"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

December 6, 2016

"The Other Side" by Alfred Kubin (Book Review)

In my overview of the Austrian novel, I forgot to include one very interesting book, The Other Side by Alfred Kubin, a great example of European fantastic fiction.

One day, the anonymous narrator of the story receives a surprising visitor, who has come to give him the following message: "Claus Patera, absolute master of the Dream Kingdom, has sent me as his agent, to invite you to move to his country." As Claus Patera was an old school friend of the narrator, he accepts the invitation and travels with his wife to Pearl, the capital of the Dream Kingdom, which is situated somewhere deep in central Asia. But the dream is soon the become a nightmare... this is not a Shangri-la story.

When this decadent, expressionist novel, with the German title Die andere Seite, appeared, it was greeted enthusiastically by Expressionist and Surrealistic artists, not least of all by Kafka himself.

The author Alfred Kubin (1877-1959) was a Symbolist and Expressionist graphic artist, who wrote this fantastic novel set in an oppressive imaginary land - his only literary work - in 1908. Born in Litoměřice, in the Bohemian part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Kubin studied painting in Munich, where he became interested in the prints of Max Klinger. In 1911, he joined the Expressionist Blaue Reiter group. He is known for his dark, spectral fantasies, often grouped into thematic series of drawings; he also illustrated books by Poe, Hoffman and Dostoevsky - illustrations he originally made for The Golem by Gustav Meyrink were in fact used for The Other Side. Kubin was also a life-long friend of Paul Klee.

[Dolmen by Alfred Kubin, c. 1902]

Kubin started his career just when Freud published “The Interpretation of Dreams,” and it is clear he made a careful study of dreams himself. His black-and-white drawings have been called "a guide into the shadowy corners of the unconscious." The same is true for The Other Side, where the Dream Kingdom becomes the setting for a hallucinatory vision of a society founded on instinct over reason. The novel culminates in a dizzyingly surrealistic apocalypse. What started as a utopia, soon becomes a dystopia and then a terrible cataclysm - the narrator is the only one who escapes to tell the tale.

Kubin wrote this novel in only twelve weeks, working day and night, when he suffered from a blockage to draw. Finishing the novel left him with new confidence as an artist.

There is little plot in the novel, although it starts out as an adventure story; the main element is the description of the dream city Pearl and its collapse.

The city of Pearl is protected by a great surrounding wall. The whole town consists of old houses, transported here from all over the world, and filled with antique furniture. The inhabitants also dress in the clothes of a previous generation. All have been summoned here by Patera because of some psychological quirk, such as hysteria, or a mania for gambling, or a physical peculiarity such as a hunchback or a huge nose.

There is no sun in this grey city, but only a filtered twilight. The narrator finds employment as illustrator to a newspaper, but fails to contact his school friend Patera, who hides behind an impenetrable bureaucracy, as the ruler in Kafka's The Castle. His rule is challenged by a newcomer, an energetic American millionaire, Hercules Bell, and finally the struggle between these two factions will take down the city in blood and nightmare. The narrator - whose wife has died miserably - barely escapes with his life.

How should we read The Other Side? There are various possibilities:

- As a satire on the Austro-Hungarian state: for example, the description of the city as wholly consisting of antiquarian buildings and objects could be seen as a critique of a country that is severely behind the times. Interestingly, the ruler, Claus Patera, rules his country via the dreams of the people, and via hypnotism. The name Patera = Pater = Father suggests authoritarianism and also Austro-Hungary was governed by an emperor who was a father-figure and who was getting more and more antiquarian with his advancing high age. Kubin's description of the absurd bureaucracy is reminiscent of Kafka's in The Trial and The Castle, two novels also inspired by nightmarish elements in the Habsburg state.

- As a satire on reactionary, idealist utopianism evident in German thought in the early 20th c. Everybody in the dream-realm is under a sort of irrational spell, but it is not easy to see what that spell exactly is.

- The novel also contains a satire on American capitalism, in the figure of the above-mentioned Hercules Bell, who challenges Patera with industrialization and modernization, but who also brings insecurity, deracination and destruction.

[Alfred Kubin in 1904]

Although written in a matter-of-fact style, the novel is filled with an atmosphere of gloom, doom and threat. Kubin aptly uses dream symbols and dream situations, such as the scene of a blind mare galloping along a tunnel in the dark, threatening the narrator. The Other Side is a wild ride, filled with memorable visions.

The culmination of the novel is a great literary feat, an apocalypse with plagues of insects, mountains of corpses and orgies in the street. The houses literally decay and fall apart, the city is overrun by all sorts of wildlife, dissolving into the primal and decadent. In the end Patera and Bell merge into a terrible double monster, that then gradually dissolves. Kubin was not for nothing in the first place a painter and we see here echoes of such art works as Pieter Brueghel's The Triumph of Death. It all ends with a downpour of filth, entrails, body parts and carcasses of beasts and men.


December 1, 2016

Best European Novels (1): Austria

For a start, we should clearly delineate the Austrian novel, on the one hand because most Austrian literature has been written in German so that it is often considered as "(pan-)German literature" (in the same way that Irish literature is often amalgamated with English literature), and on the other hand because Austria today only is the rump state of what until the end of WWI used to be a large multicultural empire that encompassed many different nationalities, leading to such discussions as whether Kafka is a Czech or Austrian writer. So here we go with our definition: the "Austrian novel" refers to German novels written in the Austrian Empire (created in 1804 out of the realms of the Habsburgs), its successor (since 1867) the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the present-day federal Republic of Austria, with its various predecessors (since 1919).


In contrast to classical music, the most important art form Vienna knew, the novel flourished relatively late in Austria and there are only few important 19th c. authors. The greatest of them is without a doubt Adalbert Stifter (1805-1868), who was the last representative of Biedermeier culture, but with a twist, for his novels and stories also have a weirdness and uncanniness that undermines small-bourgeois morality. Stifter influenced Thomas Mann and W.G. Sebald and it is time more of his novels are translated into English, besides Rock Crystal introduced below, also such works as Der Nachsommer or Das alte Siegel.

The fin-de-siecle saw a great flowering of culture in Vienna and at this time literature, too, finally came into its own. For starters, from this period we have two important writers who were born in Prague and about whose "nationality" many discussions rage. Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), who traveled all over Europe and died in Switzerland, was in the first place a writer of intensely lyrical verse, but he also wrote one great novel: The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, a semi-autobiographical story written in an Expressionist style.


Franz Kafka (1883-1924) needs no further introduction, except perhaps why I consider him as an Austrian writer: Kafka was born in Prague in a Jewish family at the time that Bohemia was part of the multi-cultural Austro-Hungarian Empire; he spoke and wrote in German. In other words, he was part of the German-speaking, Austro-Hungarian culture in Prague (about 10% of the population), not of the Czech population. Below, I have selected his novella The Metamorphosis as this is a perfectly chiseled work, even finer than his novels.


Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931) has been introduced in several other posts in this blog (his short stories, his novel The Road into the Open) and is again an author who deserves to be much better known in English. In his stories and plays he shows great psycho-sexual insight, applying his colleague-doctor Freud's insights about dreams and the subconscious in his stories. Schnitzler was also one of the first writers to use stream of consciousness techniques, so that he could demonstrate what went on in that subconscious. Below I have selected his novella Dream Story which is a perfectly balanced work, but I also would like to call attention to such stories as Fräulein Else (a stream of consciousness story about a young woman who is sexually blackmailed when her family suddenly falls into poverty) and Doctor Graesler (who is afraid to marry a strong-willed woman although she can help him set up his own sanatorium), as well as the above-mentioned novel, which gives a wonderful panorama of Viennese society in the fin-de-siecle.

To the circle of Schnitzler also belonged the journalist Karl Kraus and playwright Hugo von Hoffmansthal - the last one wrote a famous short story, "The Lord Chandos Letter," in which he voices the fin-de-siecle crisis of language, as a medium no longer suitable to give expression to the human experience.


In interbellum Austria (now the small country of today) literature continues strong and we find several giants, in the first place Robert Musil (1880-1942), the writer of the influential modernist novel The Man without Qualities (unfinished, the third volume was published posthumously). The novel, set just before WWI, is a detached commentary on the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire, an event satirized with heavy irony. Musil is also known for his much earlier Bildungsroman, The Confusions of Young Torless, in which we see a prefiguring of Fascism among orderly pupils who shamelessly abuse a classmate by night.


Another giant is Hermann Broch (1886-1951), whose The Sleepwalkers consists of three linked novels which portray different cases of ''loneliness of the I'' stemming from the collapse of any sustaining system of values (see below). Another great novel is the difficult The Death of Virgil, which in a hallucinatory way reenacts the last 18 hours of the Roman poet Virgil. It ends with the conclusion that poetry is immoral in an age of decline.


