Archive for the Politics Category

Hide in Plain Sight

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Science with tags , , , , , , , on September 23, 2016 by dcairns


The Glass Pearls, a novel by Emeric Pressburger (right), has been republished for the first time since 1966, under the Faber Finds imprint.

The great screenwriter had continued to work in pictures sporadically since the break-up of the Archers — he worked pseudonymously on the screenplays of OPERATION CROSSBOW in 1965 — the kind of efficient, gung-ho war drama which had sadly ended his collaboration with Michael Powell — and THEY’RE A WEIRD MOB for Powell, unofficially, in 1966.  His novel The Miracle of St Anthony’s Lane was filmed as MIRACLE IN SOHO and Killing a Mouse on Sunday, a more ambitious work, was adapted by Fred Zinnemann as BEHOLD A PALE HORSE (which is worth seeing).

This third book — the excellent introduction by Caitlin McDonald mysteriously refers to it as his second — is striking particularly because it is so uncinematic. The tale of a Nazi doctor who performed brain surgery of death camp inmates and is now hiding out in (moderately) swinging London, compels more for the protagonist’s thoughts than for his actions. If presented on the screen, what we would see is a worried-looking piano tuner going about his business and hesitantly wooing a younger woman.

It’s the internal angst of the character which compels one’s interest. The reviews I had seen focussed on Pressburger’s remarkable feat of making his Nazi doctor an at-times-sympathetic hero. I appreciated his craftsmanship and his moral imagination in doing so, but the trick is fairly simple: if you create a credible character with a clear problem, and show him taking understandable steps to deal with the problem, the audience is compelled to take interest in proportion to the difficulty of the problem rather than the worth of the problem-solver. What’s most impressive is that Pressburger could bring himself to go there. All through the war his “propaganda” films were attacked for not being propagandistic enough, for giving too much credit to the enemy, and here her is, years after the war, willing himself to engage with the struggles of a war criminal to evade justice. That must have been tough.

But despite the morally complex effects of engaging with “Karl Braun’s” difficulties, he is not a sympathetic character per se — justifying his medical crimes by arguing that they were for the good of humanity, he has nevertheless destroyed his notes in order to make good his escape — or so he believes. He’s totally unrepentant, and his religious beliefs consist of imagining a God as cold-blooded and “rational” as himself, who will be sure to judge him kindly.

For movie fans, the most appealing elements are the little anecdotes spun by the protagonist, “proof” of his fictional past as an anti-Nazi photographer who escaped Germany for Paris in the ’30s. These tales may even be drawn from Pressburger’s own experience, since he briefly dallied in the City of Light before England, Korda, Powell and Fate beckoned. But of course the author of THE RED SHOES could equally well have invented them from whole cloth. Each story is a perfect pearl of experience, whether true or false. They FEEL true.

The other cinematic connection is the relationship of this book, despised or ignored by the British press when first published, with Powell and Leo Marks’ PEEPING TOM. Both deal with German immigrants in London (Powell’s film is a little strange here since the character was never written as German, and we see film of him growing up in England). One is a photographer, one claims to be one. Both pursue a chaste relationship with a girl who doesn’t suspect their dark secrets. False name Karl Braun and real name Carl Boehm.

In a way, the book is about memory, the subject of the Nazi doctor’s research. Pressburger had looked into brain surgery when writing A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, so it surprised me that he didn’t include the remarkable fact that the brain can be operated on while the patient is conscious. The brain, which processes sensation, feels none of its own, and so with a local anesthetic you can have the too of your head taken off and doctors can give your neurons little electric shocks to see what happens.

Pressburger’s doctor has been laboriously opening his patient’s heads, removing pieces of grey matter, and then repairing the patient and interrogating them to establish the effect on their memories. Horrible, but reality provides an even worse and more dramatic possible approach.

Strong as it is, the novel’s horror is almost upstaged by the preface by Pressburger’s grandson, producer Kevin MacDonald. He relates that when Alzheimer’s claimed Pressburger’s own memories, he became terrified of imaginary Nazis coming for him, and even fought the ambulance crew who came for him, believing he was being taken to the camps. It’s a cliché that memory plays tricks on us. Memory does not mean us well. Memory, perhaps, is a Nazi doctor.


Posted in FILM, Politics, Television with tags , , , , on August 16, 2016 by dcairns


NATAN, the documentary Paul Duane and I directed in 2013, airs today on Arte in France and Germany at 22.15. The film’s TV premiere. Special thanks to all who helped make it possible, and particularly Serge Bromberg for his tireless efforts as distributor. We’re hoping this leads to sales elsewhere, but it’s wonderful in itself — France was always the key place we wanted to play.

