Monday, September 1, 2008

Two Lubitsch Message Films

Some odds and ends to wrap up the Lubitsch-Sirk retrospective:

Ernst Lubitsch's The Man I Killed (aka Broken Lullaby, 1932) is a heavy-handed message picture that's partially redeemed by what we might describe as the Lubitsch Touch, although in this regard, his direction is inseparable from the script and performances. The film opens in Paris on the first anniversary of the end of World War I. A former soldier, Paul Renaud/Phillips Holmes, is wracked with guilt over killing a man in the trenches and decides to go to Germany to ask the forgiveness of the man's family. The man's father, Dr. Holderlin/Lionel Barrymore, is a physician in a pre-industrial village where the sentiments of the townspeople are fiercely nationalist and anti-French. When Paul shows up at his home, even before he can explain what he's doing there, Dr. Holderin freaks out. "The French killed my son!" he shouts, shoving a framed picture in Paul's face. "As far as I'm concerned, every Frenchman is the murderer of my son!" Not exactly subtle. But then, he takes a breath and asks, putting his hand on Paul's shoulder, "What seems to be the problem?" Lubitsch is too intelligent to simply bludgeon viewers with his message. Still, the film is prone to impassioned speeches, wild overacting (especially from Holmes), and expressionistic montage sequences with two or three layers of images superimposed on top of one another. In one such sequence, quickly edited images of trench warfare are placed over a shot of Paul sitting on a bed looking tortured. On the film's IMDb page, one user praises the film for its "human content and inspiring message of love and dignity." That the film is as watchable as it is speaks to Lubitsch's finesse as a filmmaker, not the profundity of the message he delivers.

Made ten years later during World War II, Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be (1942) has a very different social agenda. Like Michael Curtiz's Casablanca (also 1942) and Fritz Lang's Hangmen Also Die (1943), its focus is on the plight of those living in Nazi-occupied countries. Here, however, none of the characters are members of the resistance but are, for the most part, actors in a Warsaw theatre troupe. The film begins just before the German invasion of Poland where the troupe is rehearsing a play about the evils of Nazism. The Polish government, which fears the play might offend Hitler, decides to censor it. When the country is occupied, the theatre is closed indefinitely. At this point, the characters become involved in a plot to intercept a spy before he can reveal the names of those fighting in the resistance to the Gestapo, which involves a great deal of role playing. The film is explicitly about how artists can help the resistance.

Given the film's ideological project, it's hardly surprising that some parts are heavy-handed. The film establishes the setting with a montage sequence of signs bearing Polish names. Later, when the Germans invade, the film returns to the same signs which have all been damaged in the bombing. The over-enthusiastic off-screen narrator breathlessly cheers on the never-seen resistance and the Polish division of the RAF. No fewer than three times, Greenberg/Felix Bressart, the only Jewish member of the troupe, recites a monologue from "The Merchant of Venice." However, more often than not, the film works splendidly as a comedy and a thriller. Lubitsch's light touch is apparent in the way he guides the viewer's direction through his mise en scène rather than the editing. In an early scene, we see Maria Tura/Carole Lombard, the star of the show, sitting next to Stanislov Sobinski/Robert Stack, a young admirer of hers, in a frontal two-shot. Although Stanislov is the one talking, Lubitsch prompts the viewer to focus on Maria's reactions by having her brush her hair so that the eye is drawn to the movement of her hands. Additionally, Stanislov is turned away from the camera slightly, and the light is much stronger where Maria is sitting. If the characters are broadly conceived, Lubitsch's tendency towards longer takes with fewer close-ups helps to dial down the performances and pushes them towards greater realism.

Magnificent Obsession

In my previous entry, I had to address Chris Fujiwara's recent essay on Douglas Sirk, "Tears Without Laughter," which can be read online at Moving Image Source, in which he compares audience reactions to Douglas Sirk's 1950s melodramas in the United States and Japan. He found that during a recent retrospective of Sirk's films in Tokyo, audiences tended to regard them more solemnly than in the US where the films are routinely laughed at. I argued that the juxtaposition of realistic acting and heavy-handed symbolism in All That Heaven Allows (1955) created a kind of push-pull effect between emotional identification and analytical distance. It seems to me that images like Marylee Hadley/Dorothy Malone fondling a model oil derrick in Written on the Wind (1956) are obviously meant to be funny, which is fully in keeping with the film's lack of sympathy for her (as I discussed in an earlier post). So it was gratifying that, during a screening of Magnificent Obsession (1954), a South Korean woman sitting in front us was laughing as hard as we were.

I was able to keep a straight face for most of the picture, although the opening sequence depicting Bob Merrick/Rock Hudson, a callous playboy, driving his motorboat at top speed is pretty hilarious both for its phallic associations and because Bob is dressed like Speed Racer. When Bob crashes the boat and winds up in the hospital, his no-nonsense nurse, Nancy Ashford/Agnes Moorehead, tells the uncooperative patient that she's going to take his temperature one way or another. In the hospital, Bob learns that the piece of equipment that saved his life belonged to a local doctor with a heart condition who had an attack while the paramedics were attending to Bob. At the same time, the doctor's widow, Helen Phillips/Jane Wyman, learns from Edward Randolph/Otto Kruger that her late husband's obsession was secretly giving money to those in need. After leaving the hospital, Bob gets drunk at a country club and accidentally winds up at Edward's house in the woods. A 50-ish unmarried painter who's forever smoking a wooden pipe, Edward gives Bob a place to sleep and cooks him breakfast in the morning. (At best, his character is a celibate homosexual if not totally asexual.) Edward initiates Bob into the Pay it Forward program of Helen's dead husband. As he warns Bob that the first man who tried it was nailed to a cross, choir music plays on the soundtrack. Not longer after, there's a shot of Bob smoking a pipe. He eventually becomes Helen's lover and a surgeon. Late in the film, Helen slips into a coma and Bob decides to operate. But when he enters the OR, he's overcome with sudden last-minute doubts until he looks up and sees Edward looking down from the auditorium at which point the choir music returns. That's when I lost it.

Is this supposed to be funny? Audiences in the 1950s apparently didn't think so. I think Sirk is being deliberately ambiguous. Perhaps it's not an accident that mirrors figure so prominently in his films. More than any director I can think of, what one sees depends a great deal on who's looking.

No comments:

Post a Comment