BACK STREET: The Case of John M. Stahl

Thursday, January 31st, 2019
Posted by Zachary Zahos
Irene Dunne and John Boles in BACK STREET

These notes on John M. Stahl's Back Street were written by Zachary Zahos, PhD candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW–Madison. A 35mm print of Back Street will screen in our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen Universal series on Sunday, February 3 at 2 p.m. in the Chazen Museum of Art's auditorium. Free admission!

By Zachary Zahos

Long neglected or dismissed by critics, John M. Stahl (1886–1950) has enjoyed renewed attention as of late. The inclusion of two timeless Stahl films, Back Street (1932) and Seed (1931), in UW-Cinematheque’s series of Carl Laemmle Jr.-era Universal Studios pictures follows a flurry of well-received repertory bookings across North America and Europe. In its larger Universal series from 2016, the Museum of Modern Art rounded out the aforementioned two melodramas with Stahl’s Only Yesterday (1933), forming what curator Dave Kehr called “an informal trilogy of mature, morally ambivalent films about adultery.” I attended those three MoMA screenings, and virtually no other cinematic experience can compare: none match my sense of discovery, my intense emotional identification with the films’ protagonists, or my mystification as to how Stahl’s spare style ultimately achieves these transcendent effects.

That was 2016, a couple months before I moved to Madison to become a graduate student. I have since, to put it mildly, observed the circulation of Stahl’s films with interest. Last year, for example, Italy’s premiere classic film festivals mounted major, parallel Stahl retrospectives: Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna showcased a generous sample of his sound films, while the Pordenone Silent Film Festival wrangled his exceedingly rare surviving work from 1917-1926. These efforts have challenged Stahl’s reputation as merely the “capable craftsman” behind Gene Tierney thriller Leave Her to Heaven (1945), according to TCM; or “the one who made the first versions of Sirk’s masterpieces” like Imitation of Life (1934, Stahl; 1959, Sirk), as critic Yann Tobin once ruefully put it. While these retrospectives have found room for generic outliers—like his wistfully romantic war film Immortal Sergeant (1943), starring Henry Fonda and Maureen O’Hara—Stahl’s mastery of melodrama has emerged as the big takeaway, for some.

I say “for some,” because a select handful of scholars and critics have long been hip to Stahl’s genius. Many can be found in The Call of the Heart: John M. Stahl and Hollywood Melodrama, a new collection of essays by eminent scholars—UW-Madison’s Professor Lea Jacobs among them. Of Stahl’s melodramas, Back Street specifically has long served as one of the most fruitful case studies: for Jacobs, in her book The Wages of Sin: Censorship and the Fallen Woman Film, 1928-1942 (1991) and other articles; for historian and former UW Prof. Tino Balio, in his book Grand Design: Hollywood as a Modern Business Enterprise, 1930-1939 (1995); and for feminist critic Molly Haskell, in From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies (1974).

Back Street’s enduring appeal lies in part in the simplicity of its plot, adapted from Fannie Hurst’s novel, and the eternal currents running beneath it. Middle-class beauty Ray Schmidt (Irene Dunne) and upper-middle-class salesman Walter Saxel (John Boles) fall in love, but a missed concert rendezvous precludes their marriage. Years later, they meet again, by which point Walter has married a wealthier woman. Still infatuated with one another, Ray agrees to be Walter’s mistress, and the subsequent action shows very little of the happiness they presumably shared. Instead, Ray passes most of her days alone, holed up in the “back street” apartment Walter bought for her. When doting childhood friend Kurt (George Meeker), who has since become a rich car manufacturer, re-enters her life, Ray faces another fork in the road. In my experience, her decision—disclosed through a bold narrative ellipsis, one of many—elicits an audible reaction from the audience.

The research of Jacobs and Balio has revealed how Back Street, despite its underseen status today, was subject to agonizing censorship debates upon and well after its 1932 release. Colonel Jason S. Joy, head of the Studio Relations Committee (SRC), distrusted Laemmle Jr. for “lapses in taste” at a time when enforcement of the Production Code was patchy at best. Industry overseers anticipated a backlash, and they got one: Catholic newspapers excoriated the film for teaching “false principles of morality,” and the Catholic Legion of Decency condemned it two years later. Grappling with the counterintuitive logic of censors and conservative audiences, Jacobs surmises that the hostility toward the film was because of how tender and “subdued” Ray and Walter’s extramarital relationship is, and not in spite of it. If Ray behaved in a more licentious and selfish manner, the thinking goes, she could be more easily stigmatized. Instead, under Stahl’s direction, Dunne scaled back her performance, investing intelligence, independence, and lovesick melancholy into her actions and pauses.

