Archive for People on Sunday

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?”


12 Hungry Films

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 24, 2008 by dcairns

Another one I should have listed in the previous post: Kurosawa’s MADADAYO. His final film as director. I loudly bemoaned the fact that it didn’t get a UK release at the time it was made, nor even after A.K.’s death. I was thrilled to finally get a copy. Then I failed to watch it. I look forward to getting Fellini’s last film, VOICE OF THE MOON, also denied a UK release, so I can fail to watch that too.

Here’s my list of films I’m aching to see (although whether I’ll watch them if I find them is apparently doubtful) —

1. THE DIARIES OF MAJOR THOMPSON. Preston Sturges’ last movie, described as “almost defiantly unfunny” by one biographer. But it’s hard to find anybody with a kind word for THE BEAUTIFUL BLONDE FROM BASHFUL BEND either, and that one, though not prime Sturges by the furthest stretch of hyperbole, has a fair few laughs.

2. There are lots of Julien Duvivier films unavailable, or unavailable with subtitles. LA BELLE EQUIPE may be the most historically important one. And it’s got Jean Gabin in it.

3. L’AMORE. I’ve yet to really get into Rossellini, so this interests me more for the presence of Cocteau and Fellini as writers, and Fellini as actor. Maybe it would help me appreciate Roberto R.

4. A GIRL IN EVERY PORT. I know Howard Hawks is considered to have really come into his own in the sound era, and especially once the grammar of Hollywood talkies had formalised into the Golden Age of the late thirties and forties, but shouldn’t SOME of his silent work be worth seeing? Particularly this one, which features Louise Brooks as a prototypical Hawksian dame.

5. DANCE OF THE SEVEN VEILS. Ken Russell’s Richard Strauss film, suppressed by the Strauss estate. Reportedly the most extreme of Mad Ken’s TV films. Soon to be available in the US in a box set of the Great Masturbator’s BBC works. But I probably won’t be able to afford it. NB There are lots of other TV works by the Mastur which I haven’t managed to see either.

(STOP PRESS — apparently it isn’t in the set, despite being listed on Amazon.)

6. PHANTOM. This early Murnau classic is available from Kino, but I can never afford it (or when I can, the prospect of three other films for the same price as this single one always tempts me) and has aired on TCM a few times, but I’ve never managed to get a stateside correspondent to record it. The clips I’ve seen are truly mouth/eye-watering. They turn my eyes into salivating little mouths, is what I mean.

7. I was going to put Victor Sjostrom’s THE OUTLAW AND HIS WIFE, but remembered that I have a fuzzy off-air NTSC VHS of that, so it really belongs on the previous list. Big Victor directed my all-time favourite film, HE WHO GETS SLAPPED. So, in the wake of David Bordwell’s brilliant piece on it, I choose INGEBORG HOLM from way back in 1913.

8. If Duvivier’s availability suffers from an unjustified downgrading of his reputation (as I believe), Robert Siodmak’s obscurity is a mystery. His Hollywood output is mostly obtainable with varying degrees of effort, but the only pre-American work out there appears to be PEOPLE ON SUNDAY and PIEGES, which isn’t exactly “available” but can be had if you know the right people. PIEGES is a dream of a film, a slick thriller that prefigures the American noirs and would be essential to an understanding of the man’s oeuvre. So who knows what else is required viewing? And the post-American period is almost equally underrepresented. I managed to see NIGHTS, WHEN THE DEVIL CAME, and was bowled over by it (a serial killer in Nazi Germany… some subjects may be too striking to actually do badly). DIE RATTEN is considered an important part of post-war German cinema, but you can’t see it. I’d like to.

9. INN OF EVIL. Of course my shame at not having watched THE HUMAN CONDITION yet should preclude my mentioning more Masaki Kobayashi, but this one sounds too enticing. The fact that there are IMDb reviews suggests it is possible to see the thing.

10. THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED. I can’t believe there isn’t a thriving black market trade in copies of this one. Jerry Lewis’s Holocaust movie is something of a legend, its release forestalled by legal disputes, its reputation as the ultimate bad-taste artistic folly fuelled by only rumour and a few witness reports (I like Dan Castellanata as an actor but I don’t necessarily trust him as a film critic). Some of Lewis’s later films are problematic enough even without death camps, but this demands to be seen.

11. Anything at all by Alessandro Blasetti? Or any of the countless Riccardo Freda films that can’t be seen? Mario Bava’s last work, the TV film VENUS OF ILE? The unseen early works of Max Ophüls? There are too many candidates for this penultimate slot.

12. A note of optimism — I’ve longed to see Nick Ray’s films for a very long time, as it’s measured in Scotland. And finally it seems like WE CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN and THE JANITOR are on their way into my feverish clutches, to join the heaps of the great unwatched in my living room.