Film Reviews and Analysis

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Der Letzte Mann aka The Last Laugh (Directed by F.W Murnau, 1924)

"F.W. Murnau's German silent classic The Last Laugh (Der Letze Mann) stars Emil Jannings as the doorman of a posh Berlin hotel. Fiercely proud of his job, Jannings comports himself like a general in his resplendent costume, and is treated like royalty by his friends and neighbors. The hotel's insensitive new manager, noting that Jannings seems winded after carrying several heavy pieces of luggage for a patron, decides that the old man is no longer up to his job. The manager demotes Jannings to men's washroom attendant, and the effect is disastrous on the man's prestige and self-esteem."
Freidrich Wilhelm Murnau's 1924 German film Der Letzte Mann or The Last Laugh ushered in a new era of cinematic techniques which would greatly influence the way audiences engaged with cinema by turning the camera into a character within the film itself. In my last couple of posts about silent cinema, I've emphasised the way silent film is more than just a means to an end, and arguably The Last Laugh is the epitome of silent film as an expressive and unique aesthetic.

An unusual fable of modern society, within an Expressionist style. The film feels totally original from the get-go.  Essentially it is a singular character story with most of the action focusing on the Doorman or seen through his eyes. He’s the only character afforded close-ups in the film . The camera seems to view the others around him with a resentful distance. Karl Freund's wandering camera is famous for it’s inventiveness. Established in The Last Laugh are a number of techniques which have become standard in modern filmmaking. No longer is the camera solely a tool to capture action, it becomes a means to tell a story. Unusual methods create some of the first examples of tracking shots and hand-held camera aesthetic. The loose movement perfectly captures a deliriously exuberant descent into madness. The audiences experiences the action  unlike anything before it.

The hotel, for which the majority of the film is set, is gloriously designed. Structurally, it is exaggerated to reflect the prestige the Doorman associates with it and closes in on him as his despair deepens. It seems to be almost sentitent, as if it reacts to the emotional resonance given off by the Doorman. There’s no doubt The Last Laugh greatly influenced the atmosphere and style of The Overlook in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The Atlantic is a web of windows, shadowy corridors and infinite space. We often find ourselves looking through doors and glass panes as if the hotel is infecting the film of the camera. It’s inhabitants are spectres. A time and place which cares little for the small story of a giant man.

Emil Jannings is brilliant. His dominating physique - exaggerated by his militaristic uniform - puts forth both a proud and pathetic figure. The moment of realisation when it becomes clear his beloved job is no longer his, is heartbreaking. Unusually The Last Laugh has no intertitles to relay character dialogue, meaning the story has to be entirely told through  pantomime acting and camera control. A clear step forward for cinematic storytelling. Viewed in context, this was an amazingly brave and ambitious decision but one which feels remarkably well executed, thanks to the exquisite acting.  Jannings is hugely expressive and he gives one of the most emotionally draining screen performances of all time. We feel each projected moment with equal force - every stagger and every pained expression carries with it an emotional weight. It's remarkable at times. Later in his life, which is strangely foreshadowed in the film, Jannings, the once internationally famous, Oscar winning actor, would be disgraced as his shameful association with Nazi propaganda films killed off his career entirely. After 1945 he would never act again. As Roger Ebert puts it, ‘The coat no longer fit.’

In a recession-hit modern world driven by the continued pursual of all that is new and exciting, the film’s story is as relevant today as it was back in 1924.  As it reaches a sullen climax you begin to wonder just where the laughs are going to come from. In a moment of director-god divine intervention- or more likely, meddling film producers who thought the original ending too miserable – a strange moment of fate leads the Doorman to great riches.  Thus he has his last laugh. It’s a either a clever piece of self-referentiality, or a bad ending.

Seeing is Believing - Cinematic Artificiality in Douglas Sirk's Magnificent Obsession

 "...Rock Hudson plays Bob Merrick, a reckless playboy who is indirectly responsible for the death of a kindly and much-beloved doctor. The dead man's wife, Helen Phillips (Jane Wyman), refuses to accept Bob's apologies. When Helen is accidentally blinded, Bob decides to "do right" by her anonymously, illustrating author Douglas's curious edict that the best sort of good deed is the one for which you're not rewarded. In record time, Bob becomes a brilliant physician, and it is he who performs the sight-restoring surgery on Helen. Rather than fade into the woodwork unheralded, Bob is at last forgiven by Helen, who has fallen in love with him during her sightless months without even knowing it..." 
“You’ve got a one in a million chance” is the line spoken to Bob Merrick, former millionaire playboy turned brain surgeon just as he performs emergency surgery to save the life of his one true love and cure her of her previously incurable blindness at the same time. He succeeds - the two lovers are re-acquainted, able to both see each other again, tears are shed and a beautiful musical score kicks in. It’s miraculous. Then again, Magnificent Obsession seems to have an uncanny ability for an audience to will into existence a set of circumstances which feels just right for the moment at hand.

