A Month of Roger Ebert’s Great Movies, part one

As a tribute to the late Roger Ebert, some members of the Letterboxd community are spending May visiting films in his Great Movies series. Since this dovetails with my personal project of filling shameful voids in my film education, I decided to commit myself, once more, to a regimented schedule for which I don’t really have time, but hey, you know. Movies.

With the certain knowledge that I have to work the occasional evening, I started early, trying to get a buffer going.

Faust (1926)

Faust-PosterLike any good horror nerd, I was familiar with F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu – A Symphony of Horror, but remained sadly ignorant of his other works. After the phenomenal success of The Last Laugh, Murnau was given carte blanche for his next project, and the result was Faust, at the time the most expensive movie ever produced in Germany… until Metropolis, which we’ll get to later.

Based on various tales in German folklore, but most especially on Goethe’s play, Faust employs a setup well-known to readers of the Book of Job: Satan makes a bet with an archangel that he can corrupt Faust, a decent and devout man of learning. The Devil, of course, is a big cheater and sets loose the Black Death in Faust’s village. When he cannot cure the disease, Faust in desperation tries a ritual in one of his ancient books, summoning the Devil in the form of Mephisto.

3242077879-1Mephisto is an excellent marketer, offering Faust first a free trial day of unlimited power, then finagling to have the day end when the aged Faust, newly imbued with youth, is about to bed The Most Beautiful Woman in the World. Needless to say, Hell has a new customer. Eventually Faust returns to his home town, and falls in love with the shy maiden Gretchen. Of course, Mephisto put his powers to use, and being a demon, manages to frame Faust for murder and totally destroy Gretchen’s life. The demon has forgotten about the power of love, however, which prevails no matter how much misfortune he piles upon it.

The imagery in the first act of Faust is stunning, puppets representing War, Pestilence and Famine on demon horses riding in the sky, Satan nestling  Faust’s village in enormous bat wings.  Moreover, the acting is surprisingly subtle for a silent movie. I had initially thought young and old Faust were played by two different actors, but no, that is Gösta Ekman in both roles. Emil Jannings already had a stellar career in movies when he starred in The Last Laugh, and as Satan and Mephisto, he is not only terrific, he is also obviously having the time of his life. Though Murnau wanted Lillian Gish for the role of Gretchen, he eventually cast a stand-in named Camilla Horn, launching a career that would last into the 90s.

Jannings & Murnau

Jannings & Murnau

This is, in short, a marvelous movie, leaving Nosferatu in the dust. We’ll leave this for a moment, but we’ll find it a bit of a touchstone.

Here, have the first four minutes:

Man With A Movie Camera (1929)

man_with_movie_camera_poster_3Nothing less than the great-grandfather of Koyaanisqatsi. Soviet director Dziga Vertov and his brother attempt to break down the linearity of boring old story-centered cinema with this document of  “a day in the life of a city”. Shot over three years in (actually) three cities – Moscow, Odessa and Kiev – the movie uses a dizzying variety of techniques, dutch angles, double exposures, time-lapse, even some stop-motion animation, and some very innovative editing to sweep the viewer away and shake him up, with no stories or context to distract from the images. All in 63 minutes.

I watched the Kino International version on Netflix Instant, which employs a soundtrack composed by Michael Nyman in 2002. The original score was apparently as experimental as the movie itself, featuring voices, orchestra instruments, and an electric buzzer or two, rather reminding me of some John Cage pieces. Nyman’s score is dynamic and forceful, feeling a little Glassian at moments, cementing Man With A Movie Camera‘s relationship to the Godfrey Reggio’s later Qatsi movies.

Here, I found an excerpt with the Nyman score:

Triumph of the Will (1935)

triumph-of-the-will-movie-poster-1934-1020198741Back to the Germans. This is the fairly infamous documentary of the 1934 Congress of the Nazi Party held in Nuremburg. It is rightfully held up as one of the first and one of the best propaganda films ever made. It is also one of the best documentaries.

Given total support by the Party, director Leni Riefenstahl controlled a crew of almost 200 people, 40 of which were cameramen. Trenches were dug, tracks were laid, special cranes were constructed, all so Leni could get the shots she needed. Some speeches were re-shot later, but overall, it is a testament to her abilities that there are huge, amazing crowd scenes – the congress was attended by 700,000 people – and yet, in only one instance, could I see one of those many cameras.

Triumph is only six minutes shy of two hours, and it can, fact, eventually get boring – damn, but fascists love their parades – but the final rally is amazing. The best part, for me, is seeing the uncut footage of Hitler’s closing speech. We’ve seen this footage excerpted so many times in various programs, that it’s quite refreshing to see it intact, and to witness those little moments when Hitler steps back from the podium to let the crowd roar, and you see Hitler – not the icon, not the image, but the man – you see Hitler, eyes toward his speech, silently contemplating, listening to the crowd, and thinking to himself, “Yes, that was quite good, wasn’t it?”

Reifenstahl’s techniques are still being used almost a century later; this movie is certainly worth a look, for many reasons. Like Man With A Movie Camera, its major value, outside their many innovations, is as a time capsule, a slice of a particular time and place, preserved for all time.

Reifenstahl also actively lobbied for the role of Gretchen in Faust. Who knows what might have happened had she gotten it?

Here’s that final speech, with some overblown music added:

Metropolis (1927)

metropolis-poster…and back to the silents. You’re allowed a bit of cheating in the Ebert Challenge (no more than 10 re-watches), but I’m not even sure this qualifies – it has been years since I’ve seen Metropolis, but this was certainly the first time I’d seen  the restored version.

In a sentence I am really growing weary of typing, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis was a dismal flop on first release, and it’s running time was scissored down over and over again. Restoration had variable success until the beginning of the 21st century, when a chance mention led to the discovery of a 16mm print of the original in Argentina. It had apparently been bought by a South American company for distribution at its first viewing, and somewhere in the 20th century it had been transferred to 16mm when the nitrate 35mm print became too unstable. But it had 25 minutes of the missing 30 in somewhat salvageable condition.

Kino’s edition looks astoundingly good; the insertion of the recovered footage perforce must stick out like an over-exposed, streaky sore thumb, but even that is helpful in gauging what exactly has been returned, allowing the viewer to piece together the reasoning behind the edits. An entire subplot involving “The Thin Man”, a spy sent after young Federson by his father, as the young man becomes increasingly infatuated with the under-city of the Workers, and their Messiah, Maria.

metropolis05Still missing is the scene in mad scientist Rotwang’s house, where the elder Federson struggles with his old rival and frees Maria from his clutches; this is now explained in an intertitle card. I seem to recall in my first viewing only seeing Maria running from the house, with no explanation of how she escaped.

My major realization in seeing this, so hard upon the heels of Faust, is how much more I appreciated Murnau over Lang, and I had long treasured Lang. But Murnau’s work is full of subtlety and human moments. Lang is far more interested in melodrama and grand, sweeping motions. As my friend Mark Konecny pointed out, for better or worse, Lang was the future of cinema, and kept making movies until 1960. Most of them were pretty darned good. Murnau worked more slowly, and only made three sound movies before his untimely death in a traffic accident in 1931.

So once again I get to end one of these with a “what if-?” or an “if only-” and hustle myself back to my viewing chair. It’s high time I watched some American fare.

1 Comment

  1. Managed to catch the restored Metropolis when it came round in theaters (which was the first time I saw it), and saw Man with a Movie Camera with the Alloy Orchestra performing their score at the Maryland Film Festival a few years ago. Sometimes, its good living within an hour of two major cities.

    And unlike every third time I read one of you reviews, I won’t have to add a movie (this time Faust) to my Netflix queue. ‘Cause it’s already there, been there…for…two…years.


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