Criterion Sunday 463: Il generale della Rovere (General della Rovere, 1959)

This is a solid film, no doubt, though by 1959 I can’t help but feel this kind of moral drama about the end of World War II was already rather long in the tooth, as well as something Rossellini had himself already explored quite extensively. Still, it sees him collaborate with actor/director Vittorio De Sica, who plays the title role with a great deal of conviction, a small time criminal who is drafted in by the Germans to impersonate a resistance fighter they’ve accidentally killed, in order to extract key information about the ongoing resistance efforts against the Nazis in Italy, and who comes to take on more of the character of the man he’s impersonating. It takes a while for it to get to that point, and that first hour or so of the film where he’s plying his trade in 1944 Italy is compelling stuff, giving an evocative sense of Italy in this period and the kind of moral dubiousness that was at play. I can’t fault any of the filmmaking of course, but it feels like something oddly out of time just as various New Waves were starting to take hold around Europe.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Roberto Rossellini; Writers Sergio Amidei, Diego Fabbri and Indro Montanelli (based on the novel by Montanelli); Cinematographer Carlo Carlini; Starring Vittorio De Sica, Sandra Milo, Hannes Messemer, Anne Vernon; Length 132 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 19 September 2021.

Criterion Sunday 462: Le Dernier Métro (The Last Metro, 1980)

There are two stories here and I’m not convinced they are always in sync with one another. There’s the story of occupied France in the early-1940s, under Nazi control with people just doing what they can to make ends meet and escape the controlling boot of the occupying forces. And then there’s the theatre story, which is very much at the centre. It has all the feeling of Les Enfants du paradis but with opulent colour and set design and a bravura performance from Catherine Deneuve as a woman whose Jewish theatre director husband (Heinz Bennent) she says has escaped Paris but is actually secretly hiding out in the cellar. So you’ve got this behind-the-scenes story of a theatre troupe rehearsing for a new production, a bit of three-way love action courtesy of a handsome leading actor (Gérard Depardieu), and then you have Nazis. I suppose that puts it somewhat in the camp of Cabaret except with less, er, camp. It’s gorgeously shot and mounted, with some tense set-pieces involving the Germans, but in keeping its focus on the theatrical setting over the horrors of the era, it feels far more like a throwback to a classic era of French filmmaking, and that’s not a bad thing.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director François Truffaut; Writers Truffaut and Suzanne Schiffman; Cinematographer Néstor Almendros; Starring Catherine Deneuve, Gérard Depardieu, Jean Poiret, Heinz Bennent, Sabine Haudepin, Jean-Louis Richard; Length 131 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Wednesday 15 September 2021.

Criterion Sunday 411: Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980)

Not really sure where to start with this one, but of course it must be understood that it’s a TV series, not a movie; it’s not designed to be watched as a single unit, and indeed I watched it in five sittings over the past week and a half. That said, it feels like a full expression of director Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s vision, with the carnivalesque, the nasty and bitter, the rank misogyny of desperate men, and the endless forbearance of easily discarded women.

Its setting is late-20s Berlin, and though the rise of the Nazi Party is somewhere in the background and is rarely far from the viewer’s mind (not least because the entire enterprise is sort of a state of the diseased nation piece in allegorical miniature), it’s rarely explicitly mentioned in the film. The set design drips with brown sepia tones, mostly being set in a series of slummy apartments and a bar where recently-released criminal Franz Biberkopf (Günter Lamprecht) consorts with odious types like Gottfried John’s Reinhold and Frank Buchrieser’s Meck. For the first half he avers the criminal life, trying on a series of ‘respectable’ professions like selling shoelaces or hawking newspapers (albeit the Völkischer Beobachtung, the Nazi paper), until eventually he is ground down enough by fate to find himself pulled back into the work of the criminals he’s surrounded by — that much is hardly a surprise. He remains, however absurdly it may seem, attractive to women and a number of them (the actors all familiar from Fassbinder’s other films) move through his life, as we learn of the reason he was in prison in the first place, and the repeated insistence on his crime (the murder of an earlier girlfriend), makes it clear that he is not only no saint, but also that part of this world is a toxic misogyny that is normalised as part of the operation of society. That doesn’t exactly make it easy to watch, though, however much it may be clear this is Fassbinder’s point (and presumably of Döblin, the original author).

Visually, though, it’s quite something. Aside from the set design, there are many bravura pieces of filmmaking, long takes choreographing actors entering and exiting the frame almost balletically, or shots through cages and tracking around subterranean settings. It sweeps you up in this bitter, nasty world very easily and pulls you through what amounts to almost 15 hours of a descent into madness, made literal in the final epilogue episode, as all the incipient drama in Franz’s life become a whirling mess of hallucinatory drama soundtracked by fragments of music from across the canon (from Leonard Cohen and Kraftwerk to snatches of opera). It’s certainly an achievement of sorts, however little it feels like something I’d want to revisit in a hurry, and it’s worth the time.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Rainer Werner Fassbinder (based on the novel by Alfred Döblin); Cinematographer Xaver Schwarzenberger; Starring Günter Lamprecht, Gottfried John, Franz Buchrieser, Barbara Sukowa, Hanna Schygulla, Brigitte Mira; Length 902 minutes (in 14 episodes).

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Thursday 4 March [episodes 1-2], Friday 5 March [episodes 3-6] and Thursday 11 March [episodes 7-9], and at a friend’s home (YouTube streaming), Friday 12 March [episodes 10-12] and Sunday 14 March 2021 [episodes 13-14].

Criterion Sunday 385: L’Armée des ombres (Army of Shadows, 1969)

Melville was always a stylist and that much has been clear in the films so far featured in the Criterion Collection, titles with Alain Delon such as the remarkable Le Samouraï from a few years earlier, or Le Cercle rouge from the following year. These films, along with his 1956 classic Bob le flambeur, are crime dramas in which laconic men don hats and heavy coats, look cool and carry out their crimes like elegant statesmen. Here our protagonists are also criminals, but only in the eyes of the Nazi-controlled Vichy government they are resisting; it’s set during World War II, with solid, stocky Lino Ventura playing Philippe Gerbier, head of the Marseille resistance. From the very start there’s a sense of the danger, as he’s picked up by the police and sent for questioning (involving certain torture and death), from which predicament he escapes this time, but throughout the film that heavy sense of impending death hangs over everyone. The film is thus a series of setpieces of characters just buying a little more time from their fate as they try to organise resistance to Nazi occupation. When one of their group is picked up, Simone Signoret’s Mathilde steps in, while meanwhile Gerbier has taken a submarine to London to meet the head of the resistance, a philosopher called Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse), and coordinate strategies. At no point is there any particular glory (aside from the unseen hand of de Gaulle awarding Jardie a medal in London), just constant attempts to outwit the bad guys and put death off for one more day, all in Melville’s usual steely blue set design, noirish shadows hanging as heavy as the coats and impeccable suits his leads always wear. The cumulative effect is deeply emotional, just for knowing how impossible the situation is that they are all in, and how little they could know about what might happen after their inevitable deaths, but that we can watch knowing they didn’t ultimately die in vain.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are a series of extras dealing with the work of the Resistance, among them Le Journal de la Résistance (1945), an anonymously directed and shot wartime documentary. At just over half an hour, this is narrated by Noël Coward (at least, the English version) and shows footage shot by Parisian cameramen of the battles that led up to the liberation of Paris in August 1944. We see fragments snatched from windows and hiding places of tanks rolling up the Champs Elysées, of dead French bodies piled in a courtyard as evidence that the Germans have fled, as shots ring out and barricades are lifted by Parisians quickly becoming aware that things have taken a turn. The Allied tanks aren’t far away as the citizens take up arms to drive back the Germans ahead of the final victory. It’s all very spiriting and narrated with a sense of pomp and idealism, but you’d expect that as a document made to strengthen morale in the dying days of the war.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Pierre Melville (based on the book by Joseph Kessel); Cinematographers Pierre Lhomme and Walter Wottitz; Starring Lino Ventura, Paul Meurisse, Simone Signoret, Jean-Pierre Cassel; Length 145 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 3 January 2021.

