~Harry H Long
AROUND INDIA WITH A MOVIE CAMERA
2017 / Icarus Films Home Video / 72m / $29.98 / NR
This documentary – or more accurately assemblage of bits and pieces – is more fascinating than its unimaginative title suggests. Culled from both professional and amateur efforts from the dawn of cinema to 1947, it presents a portrait of India during the period of British colonial rule. The presentation is chronological but a tad haphazard. I was especially frustrated that lush Technicolor footage of a Shiva dancer was interrupted every so often and never shown in its entirety and I still don’t quite understand what home movies of a Brit official playing in the garden with his daughter had to do with the India, save possibly to illustrate further the privileged life of the occupiers; certainly we can see in various government and social gatherings that well-off indigenous peoples are in short supply. There is no narration beyond what may have originally been part of the films and explanation subtitles are limited to describing who made them. Still the visuals and the condescending tone toward the country’s religious and social traditions is telling. One heartbreaking sequence has a Salvation Army lass convincing a native she must shed her numerous bracelets and necklaces – traditional accessories – to become… oh, I don’t know… civilized or a good Christian or something (the footage is silent so we don’t hear what the SA lady is saying). Newsreels of Mahatma Ghandi – now universally seen as one of history’s greatest men – treat him as a dangerous radical. Well, so was Christ.
Except for one film all the work here is from Caucasians and by and large the perspective is that their cultural values are superior and must be imposed on the ignorant brown Indians. There are looks at traditional ceremonies – usually with an “Isn’t it quaint” attitude and architecture (forget about the Egyptian and Meso-American pyramids – if there’s evidence of long ago alien builders it’s in these magnificent ancient temples), Also of interest is early documentary color footage lensed by master British cinematographer Jack Cardiff who went on to film “The Red Shoes” amongst other classics. And there’s a short subject (presented in it entirety as one of the exras – pity the Shiva dance wasn’t) of the adorable Sabu taking the viewer on a tour of such landmarks as the Taj Mahal and pointing out in almost a postcript that the British tradition of tea drinking is owed to India (more accurately that part of the world but never mind). If you’re sensitive to the nuances here there’s some pretty uncomfortable, even offensively racist, material. Some might wish for a stronger narrative but director Sandhya Suri chose instead to work with composer Soumik Dutta (whose score is excellent by the way) the create a poetic flow to the disparate elements. This low key approach may not do it hard enough for some but it does assuredly hit the proverbial nail on its head.
2019 / RLJE Films / 98m / $28.97 BR / NR
It goes without saying – or at least it should – that the phrase “not for all tastes” should be retired. No film – or art or music for that matter – is for all tastes. This production can best be termed arthouse horror and that designation will alert horror fans as to whether this murky, moody, deliberately paced exercise is their cuppa. The production is not without its shocks – or buses to appropriate a term applied to Val Lewton’s exercises in suggestive horror. And as with Lewton what appears to be supernatural doesn’t necessarily turn out to be. Set on the Welsh moors in consistently brooding weather the film deals with Elen (Maxine Peake) and her two daughters, Gwen (Eleanor Worthington-Cox) being the eldest, struggling to keep the family farm going while dad is off at war (the time period is never quite defined but it seems to be in the latter half of the 19th century). Things are not going well. The family’s herd of sheep is mysteriously slaughtered overnight (a neighboring family suffered a similar experience before being murdered themselves) and the farm’s horse, crucial for transporting vegetables to market, bolts and breaks its leg (“At least we’ll have meat,” observes Elen before cutting its throat). Mom suffers from epilepsy and there isn’t the money to procure the medicine that eases her suffering. A wealthy man in the village wants to procure the farm to expand his mining interests but Elen stubbornly refuses to sell her home.
Those are the driving elements of a film that is more about menacing mood and character than plot; it is also about Gwen’s coming of age, with life presenting her with situations that force her to cast childhood aside. The film’s arc traverses from an opening where Elen upbraids Gwen for being off frolicking with her young sister, causing all the chores to devolve on mom to a shocking finale that guarantees she will be a little girl no more. I probably should say no more so as not to spoil the revelations except that this is a film of natural horrors – mostly of inhumanity and environment a la the Brontes – so don’t approach it expecting banshees wailing their way out of the forest. Savor the grim mood created and sustained by writer/director William McGregor in his feature debut (but with lots of shorts and TV work behind him), his use of landscape and sound design to create an intangible sense of menace (that ultimately becomes all too horrifyingly tangible) and the sublime, natural performances he has elicited from his cast. You may, as I did, find yourself initially underwhelemed by the film only to be haunted by it in the days to follow.
1978 / CBS DVD, Paramount / 452m (2 discs) / $20.44 BR / NR
Time has not been kind to this groundbreaking mini-series but it still deserves pride of place as the first television docudrama (possibly the first film period) to deal with the plight of the Jews and other “undesirables” during the years of Nazi domination of Germany. By focusing on the Weiss family – Dr. Joseph (Fritz Weaver), his wife Berta (Rosemary Harris), their sons Karl and Rudi (James Woods and Joseph Bottoms) and daughter Anna (Blanche Baker) – who between them manage to intersect with the entire trajectory of the Third Reich’s solution to the “Jewish problem”. The doctor’s practice is limited to Jewish patients early on and then Karl is arrested – for reasons never quite explained but possibly because he has married an Aryan (Meryl Streep as Inga) – and whisked off to a model camp (a place that looks like a quaint European village and serves as a subterfuge for Red Cross inspections). Inga pulls strings with her National Socialist parents’ friends to be allowed to join him. Rudi runs off and joins the resistance holed up in a forest. Joseph, Berta and Anna are deported to Poland where they end up participating in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and eventually wind up in Auschwitz… as do Karl and Inga. A parallel plot has struggling lawyer Erik Dorf (Michael Moriarty) take a job with SS officer Reinhard Heydrich (David Warner), initially just to support his family. At his wife’s urging to gain advancement by giving advice to his superior – which eventually leads to his discovery of Zyklon B and the inspiration for the “delousing showers” – he gradually becomes the consummate Nazi.
Gerald Green’s script is at pains to include everything, sometimes going to nigh ludicrous lengths to do so. At least four concentration camps are visited and all the others are at least mentioned. At one camp lengths of cloth are being cut into triangles to be sewn onto prisoners’ striped uniforms to designate their “crimes”: the yellow ones are overlapped to create the Jewish star while green are for Gypsies, pink for homosexuals, and so on; thus brief note is made that Jews weren’t the only people who were murdered by the Third Reich. The cast is exceptional with solid and underrated performances from Weaver and Harris and pre-stardom turns from Streep, Woods and Moriarty. Chief honors go to Warner as the amoral Heydrich (one of several nonfictional Nazis woven into the narrative); it’s a compelling portrait and the film loses much when he’s assassinated. For the most part I was underwhelmed by Moriarty but I finally decided that portraying the blandness of evil might have been the point. The major shortcoming is that the miniseries looks like the standard TV offering of its era; it’s overlit and director Marvin J. Chomsky’s camerawork is unadventurous. The dormitories of the death camps look amazingly neat and clean compared to photos we have of the real thing. You might also ponder how Inga has managed to smuggle lipsick into the place or how a group of people taking refuge in the woods just manages to have all the necessary accoutrements for a traditional Hebrew wedding. The show has both its adherents and its detractors – in the latter case most famously Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, who wrote in The New York Times that it was: “Untrue, offensive, cheap… the film is an insult to those who perished and to those who survived.” I won’t go that far. Certainly the production was well-intentioned and is not completely without merit but it has undeniably been surpassed by later efforts.
NB: I would be remiss not to note I had issues with the first disc. Somewhere around chapter 12 of episode one there were freeze-ups that ultimately made it go to black before reverting to the main menu. Episode two refused to play at all. (There were no problems with the second disc.) Whether this situation exists only with my set or a few I cannot say but Caveat emptor.
THE LAST MILE
1932 / Alpha Video / 69m / $6.98 / NR
They’re hardly part of the cinematic landscape any more but the sub-genre of stories set inside the big house were common offerings in the 1930s and continued up to at least the 1950s. In fact this production, adapted from John Wexley’s play, was remade in that decade starring – Cthulhu help us – Mickey Rooney (at least I’ve been spared from reviewing that incarnation – there are few things worse than then Mickster going all dramatic). The tale involves Richard Walters (Howard Phillips), falsely convicted of murder and consigned to death row to await his date with in the electric chair. On the night of his scheduled execution Killer Mears (Preston Foster) manages a jail break, holding a priest and several guards hostage and killing several. As it happens this is also the same night that Walters is cleared of killing his business partner – though he’d have been fried by the time his pardon came through if not for the revolt. The plot is pretty slender; what was likely the first act of the play is mostly taken up with the impending electrocution of a prisoner (George E. Stone) and his Last Mile walk. Stone is primarily known to me for his comedic playing of The Runt in the Boston Blackie films (though of course I’ve seen him in other roles) and he gets a chance to go full-out dramatic here (maybe a tad too full-out). There’s also a flashback to the actual events of Walters’ business partner being murdered by stick-up men. Act II is taken up with conversations between the condemned men while the final act is the riot.
Top-billed Phillips didn’t have much of a career – he debuted a year earlier in William Cameron Menzies’ “The Spider” (where’s the DVD release of that anyway?) and was gone from films by 1938 – so you’ll be forgiven for asking “Who?” He was a handsome man and a decent actor but he’s blown off the screen by Foster (who admittedly has the showier role) whose career would stretch out another three decades – this film was bracketed by appearances in “Doctor X” and “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” but he was equally accomplished at comedy and played heroes as well. That he’s not better remembered is baffling. Movie buffs will also get a kick out of bit appearances by the likes of Paul Fix amd Edward Van Sloan (Van Helsing as a rabbi!) and the distinctly pre-Code racial mix of the cast. Director Sam (aka Samuel) Bischoff’s only directorial credit is this production; he spent his entire forty year career as a producer (and he seems to have acted as such for all of independent Astor Pictures, which produced this as well as the Bela Lugosi vehicle “The Death Kiss” and the ambitious “Deluge” – whose footage of Manhattan destroyed by a tidal wave would be recycled into several Republic serials – in its short existence). In concert with cinematographer Arthur Edeson he has made a textbook example of how a potentially static set-up – with each prisoner in his individual cell in a long line – and make a visual feast. Fortunately Alpha has gotten hold of an excellent print of this public domain film and their work can be appreciated to the fullest.
THE SILENT REVOLUTION (Das schweigende Klassenzimmer)
2018 / Icarus Films Home Video / 111m / $29.98 / NR
Thanks to a plethora of formulaicTV movies – generally about abusive/homicidal boyfriends/husbands – the state of films “based on actual events” has become seriously degraded to the extent that I groan audibly whenever I see that phrase in a press release or on screen. The dramatic subgenre used to bring forth such ripped-from-the-headlines efforts as “Scarface” (the Howard Hawks original) and “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” and biopics such as George Arliss’ and Paul Muni’s vehicles. This riveting effort stands as proof that reality-inspired productions can make for engrossing cinema. The film is set in 1956, before the Berlin Wall was erected, and two students cross into the west ostensibly to visit the grave one one’s father. While there they attend a movie and see a newsreel regarding the Hungarian uprising (information about it was nonexistent in the state controlled media of East Germany). They glean more details from the illegal radio owned by an uncle and talk their fellow senior classmates into observing two minutes of silence at the start of the first class of the day in solidarity. They convince the reluctant pupils by informing them a popular soccer star was among the casualties. Their refusal to break silence to explain what they’re doing sends their infuriated teacher to the principal.
This apparently simple act turns out to have serious repercussions as first the principal and then a school official and then higher-ups in the Soviet controlled government grill the students. Expulsion of the originator (no university for you) and his (or her) parents’ livelihood is threatened. The iron fist of the Soviets under Stalin is portrayed in this microcosm in scenes that are sometimes difficult to watch (as they should be given the subject). Lars Kraume has directed – and adapted the book by Dietrich Garstka) with nary a false step, though a few details that strain credultiy – such as a priest surmonising on Judas at just the time that the student who informs enters the cathedral and the I am Spartacus moment – are likely straight out of the book. The look of the period, the clothes, the cars, is perfection. And the performances from a mostly young cast you’ve likely never heard of (you’ve probably never heard of the adults either for that matter) is excellent. This isn’t exactly a feel-good flick but the students’ ultimate triumph, while bittersweet, is uplifting. There’s a debate raging on social media following comments by Martin Scorcese about the current glut of superheroes movies. I’m in agreement with the director that they’re the cinematic equivalent of junk food (and while I admire the technical accomplishments I think they cost an obscene amount of money). If your taste runs to more substantial fare then this is a meal to savor.