"The Circle" - Jafar Panahi (2000)

With his third film, The Circle (Dayereh, 2000), Jafar Panahi established himself in the top rank of world film directors. His two earlier films, White Balloon (Badkonake Sefid, 1995) and The Mirror (Ayneh, 1997) had been well-received films about children, but bore the stamp of his earlier collaboration with Abbas Kiarostami. Indeed, The Mirror showed considerable innovation in its attempt to break out of the narrative confines of the Iranian child-centred movie. In The Circle, however, we see something strikingly new emerge.

The story begins in the waiting room of a Tehran hospital maternity ward, where an older woman is waiting to learn about the newborn child of her daughter, Solmaz Gholami. When informed that the child is a girl, the grandmother expresses dismay and fear that the son-preferring in-laws will abandon her daughter. The camera follows her exiting disconsolately out of the hospital and onto the street, where she passes three young women nervously crowded around a public telephone booth. At this point the narrative shifts to these three women, and the grandmother’s story is abandoned.

Thus begins the first of the four main narrative threads of the film. Each narrative thread is picked up in the middle of some unexplained context and left unresolved, as we are passed, as if by chance, to the succeeding thread. It is clear in this new thread that the three women are urgently trying to contact some friend, but are also concerned about being picked up and arrested by the police. Very soon, one of the three is picked up, and the other two women run away down the street. The story proceeds along a path of extreme slow-disclosure, because it is only after 37 minutes of running time that our suspicions are confirmed – we learn that these women have been released from prison on temporary leave and that they are now trying to make their permanent escape. In the case of the two remaining girls of this thread, their hope is to make their way to the home village of the younger of the two, Nargess. Since the girls do not have proper identification and they are not accompanied by any male relatives, their situation on the street is always precarious. We never learn what their original crimes were, but as the film progresses one gets the feeling that in this society merely being a woman is attached with some degree of guilt.

In order to get money for the bus ticket to Nargess’s village, the older girl, Arezou, apparently prostitutes herself and gives the money to Nargess, saying that she will remain behind. About to board the bus a few minutes later, Nargess sees that the police are checking IDs, and she runs away from the bus terminal, hoping to find her friend, Pari, another fugitive from prison. She does make it to Pari’s home, and soon the second narrative thread picks up Pari’s story and abandons Nargess. One soon suspects that Pari’s crimes were political, since we learn that her husband was executed in prison, and the now-four-months-pregnant Pari is hoping to find an abortion on the outside. Pari visits some acquaintances that she had made in prison, but they are barely able to cope with their own situations and are unable to offer much help. Soon, we are passed to the third narrative thread, a single-mother who has dressed up her daughter and left her in front of a hotel in hopes that she will be adopted by a respectable family. Dejectedly walking away from watching her daughter getting picked up by the police and taken away, she sees a male driver stop and offer her a lift. She gets in the car, knowing the suggestive nature of the act, but is startled to learn that this driver is in fact a zealous police officer who has been trawling for prostitutes and is arresting her for prostitution.

This police officer soon stops to talk to some fellow officers about another driver who has been stopped with an unrelated woman, and in the ensuing confusion, our single-mother gets out of the car unnoticed and escapes. Now we are to follow the fourth narrative thread, that of this new woman, evidently a hardened professional prostitute this time, who is being arrested for being with an unrelated man in a car. The driver of that car manages to talk his way out of arrest, but the new woman of our focus is bundled off on a police bus and taken to a prison. When she arrives, she is put into a cell, and the camera silently pans around the cell to reveal that her cell-mates include all the other fugitive women from the earlier three narrative threads. They have failed in their efforts to find freedom and are now in prison. Finally, a cell-door window is opened and some officer from outside calls to the women inside asking if Solmaz Gholami is present. Thus we learn that the woman who gave birth to a girl in the opening scene of the film has apparently been abandoned, and she, too, has wound up in prison. The circle has been closed.

The Circle attracted immediate attention on release and won the Golden Lion at the 2000 Venice Film Festival, along with numerous other international film awards. The fact that it was banned in Iran brought it to the attention of even more people, and many critics viewed the film through the lens of international politics. Certainly viewers from all societies can identify with the plight of people seeking to move about freely. Paradoxically, though, Panahi, himself, ran into those problems in a society, the US, that boasts of its particular freedoms for individuals: once when changing planes in New York while en route from Hong Kong to Buenos Aires, he was detained in shackles for 12 hours because he didn’t want to be fingerprinted. What I would like to discuss further here, though, is not the political issues, but some of this film's special merits as a viewing experience and why I think it qualifies as a work of genius.

