The American Soldier: focusing on alienation and longing for connection

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, “Der Amerikanische Soldat / The American Soldier” (1970)

A loosely stitched pastiche of elements borrowed from old Hollywood and French New Wave film noir flicks, “The American Soldier” has plenty to say about the relationship between the US and Germany (or West Germany at the time the film was made, during the height of the Vietnam War) and the hypocrisies of contemporary Western society and certain of its features that divide humans from one another and prevent them from being authentic and fully human. A professional killer, Ricky Murphy (Karl Scheyde) has just returned to Germany and is leading a desultory sort of life. Three corrupt cops, pressured by their bureaucrat police commissioner to do some real work and stamp down on their end of the national crime statistics, hire him to wipe out some crooks. Murphy does his job a little too efficiently and becomes a danger to the police in upstaging their crime-busting efforts. While the rogue cops figure out how to set him up, Murphy becomes a little too intimate with the prostitute girlfriend of one of the cops and they both plan to escape Germany and go to Japan.

There’s so much packed into the film’s 80 minutes, it could afford to lose those Humphrey Bogart / Ingrid Bergman “Casablanca” references: the nattily suited Ricky Murphy visits his old flame Inga at the Lola Montez club (familiar from Fassbinder’s “Gods of the Plague” gangster flick) and discovers she’s married to another man. Like Ricky in the 1940s thriller classic, Ricky Murphy is a lesser man not living up to his full potential as a human being but whereas Bogart’s character did redeem himself, Murphy resolutely remains a killing machine who (spoiler alert), living by the sword, eventually dies by it – or a gun, rather. The woman he plans to run away with comes to an unhappy end as well. In fact nearly all characters in this film, minor as well as major, are unhappy and disconnected from one another and from themselves, and are destined either to come to a sticky end or continue living hollow lives. Probably the only character who comes closest to being authentic turns out to be a hotel maid stood up by her boyfriend who kills herself in despair.

The acting is not very good and Fassbinder himself surfaces as Franz Walsch, Ricky’s partner in crime. Actors appear to be cold and robotic and this stilted manner of acting calls viewers’ attention to the alienation several characters feel and which some are driven to overcome. A number of elements and characters from Fassbinder’s earlier gangster films appear here: one of the police officers who romances the prostitute who takes a shine to Ricky is the same cop who encouraged Joanna in “Gods of the Plague” to rat on her ex-lover. On the other hand the cinematography is well done with good use of panning to capture the gritty atmosphere  and seedy underground of Munich. The plot is very basic and is secondary to character portrayal and the loneliness and isolation felt by several of them. As in “Love is Colder than Death” and “Gods of the Plague”, characters display an obsession with money as a means to the freedom and the promise of new relationships and connections they strive for but probably never know. Society is revealed as corrupt: the three detectives use Ricky in an effort to bolster their careers for a bureaucrat who is under pressure himself from his unseen superiors. Ricky does not yet realise that he is as disposable as the people he kills. Everyone is demeaned in some way by the deals they do in pursuit of money and relationships and no-one is any happier at the end of the film than at the beginning.

The relationship between Ricky and the police officers reflects to some degree West Germany’s relationship to the United States since 1945 as Fassbinder saw it in 1970: the country had experienced considerable economic recovery and had become Europe’s largest economy and one of its richest, largely on the back of the US military which meant West Germany could divert money that might otherwise have been spent on defence into investing in social services and infrastructure, and improving people’s standard of living.

Unexpected humour is to be found in the film’s one sex scene where Ricky and the prostitute try to make out in bed while the hotel maid sits on the edge and recounts a story about a woman called Emmy who falls madly in love with a Turkish man called Ali and marries him; and in the film’s closing scene in which Ricky’s younger brother wrestles with the killer’s body in a way that suggests a wild homosexual encounter. All the films in Fassbinder’s gangster trilogy contain references to repressed homosexuality between men which say something about the nature of an otherwise permissive society that prides itself on being free and uninhibited in which his films are set.

