The Goddess: a social realist film with natural and minimal acting, and a young rising star

Wu Yonggang, “The Goddess / Shen nu” (1935)

A year after this film was made, its star Ruan Lingyu took her life by overdosing on barbiturates, apparently as a result of her entanglement in a love triangle involving her husband from whom she was estranged and another man with whom she was living, and the vicious gossip that surrounded them all, so in some ways this silent film occupies a special place in Chinese cinematic history. Ruan plays a single unnamed mother who resorts to prostitution to support herself and her young son. During a police vice sweep one evening in Shanghai, Ruan’s character takes shelter with a gangster (Zhang Zhizhi), known as Boss Zhang, who takes advantage of her vulnerability by claiming her as his property and her earnings as money he can use to pay off his gambling debts. The woman pins all her hopes on her son as he grows up and she saves up enough money (away from Boss Zhang’s eyes) to send him to school. However her reputation precedes his arrival at the school, the other children’s parents complain and the school, over the objections of the principal, expels the child. Boss Zhang eventually discovers where the woman has been keeping her savings and claims the money. This leads to a confrontation between him and the woman which ends in tragedy. The woman ends up facing 12 years in jail and her son is taken away from her.

The story is simply and minimally told, and its purpose is to reveal starkly how harsh and miserable the lives of marginal people like the single mother, driven by poverty to take up prostitution, could be, the dangers and corruption they could fall into, and the humiliation and bullying they faced from society at large in trying to improve their lives and their children’s lives. For the period, the acting is natural and not at all exaggerated for effect. Ruan lets her facial expressions do all the acting, and the range of moods and feelings that pass over her face is remarkable indeed. One sees the depths of despair and hopelessness in succeeding scenes, yet also the fury that overtakes her character when all seems utterly lost. The entire film revolves around Ruan’s performance and a very good performance it is when one considers the actress was in her mid-20s and her skill as an actor seems to have come mostly from learning on the job. The rest of the cast does a good job in supporting Ruan’s character; Zhang in particular conveys both comedy and malevolence as the manipulative and predatory Boss Zhang.

The cinematography is something to behold, in the way it makes collages of still life scenes to demonstrate the pathos of the life the woman must lead to survive, and in the way close-ups, unusual camera angles and soft blurring are used to portray the pain or anger she feels, even if fleetingly.

While the story and its message may verge on trite, and the stereotype of the prostitute with a heart of pure gold was probably old even in the 1930s, this film is quite remarkable in its willingness to portray, in a generic way, the plight of prostitutes in 1930s Shanghai and how their reality combined with social expectations of women to expose them to further danger and deny them any possibility of improving their lives. The irony is that Ruan’s character achieves freedom and peace by further breaking the law in committing murder, ending up in jail and losing her son.

 

Faust: a visually stunning film with many magnificent scenes – but a thin story weakens it

F W Murnau, “Faust” (1926)

Visually powerful and stunning, with an incredible opening scene of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse riding high in the sky, “Faust” is an ambitious film that retells the story of Faust and the pact he made with the devil Mephistopheles. Special effects abound in this movie; modern audiences will be flabbergasted that, back in the 1920s, special effects were rarely used in films generally.  Even though the plot is thin and predictable – even those not familiar with the original “Faust” tale can guess how the plot will turn out – the passion and energy with which it is told, at brisk place, are evident. The acting may appear exaggerated to modern Western audiences but actors playing the main characters do their utmost to portray their characters’ feelings, emotions and pet fears.

The plot may remind readers here of the Book of Job in the Bible, Job being a fellow hit by many calamities – his children dying, his enterprises going bust – and undergoing trials set by God to test his faith. The Archangel Gabriel rebukes  Mephisto (for Mephistopheles) for glorying in war, violence and bloodshed. Both agree to make an example of Faust (Gösta Ekman), an ageing alchemist and healer, and subject him to a trial of his spiritual faith, with Mephisto (Emil Jannings) declaring that he will own Faust’s soul at the end. The deal having been struck, Mephisto promptly blasts the plague over Faust’s home town and Faust is helpless to prevent mass deaths. He casts all his books of knowledge into a bonfire but one book reveals a path out of his dilemma: he can appeal to the Prince of Darkness to gain power. Faust takes this path and meets Mephisto who gives him great power to heal others. Faust promptly starts using this power to bring people back to life but when they discover him shunning the cross, they reject him. Faust then appeals to Mephisto to take him away and give him youth; Mephisto does so, under certain conditions.

