Criterion Sunday 464: Danton (1983)

I certainly don’t mean to be reductive about what is clearly a grand effort at staging a historical spectacle, but this very much seems to fall into the ‘sweaty men shouting at each other in antique rooms’ sub-genre of historical film. It’s not that any of them is specifically a bad actor — although the dubbing into French of the many Polish actors is a bit off-putting at times — but it is rather reliant on the conflict of men (the few women involved are reduced very much to side figures, a little unfair I think in the case of Camille Desmoulins’ wife Lucile at least, who was a prominent diarist and journalist).

Danton, of course, has the more heroic character in this rendering of history — the film is named for him after all, and is played with all the charismatic charm that Depardieu can bring — but he’s still more talked about than seen. The film focuses far more on his chief antagonist, Maximilien Robespierre (played by a Polish actor, Wojciech Pszoniak), a shrinking and rather pathetic figure here. Patrice Chéreau matches Depardieu for sweaty outrage as Desmoulins but doesn’t get too much time to shine (though his presence reminds me of Chéreau’s own grand historical drama from the following decade, La Reine Margot, an older bit of history but rendered much more lustily and effectively than here). So in a sense the period costuming and other effects — the sweat, the blood, the crumbling architecture — stands just as strongly in for the drama as the actors themselves, which may owe a little to Rossellini’s history films. Rossellini’s films may have a calmer demeanour, but Wajda’s protagonists really like to get stuck in. It doesn’t always serve the film best, but it’s not too dull.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Andrzej Wajda; Writers Jean-Claude Carrière, Wajda, Agnieszka Holland, Bolesław Michałek and Jacek Gąsiorowski (based on the play Sprawa Dantona “The Danton Case” by Stanisława Przybyszewska); Cinematographer Igor Luther; Starring Wojciech Pszoniak, Gérard Depardieu, Patrice Chéreau; Length 136 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 24 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 402: La Voie lactée (The Milky Way, 1969)

In his long career, Buñuel hardly shied away from the merciless mockery of religious hypocrisy, and that’s sort of the entire point of this film. It is essentially a kind of episodic comedy with a series of vignettes serving to set up a series of situations in which people argue on points of religious schisms, which when set out in this way can’t help but seem utterly absurd and futile. The plot, such as it is, hangs around a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela being undertaken by two men (Paul Frankeur and Laurent Terzieff), though they seem pretty happy to hop in a car when it suits them, and they don’t seem particularly committed to the more spiritual aspects of the journey, which don’t just travel through space but also just as often through time as well. Still, the director has his customary fun with Jesus (Bernard Verley), priests, monks and other holy men, and those who aspire to holiness, and I can’t deny its at times anarchic humour.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luis Buñuel; Writers Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière; Cinematographer Christian Matras; Starring Paul Frankeur, Laurent Terzieff, Édith Scob, Bernard Verley, Alain Cuny; Length 101 minutes.

Seen at home (Google Play Movies streaming), Wellington, Thursday 25 February 2021.

Criterion Sunday 400: Stranger Than Paradise (1984)

This isn’t New York filmmaker Jim Jarmusch’s debut feature film (that would be 1980’s Permanent Vacation), but already there’s a strong sense of what would be his signature style during the 1980s, the deadpan delivery, single shot long takes, the grungy (yet oddly beautiful) black-and-white cinematography of these interchangeable American locales. The opening shots see Eszter Balint’s youthful Eva wandering the streets of what looks like New Jersey from the street signs, though she eventually finds her way to stay with her cousin in Brooklyn (John Lurie). She’s from Hungary and her cousin was too, where he was Bela, but now goes by Willie and is trying hard to put the immigrant identity behind him. His friend Eddie (Richard Edson) stops by and the film… well, “gets going” doesn’t seem quite right, but all the characters are now in place. Ultimately it’s not about what they do (they hang out, they get on the road to Cleveland, they mooch about some more), but about this sense of America as a place where identity can be subsumed. Willie’s aunt tries desperately to cling to the old ways and refuses to speak English to him, but there’s little that identifies her home as different from anywhere else the trio go; even Florida has the same sense of gloomy dereliction at the end. It’s a film in which the characters move around a lot but ultimately don’t seem to do anything.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Chief among the extras is a West German documentary, Kino ’84: The Making of Jim Jarmusch (1984, dir. Martina Müller), which catches up with him during the making of Stranger Than Paradise after it seems his 1980 debut Permanent Vacation had gained him something of a profile in that country, and so features interviews with that latter film’s star Chris Parker, as well as his DP Tom DiCillo — whose lack of interest in continuing in this job prompts Jarmusch to suggest some cinematographers he’d like to work with (including the one he did). There are also shorter bits with Lurie, Edson and Balint, as well as the brief appearance of Sara Driver. It’s good to see how Jarmusch was working back then.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jim Jarmusch; Cinematographer Tom DiCillo; Starring John Lurie, Eszter Balint, Richard Edson; Length 89 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 20 February 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, February 1998).

Criterion Sunday 390: Sweet Movie (1974)

This may well be a masterpiece of piercing bourgeois complacency and for some people it clearly is, but I think I just have trouble connecting with the carnivalesque sense of polymorphous perversity. It almost feels more coherent than his 1971 W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism, though it’s still a blend of elements (including some very unsettling footage of WW2 atrocities being uncovered, although ones committed by the Soviet forces being brought to light by Nazis). The rest of the film involves a lot of people debasing themselves for various causes, and surely that’s the point of the film — starting with the valorisation of virginity presented as an American style talent contest, and moving through both women and men debasing themselves, being humiliated, acting out and generally being pariahs, and all in the name of the film’s satirical targets. I find it wearying where others revel in its warped sensibilities, though I imagine that making the likes of me feel a bit worn out is probably an achievement the film should be perfectly happy with.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Dušan Makavejev; Cinematographer Pierre Lhomme; Starring Carole Laure, Anna Prucnal, Pierre Clémenti; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 17 January 2021.

Criterion Sunday 389: W.R. – Misterije organizma (W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism, 1971)

I’m very amenable to those critics calling this a masterpiece, but I fear that perhaps when I look at it, I find it difficult to perceive the depths that others do. It’s an assemblage of narrative fictional material — a Yugoslav woman (Milena Dravić) preaching free love who seduces a Russian ice-skating comrade hero (Ivica Vidović), only to lose her head — along with archival sources, an old Soviet propaganda film, and documentary elements dealing with the later life and research of controversial psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. Indeed, for much of the early portion it seems like a straight documentary, in so far as anything about Reich could be called straight. His theories deal with the orgasm and sexual potential, and other segments (like Nancy, the “Plaster Caster”, making a mould of the Screw editor’s penis, or the hippie, Tuli Kupferberg, who stalks through New York masturbating his toy rifle and menacing the bourgeoisie) sort of develop these themes in relation to capitalism and the West, while the propaganda footage suggests a misunderstood sexual dimension to Soviet Communism. It’s all pretty feverish and clearly you may love it, but while I certainly wasn’t bored, I guess I didn’t really connect at the level the film was aiming for.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Dušan Makavejev; Cinematographers Aleksandar Petković and Pega Popović; Starring Milena Dravić, Ivica Vidović, Jagoda Kaloper, Tuli Kupferberg; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 16 January 2021 (and a long time before that on VHS at home, Wellington).

In der Dämmerstunde Berlin de l’aube à la nuit (1980)

As part of my Belgian week, which has quickly become more about Belgian co-productions made and set in other countries, we move to Berlin in the late-1970s with this strange document of a vanished era, not widely available (screened in 16mm at the Deptford Cinema when I saw it), but capturing a real feeling for a place. The bilingual title hints at its dual origins, and the filmmaker is Belgian, which gives it that outsider’s-view feel.


This strange piece of celluloid feels like a time capsule from a different place, an irretrievable time, the alien landscape of Berlin in the late-1970s, with the Wall very much in evidence, train journeys that just end abruptly even as we see the track stretching out ahead of the camera, and little walks around town that the filmmaker takes (the back of her head becomes very familiar), what I suppose we would today call psychogeography. Occasionally we hear voices from those talking about post-war Germany, from a Jewish bookseller determined to return to the country which treated him so badly, and from old ladies talking about Hitler. But for the most part this is a densely-textured journey film, broken up by quotes and snatches of opera, and the presence of a clanking 16mm cinema projector at the back of the room where I saw it, seemed to lend it an almost spiritual quality, of a black-and-white document stolen from history.

CREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Annik Leroy; Length 67 minutes.
Seen at Deptford Cinema, London, Saturday 23 March 2019.

Menschenfrauen (1980)

In my German-language women directors theme week, I’ve been running a strand of secondary reviews each day of films that are a little bit odd and experimental, and this one by Austrian mixed media artist Valie Export. Her work here (which is sometimes credited as 1979 or even 1977) plays with feminist ideas of the era, almost comically at times.


There’s something very eighties about this stylistically heterogeneous exploration of male chauvinism and the terrible toll it can exact on women. That’s not just because of its Tom Selleck-like moustachioed lothario (Klaus Wildbolz), or the grainy film stock. Maybe it’s because of the many formal ways the Austrian director experiments with presenting her message, or maybe it’s just that I didn’t always love it. There are, however, moments when you wonder if the way it uses all those distancing formal techniques isn’t just a joke at the expense of the earnest male dialecticians of filmmaking who usually do this kind of stuff. In any case, it’s interesting.

Menschenfrauen DVD coverCREDITS
Director Valie Export; Writer Peter Weibel; Cinematographers Wolfgang Dickmann and Karl Kases; Starring Klaus Wildbolz, Renée Felden, Maria Martina, Susanne Widl; Length 132 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 3 June 2017.

Two Films by Ulrike Ottinger: Ticket of No Return (1979) and Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia (1989)

Though Ulrike Ottinger is probably one of the key female figures in the New Germany Cinema that sprung up in the late-1960s, and one who started directing her own films by the early-1970s, she was a filmmaker who until recently was fairly unknown to me. I’ve seen three of her features just this year, and have already written about the epic documentary travelogue Chamisso’s Shadow (2016). Like a lot of filmmakers who are drawn to documentary, there’s a lot of it even in her fiction features, particularly the Mongolian-set Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia (with its very careful use of three different languages in its original title). Even the 1979 film I deal with below has little elements of real life, as I gather that one of the characters was a real-life homeless woman well-known in the area at the time, and it wilfully dispenses with narrative expectations as its central character gets even more messy (the German title translates as “diary of a drinker”). It was screened as part of an online film festival recently, and I look forward to catching up with more of Ottinger’s work.

Continue reading “Two Films by Ulrike Ottinger: Ticket of No Return (1979) and Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia (1989)”

Neun Leben hat die Katze (The Cat Has Nine Lives, 1968)

Just a quick extra review of a late-60s New German Cinema experiment that didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, but still impressed me as something odd and interesting. It was presented as part of a touring programme in the UK of less well-known films by women directors breaking the mould.


What a very strange film, largely due to its experimental narrative form, which intercuts these stories of women (Katharina and Anne) in a sort of associative way, just little shards or shreds of narrative, sometimes representing their fantasies as far as I can tell, sometimes humorous vignettes. It’s very hard to describe really, except that it seems to present a subjective view of women’s experiences that is both of a piece with other experiments in the New German Cinema but also quite apart from the usual patriarchal constructions of desire. I’d want to watch it again before claiming to understand any more about it, but it certainly has its heady late-60s quality.

The Cat Has Nine Lives film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Ula Stöckl; Cinematographer Dietrich Lohmann; Starring Liane Hielscher, Kristine De Loup; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Tuesday 7 August 2018.