Archive for Douglas Sirk

Universal Truths

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 31, 2017 by dcairns

A rare misprint in the Il Cinema Ritrovato program had a Sirk masterpiece listed as ALL HEAVENS ALLOWED, which seems like a nice, tolerant approach. I don’t have any set photos from that, but two other Sirks also screen in Bologna are represented. MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION is above and below.

Shock Jane Wyman appearance. You don’t usually see the stars, or anyone else, in these things. Maybe Sirk sets were so relaxed the actors just naturally didn’t want to get up and move. Jane looks pretty tranquil. Still, you never see Rock Hudson.

Here’s two from Sirk’s lesser-known THUNDER ON THE HILL. Should I see it? I bet I should. I had convinced myself I actually had seen it, but I think between SUMMER STORM and THE FIRST LEGION, which I can barely remember, I neglected it.

Some sets just look bland and generic, some seem intriguing and characterful but you can’t recall the movie using them. But this staircase from WRITTEN ON THE WIND is pretty iconic if you’ve seen the movie. That’s a staircase just made for staggering down. Seeing it like this has an uncanny quality because, unlike in the movie where it’s as much a part of the Technicolor fantasy as Lauren Bacall or Robert Stack, here it’s more like a workplace for technicians and actors. A place you could walk into, wearing your own clothes.

A Bologna moment: they projected an original Technicolor print of WRITTEN, and at one point the projector gave a hiccup and the image jounced UP, to reveal not the heads of the actors poking up from the bottom of the screen, but simply MORE IMAGE. Because Sirk was forced to compose for both widescreen and boxy TV, and shoot “open-matte” so that the top of and bottom of the squareish TV frame exist, but are masked out during cinema projection (normally). If you’ve ever seen the 1:1.33 TV ratio version, you may have found it rather distant, since Sirk was forced to basically compose wider than he preferred. This was kind of a momentary peek behind the curtain — and so are these stills, in a different way.

Holy shit, it’s Dorothy Malone! Unless it’s her stand-in. Plus a corner of what could be Rock Hudson, or Rock Hudson’s stand-in (AKA Fake Rock). Looks like Sirk’s sets really were relaxed, happy places. A film scholar once told me that he couldn’t answer my questions about how funny Sirk intended his films to be but that the important thing was, he was certain Sirk was a GREAT GUY. This struck me as weird and unsatisfactory (but pleasingly idiosyncratic). If we found out something bad about Sirk, would his films cease to be any good? What I would offer as an alternative would be that maybe Sirk channelled his work through the finest, noblest part of his personality.

No more set photos left! But more gratefully received.

Heydrich Heydrich heydrich Heydrich

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 13, 2017 by dcairns

“Stop the film!”

HHhH is an excellent novel by Laurent Binet, telling the story of the rise and assassination of Reinhard Heydrich by two Czechoslovak patriots parachuted back into their homeland by the Brits. What makes the novel distinctive, and almost not a novel at all, is (a) the author’s fidelity to all the known facts, and his commentary on this fidelity — his refusal to imagine ANYTHING, or at any rate his disgusted self-denunciation whenever he does, part of (b) his constant commentary on his own process, and his reluctance even to accept dialogue quoted by sources when it sounds implausible. In such cases, he can offer a fictional version that strikes him as more likely, but he still has to denounce himself for making stuff up. In a way, it allows the author to be attractively modest — in the face of the heroic acts of the Czech and the Slovak, who knowingly sacrificed their lives out of certainty that their cause was just, Binet offers his own uncertainty, self-doubt, vacillation.

So we started watching the recent movie ANTHROPOID, which takes a piece of this story — just the mission, starting from the moment the heroes drop from the skies — and serves it up as a grim-faced and desaturated spectacle. It’s certainly because I’d just read Binet’s book, but I was intolerant of the movie’s mucking about with historical fact. Right after landing, our humourless, characterless heroes (a far cry from the rather jaunty, romantic figures Binet gleans from the historical record) run into a traitor and have to kill him to escape betrayal. In fact, the agents were discovered by a gamekeeper, who helped them. So the movie has gained an action sequence, albeit a very familiar one, presented in a shaky, muddy way by director Sean Ellis, but has lost a moving scene of an ordinary man risking his life for a noble cause, which is the kind of scene war movies used to live on.

