10 great really long films

To watch all of the films on this week’s list, you’ll need over 65 hours. Heralding the release of Lav Diaz’s monumental epic Norte, the End of History, here are 10 film giants that stretch to four hours or (way) beyond.

Samuel Wigley , Pamela Hutchinson , Jasper Sharp , Thirza Wakefield , Michael Brooke , Nick Wrigley , Mike Sutton , Ben Dooley
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Norte, the End of History (2013)

Norte, the End of History (2013)

There’s a world of filmmaking that takes its time and, right now, Lav Diaz is king there. The Filipino director has become a cult figure among cinephiles for his succession of deliberately slow and lengthy panoramas of contemporary life. But unless you have access to international film festivals, his work has been impossible to see. Despite the acclaim for films such as his eight-hour Melancholia (2008), their daunting length has made them impractical for distribution.

Now the release of his comparatively slender 250-minute Norte, the End of History – among the most raved about titles in Cannes 2013 – gives UK audiences the chance to finally discover what the fuss has been all about. It’s the story of Fabian, a young intellectual and law student with a nihilistic streak, and Joaquin, an out-of-work family man, whose lives become tragically entwined after Fabian commits a murder.

Partially inspired by Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Diaz’s film has some of the rich, immersive pleasures of a great novel, invoking a state-of-the-nation grandeur as it chews over issues of guilt, morality and free will. Boldly picked up for release by New Wave Films, it joins a very small and exclusive number of films over 240 minutes which are commercially available in the UK.

While backsides might recall such behemoths as Gone with the Wind (1939), Ben-Hur (1959) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962) as four hours or more, in fact it’s only once in a blue moon that the inflated Hollywood epic breaches such a length. The Elizabeth Taylor version of Cleopatra (1963), Gettysburg (1993) and Kenneth Branagh’s film of Hamlet (1996) are some of few exceptions.

The really long films are more likely to be made further away from the mainstream, as we’ll see as we count down our 10 gargantuas of fiction film.

Samuel Wigley

Dr Mabuse, the Gambler (1922)

Director Fritz Lang

Time weighs heavily on Dr Mabuse, the Gambler. In 1922, this viciously prescient film warned a broken nation against the dangers of thraldom to a fascinating but sinister leader; a year later, with the Weimar republic in crisis, Adolf Hitler first attempted to seize control of Germany in the Munich Putsch. Made back in the days when epics were known yet more portentously as ‘monumental films’, Fritz Lang’s crime saga rushes to stand still. Mabuse is not just a condemnation of its own dysfunctional age, and the wickednesses blooming in Berlin, but in its adrenalised frenzy, it’s a tribute to the mechanised, speeding roar of the 20s: cars, trains, telephone wires, city crowds and all.

Mabuse himself is an arch-villain too corrupt, too triumphant to be contained in his own time. The supernatural effects of his mesmerising stare make him more than a man; as played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge here he is maniacal, repulsive and an expert in disguise who sublimates his own hideous self into hundreds of dangerously plausible personae. Indeed, despite a violent finale, Mabuse’s diabolical exploits could not be contained even within this lengthy two-parter. Lang returned to the scenes of his crimes 11 years later with The Testament of Dr Mabuse and again in 1960 with The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse.

Pamela Hutchinson

The Human Condition (1959)

Director Masaki Koyayashi

With such monumental works as Harakiri (1962), Kwaidan (1964) and The Fossil (1975), Masaki Kobayashi was as fond of the epic as his contemporary and future collaborator, Akira Kurosawa. His first major opus to make an impact on the global stage was also his most extensive, with the three-part adaptation of Junpei Gomikawa’s six-volume novel (published from 1956 to 1958), released separately as No Greater Love, Road to Eternity and A Soldier’s Prayer, running a total 579 minutes.

Considered one of the most humanistic and powerful anti-war statements ever committed to celluloid, and released at a time when the conflict was still fresh in the minds of audiences, the series follows the path of Kaji (played by Tatsuya Nakadai), forced to negotiate his left-leaning, pacifist ideals in the increasingly militaristic climate of 1930s Imperial Japan by escaping to the relative safe haven of the colony of Manchuria. Here he finds himself drafted into Japan’s Kwantung Army and a war in which he wants no part. Kobayashi’s striking use of monochrome and the Shochiku GrandScope widescreen format to capture the territory’s expansive terrain succinctly evokes the fear and helplessness of a stranger cast by circumstance into a strange and hostile alien land.

