London calling

During my recent sojourn to London for research at the British Film Institute’s Library I was able to see a wide selection of new and classic films at BFI’s Southbank National Film Theatre.


On the classic side, I enjoyed a flawless remaster of Casablanca. It had been awhile since I’d seen this enduring American screen gem directed by Michael Curtiz. Most striking, as always, is the brilliant ensemble acting of an international cast led by Ingrid Bergman (utterly enchanting) and Humphrey Bogart (at his best), supported by Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, Paul Henreid, and Conrad Veidt.

Is there another Hollywood studio film that can claim so many memorable lines of dialogue? Watching it again I was reminded how remarkable it is that Casablanca’s tale of displaced characters, caught up in the personal and political drama of World War II, made it to the big screen in 1942. So prescient, so moving, so lasting. Someone once said the single test of a great film is to revisit it and discover old and new pleasures. Casablanca meets that standard every time. This particular audience even applauded the closing credits.

A satisfying deal with the devil

At Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall, the London Philharmonia Orchestra accompanied a BFI showing of F.W. Murnau’s 1926 exotic, silent-film version of the Faust legend in which a man sells his soul to the devil in exchange for eternal youth. Faust was Murnau’s last work in Germany before moving to Hollywood. The film’s fantastic visual style closely resembles the expressionistic and symbolic treatment given other German UFA studio films of the 1920s—heavily shadowed settings, gloomy low-key lighting, stylized movements, and exaggerated makeup.

Most notably Faust recalls, visually and thematically, Robert Wiene’s 1921 film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which also featured as its antagonist a manipulative figure whose controlling power over the innocent is uncompromisingly evil. Siegfried Kracauer, in his sociological study of 1920s German cinema, From Caligari to Hitler, maintained that horror tales like Caligari and Faust offer thematic allusions to the paranoia and gloom that overtook post-WWI Germany—national feelings that ominously preceded the ascendancy of Adolf Hitler.

Also of historical note is the presence of Emil Jannings as Faust‘s devious Mephistopheles. He delivers satanic evil in a most gleeful, gloating, and determined way. Jannings followed Murnau to Hollywood in 1926, but soon returned to Germany where he engaged in propaganda efforts to support the Nazi cause. As I watched him strut about in Faust, I was struck that Jannings’ interpretation was at once ironic and distracting. On the plus side, the London Philharmonia Orchestra premiered a brilliant new score by composer Aphrodite Raickopoulou. The work is rich in musical toning that perfectly captures the mystical vision and moods of Murnau’s gothic tale. Faust‘s concluding statement about the counter power of love in an unsettled world was beautifully amplified by a grand musical crescendo.

Precious gems

Two additional films stood out among the National Film Theatre’s presentations last month: Li and the Poet (2011), a contemporary Italian film; and Ordet (1955), a provocative piece by Danish great Carl Theodor Dreyer.

Li and the Poet received the 2011 Satyajit Ray Award. The honor is given annually to a director whose debut feature is screened at the London Film Festival and best captures the artistry and humanity expressed in Ray’s own cinematic vision. Italian director Andrea Segre brings us the story of Shun Li, a Chinese immigrant who works in a bar on the Venetian lagoon island, Chioggia. Li’s transport fees have been paid by a sort of Chinese mafia, and her goal is to pay the debt quickly so her young son can join her. Using an intimate, naturalistic style, director Segre uses Li’s interactions with the bar’s blue-collar patrons to reveal the complexities of the immigrant experience. Li’s friendship with a retired fisherman-turned-poet sparks racist animosity among locals.

In its documentary-esque surveillance of two contrasting cultures, Li and the Poet does indeed reflect the creative aspirations of Bengali director Satyajit Ray (1921-92). Having worked first as an advertising illustrator, Ray turned to filmmaking after seeing Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) in a London movie house. This powerful humanistic account of poverty and human travail in post-WWII Italy is a foremost example of Italian neo-realism. Bicycle Thieves sought to say “this is the way life is” and to achieve authenticity by shooting on location, using available lighting, employing a “found-story” approach to narrative development, and hiring unknown and non-actors to portray the central characters.

In his debut adaptation to film of the novel Pather Panchali by Bibhuti Bannerjee, Ray applied these same neo-realistic aesthetics in depicting life for an impoverished family in a small Bengali village. Ray said he was drawn to the novel’s “humanism, its lyricism, and its ring of truth.” In a three-part trilogy (1955-59) the screen adaptation follows the Bengali family through son Apu from birth and boyhood into ill-fated marriage and fatherhood. Ray uses location settings, non-actors, and a rambling approach to narrative that delivers an epic and authentic study of Indian life.

Li and the Poet echoes those aesthetic traditions. Director Segre, a former documentarian, cast non-professional actors and shot in indigenous locations. The film’s artistic and dramatic achievement is that Li and the Poet captures a very real time and place, integrating a protagonist whose past and cultural differences quietly come to the fore. It is a subtle and moving work of art about contemporary displacement.

Religious doctrine and drama

And finally, there is Dreyer’s Ordet, certainly one of the most magnificent, powerful, and mysterious films ever to grace the screen. I use the word “grace” because of the film’s religious thematics. Ordet‘s Danish title translates as “The Word” and connotes the basis of the film’s unfolding drama. The plot follows the Borgens, a father and three sons with diverging beliefs about Christianity. Son Johannes has developed a Christ complex through his own version of religious study. Youngest son Anders finds love with the daughter of the Borgens’ born-again neighbor. And simmering conflict escalates when atheist son Mikkel struggles to cope with a health crisis threatening his pregnant wife.

Ordet takes on the divisiveness of religious doctrine and offers it up as dramatic conflict in the conduct of daily life. From atheism to fundamentalism to “pure” faith, the film lays out a full range of religious alignments, all of which come to resolution with the devastating tragedy of Mikkel’s pregnant wife. Mysterious events that can only be described as heavenly drive Dreyer’s climactic character reconciliations. One has to see and experience Dreyer’s contemplative treatment of the Borgen family’s spiritually focused ordeal to experience its ultimate dramatic power.

In a constricted two-day time period, in a film with little more than a hundred shots and only a couple of close-ups, Ordet could have played like canned theater, especially since it was adapted from a 1932 play by Kaj Munk. On the contrary, Ordet is pure cinema in Dreyer’s masterful hands. Filmed almost entirely within the walls of the Borgens’ simple farmhouse, the director allows his long camera takes to penetrate the characters’ lives—their shifting moods, emotions, tensions, and personal devastation. Much like Jean Renoir, Ingmar Bergman, and Robert Bresson, Dreyer is a master of contemplation, using cinema to ask the viewer to collaborate in discerning the significance of what is happening on screen. A sustained view of characters in their spatial environment can offer powerful rewards that belie the motion picture axiom of film as a medium that is built rather than shot. Ordet is such a film and it offers a screen experience that one is unlikely to forget.

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