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King Lear (Korol Lir, USSR (Russian) 1971)

Juri Jarvet as Lear sitting by the fire in his court.

(This post is written by Shabanah Fazal and posted by Roy Stafford)

King Lear is Shakespeare’s tale of an ageing monarch who makes a spectacular error of judgement by dividing his kingdom through a ‘love trial’ of his three daughters, unleashing chaos in the land. There are countless film versions, some of the best known like King of Texas (US TV film, 2002), A Thousand Acres (Iowa, US 1997), Ran (Japan 1985), transplanting the story to radically different soil.  Peter Brook’s monochrome film (1971) is considered by many the definitive screen version of Shakespeare’s original. In his absurdist vision, the key word ‘Nothing’ reverberates throughout – from the black silence of the opening titles to the apocalyptic waste of the ending. Most British stage and screen productions have followed in this tradition of nihilistic despair, recent ones taking the theme of breakdown further by retreating to the small, dark, senseless space of an old man’s dementia-ridden head.

It was refreshing therefore recently to discover Grigori Kozintsev’s gloriously expansive Russian language film Korol Lir. Released the same year as Brook’s film and superficially similar in its monochrome vision of tragic destruction, it deserves to be far better known: Kozintsev offers a more coherent, richer and arguably uplifting reading of Shakespeare. The film is available on DVD but only a cinema re-release could truly do justice to this wide-screen epic. A contemporary of Eisenstein, Kozintsev was an experimental film-maker who learned his craft in the great age of montage, with the creative theatre and film school FEKS; in his later career, he developed into a visually imaginative but more mature artist with a (socialist?) realist style. He was also a Shakespeare scholar with a deep interest in his tragic ‘philosophy’, so it is no surprise that in the 1940s he staged and later filmed his two darkest tragedies Gamlet (1964) and Korol Lir (1971). Kozintsev declared he wanted ‘to create a visual poetry with the same quality as that of Shakespearian verse’ (dialogue with Ronald Hayman, 1973) – so dramatically cut Shakespeare’s lines (the film runs to only 2 hours 11 minutes). Achieving his goal was made easier because of his long and close collaboration with translator Boris Pasternak and composer Dmitri Shostakovich on productions of Shakespeare. Shot on the shores of the Baltic, both films are remarkable for their powerfully symbolic elemental imagery, luminous clarity of vision and epic – often monumental – shot-making. There is no finer example than the breathtaking scene in which the ghost of Hamlet’s father first appears on the castle battlements.

Much of the rich ambiguity of Kozintsev’s Shakespeare films derives from the Soviet context: they share the quality of ‘double-voicing’ (Bakhtin) that characterises much of the art produced in a repressive state. That is to say, they can be read as innocent ‘art’ or allegorically, as political critique of the Soviet system. In turn, audiences were primed to look for encoded meanings – each one potentially a small act of resistance. To the distant pre-Christian English setting of King Lear, Kozintsev added another layer of strangeness, using some foreign actors dubbed into Russian – for example, lead actor Estonian Juri Jarvet. As a truth-hating tyrant whose actions ruin his country (symbolised by his tearing up of an enormous map of the nation), Lear stands for oppressive Soviet leadership, from Stalin to Brezhnev. However, Kozintsev suggests he is doomed from the start: unlike the great bearded patriarch of the silent era Lear (1909) or Patrick Stewart’s heroically masculine ‘King of Texas’, gaunt-faced Juri Jarvet cuts a frail figure. For all the actor’s passionate performance, this Lear is dwarfed by his throne, his outsize royal garments and ridiculously sculpted hair collapsing around him as he hurtles towards his downfall. In presenting the all-powerful leader as almost comically impotent from the start, Kozintsev creates pity for Lear and but also stirs the political hopes of his audience.

Grigori Kozintsev

Like many Russian artists who saw Shakespeare as a radical and their contemporary, Kozintsev understood instinctively the deeply political nature of a tragic vision that links the fate of the individual to the nation. From the opening frames to the great final battle, this feels like a biblical epic. In his re-imagining of the play, Kozintsev presents  the poor multitudes on the move, devotedly following Lear on his journey all the way to Dover – crowds that perhaps represent the peasantry or proletariat, the dispossessed and alienated living in internal exile. Lear has to be reduced to their level, to a state of Nature, to ‘ . . . a bare, forked animal’ before the process of regeneration can begin.  At this climactic point of the narrative, Kozintsev makes Nature his central character. In a series of intensely atmospheric scenes Ionas Gritsius’ savagely beautiful cinematography captures the disorder both in Lear’s mind and kingdom. In the critical storm scene, there is an epic sweep to his camera work, which takes us to vast windswept wastelands where high overhead shots pick out a tiny figure illuminated in the darkness – Lear raging pitifully against the elements.  Such shots are reminiscent of Orson Welles’ Macbeth and Othello, but Welles’ use of chiaroscuro is more noirish. In this scene wild grunting boars, horses, and bears charge restlessly through desert spaces, amid an enhanced soundscape of violently rustling trees and howling winds. The film abounds in such primitive imagery and Kozintsev does not flinch from the darkest side of human nature. After the unimaginable cruelty of Gloucester’s eyes being gouged out, he reflects Lear’s verdict that he has spawned sexually rapacious ‘tigers, not daughters’ by cutting to invented  scenes of Goneril and Edmund having sex, followed by the necrophiliac horror of Regan not so much kissing as devouring the face of her dead husband Cornwall.

