The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
Yet, as influential as the film was in Germany, it had its most lasting impact in the United States. The film played the prestigious Capitol Theatre in New York in April 1921 to huge crowds. There, the film included a bizarre stage show, perhaps designed to comfort American audiences not used to seeing such a bleak world view. In it, an alleged psychiatrist, “Dr. Cranford,” addressed the audience of the Capitol and assured them that Francis, the tortured hero of CALIGARI, was insane and had since been cured, completely invalidating the film’s witnessing of Francis’s lonely pursuit of the serial murderer! This may have been designed to shield naive American audiences from the implications of the experimental qualities of the film’s narrative. Yet, diagnosing the film itself as insane wound up making DR. CALIGARI even more disconcerting, for the film already had one framing story in which the events are shakily reconceived as merely a dream.
No amount of invention could explain away CALIGARI’S nightmarish implications or its haunting visuals. Hollywood films immediately began to borrow CALIGARI’s angles and shadows, if not (at least, not right away) its disturbingly neurotic plots and characters. In the 1930’s, after Hitler had cleansed the German cinema of its Expressionist urges (he preferred lighter fare, especially German versions of Hollywood-style musicals) many of the most talented members of the Expressionist cohort came to America. Their often grisly obsessions lived on, in films like DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN, SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, THE WOLFMAN, and 1940’s Film Noir. Today, even many of the best of the gore/splatter cinema of directors such as Mario Bava and Dario Argento can trace their roots back to THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI. The good doctor’s cabinet has divulged, ever since l919, an inexhaustible supply of Halloween treats...
— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University
Crime and Punishment
(U.S.A. Columbia, 1935, 88 minutes, b/w, 16 mm)
Directed by Josef von Sternberg
Screenplay: S. K. Lauren and Joseph Anthony (based on the novel by Fiodor Dostoevskii)
Photography: Lucien Ballard
Music: Louis Silvers
Stella (Mrs. Patrick) Campbell..........The Pawnbroker
A faithful recounting of the great nineteenth-century novel this is not. The 1930s era costumes and anglicized names are only some of the less obtrusive changes to the original text. Lovers of Dostoevskii’s work will be disappointed to find that in von Sternberg’s film Raskolnikov has only one victim (the pathetic Lizaveta is nowhere to be found) and that he kills her not with an axe, but with a somehow more civilized poker. Raskolnikov’s dank little attic apartment is here a fairly spacious and sun-filled room complete with portraits of Napoleon and Beethoven (?!). Perhaps most disturbing of all, the lecherous sensualist Svidrigailov has been transformed into a downright pleasant Grilov. Sternberg himself said of his film that it is “no more related to the true text of the novel than the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Gower is related to the Russian environment.” If any connection to Dostoevskii’s novel does remain, it is probably more to be found in certain details of the sets than in the screenplay itself. Note the icons and samovars that litter the pawnbroker’s apartment and the recurrent image of the imperial double-headed eagle, as much a sign of the Russian Empire here as a classic Sternbergian fetish. (Images of imposing black birds and dominating, feathered bird-women are typical Sternberg motifs.)
Coming on the heels of the scandal over The Devil is a Woman, and his break with Marlene Dietrich, von Sternberg agreed to take over direction of an already scripted and cast Crime and Punishment as part of a two-film contract with Columbia. Sternberg gives a biting description of the cast in his autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry: “As mixed a collection of human beings as can be imagined is before me ... Some are literate, some are not. Among those present are trained performers and those who have made the jump to the screen from the trampoline of a mattress.” He goes on to note that none of his actors, with the exception of Lorre, had ever read the novel and implies that some of them did not even bother to read the script. A dialogue between the director and his “pawnbroker,” the British stage actress and intimate of George Bernard Shaw, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, is worth repeating:
MPC: I only want to know what I am to portray.
Despite all its problems, the film does contain some interesting, even touching moments (such as the opening sequence in which Raskolnikov graduates with honors from the university and is admonished to “do good” in the world, as he steps out of the shadows into the light), and Lorre’s performance is if not convincing, at least admirable for its intensity and sad innocence.
