Movie Project #47: The Passion of Joan of Arc [1928]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

The Passion of Joan of Arc [1928]

The Passion of Joan of Arc [1928]
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Writers: Joseph Delteil, Carl Theodor Dreyer
Country: France
Genre: Biography/Drama/History
Starring: Maria Falconetti, Eugene Silvain, André Berley
Running Time: 82 minutes

During this year’s 50 Movies Project, I have seen a number of great films, many of which I would now even consider among my favorites. None of these, however, could have prepared me for the experience of watching the 1928 silent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, for the first time.

Before watching this highly-regarded Carl Theodor Dreyer classic, I knew very little of the true Joan of Arc story. This was something that I never learned in school or had even heard of until I was much older. Yet it resonated with me in ways I couldn’t have imagined.

The Passion of Joan of Arc [1928]

The film focuses on the trial of Joan of Arc, a 19-year-old French maiden who, claiming divine guidance, led the French army against England during the Hundred Years’ War. After being captured by a group of French who remained loyal to England, she is put on trial for charges of heresy. Unable to get a confession out of Joan, the English bishops begin to ridicule and torture her. This does not prove effective, however, as Joan is adamant about her visions and guidance from God. Claiming charges of “insubordination and heterodoxy”, the English eventually tie her to a stake and horrifically burn her alive.

The on-screen proceedings are based on the actual trial documents, and this fact only adds to the emotional experience provided by the film. The way Joan is treated by what is essentially a group of old, bald, white guys that represent the Church is absolutely disgusting. She is mocked and treated cruelly by most involved, and the actual execution is presented as if it were a circus (complete with carnival performers and men on stilts). In fact, it is not until Joan is literally burning at the stake that the townspeople cause a ruckus. I know the world was significantly different in the 15th century (obviously), but it’s just baffling that something like this could even happen.

The Passion of Joan of Arc [1928]

Renée Jeanne Falconetti’s performance as Joan of Arc is widely considered to be one of the best of all time, and I’m not even going to try to argue that point. Her facial expressions, often shown through Dreyer’s extreme close-ups, will haunt you for days. Legends state that Falconetti was legitimately treated harshly on set, being forced to kneel on hard stone for hours at a time in an effort to provoke genuine emotion out of her. Perhaps this treatment is why she never starred in another film after this; a shame, too, given her flawlessness here.

Quite frankly, The Passion of Joan of Arc completely blew me away. I had my reservations about watching a silent film that would appear to be dialogue-heavy, but I was transfixed from the very first scene. The version I watched was the one Dreyer intended, meaning that it was completely silent — no orchestra or score to speak of. This added to the intensity on screen, but I would love to watch this again someday with one of the acclaimed scores created afterward. Almost 100 years later, this film remains startingly effective.

10/10

Movie Project #34: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans [1927]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans [1927]

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans [1927]
Director: F. W. Murnau
Writer: Carl Mayer
Country: USA
Genre: Drama/Romance
Starring: George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor, Margaret Livingston
Running Time: 94 minutes

(This post discusses the film’s plot at length, and therefore contains spoilers.)

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, the first American film from German director F.W. Murnau, has developed an impressive legacy since its release over 85 years ago. It shows up on countless “best of” lists, and it is widely considered to be one of the finest silent films ever made (often serving as a gateway to the era, much like Chaplin, Keaton or Fritz Lang’s Metropolis). Sunrise also has the distinction of being the first and only film to win an Oscar for “Best Unique and Artistic Production”, which at the time was considered as prestigious of an award as Best Picture. After finally tackling this undisputed classic, it’s easy to see why it is held in such high regard.

Sunrise tells the story of the Man (George O’Brien) and the Wife (Janet Gaynor), an impoverished married couple that lives in a farmhouse with their young child. Their relationship has seen much better days, as the two of them seem to be growing more and more distant with every minute. Much of this disparity can be attributed to the presence of the vacationing Woman from the City (Margaret Livingston), who has struck up a passionate affair with the Man. Not content to be just a summer fling, the Woman from the City proposes that the Man move back to the city with her. In order to get rid of the Wife, the Woman recommends drowning her and making it appear as an accident. Surprisingly, the Man agrees.

I have to admit that the dark nature of this first act caught me completely off guard. I knew the film wasn’t a conventional love story, but to have such unabashed sex and violence in the silent era came as a shock to me. It also had me hooked immediately.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans [1927]

The Man brings the Wife along on a boat ride — to the city, he claims — fully prepared to commit this act of murder. Just as he stands above her, ready to end her life, he has a change of heart and breaks down crying. His wife, obviously distraught, goes into hysterics. Despite this horrifying encounter, the two of them proceed to the city anyway, with the Man desperately trying to make it up to her. He buys her food, gives her flowers and constantly apologizes. No dice.

