Monday, 31 October 2011

Great Gilbert (Part 2) + Vidor the King The Big Parade (1925)

It’s hard to watch The Big Parade without thinking of the war films that came after it, even including modern ones such as Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers. So well did King Vidor do his job, that he established the template for the genre; the very model of a modern major war film. He also made a work that remains gripping and gruesome to this day. My teenage daughter stepped away from her laptop concerned for the hero’s story resolution whilst her blue stocking grandmother (armed with a doctorate and an array of degrees, including film studies – she’s qualified to write this blog even if I’m not!), insisted on watching it again!

So, a real family film in the event and one that got us debating the Great War, war in general and the acting qualities of star John Gilbert without his trademark ‘tache!

But, overwhelmingly, a great film that fully deserves its place in the pantheon, that rare beast, a hugely successful film that is close to a master work.

Shot whilst the “war to end all wars” was still fresh in the memory, The Big Parade could be viewed as an anti-war film but it doesn’t pass judgement other than on the horror of war itself. John Gilbert plays James Apperson, listless son of a wealthy businessman who is stirred into signing up by the big parade for enlistment – caught up in the patriotism the intertitles suggest may be artful more than genuine.

He falls into the parade of trained soldiers and heads for France with his buddies from more earthy stock, the relentlessly baccy chewin’ Slim (Karl Dane) and the pugnacious Bull (Tom O'Brien). They enjoy an almost peaceful, pastoral start to the campaign staying in a picturesque French village where larks are had and James falls for a pretty French girl, Melisande (Renée Adorée). They communicate through a phrase book and he, touchingly, teaches her to chew gum.

But, just when you’re getting comfortable, Vidor ups the pace and the parade packs up and noisily heads for war leaving Melisande forcefully dragged away from her lover who vows to return. We see an impossibly long line of trucks heading for the front with war planes flying overhead: “it has begun!”.

Catching us all by surprise, the boys meet their first action in almost prosaic circumstances…they march through a wood in formation and only gradually do you start to notice that around them, men are falling to the ground, picked off by snipers. This is the casual horror of the First World War and its tactics that were poorly suited to the technological advances of its weaponry. Force of numbers had to compensate for lack of a good position and the film is shocking in the way it accurately depicts the conflict.

The boys finally get to the front line and take refuge in make-shift trenches and bomb craters as they wait for support to arrive. They’re bored and brave still cracking wise when death by gun, gas or bomb is an ever-present possibility.Vidor’s direction is superb as he paces things perfectly marshalling thousands of soldiers, tanks, planes and ordinance to recreate hell on earth.

Explosions and smoke fill the screen and we see men, impossibly, still alive within this carnage. Vidor must surely have been influenced by contemporary film of the Somme and other battles for this feels real - an horrific clash of fragile humanity against the devices of war. The miracle is that any can live through this and that those who might could survive intact.

Enraged by the death of a comrade, James leads a charge against the German placements, he kills and helps create a breach in the line. Wounded in the leg he takes on an injured German soldier. The two fall into a crater and James pulls back from killing the man as, bayonet at his throat, he looks into his eyes. Gilbert is great in this scene; blackened by the action in every sense, drained of compassion and yet still capable of recognising the humanity of his enemy. He offers him a cigarette and keeps on pushing the other’s face away. It’s a primal, almost ape-like shove and we believe him.

How this actor could have been so forgotten or reduced to a romantic prop is hard to fathom on this performance. He is ably supported by the excellent Renée Adorée who is full of relaxed emotion and genuine warmth; not Gilbert's usual love interest and all the better for it. The close of the film belongs to both and there were tears in the eyes of all three generations as we watched things unfold.

The Big Parade shows Vidor as one of the great directors. It influenced not just the films made shortly afterwards, All Quiet on the Western Front and La Grande Illusion being just two, but also many more down the years right up to Spielberg and the rest. I hadn’t expected it to be so convincing but it was and it was perfectly balanced between the humour in the first half and the horror in the second.

I watched the Thames Silents version with its excellent Carl Davies score; the film is very rhythmic and the same army songs that moved the actors helped dictate the pace of the orchestration.

Quite hard to find when it shouldn’t be! Time for a King Vidor box set!!

