I’m trying to decide which Sokurov movie(s) to watch in preparation for Francofonia opening in theaters, and this description of Whispering Pages catches my eye:

With this film, Alexander Sokurov “leafs through the pages” of a classic work of Russian prose. Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment supplies this work with its ideological theme and the historical setting, but [not] its plot. The novel’s events and familiar characters are simply not mentioned. If anything, they are represented in an “inverse perspective,” where proximity is united with remoteness, beginning with end, the present with the absent.

At the same time I’m watching animated shorts, this week by Piotr Dumala, leading up to his half-hour Crime & Punishment, which the IMDB reviewers agree has beautiful illustration with no discernible story. I don’t even know the story of Crime & Punishment myself, so rather than read the book, or even its wikipedia entry, I thought I’d start with a more narrative movie version, holding a small Crime & Punishment Marathon. But I forgot, one shouldn’t count on 1935 Production Code Hollywood for stories of moral ambiguity.

Lorre, the moment after the crime:

Some Sternbergian-lit close-ups and nice shadow play, but overall it’s a talky studio picture with clunky dialogue, not what I would’ve figured the great Sternberg made between The Scarlet Empress and The Devil is a Woman. I think his heart wasn’t in it.

Peter Lorre’s Raskolnikov graduates with top honors, and writes an acclaimed article about criminal psychology, but then as now, writing acclaimed articles doesn’t pay the bills. Nearly destitute, he knocks off a pawnbroker and steals some stuff, but flees the scene before getting anything of real value. Rask decides since he’s a crime expert he can’t get caught, so he puffs himself up and offers help solving the crime to chief inspector Edward Arnold (a Capra regular who’s very good here, given the time and space to do his own thing). Emboldened, Rask marches into a publishing house and demands a large advance to write new work, which he receives, and begins throwing money around. Though Rask is becoming megalomanic, he’s still pretty incompetent in the real world, and his growing guilt plus the poor religious girl Sonya who he met at the pawn shop the day of the crime set him straight, and he turns himself in with a look of humble enlightenment.

All in English with a few odd references to Russia (rubles, Siberian prisons) to remind viewers of the story’s global-lit origins. Also a whole side plot about Rask’s sister Antonya, who’s going to marry a rich buffoon (Gene Lockhart, Crachit in the Reginald Owen A Christmas Carol) until Rask gets wealthy and chases the man off – and a nosy fellow named Grilov who knows the sister and overhears Rask, who is generally bad at covering his tracks, speaking about the crime.

Lockhart at center, with the while Rask family:

I assumed the Bible-carrying Sonya convincing Rask to turn himself in was a Hollywood addition, but after the major discrepancies between this and the Kaurismaki version I finally read the novel’s wikipedia plot summary and the Christian repentance comes from the book. Some other interesting wiki tidbits: “His motivation [to kill] comes from the overwhelming sense that he is predetermined to kill the old woman by some power outside of himself.” In this film, the motivation seems like pure desperation, and his delusions of outside powers begin afterward. “He also kills [the pawnbroker’s] half-sister, Lizaveta, who happens to stumble upon the scene of the crime.” Here it’s a couple of dudes, and Rask runs from them in a panic. Lorre (“the celebrated European star,” as he’s introduced in the opening titles) was between appearances in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much and Secret Agent, and this movie could’ve used more Hitchcock – or even more Sternberg.

Night Music (1986, Stan Brakhage)

A brilliant-looking hand-painted montage.
Only 30 seconds long including credits.
I’ve been playing it before everything I watch.

La villa Santo Sospir (1952, Jean Cocteau)

Cocteau was hired to decorate a wealthy villa in summer 1950, and documented his own work afterwards. Even in a documentary short he can’t resist shooting in slow-motion and reversing the film.

“Being a professional, I wanted to make an amateur film without burdening myself with any rules.”

Cabale des Oursins (1991, Luc Moullet)

Comparable to Alain Resnais’ plastics short, something that seems like it should be a straightforward industrial film, but goes poetic and absurd. Beginning with a topic even less interesting than plastic factories, “slag heaps made of waste from old mines.” I couldn’t help getting the Hubleys’ rock-based songs in my head (“midnight ride down the rock bottom road, bump-de-bump-de-bump… bump-bump”).

“Coal mining is considered shameful. It has always been hidden underground. Slag heaps are an insult to this secrecy.”

The Case of Lena Smith (1929, Josef von Sternberg)

Fragment of lost Sternberg feature! Lena and friend are at a carnival, witnessing a magic act, a bit overwhelmed. Some cool superimpositions and carnival-glass effects.

Speaking of lost films, there’s also making-of footage on The Day The Clown Cried online, so everybody is talking about that movie again.

Cantico das Criaturas (2006, Miguel Gomes)

Shaky handheld music video for acoustic song by bald guitarist. At the moment this is my favorite Gomes movie. Then on to stylised poetic story of St. Francis regaining memory to anthropomorphized Francis-worshipping nature footage. Ash responded to the sounds of mice and owls.

Trains Are For Dreaming (2009, Jennifer Reeves)

People Like Us-reminiscent mashup soundscape lockgroove with flash-frame alternating strobe edits of faces with scenery. Pulsing ambient soundtrack. Screengrabs can give no indication of this.

Light Work I (2007, Jennifer Reeves)

Sepia animated industrial photography with tone drones. Bubble-chem mixology, molten metal flows. Abstract paint-motion. Aphex Airlines hatefully obnoxious audio. Superb visuals, play some Zorn over ’em next time.

Capitalism: Child Labor (2006, Ken Jacobs)

Oh my god. An historical stereoscopic photograph has been acquired, depicting children in a factory. Ken shows us left frame, right frame, black, on repeat for fourteen fucking minutes, with variations, accompanied (as all a-g movies must be) by ambient music by Rick Reed that gets increasingly hard to bear. I cannot tell a lie: I skipped ahead.

Lullaby (2007, Andrej Zolotukhin)

Among all the analog-looking pencil lines and rumpled paper, there is some sort of software manipulation and either live-action or rotoscoping. I can’t work out how it’s done, but it’s remarkable and original. It is russian, so involves death and bare wooden rooms. Bonus topics: angels and puppets, dreams, pregnancy, birds.

Marlene Dietrich sails away from a troubled past, becoming a nightclub singer in Morocco. She takes up with young Legionnaire Gary Cooper (three years before Design for Living, sans his stammery, wooden persona), who has his own problems, having slept with his commanding officer’s wife. Gary gives her up and marches into battle, where his boss (Ullrich Haupt, who’d die in a hunting “accident” in under a year) is killed, while Marlene prepares to marry wealthy Adolphe Menjou (anti-Lincoln conspirator in The Tall Target and anti-communist conspirator in the McCarthy hearings) instead. But she ditches Adolphe at their wedding party, returning to Gary, finally throwing away her pride and independence to follow him sheepishly into the desert.

Sternberg’s and Dietrich’s first American picture, a follow-up to The Blue Angel but beating it into U.S. theaters. Dietrich got an oscar nomination despite delivering her lines phonetically. She was beaten by Marie Dressler, with Cimarron, Norman Taurog and Tabu winning out for Morocco’s other nominations. It’s not my favorite Sternberg movie, but Dietrich’s obsessive performance towards the end is among her best. Sternberg loves his tragedies: nobody gets out of this one easily, and Dietrich’s final humiliation reminds of the Emil Jannings pictures that preceded. Controversial at the time: Dietrich wears a tux and kisses a woman. “Battling” Butler was sixth-billed, but I didn’t recognize him.

Film Quarterly in 1948: “The story itself was exceedingly simple, romantic .. However, it was not von Sternberg’s intention to produce a film of reflected reality, but rather to evoke cinematically an exotic locale peopled with extraordinary characters. .. [the] absence of background music gave the film a sharp, immediate quality seldom found in films today, generally burdened, as they are, with a lush musical score.”

The Wholly Family (2011, Terry Gilliam)

A rich tourist couple in Naples argue amongst themselves while their son swipes a masked statuette from a street vendor. That night after the boy is sent to bed without dinner, it comes to life and an army of masked Italians taunt him with food he’s never quite able to eat (plus the heads of his parents). The family has a happy reunion in the morning, but they’ve become figures at the street vendor’s stand.

Very good little movie, with masks out of Dr. Parnassus, doll-parts out of Tideland and who knows what else.

The Discipline of D.E. (1978, Gus Van Sant)

This has been one of my favorite short stories for years (it’s by William Burroughs from Exterminator) and despite the movie’s ranking on J. Rosenbaum’s list of favorite films, I figured a satisfactory adaptation would be near-impossible. It’s fun, but really just reading the story aloud and illustrating on film.

Carrots & Peas (1969, Hollis Frampton)

A taster of the new Criterion set – I also rewatched parts of Zorns Lemma (thanks for adding chapter stops) and played the great commentary track on Lemon. Stop-motion carrots, cross-fade, stop-motion peas. Color filters, reversals and other craziness. Then around the one-minute mark it becomes a still life, barely changing for the next four. Meanwhile a lecture plays in reverse on the soundtrack. Some fiddling in quicktime reveals that it’s a fitness lesson of some sort.

The Town (1944, Josef von Sternberg)

An advertisement for small-town USA, filmed in Madison, Indiana. Boring, flavorless little industrial film – no reason at all to ever watch this, besides to see the depths to which the once-glorious Sternberg had fallen.

Turen til squashland (1967, Lars von Trier)

Holy cow, an animated romp with happy bunnies. One is kidnapped, so the hot dog man and other two bunnies ride a friendly whale to the kidnappers’ castle, where the missing bunny rides down its water spew.

Revolution (1967, Peter Greenaway)

A grim-looking leftist march of young men, not seemingly shot in any organized way, but edited to the Beatles’ Revolution, which is kind of funny since it’s got a lyric about “carrying pictures of Chairman Mao,” and some marchers carry anti-capitalist posters.

“The change from a human being with dignity to a helpless worm takes but a second.”

Completely unexpected movie from Sternberg, his final film as writer/producer/director (and now narrator and credited cinematographer). Made in Kyoto with a Japanese cast and crew, speaking their own language. Instead of dubbing or subtitling their dialogue, Sternberg adds voiceover (returning to the flowery poetic style of his earliest film The Salvation Hunters) to explain and comment on the action, removing dialogue from the list of things that may distract viewers from his lighting and camerawork, which here seems less extreme and artificial than in some of the Dietrich pictures.

But he still loves to use shadow-patterns from nets and leaves:

P. Demonsablon in Cahiers: “He wrote the commentary and it is his own voice that speaks to us for an hour and a half over the images, not in order to clarify the dialogue, but to comment on the actions, thus introducing a shift between the spectacle and the reflection on it.”

Near the end of WWII, an army ship is bombed and the survivors wash up on the abandoned island of Anatahan, “halfway between Japan and New Guinea”. They set to figuring out survival tactics and soon meet the island’s two inhabitants: Keiko (the “queen bee” in the titles) and the man they think to be her husband, Kusakabe.

I liked Kusakabe best:

After military order breaks down, the ship’s captain mans their single machine gun alone, but after a U.S. warship passes by, announcing the war’s end and looking for island inhabitants to surrender, the men smell a trap and hire their captain back to lead them. He stays behind during the final rescue, “I will never go back to a defeated Japan.”

Years go by, WWII ends, and no enemy or rescue comes. It’s all based on a true story – the single woman on the island causing jealous murders, the survivors fighting over homemade coconut wine, the final rescue accomplished when the government contacted the survivors’ families and had them write letters to their men, insisting that the war had ended and they should surrender and come home.

balding Kuroda has no family, so Keiko wrote his letter:

“How could we know that we had brought the enemy with us in our own bodies, an enemy that would attack without notice?” There’s often an anthropological tone to the voiceover, but it’s never racially condescending, all about human behavior and the results of organized, military society being gradually replaced by instinct and greed.

Yananuma and Nishio, first to find the guns:

Kusakabe’s killer, Yoshiri:

A couple years into their stay on the island some men come across a crashed plane containing two guns and a pile of bullets. From then on, whoever held the guns held the power. Meanwhile Keiko, who was never actually married to Kusakabe, “goes into circulation.” A few men are killed over her, as power continues to change hands, until Kusakabe is dispatched by a guy with a sailor hat and neptune fork. Keiko has had enough, shoots the neptune fellow herself then throws the guns into the ocean. She eventually flags down a passing ship and escapes before the others.

Near the start, arms raised in celebration:

Near the end, arms raised in surrender:

Amazing ending – Keiko secretly watches at the airport as the men return, seeing them walk down the runway one by one, the living followed by the ghosts of the dead.

Producer Kazuo Takimura would follow up with the Samurai trilogy, and Keiko was Akemi Negishi, later of Kurosawa’s Lower Depths and Red Beard.


My best film – and my most unsuccessful one… it is most probably an error to assume that human beings will pay admission to inspect their own mistakes rather than the mistakes of others.

Two interpreters were needed, one to translate into Japanese what I had said, and the other to translate back into English what the first translator was saying so that I could check whether my meaning had been correctly transmitted… To make certain that my ideas were being transferred correctly, I engaged an artist to draw pictures of each scene as we proceeded. I also made a graphic chart of the emotional involvements of each player, so that all of them could clearly see the kind of emotion required and the degree to which it was to be used.

Half of my crew had been trained as kamikazes, and the other half had been guerrilla fighters in the Philippines, though this had not prepared them for the ordeal of working with me.

