Cast: Samantha Morton, Michael Shannon, Natasha Calis, Charlie Tahan
Children in peril and dysfunctional families were a running thread throughout Film4 FrightFest this year, and like another heavyweight of the festival, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, John McNaughton’s The Harvest involved monstrous motherly love, self-reliant children and dark secrets in the basement. After a 13-year absence from big screens, the director of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer proves here that he remains a master at plumbing the depths of twisted human behaviour.
A fairy tale of sorts (McNaughton said in the Q&A afterwards that the film’s structure was loosely based on ‘Hansel and Gretel’), The Harvest centres on a doctor, Katherine (Samantha Morton), overprotective mother to a sick child (Charlie Tahan), for whom she obsessively cares with her husband and former nurse Richard (Michael Shannon) in a country house. But when Maryann (Natasha Calis), a recently orphaned girl, moves into the area and befriends the wheelchair-bound Andy, she dangerously upsets the fragile balance of the family and forces its secrets out.
Samantha Morton is extraordinary as the woman turned ogress by hurt, alternately tender and terrifying, while Michael Shannon is remarkably nuanced as the weak husband complicit in his wife’s terrible decisions. Together they form a horribly believable couple bound by tragedy and guilt, capable of anything to protect their family, with only Maryann standing up to them.
The story assuredly simmers until the pace quickens and the tale turns increasingly disturbing. McNaughton skilfully toys with the audience, leading us in one direction before making a sharp turn into entirely unexpected territory, revealing a truth far darker and a love more perverted than could have been imagined.
Set among beautiful autumnal woods, the film, like its title, gives a deceptive appearance of bucolic melancholy, only belatedly revealing its full horror. A slow-burn that stubbornly follows its own path, it is an impressively mature and weighty return to cinema for John McNaughton.
Championed by Rosie Fletcher, editor of Total Film, The Babadook was the big discovery of this year’s Film 4 FrightFest. Written and directed by Jennifer Kent, it is an oppressive Australian drama that uses a children’s story to talk about the monsters that lurk in the dark corners of the mind.
The Babadook is released in the UK on DVD and Blu-ray on 16 February 2015 by Icon Distribution.
Essie Davis gives a masterful performance as Amelia, the downtrodden mother who lost her husband in a car crash the day she gave birth to their son. Sam (Noah Wiseman) is a troubled, anxious young boy dangerously obsessed with fighting monsters. One night, Sam finds a mysterious book on a shelf in his bedroom. Puzzled, Amelia reads him the story of The Babadook, which becomes increasingly sinister and threatening as they turn the pages. Soon, it seems that by opening the book they have indeed invited a dark force into their house.
Skilfully directed, the film is perfectly poised between real and unreal and manages to be both emotionally rich and disturbingly creepy, remaining ambiguous to the end. The Babadook is a great new monster, both childish and chilling with its striking silhouette and unnerving cry. Under its spell, roles shift to reveal that things may not be as straightforward as they had first appeared.
The relationship between mother and son is beautifully complex and poignant, and Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman are compelling to watch, shifting between various moods with nuance and conviction. Initially agitated and irritating, Sam becomes sweet and brave when Amelia has to confront the monster. And while at first he appeared to have behavioural problems that isolated him from other children, it soon looks like he may understand the situation much more lucidly than the adults around him.
Confirming the subtlety and profound individuality of her approach, Kent refuses to follow conventions and ends her film in an entirely unexpected and heart-breakingly resonant manner. As the book says, once the Babadook is in, you can never get rid of it. But you can learn to live with it.
Kim Ki-duk’s disquieting and hyperbolic castration/incest melodrama Moebius caused a stir in the Korean media last summer after it was issued the rare ‘Restricted’ rating by the Korean Media Rating Board, the highest certification they bestow. Although this episode with the censors demonstrated that the controversial Korean auteur still refuses to soften his approach even as he continues to trudge into middle age, it also led to an uncharacteristic instance of compromise. Films with a Restricted rating can only be screened in specially licensed theatres (much like the BBFC’s R18 certificate), but since no such theatres operate in South Korea, Moebius was effectively banned from domestic release. After numerous failed re-submissions, two and a half minutes of problem footage featuring incest had to be removed to meet the KMRB’s requirements for the slightly less harsh ‘Teenager Restricted’ (i.e. 18 or over) to guarantee wide release. This prompted angry calls of censorship and artistic suppression from fellow directors and the Korean film industry elite.