While Musil labored in obscurity, Joseph Roth (1894-1939) was that rare combination, both a great and a popular author, who became especially famous after publishing his novel Job. His greatest novel is, without a doubt, The Radetzky March (see below), which reflects the glory and (especially) fall of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy in the fate of the Trotta family. In the 1930s his work became increasingly filled with melancholic nostalgia for the lost imperial state, which had given a true home to many central Europeans, especially Jews. Roth himself became a wanderer, trekking from hotel to hotel, addicted to alcohol. He finally died in Paris after finishing his novella The Legend of the Holy Drinker about the epiphany of an alcoholic vagrant.

Elias Canetti (1905-1994) was born in Bulgaria, but he lived most of his life in Austria and Switzerland (although he finally became a British citizen). His chosen language was German. He wrote only one novel, Auto-da-Fe (see below), written and set in Vienna in 1935, and is further known for a trilogy of autobiographical memoirs of his childhood, and for Crowds and Power, a study of crowd behavior as it manifests itself in human activities ranging from mob violence to religious congregations. Canetti won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1981, "for writings marked by a broad outlook, a wealth of ideas and artistic power."


Vienna-born Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) was one of the most popular European authors of the interbellum. His novels, stories, plays and carefully researched biographies (Zweig in fact wrote more non-fiction than fiction) were translated in countless languages. He is also known for his interesting memoir, The World of Yesterday. His only novel, Beware of Pity, is discussed below. Zweig also wrote opera libretti for Richard Strauss (as did the above-mentioned Hoffmansthal).

The period after the war is colored by Thomas Bernhard (1931-1989), Peter Handke (1945), and Nobel prize winner Elfriede Jelinek (1946), who, besides novelists, are also important playwrights.



Thomas Bernhard is Austria's greatest postwar author, known for his dislike of his own country - he attacked the Austrian state as "Catholic-National-Socialist." His work typically features long monologues or rants about the state of the world and it also deals with the isolation and self-destruction of people striving for an unreachable perfection. Bernhard wrote 13 novels and 3 novellas. Important titles are Gargoyles, The Lime Works, Correction, The Loser and Wood Cutters.


Peter Handke was an enfant terrible and member of the avant-garde group Gruppe 47. He also wrote plays in which the actors do nothing but insult the public. His novels are more traditional. His best work is The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (see below), almost a psychiatric case study about anxiety. Other novels are Short Letter, Long Farewell, The Left-handed Woman and Repetition. Handke has also written many film scripts and is known for his collaboration with the well-known German director Wim Wenders.

Elfriede Jelinek, too, is a controversial author who has been accused of providing "hysterical portraits of Austrian perversity." She is a communist and feminist; female sexuality, sexual abuse, and the battle of the sexes are prominent topics in her work. Her most approachable novel is The Piano Teacher, which was filmed by Michael Haneke (see below); other typical titles are Lust and Greed. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2004 for her "musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that, with extraordinary linguistic zeal, reveal the absurdity of society's clichés and their subjugating power."

The best Austrian novels (and novellas) are (in historical order):

1. Adalbert Stifter, Rock Crystal (1845)
Mythical story about two children from an Alpine village who get lost in the mountain snow, becoming trapped among the rock crystals of a frozen glacier. With majestic descriptions of nature and a beautiful epiphany, when at night the snow clears and they find themselves looking from the heart of the void at a discharge of electric flashes in the sky. [tr. New York Review Books]

2. Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910)
This book, written and set in Paris, consists of 71 fragmentary notes, almost individual prose poems. We are inside the fragmented consciousness of a would-be poet who is trying to create art out of his impressions of a hostile city. Rilke addresses existential themes, such as the quest for individuality, the significance of death, and anxiety and alienation in the face of an increasingly scientific and industrial world. Rilke was also influenced by Nietzsche. [tr. Penguin]

3. Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis (1915)
A perfect absurdist novella about iron "German" discipline (even after he wakes up as an insect, Gregor still worries he will be late for his office) and propriety (the family is ashamed of insect Gregor, as if he had a terrible illness), as well as appalling cruelty, not only from the hands of the father, but also Gregor's "dear sister." [tr. Penguin]

4. Arthur Schnitzler, Dream Story (1925)
A doctor and his wife, seemingly happy in a harmonious marriage, are both tormented by unfulfilled desires and dreams, leading to alienation and a crisis. The doctor, Fridolin, has a nightly adventure which symbolizes a voyage of discovery into his own psyche. In the end, he realizes the danger of the subconscious for his relation with his wife, and strives to overcome it.  [tr. Penguin]

5. Robert Musil, The Man without Qualities (1930-43)
Monumental novel of more than 1,700 pages in three volumes - and even then, unfinished. A "story of ideas," and at the same time a very ironical view of Austrian society just before WWI. Officially, the novel is set in the capital of a fictitious European country named "Kakanien," a name derived from the German abbreviation K und K ("kaiserlich und königlich" or "Imperial and Royal“) for Austria. Musil remarks about Kakanien: "By its constitution it was liberal, but the system of government was clerical. The system of government was clerical, but the general attitude to life was liberal. Before the law all citizens were equal, but not everyone, of course, was a citizen." Introduces many bizarre characters from Viennese life. [tr. Vintage]

6. Hermann Broch, The Sleepwalkers (1931-32)
Hermann Broch's novel, The Sleepwalkers, is one of the most remarkable works of modern times. It follows the transformation of Central Europe from its last fin-de-siècle glory to its post-World War I decline. The first part of this epic trilogy is about a neurotic army officer (set in 1888); the second about a disgruntled bookkeeper and would-be political assassin (set in 1903); and the final part tells the story of an opportunistic war-deserter (set in 1918). Each of the three parts is written in a different style to reflect the different plots: from a gentle parody of Fontane in the first volume through modernistic, essayistic segments in the last part. A prophetic portrait of a world tormented by loss of faith, morals and reason. [tr. Vintage]

7. Josef Roth, Radetzky March (1932)
The rise and fall of three generations of the Trotta family, concentrating on the youngest and last member, Carl Joseph, paralleled by the glory and subsequent disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian empire in which they live and serve - in other words, the passing of the Old Europe into the modern world. See my extensive review. [tr. Overlook Books]

8. Elias Canetti, Auto-de-Fe (1935)
Called Die Blendung in German (“Bedazzlement”), this 550 page thick novel was published in 1935 in Vienna, Canetti’s hometown at the time. It is one of the central novels of the first half of the 20th century, with Ulysses and novels by Kafka, Proust, Musil, and Mann. It is an apt allegory for the conflict between the lonely, reflective mind and reality. Sinologue Kien is only interested in his books and leads a secluded life. The world is lodged in his head, and his head is not interested in the world outside, which he grotesquely and routinely misinterprets. When in a moment of insanity he marries his housekeeper, he is faced with the chaos of “normal” life — with tragic consequences, resulting in a terrible struggle that will be fought with all means available. [tr. Farrar, Straus and Giroux / The Harvill Press]

9. Stefan Zweig, Beware of Pity (1939)
As a fiction author, Stefan Zweig is best known for his melancholy short stories; this is the only novel he published. A young lieutenant stationed before WWI at the edge of the large Austro-Hungarian empire, is invited to the home of a wealthy local landowner. There he makes the painful mistake of asking the crippled daughter for a dance. Gradually, pity and guilt will implicate him in a well-meaning scheme, where he promises to marry her when she is recovered (hoping that this will motivate her to take a certain treatment). But tragedy follows when he denies the engagement in public. [tr. New York Review books]

10. Peter Handke, The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1970)
A modern classic that portrays the self-destruction of a murderer in ways that recall Camus' The Stranger. The mental breakdown of a soccer goalkeeper / construction worker who wanders aimlessly around a sleepy Austrian border town after murdering, almost unthinkingly, a female movie cashier. Handke's fractured language deftly mirrors the disintegrating state of mind of the protagonist. [tr. Farrar, Straus and Giroux]

11. Elfriede Jelinek, The Piano Teacher (1983)
Erika Kohut, a piano teacher in her late thirties who teaches at the Vienna Conservatory and still lives in an apartment with her very controlling mother, finds an outlet for her repressed sexuality in voyeurism and sadomasochism. Then one of her students, a handsome seventeen-year-old, becomes enamored with her and sets out to seduce her. Jelinek's very sarcastic look at the relation between the sexes as a mirror of society finally leads to perversity and violence. Haneke's film, with a wonderful performance by Isabelle Huppert is faithful to the book; only Erika's seducer is constructed in a more friendly way than in the much more sardonic novel. [tr. Grove Press]

12. Thomas Bernhard, Wood Cutters (1984)
The narrator has been invited to an "artistic dinner" for a famous actor and sitting in a wing-backed chair apart from the other guests, sipping champagne, in one long torrential rant he dismantles the hollow pretentiousness and cruelty at the heart of the Austrian bourgeoisie. Bleak, but also comically nihilistic. Possible Bernhard's best performance. Bernhard has been called "the missing link between Kafka, Beckett, Michel Houellebecq and Lars von Trier," and a great practitioner of the literature of alienation and self-contempt. [tr. Vintage]

October 30, 2016

Best Twentieth Century Operas (4): Alexander Zemlinsky, Der Zwerg (1922)

We saw in our previous post that Alexander Zemlinsky (1871-1942) had ordered an opera libretto about "the tragedy of the ugly man" from his colleague Franz Schreker, but that Schreker became so fascinated by the story that in the end wrote his own music for it. Zemlinsky's interest in this this topic stemmed from the fact that he had enjoyed a passionate love affair with his pupil Alma Schindler, which - perhaps because it was never consummated - had been a two-year long emotional roller-coaster. But in 1902 Zemlinsky experienced the most shattering set-back of his life when Alma, who was to have been his Muse, decided against him and in favor of marriage to the famous (and twenty years older) Gustav Mahler, now calling her former lover "a comical figure, a caricature, chinless and short, with bulging eyes." But for many years they would move in the same circles in Vienna and instead of becoming his muse, Alma Mahler would haunt Zemlinsky's music like a bad dream, starting with his death-obsessed symphonic poem Die Seejungfrau (The Mermaid).

