Saturday, August 18, 2018

It's A Hard Knock Life

In September 2008, President George W. Bush summoned Senators Barack Obama and John McCain to the White House to discuss the urgent need for a $700 billion bailout plan. Claiming that the stock market was not functioning properly and the nation's entire economy was in danger, Bush emphasized that "Without immediate action by Congress, American could slip into a financial panic and a distressing scenario would unfold."

Though the 10-year anniversary of that meeting is just weeks away, it looks as if  we are heading back into a situation first described by Charles Dickens in his 1859 novel, A Tale of Two Cities:
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way -- in short, the period was so far like the present period that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only."
Income inequality continues to plague American society. Unlike Finland and Denmark, where vastly different tax structures support social democratic welfare states that prevent such stunning disparities in income (be sure to read Paul Krugman's OpEd piece entitled Something Not Rotten in Denmark), the United States has a long history of celebrating people's misery in song.

Looking back 100 years, it becomes obvious that the boom times for the silent film industry coincided with periods of extreme misery and escapism. While the post World War I era is fondly remembered for showcasing such comic geniuses as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd, many films also focused on class struggle, poverty, unemployment, and oppression.

The 2018 San Francisco Silent Film Festival offered a curious chance to watch two truly depressing films made near the end of the silent era. One was filmed in Germany and released on December 30, 1929 (exactly two months after the "Black Tuesday" Wall Street crash of October 29, 1929). The other was a film directed by Yasujirō Ozu that was released on November 21, 1935 against a bleak background of rampant unemployment and hopelessness in Japan.

Takeshi Sakamoto (Kihachi) and Yoshiko Okada
(Otaka) in a scene from An Inn in Tokyo

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In recent years, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival has shown several films by Ozu who, though he claimed to be extremely lazy, directed 55 films over the course of a 35-year career. Having claimed that all he ever wanted to do was make a tray of good tofu, Ozu died of cancer on his 60th birthday. His body of work, however, remains quite remarkable. Equally adept at filming comedies and gangster movies, Ozu occasionally used the pseudonym “Winthat Monnet” ("Without Money") for his credits as a screenwriter. As evidenced in such silent films as 1930's That Night's Wife and 1932's I Was Born, But..., he had a special knack for working with children.

Takeshi Sakamoto (Kihachi) and Tokkan Kozo
(Zenko) in a scene from An Inn in Tokyo

An Inn In Tokyo focuses on the misadventures of an unemployed single father named Kihachi (Takeshi Sakamoto) who is justifiably depressed. Although his two young sons, Zenko (Tokkan Kozo) and Masako (Takayuki Suematsu), follow him around Tokyo, all three have trouble taking responsibility for their actions. When Kihachi’s boys claim the reward for a lost dog they have captured, Zenko splurges and spends the money on a military officer's hat which is almost too big for his head. Easily distracted, the boys leave their father’s bindle (which contained all of their family's belongings) on the ground and return to find it gone.

Takayuki Suematsu (Masako) and Tokkan Kozo
(Zenko) in a scene from An Inn in Tokyo

Meanwhile, Kihachi keeps getting turned away from one job interview after another. One day, he meets a woman named Otaka (Yoshiko Okada) and her young daughter, Kimiko (Kazuko Ojima). Like Kihachi, Otaka has been unable to find work. Although she eventually gets a job as a waitress in a sake house, Kimiko becomes dangerously ill and must be taken to a hospital. Desperate to help Otaka (and prove his worth as a man), Kihachi ends up stealing money (which he gives to the boys with strict orders to bring it to Otaka at the hospital). With little hope on the horizon for himself or his sons, he turns himself in to the police.

Yoshiko Okada (Otaka) and Kazuko Ojima
(Kimiko) in a scene from An Inn in Tokyo

In her program essay, Monica Nolan explains that:
“In An Inn in Tokyo, Ozu combines silent-era melodrama with his postwar formalism while interjecting almost abstract transition shots between scenes of social realism. The Great Depression is on which, in Japan, meant skyrocketing unemployment in addition to the political unrest characterized by what one contemporary journalist called ‘government by assassination.’ Kihachi wanders Tokyo’s industrial zone, a barren landscape of giant abandoned spools, water tanks, and endless telephone poles. The film acutely observes the grinding details of poverty, the miles trudged in the faint hope of a job, the boredom of empty hours with nothing to eat and no place to go, and the eternal struggle to keep up one’s spirits."
Poster art for An Inn in Tokyo
"As the brothers face off across a deserted road with the family’s only possessions between them, Ozu’s low angle makes them monumental, like gunfighters squaring off in a spaghetti western. Although Inn takes place in the big city, Kihachi and his sons might as well be on an abandoned planet, chasing the stray dogs for the bounty that will buy them a meal or the next night’s lodging in the cheap boarding house of the title. The elegance of these carefully composed industrial still lifes is a form of understatement. Ozu doesn’t beat viewers over the head with the pathos of the family’s desperate straits. As he stated late in life, his goal in his films was ‘to make people feel without resorting to drama.’”
Takeshi Sakamoto (Kihachi) and Yoshiko Okada
(Otaka) in a scene from An Inn in Tokyo

An Inn In Tokyo is not the kind of film one would turn to for uplifting entertainment. However, when accompanied by Guenter Buchwald and Frank Bockius in the Castro Theatre, the screening took on a much deeper resonance thanks, in large part, to their music making. You can watch An Inn in Tokyo in its entirety in the following video:

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Set in the 1920s in Berlin’s Red Wedding district, much of Mother Krause's Journey to Happiness takes place in a decrepit, crowded apartment whose primary occupants are Mother Krause (Alexandra Schmitt), her alcoholic, good-for-nothing son, Paul (Holmes Zimmermann), and her daughter, Erna (Ilse Trautschold). Because poverty demands that each room in Krause apartment be monetized, one room is rented to a lodger (Gerhard Beinert) who lives with Friede (Vera Sacharowa), the prostitute he plans to make his bride. While Mother Krause struggles to keep a roof over her head by delivering newspapers, her son squanders her earnings buying drinks in a nearby saloon.

Piel Jutzi’s film depicts a family trapped in a destructive cycle of poverty and corruption.  When Paul’s behavior make it impossible for his mother (who was widowed during World War I) to pay for the newspapers she has delivered, his actions lead to disastrous results. Hunched over, struggling to ration coffee grounds and pay for gas, his mother is physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted. Thanks to her son’s selfishness and neglect, she is forced to pawn a memento once given to her by her husband.

Unfortunately, Paul’s solution to the family’s financial problems involves an armed robbery which goes horribly wrong and leads to his arrest. Meanwhile, Erna has started to date an attractive, idealistic man with a firm belief in the power of Communism.

At the meager party meant to celebrate Friede’s wedding, her new husband gets drunk and assaults Erna. Later, as Erna and Max (Friedrich Gnas) attend a political rally aimed at lifting up their spirits, Mother Krause makes a critical decision. Using one of the last pfennigs in her possession, she closes all the windows to the apartment, drops a coin into the meter, turns on the gas and commits suicide while holding Friede’s innocent child in her arms.

Sometimes the only way out of a vortex of hopelessness and helplessness is to stop trying to manage a miserable life and simply embrace death. In her program essay, Shari Kizirian notes that:
Mother Krause was made collectively, counting on the participation of leftist artists who, like the writer Bela Balázs, had been rallying for a film to represent the masses and their struggles. Photographer and illustrator Heinrich Zille infused the film with the idea that that an apartment can kill as easily as an axe. When Paul lays the coin down to pay for rounds at the pub, we immediately recall his mother gingerly counting them out for the rent. That a coin is used for her final deliverance creates a devastating parallel.”
Gerhard Bienert, Vera Sacharowa, Alexandra Schmitt,
Fee Wachsmuth, and Ilse Trautschold in a scene from
Mother Krause's Journey to Happiness (1929)
“The filmmakers recognized that simply exposing audiences to the terrible conditions of Germany's poor and working classes was not enough, that knowing does not necessarily spur doing. To that end, the film's denouement outlines a path from witnessing to action, from the theater seat to the protest line. The meet-cute between Max the laborer (Friedrich Gnas) and Erna promises no ‘damsel rescued from distress’ finale, but initiates her awareness of her family's situation as part of a larger but solvable problem. When things hit a grim rock-bottom, Erna knows how to channel her hard-earned consciousness. Shot furiously, as if the marchers were trampling the camera, the resulting demonstration scene was trimmed by censors for release.”
Vera Sacharowa, Fee Wachsmuth, Alexandra Schmitt, Holmes
Zimmermann, Ilse Trautschold, and Gerhard Bienert in a scene from
Mother Krause's Journey to Happiness (1929)

One of the advantages of watching silent films with live accompaniment from musicians who have composed their own musical scores is that audiences can experience a film with a different soundscape. As with An Inn in Tokyo, the performances by Sascha Jacobsen and the Musical Art Quintet helped to create a much more compelling experience than one might hear elsewhere. You can watch Mother Krause's Journey to Happiness in its entirety in the following video clip: