"The Scarlet Empress" - Josef von Sternberg (1934)

Josef von Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress (1934) recounts the rise to power of Empress Catherine II of Russia (Catherine the Great). This was the sixth von Sternberg film that starred Marlene Dietrich and was the second time, after Dishonored (1931) in which she played a character modeled after Mata Hari, that he cast her as a a willful woman in a historically-based drama. Unlike the other Sternberg-Dietrich films, in which the focus is essentially on romantic love, The Scarlet Empress and Dishonored place a greater emphasis on historical melodrama (although, to be sure, Dietrich’s romantic persona is always given attention). This was perhaps von Sternberg’s most extravagant venture into the historical costume drama genre (in his own words, “a relentless excursion into style”), and the film’s most memorable aspects are certainly its lavish production values employing elaborate custom-designed sets and moodily sculpted cinematography. The overall effect of the intense mise-en-scene is the evocation of 18th century Russia, shrouded in the mysteries of semi-barbarism and unpredictable passions. Some reviewers criticized the film (it was not a financial success) for its overindulgence in visual expressionism, but, in my view, von Sternberg should have followed his instincts and gone even further in this direction. It was the failure to realize fully its expressionist potential by tolerating or encouraging some histrionics on the part of some of his cast that ultimately compromised the film.

The story is set during the years 1744-1762, when Catherine rose to power and became Empress of Russia and, though exaggerated in its tone, largely follows the historical record. The narrative has roughly four main sections, which do not fit smoothly together to form a perfectly coherent tale.
  1. In the opening section, Catherine, born as Sophia Frederica, is shown as a young princess born into the minor family of the German aristocracy. In 1744, at the age of 15, she learns that she is to be betrothed to the crown prince of Russia (later Peter III), whom she has never met. She is to travel immediately to Moscow for the marriage. She is escorted on this trip by handsome Count Alexei, a character who may have been modeled after the real Count Alexei Grigorevich Razumovsky, who was an important figure in the Russian court and was a paramour of the Empress Elizabeth Petrovna, mother of the crown prince. This section primarily presents colorful backdrops associated with the seven-week journey to Moscow and the sudden change in circumstances of the young wide-eyed teenager.
  2. In Moscow Sophia is forced to convert to the Russian Orthodox church and change her name to “Catherine”. When she meets the crown prince, her husband-to-be (who was actually about 16 years old at this time but is played by the 43-year-old Sam Jaffe), she discovers that he is far from handsome and behaves in a childish, foolish manner. This section covers the lavish trappings of the Russian court and the extensive ceremonial proceedings of their marriage. Not unexpectedly, the disappointed Catherine does not hit it off well with her new husband, and consequently the Empress, upon learning of this rebellious incompatibility, compels Catherine to become her personal servant in order to “learn how to be a proper Russian wife”. At this time Catherine has another disappointment when she learns that Count Alexei, towards whose private romantic entreaties she had felt a strong attraction, is actually the Empress’s secret lover. So far we are more than an hour into the film, and Catherine has been treated like a pretty slave, deprived of any autonomy and chances for future happiness.
  3. In the third section, Catherine is shown taking on her own secret lovers, which ultimately leads to her giving birth to the desired son (in 1754), who will be the heir to the Russian throne. Having achieved some standing for this achievement in the royal court, Catherine cynically sets out on a course to pursue power of her own. This is actually a matter of survival, because Peter, who is portrayed as a savage half-wit, reveals his intentions of getting rid of her the moment that he ascends to the throne.
  4. In 1762, the Empress dies, and as soon as Peter III becomes the czar, he issues a wave of cruel edicts that plunge the nation into violent chaos. Meanwhile Catherine is courting favor with the military and the Church in order to bolster her own political power. One of the lovers shown, Captain Orlov, was a real historical figure, and Catherine displays her new acquired toughness before her old crush, Count Alexei, by flaunting her romantic preference for Olov in front of him. The film ends with a dramatic coup d’etat by the military that overthrows and kills Peter and installs Catherine as the new empress of Russia.
It is certainly the principal virtue of The Scarlet Empress that it has some extraordinarily powerful and dramatic cinematography that almost overwhelms the viewer. The sets are utterly dark and gothic, decorated with candelabras, mysterious gargoyles, and strange gigantic architectural formations. There are numerous atmospheric processional scenes of court members moving through the cavernous palace in solemn observance to what seem to be semi-barbaric cultural rituals. The candle-lit gothic interiors, in fact, are some of von Sternberg’s most expressionistic realizations. Kenji Mizoguchi once remarked that von Sternberg was a major influence on his own style, and when viewing the interior tracking shots of The Scarlet Empress, one can see on display a foreshadowing of some of Mizoguchi’s ingenious camera style.

All of these beautifully shot scenes have their evocative effectiveness, to be sure, but they are essentially set pieces that can amplify, but not fully constitute, an effective narrative. In the case of The Scarlet Empress, there are shortcomings in the other areas of (a) acting and (b) the narrative, itself, that ultimately prove fatal to the movie achieving the status of a masterpiece.

There are two insuperable thespian catastrophes in the film that cannot be overcome by any degree of cinematography. The first problem was the disastrous miscasting of Louise Dresser as Empress Elizabeth. Although Dresser was an established character actress, her homespun American Midwestern accent (from Indiana) is utterly wrong for a member of the Russian court. Her verbal style and cornfed mannerisms are more appropriate to Ma Kettle than they are to a queen, and they are deadly to the sustenance of audience immersion in a dark expressionistic fantasy.

Equally alarming is the performance of Sam Jaffe, in his first film appearance, as the crown prince, Peter. Jaffe later got an Oscar nomination for his performance in The Asphalt Jungle (1950), but his performance here is disturbingly off-key. It might be possible to portray Peter as a man of limited intelligence, but Jaffe’s portrayal is so full of leering and wild, manic grimaces that one can only conclude that it was played for laughs. In fact the image of Harpo Marx is almost impossible to drive from one’s mind while watching the film. This ludicrous performance has led some critics to commend it as an early form of high camp, but it is ruinous to any audience involvement in the story. When Dietrich provides innuendo and irony, she usually manages to stay within the scope of the drama. But Jaffe is so over-the-top that all suspension of disbelief is destroyed.

For her part, Marlene Dietrich’s performance is overly constrained, because there is little dramatic range available to her. In Sections 1 and 2, she has to play an innocent 15-year-old, so she can do little more than offer pretty, wide-eyed glances of astonishment. Later on, she has a few better moments, but there are no opportunities for the display of nuance or romantic passion.

The success of any film is crucially dependent on the degree to which the narrative is compelling. In this film, the choppy set pieces fail to maintain a narrative rhythm. In all of the other von Sternberg films with Marlene Dietrich, there is a highly romantic theme that carries the story. In these cases, there are usually two men interested in the Dietrich character, one of whom is a handsome, arrogant, and selfish lothario, while the other is a sensitive gentleman with less obviously prepossessing charms. Dietrich often falls at first for the lothario-type alpha male, but the audience knows that the sensitive gentleman offers her a better long-term chance at happiness. (Critics usually assume that the sensitive gentleman character is an embodiment of von Sternberg’s own civilized sensibilities.) In all these movies, the interest is to watch the dialectic involving this triangle. In The Scarlet Empress, there is again the handsome stud, in this case Count Alexei. But the competing, less impressive, suitor is not a sensitive gentleman in this film, but is, instead, a cruel lunatic. Some people have sensed some metaphorical overtones concerning the evolution of the Dietrich-von-Sternberg relationship in this, but we will not speculate about that here. All we can say is that an interesting romantic dialectic never takes shape in this film.

In fact, there is only a tease. After 87 minutes of film, with the tiresome Empress Elizabeth finally permanently out of earshot, it appears that Count Alexei and Catherine will finally get together for a tryst. But when Alexei, by now thoroughly smitten, finally gets his chance to go to her bedchamber, Catherine sadistically taunts him by employing him as a messenger to summon her new lover, Captain Orlov.

Incidentally, the sturdy he-man, Count Alexei, was played by John Lodge, a scion of the prominent Bostonian family who later served as the governor of the State of Connecticut. His forceful presence supplies some useful dramaturgical weight early in the piece, but it disappointingly fades away to insignificance in the last half of the film. As a consequence, there is never any real, romantic passion shown in this film – only the numerous sardonic references to people using each other as sexual playthings. This may amuse, but it does not captivate.

