Friday, August 30, 2013

Robert Bresson | Les Dame du Bois de Boulogne (The Ladies of the Bois de Boulogne)

obsessed beings
by Douglas Messerli

Robert Bresson and Jean Cocteau (screenplay), Robert Bresson (director) Les Dame du Bois de Boulogne (The Ladies of the Bois de Boulogne) / 1945

Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (The Ladies of the Bois de Boulogne), is a wonderful Robert Bresson film that doesn’t seem at all like a Bresson film. In his second feature Bresson—although he had remarkable cinematic abilities—still did not quite understand, it is apparent, precisely who he was. The film, a highly melodramatic work, with a truly literary text by Jean Cocteau, starred the great María Casares and the noted actor Paul Bernard (unlike the remainder of Bresson films which used unknowns as actors), performing—both of them in their high dramatic extravagance—in a text based on an incident in Denis Diderot masterwork, Jacques le fataliste.

      Hélène (the wealthy and vengeful Casares) and Jean (the weak, but sophisticated Bernard) have joined themselves in a marriage of the mind, a commitment to each other that still permits them other dalliances, but is based, so she supposes, on a sincere promise of faithfulness. A late night concert with another male friend reveals to Hélène that her relationship with Jean is not necessarily what she perceives it. As her friend observes, “There is no such thing as love, only proofs of love,” of which Hélène has little evidence. Encountering her “lover” after the event, she tests him, suggesting that, despite their pledge of love, her feelings have grown cooler, to which Jean almost leaps into agreement, declaring that his own feelings are quite similar, asking her for his “freedom”:

                             I give you back your freedom, and you’ll give me mine!

     The scheming Hélène has her answer: her lover is only too eager to leave her, to which she seemingly demurs, planning at that instant her reaction; “I’ll have my revenge!”
That revenge involves a somewhat innocent dancer and her mother, who both once lived near her country estate. Since those apparent halcyon days, mother and daughter have moved to Paris so that Agnès might explore a dancing career. But she is no gifted ballerina, now appearing in a cabaret, singing while accomplishing great cartwheels, and helping to further support her career with paid evenings with her many admirers. In short, she has become a kind of prostitute.

      With the cruel sweep of a descending blade, Hélène, presenting herself as a kind of “angel,” inserts herself into the lives of this troubled duo, offering to remove them from their conditions of destitute sexuality, putting them up in a comfortable—if not glamorous—apartment, and warning the mother to help protect her daughter from further moral defilement. The two appreciate the act, and despite the evil intentions of Hélène, she is, in some senses, superficially “honest,” insisting that they remain above and apart of the sexual world they once inhabited, while at the same time arranging a meeting with the daughter and mother with her former lover, Jean, at the Bois de Boulogne.
That meeting has its expected effects, Jean falling deeply in love with whom he perceives as the absolutely innocent young woman, Agnès, who, described by Hélène as “impeccable,” will have nothing to do with him. As he becomes more and more obsessed with the young girl—a theme one might almost imagine in Proust—Hélène increasingly encourages the women, in what seems like concerned familial advice to stay clear of him. Knowing both figures well, however, she perceives the eventual result. Both she and her former lover are obsessed individuals. Giving up just enough information to bring the two together, Hélène determines their ultimate encounter, the mother—in one of many of Cocteau’s brilliant dialogical moments—informing Jean “I can’t ask you in. Come in.”       

      His entry ultimately results in Agnès’ acceptance of his offer to marry her, despite her suspicions of Hélène’s intentions. She cannot help but be delighted that, given her past, that she might find fulfillment in a relationship with the wealthy and sophisticated Jean.

      Of course, Hélène is not yet finished with torture of the figures upon whom she has focused, warning Agnès to say nothing of her previous life until after her marriage, and then, gossiping into her former lover’s ear about Agnès’ at the very moment the ceremony has come to an end. In a grand dramatic gesture, she has invited most of Agnès’ fomer lovers to the affair. Jean, ever the coward, attempts to escape, as Hélène, ever the torturer, entraps him by the placement of her car. Agnès—the weak of heart, and the true “angel” of this piece—faints, having already suggested that she can no longer endure serious physical activity.
      What might convince one that this is indeed a Bresson movie, and not a film by the equally talented Max Ophuls, is revealed, however—once Agnès has fallen into her death faint, with Jean returning, insisting that he still he still loves her, and begging her to come back to life, a faint smile upon her face suggesting that she not only has heard him but will, in fact, survive to rectify and salve the evil intents of Hélène—a true Bresson work, salvation at its center.

      What we perceive in this brilliant film is that Bresson was working through a more traditional form in order to determine what he would soon after alter to create an indelible new way of thinking about filmmaking. But even here, in Les Dame du Bois de Boulogne, we recognize him already as a great cinematographer.

Los Angeles, August 29, 2013     

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Jacques Becker | Le Trou (The Hole)

an existential exit
by Douglas Messerli
Jacques Becker, José Gijovanni, and Jean Aurel (based on a novel by José Giovanni), Jacques Becker (director) Le Trou (The Hole) / 1960

Four men imprisoned in France’s Santé Prison for various criminal acts, have determined to break out. So begins what, at first, might seem like yet another film about a prison break, and even I, who knew of Jacques Becker’s significant film works, felt some reservations about the subject. What new angles could possibly have been expressed in this 1960 film, especially since I had recently seen Robert Bresson’s stunningly beautiful A Man Escaped of four years earlier? Indeed Becker’s work bears some similarity to Bresson’s in that his actors are amateurs, and he approaches his subject, somewhat like Bresson, in an almost documentary style, beginning the film, in fact, with a kind of testimony to its reality by Jean Keraudy, the real-life mastermind of the attempted escape.

Whereas, Bresson’s work, however, is intensely about isolation and spiritual salvation, Becker’s is a down-to-earth expression of brotherly love and commitment to a social grouping, no matter how small it may be. The four, we perceive from some of the earliest scenes, are, as different as they may be, deeply interlinked, working together as a unit that—although not precisely sexual—represents a communal spirit that makes it clear that they are willing to die for one another. Into this community, a new prisoner is introduced by the prison authorities, a handsome young man, Claude Gaspared (Marc Michel) who we realize from the very beginning doesn’t quite fit. He is not only a “pretty boy,” while the others, Roland Darbant (Jean Keraudy), Manu Borelli (Philippe Leroy), Monseigneur (Raymond Meunier), and Geo (Michael Constantin) are closer to thugs. They are clearly criminals who have lived hard lives, working previously as laborers or factory workers, while Geo has been a car salesman with a rich wife. Accordingly, they are at first cautious about revealing to Geo their plans; yet how are they to pursue plans if they do not? Despite the fact that we have already perceived that the prison director has seemingly taken an interest in the younger man, we too soon grow to admire the diffident “boy,” who is perfectly willing to share the foods he receives from the outside, and is most appreciative of the other men’s attentions.

Consequently, while still hesitant, the men share their intentions, and he, quite willingly, joins them, expressing his “luck” at having been transferred to their cell. So begins the long and stunning series of scenes where, in tight close-ups of hands and make-shift tools (again, not unlike Bresson’s cinematic focuses), these men do the unthinkable, breaking up the concrete, digging through the earth and, finally, climbing into the bowels of the prison cellar only to have to, once more, break through another concrete wall into the sewer system, the two leaders tunneling into the world outside the prison. But even then, they return, to help, the very next night, their fellow prisoners along the route. The very ingenuity of these home-made methods fascinate us, and help link us to these prisoners’ fate. By the time they finish their “hole” and we have watched them wander through the dark labyrinth of passages that might allow them an existential exit from their fates, we care about them so sincerely that we are scarcely troubled about their previous crimes; we want them to escape!

        Yet we know something is still wrong. The story Claude has given upon his imprisonment is that his wife had tried to shoot him, and in his attempt to stop her, she herself was wounded. It is clearly a kind of “romantic” entanglement that bears little resemblance to events in the others’ lives. When at the last moment, Geo is called to the warden’s office, where he is told that his wife has dropped her charges, and he may be able to return home in a few months, the other men can only suspect that something is amiss. He has spent two hours in the warden’s office; who, they ask, might want to spend that much time with the warden? Although one of the group, Geo, has determined not to join them in the escape, Claude still seems determined to tag along, arguing that he probably will still get five years for the accidental shooting.

       As the first two men crawl into the hole on their way to the freedom Bresson’s characters hope to attain, prison guards march down the hall to arrest the entire “cell.” “They have been betrayed.

     Although the subject of Becker’s film, accordingly, may seem “old hat,” its method and cinematic revelation is absolutely original and mesmerizing. At film’s end, it is as if we too, the audience, have been betrayed, so linked have we become to the overwhelming barriers these now seemingly ordinary men have sought to overcome. This is the third time Roland has been caught in an attempted escape, and we know that his fate, despite his appearance in the first frame of this film, will not be a pleasant one. The world in which these men live is one in which everything is cut-up and cut-off. Food is detestable, work not required (the men agree to create cardboard boxes only to cover over their nocturnally-created “hole.”) It is already a “hole,” a kind of pit into which they have been thrown and from which they cannot now hope to escape. Yet, even in their arrestment, there still seems to be between the original four cellmates a kind of allegiance, a brotherhood that is more civilized than the rulers of this dreadful world into which in which they have been devoured.

      Sadly, Becker—whom several critics and I feel has been underrated in the development of 20th century French filmmaking—died a few weeks after the film was released.

Los Angeles, August 24, 2013

Monday, August 19, 2013

Woody Allen | Blue Jasmine

descent into madness
by Douglas Messerli

Woody Allen (writer and director) Blue Jasmine / 2013

It seems fascinating to me that in a year in which I have focused on a frightening dichotomy of “murderers and angels,” veteran director Woody Allen has chosen to write a parallel version of Tennessee Williams’ great drama (my nomination for the best American play ever created) A Streetcar Named Desire, a work in which there are plenty of murderers but very few angels, unless one perceives Blanche DuBois’ loving sister, Stella, as an angel. In Woody Allen’s version, however, the clueless Ginger (Sally Hawkins) bears very little resemblance to the stage Stella—whom I have argued is the stabilizing “center” of Williams’ play (see My Year 2002)—and who, in Allen’s film version, lashes out against her sister just at the moment she is crying out in her deepest despair.
 But neither Williams’ earth-bound Stanley nor the often hilarious “space-cadet” Blanche can be described as angels, despite Blanche’s tendency to float above reality. Both are instinctive killers even though they represent, obviously, radical different viewpoints of reality. Blanche believes in illusion, while Stanley is grounded in what is generally described as “the real.” Most of us perceive that both of these viewpoints are slightly delusional:  “the real,” which most of us might perceive is not any more “real” than the illusions Blanche projects upon the world. And both are rapacious destroyers of 
life, which, fortunately, is neither “real” in the ordinary sense, nor a simple projection of our imaginations.

     As Stanley declares, as he is about to rape Blanche in Williams’ play—in words to the effect—we had this “date” from the beginning, a clash by night determined by their opposite ways of perceiving the world.

      Strangely, in Allen’s telling of this tale, the “real,” the grungy everyday world of working class, beer-drinking, pizza eating, overweight beasts wins out over the highly wrought, imaginative, well dressed dreamers. Which I find rather odd, given that in film after film, Allen has shown himself as one of the best observers (if also a satirist) of upper-middle class and wealthy New Yorkers. Allen is absolutely most brilliant in creating the rooms (as he does in this film also) of the well-to-do in their comfortably large dining spaces and cocktail parties, despite the comic discomfort of Allen’s own persona and personae. One need only think of the grand dining scenes of Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters, or Crimes and Misdemeanors, or of his lovely internal and external scenes of his more recent Midnight in Paris. Whereas, Hitchcock literally made love to San Francisco in Vertigo, Allen hardly dares to show anything of the beautiful vistas of the city on the bay. The kitschfully decorated rooms in which the suffering Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) is forced to inhabit with her sister are so painfully claustrophobic that when she makes an appointment with her possible savior, late in the film, she chooses to meet him in a hotel bar at the Fairmont.

    Allen’s Jasmine (Jeanette), not unlike Williams’ heroine, is already damaged goods before she arrives at the doorstep of her sister’s ramshackle apartment, despite her Louis Vitton luggage and designer dresses, salvaged from the repossession of all of her previous loot. She has lost her “Belle Reve” not little by little through decades of ancestors selling it off, but through the sudden revelation of her husband’s, Hal’s (Alec Bladwin) utterly corrupt business dealings.

     I’m not a big admirer of “flash-backs,” upon which this film depends to clue us in to Jasmine’s glorious past, which is a bit like Gatsby’s grand world, and like Gatsby’s world destined to the collapse upon the artifice upon which it has been built. Yet Allen moves us astutely between past and present to reveal the absolute implosions of his heroine’s life. Whereas Williams’ Blanche gradually fell into complete moral decay—ultimately even seducing one of her schoolboys—Jasmine’s world was destroyed by her husband’s endless tissue of lies, betraying not only every one of his investors (including Ginger and her husband, who had won $2000,000 in the lottery), but his wife through numerous sexual relationships of which everyone but she was aware. Her sudden fall from the grace of her posh Park Avenue rooms and Southampton beach house, leaves what seems as a fragile woman talking to herself and imposing long one-sided conversations upon perfect strangers.
Yet in these mad interludes, along with the insistent flash-backs, we gradually begin to perceive that if her husband was a kind of Bernie Madoff, she willingly played his perfect trophy of a wife, looking away from all of his shady business dealings and sexual dalliances in order to maintain the glorious life it afforded her, pretending to herself and others that she was truly a moral being through her social involvement with various charities. One has to almost applaud Allen for his deep satiric jab at the rich in this film, except that as cynical as their world may be, so too is Allen’s own vision.

      For unlike Blanche DuBois, the self-created Jasmine has few of the former’s true psychological and emotional traumas. Despite the heroine’s apparent fragility, she is, at heart, tough as nails, perfectly able to seduce all the course men around her. Although Blanchett’s version of Blanche is, before the movie has even begun, defeated, a destroyed woman, babbling in “over-the-top” conversations, mostly to herself, but, at moments, even to her sister’s wide-eyed children (who might almost be described, as in Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, “no-neck monsters”)—she is even described as having a nervous breakdown—Jasmine is a seasoned predator, weaving her “gentleman caller,” the self-assured diplomat Dwight (Peter Saarsgard) into her web of lies. Although Blanchett’s acting is often quite brilliant in these scenes, she is often so close to the edge of over-acting, switching accents and even acting modes so quickly that one hardly knows whom she’s imagining who she might be, that I still can’t determine what I think of her performance. Let us just say it’s all a bit overwhelming, maybe not as brilliant as it appears to some movie-goers who love see actors acting, but, at moments, she’s wonderfully convincing.         

     At the very moment that Dwight is about to purchase the wedding ring for her, her sister’s first husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay)—conveniently for the plot—shows up on the street to accuse his former sister-in-law in front of her potential savior. But then, unlike the straight-laced Mitch of Williams’ drama, the self-satisfied, future-politician Dwight, has also sought her as a “trophy” wife, warning her of her future: “you will have to smile and stand beside me.”; and we are subliminally quite pleased that the affair is so suddenly, if tragically, ended—even if it does lead to her expected descent into madness which we know by this time is inevitable. Inevitable perhaps, but also somewhat unexpected and rather painful had we dared to care about the seemingly traumatized “victim.”

    Allen reveals that, despite Jasmine’s declared ignorance of the completely empty world around her, she not only knew of her husband’s vast deceit, but, when her husband threatens to leave her for another woman, uses, in revenge, what she knows to have the FBI arrest him—all of which, obviously, makes her a true collaborator in her husband’s crimes, and erases any possible relationship with her now self-destructive son, whom she discovers is living and working in Oakland.
The “Stanley” figure of Allen’s retelling of Williams’ tale, Chili (Bobby Cannavale), does not “rape” this delusional woman—she has already carried herself off from all human contact—but simply settles into Ginger’s apartment, claiming his rightful territory. Allen’s poor once-rich Blanche, takes her final hot bath and slips off into madness as a street person.

      Although I have to praise Allen for comprehending some of the satiric and comedic elements of Williams’ original masterpiece (even though so much of his plot is ridiculously ensnared in what is an absurd, winking Woody Allen conceit, about his heroine’s inability to comprehend how to take a computer course in interior decoration; is there no one she might encounter in that computer-rich city to show how to get on line?), it is hard to forgive the director for the chilling view with which he ends this bleak work, where Jasmine is offered not even the kindness of strangers. So, in fact, there is, at film’s end, a kind of murderer in this work who willingly kills off the woman who through her suffering, if nothing else, has become a sort of fallen angel: the writer/director himself.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Rainer Werner Fassbinder | Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss (Veronika Voss)

finishing what you start
by Douglas Messerli

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Pea Frölich, and Peter Märthesheimer (writers), Rainer Werner Fassbinder (director) Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss (Veronika Voss) / 1982

The penultimate film of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Veronika Voss, is also, in my estimation, one of his very best. Shot in lush black and white reminiscent of 1940 Hollywood productions, nearly every frame is stunningly beautiful in this heady mix of suspense thriller, romance, tough film noir, and gangster movie that engages its viewers at all levels. Part II of the loosely connected BRD Trilogy (coming between The Marriage of Maria Braun and Lola) this film is also highly political, revealing a postwar, 1955, Munich as a city of figures caught in the past, attempting to blot out not only the present but all consciousness. The former World War II movie star, Veronika (Rosel Zeach)—unable after the war to regain her movie star status, and gradually losing her beauty and, through the morphine to which she is addicted, her mind—represents, clearly, Germany’s Nazi past, Veronika having been a protégé of Goebbels. But that is only one side of the coin in a film that is filled with doubles and mirror images. On the other side of war-time sufferers is an old Jewish man who has survived the death camp Treblinka who uses the same doctor as Veronika, Marianne Katz (Annemarie Duringer), to obtain morphine to obliterate his memories.

      Into this city of the dead steps Robert Krohn (Hilmar Thate), a vital newspaper sportswriter, who accidentally encounters Veronika after she has escaped from a showing of one of her long-ago films (the double image occurs in this first scene, as the film’s director, Fassbinder, is seen sitting beside the suffering actress being shown a scene similar to that which will be played out later in the film); unable to bear the image of her younger self. She bolts, discovered in tears by Robert in a nearby forest. A man of the “real” world, Robert does not even recognize the aging beauty, but gallantly offers to accompany her home, offering her his umbrella and arm for protection. A bit like Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, Veronika perceives him as a kind of “gentleman stranger” offering her “a safe haven in a storm.”
     Later, like Blanche in that earlier film, Veronika will time and again ask for the lights to be dimmed so that the wrinkles and aging spots of her face might go unnoticed, allowing her, as she admits, to seduce defenseless men like Robert. Similarly, like Blanche, Veronika is a figure out of the past, offering up her former mansion as well as her jewelry to her doctor in payment for her “treatments.”  Robert, we soon discover, is truly defenseless, agreeing to meet with Veronika in a posh restaurant the very next day, where she exhorts from him 500 marks so that she might buy a broach she has spotted in the hotel lobby. When they finish lunch, she returns to the store to ask the clerk if she might return the jewelry for money; fortunately, for her, the shop-owner (Lilo Pempeit, Fassbinder’s mother, who appears in most of his films) recognizes the actress—and who, like Veronika, calls up, with some fondness, the German war years—is only too ready to comply. Accordingly, Veronika has tricked the innocent reporter out of cash she very much needs for her addiction. In retribution, however, Dr. Katz later returns the money to Robert.
     Utterly out of his element in this world of dreamers, Robert discovers himself being strangely drawn to the mysterious woman, and is swept up into her horrific world. Obviously, this world also parallels, as most critics have noted, the one into which American actor William Holden, equally by accident, steps in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, where the equally delusional Norma Desmond madly rules; like Norma, Veronica spends much of Fassbinder’s movie trying to get back into filmmaking, finally convincing a director to cast her in a couple of scenes of a new movie, which end, like Norma, in her mental collapse.
      These allusions to other films, in fact, serve as further mirroring images, doublings that Fassbinder uses at every level. I am sure Tony Rayns is correct when he suggests that Fassbinder used a common “woman’s problem” genre, popular in the German cinema of the 1930s. But the director also calls up, in the blindingly bright all-white sanatorium, a kind of lit-up hell run by Dr. Katz, wherein Veronika often finds herself entrapped, the Lewis Allen mystery/romance film of 1944 The Uninvited, wherein the characters all must also face past ghosts (in this case quite literally) which threaten to tear apart their current lives and kill one of them. In that film, as well, a psychiatrist, a lesbian lover of the young heroine’s mother, imprisons the young girl with the intent to kill her. Fassbinder makes clear in Veronika Voss that his heroine’s involvement with her doctor is not merely her drug addiction, but derives from her need to be loved; and that relationship is revealed—particularly given scenes with the doctor’s assistant, Josefa—as a lesbian one. Despite Robert’s later attempts to free her from the clinic in order to help Veronika come to terms with the “real” world, the actress lies, revealing her masochistic attachment to the self-destructive situation.
      Later, incidentally, after observing Veronika’s breakdown and encountering her former husband, screenwriter Max Rehbein (Armin Mueller-Stahl), Robert and he share a few beers, resulting in what appears as far more than a male-bonding relationship, Rehbein, in particular, almost caressing and holding the drunken Robert, begging him not leave.  
      There are similar connections with numerous other films, even including George Stevens’ 1942 Hepburn-Tracy “comedy,” Woman of the Year, wherein an equally clueless sportswriter attempts to woo a brilliantly strong-willed beauty and bring her into his reality, but ultimately fails.
       Many critics, moreover, have observed the strange use of music by Peer Raben throughout, mostly American songs which might have been heard on German radio during those postwar days. These have generally been described as creating a kind of irritating and disorienting feeling (much like the visual use of Fassbinder’s lover Günther Kaufmann, an African-American GI, who speaks only in English, who appears as a kind of minion to Dr. Katz’s evil empire—but, in fact, is busy wrapping up extra drugs from the clinic for sale in the illegal market outside). Certainly, the zither-like tunes, the intrusion of country-western ballads, the heavy beating of a kettle drum—are irritating. But they are also thematically important, creating yet more “mirror-like” allusions, which enrich this already thickened film. The zither music, as Roger Ebert, perceived, reminds one surely of The Third Man, another movie about postwar Europe that involves evil intentions regarding drugs, and centers upon the arrival in Austria of a kind of cowboy like character—a writer of westerns, Holly Martin—who is equally unable to make sense of the world around him.
       At one moment I thought I heard remnants of the song that accompanied the trail by Robert Mitchum in the 1955 film The Night of the Hunter, as he attempts to track down the innocent children whom he intends to murder. Later, I listened through the score again, but couldn’t precisely find that passage. But I most certainly did hear bits from the Tennessee Ernie Ford classic country-western song, “Sixteen Tons,” an appropriate choice for a story about a woman  indentured by her doctor:

