ONE HUNDRED GREATEST FILMS LIST. 9/09
Below is a list of what, on a given day, I consider to be the 100 greatest films of all time through the year 2008. Each film is given an entry of about 300 words. The first twenty-five films are given in rough order of preference. The remaining titles are given in chronological order, except that, where there is more than one entry for a given year, the entries for that year are given in order of preference.
1. EARLY SUMMER (Yasujiro Ozu, Japan, 1951). Postwar Tokyo; Noriko’s family prevails upon her to marry, but she chooses a man of whom they disapprove. He is twelve years her senior, has a child, and is relocating to Akita. Noriko’s family worries that she will not end up happy.
In the aftermath of war, with Japan’s authoritarian ruler deposed and democracy dawning, the structured, stable Japanese family, as a social force, has devolved. A small child tells his grandfather (twice) that he hates him; her older brother (Chishu Ryu, superb) tells Noriko she is impudent to men—to which Noriko counters, “Men used to be too important.” “Our family has scattered,” the father will say once Noriko has left. “We shouldn’t want too much,” he tells his wife (twice). Is this the path to happiness—being content with what life gives rather than asking for more? Perhaps an attitude of acceptance provides the only consolation and relief for life’s disappointments, and life’s transience.
Bakashû, delicately composed, is sensitive to light and to nuances of feeling; yet the accumulated result is overwhelming. No film more powerfully conveys the passage of time—here, a paradoxical, slow, inexorable rush. Sisters walk the beach, talking, the camera following, or the father and mother sit outdoors side by side, discussing family, the low, angled camera favoring their backs. Much of their anxious conversation is pressured by time—human time measured against eternity.
As ever with Ozu, human beings are paramount. In a beautiful long shot, a loose balloon scales up the sky. “Some child must be crying,” the father notes.
Ozu’s characters experience happiness, when they do, not because of good fortune but from the way they engage life: with humility, and with their philosophical stance. This life is gently moving, always, imperceptibly, towards the last end.
2. BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN (Serge M. Eisenstein, U.S.S.R., 1925). One would never guess that Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein heralded from the stage. Thrilling and kinetic, his Battleship Potemkin is purely cinematic.
The film re-creates the Kronstadt naval mutiny that triggered the doomed 1905 Russian Revolution—an event preceding the Bolshevik Revolution. In graphic detail, the film shows the conditions onboard that led to the mutiny.
Perhaps cinema’s most celebrated passage is the Odessa Steps Massacre. In reality, this event never occurred, but, because of the power of Eisenstein’s images, it is widely believed to have occurred. Potemkin, then, reinvents history, translating documentary and fiction each into the other—what has remained cinema’s signature strategy for fathoming time and investigating social and political realities. It is important to note that Eisenstein’s fiction remains true to political circumstance in Russia. His fabricated event captures the cruelty and oppressiveness of tsarist rule, creating for these a stark, fiercely lit metaphor. (Eduard Tissé is Eisenstein’s essential black-and-white cinematographer.) In a rush of images, the masses, in enraged sympathy with the mutineers, are cut down by the police in the streets. Shot rapidly follows shot; but this ferocity gives way to another kind of passage later on—mysterious, meditative, lovely, one that is wrapped in silken darkness: dusk-cloaked sails on moonlit water—images that evoke the eternal note of sadness attending humanity’s struggle to assert fundamental rights in the face of oppression. Somewhere, always, the battle continues.
Eisenstein’s militant masterpiece is a national epic for his young nation, set a dozen years before its existence. It is a film full of anticipation—a look back for the courage to move ahead, united. The Soviet Union no longer exists. Today, Battleship Potemkin is cinema’s most poignant elegy, and its most powerful expression of a now largely dormant idea: the people.
3. ORDET (Carl Theodor Dreyer, Denmark, 1954). From Kaj Munk’s play, Ordet is cinema’s finest expression of Christian faith.
In 1925, Morten Bergen lives on a remote farm with three sons: Mikkel, an atheist, whose wife, Inger, anticipates his return to the fold; Johannes, whose conviction that he is the risen Christ prompts him to chide “believers” for not believing fully enough; and young Anders, who has fallen in love with Anne, with whose father Morten has long been locking horns over their differing views of Christianity. Inger dies shortly after giving birth to a son whose wrong position requires the doctor to terminate the infant in an effort to save her life. Mikkel is left in inconsolable grief. Invoking Jesus Christ, Johannes resurrects Inger, bringing Mikkel to his wife’s faith and reconciling both families.
Dreyer’s sublime comedy accumulates the awesome power of his great tragedies. Its signature image is the family laundry, whites outdoors on a line, furiously flapping in the wind—perfectly mundane, and yet full of mysterious beauty that betokens spiritual possibilities. At Inger’s funeral service, the sheer white curtains through which sunlight filters and the tick of a wall clock are transmutations of the laundry’s sights and sound.
With a crystalline sense of the eternal, the mystery in our midst that gives rise to religious feeling, The Word encompasses, outdoors, an unsurpassed beauty of landscape and an almost palpable depth of air and, indoors, a miracle whose emotional power and depth of spiritual suggestion remain unmatched in cinema. Twentieth-century humanity’s remove from natural sources of faith Ordet’s moment of rebirth shatters in a tidal wave of passion. Dreyer burns “religion” down to its ancient core of wonder, taking even nonbelievers to a summit of shared visionary experience where the pure air seems the very breath of God.
4. EARTH (Aleksandr Dovzhenko, U.S.S.R., 1930). Cinema’s “poet of the Ukraine,” Aleksandr Dovzhenko, made his lyrical silent Zemlya in response to Eisenstein’s The Old and the New (1929). Selfish peasants—kulaks—resist collectivization. Trying to hold onto exclusive ownership of land, they oppose Nature by violating the bond of sympathy that weds individuals to the common good and to the earth. Nature is shown as bountiful, ripe, nourishing, the source of moral truth, and an ennobling, humanizing force that the farm cooperative as a practical idea embodies. Nature also is the eternal witness in whose philosophical breadth and breath human mortality—the tragedy of life—unfolds. Whereas Eisenstein’s film points proudly, confidently ahead, Earth finds a solemn continuity, imaged forth by a vast ocean of waving wheat, threading past and present.
Stalin’s 1929 collectivization policy, which would soak Soviet soil in human blood, had just begun. It is madness to lay this on Dovzhenko’s film. Serene, meditative, Earth celebrates Nature and workers; one astounding passage shows (from every conceivable angle) harvesters at work in the fields. A generalization arises as to the holistic nature of these people’s lives.
Walking home in the wee hours, the boy who chairs the collective committee, full of joy for love of the girl he plans on marrying, breaks into dance on a moonlit road. The camera fixed, Vasili dances and dances, from long shot to closeup to just out of camera range. Suddenly, in the next shot, he drops. Did Vasili stumble? A horse reacts—to what? Vasili has been shot dead by the son of a kulak.
The day of Vasili’s burial, the murderer’s insane dance among the graves replaces Vasili’s joyous dance, connecting these dances—and the boys, who, it is implied, should have been comrades.
Nature responds with lament: a downpour splashing fruit.
5. L’ECLISSE (Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy, France, 1962). Eclipse completes Michelangelo Antonioni’s towering black-and-white trilogy of modern alienation and uncertain European identity. (L’avventura, see below, La notte, 1961.) It begins with the end of a romantic relationship and ends with another; Vittoria (Monica Vitti, magnificent) is the constant in both. The film begins and ends in near silence, with an overwhelming sense of vacancy.
L’eclisse’s frames are composed in intricate, dynamic depth—a depth that evokes modern times, where, rather than keeping hidden below, a now thoroughly known-about, hence objectified, unconscious so intrudes on the surface of human behavior and thought that, rattled and unsure of themselves amidst self-criticism and second guessing, people seem lost in their own lives—the problem of identity that Vittoria’s frenzied dance, in African brownface, apotheosizes. Compounding this is the wobbled European identity as a result of western Europe’s loosened and lost moorings in colonialism—and this, too, Vittoria’s dance brings to the fore. Moreover, Antonioni relates all this to another concern of the 1960s: materialism. Materialism depersonalizes everything, even intimacy; thus Antonioni shows columns at the Roman Stock Exchange dividing future lovers Piero and Vittoria—a sign of the societal ill that will infect their relationship. The columns are orderly. What passes now for order is divisive rather than integrative—an idea stunningly expressed in the film’s conclusive series of bleak, thinly populated nightscapes: a world of order with nothing left to order: form outlasting content. The sparse presence of humanity suggests humanity’s now largely empty core.
Piero and Vittoria have not kept their date. L’eclisse sharpens despair to the point of apocalypse, signalling in the failure of two individuals to remain a couple the end of the world. By indirection, then, Antonioni touts the primacy of love. L’eclisse is the most powerful film ever made about two lovers.
6. THE MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA (Dziga Vertov, U.S.S.R., 1928). Cinema began as a documentary enterprise, with the camera a purely objective recording device; but documentaries have also been subjective and personal.
Chelovek s kino-apparatom, by Dziga Vertov, born Denis Arkadievich Kaufman, employs a framing device: preparation for the screening, followed by the ceremonious screening, of the film itself. On the agile move, it follows the cameraman, the director’s brother, Mikhail Kaufman, from dawn to darkness, here, there and everywhere, including bustling city streets in Moscow, Kiev and Odessa, as he tries taking in “life as it is being lived” from numerous perspectives while photographing the film we’re watching. Two audiences complete this self-reflexivity: those attending the screening in the film; Vertov’s audience—now, us. Both “half-create” what they see, as in life.
What’s on screen is life then? Not so fast! What appears is full of camera tricks. In Vertov’s earlier Kino-Eye (1924) the Chinese street magician’s magic seems the result of his own sleight of hand. Now, however, the magic of life and the magic of cinema so continuously translate into one another that we cannot be certain whose “tricks” we witness: the magician’s or Vertov’s. The “factuality” that Vertov is after, then, isn’t the sort that omits or discards the myriad ambiguities of human experience; his eclectic film displays various tones and moods, with beauteous lyrical inserts recalling poet William Wordsworth’s visionary “spots of time,” amidst highly descriptive passages, such as of people at work. The result places the adventure in the graciousness of eternity—although the film never quite loses hold of the here and now, even when, in a burst of ingenious animation, Kaufman’s camera, onstage, comes to robotic life to confront its audience: a sci-fi image predicting a delightful Soviet future that wasn’t to be.
