William Fox had seen Faust, Nosferatu, and The Last Laugh, and on the basis of these German masterworks, he brought their creator, F.W. Murnau, to Hollywood. What he got was a truly distinct cinematic vision, which was what he had in mind: something to set a few Fox features apart from the other studios’ output. What he probably didn’t expect was just how much of that “artsy” European touch he was going to get with Murnau on contract. Were American audiences going to go for this type of movie, with its symbolism, melodious structure, and overtly self-conscious style? At any rate, Murnau’s first picture at Fox was one to remember. Sunrise, from 1927, is one of the greatest of all films. It is a touching, beautiful, and artistically accomplished movie, one of the best ever made, and unlike anything to come out of the studio system. And now, available on a new Blu-ray/DVD combo, the film looks great and can be viewed alongside bonus features including a commentary, outtakes, and restoration notes.
Born Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe in 1888, Murnau, “the greatest film director the Germans have ever known,” according to Lotte Eisner, changed his last name to the town near where he met the Blue Rider group, an assemblage of avant-garde artists. Following World War I, and with a theatrical background that included work with the legendary Max Reinhardt, Murnau set his sights on the movies. Expressionistic visuals and fantastical stories of magic, mystery, and the macabre haunted German screens during the late 1910s and into the ’20s, and Murnau was in on this early with films like The Blue Boy, The Head of Janus, or The Two-Faced Man – a classic example of the doppelganger (a common thematic device of the period) – and The Haunted Castle. Then came an astonishing string of films, all bearing the director’s noteworthy knack for cinematic flair. Murnau’s visual tricks and rich mise-en-scene engrossed the spectator with scene after scene of filmic inventiveness. Following the influential Nosferatu in 1922, other stellar films of awe-inspiring visual ingenuity and imagination surged forth. There was Phantom, also in 1922, and The Last Laugh in 1924 – one of his most remarkable achievements — and Tartuffe (1925) and Faust (1927), the latter considered the pinnacle of German silent production at Ufa studios. In these, there is a full range of technical virtuosity, from special effects to elaborate camera maneuvers to massive sets.
Frustrated at Ufa, Murnau was lured to Hollywood where he went to work at Fox, directing three films: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, 4 Devils (1928), and City Girl (1930). Murnau’s artistic ambitions had to be held in check with these latter titles, but with Sunrise, he was able to pull out all the stops.
The story is simple, as are its characterizations. Sunrise is largely dependent on a sense of the film being relevant to anyone, applicable the world over. An early intertitle indicates as such: “This song … is of no place and every place. You might hear it anywhere, at any time.” The song is “sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet.” In other words, not unlike King Vidor’s The Crowd a year later, this story and these people were designed to have a sense of universal commonality.
Anonymity informs the three primary characters. The Man (George O’Brien) is tempted by the devious Woman from the City (Margaret Livingston) to not just leave but kill his wife (Janet Gaynor). Life is better in the (also anonymous) city, declares Livingston’s character: it’s exciting, fun, and not nearly as drab as The Man’s current rural existence (the country town is also never identified). Indeed, The Man and The Wife have landed on hard times. Their farm is falling apart, their animals have been sold, and they have little money. The set design bares this out; stark, unadorned interiors give the impression of poverty and a dire lack of means.
Gaynor’s character is plain and unglamorous (much has been made of her poor wig, fitting more like a shower cap, which holds back her flowing head of hair). By contrast, The Woman from the City, first scantily clad, then shown wearing all black, is a classic temptress in her appearance and demeanor. The Man is weak-willed and impressionable as The Woman from the City makes a strong case; an early special-effects sequence highlights the city’s razzle-dazzle. But could he actually kill his wife? The Woman from the City suggests drowning. The Man’s conflict and inner turmoil weigh him down (literally, as Murnau apparently had O’Brien wear weights in his shoes to give him a lumbering, menacing gait). It’s no spoiler to say that he doesn’t end up murdering his wife, as a majority of the picture concerns their path to marital recovery. An ironic twist brings the couple to the very city of enticement, where visual signifiers of urban stimulation and terror bombard them: lights, movement, traffic, people. This stylized yet critical look at an urban milieu was clearly a carry-over from Murnau’s homeland, German cinema during the 1920s doing much to delve into the construction and composition of increasingly modern city life.
This wasn’t the only remnant of Murnau’s former filmmaking territory. Berliner Rochus Gliese did the extraordinary art direction and Carl Mayer (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Last Laugh, Tartuffe, and many others) wrote the scenario, which is available to view here, along with Murnau’s notes. And while cinematographers Charles Rosher and Karl Struss were London- and New York-born, respectively, there’s more than a little expressionistic influence in Sunrise; their work on the film would win an Oscar at the Academy’s first ceremony in 1929. An impressively mobile camera (something Murnau was no stranger to utilizing) flows and drifts with airy smoothness; elaborate crane and tracking shots convey a surprising range of mobility. One night sequence in a fog-shrouded field has the camera first following O’Brien from behind. It then moves to his side, then to his front as he continues walking. He exits the frame to the left as the camera pushes forward, stops at The Woman from the City, holds, and he enters screen left. This type of cinematic choreography is stunning. Similarly, the optical effects in Sunrise, all done in-camera, coupled with the set-design, blend lyrical naturalism with a heightened filmic expressiveness. Forced perspective, multiple exposures, and the use of miniatures: Sunrise is a virtual textbook of visual manipulation. Cinematographer John Bailey provides the audio commentary to the disc, and he speaks informatively about the technical side of the film, discussing how shots were, or might have been, achieved.
Two cameras were used in making Sunrise, and subsequently, two versions of the film exist. The American release was an early Fox feature boasting new sound technology, the Fox Movietone sound-on-film system, so it needed room for a soundtrack. The export release was silent. The two extant versions not only contained occasionally different compositions and editing choices (the European version is somewhat shorter), they were released with different aspect ratios. For those interested in noting the differences, each version is available on this Blu-ray/DVD release. In both cases, there was still no dialogue, just a recorded score and a few sound effects in the domestic print. Murnau, however, was never a fan of intertitles (his The Last Laugh was famous for not having a single one, save for an insert of a note the main character reads). By the end of Sunrise, titles are sparse and essentially irrelevant, so much simply — though by no means effortlessly — expressed via the staging, the lighting, the camera, and the performances; Gaynor would win the first ever best actress Oscar, for this film as well as two Frank Borzage features from the same year, 7th Heaven and Street Angel.
Sunrise itself would win one of two best picture Academy Awards given at that premiere ceremony — for “Unique Artistic Contribution,” a category never again acknowledged. This is just as well. With Sunrise as the first recipient, it would have been all downhill from there anyway.
The three titles rounding out The Criterion Collection set showcasing six films preserved and newly remastered through Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project are markedly different, not only from each other, but from the three features covered last week in this column. Dry Summer, Trances, and The Housemaid maintain a strong sense of cultural identification and examination, but opposed to the previous three films, which exist somewhere between “docu-fiction” and a slightly indefinite art house categorization, these movies fall more in line with standard generic conventions. That is not to say, however, that they are in any way conventional. Within the recognizable forms of, roughly, the melodrama, the musical documentary, and the thriller, these titles peer into their respective cultures via a comparably subtle observation that is in some ways cloaked by a familiar surface style and structure.
Take Dry Summer to start. This Turkish film from 1964 initially pits farming brothers Osman (Erol Taş) and Hasan (Ulvi Doğan, who personally financed the film) against their neighbors, decent farmers themselves, but ones who are reliant on the brothers’ water. Water is scarce and immensely valuable in this rural community, so Osman decides to construct a dam cutting off the flow down to the neighboring fields. In the meantime, Hasan marries Bahar (Hülya Koçyiğit), a beautiful girl from the village who quickly arouses the attention of Osman. While things are relatively stable for a time, Hasan, the more decent of the brothers, sees only trouble arising from the provocative dam. Sure enough, fights ensue between the siblings and the neighbors and during one such melee, Osman shoots and kills a man. Reasoning that Hasan is younger and would serve less time, he convinces his brother to take the blame, which he does. With Hasan locked up, tensions rise between the aggressive Osman and the neighbors, and even more destructively, Osman’s unwanted advances toward Bahar become increasingly frequent and forceful. Osman goes on to cut off communication with his jailed brother, who is now in the dark about his wife and the farming dispute. Director Metin Erksan, with a constantly darting camera and kinetic editing, keeps the film continuously alive with motion and fraught with tension. The selfish, barbarous Osman seems capable of anything — violence against his neighbors, or sexual deviance toward his sister-in-law.
As a bonus feature, filmmaker Fatih Akin helpfully explains the movie’s societal implications; for example, the combative issue of the privatization of property. Erksan, also in a new interview on the disc, sums up his film as “a movie about water ownership.” Dry Summer was also, as Bilge Ebiri points out in the accompanying essay, the second in what became an “unofficial trilogy” for Erksan: the earlier Revenge of the Snakes focused on land as property and, later, The Well was about “the treatment of women as property.” Albeit emotionally heightened, in this middle feature, we do get a rather realistic portrayal of a Turkish farming lifestyle, where the demanding toil involved is notable, the importance of maintaining good land quite evident, but the cultural examination becomes partly concealed by the personal drama between the three characters. With this passionate and volatile love triangle as the main narrative focus, the depiction of the farmers, the splendor of the environment, and the representation of gender and familial roles are rather subdued by comparison. Nevertheless, Dry Summer, winner of the Golden Bear for best film at the 1964 Berlin International Film Festival, fits in nicely with the aims of the World Cinema Project. This is a fascinating film, one rife with localized complexities and dilemmas, but with individual concerns that span any cultural divide. The cinematic skill with which this is all executed also gives the film a remarkable visual appeal.
The first film restored by the World Cinema Foundation (personally suggested by Scorsese) was Trances, the next inclusion in this set. Ahmed El Maânouni’s documentary about acoustic Moroccan band Nass El Ghiwane, the “singing soul of their country,” according to Scorsese, similarly takes a roundabout approach to its sociocultural exploration and presentation. Through music, a key feature of nearly every culture’s identity, this film shows the creative process of this hugely popular group, and presents their motivations, which are largely derived from regional traditions and ideology. In her essay on the film, Sally Shafto provides illuminating information about the political and national context for the lyrical content. Simultaneously poets, troubadours, and storytellers, these musicians connect with the Moroccan people through performances charged with social, economic, political, and religious significance. The music is the message, and it’s the message that informs the music.
Trances is an apt title for this documentary. As per what is a common Moroccan musical form, the songs here are hypnotic in their repetitive rhythms. Concert footage shows people in the throngs of zealous revelry as the band plays. And while the film does hone in on the cultural meanings and influences of the compositions, Trances is as much about a pop band as it is about their heritage. It’s lighthearted at times, the four members sitting around smoking, surrounded by speakers and recording equipment, ruminating about their chosen art form. There’s goofiness as they joke and touch on issues still common in today’s Western music business. (On piracy, one performer remarks, “I’m just an artist. Do I have to be a lawyer as well?”) Despite the seriousness of their lyrics, make no mistake, these guys are rock stars. Scorsese points to the “electricity” and “power” of their concerts, where crowds get unruly and have to be contained. It’s not quite the Stones at Altamont, but the popularity of Nass El Ghiwane and what their music does to their audience is revealing. Their mass appeal is an interesting comparison to America’s 1981 music scene, for instance. One wonders to what extent musical groups are admired for the cultural substance of their songs in this country, then or now. The sole pure documentary in this set, Trances is an intriguing look at the music that defines and affects a people and what it takes to create such poignant art.
(Interesting for Scorsese fans, in discussing his love for the film, he acknowledges Nass El Ghiwane’s influence on the soundtrack design for The Last Temptation of Christ.)
Returning to narrative cinema, The Housemaid is a stunningly sensational film; sensational as in quality and sheer audacity. Scorsese declares the film “unlike anything else I’ve ever seen in movies, and a world away from the rest of Korean cinema.” Among its features, the “perversity and everyday madness,” he says, is “unnerving.” Quite true. This South Korean feature directed by Kim Ki-young is a claustrophobic thriller that, particularly in the latter sections, resembles a Polanski-like tale of paranoia, anxiety, and manipulation. Bong Joon-ho, who discusses the film on the disc, and knows a thing or two about unnerving films, compares the picture to those by Imamura or Bunuel. Marked by high-contrast lighting and charged with an occasionally shocking sense of terrifying possibility, this 1960 film is remarkable. A music teacher (Kim Jin-kyu) and his wife (Ju Jeung-nyeo) decide that with work and two children to take care of, they cannot keep up with maintaining their home. A piano student recommends a housemaid (Lee Eun-shim). It doesn’t take long before this maid proves to be more than this stuffy and complacent family can handle. The father, who is something of a ladies’ man with his students, falls victims to her mysterious ways and everyone in the home is at risk of succumbing to the maid’s occasionally inexplicable evil wiles. Particularly toward the father (one of several helplessly weak males in Kim Ki-young’s work, according to Bong), she is “the most sexually driven female character in the history of Korean cinema.”
Against this taut set-up, where the unsound and dubious motivations of nearly every character are potentially explosive, The Housemaid keenly comments on the make-up of a seemingly secure middle-class house. Morality is questioned and normative domestic and social behavior is subverted as the characters struggle with this volatile, yet strangely alluring, intruder. She essentially holds them, as well as their way of life, hostage, exposing their dormant brutality, dishonesty, and malevolence. Kim obviously found further areas to explore within this basic framework; Kyung Hyun Kim points out in his supplementary essay that the director would remake the picture twice, with Fire Woman in 1971 and Fire Woman ’82 from 1982.
Like all six films in this set, the audio/visual quality for The Housemaid is exceptional. There are times, however, when the images falter more than in the other five, with evident scratches, pixelization, and skips. Strangely enough, it also seems like this is an intentional stylistic device. While the original source print may have been that poor to begin with (two reels were originally thought to be lost), at times, it comes across like the film simply can’t contain the manic behavior of the characters and their extremely unpredictable actions.
This Criterion set, hopefully the first in a continuing series of films attained in conjunction with the World Cinema Project, in some ways takes on more significance than an ordinary home video collection. The films might not be as “great” as the customary classics Criterion and other companies regularly release, but their fairly unique status and their relative scarcity place them as emblematic of why motion pictures need to be saved and treasured. Aside from the artistic merits these films possess – and with each there are many – they are cultural artifacts and historical markers that deserve attention. Save for the efforts of preservationist organizations throughout the world, these are works that might have disappeared into extinction. But now, thankfully, they are available for all to see, and they are all well worth a look.
REVIEW from SOUND ON SIGHT