The Tunnel (dir. Kurt Bernhardt): sacrifice, sabotage and suffering combined with heroism and hope

Kurt Bernhardt, “The Tunnel / Der Tunnel” (1933)

Based on the eponymous 1913 novel by Bernard Kellerman and itself a second adaptation of the novel – an earlier silent version had been made in Germany in 1915 – “The Tunnel” is a science fiction film about an engineer who achieves his ambition of building a transatlantic tunnel linking Europe and North America. (British and French film versions of the novel were to appear in 1935, of which the British adaptation has been reviewed elsewhere on this blog.) After the usual haggling over financing the project, investors give the green light to one engineer Mac Allan (Paul Hartmann) to go ahead with his grand project and soon the tunnel’s construction is in progress from its start in Long Island in New York state.

From Allan’s point of view and perhaps that of his backers, the project seems to be going quite swimmingly; for the men at the coal face end of the project, there are many mishaps that result in fatalities. This results in considerable industrial unrest and it takes all the strength Allan can muster to rally the workers back on side and back to work. Some investors start to express misgivings and uncertainties about the project as well. If the day-to-day problems encountered aren’t enough, there are certain interests unhappy about the project who send a saboteur to wreck it.

Compared to the British film that was made two years later, this Austrian production has less forced drama and the acting and plotting appear more realistic. Unfortunately I didn’t continue beyond basic German-language study in high school and this film has no English subtitles so my understanding is limited to the basics of the plot and what I saw. Characters are realistic if a bit stereotyped – Allan’s wife is no more than walking and talking wallpaper here – and most of the drama in the film arises from the plot and narrative. Most of the sets are well-planned and designed and the film does not look at all cheap.

There’s a strong upstairs / downstairs feel to the film and it may be that one of its themes is to highlight the social and economic gulf between those financing the project and who depend on its success, and those engaged in its construction and who aren’t likely to benefit from it at all. But everyone associated with the project suffers from it in some way, directly or indirectly: Allan loses his wife, there’s a major accident in the tunnel that leads to an all-out riot among the workers, and one of the project backers commits suicide after he realises the police are after him, suspecting him of fraud – this in itself leads to delays in the tunnel’s constructions for scarcity of finance. Slowly but surely, in spite of what he and others have suffered during the project, Mac Allan and his men resolve to complete the tunnel and the film finishes on an optimistic and hopeful note.

The film is worth watching for those who have already seen the British and other adaptations of the novel though it suffers perhaps from not directly confronting issues of social and industrial democracy that arise. (The British film doesn’t even acknowledge that its workers have brains and can think for themselves.) Given that the film was made during a period in which most forms of socialism were feared and derided by the West – the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917 was still fresh in most people’s minds, and the world was slowly coming out of economic depression caused by excesses of and contradictions and strains within capitalist economies – understandably the film’s makers were careful not to offend the German government of the day (led by Chancellor Adolf Hitler) with messages about treating plutocrats and workers with equal dignity. Still, director Kurt Bernhardt managed to offend the German government in other ways  and he eventually had to flee Europe altogether, later to resurface in Hollywood as Curtis Bernhardt to direct films.

 

 

 

Algol, Tragedy of Power: modern Faustian morality tale of individual and social corruption with a conservative message

Hans Werckmeister, “Algol, Tragedy of Power / Algol, Tragödie der Macht” (1920)

A wonderful science fiction movie from the era of German Expressionist classics like “The Cabinet of Dr Caligari”, as its title implies, “Algol …” is a parable of how power can corrupt human beings and human society. The film can be seen as a variation on the German classic legend of Faust and his bargain with Mephistopheles. Spanning several decades, the film’s story begins with Robert Herne (Emil Jannings) slaving away as a miner in a coal mine owned by the wealthy Nissen family whose last heir is a young woman, Leonore. Herne is in love with Maria Obal (Hanna Ralph, who was married to Jannings at the time) who shares a garret with him: the film suggests they might be a de facto couple. One day while hacking at a coal seam, Herne meets a new coal miner (John Gottowt) who introduces himself as Algol. Algol moves in with Herne and Maria. One night Algol reveals himself as a native of a star system centred on the star Algol, which for centuries has been the stuff of legend, Greek and Arabian astronomers having regarded it as a demon star. Algol gives Herne a mechanical contraption which can harness the light of Algol the star and provide unlimited energy for the whole of planet Earth.

Over the next twelve months Herne builds a factory based around the Algol machine. In the meantime Maria has left Herne, foreseeing the ruin the energy discovery will bring him, and eloped with another man, Peter Hell, to a foreign country. The factory built, Herne opens it to much fanfare and his Bio Werks company goes straight to work producing electricity. Meanwhile the workers at the coal mine where Herne used to work revolt against their employer, Leonore (Gertrude Welcker), and Herne intercedes on Leonore’s behalf. He and she end up marrying. Cut 25 years into the future and Herne has become Dictator of the World who has used the income and profits his factory has generated into enslaving entire nations to provide food, water and other materials to his country and to enrich himself and his family beyond their wildest dreams.

Maria, by now a widow, has made a comfortable living on her farm in her adopted home. Unfortunately the coal mines in their country have been exhausted and the government there realises it has no choice but to buy electricity from Herne. The workers complain and Maria’s son Peter (Hans Adalbert Schettow) visits Herne at his mansion to plead for the electricity to be made free. Herne refuses and his daughter Magda (Kathe Haack), realising the extent to which wealth and power have corrupted Dad, follows Peter back to his farm where she is welcomed by Maria.

This sets in train Herne’s downfall and ultimate tragedy, and by extension the tragedy of humankind made wholly dependent on Herne’s energy-generating machine. Herne’s refusal to share his secret and allow nations to build their own Algol-style energy generators and become self-sufficient turns into a burden on him. Because of his refusal, the entire world teeters on political instability and economic apocalypse when he ages and death beckons. Herne’s wealth and unhappiness with his family, especially with his lazy and decadent son Reginald (Ernst Hofmann), is contrasted with Maria’s simple agrarian lifestyle and her close and happy relationship with her son: the film makes a morality tale of the contrast between industrial, modern society and its corrupting influences on people’s morality and character on the one hand, and on the other the traditional agricultural life, the nobility of honest work and self-sufficiency and how this moulds a wholesome, nurturing character.

