Saturday, September 03, 2016

The First Legion, Douglas Sirk, 1951

One of Sirk's most abstract works. A film in which everyone is locked into his/her private world, and in which change doesn't come easily, if at all, because everyone fortifies him/herself against his/her surroundings. The one thing everyone shares is the obsession with "miracles" - a term which only in the beginning can be defined as an absolute outside stepping in to solve all problems. In the end, the spell is broken by a breakthrough towards intersubjectivity - although the happy end seems a bit forced, if only because of Lyle Bettger's rather weird acting (the only real problem of the film, imo).

The inner tensions of the protagonists are as pronounced as in Sirk's best films, but this time the cinematic means of releasing/transforming/externalizing them - if by way of melodrama or by way of comedy - are for the most part missing. It seems that Sirk is at the same time constricted and inspired by a triple bind of location shooting, a probably rather tight budget, and celibacy - a strange and rather sexist narrative economy: the self-imposed abstinence of the priests somehow being mirrored in Barbara Rush's confinement to a wheelchair.

Shooting this almost completely in and around a real-life Californian monastery lends the film a beautifully somber, porticoed atmosphere (especially nice are a few scenes set in front of the outer walls of the heavy, ancient looking stone building, the dark, heavy chambers suddenly opening up to the california sun). However, it also clearly slows down the dynamics of Sirk's mise-en-scene. The scene of the faux miracle occuring during a film screening could've been a bravura sequence similar to the backstage sequences in IMITATION OF LIFE or TAKE ME TO TOWN, but it feels more like something out of an 30s horror film. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing, of course.

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