Despite its darkness, there are other striking features that make this a politically engaged film. Firstly, Kozintsev gives the Fool (Oleg Dahl) a much greater role than usual, exploiting his ambiguous status as state servant but licenced truth-teller to represent him partly as the artist, and partly as the ‘holy fool’ of Russian tradition. He introduces him to the play earlier than does Shakespeare, showing Lear from the start sheltering him under his cloak and patting him on the head, like a surrogate child, a reminder of the loving daughter Cordelia he has unjustly banished. Crouching in dark corners, the Fool is a loyal dog growling out his riddling wisdom to Lear. From the opening titles, Shostakovich uses the motif of jaunty pipe music to signal the Fool’s artistic purity and role as the voice of Shakespeare’s conscience. Even though the playwright has him fade away well before then, Kozintsev keeps him till the final frames, when he is kicked aside like a cur but rises defiantly to play Russian folk tunes that hint of hope to the audience.

Cordelia’s marriage to the King of France with the overt Christian symbolism

Secondly, Kozintsev makes overt use of Christian references in a pagan world that can be taken for the atheist state. Shostakovich begins with highly emotive religious chants, reflecting the growing role of the Russian Orthodox Church as a force of resistance in the later Communist era. His orchestral score then builds to a thundering discordant climax as Lear ascends prophet-like to the top of his castle to address his kneeling subjects, only to spew ugly fire against his daughters. To emphasise that Lear is the false god of the old order, Kozintsev cuts straight to a new order in which the forces of good are aligned with Christian imagery of resurrection: Cordelia’s marriage to France (off-stage in Shakespeare’s play) takes place before a great wooden cross. He underscores this idea through the use of a fabric motif; first seen in the background to the opening and closing titles is a threadbare coarse-weave fabric that symbolises both the ruination of Lear’s land and its salvation. This becomes clear when Gloucester’s innocent banished son Edgar (disguised as Poor Tom the beggar) uses such a fabric to cover his nakedness, but later gives up even this meagre rag to bind his broken staff into a cross marking his father’s grave. Fire that is first foregrounded burning in Lear’s hearth eventually becomes a raging holocaust, evoking perhaps the destruction of two world wars, Hiroshima and Vietnam. But the effect is cathartic and perhaps revolutionary: the whole social order must be razed to the ground for a better one to arise.  After the deaths of Lear and Cordelia, the camera takes us out wide to birds flying over the sea, signifying not death but liberation. Ending on images of sacrifice and redemption might in a western context seem almost reactionary, but here can be read as resistance.

Faced with the everyday threat of personal and nuclear annihilation, for the artists of Brezhnev’s Cold War USSR despair might have seemed a western luxury; on the other hand, engagement was an act of survival. Some might dismiss the film as rather traditional, but for me it is precisely Kozintsev’s commitment to a search for meaning that makes his version of King Lear particularly appealing in our jaded postmodern age. His achievement was to marry poetry and politics using the moving image – the ultimate light illusion – to conjure something from Shakespeare’s ‘Nothing’.

The film is officially available from Lenfilm (with English subs) in HD (but a slightly-squeezed aspect ratio on YouTube:

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The French Connection (US 1971)

Gene Hackman as 'Popeye' Doyle in The French Connection

Gene Hackman as ‘Popeye’ Doyle in The French Connection

The French Connection is the next ‘classic matinee’ screening at HOME in Manchester (next Sunday at 12.00 and Wednesday at 13.30). The logic behind this presentation (and French Connection II a fortnight later) derives from the upcoming UK release of The Connection (France-Belgium 2014) based on the same ‘true crime’ story of major drug dealing in 1960s Marseilles as part of the movement of heroin to North America from Turkey. This 1971 feature deals with the successful seizure led by two NY narcotics cops of a large consignment of drugs smuggled into New York by a French criminal gang. It is based on a non-fiction account of the true crime with names and characters changed in Ernest Tidyman’s script.

The Movie Brats

I would suggest that there are three reasons why the The French Connection is an important film, deserving its ‘classic status’. First it is one of the most successful films produced by the so-called ‘Movie Brats’ in the early 1970s – commercially popular with audiences and critically lauded, winning five of the most important Oscars in 1972. Friedkin wasn’t named in the core group of Movie Brats and he didn’t have the film school training but like many of the younger directors in the 1950s he had entered the business as a young man and worked his way up through TV before moving into cinema films in the late 1960s when he was in his early thirties. This made him one of the older Brats alongside Francis Ford Coppola and I think the only other film by him that I’ve seen was his British picture, an adaptation of Pinter’s The Birthday Party in 1969. He matched Coppola’s success with The Godfather films and The Conversation with this film and then The Exorcist in 1973. But, like Coppola, he suffered from the failure of his next couple of films, including Sorcerer, his remake of the classic Clouzot film The Wages of Fear. (Sorcerer came out in 1977 just after Star Wars and while Coppola was still working on Apocalypse Now.) The importance of the early films from the Movie Brats is that they formed part of the wider phenomenon of the ‘New Hollywood’ – the period between roughly 1965 and 1977 when the studios were losing power and new, younger directors were able to make more challenging films. In this sense two features of The French Connection stand out – its anti-hero, the thuggish but determined and focused narcotics cop ‘Popeye Doyle’, and the ‘street realism’ of the main setting in Brooklyn. These point to the second reason for the film’s importance.

