There Will Be Blood

Format: Cinema

Release date:8 February 2008

Distributor: Walt Disney

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Based on: Oil! by Upton Sinclair

Cast: Daniel-Day Lewis, Paul Dano, Dillon Freasier, Ciaran Hinds

USA 2007

158 minutes

There Will Be Blood is a brilliant, if at times difficult, film about greed, vengeance, and the loss of faith that comes with the overwhelming, burning desire for success. The power that emanates from Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest cinematic epic has as much to do with the intensity of Daniel Day-Lewis’ enthralling performance, as it does with its remarkable depiction of an America on the brink of industrialisation. Set in the early decades of the last century, it follows the sweep of the California oil boom, which helped transform the pristine, almost innocent landscape into an oil-blackened scar.

Daniel Day-Lewis plays the archetypal self-made man, a silver prospector named Daniel Plainview, whose discovery of black gold in Texas leads to an enormous and corrupting change in his fortunes. Plainview builds an empire to rival the corporate giants at Standard Oil, with the help of his young adopted son, H.W., who is pivotal in helping to soften his father’s grizzled image and win over their potential victims (the charismatic H.W. is played by Dillon Freasier, a first-time actor who delivers a perfectly attuned performance). Anderson contrasts Plainview’s blood-and-grits determination with the polished capitalism that presides over America, but his tremendous success leaves only a desolate and bitter legacy.

As his fortune grows, Plainview travels to Little Boston, California, after receiving a tip about a vast, unexploited oil field. His attempts to secure a concession are challenged by the local preacher, played by Paul Dano, virtually unrecognisable from his role as a sullen, angst-ridden teenager in Little Miss Sunshine. Dano is superb as Eli Sunday, the young evangelical minister determined to bring Plainview and his oilmen into his flock. Many of the film’s best moments unfold in the confrontation between the bible-thumping Sunday and the cynical, unbelieving Plainview, who’s forced to humiliate himself in front of the preacher and his congregation in order to gain access to the ocean of oil seething below the surface of the frontier town. Their tempestuous relationship courses through the film, their hatred and contempt for each other driving them both towards the mutually-assured destruction that closes the film. Through the characters of Dano and Plainview, Anderson pitches spirituality against profit in what is essentially a study in the nature of power.

Along with the quality of the cast, much of the film’s strength lies in its iconic imagery, captured brilliantly by Robert Elswit’s fantastic cinematography, and its excellent score, composed by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. From the entirely wordless fifteen-minute opening, the music drives the action, as we’re introduced to the filth and brutality of the silver mines and early oil-pits, and the poverty and tragedy that accompanied the gruelling work. The riveting music perfectly complements the transcendent images of a wild west: the dusty, scorched desert almost burns your eyes, while the oilmen and their rigs exist in brilliant silhouette against the enormity of the Californian sky, evoking the pioneering photography of American artists like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange.

Though epic in scope, There Will Be Blood is a lengthy character study of a vile, often despicable and alienating man. Corruption wrought by success has been an enduring theme in American cinema, from the classic Citizen Kane to the tepid Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator. Day-Lewis’ riveting performance at times risks veering towards caricature, while Anderson also struggles to avoid the usual clichés. But despite its flaws, There Will Be Blood is the most evocative, visually stunning portrayal of ambition to emerge from America in decades.

Sarah Cronin


Battle For Haditha


Release date: 1 February 2008

Venues: Clapham Picture House, Renoir (London) and selected key cities from 22 February

Distributor Contender Films

Director: Nick Broomfield

Screenplay: Nick Broomfield, Marc Hoeferlin, Anna Telford

Cast: Elliot Ruiz, Yasmine Hanani, Andrew McLaren

UK 2007

93 mins

Again utilising a stripped-down skeleton crew and drawing on the aesthetic of Ghosts, a harrowing and authentic account of the plight of Chinese immigrant workers in the UK, Nick Broomfield’s Battle For Haditha is another compelling human drama drawn from real-life events. On November 19, 2005 in the western Iraqi city of Haditha twenty-four men, women and children were killed by four US Marines. Initial reports claimed that Marines had returned fire after ‘gunmen attacked the convoy with small-arms fire’. A day after the incident, a Haditha student videotaped the scene at the local morgue and at the homes where the killings had occurred, which provoked a Time Magazine article disputing the original account. A subsequent Pentagon probe alleged a retaliatory US massacre in response to the death of a unit member in a roadside bomb attack. Commentators in certain sections of the media immediately began to refer to the event as ‘Iraq’s My Lai’.

