(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
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
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
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
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
(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