For Haskell, Dunne’s brilliance, Stahl’s “sublime” direction, and the specifics of the scenario launch this Back Street miles above Universal’s two later remakes of Hurst’s novel. Dismissing the “inane” 1961 David Miller adaptation, starring John Gavin and Susan Hayward, Haskell notes how Ray’s socioeconomic upgrade from susceptible young everywoman to “globe-trotting fashion executive” undercuts “the closed system of decisions and consequences on which middle-class tragedy depends.” Contrasting Stahl’s film to the 1941 Robert Stevenson version, which starred Margaret Sullavan and Charles Boyer, Haskell observes, “The idea of a woman ‘giving up all’ for Charles Boyer is a lot easier on the pride than the idea of ‘giving up all’ for John Boles. But then, Boyer’s delicacy and intelligence make it impossible to believe him capable of the insensitive behavior toward a woman that one can believe of Boles.”

Indeed, while Boles has a mediocre reputation as an actor, he excelled as the dashing narcissist—parts he also played in Seed and Only Yesterday. The final scenes in Back Street make Walter the most sympathetic of the three scoundrels Boles played for Stahl. Cinematographer Karl Freund (of The Last Laugh fame) deserves ample credit here, for lighting Boles and Dunne with shards of bright, drifting light at key moments. But the magic of the whole enterprise belongs to Stahl, who matched a sure hand with unadulterated empathy, defying critics, censors, and fellow craftsmen to this day.

PROTOTYPE: A 3D Avant-Garde Experience

Wednesday, January 16th, 2019
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Blake Williams' Prototype were written by Tim Brayton, PhD candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. Prototype will be screened in its original 3D format on Friday, January 18 at 7 p.m., the opening selection for 2019 Cinematheque programming. The screening will be held in our regular venue at 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue. 

By Tim Brayton

To say that Blake Williams’ Prototype is about the hurricane that nearly eradicated Galveston, Texas in 1900 is useful only insofar as it gives us something to hold onto. In fact, what we have before us is a film without a story, without incidents, and frequently without any sense of physical representation at all – a genuine avant-garde film.

If this is your first time watching an avant-garde film, don’t panic! There are a few tricks to get you through the experience, the most important of which is to not try to figure it all out. Williams has suggested in interviews that the “meaning” of the film may lie in its presentation of impossible technology. In Prototype, you’ll see many examples of archival footage being displayed on eerie, floating screens, reclaimed from old cathode-ray television sets. To Williams, these evoke the Space Age of the mid-20th Century, offering a means of mediating our visual history twice over: an old technology depicting even older footage. One goal of this was to present an alternative of the Galveston that never was. The city might have become one of the most important in the United States if not for the devastating effect of the hurricane, and part of what Prototype is aiming for is to suggest a futuristic Galveston from the perspective of that critical event. So much of the film is basically set in the 1960s – just not the 1960s we’re familiar with.

That’s just one filmmaker’s interpretation of his own work. You’re certainly welcome to try out another, or none at all. Part of the pleasure of watching a film like Prototype is simply in enjoying the audacious visuals that Williams has prepared, manipulating film in some very cunning ways. But also some not-so-cunning ways. One of the film’s most striking early images is achieved simply by filming ocean waves from a high angle, and flipping it upside down. The result is the curious bending feeling of seeing the unstable water loom overhead and seem to bend away impossibly in the distance. Is this meant to evoke the feeling of being in the heart of a hurricane? Or is it simply allowing us to look a relatively familiar sight from a dramatic new angle, asking us to reconsider what we see when we see water?

Elsewhere in the film, Williams does more than just change the angle of shots. He also dissolves one image into the next, creating overlays in which we see two or three different layers of an image all moving in different directions (including that same upside-down shot of waves). The complexity of this image creates a playfully chaotic viewing experience: we can’t see everything all at once, and what we can see is hard to resolve into one single object, so the film turns into a game of picking out the details we can see, tracing them to the point where they blend into other layers. Once again, the film invites us to rethink how we look at movies, by shaking up our sense of what the movie even is.

Of course, the most dramatic and obvious way in which Prototype creates new viewing experiences for us is in its use of stereoscopic 3D. Unlike narrative films that use 3D to enhance our sense of realism and the physical presence of the movie (when they’re not trying to make us jump by sending objects flying out of the screen), the dimensional effects in Prototype are only rarely about creating an illusion that “we are there.” Williams uses exaggerated wide perspectives inside a house to make the rooms seem to bulge in the middle; he also lingers over the rounded surface of the television tubes, making us notice how they, too bulge, even when they’re only depicting blank grey screens. Early in the film, there are 3D still photographs of Galveston in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, giving us a stark feeling of history popping out into reality. But even here, note that the effect is imperfect. Frequently, a scratch or smudge will only appear in one eye, creating the impression that it’s floating in space, simultaneously present and not.

The trick of sending incompatible images to each of our eyes becomes a major visual motif in Prototype as it develops. One of William’s avowed inspirations was Jean-Luc Godard’s 2014 film Goodbye to Language, which (in)famously split the two camera of the 3D filming rig apart, meaning that two entirely distinct scenes were being beamed to the viewer’s eyes at the same time. Prototype never does anything quite that aggressive, but there are multiple places where the film sends incompatible signals to each eye. For example, there are abstract geometric shapes that appear occasionally: one eye sees the shape as black-on-white, the other sees the shape as white-on-black. The result is a shimmering grey like nothing in nature. It can be a little bit disconcerting the first time you see it, but once again, the best way to think of it is as a challenge to normal perception. The film’s goal is to make you think about what you’re seeing by presenting images that, in a very real, physical sense, cannot exist. The great achievement of Prototype lies in creating these impossible images, and perhaps the best way to watch it is to simply let those images wash over you. Think about what you’re seeing; think about how it feels to look at the movie. It’s certainly an experience like none you’ve ever had.

Zachary Zahos' Favorite Movies of 2018

Thursday, January 3rd, 2019
Posted by Jim Healy

Zachary Zahos is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. He is Project Assistant and a Programmer for the UW Cinematheque and the Wisconsin Film Festival.

In 2018, I saw 145 new feature films. By “new,” I mean that these films either a) played in Madison over the past year or b) are at least now available on popular SVOD services like Netflix, Prime Video, and Hulu after 2018 theatrical runs in larger cities like New York. Of these 145, the following ten are the ones that have stayed with me most:

1. 24 FRAMES (Abbas Kiarostami)

2. WESTERN (Valeska Grisebach)

3. THE DAY AFTER (Hong Sang-soo)

4. ROMA (Alfonso Cuarón)

5. SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE (Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman)

6. EL MAR LA MAR (Joshua Bonnetta and J.P. Sniadecki)


8. FIRST MAN (Damien Chazelle)

9. ISMAEL’S GHOSTS (Arnaud Desplechin) 

10. LET THE SUNSHINE IN (Claire Denis)

This past year, I also saw 244 older movies for the first time, many of them at the UW-Cinematheque. The following ten are my favorite “new-to-me” older films, masterpieces all:

1. THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1979)
2. FLOATING CLOUDS (Mikio Naruse, 1955)
3. FAR FROM HEAVEN (Todd Haynes, 2002)
5. T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G (Paul Sharits, 1969)
6. THE SMALL BACK ROOM (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1949)
7. THE SLEEPING BEAUTY (Catherine Breillat, 2010)
8. A FAREWELL TO ARMS (Frank Borzage, 1932)
9. NIGHT AND DAY (Hong Sang-soo, 2008)
10. ELEPHANT (Alan Clarke, 1989)

Finally, I would like to share two more lists, both of which highlight some of the memorable acting committed to screen in 2018. The first are 15 favorite lead performances, in rough order of preference:

Juliette Binoche, LET THE SUNSHINE IN
Kim Min-hee, THE DAY AFTER
Leslie Mann, BLOCKERS
Thomasin McKenzie, LEAVE NO TRACE
Meinhard Neumann, WESTERN
Isabelle Huppert, MRS. HYDE
Yalitza Aparicio, ROMA
John David Washington, BLACKKKLANSMAN

And, 15 favorite supporting performances:

Jesse Plemons, GAME NIGHT
Hugh Grant, PADDINGTON 2
Geraldine Viswanathan, BLOCKERS
Olivia Colman, THE FAVOURITE
Marina De Tavira, ROMA
Marion Cotillard, ISMAEL’S GHOSTS
Adda Senani, MRS. HYDE
Jennifer Garner, LOVE SIMON

Ben Reiser's Favorite Movies of 2018

Thursday, January 3rd, 2019
Posted by Jim Healy

Ben Reiser is a Programmer for the UW Cinematheque and the Wisconsin Film Festival.


