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Shklovsky and His “Monument to a Scientific Error”

Murder Culture: Adventures in 1940s Suspense

The Viewer’s Share: Models of Mind in Explaining Film

Common Sense + Film Theory = Common-Sense Film Theory?

Mad Detective: Doubling Down

The Classical Hollywood Cinema Twenty-Five Years Along

Nordisk and the Tableau Aesthetic

William Cameron Menzies: One Forceful, Impressive Idea

Another Shaw Production: Anamorphic Adventures in Hong Kong

Paolo Gioli’s Vertical Cinema

(Re)Discovering Charles Dekeukeleire

Doing Film History

The Hook: Scene Transitions in Classical Cinema

Anatomy of the Action Picture

Hearing Voices

Preface, Croatian edition, On the History of Film Style

Slavoj Žižek: Say Anything

Film and the Historical Return

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More revelations of film history on DVD

Sunday | October 24, 2010   open printable version open printable version

The Great Consoler.

Kristin here:

Upon returning from Vancouver, we found the usual mountain of mail awaiting us. Among the bills and ads were some very welcome items: a new flock of DVDs of considerable historical interest.

A German Documentary on Veit Harlan

After Leni Reifenstahl, Veit Harlan is the most famous of the directors who made films for the Nazi regime. He made Jud Süss, which is the only non-Riefenstahl Nazi film you might have seen apart from Triumph of the Will and (if you think it’s Nazi propaganda) Olympia.

Now Felix Moeller has made a documentary film, Harlan: Im Schatten von Jud Süss (“In the Shadow of Jud Süss,” c. 100 minutes). It’s available on a German DVD from Edition Salzgeber and can be purchased from Amazon Germany. (Beware, it’s coded Region 2, so you’ll need a multi-region player.) It has English subtitles, a feature some European DVD makers wisely include, since they know that there are a lot of us out here with multi-regional players. A region 1 version will also be released in the U.S. on November 23 and is available for pre-orders on Amazon.

Harlan is a fascinating film, both in terms of its subject matter and its strategies. It starts out in a fairly conventional way, showing Harlan’s grave, and then drops a few brief clips from Jud Süss in among shots introducing some of the director’s descendants. He was married twice and had five children, who in turn had children, and there are nephews and nieces as well. At one point one granddaughter draws a family tree to help us out. (The small accompanying booklet has a “who’s who” feature with photos to help us keep the family members straight. This booklet is entirely in German.)

Much of the early part of the film is taken up with the story of Harlan’s career making films for the Nazis, being found innocent after two trials in the post-war era, and continuing his filmmaking into the 1950s. A nicely ironic comparison is made between Harlan’s “I was just following orders” defense and the identical defense that Süss makes during his trial scene in the film.

Initially the relatives seem to be present in part to provide information and in part to comment on Harlan’s life. Later in the film, however, we realize that “the shadow of Jud Süss” falls over them as well, and they have reacted in a wide variety of ways. A expository motif that runs through the film is a visit paid by several of the younger family members to an exhibition on the film (see below), where they (and we) are shown documents and clips.

One son, Thomas, denounced his father publicly and for decades sought evidence to convict Nazi war criminals. (Thomas Harlan died last weekend; see David Hudson’s obituary here.) Kristian Harlan and Maria Körber, his half-brother and half-sister, criticize him for not keeping his attitudes toward his father in the family. Thomas’ daughter Alice works as a physiotherapist in Paris and realizes she does not share her grandfather’s guilt–yet she worries about some sort inherited taint. Another son, Caspar, became an anti-nuclear activist, along with his wife and three daughters. Two sisters, Maria Körber and Susanne Körber both married Jews, almost as if to make amends for their father’s implicit role in the extermination of these men’s families; neither marriage ended well. A niece, Christiane, married Stanley Kubrick, who as a Jew was both shocked and fascinated by her relationship to Veit Harlan; he at one point planned to make a film on the Nazi director. Christiane’s brother ended up producing some of Kubrick’s films.

One thing that struck me was the generational difference in the attitudes toward Jud Süss itself. The first generation of sons, daughters, nieces, and nephews find it powerful, reprehensible, and disturbing. One of the granddaughters, however, considers it “so cheesy, and really banal, too,” wondering how anyone in the 1940s could have taken it seriously. This seems to reflect an attitude that many young people have toward old films; she might be just as dismissive of a classic John Ford film of the same era. It’s a good argument in favor of teaching students about the conventions of older films and helping them to watch them with more respect. Not knowing at least a little about the historical context could easily make younger generations not take the propaganda of the past any more seriously than they take the entertainment films of Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s. (One can’t fault the granddaughter too much; she belongs to the family of anti-nuclear activists.)