Moebius is released in the UK on DVD and VOD on 13 October 2014.
But even in its cut version, Moebius remains a dark and thoroughly depraved odyssey of sexual desire that strongly plays to Kim’s preoccupation towards unusual, psychosexually informed chamber pieces. This loosely Oedipal tale focuses on a dysfunctional family: Mother (Lee Eun-woo) has turned to drink as Father (Jo Jae-hyeon) regularly fraternises with a woman who runs a local convenience shop (intriguingly, also played by Lee). Caught in the middle is their teenage Son (Seo Young-ju). Seeing Father and Mistress dining together in a romantic restaurant, Mother is sent over the edge of sanity. Later that evening, she enters the bedroom brandishing a knife; her intention is to emasculate her husband by severing his penis. He wakes up and manages to stop her. Still angry, Mother takes out her male hatred on the Son, using the same strategy (successfully this time) before disappearing off into the night.
Following the incident, the Son tries to carry on as normal, but a group of kids from his school get wind of his embarrassing disability and start bullying him. Guilt-ridden, the Father takes to the internet and conducts research on penis transplant surgeries. Desperate for his Son to have a normal sex life, his search also unearths a bizarre alternative method of sexual stimulation that doesn’t require a phallus. Meanwhile, the Son develops a fraught relationship with the store owner, unaware that she is partly the reason for his mutilation and, after an unusual turn of events, he also begins having strange, sexual feelings towards his own estranged Mother.
When films deal with themes of castration, the act typically functions as a shocking end point to an intensely emotional, impassioned or horrifying episode – Nagisa Ôshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1976) or, more recently, Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009) for instance. What’s interesting about Moebius is that the film deals primarily with the aftermath, where the surviving victim has to come to terms with the literal loss of his manhood in a society where men still choose to define masculinity by penile prowess. Kim’s work has featured genital mutilation before (The Isle (2000) made use of fishing hooks to wince-inducing effect) but here it is presented as part of a grander thesis, with the film wanting to offer something more than merely showing gross things for our bemusement. The casting of Lee as both wife and mistress, mother and lover, strongly alludes to Kim’s ambitions in this regard, blurring the boundaries of the Son’s and Father’s desires.
Like Kim’s earlier work 3-Iron (2004), Moebius contains no spoken dialogue between its characters. It’s a narrative device that works well for the subject matter, sparing the actors from potentially undermining the story with unnecessary conversation, which could very well have sent the proceedings past the point of acceptable ludicrousness. The film already walks a very fine line between the horrific and hilarious, and there are moments where you may find yourself laughing for reasons Kim had not intended. Like with other Kim films, basic character logic is often thrown to the wind for the sake of artistic statement. A group of horny young men coerce the Son into raping the store owner, which, of course, he can’t do but instead pretends in order to save face. Apprehended by the police, the Son is unnecessarily embarrassed by his Father in the communal holding cell when the latter yanks the Son’s trousers down to show that he doesn’t have the physical capacity for rape, much to the amusement of the other rapists, when a more discrete approach could have easily been arranged. Incidentally, the mutilation never seems to be reported to the authorities, and when the deranged mother returns to the homestead after what must have been weeks of idly roaming the streets, she’s allowed back in without any resistance from the Father or Son.
Another aspect that threatens to derail the film is the sex substitute discovered by the Father involving the vigorous rubbing of the skin with a stone (and, later on, the rhythmic jostling of a knife in a wound), where pain macabrely functions as pleasure. The idea of a new copulation paradigm beyond standard coitus methods is evocative of David Cronenberg’s equally controversial Crash (1996), which features an audacious moment where James Spader’s budding car-crash fetishist treats the yonic wound on the thigh of Rosanna Arquette’s character as a new sexual orifice. Like Crash, Moebius could easily (and unfairly) be dismissed as vulgar, morally bankrupt pseudo-porn, designed to titillate and scandalise. Instead, the film is a startling, Freudian nightmare that, despite its faults, somehow manages to be funny, repulsive and strangely compelling all at the same time. Whether or not you’re able to buy into its bizarre gender politics or dubious plotting, Moebius is still potent filmmaking from a still potent filmmaker.
‘For the human mind, there is no never – only a not yet.’
Frau im Mond was made in 1928, it was a busy year for some. Logie Baird demonstrates the colour TV, the Chrysler factory is in full swing and plans for a 70-storey Chrysler skyscraper in NYC are afoot, Morkrum & Kleinschmidt’s Teletype company is founded (one could regard Teletype as an antecedent of contemporary networked communications). The behemoth-like Graf Zeppelin is set to be released from its hangar, Robert Goddard launches liquid-fueled prototype rockets in New England, and the Nazi party command less than 2.6% of the vote in Weimar Germany. Capitalism is beginning to identify new frontiers.
Speed is key – mass manufacture of cars, fledgling networked communications, and an embryonic form of television are all vying for public attention and corporate dollars. Humankind is moving into new spaces, both real and virtual, at new speeds, which are frankly alarming. Calamity is not far away either. By 1929 things are set to take an irrevocable turn for the worst with the Wall Street Crash. This is the context in which Fritz Lang directed Frau im Mond and, truth be told, the context of its creation and its subsequent historical resonance is far more interesting than the film itself.
Cylindrical projectiles were terrifyingly cool and big business in 1928, public imaginations had been thoroughly captured (this was what has become known as sci-fi’s Golden Age). It was inevitable that someone somewhere would want to make a movie that capitalised on the zeitgeist. German film production company UFA decided to gamble. A company not interested in doing things by half-measures UFA went the whole hog staking their entire advertising budget on the movie and going to ridiculous lengths to create a convincing mise-en-scène. The nub of Frau im Mond‘s existence, however, lies on the fringes of German scientific research.
Professor Hermann Oberth was a school master and amateur physicist. Inspired by Robert Goddard’s research, Oberth set about devising his own rockets but progress was hampered by a lack of hard cash. Fritz Lang had become aware of Oberth’s book – Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen (Rocket into Planetary Space, 1923) – a clarion call for advanced rocket research. Lang had the notion this might be perfect fodder for a movie and persuaded UFA to take an interest. They did. Oberth was hired as a technical advisor for the proposed movie with a deal sweetener that the studio would sponsor the development and launch of a rocket, which the execs at UFA presumably thought would make an excellent promotional stunt. And therein lies the central problem with Frau im Mond, it’s a movie centered around a gimmick and this saps the screenplay of any sustained magnetism.
A rather lengthy space opera, Frau im Mond doesn’t offer much in the way of directorial innovation beyond the prescient portrayal of a trip to the moon. To these eyes, Lang played his trump cards with the series of Dr Mabuse films, Spione, and for sheer, ‘Look we have lots of Deutschmarks and we’re spending them like wildfire’, cinematic spectacle, Metropolis. With Frau im Mond what critics tend to bang on about is the aforementioned scientific accuracy of the film, its 80% precise vision of a rocket launch and zero-G space travel. However, Lang’s clairvoyance seems to exist at the cost of the screenplay.
Based on a novel by Lang’s wife, Thea von Harbou (who also gets a credit as co-screenwriter), it is rather flaccid. A sub-Ryder Haggard, sub-Arthur Conan Doyle adventure yarn, Frau im Mond concerns the pursuit of lunar gold and the fate of those co-opted into acquiring it by a sinister Bilderberg-like sect from the military-industrial complex. The protagonists – a woman, Friede Velten,, four men, one mouse and a child – are led by Wolf Helius, a dynamic entrepreneur and space buff. They are inspired by the (of course) eccentric Professor Manfeldt’s prophecy that the moon contains gold. The Frau im Mond is not Freide, a feisty young woman in love with Helius but engaged to engineer Hans Windegger, it is in fact the name of the rocket ship.
The screenplay is porridge through and through, and by George it’s lumpy. Set design, photography and certain plot aspects are all from time to time stunningly modernist but the schnittsen is almost pre-modernist. Editorially the film has a certain density, reminiscent of Virginia Wolf or the syntax in a Victorian novel; sub-clause after sub-clause after sub-clause. That is not to say it is altogether uninteresting. Certainly the film is a fascinating historical artifact, a fine example of Weimar-era science fantasy, but as an entertainment it is rather fatiguing and dystrophic. The sluggish pace of the plot is especially ironic when one considers that the whole film is fundamentally concerned with the possibilities of rocket power and the acceleration of speed and, therefore, time.
