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Black & White Cinema: A Short History on Amazon Now!

Sunday, October 11th, 2015

My new book is out now on Kindle, and in paperback and hardcover on Amazon!

From the glossy monochrome of the classic Hollywood romance, to the gritty greyscale of the gangster picture, to film noir’s moody interplay of light and shadow, black-and-white cinematography has been used to create a remarkably wide array of tones. Yet today, with black-and-white film stock nearly impossible to find, these cinematographic techniques are virtually extinct, and filmgoers’ appreciation of them is similarly waning.

Black and White Cinema is the first study to consider the use of black-and-white as an art form in its own right, providing a comprehensive and global overview of the era when it flourished, from the 1900s to the 1960s. Acclaimed film scholar Wheeler Winston Dixon introduces us to the masters of this art, discussing the signature styles and technical innovations of award-winning cinematographers like James Wong Howe, Gregg Toland, Freddie Francis, and Sven Nykvist. Giving us a unique glimpse behind the scenes, Dixon also reveals the creative teams—from lighting technicians to matte painters—whose work profoundly shaped the look of black-and-white cinema.

More than just a study of film history, this book is a rallying cry, meant to inspire a love for the artistry of black-and-white film, so that we might work to preserve this important part of our cinematic heritage. Lavishly illustrated with more than forty on-the-set stills, Black and White Cinema provides a vivid and illuminating look at a creatively vital era, as featured on Turner Classic Movies in the series “Artists in Black and White.”

Critical Commentary:

“Dixon, no stranger to film history, gives us a complete overview of the black and white movie era, from the 1900s through the 1960s. He introduces us to the masters and talks about the styles and innovations of cinematographers long gone. Dixon also tells us how the crews working behind these cinematographers helped shape a bygone era of cinema . . . this book will help to inspire others to think about the artistry so that that this classic era of cinema is never forgotten. With more than 40 photos, the book provides a look at a vital era of film.” – Daniel Solzman, Flicksided

“Like artists painting with light and shadows, [cinematographers] perfected the lighting techniques and other innovations that often turned commerce into black-and-white art . . . Covering a hitherto neglected subject, this should be essential reading to all those with an interest in cinema history.” —Roy Liebman, Library Journal

“There’s an interesting new book by Wheeler Winston Dixon called Black & White Cinema: A Short History, and it tells the history of black and white movies, its origins and impact, and it’s really well worth reading. It’s filled with all kinds of insights about black and white cinematography, and the many artists who mastered the tricky interplay in capturing light and shadow.” – Robert Osborne, Turner Classic Movies

“Dixon covers the entire history of black and white movies in one volume, and talks about the films and cinematographers who created these films, and often got little credit for their work. Fascinating and compelling, this is essential reading for anyone who loves movies.” – Robert Downey Sr. director, Putney Swope

“Dixon has an encyclopedic knowledge of film history, and a subtle and well-honed aesthetic sense. He rescues important films from oblivion, and finds fresh angles of approach to films that are already familiar.” -Steven Shaviro, author of Connected, or What It Means to Live in the Network Society

“Wheeler Winston Dixon’s colorful study of black-and-white cinema reaffirms yet again his unfailing expertise as a critic, historian, and dazzlingly fine writer. Indispensable for students, scholars, and movie buffs alike.” – David Sterritt, Chair, National Society of Film Critics

“In his latest book, Black and White Cinema, Wheeler Winston Dixon rediscovers the art of cinematography in those glorious black-and-white movies from Hollywood’s classic age.” –Jan-Christopher Horak, Director, UCLA Film & Television Archive.

My thanks to all who helped bring this book to life, and to the great cinematographers who inspired it.

Behind The Scenes of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927)

Sunday, September 13th, 2015

This fantastic behind-the-scenes photo shows workers on the set for the futuristic city of Metropolis.

