Sunday, June 27, 2010

Midsummer à la Sweden

Did everyone have a nice midsummer? Like me, with a bottle of wine and no glass. I heard that 23 million Americans watched the Swedish royal wedding June 19th. That's just more than twice as many as there are Swedes. Well, sigh no more: in less than a month I will kick that wedding's ass!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

M (1931)

Director: Fritz Lang
Germany 1931
105 min
Starring: Peter Lorre, Otto Wernicke, Ellen Widman, Inge Landgut and Theodor Loos.
Nero-Film AG

Yesterday was my 22nd birthday, and what better way to celebrate that than watching a seagull flying away with a sloppy roadkill fluttering in the wind? That lovely view of a utopian Sweden was of course after I watched Fritz Lang's M, which I hadn't seen in too many years. In short, it was a pretty morbid birthday - completely Lolita style.

Recently I have been in a Fritz Lang mood, and have pestered all my friends about how awesome that (to say the least) excentric German is. When my fiancé then told me that, since it was my birthday, I should choose any film I wanted to us to watch together. I reached for one of the first contributions to my DVD collection - my 2-disc special edition of M. I was not the typical teenager when I bought it at 16 years of age.

I can only imagine how much has been said about this classic, and I believe at least half of it is stretching the truth. When reading the trivia section at IMDb, one finds out that Fritz Lang was inspired to make the film when he read an article about "The Vampire of Düsseldorf", Peter Kürten, who was a serial murderer in Germany in the 1920's. In the same section one can read that Lang denied that connection. One can also read that the angry mob at the end of the film were all real criminals, and that 24 of them were imprisoned soon after the completion of the movie. How entertaining this might be, it is also a fact that Lang was that kind of a man who preferred to twist the truth in order to tell a great story, rather than telling the boring reality. (He was never offered to be the lead director of Nazi Germany - the Nazis did not have to "settle" for Leni Riefenstahl.)

Might be one of the coolest men to have walked the Earth.

Anyway. This film is frightening, and especially the first and the last scenes have aged like fine wine. For those who have not seen this film yet (shame on you), I will not discuss the intense and panicky last scene, but instead I will make one of my screen-shot filled posts and discuss the opening of this masterpiece.

I suddenly remember that one of my readers was amused by the fact that one can tell how much I like a film by the amount of screenshots included in the post. Well said, well analyzed. I'm a predictable person.

The film starts with a black screen, and the beginning of a nursery rhyme. Children on the sidewalk fade in, chiming:

Wait, just wait
a little while,
soon the boogeyman will come to you
with his chopping knife
He'll cut small pieces out of YOU!

A woman shouts at the children to stop singing that horrible rhyme, and complains to a neighbor about them. The other woman cynically says that she should be happy as long as they can still hear the children.

We cut to a cute girl going home from school, playing with a ball. She stops to bounce the ball against a poster, informing the public about a roaming child murderer. Two pair of siblings have disappeared within half a year, and it seems like they have fallen victim to the same murderer.

And then, the epic appearance of a shadow. The man says, "You've got a pretty ball! What's your name, child?", and gets the answer "Elsie Beckmann."

The picture fades, and we're back with the mother waiting for her daughter to come home. She looks at the cuckoo clock. She hears some children in the staircase, and enters the hallway to greet her daughter. Of course, they were only the neighbor's kids.

A short sequence shows the mysterious man buying Elsie a balloon from a blind seller, which she thanks him happily for. They walk off screen together.

We cut back to the mother, who is now asking the postman if he has seen Elsie. He hasn't. She looks down the staircase, which is empty. She puts a hand to her stomach, starting to look worried. She looks out the window and at the cuckoo clock again. We see an empty chair in front of a table set for dinner.

Then we cut to a shot of bushes, from which a ball is rolling out. A ballon has flown away and gotten stuck in some electricity pylons.

The screen fades to black, and it is quite for a little while. The next thing we hear is a newspaper man shouting "Extra! Extra!" And Elsie Beckmann is no more.

It was not the first time I saw this film, and yet I got chills down my spine. And the last scene is equally unsettling, showing the greed, hatred and ugliness of common people. And although shocking, the most interesting part isn't where a freudian graphologist analyzes the murderer's handwriting and speaks of his sexuality (what a daring indication for 1931!), either.

No, the most interesting part of M is still not the fact that it handles the subject of child murderers this early in film history, and on top of that during the Depression when people mostly wanted to get away from the harsh reality. The fascinating part is its refusal to separate any character into black or white, evil or good. A famous example of this is where Lang cuts between a meeting of police officers and other high shots, and a strikingly similar meeting with criminals. The police of course want to catch the hideous murderer, but the criminals want to catch him themselves since he is keeping the police far too active for their business to go around. A very amusing scene is when the police is raiding a speakeasy, and the items they find there are not pretty.

On a little side note, I have to mention that the lovely and slightly corrupt Inspector Lohmann plays an important part in this film, just like he does in Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (1933) - the same character and the same actor. The films have otherwise nothing in common apart from the director. I find this quite amusing.

Inspector Lohmann, always with a cool cigarr holder.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage

One thing that I absolutely loved about studying film was the adorable film library. (Perhaps I shouldn't write in the past sense, but there is an entire summer between me and my dear film books.) Being a film nerd like me in this situation, I almost feels like Eve getting banned from the Garden of Eden. But of course she was always welcome back in the autumn - in exchange for life long education loans. Or should I check the Bible one more time?

The most wonderful thing about the library though, was their constant literature clean-outs - there were always some cool film book you just have to have, for just 20 SEK each.

...that's $2.50 for those of you who don't care about world economy. Jesus, you really should keep track on the Swedish currency. We almost took over the Earth once - but Charles XII was killed by a button and messed up everything. But don't feel safe just yet - in about a week there is a Swedish royal wedding, and new plans for taking over the planet will be presented...

His spawns are going to get you.

Where was I? Oh yeah, film books. The last day of school this spring I bought a book I can't believe I didn't already own, since the title is just awesome. It's Stanley Cavell's Pursuit of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage. I have just started to read it, but it is really refreshing to read some serious analyses of the, at the time and to a large extent still, most popular film genre Hollywood had to offer.

One common explanation for the popularity of this genre and its (very often) filthy rich protagonists, is the fact that the poor Depression era audiences wanted to satisfy their need for extravaganza by eye balling Ginger Rogers' feather gowns. (So called "fairy tales of the Depression".) Cavell offers another explanation, which I find a little more realistic and not as degrading as the first one, namely that the story wouldn't work in a regular Depression era life. The characters have to be able to afford to make drama about their relationship status, wonder who is the right one, whether they should marry/re-marry, etc. etc. The genre wasn't about standing in a bread queue or trying to find a job to support your family.
Well, Cavell puts it a little more delicately, of course.

What? A leopard is on the loose?

He also points out some interesting similarities between the "Hollywood comedies of remarriage" and Shakespeare's dramas - and that is quite the different era, telling us that certain themes obviously are popular throughout the ages. One similarity is the importance of the father/daughter relationship. In Shakespeare's works the father stands for the education of the daughter, as well as being the protector of her virginity. In the Hollywood films, take The Lady Eve (1941) for instance, the father often has the same function, although the virginity at stake is rather a psychological than physical one.

And of course, there are extensive "close readings" (a chapter each) of the following films. In short, 20 SEK for this book seems like quite the bargain, in my opinion. But of course, one can always watch films just because you enjoy them, without analyzing the celluloid out of them.

The first one guessing all of the films right gets five points.