The Sunday Intertitle: You Raskol, you

Thanks to Neil McGlone for RASKOLNIKOV, admittedly jumped-around by random splices that teleport its cast short distances, and intertitled in a schizoid mix of Russian and Italian, just two of the many languages I don’t speak. But this film is so consistently hard to see, I’m grateful for an opportunity.

Robert Weine’s expressionist take on Crime and Punishment suffers an almost unique disparity between its prominence in all the literature on German cinema, and its frustrating unavailability on DVD and on the repertory circuit. Is this the result of some unspoken value judgement, silently declaring the film to be less interesting than its design, less significant than its place in history? A possible basis for such a dismissal lies in the undoubted fact that German expressionism and Dostoevsky are unlikely bedfellows. True, one must accept that the movie adopts the bare bones of the novel’s plot and doesn’t really attempt its nuance or depth: that being the case, we have to overlook its failings as an adaptation and consider what it achieves in its own right.

KOWMAP — Russian for “nightmare”? If so, how apt that would be! A map drawn by a cow would be a geographical nightmare indeed!

And what is that? Given my inability to read the intertitles, my findings are only preliminary, but I’d hold the film’s sheer visual beauty up as its prime virtue. More solid and less painterly than Weine’s earlier CALIGARI, it serves up a constant stream of striking images, setting its tale in an expressionist-constructionist St Petersburg of jumbled, off-kilter shapes. The actors hue to a roughly naturalistic style, somehow moving through the jutting diagonals without producing too violent a clash, although all interaction with the zany UPA-meets-UFA doors is fraught with peril. The Big Idea is obviously to portray Raskolnikov’s world as a nightmare, a slightly inflexible approach which struggles to accommodate subtleties —

For instance, here’s the stairway to the pawnbroker’s flat (above).

And here’s the same stairway in Raskolnikov’s nightmare, after he’s murdered the pawnbroker. Both sets and shots are wondrously striking, of course, but there’s something oddly unsatisfactory about the very idea of an expressionist nightmare version of something that’s already an expressionist nightmare.

By contrast, the scenes involving Detective Porfiry are relatively restrained — the angles are still skewed, but the structures within the police station mainly look as if they might actually belong to a real, non-avant garde building, reflecting the character’s status as an avatar of rationality. While outside, all is chaos ~

I guess the problem with all of this is that it’s vague and amorphous where the novel is clear and specific. In the book, Raskolnokov’s troubles stem from poverty (or that’s certainly how he sees it), which Weine can’t convincingly evoke on his shattered-mirror stages. The novel’s character has nightmares that reflect upon and deepen the central narrative in the allusive way typical of real dreams, while the movie’s character has nightmares which replay scenes we’ve already witnessed, only with even wonkier walls.

None of which stops the film being a jagged visual feast, and more than worthy of a full Institute Murnau-Stiftung type restoration and re-release. Are you listening, Herr Stiftung?

26 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: You Raskol, you”

  1. KOWMAP = Russian for nightmare, indeed. But although one might prefer “cow map,” it’s pronounced “koshmar.”

  2. Hey, I was just watching Le Jour se leve, and Arletty mentions that she has cow maps.

  3. Christopher Says:

    you ever notice that those pictures of a side of a cow with his differen’t cuts of meat sectioned off ,looks a bit like a map of the US…Is this the COW MAP secret meaning?

  4. Makes sense!

    I just had an idea for a spy movie where the secret invasion plan is hidden in plain sight on a “cow map” of the kind you describe.

    Ah, the Russian “koshmar” = the French “cauchemar.” Which came first? I guess the “mare” part of “nightmare” is a mistranslation or literalisation of “mar” also. Because that horse thing never made sense.

    Wikipedia tells me that it’s Old French, and would mean, roughly, “an oppressive spirit/phantom” — evoking that sensation of sleep paralysis, the weight on the chest, perfectly captured by Fuselli’s painting (he throws in a horse also — and doesn’t Raskolnikov have a dream about a horse? Shades of Twin Peaks).

