Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Tales of the [Gritty] City

As millions of Chinese laborers abandon an agricultural lifestyle and flock to large cities in search of new lives, they follow patterns laid down by young people from generation to generation. Whether one thinks of Petula Clark's 1965 hit song, "Downtown," or the Village People's 1978 hit "Y.M.C.A.," bright lights always draw hopeful souls to the big city.

While Kander and Ebb's title song for Martin Scorsese's 1977 film, New York, New York, gave voice to the dreams of millions with the lyric "If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere!" a more cynical sentiment from Stephen Sondheim's 1970 breakthrough musical, Company, describes the grim reality of life in the big city:
"Another hundred people
Just got off of the train
And came up through the ground,
While another hundred people
Just got off of the bus
And are looking around
At another hundred people
Who got off of the plane
And are looking at us
Who got off of the train
And the plane and the bus
Maybe yesterday.

It's a city of strangers,
Some come to work, some to play.
A city of strangers,
Some come to stare, some to stay.
And every day the ones who stay
Can find each other in the crowded streets
And the guarded parks,
By the rusty fountains and the dusty trees
With the battered barks,
And they walk together past the postered walls
With the crude remarks.
And they meet at parties
Through the friends of friends
Who they never know.
'Do I pick you up
Or do I meet you there
Or shall we let it go?
Did you get my message?
'Cause I looked in vain.
Can we see each other Tuesday
If it doesn't rain?
Look, I'll call you in the morning
Or my service will explain.

And another hundred people
Just got off of the train.

It's a city of strangers,
Some come to work, some to play.
A city of strangers,
Some come to stare, some to stay.
And every day some go away
Or they find each other in the crowded streets
And the guarded parks,
By the rusty fountains and the dusty trees
With the battered barks,
And they walk together past the postered walls
With the crude remarks.
And they meet at parties
Through the friends of friends
Who they never know.
Do I pick you up
Or do I meet you there
Or shall we let it go?
Did you get my message?
'Cause I looked in vain.
Can we see each other Tuesday
If it doesn't rain?
Look, I'll call you in the morning
Or my service will explain.

And another hundred people just got off of the train.
And another hundred people just got off of the train,
And another hundred people just got off of the train,
And another hundred people just got off of the train.
Another hundred people just got off of the train."
Hopes and dreams get shattered in many big cities with astonishing regularity. Whether disillusionment is delivered by the Gangs of New York or The Wizard of Oz, one soon realizes that the word "city" rhymes with "pretty" just as easily as it does with "gritty" and "shitty."

* * * * * * * * *
Not quite a modern-day reworking of Hansel and Gretel, Lance Daly's new 75-minute indie feature follows two suburban kids on their trip to the big city. Kylie (Kelly O'Neill) and Dylan (Shane Curry) are next door neighbors trapped in suburban hell. Although Kylie lives with five siblings and their overworked mother (Cathy Malone), she is still better off than Dylan, whose alcoholic father (Paul Roe) is often abusive and violent toward Dylan and his mother (Neili Conroy).

Dylan (Shane Curry) in his home.

Kisses follows a clearly symmetrical artistic vision. The opening and closing sections of the film -- which depict suburban hell -- are filmed in black and white to highlight the bleakness of Kylie and Dylan's lives. Once they decide to run away to the city, color seeps into the film as they hook up with the captain of a small dredging boat (David Bendito), who safely delivers them to downtown Dublin.

Left on their own with some money Kylie had saved, the two adolescents find their way to a shopping mall where Dylan gets a haircut, they buy some new clothes, and make friends with a busker (Jose Jimanez) who finally agrees to give Kylie some of his take. When darkness descends and the two youngsters must fend for themselves in the streets and back alleys of Dublin, they are faced with two menacing subplots.

Kylie (Kelly O'Neill) and Dylan (Shane Curry)

It seems that ever since Dylan's father kicked his no-good brother Maurice (Sean McDonagh) out of their home, the alcoholic Maurice has been squatting in empty flats and sleeping on the streets of Dublin. Dylan's earnest attempts to find his uncle are countered by Kylie's fears of encountering the Sack Man (a bogeyman who kidnaps little children and carries off their bodies in a cloth sack).

The modern day version of the Sack Man turns out to be a sexual predator ((Willie Higgins) who tries to kidnap Kylie. Using the wheels built into his newly-acquired sneakers, Dylan bravely holds onto the bumper of the man's automobile during an intense car chase. Later, the two children encounter an entertainer named Down Under Dylan (Stephen Rea), who impersonates Bob Dylan in nightclubs and lets the kids have the remainder of his beer.

Dylan (Shane Curry) and Kylie (Kelly O'Neill)

Despite Kylie's insistence that she will never go back home (and the discovery of Maurice's dead body in a back alley), the children eventually turn to the police for help and are delivered back to their parents. As they return to the bleakness of their suburban misery, each child feels stronger and more confident of the future, knowing that there is a true friend by their side.

While I enjoyed Kisses much more than 2006's Once (another Irish indie film), the English subtitles can't compensate for the misery faced by these children. During the period when they are heading to Dublin on the boat, one can almost feel their lives improving as color starts to seep into the film and small moments of joy can be seen on their faces. Once night falls, however, they are nothing more than two children lost in the [urban] woods whose home situations will probably not improve. Here's the trailer:


* * * * * * * * *
Urban nightmares come in many shapes and sizes. But few are as bizarre as the lost footage featured in Yael Hersonski's 88-minute documentary, A Film Unfinished, which will be screened at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. In the spring of 1942, Nazi filmmakers spent 30 days shooting footage in the Warsaw Ghetto, documenting the faces and lifestyles of many German and Polish Jews.

The photographers had little understanding of why they were given these assignments. As they spoke with some of the Jews they filmed, they often found them to be surprisingly optimistic, expecting to be resettled in someplace like Madagascar. Very few residents of the Warsaw Ghetto had any idea they would soon be sent to die in the extermination camp at Treblinka. Indeed, Adam Czerniakow, the chairman of the Jewish Council, used a cyanide tablet to commit suicide on July 22, 1942 (the day the Nazis began deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto).

What the German filmmakers were actually doing was capturing footage for Nazi propaganda films. The Nazis wanted to show that, even under duress, Jews lived luxurious lifestyles. Scenes were staged that pandered to stereotypes of Jews as greedy and selfish people who would not even lend a helping hand to hungry children. The footage found at an East German archive includes previously unseen outtakes showing Jews being used as actors in scenes ranging from funeral processions to eating in a restaurant.

Poster art for A Film Unfinished

Many of the Jews trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto were already dying of starvation (corpses of deceased relatives often littered the sidewalks). The documentary contains footage of naked, emaciated corpses being sent down a slide into a mass grave. As Hersonski explains in his lengthy director's statement:
"The Holocaust confronted humanity not only with inconceivable horrors, but also for the first time, with their systematic documentation. More than anything else, it is the photographic documentation of these horrors that has changed forever the way in which the past is archived. Atrocities committed by the Nazis were photographed more extensively than any evils, before or after. Yet since the war, these images created by the perpetrators have been subjected to mistreatments: in the best of cases they were crudely used as illustrations of the many stories; in the worst, they were presented as straightforward historical truth.

With the prospect in mind of a time when no survivor will be left to remember the events, I tried in A Film Unfinished to examine the silent footage, which alone will remain; to critically inspect the potential of the photographic image to bear witness as well as the limits of its ability to do so.

In what ways can archival footage filmed by the perpetrators testify to the suffering of the victims? And in the case of Nazi propaganda footage, where does cinematic manipulation end and reality begin?

For me, it begins with the victim’s gaze into the camera. That gaze contains what is perhaps the only emotional truth not crushed under the wheels of propaganda, the only truth that cannot be possessed and that remains forever, as if to testify: 'I was there, I existed in this world that words cannot describe.’

I wanted to expose the message enfolded in this captured gaze, but at the same time question the 21st century viewer’s perception of the past; to undermine his confidence in his knowledge of history and reinforce his emotional ability to see beyond the layers of time.

I've always sensed that archival footage, unlike the paper document, bears a much more layered testimony regarding the reality it documents -- a testimony that remains forever open for investigation. Thinking of the time when no witnesses will be left to remember, when the archives will remain our only source of understanding our history, I was haunted by the idea of exploring the silent images (not as illustrations enslaved by different stories but as story tellers themselves).

My interest in the archival footage from the Holocaust also stems from the fact that World War II not only confronted humanity with inconceivable atrocities, but also produced and carried out, for the first time, a systematical, obsessive cinematic documentation of that horror.

In order to understand better the way we perceive the infinite number of images which are being broadcast into our living rooms, computers, and mobile phones from dozens of satellites, images of our present reality and its catastrophes, I chose to go back to the historical point in time where it all began. I strongly believe that after the world had witnessed the horror documented during the liberation of the extermination camps, after screening the cinematic evidences displayed at the Nuremberg trials, something was changed in the collective consciousness. Images were no longer as they were before.

Only when seeing the complete sequence can one understand the manipulation of its making, the evil behind it, and the distorted manner in which these images were [mis]used during the postwar years in dozens of documentaries and in the form of recycled bits and pieces. Within the context of those documentaries, it seemed that the fragmented sequences could only suggest that the partial reality framed inside them reflected the true reality of Jewish life inside the Ghetto. But how could an image, shot from the point of view of the perpetrator, truly reflect the reality of its victim?

In most cases this manipulative point of view, which ironically was burned as part of collective imagery of postwar mourning, was never discussed. My shock stemmed also from the fact that after so many years being an Israeli citizen, bombarded with so many films and images that concerned the Jewish Holocaust, I still didn't know anything about this film. The film was well known to film archivists, museums, and filmmakers from all over the world, and was available for research at the German film archives. Yet A Film Unfinished is the first documentary that shows this footage almost in its entire length and exposes its actual intensiveness.

Several days after watching the Warsaw Ghetto film for the first time, I traveled to Berlin, where the footage is still preserved. I'd decided to study German for the sake of the research and met the German film archivists in order to learn more about the history of the footage. I was told that the Warsaw Ghetto film, at least as far as the German film archive is concerned, was perhaps the most mysterious footage of the Third Reich that had survived (90% of the footage shot by the Nazis was destroyed during the last days of the war). After more than 70 years, no one among the archivists (mainly Germans and Americans) was able to find even a single document to reveal the identity of the film's initiators, the purpose of its making, nor the reasons for the timing of the shooting or why the film was never completed.

The Warsaw Ghetto footage was first revealed in 1954, inside the East German film archive's area in Potsdam-Babelsberg, in a concrete film vault that once belonged to the Third Reich. It was just after the Soviets, who controlled the eastern parts of Berlin, had retreated to Moscow (taking with them all the Nazi propaganda footage they could locate after nine years of sorting through the Nazi archive remains).

During the 1960s, a German historian who was doing research inside the Polish archives about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising came across an entry permit to the Ghetto dating from May 1942 (the actual time of the shooting). The entry permit was given to Sonderführer Willy Wist, a cameraman. It was the first and only occasion when the name of one of the film's cameramen was revealed. During the Post Cold War era, the united German film archive tried to locate Wist with the aim to discover more about the filmmaking. Letters to all Wist relatives in Germany were sent asking after the former cameraman. All Wist families replied the same: 'We don't know him.'

In 1998, British film researcher Adrian Wood was inside a film vault on an American Air Force base. He was looking for footage that dealt with the 1936 Olympic games when he noticed two film cans lying on the floor titled Das Ghetto. Wood, who had years of experience with Holocaust footage was very familiar with the Warsaw Ghetto film and immediately recognized that the reels belonged to the main film. It contained two sequences with 30 minutes of outtakes left on the editing floor. The outtakes exposed not only the number of takes that were taken by the Nazi film crew (even in the case of the seemingly documentary scenes of extreme poverty and death), but also moments in which cameramen accidentally entered each other's frame.

All attempts to identify the specific propaganda unit or the identity of one of the cameramen according to their uniforms or faces were in vain. Many times the film crews were uniformed with general uniforms of the Nazi Air Force or the Wehrmacht. We were not able to decide who these filmmakers were. In addition, we could not find any documentation that concerned a film production -- not even one invoice. In the case of Nazi bureaucratic documentation this is certainly quite rare!

In making A Film Unfinished, the accuracy of every detail was of immense importance to me. Every document (typed or handwritten), every page of diary, every archive corridor and staircase which are being shown in the film are the authentic ones. The languages in which the diaries were written were kept in their original Yiddish, Polish, and Hebrew.

We were extremely fortunate to have such a diligent and persistent Israeli researcher, who was calling all the survivors from the Warsaw Ghetto that still live in Israel (including some who live in Poland, England, and the United States). Most of them were teenagers or children in the Ghetto, and were wandering the streets, mainly trying to rescue their families. Many times it was the child, supplied with his fresh enthusiastic courage, athletic body, and curiosity that supported his parents. Thus, more than the parents, it was the child who would witness the film crew working in the streets.

Nine survivors remembered the filmmaking. It was our plan to invite each one of them into the darkness of the cinema hall and to confront them with the horrifying footage, which was something I feared not all of them could withstand. They were over 80 years old, courageous souls in fragile bodies, filled with memories they were compelled to store away in order to keep on living. What I in fact intended to show them was the scenery of their childhood, when they experienced some of the most horrendous events in their lives.

I decided to not only explain to them in the most detailed manner what they were about to watch, but to invite only the ones who were absolutely certain that they would be capable of doing it. I was relieved to realize that five of them were more than willing to come. I was even more relieved to realize they had their own urgent interest in the film: they wanted to be the last to comment on the silent images, for they were there.

Those days of filming the survivors watching the footage were the most difficult ones for me. After every session I found myself physically numb and mentally knocked out. I couldn't even begin to imagine what the survivors themselves must have felt after such an incredibly intense situation. The four women who were filmed watching the footage are still living in Israel. The only man who took part in these testimonials died last year."
What gives Hersonski's extraordinary documentary an extra jab to the solar plexus are the segments in which survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto recognize people they knew from the streets. A brief stretch of found footage on colored film stock makes A Film Unfinished seem even more surreal. Here's the trailer:


* * * * * * * *
The most eagerly awaited program at the 15th Anniversary San Francisco Silent Film Festival was, without any doubt, the screening of the full version of Fritz Lang's legendary science fiction extravaganza, Metropolis. Barely 10 weeks after its world premiere on January 10, 1927, Lang's masterpiece was being sliced and diced by a lethal combination of German censors, studio bean counters, and American entrepreneurs who felt that its original length of 150 minutes was simply too long for audiences in the United States.

Metropolis was filmed over the course of 310 days and 60 nights, using 750 bit players, 750 child extras, 26,000 male extras, and 11,000 female extras at a cost of more than 5 million Deutsche Marks. Over the years, Metropolis has been shown in any number of clumsily edited versions.

A film that tackles the mythology of capitalism (pitting the owners against the workers in fabulous Art Deco sets), Metropolis is a feast for the eyes from start to finish. The fact that the new footage found in 2008 in the archives of the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires, Argentina by Paula Félix-Didier and her ex-husband, Fernando Pena (who had been on a 20-year quest to find the missing reels of film) is of lesser print quality than the previously restored footage which makes up the bulk of the film only heightens the sense of watching cinematic history.

Poster art for Fritz Lang's Metropolis

As the two Argentinians readily admitted in their presentation to the audience at the Castro Theatre, had the missing film been found 20 years ago, they would not have had access to the digital technology used in film restorations. Although many in the audience grumbled about the late start of the program, they were gently reminded that after waiting 83 years to see the complete version of Metropolis, an extra 40 minutes was not really all that terrible.

In terms of my own history with Metropolis, the delay really didn't matter. The truth is that, until last weekend, I had never had a chance to see Lang's film. Witnessing it in its entirety (with a magnificent accompaniment from the Alloy Orchestra) was an incredible thrill.


Lang's film had a huge impact on popular culture. Superman's city, Metropolis, was named after the film's fantastic setting. The character C-3PO (from Star Wars) was modeled on the robot machine in Lang's film. Even Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory in later films can be traced to the look of the laboratory run by C.A. Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) in Metropolis, an inventor whose "machine man" takes on the physical characteristics of the sweet and shy schoolteacher (Brigitte Helm) before running amok.

Rotwang's robot undergoes a revolutionary transformation

Whether gawking at the stop motion sequences which show futuristic visions of urban transportation or the scenes in which Lang floods the set as the workers seek higher ground, one can't help being awed by the vivid images and dramatic tension in Lang's film. Not only did the sheer scope of Metropolis require incredible planning (keep in mind this was long before computers were available to handle such a wealth of details), none of Lang's film had the technological advantages of CGI scripting.

While the film basically follows the disillusionment of Freder Frederson (Gustav Frohlich), who discovers what his powerful capitalist father Joh Frederson (Alfred Abel) has done to dehumanize the workers who toil underground and keep them in their place, there are wonderful supporting performances from Fritz Rasp as the Thin Man, Heinrich George as Grot (the guardian of the heart machine), and Brigitte Helm as Maria. The special effects originally created by Ernst Kunstmann (together with Erich Kettlehut's trick photography and the special visual effects by Eugen Schufftan) set thrilling new standards for film artists.

The newly complete version of Metropolis will be released this fall on DVD by Kino, I doubt the small screen can do justice to the experience of seeing Lang's film on the Castro Theatre's huge screen accompanied by a pulsing percussive performance from the Alloy Orchestra. The screening of Metropolis at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival was 2-1/2 hours of pure cinema magic. Here's the trailer:


2 comments:

韋以韋以 said...

More haste, less speed.......................................................................

Unknown said...

I found your blog through, of all things, a completely unrelated image search. Thanks for the great info on A Film Unfinished. It seems like a fascinating study of the intermediate space between horror and it's documentation.