25/02/2014

The Valley Of The Bees (1967)


Second Run recently released František Vláčil's The White Dove (1960) and Josef Kilián (1963) for the first time on DVD in the UK with the aim of reviving the director's reputation outside of his native Czech Republic. Vláčil's more ambitious later work The Valley Of The Bees, an immersive medieval drama set in 13th century Bohemia, was reissued in 2010 as part of the same project and makes an even stronger case for a reassessment of this bold and unusual artist outside of Central Europe.

Shot immediately after Vláčil's better known but baggier and more experimental Marketa Lazarová (voted the greatest Czech film of all time by critics in 1998), The Valley Of The Bees concerns Ondřej, a young boy sworn into the Holy Order of the Teutonic Knights as atonement for a youthful prank, who grows up to reject their masochistic belief in transcendence through self-denial and suffering and forsakes his vows, fleeing the Order's coastal monastery to return home. The adult Ondřej (Petr Čepek) finds himself doggedly pursued through the mountains and forests by his devout friend Armin (Jan Kačer), a veteran of the Crusades, who is mortified to learn that Ondřej has taken charge of his late father's castle at Vlkov and married his stepmother Leonora (Vera Galatíková). Armin's violent response to the sin he encounters finally persuades Ondřej to return to the Order, accept its codes and seek forgiveness.


A far cry from the whimsical beer-and-sausages humour of his Czech New Wave counterparts - typified by Miloš Forman's The Firemen's Ball, released the same year - Vláčil's moody meditation on dogmatic orthodoxy in conflict with human wants and desires really has more in common with the cinema of Ingmar Bergman or Miklós Jancsó than it does with the likes of Jiří Menzel. Scenes of inconsolably glum knights wandering alone along the sea shore in stark black-and-white unavoidably recall Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957) and The Valley Of The Bees shares with that masterpiece a dawning realisation of a crushing inevitability, an idea reaching far beyond the ancient times and places in which these two films are set. Vláčil's film was duly read as an allegory for Czech resistance being overwhelmed by the smothering force of Soviet Communism (another oppressive foreign ideology) when it was first released at the height of the Prague Spring, an interpretation that caused it to be suppressed and little seen thereafter.

Whether or not this was the explicit intention of Vláčil and writer Vladimír Körner is open to question, but the result remains a deeply thoughtful enterprise as well as an impressively authentic recreation of the medieval world, making effective use of real locations to allow us to feel the weight of the chainmail on Ondřej's shoulders and the chill of stone walls or sense the thrill of the chase as a pack of hounds hunt a terrified deer across the plains. This end is well served by František Uldrich's crisp monochrome photography, as striking as Jan Čuřík's was on The White Dove, and further enhanced by a lovely folk score from Zdeněk Liška, evoking the period with choirs, solo female voice, wooden pipes and horns.

19/02/2014

A Farewell To Arms (1932)


Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes, the First Lady of the American Theatre, star in this schmaltzy adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's famous 1929 novel about his experiences as a Red Cross ambulance driver in northern Italy during World War I. Directed by Frank Borzage for Paramount, the script by Oliver H.P. Garrett and Benjamin Glazer foregrounds the stormy romance between Coop's Lieutenant Frederic Henry and Hayes' British nurse Catherine Barkley at the expense of all other concerns, almost entirely sidestepping Hemingway's thoughts on the grim futility of war and the author's abiding pessimism about human nature. Sculpting a blockbuster love story out of this prestigious literary work was a more problematic proposition than it might at first have appeared: the narrative taking in pre-marital sex, desertion and death in childbirth, all themes deeply unpalatable to Will H. Hays and his censorship office, who, fortunately, only began enforcing their new Motion Picture Production Code two years later.



Borzage's movie was made on a budget of $900,000, about three times higher than the average studio output of the time, and is inventively shot despite the obvious limitations imposed upon it by a soundstage production. The director makes use of low flying bi-planes, panicking horses, hillside graveyards, driving rain and bilious black smoke to effectively convey the terror and confusion of battlefields under siege from bombing raids. The film's biggest flaw actually turns out to be the unfortunate but undeniably hilarious height difference between its leads: the 6'3 Cooper towering over his diminutive 5' co-star. The filmmakers, having obviously noticed this problem and fearing ridicule, sought to overcome it by rarely showing the lovers standing up together, preferring instead to present them seated or lying enraptured in each other's arms, which only half works. Despite this unintentionally comic note, Cooper and Hayes are well matched and A Farewell To Arms was well received by contemporary critics. Hemingway, however, was unsurprisingly among the naysayers, despite not having seen it. Invited to a private screening near his home in Piggott, Arkansas, Papa sent a telegram to the studio, declining their offer and advising executives: “Use your imagination as to where to put the print, but do not send it here.” Perhaps he was too busy counting the $80,000 he received when he sold them the rights.

18/02/2014

Earth (1930)


Ukrainian director Alexander Dovzhenko completed a trilogy of films about life in his homeland during the first decade under Communism with this beautifully photographed meditation on collectivised agriculture, an ode to nature and human endeavour. Privately-owned farms were still tolerated in the Ukraine in the immediate aftermath of the Russian Revolution, a phenomenon that lasted until the late 1920s when grain shortages across the Soviet Union prompted Stalin to call for an end to "rural capitalism", striking out against wealthy smallholders and issuing a sinister order against the region's native Kulaks, decreeing that they should be "eliminated as a class". Many Kulaks were violently opposed to having their ancestral lands taken away from them during the subsequent implementation of Kremlin policy and it is at this pivotal moment that Dovzhenko's Earth begins.

Following the death of an elderly farmer (Nikolai Nademsky) in his beloved pear orchard, Vasyl Opanas (Semyon Svashenko), his grandson, chooses to embrace both collectivisation and modern mechanisation in spite of heated local opposition and the grave doubts expressed by his father (Stepan Shkurat). Vasyl buys the community's first tractor, which, after a false start, swiftly revolutionises the manner in which the peasantry till the soil and harvest their wheat, ending centuries of backbreaking labour. Peace endures until Vasyl is suddeny ambushed and murdered on a country lane late one night by a neighbouring political rival. The boy's death prompts his father to lose his faith. He demands that Vasyl be buried among the sunflowers in a secular ceremony, his defiance of the church bringing down a curse upon him from the local parish priest before the autumn rains arrive. Vasyl is cheered as a martyr to the Communist cause.


Dovzhenko's highly topical feature was met with a hostile reception when it was first premiered because of the director's apparent refusal to offer a clear political moral, meaning his failure to explicitly condemn Vasyl's enemies for impeding "progress". In fact, this ambivalent tone reigns throughout, Dovzhenko championing both the majesty and bounty of the natural world and the promise represented by emerging new technologies to cultivate it. The film is filled with bold framing and poetic compositions, notably in a montage of strapping young women cheerily gathering hay in the tractor's wake while their bearded menfolk stand astride the hills, gazing off into the middle distance and contemplating the future with evident wonder. A scene involving Vasyl's bereaved fiancee Natalya (Yelena Maksimova) flailing around naked, hysterical with grief and unable to accept his demise, may be especially moving and shocking, but, as Dovzhenko reminds us, death is as natural as the changing of the seasons. Vasyl has merely been returned to the earth he spent his life working for.



Incidentally, fans of this period are strongly advised to check out Kino/Film: Soviet Posters Of The Silent Screen, a free exhibition at GRAD on Little Portland Street in central London running until 29 March 2014. The show features striking graphic works by Georgii and Vladimir Stenberg, Yakov Ruklevsky, Alexander Naumov, Mikhail Dlugach and Nikolai Prusakov intended to promote cinema in the early days of the U.S.S.R. and is well worth the trip.

12/02/2014

All I Desire (1953)


A sharp, emotionally intricate period drama from Douglas Sirk, All I Desire stars the redoubtable Barbara Stanwyck as Naomi Murdoch, a struggling vaudevillian sick of playing to unappreciative audiences in hick towns and the poorly paid itinerant lifestyle of boarding houses and pawn shops that comes with it. Receiving a letter from the family she abandoned in Riverdale, Wisconsin, Naomi impulsively decides to return home to visit them in time to see her daughter Lily (Lori Nelson) take the lead in her high school play. Lily is delighted to be reunited with her mother, whom she believes to be a great actress touring Shakespeare in Europe, but Naomi's reception is otherwise decidedly mixed: eldest daughter Joyce (Marcia Henderson) is positively frosty, son Ted (Billy Gray) seems dubious while husband Henry (Richard Carlson) looks like he's seen a ghost. The gossiping townsfolk, meanwhile, are delighted to have an opportunity to revive an old scandal: Naomi having left in the first place after her torrid affair with local outdoorsman Dutch Heineman (Lyle Bettger) became public knowledge. Naomi nevertheless manages to rekindle her relationship with her children and Henry, at the expense of his burgeoning romance with fellow teacher Sara (Maureen O'Sullivan), before the reappearance of the dogged Dutch brings matters to a head.

Taken from Carol Ryrie Brink's 1951 novel Stopover, All I Desire is a superior small-town melodrama that features several of Sirk's pet themes in embryonic form. The prurience, snobbery and hypocrisy of Middle America would recur in All That Heaven Allows (1955) while Naomi's battle with the embittered Joyce echoes the mother-daughter tensions at the heart of Imitation Of Life (1959). A more modest and contained affair than those big canvas weepies, All I Desire provides a marvelous showcase for Stanwyck, whom I think I admire more and more with every film I see.

10/02/2014

Die Nibelungen (1924)

After completing their sprawling, state-of-the-nation crime drama Dr Mabuse, The Gambler (1922), director Fritz Lang and his wife and screenwriter Thea von Harbou embarked upon an even more ambitious project. Seeking to boost national morale amid the hyper-inflation and accompanying hardships of Weimar Germany, Lang and von Harbou commenced work on a new version of the country's most cherished pre-Christian heroic myths, Die Nibelungen, "Dedicated to the German people". Based on the same legends that inspired Richard Wagner's Der Ring Des Nibelungen (1848-74), von Harbou's script shunned the composer's work and returned instead to the story's roots in epic poetry and Norse sagas, doing away with the bearded tenors and busty valkyries of Wagner's infamous opera cycle in the process. The result, a two part, near-five hour epic, is an attempt to ground these enduring medieval tales in a recognisable emotional reality without compromising their fantastic appeal. An extraordinary achievement, Lang's recently restored Die Nibelungen remains a wonder to behold and a testament to the invention, ingenuity and foresight of its creators. It's astonishing to think that the early blockbusters attempted by the likes of Lang, F.W. Murnau and their American counterpart D.W. Griffith came less than 30 years after the Lumière Brothers' first experiments in capturing the moving image on celluloid. In terms of sheer size and scale, Lang's Nibelungen measures up impressively against Peter Jackson's popcorn-shifting CGI Tolkien atrocities of the 21st century.

Part one recounts the rise of Siegfried (Paul Richter) from blacksmith's apprentice to questing hero, a journey that sees him forge a magic sword, win a goblin's gold and slay a dragon, bathing in the beast's blood to make himself immune to harm (like Achilles, Siegfried's invincibility is not total, as a stray linden leaf sticks to his wet shoulder and prevents the balm entirely covering his skin). Siegfried arrives at the Burgundian court of Worms and is soon commissioned by King Gunther (Theodor Loos) to aid him in his mission to wed the fearsome but virginal warrior queen of Iceland Brunhild (Hanna Ralph, agreeably feisty and strongly resembling Noomi Rapace). Siegfried uses the Tranhelm, an invisibility cloak, to help Gunther best Brunhild in three Herculean games of strength, his victory requiring her to marry him. As a reward for his success, Siegfried is in turn given the hand of Gunter's sister, Kriemhild (Margarete Schön). Back at court, all is well until the hero's deception is discovered and a malicious lie is spread by Brunhild, leading to Siegfried's murder by courtier Hagen Tronje (Hans Adalbert Schlettow). Part two tells of the grief-stricken widow Kriemhild's obsessive pursuit of revenge against her own people for harbouring her husband's killer. In exile, Kriemhild allies herself with Attila the Hun (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), a brutal nomadic warlord, giving him an heir before using his army to lay siege to her enemies.



Almost every shot within Lang's Nibelungen represents a masterwork of composition in its own right. The famous image of Siegfried riding through Odenwald as the dawn sunlight streams between the trees is a fine example, the sequence channelling Silence Of The Forest (1896) by Swiss symbolist painter Arnold Böcklin and shot on a soundstage at the UFA-Neubabelsberg lot in Berlin, a set visited by the young Alfred Hitchcock and that left the future Master of Suspense quite breathless. Böcklin's Island Of The Dead (1880) is also referenced by Lang when we first spy Brunhild's castle rising up out of a lake of fire, the Northern Lights dancing in the sky above. There is no end to the spectacle on show: from the swirling mists of the valley in which Siegfried encounters the malevolent Alberich (Georg John) to the clanking Teutonic knights passing over a high drawbridge and the 400-strong horde of Asiatic horsemen racing across the steppes (one of the few moments that gave producer Erich Pommer cause for hesitation during production). As impressive as Otto Hunte's sets are, notably the lavish interiors of the court of Worms, which frequently feature anachronistic Christian iconography (presumably to placate a modern distaste for paganism), Lang also makes magnificent use of location shooting: that's real snow as Kriemhild gathers the sacred earth, those are real flowers growing by the brook where Siegfried meets his end and that's Schlettow's own breath escaping between shivers as Hagen dumps the last of Alberich's treasure into the icy Rhine. The geometric-patterned costumes and winged helmets by Paul Gerd Guderian are stunning too while the technical accomplishment of bringing Fafner the dragon to life cannot be overstated: this 70 foot fire-breathing behemoth, built from plaster coated with vulcanised hard rubber, took 17 men to operate from within, a foreman taking direction via telephone.


This Game Of Thrones for the 1920s remains a genuine masterwork then, even if it has been unfairly tarnished by its subsequent appropriation by the Nazis, a fate shared by Wagner's Ring Cycle and the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, among others. Lang's Nibelungen was admired by Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels as a timely reminder of Germany's valiant past, usefully reacquainting the cinema-going public with their native traditions at a time when these same stories were helping to provide the basis for the Third Reich's quasi-mystic and ultimately genocidal "Blood and Soil" philosophy. The film's cause has not been helped over the years by the perceived anti-Semitic characterisation of Alberich, especially when contrasted with the youthful Aryan ideal that is Richter's Siegfried, although this was never Lang and von Harbou's intention. Die Nibelungen left a more positive legacy when it inspired Sergei Eisenstein's biopic of Ivan The Terrible (1945-46), a thinly veiled allegory for Soviet-era tyranny. The contemporary European success of Lang's latest opus prompted UFA to release it in America, where it was greeted much less warmly. But the director remained cheerily philosophical nonetheless: "After all, what do people in Pasadena know about Siegfried fighting dragons?"