I felt, personally, that the filmmakers had departed from the facts in order to offer something LESS INTERESTING.

Likewise, the presentation of Kubis and Gabcik, played by Christian Grey and the Scarecrow, as emotionless killing machines seemed like a less effective choice than Binet’s. The movie has a far shorter emotional distance to cover if the characters are already miserable, implacable, devoid of light and shade. They’re going to be spending quite a lot of the film staring death in the face. Will we notice any difference in their mood?

Incidentally, when they jumped from the British plane, the real Kubis & Gabcik landed, Binet tells us, in a graveyard. Ellis and co-writer Anthony Frewin eschew this. perhaps for fear of seeming to indulge in symbolism. But it really happened! It would be an interesting challenge to include this WITHOUT making it look symbolic. But, to be fair, I have no idea how this could be achieved.

When the film forgets to do wobbly sepiatone, it occasionally delivers beautiful shots, and the action scenes are pretty effective, but it has no humour and no gradation of tone. The task of creating characters defeats the screenwriters. A “poetic” touch at the end is brave, but seemed unearned, hokey and basically disastrous to Fiona & I.

Binet’s researches uncovered previous novels and films about these incidents. He’s impressed by John Carradine’s perf as Heydrich in Sirk’s HITLER’S MADMAN, which I wrote about here. A good B-picture ruined by the infusion of MGM class, was my harsh verdict, but I agree about JC. Beginning with the assassination, the film concentrates on the extermination of Lidice in retaliation. The movie’s biggest distortion of history is to stage the assassination at Lidice and not in Prague — surely the location of the incident was one of the few things known for certain at the time? But the filmmakers, it seems, couldn’t follow the Nazis’ logic — why was this random village chosen? So they had to invent a reason, when in reality there was none.

The most artistic responses to the incident in film are Humphrey Jennings amazing THE SILENT VILLAGE, which imagines the fate of Lidice befalling a Welsh mining village — aiming to de-exoticise the tragedy, to literally bring it home to British viewers; and Fritz Lang’s HANGMEN ALSO DIE!, a wholly fictitious account of the assassination and its aftermath. Binot is very forgiving of Sirk and Lang (and their writers, including “Bert” Brecht), allowing that the true facts weren’t known at the time and filmmakers had to just make stuff up — the good filmmakers did this thrillingly.

HANGMEN deserves a wholly entry on its fantastic rogue’s gallery of gloating Nazi pigs.  It’s a masterpiece. Binot rightly credits some of this to Brecht’s excellent, made-up story. It particular, it has a fruity and vile Heydrich played by Hans Heinrich von Twardowski (CALIGARI, CASABLANCA) in a joke shop nose. I don’t think anyone’s ever seriously alleged that Heydrich was gay (it was getting engaged to two different women at once that got him drummed out of the navy, leading to him joining the Nazi party), but that seems to be how Twardowski is playing him. Heydrich DID have a very high voice, according to Binot, but nobody’s ever played him that way. It might seem silly. Probably the only way to pull it off would be to hire an actor already known for having a high voice, so it didn’t seem so much like an artistic choice — because there’s no way to make it clear to the audience that you’re being factual here.

Another Heydrich perf Binot admires is Kenneth Branagh’s in the 2001 TV play Conspiracy. Branagh plays to his strengths — his Heydrich is warm and matey, a little overbearing with it, but he comes on like everyone’s chum, making opposition difficult by his air of affable reasonableness. As Binot says, there aren’t really any accounts of Heydrich that stress chumminess as one of his qualities, but the effect is very disturbing. The whole show is terrific — Loring Mandel’s script mostly sticks to things the actual Nazi high command said on the record at Wannsee, plotting the Final Solution, and in the unrecorded conversations between bouts at the conference table he draws heavily on other conversations they are known to have had. And there’s none of the wretched “As you know…” style of exposition we’ve grown sadly used to in British drama.

