Posts Tagged ‘German’

The Man Who Laughs (1928) **** Bluray release

Dir Paul Leni | Silent Drama, 100′

This visually remarkable late silent film is an adaptation of a French novel (by Victor Hugo) within an English setting, directed by a German filmmaker (Paul Leni) in an American studio. By the end of the 1980s critics were complaining that cultural identity in Trans-euro pudding films was neither one thing nor the other. Yet in 1928 the ingredients were well-baked: The Man who Laughs is no flat hybrid, but a splendidly risen cake. And the icing on top is the charismatic actor Conrad Veidt.

England in the 1680s and King James II has had his political enemy Lord Clancharlie killed. His son Gwynplaine is disfigured by Dr. Hardquannone who works as a comprachico (a dealer in mutilated children intended to play fools or dwarfs at Court.) The grown-up Gwynplaine (Conrad Veidt) now has a permanent fixed grin, due to his disfigurement, and is reduced to working as a clown in a freak show carnival. He falls in love with a blind actress named Dea (Mary Philbin.) Meanwhile, a jester at the Court of Queen Anne, ‘discovers’ Gwynplaine and reveals his royal lineage and inheritance. Yet the estate is now owned by a seductive vamp, the despised Duchess Josiana (Olga V. Baklanova.). And when Gwynplaine is bought to Court, emotional and political turmoil ensues.

First, let’s get one thing out of the way. The Man Who Laughs is today seen as an influence on the Joker character in the Batman comics and movies. However, the only resemblance between Conrad Veidt and all the actors who’ve played The Joker, is the fixity of that grotesque grin. Unlike Batman’s adversary Veidt’s Gwynplaine is not malicious and wears no  pronounced makeup: in other words the two characters have nothing in common with each other. 

Conrad Veidt uses his hypnotic eyes to convey a complex personality that both attracts and repels women. Veidt was a highly intelligent and subtle actor: throughout The Man Who Laughs he evokes the anguish and joy of Gwynplane’s thoughts – his performance is an master class in how the eyes can be used to express deep emotion. Writer Daniella Sannwald cleverly puts this into words in an extract from The Oxford History of World Cinema:

‘Veidt’s face reveals much of the inner life of his characters. The play of muscles beneath the taut skin, the lips pressed together, a vein on his temple visibly protruding, nostrils flaring in concentration and self discipline. These physical aspects characterise the artists, sovereigns and strangers of the German silent film…’

Of course, no film is solely the landscape of a great actor’s face. The design and spatial excitement of Paul Leni’s film, a German silent tradition enriching American silent cinema (often as lyrical as Murnau’s Sunrise), is considerably enhanced by his spry and stylish direction. The Southwark fair scenes; the chase at the London harbour and the episodes at Court are full of exciting mobile camerawork and editing.

The Man Who Laughs is more of a tender love story than a horror film. Veidt’s scenes with Mary Philbin (the heroine of the silent The Phantom of the Opera) are genuinely touching and steer well clear of sentimentality. Their romance is unconsummated yet charged with erotic tension– how far does Gwynplaine want to go in the relationship? He is terrified that Dea might just possibly regain her sight and then see how strange he looks. 

Gwynplaine’s frustration is put to the test in a deliciously sexy scene where Duchess Josiana (perversely attracted to Gwynplaine’s grin) attempts to seduce him. Here Conrad Veidt’s placing of a face cloth over his lips is in order to resist temptation. Whereas when with Dea, he does it to hide his shame. Olga V.Baklanova really lets rip, giving a glowingly photographed scene much sexual animalism. There are even some earlier nude-back scenes of her emerging from a bath, risqué for 1928, or maybe not given what Eric Von Stroheim was up to in his 1928/29 Queen Kelly.) 

Of course the film changes Victor Hugo’s ending. Best not to divulge, and it really doesn’t matter, for it perfectly suits the fate of the two romantic leads (who we really care for.) My one complaint about The Man who Laughs is the over-use of a faithful dog with the obvious name of Homo the Wolf,  played by a dog called Zimbo: it’s a case of a canine melodramatic over-drive.

