lead his autobiographical character to beatific wisdom or to some pure state of sensate being; it renders body and mind incapable of making art. Pontus is no saint, just a shell hollowed out by hunger.

Oscarsson went totally physical with his role, like DeNiro in Raging Bull, by shedding over 30 pounds and walking all the way from Copenhagen to Oslo to take part in the principle photography. In Oscarsson’s eyes, you can see the result of synapses firing much too rapidly back there in an underfed brain.

Hamsun’s novel, a 200 page interior monologue, seems the worst choice for a film outside of Joyce’s Ulysses, but Carlsen’s film is a unique achievement: a highly disciplined, yet overwhelmingly emotive equivalent of an early modernist experiment.

Carlsen, in a recent video interview included on New Yorker’s disc, makes the simple clarifying statement that, because Oscarsson is in every single scene, whenever you don’t see him in the frame, you are seeing what he’s seeing. This allows Henning Kristiansen’s photography, mostly shot with long focus lenses, to assume the subjective gaze of Pontus’ hyper-aware psyche.

The director also discusses some the changes demanded by his adaptation. He’d realized the screenplay needed more of a story arc than Hamsun’s novel provided — the author constructed his tale as a series of repetitive episodes. These “little waves”, explains the director, needed to become a single “big wave with a culmination”. By emphasizing the writer’s obsession with a young bourgeois woman (Gunnel Lindblom), the film gains momentum. Ylajali — Pontus’ fantasy name for the girl he’s stalking — seems to be slumming when, near the end of the film, she seizes control of a moment and picks him up. Their intensely erotic encounter serves as fulcrum for the film’s final act.

New Yorker’s DVD, with a crystalline transfer by Project X supervised by Carlsen, is superb. The 38-minute interview with Henning Carlsen should not be missed by anyone, like me, who considers this film one the finest film adaptations ever made from an A-list work of literature. Also included is a 26-minute discussion between Paul Aster and Regina Hamsun, the author’s granddaughter, about book and film. Their chat is a bit meandering and, on Aster’s part, self-serving, but the two of them are such attractive and intelligent people that listening to them is rather soothing.

Denmark-Norway-Sweden, 1966m 1.66:1, pillarboxed anamorphic, black and white, 112 minutes. New Yorker Video, 2006.

Beyond the Rocks (Sam Wood, 1922)

Rescue me …

It’s hard not to feel affection for a film like Sam Wood’s 1922 silent, Beyond the Rocks, after you hear what’s it’s been through. A prestige production for its time, Beyond the Rocks featured two of the biggest stars of the twenties, Gloria Swanson and Rudolf Valentino.

But then, like so many films of this vintage, Beyond the Rocks went missing. Aficionados declared it lost until, 81 years after its release, a virtually complete Danish print of the film was found in rusted canisters buried amongst thousands of other films collected by an eccentric Dutchman. Painstakingly restored by the Nederlands Filmmuseum and accompanied by a new musical score by Dutch composer, Henny Vrienten, it was shown theatrically at the 2005 Cannes festival. Last year, Milestone, as distributed by New Yorker Video, issued a DVD edition.

As cinematic art, Beyond the Rocks is not one for the ages. Adapted from a novel by Elinor Glyn, the story is pure wish-fulfillment marketed for unhappy housewives — a twenties’ version of a Harlequin romance. Valentino plays Lord Hector Bracondal, a somewhat callow aristocrat who manages to rescue young Theodora Brown (Swanson) from two misadventures — one drowning and one Alpine tumble — before falling desperately in love with her. Problem is, Theodora has married a rotund, aging businessman (Robert Bolder), not for love, but for Daddy. Now she’s hot for Hector.

Valentino and Swanson fret and swoon with lovesick agony for a good half of the film, but in its final reels, the film takes an ingenious, if implausible, turn, and the predictable dénouement is very touching.

At 25, Swanson is fine in this show, but I’ve never understood her allure — she’s playing near her age here, yet she appears dowdy and middle-aged in most scenes, her famous face rather frozen behind the bee-stung lips. Instead, Valentino takes all the honors. Like a young Elvis Presley, he’s eerily beautiful in a way that defies gender.

The Filmmuseum’s restored print must’ve been of a very early generation — the image is remarkably crisp with a rich range of grays and blacks; the sense of air and light in the photography is perfectly preserved. A few seconds of heavy deterioration remains, and the restorers were wise not to edit it out, showing as it does how close the nitrate reels were to oblivion.

Vrienten’s score is all over the place. There are sailor hornpipe tunes and a whiff of period pop music, but the prevailing voice is a breathy trumpet spinning 60’s or 70’s bluesy jazz over an indeterminate “orchestral” backing that may be partially synthesized. Provocatively, for purists anyway, the 5.1 soundtrack includes a wealth of discreet sound effects: doors closing, crowds murmuring, dogs barking. Adding ambient sound to a silent somehow seems to betray its integrity, but I found myself enjoying these well-done effects anyway.

Milestone’s generous bonus features include an entire other feature, a 1919 film with Valentino and Mae Murray called The Delicious Little Devil. Also on board: featurettes about the restoration and the score, and an 85-minute wire recording made by Swanson in 1955.

USA, 1922, black and white, 85 minutes, alternative soundtracks in 2.0 and 5.1 stereo. Issued on DVD by Milestone, 2006, distributed by New Yorker Video, Region 0, NTSC.