Jasper Sharp

War and Peace (1967)

Director Sergei Bondarchuk

Produced after the vogue for the Hollywood epic had subsided, the Soviet adaptation of Tolstoy’s classic chronicle of the impact of the Napoleonic Wars on Russian high society out-trumps King Vidor’s 1956 version for Paramount (starring Henry Fonda and Audrey Hepburn) in every single way, not least length. It was originally released in the USSR as four separate films between March 1966 and November 1967, with an overall runtime clocking in at a gargantuan 403 minutes.

Directed by Sergei Bondarchuk (who also plays the socially maladroit protagonist Pierre Bezukhov) and shot in the Soviet Todd-AO 70mm variant Sovscope 70, the film sports some extraordinarily elaborate camera setups intermingled with moments of sublime poetry and some surprising stylistic indulgences. Beyond the opulence of the palace ballroom gatherings, what most impresses are the hellishly realised battle scenes, filled with acrid smoke, raging cannon fire, churning mud, charging cavalry and literally thousands of foot soldiers. None of this would have been possible without considerable state funding and the cooperation of the Soviet army, which supplied some 12,000 extras, and the many national museums that provided the props.

Distributed in over 80 countries in a number of different edits, it was the recipient of the 1968 Oscar for best foreign language film.

Jasper Sharp

Out 1 (1971)

Director Jacques Rivette

Jacques Rivette’s bonkers 13-hour epic has been called the cinephile’s Holy Grail as, until retrospective screenings started cropping up around the world in the mid-2000s (beginning with a screening at BFI Southbank in 2005), it was impossible to see. Then, last year, the unthinkable happened: it was released on DVD. Suddenly, you could put this long tantalisingly out-of-sight film in an online basket with your groceries and click ‘checkout’.

Rivette, who first emerged as one of the key directors of the French New Wave, had been experimenting in ever-lengthier durations with his four-hour-plus L’Amour fou (1969), but with Out 1 pushed the boat well out into a realm where film becomes a kind of lived-in experience. Filmed on 16mm, it begins as a fly-on-the-wall study of two theatre groups rehearsing new productions. At length, we witness the two troupes engaged in experimental workouts that become writhing, primal orgies of improvisation. The hours pass without shape, taking us to the brink of boredom or madness, until something strange starts seeping in at the edges: a story. 

Some malign conspiracy is at large in Paris, and Colin (Jean-Pierre Léaud) becomes obsessed with uncovering the cabalistic ‘Thirteen’, trying to decode cryptic messages referencing Lewis Carroll’s poem ‘The Hunting of the Snark’. Paris isn’t the naturalistic, docudrama location we thought we were in, but a world shapeable by plot, paranoia and the order imposed by storytelling.

Broken into episodes like the long-running silent serials by Louis Feuillade (Fantomas, 1913; Les Vampires, 1915) that inspired it, Out 1 is a wild-eyed odyssey down a cinematic road not taken. A fabulous, confounding and finally ecstatic experience awaits the bold.

Samuel Wigley

Once upon a Time in America (1984)

Director Sergio Leone

The non-sequential structure of the 251-minute director’s cut of Sergio Leone’s last film is fundamental to its wistful mood. So when it was trimmed by American distributors and reordered into chronology, the director was believably distressed.

The story of four friends from the Jewish ghetto of New York, who grow up to become gangsters, profiteering in Prohibition, the film flashes back and forward across three time periods: the 1920s of their pre-adolescence; the 1930s of their adult years; and 1968, when the film’s main character – David ‘Noodles’ Aaronson (Robert De Niro) – returns to New York after a 35-year exile.

The film’s intended form – an ornamental fretwork of past, present and future – is expressive of the nature of consciousness and, more particularly, of the disjointedness of Noodles’ life narrative. Imprisoned as a juvenile, when he surfaces again, he’s a full-grown man; only to go into hiding a few years later. Noodles has lived his life in bursts – so for he more than most, time is a resonant plane; it folds against itself like a paper fan. When a telephone rings, it rings out of time, in the present and past instantaneously. Memory breaks the surface tension of the present.

The film’s studied interiors, its sepia palette, soft as drapery, and its high-soaring, sorrowing score by Ennio Morricone are evocative of Noodles’ nostalgia; his vaporous experience of the present; his life with its two lacunae.

Thirza Wakefield

Little Dorrit (1988)

Director Christine Edzard

The longest British film to secure a proper commercial release (albeit in two three-hour parts for practical reasons), this came in the wake of the RSC’s eight-hour-plus Nicholas Nickleby and proved just as enthralling.

Thankfully, it’s anything but a by-the-(page)-numbers transcription, thanks to screenwriter-director Christine Edzard’s decision to restructure the story into two different but complementary halves: a general overview of Victorian social injustice, as seen by Arthur Clennam (Derek Jacobi), and then the story of Amy Dorrit herself (Sarah Pickering), the heavy chronological overlap meaning that the emotional impact of the more personal second half is intensified by foreknowledge picked up in the first. 

