Donnerstag, 26. Dezember 2013

Sous les toits de Paris / Under the roofs of Paris (René Clair, 1930)

A street singer falls in love with one of his neighbors, who happens to be the flame of the local thug.

The film pushes its one-song-theme quite extremely, the tune is repeated ad nauseam in hundreds of variations. There is a funny scene in the beginning, where the singer watches his spectators being pick-pocketed. Only when the thief tries to rob the girl that has caught the singer's fancy, he intervenes. Interestingly, the film doesn't have the kind of clean happy-end that all the music and merriment during the first half suggests.

There are some interesting shots of the Parisian street that was built on soundstage, which must have been huge in scale. A very impressive camera movement introduces us to the neighborhood and it feels surprisingly real, possibly because of the fluidity of that first camera movement.

I am quite amused about how everybody seems quite opportunistic and the romantic interest behaves and is treated in a way that would send platoons of political correctness troops down the throat of a producer should he attempt anything even close to this. The woman seems to guard her sexual "cleanliness", but from the way the men behave this is only a question of time until she yields. On the other hand, the girl - freshly immigrated from Romania - throws herself at pretty much anyone that could supply her with anything above the basic needs.

Dienstag, 24. Dezember 2013

Obchod na korze / The shop on main street (J. Kadar, E. Klos, 1965)

During WWII a simple carpenter is given control of the disowned shop of the old Jewish lady Rosaria.

The film starts out as a wonderful comedy. The quirky Tono is a simple-minded stubborn carpenter who has not much love for his fascistic brother-in-law and his nagging wife, but wants to be left alone. When his brother-in-law arranges for him to become the new head of the dry goods shop on main street, he reluctantly takes the job. But the absent-minded woman running the shop sees a new assistant in him and immediately puts him to work. Poor Tono just goes with the flow and at first everything seems to work out fine for everybody.

 But history runs its evil course and soon the harsh realities of deportation can no longer be ignored - at least by Tono. The shop lady only has a dim idea what's going on around her. As long as he can Tono tries to protect her. But at one point he sees that he can no longer keep her hidden. At this point the film turns into a haunting tragedy. The ending is a brutal consequence of what has been happening in the little village, somewhere in Czech.
The characters in the film are mostly lovable - and I felt horrible for this wonderfully charming old woman, totally lost in her own little world. 
The comedic part is amazingly funny and there are many small and big highlights that reminded me of the sharp humor of a Durrenmatt piece. The huge, totally absurd construction that is set up by the villagers in the middle of their town square is one example.
When Tono gets totally drunk with his wife and her brother, he gives a spontaneous Hitler impression (in front of a uniformed fascist, but nobody seems to care too much... it's Tono, after all). The whole drinking scene is hilarious.
And in one of the more touching moments where his character is portrayed, Tono takes his (daily?) foot bath. He pours together hot and cold water until he gets the temperature exactly right. The camera stays on him for quite a while and the absurdity of the action gets played out in full, when he has finally found the perfect temperature only to find out that he cannot get to his cigarettes on the table opposite.

Le cercle rouge (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1970)

An ex-convict is lured into planning a big robbery of a jewelry store.

From a plot standpoint of view, there are many things in the film that don't add up too clearly. Some of the motivations of the characters eluded me and there are quite a few incidents that seemed a bit deus ex machina towards the end of the movie. But that doesn't matter at all, the films strange pacing and strong atmosphere sucked me in completely.

Melville seems to explore the thin lines between those who break the law and the others who uphold it. There are many hints during the film that this boundary is even more blurred than one would think at the beginning. All the principals in the tale don't seem to have much choice as they stumble towards their inevitable fate. I thought it quite amusing that the police men trust each other much less than the criminals - they seem to bond immediately, no questions asked (literally).

The first scene is quite captivating and it seems to play out the film's theme in full. At first there is a rather long citation, freely made up as I understand, that everybody comes around and no matter what your path has been, you will always end up in the red circle. On a first viewing this message doesn't make too much sense.

Immediately, the first shot shows a traffic light, switching to red in all directions. There is an obvious graphical connection to the title of the film.
The camera pans around and shows a car approaching at a very high speed. It runs over the light, nearly hitting another car. We are still unsure what kind of car it is, the first idea would be of bank robbers escaping the police. Somebody in the car makes a remark about the red light, but we don't know who.
We cut inside the car. Four sinister-looking men sit in the car, the two guys in front wear trenchcoats, the men in the back suits and hats. Why do they still wear them? They two men in the back also seem more important. There doesn't seem to be much talking going on, the air is tense.
The camera focuses in single shots on the two men in the back. They look exactly the same in the extremely low light, we can't distinguish them except for maybe their age.
In the next shot, the car races past the camera. The camera pans with the car and reveals the location: it's a railway station in Marseille. It's not the main station but a smaller more on the outside of the city. The car stops with a screech.
The two men from the back get out of the car. It seems that the younger man either attends or waits for the older, second man to get out. Not a word is spoken as they walk into the building. It looks like their hands are touching, but their relation remains unclear. The car leaves in a hurry and the camera follows it driving away.

The train slowly stops in the station and the two men are running towards it. It is now clear that they seem to be joined at their ankles, easily recognizable as a police officer with a convicted passenger. But it is absolutely unclear, which is which. I think, this is at the heart of the film: We are not supposed to know who's who.
The older man takes the lead, the young one behind him seems to watch him with a stern expression (but I only noticed that in the second viewing)
They enter a sleeping compartment and the older one nods to the younger one to take the upper bed. When he climbs up it's the first time we see the handcuffs clearly.
Then the older man takes out the keys and ties his side of the cuffs to the metal ladder. Finally, the relation and their respective roles are established. This whole scene takes about 2.5 minutes and there is practically no word uttered.