For the most part the film has a less experimental style though its plot, concerns and stilted style of filming still mark it out as an art-house film. After “The American Soldier”, Fassbinder turned his attention to making melodramas and made-for-TV films and series.

Gods of the Plague: a character study on social hypocrisy, loneliness and the destruction of dreams

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, “Götter der Pest / Gods of the Plague” (1970)

Following on from “Love is Colder than Death” in R W Fassbinder’s trilogy of gangster films, “Gods of the Plague” follows the adventures of one Franz Walsch (Harry Baer instead of Fassbinder himself) after his release from prison.  He attempts to turn over a new leaf with his singer girlfriend Joanna (Hanna Schygulla) but mainstream society is hostile to him and gradually he falls back into his old mode of life. He drifts away from Joanna and takes up with two other women, one of whom is the girlfriend of his brother  who had been killed some time ago by a gangster Günther (Günther Kaufmann), also known as The Gorilla. Walsch meets The Gorilla and the two strike up a friendship and plan to rob a supermarket to get money and supplies for a trip to Greece with a lady friend. Joanna, feeling sore at being abandoned, finds friendship and romance with a police officer charged with tracking Walsch down. The police officer persuades Joanna to turn informant on Walsch and she in turn relies on a woman who sells pornographic magazines to supply her with information on Walsch’s movements. Eventually Carla tips off Joanna about the planned supermarket heist and Joanna passes the news onto the police officer who resolves to foil Walsch and The Gorilla’s plans …

The most salient feature of the film is its listless and lackadaisical style due in no small part to Baer’s portrayal of Walsch as uninterested in conforming to social expectations and having his own self-centred outlook on life. Society spurns him so he sees no reason to buckle down and accept his allocated space at the bottom of the social ladder; he lives to enjoy himself and whatever time he has on the planet. Through Baer and his interactions with others, and the general indifference shown him by the general public coupled with the police department’s interest in spying on him, the film expresses scorn for the hypocrisy and double-dealing nature of Western society that result in people being chewed up. Baer’s attitude to The Gorilla, initially hating him for killing his brother but later changing to affection and an acceptance that the brother’s death is just part of the business of gangsterdom, seems to have a homosexual frisson and this may be reflective of Fassbinder’s own bisexuality which led to his having an affair with Kaufmann.

Use of black-and-white film-stock together with a formal, minimalist look and experimentation with lighting endows the movie with a strong dark film noir flavour. Creative use of panning with the film camera gives the film a highly artistic and stark look and reiterates the film’s themes of boredom, alienation from the mainstream, loneliness, a sympathy and fascination with the underworld, and how relationships between and among characters can lead to their downfall and loss. Dreams of freedom and escape from a humdrum way of life are dashed forever. Money is an ever-present concern with several characters who resort to seedy or degrading occupations to make ends meet. Character development is privileged over story-telling and viewers see how Walsch develops as an essentially passive character who allows the river of life to take him where it will. The beautiful Schygulla is a welcome treat to watch – even if by now she has become stereotyped in playing duplicitous blonde floozies – and Fassbinder himself has a very small part as a customer interested in buying a pornographic magazine from Carla. Although the acting is not of the highest standard – everyone looks and acts doped out much of the time – it’s sufficient to portray character, motivation and hints of a personal nihilistic outlook on life.

As in “Love is Colder than Death”, there’s considerable wry humour and the music soundtrack is very important though if I have to hear the ditty about the passengers on Noah’s Ark that played during Walsch and The Gorilla’s sojourn in their new (shared) girlfriend’s apartment again, my brain will burst and splatter from the sheer cheesy kitschiness oozing out of its rhyming couplets. A three-way fight scene at a farm-house in which all combatants knock one another out cold is very comical.

Perhaps this isn’t one of Fassbinder’s better efforts but this is quite a dark film about desperate people living on the fringes of society who cope with life as best they can in the only ways they know how … because society callously treats them as little cogs in a machine, only of value when they serve but to be disposed of when they show signs of independence or of wanting more from life than work and money.

 

Love is Colder than Death: a study of nihilism and individuals’ relationships in a mercenary society

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, “Liebe ist kälter als der Tod / Love is Colder than Death” (1969)

Gangster films might be an unusual choice for film-makers to explore questions of the nature of an individual’s relationship to society, the place of freedom and free will, and how people are thwarted by others and by their own desires and weaknesses from achieving what they need, yet a surprising number of such films has been made. R W Fassbinder’s debut full-length explores issues of freedom, desire, the place of outsiders in modern bourgeois society and the conflicts that arise when these intersect. A crime syndicate attempts to recruit a small-time pimp, Franz Walsch (Fassbinder himself), into its ranks but he refuses and prefers to go his own way. The syndicate sends stylishly dressed mobster Bruno (Ulli Trommel) after Franz and Bruno decides to throw in his lot with Franz and his prostitute girlfriend Johanna (Hanna Schygulla). The three live together in Franz and Johanna’s apartment and carry out various robberies and murders.  The bonds among the three prove to be their breaking point: Johanna, jealous of Franz and Bruno’s growing closeness, informs the police of the men’s plan to rob a bank and her action leads to tragedy for Franz, Bruno and herself.

The plot and the look of the film are very minimal. Even the acting and the dialogue seem stripped right down. The entire world in which Franz, Bruno and Johanna live looks very artificial and formal: nothing, it appears, happens by accident and every action seems rather studied. The low budget allocated to the film is rather obvious:  the gangsters’ weapons look like painted plastic models, indoor sets are very spartan and black-and-white film stock is used. Settings are stark and highly expressionistic. The main characters are stylishly dressed, Bruno’s sartorial style in particular based upon that of gangster Jef in Jean-Pierre Melville’s film “Le Samouraï” which had been released a year previously before Fassbinder’s debut.  The deliberate decision to pare down the plot details to fragmentary and the dialogue to only the most essential to drive the plot on has the effect of highlighting the characters’ loneliness and the emptiness they feel in their lives to the extent that they care very little for mainstream society – and ultimately one another. They reject even the overtures of the criminal syndicate to form a business relationship with them. Long silences emphasise the underlying conflicts within the unusual love triangle. The film’s apparent amateurish quality as demonstrated by the way it is edited, the props used and the overall minimal style throw weight onto what is (or may be) unsaid, the characters’ feelings about one another and the pressures of modern life and social isolation bearing down on them.

Fassbinder pays homage to a great many influences: the French New Wave cinema of the 1960s is one influence as are also Hollywood gangster and film noir films, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” and German Expressionism. Avant-garde film techniques are used: in one scene the camera slowly pans to the left, then back to the right, then left again, right again, back and forth as a minor character paces a room. Static shots are often emphasised and a two-dimensional painterly effect is often achieved. At times it seems that Fassbinder is in love with Bruno, or his clothes and fedora hat at any rate, as the camera sometimes freezes on Bruno and makes him appear as a sculpture and work of art. The music soundtrack is very distinct and out of the ordinary: wobbly vibrating violins in some parts of the film may draw viewers’ attention away from the slow action, and in a couple of scenes demented harpsichord-like music enhance the fantastical ambience and cynical mood of the film.

Characters express a nihilistic view of the universe in their ruthless behaviour towards one another and others, with devastating results for everyone. In the end, the main characters’ attempts to get what they want or need come to nothing and audiences are uncertain as to what will happen between Franz and Johanna after Bruno departs from their lives.

The film can be quite confusing to watch as the plot is so threadbare that viewers must work to pull all its pieces together. The important elements are the characters, their relationships, their attitudes to themselves and life generally. Through this film, Fassbinder expresses contempt for a society in which such characters with a cold, calculating approach to life can exist and thrive.

Wild Iran: interesting film on a photographer’s journey across Iran

Herbert Ostwald, “Wild Iran” (2011)

This documentary follows the Iranian-German wildlife photographer and environmentalist Benny Rebel on a 6-week journey across Iran taking photographs and videos of endangered species of animals in their natural habitats in the country’s national parks. The film zigzags through a variety of landscapes from the semi-tropical forests of northern Iran through the mountains in the central part of the country down to the hot and arid desert regions of the south and then back north to the Caspian Sea coast. Animals encountered along the way include brown bears, Asiatic cheetahs, deer, flamingoes, gazelles, ibexes, leopards, mouflon sheep, picas and various species of birds and reptiles.

It can be a bit bewildering to watch: there appears to be no logic in the way the film was put together and viewers have the impression that Rebel was dashing all over the country in Range Rovers and planes whenever the whim took him. The film would have done better to map out the routes he actually took on an animated map that would appear from time to time throughout the film just so viewers could appreciate the scope of the work Rebel undertook. Few in the West know much about Iran and most Westerners have very stereotyped views of the country and its people from news reports which either hammer on about Iran’s nuclear energy programs, its treatment of women and minority groups, and human rights violations. The narration can sometimes be annoying and a little patronising to viewers; far better it would have been for the film-makers to follow Rebel about and let him do all the explaining and talking as his English language skills are very good and his passion for his work lights up the screen.

The film does a good job of emphasising Iran’s unique position as a crossroads of animal life and landscapes: animals we associate with European temperate climes (bears, boar, deer, mouflon) live almost cheek by jowl with animals more usually representative of African desert and Asian tropical areas. Feral camels wander the desert in Iran and Caspian leopards hunt red deer. A cheetah is filmed chasing down a rabbit. The off-camera narrator will sometimes give current population figures for particular species of animals and note that the creatures were far more populous and widespread in the past. Opportunities to examine human-animal interactions and the role nature has played in Iranian history and culture over two to three millennia are unfortunately few but those that appear in the film can be quite astounding, in particular the filming of the interiors of pigeon towers, used not just to house pigeons but also to express Iranian ingenuity and artistry in arranging nesting places in pleasing geometric patterns such that the pigeons don’t crap on top of one another, and to collect the guano that falls to the ground for use as fertiliser. The film stops to visit a group of nomadic Qashqai herders taking their goats to new grazing grounds and to follow some animals that have taken refuge in the ruins of Persepolis, built about 2,500 years as a monument to imperial Persian power.

Unfortunately the emphasis on Rebel’s journey around Iran means that the film-makers did not consider asking members of the Iranian public about their views on conservation and preserving the country’s remaining wilderness areas as this was not part of the film’s scope. It might have been interesting and informative for Western viewers to see and hear what ordinary Iranians think of Rebel’s efforts and his aims in documenting wildlife conservation efforts. We also do not see Rebel writing his report for the Iranian government – mention of the report comes as an after-thought near the end of the film – and so we have no idea of how committed the government might be to preserving the nation’s wildlife and natural environments.

Some information on Rebel’s photography and particular methods of capturing animals on film and the equipment is given but it is very vague. He works very close-up to the animals, so much so that he often puts himself in some danger from the animals’ reactions to his presence and the noise his equipment makes.

The film works as an interesting nature documentary and travelogue for family viewing and as a snapshot of life in Iran in a very general way. People wanting more depth to their nature documentaries and to know more about Iran’s conservation efforts must treat this film as an introduction and find out more information for themselves.

The Ghost Writer: a straightforward story that deals fleetingly with the nature of US-UK relations

Roman Polanski, “The Ghost Writer” (2009)

Circumstances surrounding this film were peculiar enough in themselves: in travelling to the Zurich Film Festival as a special guest for the film’s opening, Polanski was arrested by Swiss authorities and held in house detention pending possible extradition to the US for evading jail time back in 1977 over unlawful sexual intercourse with an underage teenage girl. (I have reviewed a documentary on this case by Maria Zenovich, “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired” elsewhere on this blog.) Polanski’s awareness of the corrupt conduct of the judge presiding over his case surely informs “Ghost Writer” with a substance the novel on which it’s based may not have. Both the film and book are based on recent events involving former British Prime Minister Tony Blair (1997 – 2007) which included his decision to join US President George W Bush in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, ostensibly to punish and remove that country’s president Saddam Hussein for continuing to possess chemical weapons.