Edzard started as a production and costume designer, and her attention to visual and period detail is formidable: despite a star-crammed cast (including an Oscar-nominated Alec Guinness in his last really heavyweight big-screen role), it’s refreshingly different from the usual stuffily generic British costume drama.

Michael Brooke

Sátántangó (1994)

Director Béla Tarr

The collapse of the iron curtain triggered the near-collapse of associated film industries, as subsidies evaporated and private finance proved elusive. But while his compatriots looked westwards, Béla Tarr made a film so resoundingly uncommercial (seven hours long, black and white, set in a run-down farming community drenched in rain, mud and alcohol) as to seem weirdly heroic.

Weirdly riveting, too, as Tarr’s long, long takes (he regards a 35mm reel’s maximum physical length as a form of censorship) take on their own slow but measured and consistent rhythm, the film’s structure being consciously based on a tango (its 12 parts effectively go six steps forward and six back).

The narrative content – a garrulous visionary (or charlatan) returns to the village after a long absence – plays second fiddle to some of modern cinema’s most astonishing images: almost every frame could do double duty as a fine-art photograph, and there are over 620,000 of them.

Michael Brooke

La Commune (Paris, 1871) (2000)

Director Peter Watkins

We need a TV for us, for the people!

For this re-enactment documenting the story of the Paris Commune (a key event in the history of the European working class that saw up to 30,000 men, women, and children slaughtered on the streets of Paris), maverick British director Peter Watkins assembled a cast of hundreds – many of whom hadn’t acted before – and immersed them in an enormous community production. The film was shot in black and white in an abandoned Parisian factory on the exact spot Georges Méliès made some of the very first films over a century earlier.

Following on from his Culloden (1964) and Punishment Park (1971), Watkins develops his brilliant anachronistic conceit of using TV crews to deliver 1871 newspaper reports and original first-hand accounts. Since the only TV channel broadcasts government propaganda, the Communards respond by setting up their own competing news channel – the opposing reports allow Watkins to explore how history is shaped, and subsequently altered, by those telling the tale.

Watkins encourages actors to look directly into camera, achieving performances so uniformly convincing and passionate it’s almost as if we’re witnessing a mass hypnosis. He proves just how complex and fluid the possibilities of film or TV can be when the spectator is allowed space to think. This astonishing film reminds us that mass media outlets have been writing history that suits them for centuries.

Nick Wrigley

Mysteries of Lisbon (2010)

Director Raúl Ruiz

Raúl Ruiz’s penultimate film, which runs 272 minutes (or six hours in the TV version) is a sprawling epic closely adapted from a 19th-century novel by Camilo Castelo Branco. More typical of the literary side of Ruiz’s work, epitomised by his Proust adaptation Time Regained (1999), than of his experimental and political films, it uses its generous length to introduce and explore a large group of characters and wallow in the pleasures of a well-told story. Ruiz relishes the chance to play with narrative, treating the story like a jigsaw puzzle and introducing flashbacks that provide stories within stories.

The film begins by focusing on Pedro, a young orphan growing up in Lisbon who is told about his past by an avuncular priest Father Dinis. Gradually, the focus shifts onto Dinis himself as we discover the events that brought him to the priesthood and the Portuguese orphanage. There is a meandering, richly Dickensian quality to such an immensely satisfying, tortuous tale but also tantalising frustration at some entirely deliberate loose ends. Ruiz is so in command of the medium that when he drops in occasional stylistic mannerisms, they seem to arise effortlessly out of the whole.

Mike Sutton

Nymph()maniac (2014)

Director Lars von Trier

After becoming persona non grata at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011 for claiming “I understand Hitler”, Lars von Trier pulled no punches in announcing that his next film would focus on the sexual life of a woman from her birth to middle age. As it turned out, Nymph()maniac, while attracting further inevitable controversy for including in its full-length five-and-a-half-hour version unsimulated sex digitally superimposed onto the bodies of its major stars, offered much more than ‘arthouse porno’.

Framed by its encounter between self-proclaimed ‘nympho’ Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and aged intellectual Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) as she recounts her life story and he finds ever more convoluted ways to interpret it, Nymph()maniac is an eyes-wide-open, novelistic examination of the happiness and the suffering of real, lived sexual innocence and experience. It’s an achingly moving film, as well as at times caustically funny, the complexity of its intellectual vision counterbalancing its bold and at times sensationalist dramatic action.

Ben Dooley

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