                                 You load sixteen tones, what do you get
                                 Another day older and deeper in debt
                                 Saint Peter don’t you call me ‘cause I can’t go
                                 I owe my soul to the company store 
     In short, just as Fassbinder uses the references to 1940s films, so too does he use music, reiterating and mirroring the conceits of the picture.* These tunes are not simply “irritating” background noise.     Finally, like the ridiculously innocent Holly Martins of The Third Man, Robert is a kind of American cowboy, not only defenseless, as Veronika puts it, but, as he describes himself, a man who is determined to “finish what he starts.” What he discovers in his amateur sleuthing, however, is something that puts him completely out of these villains’ league: government and the evil Dr. Katz are in collusion, the two of them torturing not only people on both sides of the horror of the German war, but killing Robert’s girlfriend when she attempts to frame the doctor. Unknowingly, the police support their acts. And even Robert, at film’s end, finally refuses any further involvement. He has been defeated, and, perhaps for the first time in his life, cannot complete what he has begun.
     When the elderly Jewish couple commit suicide earlier, leaving their house and antiques to Dr. Katz, it is inevitable, we perceive that Veronika must follow them in “closing the book.” Allowing her one last foray into an imaginary past—this one calling up Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel, Dr. Katz locks her away in a small room, without morphine, but with a large stash of sedatives. Veronika, awakening on Good Friday, is desperate to relieve her pain. Staring into a mirror, she carefully makes up her lips before swallowing a bottle of the pills.
      No longer an innocent—Robert now knows the complete involvement of the head of public health and the drug-dealing doctor—our would-be hero rejects any attempt to “finish” his reporting duties, declaring, quite cynically, that “journalistically speaking” it is not much of a story.  
      In Veronika’s death scene, in retrospect, the film suddenly jumps out of its several mirror-like frames into real life. For a few months later, Fassbinder would replay the scene, overdosing—either accidently or intentionally—on drugs, and, in that act, finally carrying his cross into Robert’s “real world.” **

Los Angeles, August 15, 2013
Reprinted from Nth Position (September 2013).

*Fassbinder carries this doubling to extremes in the scene with Robert and his drunken girlfriend as they comment on the two “Walters,” she, evidently, uncomprehending the two famous soccer-playing brothers, Fritz and Ottmar, were being both referred to by their last names.

**Fassbinder’s last film, Quarelle, unedited at the time of his death, might most definitely be described as not of “a real world,” representing as it does a kind of highly decoratively colorized hallucination of a gay paradise of sado-masochistic masculine beauty. Certainly, it seems to me, it is something not of this world, which, the characters in Veronika Voos, as much as they which to escape it, are forced to face.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta | Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum oder: Wie Gewalt entstehen und wohin sie führen kann (The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, or: How Violence Develops and Where It Can Lead

the nun
by Douglas Messerli
Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta (writers and directors, based on a novel by Heinrich Böll) Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum oder: Wie Gewalt entstehen und wohin sie führen kann (The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, or: How Violence Develops and Where It Can Lead) / 1975

By intentional coincidence this past weekend, I watched Volker Schlöndorff’s and Margarethe von Trotta’s 1975 adaptation of Nobel Prize winner, Heinrich Böll’s novel, itself a kind of scree against the German tabloid Bild-Zeitnung and their fanning of a kind of mass hysteria through their coverage of the Baader-Meinhof gang. In reaction to his original article, the tabloid labeled Böll as a terrorist sympathizer, resulting, as Amy Taubin writes in the liner notes to the Criterion re-issue of this film, in “police harassment, searches, and wiretaps.” To counter the yellow newspaper’s dishonest reports, Böll shot back with his wonderful fiction about a young housekeeper, Katharina Blum, who innocently spends a night and falls in love with a possible terrorist whom the police are following.

        By the next morning, the young woman, whom her friends call “The Nun” (presumably because of lack of promiscuous behavior) is arrested, brutally handled, and subjected to intense questioning. Her house is ransacked, and nearly all of her personal friends are contacted and subjected to the same intrusive actions. Even worse, the police work hand-in-hand with the tabloid—simply called “The Paper” in the film—exchanging documents and information, which suddenly splashes the young Katharina (wonderfully performed by Angela Winkler) across its front pages, while accusing her of collaboration with terrorism and labeling her as a whore. Even the prosperous attorney and his wife for whom she works—well known to the police force—are tracked down on vacation and scrutinized by the media. “The Paper” illegally breaks into the hospital room where Katharina’s mother is dying in an attempt to get a deathbed statement. When she says nothing of importance, they make it up. All of this Katarina suffers with a quiet and patient strength, comprehending the necessity, while abhorring their abusive methods and the newspaper intrusion into her life.

      Throughout, she speaks the truth, we are led to believe, about everything except the relationships of the men in her life, which with great dignity and strength of purpose, she refuses to reveal. And it is this feminist aspect of her being that helps us to completely sympathize with her plight. Her former husband, only too ready to be interviewed and comment of his previous wife, indicts himself in his act; we can clearly perceive why Katharina has left him. Another man, with whom she has been having an affair, refuses to come forward and rescue her. The country home to which she has given her the key, has now become the hiding place of the so-called terrorist Ludwig (Jürgen Prochnow). Despite hate letters and salacious offers for sex, however, Katharina remains firm in her convictions: she is convinced that the police have no right to intrude upon her personal and inner life. Amy Tubin has expressed the issue rather nicely:

                           The men she encounters react to her sense of self-worth as a
                           challenge to their masculinity. When she refuses to play their
                           game, they become enraged and intent on destroying her. The
                           one thing that can be counted on to unite the various men in
                           this film across class and political lines is the need to keep 
                           women in a subservient position. In the eyes of the law, 
                           Katharina is guilty, first and foremost, of the crime of being 
                           a woman. That she’s a woman who refuses to allow the 
                           patriarchy to determine her value compounds her guilt.

I would only argue that, one man, the presumed terrorist—found guilty even before the film has begun (the very first scene reveals he is being secretly filmed and followed)—has given her something none of the others have, a word she insists remain in the testimony she is forced to sign: tenderness
     Eventually, she is freed and the “terrorist” found to be only a slightly confused thief. Were the film to end there, it would have brilliantly made its point, that a culture fixated upon threats ultimately turns its own citizens into terrorists as well. Unfortunately, the otherwise excellent filmmakers felt they had to carry Böll’s fiction forward to its melodramatic, if psychologically rewarding, end. Katharina accepts an interview with the horrific reporter, Werner Tötges (Dieter Laser). Carrying a gun, she shoots him down, and the movie ends with a horribly ironic, if inevitable, funeral with Tötges (and “The Paper”) being eulogized as a hero who has died for the cause of the freedom of the press. Along with some critics, such as Roger Ebert, I agree that this ending undercuts the character the film has established, turning her into simply another victim instead of the strong figure she has been represented as. With the reporter’s murder, “The Paper” and police can continue to proclaim their empty paranoia, destroying others whom they inexplicably “suspect.” The true terror of government and media intrusions into personal lives is justified in her final act, and can now put her away where her story can no longer have any significance.

 Los Angeles, August 12, 2013

This 1975 work clearly calls up the illegal public revelations of figures such as WikiLeaks head Julian Assange, Bradford Manning, and, most explicitly, Edmund Snowden. Snowden has attempted to warn us that through the vast NSA “haystack” of billions of emails, telephone messages, and other everyday communications anyone might possibly be perceived as a terrorist, and, under quick investigation, perceived to be involved with terrorism simply because of suspicion. Writing in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Andrew Liepman, predictably mocked any of us who might fear of government intrusion into our lives in an article titled “What Snowden got wrong: Everything”:

                        The government isn’t interested in your phone call with your
                        aunt. Unless she’s a terrorist.

In the context of the movie I’ve described above, however, almost anyone might be suspected of terrorism. What about an accidental meeting? An incident like Katharina’s “one-night” encounter? I am a publisher, focusing on international writing. What if I get an order from someone from another country (or from the US for that matter) who happens to be a terrorist? Must I personally know everyone, even their moral values, with whom I communicate? When does one suddenly become a “needle,” as Snowden suggested, or, worse yet, a kind of “nettle,” a twisted weed of irritation.

     Soon after 9/11 a friend of mine, born and raised in Pakistan, was suddenly hounded by the CIA or other government figures who “visited” him even at a university classroom where he teaches. His American girlfriend was similarly “stalked.” The owner of my office building, described how he and his secretary were forced to intervene in the case of one of their tenants—who they had long known—when he was illegally arrested, imprisoned for a few weeks, evidently, because he had never sought out US citizenship!

       With hundreds of Facebook “friends,” many of whom I’ve never met, am I and others like me in danger of simply communicating, through photographs and general information, if one of these unknown readers happened to be suspected of terrorism? I want to answer Mr. Liepman by reminding him that most of us, these days, live not in a world of domestic isolation, writing our aunts and grandmothers only, but often communicate on an international level, sometimes (particularly on the internet) with people from all over the world. My six blogs (one each on fiction, poetry, film, theater, travel, and US cultural masterpieces) receive visitors—for which I’m very pleased—from across the planet.

      Finally, I have one aunt who, although she is not a terrorist, is an evangelical Christian who has written some pretty awful things, in the past, about President Obama (she is convinced, for instance, he was not born in the US). Although I no longer communicate with her, might I be in trouble if I did? Her kind of limited vision of the world might be seen by some to be as dangerous as that of an outspoken critic of our country. What happened to Katharina Blum in Schlöndorff’s and von Trotta’s moving film, might easily occur again. And yellow journalists, print and digital, are only too ready to help destroy the lives of innocents. One need only recall the young Brown University student, Sunil Tripathi,* who, missing from his Providence, Rhode Island room, suddenly was mistakenly rumored by Reddit and other gossip Facebook posters to have been the second bomber at the Boston Marathon, reporters soon after camping out on his family’s lawn in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Whether because of these accusations or not, Sunil’s body was found in the waters off India Point Park in Providence on April 23rd, a victim, evidently, of suicide.

 *There are several recountings of this on the internet and in print. See, for example, The New York Times, April 25, 2013.

Los Angeles, August 12, 2013

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Marcel Carné | Le Jour se lève (Daybreak)

an ordinary man
by Douglas Messerli

Jacques Viot and Jacques Prévert (writers), Marcel Carné Le Jour se lève (Daybreak) / 1939

One of the great French films of the cinema movement that is generally described as “poetic realism,” Daybreak, in its quiet and intense portrait of an “ordinary man” coming to terms with fate, in its dark hues (which characterize so much of Carné’s cinema), and its highly theatricalized sets—these representing a poor working-class neighborhood on the edge of Paris—does, in retrospect, seem somewhat archaic. Gabin’s brooding portrait, one of the most riveting of French film-making, is almost a study in old-style acting, as he stares, with his large, drooping eyes (one sad and one happy, so claims his girlfriend Françoise—the beautiful Jacqueline Laurent) directly into the camera, while trying to quickly light another cigarette. Seeing Gabin one immediately perceives precisely what Gloria Swanson’s character in Sunset Boulevard claims of silent film stars: “In those days, we had faces!” Yet Gabin’s generally quiet and affable voice helps us to comprehend his true nature as well: he is a gentle dreamer, who after years of everyday sufferings, suddenly has found what almost seems a way out of his humdrum life through the equally gentle longings of Françoise. François (who works as a foundry worker, blowing sand across the new metal castings just created), and Françoise, both orphans, are clearly meant for one another. Both are seemingly innocents, pure at heart, simple in the pattern of their lives. And the film’s poetic artificiality merely reiterates that.                                  
Opposed to that world is that of the local bar-performers, the dog-trainer Valentin (Jules Berry) and his assistant Clara (the always watchable Arletty), who live in a world of sexual treachery and deceit. No sooner has François fallen in love with Françoise that he discovers that she is inexplicably involved with Valentin, who Berry plays with the oozing linguistic mastery of the devil incarnate. The very same night that François follows his would-be lover into a bar where Valentin is performing, his assistant Clara determines to abandon the performer and his lies, accidentally drawing François into a bar-room conversation, which brings the two into each other’s arms. Both, although they do not know it yet, will become victims of Valentin’s selfish behavior, François dying, in the end, for being drawn into Valentin’s orbit.
     It’s not just that Valentin seduces his women victims, but that he ultimately tortures them, just, as we are later told, he painfully tortures the dogs into submission. In what has to be one of the high points in artful lying in the cinema, Valentin tells François that he is the long-lost father of Françoise, and that his interest in her is that of a man who perceives himself as, long ago, having done a wrong, which he now wants to right.

      The truth, of course, is nothing like that, but is just a ruse to permit François to overlook his continued visitations to the young girl Valentin hopes to (and ultimately does) seduce.
        That we discover this story entirely in flashbacks as François has holed up in his roof-top bedroom after shooting Valentin, the murder of whom represents the first scene of the film, makes the events even more compelling. The audience already comprehends François is a dead man, a fact which, despite his newspaper check of the timetables of ships leaving the city, he too perceives, even at the very moment, in a justified fit of temporary madness, which has made him pull the trigger of the gun that Valentin has brought to kill him.
Even the pleas of François’ women, both Françoise and Clara, taken up by the neighbors who all recognize him as a good person and an “ordinary man,” the police will not/cannot let the situation amicably resolve. Because he is ordinary, François must be destroyed. And it is that subtle class statement that underlies Prévert’s and Carné’s film and helps to make us care so much for the accidental murderer. Yet we also recognize that it is a murder that need not have happened, for despite Valentin’s bluster and his outright admission that he has seduced François’ future wife, the factory worker was won; Valentin, despite his taunts and challenges, as he himself admits, is a loser, for the simple actions and faith of François have helped win Françoise’s love. Finally, it is only François’ ordinariness, and the male macho that comes with that, that does him in. As much as we might all wish for the death of the slimy villain Valentin, it is unjustifiable given the actual circumstances. And it is François’ “commonness”—what one might describe as the predictability of his actions—that will not allow his survival. Like the teddy bear, Boulou, which Françoise gives him early in the film, François is not only a kind of burly beast who feels trapped, but has only one ear, and, therefore, is unable to hear that the crowd is shouting for him to come out for a “fair” trial. Already isolated from the society  at large, he can do nothing but barricade himself in, ultimately sacrificing himself—and with that, his romantically pure ideals—at the very moment the police lob in a canister of tear gas to draw him out. The final sound we hear only reasserts the very ordinariness of his life, as his daily-set alarm clock goes off, calling him into the daybreak of his endless hard work at the foundry, a job that, because of its health-hazards, might have led him to an early death in any event.
      In short, François, alas, has been doomed from the very start—not just by the events recounted in the movie, but from the very beginning of his life.

