Showing posts with label Silent Film Reviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Silent Film Reviews. Show all posts

Monday, June 13, 2016

The Nail in the Boot: Stylish Propaganda from a 1932 Soviet Silent

Don’t feel bad if you’re unfamiliar with The Nail in the Boot. In fact, don’t feel bad even if you’ve never heard of the director, Mikhail Kalatozov, or any of his other film works. The Soviets wanted it that way. For many decades, they got their wish.

The Nail in the Boot was the first feature drama from Kalatozov, who had previously focused on documentaries. Salt for Svanetia (1930), a film about the scarcity of salt in the remote town of Svanetia, is today considered a masterpiece of Soviet cinema. At the time, though, it was heavily criticized for what Stalinists saw as a fascination with the small mountain village’s simple-mindedness and belief in superstition. Kalatozov was on shaky ice with the powers that be. With The Nail in the Boot, the director set out to make a film that highlighted the importance of flawless production from industrial workers—an idea that should have put him back in their good graces—but it dramatically backfired.

The boot in question.
Painfully trying to climb the barbed wire.

The plot of The Nail in the Boot is so simple it could almost be a fairy tale, and it veers into territory that's decidedly Grimm. An armored train on maneuvers is attacked by imperialist forces, and the soldiers—all communist workers drafted from the same boot factory—send one man off on foot to deliver the message that they need immediate reinforcements. He sets off dutifully enough, but is hobbled by a nail that penetrates his foot from his poorly-made boots (ironically made by his soldier companions and co-workers at the factory, whose lives depend on him). He bears on, clearly in excruciating pain, attempting to soldier on with his shoes removed, but ultimately, the pain is too much. He sits down to bathe his foot in a stream, as his comrades speed towards their deaths on a doomed train, the message undelivered.

The film’s visuals are so raw, so stark, that in my memory they seem almost like still pictures. Kalatozov focuses on the detailed machinery of the train, the insides of gun barrels, individual shells, tracks, wheels, steam, and smoke. From these parts, we get a feel for the whole, and somehow manage to grasp the brutality of war from these pieces. This train is a battleground, but we also get a sense of the factory and the mechanized environment where the soldiers worked. While this is a late silent, the film feels loud, and if it had sound effects, our ears would bleed from the impact of the men shouting, the gun blasts, the steel on the tracks, explosions, and the train crash. 

Soviet propaganda: the parts that make the whole.

Objects get camera time far more than faces do (at least in the first ⅔ of the film), so when Kalatozov does linger on a face, it maximizes the impact of the emotion. The Dreyer-esque close-ups ensure that we see and feel every shred of what the characters are experiencing, from the soldiers awaiting their death to the defeated soldier with the wounded foot when he sees the miles and miles of barbed wire keeping him from his destination.

The last third of the film takes place after the attack on the armored train, at the court martial of the soldier. The dark scene takes place in a courtroom more frightening than any Brutalist architect could devise, presided over by a menacing officer who looks like he just ate glass for breakfast. The severe angles and dark atmosphere make things look pretty foreboding for our soldier, but we know he’s done nothing wrong—right? We saw the anguish on his face when he could walk no further. We saw how hard he tried to keep walking on his increasingly-infected foot, going miles further than even seemed possible, trying to scale the barbed wire, forcing himself to try to do what ultimately couldn’t be done. He is questioned:

“Does the accused know that on maneuvers it is the same as war?”

“Does he understand the importance of delivering the report?”

“Does he understand the oath of the Revolutionary soldier?”

He nods in agreement to each question, as if to say of course.

He is given a hypothetical situation: “You are captured. The enemy orders you to shoot at your own troops!...” He shakes his head: No, never.

Things look pretty bleak at this trial.

But according to the court, he’s already guilty. “You did shoot! A report not delivered … is the same as a bullet!”

“He pitied his own feet and destroyed the armored train.”

At this point, the courtroom, which seemed almost completely bare before, is teeming with men. It seems that every time the crowd is shown, it has multiplied, and now there are hundreds of jeering onlookers. Everyone is against him, and they call for his death. If this all seems pretty nightmarish, it’s only getting started. At this point, things take a turn for the twisted when something happens that I’m certain has never happened in any other courtroom scene before or since: a parade marches in. Drummers, cornet-players, and a gang of marching youths strut into the courtroom bearing a huge banner that says “We don’t want fathers like him.” It would be hilarious if it weren’t for the certainty that the soldier has been condemned not just by the court, but by everyone. His fate, like the fate of the soldiers on the wrecked train, is sealed.

An unexpected courtroom parade.

Kalatozov’s point seems clear enough. The shoddy work of one factory boot-maker has led to the deaths of a whole unit of soldiers, and has also destroyed the life of the man who held their fate in his hands (or his foot). At one point in the courtroom scene, the soldier tries to defend himself, asking if the workers who made the boot shouldn’t be equally at fault. This is proletariat propaganda at its most distilled. Every worker must strive for perfection for the good of all.

Yet, the Soviet censors didn’t see it that way. The film, they thought, was critical of the capabilities of the Red Army. They didn’t want to look like losers who could be undone by one man’s boot. The film was banned and never released.

Mikhail Kalatazov, one of the greatest Soviet filmmakers, was relegated to an administrative position at Tiflis studios. By 1939, he was allowed to direct again, but until the death of Stalin, he could only make official films. Finally loosed from the bounds of Soviet regulations, he made The Cranes Are Flying in 1957, which became the first Russian film to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It wasn’t until 2010 that the public saw the first retrospective of his silent work.

This post was written for the Order in the Court Blogathon. You can find more writing about the courtroom in film at Second Sight Cinema and Cinemaven's Essays from the Couch.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Waxworks (1924): Paul Leni's Early Horror Anthology Film Is Big on Style

If there’s anything I’ve learned from studying early film, it’s that one has to be very careful about throwing around the word “first.” With so many silent films gone forever, what we think of as the first example of a type of film is often merely the first surviving example. (See the Film Dirt post on the first werewolf film, which may just turn your ideas about film werewolfery upside down.) 

Paul Leni’s Waxworks is often referred to as the earliest horror film anthology, and while it could be argued that it’s the first influential one (or the first good one), it’s predated by 1919’s Eerie Tales. (If you know of one that beats Eerie Tales, by all means, let me know.) If there’s anything makes Waxworks questionable as an anthology horror film, it’s the fact that the stories are not strictly horrific, but a mix of fantasy, adventure, and horror—in a similar vein to a Weird Tales comic, if you ask me, and those are classified as horror. Horror takes many forms, from the somewhat thrilling to the truly gruesome, and  Waxworks covers the gamut. Most everyone who sees it will have a favorite segment, and which segment that is may depend largely on a person’s preferred genre (or favorite actor).

Wax figures on display in Waxworks. Note the third figure, whose segment was cut from the film due to budget constraints.

Waxworks was director Paul Leni’s last film in Germany before he headed to Hollywood at the behest of Carl Laemmle and made some of the most important horror films of the late silent era: The Cat and the Canary (1927)—which practically invented the “old dark house” genre—and The Man Who Laughs (1928). The film’s German title is Das Wachsfigurenkabinett, an example of the kind of thing Mark Twain likely had in mind when he wrote that “some German words are so long that they have a perspective.” If the “kabinett” part evokes The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, it’s no accident. Leni didn’t just make use of Caligari’s two leads (Conrad Veidt and Werner Krauss); he patterned the whole film on its successful predecessor, right down to the fairground setting.

The film begins as a young poet (William Dieterle) answers a newspaper ad seeking a writer “for publicity work in a wax museum.” Though nothing seems to make sense about a wax museum needing an in-house writer, he takes a what-could-possibly-go-wrong attitude and applies within. The proprietor is played by John Gottowt, who silent horror fans will know from The Student of Prague, Genuine, and as Nosferatu’s version of Van Helsing. He has a lovely daughter as an assistant (of course), and they ask the writer to come up with some “startling tales” about the wax figures on display, hoping it will somehow drum up business. (“I wish there were more here to read”--said no wax museum patron ever.) While the three are perusing the figures in the wax collection, Harun al-Rashid’s arm falls off (making it even more puzzling that the proprietor thinks hiring a poet is the best use of his budget). The writer—proving he’s really keen to earn his paycheck—gets right to work, saying he’ll write a story about how the figure lost his arm.

Seems legit.
If he continues to print the whole story like this, he's going to need a lot of paper.

Thus, we are transported into an Arabian Nights tale, with Emil Jannings playing against type as a rather goofy, huge-bellied Caliph. The poet imagines himself as a humble pie baker whose billowing smoke causes al-Rashid to lose a game of chess and subsequently demand the baker’s head. He sends his Grand Vizier to do the head-chopping, but he returns sans head to report that the baker may be in possession of something much more interesting than his noggin: his sexpot of  a wife. The Caliph, in disguise, sets out to seduce the baker’s wife, and he couldn’t be more repulsive, making the hourglass shape with his hands, calling her “my casket of honey,” and practically drooling all over her. Meanwhile, the baker has stolen into the Caliph’s abode and stolen his magic ring (a pretty adventurous, not to mention stylish, scene unfolds as he is pursued). Hijinks ensue when he returns home, where his wife has locked the door and hidden the Caliph in the oven to avoid the appearance of infidelity. The magic ring ends up saving the day, and everyone ends up pretty happy.

