Saturday, 25 February 2017

Oh, brother where goest thou...? Quo Vadis? (1924)

“It fell to Emil Jannings… to depict Nero as a flabby, fatuous, fawning, driveling coward, eager to burst into song and gullible enough to drink in the lying praise of some of the sycophants that gazed into his fishy eyes and noted his loose mouth, his swollen nether lip and his heavy features.”
Mordaunt Hall, New York Times 16th February 1925

Henryk Sienkiewicz’s 1895 novel, Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero, contributed to his award of the Nobel Prize for literature and fired the imagination of early film makers with its potent mix of epic cruelty, romantic and religious redemption. The author sold the film rights to Enrico Guazzoni in 1912 and the resultant film was one of the proto-epics to beat nearly all others, massive in scale and emotional sweep.

Over a decade later, this Italian German co-production followed on with a cast of thousands, gigantic sets (real and constructed) and the combined star power of Lillian Hall-Davis’ emotional micro-management and Emil Jannings’ protean excess. Larger than life and twice as tiring, his Nero offers Lillian’s frail Licia the world and we cower behind her in the darkness as her faith rises up as the only defence against the monstrous ego of the man who is Empire.

Lillian Hall-Davis
It is a story older than the seven hills and one that operates on levels which resonate today and almost certainly tomorrow… Mad authority blaming ideological insurgents for domestic ills and demonising the non-conformant element as a way of shoring up their own position. 

Tacitus, a secondary source in this instance, is the only one who links the persecution of the Christians directly to the Great Fire of 64AD whilst most implicate the Emperor in the fire although this is also open to debate. As for Nero playing the lyre along to the conflagration, well, it seems fanciful to say the least… infamy, infamy… they’ve all got it in for him. Nero is a mad man for all seasons, a strong leader weakened by vanity who treats life like cheap wine, never crying over spilt blood as he tosses his people casually into the treacherous waters of his seemingly tranquil royal gardens. Eels consume the unfortunates and the fattened fish are his favourite food at banquets, as he grows fat on the product of his cruelty.

You can see the appeal for pre-Great War audiences and no less for those in the early twenties when Germany was still treating potential tyrants as amusing upstarts even after Il Duce had already been established as Italian Prime Minister. No one ever thinks it can happen again do they?

But, whatever happens in affairs of state, love conquers all and this story is about resistance of the heart as well as the soul… Thus Vittelius (Alfons Fryland) learns to both respect and love Licia after having her shipped from her adoptive parents to Nero’s court and then attempting to go straight past “Go” at Nero’s bacchanal only to be re-buffed. Christianity is a civilising force as well as an empowering one.

The1912 film may be more static – tableau style – but it has more urgency and this one feels very much held back by over cautious direction from Gabriellino D'Annunzio (who never directed another film) and his German “minder” Georg Jacoby (who did). Together they produced a film that features many fine moments that are somewhat diluted by the drawn-out narrative in between.

Emil Jannings
From the get-go Quo Vadis? is a contrast in styles between Emil and Lillian – not to mention the rest of the cast. More than the 1912 version and subsequent adaptations – not to mention the similar-in-storyline Sign of the Cross - this is very much Nero’s story and Jannings is the man for the job, setting a grotesquely high bar for Charles Laughton and all of the Nero’s to follow. It’s a fascinating study in unpleasantness and threatens to overpower all around him.

Lillian is steadfast in her blonde wig and whilst not quite looking First Century does carry the compassion and care that her emperor lacks even though Mordaunt the Picker thought her sometimes “methodical in her portrayal”. Gino Viotti makes for a venal Chilone Chilonides, betraying all sides until he finally betrays himself whilst Raimondo Van Riel is a noble Tigellinus, Nero’s general who deserves better.

The statue snogger
Elsewhere familiar characters don’t always stick in the mind as much as their forebears: Rina De Liguoro excels as the statute-snogging Eunice who falls for her master, Nero’s Mandelsonian advisor Petronius (Andrea Habay) who finally reciprocates after having her flogged… not sure what the message is there?

Elena Sangro’s Poppea is regally disappointed in her Nero who only has eyes for almost everyone else, especially Licia, after she encounters their son in the garden. But once the boy has succumbed to illness he blames Licia and all those Christians who protect her.

Nero is losing his tenuous grip on the body politic and dreams of a fire-side poetry performance – which he duly arranges through Tigellinus. Not surprisingly, the citizens of Rome are up in arms and following the suggestion of the treacherous Chilone Chilonides, the Christians have to carry the can and a special entertainment is laid on at the Coliseum.

Elga Brink and uncredited actor - anyone know his name?
Surely all are doomed… but don’t bet against Domitilla (Elga Brink) in the chariot race nor the mighty Ursus (Bruto Castellani, reprising his 1913 role) in a battle to stop a bull to which the frail heroine is precariously tied…

Some of the set pieces look stunning – the chariot race for a start, along with the mass revels and the burning of Rome. I liked the juxtaposition of the Christians praying with St Peter - “There is but one God above all of the others!” - alongside the virtual orgy in the palace - “Glory to Venus! Glory to Bacchus!” - and the tension is well built towards the climax. There are so many characters, a high level of skill is required to cover the ground smoothly and our directors fall just short even if their actors don’t.

It would, of course, help to have had a clearer view – I watched the a video of a screening on Arcoiris TV – the free Italian channel – which appears to have had access only to a so-so copy – good in some parts and terrible in others. Still, at least it does exist in good quality and, if it pleases Jupiter, will be screened properly at some point.

Bruto Castellani
Raimondo Van Riel
Alfons Fryland
Elena Sangro
Andrea Habay and Emil Jannings
Gino Viotti

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