The acting is nothing special and there is considerable over-acting by most characters though in a silent film that is to be expected. Characters tend to represent stereotypes and what character development occurs is quite limited. Female characters tend to be stronger than male characters in some ways, showing some backbone in the way they stand up to Herne and his maniacal quest for more power. The most enigmatic character is Algol the Mephistophelean alien who likens himself to a devil in case audience members don’t quite get the point of his being in the movie: his sneering or leering image is often superimposed over various critical scenes in the film.

The film’s best asset is its use of set designs influenced by the German Expressionist art movement of the period: Herne lives in a lavish palace with walls, floors and panels of avant-garde geometric design that contrast with scenes of the country and farm life in Maria’s country. Scenes in which Reginald appears with his lover Yella Ward (Erna Morena) are suitably debauched with exotic dancers and much revelry of an Orientalist stereotype familiar to audiences of the 1920s. Camera work is often inventive and emphasises the coldness and emotional distance that exists between Herne and his wife and children as they walk about in their huge palatial home.

Reginald plots with several others including Yella to take over dear old Dad’s empire and the film’s climax determines whether he will be successful or Herne can thwart his son’s ambition to be Nero after Dad’s Augustus Caesar. The fate of the world hangs on whichever of the two will succeed. Accordingly the film’s ending is pessimistic and in this I couldn’t help but think that an alternative which was suggested earlier – that the factory’s energy be made free to all peoples and nations – and for which Herne loses two close family members was not only better but also lost to that world’s eternal detriment. Given the historical context in which “Algol …” was made (just three years after the Bolshevik takeover of Russia), such an alternative might have damned the film as pro-socialist and would have limited its popularity within and without Germany. For an inventive science fiction film that makes pertinent commentary on how ownership of energy can corrupt owners and dependants alike through the way its use and abuse shape global political, social and economic institutions, and on the nature of work itself, how it can belittle or dignify human nature and morality, “Algol …” turns out to have a surprisingly conservative and despairing attitude towards working class people and their capacity to think for themselves, govern themselves and own and use resources wisely.

 

Carnage: comedy of no-manners patronises Americans and diminishes its audiences

Roman Polanski, “Carnage” (2011)

Not one of his better efforts due to the nature of the original play but then again, a comedy from Polanski is almost as rare as teeth in a chicken, especially one as entirely dialogue and character-driven as this. Two school-age boys have scuffled and one has whacked the other in the face with a switch, breaking two of his teeth, so the culprit’s parents agree to meet the victim’s at his home. Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz), the parents of the miscreant, have jobs as investment banker and corporate lawyer respectively; the victim’s folks, Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C Reilly), are somewhat lower class where income is concerned but are more cultured, or at least Penelope is (or pretends to be). In attempting to call a truce and assign financial responsibility for the victim’s dental expenses, the two couples allow their personal lives to take over the conversation via their cellphone calls and their respective civilised veneers, loosened by too many glasses of scotch, fall away; before long, their hang-ups about their marriages, class differences, social consciences, general outlook on life, obligations to their families and a pet hamster explode into the open in the confines of the Longstreets’ apartment.

Polanski is wise to keep all the action based in one room (the Longstreets’ lounge-room) so as to allow the actors to fly freely with their characters. Foster and Winslet excel with their particular characters: Foster the socially conscious and caring writer-cum-artist activist is revealed as an ambitious, narrow-minded and controlling shrew who always has to be top dog; Winslet the high-maintenance trophy wife loses control of herself from drinking too much and vomiting. Reilly and Waltz have rather more limited roles with Reilly playing a mediator and failing dismally and Waltz a workaholic more interested in winning lawsuits on behalf of crooked corporate clients in order to avoid dealing with a failing marriage and a child affected by his parents’ fights and faults. We start to see why the children of these parents might have behaved the way they did: the Cowans’ son wants the attention his parents are not giving him and the Longstreets’ son may be a passive child vulnerable to bullying because his mother coddles him and his father is too laidback to show him how to stand up for himself.

There are incongruities in the characters: what Penelope, who more or less conforms to the popular “champagne socialist” type (socially conscientious, skimming the surface of art and culture so as to appear sophisticated), found attractive in Michael with his non-PC prejudices and cavalier attitude towards small animals is never explained though their differences provide plenty of laughs; and Nancy and Michael are equally mismatched (she a brittle upper class princess, he a dull one-dimensional corporate robot whose life revolves around work) and contemptuous of each other. It’s likely though that the common bonds between them are love of money and status and who married whom for the money is perhaps not too difficult to work out. Initially the conflict is between morally upright do-gooding Penelope and cynical Alan with Michael trying to calm down and jolly people along and Nancy performing her simpering debutante act. The action clearly takes place in a claustrophobic and labyrinthine hot-house apartment though the Longstreets refer to their home as a “house”; usually in Polanski’s films, such a setting reflects characters’ inner states of mind but in this movie the setting merely looks picturesque.

Although the actors are very capable and the comedy is fast-paced and well-timed, the plot itself ends up in a rut: the characters simply keep on finding new scabs to pick at and make bleed and the bickering becomes tiresome. Script-writers Yasmina Reza (who wrote the original play) and Polanski pile on one unpleasantry after another on the characters until they become caricatures of themselves and the action is forced to stop rather suddenly when Nancy petulantly flings flowers about. One presumes the film-makers discovered at the last minute that there were no custard pies in the Longstreets’ fridge.

What themes exist in the film – how the rapacity of Wall Street and corporate culture has found its way into the lives of people like the Cowans and reduced them to mean-spirited, hollowed-out shells who can’t connect with their son; the snootiness of self-styled “liberal” and “progressive” types like Penelope loudly proclaiming their new versions of the 19th-century “white man’s burden” by writing books about wars and poverty in Africa while perhaps ignoring the poverty in their own neighbourhoods; the redneck vulgarity of Michael – are treated in a patronising way. The audience is expected to laugh at these foolish Americans for their self-obsession and identity politics. Yet in laughing at them, we ourselves are diminished; aren’t we just as obsessed with our social identities, how we want people to view us and admire us, and aren’t we also just as unconcerned about the poor people in our midst while we express horror and concern for poor people in distant countries whom we hope we never have to see?

Interestingly the most important part of the film occurs right at the end where we see the couples’ sons being friendly as if nothing had happened between them earlier. This suggests the world in a microcosm: while the parents, self-important and materially wealthy but spiritually lacking, quarrel and treat their children like objects or trophies, the children themselves overcome any social differences and conflicts between them and become pals. If only our elites, obsessed with ideology, destructive economic growth and controlling the public, would just disappear and let the common people sort out the mess the world is in through working together and finding common ground, the planet will regenerate and humanity’s future would be bright indeed. Dream on.

The Trial: brave and visually striking attempt to bring classic Kafka dystopia to screen

Orson Welles, “The Trial” / “Le Procès” (1962)

This film is a visually striking adaptation of the famous Franz Kafka novel. Welles’s directorial approach tries to incorporate as much of the spirit of the novel and its themes if not exacting faithfulness to the novel’s plot and the result is a work that is very heavy on dialogue which can seem mumbo-jumbo at times with much symbolism and not a little humour that can be missed by viewers. The style of the film is film noir / thriller: the plot proceeds as straight drama and lead actor Anthony Perkins plays the unfortunate anti-hero Josef K in a near-heroic, tight-jawed way while other actors play their roles in styles that may be called comic or parody. The look of the film is formal and stylised with an emphasis on over-imposing office or public buildings in modern brutalist, neo-classical or Gothic styles and exterior scenes empty of pedestrian and vehicle traffic that give the world where Josef K lives the appearance of a 20th-century police state relying on technology and bureaucracy to bolster its rule.

Josef wakes up, as if from a dream, in his apartment and is immediately apprehended by police on charges of having committed a crime of which details they don’t inform him. They then leave him and he embarks on a series of adventures to find out what he’s been accused of and to clear his name. Each incident in which he tries to get information ends in vain though he has quite memorable sexual encounters with various women. His uncle and guardian Max takes him to the family lawyer Hastler (Welles himself) who’s of no help whatsoever and Josef sacks him from his case. In the meantime the case proceeds through secretive layers of the court system and Josef is informed by a priest (Michael Lonsdale) and later by Hastler that he has been condemned to death.

The episodic nature of the film, in which Josef’s encounters with the legal system appear as more or less self-contained skits, contributes to the lack of tension and the impression that a plot as such doesn’t really exist. The climax appears as just another skit that conveniently ends the story. Welles could have added other skits not in the original novel or left out skits and the movie could have been 90 minutes or even 3 hours long without changing the general thrust of the plot. The comedy aspect is too subtle for a general audience and the potential for absurdism, for commenting on the craziness of society, especially one governed by techno-bureacratism, remains mostly unrealised. The timing of the film is unfortunate: made in the early 1960s when society was repressed and repressive, the sexual comedy is very muted; had the film been made a few years later with the same actors in a different and more relaxed social climate, able to look back on its past and realise how stultifying it had been, the sexual comedy with Hastler’s nurse Leni (Romy Schneider) and Josef’s neighbour Ms Burstner (Jeanne Moreau) seducing our hero might have been more open and a lot funnier with the characters in various states of undress in situations that could have segued into further embarrassments for Josef.

Another problem with the film is the way Welles tried to shape the character of Josef into something more heroic and positive for a general audience, standing as a lone defender of truth and justice in a corrupt society, than leave him as a distracted everyman while at the same time throwing him into an existential hamster-wheel to remain true to the novel as he (Welles) saw it. Perkins never seems to settle down into any particular interpretation of Josef: by turns he is nervous, scared, discomfited, full of bravado, malicious and righteous. At times he seems to be channelling US actor James Stewart in his more assertive scenes and not succeeding well at all, otherwise in scenes where his character is out of his depth, especially with women and young girls who represent aspects of the system, Perkins becomes touchingly vulnerable. Swinging from one behavioural extreme to another, and not fitting in completely, the actor is more brave than effective but then that’s the point: Josef is condemned to die because he never fits into his society but insists on sticking out like a sore thumb.

The oppressive yet perplexing society is portrayed well with staged Expressionist scenes that highlight contrasts in light and shadows and the skilful deployment of unusual camera angles, long tracking and deep focus that Welles had used in “Citizen Kane”. In particular interior scenes which take place inside abandoned buildings, in buildings where furnishings appear to have been ripped out to expose pipes and frameworks or in places of disarray or where structures have been set up in haste convey the chaos behind the façade of order strenuously maintained by police and legal authorities. (This of course suggests that the passage of Josef’s case through the courts doesn’t proceed smoothly or logically and the decision to execute him itself is irrational and based on a line of reasoning riddled with errors, false assumptions and plain malice.) Overall the look of the film and the way the camera is used complement the straight film noir drama genre approach Welles used though perhaps using film noir as straight drama doesn’t quite suit “The Trial”; a more ironic and parodic film noir approach, such as was used by Jean Luc Godard in “Alphaville” which looks very similar to “The Trial” in its use of modern office buildings as the setting for a similar technocratic dystopia, might have been more appropriate. Nice to see Amir Tamiroff appearing in minor roles in both films too!

Welles departs significantly from the novel in two scenes: the first such scene is one where Hastler screens an animated film, “Before the Law” to Josef and the two then talk about the film (which viewers have seen already in the prologue to “The Trial” proper in pin-screen animation format), at the end of which Josef defies Hastler and Hastler then appears to make his mind up about Josef; we may infer that Hastler plays some part in sentencing Josef to death. The other scene is Josef’s execution which, unlike the novel, gives Josef a chance to escape death while allowing his executioners an excuse that they are not directly responsible for his death. The implication is that Josef would prefer to die while being true to himself and his values rather than continue to live in a dysfunctional society with others who don’t share his desire for an honest life.

“The Trial” is a brave if not successful attempt to bring Kafka’s novel in its thematic entirety to the screen. Other adaptations of the novel including a 1993 film version starring Kyle MacLachlan and Anthony Hopkins have been even less successful so any faults in Welles’s film are as much due to the novel being all but unfilmable in its structure and characterisation. If Welles hadn’t tried to force the film into a form agreeable to mainstream audiences but instead made the kind of film he and only he plus a few close friends wanted to see, “The Trial” still wouldn’t be perfect but it would have come closer to “perfect” – the black comedy might have been more obvious and that in itself might even have made the film a celebration of a brief life in a depressing dystopia.

Das Rad: little film about rocks packs in history of human development and ecological themes

Chris Stenner, Arvid Uibel and Heidi Wittlinger, “Das Rad” / “The Wheel” aka “Rocks” (2003)

Made with a mix of stop-motion and computer-generated styles of animation plus puppets, this film presents a history of human development from the point of view of two piles of rocks. Big Pile fusses over the itches and cracks that lichen and moss growth is causing on his skin while his pal Little Pile amuses himself chucking pebbles at their neighbour across the rocky valley. All around them clouds whiz overhead, the colours of the sky speed from one shade of blue or grey to the next and vegetation zips up and down hill-sides and mountains faster than we can say “geologic time”. Little Pile starts playing with a vaguely circular-shaped rock and tries to figure out what it might be useful for. A human dressed in animal skins stops by to check out Little Pile’s pet rock and gets an inspiration from it. From then on the two stoners’ hill environment starts changing even faster: a dirt track appears next to Little Pile from which he acquires another plaything, a wheel. While he tries to explain to Big Pile how the humans have benefitted and progressed from having stone wheels to wooden wheels, buildings begin to sprout and spread from the valley below, a billboard appears before the duo and their very existence becomes threatened by the furiously upthrusting skyscrapers and concrete bridges charging towards them.

This is a very amusing and informative film about the transient nature of human existence and the effects human activity might have on the natural environment. The film might make more impact if it had been a bit longer and the characters of the rock piles a little more developed. Big Pile and Little Pile could have had a conversation about what the circular rock must have meant for the primitive human, that he was so enthused by its shape. They could have talked about the dirt track and wondered where it leads to and why humans use it so much. They could have lamented its passing and replacement by an asphalt road. Little Pile’s curiosity about his surroundings could have been contrasted more strongly with Big Pile’s concern with personal hygiene and lack of interest in what’s going on around him. Viewers might feel more concern and dread for them when roads, bridges and buildings start to encroach on the stoner dudes’ lives and they feel fear for the first time in their long lives.

The animation is well-done and seamless though Big Pile and Little Pile are barely distinguishable apart from general size and shape. Their landscape could have been made a bit simpler so that rapid changes that occur over it are more obvious and viewers would also get an idea of the impact humans make on their surroundings. Noise and air pollution barely registers and the odd traffic accident that might reshape Little Pile into something that makes Big Pile jealous (since the smaller rock pile is the one sitting closer to the asphalt road) would have been very appropriate. As it is, the film lacks a sub-plot that would involve our stony friends in some depth and make them less passive observers and more passive participants. The overall plot would not be greatly affected as Little Plot might in time forget about his cosmetic surgery and once humans and their structures are completely out of the picture, the un-dynamic duo can start fussing over their itches and scratches again; at the same time, the sub-plot would enhance the plot’s message that for all their stolidity, the two rock piles are indeed sensitive to human activity and can be very fragile. A paradoxical question arises: how impervious to human activity is the natural environment and how sensitve can it also be?

For such a little film starring two rocks, some mighty big issues are presented with gentle humour and a simple grace. A big plus is the choice of music with resonant acoustic percussion instruments used at the beginning and near the end of the film to suggest a simple, peaceful life for our rock friends, and orchestral flourishes for scenes featuring humans or frenetic human activity.

The Blue Angel: stodgy film best seen as a character study and sympathetic morality tale

Josef von Sternberg, “The Blue Angel” / “Der Blaue Engel” (1930)

Famous as the movie that sent its leading lady Marlene Dietrich and director Sternberg (that “von” bit was added to his name later) on a fast ticket to fame and Hollywood, “The Blue Angel” is an interesting character study of a man who on a superficial level falls from a position of respect to degradation but on a deeper level recovers his humanity and becomes a matured man as a result. In the process, viewers learn much about the world the man lives in and his relationship to it. Some people find in this film an allegory about Germany itself and how it was buffeted by external global events and its relationships with its near and far neighbours but that might be taking the film’s moral too far. All the same, the story the film has to tell is more than one of “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall”: the one who has to suffer must learn many lessons about human nature and life before he finds release from suffering.

The film is slow in its first hour and speeds up in its last patchy 30 minutes; this reviewer believes this is so in order to build up the central character of Professor Rath (Emil Jannings) as an upright but rather provincial and naive school-teacher at a boys’ school in a small German town. Highly educated and knowledgeable but at sea in dealing with other people, least of all unruly adolescents who dislike him, Rath discovers some of his students are regular visitors to a night-club called The Blue Angel where a sexy singer called Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich) is performing. Rath visits the night-club to shoo the students away but instead falls hard and heavily for the singer’s seductive charms. After defending his new love from the amorous advances of a rough sailor, Rath is sacked from his teaching job and ends up marrying Lola Lola (LL from this point on). He joins her performing troupe but his star starts on a downward slide to humiliation and poverty while his wife’s keeps on rocketing skywards.

Details of the story might be outdated but the basic plot and its central characters – the collision of a middle-aged bourgeois bachelor naif and the knowing siren who is fatally irresistible to men – are universal and timeless. Jannings and Dietrich simply act their pants off in the roles that were created especially for them. Dietrich as LL is very much a woman in control, a woman with whom men fall hopelessly in love and become her slaves. Her body language is masculine and dominant instead of feminine and submissive, particularly in scenes where she dominates the stage or drapes herself over a spiral staircase. Her clothes may be ridiculous with skirts flipped up to show off her crotch or her bum but she is so confident in her ability to charm men that her campy dress and accessories fade behind her beauty and cruel personality. Jannings’s achievement is in arousing viewer sympathy for a character who otherwise deserves contempt for his initial hypocrisy, emotional immaturity and inability to take control of his life, allowing others to boss him around and degrade him. How can Rath not see that associating with LL will literally reduce him to a clown? How can he not see that the woman is shallow and cares not a jot for him once his savings run out and he is no longer of any use to her? Jannings owns the movie with his acting, at once serious, comic and very tragic. (Though it’s worth remembering that he played similar characters in other films, notably “The Last Laugh”, “The Way of all Flesh” and “The Last Command”, the last two of which gave him Best Actor Oscars.) Near the end, Rath appears to experience an enlightenment moment in his final derangement and his instincts take over, guiding the prodigal professor out of the night-club through his hometown to a place of peace.

German Expressionist influences are quite strong in this film, particularly in some early scenes that involve shadow play and where buildings stand at strange angles and in scenes near the end where Rath gropes blindly in the dark. The film flows smoothly with shots that cleverly merge one incident with another, regardless of the passage of time between them: to take an example, Rath and LL’s engagement seamlessly blends into their marriage which itself skips over four years with shots of two calendar entries for 1925 and 1929 nearly merged together.

The one weakness about the film is that the odd relationship between Rath and Lola Lola looks lopsided: we see Rath’s puppy-like devotion to LL and understand where that comes from but the film never makes clear what LL sees in Rath. Perhaps she really is no more than a predator who enjoys toying with Rath’s affections for her. Perhaps he’s the father or uncle figure she’s never had and unconsciously needs. Perhaps she’s impressed by his idealism and the fact that he’s given up his career and everything he has just to be with her – because she knows she’d never be able to do the same for him or anyone else. Whatever, the movie might have been richer if it had examined LL’s past a little through slips of the tongue from her or other characters, or included some flashbacks of her past,  to give viewers some idea of how she became a tough woman indifferent to love. We know not all women are like LL and she may not know what it is about her that attracts so much male attention; she just knows she has a power to manipulate men and get what she wants from them.

Apart from its leads, the movie is not very remarkable and is actually quite stodgy for a film about a cabaret singer. Modern audiences might find the plot unrealistic and quite skimpy in parts. “The Blue Angel” is best seen as a sympathetic character morality tale, neither condemning nor sentimentalising its lead characters. Viewers are left to wonder whether Rath would have been better off never meeting LL but then his character would remain limited in its narrow bourgeois comfort zone. Better to love LL and experience life in all its joys, sadness and degradation, and know what humanity and society are really like, than to pass her up but remain a child forever.

Cargo (dir. Ivan Engler): too much cargo taken on board in the plot and characters wreck a visually fine film

Ivan Engler, “Cargo” (2009)

Debut full-length directorial feature for Ivan Engler, “Cargo” is a bloodless effort set in the distant future when the Earth has become uninhabitable due to global ecological collapse and mysterious plagues. Everyone still surviving lives on space stations around the planet. A lucky few are selected in a lottery to go to other planets terra-formed for human habitation and one of these people is Arianne Portmann who goes with her family to the planet Rhea. Her sister Dr Laura Portmann (Anna-Katharina Schwabroh) needs to save up money to go to Rhea herself so she takes a job as ship doctor on an old cargo transporter going to distant space station #42. The trip there and back to Earth will take 8 years, much of it spent in cryo-sleep.

The main crew consists of five members, each of whom together with Portmann, will take turns monitoring conditions onboard for about 8 months while the others are in cryo-sleep. Due to ecoterrorism on the space stations led by a group called the Machine Strikers, the transporter must take on a space marshal called Decker (Martin Rapold). Initially the trip to #42 is uneventful but when it’s Portmann’s turn to wake up and keep watch, strange things that go bump in deep space start occur in the ship’s holding bay and she has to wake up the captain (Pierre Semmler) who investigates the odd incidents with her. The captain mysteriously falls to his death while investigating so Portmann must do an autopsy to determine the immediate causes. She finds his artificial eye and on seeing its last recorded images, discovers through them the true nature of the materials being transported to #42; they are not construction materials as she and the rest of the crew were told, they are organic. After further detective work by herself and Decker, who has long been suspicious of the nature of the cargo, the materials turn out to be humans in deep cryo-sleep.

So begins a mystery thriller that’s part noir, part “Alien” movie series and part “The Matrix” at least; there may be other science fiction / space exploration films referenced here as well. The visual scenes are stunning, especially those of the ship sailing into a black void and those in which Portmann and Decker venture out into space to find her sister’s cryo-sleep pod so that Portmann can meet her and make a broadcast back to the space stations orbiting Earth. Apart from breath-taking scenes of highly detailed space vehicles and stations, Decker and Portmann travelling from the main part of the transporter to find the container that holds Arianne’s pod, and interior scenes of the transporter that emphasise its moody, sinister labyrinthine passages – as if viewers hadn’t already seen similar passages in the ships featured in the “Alien” series of movies – the acting tends to be so low-key and expressionless as to suggest that while in cryo-sleep, the nutritive glop that surrounds sleeping humans drains them of their red blood cells. Actors rarely raise their voices or  look even mildly upset, even in scenes where they have to fight or bid a tearful farewell to someone about to commit suicide. A stab at a romance between Decker and Portmann is laughably unconvincing; the scene in which they embrace and start throwing off their clothes goes upside-down slowly and soundlessly and just when they’re about to have fun, a sliding metal door glides down to hide them in the nick of time to preserve their privacy from us voyeurs. Whatever happened to good healthy clean Germanic revelry in bare-skin nature?

The plot suffers as well from familiar sci-fi cliche: viewers will be glad to know a human or two get blown into the Great Alien Skeleton Garbage Patch revolving around a distant star not in the movie. At one point in the film I wondered if the plot was borrowing heavily from an old Doctor Who adventure “The Ark in Space” in which humans kept in deep sleep were being attacked by an alien insect species who used the humans as incubators for its larvae. After all, Portmann does find a young girl in one of the cryo-sleep pods who has something unusual inserted into her spine. Could it be a larva? – fortunately it’s something inorganic and harmless. At least if there was a mysterious plague or a few nasty cockroaches grown to giant size in those containers, there would be plenty of suspense and action as Decker and Portmann would have to choose between blowing up the ship and its cargo (and explaining matters 57 years later to an irate Board of Directors who have to write the multi-billion euro assets off) and whooshing the giant macrophages or silicon-shielded arthropods out through the airlocks in the absence of highly toxic super-powered pesticides and off to … well, you know where. Instead the suspense wavers from one level of low-key uncertainty to another as characters change the ship’s co-ordinates to travel to Rhea instead of #42.

It’s a pity that the plot is a pastiche of older, better sci-fi movie and TV show scenarios and the characters themselves are one-dimensional versions of the characters in Ridley Scott’s “Alien” movie (and the young girl found in cryo-sleep is a reference to Newt of “Aliens”) as the film’s themes of alienation, isolation, the need to connect with others and corporate exploitation and manipulation of people’s dreams and hopes are powerful and relevant to us all. Portmann discovers the true nature of Rhea which destroys her dream of ever being reunited with Arianne and her children. Anyone else would be completely devastated and would want to rage at the cynical managers and spin doctors who have duped people like Arianne and treated them as garbage for profit. Portmann simply soldiers on with barely a tear running down her face. As for Decker, the other significant character who should have a complex personality and conflicting motives, there again is little fleshing-out of the security guard who’s really an ecoterrorist in disguise; why he falls in love with Portmann and sacrifices himself for her is a puzzle.

Can’t imagine that Hollywood would want to remake this film but if its film studios are prepared to stoop this low, they’ll have their hands full reworking the script to something much more original and to include a proper sewage disposal treatment plant somewhere in space every time something gets flushed out the airlocks.

 

Downfall: masterly if flawed fictional account of Adolf Hitler’s last days

Oliver Hirschbiegel, “Downfall” (2004)

This is an incredible and masterly fictional dramatisation of the last 14 days in the life of Adolf Hitler over April – May, 1945, during the dying days of Nazi Germany and the Second World War in Europe. “Downfall” captures a whole world, an era, going down in flames, chaos and desperation as the Soviet army invades Berlin, leaving death and ruin in its wake, the German armed forces collapse for lack of manpower, supplies and coherent strategy, and civilians and soldiers alike scrabble and fight over food and shelter in the destroyed capital. While this is happening, the remnants of Hitler’s regime hide in an underground bunker where Hitler himself, aged and suffering from Parkinson’s disease, persists in his fantasies of leading Germany to victory and creating a new glorious Berlin, a citadel of (kitsch) art and culture, as the country burns around him.

History texts and documentaries can give us the blow-by-blow details of Nazi Germany’s death but what they can’t do is give a psychological portrait of Hitler and his closest supporters like Eva Braun, architect Albert Speer and propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and his wife Magda. The film focusses on the characters of these people by structuring itself around the viewpoint (in part) of Hitler’s young personal secretary Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara) who appears as a passive observer doing her job and staying steadfast to Hitler to his dying day and beyond; any qualms she might have about her boss’s state of mind and his ways of thinking, she suppresses for the sake of duty and devotion to a man who has always treated her with fatherly kindness and gentleness. Skilfully woven into the drama is a parallel story of a fictional child soldier called Peter who represents both Germany’s manic desperation to fight the war to the very end, exemplified by the recruitment of himself and his young friends in the Hitler Youth as soldiers, and Germany’s hope for renewal as he survives the war and finds a companion in Junge herself after he discovers his parents have killed themselves in despair. Other parallel stories include those of the Goebbels, Braun, Speer, the army doctor Schenck and various military officers, all of whom are torn in some way between what they believe or think is right and wrong, what they know they should do and their loyalty to Hitler.

Students of psychology keen to know how people cope and behave in extreme situations in a virtual prison will find a feast here: Hitler (Bruno Ganz) zings constantly between denial and flights into fantasy – he imagines moving armies into positions to crush the Reds – on the one hand, and tirades about the supposed incompetence of advisors and officers he thought he could trust, and how the German people deserve to die for their weaknesses and inability to uphold and witness for Nazi ideals. He issues ever more eccentric orders to execute competent men and, as news of Soviet encroachment on the bunker comes, makes arrangements to marry Eva and to commit suicide with her. The retreat into fantasy as a way of coping with reality, staving off despair and covering up one’s own incompetence and responsibility for failures by blaming others and wishing evil on them becomes understandable. By doing this though, Hitler becomes a degraded and contemptible human being. We see, through Ganz’s intense and electrifying performance, the kind of “monster” Hitler is: egotistic, self-pitying, volatile and unstable, brutal, charming, kind and affectionate in an empty sort of way. His best friend is his dog Blondi yet he orders the dog killed in a pitiless manner.

Also as extreme and puzzling is the behaviour of people like the Goebbels and various minor characters who regard Hitler as a god and have such faith in his leadership and abilities that they’d rather die with him than live. Normally we’d admire people who place honour, integrity and devotion to ideals above personal interest and ambitions but what can we make of intelligent and capable people like Magda Goebbels (Corinna Harfouch) who has such a sincere and child-like if deluded faith in Hitler and Nazism that, unable to imagine a different Germany, kills all her children? What background and psychological history does she have, that on the one hand she idolises Hitler and clings to him in a way at once shocking and demeaning of herself, and on the other moulds her children into perfect little Nazi angels only to despatch of them in a steely and cold-blood manner?

The acting performances, particularly those of Ganz and Harfouch, are strong and riveting. The film loses some spark after Hitler and Braun’s deaths but the knowledge that the Goebbels plan to die and take their six children with them sustains tension to the end. My main gripe is the “happy” ending in which Junge and Peter cycle on a bike away from Berlin through a forest.  For me, this ending is a cop-out to cheer up audiences; the reality is that several of the women who left the bunker along with Junge were captured, raped and brutalised by Soviet Army soldiers. It’s possible Junge was raped and tortured as well though she did not mention if she was raped or not in her memoir, on which “Downfall” is partly based.

The film’s narrow focus on Hitler’s last 14 days, while it demonstrates the mind-set of Hitler and his followers, doesn’t say anything about the kind of society or psychological culture of Germany that allowed Hitler and his National Socialist party to achieve power originally, maintain that power while junking democratic processes and crushing opposition, industrialise the country and restore its pride only to take it into a prolonged war that destroyed its manufacturing achievements. For all his charm and charisma, and his promises, there’s no way Hitler and the Nazis could have just taken over Germany the way they did without support from most major institutions, like the armed forces, industry, the churches and other prominent organisations and individuals. If “Downfall” had included a few flashbacks to Hitler’s early days as a campaigning politician, bidding for the position of Chancellor in the early 1930’s, viewers might have got some idea of how Germany was seduced into trading a failing democracy for a psychopathic dictatorship. It could be said though that we have history text-books and documentaries to give us that background!

As it is, “Downfall” is a significant cinematic achievement which humanises Hitler and his followers without glorifying them; if anything, the movie shows how degraded, pitiful and even stupid they make themselves. Though the film isn’t a completely accurate historical record – some characters like Fegelein and Schenk are shown sympathetically – it demonstrates effectively the horrors of war, the suffering of ordinary people and the indifference of politicians to that suffering. The psychology of individuals like Hitler, Eva Braun and the Goebbels shown provide some insight into the thinking and actions of people caught up in a situation that’s rapidly and chaotically spinning out of their control and beyond their understanding.

M (dir. Fritz Lang): an ordinary film with sharp social comment

Fritz Lang, “M” (1931)

During the 1920’s and early 1930’s, Germany played unfortunate host to some extremely vicious serial killers, one of whom, Peter Kürten, inspired this psychological thriller drama by Fritz Lang. Kürten terrorised the city of Düsseldorf with his hideous murders of men, women and children that sometimes included drinking their blood; he was convicted of nine murders and was executed for his crimes in 1931. The reality that was Kürten is considerably toned down in “M”: the serial killer Beckert, played by Peter Lorre, preys on young schoolgirls in the city of Berlin and most of his crimes have already occurred when the film opens and he is seen buying a balloon and sweets for his latest victim. The movie concentrates on the search for Beckert by both police and organised crime gangs: the police believe Beckert is hiding among underworld criminals and put pressure on them to yield him; the criminals, feeling the heat and concerned for their reputation(!), try to find him and mete out their own justice.

The film does drag out during the search for Beckert who is captured by the criminals about 80 minutes into the movie: the pace is slow and leisurely and there’s no sense of rising tension as Beckert becomes aware of the pursuit and hides in an abandoned office building with both police and crooks on his trail. At least viewers can see how police in the 1920’s conducted their investigations into serial murders: finger-printing was still a new science then and forensic methods based on the use of DNA were in another universe altogether; all the police could do in those days was comb through known criminal networks and perhaps find out from psychiatric hospitals or prisons if they had released anyone or reported any escapes before the killings began. Naturally the police search is hardly scientific; indeed, it’s not even well co-ordinated as two police officers argue and fight over the case, and the inspector himself is sloppy in the way he oversees it. The criminals are faster and more efficient if more violent and thuggish in the way they find Beckert and promptly haul him before a kangaroo court baying for his blood.

Visually the film is a treat: the influence of 1920’s German Expressionism is strong in the use of shadows to suggest menace and suspense, and in one bizarre shot of the inspector talking on the telephone that forces audiences to look up his trouser legs at his face! There is one very good montage sequence of scenes in the disused office building where the criminals have rampaged looking for Beckert, with a voice-over of a police officer exclaiming at the destruction left behind. Another excellent montage sequence indirectly shows a victim’s assault: the montages show the empty place at a dining-table and a play area where the victim should have been had Beckert not attacked her. The mood throughout the film as suggested by the images is one of paranoia as Berlin is gripped in fear by the vicious murders and the police resort to intrusive searches through flop-houses and other places where underworld elements and society’s various down-and-outs and other outsiders frequent.

The film picks up during the mock trial scene in which Beckert confesses his guilt and admits to deep, primal instincts that drive him to kill even as he is revolted by them. Lorre delivers an incredible if hysterical and screechy performance of a man compelled by an inner sickness to carry out gruesome acts. Beckert is not entirely insane; he is lucid enough to remind his accusers that they exercise free will in carrying out their crimes while he is beholden to forces he can’t understand or fight.  His “defence lawyer” pleads on his behalf, arguing that Beckert can’t be held fully responsible for his crimes on the basis of his psychology. The mob, swept up in its hysteria and triumph at capturing Beckert, and not at all pleased at being told the plain truth about itself, proclaims the death sentence on him and prepares to carry it out. Astonishingly, viewers will find themselves in sympathy with Beckert, creepy and abhorrent he might be, having to face the fury of an emotional crowd locked in groupthink. Lorre’s acting virtually carries “M” from just another so-so cat-and-mouse chase to a movie that’s worth watching: there can’t be very many other films made since motion pictures began whose reputations rely so much on one actor’s performance in one scene. Unfortunately Lorre’s role as Beckert was to typecast the actor permanently as a sinister or creepy villain for the rest of his career.

As cinema, “M” doesn’t rate well in telling its story: the plot is self-explanatory yet surprisingly threadbare and so for most of its running time, the movie lacks direction, tension and pace. As a medium for social comment, the film makes pointed barbs about how the less privileged strata of society are targeted by the police for investigation and punishment whenever something out of the ordinary occurs, and how easy it is for the rights of individuals to be crushed totally, whether by institutions of law and order or by vigilante groups, especially in situations they can take advantage of and benefit from. The society as portrayed in “M” is one easily swayed by emotional frenzy and irrationality in a context of chronic stress, insecurity and fear for the future, and as a result is a society whose sympathies could be exploited and directed by an individual, an organisation and an ideology for more murderous gain than even Beckert and his demons can achieve. The parallels with the situation in the United States after the World Trade Center attacks in September 2001 are not at all hard to see.

Not long after making “M”, both director Lang and lead actor Lorre fled Germany for Paris (Lang in 1934, Lorre in 1933) when the society so portrayed in the movie became reality.

Vampyr: vampire horror film explores issues of human existence

Carl Theodor Dreyer, “Vampyr” (1932)

Made originally as a silent movie with a voice and musical soundtrack added later, this film boasts very creative if contrary ideas and perceptions about film-making as an art-form in its own right as opposed to telling moving stories, and about the story-telling process itself. Loosely based on a collection of short stories by Irish writer Sheridan le Fanu, “Vampyr” follows a young man David Gray (Nicolas de Gunzburg under the alias of Julian West, who helped finance the film) who does research on Satanism and folk superstitions. His research takes him to a French town called Courtempierre where, while staying at an inn, he is visited by an elderly stranger (Maurice Schutz) who appeals for help and leaves a book package for him. Gray follows the stranger to a mansion where the old man is the owner and father of two sisters living there. The man dies from gunshot wounds just as Gray arrives. He is introduced to the two young sisters, of whom one is bedridden with a wasting disease. Viewers quickly see that the girl, Leone (Sybille Schmitz), has suffered bites to the neck and Gray and a servant (Albert Bras) learn from the father’s book brought by Gray that she may be the vicitm of a vampire.

The film looks badly made with flickering backgrounds but the washed-out effect is deliberate; Dreyer had been seeking a particular “look” to the film and discovered it by accident when a can of film was exposed. The bleached appearance makes interiors of rooms come “alive”, vibrating with a sinister, hidden force and outdoor scenes look unnaturally bright and animated. Even grass and leaves on tree branches swaying with the breeze look fearsomely alive as though inhabited by demon spirits. Lighting contrasts appear stronger than they should be and areas that are lit up burn with intensity. This creates an atmosphere where emotions override reason and intellect, and either lethargy or irrationality governs people’s actions. In those parts of the film where a storm occurs, windows and glass panes in doors light up and pulse with bright ferocity as though just behind them Hell has just erupted with volcanic ire.

The narrative doesn’t flow the way viewers might expect: the film often presents montages of “still life” shots or moving dioramas of shadow play. Most scenes have a very static quality even when actual actors are moving or the camera is panning around or back-tracking. A few figures are introduced quite early in the film whom audiences assume will play significant roles but these characters are never seen again. In one memorable shot, a soldier is sits on a bench quietly while his shadow comes by and sits on the bench’s shadow; later when the soldier gets up and walks off, the shadow walks away in the opposite direction. Are the person and the shadow important to the movie? As it turns out, no. There is also a sequence of dancing shadows on a wall which the camera follows while dance music is interspersed with the main musical soundtrack: a very unusual and quite creepy piece of filming which heightens the sense of dread and enclosed paranoia. The “show, don’t tell” approach to advance the plot is abandoned: various titled card insertions, meant as pages in the book the servant reads, not only give information on how to destroy vampires but, in the absence of dialogue, alerts the audience to what Gray or the servant will do.

Gray himself isn’t an active character: throughout the film he seems aimless and reacts to people and events around him in an almost robotic way. He allows a doctor (Jan Hieronimko) to siphon blood from him, not realising the doctor is an ally of the vampire who has bitten Leone. Though viewers assume Gray to be the film’s hero in a conventional sense, and the film initially points that way with the old man handing him the package, he ends up superfluous to the “plot” and merely assists the servant “hero”. The servant later appears a “villain” in the way he cruelly despatches the doctor in a flour mill.

There are passages in the film which may or may not be diversions from the main plot: most notably, in the second half of “Vampyr”, Gray has an out-of-body dream experience while at a cemetery, follows the doctor and sees his body in a coffin; the point of view switches to the body itself, as though Gray’s soul has re-entered the body there and then, and the coffin is then taken away for burial with the camera pointing up at the blank sky and town buildings passing on either side of the screen. At the moment the coffin arrives at the burial plot, Gray wakes up on his cemetery seat and sees the servant opening the coffin. This is perhaps the most memorable and terrifying part of the film which might not necessarily have anything to do with the plot but seems to be a meditation on death and what happens to the soul after death. Seen from a psychological viewpoint, Gray’s astral trip may serve as a metaphor for mental fragmentation and the dissolving of identity, exemplified by his soul following the doctor, and the entire film itself has the look of a terrifying dream. Other “irrelevant” parts include Gray meeting the doctor before he arrives at the mansion and a part near the end where Gray and Leone’s sister Gisele (Rena Mandel) row a boat on a lake.

In all of this, the vampire itself never appears: a corpse said to be the vampire is impaled with an iron stake and Leone seems to recover but this could be a suggestion implanted in viewers’ minds by the pages of the book the servant has read. The vampire seems an elemental force that is nowhere and yet everywhere in the film, hidden in natural phenomena, in the lurid interiors of the mansion, the shadows that appear, even in the medium of the film itself as demonstrated by its bleached look. Perhaps in that aforementioned dream experience that Gray has, the blank sky that his dead face was gazing at was or held the vampire being?

“Vampyr” certainly makes no attempt to appeal to a wide audience: all elements integral to a story on film are turned on their head in some way. Acting as such is natural, most of the actors being amateurs whom Dreyer knew personally. Schmitz (the only trained actor) as Leone gives quite a performance with her face going from pained and agonised to smirking malevolence as she appears to transform into a vampire herself. Events appear disconnected from one another, there’s no sense of cause and effect or any similar sequencing, and viewers must assume everything they see is either important or irrelevant. Even the plot itself barely holds the film together and is merely a medium for themes Dreyer may have wanted to explore: what it must mean to die and to be dead, the vampire as metaphor for disease and sexuality, and blood as metaphor for the life-force which sustains identity and wholeness.

For those who are open to watching visual media in ways beyond a strict story-telling or linear narrative structure, this film is highly recommended as a lesson in how the vampire horror genre can be used to explore issues of human existence in an original and experimental way.