SECRETS OF A SOUL
(Georg Wilhem Pabst, 1926).
Psychoanalysis was still a novelty to most people at the time this
film was made. Pabst, who was very interested in Freud's writings, had
the freedom to make any film he wanted after the major success of The
Joyless Street. He decided to do a film about a neurosis. The result,
the story of a man who seeks help for unwanted violent thoughts, is
notable for its innovative techniques, while at the same time demonstrating
a naiveté concerning its subject matter that gives it a permanently
A professor (Werner Krauss) finds himself increasingly troubled by
a murder that occurs in his neighborhood. At the same time he has learned
of the return from abroad of a man who was a childhood friend both of
him and his wife. After a strange intense nightmare, he begins to notice,
to his horror, that the thought of murdering his wife comes frequently
into his mind, and with more of a feeling of compulsion as time goes
on. A chance meeting with a kindly psychoanalyst (Pawel Pawloff) leads
to a long period of therapy, by which he eventually gains insight into
the unconscious thoughts and motives that were causing his neurosis.
He is cured, happily returning to the security of a loving marriage.
It is interesting to note how a quality of horror has tended to accompany
the realm of the Freudian unconscious in cinema. This is just as true
of later films such as Hitchcock's Spellbound ('40) and Huston's
Freud ('62), where the dream sequences and memories of traumatic
events merge seamlessly with the conventions of the horror and thriller
genres. In the case of Pabst's film, the uncommon circumstance of a
murder occurring in a neighbor's household, plus the lurid nature of
the neurosis itself, gives the story an exaggerated tone. It could be
argued that such an approach was necessary in order to inspire the audience's
interest in a dry subject. I think, though, that there was something
in the style of Freud's writings themselves that evoked this sort of
aesthetic response. Mental illness is frightening, of course. But beyond
that, there must have been a great deal of anxiety in discovering the
existence of powerful unconscious forces, and in contemplating their
struggle against the formidable power of repression, another of Freud's
This sense of disturbance is reflected in Secrets of a Soul.
Unfortunately the film resolves everything in a far too facile manner.
The ease of the "talking cure," the way all problems evaporate with
awareness of the meanings behind the thoughts, is laughable to a present-day
audience, at least one that has greater familiarity with psychology.
It doesn't help that Kraus is an uninteresting lead actor, and that
the cast in general turn in lackluster performances, making it difficult
to care very much about what happens.
The main interest in Secrets of a Soul, apart from this naive
depiction of its subject, is the remarkable dream sequence that occurs
fairly early in the picture - the nightmare that accelerates the professor's
neurosis. Two years before Bunuel's Un Chien Andalou, Pabst employs
startling, surrealistic images to produce a dreamlike effect. The dreamer
is frozen in place, runs up huge stairs, is confronted by a massive,
ticking clock - and many other elements containing sexual or other kinds
of symbolism. Images grow or diminish in size, or are superimposed on
one another. The director uses split screen, sound distortion, weird
lighting and perspective. It's not exactly what a real dream is like
- I don't think any film has ever succeeded in that - but it does create
the feeling of a dream. And this was all done in the camera.
There were no special efffects then, as we know them. The camera had
to be constantly rewound, and the film shot again - with meticulous
planning of the multiple exposures.
There had been dream sequences in movies before (Maurice Tourneur did
one in Poor Little Rich Girl ten years earlier, for instance)
but this was the first one that tried to approximate a dream's disorientation
and illogic. With over seventy years of cinematic dreams behind us,
the sequence now looks primitive and old hat. But it was the first of
its kind, incredibly difficult to pull off, and accomplished with admirable
BAD LIEUTENANT (Abel Ferrara, 1992).
A portrait of a corrupt New York narcotics detective (Harvey Keitel)
- a thief, alcoholic, cocaine addict, abusive, sadistic, and in big
trouble from gambling debts.
Although the picture has flashes of dark humor, it's a far cry from
the hip, self-referential crime film that came into fashion with Tarantino
and his imitators. The unnamed lieutenant knows that he's bad, but is
caught in a spiral of despair that he is powerless to halt. Any connection
he may have had to his wife and kids is dead. He buys sex from prostitutes
just to feel something, anything. His usual sullen insensibility is
disrupted by unpredictable explosions of rage. One of the film's most
alarming scenes involves the lieutenant stopping a couple of underage
girls in a car and threatening to arrest them for not having a licence
unless they move in provocative ways while he masturbates. They do what
Ferrara is not afraid to show anything, or go anywhere, in this depiction
of the hell inside a person's mind. That is the strength of his method,
if you will. The character hedges at nothing, so neither does the film.
It's a fine line between unflinching honesty and sensationalism - I
think Ferrara crosses the line in a plot element involving the rape
of a nun. This brings up the question of redemption for the lieutenant,
a Catholic - and the director throws in some bizarre Christ imagery
to illustrate the crisis. Without understanding the forces that made
the lieutenant what he is, it is hard for me to believe in this urge
to redeem himself.
The film has one big thing going for it - the ferocious central performance
by Keitel, arguably his best. He creates this lost, contemptible person
without slipping into either caricature or special pleading. Played
without a trace of vanity, it's an appallingly human portrayal - we
hate the character even while experiencing what it's like to be him.
One of the film's central themes is the drowning man clutching at the
last straw. To this end, Ferrara creates an imaginary playoff series
between the Dodgers and the Mets, with the bad lieutenant gambling against
New York and desperately upping the ante with each loss. It probably
helps to be a New Yorker in order to understand the humor in that. This
is a very New York movie - the tough, callous side of the city that
until recently was its dominant public image.
Ferrara's direction is taut, gritty, courageous in an odd sort of way,
with its refusal to infuse any sentiment into the material. The final
third confronts a possibility that is incomprehensible to the bad cop
- forgiveness. I don't think Bad Lieutenant is able to convey
that possibility, or the way its title character deals with it, very
successfully. It's a rough and scary road to get to an inconclusive
end, and I don't share the director's gloomy perspective, but the picture
does have its own strange integrity. I recommend it as a cold shower
for anyone harboring simplistic ideas about good and evil.
THE GAY DIVORCEE (Mark Sandrich, 1934).
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made a splash in supporting roles the
previous year in Flying Down to Rio. This was the first picture
where they had top billing. It's humorous and charming and fun - right
up there in the top three or four of their movies together. Highlights
are the deliriously romantic duo "Night and Day" and the big ensemble
number, "The Continental."
The story is a piece of silliness in which Rogers tries to gain a divorce
by setting up a phony case of infidelity with a hired "correspondent"
(Erik Rhodes doing Italian shtick), while Astaire pursues her without
knowing that she's married, resulting in comic misunderstandings. To
say that there's no point in detailing an Astaire-Rogers plot is only
to belabor the obvious fact that everything is a set-up for the dancing.
But it's not to say that there aren't pleasures to be found in the non-musical
parts. The repartee is often funny, and the supporting characters (Alice
Brady, Eric Blore, Edward Everett Horton) hilarious. Horton even gets
to do a dance number with seventeen-year-old Betty Grable.
The relaxed mixture of light comedy with music is essential to the
formula. Astaire's solo number "A Needle in a Haystack," performed while
dressing for going out, shows how the man could do wonders in the most
minimal settings. At this early stage, Rogers hadn't developed her dancing
skills quite to the level of what she shows in later pictures such as
Swing Time. But in "Night and Day" it hardly matters - with Astaire
leading her, the number still takes your breath away. The Gay Divorcee
is an indispensable bit of froth, a fantasy of pure pleasure that I
hope I never tire of watching.
PANIQUE (Julien Duvivier, 1946).
A criminal (Paul Bernard) meets up with his mistress (Viviane Romance),
just released from jail after taking a fall for him. He has murdered
an old woman for her money, and the only person who knows he did it
is a gloomy loner (Michel Simon) who is in love with the mistress. The
two proceed to divert suspicions to this man, who is disliked by the
townspeople, so that they can escape.
Duvivier was one of the masters of the prewar French style known as
"poetic realism." Panique is a continuation in that vein, but
somewhat darker and more pessimistic in tone. The events of the war,
during which he fled to the U.S., seems to have embittered him. The
film's main virtue is its depiction of the way public opinion in the
town is inflamed, through innuendo and idle talk, into a lynch mob mentality.
This theme is developed very carefully, with the tension mounting in
perceptible stages up to the breaking point. In this respect it's one
of the more interesting allegories of the dangers of mob rule on film.
It also boasts a sensitive, subtly nuanced performance by Simon as the
hapless scapegoat blinded by his obsession with a woman. He was one
of the most consistently excellent actors in film history, and the picture
is worth a look just for him.
The trouble with Panique is that the plot, particularly the
decisions and actions of certain characters, doesn't really make sense.
The motivations of Simon's character are contradictory. If he acted
in ways that fit with the facts of the plot as they are presented to
us, the story wouldn't develop along the lines that Duvivier wants them
to. It's unsatisfying in that respect. I don't know if this fault was
present in the Georges Simenon novel on which the film is based. Somehow
I doubt it. (The story was remade in 1989 as Monsieur Hire.)
I can't explain more about this without spoiling the story, but you'll
know what I mean if you watch it.
Indeed, the film's interest lies in the psychological realm rather
than as a crime thriller per se, but I don't think it's too much to
ask that a tale of this kind at least try to attain plausibility. In
the end, this flaw reduces the picture from possible greatness to the
status of an intriguing minor work.
LES RENDEZ-VOUS D'ANNA
(Chantal Akerman, 1978).
Anna (Aurore Clément), a Belgian film director, travels to Cologne
to exhibit her film, visits her mother in Brussels, and returns home
to Paris and her occasional lover Daniel (Jean-Pierre Cassel).
Akerman has spent most of her career exploring the undramatic aspects
of life that other filmmakers won't touch, with an emphasis on how people
experience the passage of time, and a decidedly independent woman's
viewpoint. The narrative structure in Anna is apparently autobiographical,
but the title character is really a kind of mirror for human loneliness.
Living in hotels, engaging in empty sexual encounters, silently and
impassively taking in the world without responding very much to it,
Anna is a mysterious and somewhat forbidding figure. She seems afraid
to really engage with anyone, yet she projects an aura of quiet, thoughtful
At various points in the film, people open up to Anna and talk frankly
about events in the past - always centering on relationships and how
they are different than one expects or desires. She rarely responds.
She sleeps with a stranger in Cologne, and later he invites her to meet
his mother and young daughter. We don't see that gathering - all human
encounter in the film is strictly in twos - but when they're alone the
man tells her about his failed marriage, and his disillusionment with
life during the Nazi and postwar regimes. At the train station in Cologne,
Anna meets a friend, an older woman who talks about her marriage and
why it's necessary for Anna to get married in order to be happy. On
the train, another long conversation occurs with a young stranger who
has been disappointed in the past, but talks hopefully of going to South
America and starting over. The only times that Anna really shows us
a glimpse of herself are in a late night conversation with her mother
(Lea Massari) in Brussels, in which she reveals something that sheds
light on her own search for love, and in her final encounter with her
friend/lover in Paris, when she sings him a lullabye. These are like
flashes of sunlight on an overcast day.
However, the movie is not a hopeless tale of how horrible things are.
It's about the seemingly impassible gulf between souls, overwhelmed
by a vast objective world, and the need nevertheless to connect, a need
which is both a mystery and a kind of salvation.
Akerman's technique is rigorous. She uses a lot of stationary shots
- the front of a hotel, for instance, squarely centered in the frame,
from which eventually emerge the characters. She takes a page from Ozu's
book by sometimes keeping the camera in a room after the people have
left it. She'll employ the technique of real time to depict the portions
of life in which "nothing" happens - Anna lying on the bed in a hotel,
staring out of a window in the train. To Akerman, these parts of life
are more significant than the great dramatic moments. They are the means
that she has chosen to reflect her vision of life, because they are
neglected by us, yet constantly surround us.
This method takes some getting used to. The mood is profoundly solitary
- the camera like an unobtrusive observer of quiet moments. The result
of the technique is that when talk does occur - the monologues of the
various people encountered by Anna - it has more meaning, more impact,
than it might in a dramatic context. At the heart of this austere film
is a tenderness that barely raises its voice above a whisper. Hearing
it is worth the effort.
©2001 Chris Dashiell