Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Theatre of Treachery

All about Eve

This article contains spoilers.

The work of director Joseph L. Mankiewicz may at first appear wildly disparate, ranging as it does from a ghost story (The Ghost and Mrs Muir, 1947), to a satire of the show-business world (All about Eve, 1950), a Shakespeare adaptation (Julius Caesar, 1953), a four-hour historical epic (Cleopatra, 1963), a murder mystery (The Honey Pot, 1967) and an ironic Western (There Was a Crooked Man, 1970). But there is one clear thread that runs through all these films: they are all concerned with the human heart’s seemingly infinite capacity for perfidy and betrayal.

In Mankiewicz’s most famous opus, All about Eve, the ambitious young woman of the title will stop at nothing to get what she wants: become a famous actress. She ingratiates herself into reigning stage star Margo Channing’s circle of friends, playing the sweet and humble ingénue, but in fact ruthlessly manipulating the women and seducing the men to achieve her goal. It gradually becomes obvious that everything about Eve is an act: her modesty, her gratitude, the story of her past – even her name is not real. We will know ‘all about Eve’, the narrating voice of cynical theatre critic Addison DeWitt promises in the opening scenes, as she prepares to receive an award at a ceremony. And slowly the film reveals the truth about the young star we see feted at the beginning: Eve is a construct, her identity nothing but a performance.

The young woman who calls herself Eve is frighteningly driven, and yet Mankiewicz is too keen an observer of human nature not to acknowledge that her treacherous machinations would not succeed if it weren’t for the frailties, weaknesses and blindness of others. Eve’s youthful charms make Margo jealously paranoid; her seduction of middle-aged writer Lloyd Richards, who falls for her apparent innocence and fake tears, is predictable, and his wife Karen, who at that point sees through Eve, is unable to stop the inevitable. ‘How could I compete?’ Karen asks one night, before Lloyd rushes off to the bedside of his supposedly nervous young star. ‘Everything Lloyd loved about me he’d gotten used to long ago’. Mad with insecurity about her age, Margo almost causes what she fears most to happen: that Bill should leave her. As for Karen, she only becomes aware of Eve’s true nature after she’s let the young arriviste manipulate her into betraying her best friend, simply because she thinks the latter needs to be taught a lesson.

Eve is also not the only one to act out her life, and this could be said about everyone else in the story – it is only a matter of degree. In All about Eve, all is theatre, and the unreal is more real than reality. It is one of the key themes of the film, and one that recurs throughout Mankiewicz’s work, most clearly in The Barefoot Contessa (1954), The Honey Pot and Sleuth (1972). The dialogue in All about Eve makes the parallels between life and theatre abundantly clear; so does Bette Davis’s magnificently flamboyant and volatile performance as Margo. During the star’s stormy birthday party, Karen explains: ‘Margo compensates for underplaying on stage by overplaying in reality’. After an argument, Margo goes off to bed, followed by her boyfriend, director Bill Simpson. ‘Too bad, we’re going to miss the third act, they’re going to play it off stage,’ says DeWitt, watching them disappear upstairs. Later, a row between Margo and Bill is played on the theatre stage. And Eve becomes Margo’s understudy, not just on the stage, but in life too, insinuating herself into the most private aspects of Margo’s life, including her relationship to Bill. But she is not interested in the person that Bill is, or later in Lloyd; she is only interested in them as a director and a writer respectively, both highly respected and successful. Her whole life is theatre. And that is where the line is drawn: no matter how dramatic the rows and reconciliations, there is real love between Margo and Bill. Eve’s only love is theatre.

Eve may be ‘an improbable person’ in DeWitt’s words, but there are many more like her. At the end, Eve finds a young girl in her hotel room, who calls herself Phoebe and dreams of being a star like her. As the actress rests, Phoebe puts on Eve’s coat in her bedroom, holds the award Eve has just won, and admires herself in the mirror, her image reflected to infinity by the multiple mirrors. Eve represents the eternal drive to fill the emptiness inside with applause (like ‘waves of love’, she says), to create one’s self from the reflection in spectators’ eyes, and new Eves will always come, eager to carve out their place in the limelight, no matter what it takes.

Despite the pain inflicted on the other characters by Eve’s deceitfulness, it also has positive consequences. Her perfidy is a catalyst that forces Margo to face reality and make difficult decisions about Bill and her future that ultimately lead to happiness. This nuanced take on betrayal also underpins A Letter to Three Wives (1949), Mankiewicz’s previous, and equally successful and Oscar-winning, film. It centres on three well-to-do women on their way to a picnic on an island, who receive a letter in which the town’s temptress reveals that she has left with one of their husbands. Stuck on the island for the day without any means of finding out which husband has left, they think back on their respective relationships. The threat of infidelity forces them to reassess their marriages, realise what is important to them, acknowledge their problems and try and fix them when they eventually return. In this instance, the possibility of betrayal leads to a happy ending.

In the earlier The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947), Mankiewicz was not as optimistic, and the only trusting relationship the heroine of the title can enjoy is with a dead man. Recently widowed, Mrs Muir, played by the angelic-looking Gene Tierney, buys a house by the sea that is haunted by its previous owner, a rugged sea captain played by Rex Harrison. A lovely relationship develops between them, until Mrs Muir is wooed by caddish writer Miles Fairley, and the Captain disappears to allow her to form bonds with the living. Mrs Muir assumes that Fairley intends to marry her and is devastated when she inadvertently finds out that he is in fact already a married man, and that it is not the first time he has behaved in such a way. Giving up on ‘companionship, laughter, love’ after this heartbreaking betrayal, she spends the rest of her life alone in the cottage. But when she dies, the Captain re-appears to take her away. They walk together through the door and into the mist towards the sea in a poignant, bittersweet ending: Mrs Muir could not find companionship among the living because they either tried to control or deceive her, and only with death does she find the love that she craved.

