“Happy People: A Year in the Taiga” - Werner Herzog and Dmitry Vasyukov (2011)

Werner Herzog’s documentary film Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (2011) is his adaptation of Dmitry Vasyukov’s four-hour mini-series of the same name that was made for Russian television.  It concerns the lives of some animal trappers in the small Siberian town of Bakhta on the Yenisei River.  Vasyukov’s original film was apparently an ethnographic record of these people over the course of a year, and we could say that Herzog’s recompilation of this material is similarly ethnographic. But Herzog is one of those documentarians, most commonly found in Europe, who incorporates his or her own personal perspective into what is presented. In Herzog’s case it is usually a matter of adding his singularly existentialist tone to the account, the focus of which I have commented on previously [1]: 
“[Herzog] is fascinated with people who live at the extreme edges of human existence and who are exploring or experiencing what it is like to step beyond the boundaries of our comfortable civilized world.”
Here in Happy People, we are dealing with animal trappers whose home base in Bakhta is so remote that it can only be reached from the outside by helicopter or boat (and that latter option is closed off in the winter when the Yenisei River is frozen over).  From there, these trappers head off in the winter into further isolation – the Siberian wilderness where for months at a time they will be alone and cut off from any assistance as they search for their prey.  These are the kind of people that fascinate Herzog.

However, there is a subtlety to the way Herzog presents his extreme subjects.  There is little in the way of any doctrinaire disquisition describing Herzog’s point of view.   Instead, Herzog often lets the visual images tell much of the story, which is sprinkled with his characteristically quiet and even-toned, but oddly emphatic, voice-over commentary [2]. 

The film has four parts, corresponding to the four seasons, and its opening section is in the Spring. We are introduced to the town of Bakhta situated on the 5,500km long Yenisei River, which in their region of central Siberia has been frozen over during the winter and is just starting to turn to slush. Given the town’s relative isolation, the residents of the town are mostly self-sufficient. The indigenous Ket people, who now only number about 1,500, are shown carving their own canoes out of large tree trunks, an ancient skill.

For the most part, though, the people shown are ethnic Russians, and there is a particular focus on one sturdy animal trapper, Gennady Soloviev.  These people build their own huts, make their own skis (an essential transportation device), and concoct their own mosquito repellent (smelly, but also essential). 

They do all their work with basic hand tools  – axes, wedges, saws, and wood planes.  They don’t have power tools.  But they do have guns.  The trappers, though, mostly catch their prey by hand-crafting elaborate, camouflaged traps, at the center of which are steel leg-hold traps.  So their hunting and trapping practices have been largely unchanged over the past hundred years.

All this hand-craftsmanship not only makes these trappers self-sufficient, it gives them an acute sense of their own self-sufficiency, at least for the case of our center of focalization, Gennady Soloviev.  And the self-sufficiency gives them a sense of freedom and independence.  They can go out into the forests and do whatever they want, unencumbered by the restrictions of conventional society.  This is what presumably makes them “happy people”.

There might be a suggestion here that the trappers out there in the wilderness achieve some kind of mystical oneness with Nature, and that it is the source of their “happiness”.  But I would say no, and I don’t think Herzog would look at things this way, either.  Nature, for Herzog, is not something with which one can achieve oneness.  During the filmmaking of his Fitzcarraldo (1982) in the South American jungle, Herzog had this to say about Nature [3,4]:
“I don’t see [the jungle] so much erotic. I see it more full of obscenity. It’s just – Nature here is vile and base. I wouldn’t see anything erotical here. I would see fornication and asphyxiation and choking and fighting for survival and growing and just rotting away. Of course, there’s a lot of misery. But it is the same misery that is all around us. The trees here are in misery, and the birds are in misery. I don’t think they sing. They just screech in pain.”
. . .
“There is a harmony [in nature] . . . it is a harmony of overwhelming and collective murder.”
In fact what the trappers treasure is their independence.  But they are not in a state of oneness with their surroundings, and instead what they participate in is this seething maelstrom of “collective murder”.  Their prey, which are  primarily sables that they capture, kill and eventually sell for the valuable fur, are their primary adversaries.  And the trappers delight in the psychological bounty of their conquests over their helpless adversaries.

Even their faithful hunting dogs, which are their only companions when the trappers are out there in the wildness, are not seen as equal comrades.  For example, in order to train his young hunting dogs not to steal the bait from the traps he sets, Soloviev puts them in a painful leg-hold trap for some time, so that the dog will come to see the trap as a source of misery and pain.  The dog is thus not seen compassionately and is merely seen by the trapper as another tool to be used in his work.

In fact I doubt that happiness is a mental state that Herzog sees as primary in connection with these trappers.  The word “happy” in the name of the film was something that Herzog inherited from Dmitry Vasyukov’s mini-series, and he was probably forced to continue with it.  Herzog, himself, has expressed, even relatively recently, a disconnection from the idea of happiness [5]:
 "I have never been one of those who cares about happiness. Happiness is a strange notion. I am just not made for it. It has never been a goal of mine; I do not think in those terms.”
It is something else that Herzog has always seen in the people he has chosen as his subjects to film.  It is a sense of existential loneliness and personal struggle with the world, itself.  Even forty years ago in his documentary The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner (1974) about a death-defying sky flier, Herzog has his protagonist say near the end of the film [6]:
   “I should be all alone in this world
    Me, Steiner and no other living being.
    No sun, no culture; I , naked on a high rock
    No storm, no snow, no banks, no money
    No time and no breath.
    Then, finally, I would not be afraid anymore.”
The final section of Happy People: A Year in the Taiga covers the winter season, when the trappers set out alone in search of their kill.  They are in their chosen world of self-satisfying struggle.

There are almost no women shown in this film, although the trappers, including Gennady Soloviev, are apparently married and have families.  And so there seems to be no place for love in the ego-dominated taiga world shown in this film.  That is an essential aspect of true happiness that is missing here.

  1. The Film Sufi, “Encounters at the End of the World - Werner Herzog (2007)”, The Film Sufi, (9 August 2009).   
  2. See: The Film Sufi, “Lessons of Darkness (Lektionen in Finsternis) - Werner Herzog (1992)”, The Film Sufi, (30 May 2010).    
  3. from Les Blank’s documentary Burden of Dreams (1982) about the shooting of Fitzcarraldo (1982).  
  4. See also: Werner Herzog, “24 Wonderfully Bonkers Werner Herzog Quotes”, (Compiled by Nico Lang), Thought Catalog, (24 April 2013).   
  5. Werner Herzog and Paul Cronin, Herzog on Herzog: Conversations with Paul Cronin, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, (2003).
  6. Werner Herzog, “On the Absolute, the Sublime, and Ecstatic Truth”, Moira Weigel (trans.), Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, Third Series, Vol. 17, No. 3 (Winter 2010), pp. 1-12.