“Bernard Natan haunts the history of French cinema…” – Le Monde

“Natan is an extraordinary film!” – Philip Kaufman

“I loved it. It is a very moving, thoughtful documentary” – Bertrand Tavernier

Bernard Natan revolutionised French Cinema. So why was he destroyed, imprisoned, murdered, and then, after his death, why was even his memory turned into a sick joke? – Craig McCall (CAMERAMAN)

Related articles in French and German. You can buy the film via our Facebook page.

Wife, Horse, Mustache

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 15, 2016 by dcairns


A shot nobody particularly remarks upon in its first iteration goes on to become famous in LAST TANGO IN PARIS…

It’s odd the things that stick in your mind. I remember some TV review of the year show at the end of 1982 and Billy Connolly was on it reviewing KING OF COMEDY, which he said had become his new favourite film — “Apart from VIVA ZAPATA!” So there you go, now you know what Billy Connolly’s favourite film is. I mean, I’m sure it hasn’t changed.



Another odd thing — since I’m younger than cinema itself, marginally, I find myself experiencing film history backwards sometimes. Sergio Leone’s A FISTFUL OF DYNAMITE is a film I retain some considerable fondness for, though I’m more and more bothered by the misogyny. But when I finally watched Billy Connolly’s favourite film, I was fascinated to see the influence it had on Leone — specifically an execution in the rain with an artfully-lit rain-speckled car window. Though Leone was clearly working off the American western tradition, it’s relatively rare that I spot a moment in one of his films that owes a noticeable visual debt to any specific movie. Sir Christopher Professor Frayling has pointed out shots borrowed from HIGH NOON, and I was quite smug when I noticed that the opening of THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY owes a recognizable debt to William Wellman’s YELLOW SKY (gunfight indoors, filmed from outdoors, with a camera movement motivated by somewhat abstract means), but no doubt partly because of the new tools of widescreen and the zoom lens, and pertly because of his own distinct visual mannerisms (extreme closeups from eyebrow to lower lip intercut with spectacular wide shots, and deep focus compositions which combine ECU and ELS), Leone’s films never seem to me like a patchwork of influences. I also don’t really feel they have anything in common with anybody else’s spaghetti westerns, a genre which seems to me to have produced almost no distinguished work outside of Leone.


Anyway, to VIVA ZAPATA!, a relatively early Kazan/Brando, which really does come to life in its scenes of personal violence (battles, not so much). Kazan is continuing the very in-your-face deep focus approach he used in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (which at times looks like it was shot for 3D, so much thrusting into the lens goes on). There are lots of great expressive shots which develop and transform as you watch, a hallmark of Kazan’s approach since he decided to make PANIC IN THE STREETS “like Hitchcock.”



There is a slight problem with the whole Mexico thing. This Fox production credits no Mexican actors at all, apart from special case Anthony Quinn, though there are plenty in small roles. Allowing for Hollywood fantasy (which one doesn’t have to allow for in Kazan’s very best films), actors like Joseph Wiseman and Arnold Moss make semi-credible substitutes, and Jean Peters doesn’t really try, which wins her points. Brando is the problem.


It’s an interesting makeup. Apart from darkening his skin and hair, the makeup team (including Ben Nye and gorilla specialist Charles Gemora — did somebody ask for a guerrilla fighter and get misunderstood?) have given him wouldn’t-it-be-rubbery oriental eyes, which combine with dark contact lenses to make Brando/Zapata seem boss-eyed. And they’ve given him a mustache many, many times smaller and punier than the famous original. Brando’s ‘tache would only look like a Zapata if glued to Herve Villechaise for some kind of ill-advised TERROR OF TINY TOWN scaled-down remake. That’s a strange choice. We don’t require our leading man to look exactly like the historical figure he’s impersonating — but Zapata’s mustache was very famous indeed, and he gave his name to it. Which must have been confusing. “Are you talking to me or my mustache?



Suspense-building cutaways — Kazan probably wished he had a half-dozen more of these for the climax, but he gets by with two, thanks to Barbara McLean’s taut cutting and Joseph Walker’s marvelous photography.

The ending is a stunner — well, not so much scenarist John Steinbeck’s inspirational coda, which I found noble but corny — but the action climax is proper proto-Peckinpah, no slomo required. Brando, like Peckinpah, is an artist of violence, particularly inspired by moments of pain and death, and he approaches the assassination with a lot of interesting ideas. Look out for a major Brando project from me shortly…