Archive for The Mortal Storm

Fritz bits

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 17, 2017 by dcairns

The real Heydrich was NOT shot in the spine, but in the spleen… my guess if, Fritz Lang may have seen images like this when injured in WWI (three horses shot out from under him) and chose to include it…

“Bert” Brecht’s scenario for HANGMEN ALSO DIE! includes a HUGE number of supporting roles, some with only a few lines. Director Fritz Lang fills the dramatis personae with memorable faces and wrings a whole panoply of peppy performances from them. In the lead, Quatermass McGinty (Brian Donlevy) is better than he ever was elsewhere, suggesting by minimal means the moral strain of a man who knows hundreds may die in consequence of his actions. America’s first largely prosthetic actor, not counting Kong, whom he slightly resembles, Donlevy never made a move without his elevator shoes, corset and toupée, but couldn’t do anything about his startlingly short arms, like those of a T-rex. Couldn’t Bud Westmore, who made Harold Lloyd’s special lifelike glove to hide his missing fingers, have knocked together a couple of arm extensions for McGinty?

Really good work from Walter Brennan, cast way against type as a professor — anti-Nazi films always have a professors, it seems, and professors everywhere have beautiful daughters, and so here we have Anna Lee, also excellent. These characters are even more moving in THE MORTAL STORM, as you’d expect with Frank Borzage in charge, but Lang’s harder edge also has its advantages. We also get Margaret Wycherly, looking like a haunted tree™ as usual, and Dennis O’Keefe, whose tendency to turn up whenever his fiance is in what looks like a compromising position, seems like good prep for all those farces he made later in the forties.

But I want to talk about smaller roles. Janet Shaw fascinated me. She played the dead-eyed slattern of a teen waitress in SHADOW OF A DOUBT and was just remarkable. Anytime she shows up in a film, I get fascinated. Here she’s a little TOO perky, perhaps, as a factory worker and patriotic saboteur, her eyes darting vivaciously around the faces assembled at a meeting of the resistance. But she has a great moment later when arrested, spitting fire and defiance at her captors.

See here and here for previous appreciations.

We also get Charles “Ming the Merciless” and Dwight Frye and a defenestrated Lionel Stander, star-spotters!

But the film’s array of Nazis is its best point (aside from Lang’s bleakly beautiful mise-en-scene, of course, and his crisp cutting, many scenes joined together by questions asked in one scene and answered in another, or phrases begun in one place and completed elsewhere. Is this where Welles got the idea for KANE’s scene-linking?).

The decision to have the “Nazis” play their roles as comedy is a surprising one. It doesn’t attract much comment in discussions of the film. HANGMEN ALSO DIE! is far from being a comic film, but its treatment of those running the Protectorate is almost Lubitschian. All the various types of Hollywood Nazi are represented here — and the idea seems to be to refute the German claims of superman status with an insistence on the pathetic, grubby human foibles that make these guys on the one hand, no better than the rest of us, and on the other, considerably worse.

There’s Heydrich himself, Hans Heinrich Twardowski (from CALIGARI) in a big rubber Mabuse nose, conforming to the stereotype of the Nazi pansy (usually Martin Kosleck’s department). This isn’t an accurate depiction of Heydrich, but the goal is partly just to INSULT, using exactly the terms we assume would be most offensive to the Nazis.

There’s the spotty Nazi (Tonio Selwart), with a big set of Marcellus Wallace sticking plasters on the back of his neck and a gleaming chancre on his brow, later seen lovingly squeezing a pluke in the mirror — an undreamt-of image in Hollywood cinema or anywhere else — I equate this to Dennis Hopper picking his nose in LAND OF THE DEAD (which I equate to stuff like Paul Wolfowitz caught licking his comb on camera) — a concentration on the undignified, messily human aspects of the supposed superman.

There’s the lightweight sadist (Reinhold Schunzel, THE THREEPENNY OPERA), not an imposing figure, more like a mean schoolteacher, but one with a whole state apparatus backing him up. He tortures an old woman using only a loosely assembled chair, and the power behind him. Personally, he’s a buffoon, with a Sig Ruman-like delivery, cracking his fingers as he gloats behind his desk. Without a desk and armed guards at his command, he’d be pathetic. He IS pathetic. Time will tell.

And then there’s the detective (Alexander Granach, the Shadowplayer from WARNING SHADOWS; Knock, the gibbering Renfield figure from NOSFERATU), the most competent figure we meet on the enemy side. He frequents whores and is addicted to Czech beer, so again, his lack of “purity” and his vulgarity and human frailty are front and centre. But he’s a worthy opponent. The big trick staged by the resistance in the film’s third act would never work if he were around to study it. His innate shrewdness and unerring mental leaps (signalled with a pantomime snap of the fingers) means he’s only ever a step or two behind the heroes, and frequently a step or two ahead. Thwarted for the moment, his finger-snap is exchanged for a first pounding into a palm. Very theatrical, but with all this comedy Lang is not only making a satirical point, he’s finding a way to leaven the  film’s grimness.

Lang wasn’t too great at comedy — the jokes in WESTERN UNION, with Slim Summerville slowly starving, seem sadistic and depressing. Sometimes, laughs can spill out into places they don’t belong, as in the campy, though still compelling, HOUSE BY THE RIVER. Lang is a harsh, heavy filmmaker and humour isn’t his element — but this kind of nasty wit seems ideally suited to his temperament and, crude though some of it is, it’s very effective because it’s so surprising in this context.

A lot of American films made fun of the Nazis — it was understood that they would hate this, and its was felt better to despise them and sneer at them than to be afraid of them. James Harvey in his book Romantic Comedy points out how strange it was, in this context, that Lubitsch’s TO BE OR NOT TO BE was thought to have gone too far. He identifies the problem being located in one line from Sig Ruman to Jack Benny, his insulting review of Benny’s acting: “What he did to Shakespeare we are now doing to Poland.” The joke turned auditoria ice-cold at the time, apparently — other attempts at humor by the Nazi characters are deliberately rather gross, but this one asks us to laugh at the effect it has on Benny. In other words, the Nazi wins this round, though he doesn’t know who he’s talking to. Audiences at the time were not prepared to laugh at the thought of Nazis winning anything.

Lang is on safer ground — the humour is present merely in how the Nazis are portrayed, by artful, expressionistic actors, whose style contrasts elaborately with the simplicity of the Americans playing Czechs (plus one Brit, Anna Lee). So there’s a satisfying (Brechtian?) distance between how the Nazis see themselves — superior, in a word — and how both the performances and the plot encourage us to see them — as nasty buffoons.

Or, as Fiona put it, it’s like a long episode of ‘Allo, ‘Allo!

It’s also defensibly close to reality — though the film omits the massacre of Lidice, it surprises by showing the Nazis murdering all the hostages they had promised to release, a smaller but dramatically equivalent atrocity. Lidice, in fact, boomeranged badly, becoming the signature crime used in propaganda to denounce Nazi Germany. The Nazis handed the Allies a club with which to beat them. It’s not funny, but it’s certainly oafish.

It Happened Here

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 17, 2008 by dcairns

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Robert Young is a Nazi!

Robert Stack is a Nazi!

Dan Dailey (Jr.) is a Nazi!

What the hell is going on?

If the casting seems incongruous, there’s a higher wisdom at work. Frank Borzage is one source of that wisdom, with his restrained direction which manages to be ruthlessly emotive without ever seeming to strain for tears. “He always seemed to back away from the emotion,” said Fiona, wonderingly.

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Our tale takes place in a little German town near the Austrian border (important later). The town is in fact a painting, the church is a miniature, and people go skiing in front of a convenient rear-projection screen, like Roger Moore. This artificial world has the cosiness of the movie of OUR TOWN, or an ANDY HARDY feature (it’s an M.G.M. production). And the town is populated by a disparate group of movie actors — very disparate: the little hamlet contains both the Slavic vocalisations of Maria Ouspenskaya and the mid-western drawl of Jimmy Stewart, who plays her son. None of this is particularly naturalistic, but it’s very familiar and reassuring to a viewer of Hollywood movies from this era. It’s 1940, you see.

