Wednesday, May 06, 2020

last week in letterboxd

Glückliche Reise, Alfred Abel, 1933

She wants to go to the jungle, too, instead of wasting away in the office, says Magda Schneider. In the end this dream isn´t curtailed, but granted. A triumph of hedonistic joy and curiosity over duty and work ethics: not much later this would become completely unthinkable in German cinema.

GLÜCKLICHE REISE is one of the last operetta films in the jewish-german spirit of the late Weimar republic - and an excellent one at that, if dated in its naive and at times uneasy exoticism. In this regard it´s a bit similar to DIE BLUME VON HAWAII, the songs are similarly great, too, although all in all it may be not quite as crazy. GLÜCKLICHE REISE has the better cast, though: Schneider and Max Hansen may nominally only be the "second couple", but they completely steal the show.

Both are gushingly frivolous throughout, a ride in a coach leads to a musical-erotic breakdown, they snuggle up to each other, singing turns into giggling and then into who knows what... when Schneider returns to her chambers, at lest, she´s still humming the same melody and her whole demeanor is positively post-coital. The scene, already starting out like the greatest thing ever and only getting better after that, is capped off with a polyamorous four-way split screen.

A shame that this isn´t available in a halfway decent version. As long as films like this one are hidden away in archives and (if they´re lucky) shoddy grey market releases, all that talk about "national film heritage" is just a sad joke.

Ihre Hoheit befiehlt, Hanns Schwarz, 1931

The english title is more precise than the german one, because in the end the crucial commands stem from Käthe von Nagy´s grace rather than from the "highness" of princess Marie-Christine. It speaks for the subtle intelligence of Wilder´s script, though, that those two forces aren´t strictly separate. Love isn´t the liberated other of politics, it can´t fully escape the grasp of power... but it can derail some of its mechanisms. The romance of von Nagy and Fritsch is integrated in and formulated through court rituals and military hierarchies which, in turn, gradually lose their meaning while being transformed into an erotic playground.

This is worlds apart from the grand, sweeping movements of DER KONGRESS TANZT, or even from more conventionally agile films like DIE DREI VON DER TANKSTELLE or DER BLONDE TRAUM. Compared to them IHRE HOHEIT BEFIEHLT feels like a gentle romantic comedy in slow motion, the one attempt at slapstick mayhem (in an ice rink) is almost touchingly clumsy, and even Heymann´s score often finds itself stuck in loops. In the end it´s all about Fritsch and von Nagy, two bodies circling each other, push-pull motions mostly carried out through gazes and, in the case of von Nagy, short and swift hand gestures. She is the true marvel throughout. Her grace commands, indeed.

Be Sure to Share, Sion Sono, 2009

Strangely affecting, almost despite itself, because in some ways this feels like counterfeit indie cinema. Stuff like the fishing pole or the insect shell might look like quotidian details on first sight, but this is a film no place for contingencies of any kind. Every move seems preordained and it´s never quite clear if it´s the protagonist who´s stuck in patterns of repetition or the film itself. With Sono, concept always trumps narrative, and here, this approach clearly encounters its own limitations... and still, there are incredibly touching moments, like when Shiro, after running to work, almost breaks down in front of his locker. Akira´s performance is excellent throughout, as is Ayumi Ito´s, and maybe that´s the whole reason why this works.

Why Don´t You Play in Hell, Sion Sono, 2013

The desire of cinephilia feeding on its own corpse, until cinema really is transformed, with Laura Mulvey, into death 24 times a second.

Exhaustive in every sense of the word. Like with many Sono films, especially the unabashedly maximalist ones, watching this is alternately exhilarating and frustrating: One moment I happily go with the flow, the next moment I´m back at realizing that there´s no real flow at all, only a structure mechanically fulfilling itself. Not that there aren´t a few surprises on the way... but it´s always clear that Sono won´t let them derail his own vision in any meaningful way. He´s always more Kubrick than punk.

His cinema is fundamentally uncurious. On the other hand, he clearly always does exactly what he wants and that has to count for something. Here, the saving grace is the final descent into auteurist wish-fulfillment mayhem. That machine-gun dolly shot, especially, is an image I can´t distance myself from.

Einbrecher, Hanns Schwarz, 1930

"Just pretend, do it mechanically", sings Lilian Harvey, just as Ralph Arthur Roberts praises the "mechanical heart" of the dolls he creates and which, from time to time, take over the film, singing and dancing away. The dolls are also for sale and (potentially) mass-produced, while Harvey has been described, by Siegfried Kracauer, as "erotic decorative art", the perfect fetish object for the age of mechanical reproduction of desire. Indeed, with her, performance is strictly an art of surface manipulation, at times closer to interior design than to "acting": her slender figure pitted against a swing lounge, or against the vaguely oriental stylings of her (phony) lover´s (phony) apartment. (Becoming just another object in the room, albeit the most spectacular one vs becoming someone else).

I´m not sure, though, if her endgame is seduction. Just as Fritsch is a bit too narcissistic to pull of a romantic gentleman thief, she is a bit too self-conscious to be swooned. Most of the time, Harvey is sportive rather than lascivious. While her romantic scenes with Fritsch feel forced (especially when compared with the wonderful pairings of Fritsch and Käthe von Nagy), she excels in a make-believe-tennis-game and in being twisted around by Fritsch and Rühmann like a circus artist. Becoming puppet is an athletic challenge, first and foremost. Fritsch and Harvey are a body ideal more than a romantic one. Sex as gymnastics.

Bomben auf Monte Carlo, Hanns Schwarz, 1931

Interesting in theory, especially as a precursor for GROSSE FREIHEIT NUMMER 7. Here, Hans Albers is still a creature of the sea, his macho attitude unbroken and his delusions blown up to phantasmagorical (and very Freudian) proportions: Threatening to blow up a whole town in order to prove his manhood.

Still, I mostly couldn´t stand this. The Ufa splendor is present in the magnificent tracking shots bookending the film, and also in parts of the casino scene, but somehow, the effort is not worth the cost. Schwarz´s direction drags even more than usually, and while Heymann´s score is fine as always, it doesn´t have that big of a range (and the sailor aesthetic just doesn´t do much for me). The main problem is Albers himself, though: He just can´t fully take part in the games of performativity everyone else is engaging in. When he removes the fake beauty spots from Anna Sten´s face, he really thinks he stripped away all pretensions, and when he learns, later on, that he in fact didn´t really demask her, he has no other options than to run away.

Rühmann´s role makes this problem even more obvious. He´s always cast as the beta male tagging alongside a more virile leading man in these early films, but when pitted against Fritsch, he becomes both an amplifier and a deflector for the star´s hidden phoniness and thereby an attraction in his own right; next to Albers, though, he´s nothing but a naive sidekick, perfectly happy with providing punchlines for his master.

Smorgasbord, Jerry Lewis, 1983

I still prefer the of the moment intervention of HARDLY WORKING (the first true Reagan era film) to the nostalgic retreat into private fantasy that this boils down to more often than not, but there´s so much wonderful stuff in here.

Liebling der Götter, Hanns Schwarz, 1930

I was a bit afraid of this because it was clear from the outset that it would be a Jannings overload first and foremost; it indeed is and at times he is indeed rather obnoxious. In the beginning, when it´s mainly about him juggling lots of girls, everything´s fine and the film flows along nicely with a folksy comedic tone. Jannings really tries to make them all happy, I can give him that, and then here he´s not just a man, but a tenor (see DIE ODER KEINE), so he has an obligation. Later on it´s mainly about coming to terms with aging. Vitalism turns into ponderous self-pity (and, a disturbing scene, into antisemitism), there´s too much body now, too much fat, and the mise en scene isn´t flexible enough to do anything about it. The only scenes I really couldn´t stand, though, were the ones with Jannings and his wife, Renate Müller. Constantly cheating on her is one thing, but constantly cheating on her while always, stubbornly calling her "Mama" and "Muttchen" - that just won´t do.

What´s with these hunky german 30s leading men (mostly the ones I don´t care much about: Jannings, Albers) always raising both arms to express their manly joy? A weird, excessive gesture, "life affirming" in a rather desperate way.

Claire´s Camera, Hong Sang-soo, 2017

Slight, almost not there at all, which often feels nice and also adequate to the setting. Still, this left me cold like Hong´s films normally never do. Maybe I just need an (even longer) break from his world.

Die singende Stadt, Carmine Gallone, 1930

A piece of delightful, exuberant early talkies madness, especially during the early scenes in Naples. An orchestra of street kids opens the films, a group of laundresses, filmed in sultry neorealismo style, eagerly listens to a tenor´s voice, an amphitheatre is used for a sound test. There´s music in the air, but also noise, and the line between both isn´t always clearly drawn. Sound doesn´t confine cinema to the studio, it opens up the world. How far will it travel, how will it affect us?

Jan Kiepura is no one´s idea of a vivacious Italian (and someone even says so in the film), he´s cast as a supreme musical event and nothing else. Brigitte Helm belongs to the realm of the aethereally visual, those low angle shots of her long neck belong to the silent era, she encounters sound like a strange, alluring creature (actually: like one strange, alluring creature encounters another strange, alluring creature). In one of the most beautiful moments of the film we see her stepping through the somnambulist shadows of trees into the moonshine of music.

It´s one of several long, elaborate tracking shots - there´s nothing static about the film. Later in Vienna, things move inside, a jealousy drama unfolding indoors, but also lots of glorious austro-sleaze, Georg Alexander especially excels in the art of dandy non-seduction. Helm can´t break her urbane habits, Kiepura is left singing in an empty opera house and longs for Naples (where the true neapolitan girl Trude Berliner is waiting for him - ethnic identity is strictly performative in all of those pan-european musicals).

In Vienna the chaotic oneness of the audiovisual is lost. Here it becomes clear that sound sensations can´t always be fully translated into everyday life. Sometimes it´s necessary to separate the voice from the man, by way of a phonograph.

Genozide, Kazui Nihonmatsu, 1968

The effect work is nice and at times trippy and there´s a bit of gorgeous, almost Bavaesque gothic horror imagery thrown in now and then. Otherwise this is rather boring, Nihonmatsu doesn´t commit to his (at times extremely unsavory) exploitation instincts, but rather hastens through a bizarre plot.

Once again a very committed, intense Chico Lourant performance, though.

Walzerkrieg, Ludwig Berger, 1933

Charming as hell, and also borderline crazy, one last manic good time on the eve of doom. It´s pretty dark under the glamour: Love isn´t a means of freedom, but always already clocked in, good old waltzing gets a BDSM update, and when Wohlbrück composes the Radetzky March on the spot the only objection is: Can one really march to this? Of course one can!

But still: This is much more the ending of the right kind of party than the beginning of the wrong one. None of the girls of nazi cinema would ever swirl over tables as Rosy Barsony does here, a dervish in swooshing dress, unsettling the frame, transforming three-quarter time into a promiscuous beast even british royalty can keep its hands away from. Quite literally: this is very much about the joy of touching, trying out movements and bodies for the first time. Hanna Waag as queen Victoria is another highlight.

Wohlbrück and Fritsch are a perfect double lead, too, they go together as leader and follower: Fritsch really looks, acts and feels like a phonier and clumsier version of Wohlbrück, his Ich-ideal. While Wohlbrück celebrates his autonomy to the point of becoming a self-stabilizing system of pure genius with no need to even acknowledge the existence of an outside world, Fritsch remains an opportunist always beating the drum for whoever´s orchestra is the talk of the town right now.

Unfortunately Renate Müller´s role feels a bit cut short, despite a few beautiful scenes with her female orchestra (especially the one on the ship). She always seems to reenter the plot out of nowhere. At least she´s got one of the most perfect moments in the film: Her scene with Fritsch in the coach, back to back and still oblivious to each other, lost in private desires while around them the world starts to seriously spin out of control.

At the end we´re at a crossroads: The real world moves on, and Fritsch won´t have a problem beating its drum, too, and another, better world - not completely liberated, but at least animated with a desire for liberation - is left behind, forever in the thralls of the Radetzky March.

Cold Sweat, Gail Harvey, 1993

A strange film. Starts in a downbeat Chris Rea mood: everyone´s stuck in his or her personal hell. There´s the occasional burst of steamy shower sex or of silly-sweet glow in the dark body painting sex, but the good feeling never lasts past the next family dinner. The oppression of the ordinary. Little by little, though, all sense of the everyday vanishes from the film: The characters build their own version of reality, like enacting a fucked-up game only they (and they too only barely) know the rules of. Their private hells are exchanged for a collective one, at the cost of cutting off all ties to the outside world. Strangely enough, sex isn´t what brings them together, but part of what kept them apart from each other, so that has to go, too. Choosing the imaginary woman in the bathtub over the real one beneath the sheets totally feels like the natural thing to do, here. (Also, those impotence scenes are kind of brutal: the total inflation of self, not once but twice, and both times completely exposed, in full view.)

As genre cinema this is altogether well-made, but most interesting at the seams. I keep thinking of the alluring clumsiness of some of the actions, like when they try to heave the body bag on the bed but fail at first. Also that repeated shot of the alley next to the motel, a griminess that feels completely alien to the rest of the film. Generally a mismatch of detailed, almost baroque interiors and impersonal, bland exteriors, the outside world feels much smaller and narrower than the inside one.

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