Los Angeles, August 9, 2013

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Joseph van Sternberg | The Last Command

after caviar
by Douglas Messerli

Joseph von Sternberg (story, based on a story by Lajos Biró), John F. Goodrich (screenplay), Herman J. Maniewicz (titles), Joseph von Sternberg (director) The Last Command / 1928

Von Sternberg’s masterful silent film of 1928, The Last Command, began as a true story told by Ernst Lubitsch about a general in the Imperial Russian Army, Theodore A. Lodigensky, now working in a Russian restaurant, who ended life as working as film extra—playing film generals—for $7.50 a day. Lubitsch told the anecdote to Lajos Biró, who passed it on to Von Sternberg.

      Von Sternberg, in turn, transformed the tale into both an exciting adventure about the last days of the Russian Empire and a devastatingly dark satire of Hollywood, beginning with a Hollywood director, Leo Andreyev (William Powell), in attempting to cast a movie about Russia, suddenly recognizing the former Grand Duke Sergius Alexander (Emil Jannings) in a batch of photographs of possible extras. Back in Russia, Andreyev had been a Communist supporter hiding out with a girlfriend, Natalie Dabrova (Evelyn Brent) before they were taken into custody by the Grand Duke, who later lashed out at Andreyev with a whip lash across his face. The Grand Duke, in turn, takes Natalie back to his headquarters, with a intent to seduce her. In fact, when she discerns, despite the cruel actions of the Grand Duke’s cousin, the Czar, that the Grand Duke is loyal, attempting to save a war-torn Russia, she does fall in love with him. On a railroad trip to the front, however, the train is overtaken by revolutionaries, and, to save him, Natalie quickly rejoins the Communists, suggesting they force the elderly general to stoke the train all the way to Petrograd, where he will be hung. Mid-trip, she helps free the Duke, handing over the pearls he has given her, so that he can buy his way out of the country. He jumps from the train, only to watch the railroad cars fall from a nearby bridge, killing everyone.

      For Andreyev, accordingly, it is not only that the Grand Duke “looks” the part in for he will cast him, but is a sort of final revenge for the treatment he had once received.


     Von Sternberg later claimed that Emil Jannings, who won the first acting Oscar for, in part, this role, kept mixing up the behavior of general before and after his fall from power, sometimes playing the powerful Grand Duke too much like the head-twitching old man of the later half. But for me, it is just this slight confusion that lends Jannings’ performance so much credence. Even as the towering general, head of the Russian forces, he is also a kind of fool, a man that dares to believe he can lure the beautiful Natalie into his bed. As his own men perceive, he does not even know the proper procedure, awarding her the gift of pearls before the champagne and caviar, when most seducers would have waited until after. It is just this slight confusion, which Jannings would repeat with the beautiful Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel two years later, that makes the character so appealing, despite the fierceness and intensity of his commitment to his cause, as he becomes a kind of “holy fool,” a man of such deep resolve that he becomes admirable despite being on the wrong side of history.

     The director, meanwhile, tells his tale, both within the ivory-white halls of the military headquarters, a glamorous space where dashing Russian soldiers toast her beauty, and in the later train scenes, which von Sternberg uses somewhat like a stage set, careening his busy camera in and out of the open train windows as the revolutionary masses reveal their true bestial selves, getting drunk and nearly raping Nathalie.

      The man we encounter in the last scenes of the film is in such a sorry state that he can only keep shaking his head as he is led through the mass “breadline-’like” call of thousands of extras more like a soon-to-be-slaughtered cow a human being. Mocked by the others, particularly for claiming a white cross around his neck was gift from the Czar, the Grand Duke Sergius Alexander is forced to apologize for his own psychological condition: “I have had a great shock.”

      Obviously the “great shock” might be seen to be his fall from position, the sudden reversal of history and of his own fate. One might imagine that is what von Sternberg was thinking. But I would suggest that the shock was more likely the discovery, despite his often bumbling bluff of living, that Natalie, the Communist activist, actually did love him, followed immediately by her sudden death that represents the “great shock” of which he speaks, that his often martinet-like support of Mother Russia was seen by this woman as something else, an idea which reverberates with Andreyev’s and his assistant’s evaluation upon the old general’s death on the set:

                                   The Assistant: That guy was a great actor.
                                   Leo Andreyev: He was more than a great actor—
                                         he was a great man.

       In the short scene in which the Grand Duke Sergius Alexander performs, dressed as he had during the real-life scenes, the old man is challenged by an underling soldier: “You’ve given your last command.” Furious with the challenge, he takes up the whip on cue—just as he had in the earlier scene with the young Andreyev—to punish him. But in this scene, confused by the movie cameras, and suddenly mistaking the present for the past, he rises to his full height, as if, for a moment, he might take on and destroy the entire Hollywood scene—camera, cameraman, crew, and director all, before collapsing, a scene of cinema-inspired madness that will not be repeated until years later, in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard.

Los Angeles, August 6, 2013