Criterion Sunday 109: The Scarlet Empress (1934)

After some genre-defining silent films (which we’ll get to much later on in the Criterion Collection), Austro-Hungarian émigré director Josef von Sternberg did a run of films with Marlene Dietrich — the first in Germany (The Blue Angel, 1930) but the rest in the United States. In some ways these defined something else in cinema, every bit as important as a narrative structure, which is a sense of the fetishisation of the actor as icon. Obviously there had been stars before Dietrich, but the quality that Sternberg gets across in his run of films with her is something else, something more profound, something almost magical. His penultimate film with her was The Scarlet Empress, and alongside the shimmering beauty of Dietrich — the burnished close-ups, the flamboyant dress — this must rank as some kind of masterpiece of set design. Every image is crammed with baroque detail, every shot framed by grotesque sculptures presiding creepily over the action. This latter largely revolves around Dietrich on her road to becoming the Empress Catherine II, “Catherine the Great”, married into Russian nobility (the mad Peter, played with wide-eyed intensity by Sam Jaffe) and learning the ways of the court and methods of extending her power. The camerawork and lighting is bravura, but it’s those stylish set touches that only heighten the film’s giddy campness and emphasise how much Sternberg has given to the cinema in the 20th century. Stars would never again shine quite as brightly.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Josef von Sternberg | Writer Manuel Komroff (based on a diary by Catherine II) | Cinematographer Bert Glennon | Starring Marlene Dietrich, John Lodge, Louise Dresser, Sam Jaffe | Length 104 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 31 July 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, April 2001)

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Criterion Sunday 88: Ivan Grozniy (Ivan the Terrible, 1944/1958)

Eisenstein’s final film (he’d planned a third part but died after starting to film it) follows the now very much de rigueur pattern of splitting its story into two separate films, though one would assume given its Soviet origins this wasn’t done for commercial reasons. Indeed, the second part was shelved for 12 years following its completion because apparently Stalin was disconcerted with the portrayal of his great hero Ivan. Knowing this obviously lends some compelling subtext to Nikolai Cherkasov’s portrayal of the increasingly paranoid and despotic ruler, though the first film has him posing far more innocently, adopting all those heroic poses he’d already mastered in Alexander Nevsky (1938). There’s a huge amount of beauty to Eisenstein’s framing, all glowering black-and-white close-ups of the principal characters — a huge amount of the drama is conveyed not through dialogue but by the movement of the actors’ eyes, and the frenetic mien of their expressionistic faces. In many ways, it’s like a modern soap opera, as bitter rivals grimace at one another, or go for hugs while revealing their true feelings to the camera over the other character’s shoulder. Much of the film takes place indoors, in cavernous chambers and long hallways, which means the lighting design and use of shadows is at times spectacular. The second part gets progressively darker, until, in a moment of surprise, there’s almost a dance sequence in (slightly reddishly-degraded) colour, before things lapse back to the previous stark monochrome. With a lot of the thematic development done via acting and staging, it’s the kind of film which would surely repay repeat viewings, but the central thrust of its thesis is nevertheless as evident to us as it must have been to Stalin.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Sergei Eisenstein | Cinematographer Andrei Moskvin and Eduard Tisse | Starring Nikolai Cherkasov | Length 187 minutes (split into two parts of 99 and 88 minutes respectively) || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Monday 2 May 2016

Criterion Sunday 34: Andrei Rublev (aka The Passion According to Andrei, 1966)

Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky is certainly no stranger to grand portentous overlong films that seem to hold within their allegorical narratives some statement about society and the world, and in many ways this 1966 film (not released until 1969 due to problems with the Soviet censors) is the first of those to break through to an international audience. It did so in a series of increasingly shorter cuts of around 2.5 to 3 hours in length, but the full 205 minutes is restored here by Criterion and, assuming you’re already in for meandering stories about wandering monks in 14th century Russia, then it won’t disappoint. Although Rublev was a famous painter of icons in Russian Orthodox churches, there’s relatively little of that actually in the film (possibly the creation of art isn’t quite as compelling). However, it enacts a narrative of divine inspiration challenged by atheist philistines, and one can already sense why perhaps the atheist Communist Party of 1960s USSR might not have taken too kindly to Tarkovsky’s themes. The film is split into eight chapters, set in chronological order and dealing (if sometimes tangentially) with episodes from Rublev’s life — encountering a sarcastic jester, discussing art with his mentor Theophanes, enacting Christ’s passion, dealings with pagans and Tatars, et al. It’s probably best to think of these as each illustrating some allegorical lesson about Russia, but they are also quite often handsomely mounted and beautifully shot in sinuous long takes. The final section is perhaps the most impressive, wherein a young boy, the son of a bellfounder, is called on to forge an enormous bell for the Grand Prince, and does so by submitting blindly to faith, while Rublev watches from a distance in silence, having at this point given up on his art. Its message of the importance of artistic creation even under oppressive regimes is a valorous one, and though it may take some time to sink in, the film is a grand achievement.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Andrei Tarkovsky | Writer Andrei Konchalovsky and Andrei Tarkovsky | Cinematographer Vadim Yusov | Starring Anatoly Solonitsyn | Length 205 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 3 May 2015 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, September 1997, and at the university library in September 2000)

Leviathan (2014)

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 20 November 2014 || My Rating 4 stars excellent


