Archive for Adolf Hitler

The Sunday Intertitle: Behind the Seen

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 27, 2022 by dcairns

“You don’t count, I discount you. I give you the great laugh of all time, the laugh of acceptance — which melts you down.” Ray Bradbury in Kevin Brownlow’s doc The Tramp and the Dictator, attempting to summarise what Chaplin does to Hitler in THE GREAT DICTATOR, and perhaps more accurately summarising the end of his own novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. I wonder if he made the connection, and I wonder if he was in any way thinking of Chaplin, or Nazism, when he wrote the book. Dark & Cooger’s Pandemonium Carnival seems wholly a manifestation of supernatural evil, but maybe its cyclical behaviour, returning again and again to plague humanity, could be a gesture towards political madness and badness, which seems set on an eternal return of its own.

I miss Ray B.

The Brownlow documentary is excellent, of course.

When Kenneth Branagh narrates that two mysterious suitcases belonging to Sydney Chaplin were found in the Chaplin villa in Switzerland, I immediately flashed on how alarming it might be to have the job of opening them, knowing what we know about Syd’s proclivities. They might contain anything — the missing bits of the Black Dahlia, for instance. I’m barely even kidding here.

Instead, to our relief and gratification, we get Syd’s home movies, which include behind-the-scenes shots, in colour, of the shooting of THE GREAT DICTATOR. Also holiday film of topless native girls, filmed with a lascivious eye to the viewfinder. But that’s relatively innocent in comparison to Syd’s history of aggravated sexual assault (only one incident, so far as we know, but a singularly horrible one).

In the film of TGD’s ballroom scene, Syd seems to have his eye on an attractive blonde extra. I can only hope she escaped unscathed.

Interesting to see Chaplin and Grace Hayle dancing, from the wrong angle, with camera tremor, and in colour. When you see Keaton performing via a documentary camera in BUSTER KEATON RIDES AGAIN, his stylisation becomes more apparent: he’s acting for THAT camera, not THIS one. Chaplin’s stylisation is nearly always apparent, I think. And Grace H. is always almost completely real, which is why we feel a bit sorry for her Madame Napaloni, even though we probably needn’t.

Later, when we see Billy Gilbert, NOT acting, laughing at something Chaplin has said, he seems as vaudevillian and exaggerated in life as he does when performing (above right, left of frame).

We also get to see Chaplin staging WWI in Woodland Hills, and the ghetto on the back lot, surrounded by Los Angeles with its palm trees, and everything is in too-gaudy colour, both more and less real than the scenes in the finished movie.

In this extra feature, made for the European DVD of TGD, my man Costa-Gavras goes deep on the world’s tolerant approach to Hitler as Chaplin set out to make his denunciation. Chaplin can seem naive and woolly, the self-educated man full of opinions he likes, but the fact is on Hitler he was bang on, and most of the rest of the world was horribly wrong.

He also talks about Napaloni’s arrival by rail, the scene I just discussed yesterday — he finds the clapped-together production values intriguing, and is sure Chaplin meant the cardboard production design to signify the emptiness, the deep falsity of the two dictators. And he sings the praises of Heinkel’s dance with the globe — and one might think of the Dance of the Eurocrats at the end of his most recent film, the criminally neglected ADULTS IN THE ROOM.

Oh yes, it’s Sunday, we need an intertitle. Brownlow’s documentary provides one, untranslated, as the VO notes “audiences did not respond to [Hitler] as a silent actor.” Despite the low angle framing, making the little man in short trousers look big, the vital element of the voice is missing. Hitler needed radio and talking pictures to convey his message beyond his immediate presence. They were invented at just the right time for him, and you might argue the wrong time for Chaplin.

God knows, Hitler’s actual words — “Germany’s freedom will rise again just as people and fatherland will resist, stronger than ever!” — are not particularly meaningful. They have the tone of prophecy rather than political analysis, which presumably worked in their favour, but you would need A.H.’s salesmanship to put them across.

Chaplin said Hitler was the greatest actor he’d ever seen.

More fun with Charlie and Adolf next week!

Effigies

Posted in FILM, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , on November 24, 2022 by dcairns

Russian gloom — I’m enjoying, if that’s the word, Adam Curtis’ Russia 1985-1999: TraumaZone, on the BBC iPlayer, his doc series culled from hundreds of hours of BBC footage of the Soviet Union’s decline. I can remember some of these scenes from their original broadcast. Cinephiles may note the name of Pawel Pawlikowski, one of the original documentary shooters who captured the distressing scenes.

Above left, Boris Yeltsin becomes an effigy (never a good sign) and on the right, Hitler does the same in COME AND SEE, which I screened for students — a Soviet film from the beginning of Curtis’ period of study.

The screening went well — I tried to warn students about what they were in for, including the death of a cow onscreen, but then a few arrived late so were plunged into hell with no warning.

I was particularly struck this time by how the film LOOKS YOU IN THE EYE — so many characters embarrass us with their frank, and horrified stares, direct into the lens, a technique allied perhaps to the way the film has its hero (the remarkable Aleksei Kravchenko) co-opted into a group photograph at the start and finish, once with Russian comrades, and then with Nazi captors.

With its immersive Steadicam shots and alarming, deafening sound design, this is one of the most traumatic films I know, but along with horror there’s a kind of awe which, for me anyway, makes it not depressing but strangely wondrous, if not uplifting. My students seemed impressed, one thanked me personally for showing it, and said she really appreciated the use of Mozart’s Requiem Mass at the end — which can perhaps be looked upon as Klimov’s aftercare for his gobsmacked audience.

Ghetto Fabular

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 15, 2022 by dcairns

Met some of my new students yesterday. Oddly, our first official class has been postponed due to somebody called Elizabeth dying. There’s a national holiday to allow us to watch television, a spectacularly British idea which should become an annual, or daily, event.

Since the entire university is shutting down, my eleven screenings will be reduced to ten. I’m definitely starting with Keaton. But if I show SHERLOCK JR I can fit in a Chaplin too. Or a bunch of shorts — could cram in a Lumiere, a Melies, and a couple of something elses to show the development of silent film language… Maybe a Guy and a Feuillade?

I have a week and a bit to decide. It’ll be a last-minute thing, I’m sure.

A little more on THE GREAT DICTATOR. As I said before, the ghetto scenes show Chaplin more than usually constrained by the laws of good taste. While, normally, we can show Charlie having difficulties and we laugh but still have sympathy for him — as was shown in all the WWI gags — we can’t laugh when he’s being bullied by stormtroopers, even when they’re unreal Hollywood goon type stormtroopers. We can’t be encouraged to laugh along with those thugs. Chaplin can use their bullying to build up tension — increased by the fact that the Jewish barber character is an innocent who doesn’t even know what stormtroopers ARE, and so doesn’t realise what danger he’s in — and release that tension as laughter when Paulette starts clunking them with a frying pan. And we can laugh — just about — when she accidentally clunks the J.b. But the notion of being able to beat up Nazis in Nazi Germany without consequences, even if it’s “Tomainia” instead of Germany — is so obviously a fantasy that the film can’t really lay claim to being a satire while this material is being unfolded. It becomes even more a fairy tale than LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL, which admits to being one (a shrewd bit of damage control by producer Harvey Weinstein, who must have known the film was unacceptable but would be extremely popular).

Sidenote: the slapstick business with the stormtroopers is also hampered by being shot and shown at 24fps, without undercranking, and the tracking shots seem to reinforce the HEAVIER quality this gives it.

When, later, Charlie is being strung up from a lamp post — lamp posts have been dangerous since EASY STREET — things are so serious they’re not funny at all. It’s a bigger problem than the one first diagnosed when he wanted to combine comedy and drama, and a friend advised that the two values would surely fight one another. Chaplin believed, and proved, that they could be held in balance. But I think it’s fair to say that in a comedy, violence by anti-Semites against Jews will be upsetting enough to kill subsequent laughter if it’s done with realistic intensity, and if it’s tamped down to be less upsetting, will seem like an unacceptable softening of the truth.

Of course, this is where having a copy of THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED to look at would be very useful. It’s just possible that Jerry Lewis, king of the conflicted response, might have solved the problem, even if he did it unintentionally — his likely mingling of broad comedy, schmaltz, and horror could (and we can only speculate) have fermented into something truly unbearable. The late JLG said that the only film to make about the Holocaust would be a very technical study of how many bodies could be fit on a wheelbarrow, and it would be unbearable. Jer might be the man for that. (Welles: “When he goes too far, he’s wonderful. When he doesn’t he’s unbearable.”)

So, no, I’m not a huge fan of the stormtrooper schtick. And it’s interesting that this business is really the only use Chaplin makes of the J.b’s amnesia, other than as a convenient ellipsis to skip over most of the interwar years.* Our protagonist lays down no memories during this period, so we can jump ahead to the next bit of interest to us. And, to return to my crackpot theory, when the Jewish barber is imprisoned, he splits in two, like Bill Pullman in LOST HIGHWAY. Here, one persona is exaggeratedly innocent. The other is pure malignity. One copes with his war trauma by a near-total memory dump. The other prepares a second global conflagration as revenge.

More Hynkel frolics soon!

*The return to the cobwebbed barber shop does give us a great uncanny moment, where the barber suddenly notices the disrepair, which makes no sense to him since he believes he’s been gone perhaps for a day. The camera tracks in to a medium shot, pans to a web-shrouded sink as he looks at it (a non-optical POV shot, effectively), then back to him, and Chaplin graces us with a very fleeting Look To Camera.

“Do you see this too?”