Format: Cinema Release date: 2 August 2017 Distributor: Lionsgate Director: Luc Besson Writer: Luc Besson Based on the comic strip ‘Valerian and Laureline’ by: Pierre Christin, Jean-Claude Mézières Cast: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke
Dopey, dumb and delightfully loopy in all the right ways, Besson’s movie is eye-candy of the highest order.
’Though I’m past one hundred thousand miles
I’m feeling very still
And I think my spaceship knows which way to go
Tell my wife I love her very much, she knows’
– David Bowie, ‘Space Oddity’
Savant-auteur Luc Besson must have known all too well he wouldn’t have a dry eye in the house during the opening minutes of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. A moving montage details several hundred years’ worth of cordial diplomatic greetings twixt a multitude of interstellar species. Not only is this all presented by the candy-coloured clown they call Besson with his trademark kino-eye of dreamy, fertile, Eurotrash fancy-pants nuttiness, but it’s set to the haunting strains of the late, great David Bowie crooning his immortal ‘Space Oddity’.
Cast: Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Gerda Maurus, Willy Fritsch
Fritz Lang’s Spione starts with a bang and rarely lets up. Documents are stolen, couriers assassinated, there’s a motorcycle chase and all hell breaks lose at the Ministry of War, yelling and shouting that something must be done. The frenetic excitement of the opening minutes and much of the unflagging two and a half hours of glorious entertainment that follow suggest a conscious need to please, divert and thrill.
For Lang, the film was a return to familiar territory. Following the grandiose and financially disastrous Metropolis, the 38-year-old director found himself besieged. His studio, UFA, wanted to dump the blame for the disaster onto him and get rid of him, and there was undoubtedly the anxiety that he had lost his touch, lost his ability to pull in an audience. Harking back to his earlier work, Spione was ‘a small film, with plenty of action’ as Lang himself described it. Based on a screenplay by his wife Thea von Harbou, the story revolves around a Mabuse-like super-criminal, Haghi (played by Mabuse actor and Harbou’s former husband Rudolf Klein-Rogge). Haghi sports a Lenin beard, smokes cigarettes that must taste of brimstone and perfidy, and sits in a wheelchair in his secret lair located in an important bank.
Ranged against him are the inept and bureaucratic government agencies, who are largely played for laughs with red-faced confusion and a lot of harrumphing from Jason (Craighall Sherry), the head of the agency tasked with bringing Haghi to justice. If anything is to be done it will be thanks to the agent known only as Number 326 (Willy Fritsch). Initially a streetwise tramp, 326 quickly sheds his disguise to become a dapper gentleman, but his cover is already blown and Sonja Baranilkowa (Gerda Maurus), one of Haghi’s agents, has been sent to seduce and compromise him. However, Haghi didn’t bank on Sonja and 326 falling in love.
Lang keeps everything going at a hell of a pace and there are a number of stunning set-pieces. His universe is one of detail, and he litters the film with scraps of information, numbers and names, a puzzle to be unpicked, but the meaning of which, or even the existence of meaning, remains unclear. Haghi’s power is facilitated by the corruption of the society he seeks to destroy. Not only is its elite ripe for extortion – a wealthy society girl is blackmailed because of her opium habit, inscrutable Japanese spy Akira Masimoto (Lupu Pick) falls for a rain-sodden waif – but its institutions are inept and blustering and deskbound. Whereas Haghi has a nicely minimalist control panel and a telephone, Jason et al are buried under mounds of paperwork. Haghi himself, though, represents a paradox, one perhaps that lies at the heart of all conspiracy theories. If this master criminal is so powerful, with his massive infrastructure and his metaphorical tentacles stretching, his obvious wealth and endless resources as the director of a bank, then what does he hope to gain by all this convoluted plotting? This point is made all the weirder when he reveals that he doesn’t even need a wheelchair. Why go to the bother and discomfort of pretending to be an invalid? As William S. Burroughs might have observed, we are all controlled by our need to control.