The Scarlet Empress
Josef von Sternberg’s penultimate film with Dietrich (coming between Blond Venus in 1932 and The Devil is a Woman in 1935) has been described as his most striking, most disturbing work, the culmination of metaphoric structuring in his films, and a relentless excursion into style. Carole Zucker, in The Idea of the Image describes The Scarlet Empress as “the film in which Sternberg’s inquiries into the dimensionality of the frame receives the most extended and profound treatment; it is also the film in the director’s oeuvre that relies most heavily on its visual aspects.” Indeed, the film’s imagery is stunning. Present in almost every frame, often utilized as candle-holders or furniture, are examples of the hundreds of statues commissioned by Sternberg and created by his friend, Peter Bullbusch, a Swiss sculptor and later chief of Metro’s Special Effects Department. Bullbusch completed the statues in a few weeks from a mix of epoxy resin and plaster of paris. The effect is ghastly, to say the least, making it seem as though events take place not in the Kremlin, but in the enchanted, frozen kingdom of the evil Koschei the Deathless. Icons are also an omnipresent feature of the sets, but they are more reminiscent of Benois’s nightmarish, Symbolist backdrops for Stravinsky’s ballet Petrouchka, than Russian religious art. Giant-sized chairs, beds, and tables make the actors look like dolls or children playing house, and the Empress Elizabeth’s imperial, double-headed eagle throne looks like a devouring dragon.
Depression-era audiences were horrified by the film’s oppressive elements. The clutter of the mise-en-scene -- eerie statuary, veiled faces, tight framing, frames dissected by diagonal lines of staircases and hangings, and restrictive costumes -- led critics to accuse von Sternberg of trying to “assassinate” Dietrich. In fact, the film traces its protagonist’s trajectory from entrapment to political and sexual empowerment. In the film’s opening scene, we find a young helpless Sophia Frederica, played by Dietrich’s daughter, Maria Sieber, condemned to her bed without any toys, suffering from some kind of spinal ailment. The doctor -- who, it turns out, is actually the royal hangman -- announces that the young princess will have to wear a harness, provoking a nursemaid’s stifled comment, “What is he? A horse doctor?” Upon the doctor’s departure, young Sophia is left wondering if she might be able to become a hangman some day. This, in turn, leads to an attendant telling her stories of Russian royal executioners, the great tsars, Peter and Ivan. As Sophia listens to the tales, we are privy to her sadistic, childish fantasies of naked and semi-naked bodies being broken on the rack, burned at the stake, and used as human bell-clappers. It could be argued that the rest of the film is all an answer to Sophia/Catherine’s wish to become a hangman, to play with forbidden toys, and to break out of her “harness.” Sophia’s metamorphosis is marked not only by her change of name, but by her increasingly Russianized, increasingly masculinized costumes. At the height of her sexual and political power, we see her dressed as a hussar, riding a white stallion up the stairs of the Kremlin and ringing the bell that signals the assassination of her impotent, insane husband, Grand Duke Peter, and announces her new role as the “Messalina of the North.”
With its fairy tale settings, lavish costumes, and music (drawing from Tchaikovsky, but also from Mendelssohn and Wagner), Sternberg’s film is saturated in the mystique of a fantasy Russia -- the Russia of Baba Yaga, Mussorgsky, gypsies, and drunken, decadent Karamazovs, yet many critics have argued that Sternberg’s “Russia” is merely a facade. As film scholar Peter Baxter has argued, The Scarlet Empress is “nothing less than a nightmare version of the American dream as Sternberg had lived it, the dream quite literally of upward mobility that overtakes its subjects, inflates them with limitless ambition, and gives them everything they could want in return for everything that they are.”
For years, Lubitsch had wanted to make a film with Garbo; here, finally, was his chance. For Garbo, Ninotchka represented her first foray into American comedy . . . it turned out to be her favorite of all her American films. Later, she would say of Lubitsch, “He was the only great director out there. Ninotchka was the only time I had a great director in Hollywood.” For Lubitsch, Ninotchka marked the beginning of his richest period in film. “Lubitsch Rides Again!” announced the critics.
Appearing during a time when “A” Westerns and historical epics dominated the American screen, Ninotchka has been called the most “historically conscious” and “timely” of Lubitsch’s films. In fact, Ninotchka was already a little out of date when it was first released. Filmed between May and July, 1939, Ninotchka was completed on the very eve of the Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact. Before the film’s release, a new introductory title needed to be added: “This picture takes place in Paris in those wonderful days when a siren was a brunette and not an alarm . . . and if a Frenchman turned out the light it was not on account of an air raid!”
Lubitsch (born in Berlin, l892, his father having come to Germany from Russia in the l880s) had made a trip to Russia in 1936 in search of his own roots and those of his new wife, Vivian Gaye, whose mother was Russian. There he had been feted by the head of Goskino (the State Cinema organization), Boris Shumyatsky, and found his inspiration for the characterization of Ninotchka in the person of an old friend who had become a die-hard Bolshevik. Nonetheless, what emerged from Lubitsch’s film is less a reflection of the “Russian character” (in its 1920s or 1930s manifestation) or the relation between Soviets and Westerners than a comic investigation into Lubitsch’s favorite question, “To play or not to play?”
When Lubitsch was hired on to the production, the sketch for the script read: “Russian girl saturated with Bolshevik ideals goes to fearful, capitalistic, monopolistic Paris. She meets romance and has an uproarious good time. Capitalism not so bad after all.” Yet, in the end, Ninotchka’s basic conflict is not capitalism vs. communism but sensuality vs. selflessness. Throughout the film, Ninotchka never loses her political convictions. Laughter, love, Parisian fashion, champagne -- none of these things can prevent her from standing up and proclaiming the goals of the Revolution, whether it be in Paris, Moscow, or Constantinople, a royal hotel suite, a communal apartment, or a women’s powder room. The hat that Ninotchka first sees upon her arrival in Paris, and describes as a product of the “doomed” capitalist West and which she later buys and wears is not so much a symbol of capitalism as it is a piece of pure impracticality, a symbol of silliness. The hat looks ridiculous on Garbo -- and that’s just the point.
Watching the film from the other side of history (after both the Second World War and the Cold War), the (post)modern viewer encounters moments that are -- to say the least -- uncomfortable. After Khrushchev’s “secret speech” and the revelations of glasnost, it is a little painful to witness Ninotchka’s mock execution and to hear Garbo’s famous line, “The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer, but better Russians.” Nevertheless, the “Lubitsch touch” still works, the witty dialogue still sparkles, and Garbo’s dead pan delivery still amazes.
The North Star
What a difference four years can make. The Russians who were likable but misguided, cold and ideological on the outside but warm and romantic on the inside in Ninotchka have been transformed into full-fledged martyrs in Milestone’s film. Now an ally in the war, the Russians in The North Star seem strangely un-Soviet. While Ninotchka’s trip back to Moscow was marked by a distinct graying of the set and by posters bearing Stalin’s portrait and words like “INDUSTRIALIZATION,” Milestone’s “village” is curiously devoid of any references to the Soviet era. Lenin himself is nowhere to be found. In fact, despite Milestone’s own Slavic heritage (he was raised in Kishinev), his protagonists are suspiciously Mid-Western American. (One can't help thinking that if the Disney corporation were to create a new theme park called “Russialand”, it would look something like this.) A “Russian folk song” with music by Aaron Copland and words by Ira Gershwin says it all.
At certain points in this film, it seems as though Milestone has forgotten everything that he taught us in his anti-war masterpiece, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). At other times, however, Milestone does succeed in revealing the horror and tragedy of war. The abrupt transition from a vision of happy peasants at work, at rest, at school, and at home in the midst of their families to a landscape full of smoke, destroyed buildings, burning wheat fields, and dead bodies is chilling, as are the scenes in which we watch Nazi doctors methodically bleeding Russian children to death. Again, watching this film from the other side of history, Marina’s final judgment is heartbreaking: “None of us will be the same. Wars do not leave people as they are. All people will learn that and come to see that wars do not have to be. We will make this the last war; we will make a free world for all men.”
--Diana Davies, SUNY at Binghamton
The North Star
During World War II, the average American had a right to be confused about the Soviet Union. Beginning in the late 1930s, traditionally rabid official anti-communism seemed to he cooling, in hopes that the Soviet Union would be an ally in the coming war. Then the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 made the Soviets an easy target for animosity once again. Suddenly, the Germans invaded Russia in the summer of 1941--and now, the Soviets were brothers in arms...
The Hollywood film industry was enlisted by the White House to clarify murky Soviet-American relations. The films that resulted were Warner Brothers’ MISSION TO MOSCOW, MGM’s SONG OF RUSSIA, RKO’s DAYS OF GLORY, and Samuel Goldwyn’s THE NORTH STAR, and each bore the mark of many enthusiastic hands. Like the anti-communist films of the 1950s (I WAS A COMMUNIST FOR THE FBI, WALK EAST ON BEACON, THE RED MENACE, THE WHIP HAND, etc.) these were works made for a patron momentarily more important even than the mighty box office: in this case, the war effort. What resulted were well meaning but often garbled conglomerations of high school world history, Book-of-the-Month Club politics, and a schlocky version of Mittel-European folk life borrowed from various horror movies and operettas.
THE NORTH STAR’s creative team was a distinguished one. Initially, Goldwyn favorite William Wyler was to direct, but Wyler’s Army service (which would culminate in THE MEMPHIS BELLE and THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES) intervened, and Goldwyn was able to convince Lewis Milestone to helm the film. Milestone’s career was nearly as fabled as Wyler’s: the universally praised ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT and the stylistically daring THE FRONT PAGE had been among the highlights. To write the screenplay, Goldwyn engaged Lillian Hellman, the period’s most prominent Popular Front writer. The cast was composed of Goldwyn’s most prominent young contract players (Farley Granger, Anne Baxter, Dana Andrews) and Hollywood character stalwarts like Walter Huston, Erich von Stroheim, Walter Brennan, Ann Harding, and Dean Jagger. Aaron Copland wrote the score, and Ira Gershwin supplied special lyrics to the “Russian folk songs” invented for the film. Margaret Bourke-White, who had photographed the Eastern front, was commissioned to make stills for the film.
What resulted was “a picture about average Russians for average Americans,” as the film’s publicity had it. Unlike, say, MISSION TO MOSCOW, Warner Brothers’ tortured adaptation of Ambassador Joseph Davies’ memoirs (which ‘starred’ Stalin, Churchill, and FDR, played by impersonators), THE NORTH STAR chose to avoid the byzantine history of Soviet-American relations. Instead, the strategy of THE NORTH STAR was a simple one: to ‘deexoticize’ Soviet Russia, and make Americans recognize in an idealized portrait of Soviet village life a set of outlooks and experiences similar to their own. Thus, if the citizens of the village North Star seem to eschew political discussion, well, after all, didn’t Americans also constantly profess exasperation with the doings of politicians, and prefer to mind their own, local business?
The world of THE NORTH STAR is a nineteenth century one. The film ignores the massive 1920s and 1930s Soviet public works projects, the forced collectivization of farmlands, and Stalin’s ruthless purges of kulaks, generals, and dissidents, locating its warm, simple townsfolk in a precious-seeming countryside, and a harmonious community. Collective activity in the film seems entirely voluntary, a natural outgrowth of the villagers’ cooperative agrarian lifestyle. In particular, the account of the complicated, dark Stalinist politics of the 1930s given in the film is intentionally glib. As he dismisses his pupils at the beginning of the summer in 1941, Iakin, the headmaster in a village school, jokingly tells his young charges that he will not ruin their vacation with a political lecture, adding “But this is the summer of 1941, a solemn time. No one of us knows what will happen. I don’t have to remind you that we are a people with a noble history; you are expected to carry on that history with complete devotion and self-sacrifice.” This is virtually the only mention of Soviet (or Tsarist) history in the film, and communism itself is never properly explained. Far more important than its passing, opaque reference to Soviet politics, heavily-freighted moments such as this one put the naive Soviets in the same spiritual place as Americans, who in countless movies made during World War II are seen in flashbacks enjoying the simple pleasures of prewar life oblivious of Japanese and German treachery. Often, these incidents in THE NORTH STAR, such as a lengthy village celebration at the beginning of the film, are loaded with overbearingly folksy touches, yet they are no more indigestible than a score of films made about American village life during the war years. And the picture of Soviet Russia at war in THE NORTH STAR is remarkably unrelenting for an American film of the period, an indirect product of the admiring testimony of journalists such as Bourke-White and Harrison Salisbury. By 1943, the Soviet partisan and the Russian woman soldier were already staples of Allied wartime propaganda, as were accounts of Nazi atrocities on Russian soil. THE NORTH STAR capitalized on audiences’ familiarity with these archetypes for added sympathy.
Yet Hellman was incensed at what she believed was a dumping-down of her screenplay. The best explanatory material she argued, was being written out on the set by Milestone, or edited out of the rushes by Goldwyn. (In fact, Hellman’s ‘explanations’ of such issues as collectivization were more in the nature of vague apologies, not much clearer or more accurate than what remains in the film.) Her conflict with Goldwyn about THE NORTH STAR boiled over, and she bought out her contract with him for $30,000. The year THE NORTH STAR was released, she published her original screenplay through Viking Press, a highly unusual practice for the time, and one that guaranteed that her version of the film would be a matter of public record.
Thus began THE NORTH STAR’s strange afterlife. Like other films in the cycle, the late 1940s and early 1950s House Unamerican Activities Committee hearings used THE NORTH STAR as a club with which to beat Hollywood. Hellman’s attitude toward the committee was defiant, and both she and director Milestone were quietly ‘gray-listed’ by the industry. Rereleased in the mid l950s as ARMORED ATTACK, the film was savagely recut, and a clumsy voice-over added that made the film a narrative about the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary!
THE NORTH STAR remains a relic wholly of its time, that brief moment in World War II when America allowed itself to believe in the Soviet Union as a place not so fundamentally different from our own. THE NORTH STAR fails spectacularly as an icon about Russia, but succeeds admirably as a common anti-fascist crusade.
The Gate of Heavenly Peace
(American, 1995, 180 minutes, color, director’s cut)
Directed by Richard Gordon II and Carma Hinton
Narrated by Deborah Amos
Tiananmen Square’s pictures are burned onto history’s retina: the faux-Statue of Liberty, fragile, brash, and deeply moving; the starving, sweating students, tough and idealistic, smiling in the sun of a new day; then, gunshots in the dawn and garbled stories from international news correspondents, the sound of fear in their breathless dispatches. And then the final moment in Tiananmen’s Chinese opera, a wordless aria of freedom: a nameless student, reedy and resolute, decides that only human will is required to hold back tyranny, and proves it by standing in front of a tank.
That moment ranks as one of the most expressive in the history of democratic aspiration, but it was essentially a silent one, and directors Carma Hinton and Richard Gordon recognized that as Tiananmen Square’s June 1989 climax began to lose its immediacy, it was time to restore the voice to those from whom it had been stolen, the students themselves. The theft of that voice, of course, had been the vile project of the Chinese dictatorship from the beginning. Thus most of THE GATE OF HEAVENLY PEACE is told in the quiet, stirring words of those who led the attempt to make a new China.
The film itself became part of the dialectic of reform when its showing at the New York Film Festival prompted Chinese leaders to retaliate by not allowing director Zhang Yimou to attend. Director Carma Hinton was determined, though, that her film, while extraordinarily evenhanded in its treatment of the opposing forces in contest at Tiananmen, would restore their own narratives to the dissidents: “The number-one concern we had was for the film to be a forum for the range of different voices talking about what China needs. One thing that struck me was that hardly any Chinese got to speak” in other Western accounts of the uprising. “Mainly it was American anchors or reporters explaining what the Chinese wanted or did or didn’t do. . . You could hardly hear any Chinese voices finish an idea, or even a sentence.” In order to get to the point of correcting this imbalance, Hinton and Richard Gordon used seed money from the National Endowment for the Humanities to, as their grant put it, “push the frontiers of scholarship” in modern China studies. The sheer amount of misinformation about Tiananmen, says Richard Gordon, made this preparation necessary, as did the competing versions of history told by the different participants.
Director Carma Hinton was born in China and lived there until she was 21, the daughter of China scholar William Hinton, whose studies of the land reform in the rural village of Low Bow are classics in rural sociology. Her husband, Richard Gordon, is also an experienced China specialist. Together with a team of scholars and participants, they sorted through hundreds of hours of footage dating back to the 1920s, and thousands of photos and posters. One result was the creation of the most complete archive on the events of 1989 in China ever assembled.