In 1953, Mankiewicz’s interest in treachery took a historical (and literary) bend. With his adaptation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, starring Marlon Brando as Mark Antony, James Mason as Brutus and Louis Calhern as Caesar, the director tackled one of the most famous betrayals in Western history. Shot in oppressive, austere black and white, it depicts the bloody consequences of the lust for power in stylised sets, stripped down visuals and charged camera angles. Mankiewicz would return to these historical events with Cleopatra ten years later. In this famous four-hour-long, money-guzzling Hollywood epic, Elizabeth Taylor is the imperious Egyptian queen whose relationships to, first Caesar, and after his death, Mark Antony (Richard Burton), are as politically as personally passionate. The whole story hinges on the multiple betrayals perpetrated by lovers, spouses, enemies, rivals, soldiers and servants: treachery is the motor of this most eventful of historical periods. An early comment made by Caesar as the wily Cleopatra watches him in secret, through hidden holes in the wall, sets the tone from the beginning. Asked by his generals if he intends to trust Cleopatra, he replies: ‘Trust, not for a minute. Trust. The word has always made me apprehensive. Like wine, whenever I’ve tried it the after-effects have not been good. I’ve given up wine. And trusting.’ This, of course, does not save him from the murderous treachery of his political rivals.

The 243-minute original theatrical version of Cleopatra has been digitally restored and will be released in UK cinemas from 12 July 2013, showing at London’s Curzon May Fair and select cinemas nationwide. More information about screening dates and venues can be found here here.

Cleopatra nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox and derailed Mankiewicz’s career, and when he returned to the directorial chair in 1967, it was with a more humorously disillusioned view of human nature, which his last three feature films all share. In The Honey Pot, the rich Mr Fox invites three former lovers to his palace in Venice, feigning a deadly illness and telling each that he will bequeath his wealth to them. All three lovers are disloyal and greedy, and this set-up is the start of a web of intrigue and manipulation that starts in comic mode and ends in murder. Both There Was a Crooked Man and Sleuth pitch two men representing very different world views and morals against each other in a deadly battle of wits. In the former, Kirk Douglas is the unscrupulous outlaw trying to escape from the prison run by Henry Fonda’s upright warden, so he can recover the stolen money he hid in the desert. In Sleuth, Laurence Olivier is the ageing upper-class gentleman playing dangerous games with his wife’s young working-class lover (Michael Caine).

All three films have an interest in gambling and game-playing (highly theatrical games in the case of The Honey Pot and Sleuth) and reconnect treachery to the French origin of the word, ‘tricheur’, a cheat. At the beginning of The Honey Pot, when Fox, as part of the elaborate charade he plans to stage for his former lovers, interviews part-time gambler and would-be actor McFly to be his ‘stage manager’, he asks: ‘McFly, wouldn’t you say that ‘making it’, as you put it, in both Las Vegas and Hollywood, had much in common as gambling ventures?’ Here again, life is theatre, and surviving in theatre is not much different from gambling successfully. Wealth is a façade maintained by characters hoping that this illusion will get them the real thing. And the many secret doors and passages are in keeping with the tricks and sleights of hands they perform. Sleuth marks the culmination of this theme. Olivier’s Andrew Wyke plays cruel, humiliating games with Caine’s Milo Tindle in a mansion crammed with strange toys, including an all-white puzzle and an ancient board game. When Milo seeks revenge, the game turns into a vicious, unpredictable power struggle, alternately dominated by each adversary as they reveal the aces up their sleeves.

But the immoral tricheurs in these films are not the ones who win the jackpot. In There Was a Crooked Man, Kirk Douglas’s gleefully amoral, cynical Paris Pitman thinks nothing of eliminating his accomplices to keep all the money from a burglary committed at the very beginning of the film. Henry Fonda’s Woodward Lopeman could not be more different from Pitman: a principled, idealistic man who believes in rehabilitating the convicts by improving the prison environment. And yet, even though Pitman betrays, cons and manipulates everyone for his own interest, he shows up the limits of Lopeman’s progressiveness and socially determined, rigid moral code, questioning the latter’s plan to hang a 17-year-old accidental murderer. In the end, pushed by Pitman’s destruction of all he had worked for, Lopeman foregoes his moral principles and is the one to profit from Pitman’s crimes – who is the most immoral of the two?

The Honey Pot ends with a similar twist. The mousy nurse of one of Fox’s former lovers, Sarah Watkins, is described throughout the film as the Voice of Morality. She tries to do the right thing, believes love is more important than money, and warns Fox when she thinks he’s in danger. And yet, her very goodness may in fact force the killer to commit another murder. Her innocence is as dangerous as the treachery of all the other characters, because she doesn’t play by the rules of the game – honesty can be just as deadly as dissimulation. And in the end, having done the right thing throughout the film, she performs a little trick of her own, and, as in There Was a Crooked Man, the Voice of Morality ends up profiting from the crimes of others.

The ambiguous morality of the final films and the complexity of human nature throughout Mankiewicz’s work are mirrored in intricate narrative structures: his films are full of flashbacks, labyrinthine plots, dizzying twists and turns and restricted points of view. His work has been criticised as stagey and static, but that may be because he was more interested in human nature than in showy décors. His sets may be often stylised, but they are always used to convey aspects of the story visually. The lighting is expressive, the mise en scène meticulously precise, the dialogue razor-sharp, the narrative structures as dense and convoluted as the human heart. It is theatre, yes, but it is the theatre of life.

Virginie Sélavy

The Ghost and Mrs Muir

Cine Books on Iran, Conspiracy and Saucy British Cinema

Iran: Directory of World Cinema
Edited by Parviz Jahed
Intellect 293pp £15.95

Conspiracy Cinema: Propaganda, politics and paranoia
By David Ray Carter
Headpress 271pp £24.99

Keeping The British End Up: Four decades of saucy cinema
By Simon Sheridan
Titan Books 287pp £24.99

A rather eclectic group of books this instalment, which range from the serious to the paranoid to the smutty. Fabulous!

Parviz Jahed is an enthusiastic and knowledgeable authorial voice on Iranian cinematic matters to be added to a list which includes, among others, Ali Issari, Hamid Dabashi and Hamid Sadr. Jahed has been close to the Iranian film scene for many years and displays a deep historical knowledge from his unique vantage point as an Iranian and as a transplanted European. He has also been involved with filmmaking as his excellent documentary, Bonjour Mr Ghaffari, demonstrates. All these factors make his account of the historical and critical development of Iranian film, Iran: Directory of World Cinema, as authoritative as could be expected in this concise a book. As is the format for this series of Intellect Books (which seem to pop up like mushrooms on a very regular basis), the book consists of focused thematic essays followed by critical appraisals of key films. There can be a certain unevenness in the editorial quality, consistency and scholarly rigour of some of the titles in the series, but Jahed’s book exemplifies the best of them. He has taken on much of the essay writing himself and has turned a critical eye on many of the films – in many ways this could have been a single author work although there are some fine contributions from others, notably Saeed Aghighi’s essay, ‘The New Wave Movement 1969-1979’. Many claims have been made for New Wave and contemporary Iranian cinema as any recent university syllabus will illustrate, but what is most interesting in Jahed’s book is his overview of the lesser-known territory of early Iranian cinema through the fascinating account of Film Farsi (and the Jaheli cycles) and on to an overdue salute to the forerunners of the New Wave such as Farrokh Ghaffari and Ebrahim Golestan. All in all a fresh and intelligently pithy story of Iranian cinema.

Rimbaud called for a systematic derangement of the senses in order to capture poetic essence and authenticity – to open oneself up to a different world view. And it is a systematic derangement of all historical sense, as the Preface for Conspiracy Cinema points out, as well as logic and sometimes sanity that is called for in reading David Ray Carter’s utterly fascinating book. Little, if any, writing has been focused solely on this topic and Carter has opened up and shed light into this very dark basement of cinematic endeavour. The sheer range of these theories is breath-taking, and encountering them is to bathe in the unprovable, the illogical and the downright paranoid. All the usual conspiratorial topics are present and accounted for: the two Kennedy assassinations, the Martin Luther King assassination, Diana, the ‘extermination’ of Koresh and his followers at Waco, Elvis, 9-11, to name a few of the more familiar subjects. But these barely reach the wilder shores of HIV/AIDS conspiracy theories (Department of Defence experiments run wild, UN’s World Health Organisation administering the virus via smallpox injections in order to depopulate Africa, Soviet plots) or secret ionospheric auditory transmissions sent out by the government to alter planetary weather and chemtrails emitted by all passenger jets doctored with aluminium to reduce skin cancers in the service of insurance companies to cut down on skin cancer payouts – and these just suggest the rich but bizarre pickings to be found in Carter’s book. Having viewed hundreds of independently produced films on these and other topics, Carter organises his findings into eight themes and introduces each with a short synopsis of the facts, the official version and the conspiracy theories around them before he reviews the many films addressing each particular theme. Enough said: this book is a terrific, mesmerising and bizarre piece of weird scholarship. Un-put-down-able! Like Wilde said, ‘Beware the half-truth, you may have got hold of the wrong half’.

Finally, there is only space to sing the praises of another breath-taking piece of wonderfully weird cinematic scholarship of sorts, Simon Sheridan’s fascinating antidote to academic texts, Keeping the British End Up, in a new, revised edition. Scrupulously researched and generously illustrated within the covers of a quality Titan publication, the book recounts – in suitably cheeky prose – the, er, rise and fall of… well, you know what! Anyone with an interest in the ‘other’ British cinema, which takes us on a journey from Nudist Paradise through the Confessions series via chapters entitled ‘Comings’, ‘Doings’, ‘…Goings’ and ends with a who’s who of actors and actresses in ‘Knobs and Knockers’, will be unable to resist this book. “The ‘Wisden’ of British smut’ as Matthew Sweet accurately called it.

