The Sunday Intertitle: Love is a Battlefield

Now honestly, is that a proper question to ask of Pola Negri?

The film is Rowland V Lee’s BARBED WINE –

Sorry, BARBED WIRE. We shall overlook the forgivable calligraphic entanglement. It’s not primarily about WWI trench warfare though, but about a POW camp set up at Pola’s farm, where she falls in love with prisoner Clive Brook. The movie, being silent, feels free to cast Polish Pola as a Frenchwoman, English chin Clive as a German, and Bavarian Gustav Von Seyffertitz as a Frenchman. Which isn’t any kind of problem here: what’s odd is that Hollywood continued with this kind of counter-intuitive national casting after sound came in, and still occasionally does it.

Big Head of Pola. This gorgeous moment may be the work of an uncredited Mauritz Stiller.

Despite the melodrama surrounding her, Pola is admirably restrained here — gone is the kohl-smeared vamp of yore, performing via an admixture of violent semaphore and demented facial calisthenics. Her solemn, muted work in this movie is a revelation. Brook, the chin of England, comes pre-muted, but apart from a weeping scene which initiates some ghastly mugging, he’s a good match for Pola’s dignified turn. Her teary moments show her abandoning glamour altogether and becoming convincingly distraught, which is to say unattractive. This was, and still is, unusual. As Juliette Lewis once complained, “There are some actresses who do crying scenes and they still look pretty. Like, you could have sex with them while they’re crying!”

Christmas behind barbed wire — the tinsel on the tree is easily explained (you simply shred several spent cartridges with a potato peeler and voila!) but where they got the false head for the contortionist Santa Claus is a mystery with deeply sinister undertones. I kept anxiously checking out the prison guards to see if any of them had got suddenly shorter. So disturbing is the satanic Santa that he fully earns the German name for Father Christmas, Weihnachtsmann, which sounds like some kind of boogieman, as likely to steal your child’s eyeballs as to stuff his stocking.

Credited director Rowland V Lee is a curious case. His SON OF FRANKENSTEIN is arguably as camp and hysterical as James Whale’s BRIDE, and there’s a striking moment when Basil Rathbone and Bela Lugosi enter a room, talk for a moment, then step forwards and Rathbone expresses surprise at the presence of the monster, comatose upon a table, revealed by a tracking back of the camera. Since the monster must have been plainly visible to Rathbone since the moment he came in the door, this is a vivid and surreal illustration of the principle that things which are offscreen exist only provisionally in films, sort of like Schrödinger’s cat. But in BARBED WIRE his filming is eloquent and expressive, the only really goofy moment being a flashback to something we just saw five minutes earlier, but even that is explained by the filmmaker’s understandable desire to show the audience what a character is talking about. But the really sublime stuff is probably Mauritz Stiller’s — I don’t know the story behind his partial involvement, but I guess it’s a typical example of the shabby way he was treated in Hollywood.

In Micheal MacLiammoir’s memoir Put Money in thy Purse, he reports Orson Welles adopting some Mitteleuropean director’s name for the close-up: “Big Head of Pola.” Since Hitchcock also used the term Big Head for the same reason, I vote this excellent expression be revived and given pride of place in dictionaries of film terminology. After all, “close-up of Pola” is clearly a vague and ambiguous expression, since it doesn’t specify which portion of her the camera should focus on. I mean, there’s a dazzling choice.

In a stirring (silent) speech, Mona’s brother evokes a great march of the war’s fallen. His assertion that post-war bitterness, if not replaced by love, could result in another war to end all wars is horribly prophetic for 1927…

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7 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Love is a Battlefield”

  1. Jenny Eardley Says:

    The sometimes-boogieman of German Christmas tradition is Knecht Ruprecht, a rather odd character working alongside Father Christmas, it seems so unlike our version where Santa Claus is boss. I love the name though.

  2. “Sometimes he rides on a white horse, and sometimes he is accompanied by fairies or men with blackened faces dressed as old women.”

    I like him!

  3. I’ve seen the “men with blackened faces” in a couple of Dutch films, both set around Christmas. They’re not anything like American blackface, but I’d assumed they were somehow analagous.

  4. David Boxwell Says:

    RVL’s ZOO IN BUDAPEST (33) is rather wonderful, if you care for its brand of whimsy. And I AM SUZANNE! (32) is one of Lilian Harvey’s few outings away from her beloved Nazi Germany, and features a monocled Lesbian marionette.

  5. Sounds grand!

    Zoo is pretty interesting, and the mass bust-out of animals at the end is awe-inspiring. I do wonder how many animals were harmed, though?

  6. Classic “Big Head Pola” is of course Zardoz

  7. I tried in vain to convince a collaborator to include a giant floating stone head with people inside it in a project we’re working on, but he wouldn’t have it.

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