Widely acknowledged for his documentary work, and specifically for his re-invention and re-popularisation of the discipline, Broomfield has continued to use extensive research as the foundation of his recent pursuit of ‘fictive’ filmmaking and his ongoing quest for truth. Before a single page was written Broomfield and co-writers Marc Hoeferlin and Anna Telford spent over nine months on research, scouring government and witness reports and conducting lengthy and revealing interviews with Marines, survivors of the massacre and insurgents. The journalists who had been involved from Time Magazine and The Washington Post were also sought out and consulted. The result of this meticulous drive towards authenticity is the fact that the viewer often feels uncomfortably close to events. More importantly perhaps, it allows Broomfield to achieve his stated objective of making the film as ‘an attempt to understand the event from the three different points of view in a very human and compassionate way’.

Though still relatively low-key in terms of scale and budget, the brilliantly balanced Battle For Haditha undoubtedly operates on a broader scale than Ghosts and it is in this regard that Broomfield shows his progression as a filmmaker. Again casting non-professional actors, many of whom are actual Marines and massacre survivors who improvised dialogue under instruction, the director offers a visceral recreation of the sounds and images of combat to ultimately reveal the cost of this combat in terms of human life. There’s a startling realism to the presentation of the language of war which makes the consideration of how humanity is compromised by acts of barbarism and conflict all the weightier.

The film was shot in Jordan, where the conservative and traditional Muslim culture presented numerous problems, not least a difficulty to enlist the on-screen participation of family members and females. The incredibly diverse backgrounds of those cast to appear and the hostilities that divide them would also, one assume, make for a tempestuous filming environment but Broomfield claims that tensions were evaporated due to an incredible letting of emotion and the seizing of an opportunity to share experiences. Offering conclusive proof that the director, who cites Battle of Algiers as his inspiration, has found a method of working with which he feels entirely comfortable and which intelligently blurs the line between documentary and ‘real’ cinema, Battle For Haditha is a work of both authority and integrity.

Jason Wood

Jason Wood is the author of Nick Broomfield: Documenting Icons (Faber).


My Blueberry Nights

Format: Cinema

Release date: 22 February 2008

Venues: tbc

Distributor: Optimum Releasing

Director: Wong Kar Wai

Screenplay: Wong Kar Wai, Lawrence Block

Cast: Norah Jones, Jude Law, David Strathairn, Rachel Weisz, Natalie Portman

Hong Kong/China/France 2007

111 minutes

It seemed sadly inevitable that Wong Kar Wai’s first American film, starring songstress and first-time actress Norah Jones, alongside the consistently mediocre Jude Law, would be a disappointment compared to his earlier, Hong Kong-based work. Billed as a romantic road trip that explores ‘the distance between heartbreak and a new beginning’, My Blueberry Nights is a flimsy, saccharine confection that suffers from a weak script, trite dialogue and miscast actors.

In its favour, the acclaimed director’s first English-language feature does echo some of his earlier films, such as the excellent Chungking Express. His continued fascination with the nocturnal city as a symbol of alienation and loneliness is both evocative and visually striking, his actors framed by the lush hues of neon lights, reflected in the surfaces of the bars and diners in which his characters exist. However, while it may be beautiful to look at, My Blueberry Nights lacks the spontaneity and subtlety of his earlier films, while the dynamism that actors like Tony Leung, the late Leslie Cheung and Faye Wong – a singer like Norah Jones – lent them is sadly missing from this latest work.

Jones plays Elizabeth, a young woman living in New York who’s just discovered that her boyfriend has been seeing another woman. She finds solace in a café run by Jeremy (Jude Law), a charismatic expat from Manchester. Night after night, Elizabeth sits on a stool at the counter, seeking answers for her loneliness and betrayal. Jeremy, with his own story of heartbreak, feeds her banal philosophies and blueberry pie as consolation. Just as he predictably begins to fall for her, Elizabeth decides to set off across America in an attempt to ease her heartache, waitressing along the way. She encounters one miscast actor after another as she travels from New York to Nevada, with the exception of David Strathairn, who plays a cop down on his luck, drinking away his sorrows in a bar in Memphis, trying to forget his Southern bombshell of an ex-wife, played by the vampy Rachel Weisz.

