Another British picture (new to me) showing on Talking Pictures TV, this is a Francis Durbridge adaptation. Durbridge (1912-1998) was a very prolific writer of radio and TV serials as well as novels and plays. His work was widely adapted and Wikipedia lists German, Italian and French TV adaptations as well as all those in the UK. Durbridge was best known for the Paul Temple radio serials in which Temple and his wife Steve become involved in crime thrillers. They were broadcast from 1938-68 (and are now to be heard on BBC Radio 4 Extra). Durbridge was born in Hull and educated at Bradford Grammar School.
The Teckman Mystery was an adaptation of a TV serial from 1953-4. 1953 was the period when TV audiences began to grow in the UK around the time of the Coronation in 1953, but presumably there was still a sizeable potential cinema audience for an adaptation. The story was certainly contemporary. A crime novelist Phillip Chance (John Justin) is surprised to be asked by his publisher to write a biography of a test pilot, Martin Teckman (Michael Medwin) who was killed when the new jet fighter he was flying disappeared with only a fragment of the fuselage recovered. Chance is even more surprised to discover that the woman sitting next to him on the plane bringing him back to London from his writer’s retreat in France is Teckman’s sister Helen (Margaret Leighton). You’d think he would have found that suspicious! As you might expect, the plot involves a group of foreign agents who have attempted to steal the experimental fighter (a model of which in the film is similar to the Gloster Javelin which was being tested at the time – a Javelin did crash in the week before the film opened).
The most significant feature of the production may well be that the director was Wendy Toye making her début. Ms Toye was a choreographer, dancer and actor who had a successful career as a stage and TV director which lasted until the 1990s. After directing a short film which won a prize at Cannes in 1952 she made seven features and a contribution to a compendium film. Two of the films were crime narratives but most of the rest were comedies. She was only the second British woman to direct mainstream studio features after 1945. Muriel Box was the first. Both women deserve to be better known.
The Teckman Mystery is an ‘A’ feature with a strong cast. John Justin is actually quite good as the Durbridge type of amateur detective with enough arrogance and charm. His career never really took on the next step from his early starring role in The Thief of Baghdad (UK-US 1940) but here he does well. Margaret Leighton is top-billed as a femme fatale in what some reviewers describe as a noir. The film was photographed by the experienced Jack Hildyard and features some nice location work around London including the final section filmed around Tower Bridge and the adjacent docks. It was projected in theatres at 1.66:1 but slightly cropped on TV to allow a 16:9 TV broadcast. American reviews suggest that the plot is ‘meandering’. I didn’t feel that myself and at times it moves very quickly – but at 90 minutes it did feel a little like an 80 minute film that had been expanded. As with many of these TPTV prints, the film has been released on a Network DVD which gets a generally positive review from DVD Beaver.
This is a well-made film and if you like old-fashioned crime mysteries I can recommend it. For me the interest is in the subject matter. This was the period when British aviation was at its height and aspects of it were world-leading. The Cold War was becoming a reality and films about jet aircraft and test pilots were all the rage. The Net (UK 1953) was shown on the same day as The Teckman Mystery on Talking Pictures TV. Not long ago we had David Lean’s The Sound Barrier (UK 1952) and before that the slightly different No Highway (UK-US 1951) – a new airliner is grounded when evidence of possible faults is found. Plane travel was only beginning to feature regularly in British films. I was intrigued by the aircraft that Phillip boards for Berlin that might be an Airspeed Ambassador.
Network’s teaser (with Raymond Huntley as Phillip’s publisher) for the DVD release in 2016:
When a film wins Oscars everyone writes about it. I’m not that bothered by Oscars but I’m glad that del Toro won something and I’m pleased the production design team got a gong. I loved the mix of songs in the film but I didn’t really notice the score – perhaps I will next time. Above all, however, I’m saddened that Sally Hawkins wasn’t rewarded. She is an extraordinary actor, capable of anything. I think that The Shape of Water is a love letter to cinema from a film lover who remembers the movies he watched with his grandmother. I’m not sure why The Story of Ruth (US 1960) is the film showing in the cinema when the creature stands in the stalls. It was a Fox film so the rights weren’t a problem. I’m assuming Guillermo saw it as a child. I watched Mr Ed on TV as a teenager so I was taken back too.
