Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972)

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The making of Aguirre, The Wrath of God might be as rich in myth as the film itself which charts a semi-fictitious story of Francisco Pizarro’s expedition to discover the golden kingdom of El Dorado. Not only was it the beginning of director Werner Herzog’s notoriously stormy partnership with Klaus Kinski, but it was also shot entirely on location in Peru — a logistical nightmare in its own right.

Herzog purportedly penned the screenplay in a matter of days while riding the bus with his football club. Meanwhile, many of his resources including his camera and film stock had been purloined from Munich Film School years earlier as required tools of his trade.

In conception alone, it proves titillating as a piece of Spanish history from the point of view of a monk, Gaspar de Carvajal, traveling in a pioneering convoy led by the crazed adventurer Aguirre. But it is colonial history by way of West Germany circa 1972.

The opening images are some of the most breathtaking in the film or maybe in any film. We are instantly hooked as angelic tones herald from above and shrouds of mist engulf the mountaintops. Legions of men and natives weave their way down through the treacherous territory. It feels instantly recognizable.

Because I recall hiking up the side of a mountain one Christmas vacation with friends. As we wound our way up and I could see the edge and the drop off below, I realized rather matter-of-factly, “I really don’t like heights that much.” It comes with playing minds games. Caring too much about where you’re feet are and imagining yourself taking a false step and ending up in the chasm. Tossing some biodegradable object down there is certainly invigorating as it spirals down until you think to yourself that might just as easily be you.

Some of those same friends, more adventurous than me would actually go on to hike Macchu Pichuu the next year. Long story short I wasn’t available but I’m not sure if I would have joined the trip. Far from simply being a long-winded illustration of my cowardice or lack of adventurousness, I think it somehow makes sense in relation to the mesmerizing introduction of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God.

There are those same perilous heights presented here simultaneously awesome and equally harrowing. For good measure, we watch a container of what looks to be chickens dropped and go hurtling down to the rocks below with a crash. We half expect a couple of people to follow.

This trailblazing along the Amazon River totally embroils them in the muck and the mire. Slaves are seen clumsily carrying a cannon and a lady’s litter in the most forsaken of places. It’s absolutely ludicrous. Next, they tackle the rapids on hastily constructed rafts. If you’re prone to seasickness don’t even dare watch the sequence which is yet another instance of fully enveloping cinematography.

The camera spattered with water is continuously bobbing up and down enough to make even a viewer queasy. The incredulous thing is we are only an outside observer and yet we get impacted so. It becomes increasingly apparent Werner Herzog will readily allow himself to suffer for his art. Not just in this picture but from everything I know Fitzcarraldo (1982) too. He doesn’t fudge on any of the locations. Why do this to himself? Just look at the results for your answer.

Green screens, CGI, studio lots. None of those methods could give us anything half as real as this picture. They seem positively quaint and nondescript compared to the astounding atmosphere he’s able to capture. It’s the same authenticity here validating such laborious works as Apocalypse Now (1979) or The Revenant (2015).

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Meanwhile, Kinski totters around the space half like he’s drunk, the other half pure craziness. The film benefits by this razor-thin dividing line between fiction and reality not simply in its environment but also in its actors. He reminds me of the animal magnetism of Toshiro Mifune in a picture like Seven Samurai (1954). You can’t help but keep your eyes on him for the next unthinkable thing he’s about to do.

The weight of Kinski’s crazed performance comes mostly out of the fact that we constantly expect him to do something completely unhinged. He treads dangerously right on the precipice of sanity ready to jump at any moment. Furthermore, Herzog never leaves him alone. His face is constantly being examined time and time again because personal space is all but nonexistent.

Aguirre, The Wrath of God settles into a status quo that is far more pensive than I was expecting. The narrative is full of insurrection but more pervasive is the ever-present dangers suggested by negative space, undoubtedly swimming with stealthy savages. And the fear of the great unknown never ends.

People are killed or die with little fanfare. Those soldiers still living suffer from fever and malnutrition. Their king propped up by Aguirre is an oafish lout. In the figure of Caravajal especially one is further reminded of the oppressive guise Christianity took in this age like many others before and after. Outsiders come in with such a hypocritical superiority complex.

