An ongoing column that looks at some of the most intriguing of recent, under-the-radar releases
Our Hitler (Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, 1978)
For filmmaker Syberberg (right), Hitler represents not the banality of evil but the evil of banality.1 “Just look at his face,” actor André Heller says of Hitler in the film, “the face of a typical loser.” Syberberg doesn’t sidestep the horrors of the era, but his film is more about the cultural consequences of Hitler and Nazism than their culpability for an immense amount of death.
Featuring a tireless procession of phantasmagorical ambiguities in four parts, Our Hitler certainly feels a product of the ’70s. In some ways it reflects that decade’s idea of performance art, with rear-projected images and vintage radio broadcasts merging with actors in various guises proclaiming, reading, or just standing around in a shallow stagy space littered with objects. The voices heard are often that of Hitler himself — he did have a way with public speaking — or those of his henchmen; the images projected include the planet Jupiter, bucolic German landscapes, and sundry rooms in Hitler’s apartment, now vacated.
Among Syberberg’s many stage props are two things I thought I could forever do without: puppets and denuded department store manikins. A sweetly innocent little girl enters; there are dolls stationed here and there, too. Yet, as the director conjures the Third Reich as an oneiric toy store fronting some very bad habits, the puppets — of Hitler, Goebbels and all the gang, often swathed in cobwebs — are supremely effective in being silly and scary at the same time.
Also amongst the kitsch and cultural detritus there’s a three-dimensional recreation of the smooth stone polyhedron that appears in Dürer’s engraving Melancholia (right). In the print, the object seems to emanate some kind of baleful energy as a dejected angel sits and meditates on it in much the same way Syberberg intends his audience — especially his German one — to meditate on his film.
Syberberg sees each German individual as living with a personal Hitler buried deep in his/her psyche — along with a vast amount of guilt, which the director’s asking his film to expunge. Lots and lots of Richard Wagner’s music play on the soundtrack, the premiere piece among it being Siegfried’s Funeral March, and thereby the imagery acquires a mood of grandiose sorrow. Clearly Syberberg wants his German viewer to mourn — but to mourn what?
Loss of art and identity? Loss of German soul? Hitler is on trial here for “relocating and repressing” the vast mysterious mass of German culture — folk and fairy tale, myth and music — as it culminated in the 19th century in what Syberberg, in the essay that fronts his published transcript of Our Hitler, calls “creative irrationality.” Cinema, he proposes, can be the modern Gesamthkunstwerk equivalent of Wagner’s unified music drama, which was perhaps the ultimate in Germanic “irrationality.”2 In the same essay, Syberberg decries the current culture of materialism and rationalism — a legacy of Hitler, he opines — and prays for a return of irrationalism and the healing power of art.
Not bloody likely, I would say, but Our Hitler speaks eloquently of societal tragedy on a grand scale. Syberberg wields hefty ironies provided by many disturbing and sometimes blackly humorous juxtapositions. Much of part two is taken by an actor’s recitation of memories from Hitler’s personal valet, who details the Furher’s daily routine down to its most screamingly banal minutiae, climaxing in his preferences in underwear. Apparently Hitler demanded the shorter underpants not the longer — or was it the other way around? Earlier in the film, a rather chubby actor in full Nazi uniform enacts Peter Lorre’s hysterical “I couldn’t help it!” scene from Lang’s M to brilliant effect — it’s Germany itself as a pathetic child murderer with voices in his head.
Himmler expounds on The Final Solution while getting a full body massage — I get it, fine — but towards Syberberg’s summing up in part four, the filmmaker veers toward some questionable intellectualizing. He accuses Hitler of killing the Wandering Jew, who previously, “pushed by disquiet” had “creat[ed] culture . . . Israel has no Kafka.” Interesting point: that a displaced people would operate culturally in response to their outsider status. Would there be a Mahler without the shtetl? Still, Syberberg seems on thin ice here, especially when one puts these views in context with various statements he made in the ’90s. Viewing Europe as currently living in the “Jewish Epoch,” sanctioned and protected by an US/Israel axis, it seems he has his own “Jewish Question”: Western art, Syberberg proposes, is stifled by “Jews and leftists.” Sounds, as the magazine Der Spiegel pointed out, like a certain frustrated Austrian art student …3
Facets’ promotional material for their DVD release of Our Hitler declares that it “was created, produced, and supervised by . . . Hans-Jürgen Syberberg.” Not having seen the film back in the day, I wonder if it looked as soft and scrappy then as it does now on home video, but I’m guessing that it did. A booklet with essays by Susan Sontag and others accompanies the two-disc set.