[Alexander Zemlinsky]

Next, Zemlinsky's unfulfilled longing resurfaced even stronger in another work, an opera he wrote after a verse drama by Oscar Wilde: Eine florentinische Tragödie (A Florentine Tragedy). Like Schreker's Die Gezeichneten, this opera is set in Renaissance Italy. Completed in 1916, it brings a love triangle on stage between a Florentine cloth merchant, Simone, who upon his return home from a business trip finds his young wife Bianca entertaining the handsome nobleman Guido. Simone suspects he has interrupted an affair, but as he has actually not caught the lovers doing anything wrong (although there is a peculiar atmosphere), he edges on Guido by treating him as a customer for his precious fabrics and ornaments (which he sells him at an exorbitant price), forcing Guido and Bianca all the time to maintain a pretence of propriety. In other words, Simone is a clever, manipulative man with a sadistic streak that reveals itself in the cat-and-mouse game he plays with the lovers. When Simone leaves the room for a moment, Bianca and Guido quickly embrace and Bianca urges her lover to kill her husband. Simone comes back and now a duel with swords begins between the two men. Against expectation, Simone kills Guido and, in another surprising twist, Bianca finds her love for her husband rekindled by his martial exploits - even at the expense of her lover! Husband and wife reunite in a passionate embrace over the lover's dead body. "Why did you not tell me you were so strong?" she asks, to which he responds, "Why did you not tell me you were so beautiful?" One could call this a rather extreme way to bring fire back into a stale marriage!

[Alma Schindler]

In this short opera, Zemlinsky was in fact pointing at two triangular love affairs among people close to him. The first one was Alma Mahler's infidelity with the architect Walter Gropius, not long before Mahler's death - Zemlinsky had lost his youthful love to Mahler, but as Mahler was also his sponsor and friend, he strongly took Mahler's side. The other one involved an affair of his sister, who was married to Arnold Schoenberg - her lover committed suicide after the relationship failed and she returned to her husband.

The Florentine Tragedy, however, was just a step up towards Zemlinsky's final "denouncement," his own story of "the ugly man," in the form of The Dwarf, another opera based on a story by Oscar Wilde. The Dwarf derives its power from the fact that it was a masochistic self-portrait of the composer, who was regarded as physically repellent not only by Alma Mahler as we saw above, but also by his family and friends. The tragic opera is about the cruel treatment of a repulsive but tender-hearted creature. This dwarf, in a cage, is presented to the Infanta of Spain, among many other wonderful presents, on her 18th birthday. The dwarf, who has no idea how ugly he is, is entranced by the beauty of the young Spanish princess. She plays along with him in a deliberately cruel way, even when her companions warn her not to go too far. The dwarf sings her a song of love, imagining himself as a brave knight. She toys with him and gives him a present of a white rose. Then she leaves him. Left on his own, the Dwarf accidentally uncovers a mirror and for the first time sees his own reflection, realizing how ugly he is - his new sense of self-awareness destroys his sense of self-worth (a case where "Know Thyself" is not beneficial; perhaps we sometimes need our illusions in order to survive?). In great agitation, the Dwarf tries to obtain a kiss from the Infanta, but she spurns him, telling him he is a monster. His heart broken, the Dwarf dies clutching the white rose. The Infante, from her side, lets it be known that next time she wants a better toy, one without a heart, and returns to her dancing.

The music is characterized by a wonderful flow of glorious melody. The Infanta and her companions are depicted in unemotional, neoclassical music, while the music for the Dwarf is of course the emotional heart of the opera, with soft violins and chromatic harmony. As a theater work, The Dwarf is second to none of its contemporaries. It is dramatically taut and well-balanced, words and music are excellently wed. The orchestration is as brilliant and imaginative as anything by Richard Strauss or Gustav Mahler. Deformity, dangerous femininity and social alienation were of course common fin de siècle themes. And in its excessive self-abnegation, The Dwarf may have served as the final theatrical cure of Zemlinsky's obsession with Alma Schindler - who although she didn't become his official "Muse," still inspired much of his best music!

The Dwarf is a story of innocence destroyed, of impossible longing and desire for unobtainable love. The music is full of fin de siècle decadence, glittering sensuality and seductive charm. But like our previous composer, Franz Schreker, Alexander Zemlinsky suffered the misfortune of being pushed to the margins of musical history because he fell between two stools: for his conservative contemporaries he was too advanced, for the postwar radicals he was not advanced enough - and for fifteen years in between, his music was forbidden by the Nazis.

Zemlinsky was a typical product of the multiculturalism of the Habsburg Empire: his father was Slovakian, his mother came from a Sarajevo Bosnian-Jewish family. Zemlinsky trained at the Vienna conservatory and opera dominated his career both as a composer and conductor. In that last capacity, his star rose under the patronage of Gustav Mahler; after Mahler's death, Zemlinsky moved to Prague, where he was to remain for the next 16 years. These were his most happy years, when he also wrote the present two operas. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, he lost his official posts and in 1938 fled to the United States, where he died in 1942, a forgotten and ill man. (Zemlinsky also wrote wonderful string quartets, see Best String Quartets Part 4).

Happily, the last 30 years have seen a re-assessment of Zemlinsky's lush fin de siècle music, including his operatic output. Although stage productions are rare, both The Florentine Tragedy and The Dwarf have returned to opera houses and are often staged together as they neatly make up a full evening program.

Previous operas in this series:
Claude Debussy, Pelléas et Mélisande (1902)
Richard Strauss, Salome (1905)
Franz Schreker, The Branded (1918)

September 24, 2016

Best Twentieth Century Operas (3): Die Gezeichneten (The Branded) by Franz Schreker (1918)

3. Franz Schreker, Die Gezeichneten (The Branded, 1918)
With its potent mix of love, violence and deformity, and a lush score, Die Gezeichneten is a typical opera from fin-de-siècle Vienna. Its composer, Franz Schreker (1878-1934), was a genius opera composer and libretto writer and it was in that last capacity that his fellow composer, Alexander Zemlinsky, asked him to write an opera libretto on the theme of "the tragedy of the ugly man."

Zemlinsky had a special reason to ask for this material, for he carried a love trauma with him: in 1900, Zemlinsky had fallen passionately in love with Alma Schindler, one of his composition students, who initially reciprocated his feelings, but then suddenly broke off the relationship to marry famous composer and conductor Gustav Mahler, within only two months of making his acquaintance. Zemlinsky's unappealing physical appearance and lack of success both seemed to play a role here, so he suffered a double psychological hurt. Rather tactless, Alma Mahler had called him a "hideous dwarf, chinless and toothless and always smelling of the coffee house." This humiliation festered on and led to the request for a libretto on the theme of masculine ugliness versus feminine beauty.

Schreker duly set to work, even though the request seemed a bit strange, but he became increasingly interested in tackling the musical setting for this weird story himself. Zemlinsky proved sympathetic to Schreker's wish (he would later write a new libretto himself called The Dwarf - see my next opera post) and renounced the project. And so Franz Schreker came to write Die Gezeichneten, an opulent work in which he contrasted outer deformity with inner beauty.

[Franz Schreker (Photo Wikipedia)]

The title contains an ambiguity in German: "zeichnen" means "to draw" but also "to mark out," so "Die Gezeichneten" refers both to those who model for artists and those who are marked out, or branded, by fate.

