Archive for Faust

Beck #3: Judgment Call

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , on March 23, 2022 by dcairns

The Man on the Balcony, the third Martin Beck novel, deals with a serial child killer and has echoes of Fritz Lang & Thea Von Harbou’s M, though co-writer Maj Sjöwall reckoned that, though she and her husband Per Wahlöö had seen the movie, any influence was unconscious.

As with several of the novels in the series, the plot sets up a seemingly insignificant, dead-end incident at the start, then weaves around until abruptly the almost-forgotten occurrence becomes essential. In this case, one of Beck’s less-intelligent colleagues, the brutal and snobbish Gunvar Larsson, receives a phone call from a member of the public describing a suspicious man on a balcony watching the neighbourhood children. Since there’s no law against standing or sitting on your own balcony, Larsson understandably dismisses the informant in a curt, not to say rude, manner. This, it will turn out, was a mistake which will have fatal consequences.

So, this is my first time seeing Gösta Ekman as Beck, even though MANNEN PA BALKONGEN was his fourth entry in a series of six Beck adaptations. So, the third novel became the fourth film in the series, and the fifth book was the second film, the sixth was the third, the ninth and tenth were the fifth and sixth. Weirdly, only three of them show up on the IMDb. This reordering necessitates rewriting, since the Beck team change several times over the course of the series. Benny Skacke, a supporting character here, hasn’t yet been introduced in the novels, his role being taken by the unlucky Stenstrom, who gets bumped off in The Laughing Policeman.

The IMDb, which doesn’t list all these shows, lists some as films and some as videos, which is wrong, because they’re blatantly TV movies. You can’t mistake that look. I’ve committed myself to see several of them, and I’m now dreading it because based on this entry they don’t seem to be very good.

Ekman is quite well cast, even if he’s older than the character in the books. He’s the grandson of the guy from Murnau’s FAUST, and he was an AD and second unit director for Bergman on e.g. THE SEVENTH SEAL. I think the direction of his performance is sloppy and he can’t take care of it all by himself: seeing him smile jokingly at a colleague at a crime scene where a little girl lies murdered made me cringe.

The inciting incident cited above is absent from this movie, and so to justify the title the murderer is shown watching kids from the balcony of a historic observatory. “He’s going to fall off that balcony at the end of the film,” predicted Fiona, who hasn’t read the book. “Hmm, he doesn’t do that in the book,” I said. But she was correct.


Though broadly faithful, one might say, to its source, BALCONY: THE MOTION PICTURE changes a ton of details, and in nearly every case it’s a change for the worse. Beck and his team find there are two eyewitnesses who may have seen the killer, but one is a three-year-old child, and the other is a violent mugger who was lurking in the park looking for victims at the same time as the murderer. In the book, Beck has to try to gently interrogate a toddler whose own parents barely understand half of what he says, and they have to first catch and then get the story from a violent crim.

Director Daniel Alfredson, who also co-wrote, omits the toddler talk, presumably because it looked too much like hard work. But that could very obviously have been a marvelous scene. It could blow your whole schedule, obviously, trying to get a tyke to say his dialogue, but I think it’d be worth it. And you’d be free to incorporate any irrelevant nonsense the kid comes out with. It’s a scene which could be two-thirds documentary, and be both cute and nerve-wracking, two emotions a film rarely gets to combine.

The crook in this show is given a big build-up as a prison escapee, which adds nothing. His arrest is turned into an action sequence in which Beck’s boss nearly gets a bunch of people killed. That’s quite a felicitous change, I’ll grant that. (But I’m now reading book 8, The Locked Room, and they’ve basically swiped the idea from there.) But then the crook voluntarily cooperates for humanitarian reasons, despite being a violent thug who beats up old women to steal their handbags. This removes tension and excitement from the story with surgical skill (“Beware of sympathy, for it is the enemy of drama.” ~ Alexander Mackendrick.)

I’m starting to really enjoy the trend in crappy English-language bits in the Beck adaptations. We had the investigations of the intrepid Inspector Kafka in ROSEANNA, and the ludicrous sub-Bondian end title song in THE MAN WHO WENT UP IN SMOKE. Here, since it’s the nineties, the team consult a forensic psychologist played by German actress Magdalena Ritter but, I fear, voiced by someone else. Since English is the more common shared language of Swedes and Germans, that’s how they converse, and it’s fun to hear Ekman chatting in our own tongue, but Ritter’s character is woefully wooden and Alfredson apparently only knows one thing about forensic psychology, the classification of killers into the organized and disorganized varities. Since these categories are fairly self-explanatory, having Ritter talk us through them — again and again and AGAIN — becomes pretty funny. Nobody seems to notice. Beck and his skeptical colleagues debate whether these newfangled ideas have any merit, but they never question this woman’s insanely repetitive patter. I’d have been wondering if she might be the maniac, or anyway a maniac.

