Destiny (1921)

Destiny (1921) movie poster

director Fritz Lang
viewed: 01/21/2018

Recently reading that Luis Buñuel found Fritz Lang’s 1921 film Destiny the inspiration that drove him to cinema, I made the mental note that I had to see it.

I got introduced to German Expressionism in my very first film class at 17, by way of Lang’s own M (1931). It was then that I realized that all my childhood fascination with horror films and the birth of horror films pretty much dovetailed with the German aesthetic in its silent heyday. I’d longed to see The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) (often cited in those childhood texts as the first horror film of all time rather inaccurately), Nosferatu (1922), The Golem (1920), and Lang’s Metropolis (1927). I had to good luck that my mother took me to see the Lon Chaney silent films The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Though those latter ones aren’t German or Expressionist, I had a yen for these films from a young age.

Destiny is an exemplar of Expressionism while not at all really being a horror film. The film’s main story is the heart of the film: a young bride (Lil Dagover) loses her husband to death, and she goes into the realm of death to try to bring him back. Death is a human figure (the imposing Bernhard Goetze), but he is a monster in deeds only, giving Dagover three chances to save a lover from dying. Her failures in each of the stories leads her to plead with other people to give their lives for her husband. Her final realization, when she saves a baby from a fire, is what allows her to accept her “destiny”.

While it’s not my favorite of Lang’s films or the Expressionist genre, it is a very fine film. I try to take myself back to imagining a 21 year old Buñuel in 1921, encountering real cinema for the first time. It’s little wonder the Surrealists loved cinema so much.

Felidae (1994)

Felidae (1994) movie poster

director Michael Schaack
viewed: 01/03/2018

Wikipedia describes Felidae as “a 1994 German adult animated neo-noir crime horror film”. Francis the cat moves to a new neighborhood with his overweight but kindly owner only to find that someone is tearing out the throats of cast around the neighborhood. That seems noirish enough but as the story moves forward it heads into themes of vivisection, eugenics, and racially motivated genocide. And religious sect fanaticism. And the imagery gets dark, gory, and bleak.

Felidae is a most adult animation.

“Once there was a suffering dreamland… I was born there. It was a place of sorrow until the prophet came among us and brought us salvation.”

Filmed in classic 2-D cel animation, I wouldn’t consider the quality of the animation or character design to be that much above average. But as it is 2-D cel animation and the character designs aren’t worlds away from industry standards, it does “feel” familiar in style.

Also, interestingly, it was adapted from the first of a series of novels by German-Turkish writer Akif Pirinçci. I wonder where he took the series after this grim, dark original.

Felidae is a total anomaly. Really, quite the interesting movie.

 

Succubus (1968)

Succubus (1968) movie poster

director Jesús Franco
viewed: 12/29/2017

It’s worth noting that it was LSD that opened Federico Fellini to his embrace of surreal fantasy.

Janine Reynaud, who would go onto star in Jess Franco’s Sadist Erotica and Kiss Me Monster, leads here in Succubus, Franco’s great leap from Spanish cinematic censorship into pop avant-garde. That and tapping deeply into his own obsessions and eccentricities.

S&M theater, the most Jess Franco of Jess Franco scenarios opens this picture which blues into slightly trippy surrealism and free association nonsense. Quite evocative if also kind of tedious, Succubus isn’t so much Franco’s 8 1/2, but might be quite formative in his rapacious cinematic outpouring.

Two Undercover Angels (1969)

Two Undercover Angels (1969) movie poster

director Jesús Franco
viewed: 09/05/2017

“Without fantasy one’s life isn’t worth anything. And one doesn’t need it only when drinking.”

I’m guessing Two Undercover Angels and Kiss Me Monster were made in quick succession because it’s hard to imagine the success of the first led to the second.

A.k.a Sadist Erotica, Two Undercover Angels is a slightly more conventional spy spoof sex comedy starring Janine Reynard and Rosanna Yanni in the hands of Jess Franco.

