Here, in order of preference, beginning with my favorite, are my choices today of the ten best films of the 1930s:
1. 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.
2. ¡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.
3. 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.
4. THE CRIME OF MONSIEUR LANGE (Jean Renoir, France, 1935). 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.
5. CITY LIGHTS (Charles Chaplin, U.S., 1930). 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.
6. L’AGE D’OR (Luis Buñuel, France, 1930). 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.
7. THE RULES OF THE GAME (Jean Renoir, France, 1939). 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 (1961) 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.
8. NEW EARTH (Joris Ivens, Netherlands, 1933). 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.
9. KAMERADSCHAFT (G. W. Pabst, Germany, 1931). 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.
10. DIE DREIGROSCHENOPER (G. W. Pabst, Germany, 1931). 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 the 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 cinema’s most brilliant musical.
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