Logistics were astoundingly complex, not merely for obtaining footage (CNN, says Richard Gordon, was “just a nightmare to deal with”) but for shooting and researching in China. Only by playing one bureaucrat off another, and by conducting clandestine interviews, were Hinton and Gordon able to complete their labors in China with such success. Indeed, they were so amazed at the bravery of some dissidents still in China that they “pulled the plug” on several interviews which might have put the interviewee’s life and liberty in danger. Meanwhile, while the film was in progress, second-hand accounts of its content drew attacks from the dissident community, several of whom felt that the film went too easy on the Chinese government. It is precisely this ideological stiffness, on both sides, which the film criticizes, though its sympathies are clearly on the side of the protesters.
It is the material shot for the film, especially interviews with participants in exile, that is the most powerful. The heroes of Tiananmen are reserved and quiet, gentle people with small, soft voices. Who could have believed that they could topple a mighty edifice like the Chinese ruling regime, with all its iron strength? We see the activists as leaders in their new homelands, but we also sense a strong feeling of displacement and loss as they tell us of their lives since 1989. How much stronger would their own country’s heart beat if their blood were still in China’s veins?
Like his good friend, director Alain Resnais, Marker, who was born in 1921, remembered the ideological inconsistencies and bloody paradoxes of the Vichy years with special clarity. Marker was a youthful fighter with the Resistance; some reports of Marker’s shadowy past even have him parachuting behind German lines with American Rangers. After the war, Marker began a career as a writer, but his experiences during the war had made him a committed, if nondogmatic, Marxist. His work as a journalist, a poet, a novelist, and an essayist was united by a concern for the fate of man, and a suspicion of established ideologies of all stripes. In the yeasty politics of France in the 1950’s, Marker’s was a strong voice on subjects such as Algeria, Indochina, and de Gaulle. It was natural that this renaissance man would eventually turn to the cinema, and it was here that he produced perhaps his most subtle and critical essays as a documentarist. Beginning with OLYMPIA 52, Marker made two dozen medium-length documentaries, including the celebrated CUBA SI! (1961), LA JOLIE MAI (1963), and SANS SOLEIL (1982).
Although he had been an early confidant of Francois Truffaut, Marker had none of Truffaut’s romantic optimism, and unlike another New Wave colleague, Jean Luc-Godard, rejected the fiction film as site for social critique. LA JETEE was Marker’s only fiction film, and it is only barely that. Marker edits still photographs together in a searing parable of love amid the ruins. The Vichy legacy of collaboration in Nazi horrors weighs heavily on Marker’s mind, as it did on Alain Resnais in his HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR and NIGHT AND FOG. It won the prestigious Prix Jean Vigo, named in honor of the director who was in many ways the New Wave’s patron saint.
Marker’s varied background as a writer allows him in LA JETEE to write a persuasive essay on the human condition in tragic verse, a war remembered simultaneously in personal and social terms. Like certain of the works of Marguerite Duras and Simone de Beauvoir, LA JETEE finds in the experiences of World War II not a safe recollection of ancient history, but a fearful prediction of future agonies both of the soul and the body politic.
Les Visiteurs du Soir
After its whirlwind defeat of the French Army in 1940, the Germans introduced an array of bureaucracies to its new colonial cinema, bewildering even by French standards: films now had to pass through five separate reviews before the cameras could roll. Then, the completed film had to pass both German and Vichy censors. All shooting had to be done in the Occupied Zone. Wood, plaster, paint, canvas, fabric, rubber, gas, heating oil, cameras, lights, actors, money; everything was rationed, restricted, drafted, or simply unavailable for the duration. To make a film under Vichy required an act of extraordinary will, as well as the devious skills of the ferret and the pack rat. Performers and crew members alike were sent scouring the streets of France’s cities for scrap lumber and black market supplies.
LES VISITEURS DU SOIR, an epic period fantasy, would have taxed the resources of the peacetime French cinema. But now, in the middle of a war . . . Carné’s first look at the script made him turn pale: “The script contained nothing but banquets, hunts and tourneys . . . How could I manage, during a time of such scarcity and poverty, such extravagances as the script entailed?” But of course, he did manage, and the story of the making of LES VISITEURS DU SOIR is, like the film itself, an allegory for determination in the face of daunting odds.
The look of the film was inspired by the stylized medievalism of the tapestry Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. But the sumptuous world of the Duc de Berry was hundreds of years away from the grim, depressing realities of a cold Vichy spring, when the production began in April 1942, with exteriors on the Cote d’Azur. The Nazis seemed to have brought unseasonable weather with them, and rain delayed the shooting for 21 days. Hard to come by studio space in Paris had been rented in advance, and the company rescheduled most of the exteriors. But when they returned, a drought had blasted the south of France: Carné remembered, “I had left a countryside green with high grass and young spring sprouts. I returned to a devastated scene, burnt by the sun to yellowish-red, with not a single blade of grass.” Carné’s solution was typically expansive: he had sod imported to the location. Still, the constricted exterior shooting schedule helped to give the film its ethereal, even otherworldly studio-bound feel, a look the French call vas clos, like a world under glass.
Getting in out of the weather did not end LES VISITEURS DU SOIR’s Occupation-related problems. The chemicals used to keep the paint and plaster on the sets was unavailable, so blobs of moisture formed on the walls, and the actors left footprints in the paint on the floor. It took time to devise solutions, but in the meantime, a more organic problem had developed. The Germans were then looting France of its foodstuffs. The hungry extras on the film, among them future director Alain Resnais and actress Simone Signoret, could not be fed by the company. Carné noticed that they were snatching the edible props laid out for the banquet scene: “No sooner had the pewter server been filled with a pyramid of fruit than the pieces of fruit disappeared.” Carné mounted production assistants as guards, but it was no use; they were hungry, too. In desperation, he announced that the fruit had been injected with carbolic acid. And the film’s hunt scenes had to be improvised, because the countryside was empty of any edible game. In the end the production rented horses from the national guard, but if you look carefully, you see that the hunting dogs are “Vichy hounds,” scrawny and cadaverous.
The film was in production as the Germans began rounding up French Jews, with the enthusiastic help of the Vichy puppets. Jacques Prevert, Carné’s collaborator, was a Jew. He was kept out of the hands of the Nazis through various subterfuges, the same sort of creative thinking that allowed Carné and Prevert to devise a scenario which criticized fascism with such exquisite indirection that it did not know it had been assaulted by brave artists.
The true majesty of LES VISITEURS DU SOIR lay in its essential optimism. Marcel Carné and Jacques Prevert had been responsible for the poetic hopelessness of prewar masterpieces QUAIS DES BRUMES (1938) and LA JOUR SA LEVE (1939). Now, at the very moment when France’s democratic destiny was most cruelly compromised both from within and without, Carné and Prevert created a story in which the devil (Hitler? The Germans?) sends two emissaries (the German army?) to instill fear and distrust at a medieval court. Instead, the emissaries are compromised by love. The devil storms at them, attacks them in their pitiful humanity, but in the end . . . Could it be that France herself, wondered Carné in an allegory subtle enough to pass beneath the gaze of the Vichy literalists but clear enough to cheer beleaguered French audiences, could it be that France herself could not be turned to stone by fascism?
Director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s meditation on loss and grief has a lush, classical visual style, in the manner of the titans of Japan’s cinematic tradition. The film, which was shot only in natural light, won the film the Best Cinematography Award for its director of photography, Masao Nakabori, at the Venice Film Festival. Other awards at the Chicago Film Festival, and ecstatic responses at the New York, Toronto, Vancouver, Berlin, Istanbul, and Hong Kong festivals made it a consensus: MABOROSI was a disciplined, elegant film by a director waging a quiet revolution in film storytelling. Critics such as Dave Kehr praised Kore-eda as a worthy successor to Hitchcock, Griffith, and Antonioni, and it is easy to see why. Nakabori and Kore-eda conspire to render interior monologue, even thought itself, in a novel, dramatic way. Their contribution to film language makes them proper heirs to Kurosawa, Ozu, and Mizoguchi.
Based on a short story by Teru Miyamoto, MABOROSI is a tragic but cathartic story of love and remembrance. The misty dream with which the film begins presents the film as a story of eternal return. It is a premonition that hangs over the life of a young wife, “Yumiko” (Makiko Esumi), who will shortly see her grandmother’s cryptic warning come to pass. Her family will be shattered, and her sanity threatened. Her attempts to regain the footings of logic and normalcy will be constantly frustrated, her desire to reintegrate the shards of her consciousness thwarted. When her home in Osaka and its memories become too painful, her attempts to escape only make it seem as if she is caught in a maze of her own making.
The film’s title means “mirage” in Japanese, and the film unfolds as a curious blend of reality and the almost-real, a flow of predictions, dreads, and hopes. Images keep coming back to haunt Yumiko, and the viewer: a man on a bicycle, a train on a bridge . . . They all seem to rhyme with Yumiko’s loss, to multiply it in her mind. Through Yumiko’s eyes we gaze out on the spare Japanese countryside, and see those about her try to comfort her and ease her transition into a new life. But we also understand her abstraction, her distance, for we see the world as she does, as a spectacle to which she is an interested observer, not a participant. Gradually, the film turns a fear of death into a strange longing for oblivion, as we watch Yumiko fade from connectedness with the outer world into a peaceful yet forbidding interior landscape.
Dinner at Eight
Selznick may well have been duped by the conniving Mayer, who liked to refer unctuously to his employees as “the MGM family.” Selznick sought to be released from his contract, but Mayer remained firm. Selznick went into a deep depression: “All [my] past accomplishment. . . is wiped out. . .any appreciation of the future. . . is impossible because I am not an executive here. . . by right of six or seven years of struggle. . .but a relative here by right of marriage. . . .” As he wrote later, “I saw no alternative except to try to make some fine pictures that would, in part, regain for me the position in the industry I had lost through joining MGM.” He set out to do that with DINNER AT EIGHT, based on the smash Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman hit of the previous Broadway season. Selznick had always been pugnacious, and now, he courted direct comparison with Thalberg by borrowing Thalberg’s “galaxy” approach of placing multiple stars in large prestige productions for DINNER AT EIGHT, a philosophy which had worked perfectly in 1932’s GRAND HOTEL, a Thalberg production. Selznick upped the ante: there were ten major parts in DINNER AT EIGHT. John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Marie Dressler, Lee Tracy, Jean Harlow, Edmund Lowe, Madge Evans, Jean Hersholt, and Billie Burke were the marquee names in the cast. (Selznick’s only disappointment in casting was his failure to secure the services of Clark Gable for the part eventually played by Lowe. Mayer felt Gable was too ‘manly’ for the part.) Still, disaster seemed to stalk the young producer, who feared failure as much as others fear death. In March, 1933, as the film was beginning production, an earthquake struck Hollywood. Several companies, including Warner Brothers’ GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933, were shooting that day, and footage of shaking sets and screaming extras was recorded by cameras all over town.) Then, actress Billie Burke’s husband, legendary showman Florenz Ziegfeld, died while shooting was in progress after a lingering illness.
But ‘the Selznick touch’ turned out to be every bit as remarkable as ‘the Thalberg touch.’ Cukor’s direction was surehanded and elegant, bringing out the hissing ironies in every relationship, and the malignant pathos in every character. John Barrymore, as the ham actor who can’t even stage his own death well, mercilessly burlesqued himself: when George Bernard Shaw visited the set, Barrymore purposely overacted so Shaw could get an eyeful of Cukor disciplining him. The film ran on a crackerjack schedule even for its time: Selznick and his director, George Cukor, saw to it that DINNER AT EIGHT was completed in only 24 days, at a total cost of only $287,000. The film brought in over
But even then, in order to secure the services of Clark Gable to play Rhett Butler, Selznick had to return to Mayer, who still owned Gable’s contract. The cost was high; the right to distribute Selznick’s masterpiece, and much of the profits. This lost share of GONE WITH THE WIND money would haunt Selznick for the rest of his life, as he speculated on the other projects it could have seeded. Even in his greatest moment, then, Selznick remained in bitter thrall to a father figure he could not seem to appease, and to a shaky belief in his own abilities.
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