Strathairn’s performance is the only one in the film that feels both natural and credible. He has a screen presence that the other actors, despite their A-list status, all seem to lack, and one that even further diminishes Jones’ acting capabilities. She may be a talented singer, but on-screen she’s incapable of conveying emotion, instead seeming listless and aloof from her own role in the film. As she travels from Memphis to Nevada, it becomes increasingly difficult to empathise with her journey from one lonely figure to another, all typically seeking some kind of redemption. In a seedy, third-rate casino, she meets a tough-talking, peroxide-blonde gambler, somewhat unconvincingly played by Natalie Portman, who, estranged from her dying father, buries her own sorrows in poker chips. Adultery, alcohol, gambling – they’re commonplace vices that should have been handled by the filmmaker with greater subtlety and dexterity, and much less banality.

While the film is visually enticing, most of the actors seem to have been cast for their fame and looks rather than their abilities. They simply aren’t strong enough to salvage the predictable, insubstantial script, co-written by Wong and Lawrence Block, who’s better known for his crime novels than his screenplays. Nothing more than a light piece of entertainment, My Blueberry Nights is a minor footnote in Wong Kar Wai’s brilliant body of work.

Sarah Cronin


The Conformist

Format: Cinema

Release date: 29 February 2007

Venue: BFI Southbank, Renoir (London)

Distributor: BFI

Director: Bernardo Bertolucci

Based on: novel by Alberto Moravia

Original title: Il Conformista

Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Stefania Sandrelli, Dominique Sanda

Italy/France 1970

111 minutes

The Conformist is screening as part of a BFI season of European noir, films that take the distinctively American concepts and clichés of 1940s crime fiction and filter them through a more experimental and internalised European new wave aesthetic. In its narrative, The Conformist looks back to the early days of Italian fascism, detailing the efforts of a zealous convert to submerge himself in the new conventions of his country. But in its style and subtext the film is very much of its time, a child of the late 60s, loaded with existential questions of identity, sexuality and gender.

Marcello Clerici lives with psychological scars inflicted in boyhood, sexual traumas which have driven him to seek out the most ordinary life possible. In Mussolini’s Italy this means marriage, procreation and an unquestioning acceptance of the new political order. Eager to follow his masters’ instructions, Clerici takes his new bride to Paris, ostensibly on their honeymoon but actually to contact Professor Quadri, an old tutor who has since become a leading light in the anti-fascist movement. But when Clerici’s orders change from assignation to assassination he balks, his innate cowardice warring with his overwhelming desire to obey.

The first act of the film is restless and at times frustrating, toying with ideas and then discarding them, giving us insight into Clerici’s tortured past and newly fanatical present but struggling for coherence. Events shift back and forth in time, seemingly key characters are introduced never to reappear, and bizarre events, such as a festive dance at a local centre for the blind, cause jarring interruptions to the narrative flow. But following Clerici’s departure for Paris the main thread of the plot becomes clearer. Tension is permitted to build, characters to develop, as the narrative progresses inexorably towards its gripping, horrific conclusion.

As a central figure, Clerici is at first enigmatic, then reprehensible, then pitiable and finally simply pathetic. For Bertolucci the most terrifying face of fascism is not the sneering demagogue but the willing follower, the one who takes the path of least resistance, offering tacit support and justification. Clerici is repeatedly offered the opportunity to act – either in support or defiance of his leaders – but at every turn he does nothing, floundering in self-pity and confusion. Jean-Louis Trintignant’s performance is restrained but achingly effective, assuming the character of a man who has none.

But the real star of The Conformist, and justifiably so, is Vittorio Storaro’s breathtaking photography. Hailed as a textbook example of the cinematographer’s art, the film luxuriates in washes of soft colour and pale, gauzy light, contrasting the hard, grey architectural edges of fascism with the warm, vulnerable contours of the human form. The climactic sequence on a remote mountain road is utterly devastating, a scene of pure savagery played out amid the towering tranquillity of the silent, shimmering forest.