In his new youthful guise and living in a new country, Faust seduces an aristocratic woman, whose seduction comes to be the ruin of her marriage. Eventually tiring of the woman, Faust wishes to go home. Mephisto takes him back and Faust meets a young woman, Gretchen (Camilla Horn), of pure heart and soul. His desire and lust for Gretchen leads Faust to seduce her as well – but as with the aristocrat, so too does Faust’s desire cause destruction of Gretchen’s family and ruin the girl’s reputation. Gretchen is punished for harlotry and, much later, is tried and convicted for the murder of her child. She is condemned to burning at the stake. On hearing that Gretchen is to be burned, Faust rushes to save her.

Ekman plays both the old and the young Faust well but (as viewers might expect), Jannings steals the film as the malevolent yet often comic Mephisto. Horn’s performance as Gretchen is not bad but the character is definitely very stereotyped as a fallen innocent girl. The real stars of the film though are the sets, influenced as they are by German expressionism, the cinematography and the special effects.  A highly memorable early scene shows Mephisto, grown giant, spreading his black wings over Faust’s town and blowing black clouds of plague through it. The special effects which include animation are bold and incredible for the period in which the film was made.

While the film’s message of the redeeming power of love and self-sacrifice may be heartening, in its own way the film is also quite bleak. In order to understand the true power of God’s love and compassion for humanity, Faust is forced to experience the deepest despair possible and the corruption that having power over others and objects can bring. One might ask if it was really all that necessary for so much suffering and death to occur just so Faust can realise the error and selfishness of his behaviour and actions. Gretchen loses all her family and ultimately her life as a result of Faust’s actions towards her. Also, if God is willing to horse-trade humans with the Devil just to prove a point about love and redemption, is He really worthy of worship?

The Passion of Joan of Arc: an experimental film let down by its narrow focus, story-line and characterisation

Carl Theodor Dreyer, “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928)

In itself, this silent film is remarkable for its lead actor Maria Falconetti’s acting from the neck up, portraying the anguish and suffering of the famous French heroine after she was captured by Burgundian forces who delivered her to the English for imprisonment and torture. Based on actual transcripts of Joan’s trial, the film covers the period from her incarceration to her death by burning at the stake. French clergymen loyal to the English cause try to force her to sign a confession admitting to being under Satanic influence and when that attempt fails, resort to blackmail and deception to compel her to sign. Threatened with burning, Joan allows a priest to guide her hand in signing the confession but later recants when given a life sentence. Having failed to break her resistance and spirit, the churchmen put Joan to death, and her public execution rouses the townsfolk into revolt against the religious and military authorities.

The film is noteworthy for its insistence on the use of facial close-ups of the lead character to convey her devotion to her king, her country and God, and to emphasise her spiritual purity and strength. Joan’s persecutors are filmed under harsh light that emphasises their craggy features (or soft facial padding as the case may be) and suggests that they are spiritually impoverished or corrupt. The clergy’s obsession with Joan wearing men’s clothes and the way in which they use the ritual of holy communion to trick Joan into signing the confession show the men are more interested in following empty forms of outward piety than pursuing spiritual enlightenment.

Unfortunately the film gives very little background (apart from title cards) to Joan’s imprisonment and says very little about the visions that inspired a simple peasant girl, unable to read and write, to take up arms and lead armies into battle against the English. Viewers can easily get the wrong idea about Joan’s character from watching Falconetti’s performance – there is little in her portrayal that suggests a forthright and determined character. Falconetti’s Joan makes an impression as a highly religious woman whose outward simplicity hides a fairly cunning mind. Occasionally she is given over to brief ecstatic episodes that might suggest she is hallucinating.