7. THE TRIAL (Orson Welles, France, Italy, West Germany, 1962). Orson Welles, who wrote and directed The Trial, from Franz Kafka, considered it his best piece of work. I concur.
Certainly it is Welles’s most haunted film. It satirizes bureaucracy by promoting it to an almost cosmic level of authoritarianism, as Kafka had done in order to portray humanity’s sense of cluelessness in the vast, impersonal modern world; but Welles also lends great sorrow to the satire by infusing it with a specter of the Holocaust. (Kafka’s novella preceded the Holocaust by about twenty years; the film came about twenty years after.) This brings to fruition the full horror of totalitarianism that Kafka had only begun to imagine. To be sure, the film dazzles with its kaleidoscopic maze of ambiguous black-and-white images and visual cul-de-sac, its use of chiaroscuro, its urgent sense of parable; but it is the film’s phantomlike repository of historical memory, an omnipresent insinuation, that accounts for its inexhaustible power of emotion.
Not everyone who loves Welles loves this film. Critic Andrew Sarris, who places Welles in his pantheon of great American filmmakers, finds The Trial “hateful,” “repellent,” “perverted”—or did so at the time of The American Cinema (1968), where he writes: “Welles asserts in his prologue that his story has the logic of a dream, but Welles on Kafka, like Modigliani’s white on white, is less logical than superfluous, less a dream of something than a dream of a dream of something.” Bound up in memory, Welles’s film is the dream of a dream. It is Welles’s nightmare of an historical waking nightmare that we all share.
The Trial is Welles’s great lament for humanity’s inhumanity. It is a film mourning a world of justice and reason that it nevertheless knows existed in mind but never in time.
8. D’EST (Chantal Äkerman, Belgium, France, Portugal, 1993). Like Dziga Vertov’s lyrical Three Songs of Lenin (1934), From the East is a photographic essay—a documentary survey—of humanity. Shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Belgian filmmaker Chantal Äkerman traveled from Germany to Poland to Moscow. She had always wanted to make a film about the diaspora of the Eastern European Jews, and, in a transfigured form, D’Est became this for her. In each face she encounters throughout her journey she feels the history with which she, Jewish, is investing it, and this history includes the death camps and Stalin—like Hitler, an anti-Semite. “Road pictures” are drifty things reflecting the impermanence and uprootedness of human lives, and the “impermanence” and “uprootedness” of Äkerman’s tracking camera destabilizes figures in often stationary positions, transforming them into a metaphor for lost and scattered Jewry. Äkerman also films numerous people walking, which contributes to the same thematic result.
Äkerman’s dark of night resonates with a sense of Jewry’s eternal tragedy: one’s home, or even someone’s life, always being taken away—the nothingness to which the rest of the world is ever poised to consign Jews by scattering them or their ashes to the winds. The Soviet Union has ended, but its former citizens, apparently unfazed, go on with their mundane lives. They, too, are scattered to winds, and thus this continuation of ordinary existence cocoons them from the sea-change that has taken place, as Äkerman’s camera penetrates and deconstructs the event of their survival, wringing from it her metaphor for Jewish endurance.
We feel the loss of each face, each form, that the camera passes by, and, because there are so many of these souls, we are never passive in watching this nearly wordless film, for we are always catching up with it.
9. THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (Carl Theodor Dreyer, France, 1928). Who was the chief architect of her martyrdom? The English invaders, who imprisoned her? The French clergy, who tried and condemned her? God? The girl herself? The people, who identified with her and gave her martyrdom political purpose?
Denmark’s Carl Theodor Dreyer thus entered fifteenth-century France and collapsed the difference between present and distant past, not to construct an objective history, but to show opposing subjectivities at Jeanne d’Arc’s trial: her insistent faith; the heretic that her judges, at the behest of the English, felt compelled to subdue.
Using composition, camera placement and camera movement to isolate Jeanne within the frame, and a dissonant editing style wherein consecutive shots sometimes appear deliberately mismatched, Dreyer lays bare the politics of official persecution. Moreover, he plumbs a solitary soul’s duress under this persecution and shows the transformation of the witnessing masses from an amorphous mob into a responsible voice—and fist—of moral protest. Transcending images of the exploitative circus that Jeanne’s execution attracts, Dreyer’s film achieves startling clarity.
Her unadorned face in varied closeup, at the center of the film is Maria Falconetti giving a tremendous performance—in fact, among the most celebrated ones in all of cinema. What became of her? One legend claims she so identified with her one film role that she ended up in an insane asylum, convinced she was Jeanne. Likely, the actress returned to the stage. Falconetti’s “madness” surely is an antifeminist lie taking aim at so powerful a female image.
Falconetti enrobes us in the silence of Jeanne’s destiny, much as Dreyer enrobes us in the silence of silent film, with which added scores or orchestral accompaniments uncomprehendingly tinker. Falconetti’s Jeanne helps make Dreyer’s Passion a mystery there is no coming out of.
10. THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (John Ford, U.S., 1962). James Stewart and John Wayne are magnificent in John Ford’s last great film, which addresses the foundation of lies and myths sustaining ideas of national destiny, frontier and progress in the U.S. “The man who shot Liberty Valance” doesn’t refer to the man who actually shot and killed the embodiment of Old West lawlessness but to the gun-shy lawyer who, given the credit, builds upon this celebrity a lofty political career that is about to allow him, as U.S. senator, to bring irrigation to Shinbone, thereby turning vast, open desert into a fenced garden, and consigning anarchy to the discipline of rules and boundaries, all of which entails, along with some reluctant modification of individual liberty, the loss of an elusive quality of romance.
Here is Ford’s most intricately composed yet grayest, knottiest, thorniest Western—his most highly analytical film. (German filmmaker Jean-Marie Straub has called Ford “the most Brechtian of all filmmakers, because he shows things that make people think . . . [and that make] the audience collaborate on the film.”) Like Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946), also in black and white, the film seems to emanate from some dark collective mind, the historical imagination where myth and truth, shifting in and out of one another, are phantoms of the night. Senator Ransom Stoddard’s marriage is also founded on the error that he dispatched Liberty Valance; Hallie, his wife, originally loved Tom Doniphon, who really did kill Valance, and who, losing Hallie to Stoddard and gleaning his nation’s future, chose to pass into oblivion. Divided, like America, Hallie loved the dashing substance of one man in the righteous form of the other.
What an enduring, frightfully weighted haul is here—America’s baggage of memory, regret, contradiction, political disillusionment.
11. TOKYO STORY (Yasujiro Ozu, Japan, 1953). The Japanese family’s postwar disintegration: this is the theme of a noble, massively humane work by Yasujiro Ozu, all of whose films bear the universal appeal of family (or surrogate family) concerns. The war’s demoralizing outcome and the chauvinistic U.S. occupation that followed aren’t mentioned in Tokyo monogatari, nor do they need to be. We grasp, as Japanese audiences certainly did, that what we are witnessing is, at least partly, fallout from what Japan endured over the previous decade.
An elderly couple visit their married son in Tokyo. Both the son, a pediatrician, and his wife work, leaving little time to attend to these guests; and their son is a disrespectful, unruly child. Only the widow of the elder couple’s other son, who died in the war, is warm and attentive. Meaning well, the younger couple send the elder couple off to a spa, but thus being denied the company of those they came to visit only intensifies the older couple’s loneliness and disappointment. At home, the doctor’s mother falls ill and dies.
As it happens, the younger couple also are disappointed, but their sense of the traditional Japan that they’ve lost is less tangible. Ozu’s film, then, is a study in disenchantment, disappointment, about a national mood as it affects the thoughts and feelings of individuals. Acting is key in such a film, and the performances are wonderful, especially those of Chishu Ryu as the father and Setsuko Hara as his compassionate daughter-in-law.
No film better portrays upheaved lives in a “society in transition.” Moreover, Ozu’s shots, such as those showing the backs of the elderly couple sitting outdoors, which convey their shared loneliness and suggest the world—the past—that is now behind them, are material and poetic, elegiac, mundane and transcendent.
12. IN PRAISE OF LOVE (Jean-Luc Godard, France, Switzerland, 2001). The former enfant terrible of the nouvelle vague, Jean-Luc Godard has made more brilliant films than anyone else. At seventy, he achieved his masterpiece: Éloge de l’amour.
The film is divided into two parts. The first centers on a filmmaker’s project about a love affair. It is filmed in luxuriant black and white (cinema past). Shifting to two years earlier, the second part is videographed in saturated color (cinema future). The order is accurate; past follows present here because it is the filmmaker’s memory, in this instance triggered by the suicide of a young woman whose grandparents also are suicides.
The French intriguingly investigate memory as part of people’s intelligent lives. Italians, by contrast, mine the nostalgic—the emotional—properties of memory.
Reflections from the first part: History has been replaced by technology; politics, by gospel. “There can be no resistance without memory of universalism.” In the second part, the grandmother, a Resistance fighter during the Second World War, recalls that money then was a means, not an end. Her and her husband’s story is now being bought by Hollywood. Because they have no memories of their own, Godard reminds us, Americans buy the memories of others.
Haunted shot after haunted shot encapsulates the idea of memory. Scenes of nighttime Paris, besides evoking memories of futuristic ones in Godard’s earlier Alphaville (1965), seem to enter the dominion of memory. Here is a film saturated in memory—memory as a force that participates in inventing current reality. Here is a film in which the tone of a woman’s voice “brought ideas to life.”
Memory is omnipresent. “You can think of something only if you think about something else,” something familiar.
We’re creatures of habit—creatures of habitual memory.
13. ¡QUÉ VIVA MÉXICO! (Sergei M. Eisenstein, Mexico, U.S.S.R., 1931-32, 1979). When author Upton Sinclair withdrew his financing, Eisenstein’s anthropological Mexican film mixing documentary and fictional elements was left incomplete. In 1979, Grigori Alexandrov commandeered a version based on Eisenstein’s notes. It omits, however, the haunting material of the carnival’s dissolution at night included in the looser, more lyrical Eisenstein’s Mexican Fantasy.
In this study of mixed cultures, native and imposed, pre-Columbian and Spanish, Eisenstein focuses on the devolving role of women in Mexico. The film is thus a companion-piece to his The Old and the New (1929), which identifies the Soviet future with gender equality.
¡Que viva México! opens in the sacred city of the Mayas, Chichén Itzá, in Yucatán. Stark, powerful images: Amidst immense pyramids, human faces are compared with faces sculpted in stone, showing the living embodiment of Mexico’s ancient past in her present inhabitants, and suggesting religion’s anthropomorphic basis. A beautiful young woman appears. Is she Mexico’s future?
Episodes portray a male-driven culture that honors females only as a formality. In “The Sandunga,” set in Tehuantepec, for example, an Indian girl dreams of marriage. Gold coin by gold coin, she pursues the completion of the necklace that will be her wedding dowry. But what power accrues to Concepcion by her having to buy her way to marital bliss? Stop-gap photography tracks the necklace as, through sale after sale of one thing after another, coins are added to it. The visual trickery identifies money not with power but with the illusion of power. Although the day belongs to the bride, the wedding is officiated by the patriarchic church imposed on Mexico by conquerors, and the subsequent marriage finds Concepcion subservient to an indolent spouse.
On the Day of the Dead, a beaming boy bears the face of Mexico’s future.
14. VAMPYR (Carl Theodor Dreyer, Germany, France, 1931). A student of vampires, young David Gray is a “dreamer, for whom the boundary between the real and the unreal has become dim”—an explorer given to “aimless journeyings.”
Like Fritz Lang’s Destiny (1921), Dreyer’s Vampyr fully enters a magical world, a realm of sinister enchantment. Its images and sounds attempt to bridge the worlds of silence and sound. The film’s sparse additions of sounds and spoken dialogue interrupt and unsettle its silent or eerily quiet dreamlike state, helping the film to realize its momentous theme: humanity’s anxieties stemming from mortal awareness. Vampyr’s dreaminess goes beyond the suggestion of an anxious dream; it also suggests a desired, a willed, dream, whose aim is to relegate elements of anxiety-ridden reality to the realm of dream in order to conjure the possibility of waking up and having these elements dissipate and dissolve. The film implies, then, a permanently objective world fear of whose loss requires the landscape of a dream as a kind of safety hatch or escape route.
After two title cards, the film per se materializes in a kind of dematerializing way. Gray appears walking up a hill, with the sea in close proximity. The shot is framed so that the dream possibility arises that he has walked out of the water; indeed, because we have just read that he is a dreamer, we associate the water with Gray’s unconscious. Gray is on land, which implicitly means he is firmly in reality, but the water, coupled with the butterfly net he totes, casts him symbolically adrift.
What images there are in this film!—for instance, those shots, in shadowy silhouette, where a man is digging a grave, and we see, in reverse motion, the earth sail through space to the spoon of the shovel.
15. CITIZEN KANE (Orson Welles, U.S., 1941). Rosebud.
The attempted deconstruction of a man’s life by an investigative reporter, Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane is a fascinating film. Nearly intolerably moving, it’s a titanic, dark, dense canvas of American sociology, history and politics that sums up as waste the crammed life of a newspaper magnate, who, disconnected from family and his own past, “buys things.” With its infinite reflexivity, the hall of mirrors in the elderly Kane’s mansion suggests his attempt to extend time and space, that is to say, defy mortality. But life exhausts even such illusionary extensions; like the rest of us, Kane reaches a last deadline. It is here—at Kane’s end—that the movie begins.
Except for us, no one is present to hear Kane’s deathbed utterance: “Rosebud.” This signals the absurdity of any attempt to “solve the mystery” of a human life. What is “Rosebud”? At the last, one of the countless possessions of Kane’s that’s tossed into an insatiable furnace is the childhood sled bearing that name and image. Rather than this, though, “Rosebud” suggests the accumulated thought, feeling and memory that Kane attached to the discarded object. Ultimately, perhaps, it signifies loss, which Kane’s solitudinous egotism has monstrously enlarged into his own province, his Xanadu.
Rather than the missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle, “Rosebud” remains an elusive clue in a mystery too vast to admit solution. Thus the film is self-critical, its zigzagging time structure at every point undercutting the straight line of inquiry that the reporter’s investigation tries to impose.
Citizen Kane haunts and astounds, as in the case of the closing visual pun of a man’s whole life going up in smoke, preceded by a sweeping crane shot of Kane’s accumulated stuff—an apotheosis of American material obsessiveness that fills loneliness.
16. NIGHT AND FOG IN JAPAN (Nagisa Oshima, Japan, 1960). In 1958, Japan renegotiated its 1952 treaty ending U.S. occupation, whose original terms had impressed Japanese youth with a sense of futility, radicalizing them. Many felt the new security terms, which strengthened Japan’s alliance with the U.S., betrayed its constitution, which had committed Japan to the course of peace. Its title referring to Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog (1955), Nagisa Oshima’s fictional Nihon no yoru to kiri haunts, instead of a Nazi death camp, Nozawa’s wedding party, which is peopled by dimmed, compromised radicals. (As a student, Oshima had participated in the movement.) Withering, ghost-ridden, the film targets the nuclear-insane U.S., the insufficiency of Sovietism to provide a viable alternative, the collapse of Japanese radicalism and idealism. A wedding’s new beginning occasions a renewed sense of betrayal, militant poses pointing to an empty nostalgia, and a catalog of political post-mortems.
A seemingly black-and-white shot through a dark forest finds someone approaching the window through which we espy the groom and bride standing behind a table, flanked by others, and all so rigid we might swear we were looking at a photograph. Inside, all is in woody, earthen color; someone summarizes recent clashes between students and police. The camera moves back and forth, left and right, one camera movement ironically canceling the other; everyone stands perfectly still except for the one who is speaking, who is also standing. When he is finished, another man speaks.
In the same fluid shot, amidst constrained singing, the back-and-forth camera finds the man of the forest, the groom’s friend, entering. Soon after, members of the wedding enter the past: voices and tableaux of student protest enrobed in darkness, ideological discussions, strategy sessions. Elegiac singing echoes: Where are we? Past or present? Among the living or the dead?
17. L’AVVENTURA (Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy, France, 1960). Antonioni launched cinema’s greatest trilogy with The Adventure. Two souls, her lover, Sandro, and her friend, Claudia (Monica Vitti, Antonioni’s partner and muse at the time, phenomenal), search for Anna, who is missing from their party on an uninhabited island. In the course of this adventure, the two become a couple and lose the thread of their search. What had brought them together no longer matters—except to us, who miss Anna, who at first seemed to be the film’s protagonist. Finding ourselves the projection of the pair’s conscience makes us a participant.
The fragile nature of relationships; the ties that loosen and unbind: Antonioni shows the abstract way that modern humans live, giving themselves up to experience. These characters demonstrate self-estrangement and an inability to make emotional contact with others. Visually, L’avventura translates the concepts figure and ground into the relationship between humanity and landscape. Daunting Sicilian locations fail to do what we expect locations to do in a film: locate the characters and their story. Instead, they project the vast spaces, the disconnects, between, among and within characters who lack moral and sensitive rootedness. Here is a film about will-o’-the-wisps.
Antonioni had mined the poetry of bleak landscape before, such as in The Cry (1957), but never to such intoxicating effect. Used to their own abandonment, the landscapes appear to reveal (or mimic) the idle, empty, well-to-do characters. This is a film of long- and wide-angle shots, in which characters are often on the verge of becoming lost to the eye. It is about how, like Anna, we all can be lost in this modern world of ours—lost to ourselves and others. Its overarching theme is the signature one of the sixties: alienation. But Antonioni investigates its character rather than exploiting a fashionable mood.
18. THE END OF ST. PETERSBURG (Vsevolod I. Pudovkin, U.S.S.R., 1927). Commemorating the tenth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, Konyets Sankt-Peterburga begins with a trenchant portrait of rural poverty in 1914 tsarist Russia. After the birth of a sister, “another mouth to feed,” a boy leaves the farm and goes to the city to get a job. An uncle living there is a labor activist; his stingy wife (Vera Baranovskaya, superb) throws the boy out. When workers strike, the boy, hungry, becomes a scab. When he better appreciates matters, he assaults a boss, is thrown into prison and is sent to fight in the First World War. When he returns, he participates in the revolution that consecutively disposes of the tsar and Kerensky’s provisional government, by which time his aunt’s compassion and generosity have grown. St. Petersburg is now Leningrad.
Except for an overdone bout of crosscutting between suffering at the front and, back home, capitalists gleeful over war profits, V. I. Pudovkin and four assistant directors have wrought a perfect film. Along with Pudovkin’s Mother (see below), it remains cinema’s best study of radicalization. Its stark images stun—for instance, towards the camera in closeup, the scythe-like rotation of a windmill’s fan on the farm: persistent, sharp motions that unsettle the frames, within the implied symbolism of life’s tragic round. The image both conveys the harsh entrapment of poverty and signals the future growth of the peasant’s political consciousness. Greed-driven, power-fixated St. Petersburg contextualizes images that prepare the boy for political maturation: dense factory pollution, amidst which overworked, underpaid workers toil, in contrast to the artificial lot of clean suits and straw hats—stock exchange participants, whose rat-like scurrying, shot from overhead, would be comical were it not for the connection to the plight of workers that the juxtaposition draws.
19. PICKPOCKET (Robert Bresson, France, 1959). Burdened by his history, a young pickpocket approaches us in voiceover in Robert Bresson’s electrifying Pickpocket. Michel is poor, and that’s the principal reason for his stealing, until, that is, the thievery itself becomes addictive and compulsive, thereby becoming its own motivation. Bresson does not reduce Michel’s humanity by categorizing him as a criminal. Instead, the hinted connection between Michel and the lieutenant who escapes the Gestapo in Bresson’s A Man Escaped (see below), both of them being in a constant state of anxiety, imparts to the pickpocket some of the Resistance fighter’s heroic humanity. Bresson’s largeness of directorial spirit gives his film a religious aura—that and, on the soundtrack, the outbursts of quasi-religious music that either strengthen or tweak the film’s religious identity. You choose.
On the other hand, though, Bresson shows dehumanization, Michel’s and others’. At the racetrack, in the police station or the Metro, closeups focus on money and its movement from one hand to another, or from one place (such as a pocket or pocketbook) to another (such as a hand)—money taking precedence over humanity and directing the course of people’s lives. Rock-bottoming out, however, Michel may be ultimately guided to his redemption by the invisible hand of God.
Each shot is concise, passionate, radiant, and the dialogue is so minimal, elliptical, even cryptic, that we must invest ourselves imaginatively to bring a clear, continuous sense to the film. In the absence of much talk, we hear things wonderfully: footsteps; doors opening and closing; automobiles—all the sounds, in fact, that Bresson has included and emphasized, translating each, along with each black-and-white image, into its essence. As ever, Bresson refreshes our sense of material life, which too often otherwise falls into jadedness and complacency by becoming detached from our sense of spirit.
20. THE GOLD RUSH (Charles Chaplin, U.S., 1925). Charles Chaplin’s The Gold Rush, about the 1898 Klondike gold rush, is humorous and serene—a wondrous light comedy in which Chaplin’s persistent Everyman, cinema’s signature icon, wins even at love.
But this is not to say that the film is free of anxiety. Amidst bewitching images of Charlie in the Alaskan wilderness, the American Dream gasps at a problematic final frontier. First cousin to Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922), Chaplin’s comedy eludes tragedy, it seems, by a single whisker. Snow burns intensely and, before he emerges from his ordeal triumphant, Charlie nearly starves, his imaginative and material resourcefulness, although great (consider the meal he concocts from boiled shoe and spaghetti-like shoelaces), a lame weapon against fierce Nature. A sublimely funny moment: Delusional from hunger, Big Jim, a fellow prospector and Charlie’s cabin-mate, imagines Charlie as a giant chicken and promptly chases him for a much-needed meal.
Nor is Nature all that threatens Charlie, for he is searching out beyond its 1925 borders an already dwindling America, as the grandeur of America’s terrain of hope yields to exploitation, population growth, and the cramping commotion of progress. Like many a comedy, then, this one teeters on the edge of disaster—like, unforgettably, Charlie’s uprooted cabin slip-sliding away.
Everything—home, prospects, life, America—is perishable.
But Charlie at the last gets the girl!
21. THE CONSTANT FACTOR (Krzysztof Zanussi, Poland, 1980). For whatever reason(s), Krzysztof Zanussi has participated in obscuring his artistic signature by doggedly trying to make films that are different from one another. Constans is perhaps his most personal film.
Witold is beset with difficulties. He is his dying mother’s caregiver; at work his idealism collides with the inwardness, rigidness and corruption of an entrenched bureaucracy that mounts a plot against him; and he longs to scale the Himalayas, as his father died doing. Witold’s life appears bleak at the crossroads of his own character and things beyond his control. Finally, he withdraws from the world and becomes a window washer—a grotesque parody of mountain-climbing. The son will never become his father. The integrity to which he aspires must forever elude him.
Witold places his faith in mathematics, believing it can explain his apparent bad luck, and the film’s precise, almost mathematical style is suited to this faith and Witold’s perception of the world. Something human, though, is ever poised to drop into or out of such a view of reality. As a result, Witold unwittingly contributes to a tragic outcome. Constans is breathtaking in its irony.
Zanussi, a former student of physics and philosophy, has fashioned a rigorously intellectual work about self-determination and other-determination. Constans elegantly locates a man’s emotional life in a complex social and political environment. It demonstrates the struggle for survival by an individual whose resilience and intelligence would seem to offer more hope and better prospects. Of all great films, this may be the bleakest, not least of all for its portrait of daily existence in a joyless, programmatic Communist state. Throughout, its cold colors appear on the edge of colorlessness.
Zanussi has made an uncompromising film about an uncompromising man. The implied self-criticism is devastating.
22. VIRIDIANA (Luis Buñuel, Spain, Mexico, 1961). Only Godard has made more brilliant films than Spain’s political self-exile Luis Buñuel, whose career spanned a half-century. Antifascist, surrealist, Catholic-turned-antireligionist, Buñuel is a withering artist perpetually applying a satirical razor blade to the eyeballs of the bourgeoisie, Catholic clergy, and other groups he deemed backward. The critical miscomprehension that attended his beautiful Nazarin (1958) found him giving many of its themes a more blatant treatment in Viridiana. For once, the less subtle rendering proved the greater work. Viridiana had to be smuggled out of Franco’s Spain, to which Buñuel had returned just to make it, and completed in Mexico.
Dark, course, rough wool, black-and-white Viridiana is stylistically different from the teasing silk of Buñuel’s later French work in color (Belle de Jour, 1967; The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, 1972). In it, altruism and idealism collide with mean, grubby reality and various forms of corruption. The film follows Viridiana, a girl about to take final vows at convent, the course of whose life is wrenched when the aristocratic uncle she is visiting lies to her before committing suicide, claiming that he violated her the night before while she was in a drugged state. Viridiana assumes charge of Don Jaime’s estate, which she shares with his illegitimate son. Believing she can redeem them through prayer, Viridiana invites in beggars, resulting in the high point of the film’s astonishing brio: a looting-rape celebration that visually parodies Leonardo’s The Last Supper and is set to Handel’s Messiah. Hal-le-lu-jah!
The closeup of a child’s feet as she skips rope provides a sense of balance ripe for tragicomic reversal. Fernando Rey is marvelous as Don Jaime, whose chuckle right before he hangs himself with the jump-rope remains one of cinema’s most enigmatic and haunting gestures.
23. THE BURMESE HARP (Kon Ichikawa, Japan, 1956). About the effect of war’s horror on a sensitive combatant in the Second World War, Kon Ichikawa’s Biruma no Tategoto is the most humane of war films. Its eloquent simplicity befits its literary source: Michio Takeyama’s postwar novel aimed at introducing Buddhism’s tenets to children.
The film opens on a barren, desolate landscape. Dirge-like music; image and sound thus combine to suggest a vast graveyard. Titles appear—a kind of epitaph: “In Burma, soil is blood-red. So are rocks.” A reflective voiceover replaces the titles: “It’s such a long time since the war ended. The war has left many sad stories . . . . By July 1945 the war was going badly.” Memory of war becomes, then, the “life” of this film—life commemorating the lost and the dead.
The film’s first movement introduces Inouye Company, the platoon including Private Mizushima, whose constant companion is his lute patterned after a Burmese harp. Captain Inouye, who studied music, has taught his men to sing. The beauty of their choral endeavors suggests the haven of humanity they perpetuate in the midst of their violent existence; their nostalgic, sentimental songs transport their souls to home. Similarly, the plaintive sounds of Mizushima’s simulated Burmese harp are the repository of the men’s embrace of life in the midst of so much death. Its soulful expression counters the imperialist motive of war, the power of governments that discounts the humanity of the ordinary people who become the soldiers and other victims of war.
Mizushima goes AWOL and becomes a monk. The film charts his highly individual and transformative journey; but in some mystical sense, Mizushima is the extension of his comrades, including Inouye, whose love of music inspired him in the first place.
Ichikawa’s delicate, elegiac masterpiece inspires us all.
24. ARSENAL (Aleksandr Dovzhenko, U.S.S.R., 1929). On the heels of his Zvenigora (1928) arrived one of the great films about war: Dovzhenko’s Arsenal. It is set during the 1918 Russian Civil War, between the Reds and the Whites, communists and nationalists.
Some of the Ukrainian artist’s images are indelible: amid combat, a soldier, eyes bulging amidst artillery fumes, his face a contorted mask; the mutineers’ derailed train, from which drops an accordian, which collapses into motionlessness; an officer mechanically performing executions in rapid succession—arm up, fire, arm down, arm up, fire, arm down. In war’s crucible, naturalism yields to expressionism. Dovzhenko convinces that his impossible vision of war suits war’s reality.
Yet this isn’t the sum of Arsenal’s achievement, for Dovzhenko probes the politics and various casualties of war, from the competing civilian sides to the Social Democrats, to the soldiers in the field, to the starving peasants back home. (A farm horse drops to the ground in slow motion: starvation? or has it been shot, to appease human hunger?) War is shown, then, as an intricate mechanism in which everyone is impressed. There is, for instance, the agitated response of the bourgeoisie to a workers’ strike in the munitions factory; and the coming to a halt of the arsenal, besides providing a brilliant image of revolt, weighs in with the dire consequences of nonproduction for the soldiers waging war and the war effort being waged by a fractured nation. The arsenal’s stoppage would inform the heart-stopping stopping of the mill at the close of Dreyer’s Vampyr (see above), much as the collapsed accordian would reappear in René Clément’s Battle of the Rails (1945). Arsenal is an influential film, then, as well as a mind-boggling masterpiece—a part of our collective consciousness even if we have never seen it.
25. BARREN LIVES (Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Brazil, 1963). The highwater mark of Brazil’s cinema nôvo, Pereira dos Santos’s black-and-white Vidas Secas derives from Graciliano Ramos’s 1938 novel about an impoverished young family—Fabiano, wife Vitória, their two small sons, and Baleia, the family dog—attempting to survive in the sun-seared sertão.
The film opens on endless, open land. One bare tree punctuates the dry landscape. Distant dots to the tree’s right move. As the camera moves left very slowly and the figures advance, tree and humans are each associated with the other. First to burst into full view is Baleia, running ahead. The skeletal tree is a figure of looming death; the implication arises that the dog, leaping between family and tree beyond the frame, protects the family from extinction. Soon after, Baleia barks to alert the others of a family member’s distress and, a proficient hunter, helps keep all from starvation.
Almost as soon as they arrive close to a shack that cowhand Tomás has vacated, the landowner, imperious on horseback, armed with a whip, orders them out but relents when Fabiano offers to work for next to nothing. Even so, “Boss” cheats Fabiano, who chooses family survival over personal pride. Fabiano is whipped and jailed for no offense.
Eventually they all must move on. Baleia is sick, so Fabiano first must kill their protector—a protracted passage presaging the family’s own imperiled fate. A few amazing shots illumine the dog’s consciousness as she dies: a zoom-out from the cabin; animals that Baleia won’t be hunting down. The family is on foot again, this time without certain destination. Vitória wonders aloud, “Will we ever be human?” The camera behind them this time, rather than appearing out of the distance they disappear into the nothingness stretching in front of them.
The remaining 75 films on this list of the 100 greatest films of all time do not appear, as do the first 25 listed above, in order of preference. They are given chronologically, year by year. However, when more than one entry exists for the same year, the entries are given in order of preference for that particular year. For tracking purposes, the remaining entries will be consecutively numbered beginning with number 26. But these entries complete the list of the 100 greatest films rather than continue the list of the 25 greatest films.
26. THE GENERAL (Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman, U.S.). The American Civil War remains an emotional powder-keg, at least in the white South, which continues spiritually, and sometimes politically, to resist the idea of Confederate defeat. This may be why the one indisputable masterpiece about that war, Keaton and Bruckman’s The General, is a comedy.
Buster Keaton has transformed an actual incident involving a Confederate engine driver, whose heroism helped score a victory against the Union army, into his signature theme of a boy trying hard to prove himself, in this case to the girl he loves, who rejects him as a suitor when she mistakes him for a coward. Johnnie Gray’s attempts to enlist in the army are rejected because he can better serve the cause in his job as train engineer. But doesn’t Johnnie pose a threat to the family inwardness that the girl’s father and brother hope to remove by disparaging him, to keep him from making further romantic inroads while they are away at war, and doesn’t this paranoia cast a sardonic light on the South’s regional secession motivated by their desire to retain at all costs their “way of life”?
The girl tells Johnnie she won’t accept him into her heart again until she sees him in uniform—translation: until he is more like Father and Brother. This grotesque failure of hers to fathom the horrible nature of war spins ironically throughout the film; and when, finally, Johnnie is indeed in uniform, it is left to us to grasp Keaton’s closing irony, Johnnie’s likely fate in a war that has only just begun. It is unlikely that Johnnie will come marching home again—and if he does, he will be transformed by the experiences of killing and defeat: the loss of everything that his beloved represents.
27. MOTHER (Vsevolod I. Pudovkin, U.S.S.R.). Once a staple on lists of the ten best films, Mother is now neglected. Its centerpiece is Vera Baranovskaya’s deeply moving performance as Pelageya Vlasova.
An exemplar of Stanislavski’s acting “method” devised for the Russian stage (where Stanislavski in fact directed her), Baranovskaya acted to the bone. Rather than playing scenes from whose sum an audience might induce her character, Baranovskaya acted fresh, holistically—out of a wholeness of characterization that she conceived and imaginatively drew into herself prior to performance. Moreover, she detailed the sort of archetypal role representation that populated the Russian stage by drawing on her own emotional history and life experience. (The misapplication of Stanislavski’s method to naturalistic roles, coached by Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg and others, helps explain its artistic shortcomings in the U.S.) Thus in Mother was Baranovskaya able to play to the full both the Mother archetype and a highly specific individual.
Pelageya Vlasova is a tremendous instance of the Russian soul—a peasant who, trusting tsarist assurances, turns her son in for political pamphleteering but, when double-crossed by authorities by her son’s kangaroo trial and imprisonment (“Is this justice?” she asks), becomes a revolutionary herself. Somber and militant, the film is loosely taken from Maxim Gorky.
Mother’s major motif consists of inserts showing the springtime breakup of river ice: a stunning metaphor for revolution’s liberating sunlight following a long winter of tsarist oppression and constabulary cruelty. Pudovkin, a former physics and chemistry student, acknowledged his source; but, whereas the heroine’s escape on ice floes in D. W. Griffith’s Way Down East (1920) is just a sensational bit of plot meant to agitate and titillate, Pudovkin’s motif is expressive and poetic—the visual rendering of one of Mother’s principal themes.
Such is the difference between art and entertainment.
28. OCTOBER (Sergei M. Eisenstein, U.S.S.R.). Commemorating the 1917 revolution, Oktyabr’ is a “people’s film.” For the famous passage depicting the storming of Tsar Nikolai’s Winter Palace, Eisenstein employed veterans of the actual event and borrowed details from the pantomimes of the seige that were annually staged by the people of Leningrad. These and other factors tend to collapse the difference between on-the-spot documentary and reenactment. The result is akin to faux-documentary.
Eisenstein pushed cinema beyond linear narrative, creating trains of images that figure forth ideas rather than “tell a story.” One example: the officially ordered raising of the bridges, which unloads upon the water below—to which are added, for drowning, copies of the revolutionary newspaper Pravda (“Truth”)—a horse’s heft and a girl’s fresh, still sensuous corpse. In cinematic language, here is the tsarist establishment’s attempt to break the spine of human ties to life, beauty, Nature and truth—truth, the passage implies, that is undrownable, so wedded to it are the hearts of the masses. The outrage that the tsarist act inspired, the passage suggests, called forth revolution.
When viewing it, one must constantly interpret October; it doesn’t encourage, much less exploit, viewer passivity. Eisenstein had tremendous faith in the power of images—and in Soviet communism as liberator of the human spirit. But just his being Jewish drew Stalin’s suspiciousness, and October became the first of his films to provoke official disfavor for its formalist tendencies—translation: too great an interest in art as something other than a tool of the state. Thereafter, Eisenstein’s projects were monitored daily to hold these “tendencies” in check. At the last moment, moreover, October had to be hastily re-edited to delete from its cast of characters Leon Trotsky and others who openly opposed Stalin as betrayer of the Revolution.
29. BERLIN: SYMPHONY OF A GREAT CITY (Walther Ruttmann, Germany). Inspired by Mikhail Kaufman’s Moscow (1926) and other Soviet documentaries by Vertov, as well as abstract German experimental films, Berlin, Die Sinfonie der Grosstadt is a rhythmic documentary. The idea for Walther Ruttmann’s film came from Carl Mayer, who had scripted F. W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924). Shots were selected and edited to compose a day in the life of Berlin, from dawn to deep in the night.
The sweeping opening movement is the camera’s approach to Berlin: over rolling water, across train tracks, including over a bridge. A montage of overhead shots portrays a dense metropolis; commercial advertisements on the sides of buildings perhaps introduce a disquieting note. Sewer; tall buildings. A solitary cat walks the street. A few people become visible, then more and more as the workday begins, with men in suits off to one kind of job, and laborers off to factories. Commuters enter Berlin (trains again); children are off to school. Here is a city that works.
Only, marching soldiers remind one of Great War defeat and Germany’s subsequent economic hardship. Are there other clues of stress? Magnets for a crowd, two “respectable” men push one another on a street corner. On another corner, a rabble-rouser of some political stripe attracts his own crowd. In a blatantly staged sequence, a woman commits suicide from a bridge. Before she takes the plunge, we see her eyes bulging in horror and madness—the film’s one closeup. A patron’s-eye view of a roller coaster ride insinuates more stress, as does the quickened pace of the film’s editing.
Most viewers, though, see Ruttmann’s film as harmonious. My reading of Berlin’s discontent may be wrong. It must be wrong.
30. STORM OVER ASIA (Vsevolod I. Pudovkin, U.S.S.R.). Potomok Chingis-Khan is a little difficult to rank. While it contains the best material that Pudovkin ever shot, its level of achievement is far less consistent than that of either Mother or The End of St. Petersburg (both, see above) or of Pudovkin’s outstanding sound film, Deserter (1933). Moreover, some viewers are likely to view as gratuitous the fact that the cheating fur trader in the film is an American.
An opening shot, however, is the single most awesomely beautiful evocation of sheer topographical remoteness in all of cinema. The shot, angled, captures what appears to be the top of the world as mysterious light shimmers across the curving horizon. Also, the film’s portrait of the faces and nomadic lifestyle of Mongolians is indelible.
It is 1920, in Soviet Asia. Storm Over Asia charts the pilgrim’s progress of a Mongolian boy, a fur trapper, who, descended from Ghengis Khan, is installed as a figurehead ruler but who matures to become an anticolonialist national leader. Lovely and leisurely until a rushed ending, the film occasions a stylistic lightness that accumulates into a metaphor for spirit, providing the hero with continuity even as he undergoes radical growth. The film is momentous for another reason. Early on, its highly specific detail and sense of spontaneous observation, while delaying the film’s ability to take shape dramatically, succeeds in blurring the distinction between fiction and documentary. This blur, or blend, of elements stakes out one of the main trails—documentary nudged in the direction of fiction (see Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, immediately above); fiction nudged in the direction of documentary—that authentic cinema has followed.
31. REGEN (Joris Ivens, Mannus Frånken, Netherlands). It is only minutes long, but Rain—now restored to completeness—is one of a kind. The year before, Dutch documentarian Joris Ivens launched his prolific, globe-trotting 60-year career with The Bridge; but, fine as it is, that film cannot predict the astonishing lyricism of Rain. Besides co-directing the film with Mannus Frånken, Ivens co-cinematographed it with Chang Fai and edited it.
Vertov and Kaufman shot material for their Soviet The Man with a Movie Camera (1928) over four years; another black-and-white silent, Ivens and Frånken’s film also took time to compose. Several rainshowers in Amsterdam over many months were meshed into a single event encompassing darkened sky, splattered pavement below and, in between, radiant humanity busily in motion. The result is a luminous meditation on human transience amidst Nature’s volatility—if you will, permanent impermanence.
Time’s rush, the passage of life—everything in the film contributes to the development of this theme, including overhead shots of barges pushing through the frames, and scores of people in the street hurrying away from the camera (to which they are oblivious) to get out of the rain.
Some insist that everyone is smiling in the film. I do not see this. It doesn’t matter. Regardless, the film is not a lament. The metaphor for humanity’s fleeting role in Nature is executed without selfconsciousness. Ivens and Frånken transcend the mortal condition they suggest—and we feel this transcendence. On one level, then, Rain is a film about the power of art.
Among its accomplishments, Rain remains exemplary for its fluent use of hand-held camera, which, on this occasion, seamlessly disappears into the viewer’s captivated eye—a poor indicator of the technique’s eventual agitato trademark.
Rain is the little film that could. It still can. It still does.
32. CITY LIGHTS (Charles Chaplin, U.S.). Still silent despite the advent of sound, Chaplin now gave his most moving performance. Of course, he had the benefit of brilliant writing and directing: his own. City Lights is the seminal American movie of the Great Depression.