Friday, 28 October 2011

Great Gilbert! Bardelys the Magnificent (1926)

The best tribute you can pay to any work of art is to stop thinking about it and just respond. This is the problem faced when watching Shakespeare, listening to Mahler or looking at a Vermeer... you have a huge amount of baggage to deal with before you can just go with it. You have what you know, what you've been told and what you are - at that moment - experiencing. This is certainly true of old films... you view in "watching silent movie" mode and with the reputations of those involved getting in the way of your appreciation of their work.

So...John Gilbert, sad Garbo sidekick, major victim of the talkies and tragic alcoholic? Or...John Gilbert, great movie star, handsome as hell and one fine actor!

Watching Bardelys the Magnificent you have to plump, overwhelmingly, for the latter.
Made in the same year as The Black Pirate and Don Juan, Bardelys could be expected to be a straight-ahead romantic swashbuckler, with dashing heroics, plush costumery and evil beards... It is all of these things but deliberately so, being a wry send up of the genre that succeeds in being funny as well as exciting.

Gilbert is the Marquis de Bardleys, a nobleman at the court of Louise XIII who is "envied, elegant and superior... known to his world as 'The Magnificent'". Bardleys is a total playboy who is so adept at womanising he has a production line of assistants making up lockets of his hair to hand out to his admirers - there's a great scene when the camera pans along a line of courtesans who all open their lockets in succession.
But he is forced into defending his honour by the challenge of the Comte Châtellerault (rascally Roy D'Arcy) who, having failed to woo the beauteous Roxalanne de Lavedan (elegant Eleanor Boardman), bets Bardleys his estate that he won't be able to win her over. Against the King's wishes, Bardleys sets off to win the wager.

En route he encounters a dying man, René de Lesperon, who has been leading a rebellion against the King. Bardleys takes on Lesperon's identity as he ends up having to fight his way to Lavedan's castle.
Roxalanne hides Bardleys from his pursuers and nurses him back to health as he plays along seeing a chance to secure his prize. But Bardleys begins to fall genuinely for his helper and wonders how he can right the wrong he has done and truly win her heart. Revealed to the kings men by a jealous neighbour, Bardleys is unable to lie any longer to Roxalanne and she gives him up. Now protesting his real name, Bardleys goes unrecognised by all but the scheming Châtellerault, who sentences him to be hanged.

Things really hot up for the closing scenes as Bardleys heads to the gallows and Roxalanne tries to save him. Are we going to get a happy ending?
King Vidor directs with aplomb and provides a truly outstanding scene when the lovers push their boat through the willows, the branches keep brushing over the actors' heads as they act out their love and you get lost in the gently conflicting motion as they move together and between the leaves. It's quite lovely and almost surreal - just some heavier branches away from Buñuel...
The action sequences at the films' conclusion are also highly entertaining, a tribute to Fairbanks, with Gilbert seemingly swinging off castle walls, climbing them with inventive use of a pike and floating down on a parachute of curtains. Dynamic and funny.

But it's the acting that carries the film - you need to be skilled to do this kind of pastiche seriously. Eleanor Boardman is excellent, as usual, as the girl who actually knows her own mind (and has a mind to know...) and works well with Gilbert. It's great to see a decent quality print of her work: I dream of a remastered Boardman box set with The Crowd, Souls for Sale, Proud Flesh and others.
It's on John Gilbert though that the story most depends and he shows a lot of skill in portraying the light-hearted hero who finds his heart. The scene where he cannot match Roxalanne's pledge of their love in front of God is great - no intertitles are required - as we see his realisation that he has to be true to this woman in every sense. He's a rounded, believable hero, with a twinkle in his eye and the range to show the serious changes in the character's development.
Gilbert worked with Vidor (no mug in his choice of the talent...) on a number of films including the monumental The Big Parade, he was one half of the most successful romantic pairing in silent history with Garbo and here he shows a superior comedic sensibility. The Flicker Alley DVD comes with a poignant interview with his daughter, Leatrice Gilbert Fountain, who has campaigned for his reputation as an actor. On this evidence, she has every reason to do so.

Whatever the reasons for his downfall, Gilbert was a versatile actor as well as a true star. He made good films and has every right to be regarded as "envied, elegant and superior... known to his world as 'The Magnificent'"!

The Flicker Alley DVD also comes with Monte Cristo (1922) and is available here. I got mine from those nice people at the BFI.

"Whatever your faults, Bardelys, you're never dull! Come drive with me - tell me all about it!"

