Monday 9 December 2019

DER GOLEM (1920)

Paul Wegener’s Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem: How He Came Into The World), the second major surviving landmark picture in the development of Horror cinema during the silent era, emerged from the Weimar Republic’s German Expressionist school of film-making in 1920. It appeared less than a year after Robert Wiene’s ground-breaking Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari had first introduced audiences to a strange, new avant-garde form of cinema which presented psychologically subjective events through the prism of deliberately distorted imagery -- a development which was to play such an intrinsic role in Cinema’s presentation of the Gothic on our movie screens from hench forward. The movie was, oddly enough, also the third entry in what we would now consider the very first horror franchise, and is a clear precursor to (and a huge influence upon) James Whale’s visualisation of Frankenstein’s Monster for his iconic 1931 Universal adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel. This influence starts with the visual style of the two films and extends all the way into their thematic approach and their image-making.

Although it’s the only one out of the three pictures to survive, this was actor-writer-director Wegener’s third time wearing his monstrous creation’s lumbering built-up shoes for the role after having first brought this representative of popular Jewish folklore to the screen in 1915 for a much more conventionally shot film called, simply, Der Golem – but also known in the US as The Monster of Fate. Although now a lost movie, this first Golem picture, Wegner’s follow-up to his 1913 Poe and Dostoyevsky influenced doppelganger picture The Student of Prague, was evidently well-liked enough at the time by the public for Wegener to feel able to satirise its popularity in a spoof follow-up made very soon after, in 1917, under the title Der Golem und die Tänzerin (The Golem and the Dancing Girl), produced, like its predecessor, for Deutsche Bioscop. Once again, the enterprising Wegener appeared to be way ahead of his time: instead of a conventional sequel, Wegener stumbled upon the self-reflexive ‘meta’ movie, anticipating the post-modern games of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare by about seventy-five years -- while experimenting with these ideas virtually as the modern Horror genre as we know it was taking shape. The film relies on a contemporary audience’s knowledge of Wegener as the actor who originally played the part of the Golem in the successful 1915 movie, in a screenplay that has him deciding to dress up in his Golem costume from the first movie for a joke while attending a party, with, one presumes, ‘hilarious results’.

Neither of these works has survived, as far as we presently know, beyond a few stills and fragments which reveal that Wegener did not substantially change the design of his Golem creature across any of the three movies he starred in, despite their very different approaches to the subject; but knowledge of their existence informs how we should view the third and final instalment of the trilogy: once again, Wegener takes the myth of the Golem and certain elements of the plot, and refashions them, concentrating this time exclusively on the folkloric elements in the act of crafting a dark fairy tale that functions as a direct prequel to his 1915 film, which had been set in the then present-day and told the story of an antiquarian who discovers the ancient Golem amid the ruins of a Jewish temple and decides to resurrect him in contemporary times as a protector of the community.

The Golem’s role in Jewish myth dates back to the Polish ghetto and is closely associated with life in 16th century Prague’s Jewish quarter -- an area sealed off from the rest of the city in the medieval period until as late as 1850, after which point the walls were brought down and the extensive list of anti-Semitic proscriptions, which until that time had been placed on Jewish activities, was ended. At this point, stories about the Golem as a ‘protector’ of his people who had been fashioned from the silt and mud of the river Vltava by the famed Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezale, to help defend Prague’s Jewish community from the devices of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf ll of the Hapsburg Empire, became immensely popular. A novel, first published in serial form by Austrian writer Gustav Meyrink between 1913 and 1914, and published in book form in 1915, has since been described by Maya Barzilai (in her study Golem: Modern Wars and Their Monsters) as ‘the Da Vinci Code of its day’ and provided the catalyst for Paul Wegener’s film-based interpretation of the legend, although none of the three Golem films he authored had any real connection to Meyrink’s hugely popular novel.

Expressionism was a pre-war movement in the decorative arts which percolated into early moving pictures via the ideas of the celebrated theatrical director Max Reinhardt. Under the movement’s influence, Reinhardt incorporated abstract set designs into his stage productions (some of them created by Paul Leni, another important German figure in the early horror cinema of the silent period) -- along with extreme, unnaturalistic choreography and experimental lighting effects. The young Wegener had previously taken roles in some of Reinhardt’s plays, so was well-placed to apply his radical methods to the newly emerging medium of film just as the shattering horrors of the First World War made such emotionally destabilising techniques all the more vital and necessary to the artistic practice of the 1920s. Wegener was an inspired creator of dark fantasy and, standing at an imposing six-foot, broad-shouldered and heavily set, made for a most striking screen performer who tended to gravitate towards macabre material. But Wegener still needed skilled craftsmen around him to help bring his visions to fruition; he always co-directed his films with the help of more experienced practitioners so that he could concentrate on his performance in front of the camera.

The Golem films brought about a set of collaborations that were to prove particularly important to the history of horror cinema: the 1915 film had Wegener collaborating closely with screenwriter Henrik Galeen, who was later to be hired by producer Albin Grau to work on F.W. Murnau’s unofficial Dracula adaptation Nosferatu in 1922, and who also wrote Paul Leni’s horror anthology Waxworks in 1924. Galeen not only co-wrote the first Golem screenplay with Wegener but co-directed the original movie and played the role of the antiquarian who discovers the creature in the ruined temple, as well. When Wegener returned to the subject for this 1920 prequel, set in 16th century Prague and co-directed with Carl Boese for PAGU, Galeen’s screenwriting services were once again called upon -- figuring him as one of the most important artists in horror cinema of the silent era; one who would later make the definitive version of The Student of Prague in 1926 on a much bigger budget and with the great German actor Conrad Veidt in the lead role rather than Wegener. The latter was himself an effective presence, though, when he was cast alongside Brigitte Helm in Galeen’s outlandish 1926 film Alraune -- another stand-out German horror/sci-fi hybrid movie of the silent era, written and directed by this now often overlooked figure.  

The cinematography on the 1920 Golem picture was handled by Karl Freund, the innovative man behind the lens on some of German cinema’s greatest visual spectacles by Murnau and Fritz Lang, and inventor of the ‘unchained’ camera technique. He was also, after moving to Hollywood, the cinematographer on Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931)  and would, himself, direct classic Universal horror pictures The Mummy (1932) and Mad Love (1935). When applied to the strikingly bizarre set designs of former architect Hans Poelzig and Kurt Richter, Freund’s stark lighting creates an otherworldly fairy tale aesthetic that takes the jagged abstraction and extreme stylisation of Caligari into a notably less alienating area of visual aesthetics than its predecessor: rather than shadows painted on walls, and sets simplified to the point of their becoming only symbolically representational of objects and places instead of directly believable in their own right, Poelzig, Freund and Wegener created a world for The Golem that seems based in a kind of historically removed reality of sorts, but which is at the same time utterly fantastical – the vast but unconventional village set is full of curved, conical surfaces, created at Ufa’s open-air-grounds in Berlin-Tempelhof, that make the medieval buildings of the Jewish quarter look like they were grown from the earth rather than directly built by human hands; the gargantuan door that seals off the walled ghetto from the rest of the city, with its huge heavy wooden bar-lock, is a clear precursor to a similar design later seen in King Kong (1933), and visually implies in an indirect yet unmissable way both the cultural and the physical separateness of the Jewish people in this heavily partitioned city. The opening scene, in which Rabbi Loew (Albert Steinrück), while gazing through his telescope from the top of the tower above his house discovers an astrological alignment that foreshadows doom for the Jewish people, looks like a magical live-action iteration of one of Lotte Reniger’s later silhouette animations; Wegener’s co-director on The Golem and the Dancing Girl, Rochus Gliese, adds to this potent mix of magical-fantasy grounded in German Romanticism with costume designs that leave historical verisimilitude behind in the cause of their heightened myth-making, but which nonetheless conjure a vivid sense of the film's alternate reality. 

The film’s presentation of the Jewish community is notably free of the more extreme racial stereotyping of the period. Life as depicted within the walled-off ghetto, although visualising the rustic poverty of the inhabitants in an extremely stylised manner, is indicative of the Expressionist moniker in general -- with slanting hovel-like buildings, crooked streets, and narrow alleys and staircases. Yet it is still largely free of the most egregious forms of ethnic caricature. The people we can see in the upper-storey windows of the strange, sloping buildings and on the street corners, inspire viewer identification and empathy rather than mistrust or suspicion; when we contrast their lifestyle with the gaudy frivolity of the Emperor (Otto Gebühr) and his court, it becomes apparent who our sympathies should be directed towards: the people who have been separated from the rest of society and are now being cast out of their home by the Emperor’s latest cruel edict, citing all the usual anti-Jewish prejudices such as crucifying the Lord, disregarding Christian festivals, lusting for property and performing Black Magic rituals.

The film makes a point of emphasising something that is just as true any time minorities are demonised for the short-term political gain of a particular class or group: the inhabitants of the Court as shown don’t necessarily have to be driven by any overt malice towards the Jews who will be affected by the edict; instead, they mostly appear callously indifferent, distracted, and almost cynically bored by the whole issue. The film illustrates the fact that it can become easy for cruelty to flourish not necessarily because there is pure unfiltered hatred being directed towards a minority on the part of most of the majority population, but because those not affected choose to live in blissful ignorance of the effects of discrimination on those subjected to it; cushioned by their sumptuous, cosseted lifestyles the Emperor's subjects close themselves off from the possibility of empathy and do not even think about those who will suffer from the consequences of a ruling that has been so lightly made. Later in the film, they bring about a devastating calamity on the Court after mocking an important figure in Jewish mythology, again, out of ignorance rather than active malice. 

The Golem legend is a piece of Jewish folklore that is more concerned with demonstrating to its people the folly of seeking revenge on those who might do you wrong, showing how seeking to regain control of one’s fate through violence or mastery of the elements, etc., can have unintended results. Therefore, it directs most of its moralising at the Jewish community itself. As a non-Jewish filmmaker, then, it is gratifying that Wegener also added this other extra element, exemplified by the dandyish, flower-twirling envoy Florian (Lothar Müthel) -- who, sent by the Emperor to deliver his devastating proclamation to Rabbi Loew, ends up having a dalliance with the Holy man's daughter as well -- to also make plain how the petty prejudices and trivial concerns of an indifferent population can ultimately wreak great harm upon society.

In the final reckoning, The Golem stands out today for the same things that wowed its audiences back in 1920: its amazing fantastical visual style and special effects, and its macabre set-designs and make-up work -- all of which still stand out and have even been given a new lease of life thanks to this stunning 4K restoration by the F.W. Murnau Foundation, now given a general release by Eureka Entertainment. The black magic ritual that Rabbi Loew and his assistant (Ernst Deutsch) perform to conjure a demon that can provide them with a life-giving occult word is still a cinematic highlight. When written down and sealed Ironman style into an amulet on the chest of their inanimate clay creation, the word brings the clay Golem to life and endows him with super-strength. Through a tour-de-force of set-piece superimpositions the film fabricates impressive indoor lightning inside Rabbi Loew’s cave-like laboratory (decorated in occult symbols and with astrological writings chalked on the walls) and a flaming circle of fire to protect the two men from the demonic apparition as it emerges from the shadows through a veil of smoke from which the life-giving word eventually forms. Wegener imbues the Golem by turns with humour, pathos and terror: one minute providing laughs when the creature is being sent out on errands to the shops with a basket on his arm for the groceries (in a scene extensively milked for all its comic potential); the next becoming aware of the poverty of his slave-like existence and rebelling violently against his creators by bringing a terrifying conflagration upon them. A scene, during the finale, in which Golem kidnaps Rabbi Loew’s daughter (played by Wegener’s second wife Lyda Salmonova, who played the female lead in most of his movies and all of the Golem pictures) and drags her through the streets of the ghetto by her hair after having murdered Florian her lover at the behest of Rabbi Loew’s jealous assistant, is particularly brutal.

Through cakes of face paint and uncomfortable costuming Wegener portrays a character that can alternate unpredictably between acting as an unfeeling automaton commanded by unseen occult forces, and a sentient being who is occasionally aware of his hopeless predicament. Interestingly, in his excellent recent book Wasteland: The Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror, W. Scott Poole theorises that Wegener’s Golem may well be rooted in the actor's own experiences of trench warfare during the First World War, quoting a 1933 journal in which Wegener recalls days spent ‘seething in clay’ and his feelings of terror and powerlessness. Poignantly, it ends up being a simple flower, offered by a beautiful woman, that brings about the Golem’s painful realisation of his situation; which is itself an ironic contrast with, and comment upon, the unfeeling dandy Florian’s tendency for absent-mindedly twirling a flower indifferently whenever out delivering unpleasant news from the Emperor to the cowering Jewish populace. The film ends on another note of irony, though: a poignant one, in which the innocence of a small child results in the apparently unstoppable creature’s eventual immolation -- after which he becomes a lifeless plaything for a whole gaggle of small children that is eventually carried away by the elders of the ghetto to be hidden away within its walls, until called upon another day.

This wonderful new restoration, showcased on Blu-ray for Eureka’s Masters of Cinema collection, offers up three wonderfully diverse scores for the viewer to choose from. Composer Stephen Horne’s is the most traditional of the bunch, in that it makes use mostly of piano accompaniment and aims to provide clearly defined emotional colour for the film's characters, giving story situations dramatic lift through manipulation of the instrument’s expressive techniques. Electronic producer Wudec, meanwhile, employs a much broader palette that incorporates experimental sound design and modern synthetic instrumentation. Admir Shkurta also scores for a wide range of instruments including operatic and choral voices that underscore the epic quality the film’s visual splendour naturally inspires. Each of these musical accomplishments adds another dimension to the film and demonstrates just how important a good accompaniment is to the process of experiencing and interpreting a silent movie.

The disc also includes the shorter US cut of the movie, scored by Cordula Heth, and has a video piece that extensively highlights the differences between the export and domestic German version, recreated from various sources for this release. A new audio commentary by Scott Harrison looks at the cinematic context and societal conditions under which Expressionist Cinema was created, while various video and audio essays from David Cairns, R. Dixon Smith and Jon Spira add much-appreciated analysis, interpretation and description of this important and still immensely watchable early Horror classic, and the era of Weimar cinema to which it belongs. A booklet featuring essays by Scott Harrison on German Expressionist cinema and a profile of Paul Wegener and The Golem by Philip Kemp is included with the release and initial copies will come with a Limited Edition O-Card Slipcase.

Saturday 15 June 2019


A sombre mood of loneliness and overwhelming isolation hangs heavy over the succession of almost indistinguishable landscape images which open cinematographer Erik Bloomberg’s 1952 directorial debut: a proto-folk horror cum ethnographic fairy-tale from Finland called The White Reindeer (Valkoinen peura).
The scene is set immediately: we are in Lapland; the ‘present day'. As the opening titles are unveiled, the camera follows the gaze of the indigenous reindeer herder who anonymously inhabits the foreground of the first shot. A series of images, panning left to right, give the impression of the camera revolving through a 360-degree turn. Similar shots of vast snow-blanketed hills lightly spotted with lichen-stained Birch trees, extending seemingly forever across the expansive horizon, dissolve into each other repetitively as a lone female soprano intones a lilting melody that wordlessly expresses its sense of mournful regret against the drone-like paganistic pulse of the rhythmic drumming it accompanies. 

Already we are being subtly but robustly assailed by intimations of the vast, unimaginable geological time-scales that have been at work in producing such a haunted landscape. They indicate an ancient and essential, and inescapably cyclical form of nature, built through a process of creative repetition and imprinted with a harsh fatalism which seems to animate the land and the sky and the rocks with an emotion that might be summarised thus as a melancholy form of otherworldliness.

The strange mood is further enhanced and expanded on in the following post-titles prologue sequence, which details, in smudgy soft-focus imagery entirely without sound, the origins of the film’s charismatic anti-heroine. Here, striking and beautifully composed shots of the snowy fells of Lapland during dusk make a harrowing backdrop for the image of a lone woman crossing the wilderness, fleeing hungry wolves through a glooming expanse lit by the setting sun, until she finds partial refuge from the elements in a small lean-to inhabited by a huddle of concerned older women. They help deliver the pregnant stranger a healthy child in the midst of the warmth of a campfire, although the weakened mother dies during the strenuous process of giving birth.

The most notable thing about this dream-like section of the film (aside from its atmospheric simulation of the silent movie conventions of an earlier age) is the narrative relayed in the folk song on the soundtrack accompanying the images. It’s easy to miss upon first viewing, but the song’s lyrics -- which are, once again, sung by a solo female voice -- range far beyond the events depicted on screen and encompass not just the circumstances of the child’s birth and her parentage, but also her future life as an adult, which includes her eventual fate: which is to be hunted as an outsider through this same snowbound landscape, not by wolves this time, but by members of her own community.

In fact, the song relates all of the events which are about to be set before us in their entirety and explains how everything we will see should be informed by the fact that the child was born to a witch who will inherit her mother’s curse. This is one film where spoilers can be excused, since Bloomberg structures it deliberately so that we know in outline from the very start everything that is about to happen to its ill-fated central character.

It’s that inherent sense of cyclical fatalism again, built into the structure of the story and expressed in mimicry of the folkways of a traditional culture. The story draws on this for its sense of supernatural potency. The silent-era imagery during this opening portion looks as though it inhabits a liminal space caught between fairy tale and ethnographic representation, becoming a poetic visualisation of the patriarchal constraints that inevitably come to delineate the formative pathways that will shape this new-born child’s very sense of self in later adulthood. There is by implication the sense that the story represents an archetypal arrangement of elements constantly alive in this landscape, that have played out many times before and will probably continue to do so again and again in variations that spiral outwards to embrace an otherwise uncertain future.

Even some of the core features of the film’s production background feed into the mixture of the factual and the fairy tale that informs its unique atmosphere.  Actress Mirjami Kuosmanen plays the pregnant woman hunted by wolves in the opening scene, and also the woman’s adult daughter, Pirita: the main character in the rest of the film. The mythical, fantastical fable-like feel of the opening segment continues to exert its influence across the very different, almost documentary styling of the sequences following it (wherein certain traditional features of Sámi social culture are recreated on camera) -- partly because of the identical appearance of these two related characters both played by the same person.

Bloomberg’s evocative cinematography also emphasises the continuity between the fantastical sides to the story and the immediate and more practical nature of the lifestyle of the indigenous population: contradictory qualities which seem to define a landscape that invokes a form of atavism that encourages feelings of an awestruck sublime caught midway between terror and wonder. With its eerie featureless horizons where low clouds hang across flat fells and deep glacial valleys, and where vast herds of migrating animals greatly outnumber the huddled communities of humans who must work together to earn a living in this harsh but weirdly beautiful environment, we can easily come to understand the appeal of the belief system of the Sámi people, with its foundations in animism. The film successfully conjures a psychological state that assumes agency existing across the whole spectrum of the natural environment, drawing on animating energy contained within the rocks and plants and animals as well as humans. The White Reindeer echoes many of the films that later came to be grouped under the genre term ‘folk horror’, in that it posits a world in which modern forms of contemporary, Christianised patriarchal Sámi culture have not replaced traditional animist beliefs but rather formed a palimpsest that merely obscures them. We sense their continuity and essence in every event depicted, through a combination of narrative rhyming, metaphor and the striking visual compositions which make up a landscape portrait of the weather systems and climatic conditions providing such a mysterious backdrop to the story.

Kuosmanen and Bloomberg were very much a husband and wife team, and The White Reindeer was a collaborative project in the truest sense of the word. When Bloomberg came to expand his directorial ambitions from short documentaries to feature-length ficiton films, it was Kuosmanen who came up with the initial idea for The White Reindeer and then later co-wrote the screenplay with her husband. As well as playing two roles in the movie, she also oversaw this low-budget project’s costuming and makeup. For his part, Bloomberg’s approach to the fantastical material (which was based on traditional regional legends about similar shape-shifting entities), did not represent an abrupt break with his former documentary output. In fact, the subject matter affords him an opportunity to revisit some of the material that constituted his first documentary short, made in 1947, and included with this new UK edition of the film. Titled With the Reindeer, this seven-minute-long short showed how traditional Sámi culture is organised around the herding of reindeer. It tells how the various herding communities come together regularly for an organised ‘round up’ to determine who owns what, with the community ‘corralling’ procedure necessarily involving every member of the various tribes.

The imagery included in this short narrated film – of herders crowding into lean-tos during the hunt and engaged in lassoing their antlered quarry to the ground – reoccurs throughout The White Reindeer itself and often looks similarly authentic. Like such documentary footage, the film has very minimal foley effects, which on one level lends it a rather endearingly amateurish ‘stitched together’ quality that actually rather works in its favour in a manner that is very reminiscent of the atmosphere created in Herk Harvey’s film, Carnival of Souls. Although it eschews the narration we associate with conventional documentary forms, its use of music to set a very specific tone to accompany these authentic-looking images of everyday Sámi life lend it, when they’re combined with other similarities in presentation such as the use of a hand-held camera, the distinct feel of cinema vérité.

The film’s music, by Einar Englund, is an essential component in establishing the unique real/unreal tone of The White Reindeer. Deprived of a more sophisticated effects soundtrack for establishing the mood, and with very minimal dialogue, Bloomberg has to rely instead on the music to an even greater extent to bring to the fore what the characters are experiencing internally, or to help elucidate the group dynamics operating within the indigenous Sámi community while demonstrating Pirita’s place within it. It’s a documentary or early newsreel technique which creates a particularly resonant experience for the viewer, becoming all the more acute as superstition and fantastical elements of the supernatural take on more and more significance for the development of Pirita’s story.

As a result, Englund’s score is incredibly dominant throughout, its cues encompassing everything from the sprightly sleigh-bell anchored orchestral fanfare accompanying the chaotic reindeer race at the start of the first act (showing how Pirita initially fits comfortably into a very male-dominated competitive culture and is accepted within it); to elegiac, delicately woven folk-based Ralph Vaughn Williams-inspired paeans to a landscape at once romantic and ominously forbidding. Here the music works alongside contemplative, atmosphere-enhancing interludes to the action that, again, highlight the animism underpinning Sámi beliefs.

Whenever Bloomberg’s cinematographic style moves away from a realistic mode grounded in naturalistic landscapes or the traditional practices of the indigenous population and encompasses a more Gothic register in order to highlight the more fable-like aspects of the tale, the director makes use of expressionistic techniques that would not look out of place in a 1930s Universal Horror picture. Englund’s score also tracks this transformation in the character of Pirita through the different style of cues accompanying such moments. These often anticipate the bubbling tension to be found in the music of the composer James Bernard (particularly in the scores he wrote for films made by Hammer Pictures later in the ‘50s and ‘60s): there are sequences, particularly in the middle section of the film, when Pirita is struggling with her dual nature, in which The White Reindeer’s dominant sense of docudrama-like verisimilitude gives way completely to a Gothic excess that is replete with highly-charged symbolic imagery elaborating on the concept of the female vampire as acutely as anything Terrence Fisher was to place upon the screen only a few years afterwards. 

The White Reindeer constantly moves back-and-forth between these two extremes of visual representation to create a work that acts as a subtle character study couched in the visual language of a dark folk myth, about someone who finds herself compelled to reject the moral and social norms of the society which had previously sustained her and anchored her sense of selfhood, and so who can only end up more isolated than ever as a result of pursuing the taboo-breaking fulfilment of her deepest needs. 

The gender aspects of this theme are foregrounded early on and are evident in Pirita's delight in the communal excitement of a reindeer race which gives way to a flirtatious tumble in the snow and awakens her, perhaps for the first time, to romantic and sexual feelings. Aslak (Kalervo Nissilä), one of the other competitors in the race, followers her as she breaks away from the others, and playfully lassos her like one of the deers he herds for a living, joking that “a reindeer is fast, but a wolf is faster!” Already this comment verbally reminds us of the film’s mythical opening, when Pirita’s witch mother was pursued by wolves across the moonlit fells. It also anticipates the tragic conclusion of the film, and provides an Angela Carter-like fairy-tale animal metaphor for the pursuit of love and sex in a patriarchal setting which demonstrates how a spirited, rebellious form of femininity might well play along with the idea of being the hunted prey in the game of love, but that there might also be much danger and eventually a price to pay for colluding in such gestures. 

Pirita and Aslak’s love match develops along the conventional lines, drawing their relationship under the umbrella of this society’s mandated semi-feudal form of romantic union -- with coins and heirlooms exchanged by the parents as a marriage dowry, and a raucous reception held in the grooms’ parents tiny home, which is where the entire community comes together to provide approval in the form of drunken revelry and expectant glances. But it's not long before this protective cocoon of marital bliss is disrupted by Aslak’s need to be away from home (and Pirita) for long periods on the fells, herding and corralling the reindeer. Pirita’s completely new and unexpected experience of  loneliness only seems to highlight how important feeling valued by her mostly male peers had previously been in forging her identity; household chores and enforced introspection do not sit well with her personality, and she cannot help but notice -- and be flattered by -- any male attention that now comes her way. 

Her internal dissatisfaction finally crystallises into one of the most memorable scenes of the film: Pirita visits the hut of the local Shaman in search of a love potion that might help her win back the attention of her husband when he comes home after long absences too exhausted to fulfil her needs. The shaman, Tsalkku-Nilla (Arvo Lehesmaa), turns out to be a strange crab-like hermit, seemingly banished to the outskirts of the Sámi community to live his isolated existence in a remote shack located somewhere in the snowy Finnish wilderness, where he awaits his 'clients', squatting like some feral animal over a boiling cauldron of questionable substances that are heated by a fire that also illuminates the equally grotesque pet goat permanently positioned at his side! It is as though this Shaman character represents the dangerous, subterranean and atavistic portions of his culture that are unconsciously rejected by its wider population, yet allowed to continue to exist so long as they stay safely out of sight whilst a ‘civilising’ veneer of Christianised belief and morality is displayed on the surface in their sted.

Those, like Pirita, who find it difficult to live a fulfilled existence under such a scheme of things might periodically visit this disquieting figure out of some unvoiced need to feel an authentic connection with their lost heritage and with the world of the spirits underpinning the old beliefs, but the impression is that it has become a furtive activity that would be scorned if anyone were to find out about it. The shaman is himself, though, yet another expression of accusatory patriarchal authority, who immediately attempts to shame Pirita for finding herself in such an unwholesome position, knowingly cackling to himself “you women, young and old the same!” His proffered solution to her feelings of loneliness and rejection take the physical form of a bubbling potion brewed from a lurid ingredients list that is inclusive of such delights as graveyard soil and “the balls of ten bull moose”; and he informs her that she must “sacrifice to the stone god the first living thing she meets on her way home” in order to reap the full benefits of this profane curative.   

However, his domineering atavism -- founded on the assumption of male-centred authority -- is immediately challenged when the shaman’s traditional spirit drum reveals to him Pirita’s witch origins. Now that she has been brought into close contact for the first time in her life with the elemental spirit realms from which her suppressed heritage derives its power, the carved piece of reindeer antler acting as the shaman’s drum marker dances of its own accord across the personalised map of the spirit world painted on the drumhead; or rather it moves while now under Pirita’s control instead of his, as she suddenly transforms in an instant from beleaguered supplicant into powerful supernatural entity, leaving the terrified shaman instantly divested of all power and authority.

The imagery and editing here are feverish, expressionistic and delirious; Bloomberg propels us straight away into another sequence equally as affecting, in which the newly empowered but almost deranged Pirita hurries outside into the snowy whited out fells to sacrifice her husband’s wedding gift of a white reindeer calf before the great ‘stone god’, as instructed. This imagery is powerfully transgressive, paganistic, and ritualistic; it taps into the mythical wellspring suggested by an interest in the poetry of landscape from which folk horror derives much of its power. In destroying the calf, Pirita is decisively rejecting her role as nurturer and caregiver and dutiful wife. In symbolically slaying this innocent creature -- given to her as a wedding gift -- she is rejecting Christian purity, motherhood and her husband’s authority. The act is performed like a diabolic ceremony before a great slab-like stone monument: a black finger crowned by a reindeer skull and topped by a mantle of antler horns pointing up to the ominous cloud-strewn heavens. The monument towers like a centrepiece above a reindeer ‘graveyard', with antler ‘grave markers’ jaggedly piercing its icy surroundings like barbed wire on an abandoned battlefield.

This moment also constitutes the film’s decisive break with realism and a turn to fully-fledged poetic fantasy: a brief slow-motion shot in negative of a reindeer galloping across the snowy landscape might or might not be deliberately intended as a reference to F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) -- in which Heir Hutter’s coach ride through the forested mountainside on his way to Graf Orlok’s castle is also shown in the negative as a way of indicating his crossing over into a supernatural realm during the journey (Jean Cocteau also used the same idea two years before the release of The White Reindeer to depict a motorcar traversing an invisible threshold as it enters the Underworld in Orphée) -- but it certainly marks out a change in the tone of the rest of the film from here on in, with Pirita’s double nature and her increasing alienation from her community becoming the narrative’s primary focus. It’s an angle which the film addresses in a style combining the traditional fairy tale and all its mythic resonance with a stylistic form of horror cinema that is based around vampires and werewolves, producing a unique dark fantasy aesthetic grounded in Nordic culture. In this phase of its evolution, the film’s ability to draw on elements of horror and myth to create a psychological portrait of the alienation and the increasing marginalisation of a single character is reminiscent of some of Ingmar Bergman’s best work, a comparison which is especially pertinent seeing as much of the film’s power resides in Bloomberg’s ability to capture the compelling and versatile performance given throughout by Mirjami Kuosmanen, as Pirita grapples with the results of her post-transformation status, much as Bergman often focused his most psychologically penetrating work on female performances, in particular, those of his long-time partner and collaborator Liv Ullman.

Eureka Entertainment’s recent release of The White Reindeer on dual-format Blu-ray and DVD as part of the Masters of Cinema series offers a beautifully crisp 4K restoration by the National Audiovisual Institute of Finland. Several insightful essays by film critic Alexandra Heller Nichols and journalist Philip Kemp are included in an excellent accompanying booklet, which, together with film historian Kat Ellinger’s knowledgeable commentary track and Amy Simmons’ video essay, Pleasure and Punishment: The Portrayal of Witches in Nordic Cinema, provides a fully rounded introduction to the film and its context. From Nordic art cinema to folk horror, The White Reindeer contributes an important chapter in the evolution of both, one that is sure to become much more widely known about and appreciated thanks to this essential release.              

Sunday 28 April 2019


When asked by the acclaimed Hungarian-born production designer Alexandre Trauner to explain his latest project in a single sentence, Billy Wilder pithily summed up what turned out to be the most financially profitable movie of his career, Irma La Douce, as “the story of a man who is jealous of himself”. This almost facetiously paradoxical prescription applies to a film that, if one were to be forced into assigning it a more general descriptive label, would broadly have to be defined by the somewhat dubious phrase ‘sex comedy’. It slots into Wilder’s prestigious filmography among a string of romantic comedies Wilder began regularly producing in Hollywood after he was teamed up in 1957 with a new writing partner, I.A.L Diamond, for the Audrey Hepburn and Gary Cooper-starring Love in the Afternoon. This marked the beginning of a long-term writing-partnership that soon spawned two of Wilder’s greatest classics: Some Like it Hot and The Apartment –- the two films responsible for the pair coming to be renowned for their ability to push the Hollywood production code to its limits with their instinctive, uniquely acerbic attitude to the foibles of human nature; and a tendency to incorporate transgressive themes into a popular genre more usually associated, in the public mind, with escapist frivolity. 

But by the time Irma La Douce came around in 1963, the boundaries previously defining what it was and was not acceptable to portray on film were already in the process of breaking down completely. Wilder’s forte had always been his penchant for introducing into his work moods and themes which at the time often didn’t feel like they had a right to belong in the romantic comedy subgenre at all whilst still always managing to work, broadly speaking, within the strictures and codes that defined that subgenre. Irma La Douce saw a Hollywood old hand attempting to adapt filmmaking habits formed during a career in which sophistication, wit and a certain subtlety had always been necessary requirements for smoothing over the more contentious or subversive themes his films often dealt with below the surface, and apply them to a story broaching a subject matter for which there didn’t appear to be much call for sophistication, wit or subtlety: namely prostitution. Furthermore, he was attempting this on the cusp of a period when all the rules previously governing what it was or wasn't contentious to show on cinema screens were about to be radically overhauled, if not thrown away completely. 1963 was, after all, also the year that saw Jayne Mansfield appear in the first nude scene in a mainstream Hollywood picture since the Pre-Code era -- for the film Promises! Promises! -- exploiting a brief period before the end of the Hays Code and the MPAA film rating system becoming an effective alternative.  Marilyn Monroe would have earned the distinction herself the previous year if her nude swim scene in George Cukor’s abandoned Something’s Got To Give had ever seen the light of day, but elsewhere in Europe sex comedies and dramas were already way ahead of Hollywood in tackling such risqué subject matter. There were very few qualms about portraying nudity and sex on the big screen in European cinema at this point.

Wilder’s approach to the conundrum is uniquely interesting, and, although he later publicly judged Irma La Douce to have been an artistic failure (despite its commercial success) because the comedy and the conventions the film inhabits had been rendered just a little too broadly, it is in fact precisely the cover provided by this broad-brush approach to the material which also allows Wilder the freedom to seriously interrogate, without alienating his audiences, some unspoken emotional truths that lie hiding in plain sight behind the otherwise colourful frivolities inherent to his treatment of the material. It’s the implicit assertion informing Wilder’s approach with this film that these truths don’t just apply to this particular story’s cast of prostitutes and their relationships, (which are depicted within a heavily stylised milieu) with clients and pimps, but to any of us who have similarly to negotiate the gap between an identity largely imposed upon us by the societal norms that have been established among our peers (and by the institutions that govern and impinge our lives in other forms) and the private identity it is also possible to construct for oneself in the act of indulging a life of fantasy  –- in other words, the film is talking about a situation that has the potential to be applicable to pretty much all of us. With Irma La Douce Wilder is presenting his viewers with an apparently very particular situation, dependent upon an absurdist parade of comic exaggerations, misunderstandings and ridiculous deceptions. But although apparently limited by its exotic circumstances and particularities, the reality is that this film is every bit as biting an existential expose of the hypocrisies that determine the petite bourgeoisie lifestyle as anything in the oeuvre of late-period Luis Buñuel. The difference is that with Wilder it comes garbed in an approachability informed by the language of a comedy painted in the ravishing hues of a gaudy Technicolor Hollywood musical; and in which the likeable comic screen personas of Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine -- the stars of Billy Wilder’s irresistible romantic comedy masterpiece The Apartment -- have been invited to hold court for us in a film made in an increasingly permissive age, where the director could have just 'let it all hang out'. Wilder remarked about the movie how his aim was to “strike a happy medium between Tennessee Williams and Walt Disney” -- a telling contrast, and, despite the director’s own reservations about the film in later years, a very accurate description of its unique qualities

The picture’s origins as a stage musical lie at the very heart of our understanding of how Wilder’s idiosyncratic approach to tone in this movie came to be established. The story was adapted from a French musical which first opened in Paris in November 1956 and then ran for four years at the Théâtre Gramont. A Peter Brook-directed London production opened a year and a half into the Paris run at the Lyric Theatre in the West End, and became even more successful than its French predecessor. For its film incarnation, Wilder was required by his producers the Mirisch brothers (who scuttled his plans to make this another black-and-white outing) to film in 2.35:1 scope Technicolor, mimicking in every way the larger-than-life zest familiar to countless MGM musicals from the same period. This was a much bigger deal for Wilder than it might have been for many other directors at this time since Wilder was someone who had always been and would continue to be extremely averse to filming in colour at all, and had done so only sporadically until late into his career. At the time of the filming of Irma La Douce Wilder judged his least successful venture thus far to have been the lacklustre 1948 Bing Crosby musical The Emperor Waltz … and yet here he was again, many years later, faced with the prospect of making another Technicolor musical!

Or at least that was originally the intention … Quite soon into the production process, Wilder and Diamond decided to completely ditch all of the production’s original songs. This was the divisive and seemingly insane decision that turns out to be either the film’s greatest strength or its undoing, depending on your position regarding such matters. It can be viewed as a pretty radical, not to say extremely brave, artistic decision: after all, Alexandre Breffort’s libretto and lyrics had been complimented in the original stage production by the melodies of the much-admired Marguerite Monnot: a former classically trained Concert pianist who turned to the composition of popular music for a living after a bout of ill-health put paid to her flourishing concert hall career. Monnot was, thereafter, responsible for writing the popular French standard L’Etranger and had since become well-known for an extremely successful collaborative song-writing partnership with Edith Piaf in the 1940s.

It seems like a crazy decision to attempt to make a musical without the actual songs, and especially foolhardy to throw out the songs of one of the French stage’s most successful songwriters -- but something very unusual and subtle occurs in the transformation the decision enables. The film still retains the stylised look and the general tone of a Hollywood musical, based around the fundamental suspension of disbelief necessary for acceptance of the convention that characters are allowed to directly express their feelings in communion with the audience by bursting into song. But this is a film in which role-play is central to existence, and in which the characters often aren’t able to express themselves openly because of the particularities of the role their societal position requires them to inhabit or to attempt to fulfil. In other words, the film presents the audience with personalities who seem to exist in every particular as characters from a big screen musical, yet who have had their ‘natural’ ability to express themselves through song removed by the circumstances defining their societal position in the narrative. Wilder’s biographer Ed Sikov put it best in On Sunset Boulevard, his book on the director’s career in cinema:
The wonderful thing about Hollywood musicals is that characters can tap immediately into their emotional lives by opening their mouths and singing. The drab constraints of everyday life give way to melody, and often the more sentimental the song the more affecting the moment. Wilder does not permit his characters such easy access. Love, joy, regret, despair, bliss, triumph – these are the mainstays of the musical comedy, but for Billy they’re too quick, easy, and pretty. In Irma La Douce he uses orchestral themes to underscore what’s going on in his characters’ hearts, but he doesn’t give these hearts the freedom to express it directly.

 The ‘orchestral underscoring’ mentioned above is the subtle work of composer André Previn, who, throughout the picture brilliantly quotes Monnot’s original melodies in his score, weaving the emotional colour of the missing songs into the fabric of the performances the characters themselves are frequently depicted giving for the benefit of each other in the narrative, thus stressing how what they say to each other is not necessarily what they feel. A romantic pathos emerges that seems to exist in the grain that contrasts these two modes of expression. While it can, by this method, give a subtle but clear-eyed account of the foibles and imaginings, disguises and self-deceptions that underlie human relationships of all types, the movie, in other areas, fully embraces the freedom imparted by the musical form it has otherwise abandoned to broach extremes of human behaviour whilst still maintaining its air of frivolity and lightness. Comedy and violence and exploitation are, like Lemmon and MacLaine’s mismatched coupling in this film, strange bedfellows indeed all the way through it; while the movie’s moments of comedy are frequently dominated by absurdity and unrealistic interactions which are allowed to stray far beyond the threshold usually constraining those of other romantic comedies. The running joke that starts with Lemmon placating Irma’s feisty pet dog Coquette (which hates him) by giving it champagne to drink so that he can woo her in peace, reaches a crescendo of absurdity that would never be acceptable in any normal picture of this type when Irma seriously comes to believe -- after a series of incidents in which we see the dog passed out face-down in her doggie bowl on the counter of a bar or propped up groggily against an empty champagne bottle at the foot of Irma’s bed -- that Coquette is a secret alcoholic: “I think she drinks,” Irma whispers conspiratorially at one point to Lord X (who is, in fact, Lemmon in disguise); “I keep finding empty bottles under the bed!” This is an absurdist comic scenario being played totally for laughs (in reality, Lemmon’s treatment of the mutt would denote unspeakable cruelty), that seems to completely undermine any possibility of an emotional truth ever being addressed in the movie. Yet Wilder is still operating throughout the film on the same heightened plane of reality occupied by the Musical, where metaphor allows for all kinds of liberties to be taken with realism. Given the huge commercial success that Wilder enjoyed with Irma La Douce in the US., despite its obvious attempt to link surviving in a colourful yet chronologically unspecified world of French prostitutes and their ‘mercs’ (pimps) with the compromises we all have to make in our lives, it’s probably true that the exotic setting and unreal tone allowed audiences to turn a blind eye to these stark particularities. This is one instance where Wilder got to have it both ways – unlike with Kiss Me Stupid where viewers were turned off by the cynicism once they saw that it was unambiguously being directed at them.

The film starts with some beautiful Parisian slice-of-life documentary colour footage, presenting a montage of images that were shot on location in the capital as the city slowly comes to life in the early morning: street cleaners hose down the squares and public spaces that surround the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower in preparation for the opening of restaurants and daily markets that will soon be filled once more with the bustling crowds that give unique flavour and vibrancy to French life. Wilder re-uses here a similar opening idea (including its lengthy narration) that he made use of in Love in the Afternoon, immediately establishing for the average American viewer that the scene of the action-to-come will be safely far-removed from anything he or she might recognise in their day-to-day life, before dissolving into a stunningly detailed studio-created street set designed by Trauner and populated by a small village of extras. It’s a Parisian red light district centred on the fictional Hotel Casanova and the adjacent Moustache’s Bar, with pavements lined by an exotic parade of prostitutes rendered as flamboyantly as they would’ve been for any Fellini picture, and juxtaposed, in our first encounter with them, by a row of butchered carcasses seen at the meat market; as well as a monumental stack of cabbages assembled for a vegetable stall display. Wilder’s cinematographer, Joseph LaShelle, famed in particular for his stunning black-and-white photography not just in some of Wilder’s best but in noir classics like Preminger’s Laura, here proves himself equally versatile and adept with colour film -- his work emphasising with sumptuous clarity the intricate detail and coordination between costumes and sets required to imbue this fabricated world of vice with the buoyancy of strength and character that makes it so hard to resist as a hyperreal film microcosm of society at large. One of the film’s most attractive features is the opportunity it affords Wilder to flesh out seemingly unimportant background players with their own personalities and foibles. This is a detail included by Wilder with the aim of providing an immersive context to his make-believe world. It creates a flavour of life which comes magically to the fore and gives one to believe that there could be a million other stories and relationships occurring simultaneously between the many other couples we see in the background, on the streets or at the tables of Moustache's establishment. Wilder people’s his studio sidewalks with a rainbow collection of personas, the outrageous kinks exhibited by Irma’s fellow working girls for the benefit of clients also providing contemporary cinematic jokes for the viewer at the expense of other famous movie representations of prostitution, such as Richard Quine’s 1960 film The World of Suzie Wong. Soon-to-be cult actress Tura Satana is given her screen debut here (she was later to be indelibly linked to the cinema of Russ Meyer through her iconic role in Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!), as a character who works under the nom de guerre Suzette Wong; even more bang up to the minute is a reference to Stanley Kubrick’s then-recently released Lolita -- which is hilariously satirised in ‘60s comedienne Hope Holiday’s portrayal of one of the movie’s more prominently featured street women. She appears as a middle-aged ‘tribute act’ to Nabokov’s notorious child nymphet, adopting the hairstyle and memorable heart-shaped sunglasses that were worn by Sue Lyon in Kubrick’s film while emphasising, for comic effect, just how far this approximation of the character is from ever being mistaken for jailbait.  

At the centre of everything, though, and providing the movie with its heart and its soul, is the central relationship between Jack Lemmon’s character, the naïve, initially prudish, rules-bound policeman, Nestor Patou, and Shirley MacLaine’s experienced career prostitute, Irma La Douce. Patou finds himself ‘promoted’ from basic park patrolling duties at Bois de Boulogne into a world for which he is utterly ill-equipped, defined by its deception and corruption. No-one, apparently, informs him about what actually goes on inside the Hotel Casanova and the immediate environs of his beat, nor that his colleagues at the station know all about it and are being paid by the pimps who hang out alongside the working girls and their clients at Moustache’s bar, to turn a blind eye. When, after some comic misunderstandings at the start of the film, Patou finally realises the truth and tries to arrest practically the entire neighbourhood, he ends up being first ritually humiliated by the prostitutes (who laugh at his naivety) and then sacked by his superiors, since his inspector turns out to be one of the clients caught in a compromising situation and arrested when Patou raids the hotel. Nestor Patou starts out in the film as someone who is innately secure and confident about his identity, and who follows the rules of his society and of the profession that defines his role in it to the letter. The problem is that the official rules are not the same rules that everyone else around him in practice recognises and observes. This leaves him, essentially, alienated ... and having to re-construct himself anew. He comes to do so with Irma’s help after, unlike her colleagues, she senses a kernel of kindness and honesty in his affectless innocence which intrigues her and leads to her taking him in and putting a roof over his head after he defends her against some rough handling by Hippolyte, her flashy but unfeeling pimp (Bruce Yarnell).

In tracing the evolution of Nestor and Irma’s tentative love affair as it develops in these rather unpromising surroundings, Wilder and Diamond constantly perform a dexterous screenwriting high-wire act that calls upon their screenplay to strike a nimble balance between full-blown romanticism and world-weary cynicism. It’s a trick that also revels in the paradoxes and contradictions thrown up by a tale so rooted in Wilder’s obsession with narrative deceptions and the self-defeating disguises one has to assume in pursuit of romantic love. On their first night together in Irma’s small but cosy upstairs apartment, after a shy and downcast Nestor has been cast out into the street, he wearily observes during one of the movie’s sweetest scenes between the two, how “if you hate somebody you can do that anytime, anyplace. But if you like somebody, you’ve got to hide in dark corners.” This paradoxical insight becomes the key to understanding the increasingly whimsical and surreal events which come to be integral to the irony-laden narrative. The career-hardened cynic Irma, who seemingly has a different identity for each and every client, falls in love with Nestor’s simplicity, integrity and honesty as she is the product of a world severely lacking in all three of those qualities. Because she is in love with him, and because he has not a penny to his name, Irma yearns to provide for Nestor, and the only way she can do so is by making him her pimp -- a complete reversal of the usual power dynamic that defines this most problematic of working relationships.

The workings of their particular relationship bring about a sense of internal crisis in Nestor’s idea of his proper place in the world, which leads him into an elaborate deception which then threatens everything that brought the two of them together in the first place. Suffering from chronic jealously at the thought of Irma being with other men, and unable to cope with the knowledge that she is now working the streets more for his benefit than her own, Nestor engages the services of the bar owner Moustache (Lou Jacobi) in helping him develop a disguise as a British Lord whom Nestor intends will become Irma’s only client by being so rich that there is no need for her to sleep with anyone else. Lord X is also sexually impotent and will pay Irma a fortune merely to play cards and listen to his (entirely fictitious) woes concerning Lady X and her alleged affairs. Of course, being penniless, Nestor doesn’t have the money himself to pay Irma, so he borrows it from Moustache and then works night shifts at the market preparing the next day’s meat, vegetables and fruit for the various stalls the following morning so that he can pay back what he owes at the end of each month. But this plan only ends up leaving Irma feeling neglected because Nestor is always so tired from secretly working all night long that he pays her no attention and just wants to sleep all morning after his shift ends at dawn, and he has to sneak back in through the window of her apartment before she wakes.      

This, of course, is an ironic reversal of just the kind of situation that would normally end a relationship. Usually, husbands and boyfriends might furtively sneak out to visit prostitutes at night or conduct an affair ... not go to work to earn an honest wage without their significant other (who is a prostitute) finding out about it! Even more ironically, when he has the chance to pretend to be someone else through the acting out of his rough ideas about how a British Lord might behave (which are entirely based on film clichés of Britishness regurgitated in an often almost stream-of-consciousness fashion) Nestor suddenly loses all his diffidence and becomes a charismatic, supremely confident and amusing individual whom Irma starts to fall for because Nestor has in the meantime become so distant. This is how the latter ends up becoming jealous of himself and decides he has to ‘kill off’ Lord X when he realises that his fake persona is more attractive than he is -- a turn of events which can only increase the levels of confusion and absurdity.

At the heart of it all is the question of just what identity truly is. Is Nestor Patou the naive, trusting policeman we encountered at the start of the film or is the romantic idealist who defends Irma’s honour after he loses that role his true self? Or is it the jealous cynic who engages in willful deception to such an extent that he fakes an entire identity in order to deceive his partner about his true desires? Everyone in this narrative can only be understood after we've taken on board the multifarious identities they need to assume throughout the course of the film. The intricacies and ironies all work themselves out in the end, of course, with a final scene set in a church during a wedding where the entire congregation is made up of prostitutes and pimps and policemen, and the bride gives birth thirty-seconds after tying the knot. How this kind of thing got past the Legion of Decency at the time is anyone’s guess, but times were indeed changing in 1963, and despite producer Hal Wallis’s moral outrage (“this is, without doubt, the filthiest thing I have ever seen on the screen” he raged), audiences lapped it up. If Wilder’s original intent to cast Charles Laughton in the role of Moustache had been possible (the actor died before production got underway) Irma La Douce might have been an even better film than it is -- but in the event, this is still a much more entertaining picture than its critical reputation had previously suggested, and it deserves the recognition and rediscovery it will now hopefully receive on the back of this exemplary new Blu-ray release from Eureka Entertainment. Lemmon is superb and gets to display a much wider range than usual, including a talent for Buster Keaton-style slap-stick; while MacLaine is delightful throughout -- moving effortlessly between tender bemusement at Nestor’s gauche displays of romantic simplicity, and screwball exuberance ... Her interactions with ‘Lord X’ in particular show Wilder and Diamond’s dialogue at its most sparkling and inventive.

Irma La Douce looks superb after having a 4K upgrade for this release in the UK as part of the Masters of Cinema series. Interesting contrasts in perspective can be gleaned by comparing the views of Kat Ellinger and Joseph McBride in their respective commentaries … both are Wilder fanatics but coming from different generations and with fascinatingly different perspectives and views on the film’s themes and about Wilder’s approach to the subject matter. Neil Sinyard provides an informative historical overview of the movie’s production in a new video interview, and the animated trailer produced at the time to advertise the movie is also included on the disc. The accompanying booklet features an essay by Richard Combs and a selection of rare archive photographic material.                                   

Sunday 31 March 2019


Fritz Lang’s hugely under-appreciated movie from the latter half of his career, Human Desire, seems in general not to rank highly with film scholars and has never been considered one of the Austrian-German-American filmmaker’s finest works. It was released to an indifferent box office response by Harry Cohn’s Columbia Pictures in 1954, and clearly wasn’t the follow-up to The Big Heat (made for the same studio the previous year) that had been anticipated there, despite sharing two of the stars of that film as its leads, namely Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame.

The film was a faithful remake of Jean Renoir’s 1938 movie La Bête humaine, based loosely on Émile Zola's novel of 1890, which had been in production at Columbia before Lang had even joined the studio and was assigned him later by producer Jerry Wald.  

Although  departing significantly from the novel on which it was ostensibly based, Renoir’s film (which starring Jean Gabin and Simone Simon) had lived up to its title thanks to its frank depiction of a destructive love triangle participated in by three characters, each of whom is shown to be a deeply ethically flawed (and homicidal) individual. Lang’s remake follows exactly the same narrative template as that which Renoir developed from Zola’s state-of-the-nation metaphor but replaces the psychotically unhinged character played by Gabin with wholesome box office star Glenn Ford. In doing so it apparently compounded the perception of the movie as nothing more than a watered-down version of its predecessor. Lang seemingly endorsed this pejorative view when, in an interview addressing the fact that his film actually became more popular in France than the Renoir version, he said: “the French consider this [film] formally very beautiful. That’s nice, but it’s not La Bête humaine".

The success of The Big Heat brought with it enough clout for Lang at Columbia for him to be able to propose at least some changes to the production: he managed to get the pre-existing Maxwell Shane screenplay rewritten, with his preferred choice of writer Alfred Hayes brought on board for the job. This was someone who had worked with Lang previously on 1952’s Clash by Night and had been involved unofficially in scripting the Neo-Realist works of Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica and Luchino Visconti in Italy after the war. Initially still beholden to the logic of Renoir’s original film, Lang had also proposed casting his old friend Peter Lorre in the ‘anti-hero’ role formerly inhabited by Jean Gabin, but his efforts on that front fell through. Lang and Hayes were further stymied by Wald’s insistence that the title ‘The Human Beast’ should refer only to the female character at the centre of the narrative’s love triangle (here played by Gloria Grahame rather than Lang’s first choice, Rita Hayworth) who should, therefore, be written as a devious femme fatale character with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. The whole point of Renoir’s film, of course, was that humanity as a whole should be revealed by it to be inherently corrupt and sick, not just the women!

However, despite their having to work within these ludicrously restrictive parameters, it is possible to see that Lang and Hayes did, in fact, manage to subvert them enough to produce a film that is, in its own quietly penetrating way, just as ruthlessly cynical and cutting in its assessment of the inadequacies of human nature as anything in Renoir’s film, if not even more so. For some reason this has largely been overlooked down the years, and the standard conclusion – that Human Desire is a shallow Hollywood re-tread of the Renoir 1938 original – has become the unchallenged one, with even Lang’s biographer Patrick McGilligan dismissing the movie as a minor one in Lang’s oeuvre and condemning its characters as ‘ill-drawn’. In fact, the film manages, very subtly and quite cleverly, to make a virtue of the restrictions cumbersomely placed upon it by unfeeling producers and unpromising casting decisions. Instead of Peter Lorre, Lang found himself saddled with the distinctly wholesome (and therefore unsuitable) Glenn Ford as the male lead: a popular actor who was best known for playing ordinary guys usually situated as sympathetic audience identification figures. The role of Jeff Warren was originally conceived in Renoir’s film as a man who suffers from a congenital urge to murder women when he gets too close to them, only the mechanical routine of his day job as a locomotive engine driver helping him control these base urges. It’s hard to imagine Ford in that kind of role, so Hayes and Lang were compelled to reconfigure his version of the character to be less dangerous and less alienating than he’d been in Renoir’s film, thus changing the essential nature of the story. Here, Warren has just returned from the army after three years in the Korean War, and can’t wait to take up his old secure job on the railroads again. He’s lodging with his engine mate’s family and seems on the verge of kindling a tentative relationship with his colleague’s daughter Ellen (Kathleen Chase), who has blossomed into a young woman in the years he has been away. Warren apparently yearns only for the simple pleasures of an uncomplicated small-town life, underpinned by routine and the support of a ‘good’ woman.

The narrative engine driving this film noir is the examination of how such a straight-down-the-line everyman such as Warren becomes involved in covering up a murder plot for the wife of the assistant yard manager at his railroad branch after her unhinged alcoholic husband kills a rival and implicates her in the act. The script is apparently structured like the kind of tale Jerry Wald had been demanding of Lang all along: a good, wholesome, morally upright man is led astray by a duplicitous woman, a femme fatale who attempts to manipulate him into committing a second murder to get herself out of a blackmail fix. In fact, if we examine how the film un-spools the details of its traditional noir plot and the moral dilemmas that underpin the story, we quickly realise that Warren is only nominally the central character in the film at all. He’s actually too dull and self-regarding to spend that much time on; only his sense of entitlement and privilege will prove to be crucial elements in the play of events that subsequently unfold. The real emotional centre of the film lies with its main female character Vickie Buckley, as played by Gloria Grahame in what just might be her finest performance. It’s certainly one of the meatiest female roles in the noir canon, and notable for the fact that Lang does explicitly make her viewpoint the central focus of the movie for large portions of the run-time, apparently in sympathy with her position – because that’s where most of the tension in the tale actually resides.

At the end, of course, we’re encouraged (again, at least on the surface) to abruptly switch our sympathies back Warren’s way: he accuses Vickie of conniving to get him to fall in love with her simply so that she can more easily manipulate him into killing her no-good husband, only revealing the full details of her situation when he has already become too involved to escape the accusation that he’s been an accomplice in covering up her knowledge of the first murder. Realising the nature of her deception, the spell of erotic infatuation is decisively broken and, in the final moments of the film, Warren ditches Vickie and goes back to his carefree, orderly, regulated life, represented by the straightness of the railroad tracks and the barren, uncomplicated openness of the landscape his engine traverses on a daily basis as he daydreams about inviting his sweetheart Ellen to the Railroad Employees’ Association ‘Annual Dance and Frolic’.

A traditional happy ending, then? Has order been restored and the potential for chaos that occurs when one unwisely succumbs to erotic lust in the 1950s been put firmly back in its box and overcome once and for all? Actually no: the end of Human Desire contains one of the most disturbing conclusions to any film that you will ever encounter from any period. For it leaves us with its lead female character -- spoiler! -- brutally strangled to death (a favourite Fritz Lang scenario) with no consequences for the perpetrator and, even more shockingly, no sense that the hypocritical male lead – the person we’re all meant to be rooting for – knows or would actually even care very deeply even if he did, having freed himself from a tangled moral web of vice, blackmail and abuse in order to skip merrily back to his mainstream life where ignorance is, quite literally, bliss.

Vickie Buckley is a compelling, tragic figure who has lived a life beset by abuse and the constant need to work around the unpredictable vicissitudes of male privilege. She’s introduced to us as her temperamental husband, Carl, returns home, having just been fired from his job as assistant railyard manager after getting into an argument with his superior over an unloaded shipment. Carl, played by actor Broderick Crawford, who in real life was also known for his problems with alcohol, is considerably older than his wife, and she is at first positioned for us – reclining on the bed in the couple’s cramped house on the edge of the noisy railyard – as a louche gold-digger, twisting a hapless old fool around her little finger for her own advancement. However, the entire force of the narrative lies in its various quiet attempts to undermine this clichéd assumption. Carl, we soon come to realise, is a monster: ruled by violent fits of temper, his drunkenness and overpowering jealousy. He pleads and cajoles Vickie into meeting up with one of the railroad’s major business clients because he knows that this man, John Owens (Grandon Rhodes), once had a thing for her and that his clout with the railroad company might allow her to persuade Owens to get him his job back. We can see not only that Vickie is reluctant to go along with the idea (presumably being quite aware of her husband’s jealous tendencies), but that she is frozen with hostility at the very thought of what the plan will entail; only very late into the film do we discover that Vickie’s mother had once worked for Owens as a housekeeper when Vickie was sixteen, and that at around this time he must have forced himself upon her. Carl is perfectly willing to use this ‘relationship’ for his own ends, but when the plan actually works and Vickie does what she has to do to help her husband get back his job, he instantly becomes violently enraged by the thought of her with another man and viciously assaults her. 

Gloria Grahame’s performance in this scene is one of the elements that enable the film to suggest depths of character that go beyond the mere written word of the script. Her reaction to Carl’s violence is clearly that of someone who has been violently beaten, subjugated and hurt many times; a brittle, jagged fear is contained in her involuntary cries and in the way in which she cowers and shrinks from the anticipation of her lumbering husband’s cruel blows. When, at the end of the film, she appears to be revelling in the confirmation of her husband’s worst suspicions, not only admitting her adultery with Owens but emphasising how she also unsuccessfully tried to get him to have a relationship with her so that she could leave Carl, this taunting seems a deliberate act of suicide by someone who is fully aware of her husband’s murderous temper, knows what his reaction is likely to be, yet is on a downward spiral having just been rejected by Warren. It is also a completely rational attempt by someone trapped in a dangerous situation in a small town with a violent, unpredictable bully, to get herself out of dodge by the only means available to her. All of Vickie’s actions, far from being the schemes of an emotionless manipulator, seem more like the desperate actions of an abuse survivor who is trapped in the tightening grip of a nightmarish vice propelling her towards increasingly life-threatening predicaments: first of all she is forced to meet with another much older man for her husband’s selfish benefit, and then take part in his murder – for which she is blackmailed as a means of allowing her husband to continue to exert his violent control over her.

Given her precarious position, it would almost be understandable if Vickie had been attempting to manipulate Warren in precisely the manner she is later accused of by him when he learns the truth about everything. The two meet for the first time after Owens is murdered by Carl in the carriage of the train on which Warren is also a passenger, travelling home after completing relief work for a colleague. Carl sends Vickie out to distract Warren in the corridor by flirting with him and tempting him into the club car so that Carl might slip out of the murder carriage unseen. In fact, Vickie doesn’t really have to do much flirting since Warren is all over her from the minute he first claps eyes on her. All she is guilty of is not mentioning she’s married and that her husband is hiding in one of the adjoining carriages having just cold-bloodedly murdered a man. Of course, given her husband’s cold, naked brutality and deranged self-justification for his actions, who could really blame her for not mentioning that? Warren, who is clearly smitten despite almost immediately learning Vickie’s true identity, still covers for her later at the inquest where it is established that Owen was murdered. No one asks him to do this. Indeed, Vickie clearly looks like she’s half expecting Warren to come clean. The fact that he doesn’t is entirely on him, and immediately buts Vickie in a similarly potentially compromised position with regard to Warren as the one she is already in with her husband -- who is using the threat of releasing a letter he forced Vickie to write to Owens to set up their meeting, in order to implicate her in the crime. Warren thereafter knowingly enters into an affair with a married woman while her husband goes out and gets drunk every night, eventually losing for the second time the job Vickie had only just succeeded in getting back for him. He encourages her to leave Carl after she shows him the deep bruises and finger marks on her neck and shoulders – further proof of the life of abuse she has been silently enduring – but, of course, she can’t: not so long as her husband still has the incriminating letter in his possession. After many clandestine meetings at Carl’s tiny cluttered house (dominated by the oppressive clatter of passing trains which Vickie claims she now finds preferable to the quiet when she’s alone) or at night -- in abandoned work sheds at the railyard where Carl is no longer welcome -- Vickie comes clean about her forced involvement in the murder perpetrated by her husband, and suggests that the only way out for them both is for Warren to kill Carl.

Warren actually gets as far as stalking Carl through the deserted railyard at night and across the tracks of the railway line with a spanner in his hand, but this suggestion of murder, in reality, marks the moment at which the film appears to not only revoke its sympathies for Vickie but to recast her in more sinister terms than up to now we had been inclined to think of her. She has made the mistake of assuming that Warren’s experiences in the war would have made him more amenable to such a drastic proposal and tries to impugn his masculinity when he recoils in disgust at the idea of murder. Given her past history and experiences with men thus far, it seems understandable how she might've come to such a misconceived conclusion. Shouldn't her attitude be seen as more an indicator of psychological damage than outright calculating perfidy? If you go back and watch the film with this in mind, there’s next to no evidence of the calculating femme fatale the screenplay now reimagines her as for the benefit of the angry expository monologue Warren delivers before ditching her for good. In fact, far from deliberately drawing him into her net and only then revealing the full situation when she’s quite sure Warren will be implicated, it is he who first pursues her in order to start the affair. Then, sensing she is holding things back from him, he demands to be told the whole truth. Only after this demand does she eventually cave in and tell him what he apparently wants to know, at which point he promptly blames her for the situation that knowing this truth now places him in, and accuses her of planning the entire scenario! It is exactly the same inconstancy and self-absorbed accusatory male pride as Carl exhibited to start this whole saga off in the first place, and it means that, once again, Vickie finds herself abandoned to her fate, this time by someone it appears she almost certainly really did love, despite her stupid miscalculation.  The cynical cleverness at work in Fritz Lang’s film lies in its apparent endorsement of the male hero’s hypocritical self-regard, at least on the surface, while forcing us to confront the results of his indifference and complacency: the film ends (spoiler again!) with that hideous strangulation scene – Carl slowly squeezing the life out of Vickie in the carriage of a train that’s being driven all the while by the now happily oblivious Jeff Warren, whom we cut to immediately afterwards dreamily thinking of inviting Ellen to the works dance, the film ending at this point as though his finally freeing himself of the ‘fallen woman’ who led him so astray (and who now lies lifeless a mere few meters away) somehow constitutes the uplifting happy ending Daniele Amfitheatrof’s rousing score  seems to indicate as it swells on the soundtrack!

It’s quite possible that in attempting to mould the screenplay to fit the requirements of its producers and to accommodate the personas of its lead male performers Lang and Hayes were entirely oblivious to the way in which the film they finished up making could also be read as an indictment of the smug complacency of small-town life and of male privilege in general, portraying it as an actively dangerous threat to women who don’t fit the approved template for feminine behaviour or who fail in their efforts to conform to that template; it’s possible that they really did just see their characters as flawed, watered down versions of those originally created for the Renoir film. And it might be that Gloria Grahame brings more to the role of Vickie Buckley than was actually on the written page, and so injects a whole extra level of meaning into the film that has just been hidden within it all these years, lying dormant and waiting to be discovered when the times were more amenable to the disturbing message that that meaning now suggests. Taking the film noir out of the streets of the big city and into the quiet backwaters of a semi-industrialised small town only throws a spotlight more intently on its characters and emphasises the ethical quagmire they inhabit. Burnett Guffey’s cinematography turns the rather bleak and dusty barren documentary landscape of loading bays and engineering sheds we see by day into a shadowy sink-well of sin by night – a realist cataloguing of everyday mundanity that provides a dark venue for its lost inhabitants to lose themselves either in drink or in sex when the light drains away from the picture at the end of the working day. Robert Peterson and William Kiernan’s art direction and set decoration fully service the contradictory Langian tendency to suggest secrecy and criminality simply by looking still more intently than usual at the mundane trivialities of domestic life: the consumerist clutter of bird cages and ornaments and showroom furniture that fills up the Buckley home, but provides only a kitsch simulacrum of the suburban stability and normality that is otherwise completely absent from their broken relationship. Today, Human Desire feels more apposite than ever. Lang’s fatalistic nihilism captures something bleak and eternal about inequality between the sexes, that's built into the grain and running through the texture, here, of everyday lived experience.

Eureka Entertainment and Masters of Cinema present Human Desire in the UK for the first time on Blu-ray. The HD transfer is solid and the dual-disc presentation also features detailed background on the feature in a lengthy video presentation by film historian Tony Rayns. The package also includes a 40-page booklet with new writing on the film by Travis Crawford, critic and author Richard Combs, and writer Adam Batty, alongside rare archival imagery.