Although Robert the Bruce (whose story is rendered in Outlaw/King) and Henry V (of The King) were two historical figures whose lives never overlapped, they did live within a few generations of one another (Henry was born around 60 years after Bruce died), and both lived in what was then a divided island, though part of that was down to the actions of Bruce himself. Neither film can probably claim to be great history — they are more invested in generic tropes of heroism and resistance, while The King isn’t even based on the history but on Shakespeare’s rendering of it some century and a half later — but both illuminate some of the ways that history is used and abused, also adding to that popular idea that Mediæval times were all about grim misery, mud and gore.
Every exploitation genre has its austere or vaunted arthouse predecessor, and just as slasher horror in 1960 had Psycho, so the rape-revenge film has Ingmar Bergman here. That said, I don’t mean to impugn it by association; the bleakness and moral ambiguities are very much intended by Bergman, and you can tell what’s coming by quite how innocent and jolly the opening third is, as Karin (Brgitta Pettersson), the daughter of farmer Töre (Max von Sydow), prepares for a journey to church through — of course — a big scary forest, the very sight of which seems to push their servant (Gunnel Lindblom) into overacting/breakdown. In that sense the folktale elements loom large (and is indeed adapted from a 13th century narrative, though these are themes that recur throughout fairytales and legend), and the fate of our titular virgin is pretty clear as soon as these elements are introduced. I think what sets the film apart is the moral complexity and even dubiousness that’s cast on the revenge, and though the father purifies himself and atones for his sins, there’s a clear sense that what he’s doing has some equivalency to the crimes he’s punishing, albeit given thin justification with invocations of God (and I don’t think Bergman is presenting this as a particularly Christian victory). This film also marks his first major collaboration with Sven Nykvist, the cinematographer who could go on to make most of the rest of his films, and it is immaculately lensed, with great expressive pools of light and dark as the film progresses.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ingmar Bergman; Writer Ulla Isaksson (based on the traditional ballad “Töres döttrar i Wänge” [“Töre’s Daughters in Vänge”]); Cinematographer Sven Nykvist; Starring Max von Sydow, Birgitta Valberg, Gunnel Lindblom, Birgitta Pettersson; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 31 May 2020.
My two films for the third-to-last day of the London Film Festival were two dramas touching on murder, both made by American directors, although quite different in many other ways. After all, one is a Mediæval-set Icelandic folk tale based on a Brothers Grimm fairytale (i.e. the proper weird old-world stuff), and the other is set at a Death Row facility in the States, but in both settings the characters follow their own twisted logic to its murderous conclusions.
As a key text in the development of the horror film (not to mention the pseudo-documentary), I found this all a bit underwhelming really, even once you get past the early PowerPoint presentation section about the history of witchcraft. There’s some gorgeous stuff in it, and a sequence with a penitent elderly lady was clearly cribbed by Dreyer for his The Passion of Joan of Arc. But as a film it’s text-heavy and didactic while also never really getting particularly insightful about the underlying context for all of it (the patriarchal structures oppressing women in the mediæval era). Still, the director does have a coda linking these mediæval methods of control to his own times (“in 1921!” an aside says, as if the modern world could never countenance such superstition), and he essays a pretty camp tongue-flicking Satan.
Criterion Extras: Aside from the original version and its commentary, there’s a shorter 1968 re-edit narrated by William S. Burroughs with a jazz score. In another short piece, the director Benjamin Christensen introduces his film for a 1941 re-release, addressed to camera in a stentorian manner while wearing a white lab coat, in passing explaining the magic of silent over sound cinema. There are a few outtakes from the filming, more notes towards the finished project rather than actual scenes that have been excised. Finally, there’s a gallery of images from the film as well as the sources for Christensen’s own slideshow.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Benjamin Christensen; Cinematographer Johan Ankerstjerne; Starring Benjamin Christensen; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Wednesday 2 November 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, February 1998).
