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Happy New Year from White City Cinema

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A Scandinavian Cinema Primer

For most international movie aficionados, including me, the Swedish maestro Ingmar Bergman has long been seen as the dominant “commercial face” of Scandinavian cinema, with the more austere Dane Carl Theodore Dreyer lurking in the shadows just behind him. Creating today’s post was a great excuse for me to delve much deeper into Scandinavia’s rich cinematic heritage, especially for the chance to see many more classic films from Norway and Finland. Enjoy.

The Phantom Carriage (Sjostrom, Sweden, 1921)

My favorite Swedish movie ever is this silent classic by Victor Sjostrom that masterfully combines melodramatic conventions with gothic horror overtones and proved a major influence on both Ingmar Bergman and Stanley Kubrick (the latter of whom clearly took his climax for The Shining from here). The irresistible premise is that the last sinner to die on New Year’s Eve must drive the “phantom carriage” that collects the souls of the dead for the next calendar year. A masterpiece of moody atmospherics with special effects that still impress today. The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray, featuring an intense experimental score by the band KTL, is a wonder.

Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (Christensen, Denmark, 1922)

Benjamin Christensen’s fascinating documentary/narrative hybrid begins by alternating static shots of paintings and drawings with intertitles that provide a historical overview of witchcraft and devil worship in medieval Europe. This is followed by a lengthy section dramatizing the practice of witchcraft as well as the witch hunts they inspired. The final section cleverly denounces the witch hunts by comparing the behavior of medieval “witches” with women suffering from “hysteria” and other mental illnesses in the present day of 1922. Essential viewing for anyone interested in horror and the occult.

The Saga of Gosta Berling (Stiller, Sweden, 1924)

Mauritz Stiller’s terrific romantic drama charts the picaresque adventures of the title character, a disgraced former minister who becomes a tutor at the home of a wealthy countess. Gosta ends up romancing both the countess’ stepdaughter and daughter-in-law, sewing tragedy in the lives of the individual family members and spelling disaster for their large estate as a whole. Director Stiller executes many impressive set pieces, the most prominent of which is the climactic inferno, over the film’s epic three-hour running time. Lars Hanson as Gosta Berling and Greta Garbo as the daughter-in-law are both magnetic performers who would unsurprisingly soon wind up in Hollywood.

Day of Wrath (Dreyer, Denmark, 1943)

The first sound film that Carl Dreyer made in his native Denmark is this great work of art about religious intolerance, hypocrisy and persecution in the 17th century. While “witches” are being burned at the stake, a beautiful young woman marries an elderly pastor and then embarks on an affair with his son, leading to Gosta Berling-style tragedy for everyone. This is no stolid “period drama” however but rather a vital piece of filmmaking with incredibly atmospheric cinematography, restrained but razor sharp performances and a story that brims with obvious parallels to the question-and-torture methods of the Nazis. One of the essential films of its era.

Cross of Love (Tulio, Finland, 1946)

Teuvo Tulio was a master of the Finnish melodrama (he apparently had the same influence on the Kaurismaki brothers that Douglas Sirk had on R.W. Fassbinder) and Cross of Love is considered in Finland to be his finest hour. Here Tulio loosely adapts a Pushkin story in this chronicle of a lighthouse keeper’s daughter who runs away to the big city with a shipwrecked businessman who has ignoble intentions. Seduced and abandoned, she soon finds herself walking the streets as a prostitute but can she find redemption in the love of a naive young artist? Of course not. This is a more extreme and sexually frank variation on the kinds of melodramas coming out of Hollywood at the time. Blonde Bombshell Regina Linnanheimo justifiably won a Jussi (or “Finnish Oscar”) for her lead performance. Has Guy Maddin seen this? If not, he should.

Kon-Tiki (Heyerdahl, Norway/Sweden, 1950)

Thor Heyerdahl was a Norwegian scientist who believed that the Polynesian Islands had been settled by South American natives (not Asian explorers as had been assumed for hundreds of years previously). To prove his theory, he travelled to Peru with a team of five other men, constructed a primitive raft of Balsa wood (the only kind that pre-Columbian Indians could have used) and sailed across the Pacific Ocean to Polynesia in a trip lasting 101 grueling days. He also brought along a motion picture camera and recorded the extraordinary expedition for posterity. The end result, which the beloved Heyerdahl (he was voted “Norwegian of the century” in a poll of his countrymen) not only directed but wrote, shot, edited and narrated, is simply one of the best and most awe-inspring documentaries I’ve ever seen.

The White Reindeer (Blomberg, Finland, 1952)

Now here’s something different: a Finnish horror film based on a folk tale about a woman who transforms herself into a white reindeer-vampire and feeds on the male members of a tribe in remote Lapland. What’s most interesting about the scenario, aside from the stark photography of the bleak and frozen landscapes, is how the reindeer woman is treated as both monster and object of pity: the transformation occurs after the lonely woman visits a shaman and asks him to cast a spell that will bring her frequently traveling husband back home to her. Credit for this refreshingly sympathetic take on the “other” probably belongs to the stunning actress Mirjami Kuosmanen who also co-wrote the script with her husband, director/cinematographer Erik Blomberg.

Ordet (Dreyer, Denmark, 1955)

Carl Dreyer’s penultimate film is this transcendentally uplifting drama adapted from a play by Danish pastor Kaj Monk. The slowly, exquisitely paced story takes place in a rural farming community and centers on the Borgen family, which consists of a widower father and his three grown sons. Issues of faith, love in many forms, and repression are profoundly explored when the wife of the eldest son dies and the middle son, a religious fanatic who believes he is Jesus, claims to have the power to bring her back to life. This is not merely a film about religion; it is a spiritually intense experience unto itself, one that can even – or perhaps especially – be appreciated as such by an old atheist like me.

The Unknown Soldier (Laine, Finland, 1955)

This incredible Finnish war movie should prove a real eye-opener to North American viewers. It chronicles the “Continuation War” of 1941-1944, which took place concurrently with WWII and involved Finland attacking the Soviet Union to try and regain territory that the Russians had occupied for the previous several years. In adapting a novel by Väinö Linna, director Edvin Laine has created a realistic war film centered on a machine gun crew that features a terrific ensemble cast, a healthy dose of black comedy and a powerful musical score. In short, The Unknown Soldier trumps most contemporary war movies – even those with much higher budgets and gore quotients.

Nine Lives (Skouen, Norway, 1957)

The amazing true story of Jan Baalsrud, the lone survivor of a Nazi attack while on a sabotage mission with other Finnish soldiers during WWII. Fleeing his Nazi pursuers on foot, Baalsrud traveled for weeks through the snowy mountain terrain of northern Norway to reach neutral Sweden. Along the way, he went snowblind, cut off his own frostbitten toes and relied on the kindness of random strangers for food and lodging. Through it all, as Baalsrud puts it in a memorable line of dialogue, nothing seems capable of killing this old fox. Nine Lives was impressively shot on real locations that make one feel cold just watching it. In 1991, Norwegian television viewers voted this the best Norwegian movie of all time.

The Seventh Seal (Bergman, Sweden, 1957)

Everyone has personal tastes that are idiosyncratic and subjective and that is as it should be. In spite of the fact that Ingmar Bergman is almost unanimously critically acclaimed as one of the greatest directors of all time, I’ve never been able to warm up to his work (in spite of trying repeatedly). His films strike me as too self-consciously serious and their merits more theatrical and literary than cinematic. Nonetheless, I would be remiss if I didn’t include one of his movies on this list. I’m choosing The Seventh Seal not only because it has more humor than most of Bergman’s dramas but also because it has been so massively influential on an international scale: the image of Max Von Sydow as a knight during the crusades literally playing chess with the Grim Reaper conjures up the notion of a foreign language “art film” more succinctly than any other. Everyone with an interest in movies, whether I like it or not, should see The Seventh Seal.

Gertrud (Dreyer, Denmark, 1964)

Carl Dreyer’s final film is an adaptation of Hjalmar Soderberg’s 1906 play of the same title and its deceptively theatrical character is also reminiscent of Ibsen (a protoypical feminist heroine) and Strindberg (the eternal conflict between men and women). But there are few films as truly and wonderfully cinematic as Gertrud, whose unique combination of stillness, slowness and whiteness is perfectly suited to capturing the title character’s near-religious view of romantic love as an uncompromising ideal. A lot of men seem to love Gertrud but none love her as much as she requires and so she chooses to live alone – without regrets. Unforgettable for its use of long takes (one of which clocks in at 10 minutes) and Nina Pens Rode’s luminous lead performance.

Hunger (Carlsen, Norway, 1966)

Henning Carlsen’s adaptation of Knut Hamsun’s famous autobiographical novel of the same title tells the story of a starving writer’s attempts to find love, food and a publisher for his novel. Although it lacks the ferocious intensity of its first person literary source, this is still crucial viewing, especially for Per Oscarsson’s tremendous lead performance as the writer Pontus whose mental state increasingly collapses as he wanders the streets of Christiana (soon to become Oslo), living the credo of an absurdly idealistic artist and vainly refusing all charity. A fresh and compelling take on the stereotype of the tortured artist.


Top 25 Films of the 1920s

25. Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein, Russia, 1925)

The film that launched a worldwide revolution . . . in terms of editing! The most famous of all silent Russian movies is Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 masterpiece about a failed revolution that took place twenty years earlier. The crew of the battleship Potemkin rebels against unfair living conditions (including being told to eat maggot-infested meat), which causes them to mutiny and kill their commanding officers. When the ship docks in the port city of Odessa, the revolutionary fervor spreads to their comrades on land until the White Russian army is called in to crush the rebellion. The ensuing massacre is justifiably one of the most famous scenes in film history, a frenetic, rapidly edited montage that purposefully breaks the rules of classical editing in order to convey an overwhelming impression of violence and chaos. Whenever you see a shot of a baby carriage rolling down a flight of stairs in a T.V. show or movie, this is what’s being referenced.

24. Safety Last! (Newmeyer/Taylor, USA, 1923)

As far as silent comedians go, Harold Lloyd was second only to Charlie Chaplin in terms of popularity. Safety Last! is his most famous film and one that anyone who cares about comedy movies should see. Lloyd plays his famous, can-do “Glasses Character” as a country bumpkin who arrives in the big city and gets a job in a department store. He concocts a publicity stunt to bring in more customers, which involves him scaling the exterior of the high-rise building where he works. This leads to a jaw-droppingly funny and amazingly acrobatic climax featuring one of the most iconic images in all of cinema: Lloyd suspended from the hands of a giant clock face near the top of the building.

23. The Thief of Bagdad (Walsh, USA, 1924)

The greatest of the 1920s swashbucklers, Raoul Walsh’s adventure epic stars Douglas Fairbanks as a thief who falls hopelessly in love with the daughter of the Caliph of Baghdad. In order to win her hand, the thief endeavors to best her other suitors by bringing back the rarest treasure before “the seventh moon.” This allows Walsh, one of the most astute directors of action ever, to execute the narrative as a series of exciting, self-contained set pieces, the elaborate special effects of which still impress and charm today.

22. Variety (Dupont, Germany, 1925)

One of the major masterpieces of the entire silent era that, for reasons unknown to me, has only ever been released on VHS in the United States. This tragic, darkly ironic crime tale concerns a love triangle between trapeze artists that ends in betrayal and murder. Emil Jannings is at his best as the cuckolded husband but it’s Karl Freund’s brilliant cinematography that really makes Variety fly.

21. The House of Mystery (Volkoff, France, 1923)

House

20. A Page of Madness (Kinugasa, Japan, 1926)

Director Teinosuke Kinugasa was a member of a group of avant-garde Japanese artists known as Shinkankaku-ha (“the school of new perceptions”) and this experimental film, written in collaboration with future Nobel Prize winning author Yasunari Kawabata, is a good representation of their rebellion against realistic representation. Apparently not influenced by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (which Kinugasa claimed not to have seen at the time), this nonetheless tells a similarly mind-bending story of subjectivity set within an insane asylum. Silent Japanese films have had an even smaller survival rate than their American and European counterparts, which makes a startling, non-commercial work of cinematic poetry like this all the more valuable.

19. 3 Bad Men (Ford, USA, 1926)

John Ford’s first masterpiece is an epic western about a cowgirl (the splendid Olive Borden) who recruits the title trio to help her avenge the death of her father as well as find her a suitable husband. These twin plots unfurl, as happens so often in Ford, against the backdrop of a real life historical event – in this case the Dakota Land Rush of the 1870s. The climactic land rush sequence is presented as an exhilarating, fast-paced montage that rivals the best montage scenes coming out of the Soviet Union during the same period.

18. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene, Germany, 1920)

This is the definitive German Expressionist film, in which all of the elements of director Robert Wiene’s mise-en-scene (lighting, set design, costume design, the movement of figures within the frame) have been deliberately distorted and exaggerated for expressive purposes. The end result, a view of the world through the eyes of a madman, single-handedly inaugurated the Expressionist movement, which dominated German cinema screens for most of the rest of the decade.

17. The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse (Ingram, USA, 1921)

In 1968′s The American Cinema, Andrew Sarris listed director Rex Ingram as a “subject for further research” based solely on this masterpiece – an epic World War I/family drama that builds on the innovations of Griffith in its incredible painterly images and dynamic cutting, but which adds a more naturalistic acting style to the mix. Rudolph Valentino, in his first starring role, plays a rich ne’er-do-well who enlists in the French Army to impress the woman with whom he’s having an affair. But, once on the battlefield, he finds himself face to face with his German cousin . . . Sadly, Ingram is still a subject for further research; his movies, including this one, remain virtually impossible to see. Needless to say, this should be viewed at all costs whenever the opportunity arises.

16. The Unknown (Browning, USA, 1927)

Tod Browning is best known today for early sound-era horror classics like Dracula and Freaks but I think this dark and sinister tale of a love triangle set in a traveling circus represents the high point of his entire career; Joan Crawford (young and dishy) is the daughter of a circus owner who is torn between the affections of an armless(!) knife thrower (Lon Chaney) and the circus strongman (Norman Kerry). This singularly grotesque wonder unfolds with the terrible illogic of a nightmare and remains for my money the best of all silent American horror films.

15. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, France, 1928)

14. Hindle Wakes (Elvey, UK, 1927)

hindle

My favorite silent British film of all is Maurice Elvey’s 1927 adaptation of Stanley Houghton’s play about mill employee Fanny Hawthorn (Estelle Brody) and her leisure-time adventures during “Wakes Week,” a traditional week-long holiday for factory workers and students in Lancashire. This is the most shockingly progressive silent movie I’ve ever seen in terms of how it portrays gender relations: Fanny has a tryst with the mill owner’s son who is engaged to be married to another, more respectable woman. The film’s sympathetic — and casual — treatment of a woman engaged in a pre-marital sexual relationship, and the way it attacks the hypocrisy of how society views the behavior of single men and women, makes the tone feel strikingly modern. (This is perhaps best exemplified by a sublime ending suggesting that the resilient heroine will survive and endure.) But the progressiveness of the film’s content is also impressively matched by its innovative form: a scene taking place at an amusement park that uses extended point-of-view shots of characters on rides is as cinematically breathtaking as any similar scenes in more well-known silent masterpieces like Sunrise, Lonesome and Coeur Fidele.

13. Isn’t Life Wonderful (Griffith, USA, 1924)

Polish refugees struggle to survive in post-World War I Berlin in D.W. Griffith’s final masterpiece, a deeply moving family drama shot almost entirely on location in Germany. Among the narrative strands is an exeedingly poignant subplot involving the courtship between Paul (Neil Hamilton), a war veteran whose lungs have been damaged by mustard gas and Inga, an orphan played by Carol Dempster (Griffith’s real-life love interest). A prototype of Neorealism, it is frankly astonishing that Griffith could extend such sympathy to the plight of a people who had been a much vilified enemy of the United States only a few years previously.

12. Lonesome (Fejos, USA, 1928)

Paul Fejos’ unjustly under-seen classic is a kind of smaller-scale version of The Crowd – though arguably an even better film. It begins by intercutting between the workday of a man who operates a punch press (Glenn Tryon) and a woman who works as a switchboard operator (Barbara Kent) in New York City. The two narrative strands become intertwined when these lonely people meet by chance at Coney Island and share a night of magic and romance. Tragically, they find themselves separated and realize that, since they never even learned one another’s names, they may never meet again. The plot is simple but the execution is passionate, capturing some universal and timeless truths about urban living.

11. Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (Lang, Germany, 1922)

The first in a cycle of Fritz Lang films about a diabolical criminal mastermind and master of disguise who crashes the stock market and swindles countless innocents out of their money seemingly for no reason other than the sheer fun of it. Indebted to the mystery serials of Louis Feuillade, this four-hour movie (split into two parts of equal length) remains a fast-paced, rip-roaring entertainment from start to finish.

10. Lucky Star (Borzage, USA, 1929)

My personal favorite Frank Borzage film is this late silent masterpiece about a love triangle between farm girl Janet Gaynor and two World War I veterans – the duplicitous Guinn “Big Boy” Williams and nice guy Charles Farrell (whose war wounds have confined him to a wheelchair). Gaynor and Farrell made many films together and more often than not her fabulous acting is the point of interest. Here, Farrell is a revelation as a good-hearted man whose attempts to come to terms with his disability are heartbreaking. But, this being a Borzage film, the rural farmhouse setting is turned into a mystical, impressionist dream place where miracles can happen – and you’ll be very glad that they do. Originally released in a part talkie/part silent version, the lone print that survives today is completely silent and probably all the better for it.

9. The Docks of New York (Von Sternberg, USA, 1928)

Arguably Josef von Sternberg’s greatest film, this ravishingly photographed tone poem tells the story of a virile stoker (George Bancroft) who is tempted to give up his love ‘em and leave ‘em ways after saving the life of a suicidal prostitute (the revelatory Betty Compson). This sublime romantic melodrama is perfectly complimented by von Sternberg’s amazingly atmospheric mise-en-scene, which captures New York City’s dock-front milieu with an exquisite interplay of light, shadow and fog.

8. The Phantom Carriage (Sjostrom, Sweden, 1921)

My favorite Swedish movie ever is this silent classic by Victor Sjostrom that masterfully combines melodrama with gothic horror overtones and proved a major influence on both Ingmar Bergman and Stanley Kubrick (the latter of whom clearly took his climax for The Shining from here). The irresistible premise is that the last sinner to die on New Year’s Eve must drive the “phantom carriage” that collects the souls of the dead for the next calendar year. A masterpiece of moody atmospherics with special effects that still impress today. The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray, featuring an intense experimental score by the band KTL, is a wonder.

7. The Crowd (Vidor, USA, 1928)

King Vidor was the king of Hollywood following the boffo box office of The Big Parade and he admirably used that clout to realize this downbeat story of the dark side of the American dream: John Sims (James Murray) was born on the fourth of July in the year 1900 and dreamed of becoming President of the United States. Instead he ends up an anonymous office drone in a very impersonal New York City, which Vidor relates in a series of stunning (and hugely influential) tableau images. “The crowd laughs with you always but it will cry with you for only a day.”

6. Pandora’s Box (Pabst, Germany, 1929)

A lot of German stars have tried their luck in Hollywood. In the late 1920s American actress Louise Brooks did the opposite, moving to Germany and teaming up with director G.W. Pabst for a trio of memorable films. Pandora’s Box is their masterpiece, a realistically told, naturalistically acted story of a woman forced into prostitution who meets her fate at the hands of Jack the Ripper. Although her career went into decline immediately after she returned to Hollywood, Brooks was rediscovered in the 1950s and today has become one of the most iconic visages (and bobbed haircuts) of the silent cinema.

5. Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov, Russia, 1929)

Dziga Vertov’s radical experimental/documentary hybrid shows “a day in the life” of Moscow circa 1929 although the film had been shot over a period of several years in multiple cities including Moscow, Kiev and Odessa. The strobe-effect editing is mind-blowing even by today’s standards (the average shot length is less than three seconds) and the film is so densely packed with ideas that even after dozens of viewings, it still has secrets to reveal. But this is more than a “city symphony” film; it’s also one of the greatest movies ever made about the act of filmmaking, showcasing the talents of not only Vertov but his brother Mikhail Kaufman (the cinematographer who also frequently appears on screen as the title character), and his wife Yveta Svilova (the editor and the film’s true hero). The result is a film that playfully calls attention to the filmmaking process and its almost magical ability to record and transform reality.

4. Our Hospitality (Keaton/Blystone, USA, 1923)

Buster Keaton hit his stride as writer/director/star with his second feature, a riotously funny version of the Hatfield/McCoy feud. Not as well known today as The General, this is for my money Keaton’s funniest film and the one with the most impressive physical stunts (the climactic waterfall rescue has never been equalled). Our Hospitality remains the most modern of all silent comedies due in part to Keaton’s hilariously blank facial expressions as actor as well as his beautifully engineered physical gags as director, which he always profitably captures in immaculately composed long shots. One of the best places to start exploring silent movies period.

3. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (Murnau, USA, 1927)

William Fox brought German Expressionist master F.W. Murnau to Hollywood in 1926 and gave him carte blanche to create this masterpiece, one of the most artistically ambitious silent films. The story is a simple “folk tale” about redemption concerning a farmer who very nearly murders his wife after being seduced by a wicked city girl. The low-key lighting and elaborate tracking shots changed the way films in Hollywood were made overnight (neither Frank Borzage nor John Ford would ever be the same again). One of the most influential films of all time and a kind of Citizen Kane for the silent era.

2. Coeur Fidele (Epstein, France, 1923)

1. Greed (Von Stroheim, USA, 1924)

Erich von Stroheim’s nine hour adaptation of Frank Norris’ classic American novel McTeague was brutally cut down to its present two hour and twenty minute running time by MGM executives, who also unconscionably destroyed all of the excised footage. Remarkably, the remaining shadow of Stroheim’s original vision (an excoriating indictment of the destructive power of money about a dentist, his wife and best friend who find their lives torn apart by greed) is still a deathless masterpiece. The powerhouse performances and shot-on-location Death Valley climax are unforgettable.


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