The filmmakers had extensive access to good prints of several of Harlan’s major films. One, Der Herrscher (“The Master,” 1937), deals with a factory whose owner is a strong leader type. The frame at left shows off Harlan’s feel for crowds that made him the equivalent for fiction film to Leni Riefenstahl as a documentarist. (Indeed, one might suspect a bit of influence here.) There are also home movies, some taken behind the scenes during the filming of Harlan’s Nazi-era films. Munich archivist Stefan Drössler adds some historical perspective. The exhibition shown in the film provides glimpses of key documents.

Harlan could be quite useful in the classroom. Obviously courses on German history would benefit from it. Film history classes could show it in a unit on Nazi cinema, either in combination with or as a replacement for Jud Süss or one of the other major Nazi film. But it also gives an interesting perspective on the post-war decades and the ways in which guilt and expiation could linger across generations.

Thanks to my friend Marianne Eaton-Krauss for recommending this film to me!

[Added October 31: Critic Kent Jones has kindly written to point out that Felix Moeller is Margarethe Von Trotta’s son. Kent has written a piece on Veit and Thomas Harlan in the May/June 2010 issue of Film Comment.]

The launch of a Russian DVD series

The Russian Cinema Council (RUSICICO) has recently released the first five DVDs in its new “Academia” series. The first group comes from the Soviet silent and early sound era: Strike, October, Happiness, The Great Consoler, and Engineer Prite’s Project. They can easily be ordered on the company’s website. Googling will find a few smaller online companies in Europe that sell them, but they are not available (yet, at least) from the larger sites like Amazon.

[January 31, 2012: Hyperkino has announced that its DVDs can now be purchased at a British site, MovieMail. For more on Hyperkino, see here.]

A major feature of these discs is “Hyperkino,” a version in which numbers appear at intervals in the upper right; clicking on them summons up an explanatory text. For Strike, for example, one can read an explanation of the “Collective of the 1st Works’ Theater” when that phrase appears in the credits. (The complete text of the annotations for Engineer Prite’s Project have been printed as an article in Studies in Russian and Soviet Cinema [Vol. 4, no. 1, 2010].) These “footnotes” would be of interest to film students, mainly at the graduate level; they would be invaluable for lecture preparation. The Hyperkino version appears on the first disc of each two-disc set; the film without the feature appears on the other disc. Despite the fact that the text on the boxes are almost entirely in Russian, the films have optional subtitles in English, French, Spanish, Italian, German, and Portuguese; the Hyperkino notes are available only in Russian or English. The discs have no region coding.

The prints of Strike and October are both the familiar step-printed versions. The visual quality is reasonably good.

(We did not purchase the Happiness disc, since the film had already been available in DVD and we’re not Medvedkin specialists.)

The most important contribution of the series so far has been to make two rare Kuleshov titles available to the general public for the first time. Engineer Prite’s Project was his first film. Previously it was available in archives in a print lacking intertitles. The story was so difficult to follow that the film seemed to be incomplete. Now, with the intertitles reconstructed and inserted into the film, it makes sense. It’s a short feature about industrial intrigue, notable in its mixture of traditional European tableau staging style and some sophisticated American-style editing that was a complete innovation for Russian cinema. The release of Engineer Prite’s Project on DVD fills a large gap in the history of the Soviet silent cinema, since it was the first film by one of the group that would form the Montage movement. Indeed, the fast cutting in a brief fight scene looks forward to that movement:

The DVD also includes a documentary, The Kuleshov Effect, made in 1969. It’s a helpful overview, with clips from the major films up to The Great Consoler, along with interviews with Kuleshov, scenarist and Russian Formalist critic Viktor Shklovski, and others. It’s just under an hour and would be a great teaching tool for a history or theory class.

If Engineer Prite’s Project is of interest mainly for its historical significance, The Great Consoler is perhaps Kuleshov’s masterpiece. The complex, multi-leveled narratives so popular in contemporary cinema have nothing on this film’s storytelling. It shifts among three levels with thematic parallels. In one, an abused, miserable shop girl (played by Alexandra Khokhlova, Kuleshov’s wife and leading proponent of the “biomechanical” school of acting) reads O. Henry short stories as escapism. In another, O. Henry himself is seen in prison (as he was in real life). In a third, we see a dramatization of his tale of convict Jimmy Valentine (“A Retrieved Reformation”). Each level is filmed in a slightly different style, and the moralistic lesson–those who suffer from exploitation under capitalism find only hollow consolation in popular culture–is somewhat undercut by the zestful stylization with which Kuleshov presents the sentimental tale of Valentine.

Chaplin (Slowly) Becomes The Little Tramp

On October 26, Flicker Alley is coming out with another of its big boxes of restored films. (Amazon has it available for pre-order.) This time it’s four discs containing a group of 34 of Charlie Chaplin’s Keystone-era films (of the 35 he made there). The press release describes the lengthy process of finding and restoring prints, which involved several archives:

With the support of Association Chaplin (Paris), 35mm full aperture, early-generation materials were gathered over an eight year search on almost all the films from archives and collectors around the world, and were painstakingly piece together and restored by the British Film Institute National Archive, the Cineteca di Bologna and its laboratory L’Immagine Ritrovata in Italy, and Lobsters Films in Paris. Most are now clear, sharp and rock-steady, although some reveal that their source prints are well-used and a handful survive only in 16mm.

The earlier films in the set remind us that Chaplin began as a player in films where Mabel Normand was the star attraction (and she directed them herself). He didn’t always wear his “Little Tramp” outfit, either. Such films as The Property Man, The Rounders (co-starring Fatty Arbuckle), and Tillie’s Punctured Romance (restored by the UCLA archive) are included. A trim little booklet by Jeffrey Vance includes historical background and program notes. Original musical accompaniment is provided by Neil Brand, Robert Israel, and others. On-disc bonus materials include a documentary, “Inside the Keystone Project” and a couple of Chaplin-related silent films from the era, including a cartoon featuring him as a character.

Chaplin devised his “Little Tramp” outfit during this early era, though he didn’t use it in every Keystone film. He wasn’t yet the poignant figure of the later 1910s and 1920s. In Mabel at the Wheel, for example, he’s a pugnacious, bomb-wielding villain, with Mabel Normand, who directed the film, in the lead. (At left above, he belatedly discovers that Mabel is no longer seated behind him on the motorcycle.) Chaplin buffs will have a field day with this set. The clarity makes it easier to spot the many comics who play bit roles here. Mack Swain wanders through, Mack Sennett has a small role as a yokel, and one can see a very young Edgar Kennedy seated behind Chaplin in the bleachers (right).

Each film is preceded by a title card that specifies the source material for the restoration, as well as the archives and other institutions involved. Mabel at the Wheel, for example, was assembled from four nitrate prints held by various collections. As the frames here indicate, it’s generally very clear and undamaged, though occasionally a shot from a more worn print appears.

We often complain about seeing films for the first time on DVD when they were meant to be seen on celluloid projected on the big screen. But for rare silent films like these Chaplin shorts, DVD replaces the old 8mm and 16mm prints that I remember from my graduate-school days in the 1970s. Our friend and colleague Frank Scheide, who was writing his dissertation on Chaplin’s music-hall background, would present programs of such prints in his home, but there were items that remained elusive. (Frank has co-edited two anthologies on Chaplin’s later films; see here and here.) Now we’re lucky enough to have archives restoring films in part to make available in the new format. Most of these images are far better quality than 8mm or even 16mm could render.

As with the giant Georges Méliès boxed set released in 2008, the new Chaplin discs make it easy to go through his career in strict chronological order, either as the films were made or as they were released (often not the same thing in those early days). The set is a vital item for collections of silent films and will no doubt feature among the nominees in the DVD awardsfor next year’s Bologna festival, Il Cinema Ritrovato. Three Hyperkino titles were among last year’s winners.

Mark your calendars!

On November 7, Turner Classic Movies will be showing the new restoration of Metropolis (8 pm Eastern time), followed by a one-hour documentary Metropolis Refound (11 pm Eastern time), on the discovery of a nearly complete print in An Argentinean archive. On November 4, the restored Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951; starts at 10 pm Eastern time) will be shown. It’s by the little-known auteur Albert Lewin; if you love Powell and Pressburger movies, you’ll probably love this film. Every Monday from November 1 to December 13, TCM will air its original series, Moguls & Movie Stars (8 pm Eastern time). Each episode will be followed by several films of the era discussed. One highlight not to be missed is Lois Weber’s wonderful 1921 feature, The Blot. It’s probably the only film ever made about the low pay of university professors, but its real strength is in the character study of haves and have-nots living next door to each other. Back when I taught a history of silent cinema class at the University of Iowa in 1980/81, this was one of the films I showed to demonstrate that silent films weren’t as simple and naive as young people today might assume. (The other was King Vidor’s 1924 Wine of Youth.) Set your recorders, since The Blot airs at 4:45 am EST on November 8. For more highlights, keep checking the TCM website, which hasn’t yet posted its November schedule.

Harlan: Im Shatten von Jud Süss

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