I still seem to be watching a lot of films. Normal service – well, normal as of 2015 – should be resumed soon…
Cinema Komunisto, Mira Turajlic (2010, Serbia). Back in the day, Yugoslavia as was decided to attract foreign investment by opening up one of its state-run studios, Avala Film in Belgrade, to foreign film-makers. President Tito was a big movie-fan, so it gave him the opportunity to meet many film stars, such as Orson Welles or Kirk Douglas. Cinema Komunisto uses both archive footage and interviews with those who worked at Avala. The facilities are now pretty much ruins, but the massive wardrobe and props departments still exist. It’s interesting stuff, with lots of nice touches – like the bridge Avala helpfully blew up for a US war movie, only for the film-makers to use a model shot in the final cut; or the US film star who complimented Tito on his wonderful palace, only to be told it was the “people’s palace”. Yeah right. “Socialist” dictators and their insulting fiction of non-ownership of their wealth. Worth seeing.
Yojimbo, Akira Kurosawa (1961, Japan). I thought I’d seen this, but it seems I think I’ve watched more Kurosawa films than I actually have. And this was one of the ones I hadn’t actually seen. That has now been remedied. Obviously. The title means “bodyguard” and refers to the character played by Toshiro Mifune, who is never named. He wanders into a town in which two rival gangs have the local populace terrorised. Mifune decides to do something about it, by playing one gang off against the other. I’m told the story is based on Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, which I’ve never read, although Kurosawa claimed it was based on Hammett’s The Glass Key. Yojimbo was certainly lifted pretty much wholesale by Sergio Leone, however, transplanted to the Wild West and made as A Fistful of Dollars. Which seems entirely approproate as, despite its setting in mediaeval Japan, there is very much a Wild West air to the film. There are guns – one of the enforcers in one gang has a revolver, makes much use of it – but most of the fight scenes feature swords. The characters seem a little caricatured, much like in a spaghetti Western, including the boar-like brother of one gangster, and the seven-foot tall enfrocer of the other. Kurosawa clevery ramps up the violence as the film progresses, until the final showdown results in the destruction of the businesses of the two merchants who back each of the two gangs. I’ve stuck a load of Kurosawa on my rental list recently, as I really should watch more of his films.
People on Sunday, Robert Siodmak & Edgar G Ulmer (1930 Germany). I had thought this was a documentary, but it isn’t. It’s actually a drama, made by a film club in Berlin, a fact the film actually makes a point of. It opens by introducing the main actors, and points out that once the film is over they will be returining to their day jobs, which it helpfully indicates. The story follows four friends on a Sunday, as they head for Wannsee to enjy the summer sun on the beach. As siilent dramas go, People on Sunday ticks all the boxes, but what makes the film remarkable – and it can hardly be “a pivotal film on the development of German cinema”, as Wikipedia puts it, if Lubitsch was making popular films in Berlin more than a decade earlier – but what is certainly remarkable about People on Sunday is the number of people involved in it who went on to have careers in Hollywood. Not only the two directors, Siodmak and Ulmer, but also Curt Siodmak, Billy Wilder and Fred Zinnemann. Worth seeing.
The Calm, Krzysztof Kieślowski (1976, Poland). One of Kieślowski’s favourite actors, Jerzy Stuhr, plays an ex-con who tries to turn his life around after being released from prison. It’s never revealed what he was sent down for, although it seems unlikely to have been a violent crime. Stuhr leaves Kraków and heads out into the country. He gets a job on a building site, where the manager seems to trust him – although not, it transpires, for necessarily the right reasons. He meets a young woman, the two marry and a baby is on the way. His has turned his life around and everything is going well. He is a model member of society. But materials keep on disappearing from the building site, and when the manager threatens to take the cost of the missing materials out of everyone’s wages, they go on strike. Stuhr ends up as an unwilling liaison between the two. And learns that the manager himself is responsible for the thefts – and that he trusts Stuhr because Stuhr, an ex-con, would make a good patsy should the scheme be uncovered. Stuhr can’t resolve the situation and his fellow workers decide he is a scab. So they beat him up. This is not a cheerful film, although it initially appears to be. It seems Kieślowski is trying to say that no matter how hard you work to improve yourself, the system will still fuck you up in the end for no good reason. And in 1970s Poland, that was likely true. So it’s a little ironic that The Calm was banned by the Polish authorities, and didn’t get shown until 1980, because it depicted a strike and strikes were illegal in Poland.
Still Life, Jia Zhangke (2006, China). That’s the last of the Christmas presents, and the last of Jia’s films until the box set containing Mountains May Depart that I’ve pre-ordered arrives. His films really are brilliant, so much so that each time I watch a new one I have to decide whether or not it is my new favourite Jia film. Still Life came close, perhaps just inching out 24 City but not managing to steal the top spot from The World. Still Life is set in the Three Gorges area and tells the story of Han Sanming (played by Han Sanming), who has returned to travelled to track down his wife and daughter who ran away sixteen years earlier. But the address he has for them is now underwater, part of the city that has been destroyed for the Three Gorges Dam project. Sanming joins a local demolition crew, who are demolishing buildings using lump hammers. The film then shifts to Shen Hong (played by Zhao Tao, who played the lead in The World, and Han Sanming played her boyfriend), a nurse who is in Fengjie to look for her husband, who it turns out has become a successful local businessman. In fact, he runs several demolition contracts, and Sanming works for him. He also has a rich girlfriend. When Shen Hong finds this out, she asks for a divorce. In the final section of the film, Sanming’s wife turns up and reveals that their daughter is now working furthe rsouth in indentured labour to pay off the wife’s brother’s debt. Sanming offers to take wife and daughter with him, but he would have to pay off the debt – and he doesn’t have the money. so he returns alone to the coal maines of Shanxi… Although a drama, Still Life plays like a documentary – it’s one of the chief appeals of Jia’s films – and some of the scenery on display is fantastic. The Three Gorges region is astonishingly beautiful, but it is also heavily built-up and, during the period the film was made, was being slowly demolished and flooded for the dam. It makes for some striking cinematography. Excellent stuff.
Ich möchte kein Mann sein, Ernst Lubitsch (1918, Germany). The title translates as “I don’t want to be a man”. Ossi Oswalda plays the high-spirited daughter of an indulgent uncle. When he leaves, she is put in the charge of a new guardian, who is far more strict. So she dresses up as a man and goes out on the town, ending up in a posh ball, where she finds it much harder to be a man than she had expected. She bumps into her new guardian, and tries to steal his date in revenge. Unfortunately, someone else has more success, and Oswalda and her guardian drown their sorrows in drink and become great friends. So much so they begin kissing each other. When they leave the ball, the cab driver drops Oswalda off at the guardian’s house, and vice versa. But it all works out in the end. Oswalda is undoubtedly the star of the film – there wouldn’t be a film without her. Her bad behaviour in the opening section of the film does an excellent job of outlining her character; and her antics when cross-dressed, most of which are based on a complete obliviousness to her disguise, display excellent comic timing. When you consider that Ich möchte kein Mann sein was made a dozen years before People on Sunday, and there’s not all that much that’s technically different between the two… it does undermine the claims to importance of People on Sunday. The latter is undoubtedly the better film – it’s longer, 73 minutes to the 41 minutes of the Lubitsch, and it’s a drama played completely straight and which makes a feature of its amateur cast. Ich möchte kein Mann sein is a flat-out comedy, although not the fall-about slapsatick comedy Hollywood was making at the time, and it makes a meal of its “fish out of water” story. A fun film, but one chiefly for fans of silent cinema.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 895