Newly restored by the BFI National Archive, Ken Russell’s 1969 masterpiece Women in Love is released on Blu-ray for the first time in the UK on 22 August 2016.
Ken Russell’s 1971 film deliberately sets out to shock and does so with a verve and an integrity of purpose that few films can equal. The shock does not simply reside in its subject matter of religious hysteria, taken from the Aldous Huxley book The Devils of Loudun and a 1961 play by John Whiting, also based on the Huxley book, but arrives in a 360-degree arc. There is the disgusting body horror of the plague, the soundtrack by Peter Maxwell Davies, hell-bent on giving an aural rendering of Pandemonium, and the radically shifting tone of the film, which lurches from low comedy to high tragedy, often in the same shot.
It is 17th-century France and Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue) conspires to have the battlements of various French towns torn down. When Baron De Laubardemont (played by Tinker from Lovejoy, Dudley Sutton) tries to carry out the orders in Loudun the charismatic but deeply flawed priest, Father Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed), intervenes, having been given control of the town by the dying Governor. Unfortunately, Grandier has made a series of powerful enemies, including the Baron, a pair of conniving quack doctors and a noble, whose daughter Grandier has impregnated, and Grandier is set for a fall. This promptly happens, when rumours of his secret marriage to Madeleine (Gemma Jones in her debut) incense the local convent. Unwittingly, Grandier has become the object of the nuns’ repressed lust, and a specific dream object of Vanessa Redgrave’s hunchback Sister Jeanne. During a hysterical outburst, Sister Jeanne names Grandier as being party to a demonic possession of several of the sisterhood. The reenactment of the hysteria is itself hysterical, and of course Russell leaves himself open to the criticism that he ‘goes too far’. But thank god. His camera doesn’t just show an orgy of cavorting nuns, but leaps right in and takes part. With a disapproving priest masturbating under his cassock the camera starts a delirious zooming in and out, in and out, in and out until … oh… my.
Aside from the orgies and the enemas and the frolicking nuns and what not, Russell has great fun with the satire. One of the quacks, Adam (Brian Murphy, famous as George from George and Mildred), while assisting in the exorcism, comments, ‘nice day… bit chilly, but still…’ to Sister Jeanne. A disguised King Louis XIII (Graham Armitage) also assists and in the process exposes the whole thing as a sham, but rather than denounce the rock’ n’ roll exorcist (a fantastic performance by the tragically wasted Michael Gothard), he sees it as all part of the fun. After all, his monarchy is based on an empty box of sorts and he shows himself to be a keen fan of the theatre. ‘Enjoy yourself,’ he tells Sister Jeanne.
The tragedy comes with Grandier’s fall. Oliver Reed is magnificent. His Grandier is carelessly witty and licentious and yet convincingly heroic. In the shambolic comedy of the trial, he maintains a credible dignity and indeed begins to rise to grandeur. Only Reed could deliver the line ‘Go away, De Lauberdemont, you grow tedious’ while he is being tortured and make you at once laugh and feel crushing sorrow. His tormentors and Russell refuse him every consolation, and in a particularly horrific moment his illegitimate son is held up so the ‘lucky bastard can watch his father burn’. Of course, as the flames climb high it is no longer Grandier who burns, but all of Loudun and us as well.
The film looks wonderful - sets designed by Derek Jarman - and the healthy punkish nihilism, the anger, is as relevant today as it ever was. We could have a paean to what might have been, if Warners hadn’t so hated the film and if Oliver Reed and Russell had formed a collaborative partnership similar to Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog that somehow balanced their crazy talents, but as one of the most outstanding 70s films to come out of Britain, I am simply thankful that it is at last (almost all) here.
After making The Devils, Russell felt exhausted, burned out. He turned to an adaptation of Sandy Shaw’s musical The Boy Friend, intending a light-hearted tribute to a childhood spent watching MGM musicals. The film proved nightmarish to make: ‘we had nervous breakdowns and near suicides among the company,’ Shirley Russell reported. Russell was once again near breaking point. Believing he had delivered a surefire hit, but finding that the sort of creative doors he wanted to open remained closed, Russell re-mortgaged his house to finance his next project, a personal film that took him away from art deco glamour and complex dance routines, and back to his days as a struggling still photographer living in West London.