Directed with Polanski’s usual aplomb, “The Ghost Writer” is driven almost entirely by its story and characters. It moves quickly and smoothly – maybe just a bit too smoothly – to its climax. Moments do exist where the action might seem a bit forced but the logic of the narrative and some thinking on the audience’s part assure their relevance. A mediocre writer (Ewan McGregor) is commissioned by a book publisher to ghost-write an autobiography for former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), reviled by the public the world over as a lapdog of the US and for taking his country into a disastrous invasion and war that cost hundreds of British soldiers’ lives and thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, of other people’s lives. The ghost-writer, never named, discovers that a previous ghost-writer who worked on the autobiography recently died in very strange circumstances and that he has to pick up where this writer left off. He (our hero, that is) discovers various anomalies in Lang’s past history while researching and as he follows the trail of irregularities, he realises that his predecessor must have been murdered and that Lang, wanted by the International Court of Crimes for war crimes, must have been an intelligence asset for the US and the CIA which points to an important question: who recruited Lang and who was his handler?

The plot turns out to be straightforward and astute viewers will be able to finger the culprit long before McGregor’s writer does. It’s the actors who hold the audience spellbound throughout the film. McGregor plays a not-too-bright writer who initially is uncommitted in most aspects of his life: he broke up with his girlfriend years ago and drifts along; and if he had any misgivings about working for a war criminal, they were on semi-permanent vacation when he took on the job. However his basic decent nature and his curiosity drive him on, eventually his sense of justice is aroused, and he determines to uncover the truth. In short, in true Hitchcockian tradtion, the ghost-writer is an ordinary person like you and me thrust suddenly into an unreal world where good and evil can’t be distinguished from one another and he must choose one side or the other. The stakes are high and everything rides on making the right decision. As the ghost-writer delves deeper into the mystery behind Lang’s recruitment, dark forces begin to move against him. McGregor is surrounded by good actors who relish the opportunity to play ambiguous characters: Olivia Williams is good if a little histrionic as Lang’s estranged and dissatisfied wife and Tom Wilkinson is suitably creepy as the CIA recruitment officer. Brosnan injects a little Ronald Reagan into his portrayal of the Blair-like Lang and though he does not have a lot of screen time, this role might actually be seen in the years to come as one of his best if not the best in a career that’s mostly been full of Hollywood fluff.

With Polanski at the helm, the film employs plenty of black humour and viewers will notice deliberate parallels with Hitchcock plot elements: there’s a car chase, there are McGuffin characters and elements not important in themselves but which set the ghost-writer on his path and point the way, and there is a blonde woman who may or may not be on the side of angels. The music soundtrack carries a wry, somewhat amused attitude as if distant gods on Olympus are watching the little insects scurrying below them with interest and are placing bets on the likely outcome. Throughout the film there is a sense of paranoia and suffocation in the world that McGregor’s character has entered, and it’s also very insular: the man who assassinates Lang turns out to be a former soldier who appears at least twice earlier in the film protesting the loss of his son in one of Lang’s wars.

Due to the film’s emphasis on characters focused solely on their own self-interest and the small world which they inhabit, “The Ghost Writer” cannot deal with any larger issues arising from those it and its source novel touch. There is never any mention of the suffering of the Iraqi people or of the reasons the US, the UK and other nations combined to invade Iraq. The “special relationship” that exists between the UK and the US is never mentioned, let alone examined or criticised. Only McGregor’s character grows in moral stature and viewers are likely to warm to him as a future hero. Unfortunately this being a Polanski film, Polanski has a Chinatown-type ending waiting for the ghost-writer: that’s not very Hitchcockian!

The Name of the Rose: quite good if underrated adaptation of a literary novel with some extra features

Jean-Jacques Annaud, “The Name of the Rose” (1986)

Based on Umberto Eco’s novel of the same name, this film is a very good if underrated adaptation of a highly literary novel. The novel’s appeal is in the way it turns the traditional murder mystery on its head: clues found by its hero, William of Baskerville, lead him to solve the mystery but once he does so, he realises that the clues in themselves and the pattern they created were entirely unrelated to the actual mystery itself, and that it was sheer accident that he managed to solve the mystery. Thus the quest for closure, finality and meaning is revealed to be something we humans impose on otherwise random and meaningless events and incidents. Of course such a premise a popular crime mystery flick won’t make, so director Annaud chose only those elements of the novel that were most adaptable to the format and demands of a popular murder mystery and with the help of three script-writers and a talented cast fashioned a movie. “The Name of the Rose” is not a bad result at all and perhaps with the passage of time might be seen as a classic.

William of Baskerville (Sean Connery) and his assistant Adso (Christian Slater) arrive at a monastery in northern Italy to attend a conference that will determine the future of their Franciscan order. While there, William is called upon to investigate a series of mysterious suicides and murders of several monks in the monastery’s cloisters. He and Adso quickly find that a small group of monks has been reading a particular book written by the Greek philosopher Aristotle on the use of laughter and comedy to teach and illuminate certain important truths. Further investigations lead to the discovery of a vast, secret, labyrinthine library filled with books William has only ever heard of, and the discovery fills him with delight. Of course, several villains and a few sub-plots derail William and Adso’s quest, and most notable of the villains in particular is the inquisitor Bernardo Gui (F Murray Abraham) who has crossed swords with William in the past and who, on meeting him again, is eager to trip up William and his inquiring, analytical mind once and for all with the power and influence of the Roman Catholic Church behind him. William faces the very real possibility of being declared a heretic and ending up on a pyre along with a number of other characters, most notably a hunch-backed monk Salvatore (Ron Perlman) and a feral peasant girl (Valentina Vargas) with whom Adso falls in love.

In two hours the film captures something of the oppressive and paranoid atmosphere of the period during which the Church was the final arbiter and keeper of all knowledge and people were prevented from learning, discovering and interpreting information and knowledge for themselves. The monastery is remote in culture as well as in physical location and there is an all-pervasive atmosphere of grinding poverty and self-censorship. The library, when found, owes a great deal to the influence of Argentine short-story writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges. The film presents quite starkly the contrast between what William represents – reason, intellectual inquiry (and not a little pride), a scientific, logical approach to solving problems and giving people access to learning and education – and what Gui and several other monks in the film represent: the claim by an earthly institution to control all knowledge, even knowledge coming directly from God or other higher forces and to ensure its power over all humans by deliberately keeping them ignorant, unhappy and poor.

Connery does excellent work as the Sherlock Holmes character who thinks before he acts and revels in brain power over brawn; the William character is a huge contrast from other characters Connery has played in his career. Slater in his debut acting role is not bad but Adso is essentially a passive role and the young actor spends most of his time looking just plain puzzled. Perlman steals most of the scenes he’s in with a superb performance as the wretched and often quite demented Salvatore and upstages Abraham whose role is actually quite small and rather stereotypically villainous, given that he appears in the film’s second half. Most of the actors have distinctive, rugged features that fit them perfectly for their roles and for the sinister Gothic world in which the film’s events roll out.

The film isn’t completely faithful to the complex novel whose body count at the end has a rather different mix of characters than the film’s lot. A few issues and sub-plots that are an important part of the novel had to be jettisoned but the film’s plot is quite faithful to the book’s plot. The film adds its own concerns about religious bigotry and intolerance and the control of information by an elite, all of which create a world in which even a highly intelligent, sensitive and learned person may find impossible to survive in without running afoul of the self-styled guardians of order and gate-keepers of knowledge and being forced to pay dearly for being authentic. Both the film and the novel are best viewed as companion pieces that have their own commentaries on the nature of oppression and control of information and knowledge.

