Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Urban Gad | Zapatas Bande (Zapata's Gang)

pretend to shoot and stab me quick before you kiss!

by Douglas Messerli

Urban Gad (screenwriter and director) Zapatas Bande (Zapata’s Gang) / 1914

Danish director Urban Gad’s 1914 German-produced film is a rarity in early silent film-making. With its hand-tinted frames—blue, yellow, red, and brown—Gad’s leading lady, his wife, the silent film star Asta Nielsen joins up with a band of fellow Danish and German actors (Fred Immler, Hans Lanser-Rudolf, Carl Dibbern, Max Agerty, Ernst Körner, and others) to portray members of a Scandinavian film company, Nordland, transported to northern Italy where they hope to make a movie about the real Zapata’s roadside gang of robbers.

     Everything in this remarkable comedy gets off to a wrong start. The company members, who cannot speak a word of Italian, pay an Italian “translator” to hire a group of actors who will play the travelers on a coach which Nielsen and others will pretend to “hold up” on camera. The  translator keeps the money without bothering to hire others.

     Meanwhile, the actors travel to a deserted spot outside of the town in which they’re staying, partying by celebrating a kind of impromptu picnic before setting up temporary outdoor dressing cubicles and don their costumes, leaving their own clothes behind as they wander down to the road like a merry band of performers out of a Shakespeare comedy, hide behind a crevice of the nearby mountain, and await the arrival of the coach which they intend rob on camera. As the girl bandit, Nielsen is wonderfully attired in a short mid-riff tattered garment exposing one naked leg, a hand-woven blanket tossed over her shoulder, with a full black hat and boots at top and bottom.

     Despite warnings that Zapata’s gang may be in the neighborhood, Countess Bellafiore decides to accompany her daughter Elena on an outing that very day. And it is their coach that comes around the bend at the very moment the actors await for the hired extras to appear. 

     When the Bellafiore coach appears the acting bandits jump out demanding the women disembark, men threatening both the elder and younger. Suddenly Nielsen jumps in between Elena and her fellow bandit ready, so it appears, to rape the girl. Pulling a gun she demands her cohort  to “unhand” the damsel and awards the clearly excitable girl with a kiss, Elena almost swooning in the process. Soon after, they disperse, the two women reboarding and returning home, Elena unable to forget the event and her romantically-inclined savior.

       While the film has been shooting, as we might have feared, the real Zapata gang has made their way to the glen where the actors have left their clothes, gathering them up and whisking them away. When the actors return after their shoot they find no sign of their clothes nor, evidently, any method of returning to their hotel. When they try to make their way to a nearby village to find new clothing and a mode of transportation back to the city, the villagers, perceiving them as the Zapata gang, greet them with volleys of gun fire, and they are forced to retreat.

     Since the actors have gone missing, their manager, fearful that they might have been abducted by Zapata’s bandits, calls in the gendarmes to search for them, and they too now are scouting the wilds to which the actors have been forced to retire. After a cold, sleepless night in open fields,  Nielsen suggests that they have no alternative if they want to eat but to themselves become bandits, robbing chickens and other produce from the local inhabitants.

      Any viewer can perceive where this marvelous 42-minute film is heading. Already, like the several early works, such as those portraying scenes from The Portrait of Dorian Gray and Charles Chaplin’s Behind the Screen, silent filmmakers were beginning to recognize that since their moving pictures were so closely related to photography and the depiction of “real” life that cinema narrative was inherently related to issues of the relationship of art and reality. There was the potential, writers, directors, and actors quickly perceived, that what was put on celluloid might be easily confused with everyday life experiences, that the characters actors created on film might  simply be misunderstood as representations of real-life beings. And that obfuscation of identity could easily spill over to a confusion between desire and sex equally, since the stories the films represented were like dreams of desire representing as they often did figures of great sexual appeal.

      Elena’s sudden desire for her female savior—borne out of the romantic tales read by young women of the late 18th and throughout the 19th century—is just such an example. Elena has not only confused fiction with reality, but misperceived cinematic narrative as real-life action. Her condition is not unlike the situation in Vincente Minelli’s 1948 film, The Pirate, portraying a young girl in love with the legendary Caribbean pirate, “Mack the Black”—who has become the older, obese man named Don Pedro to whom she has been promised in marriage—becomes “confused” by the attentions of an equally romantic circus actor and singer, Serafin, who attempts to steal her heart from both her fictional conception of romance and its real-life representation. In the end, the actor wins her heart. And of course the entire audience falls in love with the cinematic representations of these characters played Walter Slezak,  Judy Garland, and Gene Kelly.

      It is while rummaging for food that Nielsen accidentally re-encounters Elena, who is absolutely delighted to find her hero has entered her bedroom while she slept. Just to make it safe for her once again to lose her heart—a prelude one might imagine to losing her virginity—she demands that the bandit once more take out her/his gun, aiming it at her. Accordingly, she hugs and kisses her hero, while Nielsen attempts to explain to her in pigeon-Italian that what she and her gang most need at the moment is not love but food.

      Elena quickly brings back a large basket of bread and other food stuffs, but will release it to Nielsen only if she promises that she may also join the gang.

      Almost immediately upon meeting up with another of the actor’s gang, Elena demands that he take out his sword to protect her from being ravaged by Nielsen, a scenario he rather confusingly plays out, permitting her to go with him while still allowing Nielsen to take the girl in hand and lead her to the others.

      It’s evident that this apparently bi-sexual young girl—perhaps the first such figure introduced to cinema—can permit herself to be seduced only through violence, perhaps another filmmaking first given its sado-masochist implications. The film gets even stranger when, as they join up with the gang, Nielsen demands they change costumes, she dressing in Elena’s gown while Elena becomes Nielsen’s cinematic version of a bandit.

     To confuse matters more, finding her daughter gone, Countess Bellafiore also summons the police who go on search of her daughter, believing she too has been kidnapped by the Zapata group, bringing the final tally of those out to capture the actor bandits, accordingly, to two sets of police authorities, to say nothing of the “real” gang itself.

    Fortunately, dressed in civilian attire, Nielsen makes her way to the Scandinavian consul, the only man who might be able to understand her now complex story in its original language (one might also interpret this work to be about the problem of translation given that the Danish speaking Gad and Nielsen were working on a German-language film company in Italy) convincing him to follow her into the wilds to settle the situation just as the various forces have descended upon the gay of players to do them in.

     The movie actors and their crews quickly pack up and return home with no film in the can, but with, so the movie tells us, a great many “new experiences” which we might describe as insights into the minds and hearts of their fellow beings.

Los Angeles, May 11, 2021

Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (May 2021).


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