I preferred the sequel because it’s far loopier and nonsensical. Here the Red Lips girls are on the track of abducted models and a killer artist who likes to paint horrendous murder in the act with the help of his hirsute henchman.

There are some wonderfully dead line readings by the voice-over cast.

Kiss Me Monster (1969)

Kiss Me Monster (1969) movie poster

director Jesús Franco
viewed: 09/01/2017

“I just don’t understand what’s going on!”
“You don’t need to know”

————-

I had a terrible dream. I was taken prisoner by a group of queer virgins and was put in a cage. One of them worked me over with a whip. Then they let me out again and they gave me a funny kind of a whistle or something as a farewell present.”

————–

Kiss Me Monster is an apparent sequel to Jesús Franco’s Sadist Erotica/Two Undercover Angels, starring  Janine Reynaud and Rosanna Yanni as the Red Lips, a cabaret/burlesque act/spy buster duo. As noted by others, it’s Franco with a budget and a studio behind him, so the production values are sky high compared to other works.

The continuity and coherence are pure Franco.

The intentional comedy is maybe a little less funny than the unintentional, but you’d be hard pressed to figure out what’s going on either way around. It’s certainly entertaining, with a secret society clad in super-tall black klan hats to the really cool windmills to I don’t really know all what else.

Fun stuff.

Tenderness of the Wolves (1975)

Tenderness of the Wolves (1975) movie poster

Ulli Lommel’s Tenderness of the Wolves hews largely to the true life facts of German serial killer, Fritz Harrmann. The screenplay was written by star Kurt Raab, and the production features the troupe of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, including Fassbinder himself in a small role.

The Germany of the film is run-down, falling apart, and dismal, as are the lives and homes of the characters. The major transposition is placing the narrative in post-WWII Germany, rather than post-WWI, though this was said to have been for a financial rather than political reason. Either way, it’s not a pleasant time and perfect for the amoral and sinister Harrmann to abduct children and young men for exploitation and death without drawing much attention.

His role as a police informant gives him the power to elude police and futrther manipulate the vulnerable runaways and strays upon whom he preys.

Raab doesn’t instill Harrmann with exactly empathetic traits, but does portray him as a tortured soul as well as opportunistic murderer. Harrmann’s homosexuality is very much of the text, his longing and desire perverted into abuses. I’m not sure I have a fully coherent reading from that angle.

It’s quite depressing, really.

And yes, Fritz Lang’s M is echoed throughout.

I guess that’s the thing about the Tenderness of the Wolves. They’re not so tender at all.

Der Todesking (1990)

Der Todesking (1990) movie poster

director Jörg Buttgereit
viewed: 08/11/2017

I recall when I first saw Jörg Buttgereit’s Der Todesking in the 1990’s, I found it tremendously depressing. It is, after all, a film about suicide(s).

Unlike NekromantikDer Todesking is a much more moody affair. The vignettes vary in tone and mode of death, broken up between the images of a rotting corpse (was this a real corpse? how was this effect created?) Perhaps it’s not mirthless but it’s bleak.

Considering Buttgereit’s career, which took a significant break after his 1993 serial killer film Schramm, it seems he shifted from such dark provocation and contemplation. I was reminded of an interview I saw with one of the guys from Tears for Fears when asked about the gloomy/gothiness of their first album versus the rest of their output. He said something like “We made enough money on The Hurting to afford therapy!”

Who knows?

Nekromantik (1987)

Nekromantik (1987) movie poster

director  Jörg Buttgereit
viewed: 08/11/2017

Back in the mid-to-late 1980’s transgression was all the rage (in certain circles), and there was still a lot of material yet to transgress. It was in these days and in publications like Film Threat that stuff like Jörg Buttgereit’s Nekromantik became the stuff of outré curiosity and urban legend.

When I finally got to see Nekromantik in the early 1990’s from a San Francisco video store with tons of bootleg VHS, it was still pretty fringe, though it had already begat a sequel.