James B. Evans

In reviewing Simon Sheridan’s book, Keeping the British End Up, in this month’s Cine Lit column it is only fitting to pay homage to an earlier account of the ruder end (oooh missus!!) of sexy and soft core British cinema once – and still? – reviled and ignored by the critical establishment, the 1992 book, Doing Rude Things: The History of the British Sex Film, 1957 -1981 by David McGillivray. Published by the little-known sun tavern fields press, this was one of the first accounts to historically describe and archive this irresistible stream of sexploitation and low-budget films, which would be screened in only the seediest of Soho’s Macintosh brigade cinemas and no, that ain’t computers we’re referring to! McGillivray lovingly recounts those halcyon and opportunistic days (many a well-known ‘proper’ thespian appeared) and introduces many primary sources in the form of interviews and quotations from those involved. Pamela Green remembers how her nudie films caused such offence to some Women’s Hour listeners that she was invited on the programme to debate them – another time indeed. McGillivray is an informed and hospitable critic when reviewing the period and the films. Illustrations are copious – and copulatory. Copies of DRT are very difficult to find and sell for exorbitant amounts online. Save this book! JBE

The Treachery of Memory and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner

Blade Runner

My first memory of watching Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) is on New Year’s Eve 1983. A family friend had a new VHS player and I, my mum and her partner had been invited round. I remember the images blinking through the fog of cigarette smoke. We were watching in the dark, which was strange to my 11-year-old self. I was drawn into this world of sky-climbing buildings and the euphoric Vangelis soundtrack. I may also have nodded off for some of the time. I could see the clock on the video player shunting through the minutes, then hours, and gradually ease its way towards midnight. No one said anything, no one switched over to the TV for the countdown, no celebratory drink was poured, nothing. The display flicked to 0.00 and I wondered if I was the only one who had noticed. Far from feeling the coolest 11-year-old on the block, I felt cheated, and that, I suppose, is why the memory is so vivid. Now of course, I usually delete this emotionally weighty part of the story and give the cut version, that yes, I saw Blade Runner when it came out, and started my second decade well versed in cinematic sci-fi. Such is our capacity to retrieve and retell memories, to have our own variations of events.

Blade Runner is set in 2019, just seven years away from the time of writing, and the projected reality in the film appears to be close at our heels. Touch-sensitive, zoomable screens mimic Deckard’s (Harrison Ford’s) photo enhancer, and the division between organic memory databanks and digital data spaces is breaking down. Photo albums backed up on flame-proof Flickr, years of diaries turned into blogs or Facebook timelines that we can carry anywhere.

The film leaves you with a nagging feeling, a dark paranoia, that our memories are a key to our sense of knowing ourselves, a way of holding on to valued experiences. When Deckard shows he knows android Rachel’s (Sean Young) personal memories, she is heartbroken.

Deckard: ‘You remember the spider that lived in a bush outside your window? Orange body, green legs, watched her build a web all summer, then one day there was a big egg in it, the egg hatched…’
Rachel: ‘The egg hatched… and a hundred baby spiders came out, and they ate her.’
Deckard: ‘Implants. They aren’t your memories, they’re somebody else’s, they’re Tyrell’s niece’s.’

Rachel, close up, in semi-darkness, has a lost, empty look. She shows an attachment to these memories that reveals the success of Tyrell’s project. She actually responds to betrayal as a human would. Of course, psychologists might tell us that memories are retained and pulled out of our mental archives for many reasons, largely involuntary. Nonetheless, for the most part, they feel like they are ours. It’s notable though that I write this at a time when neurologists are successfully implanting simulated memory traces of fear into laboratory mice. Memories now merge with film sequences, images seen before, dreams. We have to double-take and unravel the mess, driven by a need for authenticity. Facebook, with its best friend digital photography, allows this to happen publicly with sometimes thousands of photographs being uploaded to an individual user’s account.

Ridley Scott has released many cuts of Blade Runner. Noticeably, he marked every new video format on the market with a new version. To name some, theatrical versions were distributed on VHS in 1983, as was the Director’s Cut 1992. This was later released on LaserDisc in 1993 and was an early film to be released on DVD in 1997. A digitally remastered version of this DVD was put out in 2006 but with the 2.0 stereo soundtrack. The Final Cut in 2007 was released during the HD format wars and came out on HD DVD and Blu-ray with Dolby Digital Surround Sound 5.1. Each new version promised new answers. Would it finally reveal more of the beloved cult film, more cut scenes, more added scenes? Would Scott make any more suggestions that Deckard was a replicant? But this searching for answers is commensurate with the way the film in its various versions seems to shrug off our questions.

Part of Blade Runner’s appeal for me is its 80s futurist aesthetic merged with noir: Atari in neon; lip gloss with 40s hair rolls; oversized technology. It is a film made for clunky VHS distribution. The format’s very materiality is tied to the materiality of organic memory. It is in keeping with the human attachment to memory that is at the core of the film, where characters are driven by their questioning of the reliability of memory. To remember is a process of betrayal. We seek cogency from memories, but they exist as fragments, an affect, a trace, a sentence or two. The visual field produced by VHS is unstable, blurry, low-grade compared to contemporary formats. In Blade Runner, we see youthful faces against a metropolis that, although illuminated, remains in low contrast, where neon bleeds into incoherency and reds elude us. VHS magnetic tape corrodes with age and use and allows the surface to break down, the image and sound slip away, a dignified erosion. The VHS version of Ford and Young produces a romantic couple melting away with each watch.

What happens off screen is as important as the film fragments that fill our minds in a formulation of the memory of a film. Testament to this is a new generation of VHS collectors. A YouTube search for ‘my VHS collection’ reveals a category of uploads from teenagers discovering their parents’ VHS collection, or showing off their own Ebay purchases. A clip featuring a 1983 print of Blade Runner is a prime example. Here ‘VHS-ness’ is a prompt, a trigger and a way into the nostalgia for these films. The collectors seem to value the materiality of the tapes, fastidiously archiving various indices of authenticity. VHS boxes are carefully set out on makeshift backgrounds; the format involves a shot of the front cover art work, the spine of the tape box, the back, shots of the actual tape, the label and a recitation of the print dates. These collectors also proclaim the originality of their tapes by uploading opening previews and closing credits of their tapes in fierce competition. All this stands in for, and at the same time, is part of, the experience of the collected film. A way of feeling connected to the memory of the memory of the film (perhaps here their parents’) via memorabilia. Perhaps in the face of inorganic forms of digital communication such an activity has a special draw.

With the DVD format in the mid-90s came the remaster, a facelift for VHS. Films viewed through a haze of degrading magnetic tape were suddenly clear and crisp. With each release we have the new and still newer Rachel and Deckard. In Blade Runner: The Final Cut (2007), Harrison Ford seems to have defied time. He plays a hyperreal, uncanny Deckard, inorganic, invincible and situated in an immersive, three-dimensional space. The VHS Deckard seemed in tune with time, ageing and decay. To watch a new version is to give in to the rewriting, to turn your back on an intimate connection with your version, your personal favourite. The memory of Blade Runner as was, is corrupted, replaced with fragments of the new, each replicant attempting to supersede the last.

Nicola Woodham

Full of Sound and Fury: The Tragedy of Macbeth

The Tragedy of Macbeth

Back in the early 70s, the Third Ear Band were the festival band. Wherever there was mud, cider and an outdoor PA system, there would be Glenn Sweeney’s merry band with their strings and their hand drums, wigging out on some epic jam which somehow managed to blend together the collective folk music of half the world. Curiously, only when they were asked to provide an explicitly period soundtrack did they find it necessary to add an electronic synthesizer to their line-up. Simon House, later of Hawkwind, joined the group for the Macbeth soundtrack and left shortly after. He played a VCS-3, a keyboard-free analogue synth beloved of Brian Hodgson and Delia Derbyshire (not to mention Karlheinz Stockhausen), and designed in London by the composers Tristram Cary and Peter Zinovieff (with engineer David Cockerell).

This sudden addition of electricity to the previously acoustic group seems to suggest an understanding that the sheer macabre weirdness of Shakespeare’s play – especially as interpreted by Roman Polanski and Kenneth Tynan – demanded something other, some element of fantasy that went beyond what could be notated on manuscript paper.

For a group whose previous compositions averaged close to 10 minutes in length, the Third Ear Band are here remarkably restrained. The extended prog-rock ragas of Alchemy and its eponymous sequel are here compressed to clips of but a few seconds’ length. And for most of the play’s first act, they stick to a fairly straight medievalism, the pentatonic melismas of Paul Minns’s oboe doing a serviceable imitation of a twelfth-century shawm. The only note of something sinister – and obviously anachronistic – comes from the bass playing of Paul Buckmaster: one minute plunging into psych head music, the next evoking the drones of the tambura in Hindustani classical music. This soundtrack was Buckmaster’s only recording with the Third Ear Band, a performance turned in between arrangement work on Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate and Miles Davis’s On the Corner.

As Shakespeare’s story grows darker and weirder, so too does the music. While Macbeth contemplates murdering Duncan, a fizzling hum of shuddering VCS-3 and scraping guitar noise underscores the famous ‘Is this a dagger I see before me?’ soliloquy. Upon the deed itself, a wild dervish of free improvisation. As the film draws towards its conclusion, with the army approaching upon the hill and mist engulfing the screen, a thick fog of dissonance drifts in likewise, seemingly emerging directly from precisely the kind of snaking modal oboe line which had once seemed to speak of happier times. As Macbeth finally meets his end, high tremolando violin merges with more VCS-3 in a pitch of piercing tinnitus.

The Third Ear Band’s music for this film has been compared to both the chamber music of György Ligeti and Masaru Sato’s soundtrack to Kurosawa’sThrone of Blood(1957). The Tragedy of Macbeth has often been called the bloodiest of all Shakespeare films. With its murderous tones, forever teetering on the edge of some horror, this music may be bloodier still.

Robert Barry

Iron Sky: Interview with Udo Kier

Iron Sky

Format: Cinema

Screening date: 23 May 2012

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: Revolver

Director: Timo Vuorensola

Writers: Johanna Sinisalo, Jarmo Puskala, Michael Kalesniko

Cast: Julia Dietze, Peta Sergeant, Udo Kier

Finland/Germany/Australia 2012

93 mins

Partly financed through fan crowd-funding, which offered supporters a chance to help not only producing the film but developing the plot, Timo Vuorensola’s eagerly awaited Iron Sky is an overwrought and unashamedly daft symbiosis of tongue-in-cheek sci-fi lunacy and old-school guerrilla filmmaking. It’s a film about a bunch of Nazi punks in outer space who, just before the end of the Second World War, managed to build a space station on the dark side of the moon. The action starts in 2018 when an African-American astronaut discovers the swastika bastion led by a Führer called Kortzfleisch (Udo Kier – who else?). Kortzfleisch leads an attack on Earth with an army of steel-armoured zeppelins, which ultimately causes a new war between world leaders. The film requires a reasonable amount of good will to get past the daft jokes, but the few sparks of true brilliance make Iron Sky a joyful B-movie space odyssey.

Pamela Jahn met with Udo Kier at the 2012 Berlin International Film Festival to talk about his career, the art of dying on screen and playing the game of truth.

Pamela Jahn: Your career started off in 1968 in London. How did that come about?