I guess most of you will know that the film is about a mute cleaner, Elisa Esposito (‘Esposito’ was originally a name given in Italy to abandoned children). She is looking for love and finds it with an amphibious man captured by US intelligence and threatened with vivisection in a search for ideas to prepare human physiology for the space race. 1962 is an interesting year to choose for the film’s time period. I’ve heard del Toro discussing why he chose it. At the height of the Cold War (the year of the Cuban missile crisis) and before the major breakthroughs on Civil Rights, those historical references are well used to underpin the narrative. The Cadillac showroom and the suburban family home reek of the immediate legacy of Eisenhower’s affluent, aspirational and conformist 1950s. The Cadillac also introduces teal as a key colour which emphasises the blue-green spectrum in the ‘facility’ where Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and Zelda (Octavia Spencer) work as cleaners and where the creature (Doug Jones) is incarcerated. But I think that the selection of songs is the most intriguing. 1962 in the US is often considered to be in that dead period between the brief re-appearance of Elvis on his return from the army and the arrival of the Beatles in 1964. It wasn’t dead, but pop music wasn’t as dynamic and exciting as it had been and would soon become again. Pop music was for kids and The Shape of Water is for adults and especially for adults who feel they have lost out and for whom passion and romance seem better represented by the sound of Alice Faye in 1940s movies or Andy Williams as a ‘grown-up’ singer in 1959. Everything in the film seems to me to fit together perfectly. It’s a fantasy but it is perfectly coherent and ‘real’ in terms of its cultural references.
The classification for The Shape of Water is interesting. The US ‘R’ rating seems excessive to me but Guillermo del Toro has said that he wanted to make a film for adults. I was surprised by the film’s lack of prurience in showing a naked Sally Hawkins, but I’m sure she agreed to it because it is beautifully presented and completely in line with the character’s other actions. The film does have its moments of violence and I felt that the most violent actions were those with direct cultural references – such as the use of the electric cattle prod by Strickland (Michael Shannon) and arguably the most ‘difficult’ scene, the same character’s violence in making love to his wife. Perhaps an ‘R’ rating isn’t as excessive as I thought? On the other hand, the film has a ’15’ in the UK with 15/16 common across Europe (lower still in France) and the highest rating of 18 can be found in Russia and South Korea. I’m not sure what all of this means, except possibly that Guillermo del Toro has more of a European sensibility than a Hollywood one. I wish he’d make Spanish-language films again.
My constant referencing of del Toro doesn’t mean that I under-estimate the other creative contributions to the film. Vanessa Taylor was the co-writer and Dan Laustsen the cinematographer. All the design team deserve congratulations and Doug Jones and the VFX team create a wonderful creature based around the concept introduced in Jack Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagoon (US 1954). All these contributions are important but it is del Toro’s overall vision which holds the film together. I’ve no idea how the film is performing with younger audiences. Perhaps they prefer the fast action of superhero movies, but the slower pace of del Toro’s narratives is more to my taste.
I’m amazed to see that IMDb lists the estimated budget at $20 million. I would have guessed twice that amount (is it lower because there are no so-called ‘A list’ stars?). Even if it was $40 million, the film is heading for profit – and seemingly for an International Hit. North American box office has been less than stellar but overseas the film is starting to rack up good figures and it should reach at least $170 million in total worldwide. Another triumph for Canadian facilities I see, since the whole film was made in Ontario in 2016. Sally Hawkins must know quite a bit about filmmaking in Canada by now as she was in the Maritimes the year before shooting Maudie.
I realise that I haven’t acknowledged that The Shape of Water is a fantasy drama. I don’t like most pure fantasy films, but I love del Toro’s films because they speak about the ‘real world’ so elegantly.
