In a third dispatch from Berlin, Pamela Jahn reports on a new American indie talent and Oskar Roehler’s unsuccessful take on a famous case of Nazi propaganda. Check this section for more reports from the festival in the coming days.
An austere, dark adaptation of Daniel Woodrell’s country noir saga about a teenager’s search for her missing father, Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone is a chilling, nightmarish tale of rural struggle for survival complicated by family feuds. When 17-year-old Ree (impressively played by Jennifer Lawrence) learns that her drug-dealing father has disappeared after pawning the family home and jeopardising her sick mother and young sibling’s existence, she decides to find him – dead or alive. Looking for the truth among members of his criminal circle of friends and relatives scattered in the forests of the Ozark Mountains, she is faced with a series of dangerous and violent events, but gradually disentangles the web of lies that surrounds her father’s vanishing. As the mystery is solved, however, the story becomes overly sentimental, which feels at odds with the film’s otherwise intriguing atmosphere of mistrust, threat and everyday misery. But besides this, Winter’s Bone is gripping enough to keep you interested, with Granik showing an eye for detail and a genuine talent for building a creeping sense of obscurity and despair.
Jew Suss: Rise and Fall (Jud SÃ¼ÃŸ – Film Ohne Gewissen)
Boos and incredulous gasps greeted the end of the press screening of Oskar Roehler’s Jew Suss: Rise and Fall, a star-studded and slick but overall disappointingly hollow Nazi drama about one man’s Faustian pact with the Hitler regime. A confused, clunky mix of satire and melodrama, the film tells the story of Austrian actor Ferdinand Marian (Tobias Moretti), who is forced to perform the role of Joseph Suss Oppenheimer in Jew Suss, a film based on Goebbels (ridiculously overplayed by a ranting Moritz Bleibtreu) and Veit Harlan’s fraudulent adaptation of a novel by German-Jewish writer Lionel Feuchtwanger. Married to a half-Jewish woman, Marian’s initial attempts to turn down Goebbels’s offer only serve to intensify the excitement of the latter, leaving the actor no choice but to accept and perform the part of the powerful, manipulative Jewish businessman and financial adviser of the Duke of Wurttemberg, who was hanged in Stuttgart in 1738. The main problem with Roehler’s film is that he focuses merely on Marian’s tragedy, ultimately turning the attention away from the history of the notorious film that became one of the Third Reich’s most offensive and commercially successful pieces of propaganda to concentrate on an all too predictable human drama.
ART BY CHANCE is the brand new “Ultra Short Film Festival” that will be aired in May 2010 all around the world. Films will meet with us unexpected, non-theatrical venues around the world on digital advertising screens located inside metros, busses, railways, public transport. We have selected three films from last year’s festival that we really like. See below for details of how to submit your short film.
ART BY CHANCE is opened to movies of all kinds; fiction, animation, documentary and video art with the exception of training and advertising films. Enthusiastic and creative international filmmakers will be preparing 30-second long films on ‘Time’. Participants can also submit online from www.artbychance.org.
In her second dispatch from Berlin, Pamela Jahn tells us about Banksy’s first directorial effort as well as a German crime thriller based on the real-life story of an Austrian robber-cum-marathon runner. Check this section for more reports from the festival in the coming days.
Exit through the Gift Shop
Given all you know, or rather don’t know about Banksy, it comes as quite a surprise that for his first foray into filmmaking the clandestine street artist has made a documentary that to a certain extent features his secretive self. Billed as ‘the world’s first street art disaster movie’, Exit through the Gift Shop gives an exclusive insight into the street art scene of recent years as seen through the eyes of an over-excited French second-hand-clothing dealer, Thierry Guetta, who became obsessed with videotaping street artists and graffitists at work in Los Angeles and abroad, and ultimately plunged into the art scene himself. Both Guetta’s life and Banksy’s film take a dramatic turn as the illustrious Frenchman and the street artist become friends. Encouraged by Banksy to mount his own show, Guetta conquers the art world as Mr Brainwash and in return entrusts his enormous tape collection to Banksky who knows how to use the material to good effect. What follows has to be seen to be believed – or not. For entertaining as Exit through the Gift Shop is, it is not quite clear whether what we see is real or just another hoax, or as Bansky himself prudently claims in a video message that precedes the screening: ‘As it turns out, some of the people don’t believe it anyway and they think the film is some kind of spoof. This is ironic because Exit through the Gift Shop is one of the most honest films you’ll ever see.’
Exit through the Gift Shop is released in UK cinemas by Revolver Entertainment on March 5.
The Robber (Der Räuber)
Based on the real-life case of the Austrian serial bank robber who became known as ‘Pump-gun Ronnie’ in the late 80s, Benjamin Heisenberg’s The Robber was a welcome discovery in a competition section that so far has been rather dreary. The film tells the story of Johann Rettenberger (Andreas Lust), both a successful marathon runner and confirmed criminal, who is driven by a constant, uncontrollable need for speed and adrenalin rushes. Shortly after he is once more released from jail, Rettenberger inevitably falls back into his old habits, raiding and running, and soberly measuring his heart rate after any physical strain. He even breaks records as an athlete at local competitions, but neither the sport nor the unconditional love he receives from his girlfriend Erika (Franziska Weisz) can bring his troubled mind to rest. Following a man permanently on the move, Heisenberg succeeds in capturing the inner turmoil of Rettenberger’s animal-like spirit with the same meticulous precision and steely determination that his character puts into his strict training scheme. And although some might argue that with its bleak, cold visual style and sparse narrative The Robber doesn’t add anything new to the gangster genre, the film is well done and has an unsettling intensity and unfaltering energy from start to finish.
From 28 January to 12 February 2010, the Himalaya Film and Cultural Festival celebrated the rich and varied cultures of the world’s mightiest mountain range with film, music, art and photography. Eleanor McKeown sums up the aims and achievements of this unique event.
The UK’s first Himalayan Film & Cultural Festival came to an end on Friday, after two weeks of screenings embracing a broad sweep of cinematic culture, from Afghanistan to Szechuan. A mixture of documentary, shorts and fiction film (complemented by musical acts and an art exhibition), the programme allowed audiences to experience many works that would not normally reach London cinemas.
A case in point was the feature film Kagbeni (2007), a Nepali adaptation of WW Jacobs’s 1902 short story ‘The Monkey’s Paw’. After the screening, I caught up with director Bhusan Dahal for a chat about the Nepali film industry. It was fascinating to talk with Dahal about the novelty of the industry in Nepal. The first Nepali film was made only 50 years ago and production has been inconsistent during the industry’s short history, interrupted by insurgency within the country. With Kagbeni, Dahal hoped to reignite a struggling industry and encourage others within Nepal to start making films again. He and his crew created a buzz around the film by employing unknown actors and using new technology. The film was the first ever Nepali feature to be shot on digital video: ‘We were criticised. A lot of people said digital cinema is not cinema. Film has to be on film. It has to be celluloid.’
This may sound strange to UK filmgoers, but surprises like this was what the Himalayan Film & Cultural Festival was all about. The cinema programming aimed to expose UK audiences to film industries from remote cultures that they might not otherwise engage with. This aim was nicely echoed in a special educational strand, which arranged video exchanges between children from Hackney schools and the Tibetan Children’s Village in the foothills of the Indian Himalaya. With lively and packed-out screenings, live musical performances and a specially-curated art exhibition, it is to be hoped that the festival goes from strength to strength in creating a dialogue between Himalayan cinema and London audiences in the years to come.
Electric Sheep liked Frozen (Shivajee Chandrabhushan)
A graceful, elegant film, both visually and thematically, Frozen is a slow-paced evocation of a rebellious young girl’s life with her father and brother in the remote Himalayan mountains. When one day the Army disrupts the desolate peace of their surroundings and erects a camp opposite their house in order to fight some vague terrorist enemy, it is the first sign that the family will be forced to change their way of life. Elliptical and subtly suggestive, infused with thoughtful spirituality, filled with memorable images, it is a deeply affecting, soulful film. VIRGINIE SELAVY
Eleanor McKeown talks to the veteran cinematographer who shot Get Carter.
Seated in his living room, overlooking a dark and frosty Regent’s canal, Wolf Suschitzky is sifting through pages of typewritten notes: ‘Oh, I missed out Ulysses!’ Running through a fascinating record of cast and crew lists, his lilting Viennese voice pauses only briefly for offers of tea and sherry or the occasional chime of the grandfather clock. There is a lot to talk about. Joseph Strick’s 1967 adaptation of James Joyce’s novel is one of some 200 films shot through the eye of Suschitzky’s camera. Suschitzky is 97 years old (he eloquently expresses it: ‘I’m two and a half years away from my first hundred’) and his work spans a broad sweep of the history of film. He talks about the introduction of CinemaScope and digital film with an immeasurable, truly unique, perspective.
Suschitzky’s career as a cinematographer started in the 1930s with an introduction to filmmaker Paul Rotha, the leading figure in the British Documentary Movement. Up to this point, Suschitzky had focused on still photography under the influence of his sister, Edith Tudor-Hart, a student of the Bauhaus who became a well-known social documentary photographer. Cameras seem to run in the Suschitzky genes: Peter, one of Suschitzky’s offspring (‘I can’t call them children – my eldest is a grandfather four times over!’), works as David Cronenberg’s cinematographer and his own son has also become a cameraman. Initially, Suschitzky studied photography in Vienna for three years (‘I could have learnt the same in three months… the aesthetics of photography were never discussed, only the mechanics and chemistry’) before leaving the country with his Dutch girlfriend in 1934, outraged by the growth of Austro-fascism: ‘We had a civil war, which is swept under the carpet nowadays; two thousand dead and no one talks about it.’
The following years present a fascinating example of how shifting political situations and personal destinies intertwined in 1930s Europe. Having been turned away from London, Suschitzky ended up in Amsterdam and married his Dutch girlfriend; ‘we tried to earn a living but it didn’t work out and luckily she left me after a year because had I stayed on, I wouldn’t be here’. He returned to England and was able to stay with his sister and her English husband. There, Rotha invited him to work on his film, Zoo Babies (1938), shot on location at London Zoo and Whipsnade. It was the beginning of a long, fruitful partnership and Suschitzky’s growing reputation as a documentary cameraman, with a speciality in location work. He was initially considered an ‘alien enemy’ and unable to take on any paid work in England, but the Second World War provided a new opportunity, as cameramen were drafted into army film units to produce propaganda films: ‘As I refused to take on a German passport from my Austrian one, I only had a piece of paper saying I was stateless, but suddenly I had no problem travelling all over Britain making films for the government.’
Given this new right to work and commended by Rotha, Suschitzky became a leading cinematographer in a fascinatingly creative period of British cinema. There was no film school (‘we were really all amateurs in documentary films’) and no budget (‘films were sent out for tender to various documentary companies and I suppose the cheapest one got the job!’) and despite (or maybe because) of this, filmmakers gave a fantastically creative treatment to their subjects. Although some works may seem jarringly moralistic or paternalistic to contemporary audiences, no one could fail to be delighted by the originality and vivacity of the visual composition and editing. The documentary films that Suschitzky worked on – such as World of Plenty (1943) or Cotton Come Home (1946) – remain beautiful examples of experimental, rhythmic filmmaking. It is no surprise when Suschitzky tells me the editors from this period were reading Eisenstein and Pudovkin to learn the structure of film. This delightful rhythm and energy is also evident in a later project that Suschitzky worked on: Snow (1963), ‘a very nice little film’ commissioned by the British Transport board. Filmmaker Geoffrey Jones slices and arranges Suschitzky’s beautiful shots of workers clearing the snow off the railway line into a wonderful crescendo of building music and speeding trains. Suschitzky seems to have enjoyed working on these rhythmic pieces of cinema and has a keen respect for the editing process: ‘I always regretted that I never worked in the cutting room… The cutting room is the place where you should start to learn the grammar of film.’
After Paul Rotha Productions disbanded, many members of the company, complaining that they wanted more freedom, decided to create the first co-operative film unit in Britain. The collective proved successful and was chosen by the national coal board to make monthly newsreels about miners, their social lives and developments in mining equipment. Having to work with heavy, enclosed 500-watt lamps in hot, dark conditions was a technical challenge but Suschitzky speaks very fondly of the miners and their work: ‘As far as I was concerned, they couldn’t pay the miners enough – they were working under a three-foot ceiling, unable to stand up for most of the day. They were great chaps and we got on well with all of them.’ Indeed, the social-political aspect of the British Documentary Movement seemed to appeal to Suschitzky, who was born above his parents’ socialist bookshop and whose sister, Edith, played a key role in recruiting members of the Cambridge Spy ring and NKVD (Soviet political police).
The collaborative aspect of film also appears to have been an important element for Suschitzky. Throughout our conversation, he is constantly generous about cast and crew members. With one exception (an English actor who vainly complained that Suschitzky ‘did not know how to light a star’), the actors he worked with are invariably ‘lovely’ and ‘wonderful’. One gets the sense that collaboration and interaction were vital to his enjoyment of camerawork. His conversation is peppered with personal stories, from the focus-puller snipping off the burning end of Vincent Price’s cigarette on the set of Theatre of Blood (1973) to Alfie Bass, fooling passers-by dressed up as an old man during the shooting of The Bespoke Overcoat (1955). His still portraiture photography, in particular, shows a keen interest in the human subject. Even animals at the zoo take on anthropomorphic expressions and soulful depth under his lens. And although it is clear that Suschitzky deeply respected Rotha’s work, he has one complaint: ‘He was a bit intellectual for my taste… The human angle didn’t come into his documentaries like it did with Harry Watt or others.’
The Austrian Cultural Forum’s photo exhibition presents rare, behind-the-scenes shots from Wolf Suschitzky’s films, as well as unpublished portraits of directors, actors and actresses with whom he has worked. More details on their website.
But Rotha, as well as initiating Suschitzky’s documentary career, was also instrumental in his move into features. Given his adept work on location, Suschitzky was the perfect choice as cinematographer for Rotha’s fictional film, No Resting Place (1950), a tale about Irish tinkers, shot on location in Ireland. Despite some problems with the weather (‘We spent most of the time sitting in the bus waiting for the rain to stop’), the film was very innovative as most British films were shot in the studio at this time, and it garnered a lot of interest: ‘Someone from the government film bank even visited the set to see how a location film was made, and all I remember he said to me was, â€œDon’t talk to me about 3D films, I’ve only got one eye!â€’ It was the start of Suschitzky’s varied and very successful career in feature films, from Jack Clayton’s Oscar-winning short, The Bespoke Overcoat (1955), to Mike Hodges’s cult classic, Get Carter (1971) (‘my most famous film… which everyone in Britain has seen!’). Despite such high-profile and respected projects, Suschitzky is very humble about his work in film. He finds the title Director of Photography too pompous and tells me: ‘I always tried to put on the screen what the director wanted. I wasn’t an ambitious artist as some cameramen were. Of course, one discussed shots with the director and the operator… it was a matter of discussing between the three of us usually.’ This humility is a hallmark of Suschitzky’s conversation but it is clear that he has made a great contribution to British film. Cinematographers are too often the unsung heroes of cinema. Thankfully, the Society for Film and Media at Vienna has gathered together rare, behind-the-scenes photographs from Suschitzky’s films, as well as many of his unpublished portraits of directors, actors and actresses. This beautiful record of his cinematic work not only tells the tale of his own work, but incidentally traces the history of 20th-century British cinema.
The 2010 edition of the Berlinale has just started and in her first dispatch from Berlin Pamela Jahn tells us about the highlights of the first few days. Check this section for more reports from the festival in the coming days.
This year’s Berlinale opened on Thursday 11 February, but the real standout event was the gala screening of the newly restored version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis at the Friedrichstadtpalast on Friday 12, with live accompaniment from the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin. Part of the myth surrounding Fritz Lang’s best known work comes from the fact that the original was cut shortly after the premiere of the film at the Ufa-Palast in Berlin on 10 January 1927. Although the restored version is 30 minutes longer than the print released in 2001, it still doesn’t completely recreate the original version. One sequence of the 16 mm negative of the film that was miraculously found in Buenos Aires in 2008 was simply too damaged and had to be narrated in intertitles. The newly added scenes not only help to better understand the fragmentary plot of Lang’s futuristic epic about the struggle between workers and bosses in a capitalist dystopia, but they also ensure an entirely unique and captivating cinematic experience. In addition to sequences depicting the conflict between industrialist Joh Fredersen and scientist Rotwang, creator of the machine woman, and extended scenes at the end of the film, when Maria is pursued by the masses of uprising workers, stunningly mounted images of Metropolis‘s red-light district Yoshiwara and inserted biblical references intensify the fantastical portrait of a time and place that feel both strangely affecting and disturbingly familiar. This reconstructed classic was the perfect – if ‘unofficial’ – opening to the 60th Berlinale.
Eureka Entertainment have just announced that they will release the newly restored version of Metropolis in UK cinemas later in the year, before making it available in a new DVD and Blu-ray edition in The Masters of Cinema Series.
Also worthy of note in the first few days of the festival was Howl, one of the American films in competition, which dramatises the landmark 1957 obscenity trial revolving around Allen Ginsberg’s poem of the same name. Combining animated sequences, dramatic narration and documentary style, the film offers a captivating, yet partly unsatisfying, insight into the creative process and personal struggle that Ginsberg was going through while writing poetry. The dark Kafkaesque animation – which is reminiscent of the visual style of Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir – creates a vibrant and fascinating imagery that brilliantly evokes the poem, complementing the dramatic courtroom scenes and fragments of a re-imagined interview with Ginsberg (played by James Franco), given to an unseen interviewer and interspersed with flashbacks from his past. Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman aim high both aesthetically and conceptually, but they only really dazzle on the former level. Yet, despite a slightly artificial, long-winded feel, Howl is a vivid, engaging and lovingly made film.
FrightFest returns to the Glasgow Film Festival for 5th year and we like the sound of Belgian giallo homage Amer (Bitter), and to stay with the genre, the re-mastered, uncut version of the classic Lucio Fulci movie, A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin. Also definitely worth checking out is the new film by Vincenzo Cube Natali, Splice. And if we were in Glasgow we wouldn’t miss the first Icelandic exploitation film, Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre…
More info on these films from the press release:
AMER (BITTER) – UK Premiere
Gialli fans will not want to miss co-directors Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s immaculately executed and flawless valentine to the 70s thriller genre popularized by Dario Argento and Mario Bava. Recreating the motifs, clichés and visual codes from the vintage Italian back catalogue (including A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, Suspiria and Deep Red), the Belgian duo unfold a virtually dialogue free tale of frightening obsession, sexual sensation and stunning black-gloved murder. Scored to recycled Italian soundtrack selections in the Tarantino tradition, the hypnotic and ethereal allure of the classic gialli lives again in this boldly imaginative cult phenomenon.
A LIZARD IN A WOMAN’S SKIN – World Premiere
Enjoy this re-mastered, restored and never-before-seen fully uncut version of Italian gore-meister Lucio Fulci’s hippy, trippy 1971 giallo classic. Did rich socialite Carol Hammond (gialli goddess Florinda Bolkan) kill her nymphomaniac neighbour during a depraved orgy of LSD-induced sadistic sex? Or is she just being framed by her philandering husband? Swinging London decadence, scandalous blackmail, neurotic visions and gory throat slashing all wrapped up in one of Ennio Morricone’s finest scores. Quirky touches of Fulci fantasy horror make this stylish psycho thriller a quintessential masterpiece of the giallo genre.