Udo Kier: I lived in London because I went to school there. I was a young, photogenic actor and after a small part in a short film called Road to St Tropez I was hired by William Morris, one of the biggest American talent agencies, who also had a branch in Germany. Soon after that, in 1968, I was cast in a black and white film called Shameless, directed by Eddy Saller, in which I played the lead role, the boss of the Vienna underground. The next film right after that, Mark of the Devil, became a cult film classic. And that was it. I knew I wanted to be an actor, and here I am.

Almost 45 years later your filmography counts about 200 titles. You’ve shot seven films in the last 12 months. What drives you to work so much after so many years?

Each of these seven projects was interesting to me for different reasons, so I wanted to do them all. For example, if a director like Oliver Hirschbiegel, whose work I greatly admire, asks me to play the pope, or if Lars von Trier asks me to play the wedding planner in Melancholia, or if I am asked to play a Nazi leader on the moon, or to be part of a Fatih Akin production in China, of course I won’t say no. I admit it would have been nice to have a bit more time in between the shootings, but it actually worked out quite well in the end. I started off in China, then went to Canada to shoot Keyhole with Guy Maddin, moving on to Copenhagen, then worked on a Turkish film playing Bela Bartok, from Turkey went on to Prague to star as the pope with Hirschbiegel, then went to Frankfurt to do the Nazi leader, spent Christmas back home, and from there went to Australia to finish Iron Sky.

How do you choose your projects?

The director is very important. If it is a director who I know and whose work I value, then in most cases I do it. I am much more careful though when it comes to young unknown directors. But, for example, I’m now going to Paris with Guy Maddin to shoot 100 short films, and I’m really looking forward to this. We already started while we were working on Keyhole. In the morning I would play a Russian tsar, at lunch time the German emperor and in the evening a drunk sailor trying to teach a gorilla how to do maths. For an actor, this is the best practice you can get.

What attracted you to the part of Kortzfleisch in Iron Sky?

The idea of playing a Nazi leader on the moon, especially because it’s a comedy. I have played Adolf Hitler twice in my career, in films by Rob Zombie and Quentin Tarantino. Both were comedies as well. When I saw the finished film yesterday for the first time, I laughed at the same jokes as the people in the audience. But the most interesting bit really was the idea of setting the story on the moon, not playing another Nazi.

You are famous for playing villains, and the most dangerous ones at that. Iron Sky is another example, but it is yet another film in which your character has to die. Do you find that difficult?

I always insist on having my eyes open. I never die with my eyes closed, because I find it very boring – you are just lying there like a piece of junk. It’s much easier to die with your eyes open, so you can stare at a particular focus point. And the trick is that it leaves the option of a sequel open. We have even thought about this with Iron Sky: we go back to the scene on the roof and then Kortzfleisch wakes up, gives himself a shot and the story goes on. If they can make people change their skin colour, they can rise from the dead too.

In your early career you have worked closely with Rainer Werner Fassbinder. You said elsewhere that one of the things you learned from him was to always tell the truth in interviews.

Not only in interviews. I always tell the truth, but especially when you are giving many interviews, chances are high that you become caught up in your own trap if you start lying about things. During the shoots, the truth was also very important. There was a game we used to play in the evenings while sitting in the kitchen with his crew after shooting. We called it ‘the game of truth’. For example, if another actor or member of the crew had said something bad about me, I mentioned it to Fassbinder. He would listen to me, but not say anything at that time. Then, in the evening, when everyone was sitting around the table and we played the game of truth, he would say: ‘Udo, what did you tell me earlier today? What did she or he say about you?’ And then I would tell the story again in front of everybody, including, of course, the person who had said this about me, and then we talked about it. It was great, because there were no intrigues.

It was also an unwritten law that if you worked with Fassbinder you couldn’t work with Werner Herzog or Wim Wenders at the same time as that would have been seen as committing espionage, right?

Yes, that’s true. I have made two films with Herzog but only much later, one in America about two years ago, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? , and before that Invincible. And with Wenders I made The End of Violence. But back then, it was Fassbinder only. But Fassbinder wouldn’t have cast someone like Bruno Ganz either. Wenders had Bruno Ganz, Herzog had Klaus Kinski and Fassbinder had his gang. That’s how it worked with the auteurs. Even today it’s very similar, for example with Lars von Trier. I quite like belonging to a circle of people around one director, where sometimes you play the lead and sometime you only play a small part. Twenty-odd years ago I started off playing the lead in Medea, and in his latest film I play a very small part, because the film is set in America again and my German accent is still very strong, so I talk less.

How did you start working with Lars von Trier?

I saw Element of Crime and was blown away by it, so I wanted to meet the person who directed it. To be honest, I imagined he would be someone like Kubrick or Fassbinder, a real character, a tough guy, moody, with a leather jacket, etc. But when I met him he looked like a well-behaved little school boy. We had a beer together and after that I found him a distributor for his film. After a while I got a phone call from his, saying: ‘Udo, I’m making a film about Medea and I’d like you to play Jason. Stop shaving, stop showering, because you’re going to be a Viking king and you just don’t look like that at all.’ When I arrived on the set, smelly and dirty as I was, he said to me: ‘Don’t act. I got you a horse as a symbol of virility, two huge dogs and a chain armour – just be a tired king.’ That’s the only direction he’s ever given me in our work together.