As Wikipedia aptly notes, “Metropolis is a 1927 German expressionist epic science-fiction drama film directed by Fritz Lang. Lang and his wife Thea von Harbou wrote the silent film, which starred Brigitte Helm, Gustav Fröhlich, Alfred Abel and Rudolf Klein-Rogge. Erich Pommer produced it in the Babelsberg Studios for Universum Film A.G.. It is regarded as a pioneering work of the science-fiction genre in movies, being among the first feature length movies of the genre.

Made in Germany during the Weimar Period, Metropolis is set in a futuristic urban dystopia and follows the attempts of Freder, the wealthy son of the city’s ruler, and Maria, a poor worker, to overcome the vast gulf separating the classes of their city. Filming took place in 1925 at a cost of approximately five million Reichsmarks, making it the most expensive film ever released up to that point. The motion picture’s futuristic style shows the influence of the work of the Futurist Italian architect Antonio Sant’Elia.

The film met with a mixed response upon its initial release, with many critics praising its technical achievements and social metaphors while others derided its ’simplistic and naïve’ presentation. Because of its long running-time and the inclusion of footage which censors found questionable, Metropolis was cut substantially after its German premiere, and large portions of the film went missing over the subsequent decades.

A new reconstruction of Metropolis was shown at the Berlin Film Festival in 2001, and the film was inscribed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register in the same year, the first film thus distinguished. In 2008 a damaged print of Lang’s original cut of the film was found in a museum in Argentina. After a long restoration process, the film was 95% restored and shown on large screens in Berlin and Frankfurt simultaneously on 12 February 2010.”

Personally, I find the shorter cut preferable; the scenes found in Argentina were from a deeply scratched 16mm dupe negative, and even the most advanced digital technology made the sequences barely watchable. And it also seems to me that Lang more than makes his point in the previously existing 2 hour version, released by Kino in the US.

Nevertheless, no matter how you look at it, there would be no Blade Runner, no Star Wars, or any other Dystopian 99% vs. the 1% sci-fi film without the example of Metropolis, one of the most influential and socially significant films ever made, and one of Fritz Lang’s undisputed masterpieces.

If you haven’t seen it, check it out now!

The 4 Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle

Saturday, September 12th, 2015

The 4 Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle is a minor but enchanting Eric Rohmer film . . .

. . . and it’s too bad there won’t be any more, as even the slightest of Rohmer’s film is a tonic in the oversaturated, hyper-edited CGI world of the present, harking back to a time when humanistic concerns, were more important than the latest mobile gadget. As Aaron Goldberg wrote of the film when it first appeared in the web journal Senses of Cinema, “while not highly regarded (by some) in the expansive Rohmer canon, The 4 Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle stands as one of Rohmer’s most playful, if not hilarious features.

Filmed quickly on 16mm while Rohmer was waiting to get decent sunset shots for his sublime Le Rayon vert (1986), The 4 Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle features mainly non-professional actors who improvised most of the witty and frank dialogue . . .  Rohmer’s old-school (cinematic) ‘new wave’ chops are working in full effect here. From the shaky vérité camerawork, to long discussions about morality and art, his romantic heart is working in cruise control, delivering a film that ably stands it’s own ground.”

Added Caryn James in The New York Times, “as if making a joke about the famous talkiness of his films, Eric Rohmer’s latest work begins and ends with silence – or at least the idea of silence. In the first of the connected episodes in Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle, the voluble Reinette treasures silence so much she wakes her friend Mirabelle before dawn to hear ‘the blue hour,’ which is not an hour but a second, not a sound but a brief silence between darkness and light, when the night birds stop singing and the day birds have not yet begun.

Four Adventures is more conspicuously comic, more overtly ethical, more pointed in its action than most of his recent works . . . Part of Rohmer’s genius, of course, is that he keeps creating such lives – ordinary and rarefied at once, almost but not quite beyond our grasp. No one actually lives in the world of a Rohmer film, where the name of a specific television show or rock star never mars a character’s timeless dialogue, where his characters’ heightened sense of everyday life seems absolutely adventurous.

But the deep lure of his work is the suggestion that it is possible to be as articulate or as witty or even as extravagantly morose as a Rohmer character, to stumble across those undramatic moments of perfect grace on some beach or in some meadow.”

Indeed, while the film may appear to be slight, it is in fact a resonant and uplifting work; it just seems effortless, but then again, when you’re a genius, you can knock films out like this in your sleep. But the saddest part about The 4 Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle is that it isn’t available on DVD; there’s so much junk trolling about the web, but here’s a sublime and joyful film that really deserves a DVD release. But there is a VHS release, and since I still have a VHS player for such emergencies, I ordered one of the last copies available – used – on Amazon for about $10. You should do the same.

Every Eric Rohmer film is worth seeing, and this is one of his most playful, and joyful films.

The Lesson – A Stunning New Film From Bulgaria

Sunday, June 7th, 2015

The Lesson is a stark, gripping feature film from Bulgaria, which is thankfully attracting attention here.

Shot on a microscopic budget in 19 days, with a brilliant performance by Margita Gosheva in the leading role of Nadezhda, a grade school English teacher in Bulgaria who is barely getting by on her pitiful wages, The Lesson is a hard-edged morality tale, with a distinctly bleak view of human society, from neophyte directors Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov. Nadezhda puts up with students who steal money from her purse, a ne’er do well husband who doesn’t pay the mortgage so he can put the money into his worthless RV, a father from whom she is understandably estranged, and most of all, a governmental system that is thoroughly corrupt, designed to keep the poor in a state of perpetual penury, forcing Nadezhda to borrow from a brutal loan shark to keep her home when all other avenues of help fail.

Shot in long takes, with absolutely no music on the soundtrack (though, perhaps predictably, there is a light score in the film’s trailer), The Lesson inevitably recalls the stripped-down austerity of the Dardenne brothers, as well as Robert Bresson, but compared to the Dardennes’ recent Two Days, One Night, which I admit I was quite taken with – given the swill that floats around theaters and VOD today – The Lesson is every way more uncompromising, more brutal, less cosmetic, and more convincingly open-ended; in the film’s final moments, we don’t know precisely what will happen to Nadezhda as a result of her last-ditch attempt to pay off the loan sharks, but we get the distinct feeling that it won’t be something good.

As the directors of the film make clear, The Lesson – the title can be taken in many different ways – is an indictment of a world in which only power and money rule, and all other considerations are summarily swept aside. As they note, “We wanted to tell the story harshly, as a part of life. We strived to be real to the extreme, to create a painfully authentic film story. We got deep into the teacher’s inner world, we tackled her inner conflicts, her fight with her own morality.

One of the main tasks for us as directors was to develop rich and deep human personalities. Together with [our cinematographer] Krum Rodriguez we decided that the camera had to be unnoticed and contemplative, to look carefully at the details and the action, without being obvious. The film was shot in a real provincial town. Most of the small parts were played by real people, not actors. Our main actors had to blend in naturally, they had to partner with the non-professionals, and their performances had to be as authentic and real as possible. Our goal was that the audience wouldn’t be able to tell an actor from a non-actor in the finished film.

Margita Gosheva is a real discovery for us in this sense. After she read the script we changed some lines and situations, but the main work was done on set when she was put in the real situations with the real class of 30 children. The sense of authenticity and real life was leading in each element – make-up, costumes, set design, light and sound.

In the beginning we started shooting just different episodes of the film as a teaser while we were trying to find money for the production, but the cast and crew were so inspired by the story that they didn’t want to stop until we had finished the last shot. Everyone worked for deferred payments and we are truly thankful to the cast and crew who were fully devoted to the filmmaking process despite the minimal time we had for the shooting, and the difficult conditions we were working due to our micro budget.

