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July 27, 2021

Two Films by Veit Harlan

Immensee (1943)

The Great Sacrifice/Opfergang (1944)
Kino Classics BD Region A

Even if the opportunity came about, I do not think I could bring myself to watch Jud Suss. I have seen excerpts. With this newly available blu-ray, the curious can have a glimpse at Harlan's work beyond the one film that made, and unmade, his reputation. Not that these two films are apolitical. One does not have to dig deep for the nationalism and other examples of cultural blinders that are considered assets here. Veit Harlan was Germany's top film director during World War II not only due to his willingness to make Jud Suss, but because also because virtually everyone else of equal or greater talent had emigrated to Hollywood. Whatever Germanic virtues are being extolled in Harlan's melodramas is undermined by the blandness of the films and their leading characters in Immensee and the delirious melodrama of The Great Sacrifice.

Both films star Harlan's wife, the Swedish born Kristina Soderbaum. The actress reportedly epitomized Aryan beauty with her wholesome appearance. In Immensee, Soderbaum plays the part of a small town girl, Elisabeth, caught between an up and coming composer-conductor, Reinhardt, and a wealthy young suitor, Erich. After pledging fidelity to each other, Reinhardt leaves town for a three year scholarship. A surprise visit by Elisabeth reveals that even neoclassical composers have their share of groupies when a woman is discovered in Reinhardt's bed. Elisabeth goes back home to marry Erich. Reinhardt graduates and goes off to Rome. While one might be sympathetic to Reinhardt's protests that the opera singer he is having an affair with has rewritten his lyrics, Italian actress Germana Paolieri proves to be the more charismatic actress in her small role. Reinhardt also shows his provincialism by preferring German food over Italian cuisine. Elisabeth is the ideal German woman, proud of being "rooted" in her small town, faithful to her husband even as a widow. Reinhardt is allowed to be a cad because he believes in Bach and Beethoven. The film tries to play it both ways with Elisabeth comparing Reinhardt's nomadic existence to that of "gypsies", and then claiming she's only quoting her mother. I do not know how innocent that line was for its intended audience at the time, although history has made it a chilling remark.

Political considerations are dispensed with early in The Great Sacrifice. Nautical explorer Albrecht tells of his successful travels, port by port, from Hamburg to Japan, noting that he has overcome a euphemistic "disruption". Albrecht is played by Carl Raddatz, Reinhardt from Immensee, this time as the one caught in a triangle between two women. Albrecht gets engaged, and marries Octavia, a high class woman from a family that enjoys discussing the Dionysian poetry of Nietzsche on a Sunday morning. The family is so intellectual and reserved that Albrecht has to literally drag Octavia into participating in a very Dionysian celebration. Albrecht gets distracted by Als, a mysterious neighbor who introduces herself by swimming nude by Albrecht's row boat. As beautiful as Octavia is, Als impresses Albrecht by being an accomplished equestrian and archer, as well as combining the two as an Aryan version of the mythological Diana, shooting arrows while riding her horse, straight into the targets. Kristina Soderbaum appears as the fatalistic Als, who has romantic notions about death. Irene von Meyendorff, another favorite actress of the time who also bears some resemblance to Carole Lombard, plays Octavia.

The Great Sacrifice does not have the reputation, either good or bad, as Immensee, but it is the better film. The scene of the annual celebration, with its elaborate set featuring a giant slide, and what may be a hundred or so partying extras in costume is eye catching. Filming in color, even in the subdued Agfacolor process, pays off here. There is also Als dreams or hallucinations about Albrecht while deathly ill. This is one of those films where being over the top is an asset, albeit perhaps not intentionally. The film reportedly had a limited release due the availability of color film stock. Well before The Great Sacrifice ended, I wondered if R. W. Fassbinder had seen it, and if so, thought about making his own version. The one person who notably has seen and admired The Great Sacrifice is philosopher Slavoj Zizek who wrote about the film in his essay, "Hallucination as Ideology in Cinema".

Both films have commentary tracks. German film critic Olaf Moller discusses how the combination of star Soderbaum and director Harlan was commercially beneficial for both. Cultural context is provided in how Germans viewed and mythologized "the North", which in part explains why German films of the time featured characters as well as stars from Scandinavian countries. On a more personal level, Moller points to one of the scenes shot on location where his grandmother may have been an extra. The Australian tag team of Alexandra Heller-NIcholas and Josh Nelson cover The Great Sacrifice. Using a variety of scholarly sources, Harlan's career is discussed. While most serious cineastes will identify connections in the use of melodrama between Harlan, Fassbinder and Douglas Sirk, it suggests that more research, as well as availability, might be needed before making conclusions about German melodrama during the Nazi era. Heller-Nicholas also mentions Stanley Kubrick's fascination with Harlan, and Harlan's possible influence on Kubrick's films. (Kubrick's wife was the niece of Veit Harlan.) Both films were sourced from 4K scans from Murnau Foundation. There was some damage in a brief transitional scene in The Great Sacrifice. As it stands, the historical importance of this blu-ray release can not be underestimated.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 05:23 AM

July 20, 2021



Josef von Sternberg - 1929
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

The best sequence in Thunderbolt has little to do with the basic narrative, but is revealing of what was allowed in the pre-Code sound era. The gangster known as Thunderbolt has taken his girlfriend, Ritzie, to a nightclub called The Black Cat. This is no Cotton Club, but apparently a black staffed nightclub with black entertainers but a racially mix clientele. We first see a small troupe of dancers performing on stage. Von Sternberg cuts back to Thunderbolt and Ritzie arguing. A singer is heard off camera. Thunderbolt and Ritzie leave their table to converse in a back room. A cut is made to a shot of the the singer, the uncredited Theresa Harris performing "Daddy, Won't You Please Come Home". Before going into the room, Thinderbolt takes a moment to slightly leer at Harris. Putting this in the context of the time, it was unusual for a Hollywood production to not only suggest that a black woman might be sexually attractive, but that she would be attractive to a white man.

It could well be that some of the cliches of the gangster film originated with Thunderbolt and the screenplay by Jules and Charles Furthman, with dialogue by Herman J. Mankiewicz. George Bancroft plays the title role. Jules Furthman previously wrote The Docks of New York, while Charles wrote the story for Underworld, both also starring Bancroft directed by von Sternberg. While the silent films are gripping, Thunderbolt gets clunky. This is not simply due to being an early sound film, where the delivery of the dialogue is stilted, but the plot of Ritzie trying to escape the life of being associated with a gangster by leaving Thunderbolt for the upright Bob. As Ritzie, Fay Wray was a few years from her brief career peak, while Richard Arlen as Bob never got much traction in the move to talkies. The film was also a career peak for George Bancroft who was considered Oscar worthy for his performance.

Sternberg's hand is in place visually. There are heightened shadows in several shots and the patterns made by prison bars, the bars of a bank teller's window, and apartment stair railings. In one shot taking place at the Black Cat club, two men are at a table conversing, the face of one of the men obscured by the frame of a stage riser. There are several shots taking place in the prison's death row where characters are separated by the prison bars, and the face is not fully visible. The opening shot is most clearly from the original silent version of the film, with the camera at street level following a black cat as it passes along the feet of several couples necking on park benches. The film takes a strange turn with the other animal character, a stray dog which follows Thunderbolt around, giving away his location to the police, and then following him to prison.

Nick Pinkerton's commentary includes the history of the making of the film, its reception at the time, and von Sternberg's use of sound. This is the first time that Thunderbolt has been released in a home video version. Sadly, there is no silent version to make a comparison, with only Pinkerton relaying that a viewer of the time who saw both attested to Bancroft having a more "powerful" performance in the silent film. The shots with the traveling camera were done with sound added later, providing an idea of the activity off-screen. The film had been allowed to lapse into obscurity. David Bordwell has written about having a 16mm print, and the film receiving a rare screening on TCM. There is no information about the source print but there is marked wear in one scene involving Bob and his mother. Pinkerton mentions Robert Warshow's essay, "The Gangster as Tragic Hero", citing George Bancroft as setting the stage for Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney, among others. Thunderbolt can be seen as a transitional work made during the shift in filmmaking technology, but also as the final work by someone who had a hand in inventing the American gangster film, only to leave it for more exotic places a short time later.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:01 AM

July 13, 2021

The Whirlpool of Fate


La Fille de l'eau
Jean Renoir - 1925
Kino Classics BD Region A

This is not simply a matter of a digital upgrade. The Whirlpool of Fate was previously part of the DVD set of films by Jean Renoir that was issued in 2007. This new edition is from a 4K scan of a more complete version of the film, twelve minutes longer with a running time of 83 minutes. The original French title translates as "The Girl of the Water" which I prefer, as The Whirlpool of Fate leans towards the melodramatic. What is of interest is that in what was his first solo directorial effort, there is the use of technique that one usually does not associate wth Renoir's later films.

The film was intended as a star vehicle for Renoir's wife, Catherine Hessling. Gudule is a young woman who lives on a barge with her father and uncle. It's not specified when the film takes place. The inclusion of an older, unreliable car of the type built around 1910 suggests that the film takes place in a provincial part of France barely touched by the 20th Century. The uncle, Jeff, is introduced as "a brute" who abuses Gudule following the accidental feather of her father. Running away and fending for herself near a small town, she is falsely accused of setting fire to a farmer's haystack. Even when Gudule finds sanctuary working for the small town's prominent family, Uncle Jeff reappears to threaten her happiness. The film was shot on the country property of Paul Cezanne in Marlotte.

An early shot used as part of the introduction of Jeff appears to be simple but is masterful in terms of maintaining the same essential composition within the frame. The barge is filmed almost in full, floating to the right of the frame. Jeff is walking towards the left of the frame, in the opposite direction of the barge. For what seems like like to a minute, Jeff is in virtually the same position within the frame while he is walking, giving the illusion that he is not moving forward while the barge continues its movement. This particular shot is a small hint of Renoir's intentions to experiment with the possibilities of cinema.

When Gudule is caught and accused of setting fire, Renoir does quick cross-cutting among the faces of the accusers. There is also another moment of similar cross-cutting, with some very brief shots. There is also the dream sequence, filmed in a studio with a built in cylinder allowing for characters to defy gravity. Hessling is able to float up and down from a tree, while other ghostly characters run sideways along a wall. Even when Renoir made his own version of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", he did not rely on special effects as he had done so here.

Nick Pinkerton's commentary track is sourced from Jean Renoir's autobiography as well as the writings mainly of Raymond Durgnat and Andre Bazin. Discussed is the use of water in Renoir's films, mainly as locations and also referred to directly (The River and indirectly Boudu Saved from Drowning in the titles. Where available, some information is provided about the actors, several of whom were friends or residents of Marlotte. More information is available on actor and screen writer Pierre Lestringuez, who appears here as Jeff. Pinkerton also explains how the special effects sequence was created, pointing out that the superimpositions were all done in camera, prior to the time when such work was created in a photo lab. Additionally, the blu-ray includes a new score by Antonia Coppola for solo piano.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:47 AM

July 09, 2021

Nobuhiko Obayashi's War Trilogy

casting blossoms.jpg
Casting Blossoms to the Sky / Kono sora no hana: Nagaoka hanabi monogatari (2012)

seven weeks.png
Seven Weeks / No no nanananoka (2014)

Hanagatami (2017)

Japanese filmmaker Nobuhiko Obayashi has been ill-served in the west, with the impression being that his career begins and ends with his narrative debut feature, House from 1977. The cult for that film is well-earned but unfortunately has not inspired anyone to import any of the twenty-odd films made prior to Casting Blossoms in the Sky. I have been able to see a small handful of those films made during this thirty-five year period, my favorite being The Discarnates (1988), described as a horror film but truly one of the saddest of ghost stories. The war trilogy does not quite bring interested viewers up to date of Obayashi's career as his final work, Labyrinth of Cinema is available for English language viewers as a streamer. Still, these three late films are very much welcomed.

The Japanese title roughly translates as "This Sky of Flowers: The Nagoaka Fireworks Story". There is quite a bit to unpack, and much of the film is very culturally specific. Reiko, a journalist, visits visits Nagaoka, a city on the western coast of Japan in early December, 2011. The city is about to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor with a special fireworks show. Nagaoka, famous for its fireworks festival, was also the sight of almost total destruction of the city by U.S. bombs on August 1, 1945. The film weaves in and out of past and present as Reiko watches the preparation of a re-enactment of the bombing performed by high school students, and meets with several of the survivors. There is a mix of fictional narrative, documentary, actors and their real life counterparts, with emphatically obvious special effects and animation.

Reiko's initial reason for visiting Nagaoka is to understand by the city took in many people displaced by the tsunami and earthquake that took place in March 2011. Obayashi makes connections between personal tragedies and major disasters. At certain points, past and present, fact and fiction, exist within the same space. In its own way, Casting Blossoms to the Sky does not fail to remind the viewer of Obayashi's roots in experimental filmmaking.

War is a just a part of Seven Weeks. The title refers to the period of mourning following the death of a small-town doctor, Mitsuo Suzuki. The film takes place in Ashibetsu, in northern Japan, a mining town that had 70,000 residents at its post-war peak. At the time the film was produced, funded by the residents, the population had decreased to 16,000. The doctor's extended family meets in Ashibetsu where there is a tangle of personal memories and relationships, as well as the town dealing with the closure of most of the mines and the attempts to lure tourists.

Obayashi shows several of Suzuki's friends reflecting on their youth which coincided with what the Japanese termed "the Pacific War". What is depicted is an abstract memory of Suzuki seeking out a friend and a woman he loved that had gone to Sakhalin, the northernmost island that was the subject of conflict between Japan and Russia. Notably, Obayashi points to a part of history that is generally ignored by most history books, that for Japan, war continued after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with Russia seeking to claim parts of northern Japan, with no resolution until September 1945.

The narrative shifts between past and present. Incidents are repeated as if a refrain from a poem. Clocks are always set at 2:46 pm. The film is also a mix of nostalgia for a Japan that has lost some of its cultural past, and optimism for a better future.

That sense of optimism has dissipated in Hanagatami, Obayashi's penultimate film. The screenplay was originally written prior to the production of House and shares some of that film's spookier elements. Although the story, seen through the eyes of a teenage boy in a remote part of pre-war Japan, is relatively straight-forward, Obayashi employs various distancing devices.

The most disorienting is having actors, especially the male leads, significantly older than their roles. The use of digital effects also creates an artificial environment that first announces itself with pink cherry blossoms in the otherwise black and white introductory scene. Toshihiko and other young men his age are anxious about the possibility of going to war, but also of the bigger question of having a life that is not considered wasted. The film was adapted from a short story by Kazuo Dan, published in 1936, which was also said to have inspired Yukio Mishima. Toshihiko openly admires two of his classmates who are strikingly different.

Toshihiko lives with his young aunt, Keiko, and cousin, Mina. Mina has tuberculosis, and is seen coughing blood into a well. Where Hanagatami and House seem similar is in Keiko's care for Mina which borders on the vampiric. Not so coincidentally, Mina is the name of one of Dracula's victims in Bram Stoker's novel. There is also a shot of a record label with the title "Phantom Nosferatu". Blood also turns into red petals. Even Mina's tombstone, marking her death on December 7, 1941, is streaked with blood.

The film ends with the present day Toshihiko looking back at how he has outlived his group of friends. Obayashi's director's chair is seen in the back, the filmmaker's signature of his most personal work.

The three films will be getting limited theatrical runs as well as being available to stream. Consider that each film has a running time of over two and a half hours in addition to attentive viewing. For screening information, check the KImStim website.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:56 AM

July 06, 2021

Alias Nick Beal

alias nick beal.jpg

John Farrow - 1949
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

A very curious moment occurs near the beginning of Alias Nick Beal. The district attorney, a pastor, the D.A.'s wife and a teen boy are meeting in the glass walled office of a recreation center for teenage boys. A much younger boy appears with a message for the district attorney. The boy disappears as suddenly as he appears, having neither entered or exited through the only visible door. Throughout the film, Nick Beal shows himself to be able to appear and disappear at will. There are no special effects involved, but simply placement of the character within the view of the camera. What makes the scene with the messenger boy unusual is that his appearance and disappearence are not remarked upon as they are with Nick Beal. This may be either a narrative sleight of hand, or it could be an expression of how children are invisible to adults unless they make themselves noticed. This is in keeping with the youth center which serves as a gathering place for boys considered potential juvenile delinquents.

Alias Nick Beal is not a film noir in the traditional sense, though it does share some of the elements. There is the protagonist, Joseph Foster, the district attorney who finds himself shedding his idealism in exchange for the political clout of being a governor. Donna Allen, who first appears as a hard-drinking floozie is transformed into a high society dame after meeting Nick Beal. Her restrained relationship with Foster keeps her from being the true femme fatale. While the identity of Beal is mildly ambiguous, Farrow and screenwriter Jonathan Latimer avoid any direct explanation. Only at the end is there a great suggestion of the supernatural.

A film noir visual trope used several times involves exterior scenes in the fog. Beal is introduced as an emerging silhouette, black in a cloud of grey. Several scenes take place in a bar that seems perpetually enveloped in fog. The remoteness of the bar, more of a dead end dive, is suggested by its name, China Coast. The place appears to be the hangout for down on their heels sailors or those disconnected from the mainstream society of the unnamed town where the film takes place. The interior of the bar is crooked, emphasizing a lack of balance. A sense of disconnection is also suggested in the interior of Donna Allen's ritzy apartment. Conspicuously visible is a surrealistic mural, resembling something by Dali, feature a detached leg with a hand in place of feet. There is a sense of isolation with Foster and Allen seen alone in very large rooms. Farrow also plays with that sense of space in two two-shots with Beal setting terms with Foster and Allen respectively, by placing Beal in the foreground with the significantly smaller Foster and Allen visible in the back of the room.

Thomas Mitchell was an old looking 57 year old playing a man who is stated to be 48. As Foster, he still suggests the vigor of a younger man, but one who has just enough self-awareness that his attraction to Donna Allen is foolish. Dressed to the nines, Audrey Totter looks out of place. One of the great perpetual bad girls, Totter's introduction with her shabbily dressed, grabbing drinks in a bar and picking fights with other ladies of the night offers a bit of boisterous humor. As Nicholas Beal, mysterious businessman, Ray Milland is mostly dead pan, his biggest smile near the end when Beal believes he totally has Foster in his pocket. Beal not only knows his power but also knows that like some gangsters, he does not have to shout or be physically imposing in order to get his way.

Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation provides the commentary track. Part of the discussion is how Alias Nick Beal was a more personal project for John Farrow, given Farrow's practice as a devout Catholic as well as his writings of Catholic history. Farrow reportedly chose to film this adaptation of a story by Mindret Lord over the more prestigious assignment as Alan Ladd's first choice to direct The Great Gatsby. Part of the commentary covers the frequent collaborations between Farrow and Latimer, but only briefly suggests the irreverent sense of humor often found in those films. Their most famous film together is the initial collaboration, The Big Clock, also starring Milland. I would also recommend Plunder of the Sun with Glenn Ford as the wise-cracking adventurer anticipating Indian Jones by almost thirty years. Muller claims to be retired from doing home video commentaries, but I hope takes on another assignment.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:59 AM