Frau im Mond of course is not a talkie, yet strangely this silent film isn’t silent enough. ‘Authentic’ piano schmaltz has been chosen to accompany the movie, a sort of relentless Debussy-lite for the cloth-eared. This seems particularly anachronistic when one considers that at this time great modernist innovations were taking place in western classical music. The atonalism of Schoenberg, Webern or Berg – at once clinical and precise yet uncertain and oblique – would have made a perfect counterpoint to the concrete realities of earth and the lunar unheimlich depicted in Frau im Mond.
Ultimately, Frau im Mond has its charms but it is nowhere near as lunatic a prospect as one would like. Its legacy is frankly nuts, though. One of Hermann Oberth’s assistants, a seventeen-year-old male with a skull full of goofy teeth and space-age fantasies, was Wernher von Braun. During WW2 von Braun was responsible for the design of the V2 rocket. Curiously, each V2 would have a symbol depicting a cross-legged woman sitting on a sickle moon, a rocket between her legs. The symbol was known as ‘Frau im Mond’. Up to 20,000 slave labourers are alleged to have died at the Mittelwerk V2 rocket factory and in excess of 3,000 allied civilian and military personnel were killed by V2 weapons during the war. After 1945 von Braun escaped trial at Nuremberg due to the intervention of America’s science establishment. He was invited to contribute his expertise to the USA’s rocket science research and, of course, he is now known as the architect behind the Saturn and Apollo missions, the first man to get other humans onto the moon. Nasa’s immorality in engaging with a war criminal has been a perennial embarrassment for that organisation and it should not be forgotten but it should not be surprising. Watching Fritz Lang’s very expensive cinematic folly one is reminded of the futile crassness of putting humans into space. Thinking about the absurdity of what followed (the Cold War), two mad, venal Super Powers vying for the conquest of icy, dark nothingness and aiming for zero, Mutually Assured Destruction, Frau im Mond should have been a comedy not a thriller.
Cast: Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel, Paul Giamatti, Danny Huston
Israel, Germany, Poland, France 2013
Ari Folman’s follow up to Waltz with Bashir (2008) is an idiosyncratic masterpiece, highly ambitious in its scale and complexity, and fuelled with dazzling animated beauty. In a daringly intimate performance, Robin Wright plays herself, an acclaimed actress just past her prime with a market value diminished to zero, her previous stardom being long buried in Hollywood history. When her agent, Al (Harvey Keitel), tells her she’s being given one last chance by her studio, Miramount, Robin reluctantly agrees to a meeting, unknowing what this final offer entails. The plan is to motion-capture Wright, to copy her body, feelings, memories, and gestures in order to create a digital alter ego that can easily be adjusted to fit into any blockbuster, TV show or commercial as required by the studio. As part of the deal that promises her both a generous pay-off and the guarantee of eternal youth on screen, the real Robin Wright must retire with no claim as to how her virtual self is being used in the future. At first, she refuses, but family constraints force her to reconsider.
The Congress is released in the UK on DVD + Blu-ray on 8 December 2014 by Studiocanal.
So far, The Congress might appear as a vicious, darkly cynical take on the movie industry in the digital age and how Hollywood treats its ageing goddesses. What then happens, however, about 50 minutes into the film, is best seen first-hand. Loosely inspired by Stanislaw Lem’s The Futurological Congress, and again combining animation and live action to puzzling effect, Folman jumps forward 20 years to find the real Wright aged and out of business, while her alter ego has become one of the biggest action heroines on screen as ‘Rebel Robot Robin’. Invited to Miramount’s Futurological Congress, the actress must pass into a strange animated zone, which opens an entirely new, imaginary universe of its own, crowded with celebrity doubles who escape their daily misery through drug-induced hallucinations; it’s a place that visually blends the style of 1930s Betty Boop cartoons and the trippy aesthetic of Ralph Bakshi’s Cool World. At the same time, Folman slows down the action to plunge into something darker, deeper, more inventive and more existential than merely teasing the Hollywood system to the core. Soused in gorgeous imagery and surreal, intoxicated melancholy, the second half of The Congress meanders gracefully between philosophical, religious and ideological reflections on the human condition, yet despite minor flaws, never loses sight of its original premise. The film is a fiercely original, bold and riveting meditation on the future of the silver screen and the stars that make it shine.