But the case for Paul Leni’s film (for me his greatest) doesn’t need to be argued, just experienced. And in this beautiful restoration from a 4k source I was enthralled by the passion of The Man Who Laughs. ALAN PRICE©2020   


Rainer Werner Fassbinder | BFI Retrospective | Classics now on Dual Format

6a00d8341ce04153ef01b8d08dfdb6970cFASSBINDER_PACKSFassbinder’s LOVE IS COLDER THAN DEATH | LIEBE IST KÄLTER ALS DER TOD made a low-key feature debut at Berlinale Film Festival in 1969, heralding the prolific career of one of Germany’s greatest auteurs of the second half of the 20th century. Critics talked about the stylish black and white aesthetics of DOP Dietrich Lohmann (who would go on and shoot ten more Fassbinder films); were puzzled by the rather simplistic but enigmatic storyline and liked the performances including the director’s turn playing his own fallen hero Franz, a pimp, who does not want to cooperate with the Mafia and falls in the love with Joanna (Hanna Schygulla), who works for him. Ulli Lommel is the killer Bruno, a sort of German version of Alain Delon in Melville’s Le Samurai, complete with sunglasses. Fassbinder commented at the Festival “I want the audience to formulate their own personal take on the film. That’s all I’m interested in. That’s much more political than forcing them to believe that the police are the worst aggressors. I am not interested in that sort of cinema, I am against the idea of people marrying and producing children without thinking or having any idea why they love each other”. His statements were as enigmatic as his film, and one Berlin critic wrote “Fassbinder does not care if he makes another film, he just wanted to make statement”. How wrong he turned out to be.

katzelmacher_1969_2KATZELMACHER was shot in only nine days during August 1969, just four months after Love is colder than Death. Based on Fassbinder’s play of the same name. Fassbinder against the central protagonist, Jorgos, a Greek ‘guest-worker,’ who falls foul of the youthful German machos, living a desperate existence in the backstreets of Munich. In much the same way as Fear Eats the Soul, (which he could go on to make in 1974), the drama uses Jorgos’ romantic encounters in the city to evidence the political undercurrent of racism, particularly amongst the sub-proletariat. Love and money dominate this male world where men have to buy their women, because of their inability to love. Katzelmacher – again shot by Lohmann in stunning black and white – is just a variation of Fassbinder’s debut, but shows the role of the immigrant worker, a theme that would dominate many of his films.

UnknownBEWARE OF A HOLY WHORE (WARNUNG VOR EINER HEILIGEN NUTTE) Fassbinder turns the camera on himself in this semi-autobiographical feature about filmmaking. Shot in 22 days in Sorrento, Italy, during September 1970, the film had his premiere at the Venice Film Festival a year later, where no “Lions” were awarded. For no obvious reasons the narrative is set in Spain where a film team is waiting for the director and the subsidy money from the Federal Government. When the director Jeff (Lou Castel) arrives, he immediately becomes the centre of total chaos. The ageing star of the production (Eddie Constantine as himself) seems lost in the much younger crowd and starts a relationship with the actress Hanna (Schygulla). Jeff explains a very tricky shot to the cinematographer, and the simple idea of the film to Constantine: “Patria o muerte” is about the government’s brutality, which is legitimised by the state. But crew and cast are still fighting arguing, drinking and Jeff is beaten up. bewareofaholywhore1But in spite of everything, the shoot finally gets underway. Michael Ballhaus’ widescreen images echo Raul Coutard’s work for Godard’s Le Mépris, and Fassbinder’s own lousy, little line producer Sasha could have been equally at home in Godard drama. For Fassbinder, BEWARE OF A HOLY WHORE was a good-bye to collective filmmaking: “The film is about the production of a film, but it is much more about how a group works, and how the leading status of the director develops and is used by crew and cast. I am not sure, if the film was a new beginning, but it was a surely an endpoint. With this film, we have buried our idea of collective work which we started [before filming] with the Anti-Theatre group in Munich. I did not know, how we would go on in future, but I knew we could not go back. This film is about what happened in Whitty (1970), when too many people relied on me, and I had to take on more and more responsibilities. During the shooting of Whity, everything collapsed: BEWARE OF A HOLY WHORE is a about what happened on the set of Whity.”

The_Merchant_of_Four_SeasonsBy 1971 Fassbinder had a prodigious oeuvre to his name and THE MERCHANT OF FOUR SEASONS (HÄNDLER DER VIER JAHRESZEITEN) was his twelfth feature film, a tragic melodrama shot in eleven days in August of that year. Set in the ’50s, like many of his later films, The Merchant is a story of a loser during West Germany Economic Miracle. Hans Epp (Hans Hirschmuller) has been a soldier in Foreign Legion, and a policeman. But now he is reduced to selling fruit and vegetables in a street market  – in a country where wealth and prosperity is an easy game. His wife Irmgard (Irm Herrmann), is financially aspirational, pushing her husband to the limits with emotional coldness. He suffers a heart attack and afterwards employs an old army friend Harry, to do the physical work. But Hans does not give up on Irmgard, he wants to be loved. The triangle becomes a trap for Hans. Fassbinder was impressed by the films of his fellow German director Douglas Sirk, and admitted that he integrated some elements of Sirk’s Hollywood melodramas into The Merchant. “In the beginning, I Ioved to create cool, detached films. Then I got interested in dramatic films, now I prefer melodrama.”

BITTER_2D_BDTHE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT (Die bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant), a psychological drama, followed in the wake of The Merchant and was shot in ten days during January 1972. Control-freak fashion designer Petra von Kant (Margit Carstensen) lives with her servant and assistant Marlene (Hermann) in a symbiotic relationship: Petra uses Marlene in every way, but Marlene takes this all on board, feeling a masochistic pride in her subservient status. When Petra falls in love with the much younger Karin (Schygulla), she soon finds out that the young woman is only after her money. When Karin’s husband returns from Australia, Karin leaves Petra and returns to her husband. Petra admits she only wanted to possess Karin, as she does Marlene. She is contrite, and offers Marlene a position of equal rights in her business, but Marlene simply packs her suitcase and leaves. Suffering and subservience is her raison d’être – She did not want equality. Fassbinder later commented “Marlene leaves Petra because there is a certain power in being subservient: being in charge herself involves a degree of risk and responsibility. Many interpreted the outcome as a liberation for Marlene, but that is not the case: those who have willingly accepted the yoke of subservience for 30 years, often find total freedom and the responsibility it entails, a poisoned challice

imagesCHINESE ROULETTE (CHINESISCHES ROULETTE) By the summer of 1976, Fassbinder was taking more time to direct. 1976 also saw the making of Satansbraten and Bolwieser and he took over a month to shoot this thriller in Beyreuth and Thurnau Castle in Bavaria. CHINESE ROULETTE is the nearest Fassbinder would get to Claude Chabrol, one of his early heroes. Ariane (Carstensen) and her husband Gerhard (Alexander Allerson) pretend to leave Munich for separate destinations for the weekend, but they soon reunite in their Bavarian castle. Ariane meets her lover Kolbe (Lommel), while Gerhard is looking forward to seeing his lover Irene (Anna Karina). Their handicapped daughter Angela also turns up with with her teacher Traunitz (Macha Meril), who is seemingly unable to speak. When Angela starts to play a kind of truth game called Chinese Roulette, the adults fear and mistrust of each other suddenly becomes palpable. For Fassbinder, it was a new beginning: “This is the first film where I don’t use the actors to tell the story. The main theme is ‘better the devil you know’: the protagonists all cling to their relationships, even though these are dysfunctional. There is a certain comfort in routine and core misery, which in itself is a kind of happiness.

Fassbinder_BRD_Trilogy_2003_CCTHE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN (DIE EHE DER MARIA BRAUN) Shot in just over a month during the winter of 1978, this tragic love story was rejected by Cannes Film Festival but premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February 1979, where it won a Silver Bear, and Hanna Schygulla Best Actress. Maria (Schygulla) has married Hermann (Klaus Lowitsch) during WWII but he fails to return after the war. Working in an American bar, Maria discovers her husband is dead and she falls in love with the much older American GI Oswald (Ivan Disney). Out of blue, her husband turns up when she is about to go to bed with Oswald, forcing her to make a difficult decision. In the interim, she has discovered personal freedom but Herrmann simply wants to control ‘the old’  Maria. Marriage is perhaps Fassbinder’s most mature film, influenced mainly by Godard, Brecht and Wedekind, it is poetic realism on an epic scale. Fassbinder’s critique of the crass materialism in West Germany after WWII is again a strong component. Schygulla had obviously matured very well since 1969, and became an international star. Fassbinder was emphatic about his latest outing: “It is a multi-layered film, much is hidden beneath the simple storyline. The audience has the chance to enjoy a love story, or something much more complex”. AS/MT



Hannah Arendt (2013) Now on DVD

Director: Margarethe von Trotta     Writers: Pam Katz and Margarethe von Trotta

Cast: Barbara Sukowa, Axel Milberg, Janet McTeer

103 mins   Germany   Drama   German/English

Hannah Arendt, the eponymous real-life subject of this well-meaning biopic, was a political theorist who studied under a series a great twentieth century philosophers, including Jaspers, Husserl and Heidegger. Born in Germany in 1906, the Jewish Arendt fled her home country amidst the rise of pre-war anti-Semitism, finally settling in America. Among the many important works Arendt would go on to produce were The Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, about the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a lieutenant colonel in the Nazi  HYPERLINK “” \o “Schutzstaffel” SS who oversaw the deportation of Jews from Germany. It is Arendt writing the latter work which forms the basis of Hannah Arendt. 

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After persuading The New Yorker to send her to Jerusalem to cover Eichmann’s trial, Arendt is overcome by Eichmann’s sheer ‘mediocrity’, and unable to reconcile this with the ‘greatness’ of his crimes – thus leading her to develop her concept of ‘the banality of evil’. Expressing the concept in her New Yorker piece, alongside some ambiguous comments about the conduct of Jewish leaders during the war, Arendt unwittingly unleashed a tidal wave of controversy. As her friend Hans Jonas says in the film, Arendt turned the trial into a philosophy lesson, using it to raise important questions about the nature of evil. In reliving the story and controversy behind Arendt’s piece, Hannah Arendt shares these preoccupations, transferring Arendt’s ideas from the page to the screen.

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The film’s key themes are neatly summarised by the darkness of the film’s opening, which shows Eichmann’s capture followed by a scene of Arendt smoking and thinking, lying alone in darkness – an apt visual metaphor for what’s to follow. And in perusing Arendt’s thoughts, the film seems to posit that her attempts to understand Eichmann were at least in part also an attempt to understand how Heidegger, her former mentor and lover, could have likewise become a member of the Nazi party.

It’s a very human motivation for a woman who was criticised for being ‘all arrogance and no feeling’, as one character says here. In attempting to try and show us Arendt’s mind at work, it could be argued that Hannah Arendt likewise fails to truly engage feelings. There are attempts: quickly sketched friendships and romantic exchanges, and yet when health troubles strike for both her husband and an old friend, neither moment carries the necessary dramatic impact. We’re constantly told how great Arendt is (students fawn over her, the editor of the New Yorker claims ‘she wrote one of the most important books of the twentieth century’) – and yet, as portrayed in the film, her humble, human side never feels truly exposed. Though we see her criticised and hounded, it feels like the film presupposes our sympathy, assuming Arendt’s likeability without the need to actually show it to us.

Thankfully, the power of the story,  and the ideas ultimately win out, the film becoming powerful, gripping and thought-provoking. But it’s a shame that the film never engages emotions quite as successfully as it does the intellect. Alex Barrett.


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