Posts Tagged ‘Fritz Rasp’

Screen Shot 2014-12-10 at 17.35.28Life’s cruel deck is stacked against poor Thymian Henning from the off. After finding her father’s housekeeper – and mistress – has committed suicide, Thymian is herself taken advantage of by a pharmacy clerk, subsequently victim-shamed according to the conventional moral norms of the day, and cast out from her family to join a convent for disorderly young girls. Dark stuff then, though Louise Brooks, in her final pairing with director G.W. Pabst, infuses the character of Thymian with a will to persist; a vitality amidst the darkness. In her first appearance, Brooks appears framed in an interior archway, clad in a radiant white that bursts apart the film’s heretofore sundry shades of grey. She may a ‘lost girl’, but she’s the film’s guiding light.

Pabst navigates the reform school with simple tracking shots along ordered objects like identical bedheads, or figures spooning porridge into their mouths, each of these flourishes a subtle indictment at rigid strictures that hamper both consideration of the human spirit and liberating artistic potential. Select instances of camera movement are matched by efficiency of montage, such as when the sadistic headmistress of the reform school has the girls work out to the bang of her gong, therefore commanding the film’s editing rhythm and satiating her altogether suspect desires. The material here works to her ends.

However, to focus on the headmistress is to fatally sidestep the clear patriarchy at play in all its various guises. The sins of man here range, perhaps intentionally, from the subtle to the outwardly cruel. There’s the aforementioned opportunistic clerk, played like a snake by Fritz Rasp. There’s the headmistress’ sadistic bald assistant, who thrives on the girls’ oppression – and suffers under their inevitable revolt. Then there’s Doctor Vitalis, visitor at the brothel where Thymian is eventually forced to find work, said to ‘always want to save us, but in the end he joins us’, emblematic of a certain kind of solidarity posturing that swiftly gives way in the heat of the moment. And last but not least, there’s dear old Count Osdorff (Andre Roanne), Thymian’s young male acquaintance, unemployed as well, therefore possessing no qualms in pocketing one or two of his friend’s sex trade-earnings for himself. In fact, although an absolute prerequisite for survival, money is no apparent object to Thymian, and when she drops a note it’s almost always somebody else’s hand that picks it up.

In arguably the film’s finest and most defining scene, Thymian is spotted by her father in a gentleman’s club, thirty years on from the initial separation forced by his hand. Pabst’s continual framing of Thymian’s face, dead-centre in close-up, eyes appealing to the viewer, has led to this crucial moment. Thymian’s father watches on helplessly as a gaggle of grotesque grown men close in on his daughter, fawning and chomping at the bit to be in her presence; in seeing this, her father recognises his own transgressions, and in situating both him and Thymian central to the chaotic figures surrounding them in the composition, Pabst has honed in on that cutting moment of revelation, the identification of one’s self in another’s body. The fourth wall gaze implicates us to that effect. Events may sign off on a simplistic plea for peace – “A little more love and no one would be lost in this world” – but the larger takeaway is a rallying call for considered empathy as key to resolving our differences. The medium of cinema, as both a window and mirror, is unique in working toward these aims.

Eureka’s Masters of Cinema dual-format restoration features a piano score by Javier Perez de Aspeitia, and comes complete with a brand new video essay by critic and filmmaker David Cairns, as well as 40-page booklet with writing from Louise Brooks, Lotte Eisner, Louelle Interim, Craig Keller and R. Dixon Smith.

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In just the first sixty seconds of Fritz Lang’s silent spy thriller Spione (Spies), the following occurs: a safe is ransacked of its contents, a high-ranking Minister is assassinated in a drive-by shooting, and all-out panic ensues as news of the aforementioned events spreads along telephone wires like wildfire. Who is responsible for these heinous crimes? “Ich,” declares criminal mastermind Haghi (Rudolf-Klein-Rogge, titular lead in Lang’s Dr. Mabuse diptych), revealed to us instantaneously and in full close-up – a devilish goatee accentuating his sinister air – revoking his anonymity for the sole benefit of the viewer. His foes in the Secret Service are, unlike us, none-the-wiser as to his identity; they flail around like headless chickens, in stark contrast to the composed, prepared Haghi, sitting calmly behind his densely populated albeit organised desk as if waiting for nothing less than another successive confirmation of a mission gone entirely to plan.

The modern spy thriller traditionally establishes its heroic protagonist first and foremost, before steadily unravelling a web of conspiracy whose buck stops at an omniscient villain – usually someone we hadn’t guessed. Here, the villain has been introduced from the off, so that the viewer is almost complicit in looking over his shoulder at the ensuing chaos. As the plot circles around a MacGuffin and a tangle of myriad international figures – from honourable Japanese minister Dr Masimoto (Lupu Pick) to the traitorous Colonel Jellusic (Fritz Rasp) – it becomes apparent that what Haghi actually wants besides domination is unclear and not necessarily important, thereby placing the focus squarely on the adventurous, romantic qualities of the narrative. Nevertheless, one could feasibly draw on theorist Sigfried Kracauer, supposing that the character of Haghi anticipates a duplicitous authoritarian leader in the vein of Hitler.

Haghi’s unwilling accomplice is Sonja Baranilkowa, whom he charges with the task of fending off his adversary – and her love interest – Agent 326 (Willy Frisch). The latter spy is a far cry from the suave, hardened action heroes of the modern era; he smothers his lady with puppy kisses and sobs over a stiff drink when he fears to have lost her forever. There’s a boyish vulnerability and cluelessness to this man (Sonja always knows more than 326 at any given moment) that seems to have been bled out of the modern action genre in favour of rough or ravishing male leads and meaningless female sidekicks to match. That’s certainly true of the James Bond series, for which Spione is otherwise a clear heavy influence, from the ballroom masquerade, to the spy identified by a three-digit number, to even Haghi himself, an obvious forerunner to Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

Despite Sonja appearing as an ostensible ‘captive princess’ to Haghi, it’s curious to note that the upper hand in Spione is almost always secured by its women. Colonel Jellusic allows his libido to get the better of him, with fatal consequences; Agent 326 is gamed by Sonja until he rather desperately chases her down the street; even Mitsamuto, equally as prepared as the all-seeing Haghi, has his last-ditch plans outsmarted at the eleventh hour by a new lady-friend. As for Haghi, his formerly fool-proof machinations never appear on such shaky ground as when Sonja begins to assert her free will.

All this human manoeuvring builds a steady momentum that culminates in a train crash, a high-speed car chase, and a bank siege waged against both the clock and an onset of poisonous gas. The script by Lang’s wife Thea von Harbou, based on her original novel, feeds just enough dialogue and leaves the rest to these images of vehicular carnage and visually distinctive character designs. It’s a remarkable feat, considering the odds against a silent film in a genre since known for its convoluted plotting, but then for audiences in 1928 this would all have seemed as fresh as anything. At two-and-a-half hours, Lang’s penultimate silent feature is a brisk ride through the origin points of beloved spy thriller tropes.

Fritz Arno Wagner’s photography has been restored from a process begun in 2003 by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung working from various nitrate copies, the basis of which came courtesy of Národní Filmový Archive in Prague. Eureka’s Masters of Cinema dual-format set comes packaged with a 69-minute documentary on the film, and a 40-page booklet containing writing by Murielle Joudet and Jonatham Rosenbaum.

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