Although the film features continuous moving camera shots of people on the city streets, I must again emphasise, as I did in my review of his preceding work, The Mirror, how significantly Panahi’s cinema style differs from the rough-and-ready style of on-the-spot documentary filmmaking. Panahi slyly demonstrated those differences in The Mirror, when he interrupted that film to show the contrast between his own visual narrative style and that of fly-on-the-wall documentarians. In The Circle, again, the shots are carefully composed and structured. This is how Panahi holds our visual attention for a full ninety minutes while we are watching young women wandering, seemingly aimlessly, on the street. Panahi is constantly moving the narrative along, even though one thread is dropped without resolution and another one picked up. There are extraordinarily long tracking shots that smoothly, and without cutting, follow the women around as they gaze at their surroundings, and yet all the while they manage to keep the women in frame and, at the same time, provide point-of-view references concerning what they see. This camera movement is not jarring or confusing, but is instead highly crafted to motivate the viewer's attention. Not only are the women moving about in the early part of the film, but the camera is moving around them, too, and in an artful manner. All of these circular, moving shots perpetuate the metaphor of the movie’s title. Later, there is a three-minute-long tracking shot of the single-mother walking along the street and then getting into and riding along in the unmarked car of the policeman. Throughout this shot, the woman is perfectly in frame in medium close-up. The viewer’s appreciation for this woman’s inconsolable depression builds over the length of this doleful shot, and this would not have been as effective if the shot had been carelessly handled.

Another cinematic feature is the metaphor of confinement and entrapment. Women in this society without the proper identification cannot buy a bus ticket, cannot register at a hotel, and cannot even smoke in public (men are not so restricted). Throughout the film, several of the women protagonists are never able to find a place where they can just catch a moment to smoke a cigarette. Each of the four narratives has a context, a scope, of interactive possibility. But as we proceed, each succeeding narrative is confined to an ever-smaller scope. In the first narrative, Arezou and Nargess are running about on the street and have a relatively wider scope of freedom. In the second narrative, Pari is more confined, but can still range across the city. In the third narrative, the single-mother is only seen walking along the sidewalk. In the final narrative, the prostitute is confined to the dimensions of her seat in the prison bus. This succession of increasing confinement has a cumulative, subconscious effect that makes the dystopian world of the women every bit as ominous and disturbing as Orwell’s 1984. Yet in The Circle we are not in a fantastic or futuristic world with carefully designed sets and artificial environments, but are instead in the here-and-now, and on the street with real, everyday people. In fact only two of the players in The Circle had professional acting experience, and only one of those two, Fereshteh Sadre Orafaiy (Pari), has a significant role in the film. But all of the actors and actresses come across as realistic individuals.

Panahi’s The Circle is a bravura performance, and when watching it, I get the feeling that I am viewing the exploration of new cinematic narrative structures.

"As Tears Go By" - Wong Kar Wai (1988)

As Tears Go By (Wong Gok Ka Moon), the first outing of Hong Kong film director Wong Kar Wai (Wáng Jiāwèi), is ranked by his devoted followers as only moderately good – a cautious first production that does not display the full flower of his later achievements. Yet for the general public, it has been by far his most successful offering and was nominated for ten Hong Kong Film Awards, including those for best picture, director, cinematographer, and leading actor and actress. In fact its considerable commercial success provided Wong with the financial backing and security to enable him to engage in his more adventurous stylistic efforts that were to follow. One could say that the two audiences, Wong’s followers and the general filmgoing public, view the film from two entirely different perspectives. Reexamining this first film, then, offers an opportunity to take a look at what it is that distinguishes Wong’s peculiar aesthetics, which are so popular with his fanatic admirers and at the same time largely soporific or annoying to much of the general public.

First consider the milieu in which As Tears Go By was produced. The Hong Kong filmmaking scene had boomed in the 1980s thanks to the Cinema-City-produced action/adventure films of Tsui Hark and Wong Jing. The community then experienced another quantum leap in popularity with the release of John Woo’s dazzling Triad gangster film, A Better Tomorrow (Ying Hung Boon Sik) in 1986, which featured amazingly orchestrated hyperkinetic action shots, plenty of blood, and cold-blooded assassins. The background to all this was the Wuxia literature of Chinese culture. This is a stylized literary genre that concerned martial arts heroes engaged in heroic pursuits in ancient China. It could be likened to the “Cowboy” stories of the American Old West, which also had specific features identifying its genre. The Wuxia literature had early precedents, but became explicitly popular in the early 20th century and experienced a big revival in the 1980s. The hero of the Wuxia stories is always fantastically loyal to the “code” of his brotherhood and to his comrades and is capable of great acts of endurance in order to uphold his honour. To a Western reader this obsession with honour, the drive for revenge, and the maintenance of “face” may go beyond the bounds of believability, but these stories have had a considerable hold on the Chinese-reading public, particularly the young. John Woo was prominent among those who updated the Chinese Wuxia narrative to the contemporary Hong Kong Triad gang scene. He added to the mix by injecting his own dynamic cinematography and the supercool actor Chow Yun-Fat (Zhōu Rùnfā). The success of his A Better Tomorrow was enormous and led immediately to its own genre of copycat Hong Kong Triad films that followed. These included Woo’s own A Better Tomorrow II (Ying Hung Boon Sik II, 1987), The Killer (Dip Huet Seung Hung, 1989), Bullet in the Head (Die Xue Jie Tou, 1990), and Hard-Boiled (Lat Sau San Taam, 1992). Wong Kar Wai’s As Tears Go By was produced in this setting. For sure, it is the degree to which As Tears Go By conforms to the Triad film genre that accounts for much of its popularity with the youthful cinema-attending public. But there is still something different about this film from the other members of its Triad genre.

The story of As Tears Go By concerns a small-time Hong Kong hoodlum, Wah, who receives a visit from a comely girl, Ngor, who he learns is his distant cousin and who lives on nearby, but more suburban, Lantau Island. She has come to Hong Kong to receive some medical treatment for a lung infection and has arrived with an introductory letter from Wah’s aunt asking him to provide lodging for a couple of days. Their encounter is soon interrupted by the involvements of Wah’s gangster “little brother”, Fly, a naive and hot-tempered braggadocio who has problems holding his own in the violent Hong Kong underworld. Soon we also see Wah break up with his pretty barmaid girlfriend, who has given up on his inability to show deep feelings or make a commitment after a six-year relationship. For much of the rest of the film, we see scenes of “big brother” Wah bailing out Fly from one scrape after another that the boastful “little brother” has been getting into with other gangsters because of his concern about “face”, which are intermixed with scenes depicting the gradual, hesitant budding romance between Wah and Ngor. This romance flashes up brilliantly with the deservedly famous kissing scene between the two.

After it appears that Wah is finally ready to commit himself for the long term to Ngor, he is summoned away from his Lantau Island visit one more time to rescue the hot-headed Fly. Fly has volunteered for a likely suicidal mission to assassinate a former gang member now in police custody and liable to turn stool pigeon. The reward for this assignment is a wad of money and Fly’s last chance to build a tough-guy image. Wah tries to talk Fly out of it, but fails, and Fly runs off to carry out his mission. Wah follows, out of his sense of loyalty to the gangster “code” mind-set from which he cannot escape, and in the final blood bath with the police, both Wah and Fly are killed.

There are a number of aspects of As Tears Go By that are common to the popular Hong Kong pop film scene. The stars, Andy Lau Tak-wah (Wah), Maggie Cheung Man-yuk (Ngor), and Jacky Cheung Hok-yai (Fly) are big-time Hong Kong matinee idols. Frequently the same movie stars are also the most popular recording stars. The plot follows the Triad/Wuxia tradition, with plenty of violence, brutal and bloody beatings, and a relentless obsession with revenge and maintaining face as a person to be feared in the Triad community. The dynamic cinematography is skilfully handled by Andrew Wai-keung Lau. For example, early in As Tears Go By, there is a spectacular high-speed tracking shot of a chase through a billiard parlour that stands with the best of the kinetic Hong Kong gangster-film tradition. Lau went on to a successful directorial career of his own that included Infernal Affairs (Mou Gaan Dou, 2002), whose plot was later copied by Martin Scorsese for The Departed (2006). In his subsequent, more languorous and eccentric films, though, Wong turned to the brilliant Christopher Doyle to handle his cinematography.

But there are also unique elements to this film that reveal the signature style of Wong Kar Wai. Even though this it is said to be the only film for which Wong worked from an initially-prepared, script, As Tears Go By is memorable primarily for its moody undertones of loneliness. Wong is always the Master of the Broken Heart, and this film is no exception. Forget about his confession that he modelled the role of Fly after the Johnny-Boy character, played by Robert De Niro, in Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973). This film is far different from Scorsese’s early opus, and that distinction is due to the expressionistic overtones that Wong injects into the story. Despite all the blood and guts of the Triad encounters, what lingers in one’s memory are the various intimate scenes of Wah and Ngor as they guardedly come to know each other. The actual scenes of passionate love, while credible, are not as significant as the halting precursory interactions that come before. It is not until halfway through the film that the background soundtrack introduces a Cantopop version of “Take My Breath Away”, but this melody seems to haunt the rest of the film and represents its theme song (the original song, As Tears Go By, incidentally, is not heard in this film).

In addition, there is also what will be the trademark humourous exaggeration. Wong appears to be mocking the very genre in which he is operating, by displaying the ego-driven obsession with face and pride through the almost burlesque character of Fly. This compulsion to carry out revenge is exposed for its absurdity through Fly’s maniacal actions, and in this way it leaves Wah’s final action in support of Fly to be seen, not as heroic, but as tragic. Wah is the tragic hero, trapped by his own compulsion to follow the gang ethic, even to the point of his own suicidal actions at the close of the film.

One of the hallmarks of Wong’s films appears in As Tears Go By: the feeling of confinement in a big city. The early shots in Wah’s apartment mingle close-ups of mundane objects with close-on, hand-held camera shots of Wah and Ngor interacting in the spare environment. This sense of being confined in close quarters adds to the paradoxical sense of loneliness of the big city. Though the city is crowded, people are cut off from each other and only interact through empty gestures. Wah is ultimately a lonely figure, but he finds the promise of fulfilment when he meets Ngor. This notion of unfulfilled romantic engagement with another person becomes more explicitly the centre of Wong Kar Wai’s focus in his subsequent films.

Expressionism in Film

“Expressionism” refers to the manner of visual (or other artistic) expression that seeks to represent the external world as a reflection of the inner feelings of the author. This is in sharp contrast to Realism, which seeks to present the external world “objectively", independent of any particular personal point of view. The Expressionist movement rose in Western Europe during the latter part of the 19th Century as an aesthetic reaction against academic standards associated with the Classicism of Greek and Roman antiquity, as well as against the scientific/mechanistic spirit that had arisen during the Industrial Revolution. Although there were similar artistic tendencies present in much earlier artistic works, such as that of El Greco, as well as in other cultures, such as Chinese and Japanese art, the emergence of Expressionism as a major artistic movement is generally associated with the work of the Norwegian Edward Munch and the German schools of Die Brucke in 1905 and Der Blauer Reiter in 1912. These latter schools featured the celebrated works of Franz Marc, Paul Klee, August Macke, Wassilly Kandinsky, and others.

In their paintings, Munch and the German Expressionists presented a world that is distorted and coloured by the inner emotions evoked in the subjective viewer. This is a highly charged, emotional world vastly different from the photographic reality captured by a camera. The attempt is made to show that there is not so much a separation from the inner state of the subject and the external world as perceived by that subject. For example, when the subject is fear, every aspect of the physical world is shown to be nightmarishly oppressive and threatening. A celebrated example is Munch’s painting, “The Scream”. In fact, the most compelling examples of Expressionist painting often depict a disturbing world reflective of an unnatural emotional state.

It was natural for Expressionism to find outlets in other artistic media. For both theatre and film, there was the additional dimension of time, in addition to those of space and colour, to be given Expressionist expression. However, the Expressionist movement in German art was interrupted by the horrors of World War I, but resumed even more brilliantly in the following period of the Weimar Republic. The period was extraordinary, because it offered a unique environment for Expressionism to flourish. Here is what Jeffrey Bader has to say about the Weimar Culture [1]:
The Weimar years (1918-1933) marked a period of political disintegration offset by cultural brilliance. Artistic and academic life enjoyed a freedom and attained an excellence unprecedented during the philistine years of the Wilhelminian Empire and unapproached during the Third Reich. Art and architecture were dominated by the Bauhaus, whose influence was later strongly felt in America. Outstanding German language writers of these years included Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, Rilke, Stefan George, Franz Kafka, and Bertolt Brecht. The physical and social sciences produced countless creative thinkers who as emigres stocked American and British universities after 1933. And the Germans were far ahead of their Western counterparts in the art and technology of filmmaking.

The dominant trend of the early Weimar years in visual and literary art was Expressionism. Kandinsky, Marc, and others had experimented with Expressionist techniques before the War, but Expressionism did not achieve the status of a school until after the War. The chief formative experience in the culture of the times was, not surprisingly, the horror and destruction of the War. The artists tried to depict the disintegration of moral values wrought by the War and sought to create the basis of a new humane and moral culture. The destructive side of the Expressionists’ work is perhaps more obvious. The rejection of the “objective” world of realism in favor of a primitive, but jangled visual world of broad and colorful planes and lines is characteristic of Expressionist art. Combined with a peculiarly German penchant for pagan mythology, Gothic milieux, suicide, insanity, and death, Expressionism in the theater provided an excellent vehicle for themes of horror and destruction. The Expressionists were consciously revolutionary; many of them were strong supporters of the revolution of 1918 and were disgusted when militarism, capitalist greed, and bourgeois respectability reasserted themselves in the 1920s. If Expression ever had a positive political creed, its enthusiasm for the Republic was dampened by the failure of the Republic to achieve the promised transformation of society.

The cultural richness of Weimar Germany was eradicated by the onset of Nazism. Official Nazi doctrine labelled most Weimar culture as “Jewish-Bolshevik” and degenerate, and a sort of sentimental social realism became the standard. Weimar artists and thinkers found a more receptive climate in the West, whose culture and science they continued to enrich after 1933 as they had enriched Germany before that date.
In addition, here is further commentary concerning the rise of the German Expressionist film during this period [2]:
In Europe at the turn of the century, within the framework of a swelling dissatisfaction with the general status quo, grew a malaise in artistic circles. The germinal tendency away from Impressionism and its exclusive preoccupation with surface phenomena, its study of the effects of light upon form, had already pointed in two directions. In Paris it led to Fauvism and Cubism, stressing formal elements of design (line, figure, background, color, composition) for their own sake. The urge to represent reality gradually waned, finally giving rise to pure abstract art.

In Germany the counter-reaction took a subjective, introspective turn. There the ascendant impulse was to bare the secrets of the soul. These artists, “Expressionists”, as they were to be labelled, wanted to dissect nature and reinterpret it according to the workings of each individual psyche. It was an exploration of man’s inner life. But man’s inner life was shrouded in unfathomable mysteries. Whereas Freud was moved to explain them rationally, the Expressionists desired an emotional statement, often with mythical or religious overtones. This is the key to Expressionism. It emphasized the emotional experience in its most intense and concentrated formulation. The Expressionist proclaimed emotion at any cost, often as the noted art historian Sir Herbert Read put it, to the point of “an exaggeration or distortion of natural appearances which bordered on the grotesque”. They constantly derived inspiration from Van Gogh, who had insisted that the artist’s task was to interpret fundamental emotions like joy, sorrow, anger, and fear. Characteristic of the kind of experience which stirred them was that described by Edvard Munch in 1889 [3],

“'One evening I was walking along a path -- on one side lay the city and below me the fjord, I was tired and ill -- I stopped and looked out across the fjord -- the sun was setting -- the clouds were dyed red like blood. I felt a scream pass through nature; it seemed to me that I could hear the scream. I painted this picture -- painted the clouds as real blood. The colours were screaming -- this became the picture from 'The Frieze of Life'.”
For each artist, emotional needs, psychological pressures, and private obsessions transformed nature into his own symbolic inner reality.

Although German Expressionism had already developed in literature and painting before World War I, it achieved its most vivid statements only after 1918. The postwar intellectual climate favored radical change; it was virtually unanimous that the inherited ideas and conservative values of the authoritarian Kaiserreich, largely responsible for the gloom and defeat of the war, were to be discarded. Many yearned for nothing less than the spiritual rebirth of mankind. Some were optimistic, others sceptical, but all were anticipating a radical redefinition of man an society. And for most, Expressionism was the means.

The cinema was especially suited to these revolutionary concepts. It was unencumbered by traditional dogma of style or technique. Furthermore it had only begun to realize is expressive possibilities and stir the imagination before it was taken over by the war-propaganda machine. After the war it was freed and endowed with enlightened governmental support. When The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (by Robert Wiene) first appeared in 1920, it was immediately acclaimed as the first work of art in the cinema. It seemed to embody in concrete visual terms directions the intellectual community had been eagerly anticipating. All elements of the full-blown Expressionist style were there. The sets were entirely studio-made, fully in keeping with the tendency to deny nature while emphasizing inner experience. Once inside their studios, German directors and technicians explored all means of developing lighting technique and decor in order to underscore dramatic impact and to establish and sustain mood or atmosphere. In Caligari, the sets were grossly distorted (spider-like trees, leaning rhomboid houses, crooked windows, walls painted with angular black-and-white designs) to evoke an aura of anxiety and dread.

Lighting technique had at first been taken over directly from the theater, but soon developed for cinematic purposes. Eventually, the Expressionist director could flood a set to get flat, blanched characters and objects, and dark angular shadows; flood it from both sides to eliminate shadows; bathe it in soft light to emphasize mass; in dim light for haunting chiaroscuro; or from above or below, depending on the mood to be conveyed or the dramatic content to be intensified.

Acting was an integral part of the Expressionist style. Gestures were brusque and exaggerated. When seen today, they seem overwrought, at times ludicrous. But it must be borne in mind that their intention was exactly parallel to the Expressionist painters’ desire for intense emotional expression through their garish color contrasts and their grotesque deformation of form. Expressionist acting was not without its compelling examples. e.g. Werner Krauss as the unscrupulous Dr. Caligari. And unforgettable is Conrad Veidt as Cesare, the somnambulist who kills at the behest of Caligari, as he glides along a wall in unctuous harmony with it.

An incredible assortment of phantoms, vampires, ghosts, devils, mandrakes, and themes of death, fate, mystery, and horror proliferated on the German screen during the Expressionist years. Much was derived from eerie Gothic tales and legends, for the medieval period was a time when mysterious universal forces were tolerated and revered without explanation. The Expressionists assumed the same mystical approach, evincing a similar desire to sacrifice themselves to and revel in these mysterious forces. Clemenceau was once moved to remark, in light of this characteristic German fascination, that the difference between the Germans and other races is that Germans have a taste for death, whereas other nations have a taste for life. Lotte Eisner adds that “the weird pleasure the Germans take in evoking horror can perhaps be ascribed to the excessive and very Germanic desire to submit to discipline, together with a certain proneness to sadism” [4]. Whatever the reasons for its existence, the traditional German focus on the murky side of life was a fortunate circumstance. It was ideally suited to the Expressionist temperament and to visual representation.

In their tender care for exposing on the screen cosmic essence and energy, the Germans have been criticized for their slowness of pace. They have been quick to reply that it is necessary to exhaust all the possibilities for the mood of a situation in order to chart the furthest recesses of the soul. The slowness in earlyl German films, when it occurs, must be tolerated; it should be treated as an occasion for losing oneself in the Expressionist mentality.

Sadly, the German cinema was not able to produce films of such precious quality indefinitely. Some recognise the beginning of a decline as early as 1925. Though less prevalent, films of excellence continued to issue from Germany in the late Twenties and early Thirties. The decline of the German cinema has been attributed to several factors. In the mid-Twenties, a strong trend toward realism began to undercut Expressionism, starting with the so-called “street film” – simple attempts at depicting life in the streets. Moving out of the Expressionists sway, they mobilized the camera to accompany the characters, recording their natural gestures in realistic surroundings. Moreover, the chaotic social conditions (inflation, political machinations, intrigue, assassinations) of later Weimar Germany made it impossible for creative minds to remain isolated in fantasy. And that always willing antagonist, Hollywood, took a heavy tool. Not only did it compete successfully for box-offices inside and outside Germany, but it lured away whatever directors, actors, and technicians of talent it could buy. The final blow was levelled by the political interferences and harassment from the Nazi government.

The legacy of the pure Expressionist years (1919-25) and their aftermath (1925-33) was priceless to the development of the cinema. According to Arthur Knight [5],
“In other lands other directors had already developed the techniques of film. It remained for the Germans to take the vocabulary and extend it, deepening and enriching the entire medium, turning to themes, emotions, and relationships never before essayed on the screen. And to treat these new subjects, the German artist evolved additional techniques that are still impressive for their boldness and originality. They discovered the importance of costume and decor and lighting, the nuances of acting for the camera and, perhaps most important of all, they treated the camera itself as a creative rather than simply a recording instrument. . . . They rarely venture outside the studio, preferring to create their settings from the ground up, to control every aspect of their production. As a result, one is at all times intensely aware of the artistry in each of these pictures, of the skill and planning and technical mastery that went into their making.”
Some of the outstanding German Expressionist films during this period that I have had the good fortune to view are:
  • The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), directed by Robert Wiene
  • The Golem (1920), directed by Paul Wegener
  • Destiny (“Der Mude Tod”, 1921), directed by Fritz Lang
  • Dr. Mabuse, Der Spieler (1922), directed by Fritz Lang
  • Warning Shadows (1922), directed by Arthur Robinson
  • Nosferatu (1922), directed by F. W. Murnau
  • Siegfried (Niebellungen, Part I, 1923)
  • Waxworks (1924), directed by Paul Leni
  • The Last Laugh (1925), directed by F. W. Murnau
  • Faust (1926), directed by F. W. Murnau
  • Metropolis (1926), directed by Fritz Lang
  • The Love of Jeanne Ney (1927), directed by G. W. Pabst
  • The Threepenny Opera (1931), directed by G. W. Pabst
  • The Blue Angel (Der Blaue Engel, 1930), directed by Josef von Sternberg
  • M (1931), directed by Fritz Lang
Although the German Expressionist school declined in the 1930s, that was far from the end of Expressionism in film. From the above list it can be seen that F. W. Murnau and Fritz Lang continued their work in America. And Josef von Sternberg, born in Austria, was essentially an American who just came over to Germany to direct a single picture, The Blue Angel, and then returned (with its star, Marlene Dietrich) to the United States to continue the Expressionist film tradition.

It should be emphasised that though the early German Expressionist films were almost like direct transcriptions of Expressionist painting into a cinematic form, gradually, the Expressionist themes were conveyed in a wider variety of ways and with more degrees of subtlety. These varying degrees of subtlety mean that Expressionism in film today is not simply a black-and-white issue. Many films can be considered to be Expressionist to a certain extent. Indeed, since we can say that films correspond more to our dreams than to our lived reality, it might be said that all films are to some extent Expressionistic.

Nevertheless, we can identify certain filmmakers as more emphatically Expressionistic than mainstream. Evident examples include Josef von Sternberg, Orson Welles, Jacques Tourneur, Werner Herzog, Roman Polanski, and Wong Kar Wai. Others directors, such as Ingmar Berman and Alfred Hitchcock, evince strong Expressionistic tendencies only on certain occasions. But with our broader perspecitve concerning what comprises Expressionism and its techniques, I contend that there are still other directors who are normally considered very much outside the scope of Expressionism who, nevertheless, can be considered to be Expressionistic. This group includes Robert Bresson, Kenji Mizoguchi, Carl Dreyer, and Michelangelo Antonioni.

The Expressionist elements, themes, and techniques outlined here are explored in more detail in connection with my further examinations of individual films and filmmakers.

  1. J. A. Bader, “Weimar Culture”, German Expressionist Film Festival, 1970, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA.
  2. M. Purvis and R. K. Wood, German Expressionist Film Festival, 1970, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA.
  3. M. Julius, “The Compulsive Subjectivity of Edvard Munch”, Contemporary Review, Jan, 1993, http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2242/is_n1524_v262?tag=artBody;col1.
  4. L. Eisner, The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in the German Cinema and the Influence of Max Reinhardt, 1974, University of California Press.
  5. A. Knight, The Liveliest Art; A Panoramic History of the Movies, 1957, Macmillan, New York.

"The Seventh Victim" - Val Lewton (directed by Mark Robson, 1943)

The Seventh Victim (The 7th Victim), a 1943 film produced by Val Lewton, was one of a string of hypnotic films noir he brought to the screen, coming right after Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, and The Leopard Man. What makes this film interesting is the wide gulf separating its virtues and its flaws.

The story concerns Mary, a young woman from a conservative boarding school, who decides to leave and go to New York to search for her missing older sister, Jacqueline, who has been her sole means of support. In New York she quickly learns that her missing sister has apparently sold her cosmetics factory (to an unfriendly, brusque colleague) and that Jacqueline had been secretly married to a man who is also looking for Jacqueline. Mary also meets a strange psychiatrist who has apparently been treating Jacqueline, and through him she learns that Jacqueline’s disappearance is linked to her membership in a Satanic cult of devil worshippers. It turns out that Jacqueline’s desire to flee from the cult was forbidden, and the cult members had decreed that she, like six earlier disenchanted members, must die for this betrayal. She is under the threat of becoming the seventh victim.

Mary does eventually find Jacqueline and try to help her. In the meantime, though, Mary has attracted the romantic affections of both Jacqueline’s husband and a failed poet who is constantly quoting verse while trying to assist her to find Jacqueline. Although Jacqueline finally manages to get away from the cult, and also from an assassin she encounters on the street, she is unable to escape her own obsession with death. At the end of the film, she commits suicide by hanging herself in her room.

Like most of the Lewton-produced films, there are no supernatural events or ghosts in the film; all events are grounded in this world. Nevertheless, the implausibility of the plot is the principal weakness of the film. Throughout the film, people appear and events take place without any justification. Many of the characters, particularly seemingly minor participants in the story, are bizarrely overplayed by the actors and actresses. And the romantic relationship between Jacqueline’s husband and the fresh-from-boarding-school Mary is completely far-fetched. In addition, the weird behaviour of the creepy psychiatrist provides further dislocation. Perhaps casting Tom Conway, brother of the super-smooth George Sanders, in the psychiatrist’s role induced Lewton and director Robson to unleash Conway’s thespian pyrotechnics, even though the role was minor.

With these rather devastating flaws, one would assume that The Seventh Victim is completely irredeemable. But strangely, the film has a haunting quality that stays in one’s memory. Why is that? For one thing, the film comprises a set of brilliant set pieces, each of which holds together on its own. Even the opening sequence in the boarding school is eerie and claustrophobic in the extreme. In addition, there is the famous shower sequence, in which Mary is visited by her sister’s hostile colleague, who is seen in shadowy outline behind the shower screen. This scene is utterly compelling and stands high above the justifiably famous shower sequence from Hitchcock’s Psycho. There is also the dark scene depicting the devil-worshiping cult members trying to exert their will on Jacqueline. Because the tenets of their Satanic beliefs forbid them to carry out violent acts, they try to compel Jacqueline to commit suicide by exerting overwhelming peer pressure. Jacqueline almost succumbs, but manages to escape, only to fall prey to her own death fantasies at the end of the film. And finally, there is the bizarre sequence late in the film depicting Jacqueline walking on the city street late at night, after getting away from the cult members, and being followed by a mysterious assassin. Although this scene makes no sense, it has a disturbing quality that adds to the total effect.

When these various set pieces accumulate, even though they don’t fit together neatly into a narrative whole, they give the film a disturbing, nightmarish quality, like seeing broken reflections in a fractured mirror. The individual characters are also dream-like in their characterisations. The Mary character, played by Kim Hunter in her first role, is one of complete virtue and innocence. She is basically a wide-eyed Alice wandering around in a dark, haunted Wonderland. Many of the other characters are emphatically willful and cynical, such as the boarding school headmistress, the new owner of Jacqueline cosmetic factory, and the chief cynic-in-residence, himself, the psychiatrist. All of them are creatures from your last nightmare. In contrast to Mary, who represents the innocence and vitality of youth and life, the Jacqueline character, whose delayed appearance doesn’t come until the latter stages of the film, represents the opposite ─ that of despair and the death wish. The closing act of suicide is not shown, but only signaled by an offscreen noise in the final shot of the film. It shows Jacqueline's neighbor, a dying woman in her last days who has decided to dress up and go out on the street for one final experience of the joy of life. As she passes in the hallway by Jacqueline's closed room door, one hears the sound of a chair beneath a hangman's noose (shown earlier in the film) being kicked over.

For all of these things, The Seventh Victim is worth seeing and offers a good display of the Lewton company’s cinematic skills of dream weaving.

"Gaav" - Dariush Mehrjui (1969)

With his second feature, Gaav (The Cow, 1969), Dariush Merhjui established himself as the leading Iranian filmmaker, and Gaav became the first Iranian film to draw international attention. Mehrjui, born in 1939, had recently graduated from UCLA, where he had studied film before switching to philosophy. During his time overseas he became inspired by European films, particularly Italian and French films from the 1950s and 60s, and the seminal nature of Gaav spread this European influence to other Iranian filmmakers who followed.

Gaav is based on a story by Gholam-Hossein Saedi, which was first adapted as a TV play. Saedi, by the way, also authored the original story and co-scripted the brilliant Dayereh Mina (The Cycle, 1978), perhaps Mehrjui’s greatest film. The story of Gaav concerns a small, isolated village in the Iranian “desert” that has only a single cow. The owner of the cow, Hassan, has no children and obsessively devotes all his attention and affection to his cow, which is perhaps the basis for his importance in the community. One day while Hassan is attending to some affair in another village, the cow is found dead in its stall. The villagers are grief-stricken by the calamity, but their greatest concern is the effect that this will have on Hassan when he learns of it. So they conspire to tell a story to Hassan that the cow has run away and they are still looking for it. In the meantime they bury the cow in an abandoned village well.

When Hassan returns, he is stunned by the disappearance of the cow and quickly shows signs of withdrawal into a world of disbelief and madness. He doesn’t believe the far-fetched story that he is told about the cow running away, and he ultimately drifts into the state of believing that he, himself, is the cow. He retires to the stall and mournfully limits himself to eating hay and occasionally mooing like a cow. The villagers are nonplussed by the situation and try to come up with ways of bringing Hassan back to life. All of their efforts come to nothing, however, and they eventually decide that the only thing left for them to do is to harness him to a rope and drag him to a hospital in a larger city. The arduous task of dragging the bound-up Hassan across the barren landscape during a rainstorm (one of the most memorable scenes in the film) leads the leader of the group, Eslam, in frustration, to whip Hassan like a pack animal. Hassan’s destruction as a man is complete. The subsequent events, when Hassan breaks away from his captors and falls down a steep slope and dies, seem inevitable.

Like two other Mehrjui films that I have reviewed, Ali Santouri and Hamoun, the narrative line in Gaav is downhill all the way. Hassan and the village plunge into a downward spiral that ends in despair. This sense of fatalism and tragedy is a thematic current in Persian culture that extends far beyond Mehrjui, incidentally, and one might even say that it represents a characteristic feature of the Iranian psyche. This is not necessarily a negative turn of mind, though, but more of a deep awareness of the essential transitory nature of existence. But what then is the overall intent of the authors of Gaav, what does it mean? The Shah of Iran’s government, though they supplied financing of the film, banned its release. The government perhaps feared some latent political message in the story, since Saeedi was a socialist and political opponent of the regime. We know also that Khomeini subsequently praised the film (and this praise is said to have saved the Iranian film industry from shutdown after the revolution). What did he see in it? Was there a political message in the film?

I think there was something of a social meaning, but not something specifically political. The villagers in the film are haunted by fear and their own ignorance. There was fear of the “evil eye” and fear of the threatening nearby, but mysterious, “heathen” village, Balour. The village children love to torment a retarded teenager, simply because this harmless person is strange and different. The women of the village are superstitious and driven by their own rituals. When the village leaders get together to discuss what they should do, they are constantly uncertain and fatalistic about what may happen next. The person that they rely on most, Eslam, is certainly the most resourceful, but he, himself, is hesitant to take action and is constantly riven with uncertainty and doubt. To my mind, this film describes the bleak and barren cultural landscape of Iranian village life. It is the reverse of those romantic descriptions of bucolic life in the countryside that one sometimes encounters. This film, in contrast, strikes me as more of a rejection of that life, and perhaps that’s not surprising, coming from the socialist Saeedi, who would perhaps see things from a more modernist perspective. The village life is shown to be so dysfunctional that when a critical event occurs in this village, i.e. the cow dies, Hassan goes mad, and the rest of the village cannot cope with it, either.

Some critics have likened Gaav to Italian Neorealistic films, but aside from the fact that the film was shot in a village, this comparison is not particularly apt. Italian Neorealism attempted to capture the real-world experiences of the working class by eschewing standard film conventions, including professional lighting and actors. Gaav uses top Iranian professional stage actors (who perform extremely well), and many of the events are artificially staged. For example, there are repeated scenes of three mysterious, threatening Balouri strangers seen standing on a ridge in the distance, and this evocative image is representative of the “unknown” that perpetually threatens the village.

Mehrjui's mise en scene in Gaav is superb and sets a standard for Iranian films. The film is shot in black-and-white, and Merhjui is not afraid to use darkness and shadows to great effect. In video reprints of the film, unfortunately, the shadowy elements are completely lost in blackness, due to the limited contrast range of video. But this is presumably more visible on the original film stock, and not the fault of Mehrjui. Throughout the film, Mehrjui skilfully uses space and creates a moody contextual ambience from the numerous shots of watching villagers who are witnessing the drama of Hassan. There are sometimes closeups of peering faces and other times point-of-view shots of enfolding events from various perspectives, all of which maintain the circumspective compass of the action. The story is told not so much by dialogue (some sequences have only limited dialogue), but by the deliberate pacing of village activity. This sets a tone that blends well with the atmospheric flute music of the soundtrack. Overall, the story, though deliberate paced, does move along and capture the imagination. Gaav, by the way, is vastly superior to the overpraised Tabiate Bijan (Still Life, 1974), which made monotonous emptiness of peasants not only its single point, but subjected the viewer to the same infuriatingly monotonous experience, with virtually no progression.

After the Shah’s government banned the film, a copy of the film was smuggled out of the country and shown at the Venice film festival, where it won prizes and also a prize at the Berlin International Film Festival. The government eventually relented, and the film became very popular and a source of pride to the Iranian people. It remains a landmark in Iranian film history.