Realism

There are several aspects of this move towards more realistic crime stories. It’s hard to imagine a character actor such as Gene Hackman playing the lead in a mainstream genre picture during the 1960s. When he won the Best Actor Oscar for this role Hackman was 42 years old. Yes, he’d twice been nominated as a Supporting Actor, (first in Bonnie and Clyde in 1967) but this was his first recognised ‘leading man’ success. What was also unusual about The French Connection‘s Oscar success was that it was classified as an ‘X’ in the UK (now ’18’). I’m not sure of the precise reasons for the classification in 1971 but watching the film now what is most shocking is the level of casual racism and sexism in the police force. I don’t think there are any significant speaking roles for women in the film. They are treated purely as appendages. Mainstream crime films had previously at least included girlfriends, wives, mothers – or the femme fatale – as speaking parts.

But if gender representations were skewed in this way, the streets of Brooklyn were shown in a style much closer to documentary authenticity. Not that this was necessarily the innovation that it has sometimes been claimed to be. In the late 1940s two producers in particular, Mark Hellinger and Louis de Rochemont began to make films ‘on the streets’. This seems to have independently of similar developments in Italy and the UK. One of the best films of this type was Jules Dassin’s The Naked City (1948) which in turn inspired a legendary UK TV series in the 1950s. To get a sense of how different these films are to the ‘staged’ use of locations in Hitchcock’s films of the 1950s. The highlight of Friedkin’s film is, of course, the car chase under the elevated metro train which seems all too real. The attempt by an assassin to escape by metro is used in several French films and it is the ‘French connection’ which offers the third reason for the importance of Friedkin’s film.

France and America – partners in organised crime

The close relationship between Hollywood and French crime films is something explored in several posts on this blog. Hollywood even sometimes uses the French terms noir and policier – though not the uniquely French term polar to describe crime films more generally. Sometimes it seems like one-way traffic. French directors adapt American pulp crime novels or like Jean-Pierre Melville they pay hommage to American culture in different ways. A more recent example was the French adaptation of Harlan Coblen’s Tell No One (France 2006) French directors have also gone to the US to make their films (see the recent Blood Ties (US-France 2013). The French Connection actually begins with a short sequence in Marseilles in which we meet Fernando Rey as the local gang boss setting up the shipment to the US. Friedkin chooses to allow the French characters to actually speak French which  is refreshing (though Rey’s Spanish-accented French had to be dubbed). French Connection II takes the story back to France since some of the gang escape.

Here’s Friedkin discussing shooting the film in ‘induced documentary’ style:

’71 (UK 2014)

Private Hook (Jack O'Connell)  has a steep learning curve on the reality of life on the streets of Belfast

Private Hook (Jack O’Connell) has a steep learning curve on the reality of life on the streets of Belfast

“Posh cunts telling thick cunts to kill poor cunts” is the pithy if not totally inaccurate verdict on the British Army made, in ‘71, by a character who had spent 20 years as an army medic. He is carrying out DIY surgery in the bedroom on Gary Hook, a young British Army private who has been left behind after a raid on a Republican area of West Belfast. Ironically, the life-threatening injuries are inflicted on him not by the initial beating by the crowd in the street but by a bomb accidentally set off in a Loyalist pub given by army intelligence black-ops operatives in order to get the Loyalists to set it off in a Nationalist area. This gives some idea of the twists and turns of the plot in this short but intense film, mostly set over the course of 12 hours in West Belfast in 1971, when the Troubles moved into a new phase.

Hook’s abandonment follows a house-search operation in a Nationalist area by the RUC (Northern Ireland police) who are given back-up by Hook’s squad. The women of the area sound the warning by banging dustbin lids on the pavement and a crowd soon gathers. A riot ensues during which a young boy makes off with a rifle and Hook gives chase but is intercepted by the crowd. He gets beaten up despite the efforts of a couple of the women from the area but he does manage to escape. In a superbly-handled sequence, he runs through a warren of lanes, gardens, abandoned pubs and houses bombed out during the pogroms in the previous year. He hides in a toilet to wait for nightfall and partially disguises himself by taking some civilian clothes from a washing line.

He has to rely for help where he can get it, whether Loyalist or Republican, as he is stalked by a group of armed IRA activists. He comes across a garrulous young Loyalist boy who takes him to the Loyalist pub where Hook (but not the boy) survives the bombing and is seriously injured. A Catholic father (the former British Army medic) and his daughter find him lying on the street. Frightened, both for themselves and Hook, to take him to hospital, they take him home, which is in the famous Divis Flats on the Falls Road, and call on local IRA leader, Boyle, to get him to safety. (Just before this period, the IRA had what was effectively a cease-fire with the Army and Boyle is in contact with the military). However he is in dispute with younger, more trigger-happy elements in the IRA and things don’t go according to plan. From here the plot becomes even more tortuous, with double-crossing taking place among both the British forces and rival Republicans, the Official-Provisional IRA split having taken place a few months before.

Kids running through streets of fire in West Belfast

Kids running through streets of fire in West Belfast

Although the film starts off with a familiar trope from war films – rookie soldiers undergoing basic training before being sent into battle – it quickly becomes an urban thriller with a relentless tempo and a constantly tense atmosphere. This is the first feature film directed by Yann Demange, a Frenchman but brought up in Britain, and he has made an impressive debut. It is also the first screenplay by Scottish playwright Gregory Burke who wrote the acclaimed play ‘Black Watch’ (2006), based on interviews with soldiers serving in Iraq, which was highly critical of politicians and officers, a stance evident in the film. The cinematographer is Anthony Radcliffe and much of the camerawork is done with hand-held cameras which help ratchet up the tension. The production design gives an authentic feel of the early 70s Belfast – although the long hair and sideburns of the undercover soldiers are on the edge of caricature. But the aspect of the production that particularly impressed me was atmospheric pounding score written by David Holmes (who also scored Steve McQueen’s 20 film, Hunger). He dispenses with the  Celtic folk-ish music which is frequently used in films set during the Troubles and instead uses guitars and synthesisers. [Samples have been made available here:

http://www.hotpress.com/news/LISTEN–David-Holmes–soundtrack-for–71/12584905.html ]

