Sunday, May 31, 2020

The Murder of Fred Hampton (Howard Alk, 1971)

The Murder of Fred Hampton has never felt more relevant. It serves as a document of the late 1960s, but it is impossible not to draw comparisons between the film’s representation of the Black Panther Party, which started as a way to fight police brutality towards young Black men, and today’s Black Lives Matter movement, sparked by police shootings of African American youth.

A group of independent filmmakers in Chicago, fashioning themselves as The Film Group, set out to profile Chairman Fred Hampton, the charismatic, 21-year-old leader of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, and ended up documenting the last nine months of his life. During production, in the early morning of December 4, 1969, Hampton’s apartment and Party hangout was raided by officers assigned to State’s Attorney Edward V. Hanrahan. During the ensuing assault, Hampton and Mark Clark were killed and four others wounded. As the film goes on to argue, the raid was unlawful and Hampton’s death was, in effect, an assassination.

The Murder of Fred Hampton is not just exceptional for the investigation it presents. It shows a fuller portrait of a misunderstood political movement that was simplistically reduced, by its critics and the media, as one solely devoted to violent militancy. Instead of that narrative, we see the attempts of the Black Panthers to better their neighborhoods through socialist initiatives. Viewing this film today feels like a rediscovery of the legacy of the Black Panther Party and the movement to try to create a coalition of all races, not just African Americans. Hampton reframed the Party’s slogan of “Power to the People” to “All power to all people.” Words still valuable today. --Eastman Museum

Saturday, May 30, 2020

No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger (David L. Weiss, 1968)

On April 4, 1967, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. took the pulpit at Riverside Church in Manhattan and made his strongest denunciation yet of the Vietnam War; a year later to the day he was assassinated in Memphis. King does not appear in David Loeb Weiss’s “No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger” but this searing 1968 documentary feature is informed by both events.

Restored by Anthology Film Archives and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, “No Vietnamese” is a historical document with contemporary relevance. This weekend it will be shown twice at Anthology in a terrific 16-millimeter print.

The film alternates between footage taken on April 15, 1967, at the Spring Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam march in New York, which King addressed, and interviews with three Vietnam veterans, filmed less than a month after King’s death. “I’m a man without a country,” one of the interviewees quotes a fellow G.I. as saying, having been radicalized by his war experience.

According to its organizers, the New York mobilization attracted 400,000 marchers. (The police and The New York Times estimated between 100,000 and 125,000.) Weiss and his crew followed the 1,500-strong Harlem contingent, led by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee chairman, Stokely Carmichael, with whom King had to be persuaded to share a platform. Carmichael’s black power position is clear when his followers refuse to let a white Harlem resident join the march.

The filmmakers stand in for the white power structure, eliciting all manner of frank comments from marchers and onlookers: “Why should we fight for you? You got it all.” Intermittently, the three G.I.s give detailed testimony regarding the Army’s pervasive inequality. One who studied to be an air traffic controller at a Southern base was banned from his squad’s graduation party; once in Vietnam he was assigned to be a driver, but when he complained he was sent into the field. All three men — Dalton James, Preston Lay Jr. and Akmed Lorence — were radicalized, expressing alienation from the Army and identification with the Vietnamese.

The movie is alive with incidents. Several youthful observers of the march, followers of Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam, disdainfully tell the filmmakers that, as Muslims, they don’t need to demonstrate (“We respect the government”) while, several blocks along, in front of a tavern, people enjoy a spring afternoon ragging on the war as the Supremes blast out of the jukebox. In Midtown, the irate white counter-demonstrators include members of the National Renaissance Party, bedecked with crypto-fascist imagery like swastikas and “Bomb Hanoi” pins, coolly explaining their nativist ideology.

The filmmakers give the G.I.s the final word. One, who suffers from a stutter, becomes increasingly eloquent as he grows more militant. It’s almost a metaphor. The movie ends with a long, seemingly extemporaneous speech which, as passionate as it is lucid, another vet analyzes the situation of American blacks with a mounting fury, challenging the camera: “How can you tell me it’s too much to ask to be a human being?”

Weiss, who died in his early ’90s in 2005, was born in Warsaw and immigrated to the United States as a child. He was, among other things, a founding member of the Socialist Workers Party and a proofreader for The New York Times; he rode the rails during the Depression and, well into his 50s, studied filmmaking at New York University, recruiting his crew among his fellow students. (Michael Wadleigh, who later directed “Woodstock,” is one of the cameramen.)

“No Vietnamese” was shown at the 1968 New York Film Festival as part of a sidebar devoted to “Film-makers on New Life-Styles.” It seems never to have had a commercial opening, at least in New York, but was shown widely at colleges and G.I. coffee houses. The movie’s title, itself a potent form of political enlightenment, was taken from the printed placards that the SNCC marchers carried — although the sentiment is so closely associated with Muhammad Ali, who refused induction into the Army on April 28, 1967, but never actually said it, that some assumed that Weiss’s movie was about Ali. It’s not but it also packs a wallop. --NYT

Friday, May 29, 2020

Tombs of the Blind Dead (Amando de Ossorio, 1973)

The slow motion of horses streaming through the early dawn, the light breaking slightly on the horizon, but it offers no succor from the inexorable march of the Templars. This is a horror film that inspires dirges of doom metal: the tombs creaking with malevolence, the chanting, ethereal demonic voices from beyond the grave, dark and baleful rituals threatening to commune with the Devil. There's a pulsing red neon light, but it can't save you from the slow grasp of evil. A sentinel army of mannequins echoing the blind dead themselves. The cold wind bites and embraces in equal measures just as the skeletal hands that reach across time to seal your doom. The tattoo of hooves as they gallop towards your obliteration. --Letterboxd 

Thursday, May 28, 2020

To Be or Not to Be (Ernst Lubitsch, 1942)

I had never fully gauged how much I associated the films of Ernst Lubitsch with the very notion of civilization until an evening in the immediate aftermath of the attacks of September 11. The occasion was a dinner in Paris, at the home of a French poet and his Italian wife; and it was through her graceful stewarding of the conversation that it turned away from the events of the day—and the unavoidable mood of shock, grief, anxiety, and disorientation—toward, of all things, Lubitsch. She had recently seen a screening of Angel (1937), and as we began to discuss the film in detail, and as memories of other Lubitsch films came welling up, I began to feel a gratitude to Lubitsch that was profound and personal, as if the emotional qualities he had embodied in his art possessed, even in mere recollection, the sort of healing power more commonly associated with the tombs of saints.

