Thursday, 30 May 2019

Humanising history... Madame Dubarry (1919), with John Sweeney, BFI Weimar Cinema

“I am an actor, and if I don’t play this part, I’m through with films! If I can’t play parts that I don’t look like, then I shouldn’t even be on the stage – I chose the wrong profession!”

Thus argued noted stage actor Emil Jannings on being told that he didn’t look regal enough to play King Louis XV in Ernst Lubitsch’s new film; four years later he would play the dilapidated doorman in The Last Laugh and he was, of course, eminently capable of playing the King. Lubitsch was so convinced he expanded the role and offered Jannings more work.

Made just a year after the Great War ended, Madame Dubarry was a lavish costume drama that was the most expensive film yet made in Germany. It led to director Ernst Lubitsch being labelled as the German Griffith and there are certainly parts of the film that show a debt. It's also possible that Orphans of the Storm – made three years later - was in part a response from the master to the younger man's smooth story-telling, controlled crowd scenes and subject matter. Lubitsch was more interested than DWG in “humanised” history, rather than simply finding identifiable emblems of “good or bad”… He concentrated on the impact on these events of a woman who barely comprehended her role in change, let alone the reaction she eventually faced.

Emil Jannings being "typically protean..."
There’s also not too much in common between Lillian Gish and Pola Negri... with the latter evincing an earthy humanity that convinces you that this humble seamstress could indeed earn the affection of aristocrats and Kings. In the US, the film was sold as her star vehicle, with little mention of its German origins: Polish star, “French story”.

Pola plays Jeanne Vaubernier a wild and carefree soul almost unconscious of her effect on men but with a pragmatic ambition driven by opportunism more than any political programme. She has a lover, Armand De Foix (an earnest Harry Liedtke) but sets her sights on any man of social standing who can offer her more. Thus, does she make her way in society first through the influential Don Diego then Le Comte Jean Dubarry and finally on to King Louis XV and the protean Emil. Jannings is measurably larger than life and seems to nailed the art of film acting very quickly, filling the screen with just the right amount of beaming charm along with the self-confident casual power that inhabits all the best monarchs.

A Lubitsch touch... the curtain reveals the opportunities now opening...
The pace of the story is so fast you wonder how things are going to develop beyond this point but life and French politics begin to overtake Jeanne. She gets the king to prevent Armand's execution and he becomes a member of the royal guard. At the same time she comes into range of the scheming Minister Choiseul (another great turn from Reinhold Schünzel) who hopes to advance his sister's position with the king. Meanwhile, France is a tinderbox of festering resentment at unfair taxes, food shortages and negligent aristocracy.

Jeanne and Armand meet and he is astonished to learn that she is the hated Dubarry; symbol of royal indifference and whimsy. "It is easy to forgive, " he says, "...but not to forget." Nevertheless, he gives her one last chance as he joins a band of proto-revolutionaries led by his friend Paillet. The situation is stirred up by both sides and Jeanne blows her chance by ordering Paillet's arrest. She is running out of friends and increasingly dependent on the King's favour. But, as his health begins to fade, the revolution looks ever more certain.

The action explodes in the last half an hour of the film and, having been focused on the individuals, the view is dramatically widened to show the revolt in the streets and the desperate battle of the citizenship against the army. As aristos hang from the lampposts, Jeanne is betrayed and sentenced to death: no one gets out of here alive.

Lubitsch shows much subtlety in focusing on character in telling this epic tale. There's a superb moment when Jeanne first arrives at Don Diego's house, her first taste of upper class living, as the curtain behind her pulls away to reveal the opulence of his cabinet. This shows the gap between the lives of the ordinary people and the nobles most effectively; why shouldn't Jeanne want to be part of this?

The director used over 2000 extras, and according to Herman G Weinberg in The Lubitsch Touch: a critical study (1977), he succeeds by making them act like individuals rather than a mindless mob… each one desperate for food, justice and crude revenge!

Motivated mob...
Madame Dubarry feels less melodramatic than an American film of the same period might have been and it’s more conflicted: you can feel sympathy for Jeanne without necessarily condoning her actions - she's not a pure white heroine by any means but she's true to herself even though she can't resist temptation. Try that one on for size Lil… there’s a worldly complexity in Negri’s approach that seems to come naturally and there’s an humour and charm working to humanise her selfishness.

Pola simply brings great energy to the role and, whilst there's the odd moment when she over-reaches, she's mostly naturalistic with a smile of pure unfettered joy. It's her innocent surprise at the benefits her looks bring that ultimately makes her likable. In the end you want her to be given one more chance even if the revolution demands that she must be punished.

One of Lubitsch’s best early dramas and told with a deftness that clearly got him noticed in Hollywood. As for Emil… he might had been a King but even he didn’t quite match the naturalistic brilliance and pure appeal of his Dubarry! His time would come later.

Harry and Pola in a tight spot
John Sweeney accompanied with regal assurance followed by revolutionary dynamism, pacing himself perfectly along the narrative as the film gets bigger and bigger to that devastating conclusion: Lillian is, of course, saved at the last from Madame Guillotine but there’s no mercy shown for Pola is bundled, unceremoniously to her death. Germany in 1920; if not an optimistic country then certainly a fatalistic one with, they hoped, no time for tyrants of any kind.

Madame Dubarry is an essential part of any Weimar “watch list”, and this is another reason to maintain calendar discipline and make sure you don’t miss a thing in the BFI’s Weimar Season – full details on the website.

Monday, 27 May 2019

Wind and wuthering… Chronicles of the Grey House (1925), with Cyrus Gabrysch, BFI Weimar Cinema

If you’re looking for the Lil Dagover/Kate Bush connection, step right this way. This film was atypical for the Weimar period in being filmed on location and we’re rewarded with magnificent shots of harsh Prussian heathland that kept on reminding me of the Yorkshire moors north of Haworth. To cap it all we also have a ghostly Lil returning to help her Heathcliff, in this case Lord Hinrich, wearing a long flowing dress and waving her arms expressively… although you couldn’t be sure, she may have been singing, “it’s me, your Bärbe, I’ve come home…”

Others have looked further north for comparisons, with Lotte Eisner seeing the film as “full of the poetry of the Swedish open-air…” and British critic, Tony Rayns describing the influenced of Stiller and, presumably Sjostrom, differentiating director Arthur von Gerlach’s style from Lang’s “architectural” cinema or Wegener’s “theatrical”.

Wild and windy moors...
That said, The Chronicles of the Grey House may well be the most melodramatic of the films I’ve seen in the BFI’s Weimar season but it is also one of the best-looking; there’s plenty of the big sky over Luneberger Heath. Von Gerlach directs the extreme emotions so well within the context of his shots, with interior action interwoven with complex lighting and design whilst cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner’s exterior shots use dynamic angles to emphasise the character’s setting and mood.

Based on Theodor Storm’s novel A Chapter in the History of Grieshuus, Thea von Harbou crafted a screenplay that pulls no punches in terms of the dramatic effects of fate and fortune on its characters. It’s the kind of film where a legal notice can trigger imminent death or even a chance remark about your inheritance and yet where even a knife to the chest won’t kill a man with right on his side, not immediately at any rate!

Dramatic framing in the old grey house
Set in a seventeenth century feudal community, the story revolves around the battle to inherit the land and fortune of Burgherr von Grieshuus (Arthur Kraußneck). His favoured son, Hinrich (Paul Hartmann), is handsome, good-hearted, brave and has great hair whilst his brother, Detlev (Rudolf Forster) is, as his father says, a “pen pusher”, sneaky and clearly a stranger to conditioner; his locks are lank and greasy.

Hinrich loves a peasant girl, Bärbe (Lil Dagover) who lives in a humble cottage, working hard on her crops; this woman’s work is never done. A group of ruffians attack her small-holding and Hinrich, after what feels like an eternity stuck in the dreaming, rides to the rescue with his hounds of love – the family crest is a hunting dog and these are like very large dalmatians – routing the rag-taggle band with Fairbanksian good humour.

He takes Bärbe back to the Hall where she can live under his protection but he wants more even though, as a serf, she is completely inappropriate and his father just cannot allow it. The young lord refuses to put his foot on the heart-brake and the baron rips up his will in front of him – there’s a thin line between love and anger after all.

Lil Dagover and Paul Hartmann
Brother Detlev arrives with his grabby new wife, Gesine (a malevolent Gertrude Welcker) and tries to get his father’s assurance about his inheritance. Von Grieshuus is having none of it and assures his worthless offspring that he’ll have to wait a very long time to cash in on his wealth… whereupon, he promptly has a heart attack and collapses. Just don’t count your chickens eh?

The Baron dead intestate, there begins an increasingly desperate squabble between Detlev and Hinrich over which of them should inherit.  Lacking moral or physical courage, Detlev tries to use the law to outwit his brother and after Hinrich and Bärbe marry, he tries to get her to declare the marriage void as her low-birth would render him a serf, just like her (although, presumably this would be a good thing for the sneaky weasel?). Bärbe is heavily pregnant and falls seriously ill when confronted by Detlev’s dodgy document.

Lank-haired Rudolf Forster and Gertrude Welcker
Hinrich is enraged and is next seen running up that hill to confront his scheming sibling, with tragic consequences all round… But, as with Emily Bronte’s book, there’s redemption to come after life as this is not the last we see of Bärbe.

It’s a very highly-strung story that shifts into a higher dramatic gear after the early fun and ends up with an operatic, Germanic romantic ending.

There are some great set pieces, notably a confrontation between the newly-weds and the usurpers in the local church; the Lord and Lady of the manor are placed on a raised balcony with grand staircase, in an unlikely representation of their position – much higher even than the priest at his pew, the locals looking up at their betters in a building that looks like it has grown up out of the soil… Art and set designer Robert Herlth had worked on The Last Laugh the year before and art director Hans Poelzig had done the same for Der Golem.

Lil Dagover is a class act throughout, her eyes just huge with emotion and so very bright: enough to give the film crew reflected “Klieg eyes”. She’s also a very impressive physical actor as you’d expect from someone who has been flung over Conrad Veidt’s shoulder so often (Caligari’s proto hammer horror); no one faints quite like Lil and no one drapes themselves unconsciously out of a bed so convincingly! She brings the heart to this tale and, as the peasant girl stuck in the middle of two rich boys quarrelling over money, she has our sympathy.

At the end she saves the man with the child in his eyes, with her eyes… but that’s enough Kate Bush isn’t it?

Art direction from Der Golem and Der letzte Mann alumni
Cyrus Gabrysch accompanied having not seen the film before but was right on mood as soon as the gothic credits started to run. Cyrus’ playing matched the rhythms of the narrative with powerful romantic flourishes and a game of narrative tag with the film unfolding just over the lid of his piano: it’s pass and move in soccer terms, always giving the strikers on screen the chance to score.

Plenty of moments of pleasure so far in the BFI’s Weimar Cinema season with a lot more to come – details on their website!

Sunday, 26 May 2019

Organised crimes… Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922), BFI Weimar Cinema Season

“Expressionism! – it’s a game of make believe! But why not? Everything today is make-believe…”

270 minutes of Fritz Lang on a warm Saturday afternoon is probably the hardcore choice but, it must be done. My first time seeing this film and my hot take is that it’s starts like thunder, sags a little and storms back for the second part and an extended finale which wouldn’t be out of place in the gangster movies of the next decade. OK, maybe I sagged a little and not the film but it’s a lot to take in and the pacing wasn’t meant for single sittings.

After the first super-hero (of sorts) with Der Golem, now it was the turn of the first super-villain and Rudolf Klein-Rogge is mesmeric as Dr. Mabuse who can hypnotise at distance, project a hallucination into the minds of a theatre-full of people and disguise himself with all the alacrity of Eille Norwood’s Sherlock Holmes.  Given the bad Doctor’s ability with mass deception, it’s easy to see why this character was so tempting for those like Siegfried Kracauer, to see him as a foretaste of what was to come; but whilst this may or may not have been a particular feature of Germanic political culture, it is not a unique one.

Who shall I be today?
Mabuse is a one-man army, not just in terms of his protean qualities but also his ability to shape people and events. Klein-Rogge makes you believe in this indomitability with a fierce performance that burns through his exaggerated make up: he is genuinely scary and quite clearly capable of anything…

He had been married to Thea von Harbou but by now she was Lang’s partner and wrote the screenplay for the director’s first major success, based on Norbert Jacques’ popular novel and with the intention of creating a “portrait of the time”. Accordingly, we see Mabuse as master of a whole range of mischief from forgery, stock market manipulation – a disaster capitalist no less – murder, extortion, kidnapping, drug-dealing … you name it. All of this would have been very familiar to audiences suffering from post-war economic misery and a society bitterly divided by the “stab in the back” of 1918 and the failure of the old order.

Panic in the stock market
The opening act is audacious, as Mabuse’s gang rob an envoy taking key industrial documents to Switzerland and the threat of these being revealed causes a Bear Market in which the Doctor buys up stock. They deliver the document as intended though and the market starts to rise, allowing Mabuse to make a killing by selling. After this you wonder why he needs the money from all the other criminal activities but maybe he’s after more than just the money?

Like every supervillain, Mabuse has a colourful group of henchmen; sweaty Spoerri (Robert Forster-Larrinaga) who needs cocaine to function so nervous does his master make him, counterfeiter Hawasch (Charles Puffy), generic loose-cannon muscle Pesch (Georg John) and Fine (Grete Berger) who acts as a lookout and house cleaner. There’s also a dancer at the Folies Bergère – isn’t there always? - Cara Carozza (Aud Egede-Nissen) whose loyalty extends to love even though the object of her desire is clearly disinterested.

For his next trick, Mabuse he hypnotises a young industrialist Edgar Hull (Paul Richter) and makes him lose at cards for his own profit. This attracts the attention of state prosecutor Norbert von Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke – who has a look of Michael Shannon for me at least...) who has already spotted a pattern of similar incidents.

He's been to Hull and back...
To von Wenk and the authorities in general, there is just enough evidence to suggest a "Great Unknown", and Mabuse’s disguises mean that he is only seen as a psychoanalyst; cutting edge medicine at the time and a magical mix with the practice of gambling – luck and secret knowledge of the subconscious all gathered in one unsettling package with wild eyes and way too much mascara. It’s bordering on the science fiction Lang would follow up with and says a lot for the state of Weimar society in terms of people, how they appear and how they really are. The man of many faces hides his truth and there would, of course, be a lot more of this to come.

Von Wenk persuades Hull to show him the city’s underground to track down his unknown adversary and there are glimpses of nightclubs one of which features and uncredited performance from Anita Berber dancing in a tuxedo. Mabuse has already arranged for Cara to instigate a relationship with Hull and so the cat and the mouse are confused. There is an epic showdown at one card-club in which von Wenk, in heavy disguise, manages to resist Mabuse’s mind control… but, naturally the Doctor escapes.

Gertrude Welcker giving it plenty of "weary blood".
Von Wenk meets a bored countess, Dusy Told (Gertrude Welcker) married to a boring Count, Graf Told (played with foppish glee by Alfred Abel who looks like the Kemp brother’s Uncle – too old for Spandau, but he liked the style…). There are lots of juicy quotes from the Countess about ennui, she can’t even be bothered to join in the gambling and is looking for adventure: von Wenk can offer her that and, rather unprofessionally, falls in love with her…

“We have weary blood, Mr von Wenk! We need sensations of an altogether peculiar kind, to be able to endure life!”

Now all of the pieces are in pace for the grandest of chases and, with less than half the narrative covered, there’s no way I’m tellin’ you anything copper, it’s more than me life’s worth and the Doctor… he has ways of making sure secrets are kept!

It’s well-crafted but long – which is fine! – and there’s a compelling narrative with so many knowing contemporary touches… in 1922 audiences were in need of entertainment, "weary blood" infected so many. As with every true criminal genius, this wasn’t to be the last of Dr Mabuse, who returned with Lang in 1934 and 1960 (the director's last film).

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

The first Avenger… The Golem (1920), BFI with Cyrus Gabrysch

Alan Moore, perhaps the greatest comic writer since Stan Lee, once described superheroes as revenge fantasies for the impotent… among other things. Moore knows the score and has written Superman, Batman and many other mainstream men in capes. One of his major works is Miracleman – a radical reimagining of the British version of Captain Marvel (or Shazam! as he is now known) in which the powerful man without peer declares peace on a warring World which enters a “golden age”.

The quasi-religious elements in Moore’s superhero writing stems form the source, Seigel and Shuster’s Superman was the product of two Jewish emigres looking for a break and calling on their heritage in the creation of an Übermensch who was all powerful and able to right the wrongs they could see ruining the World.

The legend of The Golem goes back a long way in Jewish history: a mystically evoked super-human who is immune to the weapons of mere mortals and who will protect the weak against oppression and serve the cause of the just. Only those who play by the rules can benefit from this hulk though and the very powers which give him birth may end up being turned against his creators… That’s pretty much the plot of Batman vs Superman right there not to mention Captain America Civil War.

Destiny amongst the stars...
There’s a connection or two with The Student of Prague … Paul Wegener co-wrote with Henrik Galeen who was later to direct the 1926 version and, it was during the filming of the 1913 original that Wegener studied the legend of Rabbi Loew who was reputed to have constructed a golem to protect the Jews from oppression in sixteenth century. Leow’s body is still buried in the cemetery in which they filmed part of Student.

Wegener became so fascinated with the story that this 1920 film, full title, The Golem - How He Came to the World, was his third film on the subject after the 1915 dry-run and the 1917 comedy, The Golem and the Dancing Girl. This, surely his most fully realised effort, was directed by himself and Carl Boese, featured delicious cinematography from Karl Freund and a cast of thousands led by himself as a platform-shoed protector, worked to life from clay (just like Wonder Woman…).

The sets were designed by Hans Poelzig and were described by Wegener as "a poem of a city", sixteenth century Germany as it might have looked in a split reality with later fairy tales, lovely organics lines and not a straight line in sight: a city which has grown around its citizens as comfort and protection: the whole set reflects the feelings of those huddled behind the city walls.

"a poem of a city"
Wegener always denied any deliberate attempt to make an “expressionist” film but… The Golem certainly has many of the hallmarks in terms of this design as well as the settings and camerawork. None of the classification matters though as this is one of the best of early Weimar films and with a satisfying story arc which the “impotent” could easily relate to.

It begins with a mix of magic and magnification as Rabbi Loew (Albert Steinrück) scans the stars for portends. He’s a science-priest who mixes the arcane with astronomy to look after his people and to track their destiny. He sees catastrophe ahead and is busy making plans, moulding a golem from clay who will, with the right incantations and calls to the necessary demons, become a living super being able to defend the Jews from all threats.

He has an apprentice, the slightly fey Famulus (Ernst Deutsch) who has eyes for his daughter Miriam (Lyda Salmonova who, fact fans, was married to Mr Wegener on two separate occasions) and he might get lucky as she seems game. But events are about to take the turn Loew feared as Emperor Luhois (Otto Gebühr) issue an edict to banish the Jews (usual reasons!?) and tasks the flamboyant Knight Florian (Lothar Müthel) to deliver the message. The ultimatum is delivered to the Jewish leader, Rabbi Jehuda (Hans Stürm) who immediately confers with Loew: what can they do? Meanwhile the mischievous Miriam has caught the eye of the young Florian and he has seen her too... things are going to get breathlessly complicated with these two you can tell.

Loew asks for an audience with the Emperor and he heads off to complete his moulding of his Golem, plastering clay over an unformed face as hard as he can. Then comes the moment when he must bring his creation to life… He draws a smoking circle around himself and summons up the demon Astaroth who utters the word he must use to complete the magic by writing it on a slip of parchment and enclosing it in a star which, when attached to the Golem’s chest will animate the clay. But if removed, the life will drain away and the Golem reduced back to mere clay… every superhero needs his kryptonite.

Wegener is suitably imposing as the hunk of clay and yet there’s a child-like surprise at this new life he’s woken up to. He’s a towering but almost timid presence and when he is presented to the Emperor and his chamber all are swiftly convinced of his good nature. But things go awry as the Rabbi magically projects images of the exodus and the Wandering Jew on the walls of the throne room and when the court get the giggles the figures start to move towards them and the ceiling starts to crumble…

Loew gets Golem to hold up the roof, thereby saving the royal family and earning his people a pardon. Mission accomplished… but not quite as Florian and Miriam had used this occasion to meet in secret and the camera cuts back to what looks suspiciously like post-coital bliss in Miriam’s room… will there be a price to pay? ‘Course there will!

Florian and Miriam after, you know...
Loew has discovered that a change in the alignment of the stars will bring about an unpleasant shift in the creature’s personality and that he will start to do the bidding of the evil Astaroth. Loew just about grabs the star in time to de-activate the Golem… and, that would be that, were it not for the imperfections of the human heart as Famulus re-animates the Golem and orders him to remove Florian. All heck breaks lose.

Cyrus Gabrysch accompanied with super powered piano and ran some impressive lines as the city began to burn and the tension rose and fell. Cyrus is probably one of those who has accompanied this film more times than he can count and yet his improvisations were fresh and let the drama breath.

Wednesday night watching Weimar film… we should do this every week!

The BFI Weimar Cinema series continues through May and June, further details are on their website.