SPLICE – UK Premiere
From Vincenzo Natali, director of Cube and Cypher, and visionary producer Guillermo del Toro, comes a new kind of monster movie. Rebellious scientists Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley defy legal and ethical boundaries and forge ahead with a dangerous experiment: splicing together human and animal DNA to create a new organism. Named ‘Dren’ the creature rapidly develops from a deformed female infant into a beautiful chimera, who forges a bond with both of her creators. But then that bond turns deadly in a Frankenstein fable for the modern era…
REYKJAVIK WHALE WATCHING MASSACRE – World Premiere
A group of tourists embark on a sightseeing trip aboard a whaling vessel with none other than Captain Gunnar (Leatherface) Hansen himself. It’s when the ship breaks down the terror starts because the day-trippers come under attack from a crew of deranged Fishbillies hellbent on mayhem and slaughter. Let the bloody sea battle begin in director Julius Kemp’s horror comedy hybrid with a strong surreal flavour, the first exploitation film ever made by the Icelandic Film Industry.
Any witches’ covens looking for a cover could do worse than a dance academy. Open the doors of your remote labyrinthine pile and waifs of good family will simply flock to be subjected to severe sado-masochistic discipline. As played by Jessica Harper with an unsurpassed 40-year-old-woman-in-the-body-of-a-14-year-old-girl oddness, Suzy Bannion is the natural prey of the sort of humourlessly leering Teutonic dykes and faded beauties made up to a grotesque parody of their former selves who run such establishments. Horrible as it is, Suzy accepts this situation as her lot: maybe this distracts her from the even more horrible truth.
It’s not as if there aren’t enough danger signals right from the off. Indeed, Suspiria almost doesn’t recover from a blistering opening 15 minutes. Horror movies generally take some time to establish a notion of normal life, gradually allowing the supernatural or murderous to infiltrate. Here, it’s all up in about 10 seconds. As the opening credits run, a bland voice-over tells us Suzy is coming to Germany to study dance. The arrival board flashes up, Suzy passes through security, and she is already saucer-eyed. Seconds later, she is soaking in a howling gale as Goblin‘s pulsing, hammer dulcimer-led theme kicks in. After an angsty taxi ride, out of the blackest storm there floats towards us a Gothic pile so ruddy it seems to be engorged. So this is the dance school. To make matters worse, as Suzy tries to get in, a deranged girl runs out. By now Goblin are drumming and howling fit to burst, and we follow the raving girl to a friend’s apartment block. It seems a dubious refuge: the bizarre, oddly-luminous panelling of the lobby itself seems murderous. And in a way it is. Knifed and noosed by an unseen assailant, the girl’s still twitching body plunges through the stained-glass lobby ceiling, stopped short of the floor by the tightening noose. As the camera pans down, we see her friend on the floor, her face bisected by a shard of stained glass.
From this point there has to be a retreat into some sort of everyday, but even then it’s a weird one. Suzy’s classmates – hissing, preening, would-be prima ballerinas – are witchy enough in all conscience. But even the more Chalet School moments are undermined by the weirdness of the sets. So oppressive is the academy’s gory facade, Argento struggles to make it look less scary in daylight. Suzy’s digs are brightly lit, and in black and white, marking a welcome release from the tyranny of saturated colour. But even here the wallpaper wants to coils its tendrils round you. Everywhere else is marked by strange geometric panelling, pulsating with light, as if to merge with the stained glass that crops up from time to time. All this is framed by glistening lacquered boards, panels, and art nouveau arabesques. The whole is frequently heavily filtered, with occasionally paradoxical lighting, as one part of a shot is bathed in warning red, another in bilious green, like the ‘before’ segment of an ad for a hangover cure.
Goblin’s theme music matches and amplifies the infested quality of the visuals uncannily. In fact, it seems almost immanent in the very air of the film, rendering conventional distinctions between diegetic and non-diegetic sound moot. You find yourself wondering how Suzy can’t hear it, it is so evidently the sound of what is there before you visually. Despite the many quite apparent warning signs hinted at above, Suzy’s first serious realisation that all is not well at the academy comes as she encounters the stares of a whiskery hag and malevolently angelic Midwich cuckoo in Fauntleroy garb halfway down a corridor. A blinding flash from a strange pyramid of metal the hag is polishing physically strikes Suzy, leaving a sort of snowy cloud in its wake. As Suzy staggers on to the end of the corridor, she looks like she’s moving through treacle. Insanely loud, Goblin’s music is the thickness of the air she is moving through.
