Arts & Events
First Run Features has released three provocative films on DVD that delve into the complex consciousness of the German people. From the atrocities of the Holocaust to the repressive post-war socialist government of East Germany, these films offer fascinating glimpses of artists and historians struggling to come to terms with their nation’s past while battling forces—in the form of both the government and the people—who would rather keep such horrors hidden.
The Second Track
Joachim Kunert’s The Second Track went unseen for decades, only recently resurfacing and taking its rightful place among Germany’s greatest films. This 1962 noirish thriller examined the burden of the Holocaust on the German conscience at a time when the country as a whole was eager to forget and move on.
A freight yard inspector stumbles upon a robbery but does not inform the police that he has recognized one of the perpetrators, a man from his past whom he is eager to avoid. This sparks a chain of events in which the inspector’s daughter begins delving into her father’s past as well as her own, uncovering a debilitating cache of Nazi-era secrets.
The movie is filled with spectacular black and white photography, juxtaposing emotional close-ups with stunning imagery of trains and railroad tracks, of steam drifting across black skies, of glistening cobblestone streets, and impressionistic shots of industrial architecture: freight yard bridges, passageways, stairwells, and gleaming tracks that merge and separate and crisscross the frame.
The film has been compared to the dark tales of suspense crafted by Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock, but its most apparent influence is Carol Reed’s English masterpiece, The Third Man (1949). Traces of that film can be seen in the angled shots, atmospheric nighttime photography and zither score, and most decidedly in the closing shots, which seem to deliberately draw a parallel with the earlier film. But whereas Reed’s film ends with a single long take of the heroine walking toward and past the hero in what amounts to a romantic rejection, The Second Track closes with a much more troubling and ambiguous rejection, as a woman walks along railroad tracks, toward and past a man who turns to follow her until they approach a gate. The gate may represent passage to another plain, but does it lead to a purgatory in which the German people acknowledge and do penitence for the past, or does it mark entry into a hell of recrimination and reproach? And will the these two figures pass through the gate at all? The image fades to black before we find out.
Extra features include a short film about Second Track’s cinematographer, Rolf Sohre, and an essay and newsreels about the film.
The Rabbit is Me
A few years later, Kurt Maetzig’s The Rabbit Is Me (1965) shined a light on the opportunism, careerism and political calculation that undermined the professed principals of the repressive East German socialist government.
A young woman’s brother is imprisoned for subversion, though his crime is never revealed to the public or to his family. The sister embarks on an affair with the judge who sentenced her brother, and eventually the truth behind the sentencing is exposed. Though the film was made with solid studio backing, the final product proved too hot to touch, the film’s politics, sexuality and frank moral discussion deemed too dark and skeptical by government censors.
It was not the only film to draw the government’s ire that year. Many more were likewise banned in the wake of Rabbit Is Me, the whole lot of them thereafter referred to as “the Rabbit films.” The Rabbit Is Me was not screened for the public until after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Rabbit calls to mind the films of the French New Wave, and anticipates the edgy youth-centered films of America in the 1950s. The movie not only challenges the validity of government institutions but sets up a generational conflict between the young heroine and her much older lover, between the energy and idealism of youth and the stodgy, self-interested avarice of the establishment. Maetzig delights in some of the new tools available to filmmakers, most notably the zoom lens, which would become a common fixture in American films of the 1960s and ’70s, allowing the director to create both establishing shots and close-ups without a cut.
The disc includes a 1999 interview with director Kurt Maetzig and an essay and brief documentary about the banning of the Rabbit films.
The Unknown Soldier
First Run has also just released an intriguing documentary, The Unknown Soldier (2006), that tracks the volatile controversy surrounding a museum exhibit that first opened in Germany in 1996. The Wehrmacht Exhibition documented the complicity of the German Army in the atrocities committed by Hitler’s Waffen SS and the Gestapo. For decades, the accepted portrait of the German soldier was that of an innocent pawn, who knew nothing of the crimes being carried out by the Third Reich. While many were oblivious to the horrors of the Holocaust, many were fully aware, and the exhibit featured evidence, in the form of personal letters, photographs and film footage, of knowing collaboration between the army’s common foot soldiers and Hitler’s Nazi forces. The exhibition sparked riotous protests from an outraged populace and revealing a split in the German psyche as the nation struggled to pay tribute to its veterans while confronting once again the horror of its past.
