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#9: Die Bergkatze (1921) January 30, 2010

Posted by badblokebob in : Comedy, Romance, 4 stars, 1920s, world cinema, silent films, 2010 , add a comment

aka The Mountain-Lion / The Wildcat

1921 | Ernst Lubitsch | 82 mins | DVD | PG

Die Bergkatze apparently rounds off Masters of Cinema’s Lubitsch in Berlin box set with appropriate heft: as the blurb asserts, this was “Lubitsch’s personal favourite work of all his German films, [it] represents a peak in both Lubitsch’s silent oeuvre and the silent cinema as a whole.” I wasn’t quite so enamoured with it.

Which, again, isn’t to say it’s bad. The setup takes some time to build up speed, but when it does the gags begin to flow more readily, even if it degenerates to a more stop-start pattern later on. But scenes like the Lieutenant leaving town to an army of toddlers crying “Adios, daddy!” are on the one hand simple but on the other inspired; the first battle sequence is full of marvellously surreal touches, like the robber-leader making coffee to be drunk mid-shoot-out; and the satire on the military (always welcome) is pleasantly thorough, taking pot-shots at numerous elements rather than picking one trait and exhausting it.

Lubitsch once again flips the roles of the sexes: the Lieutenant preens and prunes, spending ages tweaking his hair and clothes in the mirror, and one of the gang of robbers lies on a bed literally crying a river over his lost love; the titular robber’s daughter, however, leads a gang of men in thieving and fighting, living wild, free, and rather dirty, among them. A desired-by-all woman (Pola Negri, successfully branching out into comedy) and at least one mass of man-desiring women help round out a succession of familiar Lubitsch elements. Familiarity may be said to breed contempt, but Lubitsch’s reworking of similar sequences is more a recognisable touchstone than irritating repetition.

Location filming in snow-covered Alps adds a scale and breadth to the film’s imagined-kingdom setting that would be inimitable in a studio. Perhaps art director Ernst Stern was right that the realism of using genuine locations doesn’t quite sit with the highly stylised fort; on the other hand, a studio set simply wouldn’t have the same effect: this isn’t the card-and-wood world of Die Puppe, where clearly fake trees and horses were all part of the illusion. Instead of seeming fake, then, the contrast of a hyper-real fort and genuine-but-exotic locations creates the sense of a proper fantastical realm rather than some fictional stage set. Stern’s design for the fort is beautiful, from the overall look to specific features in each room. It’s scale is quite astonishing, particularly considering it was built on location in the Alps.

Lubitsch’s love of camera mattes, seen with increasing frequency throughout Die Puppe, Die Austernprinzessin and, particularly, Anna Boleyn, is finally allowed free reign here, with shots that conform to the standard 4:3 frame seeming to be the irregularity amongst an unimaginable array of shapes and angles. At times it’s distracting, particularly at the start, but that’s more because it’s a technique we’re now almost entirely unused to rather than any flaw in Lubitsch’s application of it. That said, though he often uses the mattes to enhance or emphasise composition, or suggest something about a character or location, it’s not always clear why he’s choosing to vary the frame so much — other than the sheer fun of it, which, particularly in a comedy, may be reason enough.

Die Bergkatze was a flop on its release in Germany and consequently never distributed elsewhere. Maybe it was, as Lubitsch thought, an unwillingness on the part of German people to have the military satirised; maybe it was the extreme use of unusual framing techniques that left them cold; maybe they just didn’t like it. Though it’s far from my favourite film in the set, it didn’t and doesn’t deserve to be dismissed.

4 out of 5

#8: Anna Boleyn (1920) January 29, 2010

Posted by badblokebob in : Drama, Romance, 3 stars, 1920s, true stories, world cinema, silent films, Biography, Historical, 2010 , add a comment

aka Deception

1920 | Ernst Lubitsch | 118 mins | DVD | PG

In an age where Henry VIII is young, slim and sometimes irritatingly called “Henry 8″, not to mention more interested in shagging every young girl he can find than in, well, anything else, it’s somewhat refreshing to return to a time when he was always older, fatter and more interested in polishing off a huge slab of meat than seeing his wife. OK, so they call him “Heinrich VIII”, but at least that’s because this production team spoke a different language.

The Tudors may be more interested in political intrigue and sex than slavish historical accuracy, but, in fairness, Anna Boleyn isn’t actually much different. The sex isn’t even explicit in dialogue, never mind explicitly shown, but it’s still the cause of Anne’s downfall; and the political intrigue may handle in 10 seconds what The Tudors spent 10 hours (or more) dragging its way through; but it’s this speediness, not to mention Henry’s girth, that are the very things that also leave historical accuracy by the wayside. But, again like The Tudors, that’s not really the point. Some things never change.

Anna Boleyn is, once again for Lubitsch, a romance; though rather than a “happily ever after” ending it has more of a message. Sweet little Anne Boleyn believes King Henry’s eyes are wandering from his wife because he genuinely loves Anne, so she (eventually) goes along with it. He gets a divorce — if proof were needed that historical accuracy is immaterial, it takes about as long as it would today, skipping over a hugely significant part of British history in a heartbeat — and they get married. Anne fails to provide him with a son, and suddenly his lustful eye is roaming again. All it takes is the (false) accusation of a dalliance in the woods with her ex love and it’s off with her head. Poor Anne.

It’s odd to see Anne Boleyn depicted as such an innocent; a tragic figure caught up in the machinations of Henry — and, indeed, History — rather than the plotting, ultimately deserving temptress we’re used to from British (co-)productions. She’s every inch the victim, falling foul of Henry’s appetites — both when he captures her and when he goes after other women in exactly the same we he went for her — and, at the climax, there’s no question she’s being framed. The historical veracity of such a portrayal is, again, suspect. Whether Anne was truly as scheming as she’s commonly depicted, or whether this is the legacy of the nation’s love for Catherine and acceptance of the charges later levelled (or fabricated) against her, I don’t know — my historiography isn’t quite good enough for that I’m afraid — but one suspects she can’t have been as entrapped as suggested here.

On the other hand, Emil Jannings’ Henry is every inch the stereotype, a fat old man gorging himself on food and women, liable to explode with anger at any second. Just because it’s a stereotype doesn’t mean it’s wrong, of course, and Jannings’ performance is a strong one. Henry rages from joyous to furious in a heartbeat, swings from entertained to bored, loving to lustful, and every which way in between. Some of this is conveyed with grand theatrical gestures, but Jannings also pulls much of it off with just his eyes.

Among the rest of the cast, Aud Egede Nissen’s Jane Seymour takes on the typical Anne role as a seductive power-hungry mistress, which is an especially striking comparison to the near-saint recently seen in The Tudors. Ferdinand von Alten’s duplicitous Smeaton, meanwhile, looks and behaves like his surname should be Blackadder.

It’s been asserted that silent films should aspire to use as few intertitles as possible, with none therefore being the ultimate goal. This is clearly a theory Lubitsch never subscribed too. Normally that’s perfectly fine — his intertitles are mostly witty, loaded and never omnipresent. Here, however, there’s an abundance of wordy messages, and while I’m sure they could be worse, they rarely convey anything but plot. Indeed, bar the very occasional instance, the film is devoid of humour.

Lubitsch seems to feel the need to keep himself entertained in other ways, constantly playing with aspect ratio and framing, using dozens of shapes to encircle characters in close up, or isolate a group within a crowd, or just vary his composition with widescreen, tilted widescreen, or a kind of vertical widescreen. And he still knows how to stage a big sequence — the wedding and accompanying riots, packed with hundreds of extras, are quite spectacular. The following dinner scene recalls Die Austernprinzessin with its plethora of guests, waiters and dishes, although it makes for an unfortunate comparison as nothing in Anna Boleyn feels even half as inspired.

Sumurun took a more serious approach than any film thus far in this set, but still had plenty of touches that let you know Lubitsch was behind the camera (not least that he was also in front of it). Aside from some of the choice visual framing devices, or one or two familiar set-ups (the large banquet, four servants helping Henry get dressed), there’s no significant evidence here of Lubitsch’s touch. It’s not a bad film, it’s just not a particularly distinctive one.

3 out of 5

#7: Sumurun (1920) January 27, 2010

Posted by badblokebob in : Drama, Romance, adaptations, 4 stars, 1920s, world cinema, silent films, 2010 , add a comment

aka One Arabian Night

1920 | Ernst Lubitsch | 104 mins | DVD | PG

Sumurun seems completely different to any film yet seen in the Berlin box set, yet this is more in line with the style of film that would ultimately lead Lubitsch to Hollywood.

As the alternate title would suggest, this is primarily an Arabian Nights-style drama… but, while on the surface this looks entirely at odds with Lubitsch’s previous comedy work, it actually concerns itself with the same topic: romance, and the various entanglements and complications that lead to it. What’s different here is that instead of being wholly comic it’s often deadly serious (literally, as it turns out), and instead of one simple girl-meets-boy trajectory (as in the preceding three films) there’s two girls and four boys between them, in various combinations. It’s a many-stranded, relatively complex narrative: there’s a group of travelling minstrels, an old sheikh, a young sheikh, a cloth merchant, a bevy of harem girls — all of whom are connected and interact in varying ways with varying objectives, though most are related to love — or lust.

The change in style is no bad thing. Lubitsch was clearly versatile, turning his hand well to this type of storytelling. His comedies are all based around romance, one way or another, and so treating the subject with a little more seriousness seems no great leap. He keeps control of the plot, despite the numerous strands and complexities, and his comedy background allows the tropes of farce to be employed in furthering the story. His previous use of fantastical realms, like the dolls’ world of Die Puppe, aids a succinct establishment of Lubitsch’s version of Arabia and its specific rules. Indeed, with its fantastical setting and shortage of character names (only Sumurun, Nur al Din and his two slaves — Muffti and Puffti — are known by more than their title, job description or physical impairment), Sumurun may be as much of a parable as some of the comedies.

And still, comedy creeps in round the edges. Lubitsch is arguably showing restraint by not letting every sequence descend into it, but there is a fair amount of wit and humour lurking throughout. It’s mostly applied wisely though, furthering character, story or both: the ugly hunchback who smiles at a child only to make him cry; the harem girls giving their eunuch guardians the runaround (multiple times); the two wannabe-thieves accidentally stealing a pretend-dead body and desperately trying to hide or dispose of it — the last a subplot which ultimately plays a key part in the climax.

What’s a little unclear is why it should be called Sumurun. Perhaps it’s no more than a vestige from the source, because while the titular harem girl is quite significant, she’s no more so than several other characters. Pola Negri’s namless dancer in particular seems more central to the narrative — indeed, she connects most of the disparate groups and plot strands; certainly more of them (and more significantly) than anyone else. But then, Sumurun survives to the end, and — along with her man, Nur al Din the cloth merchant — is the purest, most righteous, most deserving of all the main characters. Conversely, all the ‘bad’ (and, as noted, nameless) characters meet their end: the sheikhs are both fickle, and the old sheikh clearly a nasty piece of work; the dancer is flirty and adulterous; the hunchback, however, is devoted to her, and his tragedy effectively balances the “and they all lived happily ever after” of the freed harem girls and Sumurun and Nur al Din finally getting each other. If this is a parable, there’s quite a clear message about fidelity.

Sumurun may lack the straightforward fun of Lubitsch’s comedies, but by creating a complex and engrossing Arabian epic he entertainingly demonstrates that there was more to him than just the talented comedian.

4 out of 5

#110: The Crowd (1928) November 12, 2007

Posted by badblokebob in : Drama, 4 stars, 1920s, 2007, silent films , add a comment

1928 | King Vidor | 104 mins | TV

Late silent-era drama — though you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a comedy until halfway, when the light antics of a young couple in ’20s New York give way to some increasingly dark drama. Interesting trivia: seven endings were shot for distributors to choose from, some happy and some sad; all chose sad ones. However, the copy we saw (taped from an ’80s TV showing) had a happy ending.

The first half is gentle but amusing; the sudden shift catches the viewer off-guard, undoubtedly making what follows more effective. The main character is in many ways pretty useless and at least some of the problems that befall him are his own fault, yet his comedic treatment in the first half makes you care for him throughout the second.

If you can accept the shifting styles of an age before genre was rigidly defined, The Crowd is a worthwhile experience.

4 out of 5

#109a: Manhatta (1921)

Posted by badblokebob in : Documentary, 2 stars, 1920s, Short, 2007, silent films , add a comment

1921 | Paul Strand & Charles Sheeler | 11 mins | download

Another ’20s city film, showing off (as you might guess from the title) parts of New York. The focus appears to be industrial — skyscrapers under construction, finished architecture, tug boats, trains near the docks; the people of the city only crop up at the start and close, and then only in faceless crowds. It’s interspersed with poetic intertitles, which make for an odd contrast.

Once again, I feel that, unless you want to go getting a bit pretentious (and, to be fair, at least some of these films were made for just that), the main interest here is in an historical perspective: it provides another snapshot of a time and place long gone.

2 out of 5

Available for legal download and streaming at Google Video.

#108b: Skyscraper Symphony (1929) October 22, 2007

Posted by badblokebob in : Documentary, 2 stars, 1920s, Short, 2007, silent films , add a comment

1929 | Robert Florey | 9 mins | download

Another ‘city symphony’ film, this time a short one of skyscrapers in New York. It’s probably hard to ‘appreciate’ this without getting a little pretentious; certainly, it’s much more aimed at creating the feeling of a city, or a visual representation of it, or something like that, than it is with, say, showing pretty views of New York’s buildings. That said, in between the meaningful mucking about, there are some fairly impressive sights to be seen.

2 out of 5

Available with mildly dubious legality, and a live score by “experimental sound artists” Ampersand, on YouTube.

#108: Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927)

Posted by badblokebob in : Documentary, 2 stars, 1920s, world cinema, 2007, silent films , add a comment

aka Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Grosstadt

1927 | Walter Ruttmann | 65 mins | download

German silent movie depicting a day in the ‘life’ of Berlin, part of the ‘city symphony’ genre that was popular around the 1920s. This makes it one of those films that is in some way important, but sadly it’s still a bit, well, boring.

Essentially it’s a documentary showing many facets of city life and industry, though with no kind of narration and often edited in an artistic fashion (fast cutting and crazy angles to represent the chaos of a busy junction, for example). It has its moments (the opening train journey being the highlight for me) and I’m sure some would find the footage of ’20s life fascinating, but it’s the sort of thing that’s just too dull for my tastes. For something similar which I enjoyed a bit more, try the Russian Man With a Movie Camera.

2 out of 5

Berlin is available for legal download and streaming at Google Video.

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