State of Siege, 1972, Costa-Gavras
Would it be safe to call Costa-Gavras an advocate filmmaker? That’s a tough question, which I am not sure whether I or even he could answer. He was unquestionably a political filmmaker, and he dabbled in subjects that were often controversial. If he was not angering the communists from The Confession (my review), he was angering the CIA by taking unveiling the blemishes of the Cold War. He certainly had his political views, and those did take shape in his films. We learn from the supplements of this disc specifically where he found the motivation to make this film, and it was not based on a positive impression of Americans.
The subject of State of Siege is the activities of CIA-like organizations that were being undertaken in various South American territories. The plot is about an American, Philip Michael Santore (Yves Montand) who worked for USAID as a “Communications Expert.” I used quotes for his job title because we’re not sure exactly what he did during his various travels. Was he a benefactor or was he a terrorist? That answer is not provided, although it is strongly hinted that he was at least aware of the latter activities, if not a direct participant.
I am about to reveal a major plot point, but not to worry. It is not a spoiler, at least unless you consider the beginning of Sunset Blvd a spoiler. Our operative friend, Mr. Santore dies at the beginning of the film in Montevideo, Uruguay. The film begins with a shot of a shiny Cadillac followed by a series of roadblocks and an exhaustive search by the authorities. We do not know what they are searching for initially, but minutes later when they discover a carcass in a car, we know. Soon after the discovery, we see a highly ceremonial funeral, with an American flag draped over the casket. We get the impression that something is awry because the archbishop and academics are not present, yet the funeral is well attended, implying that this was the passing of an important, political person.
Is Mr. Santore a good person? That’s another tough question. He comes off sympathetically, some of which has to do with the ever-likeable performance by Yves Montand, who was also a popular political figure at the time. As the film flashes back to the kidnapping and interrogations, we wonder which is the truly righteous, Santore or his kidnappers? He is accused of, at the very least, knowing of torture, and at worst, guilty of perpetrating war crimes. Yet he is part of a system. If he was guilty, was he simply doing his job? That does not mean that he deserves to be kidnapped and killed. His captors also are sympathetic. We learn through Santore’s observations that they do not intend or want to kill him. They are merely fighting a battle with limited weapons. We are not spoon-fed who to like or root for. One could make an argument that the kidnappers and kidnapped are both right to some respect, and simply pawns in a chess game between people far more powerful. The real evil could be the state that infringes on the rights of the people, or those who choose to not compromise and therefore through inaction lead to the creation of a martyr.
What is clear is that Costa-Gavras was aware of the goings on in Latin America and elsewhere. With the benefit of hindsight, even the citizens of the USA can agree that this was a dark period of history and we do not condone the actions of the government. Even then, the average Joe was not aware of what operatives were doing overseas, either to protect American commercial interest, or as a product of Cold War rhetoric. Costa-Gavras is unquestionably critical of these puppeteers, but he is also critical of those who infringe on the liberties of others. By using some excellent location shots, he shows how the police force is both ruthless and inept. In some instance they are bumbling, such as in a humorous scene where the police chase after radios that are broadcasting propaganda, only to find the sound coming from a different radio. This is one of the few moments of levity, and it comes at the expense of the “Keystone” cops.
State of Siege is sparse on action and aside from these large location shots, often uses minimalist filmmaking methods. Like with The Confession, the real drama comes from the conflict between the revolutionaries and their captor. There is no suspense as to what the outcome of this encounter will be, but what keeps us enthralled is through the character examination, and whether he is being honest about his innocence or whether he is a liar. The flashbacks and the pinpoint questioning lets us know that the captors know plenty more than they let on, but are they right about Santore or is he yet another innocent casualty in the continual Cold War? We aren’t told, and this is yet another reason why Costa-Gavras was considered the master of the political thriller. He makes scathing political statements, but he creates complicated characters and blurs the lines between good and evil.
State of Siege is not a perfect film. I had some quibbles. One that jumped out at me is that they used similar airport greeting scenes as a way of showing how Santore traveled the world, but the only difference between many of these stops is the country name on the staircase that rolls up to the plane. It is obvious that the same location was used, probably over a short period of time, and they simple changed the angle and the sign. There are other minor issues, but there is more here to like than dislike. Even if it is not the perfect film, it seems to capture the spirit of CIA activities in Latin America and elsewhere from the perspective of the people who experienced it. This makes it an important film, even if not a great one.
Film Rating: 7.0
Costa-Gavras and Peter Cowie: 2015 conversation.
The idea originated with an American advisor that CG was aware of in Greece. This was a tough guy, probably the stereotypical CIA spy. He was the real deal and was killed in his car later.
Based on Dan A. Mitrione, who was part of AID, which was a sister or daughter program to CIA. Mostly the story of the subject was the same, but the name was changed.
You can tell he is a true student of politics and governments as he cites various countries and how they came undone by their violent nature. He is referring more to Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia, but he is perhaps making a gesture towards America’s checkered past and present.
NBC News Broadcasts on Dan A. Mitrione:
This seven-minute montage of news footage shows the real story, but from the American perspective. The anchor talks about the kidnapping, the search, the ultimatum, and most of what we see in the film. Even though it is clearly biased towards Americans and wanting the citizen freed, it also states that the Tupamaros were seen as Robin Hoods that were not violent, but that impression was changing with this incident. Costa-Gavras seems to capture that as well, that they do not intend to be violent, but only resort to it out of necessity.
The supplements are slim and this fits better as a supplement to The Confession. Even though it isn’t the most stacked disc, it is well worth getting for the film and the transfer.
Criterion Rating: 7.5
My Beautiful Laundrette, 1985, Stephen Frears
There have been numerous post-colonial portraits of the United Kingdom, most of which deal with the new class system and how they adapt to this transformed society. Generally when portrayed from the lower class perspective, the story is about having to deal with past and continued oppression, and that they try to subsist when others are born in a more privileged position. In My Beautiful Laundrette, this type of story is turned on its head. The lower class immigrants have come so far since colonialism that they have not only assimilated into this society, but they have essentially become a version of this new, upper class. Rather than be exploited, they find the opportunity to be the exploiter.
Another major factor was Thatcherism (Margaret Thatcher for those not aware). Thatcher ‘s policies benefited and encouraged the upper classes, while neglecting the lower classes. Frears was clearly not a Thatcher fan, and he used minorities obtaining a privileged position as a way of being critical. He stopped short of being racist. In fact, I think the opposite was true, and he presented a balanced and perhaps realistic perspective of the situation. Under Thatcherism, minorities were able to get the upper hand on lower class whites. However, they were still not entrenched as the upper classes. One of the less scrupulous rich minorities at one point says, “we are nothing in England without money.” Through Thatcher’s capitalist policies, it is greed that defines position.
Omar (Gordon Warnecke) is the protagonist, and he sees both sides. He lives both in the white lower-class world through his interactions with Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis) and with the privileged minority status of his rich uncles. He is also exposed to a staunchly anti-Thatcher father, whose political views resemble socialism more than any other. All of these forces tug at Omar, which makes him a captivating and well-developed main character.
Omar finds a Laundromat as a means to his success, and like his rich uncles, he embraces the thirst for money through a strong work ethic and a relentless desire to succeed. Once given the opportunity to manage the Laundromat, he pours everything into this project. What complicates the class-conflict dynamic is that he recruits Johnny as an employee. Johnny is a reformed skinhead and is decidedly anti-Thatcher. He is not racist, but his former “blokes” are. It is telling that the original Laundromat name was “Churchill’s Laundrette,” which Omar and his uncles later change.
One of the rich uncles says that, under Thatcherism, “in this country you can get anything you want. It is all spread out and available. That is why I believe in England. But you need to know how to squeeze the tits of the system.” This is a strange sort of loyalty to a country. It speaks little to their nationalistic pride. To the contrary, they still maintain some of their ethnic identity. It is more a statement that they will use the system to enhance their position, and that includes exploiting the lower class whites like Johnny. They are even proud of that exploitation. Even Omar succumbs to that sensation at one point, finding himself in a socially juxtaposed than what existed 30-40 years prior, and feeling a form of euphoria. It is intoxicating, and that is exactly the type of lure that his father warns against.
Omar and Johnny have a homosexual tryst, which was controversial back in 1985, although is more accepted nowadays. The fact that the two would pair says something about this dynamic. We have a strong main character in Omar who has been raised under two opposing ideologies, and Johnny, who relates more to the leftist of those influences and literally hates the right-wing element. Out of friendship and perhaps his desire for Omar, he does a good job helping develop the Laundromat, and in turn becomes an exploited worker. This conflict would come back into play to great effect in later, climactic scenes.
Writing this today, Daniel Day-Lewis is one of the top global movie stars, and many would argue that he is the best actor of his generation. He was stunning in Laundrette. One thing to keep in mind while watching his performance is that the person is far from lower class, yet he embodies the character with chameleonesque ability, a trait that would seem natural to him in the years and decades to come. The performances are all solid, especially Gordon Warnecke as Omar. Day-Lewis still manages to steal every scene he is in, and it is no surprise that this role would be a breakthrough and lead to plenty of success, although with his talent. It would have happened anyway. Johnny also represents an opposed ideology from Omar. Even though he does fine with the Laundromat, work ethic is not a means to success. He has different ideas about how to achieve wealth, which is crystal clear when he says, “This city is chalk full of money. When I used to want money, I’d steal it.”
This was my second viewing of the film, and the first in many years. I’ve seen other Frears’ projects and respect him as a director, although I would not go so far as to call him an auteur. I was pleasantly surprised by some of the shot selection and direction in this film. He makes good use of camera angles and even has a lot of mirror shots, all of which are important because many of the characters have multi-faceted experiences and perspectives, and I did not even touch on an adulterous Pakistani-English adulterous relationship that speaks more about the relationship between the two cultures as anything else in this film. I was also surprised to see such a rich and textured perspective of class dynamics, which is easier to pick up on in hindsight than it was in the 1980s. Not only is My Beautiful Laundrette a superb film, but it is a document of its time.
Film Rating: 8/10
Stephen Frears: 2015 conversation with producer Colin MacCabe
He was a middle-aged, working TV director while Thatcher was in power. Lindsay Anderson, Jack Clayton, Ken Loach, inspired the change in UK film (we discussed some of this here), and he worked at the BBC in the 1970s.
Thatcher changed the world for everyone, including for them in TV production. Channel 4 came around, which was mandated by Thatcher. Laundrette was intended to be a TV movie. Hanif Kureishi showed up at his office and explained the script.
He mentions the names of the actors that he considered, all of which are famous now, such as Branaugh, Oldman, etc. Nobody thought Day-Lewis would become a star, but it really happened by him playing this working class character and following it with A Room With a View. Of course Frears says he was very good.
He denies auterism. “How can I be an auteur if making a film about a culture I don’t understand?”
Hanif Kureishi: 2015 interview.
The story is about a boy and a father spending too much time with each other, which reflects Kureishi’s life. This was a traditional story with an uncle leading a youngster out into the world, and he becomes sexualized by this experience.
Kureishi wanted to show the abuses of racism, which he had experienced before, but he also wanted to find his own voice. He called A Passage to India and the Merchant-Ivory films as boring, while Thatcher was destroying the working class.
He was influenced by Derek Jarman, Peter Greenaway, and also Paris, Texas, especially the mirror.
Tim Bevan and Sarah Radclyffe: First feature production of theirs and they founded Working Title. 2015 interviews.
This came at an interesting point in cinema. Channel 4 had started, so independent film began. Music videos were getting popular, which got young people into the industry. Thatcherism also got rid of the unions.
They started as music video company, and to get to know directors, they asked these directors to do music videos.
They talk about how Hans Zimmer did good work and was recognized in Hollywood from this and another movie they did, A World Apart and was hired to do Rain Main, which basically launched his Hollywood career.
They went from film to film, and were focused on that more than running a company. They were basically unorganized and insolvent. They were not paying any bills, just flying by the seat of their pants. They found funding and that established the company as it is today.
Oliver Stapleton: 2015 Criterion interview.
This was cinematographer Stapleton’s first collaboration with Frears and they would go on to make seven more films.
His shooting style at the time was very early eighties, wide lenses, vibrant colors, and very much like music videos. That was in frame of mind when starting his career. He had worked with Julien Temple as well.
When he sees it today, he sees it as very stylized, more than what he did ten years later. He no longer uses the type of extravagant colors that he did then, for example. He was following his instincts, which Stephen was doing as well. They didn’t storyboard, but let the action dictate wheat they would do.
Criterion Rating: 8.5
Yi Yi, 2000, Edward Yang
This was originally posted at Wonders in the Dark as part of their Adolescence and Childhood Countdown.
The term “family epic” is not often used to describe a film, not even an art film (at least not post-Ozu). There are plenty of lengthy films about families, but few that are grandiose to share a descriptor with the likes of Lawrence of Arabia. Yi Yi is indeed a family epic film. This is not just because it has a three-hour running time, but rather because it successfully captures the scale of a multi-generation family. Instead of telling a lengthy narrative through the generations, it reveals enough about the characters in the present, by exploring them through a single, binding experience, that it is just as effective.
I chose Yi Yi as my top film for the Wonders of the Dark Childhood and Adolescence poll. This choice may seem peculiar because the film features so many characters from the family, most of whom are adults, that the children are not given the most screen time. In fact, if you were to pick a protagonist, it would probably be NJ, the father figure. However, the children’s experiences mirror and elucidate the actions of the adults, and they flesh out the characters. The children, through their innocence and naivety, also interpreted the events with a perspective that the adults are incapable of, and sometimes their silly inquiries are prescient.
Yang-Yang asks his father, “Daddy, can we only know half the truth? I can only see what’s in front and not what’s behind.” This may seem like a simple, naive question, but it speaks to how humans tend to only look forwards and not backwards. The adults in the film are reticent to look backward, yet the children experience things that the adults have also experienced. In other words that Yang-Yang might understand, if the adults could see what is in front of the children, they might see what is behind their own view.
NJ is completely blind to the fact that his daughter, Ting-Ting, is struggling through her own relationship problems, trying to win the affections of someone she has a crush on. The outcome of that relationship (which I will not spoil in this review) is similar to what happened with NJ and a girl that he dated when he was much younger. We see through Ting-Ting what NJ’s childhood girlfriend felt, and when she enters his life again later, NJ is again blinded by the past.
Yang-Yang takes his idea of being half blind further. He takes photographs of the back of people’s heads, thinking that he is helping them by showing them the whole truth. When he encounters one lady that he can tell is sad, he stares at her. When questioned, he says, “I wanted to know why she’s unhappy. I couldn’t see from behind.” To the viewer, Yang-Yang’s curiosity is a part of his cuteness. He is an adorable little boy, and this is one of those funny fixations that children can get. It is humorous to see what length children will go to understand the world they are growing into.
While it is easy for Yang-Yang to be curious, it is difficult for the adults to look back and come to terms with mistakes they have made, much less try to rectify them. One character takes a journey to try to make up for his actions decades ago, the same issues that his daughter is experiencing at that very moment, but this is an exercise in futility. This is yet another example of how he can only see half the truth, and if he goes trying to find the real truth, it is not something he can change or undo. It truly is behind him. The only thing he can change is what he can see.
Edward Yang was quite the filmmaker, and he made a deep and beautiful film. There are many other characters, motifs, and elements that I could explore – such as the nature of business, luck, integrity – but at the heart of it all is family. Yang takes these experiences, personality quirks, and cuts them together so that we can see the correlations. While there are similarities within the families, everyone is different and must make their own decisions. The question is whether they will learn from or regret those decisions.
Yang does a good job at taking his time and pausing when needed. Some of my favorite scenes are when no action takes place, but instead there is quiet contemplation, usually with some music and gorgeous scenery. While there are some somber moments, he also shows the good times. Life is full of highs and lows, and we meet people we are compatible with, whether in a romantic relationship or business friendships, but things do not always turn out the way we want.
Yi Yi, simply put, is about the cycle of life. We are curious when young, but will make mistakes as we get older. Hopefully we will learn to live with these mistakes, have some good times along the way, and achieve a sense of peace. Yi Yi is life.
Film Rating: 10/10
Commentary: Edward Yang and Tony Rayns in conversation.
Wu, who plays NJ, was a screenwriter that worked with Yang and had not acted, but Yang recognized his talent as an actor. He is a very celebrated and busy writer.
They used the coma was a device to get into each character, but it is scientifically proven that speaking to someone in a coma does achieve some results although the grandmother had one of the deepest and most dangerous comas.
There were a lot of informational tidbits about modern society. For example, they used a subway system news item to date the film; trains were used for nostalgic reasons; the government was well known to be involved with criminals and it was intentional to come out in the film, and the American presence is very obvious in Taiwan. I didn’t write down as many tidbits while watching because it is long, and because I got carried away in the film and the commentary. It was an enjoyable conversation with Rayns asking Yang questions about the film.
Tony Rayns: He talks about the history of Taiwanese film. Started in 1950s because it had been Japanese colony. The nationalist government settled there and used film as propaganda tool. It was used by Chinese to inject their cultural identity.
Even though there were young filmmakers, there was nothing like a New Wave in Taiwan. Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang collaborated with Taipai Story, and the pair generally led the film movement. Much of their work was intentionally higher quality in opposition of some of the poorly constructed older genre films.
Yang is more intellectual and has complicated plots. His many characters add up to a broader picture. Surprisingly, Yi Yi has not been screened in Taiwan. Most of these minds split up for whatever reason and film business in Taiwan is “effectively dead.” They cannot compete with American films.
Criterion Rating: 8/10
Stromboli, 1950, Roberto Rosselini
It is fitting that I am writing this post to celebrate Ingrid Bergman’s 100th birthday for the Wonderful World of Cinema’s Ingrid Bergman Blogathon. I haven’t counted the Ingrid Bergman films I’ve seen. Perhaps it is a dozen, perhaps two, but few portray her anywhere close to the strong, resilient female character as she is in Stromboli. There are many other co-stars, including two prominent male characters, but this is undoubtedly Ingrid’s film. Not only does she represent a strong woman, but she comes to representing all strong women and the battles they must fight in a male-dominated world. In this regard, I see Stromboli as a staunchly feminist statement, which is ironic given that it is the first collaboration between her and future husband, Roberto Rosselini.
Bergman plays Karen, who we initially meet in a prisoner camp. One of the first actions she takes is to marry an Italian in order to escape the camp. Was this a marriage borne of love? Quite the contrary. It was a marriage for self-preservation and survival. In the wedding scene, the sense of apprehension is clear. Even in the above image, we can see the husband looking stern, and the wife looking distracted by her thoughts, looking off to the side. She is not marrying out of love and is nervous of this new direction in her life, but it is something that has to be done in order for her to persevere.
Her husband, Antonio (Mario Vitale), comes from the island of Stromboli off the coast of Sicily. He promises her paradise in exchange for her hand in marriage. What she finds upon her arrival is anything but. She is subjected to a barren, empty life. She finds that many of those who live in island have left for America or elsewhere, but many have come back. When asked why she returned from America, Antonio’s mother answers, “this is my home.” Karen’s home is in Lithuania, far from the Sicilian shores. This place is unquestionably not her home, nor does she want it to be.
Much of the film consists of Karen walking around the island, exploring not only her surroundings, but also herself. Bergman, always a fantastic actress, does a tremendous job at emoting even when she is not speaking. Her face betrays her anguish and inner torment as she quickly finds herself in despair, practically alone in this island. The only instance that lifts her spirits is when she encounters another man, who is almost the opposite of her husband. She beams and smiles in his presence. It is not clear whether she has romantic intentions with this stranger, but this man is a far better match than her husband. Regardless of whether her intentions are pure, the locals indict and reject her, as does her husband.
Please be warned that after these two images that contrast Karen’t anguish and happiness, there are minor spoilers and I will discuss the ending.
The violent nature of the island and its inhabitants is communicated through the way people interact with the elements. The locals see the local animals as their prey, and they treat them with cruelty. There is one difficult scene for animal lovers with a rabbit, which horrifies Karen. The men have to fish to live, and in fact, Antonio and Karen’s livelihood depends on his being successful with his fishing ventures. What follows, which Karen witnesses, is a violent slaughter of tuna. Both of these are among the most jarring scenes of the film, yet they are also the most effective. This violence also signifies a moment of final realization for Karen. If at first she was just wary and uncomfortable, she is now horrified. These are not her people in any respect.
The volcano is the most violent aspect of the island, and it also parallels the story and Karen’s journey. As she reaches the island and finds herself not fitting in, you could say that she is disturbed and rumbling. After she sees the slaughter of the fish and rabbit, the rumbling becomes an eruption of the volcano, but it is also Karen’t eruption. She does not act up, and she does not need to. The volcano scares the locals, who try to escape it by evacuating on boats.
Karen is not stirred by the volcano, but instead magnetically drawn to it. In a memorable final sequence, she decides to finally rid herself of this horrendous place by bravely climbing to the top of the volcano. It is in this sense that I see Stromboli as a feminist journey. She was oppressed by the world of man twice. The first time was in a actual prison while the second might as well have been a prison. Rather than succumb and subjugate herself to this tyranny, she frees herself by conquering an erupting volcano. This volcano that she defeats represents the world of man. The final sequence with Karen on top of the mountain is magnificence. It represents hope, salvation, not just for Karen, but for women in general.
Film Rating: 9.5
Introduction by Roberto Rosselini:
This is a short two-minute introduction. He says it is about someone who survived the war and learned survival instincts, yet finds herself trapped.
Adriano Aprà: 2011 Criterion interview with film critic.
This project was scandalous because Bergman was married and Rosselini had a mate (Anna Magnani). A love affair began and they were invaded by tabloids and journalists. It was also a scandal that he “stole” an American star to make an art film. The film stands apart from the gossip that surrounded it.
What’ I found interesting is that she didn’t care for the films she did with Rosselini, and only liked one of her collaborations (Joan of Arc at the Stake). We find out later from her memoirs that she was surprised when they were re-discovered.
Rosselini Under the Volcano: 1998 documentary.
These are the types of features that I adore. They revisit the island all these years later to see what is left. They show the volcano erupting. Back when the film was shot, the volcano erupted continuously, every seven minutes on the dot.
They interview the little boy that Bergman speaks to, of course now fully grown and having aged a bit. The two male leads meet. Mario talks about having to have the English words written for him phonetically because he did not speak a word.
A sad story from the production is that one person passed away during the production. A general helped lead them to the top of the mountain, but inhaled some poisonous gas along the way and had to be taken down to the base. He later died.
Criterion Rating: 8.5/10
The Ice Storm, 1997, Ang Lee
Some films are so thematically rich that it’s nearly impossible finding an angle. There are just too many options. The Ice Storm is one such film. I could look at it from the period, the unruliness and political instability of 1973. It could be seen as a grim portrait of despicable and irresponsible people. Instead, I chose to approach this as a contrast between the sexual behaviors and confusion of children versus their parents.
With such a large ensemble cast, a great many character parallels can be drawn between the familial bonds. There are two primary families of characters, the Hoods and the Carvers, with no real single protagonist. A good argument could be made for many of the characters as the primary protagonist. Ben Hood (Kevin Kline) gets a lot of screen time and his actions initiate much of the plot. The narrator is his son Paul (Tobey Maguire), although he plays a comparatively small role. Elena Hood (Joan Allen) is also a central figure, as is their daughter, Wendy (Christina Ricci). The Carvers are important but secondary characters. Janey (Sigourney Weaver) is in some respects an antagonist, yet she has a few sympathetic moments – primarily with parenting. Her husband Jim (Jamey Sheridan) is a passive character, as is his son Mikey (Elijah Wood), but not the other son, Sandy (Adam Hann-Byrd).
Ben is a terrible parent, terrible husband, terrible adulterer, and completely unaware of all of this. He is living in another world. The fact that he’s having an affair with the icy Janey is surprising. He doesn’t seem like the type of paramour that she would settle with, and the attraction is waning. “Ben, you’re boring me. I have a husband. I don’t particularly feel the need for another,” she tells him after he goes on about his problems. He is more hurt by her rejection than by his wife’s suffering as a result of the affair. His lack of awareness extends to his terrible excuses, which his wife rightly sees directly through.
Ben is at his worst when he tries to be a father. There are two instances where he comes off as a buffoon while parenting about sexual matters. One instance is when he talks to his son Paul about masturbation while they are driving in the car. He tells his son not to do it in the shower because it is a waste of water, and everyone knows what he is doing anyway. Paul looks befuddled, unable to respond. What can he really say? What if he does not masturbate in the shower? What if he does? He is helpless at discussing the situation, and it really is not a discussion anyway. It is an awkward diatribe from a sexually confused father. When they arrive at the house, in a brief moment of self-awareness, Ben asks, “Can you do me a favor and pretend I never said any of that?” Of course he cannot, but he is not about to bring it up again.
In another instance, he catches his daughter in a promiscuous act with Mikey Carver, and he gives another silly diatribe towards them. Again, it is awkward. He is terrible at it, not understanding the situation and accusing Mikey of going further than they were. What made it more ridiculous was that his daughter, Wendy, was wearing a Richard Nixon mask. The conflict ends with her being rebellious, saying “and forget all the stern dad stuff.” This is not the first time she has lashed out at him. At one point she calls him a fascist, and while he challenges her on it, she seems to understand the world better than he does. She is curious about life, but more comfortable and deliberate, and immeasurably more expressive and compassionate.
Elena Hood (Jane Allen) is one of the more fascinating characters. Knowing that her husband is cheating on her, she takes refuge in trying to live vicariously through her young daughter. She fondly remembers the feeling of being free, which is probably an idealized and unrealistic memory. She sees her daughter riding her bike down the road, merely using it as a means of transportation to one of her romantic trysts. Elena sees the act of riding the bike and letting the wind blow in her hair as liberating, yet she is not sexualized like her daughter and you wonder whether she ever was. She rejects the advances of a progressive, freethinking pastor, who uses religion as a way of “breaking the ice” with a frustrated, married woman. It is not until the real ice storm begins where the sexual tension reaches a breaking point for all of the characters.
This was my second viewing of The Ice Storm, and before the first, I had never heard of a Key Party before. It is where everyone drops their keys in a container, and later the ladies draw them one by one. Whichever man’s key is chosen goes home with the lucky (?) lady. It is a foolish game, so silly that the youngsters would not even consider it. With a number of married or dating couples, one of whom has a boyfriend young enough to be her son, there is going to be unpleasantness and jealousy. Adult or child, it is a terrible idea. The outcome of the key party is a spoiler, so I won’t share it, but it is yet another example of how conflicted the adults are sexually.
The children are curious and spend a lot of time exploring the opposite sex. Wendy is romantically assertive, while all of the other characters are passive. Paul shares some of his father’s bone-headedness, as he pursues Libbets Casey (Katie Holmes) who is not only out of his league, but shares more in common with Janey than anyone else in the film. She begins the film with an icy reaction to Paul’s advances, and is ambivalent to him at their little private party even though he does not fit in. Like with another romantic tryst, alcohol is the catalyst, but Paul’s connection with Libbets is just as pathetic as any of his father’s activities.
Mikey is as lost as his father, Jim. Again, I won’t spoil the film, but things happen to them due to their being detached from the world, and in the finale, they express that detachment is specific and different ways. Jim is basically a non-entity, while Mikey is more interested in molecules than with catching a football.
As I alluded to at the beginning of this essay, The Ice Storm is deep, as it is convoluted. It is also extremely well put together, has some terrific performances. Joan Allen and Christina Ricci really shine. It also has some phenomenal shots and motifs. The ice is the most impressive, both as a plot device, a character descriptor, and as an example of gorgeous set design. After seeing the film twice, I’ve found that there’s a lot more depth than merely frozen water.
Film Rating: 8.5/10
Commentary: 2007 with Ang Lee and James Schamus.
They introduce the film as the lowest market research tested film he’s ever done. That makes sense to me since it was marketed as a mainstream indie, but is dark and intricate. I would not expect it to test well at malls.
Lee says “F You” to Schamus in opening credits, and we can tell that they have a jovial and tight relationship. Schamus knows what questions Lee gets asked and which ones annoy him.
Schamus says that this is not a faithful adaptation of 1973, but it is an adaptation of what people remember about 1973. Everyone worked together to “craft this memory landscape.”
The book was structurally difficult to adapt. They had to “open it up” as Schamus said, which they did by showing all the characters at the beginning and ending. Lee calls it a “circular structure.”
Weathering the Storm: 2007 documentary.
There were a number of interviews with the cast, some of which were better than others. There were many statements of “it was an honor working with … “ someone, which are common in these type of featurettes.
There is plenty of discussion of the “adults” versus the “kids” and how they interacted. Older actors watched out for them and used them for inspiration, while the younger actors were intimidated at first and then warmed to them.
One of the most interesting parts of this documentary was with the kids talking about sexual encounters, which was weird for them. One of the best quotes comes from Elijah, talking about how he was coming to terms with sexuality personally, so he has to come to terms with it in the film too.
They are all proud of the film, even if it didn’t do well.
Rick Moody Interview: 2007 interview with the author.
He talks about the feeling of handing off his work over to someone else. It feels like giving some part of himself away. His book was first person, whereas the film was third person, yet there are examples of first person narration in film, primarily through Tobey Maguire (although having not read the novel, I am not sure whether that character is the narrator).
The town was actually the town that he grew up in, and the town wanted to impede the shoot because of the subject material. That was strange for him.
Lee and Schamus: 2007 Conversation at Museum of the Moving Image.
I tend to enjoy these podium conversations, because they are usually not artificial. Often they are asked good questions.
This was filmed after Lust, Caution, which is probably safe to say will not come to Criterion. They talk about his career trajectory, being repressed in his homeland and getting an opportunity when he came in touch with Schamus. Lee gave a bad pitch, but he described a movie he had already made in his mind, and that vision impressed Schamus. The relationship has worked well for both of them.
Lee calls The Ice Storm the most artistic film he had done. I wonder if he would say the same thing now that Life of Pi exists. My personal observation when perusing his career is that he does a phenomenal job of adapting others, including this film and with Pi.
The Look of the Ice Storm: Interviews with three of the key visual artists behind the film.
Frederick Elmes – Cinematographer
They found photorealist painters from early 1970s and used them to develop style and natural light. This was filmed intentionally late in the season, so little warmth outside, but there was warmth inside. They made a strict distinction between Janey’s and Klein’s house – warm versus cold.
Mark Friedberg – Production Designer
It was the first story he worked on that he didn’t have to research. He lived it. His dad was an architect, so he knew the styles. He was not prepared for the ice. It turned out that was a challenge. It had not been done before. He used unusual tooks like hair gel, which was effective, as it looked frozen. The biggest challenge was the large frames. Glue was used a lot for the wide ice-work.
Carol Oditz – Costume design
She lived in the period and still had to research. She looked through vintage stores, found 70s fabric, and did a lot of crocheting. The Kline family were in lighter tones, whereas Sigourney in murkier tones. That impacted the character differences. She said that Kline was “naughty” with costumes because it was not comfortably fitting like modern clothes. He did knee bends to loosen them up and they had to repair them.
Often I find deleted scenes superfluous, and I would say that is true for the majority of the ones here. The one I wish would have made the final cut is the Reverend moving forward in trying to pick up Joan Allen’s character. I think it would have added dimension to her struggle. The other scenes were interesting, yet not essential.
Criterion Rating: 9.5
The Fisher King, 1991, Terry Gilliam
When I first heard about the release of The Fisher King, I wondered how many times I had seen it already. Even though it had been some time since my last viewing, there were too many to count. This just seemed to be the film that frequently came into my life, either on cable or video, or with friends. It’s an easily delightful and digestible film. As I began watching this new Criterion edition, I found that I practically knew every twist and turn, yet I still enjoyed it close to as much as the first time.
There are some films that are dense and reveal more with every revisit. Good examples of recent films I’ve explored are Black Narcissus and The Great Beauty. They have a level of sophistication, density, and depth that I’ve taken something new with every viewing (and for the Sorrentino, it took three for me to engage).
The Fisher King is not one of those films. That’s not to say that it is not sophisticated or artistic. It is quite an accomplished film, but the themes are overt and easy to pick up on, especially for a Gilliam film. Sometimes that is refreshing. It is not shallow by any stretch, but in a way it is like art-film version of comfort food. You can appreciate it without having to deconstruct and dissect it.
I’m not a fan of lazily using film mash-ups to describe a film, but it is tempting to do it here. For example, I could say that it is The Holy Grail meets My Man Godfrey meets Sleepless in Seattle. The reason is because the film is such a genre mash-up, and again, that contributes to the charm. It has the Gilliam-esque creativity, although somewhat muted, with a positive portrayal of the values of homelessness (and by extension, anti-commercialism) in New York City. Part of the appeal is that it effectively weaves itself between fantasy, comedy, drama, and gives an important life lesson without relying on over manipulation.
The man faces of Robin Williams from THE FISHER KING. http://t.co/C48c5zyRa9—
Aaron West (@awest505) July 28, 2015
In a way it hurts to watch The Fisher King today, because it was the quintessential Robin Williams role and his passing was tragic. Some of the highs, lows and demons of his character, Parry, may have been closer to Williams’ reality.
This was when he was in the midst of a transformation from a strictly silly actor into a serious actor. He eventually became a little of both. I always found him to be a funny man, but I gained a lot of respect for him as a dramatic actor. By this time, he had already turned in two strong performances in Awakenings and Dead Poet’s Society. Later in his career he would put in good work in films such as One Hour Photo and Insomnia. As much as I’ve enjoyed him as an actor, his turn in The Fisher King is my favorite, and is a character that few other than Williams could have pulled off. It is part zany and he often is very funny, yet there is emotional trauma buried down deep, which he has to come to terms with. Meanwhile, he is an endearing character because of his values in life. Who can’t fall in love with the guy who strips in Central Park just because? We also see him as a genuine, hopeless romantic, the type that embodies the definition of chivalry. He is a crazy, disturbed, but ultimately benevolent knight in shining armor.
The Red Knight from THE FISHER KING. http://t.co/69x4QLCf19—
Aaron West (@awest505) July 28, 2015
This was also quite a departure for Terry Gilliam, but he left his indelible stamp on the film. Few could transform New York City into a convincing template for a fantasy world, but through his direction, it becomes wholly believable. The most impressive Gilliamism is the Red Knight, which is simply a beauty to see. We get to see an excellent, original creation that is used to represent a character’s persona. We understand Parry because of how menacing this Red Knight is portrayed. His demon is fierce and relentless, with a burning fire that represents wounds that have not healed.
The entire cast is extremely good. Jeff Bridges does a fine job at portraying Jack, the smarmy, better looking Howard Stern whose ambition and thirst for success is the anti-thesis of Parry’s ideology. His straight man performance complements Williams’ manic behavior. Plummer is also good playing Lydia, an odd, quirky and shy homebody. However, aside from Williams, Mercedes Ruehl as Anne steals a lot of her scenes. She is the dramatic center, the other side of the Parry coin that drives Jack towards his character evolution. She is the one that is devoted to him, the one he can count on, but even when he is learning about life through Parry, the one he continues to mislead and mistreat.
Speaking of stealing scenes, how can you not love Michael Jeter as a homeless man? He plays a flamboyantly gay man (or so we would assume). He is about as over-the-top as they come, but he is yet another facet into the appeal and the likability of the homeless crowd. His scene where he sings on behalf of Parry to Lydia in her office is not just a scene-stealer, but is one of the most memorable performances of the movie. That scene was a riot!
Again, even if not particularly deep, the film’s message on the trappings of materialism and selfishness are interesting. Through the great performances, creative directing, and originality maneuvering through a variety of genres, we have a movie that I can watch numerous times and still find joy in it years later.
Film Rating: 7.5
Audio Commentary: 1991, Terry Gilliam.
- He had three rules when establishing himself as a director. 1) He would never direct someone else’s script, 2) for a major studio, 3) or in America. He broke all three with The Fisher King.
- He intended to portray Jack as completely unredeemable, a monster. People stuck with him simply because he was played by Jeff Bridges, a big star.
- The Pinocchio toy doll parallels Parry, who is going to become a real man during the course of the film.
- He thinks it is funny that the Holy Grail is associated with him. It was only in one film, and he thinks the association is overstated. In this film, the Grail is just a symbol for love.
- Jack is more of the character of The Fisher King because he has lost the ability to love. Parry still has that ability.
- His philosophy in film is to obtain the actor’s trust, make them comfortable and respect them. He realizes that other directors have taken advantage of actors and they don’t always have a great experience. A lot of directors probably say this, but the other cast interviews back up that Gilliam is truly an actor’s director.
- The violent scenes with him and the Red Knight were controversial in production. People tried to talk him out of it, thinking that the gore would be too much. He thought it would be fine and he was right.
I’m not always crazy about deleted scenes as extras on discs. That was the case here. The additions were minute and it is understandable why they were cut.
The Tale of the Fisher King – two 2015 documentaries with Terry Gilliam, writer Richard LaGravenese, producer Lynda Obst, Jeff Bridges, Amanda Plummer, Mercedes Ruehl.
The Fool and the Wounded King –
LaGravenese wanted to do something that was opposed to the cynicism that was prevalent at the time. They were also into the Holy Grail myth, and how people need a myth to love by. He wrote 4 different screenplays with the same two characters, and discovered Lydia in 2nd screenplay. Disney was involved and it was demoralizing. They basically wanted it re-written in a Disney style. They sold it to Tri-Star where it was assigned to “terrible directors.” James Cameron wanted to do it at one point, but he was in the middle of The Abyss. Tri-Star flew to London to talk Gilliam into doing something that went against his entire philosophy. He didn’t like to work with studios and liked independence and control.
People at Tri-Star had reservations about Terry Gilliam because of his last film, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, which was seen as a disaster from a studio’s perspective. Robin Williams worked with Terry on Munchausen, so they had a rapport. We’re all lucky he agreed to do it.
The Real and the Fantastical
Jeff was being casted against type. He had played mostly likable people before. Gilliam: “Robin was in awe of Jeff” and didn’t feel like he had to be funny and outrageous. Mercedes Ruehl’s character was based on an Italian-American video store owner that the writer knew. Terry loved Mercedes for this role.
Terry was great with the locations, arranging the big visuals. He was not great with the emotional tones of the actors, but he gave them the freedom to explore. He was great with the “Red Knight” stuff. He says that the idea came from a mixture between something in Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits and Grail legend. They were shooting in the rougher sections of New York, but Gilliam was creating a fantasy world.
Bridges talks about interacting with Robin, wondering whether he was going to be silly and take him out of the role. Robin was actually terrific to work with and would encourage him between takes, and would crack jokes only at the appropriate times. Bridges gets choked up when talking about this, probably thinking about how Robin had passed.
The Tale of the Red Knight – 2015 documentary with artists Keith Greco and Vincent Jefferds on making the knight.
They had to do create this being with real props and effects. There was no CGI or green screen back then.
They take out the props from the studio. They said, “do you want to work with Terry Gilliam”? They said yes without hesitation, and they had to get a helmet and other junk for him to look at as an audition of sorts. Terry said, “it’s all wrong, but you have the job.” They were always behind schedule because they were hired later. “It was like we were being chased by the Red Knight.”
They did the whole thing with a horse, a stunt guy with a lantern on his head, all painted red.
Jeff’s Tale: Images of the set from Jeff Bridges’ camera.
He takes these images on all of his films. He shows a number of production meetings, script meetings, and Mel Bourne often telling people there wasn’t enough money to do everything. He shows the various departments (sound, camera) on set and of course the actors. It is a fun supplement that gives a feel for what the production was like.
Jeff and Jack: Production footage of Bridges becoming Jack the radio shock jock.
Stephen Bridgewater was a shock jock that stopped radio and became an actor and director.
Bridges is a good fit. They show him doing the show. He talks to some women, tells them to take their clothes off, get some Wesson Oil, and then drink it. He calls a lady that had sex with a US senator. He speaks with an offended lesbian. “Congratulations,” he says. He does a variety of versions of calls that happen in the film, such as the person whose husband finishes sentences, which was as effective in the outtakes as it was in the final film.
Robin’s Tale: 2006 Interview with Robin Williams.
He said that New York City is a magical place, and it really seemed like it when shooting that film. Robin loved Gilliam: “He is the element that makes this work.” He credits everything to Gilliam and it is clear he is genuine. He also contrasted this project with Gilliam’s previous works by comparing it to a mural painter who is asked to paint a miniature.
Robin is goofy when telling anecdotes. He does voices and injects humor, like when talking about homeless people at the Red Knight scene, or talking about Jeff Bridges as a sex symbol. He gets serious when talking about his peers, like Ruehl, Plummer, and of course Gilliam. He gets very serious when discussing the intricacies and meaning of the film. This one meant a lot to him.
We see the entire cast trying out costumes to the “How About You?” theme song. It is a fun, short novelty.
Criterion Rating: 9/10
My Dinner With Andre, 1981, Louis Malle
My Dinner With Andre has been on my radar for decades now. It seems like yesterday that Siskel & Ebert wouldn’t stop raving about it. In film circles (and probably non-film circles too) it has become somewhat of a joke. It is respected as a piece of art, but it is known more as the movie where two guys sit in a restaurant and talk for two hours. It is often cited as that inaccessible art film that makes no sense as entertainment. I’m sure many people have asked, “why would you want to watch a movie where two people just talk to each other?”
Even though I often appreciate dialog-driven movies, I prefer some engagement. Eric Rohmer is a good example of someone who makes “talky” movies, but at least his films are character driven and have a distinct plot – usually a romance. How would the plot of My Dinner with Andre be described? Before seeing it, I would probably sum it up like David Blakeslee’s tweet the other day.
I don’t want to steal David’s thunder. He has a blog over at Criterion Reflections where he tackles films chronologically by year. By the time he gets to 1981, I have a feeling he’ll have a little bit more to say.
Now that I’ve seen it, I would describe the plot as two friends meeting, one of whom is struggling to get his career going and the other having just emerged from a life-altering personal crisis. Their dinner conversation becomes a catharsis for both of them and they reach a new understanding about life and themselves. Even that is a simplification, but it’s a better description than most would give.
If not for this project, I may never have watched it, yet I’m glad that I did. As a warning, it is inaccessible, and it is a slog especially during the early going. However, once you get through the more arduous parts, it transforms into something special and is rewarding.
My biggest complaint is the first hour. Wallace Shawn (or “Wally,” as Andre calls him) is nervous about having dinner with someone who may be off his rocker, so he decides that he’ll be inquisitive and just ask questions. He sticks to this decision, but it is clear that his questions are no longer based in social anxiety, but instead fascinated curiosity. He gets Andre going, and to steal a word from David, that man can yak! He talks about everything from going to Poland to put on a play in a forest, theater troupes, Tibetan culture, Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, Gregory’s Alice in Wonderland play, and scores of other stories. At one point when Wally asks a question, Andre chuckles. “You really want to hear this stuff?” he marvels. With a friend, one may be intrigued by endless stories and anecdotes. As a film-watcher, it was a test of patience.
When Wally starts chiming in is where the film finally finds its voice, and this is about the time I was reeled in. We had already learned about Andre’s philosophy of life, which is far from ordinary, and what most would think of as new-age, hippy nonsense. Wally could not be more different than Andre. For starters, he does not have the seemingly endless bank account. We don’t know how Andre maintains his standard of living and exotic trips, but Wally does not have that luxury. He had an upper-class background living in the Upper East Side, but as he establishes early on in the film, ”now at 34 as an actor and playwright, all I think about is money.”
You could say that Wally is a pragmatist, while Andre is a spiritualist. Wally appreciates the creature comforts that give him more convenience, whereas Andre would rather live with a life of austerity so that he can better enjoy the little pleasures. The film heats up in the second half as Wally comes out of his shell and challenges Andre’s assertions, the same ones that he was captivated by during the first hour of the dinner. There are a few topics that become points of contention, and these two intellectuals hash out which is right. There is no correct answer. The most important part, from both sides, is that the questions are asked.
During the early diatribe, Andre talks about how he occasioned on a surrealist magazine printed in the 1930s. He turned to a random page and found four names. Three of them were Andre and the other began with an A. There was also a reference to Alice in Wonderland, and he later found out the magazine was printed right before his birth. Andre took this as a sign. He was fated to pick up that magazine and derive meaning from it.
Wally returns to this story and basically calls him out for being self-absorbed. He sees it as a coincidence. There were many people involved with the creation of the magazine. Were all of their actions — including the writing, editing and page layout – all for the sole purpose that some playwright having a mid-life crisis 50 years later would find it meaningful? He calls that notion ridiculous. Inconceivable! (sorry)
Wally uses the example of a fortune cookie. Of course he will read his fortune and have some fun with it, but if it forbid him to do something, he would not pay it much mind. After all, the creators of the fortune probably wrote hundreds, all in a fortune cookie factory somewhere. How could this company of fortune cookie manufacturers have any practical insight into his life? It is pure coincidence in Wally’s mind.
The above example is just one of many. It is not just eastern versus western thought, but in a sense even science and technology versus religion and spirituality. It is deep. Even though they respectfully disagree on some points, like the magazine, they do see eye to eye on others. They agree that people are living without sensation. Andre calls these people brain dead. They need to be shaken up and given a jolt, but of course Wally sees going to the Himalayas and hanging out with Tibetans as overkill. They do agree that people need to somehow escape their dream lives and truly live.
Just because of the narration, we see the perspective of Wally. By the end of the film, yes after all courses (spoiler alert: they skip dessert and order espresso), he has reached a new level of understanding. He has been shaken up. While he isn’t about to start thumbing through surrealistic magazines or give up his electric blanket, he does realize that he has become distracted by the trappings of his life. If we were to see Andre Gregory’s perspective, he would have likely been similarly moved. He probably listened to Wally’s points that there can be practical constraints to abide and still life a fulfilling life.
Even though the barrier of entry is not exactly easy, once comfortably pulled up to the table, I was intrigued and moved. Many of the notions about how one lives their life are profound. While few would agree with all of their points, everyone can learn something about themselves in the faces and voices of Wally and Andre.
Film Rating: 8/10
Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn: 2009 Interviews with Noah Baumbach.
Andre – Met Wallace Shawn (Wally) because he made an inquiry into one of Gregory’s plays. Shawn loved it so much that he wanted to go every night, but couldn’t afford a seat. So they gave him his own seat.
The idea came about because he had told Wally all of the stories, and it was Shawn’s idea to put them on paper. Gregory was sure that if it got made, that nobody except for their friends would want to see it.
Took it to Mike Nichols, who couldn’t do it. Through friends of friends, Louis Malle got the script and called him. He practically begged them to let him be involved, and insisted that there not be any visual distractions.
He uses four different voices in the film: 1) Theater guru. 2) Off the wall, spacey rich kid. 3) Spiritual used car salesman. 4) Sincere, later in the movie. This became a character based on Andre Gregory, but was not the real Andre.
Wallace – When he was 27, he had strong feelings about theater and was easily influenced. Fear has been a big part of his life. He was afraid to see anything in the theater that would compromise him. He was afraid to see the Andre Gregory version of Alice in Wonderland, but his friend urged him to see it. He was astounded. After seeing it a few times, he brought an envelope of his plays to Andre, but nobody liked them. Andre was the exception. He loved his plays and invited him to work with his company.
Malle was superb. He captured things in Andre that Shawn would not have expected. Even today Shawn cannot watch the film because it is too difficult. Off the set, Malle was “ill at ease,” but on the set he was affectionate and a tremendous storyteller.
The original script was three hours. They spent months cutting it down by an hour, and Louis cut down 15 more minutes in the editing room. It sounds like Shawn and Malle did not get along all that well. “He liked me as an actor,” … “but not as a writer.” Shawn said that he would have filmed the original script, so it sounds like they had some animosity about scenes being cut. As for Malle and the arguments about cutting scenes, “he lost a few, and won most of them.”
”My Dinner with Louis”
Wallace Shawn and Louis Malle meet at dinner for a 1982 BBC episode of Arena. They meet in Atlantic City, fittingly, and the episode is structured similarly as My Dinner With Andre, with Shawn giving the opening voiceover. They even show the intro to the film. One big difference between this dinner and the one with Andre is they use visual elements, such as clips and stills, which is more fitting given then subject.
This is the supplement I was looking forward to the most, and it delivered. I’m fascinated by Malle as both a director and a person. He doesn’t get the critical glory as a French New Wave director such as Godard and Truffaut, but you could argue that he’s taken more risks. This film is unquestionably a risk. One of my favorite film books was Malle on Malle because he tells such amazing stories. Here he talks about the controversies surrounding his films, beginning with The Lovers, continuing with Phantom India, Lacombe, Lucien, Atlantic City, and ending with My Dinner With Andre.
Criterion Rating: 7.0
The Confession, 1970, Costa-Gavras
“An individual may be guilty not because he is guilty, but because he is thought so.”
“Confession is the highest form of self-criticism. And self-criticism is the principal value of communism.”
The above two quotes are pulled from the film, and I feel that they cut to the heart of the message and subsequently the experience of Artur London (Yves Montand). The first is told in voiceover as something that London learned himself during his years in the Communist Party, while an interrogator tells him the second quote in order to coerce confession. The phenomenon revealed in the film is that through various physical and verbal tactics, one can subjugate a human being and cause him to betray himself. They use ideology, in this case communism, to convince him that he is doing a greater good through this act of self-condemnation.
London is a high-ranking Community Party official during the Stalin era. He lives comfortably in his privileged position. He has what appears to be an upper class lifestyle with his wife (Simone Signoret) and daughter. To his surprise, he finds himself being followed by a car. Later he sees two cars. Soon enough, the following turns into a full scale chase. He is cornered and taken prisoner. For what, he has no idea. The film language during this opening sequence is high action, and they use his thumping heart-beat to inject the tension, which will be used again later, although the majority of the film is not action-packaged but instead dialogue-driven.
When taken prisoner, London protests: “I demand to see a party representative.” He is promptly told that, “you aren’t seeing anybody.” He will figure out soon enough that it is the party that has taken him prisoner. They have betrayed him. Those who are familiar with Soviet history under Stalin know that there were many purges, false imprisonments and exiles of anyone who threatened Stalin’s power. The man was arguably paranoid, and he rid himself of anyone who achieved any sort of political power. The order to imprison London most likely came from the very top, as it did for many of London’s associates. A few of their stories will be told throughout the film, and most often they end with execution.
As the title indicates, they want a confession. Of what, London is not immediately sure. As far as he knows, he has not wronged the party. He has been a loyal member and subject. When badgered to confess, baffled, he says “Confess what? Ask me specific questions!” Meanwhile they play games with him. They lock him in a cell in the dark. They don’t let him eat or sleep. They essentially torture him. We will learn that they are not using these tactics to get immediate results, but as a mechanism to slowly and gradually break him down.
His wife is used against him. At one point he is told that she has repudiated him and taken up a lover. We learn later that this is not true, but is just another ruse to manipulate their prisoner. In reality, she writes numerous letters to the Minister, urging for answers. We see her visit the Minister, asking whether he has been arrested and what he is charged with. She is told that he has not been arrested, but that “it is a serious, confidential party matter.”
The film is nearly 2.5 hours long, and a large portion is spent on the interrogations. These scenes may not seem too exciting on paper, but they are actually quite engaging. The back-and-forth is in a way exhilarating. We see the harsh methods that his captors use to urge him closer to the confession that they want. They play with wording. For instance, they are interested in his interactions with an American spy named Noel Field, who gave London money in 1947 for humanitarian reasons. Field was not revealed to be a spy until 1949. London rejects the statement that he was paid by an American spy because he did not know Field was a spy at the time. Each time he dissents, he is taken away and tortured. Eventually he makes small confessions and is rewarded. When these short, signed statements are put together, they create the illusion that London was being paid for actions he did for a spy. A collection of true facts with misleading wording tell a big lie.
They tell London that the only way out is through confession. They tell him that all the others that have confessed are out of prison. These are all lies. Many of those that confessed have long since been executed.
Eventually London breaks down. Even though it is difficult to watch and hard to fathom, Montand gives such an amazing performance that makes us understand the character evolution. First off, he lost a tremendous amount of weight during the filming, approximately 25 lbs. He looks physically and emotionally emaciated. I have long thought that Wages of Fear was his best performance. Not any longer. He gave every bit of himself to this role. I know that actors put can themselves through a lot when committing themselves to a role, but few sacrifice as much as Montand, which makes sense since his character also sacrifices so much. Even without the physical transformation, Montand is captivating throughout the performance, whether he is voraciously battling his accusers about semantics, or when he is worn down and giving them what they want.
Combined with the torture and the party rhetoric, London does break down. He gives a full confession, which leads us to what would later be considered a “Show Trial” that was broadcast on the radio. It was a show because of all of the testimony was manufactured. We only see London’s experience, but the same type of ordeal happened to the dozen or so people that he stands trial with.
Costa-Gavras was accused of making an anti-Communist film, which he defended himself against. He says that he was making a film that condemned totalitarian rule, and that Stalin communism should not be confused with other communism. In my opinion, it does come across as anti-Communist, but not for the reasons that he intended. Through the party, the opportunity was created to allow these crimes against humanity. While Stalinism is without question the worst, there have been scores of Communist leaders that have controlled through totalitarian methods. There still are a few that exist today, most notably in North Korea.
Costa-Gavras is correct that any political philosophy can have dangers if used to betray their own citizens. This is portrayed in the final act of The Confession because it is the “good of the party” rhetoric that takes London down to the road to cooperation. However misguided, he firmly buys into the fact that his confession is the right thing to do. His captors tell him to, “trust in the party. It’s your only chance.” He believes them and does trust in the party, the same people who have tortured him for nearly two years. The notion that he is acting as a good communist by cooperating is absolutely dangerous.
Film Rating: 8.5
You Speak of Prague: The Second Trial of Arthur London: Documentary from Chris Marker.
Chris Marker worked on the production, and while doing so, filmed a behind-the-scenes documentary about the production. Even though the subject is the film, the style is distinctively Marker.
He begins with the “real” mock trial of Arthur London, part of the Slánský trial, which was the last theatrical trial because it happened a few months prior to Stalin’s death. Slánský testified to not being a real communist, but not because it was true. This was because Stalin wanted him to say he was not a real communist. 11 of the 14 accused we executed.
As he introduces the behind-the-scenes footage, he describes the film via voiceover narration as “the tragedy of a Communist trapped by his loyalty.”
He interviews London, Montand, Signoret, Costa-Gravas, and others. He also tells the story of what happened after the film, how it was attacked and that London had to go back on trial in what was then Czechoslovakia.
Costa-Gavras at the Midnight Sun Film Festival: 1998 Conversation with film scholar Peter von Bagh.
He grew up in Communism and his father had participated in the resistance and was arrested afterward. Costa-Gavras and his family had a difficult time. He discovered films when he left the censored Greece for France in 1955. Despite the political difficulties, he and his brothers were raised well. He worked with Claire, Demy, Clement, and others. He liked working with Demy because the style and manner with actors was different.
He came to thrillers by accident, although he defends them as a narrative artform, giving an example of Greek texts that were thrillers. Coming to learn about Stalin helped develop his feelings about politics. The 1968 riots also changed his outlook quite a bit.
He speaks very fondly about Yves Montand and his political passion. At one time the French had conducted a political poll and Montand had 30% of the country that wanted him as president. We saw some of that passion in the Marker documentary.
That segues them to The Confession. Claude Lanzmann of Shoah actually told him to read the book, but it would be hard to adapt as a movie because it was 500 pages. Z had not come out yet, so that success did not help. The visuals, including archived footage, had not been done before. Costa-Gavras used this footage as a way to not show the constant question and answer sessions, because those exchanges are heavy in the book and would drag down the film. One interesting comment is that “most of us are bad guys for someone, whether we realize it or not.” He is not forgiving Stalin, but accepting that everyone has the capacity for evil.
Portrait London: Artur and Lise interviewed for French television in 1981 to coincide with the release of Iran hostages.
London says that he was a victim of Stalinism, not Socialism. He says that is like confusing the Inquisition with Christianity. During captivity he thought a lot about his wife, family, and his ideals against fascism. This is told well in the film. Even though the experience was terrible, the foundation of his beliefs withstood. He compares his incarceration with the American prisoners in Iran, and says there is no comparison. They were treated well from what he understood.
Yves Montand: 1970 interview.
The interviewer says it is not an “after dinner” film, but Montand is quick to point out that it is an entertaining film. It is a thriller. They talk about the process of making the film. They shot the “after” scenes first, because he had not lost the weight yet. Then he started losing some weight for the early scenes, and then it plummeted when he was being tortured. He basically had to go on a hunger strike.
Françoise Bonnot: 2015 interview with the editor of multiple Costa-Gavras films.
Her mother, Monique Bonnor, was an editor that worked on a number of Jean-Pierre Melville films. Françoise worked with her as an assistant, and came to work with Costa-Gavras first on Z. He wanted to be in the cutting room with her, and she had to ultimately kick him out. She was shocked to get the Oscar for Z. It was thought of as impossible for a French person to win. For The Confession, the dailies were put together so well that the editing was not as difficult. One challenge was she could not linger on the rough shape of Montand as prisoner because that would be too uncomfortable for the viewer.
She likes her editing to be “fluid,” where the editing is invisible. It seems like a continual motion to the viewer. She thinks the film came out well. The torture scenes could have been cut a little bit, but she still feels like it flows well.
John Michalcyk: 2014 Interview with writer and filmmaker, who wrote a book about Costa-Gavras.
People saw him as a stereotypical leftist political thriller director. The Confession is less of a thriller. It is a different type of intensity. Z has a quick progression and it is more exhilarating, whereas The Confession is slower and more deliberately paced.
The film attacks hypocrisy. At the time people did not know about the show trials. The Americans were mostly not even aware of them. The Soviet symbols were very much in the public consciousness in 1970. Michalcyk calls his approach not communist, not socialist, but humanist.
Criterion Rating: 9/10
Secret of the Grain, 2007, Abdellatif Kechiche
Before I go too far with this write-up, indulge me to complain about the title. The title itself is not terrible. The problem is it does not represent the film well. The French title is La graine et le mulet, which if you ask Google Translate, it will tell you this says “Grain and mule.” Of course this isn’t the real title. The “mulet” is also the French word for the fish that we call “mullet”. The title is clever because it is a play on words. The protagonist is an older, stubborn man (like a mule), and the recurring food dish served, couscous, is comprised of grain and mullet fish. The international title is just Couscous, which is more of a literal translation if you take the double meaning out. In fairness, the French pun cannot be replicated. My guess is a title like Couscous wouldn’t sell well in America, hence the title of this disc. I like the international title, so that’s how I’ll refer to it throughout the essay.
Next I want to say a few words about Abdellatif Kechiche. He is a Tunisian-French filmmaker, and the subjects of his films are of the lower classes, especially this film, which hardly has any strictly French people that aren’t bureaucrats (there is one white French dockworker). After this film came out, Paris Match called him the French Ken Loach. The article I linked is in French, but you can find Mister Loach in the second paragraph. Since then he has made two features, Black Venus about a black South African, and the Cannes champion, Blue is the Warmest Color, which is about a young lesbian couple. Even for France, where we more frequently see the point of view of lower class characters, these films focus on fringe groups. On top of that, he shoots with hand-held, shaky cam, with extreme close-ups, and with lots of dialogue. I’d say the comparison is appropriate. After seeing his two films on Criterion, I’m intrigued and want to see the rest of his work, plus what he does next. Hopefully, like Loach, he’ll be able to continue making films his way.
Of the two Kechiche films I’ve seen, with all due respect to the Cannes winner, Couscous won my heart. It is an existential tale of a flawed, aging family man, who finds himself on the outs working at the boatyard. He’s faced with the prospect of losing hours and not being able to pay his bills, or finding other work. As a Tunisian immigrant, work isn’t easy to come by. In time he hatches a plan to build a restaurant on a boat serving the legendary dish of couscous that his ex-wife prepares. He has a few children with that ex-wife, and his current lover has a teenage daughter, Rym, who he treats as if she were his own. She helps him navigate the byzantine bureaucratic waters in the hopes of setting the project afloat.
A technique of Kechiche’s is long scenes. I remember several in Blue is the Warmest Color (including one controversial one), and there are even more in Couscous. The most notable is a lengthy Sunday dinner scene with all of the family and friends. This is the weekly event where Slimane’s ex-wife, Souad, makes her trademark couscous dish. The scene goes on forever, but it is a truly joyous occasion. The camerawork is frenetic, again with heavy shaky came and constant close-ups. You can even see the grain in the actor’s mouths. No doubt they were really eating. The movement is so fluid that I failed to get a decent screen of the entire scene. It just moved too quickly and chaotically. Even if the scene goes on awhile and few plot details occur, it is one of my favorite scenes in the film. It establishes the tight bond of family and the deliciousness of the food. “Couscous is love,” as they say. Indeed.
It also shows the world of exile. Slimane benefits from the couscous dinner, but he is not a participant at the celebratory event. He eats his dish alone at first until he is joined by his unofficially adopted daughter, Rym (Hafsia Herzi). He is a man that does not belong, and only barely belongs in the world of his lover. He is somewhat discrete about that world, and as we find out later, he keeps his real family separate from the adopted family.
Is Slimane a good man? That’s not an easy question. He is unquestionably devoted to his children and his grandchildren. He has a close relationship with his sons and daughters, and even recruits them into helping with his restaurant venture. Ultimately he is doing this for them, not for him. His life has been spent, perhaps wasted, but they hopefully have a future in a world that doesn’t always welcome them. He also has a close relationship with Rym, who is not his natural daughter and he has no obligation to her, and she reciprocates, seeing him as a father figure that she wants to help.
Slimane may have some admirable qualities, but he has clearly made mistakes in life. We do not understand what happened to break up his marriage, but if his son is any indication, it was infidelity, perhaps with his current lover. His son, Majid, is a philanderer, and in the opening scene we see him in the midst of an affair with an older woman. We later see the justified suspicions of Majid’s wife Julia in an uncomfortably powerful emotional tirade. Perhaps Slimane acted similarly, and perhaps Majid learned his lack of fidelity from his father. Since Majid’s actions later are a turning point of the plot and Slimane’s fate, you could argue that Slimane set his own table.
Some of the remainder of this post could be considered spoiler territory. I do not think so, but be warned in case you want to experience the final act on your own. I will not spoil major plot points or the ending, although I’ll say that it’s an interesting ending that is worth discussing.
I’m going to mostly steer clear of the French bureaucracy and the social statement of the film, which is basically that the chips are stacked against Arab-Franco citizens. It recalls Kassowitz’s La Haine to a certain degree, only it is a family drama rather than a tale of exiled, childhood rebellion. Slimane’s family may not be happy with their status, but they are not rebellious. If anything they are disillusioned and naïve that a prejudiced society would give them a fair shot. As a way to prove to the people that the couscous is delicious and that Slimane can handle the pressure, they host a gala on a boat with all of the local, French dignitaries invited.
The most memorable scene for a lot of reasons is Rym’s belly dance. Many will find it electrifying; others will find it tantalizing; some might even find it disgusting. Whatever your take, there is no doubt that it is a bold performance from Hafsia Herzi. It also comes at a time in the plot and in the narrative that things are slowing down and there seems a lack of momentum. It also is a bridge to the ending. Rym is the specimen of energy and vitality. She has proven through her efforts to help with Slimane’s business that she is wise beyond her years and ambitious. She has a bright future. Without her, the party would have never happened. Slimane is not Rym. He is slower and cannot keep up, but that does not mean he will not try.
Film Rating: 8.5/10
Abdellatif Kechiche: 2010 interview.
He admits that his films are not accessible. He avoids known formats, and that might even be bothersome for those who want entertainment. His films are “forms of perception” of different aspects of life.
His father was an inspiration for the film. He wanted his father to star in the film, but he died in pre-production. He wanted to film the working class because that’s what he knows and is what motivates him.
He wanted to shoot in Nice, where he grew up. But when his father died he wanted to change the location to change in order to change the memories. He settled on Sète and used many non-actors from the area.
Kechiche introduces what is a 45-minute short of the belly dance in the film. He says that he really likes sweat and a lot of sweat goes into the performance. He pulled deleted sequences along with what ended up in the final cut, and used them to make a short film of just the dance.
The dance itself is mostly like the filmed version. There are some of the same scenes, including the memorable beginning. At times she sings; at others she chants. We get to see the crowd more engaged. The scene is allowed to breathe more than in the film because the film is so tightly edited.
20 Heures: Excerpt from 2008 TV program.
This is an interview news program and they have Kechiche and Hafsia Herzi on the panel. They go to a location feed at Sète where they interview many of the locals who were non-actors and crew. They are all happy about the acclaim, the awards and the attention. Kechiche says that Sète had energy that was crucial to the film. Herzi had not acted before, but she won the Cesar and was of course pleased.
Ludovic Cortade: Film scholar interview about the themes.
The film is about what is called the “Beur” community, which is a French word for Arabs. The film addresses identity, exile, immigration, and many other ethnic diversity themes. He does not think of this as a “Beur” film, but it does deal with several of these elements. One is racism, mostly from the bureaucrats. Another is exile, like when Slimane is reminded of his upbringing. In most traditional “Beur” films, the men are prominent (like La Haine), but in Secret of the Grain, women are prominent.
The real city of Sète has a variety of types of locations, including beautiful seascapes and Mt. Saint Claire, which is a landmark that has rich housing. There is meaning in what is shown and not shown. We see poorer areas through Kechiche’s lens, such as the docks and lower cost housing. We do not see gentrified or tourist areas.
Hafsia Herzi: Interview with the actress who plays Rym.
She had no contadts in the industry because she lived in Marseilles and there is not much of an industry there. This was her first real audition. She embellished a passion for Eastern dance on her resume, but it probably helped land her the job. Everything went fast, but Kechiche liked her performance. Her scenes had been cut, but when he saw her ability, he rewrote her back in.
She talks about the dancing scene. It was tough with her dancing in front of all those people, and that was no illusion. She was dancing in front of a huge crowd. She wouldn’t have been able to do it anywhere off the set. She wouldn’t have had the nerves. She thought of it as a performance on stage and that fueled her.
Bouraouïa Marzouk: Interview with the actress that played Souad.
She was an immigrant and came to Paris with a thirst of knowledge and energy. She learned to speak French at the Yugoslavian Cultural Center. She got an education, any degrees, made an income, had kids, etc.
The character was not like her with all her books, but she put her all into the role and tried to play her as hard working. They rehearsed the Sunday lunch scene for 10-15 days. She really made the couscous and they really ate it. This was not movie fakery.
Musicians: Interview with the musicians from the film.
Hamid plays lute as a hobby, not professional, but it is his life’s passion. He cannot live without it. Idwar is a flutist that Hamid found. Salah plays zither, which his father taught him in Egypt. He started playing professionally in 1958.
One member had film experience, and said that some directors are very intense, “like Gods” he said. All of the musicians speak flatteringly about Kechiche. They say he was very calm on the set, very respectful and patient. “He creates actors,” one of them said.
They talk about the belly-dancing scene. Without a doubt they agreed that Hafsia is a star. They were not paying as much attention to the dance while they were playing because they were focusing on the music. When they saw it on the screen, and this quote requires no translation, “oof, lalala!” They say she worked extremely hard, was very committed.
Criterion Rating: 9/10
The Bridge, 1959, Bernhard Wicki
Anti-war films are not easy to pull off. Some of the best of them, like Rossellini’s War Trilogy, Battle of Algiers and even the American Best Years of our Lives are so effective because they were produced shortly after the end of the war. The wounds are personal and fresh. The pain is evident in all of these examples. Sure, there is a long list of fantastic war films to come out years after the war, although many of those use prior wars as analogies to current conflicts, but there are many more misfires (pun intended). The first two examples I gave above were shot in neorealistic style, and the third could be argued to be as close to neorealism that a film could get during the Hollywood studio system. The Bridge was also in the neorealistic style, but it was produced fifteen years after the war was over.
Germany is different. Nazism had dominated society up until the war, and Third Reich fascist rhetoric (or propaganda) had become adopted by the entire country. Nazism was celebrated, as many cinephiles have seen in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. The ending of the war and Nazism forever altered German society, and the manner of thinking needed time to change. Berlin was occupied for a long time, and eventually the nation was split during the Cold War. Even though there were forward thinkers in West Germany, many of the older generations still clung onto vestiges of Nazism and German heroism. As I learned in the supplements for this disc, there were German war films being made prior to The Bridge, but they were often celebrating German heroism. They may not have been completely pro-war, but they certainly were not decidedly anti-war as Wicki’s film would be.
Keep in mind that I will spoil major plot points and the ending of the film. Read and look at the images at your own risk.
The first two acts of the film are primarily spent on exposition, establishing the foundation of the children as they are drafted, their families, school, lovers, and so on. Even the scenes as they enter the military are mostly expositional, as we are still learning the circumstances of the war, the motives of those in command, and the feelings of the children as they enter this frightening chapter of their lives.
The film also incorporates many locations early in the film that will come into play later. The most notable of these is the actual bridge. We get to see the bridge as it would normally be used, as a center of the town that citizens use as a walkway and meeting point. During the early scenes, it is portrayed as an area of peace. Even when a bomb is dropped and misses the bridge, people are hardly fearful of it. The children even make jokes about.
Thus far, much of the early response to this Criterion release seems to be positive, but one individual whose opinion I respect was not singing the same tune. While he enjoyed the last third, he took exception with the first two acts, finding them dull and uninteresting. He also compared it unfavorably to All Quiet on the Western Front, which also came to my mind. There are so many parallels that I think the filmmakers must have had Remarque’s book or Milestone’s film in mind. Ths friend makes valid points and I appreciate his critical thinking, and in some ways I agree, but my take is different.
The heavy exposition is used to show the generational gap between the children and the adults. We have to remember that they had all been indoctrinated into the Nazi system, but on different levels. The children are still naïve about the world. Many of them had been in the Nazi youth and had learned the propaganda about honoring and protecting their fatherland in school and elsewhere. The kids may all have different personality types and upbringing – wild and rebellious or tame and obedient, lower class or upper class – but they all share the same feelings about bravery and patriotism. Even if they are fearful and apprehensive about leaving their homes, getting their draft cards is not disappointing. Many of them are excited by the prospect of going to war and fighting like adults, without realizing the grim realities that would follow. They are innocent. They are dumb. They are just kids.
The adults, on the other hand, are not so naïve and innocent. While they all undoubtedly love and care for their children in their own way, they are all imperfect and corrupted in some capacity. One family is broken because of what appears to be marital infidelity. One of the upper class fathers has bought into the Nazi system to the extent that he benefits from the party. This is one of the most powerful of the early scenes, as the son throws this privileged position in his face, lashing out at him for being a disgrace. The father retorts by reminding his child how the military is about to break him. He calls his child a “snotty brat,” and says, “they’ll make a man out of you.” The child gets the last word, “a man like you?” The kids, however invested in the system, are aware of the decadence that comes with age.
A reoccurring theme that follows the film along at every stage is the fact that children are being sent to war. One of the fathers laments that the children “belong in kindergarten, not the barracks.” The child takes the meaning as an insult to his masculinity, and the use of the word ‘kindergarten’ will come back later in the story. Everyone knows that they are in the last throes of the war, and they are ashamed that children are being thrown out there as pawns as an act of futility. The school teacher approaches the military Captain, trying to reason with him to not use these children as cannon fodder. He realizes that the ideology he has been stuffing into their brains has culminated in them being used as sacrificial lambs. The Captain is obstinate, but the seed is planted, and again this comes back into play later.
After a single day in training for the kids, the military installation is notified of a breach. The Americans are encroaching and will arrive in the town. Every able person, whether seasoned or brand new, are told to take up arms and not let his country down. He addresses all of the military, and reminds the youngsters that even though they are not experienced, that the German way is to always go forward, not backward, and not to forget that they are being charged to protect the fatherland. We see uncomfortable looks, both from the crowd and from other officers. They all know what this means. We as the audience know that the officers are pressing the buttons of the programming that the children had undergone at school. This is phrasing they can relate to. They want to be men and do their duty. Wicki is attacking the fact that children were led to believe such things.
Through a mishap of communication, the boys end up on the bridge without supervision. They are surprised that they are ordered to defend the same bridge that they walk over everyday, with their homes within walking distance. They eat food together, laugh together, mostly oblivious to the horrors of war that await them. They even ignore a warning from a citizen passerby. It isn’t until they see a truck of troops coming back, specifically the gravely wounded troops, that it finally dawns on them what their near future could hold.
When an aerial attacker shows up nearby and one kid hits the deck, the children lambast him for his cowardice. Soon after, a viable air threat heads straight for them. The entire company hits the deck except for that one brave soldier, proving that he is just as brave as all of them. This misguided thinking costs him his life.
The onslaught continues as tanks appear within the town. The kids, without any orders to respond to, take it upon themselves to ferociously defend the bridge. They even succeed in taking down a tank, but the Americans realize that they are fighting children. One of the Americans even calls at the kids in English to stop. “Kid, what are you doing in this friggin’ war?” he yells. Good question. Another American says, “we don’t fight kids. Stop! Go home!”
The children do not listen to any of these warnings, just like they hadn’t heard any of the other ones. Wicki is saying that it was the system that placed these ideas in their head, and shielded them from the true horrors of war. When they finally see the horror, it is too late. They shriek and cry, but their fates are sealed. It is a tragedy, and their blood is on the German machine’s hands. Coming in 1959, this film at least to the younger generation is a way of processing and coming to terms with how misguided the older generation was. The Bridge, however tragic, is a catharsis.
Film Rating: 8/10
Gregor Dorfmeister: Author of the novel in 1958 in 2015.
The book was a fictionalized account of his experiences as a teenager at the end of the war. He was 29 when it was published. He was 86 during the interview.
He lived the situation. They were high school classmates that were ordered to defend a bridge. He remembers getting his draft notice at 16 and being excited. He was in the Hitler Youth because he enjoyed the time in sports, but of course they were being groomed to become soldiers.
He remembers hearing the sound of the American soldiers coming into town, which he says was captured perfectly in the film. In reality they threw eight grenades at the tank, and two of them hit. He saw an American GI leaving his tank with his back completely ablaze. The experience horrified him and made him a pacifist for the rest of his life.
The premise of the book was to show that they were caught up in the Third Reich, like “cogs in the wheel.”
Bernhard Wicki: 1989 excerpt from German TV.
Wicki graduated in 1938 and was arrested by the Nazis before the Kristallnacht, and was then sent to a concentration camp for 10 months. It is a difficult memory for him to reflect upon, but because he was 18 probably made it easier. He ended up making political films not just because of these experiences, but mostly because this was something he knew.
The interviewer called The Bridge “drastic realism,” which Wicki disagreed with. He likened it to neorealism, and noted Rossellini, De Sica, Visconti, who were his models. The success of the film became a burden on him professionally because it set expectations high. People wanted him to make a film of its caliber.
Volker Schlöndorff: 2015 Criterion Interview
The Bridge was his cinematic role model. There had been a number of war films in the 1950s, most of which were about “the good German” soldiers. The younger generation did not want to see the movies. Wicki’s film resembled some of those films, but the spirit was different. The Bridge is about death being an abstract notion and then the realization of it as a reality.
To the young filmmakers in the 1960s, Wicki was a something of a Godfather. At the time, they had reservations about the older generation. Most of them stayed away from the old actors, even Wicki (except for Wenders in Paris, TX. They all liked him and visited him, but few of them worked with him.
Against the Grain: The Film Legend of Bernhard Wicki: Excerpt from 2007 documentary with behind-the-scenes footage.
The Germans did not have suitable tanks,. And the Americans would not give them until they read the script. Initially Wicki did not want to work on the movie because the novel was about German bravery. He had to change certain elements of the tone.
The film because famous worldwide and was notable as a respectful anti-war film that showed a sea change. It had political implications.
Criterion Rating: 8.0