The film is not long but its narrow focus and minimal style can make it seem unbearably long for some viewers. Perhaps it might have worked better if several of the churchmen had been more devious and pretended to Joan that they desired to help her escape punishment – on conditions that they will make known at much, much later times. The film could have been as much an inquisition of Joan inside and outside of court, and emphasised a narrative of prison and trial as tests of Joan’s character and intelligence, as it is a portrayal of the “justice” meted out to her. We would see the qualities that made Joan an outstanding leader and a non-conformist whose very existence threatens the power hierarchy and values exemplified by the Roman Catholic Church. As an experimental film of a sort, it works well but the experimentation butts heads with a narrowly defined story-line and a heroine who turns out to be more conventional in character and portrayal than expected.

The Red Turtle: a pretty and glossy package with a conservative and banal message

Michaël Dudok de Wiet, “The Red Turtle” (2016)

God save us all from pretty packages with lots of high gloss finish and finicky attention to detail that ultimately reveal very little of substance to sustain for a long time. The latest such trinket is Michaël Dudok de Wiet’s animated film “The Red Turtle” which he wrote and directed with the support of Studio Ghibli and French-German distributor Wild Bunch. The film wears its influences openly: the background animation reflects the high level of technical care and attention that Studio Ghibli gives to the appearance of its films while the film’s characters show a French influence in their simple features that emphasise their generic nature.

The plot is simple and vague enough as to form a parable of sorts. A man is lost at sea during a storm and washes up on a remote island somewhere in a vast ocean. He attempts to leave the island by building a raft out of bamboo trees he finds on the island at least three times and each time he is thwarted by a force that smashes the raft’s logs from below once out at sea. This strange force turns out to be a red turtle which incurs the castaway’s wrath. The turtle climbs out of the water onto the island beach, at which point the angry castaway overturns the animal onto its back, leaving it helpless and exposed to dehydrating heat. The creature dies and the castaway, overcome with remorse, covers it in bamboo branches and leaves.

The dead animal transforms into a woman and from then on the pair find love and play happy family, bringing up a son to adulthood. The trio appear to encounter very few problems during the long years they have together, the biggest being a giant tsunami that engulfs the island and leaves it completely devastated.

Problems abound with the film’s paper-sliver thin narrative and the message it is trying to tell. Everything is so generic – even the island is generic (we can’t even tell if the island is a tropical one or one in a more temperate climate zone) – that audiences will have a hard time identifying with the characters and their issues. The island itself could have been a significant character in testing the castaway’s resilience, moral and spiritual as well as physical, and in helping him to learn something about himself. Unfortunately the island setting and its inhabitants remain passive players in the entire movie. The turtle woman is hardly more active than the island: she merely plays a stereotypical good wife to the castaway. If she teaches him anything about how to accept his fate and how to live in harmony and peace with nature and to find his niche in the cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth, none of this is made obvious to viewers who have to infer all these notions for themselves.

The view of woman as being at one with nature, represented by the ease with which the turtle woman emerges from her carapace in human form and returns to her original form decades later, is a tired stereotype that should have been consigned to the dust-bin decades ago. It is a dangerous and demeaning stereotype that denies women their intelligence, qualities and distinctiveness as individuals, and puts men in opposition to nature from the moment of their birth: a deterministic and narrow view of humans that takes gender for granted instead of treating it as a cultural construct. At the end of the film, all that the castaway has learned from his island experiences is that his role in life is to find a wife, raise a family and let his son go out into the world to repeat the same banal cycle.

Ultimately the film carries a very conservative and depressing message about humans and their connections to the natural world and their place in the cycle of life. Nature is mysterious and unknowable, and humans can do no more than accept this idea and submit without complaint to the natural world’s whims, as represented by the suddenness of the tsunami that smashes into the island. (Er, shouldn’t the turtle woman with her deep knowledge of the natural world have received sufficient advance warning from earth tremors to warn her men to build a raft and put out to sea before the tsunami arrived?) The possibility of humans being partners with Nature and maintaining a balance between their interests and the restrictions of the natural world does not even occur. Those viewers anticipating that the film might address philosophical issues of existence and life’s purpose will be astonished that the plot has no time for such questions.