Ten recent movies I thoroughly enjoyed in 2018:

BLOCKAGE (Mohsen Gharaie, 2017)

CREED II (Steven Caple Jr., 2018)

THE DEATH OF STALIN (Armando Iannucci, 2017)

THE GUILTY (Gustav Moller, 2018)

MAKALA (Emmanuel Gras, 2017)

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT (Christopher McQuarrie, 2018)

PRIVATE LIFE (Tamara Jenkins, 2018)

A QUIET PLACE (John Krasinski, 2018)

THE RIDER (Chloe Zhao, 2018)

SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE (Peter Ramsey, Robert Persichetti Jr., Rodney Rothman, 2018)

Eleven more I enjoyed just as much: 

THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2018)

CUSTODY (Xavier Legrand, 2017)

DAMSEL (David Zellner & Nathan Zellner, 2018)

ISLE OF DOGS (Wes Anderson, 2018)

LIFE AND NOTHING MORE (Antonio Mendez Esparza, 2018)

PADDINGTON 2 (Paul King, 2018)

THE PREDATOR (Shane Black, 2018)

RAMPAGE (Brad Peyton, 2018)

REVENGE (Coralie Fargeat, 2017)

SWEET COUNTRY (Warwick Thornton, 2017)


Mike King's Favorite Films of 2018

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2019
Posted by Jim Healy

Mike King is the Cinematheque's Programmer and Chief Projectionist and is Senior Programmer for the Wisconsin Film Festival.


Top ten new films to play Madison in 2018, in alphabetical order:

3 FACES (2018, Jafar Panahi)

FIRST MAN (2018, Damien Chazelle)

FIRST REFORMED (2017, Paul Schrader)

THE GREEN FOG (2017, Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, Galen Johnson)

MANDY (2018, Panos Cosmatos)

THE MULE (2018, Clint Eastwood)

THE OTHER SIDE OF HOPE (2017, Aki Kaurismäki)

PHANTOM THREAD (2017, Paul Thomas Anderson)


ZAMA (2017, Lucrecia Martel)

Kelley Conway's Favorite Movies of 2018

Monday, December 31st, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

Kelley Conway is Department Chair and Professor of Film in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. She is also Artistic Director of the Wisconsin Film Festival and the UW Cinematheque.


Films I enjoyed this year:

THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1972)

FIRST MAN (Damien Chazelle, 2018)

WHAT A WOMAN! (LA FORTUNA DI ESSERE DONNA, Alessandro Blasetti, 1956)

WHEN TOMORROW COMES (John M. Stahl, 1939)

SEED (John M. Stahl, 1931)

THREE FACES (Jafar Panahi, 2018)

A STAR IS BORN (Bradley Cooper, 2018)

THE FAVOURITE (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2018)

PHANTOM THREAD (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2018)

JEUNE FEMME (Léonor Serraille, 2017)


Films I know I’ll love when I see them:

ROMA (Alfonso Cuarón, 2018)

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK (Barry Jenkins, 2018)

SHOPLIFTERS (Hirokazu Koreeda, 2018)

BURNING(Lee Chang-dong, 2018)

LEAVE NO TRACE (Debra Granik, 2018)

Jim Healy's Favorite Movies of 2018

Sunday, December 30th, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

Jim Healy is Director of Progamming of the UW Cinematheque and the Wisconsin Film Festival.

I saw 721 feature films that were new to me in 2018. These 10, presented in alphabetical order, provided me with the most pleasure:

THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS (2018, Joel & Ethan Coen)

GAME NIGHT (2018, John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein)

ISLE OF DOGS (2018, Wes Anderson)

LEAVE NO TRACE (2018, Debra Granik)

MANDY (2018, Panos Cosmatos)

PHANTOM THREAD (2017, Paul Thomas Anderson)

LA RAGAZZA IN VENTRINA (1961, Luciano Emmer)

RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET (2018, Phil Johnston, Rich Moore)

ROMA (2018, Alfonso Cuaron)

WHEN TOMORROW COMES (1939, John M. Stahl)

Here's a list of 20 other movies that I enjoyed almost as much:

ANT MAN AND THE WASP (2018, Peyton Reed)

CAMILLA (1954, Luciano Emmer)

CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME (2018, Marielle Heller)

GREEN BOOK (2018, Peter Farrelly)

THE L-SHAPED ROOM (1963, Bryan Forbes)

HEREDITARY (2018, Ari Aster)

ICE COLD IN ALEX (1958, J. Lee Thompson)

I AM NOT A WITCH (2017, Rungano Nyoni)

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE FALLOUT (2018, Christopher McQuarrie)

NONE SHALL ESCAPE (1943, Andre de Toth)

ONE MORE SPRING (1935, Henry King)

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND (2018, Orson Welles)

PADDINGTON 2 (2017, Paul King)

PETERLOO (2018, Mike Leigh)

PRIVATE LIFE (2018, Tamara Jenkins)

THE RED KIMONA (1925, Walter Lang, Dorothy Davenport)

ROSAURO CASTRO (1950, Roberto Gavaldon)

SEED (1931, John M. Stahl)

SUPPORT THE GIRLS (2018, Andrew Bujalski)

24 FRAMES (2017, Abbas Kiarostami)

Just for the hell of it, here are another 20 movies that I really liked:

BUMBLEBEE (2018, Travis Knight)

CEILING ZERO (1935, Howard Hawks)

CHANG: A DRAMA OF THE WILDERNESS (1927, Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack)

CREED II (2018, Steven Caple, Jr.)

FIRST MAN (2018, Damien Chazelle)

49TH PARALLEL (1941, Michael Powell)

GONE TO EARTH (1950, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)

IN FABRIC (2018, Peter Strickland)

INCREDIBLES 2 (2018, Brad Bird)

THE JERICHO MILE (1979, Michael Mann)

THE MAD GAME (1933, Irving Cummings)

MAKING MONTGOMERY CLIFT (2018, Robert A. Clift, Hillary Demmon)

NOS BATAILLES (2018, Guillaume Senez)


THE PREDATOR (2018, Shane Black)

READY PLAYER ONE (2018, Steven Spielberg)

A STAR IS BORN (2018, Bradley Cooper)

LOS TALLOS AMARGOS (1956, Fernando Ayala)

ULYSSES & MONA (2018, Sebastian Betbeder)

WOMEN OF ALL NATIONS (1931, Raoul Walsh)

Pure Monochrome: VERONIKA VOSS

Wednesday, December 12th, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Veronika Voss (1982) were written by Tim Brayton, PhD candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A 35mm print of Veronika Voss will screen on on Sunday, December 16, 2018 at 2 p.m. at the Chazen Museum of Art, a screening that will conclude our Fassbinder series and our 2018 programming.

By Tim Brayton

It’s not difficult to see why Veronika Voss might inspire such passion. More than most of Fassbinder’s films, it offers no ironic detachment from its own artistry; it openly demands respect and admiration, showcasing some of the most complex imagery in the director’s career. It also presents one of his most serious and mirthless visions of human suffering. While one might reasonably wonder what has happened to the light, sardonic camp of his great melodramas, this is no mere wallow in human misery. Rather, Veronika Voss is a work of profound empathy, a gesture of kindness from one drug user spiraling out of control to another (when Fassbinder died, less than four months after the film’s premiere, it was of an accidental overdose).

The story was inspired by the post-war career and death of Sybille Schmitz, one of Fassbinder’s favorite movie stars. Despite her success in the 1930s, her reputation suffered a fatal blow thanks to her willing collaboration with the Third Reich filmmakers of the state-run UFA film studio. By the mid-’50s, she was a ghost, filling the gaps between rare supporting roles with alcohol and drugs supplied by the shady Dr. Ursula Moritz. The sordid tale of Schmitz’s degraded life in 1955, and the black market criminality of Moritz’s alleged morphine ring, made for a perfect melodramatic crime scenario, though in the end, Veronika Voss (with names changed and details smudged to avoid legal repercussions), is not at all the sort of film that the phrase “crime melodrama” calls to mind.

It is, rather, a bleak but loving character study of Schmitz/Voss as made by one of the world’s great cinephile-directors. If there’s anything that connects Veronika Voss with the rest of Fassbinder’s prodigious output, it’s the rich sense of cinema history he brings to the proceedings. This time, the warm colors and fulsome emotions of his Sirkian melodramas is abandoned for the black-and-white of German Expression or its little American sibling, film noir; though only rarely even in the high-contrast chiaroscuro of noir do we find a film so austere in its palette as this. To call a film “black-and-white” generally implies that there will be some greys, too, but Fassbinder and cinematographer Xaver Schwarzenberger have very little interest in such nuance: Veronika Voss is a film of pure monochrome, made up of little else than layered slashes of deepest blacks and harshest whites. The hospital run by the corrupt Dr. Marianne Katz (Annemarie Düringer) is one of the all-time great cinematic asylums, made entirely from featureless slabs of sterile white, glowing with inhuman malevolence as they crush in against poor Veronika (Rosel Zech).

Even outside of the walls of this institution, the dominate visual scheme of the film is of imprisonment. The filmmakers use precise compositions, dominated by straight lines and geometric forms, to pin Veronika into tiny spaces, paradoxically using deep compositions to emphasize how little room she has to maneuver. Even in the happiest memory we’ll ever see, when she recalls the shooting of one of her many successful movies of yesteryear, the image is dominated by huge, star-shaped lens flares (the film used special lenses to exaggerate these and other flares), which form an impenetrable grid of diagonal lines that present Veronika almost literally as an inmate behind bars, caged by the film industry that will shortly view her as a disreputable memory to be buried and forgotten.

Like the other two protagonists of Fassbinder’s BRD trilogy, Hanny Schygulla’s Maria Braun and Barbara Sukowa’s Lola, Veronika stands in as a symbol for a particular form of West German life in the decade following World War II. But while her predecessors are hard-edged survivors, Veronika is a victim and a scapegoat, an emblematic “Bad” German who can be burdened with all the sins of West Germany’s Nazi past, thereby freeing all the “Good” Germans from having to seriously reckon with their recent behavior. Rosel Zech captures all of the terror and despair of being caught in this position, bringing Veronika to life with an array of facial expressions so frightened and needful that it’s almost painful to watch. The film’s German title translates as The Longing of Veronika Voss, and “longing” is plastered over every inch of Zech’s performance: longing for comfort, for understanding, for a place in a world that turned on her for cruel and selfish reasons.

It is bleaker, sadder, and angrier than most Fassbinder films, but tinged with sympathy. Veronika and the invented character Robert Krohn (Hilmar Thate), a married investigative journalist who falls desperately in love with her, agonized by his inability to save her (he’s an obvious stand-in for Fassbinder himself) are both pathetic in the fullest sense of the word. That is, they are hapless and hampered by their own misjudgments, but also – and far more importantly – they are imbued by their director with great pathos. In looking at Veronika, Fassbinder clearly sees a woman who did terrible things during the war, but is now being martyred by people who also did terrible things during the war. She is the victim of mid-century Germany’s anxious desire to boost its economy, to indiscriminately devour American culture as a ward against too much German-ness (the corny 1959 Johnny Horton country hit “The Ballad of New Orleans” anachronistically appears as a tragic leitmotif), and she is a powerful anchor to Fassbinder’s last and most lacerating attack on the corrupt modern history of his country.

Corruption Under the Rainbow: Fassbinder's LOLA

Wednesday, December 5th, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Fassbinder's Lola (1981) were written by Tim Brayton, PhD candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A 35mm print of Lola will screen in our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen Fassbinder series on Sunday, December 9 at 2 p.m. in the Chazen Museum of Art's Auditorium.

By Tim Brayton

The opening credits of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1981 Lola end with a title card displaying in the upper right corner, in bright pink, “Lola BRD 3.” If you’re confused where BRD 1 and BRD 2 went, don’t worry. It was only during the making of this film that Fassbinder realized that this story of economic reconstruction and corruption in post-World War II Germany, centered around a woman embodying the spirit of her age, was a perfect thematic match to his earlier The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979). And so it was that the director decided to make the duo into an after-the-fact trilogy about West Germany (AKA Bundesrepublik Deutschland, or “BRD”) reasserting itself from the rubble of war. Though since Lola took place in 1957, a full decade later than Maria Braun, it made sense to leave room for another story in between them. Thus did Maria Braun end up unofficially serving as BRD 1, with the as-yet unrealized BRD 2, Veronika Voss, coming in 1982 (this last film will be concluding the UW-Cinematheque’s Fassbinder series on Sunday, December 16).

Lola has long been the black sheep of the BRD Trilogy, enjoying neither Maria Braun’s extraordinary financial success nor Veronika Voss’s critical reputation. Even so, there’s quite a lot going on here. The story takes place in Coburg, a city lying almost right on the border separating West and East Germany, and this unstated fact lies at the heart of the film’s drama. In fact, Coburg is something of a lawless frontier town, where all the worst parts of the reconstructing West Germany are allowed to run free: seemingly every public official we’ll ever meet is hopelessly corrupt, and they all congregate at the town nightclub/whorehouse, owned by a happily dissolute property developer named Schuckert (Mario Adorf). This is where we meet Lola (Barbara Sukowa), born Marie-Luise, a star cabaret singer.

Fassbinder chose 1957, and a plot centered around the politics of land development, to make a very pointed comment about what he considered to be the most amoral half-decade in post-war German history – and, of course, to comment about the reliable sordidness of human nature, a pet theme of his. One of the bleaker aspects of Lola is that literally every character we meet is in some way rotten, and somehow the worst of them all is also the most sternly moral. That would be Von Bohm, a refugee from the post-war expulsion of Germans from East Prussia, who has just come to the West to serve as Coburg’s building commissioner. He’s played, magnificently, by Armin Mueller-Stahl, himself a Prussian-born actor, and it’s easy to see in him a wary, unsmiling otherness in the face of all the jolly cosmopolitan hedonism of the rest of the cast. Unlike the other two films in the trilogy, which focus strictly on their leading women, Lola functions as a two-way character study, as Von Bohm inevitably falls in love with Lola. Sukowa and Mueller-Stahl are an exemplary mis-matched set, she bringing the theatricalized sarcasm we expect of a Fassbinder film, he remaining far colder and coiled up with the tension of a predatory animal. Both are wretches in their way, but the film seems to consider that at least Lola, like the rest of the West Germans, is honest in her depravity and greed, and so it finds a way into rooting for her against the priggish commissioner.

Fassbinder's Lola is based, unofficially, on Heinrich Mann’s 1905 novel Professor Unrat, and even more unofficially on that film’s iconic 1930 film adaptation The Blue Angel, starring Marlene Dietrich as Lola Lola. It’s a far cry from the torrid Hollywood melodramas that had fueled most of Fassbinder’s work in the preceding decade, and perhaps that explains why Lola is so much more openly cynical than most of the director’s other major films. Still, it’s a characteristic Fassbinder exercise in worshipful cinephilia, and for all of its curdled psychology, Lola is an extraordinarily pleasurable movie, albeit ironic. It is among the most blatantly stylized of all the director’s films: as you will notice immediately, Lola is saturated with the most profoundly unnatural colors of some hallucinogenic rainbow. The film was shot by Xaver Schwarzenberger to mimic the bright saturation of Hollywood Technicolor cinematography, and the gap between the glowing colors of that style and the inherent brown grottiness of the film stock available in West Germany leaves Lola with a paradoxical beauty, both spectacular and toxic. It hardly needs saying that this visual aesthetic is a perfect match for a story about the corrupt heart underneath the bright and shiny face of a rebuilt midcentury Germany.

For all the nauseous greens and yellows, though, color in Lola is ultimately used to define the characters, and the destructive eroticism between Lola and Von Bohm. Throughout the movie, Lola is defined by shades of hot red: pink text in the opening credits, a cherry red stage for her singing, a scorching red sports car, red lighting practically everywhere. Von Bohm is defined, less aggressively, by cool blues and teals, especially the shockingly strong, almost glowing blue of his eyes, carefully lit to seem supernaturally oversaturated. These colors come into visual conflict with each other constantly, in all defiance of anything resembling realism: at one point, the two characters sit in a convertible that has been almost perfectly split in half between red and blue lighting, without even a glance at plausible motivation. They’re not the only contrasting colors here, either: the film’s color design perversely thrives on irreconcilable patterns of colors that the human eye can’t physically handle, giving the entire film an aggressive charge solely through its visuals. This expressionistic use of color, turning the characters’ inner lives into bold images, is startling, gorgeous, uncomfortable: it exaggerates the sumptuous cinematic pleasure of rich color into something so overindulgent as to feel rotten with decadence. Of all Fassbinder’s sardonic attacks on bourgeois culture throughout his career, this final assault on cinematic beauty itself just might be the most savage.


Rivette's Parallel Universe: DUELLE

Monday, December 3rd, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on Jacques Rivette's Duelle (1976) was written by WUD Film's Henry Witt. The Cinematheque's New French Restorations series concludes with a DCP of Duelle on Saturday, December 8 at 7 p.m. in our regular screening venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. Admission is free!

By Henry Witt

“The ambition of these films is to discover a new approach to acting in the cinema, where speech, reduced to essential phrases, to precise formulas, would play a role of “poetic’ punctuation.” - Jacques Rivette on his
"Scenes of Parallel Life" movies.

“I believe you were lured into a trap. The story was only a pretext.” - Viva, Duelle


Jacques Rivette’s decision to follow the ambling, improvisational yarns of his early 1970s films (Out 1, Céline and Julie Go Boating) with the scripted and genre-inflected Duelle could at a glance be mistaken for a retreat from the prior films’ playfully unconventional production methods. The plot synopsis lays out a clear—if unusual—central conflict, “Two goddesses battle over a magic diamond.” The transposition of myth and fairytale to a contemporary Paris setting has precedent in Cocteau, and invocations of film noir provide comfortable aesthetic and narrative reference points. As the quotes above suggest, however, these anchors are merely the framework for something far more challenging and ineffable.

A feature that was meant to be consistent across all four films (of which only two, Duelle and Noroît, were completed as conceived) in Rivette’s “scènes de la vie parallèle” cycle was on-location, live, improvised musical accompaniment, creating what he called a “simultaneous musical space.” Any given scene, then, would capture the unpredictable and (hopefully) fruitful combination of two related but separate performances happening in parallel. One of the pleasures of watching Duelle is experiencing genuinely unexpected moments of formal unity, when music intrudes upon an unfolding scene at just the right time.

One such revelatory moment occurs when the night porter turned amateur detective Lucie, having tailed Bulle Ogier’s baton-wielding Viva to a secluded casino, is found out and must herself begin improvising a reason for being where she doesn’t belong. Hermine Karagheuz, acting as Lucie, turns and reacts to the sudden entrance of the piano from a dimly lit corner in the background as she begins to spin a lie for Viva, the only other person in the room. Viewers might also be surprised to realize they hadn’t noticed Jean Wiener tucked away until the first note. A light shines on him in an even more drastic break from any naturalistic motivation for mise-en-scène .

Though always on-location when providing accompaniment, Jean Wiener and his piano are only sometimes visible on-screen. His appearances vary from having entirely sensible diegetic  motivations—performing at a nightclub, for instance—to the nonsensical, like when he appears midway through a private hotel room conversation between Viva and Pierrot. This slippery approach to the diegesis reflects the film’s handling of realism and fantasy generally.

Formally, the use of real-world locations, direct sound, and cinematographer William Lubtchansky’s handheld camerawork lends itself to comparisons with documentary filmmaking, but there is just as much noir and B-movie in Duelle’s DNA. The two goddesses are femme fatales elevated to the status of trickster deities, and there are numerous references to classic film noir. A rendez-vous in a lush garden channels The Big Sleep’s greenhouse, a row of lockers housing the film’s MacGuffin recalls Kiss Me Deadly, and there is even a shadowy aquarium torn right from The Lady From Shanghai. There’s also kinship with the Val Lewton horror movies and their enveloping shadows, though it was specifically Mark Robson’s The Seventh Victim with its quotidian setting and cult murders that Rivette screened for the cast and crew. If the language of cinema is the language of dreams and fantasy, these references conjure the fantasies of films past.

The reduction of speech to “essential phrases” that Rivette envisioned for the Scenes of Parallel Life in Duelle’s case involves many direct quotations from Jean Cocteau. One of the tragic pawns in the goddesses’ battle, the ticket girl Elsa, quotes an iconic line from the Bresson-directed, Cocteau-scripted film Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, and various cryptic statements related to the supernatural elements are lifted from an obscure Cocteau play titled The Knights of the Round Table. Most of the quoted phrases are too cryptic to make much sense of narratively, but the story is only a pretext anyway. The illusion of Rivette’s cinema is that the right combination of gesture, light, shadow, and improvised notes on the piano can create miracles, right in the middle of everyday Paris. “Two plus two no longer make four.”