  5. Von Sternberg pretty much disowned his version of Crime & Punishment as I’m sure you well know. Still, for what it has to offer I’d say Lorre makes for a great Raskolnikov, the foremost reason for seeing the film. Your frame grabs look great by the way, this looks to be something that more people should see. Myself included.

  6. I’ll make you up a care package soon, Guy! This ought to be in it.

    I think Sternberg took on C&S purely as hackwork, feeling that since he hadn’t cast it, it could never be a true JVS film. So he didn’t bring his usual excellence to it, but Lorre is pretty magnificent in spite of that.

  7. Sounds good, DC.

  8. You know on Friday I caught a 2002 adaptation of C&P, directed by Menahem Golan(of Canon Films infamy) and it has Crispin Glover as everyone’s favorite hatchet-man. The movie is pretty bland, it’s in English but set in modern-day Russia. Personally I always felt that actors like Lorre and Glover, considerable as they may be, are plainly miscast since the book states that the character is a handsome kid and these guys come of as older.

    The other thing is that adaptations generally privilege the detective over one of Dostoevsky’s scariest characters, Arkady Svidrigailov who comes in halfway and takes the book into an even darker place than it starts out. Raskolnikov’s horse dream always struck me as proto-Expressionist and a first-rate Gogol hommage.

    Sternberg’s C&P may be inert but his adaptation of AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY is one of his greatest films. Philips Holmes(the underrated star of this and Lubitsch’s BROKEN LULLABY) ought to have played Raskolnikov.

  9. That’s a nice idea. Maybe Holmes is too wet, in a David Manners manner, to really bring R to life effectively. I understand why they chose intense eccentrics, and why they couldn’t find twenty-year-olds with the right characteristics. I think a great 30s C&P could have been made with Douglass Montgmery though.

  10. It’s a pity people don’t have the imagination to cast actors who combine intense eccentricism with good-looking features. Cillian Murphy for instance, has the face of Terence Stamp and the oddness of Lorre combined. He’d be a cinch in the part.

  11. Oh yes, that’d be excellent. There’s an actor who’s genuinely wasted in straight roles, but who can introduce the uncanny with just an unflinching gaze.

  12. Murphy does have at least one strong “straight” role to my mind, as the lead in The Wind that Shakes the Barley: although Loach is telling a collective story in some ways, it’s centered on a straightforward, though terrifically nuanced, performance by Murphy.

    He’s the most interesting thing by far in less successful films like On the Edge or Disco Pigs, as you’re never quite sure where’s he going to go; he delivers an extraordinary soliloquy in the latter film that’s compelling and disturbing. His performance in Red Eye, too, is terrific, keeping things constantly off balance until the film enters more conventional territory near the end.

  13. Yes, and I found that quite disappointing: with a character like that, the movie was duty-bound to do something interesting.

    Fiona was very taken with him in Breakfast on Pluto, and later decided he was at his best in a dress.

  14. Absolutely agree; for 45 minutes or so I thought we were on a very nice flight path. Very few thrillers seem to be capable of working around the inevitable and uninteresting one-on-one confrontation with fists or guns.

    If that’s the case, Fiona might want to check out Murphy in Peacock, if she hasn’t already done so.

    If Neil Jordan hadn’t already made The Butcher Boy, Murphy would have been terrific in the lead role; I like the film, but I never quite felt that Eamonn Owens had the necessary glint of madness.

  15. Peacock sounds interesting, and that’s some cast…

    I still haven’t seen The Butcher Boy, which John Boorman thought was Jordan’s masterpiece. I guess I’ve not been convinced by anything I’ve seen of Jordan’s. I respect the ambition, but I’m not actually sure he’s at heart a filmmaker…

  16. Might I mention Aki Kaurismaki’s “Crime and Punishment,” his first feature. It’s not as good as his other adaptations, “Hamlet Goes Business” and “La Vie Boheme,” but well worth watching.

  17. To my mind, The Butcher Boy is by some margin Jordan’s best film, though much of the credit has to go to Pat McCabe; the film is a pretty direct adaptation of the novel, with much of the dialogue intact from the source. That said, several of the film’s most memorable touches are Jordan additions, such as the casting of Sinéad O’Connor; I wonder whether that functions as well now that she’s less of a news fixture.

