Directed by Agniezska Holland, Mr Jones first appeared at Berlin a year ago to mixed reviews. I tried to book seats for one of its London Film Festival screenings but they must have sold out in minutes and I couldn’t get in. UK distributor Signature Entertainment, which usually goes straight to DVD/download after only a few theatrical screenings, opened slightly more widely on Friday 14th February. Bradford has significant Polish and Ukranian communities so it was good to see it at the National Media Museum. One of the causes of complaint at Berlin was that the film was too long at 141 minutes. The version we were shown appears to have been shorn of around 22 minutes and the press release gives 119 mins.
The film is based on the true story of Gareth Jones a young Welshman who in 1933 following a Cambridge degree in Russian had managed to get taken on as an ‘adviser’ to the ex-Prime Minister David Lloyd George and in that capacity to travel to Germany to interview Hitler and Goebbels after the Reichstag fire. But on his return to the UK he was unable to impress upon Lloyd George and his cronies the danger that Germany now posed. Undeterred he then pressed to be sent to Moscow to interview Stalin. But instead he found himself released from Lloyd George’s service. He decided to go to Moscow anyway. Later it is revealed that his mother had spent some time teaching in Ukraine and this is why Gareth was inspired to study Russian.
The film was written by Andrea Chalupa, whose website reveals that she is a history scholar in the US. Her Ukrainian grandparents survived Stalin’s theft of grain from Ukraine which caused the deaths of millions from famine. She first turned family history material into a book on George Orwell and Animal Farm which she argues has links to Gareth Jones and his visit to Moscow and Ukraine. In fact the narrative begins with Orwell (Joseph Mawle) typing the first few lines of Animal Farm by a window which offers a view of a sea of grain and a barn. This is the first of Holland’s devices which contest ideas about realism. The script also later invents a meeting between Orwell and Jones around the time when Orwell’s first book Down and Out in Paris and London was published in 1933. I’m not sure what Chalupa means when she claims that Animal Farm was a ‘gift’ to her family but I think she is referring to Orwell’s analysis of how Stalinism betrayed the Republicans and the Trotskyist or anti-Stalinist fighters of the POUM during the Spanish Civil War – and thus supported the critique of Stalin’s terror in the 1930s. It is the Orwell passages that some reviewers objected to in the Berlin screenings of the film. I suspect that some of them have been cut in the new print. I hope this doesn’t mean another case of ‘suppression’. What is clear though is that the film script shifts the timescale of events to create its narrative. Orwell’s Spanish experiences were not published until 1938 in Homage to Catalonia. He was actually in Spain from December in 1936 until June 1937.
The film is in three main sections. In the first Jones (a fine performance by James Norton) gets to Moscow and is disturbed by several of the situations in which he finds himself. In the second he finds himself on his way into ‘the Ukraine’ as it was known in English at the time. He experiences the horrors of the famine and perhaps discovers the village where his mother worked. In the third section he is back in Wales, still trying to get people to listen to his story. I don’t want to offer any more plot details as I found the film exciting and absorbing to watch. Since I don’t think many audiences will have come across Jones before (I hadn’t), the drama is not like many biopics in which we know the narrative highlights already. The film’s exposure of Stalin’s Soviet Union is still in parts a contested story even if we know aspects of the history. For the Ukranians it is, of course, a story they want people to know about. On this score I was surprised by some of the reviewers at Berlin who displayed some alarming gaps in their historical knowledge. One or two quite well-known critics refer to Lloyd George as the UK ‘Foreign Secretary’ and one even makes him Prime Minister. In 1933 the UK had a ‘National Government’ – a form of coalition led by the previous Labour Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald. Lloyd George had not held any kind of government office since 1922 although he did become ‘Father of the House’ (the longest continuously serving MP) in 1929. However, Lloyd George still had resources and a name known throughout Europe as the British Coalition Prime Minister and Wartime Leader from 1916-18. He is played in the film by Kenneth Cranham.
Some of the ‘real’ historical characters in the story are given credits and descriptions of what happened to them in the end titles. One of the most extraordinary was the New York Times journalist Walther Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard), an Englishman who moved to Paris after Cambridge and eventually stationed himself as an American in Moscow, winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1932. Gareth Jones’ meetings with Duranty and the subsequent events are an important part of the story. The third major character in the film is Ada Brooks, a journalist from Berlin (her nationality is not clear) who appears to be working with Daranty but who then becomes a potential romantic interest for Jones. This insertion of a ‘love interest’ could have worked out badly but as played by Vanessa Kirby seemed to work well. (I hadn’t seen Ms Kirby before, but she is well-known from the Netflix serial The Crown and other TV and mainstream cinema roles.)
Mr Jones is a shocking story but it is also an accomplished film. I’ve mentioned the director and leading players but I want also to pick out Tomasz Naumiuk, the Polish cinematographer who I note also shot the the Polish scenes for High Life by Claire Denis. The depiction of the Ukranian famine in the snow is remarkable with a very reduced palette of white and gray and dark greens and browns. There are other visual ‘devices’, all of which worked for me but I can see might irritate some audiences. What we can say is that this is not a conventional historical drama. I also liked the music score by Antoni Komasa-Lazarkiewicz who also scored Agnieszka Holland’s earlier films In Darkness and Spoor and the editing by Michal Czarnecki, another former collaborator with Holland. I do see, however, that the film is a co-production with some of the possible drawbacks of the constraint to shoot in certain territories for funding purposes. The British partner in this case is Creative Scotland and Edinburgh has to become 1930s London and I presume the Welsh scenes are also shot in Scotland. The rest of the film was shot in Ukraine and in Poland with support from local funding schemes in Krakow and Silesia. I think that the film’s strong qualities of performance, direction and cinematography do manage to overcome any uneven moments created by the locations. (Some of you will note a Routemaster bus from the 1950s-60s in the trailer below.) The horror of the Ukrainian famine is known as the Holodomor and this film portrays the story of that horror vividly with real integrity. Do try and find it on the big screen. Otherwise it is widely available on download.
The 70th Berlinale is presenting an extensive selection of films by this key Hollywood director. The majority of the films are screening from 35mm prints and several are in their original Technicolor format. The silent films will have musical accompaniment provided by Frank Lubet, Maud Nellisen and Richard Seidhof; the latter two provided accompaniments at the 2018 Weimar retrospective. And Kevin Brownlow, who advised on the programme and who was responsible for some of Vidor’s silent films being restored, will be giving an introductory talk.
Vidor was a long-serving and extremely successful director. He started at Mutual Film in 1913 after working as a newsreel cinematographer and cinema projectionist. He made his first feature, The Turn in the Road, in 1919 and in 1922 signed with the Goldwyn Company, later to become the premier studio of M-G-M. He carried on directing features into the 1950s, but made a couple of essay films before he died in 1982.
Vidor had many successes and was nominated five times for the Academy Best Director Award, but was pipped on every occasion by another filmmaker. This was an experience shared by quite few of the outstanding directors working for Hollywood studios. He did receive an Honorary Life-time Achievement Award in 1979. I remember that Charlton Heston once argued in an interview that the nominations for Academy Awards were what really counted as these were made by one’s peers in the industry.
Bud’s Recruit, 1918. This is newly restored two-reeler which was part of a series by ‘Judge Brown’ [not actually a judge], involved in the reformation of boys. This episode is more about youthful patriotism than reformation. Vidor directed a number of these.
The Other Half, 1919. An incomplete five reel film which stared Vidor first wife, Florence. Two soldiers return from World War I; one is a manager at a factory, the other an ordinary worker; and there is conflict over their differing interests.
The Sky Pilot, 1921. This is a new digital restoration of a feature length drama adapted from a novel of the same name. The ‘sky pilot’ is not an aviator; the title is slang for a religious preacher. He arrives in a small Canadian valley where he has to prove his relevance. Some impressive action sequences and the finale is paralleled in a later Vidor western.
The Real Adventure, 1922. Another restoration but still incomplete. Florence Vidor plays a wife who makes a career independently of her husband.
Wine of Youth, 1924. A drama adapted from a play, produced at M-G-M, about a young woman faced with two very different suitors; the film stars Eleanor Boardman, later to grace Vidor master-work, The Crowd.
The Big Parade, 1924. A restored version of the film that made Vidor’s name, one of the great successes of the 1920s. US soldiers join the war in France. It stars John Gilbert and Renée Adorée as his French sweetheart. The film features fine cinematography by John Arnold and Charles Van Enger.
Bardelys the Magnificent USA 1926. Also a restoration and also starring John Gilbert with Eleanor Boardman. A swashbuckler tale from the pen of Rafael Sabatini set at the court of Louis III.
La Boheme, 1926. A version of the famous opera by Puccini,but based on the source novel, ‘Scènes de la vie de bohème’ by Henri Murger. It starred John Gilbert, Renée Adorée and Lillian Gish. The latter star was the dominant person in the production; her status in Hollywood meant she could choose her roles and have a important input into productions.
The Crowd, 1928. This is the outstanding Vidor film of the silent era. The main characters are a young couple, Mary and John Sims, played by Eleanor Boardman and James Murray; the latter relatively unknown. The film was atypical of major Hollywood productions. The narrative, following the couple making their way in 1920s New York, is fairly downbeat. The style, showing the influence of the revered German film industry, mixes actual location with with stylised studio special effects. The cinematography by Henry Sharp is outstanding. The production experimented with a number of different endings, some more downbeat than others. The film was released in two different versions but the ending that remains is ambiguous and is capped with a bravura final camera movement. The film received nominations for what were the first ever Academy Awards.
The Patsy, 1928. The first of three films where Vidor directed Marion Davies, a fine comedienne. She plays the put-upon daughter by her imperious mother and elder sister. But she starts to assert herself. One sequence has Davies doing imitations of Hollywood female stars in order to garner attention; one of her specialities.
Show People, 1928. The film stars Marion Davies, probably at the peak of her career. It follows the rising career of a star struck youngster who goes to Hollywood. Her rise to stardom has a strand of irony regarding the studio town. And the film has a large number of cameos by actual Hollywood stars. The film was released with a synchronised soundtrack of music and sound effects; this the year of the arrival of sound in the industry.
Hallelujah, 1929. This is a milestone film, a drama with an all-black cast. It was also Vidor first sound film, marrying location filming with studio recorded sound. Vidor personally pushed the project. He had grown up in the Southern state of Texas and he wanted to show Negro life as he had observed it. However, M-G-M, relying on white audiences, with screenings and cinemas for black people frequently segregated, was nervous of such a project. This partly explains that the film features negative stereotypes of Negroes in the period. And black audiences mostly had to see the film in segregated auditoriums. The film uses Negro music and spiritual along with dialogue with a real sense of vitality and with some impressive set-pieces. The film was controversial but remains a milestone in the studio output.
