Archive for Liebelei

Teahouse of the Rising Sun

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 28, 2021 by dcairns

The great Max Ophuls’ career was not only itinerant — Germany, France, Italy, the US, and back to France — it was very variable in quality. LIEBELEI is a masterpiece, but most of his first European films are either flawed or minor. Then he makes mostly masterpieces in Hollywood and returns to Europe to make four more.

I saw the first twenty minutes of YOSHIWARA, a French pic from 1937, at Edinburgh International Film Festival in 2000, but I had to leave early. Shane Danielsen, curator of the retrospective, warned us beforehand that we’d probably never get a chance to see this film again. Times have changed — Gaumont have released the film on Blu-ray.

The film, based on a French novel, creates a fantasy of Japan in the lead-up to the Russo-Japanese war — intended by the Tsar as “a short, victorious war” to boost his popularity and trumped up for no good reason, it turned into a fiasco which hastened his downfall. This movie presents a fanciful theory of how faulty intelligence led to that outcome. There’s a romantic triangle — rickshaw driver and artist Sessue Hayakawa is hopelessly in love with geisha girl, formerly daughter of a noble house, Michiko Tanaka, and she’s in love with Russian naval officer Pierre Richard-Willm, who’s basically a spy. The Japanese secret service forces Hayakawa to spy on his rival, thus endangering his sweetheart.

A kind of whiplash is introduced by the fact that Hayakawa and Tanaka are real Japanese people and the other locals are played by very gallic impostors. The Russians are all French, and I’m pretty sure Hayakawa is dubbed, unless his French was fantastically better than his English as heard later in BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI.

The set and costume design is fabulous, the social observation less so: geishas are synonymous with prostitutes in this vision of the east, as a for-instance. Yoshiwara exists behind an unscalable wall with a huge gate, almost like Skull Island (and Kurosawa would import that design, which apparently never existed in real feudal Japan, for the forts in his films such as THRONE OF BLOOD.

Michiko Tanaka was never really a movie star outside of this one film, but she’s startlingly beautiful. Sessue Hayakawa is pretty impressive too, and Willm is striking — I should see LE ROMAN DE WERTHER, his other Ophuls, a sort of farrago of Goethe which Ophuls rather regretted — he died with a copy of The Sorrows of Young Werther by his bedside.

The melodrama is slushy — an imaginary trip to the opera looks forward to the phantom ride of LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN, but is embarrassingly gushy and frenetic — but the visual direction is gorgeous. Watching it alongside THE RECKLESS MOMENT brought out all sorts of similarities, including the way the director will follow actors up flights of stairs and along catwalks in unbroken shots. A dynamic chase is staged in a hectic flurry of incredibly precise movements, filmed through swathes of occluding foliage. It’s almost frustrating — Ophuls regularly brought genius to the staging of stories carpentered together with little talent. But I guess it does mean that by the time he got good scripts, he was more than ready.

Litvakuation

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 21, 2020 by dcairns

Litvak hops from country to country, sometimes making the same film in multiple languages. I’m grateful to Shadowplayer Everett Jones for directing me to SLEEPING CAR at the Internet Archive, not least for its historical import, its service to my Litvak completism, and the novelty of seeing Litvak make a British film, for Michael Balcon no less — but also because it’s really pretty damn fine. The best Ivor Novello film I’ve seen that’s not THE LODGER.

When I saw THE GHOST GOES WEST I felt that Rene Clair’s sense of lively movement had been somewhat flattened by his collision with the British way of doing things. No such conditions prevail here — from the first shots, Litvak is sweeping about with his camera in the bold, propulsive and grandiose style we see in his Hollywood features. I particularly liked the way the camera pushes onto the railway platform, tracking along the approaching locomotive in a reverse direction, stopping just as it does, with its title plaque reading Orient Express perfectly framed.

There’s great funny kid and funny dog action, and there’s Madeleine Carroll, though I don’t like her hair in this.

The story is a little disjointed — a plot point about La Carroll having to marry to stay in France comes in at the halfway point, when it seems to me a necessary Act One curtain kind of thing, at the very latest.

But it’s fun, and bee-yoo-tifully made — even the view from Novello’s mistress’s window seems more convincing, dimensional and interesting than is typical in films of the time, from any nation (designer is Alfred Junge, of Powell-Pressburger fame).

COEUR DE LILAS is a major one but I haven’t revisited it lately. It’s major early Gabin (he dominates) and has beautiful location filming. For reasons of celluloid fetishism it showed in Lyons as a dupey, underexposed mess, but can be seen in a gorgeous digital restoration. Phoebe Green delivered a great piece on in for Shadowplay’s Late Show Blogathon a few years back.

I saw L’EQUIPAGE even further back, when researching NATAN, the feature doc I made with Paul Duane. This was the last Pathe-Natan production, 100% French, and a remake of a Maurice Tourneur silent which is now at least partly lost. I suspect they recycled flying sequences from the original film. Why not? Easy to do, and the different frame rate is unlikely to show. You might avoid killing some aviators.

I remember the film was good, and concentrates on a conflict between two French fliers in WWI, competing over Annabella (do you want to tell them, or shall I?) with the war as a dramatic backgrop. But I don’t remember much more, particularly about it’s visual style. I should rewatch it, but I thought it better to catch up on something I’ve never seen, so Fiona and I ran MAYERLING. David Wingrove had described it as an aboslute masterpiece, and Fiona is now speaking of Litvak as a favourite director, so it wasn’t a hard sell.

It’s very, very good — Litvak remade it, at huge expense, for TV in 1957 with Audrey Hepburn and Mel Ferrer, which seems to have been a mistake. Then Terrence Young did it in 1968 with Omar Sharif and Catherine Deneuve and bits of it, I’m told, are shot-for-shot identical except in colour and widescreen and a leading man in whiteface.

Fiona went in not actually knowing the historical storyline — which is disputed, but Litvak goes, understandably, with the most famous and romantic version. Not that the film wholly romanticises suicide — I think a case can be built that the film not only finds it tragic in a Romeo & Juliet way, but rather blames Charles Boyer’s melancholy Archduke for getting Danielle Darrieux’s innocent baroness into the idea.

It’s very Ophulsian indeed — Vienna, a tragic romance ending in death, dueling officers, sumptuous sets — Ophuls, graduating from being Litvak’s AD, had already used all these elements in LIEBELEI, but there’s reason to suspect he may have looked at this one and felt a little envy — he later made DE MAYERLING A SARAJEVO, a quasi-sequel about that other unfortunate Archduke, Franz Ferdinand, which may be Ophuls’ least interesting or successful film. Certainly the dive into WWII propaganda at the end doesn’t help it, though one appreciates the desire to do one’s bit (Ophuls anti-Nazi radio broadcasts marked him for execution and he had to flee to Switzerland, smuggled out by Louis Jouvet, when France fell).

It’s useless to speculate on why Ophuls is revered by critics who despise Litvak — and it’s always tempting to invent preposterous reasons to denigrate such opinions. (I’ll grant that Ophuls best films are better than Litvak’s — but I would deny that Ophuls’ genius makes Litvak look like trash.) My best example of such a reason would be that Ophuls made “womens’ pictures” — usually despised, but in rare cases such as Ophuls and Sirk, embraced by the Cahiers critics. But Litvak, like Wyler, made guy films too, and that seems to be harder to swallow. The idea of a filmmaker making all kinds of pictures, unless there’s some kind of very clear superimposed personality as with Hawks, seems to be troubling to some. But as I say, I’m kind of imputing reasons where reasons are not exactly clear: I’ve never seen a Litvak takedown that seemed to me to relate to the qualities of the films he actually made.

Oh yes, MAYERLING. Well, Litvak enjoys hell out of his huge budget, as he always did. The lovers-to-be meet for the second time at the ballet and Litvak keeps pushing in one them, evoking their magnetic attraction with his camera. It’s epic.