Savage Messiah is the story of the French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (referred to as Henri Gaudier in the film) and his relationship with the unpublished author Sophie Brzeska, a Polish woman some 20 years his senior, whom he met in 1910 (and whose name he appended to his own). Russell had picked up a copy of H.S. Ede’s biography Savage Messiah (actually mostly just the couple’s correspondence, with explanatory gloss by Ede) while a young man, and something about Gaudier-Brzeska’s story profoundly affected him: the determination, the arrogance, the contrariness, the seemingly contradictory desire to transcend one’s drab, quotidian surroundings while at the same time resisting the pull of airy transcendentalism.
For the script, Russell turned to the poet Christopher Logue, who had previously acted for Russell, providing a superbly acid characterisation of Cardinal Richelieu in The Devils. And for the all-important set design (Gaudier-Brzeska: ‘I shall derive my emotions solely from the arrangement of surfaces, I shall present my emotions by the arrangement of my surfaces.’) he turned to another collaborator from The Devils, Derek Jarman.
But for such a grand, threatening title (actually a sobriquet given to Gaudier-Brzeska by Ezra Pound) and from a director with Russell’s reputation for controversy, Savage Messiah is actually a visually subtle, character-driven work, featuring little of what was to come; the gaudy comic-book primary colours of Tommy, or the giant phalluses of Lisztomania. The film sets the tone from the outset: a pencil scratching an image onto paper (with accompanying closely recorded sound effects) recalls past enthusiasms for a caméra-stylo approach to making films. At the time Russell felt paradoxically liberated by the external constraints on the film, but he later came to view the work as too talky, too static.
Although Logue’s script is indeed dialogue-heavy, Russell’s own analysis does not do justice to the film. It features a great variety of techniques; sometimes the pace is gradual and stately, sometimes the camera and editing are as restless as Gaudier himself. Scenes such as Gaudier’s impromptu rant outside the library seem to suddenly explode into life, banishing the passive, austere mood created by the previous sequence. These abrupt shifts in tone and mood seem calculated to infuriate Russell’s detractors, but they also reflect the fractious, volatile relationship between Henri and Sophie, the way in which tender moments between the two can suddenly flare up into arguments. Dorothy Tutin’s performance as Sophie is delivered sensitively. Though her character is tightly wound and prone to outbursts, she is somehow the perfect counterweight to Scott Antony’s testosterone-fuelled, posturing Gaudier, who wilfully changes his opinions and his plans by the day.
That Logue was the originator of Private Eye magazine’s Pseuds Corner column is visible in the characterisation of the art world’s glitterati, whom Henri and Sophie first meet at a dinner party at the house of Gaudier patron’s Corky (played with camp relish by Lindsay Kemp, perhaps best known to cinephiles for his role as the scrofulous landlord in The Wicker Man). What distinguishes Henri and Sophie from these shallow dabblers is that they are willing to take an idea to the end; Sophie’s novel is titled Truth: A Novel of the Spirit and Gaudier, when he tosses his famous female torso through an art dealer’s window in an act of rage, demands to be thrown in jail and insists that nobody pay his bail. It is principle, then, that underpins the value structure of this film, although Gaudier’s principles are sometimes clouded in contradiction (the idea that it’s only through paradox, oxymoron, that we can express what we really feel) such as when he tells the assembled dandies, ‘I like what everyone likes - and EVERYBODY likes war’. The real Gaudier-Brzeska heckled the poet and war enthusiast Filippo Marinetti during a lecture in London, but Logue’s script is not interested with presenting Gaudier as an earnest ideologue.
The character of Gosh Boyle is introduced as a counterpoint to Sophie. Gosh is a suffragette who impresses Gaudier with her disruptive demonstrations and her almost cartoonishly voluptuous figure. But when world war breaks out her imperialist background is too strong to resist and she joins the army (her father is a Major who commissions a bust from Gaudier). When Gaudier last sees her she is a crass, jingoistic parody, shorn of her previous feminist and bohemian tendencies. Some quarters may feel that as a character she is used to critique feminism (and with Russell’s prurient interest in her physical charms, such an interpretation is hardly surprising). In fact, she figures in the film’s commentary on commitment. Gosh is just another dilettante, like the luminaries of the art crowd that Gaudier is introduced to. Such characters soon reveal that their pretentions to artistic and political activity are motivated by social climbing rather than Gaudier’s relentless termite burrowing.