The bookend segment implies that the movie will be more fun than it is, opening during “Carnival Week” in Spain with the chief of police telling his men to shoot criminals during the festivities rather than arrest them, so the jail doesn’t overfill. Then straight into a party scene where masked Antonio (Cesar Romero, recently of The Thin Man) glimpses masked Marlene Dietrich. It immediately recalls the similarly-streamer-filled party in Dishonored with a masked Victor McLaglen (who has a much better smile than Cesar does). It’s a great-looking movie, if less gloriously so than the other Sternbergs I’ve been watching. Its best moments recall those earlier films: characters trapped together on a train (Shanghai Express), a man obsessed with Dietrich to his own humiliation and ruin (The Blue Angel) and all the carefully-composed obscured-vision shots. But it doesn’t add much original flavor of its own (besides a good dueling scene), and the middle of the movie drags from its uninteresting story.

Cesar trails Dietrich to her house but can’t get in, so he meets buddy Pasqual (Lionel Atwill, in the To Be Or Not To Be acting troupe) and listens to him talk for the majority of the movie. Pasqual recalls meeting Dietrich on an avalanche-bound train, giving money to her and her mother (Alison Skipworth of the similarly-titled Satan Met a Lady), then watching her escape with another man. This happens again. Then again and again. Then he rapes her, I think. The point of his story is that Cesar needs to stay away from the girl, but all I’m getting is that Pasqual is extremely pathetic. Cesar must’ve gotten that too, because he shows up at her house again. Pasqual sees, challenges him to a duel, then fires into the air, a suicide move. Dietrich pulls a total Casablanca on Cesar, getting travel papers for both of them (from cameo-governor Edward Everett Horton) then hopping off the train.

L-R: Pasqual, Marlene, Cesar:

Guest star E. Everett:

C. Silver:

The film is neither as warm as Morocco nor as accessible as The Blue Angel. If it is perhaps the most perfect film ever made in some ways, its very precision conveys a coldness, a diamond-like hardness; the romanticism of Morocco transformed into cynical introspection and fatalism. If Sternberg is any closer to understanding Dietrich, he is unwilling to solve the puzzle for the audience; the film remains one of the most beautifully realized enigmas in the history of the cinema.

Marlene with a duck in a basket:

from A. Sennwald’s original NY Times review:

The talented director-photographer, in The Devil Is a Woman, makes a cruel and mocking assault upon the romantic sex motif which Hollywood has been gravely celebrating all these years. His success is also his failure. Having composed one of the most sophisticated films ever produced in America, he makes it inevitable that it will be misunderstood and disliked by nine-tenths of the normal motion picture public. . . . a heartless parable of man’s eternal humiliation in the sex struggle. As Don Pasqual dances foolishly at the bidding of the young woman who has him biologically trapped, we begin by laughing with the director at the ludicrous spectacle and end by suspecting that the joke has been a grisly one.

Based on the diaries of Catherine The Great of Russia, the story felt like it spanned maybe a year or two, but wikipedia says it was sixteen years between her marriage and the coup she arranged to replace her husband on the throne.

Marlene Dietrich plays Sophia (Catherine is her Russian title), at first a naive girl from the country married to a not-handsome prince (Sam Jaffe of The Day the Earth Stood Still), instead entranced by a count (John Lodge of Murders in the Zoo, future governor of Connecticut).

Marlene and the count:

Catherine is under great scrutiny until she bears her “husband” a son (he’s only momentarily bothered by the fact that they never slept together), then she’s free to run around having affairs and plotting. Nothing is done while queen Elizabeth is in charge, but once Catherine’s husband becomes emperor he doesn’t last a year before his wife has taken over. Catherine has caught the Count fooling around with the former queen, realizes he’s just sleeping around with whoever’s in power, and throws him over.

The Queen:

Katy and I would’ve liked to see more than a minute of screen time with Dietrich as the actual empress – didn’t know that would be where the movie dead-ends. Sternberg is, of course, much more concerned with his camera angles and lighting, and most importantly, shooting Dietrich through a series of filters and gauzes and screens. The wedding scene is an incredible cinematography show-reel, each shot outdoing the last.

Robin Wood:

The connecting theme of all the von Sternberg/Dietrich films might be expressed as a question: How does a woman, and at what cost, assert herself within an overwhelmingly male-dominated world? Each film offers a somewhat different answer (but none very encouraging), steadily evolving into the extreme pessimism and bitterness of The Scarlet Empress and achieving its apotheosis in their final collaboration The Devil Is a Woman.