By 1938, Sergei Eisenstein was already a celebrated filmmaker (not least for his masterful 1925 silent film Battleship Potemkin), but one increasingly held at arm’s length by the Soviet authorities. His previous film, Bezhin Meadow (1937, see extras below), was suppressed, so on the grand patriotic canvas of Alexander Nevsky, he was assigned a co-director (Dmitri Vasilyev) and a co-screenwriter to keep him in check. They needn’t have worried because he turns in a very watchable epic about the resistance mounted against the invading Teutons by the reassuringly ordinary Prince Alexander of the title (Nikolai Cherkasov). Of course, given the historical context, one can’t help but draw the parallels between the noble suffering Soviet people and the threat posed by Hitler’s Nazis (and Roman Catholics, besides) invading from the West. Nevsky is introduced as an ordinary man, fishing in a lake among the people, though as soon as the Mongols ride up to address him, he’s all arms akimbo against the sky, the heroic everyman who shines as a beacon of hope and strength. Indeed, the presentation of Nevsky is consistently as heroic as one can imagine, almost to the point of self-mocking campness, and perhaps this is Eisenstein’s point. In any case, the film moves ahead with a fairly straightforward narrative, and culminates with a frenzied battle scored to Prokofiev’s music, with a little romantic subplot along the way involving Nevsky’s compatriots Vasili (Nikolai Okhlopkov) and Gavrilo (Andrei Abrikosov).
Criterion Extras: There’s a significant section on Eisenstein’s lost previous film, with a reconstruction of it from what materials remain (the first and last frames of each shot), which can’t help but be a shadowy approximation of the original but does at least prove it had some gloriously beautiful images.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Sergei Eisenstein Сергей Эйзенштейн and Dmitri Vasilyev Дмитрий Васильев; Writers Eisenstein and Pyotr Pavlenko Пётр Павле́нко; Cinematographer Eduard Tisse Эдуа́рд Тиссэ́; Starring Nikolai Cherkasov Никола́й Черка́сов, Nikolai Okhlopkov Никола́й Охло́пков, Valentina Ivashova Валентина Ивашёва [as “Vera Ivashova”]; Length 111 minutes.
Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, June 1998 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 3 April 2016).
I don’t know there’s much more to add about this most famous of Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s films, a masterpiece of the late silent cinema and one of the greatest in all of film history. It may not even be my favourite Dreyer film (he had some fantastic later works in his native land), but it seems working in France with a bold and expansively modernist set, and some fine theatre actors, was no great obstacle to his vision. Amongst these actors are Antonin Artaud as one of the more sympathetic of Joan’s accusers, though of course — whatever Dreyer’s important contributions may have been to this film and to cinema as an art — it is Renée Falconetti in the title role who remains the film’s iconic and lasting presence (she was never to act in cinema again, preferring the stage). The film takes the transcript of Joan of Arc’s trial for heresy, and dramatises it, largely in a series of close-ups on the faces of these stern, judgemental men in their austere courtroom as Joan meets their gaze and responds with patience and unwavering belief in God, undiminshed by their taunts or by the mistreatment from her English captors. It’s a film which seems scarcely to have aged.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Carl Theodor Dreyer; Writers Joseph Delteil and Dreyer; Cinematographer Rudolph Maté; Starring Renée Falconetti; Length 82 minutes.
Seen at Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Friday 27 June 2003 (and earlier on VHS at the university library, Wellington, September 1999, and on several subsequent occasions at home, most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, Sunday 15 November 2015).
Herewith some brief thoughts about films I saw in March which I didn’t review in full.