Atom Egoyan

Films of Atom Egoyan:

“The Stranger” - Orson Welles (1946)

After the box-office failures of his first two films, Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Orson Welles was forced to operate within the confines of studio-imposed restrictions in order to secure Hollywood’s funding for his third film, The Stranger (1946).  Welles proceeded this time to crank out a more conventional film noir, completing the work on time and under budget and thereby ensuring that the film enjoyed a modest profit.  In fact the film went on to receive a US Oscar nomination for Best Story, although I would say that the basically absurd screenplay by Anthony Veiller is the worst element of the film.  What does make the film distinctive are the various touches of Wellesian expressionism in the telling of the tale. In particular, there are a number of intricate crane and tracking shots that lure the viewer into the sinuousness of the narrative.  In addition, Welles employs a liberal dosage of low-angle and high-angle shots that emphasize the expressionistic atmosphere of various dramatic situations.

The film’s story concerns a notorious Nazi war criminal’s attempts to avoid capture by hiding himself in anonymity in a small American town.  He is tracked to this town by a relentless US federal agent, and the narrative relates the resulting cat-and-mouse game of the two men.  Although films noir often feature exaggerated plot events and circumstances, there are so many implausible elements in this story that the viewer’s suspension of disbelief is continually challenged along the way [1].  I will mention a few of these implausibilities below.

Because this story depicts how an evil character comes to prey on an essentially innocent and idyllic small American town, The Stranger has been compared, unfavorably, to Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), which might be thought to have more polish.  I would say, though, that the two films are on a par, and I wouldn’t put Shadow of a Doubt above The Stranger (despite the latter’s plot absurdities). 

One of the compelling features of The Stranger is the magnetism of its three principal leads, all of whom occupy significant portions of narrative focalization:
  • Orson Welles plays Franz Kindler, the alleged mastermind behind the Nazi extermination camps.  When he comes to the middle-class town of Harper, Connecticut, he assumes the name Charles Rankin, and he is generally known by that name in the film.  Welles seemed to relish playing roles of demonic characters, and his emphatic performance  provides dramatic electricity.
  • Edward G. Robinson plays Mr. Wilson, the US government official from the Allied War Crimes Commission office. His appearance as a clandestine investigator in a scene is usually first signaled by an image of his smoking pipe.  Robinson’s persona is very much a reprise of his quiet, calculating role in Double Indemnity (1944), and it plays well here, too.
  • Loretta Young plays Mary Longstreet, who is the daughter of a US Supreme Court justice and who marries Charles Rankin (Kindler).  The perpetually young and elegant Ms. Young always had a unique feminine charisma and glamour that elevated the films she was in.  I have always found her eyes and emotive facial expressions to have some sort of hypnotic allure to them.
The narrative of The Stranger passes through four basic phases.

1.  Coming to Harper, Connecticut
Wilson, the Allied War Crimes Commission official, arranges to have convicted Nazi war criminal Konrad Meinike (played by Konstantin Shayne) released from prison in the hopes that the man will unknowingly lead them to the whereabouts of the still at-large Franz Kindler.  Sure enough Meinike leads them to the small town of Harper, Connecticut, where he immediately looks up a prep-school teacher there, Charles Rankin (Kindler). The secretive Kindler is paranoid on seeing his old comrade, and in bravura 4:10 tracking shot he lures Meinike into the woods and strangles him.  Then he buries corpse there. 

Early on one sees two implausibilities:
  • Kindler shows no trace of a German accent.
  • The supposedly meticulous German’s burial of Meinike’s corpse is so flimsy, that a dog can sniff it out and start digging it up.
Afterwards on that very day, Kindler marries Mary Longstreet, after which they go on a honeymoon.  Here is another implausibility.  Why would a man seeking to vanish from view marry the daughter of a US Supreme Court Justice.

Meanwhile Wilson, who had arrived in town tracking Meinike and was almost killed by the man, is masquerading as an antique dealer and lurking around to see if he can find who is Kindler.

2.  Closing in  
In the second phase of the film, more and more incriminating evidence points to Rankin as Kindler.  There is a conversation over dinner at Judge Longstreet’s house, with Wilson present as a guest, where Kindler makes an impassioned speech about the demonic essence of Nazism and of Germans, in general.  He does this to establish his anti-Nazi and anti-German credentials, but his subsequent remark that Karl Marx was a Jew, not a German, gives his prejudices away.  At any rate, anyone listening to Kindler’s over-the-top hate-filled comments would see that he is essentially a psychopath.  By this time both Kindler and Wilson have identified each other as enemies, and the cat-and-mouse game ensues. 

Kindler, worried about the burial site in the woods, takes Mary’s dog out for a walk to inspect the site.  But the dog sniffs the corpse and starts digging there, leading Kindler to eventually kill the dog.  Afterwards there is an effective 1:53 tracking shot showing Wilson and Mary’s brother Noah (Richard Long) discussing the poisoning of the dog as they walk along.

3.  Culprit Identified 
The killing of the dog leads Wilson and the authorities to look for and find Meinike’s body in the woods.  Wilson is now sure that Mary’s husband is his man, and he convinces Mary’s father, her brother, and her maid that her husband is a Nazi.  To convince Mary, Wilson shows her some at-that-time recent film footage of the Nazi death camps and gas chambers.  But Mary cannot believe that the man she loves is a Nazi and refuses to cooperate with Wilson.

Wilson predicts to Judge Longstreet that Kindler will try to kill Mary, but rather than save the woman, he chooses to let things play out (another implausibility).

4.  Ending in the Clock Tower  
Harper has a church with a defective mechanically animated clock in its tower that now comes more in focus. Kindler was famously known to be obsessed with clocks, and Rankin (Kindler) has been spending much time in the clock tower trying to fix the clock (another implausible activity for the supposedly cautious fugitive).  Feeling cornered, Kindler now retreats to the clock tower more than ever.  He also believes that the only person who could testify that he was acquainted with Meinike (and hence that he could be Meinike’s murderer) is Mary.  So he sets up a (implausible) trap in the clock tower to murder her there while he is away.  There are further implausible events [2], until in the end, Kindler, Mary, and Wilson all wind up in the top of the clock tower where the final reckoning is played out.

All the way along we have known that Rankin is Kindler and is essentially evil, so there is no suspense in identifying the guilty parties.  What we have instead are two gradual encirclements of predatory spiders moving in on their prey.
  • Wilson has been slowly, but relentlessly, closing in on Kindler.  Kindler’s world gradually diminishes until it finally ends up as just the confines of the clock tower.
  • At the same time Kindler has been increasingly putting pressure on and threatening his loving wife, Mary.  We see her enclosed and trapped by her psychopathic husband’s obsessive belief that she is the one witness who can identify his guilt.
These two encirclements come to a head in the clock tower at the film’s close.

There were two aspects of Welles’s original plans for the film that were denied by the studio through the offices of the film’s editor, Ernest Nims.  One was to include a significant early section of the story showing Meinike’s flight through Argentina before arriving in Harper.  Another was to have the role of Wilson played by a woman, Agnes Morehead, instead of Edward G. Robinson.  I think both of these ideas would have widened the film’s scope and extended its dramatic range beyond these two narrow “spider-encirclements” that are the focus of this film.  As it is, we are just left to savor primarily the expressionistic theatrics and cinematography that Welles has concocted for this story.

  1. For further discussion of these implausibilities, see Brian Koller, “The Stranger (1946)”, filmsgraded.com, (24 June 2011).
  2. For example, why would Mary, now knowing that her husband is a mass-murderer, go alone to the clock tower to meet him there?

Tom Harper

Films of Tom Harper:

“War and Peace” - Tom Harper (2016)

War and Peace (2016) is the most recent adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s epic historical novel of the same name about Russians caught up in the Napoleonic Wars of the early nineteenth century.  Like all such adaptations, including King Vidor’s American version (1956) and Sergei Bondarchuk’s Russian version (1967), the filmmakers, this time British, had to come to grips with what parts to choose to emphasize from Tolstoy’s great work.

The novel is considered to be one of the greatest of all literary offerings, although Tolstoy didn’t call it a novel; he said it was an "epic".  There were several earlier versions of it produced in the 1860s before Tolstoy published his final version in 1869, which was over 1400 pages and had almost 600 characters.  In fact with its great length and scope, many people have read only abridged versions that are less than half the length of the full version.  What is left out, perhaps almost by necessity, of the abridged versions and the film adaptations are Tolstoy’s extensive philosophical reflections about life and society that are interspersed throughout the novel.  This is unfortunate, because that philosophical commentary of Tolstoy’s is in my opinion what makes the novel stand out above all others.  Tolstoy, himself, was on a lifelong path towards Sufi-like enlightenment, which led to his embracing vegetarianism (in 1885), Georgism, Christian spirituality, and pacifism.  Indeed, late in his life, Tolstoy’s “Letter to a Hindu” (1908) [1] led to some correspondence with fellow-vegetarian Mahatma Gandhi that influenced Gandhi’s own developing commitment to pacifism.

Nevertheless, this BBC production, which was presented in six roughly one-hour-long episodes, makes a noble effort at telling Tolstoy’s remarkable tale.  The mini-series was directed by Tom Harper and written by Andrew Davies, who was famous for his House of Cards television series (2013-2017).  The six episodes of War and Peace are weighted towards the first half of the novel, and they cover the experiences of several Russian aristocratic families and how they were affected by Napoleon’s military interventions.  In particular, the series, like the novel, focuses on three characters representing three key perspectives.:
  • Pierre Bezukhov (played by Paul Dano) is the illegitimate son of a wealthy count.  He is  a recent university graduate and well-versed in modernism’s ideas, but he is also innocent and naive.  To a large extent he presumably echoes Tolstoy’s own personal conscience. Ultimately, Pierre represents compassion.
  • Andrei Bolkonsky (James Norton) is the heir to a noble Russian family and Pierre’s close friend.  Unlike the naive and altruistic Pierre, though, Andrei is generally cynical about the modern world and primarily concerned with his own personal dignity and honor.  While Pierre is open-hearted, Andrei is more self-obsessed.  He represents self-attainment.
  • Natasha Rostova (Lily James) is an innocent and vivacious young teenager from a noble but financially stressed family.  She represents romantic love.
However, as I mentioned, Tolstoy’s extensive reflections on these larger themes are largely understated in this mini-series, and we only get glimpses of these perspectives from the action shown.  Another aspect in the novel that is somewhat neglected in the film is the situation from the Napoleonic side of things.  This is a significant slant, because Napoleon’s military adventures were largely conducted in the spirit of the values promoted by the French Revolution, so we could view his military invasions as early instances of liberal interventionism – a phenomenon that continues to infect world politics of present times (think of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, for example).   The war scenes that are shown, however, are extremely visceral and full of blood and gore.  They give a ground-level glimpse of the meaningless brutality of war.

The mini-series’ six episodes cover a period from1805 to 1820.
Episode 1
It is 1805, and Napoleon’s invasion of Austria represents a direct threat to Russia.  The main characters are introduced.  Nevertheless, Pierre who has recently returned from Europe, expresses in social gatherings his support for the liberal values (e.g. human rights, etc.) espoused by Napoleon.  Andrei, seeking personal glory to provide some meaning in his life, decides to leave his pregnant wife at home and go off to fight with the Russian army.  Naturally, when these aristocrats join the military they take on the roles of officers.

Episode 2
Pierre has inherited his family’s wealthy estate after his father’s death and gets wangled into marrying the beautiful but unscrupulous and immoral Hélène Kuragina (Tuppence Middleton).  Hélène cuckolds Pierre with a number of libidinous relationships, including an incestuous one with her equally hedonistic brother Anatole Kuragin (Callum Turner).  Note that the emphatic contrasts between the ruthlessly selfish characters in the story (this includes Dolokhov, see below) and the innocence of Pierre and Natasha are perhaps the dramatic highlights of this series.

Meanwhile Natasha’s brother Nikolai Rostov (Jack Lowden) also seeks glory and joins the military. Andrei returns home from war in time to see his wife die while giving birth to their son.

Episode 3
One of Hélène’s lovers, the ruffian Fedor Dolokhov (Tom Burke), openly mocks Pierre, who then impetuously calls for a duel.  Miraculously, the awkward and inexperienced Pierre wins the duel and comes out of it unscathed.  Afterwards, Pierre decides to devote himself to a higher cause, and he becomes a Freemason.  Later Dolokhov gets in a card game with Nikolai and takes so much money from him that he plunges the Rostov family in debt.  Later, in 1809, Andrei, who is feeling guilt over having neglected his deceased wife, abandons the army.  But when he subsequently meets Natasha at a social gathering, they fall in love.

Episode 4
Andrei wants to marry Natasha, but his domineering father orders him to wait for a year and travel abroad.  Natasha, feeling abandoned, now succumbs to the romantic advances of the manipulative Anatole Kuragin, and she breaks off her engagement to Andrei.  She is about to elope with Anatole, but she is stopped just in time when Pierre informs her that Nikolai is already married to a woman whom the rake has abandoned in Poland.

Episode 5
It is now 1812, and Napoleon has invaded Russia and is headed for Moscow.  The various families scramble in their separate ways to respond to the coming danger.    During this period Pierre finally realizes to himself that he is in love with Natasha.  By chance, Nikolai Rostov, who is leading a military detachment passes by the Bolkonsky estate and comes to the aid of Andrei’s modest and religious sister, Marya Bolkonskaya (Jessie Buckley) during a chaotic confrontation with her rebellious serfs.

Episode 6
Everything comes to a head with the bloody Battle of Borodino, where the Russian army attempts to make a last stand. It turns out to be an honorable (for the Russians) stalemate, and the Russian army does survive and subsequently makes a wise, tactical retreat. But there are 70,000 casualties in the battle, and both Andrei and Anatole are mortally wounded.  Pierre has watched the whole battle and has even participated in it, although in the end he is taken prisoner by the French.

When Napoleon reaches Moscow, he finds the city already in flames and undertaking a scorched-earth withdrawal.  Since his army is badly in need of supplies, he orders his army to make the long retreat out of Russia, thus relieving the threat of military takeover.

At this time Hélène seeks to abort her pregnancy from one of her illicit love affairs and dies of a drug overdose.  Near the end, Pierre and Natasha are finally united in love and agree to get married. The final scenes show that in 1820 what is left of the Bezukhov, Rostova, and Bolkonsky families have been united.  Pierre has married Natasha, and Nikolai has married the gentle Marya. They are living happily and are raising young families. 
It is difficult for a dramatized version of War and Peace to capture the full depth of the thoughts and feelings expressed in Tolstoy’s work, but this mini-series makes a good attempt.  In particular, the presentation of the sensitive and thoughtful character of Pierre Bezukhov by Paul Dano is a strong point in the work.  It tunes the viewer in to Tolstoy’s considerations of those turbulent times.  On the other hand, I thought the characterization of Andrei Bolkonsky was too cold and stiff to draw my extended interest and sympathies.  His self-obsession led to his withdrawal from life’s narratives and hence from this narrative, too.

This is not to say that all the characters had to be sympathetic to be effective.  One of the more magnetic characters was Hélène (Tuppence Middleton), whose seductive personality was entirely natural and recognizable.  Her entrapment of Pierre was a particularly compelling piece of this story. 

In fact perhaps the best production feature of the whole mini-series is the general vibrancy of the female characters, particularly those of Natasha, Marya, and Hélène.  Best of all was the performance of Lily James, who played Natasha.  She was coming off a strong performance in Downton Abbey (2011-2016), and her infectious and barely suppressible passionate gestures are even more stirring in this story.  She and Paul Dano, as Natasha and Pierre, sustain the narrative momentum throughout the course of this fascinating tale.

  1. Leo Tolstoy, “Letter to a Hindu”, Correspondence with Gandhi, Literature by Leo Tolstoy, Nonresistsance.org, (1908-1910).  (pdf version here).   

Jean Vigo

Films of Jean Vigo:

“L’Atalante” - Jean Vigo (1934)

In his tragically short life, Jean Vigo was only able to make one feature-length film.  But that work, L’Atalante (1934), is one of the masterful creations in film history and makes us wonder what further cinematic jewels Vigo might have brought forth had he not died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-nine.  When the film was first released, it was a commercial failure, which was largely due to the fact that after previews, the producers grossly shortened and reedited the work in a mistaken effort to make the film more popular.  Vigo, who had already been ill during the shooting of L’Atalante, was by that time too sick to be able to keep his film from being hacked up.  Fortunately, however, some earlier prints were later discovered, and a restoration of the film was undertaken in 1990, and then further in 2001 [1].  Even in its earlier, diminished state, though, the film began to attract a following.  Francois Truffaut, who first viewed the film in 1946, said that with L’Atalante Vigo “achieved perfection, he made a masterpiece” and that “he effortlessly achieved poetry” [2].  And the film’s reputation has only grown over the years. Today it ranks among the greatest films of all time [3].  Truffaut placed the film in his all-time top ten [2]; and the  British Film Institute’s 2012 international critics’ poll ranked it 12th all-time [4], while their 2012 international directors’ poll ranked it 22nd [5].

What is it that makes this film so sublime?  The story sounds simple enough – it charts the everyday experiences of a young married couple who live on a trading barge that the husband operates over French inland waterways.  But despite the realism of the setting, this is not a film  about adventures on the water or the working class; it is a story of love.  Even in the context of love, though, things are not so conventional.  It’s not a romantic story about falling in love or about finally reaching or rescuing one’s beloved.  This romantic couple are already in love and together at the film’s outset.  What transpires in the film is the evolution of their love, and it is told in truly lyrical fashion.  In many ways it explores in its poetic manner the true depths of ongoing love.

The way Vigo tells this story is key.  There is a strain of French films that is referred to as “poetic realism”, examples of which are Marcel Carné ‘s Le Quai des Brumes (1938) and Le Jour se Leve (1939) and Jean Renoir’s La Bête Humaine (1938).  These are films that moodily portray romantic passions in working-class settings; and L’Atalante is placed in the “poetic realism” category, too.  But what does this phrase “poetic realism” mean, other than to suggest that such films are objective and subjective at the same time [6]? There are, after all, stylistic and thematic differences between Vigo, Carne, and Renoir, and I would prefer to highlight L’Atalante’s uniqueness, rather than to lump it together with other moody films of the period.

One of the key elements of L’Atalante is the music of Maurice Jaubert [6]. This casts a lyrical spell over everything that happens, and it helps maintain the feeling that the entire film is a song dedicated to love.  Another important feature is the cinematography of Boris Kaufman, who was the brother of famous and innovative Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov.  Kaufman’s deft photography in sometimes very confining environments is remarkably effective.  Much of the film was shot outside on location, and Kaufman was presumably using hand-cranked and not-so-flexible cameras to do his work.  It all comes across in very fluid fashion, though, and this also contributes to the songlike tenor of the film.  There are many evocative shots, some of which I will mention below, that persist in my memory long after seeing this film.

The narrative of L’Atalante begins ostensibly as an overt journey of the newly married couple on their barge.  But the film’s real narrative scheme is an inner journey of love that is marked and punctuated by six troublesome quarrels.  Each of the quarrels is progressively more disruptive to the marital harmony, and our two connubial protagonists must make compromises in order to set things right.  A key figure in all this is the ship’s uneducated but well-traveled first mate, whose more experienced perspective proves to be a crucial ingredient to the couple’s  salvation.

1.  Newlyweds
The film opens with the just-married couple walking directly from the church in a local French village to the husband’s barge, where they will live. The young woman, Juliette (played by Dita Parlo), has never been away from her village, and there is a moody shot of her still in her wedding gown now pensively walking alone along the barge’s top deck. Although she may have thought of her marriage to her sailor husband Jean (Jean Dasté) as an act of liberation, she will soon discover the barge to be a very confining experience.  And she will have to share that space with the ship’s two other crew members – a teenage cabin boy and a seasoned old salt, first mate Père (“Pappa”) Jules (Michel Simon), with his unruly herd of about half a dozen pet cats.

She starts adapting to her new life by tidying up her living quarters.  And she amiably tells her husband that he should always keep up his eyes open when he puts his head underwater, because that offers one the opportunity to see an image of one's true love.  Jean makes fun of her silly notions, but she tells him that someday he will see that she is right.

2.  Quarrel #1
As they proceed with their work on the barge, Juliette complains to Jean that she is getting tired of looking at only river banks.  She wants to see a big city.  So Jean turns on his radio and tunes in a Paris radio station.  Juliette’s fascination with it prompts Jean to angrily turn off the radio, and they quarrel (Q1).  

So Juliette goes up to the deck and pouts.  Later, Jean goes looking for her on the deck, and when he finds her, he embraces her tenderly (end of Q1).

3.  With Père Jules
The film now shows Juliette and Père Jules getting to know each other.  She charms the scruffy old sailor with her innocence, and when she visits his cabin she in turn is fascinated by all the trinkets he has collected from foreign seaports.  There is an interesting bit here of Père Jules taking off his shirt to proudly show her his body covered with tattoos.  These shots help sketch out the coloful, sometimes irascible, sometimes avuncular personality of Jules.  But then Jean bursts in on them and blows his stack at seeing his young wife with Jules in his cabin – he gives her an angry shove and starts violently smashing Jules’s dishes (Q2).

4.  Arrival in Paris
When they dock in Paris, Juliette asks Jean to show her the wonders of the city.  But since Père Jules and the cabin boy have run off into the city first, Jean tells her that they must wait and tend to the barge until those two come back. This disappoints Juliette and makes her grumpy (Q3).  Later, however, she gets into bed with Jean and caresses him, thereby ending their quarrels.  This is another beautifully orchestrated shot of tender affection. However, when Père Jules returns late and drunk to the barge, Jean becomes angry again and says they will soon depart from the city, which causes Juliette to pout all over again (Q4).

5.  On the Town
However, the next day Jean takes Juliette into the city, and she is now happy again.  They go to a pub, where they run into a jovial but rascally street-performer/peddler (Gilles Margaritis), who openly flirts with Juliette about how he can show her all the marvels of Paris.  Then he drags the naive girl out of her seat and onto the dance floor with him.  This naturally enrages the less-flamboyant but now offended Jean.  He brusquely ushers his wife back to the barge and orders her to stay there (Q5).

6.  A Separation
But Juliette, a provincial girl, is still under the spell of the peddler’s invocations of Paris, and she decides to go out to see the sights on her own for a few hours while the others in the barge are busy.  Upon discovering her absence, Jean, perhaps thinking she has run away with the peddler, impulsively orders his crew that they should depart from Paris without her (Q6).

Juliette, after some random window shopping on the Paris streets, returns to where the barge was docked and finds it gone.  She goes to buy a train ticket to their next destination, Corbeil, but a thief snatches her purse before she can do so.  So now Juliette is stuck in Paris and begins to see the more seamy side of a city in the middle of the Depression.  Paris is full of unemployed workers and unsavory characters ready to prey on pretty, unattended women.

7.  Jean and Père Jules
Now the focus shifts back to the barge, where Jean is severely lonely and depressed without his love.  Père Jules becomes worried about his near catatonic boss, and wonders what to do.  There is a memorable scene here, of Père Jules playing checkers with Jean to cheer him up, that has a laughable conclusion.  Almost in a trance, Jean, remembering Juliette’s earlier claim that you could see your beloved by opening your eyes underwater, jumps into the river and swims below the surface.  In another truly memorable sequence of shots, he does see an image of a smiling and beautiful Juliette as he swims underwater.

That night Jean and Juliette go to bed in separate locations and have erotic dreams of each other.  This is shown in a celebrated montage of dissolves back and forth between the two romantic dreamers.

8.  Arrival in Le Havre
With Jean still in a depressed stupor, Père Jules is basically running the barge, himself, as it docks in Le Havre.  Père Jules, who had early on appeared to be only an eccentric lout, is here shown in his own way to be sympathetic to the predicament and increasingly responsible.  He saves Jean from getting fired by the shipping company boss and then goes off in search of Juliette. 

On the street, Juliette enters a song palace (which has record-playing vending machines), and she chooses to listen to the then-popular “The Bargeman’s Song”.  Walking by on the sidewalk, Père Jules overhears the familiar song and enters the shop.  When he sees Juliette, he picks up the willing girl and carries her out.  Then he takes her back to the barge, and the reunion of Jean and Juliette is a final emotive shot that provides a lingering memory for the whole film.  The sixth, last, and most serious quarrel has ended in the only way such quarrels can genuinely end properly – in complete surrender to true love.

So Juliette and Jean are reunited in total love.  There are no questions to be asked or explanations to be given about past behavior.  But we know that they have both finally acknowledged to themselves that they must be together.  These are their own personal realizations they have come to about their authentic selves.  Love is more important and more essential than any other experience, and it is something that must be held onto as long as possible. 

This great story is all told through the magisterial eloquence of Boris Kaufman’s cinematography, Maurice Jaubert’s music, the acting of Michel Simon, Dita Parlo, and Jean Dasté, and, of course, the mise-en-scene of director Jean Vigo.

  1. Annette Insdorf, “FILM; 'L'Atalante,' a Slow Boat Bound for Lasting Fame”, The New York Times, (14 October 1990).   
  2. Francois Truffaut, The Films in My Life, Diversion Books, (1978), p. 23.
  3. Roger Ebert, “L’Atalante”, Great Movie, RogerEbert.com, (15 October 2000).   
  4. “Critics’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight and Sound, British Film Institute, (2012).  
  5. “Directors’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight and Sound, British Film Institute, (2012).    
  6. Luc Sante, “L’Atalante: Canal Music”, The Criterion Collection, (31 August, 2011).  

Julien Duvivier

Films of Julien Duvivier:

“Tales of Manhattan” - Julien Duvivier (1942)

Tales of Manhattan (1942) is a classic Hollywood “omnibus film” (aka “anthology film”) that features a vast range of famous movie stars and whose episodes were scripted by seventeen writers (including an uncredited Buster Keaton). Although the original narrative idea of the film was based on Mexican writer Francisco Rojas González's novel, Historia de un Frac (Story of a Tailcoat, 1930) and it was directed by Frenchman Julien Duvivier (Pépé le Moko, 1937) while working in the US during World War II, it was nevertheless very much a Hollywood studio concoction. And it is amazing to see so many big-time Hollywood stars in one film.  The list of them includes Charles Boyer, Henry Fonda, Rita Hayworth, Ginger Rogers, Charles Laughton, Edward G. Robinson, Cesar Romero, and George Sanders, plus a number of other familiar screen figures.

Narratives that are made up of a linked string of smaller narratives are always fascinating to me.  In fact one of the greatest of all films, in my opinion, was Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935), which comprised a sequence of seven exciting, linked mini-stories..  In each of the mini-stories of that film, the protagonist was trapped in a grave situation, but it ended with him making a miraculous escape and learning one more piece of the puzzle he had to solve.  Tales of Manhattan also consists of a sequence of stories, but many people seem to think that the only linkage between them is that a formal tailcoat passes from one story to the next.  But actually, there is also a thematic linkage connecting the various stories in Tales of Manhattan – that of role-playing and how it affects the lives of people.  And that thematic connection is part of what makes this film a classic.

When Tales of Manhattan was produced, it originally comprised six mini-stories, but the producers decided to drop one of the stories, the fifth one in the original sequence, before the film was released. About twenty years ago, though, that dropped tale was found in the 20th Century Fox vaults, and a restored version of the film was released.  So there are two versions of the film that people have seen.  I originally saw the five-tale version but have since seen the restored six-tale version.  Some people apparently feel that that dropped tale, starring W. C. Fields, was the best and funniest of the lot [1].  However, I think that the dropped tale is very weak and that the producers were absolutely right in cutting it from the original release.

The sequence of episodes in Tales of Manhattan follows some “tails” (a formal men’s dress coat) as they pass through a range of owners generally occupying successively lower rungs on the socioeconomic scale.

1.  Tale #1
The tails are initially delivered to famous stage actor Paul Orman (Charles Boyer), who needs them as a costume for his new play that is about to open.  Orman is warned by the chief tailor from whom he buys the tailcoat that his disgruntled cutter has cursed the tailcoat, vowing that they will bring bad luck to its future owners.  But the super-confidant Orman just laughs off such superstitious nonsense. 

Right away we are introduced to the film’s theme of role-playing, since Orman is a professional role-player on the stage.  In the next scene, we are fooled into believing that Orman has been shot dead, but then we see that this is only the closing scene of Orman’s new play that is premiering. Directly after the performance and still in his tailcoat, Orman rushes off to visit the married woman he is having an affair with, Ethel Halloway (Rita Hayworth).  Orman worries that Ethel is, herself, only role-playing with him, juggling two roles (as lover and loyal spouse) by lying both to him and to her husband, John (Thomas Mitchell).  So he tests her by pretending to jealously end their affair.  But Ethel is a skilled role-player, too, and passes the test. 

Then husband John catches Orman and Ethel together and more role-playing ensues.  This includes a suspenseful buildup to John’s shooting Orman with his hunting rifle.  And again Orman fools us with a great role-playing performance – this time pretending not to have been critically wounded.

Overall, this is a superb episode with excellent performances by all.

2.  Tale #2
The tailcoat then passes to wealthy playboy Harry Wilson (Cesar Romero), who is about to get married.  His fiancé Diane (Ginger Rogers) comes over to his apartment and, while Harry is out of the room, discovers an incriminating love letter from a girl named, “Squirrel” (Marion Martin), that was stashed in his own tailcoat.  When Harry realizes the fix he is in, he desperately summons his best friend,  George (Henry Fonda), to come over and bale him out by having George claim that the tailcoat Diane looked at actually belonged to him.  The newly acquired and supposedly cursed tailcoat plays a role in this ruse. 

Now the introverted and gentlemanly George has to play the role of the masculine lady’s man that Squirrel refers to her in her letter.  This causes Diane to look at George, whom she had previously dismissed as a nerd, in an entirely new light. 

The rest of this episode shows the growing attraction between George and Diane.  The mask afforded by George’s role-playing as Squirrel’s lover (she does show up in this episode) enables him to reveal his true, inner romantic nature.  This tale will appeal to those who want to see Fonda and Rogers romancing, but it is pretty lightweight and mostly played for laughs.  You can  already guess who ends up with whom in the end.

3.  Tale #3
The tailcoat winds up in a pawnshop, and it gets noticed by Elsa Smith (Elsa Lanchester), the wife of a brilliant but impoverished composer Charles Smith (Charles Laughton) [2].  Charles gets his one big chance to conduct his music for the philharmonic orchestra led by demanding director Arturo Bellini (Victor Francen), but he needs a tailcoat for the performance.  So Elsa rushes off to the pawnshop to get the tails she had seen there.

At the concert, Charles struggles to get into the too-small tailcoat and then begins conducting the orchestra.  During the performance, the tailcoat begins to tear apart, and the assembled audience erupts in laughter.  The performance comes to a halt, and Charles is shattered and in tears.  However, Bellini in the audience, stands up, removes his own coat, and entreats Charles to continue the performance.  Charles does so, and soon the rest of the men in the audience are inspired by Bellini’s noble act to remove their own coats, too.  The concert turns out to be a great success, and Charles’s career has been launched.

This episode is brilliant, because it graphically serves to remind us, through the torn tailcoat and Bellini’s humane gesture, that the reason everyone came to the concert was to hear beautiful music, not to observe the artificial conformance to dress standards.  Since the tailcoat is a symbol of social role-playing, its torn status was a reminder that sometimes other things are more important. 

4.  Tale #4
The tailcoat is now donated to a charity mission in a Manhattan slum, in this case Chinatown. There a forwarded letter is delivered to one of the mission’s aid recipients, Larry Browne, a penniless, unemployed drunkard.  The letter is an invitation to Browne’s 25th Ivy League college reunion, which will be held at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel.  Since formal dress is required, the mission lends Browne the tailcoat, but to save money they outfit him with a dickey to be worn under the coat instead of a dress shirt.

At the posh reunion, Browne is joyously greeted by his old friends, and he fools his successful and wealthy classmates into believing that he, too, has been a big success over the years.  But then Williams (George Sanders), a former classmate and sometime adversary shows up and threatens Browne’s equanimity.  Due to what later turns out to have been a misunderstanding, an inebriated classmate wants to hold a kangaroo court over a lost wallet, and Browne is put on “trial”, with attorney Williams eagerly volunteering to be the “prosecutor”.  They want Browne to allow himself to be searched, which would reveal his cheap dickey.

Faced with exposure, Browne abandons his role-playing and unmasks himself completely by giving a poignant account of his failed life over the past twenty-five years.  His confession is not to having stolen the wallet but worse – having been a failure in the outer world.

But the eloquence and genuineness of Browne’s confession is so moving that it has unexpectedly  favorable consequences for Browne in the end.  This episode is also brilliant and may be the film’s most memorable tale.  It is graced by George Sanders’s brief but customarily atmospheric role as Williams.  Sanders habitually portrayed suave but sinister cads that brought trouble in the films he was in, and his own sardonic autobiography was appropriately entitled, Memoirs of a Professional Cad (1960).

Tale #5 (deleted)
Although the other episodes are all around twenty minutes in length, this deleted episode is only nine minutes long.  It features W. C. Fields as Professor Pufflewhistle, who pretends to run an organization that condemns the use of alcohol.  He is invited to give a fund-raising lecture (for which he buys the tailcoat) by a wealthy woman (Margaret Dumont).  But her exasperated husband spikes with gin the punch bowl of cocoanut milk that is served for refreshments at the event.  Naturally everyone gets ridiculously drunk, and that is about the extent of this episode.  Fields, who was immensely popular in his day, plays his usual self as a ludicrously grandiloquent commentator on everything around him.  At the close we see the shyster professor up to his usual antics, explaining to a bartender that his idea of a finger of whiskey is measured by the length, rather than width, of his finger.

This episode doesn’t contribute much to the overall theme of role-playing, and it doesn’t fit in with the other stories, either.

Tale #6
The tailcoat is finally stolen from a used clothing shop by a thief who then uses it to gain entry to a private casino, where he steals about $50,000.  But in his small two-seater getaway plane  to Mexico, the thief’s coat catches fire, and he frantically throws it out of the plane, with the stolen money still in the coat pocket. The coat lands in a field of southern black sharecroppers, where Luke (Paul Robeson) and Esther (Ethel Waters) see it while working. They interpret the fallen coat and its money as God’s gift, and their religious beliefs stir them to consult Reverend Lazarus (Eddie “Rochester” Anderson [3]) as to what is the proper way to deal with the money.

There are some minstrel show stereotypes here, and Robeson, who was a staunch communist, had misgivings about this tale.  However, Robeson is given the opportunity to make a speech  to the congregation promoting the idea that the bulk of the money is not to go towards fulfilling individual, selfish wishes, but to be used for the common good.  Given our current political landscape, where a significant number of people claim that selfishness and “America First” are the foundation of a successful world, Robeson’s words here are refreshing.  And at the end we do get to hear Robeson’s sonorous voice singing a hymn to God.

The film’s closing shot shows the tailcoat’s last resting place – serving as a scarecrow and playing its final role.

So the tailcoat in Tales of Manhattan is both an instrument and a symbol for role-playing.  Although the coat is allegedly cursed, it usually has the quixotic effect of generating good fortune.  To some of the characters, it is a rabbit’s foot in the way it serves to call attention to role-playing on the part of the people surrounding our principal players and triggering a better outcome.  Role-playing is usually artificial, and the main characters in Episodes 1, 3, and 4 are most benefitted when they are freed from the burdensome confinement of their imposed roles. But not always – George’s role-playing in Episode 2 had the opposite effect, allowing him to find his inner voice and express his love.  All in all, the tailcoat’s social straitjacket paradoxically opened the door for displays of authentic, loving human compassion across a wide spectrum.

Overall, Tales of Manhattan is a four-star film, even though some of the individual episodes do not measure up to that standard.  But when you have so many contributors to a film, including its script, you cannot really expect uniformity.  Although Episodes 2, 5, and 6 are more distracting than pleasing, Episodes 1, 3, and 4 are so good as to make up for any deficiencies elsewhere and render the entire a film as an outstanding achievement.  The acting, story structure, and pacing in these tales are all moving and compelling.

  1.  “Tales of Manhattan”, Wikipedia, (2 March 2017).    
  2. Elsa Lanchester was also the real wife of Charles Laughton.
  3. Eddie Anderson played the character “Rochester” on Jack Benny’s radio show and enjoyed great popularity with American audiences.

Gurinder Chadha

Films of Gurinder Chadha:

“Viceroy’s House” - Gurinder Chadha (2017)

Viceroy’s House is a historical drama about the establishment of Indian Independence in 1947 and the end of the British Raj.  Released in both English and Hindi language versions, the film was directed by Gurinder Chadha, whose own grandmother was caught up in the chaos of the catastrophic Indian Partition that took place at that time.

The general subject matter of the film is both fascinating and disturbing.  At the time of Indian independence and the partition of the subcontinent into two mutually hostile nations, India and Pakistan, the violence that ensued was one of the greatest humanitarian catastrophes in world history [1,2].  Roughly one million civilians were killed during these disturbances (with some estimates ranging as high as two million [3]), and 75,000 women were raped, a great many of whom were murdered and disfigured [3,4].  In addition some 14 million people – roughly half of them Muslims and the other half Hindus and Sikhs – were made homeless and had to rush with few belongings to safer harbors across the borders.  As William Dalrymple described it, the tragedy was a “mutual genocide” [4].  The lasting legacy of this tragedy continues to haunt the Indian subcontinent, just as the American Civil War continues to haunt the US to this day.

There are many themes one might cover if one were to give an account of this period, including
  • Aspects of the nonviolent movement for Indian freedom led by Mohandas (“Mahatma”) Gandhi;
  • The interplay between the Indian-side political activists, including the difficult interpersonal relationships of the leading figures Jawaharlal Nehru, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, and Gandhi;
  • The machinations on the British side of things, at the center of which was the last British Viceroy of India, Lord Louis Mountbatten.
Chadha has chosen to focus her film on the latter aspect of this tale, with a particular portrayal of the final days of British pomp and ceremonial overlordship in the country.  The other elements, which to me are more fascinating, are only briefly alluded to.  As such, and given the fact that Chadha has tried to cover the various social levels within the Viceroy’s Indian residence, the film has a flavor reminiscent of popular British TV series Upstairs, Downstairs (1971-75) and Downton Abbey (2011-2016).  In fact the connection with Downton Abbey is enhanced by the fact that Hugh Bonneville, who played the lead role in Downton Abbey, plays as a somewhat similar role as Lord Mountbatten in this film.

Much of the historical material for Viceroy’s House is drawn from two books on the topic, Freedom at Midnight (1975), by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre [5], and The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India's Partition (2006), by Narendra Singh Sarila [6,7]. Both books are based on sources with direct, personal access to Lord Mountbatten, so they are presumed to carry a level of authenticity on the viceregal side of things.  Freedom at Midnight has a wider scope than this film, including much more material with respect to Gandhi’s activities, but thankfully Ms. Chadha managed to avoid Collins’ and Lapierre’s sometimes patronizing tone [8].

As it is, the narrative in Viceroy’s House”  is more confined to the Downton-Abbey-style social side of things.  This includes, for example, the efforts of Lady Edwina Mountbatten (played by Gillian Anderson, who was famous for her role in the TV series The X-Files” (1993-2002) and who recently played in the mini-series War and Peace (2016)) to include traditional Indian cuisine in the custom-bound and archly stiff viceregal dinner menus.  The sumptuousness of  the Viceroy’s house is literally there, since the film was shot in the original dwelling.  Even though the grandeur of the building is evident, it was still surprising for me to learn that this was one of the largest palaces in world history [5].

On the “downstairs” level of the Viceroy’s House narrative, there is a presentation of a hopeless romance between two servants from “opposing” religious backgrounds – Jeet (Manish Dayal; The Hundred-Foot Journey, 2014), who is a Hindu manservant in the mansion, and Aalia (Huma Qureshi), who is Jeet’s former childhood friend and who is a Muslim.  These are not really star-crossed lovers in the fashion of Romeo and Juliet, since the romance never really gets off the ground – Alia is already betrothed to someone else.  In any case this particular narrative thread fails to develop any traction and gradually becomes tedious [9].

More interesting is what goes on “upstairs”, especially the too-brief interactions we get to see between Lord Mountbatten and his Indian counterparts with whom he has to negotiate – Gandhi (Neeraj Kabi), Nehru (Tanveer Ghani), and Jinnah (Denzil Smith).  All three of them generally look the part.  However, Neeraj Kabi seems too tall for the role of Gandhi, who I understand was only five feet tall (and I would guess that Gandhi’s small physical stature was an important part of the humble presence he made before other people).  And Nehru’s reportedly charismatic personality is not much in evidence here.  In addition, it is not surprising, given the film’s intended general audience, that Ms. Chadha left out any references to Nehru’s alleged affair with Lady Mountbatten.  And, of course, the remote and austere Muhammad Ali Jinnah is a fascinating but inevitably mysterious character.

A key question that comes to everyone’s mind when watching Viceroy’s House is whether the Indian Partition could have been avoided.  Lord Mountbatten came to India with the intention of avoiding partition, but could the British government have done more to stop it?  Jinnah wanted an independent Pakistan, while Nehru and Gandhi were opposed to dividing up the subcontinent.  Gandhi, in fact, was so implacably opposed to partitioning that he was even willing to let a new united India be governed by Jinnah and his Muslim League [5].  But Jinnah was equally implacable, and he pronounced [10],
“We shall have India divided, or we shall have India destroyed.”
Interestingly, the Muslim League at the start of the world war did not even represent a quarter of Muslim voters, yet it was able to demand the partition of the nation on religious lines at the end of it [7].

We also learn that the British government back in England, since Winston Churchill’s time, actually secretly preferred to have an independent Pakistan established.  This was because it was felt in some quarters that, given Nehru’s socialist sympathies, Pakistan would be more likely than India to cooperate with Great Britain’s efforts to stop Communist Russia from securing a warm-water (i.e. never iced-up) seaport in what is now southern Pakistan [6].

So the British went ahead with a hastily conceived plan to partition. And the crucial maps setting the boundary separating India and Pakistan were drawn up in 1947 by Cyril Radcliffe, who had never visited India in his life before being appointed as the chairman of the Boundary Commission [5].

Of course, if there hadn’t been a partitioning, it is possible that a united India might have been so unstable that it would have disastrously disintegrated into a perpetually hostile collection of warlord states with even greater casualties.  What we do know is that the India that did result has been a remarkable multicultural success.  Today, more than fourteen  percent of its population is Muslim, and it ranks third on the list of countries with the greatest number of Muslims. It has persisted for seventy years as the world’s largest democracy, encompassing almost a one-sixth of the world’s population and standing as a monument for the rest of humanity.

Viceroy’s House is only intermittently successful in telling this story, but it does give a glimpse of that notable period when modern India took shape, and it may be of interest so some viewers.

  1. Ved Mehta, Face to Face: The Autobiography of a Young Indian, Blind from Childhood, (1958), Collins. 
  2. Ved Mehta, Portrait of India, (1970),  Farrar Straus & Giroux.
  3. Urvashi Butalia, “The Other Side of Silence: Voices From the Partition of India”, (2000), Duke University Press.  excerpt here: http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/b/butalia-silence.html
  4. William Dalrymple, “The Great Divide – The Violent Legacy of Indian Partition”, The New Yorker, (29 June 2015).   
  5. Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, Freedom at Midnight, (1975) William Collins & Co., Ltd.  
  6. Narendra Singh Sarila, The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India's Partition, (2006), HarperCollins.
  7. Jad Adams, “The Ill-fated Battle for Indian Independence”, The Telegraph, (28 Aug 2006).
  8. For example, “He [Mountbatten] had surrounded himself with trappings of imperial grandeur that so delighted India’s masses . . . “ (p. 94).
  9. Guy Lodge, “Berlin Film Review: ‘Viceroy’s House’”, Variety, (6 February 2017).   
  10. Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, op cit., p. 36.