It’s interesting, re-watching it so many years later. I don’t recall how comedic its tone was, maybe because that really pushed back on expectation? But this story of boy and girl and their sexual love for corpses, until boy loses job, then girl, then corpse, isn’t played completely straight-faced. Because the Nekro is the necro but the Romantik is played romantic like in soft-core porn or a shampoo commercial. Clearly intended for laughs.

And the finale, with sperm and blood ejaculating like an over-the-top geyser from a Saturday Night Live skit? That too is quite humorous.

It’s interesting, though, the playing backward of the skinning and killing of a rabbit does have some uncanny effect, as if violence can be undone and what is dead can be brought back somehow. The real gore, such as it is, like it or not, does have that aspect of reality that pushes the rest of the material a little further. The last scene is oddly affecting.

She Killed in Ecstasy (1971)

She Killed in Ecstasy (1971) movie poster

director  Jesús Franco
viewed: 07/06/2017

As many Jesús Franco movies as I’ve seen (I think this makes 9), I’m still intimidated trying to draw bigger conclusions. I think I’ve only got 190 features to go to have seen them all.

But here is what it seems to me: She Killed in Ecstasy (1971) comes from Franco’s middle period, having left the Spanish studio system where in enjoyed nice production values in black-and-white fare, and started making more purely Jesús Franco movies.  Some of his best movies come from this period, and several of them star the beautiful Soledad Miranda who died tragically at 27 in a car accident in Portugal, even before She Killed in Ecsatsy was released.

Is it possible that her death posed another shift in Franco’s filmwork? I’m not sure when he started making hardcore pornographic films and endless variants of film versions from pornographic, soft-core, and mish-mash remixes. But at some point, not long after the start of the 1970’s he started releasing up towards 10 films a year, and the production values and quality control swung wildly around like a long, gold chain at a period orgy.

She Killed in Ecstasy is a revenge picture, in which Miranda is seducing and killing the doctors who had ruined her husband’s career, for his ethical violations in medical experiments. What we see of these experiments is little, and frankly, certainly questionable. But she loves him and keeps his corpse around while she takes revenge. And interestingly, this surreal picture has quite a heart to it. The emotion is there, for lost love and tragedy.

Sadly the real tragedy was that of Soledad Miranda. And the legacy? I’m still working on that.

The Silent Star (1960)

The Silent Star (1960) movie poster

director  Kurt Maetzig
viewed: 02/06/2017

The Silent Star is mid-century a mainstream science fiction film through an alternate lens: not dramatically different, yet significantly so. It’s an East German/Polish production, one of only an handful of scifi genre films to come from those countries in that era. It’s a remarkable production, with some really interesting aesthetics and designs and some interesting differences from other films of the time.

The Silent Star is indeed about the first manned space travel to Venus. It’s inspired by the finding of an odd damaged piece of technology that turns out to be a message from Venusians of some time in the past.

What’s interesting is how multicultural the crew is, considering this is pre-Gene Roddenberry and also behind the “Iron Curtain”. And it’s not tokenism as is common today in a multicultural cast, but the world depicted is one inhabited by many people of different races, co-mingling in a common united culture. It’s not quite as progressive regarding feminism, but ah well.

Cold War nuclear fear strikes a different tone here. Nuclear weapons are acknowledged as deadly to all life and the bombing or Hiroshima is significantly cited. The Nazis are cited too, but only once in reference to the then present day fears.

Once Venus is actually reached, what is left is a petrified forest of destruction left by nuclear explosions. Were the Venusians intending a warning for Earth, or were they destroyed in their planned nuclear destruction of our planet?

The story is adapted from Polish writer Stanisław Lem, whose work was the basis for the Andrei Tarkovsky Solaris (1972). Lem was apparently unhappy with the adaptation, but it’s a very interesting artifact of an earlier era in science fiction from a culture on a different side of the Cold War fence from most of us.