The story is set in 16th c. Genoa. The hunchbacked, crippled aristocrat Alviano Salvago (the man branded by fate) craves beauty as a compensation for his physical defects. On a small island near the coast he has created a park-like paradise of his imagination, a sort of Elysium (it reminded me of the story by Edogawa Ranpo called "The Strange Tale of Panorama Island"). But he doesn't set foot there himself, afraid to profane it with his ugliness. He wants to donate this island to the citizens of Genoa, but his aristocratic friends try to dissuade him. Unknown to Salvago, they secretly use an underground grotto on the island for orgies with young women abducted from prominent Genoan families, whom they abuse and even murder. Their leader, Count Vitellozzo Tamare, has let his eye fall on Carlotta Nardi, the beautiful daughter of the mayor, who is an accomplished painter; she also suffers from a weak heart and fears that excitement will kill her (making her another person branded by fate). Carlotta rejects Tamare, and instead approaches Salvago. She is fascinated by the ugly cripple and wants to "draw his soul," giving rise to confused feelings on his side, especially when she faints in his arms when her weak heart plays up. But after she has painted Salvago, she looses interest in him, even though she has promised to marry him...

In the last act Salvago has finally opened his island paradise to the citizens of Genoa, who are all visiting, awed by the beautiful things they see. Carlotta evades Salvago and wanders off alone on the island, right into the arms of the masked playboy Tamare, who entices her to the secret grotto. Salvago desperately seeks her, and finally discovers the underground cave, followed by the other visitors to the island. There he finds Carlotta, lying senseless on a bed (the excitement caused by Tamare's lovemaking has broken her weak heart), while Tamare boasts of his conquering abilities. Salvago stabs him to death. Carlotta awakens, Salvago rushes full of hope to her side, but with her dying breath she calls out Tamare's name. Salvago descends into insanity as the curtain falls.

This opera, written during WWI, has been called symbolic for a disintegrating society and the disorientation of modern man - something we perhaps are seeing again today. Die Gezeichneten is an extraordinary work, with extremely unsettling music that rarely lets one sense a genuine resolution of the constant dissonances.

It seems that the libretto also contains various cunning portraits of fin-de-siècle personalities - a painting incorporated in the libretto for example resembles one of Arnold Schoenberg's pictures (Schoenberg was also active as a painter).

Franz Schreker, who looked a little like Gustav Mahler, was one of the few young composers of his generation who refused to be overwhelmed by Richard Wagner. His first success had been “Der Ferne Klang” (“The Distant Sound,” 1912), an opera set in the present-day about an ambitious young composer who in his search for the highest art neglects the woman who loves him, so that she descends into the dregs of society, not unlike Lulu later in Berg's opera. Unfortunately, Schreker had also been born at the wrong time, living exactly at the fracture of two periods: in his youth, Mahler ruled supreme, when he turned forty Mahler had been replaced by Schoenberg and Stravinsky. Although in the 1920s Schreker's operas were staged in all major Austrian and German theaters, by the time of his death he was almost forgotten. One additional reason was that his music was forbidden by the Nazis, as Schreker was partly Jewish - one of the many careers broken by the hate politics of 20th c. Europe. But his lush and decadent music had also gone out of fashion - in the 1920s, a new trend for neo-classical and more businesslike music broke through, as well as for jazz elements in classical music. Schreker was almost forgotten and for many years only the orchestral preludes to his operas could sometimes be heard. Happily, today a full revival is underway, bringing Schreker's operas again successfully to the stage after a hiatus of many decades.

Recording watched and listened to: Kent Nagano (conductor) and Nikolaus Lehnhoff (production) with Deutches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor, and Anne Schwanewilms (Carlotta), Robert Brubaker (Salvago), Wolfgang Schone (Lodovico), Michael Volle (Graf Tamare) and Robert Hale (Herzog Adorno) on Euroarts (DVD). In the first two acts, the singers crawl over the surface of a gigantic broken statue, lying amid Salzburg's Felsenreitschule stage. In Act III, in the island scenes, Lehnhoff shows us an orgy as from Kubrick's “Eyes Wide Shut.” This production is done in high style and vividly brings Schreker's world to life. To emphasize Salvago's difference from others, in this production he first wears women's clothes; when he has won the heart of Carlotta, he starts dressing as a man, but then she has no interest in him anymore. 

June 25, 2016

Max Ophüls (Great Auteur Directors 5)

The German-French director Max Ophüls (1902-1957, real name Maximilian Oppenheimer) was a wonderful stylist of the cinema who used his endlessly mobile camera to tell nostalgic stories of doomed love and sexual passion.

Ophüls was born in Saarbrücken as the son of a Jewish textile manufacturer. He took the pseudonym Ophüls during the early part of his theatrical career so that he wouldn't embarrass his father if he failed. He first worked in the 1920s as actor and then theater director, staging about 200 plays, and made his first film in 1931.


The most acclaimed of his early films is Liebelei (1933), as several of his films based on a play by the great Viennese author Arthur Schnitzler. That same year, however, he had to flee for the Nazis to France where in 1938 he received citizenship. In his first French period (1933-1940) he made more than ten feature films, mostly romantic films and comedies.

In 1940 he had to flee again, now to the United States, where he experienced the same difficulties as other European directors to fit into the commercialized culture of Hollywood. It would only be in 1947 that he made his first American film (thanks to the help of Preston Sturges), to be followed by three more in the next two years. Two of these films are concise noirs; the best one is based on a story by Stefan Zweig, Letter from an Unknown Woman.

In 1950 Ophüls returned to France where he blossomed again and made his greatest films, four immortal masterworks, until his untimely death from heart disease in 1957: La Ronde (1950), Le Plaisir (1952), The Earrings of Madame de... (1953) and Lola Montès (1955), his only film in color. In all, Ophüls made nearly 30 films.

His son, Marcel Ophüls, is a distinguished documentary-film maker.

Characteristic for Ophüls are the following elements:

1. Endlessly mobile camera
All his works feature brilliant long takes, distinctive smooth camera movements, complex crane and dolly sweeps, and tracking shots. In fact, Ophüls' flowing Baroque style of filming is like a Viennese waltz. In his own time, his style was sometimes criticized as "merely decorative," but now we see it has a clear thematic purpose, for example to record the contrast between the protagonists and their emotional problems and the hustle and bustle around them, where life goes on unfeeling. His opulent sets and glittering mirrors in the same way underline the unhappiness of his protagonists. In fact, Ophüls turned his camera into an extension of his characters, visualizing their interiority, adjusting every shot to their minds, desires and lives.

2. Films about women
Besides being the director of romantic regret, of the doomed love story, Ophüls is renowned for his sharply delineated female characters. Many of his films are narrated from the point of view of the female protagonist. In this sense, he made "women's films," but he far exceeded any stereotype of that genre, in fact he is working on the same level as Naruse Mikio and Mizoguchi Kenji.


The best films by Max Ophüls are:
  1. Liebelei (1933)
    The first characteristic film of the great director, based on a play by Arthur Schnitzler. A young lieutenant has an affair with a baroness but falls in love with a violinist's daughter (Magda Schneider, mother of Romy). Although he breaks with the baroness, her husband challenges him to a duel. He is killed and the girl commits suicide. Misplaced male honor leads to tragedy. Tinged with a forlorn mood unique to the director, this film is full of elements that we recognize as truly Ophülsian: settings like the opera house, the army barracks, the bachelor apartment; dances in cafés; a climactic duel, although, as in Madame de... and Letter from an Unknown Woman, we never see the actual killing; the theme of the choice between love and duty. And, at the heart of Liebelei is a woman, who is lured into the trap of fierce passion. This tender story of thwarted love also features several early examples of the director's magically gliding mobile camera. 
  2. Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)
    The second film Ophüls made in Hollywood, a bittersweet melodrama. The film already exudes the grace, beauty and sensitivity characteristic of the masterworks he would make in the 1950s in Europe. The story, set in a nostalgic Vienna from around 1900, is loosely based on a story by Stefan Zweig. It is a joke from beyond the grave: a dying woman (Joan Fontaine) sends a long letter to a concert pianist (Louis Jourdan) who is about to flee Vienna to avoid a duel (and as he reads her long letter, he is prevented from leaving...). She has been her whole life in love with him, but was unacknowledged. The pair has crossed paths over many years, although the crossings never lasted more than a few hours. Still the woman, who appears saintly, has born the maestro's illegitimate child. This film has entered the canon and shows that personal expression was possible in Hollywood (though difficult).
  3. Caught (1949)
    Caught is one of the two noir films Ophüls made in the U.S., a concise, tense and mean little film, a criticism of capitalism run wild. Leonora (Barbara Bel Geddes), a poor model, dreams of romance, pouring over fashion magazines with mink coats and waiting for her Prince Charming. Then she happens to meet cynical control-freak millionaire Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan) - based on Howard Hughes, it is rumored - who marries her as a kind of joke, just to spite his psychoanalyst and to show her he controls her destiny. As a result, Leonora finds herself another piece of opulence stuffed in Ryan's Long Island mansion. On top of that, her husband has a psychotic streak. She tries to run away twice, but each time returns. When she is pregnant, her husband increasingly treats her like one of his many possessions. Struggling slum pediatrician Larry Quinada (James Mason) finally saves her from her Long Island prison, as she has a miscarriage brought on by Ohlig's violence. The film's title "Caught" not only refers to the marriage trap Leonora walked into, but more broadly to the wrong ideas that entrapped her: the materialistic view that money could be the source of all happiness. 
  4. La Ronde (1950)
    Based on Arthur Schnitzler's notorious play about the vanity and fickleness of love in late 19th c. Vienna (see my posts on Schnitzler's novella Dream Story and his short stories). La Ronde presents a series of vignettes between two lovers, with episodes featuring one lover from the previous segment coupled with a new character, a sort of daisy chain structure. Anton Walbrook gives the performance of his life as the master of ceremonies who connects the various episodes. Ophüls shared Schnitzler's vision of the ferociousness of sexual desire, which plays havoc with human beings. But the director shows understanding and forgiveness for the foibles of humankind. We are all weak, so let's smile about life, instead of setting strict rules for others. There is also a bittersweet note, as all romantic illusions of love are shown to be false. At the same time, it is a nostalgic film about European elegance that had been swept away by two terrible wars. The beautiful waltz melody was composed for this film by the last scion of the Strauss family, the at that time 80-year old Oscar Strauss. Ophüls has also assembled a great talented French cast: Simone Signoret, Simone Simon, Gérard Philippe and Danielle Darrieux. 
  5. Le Plaisir (1952)
    A triptych of stories drawn from the work of Maupassant and demonstrating that "pleasure" is not the same as "happiness." With Jean Gabin, Danielle Darrieux & Simone Simon. The first story ("The Mask") tells of a man who is so addicted to balls and women that he hides his aging face behind a mask - pleasure and youth. The opening sequence is an incredible tour de force of the camera, which follows the swirling beat of a 19th c. ball - typical for Max Ophüls in whose camera movements there is always a visual musicality. But the dancer collapses and is carried home, as the wild dance has become a Dance of Death. The third story ("The Model") is about a painter who falls in love with his model, then dumps her when he grows tired of the affair - the fatality of pleasure when it gives way to boredom. Desperate, she tries to commit suicide by jumping from a window and shatters her legs. But this sacrifice enables her to force the painter into marrying her... The second story, "The Maison Tellier," is the most elaborate, taking up about half of the film. It is about pleasure and purity: how Madame Tellier takes her "girls" (prostitutes) to the country for attending her niece's first communion. It starts with a virtuoso crane shot, inspecting the outside of a bordello and finally gliding into the Maison Tellier. The day trip in the countryside is beautifully filmed (Jean Gabin drives a cartload full of jolly whores, including Danielle Darrieux) and the church scene when all the prostitutes start to cry at the sight of the pure young girls is justly celebrated. We also are present at the ill-fated meeting between one of the prostitutes and the farmer. Ophüls looks with a gentle sense of humor at the proceedings. 
  6. The Earrings of Madame de... (1953)
    A frivolous woman is transformed by true love. We only get to hear the first name of the heroine of The Earrings of Madame de... - her last name is withheld with a wink. Louise has been indiscreet and as is the case with offenders whose names are withheld in the papers, Ophüls replaces her last name as it were with a few dots or a dash. This films contains some of the best long mobile camera movements Ophüls is famous for: such as the sweeping take when Louise enters the jeweler's shop and ascends via an open staircase to the second floor - not to speak about the incredible dancing scenes with their circling camera. Or, on a different note, the scene where Louise is on a forced trip to the Italian lakes and sits day after day writing letters to her lover, only to confess later to him that she lacked the courage to mail her letters - we see those letters, torn into shreds, dancing in the air, and then turning into the snow falling in the next scene. The story is ingeniously organized around the circulation of a pair of earrings, a present given to Louise by her husband. When she needs money, she sells them back to the jeweler, and then, without knowing this, her lover happens to buy them for her again... The Earrings of Madame De... sets out as a simple comedy of errors but goes on to plumb surprising depths. More than that, like all great directors, in the visual compass of film, Ophüls manages to make life's inexorable flow almost tangible which leaves us as viewers a bit sadder, a bit wiser.
  7. Lola Montès (1955)
    Ophüls' only film in color, the tragic story of Lola Montès (Martine Carol), a great adventurer ("the most scandalous woman in the world") who becomes the main attraction of a circus after being the mistress of such famous men as the pianist/composer Franz Liszt and King Ludwig of Bavaria (Anton Walbrook). Taking its cue from La Ronde, we again have a master of ceremonies (Peter Ustinov), who narrates Lola's sensational career as she revolves on a platform in a New Orleans circus. Later the aging courtesan will perform a dangerous trapeze act, and finally the customers will be allowed to kiss her hand after spending a dollar. Ophüls fully employs the devices of circularity and repetition that characterize his late films, as well as the flamboyant cinematic style he had mastered across a lifetime. This is arguably the director's greatest film, a tragic masterpiece that is a summing up of all he stood for. But it failed both critically and at the box-office, which may well have contributed to Ophüls' untimely death in 1957. 

    References: The Rough Guide to Film (Penguin Group, 2007); Have You Seen...? by David Thomson (Penguin Books, 2008). IMDBThe Criterion CollectionSlant MagazineSenses of CinemaBright Lights Film Journal. Photos linked from Wikipedia. This series covers two blogs, Japan Navigator for Japanese directors and Splendid Labyrinths for non-Japanese directors.
    1. Jean Renoir 2. Kenji Mizoguchi 3. Luis Buñuel 4. Yasujiro Ozu 5. Max Ophüls 6. Mikio Naruse 7. Luchino Visconti 8. Akira Kurosawa 9. Michelangelo Antonioni 10. Orson Welles (to be continued)

June 17, 2016

Luis Bunuel (Great Auteur Film Directors 3)

Luis Buñuel is one of the most inventive film makers of the 20th century, a mild Surrealist who looked with wisdom and acceptance at the foibles of mankind. He saw that we are hypocrites who say one thing and do another, but in his view that doesn't make us evil. It is only human, part of the way we are. Buñuel's films have the power to shock, inspire, and reinvent our world.

Luis Buñuel (1900-1983) started his career in the late twenties as an avant-garde enfant terrible, spent the thirties fighting Fascism in his native country, fled to the U.S. after Franco's victory and - not welcome in the U.S. with his "red" background - in the mid-forties ended up in Mexico as a director of commercial films. As these were quite successful, he was allowed to make some serious auteur films as well, enabling him to move back to Europe in the early sixties and there make his greatest films as "old master" of Surrealism.

Buñuel was born in a small town in Spain, which, as he often remarked, was culturally still stuck in the Middle Ages. He studied philosophy in Madrid and became friends with Salvador Dali, Frederico Garcia Lorca and other Spanish intellectuals. At the age of 25, Buñuel went to Paris, where he studied film with Jean Epstein and joined the Surrealist movement.


After that, Buñuel's working life can be divided as follows:

1. The Early Films (1928-1932)
In 1928, Buñuel wrote and shot the surrealist short film An Andalusian Dog with Salvador Dali, in only two weeks. Thanks to its opening sequence, of an eye being sliced by a razor, this became the most famous short film ever made. Two years later, Buñuel directed his first feature, L'Age d'Or, a scathing attack on the Church and hypocrisy, and this, too, became a succès de scandale. His third film was a fake documentary Las Hurdes (''Land Without Bread''), an account of Spanish villagers locked in poverty and ignorance, his last movie until 1946.

2. Film-less Interlude (1934-1946)
In his film-less interim, Buñuel dubbed American movies in Paris and aided the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War. After the Fascists' victory, he fled in exile to New York, where he edited documentaries for the Museum of Modern Art.

3. Mexico (1946-1964)
Buñuel moved to Mexico in 1946 (where the film industry was at a high point) and began grinding out pot-boilers that proved so popular he was free to direct an occasional serious movie, starting with the 1950 street-gang drama Los Olvidados. I believe the years in Mexico were certainly not a lost period for Buñuel: after all, he had only experience directing two short films; in Mexico he finally learned the craft of film director. And he made some truly good films here, which are still underrated in his total oeuvre: Los olvidados ("The Young and the Damned," 1950); El ("This Strange Passion," 1953); The Criminal Life of Archibaldo Cruz (Ensayo de un crimen, 1955); Nazarín (1958); The Exterminating Angel (El ángel exterminador, 1962); and Simon of the Desert (Simón del desierto, 1965).

4. The Late Masterful Films (1963-1977)
There were eight of these; the first, Viridiana (1961), was made in Spain (and soon forbidden there for its anti-clericalism), the others from Diary of a Chambermaid (Le Journal d’une femme de chambre, 1963) and Belle de Jour (1967) until his last film That Obscure Object of Desire (Cet obscur objet du désir, 1977) were produced in France. All of these later films were written by Jean-Claude Carriere, who shared Buñuel's conviction that hypocrisy was the most entertaining target. Backed by French producer Serge Silberman, these late films are also the best, as Buñuel was free to indulge his fancies, without having to worry about commercial or narrative requirements.

Buñuel's style is characterized by three elements:

1. Surrealism
Buñuel was an official member of the Surrealist movement (until he became a Communist in 1932). Early in his career he made the two most authentic surrealist films ever produced, and also his later films are famous for their surreal imagery, such as scenes in which chickens appear in nightmares, women grow beards, and aspiring saints are desired by lascivious women. Even in the many movies he made for hire in his Mexican period, he usually added some of his trademark disturbing images.

2. The Hypocrisy of the Church & Bourgeois Society
His whole career, Buñuel mocked the Roman Catholic Church in particular and organized religion in general for its hypocrisy. The atheistic humanist Buñuel fought a lifelong rebellion against the Catholic Church that had shaped life in his Spanish home village of Calenda with a heavy hand. In L'Âge d'Or, for example, one of the protagonists of the Sade's 120 days of Sodom is portrayed as Jesus; Viridiana culminates in a dinner party that parodies Da Vinci's The Last Supper; and in La Voie Lactée two men travel the pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela and meet examples  of various Catholic heresies along the way. The Exterminating Angel is a scathing attack on bourgeois values, as are many other films, for example The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.

3. Sexual Fetishes & Thwarted Desire
To Buñuel, sex was "something we take seriously when it involves ourselves and ribald or funny when it involves others," as Roger Ebert phrased it. What is more funny than someone saddled with a fetish that is absurd and not respectable? Or someone who is consumed by desire but can find no satisfaction? In the early L'Âge d'Or and in his last film, Cet obscur objet du désir, and many films in-between, we encounter human beings who crave to fulfill a strong passion, but are unable to do so: the couple in L'Âge d'Or wanting to make love; the servant boy in Tristana, with whom Tristana toys cruelly as he is fascinated by her disability; Mathieu's mad love for the young Conchita, who keeps teasing him, in Cet obscur objet du désir; and, on a non-sexual note, the group of upper class citizens who crave to have dinner together in Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie, etc. Foot fetishes appear frequently in Buñuel's films, from the kissing of the toes of a statue in L'Age d'Or to the foot washing in El or the old man who loves Céléstine's boots in Diary of a Chamber Maid.

Buñuel died in Mexico City in 1983, after having finished his autobiography, Mon Dernier Soupir (My Last Sigh).
  1. L'Age d'or (The Golden Age, 1930)
    Although the earlier Un Chien Andalou starts with a famous sequence in which an eyeball is sliced open in merciless close-up (a scene that still has people fainting), it is only 15 minutes long and therefore L'Age d'Or is Bunuel's first proper feature film. It has also more plot: a man and a woman are passionately in love, but their attempts to consummate that passion are constantly thwarted by the Church and bourgeois society. The feelings of the continually interrupted lovers find an outlet in Bunuelesque fetishism when the woman finally seeks satisfaction by sucking the marble toes of a statue - sex is both terrifying and hilarious. At the premiere in Paris in 1930, the film caused a riot as the outraged audience trashed the theater. Until the early 1980s, the film was banned in many countries.
  2. Los Olvidados (1950)
    Film about juvenile delinquents in the slums of Mexico City, which won Best Director at Cannes, putting Buñuel, who was slaving away making trite films in Mexico, on the map again after his 1930 film L'Age d'Or. Los Olvidados is a tough, unsentimental statement. After all, then and now, it is a fact that poverty, combined with broken families and lack of education, leads to crime. Of course, people also have a choice, although many are stuck so deep in the mud that they have no opportunity to realize that. But even if they do, like the young Pedro, the protagonist of this film, and try to better their life against all odds, the environment can cynically block those chances. Pedro tries to extricate himself from the influence of escaped teen prisoner "El Jaibo," but that is impossible as the older boy blackmails him and even shrewdly shifts the blame for his own crimes on Pedro. Another characteristic of Los Olvidados is, that nobody is "good." At the start of the film, the boys beat up a blind musician and destroy his instruments, so the viewer feels sympathy for the man, but that same musician then shows what a pervert he is by groping a young girl. Although the film superficially resembles the at that time popular Italian Neorealist films, by showing that the poor are capable of evil and are players in the same corrupt societal games, Buñuel has in fact parodied Neorealism with its sentimental view of the poor as goodhearted. He has also included his characteristic surrealist sequences, for example a rooster staring down a blind man. Los Olvidados was a major influence on Truffaut's The 400 Blows, and although less known than his later work, is one of the masterworks of Luis Buñuel.
  3. El (This Strange Passion) (1953)
    A brutal and absurd glimpse at one man's runaway paranoia. It starts on a Bunuelesque fetishistic high-note: while a priest washes and kisses the feet of altar boys in a church ritual, Don Francisco follows the trail of feet with his eyes and comes to rest on the shapely legs of Gloria - like a hunter finding his prey. The rich bachelor Francisco then courts Gloria until she agrees to marry him. He proves a dedicated husband - or rather too dedicated, for already during the honeymoon his passion starts to exhibit the disturbing traits of a jealous maniac. His paranoia escalates until one night he stealthily approaches her with the intent to "sew her up." He also denies her all contact with the outside world. Gloria stays with her mad husband, at least until it really becomes too much, thinking he is suffering more than she is (after all, the Church is responsible for having made him into a pervert) - and anyway, nobody, even her own mother, believes her complaints...  A masterpiece of psychosexuality. To Buñuel's great satisfaction, psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan would screen the film for his students to demonstrate paranoia.
  4. Viridiana (1961)
    Don Jaime (Fernando Rey) invites his niece, Viridiana (Silvia Pinal), to stay with him before she takes her vows as a nun, but the old lecher then attempts to use her for his necrophiliac desires - he wants to have sex with her in the clothes of his deceased wife. When his desires are thwarted and the Don next commits suicide, Viridiana inherits the estate. A true Christian, she sees her new wealth as a great opportunity to practice charity and invites all beggars and outcasts of the area to come, be fed by her and live in her house. Of course they repay her with ingratitude, cruelty and greed. The film ends with a big dinner party, where the poor enjoy a wild feast during Viridiana's absence, imitating Da Vinci's The Last Supper, a parody enacted to the ethereal strains of Handel's Messiah. As the film also contains the above mentioned necrophilia and mockery of Christian charity, the Vatican denounced the film as blasphemy and it was immediately forbidden in Spain - despite winning the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. A delicious, darkly humorous story about different kinds of corruption. 
  5. The Exterminating Angel (El ángel exterminador, 1962)
    While in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, made ten years later, a group of upper middle class friends is repeatedly unable to have dinner together, here a group of socialites have enjoyed a lavish dinner, but are then unable to leave the mansion where the party took place. An unseen force keeps them inexplicably inside, as in an extravagant prison, and they have to spend the night together in the living room. The group futilely tries to figure out ways of escape. The film's absurd situations and surreal images attack ritualistic habits and bourgeois culture. The vast, magnificent salon gradually descends into sordid squalor. A black comedy filled with anti-bourgeois and anti-clerical sentiments, but also a dreamlike story where the surrealism of Buñuel is manifested in all its fantastic wealth. And it is of course more than just class criticism of the bourgeoisie: the film is in fact symbolic of the powerlessness of the human race as a whole.
  6. Diary of a Chambermaid ("Le journal d'une femme de chambre") (1964)
    As I have written elsewhere on this blog, Buñuel based this film on Mirbeau's fin-de-siecle, satirical novel, but changed the story into a strong anti-fascist statement, by updating the setting from the late 19th century to the 1930s. Céléstine (Jeanne Moreau) becomes a chambermaid in the country estate of the Monteil family. She soon discovers that indulgence in the sexual frustrations/obsessions of her male employers may help advance her social and financial status. The lecherous head of the household not only hunts game but also women (he has impregnated the previous chambermaid), and his miserly frigid wife indulges her pent-up frustrations by tormenting her chambermaids. The grandfather is a shoe fetishist who dies embracing one of Célestine's boots. There is also the mystery of the murder of a young girl, of which the suspicion falls on the brutish gamekeeper and handyman of the family, Joseph, who is also a fervent Fascist. Nouvelle Vague icon Jeanne Moreau as Célestine gives a great performance: she is impeccably stylish and composedly serene, as well as wholly inscrutable - her face is a true enigma. Although more straightforward and lacking the surrealistic teases of Bunuel's later films, the director takes care to include his usual pokes at erotic repression and religious oppression, and satirize the strange ways of the bourgeoisie who live behind a facade of respectability while secretly indulging their lower instincts.
  7. Belle de Jour (1967) 
    Belle de Jour is Catherine Deneuve at her classic best: beautiful, elegant, ice-cold - and lustful. She plays an upper-class Parisian housewife, Séverine. Frigid towards her husband, she secretly entertains kinky bondage fantasies... To make these more concrete, she starts secretly spending her idle afternoons working in a boutique bordello. That, by the way, is also what the film title refers to: "Belle de Jour" is a "day-lily" that blooms only during the day, but the same French term can also refer to a prostitute whose trade is conducted during the daytime. So while remaining chaste in her marriage, in the afternoons Séverine satisfies the weird fetishes of the men that visit her high-class brothel. Her clients include a fat industrialist, a professor who dresses in role playing costumes and then abuses her, and a duke who likes to enact a mourning scene in a coffin. But she also meets a mean-looking, young gangster whose cruelty and ugliness rather please her - but when he falls in love with her and starts stalking her, things go horribly wrong... As is usually the case with Buñuel, this surreal, erotic tale forms a gentle criticism of the mores of decaying upper-class society. Deneuve is the ideal actress for this intricate study of female psychology. Despite that the character she plays revels in debauched desires, she retains a cool, inscrutable dignity, clad as she is in the chicest Yves Saint Laurent finery. This is the best and most iconic film Buñuel ever made. It won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1967. See my detailed review
  8. Tristana (1970)
    A wonderful but perverse film about power over others. Tristana (Catherine Deneuve) is a young woman, who when her mother dies, is entrusted to the care of her elderly uncle Don Lope (Fernando Rey) who lives in the beautiful city of Toledo. The innocent and naive Tristana, wholly in the power of her lecherous uncle, soon ends up in his bed. In the daytime, she is a virtual prisoner in his house. Still, she manages to meet a handsome young painter and elope with him. Two years later, ill, she unexpectedly returns to her uncle's house. But now - although she looses a leg to her illness - she turns the tables on the aging Don and forces him to marry her, after which Tristana mainly uses her position as mistress of the house to humiliate Don Lope. Eventually, winner takes all it seems - but in the process, Tristana has lost her soul and she has become as jaded as Don Lope was. As is usual, this Bunuel film is full of explicit Freudian images. Every scene is packed with visual interest. It also provides an interesting picture of catholic Spain and the hypocrisy rampant in such an ultra-conservative society as well as the marginal position of women in it - of course seen through the anti-clerical and anti-bourgeois eyes of the film maker. But above all, the most wonderful thing in the film is the transformation Catherine Deneuve undergoes from uptight virgin with her hair in braids to the bitchy and mean one-legged woman at the end. A most difficult role that is performed in a fascinating way. See my detailed review.
  9. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie ("Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie," 1972)
    Vintage Buñuel. A great comedy about a group of six upper middle class friends - very bourgeois - (Fernando Rey, Delphine Seyrig, Stephanie Audran, etc.) who repeatedly try to have a meal together but who find their plans each time interrupted and crossed by bizarre events. Dinner is the central social ritual of the middle classes, a way of displaying wealth and good manners - but here turned on its head. The participants never get what they want, they can never fulfill their desire for a good meal in a nice, sociable and cultivated environment. It doesn't help that the cast is suave and beautiful, superbly dressed in a suitably old-fashioned style. At the same time, the various interruptions reveal the secrets that lurk beneath the surface of the decaying European bourgeoisie: adultery, drug dealing, cheating, military coups, perversion and sheer boredom. The "discreet charm" of the title of course refers to their polite handling of their sense of futility and dismay - although gradually panic takes over. The film also contains some of the best Surrealist dream sequences Buñuel ever shot. In fact, reality and illusion soon blur into one, with delicious comic results. And we have the director's usual barb aimed at the Church in the person of a bishop whose fetish is to dress up as a gardener and work as a servant in the gardens of the wealthy.
  10. That Obscure Object of Desire ("Cet obscur objet du desir") (1977)
  11. Another film about thwarted desire, this time of a sexual nature. The elderly gentleman Mathieu (Fernando Rey) is madly in love with the young Conchita. Although she willfully attracts him, the next moment she tends to push him back even harder. As if she is two different persons, something Buñuel has underlined by having Conchita in the “attracting mode” played by the Spanish dancer Angelina Molina and in the “push-back mode” by French actress Carole Bouquet. 
  12. Conchita doesn't want Mathieu to have power over her; and Mathieu doesn't want her to have power over him, so he doesn't offer marriage. Their relationship is stuck in the same unholy groove, except that it escalates. Mathieu tries to kiss her, but she flees; he helps her poor mother financially, but Conchita doesn't want to be bought; he tries to make love to her, but discovers she is wearing a chastity belt; he follows her to Spain where she is dancing in a cafe, only to find out she is stripping for tourists; and after he buys her a house she locks him out and under his eyes embraces a young man. But each time she coyly comes back and smooths his ruffled feathers with her charms...
  13. This is the 30th and last film made by Luis Buñuel, and it has been called a summing-up of his work: respectable (or even pompous) middle class characters plagued by strong and sometimes peculiar erotic desires, and therefore revealed as ultimately weak and funny.
  14. Read my detailed review
References: The Rough Guide to Film (Penguin Group, 2007); Have You Seen...? by David Thomson (Penguin Books, 2008). IMDB, The Criterion Collection, Slant Magazine, Roger EbertSenses of Cinema, Bright Lights Film Journal. Photos linked from Wikipedia. This series covers two blogs, Japan Navigator for Japanese directors and Splendid Labyrinths for non-Japanese directors.
1. Jean Renoir 2. Kenji Mizoguchi 3. Luis Buñuel 4. Yasujiro Ozu 5. Max Ophüls 6. Akira Kurosawa 7. Luchino Visconti 8. Mikio Naruse 9. Michelangelo Antonioni 10. Orson Welles
(to be continued)