(STARTED watching MY WEEK WITH MARILYN with friends. The cackhanded exposition was so pervasive and dumb (Fiona says the film gets better later) that I coined the phrase “As you know, I’m your father,” and after a few real examples of this kind of writing we almost convinced ourselves that it was an actual piece of dialogue. I’m not sure I want to blame Adrian Hodges, the credited writer, because this is exactly the sort of thing execs the Weinstein Bros would insist on being included. They honestly believe the purpose of having characters is to explain things to the audience.)

Binot seems to have missed OPERATION: DAYBREAK (why the colon?), directed by Lewis Gilbert and adapted by Ronald Harwood (THE PIANIST) from the novel by Alan Burgess, which he does know about. The film is pretty factual, it seems to me, though aesthetically quite dull, apart from the odd choice of David Hentschel’s synth score. It has a fine Heydrich, Anton Differing (he of the combustible behind) — at last, an actor with a big enough nose! I remember the film itself being a little boring, which is odd given the authentic life-or-death stakes involved.

And now there’s a film of HHhH (you wait ages for a Heydrich and then two come along at once), which I guess, following my practice of capitalising film titles, I will have to call HHHH. An awkward title either way. (Binot writes that if the book we’re holding isn’t called Operation Anthropoid, we’ll know his publisher won the argument.) The acronym stands for the German version of the phrase Heydrich Is Himmler’s Brain (which is the small H?), and not for Heydrich Heydrich heydrich Heydrich, as I may have inadvertently given you the impression. This was a popular “meme” in the Czech Protectorate, before they knew what memes were. I guess it’s precisely the fact of Heydrich being Himmler’s brain that made it such a damn good idea to kill him.

The film will have to live up to the book’s high standards of accuracy, though frankly it CAN’T — it will have to invent conversations and present them without apology or comment (I’ll be impressed as hell if it attempts anything as pomo or self-critical as the book — it just won’t). It seems to have a pretty good Heydrich in Aussie Jason Clarke, although oddly he’s doing it with an English accent and all the others are putting on German accents. Playing characters who in reality would be speaking a different language, and doing them with a mild accent, always struck me as silly. Although here we have Stephen Graham looking like a VERY good match for Himmler, and I guess if he’d played it with his native Liverpool accent, that would have been unacceptable. Though not to me, because I delight in marvellous variety.

(Graham is a smashing actor and a master of accents. He plays cockney in the recent series Taboo. Tom Hardy is playing the lead role as a very good impersonation of Oliver Reed — only Keith Allen has done it better. So Stephen Graham comes on as the late Bob Hoskins, not to be put down. The more Hardy bats his eyelashes and whispers in a threatening growl, the more expansive and waannafow Graham becomes. You may not recollect that Hoskins pronounced “wonderful” as “waannafow,” but take it from me, he did. It was part of what made him so waannafow.)

Have I missed any good Heydrichs? What are your favourite performances of members of the Nazi command, if you have any? Oh, I know… Goebbels is always good value. But let’s look BEYOND GOEBBELS…


Illusion Sails

Posted in FILM with tags , , on January 16, 2016 by dcairns


Zarah Leander says goodbye.

In theory this might be a rear projection shot with a miniature sailing ship drifting off into a cyclorama sea, but I want and in some silly way NEED to believe that the shot, from Douglas Sirk’s ZU NEUEN UFERN, was achieved in camera, with a really BIG model ship, as tall as the statuesque Zarah herself,  positioned not far from her in a forced perspective kind of a deal. That makes it somehow more poetic, I think.

The film is very good, once you get past the oddity of Nazi Germany making a valid critique of the British class system. It’s also a rare musical where every single eruption of song, apart from the music hall numbers, feels like a derailment of the film’s cinematic reality. It’s like seeing a musical for the first time, before you knew they were possible.