Criterion Sunday 376: 49th Parallel (1941)

I do like a Powell and Pressburger film (here dividing their credited duties between director and screenwriter respectively), and ostensibly this is very much a wartime propaganda effort. That said, it does have its slyly subversive side, given that its protagonists are the escaped Nazis from a sunken U-boat (led by Eric Portman and Raymond Lovell) as they make their way across Canada towards the US border where they believe they will be met with freedom (thanks to America’s neutral position at this time). Not all the Nazis are bad guys, meaning there’s a bit of shading with the characterisation, but the core of the group are of course beyond salvation, hectoring the Hutterites they meet (led by Anton Walbrook) into supporting them, and burning books and stamping on modern art to make it clear where our sympathies should lie. That said, the predominance of the British accent meant it was some time before I even figured out who was supposed to playing the Germans; the alternative to that is provided by this very film also, though, and perhaps the plummy British accent for the Germans is preferable to whatever Laurence Olivier is doing with his voice as a French-Canadian trapper (claims to his acting greatness surely not based on this role).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Michael Powell; Writer Emeric Pressburger; Cinematographer Frederick Young; Starring Eric Portman, Raymond Lovell, Laurence Olivier, Anton Walbrook, Leslie Howard; Length 123 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Tuesday 1 December 2020.

Global Cinema 16: Belarus – Enemies (2007)

It’s not a huge film-producing nation, though eventually in the Criterion Sunday series we will see its greatest film, Come and See. However, I’ve selected another film covering the same period, the rather bleak experience of Belarus during World War II, called Enemies. It’s directed by a woman and available on Amazon Prime.


Belarusian flagRepublic of Belarus (Беларусь)
population 9,408,000 | capital Minsk (Мінск) (2m) | largest cities Minsk, Homyel (537k), Mahilyow (383k), Vitsyebsk (378k), Hrodna (374k) | area 207,595 km2 | religion no official statistics (Eastern Orthodox Christianity) | official language Belarusian (беларуская мова), Russian (русский язык) | major ethnicity Belarusian (84%), Russian (8%) | currency Belarusian ruble (Br) [BYN] | internet .by

Formerly known as Belorussia (or Byelorussia), this landlocked country lies between Russia, Lithuania and Latvia to the north and the Ukraine to the south, with Poland to its west. The name is related to the Russian for “White Rus”, and may have any number of derivations, perhaps due to the clothing worn, or for ethno-religious reasons. People could be found in the area dating back to around 5000 BCE, with settlement by Baltic tribes from the 3rd century CE, and later Slavic tribes. It became part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in around the 13th century. There was a certain amount of Polonisation following a union with Poland, but the Russian Empire under Catherine the Great acquired the area of Belarus, until occupation by the Germans in World War I. This latter didn’t last long and it declared itself a People’s Republic in 1918. It eventually came back under Soviet rule, before falling briefly to the Germans again in 1941, bearing the brunt of that conflict, as well as most of the fallout from Chernobyl in 1986. The country declared sovereignty in July 1990, and achieved independence on 25 August 1991. Subsequent presidential elections have brought the authoritarian Alexander Lukashenko to power, with recent protests to his rule after a disputed election that brought him a sixth term in office. The government also has a Prime Minister appointed by the lower house of the government.

Although cinema in Belarus formally stretches back to 1924, most production has been in Russian and only sporadic production. Probably the most famous film with a Belarusian connection which, like the one below, deals with its wartime experiences is Come and See (1985).


Враги Vragi (Enemies, 2007)

It feels to me as if there are no shortage of films from former Soviet republics dealing with World War II, though I can’t be too critical since it’s a pretty key part of British self-identity in the movies too. Here it’s Belarus dealing with the Nazi occupation, specifically a small village where there’s an uneasy detente between the villagers and the occupying troops, who are to be fair a rather sad sight when lined up near the start. The way that they deal with one another — some of the Germans learning a bit of Russian and hanging out with the women, the villagers spitting insults when they’re not in earshot — all comes to a head when the young son of one of the women is captured trying to sabotage them. We never see what he’s done (and only hear his voice as the narrator) — and I imagine partly that’s budgetary, but it also centres the drama on this small group of people in a little poor muddy village. There’s some nice fluid camerawork that I think sets up the drama nicely, and even if it doesn’t feel like a mould-breaking war film, it’s still got a concise focus to it.