The political and characterological dialectic doesn’t take much shape, either. In Section 3 of the narrative, Catherine’s transition from naive ingenue to cynical political string-puller, which is the key turning of the story, happens rather quickly and without clear motivation.

While The Scarlet Empress was a stunning spectacle, it was the least successful of the seven films that von Sternberg made with Dietrich. One can watch the cinematographic dazzle with a certain degree of wonder, but that is all. The delirious dream of romantic passion, of which von Sternberg is capable, is not summoned before the viewer on this occasion. But the von Sternberg and Dietrich magic was to return in their next and last outing, The Devil is a Woman.

"Blonde Venus" - Josef von Sternberg (1932)

Josef von Sternberg’s fifth film starring Marlene Dietrich, Blonde Venus (1932), is another one of his great expressionist fantasies. Like most of von Sternberg’s work, the film is highly romantic and features a melodramatic plot that stretches all credibility. Yet von Sternberg’s unique mise-en-scene pulls the viewer into a delirious world of romantic passions and their entangled worldly involvements that ultimately overcomes the ordinary demands for strict realism. As with others of his films, such as Morocco and Shanghai Express, you must approach Blonde Venus as you might an opera or a poem and allow yourself to succumb to its charms.

The never-more-alluring Dietrich gives one of her best performances, and her two male co-stars, Herbert Marshall and Cary Grant (in one of his first major appearances) also perform admirably, despite being cast in somewhat stereotyped roles. Other memorable performances include child star Dickie Moore, and the character actor Robert Emmett O'Connor. Despite von Sternberg’s penchant for moody, lingering scenes that define and shift key interpersonal relationships, the plot covers a lot of ground, along with dramatic ups and downs, in reasonably short order. Here is an outline of the films sections:
  1. Forest Flirtation in Europe. American students hiking in a German forest encounter some women theatrical performers swimming in the nude. One of them, Ned, engages in a jaunty, flirtatious conversation with a pretty bather, Helen.
  2. Married in New York. The story cuts quickly to a scene about six years later showing Ned, a nuclear chemist, and his housewife, Helen, now married and with a five-year-old son, Johnny. Ned has recently suffered radiation poisoning and has only months to live, unless he can find $1500 (roughly $25,000 today) for some new experimental treatment available in Germany. To raise the money, Helen goes back onto the stage as a cabaret singer, performing as the “Blonde Venus”. She is an immediate hit when she performs the jungle-rhythm jazz song “Hot Voodoo” (one of the three songs she sings in the film). In fact she is such a hit that she attracts the amorous attentions of suave millionaire, Nick Townsend (Grant), who immediately gives Helen the money to send Ned overseas for the treatment.
  3. Helen and Nick in NYC. With Ned away for six months, Helen is unable to resist Nick Townsend's dazzling charms and becomes his mistress. Meanwhile Ned has been cured in Europe and returns a couple of weeks earlier than expected, upon which he discovers Helen’s infidelity. Enraged, he orders her out. She grabs Johnny and takes flight on the train.
  4. Helen and Johnny on the Road. For the next thirteen minutes Helen and Johnny are only a step ahead of the Bureau of Missing Persons (Ned wants Johnny back) as they move from one town to another. Sometimes Helen gets some performing gigs, but she slips more and more into destitution and desperation. Eventually, the police catch up with her, and she has to surrender Johnny. Helen, now penniless, homeless, and with a scandalous reputation, has reached rock bottom and has turned to prostitution and alcohol.
  5. Helen and Nick in Europe. But somehow Helen pulls herself together, and in a dramatic turn she manages to get to Paris and to revive her singing career. Soon she is a big cabaret star again – the “Blonde Venus” is back. Nick, having earlier fled to Europe to forget about Helen, shows up to one her shows, and in no time they are lovers again. He knows that she misses her son, though, and offers to bring her back to New York so she can be close to him.
  6. Finale in New York. Back in New York, Nick escorts Helen back to her old apartment, where the still bitter Ned doesn’t want her to see his son. But after a nasty exchange, he relents, and watches as the boy responds to his mother's tenderness. In a touching final scene, Johnny triggers the suppressed affections that Ned has for his wife, and the two become reconciled.
Consider the dramatic changes in Helen’s fortunes over the course of the narrative. In section 1, she is an entertainer in Germany and probably a star. In section 2, she has been just a housewife in a lower middle-class family for six years, but then returns to the stage and becomes a big star again. In sections 3 and 4, Helen is gradually reduced to penury and shame. In section 5 she is a big star again, and in section 6, she goes back to being a housewife. These events are presented over a cinematic narrative that has amazingly dramatic speedups and slowdowns over the course of its 93 minutes. For example, the tender scenes with Ned, Helen, and Johnny are evocatively slow moving (the final scene lasts nine minutes). And there are three rousing Dietrich cabaret numbers also presented in the film (in sections 2, 4, and 5) that take up about a dozen minutes. But the dramatic circumstantial rises to glory can be covered quickly, because the main focus of the story is not so much on Helen’s position in society, but on the way she engages in personal relationships.

It is worth remarking, for those unfamiliar, that Marlene Dietrich’s sultry singing style, with its husky voice and allusions to untamed desire, was unique. It musically expresses the mysterious nature of her magnetism. In von Sternberg’s films Dietrich is always the quintessential embodiment of feminine irony, with an intuitive compass that questions all rules and conventions. There are always those sly, watchful eyes, which mask deep unknowable and unquenchable passions. Most of her songs in these films reflect a carefree acceptance of her never-ending susceptibility to love and to falling in love. Of all her songs, my all-time favorite Dietrich song is in this film, “You Little So-and-So”, which is performed while she is on the road in Section 4, and it is so enchanting that I reprise the lyrics here:
"You Little So-and-So"

It isn’t often that I want a man
But when I do, it’s just too bad
I know you’re acting hard to get, and yet
I’ve got the feeling you can be had.
You, so-and-so, you little so-and-so
Look what you’ve done to me
You’re almost twice as bad as... Who’s this again?
I ought to take you out and .... How have you been?

You, this-and-that, you got me you-know-what
Is that the way to be?
The Greeks have words for almost every thing I know,
But you little so-and-so.

You, so-and-so, you little so-and-so
How did you get this way?
Although you know that I have lost my control
You sit and talk about my beautiful soul.

You, this-and-that, you’ve got me you-know-what
Is that the way to be?
The Greeks have words for almost every thing I know,
But you little so-and-so.
Apart from Dietrich’s specific seductive charms, however, what makes Blonde Venus particularly interesting is the perspective it takes on her character, Helen Faraday. It is a focus on life from the woman’s point of view, but as with Mizoguchi and Bergman, it is a presentation as seen and interpreted by a sympathetic male, which encompasses not only elements of compassion, but also of admiration and wonder. In the eyes of conventional society (and also those of her husband Ned), Helen an immoral hedonist. As soon as she was out of the sight of her husband, she succumbed to the charms and money of a notorious seducer. Then she kidnapped her son and exposed him to the dangers and improprieties of her notorious life on the road, while she descended into prostitution and drunkenness. She managed to return to stardom by “using” one man after another (presumably in return for sexual favours). When Nick Townsend visits her backstage dressing room in Paris (Section 5), he sees handwritten on her mirror Kipling’s famous line and apparently Helen’s new credo: “Down to Gehenna or up to the throne, he travels fastest who travels alone.” Yes, it's a grim picture of a fallen woman, but thanks to von Sternberg’s coloring, we see things quite differently. From the romantic slant as presented, we get a more sympathetic feeling how all these terrible things came about.

What we see is that Helen was a loving and selfless mother who returned to the stage in Section 2 in order to help save her husband’s life. True, she was overwhelmed by the charms of Nick Townsend, but he was basically a gentleman and irresistibly attractive, as well. She vowed to break off the relationship and return to her husband, but her husband angrily threw her out. Her powerful attachment to her son drove her to take him with her, and she thereafter strove at all times to offer him what only a mother can give to a child. In all her circumstances she tried her best, given the limited resources that were available to her. But when she is finally hauled before a judge for vagrancy, she confesses society’s stern judgement: that she is “just no good.” But we don’t think so. As with the women in Mizoguchi’s films, we see the world from their angle.

Helen’s husband, Ned, has the typical attitudes dominated by the conventional mores of society. The man must be in control. Ned doesn’t want his wife to work, at all. When made aware of her affair with Nick, he sees her as a bad mother. When Nick finally offers him $10,000 to let her see Johnny, Ned stubbornly retains his autonomy: he will cast aside the money and let Helen see Johnny for nothing. This is his final act of defiance. Throughout the film, Ned wants to retain some degree of control. But in von Sternberg’s romantic universe, one must accept love absolutely and unconditionally, and this is what Ned ultimately does. This is what true love demands. In the final scene, Ned responds to his true, passionate love for Helen and embraces her. He never gets an apology or an explanation. What he does get is that final look in her eyes.

"The Trial of Joan of Arc" - Robert Bresson (1962)

The Trial of Joan of Arc (Procès de Jeanne d'Arc, 1962) by Robert Bresson tells the story of Joan of Arc during the final period of her captivity and her execution in 1431. Like all of Bresson’s films, there is no backstory provided concerning significant background information of the characters, but in this case, one is scarcely necessary. The amazing story of the “Maid of Orleans” is well known. Joan, an illiterate 17-year-old peasant girl, approached the besieged French military forces during the Hundred Years War and swore that voices from God and His messengers had commanded her to help the French army drive the English from French soil. She was given command and proceeded to lead her forces to a string of stunning victories over the English that reversed the course of the war. However, she was captured in action by the French Burgundian allies of the English in 1430 near Compiègne and eventually turned over to the English military authorities in Rouen. There she was placed on trial for heresy before a Roman Catholic Church court made up mostly of clerics sympathetic to the English cause. It is this trial that comprises the story of Bresson’s film.

Bresson’s sources for this work came exclusively from the court records of her trial for heresy in 1431 and from depositions from eyewitnesses to her subsequent execution taken at her retrial twenty five years later. It is remarkable how complete these records are, and they have fascinated scholars ever since. Although many films have been made about Joan of Arc, it is notable that Carl Dreyer’s legendary silent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc (La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc, 1928) also relied on these same records, so it is worthwhile to contrast the two works.

Basing a film script entirely and strictly on court testimony presents a severe challenge to a silent filmmaker, and it is remarkable how successful Dreyer actually was at telling his story in silent fashion. True, there are key intertitles in Dreyer’s film that explicitly state some crucial exchanges in the trial, but much of the narrative is conveyed by means of the dramatic countenances and facial expressions of the court participants, particularly those of Joan. Bresson, with the advantage of a sound track at his disposal, takes a completely opposite approach. For him, the sound track is everything, and the visual images in this film are only supposed to accompany the words. This advantage is important here, because Bresson’s extensive and meticulous coverage of the trial cross-examinations and Joan’s surprisingly precise responses offer more valuable information about both the disputatious dialectics of the trial and the intuitive nature of Joan’s mental framework.

Of course, Bresson’s stylistic choices in this film must be seen in the light of his characteristic aesthetic style, which had developed over the course of his preceding films: Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1944), Diary of a Country Priest” (1950), A Man Escaped” (1956), and Pickpocket (1959). By now Bresson’s pattern was set. He would always use unprofessional actors (his “models”) with no previous acting experience, who would be instructed to render “flat” performances and show almost no emotion when they read their lines, often with downcast glances. He would also typically avoid scene establishing shots (as did Dreyer in The Passion of Joan of Arc), concentrating instead mainly on medium and close shots and often focusing on the slow deliberate motion of hands and feet. This approach contributes here to the feelings of confinement and claustrophobia (and even paranoia) that effectively evoke the stressful circumstances of imprisonment.

Also like Dreyer’s film, but achieved by slightly different means, the viewer sympathizes with Joan, but doesn’t completely identify with her – one doesn’t “get inside” her consciousness and see things from her perspective. Instead, we see things from a greater distance. This is the dreamlike nature of Bresson’s film narratives, which have their undeniable power in evoking a subconscious feeling of disturbed wonder.

But there is another stylistic element in The Trial of Joan of Arc that is distinct from Bresson’s earlier films, particularly Pickpocket. In Pickpocket, there seemed to be frequently unmotivated pauses separating the individual statements in conversations. The speech in that film did not flow the way we would expect in spontaneously motivated interactions. There were also scenes that would start with just am empty, static view of a room or a doorway for several seconds – prior to the appearance of any agency of action. Or, there would be the final moments of camera shots, after a player had departed from the scene, but with the camera lingering for several seconds on a now-empty environment. These pauses seemed awkward, but they would pull the viewer out of the involved flow of the action and into reflection. Such pauses are not present in The Trial of Joan of Arc. Instead, we have just the opposite – a rapid-fire exchange of verbal statements that come so quickly and unnaturally that they seem not to correspond to any kind of reflective response to the preceding statements. This does make the film move swiftly along, which can have its advantages when the film is based primarily on court testimony. But it would appear that Bresson may have overcompensated in this regard. The film is only 62 minutes in length, and it might have benefitted from the insertion of more reflective pauses now and then, such as were employed by Olmi in Il Posto.

The overall effect created by Bresson is nevertheless impressive. The rapid-fire exchanges undertaken by expressionless, seemingly body-snatched, clergy make the entire proceedings even more relentlessly inhuman. In Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, the clergy are often simply seen as spiteful, greedy, and malicious. The clergy in that film are prey to all the faults of self-motivated sinners. But in Bresson’s’ film, the clergy are soulless automata that are faceless representatives of the Church machine. In Dreyer’s film, the clergy in Rouen could be seen to comprise individual sinners who failed to act in the manner of true Christians. In Bresson’s film, however, the Church, itself, stands as an implacable opponent of the individual who has been inspired by the spirit of God. This is a more profound indictment. Bresson's aesthetic style, which evokes a feeling that everyone in the film is sleepwalking, enhances the sense of horror that this indictment arouses. In this connection it should be noted that the real Joan was not tutored as a youth by scholarly churchmen, but most probably by monks of the Franciscan order, which has affinities with Sufism. This “folk-level teaching” of the Franciscans in the community would likely contrast sharply with the ethos of a worldly Church in the middle of doctrinal and organizational power disputes and seeking to impose its control over its followers. The idea of an ecstatic mystic who had direct spiritual encounters was anathema to the established order of the Church, but not to certain Sufic modes of being, both in and outside Christianity. Joan had to be condemned as a heretic, in order for the Churchmen to retain their structured command over the laity and the people at large. This is perhaps also why the Church was so tardy (1920) in canonizing Joan. In fact it’s remarkable that this dramatically independent individual, inspired by her own profound spiritual experiences, was ever endorsed by the clerical establishment. Note that this grim rationale of control over spirituality parallels the thesis presented in Dostoyevsky's parable from The Brothers Karamzaov, "The Grand Inquisitor". Dostoyevsky's work was a major influence on Bresson, having also inspired his Pickpocket (1959), Une Femme Douce (1969), and Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971).

In line with these thematic differences, Bresson’s character, "Joan", is dramatically different from Dreyer’s "Joan", who is played by Falconetti. Falconetti evinces in Dreyer’s film the pathos of Joan, showing her intense fear and anguish, as well as the way she summoned the inner reserves of her faith in order to endure the grueling trial and execution. The viewer cannot help but feel compassion for this Joan during the agonizing struggle between her and the authorities. Bresson’s “Joan”, played by Florence Delay, is much more self-contained and less vulnerable. Despite the hostile circumstances of her captivity (continuously enchained and spied upon), she is generally composed and sure of both herself and her answers. Unlike Faconetti, Delay seems not to anticipate receiving true justice and is not awed by the eminence of her captors. She sometimes even demands that her rights be acknowledged, and she denies the authority of the ecclesiastical court, saying that she obeys in preference the higher authorities of King and God. It is well-known, of course, that Bresson doesn’t use professional actors, because he wants to avoid having someone "perform" a role – presumably because he wants his players to embody the character in an intuitive way. But it is interesting that his selected “models” are usually intellectuals, writers, and professionals. Florence Delay was the daughter of a member of the Académie Française, and she, herself, was elected to that body years later. So it seems that his models might have the inclination (and even be encouraged) to engage the character in an intellectual, rather than intuitive, manner. Intellectually-inspired or not, Delay’s “Joan” is nonetheless effective and convincing. At 20, Delay was about a decade younger than Falconetti was for Dreyer's film, and she was closer to the real Joan's age at the time of the trial. She managed to demonstrate in this film a youthful confidence, as well as innocence, that provides the real dramatic underpinning the story -- a courageous young woman is ground down to cinder and embers by a ruthless theological machine that has compromised itself for political purposes.

The final image of the film is the charred remains of Joan at the stake. We are left to reflect on what that means to us. Bresson’s films often evoke and engage the spiritual yearnings of man, but he himself was said to be an agnostic - a seeker who had yet to find the answer. As with many others of his films, there is no explicit or material promise offered, but there is still that unquenchable thirst for grace.

Ermanno Olmi

Films of Ermanno Olmi:

"Il Posto" - Ermanno Olmi (1961)

Ermanno Olmi started as an industrial filmmaker before launching his career in feature films, and he has always continued to use the raw materials of documentary film production: non-professional actors and the natural settings and environment of the everyday world. As a consequence, his work has often been viewed in the light of Italian Neorealism, even though it was always going to be difficult to confine Neorealism’s early adherents within its somewhat problematic conceptual boundaries. In fact by the time Olmi came onto the scene in the late 1950s, Neorealism’s patriarchs, such as Roberto Rosellini, Luchino Visconti, and Vittorio de Sica, had moved off in very different directions, and the “movement” had lost its steam. But it was to be revived with Olmi’s second feature, Il Posto, (The Job, aka The Sound of the Trumpets, 1961), which seemed to breathe new life into the Neorealistic attitude (and it is sustained today by the work of some Iranian filmmakers, notably Jafar Panahi). (Note: for further discussion on Italian Neorealism, see "Aesthetics of Two Neorealist Films: Open City and Paisan" and "Subjective Realism in the Italian Film".)

But Olmi’s Il Posto is much more than just a Neorealist film. Like de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948), Olmi’s Il Posto transcends the dimensions of Neorealism and stands as one of the great and universal films of any era. Indeed, it is fitting, then, that Olmi cites de Sica as an important influence on his work. There are several factors that contribute to the virtues of Il Posto – the cinematic craftsmanship, the affecting and natural acting, and the compelling narrative, itself, which is not just about particular people at a particular time, but about the very nature of modern life.

The story of the film is set in postwar Milan, but it concerns the disruptive changes that were altering life all over the world after the war. The war itself, of course, was cataclysmic and disruptive, but with peacetime, large-scale capitalism was spreading around the globe and leading to vast changes in the way people live and socialise. We are still living in the middle of this disruptive evolutionary cultural process of “globalization”, which is a new term for something that got into full gear after the end of the Second World War. Our culture and our attitudes are still catching up to the impact and consequences that global capitalisation (perhaps more effectively termed “Predatory Capitalism” – see the current work of economist James K. Galbraith) is engendering. There are four main narrative sections to the story, none of which fully come to closure and leave the viewer at the end with a thoughtful feeling of openness and missed opportunities.

1. Romance.
The first section, of about 34 minute, depicts the hopes and uncertainties of Domenico, a 19-year-old boy from a working-class family who has left “middle school” and is looking for his first job. He takes the train to the big city, Milan, hoping to get an office job at a large company, which if he gets it, his family assures him, will provide him secure employment “for life”. But Domenico, like all young boys, is not really prepared for the workaday world of employment, and doesn’t really know what to expect. He is sensitive and watchful, trying to make a good impression, without know what he really wants – or even what he should want.

When he arrives at the company, he and a large number of other applicants are asked to take various aptitude and personality tests which will be used to determine who gets a job offer. During the lunch break, Domenico meets a pretty young fellow applicant, Atonietta, and they strike up a friendly conversation. Clearly Domenico is very attracted to the lovely girl, but he is naturally shy – a trait that seems to appeal to the girl. Since they have some time before they must return, they go window-shopping in the city. On the way back to the office, they realise that they are late, and they start to run through the streets to get back on time. Domenico takes Antonietta’s hand to help her steer through the chaotic traffic, and soon their hand-holding is delicately portrayed for what it is – an affectionate gesture between the tentative youngsters in search of romance.

After they complete the rest of the “application” day at the company, Domenico meets Antonietta again, and he walks her to her bus stop, and their beautiful tryst ends. The day of uncertainty has ended full of excitement and high hopes.

2. Introduction to the Work World.
Soon it is clear that Domenico has been offered a job by the company. He is outfitted with a new coat and sent off to the train to report for his first day. Not long after he arrives, he happily learns that Antonietta has been offered a job, too. But Domenico is assigned to work in a building different from Antonietta’s, as an assistant office messenger until a desk job opens up. It is soon clear that there is almost nothing for the two office messengers in that building to do, so they just sit at their desks in the corridor outside an office room, whiling away the time. Even when they are assigned to deliver a message, his senior partner, Sartori, advises him cynically not to hurry – make them wait. This section lasts about 18 minutes and shows the intimidating and confusing nature of his new company and position.

3. Isolated, Meaningless Work.
This third section depicts life inside the office room close to Domenico’s desk. There are two rows – four desks in a row – with individuals apparently doing utterly boring, meaningless paperwork. All of these office workers are introduced: the poorly-sighted “Sleepyhead”, the loud worker, the cigarette smoker, the quiet matron, the mother of some grown-up boys, etc. This is then followed by a series of dissolves that move from one vignette to another depicting the squalid circumstances of these people in their private lives. They are all isolated and essentially lonely, cut off from the kind of genuine companionship and interaction that we would find worthwhile. When we cut back to Sartori and Domenico (the next day?), they observe a former office worker who has been retired for three months, but who comes to the office every day and sits in a chair, doing nothing. The man apparently has nothing else to do.

After work, Domenico waits in the rain for Antonietta, but he sees her leave in the company with a number of people, including a well-dressed young man who is holding an umbrella for her. So Domenico watches them depart in silence.

4. Empty Socialising.
Domenico finally runs into Antonietta one day at work, and she asks him to come to the company New Year’s Eve Dance. Domenico does manage to come and finds himself in a large lineoleum-floored room full of tables in front of a bandstand. The room gradually fills with company workers, but Antonietta never shows up. Instead, we watch people engaging in artificial and empty socialising, with little motivation other than to become inebriated. They do become convivial, but it seems garish and forced. These are people that are to be Domenico’s comrades “for life”.

The next day at the office, the office workers are shown standing mournfully around Sleepyhead’s desk. He has passed away, and now Domenico has been assigned his desk. The film ends with Domenico having joined the ranks of the “desks in a row” group, sitting in the rear and commencing his task of boring, meaningless paperwork.

What makes Il Posto poignant is the way it shows how the sincere and innocent Domenico is led relentlessly into the depressing jaws of mind-numbing corporate mechanics. He, too, seems to be doomed to a life of empty, seemingly pointless activity, with little opportunity for meaningful interaction or engagement. Domenico and Antonietta never make the real connection, and presumably that romantic opportunity is lost. Domenico is overwhelmed by the sheer inertia of implacable company minutia. And yet, the entire narrative is presented with a certain good-natured resignation. It is this irony which makes the film stand out. Domenico is like us. He tries to make his way as best he can, and to a certain extent he succeeds. But the rattling noise of the mimeograph machine which grows louder and louder at the close of the film reminds us of what Domenico must feel: there has to be something more than this.

The acting in the film is exceptional throughout. Most of the actors never appeared in any other films. The story probably reflects some of Olmi’s experiences when he worked as an office worker. But on that occasion, at least, he didn’t let his opportunities pass away -- he married actress Loredana Detto, who plays the beautiful Antonietta.

The camera work is also outstanding. Olmi essentially shoots the films he makes, himself, which distinguishes him from other filmmakers. He sees himself more as a craftsman than as an intellectual. It was interesting to me that in an interview, Olmi mentioned that, by contrast, Fellini, whose visual sensibility I admire, never, ever looks through the viewfinder of the camera. One fine example of fluid and unobtrusive camerawork is a 75-second tracking shot in the first section, showing Domenico and Antonietta walking together after their testing day. It is beautifully and delicately shot, as the two of them seem not to know what to do with their hands, after their hand-holding experience earlier in the day. The scenes of the office and of the industrial construction site capture, in a natural way, a mood of relentless and overwhelming mechanics. What is particularly adroit is the way Olmi manages the tempo of the scenes in just the right way, with various extended pauses, cutaways, and point-of-view shots showing Domenico’s reactions to the bewildering world of corporate life.

All told, the four sequences of Il Posto, with their sense of openness and of expectation, leave us with a sense of questioning. It is the same look of questioning that we saw and understood on the face of James Dean in some of his films. Even though we cannot articulate it, there is something that we, too, felt with Domenico when he was with Antonietta – something we must not lose track of, something important, something beautiful out there.

Subjective Realism in the Italian Film

In two early films by Roberto Rossellini, Open City (Roma, Città Aperta,1945) and Paisan (Paisà, 1946), there were remarkable sequences of relatively unanalyzed events whose harshness and direct impact seemed to possess an extra measure of the present tense. The aesthetic vigor of these sequences precluded the possibility of presenting subjective reality, the world seen from a point of view. Rossellini’s Italian confreres who have elected to present an authentic subjective reality have had to employ an artistic selectivity that has led them in different and interesting directions. Three films which purport to be, in some sense, documents of the human condition, yet which embody different aesthetic principles, are La Terra Trema (Terra Trema: Episodio del Mare, 1948), Umberto D. (1955), and Il Posto (1961).

Visconti’s La Terra Trema, does not, as do the two other listed films, present a point of view of a single participant of the action, but it does present a point of view from outside its theater of action. There is a narrator who places the scene by announcing such things as the fact that the Sicilian fishermen bring their catch back to the wholesalers who “buy for nothing the fish they have caught with such pain.” When the characters themselves take over the dramatic action, there is still an omnipresent sense of moral judgement that pervades the atmosphere. The extent to which one can accept the present point of view as realistic is in a large sense the extent to which one is in sympathy with the film’s underlying Marxist analysis of society.

But putting such considerations aside for the moment, it is still reasonable to assert that any film that is a worthwhile statement presents a certain amount of interpretation and analysis of reality and that this analysis is more forceful the more closely it is allied with its medium of reality. One of the grounds for divergence among the so-called realist filmmakers is a gneral disagreement as to what kind of reality (psychological, social, physical, etc.) is most fundamental. La Terra Trema is then an attempt to depict social reality in terms of the Marxist orientation. To that end Visconti made some radical aesthetic decisions that distinguished the film from its contemporaries. The degree to which Visconti was able to immerse his vision in external reality, however, is a matter open to considerable question.

The fishermen portrayed in the film are fishermen in real life who were recruited at the scene of the story’s location. The intent was to have characters who would be organically a part of the environment that was to be filmed and thus to have action emerge in a completely spontaneous way. Visconti even let these non-professionals write their own dialogue so that they could express themselves in their own words. The fact that they did write their own lines, however, points to one of the difficulties of the film. Far from being filmed in a spontaneous situation, these fishermen were compelled to act within the rigid structure of a melodramatic plot line. In this connection we add that in order to perform successfully in a dramatic production, an important attribute for an actor to possess is a vigorous imagination. It is unlikely that Sicilian fishermen who have never left their village would be skilled in this regard. Thus the fishermen are unlikely to be able to “flesh out” any performance of a scene in which the action was not one of total spontaneity. The result in La Terra Trema was acting that was frequently uneven.

The evident unevenness of the film was made even more conspicuous by other aesthetic choices of Visconti. The photography in the film featured some of the first successful deep-focus scenes shot on location and in typical weather conditions. With much of the set in focus, Visconti eschewed classical montage and held shots for sometimes as long as several minutes in order to preserve their psychological integrity. This only emphasized the amateurish nature of the acting in several dull scenes. Moreover, deep-focus photography that neglects montage must be played out in real time. Such a technique is difficult to integrate with a melodramatic plot. Renoir was able to do it in Le Grande Illusion (1937) by the adroit use of elliptical action. Visconti, however, plays everyting out and thus undercuts his own plot dynamics by stretching out the film’s length to over three hours.

The comparison of Visconti to Renoir reveals other significant differences. Renoir has said that he preferred mise-en-scène in depth so that he could more freely move about his characters. That is, his camera was made more flexible and accommodating to the action. To avoid the “posed” shot, Renoir not only composed shots in depth, but made his characters move within the shot and employed elegant panning, tilting, and tracking shots to follows the action. Visconti, on the other hand, does not employ any tracking shots, and most of his shots (which, as was mentioned, are of long duration) are fixed frame – characters enter the frame and take up a position. The effect is just what Renoir avoided – the posed shot. Visconti does use some camera pans, but they do not follow action, nor do they contribute to a sense of screen kinetics. Instead they have the effect of an aesthetic exploration. This static use of the camera gives La Terra Trema a stagy aura, despite some excellent photography of the authentic locations achieved within the self-imposed limitations.

The point to be made is not that La Terra Trema is awful (though it ihas been vastly overpraised), but that aesthetic decisions made by Visconti, for which he has been frequently commended, served to undercut the impact of the film. One is left with a sense of static pictorialism after viewing the film. It is as though critics feel that Visconti deserves to be praised for arriving at visual aestheticism “with one had tied behind his back”. Much preferable to such a scheme is Robert Flaherty’s Man of Aran (1934), in which aestheticism was more consciously targeted and more successfully achieved.

The plot of La Terra Trema, independent of the mise-en-scène, is not a strong point, either. Not only are the members of the family made out bo be strangely heroic, but then they are shown to be subject to amazing lapses of foresight. As Dwight MacDonald has pointed out
Why, for example, does the proletarian hero take his fishing boat, which he has acquired by mortgaging his home in order to be independent of the wholesaler, out in a storm when no other boats venture forth? The commentary says it is because he is poor and cannot afford a day’s idleness, but this is nonsense, since he could even less afford to wreck his boat, which he does.
Had Visconti made more appropriate decisions for the proper expression of his message, his film probably would have not been very distinctive at all; it probably would have resembled one of the American social realist films of the Thirties.

In terms of documenting the human condition, Umberto D. and Il Posto are more successful. Umberto D. Presents a collection of events in an old man’s life, most of which contribute to his sense of uselessness and isolation. He finally decides to put an end to his life. However, at the film’s end he realizes in a stroke that his feelings for his little dog outweigh all the reasons he had been able to muster on behalf of his suicide. The subjective point of view here is the old man (and to a lesser extent a pregnant housemaid who lives next to him). The effort is to present everyday happenstances in all their detail (though still dramatically constructed) so as to reveal the consciousness. To a large extent this is successful; the old man does not philosophize about his existence. Instead he progresses to his morose contemplation of self-destruction by living out a succession of mundane experiences.

Il Posto presents a disarmingly conventional theme: a young man gets a job in the big city. The subjective point of view is more sophisticated and forceful than in Umberto D. While Umberto D. does present events dramatically arranged and selected, they are nevertheless “objectively” presented. Il Posto, in contrast, presents a succession of key moments in the life of the boy that have an affective mise-en-scène despite exceptionally objective acting and event-structure. Unlike the previously discussed films, however, Il Posto presents an evolving consciousness that is expressed in terms of the quasi-subjective cinematography. As the boy is gradually absorbed into the corporate existence, he continually adapts to it, not with conscious pleasure or displeasure but simply as a matter of course. It is the only way open. In Umberto D. there seems to be a blind faith that if all the mundane details of the old man’s life are presented, we will be able to understand his condition. Thus, though an event may be dramatically chosen, the details of that event are all presented without regard to their relative importance. Il Posto, however, manages to bring out events which are much more banal than those in Umberto D., yet which seem more significant due to the subjective progression of the story. The psychological distance between the young boy in ll Posto and the audience is much smaller than that between the old man and the audience in Umberto D.. The blend of documentary style events with subjective cinematography in Il Posto represents a unique middle ground between the Neorealist films and the more conventional narrative films of Europe. It also shows the way to get out of the stylistic dead-end that presented itself to many of the early realist enthusiasts.

