Samsara (2001)

The Internet Archive is a strange site, but also rewarding. The structure leaves much to be desired, but the positive side is that in order to find what you are looking for, you are likely to stumble upon other interesting films in the process. Like when I was looking for the film Samsara (2011), which I reviewed a few weeks ago.

After some little confusion, it dawned upon me that there are in fact two films with the same title at the Archvie, and the other Samsara also seemed interesting. It is hard to imagine two films that are more different; yet both embody the Sanskrit word ‘Samsara’, which in Buddhism refers to the constant cycle of life – birth, death, rebirth – and yet both evoke the same feelings of wonder and awe.

Buddhist monks in Pan Nalin's Samsara (2001)

Samsara is about the Buddhist monk Tashi. He is young, yet he has been in the monastery for most of his life. He is very devoted, but after meeting the young woman Pema, he suddenly starts to have feelings of doubt. Is this all there is to life? What about love? Family? He decides to leave the monastery to seek Pema and try to find out.

Samsara is a film about people trying to cope with everyday life, in a part of India where most things are what they have been for centuries. People weave their clothes and farm their fields in the same way as their grandfathers and grandmothers did. But modern life is drawing closer, along with all its blessings and curses.

This is a very beautiful film, filled with the magnificent nature of countryside India. But even though nature is important and breathtaking, focus is always on the humans living in it; on their strenghts and their faults. This is a very warm and loving film.

This film is best enjoyed when you have plenty of time and nothing to disturb you for a few hours. Samsara is a film that allows, and requires, room for contemplation.

Shawn Ku and Christy Chung in Pan Nalin's Samsara (2001)

Samsara
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Year: 2001
Running time: 2 h 19 min
Directors: Pan Nalin
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Low (608×288)
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Cinepack (1.4 G)

The Black Book (1949)

This week’s film is best known as Reign of Terror, and it is so listed at the Internet Archive. However, it was also widely distributed as The Black Book, and it is that title which is used on the actual copy at the archive.

Robert Cummings in The Black Book / Reign of Terror (1949)

The plot of this film is fairly intricate; perhaps at times too much so, as rather too many things are left unexplained or unresolved. D’Aubigny is sent to Paris in order to thwart Robespierre, who is executing his political enemies one by one, as well as some friends, for whom he no longer has any use. Robespierre plans to make himself dictator, but he has lost his Black Book, with the details of those he wishes to execute. It must be found, or all is lost. He gives the mission to judge Duval, but Duval has been killed by D’Aubigny, who now impersonates him. Does this seem a bit overworked? It is only the beginning, and simplified, at that.

The actors are all good, and some are excellent. My personal favourite is Arnold Moss as chief of Robespierre’s secret police.

Made shortly after World War II, I cannot entirely escape the suspicion that the film may have been partly a political comment on Hitler and Mussolini. The European setting and Robespierre’s greed for power seem to suggest as much.

The Black Book was made at the height of the Film Noir movement. It uses much of the typical lighting and camerawork of Noir, and the protagonist is also in many ways your typical cynical and streetwise guy. The historical setting, however, makes this a sort of genre blend, and it is not always classified as a true Noir.

This film is best enjoyed as long as one does not try to analyse too much. The story twists along at a good pace and excitement is always kept up. Just sit back and allow yourself to get carried away.

The Black Book / Reign of Terror (1949)

The Black Book
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Year: 1949
Running time: 1 h 15 min
Director: Anthony Mann
Stars: Robert Cummings
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.1 G)

Ich klage an (1941)

Over 70,000 people were killed as a direct result of Hitler’s Aktion T4 in the early stages of World War II. Some were jews, but many more were mentally or physically handicapped children and adults that, so Hitler said, would have meant an unnecessary cost for the “Vaterland” in times of war. As terrible as it is to think about all that, there was one arguably good thing to come out of that terror, namely the propaganda film Ich klage an, financed and produced to gain popular support for governmental use of so-called euthanasia (mercy killings).

Paul Hartmann and Heidemarie Hatheyer in pro-euthanasia film Ich klage an / I Accuse (1941)

Thomas Heyt is a medical doctor with a good career and a loving wife. But his life is turned upside down when his wife Hanna becomes the victim of severe, painful and potentially lethal mutiple sclerosis. Heyt seeks in vain for a cure, but Hanna’s condition becomes ever worse. She asks him to take her life before her pain becomes unbearable, which he eventually does. This, however, is not the end of the film, because Heyt thereafter has to stand trial for his actions, accused of murdering his wife.

