Sunday, November 28, 2010

This Week in New Haven: "Films from the Darkest Hour: Europe, 1942-1943"

This week in New Haven, Connecticut, Yale University will be presenting its seventh annual Film Studies conference and film festival dedicated to the work of a single year or two in European cinema.  This year's event, devoted to the cinema of 1942 and 1943, brings together nine features, four shorts and a collection of newsreels from eight European nations, with introductions and panel discussions featuring faculty members and advanced PhD candidates from Yale, Bard, University of Chicago, Columbia, NYU and SUNY-Albany.  All Whitney Humanities Center screenings and panel discussions are free and open to the public.  

Below is a complete list of the films, formats, times and dates, along with my program notes for the screenings.  "Films from the Darkest Hour" begins Thursday, December 2, with the screening of a subtitled, archival 35mm print of Manoel de Oliveira's first feature Aniki-Bóbó.  For more information, including a complete list of the speakers, please visit the Yale European Studies Council home page.

Aniki-Bóbó (Manoel de Oliveira, 1942, Portugal, 71 minutes, 35mm with English subtitles)
Screening: 7:00 PM, Thursday, December 2, 53 Wall Street, New Haven

Portuguese master Manoel de Oliveira’s extraordinary first feature Aniki-Bóbó, following a Soviet-inspired, silent documentary short made eleven years earlier, Douro, Faina Fluvial (1931), takes its name from an “eeny, meeny, miny, moe”-style nursery rhyme, frequently repeated by the film’s mostly child actors. Oliveira’s children’s film centers on the experiences of a group of primary school-age boys as they suffer their disciplinarian schoolmaster, navigate pre-pubescent romance and commit more and less routine youthful transgressions – with the specter of the avowedly pro-Roman Catholic Salazar dictatorship fleetingly apparent in the slogan on a book bag (“remember the golden rule”) and in the persistent police presence on the centuries-old Oporto streets. Prefiguring his future directorial signature, Oliveira guides his young leads to remarkably “theatrical” performances, as Gilbert Adair has noted, in clear contradistinction to the more naturalistic acting styles that would emerge shortly in the neorealist movement. Oliveira’s feature-length debut, however, would prove much closer to the spirit of neorealism in its reliance on location shooting: the Douro’s banks in the filmmaker’s hometown once again provides the setting, as they did in Douro, Faina Fluvial, and as they would in many of the director’s subsequent works, including his most recent feature, 2010 Cannes festival-favorite, The Strange Case of Angélica. It remains to be said that Oliveira, at age one hundred-one at the time of this writing, persists in being the last active filmmaker of the silent era.

Once at Night / Odnazhdy noch’yu (Grigori Kozintsev, 1942, USSR, 22 minutes, DVD with no English subtitles)
Screening: 10:30 AM, Friday, December 3, 53 Wall Street, New Haven

Raisa Sidenova's program notes are available here.

Ukraine in Flames / Battle for Our Soviet Ukraine / Bitva za nashu Sovetskuyu Ukrainu (Aleksandr Dovzhenko, Yuliya Solntseva and Yakov Avdeenko, 1943, USSR, 80 minutes, DVD with English Subtitles)
Screening: 10:30 AM, Friday, December 3, 53 Wall Street, New Haven

Raisa Sidenova's program notes are available here.

World War II Newsreels (Presented on DVD with no English subtitles) 
Screening: 2:00 PM, Friday, December 3, 53 Wall Street, New Haven

Le Corbeau (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1943, France, 91 minutes, 35mm with English subtitles)
Screening: 3:15 PM, Friday, December 3, 53 Wall Street, New Haven