The Conformist is a problematic film, in its structure and coherence, and particularly in its portrayal of women, who seem either to be brainless ditzes or predatory hunters, but who pay the price either way. But still it is regarded as a masterpiece, and with good reason. The film explores a complex and vital topic with intelligence, insight and emotional clarity, asking important and relevant questions about humanity’s desire for acceptance, while creating a visual spectacle unmatched in modern cinema.

Tom Huddleston

Naked Youth

Naked Youth
Naked Youth (aka Cruel Story of Youth)

Format: Dual Format (DVD + Blu-ray)DVD

Release date: 17 August 2015

Distributor: Eureka Entertainment

Director Nagisa Ôshima

Writer Nagisa Ôshima

Original title: Seishun zankoku monogatari

Alternative title: Cruel Story of Youth

Cast: Yusuke Kawazu, Miyuki Kuwano

Japan 1960

96 mins

Hitching a lift from a random male, schoolgirl Makoto is molested. Student Kiyoshi turns up out of nowhere and saves her, extorting money from the sheepish gent in the process. The next day, our youthful pair meet up, are bored by a political demonstration, then turn up, inexplicably, in a speedboat in a desolate dockland of lashed-together log pontoons. When Makoto refuses Kiyoshi’s advances, he pushes her into the water and, despite the fact that she cannot swim, will not let her out again until she agrees to have sex with him. No good is going to come of this, is it? Inspired by the manner of their first meeting, they embark on a career of petty criminality, shaking down reliably predatory motorists. But, as periodic brushes with yakuza pimps hint, they are amateurs paddling in the shallows of a torrent that will carry them away.

As an essay in futility fuelled by amorphous desire and energy, Nagasi Ôshima’s ‘cruel story’ is up there with A bout de souffle (1960). This is how Naked Youth is usually read; as a contribution to the transnational sulk that envelops cinematic youth in the 1950s from The Wild One (1953) to Rebel Without a Cause (1955) to, God help us, Beat Girl (1960). Closer to home, it has also been linked with the taiyozoku (tribe of the sun) genre, originating in a 1953 story by Shintaro Ishihara – now Tokyo’s colourful governor. Makoto and Kiyoshi certainly fit the bill insofar as they are young and rudderless, but they are equally, and unusually, incompetent at being glamorous. They have neither the pathos that makes James Dean a social worker’s wet dream, nor the cool insolence of Brando or Belmondo. Actually they are quite plain and frumpily clothed.

And are they even rebels, with or without a cause? Presumably teen sex is, in itself, a rebellion. But the main criticism of parental authority comes from Makoto’s older sister Yuki who wants to know why her sibling is allowed to run wild. Indeed, the older generation are every bit as clueless and compromised as the younger and, one way or another, fund their misdemeanours. The endemic motor-rapists are easy pickings, and Kiyoshi’s older mistress puts up the money for Makoto’s abortion, which is itself carried out by Yuki’s disillusioned ex-idealist ex-lover. The supreme moment of bathos for the whole idea of stylish revolt comes in a brilliant scene where our Primark Bonnie and Clyde flee Kiyoshi’s mistress in a taxi, diving down a side street too narrow for her gas-guzzler, only to discover they have no money. At this point, the mistress rolls up and settles the fare for them. Only death, the great elevator as well as leveller, makes some concession to the glamour of the genre.

The film is, however, interested in rebellion after a fashion. Dr Akimoto and Yuki have some pained words about the loss of their political ideals. Makoto and Kiyoshi’s romance itself starts from this point. Their first date is preceded by newsreel footage of the Korean student revolution of 19 April 1960, and the date itself starts at a Zenkaguren rally against the AMPO treaty with the USA. These snippets play like the files of marching troops that frame the bedroom action in Ai no corrida (1976). Ôshima’s focus is on the intense, solipsistic folie à  deux, but history is there in Naked Youth as a cry from the street. So is Oshima wagging his finger, counselling political commitment as a remedy for silly star-crossed lovers? I am unsure as to what the precise historical practices of student movements in 1950s Japan may have been, but it is interesting to note that the Zenkaguren in Naked Youth protest by linking arms and running round in circles, holding brightly-coloured balloons.

Stephen Thomson

This review was first published in 2008 for the DVD release of Naked Youth by Yume Pictures.