The film didn’t receive production funding by the Bulgarian Film Center –just like our previous film, Jump (which went on to receive numerous awards at festivals and was nominated for the European Film Awards last year). Both films we financed ourselves, looking for private investors willing to risk their money. We’re forced to make films without the support of the only national funding body we have in Bulgaria.

Despite this we strive to keep making our films. The Lesson is the first feature in a planned trilogy. The three stories are inspired by the living reality, but we don’t intend to tell biographical stories, we use this inspiration only as a creative start. The unifying element between the three stories is the theme of the quiet rebellion of the little person against the mercantile, soulless and cynical world we live in.”

As Joe Leydon noted in his review of the film on September 28, 2014 in Variety at the San Sebastian Film Festival, “thanks in large measure to the sympathy Gosheva elicits and the strength she conveys, Nadezhda’s ultimate solution to her daunting problems comes off as equal parts triumph and tragedy. Indeed, a second viewing of the film underscores just how slyly Gosheva and her co-directors lay the groundwork for Nadezhda’s actions to seem, given the particulars of her character and her situation, inevitable. The Lesson earned for Grozeva and Valchanov the New Directors award at the San Sebastian Film Festival. Don’t be surprised if other accolades follow.”

And indeed they did: The Lesson went on to win the Ingmar Bergman Debut Award at the Goteborg Film Festival, and was an official selection at the Toronto International Film Festival, the San Sebastian Film Festival, the Reykjavik International Film Festival, the Warsaw Film Festival, the Tokyo Film Festival, the Palm Springs Film Festival, and the Goteborg Film Festival. Now, finally, the film is receiving limited release in the US via VOD from Film Movement, a very interesting distribution company which seeks out international films that might otherwise pass under the radar, and releases one film per month on VOD, and later DVD, as a subscription model.

Film Movement is thus providing an invaluable service for all those who love the cinema; none of the films they select would probably get a US release otherwise, and by focusing on younger, more innovative filmmakers, Film Movement thus takes the place of the old art house circuit of 35mm theaters that used to dot the international landscape, but which have disappeared thanks to the ongoing predations of Netflix and other mainstream content providers. So, see The Lesson if you possibly can – it’s an uncompromising, and absolutely fearless example of new independent international cinema, something that all thoughtful viewers should absolutely support.

The Lesson – one more example of a film that deserves the widest possible audience.

Hrutar (Rams) Wins Un Certain Regard Prize at Cannes

Saturday, May 23rd, 2015

Hrutar (Rams) by Icelandic director Grimur Hakonarson was a surprise winner at Cannes.

As Michael Roddy reports for Reuters Canada, “An Icelandic movie about two sheepfarming brothers who have not spoken in 40 years but are brought together by an outbreak of a disease that threatens their flocks won the Un Certain Regard prize at the Cannes Film Festival on Saturday. Hrutar (Rams) by director Grimur Hakonarson took the top prize in the grouping of 19 films in the festival’s second most important competition. The films are chosen to display filmmaking techniques and trends in a variety of cultures and countries around the world. Jury president Isabella Rossellini said viewing the entries ‘was like taking a flight over the planet and seeing all the inhabitants and their emotions.’

Hakonarson said winning was a surprise, but he was delighted. ‘There are very good films in this program and very big directors,’ he said. ‘I didn’t expect this. I’m in heaven.’ The film is set in remote northern Iceland, among sheepfarmers whose livelihood is threatened by an outbreak of scrapie that is fatal to sheep and requires all their flocks to be put down, but the director thought it would strike a chord with anyone. ‘I think it’s a universal story, it’s a story about family conflicts, even though it’s an Icelandic film, it seems to touch the hearts of the audience, you know, but the film, it’s also entertaining, it’s also funny. It’s a mixture of drama and comedy and we seem to have, maybe, profited from that a little.’”

Congratulations! — now all the film needs is a US art house release, or at least, a DVD – or even VOD or streaming.

Interview: Agnès Varda by Violet Lucca

Tuesday, May 12th, 2015

Here’s a fabulous interview with Agnès Varda by Violet Lucca published in Film Comment on May 11, 2015.

As Varda notes, in part, “each film has its history, its beauty or not beauty, and its meaning.  The meaning can change over the years for people who watch the film, because there is a lot of evolution in the sense of history, the sense of understanding.  But when you speak about 35 millimeter or DCP or video, it’s unimportant. The film is what it is, but what is different are the people who made the film.  I change.  I wouldn’t do the same film today about Cuba or about the planters or about women.

Each film has a date glued to it.  And what we try is to overcome the date and make a meaning that can be more than ’62 or ’61 or whatever.  But still, even Cleo from 5 to 7, which deals with a temporal history about being afraid of an illness, being afraid of dying, still has in the film itself a purpose— we include for example the radio broadcasts telling the news of the time. Or in Kung-fu Master!, you have the awareness of AIDS in ’87. I think that we try to escape the limits of history and the time, but still I like to have a point that gives a date to the film, and not make believe that it’s nowhere, no time.”

You can read the rest of this excellent piece by clicking here, or on the image above.

Miss Mend, or The Adventures of Three Reporters on TCM

Friday, May 8th, 2015

Once again, TCM scores with another amazing classic film – this Sunday night May 10th, 2015.

Almost unknown in the West, even today, though luckily actually available on DVD, Miss Mend, or The Adventures of Three Reporters is a really wild Russian film that mixes equal parts action serial, Dr. Mabuse crime film, and political satire in a film that breaks tradition with all other Soviet film of the silent era.

Made in 1926, the film chronicles the attempts of “three reporters and an office girl trying to stop a bacteriological strike by some powerful western business leaders against the USSR,” and while the whole film is typically outrageous Soviet propaganda, it’s filled with an energy and kinetic power akin to the work of Sergei Eisenstein crossed with a dash of Fritz Lang, and succeeds almost through sheer outrageousness alone.

As film critic Bret Wood notes of the film, “when one thinks of the Soviet cinema of the 1920s, the images that come to mind are those of state-sponsored propaganda, rendered in a dynamic visual style, orchestrated with the rhythm of hammer blows, engineered to deliver the maximum emotional and intellectual impact. But not every Russian film at the time was cut from the cloth of Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov and Vsevolod Pudovkin. There was a whole other movement that embraced the conventions of American and European film as a means of imparting its sociopolitical messages.

Films such as The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924), The Cigarette Girl of Mosselprom (1924) and even the sci-fi romance Aelita, Queen of Mars (1924) proved that some Red Russians served up their agitprop with joie de vivre. The most prominent purveyor of this breed of film was the Mezhrabpom-Rus studio. In her book Movies for the Masses: Popular Cinema and Soviet Society in the 1920s, Denise J. Youngblood writes that ‘the studio was a flourishing concern, its commercial style already well established. Despite its dependence on leftist, German capital, it turned out unabashedly bourgeois films — films with the dash and glamour which had characterized the pre-revolutionary cinema.’

One of Mezhrabpom’s most ambitious films was Boris Barnet and Fyodor Otsep’s Miss Mend (1926), which tapped into the adventure serial genre that had proven popular in the U.S. (The Perils of Pauline [1914]), Germany (Fritz Lang’s The Spiders [1919-20]), and France (Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires [1915]). Broken into three feature-length installments and clocking a total of more than four hours, Miss Mend is a hyperkinetic comedy thriller that achieves the near-impossible challenge of maintaining audience interest over the course of a plot that expansive without being exhausting.

The labyrinthine plot follows the exploits of a muck-raking reporter, Barnet (Barnet), a photographer named Vogel (Vladimir Fogel), Hopkins the clerk (Igor Ilyinsky), and a typist named Vivian Mend (Natalya Glan), who stumble upon a conspiracy to murder American industrialist Gordon Stern and lay the blame on the Bolsheviks. Through a falsified will, Stern’s empire will go to the vampish second wife Elizabeth (Natalya Rozenel), who hands it over to a ‘gigantic criminal conspiracy’ known as the Organization, led by an assassin named Chiche (Sergei Komarov).