This review was first published as part of our 2013 Cannes coverage.
Writers: Michael Cimino, Derik Washburn, Louis Garfinkle, Quinn K. Redeker
Cast: Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Cazale, Meryl Streep, John Savage
One of the major films of 1970s New Hollywood, The Deer Hunter is an ambitious film in both style and content. It won Oscars and was much lauded on its initial release, and still regularly features in all-time greatest film lists. Director Michael Cimino was a former TV commercial director who had just had success with his debut feature, the knockabout buddy film Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974). For his follow-up he decided to hold out, turning down offer after offer, and go for something really special: a three-hour epic on the Vietnam War and its returning soldiers. It was the first major film about the conflict since John Wayne’s flag-waving The Green Berets (1968).
The first hour is set in Clairton, Pennsylvania, a small industrial city close to Pittsburgh. We meet a group of friends going for drinks after finishing their shift at the steel mill. We see Clairton’s blue-collar society with its clearly defined spaces for men and women as they prepare for Angela and Steve’s wedding. The men are in the bar shooting pool, dancing around and ironically singing love songs to each other. The women are carrying the cake to the reception hall, practising their lines in front of a mirror (‘I do’) or cooking for their abusive fathers. Eventually Steve’s mum breaks these barriers by dragging him out of the bar.
The Clairton scenes are filmed with an almost poetic realism. We get beautiful shots of heavy industry, trains, overhead wiring and neon signs. The flying sparks in the steel mill look like a fireworks display. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond was the master of this gritty but oddly beautiful 1970s look – seen most perfectly in Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971).
There follows an almost documentary depiction of a Russian Orthodox wedding followed by my favourite part of the film – the wedding reception. Filmed with minimal dialogue and wonderful naturalistic performances, the sequence shows people dancing, drinking, fighting and making up or simply exchanging meaningful looks; all to the accompaniment of the wedding band’s Russian folk songs. It is a brilliant piece of filmmaking and a wonderfully unsentimental vision.
The film then takes a weird shift from Pennsylvania to Vietnam, and from realist drama to high- concept action movie. Central to this part is the Russian roulette scene, an unconvincing piece of spectacle that seems tonally at odds with the rest of the film. Undoubtedly there were enough disturbing things about the Vietnam War that this fabrication (or metaphor – if you’re being kind) was not necessary. Historically there is no evidence of this occurring in Vietnam and it all seems very unlikely, although admittedly the scene might convey something of the emotional truth of the Vietnam experience. It is perhaps unfair to criticise a Hollywood film for taking licence with historical truth but the contrast with the honesty of the Clairton scenes jars a bit too much. Of course, when you discover the origins of the script, how it started as a film about Russian roulette in Las Vegas, you realise that what you have is added seriousness and gravitas to a schlocky movie idea, rather than the other way around.
Despite the schlockiness, there is no doubt that the scenes of prisoners pointing revolvers, loaded with one bullet, at their heads and pulling the trigger makes for pretty intense viewing. We watch close-ups of faces in agony as we wait for one of two sounds – a soft click or an explosive bang. It is suspense in its simplest form (I’m sure Hitchcock would approve) and great cinema. And not only do we have pure cinematic drama – as intense as the heroine tied to the railway lines – but some pretty exciting mathematics too – the mathematics of pure chance.
For the third part of the film we return to Clairton and see the traumatised Michael (De Niro) go back to Linda (Streep) and normal life. The scene where he makes his taxi drive past his welcome home party is heartbreaking. Another short hop back to Vietnam for the fall of Saigon and a final round of Russian roulette and the film ends with an ambiguous singing of every sports fan’s favourite patriotic song – ‘God Bless America’.
The Deer Hunter has been criticised as pretentious and self-indulgent and such charges are not unwarranted. The attempt to sum up the experience of war veterans with a deer hunt metaphor is a little clumsy and heavy-handed and dates the film somewhat (it seems very 1970s). Although, if The Deer Hunter is a flawed masterpiece, it is really because of that god-awful John Williams theme tune.
This is more than compensated for by the superb acting. Cimino has assembled one of the finest casts of the era: Meryl Streep and John Cazale (who died of cancer shortly after) are brilliant while Christopher Walken gives his usual strangely intense performance. But the film belongs to De Niro. If you have forgotten how great he is (after watching Meet the Fockers) and need reminding, this is the film to watch. De Niro is the king of the gesture – he can do more with a shrug than most with a 10-minute monologue. His character might be inarticulate (‘This is this’) but his intelligence and intensity of spirit are never in doubt. In this, one of his most remarkable performances, he shows why cinema is such a great medium for the inarticulate hero.
Ultimately, The Deer Hunter remains a powerful film made with impressive style, and one of the key films of the decade. It was a time when mainstream cinema looked like it was going somewhere really interesting. And Michael Cimino looked destined to be one of its leading lights. If only he hadn’t been constrained by the ideas of high-concept action movies, or budgets, or shooting schedules – then we could have seen what he could really do. Maybe I should try watching Heaven’s Gate one more time. Is it really so terrible?
Joe Begos’s debut feature Almost Human is an alien invasion splatter film made by a horror fan for horror fans. Right down to the fantastic poster art by Tom Hodge, this is a pure genre project with no desire, or ambition, to find a mainstream audience.
Begos’s potential was spotted when his first short film, Bad Moon Rising, was shown before Adam Green and Joe Lynch’s Chillerama at Frightfest 2011. Almost Human was conceived soon after and shot for the measly budget of $50,000.
The film is set in the 80s – October 15, 1987 flashes up on the first title card – so that’s technology out of the way from the get go. And the aliens are invading from minute one – no slow build here. Seth (played by Graham Skipper) has just seen his friend get sucked up into a beam of light and he’s hurtling along the road at night towards his friends’ house. Naturally, Mark (Josh Ethier) and Jen (Vanessa Leigh) don’t believe him. They argue until a loud ear-piercing noise paralyses them. Mark is drawn outside the house by an otherworldly force. Seth must watch his second friend disappear in a flash of light.
Fast forward two years and Seth is still haunted by that night and now dreams of Mark’s imminent return. All this action is brilliantly crammed into the first 10 minutes. Hunters find Mark, coated in a grey slime, naked in the woods, but he’s not quite the man he was. Their curiosity is met with death. Our anti-hero of the movie is born. Mark marauds through the town trying to piece his old life back together, but people have moved on. Almost everyone who crosses his path meets a cold, gruesome end. It’s old-school buckets of blood rather than CGI after-effects, and Ethier’s performance, for all its simplicity, is great – like a ginger-bearded Arnie from the first Terminator. While people are murdered, the rest of the town get into a froth over Seth’s paranoia and delusions – which mostly only serves to slow, rather than add to, Mark’s unfolding story.
The film is a potpourri of influences: Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Fire in the Sky, Alien, anything by John Carpenter (most notably given the subject The Thing) and UK cult classic Xtro. The weight of these horror favourites on Begos’s writing and directorial mind means he never entirely rises above them, although this is no huge crime for a first feature.
For gorehounds attracted to this DVD, the social contract does not demand originality, or complex, emotional character arcs. There’s enough slimy goo, shots to the face, knives in the neck and faces caved in with rocks to keep them entertained and coming back for repeat viewings. Like the opening 10 minutes, the final 10 are a blast as Mark’s true mission and identity come to the fore.
Almost Human played well to audiences at Toronto‘s Midnight Madness, Sitges and Fantastic Fest. These are Legos’s film kin, and if that’s you too, you’ll have a ball watching this with friends over a cold one.
Cast: Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Friedrich Fehér
Original title:Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari
The film begins as a tale. Two men talk in what looks like a park, and a vision of a woman walking past them in an apparently distracted state inspires one of them, Francis, to tell his interlocutor of the strange events that befell himself and the woman, his fiancée, Jane (Lil Dagover). Francis (Friedrich Fehér) and his friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) were indulging in a friendly rivalry for the hand of Jane. When they visited a carnival in a mountain village and particularly a stand promoted by the bizarre-looking Dr Caligari (Werner Krauss), the somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt), who can apparently tell the future, told Alan he would die in a matter of hours, a prediction that later came true when Alan was murdered. Francis tries to find out the true culprit behind the murder and the extent of the involvement of the diabolical Dr Caligari.
