Friday, November 14, 2014

Early Fritz Lang (and Thea von Harbou): Four Around a Woman and The Moving Image

I forget whether these two movies were originally announced as part of the "Complete Fritz Lang" series that the Harvard Film Archive did over the summer or if the schedule at the time was "these are hard to get on film, so we'll pick them up when/if we can". In my case, that means I actually got to see them, since the summer series overlapped the annual Fantasia trip and just generally being busy. Amusing, since these are some of the harder movies in Lang's filmography to see.

How hard? There's basically one print apiece, per the introduction, and we're lucky to have those, since these movies were thought lost for decades until being discovered in Brazil thirty years ago. I idly wonder how many lucky finds Lang's available body of work has benefited from, as on top of this I recall at least two for Metropolis alone.

This meant that the prints were in German, and therefore the subtitles had to be projected separately, but the technology for that seems to have improved - other times I've seen it done, the picture would be a little washed out because the projector hooked up to a laptop doesn't project black nearly as well as a film or even DCP rig, but these movies didn't look like someone was shining a light at the screen. Things got a bit out of sync at times - I'm not quite sure why these spadeful out have to be manually advanced, but it seems to be the case - but it was fairly watchable.

Also impressive: I noticed at the start of The Moving Image that accompanist Jeff Rapsis was stalking two keyboards, playing treble notes on the piano with his left hand and bass on the organ with his right. Now, maybe my brother and others who are really good at playing instruments can correct a misconception from someone who couldn't play a tambourine, but that has to mess with your head, right? At the very least, it seems like it would take a level of concentration that you practice all your life to not need.

Jeff didn't make the usual closing comments he makes at the Somerville, but a short of alternate version of them struck me as I walked out: I am really lucky to live in a city where you can generally see silent movies in a theater a couple times a month on average. Not only did it give me a chance to discover that I like them quite a bit after originally going to them because I figured that I should learn about them as a Guy Who Likes Movies (And Has Opinions), but because, even though I like the things, I still have a hard time watching them at home - I feel like I'd just be under-stimulated. Boston can have is shortcomings as a movie town, but I suspect that this is an area where we do pretty well.

Vier um die Frau (Four Around a Woman

* * * (out of four)
Seen 2 November 2014 at the Harvard Film Archive (The Complete Fritz Lang, 35mm with live accompaniment)

I've commented before that it seems a shame that Fritz Lang wound up doing fairly conventional crime films in Hollywood when he had made such ambitious fantasies in Germany during the silent era, but it's worth remembering that a great deal of his early work planted the seeds for what would later be called film noir. Four Around a Woman, one of his earliest to survive in near-complete form, is a fine example.

The woman is Florence Yquem (Carola Toelle), the beautiful wife of respected financier Harry Yquem (Ludwig Hartau), a jealous man who has a secret life dealing with counterfeiters and stolen jewelry. Jewels are fenced in a run-down bar's back room, and the place's proprietor Upton (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) is feeling flush enough to give newly-returned sailor William Krafft (Anton Edthofer) a quick loan, especially since Upton knows Werner's twin bother Werner. The trouble is, if Upton knows Werner, he's probably into something dodgy himself. William also doesn't seem to realize quite how dangerous the city has become, and there's the little matter of why he left five years ago.

In its present form, the plot to Four Around a Woman can seem a bit murky - the film was lost for decades and the print discovered in the 1980s may still have some gaps. Certainly, those hypothetical gaps might serve to explain why characters sometimes act contrary to common sense or seem to have variable knowledge of each other. Given that Lang and co-writer (and future wife) Thea von Harbou tended to weave social commentary into their scripts, the film may also suffer a bit from being removed from its original context of post-World War I Germany.

Full review at EFC.

Das wandernde Bild (The Moving Image

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 2 November 2014 at the Harvard Film Archive (The Complete Fritz Lang, 35mm with live accompaniment)

It is unfair to review this movie on a certain level; it's incomplete, with roughly an hour remaining from a notably longer running time, and barring yet another remarkable discovery (the film was considered entirely lost until a Brazilian print was discovered in the 1980s), this abridged version is how we must know it. It's worth seeing, but you can't help it winds about what it was.

This version starts with Wil Brand (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) speaking to his lawyer; he was named the prime benefactor of cousin Georg Vanderheit's estate and worries about the man's common-law wife Irmgard (Mia May) trying to stake a claim - at least until he sees her on a train, apparently quite distraught and sincere. He follows, but the pursuit she is trying to evade is that of Georg's brother John (Hans Marr). She flees across a lake to a mountainous area, where she meets a mysterious man (Marr) with secrets of his own.

At least, that's one version of the story. With so much gone and the intertitles having been translated from German to Portuguese and back to German then subtitled in English for this screening (and the whole thing quite possibly altered during that first step), it's hard to know exactly what director Fritz Lang and writer Thea von Harbou were going for; I've seen the film's plot described in different ways. What comes through in this pair's first collaboration, I think, is a story of a man with the sort of unwavering principles that lead him to live an isolated ascetic life, a romantic ideal that nevertheless can also be very selfish and no counter against the actively malicious, as the woman who loves him discovers. It's a bit of a mess, but even this early on, Lang is a natural-enough storyteller that the audience can go with it.

Full review at EFC.

No comments: