Tuesday, 31 October 2017

AFS Screenings: The Last Command & Ministry of Fear

Here are my last reviews of the Auckland Film Society screenings for 2017. This year's screenings offered a great selection of movies, and these screenings have made for some nice deviations from all the new releases I have watched. Let's start with the Academy Award-winning The Last Command.

The Last Command (Joseph von Stenberg, 1928)
An elderly Russian immigrant (Emil Jannings) working as an extra in Hollywood reminisces about his previous life as a high-ranking member of the imperial aristocracy in the former Russian Empire.

I first heard about this film in a biography of the great director Ernst Lubitsch. Reportedly, he had heard the story and passed it on to a writer, who then turned it into a script. For whatever reason, Lubitsch's involvement ended there and the movie was helmed by Joseph von Stenberg, the director of Marlene Dietrich's most famous films in the 30s.

Leading man Emil Jannings was one of the great character actors of German cinema who made the move to Hollywood. His reputation declined after he returned to Germany to work in the Nazi films. As the General, Jannings is great. His style is more theatrical than contemporary viewers may be used to, but he also displays an understanding of the medium - he makes good use of his eyes and economic body movements to convey the character's discipline and confidence.

It is an extremely cinematic performance, in that he understands how to moderate his performance for the camera - this is particularly evident in his portrayal of the character after the revolution. A broken man after the fall of Imperial Russia, he is a hunched, twitchy figure - a total contrast from the dynamic, haughty character he is in his prime.

For his performance, Jannings won the inaugural Best Actor Oscar at the first Academy Awards. He remains the only German actor to win the trophy.

The rest of the cast are all fine, but it is hard to pick any other standouts. One notable cast member is William Powell. It is strangely poignant to watch the future star here - in just over a year, sound would sweep Jannings out of fashion while offering Powell a chance at stardom.

The movie is remarkable for more than just Jannings' performance. Joseph Von Sternberg delivers some incredible sequences - the way he intercuts between the general's party on his train, and the collapse of the Imperial state, juxtaposing the personal story against broader historical events.

The other notable sequence is the ending, in which real and reel life collide. Now working on a film about the revolution, and playing himself, the General reverts to his old self. Dressed in a rough facsimile of his former finery, he orders his 'troops' to fight on and save Russia. He then collapses and dies before the cameras.

Certain elements don't stand up as well - I was not sold on the romantic subplot - but as an example of what silent cinema can accomplish, The Last Command is terrific.

Ministry of Fear (Fritz Lang, 1944)
Released from an asylum during the Blitz, Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) is ready to return to normal life. But after he wins a cake at a local fair, events take a turn. A blind man attacks him on a train; he is accused of murder at a séance; a suitcase he is carrying turns out to be a bomb. Someone wants Neale out of the picture. With the police on his tail, and an unseen enemy in the wings, Neale is in a race against time to find out what is going on.

I have not watched too many Fritz Lang pictures, and that number is even lower for his Hollywood work. Prior to this I had only seen the terrific noir The Big Heat, and While The City Sleeps, which I can barely remember.

Adapted from a novel by Graham Greene (The Third Man, The Quiet American), Ministry of Fear is a really solid thriller with a palatable air of dread and paranoia. The basic plot mechanics are standard, but the atmosphere that this movie generates overrides any of its more prosaic components. The first half of the movie in particular is great as an exercise in mounting confusion as our hero is buffeted by events he cannot predict or control.

Shot entirely in a studio, Ministry of Fear's clearly artificial, limited mise-en-scene works in its favour. There is a sense of claustrophobia to the diegesis which - when combined with Lang's direction - roots the viewer in the protagonist's limited POV. As viewers, we feel as trapped as Neale does. The hyper-real settings only reinforce the sensation that Neale has found himself in an uncanny mirror of reality that he cannot comprehend or escape.

Fritz Lang's direction is the star here - it is not flashy or as innovative as his famous work, but it is fascinating as an example of a singular filmmaker working within the framework of classical Hollywood. And for a Graham Greene adaptation made under the Production Code, Lang's involvement is a major asset. Even in his 'entertainments', Greene's pessimism and adult themes did not generally find favour in Hollywood (which is why The Third Man and Brighton Rock - both British productions - were more representative and successful examples of his work).

Even though certain story elements have clearly been softened (Neale's reason for being in an asylum; the tacked-on happy ending), Lang's roots in German Expressionism allow him to undercut the clearly defined morality of the Hays Code by contradicting what the characters say with a clever use of mise-en-scene and cinematography (once again, see the scene in which Neale explains why he was in the asylum).

The acting is all good - Milland makes for a strong, empathetic lead - but the acting overall is solid rather than spectacular. It is a thrill when Dan Duryea shows up as a minor heavy (particularly the scene in the tailor's), but he is not in the movie enough to make a real impression.

With its hero trying to investigate a conspiracy, the story feels like something Hitchcock would have made - albeit minus the sexual dynamics or humour that decorated The 39 Steps or The Lady Vanishes. This is not a major deficit, but once the conspiracy comes into focus, the movie becomes more conventional, with the focus shifting toward a romantic subplot that feels more like a convention than a natural part of the movie.

While it is no masterpiece, Ministry of Fear remains a highly entertaining example of classical noir. Definitely worth a look.

Previous AFS reviews

Purple Noon (2015)

The Servant 

Eyes Without A Face 

Night of the Demon (2016)

Grand Central

Tales of Hoffman


No comments:

Post a Comment