Enemies film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Mariya Mozhar Мария Можар; Cinematographer Aleksander Smirnov Александр Смирнов; Starring Yuliya Aug Юлия Ауг, Axel Schrick, Gennadiy Garbuk Геннадий Гарбук; Length 78 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Friday 14 August 2020.

Criterion Sunday 330: Au revoir les enfants (1987)

The title is taken from the final words of the priest, Father Jean, headmaster of the Catholic boarding school to which its protagonists are sent from Paris at the height of World War II, but it could as easily be bidding goodbye to them from where they live with their parents, or indeed to their innocence of course. The film builds up its picture of these wartime kids leaving the city, and shows the mysterious appearance of a few more kids to their classes early on, one of whom, Jean Bonnet (Raphaël Fejtö), sits next to our main protagonist, Julien (Gaspard Manesse), who can be taken as something of a stand-in for the director, given this story is based on his own experiences. It soon enough becomes clear that these new kids are Jewish, and so the tension builds and remains through otherwise quotidian scenes of playing with the class, or eating food together. Characters who seem to be on their side are revealed to have secret collaborationist tendencies, and even refined upper-class spaces seethe with barely-hidden prejudice. However, it’s all handled in a way that allows us as audience to come to that realisation with Julien, without overburdening the narrative, and the acting is naturalistic. The film is shot by Renato Berta, who worked with Straub/Huillet, and brings a certain starkness to the imagery, avoiding sentimentality. This is a very fine film about a bleak period in history.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Extras which had been on a supplementary disc as part of the original box set are included on the Blu-ray reissue, most notably the Charlie Chaplin short The Immigrant (1917), which is seen being screened to the kids within the film, with musical accompaniment from Irène Jacob in her first film role. I’m hardly a connoisseur of Chaplin’s films (I’ve only seen a small handful), but you can see a certain virtuosity in the staging of this, in which Chaplin’s familiar “Tramp” character is an immigrant on a ship bound for New York. We’re introduced to him leaning over the side while the ship rolls dramatically, suggesting he’s heaving his guts out, but the first gag reveals no, he’s just catching a fish. This continues with all kinds of physical comedy — there’s a particularly nice scene in the mess hall, where food slides between the immigrants — and a sweet bit where he anonymously helps out a young woman (Edna Purviance) who’s had her money stolen by a gambler whom he’s won it off. The ending with Purviance is rather abrupt, but it caps a film with a number of solid comedy setpieces.
  • Another extra is a five-minute visual essay about one of the more troublesome characters, an outcast named Joseph, trying to locate and understand what drives him, and the difficulties that drive him to his final decisive action in the film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Louis Malle; Cinematographer Renato Berta; Starring Gaspard Manesse, Raphaël Fejtö, Francine Racette; Length 104 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 28 June 2020.

Criterion Sunday 329: Lacombe Lucien (Lacombe, Lucien, 1974)

This World War II-era film about the young Frenchman of the title (non-professional actor Pierre Blaise) working on a rural farm who throws his lot in with the local Gestapo because he just wants to get a bit of respect from the locals still feels relevant, strangely enough. I’m pretty sure that the kind of impulses this film covers are still around today, albeit not so much directed towards collaborating with Nazis (except for those who are still drawn to that). But it covers well Lucien’s lack of imagination, combined with the lure of a bit of unearned power and a general contempt for everyone around him, as he moves first from asking about joining the Resistance to instead trying out the Nazi thugs, whose first step is to fit him up with a suit — from a local, only lightly tolerated, Jewish tailor, whose daughter (Aurore Clément) Lucien falls for. The moral quandaries that Lucien stumbles blank-faced through, never apparently altering his uncomprehending sneer and doughy teenage face, pile on as he navigates the complexities of wartime life, apparently oblivious to his own idiocy. It’s not just about French collaboration, which was a controversial topic at the time of course and continues to resonate (the idea that there were plenty of people perfectly happy to help the Nazis), but really it’s about teenage misdirection and the stupid decisions one can be led to make at that age, suggesting a lot of the hate that passes for discourse in the modern world too.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • All the extras are on a supplementary disc, which I shall comment on in the post for the box set.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Louis Malle; Writers Malle and Patrick Modiano; Cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli; Starring Pierre Blaise, Aurore Clément, Holger Löwenadler; Length 138 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 26 June 2020.