Fiona pointed out that none of the victims wear jeans — they all wear summer dresses and several of them seem to twirl parasols, suggesting a sort of quasi-Victorian view of childhood. Quite odd. For some reason the kids seem to be older here than in the novel. The other crucial difference is that Sjöwall & Wahlöö refrain from building suspense out of stalking sequences, which Alfredson revels in. The book has no shortage of suspense, but it comes from the strain of the cops desperately hunting for clues, the threat that the killer will strike again before they can catch him. Then, without warning and with shocking matter-of-factness, another body is found. Though the novel is written in the voice of an omniscient narrator who could lurk in the bushes as the killer targets his next prey, they choose not to permit this. Which gives the book a kind of tact and restraint lacking in the filmed account. Though thankfully the victims and their pursuit aren’t eroticised as they might be in a slasher film, there’s still a distasteful excitement to the proceedings, and the unrealistic depiction of the girls is part of that.

With its quasi-dream sequences and would-be lush look, Balcony suggests that Alfredson would rather be directing Twin Peaks than some dour procedural. He’s not inept as a director (as a writer he totally is) but he’s all wrong. Using Fassbinder’s scale for measuring bad direction, I’ll give him five out of ten Gremms.

I can sympathise, to a degree, with a beleaguered adaptor attempting to transpose the Beck novels into traditional film-TV formulae. Of all the characters at his precinct, Beck — dour, quiet, plodding — is perhaps the least cut out for conventional heroism, and his creators have a fondness giving the most exciting moments to supporting players. In the source novel, as the net closes remorselessly on the serial killer, our main cops pick up a harmless stranger and the murderer is nabbed, completely by accident, by moronic minor characters. But even if Alfredson lacked the nerve and cunning and good taste to attempt such a feat, I see no excuse for his alternative. Having found the killer’s lair and reacted with horror to his collection of panties — completely ignoring the murderboard of news clippings in the background — Beck learns that the man works at the observatory, which is in a park. All the killings have happened in parks. So he RUNS, alone, to the observatory, intuiting somehow that the killer is about to strike RIGHT NOW. Which he is. It’s so dumb and hackneyed you can’t even call it a cliche, it’s like the disarticulated corpse of a cliche with all the vital connective tissue cut away.

Man falls off balcony. The end.

MANNEN PA BALKONGEN stars Mikael Strömberg; Jonny Björk; Ove; Wennerström; Berit; and Adolf Hitler.

The Sunday Intertitle: Death-Slide for Cutie

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 6, 2022 by dcairns

Still need to write at least two posts to finish off Chaplin’s THE CIRCUS, but meanwhile we watched DIE TODESCHLEIFE — aka LOOPING THE LOOP (although that title really means The Death-Slide), directed by the rather marvelous Arthur Robison (WARNING SHADOWS) and starring Werner Krauss, Jenny Jugo and featuring Warwick Ward and Sig Arno (“Nitz, Toto!”)

It’s worth mentioning in this context because it came out the same year as Chaplin’s film, and similarly features a lovelorn clown as protag, with an aerial acrobat rival, and the girl between. I think it’s not so much a case of direct influence as one of both films being inspired by HE WHO GETS SLAPPED, which has just those elements also.

Jenny Jugo shows how she got her name

Krauss for once is not playing an old man, and he keeps it simple and affecting. While watching, it is necessary to forget about him being such an enthusiastic Nazi, and then when it’s over, it is necessary to remember again, and sigh. He’s really good, in an entirely different mode from CALIGARI etc.

Robison’s politics are unknown to me. The Chicago-born German filmmaker made THE INFORMER in Britain the following year, but was still working in Germany in 1935, the year of his death. But then, the star of his last film, THE STUDENT OF PRAGUE, was Anton Walbrook, no Nazi. Seemingly quite a few filmmakers who were not themselves Jewish or Nazi felt able to stay in Germany for a few years after Hitler came to power: one thinks of Sirk and Lang. So Robison may have been thinking of getting out, but his early death (at 52) intervened. As I say, I know nothing of him save his birth, death and filmography: I’d love to know more.