1945A / The Gift / R-Ha: three science fiction shorts that show creative and visionary promise

Ryan Nagata, “1945A” (2010)

Carl Erik Rinsch, “The Gift” (2010)

Kaleb Lechowski, “R-Ha” (2012)

These films have a few things in common: they’re very short science fiction films, they use CGI, they have open endings and they involve conflict of one sort or another. The films look very credible in spite of their low budgets and at least two of them have been picked up by Hollywood for future movie treatments. Of the three directors, Kaleb Lechowski is a German film student, Carl Erik Rinsch was Ridley Scott’s protege and Ryan Nagata has had extensive experience working in television since 2005 at least, according to his profile on the Internet Movie Database (imdb.com).

The “A” in “1945A” stands for alternate reality and it poses the question of whether victory of the Allied forces in World War II was due simply to luck on their side and not on the Nazi side. The American forces, fighting somewhere in western Europe, are suddenly confronted by a new sophisticated Spinnepanzer machine that not only stalks the landscape like something out of H G Wells’s “War of the Worlds” but breathes flames up to 50 metres in length and even has a laser death ray that melts tanks into metal pancakes! The Americans panic and flee. Nagata leaves us in no doubt that technology such as this eventually won the war for the Nazis in his parallel universe. Although filmed in colour, the story takes place at night and so the visual style of the film is various shades of grey. The fighting is desperate and brutal on both sides and Nagata doesn’t flinch from showing the horrors of war as soldiers are incinerated and one man screams in pain from two severed legs. The short looks as if it’s part of a much longer film and some viewers might find it unsatisfactory as a short in its own right. The acting looks quite credible and I didn’t think it was amateurish at all.

“The Gift” takes place in a futuristic Moscow in which a stranger carrying a mysterious box wangles his way into a politician’s mansion and uses the box to distract the man’s attention in order to assassinate him. The stranger later dies and his box is picked up by the politician’s robot servant who races away from the police. The second half of the film short is taken up by the police chase which ends tragically for the robot. The police never recover the box which ends up lost in an icy river. We are left to guess what the mysterious object in the box is that fascinated the politician.

The film is suspenseful and the acting at least is effective for the plot’s purposes. The integration of CGI with live action looks realistic though viewers may wonder why such sophisticated technology like a robot servant and a breath-testing analyser in a tiny metal straw co-exists with tinny box-like police cars. Oh well, the Russian government obviously took the police force for granted and didn’t throw enough roubles at the nation’s men in blue. As with “1945A”, we are left guessing at what might happen next with the box and this adventure with the stranger, the politician and the robot is just one of many that the box and its secret denizen have experienced.

Like “1945A”, Lechowski’s short could be a trailer for a much longer film. Two alien civilisations are at war and each is determined to destroy the other. The pilot of one civilisation is captured by the war machines of the other and subjected to torture. He steadfastly refuses to give up any information but the torture forces him to open up his mind to the machines that read his thoughts and memory. The pilot manages to escape and fly off but the war machines pursue him. Has he really escaped or have they tricked him and are using the information obtained from his mind to lead them to his headquarters?

The dialogue between the alien and the machine is hard to follow even with the volume levels turned up to maximum so I lost some of the details of the plot. The CGI work is very impressive, especially in the scenes where an entire city is destroyed by giant spidery war robots. In this short at least, torture pays off and the pilot may live to regret that in a moment of weakness he allowed the enemy to plumb his mind and inner being. Of course there’s always the possibility that in the torture scene the pilot deliberately thought of something that might lead the enemy machines astray. There is the obvious conflict between two very different alien species fighting for their own survival and there is also the conflict between an alien species that believes in putting soldiers on the ground and one that relies on machines to fight on its behalf: the suggestion is that the species that puts its own on the line is somehow “nobler” or more ethical and less cowardly than one that vicariously fights wars. I wonder if Lechowski was making a comment about the West fighting drone wars across western Asia and parts of Africa?

All three films show a lot of promise for their creators and I wish the three well in their future careers as film directors, writers and SF visionaries.

The Diadem / MiniKillers: two trashy films that highlight how good a good actor can be

?, “The Diadem” (1966)

Wolfgang von Chmielewski, “MiniKillers” (1969)

Two curious short films from Germany and Spain respectively, both feature the English actor Diana Rigg in the starring role of an unnamed spy – the films have no dialogue – carrying out a mission for an unnamed employer or agency. Quite why and how the actor ended up in these shorts, both very low budget films and the later one with a very cheesy look and music soundtrack, is unknown since Rigg apparently does not talk about them and she made them at times when her career was ascendant on television and film respectively. It’s possible that Rigg agreed to appear in the films as the lack of dialogue meant that the focus would be on her acting to carry them all the way. The films will be of interest mainly to diehard Rigg fans who know her work in the TV series “The Avengers”.

In the first film “The Diadem”, Rigg’s action-girl spy rather carelessly loses the key to her safe where she is protecting a valuable diadem. Naturally a crook who’s been following her nicks the key, goes back to her house and tries to steal the box but Rigg wallops him and takes the box off him, only to discover that a piggy bank is inside. She then finds a map with a route to a derelict house and goes there. She discovers the diadem at last but has to evade three more crooks who try to kill her with a venomous snake.

The plot is very flimsy and one scratches one’s head at why Rigg is so careless with the key but at least the film is fairly well made and edited. The night-time setting for Rigg’s investigation of the abandoned house adds some suspense and justifies one scene where Rigg blows out a candle and fights a crook in the dark. Close-ups of characters’ faces and the use of unusual angling in the camera work assist in bulking up what tension can be wrung out of the plot. At least Rigg has the authority and style to bring off a forgettable short and make it believable as a sort-of promotional film for “The Avengers”, even though her character is not named.

“MiniKillers” is a 28-minute film divided into four parts in which Rigg’s action girl, on holiday in the Costa Brava region of Spain, stumbles across a bizarre murder in which a tourist is killed by a cute toy doll. She quickly discovers that the doll shot poison at its victim and sets out to find the man’s killers. She is trailed by the bad guys of whom the most notable are the Boss and his No 1 henchman (played by Jose Nieto and Moises Augusto Rocha). They try to kill her with a doll, ambush her on a beach with mannequins and a net, put a booby-trapped doll in her car (which she tosses back at them) and trap her under a cliff-hanger device (a stone wine-press). Coolly our heroine wriggles out of danger each and every time with the most improbable (and for male viewers, the most memorable) scramble being in the second part where somehow she slips out of her dress and the trawler-net and swims to a boat; she hauls herself into the boat clad in underwear. She discovers in the course of her investigation that the man killed is an Interpol agent on the trail of the crooks for drug-running and that another Interpol agent (Sali), masquerading as a flamenco dancer, is next on the crooks’ hit-list.

The plot barely exists with holes large enough for a pod of humpbacks to swim through. Fight scenes at least are well choreographed though highly improbable: you can’t tell me a skinny English woman can beat off four or five very hunky bodyguard types with a few judo chops and flip-overs. Although a rifle with sights appears in the first part of the film, no shots are ever fired. One would think also that if you stick your victim into a wine-press, you should make sure she never wakes up or at least stand by to see that the lady does not stop the cogs with her ring and stall the wine-press. The quality of the film is bad with washed-out colours but not so bad that we can’t see Rigg’s luminous face express subtle feelings and thoughts. Music is of the trashy Europop sort with bubbly acid-toned church organ melodies that go through the ears and brain like annoying muzak poison.

The film’s saving grace is its lead actor who at least looks as if she’s enjoying herself and glows throughout all four parts of the film. Rigg adds humorous touches such as wagging a stern finger at one minikiller doll when she discovers it’s carrying drugs and the No 1 henchman even throws an exaggerated look of exhaustion when the Boss tells him to go after Rigg for the umpteenth time. With no dialogue and hardly any substance to the plot which turns out to be fairly mundane – Rigg discovers an underground drug-running racket – the film relies heavily on its lead actor to carry it. Suffice to say that Rigg does an excellent job of salvaging her character and acting reputation, if not the film. The bad guys are hammy but the actors seem happy playing support to Rigg.

Here is proof if any is needed that it’s not good films that make good actors shine … it’s actually bad films that prove whether actors are good or not. A good actor can at least make his/her character look credible and salvage a good part of a bad film.

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.