© Sony Pictures Classics

Back when I was first learning about the cinema of Russia and the Soviet Union, watching those early great films by pioneers like Eisenstein and Kuleshov at university, there was a term that came up occasionally known as the “Russian ending”, generally contrasted to the “Hollywood ending”. Well, this new film, which has won a fair few prizes at various film festivals (including London last month), is Russian. It could, of course, be set in any society where bureaucratic corruption festers, but it mines quite a rich seam of humour at the expense of its vodka-drinking local functionaries, while hardly covering modern Russian society in any particular glory. The humour is bleak, though, and the grand movement of the film is to slowly reveal the extent of the societal cogs (government, bureaucracy, religious orthodoxy) which are turning to crush its hero Kolya (Aleksei Serebryakov), who has a younger wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) and a son from an earlier marriage, and who is being helped by a handsome Moscow lawyer (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) to pursue a case against the local mayor involving his isolated family home. I’d stop short of calling it bleak, though it certainly isn’t bereft of such detail: the title recalls the foundational work of Western political governance by Thomas Hobbes, even as one suspects the film isn’t quite as enamoured of the role of government in lifting humanity from its “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” natural state. There’s also the remains of a literal leviathan in the film, which looms along this windswept coastline like the grand metaphor it is, tantalisingly introduced after a primal transgression pushes Kolya’s son to his limits. But the film finds more ground with its Biblical antecedents, such as the Book of Job, quoted at a drunken, enraged Kolya by a local priest. For all this, I’ve never viewed the so-called “Russian ending” as a necessarily bleak one. In a sense it brings things to the kind of conclusion grounded in comedy — in other words, one that finally levels its protagonists, like the punchline at the end of Barry Lyndon: “It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now.” It’s just that while the film is running, some characters are more equal than others, and you can be sad, or angry, or just laugh. This film lets you do all those things.


CREDITS || Director Andrey Zvyagintsev | Writer Andrey Zvyagintsev and Oleg Negin | Cinematographer Mikhail Krichman | Starring Aleksei Serebryakov, Elena Lyadova, Vladimir Vdovichenkov | Length 140 minutes

LFF: Trudno byt’ bogom (Hard to Be a God, 2013)

BFI London Film Festival FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Thursday 9 October 2014 || My Rating 3.5 stars very good


© Capricci Films

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.


CREDITS || Director Aleksei German | Writers Aleksei German and Svetlana Karmalita (based on the novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky) | Cinematographers Vladimir Ilin and Yuriy Klimenko | Starring Leonid Yarmolnik | Length 170 minutes

Crainquebille (1922)

The Cinema Museum logo As part of the regular monthly ‘Kennington Bioscope’ night, this feature was presented along with a number of short films, with an intermission between them. Piano accompaniment was provided by organisers Lillian Henley and Cyrus Gabrysch for the shorts, and by renowned silent film accompanist and concert pianist Costas Fotopoulos for the feature.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEWS | Seen at Cinema Museum, London, Wednesday 26 March 2014

Crainquebille (1922) || Director/Writer Jacques Feyder (based on the novel by Anatole France) | Cinematographers Léonce-Henri Burel and Maurice Forster | Starring Maurice de Féraudy | Length 76 minutes || My Rating 3.5 stars very good

© Pathé

The more silent films one watches, the more one realises there’s a huge range of expression beyond the kind of hyperactive slapstick we’ve at length come to associate with the era (though some of the shorts, see below, fulfil this function more than adequately). Instead with this film, we see Belgian director Jacques Feyder expressively try his hand at a kind of proletarian social realism, with moustachioed Maurice de Fléraudy playing an honest working class protagonist ground down by the unfeeling, pettifogging machinations of the authorities. In this respect, it’s not unlike, say, Bresson’s L’Argent (1983), in which a chain of minor events build into tragedy, but the film I’m most minded of is Fassbinder’s Händler der vier Jahreszeiten (The Merchant of Four Seasons, 1971), which also centres on a street peddler pushing around a cart of groceries.

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Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director Kenneth Branagh | Writers Adam Cozad and David Koepp (based on characters by Tom Clancy) | Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos | Starring Chris Pine, Kevin Costner, Keira Knightley, Kenneth Branagh | Length 105 minutes | Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Wednesday 12 February 2014 || My Rating 2.5 stars likeable


© Paramount Pictures

I remember when Kenneth Branagh used to make serious awards-bothering films. I watched his four-hour version of Hamlet (1996). Twice. I even watched the two-hour cut as well, for some reason losts to the mists of time. I mean, that was almost 20 years ago now, and it’s to his credit that he doesn’t do that kind of thing anymore, very sensibly having re-focused his talents on fun, hammy roles. There was his wizard in the second Harry Potter film, or his Laurence Olivier in My Week with Marilyn. It would probably be fair to add the Russian oligarch bad guy Viktor that he plays in this film to that list, though what with all his precise financial machinations, it’s a more underplayed role of brooding intensity and clears the way for Chris Pine’s action heroics.

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Anna Karenina (2012)


FILM REVIEW || Director Joe Wright | Writer Tom Stoppard (based on the novel by Leo Tolstoy) | Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey | Starring Keira Knightley, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Alicia Vikander, Jude Law, Domhnall Gleeson | Length 129 minutes | Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 3 February 2014 || My Rating 3 stars good


© Universal Pictures

I’ve only recently become familiar with British director Joe Wright from his 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. On the basis of his short filmography, he seems to like adapting heritage literary sources. That earlier film showed a fair amount of directorial flair, but in this new film he rather surpasses himself, to the extent that the technical aspects of the filmmaking become even more central to the tale being told than any of the acting (though there are some standout performances, on which more below). I’m not entirely convinced this always adds to the story being told, but it certainly makes for some striking cinema.

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