Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Don't Cheat, Darling! (Joachim Hasler, 1973)


I don’t know how many musicals came out of 1970’s East Germany, but Joachim Hasler’s Don’t Cheat, Darling! confirms that the total is more than zero. There are even fleeting moments, as dozens of brightly-dressed performers sing and dance in the picturesque, cobbled-street town of “Sonnenthal,” in which Jacques Demy’s sublime The Young Girls of Rochefort comes to mind, although Hasler can’t approach the choreographic finesse and cinematic grace of Demy’s film, and the songs (lots of strenuous odes to collective happiness) mostly evoke Eurovision (or on occasion perhaps, Man of La Mancha) more than Michel Legrand. Don't Cheat, Darling! is hardly a biting critique of the governing regime, but the narrative is explicitly premised on an infrastructure of extensive central planning and intervention and constant resource constraints, albeit that the film’s characters treat this mainly with good-natured exasperation, or as a challenge to be creatively overcome. The main medium of that is soccer; the accomplished Dr. Barbara Schwalbe arrives to take up a new administrative post, finding that the bus she arrived on and the apartment that should have accompanied the job are both being commandeered for the benefit of the local team. By the end of the film, just about every special interest group in town claims to have formed its own competing and equally entitled squad, and things end on a general note of renewal and optimism, although some of the narrative’s cumbersomely-articulated details escaped me. In common with the more drably crowd-pleasing British cinema of the period, the film suggests that just about every character has sex more or less constantly on their minds, given the lack of anything else to think about (excepting the character preoccupied with his pet rabbits, which might just be a variation on the same thing). although matters remain highly decorous - a late suggestion that two characters actually spent the night together comes as a mild shock!

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

The Last Days of Dolwyn (Emlyn Williams, 1949)


In The Last Days of Dolwyn, the only film directed by Welsh playwright Emlyn Williams, he casts himself as Rob, returning to a picturesque village of his youth with the object of buying up all the property rights and flooding the place, thus facilitating the most cost-effective flow of water from the nearby dam across the border to England. The locals are offered a new life in Liverpool, only a hundred miles away, but far beyond the experience of most; it’s telling that they seem to lack the inner or financial resources to consider any alternatives, like moving to another, closer village. The ultimate plot mechanics, depending on a cruel twist of fate, are rather unproductively melodramatic (not helped by Williams’ own egregious over-acting), but the film does tap into a broader authenticity, aided by large amounts of untranslated Welsh-language dialogue (the village’s dominant tongue, with some of its inhabitants barely functional in English). The film is notable for Richard Burton in his first screen role, also often speaking Welsh (although much of his time on screen is squandered on a pointless romance) and an early appearance by future Oscar-winner Hugh Griffith, who would seldom be as restrained in his later roles. And the estimable Edith Evans, playing the mother of Burton’s character, is quite touching at times, never more than in a scene where she visits the local gentry to plead her case, and is simply unable to process that a grand-looking house could be burdened by debt, such that its inhabitants would possibly describe themselves as functionally poor. For all its flaws and limitations, the film conveys the tragedy of forced migration, the loss of sense of place and belonging and community; it’s a theme that takes on renewed charge in the era of climate disruption (as the bill comes due, you might say, for so much reckless intervention into peacefully sustainable lives.)

Saturday, September 16, 2023

Marriage in the Shadows (Kurt Maetzig, 1947)


The historical importance of Kurt Maetzig’s Marriage in the Shadows flows helplessly from the time and place of its making; a German film from 1947 dealing with the country’s then-very recent history of anti-Semitism, explicitly positing that those who went along with the Nazi project should face a subsequent moral reckoning. Assessed ungenerously, the film is an early exemplar of the (at worst) implicitly Holocaust denying strand of cinema that pushes the collective experience of the six million into the background, focusing on an individual narrative of relative privilege (albeit here of a short-lived kind). But the film has more than enough social and emotional authenticity and immediacy to surmount its narrative and cinematic limitations. It focuses on a group of actors, starting off in 1933 in flirtatious mode with the beautiful Jewish actress Elisabeth juggling several potential suitors, most of them assuming that the ascendant Nazism will either peter out or that their status as actors will somehow shield them from its worst impacts; eventually. Elisabeth marries the non-Jewish Hans, not her first choice, but seemingly providing some stability and protection. The relationship deepens, but eventually it’s clear that Elisabeth will be deported, and Hans fatally poisons her and then himself (the closing titles cites the actor Joachim Gottchalk, who died with his Jewish wife and son in 1941, and whose history the film draws on in several respects). With few exceptions (such as a late passage subjectively depicting Elisabeth’s overwhelmed mental state) the film is stylistically unremarkable, but it effectively enough conveys a horror greater than the characters’ capacity to comprehend it; even several years into the war, Hans is fatally na├»ve regarding his ability to protect Elisabeth, and another character deludes himself that he’s doing some good within the system, whatever the evidence to the contrary. Depressing contemporary resonances and parallels are, of course, all too easy to identify.

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

The Heartbreak Kid (Elaine May, 1972)


In the opening minutes of Elaine May’s The Heartbreak Kid, Charles Grodin’s Lenny and Jeannie Berlin’s Lila meet, court, get married, and set off to drive from New York to Florida on their honeymoon; by the time they reach their destination he’s already tired of her, and a few days later has resolved to get out of the marriage, his mind now set on being with Kelly (Cybill Shepherd), there on vacation from Minnesota with her parents. It’s all as funny as anyone could wish for, with uniformly spot-on performances, the actors seeming perfectly in sync with May’s exactingly deadpan style. The underlying dynamics are satisfyingly hard to pin down: a summary of the trajectory may make it sound like a triumph of the male go-getter, the replacement female object of desire merely submitting to inevitability, but Shepherd’s sustained sense of amused knowingness (and the fact of Kelly being the initial pursuer, appearing to Lenny on the beach as if torn from the sun) complicates that reading. As does the ending, at Lenny’s second wedding celebration, his goal achieved, but with little apparent exultation, Kelly waiting on the side as he immerses himself into conversations about business and opportunity (he grandiosely claims to want to do something that involves giving back to the land, as opposed to his current role in selling sports equipment, but this objective seems capable of being easily jettisoned). The film certainly represents a kind of triumph for WASP capitalism – his second wedding is a much more conventionally lavish affair than his first; Kelly’s well-to-do family embodies a certain kind of aspirational living – but at the possible cost of losing his soul (as annoying as Lila may be to him, his interactions with her are real and textured where those with Kelly are sculptured and artificial). The resonances are terrific, and yet The Heartbreak Kid may be the most relatively straightforward of May’s four films, which is really saying something about the other three.