A very stylish Baghdad.

The second segment features Ivan the Terrible, played by the unmatchable Conrad Veidt. Veidt is exciting even at the film’s beginning when he’s merely posing as the wax version of Ivan. He no doubt got some practice at being still when he played Caligari’s somnambulist, but here he’s wide-eyed, and somehow almost as expressive as when he’s in motion. His Ivan is appropriately terrible, skulking around in torture dungeons and relishing the deaths of his victims. The official Poison Mixer, who also seems to be something of a mystic, announces an impending victim by writing his name on an hourglass. After the glass is turned over and the poison introduced, the victim dies as the last bit of sand falls. Ivan becomes increasingly paranoid that he will be targeted, and even manages to have a nobleman killed by trading clothes with him and letting him be assassinated. We know Ivan’s number is up, though, when the Poison Mixer writes “ZAR IWAN” on his hourglass. Veidt is deliciously manic as he continuously turns over the hourglass, hoping to postpone his inevitable end. 

Veidt doing what he does best: playing insanity.

Segment three is the shortest, but is perhaps the most memorable of all the stories. The title cards refer to the third villain as “Spring Heeled Jack,” while the credits refer to “Jack the Ripper.” The Werner Krauss character bears the most resemblance to an updated Ripper as his wax figure comes to life and stalks the poet and the owner’s daughter through the museum’s twisted, expressionistic halls—which easily call to mind a stylized version of the streets of London, foreshadowing 1927’s The Lodger. (Spring Heeled Jack, it should be noted, was a character from urban legends, known for looking like a demon and jumping off of rooftops. Though many sources think he’s the character being referenced here, I respectfully disagree, and believe Leni simply confused his name with the other notorious Jack.) In somewhat predictable fashion (though common for the time), the poet awakes just as Jack begins to do his ripping. 

Screenshot from the exceptionally expressionistic Ripper scene.

The brief Ripper sequence was meant to segue into a fourth story, though budget constraints are said to have led to its elimination. The missing tale was to be the story of Rinaldo Rinaldini, a robber captain who appeared in a popular penny dreadful of the late 18th century. You can still see the wax figure of Rinaldini, who was to be played by Dieterle, in the film’s early scenes. (He’s the guy in the big hat.)

Even with all the German film luminaries involved, the film’s design is the true star of Waxworks. Leni has given Caligari  a run for its money with his deep shadows, neon signs, merry-go-rounds and warped staircases. While it’s far from realistic—the city of Baghdad looks like an abstract charcoal painting—it’s exactly what Leni wanted. In his own words, the director said, “For my film Waxworks I have tried to create sets so stylized that they evidence no idea of reality. All it seeks to engender is an indescribable fluidity of light, moving shapes, shadows, lines, and curves.” And: “I cannot stress too strongly how important it is for a designer to shun the world seen everyday and to attain its true sinews…”

Waxworks production sketch by Paul Leni.

Part of the cast and crew of Waxworks.

A word should be said about the score, composed and performed by Jon C. Mirsalis on the version I watched (part of Kino’s 2004 German Horror Classics collection, and also available as a standalone DVD). I’ve been lucky enough to hear Mirsalis play at live screenings, and here he is appropriately stylish—a musical counterpart to Leni’s work—without ever overshadowing the film. A perfect accompaniment.

Though not the first true horror anthology film, Waxworks set the standard for anthology films to follow, and its influence is evident in non-anthology films as well. Veidt’s performance as Ivan was the model for Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible in 1946, and the Harun al-Raschid segment reportedly inspired Douglas Fairbanks to make Lawrence of Arabia. Leni’s influence would no doubt have made his name as huge as Murnau’s or Browning’s is today, had it not been for his death in 1929 at age 44, from blood poisoning caused by an infected tooth. Leni was slated to direct Dracula, for which Universal had recently acquired the rights, with Conrad Veidt to star. The teaming of Leni and Veidt for Universal’s Dracula may be one of Hollywood’s greatest what-might-have-beens  (though no one can really argue with the success of the resulting Browning/Lugosi film).

Leni may not have lived long enough to become one of the household names in horror, but all of his films deserve a long look, and Waxworks deserves its place in early horror film history. 

This film was originally watched as part of Film Dirt's 31 Days of Silent Horror. See the full list here.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Silent film review: Buster Keaton in Sherlock, Jr. (1924)

I hear a lot of people say that they can’t “get into” watching silent films. I understand—I really do. Silent film has its own language. As with reading poetry or watching an opera, one has to first crack the code. Some films require less code-breaking than others, and Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr. is a case in point.

Silent comedy can sometimes be easier for the silent film beginner to appreciate than some dour drama. What’s perhaps most fascinating isn’t seeing how much has changed, but seeing what hasn’t. While some will laugh more than others at the antics in Sherlock, Jr., I defy anyone to avoid laughing at all. And when you do—that’s an almost 100 year-old joke that’s cracking you up, which is pretty amazing.

Buster Keaton daydreaming on the job in Sherlock Jr.

Sherlock, Jr. isn’t just a good intro to silent film comedy: it’s a good intro to Buster Keaton. Keaton was 24 when he starred in and directed the film for his own production company, Buster Keaton Productions. The film takes full advantage of Keaton’s physical comedy agility—honed from childhood when he took pratfalls as part of a family vaudeville act—but manages to transcend broad humor. It’s funny, yes, but you’ll find it’s something more.

Keaton plays a movie theater projectionist who daydreams about becoming a detective. When a romantic rival sets him up to take the fall for a stolen watch, he sets out to catch the real thief, aided by tips in his amateur sleuthing book—but he fails spectacularly. In a sort of reverse of Purple Rose of Cairo, Keaton falls asleep in the projection room and dreams himself into the film on the screen. We see him leave his body and enter the film as a suave, top-hatted gentleman detective who, in the film-within-a-film, cracks the case and gets the girl. 

His skills as a projectionist are about equal to his skills as a detective.

The storyline allows for lots of comedy sequences, and it’s almost astounding how many big ones are packed into this film. Keaton is balanced on the handlebars of a motorbike, unaware that the driver had fallen off, as the bike propels him across the countryside for a ridiculously long time. The sequence is as funny as it is breathtaking—a triumph of stunt work.

Perhaps the most famous comedy sequence in Sherlock, Jr. comes when Keaton tails his suspect, literally following behind him as he goes about his business. Trying to evade detection, Keaton ends up on top of a moving train car (Oh, Buster!) and is then doused by a reservoir. Keaton famously did his own stunts (Jackie Chan cites him as a major influence), and it’s a wonder he wasn’t killed. In fact, Keaton broke his neck performing the water tower stunt, and didn’t discover it until much later, when he complained to his doctor of a headache. 

Water tower sequence during which Keaton broke his neck:

A lesser-mentioned comedy sequence that deserves mention is a billiard game played by Keaton (as the gentleman detective) and his suspect. The eight-ball has been filled with an explosive in an effort to take out the detective, yet he manages, in a series of increasingly ridiculous shots, to avoid hitting it completely. At one point, Keaton lets the minor characters get the laughs, as the butler describes the inept shots. As the film is silent, it’s interesting how well the shots can be visualized with a few hand gestures. The unseen shots are even funnier than the ones we see.

Yes, the film is funny, and that can’t be overstated, but as I said, the film is something more, which is almost something you have to see for yourself. Keaton’s fantasizing of himself on the screen speaks to the way in which we watch films ourselves, dreaming of ourselves in the roles. When he awakes, he finds that his girl has made everything right, and all is well with the world, yet we see Keaton sneak peeks at the playboy on the screen for tips on how to woo her. There’s an obvious blending of the unreal and the real, as his fantasy affects reality. 

Keaton literally gets into the film he's screening.

Kathryn McGuire is perhaps best known for playing the girl in the film (she’s literally credited as “The Girl”). She started as a Mack Sennett comedienne and later made some cowboy flicks before retiring from film in 1933. Keep an eye out for the girl’s father: he’s played by Joe Keaton, Buster’s dad, and head of the family of vaudevillians in which he grew up and honed his great physical comedy skills.

The Kino DVD (which is also the version streaming on Netflix) features a jazzy score by the Club Foot Orchestra that manages to seem both modern and timeless. Of course, if you get the chance to see Sherlock, Jr. in an actual theater that shows film, don’t miss the chance. You might just find yourself, like the title character, transported right into the movie.

Sherlock, Jr., full film on YouTube. (Good quality. Does not have the CFO score, though it is scored.)

Full film on Netflix (with account).

Buy Sherlock, Jr. at Amazon.