Watch the original theatrical trailer:

The Killers

The Killers
The Killers

Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 8 December 2014

Distributor: Arrow Films

Director: Robert Siodmak

Writers: Anthony Veiller, Richard Brooks, John Huston

Based on the short story by: Ernest Hemingway

Cast: Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O’Brien

USA 1946

103 mins

‘That guy, what’s his name, the Swede, never had a chance, did he?’

The first twelve minutes of The Killers (1946) is a faithful (almost word for word) adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s much-anthologised short story. Two hit men enter a diner (shot to look like Edward Hopper’s painting Nighthawks – itself apparently inspired by Hemingway’s story), intimidating the owner, the cook and its one customer with a cruel vaudeville routine while they wait for their intended victim, ‘the Swede’. When he fails to show, the two thugs leave and Hemingway’s alter ego Nick Adams (the customer) runs to warn him. But the Swede refuses to flee, instead waiting passively – ‘There isn’t anything I can do about it’ – with typical Hemingway heroic fatalism. In the story he offers a simple explanation: ‘I got in wrong’; his resigned stoicism remains unexplained, his story untold. In the film (updated from 20s Chicago to New Jersey in the 40s) he claims, ‘I did something wrong… Once’. This ‘once’ (misread by Nick to mean it was something a while ago) leads to the second part of the film in which Reardon, an insurance investigator, gets witnesses to tell the story through seven flashbacks. However, in contrast with that other multiple flashback film, Citizen Kane, it is not a key to the character’s psychological make-up that he hopes to discover but the single mistake that sealed the Swede’s fate and led him along the series of events that ended with a visit from the hit men. Instead of a favourite childhood toy the clue is a green handkerchief embroidered with pictures of harps – the key to the mystery. As in Sunset Boulevard the opening murder gives the rest of the film a strong sense of fatalism – there can be only one ending for the Swede.

The Killers was directed by noir maestro Robert Siodmak back to back with The Spiral Staircase, which is often considered his masterpiece. Along with former colleagues Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann and Edgar G Ulmer (as well as his hero Fritz Lang) Siodmak was a refugee from Nazi Germany with a prolific career already behind him. However, unlike Lang, his reputation amongst auteurist critics was somewhat diminished by the fact that he seemed only able to make great films in one genre. It was when mixing European and American sensibilities that he was at his best. The influence of German Expressionism, especially strong in The Spiral Staircase, is also evident in The Killers where it meshes perfectly with American hard-boiled existentialism. Elwood (Woody) Bredell’s chiaroscuro cinematography is excellent and here almost rivals the great John Alton’s work on The Big Combo. It is a directing tour de force full of breathtaking shots, from the simple pan capturing the contrast between a panicking Nick and the stoic Swede at the start of the film to the virtuoso two-minute crane shot of the heist.

Siodmak was certainly aided by a first-rate cast and crew. Anthony Veiller gets the writing credit but was helped by Richard Brooks and John Huston. The final draft, Siodmak claims, was written solely by Huston (who had wanted to direct as well), but he remained uncredited as he was under contract at Warner Bros. The plot has one of the greatest twisty-turny double-crossings in film noir and the complex story is enlivened by the sparkling hard-bitten dialogue – ‘Don’t ask a dying man to lie his soul into hell’, Kitty is told – as well as a perfect ending that puts it all neatly into perspective.

The Killers is also notable for giving a first starring role to that former circus acrobat Burt Lancaster, who dominates the screen with a typically individual and naturalistic performance. Ava Gardner as Kitty Collins gives a near-iconic performance creating a noir femme fatale to rival Mary Astor and Barbara Stanwyck. At 24 she was already divorced from Mickey Rooney and set for superstardom but she was never better than here. Stealing the film from the (future) big stars is the excellent Edmond O’Brien (star of classic noirs DOA and The Hitchhiker) whose everyman appeal as the insurance investigator grounds the film and gives it its heart. While Reardon’s aim is ostensibly to recover the stolen money, the film leaves us in no doubt that what really drives him is a combination of sympathy for the Swede, a need to solve a mystery and also, crucially, to understand why a man would simply submit to his own murder.

Hemingway has gone on record to say that The Killers was his favourite of all the films based on his work and I wouldn’t disagree. There are many great film noirs and The Killers has all the necessary components to be a textbook example but beyond that it is simply an exceptional film.

This review was first published for the 2008 UK cinema re-release.

