"Even Dwarfs Started Small" - Werner Herzog (1970)

Werner Herzog shot Even Dwarfs Started Small (Auch Zwerge Haben Klein Angefangen) on the Canary Islands immediately after shooting (but before releasing) Fata Morgana during his travels to East Africa. Though the film was immediately banned in Germany, it made the young director famous and remains as one of the most distinctive (and grotesque) films ever made. The story concerns some sort of institution in a desolate volcanic landscape, where all the inmates and the supervising personnel are dwarfs. In fact no non-dwarf is seen in the film.

At the outset, we see a police investigation post-mortem concerning a revolt that has taken place at the institution. The off-camera policeman asks how all this destruction got started, and then we cut to a narrative in flashback that comprises the remainder of the film.

When the principal and some of the instructors were temporarily away, the inmates started their rebellion by attempting to storm the administrative building. The Director barricades himself inside, along with an inmate taken hostage, Pepe, whom he ties up in a chair. Giddy with excitement from their newfound freedom from authority, the rebellious inmates start to engage in various naughty acts, such as looking through just-discovered adult magazines that belonged to their instructors. Soon they move to progressively more destructive actions, such as burning and destroying a lone palm tree that was a graceful feature of their desolate environment. They then go on to torture and kill barnyard animals at the institution and even their fellow blind inmates. All the while they are madly giggling with joy at how all the rules are being broken at will: it’s the sheer love of wanton, destructive behaviour.

The film that most strikingly comes to mind when watching Even Dwarfs Started Small is Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). Both films confront us with ultimate questions concerning just what we are and what constitutes our humanity -- and at the same time they stir within us a deep sense of horror. Certainly Dwarfs is one of the bleakest films from a filmmaker whose trademark is human depravity and despair. What is particularly disturbing is that throughout this film we are torn by the opposing tendencies to see the dwarfs either as innocent children, or as wizened, deformed, and unnatural creatures. The dwarfs laugh innocently and play childish games one minute, and then gleefully engage in some cruel act in the next minute. Perhaps thankfully, the most violent events in the film take place off camera: the killing of the mother sow suckling its piglets, the murder of their fellow inmate, and the thrashing of Pepe.

The narrative doesn’t seem to traverse any clear-cut course, but it does leave one with a collection of disturbing images long after the lights come on. Here are some reflections on a few of them:
  • The musical soundtrack mostly alternates between a wailing gypsy minstrel song and a native African choral piece. Both pieces have undertones of primitive urges that are far removed from modern Western society.
  • Herzog is known to despise and fear chickens, and they must represent something overwhelmingly repulsive to him. Their relentlessly spasmodic movements and their often fierce, mindless savagery conjure up a sense of meaningless animal brutality. In this film, he repeatedly shows chickens and roosters attacking, killing, and sometimes eating each other. This is Herzog’s view of the benignity of Nature.
  • There are two blind inmates in the institution who can only defend themselves from their fellow-inmate tormentors by wildly swinging plastic bats in random directions. The utter futility of this exercise and the hopelessness of their circumstances is a repeated motif in the film.
  • There is a moment in the middle of the film when the inmates are somewhat contemplative as they are shown a “doll house” of artificially dressed-up dead insects and spiders that have been collected by one of their members and kept in a cigar box. The absurdity of these bugs being cast in human social roles and just how far those roles are from their brute reality is clearly a metaphor for the dwarfs, and by extension, to all of humanity.
  • The inmates gleefully set fire to a bunch of potted pots that have just begun to flower. This shows their contempt for Nature and perhaps symbolizes their revenge for what Nature has done to them.
  • Late in the piece, the dwarfs engage in a solemn and ceremonial procession as they carry about on a cross a live monkey that they have crucified. This is evidence not only of their own ritualistic brutality, but is also a suggestion that all religions are little more than mindless exercises in barbarity.
  • In the final scene, the smallest and meekest of the inmates, Hombre, laughs hysterically at a kneeling camel that finally defecates on camera. The sheer stupidity and pointlessness of Hombre’s nonstop laughter is all that we are left with at the end of the film.
Critics complained that the film rudely disparaged the student revolutionary activities of the late 1960s. Others complained of racism and obscene humour in the film. But the overarching metaphor goes far beyond such narrow concerns. What it says to us is that we are all like the dwarfs in this film, trying hopelessly to make sense of a cruel and brutal dystopia and merely inflicting more harm on ourselves and on our fellow creatures. It’s a grim but unforgettable vision.
★★★½

"Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne" - Robert Bresson (1944)

After an early career as a painter, photographer, and writer, Robert Bresson made his first feature film, Les Anges du Péché (Angels of the Streets) in 1943. Even with this first directorial effort, Bresson was sufficiently established with the French intelligentsia to have Jean Giraudoux work on the dialogue. With Bresson’s next film, Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (Ladies of the Bois de Boulogne), another stellar figure, Jean Cocteau, wrote the dialogue for a script based on an episode from Denis Diderot’s Jacques le Fataliste et Son Maitre, but updated to a modern setting. The film is considered to be something of an anomaly in Bresson’s oeuvre, since it had a more or less conventional romantic narrative structure and employed professional actors. His famous cinematic style is more consistently manifested in his subsequent films, such as Diary of a Country Priest (Journal D'un Curé De Campagne, 1951) and A Man Escaped (Un Condamné à Mort s'est Échappé ou Le Vent Souffle où il Veut, 1956).

The story begins with two upper-class lovers, Hélène and Jean, discussing their relationship. From the very outset, we can see that Hélène is guarded and cautious about revealing her true feelings, while Jean is a transparent and guileless personality who wears his heart on his sleeve. In an attempt to discuss their deteriorating relationship without losing face, Hélène tells Jean that her passion for him is growing cold. Jean immediately and enthusiastically responds that he feels exactly the same way, and he suggests that they set themselves free and remain “good friends”. Hélène covers her overt responses, but it is evident that she is deeply wounded by Jean’s reactions. She sets out to take her revenge.

Hélène visits an old friend of high social standing from the countryside who has recently become impoverished and has moved to Paris with her beautiful daughter, Agnès. Faced with economic ruin, the daughter must now support her mother by working as a cabaret dancer and taking money for sexual favours from male patrons; but the mother and daughter are ashamed of the lives they now lead. Hélène’s goal is to shield their past from Jean and to present Agnès as woman of impeccable modesty. Hélène arranges a “chance” meeting in the Bois de Boulogne, a large Parisian park, between Jean and the two ladies, and, of course, Jean is immediately fascinated with Agnès. Hélène stage manages the subsequent interactions, and Jean is inevitably ensnared in the spider’s web of attraction. Finally he proposes marriage, and Hélène makes sure that the marriage ceremony is a gala affair with all their high-society acquaintances invited. Immediately afterwards, Hélène triumphantly announces to Jean that he has just married a tramp and has disgraced himself. Jean, dumbfounded and made a fool, asks Hélène why she did that to him. Hélène reminds him about the fury of a woman scorned.

Agnès’s situation throughout all this has been ambiguous. She had been reluctant to play along with Hélène’s plot and had avoided Jean all along. But this avoidance had only inflamed Jean’s passion and had led to even more amorous gestures on his part. In the end, she had reluctantly succumbed to his entreaties and fallen in love with Jean, even knowing that her scandalous past would be revealed at some point. When the secret is finally revealed at her wedding, she suffers from complete despair and humiliation. When Jean goes to visit her after the wedding, he learns that she has suffered a heart attack and now faces imminent death. Weak and barely conscious, Agnès tells Jean that she is worthless, but that she loves him. She tells him that he should forget all about her, but hopefully not condemn her. But now, in a denouement that thwarts Hélène’s malicious plans, Jean swears his undying love for and commitment to Agnès and begs her not to leave this world. Weakly and with her eyes still closed, Agnès smiles and promises that she will stay. This is the closing shot of the film.

The style of the film is seductive and shows a different side of Bresson, although it retains many of his cinematic touches. Like his other films, the soundtrack has very crisp, distinctively identifiable sound effects that convey an “interior” sense of the story, as it might be told on reflection or recollection. But, here, the visuals also have this stylized effect. The imposing and glossy presence of the automobiles in the film seem to convey a sense of structure and ritual that goes with the lifestyles of the characters. The repetitive, stylized actions of the principal characters establish their visual signatures, which we come to associate with our understanding of their inner dimensions.

For the most part, we don’t see much physical action in Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne: for such a romantic story, for example, it is interesting that there are no real embraces or kisses. The romantic development of the relationship between Jean and Agnès is skipped over, and we cut straight to the wedding. There is one particularly interesting scene, however, at an evening party, at which Agnès is seen dancing with one of her “gentleman” customers. The shot-reverse-shot editing of this sequence is skilled and precise, and it presents an interaction between the two characters that, though still stylized, is dynamic and revealing of Agnès’s character. This kind of dynamic editing was not much followed up in Bresson’s subsequent films, but it represents something that perhaps could have been put to further effective use.

Much critical attention has been on the rather mesmerizing image of Maria Casares, in the role of Hélène. Indeed, the Spanish-born Casares, who had already been featured in Marcel Carné’s Children of Paradise (Les Enfants Du Paradis, 1945) and was Albert Camus’s lover, is a fascinating central figure. Only 22 when she played in Les Dames, Casares appears here to be a much older and more experienced woman, always maintaining a civilized but equivocal demeanor. Her reserved, half-smiling expression betrays to the viewers, but not to Jean, her determination for revenge. She went on to star in Jean Cocteau’s Orphée (1950) and to have a distinguished career on the French stage. Interesting though she is, however, one shouldn’t merely focus all one's attention on Casares here. Bresson, who understood the expressive power of the film camera to capture intimate feelings and how inappropriate it often is to portray theatrical staging on film, imposed a highly restrained style on all his actors. Thus Paul Bernard’s performance as Jean is also very flat and subdued (something that doesn’t play as well for a role of a passionate romantic). Most interesting to me, however, is the performance of Elina Labourdette, as Agnès, which I believe carries the narrative even more compellingly than does the role of Hélène (which doesn’t evolve much past the opening scene). Agnès’s sense of shame, anxiety, and ultimately her complete surrender to love, transform the film from just a nasty story of vindication to a transcendent plane of feeling that would characterise many of Bresson’s subsequent films. When you see this film, watch Agnès struggle (and ultimately succeed) to find her way.
★★★

"A Man Escaped" - Robert Bresson (1956)

Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped (Un Condamné À Mort S'est Échappé Ou Le Vent Souffle Où Il Veut – "A Condemned Man Escaped or the Wind Bloweth Where It Listeth”, 1956) tells the story of French World War II prisoner of war André Devigny's incarceration by the Nazis during their occupation of France. At the beginning of the film, Bresson states that it is a true story (he, himself, had also been a Nazi prisoner of war) and is presented without adornment. By all accounts this appears to be the case. Yet it is to my mind Bresson’s finest film and ranks as one of the great artistic achievements in cinema. With this work, alone, Bresson assured himself a place in the Pantheon.

The lengthy French title is worth bearing in mind while watching the movie, because the story depicts a man who is determined to do something about his seemingly hopeless circumstances, and at the same time is dependent on the mysterious currents of unpredictable events. The “wind bloweth where it listeth” (pleases), as Jesus said to Nicodemus, and we must find a way to live under those conditions. Throughout the film we watch a man engaged in the struggle to exert his will and realise his slim possibilities for life. He is always at the mercy of the fates, and yet he is not a fatalist: he struggles on. During his imprisonment, the prisoner, Fontaine, is once asked by a fellow inmate who happens to be a priest whether he prays. Fontaine answers that he does, sometimes, and the priest admonishes him, suggesting that God didn’t arrange the world to make it so easy for the sometimes prayerful. Fontaine responds that in fact the much-too-trivial arrangement of the world would be simply to let God handle everything and to be passively resigned to one's fate and pray. For Fontaine, the only truly authentic path is not prayerful resignation, but to struggle mightily against oppression. One must act.

The opening shot of the film shows a close-up of Fontaine’s hands, and then the camera pulls back to show the prisoner riding in the back of a car with another prisoner and looking for a chance to jump. He finally makes his move, but the camera remains fixed on his now-empty seat. In a minute we see that he has been recaptured by the Nazi police. He is taken to the prison, where he is severely beaten by guards, again off-camera, and then deposited in a heap into his tiny cell. As Fontaine comes to, we finally here his voice-over for the first time. He describes how, now handcuffed, he discovered that he could talk through his cell window to some fellow prisoners in the courtyard and could communicate with his unseen cell neighbour by tapping out the letters of the alphabet on the wall in order to compose messages. Eventually, he learns how to pass small parcels through his cell window to his courtyard comrades and obtains from them a pin, by means of which he manages to unshackle his handcuffs. All this is important, because he knows that executions are being carried out inside the prison, and he may be summoned for execution at any time. Soon, however, he is transferred from his first-floor cell to another cell on the top floor. This time he is no longer shackled, so his work learning how to undo the handcuffs amounted to nothing. And furthermore, now he has no friendly neighbour with whom to communicate by tapping, and he is not able to pass secret parcels in and out through his upper-level window. His only interactions with others now take place when the prisoners on his floor file out to empty their slop buckets and then wash up in the lavatory.

Still determined to find a way out, he stares at his oaken cell door for long periods and finally decides that it may be possible to dismantle some of the slots by painstaking effort. He fashions a small chisel out of his spoon and begins working away at the door. After weeks of work and the amazing good luck of finding a needed second spoon, he is able to remove the door panels so that he can exit his cell when the guards are not around. Soon he is roaming the corridors of the prison at night in order to learn more about the layout and figure out an escape plan.

Eventually, Fontaine discovers a skylight through which he could escape and passes the crucial information to another prisoner, Orsini, who wishes to flea with him. Now Fontaine and Orsini set to work trying to fashion the ropes they will need by cutting up any scraps of clothing and bedding that they can find. There are detailed scenes of Fontaine’s hands engaged in the painstaking work to make the long, wire-reinforced cloth rope that he will need. Meanwhile, Orsini, growing antsy, decides to take off on his own in broad daylight and manages to make it up to the prison rooftop. He is eventually caught by the prison guards, though, and he is returned to his cell, awaiting a next-day firing squad. Though he failed, Orsini manages to pass on to Fontaine, just before he is executed, some crucial information about how to make the strong grappling hooks that he will need in order to make it beyond the prison rooftop. Once again, fate has intervened and supplied Fontaine with a crucial piece of the puzzle. Fontaine sets about working to make the grappling hooks, and again we see detailed shots of his hands engaged in the laborious work.

When Fontaine has his equipment ready, he knows that there’s no time to lose. But he feels he needs a partner in order manage the ropes during the escape, and Orsini is dead. But just then he is taken out for an interrogation and told that he will be executed in a day or two. When he is returned to his cell, he discovers that he has now been assigned a cell-mate – Jost, a 16-year-old French boy who had joined the German army, but who had gotten himself into trouble somehow. Here is a potential partner, but can this turncoat be trusted? Fontaine must decide whether to let Jost in on his plan or try to kill him. These are the only alternatives.

Fontaine and Jost, now alone in their cell, engage in a long conversation, the longest in the film, as Fontaine searchingly tries to learn about Jost’s character. Agonisingly uncertain, Fontaine decides to risk taking Jost with him, and they set out the next night through the skylight. The final fifteen minutes of the film cover their breathtaking passage. One critical hurdle: Fontaine must kill one of the armed guards outside the inner prison wall, with his bare hands and without making much noise. The tense build-up to this moment shows Fontaine waiting until a passing train makes enough noise to drown out his actions. The actual murder is not shown – again we must use our imagination for that violent act.

None of the violent events in the film are shown on-camera. The jump from the car in the early scenes, the beating of Fontaine, the beating of Orsini, the executions, the killing of the guard during the final escape – all of these events are shown off-camera. What we do see is enough for us to feel the inner turmoil of the characters, who must maintain emotionless countenances in order not to provoke the prison guards. The soundtrack is spare, but it features Bresson’s characteristic insertion of specific, crisp, and distinctive off-screen sounds that intensify our concentration. At various moments the soundtrack features music from Mozart's Great Mass in C Minor, (K. 427), and this is particularly effective in conveying the solemn life-and-death struggle that we are witnessing.

How much of this story can be seen as a metaphor for human existence? We all identify ourselves with Fontaine, though the events described are far from our own personal experiences. Certainly the music, the riveting performance by François Leterrier, as Fontaine, and the careful focus of the individual shots and sounds all contribute to the experience. This is a film whose narrative buildup was unmatched in Bresson’s other efforts. The final moments of liberation at the close are among the more exhilarating aesthetic experiences in screen history.
★★★★

Robert Bresson

About Robert Bresson:
Films of Robert Bresson:

Robert Bresson

Films: Les Ages du Péché (Angels of the Streets, 1943), Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (The Ladies of the Bois de Boulogne, 1945), Journal d'un Curé de Campagne (Diary of a Country Priest, 1951), Un Condamné à Mort s'est Échappé ou Le Vent Souffle où il Veut (A Man Escaped, 1956). Pickpocket (1959), Procès de Jeanne d'Arc (The Trial of Joan of Arc, 1962), Au Hasard Balthazar (Balthazar, 1966), Mouchette (1967), Une Femme Douce (A Gentle Woman, 1969), Quatre Nuits d'un Rêveur (Four Nights of a Dreamer, 1971), Lancelot du Lac (Lancelot of the Lake, 1974), Le Diable Probablement (The Devil Probably, 1977), L'Argent (Money, 1983)

Robert Bresson (1901-1999) stands apart from all other directors. He has a distinctive style, but there is considerable disagreement concerning what, exactly, is the nature of that style. Although there is much written about him, yet he seems still to be the least understood famous director. There is even a dispute concerning his birth year: it was either 1901 or 1907. The one thing that people seem to agree on is that he was very good. Although his films were not successful at the box office, he still has a major following among serious cineastes, was well respected by his fellow film directors, and was a significant figure in the French intellectual scene.

So what can we say about that style of his? Critics and scholars often refer to Bresson’s style as “spiritual”. Paul Schrader, prior to launching his career as a screenwriter and director, characterised Bresson’s style as “transcendental” [1]. Although these terms strike a chord, there is no common agreement as to what they entail precisely. The discourse on this subject is somewhat encumbered and made more complicated by several factors that are brought up in the analysis of Bresson’s work. One issue is his Roman Catholic upbringing and the extent to which he was influenced by Jansenism and the various disputes that the Jansenist movement generated. In addition some French scholars have been influenced by postmodernist thinking, which in my view is overly reliant on a linguistic-based structuring of existence and is inappropriate for Bresson’s highly visual style [2].  If a cinematic experience is to be profound and to have a direct impact, however, then it should not require such a background analysis for appreciation.

So let us just consider the evidence of Bresson’s films as we have them available today. They represent, in my opinion, thoroughgoing examples of Existentialism in Film, for they all confront us with the issues of a lonely individual’s attempts to come to terms with his or her ultimate fate in the universe. But unlike many Existentialist films, Bresson’s films are not representative of Expressionism in Film. We do not see a “coloured” world that represents the exteriorisation of someone’s inner turmoil, as is the case in an Expressionistic film. Instead, we are presented with seemingly meaningless visual fragments, or impressions, which we must collect and assemble into a coherent understanding of the inner turmoil of the principal character. Thus, we could say that Bresson is an “Impressionist”, rather than an Expressionist. But there is no Impressionist movement with which we could associate Bresson’s work: he stands alone as his own archetype.

This Impressionistic cinematic style might have evolved from Bresson’s early career in painting. One can think of his individual scenes almost like Van Gogh’s palette knife: each shot, always of short duration, is individually crafted like a thick stroke of the palette knife to fit into the larger mosaic of his film. Thus Bresson had no interest in having actors “play a role” (he was famously unpopular with actors), and so usually chose actors with no professional experience.
Once chosen, the actors are rehearsed repeatedly with instructions not to think or inflect, and not to invest the words with any intent or motivation. As Bresson prescribes, everything is “weighed, measured, timed, repeated ten, twenty times” until it is automatic, until it can be done or said unthinkingly. To help achieve this effect, none of the shots are allowed to “play out,” but are usually foreshortened, and the written dialogue is of a deliberately cryptic nature. [2]
Bresson did not want narrative threads to be portrayed by the actors, but, instead, wanted the viewers to be forced to make that narrative composition in their heads. He stated that he disliked the theatre, because it inherently represents the author's own narrative of the events. All the events in a drama, according to Bresson, are connected to identified causes – causes that have been identified by the author. But when we have our own experiences, there are no immediately perceived causes for events – those causes are only attributed later by us, upon reflection. At the time we experience the immediate events, there are no causes tied to them. Bresson didn't want his actors to introduce their own interpretations, either. His actors and actresses are usually expressionless in his movies and appear to be “flat”. They are often shown with downcast expressions, which causes us (the viewers) to contemplate their inner experiences (which are usually not at all obvious to us). As a consequence, after his first two films, Bresson always used actors (which from his background in painting he preferred to call “models”) with no previous acting experience. Intriguingly however, though his models usually played people from very ordinary or working-class circumstances, they were often drawn from highly intellectual circles. For example, Florenc Delay, who played the lead role in The Trial of Joan of Arc, was the daughter of a French Academician, and her own novels led to her later elevation to the French Academy. Anne Wiazemsky, who played Marie in Au Hasard Balthazar, was the granddaughter of Francois Mauriac, and she also later become a novelist.

In addition, there is usually no backstory in a Bresson film. We are given very little context at the beginning of the film, even though on many occasions there is a narrative voice-over present which could have been used to supply us with background context, if Bresson had so desired. Just as there is no assumed or understood past that took place before the film events shown, there is usually no clear understanding of a future for the characters when the film comes to an end. Certain things have been resolved, but other aspects remain open.

The camera in Bresson's work does not have the character of the objective silent witness, which it usually has at times in most films. There is no objective point of view and usually no establishing shots that serve to give us an objective sense of a the situation and spatial geometry of a scene. Often we are shown only close-ups of hands and feet concerning a particular activity, and we must extrapolate from then to infer the larger surroundings. From this description, it may sound as though Bresson is merely trying to play a game and keep the viewer guessing, but I don’t think this is the case. The close-up shots of hands seem psychologically realistic in the course of the actions shown. These close-up actions are always individual foci of attention that reflect the way that we actually experience and remember experiences – the experiences associated with our own individual interactions with things in the world. When we watch actors in the film engaged this way, we share and empathize with the nature of that existential experience and find ourselves getting “inside” the character shown in the film.

This empathetic effect is accentuated by Bresson's use of sound. His soundtracks always have very crisp and individuated noises that can be identified with distinct activities that are going on, often off-camera. Of course, all European films made in Bresson's time typically did not use synchronous sound, and sound effects were dubbed in at the editing stage. But Bresson's injection of unique, recognisable sounds was distinctive. It gave the soundtrack the special flavour of sounds we hear when we are withdrawn from normal social discourse and are intensely listening to the sounds around us. Thus the sense of withdrawal on the part of the film character is passed on to the film viewer and further supports our identification with the main character in the film.

Despite the difficulty of Bresson’s cinematic narrative style, he is certainly one of the most interesting filmmakers, and his films bear repetitive viewing. What he showed was the anxiety, uncertainty, and tragedy of existence. There is always an appreciation that, though grace may never be achieved, yet it is perhaps always a possibility. This is the Sufi’s way.
  1. Paul Schrader, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, University of California Press (1972).
  2. Jane Sloan, “ ”Chapter II: Critical Survey”, Robert Bresson: A Guide to References and Resource (1983, 2006), G K Hall, http://www.mastersofcinema.org/bresson/Words/Sloan_Bresson_Survey.html

"The Body Snatcher" - Val Lewton (directed by Robert Wise, 1945)

The Body Snatcher (1945) was one of the last of the “horror” films produced for RKO by Val Lewton during the 1940s, which included I Walked With a Zombie, The Seventh Victim, and Isle of the Dead. However, The Body Snatcher is not truly a horror film, (there is no real mystery or suggestion of dark forces), and it’s only very marginally an example of film noir. It's primarily a grisly crime film set in the past.

The plot, based on a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson, is set in Edinburgh in 1831, just three years after the notorious Burke and Hare murders and the subsequent sensational trial that led to their hanging. Burke and Hare had pursued the “resurrection trade”, robbing graves and selling the cadavers to doctors at the Ediburgh medical school, for whom cadavers needed for teaching were in short supply. Soon Burke and Hare had expanded their activities by murdering social outsiders and selling their bodies, too. The Body Snatcher is about the continuing activities of this practice.

At the beginning of the film, a young Edinburgh medical student, Donald Fettes, meets a young woman who urgently seeks an operation for her crippled daughter. Famous surgeon Wolfe MacFarlane, the mentor of Fettes, refuses, explaining that the operation would be risky, and he can more effectively use his time to promote human health by teaching student doctors who collectively can then go out and save many times more lives. This establishes the moral compass for the film. MacFarlane, who sees things in rather cold, ends-justify-the-means terms, always seeks to act on behalf of his own vision of the greater good, even if individuals may suffer now and then. As a case in point, we soon learn that he employs a common city cabman, John Gray, to supply him with cadavers robbed from local graveyards. He justifies this practice rather matter-of-factly to young Fettes by pointing out that there are just not enough human specimens available in order to provide proper instruction to medical students. Until the law is liberalised (it would be in 1832), he must engage in this unsavory, but necessary, practice. We also learn that Gray (played by Boris Karloff) shares an unsavory past with MacFarlane that he can use for blackmail purposes.

Fettes finds himself compromised into participating in these highly questionable activities, when, out of compassion for the young crippled girl, he urges Gray to go out and procure another body so that MacFarlane can prepare himself for an operation on the girl. But with graveyards more closely guarded now, Gray goes out and murders a street singer in order to supply the cadaver. When MacFarlane’s assistant, Joseph (played by Bela Lugosi), gets wind of these goings on, he goes to Gray and demands to be cut in on the take. Gray isn’t about to accept so easily, and he murders Joseph. Dr. MacFarlane now sees that Gray is out of control and goes to Gray’s apartment for a confrontation, which ends in the death of Gray. Fettes is horrified by these events, but MacFarlane assures him that with Gray out of the way, they can get back to practising medicine and serving mankind. However, MacFarlane is soon tempted to engage in his own grave robbing, and he convinces Fettes to join him. They go out to a remote graveyard on a dark and stormy night and dig up the body of an old woman to take back to the school. On the way back, MacFarlane begins hallucinating that the cadaver has somehow turned into Gray. He loses control of the carriage, which eventually goes off the road and plunges down a ravine, killing MacFarlane.

Although The Body Snatcher has a number of avid fans, it falls short of the other Lewton films. With a script based on a Robert Louis Stephenson story and a solid cast, featuring Henry Daniell, Boris Karloff, and Bela Lugosi, this film should have been much better. There are three principal shortcomings.
  1. The acting. Perhaps the biggest problem of the film is the wildly over-the-top performance of Boris Karloff. He is a constantly leering and smirking bogey man, who devours far too much screen time with these antics. There is no sense of dramatic build-up when the volume is turned up full all the time and with the Karloff's character flashing evil grins at every possible turn, making Jack Nicholson’s performance in The Shining seem tame by comparison. The second biggest problem is Russell Wade, whose performance as the naive Donald Fettes is hopelessly weak and unconvincing.
  2. The story. Lewton and director Robert Wise abandoned the polarity developed in earlier Lewton films, such as I Walked With a Zombie, wherein there was an eerie tension between the rationalist point of view and that of dark magic. What they had this time instead was the moral dilemma that can occur when utilitarian-based actions conflict with social mores. Where should one draw the line? MacFarlane thought it was OK to rob graves in order to put the cadavers to a useful purpose in medical training. Would it be acceptable to kill a person in order to save additional, other lives? MacFarlane didn't go that far, of course, but there is a potential tension here that could have beeen engaged. Unfortunately, this line was not developed effectively. Instead, the film is loaded with Karloff’s nasty grimaces and gloomy night shots, as if that alone would compensate. There is indeed one moment in a pub when Gray and MacFarlane look into the mirror and Gray reminds the doctor that, despite his high reputation, he is really just as ignorant as everybody else. He only knows the mechanical operation of the body parts, but he doesn’t understand the truly significant aspects of living. Here we have the intriguing core issue of the film, but, unfortunately, nothing more is made of it. One further weakness of the plot: Lugosi's role is so incidental that one gets the feeling his part was artificially thrown in just to have his name on the marquee.
  3. The music. There is intrusive, noisy soundtrack music that is apparently supposed to excite the viewer during action scenes, but it is merely an annoyance.
There are several things worthy of praise, though:
  • Henry Daniell gives a splendid performance as Dr. MacFarlane and almost rescues the film single-handedly.
  • Karloff’s murder of Lugosi, which demonstrates the suffocation technique of Burke and Hare, is chilling. Since all of the other murders are done off-screen, and the cadavers are never seen in the flesh, this is the one effectively shocking moment in the film.
  • The violent fistfight between MacFarlane and Gray in near silhouette darkness before the fireplace is well done. And we are kept from knowing just who kills whom until later.
  • The final, deadly carriage ride with MacFarlane and the ghostly body of Gray is also effective and memorable.
Director Robert Wise, who had worked with Orson Welles on Citizen Kane, also directed the over-praised, The Haunting, which I found talky, wooden, and lacking suspense. Admittedly, there were budget limitations, but I found the cinematography and film editing to be much better in other Lewton films that had similar budgetary constraints. Lewton did better with other directors.
★★½

"Leila" - Dariush Mehrjui (1998)

Dariush Mehrjui, one of the great Iranian filmmakers, was among the first to draw international attention to Iranian cinema with his groundbreaking Gaav (1969). Leila (1998), perhaps his finest work, tells the story of the tensions that are brought to bear on a young newly married woman who discovers that she is infertile. This may not sound like a subject with universal dramatic appeal, but in fact the film is an extremely well-crafted exploration of the human psyche that goes beyond those particular circumstances.

In all of Mehrjui’s films there is a subtle tension between the outlook of the individual and the cultural norms of society – a tension which goes beyond the simple black-and-white dichotomy of a heroic individual struggling against selfish and materialistic social forces. Mehrjui’s skill in exploring the nuances of these tensions is what makes him a leading exponent of Existentialism in Film, and certainly Leila stands as one of his best. Note that for various social and psychological reasons that I won’t delve into here, the Existentialist film protagonist is usually a man (a notable exceptions is Antonioni's Red Desert), but in Leila it’s the feminine perspective that takes centre stage, with the script based on a story by a woman, Mahnaz Ansarian.

The entire story of Leila is depicted from her individual perspective, and it is presented as a subjective recollection of past events. There are no scenes from any objective narrator’s point of view. In the beginning of the film, Leila recounts her upper-class family's gathering involving the preparation of a shol-e-zard (a form of Persian pudding) in connection with a Shi’ite Moslem religious day commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hussein. This five-minute opening scene can serve as a reminder to Westerners that the extended family is a dominant factor in all Iranian social life. It is at this feast that Leila captures a distant glimpse of a young man, Reza, that her brother has brought to the gathering. In voice-over Leila then quickly reveals she and Reza were married two months later – a jump in the narration that gives one the feeling of just how abrupt and business-like their courtship must have been. But in a series of brief scenes that follow, we soon see that this particular match was a stunning success – they are blissfully happy with each other and share a vital and caring relationship. It is also clear early on that both Leila and Reza are highly educated and live in a modern big-city milieu furnished with the latest electronic technology. They represent modern Iran.

But not long later, the central problem of the film is presented. For many Iranian marriages, it is expected that the wife will very soon become pregnant after the honeymoon. This doesn’t happen for Leila and Reza, and after visiting some medical clinics, they learn that Leila is infertile. Knowing how important it is in Iranian society for the wife to be a mother to the husband’s children, the self-effacing Leila humbly offers Reza the chance of divorcing her so that he can find someone to bear his children. Reza, a modern, educated Iranian, scoffs at such an idea, and tells Leila that he married her for herself, not for baby-making. They then set about exploring various medical options that might lead to successful childbirth. When those options are exhausted, they then consider adopting an orphan; but nothing works out. Throughout this period, Reza and Leila are seen as a loving couple, but from Leila’s voice-over narrative one can feel the increasing pressure that is being placed on her. The problem is her problem, and the entire extended family on Reza’s side wants to know every detail of their clinical and orphanage visits. This absence of privacy is typical in Iranian families and is part of the life there: everyone knows all your personal details.

At another outdoor family gathering, Reza’s mother takes Leila aside and tells her that she must consent to Reza’s having a second wife (permissible in Iran) in order to produce a male heir. The mother has four children, but only one son, Reza, and she feels that it is mandatory that Reza produce a son in order to continue the line. Although some reviewers have seen Reza’s mother as an evil witch, she is not presented in an unrealistic manner. True, she is insistent and conniving, but in a society where women have no overt power, one needs to learn other kinds of behaviour in order to get one’s way. Her weapon, which is sometimes all that an aging parent has left, is guilt, and she alternately scolds and wheedles Leila not to be selfish and to allow her husband, whom Leila claims to love, to gain what she claims he really wants: fatherhood of a son.

Later, Leila tells Reza about what his mother has said and wonders whether maybe she is right. But, again, Reza dismisses such an idea as ridiculous. He is a modern, educated man who loves his wife, and he will not have anything to do with backward polygamous practices. Nevertheless, Leila, who strives to be a good, loving Moslem, is affected by her mother-in-law's insistence and guiltily wonders if she, herself, is a selfish woman. She tells Reza that she will not stand in the way if he want to have a second wife.

As the story progresses, Leila’s mother-in-law continues to push her case, almost like Iago whispering into Othello’s ear, and tells her that Reza really does long for a son, but is afraid of offending Leila. Reza, for his part, insists that his mother is crazy and that he has defiantly rejected her proposals. But since we are only seeing the world through Leila’s eyes, we never see him stand up to his mother, Leila is only told about such things second-hand. But Reza’s mother is also telling Leila, second-hand, that Reza really does desperately want a son and wishes Leila would consent to his having a second wife. Whom is Leila to believe? She wants to believe Reza, but the increasing doubts about her self-worth and her desire to follow the path of righteousness pushes her in the mother-in-law’s direction.

Eventually the guilt-ridden Leila is convinced by her mother-in-law that if she really does love her husband, then she must insist that he go ahead and attend interviews with candidate second wives his mother has found for him. Of course, she is horrified by the thought of a second wife coming into her household, but she sees the entire process as something of a test of their love. She belives that she should make everything possible for Reza so that he can follow the path of his true happiness. If they are truly in love and they are willing to give up all for love, then everything should come out all right. This is the crux of the struggle in the film. Both Leila and Reza are striving to come to terms with both modern Western liberal thinking and traditional Iranian cultural practice that are frequently in conflict. When in doubt, Leila falls back on the conviction that she loves her husband, totally, and that she should be absolutely unselfish. As more and more pressure is placed on her, she is many times seen praying to God and asking for forgiveness. Reza, too, tries to accommodate the people around him in order to avoid stirring up trouble. In fact, this is what many modern people have to do in traditional societies -- after all, they cannot transform an entire society over night, can they? And, anyway, these moderns still usually have a strong feeling for the positive values that are part of their traditional culture. They do not want to reject their traditional culture entirely, but instead are looking for some sort of middle way.

So Reza, trying to follow the path of least resistance, agrees to see the candidate women, but he also tries to incorporate Leila into the process. He states that he will only marry a second woman if Leila approves the choice. Again the pressure is placed back on Leila, and it’s beginning to take its toll. Reza wants Leila to accompany him to the fiancé interview rendezvous, but Leila has to be dropped off nearby and must endure a humiliating and stressful wait while the interviews takes place without her. By now Leila’s only means of support come from her inner conviction that the must act selflessly and align herself with the will of God. Even when Reza’s sisters rally to her support and tell her to put an end to this second-wife operation, it is too late, and Leila is already too far down the track of her own obsession with selflessness. The sister-in-laws' supporting arguments are only directed towards Leila's selfish interests, and, anyway, Leila has become increasingly alienated from the idea of salvaging her diminished position in the family.

Finally, a suitable bride is found, and Leila cannot find it in her heart to disapprove. On the wedding night, Leila realises that she must sleep in the spare bedroom, and she finally breaks down and flees to her parents’ home. The next day Reza comes to Leila’s parental home and begs her to return. He informs them all that he was so distressed by her anguish that “he couldn’t do anything” that night (a fairly bold statement to appear in an Iranian film). He insists that he only took the second wife because that was what he thought Leila wanted: she had pushed him into it. But Leila is unmovable; the loving relationship they had is now gone forever.

In the final scenes, Leila recounts how Reza soon had a child, a daughter, by the second wife, but since there was no love in that relationship, Reza granted that women a divorce. At the end, he comes with his little two-year-old daughter to another family shol-e-zard feast for the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, hoping to somehow get Leila to come back to him. But for Leila, whose feeling for Reza is now mostly pity, their relationship is dead.

There are three themes that can be discerned in Leila, but most critics have only focussed on the first one. The other two themes, however, are what give the film its potency and artistic expression:
  1. The first theme is the issue of the role of women in Iranian society. Women have no rights and are browbeaten over the course of their upbringing to see themselves as servants to their husbands. To a Western observer, the entire story seems outrageous. How could Reza consent to a second wife, if he claims to be a modern? Indeed, most Iranians also see the plot as bordering on the absurd. In fact, many Iranians reject the story as being so outlandish that they cannot engage with it. But I think this theme is merely a metaphor for the other two themes below.
  2. The second theme is more general and concerns the difficulty that young people inevitably have (and this can apply anywhere) accommodating to the demands of society. In this sense, we can compare Leila to Elia Kazan’s Splendour in the Grass (1961), in which two young teenage lovers are almost driven mad by the conflicting pressures they feel in their Midwestern US society. In Leila, both Reza and Leila are trying to walk a tightrope that will enable them to have their own personal, romantic relationship and still live within the demanding and pervasive social context of Iranian society.
  3. But it’s the third theme that I find most interesting and what ultimately makes the film profound: the theme of self-destructiveness, here on Leila’s part. Iranians have a word in Farsi, “ghahr”, which is difficult to translate precisely but refers to the tendency of psychological withdrawal from an associate who has committed some offense. Rather than becoming hostile when one is offended, the Iranian who is “ghahr” with someone withdraws from any further interaction. This withdrawal is not just the external manifestation of silence; it is an inner psychological withdrawal from the person who has offended – one shuts the door. People from all cultures have this tendency, but Iranians have developed and refined this kind of response more than others. In a sense, one might say that being ghahr may have some useful qualities, because it eliminates the chance of further abrasive interactions: fistfights are less likely to break out. But being ghahr is an act, not only of destroying a relationship with someone, but also of self-destruction. We withdraw to a privileged inner sanctum and are no longer able to engage in an unguarded, loving relationship with the other. In this film, we watch Leila’s relentless withdrawal, despite her sincere efforts to act in a loving way. This is the great tragedy.
Donato Totaro has remarked on the scenes in both Leila and Josef von Sternberg’s Morocco, in which the principal characters ripped off pearl necklaces that had been given to them. In both cases the rejection of these attractive ornaments signify a breaking away from roles that have been set out for them in order to pursue the lonely path of self-realisation. However, their two paths are not the same. In Morroco, Amy Jolly recklessly abandons everything else for true love. Leila, on the other hand, has abandoned even that.

A story like this cannot be told effectively without considerable artistic investment. The acting in the film is superb throughout. In particular, the luminous Leila Hatami, daughter of well-known Iranian film director, Ali Hatami, gives an outstanding performance in the title role. A hauntingly beautiful woman, she conveys vulnerability, tenderness, and emerging anxiety through the subtlest facial expressions. More generally, the fact that all the characters are realistically presented is what keeps this film, whose plot always teeters on the edge of unbelievability, absorbing all the way.

Because this story is entirely Leila’a narrative account, there are camera effects used to portray the psychological stress she is under. For example there are a great many close-up shots of Leila occupied with ordinary household activities. These include handling traditional artifacts, such as samovars, as well as more modern devices, such as cordless phones. These all give a focus and tempo for the world of practical activities in which she lives. Telephones are a metaphor for the relentless intrusive acts of her mother-in-law, who is constantly calling and demanding an update concerning the couple’s private life. Mehrjui frequently has red-tinted shots and fade-outs to red, instead of black, to convey the emotional distress (more effectively used here than in Sara, Mehrjui's 1992 film that is worth comparing to Leila). To present some of the most intrusive and jarring statements from her family members, as well as some of Leila’s own telling reflections, Merhjui breaks the “fourth wall” and has people speaking directly to the camera. This serves to remind us that what we are seeing is not documentary reality, but Leila’s heartbreaking story.
★★★½

Babak Payami

Films of Babak Payami:

Abbas Kiarostami

Films of Abbas Kiarostami:
  • "10" - Abbas Kiarostami (2002)

Jacques Tourneur

Films of Jacques Tourneur:

Bahman Ghobadi

Films of Bahman Ghobadi:

Werner Herzog

About Werner Herzog:
Films of Werner Herzog:

Wong Kar Wai

Films of Wong Kar Wai:

Jafar Panahi

About Jafar Panahi:
Films of Jafar Panahi:

Josef von Sternberg

About Josef von Sternberg:
Films of Josef von Sternberg:

Majid Majidi

About Majid Majidi:
Films of Majid Majidi:

Dariush Mehrjui

Films of Dariush Mehrjui:
  • Gaav - Dariush Mehrjui (1969)
  • The Cycle (Dayereh Mina) - Dariush Mehrjui (1978) 
  • The Tenants (Ejareh-Nesheenha) Dariush Mehrjui (1986)
  • Hamoun - Dariush Mehrjui (1990)
  • Sara - Dariush Mehrjui (1992) 
  • Pari - Dariush Mehrjui (1995) 
  • Leila - Dariush Mehrjui (1998)
  • The Pear Tree (Derakht-e Golabi) - Dariush Mehrjui (1998)
  • Santoori (Ali Santouri) - Dariush Mehrjui (2007)

Mark Robson

Films of Mark Robson:

Val Lewton

Films of Val Lewton:

Film Noir

About film noir:

From the review of Le Doulos: 
The term “film noir” was coined by French critics to describe a class of mostly B-grade Hollywood films of the 1930s and 1940s that covered the criminal underworld, in which the “heroes” as well as the villains were cynical, disillusioned lawbreakers living in a dark, gloomy, and corrupt urban environment. Some of the archetypal films of this period were The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Killers (1946), and The Asphalt Jungle (1950).
. . .
There are three fundamental features of film noir:
  • Fatalism. Most of the characters have pasts that they would like to forget and little hope for the future. In addition, the deck seems to be stacked against them, and the world is full of traps and unanticipated disasters. This leads to the narrative quest for an escape.
  • Truth. The world is dark and obscure, and the truth is always elusive. At every turn, there is someone ready to doublecross you, and the police are as untrustworthy as the gangsters. This leads to the narrative quest to know what is true, a necessity in order to effect an escape.
  • Loyalty. Because everyone, including the cops, are liars and noone can be trusted, there is a heavy demand to find someone who can be trusted – and then to remain loyal to that rare person. This leads to a professional code, the “honour among thieves”, which places life-threatening demands of loyalty on the trusted partners in the story. The required level of “professionalism” is almost inhuman, and when any human sentiment is manifested, it is a sure sign of weakness that leads to inevitable failure. It is only from the professional, trusted, loyal partner that one can know the truth that can lead to escape.
Films Noir

Josef von Sternberg

Films: The Salvation Hunters (1925), The Exquisite Sinner (1925), A Woman of the Sea (1926), Underworld (1927), The Last Command (1928), The Dragnet (1928), The Docks of New York (1928), The Case of Lena Smith (1929), Thunderbolt (1929), The Blue Angel (1930), Morocco (1930), Dishonored (1931), An American Tragedy (1931), Shanghai Express (1932), Blonde Venus (1932), The Scarlet Empress (1934), The Devil is a Woman (1935), Crime and Punishment (1935), The King Steps Out (1936), Sergeant Madden (1939), The Shanghai Gesture (1941), Macao (1952), Anatahan (1954), Jet Pilot (1957).

The greatest American director, Josef von Sternberg, was born in Austria in 1894 and finally moved permanently to the US at the age of 17, where he immediately began to work in the film industry as a technician. But despite a lifetime devoted to film, the period of his greatest productivity only spanned a period of a little more than a decade: The Shanghai Gesture (1941) was the last work stamped with his signature virtues. Moreover, because he launched Marlene Dietrich’s film career and made seven movies with her, his career is frequently dismissed as only an instrument to her stardom. Nevertheless he should be recognized as the great Romantic Expressionist of American cinema and an influential precursor to the film noir period that flourished in the 1940s and 50s.

By the use of carefully composed and sculpted imagery, von Sternberg always maintained an externalised mood of fatality and romantic longings. Most of von Sternberg's films were recorded on black-and-white nitrate-based stock, which had a higher resolution and much greater f-stop range (approximately 8 camera f-stops) than the acetate-based color film (4-5 f-stops) that began to come into usage later, in the 1940s. Using the nitrate stock of his period, von Sternberg was able to achieve an exquisitely crafted imagery of chiaroscuro that evoked a dominating mood to the scene. (The full range and beautify of this chiaroscuro is lost on most modern prints of his films.) Perhaps his closest modern equivalent is Wong Kar Wai, who has managed to achieve similar effects with different cinematographic techniques. Both, however, manage to capture the eternally elusive and fascinating nature of the women who occupy our dreams.

There has always been an opposition between Expressionism in Film and what we might call “Realism in Film”. For the latter, cinema is used to depict “objective” reality that is independent of any subjective view. As such, it was seen as a mechanism to reveal the real, objective, everyday lives of people, particularly common people. One could say that the growing preference for “realism” in the 1930s was influenced by the impressive achievements of science and technology, along with attendant socio-political philosophies, such as scientific Marxism, which promised to raise the standards of society by scientific means. There was also a growing facility in narrative manipulation by means of editing and montage, which was advanced and promoted theoretically by progressive Russian filmmakers of the period. Increasingly, films had flashbacks, dream sequences, and complex parallel actions, which could accelerate the pace of action. Von Sternberg’s films, however, never explored this narrative territory. The plots of his films were usually not very complicated, and they took their time to reach their conclusion. For this reason, his films began to decline in popularity towards the end of the 1930s. Perhaps for similar reasons, Won Kar Wai’s films have never been box-office smashes, despite the passion of his devotees.

What von Sternberg’s (and also Wong Kar Wai’s) films have is the power to present the world, not as seen by the mechanical camera, but as experienced by the perceptive mind – the mind that is preoccupied with love, passion, and honour. This kind of film has its own claim to “realism” that can perhaps be more authentic than our lowest-common-denominator representation of the world of “facts”. This is the existential realism that one finds in the works of Dostoyevsky, and so von Sternberg was perhaps the ideal director to portray Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment.

Andrew Sarris has commented astutely on the career of von Sternberg:
In a sense, Sternberg entered the cinema through the camera rather than the cutting room, and thus became a lyricist of light and shadow rather than a master of montage. The control he achieved over his studio surrounding encouraged him to concentrate on the spatial integrity of his images rather than on their metaphorical juxtaposition. Sternberg’s cinema, for better or worse, represents a distinctively Germanic camera movement – from Murnau and Lang – in contrast to Eisenstein’s fashionably Marxist montage.
. . . Everyday life, as such, seldom appears in Sternberg’s cinema. His characters generally make their entrance at a moment in their lives when there is no tomorrow. Knowingly or unknowingly, they have reached the end or the bottom, but they will struggle a short time longer, about ninety minutes of screen time, to discover the truth about themselves and those they love. Although there is much violence and death in Sternberg’s world, there is relatively little action. The various murders, duels, executions, suicides, and assaults serve merely as poetic punctuation for lives drifting to their destination in reflective repose. Death in this context is less a conclusion than a termination. The paradox of violence without action is supplemented by the paradox of virtue without morality.
. . .Sternberg’s films are poetic without being symbolic. We need not search for slumbering allegories of Man and God and Life, but rather for a continuous stream of emotional autobiography.
(from The American Cinema: Directors And Directions 1929-1968, by Andrew Sarris)
Many of von Sternberg’s films are lost or are currently unavailable for viewing. Those that are left are mostly beautiful, poetic and haunting. They achieve this grandeur, because they strike a chord and call on our deepest sense of wonder about life and love.

(See also "Josef von Sternberg", by Tag Gallagher.)