We meet Frank Morgan, the Wizard of Oz, here playing loveable absent-minded Professor Roth, and his lovely family including daughter Freya, played by Margaret Sullavan. Now, at this point (fifteen minutes in) I’m already close to tears, because I know what’s coming, sort of. The maid interrupts Prof Roth’s 60th birthday celebration with “Wonderful news!” Hitler has been made chancellor.

Now we know that this folksy edifice of back-lot sets and matte shots and comfortable actors is going to be destroyed. Things are going to get worse, and worse. It’s not going to be OK.

This is such powerful stuff. The Hollywood studios are often accused of having had nothing to say before the U.S.A. entered the war, but this is a courageous film. It takes a massive commercial risk by tackling a bleak story — Borzage provides uplift, but it’s a poetic, fragile thing compared to the emotional and physical devastation wrought by the story’s (and history’s) antagonists. For a film to go on the offensive about a regime the country wasn’t yet at war with, when the studios were to some extent hoping to keep their films screening in Europe, that takes a certain amount of guts. I’d like to shake the hand of the executive responsible. Although if that proves to be Louis B. Mayer, I reserve the right to wipe it on my trousers afterwards. 

(David Wingrove points out that by 1940 the European market would have been basically gone anyway, so MGM’s stand isn’t quite so bold.)

It’s worth remembering that while MRS. MINIVER, a fine film, extended the hand of friendship — symbolically — to beleagured Britain, director William Wyler had to struggle with his paymasters to present a nasty Nazi on the screen. A few years before at Universal, James Whale’s THE ROAD BACK was gutted of political content for fear of offending the German leader. But Borzage goes on the offensive, attacking the Hitler regime in all its anti-semitism, brutality and idiocy (it’s particularly strong on the idiocy, like the defiance of medical science, which sees no difference between Aryan and Jewish blood).

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“People are always making little choked sobs,” remarks Fiona, pointing out how much more effective this is than hysterical histrionics. She particularly admires Mrs. Roth’s reaction to the news of the tragic fate that befalls the Professor. “It’s like a sound of disgust.” As well it might be.

While THE MORTAL STORM, like other films of the era like THE GREAT DICTATOR, can’t really show anything like the full horror of fascism, it’s tremendously effective because it goes in the other direction. Evoking the goodness and innocence of the victims of fascism, it produces a strong revulsion at anything which might threaten these people. That the threat’s true awfulness is concealed doesn’t matter, and in fact this avoidance of depravity is a strength: if the film isn’t subtle when it layers on the sweetness and light, it’s very restrained in its portrayal of violence.

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Will James Stewart escape to Austria? Will Bonita Granville betray him, when tortured by Ward Bond? Will Robert Taylor refuse an order? Will Margaret Sullavan make it to the end of a Borzage film without dying of consumption? The question marks pile up in a tangle of hooks — once enmeshed, the only way to freedom is across the border into reality, past the end credits. It’s an often agonizing journey.

Certain aspects of the story may be designed to appeal to German-Americans and to those who are uncertain how they feel about Germany in 1940. James Stewart is firmly established as being from an old German family, with at least as much reason to love his country as his fascistic opponents. Frank Morgan is described as being “above politics”, so that we can see that neutrality is not an option. These elements are deployed with tact, but they are central to the film’s argument. What lifts the movie above propaganda is the poetic hand of its maker, seen most brilliantly in Robert Stack’s epiphany at the end.

Robert Stack is not an actor I associate with epiphanies. He hasn’t got the face for it somehow. Although I’ve always admired him (the only funny man in Spielberg’s 1941, he had obviously sized up the chaos around him and decided to play it quiet and measured). But Borzage hands him the ending, then takes it away from him and does it all with camera work: we drift through the now-empty Roth household, looking at an empty chair, and then the shadow of that chair… Frank Morgan’s lines from earlier in the film come back to haunt the soundtrack. We see an open gate, and footsteps in the snow, and more snow erasing those footsteps.

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The script adapts Phyllis Bottome’s novel, and is the work of Englishwoman Claudine West, who also worked on MRS MINIVER, with German Hans Rameau & Austrian George Froeschel. But the final words are a quotation from Minnie Louise Haskins’ poem The Gate of the Year, famously quoted by Britain’s King George VI in a radio address to the nation at the outbreak of WWII:

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year,
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand
Of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.

The end credits appear… in silence.