Archive for Kafka

Attendant Woes

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 19, 2014 by dcairns


Cinema will learn to talk soon, I promise, but for now I’m still mulling over films seen at the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema.

THE LAST LAUGH is one I’d seen a few times but probably not, in its entirety, as often as I should’ve. It’s the kind of film which wouldn’t necessarily compel me to make the trip (which is rather difficult, the bus service being singularly erratic) by itself, but in combination with a bunch of other films I fancied, it made for a delightful extra, if delightful is really the word for F.W. Murnau’s desperate vision.

One smart person with a beard suggested that the film, in which hotel doorman Emil Jannings is robbed of his uniform and its concomitant status when he gets too old to lug suitcases without breaking his wind, could be read as a metaphor for Germany’s post-war enforced demilitarisation*, but I’m afraid my mind was on other things, such as Jannings’ putty forehead, which looks quite real on home video (though the shading in his cheekbones is recognizably kohl, not natural hollows) and becomes a big part of his performance.



Also, I located the movie in the supernatural tradition of German film (NOSFERATU was just two years before) — when Jannings turns up to work and finds another man wearing his uniform, we seem to be in the doppelganger genre first seen in THE STUDENT OF PRAGUE. Seeing one’s double is meant to be a portent of death, and in this case it’s the death of Jannings’ hopes, career, dignity. It’s perfect that he sees the younger version as they both pass through the Atlantic Hotel’s revolving door, so that the new guy seems like a reflection of the old.

When Jannings’ family face him knowing that he’s now a lowly toilet attendant, they react not with pity but horror, and I was reminded of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, in which Samsa’s transfiguration provokes only the faintest hint of sympathy from his loved ones, who are more concerned with the practical problems entailed. Jannings doesn’t actually get an apple stuck in his back, but it’s a close thing. (Given his love of wallowing in humiliating scenarios, I’m posi-sure that if Murnau had produced a golden delicious and proposed ramming it under his shoulder-blade, Jannings would’ve shrugged off his undershirt and gotten down on bended knee in a twinkling.)


The film seems, on the face of it, bracingly anti-capitalist, with Russian-style dialectical montage contrasting the rich patrons slurping down oysters while poor old Emil eats his toilet soup in the men’s room. It’s not even HOT toilet soup, as Murnau mercilessly photographs the steam escaping as Jannings is forced to attend to an untimely urinator who arrives during his break.

This is undercut in some ways by the conclusion, a bit of proto-Bokononism in which the film debunks its own happy ending. Jannings inherits a fortune from an eccentric American who expires, offscreen, in his arms, in the loo (the Atlantic takes away but it also gives). With his new-found wealth, Jannings becomes a guest himself, gorging himself suicidally and treating his friend, the sympathetic night watchman (whose kindness has hitherto only made the world seem bleaker) to an equally painful looking repast. Ignoring his disappointing family, Jannings heads off into the city with the watchman. This could be the start of a beautiful friendship, but it doesn’t feel like an indictment of social inequality, exactly. On the other hand, we’ve been told in no uncertain terms that this ending is not the kind we get in real life (the Atlantic gives but it also takes away).

The BFI’s rather wash-out print was compensated for magnificently by a new arrangement of the original score, performed by Sabrina Zimmerman on violin and doorman’s whistle and Mark Pogolski on piano, who created between them a very rich soundscape, one of those accompaniments that really helps you climb inside the film and smell its pungent air.

*The film’s opening title card (absent from the BFI print) gives some support to this theory. “Today you are the first, respected by everyone, a minister, a general, maybe even a prince — Do you know what you’ll be tomorrow?”

Well, *we* enjoyed it.

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 24, 2012 by dcairns

I HAD intended to see Soderbergh’s HAYWIRE after enjoying the trailer, but as you can see, it took me a while.

I liked the premise of a film based around a female action star who can really do most of the stuff the script shows her doing — it seemed that HAYWIRE was the movie that would do for kicking people in the face what THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE did for soulless sexual encounters. And that, surely, can’t be bad?

Gina Carano, Soderbergh’s discovery — “a natural beauty who beats people to a pulp in a cage” — is worth it. She can act, and indeed in the conversation scenes she seems wondrously natural, her face moving about in a way that the faces of trained thespians, with their screen technique and Botox, rarely do. When you see her in interviews, she seems heftier and more voluble — Soderbergh has slimmed down her look and her mannerisms with careful filming and direction. In the more emotional scenes, he tends to use photogenics in place of histrionics, finding killer looks that express the character’s inner state.

Confirming this as an old-fashioned bit of star-grooming, Carano has very stylish costumes by Shoshana Rubin.

The rest of the cast is fine, with Michael Fassbender and Channing Tatum holding their own in the punching and smashing departments, Michael Douglas a bit miscast as a trustworthy man, and Ewan MacGregor trying hard as always. Antonio Banderas is very amusing, starting the movie with a big beard and then putting it aside for the finale, really for no discernible reason.