Ultimately, Fritz Lang’s film is a thrilling entertainment, whose inventiveness is evident in every scene, almost every shot. Twists can happen on every level, from the narrative to something as simple as a location. A brutal fight in a boxing ring is revealed to be incongruously and brilliantly taking place in a nightclub. The details – a bloody hand print on a stolen document – tell a whole story, and his characters are drawn with a variety of techniques, from naturalism to heightened theatricality. As Adrian Martin notes in his brilliant essay on the film, everyone smokes in a highly individual way. Of course it is difficult to watch pre-war German cinema without glimpsing foreshadowing and prophecies for what is yet to come, but this restored and re-mastered version will now allow everyone to experience this world at its darkest and brightest.
Eureka’s Masters of Cinema dual format release of Spione comes with a 69-minute documentary on the film and a 40-page booklet including new and exclusive writing by critic Murielle Joudet and an essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum.
‘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.
From being one of Germany’s most successful silent film directors Fritz Lang moved to Hollywood in the mid-30s, leaving his wife/collaborator Thea von Harbou behind. Although he was raised as a Catholic, the Viennese-born director had a Jewish mother. Despite this, he was apparently invited by Josef Goebbels to head film production under the Nazi government - a job offer he refused.
However, in America he would never again be given the huge budget, year-long shooting schedule, elaborate sets and cast of thousands that he had in making the sci-fi epic Metropolis (1927), nor would he make anything as long as the five-hour epic Die Nibelungen (1924) or even as dark as M (1931) - the shadowy story of a child murderer. Yet somehow, with his staple of small-scale unpretentious genre pictures Lang flourished. For the next 20 years he turned out a collection of noirs - The Big Heat (1953) - Westerns - Rancho Notorious (1952) - spy thrillers - Man Hunt (1940) - and even a musical - You and Me (1938) - that make up an oeuvre as great as any in the studio system.
You Only Live Once was Lang’s second American film. It stars Henry Fonda as Eddie Taylor, a former criminal paroled from jail who marries the girl who has waited three years for him, only to find that life as an ex-con is not easy. The honeymoon lasts less than one night as the hotel owner recognises him from a crime magazine and asks the couple to leave in the morning. He is fired from his job as a truck driver - his boss refusing to listen, chatting to his wife on the phone, as Eddie makes his desperate pleas.
Fonda is perfectly cast as the hard-pressed, good-hearted reformed criminal but has the ability to transform into a desperate killer with a gun in his hand. Sylvia Sidney is Jo, the smitten nice girl who not only is able to see the good beneath the criminal but is perhaps, like Sissy Spacek in Badlands (1974), secretly attracted to his darker side.
The moral waters are certainly murkier than we would expect from 30s Hollywood, and good and bad are much more ambiguous than in the fairy tale world of Metropolis. Lang never really makes it clear that Eddie is really not guilty of the robbery and murder - the monogrammed hat that convicts him is ‘stolen’ off camera and the bank robber or robbers are wearing gas masks. Yet, despite this, Eddie and Jo stand in contrast to the petty meanness of the ‘law-abiding’ citizens. Whether exaggerating a robbery so they can clear out the till themselves or cheating at draughts, the supporting cast are almost universally self-serving and dishonest. Even the police are seen stealing apples from a greengrocer. But unlike the world-weary heroes of the films noirs Lang would make in the following decade, Eddie and Jo never give up on love and hope. They always believe they can escape this uncaring, dishonest world where innocent frogs are mutilated by children.
Lang shows how well he adapted to the pacing of American cinema. You Only Live Once is a rollercoaster ride of hope and disappointment followed by more hope and yet more disappointment. There is little of the expressionist style of his German films. There is an eerie fog-bound prison break but the cinematography, like the sparse sets, is largely functional, either driving the plot or setting a mood - the romantic croaking frogs in the pond at the honeymoon hotel being particularly memorable.
There are scenes of great visual imagination that remind us that we are watching one of silent cinema’s great directors at work. Hope is raised by a newspaper headline reading ‘Taylor freed’, only to be dashed seconds later as we are shown two alternative front pages - no decision or the death penalty - as the printers wait for a phone call to decide which to go with. The set piece robbery - witnessed by a blind man in a haze of tear gas - is a purely visual tour de force.
