Bright Lights Film Journal

Bright Sights: Recent DVDs: <em>Play Time, Gaumont Treasures, Diary for My Children, Winstanley, Marlene, Bill Douglas Trilogy</em>

An ongoing column that looks at some of the most intriguing of recent, under-the-radar releases

Play Time (Tati, 1967)

With Play Time, Jacques Tati’s ongoing satire of modern times opened up to a grand pictorialism that’s ironic in the truest and best sense. Shot in 70mm and presented, by Criterion, on a Blu-ray disc of pellucid clarity, the film is an astonishingly beautiful visual wonder. Tati approached the production values of this project – it took ten years to realize – as if he were making a biblical epic: all the interiors and exteriors, featuring an airport, a bustling urban center in Paris, and a complexly imagined supper club, were newly built sets. Shots of looming modernist high-rises were achieved by photographing small-scale mockups of the buildings in forced perspective.

The result is a very convincing big-city environment that is at the same time unaccountably lyrical and, more to the point, playful. Tati clearly has a bone to pick with mid-20th-century’s love affair with the International Style of architecture; he views its glass surfaces as alienating to fundamental human interaction and its sleek interiors as sterile and inefficient space. Yet as Hulot engages with all the reflective glass and confounding interiors – he spends the first hour or so chasing down a diminutive manager with as much success as Alice had with her white rabbit – Tati’s urban center is not exactly a dystopia. Tati still longs for the old Paris — available here only as reflections of beloved monuments — but in this picture, the director zooms past nostalgic crankiness toward a sly poetry and, with a delicate and often oblique wit, tends to belittle modernism rather than outright condemn it. That it’s mockery on such a grandiose scale is of course part of the irony.

Whatever business Hulot has midst the high-rises is unexplained; we first spot him rounding a corner in the airport where a gaggle of American tourists have just de-planed. The tourists — including Hulot’s “date” for the upcoming evening, a pretty young miss we know only as Barbara — climb into buses while Hulot hits the streets. Wandering into a wonderland of concrete and steel, Hulot finds plenty of looking glasses – Tati gets maximum gag mileage out of reflections or the lack thereof – but our hero, as usual, goes with the flow, and there are no threats of violence, mad queens or hatters à la Lewis Carroll. What Tati throws in Hulot’s path is not so much insane as inane – a spectacle of silliness deriving from the sight of human beings struggling to stay human in a dehumanizing environment.

Hulot’s long day’s journey lands him and the gentle Barbara in a posh, freshly opened nightclub that has no business being opened at all — workmen still linger, installing this or that, and the place’s unfinished state causes no end of calamity, especially for the wait staff, who must constantly improvise solutions to the dilemmas posed by the dysfunctional environment. The customers seem placid, oblivious to the machinations and the near disasters, but this being a nightclub, there’s live music and dancing, which suddenly ratchets up when a black jazz combo begins its set, sending dancers into frenzied steps like the Watusi.

Encouraged by a drunken American tourist — who at first comes on loud and obnoxious, but then free-spirited and joyous — Hulot and Barbara join a subset of hipster party-makers. When a decorative panel crashes from the ceiling to accommodatingly form an enclosure at the rear of the dance floor, they set up their own exclusive little club. The American takes over and, like a doorman to an elitist discothèque (e.g., Studio 54), has a whimsical criteria as to who may enter, allowing only those patrons who carry on their backs the indented crown-shaped pattern from the club’s metal chairs.

Within their contrived space, Hulot and his drunken bon vivants are like kids in a cardboard fort. As the nightclub proper begins to fall apart around them, sending the musicians from the stage and less adventurous patrons from the dance floor, a bemused Barbara takes over at the piano; for a time, she’s joined by a retired chanteuse. Everyone’s having a ball. Yielding to the camaraderie of raucous good times, Hulot and the other revelers win the day over the sterility and alienation of modern life. By the end of the show, Tati is comparing a spray of flowers to long-stemmed streetlights dimming at dawn.

Along with the film, Criterion’s single Blu-ray disc comes with slew of extras, including a short vintage behind-the-scenes documentary, a short biographical film, and a 1977 Omnibus TV program that features interviews with Tati at the seaside resort where he filmed Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (1953). A booklet contains an essay by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum.

France/1967/Color/in French with English subtitles/OAR 1.85:1. Released on Blu-ray (1 disc) and DVD (2 discs) in 2009.

Gaumont Treasures, 1897-1913 (Alice Guy, Louis Feuillade, Léonce Perret)

In this voluptuous three-disc set, Kino offers over 75 films from the earliest years of the oldest still-operating film company in the world, Gaumont. The range of expression displayed here is astonishing: from 1897, Alice Guy’s brief film of Mme. Walter’s Serpentine Dance recalls Toulouse-Lautrec images from a pre-cinema era, and Léonce Perret’s 1913 masterwork, the two-hour feature Child of Paris, demonstrates a grasp of advanced film technique and narrative sophistication in a year when D. W. Griffith still labored at Biograph producing short films.

Like her contemporary and fellow pioneer, Georges Méliès, Alice Guy’s earliest work is mostly straight-on recording of various stage acts, many of them graced, like Méliès’, with stop-action substitution, which effortlessly removes from a magician’s act the need for sleight of hand. Guy truly comes into her own when she takes her camera outside narrowly defined theatrical spaces to shoot elaborate slapstick routines in settings that we assume are in and around Paris.

In the hilarious Drunken Mattress (1906), a soused vagrant gets sewn up into the lining of a mattress unbeknownst to the maidservant who has taken the mattress out to a suburban meadow to dust and air out. Guy’s filming of the servant’s misadventures cunningly takes advantage of both urban and country settings. There are in situ hills, stairs, bridges and manholes for servant and mattress to roll down, climb, fall over and roll into. What glimpses these scenes allow of the Paris of the Belle Époque are at least as captivating as those of North Hollywood brought to us by Mack Sennett’s chase sequences. You half expect Guy’s actors to round a Montparnasse corner and collide head-on with Eugène Atget and his tripod.

When Louis Feuillade picked up the ball as artistic director in 1907, he began by continuing to produce slapstick comedies in the vein established by Guy but soon took off in different directions. Whereas Feuillade is best known today for his thriller serials, Fantômas (1913) and Les Vampires (1915), Kino’s disc offers a lively overview of several nascent genres, like the “art” film Spring (1909), the socially conscious The Defect (1911), and the psychological thriller, The Obsession (1912). Yet, for me, Feuillade’s most moving film on the set is, cinematically speaking, a step backward.

The Agony of Byzance (1913), depicting a Christian city besieged by Muslims during the era of the Crusades, is an unusual commodity: an elegiac epic depicting a massive clash of civilizations that wraps up in 29 minutes. Staging everything on interior sets, Feuillade unfolds his story in an evenly paced set of tableaux miming the kind of grand pageantry familiar to theatergoers of the time, who had flocked to see stage presentations of Ben-Hur and The Last Days of Pompeii.

Feuillade allows unusual dignity to the religious rites of the infidel camp and mirrors them skillfully: while the Muslims pray to Muhammad before battle, the Christians gather to pray for deliverance. Muslim generals strategize; Christian royalty ponder their doom. There’s no mistaking this film for precocious filmmaking — the show is all in long shot, with each sequence one frozen take — but the deliberate, choreographed flow of the ritualized action has a mournful feel of historical inevitability that sets it apart from the sadism and violence soon to be made a mainstay in the budding historical spectacle genre. Yet, Roman Orgy (1911), with its swift parade of vicious imperial behavior, topped by a violent assassination, is a miniature harbinger of such films, like the Italian’s three-hour toga extravaganza, Cabiria, which hit box office pay dirt in 1914.

Feuillade’s title is a teaser, though, since any orgiastic activity from the emperor’s dinner guests is preempted by a pride of lions let loose among them by the Roman emperor Heliogabalus, a legendary nutcase who reigned from 203-222 AD. Here he lasts a full eight minutes before the disgusted Praetorian guard, with a certain amount of glee, plants a multitude of spears in him, just as it would Caligula 200 years later. In Feuillade’s film, and for all mad emperors hence, evil degeneracy is expressed in a standard-issue, gay-equating effeminacy; even John Hurt’s brilliant turn as Caligula in the TV mini-series I, Claudius (1976) uses a sly version of it.