Monday, 24 October 2011

King Vidor & Queen Eleanor… Wine of Youth (1924)

It’s one of the main missions of this blog for me to discover (or rediscover) the talent and creativity of (mostly) silent film. Before I started this exercise I knew, what I thought, were the main players but... it seems I didn't.

Silent film when viewed monolithically appeared simple and homogenous. From a distance you couldn’t see the immense variety and invention or the modernity. Frankly, you had every right to expect more from an historian!

So, the closer I got to the subject, crossing the flat, desiccated earth under the burning yellow sun of Greed…the more I started to see and the broader the appreciation that this was a multifaceted medium with many outstanding talents. King Vidor was certainly one of this number as was his wife, the extraordinary naturalistic actress, Eleanor Boardman.

I watched her spellbinding performance in Vidor’s famous The Crowd as well as the lesser known Souls for Sale. In the former she is the emotional anchor and her range of expression gives the story an edge of realism it might otherwise lack. In Souls she is shown training to become an actor and gives a very brave and believable performance as a bad actress: who else would risk reputation in this way?

Wine of Youth is maybe not of the same calibre as these two films but it still has merits of its own - it's a sophisticated story that is surprisingly hard to pin down. A 1924 feature directed by King Vidor it shows how three generations of the same family encounter romance. It is fascinating in its portrayal of the “new” types of behaviour of “modern” youth, who deal with issues of choice in different ways from their parents and grandparents.

Eleanor plays Mary and her mother and grandmother are shown at the start of the film meeting their matches in strictly-controlled social circumstances in which the dominant male generally gets his woman. But, in the same way that Mary’s mother had more freedom of action than her grandmother, Mary has seemingly even more liberty and freedom of choice.

Mary isn’t even convinced about the idea of old-fashioned marriage let alone monogamy – ah youth! So much so, that unable to chose between two suitors, Mary agrees to spend two weeks away with the men to make her choice. Her grandmother is appalled but her mother feels the stirrings of sympathy... does she perhaps regret a decision she made in the past?

Mary sneaks off accompanied by her men, Hal played by the always excellent William Haines and Lynn (Ben Lyon), along with their group of friends who continue their ongoing mobile party at their campsite. Mary is put off by her friends' behaviour... drinking, swimming and generally fooling around. She has an attack of conscience and feigns illness so she can be returned home.

Once home the story takes an unexpected turn as Mary's disappearance sparks a row between her mother and father. She listens intently, hiding with her brother, as the whole basis of her family life is torn apart... Has she sparked off the end of her parents' marriage? Is a life of acceptance and unhappy subjugation the truth of things and how will this affect Mary's own choices - is this what her future holds?

Vidor keeps us guessing right till the end and it's a compelling story. My copy is a ropey nth generation VHS and I would love to see this is better quality. Even so, it's an enjoyable film and another silent gem. The supporting cast are excellent and, the wonderfully named, Eulalie Jensen is particularly good as Mary's mother.

But it's Eleanor Boardman who dominates and it's good to see her glammed up in the stylish designer dresses she was so famous for.

Who wouldn't want to party like it's 1924?

Friday, 21 October 2011

The sounds of silents... The First Born (1928)

Musical accompaniment has always played a major part in the most successful viewing of films from the silent era. Silent movies were never actually that silent and now there is so much new music.

2011 has been a great year for watching silent film with new and innovative musical performances. I have seen The Dodge Brothers trad Americana help bring Louise Brooks' Beggars of Life back to life at the BFI, Pola Negri's rediscovered Mania embellished with a vibrant new Jerzy Maksymiuk score performed by the Wrocław Leopoldinum chamber orchestra and twice witnessed Goldfrapp's Will Gregory and Portishead's Adrian Utley perform their amazing new score for Joan of Arc.

All have been musically excellent and have brought audiences closer to the films; helping us to reconnect and fully appreciate the depth of art in the older work. There's also something magical in the combination of the live performances with the images sealed on the celluloid. The spirit of the films is re-animated by the sound especially when it's live and without a safety net.

To the above list must be added the name of Stephen Horne whose musical support of The First Born at last night's London Film Festival Archive Gala performance was nothing short of exhilarating. Accompanied by Janey Miller on oboe and Martin Pyne on percussion, Mr Horne produced a totally sympathetic score that underpinned the story and contributed to an extraordinary level of engagement from the audience.

The music was soulful and melodically inventive with Janey Miller's mournful oboe particularly prominent. Elements from Gershwin's The Man I Love were woven into this story of the well-heeled selfish classes of whom only one truly follows her heart, patriotic themes drummed alongside another character's drive to become an MP whilst Stephen picked up a flute for the rhythmic change of pace of this character's time in the Dark Continent.

The audience response was synchronised by the music, we laughed along with and not at the film and some even gasped out loud during moments of peril! How can a jaded modern audience be wooed into the pace of such a film? It's so much about the music.

None of this takes away from what is an exceptional restoration by the BFI National Archive of a pretty smart movie! The First Born joins A Cottage on Dartmoor (also with accompaniment from Mr Horne) and Blackmail as amongst the best British late period silent films. It's directed with some panache by Miles Mander from a scenario he co-scripted with Alma Reville (Mrs Hitch no less) and features inventive cinematography throughout, including one startling sequence of hand-held work.

There are shots from acute angles, characters addressing each other via mirrors, dollies backing off to reveal and explain... and Gance-styled "flashbacks" showing inner lives.

Miles Mander stars as the weasel Sir Hugo Boycott a man with ill-fitting suits and a twisted moustache. He is doted on by his wife, Madeleine, played by the divine Madeleine Carroll, but she has not given him the child he wanted. So Hugo strops off to Africa to punish her and to pretty much do as he pleases. Loving and faithful throughout, Madeleine conceives of a plan that will lure him back. And, whilst Hugo makes merry with the local dancers she politely rebuts the advances of the handsome (very), well groomed and perfectly-attired David, Lord Harborough (John Loder).

Hugo returns following the arrival of their apparent first born child and they settle down as he pursues a career in politics as well as continuing his interest in other women, including one of Madeleine’s best friends. He is, as she later exclaims, "an utter cad!"

But Madeleine’s love is constant, they have a second child and Hugo is on course for Parliament: will the truth and love win out?

The restoration is simply amazing and rich in texture. Some sections looked almost pristine even on the Queen Elizabeth Hall's large screen from four rows out. There was a moment, staring at the fabric on Madeleine Carroll's sleeve that I felt lost in the image... unselfconsciously drawn into the heart of the film.

That was the image but it was also the sound.

Both worked together to give us an evening of uncomplicated pleasure. At the end the film and the musicians were applauded of the stage sent to the dressing room with cheers and beaming smiles... when was the last time I saw an audience so lifted by a film in this way?

Top notch entertainment and I'll be watching the whole thing again first chance I get.

Tip of the hat to Stephen Horne who played it and also to Pamela Silent London who recommended it in the first place!

There's a tantalising clip here: DVD next year BFI?!

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

The eyes have it… Summer with Monika (1953)

I’ve had a backlog of Ingmar Bergman films to watch/re-watch and haven’t been able to get round to it. You need to be in the right frame of mind for Persona, The Seventh Seal and The Virgin Spring… maybe something lighter with sun, scenery and young love would do?

Summer with Monika (Sommaren med Monika) promises all of these things but has a serious side that connects it with the director’s trade mark themes. Yes there is young love as 19-year old Harry Lund (Lars Ekborg), a half-hearted worker in a glass and porcelain warehouse, falls for the energetic, unpredictable and exciting 17-year old vegetable worker, Monika (Harriet Andersson).

Monika flees home after her father beats her and Harry puts her up in his father’s boat. Sensing adventure, she persuades him to leave his job and take them both on a summer holiday. Off they go through the open waters of Stockholm along the coast to bays and inlets, luxuriating in the sun and the sheer freedom…

Yet freedom has consequences and soon the couple encounter difficulties; they fight off a camper intent on ruining their idyll, almost get caught stealing food and run out of money and provisions. Most significantly Monika becomes pregnant.
They return to the city and marry. Harry begins to apply himself to study aiming to secure the future of his nascent family; he works hard and has a clear resolution of his path forward. For Monika things are less clear…younger than Harry she cannot settle to the pattern of life with the absolute responsibility of her new child.

Bergman presents two striking close ups of the two towards the end of the film, in one Monika’s huge dark eyes look directly at the camera mirroring a sudden blackness behind her: equal voids enveloping a future that is completely uncertain.

Harry’s close up comes whilst he cradles his daughter. He is illuminated and clear – in his eyes and his mind – about what Monika meant to him and what he must now do. A grown up ending in every sense of the word.

Summer with Monika is a joy and feels, to a Brit, much like the “kitchen sink” films of the mid-60’s. The swedes, not for the first time, were well ahead with this measured and unjudgemental, depiction of youthful hedonism and its consequences. In the US the film was promoted as a risqué “continental” "art" film with a jazzy soundtrack from easy legend Les Baxter. This does it a great disservice.

Harriet Andersson is indeed eye-catching but she also puts in a superb, naturalistic and “fresh” performance. No wonder Bergman asked her back for so many films: she was the real deal and not just a girl who had a way with a sweater. Lars Ekborg is excellent as well with authentic improvisation and the clumsy, believable, expressiveness of a teenager. His transformation at the end is every bit as convincing as Monika’s enduring youth.

Throughout it all Bergman directs with surety of tone and consistency of vision. His landscapes are stunning and, as with Stiller and Sjostrom (later to star in Wild Strawberries fact fans!), he uses the Scandinavian scenery to great effect.

There’s a lonesome, stillness to this film that acts as a counterpoint to the youthful energy on show. The first of his run of really great films? I don’t know enough to say but it’s certainly an exceptionally good one! I’ll be catching up with the aforementioned backlog more rapidly now I think!

Summer with Monika is criminally under-priced at Amazon. Have a really good look.

Friday, 14 October 2011

New Negri vehicle opens in London to rave review! … Mania (1918)

Last night I attended the UK premier of Mania starring Pola Negri. The film, full title Mania, The History of a Cigarette Factory Worker, was made in 1918 and was believed lost for almost a century…rediscovered and expertly restored, it was presented with much fanfare at the Barbican.

A short film showed how the restoration had painstakingly been completed, with firm adherence to the rules of film restoration - no digital cheating allowed here. Then the Polish cultural attaché and president of the Filmoteka Narodowa took turns in introducing a film that not only showcases the strength of Poland’s greatest movie star but also the technical skills of what was a Hungarian/German/Polish co-production…highly appropriate given Poland’s new position as President of the Council of the European Union.

This combined with a receptive and well informed full-house audience, created a mood of genuine excitement as we witnessed the first ever showing of this film in the UK…just 93 years after it was made.

The Polish pride in this reassertion of the power of one of cinema’s primordial brands was clear with this show being one of a number of “premiers” in major cultural centres across Europe. A new score has been written by Jerzy Maksymiuk, who also conducted, as the Wrocław Leopoldinum chamber orchestra performed it with gusto and contributed greatly to the sense that we were watching this film in a wholehearted way, almost in the casual manner you would watch a contemporary movie…no deference made to age, style or soundtrack.

This effect was further supported by the amazing work done on creating a strikingly clear print; it can hardly have looked much different when the German premier was held back in November 1918.

All of this served to do real credit to the undoubted star of the evening, Ms Pola Negri herself. One of the greatest stars of this era and a name often seen more than experienced, Negri had an amazing amount to offer. I listened recently to a recording of her contemporary, Theda Bara, talking of the need to “pantomime” in the absence of sound and with largely static cameras. It reminds you of the restrictions these actors had to work under. No wonder some appear to be over emotive to modern eyes and yet with the likes of Lillian Gish and Asta Nielsen they are able to convey the story without crossing the line of exaggeration.

To these names I would add Pola Negri’s. An expressive face, soulful eyes and with a dancer’s grace…she was a master of controlled expression. Considering that she was only just 20 at the time she shows a high degree of expertise in her playing; she carries the majority of the story and is a believable presence in what could easily have been a melodramatic affair.

She plays Mania a cigarette factory worker who is picked to be the new face of their advertising. In the artist's studio where she is being painted for the campaign, Mania meets a young composer, Hans, (played by Arthur Schroder) with whom she falls in love. Mania starts to mix with the local aesthetes and at one of their, splendidly realised, parties, she encounters the hawkish Morelli (Werner Hollmann... with menace!) who is a wealthy patron of the arts.

Entranced by Mania’s dancing, Morelli determines to have her for himself. He prevents Hans’ opera from being performed and Mania is forced into a dreadful choice: is she willing to sacrifice her love for Hans in order to help him succeed?

There are twists and turns as the tale resolves itself in the most dramatic of circumstances. I won’t tell you how because you’ll want to experience this “new release” all for yourselves in your local cinemateque!

This felt like a recognisably modern movie and proof of the fact that the medium was really hitting its stride by the end of the Great War. Directed by Hungarian Eugen Illés, there are some great close ups, outdoor shots and excellent overall visual cohesion. This is helped by superb scenic design by one Paul Leni, famous later for directing expressionist classics such as Waxworks and art directing many more.

A very polished (sorry no pun intended) and enjoyable performance all round. Maybe not a great film but still a real gem pulled off with verve by a genuine star of transcendent quality.

Watch out for this Negri girl she’s going places!

Catch Mania on its tour - there are details and also a brief trailer on the Filmoteka Narodowa website. Then join me in waiting for its DVD release next year!?

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Identity, crisis and coincidence... The Passenger (1975)

"Can I ask you a question, only one, always the
same; what are you running away from?"

Michelangelo Antonioni's The Passenger is a film about identity, coincidence and, possibly, fate. The lead character is a passenger in someone else's life, as he has been with those he has interviewed in his career as a journalist. He's on the run from his own life but is that because he knows his end is both inevitable and imminent?

Beautifully photographed by Luciano Tovi, The Passenger begins in Algiers and takes in London, Munich, Barcelona and southern Spain on its relentless journey. It packs in a huge amount of locations and some amazing buildings including Gaudi's brilliant Casa Milà.

Jack Nichoson is David Locke, a documentary film maker, who takes advantage of the death of a man staying in the same hotel. For reasons we spend the rest of the film trying to fathom, Locke assumes the man's identity and passes off his death as his own. The man, Robertson, turns out to be a gunrunner, supplying arms to one of the factions in the Chad civil war. He leaves behind a diary of meetings that Locke then proceeds to try and fulfil, perhaps driven by some sympathy with their cause.

He is also spurred on by the investigations of former colleague Knight (Ian Hendry excellently-edgy as always) and his estranged wife, portrayed with cool detachment by Jenny Runacre (another 70's icon). Along the way Locke meets an un-named architectural student, played by the magnetic Maria Schneider, simply excellent here as an almost non-actorly actor, natural, very responsive and enigmatic - a perfect match for Jack.

Nicholson gives a memorable performance of intelligence and world-weary complexity. He compliments Antonioni's style perfectly with dryly humorous inventions highlighting the necessary intensity of this conflicted and confused character. Antonioni was impressed with Easy Rider and the related American "new wave" and it's easy to see why he wanted one of the leaders of that generation in this film, a more successful and interesting continuation of his counter-cultural examinations in Zabriskie Point.

There is one horrific sequence where Antonioni uses film of an actual execution. This is deliberately designed to disturb and watching the film for the first time one hoped that it wasn't real. But it was and you have to question the validity of this injection of actuality even at this distance. In the DVD commentary the writer, Mark Peploe, is audibly still upset by this scene.

Whatever the moral and artistic merits, the film is based on these realities and the Chad conflict in question ran for some 40 years. As Peploe says these things happened and are still happening.

Locke and the girl keep meeting appointments but the insurgents do not make them. By now the police are on their trail and there's a growing sense of impending doom.

The film ends with one of the most stunning single takes I've ever seen. In one amazing shot, lasting over six minutes, the camera takes a slow and steady journey from Locke's hotel room out towards the chaos in the street and back to the same room as the characters catch up with each other and the story ends. It took a week to film and is a technical tour de force. A supernaturally quiet and understated ending that highlights the loneliness of death... the casual, matter-of-factness of the inevitable end.

It's a film you have to study carefully as Antonioni takes us through at his own pace, we have to experience his story at the rate he dictates. He needs our patience.

When The Girl asks her singular question sat in the back of Locke's car as they drive south through the country roads, he replies, "Turn your back to the front seat...". She swivels around, throws out her arms, flings her head back and beams as the open road recedes behind them.

It's a great moment and says so much about the film and the lives we all live. Maria is completely in the now, eyes bright and just taking in the full glory of the moment as they pass through a beautiful avenue of sunlit trees...

The Passenger is available at a very reasonable price from Amazon. Great commentary from Jack also included!

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Plus ça change... The Joyless Street (1925)

As a history student back in the day, I was constantly impressed with how little certain aspects of social and political life have changed. Focusing on the late nineteenth and early twentieth century period, it seemed like the debate on social equality, education and economic management hadn't actually moved on that much.

Now, as we stare down the barrel of another recessionary phase of this latest great depression, we appear to have regressed still closer to this period: the same debates about the "deserving poor", laissez faire economics and an ever widening gap between the classes. "We're in this together.." but we're not all taking the same degree of pain; those closer to the bread line, move that more quickly towards real suffering and depravation.

Even in the wealthiest of western economies, poverty still exists and we shouldn't take "progress" for granted or assume that it is a constant process.

So, in watching GW Pabst's The Joyless Street (Die freudlose Gasse) I am reminded again that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Based on Hugo Bettauer's immensely successful novel, the film takes what is essentially a crime story set against the backdrop of the post Great War depression in Vienna and develops its socio-political aspects. These resonate as much today as they would have done in Germany and Austria in the mid-20s. On a day when there are reports in the UK of increased demand for charitable food hand outs... we shouldn't assume that the bread line and the meat queue are far off for some of our citizens.

Willy Haas wrote the film's screen play and, having described the original book as "a miserable crime novel" said that what appealed to his director was "... the harsh social portrayal of inflation, the bankruptcy of the old-established patrician circles...the corruption, the moral decay..." The Joyless Street therefore focused on the "social" and a realistic portrayal of poverty and the consequences of mean-spirited capitalism and the greed that drove western-European economies.

To support this aim, Pabst assembled some of the best actors in Europe. Asta Nielsen was cast as Maria Lechner the daughter of a disabled father who lives in near poverty and who becomes entangled in the lives of the financiers running and ruining the economy. Then into her forties she was a stretch for this part of a young, innocent woman but her skill carries her through some memorable and powerful scenes even when the lighting and unforgiving close-ups can't.

Standing next to her in the forlorn queue for the butchers is Greta Rumfort, played, of course, by one Greta Gustafsson, fresh from Gosta Berling and not quite 20 years of age. This was the film that clinched her ticket to Hollywood and it's not hard to see why Mr Goldwyn was so impressed. She's superbly photographed by Pabst but is by now the force of nature that would captivate millions, she looks more like a star than in Gosta Berling and steels the show through her graceful emoting and haunting expression. If anything this is her proper "first album" a raw demonstration of ability that she would hone further but possibly at the expense of the energy she shows here.

Pabst apparently had to use slow motion to help counteract the impression created by the young actress's nerves and this combination served to create an impression of graceful edginess. Even if Stiller was on hand to help manage his protege, can it be a coincidence that Herr Pabst managed to enable defining performances of such power and beauty from both Garbo and Brooks?

The film features many strands and a large ensemble of skillfully-played characters. Werner Krauss is excellent as the Butcher, who rules Melchior Street by restricting the supply of meat to only those he favours: the wealthy or those women prepared to pay in kind.

The other ruler of the Street is Mrs. Greifer who is played by the extraordinary Valeska Gert, a dancer and cabaret artist who brings a great knowing energy to the screen - must see more of her! Mrs. Greifer runs a fashion boutique which acts as the front for a fairly high-class brothel. Many of the women of the street are drawn into Mrs. Greifer's, seemingly labyrinthine, premises driven by hunger and desperate poverty to subvert dignity in the service of selfish male greed.

Maria and Greta are both sucked into this world and only the good fortune of meeting a good man rescues the latter. Maria is betrayed by her own potential saviour and takes a revenge that seals her fate.

Greedy speculators set events on a roll by manipulating the stock market (nothing much changed there then...), the people of the street suffer whilst the bankers waltz around in opulent hotels and drink champagne in Greifer's salon. The common folk revolt and smash some windows whilst Maria's friend is driven to her death (and the murder of the butcher). She and her husband die in flames but manage to lower their baby to safety.

The baby will be looked after by those in the street and this is the hope at the end of the film: communal support is the way forward. That and responsible capitalism and, as always, love.

The Joyless Street was an understandably huge hit in its day and is one of the undoubted classics of Weimar cinema. I watched the restoration version from Edition Filmuseum and would recommend this. It comes with a wealth of extras including a lengthy documentary on Pabst, The Other Eye, a documentary on the painstaking restoration (the film was - literally - stuck together from five different sources!), outtakes (!!) and a 49 minute conversation with assistant director Mark Sorkin.

BFI have it in their shop and it's available direct from Germany here.