Carl Theodor Dreyer

Films of Carl Theodor Dreyer:

"The Passion of Joan of Arc" - Carl Dreyer (1928)

Danish filmmaker, Carl Theodore Dreyer, Jr. (1889-1968), has a unique place in film history. Although he had limited schooling, he was an intellectual. Although he had a long career in the Danish film industry, he directed few films. A meticulous craftsmand and taskmaster, each of his completed films seem to be unique and difficult to categorize. His most famous film, and one that is often cited among the all-time great films, was The Passion of Joan of Arc (La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc, 1928). It is a silent film, one of the last of the silent era, depicting the Inquisitional trial and execution of Joan, the Maid of Orleans, after she was captured by the English army in 1431. Though made in France and standing as a celebration of the French “national legend”, the film was a truly international collaboration: director Dreyer was Danish, star actress Falconetti was Corsican, cameraman Rudolph Maté (who would later direct the film noir classic, D.O.A.) was Polish, and art director Hermann Warm (famous for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) was German. France was not highly regarded for movie production in those days – Richard Watts, Jr., commented in the New York Herald Tribune in 1929 that “most of its [French] films have been almost unbelievably incompetent”, but he added that now with Dreyer’s film, “the French cinema art is born" [1]. (Note that my comments here apply to the restored 82-minute version of the film that was reconstructed in 1985. I have seen earlier, mangled prints of the The Passion of Joan of Arc, and they are definitely not worth seeing.)

Paul Schrader famously classified Dreyer, along with Yasujiro Ozu and Robert Bresson, as a “transcendental filmmaker”, and The Passion of Joan of Arc was certainly one of the most transcendental films. So much has been written about the real Joan of Arc that there is little point in adding anything here, other than to quote Stephen W. Richey’s comment:
Joan of Arc -- the seventeen-year-old peasant girl, who, as she said herself, "did not know ‘A’ from ‘B’," but who, in a year and a month, crowned a reluctant king, rallied a broken people, reversed the course of a great war, and shoved history into a new path --what are we to make of her? The people who came after her in the five centuries since her death tried to make everything of her: demonic fanatic, spiritual mystic, naive and tragically ill-used tool of the powerful, creator and icon of modern popular nationalism, adored heroine, saint. She insisted, even when threatened with torture and faced with death by fire, that she was guided by voices from God. Voices or no voices, her achievements leave anyone who knows her story shaking his head in amazed wonder.
Dreyer’s film does not cover the dramatic events that led this pious young girl (a) to approach the beleaguered French military leaders with an offer to lead them in battle, and then (b) to inspire a string of amazing victories over the Engolish on the battlefield. Instead, it focuses on the ecclesiastical trial that led to her condemnation, taking advantage of authentic transcripts of the trial that had come to light only in 1924. It tells how a young, unsophisticated and illiterate girl was confronted by powerful and learned judges of the Church who held life-and-death sway over her fate. All she had on her side was the firm conviction of her faith in God and in her own intense spiritual experiences.

Although it may sound from this description like the film would be a talky and boring coverage of the court hearing, this is not the case. The narrative moves forward through several structured sequences, carried along swiftly by Dreyer’s dynamic editing.

Sequence 1. In the first part, the judges try to trap Joan into confessing to blasphemous thoughts and actions, thereby proving that her visions couldn’t be associated with an omnipotent God. Some of the recorded interactions with the judges reveal both the subtlety of her intuitive responses and the degree to which they related almost to a different plane of thought and existence from that of the judges. While the ecclesiastical authorities are asking her things like how she could intellectually distinguish between a true messenger of God and Satan, Joan is indicating a conviction that goes beyond intellectual judgment. Consider these interactions:
Questioners: “You have said that St. Michael appeared to you. . . in what form? Did he wear a crown?” (Joan hesitates) “How was he dressed? How did you know if it was a man or a woman? Was he naked?”
Joan: “Do you think God was unable to clothe him?”

Questioners: “Did he have long hair?”

Joan: “Why would he have cut it?”

(Later on)

Questioners: “Are you in a state of grace?”

Joan: “If I am, may God keep me there. If I am not, may God grant it to me.”
Sequence 2. In the next part, still less than halfway through the film, the judges realise that they are not making progress with their questioning. Even their "good-cop/bad-cop" routine hasn't worked. They decide to threaten Joan with torture. Weakened from ill-treatment and bloodletting, she agrees to abjure and confesses that her visions were false and that she had been misled by Satan. This section lasts about 24 minutes.

Sequence 3. In the final part Joan recovers herself from her frailty and recants her abjuration. She is immediately condemned to be burned at the stake. Even the haughty judges are now tearfully begging her to stick with her original abjuration, but Joan, summoning up her courage to tell the truth as she knows it, says that her recantation was a lie: the holy visions were real to her. She is burned at the stake, after which the peasant witnesses riot and are then ruthlessly bludgeoned and overrun by the English soldiers from the fortress.

Dreyer’s cinematic approach in The Passion of Joan of Arc was extraordinarily unusual for its day, and is still strikingly unlike most films today. The film moves along at a brisk pace, with rapid cutting back and forth between the various faces of the participants: the haughty and domineering judges, and the desperately vulnerable, but steadfast, Joan. Much of the film consists of separate closeups of Joan and her Inquisitors. Dreyer did not follow plausible point-of-view camera setups for these closeups, so that the viewer is often disoriented. A high percentage of these closeups are shot from a long angle, with Joan gazing upward, above the camera line. In addition, Dreyer rarely used scene establishing shots, cuts on action, or separation-resolution shots. As a result with all these separate cuts, it is difficult to ascertain where everyone is situated in the courtroom. It is reported that when Dreyer began production, he had an elaborate single set constructed prior to shooting. He then shot the script entirely in sequence. However, as he shot the film, he apparently became more and more obsessed with getting the authentic emotional performances and images in his closeups. When the film was edited, his priority was emotional authenticity over narrative and visual continuity.

When I began watching the film, I was distracted by the artificiality of the relentless, seemingly random, cutting back and forth between apparently exaggerated emotional closeups. But after fifteen minutes or so, I clicked into the brilliant rhythm of the film. It takes on a visual life of its own and sweeps the viewer along like a flamenco musical piece. It becomes a delirious lyrical masterpiece that pushes the boundaries of cinematic expression far beyond verbal explication. In particular, the film offers a new variation on expressionism. Dreyer was an expressionist, and the set he designed, presumably with the assistance of Hermann Warm, was highly expressionistic along the lines of German Expressionistic visual art. But the constructed set is barely noticeable in this film, as Dreyer pushed on to new dimensions of expressionism by focusing on the visual expressiveness of the human face. It was Dreyer who once wrote that architecture was the highest art – even higher than cinema. The reason for his view was that an architect builds a structure that contains and hosts human existence in an intimate way, whereas other visual arts are seen from a distance. It is the artistic potential for human interactiveness that Dreyer saw as the key to architecture. Today, with location-aware wireless mutimedia offering interactive envrionments that are embedded into our daily lives, the interaction potential that Dreyer saw for architecture is being merged with cinema. But most important for us is the way we interact via the expressive power of the human face.

  1. Watts, Richard, "A Dying Art Offers a Masterpiece", New York Herald Tribune, (31 March 1929), reprinted in Introduction to the Art of the Movies, by Lewis Jacobs, (1960), Noonday Press, New York, pp. 130-133.

"The 47 Ronin" - Kenji Mizoguchi (1941-42)

Kenji Mizoguchi was at the height of his powers by the late 1930s, as evidenced by Osaka Elegy (1936), Sisters of the Gion (1936), and The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (1939), but at the outset of the 1940s the Japanese government’s increasing military involvements began to impose restrictions on his artistic license. Japan was already deeply involved in the brutal China-Japan War (Second Sino-Japanese War), which would kill one million Japanese soldiers and lead to more than 20 million Chinese deaths. In addition, the government was preparing for possible conflict with Russia and the United States. To provide moral support for these activities and glorify Japanese military values, the government commissioned Mizoguchi to make a film about the famous story of the “Loyal 47 Ronin”, which involved subject matter far removed from Mizoguchi’s usual social dramas. So Mizoguchi’s treatment must be examine in this historical and cultural context.

The 47 Ronin (Genroku Ako) Incident was a real historical occurrence that took place in 1701-02 during the Tokugawa shogunate (aka the Edo Period). It is sometimes referred to as Japan’s “national legend” and has a standing in Japanese culture perhaps somewhat like thath of Joan of Arc in France, or the Boston Tea Party in the United States. It might be even more appropriate, though, to compare it to the Alamo Incident in the U.S. Mexican war, because the Genroku Ako incident was not a seminal event that changed the course of history, but was more of an iconic event that went on to rally sympathies concerning heroic conduct. In the case of the Genroku Ako case, there is also the important issue of loyalty to bushido, the samurai code of honour.

The Japanese had a long history of samurai, who were the upper ranks of the warrior class. By the 12th century, the samurai followed an already highly structured, though unwritten, code, known as bushido. During the Edo period, which covered the 17th -19th centuries, there was no warfare, and the samurai became more domesticated, occupying significant positions in the bureaucracy and court. Traditional values nevertheless expected them to live by their strict code. But there was also an increasingly structured legal system set down by the shogunate, so samurai were expected to follow and live up to the demands of two codes of conduct; the government legal system and bushido.

Incidentally, samurai were by no means a tiny segment of society. They represented up to 10 percent of the adult male population during this time. To be “somebody” was to be a samurai – there was an enormous difference in honour and respect between a samurai warrior and an ordindary commoner. The highest samurai were daimyos, i.e. lords, who had territorial estates and employed a regiment of samurai as their most valued employees. According to the bushido code, these serving samurai were to have undying loyalty to their lords and masters. If a samurai were to be discharged or his master were to die, then he would become a ronin, which was a masterless samurai. To be a ronin was to be in a highly compromised position concerning one’s honour, because he would be unable to fulfil the demands that bushido had laid down. As a consequence, if a samurai became a ronin, he was unlikely to be hired and was threatened with penury.

The specific historical details of the real 47 Ronin Incident are as follows. In 1701 two younger daimyos, Lord Asano and Lord Kamei, were ordered to arrange a reception for some envoys of Emperor in Edo (Tokyo). They were to be given instruction by Lord Kira, the official Master of Ceremonies and a member of an important Edo family. For some reason, perhaps because the two younger daimyos had not given Lord Kira a suitable bribe, Kira began abusing them in public, causing them to lose face. Lord Kamei somehow managed to mollify Lord Kira (perhaps with a suitable bribe), so Kira turned his abuse exclusively on Lord Asano. Eventually Lord Asano lost control and physically attacked Lord Kira with a dagger inside the shogun’s residence. But Kira was only wounded by the first thrust, and the two were quickly separated by palace guards. Asano was taken into custody and a judgement from the shogunate was rendered against him for his offence on palace grounds: he was to commit suicide (hara kiri, or seppuku) as punishment, his daimyo estate was to be disestablished, his family ruined, and his samurai retainers were to be made ronin.

Of Asano’s three hundred or so samurai, forty-seven of them banded together under their leader, chamberlain Oishi, and swore to avenge Asano’s humiliation and death. They intended to kill Lord Kira, even if it cost them their own lives. By doing so, they would live up to the bushido code. But, of course, Kira was suspicious and surrounded himself with armed guards. So Oishi and his men plotted to lie low for some time until they had the right opportunity. In order to deflect suspicion, Oishi began acting like a drunkard and others of his men went underground. Finally, after almost two years, the loyal ronin reassembled in Edo and staged an attack on Kira’s residence. In the onslaught, Kira and sixteen of his men were killed, with another twenty-two men wounded. The men then decapitated Kira and took his head to Lord Asano’s grave, where they presented it as an offering to satisfy their deceased lord’s requirements for revenge. Then Oishi and his men turned themselves into the authorities. Clearly Oishi and his men had broken the law, but they had, according to the community, satisfied the demands of bushido. The shogunate officials took almost two months to come to their verdict, which was that Oishi and his men must also die by committing seppuku.

The tombs of Oishi’s ronin soon became a sight of great veneration, and not long afterwards there were stories, poems, and plays composed honouring these “heroes”. Slightly fictionalised versions of the story were entitled “Chushingura”, and over the years there have been more than twenty Japanese films and many televison features depicting the story. So when anyone else filmed the story, he was expected not to deviate much from the real historical events.

The 47 Ronin story has captured the Japanese imagination like nothing else, and it is worthwhile reflecting on the reasons for this. The principal story themes are honour (in particular, maintaining face), personal sacrifice, and revenge.
  • Face. For many people in the West, honour is not just having the respect of one's peers, but of being honourable – being truly worthy of honour. One can be honourable from this perspective, even if nobody notices. But for many other people around the globe, honour is simply face – purely how one is seen in the community of popular opinion. To lose face in the eyes of one’s compatriots for such people is insufferable, no matter how much one may know inside that he is right. The strength of such feelings concerning face can be measured by the number of Middle Eastern men willing to kill their own sisters or daughters for perceived behaviour that is morally compromising. These people seem to think that if they kill their female relatives, they will remove the stain of dishonour from their families. We must acknowledge, even if we don’t condone, the widespread passions in this regard. But we should also remember that Asians have also contributed, via Yoga, Buddhism, and Sufism, entirely opposite and egoless sentiments – those associated with humility and compassion. From this more enlightened perspective what is important is the inner light, not the outer appearance.
  • Revenge. Revenge has always been a popular at the box office, and some films, such as Dirty Harry (1971), Death Wish (1974), and the Iranian film, Tangsir (1974), have been little more than elaborate vehicles for the visceral thrill of vengeance. Revenge is not concerned with compensating or restoring the victim of the original harm, but with the infliction of an additional injury on the perpetrator that is supposed to put things in some sort of balance. In revenge films some identified evildoer(s) commit(s) some unjustified act of violence on an innocent victim, and then the entire narrative is devoted to enacting revenge – which inevitably takes place at the climax. But let’s fact it, the desire for revenge, like the concern for face, is a low and unworthy emotion. As with the case of revenge, many spiritual practices and moral counsels have urged people to turn away from these base feelings and be more compassionate: “love thine enemy”.
Of the two sentiments, concerns for face often dominate. In fact revisionist critics have suggested that the original 47 ronin were perhaps too concerned about revenge and not enough focussed on face. What if Kira had died during the almost two years between Asano’s death and their murderous attack? Then their chances of avenging their master would have been lost. This, according to Yamamoto Tsunetomo, would have been disastrous. The proper thing, according to Yamamoto, would have been to attack Kira immediately, even if their attack had ended in failure. At least it would have satisfied the stringent demands of bushido. By waiting the 47 ronin improved their chances of success, but risked the horrors of dishonour by losing face.

Besides their primitive, animalistic nature, both face and revenge share another significant property: an entire community can share in the feelings of both the restoration of face and the enactment of revenge. So at the community level these two visceral sentiments can also be combined with personal sacrifice (always popular with governments) to motivate collective actions of violence. This is undoubtedly what the Japanese government wanted to encourage in 1941. Certainly war was not a novelty to the Japanese people by 1941. Japan had already been occupying Manchuria since 1931, and in 1937 its army had carried out the Rape of Nanjing, slaughtering upwards of 300,000 unarmed civilians in little over a month. By 1941 there was no end in sight to these conflicts, and military prospects were turning menacing. The story of the 47 Ronin must have looked like an excellent vehicle for the purpose of supporting commitment to the military code.