I don’t like to say that a film has been a waste of time to watch but with “The Red Turtle”, I’ve lost 80 minutes of time that could have been better spent doing something else. The film itself could have been condensed into much less time than it took to tell its story.

Modern Times: sympathy for the underdog and horror at a machine society enforcing conformity and repression

Charlie Chaplin, “Modern Times” (1936)

In its own way, “Modern Times” is significant as an example of how one actor / director adapted his style from making and acting in silent films to working in sound films. Contrary to what contemporary audiences might imagine, the leap from silent film to sound film was not smooth and quick; many silent film actors’ careers actually ended with the arrival of sound films, and some audiences then still wanted to see silent films and did not favour sound films. Like everyone else working in the film industry then, actor / director Charlie Chaplin had to adjust his style of acting and the scripts he wrote to accommodate sound and the changes that sound film brought, and the rather uneven result can be seen in “Modern Times”. Significantly “Modern Times” is the last film in which Chaplin plays his famous character known as the Little Tramp. The film is also a sympathetic treatment of the common man and how he copes with life in Depression-era America and a rapidly industrialising and increasingly mechanistic society, and for that may be important as a counterweight to other Depression-era films which escaped into fantasy and did not generally deal with the plight of ordinary people thrown out of work and unable to find jobs.

The film is basically a series of comedy skits united by a vague plot in which the Little Tramp tries to find his niche in a mechanical society where everyone must find his or her place as a cog in a vast machine hierarchy and must conform to the demands of industry and government. The Little Tramp starts out working on an assembly line in a factory and is subjected to bullying by his foreman and the boss, and manipulation by an inventor who tries to interest the factory boss in a complicated machine that can feed his employees lunch in 15 minutes. Crazed by the mind-numbing repetitive work and the pressure to work faster and do more in less time, the Little Tramp ends up causing havoc and disrupting the factory routine. Not for the first time in the film do the police turn up and cart the fellow off to jail; the use of police to enforce conformity, create terror and stifle worker grievances and protests is a running theme throughout the movie.

After serving time in jail (during which the Tramp helpfully arrests some criminals for the police), the protagonist is tossed out onto the streets and expected to find work on his own. He meets a young homeless woman known only as the Gamin (Paulette Goddard) and together they try to find work and create a nest of their own. The Tramp goes through jobs such as roller-skating security guard for a department store, an assistant to a mechanic and a singing waiter in a restaurant. Just as it seems that the Tramp and the Gamin have finally found their calling as entertainers, the Gamin’s past catches up with her in the form of two orphanage officials and the two must flee for their lives.

Plenty of laughs are to be had in the slapstick – the most memorable scenes are the early ones in the factory where the Tramp gets caught up in the machinery and the feeding machine, and his roller-skating scene in the department store close to a sheer drop – although some comedy scenes lay on the situational humour very thickly and for too long. Overacting on Chaplin and Goddard’s part is the order of the day. The comedy is both relief to and contrast with the pathos of the Tramp and Gamin’s desperate situation: they need to work to survive and to put a roof over their heads, yet they are too individualistic and rebellious to stay at their various jobs for very long. At the end of the day, they have chewed their way through a variety of unsuitable jobs, and their future prospects look very bleak, yet as long as they have each other, they have hope that times will be better and that maybe one day society will accept them for what they are.

In these two characters, Chaplin expresses his hope that humans will rise up above the technology that threatens to engulf and enslave them with courage, imagination and not a little cheekiness. The irony is that the Tramp and the Gamin desire the same things that most Americans were after – secure jobs, money coming in, a house and maybe family life – yet time after time bad luck, the period in which they were living, advances in technology that put people out of work and the pair’s past peccadilloes come to haunt them. Yet whatever hits them, the Tramp and the Gamin take their problems in their stride.

Yet even in this film, Chaplin only seems to go so far: the Tramp’s fellow work colleagues seem hell-bent on conforming and dehumanising themselves for their bosses, and Chaplin’s treatment of workers engaged in street protest and the Tramp’s involvement in it is superficial. If Chaplin had any sympathy for the trade union movement and the notion of class struggle, he does not show it here. Unemployed workers are reduced to petty crime to survive – they apparently cannot appeal to trade unions or their communities to help them. Ultimately Chaplin’s message to his audiences to keep their chins up and hope for better times, just as the Tramp and the Gamin do as they walk off into the sunset, starts to look like an excuse to avoid the issue of fighting for social justice and calling people’s attention to the exploitation that they suffer from their political, economic and cultural masters.

Battleship Potemkin: a classic of drama, passion and the power of people to overturn injustice and oppression

Sergei Eisenstein, “Battleship Potemkin” (1925)

Although this film was made over 90 years ago and is a silent black-and-white work, it still stands up well against current films thanks to its crisp action and a plot that will still resonate with many people, especially those living in countries experiencing political repression in their daily lives. The film’s emphasis on the people as the grassroots foundation for political and social movements that can overthrow governments and implement new and better ways of living is a refreshing contrast and rebuttal to Hollywood stereotypes about the power of individuals to drive and achieve change.

The action takes place over five episodes that form a narrative arc set during the 1905 Russian Revolution. Sailors on the warship Potemkin sympathise with workers rebelling in St Petersburg over their inhumane treatment by bourgeois employers and an autocratic government. The seamen get a taste (literally) of that treatment themselves when their officers try to force them to eat meat tainted with maggots. The captain forces the sailors to assemble on deck, separates those who refused to eat the borscht made with the meat and orders a firing squad to shoot the rebels. Ordinary seaman Grigory Vakulinchuk appeals to the firing squad not to shoot. The shooters put down their weapons and a brawl between the officers and the crew breaks out. In the melee, which the sailors win, Vakulinchuk is shot dead by two officers.

The grieving sailors lay Vakulinchuk ashore at the port of Odessa. Local citizens view his body, see the message attached to it that explains his actions and death, and are moved to rebel against the local government and military authorities. The tsarist government cracks down hard on the citizenry in memorable scenes that take place on the boulevard steps: a boy and then his mother are shot dead in a horrific sequence that underlines the inhuman, machine nature of the advancing troops upon the panicked crowds; a young woman is killed and the pram with her baby runs down the steps, the baby’s ultimate fate remaining unknown; and a woman doctor, appealing to the troops’ humanity and brotherhood with their fellow Russians and Slavs, is mown down along with other innocents.

The Potemkin gets a call for help from the Odessans and the sailors rally by firing on the headquarters of the military authorities, destroying the building. A fleet of warships is soon on the Potemkin’s trail. The sailors know their firepower is as nothing against the might of the Russian navy: how will they and their cause, and the Odessans as well, fare when the battleships catch up with them?

Although the film has probably been over-analysed, not necessarily for the right reasons, and its use of montage, clever and imaginative though it is, has also been over-emphasised, Eisenstein’s work remains compelling in its brisk, no-nonsense way of putting together otherwise unrelated shots so as to suggest not just a story, but a story with a message about revolution, and how revolution and mass movement can only succeed if the people believe in equality and brotherhood, and are not simply out for personal liberty. (And clever montage cannot work without good camera-work that has a feel for drama, emotion and visual artistry, framing each and every scene like a diorama in itself, and equally clever and brisk editing that brings pacing to suggest increasing tension leading towards a climax.) In this film, personal sacrifice is a significant part of achieving a freer and more equal society. Vakulinchuk acts as a catalyst but his role as leader cannot be over-stressed as it would be in a Hollywood film.

Also significant to the film’s enduring success is its cinematography which stresses crowd scenes, often shot in panorama and in imaginative ways to boot, and the clever use of black-and-white imagery that approaches German Expressionism’s use of black and white and all the shades of grey in-between. Violence in the film is not explicit yet the discreet ways in which it is filmed make a deeper impression on viewers than all the cartoon hyper-violence of much current film-making which tends to numb the senses and prevent a proper and appropriate emotional reaction to visual brutality.

The actual plot might be thin and heavy-handed, the acting (all by non-professionals) overdone and the characters very stereotyped, but what Eisenstein brings out of his material is a film of great drama, power and passion.

Ironically, at this time of writing, the people of Odessa (in Ukraine) continue to struggle for freedom, equality, brotherhood and justice for their fellow citizens who were tortured and butchered by neo-Nazis in the trade union building in early May 2014, and whose suffering continues to be denied in the West.

The Image: a tiny study of mental crisis, homoeroticism and creepy atmosphere sets a template for David Bowie’s future career

Michael Armstrong, “The Image” (1967)

Notable mainly for being singer and sometime actor David Bowie’ first film role, this 14-minute horror short is an eerie surrealist piece. With not much story to speak of, and including some very hokey horror-movie stereotypes, this film is big on atmosphere and suggestions of mental breakdown and homoeroticism. An painter (Michael Byrne) working on a portrait in an apparently abandoned house becomes unnerved when the subject of the portrait, a young man (Bowie), appears to him outside the window, on the stairs and in other parts of the house. The apparition looks and feels so real that the painter makes numerous attempts to kill him, only to discover that the ghost keeps returning again and again. Despairing that he cannot rid himself of the ghost, the painter decides instead to kill off his painting but the effect on him is catastrophic.

Not much acting talent was required from its tiny cast but Bowie is effective at portraying the mystery ghost, thanks to having studied mime with Lindsay Kemp. Where the film excels is in creating an atmosphere of heightened tension throughout the house with stills of windows, the long staircase with rubbish all over it, the locked door and various empty rooms. Filming in black-and-white film helps impart the necessary murky, shadowy look. There may be influences from German Expressionism and Alfred Hitchcock, especially in the prominence of the long staircase in some scenes. The pacing and quick editing of shots of the painting and of the ghost, from one to the other and back again and again, are well done and suggest an imminent mental crisis for the painter.

The insinuations of mental breakdown, the homoerotic attraction between the painter and the young man whom the painter knew before the latter’s death (which is hinted at in the painter’s confrontations with the ghost), the violence (not too explicit) and the all-enveloping creepy atmosphere and isolation are communicated well, and I guess that’s really all that can be said in the film’s favour.

The film was made in the same year that David Bowie released his first album which was self-titled and both film and album quickly sank without trace. Yet the character that Bowie plays in “The Image”, with its ethereal quality featuring hints of dark and strange sexuality and a frisson of violence, was to inform other personae he adopted throughout his musical and acting career.

The Gold Rush: a fun and clever film of comedy, drama, romance, horror and thriller elements

Charles Chaplin, “The Gold Rush” (1925, revised 1942)

In reality, the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush must have been a harsh, grim and ultimately disappointing experience for many prospectors who flocked to the goldfields hoping to strike lucky and be endowed with material wealth for the rest of their lives. Most people however would have come away empty-handed and even those who did find gold, did not always keep it but frittered their fortune away in gambling and died in poverty. In British-American actor / director / script-writer Charlie Chaplin’s film “The Gold Rush”, his Lone Prospector (played by Chaplin himself) finds quite a bit more than fortune: he finds adventure, a good friend, fame and perhaps lasting love. The film cleverly combines slapstick comedy, drama, romance and even elements of horror and thriller as the Lone Prospector is tested by trying and dangerous incidents before he achieves what he set out to do.

The film divides into three parts, each milked for their comedy potential. In the first part, the Lone Prospector narrowly escapes predation by a bear, being killed by a wanted murderer and the appetite of a fellow prospector, the gourmand Big Jim (Mack Swain). Notable scenes include one in which Big Jim and the crook fight over a rifle, the rifle butt constantly pointing at the Lone Prospector no matter where he runs to, in their cabin; and the shoe-eating scene where Chaplin turns munching on the tongue of his old tough shoe into a sumptuous make-believe meal fit for a king. In the second part, the Lone Prospector goes into town and falls in love with flighty dancer Georgia (Georgia Hale) at a music hall. The little man is bullied by the music hall patrons and made fun of by Georgia and her friends. The third scene reunites Big Jim and the Lone Prospector as they search for Big Jim’s mining concession where by accident they discover a rich lode of gold that makes them multi-millionaires. The ultimate test though of the Lone Prospector’s character awaits him as he follows Big Jim about on the luxury cruise liner posing for fawning paparazzi.

In spite of all the many scrapes and humiliations heaped upon the Lone Prospector, Chaplin’s character carries himself with quiet pride and humour. A number of scenes in the film, notably the scene in which the Lone Prospector waits in vain for Georgia and her friends to show up for a New Year’s Eve dinner and celebration he has meticulously prepared, draw audiences’ sympathy for his lonely and marginalised condition. If there is anyone in the universe of Hollywood silent film most deserving of love, companionship and sympathetic treatment, it should be this little man who, though small and physically weak, nevertheless shows spirit, pluck and quick thinking (and equally quick foot-work!) in all the predicaments that befall him.

At times the plot seems disorganised: the wanted criminal is disposed of in a deus ex machina avalanche and the Lone Prospector’s rival for the affections of Georgia disappears without his sub-plot being adequately tidied up and resolved. How Georgia ends up on the same ship as the Lone Prospector and Big Jim do has to be put down to the need to end the story quickly; the romance feels forced and when the little fellow and his lady love walk off into the sunset, one feels that one of the two will worship money and the riches it buys more than the s/he loves the other in the pair. Romance will not last long and at least one person will be reduced to poverty again.

It’s a fun and entertaining film, and it’s more absorbing than I imagined it would be due to its clever and seamless inclusion of comedy, pathos, tender emotion and even cynicism. The revised 1942 version with musical soundtrack and Chaplin’s narration do not add anything to the film’s plot or the comedy sketches; indeed, the music can be annoyingly intrusive and shrill. Best then to see it as it was originally done, as a silent film with a piano soundtrack.

Metropolis (dir. by Fritz Lang, reconstructed + restored): near-full restoration carries a populist message of fear and conservative belief

Fritz Lang, “Metropolis (reconstructed + restored)” (1928)

I’ve had the opportunity to see “Metropolis” (which I reviewed some years ago) again in its reconstructed and restored version which will be as close to its original 150-minute running time as it will ever be. There are only a few minutes still missing from the original film and they contain material essential to the plot: they explain how the film’s heroine Maria (Brigitte Helm) manages to escape the clutches of mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) after his experiments using her physical appearance to clothe his robot with some kind of hologram that reproduces Maria’s looks and emotions. The reconstructed film as is, is still epic and bombastic in scale, perhaps even more so with more religious scenes; and it moves at a very brisk, almost rushed pace.

Watching the film again in its near-fullness after having seen the 90-minute version and another previous restored version is quite a revelation: the (almost) full film is now shown to be the populist, even proto-fascist film it had been all along and which I had suspected, knowing that script-writer Thea von Harbou joined the Nazi Party a few years after its making. The film expresses many ideas and beliefs derived from the German Romanticist movement of an earlier century, and this in itself explains the mawkish sentimentality of the plot and the film’s conclusion. In particular, the notion that emotion and passion always prevail over the intellect and reason, and that people who use their intelligence only end up evil and tyrannical, underlines the film’s plot. (This is related to a pre-Enlightenment view that humans are essentially evil and are incapable of improving and governing themselves, and only respond to strict and severe discipline, order and harsh punishment doled out by autocratic governments.) The film is proto-fascist in undermining and portraying the working-class characters as robotic, simple-minded, irrational and easily led; in depicting the upper-class layer as soft, infantile and debauched; and in asserting that only those whose lives are governed by the heart, with all the emotions and stereotypes associated with it – that is, love for one’s native land and soil, awe and reverence for one’s leaders (who are also one’s betters) along with absolute faith in their abilities and decisions, purity of soul – are best fitted to lead the slave-like workers and the soft and corruptible wealthy urban classes.

The film also has some slight anti-Jewish tendencies in the way it portrays its mad scientist character Rotwang. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the middle class in many European countries had a high proportion of members who were Jewish, prosperous, well-educated, highly cultured and cosmopolitan in their outlook. They readily embraced change and favoured greater equality among people of different classes, religions and ethnic groups. Many Jews were professionals working in medicine, journalism and science. They were seen as rootless and money-hungry by others however and faced discrimination from the societies they lived in no matter what their class or status. Rotwang has some characteristics of the Jewish stereotype: hungering for power over all the Metropolis inhabitants whether rich or poor, resentful of the scientist ruler Joh Fredersen in taking away the woman he (Rotwang) loves, and pursuing a pure Christian woman to corrupt her and steal her essence to animate a robot which he uses to manipulate the workers to revolt and destroy the city and its governing classes. In Europe in the 1920s, the idea that Jews were behind the Bolshevik Revolution, Communism generally, the hedonistic material life-styles of the rich, and increased sexual freedom of women (along with the fear that they were neglecting their children) was strong.

A strong Christian, especially Roman Catholic, theme is present throughout the film: the character of Maria is heavily based on Biblical characters like the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist and Eve (or Lilith). The city of Metropolis is closely associated with the Tower of Babel in the story Maria tells the workers’ children and with the corrupt city of Babylon in the Bible.

Even in its current reconstruction, the film’s conclusion still appears mawkish and sentimental after all the intense activity that has gone before. Yes, the conclusion in which techno-plutocracy is reconciled with the workers it depends on through a mediator is the logical conclusion and the main characters themselves represent stereotypes; but the ending looks so pat and so unrealistic that it still irks the senses. The film’s ending suggests that if only the tyrant scientist ruler Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel) will be a bit kinder, more of a benevolent dictator, and the workers a bit less concerned about their woeful pay cheques and their terrible working conditions, and more mindful of their children’s well-being, if head and hands come closer together, then love and understanding will somehow blossom through the meeting of all their hearts which peacemakers Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) and Maria will facilitate. There is nothing to suggest in the characters of Freder and Maria themselves that they actually are capable of acting as effective mediators; based on what I have seen in the film, the two are likely to serve as a de facto royal couple ruling Metropolis. Indeed, no-one actually votes for Freder or Maria to serve as mediators, their roles being clearly predestined due to Freder’s social status and Maria’s supposed inborn purity, which does put the reconciliation between Joh Fredersen and his workers onto a bad footing already. The workers might get more time off to be with their children but the culture and social and political systems and institutions that allowed the city to exist and to function, and the assumptions and values underlying them, essentially do not change. Freder’s dad is still in charge and his bureaucrats are still carrying out his orders.

For all its futuristic pretensions, the film is best read as embodying the beliefs and fears of its time. Viewers should beware though that its message is ultimately a pessimistic and misanthropic one.

Invocation of My Demon Brother: not an essential film to see for Kenneth Anger fans

Kenneth Anger, “Invocation of My Demon Brother” (1969)

If like me, you’ve already seen a considerable number of films by Kenneth Anger, this one won’t add much that’s new to your knowledge: Anger creates what’s basically an extended rock music video with scraps from another film “Lucifer Rising”, shots of bikers, a group of people smoking from a skull and a Satanic funeral ceremony for a cat. Filming techniques such as the layering of images (a constant Anger motif), film speed distortion, placing the camera at odd angles and juxtaposing shots drawn from different sources to suggest a narrative and create unusual connections are combined so as to extract maximum shock and horror, and disturb viewers with intimations of occult evil. Bold red shades are emphasised to invoke Western stereotypes about devil worship. A multi-lens filming approach so as to suggest an insect’s point of view adds an extra sinister impression.

Some viewers will obviously find this film very dark and frightening, especially in scenes where a Satanic high priest flourishes a flag with the swastika symbol: this could very well be Anger in a cheeky mood, knowing that (in 1969) Western audiences were sensitive to the horrors of Nazism and Nazi flirtation with pagan religion and the occult, and so he uses a Nazi symbol in the context of an occult ritual to shock people. The joke is that the ritual is in honour of a dead cat! – in this way, Anger plays with images and their sequencing, and the cultural associations they have for Western viewers, to create a spectacle that makes fun of people’s fears and the things they avoid without understanding why they do so.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film is the soundtrack, composed on Moog synthesiser by famous Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger: it ain’t much to hear, to be honest, but it’s probably the most significant work of solo music he’s done in nearly 50 years.

The film is not essential viewing: you’re best directed to Anger’s other works “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome”, “Lucifer Rising” and “Scorpio Rising” if you want a psychedelic experimental film experience with occult themes.