It isn’t until they stumble upon a wedding in progress that their love is rekindled. The Man, realizing that he has made a grave mistake by breaking his own marriage vows, begs for forgiveness one more time, with the Wife finally accepting. Seemingly remarried (the scene, amusingly, even shows them leaving the ceremony first, much to the surprise of those waiting outside), the two are finally able to enjoy their time in the city together.

Just when it seems like we might get a happy ending after all, the film goes in *another* completely different direction. On their ride home, a terrible storm hits, causing their boat to capsize. The Man washes ashore, but the Wife is nowhere to be seen. Now, in complete contrast to the beginning of the film, the Man is desperate to save the Wife, even getting his neighbors and other townsfolk to search for her.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans [1927]

When the Man retreats home, assuming the Wife is dead, the Woman from the City makes another appearance. Full of joy, the Woman attempts to get close to her lover, only for the Man to snap and turn into the same horrifying monster he appeared as during the first boat ride with his wife. Once again, the film comes full circle, as the Man attempts to strangle the life out of the Woman, only stopping once the townsfolk run in yelling that they found the Wife alive and (relatively) well.

And so it goes. The sun rises in the morning, and everything appears to be back to the way it was before the appearance of the evil seductress.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans [1927]

A more jaded viewer could nitpick about the jarring transitions between the film’s three acts, but I grew quite fond of its meandering path. The way the film bounces back and forth between darkness and light works quite well, as does the way everything comes full circle in the end.

The film itself is also technologically impressive, and I can only imagine how bold and adventurous it was when it was released. Title cards are few and far in between, and Murnau uses slick camerawork and superimposed images to tell the story. There are some truly magnificent shots, including one in which the Man sits delirious in bed, feeling the presence of the Woman from the City holding him from behind (which we see, with her in a ghostly form).

In short, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is an essential film. Its influence is still felt today, and its three distinct acts offer a sense of unpredictability that continues to make this such an engaging watch.

9/10

Movie Project #49: Metropolis [1927]

Due to the surprising success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a part two for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.

Metropolis [1927]

Metropolis [1927]
Director: Fritz Lang
Writers: Thea von Harbou, Fritz Lang
Genre: Drama/Sci-Fi
Starring: Brigitte Helm, Alfred Abel and Gustav Fröhlich
Running Time: 153 minutes (restored version)

It’s hard to believe Metropolis is nearly 90 years old. One of the earliest science fiction films, Metropolis has been wildly influential over the years, and it feels well ahead of its time. Modern dystopian favorites such as Blade Runner and Dark City owe a great deal to Fritz Lang’s film, one of cinema’s most impressive achievements.

Set in the year 2026, Metropolis takes place in a hand-crafted dystopian city that has been divided into two sections. The lower, working class live underground, while the wealthy upper class are rewarded with luxurious skyscrapers and endless entertainment above. The two sides typically have no interaction with each other, but that all changes when a teacher (Brigitte Helm) from the subterranean city brings a group of children to the rich gardens above.

Metropolis [1927]

The woman, Maria, and the children are quickly escorted off the premises, but not before Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) takes notice. Freder, the son of the city’s dictator, Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), instantly becomes entranced by both the beauty of the woman and the fact that there is a city of slave-workers down below. He makes it his goal to find this woman and learn about a world he knows nothing about.

Freder quickly becomes empathetic toward the workers’ plight, and he attempts to become a sort of mediator between the two classes. This takes an ugly turn, however, when a mad scientist, Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), is contacted by Joh to learn more about the rumblings of a possible mutiny by the workers. Rotwang has developed a man-machine in which he can mold into a clone of any living person. When he chooses to make a robot version of Maria, all hell breaks loose.

Metropolis [1927]

While the struggle between the different classes may feel familiar, what makes Metropolis really stand out are its impressive visuals. Eugene Schuefftan’s special effects are nothing short of remarkable, and the city itself looks absolutely stunning. Inspired by Fritz Lang’s first visit to New York, the skyscrapers are monstrous with an alluring futuristic design. All sorts of transportation are found in the city — long highways rise to great heights while airplanes buzz past — and the underground is a working hell.

There are many versions of Metropolis floating around, but thankfully an almost complete edition of Lang’s original vision resurfaced in 2010. This is the version I saw, and it can be found on Netflix Instant in its proper form. It’s easy to see why certain bits may have been cut, but overall this extended version is a wholly engrossing film that holds up very well today. A must see for any sci-fi fan or film aficionado.

9/10

Movie Project #4: Modern Times [1936]

Due to the overwhelming success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a second round for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.