Germany/1977/B&W and color/Fullscreen/450 minutes/In German with English subtitles and some passages in English. Released on DVD by Facets Video in 2007
Sawdust and Tinsel aka The Naked Night (Ingmar Bergman, 1953)
Bergman’s thirteenth film comes at us lean and mean. It’s one of the late master’s most streamlined angst-fueled delivery systems and the first in his early career to throw us into another time (here, fin de siècle Sweden) in order to present a grand-themed metaphor — in this case, life as an endless tour in a broken-down, flea-infested circus, in which hell together, as community and as lovers, is better than hell alone. Albert Johansson (Åke Grönberg), the owner of the destitute carnie, points his troupe toward his old hometown where he’d abandoned his wife some years before. He travels, in a tiny circus wagon, with his mistress Anne (Harriet Andersson), a young provincial turned circus girl.
Whereas this viewer would have no objection to being trapped with Ms. Andersson, night after naked night, in an 8 x 10-foot circus wagon, Albert announces to his lover that they are “stuck like hell.” After the troupe erects the big top, Albert goes to reinstate himself with his now contently independent wife, and Anne buys into the blandishments of a a sensualist actor from the town’s theater company. Both lovers want to escape the circus and each other, but find cruel illusions waiting behind the doors they run through. Albert’s wife, summarily rejecting his plea to return, inhabits a placid domesticity as false as any desert’s mirage, and Anne yields her body to the actor in exchange for a coveted but worthless bauble.
Harrowing scenes of public humiliation frame these private ones. As told in flashback near the beginning of the film, the tale of Frost the clown (Anders Ek) and his wife, Alma (Gudrun Brost), seems the stuff of folklore or the memory of a very nasty nightmare. As in a murderous, hallucinatory sequence in Hour of the Wolf, Bergman makes the scene silent and has Nykvist overexpose the shoot. Here, Alma, an aging beauty, flirts with a group of artillery soldiers down by a beach where they’re engaged in repeatedly firing off a row of some very phallic cannon. Frost, alerted to his wife’s indiscretions, rushes to find her frolicking naked in the water with several soldiers. Pulling her back to shore, both find their clothes missing, and much to the hilarity of the gathered crowd, Frost, stripped to his long johns, attempts to carry Alma back to camp while somehow shielding her nakedness. The tormented clown with his weeping burden is perhaps Bergman’s first fully concentrated image of primal humanoid anguish.
Could he have pulled it off without his cameraman? Another first for Sawdust and Tinsel is Bergman’s partnership with cinematographer Sven Nykvist, who, then, beginning with Virgin Spring (1960), would shoot all of Bergman’s films up through the valedictory Fanny and Alexander (1983). Right out of the gate, Nykvist’s collaboration — with its range of close-ups and unique framing — seems to push Bergman’s conception to its expressive max. Criterion’s lucid transfer fully captures the precision of Nykvist’s craft.
Sawdust and Tinsel also highlights Bergman’s growth as a writer. Near the film’s closing, Frost walks alongside Albert and recounts a dream. In it, his wife holds him and says, “I’ll make you smaller and smaller. You can climb into my womb.” So far, the ultimate male wish fulfillment — back to Mommy — but then Alma continues to make Frost smaller until he becomes seed, and then is gone. The infantile regression back-pedals to the same void into which death delivers us. Frost’s casual relating of his dream puts a chill on the closing’s hint of reconciliation between Albert and Anne, their loves and lives fragile constructs in the face of supra-human nothingness.
Criterion’s single-disc presentation comes with the obligatory Peter Cowie commentary but no other special features save a booklet containing a well-written essay by John Simon and a shorter, rather overheated one by filmmaker Catherine Breillat.
Sweden/1953/B&W/1.33:1 aspect ratio/92 minutes/In Swedish with optional English subtitles. Released on DVD by The Criterion Collection in 2007
Black Sun (Gary Tarn, 2005)
This modest, inexpensively shot documentary has a disarmingly simple set-up: a narrator, who is never shown, tells his story and the filmmaker supplies images and music to accompany it.
The narrator is Hughes Montalembert, a former painter who, in the seventies, while living in New York City, was mugged by a couple of junkies. One of them, either as retaliation for Montalembert’s not having any cash on him or purely for kicks, doused the artist’s eyes with paint remover, which then in a matter of minutes removed his sight forever.
Montalembert’s story thereafter becomes that very rare commodity, a triumph of the human spirit tale that refuses to manipulate the viewer. It’s totally up to you if you finish the film all weak and weepy or, stunned and quiet as I did. The booklet accompanying Second Run’s disc contains an essay, by writer/curator Gareth Evan, entitled Notes on the Lessons of Black Sun. For me, Evan’s notes are a little on the edge of the poetically precious, but the film most pointedly does contain lessons — Montalembert structures his narration in order to build to a big one — and, as resistant as I normally am towards films with lessons, I embrace the ones found here.
There are no talking heads in this film, no Thelma Ritter-type night nurse recalling how she had to tell Montalembert to stop feeling sorry for himself. Montalembert moves past the self-pity right away, isolates himself from friends and family (which sounds like a self-pitying ploy but isn’t), and gets on with therapy in a matter of days at a place called The Light House. In the meantime, his girlfriend dumps him. Now he’s essentially isolated in his predicament, and Montalembert’s self-sufficient strength is almost unsettling to the viewer, who wonders how well he would perform in this situation.
In his obsessive quest for independence, Montalembert won’t rest long enough for the inevitable depression to set in. Long before it’s declared advisable, he ventures out onto the streets of Manhattan at night and alone. Then, in a matter of weeks after his attack, he decides to travel to Malaya without telling a soul and, again, unaccompanied. Go to Malaya? Blind? Alone? As a sighted person, I’m often afraid just to leave the house, accompanied or not.
As Montalembert becomes ecstatically engaged with the East Asian country, Tarn responds with some highly manipulated shots of Malaya that push the color into outrageous magentas, greens, and ceruleans resembling nothing so much as the color choices of a Fauvist or German Expressionist painter. A shot of one native, peering close into the camera, looks like a portrait by German painter Emil Nolde. With these color manipulations, Tarn has found a powerful equivalent to Montalembert’s inner visuals, which, he says, kicked in just as his blindness went total. In that place, which most of us assume consists of total darkness, he never stopped seeing images, even of people he’d never met before. Somewhere in the film, the former painter conjectures that “vision is a creation not a perception.”
Throughout, Montalembert speaks in measured tones, in an occasionally tough to understand French accent, that sets up a gentle, rather hypnotic rhythm wonderfully in synch with Tarn’s visual and musical one (he also composed — improvised? — the score). Going with the audio/visual flow — it’s a river, don’t push it — you seem to pull Montalembert’s gently declaimed insights out of the air as they fly past. Many are Buddha-like. In Paris, Montalembert grabs a cab driven by a Cambodian, who, seeing his fare’s blindness, offers his regrets, but then the narrator, interviewing the cabdriver, finds out that the Cambodian had lost his entire family, who were killed before his eyes (in an East Asian killing field?). In a flash of enlightenment, he realizes that while he and his wound are seen and he thereby receives compassion, many more wounded people are not seen and thus receive none.
Hughes Montalembert, who is now a writer, doesn’t feel lucky, exactly, but he’s found a way to “dance with life,” a state in which he claims nothing really bad can happen to you. Of course, something very bad did happen to him, plunging him into a state that for many would be worse than death; so, how is it, in the course of this film Montalembert and his lessons become such a source of reassurance?
UK/2005/Aspect ratio 16.9/1.78:1/70 minutes. Issued on region 0, PAL by Second Run in 2007
Marketa Lazarová (Frantisek Vlácil, 1967)
In Marketa Lazarová, Frantisek Vlácil means to construct a feudal world totally alien to the modern viewer, a bit like how Fellini attempts a pre-Christian Rome in his ’68 film Satyricon, but without that director’s fantastical artificiality. Marketa’s world is dreary, snowbound, and violent — a far cry from lurid or sexy. There is no pageantry and not a broadsword in sight, but there is a heroine, Marketa herself (Magda Vásáryová), and a love story that begins with a rape. This is 13th-century reality, Vlácil is saying — deal with it. Yet, as with Fellini’s confections, Vlácil’s astringent revisionism is only part of the tale.
Be sure to watch this one twice. Entering the film as an initiate is like wandering into a medieval saga with lots of pages missing and then, just as you perceive the outline of a narrative, unexpectedly getting lost in a snow squall. Most compelling the first time around is the black-and-white photography, which, outside of Sven Nykvist’s work for Bergman, is some of the most exquisite of its decade. Hawk-encircled snowy landscapes have never been captured better, but what’s remarkable here is the attention shown to how a historically distant people would have lived in them. Yet Vlácil wants more than pretty pictures displaying diligent research, and the film should not be anticipated as a diorama of medieval life.
The characters of Marketa are tribal people, familial clans struggling to survive the vicissitudes of the seasons, often by thievery and murder. As the film opens, brothers from one clan, the Vozliks, are out to steal horses when they ambush two Saxon counts and their retinue. Taking captives and murdering others, the Vozliks, principally the two brothers and their father Old Kozlik (Josef Kemr), have acted in affront to the king, who in the person of “The Captain” sets out to arrest them. But when Mikolas (Frantisek Velecky), the elder Kozlik brother, seeks aid against the king’s strike force from his neighbors, the Lazars, the Lazar brothers instead greet him with mockery and summarily beat him to a bloody pulp. Kozlik retribution ensues, and Lazar has a lovely adolescent daughter named Marketa …
Marketa Lazarová packs an emotional punch that swings harder upon second viewing. Finally you get in sync with Vlácil’s elegantly simple structure, a two-part concept that opens like a diptych altar piece telling a story (like Adam and Eve) that resonates with fundamental, baseline male/female mythos. Part one’s title, Straba the Werewolf, refers to a folk tale told ’round a campfire by the old wife of Old Kozlik. Straba, orphaned when wolves attacked his mother, is then raised by them but grows to become a heart-hardened rogue outcast accepted by neither man nor wolf. It’s a grim tale, and Kozlik’s wife bitterly reflects that maybe all men are Strabas — they cannot feel, they cannot grieve, they cannot weep — and they commit horrible acts. When Mikolas, after raping Marketa, disallows his father’s order to torture her, he is shunned by his clan but begins to shed his Straba-like nature.
As the Captain hunts down the Vozliks in part two (The Lamb of God), the women get tossed about like leaves in the wind. In a sorrowful return to her father, Marketa finds herself rejected by a damaged Lazar, who condemns her as a whore. She begins a penance on her knees before her recalcitrant father — but in this shot, Vlácil has the young girl face the camera, diminutive and nearly lost at the bottom of the wide frame with only head and shoulders visible. It’s the most heartbreaking image in the film and nails the tragic essence of the tale. Lamb of God indeed.
Religion, both pagan and Christian, haunts the film. In his underscore, composer Zdenêk Liska responds with what seems like unremitting swaths of plainchant, which colors Vlácil’s powerful imagery a monotonous mysterioso sonic hue throughout. This may account for my initial impression of the film as ’60s art house dull, but how wrong I was. Marketa Lazarová is a work of unusual breadth and profound feeling. Praise be to Second Run for coaxing it out of obscurity.
Czechoslovakia/1967/159 min./B&W/16:9/2.35:1/In Czech with removable English subtitles/PAL, Region 0. Released on DVD by Second Run in 2007
Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925)
After being trotted out over the decades in increasingly battered prints that held precious little of Eisenstein’s original cut, Potemkin — that old textbook warhorse — has been granted a rebirth. The ur-text, the original negative, is irrevocably lost; for the crisp, vivid transfer presented in Kino’s recently issued two-disc set, the German restorers cobbled together sequences from elements far and wide in the hopes that their new print would most likely represent what the Soviet public saw at the film’s premiere in 1925. The results are assuredly breathtaking, revealing a film of outrageous visceral excitement. If you plan to watch these discs, get ready to hoist the Red flag.
Kino, bless ’em, have matched the transfer with a new recording of the “original” score by German composer (and Brecht collaborator) Edmund Meisel. Film music was vastly important to Eisenstein, who ended his career in the sound era with his unique collaborative ventures with Sergei Prokofiev. By then, in the late thirties and forties, Eisenstein’s provocative montage film structure had mutated into a style less concerned with the rapid collision of images than with a stately, operatic pictorial look. In films like Ivan the Terrible Parts One and Two, the filmmaker often structured his cuts to accommodate Prokofiev’s melodic and richly contoured music.
Meisel, whom Eisenstein handpicked to underscore Potemkin‘s 1926 German cut, was no Prokofiev, but his music is a terrific match for the tightly structured film that, in Eisenstein’s carefully edited tempi of shots, carries its own visual “music.” Laid out like a symphony in five contained movements — each carefully labeled by intertitles, e.g., “People and Worms,” or “Drama on the Deck” — Potemkin as image builds with such systemic forethought that you can imagine Eisenstein conducting his film from markings like Andante and Allegro.
At the heart of the film there is a short, leisurely edited “Largo” (The Dead Man Calls Out), in which the people of Odessa file past the martyred sailor, Vakulinchuk, laid in-state under a tent on the docks. Meisel responds to Eisenstein’s long shots of hundreds of citizens coming forth in massive serpentine columns (reminiscent of the visuals in the finale of Ivan the Terrible Part One) with an intimate Slavic-tinged tune that allows the grandeur of the imagery a soulful tenderness, as if the sorrow of the masses could be reduced to a single Russian mother weeping over a slain son. For the slaughter on the Odessa Steps, Meisel supplies a percussive, Mahleresque death march, which is roughly in step with the advancing line of murderous militia.
If there’s anything even remotely negative to say about Miesel’s score, it’s that it occasionally overemphasizes the rhythmic stresses already present in Eisenstein’s cutting — an early, rather abstract form of “mickey-mousing.” But what’s to complain; the score, performed with vigor and recorded in detailed 5.1 surround sound, gives off a strange Weimar-era glow and is innovative in its own right. Unlike many orchestral scores for big roadshow presentations of the time, the Potemkin music was all newly composed by Meisel as an organic whole free of the customary borrowing of classical or light classical tunes.
Given Potemkin‘s checkered past, well narrated in the accompanying documentary, Tracing Battleship Potemkin, this new transfer — so full of detail within its richly realized gray scale — is something of a miracle. As it turns out, the film is about a great deal more than a runaway baby carriage.
Russia/1925/B&W/69 min./1.33:1/With original Russian intertitles (with optional English subtitles or newly translated English intertitles). Issued on DVD by Kino International in 2007.
Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (F. W. Murnau, 1922)
Has there ever been, outside of Vivien Leigh for Gone with the Wind, a better casting coup than Max Schreck (right) for Nosferatu? Compare the spectral Schreck to the Count Orlac of Klaus Kinski in Herzog’s unnecessary 1979 remake. Whereas Kinski, sporting his dental prosthesis, looks a bit like a big bunny rabbit lusting, somewhat inappropriately, after the neck of Isabelle Adjani, Schreck’s vampire is frail and decrepit — a morbidly transmogrified rodent with centuries of sleepless nights behind him. Murnau dares his actor to be genuinely loathsome.
In production and all the way to the premiere, everything went right with Murnau’s picture until, of course, something went very wrong. Henrik Galeen’s skilled treatment of Bram Stoker’s novel seems to have improved upon its source merely by altering it — a necessary distancing maneuver because, at the time, Stoker’s widow was still rigorously shielding the book from unscrupulous movie producers. She ended up suing the filmmakers anyway, the unhappy result being a mass destruction of negative and prints, of which few survive today. Yet Nosferatu remains arguably the best horror film of all time.
Galeen’s screenplay had moved Stoker’s time period to the historically remote Biedermeier period of 1838, and Murnau, partly out of economic necessity apparently, photographed most of Nosferatu in natural settings. Combined with the inherent gloominess of a location like Oravasky Podzámok castle, for example, the director’s acute pictorial sensibilities result in a picture that’s not only scary, but scary in an insidious, uncontrived manner that awakens feelings of everyday dread.
As Count Orlac arrives in Wisborg to suck luxuriously at the neck of Hutter’s beautiful wife, he casually lets loose a ship’s hold full of rats that merrily go spreading the plague amongst the city’s population. Linking Stoker’s concept of the undead to the scourge of the Black Death is more than clever — it raises the quotient of horror by adding epidemic physical disease to Nosferatu’s infliction of soul sickness and death on individual victims.4 It’s as if the vampire’s arrival and taking up residence were enough to blot out the sun over the entire town.
The images in Nosferatu are indelible: the back-lit death ship under full sail; Hutter’s nearly demented wife (Greta Schroeder) scanning the sea’s horizon on a beach littered with black crosses; Count Orlac carrying a coffin full of dirt across a moonlit city common; Ellen clutching her heart (and breast) when Nosferatu’s shadow falls across it.
Along with the film’s impeccable art direction and period costumes — not to mention hairstyles — the black and white tinted photography evokes mid-19th-century daguerreotypes and albumen prints, and this in itself adds something death-haunted to the mix. Murnau makes the entire show appear as an apparition, just barely surviving on photo emulsion, of a past when people had a greater intimacy with death and treasured their postmortem photos of dead children — when people looked different from us — and this phantom otherness only adds to the film’s queasy terror.
Kino’s recent two-disc issue of Nosferatu is their second, and it’s a big improvement. Coming as it does from a 2005-2006 restoration by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau Foundation, the print’s dust and scratches are all gone and the jittery picture stabilized. Oddly, though, when compared with the Kino’s 2002 release, the earlier issue appears to be sharper, but whether this sharpness was due to some artificial enhancement made at the time, or, is actually a loss of detail due to the present restoration, is up to others to decide. For me, these discs simply provide a more pleasurable viewing experience.
As in their Potemkin release, Kino provides a new recording of the original score to accompany the film. Composed by Hans Erdmann, it’s an odd but effective mishmash of Erdmann’s own music along with borrowings from sources as diverse as Bizet and Verdi. As performed by the Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra, it’s a welcome replacement for the two wan, and sometimes unpleasant, choices for underscore on the 2002 edition. Also included is a tartly informative 52-minute documentary, The Language of Shadows: The Early Years and Nosferatu, which nicely sums up Murnau’s beginnings as a director and his collaboration with Nosferatu producer (and art director), occultist Albin Grau. All around, a fabulous release: kudos, Kino.
Germany/1922/94 min./Color tinted B&W/1.33:1. Released on DVD by Kino International in 2007
Automatons (James Felix McKenney, 2006)
In his liner notes for Facets’ DVD of Automatons, director James Felix McKenney wistfully recalls watching, as a little boy, a movie on TV with an uncle. When robots appeared on the screen, McKenney had questions about them, and the uncle said, well, there are other movies like this — which the four-year-old future director took to mean robot movies. As he grew up, McKenney seemed to take the apparent reality — there are no robot movies — pretty hard. So now we have Automatons, which is, sure enough, a robot movie.
Even though he’s just pushing 40, it’s clear from the look and texture of his film that McKenney’s after the sketchy black-and-white quality of ’50s TV reception. If we’re to believe the cameraman in the disc’s making-of feature, he shot the entire project on Tri-X super-8 film, which certainly explains the grain, lack of detail, and soft resolution. But I wonder if there’s also been a transfer-to-video process that causes the photography to look like an old TV broadcast or, worse, a kinescope of one.
However it was done, the low-resolution visual texture of McKenney’s project is headily evocative of cheaply produced, gimcrackery sci-fi kiddie shows of the early ’50s. But Automatons also wants to meld that technical innocence with the more sophisticated literary attitudes of higher-budgeted ’60s-era shows like Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, which would often be shot in moody chiaroscuro and feature the kind of switcheroo, downer ending that we have in Automatons.
Dressed in fatigues and T-shirt, Christine Spencer stars as The Girl, a human clone who’s a gestational product of a post-apocalyptic/eco-holocaust society. With the entire surface of the earth unlivable and all surviving fleshpoids sterile, a nagging, unwinnable war has survived, too, which The Girl, locked in her sealed bunker, continues to wage with a small squadron of robots. Short, tousled, and sexy in a sleep-deprived, BU coed sort of way, Spencer is no glamour puss, but her ingénue looks and flat, girlish line readings project a vulnerable sweetness that makes that switcheroo ending a bracing slap in the face.
Every day, as she wards off dangerous signals from “the enemy” and repairs her ‘bots, she watches video recordings from a recent past, in which The Old Scientist (Angus Scrimm) speaks to the now grown clone about the losing battles of his present and his hopes for the future. The film’s chief irony is how that future has devolved to a grim present where our girl must subsist in what resembles the chaotic, windowless back room of a mid-20th-century TV repair shop.
A veteran of horror flicks like Phantasm, the eighty-something Scrimm brings an actorly heft to his scenes, which take place entirely on an assortment of static-infested antique TV picture tubes. Coming off as wise and kind at first, his stream of fatherly advice becomes increasingly more polemical, invoking a country that knows what’s right for the whole world and will destroy those who disagree. “You must fight radicalism and terror,” he states firmly. Pushing his most naked delusion, the scientist declares the eco-cost — the destruction of the environment and human sterilization — worth the technological advance. Sure, he says, nobody can have children anymore, but look at these great robots we can make!
Thus, what initially begins as a simple Lynchian art/robot movie also carries a layer of angry protest over the Bush administration’s God-sanctioned rush to war and its laissez-faire attitude about global warming — but it’s a lightly applied layer. The banged-up robots, with their water heater bodies held together with duct tape and fake rivets, are central to the knockabout proceedings. Judging from the making-of documentary, the filming was more like a weeks-long, beer-fueled party. As robot battles finish up with exploding heads and grisly, slasher, ‘bot-to-human violence, the director calls “cut” and you hear shouts of “awesome!” “fuckin’ A!”, and rollicking laughter from the off-screen filmmakers, a bunch of 30- to 40-year-old guys regressing to the adolescent joy of blowing up plastic models with cherry bombs. Ah, the smell of it!
The clumsy, lumbering (but spunky!) robot war is nearly as much fun for the viewer as for the film crew, but, depending on your age, your reaction to these fuzzy clashes of spray-painted metal might be more complicated and strange than an easy, ironic smirk. McKenney has handed us the cinematic equivalent of Proust’s Madeleine, and it’s a tasty yet pungent little cake.
USA/2006/B&W/Fullscreen/83 min. Released on DVD by Facets Video in 2007.
- Syberberg, Hans-Jürgen, Hitler: A Film from Germany (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1982), 9. [↩]
- Ibid., pp. 3-22. [↩]
- Syberberg’s recent remarks about Jews and contemporary culture are quoted in his Wikipedia entry. [↩]
- The name Nosferatu actually comes from the Greek Nosophorus, who was the “Bringer of Disease.” Perhaps mistakenly or for convenient effect, Stoker translated it as “the undead.” [↩]