A Hidden Life (2019)

A discussion that has cropped up once again in political and media circles has been around “antifa”, and every time it happens a lot of people with the same wearied tone have to explain it’s not an organisation, it’s an ethos, a motivating ideal, a praxis and a shared struggle: it is just short for “anti-fascist”. Such struggles can take an explosive, active form, and there are no shortage of World War II movies to illustrate that (though most are Hollywood stories of heroism against the odds). Terrence Malick’s most recent film instead deals with the internal contortions, of morality and faith competing with self-preservation, and the way that just these simple acts of resistance can carry their own dangers. The only thing that “antifa”, such as it is, calls us to do is to resist fascism. All that I can hope is that to continue to do so is something which does not lead to the outcome in today’s film, but as some of the world’s largest countries have taken an active turn towards demagoguery and fascism, that is starting to seem rather more perilous.


I haven’t really connected with many of Malick’s films since The Thin Red Line (and certainly not the last few), as he’s progressively loosened his narrative focus in preference for impressionistic movements. However, with A Hidden Life, he seems to have reined this extravagance in a bit (though the stylistic tics are still very much evident), not to mention choosing a setting and theme that seems more fitting to his particular style. Of course, there’s still plenty of voiceover, used more as another layer of sound than to convey any specific information, and he takes the interesting decision to have the film in English except where perhaps the words are less important — background chatter, bureaucratic invective, in which case it’s in German.

It’s an odd film, though, that bathes this story — of Franz (August Diehl), an Austrian peasant in the early-1940s, who grimly resolves (with an at times wavering, but nevertheless increasingly bitterly held, sense of moral clarity) to defy military tribunals and not speak the ‘Hitler oath’ — in a certain sort of beatific calm, which makes sense given he was after all beatified not so long ago. There’s little sense of the actual war, and perhaps in 1940-1943 (when the film is set), it hasn’t particularly reached the alpine Austrian setting of St Radegund or even the Berlin prison he’s shipped off to later. There’s one chilling scene where the village’s mayor inveighs against the dangers of immigrants and foreigners, despite clearly having none in his midst, which obviously remains current, but otherwise this is very much focused on Franz and (almost equally) his wife Franziska, grounding their story in the community and (as you might expect from a Malick film) the glory of the natural world. It’s not even quite as overtly spiritual as some of his more recent films have been, though given Franz’s Catholic faith and his later beatification, it is obviously imbued with that throughout.

I liked it, and didn’t even feel the running time once the movie started to hold me. It’s shot with some oddly distorting lenses, and the camera operators must all have been children given how close to the ground the camera seems to be most of the time, but Malick’s impressionist excesses aren’t so much on show or are perhaps less jarring when not juxtaposed against Hollywood or indie music backgrounds.

A Hidden Life film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Terrence Malick; Cinematographer Jörg Widmer; Starring August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Michael Nyqvist, Jürgen Prochnow, Matthias Schoenaerts, Bruno Ganz; Length 174 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Friday 17 January 2020.

Three Films by Taika Waititi: Boy (2010), Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) and Jojo Rabbit (2019)

As far as the international reach of New Zealand cinema goes, I would guess that Taika Waititi is probably the most successful export of this decade. He made his directing debut with the quirky Eagle vs Shark (2007), starring Jemaine Clement from the Flight of the Conchords, which I somewhat liked if not quite as much as some people did. His next film was Boy, which took its time to find international audiences (it didn’t get a release in the UK until many years later) but is generally regarded as one of his finest works, and he followed it up with the low-budget Wellington vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows (2014), which I’ve reviewed elsewhere on this site. After the success of Hunt for the Wilderpeople his following films have had a far more international flavour, without entirely losing his distinctive voice (given he does like to cast himself in his projects). The film I’ve omitted below is Thor: Ragnarok (2017), which as Marvel superhero movie, can’t quite be fit into the same category, though it retains plenty of his humour and is one of the better titles in that seemingly endless run of superhero films.

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