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)

Montag, 25. November 2013

The Crowd (King Vidor, 1928)

A young man comes to New York with big dreams and a bit of good and bad luck - then life happens.
If there was a genealogical tree for movies than The Crowd would be very close to the root. There is not a minute where I didn't have the feeling that I've seen a similar scene in a newer film. The story beautifully combines a bit of romantic, comedic and tragic elements and at the end it has the effervescent melancholy similar to Chaplin's masterpieces. All is lost but hope.

There are two scenes that caught my eyes in terms of visual work. They might not be the best scenes in the film, but for inexplicable reasons I felt drawn into the frame.

The first one is, obviously, the depiction of crowds. A myriad of films have tried to depict crowds, and Vidor has managed to catch an air of the Koyaanisqatsi films by simply superimposing top shots of busy street crossings in New York. The technique is super simple, effective and... I like superimpositions. They are highly underused in today's cinema - unfortunately.

The second shot is when John Sims enters the ward to see his wife and his first, newborn child. It is a very long take on the dolly, that consequently follows the protagonist into the ward. The ward is or seems of a triangular shape (which I find really odd, but it's visually pleasing) and his wife's bed is at the far end.

The nurse opens the door, magically disappears to the right and then appears again on Johnny's hind right and leads him through the middle of the room towards his wife's bed. We never see his face, but his whole body language expresses his tension and wonder. When the dolly changes tempo twice the audience is with him. It's a magical shot.

Sonntag, 24. November 2013

Die Büchse der Pandora / Pandora's Box (Georg Wilhelm Pabst, 1929)

A beautiful young woman lives an careless life while her surroundings enthralled by her charms descend into madness.

I would have wished for a better soundtrack than I was given here. Unfortunately, the heavy classical orchestra score didn't reflect the many subtleties that are hinted at through the story line. On the other hand I preferred not to be emotionally guided.

I assume that it was Pabst's intention to lure the viewer into judging the protagonist Lulu ambiguously. When one scene prompts for contempt another might just as strongly pity the naive view of the world that the woman has. The character seems on one hand to have a very strong sense of moral, when she tries to give herself up to the law, but it is hindered by one of her many potential lovers. On the other hand, she ruthlessly abuses a woman who has obviously fallen in love with her to give her money. She has a spirit-like quality in terms of that we never really learn about her past, except that she was poor.

Although Lulu comes to a foreseeable end, because of the above, I felt a strange lack of compassion towards the character. Maybe, because she was portrayed so life-like in the film. The film shares just as many of her ups as her downs. And her incessant optimism and simplistic outlook on life - she can get whatever she wants because of her charms - she never really changes as a person, although her outlook is dire towards the end of the movie.

In regards of character depiction the film is a masterpiece, despite the unreal type of woman Louise Brooks portrays so masterfully. She deserves every credit. In the end, I am not quite sure what stance Pabst tried to take with the film. But the result was astounding. Definitively, I haven't seen a character so nuanced and provocative at the same time in quite a while.

Samstag, 23. November 2013

The Paradine Case (Alfred Hitchcock, 1947)

A lawyer falls in love with the woman he is supposed to defend in a murder case.

This highly entertaining movie was not as consistent story-wise as some of the other of Hitchcock's movies that I've seen. There is still a bit of Freudian over-interpretation in some of the actions that the characters did. But nevertheless, I enjoyed it - I would have loved to see more of Laughton's performance, him being one of my favorite actors in films from that time. (Especially in This Land is Mine, a Renoir film, unfortunately forgotten by and large).

I wanted to look a bit at Hitchcock's camera work in one scene. Peck has been traveling to his client's home to investigate and encounters the mysterious "gardener" and personal butler of the deceased for the first time. But the gardener has been avoiding the lawyer and suddenly shows up at his hotel room during a stormy night.

The camera is quite mobile in this scene and it is fascinating to watch how the image has been framed using props, or better: one prop - the lampshade.

Peck studies some papers. He is disturbed by some banging on wood. The music is tense.

Cam starts high up. Dollies and cranes towards the table. The lampshade is the point of reference in the otherwise very dark room. It will reappear in most of the shots.

The shutter is banging against the window frame.

A static cutaway, revealing the window frame and at the same time establishing the "Entry door" into the scene.

He gets up from the table and fixes the window. The moment he sits down, he hears another knock, this time it's distinctly human.

The camera dollies and pans with Peck as he walks to the window. Then it goes back with him as he sits down at the table again. It reverses the whole movement back.

The knock is coming from the other window. (?) A fixed camera pan reveals the other window (same ugly curtain).

He gets up and opens the curtains in one swift motiion

Again the camera pans and dollies with Peck's movements.
(It is a bit unclear, which of the two windows he opens)
The gardener stands outside the window, transfixing Peck.

A reveal of the new character - the lighting on him is moody and dangerous. It comes from the side, not from the window.

The lawyer's reaction is subdued.
(He lets the man come inside)
Reverse shot on the reaction in close up, but low angle.

He asks the gardener to come in. They have a conversation in which Peck wants to know how the gardener found him.

The camera is on Peck as before (The pipe is gone) and at the end of the dolly the two end up with the lampshape right in the middle.

The gardener states his intention that the visit might be good. He is asked to sit down.

A medium shot, the lamp covering a good third of the screen in the foreground. The camera then dollies back and reveals the two sitting down.

Here the two are sitting practically opposite of the table.

They discuss.

A back and forth of medium close-ups of the two.
Peck gives a little speech about his client. He seems to get a bit upset. The second medium close-up starts to move between 3-points that Peck is moving around the room.
1. Getting up
2. Standing in front of the gardener
3. Standing behind the gardener.
The interesting thing is that the motion is reversed the moment it has ended.

The last position is again Peck facing his guest, but this time the shot is a little wider.

What is interesting about this move is the speed of the camera inbetween points. It feels almost like he could have cut it.
The butler makes his point.

Medium close-up. And countershot of a medium, when Peck turns his back to the camera.

Peck returns to the table and sits down. They seem to decide to finally exchange some information. Peck even offers a cigarette.

From the last POV on Peck the camera dollies backwards with Peck leaning on the chair, then sitting down, leveling the two men.
But the gardener makes a point of not smoking.

Close-ups of the two. The camera is much closer now. There is standard back-and-forth cutting now.

The gardener makes accusations against his former mistress.

The two are sitting much closer now. The lampshade only hangs in from above the frame.

Peck gets up in anger.

The camera follows him in close-up.

The butler also gets up in anger. He calls Mrs. Paradine "evil". As a consequence, Peck opens the window again and shows the man out.

The camera follows him too, but dollies back to reveal both of them standing very close together.

Peck then walks towards the window and opens it.

But the camera stays with the butler, accompanies him to the window, where they have another exchange (with switched sides) and then stays on Peck's back.