When I first saw the film, I had no idea about its connection with Aktion T4. Nevertheless, I expected a propaganda film, but I was surprised to see how mild the propaganda is. So mild, in fact, that if it were not for its connections with Nazism, it could very well still be used to argue for voluntary euthanasia (and sometimes is, for that matter). The film does not in any way bring forth the subject of involuntary euthanasia that was actually the foremost purpose of Aktion T4, but it stays ethically within what several democratic countries legally allow today, apparently including the state of Oregon.

In an ironic twist of fate, the film came too late to save the project that had spawned it. In what has been described as the only successful popular protest against Hitler, public opinion was so strongly against the project that it actually had to be cancelled in 1941, only five days before Ich klage an premiered, heavily censored due to the criticism. (I am not sure whether the copy at the Internet Archive is the original or censored.) But even though Aktion T4 had been officially cancelled, Euthanasia according to the guidelines adopted by the project continued in many places throughout the war, killing tens of thousands more.

The available copy of this film has a unique feature, one that I have never seen before. The initial frames of the video file contain a slideshow with very interesting background information about Aktion T4 and about the film itself. If you have a player that can freeze the film on the first frame, and then step frame by frame, I can highly recommend these interesting slides, either before or after watching the film itself. The slides are pro-euthanasia, as is the film itself, but regardless of your own opinion on the subject, they provide a good historical background.

This film is best enjoyed in one of two very different ways. It can either be seen from a historical perspective, remembering that it comes from the same ideas and ideals that led up to the holocaust. Or it can be seen purely as a work of art: a film which, though controversial, is rich with excellent dramaturgy and acting. Indeed, these two perspectives may not be possible to disassociate entirely; they certainly complement one another and provide the watching with further depths.

Paul Hartmann in pro-euthanasia film Ich klage an / I Accuse (1941)

Ich klage an
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Year: 1941
Language: German (English subtitles)
Running time: 1 h 51 min
Director: Wolfgang Liebeneiner
Stars: Paul Hartmann
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (661 M)

Great Expectations (1946)

There is definitely a tangible difference between British and American film from the 1930s and 40s. A difference that can be seen in almost everly little detail. Cutting, acting, plotting, lighting, you name it. Which one you prefer is perhaps a matter of taste, but I personally have a very soft spot for the British variety.

Tony Wager in Great Expectations (1946)

David Lean’s Great Expectations is an excellent example. Based on the Charles Dickens novel of the same title (which is also available at the Internet Archive), it tells the story of young Pip. Orphaned and brought up by his brother-in-law the blacksmith, he eventually becomes the protégé of an anonymous benefactor, who helps to pay for his learning to become a gentleman in London.

In his childhood, Pip had come to Miss Havisham’s house to be the playmate of the haughty but beautiful Estella. When Pip, the adult gentleman, is called upon to visit Miss Havisham, he again meets Estella, and his youthful love for her is rekindled.

This is only a small sample of the wonderful story, which in turn is a shortened version of Dickens’ original. It is really a beautifully executed adaptation, and well deserving of the two Academy Awards it received.

This film is best enjoyed if you love old mansions and 19th century costumes. As a historical drama, it has few equals from its time.

John Mills and Valerie Hobson in Great Expectations (1946)

Great Expectations
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Year: 1946
Running time: 1 h 53 min
Director: David Lean
Stars: John Mills, Valerie Hobson
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (688×519)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (1.5 G)

Murder in the Clouds (1934)

Plenty of good old movies at the Internet Archive are practically forgotten today. Many deserve to be so, but others are better than their non-existing reputation would suggest. Murder in the Clouds is such a film.

Lyle Talbot and Ann Dvorak in Murder in the Clouds (1934)

Murder in the Clouds has a somewhat convoluted and improbable plot, yet not without a certain charm. Our hero is the hot-shot pilot “Three Star” (Lyle Talbot). He has been grounded for reckless flying, but gets another chance when an extremely important flight must be made, delivering a secret explosive device which can change the nature of warfare (someone invented the atom bomb that early?). “Three Star” is also in love with Judy (Ann Dvorak), whose brother is to be his co-pilot on the important flight. But of course, things happen; further entaglements involve friends who may not be who they seem, a mountain cabin and a fateful bar fight.