The acting is also first class. I was familiar with Jack O’Connor who plays Gary Hook from Starred Up where he played a brutalised young convict in a violent prison but in ‘71 he is more not so much brutal as bewildered. Here he doesn’t have much dialogue to work with and has to do a lot with looks and gestures. Other notable performances are those of David Wilmot and Martin McCann, representing old and new Republicans; Richard Dormer as the former Army medic and Charlie Murphy as his daughter Brigid. Sean Harris carries his devious and ruthless persona from his role as Micheletto Corella, the Borgias’ hit man in the Showtimes television series The Borgias and is convincingly evil as Captain Browning, the officer in charge of the army black-ops team. A special word for the young actor Corey McKinley who plays the chirpy Loyalist boy with an assurance beyond his years.

Many films set during the Troubles in Ireland have been criticised for simply using the setting as an easy provider of tension and explosive violence rather than shedding light on the underlying causes of the conflict (I’m thinking in particularly of Fifty Dead Men Walking, directed by Karl Skogland in 2008, Shadow Dancer by James Marsh in 2012, and Harry’s Game, by Lawrence Gordon Clark in 1982) and I think that is the case to some extent with ’71. Indeed, apart from some local detail, it could easily be set in Iraq or Afghanistan. Burke’s script doesn’t really lead to any real understanding of what The Troubles were about. Certainly we are shown the brutality of the of RUC police during the house searches but beyond that the film doesn’t probe too deeply into the economic and political origins of the conflict, beyond a simplistic potted history that the soldiers are given on arrival in Belfast. If there is a political position, it is that the conflict is simply due to sectarian rivalry and one side is as bad as the other. When Gary tells Brigid he is from Derby and she says she has family members in Nottingham, he tells her that people from these two counties don’t get on with each other but he doesn’t know why this is. The subtext is therefore that the conflict is due to irrational hatred.

As a thriller, however, this was one of the most gripping films I’ve seen in a long time.

Here is the trailer:

Trial on the Road (Proverka na dorogakh, USSR 1971/1985)

The distant figure of Lazarev in German battledress stops a a motorcycle and sidecar in an ambush.

The distant figure of Lazarev in German battledress stops a motorcycle and sidecar in an ambush.

The Leeds International Film Festival excelled itself with this tribute to director Aleksai German who died earlier this year aged 74. I didn’t do any research before the screening and I was completely blown away by some of the scenes as well as intrigued by the overall ideological discourse of this anti-war film set during the bitter fighting in the Western Soviet Empire in the winter of 1942/3. It was only after the screening that I realised that I did know about German (or Gherman/Guerman to distinguish the hard ‘G’). I’m fairly sure that I saw My Friend Ivan Lapshin in 1987 but I remember little about it except that I liked it very much. (The film is now regarded as one of the greatest Russian films.)

German was viewed with suspicion by the Soviet censors and it wasn’t until perestroĭka under Gorbachev that his films began to be seen in Russia or in the West. Trial on the Road was completed in 1971 but not released until 1985 (the date on the 35mm film print screened at the Hyde Park Cinema). The film is based on a story by German’s father Yuri, a legendary writer who wrote films for the director Grigori Kozintsev and acted as a war correspondent during 1940-5. He also wrote short stories and novels, one of which, Operation Happy New Year, became the basis of Trials on the Road. When the younger German began to show an interest in cinema he worked first under his father’s old colleague Kozintsev in the late 1950s. Find out much more about Aleksai German’s films from this interesting blog.

Trial on the Road (there are other English translations such as Checkpoint etc.) is a film about The Great Patriotic War and therefore in the 1970s expected to show the heroism of the Red Army. There is heroism in the film, but it’s complicated and there is realism and humanism to the fore. The ‘Eastern Front’ was the major theatre of the Second World War in Europe (or ‘Eurasia’). Many of the peoples of Eastern Europe and the Baltic states opted to or were forced to fight for the Nazis or the Red Army as they were occupied by one then the other. Others simply became refugees. Many must have changed sides to stay alive. It wasn’t clear to me where exactly this film was set but there are references to Estonia and to the railway line to Pskov – a town in Western Russia close to the borders with Estonia and Latvia.

Lazarev is a former Red Army soldier who defected to the Germans but now wants to change sides again and fight for the partisans behind the German lines. He surrenders to a group of partisans who might just be expected to shoot him as a traitor. (And this has been argued as one of the reasons that the film was not released under Brezhnev – it was seen as counter to the conduct of the war.) Instead the militia leader (or ‘Senior Citizen Lieutenant’ as the subtitles put it) Lokotkov decides that Lazarev could be useful in an audacious plan to steal a food train. Lokotkov also demonstrates a basic humanity. The ‘trial’ of the title refers to the various struggles within the partisan group over Lazarev and the plans for the train. Lazarev proves himself in an attack which captures a German military car. In doing so one of the other partisans is killed and the Red Army Major attached to the partisans tries to blame Lazarev for the death. But Lokotkov (the leading character in the film) gets his way and the plans are brought to fruition. The actor playing Lazarev, Vladimir Zamansky, is said to have been cast because he was not a celebrated actor or a recognisable face. He struck me as an enigmatic but attractive figure, often silent but with a face that could light up – the only flaw in the casting for me was the notion that he had been a taxi driver before the war (I probably have the wrong view of taxi drivers). The main point is that although he does perform ‘heroically’ in redeeming his earlier conduct in going over to the enemy, he can’t be the official ‘hero’ required by the censorship authorities under Brezhnev.

Realism and humanism in war: Lokotkov the wise and thoughtful partisan leader stands up from bathing his feet to argue against the Red Army officer.

Realism and humanism in war: Lokotkov the wise and thoughtful partisan leader stands up from bathing his feet to argue against the Red Army officer.

This is warfare of the most brutal kind carried out in an almost post-apocalyptic wasteland of snow-covered plains, ramshackle villages and sparse woods. German shot the film in black and white with three different cinematographers used for his complex tracking shots across the terrain. Two of the set piece scenes are among the best I’ve ever seen. In one German soldiers appear as wraiths out of the fog overwhelming a Russian lookout. I know that’s been done before but the handling of the scene is terrific. I won’t spoil the second example which was just stunning. The ending of the film celebrates the advance of the Red Army into Germany, but again the director avoids the triumphal and the super-heroism decreed by Soviet socialist realism. Instead he hones in on comradeship and a meeting of the principals from the food train hijack.

This is a must see. I discovered that a free download at reasonable quality is on the Internet Archive website (with links to an English subtitle file. None of German’s films is easily available on DVD outside Russia yet his high status as a filmmaker is not in doubt. If anyone else is brave enough to screen this in a cinema near you, drop everything and go.

BIFF 2011 #19: Goya (East Germany/Russia/Bulgaria/Yugoslavia/Poland 1971)

In one of the film's funniest sequences, Goya shuffles the line-up of the Spanish Royal Family for a famous (and satirical) painting.

The biggest treat for me and many others in this year’s festival was a rare chance to see one of the epic productions from Eastern Europe that competed with Hollywood’s international productions in the 1960s and 1970s. We were told that this was probably the first time that the film had been shown in the UK and that the print was probably one prepared for a screening in Paris at its time of release. The fact that it was a 70mm print in good condition was arguably the main attraction for festivalgoers on the Widescreen Weekend. There was only one slight problem. This print had German dialogue and French subtitles. My French and German are both too poor to deal with complex dialogue so I did miss some aspects of the plot – I’ve had to research the life of Francisco Goya in order to try to sort out some scenes. Though I felt slightly frustrated, this didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the film. I hear German slightly better than French, but I found myself blotting out the dialogue and reading the subtitles. I think that this shows how ‘institutionalised’ one can be in reading subtitles. I also noted that because I was reading a language I only dimly remember learning, I often couldn’t decipher the whole subtitle line before it had disappeared. This at least means that I can now appreciate the difficulty slow readers have with subtitles. The film did actually include some dubbing since two language versions (German and Russian) were produced and actors came from several countries.

Goya is a biopic of the Spanish painter (1746-1828) who straddled the final years of the tradition of the old masters and the birth of modern fine art. The full German title of the film is Goya – oder Der arge Weg der Erkenntnis, which translates as Goya – or the Hard Way to Enlightenment. This full title gives a clue to what marks this film out from the several other Goya biopics (a Spanish film appeared in the same year and the most recent film to feature Goya was Milos Forman’s Goya’s Ghost (2006)). Goya as envisioned in Eastern Europe was a figure who had created for himself a position of some importance as a ‘court painter’ to Spain’s ancien régime. But he was also a man of sexual appetite, a believer in the rights of his Spanish compatriots and a supremely talented artist eager to try new ideas and develop new techniques. It was inevitable that he would struggle in a situation in which ‘enlightenment’, embodied in the French philosophes of the late 18th century, would come to Spain, first peacefully but eventually via war and occupation. In the meantime, Goya and other liberal figures faced not only the protocols of court but also the terrible power of the ‘Spanish Inquisition’. Being labelled a heretic could lead to flogging, imprisonment and then exile – even for those who ‘abjured’.

Goya was one of ten films made at the great DEFA studio in Berlin in a 70mm format. The sheer scale and cost of the film required resources from across Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Yugoslavia stood in for Spain but a genuine Spanish musical group contributed to the score. The original cut was some 164 mins (with an interval) but this print was 134 mins and we watched it straight through. This is described as the ‘director’s cut’ in the DVD promotional material but there was discussion around this screening as to what actually prompted the decision to cut the film. The popular theory was that because the film was quite complicated in terms of narrative, the cuts were made because there was a danger of audience alienation. This is interesting because in my experience cutting often makes a narrative more, not less, opaque.

The film was introduced by Wolfram Hanneman (see his introduction here) who told us we would find the film ‘difficult’ even without the language issues. I didn’t really take this on board at the time, but when I researched Goya’s life afterwards I realised that the film was non-linear in its presentation of events. Since the juxtaposition of scenes still made sense in terms of revealing Goya’s ‘path to enlightenment’, this didn’t bother me too much. I don’t really have any strong feelings about 70mm (the main interest for much of the audience) and I can’t really comment on the quality of the print, except that it seemed in pretty good nick. The production was indeed epic and there was plenty of visual feasting unencumbered by language difficulties. The remarkable set pieces around the procedures of the Spanish Inquisition work very well and, as Keith remarked afterwards, this is a biopic of an artist that really does seem to say something about creativity and the artistic process. DEFA employed a small army of illustrators and artists to copy Goya’s paintings at different stages of development.

Goya (Donatas Banionis) with The Duchess of Alba (the Yugoslav actress, Olivera Katarina)

The other major interest in the film is Konrad Wolf as director and Donatas Banionis as Goya. The Lithuanian actor Banionis is the cosmonaut in Solaris and I thought he was terrific as Goya (he also played Beethoven in another DEFA biopic). Wolf (1925-1982) is controversial as a German Jew who fled with his communist family to Moscow in the 1930s and was educated and trained in the Soviet Union before returning to Berlin to work at DEFA. Despite his high status within DEFA there must have been some concern that Wolf was pro-Soviet, although others thought that he had liberal tendencies. I found it difficult to discern any authorial thumbprints on the Goya story that might hint at ideological sub-texts. The film was an adaptation of a novel by Lion Feuchtwanger and Wolf shared screenplay credit with the Bulgarian Angel Vargenshtain. This isn’t my field but perhaps someone would like to comment on Wolf’s political views?

A Region 1 DVD of the film with a slightly cropped image is available on Amazon and I’m told some of the extras are interesting. It’ll have to go on my long list of movies to acquire so that I can re-watch it with English subs.

Daughters of Darkness (Les lèvres rouges, Bel/Fra/West Germany 1971)

Andrea Rau as the vampire's 'companion'

Andrea Rau as the vampire's 'companion'

I imported this DVD from the US. The 2003 disc from Blue Underground is NTSC but coded Region 0. I was following up a suggestion from Stephen when I was discussing Let the Right One In and looking for different European takes on the vampire film.

Directed by the Belgian Harry Kümel, the film is a European co-production filmed in English with all the actors delivering their own dialogue. This gives an intriguing flavour to the exchanges. The date suggests an affinity with the more extreme end of European horror cinema, but I found this to be much more subtle and less sensational than, for instance, Dario Argento (which is not a criticism of Argento). The casting coup in acquiring Delphine Seyrig for the central role is the key to the film’s success. She is breathtaking in every way.

The film belongs, in one sense to the cycle of lesbian vampire films at the end of the 1960s and the start of the 1970s. I confess that I avoided these at the time, though I remember some critical attention paid to this title and director. Seyrig plays the iconic character of these films – Countess Elizabeth Bathory who allegedly killed 800 virgins for their blood. This time, the ageless Countess is touring Belgium with her young companion, leaving in her wake a number of drained corpses of young women. When the couple arrive in Winter in the deserted seaside resort of Ostende, they are delighted that the isolated hotel on the promenade has only two other guests – a young couple in the honeymoon suite, supposedly waiting for a ferry to the UK (although the young man seems very reluctant to catch it). Now their fate is sealed.

The seaside setting is very well-used. The wind-swept dunes and the dark building looming out of the night is the perfect Gothic setting. The only other location of note is Bruges which the young couple visit, only to stumble across the police discovery of another body. This sequence was so reminiscent of Don’t Look Now that I couldn’t help thinking that Nic Roeg must have seen it. The old medieval town with canals and narrow streets just cries out for fleeting glimpses of figures rounding the corner or the slow passage of the dead carried on a stretcher. Seaside and canals – there is something about the water’s edge as a signifier of moving into another world.

Large empty hotels are also disturbing environments and Kümel and his team are inventive with decor and costume. The first two-thirds of the film moves quite slowly, but the last third is action-packed. There is an interesting essay on the film in Jump Cut, arguing that the film offers itself up to a feminist reading. This is well-argued and pretty convincing. The young man is quite a problematic character and the narrative certainly tends towards sympathy with the three women.

I’m getting increasingly interested in the way in which vampire films play with the ‘rules’ of the genre. Daughters of Darkness utilises the fear of the light and running water and exploits the role of the vampire’s servant/companion played nicely here by the German Andrea Rau, who is interviewed in the DVD Extras. It must have been a nice change from her usual roles in German sex films. It’s interesting that although there is a fair amount of nudity including ‘full frontal’ shots of Rau in Daughters, the most erotic moments are probably associated with Seyrig’s gentle caresses and beautifully delivered suggestive dialogue. The role of the companion seems more complex in this film as there is a sense of her own desire as well as of ‘service’ to her mistress. On the other hand, the role of the ‘vampire hunter’ in the narrative is more peripheral than usual – perhaps this is an attempt to implicate the audience with the hunter figure much more of a voyeur than an active agent.

This is certainly a horror film to watch again in terms of its take on the vampire genre.

The Ice King: John Curry (UK 2018)

I do remember John Curry’s Olympic Gold medal at Innsbruck in 1976 but I don’t think I took much notice at that time. I didn’t follow his career as a professional skater who then took skating into theatres and opera houses as well as arenas. I was therefore surprised and intrigued to discover Curry’s story in this documentary directed by James Erskine, a prolific director of film and TV documentaries and fictions, many with a sports background. The film was released in February this year in the UK just as the Olympics in Pyeongchang were ending. It also coincided with the UK release of the American film I, Tonya (US 2017) based on the experiences of another, rather different, Olympic skater Tonya Harding. The Ice King opened on 5 screens, I Tonya Harding opened on 338 screens. The Ice King struggled to find audiences in cinemas despite excellent reviews, mainly because Dogwoof only placed it in only a handful of cinemas. Their strategy is to use the release profile to promote it on other platforms. It screened in the BBC’s ‘Storyville’ documentary slot this week and is currently available on iPlayer in the UK as well as online and on DVD from Dogwoof.