Interview by Pamela Jahn

Elizabeth Wilson is Wicked Lady Margaret Lockwood

The Wicked Lady

Elizabeth Wilson is best known for her commentaries on feminism, fashion and popular culture. A visiting professor at the London College of Fashion, and a crime fiction author, she is currently working on the idea of ‘glamour’ – ‘what it is and how it differs from celebrity’. Set in 1951, her latest novel, The Girl in Berlin (Serpents Tail), is about secrets, spies, the Special Branch and betrayal. Her treacherous alter ego is Margaret Lockwood. EITHNE FARRY

The ultimate 1940s British film star, Margaret Lockwood, played one of the great femmes fatales in the Gainsborough Studios melodrama The Wicked Lady. She was insane with wickedness, but how she enjoyed it! Poaching her best friend’s fiancé, the aristocratic Sir Ralph Skelton, was just for starters. Bored with provincial married life, she impersonates the notorious highwayman Captain Jerry Jackson. During a successful hold-up she meets the real Jackson and they become lovers, although in the meantime she has fallen for a handsome neighbour, Kit Locksby. Intoxicated by her double life, she murders a guard during another ambush, poisons a family retainer who discovers her secret, betrays Jackson when he is unfaithful and is eventually killed, making a deathbed declaration of love to Locksby.

In The Man in Grey, Lockwood played a cold and heartless husband stealer and murderess (again opposite James Mason), a far cry from the exuberance of Lady Skelton, but both films perversely lend romantic passion a Gothic twist. Lockwood and Mason enact the Fallen Woman and the Fatal Man, hero and heroine of the Romantic Movement, but their love appears as an engine of crime and betrayal, destroying those who suffer from it, rather than as a source of redemption or tragic loss.

Secretive myself, I am drawn to the idea of persons who dare to live double lives, whose motives are occult and perverse, reminding us that all lives are ultimately secret and unknowable, that each of us, to some extent, wears a mask.

My first crime novel, The Twilight Hour, turned on an impersonation. My second, War Damage, featured a woman whose dubious past comes back to haunt her – always a hazard for those who lead a double life or reinvent the past – and my new one, The Girl in Berlin, includes a cameo of Anthony Blunt, who spied for the Soviet Union. His was not so much a double life as a double personality. And while to ‘live a lie’ may be immoral, isn’t it also daring – a defiant gesture against normality?

The Girl in Berlin is published by Serpents Tail.

Elizabeth Wilson

When Men Betray Men

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

‘No one would ever pay 25 cents to stand in the rooms he grew up in.’ – The narrator on Robert Ford in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

The Western has its themes as large as the geology of Monument Valley and yet as intimate as a face. Masculine friendship is one of those themes. The plus side is a sense of kinship and solidarity, a closeness, a masculine friendship that runs from Red River (Howard Hawks, 1948) and Shane (George Stevens, 1953) to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969) and through to the thoroughly unsurprising, though at the time daring Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005). And yet it was always there, that need, that desperate need for companionship and self-realisation that a mere woman could never provide. After all, if women represent anything, they represent the end of the West. Be it Natalie Wood in The Searchers (John Ford, 1956) as the confused end of the quest (whether she wants it or not) or Claudia Cardinale in Once upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1968), who is not only the instigator for the death or departure of all the male characters but the end of Leone’s epic Spaghetti Western cycle. Women hadn’t featured at all, except in the tired dichotomy of Madonnas (Marisol) or sundry whores.

Friendship is all. It is an emotional connection that you can have while still remaining true to the West. It is as old as Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, or for that matter Huckleberry Finn and Jim, who in the end would rather go to hell than betray a man he comes to realise is his friend. The chalk and cheese buddy relationship would be the template for the cop buddy movies, in the same way horse operas turned to gangster movies.

The importance of friendship, the centrality of male friendship casts a long shadow though. The vulnerability and emotional neediness that stand behind the ideal of male friendship run against the emotional inscrutability and toughness that represent the macho ideal. The shadow such neediness casts is that of betrayal. Betrayal is to male friendship what adultery is to marriage, it at once contravenes all the rules but at the same time is the necessary definition for the relationship itself. Being married (in the traditional sense) is basically defined by exclusive sexual access, and so being married is about not being adulterous, but then again you can only be adulterous by at first being married. So betrayal is not only a contravention of friendship, it is another expression of it. It is always disappointed love.

Robert Ryan’s Deke Thornton in The Wild Bunch (1969) pursues William Holden’s Pike with something like ardour. In the events leading up to the betrayal we see Thornton’s capture taking place in the bedroom of a brothel with a get-in-the-way woman conveniently muddying the waters. The proximity of sex to the key moment, the seed of betrayal, sharpens the sense that in hunting Pike, Thornton is revenging himself against Pike’s betrayal of him. The blood bath that concludes the film also represents a choice that the men make. They turn from the brothel and the boring repetition of heterosexual sex to go out in a blaze of male-bonding glory. Pike will receive his first bullet from a woman who stands watching him from a bedroom mirror. ‘Bitch,’ he hisses as he blows her away. The violence of their demise will be better than sex in that it is irreversible. Instead of the innumerable little deaths of the orgasm, this is the big death of the Gattling gun.

Sam Peckinpah’s misogyny can only really be understood as a sop to his disappointed man love. He is heterosexually gay. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) pits James Coburn as the law man against his former friend and accomplice, played by a beardless and ultimately bare-chested Kris Kristofferson. There is a careful strategic deployment of whores in both The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, but they are only there for the biological ho-hum jiggery-pokery of sex. Love is something that is felt exclusively between men (and therefore so is murderous hate), and women can only get in the way and ruin the fun. It’s significant that in Billy the Kid’s demise Peckinpah refrains from his usual slow-motion bloodletting, as if he couldn’t bring himself to spoil Billy’s beauty.

