Silent Movie Day Review: The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)


 

Title: Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed
Release Date: 23 September 1926
Director: Lotte Reiniger
Production Company: Comenius-Film GmbH | Milestone Films
Summary/Review:

In honor of National Silent Movie Day, I watched the oldest surviving animated feature film. Director Lotte Reiniger invented a technique of silhouette animation using illuminated cutouts animated frame by frame.  The style is a bit mindblowing and I can imagine that it was the type of thing that might have been big as a midnight stoner movie in the 1970s.  On the other, the style is similar to shadow puppets going back to antiquity, so maybe it wasn’t so unusual for audiences in 1926.  The film illustrates stories adapted from One Thousand and One Nights.  It’s quite mesmerizing to watch and worth checking out for its historical importance as well as the intricate details.

Rating: ****

 

Movie Review: Run Lola Run (1998)


Title: Lola rennt
Release Date: 20 August 1998
Director: Tom Tykwer
Production Company: X-Filme Creative Pool | WDR | Arte
Summary/Review:

In the summer of 1999, everyone was agog over The Blair Witch Project.  So one night I met up with some friends at the cinema, waited in a long line, and when we got to the front learned that all showings of The Blair Witch Project were sold out.  So we ended up seeing a German art film, Run Lola Run, instead. Run Lola Run quickly became one of my all time favorite movies, while I still haven’t seen The Blair Witch Project.

Set in Berlin (and incorporating the city as a character), the movie stars Franka Potente as Lola, a young woman who must find 100,000 Deutschmarks in 20 minutes.  Her doofy boyfriend Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu) is a bagman for a mob boss and lost the bag of money he was supposed to deliver and will meet certain execution if the money is not replaced.  As the title implies, Lola runs through the streets of Berlin trying to find the money, primarily from her estranged father who is a banker (Herbert Knaup).

What makes the movie unique is that the story is told three times with Lola’s split-second decisions affecting the outcome of her story and of the people she comes in contact with.  It’s basically the hip version of Sliding Doors which came out the same year.  People have compared it to a video game where one can start over after dying and keep trying to get it right.  The movie features a lot of innovative camera techniques for the time it was released, although they may seem clichéd after a few decades of overuse. In addition to the great visuals the film is expertly scored to a techno soundtrack on which Potente provides many of the vocals.

The movie is an exercise in efficiency getting across the basic plot points swiftly but still bearing emotional heft.  I’d completely forgotten that the movie also intercuts animation with the live action sequences that makes it a fun touch.  There are probably some deep philosophical issues that can be discussed in regard to this movie.  But I like it just for the pure energy it brings to telling a story about love and fate.

Rating: ****1/2

Classic Movie Review: Cabaret (1972)


Title: Cabaret
Release Date: February 13, 1972
Director: Bob Fosse
Production Company: ABC Pictures | Allied Artists
Summary/Review:

Brian Roberts (Michael York) is an English academic who arrives in early 1930s Berlin and plans to teach English lessons while working on his doctorate.  He settles into a boarding house where he meets Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli), perhaps the ur-Manic Pixie Dream Girl (with emphasis on “manic”), an American who sings and dances at the Kit Kat Klub. Despite Brian believing himself to be homosexual, their friendship grows into a romance.  Then their twosome becomes a threesome as they are both pursued by the playboy Baron Maximilian von Heune (Helmut Griem).  All throughout the film, the decadence of the Weimar Republic transitions to the Nazi regime.

While it’s facile to say that a musical would not work without the song and dance, the plot of Cabaret is rather slight. The musical numbers performed in the Kit Kat Klub by the Emcee (Joel Grey) and Minnelli are not only outstanding but act as perfect commentaries on the characters and the plot.  I did find the Emcee a bit terrifying, both for his uncanny appearance and his willingness to indulge in anti-semitic humor when it was least expected.  The most terrifying song in this movie is the only one not sung by Grey or Minnelli, but a chorus of people in a beer garden singing the militant Nazi anthem “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.”

Despite the many allusions to Cabaret that are made in popular culture, this movie was not what I expected. It’s definitely a lot weirder than I imagined, and for a musical it is very bleak (which should not be surprising for any story involving the rise of Nazism).  Nevertheless, I liked it, and maybe it’s not an all-time classic, but it’s definitely worth checking out.

Rating: ***1/2

Documentary Review: Night and Fog (1956) #AtoZChallenge


This is my entry for “N” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “N” documentaries I’ve reviewed are Nanook of the North, New York: A Documentary FilmThe 1964 World’s FairThe Night James Brown Saved Boston, No-No: A Dockumentary, and NOVA: Iceman Reborn.

Title: Night and Fog (Nuit et brouillard)
Release Date: 1956
Director: Alain Resnais
Production Company: Argos Films
Summary/Review:

This is a movie I wanted to watch and felt important to watch, but nevertheless didn’t want to see.  Made a decade after the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps in Europe, this is one of the first films to document the horrors of the Holocaust.  The structure of the film mirrors the experience of the people imprisoned in the camps.  It begins with their arrest and transport by train.  Arriving at the camps, the people are stripped of clothing and shaved of hair and humiliated in thousands of ways.  Daily camp life involves forced labor, frequent humiliation, and hunger due to meager rations. Then there is mass murder which this movie is unflinching in depicting.