Gaudier-Brzeska enthusiasts are often critical of the film, not only for its compression of the artist’s biography, but because it reveals little of the complexity of Gaudier-Brzeska’s thought and of his participation in the thriving pre-war avant-garde (no mention of Gaudier-Brzeska’s friendship with figures such as T.E. Hulme and Ezra Pound.) The Vorticist movement as a whole is portrayed rather dismissively, as a group of style-over-substance dilettantes rather than the strident firebrands many of them were.
But here as in his biographies of famous composers, Russell is less interested in historical accuracy than in communicating the energy of the creative process. When Andrei Tarkovsky coined the phrase ‘sculpting in time’ he was in part trying to elevate cinema to a fine art, inspired by a divine muse and revered in a gallery. Russell uses the same medium as a figure for his aspirations: ‘The central image of our movie is the titanic struggle of the sculptor to release his genius from the intractable marble,’ Russell told Jarman, perhaps somewhat haughtily.
Unlike Tarkovsky, Russell was thinking less of the hallowed portals of high art and more of the sweat, exertion and chipping away that characterise the sculptor at work. It is instructive (and gratifyingly blasphemous) to compare the end of Savage Messiah with that of Tarkovsky’s own artist biopic, Andrei Rublev (1966). Both films end with a close look at their subjects’ artworks, but while Tarkovsky’s is hand-wringingly reverent, Russell’s approach is more ludic - he shows the sculptures in close-up, but he also shows them in a gallery, as passers-by consult their exhibition catalogues and seem mildly bemused. Two young women point and giggle at Gaudier’s now-celebrated head of an idiot - ‘art is alive; love it, laugh at it, but don’t worship it,’ as Gaudier bellows from atop a huge (and obviously not stone) Moai [near the film’s outset. The prim period dress of the gallery visitors seems utterly at odds with Gaudier’s vindication of primitive beauty.
The BBC’s recent documentary on Russell, attempting to cram a vast and prolific career into the sort of narrative that suits a 60-minute programme, ironed out many of Russell’s more quixotic moments. But to omit Savage Messiah, as the BBC did, seems surprising as it is one of Russell’s key films. Reducing the complexity of a film to the intentions/private obsessions of a single author can be reductive. But Gaudier-Brzeska can really be seen as an analogue for Russell; he loves life, hates the quotidian, often expresses his high ideals childishly or through paradox or provocation. Throughout, the film presents an individualistic philosophy, portraying the artistic community as a safety net of self-regard. Russell told his first biographer John Baxter: ‘Gaudier’s life was a good example to show that art, which is simply exploiting to the full one’s own natural gifts, is really bloody hard work, misery, momentary defeat and taking a lot of bloody stick - and giving it.’ A fitting epitaph for Russell himself.
John A. Riley
The story of one of the most famous literary friendships in the world is almost too good to make a good film. There’s something preposterous about Percy Bysshe Shelley’s and Lord Byron’s meeting in Switzerland at the Villa Diodati in 1816, like one of those imaginary dinner parties where you get to choose the guests from history; like Fantasy Island. Add to that the delicious irony that the literary outcome of the ghost story writing competition that ensued should be won hands down not by either of the two poets, but by the overshadowed 18-year-old wife Mary Shelley, who wrote… oh come on really? and Byron’s doctor, whose Vampyre would directly inspire Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Ken Russell doesn’t give a monkey’s about historical or biographical accuracy and is much more interested in the flamboyant silliness of the whole thing. Julian Sands is a Shelley who might have stepped out of a Blackadder episode: ‘There’s nothing intellectual about wandering about Italy in a big shirt and trying to get laid, Mrs Miggins. The vegetarian and abstemious poet becomes a laudanum addict and boozer, channelling Coleridge presumably. Gabriel Byrne looks perfect as a clomping Byron, who is first seen standing in front of an enormous portrait of himself. Natasha Richardson is a rather arch, prudish Mary, with a vague Scottish lilt, and Miriam Cyr is Claire Clairmont, Mary’s half-sister and Byron’s lover. Timothy Spall rounds off the cast as a suitably repellent Polidori.