In part two, the nefarious Chiche reveals a plot to sell plague-inducing biological weapons to a cabal of wealthy industrialists. To demonstrate the effectiveness of the germs, he sends an ampule to be discharged in Soviet Russia (where it will eliminate thousands of labor activists). A motorboat chase ensues and the ampule is intercepted by Vogel, but is accidentally smashed, and the passengers and crew on the S.S. Preussen begin dropping like flies.

In the concluding section, the plague is contained and pursuit of Chiche reaches a fever pitch. Hopkins falls under Chiche’s hypnotic spell (a reference perhaps to Fritz Lang’s arch-villain Dr. Mabuse, who was a master of mind control) but it is unclear just how deeply entranced he may be. As the Organization begins to unravel, its mastermind makes a last-ditch effort to release the plague-bearing bacterium upon the world, but he hasn’t accounted for the presence of the Soviet Police, who have the chance to be the heroes of the climactic third act.

According to Youngblood, ‘Miss Mend was one of the most-seen [Soviet] films of the twenties, with a recorded audience of more than 1.7 million in the first six months. It played at least two months at the deluxe Ars theatre in Moscow.’ But Youngblood reveals that the critics were not as enthusiastic as the ticket-buyers. ‘Miss Mend was one of the most criticized movies of the twenties . . . The reviews ranged from the dismissive (“naive and stupid” and “varnished barbarism”) to the denunciatory (accusations that the film’s cheerful antics promoted “hooliganism”).’ Not exactly an intellectual exercise, the film was nonetheless laced with bits of social commentary, often aimed at various forms of Western decadence (including corrupt cops and red hot jazz).”

And you’re going to miss this? No, you’re not – DVR it. Miss Mend is an astounding piece of filmmaking.

Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria

Sunday, April 26th, 2015

Clouds of Sils Maria is Olivier Assayas’ finest film in quite some time – a really dazzling achievement.

And as Peter Debruge noted in part in his review for Variety, the film had an unusual genesis. According to Debruge, “after collaborating with Assayas on 2008’s perfect, albeit ultra-safe Summer Hours, actress Juliette Binoche challenged the director to write a part that delved into genuine female experience. Though deceptively casual on its surface, Clouds of Sils Maria marks his daring rejoinder, a multi-layered, female-driven meta-fiction that pushes all involved — including next-generation starlets Kristen Stewart and Chloë Grace Moretz — to new heights.

Binoche plays Maria Enders, a 40-ish movie star approached about appearing in a fresh staging of the play Maloja Snake, a film adaptation of which launched her career two decades earlier. This time, she’s being asked to interpret the older role — a burnt-out, middle-aged businesswoman manipulated by her young female assistant. Maria has always identified with the other character, the one she played at age 20, whereas the role of the has-been is haunted by her previous co-star, who died in a car accident a year after they shot the movie . . .

As the film opens, Maria is traveling with her assistant Val (Stewart) to accept an award on behalf of her close friend and mentor, playwright Wilhelm Melchior (a provocateur loosely inspired by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, whose film The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant echoes below the surface here). En route, while dealing with the particulars of her in-progress divorce, Marie receives word that Melchior has died, dredging up an unpleasant figure from her past, an old co-star named Henryk Wald (Hanns Zischler) whose desperation provides a horrifying glimpse into where her own career could be headed.

For this and her myriad other insecurities, Marie has Val, the hyper-reliable young woman who serves as her minder, mother, therapist and rehearsal partner. It is Val who talks her nervous boss into doing the Maloja Snake revival, dragging Marie to a studio-produced superhero movie just to see Jo-Ann Ellis (Moretz), the edgy young actress tapped to play the other part. Running lines from the play, Marie and Val may as well be describing their own sexually charged codependency, so perversely does the dialogue fit the pair’s own increasingly unhealthy dynamic.

At times, Val excuses herself to visit a photographer boyfriend (although a weird mountain-driving montage suggests she may simply need to get away when the connection becomes too intense), until finally, she seems to disappear altogether, just one of the many mysteries woven into this rich and tantalizingly open-ended psychological study . . .

Ultimately, Stewart is the one who actually embodies what Binoche’s character most fears, countering the older actress’ more studied technique with the same spontaneous, agitated energy that makes her the most compellingly watchable American actress of her generation . . .

Sils Maria reaches for the stratosphere — which incidentally, is where most of the film takes place, high in the Swiss Alps, above the clouds. From this celestial vantage, Maria and Val are free to observe the real Maloja Snake, a seething meteorological formation that sends clouds winding serpent-like through a valley lined by mountains on either side.

In addition to documenting this spectacle afresh, Assayas unearths an old 1924 silent movie by German director Arnold Fanck, the sort of relic that makes one grateful someone thought to capture this mesmerizing phenomenon on film. Binoche leaves audiences with the same exhilarating feeling here — of having witnessed something precious and rare — answering the challenge of Assayas’ script by revealing a character incredibly closer to her soul.”

With links not only Fassbinder and American pop culture films, as seen in the film-within-a-film ostensibly starring Chloë Grace Moretz, as well to Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock and Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura, Sils Maria instantly jumps into my Top Ten List — in which there are, admittedly, 250 films at least – and is a work of mysterious, mesmerizing brilliance, which should be seen by everyone.

This excellent film will play May 1 – 7, 2015 at The Mary Riepma Ross Film Theater – don’t miss it.

The White Reindeer (1952)

Saturday, March 21st, 2015

Here’s a real curiosity – a forgotten fairy tale / horror film from Finland.

As Wikipedia notes, “The White Reindeer (Finnish: Valkoinen peura) is a 1952 Finnish horror drama film written, photographed and directed by Erik Blomberg. It was entered in competition at the 1953 Cannes Film Festival and earned the Jean Cocteau-led jury special award for Best Fairy Tale Film. After its limited release five years later in the United States, it was one of five films to win the 1957 Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Film.

The film, based on pre-Christian Finnish mythology and Sami shamanism, is set in Finnish Lapland and centers on a young woman, Pirita (Blomberg’s wife Mirijami Kuosmanen). In the snowy landscape, Pirita and reindeer herder Aslak (Kalervo Nissilä) meet and soon marry. Aslak must spend time away for work, leaving his new bride alone and lonely.

In an effort to alleviate her loneliness and ignite marital passion, Pirita visits the local shaman, who indeed helps her out; but in the process turns her into a shapeshifting, vampiric white reindeer. The village men are drawn to her and pursue her, with tragic results.”

As with so many interesting films from the past, even films such as this which received significant honors, and a fairly high profile festival release, The White Reindeer is not available on DVD in the United States, but can be found on a French DVD (Region 2) under the title Le Renne Blanc – and is well worth seeking out.

With a very brief running time, the simplest resources, this is a compelling and deeply original film that deserves more attention – another example of how much there is available in world cinema, and how much more there is to discover. Why this isn’t available in the United States is a mystery to me – there’s even a Criterion “fantasy” site where the film is listed as a supposed release – but sadly, this is just a dream.

So do yourself a favor – buy the DVD, which has English subtitles, while you still can.

Le Silence de la mer (1949) by Jean-Pierre Melville

Friday, February 27th, 2015

Nicole Stéphane in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Silence de la mer (1949).

Le Silence de la mer, Melville’s first feature film, was shot in 1949 on a shoestring budget, based on the novel of the same name by Jean Bruller, under the pen name of Vercours.The plot is simple: a German lieutenant, Werner von Ebrennac (Howard Vernon) moves in with a rural French family during the Nazi occupation of World War II, consisting of an old man (Jean-Marie Robain) and his niece (Nicole Stéphane), who refuse to speak to him during the time he is billeted there. Courteous, cultured, and superficially charming, von Ebrennac is an impractical idealist, who is proud of German heritage and culture, but who also believes that in the end, the war will serve a common good; the uniting of Germany and France, and the intermingling of each nation’s cultures.

Night after night, von Ebrennac emerges from his bedroom upstairs with the deepest politeness, and engages in a series of seemingly endless monologues about the future of France and Germany, the cultural history of both nations, his childhood and upbringing, his first romance, and his faith in the Nazi hierarchy. During all the time, the uncle and his niece say not a single word to von Ebrennac, who despite his position of power, doesn’t threaten or intimidate them, but rather longingly expresses his hope that someday the two nations will “marry,” while making obvious allusions to his attraction to the old man’s niece.

One day, von Ebrennac announces that he has been called to Paris to meet with the Nazi hierarchy. Here Melville manages to blend newsreel footage of the Occupation with staged footage of Vernon, as von Ebrennac, taking in the sights, and reveling in the city’s cultural atmosphere. A music composer during peacetime, von Ebrennac doesn’t really know how barbaric the Nazi regime is, until one functionary tells him of the death camps at Treblinka, and later, a group of Nazi officers at a party reveal that their true plan is to crush French culture entirely, to destroy the entire nation down to the ground so that it can then be rebuilt according to Hitler’s plans, stating that “only technical books” in French will be allowed – everything else, modern or old, will be summarily destroyed.

Von Ebrennac finds this impossible to believe, but gradually realizes that he has been duped into joining the Nazi cause. When he returns to the old man’s house, von Ebrennac relates the story of his “grave” discovery in detail, one which he finds impossible to accept. Finally comprehending the monstrous nature of the regime he so blindly supported, von Ebrennac files an application for active duty on the Eastern Front, where he will almost surely be killed. As he puts it, I’m “off to Hell.” A last shot suggests that he may disobey future orders given to him by the Nazi regime, but this is left unresolved.

Shot in Bruller’s own house in 27 non-consecutive days by the great Henri Decaë – his first film as a Director of Cinematography – Le silence de la mer manages to pull off a neat trick; though it’s utterly claustrophobic in design and execution, and is essentially a series of monologues by Von Ebrennac, the film is continually visually inventive, and through an intricate design of fade in / fade outs and wipes, weaves a spell over the viewer, who soon becomes invested not only in Von Ebrennac’s coming to consciousness, but also in the outcome of the narrative – how on earth will this battle of wills be resolved?

Some have described it as a love story, but if so, it’s one that never really announces itself; the niece may indeed be a sort of stand-in for France as a whole, but this is never unduly emphasized. Instead, the film explores what happens when a tyrannical regime recruits an aesthete, and what then transpires when that person discovers he’s been deceived. Bruller wrote the novel in 1941; it was published clandestinely during the Occupation, and circulated by members of the Resistance, during a time when the possession of single copy of the work was punishable by death. Bruller was initially resistant to the idea of adapting his novel to film, despite offering the use of his house as a shooting location, and stipulated that when the film was completed, it would have to pass a “jury test” by 27 members of the former Resistance, to see if it was faithful to the novel, and should be released.

If the jury voted against the film, Melville promised to burn the negative and all prints. Thankfully, only one member of this “jury” voted against the film, and now it has been digitally restored in glorious fashion, first by Eureka DVD in Europe, and now in the United States from Criterion. This is a superb, one of a kind film – and a real window not only into the past of cinema, but also to an era in which films were made for the sake of art, rather than commerce – when individual talent was sufficient to overcome all financial and practical obstacles. And, of course, although he loved film noir and American crime films, Melville never sold out and went Hollywood – instead, he remained an individual and committed artist, something that’s completely rare these days.

You can see the trailer for the film by clicking here, or on the image above.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at or

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