Sunday, January 31, 2010

Brief Encounter

A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to see Kneehigh Theatre's version of "Brief Encounter" at St. Ann's Warehouse. I was leery of seeing it- I like David Lean's movie a lot, and I've seen it in the past six months. I have also read "Still Life," Coward's one-act that's the basis of the movie. But I was assured by many people (who knew so many of my friends were such romantics?) that that I had to see it.
I am all for deconstructing pieces of art- I do it myself. But I think it is a very delicate business, particularly with a film like this one. Anything heavy-handed, and it turns into camp or appears irrelevant (two people fall in love, don't have sex and go their separate ways- what, are they Mormons? This has nothing to do with me).
But the adaptation, by director Emma Rice, is pitch-perfect. The actors are uniformly good, and the use of both film and Coward's music (I thought I knew Coward's music pretty well, but I didn't know half the songs). The set, by Neil Murray, is beautiful and well-utilized.
The deconstructionist aspect came to mind when I was reading Larry Harbison's review on his website (link above), where he compared it to an Anne Bogart directed deconstructed narrative. But what consistently bothers me about Bogart is that regardless of the play she's working with, her productions seem more intellectual exercises with the emotion stripped out. Rice is able to keep the emotional reality intact.

George Jellinek

George Jellinek, the bastion of WQXR's "The Vocal Scene," which I listened to for many years, died on January 16th. He was 90 years old. A native of Budapest, Jellinek was sent out of Hungary by his parents in 1939 to avoid military conscription. He came to the US via Cuba, served in World War II and was music director at WQXR from 1968 to 1984. Link above to the Times obituary; photo credit Susan DeChillo, the NY Times.

Max Ophuels

I have heard about Max Ophuels (there should be an umlaut back there, but that isn't possible with this software) for decades, but I had never seen any of his work until a few weeks ago I saw both "Letter from an Unknown Woman" (1948) and "The Earrings of Madame de..." (1951). I am quite fond of Stefan Zweig's short story, "Letter from an Unknown Woman," so I was somewhat surprised by the adaptation (though I realize it was a Hollywood version, conceived as a vehicle for Joan Fontaine). Louis Jourdan plays the blackguard boyfriend (oddly dressed in almost contemporary clothes while everyone else is in period costumes), and the sets really do evoke fin-de-siecle Vienna. Their romantic evening in the Prater was as I'd often imagined the Prater to have been in those days, not the derelict Prater of "The Third Man." The best actor in the movie is Mady Christian (who I'd never seen before) as the mother. She is entirely believable- her accent, her gestures, her facial expressions, everything. The padding out of the story is pretty ho-hum, but the essence of Zweig's characters is still there.
"The Earrings of Madame de..." is a Pathe production, with Daniele Darrieux as Countess Louise, Charles Boyer as the Count (her husband) and Vittorio de Sica as Baron Fabrizzio Donati, the love interest. Boyer and Ophuels argued about the interpretation of the Count's character, and I believe that Boyer was right- the one-note interpretation makes the Count a monster, and ultimately not that interesting. Countess Louise faints constantly. De Sica is just a joy here- I had no idea he was such an interesting actor. I also watched an interview with the writer who wrote the 1951 novel the film is based on, Louise de Vilmorin (who's quite a trip to watch; she keeps swinging this twig around like it's some kind of riding crop). The novel is set in Vienna in the 1930s, not fin-de-siecle Paris, and the Baron's "friendly jeweler" is Cartier. De Vilmorin swears the movie has nothing whatsover to do with her story, and I believe her.

The Kaiser's Lackey

The Kaiser's Lackey (Der Untertan) is a 1951 DEFA film of Wolfgang Staudte's. It is based on a novel by Heinrich Mann (Thomas' brother, who also wrote The Blue Angel). In some ways, the story resembles a satiric version of Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks, if the family novel had been reduced to the story of one of the sons. Diederlich Hessling (played beautifully by Werner Peters) is the only son of a paper manufacturer in the late nineteenth century. The story follows Hessling through his youth, his time in college, his brief sojourn in the military (he's let go after a few weeks for his flat feet). Eventually, after Hessling goes back home and takes up the reins of the factory, he turns in a fellow townsman for insulting the Kaiser. When Hessling denounces the man during the court case, he suddenly becomes popular with his fellow citizens. The height of Hessling's life (the end of the movie, though not the book) is his convincing of the town council to erect a statue of the Kaiser on horseback. The unveiling ceremony is hit by a tornado, but by God, the statue survives!
I think that the humor lampooning the bourgeoisie is broader than it may have been otherwise given the year, and the Communist hold on East Berlin. It is still funny.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Phyllis Diller

Phyllis Diller is very much alive, though 92. She is the subject of an item in the January 11th issue in the Talk of the Town in The New Yorker. Since The Gong Show, she's taken up painting in acrylics.
I'm kind of stunned she's still with us, as it were.


Wolfgang Staudte's next film was Rotation. It was extremely popular in Germany- many filmgoers felt that it mirrored their experiences under the Nazi regime. It, too, has expressionistic design elements. Staudte uses two flashbacks to show the action (it's not confusing, amazingly). It's the story of a family, the Behnkes, living through the inflation and unemployment of the 1920s, the rise of Nazism and World War II in Berlin. Like Rossellini, Staudte's theme is fathers and sons, though Staudte's take is much more hopeful. And his attention to detail is remarkable. In one scene in a streetcar tunnel, not only are there average Joes hiding from the bombing, but a mini-infirmary with patients, two women with their dogs (a poodle and a Great Dane) and a woman with a baby. When the tunnel starts to flood (the army has insisted on blowing up the bridge overhead), you know that those that the camera has dwelled on, aren't going to make it out. The Behnkes' son Helmut, thoroughly indoctrinated in Hitler Youth by his father, turns in both his mother's brother and his father in to the Gestapo. The uncle is murdered in Oranienburg; the father languishes in Moabit prison, and is released in the nick of time by Soviet soldiers. After the surrender, Helmut visits his father (his mother has died in the bombing) and receives his forgiveness. The end of the film is exactly like the beginning of the flashback, but it's Helmut and his girlfriend Inge meeting at the railway siding, just as his parents did 20 years earlier.
I particularly liked Staudte's music choices. The courting couple listens to "Valencia" on their Victrola, and at the wedding reception, the bride's Communist brother serenades the couple with both "What Keeps a Man Alive?" and "Who Knows How to Make Love Stay" from the then-new "Threepenny Opera."

Murderers Are Among Us

I have been doing research for a new play, which sort of about Berlin in 1945, and sort of not. Murderers Are Among Us (I will not attempt the German on Blogger) is the first of what are called the "rubble film"- films made right after World War II that try to deal with it in some way. Murderers Are Among Us is the very first German film made after the surrender. It stars Hildegarde Knef (before she changed her name to Nef) as a concentration camp survivor who returns home to Berlin. Living in her apartment is Ernst Wilhelm Borchert (a wonderful actor I'd never seen before).
The film is directed by Wolfgang Staudte, who worked with director Erwin Piscator in the 1920s. It was produced by DEFA, the Soviet-backed German film company. The Soviet Zone leapt right into film production, while the British and American Zones did not. They were more thorough about the process of de-nazification than the Soviets were. The sets get very expressionistic at some points, reflecting the interior life of the characters, nothing whatsoever like Nazi-era films. The basic plot is Borchert's character, Dr. Hans Mertens, is haunted by his experiences in the Wehrmacht; in particular, his permitting the slaughter of Polish civilians as ordered by his superior officer, Ferdinand Brueckner (Arno Paulsen, who I swear was in Brecht's plays in the 1920s, though I haven't been able to verify that). Mertens had assumed that Brueckner was dead, but it turns out he's very much alive, with a thriving business that recycles soldiers' helmets into cooking pots. Mertens is drawn to kill Brueckner in revenge. At the end of the movie, Knef (now his girlfriend) stops Borchert from killing Paulsen. It is a very raw film. The ruins of Berlin look real because they are- it was shot in 1946.
And then, thanks to IMDB and a book I'd read on rubble film, it got even more interesting. Knef was a rising starlet at UFA under the Nazis (she was 20 when the war ended), and was sleeping with one of the film executives. Perhaps not an ideal de-nazified first choice for a star. And while this was Borchert's first film role, he was an accomplished and popular stage actor during the 1930s and 40s. This I assume was possible because he was a Nazi Party member. Staudte himself appeared in "Jud Suess" the most notoriously anti-Semitic movie ever made.
Just before I watched this, I saw "Germany Year One" by Roberto Rossellini, which was about similar themes (struggling family trying to make it through deprivation). It is a strange movie, made stranger by the fact that there are all these very Aryan-looking actors speaking Italian. It does not end with uplift, as Staudte's movie does. The younger son has murdered his father in response to a "survival of the fittest" type lecture from his old Nazi school teacher. At the end of this film, the boy is unable to deal with his guilt, and throw himself off of a mostly destroyed building, commiting suicide just as the rest of the family is leaving for the father's funeral.

Concealed Enemies

Several years ago, my brother met a guy who had done some work for American Playhouse in the 1980s. It turned out that Jeff Bleckner had directed "Concealed Enemies," Hugh Whitemore's take on Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers. He very nicely gave my brother four videocassettes of the miniseries, which my brother gave to me for my birthday that year. I should say that though I was interested in Hiss (before he died, I used to see him on the street around Gramercy Park, and I used to work with some who was friends with his son Tony, a wonderful writer himself), I also was good friends with the actor who played Hiss, Ed Herrmann. Because I was constantly in rehearsal when it aired, I never was able to watch all of "Concealed Enemies" on TV. After Googling, it doesn't seem to be on DVD yet either.
So last night, my boyfriend and I watched all four hours of the series. My initial thought was "oh, TV drama really does not age well"- try watching an old Columbo episode. It's excruciating how slowly the creaky plots move. But it picks up after the first 30 minutes, and really starts going.
It was made in 1983, and it is extraordinary to me how young the younger actors look; not only Herrmann, but Gerry Bamman (as an anti-Communist priest) Remak Ramsay (as a psychiatrist), Charles Kimbrough, Holland Taylor, Peter Gerety, Peter Reigert (as Richard M. Nixon), Dick Jenkins, Maria Tucci (as Priscilla Hiss) and Michael Tucker. Others, like John McMartin seem to be trapped in amber, like they've always looked that way. The casting is extraordinarily good, even down to the under-fives (Anne Pitoniak has maybe 3 lines as Chambers' mother). I had forgotten, in particular, how wonderful the late John Harkins was as Chambers, so much so that when I think of Chambers it's Harkins' face that I see. Once I decided to be a writer, I fantasized that one day I'd write for American Playhouse, too. It never occurred to me that it wouldn't stick around. Perhaps PBS could do worse than to bring a DVD collection out, because I don't know many people with VCRs anymore. There's no link or graphic here because I couldn't find any on the web. Only photos of the real people came up, and that doesn't seem right.