He had made a world of elegant illusions, of luxuries and pleasures savored by being transformed into metaphorical wit (the “Lubitsch touch”)—a parallel place that, at any time, might well be the place where one would rather be—but there was nothing flimsy or casual about it. The illusion was acknowledged to be an illusion by the characters themselves, and that acknowledgment made it real. Nowhere did this realness become more apparent than in To Be or Not to Be (1942), where for once he dared to pit the inhabitants of his world, living on wishful reverie and theatrical sleight of hand, against forces of real destruction. Jack Benny against the Nazis? A farce set in occupied Warsaw? Jokes about concentration camps? The Gestapo itself foiled by an elegant web of implausibilities? The victory that he permitted his creatures was the victory of art over life, and it was possible only as long as he did not compro­mise his own art in the least. It is not surprising that a good many critics and viewers at the time found the movie tasteless and inappropriate. The ever-astute Bosley Crowther of the New York Times intoned: “Frankly, this corner is unable even remotely to comprehend the humor.”

If only the film had been a bit more sentimental, the jokes might have gotten by; comic relief was something understood and accepted, and indeed was to become the bane of many a wartime melodrama. But To Be or Not to Be did something rare, then or at any time, by interweaving farce and disaster in such a rigorously structured fashion as to elicit, in the very same scenes, genuine anxiety and a hilarity so acute that it has something like an ecstatic kick. For many, myself included, it is close to being the funniest film ever made, featuring Carole Lombard in her last and greatest performance (she would be killed in a plane crash before the movie opened) and Jack Benny in the only film role that did justice to his comic genius. But at every step, it keeps plainly in view—just offscreen, and detectable even in the comic buffoonishness of Sig Ruman’s Colonel Ehrhardt—the possibility of real terror, real soul-destroying cruelty, real suffering. The fear is real, and even though each emerging danger is deflected by the most ingenious comic solution, another danger soon enough takes its place.

The story line of To Be or Not to Be is attributed to Lubitsch’s old acquaintance Melchior Lengyel, one of those Hungarians whose dramaturgical contraptions the director found so indispensable as a point of departure for his own inventions. (Lengyel had previously appeared in the credits of Lubitsch’s Forbidden Paradise, Angel, and Ninotchka.) It is hard to say how much the story matters here, since everything depends on the manner of the telling. As scriptwriter, Lubitsch enlisted not a previous collaborator, such as Samson Raphaelson or Billy Wilder, but the playwright Edwin Justus Mayer, author of the critically admired, commercially disastrous play Children of Darkness (1930), a work too literary for a Broadway hit and too dark, with its story of condemned prisoners in eighteenth-century London, for the comedy it was meant to be. To Be or Not to Be differs sufficiently from any other Lubitsch film that it seems fair to grant Mayer a decisive role in shaping its pointed style.

Almost no line of dialogue is without a barbed secondary impli­cation; jokes comment knowingly on the jokes that preceded them, adding elements of ironic awareness too discreetly and rapidly for a single viewing to suffice. “I thought you would say that,” says Benny’s Joseph Tura (impersonating the turncoat Professor Siletsky) to Gestapo commander Colonel Ehrhardt when the colonel comes up with precisely the same remark that Tura impro­vised when impersonating Colonel Ehrhardt in conversa­tion with the real Professor Siletsky. Earlier, Lombard, as Tura’s wife, Maria, rattles off examples of how her husband is always trying to take credit for everything, concluding: “If we should ever have a baby, I’m not sure I’d be the mother.” Benny’s even funnier comeback—“I’m satisfied to be the father”—subverts Produc­tion Code niceties neatly but is often missed because audiences are still laughing at Lombard’s impeccably delivered speech.

Not to suggest that anyone but Lubitsch could dominate a Lubitsch production. As Robert Stack, who plays the love-struck young Polish aviator Lieutenant Sobinski, remarked: “He was a Renaissance man. He could do it all. He was an actor, a writer, a cameraman, an art director. He did not allocate responsibility.” In To Be or Not to Be, he seems to deliberately challenge the stylistic and emotional equilibrium of his earlier work, as if to see how much stress it can take. By way of preparing the audience for what is in store, he lays down from the start a pattern of deception and reversal. We see Hitler walking the streets of prewar Warsaw; a moment later, we are given Jack Benny in the role of a Gestapo officer—something so shockingly unexpected that Benny’s own father, unprepared, walked out of the theater in disgust.

These first impressions are rapidly dissipated as we are made aware of having been drawn into a play within a play. But the structural game playing continues in different modes, as theatrical illusion is enlisted in the struggle against the Nazis, whose own grandiose brand of theatricality has a heavy-handed humorless­ness that will be successfully manipulated by Benny, Lombard, and the rest of their troupe of Polish actors. The genius of the film is that the actors do not work as a buoyant, Merry Men–style band of movie adventurers but as a squabbling assortment of egotists and grumblers who needle one another even in the midst of danger, ham actors (“What you are I wouldn’t eat,” Felix Bressart’s Greenberg tells Lionel Atwill’s Rawitch) who cannot resist padding their lines even when carrying out an undercover mission against the Gestapo. From first to last, this is a film about theater, weaving in countless notes on the perils and uneasy joys of improvisation and impersonation, and relishing with infinite affection the many shades of actorly vanity.

It is fascinating to contemplate To Be or Not to Be alongside that other great exposition of theatrical egomania, Howard Hawks’s Twentieth Century (1934), especially given the presence of Carole Lombard in each, giving two utterly different performances. With Hawks, the atmosphere is one of real madness, a self-absorption so relentless on the part of both Lombard and John Barrymore that it achieves a mood of unforgiving savagery. Nothing could be further from that nightmare than the vanity of Lombard and Benny in To Be or Not to Be, in which each indulges as the sort of illusion that makes life bearable, and that each in turn tolerates in the other. They are more, not less, human by virtue of their egotism, since neither evinces any desire to hurt. As the devil says to Don Ameche at the end of Heaven Can Wait (1943), Lubitsch’s next film: “We don’t cater to your sort here.”

Such is the concision of the screenplay that to summarize the plot of To Be or Not to Be—to relate precisely how it becomes necessary for Carole Lombard to promise to spend the evening with the traitorous Professor Siletsky to prevent him from betraying the Polish resistance movement, and for Jack Benny to impersonate in turn Colonel Ehrhardt and Siletsky (the real Siletsky having just been assassinated on the stage of Benny’s theater), to explain how Tom Dugan’s Bronski, the Hitler impersonator of the opening scene, finally gets his longed-for chance to play the part he has rehearsed for—would take nearly as long as the film. Nothing is wasted here, although much is repeated. In fact, the rhythm is built through the repetition of elements, the same scenes replayed with different actors, the same lines spoken again in different contexts.

Long acquaintance with To Be or Not to Be only makes more fascinating the skill with which these variations are worked: the title soliloquy itself, the joke about Hitler becoming a piece of cheese, the Shylock speech, the false beards and mustaches, not to mention the countless comic inflections given to “Heil Hitler.” That phrase almost becomes the leitmotif of the film; not only does Lubitsch turn it into a comedy line, he turns it into an array of quite distinct comedy lines, having already kicked the film off with Bronski’s hilarious entrance as Hitler in the Tura company’s never-to-be-performed play Gestapo: “Heil myself.”

The bedroom farce that centers on Benny as “that great, great actor Joseph Tura,” Lombard as his wife, and Stack as her doting young admirer will not be resolved by the war that so jarringly interrupts it, merely deferred to a sequel we can only imagine, and for which the last shot sets us up. “It’s war!”: the Lubitsch comedy is disrupted, for once, by forces beyond its control. Left to follow its own course, it might have turned the film into a close variation on his previous picture, the only sporadically successful triangular comedy That Uncertain Feeling (1941). Under the circumstances, it goes underground, like the actors, but pops up at the most inopportune moments, as when Benny’s simmering jealousy nearly destroys the mission when, impersonating Colonel Ehrhardt, he takes advantage of the role to try to find out what Maria has been up to. The spark of inappropriate feeling gives him away to Professor Siletsky, and the mood suddenly darkens as Siletsky comes as close as the Production Code would allow to calling Tura’s wife a whore. The rules of discretion normally operative in Lubitsch comedy have been shattered by a character beyond civility and beyond humor.

Professor Siletsky is crucial to the film because he is the only character who is not funny. The other Nazis in the story can be fooled. Ruman’s magnificent Colonel Ehrhardt is a full-blown comical picture of evil—obsequious to superiors and tyrannical to underlings, lecherous and fatuously self-admiring, quick to bully and quicker to plead for mercy—and even his ending is played for comedy. Siletsky is a figure of real evil and has to be killed outright, with no jokes. Everything that surrounds him is in earnest, giving a particularly sharp edge to the scene in which Maria visits him in his hotel room to intercept his exposure of the Polish resistance network. As William Paul points out in a brilliant passage in his book Ernst Lubitsch’s American Comedy, the scene is full of echoes of Lubitsch’s 1932 Trouble in Paradise. There, Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall were two con artists, each vainly trying to con the other and finally falling in love. In To Be or Not to Be, all the elegance of that earlier seduction scene is reduced to a crude bit of sexual bargaining, with Maria playing for time by keeping the professor at bay.

Siletsky’s tired imitation of a suave seduction does indeed suggest that he saw Trouble in Paradise at some point and picked up a few line readings from Marshall, but just underneath that is brutal impatience and barely veiled contempt. The Nazi as would-be bon vivant comes out with lines like “In the final analysis, all we’re trying to do is create a happy world . . . Why don’t you stay here for dinner? I can imagine nothing more charming, and before the evening is over, I’m sure you will say, ‘Heil Hitler.’” There is no suggestion, however, that Siletsky has any ideological concerns other than being on the winning side. Where many Hollywood films would emphasize Nazi fanaticism, Lubitsch zeroes in on a more disturbing image of pragmatic calculation. Siletsky is an intruder in Lubitsch’s comic world, the voice of someone who has come to announce that the party is over.

It is precisely in this scene that Lombard’s playing reaches a giddy peak of exhilaration. She proves Maria Tura is a great actress because she’s sexiest at just the moment where we know she’s totally faking it; surely Siletsky will be captivated, because we certainly are. She brings to an impossible part—a Polish patriot prepared to sell out her country for a serving of oysters and caviar, a famous actress who finds the attentions of an aging Gestapo collaborator irresistible—all the invention and exuberance she can muster, spinning fresh revelations of flirtatious charm on the edge of the abyss to gain a little more time, right up to that final, breathless “Bye!” she whispers to Siletsky as she glides out the door.

I had a chance to experience the film’s power again not long ago, under circumstances peculiarly fitting, at an informal screening of it with other fellows of the American Academy in Berlin. The academy is situated in the Wannsee quarter, in a villa across the lake from that other villa where, at the Wannsee Conference of 1942, the administrative details of the Holocaust were ratified by Reinhard Heydrich, Adolf Eichmann, and others. The academy villa, formerly the home of a Jewish industrialist, was seized by the Nazi regime and became the residence of Hitler’s finance minister, Walter Funk. No one else attending the screening had seen the film before, and it was exhilarating to feel both their astonishment that this film had been made at all and their hilarity as it unfolded. All of us experienced an extra frisson from seeing it in an ornate library once allocated to a functionary of the Third Reich.

Hitler is said to have had a particular animus against Lubitsch, as a Berlin Jew who triumphed in the German film industry and then went on to further triumphs in Hollywood. Lubitsch’s face is used in the Nazi propaganda film The Eternal Jew (1940) as an archetype of corruption and depravity, employing footage of the director taken in Berlin on his last visit to his hometown, just six weeks before Hitler was sworn in as Reich chancellor. No filmmaker, indeed, is more immune to the appeal of martial and nationalistic grandiloquence. He is a heroic champion of the unheroic, a tailor’s son who sees in all variations of royal and aristocratic authority nothing more than an opportunity for humor, a defender of the small virtues of politeness and shared pleasure who managed, if not to wake from the nightmare of history, then at least to make a counterdream in its midst.

The vibrance of Lubitsch’s domain is in its freedom from contempt or triviality or easy escapism or indifferent sentimentalism—freedom, against all odds, from bitterness. We may well infer from his films a deep conviction that power, and fantasies of power, however disguised, are the poison of human existence, separated by a chasm from the venial and eminently forgivable flaws of ordinary lust and ordinary vanity. Lubitsch, of course, would never be so strident as to say so out loud. What he shows us is an illusion, but an illusion created from a refined consciousness of what the world is, with the aim of creating delight. In To Be or Not to Be, he achieved this even in the face of the darkest of shadows. In any situation, as Greenberg observes early on, “a laugh is not to be sneezed at.” --Criterion

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The Ipcress File (Sidney J. Furie, 1965)

A first-rate British spy thriller directed by Sidney Furie, The Ipcress File (1965) is based upon a novel by Len Deighton (the first and best of the spy films based on his novels; the others being Funeral in Berlin (1966) and Billion Dollar Brain (1967). It stars Michael Caine as Harry Palmer, a spy who was railroaded into his profession against his will. A talented thief, Palmer was caught stealing and offered a position as an undercover espionage agent, or face a stint in prison. Choosing the former, our hero finds himself assigned to a case involving a missing scientist. Harry's job is to locate the kidnappers and cut a deal with them to release their prisoner. Although he succeeds in rescuing the abducted scientist, the victim appears to have been brainwashed. This complicates matters further, forcing Palmer to locate and expose the kidnappers while trying to comply with the secret agenda of his superiors.

Producers Harry Saltzman and Albert "Cubby" Broccoli, the team behind the James Bond films, decided to move away from the escapist nature of the O07 series and create a more realistic espionage agent with Harry Palmer. Unlike Bond, Palmer doesn't battle superhuman villains nor does he have a set of fancy gadgets to help him out of trouble. Harry is a thinking man's Bond; a meticulous professional who uses his wits to get the job done, regardless of his personal feelings about his line of work.

As Harry Palmer - a complex and cerebral character - Caine delivers a terrific performance in his first major starring role, one that showcases his subtle wit and cynical nature. His performance earned him numerous critical accolades and he followed The Ipcress File with an even greater success - his portrayal of a predatory playboy in Alfie (1966); it won him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Interestingly, Caine was not the first choice for the role of Harry Palmer; that honor went to Christopher Plummer, but he turned the offer down to star in The Sound of Music (1965). Producer Saltzman had just seen Caine in a supporting role in Zulu (1964) and sensed his potential as an actor. When he happened to spot the actor eating dinner in a London restaurant just days later, he promptly offered him the role of Harry Palmer and gave him a seven-year contract!

Caine recalled the making of The Ipcress File in his autobiography, What's It All About?: Michael Caine: "In Ipcress we used the basis of Len's story but it fell to all of us, and me in particular, to create our own dialogue. Fortunately most of us were good at this and a lot of it turned out to be quite funny - but it was a nerve-racking way to play one's first starring role. Sid (Sidney Furie) also decided to shoot it as though the camera were someone else watching while hiding behind things. Thus there always seemed to be something between me and the camera, or else it would be very close and at an unusual angle, often shooting straight up my nose. Sid and Harry (Saltzman) had a lot of rows, with Harry's temper living up to its reputation. I sometimes feared that he would have a heart attack, while the rest of the unit were hoping that he would - Sid, in particular. The climax to all these rows came one day when we were on location in Shepherd's Bush, a rundown area of West London. The first I knew of it was when Sid came running round a street corner and knocked me flying. To my astonishment, I saw that he was crying. He stared at me for a moment and then screamed through his tears, 'F*ck it, I'm off this picture,' and with one bound jumped on a number 12 bus that was just pulling away from its stop, and disappeared in the direction of Oxford Circus." Luckily, Furie was coaxed back to the set and completed the picture. But that incident was just one of many that involved the volatile director. For example, Furie hated the script so much that on the first day of shooting he set fire to it on the set. At the same time, producer Harry Saltzman hated Furie's baroque framing technique so intensely that he had him barred from the editing room. Furie later claimed that the producer actually excluded him from the film's party at Cannes and even stole his Best Picture British Academy Award!

Yet, despite the ego clashes behind the scenes, The Ipcress File remains one of the most entertaining and influential films of the spy genre. And Furie's stylish direction and visual ingenuity (the exchange of prisoner and payoff in an underground parking lot, with machine-gun retainers moving in ritualized symmetrical patterns) created the patent for many of today's thriller cliches. --TCM

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Ugetsu (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953)

Often appearing on lists of the ten greatest films of all time, called one of the most beautiful films ever made, or the most masterful work of Japanese cinema, Ugetsu comes to us awash in superlatives. No less acclaimed has been its maker, Kenji Mizoguchi: “Like Bach, Titian, and Shakespeare, he is the greatest in his art,” enthused the French critic Jean Douchet; and not far behind were Jean-Luc Godard, who declared him “the greatest of Japanese filmmakers, or quite simply one of the greatest of filmmakers,” and the New York Times critic Vincent Canby, who extolled him as “one of the great directors of the sound era.” In other words, Mizoguchi belongs in the same exalted company as Jean Renoir, Orson Welles, Carl Dreyer, Alfred Hitchcock, Max Ophüls, Sergei Eisenstein, Robert Bresson, and Akira Kurosawa (who looked up to the older man as his master). This near unanimous reverence for both Ugetsu and Mizoguchi among world filmmakers and critics may be puzzling to the American movie-going public, for whom both names remain relatively unfamiliar. In order to understand what the fuss is about, we may need to take a step back from these superlatives, or at least put them in context.

Mizoguchi (1898–1956) began his career in the silent era and made dozens of fluent, entertaining studio films before arriving at his lyrical, rigorous visual style and patented tragic humanism, around the age of forty. His first masterworks were a pair of bitterly realistic films, made in 1936, on the subject of modern women’s struggles, Sisters of the Gion and Osaka Elegy. These breakthroughs led to the classic Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (1939), set in the Meiji era, about a Kabuki actor who stubbornly hones his craft with the aid of his all-too-sacrificing lover. In this film, Mizoguchi perfected his signature “flowing scroll,” “one shot–one scene” style of long-duration takes, which, by keeping the camera well back, avoiding close-ups, and linking the characters to their environment, generated hypnotic tension and psychological density. During the early 1940s, the director was hampered by the Japanese studios’ war propaganda effort, though he did make a stately, two-part version of The 47 Ronin. After the war ended, he turned to a series of intense pictures advocating progressive, democratizing ideals, which fell in with the occupation’s values while wobbling aesthetically between subtle refinement and hammy melodrama.

Then, in the 1950s, he regained his touch and created those sublimely flowing, harrowing masterpieces that represent the pinnacle of his directorial achievement: The Life of Oharu (1952), Ugetsu (1953), A Story from Chikamatsu (1954), Sansho the Bailiff (1954), New Tales of the Taira Clan (1955), and Street of Shame (1956). Except for the last, these pictures were all set in earlier times: Mizoguchi, drawing on Saikaku, Chikamatsu, and other classical writers, had become a specialist in the past, reinterpreting national history as much as, say, John Ford, and insisting, like Luchino Visconti, on accurate historical detail, borrowing props, kimonos, suits of armor from museums and private collectors. He attributed his fascination with traditional Japanese culture partly to his own relocation from Tokyo to the Kyoto area.

No doubt, some of Mizoguchi’s belated international renown (he won Venice Film Festival prizes three years in a row, for The Life of Oharu, Ugetsu, and Sansho the Bailiff) had to do with satisfying the West’s taste for an exoticized, traditional Japan. But he also fit the profile of the brilliant, uncompromising auteur (a perfectionist who would demand hundreds of retakes and move a house several feet to improve the vista). Also, his moving-camera, long-shot aesthetic exemplified the Bazinian mise-en-scène aesthetic that the young Cahiers du cinéma critics were championing, and anticipated the widescreen filmmaking of Michelangelo Antonioni, Miklos Jansco, Nicholas Ray, and others.

Mizoguchi engaged with the past not to recapture nostalgically some lost model of serenity but, if anything, to reveal the opposite. In preparing Ugetsu, he was drawn to sixteenth-century chronicles about civil wars and their effect on the common people. As a starting point, he and screenwriter Yoshikata Yoda adapted two tales from an eighteenth-century collection of ghost stories, Akinari Ueda’s Ugetsu monogatori (Tales of Moonlight and Rain), retaining much of the imagery while altering elements of the stories. The perennially dissatisfied Mizoguchi stressed in his notes to the long-suffering Yoda: “The feeling of wartime must be apparent in the attitude of every character. The violence of war unleashed by those in power on a pretext of the national good must overwhelm the common people with suffering—moral and physical. Yet the commoners, even under these conditions, must continue to live and eat. This theme is what I especially want to emphasize here. How should I do it?”

Ugetsu ended up concentrating on two couples. The main pair are a poor potter, Genjuro, who is eager to make war profits by selling his wares to the competing armies, and his devoted wife, Miyagi, who would prefer he stay at home with their little boy and not take chances on the road. (The acting between these two is beyond exquisite: the brooding Masayuki Mori, who played Genjuro, and the incomparable Kinuyo Tanaka, cast as his wife, were two of Japan’s greatest actors, though filmed by Mizoguchi in a determinedly unglamorous, non-movie-star way.) The second couple are a peasant, Tobei, who assists Genjuro in his trade but would rather become a samurai, and his shrewish wife, Ohama, who ridicules her husband’s fantasies of military glory. In this “gender tragedy,” if you will, the men pursue their aggressive dreams, bringing havoc on themselves and their wives. Still, the point is underlined that these men don’t want to escape their wives; they only want to triumph in the larger world, so as to return to their wives made into bigger men by boast-worthy adventures and costly presents.

Are we to take it, then, that the moral of the film is: better stay at home, cultivate your garden, nose to the grindstone? No. Mizoguchi’s viewpoint is not cautionary but realistic: this is the way human beings are, never satisfied; everything changes, life is suffering, one cannot avoid one’s fate. If they had stayed home, they might just as easily have been killed by pillaging soldiers. The fact that they chose to leave gives us a plot, and some ineffably lovely, heartbreaking sequences.

The celebrated Lake Biwa episode, where the two couples come upon a phantom boat in the mists, is surely one of the most lyrical anywhere in cinema. Edited to create a stunningly uncanny mood, it also prepares us for the supernatural elements that follow. The dying sailor on the boat is not a ghost, though the travelers at first take him for one; he warns them, particularly the women, to beware of attacking pirates, another ominous foreshadowing.

It is the movie’s supreme balancing act to be able to move seamlessly between the realistic and the otherworldly. Mizoguchi achieves this feat by varying the direction between a sober, almost documentary, long-distance view of mayhem and several carefully choreographed set pieces, such as the phantom ship. A particularly wrenching scene involves the potter taking leave of his wife and son: the pattern of cuts between the husband on the boat, moving off, and the wife running along the shore, waving, comes to concentrate more and more on her stricken, prescient awareness of what lies ahead (he, still having no idea, does not deserve our scrutiny). Later, the bestial behavior of the hungry, marauding soldiers coming upon the potter’s wife is shot from above, with a detached inevitability that makes the savagery more matter-of-fact, the soldiers pathetically staggering about in the background (an effect that must have inspired Godard and François Truffaut in their distanced shoot-outs).

Mizoguchi’s artistry reaches its pinnacle in the eerie sequences between Genjuro and Lady Wakasa. Bolerolike music underscores the giddy progression by which the humble potter is lured to the noble-woman’s house, is seduced by her, and experiences the ecstasy of paradise, only to learn that he has fallen in love with a ghost. Machiko Kyo, one of Japan’s screen goddesses, plays Lady Wakasa with white makeup that resembles a Noh mask and slithery movements along the floor like those of a woman fox. Interestingly, she seduces Genjuro as much with her flattery of his pottery as with her dangerous beauty. Previously, we have seen Genjuro (a surrogate for the director?) obsessed with his pot making, but it is only when Lady Wakasa compliments him on these objects, which she has been collecting, that he appreciates himself in this light, making the telling comment, “The value of people and things truly depends on their setting.” In so doing, he embraces Mizoguchian aesthetics, while she raises him from artisan to artist, putting them on a more equal social footing. Their love affair plays out in the rectangular castle of shoji-screened rooms, around an open courtyard, an architectural setting much more aristocratically formal than the village sequences. There is also a breathtakingly audacious shot that tracks from night to day, starting with the two of them in a bath together, then moving across a dissolve and an open field, to pick them up picnicking and disporting in the garden.

As Mizoguchi’s great cinematographer, Kazuo Miyagawa, stated in a 1992 interview, they used a crane 70 percent of the time in filming Ugetsu. The camera, almost constantly moving—not only laterally but vertically—conveys the instability of a world where ghosts come and go, life and death flow simultaneously into each other, and everything is, finally, transient, subject to betrayal. At her wedding to Genjuro, Lady Wakasa sings: “The finest silk / Of choicest hue / May change and fade away / As would my life / Beloved one / If thou shouldst prove untrue.” The camera’s viewpoint is always emotionally significant: we look down from above as Lady Wakasa leans over Genjuro to seduce him, as though to convey his fear and desire, while we are practically in the mud with Tobei as he crawls along on his belly, before witnessing his big break—the enemy general’s suicidal beheading, for which he will take credit.

Just as the camera’s image field keeps changing (without ever losing its elegantly apt compositional sense), so too do our sympathies and moral judgments shift from character to character. No doubt, Genjuro is right to want to escape the clutches of his ghostly mistress, yet she has given him nothing but happiness and is justified in feeling betrayed by him. Tobei is something of a clown, a buffoon, yet his pain is real enough when, puffed up with samurai vanity, he finds his wife working in a brothel. The complex camera movement that follows Ohama from berating a customer to stumbling upon the open-jawed Tobei, and the ensuing passage in which she struggles between anger, shame, and happiness at being reunited with him, demonstrate the way that this director’s compassionate, if bitter, moral vision and his choice of camera angle reinforce each other. Mizoguchi’s formalism and humanism are part of a single unified expression.

Perhaps the most striking instance of this transcendent tenderness comes toward the end, when Genjuro returns home from his journey, looking for his wife: the camera inscribes a 360-degree arc around the hut, resting at last on the patient, tranquil Miyagi, who we had assumed was dead, having seen her speared earlier. We are relieved, as is Genjuro, to see her preparing a homecoming meal for her husband and mending his kimono while he sleeps. On awaking, he discovers that his wife is indeed dead; it appears he has again been taken in by a woman ghost. The sole consolation is that we (and presumably Genjuro) continue to hear the ghost of Miyaki’s voice, as she watches her husband approvingly at his potter’s wheel, noting that he has finally become the man of her ideals, though admitting that it is a pity they no longer occupy the same world. One might say that Mizoguchi’s detached, accepting eye also resembles that of a ghost, looking down on mortal confusions, ambitions, vanities, and regrets. While all appearances are transitory and unstable in his world, there is also a powerfully anchoring stillness at its core, a spiritual strength no less than a virtuoso artistic focus. The periodic chants of the monks, the droning and the bells, the Buddhist sutras on Genjuro’s back, the landscapes surrounding human need, allude to this unchanging reality side by side with, or underneath, the restlessly mutable. Rooted in historical particulars, Ugetsu is a timeless masterpiece. --Criterion

Monday, May 25, 2020

The Drifting Classroom (Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1987)

I must remark that stuff of this vein is really -- filmically -- the only shit that scares me at all anymore. And its not only something about the immensity of inexplicable cosmic horror, but the strains of sentimentality and tonal discombobulation, the stilted English line delivery of smiling child actors as they are sucked into the unending swirl of an existentially horrifying alter-reality, the unease of Hisaishi's saccharine scoring and the acknowledged artifice of the rickety, yet imaginatively vast, visual effects. That clash between sweet and savage, massive and miniature, and the weirdness of the whole thing in general -- it just nestles under my skin in such a weird way. I was truly captivated by this, so despite its numerous and glaring shortcomings, I note that it has an uncompromising vision of that cosmic horror -- its culmination with the weird pseudo-philosophical coming-of-age monologue at the open-ended finale is a magnificent cluster of mixed emotions, an extravagant testament and faith in the spirit of humanity and its endless resiliency and forward momentum, and yet simultaneously this monumentally, hopelessly, vast and monstrous nightmare of inescapable otherworld.

I've been trying to see some other Obayashi for years. The complete lack of his filmography's availability in at least the United States is such a depressing annoyance. Having finally seen another piece of his its clear the maestro behind House had much more to offer beyond it -- this is both clearly a work of the same madness, and almost equally as rich and wild a film. --Jarrod White, Letterboxd

Sunday, May 24, 2020

The Prowler (Joseph Zito, 1981)

Not to be confused with Joseph Losey’s chilling masterpiece of the same name, Joseph Zito’s The Prowler benefits endlessly from the work of gore makeup guru Tom Savini, who provided the sliced arteries, gaping wounds, and sanguine floods that mark the film’s half-dozen death pieces. Having made his name with the deeply unsettling Maniac and the first installment of the Friday the 13th series, not to mention George A. Romero’s brilliant Martin, Savini was riding a wave of cred when he matched with Zito, a director who was then only known for Abduction, a barely watchable spin on the Patty Hearst kidnapping. The efficient and surprisingly well-shot slasher flick that Savini and Zito produced may not have reached its level of horror fandom—it is, not unfairly, considered a standard-bearer for the slasher genre—if not for the MPAA’s patently ridiculous damning of the film by leaving it unrated.

What gives? One can only speculate that the difference between Prom Night, which was released a year earlier with an R rating, and The Prowler was the general viciousness of the deaths in Zito’s work. Indeed, no fun-lovin’ teens in Prom Night ended up with a fatigues-clad psychopath pushing a blade through the top of their skull and down through the bottom of their chin. Barring instances of such heinous brutality (for the ‘80s, anyway), however, The Prowler and Prom Night share a very similar prime narrative, one that volleys between various comingling at a school dance and the dark fates that await those who stray from this wholesome gathering.

But like Prom Night’s prelude (featuring the mysterious death of a young girl due, partially, to a group of her supposed friends), The Prowler discerns its thematic and stylistic arc early on, 35 years before the current-day slaughter. A radio broadcaster heralds the return of our fighting men and women from stomping out the Nazi forces and ensuring our safety, even as they nurse their own psychological wounds. They deserve a good home-cooked meal, a hot shower, the comfort of their own bed, and, perhaps most importantly, the loving embrace of a loved one. But one nameless veteran is greeted only with a “Dear John” letter, signed by his sweetheart, Rosemary, and takes out his rage by kebabing a pair of lovers with a pitchfork. It isn’t until 1980 that the dance is revived and the absence of the town sheriff allows for a new string of grisly murders.

The slasher genre has visited precious few moments of sincere enlightenment upon the viewing populace: Halloween, the original Black Christmas, and the aforementioned Maniac would be the major works, and I hardly doubt there are more than two dozen in total. These films remain popular due mostly to the films that are made proficiently as far as gore theatrics, tone, and mood are concerned, and in these terms The Prowler is certainly deserving of its modest fan base. What the film lacks in narrative drive, coherence, and performance, it makes up with thoughtful lighting, strong cinematography from Raoul Lomas and an uncredited João Fernandes, and, of course, Savini’s lovingly overblown and impossible splatter effects. These might seem like minor facets in this sort of genre exercise, but they are scarce in the current incarnation of the slasher picture. If the recent updates of Prom Night and Friday the 13th are any indication, the most an audience can expect from these films is ringing ears since every (generally bloodless) death is accompanied by an orchestral shriek. After such monotony, one might even find nostalgia wading in the crimson gush that The Prowler so happily dishes out. --Slant

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Riot in Cell Block 11 (Don Siegel, 1954)

Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954) was conceived by producer Walter Wanger as both a highly personal movie and a major social plea to the American public. That it succeeded as both, while also existing on its own terms as a tough, fast-moving prison drama, stands as a testament not only to Wanger but to the superlative skills of writer Richard Collins and director Don Siegel.

Wanger was a prominent, long-time producer of such varied and excellent films as History is Made at Night (1937), Stagecoach (1939), Foreign Correspondent (1940), The Long Voyage Home (1940), Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman (1947) and The Reckless Moment (1949). In the early 1950s, he produced movies for Allied Artists, the "prestige" unit of low-budget Monogram that would soon take over the Monogram name altogether. He was also married at the time to movie star Joan Bennett (the star of The Reckless Moment). When he discovered that Bennett was having an affair with her agent, Jennings Lang, Wanger confronted them in a parking lot and shot Lang in the groin, in one of the biggest Hollywood scandals up to that point. Wanger pled temporary insanity and was sentenced to four months in prison, ultimately serving 98 days.

Even though he served his time in a minimum-security institution, Wanger was so appalled by his experience--and by the idleness and humiliation he saw imposed on other criminals--that he decided he would make a picture that exposed prison conditions as a societal ill. The result was Riot in Cell Block 11, which drew enormous publicity when it was released and indeed got the country talking about prisons. The picture still packs a wallop not least because the topic of prison reform remains relevant today.

The key quality of this film is authenticity. It's present in everything from the setting to the visual style and even the cast, all in the service of themes that resonate with moral questions. Shot at a cost of $225,000 in an unused ward at California's Folsom State Prison, the movie starts with a narrated, documentary-style prologue that bleeds into scripted drama, a device that does well to set up the reality of the situation. Russell Harlan's crisp cinematography goes on to emphasize the geography of the prison grounds while characters run down corridors and interact with walls, doors and gates. As shot, these objects all give off a sense of visceral solidness, adding to the feel of realism. Further, the visual energy created by all the running and rioting gives the audience an impression of overall violence, even though the movie is actually surprisingly low on explicit carnage.

The story basically centers on the tension between prisoners who have revolted against their guards, and the warden and his army of men who face off against them. But the morality of the situation is not so simple. The prisoners want guarantees of reforms that the warden has previously asked of his superiors, to no avail. The demands seem reasonable. But are the prisoners' methods reasonable? Can they really be blamed? Richard Collins's screenplay also explores the shifting levels of power that various characters command throughout the story. There are equally reasonable and unreasonable people on both sides, from simpleton foot soldiers to more thoughtful leaders, and while this may sound overly schematic, it actually doesn't feel like the film is trying too hard to present both sides as good and bad. Instead, it all feels logical and credible.

The cast is a fascinating mix of actors, real prisoners, and in the case of Leo Gordon, both! Gordon had actually served time in Folsom for armed robbery. More recently, he had embarked on what would become a long screen career. But the Folsom Prison warden did not trust him and was so concerned by his presence that he forced Gordon to enter the prison each shooting day not with cast and crew but through a separate entrance where he would be subjected to an extra-careful search. He plays (superbly) the aptly-named "Crazy Mike Carnie." In the role of prisoner ringleader James Dunn is a perfectly cast Neville Brand, and playing the warden is the durable character actor Emile Meyer. Backing them up are an assortment of tough-guy actors of the era and even some real-life prisoners. Director Siegel later recalled, "I didn't know our hired prisoners from the real ones."

Even though the idea for the film sprang from Wanger's own incarceration, the events depicted are specifically based on a 1952 riot in Michigan's Jackson State Prison. Newsreel footage of that very riot begins the film. --TCM

Friday, May 22, 2020

Winter Light (Ingmar Bergman, 1963)

Ingmar Bergman’s most engrossing and challenging films of the 1950s and ’60s invariably explored the ultimately disappointing conflicts between men and women. And yet, the most emblematic image from his entire work is that of the medieval Knight, Blok, confronting the figure of Death on a deserted beach in The Seventh Seal (1957). The international success of that film contributed to Bergman’s substantial – and somewhat undeserved – reputation as a troubled Believer in God and as an artist searching for some meaning to life.

At a deeper level, this agitated groping after an undisclosed Truth was actually closer to a philosophical inquiry for Bergman, however clumsy, toward a compromise with the irreconcilable aspects of experience – the gratifications and frustrations of desire, happiness and despair, pleasure and pain. And if Bergman’s compromises seem more than a little bleak, it is thanks to his troubled faith that we have a few of the greatest films ever made.

In Swedish, Winter Light is known as Nattvardsgasterna (The Communicants). The reason for this is made explicit by the first 12 minutes of the film, which presents us with a Holy Communion service in its entirety. Bergman uses the service, which is the ritual sharing of the body and blood of Christ, to reveal subtleties of character. In an extremely plain, stark church, made even more remote in place and time by shots of the slate-grey weather outside, we are introduced to the “communicants”: an average-looking young couple (a very pregnant woman who looks straight ahead at us and a tall man beside her who stares nervously at the stones in the church floor); a hunchback who sings the hymns quietly but who follows the service word for word in his prayer book; a rather frumpish, bespectacled woman gazing distractedly at the pastor. One by one they come forward to partake of the bread and wine, stand-ins for the body and blood of Christ supposedly sacrificed for their sins – devoutly, anxiously or greedily, further elaborating Bergman’s emphasis that each of these people derives something different from the service.

As subsequent scenes reveal to us, the pastor is Tomas Ericsson, suffering from the flu and a sudden, devastating loss of faith. The young couple are fisherman Jonas Persson and his wife Karin. The hunchback is Algot Frovik, living on his disability cheques and a small stipend from the church. The frumpish woman is Marta, who has been Tomas’ mistress for two years. Each of them wants a piece of Tomas, either for solace or encouragement or love. And poor Tomas, who cannot break through “God’s silence”, has nothing left to give to any of them.

The remainder of the film represents three hours in the lives of these people, as Tomas tries to fend off their demands on his time and faith and journeys to an even smaller and more remote church for the three o’clock service. And along the course of Tomas’ passage through his dark day of the soul, he somehow finds a reason to continue, to intone the same words of his presiding ritual to a church empty but for his mistress, who is only there to worship him and not the symbols on the altar. At the last, Bergman offers no consolation for Tomas’ troubled faith, except perhaps the persistence of habit, of a ritual devoid of meaning except as a simple enunciation of pain.

Winter Light was the second part of what became known as a trilogy of “chamber films”, along with Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and The Silence (1963). Of the three, Winter Light comes closest to the description – a true chamber piece for two or three instruments, Pastor Tomas, Marta, Jonas. And though drastically drained of tangible human content, it at least puts us in the company of people instead of symbols in a dramatic exercise. Vernon Young summed up the film succinctly: “Winter Light concerns the faith problem of a visibly human and fully dimensional pastor in north Sweden involved in a despairing struggle not only with his belief but with a woman he can’t love who loves him."

The exterior shots of a bitterly cold, lifeless world reinforce the sense that these people live in an uninhabitable world, not hospitable even to a bird. Sven Nykvist experimented with much low-angle direct lighting to capture the peculiarly northern look of daylight that is actually a prolonged twilight between a late dawn and an early dusk – the sun unable to reach far enough above the horizon to illuminate latitudes that have effectively “gone under” for a prolonged sleep.

Technically, the film is flawless – no single shot could be removed without damaging the overall effect. It is as if Bergman assembled the raw materials to tell his story, as raw as he could make them, then placed them in front of Sven Nykvist’s camera with as little emphasis as possible. That said, the film contains three powerful performances – Gunnar Björnstrand’s lost and frail Tomas, Ingrid Thulin’s frustratedly loving Marta and Max von Sydow’s tormented Jonas. Bergman himself admitted in an interview:

I think I have made just one picture that I really like, and that is Winter Light. That is my only picture about which I feel that I have started here and ended there and that everything along the way has obeyed me. Everything is exactly as I wanted to have it, in every second of this picture.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Die Nibelungen: Siegfried + Kriemhild's Revenge (Fritz Lang, 1924)

According to consensus, Metropolis is the undisputed heavyweight champ not only of Fritz Lang’s filmography, but also of German silent cinema. Given how few of us are pressing for a general reappraisal of the silent canon, that’s unlikely to change, though a case can and should be made for Die Nibelungen. Such a case would, necessarily, wage an uphill battle against implications of infamy: Adapted from the epic poem Nibelungenlied, Lang’s two-part movie has a largeness that exceeds its own dimensions. It appeared at a time when the wounded pride of Germany was well on its way to becoming insular nationalism. Hitler, who would (through Goebbels) attempt to become one of Lang’s patrons, was said to have broken down and wept during Die Nibelungen. (A bowdlerized Siegfried was rereleased in 1933.) Thus, an epic which opens with the title card “Dedicated to the German people” alights on the timeline that connects Teutonic legend with the Shoah, beholden to the former and not unequivocally blameless for the latter. Lang, of course, was horrified by Hitler, taking flight to France when Goebbels offered him a chance to take charge of film production during the Third Reich. The same horror, compounded with the shape and sensation of a noose tightening around one’s neck, informed almost everything he made thereafter, until the end of his career.

But the legacy of Die Nibelungen as a Nazi touchstone is decidedly more circumstantial than instrumental. A more ill-fitting emblem of the Reich is inconceivable, if for no other reason than the second half (Kriemhild’s Revenge) spoils and razes the triumphant construction of Siegfried, inscribing a trajectory that voids any hypothesis for the eternal superiority of Aryan might (of which there’s scarcely any in Siegfried, in spite of Paul Richter’s macho poses), precognitively rendering the Nazi prophecy, the reign of a thousand years, in smoldering ashes. At the time, the public and the press tried to ignore Kriemhild’s Revenge, and treated Siegfried as a standalone masterpiece. Time and advanced viewership may allow us to better regard the two pieces as an even greater, and more terrible, work of art than Goebbels dreamt of in his philosophy.

The all-consuming fire returns, time and again, in the form of chemical plant conflagrations (The Testament of Dr. Mabuse) or pots of hot coffee (The Big Heat). Earth-shaking explosions are used again and again, with too many examples to name. Most significantly, Lang would return, on countless occasions, to the device of predestination—the frequently lethal compound structure of choices, inner nature, and the inexorable progress of events.

Everywhere in Lang is a picture-box image of crosshatched lines, meshed teeth, or foregrounds imposing and imprisoning backgrounds—or vice versa. In Die Nibelungen, the frames are filled with UFA’s most lavish set construction and wardrobe design, to a degree of splendor that rivals Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible series. As the budgets for Lang’s B movies were depleted over his final working decade, emptiness and despair needed no longer to be sublimated by theme, but were fully expressed by cadaverous, blank backgrounds and the final erasure of heroism as a substantive force. --Slant

I. Siegfried

II. Kriemhild's Revenge

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Vampyr (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1932)

Best known for his 1928 silent film masterpiece, La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, Danish director Carl Dreyer followed it with the 1932 release of Vampyr, a relatively early entry in the vampire film genre. Loosely based on the quasi-erotic short story thriller “Carmilla”, taken from J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s popular 1872 collection In a Glass Darkly, Vampyr is more than a mere horror film or genre film; it is a remarkable cinematic achievement that transcends such banal classifications and, in recent decades, has been widely recognised for its originality and depth. An ambiguous, cryptic, and at times mind-boggling hybrid of German Expressionist motifs and early horror film conventions, this eccentric film offers an original, and many would say unique cinematic perspective on the psychology of terror and the elusiveness of clarity, both existential and empirical.

Vampyr’s plot provides necessary scaffolding for the film’s rather free flowing, yet oddly consistent, surrealist imagery. The character Allan Gray (called “David Gray” in the English-language release) arrives at the remote and sparsely populated French village of Courtempierre. Smartly dressed in suit and tie and impeccably groomed, this obvious outsider stays at the nearby inn, where an intruder enters his room and cryptically utters, “she must not die”, before handing Gray a parcel with a note instructing that it not be opened until after the elder gentleman’s death. Shortly thereafter, he happens upon the castle-like chateau of the gentleman while literally chasing shadows (of those whose shadows have form and mobility independent of their corporeal sources, in one of the film’s most striking scenes), and discovers that the man’s teenage daughter is mysteriously ill. But any chance of conversation is cut short when a sniper’s bullet enters through the window and finds its target. Gray begins reading the book contained in the parcel, a history of vampire lore, and recognises the parallels between the book’s details and the strange behavior exhibited around him, including the girl’s mysterious illness. His suspicions are shortly confirmed when he and the girl’s older sister come upon the girl outdoors, splayed over a large rock as an androgynous crone bends over her upper torso and face; they watch in stunned horror as the crone raises her head from the ghastly task she has just completed, then disappears.

The subsequent dream-like sequence is considered by many viewers to be the film’s high-point. In a weakened state after contributing blood for the girl’s transfusion, Gray finds that his dream imagery, like the shadows earlier, has become manifest in the material world, or so it seems – the sequence of disorienting, disturbing images is ambiguously attributable to an imagined dream or a vivified psyche. Gray leaves himself sitting on a cemetery bench (convincingly rendered by way of double-exposure) and, entering a small workshop, discovers himself lying inside a coffin, eyes wide open and mouth agape. He watches from inside the coffin as the lid is sealed and it is transported to the cemetery, the upper stories of buildings and the tops of trees seen through the small window installed in the coffin lid. But upon arrival at the cemetery, he is found sitting on the bench where he had fallen asleep, and the two Grays are again fused. The plot wraps up straightforwardly at this point, as Gray and the gentleman’s household manager discover the evil crone lying undead in a nearby crypt; Gray then stakes her through the heart with a large and unmistakably phallic iron spike, and they watch as her body shrivels to mere skeleton. In a highly memorable and unusual scene of evil vanquished, the vampire crone’s assistant, a nefarious and devious village physician, attempts to escape the manager’s pursuit by running into a nearby mill, where he is improbably suffocated by several tons of milled flour suddenly released. Meanwhile, Gray and the attractive older sister head off together, holding hands as they enter a tree-lined, sunshine-filled meadow. But a brief shot of the mill’s huge gears, turning more slowly now that their job is done, is the film’s final image.

Vampyr was shot silent, with its rather awkward soundtrack added during post-production at the Klangfilm studio in Berlin. During location filming in France, Dreyer shot alternate takes of key scenes, in which actors spoke each of three separate languages – French, German and English – and using the German version as his base, he replaced the German with the English and French scenes and then overdubbed what remained. The sound does not match the actors’ lip movements at times in the French and English versions, owing to the fact that numerous scenes were shot in German only, though this effect is minimised by the film’s conspicuous dearth of audible speech, perhaps forty lines of discernible dialogue across the entire 65 or 75 minutes of narrative (available prints vary in length). The occasionally jarring and amateurish effects of the dubbed soundtrack – the assassin’s banjo playing and the dogs’ barking, for instance – are effectively offset by Wolfgang Zeller’s conventionally unifying music score, a separate track used in conjunction with all three versions. Despite the added sound, however, Vampyr has very much retained the look and feel of a silent film.

Cinematographers Rudolf Maté and Louis Née created a mood and tone that suits the film’s narrative, an unnerving and disorienting world where light and dark seem to operate outside of natural phenomena and where the characters’ interior thoughts and feelings are given external expression in the visuals that surround them. Eerie visuals, in black-and-white, are created through camera angles that convey a claustrophobic feeling, with low ceilings, narrow hallways, rooms of uneven yet universally crowded dimensions complemented by harsh lighting, shadows and darkness. It is not unlike the overall effect of Robert Wiene’s Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari (1919), which unnerves the viewer even as the film’s internal characters seem oblivious to the oddness of their surroundings. One can see antecedents of Vampyr’s imagery and lighting in German Expressionism (especially Caligari) and early surrealism (e.g., Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s Un Chien Andalou [1929]), as well as its influence upon later experimental narrative filmmakers such as David Lynch (Eraserhead, 1978). But Vampyr’s look, as well as its effects, are impressively and uniquely its own.

Despite the popularity of other early horror films such as F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) and Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931), Dreyer’s film was not well received at the time of its initial release in May 1932. The nearly universal condemnation of his efforts, both popular and critical, apparently drove Dreyer into a self-imposed exile from the film industry for over a decade (others argue that Dreyer’s reputation for being difficult turned off potential backers until he proved himself with a public-service short in 1942 called Good Mothers). He returned to commercial film with Day of Wrath in 1943, a harrowing tale of 17th century Danish witchcraft trials likewise greeted by an indifferent public and unimpressed critics when first released. Despite the critical drubbing that Vampyr received upon its initial release, the film is recognised today for its high level of artistic achievement and its original and provocative treatment of psychological themes, rendered by way of memorable, disturbing images and a masterful handling of narrative form. --Senses of Cinema