Everything about the tale is skewed. The sets are precarious zigzagging structures that seem ready to topple on the protagonists and which point our eyes and the characters on extremely narrow and precipitous paths. Created in part as a solution to the limited budget, the crazy sets are augmented by shadows painted directly onto the flats rather than created through the lighting: a trick borrowed by Francis Ford Coppola for his teenage art film Rumble Fish. The pointy jaggedness of the environment anticipates the dagger of the murderer when it appears, like a long fatal finger, suggesting that murder is in the weave of the story from the very beginning.
This film has madness running all the way through it, a madness that seeps from story into reality and back again. Made in a turbulent 1920, the film exists in the immediate aftermath of the First World War in a Germany being chopped up by the Versailles Peace Treaty and perched on a razor edge between the Spartacist revolutionary left and a poisonous resurgent reactionary movement that peaked in the Kapp coup – the first to use the swastika as an emblem. This febrile atmosphere and the nascent science of psychoanalysis directly informed a German expressionism of extraordinary power, which seemed to channel cinema into the fantastic generic spaces of horror and science fiction.
Directed by Robert Wiene, Caligari is drenched in anxiety and guilt. Nothing is to be trusted: the narrator is unreliable and damaged from the first frame; the actors’ non-realistic performances suggest they are all being directed by some meta-Caligari, and the sets suggest an insidiously psychic, rather than actual, landscape. Even the ‘happy ending’ is enigmatically creepy. The psychiatrist’s sudden revelation that he now knows how to treat the patient feels as much like a threat as a promise.
Some have seen in the film a stark warning of a Germany sleepwalking towards manipulation by a hypnotic demagogue. This is true insomuch as Hitler was a result of the history that came before, but the sleepwalking analogy can only go so far before it begins to let people off the hook. Caligari is blamed for everything, and figures of authority – from the comic floppy-mustached bureaucrats to the doctors – are suspect at best, but the film has a more deeply subversive lesson. Francis has his secret wish fulfilled in the elimination of a rival and Cesare’s actions show that sleepwalkers do what they want to do anyway. In other words, the madmen run the asylum.
Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari is released in a Limited Edition 2-disc Blu-ray SteelBook as part of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema Series on 16 January 2017.
Cast: Aaron Pedersen, Hugo Weaving, Jack Thompson, Ryan Kwanten, Tasma Walton
Ivan Sen’s fine, modern-dress Australian western impresses as much for what it doesn’t do as much as what it does. It’s unhurried, unprettified, and has a sparse soundtrack with minimal music; not everything is explained, and much is left unsaid. In other words it’s a genre film made for adults – remember them?
Aaron Pederson plays a man alone, an aboriginal copper, treated as the enemy by his own people, and hardly ‘one of the boys’ in the small police department he has recently returned to in outback Queensland. Tasked with a job nobody else wants – investigating the murder of a teenage aboriginal girl – he begins to uncover some murky business involving drugs and prostitution, in which his own force, and, more queasily, his own abandoned daughter, may be involved. Clearly headed into troubled waters, and with nobody to back him up, he begins to look more and more vulnerable under those wide-open skies…
Mystery Road is released in the UK on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD on 27 October 2014 by Axiom Films.
The set-up is entirely conventional for any number of thrillers, but there are no Hollywood faces here, no extraneous action sequences, no master criminals either. The details of life in this harsh environment are well observed, and the atmosphere of menace is well sustained right up to the brilliantly delivered final confrontation. All the performances are pitched just right, with Hugo Weaving especially good value as the wayward and worrying leader of the drug squad (in terrifying double denim!). It looks great, too, especially the night sequences, where the land turns black, and the horizon is a riot of oranges and reds, with human figures picked out in sick green neon. Photography by Mr. Sen as well. Clever boy. Gold stars.
This review was first published as part of our 2013 LFF coverage.
A Deviant View of Cinema – Film, DVD & Book Reviews