Archive for Emil Jannings

Conrad Veidt: The Sound Years. Part 1 – The Last Company/Die letzte Kompagnie 1930

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on September 7, 2020 by dcairns

Hello. I’m Fiona Watson, Mrs Shadowplay, and I’m back to carry out my threat to review Conrad Veidt’s sound career, in chronological order, or at least, the order listed on the IMDB. Because there’s far more to him than the kohl-smeared, expressionist flailer of the Silent Era.

Unfortunately, I can’t review Land Without Women/Das Land ohne Frauen 1929, Connie’s (and Germany’s) very first sound film because it’s currently lost, as much of Connie’s output is. Could someone start making a REAL effort to find this stuff please? Apparently one of his ‘lost’ films, Storm Over Asia/Tempête sur l’Asie 1938, isn’t ‘lost’ at all, it’s just sitting in an archive. What bloody use is that?

Synopsis – in the early 19th century during the Napoleonic war, thirteen men of an army detachment are left alive after a battle. They decamp to a nearby windmill where they find a family. The young daughter, Dora (Karin Evans), becomes emotionally attached to Captain Burk (Veidt) as they resolve to take a last stand against the enemy in what is essentially a suicide mission. The family flee but Dora sneaks back to be with her beloved Captain.

This film is now in a lamentable condition. Watching it was like receiving a film via telepathy from a not very good psychic. Bad show I say! It has some historical importance and deserves a restoration, although I doubt that’s possible because other, cleaner elements probably don’t exist any more. We even have moments where the image completely whites out. You can’t repair what’s not there. 

The Last Company was part of a popular series of films celebrating Prussian history and derring-do, and it’s solid, with a magnificent (and very long) opening tracking shot over the bodies of dead soldiers in a muddy field, while crows caw ominously in the background. This is probably the most cinematic part of the film until we get to the action-packed, death-sodden ending, which is dynamically shot and edited.

What comes in between is mostly a chamber piece which gives away its stage origins. The storyline is pretty thin, but what impresses is the naturalness of the performances. Nothing seems forced or projected to the back of the stalls. These look and sound like real people.  There’s some humour and a hell of a lot of hearty, bawdy, soldierly singing. (At one point David asked me if it was a musical.) We even get overlapping dialogue; pretty bold for something shot in 1929/1930. 

According to an intriguing review in Variety from 1931, an English language version was shot, then dubbed with British accented voices to match the German actors’ lip movements. The writer felt that the dubbing was distracting and badly done. So apparently Connie’s voice remained unheard outside Germany at this stage, which is a great pity, because the original proves that he was no “squeaking horror” as he referred to earlier efforts to record him. His voice was beautiful, unusual and distinctive.

The Squeaking Horror role goes to his leading lady, Karin Evans (Dora), who may have had a perfectly acceptable speaking voice when you were standing next to her in real life, but who sounds like she’s been hiding behind the flour sacks of the mill, inhaling helium between takes. It’s most disconcerting. But what’s really diverting is how Connie has completely changed as a film actor.

(Sorry about the lack of subtitling here. Basically the situation that’s unfolding is that his men are packing up to leave. What they don’t know is that they CAN’T leave, because if they don’t stay and fight it could mean the deaths of thousands of their countrymen. Understandably, Connie looses his temper when they question his authority)

He seems to have almost immediately grasped the difference between silent and sound acting. His theatre training undoubtedly played a big part in this. At no time do you associate him with the wild, expressionistic contortions of Caligari or Orlac. He’s singled out in the Variety review as giving ‘an exceptionally fine performance’ despite the dubbing hindrance, and having seen the original German version, I wouldn’t disagree with that.

Granted, he doesn’t have much to do apart from be intense, imposing, commanding and sombre. He does that for about 80% of the film’s running time. The other 20% is given over to his tenderly chaste romance with the Squeaking Horror and his firm but compassionate leadership of his men. He’s certainly a striking figure, with his immense height and searchlight eyes beaming out of his soot-blackened face.

This dubbed version doesn’t seem to exist anymore unless it’s lurking about in a vault with Das Land ohne Frauen. What are the chances of that? Two Conrad Veidt Talkies in which a woman shows up in a male-dominated environment and throws a spanner in the works, in English and then in German. Not the same woman obviously. (Strike that. I’ve just discovered, via David Bordwell’s blog, that the dubbed version was shown in Bologna in 2011 as part of a Veidt season. He says it was part dubbed, part redone with the actors speaking English, so maybe people outside Germany DID hear his real voice)

Amusingly, when Die letzte Kompagnie was released in the States in its lip-flapped state, it was retitled Thirteen Men And A Girl, which sounds like a Deanna Durbin musical or a porn film. Imagine a mash up of 13 Men, Deanna and porn, dear reader, then defenestrate yourself out of shame! David suggests Debbie Does Deutschland as a more acceptable alternative, but I don’t think he should be encouraged in these efforts. 

Marlene Dietrich (chums with Veidt), filming The Blue Angel next door, popped onto the set of The Last Company for a chinwag and to show off her frilly knickers. I love the way German directors wore lab coats, like they were ‘film scientists’ or something. Allegedly, Veidt repaid the compliment and nipped over to the Blue Angel set to watch Emil Jannings (another chum) have apoplexy because the film was being stolen from under his nose by Dietrich. 