It wasn’t only the neo-Nazi skinheads who were angry; World War II were incensed, as were the children and grandchildren of deceased soldiers who felt the memories of their loved ones were being tarnished. A second exhibit a few years later, which sought to correct a few troubling issues with the first, elicited a similar response. Michael Verhoeven’s film captures the pain and conflict of a nation caught in the midst of an identity crisis.
Other films new to DVD:
Who Is Henry Jaglom?
Who Is Henry Jaglom? is a ragged but entertaining little documentary about the gadfly film director and his methods. It features behind-the-scenes footage of the director at work and interviews with the man himself and many of his associates—including Orson Welles, Candice Bergen, Karen Black and Milos Forman, among others—who appeared in two of Jaglom’s films.
It’s an amateurish film, often charmingly so, but Jaglom is right when, in an interview included as an extra feature on the disc, he challenges some of the decisions of directors Henry-Alex Rubin and Jeremy Workman. The 32-minute interview, like the documentary, has the feel of a home movie as Jaglom sits down with an amateurish interviewer who
is quickly overwhelmed by Jaglom’s force and charisma. Jaglom goes on to point out that, though he enjoyed the film, the directors failed to get a very broad array of responses to him and his work, and at some point shoved in a completely out-of-the-blue shot of a woman, identified as a sociologist, standing at the top of the stands during a football game and railing that Jaglom is a misogynist. Who this woman is and how she’s relevant are never made clear. And if she’s simply stating her interpretation of his work, sound, reasoned arguments might have made the case better than a brief rant full of unsubstantiated accusations.
But Jaglom himself is prone to ranting, so perhaps it’s all fair play. Who Is Henry Jaglom? is by no means a definitive statement on the art and character of the man, one of America’s most distinctive auteurs, but it’s an entertaining glimpse into a career that doesn’t get much mainstream attention.
1997. 52 minutes. $24.95. www. firstrunfeatures.com.
Pierrot Le Fout
Criterion has released Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou (1965) shortly after having released a new edition of the director’s seminal French New Wave classic Breathless. Pierrot, like Breathless, stars Jean-Paul Belmondo as a self-consciously iconoclastic character. Belmondo’s Ferdinand leaves his wife and family for the babysitter (Anna Karina) and sets off on a madcap road trip that allows Godard to mix and match an array of disparate cinematic styles and references into a sort of post-modern pastiche.
Bonus features include a new interview with Karina, a documentary about Godard and Karina, and a booklet with reviews by Andrew Sarris and Richard Brody.
1965. 110 minutes. In French with English subtitles. $39.95. www.criterion.com.
Sessue Hayakawa is primarily remembered today for his performance in David Lean’s Bridge on the River Kwai. But long before that, he was a major star in the silent era—in fact, the first Asian Hollywood star. His silent-era career is finally getting greater recognition.
Milestone Films has released The Dragon Painter (1919), a simple, almost fantastic tale, partially filmed in the Yosemite Valley, featuring Hayakawa as Tatsu, a painter and a madman, an artist driven by his muse—his relentless pursuit of his princess fiancé, who he believes was captured by a dragon. When he is adopted as an apprentice by an aging master, Tatsu falls for his mentor’s daughter, believing her to be the dragon woman whom he has long sought. But having achieved his goal, his work suffers, for he cannot create his obsessive art when living in a state of complacent bliss, and thus he must give her up if he is to reclaim his greatness. It’s a simple allegorical tale, told simply and beautifully.
The film was lost for decades, until a French print was discovered and restored, complete with the original color tints. It was screened in 2004 by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, with acted narration by Tokyo benshi artist Midori Sawato, recreating the traditional manner in which silent films were presented in Japan. The DVD presents the film with the same score by Mark Izu performed live at the San Francisco screening.
Bonus features include another Hayakawa vehicle, Thomas Ince’s The Wrath of the Gods (1914); a short film called Screen Snapshots (1921) that features Hayakawa along with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Charles Murray; and the original novel of The Dragon Painter, by Mary McNeil Fenollosa, in PDF format.
1919. 53 minutes. $29.95. www.milestonefilms.com. www.newyorkerfilms.com.