Compared with similar aviation B movies, such as Danger Flight (1939) or Q Planes (1939), Murder in the Clouds has much better flight sequences. There is a pretty ugly mid-air explosion, but otherwise the aerial scenes are both varied, elegant and well filmed. They were mostly shot at and around Grand Central Airport outside Glendale, California. The airport is long since gone, but the runway has been converted into Grand Central Avenue and some of the buildings also exist.

Ann Dvorak is mostly remembered today for her role two years earlier in the classic original version of Scarface. She was a good actress, and even though her initial shots in Murder in the Clouds are a bit too tightly strung, she improves as the movie rolls along, and is excellent for the most part.

This film is best enjoyed for the high quality aerial stunts.

Travel Air 4000 in Murder in the Clouds (1934)

Murder in the Clouds
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Year: 1934
Running time: 1 h 1 min
Director: D. Ross Lederman
Stars: Lyle Talbot, Ann Dvorak
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (544×416)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (498 M)

Scrooge (1951)

Christmas is rushing closer by the minute and the panic is definitely here. Bottle of spumante wine for mother-in-law, some nice book for daughter, no idea even what to get for wife (she claims she likes film, but never watches any, so DVDs are out of the question). And then we need to pack for the trip to the family, and we have not even had time to put up much in terms of decorations in our home.

Well, that is the way it goes, but in the middle of that rush, what could possibly be better than to grab a mug of mulled wine and sit down in front of a nice old film. A film like Scrooge.

Alastair Sim and Francis De Wolff in Scrooge aka A Christmas Carol (1951)

Scrooge, sometimes released with the title A Christmas Carol, is a breathtakingly beautiful film. The actors are good, and Alastair Sim in particular is marevellous as the aging miser who is reformed through divine intervention. Special effects are simplistic, but that is not really a problem. Dobule exposure and effective lighting go a long way when it comes to creating ghostlike gosts.

Charles Dickens’ classic tale has been filmed a great many times, and many of the versions are good. The versions available at the Internet Archive are too many for me to list them all, but I would like to mention just two short silents. The very first film adaptation of the story, Scrooge, or Marley’s Ghost (1901) is available. Like many early literary adaptations, it requires a good deal of knowledge about the original, or it will be completely impossible to comprehend. It is a truly historic film, especially considering that it has been said to be the first film with intertitles, and anyway it is only about three and a half minutes long. The other interesting silent is a really good ten-minute adaptation from 1910, titled simply A Christmas Carol. That one is a small masterpiece in compact story-telling and well worth the ten minutes it takes to watch it.

The 1951 film is best enjoyed around Christmas time, to get in the right mood. Pathetic? Why, certainly, but just a wee bit, and not so much as to ruin it.

Alastair Sim, Olga Edwardes and Brian Worth in Scrooge aka A Christmas Carol (1951)

Scrooge
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Year: 1951
Running time: 1 h 24 min
Director: Brian Desmond-Hurst
Stars: Alastair Sim
Image quality: Excellent
Resolution: High (978×720)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.0 G)

The Private Life of Don Juan (1934)

Douglas Fairbanks was, first and foremost, an actor of the silent era. Like many other major silent stars, he failed to make the transit to sound film. He made only a handful of talkies, and it is symptomatic that his very last one, The Private Life of Don Juan, was filmed and produced in England.

Merle Oberon and Douglas Fairbanks in The Private Life of Don Juan (1934)

The Private Life of Don Juan was directed by Alexander Korda, and is typical of Korda in the sense that very little can be taken for granted. Korda makes effective use of shadows and angles, and even though some scenes may be a bit overworked, they are nevertheless excellent examples of film artistry that can be reproduced in no other medium.

The story, briefly, is that the aging Don Juan is returning to Seville, but a young admirer and impersonator is killed, leaving everyone to believe Don Juan dead. The aged womanizer sees his chance to lead a life in peace, but finds that he can never quite live up to the legend of himself.

The film’s title was probably an attempt to capitalize on the previous year’s success with The Private Life of Henry VIII, also directed by Korda.

This film is best enjoyed for Douglas Fairbanks in his very last role. Talking or silent, Fairbanks still in his, relatively speaking, old age of 51 had enormous sex appeal and he could do acrobatics and stunts that most men half his age would envy him. He also showed his great qualities as an actor, and that he could handle spoken dialogue just as well as the exaggerated body language of a silent.

Douglas Fairbanks in The Private Life of Don Juan (1934)

The Private Life of Don Juan
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Year: 1934
Running time: 1 h 27 min
Director: Alexander Korda
Stars: Douglas Fairbanks
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×576)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: DivX (698 M)