“The Axe of Wandsbek” (1951)

February 10, 2014

Falk Harnack’s The Axe of Wandsbek is another DEFA production, this one about a Hamburg butcher whose shop is ailing because he can’t afford to modernize. The time is September 1933, i.e., just a very few months after Hitler took power, and through a string of circumstances (a couple of them a tad forced) the butcher is offered 2,000 marks if he’ll do the state just one tiny favor: behead four Communists who’ve been framed for murdering a soldier. The thing is, this isn’t like The Killing of a Chinese Bookie where Cosmo Vittelli had to choke down his scruples to commit murder. No, Albert Teetjen wants to perform the executions, because he wants the money, but knowing that he’ll be ostracized in his community if word gets out, he takes steps to hide the deed, even from his bourgeois, religious wife. Then, of course, word does get out, and…

The Second Track remains the most visually accomplished DEFA production I’ve seen, but The Axe of Wandsbek is the most poetic one. Axe opens with a Langian touch: some little girls playing hopscotch between the words “Heaven” and “Hell” scrawled on the sidewalk. The quadruple execution isn’t shown directly—instead, we experience it through the wildly varied reactions of four secondary characters watching it from an attic. The giant old axe which the butcher is so proud of—it belonged to his grandfather and, as he constantly points out, is made of “the finest Sheffield steel”—is a potent symbol. When things start going wrong for him, Teetjen literally tries to bury the token of his misdeeds, but a neighbor, spotting him, digs it up again, and the bad penny comes home with a vengeance.

The movie was made by people who lived through Nazism’s early years, so all the little social touches—the salutes, the atmosphere of the shops and beerhalls, the decor of the various abodes, the things the characters do for entertainment—ring true. What I’m less certain about is how safe it really was for people opposed to Hitler to air their views back then. None of the characters go so far as to deliver anti-Nazi speeches in the town square, but among themselves they express their political feelings with surprising freedom. A character like the social worker who shows open sympathy for the doomed Reds…well, I’m just not sure how long she would’ve stayed on the street, even in ’33. Communist propaganda is probably heavier in Axe than any of the other DEFA films I’ve seen, but at least it’s confined to the one or two scenes in which the butcher’s neighbors discuss the execution of the Reds primarily as a blow against “the workers”. Even with its symbolic shadings the film is mainly a character study, and a bully one at that.

axe of wandsbek1

Ad Spell

February 4, 2014

So you’re selling a new product that’s linked to a bodily function which is saddled with yucky connotations. Your major competitor has a stranglehold on the marketplace, and consumers are so accustomed to their product that an alternative like yours is bound to seem alien—even a little gross. Your message has to discredit the competition’s motives, defuse your customers’ fears, educate the public about the biological and environmental benefits of your product, and carve out a new client base. Oh, yes: It needs to be eye-catching and funny, but mature as well.

You have 108 seconds to work with.

Now, go.

flotsam & jetsam

February 3, 2014

bill and billie

tristessa

nancy

noir poster

dick

(h/t Elliot Lavine)

past blast

February 3, 2014

Totally bizarre…I’m sitting here watching How Green Was My Valley, in particular the scene where Anna Lee visits the family for the first time, and a very young Roddy McDowall, taking one look at her, falls instantly in love. The concept of a kid falling in love with a grown-up idly passed through my mind, and out of the blue I flashed on something I can’t even remember the last time I recalled. When I was about seven we visited my aunt and uncle’s house one night (this was in St. Louis), and my cousins—all in their late teens—had some of their friends over. There was one girl, I’m sure she wasn’t older than 19, who I spent the evening absolutely *fixated* on. I can’t remember her name now but I can remember how she looked, and I especially remember how soft her neck looked, and that at one point I was sitting next to her on the couch, in a room filled with people of all ages, and I was just dying to kiss her there–on her neck, I mean. (Hey, I don’t know who controls these things. It for damn sure isn’t me.)

Anyway, when it was time to leave and my family was walking out the door, it suddenly felt all-important that I let her know how I felt, and so in a moment of real panic I turned around and blurted out “I love you!” There had to be 8-10 other people in the room, including my mom, who was standing right next to me. For a second I thought I was going to get away with it, but then the room erupted in laughter—friendly, sympathetic laughter, but laughter just the same—and I got embarrassed and walked out the door. Sitting here now I can appreciate that it’s a touching memory and yadda yadda, but mostly I’m struck by the fact that I remember this tiny little event well enough that one small moment in a movie can bring it back in so much detail. Seriously, I can picture exactly how, when I said those words, that woman’s mouth fell open and she looked at whoever it was sitting next to her.

