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)

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)

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920)

If you investigate the history of the horror movie, you will find that sooner or later the tracks lead back to Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, or as it is known in English, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Werner Krauß and Conrad Veidt in Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari / The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari is one of the defining works of the German Expressionism, and it is also one of the most thoroughly expressionistic films ever. The sets are twisted, looming, threatening, and induces a dream-like, or perhaps rather nightmarish, feeling into the film. The acting, by several great actors of the time, is on par, as is the plot.

I will not spoil your experience by telling you much about that plot. Suffice it to say that it deals with a somnambulist who is on display as a fair showcase, a mad doctor, and several gruesome murders. Also, things are rarely what they seem.

While not generally considered the first film in the German Expressionism, the film nevertheless had a tremendous impact on the genre, an impact that directly and indirectly carries on to other genres, not least the modern horror genre.

The copy I otherwise link to in this post is the best I have found at the Internet Archive. However, it is a German version with no subtitles. Another good version with English title cards is available, in case your German is out of practice.

This film is best enjoyed with a good musical score. With poor or random music, or no music at all, much of the nerve and intensity of the film will be lost. Fortunately, both the versions I link to are good in this respect. It is much easier to oversee with some defects in the visual quality.

Elsa Wagner and Friedrich Feher in Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari / The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari
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Year: 1920
Running time: 1 h 14 min
Language: German (no subtitles)
Director: Robert Wiene
Stars: Werner Krauß, Conrad Veidt
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (576×432)
Soundtrack: Excellent; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Matroska (673 M)

Triumph des Willens (1935)

Last week I wrote about the American World War II propaganda film The Nazis Strike (1943), a film which made heavy use of the enemy’s own propaganda films, showing them in a very different light. One of the sources most prominently used in The Nazis Strike is Leni Riefenstahl’s classic Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will) about the 1934 Nazi congress at Nuremberg.

Sieg heil! to Adolf Hitler and the swastika in Triumph des Willens / Triumph of the Will (1935)

Riefenstahl had already made a similar film about the 1933 Nazi party congress, Sieg des Glaubens (1933), which is also available at the Internet Archive. I have not seen the older film (which is said to be of great historical value), but I have been told that Triumph des Willens is much more polished and better propaganda.

If you are interested in Riefentahl’s career, incidentally, you will also want to check out the silent film Der heilige Berg, where she participates as an actor before becoming a director.

I think Triumph des Willens has much to teach us about today’s political climate. It teaches us what can hide behind seemingly harmless rhetorics; it teaches us about the power of mass psychology; hopefully it also teaches us that in order to build a peaceful world, you have to look beyond your own borders and beyond your own social group.

This film is best enjoyed in small pieces. The entire film, with all the speeches by almost-forgotten Nazi officials, feels rather stiff today unless you have a strong interest in Nazi propaganda and ideology. But it is certainly both educational, and to some extent enjoyable, to watch some classic sequences, not least the beginning with Hitler’s flight to Nuremberg and ensuing triumphant motorcade. Another classic is Hitler’s concluding eight-minute speech, containing a lot of tosh about the superiority of the German people in general and its leaders in particular. If you have already seen The Nazis Strike, it is very interesting to watch this film to see the material in its original context.

Adolf Hitler: "We carry the best blood and we know this." in Triumph des Willens / Triumph of the Will (1935)

Triumph des Willens
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Year: 1935
Language: German (English subtitles)
Running time: 1 h 44 min
Director: Leni Riefenstahl
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: H.264 (619 M)

Der letzte Mann (1924)

You know that book, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die? Here, let me tell you a secret: There are not that many movies you must see. If, however, there is a handful that you should see, then one of that handful is definitely Der letzte Mann (The Last Laugh in English), directed by F. W. Murnau.

Emil Jannings in Der letzte Mann / The Last Laugh (1924)

In Der letzte Mann, Emil Jannings plays the aged but proud hotel doorman who is demoted to a lavatory attendant, because the young hotel manager thinks him unfit to continue the hard work as a doorman. Along with the previous job and the fancy uniform, the old man’s self esteem completely washes away, as does his social status in the neighbourhood where he lives. Jannings does a splendid performance, using his facial expressions and body language where the silent movie can support no dialogue.

Several sources claim that Murnau, similar to Chaplin years later in The Dictator, used the constructed language Esperanto in all signs in the film, in order to emphasize that the visual language of cinema is international. The ultimate source of this seems to be none other than Alfred Hitchcock (who was in 1938 to be perhaps the first to use a fictional movie language in The Lady Vanishes). Now, I would be the first to acknowledge that I am not an expert Esperanto speaker, but try as I may I cannot seem to find a single word in Esperanto in the entire film. In fact, I distinctly seem to spot a neon sign advertising “cigarettes”, which would be either English or French. So I think I can, until further information surfaces, state that this is a factoid. Shame, really, since as far as I know, no other silent feature-length movie ever used Esperanto either. Or any other constructed language, for that matter.

Speaking of visual language, much tends to be made of the fact that the entire story is told with only a single title card (similar to the somewhat later Chelovek s kino-apparatom). Now, this is a truth with some modification since there are some other written sequences, most prominently a letter in the first half of the film. Even so, the version at the Internet Archive should be perfectly watchable to anyone, even though it contains no subtitles. The written material is not essential for following the plot.

The English title The Last Laugh, incidentally, is unfortunate, since it puts focus on the film’s epilogue (after that abovementioned title card), which is truly absurd and more of a joke than part of the actual story.

The film is generally bundled together with the German Expressionism, and though there are certainly scenes with strong expressionist content, it should also be noted that it is not at all as thoroughly expressionistic as many contemporary films, including several of Murnau’s own.

This film is best enjoyed either if you care to analyze and marvel over each of the many technically advanced and tremendously effective shots (some, such as the sequence of shots combining to visualise a drunken stupor, are so brilliant that they have arguably not been equalled in the history of cinema), or if you just sit back and allow yourself to be immersed by one of the greatest cinematic masterpieces.

Emil Jannings in Der letzte Mann / The Last Laugh (1924)

Der letzte Mann
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Year: 1924
Running time: 1 h 42 min
Language: German (no subtitles)
Director: F. W. Murnau
Stars: Emil Jannings
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (608×464)
Soundtrack: Excellent; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Cinepack, 2 files (683 + 686 M)

First Spaceship on Venus (1959)

There are some movies that I really wish I could see in original, uneditied versions, but at the same time I realize that I do not have the energy to actually find (not to mention pay for) such a version. So in the case of First Spaceship on Venus (originally Der schweigende Stern) I can only be thankful that the Internet Archive provides any version at all.

Just like many other old sci-fi movies from behind the Iron Curtain (e.g. Battle Beyond the Sun) this film was recut, poorly dubbed and then released into the U.S. market.

First Spaceship on Venus aka Der schweigende Stern (1959)

First Spaceship on Venus is in many ways similar to Rocketship X-M. The first half is a typical exploration movie (see Flight to Mars review for further details), and at some point during that half, I started wondering exactly why I had been recommended to see this film. The trip to Venus is slow-moving, not terribly dramatic, and packed full of bad science. However, when about half the movie has played out, it quickly changes with the arrival on Venus. It is still slow, but in a pondering way typical of the best communist sci-fi of this time. It also starts to become exciting, almost tense, and there is some really wonderful, almost breath-taking, scenography showing the Venusian landscape. It is still full of bad science, but when other things compensate I find that to be rather cute. Like Ikarie XB 1 it was based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem, one of my favourite sci-fi authors.

Due to the dubbing, it is more or less impossible to say anything about the actors’ performances. Perhaps they are great, perhaps mediocre. It is all drowned in American voices.

Unlike many similar movies, this one appears to have no additional material shot in the U.S. The American version has been cut, though. This is actually visible in some places, where the action cuts a little bit too fast. The U.S. editor probably wanted to increase the tempo a bit, but failed to understand that this kind of sci-fi, unlike films driven by monsters and action, actually depend upon the slow tempo. This gives the viewer time to think and reflect, and it also gives the actors room to flesh out their characters.

This film is best enjoyed in the original (or so I have been told), but if you do not have access to it, then this American piece of butchery is better than nothing.

East German kosmonauts in Der schweigende Stern aka First Spaceship on Venus (1959)

First Spaceship on Venus
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Year: 1959
Running time: 1 h 19 min
Director: Kurt Maetzig
Stars: Yōko Tani, Oldrich Lukes, Ignacy Machowski
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (800×608)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (2.0 G)

Der heilige Berg (1926)

With the Winter Olympics in full swing, I wanted to try and find a film with a winter sports connection for this week’s post. That was harder than I had thought, but luck was on my side and the only feature-length film I found on that theme turned out to be really interesting.

Der heilige Berg (The Holy Mountain) is a German silent which is often mentioned as Leni Riefenstahl’s first film (as an actress). But Riefenstahl, quite frankly, was far better a director than an actress, and the film is interesting today mainly for other reasons.

Leni Riefenstahl in Der heilige Berg (1926)

The film is built around a very simple (and quite frankly somewhat far-fetched) plot about a love triangle where two friends, initially without realizing so, compete for the same woman (played by Riefenstahl). About the only strong part of the plot is the ending, which is moving (though a bit pathetic). But Der heilige Berg is not much about love and friendship anyway, nor about any specific characters.

This film resounds with two dominant chords, both vibrating with messages about nature. First of all about the wild, fierce and uncontrollable nature around us; especially the snow and the mountains, as contrasted by the sea. And second about human nature, more specifically it strongly romaticizes a physical ideal that lies close to the ideal of our own time. A sound mind in a sound body. That kind of thing. (The Nazis made this ideal their own, but director Arnold Fanck, though later forced to join the Nazi party, does not seem to have been a Nazi at heart.)

One section in the film shows a competition in Nordic combined, an interesting sport where ski jumping is combined with a cross-country ski race. The scenes from the competition are lengthy, but the interest is kept up all the way due to the excellent filming and the great variety of the scenes. It is also amazing to see what could be achieved even with the relatively primitive equipment they had available.

Der heilige Berg was made during the height of German Expressionism, and though it is sometimes cited as part of that movement, it is really much more strongly rooted in romanticism. There are touches of expressionism, such as in the exploration of the darkness of the human pshyche, but not at all as much in focus as in for example Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927).

This film is best enjoyed for its beautiful images and for its documentation of winter sports in the 1920s. Russian officials will be glad to know that it is free from any dangerous suggestions of homosexuality and thus perfectly safe to watch.

Nordic combination in Der heilige Berg (1926)

Der heilige Berg
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Year: 1926
Running time: 1 h 45 min
Language: German (English subtitles)
Director: Arnold Fanck
Stars: Leni Riefenstahl, Luis Trenker, Ernst Petersen
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Soundtrack: Excellent; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: h.264 (624 M)