Sonntag, 1. Dezember 2013

Charulata (Satyajit Ray, 1964)

A lonely wife of a newspaper editor falls in love with his bohemian brother.

Unfortunately, I didn't get drawn in by the movie enough emotionally, but nevertheless I could admire the perfect direction. I will definitely rewatch this film at some point. It can be a matter of mood, sometimes. The whole film plays practically all through in a few confined rooms, with a few exceptions towards the end of the film. The ending of the film has some visually unusual choices visually of which I felt a bit uneasy.

But the beginning of the movie is fascinating to study. It shows Charulata alone and we get introduced to her life and her character without barely a word.

During the opening credits, two female hands are seen, stitching. The silk and the hand seem refined, so we can guess that this is not a poor woman in the street. Then the camera pulls back and shows Charulata on the bed. Ray uses tracking for most of these first shots, following his protagonist around the house. The whole film is full of those tracking and dolly shots, the camera seems constantly on the move, albeit sometimes only very subtle.
Charulata calls for Brojo with the voice of a mistress and with routine anger. The camera follows her to the staircase and tracks back again, when she walks towards the camera. It introduces not only the servant, but the architecture of the yard. Charulata lives on the first floor and a balcony surrounds the courtyard.

She returns to her room and throws the finished broidery on the bed, maybe slightly annoyed or bored. She then grabs a book from the bed and pages through it. She seems to know the contents well, but she grabs it and walks off.
The camera follows Charulata walking through the courtyard, where she passes through her door, possibly separating her private quarters from the rest of the house. This part of the house seems more lavishly decorated. She must be very well off.
She enters a beautifully furnished and ornamental room and opens a cabinet to the right of the camera. Very carefully, she puts her back into the shelf. The way she touches the different books it is obvious that she really likes books, at least these books here. Searching for a bit, she selects another book. We guess, that she must have read them all. This is the first time that the camera doesn't move.
Slightly bored, she studies the book in her hands, when she notices a drumming coming from outside. Humming, and reading a passage from the book, she slowly walks to the next room. The camera follows her from the back, as she strides towards the window blinds in the next room. She looks out and something catches her attention. Excited, she runs off, back to her room.
She grabs a little opera glass from a drawer and rushes back to the window with it. There is quite a long take of her walking across the balcony, but it's focused really close on the opera glass.
She looks through the glasses and sees a street beggar/musician with monkeys on a leash. At this point it is clear, that she is a sort of prisoner benevolently held in a kind of a golden cage.

The whole introduction takes approximately 9 minutes, and gives all the information needed to understand some of Charulata's problems. She is an intelligent, refined and possibly active woman, but she is not free to do what she wants.

When Charulata is bored of watching people through the opera glass, she hears something from the courtyard. When she steps out onto the balcony, a man, reading a book passes her, completely ignoring her. The way she looks at him it is quite clear that this must be her husband or somebody close. 
With an air of rebellion she watches him through the opera glass, too. He seems just as distant as the outside world, although he is inside the house. Charulata's problem has been clearly stated.

Freitag, 29. November 2013

Menschen am Sonntag / People on Sunday (Robert Siodmak, 1930)

Young city dwellers enjoy their Sunday off by taking a trip to the countryside on the quest for romance and relaxation.

Apart from the superstar-studded cast of emerging filmmakers (Siodmaks, Ulmer, Billy Wilder, Zinnemann) behind this project, there are also many astounding discoveries one can make about Berlin. In an astounding way, this film is timeless. The careless joie-de-vivre in Berlin is just as tangible today as it is in this pre-war film. Would this film be re-made, there are barely anything that would need change.

Due to the use of non-actors the makers kept a careful distance to their subjects. They don't ask them to do much or complicated things (a kiss, maybe). This inner distance gives the film its documentary touch which at points nearly drowns the story. This seems intended as the charming little tale is intercut many times with documentary footage of normal people, enjoying their Sunday on the outskirts of Berlin.

What surprised me was the open-minded approach to casual sex in the story, which I guess must have been quite bold at the time. But the lightness of the whole film makes this just a random happening amongst many events just as important, like lying in the grass or watching the clouds.

The beauty of the many close-ups in the film is remarkable.  They are mostly portraits of regular people, but they all seem to be inhabited by an easiness that has been wonderfully captured on film. I found myself immediately familiar with those happy inhabitants of a blooming city at the end of the 1920s.

Dienstag, 26. November 2013

Au revoir les enfants (Louis Malle, 1987)

During second world war the monk running a boarding school for upper-class kids hides Jewish kids.

This highly personal movie is very touching and manages to avoid all the pitfalls of being overly emotional. Music and editing are very subdued and carefully used to underline situations. This makes the story ring true (which it was) and gives the viewer good time to settle into the universe that these kids live in.

There are many quite complicated scenes and I was interested in one particular: When Jean gets invited on parent's day by the mother of his new best friend into a posh restaurant. In that very restaurant there are Nazis at one side of the room and an elderly Jew sitting on the other side. The table of the family is right inbetween. Many things about France during the war are told during this scene, I'll just try and focus on camera placement.

The focus shifts twice in the scene: From the family table to the French Jew's table  (who I have been told wears the red dot, which means he is a member of the French Legion of Honor) and then again to the Nazi's table on the other side. The elegance with which this setup was solved is quite impressive. The waiter starts and ends the scene, giving light and pouring wine.

I've tried to construct a diagram, where the camera was placed and how it jumps unobtrusively from one table to the next. Some of the takes are incredibly long, and the closeups are pretty short and most of them are simple reactions. I didn't consider every single cut, but to get a general idea where the camera goes to introduce people and "hot spots" in the room. (animated gif)