    I like several of his other films well enough but I almost always have a feeling of what-might-have-been at the end. I remember casting agents coming to our school to look for teens to appear in what became The Miracle (one of the Jordans I haven’t seen).

  18. Not many saw The Miracle, which was a casualty of Palace Pictures’ collapse. It snuck out briefly some time later.

    Jordan is certainly an excellent politician: when his producer Steve Woolley prepared him for The Company of Wolves by screening Powell & Pressburger films, Jordan seemingly didn’t like them much (one of the things that makes me think he lacks a filmmaker’s instincts), but only told that to Angela Carter. So the film was promoted as having been made under the influence of Black Narcissus etc, which the critics all approved of.

    I haven’t seen the Kaurismaki, but I assume it has a quirky take on its source?

  19. That’s a great story! I’ve only read a tiny sliver of his fiction, so I’ve no real sense if he seems more at home in that medium. I do tend to prefer his smaller-scale British and Irish films, even with their imperfections: his US films just don’t work for me at all.

    I saw Ondine late last year, and I could imagine the architecture working in novel form, with more time to develop the conclusion, but on film the potentially interesting set-up just falls apart as we move to the pat conclusion.

  20. It’s actually more dour than quirky (his Raskolnikov works in a slaughterhouse), very deadpan, very black humor, lots of early ’80s post-industrial despair. I know he’s been somewhat dismissive of it – he said he didn’t have a style yet – and the next film, “Calimari Union,” is a big left turn.

  21. Jordan, like the late Troy McClure, has a fish fetish (“I thought you said he was dead?” “No, I said he sleeps with the fishes”), as was first pointed out by Woolley in a making-of doc about High Spirits (a REALLY disastrous film). Woolley claimed he’d several times caught Jordan, on various films, lining up lovingly composed shots of glistening seafood, which never seemed to have anything to do with the plot. So, of course, I was in hysterics when I heard he’d made a mermaid movie. He’s finally out of the closet, or creel, or whatever you’d call it.

    Mind you, Fellini had a thing about eels…

  22. Hehe. The odd thing about Ondine is that it’s so damn dark it’s hard to see what’s going on half the time: I wouldn’t have minded some glistening seafood. Of course, maybe I should be blaming my TV.

    I remember some interview about Breakfast on Pluto where he said something to the effect of “I wanted it to be a fairy tale”. Well, there’s a surprise, Neil, didn’t see that one coming.

  23. Never really occurred to me, but Highsmith’s character, Ripley, is a kind of anti- Raskolnikov; Crime and No Punishment. I could imagine that she had a certain view of Dostoyevsky, verging on contempt, that she could have used as a fulcrum for her own views to sort of pitch off of.

    I forget, doesn’t Bogarde get caught at the end of Purple Noon? …not in the book, or in the whole series of books. I think.

    Have not got around to reading one of the many bios out there now.

  24. At the end of Plein Soleil, Alain Delon(who plays Ripley) is implied to have the police closing in on him but we don’t see his arrest on-screen.

    The point of Crime and Punishment is that the only way the case could be solved is if Raskolnikov turns himself in, he got away with the crime completely and finally arrives at a decision to turn himself in. It’s not the cops who bring him in and even the detective has no evidence to turn him in aside from irritating his suspect into doing something stupid. So there is correspondence between the two Rs only Dostoevsky believed that his man would do the right thing while Highsmith didn’t.

    One writer whose contempt for Dostoevsky formed a fulcrum to his views is Vladimir Nabokov. His Despair(adapted by Fassbinder into a movie starring Dirk Bogarde) is a parody of C&P and Dostoevsky in general.

  25. I’d like to read Nabokov on Dostoevsky, he’s a pretty interesting critic. Drives me crazy sometimes, but always interesting.

    I guess Ripley is a true psychopath, whereas Raskonikov just tries to talk himself into the role.

    In my own reading, just came across a reference to a “Lady Cairns” in Ulysses. Spooky stuff happens when I pick up that book! I felt like the guy in Harvey who looks up Pookah in the dictionary.

  26. Thanks for clarifying, A.S.

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