There is a lot of dashing about and what Nicholas Cage has recently called ‘mega-acting’, a sense of dynamic improvisation, possibly to try and enliven what otherwise is a one-location film. In fact, the structure begins to resemble a kind of phantasmagoria, a punkish Dead of Night, as the collected fruitcakes try to outdo each other in lurid scenes of nightmarish fantasy, play hide-and-seek and shriek quite a lot. Taking the title as a starting point, the film crams in a lot of the furniture and paraphernalia of the Gothic: skulls, snakes, armoured men, rats, creepy-crawlies, incest, ghosts, tilted stairways, thunder and lightning, endless corridors. It never once stops to actually build any tension, and it isn’t transgressive in any way because in this universe there’s no normality to transgress from. In an opening section, we get a glimpse of the outside world in the form of a bunch of upper-class tourists leering through telescopes trying to catch a glimpse of the famous occupants of the Villa. Likewise, the servants are happy enough to participate or peer through the keyhole and get their jollies that way. The music by Thomas Dolby is noisily in keeping with the general tone of the film.
These are by no means criticisms. The film is not a horror film as such. Odd to say, Russell lacks the discipline for horror: he refuses to confine himself to its grammar even as he’s willing to adopt its vocabulary. What you get instead is a wonderfully enjoyable carnival of daftness rounded off in the concluding quarter of the film by a strangely moving and in fact terrifying few minutes. Mary is gifted with a vision of the future, and for once the film quietly and unexpectedly begins to take its characters seriously. We see Shelley’s drowning and the subsequent burning of the body; the death of Byron in Greece, bled to death by his doctors. The next day all is well, but an audacious jump-shot brings us to the present day and the leering tourists are back. All that life and creativity long dead. It is one of Ken Russell’s best tricks. In the midst of all that craziness, there is a moment of clarity.
Altered States is Ken Russell’s most Hollywood film in a career that for the most part eschewed conventional and commercial cinema. As such it is an interesting case, an indicator of what Russell could have done had he toed the line. In fact, Richard Bancroft in his review of Lisztomania sees the film as a kind of penance, paid as compensation for Ken Russelling everyone to death in his earlier film.
Based on a novel and screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky of Network fame, Russell got the directing job after Arthur Penn bailed on the project. Russell claimed later to have been the twenty-seventh-choice director. Of course, Russell had in the past turned his hand to more conventional fare, the Harry Palmer entry Billion Dollar Brain (1967) for instance, but on the surface at least the subject matter had a wackiness that must have been appealing.
William Hurt, in his motion picture debut, plays Eddie Jessup, a scientist researching the links between schizophrenia and religious experience. A wild-eyed visionary and, like other Russell heroes such as Father Grandier and Tchaikovsky, a devotee to unconventional truth, Jessup answers a post-coital ‘What are you thinking?’ with the ludicrous ‘God … Jesus … crucifixions’. ‘I feel like I’m being harpooned by a monk,’ his lover Emily (Blair Brown) understandably complains. As part of his research, Jessup uses an isolation tank to try and regress to a more primal state of being. With the collaboration of his colleague Arthur (Bob Balaban) and against the opposition of Mason (Charles Haid, famous later for Hill Street Blues), Jessup begins experimenting with drugs to intensify the experience, but with increasingly dangerous consequences, especially when he begins to physically change under the influence of the altered state of his mind.
For the most part the film is conventionally shot by Jordan Cronenweth, who would go on to film Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Russell gets to have some fun with the hallucinations, taking advantage of the lingering influence of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) to produce suitably ‘mind-bending’ visuals, multicoloured blobbing paint stuff, along with Cecil B. DeMille-like scenes of Hell (actually taken from Harry Lachman’s 1935 film Dante’s Inferno) and a whiff of religious controversy. The appalling pretentiousness of the whole film and the mumbo jumbo of the dialogue, taken verbatim from Chayesky’s book - he has to be one of the few screenwriters who took his name off a project because they kept his dialogue intact - is weirdly made into something almost clever by the way the performers rush headlong through it without any winking and Russell holds his camp in check, perhaps with the exception of a ludicrous monkey man escape/dog chase/zoo invasion section. When Jessup finally goes too far with his experiment and basically becomes a whirlpool, it is tempting to think that Russell is presenting us with a visual metaphor of the film disappearing literally up its own hole. With Jessup saved from being a Mugwump for life via the love of a good woman and a sequence that would go on to inspire an A-ha video, the film ends with the kind of conventional sentiment (love conquers all) that seems so clichéd and ridiculous that it might actually be true.
Even Ken Russell fans tend to shy away from Lisztomania (1975). It is seen as the point where Russell goes ‘too far’ and collapses into self-parody. Audiences seem uncomfortable with many aspects of the film, perhaps most of all with the idea that he takes the classic Russell subject - the life of a great composer - but films it in the rock opera style of Tommy (1975), his previous and most financially successful film.
Being a Ken Russell fan has tended to mean being a Ken Russell apologist. That the director of sensitive films like Song of Summer: Frederick Delius (1968) and Women in Love (1969) later made a movie in which Roger Daltrey rides around on a giant penis while singing, is seen as the degeneration of a once promising talent. Lisztomania comes almost at the end of Russell’s run of fairly big-budget, successful 1970s movies - The Music Lovers (1970), The Devils (1971), The Boy Friend (1971), Tommy - and the critical savaging it received might explain why Russell made very few interesting films thereafter. Like some gaudy, camp Icarus, he flew too close to the sun and got so badly burnt that he was forced to go to Hollywood and make Altered States (1980).
In the popular imagination, Russsell’s films are full of bizarre fantasy sequences featuring religious imagery, over-literal visual metaphors and copious nudity. Lisztomania certainly delivers on those fronts. As a young ‘cult cinema’ enthusiast, I found it easy to fall in love with the film, while at the same time realising how very silly it was. The problem is that, because Lisztomania is intentionally absurd, it gives plenty of ammunition to those who tar the rest of Russell’s films with the same brush. Russell’s reputation has plummeted in recent years, and the mainstream critical view suggests that it was all downhill after Women in Love. Important films were only made available on DVD many years into the format’s lifespan (Lisztomania, 2009; The Music Lovers, 2011; The Devils, 2012), and there is no legal way of viewing his 1960s BBC work apart from one overpriced region 1 box-set.
The key to rediscovering that Lisztomania has merits beyond knockabout comedy is in comparing it to Russell’s long-banned film about Richard Strauss, Dance of the Seven Veils (1970). Like Lisztomania, it marks the end of a phase in Russell’s career (it was his last work for the BBC for more than 20 years); like Lisztomania, it equates classical music with Nazism; and like Lisztomania, it has no realistic scenes whatsoever.
The Strauss film is described as ‘A comic strip in seven episodes on the life of Richard Strauss’ and gives seven different versions of Strauss - the lover, the family man, the fawning Nazi collaborator, etc. It was the Nazi sequences that were most controversial, and led to Strauss’s family banning the film. The most disturbing sequence shows a Jewish couple being brutalised by Nazi thugs while Strauss plays his music louder and louder to drown out the screams. It is fairly sexually explicit for 1970 television and features a sequence where Strauss appears as a silent film star, Erich von Stroheim. It is also completely unrealistic - there is minimal dialogue, and it is as much ballet as straight drama. Strauss is played by dancer Christopher Gable, a Russell regular.
In this context, Lisztomania makes a lot more sense. While The Music Lovers or The Devils have unrestrained fantasy sequences, they are still coherent narratives with beginnings, middles and endings. Lisztomania is not. It is, in effect, a comic strip in nine or ten episodes on the life of Franz Liszt: the lover, the family man, the pop star, etc. Liszt appears as a silent film star (Chaplin), and the film is full of the kind of nudity that the BBC would never have been able to get away with. Just as in Seven Veils, the episodes are cartoony caricatures rather than realistic portrayals of episodes of Liszt’s life (something reflected in Lisztomania‘s most famous promotional poster). Laughing at Lisztomania for being unrealistic misses the point. The dialogue scenes are intended to seem just as unlikely as the scenes with singing Nazi children or giant penises.
Like in Seven Veils, the most contentious sequence links classical music and Nazism. Wagner - a musical vampire who drains inspiration from Liszt - is reborn as a Frankenstein Monster Hitler who murders Jews with a machine-gun guitar. Unlike the Strauss film, though, Litsztomania does not appear to make a serious point about Nazism and its relation to music. Wagner’s followers are portrayed as children, and Russell has found a similarity between Nazism’s fetishised hand gestures and those of pop music’s various dance crazes. But it feels more than a little adolescent, and Ken Russell was obviously far too intelligent to really believe that Wagner caused the Holocaust.
The main problems with Lisztomania are that it is badly paced (the early concert scene is close to interminable); and that, as Russell admits in the DVD commentary, it requires quite a lot of knowledge of Liszt and Wagner in order to ‘get’ the references. The target audience was probably the same people who had gone to see Tommy, not the best audience to appreciate jokes about Wagner sucking Liszt’s blood. This results in a film that feels like it was made for two separate audiences, neither of whom will fully appreciate it. And although it is easier to forgive clumsy dialogue scenes when you accept that they are probably intentionally clumsy, it does not make them any easier to sit through.
