Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Little-seen German films: World on a Wire and Nathan the Wise

I can't say I planned for these two back-to-back; as much as I keep an eye on the special presentations at Boston's smaller venues, I stumbled on each of these films as I was making up last week's Next Week in Tickets and found myself intrigued (so even if I'm not getting the hits on Next Week the way I used to, writing it up is certainly useful to me!).

Both had a surprisingly good turnout, although I'm not sure what the yardstick one would normally use is. The Harvard Film Archive seems to know its audience pretty well, so my having to sit down in front and a bit to the side for World on a Wire wasn't completely unexpected when I arrived at ten minutes to the scheduled start, but it is still a movie where you're going to leave about four hours after you come in, and that's not for the faint of heart. HFA must have known there were plenty of Fassbinder fans, since it was also scheduled to play Sunday night.

Nathan the Wise seemed to catch many of the presenters by surprise - it's an obscure foreign silent movie being shown at 11am on a Sunday, but it got a very nice crowd. I suspect that it was able to draw from a lot of mailing lists - about five people got up to the podium to introduce their group before the movie started - which is always nice.

Both films were restored, as well, and looked pretty nice. Nathan the Wise being complete is a really pleasant surprise - the copy found in the Russian archive was under another name (which really only described the beginning of the movie), and had replaced the title card, but that apparently was it. It was projected on digital video, but looked OK. World on a Wire appeared to be on film (with a Janus logo up front), and at a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, which is interesting. It was shot for TV, which generally means a 1.33:1 ratio, and occasionally did look a bit like the top and bottom were cut off. Not sure whether this is a mistake on the Archive's part or how Janus is distributing the movie. Maybe Fassbinder was thinking about potential theatrical exhibition when he shot it, but how likely is that? At any rate, with Janus distributing, a Criterion DVD/BD seems likely, so we'll see how they encode it then.

Welt am Draht (World on a Wire)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 10 September 2011 in the Harvard Film Archive (special presentation)

Even though the novel being adapted was released ten years earlier, Rainer Werner Fassbinder's World on a Wire still manages to be ahead of its time for having been released in 1973. Neuromancer was eleven years in the future when it aired on German TV, and the phrase "virtual reality" wouldn't even be used in this context for another four years after that. And while parts of it certainly seem quaint in hindsight, it remains a surprisingly current bit of science fiction today.

Professor Henry Vollmer (Adrian Hooven) has spearheaded the creation of an extraordinary computer; a "simulation engine" which can create an astonishingly detailed likeness of the real world, with over three thousand autonomous individuals within. On the day he and agency head Herbert Siskins (Karl-Heinz Vosgerau) are demonstrating it to the secretary of state, though, Vollmer is erratic and mentally unstable; by the time the day is out, he will be dead from an electrical accident. That leaves Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch) as the new head of the project, and while he initially enjoys the perks of the promotion, things soon get very strange for him: Head of security Guenther Lause (Ivan Desny) warns him that Vollmer's death may not be an accident, but vanishes before he can explain fully; Siskins appears to be making inappropriate deals with the head of United Steel, blatantly placing his assistant Gloria Fromm (Barbara Valentin) in Stiller's office as a spy when Stiller's secretary Maja (Margit Carstensen) mysteriously falls ill; and Vollmer's daughter Eva (Mascha Rabben) has her own mysterious comings and goings.

Though recently restored and playing a few dates on film, World on a Wire was originally produced for German television as a two-part miniseries, complete with a cliffhanger at the halfway point. That can make for a long evening when the whole thing is viewed in one sitting, and not just because of the sheer length of the thing (a little over three and a half hours): As an early example of this subgenre, it was made for an audience that had not seen this sort of science fiction very much, so while its original audience might have needed several hints dropped, even somebody who isn't a particular science-fiction fan in the twenty-first century will almost certainly guess where Fassbinder is going much earlier than the cliffhanger. It's a credit to Fassbinder as a filmmaker that he can keep things interesting anyway, but waiting for the supposed smartest character in the movie to catch up can be frustrating.

Full review at EFC.

Nathan der Weise (Nathan the Wise)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 11 September 2011 in Coolidge Corner Theatre #1 (Sounds of Silents; digital projection)

Nathan the Wise has had a tumultuous journey to reach modern audiences: The original play (based on a narrative poem) was first performed two years after writer Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's death, and though this film version was very popular in many other parts of Germany upon its 1923 release, it didn't open in Munich the ascendent Nazis threatened violence against any theater that ran it. In 1933, after they came to power, they destroyed all known copies, and it would be over sixty years before one was found in a Russian archive. The film itself isn't quite on the level of its history, but it's well-made, interesting, and heartfelt; well worth seeing.

The story takes place in twelfth century Jerusalem, during the time of the Crusades. Sultan Saladin (Fritz Greiner) takes the city over the efforts of his brother Assad, who had converted to Christianity and fought with the Knights Templar. In the chaos that follows, pacifist Jewish merchant Nathan's seven sons are killed when rioters set fire to the synagogue. He despairs until a fleeing soldier presses Assad's newborn baby into his hands. Fifteen or twenty years later, Nathan (Werner Krauss) has raised "Recha" (Bella Muzsany) well; both father and the pretty, cheerful girl are known for their kindness and chairty. Saladin, meanwhile, has successfully defended the city from Crusaders again, and though most have been imprisoned, he frees one (Carl de Vogt) for his bravery and resemblance to the Sultan's lost brother.

The paths of these people will cross, naturally; given what we have seen in the prologue, it is destiny. Interestingly, that opening sequence was not part of the original play, and in some ways it's an awkward compromise between what works in a written story or play and what works in a silent film. Screenwriter Hans Kyser and director Manfred Noa essentially show the audience how all the characters are connected before the title card for Act One appears, and while it likely reduces the number of later scenes that are just walls of intertitled exposition, it certainly reduces the number of later surprises while casting a shadow over the scenes with Recha and the Templar.

Full review at EFC.

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