|Der blaue Engel
|Josef von Sternberg
|Come and See
|La Règle du jeu
|Aguirre, Wrath of God
Der blaue Engel
This time I decided to replace G.W. Pabst's Pandora's Box with The Blue Angel because Sternberg's first collaboration with Marlene Dietrich is the crucial bridge between German Expressionism and Hollywood melodrama on one hand, and film noir on the other. It's true that Dietrich was more mannered than Louise Brooks – untrammelled sexuality personified – but her irony and artifice are central to Sternberg's vision of the femme fatale as a man-made projection of self-destructive desire. The inspiration surely for Magda Peters in Nabokov's Laughter in the Dark (1932), Marlene's was the face (and the thighs) that launched a thousand masochistic nightmares. It burns no less fiercely now than it did 92 years ago.
What is Vertigo, really, but a harrowing allegory of love's irretrievability, as manifested in James Stewart's neurotic quest to remake the ordinary Judy Burton (Kim Novak) as the fetishised image of the idealised Madeleine Elster, who had been served up to him (like an actress in a movie) as part of a homicidal scheme? As such, it is the pinnacle of Hitchcock's Freudian art. David Rudkin's television drama Artemis 81 (1981) offers an expert commentary on it.
In Mizoguchi's use of the moving camera – detached yet empathetic – to express the conflict between male and female drives, his ineffably beautiful anti-war ghost fable is unparalleled.
Lanzmann's monumental project to reveal "the presence of an absence" – the murdered six million Jews and, implicitly, the generations of their unborn children – is the cinema's most important act of memorialisation.
Come and See
War is never more helliish (to paraphrase Samuel Fuller) on screen than in this gruelling saga about the experiences of the Nazi war machine on a Belarusian boy resistance fighter. Klimov's manipulation of deep space through advancing and receding tracking and Steadicam shots emphasizes the traumatizing effect of carnage on the youth and his girl companion, and it is more disorienting than anything in Apocalypse Now (1979), though I regret the latter's absence from this list.
La Règle du jeu
Though World War II is imminent, the idle rich gathered at a country estate play at love, slaughter game and, in the case of the host (Marcel Dalio), show off his new calliope – unthinkingly "dancing on a volcano", as Renoir put it; downstairs, the Nazi-ish gamekeeper is boiling up for a murder. The director demonstrates his mastery by showing the different intrigues evolving simultaneously with his trompe l'oeuil-like mise en scène – you can see the influence on Robert Altman, and not just in Gosford Park (2001).
Shane is not as well-constructed as Red River (1948) or as formidable as The Searchers (1956), but it makes a more emphatic statement than those films about the role violence played in the subjugation of the West. In Alan Ladd's courtly buckskinned killer, it also provides two phantoms for the price of one: the mythical gunfighter as object of hero worship, and the all-potent Oedipal father who might steal away one's mother. They have loomed large ever since in the imagination of one five-year-old who grew up to write about films.
Aguirre, Wrath of God
The cinema needs spectacle and adventure – and to make sense of the imperialistic impulse that leads to genocide and threatens the planet's destruction. A precursor of Apocalypse Now (1979) and Lucretia Martel's Zama (2017), Aguirre posits Klaus Kinski's deranged conquistador as a fascistic demiurge finally marooned on a raft with his monkey minions as the camera careers around him.
Writing on L'Atalante for Sight and Sound ahead of the 2012 poll, I noted how Vigo's melodrama of discontented young marrieds and their crusty mate travelling the Seine on a barge incorporated 1920s-style Surrealism as it foreshadowed the poetic realism while simultaneously documenting the ravages of the Depression and "the liberation of the unconscious". Well, all that and more. That it should have inspired Lèos Carax's Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (1991) is testament to Vigo's mastery of melancholy lyricism and faith in sensuality as integral to freedom.
Loach's unstinting support of working people battered and degraded by an uncaring society doesn't extend to sentimentalising them. He and his writers frequently illuminate the fact that betrayal comes from within: union leaders, the social services, neighbours and family members habitually wound those they are supposed to protect. Kes tells the story of a Northern English youth who finds hope and meaning in the rescue and training of a falcon but falls foul of his disgruntled miner brother. Rich in humour though it is, Loach's most perfectly realised film exposes the callousness of a political and educational system that consigns unskilled workers to the scrapheap.
As the years pass and film changes, so does the critic's sense of what constitutes "greatness". When I participated in the 2012 poll, it seemed important to include Citizen Kane and other works chosen for their canonical might. This time, I struck a course between duty and passion so The Blue Angel, Kes, Aguirre, Shane and Come and See found their places.
Looking at the films of this century, I considered Mulholland Dr., In the Mood for Love, In the Cut, The Master, Zama, and Burning, but the canon still calls out and it would be weird to include any of those films but not Earth, Vampyr, The Magnificent Ambersons, Madame de..., or The Searchers. The nearest I came to a maverick choice was David Rudkin and Alan Clarke's television film Penda's Fen, but I'm not ready for the different dynamics of the big and small screens to merge.