For my history themed week, I’m focusing on a couple more films which are somewhat tangential to history, both made by a Ukrainian filmmaker. The Trial takes footage from the 1930s and uses it to make a point about the way that events are manipulated by the (state-controlled) media, whereas Victory Day is about the way that history informs the present, specifically World War II, taking a celebration of Soviet victory over Germany, but as it unfolds at a monument in Berlin itself. These are slow, self-effacing documentaries that nonetheless reveal something fairly interesting about the ways we relate to history, and the way it can be used.
Today the fearsome British costume drama industry unleashes yet another adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma upon us all. Last week my Polish themed week led up to the release of Agnieszka Holland’s latest film, but it can probably be considered as much a British film as a Polish one, especially as it deals with a British subject. It has the big old handsome period details you expect from such films, but it tells a slightly different story once it gets to the USSR, and perhaps that sets it apart from the usual run of such things, but I think there’s a lot to like.
This film sets itself against the backdrop of the “Holodomor” in the Ukraine — a famine during the 1930s largely engineered by the Soviet leadership, which killed millions of peasants — but really it’s about the way that these kinds of stories are treated by the media, about how the media is in the pocket of business and government interests. And so our crusading Welshman Gareth Jones (played by James Norton, the same actor who most recently was seen as Mr Brooke in Little Women) campaigns to bring to light this atrocity at a time when Western powers were more interested in alliances with the USSR and so not well-disposed to such revelations (and the media, as ever, reliable lapdogs to the powerful). The acting is all pretty solid (even Vanessa Kirby in a rather token role as the only apparently non-historical figure), and it’s directed capably by Agnieszka Holland albeit with some little expressionist touches. However, there’s plenty about this movie which rather too on the nose, seeming to ask us “do you see??” as it’s waving its arms to make clear what its teachable moments are. For example, and perhaps most clunkily, there’s the framing device of George Orwell writing Animal Farm, which we gather might have been a rather anodyne book about animals being mean to one another until our titular hero impresses upon Orwell exactly what the Soviets are really doing, at which point his faith in the Revolution starts to waver. Sadly, then, the film never quite lifts the way it needs to, but it’s worth watching all the same.
Director Agnieszka Holland; Writer Andrea Chalupa; Cinematographer Tomasz Naumiuk; Starring James Norton, Peter Sarsgaard, Vanessa Kirby; Length 119 minutes (originally 141 minutes).
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Friday 7 February 2020.
Looking back at war films I’ve seen in the last few years (a genre I’m not a huge acolyte of), I find most of the ones I’ve seen cover World War II, during which conflict cinema became a powerful propaganda tool (perhaps not for the first time, but certainly more widely than ever before). This 1944 film takes the war film genre and spins it as a speculative fiction, addressing in real time the war crimes of the Nazis and how they will come to pay for them (as, indeed, they did).
A rather extraordinary speculative fiction, made in 1943 (or at least that’s the production date on the film; it was released the following year) but set in a future where the allies have won the war and put Nazi war criminals on trial. It focuses on one character, Wilhelm Grimm (Alexander Knox), and charts his descent from schoolteacher in Poland to, well, Nazi war criminal. The trial is the framing device introducing figures from his life like the priest who tells of how in 1919 he was going to marry Marja (Marsha Hunt), a Polish woman who taught alongside him, except that World War I had changed him, and now he felt as if the Germans could yet conquer the world. Then his brother Karl takes the stand and narrates how Wilhelm returned to stay with him in Munich in 1923, but was attracted by the rising star of one A. Hitler, whose ideology continued to warp his mind in successive flashbacks to 1929 and 1933, at which point Wilhelm has his brother sent to a concentration camp (which he has somehow survived to be giving testimony), at which point we move to some pretty full-on wartime scenes of Nazi atrocities (not least the burning of books, the murder of all the Jews along with the town’s rabbi, who recites the kaddish as he dies, and then the forced prostitution of the women). The final speech of the judge is directly into camera and explicitly addressed to the UN, so this is essentially a propaganda film, but it’s one that’s fairly prescient about the way that things would be for a long time to come — and which sadly makes it still fairly contemporary now. Nazis are bad.
Director Andre DeToth; Writers Lester Cole, Alfred Neumann and Joseph Than; Cinematographer Lee Garmes; Starring Marsha Hunt, Alexander Knox, Henry Travers; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Scorsese), Bologna, Wednesday 27 June 2018.
One of the more overlooked biopics of recent years was about the creator of the Wonder Woman character, which was released to capitalise on the DC Comics tie-in movie, but explored very different territory. It’s a lovely evocation of an era, and of unconventional sexuality which comes under misguided public scrutiny.
I love a good love story, and this one may namecheck its Harvard professor (played by Luke Evans) in the title, the creator of the Wonder Woman character, but it’s really about the two women in his life, Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) and Olive (Bella Heathcote). As a piece of filmmaking, it’s every bit as burnished and handsomely mounted as any other period biopic (Hidden Figures say), but where it excels (like that film) is the quality of the performances, particularly that of Rebecca Hall, who is fantastic as Elizabeth, moving convincingly through a range of emotional responses over the course of her character’s life, as I did while watching her and this film. Solid, humanist stuff capturing something about the power dynamics in relationships — however unconventional this one may have been.
Director/Writer Angela Robinson; Cinematographer Bryce Fortner; Starring Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall, Bella Heathcote; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Leicester Square Studios, London, Sunday 12 November 2017.
Certainly a striking film from Seijun Suzuki, though he’s not exactly a director known for being boring. It’s set in the 1930s, as Japan teeters on the brink of militaristic nationalism, and the hero Kazoku (Hideki Takahashi) seems to be a prime candidate for making that particular journey. He’s raised Catholic and in love with a girl at his boarding house, but repressed sexuality and masculine bravado means he gets into lots of fights with his peers at school. Being Suzuki, these are all choreographed with an almost comic glee, though they do go on rather a bit as the film progresses. It feels both comically satirical about Japan’s recent past, but also imbued with the confusion of youth. It’s rather a marvel.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Seijun Suzuki 鈴木清順; Writer Kaneto Shindo 新藤兼人 (based on the novel by Takashi Suzuki 鈴木隆); Cinematographer Kenji Hagiwara 萩原憲治; Starring Hideki Takahashi 高橋英樹; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at Close-Up Film Centre, London, Saturday 21 September 2019.
As part of my musicals themed week in honour of the BFI’s big season, today is Bob Fosse day. The restoration of Sweet Charity (1969), Fosse’s first directorial effort and an undeserved box office flop, graced the London Film Festival as the harbinger for their season, and several of his other musicals are screening. His most famous work is of course 1972’s Cabaret, which I only saw for the first time last year.
Having contrived never to have seen this, a vintage 35mm Technicolor print screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato seemed as good a way as any to experience it, and it didn’t disappoint, certainly not on the level of the glorious colours and look of the film. The staccato editing, frequently used to counterpoint a song performed in the Kit Kat Club cabaret of the title, and some other event — for example, in the opening scene, the arrival of the Eddie Redmayne of the 1970s (Michael York, not the most compelling actor), the murder by the Nazis of an over-officious bouncer who had bullied a young Nazi out of the cabaret, et al. — is only one striking method the film uses to differentiate itself from the stage musical.
Needless to say, they can’t have found a better person than Liza Minnelli to play Sally Bowles, and she really does hold the whole project together, along with Joel Grey’s lissome and gender-crossing performance as the MC. The background story of the rise of the Nazis is handled with delicacy as well — it is rarely the centre of attention (except in one Aryan youth’s rendition of a song in a picturesque countryside tavern, and the subplot involving Marisa Berenson’s Jewish heiress), but small hints of the Swastika in the background provide a constant reminder of the future that awaits the city and its characters.
Director Bob Fosse; Writer Jay Allen (based on the musical by Joe Masteroff, John Kander and Fred Ebb, itself based on the play I Am a Camera by John Van Druten and the novel Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood); Cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth; Starring Liza Minnelli, Michael York, Joel Grey, Helmut Griem, Marisa Berenson; Length 124 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Arlecchino, Bologna, Saturday 30 June 2018.
My penultimate day at the London Film Festival started with a screentalk from Kasi Lemmons, director of Harriet (part of this year’s festival, though sadly a film I shan’t be seeing here, as it was a late addition), but also many other films I’ve loved over the years. Her five feature films were all covered, with clips provided, in an interview chaired by Gaylene Gould, and I’m reminded of how underrated and funny Talk to Me (2007) is, not to mention her seasonal musical drama Black Nativity (2013), though of course it’s Eve’s Bayou (1997) which received the most attention, and for good reason. Lemmons was voluble about her career, which stretches back to her early childhood as an actor, and is an inspiring figure in general, happy to speak to her many admirers after the screening. I did not ask a question, although I do wonder how the film will be received Stateside, given the recent prominent critiques of Black British actors playing iconic African-American figures. I certainly plan to see it though, and Cynthia Erivo has already shown in Widows that she’s a star in the making. Of the four films I saw, they span several countries, including two German films (one from the East in the 1960s, and the other a recent mystery thriller) both with slightly tricksy narrative structures), two black-and-white films (the East German one and a recent Saudi film directed by a woman in a magical realist style), and one documentary.
I’m spending a week looking at Arabic language cinema, from around the Arabic-speaking world, stretching from North Africa across the Middle East. One of the key early figures in modern Arab cinema is the work of Egyptian director Youssef Chahine, and indeed Egypt has always been the powerhouse cinematic country of the whole region, with a range of popular cinema rivalling that of Bollywood to the East. Chahine integrates influences from France and the Soviet Union, amongst other traditions, creating some of the greatest works of modern cinema and he has certainly been influential in Arab cinema. I’ve already reviewed one of his earlier films, the excellent melodrama Cairo Station (1958), though these 60s works feel like quite different films.
I do sort of understand what’s going on here in this strange, carnivalesque, alternately gleeful and bleak evocation of pre-war and wartime Germany in the 1930s and 40s. Its protagonist is a young child, Oskar (David Bennent), who has foreseen his future and decided he wants to remain in the body of a 3-year-old (well, an 11-year-old for the purposes of the actor anyway), using the drum of the title to beat out his own tune as he first reacts against the encroaching Nazification and then finds himself dragged in as well. There are all kinds of sprightly filmmaking touches, the hand-cranked sped-up film of the intro flashing back many decades, the absurdist plot and character details, and of course the ridiculous perversity of this teenager-in-a-child’s-body growing, learning, reading and falling in love. Yet I never can quite connect with him or care about his story: he’s a nasty character — and yes, of course he is, that entirely makes sense — and his story is one with parallels in the bleak hopelessness of the Nazi era, but his childish, imp-like quality is just incessant, and it becomes grating. I never much take to magic realism or carnivalesque absurdity, and there’s plenty of the latter on show here.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Volker Schlöndorff; Writers Schlöndorff, Jean-Claude Carrière and Franz Seitz (based on the novel by Günter Grass); Cinematographer Igor Luther; Starring David Bennent, Mario Adorf, Angela Winkler; Length 163 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Tuesday 1 January 2019.
Less of a black comedy than some of Buñuel’s other French films, this is more a portrait of the upper-classes during the 1930s as seen by the maid of the title (played well by Jeanne Moreau). There’s perversity of course and, as you’d expect from Buñuel, a feckless priest, but this film touches more on the spectre of fascism, with the casual anti-Semitism of the rural peasantry and incipient nationalist fervour always in the background. Fine widescreen monochrome lensing gives a bourgeois finish to a troubling tale.
As an aside, it was also interesting for me to watch this right after Nelly Kaplan’s La Fiancée du Pirate (1969), as that feels in retrospect like a satirical extension of the psychosexual undertow of this film, and if you get a chance to see it, do.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luis Buñuel; Writers Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière; Cinematographer Roger Fellous; Starring Jeanne Moreau, Michel Piccoli, Françoise Lugagne, Georges Géret; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 11 September 2016.