Lem Dobbs, who scripted KAFKA and THE LIMEY, wrote this one too. It follows the cool, Melvillean aesthetic of the latter film, with a few moments of sentiment which are more underplayed than they were in the Stamp vehicle. Soderbergh said after KAFKA that he felt he wasn’t good at cold material, which is odd to me, since his OCEAN’S films seem basically slick and heartless. But then, I only like the first one of those, and that not so much. And then again, I liked KAFKA much better than SEX LIES AND VIDEOTAPE, so maybe I’m weird.

Mexico is always a bit sepia-toned in Soderbergh films (see TRAFFIC), contrary to reality.

Dobbs (before taking his name from Bogart in SIERRA MADRE, he started his movie career as Lem Kitaj, acting for Michael Powell in THE BOY WHO TURNED YELLOW — he’s the best thing in it) provides a very simple betrayal-revenge structure which masquerades behind a cloak of sophistication, with flashbacks, lists of names, rapidly shuffled international locations and plenty of mumbled obfuscation. As with THE LIMEY, whose classic moment is a long-held exterior with sounds of mayhem raging indoors (undoubtedly influenced by the climax of THE PUBLIC ENEMY) the movie gets some of its best effects by keeping dramatic events offscreen — but nevertheless makes spectacular use of Carano’s particular talents. Nobody is likely to top the best of Jackie Chan’s fights, but HAYWIRE’s hotel havoc will live for as long as people enjoy seeing Michael Fassbender getting his neck crushed between a set of powerful thighs, and that, my friends, will be a very long time.

Now for CONTAGION and then maybe MAGIC MIKE.

The Sunday Intertitle: Exodus, the dress rehearsal

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on April 29, 2012 by dcairns

THE CITY WITHOUT JEWS (DIE STADT OHNE JUDEN, 1924) is a creepy historical oddity — rather overrated for its so-called “expressionism,” but it’s one of very few Austrian films influenced by German expressionism at all, apparently. What IS striking about it is its plot, which deals with a mythical city, Utopia, which decides to get rid of all its Jews. Just ship them off somewhere, you understand. Somewhere nice, probably.

“We are being kicked out like dogs,” laments one distinguished-looking chap (there are a lot of obvious steretyped Jewish characters, but also some who depart from the cartoon format) — the line recalls Kafka, and also reminds me of Welles’ objection that The Trial was a pre-Holocaust fantasia, bits of which needed to be adjusted out of sensitivity to later 20th Century events. Which I think may be a misreading of Kafka, but BOY does it apply to H.K. Breslauer’s film.

This is a well-meaning movie, but a confused and timid one, and history overtook it cruelly. The satirical point is that life in the de-Jewed Utopia is so dull, with no worthwhile arts, music, theatre or cafes, only beer halls selling sausages, that the gentiles lament their mistake and conspire to bring the Jews back, which they contrive to do by getting the leading anti-semitic politician drunk — causing the set to rock back and forth like a ship at sea, the film’s first expressionist effect — and then committing him to a Caligari-esque insane asylum (again recalling Welles:  “In a people’s world the incurable racist has no rights. He must be deprived of influence in a people’s government. He must be segregated as he himself would segregate the colored and Semitic peoples—as we now segregate the leprous and the insane.” [Welles' remarks about segregating the insane are now dated in turn, but we know what he means: treat the racist like the insane were treated]).

This is where the film gets expressionistic, but also where it cops out, in a very Caligariesque way, revealing the story as the anti-semite’s fantasy. This doesn’t quite reverse the film’s terms the way the madman’s dream ending of CALIGARI betrays Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz’s subversive vision, but it does muddy the waters and adds further frivolity to the mix. It didn’t succeed in making the film harmless: screenings were still disrupted by Nazis throwing stink bombs. The film was financially successful, though, despite the author of the original novel disassociating himself from it on account of the ending.

Author Hugo Bettauer was shot dead by Otto Rothstock, a former Nazi party member, who was convicted but then released after only 18 months — an early clue to the way things were headed.

The movie’s switcheroo from a caricatured but somewhat realist narrative, into an overtly expressionistic fantasy, would seem to support Siegfried Kracauer’s portray of expressionism as an escapist approach which diverted the masses from thinking about what was actually going on around them — a means of avoiding political engagement. Which is a disturbing thought, because I always say that  EXPRESSIONISM WON — nearly all cinema is expressionist now, since all cinema attempts to portray the world from a subjective perspective. Certainly any film which uses music to channel the viewer’s emotions is “guilty” of a mild kind of expressionism…

In a final twist of the historical knife, Breslauer’s dream ending has been lost, and is attached to the surviving film only as a series of stills. Perhaps Bettauer’s shade can derive some satisfaction from that.


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