The success of The Shape of Water has raised the possibility that Guillermo del Toro may be able to find a studio prepared to support him with the $35 – $40 million he needs to make his ‘darker’ version of Pinocchio set during the rise of fascism in Italy in the 1920s. It’s intended to be an animation for adults. It still seems unlikely that an American studio will come though with the money but it would be good if they did.
The most commercially successful film set in the last years of East Germany was The Lives of Others (Germany 2006) which had an enormous international impact through a story about a Stasi surveillance operator and his ‘targets’ which used many of the conventions of the thriller. Surprisingly, however, there have been rather more films about life in the old East Germany and what it meant to think about and then to move to ‘the West’ which work as forms of melodrama, exploring the emotional lives of characters rather than first as thrillers (there have also been comedies). Mostly too these have been films about women rather than men.
It’s possible to trace the development of a group of films about female characters caught up in the emotional turmoil of Germany, and Berlin in particular, between the collapse of the Nazi regime in 1945 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Nelly the lead character in West (Lagerfeuer, Germany 2013) is one of the most recent examples of these women. We first see her in East Berlin in 1975 in what seems like a settled domestic situation but then suddenly it’s three years later and she’s entering West Berlin as a refugee with her young son. What follows is a drama about Nelly and her conflicted emotions about being held in a refugee ‘processing centre’ – an Aufnahmelager. There is an element of the thriller in what follows since Nelly finds herself being interrogated about her past in East Berlin and in particular about her partner. Rather than being ‘moved on’ and helped to find employment, Nelly is detained. Yet the thriller element seems to be there to underpin the melodrama. Is Nelly starting to imagine the threats she perceives? Can she trust anybody? Why does her son find it easier to adapt?
West is based on a novel by Julia Franck – and is based on the author’s personal experience. The film was adapted by Heide Schwochow and directed by her son Christian Schwochow. All three of these ‘authors’ moved from East Germany to the West and we must assume a high level of authenticity in the depiction of the refugee camps. When The Lives of Others was very successful it was heavily promoted and celebrated in the US where one commentator hailed it as ‘The Best Conservative Movie’ of the last 25 years. When West opened in North America it was marketed on the back of celebrations for the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Neither film deserves to be hi-jacked in this way. The attraction of a film like West is its humanity – the way it tries to deal with the personal lives of characters caught up in an ideological conflict. When Nelly answers her interrogators’ questions about why she has come to West Berlin with the response ” . . . for personal reasons” it cuts no ice. What should she say? “I want to be free!” That would be ironic since Western intelligence agents won’t let her go until she tells them something ‘useful’.
There are moments in West when Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun come to mind – although the two women are rather different. Maria fights her way through the rubble and chaos of Berlin in 1945 to succeed in the economic miracle of the 1950s. Nelly is perhaps more akin to the trio of heroines played by Nina Hoss in the films of Christian Petzold. In Phoenix (2014) another ‘Nelly’ has plastic surgery and seeks out her husband in the ruins of Berlin in 1946. In Barbara (2012) the eponymous character is a doctor in East Germany trying to get to the West in 1980 and in Yella (2007) Ms Hoss is a woman leaving the East after unification and finding the soulless capitalism of the West is not necessarily the answer. Interestingly, this film uses questions of what is ‘real’ to underline the stress on the character who moves across the border. Finally it’s important to remember Margarethe von Trotta’s Das Versprechen (The Promise 1994) in which a young woman escapes to West Berlin in the 1960s but then meets her ex-boyfriend, a scientist who has stayed in the East, at various international gatherings over the next 20 years. The story ends with the wall coming down in 1989 but again this is not a triumphant ending – the burden of living in the divided Germany is too great for pat solutions to work. Perhaps that’s true for all refugee stories – which stay with the people concerned for the rest of their lives rather than just as fleeting news stories for the more fortunate majority.
West is likely to be one of my films of the year. I was particularly impressed by the performance of Jördis Triebel in the central role and at times I found her mesmerising. I’d go as far as saying that the film reminded me of aspects of Fassbinder’s films and that Triebel made a similar impact on me as Hannah Schygulla when I first saw The Marriage of Maria Braun. I’ve seen West described as a psychological thriller but, although I can understand why, for me it seemed more like a melodrama.