Produced during the Nazi occupation by Continental-Films, a company created and financed by Joseph Goebbels’s Ministry of Propaganda, Le Corbeau took as its subject a real-life incident that incurred in Tulle, France more than twenty years earlier: at that time, according to a 1922 New York Times report, a series of “poison-pen” letters were mailed that ultimately cost the life of a police official, the sanity of at least two others, and “the marital happiness of dozens of families.” In Clouzot’s update, the letters encircle the somewhat mysterious Dr. Rémy Germain (Pierre Fresnay), accusing the physician of providing abortions and of conducting affairs with a pair of attractive young townswomen, who likewise receive anonymous messages from “Le Corbeau” or “the Raven.” With the villagers of the fictional St. Robin accordingly beset by paranoid speculation, Clouzot expertly invites parallel suspicion in his viewer, introducing pieces of circumstantial evidence to implicate not only Dr. Germain’s proposed lovers, but especially the underage, if treacherous Rolande. In the words of one of Rémy’s colleagues “since this tempest of hate and calumny hit our town all moral values have been corrupted.” Le Corbeau provides just such a portrait of Provincial France, leading to the director’s censure immediately following the Liberation. Today, however, Le Corbeau is equally seen through the prism of anti-Nazi resistance, most recently garnering an affirmative quotation in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009).

Day of Wrath / Vredens dag (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1943, Denmark, 97 minutes, 35mm with English subtitles)
Screening: 7:00 PM, Friday, December 3, 53 Wall Street, New Haven

Born the illegitimate son of a maid and Swedish factory-owner in 1889, Carl Theodor Dreyer is widely considered today to rank among the greatest of all film artists, despite a relatively modest fourteen features in forty-five years. Of course, the works themselves display no similar slightness, with such confirmed classics as The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and Ordet (1955) numbering among the director’s unusually high proportion of masterpieces. Day of Wrath is certainly no exception with Dreyer providing an analogy to the Nazi persecution of the Jewish population (at least in the view of many Danish critics, according to film historian Paolo Cherchi Usai) through his treatment of religious intolerance in seventeenth-century Protestant Denmark. On a formal level, Dreyer builds causal ambiguity into his occult-focused narrative, while also constructing spaces wherein strong off-camera glances facilitate his viewers’ awareness of an invisible, off-screen field. From the outside looking into Dreyer’s visuals, the director extracts a mood of surveillance, again apropos of the period’s political situation, as well as a surfeit of suspense, though the diegetic source of the look, be it Rev. Absalon Pederssøn (Thorkild Roose), his mother, the townsmen or perhaps even a judgmental, wrathful God, remains uncertain. Indeterminacy likewise finds its way into the image in the expressions, or rather in the eyes of Absalom’s much younger wife Anne (Lisbeth Movin), with their piercing presence providing the film with its carnal core. Day of Wrath ultimately makes a strong case for being the very best of 1942-1943.

Torment / Hets (Alf Sjöberg, 1944, Sweden, 101 minutes)
Screening: 9:00 PM, Friday, December 3, 53 Wall Street, New Haven 

Jeremi Szaniawski's program notes are available here.

The Next of Kin (Thorold Dickinson, 1942, United Kingdom, 92 minutes, 35mm)
Screening: 9:00 AM, Saturday, December 4, 53 Wall Street, New Haven

Commissioned by the British War Office as a training film for the benefit of counter-espionage efforts in the armed forces, Thorold Dickinson’s The Next of Kin dramatizes the wartime admonishment that “careless talk costs lives,” charting a series of small disclosures, both verbal and visual, that ultimately forge a causal chain leading to the film’s “very costly” concluding battle – and thus to the notification of the “next of kin.” Lacking both the “conventional big scene” and the “star performer,” Dickinson’s narrative doggedly pursues its central security conceit through a shifting series of social interactions – many of which prove romantic in nature – with each offering, in the words of the director, a game of “what is wrong with this picture.” The Next of Kin likewise breaks with convention, or rather, again in the view of Dickinson, anticipates a new set of postwar norms, both in the United States and Italy, through its procurement of a fact-based approach that would prove authentic enough to lead Winston Churchill to temporarily withdraw the picture ahead of the Allied raid on St. Nazaire.

Listen to Britain (Humphrey Jennings and Stewart McAllister, 1942, United Kingdom, 20 minutes, 35mm)
Screening: 10:45 AM, Saturday, December 4, 53 Wall Street, New Haven

Produced by the Crown Film Unit, Humphrey Jennings and Stewart McAllister’s Listen to Britain discloses the film’s advocated method of spectatorship in its title, with an image track that frequently provides visual accompaniment to the documentary short’s aural content. Constructed of a series of sound motifs that emerge, disappear, and periodically reemerge, Jennings’s self-described “picture about music” scores a portrait of home front Britain, with the BBC Overseas Service and the chiming of Big Ben among the many recognizable symbols. Indeed, Jennings and McAllister articulate their nation’s specific identity through their soundtrack, with the film’s human subjects registering more often a familiar anonymity, a mirror for the wartime viewer. Then again, Listen to Britain does offer pivotal on-screen exceptions, with a uniquely indexical impact coming from the on-camera appearances of Flanagan and Allen crooning their war-era hit, “Round the Back of the Arches,” Dame Myra Hess performing one of her 1,700 lunch time concerts, and the future Queen Mother seated in Hess’s National Gallery audience. The image track here becomes as cardinal as the score, as it will remain with the pianist’s Mozart spreading out into the leafy capital, and with “Rue Britannia” juxtaposed over a luminous coal furnace and a windswept wheat field. Listen to Britain remains one of the uncontested masterpieces of the documentary mode, the short form and of the British cinema.

The Silent Village (Humphrey Jennings, 1943, United Kingdom, 38 minutes, 35mm)
Screening: 10:45 AM, Saturday, December 4, 53 Wall Street, New Haven

On June 10, 1942, under the orders of Adolf Hitler, the entire adult male population of Lidice, Czechoslovakia was murdered, with its remaining women and children sent to concentration camps as retaliation for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, deputy Reichsprotektor of the Nazi Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. German and Czech radio publicized the event, claiming in addition that “the buildings of the locality have been leveled and the name of the community has been obliterated.” The Silent Village accordingly counteracts this attempted obliteration, superimposing the fate of Lidice onto the rural Welsh community of Cwmgiedd, where the events of 1942 are reenacted by the village’s population, who play themselves rather than the fallen and imprisoned former residents of Lidice. In this way, Jennings’s short film not only memorializes the victims of the Lidice massacre and the decimated village, but also reminds its British viewers of the stakes of the current war, in addition to providing a troubling counterfactual scenario of life in Britain had Germany been successful in their 1940 invasion. At the same time, there remains “a civilised reticence about Jennings’ treatment,” in the estimation of British critic Dave Berry. “Sometimes the approach seems distant and the film occasionally has a desiccated feel,” he continues, “but overall Jennings instinctively finds the right tone.”

Romance in a Minor Key / Romanze in Moll (Helmut Käutner, 1943, Germany, 98 minutes, 16mm with English subtitles)
Screening: 1:45 PM, Saturday, December 4, 53 Wall Street, New Haven

Inspired by the Guy de Maupassant short story “Les Bijoux,” Helmut Käutner’s Romance in a Minor Key withdraws to late nineteenth-century Paris, a city under German occupation since June 1940, for its tragic retelling of Madeleine (Marianne Hoppe) and Michael’s (Ferdinand Marian) extra-marital love affair. Käutner’s film opens among the city’s chimney-tops, his camera craning as it moves toward Madeleine’s bedchamber. Pushing into the room, the female lead lies motionless, a pearl necklace around her neck and a vial of poison at her bedside, as her husband (Paul Dahlke) arrives home following a late night out. Unfolding thereafter through a set of flashbacks, Käutner’s narrative stages the married woman and composer’s initially and ultimately “minor-key” romance, with major-key moments emerging in between, beginning with Käutner’s elegant ellipsis linking Madeleine’s insistence that she will never be Michael’s mistress to her symbolically rich performance of her lover’s composition with his gift strung across her declitae. This latter object, the prompt for Dahlke’s discovery of his wife’s indiscretion, calls to mind German-Jewish-born auteur and fellow Maupassant screen-adapter Max Ophüls’s masterpiece Madame de… (1953), as does the crane-facilitated fluidity of Käutner’s mise-en-scѐne.

Desiderio (Roberto Rossellini and Marcello Pagliero, 1943-1946, Italy, 79 minutes, 35mm with printed subtitles provided at the screening)
Screening: 4:00 PM, Saturday, December 4, 53 Wall Street, New Haven

Though it was begun in partnership with Ossessione screenwriter Giuseppe De Santis – much to the consternation of Luchino Visconti, who according to De Santis, “wouldn’t speak to me for some time and did everything to hinder the collaboration” – and though the film’s second part, if not significantly more, would be shot by Marcello Pagliero in 1945, Desiderio nonetheless emerges, in the words of Rossellini biographer Tag Gallagher, as “the most seminal of his early pictures.” Starring Elli Parvo as runaway cum prostitute Paola, “the first full-fleshed character in Rossellini,” Desiderio depicts its heroine’s chaste romance with horticulturist Giovanni (Carlo Ninchi), and her consequent attempt at shielding her profession from her new lover. This leads Paola to return to her rural home, where she is received coldly by her father and lusted after by her sister’s husband Nando (Ossessione’s male lead Massimo Girotti). Indeed, even in this setting, Paola remains unable to escape the unwelcome, coercive attention of men, compelling an act of desperation that will conclude the film as it had began, with an act of suicide. In introducing this particular motif, which Rossellini added in his rewrite, Desiderio significantly prefigures Germany Year Zero (1948) and Europa ’51 (1952). Together likewise with the director’s La paura (1954), these later works accordingly form a sub-corpus of despair for which Desiderio provides a clear template.

Gente del Po / People of the River Po (Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy, 1943-1947, 10 minutes, Blu-Ray with English subtitles)
Screening: 8:00 PM, Saturday, December 4, 53 Wall Street, New Haven

Following a short stint as a critic at the publication Cinema in Rome, and work as an assistant for Marcel Carné (on Les Visiteurs du soir, 1942) and as a screenwriter for Roberto Rossellini (on A Pilot Returns, 1942), Michelangelo Antonioni began shooting his first documentary in 1943, based on an article he published in 1939, “Concerning a Film on the River Po.” With the Allied liberation of Southern Italy in mid-1943, Antonioni was forced to suspend shooting. After concluding production four years later, Antonioni lost seventy percent of his footage in a development accident. Even so, the truncating finished product displays interest for its disclosure of information “on purely visual terms,” according to Antonioni scholar Peter Brunette, and as the fount of the director’s consequent career, in the opinion of the director himself.

Ossessione (Luchino Visconti, 1943, Italy, 135 minutes, 35mm with English subtitles)
Screening: 8:00 PM, Saturday, December 4, 53 Wall Street, New Haven

The Milanese-born son of an aristocratic father and an extremely wealthy mother, Luchino Visconti began his work in cinema as a third assistant to French master Jean Renoir, after an introduction to the filmmaker by Coco Chanel. Renoir would subsequently furnish Visconti with the script for his first feature Ossessione, based on James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), with shooting conducted on location in Emilia-Romagna (the Po Valley) and Marche in 1942. The extraordinary resulting feature has frequently been credited as “the first neorealist movie,” due to its “hardscrabble look and focus on the have-nots.” However, as critic Philip Lopate has pointed out, “to the degree that Italian neorealism was a specific response to a historical moment (the end of the war and its aftermath), it would be more accurate to say Ossessione was pre-neorealist,” or as Millicent Marcus has described it, a “harbinger” of the movement. In fact, Ossessione has as much in common with the French cinema of the late 1930s as it does the Italian cinema after 1945, displaying the same planar organization of space as Renoir’s supreme masterpiece, La Rѐgle du jeu (1939), as well as the “sensual fatalism” of the earlier period’s “poetic realism” (again to quote Lopate). In this respect, Ossessione proves pivotal in the migration of Europe’s broader realist tradition from France to Italy, and for the introduction of a pervasive eroticism into the nation’s cinema that would find its most famous expression in co-screenwriter Giuseppe de Santis’s postwar Bitter Rice (1949).

Select Bibliography
Andrew, Geoff, ed. Film: The Critics’ Choice (2001).
Armes, Roy. French Cinema (1985).
Brunette, Peter. The Films of Michelangelo Antonioni (1998).
Gallagher, Tag. The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini: His Life and Films (1998).
Horne, Philip and Peter Swaab, eds. Thorold Dickinson: A World of Film (2008).
Jackson, Kevin, ed. The Humphrey Jennings Film Reader (1993).
Marcus, Millicent. Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism (1986).
Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey, ed. The Oxford History of World Cinema (1996).

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