Tag Archives: M

E.U. Film Festival Week Three: Vote for Pedro!

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At Cine-File today I have a review of Horse Money, the latest film from Portuguese master Pedro Costa, which receives its Chicago premiere at the Siskel Center’s European Union Film Festival tonight. It’s Costa’s fourth consecutive fiction feature to examine the lives of Cape Verdean immigrants living in the Lisbon shantytown of Fontainhas (which hopefully means the Criterion Collection will upgrade their Fontainhas trilogy DVD box-set to a new quadrilogy Blu-ray set) and, in many ways, it’s the most accessible since the first, 1997’s Ossos. It also forms a diptych with Costa’s last fiction feature, 2006’s Colossal Youth, since both take the retired construction worker credited only as “Ventura” as their subject. This is flat-out amazing filmmaking, folks — as poetic as it is political, and informed by a cinephilia that is put to very different ends than the self-congratulatory, spot-the-reference, Tarantino/Simpsons variety that has become depressingly commonplace in contemporary American culture. Note, for instance, the way Ventura is alternately lit and framed to resemble both Darby Jones in Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked With a Zombie (i.e., as he wanders the halls of a hospital in a zombie-like trance) at the film’s beginning and Woody Strode in John Ford’s Sergeant Rutledge (i.e., made to seem heroic) during the film’s astonishing climactic elevator/”exorcism” scene — and what each of these visual quotations reveals about his character.

Both Costa and John Ford frame their protagonists from below but light them from above, making the characters seem heroic:

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I also had the great pleasure of interviewing Costa for Time Out Chicago this week. I asked him if Horse Money‘s final shot, which depicts Ventura looking at knives in a store’s display window, was an homage to a similar shot in Fritz Lang’s M. He said that it wasn’t a conscious reference but added that I may have been right to bring up the man he reverentially calls “Mr. Lang” (whose films were so concerned with “justice”) before adding the killer line, “Our films should avenge.” You can read the complete interview here.

Darby Jones as Carrefour in the Val Lewton/Jacques Tourneur masterpiece I Walked with a Zombie:

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Peter Lorre, as the child killer Hans Beckert, looking at knives in a display window in Fritz Lang’s M:

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2010: The Year of the Fritz

Today’s post, in which I bestow a “filmmaker of the year” honor, is the first of three offering a highly personal round-up of the year in movies. It will be followed in the next two weeks by posts relating my ten favorite home video releases of 2010 and my ten favorite theatrically released movies of 2010. So stay tuned . . .

During the past calendar year, the single filmmaker whose work inspired me the most was not Abbas Kiarostami, Apichatpong Weerasethakul nor David Fincher, even though that esteemed trio was collectively responsible for directing the three best new films I saw in 2010. Instead, I’d like to bestow my first annual White City Cinema Filmmaker of the Year honor on a man who was born 120 years ago this month, died in 1975 and directed his last film in 1960. A pioneer of the German Expressionist movement who became a master of American film noir. A director of stunningly composed geometric images whose dispassionate view of the individual’s relationship to society made him, along with Shohei Imamura, cinema’s greatest entomologist. A man who habitually wore a monocle (but only for dramatic effect), told self-mythologizing tall tales about his filmmaking career in Weimar-era Berlin, had a reputation for being sadistic to actors, and included a shot of his own hands in every single one of his films. Of course I mean Fritz Lang.

Like all great film artists, Lang’s best work continues to look better over time and has remained relevant to generations of cinephiles in ways that Lang himself probably never could have anticipated. 2010 saw yet another restoration/re-release of Lang’s seminal Metropolis, one of the most famous of all science fiction movies, albeit in a new cut that restored the film to something closely approximating its original length for the first time since its 1927 premiere. (Now missing only about 5 minutes of footage, this is likely the most complete the film will ever be.) After a successful theatrical run, especially for a silent film, the “complete” Metropolis was released as a perfect Blu-ray disc by Kino in November. Additionally, 2010 saw the Criterion Collection release M, Lang’s first sound film and arguably the greatest German movie of all time, in a spiffy new Blu-ray edition that easily superseded all previous home video releases. If that weren’t enough, Lang’s Moonfleet from 1955, highly regarded in auteurist circles, received its U.S. DVD debut courtesy of the Warner Archives label and his final Hollywood film, the superb noir While the City Sleeps from 1956, received its world DVD debut from the UK label Exposure. (I didn’t buy these last two however; I’ve got to eat too, for God’s sake!) Revisiting Metropolis and M, arguably the twin peaks of Lang’s career, in their newest incarnations, was simply the most fun I had at the movies this year. For me, 2010 was truly the year of the Fritz.

The story of the many lives of Metropolis is by now familiar; after its disappointing German premiere, the film was drastically cut by UFA, the studio that had allowed Lang to realize his ambitious and expensive folly. Metropolis has seemingly been in a state of perpetual “restoration” ever since, including a misguided 1984 version supervised by composer Giorgio Moroder that featured an incongruous pop music soundtrack, and a much-ballyhooed 2001 “re-construction” that was thought to be definitive. Then, in 2008, a 16mm print of Metropolis was found in an archive in Buenos Aires that ran almost 30 minutes longer than any previously known version. This print, in admittedly poor condition and in a different aspect ratio than the original film, was sent to Berlin where the F.W. Murnau Foundation (the film’s official rights holder) performed a digital clean-up of the “missing scenes” and integrated them into the 2001 restoration. This Metropolis was given a rapturously received re-premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival in February and the rest, as they say, is history.

I hasten to add that I think the newly restored footage, which I first saw projected at the Music Box over the summer, made a world of difference in my estimation of Metropolis as a whole. While it still isn’t my personal favorite silent Lang (that would be the apocalyptic, two-part Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler from 1922 and the prototypical espionage thriller Spies from 1928), the “complete” Metropolis has fleshed out a couple of previously sketchy subplots that give the film a greater sense of harmony and balance. I also found that the film’s controversial ending, much derided even by some of Lang’s admirers, works for me in a way that it never did before. I can only concur with Roger Ebert when he called this new/old version the “film event of the year.”

The aspect of Metropolis that seems most prescient today may be its depiction of class warfare; the futuristic city of the title is only able to function because of a slave-labor system that keeps the working class confined to a world that is literally underground. While many other sci-fi movies have since come and gone that look dated in their attempts at allegorizing contemporary issues (the now long-gone Cold War, for instance), I think Metropolis still looks an awful lot like the world we’re living in. Specifically, it looks like Dubai. Lang brings this futuristic world to life through a pioneering use of special effects, all of which still have the ability to impress and charm (and which clearly exerted an influence on everything from Dr. Strangelove to Star Wars to Blade Runner to The Fifth Element to even the sci-fi sections of Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046). However, the most impressive “effect” in Metropolis for me remains the performance of nineteen year old Brigitte Helm, who positively dazzles as the wholesome and beautiful workers’ advocate Maria as well as the sensual, evil robot designed in her image. Eighty three years after the film’s premiere, it remains a real pleasure to watch Helm act the hell out of this dual role.

The symmetry that’s brought into focus with the restored footage is Lang’s doppelganger motif, which previously encompassed the divide between underground/above ground, workers/bourgeoisie and human Maria/robot Maria. The new restoration fully fleshes out Lang’s schema so that similar doublings occur between the film’s other major characters: Georgy 11811, a member of the slave-like proletariat trades places with Freder, the aristocratic son of Fredersen, Metropolis’ autocratic ruler. Georgy 11811 explores Metropolis’ seamier side (such as the delightfully decadent Yoshiwara club where the robot Maria performs an outrageous production number designed to inspire impure thoughts); for his part, Freder discovers the hard way, through monotonous, back-breaking labor, what exactly makes his father’s city run. But the most crucial doubling seen in the restored footage is one of the most fleeting sequences: Fredersen and Dr. Rotwang, the mad scientist who creates the robot Maria, commiserate at the foot of a monument to Hel, the woman whom both men loved and lost.

The doppelganger motif, a favorite device of German Expressionism in general and Lang in particular, also rears its head in M. Thanks to Criterion’s Blu-ray, the dichotomy drawn by Lang between the police and the criminal underworld in 1931 Berlin is thrown into sharper relief than ever before. But where Metropolis comes much closer to “pure” Expressionism, M mixes Expressionist techniques with elements of the police procedural and the serial killer thriller (both of which it can be seen as having written the playbook on) in a way that anticipates film noir; suspense is built not only through the film’s plotting but through the tension that arises between its stylized, abstract qualities (high contrast lighting, overhead angles, recurring images of a spiral) and its more conventional narrative elements.

What was ultimately being “expressed” in the German Expressionism movement were the innermost thoughts and feelings of a film’s characters, which Expressionist filmmakers attempted to externalize through a distorted and exaggerated mise-en-scene. Sci-fi, fantasy and horror were popular Expressionist genres precisely because they were the most conducive to extreme stylization of cinematography, lighting and set design. When M was released, the Expressionist movement was effectively over and yet stylistic traces remain; the film’s Expressionist qualities mainly concern the subjective experiences of Hans Beckert (the serial killer expertly played by bug-eyed Peter Lorre) as he stalks the streets of Berlin, but they co-exist with narrative qualities that occasionally achieve a documentary-like realism: the film begins with the sound of a gong like that heard before radio news reports in Germany at the time. Many of the scenes involving both the police and criminal underworlds contain “inventory shots,” in which Lang’s camera objectively surveys the tools of the trade of each group. Some early montage scenes, in which we see a police dragnet widening day-by-day as the search for the heinous child killer expands, come across like something out of a police training film.

My favorite aspect of M though is the film’s innovative sound design, which is saying a lot given Lang’s visual mastery. In 1931, Hollywood films had taken a huge step backwards in terms of visual sophistication due to the difficulties of early sound recording. Additionally, even the best Hollywood directors of the time were frequently saddled with “dialogue directors” brought in from the world of theater by untrusting studio executives. As a result, most American films of the early sound era look static, theatrical and uncinematic. Fritz Lang, on the other hand, saw creative possibilities for the use of sound while simultaneously refusing to allow his camerawork to suffer. Instead, sound and image work together in M in a kind of relay; indeed, it was the first film in which the sound of a character’s voice from one scene was carried over into another scene set in a different location. Intercutting between two groups of people in two different locations (the police and the criminals), Lang reinforces the parallel between them by having them seemingly finish each other’s sentences. At other times, Lang shuts the soundtrack off entirely to convey a feeling of eerie quiet. And, finally, there is the absence of a traditional musical score. Instead, the only music heard in the film is Beckert’s whistling of “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” which allows the audience to identify the killer even when he is not onscreen.

One of the welcome supplements on Criterion’s M Blu-ray is M le maudit, a short film tribute/remake by the late, great Claude Chabrol. This is fitting as no other director in the history of cinema proved to be as astute a student of Lang as did Chabrol. However, as masterful as Chabrol at his best could undoubtedly be, even this tribute underscores the idea that Lang is a cinematic giant precisely because he did it all first. Lang’s best movies deserve to be re-discovered by each new generation of film buffs, as Metropolis and M continually have been, whether by theatrical revival or in new transfers on the latest home video technology. And if that final missing five minutes of Metropolis ever does turn up, I’ll be first in line to see it again.


Top 25 Films of the 1930s

25. Alexander Nevsky (Eisenstein, Russia, 1938)

24. The Lady Vanishes (Hitchcock, UK, 1938)

It seems that 1935’s The 39 Steps has become the consensus pick for the masterpiece of Hitchcock’s British period but, while I do love that film unreservedly, I love this outrageously entertaining spy caper even more. While aboard a transcontinental train, Iris, a beautiful young Englishwoman, befriends Miss Froy, an elderly woman who mysteriously disappears. In a signature nightmarish paranoid plot, Hitchcock has all of the other passengers deny that Froy was ever on the train, which causes Iris to question her sanity. It’s up to Gilbert (Michael Redgrave in his screen debut), an unflappably witty ethnomusicologist, to help Iris get to the bottom of the mystery. This is one of Hitchcock’s most purely entertaining films, which is saying a lot, in part because of the colorful supporting players; I’m particularly fond of the hilarious slapstick brawl between Gilbert, Iris and a nefarious Italian magician. As someone who wore out his public domain VHS copy as a teenager, I am exceedingly grateful to the Criterion Collection for their impeccable 2011 Blu-ray.

23. Freaks (Browning, USA, 1932)

22. The Only Son (Ozu, Japan, 1936)

My favorite pre-war Yasujiro Ozu film is also his first sound movie, an exceedingly poignant story of the relationship between a single mother who slaves away in a silk factory to give her son the best possible education only to be disappointed when he doesn’t grow up to fulfill her lofty expectations. Exquisite direction, including a signature use of cutaways to seemingly random exteriors, nuanced performances and a simple, unsentimental plot combine for a unique and deeply moving experience.

21. Outskirts (Barnet, Russia, 1933)

Although active as a director until his death by suicide in 1965, Boris Barnet is probably best known for his silent film work (e.g., The Girl with the Hatbox and Miss Mend). Outskirts (AKA The Patriots) was Barnet’s first sound movie and remains an unjustly underseen masterpiece of its era. The film is a comedy/drama about the residents of an unnamed town in rural Russia in the days leading up to World War I. It starts off as a comedy that boasts a delightful and innovative use of sound (where animals and even inanimate objects are given voice) but becomes increasingly serious after the war breaks out. Most surprising of all is the tender love subplot that develops between a Russian peasant girl and a German POW. Hopefully, Outskirts will someday receive the loving home video release it deserves and become much better known among cinephiles.

20. Young Mr. Lincoln (Ford, USA, 1939)

19. Our Neighbor, Miss Yae (Shimazu, Japan, 1934)

The one and only film I’ve been able to track down by the esteemed Yasujiro Shimazu is this delightful comedy/drama about the friendship between two neighboring families set in contemporary suburban Japan. The plot concerns a love triangle between a law student who “looks like Frederic March” and the two sisters next door, one of whom is newly separated from her husband. In a lot of ways, this feels like the most modern (and westernized) Japanese movie of its era – the characters play baseball, watch a Betty Boop cartoon and engage in hilarious, flirtatious banter. The exchanges between the law student and the younger sister in particular (the Miss Yae of the title) are highly memorable and infectiously fun.

18. People on Sunday (Siodmak/Ulmer, Germany, 1930)

A remarkable documentary-like narrative film about a weekend in the life of ordinary Berliners, People on Sunday centers on five characters who are portrayed by non-actors with day-jobs similar to those of their counterparts in the story. The film is also fascinating in that it was made by a collective of young amateur filmmakers, all of whom would soon go on to notable careers in Hollywood: it was directed by brothers Curt and Robert Siodmak, Edgar Ulmer and Fred Zinnemann based on a script by Billy Wilder.

17. The Blue Angel (Von Sternberg, Germany, 1930)

The Blue Angel is notable for many reasons, including its status as the first German talkie and the film that launched Marlene Dietrich to international stardom. The story is reminiscent of Variety with Emil Jannings again playing a man who is driven to ruin by a treacherous woman, this time a cabaret singer of loose morals named Lola Lola (Dietrich at her most iconic). This was the only German-made film by Austrian director Josef von Sternberg.

16. Mr. Thank You (Shimizu, Japan, 1936)

Like Yasujiro Ozu, Hiroshi Shimizu was one of the top directors at Shochiku Studios in the 1930s – although his work was virtually unknown in the West until the 21st century. Mr. Thank You is an astonishing film about a bus driver known for his politeness who travels from town to town through rural Japan. It takes place virtually in real time and was shot on a real bus traveling through the countryside (no rear projection was used), which makes it an important stylistic precursor to both Italian Neorealism and the road movies of Abbas Kiarostami. Shimizu’s film is both universal (a bus journey as a metaphor for life – a series of sad, funny, ephemeral encounters between fellow travelers) and specifically rooted in Depression-era Japan (a woman sells her daughter into prostitution, a Korean laborer helps to build a road that she herself cannot afford to travel on by bus).

15. Vampyr (Dreyer, Germany, 1932)

14. L’age d’Or (Bunuel, France, 1930)

Luis Bunuel’s first feature-length film is also his first masterpiece, a hilarious Surrealist account of a man and a woman who repeatedly attempt to get together and have sex but are continually prevented from doing so by members of respectable bourgeois society. This is full of famous Surrealist images, which still retain their awesome, funny, unsettling power today: a woman shoos a full grown cow off of the bed in her upper-class home, a groundskeeper arbitrarily shoots his son, a woman lasciviously sucks on the toe of a statue, a man throws various objects, including a burning tree, a bishop and a giraffe, out of a second story window. Like a lot of great works of Surrealist art, this was deliberately meant to counter the rising tide of fascism that was sweeping across Europe at the time.

13. The Goddess (Wu, China, 1934)

12. Scarface: The Shame of a Nation (Hawks, USA, 1932)

11. Trouble in Paradise (Lubitsch, USA, 1932)

German emigre director Ernst Lubitsch inaugurated his mature period with this elegant, witty and sophisticated comedy about a love triangle between a master thief (Herbert Marshall), a female pickpocket (Miriam Hopkins) and the wealthy businesswoman they are both trying to fleece (Kay Francis). Not only a hilarious film but a very beautiful one; if you want to know what the famous “Lubitsch touch” is all about, this is the best place to start.

10. The Roaring Twenties (Walsh, USA, 1939)

The conventions of the gangster movie crystallized in the early ’30s with the release of The Public Enemy, Little Caesar and Scarface. By decade’s end, director Raoul Walsh and star James Cagney, both specialists in the genre, delivered the definitive gangster movie with this epic and nostalgic look back at the rise and fall of the bootlegging industry. The way the narrative of The Roaring Twenties continually opens up to situate its events within a wider social context (from the first World War to the stock market crash of ’29) would exert a major influence on Martin Scorsese. And, as the heavy, Humphrey Bogart is a match for Cagney made in tough guy movie heaven.

9. The Awful Truth (McCarey, USA, 1937)

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8. City Lights (Chaplin, USA, 1931)

Charlie Chaplin had more success than any of the silent clowns in transitioning to the sound era – in part because he delayed doing so for as long as possible. City Lights was his last true silent and the penultimate outing of his beloved “Little Tramp” character. Here, the Tramp falls in love with a poor, blind flower girl who mistakenly believes him to be a rich man. Alternately funny and poignant in the best Chaplin tradition, this film also provides the best example of Chaplin’s still relatively unheralded genius as filmmaker: the only close-ups that occur in the entire film are in the final moments, which make them all the more impacting.

7. Earth (Dovzhenko, Ukraine, 1930)

My favorite Soviet film of the silent era is Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Earth, whose slender narrative about the virtues of collective farming in the Ukraine is merely an excuse for the director to present a succession of rapturously beautiful painterly images: wheat fields waving in the wind, rain falling on fruit, a young woman standing next to a giant sunflower and a series of unforgettable faces that resemble paintings of religious icons. Dovzhenko got his start as a painter and cartoonist and his purely visual approach to storytelling would serve as a model for future Soviet directing greats Andrei Tarkovsky and Sergei Paradjanov.

6. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (Mizoguchi, Japan, 1939)

The first major masterpiece of Kenji Mizoguchi’s career is this towering period drama about the taboo relationship between a wealthy young actor and his family’s wet nurse. The formal precision of Mizoguchi’s exquisitely calibrated camera movements, combined with his signature use of long takes and long shots (there are literally no close-ups in the movie), is perfectly suited to his twin themes of doomed love and female sacrifice. This may have been a routine melodrama in the hands of any other director but Mizoguchi, the consummate perfectionist, knew that his rigorous visual style would touch and elevate the viewer. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums ranks alongside of Mizoguchi’s best post-war films (The Life of Oharu, Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff) as one of the greatest achievements in cinema.

5. Humanity and Paper Balloons (Yamanaka, Japan, 1937)

Sadao Yamanaka is considered a major figure in Japanese movies of the early sound era. He died tragically before reaching his thirtieth birthday and only three of the twenty-plus films he directed in his brief, prolific career survive today. This is cause for bitter regret because Humanity and Paper Balloons is probably my favorite Japanese movie of the entire pre-war era, a film I would rank ahead of the greatest early work of the more well-known directors on this list. Set in the Tokugawa era, this story of a kidnap and ransom plot across class lines is a jidai-geki (period piece) that feels like a gendai-geki (contemporary story). Indeed, it’s fascinating to see such an unromanticized view of the samurai class, which went against cinematic trends of the pre-war years. This flawlessly directed portrait of 18th century village life is alternately tragic and funny and brimming with unforgettable characters.

4. M (Lang, Germany, 1931)

My favorite German movie of all time is this police procedural/serial killer thriller based on the exploits of several real-life German murderers of the 1920s. M was Fritz Lang’s first sound film and his innovative use of dialogue, sound effects and music (the killer’s habitual whistling) was hugely influential on subsequent movies. This was also the screen debut of theatrical actor Peter Lorre, chilling and believable as the killer, who would soon follow his director in carving out a memorable Hollywood career.

3. L’atalante (Vigo, France, 1934)

L’atalante tells the story of a newly married couple, a barge captain and his provincial wife, and their tumultuous honeymoon-cum-cargo trip along the Seine river. The simple boy-meets-girl/boy-loses-girl/boy-finds-girl plot is merely an excuse for director Jean Vigo and ace cinematographer Boris Kaufman to serve up an array of rapturously photographed images, all of which correspond to the emotions of his protagonists. In a legendary supporting role, Michel Simon’s portrayal of a tattooed, cat-loving first mate is as endearing as it is hilarious. One of cinema’s transcendental glories – endlessly rewatchable, always uplifting.

2. The Rules of the Game (Renoir, France, 1939)

This is Jean Renoir’s masterpiece and the grandaddy of all films about an assortment of friends and lovers getting together for a weekend-long party in the country. The “rules of the game” are the rules one must abide by in order to get along in society, which involves a considerable amount of dishonesty. Fittingly, the one character who is incapable of lying, the earnest, heart-on-his-sleeve aviator Andre, is also the character who dies “like an animal in the hunt.” Like the best works of Shakespeare or Chekhov, this humanist tragicomedy captures timeless truths about the inner workings of the human heart.

1. City Girl (Murnau, USA, 1930)

F.W. Murnau’s final Hollywood movie was lost until the early 1970s, then seriously critically reappraised when excellent quality DVD and blu-ray versions appeared in the 21st century. The film charts the relationship between a young wheat farmer (Charles Farrell) and his city girl bride (Mary Duncan) through blissful courtship, disillusion with meddling in-laws and the austerity of farm life and, ultimately, hard-won and believable reconciliation. As with all of Murnau’s best work, documentary realism is combined with breathtaking and poetic flights of fancy: Farrell and Duncan’s “run through the wheat” is probably my favorite 30 seconds in any movie ever.


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