Billy the Kid, 1930. This biopic of the frequently filmed outlaw was produced in the early sound aspect ratio of 1.20:1. It was also filmed in a 70mm format ‘Realife’, but no copies of the latter survive. Wallace Beery appears as Pat Garret.
Street Scene, 1931. Adapted from an award winning play the film is in three acts, the opening act almost entirely restricted to one set. Here we see and hear the residents of a block of New York apartments. This is a sort of populist drama of ‘little people’. In acts two and three the settings expand as does the camera work by George Barnes and Gregg Toland, often impressively mobile for early sound. The final act is the most melodramatic. A lead player is the young Sylvia Sydney.
The Champ, 1931. This is a conventionally plotted boxing film, as a fighter, past his prime, attempts to make a come back. Wallace Beery in the title role won the Best Actor Award and Frances Marion, the scriptwriter, won Best Story.
Cynara, 1932. Adapted from a novel, the film is composed mainly of a flashback. A lawyer, played by Ronald Coleman, revisits an affair which ruined both his marriage and his career.
Our Daily Bread, 1934. This was an independent production produced and directed by Vidor. A couple similar to the husband and wife in The Crowd, [John and Mary Sims – Tom Keene and Karen Morley], move to a rural farm during the Great Depression;. The drama focuses on co-operation and the development of a collective. But this is not socialism. The property and leadership of the commune is held by John Sims. And the major threat in the film, alongside the depression, is a city moll out of sync with the collective. The cinematography by Robert Planck and editing by Lloyd Nosler is very fine, especially a bravura sequence where the farmers dig an irrigation ditch.
The Wedding Night, 1935. This film has some parallels with Our Daily Bread but lacks the sense of community. A writer (Gary Cooper) moves back to his rural home in order to produce a novel. This creates problems in his marriage. He also develops a relationship with a young Polish girl, (Anna Sten) and the film has a very strong romantic feel but also a tragic ending.
So Red the Rose, 1935. This is an adaptation of a Civil War novel. Margaret Sullavan leads as a wife who waits on the plantation as the men, [including Randolph Scott], are away at the front. The novel preceded ‘Gone With the Wind’ as this film adaptation preceded that of Margaret Mitchell’s novel. There are numerous parallels but this title is only a third of the length of Selznick’s epic.
The Texas Rangers, 1936. This western has a familiar plot as two ex-outlaws become rangers and have to hunt down their old colleague. Their is also a a complication involving an Apache war party.
Stella Dallas, 1937. This is the second version of a 1920s novel about maternal self-sacrifice. The film has an impressive lead performance by Barbara Stanwyck and a tear-jerking final sequence.
The Citadel, 1938. This was a British production by M-G-M at the Denham Studio . adapted from A. J. Cronin’s novel which follows the attempts of a crusading doctor to fight illness, disease and medical bureaucracy. His battle is first in a Welsh mining town and then in the poorest area of London. Robert Donat was impressive as the idealistic doctor.
Northwest Passage, 1940. Based on a novel of the same name and set in the C18th with wars by the British colonialists against the French and the Indians. The much sought passage is never passed in the film, but is the goal of the an expedition led by Major Robert Rogers (Spencer Tracy) in the never-made second part. The film is fired by the ambition and consequent privations of the expedition which starts out as an attack on Indians/Native Americans, here getting a pretty bad deal by the colonialists and by Hollywood. Vidor’s first film in the new Technicolor process.
Comrade X, 1940. Here the Soviet Union gets the negative representation by Hollywood. The adventure her involves a US correspondent using a pseudonym ‘Comrade X’, and as a romantic interest a Moscow bus conductor (Hedy Lamarr). As in a parallel comedy, Ninotcha, capitalist charm outplays Soviet morality.
H.M. Pulham Esq., 1941. Based on the novel of the same name a married and conservative business man remembers in a flashback an earlier love, Marvin (Hedy Lamar). Later in the film they meet again, but now both are married and have commitments.
An American Romance, 1944. The romance is the rise of a immigrant Stefan (Brian Donlevy) as a steel and aeroplane magnate. Vidor wrote the story aiming at an ‘epic of steel’. The film used a lot of documentary footage of industry and factories. Shot in Technicolor, the studio cut it from 151 minutes to 1121 minutes: Vidor was gutted.
Duel in the Sun 1946. Famously nicknamed ‘Lust in the Dust’. The film had five other directors after Vidor shot the bulk of the film but as an ‘auteur film’ it should be credited to David O. Selznick. It was an adaptation of a western novel. Its explicit content [for the period] led to problems because of the Motion Picture Production Code and objections by religious organisation. The leads are Jennifer Jones as a Mestizo, Pearl, and Gregory Peck as Lewt. Peck gives one of his best performance as a villain rather than a goody. The ending is much discussed and one of the great finales.
The Fountainhead, 1949. Adapted from the novel by Ayn Rand who also scipted the film; demanding that none of her dialogue was altered. Despite the additional tropes of Hollywood movies the film does exemplify Rand’s extreme individualism . The hero, an architect played by Cary Cooper, resists the most powerful pressures to compromise his artistic vision. The added melodrama produces a hot-house feel to the film.
Beyond the Forest, 1949. Adapted from a novel and including noir-like city sequences. The star, Bette Davis, was unimpressed with the film claiming it had “the longest death scene ever seen on the screen”. [Certainly surpassed by Bernardo Bertolucci and John Malkovich]. Davis’s character is the most extreme example of her screen persona, exploiting men and people, though this catches up with her. The studio, for the sake of morally sensitive audiences [and the arbiters of the Motion Picture Production Code] inserted an opening title warning of the ‘evil’ in the story.
Lightning Strikes Twice, 1951. Adapted from a novel ‘A Man Without Friends’. This is a western in which a woman is involved with am a man who is possibly guilty of murder. She is played by Ruth Roman and he by Richard Todd; the latter had starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s Stage Fright (1950) which treats the situation rather differently.
Japanese War Bride, 1952. A Korean veteran marries a Japanese girl and bring her home to California. There she faces prejudice and outright racism. The film’s treatment of the issue caused a stir on release.
Ruby Gentry, 1952. A small town/rural drama. Jennifer Jones is the titular character, ‘born on the wrong side of the tracks’. She suffers from the prejudice of the small-minded attitudes in a southern coastal town. But she also suffers from her passion for Boake Tackman (Charlton Heston), from a local aristocratic family, Boake Tackman. Their relationship rises and falls and ends tragically.
Man Without a Star, 1955. Kirk Douglas plays the titular character in this Technicolor western. As Dempsey Ra he rides into a Wyoming cattle town and then a range war. The conflict is between small holders and a cattle baron. Reed Bowman (Jeanne Crane). At the end Dempsey rides on his way, following ‘no particular star’.
War and Peace, 1956. This handsome adaptation of Tolstoy’s epic novel was filmed in Technicolor and VistaVision. It was an Italian/USA co-production by Ponti-DeLaurentiis. The film mainly follows the plot, condensed, rather than the characters and themes of the novel. However, the leads in the film – Henry Fonda, Audrey Hepburn and Mel Ferrer – are good. The Battle of Borodino is impressive and Herbert Lom gets the opportunity to play Napoleon.
Solomon and Sheba, 1959. The film was shot in Technirama but also screened in 70mm. Originally Tyrone Power was cast as Solomon and when he died was replaced by Yul Brynner. Gina Lollobrigida played Sheba and had a percentage deal in the film. The plot likely left biblical scholars scratching their heads. And there was at least one risqué scene with Lollobrigida. Biblical epics were popular in this period but this is is not the best example.
Many of Vidor’s films are genre titles. However, even here, in many of them,, there are familiar themes which propose an auteur approach. The themes are not necessarily religious despite his adherence to Christian Science. What does occur frequently are characters who push the physical situation as far as they can; often suggesting a belief in the power of the mental over the physical. He presents both male and female characters driven by some ambition of passion. Vidor was in some senses a populist, making a number of films about ‘little’ or ordinary people and their problems and situations. However, he is generally conservative and collective action is nearly always subservient to leadership.
Vidor used extensive location filming throughout his career, even in period when the Hollywood companies rarely ventured from their studios. And his film offer a skilled use of the moving camera, so that there is generally a strong sense of dynamism and movement. And Vidor usually got involved in the editing of the films, not always the Hollywood way.
Vidor was always looking to work on individually interesting films and produced several. He quietly supported the independent The Plow That Broke the Plain (1936). He frequently worked on the scripts and/or provided the stories. He was also an important influence on the spoliation of directors in the studio system. He was a founding member of the Screen director’s Guild,later the Directors Guild of America.
The Berlinale pages have an overview of Vidor and his films by the staff involved in selecting the programme. It is an extensive selection including all his major films and also a number of minor titles. Some of the films are extremely difficult to see and some have not been seen for a considerable period so this is a great cineastes’ opportunity.
In 2018 I posted defending Ken Loach from the slander of being a ‘holocaust denier’. The campaign against him bore all the signs of supporters of Zionism and the Israeli state. Now unfortunately we have another instance of this.
Jewish Voice for Labour finds it deeply regrettable that the Board of Deputies of British Jews is seeking to disrupt the work of a leading anti-racism football charity by demanding the removal of an internationally respected cultural figure as a judge for its children’s design competition.
Show Racism the Red Card (Strict) is under attack by the Board for choosing campaigning filmmaker Ken Loach to help judge the charity’s 2020 Schools Competition. Thousands of young people in hundreds of schools across the UK take part in the project, designed to stimulate discussion and understanding about issues around racism. Winners are invited to an awards ceremony with special guests, including current and former professional footballers.
SRtRC Chief Executive Ged Grebby announced on Tuesday Feb 4 that Loach and former children’s laureate Michael Rosen were to be this year’s judges. Grebby commended both men as valued supporters of the charity, saying they were “ideally qualified” to help choose the most inspiring and original creative designs produced by young people on anti-racist themes.
However the Board of Deputies has challenged this appointment saying that Loach “is a poor choice to judge a competition on anti-racism”. The grounds for this extraordinary allegation against an anti-racist with Loach’s record have not been made public. We note however that the flurry of online abuse targeting Loach and Show Racism the Red Card since the Board’s intervention, has consisted mainly of unfounded (and potentially libellous) allegations of antisemitism or Holocaust denial. A scurrilous report in the Jewish Chronicle suggested that Michael Rosen too is an unsuitable competition judge, because he has rejected charges of antisemitism against Jeremy Corbyn. (Article].
In fact a statement by the Board of Deputies does specifically mention ‘holocaust denial’; a hoary old charge that was featured in the pages of The Guardian newspaper. The dubious nature of this attack was revealed when the same newspaper refused to print Loach’s response. Unfortunately that newspaper, along with nearly all the other mainstream press, television and radio, treat fraudulent claims against supporters of the Palestinian Struggle completely uncritically. If you want some critical reporting than I commend The Jewish Voice for Labour Web pages, Al Jazeera, R.T. and Media North.
Ken Loach, apart from his politics, has also frequently treated football in his films. There is the now famous football sequence in Kes (1969). More recently his film Looking for Eric (2009) presented football as sport and as culture rather than a capitalist commodity. Presumable this is what made him such a suitable figure for the Show Racism the Red Card competition.
Attacks on Ken Loach in the media are nothing new. They commenced back in 1966 when he, together with his colleague and mentor Tony Garnett, produced and delivered the now classic Cathy Come Home. It continued over a number of programmes and films scripted by the late Jim Allen and directed by Loach. A particular germane example was the play ‘Perdition’ by Allen and Loach which was forced from the stage of the Royal Court in 1987. And it has continued with the script-writing work of Paul Laverty for Loach’s films. An example of this can be found on the post on The Wind that Shakes the Barley [‘shakes the critics’].
The early television work of Loach, Allen and Garnett dramatised the class struggle in Britain; a Britain that still occupies lands belonging to other peoples. In the 1980s all three found that they could no longer work on British television because of the official and unofficial censorship. The axe fell on Loach’s fine and poetic film supporting the miner’s strike, Which Side Are You On (1985). Something that also befell the black workshop Ceddo’s The People’s Account (1985) and the Derry Film and Video Workshop’s Mother Ireland (1988), both banned from Channel 4 .
The more recent films for cinema by Ken Loach which have not only addressed the struggle in Britain, but the struggles elsewhere in Ireland, in Central America (Carla’s Song, 1996) and in the United States (Bread and Roses, 2000), have been honoured by Europeans but often slated in Britain.
It is a real irony in this case that the campaign around what is falsely called ‘anti-semitism’ relies mainly on rhetoric, misquotations and unsubstantiated allegations. Loach’s films rely on detailed research and an understanding of the actual social relations and conditions in Britain today and over the recent decades. So we have a dominant media where the real world is constantly misrepresented by officials purveyors of news; whilst what are fictional representations of our world are much closer to reality and the underlying social forces.
One of the aphorisms of Mao Zedong was,
To be attacked by the enemy is not a bad thing but a good thing.
His rationale was the enemy was forced to take action by the strength of opposition. As other writers have pointed out, the recent campaigns orchestrated by Israel [see Al Al-Jazeera ‘The Lobby’] follow on from the successes of the Boycott and Divestment Movement, in which Ken Loach has played a vigorous role. However, the weakness of some responses to the Zionist campaign have only fuelled it. So it is important that all people with progressive views defend artists and activists like Ken Loach. From early dramas like The Big Flame (1969), through excellent films like Riff-Raff’ (1991) and Jimmy’s Hall (2014), Loach and his collaborators have celebrated people who resist and struggle.
UPDATE: Ken Loach has been withdrawn from the ‘Show Racism the Red Card’ 2020 School competition. The SRtRC web pages have posted a statement which includes:
“Show Racism the Red Card and Ken Loach have together agreed that he will not act as judge for the SRtRC School Competition. A significant factor in Ken Loach’s decision is the abuse online and in person that he and his family have received. It is profoundly distressing, and he is very concerned to protect those closest to him.
This entire issue threatens to overshadow this year’s Competition and together we agree that the key focus must be where it truly belongs: on the creativity of our young people and their own positive anti-racism messages.”
Since the decision involves Ken Loach it seems it should be respected. But the accusations remain fraudulent. See a demolition at this blog:
Removing Ken Loach as a judge is a completely unsatisfactory outcome: it seems likely that it can only encourage this sort of reaction: a reaction which is an attack on the National Liberation Struggle in Palestine and the wider world. The response of major institutions and the mainstream media in Britain to these fraudulent allegations has been dismal; one explanation being that Britain remains a colonial and imperialist state.
Fitzcarraldo, Lutz Koepnick, German Film Classics by Camden House, ISBN 9781640140363, £12.99, 92pp
An exciting new series for enthusiasts, students, and scholars of German film. Each concise volume analyses a single classic film, delving into such factors as genesis, production, reception, and key personnel. Each book entails archival research and provides not only an introduction to the film but the author’s own ‘take’ on it.
To date the series offers this volume and Wings of Desire, Phoenix and The Golem.
The author is the ‘Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of German, Cinema and Media Arts’ at Vanderbilt University. This ‘private research university’, was founded by the famous or even infamous C19th ‘robber baron’ magnate who specialised in railways and shipping. Gertrude Conaway was a member of the Vanderbilt family in the C20th and a ‘socialite and philanthropist’. So there is an ironic connection between this academic setting and the representation of C19th capitalism in Werner Hertzog’s film.
Lutz Koepnick appears to be a skilled linguist. He has published on film, media theory and aesthetics, including German cinema. Intriguingly one of his other publications is on the US director Michael Bay; ‘World Cinema in the Age of Populism’.
I found this a difficult book to read, taking it slowly and in sections. It is also a difficult book to review. This is partly because of the approach taken by the author..
It draws on recent writing on the Anthropocene to probe the relationship of art, civilization, and the natural world in Fitzcarraldo. (Publishers’ description).
Anthropocene is a relatively new discourse in academia. Helpfully, Wikipedia offers the following:
The Anthropocene is a proposed geological epoch dating from the commencement of significant human impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems, including, but not limited to, anthropogenic climate change.