Magnificent Obsession is a 1954 film directed by Douglas Sirk, a Danish-German filmmaker who made a career in Hollywood by directing popular melodramas, often starring Rock Hudson. During his years in Hollywood he was dismissed by critics as a director who created predictable, schlocky, popularist trash. Later, Sirk was reclaimed by the auteur led new-wave movements which resonated through Europe in the years after his final Hollywood film. Declared as genius, his proponents claimed his films subverted their traditionally held interpretations by an underlying satirical tone which mocked numerous facets of the American way of life. Magnificent Obsession lacks some of the themes which have come to define the Sirk experience in the years of his re-evaluation – namely his satirical attacks on American materialism and class values. At first they seem to be there. The characters are set up as typical Sirk archetypes and the plot leads in a direction which seems to suggest more of the same.
It needs to be understood Sirk’s films are ‘fake’. This isn't a new revelation. He never hides the artifice of his films. He readily makes obvious the fact his characters are driving in front of projected back-drops and his exaggerated sets are quite clearly built on sound stages. A picturesque landscape upon further inspection is revealed to be a matte painting. It’s ‘America’, albeit a dolls house version and this allows Sirk to explore his themes more easily by contrasting the flacidity of his actors and story with an ironic visual style.
Within this artifice, I find something quite interesting. Consider the opening scene, as a reckless Merrick zooms around a lake in his speed boat at 180mph. It’s inevitable that he crashes, it had to happen, it needs to happen. Even the characters in the film knew it was going to happen. In the drollest manner possible, considering the shocking event which has just taken place, an onlooker, standing in front a clearly fake backdrop carefully notes ‘I knew that would happen’. Of course he did, and so did we the audience, this is a film after all.

Jump forward 47 years. In David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), a remarkable thing occurs when Betty and Rita visit a theatre which reveals itself to be an elaborate charade. In the moment of ‘silencio’, the barrier which separates audience and filmmaker breaks down. Suddenly in the silence, a previously suspenseful mystery thriller gives birth to a new audience relationship to film. Mulholland Drive is a film about watching films, and how a director is ultimately expelling a series of artificial and recorded events onto an audience who choose define the experience as narrative. I’d argue Sirk was doing the same thing in 1954.
Initially we being to suspect that film may be about we expect it to be – perhaps a critical allegory of vanity and faith which pervades through the heart of middle America. This is what we expect, it is a film directed  by Douglas Sirk after all. Rock Hudson is there, he’s doing what Rock Hudson usually does. Jane Wyman is there, she's beautiful of course. Yet, the films events lead those lines of enquiry down a dead-end. This is not a film about the American experience. This is a film about the experience of cinema.

The film could be said as having two distinct metaphors within it's story and characters, which dictate it’s cinematic experience – blindness and destiny. I’d argue blindness, is used to present the revelation of cinema as a totally contrived, artificial experience. Helen Phillips cannot see anything, yet she regularly speaks in terms of 'seeing'. The question is not about what her character can or can’t see- we can only assume she doesn't see anything - but what does the audience see? We see events unfold for her, we ‘see’ a film. We observe characters fulfilling their obligations as pieces in a Douglas Sirk film. We watch them in front of projected backdrops travelling to implied destinations by plane and by car. They haven’t really traveled anywhere but we ‘see’ them in Zurich, so it’s assumed that’s where they are, when we know the location is a construction on a film set. We ‘see’ luscious landscapes through windows but they are obviously matte paintings. In the film we are constantly being asked to ‘see’ events for ourselves as spectators. We have to read letters, postcards and telegrams, and the camera waits patiently while we do so. Like Mulholland Drive, the film uses a metaphorical lack of human cognitive feedback, to suggest the images which we are viewing, are nothing more than the projections of the director, who is telling us to read these visual cues as the language which defines the film as a cinematic experience.

The second metaphor is destiny – which I present as the suggestion of a journey of narrative which leads an audience to expect certain events to take place, within the context of the film they are watching. I mentioned earlier when the audience wills something to happen in Magnificent Obsession, it always does. It’s why the boat inevitably crashes, the chance encounters, and explains how a former playboy millionaire can perform life saving surgery, just when it matters the most. There’s no real world logic in him being able to do so, but in cinema this makes sense. These moments are destined to happen. We’re watching a deliberately contrived series of events, which fall in line with our expectations. Sirk knows an audience is waiting for these events to play out and in the film and he purposefully sets off a chain of events which we choose engage with as an unfolding narrative, or plot.

If there’s one thing I’d argue which defines some of great postmodern directors –De Palma, Lynch and Jonze among many others, it’s the ability to wrap their films in package which can only be described as brilliant cinema without breaking the rules of their universe. The ‘Club Silencio’ sequence in Mulholland Drive, is a marvelously executed piece of staging that doesn't speak out to the audience in an explicit manner. It leads us to believe events which transpire after, are still part of an act posing as narrative. Magnificent Obsession similarly stays in character throughout. It’s knowingly deceptive, which makes it difficult to pin down. It asks the age old postmodern of question of what is real – or in this case, what is cinema - and what is a construction. It blurs the lines between the two in such a way which suggests you cannot find a definitive answer in either notion.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Planeta Bur aka Planet of the Storms (Directed by Pavel Klushantsev, 1962)

 Having looked at the VFX breakdown for Prometheus - and wondered why they didn't just film in places where there are mountains in the background - I thought it time to bring some some actual good sci-fi film action into the mix. This is Soviet Filmmaker Pavel Klushantsev's Planeta Bur aka Planet of the Storms, made in 1962. Klushantsev was an early pioneer of special effects who went on to greatly influence both Stanley Kubrick and George Lucas. Planeta Bur was his only feature film and was released under various guises in the West, most famously by B-Movie maestro Roger Corman as Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet. OK- it's pretty hokey in places, but I'm a sucker for this type of film! They just don't make em' like they used to. Who needs CG when you can make it out of polystyrene.


A Cottage on Dartmoor (Directed by Anthony Asquith, 1929)

“In a small-town hairdressing salon, a young barber, Joe (Uno Henning) is trying to court Sally, the beautiful manicurist (Nora Baring) and asks her out. She rejects him in favour of the security offered by an older, wealthier farmer. In a jealous rage Joe slashes the farmer with a razor and is sent to Dartmoor prison for attempted murder. He escapes over the moors to find Sally, who does not know if he has come to kill her or ask her forgiveness, and it's at this point that the film begins. The rest of the story is told in flashback.” (BFI Filmstore 2008)

“...though many filmmakers, Asquith apparently included, believed that silent storytelling had reached such a high level of refinement that mere chatter would never be enough to extinguish it. This, of course, was not to be, but “A Cottage on Dartmoor” provides ample illustration of how elegantly and assuredly expressive silent film had become, and how hard it must have been to believe that this magnificent medium, then just over 30 years old, was doomed.” (Kehr 2007)

Anthony Asquith’s obscure, blackly comic A Cottage on Dartmoor is a triumphant last-hurrah of silent British cinema. A deceptively simple tale of sexual jealousy which takes inspiration, style and techniques from a number of international sources. Released in 1929, the film sits on the transitional cusp between silent and talkie in British Cinema. As a young Alfred Hitchcock earned critical and financial success with his sound thriller, Blackmail, A Cottage on Dartmoor announced it’s artistic and cinematic intention against the unreceding tide of new technology. It is a love letter to the medium of silent film which achieves its narrative ambitions through the use of moody cinematography, theatrical acting and stylistic editing.

The film famously opens on the bleak environment of Dartmoor. The cinematography paints the landscape as unrelenting and unliveable, a hellish place not of this earth – echoing the masterful civil war scenes in D.W Griffith’s controversial 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation, and later used to great effect in Charles Laughton's 1955 The Night of the Hunter, Nick Roeg’s 1971 Walkabout and the numerous adaptations of the Dartmoor-set The Hound of the Baskervilles. Asquith was a keen admirer of European Expressionist cinema and the opening shots – though grounded in the English countryside - establish the film early on as coming from a distinctly un-British taste. Tom Ryall presents the argument “ has numerous directorial touches which reflect Asquith’s immersion in European cinema, his interests in Expressionist film and montage cinema. Yet the film can also be linked to the narrative drive and movement of the American film and the opening sequence in particular is built on the basis of an alternating montage strategy traceable to Griffith” (Ryall 2005:40) The European styled cinematography and design permeates through the film. Though the opening shots are arguably the most memorable, the majority of the film is set within atmospheric interiors which seep with shadow and light - Sally’s cottage is the most striking, while the Barber shop contrasts the mundane and clinical with Joe’s descent into madness. Furthermore, the editing feels equally international, distinctly Soviet, clearly inspired by Eisenstein and Pudovkin – quick montages are used to heighten tension and present Joe’s mind fragmenting and spiraling out of control as his jealousy deepens.

The film’s most effective scene brings all this outside influence into a fantastic cinematic sequence. The scene, set in a cinema during the showing of a ‘Talkie’ film, makes a clever reference to the mediums own fragility but also presents a showcase of its unique qualities as an aesthetic  We never the see the film on show, instead the action is concentrated entirely on the faces of the audience as a bombastic musical sequence delivers incredible suspension as Joe sits in the shadows, stalking the dating couple. His jealousy becomes more deep-seated after each passing second, each single cut of an Eisenstein inspired montage sequence. Murder is preceded by the quaintness of cricket and lawn tennis, who would've thought such a thing possible. Delivered without a moment of dialogue it's proof cinema is allowed to flourish, pure image becomes transcendent of the medium.

The film is often favourably compared to the early works of Hitchcock and demonstrated the potential of Asquith to be one of the more visually inventive British filmmakers of his time. Sadly, his career became decidedly mundane as it developed but there’s no doubt A Cottage on Dartmoor remains a virtuoso piece of directorial panache. Just look at these sumptuous shots!

A Cottage on Dartmoor, opening stills


BFI Filmstore (2008) A Cottage on Dartmoor At: (Accessed 09/10/2012)

Kehr, D (2007) New DVDs: A Cottage on Dartmoor At: (Accessed 09/10/2012)

Ryall, T (2005) Anthony Asquith Great Britain: Manchester University Press