Masculine betrayal bleeds through into other genres, but generally speaking it tends to be familial. Fredo in The Godfather: Part Two (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974) is not the first brother to do a sibling wrong – think On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954): ‘It was you, Charlie’ – but it is a fantastic moment, as the fragile façade of an ethos falls to pieces before our eyes and we realise that this is just bloody mayhem, straight and simple. Not only is family not protected – the rationale behind Vito Corleone’s actions – it is corroded, torn apart. Even in science fiction, Lando Carlrissian’s betrayal of Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980) is recognisably that of two cowboy chums with a long history.

The most recent and indeed the most thorough treatment of the topic comes in Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007). Robert Ford is a pallid adolescent forever catching the breath of his own surprising emotions. His love for Jesse James is somewhere between fandom and embarrassing teenage infatuation. He spies Jesse in the bath, collects facts about him and fetishistically touches things that Jesse has touched. Jesse is well aware of the boy’s feelings and indeed courts them, disappointed as he is by the quiet anonymity of his own family life and his estranged relationship with his elder brother (Sam Shephard). In fact, James himself is a lost boy, a fact that the casting of a visibly ageing Brad Pitt emphasises. His little boy lost status is seen in his proclivity for practical jokes, little dances, pouty moodiness and occasional tears. Even his violence is childish: he sits on a child and tries to twist his ear off. It is schoolyard bullying writ large but bullying nonetheless and it explains his need for Robert’s adoration, even perhaps his need for death, which he already feels perhaps is coming too late.

The assassination (the word was introduced into English by William Shakespeare to describe Caesar’s death, which included the second most famous betrayal) itself is not a betrayal. The assassination is longed for, wanted. As with Judas, Robert is not so much Jesse’s adversary as his accomplice. He is armed by Jesse, given motivation, cajoled and threatened into it. The scene of the assassination is almost comic in the way Jesse is the director and Robert and his brother (Sam Rockwell) the reluctant actors. Jesse lays down his guns, positions himself with his back to his would-be killers and even gets to become a spectator in his own death as he watches Robert Ford raise his gun in the reflection of the picture glass that he is ostensibly intent on cleaning. An alternative title for the film could be ‘The Suicide of Jesse James Exploiting the Witless Ambition of Robert Ford’.

The true betrayal comes in the aftermath: the exploitation of Jesse’s death for personal gain. Initially, Robert and his brother are traumatised by what they have done, tearful and panicked, but in the space of time that it takes to run down the hill to the telegraph office they have become cocky and assured of their future fame. The theatrical replaying of the murder betrays not only Robert’s friendship with Jesse but also the integrity of the moment. It goes from tragedy via repetition to farce. But then of course the telling of the tale becomes, as with the Ancient Mariner, a curse: ‘By his own approximation Robert assassinated Jesse James over 800 times. He suspected no one had ever so openly and publicly recapitulated an act of betrayal.’ The psycho-drama enhanced by Charlie’s casting as Jesse and his increasingly uncanny portrayal seems like a punishment and already the audience begins to see through Robert’s self-aggrandising version of events, calling out ‘coward’.

By killing Jesse, Robert has only managed to facilitate Jesse’s resurrection via photography and theatrical representation. Robert’s own fame is initially intense but fleeting. He will be forgotten and if remembered, his name will be forever subsidiary to and blackened by his association with Jesse James. It will also make him fair game for the passing psychosis of the man who will kill him. As such the betrayal serves Jesse: he is the beneficiary. Christian martyrdom is, in the final analysis, an immoral aggressive act, a cornering, or better still, given the Chinese box presence of the media in Dominik’s film, a framing.

John Bleasdale



Format: Cinema

Preview: 1 May 2012

Venue: Apollo


1-7 May 2012

Release date: 4 May 2012

Venues: London West End only

Distributor: Arrow Films

Director: Benedek Fliegauf

Writer: Benedek Fliegauf

Alternative title: Womb

Cast: Eva Green, Matt Smith, Lesley Manville

Germany/Hungary/France 2010

111 mins

It might be clichéd to say that the landscape is the star of the film, but it is undeniably true of Clone (Womb), an ambitious, genre-blending drama set in one of the bleakest, windiest and most harrowingly beautiful parts of Germany – the North Sea coast. Amid the impressive scenery, Hungarian director Benedek Fliegauf imagines the love story between Rebecca (Eva Green) and Thomas (Matt Smith), who secretly loved and sadly lost each other when they were kids, only to meet again as adults and live happily ever after. But soon destiny takes another cruel turn, and loss and grief lead Rebecca to give birth to a cloned copy of her dead lover. Aesthetically and conceptually Fliegauf aims high, but while he impresses on the former level, he is not quite as successful on the latter. Edited with tranquil precision, the film takes its time exploring the parameters of the new family life and falters only when Thomas (who turns out to be the spitting image of his predecessor not only in looks, but, rather annoyingly, also in habits and behaviour) falls for a girl who joins and ultimately destroys the intimate togetherness of mother and son. Superbly photographed as it is, Clone, like Fliegauf’s previous films, is a piece of dark cinematic poetry that requires a certain amount of patience from the viewer, although this time, his grasp of emotional dynamics seems much more skilful, making for a strangely moving film.

Pamela Jahn

This review was originally published as part of our coverage of the London Film Festival 2011. Clone screens as part of SCI-FI-LONDON‘S opening night on May 1.