Arguably Litvak enjoys the scenes of debauchery a bit too much, they become frantic musical numbers. Even with a glimpse of bosom as the Archduke runs amok on rum and rips a floozy’s dress open. But everything in this film is an aesthetic feast, feeding Litvak’s voracious eye. It’s why it can’t help but glamorize the lovers’ pact a bit. But the grim little scene after Boyer shoots Darrieux in her sleep — because she’s said she doesn’t want to know when it’s going to happen — where he explains away the gunshot to his faithful servant, before going back into the bedroom to kill himself, isn’t a necessary scene if you’re intent on making an exotic spectacle of suicide-murder. It complicates our feelings and adds greater disquiet to the drama.

The build-up to the fatal night — well, that’s what the whole film is. And it’s sort of accurate to the psychology of suicide. Someone is under competing pressures that can’t be reconciled and which keep intensifying. Eventually a Gordian-knot style solution suddenly offers complete relief. Those around the tortured individual, by trying to push in one direction or another for the individual’s perceived own good, are just adding to the strain pushing them towards the exit. Kids commit suicide over exams because the pressure is unrelenting and its made to seem the most important thing in the world by well-meaning people.

It’s really hard to make a good story about suicide — you can’t, I think, use suicide as a solution to a plot. But that’s not what this is. Everything is driving the protagonists to this ending, including all the glamour and majesty of an empire in decline.

Uncomfortable side-note: Boyer, who is fantastic here and who would reconnect and collaborate with Litvak again in Hollywood (including on another masterpiece, TOVARICH), committed suicide himself at age 78, two days after his wife’s death from cancer. I don’t admire suicide, I think it’s always damaging to those left behind, but it’s hard to hold it against him under the circumstances.

Music is by Arthur Honegger (LES MISERABLES) and it’s hauntingly beautiful, as is the film.

Emergency Call

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 2, 2010 by dcairns

Dig the crazy cabaret-style music and sound effects of Friedrich Hollander!

So, in answer to the calls for something about Robert Siodmak… maybe we could look at one film a month, and make a Siodmak Year of it that way? The item under analysis this time is LOOKING FOR HIS MURDERER, or DER MANN, DER SEINEN MORDER SUCHT, which BabelFishes out as “The man, who looks for his murderer,” giving the lie to those who argue that German isn’t a good language for comedy. They managed to get the key word to come at the end of the sentence, after all, which German syntax often forbids.

We don’t think of Germany in the 30s as a thriving era for comedy, for some odd reason… But there was a lot of the stuff going on. Was it actually funny? And if so, how tainted does it become by what followed in the socio-political, that is to say human, arena?

We’ll come back to that. This movie was scripted by Billy Wilder, which is a more cheerful way to start looking at things, along with a gang of others including Robert’s idiot brother Curt. It’s based on a play, and the IMDb suggests an uncredited Jules Verne link, which is very intriguing. Here’s the plot:

Our hero is suicidal, so he hires a hitman to kill him (easily done in the economical freefall of Weimar Germany, I would think). He says he doesn’t want to know when or how it’ll happen. “Just surprise me,” or words to that effect (I was watching without benefit of subtitles, so anything I say should be regarded as dubious: as David Lynch would say, “I don’t speak the German”).

Then our hero meets a girl, or is reunited with his ex, or something, and realizes he doesn’t want to die after all. But he has no way of contacting the contract killer, who will strike at random some time in the next week…

It’s a superb first act set-up, the only problem being that you need to come up with a second and third act to match, which the assembled writers can’t quite do, but they certainly throw in plenty of interesting situations. I have no idea how much of the film’s nuances and humour I was missing, but with Wilder having a hand in the dialogue, I would imagine plenty. Visual pleasures include the noir look, which shows Siodmak as having a predisposition towards this style long before Hollywood pushed him into it (this movie was made in 1931, although the busy RS had already squeezed in three more movies since his first, the celebrated PEOPLE ON SUNDAY).

