L’Atalante (1934). 89 minutes. Directed by Jean Vigo. Starring Dita Parlo (as Juliette), Jean Dasté (as Jean), Michel Simon (as Père Jules), Gilles Margaritis (as peddler), Louis Lefebvre (as cabin boy), Maurice Gilles (as manager), and Raphaël Diligent (as Raspoutine).
L’Atalante’s 1962 appearance on Sight and Sound’s decennial poll of the ten greatest films of all time, alongside such classics as Citizen Kane (1941) and Battleship Potemkin (1925), solidified its status as a cineaste favorite and required arthouse fare. François Truffaut and others have advocated for its brilliance, lyricism, and admirable earthiness. Yet the film community’s insistence on L’Atalante’s greatness has distanced some modern critics from it, including David Kamp and Lawrence Levi, who fail to see profundity in its artful shots and poetic sequences. While it is not clear to me that it belongs alongside Kane or Potemkin, or that it outranks other French films of its era such as The Grand Illusion (1937), L’Atalante is nevertheless … Read the rest
Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932). 84 minutes. Directed by Jean Renoir. Starring Michel Simon (as Boudu), Charles Granval (as Edouard Lestingois), Marcelle Hainia (as Emma Lestingois), Sévérine Lerczinska (as Anne Marie), Jean Gehret (as Vigour), Max Dalban (as Godin), and Jean Dasté (as student).
Pauline Kael famously described Boudu Saved from Drowning as the story of a proto-hippie whom a family of bourgeois benefactors attempts to reform. In many ways this description works. I can attest that Boudu (the proto-hippie) does bear the markers of the many individuals who continue to inhabit the counter-cultural margins of the Bay Area, where I live: a free and easy approach to sex (witness how he impulsively grabs and fondles the maid Anne Marie while he carries on an affair with the lady of the house), a lack of care for his personal appearance (the clothes full of holes and the unkempt beard and mustache), the periodic narcissism (the lack of interest in the … Read the rest
The Kingdom of the Fairies (1903). 17 minutes. Directed by Georges Méliès. Starring Georges Méliès and Bleuette Bernon.
Together with A Trip to the Moon (1902) and The Impossible Voyage (1904), The Kingdom of the Fairies is one of Georges Méliès’s most impressive silent short films. The story is of the variety that Méliès loved, involving an epic journey, fierce magical creatures, and a grand final spectacle with a parade. The plot, which is fairly simple, is enhanced by the beautiful and inventive visuals that Méliès incorporates throughout the film, and the movie as a whole functions as a kind of catalogue of the various special effects that Méliès was fond of using. Its elaborate sets and complex techniques are fascinating, and overall the film is one of Méliès’s best.
The movie begins in a royal palace with a prince and princess, whose betrothal ceremony we witness. An evil male witch materializes in the middle of the court, menaces the … Read the rest
Un Chien Andalou (1929). 21 minutes. Directed by Luis Buñuel. Starring Simone Mareuil (as young girl), Pierre Batcheft (as young man and second young man), Luis Buñuel (as man in prologue), Salvador Dalí (as seminarian and man on beach), Robert Hommet (as third young man), Fano Messan (as androgynous young woman), and Jaime Miraveilles (as seminarian). Written by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí.
Un Chien Andalou is a silent short written by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí that has developed a reputation among cineastes as required viewing. This surealist experiment, called “the most famous short film ever made” by Roger Ebert, was intended to shock audiences; Buñuel famously later said that he kept stones in his pocket at the premiere in case he needed to defend himself against enraged viewers. I would hesitate to say that it horrified the public, but it was a sensation and unnerved many of those who saw it. When viewing it recently, I had … Read the rest
A Trip to the Moon (1902). 16 minutes. Directed by Georges Méliès. Starring Georges Méliès (as Professor Barbenfouillis); Bleuette Bernon (as Phoebe); François Lallement (as officer of the marines); Henri Delanney (as captain of the rocket); Jule-Eugène Legris (as parade leader); Victor André, Delpierre, Farjaux, Kelm, and Brunnet (as astronomers); Ballet of the Théâtre du Châtelet (as stars and cannon attendants); and the acrobats of the Folies Bergère (as Selenites). Written and produced by Georges Méliès.
A Trip to the Moon is without a doubt one of the most iconic movies ever made. Fritz Kramer has argued that the film’s moon, which is styled as a human face, is so famous that it “is instantly recognizable even to people who have never seen a single silent film.” The movie is based on the Jules Verne novels From the Earth to the Moon (1865) and Around the Moon (1870), as well as H. G. Wells’s The First Men in the Moon … Read the rest
Nosferatu (1922). 94 minutes. Directed by F. W. Murnau. Starring Max Schreck (as Count Orlok), Gustav von Wangenheim (as Thomas Hutter), Greta Schröder (as Ellen Hutter), Alexander Granach (as Knock), John Gottowt (as Professor Bulwer), and Georg H. Schnell (as Harding). Based on the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker.
We are fortunate to have F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu in any form at all. The movie is based on Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula (1897), but Murnau never obtained permission from the Stoker estate to film his adaptation. Although the names and places were changed in the film from the original novel (this was done as a precaution), Nosferatu was still essentially Dracula. When Stoker’s widow determined that Murnau had made a film of her husband’s novel without her approval, she sued for breach of copyright in Germany and won. A judge ordered all existing copies of the film destroyed. Fortunately, Nosferatu had already been imported to France, and it is … Read the rest
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933). 124 minutes. Directed by Fritz Lang. Starring Otto Wernicke (as Inspector Lohmann), Karl Meixner (as Hofmeister), Oscar Beregi, Sr. (as Professor Baum), Gustav Diessl (as Thomas Kent), and Rudolf Klein-Rogge (as Dr. Mabuse).
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is the last film that Fritz Lang made before leaving Nazi Germany. It begins by introducing the disgraced police detective Hofmeister, who in order to redeem himself in the eyes of his superior, Inspector Lohmann, has doggedly and independently investigated a criminal syndicate. Before he can reveal the name of the head of the syndicate to Lohmann, something happens to Hofmeister to make him go mad, and he is subsequently placed in an asylum. In the same asylum, we find the criminal mastermind Dr. Mabuse, who is insane and rapidly writing strange instructions (his “testament”) on how to carry out illegal activity. Dr. Mabuse is supervised by the psychiatrist Professor Baum, who considers the crime boss … Read the rest
The Blue Angel (1930). 99 minutes. Directed by Josef von Sternberg. Starring Emil Jannings (as Professor Immanuel Rath), Marlene Dietrich (as Lola Lola), Kurt Gerron (as Kiepert, the magician), Hans Albers (as Mazeppa, the strongman), and Reinhold Bernt (as the clown). Songs by Friedrich Holländer and Robert Liebmann.
Roger Ebert concludes his review of The Blue Angel by placing its characters in historical context: “You can glimpse the sadomasochism of the Nazi pose in the strange relationship of Professor Rath and Lola Lola.” Although there are no explicit allusions to Hitler’s political movement in the 1930 film, Ebert’s suggestion that a creepy Nazi power dynamic is evident in the Jannings-Dietrich portrayal is provocative and probably accurate. The Blue Angel was originally released in the years just before Germany’s official transformation into a Nazi state, and it surely picks up on those larger cultural currents. But the film is also a weird sort of backstage musical that leaves a bad taste … Read the rest
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). 114 minutes. Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer. Starring Renée Jeanne Falconetti (as Joan of Arc), Eugène Silvain (as Évêque Pierre Cauchon), André Berley (as Jean d’Estivet), and Antonin Artaud (as Jean Massieu). Cinematography by Rudolph Maté.
In honor of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, I am writing about a silent film that has disturbed me more than any other film, silent or otherwise, that I have seen in a long time. It is Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. In response to the film’s intense emotional focus, Roger Ebert wrote, “Perhaps the secret of Dreyer’s success is that he asked himself, ‘What is this story really about?’ And after he answered that question, he made a movie about absolutely nothing else.” Ebert does not explicitly tell us what that answer is, but I have an idea. Dreyer has made a movie that is about a horrifying … Read the rest
M (1931). 110 minutes. Directed by Fritz Lang. Starring Peter Lorre (as Hans Beckert), Gustaf Gründgens (as The Safecracker), and Otto Wernicke (as Inspector Karl Lohmann).
It has often been pointed out that M is a terrific example of a film that bridges the silent and talkie periods. M was German director Fritz Lang’s first talkie, and it makes use of sound in a very interesting way. For many early filmmakers, their first ventures into sound became opportunities to show off the new technology by using sound constantly and extravagantly — hence the large number of musicals in the early days of sound films. Lang’s M was different, though, in that it actually contained many evocative, intensely silent passages and, at other times, very carefully and strategically used sound. For example, early in the film, we come to know that young Elsie Beckman (played by Inge Landgut) has disappeared for good when we spy her balloon silently trapped in the … Read the rest