Perhaps Russell was a victim of his own excess. In his autobiography he claimed that the Rick Wakeman soundtrack was foisted on him by producer David Puttnam, who perhaps took it upon himself to nudge Russell into making a more archetypally ‘Ken Russell’ film than he had intended. Perhaps his great financial success with Tommy gave him a bit too much license to go over the top. In returning to the completely stylised filmmaking of Dance of the Seven Veils, but with fewer restraints on what he could show, Russell probably overdid it. A fantasy sequence loses its impact if there are no ‘straight’ sequences to compare it to.
Lisztomania is still extremely entertaining and does not ask to be taken too seriously. It feels unfair to dismiss it as the point Ken Russell degenerated into silliness. It perhaps marks the point where he had done everything he could with a certain style of film, just as Dance of the Seven Veils was the culmination of his BBC work. Lisztomania is a similar bridge-burning effort, after which Russell would be forced to find something new. That it was followed by a frustrating period in Hollywood and then a long, slow decline is sad, but it is commendable that he struck off in other directions, rather than just making Tommy clones for the next ten years.
Lisztomania will probably never rank among the best Ken Russell films; the pace is too uneven and the comedy a bit too ridiculous. But it has some merits beyond just being the funny one with the giant penis, the Wagner Nazis and Ringo Starr.
Electric Sheep‘s pick of the best filmic events, screenings, festivals and retrospectives in 2011.
The Devils (Ken Russell, 1972 - East End Film Festival, May 2011)
The recent passing of Ken Russell adds retrospective poignancy to the screening of his flamboyant masterpiece, restored to its full glory, at the East End Film Festival in April. The director attended the screening and was given a standing ovation by a rapturous packed auditorium. Vilified by parts of the critical establishment and struggling to find funding in later years, Ken Russell could be as silly and camp as audacious and visionary and we will be paying homage to his anarchic spirit in March next year, to mark the DVD release of The Devils.
Scala Forever (13 August - 2 October 2011)
Electric Sheep was very proud to be involved in Scala Forever, the celebration of the legendary Scala cinema across a range of London venues organised by the Roxy Bar and Screen. We presented a sold-out screening of Thundercrack! (1975, dir Curt Mcdowell, starring and written by George Kuchar), followed by a talk with former Scala programmer Jane Giles and horror maestro Kim Newman on September 20 at the Horse Hospital. The rest of the excellent Scala Forever programme included John Waters, Dario Argento, Russ Meyer and Fassbinder nights, a Turkish Grindhouse evening, a Jack Smith programme, a screening of one of our favourite 60s Italian exploitation films The Frightened Woman, and much more.
Flatpack (23-27 March 2011, Birmingham)
Inventively and energetically curated, Flatpack offers a stimulating mix of offbeat delights, forgotten gems, animation and experimental film in unusual settings, exploring the connections between art, music, history, place and film. Intelligent and fun, it guides audiences through enchanting cinematic adventures off the beaten path. The festival returns from 13 to 18 March 2012.
Theatre Scorpio (Close-Up) + Shinjuku in London (BFI Southbank) - July-August 2011
The summer’s seasons focusing on The Art Theatre Guild of Japan offered a unique chance to see works from the 1960s and 70s Japanese independent and experimental film scene. The Close-Up screenings of Masao Adachi’s cryptic, surreal Galaxy and Katsu Kanai’s delirious dreamscape The Desert Archipelago (1969), the latter in the presence of the director, were particularly memorable nights.
The Dybbuk (dir. Michal Waszynski, Poland 1937 - Kinoteka, 5 April 2011)
Now here’s exotica: a supernatural drama filmed in Poland, on the brink of the Holocaust, entirely in Yiddish, in 1937. You won’t see many like this. Michal Waszynski’s The Dybbuk is as rich and strange an artefact as any aficionado of fantastic cinema could hope for. It overflows with esoteric rituals, customs and superstitions, some of which seem unfamiliar even to the characters on screen: there’s numerology, bits of Kabbalah, odd bursts of song and poetic turns of phrase, mannered acting, and vaudeville schtick. To a decided non-believer, this comes across as a weird little bubble of cinema, both familiar and strange, a film overlaid with real tragedy, created by artists long disappeared, dispersed and destroyed, but one still brimming with life and soul and artistry.