Sidebar – Jannings would eventually marry Veidt’s ex-wife, talented actor, singer and cabaret artiste, Gussy Holl; an extraordinary volte-face on Holl’s part. I suppose talent and charisma count for a lot, despite what shape they come in. 

Director Kurt/Curtis Bernhardt, like so many German film artists of Jewish heritage fleeing the Nazis, would end up having a Hollywood career. Not an exceptional one, but not too shabby either. He would occasionally explode into brilliance, particularly on the ‘women’s pictures’ he became famous for. In Payment On Demand (1951), a Bette Davis vehicle, he utilised extraordinary transparent sets, and he guided Joan Crawford, Jane Wyman, Joan Blondell and Eleanor Parker towards Oscar nominations.

Bernhardt would direct Veidt again in Der Mann, der den Mord beging/The Man Who Committed Murder 1931, the next film I’ll be tackling. Join me as we explore the little discussed Veidt sound filmography. 

Danke.

Yesterday

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 31, 2020 by dcairns

A busy day at Il Cinema Ritrovato online:

LIEBLING DER GOTTER, Emil Jannings in an early German talkie. Surprisingly sophisticated — I guess Europe had a couple of years to absorb the early mistakes and discoveries of American sound film, so there’s immediately an understanding that UNsynchronised sound — separating sound from image — offscreen voices and noises overlaid on top of contrasting images — is one of the most powerful and absorbing techniques, at least as valuable as lip-synched dialogue.

CALIFORNIA SPLIT — I’d seen this years ago and knew it was good — Fiona hadn’t. More sound innovation, as Altman mixes untold layers of overlapping gab, sometimes allowing a clear conversation to emerge from the wordstream, sometimes smothering bits of it in crosstalk, sometimes submerging everying in burbling accretions of babel.

The film itself is terrific. I recall Elliott Gould talking about it in Edinburgh. He was a producer on it and said that the ending was originally supposed to show him and George Segal exiting the casino, filmed from outside: they’re friendship is over.

Altman approached Gould and suggested, it being very late/early and everyone tired, that they could end the film indoors and save themselves relocating and setting up a new shot. Gould agreed, and has wondered ever since if he made a mistake, and if the film underperformed because of it.

Maybe the very end is a tiny bit lacking — but not in a way that hurts your memory of the experience. A good illustration of Kurosawa’s point that, when you’re tired, your body and brain tell you that you have enough footage when you really don’t. The only solution, AK counsels, is to go ahead and shoot twice as much as you think you need.

A hard lesson!

The movie is wonderful — I miss the pre-McKee era when films could shamble along loosely, apparently neglecting all rules of structure, until at the end you realised that everything was there for a reason and an artful design had been functioning all along, UNDETECTED.

We also watched TAP ROOTS (George Marshall, 1948), beautiful Technicolor but by God it was dull.

Apart from Boris Karloff as a Native American with an English accent, and a fairly well-written part for Van Heflin, and the odd political interest of this GONE WITH THE WIND knock-off (Susan Hayward being flame-haired at the top of her voice) in which the South wins the Civil War against itself (a valley of abolitionist Southerners is invaded by the Confederates), the most striking moment was a surely unplanned incident in a river battle where one horse, improvising wildly, mounted another, trapping the hapless actor on Horse (2)’s saddle in a kind of Confederate sandwich with horses instead of bread. Looked painful. I have never weighed a horse but I believe they’re not featherweights.

Algol Anomalous

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , on April 24, 2020 by dcairns

ALGOL! I’ve wanted to see a decent copy of this German expressionist sci-fi movie for years, without, of course, wanting to pay money for it.

There’s a visitor from the star Algol, see, and he brings the gift of infinite energy production and turns a humble miner into a global despot. His motivation in all this is never precisely clear but he’s clearly not benign. Unfortunately John Gottowt plays the part in a manic style, resembling too closely Spike Milligan’s rendition of a silent tragedian. But we also get Emil Jannings, eyes bouncing around like pinballs in his tapioca pudding of a face, so that’s good. Erna Morena, the original Lulu, does the least acting and commands her scenes effortlessly.

The plotting is rather shambolic — this movie is really guilty of all the sins METROPOLIS has been unjustly accused of, and even has a character named Hel(l). Peter Hell, in fact, which really might have made a contemporary English-language audience laugh, whereas I’ve never been sure Hel in METROPOLIS would have convulsed ‘twenties viewers.

The sets are stonking. They’re several degrees less stylised than those in CALIGARI, but every bit as style-ISH, and they become crazier in just the right scenes. The alien-inspired power plant is naturally quite nutzoid, but there’s also a starlit rooftop of a miner’s cottage, which works great. If you were in your living room, as I assume you are, you’d expect things to look normal, as I assume you do, but if you went up on your starlit rooftop, things WOULD have a magical, stylised air. So they do here.

I used this playlist as soundtrack: it’s nearly the right length and tonally it seemed to fit the action uncannily about 90% of the time.

Sadly, the Vimeo link, whereby the film had seemingly been offered up for free by its archive, is now dead.

ALGOL stars Mephisto; Professor Bulwer – a Paracelsian; Hagen Tronje; Brunhild; Lulu; Prinz Orlowsky; Countess Dusy Told; and Baroness Munchausen.