Paul Huckerby


JX Williams' Psych-Burn

Format: DVD

Release date: 25 September 2007

Distributor: Other Cinema

Director: various artists


95 mins

The healthy bleed between horror, the avant-garde and the cultural demi-monde can comfortably be dated back to at least the Grand Guignol of turn-of-the-twentieth-century Paris and, in cinema, as Jack Sargeant points out in the DVD booklet of Experiments in Terror 2, to Buí±uel and Dali’s Un chien andalou (1928).

This is perfectly natural. The underground and the avant-garde revel in forms and notions seen as threatening to mainstream society – a threat most effectively neutralised by adopting it, at which point the cycle begins again, only louder, nastier and occasionally smarter. So Romero’s Night of the Living Dead becomes Michael Jackson’s Thriller, becomes Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator, ad nauseam.

I’d suggest that hardcore horror audiences are likely to be more tolerant of alternative and experimental cinema: certainly it was that shared sense of the absurd, the uncanny and the other (and enlightened Scala cinema programming) that drew this youthful horror film fiend to the more celebrated cinematic avant-gardists. And let’s face it, one person’s performance art – whether it’s naked beatniks splashing about in a Hermann Nitsch extravaganza or Joseph Beuys confronting a baffled wolf – is just another day on set at American International Pictures or Troma.

But back to the DVD. With Experiments in Terror 2, curator Noel Lawrence has put together a largely satisfying sick bag. The two vintage pieces – JX Williams’ Psych-Burn (1968) and Lloyd M. Williams’ (no relation as far as I can tell) Opus 5 (1961) – are real standouts. The former a distillation of the Corman/AIP flavour of psychedelic horror, all swirling patterns and blood-soaked go-go girls set to a disjointed psych-rock soundtrack, the latter a hypnotic, multi-layered cine-fugue of archetypal night horrors and the fears of the damned, all apparently suffered by a hooch-drinking country-dweller.

Of the younger blood, Angel Nieves’ The Fear (2001) toys successfully with 70s horror tropes surrounding the home and family, managing to be surprising, scary and playful, while you could spend some time unpicking film references in the interior decor alone. Damon Packard’s dreamy, suggestive Early ’70s Horror Trailer (1999) pursues female archetypes from 70s horror flicks – the witch, the victim, the dreamer, the killer – through the Ballardian architecture of Cronenberg’s early work. Bill Morrison’s ‘re-vision’ of 1926 silent The Mesmerist is, well, mesmerising, redeploying the decomposition effects used so stunningly in 2002’s Decasia to equally beautiful effect, nicely complimented by a moody Bill Frisell soundtrack. Found footage is put to genuinely uncanny use in Wago Kreider’s Between 2 Deaths (2006), which superimposes scenes from a familiar-looking 50s thriller over what appears to be the film’s actual locations, shot more recently on DV. The effect is quite unusual, not unlike an extended sensation of déjí­Â  vu. Elsewhere we get skeleton sex in Amor Peligrosa (Michelle Silva, 2002), Maya Deren-esque choreography and stop motion in Childree and Rollason’s She Sank on Shallow Bank (2006) and Goth music video action in Usama Alshaibi’s Hold My Scissors (2004).

Perhaps some of the films come across as a little too knowing for my tastes, but then so does the majority of what passes for ‘horror’ cinema these days. Overall this is a very worthwhile collection, though I still think I’ll stick to the real thing, thanks!

Mark Pilkington

Read the interview with Other Cinema co-founder Noel Lawrence.


Der Letzte Mann

Format: DVD

Release date: 21 January 2008

Distributor: Eureka Video

Director: FW Murnau

Screenplay: Carl Mayer

Alternative title: The Last Laugh

Cast: Emil Jannings, Maly Delschaft, Georg John

Germany 1924

90 mins

Der Letzte Mann is less celebrated than FW Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) or Sunrise (1928), and its imaginative scope is certainly narrower. But it is perhaps the director’s most perfect example of purely visual narrative. It is famous for the absence of intertitles: Murnau simply shows us what is happening, even what is being said, rather than telling us in words.

The film is driven by an unstoppable performance by Emil Jannings as the proud old doorman at the prestigious Atlantic Hotel. Each turn in the story remoulds his body, each small humiliation etches itself in his face. The contrast between his proud erect gait as doorman and his cringing, hobbling posture when his fortunes change is the essence of the film. Though Jannings was, amazingly, only 40 at the time, he evokes vividly the trials of age – we feel in ourselves, as we watch, the old man’s aching back, shortness of breath, bleariness of eye, stunned incomprehension of a world leaving him behind.

The obligation to get the plot across without words certainly doesn’t cramp Murnau’s style. Practically every scene offers unusual composition and lighting, the most memorable vision being the nightwatchman trudging the murky gloom of the hotel basement, his torch glowing in the centre of his silhouette and then becoming a spotlight for the doorman’s shame. Murnau and his cinematographer Karl Freund frequently turn the visual effects up to 11 – most extraordinarily by means of lens distortions. This might seem a limited and gimmicky technique (so did the wah-wah pedal before Jimi Hendrix); in inspired hands it proves richly expressive. But perhaps the greatest visual pleasures of the film are the moving shots with which the two parts of the film begin, drawing us through the perfectly choreographed world of the bustling hotel. The moving camera was a new technique in cinema then – and it is hard to think anyone has ever used it better.

The bleakness of the film is relieved by an exuberant Chaplinesque comic epilogue. Murnau introduces it with an extraordinary Brechtian distancing technique: an on-screen admission, in the film’s only title card, that he doesn’t believe his story could really end this way. The epilogue (like the prologue to The Darjeeling Limited last year) is so perfectly realised as to steal the show from the main body of the film.

Why is the film called Der Letzte Mann? The doorman is ‘the last man’ for a wealthy stranger, in an encounter which leads to his second turn of fortune. But this reading of the title would make the epilogue the key to the film (as does the standard English version of the title, The Last Laugh). And we can only see the film this way if we ignore the ironic framing of the epilogue. Instead I think we should understand ‘letzte’ as having the connotation of ‘least’ or ‘lowest’, as in the biblical warning ‘the first shall be last’.

A film like this – simple, melodramatic, sentimental, wordless – could not be made today. Watch it and visit a world we have lost.

Peter Momtchiloff


The Phantom Carriage

Format: DVD

Release date: 23 February 2008

Distributor: Tartan Video

Director: Victor Sjí¶strí¶m

Based on: novel by Selma Lagerlí¶f

Original title: Kí¶rkarlen

Cast: Victor Sjí¶strí¶m, Hilda Borgstrí¶m, Tore Svennberg

New score: KTL

Sweden 1921
93 mins

Regret is an awful thing to entertain. Nostalgia at its worst. Self-absorbed and boring, it is not very much fun to witness. Victor Sjí¶strí¶m’s The Phantom Carriage is all about this distasteful human condition; a hot, mad – no, psychopathic – self-obsession. The film’s protagonist makes a rather large mistake, which is simultaneously seen as a defining moment. Sjí¶strí¶m being Swedish, the sheer awfulness comes in buckets so big they’d dwarf a cottage. As heavy with the morals as it is with the supernatural, The Phantom Carriage is extremely reminiscent of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Here, though, the motivation for the protagonist’s downward spiral is not angst over greed and misanthropy, it is angst over alienation, family dereliction and alcohol abuse and a not fully articulated interest in self-destruction.

Manufactured in Sweden in 1920, The Phantom Carriage is a quaint and harrowing New Year’s Eve fable about fate that reeks of late nineteenth-century Protestantism and temperance. Afflicted with tuberculosis and hell-bent on a very slow suicide, Sjí¶strí¶m’s protagonist David Holm (played by Sjí¶strí¶m himself) is tragedy on two legs, a melancholic kamikaze pickled in alcohol. Pathos abounds but there is no hope, David Holm is beyond redemption. In Swedish, the word Holm means an island. This seems an appropriate surname given the alienation Sjí¶strí¶m’s protagonist endures.

As Holm and his two boozer friends congregate beneath a clock tower at twenty minutes to midnight, one of them begins to recount a frightful yarn: ‘You gentlemen are not afraid of ghosts, I hope…’ The tale, delivered via intertitles, carries on: ‘No ordinary driver holds the reigns… he is in the service of a strict master named Death’. Indeed, one imagines Death would be a pretty miserable employer, but I was a civil servant once so I have my doubts.