In the end, the only thing Aguirre commands is a raft swarming with monkeys, frankly one of the most indelible images in the film and a fitting point of departure. Though it’s mere coincidence, I watched Terrence Malick’s film Badlands (1973) recently. What it shares with Aguirre which is so captivating is this illusory quality. We have a framework of a conventional tale, in this case, an adventure into the dark murky depths of uncharted territory. And there are moments when we have mutiny, death, starvation, momentary battles but what sets it apart from anything else is the imagery.

Like Malick’s picture, it verges on the dreamlike in a way that is utterly hypnotic. The power is not so much in the excess of things happening one after another but in this continual, unswerving articulation of near monotonous insanity.  In both films, a certain kind of madness takes over and becomes the new status quo. Somehow Aguirre manages to be so immersive and yet leave us still feeling so detached at the same time. The descent into hellish depths is a shared experience, as much documentary as it is historical fiction. But it is also a hallucination.

4.5/5 Stars

NOTE: This is my entry in THE GREATEST FILM I’VE NEVER SEEN BLOGATHON hosted by MOON IN GEMINI!

 

Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2005)

sophieschollSophie Scholl: The Final Days is a film that people need to see or at the very least people need to know the story being told. For those who don’t know, Sophie Scholl was a twenty-something college student. That’s not altogether extraordinary. But her circumstances and what she did in the midst of them were remarkable.

It’s easy to assume that life under Nazi authority wouldn’t be so bad for Aryans, nationals, or the general public. But it just takes looking at a story like Sophie Scholl’s and her older brother Hans and that assumption quickly falls apart. Because their lives reflect an alternative to the master narrative, the kind of counter example that is often visible if you look hard enough.

You see, these two young people in solidarity with numerous others took a stand against the oppressive Nazi regime calling for passive resistance, the cessation of violence, and championing the ultimate worth of all people–even Jews and the disabled.

That was a radical departure and utter blasphemy in the face of the stringent rhetoric of the Nazi party. But so were the heady words that The White Rose movement was circulating in those incredibly perilous, heavily policed and censored days and they knew full well the risks that they were taking. Yet they did it anyway, typing up hundreds of anti-Nazi pamphlets to be mailed and further distributed across their university campus.

The film takes a very direct approach to its narrative spending little to no time in building up its character’s backstory instead, throwing us headlong into their business with the printing and dissemination of their message. The film is immediately filled with a palpable tension but it does make you question where the film can go from here as it manages to reach such an unnerving state early on.

In truth, The Final Days spends most of its time in interrogation rooms and prison cells. It’s a stripped down storyline that nevertheless rings with truth and exudes an unassailable depth that says something of the characters at its core. They are remarkable human beings. Bold, brave, resilient, all those things, and yet they were only a group of young college students. Here is a woman younger than me who under tremendous duress and pressure of an astronomical nature, nevertheless showed tremendous poise, resolve, and true strength of character.

Julia Jentsch gives a phenomenal performance as the eponymous heroine in both its composure and restrained strength, never faltering and very rarely succumbing to any amount of emotion until the final moments. And even then she maintains a resolute spirit that seems content even unto death.  Some people are born older and so it seems with Sophie Scholl. Thus, let no one look down on you because you are young because if Sophie’s life is any indication at all you can do so much with this life even in youth.

But the film also becomes a bit of an ideological battle as Sophie spends hour after hour being grilled, belittled, and berated by Gestapo Investigator Robert Mohr. Initially, it all starts with an attempt of catching Scholl in her lie and yet she’s so self-assured in her answers, it’s very difficult to trip her up. And even when they get beyond the beginning hurdles of interrogation they duel on deeper topics altogether from law to freedom of speech, to spirituality.

In her prison cell, when she’s not conversing with her fellow prisoner, Sophie prays to God as she puts it, “stammering to him” but she also holds unswervingly to her faith, maintaining an undeniable reverence for her God and a firm belief that every individual is made in the image of God. That she too is made in his image. Therefore no one has any right to pass divine judgment or dictate whether someone lives or dies. Certainly, the Nazis are no different.

In one striking discourse, Mohr grills Sophie with the following question, “Why do you risk so much for false ideas?” She answers matter of factly. It’s because of her conscious and going further still it’s because every life is precious. A 21-year-old girl was able to grasp what the Nazis were too poisoned, narrow-minded, and proud to see. The inherent worth found in every human being.

That’s why the court scene in Sophie Scholl will incense most viewers and it should. The man who presides over the show trial is a vindictive man seething with indignation against these insignificant, worthless traitors as he sees them. But he’s so utterly blinded. He has no legitimate right to pass any sort of judgment on them. They are so much more honorable than he could ever be. And yet he holds the ultimate authority in this regime and they do not.

To the very end, The Final Days proved to be one of the most taxing films I have watched in some time but even in its endings, it finds hope and stories worth telling. That in itself makes it a wonderful film to discover.

4/5 Stars

Note: This post was originally written on February 28th and scheduled to be released next month but it seemed like a story necessary for this particular point in time.

 

Veronika Voss (1982)

veronikavossYou get a sense that if they had ever met, Norma Desmond and Veronika Voss might have been good friends. Either that or they would have hated each other’s guts. And the reason for that is quite clear. They share so many similarities. Both are fading stars, prima donnas, who used to be big shots and now not so much and that seems to scare them so much so that they try and cover their insecurities with delusions of grandeur. Having to look at your near reflection would be utterly unnerving.

In the case of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s penultimate film, the tale of Veronika Voss actually finds inspiration in a real-life figure. It’s often true that you cannot make something like this up. You can play with the truth and stretch it a bit but still, there’s at least a kernel of reality here. The source of the story is the UFA actress Sybille Schmitz a star who came under fire for her continued work in the German film industry during the Nazi regime along with a disclosed love affair with Joseph Goebbels. That in itself made her a somewhat controversial legend. That and her tragic demise…

But rather like his forefather Billy Wilder, it seems like Fassbinder too was interested in teasing out a bit of the comedy and bitter tragedy of such a bygone star. Someone who used to be big and must begin to acknowledge the fact that they are no longer what they once were. Except very rarely are they willing to acknowledge their shortcomings. There lies the tension in Sunset Boulevard and Veronika Voss.

Voss, as played by Rosel Zech, is perpetually out of breath, preoccupied with lighting and shadow, the perfect environments to showcase her looks. Nervously trying to hold onto the last shreds of her waning fame. Now she’s scrimping to get just one role a far cry from her commanding star power when she worked with her one-time husband and screenwriter.

She’s rather incredulous when she meets Robert Krohn (Hilmar Thate) a bland sports journalist who doesn’t have the slightest idea who the great Veronika Voss is. Imagine that. It’s hard to know if that’s actually something to be surprised about or if it simply dictates the sign of the times. In 1955 Voss is an apparent nobody, a has-been. She simply has not accepted the reality.

Robert has a girlfriend and they seem generally happy but still, he begins a bit of an amorous romance with Voss. However, he also gazes into the deep recesses of her personal life which are currently dictated by the controlling and manipulative Dr. Katz. The lady doctor constantly keeps the dwindling star medicated and helpless, sucking dry all her assets in the process.

The film ends calamitously but its pale tones almost make us forget the drama. Instead, all conflict gives way to a distinct wistfulness. Popping pills and alcohol are a lethal combination (Fassbinder’s own death is a testament to that), but there’s something so debilitating about human greed and treachery. It’s positively lecherous, sucking the lifeblood out of all adjoining entities.

Going back to the Norma Desmond and Veronika Voss parallels, there’s no doubt that both are thoroughly tragic figures. It shows how fickle humanity can be. We’re so quick to love someone when they provide some sort of agency or pleasure but lose that allure and you’re kicked to the curb. That’s the way things often work — the sad inner workings of the world.

Fassbinder always has a knack for framing his sequences given his background in the theater and numerous scenes are shot through windows, windshields, and the like. Also noticeable are the quick transitions and wipes cutting from scene to scene like films of old. Voss also utilizes a fascinating layered sound developing an auditory collage of dialogue, score, and diegetic music. Featured tunes like Johnny Horton’s Battle of New Orleans and Tennessee Ernie’s Ford’s brooding Sixteen Tons serve a double purpose. They lend a specific time stamp to the alert viewer, while the country sounds simultaneously feel strikingly at odds with this world that we are introduced to.

But one last time the parallels become obvious, this time between the director and his subject. There’s a sense that he knew all too well what it was like to be someone like Veronika Voss. Famous beyond your years and in the same breath so utterly tragic. And both their lives, the adapted truth and the reality, arrived at much the same devastating ending. As surely as sparks fly, Man seems born to trouble.

4/5 Stars

The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979)

marriageofmaria1The Marriage of Maria Braun opens with a bang and a thud, literally, as bombs rain down on Germany in the waning hours of WWII. It’s perhaps the most chaotic wedding ceremony ever put to celluloid. And the story ends in an equally theatrical fashion.

But although the beginning and the end do speak volumes, it’s the in between that we must , try and piece together if we ever want to make sense of the eponymous Maria Braun. In all honesty, it’s extremely difficult to know quite what to do with her.

However, to understand her a little context is in order. Germany is in ruins. The allies have swept in victoriously and now the German people must learn how to survive with the new order. Husbands who are as good as dead, black market goods, and scrounging around just to make ends meet.

Maria Braun carries on such an existence to watch over her widowed mother and grandfather who depend greatly on her. She begins working at a bar often frequented by American soldiers and there she meets her first conquest Mr. Bill dancing the night away to “Moonlight Serenade.” Aside from being big and strong, Mr. Bill has resources to support her and there’s a happily symbiotic relationship of romance. Except Hermann returns and he catches the two lovers together. But the strangest thing occurs. In a moment Maria drops all prior activities and rushes to her husband. It seems she still truly loves him, but then what was she doing with this other man?

What follows is the next stage of her life as Maria must play the waiting game as Hermann is relegated to a life in prison. But he is still her husband so she agrees to faithfully wait for him. On a train one afternoon, she bumps into an industrialist named Mr. Oswald. He becomes her next conquest as she first gives him industry advice and then gains a position in his company slowly becoming more affluent. Her spell as Oswald’s mistress begins simultaneously and yet she seems willing enough to be with him, if not for the financial capital to be gained. It’s followed by a strikingly familiar moment of intimacy that looks almost identical to a previous sequence if it were not for the varying skin tones. Maria continues basking in her success.

The fateful day that Hermann returns comes and goes as he informs Maria that he will take a leave to Canada to get his life in order. What she doesn’t know are all the workings behind the scene, not until a major dramatic reveal. Whether you view Maria’s life as success is purely based on point of view. In the audience’s eyes, her story feels quite sad, but we have a feeling Maria never felt that way. She was too strong and self-assured for such a thought.

To its credit, Fassbinder’s drama utilizes language well between German, English, French, and so on with characters dancing between all with a rudimentary skill that helps to paint the post-war canvas with all sorts of dialects. But amidst all the white noise Hanna Schygulla is most obviously the main attraction. What are the words to describe Maria Braun? Provocative, icy, sneering, vindictive, a cynical terror of a woman?

Except, in the beginning, she’s not like this, at least not yet. There are some indications, but they’re only slight signs of what is to come. She uses and abuses but in such a way that her male conquests want to be manipulated. She’s so tantalizing that they don’t mind it in the least.

Could we call Maria a female counterpart to Charles Foster Kane? Yes, except it’s not simply that she’s accrued wealth, power, and influence without love by the end of the film. She has all the love she could ever want. All the attention, all the eyes of any red-blooded man, but she doesn’t seem to know what to do with that love. She compartmentalized her life in such a way where she holds onto her matrimonial bond to Hermann an entire lifetime. When Hermann’s left for dead, when Hermann’s in prison when Hermann takes leave in Canada.

Still, Maria holds onto the fact that she is married to this man she loves, while simultaneously freely being involved with other men. Does she really love him? I think it’s all too probable, and yet she doesn’t know how to function in that singular capacity. These other men hold a purpose in her life. Is it a coincidence that Hermann and Maria barely share any screen time together? It doesn’t seem like it. Not with someone as engaged as Fassbinder. He, like Maria Braun, knew what it was to be loved, but perhaps he did not know what it was to love others in a normal, healthy way without undermining it with his own inner demons. He died back in 1982 of a drug overdose at the ripe young age of 37. His genius was realized, but in the wake of such genius lay innumerable tragedies.

4.5/5 Stars

M (1931)

mfilm1Peter Lorre has a face that will forever live in cinematic infamy, and it started with M. In truth, Fritz Lang’s drama involving a serial killer feels fresh and engaging even after all these years, maybe because humanity hasn’t changed all that much. We still murder, we still kill, we still seek justice, we still give into our base desires, and there’s not a perfect person among of us. Each one of us has our faults — our own personal downfalls.

The film begins with a rash of disappearances across the city and the boulevards are plastered with Wanted posters for the mysterious culprit. The day that Elsie Beckmann disappears sets the community off, especially when the perpetrator sends a handwritten letter to the local newspaper. The media frenzy begins as every man, woman, and child begins to suspect their neighbor of being a child murderer. The mob mentality looks to overrun the scales of justice. Meanwhile, the police force looks to use empirical methods as well as frequent raids to drudge up answers. They’re far from popular in the underworld and the force is being run ragged in an effort to get to the bottom of the case. Everyone expects a resolution quickly, but real solutions are hard to come by.

Things have gotten so dire for the local mob bosses that they call a meeting, resolving to do the dirty work on their own. They begin their own search for the man who is single-handedly ruining their rackets because he’s no good. Now the chase is really on for Hans Beckert, because everyone is on high alert, in all spheres of society. The question becomes not if he will be caught, but when, because it is only a matter of time.

It’s in these latter moments that the longstanding mystery behind the film’s title finally is revealed and it is a fitting twist. Everything begins to fall into place, but the strangest thing is that Lang actually begins to make us empathize with his killer. True, we want him to receive justice, but the men on the other side of the law seem little better than he — in fact, many of them are criminals themselves.

M has a fascinating juxtaposition of silence and sound, acting as a bridge between both. Beckert’s whistling of “In the Hall of the Mountain King” is certainly integral to the plot. It’s those exact notes that trigger the memories of a blind beggar selling balloons. However, it is these hollow sounds of the whistling that feel strange ominous and distant in vast areas of open space  There’s as much tension in the lulls of silence as there is in the most tumultuous notes.

Although Lorre doesn’t say much, we get enough clues just dwelling for long spells on his face. Those big eyes full of crazed fear and psychological torment. His mind plagued by paranoia and torn apart by schizophrenic bouts of conscience. It suggests the perverse nature of man given that this story was taken from real life accounts of a German child murderer. But also the tragic nature of mankind that we are often drawn to do evil in a sense. Our flesh is too weak and we give into our animalistic urges. Of course, Lang reveals the flip side of the indiscriminate as well, that seems just as questionable including mob rule and a sort of vigilante justice that functions outside of the accepted modes of law enforcement.

It brings up questions on the cycle of crime and the rehabilitation of the criminal. Questions that still get hotly debated and thrown about even to this day. M became the measuring stick for all of the subsequent crime thrillers Lang would churn out so efficiently following his move to the United States. You could argue that although he came close numerous times, he never quite topped this crowning jewel of a crime drama.

5/5 Star

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Das-Cabinet-des-Dr-Caligari-posterI’ve never seen anything like it, and I mean that in all truthfulness. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has the esteem of being called the original horror film, and that’s not something to be taken lightly. Perhaps I’m more partial to Murnau’s Nosferatu that came out two years later, but this film directed by Robert Wiene is really the epoch of German Expressionism. The German Expressionism Movement, after all, was not simply about painting, or architecture, or theater. It bled into the Weimar film industry as well, drifting as far away from realism as was possible at the time. Some say D.W. Griffith wrote the rules of moving pictures as we know them today, and if that’s so, then it was this film that tried to push the boundaries to the limit.

In an effort to be transparent, I will acknowledge that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari does not engage me, narratively speaking, like some other silent films. It follows a Dr. Caligari as he presents his spectacular somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt) at a local carnival. But all is not as it seems as a string of murders terrorize the town by night. Also, I was not a big on the score that accompanied this version. It was rather a discordant cacophony and it did not seem to go well with the action, but that is often a problem with silent films if they do not already have a score to go with them.

CABINET_DES_DR_CALIGARI_01Nevertheless, the images alone are striking, and it is still fascinating for the very reasons I mentioned above. It boasts the craziest sets, highly stylized, and made up of every type of angle and shape imaginable. We know resolutely that this is not reality, these are simply facades being put up to engage our eyes. It features a mise-en-scene for the ages, with no attempt to try and be the least bit objective. There’s no effort to aim for realism; none whatsoever, and that level of audacity is impressive. Furthermore, it’s mind-boggling to think that so many people and so many films were influenced by this movement. Especially in Hollywood.

Without it, we would not have 1930s horror films like Frankenstein and Dracula. There would be no Film-Noir or at least not the same moody, atmospheric creature that we know today. In truth, it was many European directors like Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, and even Alfred Hitchcock, who channeled this movement in their own work. It proved to be so important to the medium of film and thus, it’s important to remember these roots. So maybe The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is not as engaging today, but there is much to be admired and extracted from it still.

4.5/5 Stars

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974)

alifear4Werner Rainer Fassbinder is one of those artists known for his tumultuous personal and political life, and yet with all the dialogue swirling around his backstory and untimely death, there is no doubt that he sent a charge through the film community that is still being acknowledged today. The New German Cinema of the 1970s breathed new life into an industry and created a massive impact. Part of the fact is that Fassbinder’s work hearkens back to his forefathers while constructing a space within the medium that was all his own. That’s what the great filmmakers do. They take what has already been done, grab hold of some inspiration, and run with it into some new uncharted territory.

In the case of Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, he takes the work of 1950s melodrama master Douglas Sirk and transposes it to his contemporary Germany. His particular inspiration is All That Heaven Allows, which revolves around the shocking romance between a respectable woman and her younger suitor. That in itself makes for a juicy piece of drama, but Fassbinder expands on that by adding a racial component. Always fascinated by topics of race, Fassbinder looks at an elderly German lady (Brigitte Mire), who begins to form a bond with a much younger Moroccan laborer named Ali (El Hedi ben Salem).

alifear3What begins as a small gesture, soon enough actually develops into something more, because once they sit down to coffee, they realize they actually appreciate each other’s company. Although I don’t understand German, the subtitles make it clear that Ali’s German is rather rudimentary, and yet that matters little to Emmi. She just enjoys having someone to talk to.

Emmi works as a maid and her husband is deceased and her children are grown up. She’s lonely. Ali has a group of friends from his homeland, but he feels like he’s treated less than human in Germany. Emmi’s different than your average German, but then again, her first husband was a Pole during the Nazi regime, so she’s no stranger to going against the grain. To her, it’s not a big deal. It’s just gets blown up by family and the tenants around her. Her nosy neighbors are quick to gossip and they all have a heavy case of discrimination. In fact, the unlikely couple is surrounded by narrow-minds sitting atop old bodies. A prime example is the local grocer, who ignores Ali, before changing his tune since he wants Emmi’s business.  But even Emmi’s children are not pleased. You can understand being surprised and a bit dismayed, but once a television set is kicked in, there’s automatically more to it. It’s not simply anger in it being such a rash decision, but the fact that Ali is a foreigner (and much younger). And yet all these separate issues are so closely intertwined it becomes an interesting situation. More often than not it’s the pervading bigotry that is the most noticeable.

alifear5Although the issue of age plays a role too, because at times Emmi looks out of place with Ali’s friends, and the same goes for Ali among her friends. It even leads him to a one night stand with the sultry bar owner (Barbara Valentin).  But Emmi is a very forgiving soul and in her, Ali finds grace. I’m not sure if I concur with all the conclusions that Fassbinder draws, but I can respect his stands on race. In fact, when Ali alludes to the catastrophe in Munich during the Olympics in ’72, such a current events make this prejudice toward Arabs all too real. It was a real pertinent issue and it still is to this day.

As for Fassbinder, he certainly knows how to work around his sets. The composition of his scenes is simple, but vibrant in mise-en-scene. He certainly has a touch of Sirk, being a little less luxurious, but still as bright. The closest modern example I think of is Wes Anderson as far as utilizing interesting color schemes and symmetry to frame shots. Also, there are quite a few times where Fassbinder maintains a shot for seconds on end. In such moments, it feels like we’re looking at a painting in a Fassbinder gallery. And it is exactly that. Art with an emotional depth from one of the foremost German masters.

4.5/5 Stars

The Blue Angel (1930)

blueangel1The Blue Angel is the name of a nightclub and it turns out to be a very fateful nightclub indeed. It just takes us a while to figure out why. Although Josef Von Sternberg’s film is known, rightly so, for making a star out of Marlene Dietrich — in the first of their 6 collaborations — this early German sound film is nevertheless about the decline and fall of Emil Janning’s character. Immanuel Rath begins as a professor at the local college, and although his pupils are unruly, he commands the utmost respect. He sees it as his prerogative, and he is quick to bring order and discipline to these young lads. But boys will be boys and they become corrupted by the beautiful cabaret singer Lola-Lola (Marlene Dietrich). One evening the professor drops into the seedy joint to look out for some of his troublemakers and talk with the proprietor. Of course, he unwittingly ends up meeting the gorgeous girl backstage and returns the following evening with a seemingly very flimsy excuse.

Ironically, his boys are not the only one who take a liking to her. The once restrained and reserved man of learning begins to change. He becomes a man obsessed and infatuated beyond the point of logic. But what does he care? He enjoys being in Lola’s company and the idea of a marriage proposal makes complete sense in the reverie that he is swimming in. So they do get married. The professor leaves all the common sense behind and goes on the road traveling with his wife and their promoter.

blueangel2But by this point, he is a sorry figure, so pitiful and bedraggled in every way. He reluctantly parades himself in front of audiences as a clown just to make some money for him and his wife. It is, of course, inevitable that he return back to his old stomping ground, and it does eventually happen. He reluctantly goes onstage and it is difficult to watch this final chapter. Lola is no longer his. He’s completely ruined. Completely destroyed. Oh how far the man has fallen, as he winds up keeled over on top of his former desk in the gymnasium.

I think I enjoyed Emil Janning’s in The Last Laugh more and yet to its credit The Blue Angel does not cop out in the end. It has a tragic trajectory that in some ways feels like a precursor to such noir as Scarlet Street and Nightmare Alley. It’s understandable how Dietrich became a star because stars have the capability of drawing your attention. Janning’s gives a wonderful performance certainly, but the allure of Dietrich is too much to discount. She steals the show just like she steals the Professor’s heart. We’re just “Falling in Love Again and we Can’t Help It.”

4/5 Stars

Metropolis (1927)

MetropolisposterFritz Lang’s archetypal sci-fi epic is steeped in politics, religion, and humanity, but above all, it is a true cinematic experience. It is visually arresting, and it still causes us to marvel with set-pieces that remain extraordinary. How did Fritz Lang piece together such a gargantuan accomplishment? Maybe even equally extraordinary, how was I able to see almost a complete cut of this film, which was at different times thought to be lost, incomplete, and ruined?

Metropolis really feels like one of the earliest blockbusters, although I would have to further substantiate that. Still, it’s basic story is generally captivating following a young man named Freder from the upper echelon of society with a father who runs things. This young man is really in the perfect position to succeed, the way society is set up. He even goes to the preeminent school where all the boys are dressed in white. Little does he know in the lower depths the beleaguered, grungy, weary masses in black are slowly killing themselves with work. The machine that drives this society is never satisfied, always desiring to be fed more and more and more.

When the boy finally sees the reality of the infrastructure his paradise is built upon, he cries out in horror. This is not the way things are supposed to be. He eventually switches places with one of these workers and attends a meeting deep in the catacombs (an allusion to the early Christians), where the pure goddess Maria lifts the spirits of her fellow man. But of course, the evil inventor Rotwang is enlisted by Freder’s father Joh Frederson. Their own relationship is marred by conflict over a woman they both loved. Freder’s dead mother. And so the scientist looks to resurrect his long lost love, and he needs Maria to develop his plan. He kidnaps her and from her likeness creates a double, who goes out to wreak havoc on all of Metropolis. The apocalyptic words of the Book of Revelation ring true as the whore of Babylon deceives the masses and leads them to destruction.

But Freder is the Mediator, he is the Savior of his people, and he is necessary to bring peace and tranquility to a world that has descended into such brokenness. So Metropolis is certainly a film full of symbolic touches, religious connotations, and political commentary, but all of this is developed by Fritz Lang through an archetypal hero’s narrative.

Hollywood has become an industry seemingly so obsessed with story, screenplays, plots. Certainly, a film like Metropolis is at least adequate in that area alone, but what really sets a film such as this apart is its cinematic scope. The sheer vast expanses it fills. The scope it creates through its plethora of extras and encompassing sets is hard to downplay. How to describe scenes where water is literally breaking down walls and covering masses of fleeing children? Or smokestacks spewing out refuse while trains, planes, and automobiles pass by in every direction. People scattering this way and that, following the false Maria in a chaotic frenzy. It reminds us what the motion picture, the moving picture, is all about. The images that are brought before us lead to a suspension of disbelief because more importantly they are incredibly affecting. At the atypical 20 frames per second, they are images full of tension, full of energy, and full of life.

Metropolis-new-tower-of-babelIn a sense, with Metropolis, we can easily see a precursor to Chaplin’s Modern Times a decade later. There is a general apprehension of the machine and the impact of a true industrial revolution. There is a fear that there are more positives than negatives. That machines will take over and man will become outdated. Perhaps someday our creation will destroy us. By today’s standards, such notions seem archaic, but are they? We still live in a society ever more obsessed with advancement, technology, and all the things that come with that. However outdated some of Metropolis might feel, and there are numerous such moments, at its core is the final resolution that between the body and the mind there must be a heart to regulate. We are not simply animals with bodies or rational machines with minds, but the beauty of humanity is that we have a heart, pulsing with life and vitality. That is something to be grateful for and never lose sight of.

5/5 Stars

Nosferatu (1922)

The hand of F.W. nosferatu1Murnau is less noticeable in this early classic of his, but Nosferatu still works seamlessly as a piece of drama and horror. In fact, it by now has become somewhat of a horror classic and the archetype when it comes to vampire movies, taking a lot of inspiration from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I think one of the things that makes Nosferatu so gripping is the fact that it mixes the plausible with the supernatural making for this weirdly rewarding ride. Is it scary? No, not in the modern sense of the word.

But it’s a story steeped in Myth. There is mention of the Black Death, supernatural creatures, and a being that “suckles himself on the hellish elixir of their blood.” What wonderful imagery that develops a genuine awe in this devilish being. And yet in the same instance, we’re getting scientific explanations of venus fly traps and tentacled polyps acting as symbols certainly but also tying us back to the real world. These forces of nature are real, backed by science, and make a vampire just a little more conceivable.

Running through Nosferatu is a love story, and much like Sunrise, although Nosferatu is a “symphony of horror,” there is also a bit of a love song underlying the vampire tale. It lends this story some heart, because these characters, like our protagonist Hutter, actually have something to live for.

Nosferatu most certainly is a symphony, and along with the expressionistic images, it uses title cards as well as excerpts from ship logs, books, and letters to tell the story. One such inter-title card from Count Orlock reads: Your wife has a lovely neck. Hutter has little idea what he means (or pretends not to), but we know, making it a rather funny but unnerving comment. There’s something about knowing what is undoubtedly going to happen and being powerless to stop it. For instance, when someone acknowledges they have two mosquitoes bites quite close together that spells trouble to the audience, but we can only watch and wait.

nosferatu2Because when Hutter first goes to offer Count Orlock a house we know it is bad news, to begin with, but it takes a long time for anything to actually happen. Orlock moves into the abandoned mansion across from Hutter and his wife, and that’s when the danger strikes close to home. There’s a madman in the hospital diverting attention, and Hutter winds up incapacitated so he is incapable of coming to the aid of his love. She is left vulnerable and the vampire has already proven what havoc he can wreak with the crew on a ship. Aside from Max Schreck’s frightening facade complete with pointy ears, bulging eyes, and menacing figures, the vampire literally appears and disappears into thin air. There is a haunting aura built around him because he is something supernatural, something that we cannot understand except through myth. I found myself getting tense waiting for something that I was not sure about. That was the exciting part. It’s not a blood and guts, monsters jumping out of closets, kind of horror. It’s not ridden with cliches either because it was the one creating its own mystique.

It’s hard to believe how much popular culture has been derivative from Stoker’s Dracula, much like Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, or Shelley’s Frankenstein. However, amidst all the vast works of Dracula and vampires, Nosferatu stands out. It represents the visual aesthetic of German Expression wonderfully, and it casts a long shadow. It’s hard not to, at the very least, admire its artistry and be taken aback by its legacy. In the realm of silent films, Nosferatu is a must, pure and simple. It doesn’t rely on bloodcurdling shrieks and screams, but the images begin to invade our consciousness. One seems fleeting and the other sticks with us.

4.5/5 Stars