The glory of Kino’s set is Perret’s Child of Paris, an astonishingly nuanced melodrama set in France before the Great War. An upper middle-class child, Marie Lauren de Valen (Suzanne Privat), finds herself orphaned when her mother dies of grief after the girl’s father, Captain Pierre de Valen (Émile Keppens), goes MIA while on duty in Morocco. Escaping from an orphanage into the mean streets of Paris, the runaway lands in the clutches of a Dickensian lowlife known as “The Graduate” (Louis Leubas), who places her in the care of an alcoholic cobbler. When the father unexpectedly turns up alive and returns home a national hero, The Graduate sees the opportunity for a hefty ransom payment.

The child of Perret’s title is not the little girl, but a moderately deformed and very sensitive teenaged hunchback named Bosco (Maurice Lagranée), who appears to be under indentured servitude to the cobbler. Bosco bonds emotionally with the girl — perhaps too strongly for modern audiences — and when The Graduate comes to retrieve her for ransoming purposes, Bosco becomes a junior detective for the rest of the film, beating the police in their investigation of the kidnapping by tracking The Graduate and Marie Lauren to Nice.

Perret’s pacing of Bosco’s adventure is expertly timed, yet relaxed enough to give the boy’s character room to grow. Scenes unfurl and details proliferate; this is not a Griffith-style race to the rescue. Once Bosco arrives in Nice, there’s time for him to become integrated with the locale, and this manner of expanding the space around narrow melodramatic plotting feels remarkably modern. Shooting in dark ambient light or even backlit setups, Perret often goes for mood rather than fast cutting; he’s also an early master of the slow dissolve.

Kino’s set comes with a couple of mini-documentaries, one each for Feuillade and Perret. The newly recorded scores range from elegant arrangements for chamber ensembles to a serviceable but rather clunky synthesizer underscore for Child of Paris.

Considering where the video market must be for silent film these days, this is a brave release and a wonderful surprise.

France/1897-1913/B&W and color tinted/OAR 1.33:1. Released on DVD by Kino International in 2009.

Diary for My Children (1982, Márta Mészáros)

In Mészáros’ semi-autobiographical film, Zsuzsa Czirinkóczi plays Juli, an adolescent Hungarian girl, orphaned by the Soviet purges in the late thirties, returning to Budapest in 1947. Accompanied by the comrades of her parents, she’s to be placed in the foster home of a middle-aged official, Magda Egri (Anna Polony), a member of the Communist elite and a staunch Stalinist. Just as Juli enters her life, Magda accepts a lucrative post as a prison warden.

Magda has a comfy apartment and a surfeit of maternal impulses to shower upon the girl, but Juli’s having none of it, especially the discipline doled out by Magda when she returns home still dressed in her military warden outfit, a fascist, booted regalia that neatly visualizes how the girl views the attentions of her foster mother. As a child of eight or so, Juli had witnessed her father, a successful sculptor, being arrested by Soviet goons, and, later, her mother’s decline and death, and she’s still grieving. To Magda, the teenager’s a stubborn, angry girl who doesn’t know what’s good for her. At the high school for children of privileged officials, Juli’s aloof and self-contained — stuck-up, for lack of a better word — and she cuts classes often to go to the movies. A sensitive boy, Tomi, falls for her, and she lets him in, a little, providing a very poignant scene in which Juli shares memories of her mother with Tomi.

As Juli intensifies her rebellion against Magda, Janos, an old comrade who disapproves of Magda’s unquestioning Stalinism, sees through the girl’s acting out and accepts her wounds and hopes (she wants to find her father’s still living brothers) for what they are. Seeking Janos out as a father figure/mentor — the same actor, Jan Nowicki, plays both Janos and, in flashbacks, Juli’s father — Juli thinks she’s found a bulwark against the forces that want her to forget her past, then turn her into a state-controlled cipher. But Janos himself is clearly vulnerable to a fresh round of purges that for Juli will soon mirror the one that seized her father.