The filmmakers intercut contemporary film of the abandoned concentration camps in color with black and white film and photographs taken during their time of use.  Jean Cayrol, a poet who survived the concentration camps, wrote the narration which is delivered by actor Michel Bouquet. The movie asks us to remember the full horror of the Holocaust and recognize that it can happen again.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: M (1931)


Title: M
Release Date: May 11, 1931
Director: Fritz Lang
Production Company: Nero-Film A.G.
Summary/Review:

Continuing with German cinema, this film by Fritz Lang (who also directed Metropolis) is a thriller/procedural drama that basically invented the noir genre.  Peter Lorre, an actor I’ve always liked in his Hollywood films, had is first major role as the serial killer of children, Hans Beckert.  Depicting a serial killer on the silver screen and the way the story unravels is strikingly modern, and is about 30 years of Hollywood doing something similar.

The film begins with chilling sequences of children chanting about murder and then Beckert luring away a girl while whistling “In the Hall of the Mountain King.”  In the panic that follows, people turn on one another with suspicion, and the police crack down on the criminal underworld.  The city’s mob bosses decide that they also need to track down the murderer, and the scenes of cops and criminals preparing for a manhunt are intercut, with it being deliberately hard to tell which group is which.

Beggars are able to track down Beckert who then hides in the office building.  The criminals seek him out using all the means at their disposal, including rather comically drilling a hole through the floor to access a locked office on a lower level.  Once they’ve captured Beckert, the criminals put him on a mock trial. These scenes feel didactic as Lang’s characters overtly explain the moral message to a sick society, which is a weak way to conclude the film.  The command at the close of the film to watch our children seems torn out of the present day manual of helicopter parenting.  Nevertheless, the film on the whole is a compelling drama.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: The Blue Angel (1930)


Title: The Blue Angel
Release Date: April 1, 1930
Director: Josef von Sternberg
Production Company:  Universum Film A.G. | Paramount Pictures
Summary/Review:

Here’s another German film that’s a kind of weird morality tale about how women are the devil or something like that. I found it more enjoyable than Pandora’s Box, though.  Marlene Dietrich is completely captivating  as the cabaret performer Lola Lola, and not surprisingly this film made her a big star.  The Blue Angel was intended to be a vehicle for renowned German theater and film star Emil Jannings, but he gets overshadowed by Dietrich.

This is one of the first German talkies and the direction seems to revel in sound, especially early on when the camera focuses on a clock ticking and the bell ringing the hour, or when Jannings’ Professor Roth opens a window allowing the sound of children singing on the street to enter, and then closes the window again to make silence.

The story starts with Professor Roth teaching at a preparatory school, where he gets little respect and they play pranks on him.  He catches the boys circulating postcards of Lola Lola, prompting him to visit the cabaret that night in order to catch the boys going there.  Instead he finds himself captivated by Lola Lola.  After a few visits, he asks her to marry him, and surprisingly she says yes.

It’s not really clear what Lola Lola sees in Professor Roth.  Maybe she wants someone who will protect her, maybe she’s charmed by his old fashioned devotion, or maybe she just takes pity on him. Over the next few years though, it becomes clear that Roth won’t be her only man.  Roth becomes envious of her flirtation with other men and that he is financially dependent on her,  and he becomes angry and abusive.  The culmination of the film sees the troupe return to Roth’s hometown, and the townspeople come out en masse to see Roth – now performing as a clown – humiliated.

This movie is depressing, and tragic in the sense that the demands of toxic masculinity lead to Roth’s downfall.  Nevertheless, it is a well-acted and well-made film, and seemingly ahead of its time.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Pandora’s Box (1929)


Title:  Pandora’s Box
Release Date: January 30, 1929
Director: G. W. Pabst
Production Company: Süd-Film
Summary/Review:

This German film is deeply weird and severely misogynist.  American actress Louise Brooks plays Lulu, a young woman who is passionate and sexually confident and of whom the film tells us is “thoughtless.”  But really it’s a morality play that would have us believe that a woman with an independent streak will bring everyone around her to ruin.

Brooks is a captivating actor and without someone of her capability in the role, I don’t think this movie would be worth watching.  She’s a great silent film star because she can say so much with her face.  I found myself pondering for a long time who she reminded me of, and then finally I hit upon Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag who also conveys so much with a look.

The story, for what it’s worth, has kind of a perils of Lulu plot as each scene leads to another level of degradation. Lulu goes from a mistress to a stage performer to marrying her reluctant lover to an accused murderer to a fugitive in an illegal gambling den to prostitution to a victim of Jack the Ripper.  There are some interesting scenes, particularly during the backstage scenes of her variety show, where performers go on and off the stage entering and leaving Lulu’s drama in the backstage.  This movie also broke ground with a prominent lesbian character, Countess Augusta Geschwitz (Alice Roberts), who helps Lulu escape imprisonment.

The movie is kind of bland melodrama and I can’t really recommend watching other than for film history research.

Rating: **1/2

Classic Movie Review: Metropolis (1927)


Title:  Metropolis 
Release Date: January 10, 1927
Director: Fritz Lang
Production Company: UFA
Summary/Review:

One of the earliest science fiction feature films,  the list of movies influenced by Metropolis is quite lengthy.  Set in a futuristic city of high towers and massive machinery, the city of Metropolis is ruled by the wealthy industrialist Joh Fredersen.  His son Freder enjoys an idyllic life until a woman named Maria invites him to come below the surface to see how his “brothers” are suffering.

Freder witnesses the grueling life of the workers on their machinery, and how the dead are casually disposed of after one of the machines explodes.  Unable to convince his father to improve conditions for the workers, Freder rebels and joins Maria in trying to lead the working people to a more equitable Metropolis.  Meanwhile, Fredersen enlists the inventor Rotwang to use a robot to impersonate Maria and discredit her with the workers. Rotwang has his own plans and various conflicts and tragedies occur before the film’s conclusion.

The dystopian world of Metropolis is all the more chilling considering this is a German film made just years before Hitler’s dictatorial regime came to power. I found it hard not to wonder if the actors in this film, especially the children, ended up becoming Nazis.  From a filmmaking perspective, it’s hard not to see why it’s so influential as the cinematography, set design, and special effects are spectacular.  Story wise, the film comes across a bit stiff, more of a preachy Socialist parable than a human story one can engage with.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Nosferatu (1922)


Nosferatu movie poster

Title: Nosferatu 
Release Date: March 4, 1922
Director: F. W. Murnau
Production Company: Prana Film
Summary/Review:

This German Expressionist horror film has a strange history.  It was based on Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, but since the filmmakers never got permission for the adaptation, the Stoker estate sued and ordered all prints of the film destroyed. Obviously some prints survived, but they were released in various “bootleg” editions.

I’m not sure which version I ended up streaming, but the title character is known as Count Orlok in all the film reviews I’ve read, but they straight up call him Dracula in the version I watched.  Similarly, the heroes are known as Thomas and Ellen Hutter in the literature, but the version I watched called them Jonathan and Mina Harker. I guess that’s the advantage of silent film is that one can just rename all the characters with minimal effort.  At any rate, this is a long way of explaining why I’ll be using particular names for characters in my review.

The story begins in a German town where Jonathan (Gustav von Wangenheim) works in real estate for the creepy Renfield (Alexander Granach), who is secretly a minion of Count Dracula.  Renfield sends Jonathan to Transylvania on the pretense that the Count wants to buy a house in their town.  Jonathan entrusts Mina (Greta Schröder) to some friends for safety, but she has premonitions about his travels.

In Transylvania Jonathan meets the locals who are frightened of the Count and the things that happen after dark.  Wangenheim does a good silent movie acting job of showing his derision of their superstitions.  Jonathan finally arrives at the Count’s castle and meets the Nosferatu (Max Schreck) who he treats warmly despite his chilling appearance and comments about Mina’s lovely neck.  Jonathan ends up being held captive and Wangenheim now does a great job of acting terrified.

Jonathan escapes and the Nosferatu follows him to Germany. One of the interesting aspects of Dracula-lore I wasn’t aware of is that Nosferatu has to be transported in coffins with soil from the burying grounds of the victims of Black Death.  So when he arrives in Germany he brings the plague AND feasts on the blood of the town’s citizens.  It’s up to Mina to make the sacrifice to offer herself to the Nosferatu to keep him feeding until daylight.  This film actually introduced the concept of a vampire being killed by sunlight.

The movie is terrifically atmospheric and spooky.  Some of the filmmaking conventions that may seem laughably outdated today are countered by the eeriness of silence, scratchy film, and uncanny production values.  I’m not a big horror fan or have much interest in the Dracula story, but this film was worth watching for its part in the history of one of the world’s great legends.

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Detonators by Chad Millman


Author: Chad Millman
TitleThe Detonators: The Secret Plot to Destroy America and an Epic Hunt for Justice
Narrator: Lloyd James
Publication Info: Tantor Audio (2006)
Summary/Review:

This work of history unravels an overlooked incident in American history: the Black Tom explosion.  This munitions depot on a spit of land on the New Jersey side of New York Harbor was detonated by German saboteurs on July 30, 1916, before the United States had entered the World War.  Debris from the explosion damaged the Statue of Liberty and Brooklyn Bridge and shattered windows in Manhattan, so it is surprising that it is not a more well-known event. Millman traces the actions of the network of German spies who caused the explosion.  But the better part of the book is dedicated to the legal efforts to hold Germany responsible for the explosion and the series of legal proceedings that occurred over decades until Germany was forced to pay legal damages in 1939, just before another war was about to begin.  The book is plodding at times, and the explosion occurring so early in the book makes the rest feel anticlimactic, but it is a fascinating incident in American history that deserves greater awareness
Recommended booksThe Day Wall Street Exploded by Beverly Gage
Rating: ***