However, the film that Mizoguchi wound up making may not have been exactly what the Japanese government was looking for. Although many rousing versions of the “47 Ronin” and “Chushingura” have been made, including landmark versions by Kunio Watanabe in 1958 and by Hiroshi Inagaki in 1962, Mizoguchi’s realisation of the story was very slow, deliberate, and almost mournful in tone. In fact his realisation of the story, which was based on a Kabuki play by Seika Mayama, was so lengthy, it was actually released as two separate two-hour films, The 47 Ronin, Part I (Genroku Chûshingura 1, 1941) and The 47 Ronin, Part II (Genroku Chûshingura 2, 1942). And both films were devastating failures at the box office. Nevertheless, the government must have been reasonably satisfied, because they awarded Mizoguchi a special prize for his achievement. Consider some of the things that Mizoguchi left ouf of his four-hour epic:
  1. There is no coverage of Lord Kira’s antagonism of Lord Asano. The film more or less begins with Asano’s assault, and there is no justification for it given in the film. It is merely dismissed as a personal grudge on the part of Asano. This removes any consideration that Kira had committed an injustice and deserved to be punished.
  2. Asano’s act of hara kiri is not explicitly shown.
  3. There is no description of how Oishi planned to carry out vengeance. Oishi decided to murder Kira, but there is almost no discussion of tactics or strategy. We know from the original story that the ronin were waiting for the chance to make their move and had to carry out surveillance in order to find out how to penetrate his compound. None of this is discussed in the film.
  4. The actual attack on Kira’s residence, which might have been a thrilling action sequence, is not shown. It is merely described in its aftermath.
  5. Neither the deliberations on the part of the shogunate over how to respond to the ronins’ attack nor the actual reading of the judgement against the ronin are presented. Both of these activities take place off screen.
  6. The final acts of seppuku on the part of the 47 ronin at the end of the film are not explicitly shown.
With all these significant elements of the story taking place off screen, one might wonder where Mizoguchi’s attention was primarily directed. In fact, the story focusses almost entirely on the deliberate and often ceremonial actions of chamberlain Oishi, the leader of the 47 ronin. Everyone, in the film, as well as the audience, is waiting to see what action he will take. And it is this watching and waiting that constitutes much of the film. In this respect, the story is somewhat comparable to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet is living in a world that has been set ajar by heinous, unnatural acts, and the focus is on whether Hamlet will take action to set things aright and back to their normal order. In Mizoguchi’s film, there is a similar focus, but there is a difference in the degree to which the audience can identify with the thoughts of the main character. In Hamlet, there is an almost subjective focus on Hamlet, himself, and the movement that his mind undergoes in the direction ultimately of decisive action. In The 47 Ronin, however, we do not peer inside Oishi’s mind – everything is seen from a distant and external viewpoint. Oishi, in fact, has early on made up on his mind about what to do; he’s not anguishing much over his future course of action. But noone knows just what his plans are. The film narrative revolves around our watching various seemingly mundane activities in order to see what Oishi has planned to do all along. This external watching is characteristic of Mizoguchi’s perspective: the viewpoint is never subjective in his films. There are almost no over-the-shoulder shots, suggestive of a narrative empathy with a single agent. Instead, we see things from a more distant and neutral environmental context. Moreover, Mizoguchi often shows a carefully composed shot of some of the participants of a group conversation, but does not shift the camera angle over to see the one who is speaking. Frequently this speaker is out of frame, while the camera remains focussed on someone who is not speaking and not even the principal addressee. In fact the numerous crane shots looking down from great heights or shots across courtyards suggest that there is never a consistent "silent witness", other than the building environment, itself.

Because the justification and motivation for revenge have been removed from Mizoguchi’s plot, The 47 Ronin is not really a revenge film – it is primarily an elaborate Japanese Tea Ceremony in celebration of saving face that has been disguised as a commitment to a higher principle: bushido. There are three key additional plot elements in Mizoguchi’s story that emphasise this point:

1. Oishi's Delay. Chamberlain Oishi is presented as delaying any action of vengeance on the part of the 47 ronin, not because they were all under suspicion, but because any immediate action might lessen the face-saving benefits that they sought. After Asano’s death, Oishi had petitioned the shogunate to have his house restored. He knew full well that the shogunate, aligned as it was against Asano, would deny this request, but he made the petition anyway in order to deflect suspicion from himself and the other ronin. However, because of the general public sympathy for Asano and the ronin, there was mounting pressure on the shogunate to respond favourably to the petition and restore Asano’s house. This was a concern for Oishi, and he felt that if they were now to attack during this period, it might be conjectured on the part of the public that the ronin were seeking the material benefits associated with the restoration of Asano’s house. This would lessen the image of the pure, bushido-soaked, action of sacrifice that they sought to present. “People won’t call it a clean revenge”, he explains to his son near the end of Part I. So Oishi’s delay in Mizoguchi’s film is associated with his waiting to ensure that the petition to restore Asano’s house was not at issue -- in other words, not with tactics but with enhancing face.

2. Sukeyomon's "unclean" revenge. In an early part of Part II, some time has passed and an important daimyo in Edo is shown where a Noh theatrical performance is about to be presented at his residence, with Lord Kira an expected member of the audience. He remarks that he is contemplating recommending to the shogunate that the Asano house be restored, but he is sure that Oishi and the Asano retainers still seek revenge. He consults his advisor, who has taught him the wisdom of the Chinese sages on what to do. After reflection, he says (and his former teacher agrees) that “we must act like samurai before we act in line with the Chinese sages”. This is an explicit celebration of Japanese samurai distinctiveness from the older Chinese culture. He says that if he helps restore the Asano house, Oishi will lose his chance for a clean revenge, so he decides not to make the recommendation.

One of the 47 ronin, Sukeyemon, is found by the daimyo's men to be about to attend the Noh play and is brought before the daimyo for questioning. The daimyo, speculating that Sukeyemon intends to attack Kira, intentionally minsforms Sukeyemon and tells him that Lord Kira will appear as one of the actors in the play, rather than be in the audience. Later, just off stage and before the play begins, Sukeyemon attacks a man in actor’s garb whom he thinks is Kira. But it turns out to be the daimyo, himself, who has set Sukeyemon up. The daimyo then sternly admonishes Sukeyemon, telling him that if anyone were to kill Kira now, it would spoil Oishi’s vengeance plot. Oishi and company, he explains, need to pull off something really dazzling against Kira. “Killing that miserable old man is of secondary importance”, he says. The important thing is to take revenge in a spectacular fashion. Again the point of enhancing one’s face and public reputation takes precedence over everything else, including justice.

3. Omino's face-saving suicide. After Lord Kira is murdered in Part II, the 47 ronin, all awaiting their sentencing, are held in gentlemanly custody by one of the daimyos in Edo, Lord Kosokowa. Oishi is visited at this time by a young woman dressed up as a man, who has tried to sneak in and who wishes to see one of the ronin, Isogai, whom she claims is her fiancé. It seems that Isogai had conspired to become betrothed to the girl, Omino, as part of the plot against Kira (no explanation of these operations are given in the film, but Japanese audiences would be familiar with the general outline that there was a tactical plan set up to conduct surveillance prior to the attack on Lord Kira’s residence). Omino, still in love with Isogai, wants to meet with him now in order to find out if he ever really loved her, or if he had just fooled her and used her as part of the murder plot. Oishi tells her to go away and not trouble Isogai now. If she were to meet him now, he says, it might cause Isogai to lose his nerve and fail to live up to the samurai code. He tells her to disappear and assume that Isogai had only used her. But Omino persists. “Is samurai honour so important?”, she asks. Eventually Oishi relents and lets her visit briefly with Isogai. After some initial reluctance, Isogai breaks down and confirms his love, assuring her that he is truly “her father’s son-in-law”. At this point the final verdict arrives from the shogunate castle. The 47 ronin must all commit suicide.

The ronin are now offered a ceremonial tea, prior to marching off to their deaths. As the men file through a corridor, Oishi looks into a side room, where he sees that Omino has committed hara kiri (but is still alive). Isogai is brought before her. With gasping breath, she reveals that suicide had always been her ultimate intention when she came to see Isogai. Evidently her father had lost his vassalage and position from Lord Kosokawa because of the shame of her having been stood up at the alter. So she had resolved to end her life this way to help restore her father’s honour. But at this point she is informed that Lord Ksoskowa, having heard about Isogai’s true love for her, has relented and ordered that Omino’s father be restored to his position and estate. She is offered medical assistance, but she refuses it – she wants the lie of their love to remain a lie, in order to protect the pure reputation of the ronin/samurai. She prefers that her father’s house be abolished in shame in order to protect the “clean revenge” of the 47 ronin.

All of these elements emphasise the main point: that committing mass suicide for the sake of face and bushido is preferable to life, itself. Just before his own seppuku, Oishi remarks with contentment that “it seems that they have all died without being disgraceful.” But this sentiment, no mater how artfully presented by the filmmaker, is something we must reject. The Japanese government may have been pleased with this propaganda film, because it raised the notion of saving face to a false spiritual summit. But that is not what we should cherish. Love, compassion, the reaching out to the other – these are the things that must be endorsed and expressed. Compare this film to Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc, 1928) to see the contrasting, passionate presentation of another person who goes to her death, not for saving face, but for her commitment to love.