April 25, 2016

Jean Renoir (Great Auteur Film Directors 1)

Jean Renoir (1894-1979) was born at the same time as cinema, as the son of the famous impressionist painter Auguste Renoir. His interest in painting was limited to marrying the last model of his father, Catherine Hessling, but he started making films because he wanted to immortalize her beauty, thinking moving images a better medium than paint. He made about 40 films between 1924 and 1962. His peak was in the 1930s, although even at that time he was not always recognized; fame came after WWII when he was highly praised by both Francois Truffaut (and other French New Wave directors) and Orson Welles.


In order to finance his first films, Jean Renoir gradually sold his father's paintings from his private collection. In fact, many family members were engaged in the film business: brother Pierre was an actor who played for example the role of Maigret in Renoir's adaptation of Simenon's Night at the Crossroads, brother Claude was a film producer and nephew Claude (the son of Pierre) was a cinematographer who would photograph Renoir's most beautiful films. 

Renoir's humanist films reveal his fondness of all social strata. In the 1930s he endorsed the Popular Front in a series of films celebrating working class solidarity and when the Nazis invaded France, Renoir left the country for the United States (Hollywood), where he became a naturalized citizen. He would never again live in France, although he would return for film making in the 1950s.

Renoir started with some strong experimental work in the age of the silent film (such as Nana based on Zola's novel, or the short film The Little Match Girl based on Andersen - see my post about Best Silent Films), but really came into his own in the 1930s with sound technology. In this decade, he produced his best work and made several of the immortal masterworks of world cinema (The Grand IllusionThe Rules of the Game). Renoir was drawn to shooting on actual locations and experimented with long takes and deep focus compositions and the traveling shot. He expressed his auteurist ideal in the phrase: "My dream is of a craftsman's cinema in which the author can express himself as directly as the painter in his paintings or the writer in his books." 

As his style was very different from that usual in Hollywood (and as Renoir was a strong individualist who didn't fit into conformist American corporate culture), he only made a handful of films in the 1940s, none among his best. The Diary of a Chambermaid is for example marred by lack of focus, political correctness and outright silliness. In the early 1950s, Renoir returned to France via India where he made The River, one of his masterworks and his first color film. 

The films he made in France in the 1950s were very different from his earlier work: instead of realistic films shot on location, these are theatrical films with lots of spectacle and music, such as The Golden Coach, French Cancan and Elena et les hommes. His expert use of color may remind viewers of the paintings of his father. The last twenty years of his life, in the 1960s and 1970s, Renoir almost made no movies anymore and only did some TV work. He died in Beverly Hills but was buried in France. 


Here are his best films:
  1. La Chienne (1931)
    "La Chienne" means "The Bitch" (in both senses), but obviously that would not be a suitable English title, so it is usually left in French. In this comedy-tragedy, Michel Simon (in a superb performance) plays a henpecked office clerk and amateur painter who becomes so smitten with a prostitute (Lulu) that he makes her his mistress. The weak-minded, respectable middle-class man thinks he has finally met real love in this "vulnerable woman" (who is in reality just a low-class prostitute), and refuses to see the obvious: that she and her pimp boyfriend are taking advantage of him. Lulu is really in love with her pimp and only accepts the clerk so that she can cash in on his paintings and so satisfy her boyfriend's need of money. The love triangle in this profoundly humane but unsentimental film finally leads to a very ironic conclusion: when the clerk finds Lulu in bed with her pimp, he kills her in a jealous fit (a great silent sequence in the film), but the pimp gets convicted of the murder and goes to the gallows. La Chienne was remade by Fritz Lang in Hollywood as the nightmarish Scarlet Street, but this remake lacks the irony and wisdom of Renoir. It also lacks its seedy sexiness, which was too much for U.S. censors, who banished the original film until 1975. Full of Renoir's elegant compositions and interesting camera movements and filmed on location in the noisy streets of Montmartre.
  2. Boudu Saved from Drowning (Boudu sauvé des eaux) (1932)
    An outrageous, anarchic farce about a tramp played by Michel Simon in a singular performance: not sentimental in the Chaplin style, but on the contrary, a big, smelly, loutish bum with only one belief, that in complete personal freedom. Boudu is saved from suicide by a Parisian bookseller (a true uppity bourgeois) and ends up taking over his benefactor's home, his wife and his maid/mistress! Never take a tramp into your house! The film also forms a lively document of prewar Parisian society, with interesting location shooting around the Quartier Latin. There are delightful touches, too, as when early in the film, Boudu searches for his dog and seeks help from a police officer - in one and the same take the patrolman ignores him, only to offer his services to an affluent lady in a similar predicament. See my full review here.
  3. A Day in the Country (Partie de compagne) (1936)
    A lyrical short film based on a famous story by Maupassant (a friend of Renoir's father). The film is only 40 minutes long as bad weather prevented its completion (the negative side of location shooting), but as it can perfectly stand on its own, it was ten years later brought out as a featurette. The film follows a Parisian shopkeeper, his wife, daughter and the shop assistant his daughter is to marry as they spend a Sunday along the Seine, in the countryside. While the two men fall asleep over their fishing poles after a copious lunch, both mother and daughter are (separately) wooed by two strongly muscled rowers and enticed to come to an island in the middle of the river. What happens there (or doesn't happen there) gives insight into the sad lives of both women. A warm and summery film that could have been Renoir's absolute masterwork had he been able to complete it. As it stands, it is the best short film ever made. See my full review here.
  4. The Crime of Monsieur Lange (Le crime de Monsieur Lange) (1936)
    A whimsical Popular Front film about a likable courtyard world of print-shop workers and laundresses, with a naive hero (Monsieur Lange, a writer of adventure stories), a vivacious and practical heroine (Valentine), and their boss, Mr Batala, as the ultimate cinematic scoundrel, an obnoxious fascist pig, this propaganda piece rises to high art (and is good fun, too). When the bad boss fakes his own death to avoid paying back a loan, the abandoned workers decide to form a cooperative, full of the spirit of "liberté, égalité, fraternité." They have great success with printing Lange's cowboy stories, but then Batala returns "from the dead" to reclaim his publishing company. After an argument, Lange shoots and kills him, and flees with Valentine to escape France by crossing the border into Belgium. At a time that fascism and Nazism were rife in Europe, this film about an "excusable homicide" questions authority and the ethical boundaries one should or shouldn't cross. But Renoir makes also clear that the idea of a socialist cooperative is, like the story, nothing more than a romantic fantasy, albeit a beautiful one.
  5. Grand Illusion (La grande illusion) (1937)
    The title of this (anti-) war movie refers to the illusion that WWI was seen as "the war to end all wars." Forbidden by the Nazis (Goebbels tried to destroy all copies of the film), it tells the story of a group of French prisoners of war in German captivity, with working class hero Jean Gabin sharing a cell with middle-class Jew Marcel Dalio and the aristocratic Pierre Fresnay, under the strict monocled eye of Commandant Erich von Stroheim. The film is as much about class as it is about the prisoners efforts to escape. Initially "class" is stronger than "nation" as the German aristocrat treats his French aristocratic prisoner with special respect, even becoming friends with him. This also shows what an immense watershed the Great War meant for European culture, as it was the end of the class relations described in the film, and the beginning of the epoch of the "commoners." The last part of the film is different from the rest, as we see how Gabin and Dalio trek across the Alps towards freedom, with beautiful long shots in the snowy landscape. Orson Welles much adored this film and picked it as his "desert-island movie." A humanistic film, showing how important compassion is among the senselessness of war.
  6. La bête humaine (The Human Beast, 1938)
    Jean Gabin wanted to make a film in which he could drive a steam locomotive and Renoir made that possible by adapting Zola's naturalistic novel. Gabin plays a solitary train engineer, Lantier, who drives a locomotive between Paris and Le Havre, a man whose tainted blood subjects him to fits of homicidal mania. He falls in love with Séverine (Simone Simon), the sexy wife of the deputy station master in Le Havre, who has helped her husband murder a man who tried to seduce her. Although Lantier was a witness, he says nothing to the police and begins an ambiguous emotional blackmail. One night, Séverine rewards him, but also suggests that he should get rid of her husband. Lantier lies in wait for the man but is unable to do the foul deed. Instead, in one of his fits of madness he ends up killing Séverine and the next day jumps to his death from the speeding train. What makes this hardboiled film noir great are the scenes with the steam locomotives: the film is larded with impressive traveling shots with the camera on the huge locomotive, racing through the French countryside or entering under the roof of a large station, spitting out steam. In a double sense a "steamy movie," this thriller was the greatest commercial success in Renoir's career.
  7. The Rules of the Game (La règle du jeu) (1939)
    Again a scathing critique of the class system, this time in the form of a country house farce "with teeth." A weekend at a marquis' castle in the countryside lays bare some ugly truths about a group of upper middle class acquaintances. Made on the eve of WWII, it shows European society and its disintegrating values as doomed. There is no protagonist, but in this lavish ensemble piece we see the hosts and guests as a group, as the class that was responsible for the hopeless situation of Europe. "The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons" (as the most famous line in this film goes), and those reasons are used to justify acts like murder and suicide. In the center of the film stands a long hunting scene (with Renoir's expert long shots) that reveals the volcano seething below the feet of the characters. Booed and banned (and nearly destroyed) at its premiere, The Rules of the Game was rehabilitated by the New Wave and shown at the 1956 Venice Film festival. It is now generally considered one of the greatest films ever made.
  8. The River (1951)
    Jean Renoir's first Technicolor feature, shot entirely on location in India (with American capital and Indian cooperation - among them future Indian film maker Satyajit Ray), is a bittersweet, Ozu-like account of the growing-up pains of three (colonial) young women, contrasted with the immutability of the river flowing in front of their homes, and full of gorgeous documentary-like color-shots of life in India. Harriet - whose father runs a jute mill - has five sisters and a ten year younger brother. The life of the young woman is shaken up when the charming Captain John, a cousin of the family next door who has lost his leg in the war, comes visiting. Harriet falls in love with him and shows him her secret diary, but he reacts only in a friendly, fatherly way. She later is shocked to see him kiss her best friend - but this is just sport for Captain John, who is really in love with Melanie, the mixed-blood daughter of the family where he is staying. But Melanie finds him stiff and overbearing and senses a big cultural gulf between them. The Captain eventually leaves (still a single man), but not before Harriet - who also feels responsible for the death of her small brother because of a snake bite - has lost the will to live and tries to commit suicide by floating down the river in a small skiff - happily, she is rescued by fishermen. Not only a visual tour de force, but also a very poetic and wise film, enriched by Renoir's subtle understanding of India and its people (a new, non-colonial view; although the story is set in colonial times, Renoir made the film just after India's independence in 1947). The wisdom shows in the retelling of a beautiful Indian legend with the message that things are not always as they seem, and that other persons may see the same things differently, and also in the contrast between the transitory emotions of the protagonists and the unchanging flow of the River, a symbol of everlasting Nature. The River won the International Award at the Venice Film Festival of 1951 and was nominated for the Golden Lion.
  9. French Cancan (1954)
    A loving tribute to art and the theater that reminds me of a painting by Degas come alive. A lyrical film full of movement, color and romance in which Renoir was reunited with Jean Gabin for the final time. Gabin plays a  Belle Époque Parisian nightclub impresario determined to transform the cancan, an outmoded folk dance, into the rage of the city. The spectacle of the dance in the finale, with its crashing waves of color, is justly famous. The lives of the characters in the film and especially their loves, are just as fluid and evolving. The film also demonstrates the difference between show business people and the rest of the world. The female lead is expertly played by Francoise Arnoul. Although The Golden Coach (1953) is also very interesting - Truffaut based the name of his production company, Les films du Carosse, on this film - I prefer French Cancan for its joie de vivre and the fact that its bright, frivolous surface hides a deeper undercurrent. 
    Interesting article on Renoir by Peter Bogdanovich; Orson Welles on Renoir
    With the exception of Le crime de Monsieur Lange, all the above films are available from The Criterion Collection. 
    References: The Rough Guide to Film (Penguin Group, 2007); Have You Seen...? by David Thomson (Penguin Books, 2008). IMDB, The Criterion Collection, Slant Magazine, Senses of Cinema, Bright Lights Film Journal. Photos linked from Wikipedia. This series covers two blogs, Japan Navigator for Japanese directors and Splendid Labyrinths for non-Japanese directors.
    1. Jean Renoir 2. Kenji Mizoguchi 3. Luis Buñuel 4. Yasujiro Ozu 5. Max Ophüls 6. Akira Kurosawa