An ongoing column that looks at some of the most intriguing of recent, under-the-radar releases
The Blue Angel (Josef von Sternberg, 1930)
Erich Pommer, the wily producer of a myriad of Weimar-era classics, meant The Blue Angel to be an Emil Jannings vehicle, but in the finished film Jannings unexpectedly ends up sharing the screen with a young starlet, Marlene Dietrich, rather than owning it outright as he most often did. With big consequences for Dietrich and the history of cinema, the studio, UFA, apparently didn’t recognize the magic in Dietrich’s performance and neglected to offer her a contract. On the night of The Blue Angel‘s premiere, Dietrich sailed to America to join her new mentor, Josef von Sternberg, in Hollywood, a partnership responsible for a string of some of the most visually sophisticated films of the early sound period.
But in 1929, it was Jannings who was immensely popular with both German and US audiences; in her brief film career Dietrich had yet to prove herself. Jannings’ 1928 silent film, The Last Command, directed by Sternberg in Hollywood, earned him an Academy Award. You could characterize Jannings as a character actor, but one of a particular outsized talent, like Charles Laughton’s, that could project hurt, humiliated personas with such conviction that you wonder if these characters — like the doorman in The Last Laugh (1924), the Russian general in The Last Command, and Professor Emmanuel Rath in The Blue Angel — didn’t emanate from some hidden personal wound needing assuagement in performance.
Such biographical musings are easier with Laughton than with Jannings, who Sternberg in his writings conflictingly canonizes as the world’s supreme actor on one page and then, on another, condemns as a contentious, uncooperative son of a bitch. According to the director, Jannings selected Sternberg to direct him in the Pommer/UFA project because of their success with The Last Command. However problematic his relationship with Sternberg, Jannings’ greatness flowers in these two pictures, with his portrayal of Professor Rath possibly the most devastating depiction of human abasement in all his ample resume of them.
In The Blue Angel, though, she’s at the whore end of the spectrum, but there’s nothing cheap or arch in her performance, which is as detailed and as fully realized as Jannings’ professor, perhaps even more so. Dietrich in her later performances can sometimes seem wooden or unconvincing in her line readings, yet here, as Lola-Lola, she barely appears to be acting at all; going on stage nightly to “wag her vagina”1 at the customers and hustle beer, she fully inhabits the easygoing carnality of a hard-working revue girl, who puts out for a patron when the management tells her to.
Particularly poignant is watching, as an extra included in the Masters of Cinema disc, Dietrich’s screen test for The Blue Angel, in which she’s lively and funny, with none of the self-protective, bored-with-myself-as-an-icon ennui of her later years. Pretending to be a peevish cabaret singer unhappy with her pianist, she flicks cigarette ashes on him as she sings (badly) an American tune, “You’re the Cream in My Coffee” — until, apparently losing patience, she climbs on top of the upright and sings a German song with great idiomatic skill, alternating expressively between her low growling chest register and her cleaner, girlish soprano head voice. She even appears to apologize humbly to her abused pianist as the clip abruptly ends. How depressing, then, to see segments of her sixties concert tours (as extras on the MoC disc) where we find a mummified, sixty-something Dietrich singing “Falling in Love Again” with none of the joy (or final fatalistic defiance) that she gives it in her breakout film.
Less from Lola’s somewhat lighthearted, casual seductions, the professor’s destruction more accurately derives from his own inhibitions, expectations, and threadbare, 19th-century morality. Encountering Lola in her dressing room, he assumes a delusional, chivalric attitude toward the showgirl and suddenly, before he knows why or how, marries her. Thrust into a Dionysian showbiz circus, he discovers an untoward inability to control situations — and his emotions — amidst the chaos of his cabaret-dominated marriage. In direct contrast, the film opens with Rath dominating his bachelorhood classroom with fascist brutality, an impotent stance for the professor once he finds himself as the newest clown in the traveling revue. As Tad Gallagher remarks in his astute visual essay on MoC’s disc, Rath was already a rather unpleasant clown in his former professorial existence, fully costumed for the role, with a range of tics and routines just begging to be mocked. Even his elegant upturned mustache — part of a goatee assuredly way out of style for twenties Berlin — is exposed as a prop for his brittle vanity when it’s seen mirrored in the cheap paste-on mustache of the show’s magician.
Rath’s center, then, will not hold. The film climaxes with his on-stage unraveling, one of the toughest scenes to watch in movie history. But we’ve been given signs a-plenty of Rath’s doom from the beginning, ever since he finds his songbird dead in its cage. The final heart-rending, near-scream of Rath’s rooster crow — as the magician plasters his head with eggs and the cuckolded Rath stands pinioned with public, sexual humiliation in front of former colleagues — is foretold in the faux domestic bliss of an earlier scene. As the newly married couple at their wedding party, Lola clucks like a hen and rooster Rath cock-a-doodles, and the guests, who later become his taskmasters and tormentors, think it a fine joke. Why not put it on stage, they’re probably already thinking. In repeated viewings of the film, the ironic resonance between the two scenes becomes nearly unbearable.
Master of Cinema’s edition of The Blue Angel comes in a two-disc dual format (Blu-ray and DVD) edition. On my Blu-ray review copy, the film appears improved from earlier iterations, but clearly doesn’t come from elements close to the camera negative; yet detail is better and the view is more film-like. The soundtrack, especially Dietrich’s singing, is markedly more vivid. Extras, as mentioned above, are generous, continuing with a booklet featuring excerpts from Sternberg’s writings. The film’s English version, which UFA had shot in tandem with the German, is included.
The Rolling Stones: Charlie Is My Darling (Peter Whitehead, 1965; released 2012)
With his film of Bob Dylan’s 1965 English tour, Dont Look Back (released 1967), D.A. Pennebaker is often cited as a pioneer of the vérité documentary, shooting Bob and his entourage on the fly in grainy black-and-white with a hand-held camera, then editing and presenting the final cut with no narration. Yet here we have Peter Whitehead’s very similar film, documenting the Rolling Stones’ 1965 Irish tour, shot the same year as Pennebaker’s but never released until 2012.
There’s no surprise at its surfacing last year, which has been soundly marketed as the Stones’ golden jubilee. Running a little over an hour, Charlie may appear at first as a more slender, less interesting affair than Pennebaker’s effort, but this is somewhat due to its original, more modest intentions. The Stones’ then manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, produced the project as a way for the band to get its feet wet cinematically, a sort of trial run in preparation for a feature film. In the charts, with their singles and albums, the Stones were up against the Beatles, whose highly successful feature A Hard Day’s Night had been released in 1964, with Help (1965) close on its heels the following year. Did Oldham feel a Stones movie was an inevitable career move for the boys, a keeping up with that other band?
But, then, a Rolling Stones feature film never happened, and watching Whitehead’s footage, you can see why. As we’ve known all along, these guys were — and remain, with all the interim personnel changes — a remarkably cohesive musical force, but back in ’65 (and beyond) the Rolling Stones was never a collection of adorable mopheads like the Beatles, from which young girls picked their favorite. Fans might’ve fantasized about Mick — or, god help them, Keith — but who fell for stone-faced Charlie Watts, the drummer, as many did for the good-natured Ringo? And this makes Charlie Is My Darling all the more fascinating and valuable as a window into the band’s emerging status as a pop juggernaut and how its members really had little idea of what was in store for them over the next nearly five decades. (The Charlie in the title is, by the way, Charlie Watts.)
Much like Don’t Look Back, Charlie is structured as concert footage interspersed with off-stage moments in hotel rooms, limousines, and train cars. There are the teenage fans, mostly girls, anticipating the concerts on the street, then screaming themselves unconscious as the band plays. Scattered throughout, Whitehead attempts brief interviews of the band members, but only Jagger appears comfortable in front of the camera. Quite willing to take on the role of generational spokesman, he laconically predicts the delayed effectiveness of the counterculture. “Kids 21 now,” he says, “will have to be 72 before everything’s changed.” Just 22 in the film, Jagger turns 70 this year. In the end it was only he who found something of an alternate, if sporadic, career in the movies; he’s even produced a few.
In their interviews, Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman are circumspect, presenting themselves quite modestly as mere professionals and nothing more. Wyman actually denigrates himself further, saying that his goal in life was to become a musician, not just a member of some rock band. A morose Brian Jones also devalues pop stardom, viewing the Stones as a temporary gig anyway, and not artistically satisfying. Significantly, perhaps, Keith Richards — who, along with Jagger, remains the creative mainstay of the band — doesn’t show for a one-on-one.
In ’65, with years of drug use in front of him, Richards, too, is 22 years old, and his appearance — unlike his latter-day visage that’s become a map of past substance abuse — is remarkably fresh-faced, wholesome, even, yet under his bangs he retains a malevolent glint in the eyes, like he’s just been off to the boys’ room planting cherry bombs in the toilets. Yet he seems the shyest of the bunch, always physically present, it seems, but then speaking only with his omnipresent guitar as the boys relax in their hotel rooms.
If Keith says more than two sentences in the entire film, I don’t remember them, but Whitehead shoots a couple of extended scenes of him and Jagger interacting musically. One of these speaks volumes about their creative process, as it appears to capture the Glimmer Twins in the midst of composing a song. With Keith supporting him on acoustic guitar, Jagger messes about with the fragmented lyrics of what would become “Sitting on a Fence,” a rather minor song the band recorded just months later in December ’65 but didn’t release until its inclusion on the compilation album Flowers in 1967.
The tune is pretty much throwaway pop, but Keith’s fresh articulation of it on acoustic guitar brings out the unique qualities of his mid-sixties collaborations with Mick, especially the well-crafted, melodic rock of the more standout tracks on Between the Buttons (1967) — like “Yesterday’s Papers” and “Who’s Been Sleeping Here” — not critically held as the band’s best efforts, but full of memorable hooks nonetheless. You could see this album as the band’s final leave-taking of the blues and R&B, from which Jagger/Richards swerve into the drug-inflected pop that, although it reportedly alienated the blues purist Brian Jones, nevertheless garnered a distinctive sound evolving ever more richly textured and lyrically adventurous via a string of remarkable albums, from Beggars’ Banquet (1968) to Exile on Main Street (1972).
The film’s concert footage — and there are good stretches of complete songs here — is glorious, with the sound surprisingly vivid and detailed for its time. Several greatest hits unfold, fresh, young, and full of stamina, just like the boys themselves: “Satisfaction,” “This Could Be the Last Time,” and “Time Is On My Side.” A performance of “I’m Alright” prompts members of the audience to jump on the stage, where one of them goes over to hug a helpless Charlie Watts, trapped behind his drum set, while his mates dance hither and yon trying to avoid the ongoing rush of overstimulated fans, who interestingly are all men. Once the police intervene, the concert is over.
Fritz Lang: The Early Works: Harakiri (1919), The Wandering Shadow (1920), and Four Around the Woman (1921)
Late last year, Kino Lorber expanded their catalog of Fritz Lang’s German silent features by releasing, concurrently, a high-definition upgrade of the director’s massive two-part epic Die Nibelungen (1924) and a three-disc set containing a trio of even earlier films, dating from 1919 to 1921. Where Kino’s release of Murnau-Stiftung’s 2011 restoration of Die Nibelungen stunningly reveals Lang’s mastery of silent film technique,2 the other three projects, predating the ’24 masterwork by just a few years, highlight the director as a journeyman still honing his skills.
Watching the first, Harakiri, you wonder if Lang had opted for the assignment or was told to do it. Prefaced on its English title screen as an adaptation of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, the film seems quite unlike anything Lang would attempt throughout his career in Germany or the US. Puccini’s opera, based on the play by David Belasco, premiered in 1904 and quickly became an international sensation, making film adaptations inevitable. An American version, starring Mary Pickford, appeared in 1915, and in 1922, another American adaptation, an early two-strip Technicolor production entitled The Toll of the Sea, moved the story to China and starred Anna May Wong.
