Emeritus Reader in German and Film Studies
|Carl Th. Dreyer
|A Portrait of Ga
|Chronicle of a Summer
|Jean Rouch, Edgar Morin
|SON NOM DE VENISE DANS CALCUTTA DESERT
|Walter Heynowski, Gerhard Scheumann
|Von heute auf morgen
|Danièle Huillet, Jean-Marie Straub
Dreyer’s most abstract and experimental film. In one scene the camera pans round a room to reveal a tableau of the inherited media of cinema: a framed picture (image-making), a printing press (mechanical reproduction and distribution), books (language and literature), and a box camera (photography and cinema itself). Whilst a single candle suggests that cinema might well be the domain of light, a scull seems to imply that this is a vanitas and that cinema is really the domain of the demonic and of death.
A Portrait of Ga
Margaret Tait: "My mother seemed a good subject for a portrait, (she was there), and I thought it offered a chance to do a sort of 'abstract film', in the sense that it didn't have what you might call 'the grammar of film'. It's mostly discontinuous shots linked just by subject, in one case by colour, only rarely by movement." The scene in which Tait's mother unwraps a boiled sweet is particularly wonderful.
Chronicle of a Summer
Rouch's and Morin’s cinéma-vérité chronicle of Paris in the Summer of 1960 is an exercise in participatory political filmmaking and what Rouch termed ‘shared anthropology’. It is also a stunning essay on documentary film itself, experimenting with different ways of capturing and presenting visible evidence: ‘spontaneous’ interviews, planned interviews, ‘day-in-the-life’ observation, constructed encounters, formal and informal group discussions, one-to-one interviews, meta-textual commentary and analysis, archive material, staged reminiscences, diaristic impressions and interludes.
An unjust forgotten masterpiece of the so-called "Young German Cinema". Khittl was one of the signatories of the 1962 Oberhausen Manifesto and this, his only feature, is a compelling and extraordinary odyssey, combining documentary sequences filmed across the globe with a bizarre, Kafkaesque trial. The result is a kind of existentialist essay film. As Robert Benayoun wrote in the journal "Positif" in 1968: "It is films such as 'The Parallel Street' which give contemporary cinema its intellectual dignity and bestow on it a true function. The 'Parallel Street' is a philosophical thriller, a meditative Western, which makes up for a whole year of unavoidable manifestations of idiocy."
SON NOM DE VENISE DANS CALCUTTA DESERT
One of cinema’s great remakes, Duras’s film reuses throughout the soundtrack of "India Song" (1975), starring Delphine Seyrig and Michel Lonsdale. Here the disembodied voices from that film accompany stately tracking shots around the deserted villa in which the original film had been shot. If "India Song" was a discourse on colonialism, gender, and sexual and political frustration, its ‘remake’ is an elegiac reflection on spatial and temporal decay. The deserted rooms remind one of the paintings of Dorothea Tanning. The ghostly presence of the protagonists of "India Song" is unexpectedly reinforced towards the end of the film as a number of the characters appear to be reborn in mute tableaux.
One of a series of films Varda made in California, this short feature is a compelling synthesis of documentary – it overlaps repeatedly with her Californian documentary on mural art ("Mur Mur", also 1981) – and fictional biography. Self-reflexive moments, including a sheet of concrete poetry in a typewriter, never allow the film to slip into an arch document-fiction mode. Instead, it remains a compelling glimpse into a powerful and believable set of geographical and emotional dislocations. The performances are convincingly low-key, with just the occasional outburst of pent-up frustration. Beautifully shot and paced, the film is a documentation of quotidian non-drama.
GDR documentary filmmakers Heynowski and Scheumann (Studio H&S) were the first foreign filmmakers to record the Cambodian "killing fields" of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge. The result was a trilogy of feature-length documentaries which include visible evidence shot on location, explanatory voice-over commentary, and interviews with victims and perpetrators. The second installment, "The Angkar", is extraordinary insofar as it addresses the misuse of cherished icons of Marxism-Leninism, the red flag and the hammer and sickle, and attempts to extricate them from the their abuse and degradation by Pol Pot, Ieng Sary et al. As the commentary puts it, whilst the film deconstructs a Khmer Rouge propaganda film: "There were and there still are directors who are ready to render their employers their services as counterfeiters." For Heynowski and Scheumann, as committed communists, Cambodia was not only "a challenge we couldn’t ignore" but also demanded "self-clarification". "The Angkar" is a brilliant essay in socialist self-reflexivity.
Marker's epistolary essay film remains as exciting, thought-provoking, and beautiful as ever, despite what now, forty years later, looks like antediluvian technology (including an EMS Spectre video synthesizer). The English version benefits from the wonderful voice of Alexandra Stewart as one of Marker's myriad alter-egos and opens with lines from T. S. Eliot's "Ash Wednesday": "Because I know that time is always time / And place is always and only place". Again and again across the film, time is arrested in freeze-frames and attempts are made to create an equality of gazes by gestures of "staring back".
Von heute auf morgen
Huillet's and Straub's live opera film of Schonberg's 1928 comic opera of the same name is, as Patrick Primavesi has put it, "a revolution in the history of opera films" with image and (mono) sound recorded simultaneously by the Radio-Sinfonie-Orchester Frankfurt with Michael Gielen conducting and Christine Whittlesey and Richard Salter in the leading roles. Visually the staging is inspired by Carl Theodor Dreyer's "Master of the House" (1925) and in one scene the directors present us with a self-reflexive "tableau vivant" or vanitas of cinema: a reproduction of the Cézanne painting "Houses on the Hill" (pictorial representation) hanging above a telephone (technological communication), a radio (mass media), and a table-light (cinematic illumination). The film highlights the brilliance of the libretto, written by Gertrud Schoenberg under the pseudonym Max Blonda, and provides a definitive version of what Hanns Eisler termed the composer's "domestic apocalypse".
Although received coolly by some critics, perhaps on account of its strange humour and hyper-stylised theatricality, this is one of Resnais’s most extraordinary films. The story of a doomed, obsessive relationship between an eccentric woman (Sabine Azéma) and the slightly unhinged man who retrieves her lost purse (André Dussollier), is compulsively bizarre. The camera takes on a life of its own, at one point rising up and over the man’s house, and there are strangely illogical "trompe l’oeil" and focus effects. Cinema, the film suggests, is both artifice and a measure of extreme emotion. Most extraordinary is the film’s concluding sequence in which, following a fatal and absurd plane crash, the camera charges headlong across a sequence of landscapes ‘quoting’ Resnais’s earlier works. The final shot, of a little girl, unseen thus far, who informs us that when she is a cat she will eat cat food, makes for a strange and exhilaratingly droll parting shot.
The films in this list are all genre-bending and tend towards the experimental, the self-reflexive, and the documentary (even when they are ostensibly fiction films, as in the case of Dreyer and Resnais). They offer what Walter Benjamin, with reference to surrealism, termed "profane illumination".