Like I say…just bizarre.

(July 17, 2013)

green

another one down

February 3, 2014

For more than 30 years I’ve had a loose phrase—“that rapturous swig of scotch”—bouncing round my head like a song lyric. It was a description of the sip of booze James Mason takes in the bathtub after Shelley Winters’ death in Lolita, and I’ve remembered it this whole time because, simple as it is, it so nicely captures one of those private moments movie characters are sometimes allowed to enjoy, and also because, well, scotch was involved. But despite always keeping one eye peeled for the phrase whenever reading something about the movie over the years, I never could find it, not in Kael or in any of the other critics from that era, and I couldn’t think who besides a film critic would’ve zeroed in on such a fleeting moment. Then this weekend I re-read the screenplay Nabokov wrote for Kubrick, which I owned way back in Houston, and when I finished it I quickly flipped back to the preface where my eyes alit on the following: “Quite a few of the extraneous inventions (such as the macabre ping-pong scene or that rapturous swig of Scotch in the bathtub) struck me as appropriate and delightful.”

I should’ve known, I guess; anyway, I’ll take it. Anything that reduces the list of things to be puzzled about in life is fine by me.

(November 24, 2013)

lolita

The Knife

February 3, 2014

About 25 years ago I was good friends with a co-worker named Leslie who around 1987 gave me a Swiss army pocketknife for Christmas—a thoughtful, unexpected present. A couple-three years later, though, she and I had a fight about some things I did while I was drunk one night, and she cut me off with extreme prejudice. I haven’t seen her since then, but not only did I hang onto the knife, I kept it on my coffee-table, first all through my time in my last apartment and then again all through my time in this one, using it again and again and again to open things and whatever. Then, about five years ago, my landlady remodeled my bathroom and some of the plumber’s stuff inevitably spilled over into my already cluttered livingroom for a couple days. When he finished and went away I didn’t notice anything different until about a week later, when I picked the knife up to open something and I noticed the little Swiss army pocketknife logo was missing from it—and realized what I had in my hand was a common cheap red pocketknife that the plumber had somehow swapped out for Leslie’s knife. In my head I went through the whole scenario of calling my landlady and having her make Mr. Lee drive back here from God knows where, all to return a gift from someone who doesn’t even like me anymore, and I decided to just skip it and struggle through life with a plain red emotionally-unadorned pocketknife. And that’s what I did. But I swear, there wasn’t a single, solitary time, out of the scores of occasions I’ve used that nothing little knife since then, that I didn’t feel some embers of upset and resentment about losing Leslie’s gift.

And so we come to last Saturday, when I went into the kitchen to check out how much packing tape I had in the house. (Answer: none, but I’ve gotten really good with a tape-gun in the meantime.) I was digging around in the utility drawer, home to myriad tangled extension cords and double-A batteries past their expiration date, and I was trying to dig a little deeper when I realized that what I was holding in my hand was Leslie’s Swiss army pocketknife. I have no idea how it got there; I mean, over all those years I hadn’t just kept it on the coffee-table, I’d kept it on the same particular corner of the coffee-table. Anyway, I’m glad it’s back (and I hope it’s glad to be back), even if I can’t retrieve the psychic energy I wasted on it lo these many years. My apologies to Mr. Lee, and to Leslie, too.

(December 4, 2013)

knife

“The world revolves around you. Question mark.”

February 3, 2014

February 3, 2014

Yeah. I do.

February 3, 2014

“You’re 53, with a life in tatters, like the rest of us. Instead of acting superior and treating us with contempt, you should look at us with affection. We’re all on the brink of despair. All we can do is look each other in the face, keep each other company, and joke a little. Don’t you agree?”

Jep Gambardella, The Great Beauty


sorrentino

Italian Neorealism’s Most Hilarious Moments

October 21, 2013

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bidone

cabiria

children watching us

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umberto cake

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The Alamo Does Tom Blog

October 1, 2013
March 6, 1836

1836

1849

1849 daguerrotype

1868

1868 Alamo

1870s

1870ish

1879

1879 The_Alamo,_by_Doerr_&_Jacobson

1890

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1890s

undated

1905

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1910s

1910-1920

1920

1920

1950s

1950s

Was hast du im Krieg gemacht, Pappi?

September 18, 2013

I’ve watched a couple of those East German films about the war now. Of the two, Gerhard Klein’s The Gleiwitz Case from 1961 is definitely the one worth searching out. It’s based on an incident most people read about and then instantly forget, that the Nazis staged an attack by Polish nationalists on a German radio station and then used it as a pretext for, you know, subjugating an entire damn country. It’s shot in stark B&W with a million unconventional camera angles, and it’s best described as “unstuck in time”, with flashbacks and flash-forwards taking up as much space as the present-time story. It’s also quickly paced without seeming to skimp in any way, and the acting is all fine, too. I’m running through this it’s-all-okay checklist just to say that its origins as a GDR film don’t taint it or turn it into a platform for Soviet ideology.  It’s legitimately good. It has two extraordinary sequences, in fact, one in which, through a series of percussive Citizen Kane-type flashbacks, we’re marched through the experiences that mold the leader of the commando squad into a rabid monster. The best passage, however, comes when the political prisoner whom the Nazis have selected as their patsy (they dress him in a Polish army uniform, then shoot him and leave his body at the radio station) is being transported to Gleiwitz. When the car brakes at a railroad crossing, the endless train carrying German soldiers and materiel toward the border causes him to realize with dawning awareness that this ride only goes one way.

Joachim Kunert’s The Adventures of Werner Holt (1965) is less experimental than Gleiwitz, but it’s still odd to see a conventional Hollywood epic built around the experiences of two German boys from high school to the end of the war. It’s expansive, sexually aware (hot chicks galore in it), and well-made, but it’s a meandering and unnecessary 165 minutes long. It was a huge hit and won several festival awards, though, and both it and Gleiwitz appeared at a time when the West German studios were pumping out serious treacle, the stuff that Fassbinder, Wenders & Co would soon be rebelling against.

What’s impressive is that both films probe deeply into the lives and backgrounds of their fanatics without either rationalizing or judging them. (I mean judging them from a bullying, triumphal point of view—a totalitarian point of view. Obviously the movies are anti-Nazi, anti-murder, etc.) I’ve got a couple more of them ordered, and it looks like the filmmakers were primarily interested in understanding the process by which normal people submit to a totalitarian regime, which is of course a surprise.

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The Gleiwitz Case

the millstone

September 10, 2013

I was watching the end of I Vitelloni, with Franco Interlenghi looking out of the train window at his dead-end hometown as it rolls away from him for the last time, and I suddenly flashed on Quentin Compson, when Shreve asks him why he hates the South: “I don’t hate it he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark: I don’t. I don’t! I don’t hate it! I don’t hate it!

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A Hill of Beans: A Few Good Movies About World War II

September 3, 2013

Naturally it’s a subjective list: these are movies which satisfy me to some high degree emotionally, dramatically and aesthetically. Their quality as “war films” ranks low on the totem pole. Judged just by its combat scenes, Saving Private Ryan would certainly make the cut, but since its action is in service of a false, even pernicious, idea, I left it off. I’m also not smitten with gung-ho heroism, hence you’ll search in vain for The Sands of Iwo Jima here. For me the value of the World War II film lies in its concentration on the unlikely protagonist; fittingly, the war against fascism gave rise to some of the most egalitarian-minded films in the history of cinema, with many of the greatest ones coming from the Axis nations. The protagonists here aren’t heroes because they’ll charge a machine gun. The vast majority of them are little people, often weak, often cowardly, and almost always unprepared, but the intensity of their reactions to the cataclysm around them makes Bogart’s famous line in Casablanca—“The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world”—look simply wrong. Even the characters in uniform work to stay alive mainly to return to the normal, non-military life that existed for them before the world lost its mind. These movies make their characters’ humanity the subject of their stories, even in such cases as Army of Shadows or The Conformist, where that humanity is subordinated to a wider cause. Asterisks appear by the titles which mean the most to me—the ones that landed closest to where I live.

I close things out with a short list of films which many people dote on, and several of which are considered classics, but which, for one reason or another, have the same effect on me that The English Patient had on Elaine Benes; I mention them not to be a contrary asshole, but simply to forestall the incredulous query “You mean you haven’t seen The Pianist? Why, it’s the most wonderful thing in the world!” I also omitted a handful of films I love or admire (The Long Voyage Home, A Matter of Life and Death and Notorious among them) in which the war was mainly an incidental or peripheral factor. And, obviously, I’ve omitted the ton of movies that aren’t worth ranking at all. (Hail, The Battle of Britain! Ave, The Secret of Santa Vittoria!) God knows what movies I’ve forgotten, overlooked, or need to catch up on, but I’d be grateful for tips on all of them.

Wartime

The Mortal Storm (Borzage 1940)

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49th Parallel (Powell 1941)

To Be Or Not To Be (Lubitsch 1942)

The Pilot Returns (Rossellini 1942)

Went the Day Well? (Cavalcanti 1942)

went ealing

Casablanca (Curtiz 1942)

Air Force (Hawks 1943)

The More the Merrier (Stevens 1943)

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Powell 1943)*

lifeanddeathofcolonelblimp

This Land Is Mine (Renoir 1943)

Le Corbeau (Clouzot 1943)

Lifeboat (Hitchcock 1944)*

lifeboat

Western Approaches (Jackson 1944)

The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (Sturges 1944)

Hail the Conquering Hero (Sturges 1944)*

hailconquering1

Rome Open City (Rossellini 1945)*

Objective, Burma! (Walsh 1945)

They Were Expendable (Ford 1945)*

they nurses

La Bataille du rail (Clément 1946)*

Paisà (Rossellini 1946)*

Les Maudits (Clément 1947)

Germany Year Zero (Rossellini 1948)*

egermany-year-zero

Home of the Brave (Robson 1949)

home of the brave

La Silence de la Mer (Melville 1949)

Battleground (Wellman 1949)

The Axe of Wandsbek (Harnack 1951)

Decision Before Dawn (Litvak 1951)

Forbidden Games (Clément 1952)

forbidden

The Caine Mutiny (Dmytryk 1954)

Attack! (Aldrich 1956)

Kanal (Wajda 1956)

Four Bags Full (La traversée de Paris) (Autant-Lara 1956)

A Man Escaped (Bresson 1956)*

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The Burmese Harp (Ichikawa 1956)

The Battle of the River Plate (Powell/Pressburger 1956)

The Cranes Are Flying (Kalatozov 1957)

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The Devil Strikes at Night (Siodmak 1957)

Bitter Victory (Ray 1957)

The Enemy Below (Powell 1957)

Ice Cold in Alex (Thompson 1958)

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Fires on the Plain (Ichikawa 1959)

The Ballad of a Soldier (Chukhray 1959)

The Bridge (Wicki 1959)

the-bridge

General della Rovere (Rossellini 1959)

Il Federale (The Fascist) (Salce 1961)

Der Fall Gleiwitz (The Gleiwitz Case) (Klein 1961)*

Hell is for Heroes (Siegel 1962)

hellisforheroes

Ivan’s Childhood (Tarkovsky 1962)

The Great Escape (Sturges 1963)

It Happened Here (Brownlow/Mollo 1964)

Diamonds of the Night (Němec 1964)

diamonds-of-the-night-28202_1

King Rat (Forbes 1965)

In Harm’s Way (Preminger 1965)*

La ligne de démarcation (Chabrol 1966)

Army of Shadows (Melville 1969)*

The Conformist (Bertolucci 1970)*

conformistb

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (De Sica 1970)

Distant Thunder (S. Ray 1973)

Lacombe, Lucien (Malle 1974)*

lacombe-lucien

Zerkalo (Tarkovsky 1974)*

Overlord (Cooper 1975)

Seven Beauties (Wertmüller 1975)

Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Pasolini 1975)

1900 (Bertolucci 1976)*

1900-01

Mr. Klein (Losey 1976)

The Ascent (Shepitko 1977)*

Cross of Iron (Peckinpah 1977)

The Tin Drum (Schlöndorff 1979)

tin drum

Christ Stopped at Eboli (Rosi 1979)

The Marriage of Maria Braun (Fassbinder 1979)

The Big Red One (Fuller 1980)

Das Boot (Petersen 1981)

Night of the Shooting Stars (1982 Taviani)

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (Oshima 1983)

mrlawrenceblu00015

Come and See (Klimov 1985)*

Au Revoir, Les Enfants (Malle 1987)

Empire of the Sun (Spielberg 1987)

Hope and Glory (Boorman 1987)

hope and glory

Grave of the Fireflies (Takahata 1988)*

grave-of-the-fireflies

Story of Women (Chabrol 1988)

story of women

Black Rain (Imamura 1989)

Europa Europa (Holland 1990)

Schindler’s List (Spielberg 1993)

The Thin Red Line (Malick 1998)

thin_red_line_blu-ray_12x

Sophie Scholl – Die letzten Tage (Sophie Scholl: The Final Days) (Rothemund 2005)*

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Indigènes (Bouchareb 2006)

Letters from Iwo Jima (Eastwood 2006)

Vincere (Bellocchio 2009)

The Hangover

Murderers Are Among Us (Staudte 1946)

The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler 1946)*

Shoeshine (De Sica 1946)

Without Pity (Senza pietà) (Lattuada 1948)

senza pieta

The Search (Zinnemann 1948)

the search 1

The Third Man (Reed 1949)

Pigs and Battleships (Imamura 1961)

Das zweite Gleis (The Second Track) (Kunert 1962)

Wings (Shepitko 1966)*

Camp de Thiaroye (Sembene 1988)

Digital Fusion Image Library TIFF File

Enemies, a Love Story (Mazursky 1989)*

enemies36

Documentary

Memory of the Camps (Bernstein/Hitchcock 1945)

Days of Glory (Visconti/De Sanctis/et al. 1945)

(The Battle of) San Pietro (Huston 1945)*

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Blood of the Beasts (Franju 1949)*

beasts

Night and Fog (Resnais 1955)*

Night and Fog

The Sorrow and the Pity (Ophüls 1969)*

The World at War (BBC 1973)*

The Memory of Justice (Ophüls 1976)

Shoah (Lanzmann 1985)*

The Doomed City: Berlin (Darlow 1986)

The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (Hara 1987)

Emperor

Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie (Ophüls 1988)*

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The Eye of Vichy (Chabrol 1993)

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But Not For Me

The Great Dictator (Chaplin 1940)

Let There Be Light (Huston 1946)

Stalag 17 (Wilder 1953)

The Bridge on the River Kwai (Lean 1957)

Kapo (Pontecorvo 1960)

Two Women (De Sica 1960)

Judgment at Nuremberg (Kramer 1961)

The Pawnbroker (Lumet 1964)

The Night Porter (Cavani 1974)

The Damned (Visconti 1969)

Sophie’s Choice (Pakula 1982)

Saving Private Ryan (Spielberg 1998)

The Pianist (Polanski 2002)

Downfall (Hirschbiegel 2004)

Inglourious Basterds (Tarantino 2009)

Stray Dog

July 16, 2013

I got the Blu-Ray of Seven Samurai yesterday, and spent most of last night rolling around in it like a pig in shit. It struck me that one sequence which gets generally overlooked—the consummation of Katsushiro and Shino’s relationship, and its aftermath—shows off Kurosawa’s skill as well as anything in the movie. At that point of the movie—three hours into it, the night before the climactic battle—it’s hard to believe Kurosawa is putting his forward thrust on hold while this little playlet acts itself out, but it’s filled with so many beautiful, psychologically right details that I never want to skip past it. The lovers’ bodies writhing in the infernal firelight, Shino’s sensuous post-coital countenance just before she spots her enraged father, the reflexive decency with which Kambei comes to her aid when Manzo begins beating his daughter (“Stop this brutality!”), the camera’s sudden leap behind Katsushiro when Kambei realizes that he’s the samurai Manzo is raving about, the onset of the rain, and finally the winnowing of the scene to its essentials: first the villagers, and then Kambei, and finally Manzo, all drifting away, until only the lovers are left, Shino sprawled in the mud, Katsushiro standing with bowed head in the downpour.

It also struck me how right Kurosawa was to emphasize the warriors’ grief and fatigue. Katsushiro “becomes a man” by sleeping with Shino, and the next day he reaches another level of maturity when he kills his first bandit (though the camera cuts away with such quickness that a first-time viewer might not even realize the significance what’s just happened), but he reaches his most important milestone at the very end of the battle. Aching to avenge Kyuzo’s and Kikuchiyo’s deaths, he can only run in hysterical circles until Kambei grabs him and says “All the bandits are dead!”—at which point he falls to his knees and sobs. His education is complete now, but he becomes a true samurai only by taking on the sorrow that’s been Kambei’s all along.

seven sam


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