Nelly Senff (Jördis Triebel) and her small son Alexei (Tristan Göbel) are introduced first in 1975 when Alexei’s father, a Russian physicist, is about to go on a trip and gives his son a warm sweater to protect him from the cold. Three years later we meet Nelly and Alexei again, this time attempting to leave East Germany for the West with a man who Alexei calls “my new Dad”. Nelly is forced to undergo a humiliating strip search but is eventually released by the East German border control staff and she and Alexei arrive at a reception centre for refugees (Notaufnahmelager) in West Berlin. Lagerfeuer (‘campfire’) is the title of the original novel by Julia Franck – and is based on the author’s personal experience. The film was adapted by Heide Schwochow and directed by her son Christian Schwochow. I think this helps to explain why it felt very much like a female-centred melodrama.
Once Nelly and Alexei have gone through initial processing at the Aufnahmelager Nelly assumes that she will quickly be able to obtain a job. In the East she gained a PhD and worked in an organic chemistry research laboratory. However, her hopes are wildly optimistic. Although some refugees from the East are processed in a few weeks, others are months if not years in the camp. Nelly has left surveillance in the East only to discover that the security services in the West use similar methods. When she is asked why she has left the East she, perhaps naïvely, replies “for personal reasons”. This doesn’t satisfy the security services and the questioning continues. In the meantime life in the camp goes on and the narrative introduces other ‘refugees’ with different individual stories. As the narrative develops, the audience is required to consider whether Nelly really is naïve, whether she knows something she is not telling or whether in fact she is even imagining some of what happens (one reviewer suggests she is developing schizophrenia). The central issue is Alexei’s father Wassilij (who was not married to Nelly – the West German man who helped Nelly leave the East was not a ‘real’ husband either). Did Wassilij die in an accident in Moscow? Is Nelly hoping to find him alive in the West? Is/was he a spy sent to international scientific conferences? A double agent perhaps?
The narrative is not concerned with finding answers to any of the questions above. Instead the focus is on what happens to Nelly and Alexei and how this is represented on screen. For instance, Nelly ‘sees’ Wassilij on the streets of West Berlin or around the camp. These ‘sightings’ are reminiscent of aspects of Christian Petzold’s Yella (2007), another narrative about a woman from the East, this time moving into contemporary western Germany after re-unification. Petzold made another melodrama with Nina Hoss, set in East Germany in 1980 in the form of Barbara (2012) and one of the earlier films to cover similar ground was Margarethe von Trotta’s Das Versprechen (The Promise, 1995) which featured a woman who had left the DDR for the West and the young man (also a scientist) she left behind in the East. All of these film are essentially female-centred melodramas set during the Cold War and featuring the impact of ‘crossing’ the wall built to keep East and West apart. However, the film which drew the biggest audiences in the West was The Lives of Others (Germany 2006) – much more clearly a thriller about how the Stasi, the East German security police, spied on citizens. I must revisit that film but my first impression during its successful initial release was that it did not work for me as well as Das Versprechen and then subsequently the Petzold films. I think that it isn’t helpful, as some reviewers have done, to relate West to The Lives of Others. Instead, it’s worth reflecting on what the experience of leaving the East and undergoing interrogation in the West has on Nelly.
I don’t want to spoil the narrative, but it’s worth pointing out that one of the three significant characters who Nelly spends time with is an African-American intelligence agent – a character who once again invokes Fassbinder (e.g. in The Marriage of Maria Braun the American sergeant who Maria takes up with is played by an actor called George Bird – the character in West is ‘John Bird’). The developing relationship with Bird has a definite effect on Nelly and leaves us wondering about her behaviour. Similarly we wonder about the ‘truth’ behind the story of Hans, a single man who has been in the camp for over a year and is seemingly unable to cope with life in the West. Is Hans a Stasi ‘plant’ sent to spy on refugees like Nelly or a genuine survivor of maltreatment in the GDR? Hans and Alexei become close as the latter struggles with his new life. Meanwhile Nelly befriends a woman nearer her own age, a Polish mother of a small girl and protector of an ageing father. These are German-speaking Poles and so unsure about new life in the West that they are reluctant to reveal their cultural accomplishments. Through these various encounters we gradually begin to recognise that the mistrust between East and West is destroying the possibility of meaningful relationships between people.