Our hero lives in a studio apartment, overlooking expressionistic and cat-haunted Berlin rooftops, created in the studio, and the funniest gag is when a character crashes through the window. Giant sheets of sugar-glass being either beyond the budget or else technically impossible at that time, the moment is represented by an off-screen SMASH sound, Laurel & Hardy style, but then we get the character staggering into shot with his head jammed through the Venetian blinds. He then struggles to extricate himself for, like, a really long time. Again, Laurel & Hardy style — a durational gag, in which something becomes funnier just by eating up footage in a normally unjustifiable way. I’m going to have to keep my eye open for other signs of the L&H influence on Siodmak, this might be a treasure trove!

Now, about this plot — it turns up again in LES TRIBULATIONS D’UN CHINOISE EN CHINE (THE TRIBULATIONS OF A CHINESE MAN FROM CHINA) — and now the Jules Verne influence becomes clear: he is the inventor of this first act zinger. Everybody adapting the story simply uses it as a springboard for whatever form of romp they wish to promulgate: in this case, Philippe de Broca and star Jean-Paul Belmondo serve up another action-packed comedy with Belmondo essaying the kind of stunts that would have Jackie Chan saying “What do you think I am, crazy?”

According to Richard Lester, the same plot thread was under consideration over at Beatles Central as the basis for a follow-up movie to A HARD DAY’S NIGHT (with Ringo as the despondent hitman-hirer). It had already been decided to make the Beatles “the recipients of a plot,” passive participants in some kind of farrago, since the first film had covered their working lives, and their private lives were off-limits (John suggested a film on that subject would resemble FELLINI SATYRICON). But the arrival of De Broca’s movie put the kibosh on that.

X marks the spot. Seems like a grimly jokey reference to M, but it’s possible that Lang’s DIE NIBELUNGEN was on their mind too.

Siodmak’s leading man is Heinz Rühmann, Germany’s all-time most popular film star. A dapper little bespectacled fellow, he seems like an agreeable stand-in for Billy Wilder himself. It’s hard to know what to make of him as a person, though: this was a man who divorced his Jewish wife of 14 years because the Nazis told him to. On the other hand, he did smuggle her over to Sweden. On the other other hand, he then married a loyal Nazi and made a short film celebrating Goebbels’ birthday, in which he played Mrs Goebbels and all the little Goebbelses (you know, the ones she later poisoned to death? I’d like to see that film, I bet it’s hilarious). Rühmann was later present when his new wife was raped by Russian soldiers. In the end, I feel sorry for everybody in this story: the human race.

So, German comedy in the 30s… a healthy medium? In box-office terms, it seems to have been. The Germans have always enjoyed their own comedies, which make up a large proportion of their movies, but are rarely if ever exported. Since Lubitsch had departed for Hollywood long before the coming of sound (in that first exodus, named by the sardonic Mr. Wilder as “The exodus of the talented ones”), German comedy had lost any international ambitions. I have, however, seen a couple of Ophuls comedies  from this era. THE MERRY HEIRS (1933) stars Rühmann again and gets its few laughs from a big dog gallumphing about and behaving like a person, et cetera. Ophuls took over the film at the last minute, and only manages to express his stylistic talents with some creative montage, which is an oddity coming from this master of mise-en-scene. THE BARTERED BRIDE (1932) is much more successful, but more as an operetta than as a laugh-getter. Ophuls swings his camera around with gay Teutonic abandon, even going handheld to follow antics in the fairground. It’s visually even more sophisticated and dazzling than the following year’s LIEBELEI, although that’s the only German movie where Ophuls really finds his true subject matter.

THE BARTERED BRIDE: the comedy bear costume is a sure winner.

I’ll end with a joke. This comes from a fine BBC documentary on comedy in the Third Reich — I wish I could remember the name of the comedian it concerns. This fellow had a habit of making fun of the Nazis, and he tended to get away with it too, but he frequently sailed close to the wind and risked censure or worse. On one occasion he was asked to report to SS Headquarters so they could inform him of their displeasure at something he’d said. He arrived at the front desk and was asked “Are you carrying any concealed weapons?”

“Why?” he replied innocently, “Am I likely to need them here?”