As with the poetic realist films made in France at the same time it is the hand of fate that rules the plot. Any attempt the characters make to build a life for themselves is scuppered by unforgiving bosses, paranoid hoteliers or just bad luck - the ticker tape news arrives just in time and too late. The heavy air of pessimism is hardly diluted by the pseudo-religious ending and stands in stark contrast to the more upbeat or escapist feelings we associate with 30s Hollywood cinema.
Although You Only Live Once looks like a precursor of film noir it could also be seen as part of the series of Depression-era social dramas such as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932). The final reel, as the lovers go on the lam together, contributed to create a sub-genre that oddly seems to be made of almost entirely great films from They Live by Night (1948) and Gun Crazy (1950) to Pierrot le Fou (1965), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Badlands and many other great films as well as Natural Born Killers (1994).
As much as Lang adapted to Hollywood it seems American cinema adapted to him. Along with other expats such as Billy Wilder, John Alton and Robert Siodmak, Lang was to lead the way to that great crossroads of European and American sensibilities: film noir,the style/genre in which he was to make his greatest work - Scarlet Street (1945), The Big Heat and The Woman in the Window (1944) stand alongside the afore mentioned M as Fritz Lang’s greatest achievements.
The first time I saw M, my experience of the film was dominated by Peter Lorre’s startling performance. He holds back not at all in portraying the full creepiness behind the banal exterior of a child killer. But when he becomes the quarry we feel the fear and desperation that he feels, and at the climax he thrusts forward to deliver an unhinged but disconcerting challenge to his hunters and to us. There is no comfortable perspective for the viewer to watch from.
This new restoration of Fritz Lang’s M is released by the BFI to mark the 50th anniversary of Peter Lorre’s death. An extensive season of Lorre’s work screens at BFI Southbank from 2 September to 7 October 2014.
If you have seen M before and are ready for Lorre’s performance, you can attend more to the rest of the film, and see how skilfully Fritz Lang has shaped it around the central role. He denies us the usual thrills of suspense. It is clear from the start what is going to happen. The innocent people we see are not going to escape. We know who the killer is and we know what he is going to do. Lang unfolds events with complete certainty of touch: a chilling calmness first, then a brilliant withholding from view of the killer that we have glimpsed, while the intensity is steadily built.
From his cast Lang elicits a set of small-scale acting performances that I have never seen surpassed. It’s not really an ensemble piece: there is little prolonged interaction between characters. In fact, Lang is not concerned with character development (crucial to tragedy, but not to melodrama, and perhaps overestimated as a factor in fiction generally). What he achieves instead is a virtuoso orchestration of bit parts. The impression is of a fully realised human world through which the villain cuts a swathe and which then closes in on him. Most performers are only on screen for a couple of minutes, for a handful of lines: yet each performance is vivid, telling, and in place. One feels that the children being met from school, the beggars on the look-out, the unsuspecting nightwatchmen, the dissipated youth in the nightclub, simply were there, and we see them just as they were. This seems to me an almost miraculous achievement, to make the illusion feel real to a knowing 21st-century viewer. It’s not that we believe ourselves there or experience deep empathy: the viewer is not welcomed in, but shown an enactment that is just as it has to be. It is impossible to imagine performances like this in a British or American film of the period, and one can only marvel at the acting resources available in Berlin and the utter seriousness with which Lang made use of them.
You might not enjoy M. It is grim and remorseless, and it is not beautiful or elevating. But I consider it perfect. Really, it is not for me to review the film: let me just salute it.
M is also available in a Dual Format (DVD + Blu-ray) edition released by Eureka Entertainment in February 2010 when this review was first published. The Eureka release is a restored high-definition transfer in the correct 1.19:1 ratio, with restored sound.
The 2010 Eureka DVD comes with some extras. A few scenes from the cutting-room floor are re-introduced: these fit neatly enough, and do not disrupt the flow of the film, but do not add significantly. A bonus disc features an English-language version of the film overseen by Lang shortly after the German version. This should not be watched. The dubbing is done competently enough, but with completely the wrong tone - the precise intensity of the original performances is overlaid with a sort of casual English liveliness now horribly dated and unfortunately suggestive of Mr Cholmondley-Warner.
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