Where the makers of The Toll of the Sea, rather bravely for the time, cast an actual Asian in the part (it was Wong’s first starring role), Lang’s film stars the long-necked Lili Dagover, who would make an indelible stamp on Weimar cinema the following year in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Looking not remotely Japanese, the beautiful Dagover is the film’s chief asset.
Far from a close adaptation of either play or opera — not to mention the short story Belasco had adapted — Harakiri intriguingly opens the plot up to even more melodramatic happenstance and renames all the characters. Here Cho-Cho-San (Butterfly) is O-Take-San, while her deceiving American husband becomes a Scandinavian naval officer, Olaf J. Anderson (Niels Prien). You wonder if the German studio was having trouble securing the rights; if not, why stray from the familiar names — and change the title — if it wanted to profit from the opera’s popularity?
Like the heroines of all three of these Lang films, O-Take-San is a woman driven to a dangerous isolation because of men and their confused libidos. Elected to serve in a Buddhist nunnery by a lascivious priest, she escapes that fate only to land, disgraced, in a teahouse in Yoshiwara, an Edo-era red-light district.3 Just as she’s about to be forced into prostitution, Anderson shows up at the teahouse, presumably to get laid himself, and rescues her, expressing disgust at the girl’s treatment by the more bullying aspects of Japanese custom and morality. But then, conniving a phony marriage, he goes ahead and makes O-Take-San his sex toy until it’s time to ship out. Abandoned, she delivers a child and stares down the ultimate dishonor.
In all versions, the girl is very young, in her teens; even now it’s a coarse tale. Puccini made it palatable with some very pretty vocal music, which is preferable to its rather stiff treatment here. Play and opera have none of the heroine’s descent into prostitution, nor the naval officer’s heroic rescue scene, which muddies our perception of Anderson’s character. First, Anderson is something of a good guy, and then, in the next reel, a racist philanderer. Puccini’s Pinkerton is most pointedly an American racist, which for the purposes of the opera, means that he operates as such out of a certain American cluelessness or bluster; with a bit of educating, we find, he’s sensitized and made aware of the tragic consequences of his obliviousness.
In the film, the American consul barely gets a chance to offer his humanizing influence on his friend, Anderson, unlike Puccini’s Sharpless, a baritone who gets more music to sing than the tenor, Pinkerton, who in the end can gain a share of the audience’s sympathy via his duets with Sharpless.
Dagover underplays to good effect, and Lang seems momentarily inspired in how he shoots some of the interior scenes, placing his actors within the formal Japanese settings with the spatial acuity of a budding Piero Della Francesca. But the pace of the film is plodding, lacking any of the rhythmic excitement he could edit into his pictures just a few short years later.
In contrast, the pace of 1920’s The Wandering Shadow is frenetic, a pulse still not to be confused with exciting, but this may be due to the film’s fragmentary state; its running time is only 67 minutes and even surviving scenes are rife with missing frames. The restoration has inserted titles explaining plot lapses, but no amount of reinstated footage could redeem the half-baked plot concocted by Lang and Thea von Harbou (in their first collaboration). Their later projects would glory in pulp excess and implausibility — qualities one suspects contributed by von Harbou, but in films like Metropolis mitigated by the strength of Lang’s filmmaking. In this film Lang seems to be winging it, overwhelmed perhaps by the sheer inanity of the plot, but further undone by his uninspired cast.
Like O-Take-San, Irmgard Vanderheit, played by a glum Mia May, is shamed by a child born out of wedlock and likewise abandoned by her lover, Georg (Hans Marr), who in this case, having refused to marry her due to his dedication to the principle of free love, becomes disgruntled by her decision to contrive a marriage to him in collusion with his look-alike brother John, (also Hans Marr), fakes a suicide, and flees from society. Irmgard, as the film opens, is on the run, too, but pursued by Georg’s brother, who feels entitled to her inheritance and possibly her body. Both converge in a Swiss village alongside the Alps.
Chased by the homicidal John, Irmgard runs straight up an Alpine mountainside, encountering avalanches, a benign hermit, and a statue of the Madonna and Child, which is made to carry so much symbolic freight that it topples from its snowy perch and mutates into the wandering shadow of the title. Seemingly animated midst a blinding storm, the statue is glimpsed by the hermit, who is actually Irmgard’s old lover, Georg. Living an ascetic life in a robe of burlap, Georg has taken a vow not to return to society until the statue walks, but the walking statue is actually the pure-at-heart Irmgard, out braving the storm with a child she’s adopted from a dead mother. Were Lang and von Harbou making this stuff up as they went along?
The third film, Four Around the Woman, is also a fragment — its surviving element, a Brazilian export print, is missing over 600 feet of film — but it’s by far the most interesting and entertaining of the bunch. Opening in a smoky men’s club where “brokers are taking a break,” you sense the same shadowy, conniving world of Weimar-era Germany made familiar by Lang’s breakthrough masterwork, Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922). Poised on the brink of economic collapse, German society plays dangerous games, in which identities and actions are often not what they seem.
The convoluted contrivances of the plot expose the film’s origin as a stage play, but Lang’s opening up of its strictures is inventive and colorful, including a busy city street constructed on a sound stage4 and a well-imagined den of iniquity, called Upton’s Tavern, full of thieves and prostitutes. The oddly named Harry Yquem (Ludwig Hartau) is a broker involved with underworld dealings, haunting both the streets and the tavern in search of connections. While he embezzles, Harry’s a tormented husband, suspecting his wife, Florence (Carola Toelle), of a possibly licentious event the day of their engagement, compelling him to seek answers to the mystery in dark and dirty places.
Disguised like Mabuse in the ’22 film, Harry divides his time between obtaining diamonds, for which he pays with counterfeited greenbacks,5 and seeking the truth behind his wife’s locked psyche. All this noirish activity puts Florence in the role of a neglected wife, who in the film’s climax will be surrounded by the four men of the title and all of their conflicting demands. As the young, attractive Florence sits listlessly and rather numb, ensconced in the luxurious digs provided by Harry and waiting for something to happen, her lassitude prefigures that of the Countess Dusy Told in Dr. Mabuse. Indeed, much of the film seems like a warm-up for the ’22 thriller, but some of the doings here teeter on the edge of comedy, providing a provocative tonal mix that makes the show fun to watch.
The star of Dr. Mabuse, Rudolf Klein-Rogge — the actor who would become to Lang as Klaus Kinski would to Werner Herzog — overplays brilliantly as the cigar-chomping thug, Upton, proprietor of the previously mentioned tavern. The future composer of the scores for Lang’s two silent epics — Die Nibelungen and Metropolis — appears here in a small part as a waiter. Gottfried Huppertz, a friend of Klein-Rogge, had a career as a singer and actor before wearing a hat as a film composer; he also had a bit part in Dr. Mabuse.
However fragmented this film might be, the surviving print is in excellent shape, the best looking of the three. All films carry modern underscores by the late German composer Aljoscha Zimmermann, who characteristically adorns piano solos with an accompanying violin. These scores were possibly his last projects, completed before he died in 2009. According to a letter from his daughter, published on the website Nitrateville,6 Zimmermann was too ill to play the piano in the recordings, but led the musicians himself. Kino’s set contains no extras.
Hello I Must Be Going (Todd Louiso, 2012)
Leaping ahead from the cinema of the Weimar Republic, we see in Louiso’s 2012 romantic comedy a contemporary American version of a woman emotionally and even societally isolated. Not that the film cuts very deep into the issue; it’s a fairly lightweight indie feature that nevertheless impresses mightily with the performances of two very beautiful women, Melanie Lynskey and Blythe Danner.
New Zealand actress Lynskey plays Amy, a recent divorcée in her mid-thirties who’s retreated to her parents’ home in the wilds of upscale, suburban Connecticut. Dressed day and night in a rumpled T-shirt and shorts, Amy has a hell of time getting up in the morning, much less leaving the house. Her mother, Ruth Minsky — Blythe Danner in a most welcome return from those incessant Prolia TV commercials — attempts to reenergize her daughter’s life, but in the process, only manages to help Amy further regress to the level of a trapped, resentful teenager.
The arc of Danner’s performance, which reconfirms her status as one best actresses of our time, reveals that, in her empty nest marriage to lawyer, Stan (John Rubinstein), she’s just as isolated as her daughter. Neither Ruth or Stan spot the glow on Amy’s cheeks when she begins an unlikely, torrid affair with Jeremy (Christopher Abbott), the 19-year-old son of one of Stan’s most important clients.
Jeremy is a young, tightly wound actor, appearing on the boards most recently as Robert Mapplethorpe; when he and his family meet Amy over supper at the Minskys, Jeremy’s mother (Julie White) proudly announces his next role to be that of Walt Whitman, another famous gay man. Jeremy’s mom in fact thinks Jeremy is gay, a misunderstanding Jeremy hasn’t bothered to clear up, telling Amy in a post-coital confession that he feels it’s just easier being what people — that is, parents — want you to be (his mother, a therapist of liberal views, enjoys, a little too much, being openly supportive of a gay son). When it’s suggested that Amy show Jeremy around town, neither set of parents think anything untoward could possibly happen between a gay teenager and a mid-thirties divorcée.
Dashing about in secret, having backseat car sex, both of them end up behaving like teenagers, and underage ones at that. The filmmakers engineer plenty of funny moments out of the lovers’ dilemma, but if anything, Amy’s desperation at having her parents not discover the affair seems like too much heavy weather. The plot’s lynchpin is that the revelation would undermine Stan Minsky’s bond with his important new client, Jeremy’s father, and it’s nice to see that the movie eventually brushes this aside as an illusion that’s part of Amy’s second adolescence.
After all, there’s no horror in a 35-year-old woman having a relationship with a 19-year-old man; the reverse situation has surely never been a problem. Without blinking Audrey Hepburn made a career out of playing young women linking up with even older men, from Sabrina (1954) to Charade (1963). And it’s a gender dynamic the movies aren’t about to give up.
This makes Hello a somewhat unusual entry in the romantic comedy sweepstakes, although Lynskey is no dowager; at 35 or so, the actress is very much on the young side of 40, with a face that still seems to carry its baby fat. Add to this the wounded vulnerability emanating from those wet chocolate eyes, her character’s unspoiled, perceptive intelligence, and Amy’s tendency — when she’s by herself feeling distraught — to sharply interject “fuck-fuck-fuck” in a girlish whisper, and you’ve got a complex mixture of worldly angst and youthful yearning. And have I mentioned a powerful erotic appeal? Lynskey projects a mature sensuality I’ve not seen exhibited in American film since Isabella Rossellini told Kyle MacLachlan to take his clothes off in Blue Velvet (1986) — now that I mention it, two more characters caught in a similar age gap, with Rossellini the older woman on top.
Lynskey debuted at 15 in 1994’s Heavenly Creatures and since then has done mostly supporting roles and — I was dismayed to discover — a protracted stint on TV’s Two and a Half Men. She deserves much better than the latter, and I hope this film helps her get it. In an interview included on the disc, journalist David Poland is the giddy, nervous one, with Lynskey assured and relaxed throughout. When Poland ventures that the entire audience was in love with her as they exited the film’s Sundance showing, I think he’s speaking for himself. I know how I feel.
- Phrase from Tad Gallagher’s visual essay. [↩]
- Look for an extended stand-alone piece on Die Nibelungen by this writer in the May issue of Bright Lights. [↩]
- In Lang’s 1925 sci-fi fantasy spectacular, Metropolis, the fun-loving metro-citizens of the upper city take their pleasure in a licentious quarter called Yoshiwara. [↩]
- The street includes what appears to be a Decla-Bioscop movie theater, which makes for an unusual product placement. Four Around the Woman was shot at Decla-Bioscop, a studio headed by Erich Pommer and subsumed by UFA in 1921, the year of the film’s release. [↩]
- Yquem’s visit to a diamond exchange includes a dealer made up as a grotesque Jewish caricature. [↩]
- http://www.nitrateville.com/viewtopic.php?t=5467 [↩]