Notions of life and the afterlife are index-linked in early cinematic vocabulary. Sjí¶strí¶m knows this. ‘A tale told in living pictures under the direction of Victor Sjí¶strí¶m’, state the opening credits in Swedish. Is the Phantom Carriage actually Sjí¶strí¶m’s camera? Since its invention, the camera has been associated with the uncanny and this isn’t just down to anthropomorphism and technological ignorance, the camera was and still is an untrustworthy device. It has the ability to make phantasms out of reality, it records the past and can alter it and Sjí¶strí¶m relishes this. The director certainly liked optical effects or at least saw something of the unheimlich in such gimmicks. The Phantom Carriage is a phantom image. A dullish apparition in cobweb grey, a double-exposure. It intrudes as a super-imposition onto the action of the mortal world.

There are two versions of the DVD, one with a Klezmer-esque ‘authentic’ soundtrack which is nothing more than adequate and another with a KTL soundtrack. KTL being Peter Rehberg aka Pita of Mego and Stephen O’Malley from SunnO))), this is a rather nice bit of acoustic ectoplasm that shimmers like a moonlit lake. Tremulous, spectral and rumbling it hams up the spookiness, but this is erroneous since this film is really about sub-zero squalor and decrepitude. It is hard-boiled and grim and the paranormal aspects of it are in some ways the least relevant since they are ultimately a McGuffin. David Holm is already in hell so damnation to purgatory seems a mere formality. His mad rage at himself and the world around him is far more disturbing than the presence of a skeleton with a scythe.

Fear God, love your family and stay off the booze. Those are the three main moral tenets of this film, all of which are usually very confused on a typical British New Year’s Eve. At least they are in my house, quite often at times other than New Year but always joyously so.

Philip Winter


Kamikaze Girls

Format: Cinema

Part of season: ‘A Life More Ordinary – A Portrait of Contemporary Japanese People on Film’

Release date: 9-17 February 2008

Venues: ICA, London, then on tour at the Watershed Media Centre (Bristol), Queens Film Theatre (Belfast), Filmhouse (Edinburgh) and Showroom (Sheffield)

Distributor: Japan Foundation

Director: Tetsuya Nakashima

Based on: manga by Novala Takemoto

Original title: Shimotsuma Monogatari

Cast: Anna Tsuchiya, Kyôko Fukada

Japan 2004

103 mins

Welcome to the weird and colourful world of Momoko (Kyôko Fukada) – a dedicated follower of fashion – eighteenth-century-inspired ‘Rococo’ Lolita fashion, that is! Dressed in frilly period attire and stuck in a backwater called Shimotsuma, Momoko helps her father sell his ‘Versach’ bootleg merchandise on the streets to pay the bills. Unimpressed by the tracksuits and cheap supermarket threads that prevail in her hometown, she dreams of working for Baby, The Stars Shine Bright, Tokyo’s bona fide fashion house for Lolita outfits, led by í¼ber-designer Akinori Isobe.

One sunny day, a black-clad biker girl called Ichigo (Anna Tsuchiya) comes to Momoko’s house to buy some fake designer gear after arranging the visit over the Internet. When she realises that Momoko is not the smart cookie she imagined but a baby doll draped in Marie-Antoinette lace, Ichigo’s curiosity quickly turns to contempt. Being a foul-mouthed rebel ‘Yanki’ and member of an all-girl speed-tribe, as Japan’s Kamikaze biker gangs are referred to, Ichigo has no patience for Momoko’s fussy girliness. However, as they visit Pachinko parlours (slot machine dives) and cocktail bars together, the two girls learn to admire each other’s own brand of gutsy non-conformism and gradually form an unlikely friendship. Indeed, opposites attract, and what ensues is an often comical and surreal road trip that brings each girl a little closer to fulfilling her dream…

Director Tetsuya Nakashima has whipped up an exquisitely shot and wonderfully quirky film that is highly enjoyable even if you are not acquainted with Japan’s complex youth subculture. Based on the graphic novel Shimotsuma Story by cult manga creator Novala Takemoto, the rather misleadingly titled Kamikaze Girls convinces through strong performances and a captivating plot.

Thanks to the ICA’s ‘A Life More Ordinary – A Portrait of Contemporary Japanese People on Film’ season, this 2004 movie is finally given a much deserved release in a London cinema.

Claudia Andrei