The Ice King is a conventional sports ‘biodoc’ that benefits from some excellent film archive research and the use of material which on-screen titles suggest is “the only known record” of the various ice dance performances by John Curry and his company of dancers.  Some of this archive material is presented inside a form of masking that signifies its status – and preserves its aspect ratio – the mask allows the jagged edges of the film frame to show, suggesting it is running through a projector. Most of the TV material appears to have been cropped to fit the 16:9 ratio, but there might be some slightly squashed images. Overall, I didn’t find this a problem.

The beautiful young man?

Research also finds home movie footage and clips from Curry’s appearances on well-known TV programmes of the time (i.e. in the 1970s) on the children’s programme Blue Peter and The Michael Parkinson Show (chat show). Looking at these clips now, of John Curry outside of his performance arenas, I recognise him as a gay man and simply a very beautiful and charming interviewee. I didn’t see those clips at the time and it’s difficult to think back and try to re-discover the attitudes of a time of transition when, in the UK, consensual sex between men (over 21) was no longer illegal but being forced ‘out’ was still a major issue, especially for athletes and sports personalities. It was also the period just before AIDS terrified populations in the early 1980s. The documentary leads us into this story by showing a clip of the British TV series Man Alive and American film from the 1960s when homosexuality was still illegal in the UK. The American clip is simply terrifying when a large audience of children is warned (especially the boys) that same sex relationships are dangerous and that they could ruin lives forever (“1 in 3 of you could turn queer and the rest of your life will be a living hell.”. This clip reminded me of those propaganda films warning of nuclear attacks and instructing small children how to behave when the sirens go off.

In John Curry’s case his problems began with his father who refused to allow him to train as a ballet dancer but accepted skating because its athleticism could be seen as more ‘manly’. Curry was able to train as a skater from an early age but he found that the skating competition authorities were also prejudicial in how they constructed and judged performances. The sport was dominated by Cold War antics and the film suggests that it was a Czech judge who broke ranks and voted for Curry that helped him become a champion. Curry would become a pioneer of an expressive dance style which gradually moved ice skating from purely ‘figure skating’ exercises towards the idea of the ice dance. When in 1976 he won Olympic Gold to go with his European and World titles, he retired from the sport and moved into professional presentations of ice shows in which he hired well-known classical and contemporary dance choreographers and was able to pursue his love of ballet. The second, and longer, section of the documentary deals with the highs and lows of his career as dancer, choreographer and promoter. I was unaware of this career and it was a revelation to watch the beautiful and imaginative performances that he and his dancers produced in the most unlikely places (the Albert Hall in London, the Metropolitan Opera House in New York) and to marvel at how ice rinks were constructed on an opera stage. The film suggests that Curry accidentally ‘outed’ himself in an interview with an American journalist and was then subject to tabloid coverage in the UK. Since he left ‘sport’ as such and became a dance ‘performer’ he didn’t suffer the UK media pressure that had a more damaging impact on the footballer Justin Fashanu when he confirmed he was a gay man in 1990.

The older John Curry

Although the documentary is generally conventional in format, it does begin with John as a competitive dancer who is lucky to find a family of skaters in New York in 1971 who provide a room and friendship for a lonely young man. Later he finds an American millionaire who becomes his sponsor and helps him with expenses. Flashbacks to his childhood then fill in the background. There seems to be a conscious decision at this point to avoid further discussion of his father’s negative feelings and his death when John was only 16. There is no mention either of his schooldays. His father was an engineer who owned his own small factory and John was sent to independent schools, boarding for a period. This must have had an impact on a lonely teenager, whose only outlet seems to have been competitive skating. There must be a reason for this omission but since a large part of the film is John Curry’s struggle with his own demons and his sometimes difficult relationships it seems odd. His ‘inner thoughts’ are expressed in the film through passages from his personal letters which are read by Freddie Fox and appear on screen as hand-written text.

In her Sight and Sound review Hannah McGill suggests that the title ‘The Ice King’ refers to both Curry’s prowess on the ice and to his emotional state. I can see this but several of the interviewees suggest that once you got to know him, this ‘iciness’, proved to be false. Loneliness and the memory of his father’s rejection (his mother later became his biggest supporter) that created insecurity seem to have been the main drivers of his perfectionism. The Ice King is based on a book Alone: The Triumph and Tragedy of John Curry by Bill Jones (Bloomsbury 2014) which offers more revelations than some of the earlier accounts of Curry’s life. He died of an AIDS related illness in 1994. McGill suggests that director Erskine tried to make a film like Asif Kapadia’s Senna (2010) or Amy (2015) but seems to leave too many gaps in the story. She suggests that Curry was never the kind of global star that Ayrton Senna became, nor was there the social media material about Curry’s life so there perhaps wasn’t enough ‘extant material’ to tell the story in the Kapadia way, i.e. without a commentary or explanatory talking heads. These are good points and it is perhaps significant that the film is relatively short – 83 mins on TV. Still, I think Erskine succeeds in thrilling us with the material he has found and perhaps performing a service by suggesting that John Curry did have friends he loved as well as enjoying the gay scene in the late 1970s/early 80s before AIDS struck. I’ll certainly remember him now and I recommend The Ice King.