The film’s ending is in one sense inconclusive – we don’t get the ‘answers’ a thriller genre narrative promises – but I found it optimistic in terms of potential future relationships. The three writers of this material all made the journey from East to West, either before or after 1989, and I take this to be an informed representation of what that journey meant to large numbers of Germans. I wonder what those same people think about the fate of the Greek population in the current Eurozone banking crisis – with ordinary people trying to live their lives governed by a system that seemingly cares little about their daily lives. I’m looking forward to seeing West again and I’d like to see more by the cast and by the Schwochows. The film’s UK distributor New Wave Films has useful material on its website, including interviews with the Schwochows.
Here’s the trailer from New Wave. Interestingly, the American trailer is slightly different emphasising the thriller, Cold War and geo-political issues.
At this dire time of the year with foreign language films still as scarce as hen’s teeth around here, it’s a relief to turn to the occasional Polish release via distributor Project London and the multiplex chain Cineworld. Jack Strong is currently on release in 17 multiplexes across the UK and Ireland just a week after its Warsaw opening and it offers great entertainment plus a new perspective on the Cold War spy thriller for UK audiences.
The film deals with the real-life story of a Polish army officer who was so concerned that Poland would be destroyed in any war between NATO and the Soviet Union that he decided to provide the Americans with secret Soviet planning papers. Code-named ‘Jack Strong’ he operated under cover for several years before his situation became ‘critical’.
This isn’t a ‘biopic’ as such since the story begins when Colonel Ryszard Kulkiński is already one of the brightest military planners in the Polish Army. He first becomes concerned after the success of the Soviet planning of the ‘clear-up’ after the Prague Spring in 1968 in which he played a key role in Poland’s contribution. But the decisive moment is when he talks with colleagues who were on the ground in Gdansk in 1970 when Polish troops fired on shipyard workers. He becomes increasingly convinced that he is threatening the future of Poland through his work with the Soviets. He isn’t a traitor, he’s a patriot saving Poland from the hell that the Soviet military will lead it towards.
Unlike the heroes of many spy stories Kulkiński lived with his family who were unaware of his activities. Inevitably this created tensions with his long hours and occasional disappearances. These scenes of family life and the procedural aspects of his job in the Polish military headquarters form a major part of the film’s central sequence alongside the usual tropes of the spy film such as the passing of messages etc. These realist touches work very effectively in building up to the thrills of the closing scenes. The film is also bookend with scenes in which an older Kulkiński tells his story. I won’t spoil the narrative any further. We know from the beginning that he survived the initial crisis but we don’t know how the story ends or who is actually asking him questions.
The film is very well made and presented in CinemaScope. It looks good and the performances are excellent. I can’t fault it in terms of entertainment and I learned a lot. Kulkiński worked with the Russians in Vietnam (as a military attaché in the early 1960s?) and the extra earnings from this helped him to acquire a car and the means to go sailing.
I imagine that this must be a big budget film for Poland. The director Władysław Pasikowski is a veteran of action cinema and the star in the title role, Marcin Dorociński, is one of the most critically and popularly celebrated of Polish actors.
I imagine that the film will stay in cinemas a second week so check out the Polish Film Institute website to see where it is playing. Weirdly the film was part-financed by Vue Distribution in Poland but its UK partner company in the UK isn’t taking the film. Bravo to Cineworld – but they don’t seem to have advertised the film – presumably relying on Polish media. This is a shame because I know UK audiences who would go to see this as a spy thriller. (For anyone outside the UK baffled by all of this, the 2011 UK census revealed that Polish is now the first language of over 500,000 people in England and Wales.)