In a multitude of close-ups, the face of the blond, freckled Czirinkóczi, who is featured in the two other “diary” films of Mészáros, displays a painfully specific teenaged angst that the writer/director parallels with the everyday frustrations and terrors of life under the Soviet-led oppression. Just as a 17-year old seeks a sense of herself as an individual, the film seems to be saying, so likewise does an oppressed citizen seek his autonomy.

The Hungary of those years is very personal territory for Mészáros, who wants her film to give testimony to what life was like in those years — and this extends to showing not only Stalin posters and a half-ruined infrastructure, but the nuance of intimate daily existence — as Mészáros puts it, “how they touched each other’s hands.” Mészáros also deftly intercuts vintage newsreel footage with shots of her actors participating in the depicted events, likely a technical impulse from her years as a documentary filmmaker. A few years later, in his film The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), Philip Kaufman would use the same device, planting Daniel Day Lewis and Juliette Binoche midst grainy film of the ’68 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, but, as witness and filmmaker, Mészáros’ trick carries more emotional heft.

Second Run’s splendid release of this film extends their commitment to Hungarian cinema, evidenced in their issues of the films of Miklós Jancsó, who turns out not only to have been Mészáros’ mentor but her husband. The disc offers a newly shot, 25-minute interview of the director, and the accompanying booklet a densely written but acute article by Catherine Portuges. I can only hope that Second Run has the other two diary films by Mészáros — Diary for My Loves (1987) and Diary for My Father and Mother (1990) — in the pipeline.

Hungary/1982/102 minutes/B&W/In Hungarian with English subtitles/OAR: 16:9. Released on DVD (PAL) by Second Run in 2009.

Winstanley (Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo, 1975)

BFI, which some 35 years ago funded three-quarters of Winstanley’s £24,000 budget, has issued a stunning Blu-ray disc of the restored film, along with a bumper crop of special features that help you process the filmmakers’ achievement. These include a new, 38 minute interview with Brownlow and Mollo, and a vintage, touchingly enthusiastic making-of documentary, It Happened Here Again (Eric Mival, 1976, 48 minutes).

Throughout all the talking and documenting, the word most consistently bandied about is “authenticity.” As a brainchild of film scholar Kevin Brownlow, Winstanley, under the insistence and guidance of his collaborator Andrew Mollo, became a historical film that tested the limits of accurately reproducing the details of a long ago era’s daily and political life — in this case, the post-civil war era of Cromwell’s England, 1649-1650. Mollo and Brownlow’s eyes considered everything — costumes, architecture, haircuts, livestock — and decreed the hemlines jagged, the huts made of sticks and real mud, the hair long and unkempt, and the hogs the few remaining of a nearly extinct breed. For a brief battle scene, vintage armor was retrieved from the Tower of London.

It’s a young man’s project, fueled by idealism, but Brownlow and Mollo’s fervent commitment to their immaculate authenticity pushes Winstanley’s non-actors and a lowly mise-en-scène toward a nearly unique creative frisson that gives the events on screen a haunted particularity not unlike Ingmar Bergman’s imaginings of medieval Sweden.

Based on the novel Comrade Jacob by David Caute, Winstanley depicts a desperately poor Gerrard Winstanley (Miles Halliwell) in 1649, his livelihood undone by the civil war, gathering up other desperately poor British subjects to form a Christian commune on the stony common land of St. George’s Hill in Surrey. The idea seems simple enough — allow the poor to feed themselves by tilling and grazing cattle on the so-called common land — but putting it into practice proceeds to threaten the entire fabric of a society hardwired against it by their feudal, monarchist past. Not to mention an invasive clergy: it’s the local, beetle-browed Parson Platt (David Bramley) who whips up community outrage against the Diggers, as Winstanley’s followers are called, because the proto-communist has been seducing parishioners away from the Parson’s control.

A campaign of intimidation and violence against the Diggers begins, and Winstanley appeals to the aristocratic General Fairfax to use his authority to end it. Many men in the Diggers’ camp had served under the General in the civil war, and Fairfax, finding himself impressed by the sincere beneficence of Winstanley’s visionary goals and the humble courage displayed by his followers, tries to stave off the inevitable.

As played by Jerome Willis, the only professional actor in the cast, Fairfax emerges as a genuinely complex man whose nuanced but conflicted humanity dramatically offsets the single-minded, near Christ-like persona of Winstanley. A math teacher in his off-camera life, Miles Halliwell is a small bundle of moral certainty as Winstanley, his brow furrowed with sorrowful concern for his flock; his may be a one-note performance, but Halliwell is right on pitch. Halliwell’s wife, Alison, plays the Parson’s wife as someone starved for love, not spiritual enlightenment, mistaking a midlife, schoolgirl’s crush on Winstanley for a desire to join the Diggers.

The filmmakers make but one misstep. The film opens with a briskly edited battle scene — representing the final death agonies of the civil war — and it’s underscored with bits from Prokofiev’s music for the Battle on the Ice sequence from Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky. This music fits not only a different film and a different culture, but also the very unique rhythms of another artist’s montage. Whatever budget constraint dictated this decision, the music doesn’t belong there.

But soundtrack and film recover swiftly thereafter with no composed score needed, only the sounds of birdsong and the wind, to accompany the Diggers’ stark struggles in the wild. In one scene rich with visual and sonic metaphor, Winstanley and Parson Platt meet at a desolate crossroads where, as each attempts to understands the other’s entrenched position, they must shout over a gale-force wind, which, symbolizing the societal, cultural forces blowing over both of them, makes it nearly impossible for the one to hear the other. At the end of the scene, all of it photographed in long shot, each man strides furiously away, quite meaningfully, in opposite directions.

BFI’s high-def transfer is a luxurious rendering of the black and white photography of cameraman/cinematographer Ernest Vincze, whose experience as a photographer of documentaries shows in the high-contrast, grainy images that appear to rarely utilize auxiliary light — it’s a spartan but sophisticated visual aesthetic that comes through with startling freshness on this Blu-ray disc.

UK/1975/B&W/92 minutes/OAR1.33:1. Released on DVD (Region 2, PAL) and Blu-ray (region-free) by BFI in 2009.

Marlene (Maximillian Schell, 1984)

To prepare yourself for Schell’s excoriating portrait of Marlene Dietrich, you could do worse than watch Dietrich’s screen test for the role of Lola-Lola, shot in October 1929, and included as a special feature in Kino’s 2001 DVD release of The Blue Angel.1

In the test she’s twenty-seven and already an experienced starlet — a fact she perversely contests in Schell’s interviews. Here Marlene is not yet the sleek, calculated geometry of flesh to bone that Sternberg eventually sculpted, but instead looks like a nicely rounded, dimple-cheeked mädchen, eager to please, charming, and yet exuding a brassy confidence as she sings, badly and in English, “You’re the Cream in My Coffee,” all the while flicking ashes on the pianist when, obviously directed to do so, he fumbles the accompaniment. The rudeness is just put on, though; in long shot, we see Marlene climb rather ungracefully to the top of the upright piano and sing, with great panache this time, a song in German; the film rolls a bit past the clapper, but just as it ends, you can hear Dietrich murmur, “sorry,” to the pianist, apologizing for the improvised abuse she’s showered on him.

It’s a lovely, ingratiating performance: you might say that Dietrich comes off as, well . . . cute, or even adorable, not words you’d apply to, say, her character Concha Perez in The Devil Is a Woman (1935). But this Marlene is no innocent, either; she’s been on camera plenty of times, and in her eyes there is shrewdness, self-possession, and a deep-seated awareness of her gifts. The screen test is as revealing, perhaps more so, than anything Schell could find, in film clips or old newsreel footage, to counter the meager responses from his recalcitrant subject.

Watching the screen test, it’s hard not to feel that much of the complexity contained in this intelligent yet scrappy (and merely “pretty”) young woman would need to be siphoned off in order for Marlene Dietrich to emerge as Josef von Sternberg’s vessel of light, the creature Jean Cocteau calls “a frigate, a figurehead, a Chinese fish, a lyre-bird, a legend, a wonder.”2 In the movies, as early as Morocco (1930), Dietrich’s appearance began to morph away from the recognizably human; by Shanghai Express (1932), it was a fait accompli — Dietrich had become Sternberg’s whore/goddess, a celluloid succubus, an unknowable “other.” It was a glamorous, phantasmagorical construct Dietrich never totally broke free of, even as, in her later film career, she became more of a character actress allowing the occasional comic turn; but then neither did she seem to want to break free of it. Schell makes it clear he wants to break into it, to find the lonely, rather fearful person huddling in there.

Schell begins his film troubleshooting a dilemma: Marlene has suddenly refused to have herself filmed for the documentary. Not even allowed to photograph in her apartment, Schell assembles a “watch-us-make-a-film” framework, resembling Fellini’s more successful manipulation of this conceit in films like Roma (1972) and The Clowns (1970). Workmen are shown constructing a mock-up of Dietrich’s Paris digs; there’s a row of girls parading about in Marlene’s Morocco tuxedo, and, on the floor, someone’s doing a jigsaw puzzle of Dietrich’s image — the latter a none-too subtle billboard of Schell’s intent.

Schell’s biggest dilemma is La Dietrich herself. Right off, the director wants to get up close and personal, and Marlene’s defenses over her feelings for Berlin, her old lovers, even her films, are so formidable that Schell’s first foray into this territory is like a weekend yacht going up against the Bismarck. The interviews are little more than a battle of wills, and what Schell’s film really becomes is the story of the director gradually gaining the upper hand. Supremely contentious and the most unreliable of narrators at every turn, Dietrich finally succumbs to the director’s coaxing and manipulations: near the documentary’s end she’s wistfully singing snatches of old German cabaret tunes (under which Schell shows aerial film of war-devastated Berlin) and tearfully reciting a favorite poem of her mother, full of the very kind of weltschmerz that Dietrich initially says she has no time for.

As Marlene breaks off from reading the poem, Schell lingers over an image of Dietrich from her last film appearance in Schöner Gigolo, armer Gigolo (1978), in which the 76-year-old actress sings a wan version of Just a Gigolo (also the film’s US title). The clip itself is profoundly sad, not to say a disturbing example of kitsch:3 the actress’s face, heavily made up and obscured by a veil, looks like a Marlene Dietrich Halloween mask — just the mouth moves, the rest is like rigid latex. Schell’s zeroing in on this unwholesome image, which represents Marlene from eight years previous to his film, carries something of a vengeful spitefulness over her lack of cooperation for his project; this is how I’ll leave you in the audience’s eye, it seems to be saying. True, he got precious little from The Legend, but where you might begin Schell’s documentary with sympathy for the filmmaker, by film’s end your heart goes out to Marlene, an unpleasant old lady whose beauty was once “its own poet, its own praise.”4

Germany/1984/91 minutes/B&W and color/in German with optional English subtitles. Released on DVD by Kino in 2009.

Bill Douglas Trilogy: My Childhood (1972), My Ain Folk (1973), My Way Home (1978)

As an independent, highly disciplined filmmaker, Bill Douglas (1934-1991) is acclaimed and honored to this day, in spite of his having only made four films, three of which are the short films contained in this BFI release (BFI has also issued his sole feature film, Comrades, 1987, on Blu-ray and DVD). Produced under the aegis of BFI, the trilogy comprises an unblinking look backward at Douglas’ horrific childhood in a Scottish mining village, ending on a note of optimism as, in the final film, Douglas’ surrogate, Jamie, posted as a member of the RAF in Egypt, meets the life-affirming Robert.

At some point during the trilogy’s filming, Stephen Archibald, who plays Jamie in all three films, asked the director if the films were about his life. When Douglas confirmed it, Archibald — whose own young life had not been or would be the easiest or happiest — said, “I’m glad I’m not you.”

In My Childhood Douglas depicts dire poverty through the episodic sequencing of often unrelated scenes, carefully framing Jamie as he remains isolated and left to his own devices. Faced with hours of indolence, Jamie steals coal from a slag heap or hangs out with Helmut (Karl Frieseler), a German POW working the fields outside town (the year is 1945), who unaccountably is allowed to spend considerable downtime playing with or learning English from the young boy. The fact that no one seems wise to this unusual friendship is testament to the invisibility of the neglected Jamie, who lives in a starkly bare flat with his maternal grandmother (Jean Taylor Smith) and older cousin, Tommy (Hughie Restorick).

Occasionally, timed like songs in a perverse musical, a wretched, ugly event will occur, as when Tommy beats the family’s cat to death because it’s eaten a caged bird, a gift from his absentee dad. The bruised characters often retreat to the desolate countryside. When Granny, half-demented from years of grief over her daughter’s (Jamie’s mother) abandonment and mental illness, wanders off one day, the two boys find her keening in an open field, carrying a dead crow wrapped in a kerchief.

Throughout the first film, Jamie looks about ten or eleven years old going on forty, his face creased with lines of perplexed despair. Jamie yearns for the nurturing of a father, as we see in his bonding with Helmut, who must of course return to Germany when the war’s over; once Tommy clues Jamie into the fact that his real father (Paul Kermack) lives just down the street, the start of a fractured narrative begins that stretches into the second film, My Ain (i.e., Own) Folk, in which, after the death of Granny, Jamie finds himself taken into his father’s household, a stunningly unhappy environment ruled by the iron fist of his paternal grandmother (Helena Groag), an embittered alcoholic who treats him tenderly only when she’s properly liquored up.

The deceptively simple, often ellipsoid, narrative arc of the entire trilogy is Jamie’s search for a father/mentor, with the boy’s desperate lack of self-awareness and bludgeoned emotional well-being making every step toward any human relationship painfully hesitant. Shunted back and forth from an orphanage by his witless father, Jamie struggles toward adulthood, finding a bit of guidance from the kindly headmaster of the orphanage (Bernard McKenna). In Jamie’s world, there are no nurturing females to be sought after, much less found.

Once in the RAF and in Egypt, it’s Jamie’s newfound friend, Robert (Joseph Batchley), who must act as Annie Sullivan to Jamie’s Helen Keller. A cultivated, emotionally mature young man, Robert doggedly works on Jamie’s defensive passivity. No epiphanies at a water pump here, but the depiction of Robert’s willingness to hang in there with his wounded friend offers the most linear narrative of the three films — which makes formal sense if you think about it. With the developing friendship, the first long-term relationship in Jamie’s life, there’s continuance and thus a story line; isolation and disruption — in the village, in the orphanage, on the street — create fragments, a string of episodes, essentially the structure of Jamie’s young life before meeting Robert.

An admirer of silent film, Douglas uses very little dialog and few setups for each scene; he creates meaning with his sense of framing, in which spaces are often held empty before and after characters enter them. The filmmaker’s stripped-down style is enlivened by an eye for trenchant imagery. In My Childhood, Jamie enters the chilled flat and pours hot water from a kettle into a cup, allowing it overflow across a table, as if he’s merely creating mischief; but the warmed cup he takes and inserts into the hands of his sleeping granny, gently patting her fingers as he does so. In a film full of anguish and of people hurting each other, the scene’s sudden tenderness is jarring.

BFI’s release comes with a second disc full of extras. Included are Douglas‘ student film, Come Dancing (1970, 15 mins.), a recent, 63-minute documentary on the filmmaker, a rare and brief archival interview with Douglas, and a hefty booklet filled with essays and credits.

UK/1972-1978/B&W/ Blu-ray (region-free) and DVD (Region 2, PAL) by BFI in 2009.

  1. Early on in Schell’s film, we hear a petulant, 82-year-old Marlene Dietrich dismiss the iconic status of The Blue Angel (1930) and label the great Emil Jannings a ham, but then coolly advise the director to watch this same screen test. Schell responds that he’s looked everywhere for the artifact, but at the time, unluckily for Schell, it was lost. []
  2. Jean Cocteau. “Salutation to Marlene Dietrich,” translated by Christopher Fry, and published in Marlene Dietrich : Image and Legend, by Richard Griffith. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1959. []
  3. A combative Dietrich often uses the word kitsch to describe a display of sentiment, or when Schell attempts to praise a moment in one of her films, to which she will say, “Oh, that’s just kitsch!” []
  4. “Salutation to Marlene Dietrich.” []