This list (in two parts, of which this is the first) is chronological. It consists of a snapshot of the 100 best films through 2007, in my opinion on a particular day, from Germany, or East or West Germany, the Scandinavian countries (Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden), Finland and Austria. There are two “cheats” from elsewhere: Pabst’s “Don Quixote,” which was made in German-, French- and English-language versions, and Herzog’s “Herdsmen of the Sun,” which is from France and is in French. They are included so that they can accompany other films, from Germany, by the same filmmakers. On the other hand, I have not included Wenders’ “Paris, Texas,” which is included in the 100 Greatest English-Language Films List. I have, however, included Wenders’ “The Soul of a Man,” which is substantially in English. Murnau’s “Sunrise” and Sjöström’s “The Wind,” films that these artists made in Hollywood and in English, are included in the English-language list and are not included here. Orson Welles’s “The Trial,” also in English but from West Germany and France, is included in both the 100 Greatest Films and 100 Greatest English-Language Films Lists, but not here.
Necessarily limited to films I have seen (although, in some cases, just once and long ago), this list can scarcely be characterized as comprehensive. There are simply too many notable films from Germany and Scandinavia I have altogether missed. Below, you will certainly find one hundred beautiful pieces of work. You may be surprised, though, not to find some titles, such as Bergman’s exalted “Persona,” which I feel doesn’t live up to the brilliance of the short experimental film with which it opens, and the Danish films “Babette’s Feast” and “Pelle the Conqueror,” which won consecutive Oscars in the late 1980s in the category of best foreign-language film. I especially admire Bille August’s “Pelle,” but 100 is a finite number, and not everything could get in.
1. INGEBORG HOLM. From Nils Krok’s play, writer-director Victor Sjöström’s Ingeborg Holm is one of cinema’s earliest masterpieces, an overwhelming tearjerker about mother-love that strikes resonant chords of social commitment and consciousness. Its target is Sweden’s poor laws; its tack, to expose their deviation from Nature.
Hilda Borgström is irresistibly moving as Ingeborg Holm, who plummets into bankruptcy after the death of her husband, Sven, and her unsuccessful attempt to keep the family business, a grocery, going. She ends up with an ulcer and a bed in the poor-house, separated from her three young children, the youngest of whom is “boarded out” (whatever that means), and the other two assigned to different foster households—an arrangement she agrees to, hoping to prevent their becoming beggars. (Her own official identity has become “Ingeborg Holm, pauper.”) When her only daughter, Valborg, falls gravely ill, with the system refusing to pay for her necessary operation, Ingeborg runs away and visits her dying child, whose foster parents live out in the country. Ingeborg’s flight to Valborg’s bedside visually connects her (for our eye) to Nature, much as her forced separation from her children assaulted a parent’s natural bond with her children. Ingeborg is captured and returned to the poor-house; Valborg dies; brought in to visit, her younger boy no longer recognizes her. Ingeborg, shattered, drops into madness. Fifteen years later, Eric, her older son, a seafarer, who has held onto a photograph of his mother that she had once packed for her children, discovers her condition; but once he shows her the photograph, Ingeborg Holm is restored to herself and her sanity.
Each scene unfolds patiently and to the emotional full.
The same actor plays father and grown son, which influenced the casting of Hollywood’s To Each His Own thirty years hence.
2. A MAN THERE WAS. From Henrik Ibsen’s poem, Victor Sjöström’s Terje Vigen, from Sweden, is about a Norwegian sailor (Sjöström, robust, excellent), who, returning home, finds waiting for him, along with his wife, the fruit of his previous homecoming: an infant daughter. Terje Vigen “sobers down” as a result, rejecting a night of barroom comradery in favor of staying home. Implicitly, were his wife still his only companion, Vigen would scoot out in a heartbeat.
The land and the sea, family and himself: these polar forces tug at Vigen’s heart. (In an amazing shot, Vigen stands at the open door of his cottage, looking out, his body indeed leaning out, the sea beckoning him.) A British blockade during the Napoleonic Wars leaves his family destitute, starving. Vigen will leave wife and daughter, but fortified with a rationalization capable of concealing his abandoning them: he will impossibly defy the naval blockade and procure food for his family at a safe port. On his way home the inevitable occurs; he is captured and imprisoned by the British. Part of the brilliant flexibility of Sjöström’s film is its impassioned anti-war plea at the time of another European war; but Terje Vigen homes in on Terje Vigen. Returning home, he discovers that wife and child both died after he “fled.” His denial that he did this provokes Vigen to seek unChristian revenge against the British captain who barred his reunion with homeland, wife, family. The sight of the man’s wife and daughter, though, purges Vigen of this madness and confronts him with his own responsibility. The closing image is one of peace and redemption: the cross marking the shared grave of his wife and daughter.
Here facilitating his plans, there obstructing them, the sea suggests Vigen’s tortured ambivalence, his convoluted psychology.
3. THE OUTLAW AND HIS WIFE. The argument has been made that Sweden’s Victor Sjöström was cinema’s first genuine artist. Cinema, which began as a visual recording device in the late nineteenth century, evolved into an art form, and Sjöström is given a good deal of credit for inventing or refining an expressive visual vocabulary for its use.
The Outlaw and His Wife is widely regarded as Sjöström’s masterpiece. It is about a couple on the run from the law.
In a key passage, the isolating height of mountains where the “outlaws” hide projects the egotism into which their circumstance has pushed them. From this height, in order to protect their infant from police capture and contamination, the woman hurls down the baby; the subsequent cut away—quick, startling—vividly conveys what brusque, desperate, incoherent and deadly acts this kind of egotism enables. (In addition, the abrupt cut shortcircuits any irrelevant sentimental response.) Both the shot describing the mother’s misguidedly protective act and the cut, then, conspire to reveal the woman’s harried mental state as well as Sjöström’s own, very different feelings regarding both the act and all this innocent couple has been forced to endure that has led to the commission of the act. To generalize: What we see here does more than move a plot along or provide dramatic emphasis; it means something.
It is also worth noting this purposefulness and expressiveness in another context. Silent Swedish cinema is celebrated for its pastoral beauty. Again, however, the scene I have described goes beyond merely recording natural splendor. Daunting rather than delightful, the setting illumines the feelings and psychology of the characters.
Sjöström uses film to disclose what is on his mind and what is in the minds of his characters.
4. LEAVES FROM SATAN’S BOOK. D. W. Griffith ponderously made Intolerance (1916) to prove he wasn’t the sentimental racist that The Birth of a Nation (1915) showed him to be. For me, the film is soporific. My opinion hasn’t prevailed. Filmmakers at the time, and since, have felt the film’s enormous influence.
Its collection of stories depicting different historical times and places within a loose philosophical framework informs Denmark’s Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Leaves from Satan’s Book.
I reject much of the film, for instance, the segments on the French and Bolshevik Revolutions, where his sense of decorum finds Dreyer siding with reactionary forces. Nevertheless, the first two segments, on the Christ’s Passion and the Spanish Inquisition, are brilliant.
Naturalistic and unaffected, the Christ material has been surpassed only once, with Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew. (At his death, Dreyer left unfilmed a long-planned film about the life of Jesus.)
According to Leaves, Judas is seduced into betraying Jesus by the argument that Jesus’s death is preordained and necessary for the completion of his mission. But the segment on the sixteenth-century Spanish Inquisition is the film’s most trenchant revelation of the workings of evil in our world. The terrifying opening shot is of torture devices in a dungeon. For a monk who is smitten with the aristocrat’s daughter he is instructing, an image of a saint assumes her sensuous form. Satan, the “Grand Inquisitor,” manipulates his unacted-on feelings, impressing the monk into service to the Inquisition, in which capacity he is ordered to condemn the woman he loves as a heretic—a rough sketch for Day of Wrath (see 1943).
For Dreyer, whose The Marked Ones (see 1922) is the most compassionate Gentile film ever made about Jewish suffering, religious persecution is unfounded in faith.
5. THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI. Made in Germany at the close of the decade and released at the dawn of the next, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari applies German expressionism to a masked meditation on the distress Germany suffered following its defeat in the First World War. It remains among the most intriguing and harrowing of horror films.
Robert Wiene directed Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz’s script about an itinerant showman under whose hypnotic spell a somnambulist commits nocturnal murders. There is a narrative framing device: the chance encounter of two strangers leading to an extended flashback that discloses “the truth”: the man who condemns this showman is, in fact, an inmate escaped from the insane asylum the man he accuses heads. No wonder, then, he loathes and fears Caligari! Only, can we not glean from the final fadeout—an ambiguous closeup of the “good” doctor—a likely germ of truth in the madman’s ravings? The last shot pulls the rug out from under us, leaving our minds in a scramble to sort out the film’s suggestions and insinuations.
To the sort of décor, in France, Georges Méliès had used in his curiously literal fantasies (among them, the 1902 A Trip to the Moon), Caligari’s painted backdrops, with their distorted perspectives, add an ambiguous subjectivism, helping film to become thereby a striking means of dark psychological probing. But that is not all. Here, proceeding from this probing are social and political implications that mine the national mood that eventually will give rise in Germany to Nazism.
History, then, would provide the lion’s share of this extraordinary film’s horrific aspect.
6. THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE. The Phantom Carriage is often disparaged as an inferior example of Victor Sjöström’s art, but it happens to be one of the few silent films of his that’s widely available. Part of the problem, I think, is the film’s immense popularity. Some take aim at it just because of that.
For me, it is a finely realized piece of work. As with The Outlaw and His Wife, Sjöström himself stars, this time, as David Holm, who, like Scrooge, revisits scenes of his derelict life—but at the stroke of New Year’s rather than on Christmas Eve. Through this narrative device, we ourselves become acquainted with Holm’s character and life. Although he began as a hard worker, the temptation of alcohol took hold of Holm, costing him his job, undermining his marriage, and leading him to crime and prison. His agency of redemption becomes the death of a Salvation Army nurse who has vowed to save him.
The film’s narrative is, in fact, convoluted in the extreme, but this becomes correlative to the tangle of Holm’s life and the difficulty of his becoming free of it. The film is exceptionally gray, and this part of its visual aspect, as well as its detailed portrait of slum life, achieves a degree of observant realism that may strike Americans, at least, as Dreiserian. Holm’s shabby existence is thus linked to an unwholesome social environment. But it is for its fantastic and expressionistic elements that the film is famous, in particular, its use of double exposures, and its images of Death, eerily nocturnal amidst fog and by the sea, riding its phantom carriage and making its collections. Without doubt, Dreyer’s Vampyr (see 1931), the most magical and brilliant of all horror films, owes something to Sjöström’s achievement here.
Sjöström’s performance, incidentally, is tremendous.
7. THE PARSON’S WIDOW. Carl Theodor Dreyer made comedies as well as tragedies, but none so lunatic or fantastic as his Swedish The Parson’s Widow.
In seventeenth-century Norway, a young divinity school graduate wins an appointment to a parsonage that is intended to facilitate marriage with his sweetheart. Unfortunately, along with the parsonage comes the obligation to care for the previous parson’s crone-like widow, whom he reluctantly marries, while passing off his true beloved as his sister. Hopes for the sturdy woman’s demise end in disappointment, and doing away with her proves an impossible task, as she seems to possess supernatural powers. Can this all end happily?
Although very funny, The Parson’s Widow is not without purpose. Dreyer shows (along two paths) that the course of true love never did run smooth, and plumbs the tension between self-determination and moral obligations to others, between self and community. It is the Protestant Christian balance that Dreyer pursues—a point his protagonist’s résumé underscores. The resolution of the cleric’s crisis ends the film on an unexpectedly warm, humanistic note.
Perhaps the film is most perceptive in its analysis of guilt—the rationalizations that allow good people (such as the parson) to do or to contemplate doing bad things. The young man proposes marriage to the parson’s widow only when, inebriated from drink she has provided at dinner, he imagines her young and lovely—a fantasy suggesting his struggle to reconcile himself to his obligation to care for the woman. When, later, he dresses up as Satan in order to frighten her to death, we are, ironically, faced with his moral self-image for attempting thus to murder her.
With its touch of Boccaccio, The Parson’s Widow is likely to expand anyone’s narrow notion of Dreyer’s range.
8. DESTINY. We commonly call Fritz Lang’s masterpiece Destiny, but the German title actually translates as The Weary Death. The most spiritually refined film ever made, its seemingly endless outdoor staircase, a symbol of aspiration, reappears (along with Lang himself) in Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (1963).
The pastoral opening movement is both enchanting and full of foreboding. Two young lovers, so shy they cover their goose in order to kiss, are all of a sudden chilled to the bone by what appears on the road: a gaunt, seemingly ancient being entering a carriage as an elderly woman quits it. This is Death; and, while this image of it inspired Ingmar Bergman’s in The Seventh Seal (1956), somehow Lang’s is less susceptible to parody.
Soviet silent films rarely have much story or structural complication; German silents generally have a lot of both. The scene shifts from country to town, from outdoors to inn, and to an unspecified past. The topic of conversation among men at the inn is Death, leading to a flashback—a flashback, hence, within a flashback—showing a gravedigger’s encounter with Death. Death, weary from its travels, buys a piece of land by the cemetery.
The main plot involves a woman’s descent into the land of the dead in order to reclaim her husband. Three alternative destinies, however, all end with the same conclusion; but Death gives her another chance. She must find someone who is willing to die in her husband’s place. When this also fails, she chooses death for herself so she may rejoin her beloved. Thea von Harbou, Lang’s wife, wrote the script.
No matter. It is its magical visual aspect—there is, in fact, a magician in the cast of characters—that makes the film a towering achievement. Alfred Hitchcock decided to become a filmmaker after seeing Lang’s Destiny.
9. THE MARKED ONES. Critic Andrew Sarris once wrote that Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) may be the most compassionate film ever made. A stronger candidate might be Dreyer’s Die Gezeichneten, sometimes called Love One Another. It marshals a multiplicity of plots to achieve a powerful vision of the plight of Jewish people in tsarist Russia during the failed 1905 revolution following Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese War. (To locate the time, think Potemkin.) Adapting a novel by Danish author Aage Madelung, it was made in both German and Russian versions.
Dreyer achieves a trenchant, detailed portrait of adverse living conditions, of squalor and cramped quarters, and painstakingly draws a causal relationship between these and human behavior, including the minutest inflections of such behavior. To accomplish this, he relies heavily on his actors, mostly Russian emigrés.
His portrait of hatred and prejudice targeting Jews becomes ironical when violence is triggered against a village from St. Petersburg, to which Hanna Segal has migrated from the village, and where a man masquerading as a monk, along with a childhood friend of Hanna’s, helps whip up a frenzy of anti-Semitic hate.
Indeed, more than the plot is ironical. The film’s opening movement features a good many instances of doors opening and closing—but to suggest the entrapment of villagers in their environment.
The mass slaughter that ultimately erupts anticipates similar passages in Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) and Dreyer’s own The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928).
Dreyer, the devout Christian, embraces his Jewish characters as fellow and sister beings. In his essay “Who Crucified Jesus?” (1951) he likens the Romans to the Gestapo, and in another, “The Roots of Anti-Semitism” (1959), Dreyer credits Judaism for an idea that is central to his philosophy: that “all human beings are equal to God.”
10. NOSFERATU. Max Schreck is hideously made up as Count Orlock, the undead, in Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s Nosferatu, based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Make of this what you will: Kenneth Branagh patterned the movements of his Hamlet (1996) on the stylized walk of Schreck as Orlock/Nosferatu!
In order to save her husband, and to free Bremen from the pestilence Nosferatu has brought with it from the Carpathians, Eillen avails herself of the one proven way to destroy a vampire, submitting to its loathsome advances in her bed chamber, detaining the thing until the crowing of the cock, whereupon it dissolves into nothingness like a nightmare at the dawn’s light. For Eillen, the necessary forfeit is her life.
Eillen’s spouse, Hutter, seems “outside” his marriage, much as Nosferatu is outside life. In an “idyllic” early passage, Hutter rompingly gathers wildflowers; Eillen responds by longingly caressing the bouquet as though it were a baby—the child, the image implies, marriage to Hutter hasn’t given her. Blissfully unaware, Hutter fails to respond to Eillen’s heartache; acting more like a toy husband than a real one, he is draining her lifeblood. Her stunted marriage causes Eillen to desire Nosferatu, a husband-substitute, as much as Nosferatu desires her. But to submit to Nosferatu, even to save Hutter from also becoming the undead, is to betray her marriage, to admit its pointlessness.
The film achieves a captivating form in the phantomlike effects Murnau conjures. He locates, in imaginative space, a twilit blending of fantasy and reality, shadow and substance, death and life, and, following Kierkegaard, the twin components of dread, attraction and repulsion, revulsion and desire. In the same vein, Nosferatu’s sea journey to Bremen impresses as a journey of the mind—Eillen’s shrouded, twisted, storm-tossed unconscious to which the failure of her marriage has given birth.
11. THE STREET. Karl Grune’s captivating vision of Parisian nightlife dispenses with title-cards in order to achieve an uninterrupted flow of images.
A man, in a rut at home, dreams of the excitement of “the street.” One evening, he leaves wife and home to pursue his dream but is lured into misadventure by a prostitute. He is arrested for a murder in her apartment he did not commit. As he is about to hang himself in his cell, he is released, the real killer having been inadvertently exposed by his toddler.
Three elements assist the film in transcending a melodramatic plot. One is the complex, intricate, at times expressionistic mise-en-scène, such as in the streets at night, with bristling human activity in the background while a car curves around in front of the camera in the fore-. To another element this mise-en-scène contributes: the blend of reality and artifice—the “streets” are detectably studio-bound sets—that moves the material toward abstraction and generalization. Finally, this method invites us to interpret the characters symbolically. The slinky, glamorous prostitute, the antithesis of the protagonist’s stocky, fastidious wife, a bourgeois who sweeps clean a crumbless table, is his fantasy version of his wife—a dream that turns to nightmare. The man he is accused of killing is the protagonist’s doppelganger, a revelation of his self-destructive tendency. The toddler is the child the man feels he is, unable to direct the course of his life. Released from jail, the man returns to his wife, setting his head on her shoulder as a child might when seeking consolation.
The wide-angle shot as the man walks home through the street at dawn is among cinema’s most brilliant and heartfelt images.
The Street, although set in France, reveals German defeatism and overreaching German idealism (dreams)—history would show, a dangerous combination.
12. DIE NIBELUNGEN, PARTS I & II. Dedicated to the German people, Fritz Lang’s five-hour medieval epic is awesome. The first part, “Siegfried,” remains the most starkly beautiful and darkly magical material Lang ever filmed. Siegfried, son of King Sigmund, is the apotheosis of the young hero, and his approach of the fire-breathing dragon through the dense, glistening forest is pure fairy-tale enchantment. In the lower foreground of one shot, a bifurcated trunk, in complete shadow, so frames the hero, who is in the background on horseback, that it appears the forest is giving birth to him—as indeed symbolically is the case. Siegfried slays the beast and bathes in its cascading blood, in order to render himself invincible. By soberly recording fantastic imagery at a middle distance with a fixed camera, Lang artfully nudges myth into a realistic realm while retaining fantasy’s delight. Lang grasped what Peter Jackson, the director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003), failed to grasp.
Outdoors, huge rocks and trees, and expanses of sky, dwarf humanity. King Gunter’s castle, where Siegfried goes to win Kriemhild, is another matter. The architectural designs project the fierce psychologies of the characters, who embroil “invincible” Siegfried in a plot that ends in his death, leaves Kriemhild insane in her bereavement, and sets the much more brilliant second part, “Kriemhild’s Revenge,” into motion.
Barbaric, dynamic, sweeping, the remainder of Die Niebelungen portrays Kriemhild’s marriage to Attila the Hun and her terrible revenge against her brothers for Siegfried’s death when they visit, and against her own court, because Attila, caught between his obligations as husband and host, refuses to join her in this effort. The resultant bloodbath would remain unparalleled in cinema until the Night of the Long Knives in Luchino Visconti’s The Damned (1969)—another “Twilight of the Gods.”
13. THE LAST LAUGH. Following the lead of Grune’s The Street (see 1923), F. W. Murnau discarded title-inserts to create an uninterrupted flow of images in The Last Laugh. (The German title actually translates as The Last Man.) But, for this study of a demoted hotel employee, Murnau came up with originality of his own that widened the expressive vocabulary of film. His camera moved. A lot. And with purpose, for the film’s continuously moving shots—tracking shots—are ironic counterpoint to the toppled worker’s disintegrated self-esteem.
Nevertheless, The Last Laugh isn’t quite the masterpiece its reputation suggests. While Murnau captures every nuance of his protagonist’s fall from elegantly dressed doorman, a position of visible élan, to washroom attendant, he eschews every opportunity for probing analysis. Murnau skips by any consideration of the warped basis for the man’s self-image. Like his protagonist, Murnau is fixated on the shiny-buttoned uniform. Why should status be determined by what a person’s job is? The hollowness of such a yardstick could be connected to the capriciousness of the demotion. In some larger view that Murnau doesn’t take, there may be food for thought about how employers jerk around employees, attempting to decide even their souls for them.
That said, the film fascinates, not only because of its use of camera, but also because of the towering performance that Emil Jannings gives in the lead role. The film’s worldwide success brought both Murnau and Jannings to Hollywood, with Jannings winning the first best actor Oscar (for Josef von Sternberg’s 1928 The Last Command) before returning to Germany to follow his Nazi heart.
The tacked-on happy ending, in which the crushed employee becomes rich: this has never bothered me. Indeed, it is thematically consistent, because yet again the man’s fortunes are out of his control.
14. THE JOYLESS STREET. If I were to make a list of the ten greatest shots in all of cinema, I would include the long tracking shot on the street outside the butcher’s shop in inflation-beseiged Vienna: an irregular stream of defeated faces. Generally, the tracking shot consists of two contradictory aspects: the sense of extended, even limitless, space—here, ironically, correlative to bottomless human exhaustion; a hard limit, as the moving camera comes to a halt, if only by a cut to another shot—here, correlative to the butcher, who represents humanity’s capacity to exploit the suffering of other members of the community.
If I were to make a list of the ten greatest performances in all of cinema, I would include Greta Garbo’s as Greta Rumfort, the soul of innocence, whom economic hardship nearly drives into prostitution.
The film in question, Georg Wilhelm Pabst’s The Joyless Street, is magnificent in bringing documentary realism to its portrait of the street, the beleaguered people’s lives, their shabby tenement homes, the collapse of their middle-class existence and dreams. Dubious, though, is a good deal of the melodrama, and the ongoing comparison of Greta and another girl, who does become a prostitute and ends up committing murder, seems a little too patly engineered to suggest how easily the dire fate of one might have been the dire fate of the other. One may also quibble with the cinematography, which sometimes fails to do justice to the film’s visual concepts.
Still, this is Pabst’s first outstanding film, and Garbo, just about to leave her teens, is the first truly profound film actress, to be followed shortly by Baranovskaya (Pudovkin’s Mother) and Falconetti (Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc).
15. MASTER OF THE HOUSE. “Where are my slippers? . . . How many times have I told you to serve me coffee first?”
From Svend Rindom’s play The Fall of a Tyrant, the suburban domestic comedy Master of the House, from Denmark, gives full expression to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s feminist sympathies. A man who tyrannizes his wife learns to appreciate her once she has absented herself from the home. Sensitive at last to the errors of his ways, he asks her forgiveness.
Although there are fleeting moments outdoors (such as when the tyrant castigates one of his children for wearing down his soles at play, asking, “Do you think I’m made of money?”), the film takes place almost entirely in the family’s small apartment—“a world unto itself,” the film’s preface explains. We watch the wife, for instance, doing domestic chores and tending to the children, often not in closeup but, instead, with the camera at a sufficient distance to stress her involvement in these activities rather than the activities themselves. Hers is an uncomplaining life until her feminist fairy godmother, the elderly nanny, instructs her to rebel.
It isn’t easy to suggest domestic tyranny in a silent film, absent physical violence, in which the husband does not indulge; but Dreyer and Rindom, who co-authored the script, found a visually effective way. The family has a pet canary. Its cage projects the wife’s feelings of entrapment, and equally effective is the difference in size between the overbearing head of the household and this tiny bird.
Without being overtly selfconsciously composed, the film is gorgeous. Its characters really seem to be living their lives before our inquisitive eyes. Moreover, Dreyer achieves a perfect blend of lightness and gravity. The film’s humor and psychological realism are both assured.
16. TARTUFFE. The impersonal result of a contractual obligation, Herr Tartüff is nevertheless one of F. W. Murnau’s most beautiful films. Like Dreyer’s The Parson’s Widow, Master of the House and Ordet, it’s a comedy from someone from whom we don’t expect a comedy.
Molière’s sixteenth-century play exists here as a film-within-the-film; the narrative frame encasing it is modern-day—the addition that scenarist Carl Mayer contributed. Molière’s play attacks various forms of hypocrisy, including religious hypocrisy. In the frame, a rich old man’s disinherited grandson, disguised, shows his grandfather a film of the play in order to expose the housekeeper, to whom the grandfather now plans to leave his fortune, as a greedy manipulator who only pretends to care about her employer. It is she who has convinced the old man that his grandson, an actor, is not to be trusted.
Both adversaries, ironically, are equally right. Obviously the boy is not to be trusted, as his entire ruse for exposing the housekeeper humorously demonstrates. He comes to us—the camera, that is—after his grandfather and the housekeeper throw him out of the house (on the occasion of a rare visit) to assure us he will not let matters stand as they do. He returns, his identity concealed, and more or less does to the housekeeper what she has done to him. Most feel that the boy is worthy of the inheritance. Hm. Nothing we see suggests he is any more honest, honorable or caring than the housekeeper, and, whatever her duplicity, it is the housekeeper, however imperfectly, who has been taking care of the old man day in, day out. Murnau’s film is a good deal darker and more savvy and complex than is generally acknowledged.
This also should be noted: Murnau’s shots, for all the comical punctuation, are exquisitely lovely.
17. THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED. Whether it is indeed the first feature-length animated film, Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed, largely the work of avant-garde artist Charlotte (“Lotte”) Reiniger, then 23, is certainly the most enchanting and gorgeous feature-length animated film. (Carl Koch, Walther Ruttmann and Bertold Batosch co-directed.)
In a series of Arabian Nights adventures Prince Achmed, finally with Aladdin’s assistance, opposes the forces of evil. Two magicians are involved, one good, and the other wicked, assisted by tumbling-through-air, many-handed, clockwork-gear meshed “black demons”; but the featurelessness that the film’s black-silhouette design gives its characters suggests a series of single identities that are, as in a dream, split into Manichean dualities. The two princesses function somewhat differently, with Peri Banu, with whom Achmed falls in love, functioning as a non-incestuous alternative to his sister, Dinarsade. In a film of such dreaminess, can Freud be far behind?
Reiniger’s film thus reiterates the close connection between dream and cinema. Aladdin’s dusky descent down, down mountains to retrieve the magic lamp creates an image of consciousness yielding by degrees to dreamy sleep.
The flying horse that Achmed is tricked into riding bridges dreamy fantasy and waking reality. It goes all one way: up; but Achmed finds the means to direct the horse earthward for a landing. Manageable, the horse becomes a figure of balance, of Achmed’s moral centeredness.
The silhouette-technique, used earlier in Dziga Vertov’s Kino-Eye (1924), involves intricately detailed cut-outs of various materials, with marionette-like intricate motion, set in front of illuminated glass sheets. The long- and thin-bearded silhouette of the evil magician would inspire cinema’s most famous silhouette: Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible.
Reiniger also draws upon Fritz Lang’s magical films—and, for Aladdin’s Genie, perhaps painter Marc Chagall’s cosmos.
Amidst exquisite Islamic architecture, decoration, the film ends with morning prayers.
18. FAUST. F. W. Murnau’s Faust opens with an unleashing of the forces of darkness, the evil dead, circling the earth. A subsequent shot will show the Devil (Emil Jannings, terrifying) as a looming, towering figure, his expansive cloak shadowing the City of Humanity. Early on, the Devil and either God or God’s angel confront one another. “The Earth is mine!” Mephisto says. Its opponent, who, by contrast, appears feeble, counters, “Man belongs to God.” Murnau employs the Faust legend to test the core Western assumption that Man possesses free will. Faust’s mortal fear makes him a ripe candidate for the Devil’s seduction and capture. Man is a battleground, with two grand adversaries claiming ownership—a sly metaphor for humanity’s lack of self-determination. According to Murnau, it is irrelevant whether God or the Devil wins, because in either case Man—Faust—loses. Religion, superstition, mythology—these are determining Man’s nature, depriving him of the free will that is his due.
Faust is preeminently a film of profound darkness eerily punctuated by diffuse, glowing light. Some will say it is the Devil’s darkness, because the film conventionally identifies the Devil with darkness and God with light; but what Murnau’s fantastic images repeatedly show is the systemic connection between darkness and light—a projection of the cosmic battle in which Faust is embroiled even before the Devil makes a move on him. What difference who owns Man? Murnau’s masterpiece cries out against humanity’s enslavement to restrictive ideas from the past, such as death’s being a punishment that human actions draw.
A film of human trembling and brooding wonder (as in the phenomenal passage in which Mephisto transports Faust through the heavens across Europe), Faust was incomprehensible in the 90-minute version originally distributed in the U.S. Its restoration is triumphant.
19. BERLIN: SYMPHONY OF A GREAT CITY. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #29.
20. PANDORA’S BOX. Sensual, capricious, hedonistic, emotionally light-sensitive, but perhaps, really, only self-sensitive, Lulu is the main character of G. W. Pabst’s finest silent film, Pandora’s Box. A cabaret dancer who impresses her lover, Schön, into marriage after his fiancée catches the two of them together backstage, Lulu is the principal model for the behavior of Sally Bowles in Bob Fosse’s flamboyant Cabaret (1972). A reckless girl (played by American dancer Louise Brooks, with luminous eyes and, initially, wearing bangs), Lulu does nothing to discourage her husband’s son’s ardent attentions the night after the wedding. When he catches the two of them together, Schön impresses Lulu into shooting him. Schön’s dying words are a warning to his son that he may be Lulu’s next victim—the conclusion of a superb performance by Fritz Kortner.
Lulu’s misadventures after fleeing with the boy, following her conviction for manslaughter, account for the remainder of the plot. In London, where she barely survives as a prostitute, fate poignantly intercedes at Christmastime. Intersecting her life is the compulsive path of another outcast, Jack the Ripper, whose sympathy Lulu draws right before becoming his next victim—irony slashing irony.
One of the film’s most brilliant passages finds Lulu the object of shipboard contemplation by those who would sell her as a sexual commodity to an Egyptian harem. “Worse than prison” is how she describes this looming possibility—a fate seemingly to be decided at a gambling table. Lulu, however, manages to escape, just as she had eluded imprisonment. Isn’t she lucky?
Only sound would dispel Pabst’s tendency toward melodrama. Still, this is preeminently a film of atmosphere, dizzyingly dense backstage, and haunting off-stage with a tragic sense of destiny. In ravishing contrasts of black and white, Pandora’s Box is lively and heartbreakingly beautiful—like Lulu herself.
21. THE BLUE ANGEL. The complex German personality, with its susceptibility to authoritarianism and idolatry, and its courting of humiliation and defeat: this is the theme of The Blue Angel, which Josef von Sternberg, Viennese-born but who grew up in the Bronx, made in Berlin before returning to Hollywood. Its drama, effortlessly revelatory of the social psychology that helps explain the rise of fascism in Germany, covers the years 1925-1929.
Immanuel Rath teaches at a college in a small provincial town. He bullies his students, inviting them into his shabby living quarters for special chastisements, but harbors a sentimental streak; the one recipient of his affection, a pet bird that stopped singing long ago, has just died. An itinerant troupe of entertainers is at the club called The Blue Angel, and its star attraction, a sexy singer billed as Lola Lola, the professor feels, has been corrupting his students. He confronts her, having descended the corkscrew staircase from the club’s stage to Lola Lola’s temporary boudoir/dressing room, and, like a schoolboy, falls in love. Silently, the troupe’s clown repeatedly taunts him, in full make-up, with forlorn and almost pitying looks. Professor Rath marries Lola Lola, forsaking the dignity of his profession to join the troupe. His wife proves unfaithful, and he replaces the troupe’s painted clown.
The village sets, with their Caligari-like distortions, key us into the film’s psychological nature. Equally discordantly non-realistic are the shifts between chaotic noise and sheer silence at The Blue Angel whenever the door to Lola Lola’s quarters opens or closes. Highly expressive, Sternberg’s aim is psychological realism.
As Rath, Emil Jannings is superb, and her phenomenal performance as impudent Lola Lola, which made Marlene Dietrich a star, grows richer and more ambiguous and provocative with each fresh viewing.
22. VAMPYR. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #14.
23. KAMERADSCHAFT. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #34.
24. DIE DREIGROSCHENOPER. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #35.
25. NIEMANSDLAND. Perhaps the most celebrated pacifist film of all time, Niemandsland doesn’t quite exist, Adolf Hitler having destroyed it. A DVD, though, has been made from an American print containing English-language voiceover. The film is very moving, very powerful.
It is launched, though, by a bit of rhetoric: a title naming chauvinism as the cause of wars. A prologue introduces us to five men who will meet on a First World War battlefield; they are British, French, German, American and probably Russian. The last, from “somewhere in Europe,” is Jewish, and his lack of specific national identity reminds us of the rootlessness of a people caused by the bigotry that has historically targeted them. The American is also displaced, entertaining in a French cabaret. He is a black emigré from white American racial prejudice. War has been declared, and men are leaving home.
Actually, the five meet underground, their hole providing a respite from the artillery fire, bombs and death unfolding above. They choose not to kill one another; instead, they reach across language and cultural barriers to help one another and to explore their commonality. They are triumphant in their growing humanity.
But their haven is referred to as “Niemandsland.” War, alas, is the world of men, and the title gives a “What if . . .” quality to what we most want to be real: warriors setting down guns and relating peaceably with one another.
There is almost no plot to the film, which is superbly written and directed by Viktor Trivas. (Leonhard Frank helped with the script.) Teasing the whatifness is the documentary realism Trivas applies to the film’s visual form, which he punctuates with haunting poetry derived from Soviet cinema: low, upwardly tilted shots showing vast sky—at once, humanity’s vast ache for peace and war’s eternal graveyard.
26. M. Giving birth to the police procedural, Fritz Lang’s M, though talky, retains a grim fascination. It is about two city-wide hunts for the same man—one by the police, the other by the underworld, which hopes to put a stop to the police search of which their criminal business is running afoul. The hunted man is a pedophile and serial killer of little girls. When they wrongly suspect someone on the street of being the killer, people become an enraged mob and assault him, taking the law into their own hands, just as the criminals are doing. Moreover, they reflect something of the compulsive killer’s own inability to control himself. Primarily, the film identifies the two investigating groups: police and criminals. Eventually, the latter group captures and tries the killer, occasioning a stunning pan shot of the massive “jury,” and satirically pricking the modern concept of justice—trial by peers.
M is a pitiless film except regarding the mother of one of the victims, who waits for her child to come home for dinner, and the hunted man, whose sickness draws Lang’s full measure of pity. Even children are casually monstrous. The film opens starkly, with an angled overhead shot of girls in a circle and one in the middle, who recites a gruesome variation on “eeny meeny miney moe” to determine which child is “it”: something to do with a man in black who is coming to chop up whoever is chosen.
Humanity is often portrayed at a haunting remove: men are gesticulating shadows on a wall; the unseen killer is the tune he whistles from Grieg’s Peer Gynt whenever he is about to strike. Indeed, this is how he is identified by the balloon seller, who is blind.
Young Peter Lorre is brilliant as the hunted man.
27. KUHLE WAMPE. Despite its brilliance, Bertolt Brecht wasn’t pleased with Pabst’s film of Die Dreigroschenoper. Therefore, he entrusted an original script of his (and Ernst Ottwald’s) to Bulgarian-born Slatan Dudow, who had directed his work on stage. The result is Kuhle Wampe oder: Wem gehört die Welt? The question the title poses is this: To whom does the world belong?
In Weimar Germany, not much belongs to the people, whom ever deepening unemployment affects. Dudow’s film, first, shows a family whose integrity is undermined by this predicament, and then ever more satirically suggests the irrationality to which this family and other families are driven in a utopian quest to ease their hardship and restore some sense of wholeness.
The opening movement is stark. Youths bicycle all day through Berlin streets from one work site to another in search of employment. No job is available. One of these boys is castigated by his parents for being jobless for seven months. He doesn’t care; he isn’t trying hard enough; he is rude and incompetent. Only his sister insists there are no jobs. The boy, demoralized, commits suicide. A neighbor comments: “One less unemployed.” In an extraordinary montage, Nature expresses its apathy.
The family, once evicted, heads for Kuhle Wampe, a settlement camp in the country—a commune of sorts. Now Nature is beauteous, idyllic—but this second montage, because it is accompanied by a song, the singer all the while invisible, suggests that rosy Nature is the result of human projection. When the bodiless singer is immediately followed by a verbal description of naked primitive dancers, the puncturing humor hits bone. Even more absurdly, but in the same corporeal vein, the camp becomes a gigantic outdoor gym class, with everyone exercising.
Nothing, it seems, can be done for the nation’s poor economic health.
28. LIEBELEI. Kuhle Wampe was banned by Germany for the duration of Hitler’s reign. Deemed Communistic, it was banned most everywhere else in Europe as well. From a play by Arthur Schnitzler, Max Ophüls’s Liebelei was released in Germany in 1933, about a month after Hitler became chancellor, without the director’s or playwright’s name in the credits. Both men were Jewish. (Schnitzler had died the previous year.) By this time, Ophüls had fled to France. After the war, the Allies banned Liebelei, which is anti-militaristic and whose heroine commits suicide after the boy she loves, a young army lieutenant named Wolfgang, is killed in a duel.
Like Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), Liebelei takes place in Vienna at the turn of the century; and, like that later Ophüls film, it enmeshes a vulnerable girl’s aching love in the web of the time’s militaristic code of honor. The delay of Christine’s appearance in Liebelei reflects her insignificance in the male- and military-minded scheme of things. By contrast, she matters most to us because of Ophüls’s own feelings toward her and the poignancy of her enactment by Magda Schneider, Romy’s mother.
Structurally, Wolfgang’s military drills and related military obligations literally interrupt the course of his deepening romance with Christine. As a result, their encounters—their walk together at night, their dance, their sleigh ride—seem like stolen moments. Yet these are the most important moments of their lives and of their briefly shared life. (We see their dance trebly: directly; in a mirror; as wall shadows. We also see the boy dance with his mistress, whose husband will kill him when he no longer has any romantic connection to the man’s wife.)
Christine’s death, rendered by an expressive camera movement, remains one of the most heartbreaking moments in cinema.
29. DON QUIXOTE. G. W. Pabst filmed his Don Quixote, from Cervantes, in German, French and English versions. It was his last film as a committed Leftist before capitulating to German nationalism and joining the Third Reich.
Little of the novel survives. In the abbreviated edition I saw, Pabst doesn’t make room even for Dulcinea, the creature of his imagination upon whom Quixote lavishes his outmoded chivalry but who appears in the film as little more than a walk-on—and as real.
Two passages, however, are brilliant. One, thrillingly edited, finds Quixote tilting at windmills, which he perceives as opponents—giants—that endanger the common good. When the jouster becomes trapped in one of the windmill’s radiating slats, the camera angle and proximity help make it appear as though Quixote, having propelled himself into it, is stuck in the page of a book.
Once he is back home, what’s to be done with all the books on chivalry that dazzled and misled his mind? They are ceremoniously burned. But for the viewer, Don Quixote itself is the most monumental book ever written on the subject of chivalry. In closeup, the camera catches a book that has been burned to a crisp. The single greatest shot Pabst ever devised shows the unburning of this book in slow motion and reverse motion until, page by page, the book is restored to wholeness. The film ends on the title page: Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Symbolically, Quixote himself has been reclaimed from the fire.
Russian-born Feodor Chaliapin is superb as Quixote. He speaks softly and humbly at times, but some regret the actor’s declamatory style at other moments. Not me. This element of selfconsciousness is perfectly in keeping with the idea that this Don Quixote is enacting a role—that this Don Quixote has read Don Quixote!
30. DAY OF WRATH. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #43.
31. MURDERERS ARE AMONG US. Murderers Are Among Us had been the title Fritz Lang intended for M, but German censors rejected the implication of collective guilt. The first postwar German film, by Wolfgang Staudte, embraced the notion.
The script is contrived. Upon returning home to Berlin from a liberated Nazi camp, Susanne Wallner finds Hans Mertens living in her apartment. Because of the atrocities he witnessed as an army officer, Mertens drinks to excess, but, after initial sparring, the two fall in love. Mertens decides to kill his former commanding officer, who now runs a factory and celebrates at Christmastime with his employees. At Christmastime in 1942, in Poland, this same man ordered the execution of one hundred innocent civilians in response to a single anonymous shot fired at his company. In the nick of time, Susanne stays Hans’s hand, saying, “We shouldn’t pass sentence.” Hans agrees, adding, “but we must make charges.” At the close, the former captain is behind bars, vociferously protesting his innocence on the basis of war’s requirements.
Thus was launched trummerfilme, the genre of fictional films amidst Berlin’s rubble that dominated German cinema right after the war. But Staudte’s entry was never surpassed; the pseudo-documentary shot of faces in the street that introduces Susanne is brilliant. A broken mirror, the broken windows, the bombed-out buildings: broken dreams; broken lives.
Indeed, this is a film of unforgettable shots, and none more so than the Langian one of Hans confronting his former captain, his shadow, the only part of Hans that’s visible, expressionistically huge, in which the monster against the wall cowers and begs for life—but absent any recognition by him of his evil.
Murderers Are Among Us was East German before East Germany came into being.
32. GERMANY, YEAR ZERO. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #45.
33. THE BLUM AFFAIR. The Blum Affair is based on an actual case and trial in 1926 in Magdeburg. Working from Robert A. Stemmle’s superlative script, Erich Engel investigates German anti-Semitism. A Leftist who had staged the original production of Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera but who nevertheless capitulated to nationalism and careerism and worked for the Nazi entertainment industry, Engel may also have considered the film an act of atonement.
The state will attempt to pin a murder on manufacturer Jakob Blum because he is a member of the political opposition and is Jewish. Blum is accused of murdering his discharged accountant, Wilhelm Platzer, presumably to conceal tax fraud. A subsequent investigation of his company, though, reveals no irregularities. The sole witness against Blum is the thief, captured with Platzer’s checkbook, who in fact committed the murder. His guilt notwithstanding, the authorities convince their captive to accuse Blum. Justice isn’t the state prosecutor’s aim; silencing Blum is, along with covering up the mistakes the police have made.
The film evidences great visual fluidity and contextual elasticity. The police arrest Blum in his bedroom, forbidding him to speak to his wife—an encapsulation of worse state intrusions to come into Jewish lives. At the last, Stemmle and Engel allow themselves, forgivably because so hauntingly executed, a tad of rhetoric. In a restaurant, Sabine appears the happier at her husband’s overdue exoneration. Jakob appears, by contrast, pensive, cautious, perturbed even. (The film is perfectly acted, but Kurt Ehrhardt, as Jakob Blum, gives a profound performance.) Sabine, having dismissed her own anxiety, notes that this triumph of justice was inevitable and that they are fortunate to be living in a free democratic state. From her husband’s silent expression, however, we glean he has been impressed, instead, by how fragile German justice, freedom and democracy are.
34. ORDET. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #3.
35. THE SEVENTH SEAL. The Seventh Seal, one of Ingmar Bergman’s most powerful and spacious works, reflects on the first decade of the Cold War, the traumatized state of the world since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
A knight has returned home from the Crusades. A shimmer of skeptical idealism is all that remains of Antonius Block’s once strong religious faith. To what moral end have been these “holy wars”? The bubonic plague has struck, and the dying and panic-stricken litter roadways. Some, passive, defeated, accept the plague as divine judgment; others repent feverishly; still others seek psychic release in the scapegoating ritual of branding a child a witch and burning her. Everywhere, Block confronts a debacle whose enormity suggests the imminence of the Apocalypse.
Block challenges Death to a game of chess. He seeks reprieves for all members of his entourage, including a pair of wandering players, Jof and Mia (names derivative of Joseph and Mary), and the couple’s infant son. He unsuccessfully probes his adversary for answers to eternal questions. Beaten in the contest, he returns to his castle. Death intrudes and claims everyone present.
Bergman achieves some of his greatest visual poetry—brooding, chilling, mysterious, barbaric. Lensed in fierce, haunting black and white, images express cosmic unfathomability. When Jof and Mia steal away at night in their wagon, for example, a very fine light blends earth and sky, the traveled-on ground and eternity, suggesting that such deliberate activity as the couple’s flight is all the purpose and direction there is in the universe. As the wagon bumpily proceeds into darkness, its billowing cover eerily resembles a cloud entering the heavens, as if to suggest “eternal” images are composed of nothing but matter and man.
Max von Sydow’s weary Antonius Block is one of cinema’s greatest performances.
36. SUN SEEKERS. Sun Seekers, an East German-Soviet co-production, didn’t see the light of day for more than a dozen years after the Soviet Union suppressed it, ostensibly to keep details of uranium mining for its nuclear industry from the West.
The protagonist is 18-year-old Lotte Lutz, whose barroom misbehavior gets her and a prostitute-friend impressed into being forced labor at Wismut mines in Felsach—the peacetime equivalent of being sent to the battlefront. Indeed, memories of World War II hang over the 1950 mining community as socialists and former SS members mix. It’s dark as a dungeon way down in the mine, and the film’s overelaborated script, by Karl-Georg Egel and Paul Wiens, presents numerous metaphorical instances of people being bereft of light. For instance, the Soviet engineer directing Wismut, one of three men who fall in love with “Lutz,” is a widower, whose wife, a painter, murdered by the German army, was always “searching for the light.”
Lutz’s youthfulness offers men hope of renewal, but her more or less imprisoned life, not to mention the fact that she lost both parents in the war, casts her adrift in drudgery. Although she becomes pregnant by a young German miner, she marries instead the older pit boss, a former German army officer. Lutz, then, is herself tied to the past, although her husband conveniently becomes a casualty of a mine disaster, leaving her happily independent, holding Germany’s socialist future in her arms.
Konrad Wolf’s direction of the camera is dynamic and intricate, full of eclectic camera angles and movements, including sudden instances of subjective (point-of-view) shots, such as a seemingly freefalling descent into the mine. By contrast, many scenes in the mine are static, claustrophobic. Visually, Wolf suggests both a world of socialist possibilities and the “buried” past these must persist in overcoming.
37. THE VIRGIN SPRING. Ingmar Bergman repudiated his sparkling medieval ballad The Virgin Spring on the grounds that it is essentially an inferior facsimile of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), in which a rape and retaliatory murder are differently viewed by several characters. However, it is an exceptionally fine piece of work, at once lyrical and analytical.
In fourteenth-century Sweden, the proud teenaged daughter of a landowner insists on transporting candles to church by horseback. Along the way the virgin is raped by itinerant shepherds, against whom, including an innocent child, her father (Max von Sydow, wonderful) exacts murderous revenge. When he carries his daughter’s corpse to the site where he promises God to build a new church, one that embraces Christianity’s peaceableness as penance for his murders, a new spring bursts through the ground.
Bergman and black-and-white cinematographer Sven Nykvist have achieved the impossible: a world ravishingly pure and beautiful, yet full of dark foreboding and violence. The closeup of a raven in the foreground of one complex shot may remind the viewer of Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter (1955), except, here, Nature isn’t protecting the child on her journey but striking an ominous visual chord. The passage portraying the rape is brutally frank, unshakable. The scene where the young father bathes, steeling himself for his killing mission, is stunningly suspenseful, and his picking up the young boy and smashing him against a wall, heartrending. The array of the landowner’s wealth against the shepherds’ hardworking poverty adds another wrinkle of resonance.
But this isn’t the sum of the film’s tantalizing substance. The most interesting aspect of The Virgin Spring is that several characters religiously though variously interpret a natural occurrence, the spring’s virgin gush—Bergman’s probe of Christianity’s mythmaking tendencies.