Modern Times [1936]

Modern Times [1936]
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Genre: Comedy/Drama/Romance
Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard and Henry Bergman
Runtime: 87 minutes

In last year’s movie project, I included Charlie Chaplin’s classic City Lights, one of only a handful of selections that I gave an elusive 10/10 score to. My love for that film inspired me to watch The Gold Rush, another fun endeavor from The Tramp, but I didn’t get the chance to dig any deeper into his filmography. I made sure to include another for this year’s project: Modern Times.

By 1936, talkie pictures were all the rage, yet Chaplin felt inclined to make one last silent movie. Well, mostly silent anyway. Modern Times occasionally uses vocals from authority figures, as well as sound effects. The Tramp character himself is silent for the entire runtime, except for one bizarre foray into a song and dance number that uses a made-up language.

Modern Times is a varied mix of satire, slapstick, drama and romance, a delightful mashup of genres that Chaplin does oh so well. This time around The Tramp is a factory worker who suffers a nervous breakdown as he struggles to keep up with the ever-increasing work rate, costing him his job. He ends up in a mental hospital, gets released and then finds himself in jail. A series of hilarious events pushes the Tramp back on the streets, and a chance encounter leads him to his love interest: a wild gamine girl (Goddard). The two of them form a unique partnership, with the Tramp looking for work while the gamine keeps their “house” (a run-down shack) tidy. Society has shunned both of them, and they seem to be kindred spirits.

Modern Times [1936]

While Chaplin is terrific as always, I found myself to be most impressed with Paulette Goddard. She looks unlike any other actress I have seen from this time period, a real beauty with unforgettable eyes. It seems silly to have a “crush” on a woman who was my age nearly 80 years ago, but it’s easy to see why Chaplin himself fell in love with her and eventually married her as well.

There are many memorable moments in Modern Times. One early gag shows the Tramp struggling to keep up with the assembly line in comical fashion. This scene inspired a similar event in the TV show I Love Lucy, which is unforgettable in its own right. I got a kick out of the Tramp accidentally ingesting “nose powder” (bet you can guess what that is), as well as his later bout where he unknowingly is the recipient of a streaming fountain of rum. I found myself laughing quite a bit throughout, actually.

I am glad that I included Modern Times in this project. There are plenty of great gags, and it’s a lot of fun to watch Chaplin and Goddard together. Just an entertaining movie all around, and one that is more than worthy of its classic status.

9/10

Silent Film Review: Battleship Potemkin [1925]

Battleship Potemkin [1925]

Battleship Potemkin [1925]
Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Genre: Drama/History/War
Starring: Aleksandr Antonov, Vladimir Barsky, Grigori Aleksandrov
Runtime: 75 Minutes

This review contains spoilers of an 87 year old film.

One of the most powerful propaganda films ever created, and one that could still light a fire under the right audience even today.

Sergei Eisenstein’s second feature film focuses on the (very real) mutiny that occurred in 1905 aboard the Russian battleship Potemkin. Tired of poor working conditions and general disrespect, the ship’s crew reaches a breaking point when they are told to eat rotten meat that is crawling with maggots. The captain, in an attempt to dispel the outrage, orders those who refused to eat the food to be shot and killed underneath a tarpaulin. However, one crew member, Vakulinchu (Antonov), speaks up right before the guns are set to fire and appeals to his squadmates to ignore the orders. They agree, and a massive battle transpires, resulting in the deaths of multiple officers as well as Vakulinchuk. The Potemkin, now in control of the crew, sails to the port of Odessa where Vakulinchuk’s body is put on display, making him something of a martyr to the townspeople.

Battleship Potemkin [1925]

The revolution is underway. As more and more civilians flock to the harbor to see the body, many remain on the large flight of stairs overlooking the water. At this point, the Tsarist regime has noticed the giant gathering and begins to march in their direction, firing at anyone and anything in their paths. Men, women and even children are murdered in a disgustingly barbaric display of violence. The Potemkin fires back at known military locations, but it is too late: countless lives have already been needlessly lost.

Fearing an attack from the shore, the battleship leaves the area only to find a squadron of warships waiting to retake the Potemkin. A tense series of moments occurs as both sides prepare for war, but at the last possible second the battleship is allowed to pass through, and the Soviet brothers wave their hats in friendship. It seems brotherhood has prevailed over politics, at least in this instance.

Battleship Potemkin [1925]

There is no denying the power of Battleship Potemkin. Eisenstein expertly portrays the Tsarist regime as pure evil, especially in the legendary Odessa Steps scene. This display of brutality was unheard of in 1920s cinema, and I looked on in horror as innocent women and children were mindlessly murdered on screen. Who wants to see that? These images are blunt and forceful, and bound to stir up powerful feelings from any viewer.

While the 1905 mutiny really happened, the aforementioned massacre did not. Eisenstein clearly took some liberties with the movie, inserting the violence for dramatic effect. He wanted to hammer the point home, and he easily accomplished this goal.