R. Keser calls it the last great pre-code film, says it “mocks Hollywood’s conventional groveling toward royalty.”

I rented The Scarlet Empress in anticipation of seeing Shanghai Express on 35mm at Emory – a screening preceded by a brief talk on the different goals of cinematography (Sternberg’s main one being glamour, not story). Empress is surely glorious-looking, but I appreciate a good story and snappy dialogue to go with my pretty pictures, and so I thought the less opulent and ornate but still exquisite-looking and more excitingly plotted Shanghai Express was the better movie.

Dietrich is Shanghai Lil, a fallen woman who runs into her old soldier boyfriend “Doc” (still-handsome Clive Brook, who played Rolls Royce in Underworld) aboard the titular train. The two of them try to avoid each other in the small first-class section of the Express, along with Marlene’s fellow traveler Anna May Wong, arrogant dog lady Louise Hale, gambler Eugene Pallette (happily closer to his croaky Preston Sturges persona than his Intolerance days), a preacher and a man named Lenard (silent film director Emile Chautard, also in Seventh Heaven) who only speaks French, much to everyone else’s annoyance. Oh, and there’s mysterious Warner Oland (returning from Dishonored), who turns out to be a head communist in the Chinese Civil War traveling undercover. He holds up the train when one of his deputies is captured, keeping Clive Brook (on his way to perform surgery on a head nationist) in exchange.

The government agrees to the exchange, releases the deputy, and Clive is allowed to return to the train. But Warner has made a damned nuisance of himself during the night. He gets Lil to agree to marry him in exchange for Clive’s life, and he rapes Wong. Wong’s not one to take things lightly, kills Warner, grabs Lil and escapes. So they’re all safe on the train together, but Clive is being a putz about Lil’s faithfulness, needs the preacher’s help to “forgive” her for a happy ending.

Expensive-looking, but it was the top-grossing film of 1932 so I guess that’s fine. Won the best cinematography oscar, lost the rest to Grand Hotel. Never seen Anna May Wong before – she’s very good. Remade a couple times, with Ellen Drew then Joseph Cotten.

“What a charming evening we might have had if you hadn’t been a spy, and I a traitor.”
“Then we might never have met.”

Another Sternberg/Dietrich movie, and this one just kills The Blue Angel, which I thought was overbaked and had too little Dietrich. Here not only is she perfectly lit and doing a better acting job throughout, but the story is a wartime (1915 Austria) spy vs. spy drama, all romance and excitement, more alive and relevant than the period self-punishment of Emil Jannings. Sternberg seems fully comfortable in his sound world now, maybe not pulling as beautiful images as in the silents, when it was all image, but making a movie that fully works. Some good expressive lighting (backlit against windows when she lets Victor escape) and long-held cross-fades.

Marlene with Austrian secret service man Gustav von Seyffertitz (Hymn Book Harry, who performs the wedding in Docks of New York):

The opening titles prepare us for tragedy and sexism, telling us that codename X-27 “might have become the greatest spy in history… if X-27 had not been a woman.” This is referring to the ending, when she lets the enemy spy she loves escape before his execution, which leads to her own. But of course the reason she’s a great spy in the first place is that she’s a woman, able to seduce and sleep with (whoa, pre-code) enemy officers in order to steal information, the Black Book of its time.

At the start, war widow Marlene is out streetwalking to pay the rent (whoa, pre-code!) when she picks up a gentleman with a droopy ‘stache who tests her patriotism, pretending to try recruiting her for anti-Austrian work, and when she has him arrested he reveals that he’s the head of Austrian secret service and actually wants to hire her for pro-Austrian work, argh.

Warner “Charlie Chan” Oland as the spy who shoots himself:

Some veils, feathers and masks later, she’s at a party with more confetti and streamers than I’ve ever seen in one place. She acts interested in Russian Mustache Spy and retires back to his place, where she discovers his secret spy stash, all the while acting super-fucking-cool while he creeps away and kills himself.

The colonel is Victor McLaglen, Lon’s strongman sidekick in The Unholy Three who’d win best actor for The Informer a few years later:

With a distinctive smile like Victor’s, what use is a mask?

Off to unveil the secret identity of the dead spy’s undercover colonel friend from the costume party, which is simple since he has the most excellently recognizable sinister smile. And a cute little mustache – every man has a mustache.

The colonel is onto her spying ways – she’s got him, then lets him escape. She goes to Russia and acts as a timid housekeeper at enemy headquarters, then back home where she sees the grinning colonel again and lets him escapes. Sentenced to death, she asks only for a piano and “any dress I wore when I served my countrymen instead of my country,” so gets killed by rifle squad in her feathers and veil.

Pre-execution, at her piano: