Archive for The Student of Prague

Attendant Woes

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 19, 2014 by dcairns

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Cinema will learn to talk soon, I promise, but for now I’m still mulling over films seen at the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema.

THE LAST LAUGH is one I’d seen a few times but probably not, in its entirety, as often as I should’ve. It’s the kind of film which wouldn’t necessarily compel me to make the trip (which is rather difficult, the bus service being singularly erratic) by itself, but in combination with a bunch of other films I fancied, it made for a delightful extra, if delightful is really the word for F.W. Murnau’s desperate vision.

One smart person with a beard suggested that the film, in which hotel doorman Emil Jannings is robbed of his uniform and its concomitant status when he gets too old to lug suitcases without breaking his wind, could be read as a metaphor for Germany’s post-war enforced demilitarisation*, but I’m afraid my mind was on other things, such as Jannings’ putty forehead, which looks quite real on home video (though the shading in his cheekbones is recognizably kohl, not natural hollows) and becomes a big part of his performance.

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Also, I located the movie in the supernatural tradition of German film (NOSFERATU was just two years before) — when Jannings turns up to work and finds another man wearing his uniform, we seem to be in the doppelganger genre first seen in THE STUDENT OF PRAGUE. Seeing one’s double is meant to be a portent of death, and in this case it’s the death of Jannings’ hopes, career, dignity. It’s perfect that he sees the younger version as they both pass through the Atlantic Hotel’s revolving door, so that the new guy seems like a reflection of the old.

When Jannings’ family face him knowing that he’s now a lowly toilet attendant, they react not with pity but horror, and I was reminded of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, in which Samsa’s transfiguration provokes only the faintest hint of sympathy from his loved ones, who are more concerned with the practical problems entailed. Jannings doesn’t actually get an apple stuck in his back, but it’s a close thing. (Given his love of wallowing in humiliating scenarios, I’m posi-sure that if Murnau had produced a golden delicious and proposed ramming it under his shoulder-blade, Jannings would’ve shrugged off his undershirt and gotten down on bended knee in a twinkling.)

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The film seems, on the face of it, bracingly anti-capitalist, with Russian-style dialectical montage contrasting the rich patrons slurping down oysters while poor old Emil eats his toilet soup in the men’s room. It’s not even HOT toilet soup, as Murnau mercilessly photographs the steam escaping as Jannings is forced to attend to an untimely urinator who arrives during his break.

This is undercut in some ways by the conclusion, a bit of proto-Bokononism in which the film debunks its own happy ending. Jannings inherits a fortune from an eccentric American who expires, offscreen, in his arms, in the loo (the Atlantic takes away but it also gives). With his new-found wealth, Jannings becomes a guest himself, gorging himself suicidally and treating his friend, the sympathetic night watchman (whose kindness has hitherto only made the world seem bleaker) to an equally painful looking repast. Ignoring his disappointing family, Jannings heads off into the city with the watchman. This could be the start of a beautiful friendship, but it doesn’t feel like an indictment of social inequality, exactly. On the other hand, we’ve been told in no uncertain terms that this ending is not the kind we get in real life (the Atlantic gives but it also takes away).

The BFI’s rather wash-out print was compensated for magnificently by a new arrangement of the original score, performed by Sabrina Zimmerman on violin and doorman’s whistle and Mark Pogolski on piano, who created between them a very rich soundscape, one of those accompaniments that really helps you climb inside the film and smell its pungent air.

*The film’s opening title card (absent from the BFI print) gives some support to this theory. “Today you are the first, respected by everyone, a minister, a general, maybe even a prince — Do you know what you’ll be tomorrow?”

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The Monday Intertitle: Mountain Man

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , on February 24, 2014 by dcairns

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Bolstering my negative capability, already given a workout by the intricacies of the Allen-Farrow case, I perused Paul Wegener’s 1916 RUBEZAHLS HOCHZEIT, which had German intertitles, untranslated, and with the added advantage of being completely illegible due to the poor picture quality of my DVD. I decided to see what kind of plot-line I could discern, or concoct, from the proceedings.

The film is Wegener’s third, following the crucially important STUDENT OF PRAGUE and THE GOLEM (now mostly lost), and it’s co-directed with Rochus Gliese. It’s another supernatural/mythic kind of story, I think.

I like Rochus Gliese because his name is Rochus Gliese. But not as much as I like Lupu Pick.

Well, there’s this giant — he looms over a mountaintop, some tree branches in the foreground to completely convince me he’s the size of Godzilla. I believe it. He also has a walking stick made from a tree. His beard is impressive — immensely long, rigid and shaggy, as if he had Sean Connery’s arm growing from his chin. But then he goes for a walk and starts interacting with a normal landscape and it seems he’s a regulation-sized bloke who merely dresses like a giant, or a caveman or something. There are some sylphs wafting about in diaphanous robes, paddling in brooks and bothering a deer. He chases them, as you do.

Wegener has lost me already!

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Don’t know what it says.

Ahah! The late F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre, who was no stranger to confusion himself, provides an illuminating account of the character’s mythic origins. Since “Froggy” specialised in reviewing lost films as if he had seen them, it’s cheering to discover that this one at least still exists, even if my copy is pretty murky. His summary of the film at least confirms that the hirsute hill-walker is tall Paul himself. I should have recognized those cheekbones, each one like an elephant’s cranium. And it seems that the giant is only metaphotically mountainous — he is OF THE MOUNTAIN, or something.

Despite the German enthusiasm for Alps, RUBEZAHL seems to be the one fantasy film NOT remade either in the twenties, or with sound, or under Hitler, or after the war. Poor Rube.

The Sunday Intertitle: Let Georges Do It

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on December 4, 2011 by dcairns

The opening minutes of this film are plagued by a strange, rapidly flickering eclipse, swallowing up the image from right to left — it feels like we’re watching a celluloid Moebius strip that keeps turning its back on us… this movie, ravaged by nitrate decomposition, was clearly lucky to survive at all…

After enjoying HUGO — about which more later — I suddenly wondered about Georges Melies’ last film. As far as I knew, I’d never seen it, and didn’t even know what it was. I wondered if it showed clues as to Melies’ artistic direction at that point in his career. I didn’t expect it to be nakedly autobiographical, because you don’t expect that of Melies, ever.

THE VOYAGE OF THE BOURRICHON FAMILY is one of two films by Melies from 1913 (the title on the actual film reads THE VOYAGE OF M. BOURRICHON), and it seems to be the only one that survives. Complicating its status as Melies last movie, it was co-directed with his brother Gaston (you never hear about him!) who died two years later. Melies’ fall starts to sound even more heartbreaking than HUGO makes out.

The film is at once archetypal G.M., with its indecipherable hordes of cavorting characters, theatrical sets, slapstick and trick effects, and also curiously muted. Although an opening title in English promises a haunted inn, the whole thing seems to be trickery of a Scooby Doo variety, possibly a first for the director — if he really felt his brand of fantasy was going out of style, this may have been a stab at a solution, magic with a boring rational explanation.

But the interesting thing about the film is its plot, which follows M. Boucherron and his clan as they attempt to flee their creditors. The bilked pursuers board the train with the fugitives and subject Mr. B to a variety of indignities and assaults, blasting him with trombones, dropping him down a well, exploding a piano, and causing his chair somehow to rise upon giraffe-like legs until he teeters atop it near the rafters. At the film’s conclusion, I *think* they put bags over their heads and transform into comedy darkies, bursting into his drawing room and berating the poor man and his family with batons, like some kind of nightmarish minstrel droogs. It’s all slightly confusing.

The reliance on a depressing insolvency as plot motor is interesting, since it’s exactly what poor Georges faced — his low productivity in 1913 suggests he was already in trouble, beaten by piracy, competition from the major studios, and changing audience tastes. In 1913, FANTOMAS hit the screens (check the poster visible in HUGO at the moment of Melies’  career’s end), bringing melodrama and surrealism onto real locations. The Italians had QUO VADIS?, one of the first feature-length films, the Germans had a more frightening and psychological fantasy in THE STUDENT OF PRAGUE, Sweden had the compelling drama of INGEBORG HOLM, and in a year’s time, Charlie Chaplin would wander onscreen. There was nothing wrong with what Melies was doing — it’s what he had always done. But it must have looked old-fashioned compared to the other cinematic goodies available.

To put things in even more perspective, even Edwin S. Porter, whose work had considerably more interest in dramatic values than Melies, would pack it in in 1915, disturbed by the alarming realism and intensity of modern cinema. And so Melies, father of film fantasy, retreated to his railway station, a fate prefigured here —

Buy the Melies box set