Ichthys: a caustic commentary on institutional religion

Marek Skrobecki, “Ichthys” (2005)

For once I didn’t need to look up an English translation for the title of this Polish animation short which uses animated puppets. A man rows a boat to a distant shore, gets out and enters a cathedral. A waiter shows him to his table and the man orders the fish of the day. What follows is an amusing exercise in patience and frustration as the man waits a life-time to be served. Reward does eventually come but it carries consequences that can be interpreted on different levels relating to the nature of Roman Catholicism, spirituality and the search for meaning to life.

That the castle resembles a cathedral and the waiter a priest is no accident: the restaurant represents institutional religion which promises a great deal if people think and act in certain ways but which ultimately delivers either very little or delivers with even more conditions incumbent on individuals that they can’t refuse or avoid, or which condemn them to even more existential anguish and torment. The hungry man’s wait is torturous: as his clothes wear out and holes develop in his elbows and knees, the man’s face and body waste away and he literally falls apart: he tears off his face and his arms drop out of his sockets. He looks hungrily at the fish in the fish-tank but the creature ends up dying a natural death. When eventually the waiter returns, the customer is practically dead. The fish of the day revives the poor man but he does not realise that by taking the dish, he will be the butt of a malicious cosmic joke.

In spite of the often gorgeous colours that appear during the film’s duration and the promise of light and all’s-well-that-ends-well, the feeling that a huge con is being played out is never far away. Anyone who is familiar with Polish animation (and the animation of some other eastern European countries such as the Czech Republic) will know that Polish animation often carries a very sly black funereal humour and just when you think everything will turn out well and everybody will be happy, darkness and melancholy are never far away at all. So it is with “Ichthys”.

The animation is very well done with good pace and timing; the man’s facial contortions and comic if pathetic behaviour capture his anguish and torment. His actions are all the more pitiable when the reward is revealed and he receives it gratefully. Some viewers will anticipate what happens to him next and suspect that the waiter has known all along where the man ends up as he takes the customer’s hat and throws it into a room full of … other customers’ hats.

An excellent if very biting and sarcastic comment on the nature of institutional religion, what it demands of and extracts from people, and how it traps people in a never-ending cycle of debasement and purgatory, “Ichthys” is highly recommended viewing.

The Red and the Black / The Horse: two little oil paintings in continuous motion

Witold Giersz, “The Red and the Black / Czorwane i Czarne” (1963) / “The Horse / Kon” (1967)

I was held spellbound by these two very visually beautiful short animations which use animation of oil paintings done on cardboard or glass, and that exploit the possibilities that the characteristics of oil painting can offer. In the first cartoon, “The Red and the Black”, whose tongue-twisting Polish name offers opportunity for word play, a red matador and a black bull duel within the corrida and outside it – and even outside the painting, to the consternation of the “painter” who did the picture! The second cartoon is also a duel, this time between a wild horse and the young warrior who wants to tame it and ride it into war – but this is a much tamer affair that experiments more with colour than with breaking boundaries: one can only toy around with viewers’ expectations and spring surprises on people once.

The two shorts might be portraying the eternal tug-of-war between Human and Nature, and all that is symbolised by those two concepts: Human as symbol for a rationalist view of the universe and Nature as synecdoche for the organic, non-logical and unstructured forces of the universe. During the Communist period (for Poland, this was from 1945 to 1989) the conventional interpretation of “The Red and the Black” was that one side represented the forces of freedom and democracy and the other, those of Communism and authoritarian dictatorship, but my opinion is that the short is a light-hearted playful one and should not be assumed to symbolise two political polarities and their conflict.

The  visual style resembles the bright colourful Fauvist painting style that was briefly popular in France in the first decade of the 20th century, and there may have been influences from Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso and the French Impressionist school as well in the preference for broad painterly brush-strokes in the movement of the figures. The animation in “Horse” is particularly good: the portrayal of the animal’s movements, in particular its galloping and the way it turns and flicks its tail, shows how closely Giersz must have observed the movements of horses as the animation is accurate and captures the rhythms of its flowing gait.

There is much humour in the narratives of both shorts: both matador and warrior are outwitted by the animals throughout. Even when matador and bull are literally bottled up, their essences still animate their prisons which threaten to upset the painter’s studio. The warrior appears to lose hope of ever capturing his steed as he fades into the black background.

If I were showing a group of animation students a series of cartoons to watch, I would definitely include these two little masterpieces of breath-taking originality.

Son (dir. Ryszard Czekala): a solid, powerful short about rural-urban and generational division

Ryszard Czekala, “Son / Syn” (1970)

This short silent animation piece is one that Polish animator Ryszard Czekala is best known for and it’s easy to see why: its themes of rural-urban divide, generational separation, isolation and abandonment are universal. A rich businessman from the Big Smoke visits his parents on their remote farm: the elderly folk are glad to see him come back and serve him the best meal they can offer but the son spurns their humble lifestyle, reads his newspaper at the dinner table and races back to the city as soon as he is done with visiting. The parents are puzzled at his behaviour but resume their tilling and other work.

The animation looks dark and heavy but carries a sure solid power especially in scenes in which the farmer and his bullock are dragging a plough through heavy soil. The farmer and his wife have tired, worn faces and hands and fingers used to heavy labour over many years. I have the impression they have waited for a long time, years stretching into decades perhaps, for their son to return. Return he does but the long-awaited reunion is a disappointment. The film briefly touches on the couple’s bemused expressions and for a moment I think they are perhaps glad to see him leave, having observed his shallow and supercilious behaviour, before they pick up the rhythm of their lives again.

No dialogue is needed to convey the psychological and cultural chasm between the parents and their son as all that we need to know happens in their actions and in a small scene in which the son knocks a piece of bread off the table but fails to pick it up, expecting his parents to do so as if they were servants. They do so but not because they are his servants; every bit of food is precious sustenance.

It’s a paradox that sometimes the most powerful messages are delivered by short silent films such as this little work. Makes me wonder why I still bother to watch feature-length films sometimes.

Montparnasse: an affectionate survey of a famous artistic and intellectual Parisian district in the 1920s

Eugène Deslaw, “Montparnasse” (1929)

Come take a tour of Montparnasse as it was in 1929 with Eugène Deslaw to guide you. At the time, this district in Paris was the centre of French artistic and intellectual life and Deslaw captures this aspect of Montparnasse very well, emphasising a number of famous cafés, clubs and streets frequented by famous writers, painters and philosophers from around the world, particularly the United States.

The film begins with unusual bird’s-eye views of traffic  in Montparnasse from some distance: the camera is often held on the side as well as from above and at one point in the introduction, it shyly peeks from behind a vehicle. The camera takes in a number of streets by their street-signs and quickly settles on landmarks that would have been known to artists, intellectuals and the general public alike. Soon our gaze is lavished on street life: people walking in the streets, children playing with toy boats in the ponds and fountains, women traders in street markets, and gentlemen studying pictures in a flea market on the street. Close-ups of pedestrians, including some famous artists of the time like the Japanese painter Fujita, the Spanish film-maker Luis Buñuel and three Italian futurist painters Russolo, Prampolini and Marinetti, are included. Deslaw prefers to hone in on the unusual, like a flock of goats being herded through traffic and pedestrians, or a display of five wistful-looking dolls on a table, or a machine claimed by its advertisers to read fortunes in people’s hands. He has an eye for street art, African tribal art, visual pornography of a tasteful kind and city architecture in which geometric patterns or exuberant baroque swirls might be found. The last couple of minutes in the film focus on people at an outdoor café and their activities: people-watching, writing, conversing with friends, playing finger-shadow games.

In the space of 15 minutes, we probably see much more of Montparnasse than many modern tourists might of the district in one day: the film flits very quickly with quick editing from one spot to another. Certain motifs such as nude art or particular architectural patterns become the basis for a collage of images that’s quickly replaced by another collage based on another theme. The camera rarely lingers for long on any one particular shot. Some unusual filming techniques such as a pan-around that turns dizzy might be used but on the whole the film relies on linked linear sequences of shots done fairly quickly.

It’s an affectionate survey of a particular part of Paris as it appeared to Deslaw in the 1920s and for that reason has historical value for students of Parisian culture and intellectual life. The film does not linger on particular landmarks or streets so any distinctive Montparnasse atmosphere is not obvious to viewers. There is little shown about the less glamorous and perhaps seedier, more rundown parts of Montparnasse; no suggestion that there might be the odd gangster or two, or a political dissident trying to flog Marxist texts to impassive passers-by, lurking in the district. Such inclusions would have made the area much more interesting, complex and historically important as viewers would be left to ponder how the vibrancy of a district or city is influenced as much by its underbelly as its artistic, intellectual and cultural life, and the tensions between these sub-cultures and the mainstream culture of Paris.

Most of the music soundtrack consists of songs or instrumental pieces popular during the 1920s and I think I recognise a few tunes from old Warner Bros Bugs Bunny cartoons of my distant childhood. Apart from this and some early traffic noises, the film is silent. For some modern viewers, that will be a problem as the film carries no title cards to indicate which parts of Montparnasse are being visited and why they and not others are the subject of the film’s interest.

Un monsieur qui a mangé du taureau: slapstick comedy film short with a possible ulterior message

Eugène Deslaw, “Un monsieur qui a mangé du taureau” (1935)

We all know of people who spout a lot of BULL but what happens to people who accidentally or deliberately swallow some of that BULL? This is the premise to a silent film made in 1907 by a film-maker unknown, to whose film Deslaw added some introductory titles and a voice-over commentary by French comic artist Bétove. The film I saw did not have the commentary. The film demonstrates what happens when you eat the flesh of some exotic animal whose nature you know nothing of.

With a total running time of seven minutes, the plot is simple: a lady serves her guests the flesh of a bull. While relaxing after dinner with some cognac, cigars and a few jokes, one of the guests takes down some bull horns from his hostess’s wall, puts them over his head and instantly transforms into a raging taureau. After headbutting the other guests who scramble for safety onto furniture which then promptly falls over or off the walls, the maddened guest terrorises the neighbours and runs out into the streets attacking passers-by and the local gendarmes. The panicking authorities place a call with Paris Central Police HQ who transfer it to Madrid Central Police HQ who in turn promptly despatch a team of matadors and toreadors the same day. (Ah, how efficient French and Spanish police were in those pre-EU days! Ah, how wonderful and speedy was Samuel Morse’s telegraph technology, faster than the Internet!) Meanwhile our Raging Bull takes on a man dressed as a donkey and the two, erm, monkey around quite a bit before going on their separate ways. When they arrive by walking into town (as you do: the Pyrenees obviously were no trouble crossing over) from Madrid, los señores de la corrida do battle with the gentleman. They successfully “subdue” him – for once, I won’t spoil the ending by giving it away – and the police promptly march him off into the sunset. Olé!

It’s a wonderful piece of pure slapstick comedy based on the notion that you literally are or become what you eat. Maybe there is an ulterior, perhaps rather racist premise insinuated here: don’t absorb yourself too much in other people’s culture (especially if it’s a Third World culture) in case you become like them and go savage. The original film is self-explanatory and hardly needed an additional commentary or titles from Deslaw and Bétove. I imagine the commentary as a sarcastic send-up and criticism of the racism that might be implied in the film’s premise: that French people should beware of adopting aspects of other people’s cultures lest the exotic values of such cultures degrade French culture itself and turn French people into savages. Considerable acrobatics are involved with people, ladies especially, somersaulting over cupboards and street furniture. The bull horns end up quite bloody and one shudders to think of the carnage and the blood trail left along the way. I didn’t see anyone actually being poked or prodded or pin-pricked to death by the horns but the agility of the actors to avoid such a fate is nothing short of dazzling. The action is quick, the editing sharp and no-nonsense, and the whole story is wrapped up in five minutes.

I’ve heard the voiceover commentary actually demeans the original film so it’s just as well I didn’t experience Deslaw’s superfluous additions. Usually with silents, there would be piano accompaniment so viewers can add their own musical or voice-over accompaniment if they wish! Perhaps this would be an amusing film to show as part of a film festival with a vegan or vegetarian theme.


La Marche des Machines / Les Nuits Électriques: experimental shorts suggest technology has a life of its own

Eugène Deslaw, “La Marche des Machines” (1927) / Les Nuits Électriques” (1928)

The Ukrainian film-maker Eugène Deslaw made a number of fairly short experimental films in the late 1920s before his career was swept away by the advent of sound. Little seems to be known of his activities since then; he died in 1966 apparently unremembered. Two such films are “La Marche des Machines” and “Les Nuits Électriques”. The first of the two is a 5-minute documentary that might be commenting on the relentless progress of technology and how it’s acquiring a pulsing life of its own beyond human control. It’s basically a linear collage of little series of shots, each series dominated by a little theme: wheels in one series, a crossways grid in another, weaving in a third, caterpillar tracks in a fourth, conveyor belts in a fifth. Near the end the film becomes more abstract with scenes where two shots are superimposed on one another or placed side by side to suggest that a kind of convergent evolution in two different strands of technology has taken place. In the last minute of the film, carefully selected shots sequenced together suggest that some machines or their levers at least might achieve the ability to reproduce and the very last couple of shots, done almost entirely in contrasts of light and shadow, insinuate sexual intercourse.

Second film “Les Nuits Électriques” showcases a city at night through its lights and the eerie life that it takes on through electricity while its human inhabitants sleep. This is a much more abstract and beautiful film than the first and Deslaw shows considerable imagination in using mirror images of shots to set up symmetrical collages that reveal another world within the electrical world first encountered. A remarkable series of shots of a merry-go-round unveils a secret universe of floating lights that suggest fireflies buzzing about during the twilight hours. As the film progresses, it becomes more playful and starts playing tricks on viewers: about the 7th minute, shots of the moon over the sea hint at a mysterious hovering comet and in the 8th minute, shots of telephone lines and poles are cheekily posited as negatives of daytime scenes. Greater levels of abstraction with mirror imaging and film running backwards encourage a blurring between live action and experimental animation particularly in the shots that take place in a foundry. At times the film can be very hypnotic and one’s mind starts to relax and expand …

As silent films, these mini-documentaries appear to have no message but the way in which the shots are arranged, with emphasis on visual rhythms and patterns of motion, an implied narrative that an alien life-force is incipient in modern technology is strong. Clever editing, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, adds to the impression that this vitality has a speed of its own that will surpass human capacity to understand and control it. If humans appear at all, their presence is incidental rather than essential to the technology: they appear as passers-by or passive spectators. The films are at once fascinating and terrifying in the implications of their subject matter.

Deslaw’s use of film looks more sophisticated in the second film than in the first: “Les Nuits …” has a more playful, experimental approach to its subject, especially in later scenes of flying sparks of light in a foundry. At this point the viewer does not know if s/he is watching a live-action film or an animation, and perhaps doesn’t care anyway as the images – all light and dark contrasts – are highly abstract.

The films’ main value lies in their playful use of filming techniques to suggest a narrative where one didn’t exist originally.

Autour de La Fin du Monde: silent film about a sound film hampered by lack of … sound

Abel Gance and Eugène Deslaw, “Autour de La Fin du Monde” (1930)

I had heard that there was a French science fiction film “La Fin du Monde” made by Abel Gance in 1931 and looked for it on Youtube.com. Unfortunately I didn’t find it but what I did find was a silent 18-minute documentary made by Eugène Deslaw on the making and shooting of the film. The documentary is notable for the methods Deslaw uses to observe the director and his crew at work and how various scenes were prepared and shot.

Understandably, being silent, the film features no interviews with anyone on or off the set: it’s done almost completely from the viewpoint of an unseen observer who has stumbled in onto the set and might be watching in wonder and astonishment at the comings and goings of people and what they do. The film opens with a spectacular circular panning of the camera focusing on actors facing it that speeds up until the whole shot is a wild whir. The scene abruptly cuts to a camera operator spinning around on his stand. Sometimes the camera comes in very close to scrutinise the equipment: meter readings, switches being turned on and off, pointers on gauges wavering between two extreme points. Are we looking at scenes from the film being made or are we looking at the actual filming? In this way, Deslaw blurs the boundary between the film being made and his own film. The camera also views the film from the height of a child (there is a shot of a pair of legs crossing a floor) and from above people’s heads.

The film was France’s first talking film and there is a scene of a beautiful woman facing the camera and singing or chanting. There is also a shot of a man declaiming loudly in front of the camera against a background of lights and the lights flashing and the camera deliberately shaking and making the image unfocused. Sometimes the camera appears to be participating in the actual film-making itself, as when it pauses on two lovers arguing and making up, and the woman listening in on them; later the camera follows the crew on a crane and looks down on a small crowd looking up at it.

Although the documentary is described as experimental, I don’t find it as experimental or inventive as the work Gance and Deslaw’s contemporary Jean Vigo. Vigo’s work had real flair and this documentary, though it uses panning, whole-scene shots, close-ups and different points of view, can appear pedestrian in parts. There is one scene in the last minute of the doco in which an image of a face appears beneath an image of a machine in close-up.

Until the film in its entirety is found and released on DVD or uploaded to Youtube.com, this documentary is the best source we have of the film. I know nothing more of the film having seen the documentary than I did before but as an exercise in making a film about a film and playing with audience’s expectations, Deslaw’s portrait is good but not very outstanding. The decision not to include a soundtrack is unusual, as the subject itself has one, and certainly doesn’t help me understand “La Fin du Monde”.

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.

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.


The Death Ray: early Soviet silent with plenty of action, skulduggery and even some poetic film-making

Lev Kuleshov, “The Death Ray / Luch Smerti” (1925)

A silent Soviet action thriller that starts with a workers’ revolt in a factory which is crushed by the factory owners and the police, forcing the leader of the revolt Thomas Lam to go into hiding, “The Death Ray” is one of the earliest Russian-language science fiction films made. Not surprisingly given the period it was made in, the movie has pro-Communist tones though it appears to be set in a foreign capitalist country. Unfortunately the English-language subtitles weren’t very good as the person who uploaded the film to Youtube (the film is in the public domain) had to transcribe from Spanish-language subtitles which in turn were transcribed by someone else from the original Russian and the title cards used in the film don’t appear to be completely within the camera’s focus so there were bits of the plot cut out. Still the effort made by NightOfTheLivingNES to give as much information as possible about the plot in English is commendable.

The film looks very pulpy, relying heavily on character stereotypes, a fast pace, what appear to be several plot strands and lots of action in which people perform amazing stunts like jumping off balconies set three storeys or more above the ground and suffering only a strained back afterwards: in real life, the man would have died or at least smashed both his legs from the impact of landing on his feet on hard concrete. A death ray is invented early in the film. There are scenes in which people narrowly escape being run over by trains and a plucky young mop-topped boy called Freddy makes a daring escape from the bad guy fascist spies. Plenty of skulduggery is going on between both sides. In  later part of the film, two aviators engage in a bloody knife fight after which one fellow attempts to cart off a heavy suitcase across a meadow; he gets bogged down in a marsh, his foe catches up with him, takes the case and shoves him right into the marsh where he glug-glugs to death.

Technically the film is a bit all over the shop: many scenes including the title cards look cut off at the edges, especially on the left-hand side (from this viewer’s point of view) and the edits look crude and amateurish compared to modern editing. On the other hand, there are very many stills of actors’ faces in close-up and very distinctively craggy and full of character these are: the elites look extra haughty and arrogant with their monocles, sharp profiles and polished, twirled moustaches and the ordinary workers have faces that might have been hewn out of rock. A number of female characters have distinctive and expressive long faces though some uncharitable viewers are sure to think the ladies should get their teeth capped or fixed. Scenes of flying planes near the end are breathtaking and there are some almost poetic shots of nature or scenes at unusual camera angles that might suggest some avant-garde artistic influence at work.

What made it to Youtube unfortunately got cut off at the end where a whole town appears to be in revolt and the death ray that’s supposed to make its appearance and presumably blast quite a few people out of this world and into their next existence fails to appear.

It looks pretty exciting and action-packed for a film of its time even without the science fiction element.