Chaplin’s vagrant draws kindness from the girl he loves, a flower peddler whose blindness perhaps spares them both her judging his circumstance. Their lives are precarious. Charlie, homeless, routinely skirts starvation, and the girl, who supports her mother, with whom she shares a tiny apartment, is threatened with eviction. Charlie has crossed paths with a rich playboy whose life, luckily, he saved on the occasion of one of the playboy’s frivolous suicide attempts—foolishness that stands in sharp contrast to the real hardship of others. Not so luckily, though, the playboy is generous only when drunk, which is also when he attempts suicide, but mean and stingy the morning after: a telescoping of society’s ambivalent feelings about the poor. Charlie’s goal to help the blind girl takes him from sweeping streets into the boxing ring, where he is hilariously ill suited, to committing a robbery in order to pay for a surgical operation that might restore the girl’s sight. Released from prison, he chances across his beloved again. Now she is the proprietor of a flower shop, and she can see him for the first time. This is her benefactor—Charlie the Tramp. How he appears; her new status now dividing them: Will she be grateful only? Can she love Charlie? By dint of the film’s closing fadeout, we will never know.
Thus Chaplin finds a perfect metaphor for the uncertainties of the time. Ambiguous, poignant, haunting, this celebrated ending releases such powerful, complex feeling as to give fresh meaning to the idea of the bittersweet.
33. L’AGE D’OR (Luis Buñuel, France). A candidate for the title “the world’s most incendiary film,” Luis Buñuel’s The Golden Age was withdrawn from circulation after its Parisian launch led to riots provoked by two fascist groups, the League of Patriots and the Anti-Semitic League. (The United States denied the film a commercial release for fifty years!) One would think that the passage of time would have relegated L’Age d’Or’s inflammatory nature to the regions of quaintness. Not so. The film’s excitement remains intact.
This eclectic work opens with a brief documentary about scorpions that suggests the poison-tailed nature of another species of animals: us. Cave-dwelling bandits show that humans also do whatever they can in an effort to survive. This is the associative way the entire film works. Both the scorpions and the men, impoverished, have only themselves as resources—in addition to whatever they manage to take. Boats arrive; people mount the rocky terrain. They pay their respects to a grisly expanse of skeletons in religious garb—the surreal translation of a bandit’s vision of mumbling clerics! The official ceremony is interrupted before it begins. A couple rolling in mud are pulled apart. Their coitus interruptus becomes the film’s persistent motif. A shot of the woman, in agony while alone in her apartment, leads to the sound of her flushing toilet superimposed on a fantasy of “flushing” land that looks like a swamp, a slide, of shit. In the street, the man heartily kicks an object of bourgeois affection: a small dog. Buñuel, bless him, is really sticking it to propriety and domestic order.
The film’s exhilarating social satire and liberated air, as well as its insatiable Jesus by way of the Marquis de Sade, astound.
Salvador Dalí contributed to the script.
34. KAMERADSCHAFT (G. W. Pabst, Germany). The title Comradery reflects the politics of its maker, Georg Wilhelm Pabst. The film is based on an actual 1906 mining disaster wherein Germans helped in the attempted rescue of trapped Frenchmen but is set some fifteen years later to draw contrast with what then would be the recently ended world war in which Germany and France were on opposite sides. In the silent era, “the universal language of film” had been a ubiquitous notion; now, with its fraternal border-breaking, Pabst’s preeminent sound film encapsulated the hope that cinema might yet usher in a new era of international cooperation. Ironically, the film is set in the Saar Territory, which France administered under the League of Nations following the war, pending a plebiscite in 1935 that, as it happens, returned it to Germany’s control.
The claustrophobic condition in the coal mines is grim. When it appears that the French miners are doomed, a powerful sense arises of their being buried alive. It is a projection of the oppressive nature of common labor, for which the entrapment serves as metaphor. Sober and naturalistic, Kameradschaft eschews the giddiness and moody flights of Pabst’s haunting silent Pandora’s Box (1928).
Georges Sadoul, in his Dictionary of Films, describes the film’s original ending, which by now may have finally crossed the Atlantic but which I have never seen: “After the rescue, the iron barrier between the French and German workers is re-established by the officials.”
France applauded Kameradschaft; Germany dismissed it. One final mockery: Nationalism proved too strong even for Pabst, a Leftist, who chose to remain in Germany after the advent of Chancellor Hitler, in time assuming an elevated—he later insisted, minor—role in the Third Reich film industry. He never recovered either his artistry or his reputation.
35. DIE DREIGROSCHENOPER (G. W. Pabst, Germany). Pabst’s The Threepenny Opera portrays an impoverished Soho one hundred years after John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera (1728)—satirizing elitist high opera, the people’s ballad opera that Bertolt Brecht’s play updates. Its London reflects post-First World War Berlin, another hundred years later, exposing the social disease and discontent that had fomented the allure of National Socialism in the Weimar Republic. Pabst’s film, like the play, is a musical about something.
It takes us into the criminal underworld. Mack the Knife, king of thieves, dandy and bully, preys on the weak in the dockside slums. He dumps prostitute Pirate Jenny (wonderful Lotte Lenya, wife of the play’s composer, Kurt Weill) and marries Polly Peachum. When Mackie next visits the brothel, Jenny betrays him to the police. Will he hang?
Slow tracking and panning shots, and deep shadows, characterize the film’s atmospheric visual style, along with sharp images of teeming humanity, such as when a street singer sings the most famous tune in the Weill-Brecht score, “Mack the Knife,” and couples move toward the camera as it pans leftward across the backs of the large gathered audience—a separate shot places Mack himself at the scene!—and, also, during a beggars’ demonstration at Queen Victoria’s coronation. (In her pompous carriage, Victoria uses her bouquet to block her sight!) Veterans, whose “rags do not cover [their] wounds,” are also demonstrating—against military wantonness and false promises. The film closes famously: at night, the camera at the backs of an army of the poor and disenchanted filling the frames with foreboding—the dangerous raw edge of expectancy.
Brecht, unhappy with Pabst’s film, unsuccessfully sued.
The Nazis destroyed the film’s original negative and prints.
Die Dreigroschenoper remains the most brilliant film musical of all time.
36. NEW EARTH (Joris Ivens, Netherlands). In 1920, Dutch workers embarked on a massive project of reclaiming fertile land from the sea, draining it for agricultural use, and closing off the Zuiderzee, an inlet of the North Sea, to prevent flooding. Largely fashioned from his own material, Joris Ivens created Nieuwe gronden, a hymn to both humanity’s struggle against Nature and the combined efforts of engineering and labor that sometimes succeeds at this struggle. By 1932, “3,680 acres have been planted. Ten thousand workers working in two shifts, 12 hours a day for 120 months, have conquered new ground. . . . However, the wheat of the world is not raised for food but for speculating.” This shifts the focus of Ivens’s brilliant documentary from the harvesting of wheat to the withholding of wheat from the market, calculated to keep the price of wheat high. Newsreel testimony of the current worldwide hunger crisis of arrives in the film’s stunning final movement.
Headlines: ENORMOUS GRAIN SURPLUSES, GRAIN PRICES AT RECORD LOW, GRAIN MARKET COLLAPSES, MILLIONS OF TONS OF HIDDEN GRAIN LIE ROTTING.” Ivens inserts a new shot to accompany the narration, “There is too much grain and not enough work”: in long-shot, against a cloudy sky (symbolizing the Depression), a line of men walk in single file into an unseen future.
More headlines: CHEMICALS USED TO RENDER GRAIN INEDIBLE, DESTRUCTION OF HARVEST. This in effect mocks the long, hard efforts of the Dutch workers we watched earlier. The narrator notes: “We’re bursting with grain! Thirty-one million unemployed are starving worldwide.” There is a massive hunger march in the U.S., where greedy capitalism is up to the same tricks at humanity’s expense. Ivens inserts a shot of a starving child into a litany of crops that are being burned or tossed into the sea.
37. THE CRIME OF MONSIEUR LANGE (Jean Renoir, France). When Jacques Prévert wrote for Marcel Carné (Le jour se lève, 1939; Children of Paradise, 1945), the result would be fatalistic; but his one collaboration with Jean Renoir, The Crime of Monsieur Lange, is bursting with life and humanity. The son of Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste, Renoir enjoyed his greatest period in the 1930s, when he was a sort-of communist. Renoir’s Crime fits his politics—and soul.
Lange is an exploited young worker in a publishing firm. His alter ego is Arizona Jim, the adventurous, liberated character about whom he writes in his spare time. When his boss disappears, the boy and his co-workers transform the business into a cooperative. But guess who unexpectedly returns, disguised as a priest? What’s to be done?
The workers’ cooperative expresses the communard in Renoir. France’s regrettable history on this score, her willed amnesia regarding her ill-fated 1871 political experiment in Paris, makes the cooperative in the film a thing to be cherished—an imaginary opportunity for France to redeem a part of the past. As far as movies go, the moral choice of the decade falls to those in the border town who must decide whether to turn in to the police Lange’s loyal girlfriend and the fleeing “criminal,” who dispatched (as Jules Berry plays him) a smarmily charming embodiment of evil, or let the couple go on their way across the border. It is remarkable how the situation predicts moral choices that persons in the same nation would face during the next decade. But even if one discounts this touch of prophecy, movies don’t get more profoundly (as distinct from artificially) exciting than this.
With its fresh invention and moral vigor, The Crime of Monsieur Lange anticipates the nouvelle vague by two decades.
38. LA GRANDE ILLUSION (Jean Renoir, France). Before the world changed its mind about Rules of the Game (see below), La grande illusion was considered Renoir’s masterpiece. It is certainly the greatest “escape movie” ever made—but, here, the escapees aren’t criminals but three First World War soldiers in a German prison camp: an aristocrat (Pierre Fresnay, Hitchcock’s “man who knew too much,” brilliant); a mechanic (Jean Gabin, wonderful); a Jewish banker (Marcel Dalio, himself Jewish, also brilliant). By its attempt to cast each class against itself, war is “the grand illusion”; but class also is “the grand illusion,” because it wilts before the new alliances—ones not based on class—that war by necessity forges. To Renoir, then a communist, perhaps the most striking illusion is the belief that the world would not change. The world must.
In praising this widely cherished film, some slight its content—its visual expressiveness—in favor of its humanistic attitude. Consider: Comparing captors and captives in the prison camp, parallel tracking shots weigh nationalistic differences that class affinity among old-order aristocrats fails to cut across, clarifying the tension inherent in the whole idea and execution of a tracking shot: the obliteration of the boundaries of successive frames before a conclusive curtailment is finally, as it must be, reached—a tension between restriction, rigor (in Renoir’s film, the past) and liberty, freedom of movement, aspiration (here, the future). Renoir thus explored and expanded his chosen medium, much as his father had done with his.
Perhaps only one other film, Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped (see below), expresses the idea of freedom as well as this one. Those who pay lip service to the idea but who hold no core allegiance to it will not be as moved as are others by La grande illusion.
39. ALEXANDER NEVSKY (Sergei M. Eisenstein, U.S.S.R.). Eisenstein’s films of the 1920s were like nobody else’s. These highly analytical works combined his invention of intellectual montage (the juxtaposition of two images whose collision generates an idea neither contributory image wholly contains), dynamic, rhythmic image flow, the use of “types” to achieve bold, unvarnished “acting” that here and there pointedly slips into cartoonish caricature in order to skewer whatever the character represents (for instance, capitalism or religion), and a present-tense, immediate sense of history. But Stalin objected to the “formalism” of such techniques, and in the ’30s Eisenstein found himself in the Soviet doghouse. Alexander Nevsky was supposed to get him back into the state’s good graces.
Climaxed by Russian good’s triumph over outside evil in the spectacular Battle on the Ice, possibly the most brilliant battle sequence ever filmed, the thirteenth-century struggle against Teutonic invaders served, after all, as a timely patriotic warning against current German ambition towards the U.S.S.R. Moreover, it is a stunningly beautiful piece of work, in black and white (the cinematographer is Eduard Tissé), thrillingly scored by Sergei Prokofiev, and starring, as the hero, the reigning titan of Soviet film acting, Nikolai Cherkasov. Alexander Nevsky is a fierce vision of cruelty and the noble response it incurs, with a ringing finale that also admits haunting, mournful accents: a celebration of victory in war on which duly weighs war’s terrible human cost.
However, it is a different kind of film for Eisenstein, one more epic than analytical, and one less original, too, than his ’20s work. The influence of Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924) hung heavily over it.
Still, it succeeded in bringing Eisenstein renewed official favor—until, that is, Stalin’s non-aggression pact with Hitler led to its being seized and shelved to prevent national embarrassment.
40. THE RULES OF THE GAME (Jean Renoir, France). Jean Renoir’s La règle du jeu is the progenitor of 1960s mansion- or hotel-party films such as La notte (1961), Last Year at Marienbad (see below) and The Exterminating Angel (1962). The Marquis Robert de la Cheyniest (Marcel Dalio, terrific) organizes the weekend get-together at his country chateau. Among the guests are his best friend, his wife and her lover, who is a national celebrity, and his mistress. Intrigues unfold, including among the help. At the last, a bullet meant for one person finds a fatal home in another, occasioning a bracing, dignified speech by the host.
Classes intertwine and collide. The film bursts with both sharp and humane social observations, often achieving a rollicking sense of the emotions that drive us all, such as jealousy, no matter our station in life. Its most brilliant passage portrays a hunt on the Marquis’s estate. The help prepare for the hunt, in which the aristocrats will participate, by whacking trees in the woods to set on the open run every lodging and burrowing creature. But, by dint of metaphor, might not the help also be the quarry? The methodical hunt is ghastly, with animal after animal shot from the sky or on the ground. Prey flutter and twitch in their death throes. It is a miniature of the war on whose brink France at that moment stood, and the leisured warriors—the hunting party—project onto the animals they subdue their own anxiety. It is a denial—a displacement—of their dread of annihilation, as individuals, as a class. Sexual intrigue unfolds even in the midst of the hunt, and the animal that a guest espies may actually be a human one.
Life goes on until it stops—or is stopped by a bullet.
41. THE LONG VOYAGE HOME (John Ford, U.S.). Drawn from four sea plays by Eugene O’Neill, here is John Ford’s most poetic and affecting film—this, despite a slip or two into island native-exotica that, ridiculous, the original texts do nothing to discourage. Noble and humane, and rich with a sense of “the pity of war” (Wilfred Owen’s phrase, not O’Neill’s), The Long Voyage Home transcends (as Ford films often have to do) all manner of blemishes, including bad acting by John Wayne and Ward Bond, two normally reliable Ford regulars. (Wayne fumbles with a Swedish accent and doesn’t seem quite dumb enough—a frightening prospect.) On the other hand, there is marvelous acting by Thomas Mitchell, Wilfred Lawson, Barry Fitzgerald and Arthur Shields, Fitzgerald’s brother.
The film is set during the First World War but addresses the time in which it was made, reflecting Ford’s unease over the world’s then-current unsettled state, which for Ford and others the bombing of Pearl Harbor, less than two years away, would bring to a point of decision. The mood pervading The Long Voyage Home is of dispossession and homelessness, of irresolution, disquieting uncertainty. Sailors onboard the merchant ship Glencairn, like those in Ford’s Mister Roberts (1955), inhabit a suspended state; a time-erasing fog envelops the Glencairn. This cargo vessel becomes a target of war; is nothing safe? Survivors and lost hands equally seem ghosts of the past: souls lost either to war or to time—souls “lost” in the very moment of their lives.
Incalculably aided by a virtuoso script by Dudley Nichols (which removes almost all of O’Neill’s use of dialect), Gregg Toland’s shimmeringly beautiful black-and-white cinematography and Richard Hageman’s haunting music, Ford thus distills an elegiac lament for us all. Especially in the last movement, his filmmaking achieves powerful, sweeping results.
42. THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (Orson Welles, U.S.). Along with Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924), studio-mutilated The Magnificent Ambersons, from Booth Tarkington, is one of the two great “lost works” of American cinema. It is still phenomenal, though: a dark, sober, penetrating meditation on a country in perpetual growth and transition. Nostalgia nearly coincides with experience, rather than waiting on the passage of time, amidst kaleidoscopic changes in fashion and—embodied in the “horseless carriage”—technology. An old-money family, the Ambersons, is tripped by these changes and, eventually, left behind.
Perhaps the most hauntingly beautiful sequence Welles ever shot is the Amberson ball. The camera follows guests in through the front door, winds of recollection rushing by; when guests dance in the echoing hall, an intricately choreographed long take discloses the last gasp, prior to bankruptcy, of the family’s integrated high life. Later on, these exceptionally fluid shots reach an ironic impasse on the town’s new, flat-sounding city street, where Welles’s superimpositions of upheaval, denoting progress, find the insular family dream, along with the bones of its youngest, sturdiest member (Tim Holt, excellent), broken (by an automobile) into bits—metaphorically, the price exacted from those unable to adapt to growth’s rapid changes. Welles’s voiceover is grimly prophetic as a dollying camera—a pedestrian—tours a town that now consists of profuse power lines, new tall buildings and low, abandoned ones: “George Amberson Minifer walked homeward slowly through what seemed to be the strange streets of a strange city. The town was growing and changing. It was heaving up in the middle, incredibly. It was spreading, incredibly. And as it heaved and spread, it befouled itself, and darkened its sky.”
The Magnificent Ambersons identifies America with stunted emotion. Consider George’s frustrated Aunt Fanny, soul-sister to Trina in Greed, and brilliantly acted by Agnes Moorehead.
43. DAY OF WRATH (Carl Theodor Dreyer, Denmark). Although based on a play by Wiers Jensen, Dreyer’s Vredens Dag is apt to remind Americans of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Anne (Lisbeth Movin, wondrous), a parson’s much younger wife, falls in love with her stepson. After hearing her heart’s confession, her husband dies, and her beloved guiltily joins those denouncing her as a witch—a designation that she, broken, accepts.
Dreyer discloses a seventeenth-century world of dark, spare interiors, where, like the stiffly dressed souls inhabiting them, light appears molded, constrained. Outdoors, the young clandestine couple steal respites of fresh, sunlit air amidst beauteous Nature. The “Dies Irae,” which opens it, also closes the film; on the latter occasion, the “day of judgment” is Anne’s. To her public confession, before she is burned to death, we bring our memory of The Passion of Joan of Arc (see above). Whereas he showed us Jeanne’s execution, however, Dreyer leaves Anne poised in the direction of hers; because she lacks Jeanne d’Arc’s sure consolation of a heaven-to-come, Anne is trapped and uncertain on eternity’s brink—like Occupied Denmark, which she embodies. Anne’s unquarrelsome move toward her terrible end makes comprehensible, as nothing else in cinema, the countless wartime acts of civilian courage and sacrifice committed by Europeans who, like Anne, felt certain that they also were on their way to the stake. Under their eyes, Dreyer took aim at his nation’s captors; but refusing this as his own day of judgment, he managed to escape to neutral Sweden. Anne’s fatalistic impulse to die, by its spiritual integrity, thus informed Dreyer’s impulse to live.
Somber, spiritually radiant, almost unendurably moving, Day of Wrath is a work whose gravity and deliberate pace suggest human responsibility as it is perfectly weighed in the mind of God.
44. HENRY V (Laurence Olivier, Great Britain). Drawing visually on The Book of Hours, Paolo Ucello’s paintings, and Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (see above), Laurence Olivier’s Henry V, from Shakespeare, was his contribution to Britain’s war effort against Nazi Germany: a pageant and a battle film full of patriotic fervor and stirring rhetoric. Ingeniously, it shifts from the Globe Theater in Elizabethan London to the fifteenth century and, at the end, back again, all the while reflecting on the present (1944).
In a stupendous performance, Olivier is the young king whose heroism we see in the calm he exhibits the night before the big battle with France, and in his rousing St. Crispian’s Day speech to his battered troops, exhorting them to fight.
The 1415 Battle of Agincourt is the film’s great set-piece: the cascade of English arrows given amazing flight to reduce the French army to a more manageable number. The day turns out to be Harry’s; and, after the reading of the names of the dead, come the play’s most poignant lines, rendered by Olivier with devastating irony:
Let there be sung Non nobis and Te Deum,
The dead with charity enclosed in clay.
And then to Calais, and to England then,
Where ne’er from France arrived more happier men.
At Agincourt, the camera passes through a palace window to survey, in one long tracking shot, conquered France: a bleak, inconsolable landscape punctuated by two lone persons, a girl and a boy. The shot is so achingly desolate that it chastises Harry for the flippancy of his remark to Princess Katherine, the French king’s daughter whom he is wooing for a politically advantageous wife, that he loves France so much he will not part with a village of it!
Olivier brought us all “a little touch of Harry in the night.”
45. GERMANY, YEAR ZERO (Roberto Rossellini, East Germany, Italy, France). Filmed in German in Berlin with a nonprofessional cast, Roberto Rossellini’s Germany, Year Zero is the single greatest work of neorealismo. It is the clinically observed case study of Edmund (Edmund Meschke, shattering), a 12-year-old child coping with the Second World War’s aftermath. It pursues a generalization of the war’s civilian toll, then, through his example.
Rossellini’s aim is to foster the kind of social consciousness that searches out remedies for appalling social conditions. Opening commentary presents facts: Berlin is “almost totally destroyed”; there, “3.5 million people live desperate lives”; “German children need to relearn to love life.” This orientation steadies us for events we are unlikely to anticipate: the boy kills his father with poison before dropping to his own death from a gutted neighborhood building. Locating Edmund in this milieu early on, a panning shot of the city finds him digging graves because he is, we learn, his family’s sole support, apart from government rations. But he is deemed too young for the job and dismissed. Edmund is between a rock and a hard place.
The grave digging introduces two themes. One is war’s disruption and theft of childhood. The other is war’s relegation of human life to the discardable and disposable. The course of Edmund’s experience, culminating in his suicide, will bring this theme to fruition, but, in the meantime, its principal agency is Edmund’s elderly, ailing father. “I’d be better off dead,” he tells Edmund, his youngest. “I have to watch all of you suffer without being able to help.” Such remarks also burden Edmund beyond what he can comprehend or bear. A child is lost before our eyes.
The most dynamic “character” in the film is Rossellini’s camera: darting, sweeping, probing, burrowing—and catching illimitable tragedy.
46. FRANCESCO, GIULLARE DI DIO (Roberto Rossellini, Italy). His films had been immediate, urgent, focused on the present; but, departing from the neorealismo of Rome, Open City (1945), Paisà (1946), Germany, Year Zero (see above) and Stromboli (1949), Rossellini achieved his masterpiece by looking to two places other than the present: the past; eternity.
Based on I fioretti, from the fourteenth century, Francesco, giullare di Dio (literally, Francis, God’s Fool) essays the founder of the Franciscan Order in the thirteenth, Giovanni Francesco Bernardone—St. Francis of Assisi—and his followers, God’s “little flowers.” They exemplify Christian charity and devotion at the folk level; their legends, whether humorous or sober, place Francisco and his monks among the simple people they generally serve. This is in contradistinction to the insularity, haughtiness and corruption of the institutional Church, which foments poverty and strife in the country. Instead, Francesco and his nonmilitant band of brothers follow the path of Jesus.
Befitting an adaptation of a collection of stories, the film is given an episodic form. The result, a mosaic, unhinges linear narrative as decisively as had the episodes composing the national portrait in Paisà. Rossellini nonetheless achieves a unified vision—one of innocence, humility, tenderness and spiritual harmony. In drawing on the past in this way, he is able to suggest human possibilities and offers hope for Italy’s postwar future. A reflection on the present (the usual reason for an artist to venture into the past), Francesco serves as antidote to Italy’s then current disarray and political turmoil.
The final shot is among the most haunting in cinema: a skyward pan that seeks to restore uncertain humanity to a secure place in a continuity of time lost and timelessness—a thrilling imaginative gesture in a deeply humanistic work.
Federico Fellini contributed to the script.
47. GUERNICA (Alain Resnais, Robert Hessens, France). “Women and children have the same red roses in their eyes—their blood for all to see.”
On April 26, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, Germany bombed Guernica, an ancient Basque town, burning it to the ground. The newsprint photograph of this outcome, with which Alain Resnais’s 13-minute documentary opens, seems to be dissolving into dots. Working its way up to Pablo Picasso’s commemorative painting made the same year as the event, Guernica shows, first, decades-earlier drawings and paintings of his that are especially suggestive, in this context, of innocence—an innocence that the Luftwaffe has now destroyed. Accompanied by sounds of bombardment, pieces of artwork, themselves seemingly targeted, partially disintegrate. Paul Eluard’s script, heard as poetic voiceover, laments war as the destruction of innocence.
Resnais never shows Picasso’s Guernica in its entirety, only bits and parts of it—isolated pieces, often given a blacked-out surrounding. The fragmentation again suggests bombardment while also creating its own kind of cubism. Hands are a motif that thread continuity between Picasso’s Guernica and his earlier artwork: hands that are tenderly embracing, prayerful, stretched up in horror; hands of connection, and hands of inconsolable loss. The black-and-white film, exceptionally dark, marshals a somber use of negative space and as often invokes Goya (in his bleakest etchings) as Picasso. The elegiac refrain “Guernica” haunts.
A field of sculptures, in context suggestive of a graveyard that war has generated, replaces the painting, culminating in Picasso’s 1944 bronze L’homme au mouton, which in contrast to Guernica is shown (frontally) whole. Its depth, in contrast to the painting’s flat patches, appears to animate it; the sculpture is alive with hope, the lamb in the man’s arms symbolizing the renewal of innocence.
Brilliantly edited by Resnais, Guernica is among his most powerful films.
48. MADAME DE . . . (Max Ophüls, France). In early twentieth-century Paris, Louise (Danielle Darrieux, sublime), a comtesse, has two great loves: her Catholic faith; Baron Fabrizio Donati. Her marriage was probably, for her, one of financial convenience; but André (Charles Boyer, brilliant), a military general, loves Louise. When the two men come to fight their fatal duel, André, the instigator, uses the pretext that the baron favors diplomacy over war—a professional division. In reality, the class division between them is more relevant; it galls the General that his wife loves Donati, not him. The humorous triviality of the duel’s pretext shelters André’s pride, then; this sketches in a method that Ophüls uses throughout, where a light touch masks a harsh, even a potentially lethal reality.
The film opens rapturously, with a seemingly perpetually tracking camera adopting a subjective viewpoint as Louise’s hands anxiously ransack her finery and her jewelry box in search of the right thing to sell. Marital dissatisfaction has driven up her debts. We catch a glimpse of her as she glances into a mirror—a fractured integrity and identity.
In a way, the film subjectively expands a patch of objectivity: the cut-and-dried newspaper account of Madame de . . .’s “lost” earrings. The film’s most celebrated passage traces the course of Louise and the Baron’s falling in love. With the music continuous, the event is compressed from a series of public dances over time. Their illicit love consists of nothing but stolen moments that their increasingly tight embrace poignantly tries to make private as they inhabit the space of their own emotions, oblivious to the other couples on the dance floor who, in the swirl of the waltz, often appear as Louise and Fabrizio’s faint shadows predicting the lovers’ tragic end.
We feel a rush of feeling, the passage of time.
49. IKIRU (Akira Kurosawa, Japan). Kanji Watanabe, an aging civil servant, learns he has terminal cancer. Can he correct the insignificance of his life? Used to giving citizen complainants the runaround, city bureaucrats have dismissed the pleas of mothers who want sewage drained from a public park in a poor section of Tokyo. Watanabe takes up their cause and even gets a playground built on the site. At Watanabe’s wake, though, the deputy mayor, up for reelection, takes credit. Alas, the drunken pledge of his co-workers, to follow Watanabe’s example by doggedly pursuing the public interest, carries little weight against their complacency and the monotony of their workday routine. Children at play in the park, however, confer on Watanabe anonymous immortality.
Akira Kurosawa’s greatest film suggests a melding of James Joyce and Frank Capra. To Live begins, though, poetically—with scant light shimmering in darkness: a full-screen x-ray of Watanabe’s cancer-eaten stomach evoking the irreducible mystery of life and death. This static composition also sets the film’s serene tone. Kurosawa’s most meditative film, not surprisingly, is also his most quiet. Its evenness renders Watanabe’s shafts of memory all the more painful; they pierce the quietude, admitting rushes of time and inconsolable loss.
Ikiru’s most celebrated passage is magical. On his last night on Earth, Watanabe sits on a swing in the completed playground. Kurosawa frames the initial shot so that the swing’s suspension is invisible; Watanabe seems suspended in air. In a children’s area, he is lost in childhood reverie. Snow falls lightly on him as he sings, quietly, about life’s brevity and the need to enjoy life. Earlier, the same song had been for him one of frustration and wistfulness—a song mourning the past and lamenting the future. Now a song of contentment, it closes an ordinary life to fullness.
50. UGETSU MONOGATARI (Kenji Mizoguchi, Japan). From Akinari Ueda’s collection of stories Tales of the Pale and Mysterious Moon After the Rain, Mizoguchi’s masterpiece is a tragic look into the human heart of war.
In sixteenth-century Japan, war ravages the countryside. A potter, a farmer and their wives are among those fleeing an overrun village. Both men abandon their wives, one in pursuit of wealth, the other in pursuit of military glory. Genjuro, the potter, sells his wares at market and falls under the spell of an exotic princess, into whose castle he moves. Both princess and castle turn out to be illusions. Genjuro goes home. Miyagi, his forgiving, devoted wife, tends to him lovingly through the night. The next morning, however, Genjuro learns that Miyagi, last night, was an apparition. Left unprotected, Miyagi had been killed in the war. The camera tilts upward from Miyagi’s grave to reveal the whole peaceful village: yet another illusion. Beyond the village’s borders, war rages on.
We surmise that Genjuro will remain haunted by Miyagi’s memory and by questions: Did his intimacies with the phantom princess contribute to Miyagi’s death? Whatever thing she is beneath her façade of seductive beauty—did the princess, out of jealousy, kill Miyagi? Or was the princess, in another form, Miyagi’s ghost come to tempt him to abandon spiritually one he had already abandoned materially? At the end we hear, or think we hear, Miyagi’s voice: Is this her spirit? The voice of Genjuro’s guilt? Regardless, never again will Genjuro hold his wife in his arms.
Contributing to the visual poetry of this delicate, entrancing work is Kazuo Miyagawa’s black-and-white cinematography; quiet, lovely, restrained, it projects Miyagi’s sensibility and spirit. Thus Miyagi silently haunts frame after frame—a formal expression of the cost of war that is Ugetsu’s unifying theme.
See 100 Greatest Films List, Part II, for entries 51-100.
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please note: Elsewhere on this site, under the categories “film reviews” and “Hollywood film reviews” (see list of categories at the right), full essays appear on a number of the films included in the “100 Greatest Films” list.