The important word is ‘proposed’. There is not a consensus regarding this concept. And it has quite varied meanings; some argue that as an epoch it dates back to the earliest engagement between humans and the rest of nature. Others see it as a modern phenomenon which is only relevant to recent decades. What will be clear is that this is a concept that ties in to concerns about changes in nature and the climate and the whole issue of ‘climate change’.
Koepnick opens with ‘Spectacle in the Forest’ where the author discusses the production and release of the film. He notes the chronicle of the production in Burden of Dreams (1982) which detailed the treatment of indigenous communities and which created a volume of criticism of the director Werner Herzog. Koepnick also discusses how this and other issues around the film fed into its reception. An important aspect is his discussion of Herzog’s public statements and interviews on the film. Herzog has a tendency to talk in broad rhetorical terms rather than in concrete detail; and this did not always play well in the media.
In ‘Dreams (That Money Can’t Buy)’ Koepnick lays out the overall narrative of the film. He also introduces an aspect that in part structures his analysis; the idea that Herzog’s film work is centred on dream worlds. This is something that is found all over discussions of cinema. However, in Herzog’s film world,
. . . [it] is to think of dreams not as Freudian ciphers of repressed desire and distorted wish fantasies but as alternate realities, as engines of world building.
‘Beyond Nature and Culture’ discusses the film in its geographical aspects. Koepnick sets out how the protagonist, Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (Klaus Kinski), as an entrepreneur, relates to the these American lands and the way his venture impacts on these. Here Koepnick set out his sense of the Anthropocene;
The Anthropocene, as the reunion of human (historical) time and Earth (geological) time, between human agency and non-human agency, gives the lie to this – temporal, ontological, epistemological and institutional – great divide between nature and society that widened in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
This gives a sense of the generally academic style in the book. In terms of Herzog, Koepnick sees his film as an early example of an art work that critically dramatises the problems of what he calls the ‘anthropogenic’.
Throughout the book Koepnick focuses on particular sequences to illustrate his analysis and he frequently accompanies these with specific stills from the sequence. Here he looks at an exchange between Fitzgerald and the captain of the ship in which they sail up a river in pursuit of rubber wealth. The ship has been renamed the ‘Molly Aida’, a tribute to Fitzgerald’s amour, the owner of a bordello, and to opera. Here the author points up the disjunction between Fitzgerald’s use of maps and his awry sense of the lands. And here, as he does often, Koepnick draws a parallel with an earlier Herzog film, Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972). This film was also set in the Amazonian regions though back in the C16th, and it also starred Klaus Kinski as the main protagonist. In addition, as with Fitzcarraldo, there were problems about how Herzog used people and resources. He released monkeys featured in the final and famous sequence live into the jungle. And the film was shot on a camera that Herzog had purloined from the Munich Film School. Something, as with his behaviour on Fitzcarraldo, Herzog later justified.
‘Flow’ addresses the central setting of the river and the broader category of water. This discussion takes in comments on the ‘historical moment’ of the film and, importantly, Herzog’s psychology as it affects the film and the parallels between Herzog and his fictional creation. He references the German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel. The latter’s idea of ‘historical greatness as individuals who followed:
an unconscious impulse that occasioned the accomplishment of that for which the time was ripe.’
This gives a sense of the driven nature of Fitzgerald but also his domination not by the actual settings and situations but a personal sense of imminent possibilities. In this, Koepnick argues, the character attempts to use the existing world for a rather different purposes. In this story Fitzgerald’s navigation of the river ends not with his stated intent but the film’s finale when he returns to the town of Iquitos with an operatic troupe. Despite what appears to be failure Fitzgerald is ecstatic, apparently feeling that he has achieved a historical moment.
‘The Sounds of Music’ addresses the distinctive treatment of opera in the film.
It is finally time to address what Fitzcarraldo at heart is all about, namely the power of sound and music to express emotions, channel desire, connect different bodies, minds, and souls, and – most importantly – build alternate worlds within and in opposition to the dreary routines of the real.
Koepnick discusses this central plot and motif and focuses onto particular sequences. One is the famous moment when Fitzgerald plays a record of Caruso on the wind-up gramophone to the watching Indians.
The other is the final sequence with the operatic troupe arriving in Iquitos. Koepnick recognises how central is opera to Hertzog’s output; indeed his films have a strong operatic feel. But in term of this film he suggests whilst opera is an expression of the driven and romantic nature of the protagonist he also argues that it serves an alienating impulse which critiques the film itself.
‘On Dangerous Ground’ continues this as one aspect in discussing the way that Herzog and his team actually produced the visual spectacle of the film. The most famous sequences are those when Fitzgerald leads and cajoles the indigenous Indians into hauling a large steamship over an isthmus us between two rivers. It is well recorded that the production used an actual ship on an actual setting, eschewing some of the techniques of special effects to achieve this.
A lot of comment has been made on this, including the toll on the people involved. Koepnick notes these but then argues that for Herzog this ‘real’ effort both creates spectacle but also creates a reflexive take of the spectacle. He quotes from Herzog’s ‘Minnesota Manifesto’ (1999).
There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylisation.
‘In the Wake’ is the final section. Koepnick retreats to take an overview and to look back at the film. Here he uses several other artworks that have been influenced by the film. One is a Polish video construct, Halka /Haiti (2015) and a novel ‘Stromland’ (2018). I have not seen or read either. I could see the parallels that Koepnick drew between them and the film but I did not find this illuminating. This was another point when I found the academic stance of the book tricky to navigate.