The Boys from County Clare (aka The Boys and Girl from County Clare) (2003, Ireland/UK/Germany)
Divergent (2014, USA)
London: The Modern Babylon (2012, UK)
Perceval le Gallois (1978, France/Italy/West Germany)
The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012, USA)
The Prestige (2006, UK/USA)
Ingmar Bergman, and particularly this film of his, has long been considered a sort of byword for chilly existential angst, and indeed the iconic scene of the knight (Max von Sydow) playing chess with Death (Bengt Ekerot) has been recycled more regularly than most film images over the years, often for mocking comic purposes. And certainly there’s a lot of angst and hand-wringing over the existence and nature of God and the Devil — the story is filtered through the consciousness of a man who has been away ten years on the Crusades, torn asunder from his happy home life, not unlike Odysseus. At the film’s outset he finds himself, along with his squire (Gunnar Björnstrand), dashed on the rocks of his homeland, hence the visitation from Death. Yet what I think gets lost in that reductive summation of the film’s legacy is quite how comic it is (though it’s comedy sometimes like that found in Bresson, another forbidding cinematic master of the existential — you’re never quite sure if it was really intended or how deeply it runs, and that can make for a confusing viewing experience). It’s a much fresher and more watchable film than you might expect, coming to it only from its reputation, and the ways that it deals with crises of faith never overwhelms the human drama, as the story of the knight and his squire intersects with a band of travelling players. Along the way there are comic characters (the carpenter Plog, for example, whose story involves a bit of knockabout farce) and an understated sense of life in the mediæval era, which points up both the social and religious miasma without undue condescension.
Criterion Extras: There’s so much packed onto this disc that I haven’t yet watched it all (will update this post when I do), but the commentary is by film scholar Peter Cowie, who certainly knows his Bergman. He narrates a half-hour featurette charting Bergman’s entire career, and though he gets a bit carried away at times (stating that Bergman had a “unique understanding of the psyche of women” is surely a bit of a stretch on several levels), it’s still a good introduction to the man’s work. Cowie also interviewed the star Max von Sydow, presented here as a 20-minute audio interview. There’s a short filmed introduction by Bergman himself (made in 2003 for Swedish television), who is, to say the least, rather cranky, and his interviewer Marie Nyeröd made a longer portrait called Bergman Island (2006), also included here (though it has its own spine number, so a review will show up in due time). Finally, there’s an audio tribute by Woody Allen presented alongside clips of Bergman’s key films.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman (based on his play Trämålning); Cinematographer Gunnar Fischer; Starring Max von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand, Bengt Ekerot; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, February 1998 (and at a friend’s home on DVD, London, Sunday 7 December 2014).
This last film by Russian director Aleksei German (or Guerman, or Gherman), best known for his 1984 film Moi drug Ivan Lapshin (My Friend Ivan Lapshin), was completed and released posthumously by his wife (and co-screenwriter) Svetlana Karmalita. German is a director with few credits over his long career, and this film too was made over a long period, starting as far back as 2000. It’s an adaptation of a science-fiction novel and indeed shares some elements with it, but the overwhelming sense of period setting is rather more mediæval — the film is set in an alternate universe which is stuck in something more akin to our own so-called ‘Dark Ages’. The stark monochromatic visual world of the film is dominated by mud. There’s mud, blood, faecal matter, sweat and piss everywhere, permeating every shot, utterly inescapable. So dense are these textures that it is in fact very difficult to even follow what the supposed plot is, such that reading the plot summary on Wikipedia made me realise I’d taken almost none of this in. This should probably be a damning excoriation, then, except that the film is such an effective evocation of a thoroughgoing worldview, one of fleshy corporeality in all its excesses. The shots are often carefully choreographed, in what seems like a parade of squalor, as a series of mud-caked faces pass by the camera, often in close-up and frequently breaking the fourth wall, like the camera is moving across a vast Bosch-like canvas, revealing yet further depredations of humanity in extremis. This does mean that what plot there is can be rather hard to decipher, save that the central character is one Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik), a nobleman who even amongst all the filth often manages to keep his white silk shirt spotless, who witnesses and comments on all the squalor he sees, as he searches for a mysterious character called Budakh. Beyond that, I really couldn’t say much, save that it is at its heart a spectacular visual work.
Director Aleksei German Алексе́й Ге́рман; Writers German and Svetlana Karmalita Светлана Кармалита (based on the novel by Arkady Strugatsky Арка́дий Ната́нович and Boris Strugatsky Бори́с Ната́нович); Cinematographers Vladimir Ilin Влади́мир Ильи́н and Yuriy Klimenko Ю́рий Климе́нко; Starring Leonid Yarmolnik Леони́д Ярмо́льник; Length 170 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Thursday 9 October 2014.