Propaganda aside, Battleship Potemkin is a fascinating piece of cinematic history. The film shows both the positive and negative sides of a revolution, and it is a perfect demonstration of just how powerful the medium of film can be.

Battleship Potemkin can be viewed in its entirety for free on YouTube.

Movie Review: The Artist [2011]

The Artist [2011]

The Artist [2011]
Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Genre: Comedy/Romance/Drama
Starring: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman
Runtime: 100 Minutes

Of all the films generating Oscar buzz right now, The Artist is most intriguing. It is not often a silent movie is made in this day and age, and perhaps this novelty is its greatest appeal. This is a sparkling homage that revels in its silent nature, even opting to break out of past molds and play with the dynamics a little.

The year is 1927. Silent film star George Valentin (Dujardin) is on top of the world as one of the biggest names in the business. His partnership with studio boss Al Zimmer (Goodman) has resulted in a great deal of success, and the two seem in for a lucrative future.

Fast forward to two years later. Zimmer announces the end of production of silent films, claiming that “talkies” are the future of the business. Valentin calls this transition a fad, and opts to produce and direct his own silent film. This doesn’t go well, and another series of unfortunate events leads to Valentin hitting rock bottom.

The Artist [2011]

Meanwhile, young up-and-comer Peppy Miller (Bejo), an acquaintance of Valentin’s, is taking advantage of the new medium and has become a star in her own right. The two have an interesting history — it was Valentin who “made” her trademark mole so she would stand out from other aspiring actresses. There is a clear connection between them, and they continue to cross each other’s paths from time to time (sometimes conveniently when they need each other most).

There are some pretty heavy moments in The Artist, particularly when Valentin is alone and wallowing in his own self pity. However, when he and Miller are on screen together, the movie becomes electric. Their chemistry is terrific, and Dujardin and Bejo are both so much fun to watch. Dujardin, in particular, seems like he could have been a silent film star himself. His natural charisma translates very well to the movie’s classic setting.

The Artist is a real crowd pleaser, and it’s easy to see why it is blowing up the awards circuit right now. There are just so many enjoyable aspects of the movie — the charming little dog Uggie who brings laughter to a few scenes, the strategically wonderful use of vocals on rare occasions, the frequent nods to cinematic classics — that it’s hard not to fall in love with The Artist. This is a movie that even those ignorant of silent or black-and-white films can appreciate.

9/10

Movie Project #3: City Lights [1931]

The 50 Movies Project is a personal “marathon” of mine. In June, I compiled a list of 50 movies that I felt I needed to see by the end of the year. Old, new, foreign, English — it doesn’t matter. These are all movies that I have heard a lot about and have been wanting to see for some time. This project gives me a way to stay focused on the goal.

City Lights [1931]

City Lights [1931]
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Genre: Comedy/Drama/Romance
Country: USA

I have fond memories of Charlie Chaplin. Even during my close-minded movie watching days of my youth, I always enjoyed watching his work. I couldn’t tell you specifically what movies I saw back then, but when he was on the television I would be there until the very end.

Revisiting Chaplin in the form of 1931’s City Lights was a blast for me. This movie is a wonderful hybrid of comedy, drama and romance. Chaplin, playing his recurring Tramp character, falls in love with a beautiful blind woman (Virginia Cherrill). Her family is going through a bout of financial trouble and they are about to be evicted from their home. Realizing this, the Tramp does everything he can to help out his new love interest.

This scenario leads to some truly hilarious moments. At one point, the Tramp accepts a boxing gig in which his opponent agrees to go easy on him and split the profits 50/50. His opponent, apparently on the lam, runs off before the match. The Tramp’s new opponent has no interest in working out a deal, and therefore he has no choice but to fight legit. What transpires is a classic scene in which the Tramp dances around carefully behind the referee, thereby evading any attacks from his much bigger adversary. It’s equal parts clever and hilarious.

City Lights

The Chaplin slapstick humor I know and love is present from the get go. The opening scene shows a city dedicating a new statue, only to see the Tramp sleeping on it when it is unveiled. As he frantically tries to leave the statue, he gets his pants hooked on the figure’s giant sword. When the National Anthem is played, he continues to slip around aimlessly. It’s a wonderful introduction that sets the tone for the rest of the film.

I would be remiss not to mention the Tramp’s on-and-off friendship with an alcoholic millionaire (Harry Myers) who only enjoys his company when he is drunk. The scene where the two of them get drunk and then go out for a night on the town is just brilliant.

Really, City Lights is fantastic with memorable scene after memorable scene. It’s amazing to think that this movie is 80 years old, yet it’s still hilarious in this day and age. The way Chaplin interweaves drama and romance into this is a thing of beauty. And, of course, who could ever forget the ending, one of the most iconic in all of cinematic history? I loved City Lights, and I can’t wait to dig into the rest of Mr. Chaplin’s filmography.

10/10