The film is really stylish and quite involving: among the best touches is a scene where Krauss, as Botto the Clown, recalls a woman who he was romantically interested in, but who only wanted him for his clowning ability. In flashback, she demands that he laugh for her. His laugh — that of a broken-hearted man — apparently terrifies her until she backs away, and Robison stages this moment on a cunningly slanted set to give everything a delirious-vertiginous angst. You feel it in the distorted perspective but also in the straining of her legs. See also THUNDER ROCK and SCROOGED.

Elsewhere there are artful mirror shots; double-exposures, in which Krauss imagines himself grown to Godzilla size and stomping his rival beneath a titanic flap-shoe; a spectacular trick-shot following Ward all the way down and around the death-slide; a miniature journey to England, tiny landscapes rolling past as in Murnau’s FAUST or May’s HEIMKEHR or Powell & Pressburger’s I KNOW WHERE I’M GOING!

Krauss’s act involves a dummy made up just like him, allowing many uncanny moments. Does he converse with it, does it seem to come to life. Oh yes. Fascinating to see Krauss as an offbeat romantic hero. At times he’s almost cute. His hair is the only problem. That and his Nazism.

The Sunday Intertitle: Faust Person Singular

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Theatre with tags , , , , on October 24, 2021 by dcairns

Having enjoyed Enrico Guazzoni’s quirky UNA TRAGEDIA AL CINEMATOGRAFO of 1913, I decided to check out some of his epic or quasi-epic work. FAUST is from 1910, a year when epics ran short and small to modern eyes: Goethe’s play, credited as the source, is compressed into eighteen minutes here.

Time, that interfering studio executive, has wrought its adjustments to Enrico’s work, adding a weird cyclone of whirling white and black scratches or streaks, roving over the action and occasionally obscuring it completely. Fortunately we can still see the backdrops and costumes — Mephistopheles sports not so much horns as insectoid antennae, and has great fun swirling his cape like a serpentine dancer — and the performances which are certainly vigorous. These, after all, are not just early silent film performers, but Italians. However, they don’t perform their ebullient mimes outward, at us, Keystone-fashion, but at each other. I approve.

Guazzoni uses the story as an excuse for stage-magic puffs of smoke and jump-cuts in the Melies fashion, but his most interesting effect is when, as stated in the above intertitle, “Mephisto shows Faust an image of Marguerite in a magic mirror.” To accomplish this, Guazzoni alternates between two shots:

First, a wide shot of the scene, a cave. Mephisto holds up the magic mirror, which currently reflects nothing but bright light.

Then E.G. cuts to another shot, closer but still pretty wide, with different (dimmer) lighting, and now we can see Marguerite (cast details are sketchy but this may well be Fernanda Negri Pouget) genuinely reflected in the mirror. Once she’s made her impact, we cut back to the earlier angle and she’s gone.

It feels like getting her to appear and disappear in one shot was too difficult, so the director resorted to an unconventional angle change. The interpolation of closeups was barely established as part of film language (Griffith would get into it a year later), so he uses a rather spacious wide, which cuts jarringly with the shots either side of it, especially since the image gets markedly darker too. It feels like we’ve been transported to a whole other cave, though it’s probably the same backdrop from an angle to the right of the original.

But none of the clunkiness matters because it doesn’t feel exactly like an attempt at continuity cutting — it is, after all, a piece of magic Mephistopheles is performing here.

Guazzoni gets up to some other neat business — soon, the painted scenery gives way to real locations, allowing the actors to move from silhouette in an archway to brightly lit in the sun. The transitions from studio to reality are pretty smooth, in part because the sets aren’t always just flats and furniture, but sometimes have real chunky architectural heft to them. It’s actually hard to be sure sometimes if the action is outdoors, or indoors-pretending.

The French intertitles are still spoiler-heavy: the idea that it might be more dramatic to set up, say, the duel with Marguerite’s brother, via title card, but let the outcome be a surprise revealed by the action itself, has not occurred to anyone, or at least not anyone who got listened to. But there might even be a reluctance to shock the audience that way, a feeling they might need a bit of a warning of the impending death. Contains mild peril.

The image of the brother lying prone outside his house resonates peculiarly with me since I just collapsed in my own back yard while taking Momo out for his daily walk. It looked just like this. Low blood sugar seems to be the cause rather than anything more serious, an indication, however unpleasant, that my attempts to reverse my diabetes with a low-carb diet may be succeeding only too well.

Drink plenty of water. I don’t know if that advice would have helped Dr. Faustus, but what the hell, it couldn’t hurt.