38. BRUTALITY IN STONE. Five years earlier than his feature debut, Parting from Yesterday—(Anita G.), which launched one of the most important film movements, the New German Cinema, writer-director Alexander Kluge, with Peter Schamoni, co-directed a 12-minute black-and-white documentary short anticipating the movement-to-come. Brutalität in Stein gathers historical testimony to puncture his nation’s attempt to overlook its recent Nazi history and just get on with its “economic miracle.” The year after this stark work, Kluge helped write and signed the Oberhausen Manifesto, which announced the need for the movement that would shortly arrive.
Influenced by Alain Resnais, especially his Statues Also Die (1953), which Chris Marker co-directed, Night and Fog (1955) and Hiroshima, mon amour (1959), Brutalität in Stein relies on our capacity to analyze tone. On drawings and images of German architecture at and around a Nazi rally area in Nuremberg, it superimposes recordings of speeches by Hitler, Hess and others to suggest that the buildings themselves have retained the memory of this Nazi history. An occasional zoom electrifies the film’s series of very briefly held stills, as does a sweeping camera up grandiose front steps. Hauntingly, by stately, silent forward movement—ghost steps—in symmetrical interiors, the film suggests a German crematorium and the connection among German political speech and spirit (as art embodies it), and the Holocaust. Discolorations on the outside of stone buildings double as reminders of spilt human blood. Another influence: Roberto Rossellini’s Germany, Year Zero (1947); but one must also note that Kluge and Schamoni’s film helped inspire Jürgen Böttcher’s tremendous The Wall (1990), where the Berlin Wall, while it is being dismantled, is transformed at night, by voice recordings and flickering film images from the past, into a sadly vanishing repository of a brace of German memory, history.
39. THE SILENCE. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #65.
40. WINTER LIGHT. Winter Light, the middle part of Ingmar Bergman’s trilogy about the relationship between God and humanity, is cold, precise, exceedingly dry, as though Bergman had turned his human specimens upside down and emptied them of their lifeblood.
Since his wife’s death, Tomas Ericsson (Gunnar Björnstrand, tremendous) has lost his faith but continues as village pastor as his congregation dwindles, failing to commit himself to the emotional or spiritual welfare of parishioners. One of these, Jonas, despondent over the state of the world, seeks counsel from Tomas. At their Sunday meeting, instead of trying to unburden Jonas, Tomas increases that burden by unburdening himself, gratuitously imposing on this fragile parishioner his own conviction that God does not exist, rendering the universe loveless. Jonas commits suicide that day.
Tomas proceeds to church for evensong. Not one parishioner shows up. The church empty, as a matter of form Tomas nevertheless proceeds with the service. His isn’t an existential act willing some sort of individual heroic purpose in the midst of a meaningless universe; Tomas’s act is itself meaningless. It’s an instance of religious decadence.
There is a fleeting second, as Tomas stands indoors near a window, when a ripple of winter light illuminates him: a natural occurrence inviting a false religious interpretation. This winter light is just winter light; it’s as bereft of meaning as the evensong that Tomas conducts and with which the film ends.
Insofar as it bases existence in religious faith, the film argues, humanity lives lives of anticipation, not in-the-moment reality. Instead of looking around in order to tend to one another’s needs, people are looking ahead for their own salvation. The problem isn’t that God doesn’t exist but that people believe, or pretend to believe, he does.
Winter Light is one of Bergman’s most perfect, most brilliant films.
41. GERTRUD. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #66.
42. HUNGER. Sult, by Henning Carlsen (who also edited), is from Denmark, Norway and Sweden. It is based on the great 1890 first-person novel by Norway’s Nobel Prize-winning Knut Hamsun. The most phenomenal aspect of this crisp black-and-white film is its lead performance. As the starving, hallucinating writer, Per Oscarsson gives what is possibly the most brilliant film performance ever.
Sult opens on the street—actually, a bridge—and mostly takes place there or just off it. In Kristiania, with his back to the camera, a man is bending over, seemingly observing something below, or spacing out. Tinkly music evaporates into silence. The camera approaches the man slightly, sideways. A flock of birds flies upward past him—a suggestion of his crumbling sanity. On a street, the man bursts into inappropriate talk at a sitting stranger. In a subjective shot, now he is in conversation with his dilapidated shoes, explaining they must attend to one another because he is too busy to chat. With an acquaintance he chances upon, he inspects publicly posted want ads. The acquaintance offers him lunch; famished but proud, the protagonist just sits with him in the restaurant and watches him eat. Both are struggling to be published, but only the protagonist is barely holding on at the frayed end of his life.
His belly is hungry. He also hungers for the feeling that life matters—that he matters.
The film is a pilgrim’s non-progress, then, within a narrow range of incidents, such as ducking and confronting the landlord who wants to evict him.
Where is the vessel bound that he boards at the end. Home? Eternity?
Our hearts cry out for his future, but we know better. He is moving on to some other nowhere. We barely hold on at the frayed end of our own lives.
43. YESTERDAY GIRL. With parentheses around her name suggesting (in addition to her imprisonment) how bereft of context Anita G., a Jewish East German migrant, is left by the “parting from yesterday” that she is constantly impressed to pursue, writer-director Alexander Kluge’s Abschied von gestern—(Anita G.) launched the New German Cinema, which confronted West Germany’s attempt to deny the past its due, including Germany’s recent Nazi past, in favor of starting afresh with the “miracle” of economic recovery. Important, astounding, exhilarating, Kluge’s first feature drew inspiration from the nouvelle vague, especially Jean-Luc Godard’s films starring Anna Karina, whom Kluge’s Anita G. is often shot to resemble.
The West German film also contests the tyranny of linear narrative, proceeding by shots rather than novelistic scenes, and displaying (delightfully) tracking shots, jump-cuts, sound erasures and comebacks, cartoonish insert, a bit of war with toy soldiers, absurd banter, the time-condensation of romantic relationships through montage, etc. Perhaps casting his sister, Alexandra, in the lead role (which she enacts beautifully) helped Kluge to maintain the film’s human(e) focus in the midst of his dazzling technical devices.
One of the principal events is the theft of a co-worker’s cardigan sweater, for which Anita G. stands trial. It is the judge who, after asking for Anita G.’s personal history, dismisses this (“the events of 1943-44”) for having no relevance to the course of her conduct. (Her Jewish family’s property, of course, had all been confiscated by the Nazis.) Why did she steal the sweater, the judge asks. “I was cold.” He reminds her it was summer. Anita G.: “I get cold even in summer.” The defendant thus enrobes (or ensweaters?) a pertinent joke in the appearance of courtroom responsiveness, for her remark implies the verboten past.
Gorgeous black-and-white photography by Edgar Reitz and Thomas Mauch.
44. CHRONICLE OF ANNA MAGDALENA BACH. A woman recalls how she met the man she married and their sad life together, including the deaths of numerous children and his own illness and death. Her voiceover is our guide into the past, and the images she recovers have a formality that befits the film’s subject. We are listening to the second wife of Johan Sebastian Bach.
From West Germany and Italy, written and directed by the marital team of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach had its funding withdrawn at the last moment, but an angel, Jean-Luc Godard, stepped in and saved the project. Since the film consists mostly of performances of Bach’s music (with Bach—that is, harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt—conducting), some viewers are stymied. Why isn’t there domestic or other melodrama here, as in Hollywood biographical films? In truth, there is sufficient “drama” to illuminate the music’s sublime nature, and Bach’s music was central to his life. By contesting the convention of pushing an artist’s art to the periphery of his existence in portraying his life, Straub and Huillet achieve a measure of truth and purpose. They aren’t interested in “humanizing” Bach by reducing him to a facsimile of ordinary viewers whom they hope will identify with him. They represent Bach’s genius and its musical accomplishment honestly—and effortlessly. In the process, they suggest how this music expressed Bach’s emotions by heroic containment and concealment, and created astonishing rigor and harmonious complexity in the midst of a tragic life. This is no cozy Rhapsody in Blue (1945).
Godard himself is an influence; Straub and Huillet draw upon his elegiac sensibility. Another influence is Roberto Rossellini’s austere The Rise of Louis XIV (1966), a film about a king that actually shows the monarch’s activities.
And the music is glorious.
45. I WAS NINETEEN. Konrad Wolf’s I Was Nineteen is autobiographical. Nineteen-year-old Gregor Hecker, a lieutenant in the Russian Army as it advances on Berlin in April 1945 in the war’s waning days, is German-born, his parents having moved to Moscow, fleeing Hitler, when Gregor was eight. Gregor encounters various German soldiers, officials and ordinary citizens. One of these encounters is with a death camp guard. In one way or another, all these encounters are with himself.
His voice amplified over a desolate landscape, the lieutenant beseeches German soldiers to surrender. “I am German,” he strategically tells them. Throughout, he alternates between speaking Russian and German, depending on the situation, and this continually underscores the complexity of his national identity. At the end, he repeats, “I am a German,” this time with understanding. His vehicle disappears into the distance of another hauntingly bleak black-and-white landscape that sums up a wearyingly enlightened life’s journey.
In 1965, East Germany had passed a law prohibiting filmmakers from viewing the nation’s current situation—social, political, economic—in a negative light. Therefore, Wolf deviously wrought a work that addresses the past as a way of addressing the present because of the weight with which the past impresses the present. We are in Gregor’s “present” twenty-odd years earlier; but the pensive, disembodied sound of his voiceover transforms this “present” into a poetic generalization touching on matters of time, memory, separation from home, separation from oneself, and a search for wholeness.
Early on, road signs tell Gregor he is in his homeland. He has a job to do, to help secure the region militarily, and he is also a wanderer in the unchartable, elusive regions of identity building. “I was nineteen,” he will tell us at the last, shifting his perspective to the past. Now he knows what being German is.
46. ARTISTS AT THE TOP OF THE BIG TOP: DISORIENTED. From the New German Cinema, which addressed contemporary issues and Germany’s right-wing past, the first outstanding West German films emerged. Alexander Kluge’s Yesterday Girl (1966), which I haven’t seen, may have been the first of these. His Artists at the Top of the Big Top: Disoriented would remain among the movement’s most brilliant entries.
Inspired by Jean-Luc Godard’s methods, Kluge’s film is a collage juxtaposing fictional, documentary and pseudodocumentary elements. Its protagonist is Leni Peickert, who runs a political circus. She is the anti-Riefenstahl Leni, whose aim is, through entertainment, to urge Germans to confront the recent past that most Germans would sooner forget. Because this is also Kluge’s aim, the circus-within-the-film and the film enrobing it, a kind of bigger circus tent, combine to direct our attention to a consideration of the political role of art in general. But Kluge is unsettled as to what this role should be. His film weighs possibilities.
A point of departure is how Germany’s Nazi past influences current art. The past is simply there, so Kluge juxtaposes the circus operation with shots of a Hitler rally. The fact that performers actually die in this circus, as in any other, reflects on the discussion that Leni’s team encounters at a writer’s convention: “Can there be art after Auschwitz?” Kluge’s answer would seem to be: there must be—if for no other reason than to honor the dead. Moreover, by assisting audiences in confronting the past, art provides a therapeutic means of dealing with national trauma.
The film opens with footage of a Nazi “festival of the arts”—something Riefenstahl might have devised—and, later, achieves its symbolic apotheosis recollecting zoo elephants that died in a fire: the past that “won’t forget” and won’t let us forget, either.
47. FATA MORGANA. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #77.
48. WHY DOES HERR R. RUN AMOK? In this explosive, powerfully affecting film, co-scenarists, co-directors and co-editors Michael Fengler and Rainer Werner Fassbinder employ a cinéma-vérité style to explore the nature of bourgeois insecurity.
The R.s live in Munich. Herr R. works long hours as a technical draughtsman. At home, he has migraines, in part work-induced. The R.s seem a smooth-running family.
Only they aren’t. Intensely selfconscious, the R.s perpetually feel the need to justify themselves and their existence. Herr R. is never exactly settled at work but always eyeing the promotion, and even the most minimal salary increase, just up ahead.
Fengler and Fassbinder show the extent to which, when they help their son with schoolwork, the R.s act according to how they believe they should behave. However much they love their child (and, of course, they do), nothing in the assistance the R.s provide Amadeus seems to flow spontaneously from parental affection. Everything is modeled, part of a plan. After a coffee klatch where one of Frau R.’s neighbors notes Herr R.’s rapid weight gain, Frau R. throws this up at him, her neighbor’s apparent disapproval motivating her “concern” for her husband’s health.
In this peculiarly unsettled film, middle-class people fill the void of their identity with the self-importance of alleged “responsibilities” and “obligations.” Generally, the mundane content of the human behavior on display, which is both reinforced and probed by the application of hand-held camera, stresses the dissatisfaction of the R.s beneath their consciously/unconsciously modeled façade. Eventually Herr R. implodes, creating a massive scene of violence that turns the ordinariness of everything we have witnessed inside out. We are left with the legal reportage of a criminal event, an objective series of facts for which the whole film provides an explanation rooted in the protagonist’s suppressed emotions.
49. EVEN DWARFS STARTED SMALL. Even Dwarfs Started Small, the first film since The Terror of Tiny Town (Sam Newfield, 1938) to be populated by midgets, is an amazing saga of rebellion. It’s a horrific, hilarious meditation on the suppression of freedom and the nature of violence. A favorite film of David Lynch’s and perhaps the favorite film of a deceased friend of mine, it confirmed the evidence of Fata Morgana (1969) that West Germany’s Werner Herzog is a cinematic genius—and, also like Lynch, quite an oddball.
At a remote post, dwarfs have been virtual prisoners at “the institution” until they take over one day. The instructor in charge, feeling surrounded, has locked himself in the principal’s office, along with Pepe, one of the inmates; the inmates outside raucously laugh down all his pleas to be “reasonable” and resume their passive existence. Lighthearted acts of rebellion progressively take a turn for the worse as inmates, feeling increasingly imperiled, go on a rampage of destruction, arson and violence, some of it directed at “Mother Nature” in the form of animals (including a crucified monkey)—a protest against the beleaguered human condition.
Twisted trees and dead animals litter the setting, a patch of desert beyond which loom volcanic hills. Thus Herzog’s mise-en-scène resonates with a sense of humanity in its most imperiled form, in the most extreme conditions imaginable. The brutal overcompensations of the dwarfs are constantly measured against their physical limitations, composing a metaphor of our frustration and desperation vis-à-vis the forces arrayed against us, including, at the outermost limit, our mortality. The film urges us to consider the various ways in which our own lives are confined and regulated by natural conditions, schooling, employment and the state.
Blending fantasy and documentary realism, Herzog’s black-and-white Even Dwarfs shocks, amuses, devastates.
50. KATZELMACHER. Written and directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder from his own play, with assistance from Michael Fengler, Katzelmacher—translation: Cock Artist—is about a benign stranger’s inadvertently catastrophic intrusion into a fragile, tightly knit Munich community whose twentysomething slackers mill around on the street and in a tavern, pairing up indoors for sex and fights, and outdoors for arm-in-arm walks toward the camera that reveal alternately tension and seeming harmony. The walks are accompanied by mocking music—the only music I recall in the film.
This is Fassbinder’s most Brechtian piece of work, typically bereft of sentimentality and stacked with distancing devices, such as the musical walks, that prompt us to focus on its ideas. For a compact satirical deadpan comedy, the drably black-and-white film covers a lot of ground.
The homesick stranger is a Greek immigrant looking for work. He appears as German as everyone else (Fassbinder himself plays the part), but the point is, he isn’t. He is the outsider who stills communal quarrels by making himself a common target just by being there. Struggling with his German, he thinks everyone is being friendly when they aren’t. Conjured lies (for instance, about his sexual prowess and appropriations of their sexual territory) become “facts” about him in the minds—or should I say mind?—of most of the young Germans, propelling the males among them to take action. They spontaneously beat the crap out of Jorgos.
Hatred against Jorgos seeps up into view; Fassbinder shows xenophobic hate coalescing, coming into being on the spot. It is the residue of hate that lingers in postwar Germany even in the absence of a Hitler to whip it up, and it exposes the capacity for hate in the rest of us.
It’s a funny film. You just might die chuckling.