The Young Karl Marx (Le jeune Karl Marx, France-Belgium-Germany 2017)

A must for genuine communists and recommended for anyone who is a fan of Karl Marx. The 200th anniversary of his birthday fell on May 5th 2018. 200 years on his ‘spectre’ still haunts the European (and now the world) bourgeoisie. That is perhaps the reason why the film had such a limited showing in Britain. The title is distributed on a DCP by the ICA Cinema, who frequently provide good service for film fans starved of quality cinema.. Unfortunately it seems that only nine exhibitors took up the offer. In Leeds/Bradford it was zero. You could have travelled over to the Hebden Bridge Picture House in West Yorkshire for an evening screening. For South Yorkshire there was a week of screenings at the Sheffield Showroom. And Lancastrians could have seen it at the HOME in Manchester. Leeds, which in decades gone by had an active Communist Party Branch, seems to have it in for Marxists. The Great October Socialist Revolution passed with only a solitary screening of The End of St Petersburg (Konets Sankt-Peterburga 1927 ) and that was part of a National Tour. The Leeds International Film Festival in November managed not a single film for the commemoration. Yet again the Hebden Bridge Picture House, the Sheffield Showroom and HOME surpassed Leeds/Bradford.

The newly released film by Raoul Peck is centred on the friendship and collaboration between Karl Marx (August Diehl ) and Friedrich Engel (Stefan Konarske), the two intellectual giants of the modern era. Note, the play ‘Young Marx’ apparently commences where this dramatisation leaves off. The film covers the period from 1841 to 1848 when these youthful rebels were finding their feet and their intellectual ground. We follow Marx from Germany to Paris, to Brussels to London. We see and hear his wife Jenny (Vicky Krieps) and watch as he develops a relationship with Engels, already in the throes of an affair with Mary Burns (Hannah Steele ).

Over this period Marx was writing for Rheinische Zeitung (Rhineland News); Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher (German-French Annals); Vorwärts! (Forward!), the last for the League of the Just. Engels had already published his famous The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844. Marx and Engels jointly published The Holy Family (1845). Marx followed up with The Poverty of Philosophy (1847). Note, The German Ideology (Die deutsche Ideologie), beloved of British academics, is a set of unfinished and unpublished manuscripts from 1846. Then early in 1848 he and Engels wrote for The Communist League (previously The League of the Just) The Communist Manifesto. This was published in February 1848 as a wave of proletarian revolutions swept across Europe. At this point the modern Communist movement was born and Marx and Engels continued their political activities whilst developing the analysis of Capitalism, an analysis that is as accurate today as it was when Das Kapital (Volume 1) was first published in 1867.

Marx and Engels dominate the film as do their political discussions. We do see both Jenny and Mary involved in political action and commenting on the political debates. A number of other famous activists and theorists of the period also appear in the film. We have Michael Bakunin briefly (Ivan Franek). More frequently we see and hear Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (Olivier Gourmet). Among the people debated with and criticised by Marx is Wilhelm Weitling (Alexander Scheer).

Only Marx and Engels are presented as rounded characters. But they and the supporting cast portray these revolutionaries in a convincing manner as they also do with their political debates and arguments. It is the strength of the acting that makes the film work. Intriguingly we see Karl and Jenny making love but not Friedrich and Mary.

In fact it is a fairly conventional treatment, an example of the modern film biopic which tends to dramatise a character through one aspect of their life and work. Essentially this film charts the friendship and the way that it leads up to the seminal manifesto. The narrative is linear; carefully structured to include action and drama. The basic plot, though using fictional elements, is broadly historically accurate. Where it less typical is in the amount of time that it allows for political statements and debates. Visually it is similar to many other costume dramas.

The film’s running time is 118 minutes. A more daring length, such as in Peter Watkins’ La Commune Paris 1871 (2000) which runs for 345 minutes, would have enabled a fuller treatment of the politics. Whilst an audience will get a sense of the radical ideas and analysis, what actually constitutes the contribution of Marx and Engels in this period will only be clear to people familiar with the written works. When we reach ‘The Communist Manifesto’ we hear the opening paragraphs but not the equally famous ending. The complete Manifesto would have been a better choice. Perhaps a more radical film-maker (Jean-Luc Godard?) might have essayed this.

A more serious omission in some ways is the absence of the voice of the proletariat. The film opens with a fine sequence as we watch rural proletarians hunted down as they attempt to gather kindling: and the voice of Marx explaining the relevance of the different meanings of theft to this situation When we reach the Manifesto there is an evening sequence as Marx, Engels, Jenny and Mary read the opening of the almost complete Manifesto. Then in a montage of stills we see groups of silent proletarians offering a direct gaze to the audience and the bourgeoisie. But their voice is mainly absent. There are some excellent scenes of factory exploitation; street meetings; and a Communist League meeting where proletarians are present. But they are only supporting where as in the work of Marx and Engels they are both the object and the subject. The Manifesto would make more sense if the proletarian impact on Marx and Engels was made clear. The film does though make clear that these two are not just isolated intellectuals but are involved in practical political action, as are both Jenny and Mary.

Within the limits of the genre, the production is well done. The design, editing and use of music is rather conventional but works well. The dialogue is in German, French and English with subtitles. The cinematography is generally well done and offers both black and white and colour in a ratio of 2.35:1. However, it does use the modern technique of filming characters standing before or beside windows. This reduces the clarity in the image of the character/s, and I suspect digital formats emphasise this. The DCP I saw was generally good but the contrast was lower than it might have been on 35mm. I think the film was probably shot in a digital format.

I enjoyed the film and I was genuinely moved at times. But after the sequence constructed around ‘The Communist Manifesto’ there are two end titles pointing forward to Das Kapital. Apparently, in an effort to emphasise the continuing relevance of the Manifesto there follows a second montage of well-known events and figures in the succeeding decades. These are not all well-chosen; several of the figures would have been roundly attacked by Marx and Engels if they were still around. Better would have been a montage illustrating the final and ringing declaration of the Manifesto, the working classes still have “nothing to lose but their chains!”.