This scene is sandwiched between Suzy’s two forlorn attempts at actually doing some dancing. The dance studio is one of the few areas of modern décor, clean lines and surfaces, normal daylight and air. Yet, even here there is an odd counterpoint to the rest of the academy. What we see are bodies controlled by music, students prancing to a maddeningly jaunty piano waltz. It’s sinister enough in its way, and it proves too much for Suzy: she spends the rest of the film more or less bed-ridden. The nightmarishness of dance is confirmed in a brief respite from the academy when we follow the freshly-sacked répétiteur to a Bavarian beer hall. Here, in one of the most chilling scenes in the film, we witness – horrors – the synchronized thigh-slapping of group Lederhosen dancing. It is perhaps the pianist’s good fortune that he is blind. Were he not, this would be one of the last things he sees as, on his way home, he is mauled and eaten by his guide dog.
Working out the steps is, on the other hand, how Suzy starts to fight back. Here we enter what you might call the Nancy Drew phase of the story as Suzy, along with classmate Sarah, first figures out that the teachers only pretend to leave the school at night, and then works out their mysterious movements by noting the number and direction of their steps. Following the steps leads Suzy to freedom, and poor Sarah to a tangle with razor wire. But never mind the story: sit back and let the pullulating sound and vision crawl all over you.
Based on the fairy tale by: Hans Christian Andersen
Cast: Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring, Robert Helpmann, Léonide Massine, Ludmilla Tchérina
In 1948 when The Red Shoes, Powell and Pressburger’s lush, hallucinatory Technicolor fable of dance’s inexorable power over the dancer, was released, ballet was still on the lower rung of high culture in the UK, its practitioners badly paid, its status as art still questioned by many, and it was lagging behind its European counterparts in resources and respect, if not in talent and drive. The hugely successful film, along with the emergence of stars such as Margot Fonteyn, would help put British ballet on the cultural map; years later, it is still The Red Shoes that seems to communicate the inherently magical, fantastical and otherworldly qualities of ballet to film fans who would otherwise not be interested in tutus, pointe-work and dying swans.
But while The Red Shoes, with its fantasy sequences and Andersen fairy-tale inspiration, is cited as illustrative of the darker powers of dance – of its capacity to beguile and obsess and break the hardiest spirit – much of the film also focuses on the sheer hard work and make-do camaraderie of daily life in a mid-20th century touring ballet company, the nuts and bolts of preparing a work for the stage and the personal dynamics that go with it. This magical multiplicity will always be for me the film’s greatest achievement. The Red Shoes is a film about making ballet that not only contains an entire ballet, but that has about it the very quality of ballet itself – its romantic absolutes, its melodrama, its broad strokes. It is a dreamlike and stylised fable about ambition and sacrifice that simultaneously contains some deeply felt moments of empathy and understanding of injustice, selfishness, disappointment, and dishonesty. It is a strange Chinese Box of a film that required real dancers Moira Shearer, Robert Helpmann, Ludmilla Tcherina and Leonide Massine to play out the story of their art form’s impermanence and cruelty, their questionable acting layered with the gorgeous veracity of their dancing.
Watching the new, restored version is a sumptuous and intoxicating experience, the film’s hues almost dangerously high-contrast, and the cinematography’s exaggerated qualities highlighted more than before. While it was hard to remember to switch from fan to critic in the warm darkness of the BFI cinema (and I am a Red Shoes fan, a proper, tearful, spellbound type of fan), my recollection of this viewing is that the heightened detail brought about by the new print had an interestingly alienating effect, bringing to the fore perhaps a warning about trusting too much to formal beauty, forgetting, as in Joanna Newsom’s song ‘En Gallop’, ‘truth that lacks lyricism’. Or, more bluntly: this is theatre, believe in it too hard and there will be nothing but emptiness left when the curtain lowers, especially for a woman, whose abandonment of the home is bound to bring hardship (‘Life passes by… love passes by,’ as Anton Walbrook’s Lermontov says when describing the ballet’s synopsis to composer Julian (Marius Goring).
I have never really liked the interpretation of The Red Shoes as merely cautionary tale, though, for not only does it downplay the film’s non-naturalistic, allegorical style, it also propagates the binary and simplistic myth of the creative life as one of domestic or emotional sacrifice, when the truth is more complex and personal than that interpretation – which has acted as a get-out clause for many a relationship as well as stymied careers through guilt and blame – allows. At the same time, this message runs through The Red Shoes and cannot be ignored, whatever we think of it, and the themes of sacrifice and fulfilment, while universal, are perhaps heightened by the physical and mental intensity of a practice such as dance. If there is a darker side to ballet as portrayed in The Red Shoes, it might well be in its more ‘real’ elements, rather than in any supernatural or magical force: in the tension and constant competition between artists, in the physical extremes of a dancer’s life and in the actual stories, often of young, vulnerable, talented people, from which Powell and Pressburger might have drawn their source material.
It was not necessarily easy to come by such source material, however, for if ballet was a questionable art form, film was decidedly seen as low-brow. As The Red Shoes has passed into cinema legend, feted by Scorcese (who helped raise the funds for the film’s restoration), De Palma and many others, and film as a medium has attained an artistic status possibly unimaginable to critics of the 1940s, it’s amusing to read about Moira Shearer’s initial reluctance to take part in the project at all. According to her account in Meredith Daneman’s biography of fellow ballerina Margot Fonteyn, Shearer, then a very promising 21-year-old dancer, felt that a film role was nothing short of artistic compromise – and possible career suicide. ‘Wretched man – he was always hanging around the theatre,’ she said of Michael Powell. ‘I didn’t really want to do it.’ Shearer was eventually persuaded into the role by Royal Ballet founder and British ballet visionary Dame Ninette de Valois, who, while reportedly hating the film, recognised its potential in bringing her young artists (Helpmann was also in the company) and ballet in general to a wider audience, in particular an American one. It is perhaps noteworthy that, while The Red Shoes is often read from a gender studies perspective as the story of a woman, Shearer’s character Vicky, symbolically torn between the wills of two men, in reality it is a woman, de Valois, who seems to have dictated to and manipulated dancers such as Shearer and Fonteyn with the ruthlessness characterised by the impresario Lermontov in the film. With the exception of Marie Rambert appearing very briefly in the Mercury Theatre scene, the presence of powerful women in British ballet of the period is rather lacking in The Red Shoes, and Shearer’s resourcefulness and resilience as an artist and personality are of less dramatic interest to Powell than the tragic heroine that Vicky becomes.
But for every Shearer – who, incidentally, did seem to ‘have it all’, with a flawless dancing career followed by happy domesticity – there would have been many others whose lives as dancers took darker, unhappier turns, with careers brought to an abrupt end by injury or poverty, and the spectre of age and obsolescence always waiting, with creaking joints, in the wings. And the compulsion to dance at the cost of all else, forever, mythologised in the Ballet of the Red Shoes, brings to mind Margot Fonteyn, whose adulation and success masked a troubled, anguished personal life, and whose joy in dancing seemed often to be tinged with rivalries, anxiety, loneliness and, as she carried on dancing into late middle age, physical pain and weakness. Daneman makes the comparison between the two, often competing, dancers in a perhaps simplistic way, but in doing so makes quite a case for the Red Shoes myth – even if, as a dancer and dance critic rather than a film one, she’s compelled to describe the film’s story as ‘corny’.
The Red Shoes was presented in a new digital print at the BFI Southbank, London, on 11-30 December 2009.
From a dance practitioner’s view, of course, the narrative of The Red Shoes is overplayed, histrionic, unrealistic; even for admirers of Powell and Pressburger’s aesthetic it can seem quaint, a stylistic exercise lacking in emotional resonance. But to isolate any one element of The Red Shoes is to miss its unique ability to convey a kind of total effect similar to that brought about by dream, or music, or memory. The power of dance lies in its capacity to create this effect, through the evocative movement of a human frame, bones and muscles in tune with melody and harmony, discipline honed to invisibility so all that we see and hear is a porcelain-skinned young woman opening the door onto a painted street scene and – at one with the tentative oboe line of Brian Easdale’s score – fluidly gliding into being. It is a fleeting effect, and one we chase after, in dreams, in love, as spectators of art, and (for some of us) as artists; The Red Shoes, in a way, lyrically documents this pursuit, celebrates the poignant, youthful fervour of those who pursue. Is it dark, though, or dangerous? Despite the outcome of The Red Shoes, I like to think that Powell and Pressburger do not ever really make that judgement for us.
Cast: Wei-Qiang Zhang, Tara Birtwhistle, David Moroni, Cindy Marie Small, Johnny Wright
Guy Maddin’s film of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s production of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a work aimed at both fans of the Canadian director and cinephiles familiar with the subject matter: although the film starts with text introducing each character, it may be somewhat confusing for anyone who does not know the story well. The film skips the novel’s prologue, which describes how Jonathan Harker travels to Transylvania to sell the Count a house in Britain (the film presents this in flashback later), and starts with the arrival of Dracula by boat to England, juxtaposed with Lucy Westenra deliberating over her suitors and an incarcerated lunatic’s orgasmic fervour over his dark master’s proximity. Maddin belabours the sexual desires of everyone involved – Lucy’s suitors for their potential bride to be, her own lustful longings, Renfield’s pining for his master – by repeating the subtitle: ‘Master I hear you coming. Coming! Coming!’ in increasingly large type. Renfield’s blatant desires are paralleled by Lucy’s polygamist yearnings: ‘Why can’t they let a woman marry three men?’ Lucy may possibly be a virgin bride, but it’s clear she’s a swinger in waiting.
Maddin’s usual skewed sense of characters’ sexuality is contrasted with an intriguing set design almost veering towards steampunk: Lucy’s mother, who in a sense is also undead, is kept alive by a machine – a hyperbaric chamber into which maids must constantly pump air. Maddin’s film refers to the future in waiting, echoing Francis Ford Coppola’s version of the story, which focuses on the dawn of a futuristic century heralded by new technology, while also adding references to fears of the mass movement of immigrants. Mrs Westenra’s chamber also reminds us of the glass coffin from a dream sequence in Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr; Maddin is aware of the history of the vampire, both on film and in literature. Dracula as a metaphor for demonic invasion from abroad was portrayed most explicitly in Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu, and here it mainly serves to elicit laughter from the audience in the hyperbolic prologue that opens the film.
Just like Ford Coppola’s adaptation, Maddin’s version makes the themes of the novel completely explicit – for example Lucy’s death before her return as a vampire is accompanied by demons dancing around her deathbed, indicating that her soul is taken to hell. Each adaptation of Dracula adds something new to the story, from the misogyny of Van Helsing that Coppola and Maddin’s versions bring to the surface to the themes of plague and malign German politics in Herzog’s. In addition, Maddin depicts the Count as some kind of financial predator – when the men raid Dracula’s lair, one coffin is full of ‘Money stolen from England’, while the cutting of his flesh causes gold coins to fall out. Whether this, coupled with the motif of invaders from the East introduced at the start of the film, has something to do with late 20th-century fears of new Asian super-powers or late 19th-century fears of what was referred to as the ‘Yellow Peril’ is not entirely clear.
Innocence and corruption are paramount themes and are revisited in the second half of the film when Harker’s fiancée and part-time nun Mina reads of his exploits with the succubae in Transylvania in his diary, but all is forgiven later as the young lovers are filled with the joys of spring. The original novel is told entirely from diary entries, newspaper clippings and other pieces of reportage, but Jonathan’s diary is the only one read from here, so it is possible to infer that he is the virgin referred to in the film’s title – which would suggest that while erotic, his encounter with Dracula’s vampire brides was chaste. The ambiguity of the title and the possible audience assumption that it refers to a woman while in fact it’s a man, fit with the concern with (male) sexuality that runs throughout Maddin’s filmography. Far from offending or angering Mina, Harker’s exploits serve to inflame her desire, so that we might wonder if she was sent to a nunnery, as Ophelia was told to do, for having more sexual urges than her fiancé could handle! Since the theme of the story is the (Victorian) fear of female desire, it’s no wonder Dracula himself almost seems to cameo in his own film until the final act, as he is simply the catalyst for the transformation of the two female characters into femme fatales.
Colour and composition are particularly meaningful in the film. Maddin makes interesting choices regarding screen-tinting throughout the movie: the screen goes slightly green after Lucy first meets the Count, prefiguring the start of his malign influence; later the arrival of Van Helsing is announced by the screen turning purple (in colour theory the contrasting hue). Just as Dracula is often present off-screen, in this early scene Van Helsing is initially obscured from vision, first by the hat he is holding over his face, and then by Lucy, positioned between him and the camera. This is a film all about presences and absences, literally in terms of who is on screen and whose presence is felt even when they are not seen, and also in the idea of life and death as presence and absence.
The monochromatic cinematography is contrasted with the orange font of the intertitles and blood from a thorn prick on Lucy’s finger. The most horrific moment of the film is the look of smug satisfaction on Van Helsing’s face when he severs Lucy’s head with a spade. The high-contrast cinematography of this scene, which juxtaposes stark black and white with just a slash of claret on Lucy’s dress following her penetration by her suitors’ wooden stakes, reminded me of Frank Miller’s film Sin City, which featured an equally heady brew of sex and violence on screen. Spot colour is continually used to great effect from green gas seeping in through the vents to the lush scarlet lining of Dracula’s cape and Lucy’s lips when discovered undead in her coffin.
The manner in which Maddin films ballet, an art form all about elegant movement traditionally framed in long shot – i.e. from the point of view of a seated audience – varies from complementing the action to acting almost in opposition to it. His hyperkinetic editing style often seems at odds with the languor of ballet, but I assume this is part of the reason for hiring him to film the production – rather than the fact that Maddin’s silent movie style is contemporaneous with the setting of Dracula (Ford Coppola had Mina and Dracula visiting an early cinema in his version). Some of the director’s signature affectations, such as removing frames here and there to make it look like a time-worn silent film, interrupts the fluidity of certain movements and does the staging no favours, but elsewhere the cuts complement the action, as when the discovery of Lucy’s bite marks is intercut with reaction shots and changes in tinting to convey the characters’ shock. Ballet being an art form (generally) without dialogue, Maddin’s silent movie style suits the project perfectly. As well as being terrific dancers, many of the cast are also great actors – Lucy’s partial transformation into a vampire in the middle of a scene is achieved purely through acting; in contrast, her short-lived respite thanks to a blood transfusion is represented through special effects, a blush appearing superimposed on her otherwise monochromatic cheek.
There is one scene in which another theme of the novel, the rituals of Christianity, is beautifully captured through choreography as Van Helsing, Lucy’s suitors and the maids glide around her deathbed with crosses held aloft. Maddin’s sweeping camera moves make the cinematographer another one of the dancers by necessity – one can only imagine the hours of rehearsal needed to keep the camera moving delicately around the set while the actors wheel around it and each other. In such moments, Maddin’s predictably unusual entry in the Dracula cannon proves to be a peculiarly happy marriage between the wordless world of dance and the rich, dark magic of the director’s art.