Other Dashiell Writings:

Flicks - April 2005
Late Chrysanthemums
Footlight Parade
Imitation of Life (1934)

Spirit of My Mother
They Call It Sin

And a Child Shall Lead Them
Turtles Can Fly
Oldboy

Flicks - March 2005
The Fire Within (1963)
A Brief Vacation
Merry-Go-Round (1923)
Torch Singer
I Am Cuba

 

 

PARAGRAPH 175
(Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman, 2000).

Among the very first victims of Nazi persecution were homosexuals. Hitler and his associates expanded the language of the titular paragraph in the 1871 German penal code outlawing "unnatural" sex acts in order to suppress gay life in Germany and condemn male homosexuals to prisons and concentration camps, years before the death camps were devised to eliminate Jews, gypsies, and other targets of Nazi racial ideology. Of the estimated 100,000 men arrested for homosexuality during Hitler's reign, some 10,000 died in the camps, many of them through torture or gruesome "medical" experiments. When historian Klaus Müller searched for camp survivors to interview, he was only able to discover eight still living, of whom six agreed to be interviewed for this documentary. (Since the Nazis considered all women as potential mothers, lesbians were spared mass arrest, although their social milieu was systematically eliminated.)

The interviewees tell stories of love and sexual discovery in Germany between the wars (when there was a brief period of tolerance and liberalism under the Weimar Republic) followed by heartbreaking accounts of fear, suppression, imprisonment, and the murder of loved ones. One man breaks down on camera recalling that he had no one to talk to about his experiences, even his family, before being interviewed for the film. Among the vivid horrors recounted is that of the "singing forest" -- a place where gay men were tortured while hanging from poles.

Epstein and Friedman intersperse the interviews with newsreel footage and a voice-over by Rupert Everett. The presentation is a bit unimaginative -- too much of the standard account of Hitler's rise without enough detail about the ideological underpinnings of Nazism's anti-gay policies. And Müller should have been given more screen time. But the material transcends the treatment. This is an aspect of history that needs to be widely known and understood. The parallels between the current American climate of right-wing gay bashing and the rhetoric and actions of the Nazis as shown in this film are unnerving. It's clear that the demonization and persecution of gays was a prelude, a warm-up if you will, to later atrocities. Many who ignored the plight of homosexuals at the time ended up suffering a similar fate later -- a lesson that should not be lost on us today.

CASQUE D'OR (Jacques Becker, 1952).

Manda (Serge Reggiani), an ex-con trying to live a new life as a carpenter in 1890s Paris, falls in love with Marie (Simone Signoret) the kept woman of a petty thief, part of a gang run by the master criminal Felix Leca (Claude Dauphin). Jealousy leads to an act of violence, and Manda must run from the law, while Marie chooses to go with him. But Leca has decided that he must possess her.

The film's evocation of the Belle Epoque is rich and lovingly detailed, without the stiffness and restraint that often plagues period films. The first sequence, with boats arriving on the riverbank from a pleasure outing, proceeding to a lengthy scene at an open-air dance hall in which Manda first meets Marie, is a masterpiece in itself -- the camera flowing with seemingly effortless grace, like the dancers, while we are thrust into the story's current with a minimum of exposition. The editing and dialogue (Becker based his screenplay, written with Jacques Companeez, on actual police records) creates a novelistic sense of vividness and immediacy, and the photography (Robert Le Febvre) is gorgeously crisp. Best of all, the film captures a feeling for old world behavior. Here are no modern romantic notions dressed up in old costumes -- the casual stoicism, the shared beliefs about friendship and honor, are quite evident from the expressions and body language of the performers. No emphasis is needed.

The film might not have been so memorable with a more conventional actress in the lead. But the young Signoret projects a passion and wilfulness that is bigger than life, and she has an imposing physical presence as well. This was really the breakthrough role that got her recognized internationally. You can understand why men would fight to be with Marie, and she is convincing both as a forbidding woman of allure and as a woman desperately in love. Reggiani is fine as her lover -- it's refreshing to see such an unassuming male lead. But as the amoral, self-assured criminal boss, Dauphin (who looks a little like William Powell) almost steals the movie. He plays the part with a light touch -- we believe in his ability to dominate others through his mind rather than through force or brutality.

The story, involving plots and double-crosses and sudden escapes, can seem a bit hard to believe, but the underlying tone of love and longing is unforgettable. We get to taste paradise on earth in the love of Manda and Marie, so the bitterness of worldly fate is not some cold conclusion, but a real sadness for what might and should have been.

STORM OVER ASIA (Vsevelod Pudovkin, 1928).

During the Russian Civil War, a Mongolian peasant (Valéry Inkijinoff) attacks an English fur trader (a member of the British force that invaded Russia to fight the Bolsheviks) cheats him out of a priceless silver fox skin. On the run from soldiers who are seeking to "avenge the white race," he encounters the Red partisans who are fighting the British in the mountains, and ends up joining them. But a strange fate, in the shape of an amulet given to him by his mother, is in store for him after being captured.

Pudovkin's dynamic editing style, more fluid and emotionally expressive than Eisenstein's, attained its summit in this film. It's a textbook demonstration of how long to hold a shot, how to create mood with long shots, how best to create excitement through cutting, and how to build tension to the breaking point before releasing it in a massive outburst of symbolic action. The location photography (Pudovkin stalwart Anatoli Golovnya) is stunningly, starkly beautiful. And with its Asian protagonist and setting, the picture provides a priceless glimpse into a rarely filmed cultural environment.

The narrative propulsion slackens somewhat when the story shifts from the personal journey of the fur trapper to a more general epic of the Civil War. Within the narrow confines of Soviet propaganda, the Buddhist religion is viewed as a corrupt counterpart to the guardians of the old order and its foreign allies. This is vividly demonstrated in an extended sequence where the preparations of an old British general and his wife -- he putting on his uniform and medals, she putting on her jewels and makeup -- is intercut with the ceremonies of a Buddhist temple, leading up to a diplomatic meeting between the general and the newly reincarnated lama, who turns out to be an impish little boy. On the one hand, the depiction of the religious dances and priestly rituals are mesmerizing, but the film's wholly contemptuous attitude is troubling in light of the historically repressive Stalinist policies that it reflects.

The film picks up steam again after the fur trapper, now turned freedom fighter, is captured, climaxing in an apocalyptic finale, deliberately unrealistic, that has to be seen to be believed. Storm Over Asia is more diffuse than Mother or The End of St. Petersburg, Pudovkin's two other epochal works, but at the same time it is more adventurous in style, a tour de force of montage technique. Although it was a huge popular success, the Party (all-too predictably) criticized the film for its supposed "formalism." It was the director's last masterpiece. Pudovkin never adjusted well to the sound era, and although he continued to make films, constant interference from the government stifled the potential for quality in his work from the 30s and 40s.

THE SWIMMER (Frank Perry, 1968).

Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) emerges from the woods, wearing only his swim trunks, to greet some friends who are sitting around their suburban pool, recovering from last night's party. They haven't seen him in months, and seem to like him very much. But something about Ned seems a little "off." He rhapsodizes about his past as a swimmer, while paying scant attention to the present. When he realizes that swimming pools dot the entire way back to his house, he decides to "swim home" -- to walk back to his home in one day, swimming in each pool as he goes. As we follow him on his journey, we learn bits and pieces about his strange life.

Adapted from a John Cheever story by Eleanor Perry and directed by her husband Frank, The Swimmer is a parable about the fearful void at the heart of the American dream of affluent suburbia. Ned has cheated on his wife, but he says he's returning to her and his two daughters, who are supposedly playing tennis at home. The truth of his situation is only revealed in glimpses -- the full truth only at the end. Underneath this athletic, seemingly outgoing and affable middle aged man is a terrified soul ruled by a delusional need for validation from others.

This is a weird movie, but not always for the right reasons. The intriguing premise, and the fascinating links that are made between hidden personal psychosis and the materialist ethos of upper-middle-class American society, are marred by stylistic tics peculiar to the 1960s, including wordless, pseudo-profound montage sequences, bogus symbolism, and overwrought dialogue. The worst mistake was a hyper-romantic musical score by Marvin Hamlisch. The film needed music with a sinister touch -- Hamlisch slavers emotion all over the picture with a trowel. But for some reason, this is a typical problem in movies from the 1960s -- the music has become dated in many of even the era's best films.

Nevetheless, the movie has enough nerve to make things interesting. The various characters encountered by Ned along his journey -- including roles by Kim Hunter, Janice Rule, and (in a memorable bit part) a very young Joan Rivers -- are each disturbing in their own way. The conceit of having the main character swim in a series of pools on a bright day of summer parties, creates a surreal effect -- darkness in full sunlight, if you will. Most of all, the movie is carried along by the commanding presence of Burt Lancaster. It's a startling, extremely risky performance. Shirtless throughout the film's length (which helps evoke a kind of on-the-edge feeling of vulnerability) Lancaster paints a truly alarming portrait -- the seeming self-confidence and aggressively personable behavior produces a strong distancing effect. You can't take your eyes off him, but you feel increasingly repelled.

The Swimmer is an odd, stirring little film, making you think without providing easy answers, and it becomes moving almost in spite of itself. It was not a success on its release -- no one knew what to make of it. You may not know what to make of it even now, but it's worth a look.

GREEN FIELDS
(Jacob Ben-Ami & Edgar G. Ulmer, 1937).

This adaptation of a popular Yiddish play by Peretz Hirschbeing was shot in Yiddish for a mere $8,000 on a New Jersey farm, and made a handsome profit from the sizeable Yiddish-speaking audience in New York. It concerns a wandering Talmudic student (Michael Goldstein) who is taken in by a Jewish farming family in the Russian countryside. They are extremely honored to have a man of learning in their house, and their jealous neighbors try to persuade the student (whom everyone calls "Rebbe") to live with them instead. Meanwhile, the family's teenage daughter (Helen Beverly) falls in love with him, and the eldest son is in love with the neighbors' daughter, whose parents disapprove.

Although the film has humorous elements, this is essentially a pastoral folk romance, with passionate Jewish choral music on the soundtrack and a spiritual theme about working on the land being as worthy in the sight of God as studying the Torah. Ulmer didn't speak Yiddish, so Ben-Ami handled the dialogue. The acting is naive, although not painfully so. Goldstein's character is a bit too diffident, and even pompous at times -- you wonder why everyone's making such a fuss over him. Best are the scenes with the quarrels between the neighboring families, when the story's good humor comes to life, and some of the quieter one-on-one scenes. With very little means, Ulmer created some impressive scenic beauty, and even a few poetic visual effects. As crude and simplistic as the film may be at times, it also has a certain degree of sensitivity and heart. The film means to pay tribute to the life of simple, honest Jewish peasants. And in that, it succeeds. A very young Herschel Bernardi appears as the younger son who is tutored by the Rebbe.


©2005 Chris Dashiell
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