Overall the book has an amount of stimulating commentary on the film. The author relates Herzog’s vision to the vision that the film presents of its protagonist. As you might expect there is a lot of discussion of the environmental aspects. Much of this is convincing though I did feel at times that whilst the comments revised the film for the present it was debatable how much all of this was in the minds of the filmmakers when the production took place. My other reservation was that the overall sense of the film that is presented is tied closely to the sense of an authorial vision. I think aspects of the film, for example the way the title privileged actual production over effects, is also a reflection of the times of the film. And the author does seem to accept Herzog’s later rationalisation regarding the way the production treated people; in particular the indigenous peoples. It has to be written that Herzog has a unacceptable record of this type of approach. Apart from Fitzcarraldo, there is the aspect of Aguirre the Wrath of God already mentioned; and there is the scandal that erupted over the rats used in the 1979 Nosferatu the Vampyre / Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht.
I also wondered about the choice of the title directed by Werner Herzog, presumably made by the publisher. Technically the film is a West German production, but whilst it addresses European C19th colonialism there is very little in the film which offers a sense of Germany. This reflects my personal estimation of Herzog output; I think the first six titles, ending with the 1977 Stroszek, are his best work. Since then I think his work has allowed uncontrolled expression of his vision; and indeed he has become a film wanderer across the globe. And I think the early films are more expressive of the New German Cinema.
The volume is quite brief, ninety pages. It includes detailed credits and notes, the latter are very helpful. There are sections rather than chapters and no index. There are 40 excellent film stills, well above the usual quality in contemporary publications,. They are in colour and either half-page or quarter page illustrations. And they are well chosen and carefully related to the discussion on the accompanying pages.
I noted this was a slightly tricky book to read but it is illuminating on the film. I suspect that the keener the reader is on this film the more they would take from the book.
Wings of Desire, Christian Rogowski, German Film Classics: Camden House 2019, ISBN 9781640140370, £12.99, 96pp
I was pleased to receive a review copy of this book, in the German Film Classics series, as I was interested if it could persuade me that a film I’d failed to complete viewing twice was actually the classic critical opinion suggested. It must be 15 years since I’d last failed to get through Wim Wenders’ film but since then I have visited Berlin so I was looking forward to re-viewing the film; but first I read the book.
Wings of Desire debuted at Cannes in 1987 and won Wenders the Best Director award. It is a portrayal of life, and Berlin, before reunification when the director was at the top of his arthouse reputation; his previous feature had been the well-regarded Paris, Texas (West Germany-France, 1984) and his role in the New German cinema of the ’70s was feted. Paris, Texas was filmed in America and one of the constant themes in Wenders’ work was the (his) relationship between Germany (Europe) and America in the post-war era. Like Godard, in the ’60s, there was a love-hate tension: the love of American culture and democratic values and the hate of its imperialism. For Godard, there was a linear progression from one half of the dichotomy to the other during the 1960s; Wenders remained conflicted, as the protagonist of Kings of the Road (Im Lauf der Zeit, West Germany, 1976) said, “The Yanks have colonised our unconsciousness.” This film was the third of the road movie trilogy; the others were Alice in the Cities (West Germany, 1974) and Wrong Turn (West Germany, 1975), all starring Rüdiger Vogler as Wenders’ ‘stand in’. Wrong Turn was scripted by Peter Handke, who also contributed to Wings of Desire and, after the revelation of Handke’s support for Slobodan Milošević’s Serbia, which hit the news again recently after his award of the Nobel Prize for Literature, casts something of a shadow over the film.
Alice in the Cities, Wenders’ best fiction film in my view, is set both in America and West Germany but of Wings of Desire, as Rogowski says:
. . . the decision to film in (West) Berlin, in German, to address specifically German issues in a highly poetic, literary, manner and to enlist the help of none other than Peter Handke . . . the film seeks to reclaim something that is authentic, significant, and unique, both to the (divided) nation as a whole and to the individual person. (18)
The ‘poetic’ emphasises the arthouse elements to Wings of Desire, where being obtuse is anything but a problem. So it is helpful that Rogowski diligently unpicks the references and offers enough context, for those who are younger, about Berlin just before the Wall came down. Although he obviously admires the film, that doesn’t prevent him having a critical gaze. The climax of the film, where Bruno Ganz’s (fallen) angel finally meets Marion (Solveig Donmartin) in the flesh, is dissected in some detail showing the problems in Handke’s script (the attempt to recoup Nazi discourse) and the uncritical celebration of heteronormative union. Rogowski is fair to Wenders as he acknowledges the last point is not something that would have been widely understood in 1986.
Donmartin and Wenders were a couple at the time of the film and (from 2020) it does look to me like an indulgent love letter to her, utilising the trope of the ‘mysterious woman’ who will ‘save’ the man (Handke names her Woman in the script but at least Wenders humanises her in the film with a name). Although I did get to the end of the film this time it was only because I forced myself. Much of my irritation was rooted in the constant reverse shot of the angel Damiel watching the world go by; Ganz is an actor I admire but I found his patronising smug smirk insufferable.
The gender politics has (inevitably) dated but that is no reason to condemn any text as all are of their time. However, I didn’t like the film when it came out so my view hasn’t changed.
Monographs on individual films are a popular publishing format; the BFI Classics and Modern Classics have been running since 1992. Their obvious strengths are offering an in-depth consideration of a film; which, of course, are also its weakness for although the monographs usually contextualise the film, the focus has to be on the text. Exactly what breadth of scope is ideal for writing about film I wouldn’t like to say; it depends upon the film, genre, director, producer and so on.
As noted, Rogowski offers an excellent guide to the film and an example of how useful he is can be seen when he points out that there is a key reference to Walter Benjamin’s philosophy of history that could be “lost on English-speaking viewers, since it is not translated in the subtitles . . . ” (68). This refers to Benjamin’s concept of the ‘Angel of History’ which witnesses (as does Damiel and his companion Cassiel, played by Otto Sander) “history as perpetual catastrophe” (69). Hence the guide does more than contextualise in that it offers clarity for non-German speakers.
Rogowski is also generally sound in his analysis of the specifically filmic elements but betrays his background, as a Professor in Language and Literature, when he questions whether two pairs of men walking in the same frame, one pair in the background, was intentional (72). Film students know that everything is assumed to be of significance.
The quality of the film stills in the book is superb; they are large enough to be seen clearly and printed on high quality paper. However, the book isn’t structured by chapters, so there’s no Contents (or index), which compromises its use as a reference book. Recommended if you (think you’ll) like the film.
We have lost one of the major radical voices in British film and television. I more or less grew up on a diet of the trailblazing television dramas produced by Tony Garnett; most often with writer Jim Allen and director Ken Loach. Cathy Come Home (BBC 1966) was both an emotional and political clarion call. The Wednesday Play, dramas like Rank and File (1971) coincided for me with my political education into Marxism. And I was studying Labour History when I saw Days of Hope ( 1975). Later there was a film like Kes and more impressive television work like Spongers (1978). Recently, in 2016, I had the pleasure of hearing Garnett live as he introduced his ‘Memoir – The Day the Music Died. A life behind the lens’. This a fine autobiography, interweaving the political and the personal with everything that is needed for an obituary..
Garnett was an intelligent, analytical and engaging writer and speaker. At the meeting we had a tribute to writer Barry Hines with whom Garnett worked. Garnett was passionate about working class culture, something that he and Jim Allen, Barry Hines and Ken Loach did so much to represent on the large and small screens. Garnett was also the most intelligent voice in the film Versus: The Life and Films of Ken Loach (2016), a work that really did not do justice to Loach’s radical films.
This ‘Memoir’ details both Garnett’s personal life and his professional life as a producer on British television and in both British and Hollywood cinemas.
The early chapters record his family life in Birmingham in the 1930s and 1940s. It was then that the family tragedy represented by ‘the day the music died’ occurred – the trauma of his mother’s death after a back-street abortion, followed nineteen days later when Garnett’s grief-stricken father committed suicide and Tony was sent to live with other family members. This clearly marked Garnett throughout his life. However, the portrait of life in the urban Midlands in this period is finely described and makes for fascinating reading.
When Garnett moved on to London he initially worked as an actor, with limited success. In this period he also experienced a further tragedy. He met and married Topsy Jane. She gave a memorable and sensitive portrayal as Audrey, Colin’s (Tom Courtenay’s) girlfriend in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962). She then had a nervous breakdown and suffered a severe mental illness from which she never really recovered. This tragedy too marked Garnett life.
Then, in the most significant move in his professional life, Garnet was invited by producer Sydney Newman to work on a new series of television dramas. This led to the famous partnership with Ken Loach and some of the most outstanding productions in British television history. These were watersheds in a number of ways. This was not just because of its quality and politics but because they became test cases for the conservative reaction against such work. The responses included the withholding a title from screening, BBC’s first use of a ‘’balancing’ programme and that bourgeois tribute, fulminations in a ‘Times’ editorial.
Garnett discusses some of the productions in some detail in the book;, including Cathy Come Home and his famous collaboration with Barry Hines and Ken Loach on Kes (1969) in individual chapters. He also pays tribute to the particular contribution they brought to these films along with Jim Allen. All of them would be termed left-wingers, though there are variations in their political stances.
All were formed to some degree by the heightened activities and debates of the 1960s. In one fascinating chapter, ‘Protest and Confusion’, Garnett records his experiences in this area. These were centred round the influential (at that time) Workers’ Revolutionary Party with their leader Gerry Healey. Trevor Griffith, also involved in these activities at the time, has a witty portrait of these events in his play The Party (1988).
Garnett went on to produce further work for British television and for a period worked in Hollywood, though I find this the least successful output in his career. The best known title is Handgun (1983), a film that draws parallels between US gun culture and sexual molestation. Garnett’s work on this film was re-edited by the production company, EMI. As Garnett acknowledged, the BBC, where he produced so much, became an inhospitable environment for his type of drama. Up until 2017 he ran World Productions where he produced Between the Lines (1992 – 1994).
The earlier years at the BBC, as was later the case with the young Channel Four, saw Garnett as a key protagonist in many memorable achievements. His memoir combines the story of these years with his own personal odyssey and he recounts this with a distinctive personal voice. I found the book fascinating and informative. It remains essential reading for people interested in the British media in the late twentieth century. So read the book whilst we wait for enterprising exhibitors to re–screen some of the classics.
The Day the Music Died, A Life behind the Lens – A Memoir, Tony Garnett, Constable 2016, 306 pages, (illustrations, no index). ISBN 978147212273S
Parts of this post are from a review in the Media Education Journal.