Film and Television Features

Home Cinema – November 2014

In this monthly column we look at the newest releases in home cinema Blu-Ray and DVD, which a particular focus on the best of cult and classic cinema. This month we tackle a British sci-fi b-movie, a beautifully observed documentary from Bulgaria, and a sprawling espionage adventure from Fritz Lang.

The Unearthly Stranger (Blu-Ray & DVD, Network)
The Unearthly Stranger opens with a sweat drenched man tearing through the streets of London, though what person or force is pursuing him is left initially to our imagination. In a narrative technique reminiscent of films such as Double Indemnity, the source of our protagonist’s panic is revealed to us through flashback and the audio recording of his cautionary tale he leaves behind. The breathless pacing and shadowy lighting of the film’s opening are actually a little misleading, as The Unearthly Stranger soon becomes a much more refrained affair, with economic storytelling and low budget filmmaking that displays a minimum of flash. Our doomed man’s tale concerns scientists investigating a method of space travel that harnesses the power of the human brain. When one of the scientists on the project becomes the latest in a series of mysterious deaths, some begin to suspect the murders may be being caused by something more sinister than agents from the other side of the Iron Curtain.

Suspicions rapidly move out of the world of Cold War intrigue and into the apparent sanctity of the home, when scientist Mark (John Neville) discovers the British intelligence services have picked out his new and somewhat mysterious wife Julie (Gabriella Licudi) as a target for closer scrutiny. As in other classic Cold War science-fiction such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Invaders From Mars, here the otherworldly threat could be literally anyone or anywhere. Science fiction films such as The Unearthly Stranger translated the public’s paranoia about Communist infiltrators hiding among them into outlandish tales of an alien menaces who could be right in front of you, and you may never even know it. In this case, it’s the strange behaviour of Mark’s wife that begins triggering alarm bells. First it’s her widened constantly-staring eyes, which never seem to blink, then her apparent immunity to pain. Finally, even her status as a living being comes into question as Mark discovers she may not have a pulse. In retrospect, it’s surprising it takes Mark as long as it does to begin asking questions.

Unlike the science fiction films mentioned above, The Unearthly Stranger is an extremely stripped back affair free from prosthetics and special effects. The film’s low budget could feel limited in many regards, but it actually works as something of a strength. This is an alien threat that is discussed and occasionally heard rather than seen, leaving much to our imagination. As in many low budget British science fiction, the effect is often a creepy one. The world may appear ordinary and free from the dodgy alien costumes of more ambitious productions, but something under the seemingly everyday surface is clear amiss. This is perhaps best depicted in one of the film’s strongest scenes where Julie passes a playground, causing a terrified hush to come over all of the children. Scenes such as this are strengthened by the film’s performances, which are occasionally over-wrought but well suited to the tone of the film. The Unearthly Stranger is clearly a film without too many resources at its disposal, but it does a great job with what it has. Even among the vast numbers of science fiction films receiving attention at the moment due to the BFI’s nationwide season, this spooky, low budget b-movie stands out as worthy of attention.

Sofia’s Last Ambulance (DVD, Second Run)
Often the best film experiences are those that take you completely by surprise, or when you stumble on something unexpected from a part of the world you knew relatively little about. I’d never heard of Bulgarian director Ilian Metev before, and Sofia’s Last Ambulance is one of these unexpected gems. The documentary is set in Bulgaria’s capital city, Sofia, which has a population of over one million people, yet apparently only thirteen functioning ambulances. We follow the driver of one of these ambulances and its two medics as they try to keep up with the demands of the city. Sofia is clearly lacking the infrastructure it needs, and the team face a series of ever more challenging situations as they go about their nightly drives. This is a film about professionals under siege, trying their hardest to help others despite the obstacles constantly thrown in their way. Occasionally the moments we’re shown are almost too painful to watch, such as in an early scene where one of the medics tries desperately to distract a child from the pain she’s in. It’s a film that celebrates the compassion and morality at the heart of the profession, but also the toll it can take. Long shots linger on the exhaustion our three main characters feel, and the sense that the problems they face are never ending. In such trying circumstances, friendships and close bonds develop between the three characters, which the film also takes the time to explore.

What really elevates Sofia’s Last Ambulance though is the unusual style it has been filmed in. Despite the film’s citywide focus on a society struggling to fully care for its citizens, this is an incredibly intimate film. The camera remains constantly fixed on our three main characters throughout the film, never even turning to fully show us the patients they are treating or the sights they are seeing. Thus we explore the problems facing Sofia entirely through the reactions of three human beings. The human face is obviously capable of expressing an incredible amount at once, and the wearied expressions and exhausted eyes of these three professionals speak volumes here. Much of the documentary is shot via dashboard cameras, in a style most closely reminiscent of Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten. The camera is intimate and close, sometimes more so than we would normally wish to be. This is a film equally fascinated by human beings and the human face as it is with the demands of the medical profession and wider societal issues. It’s this mix of the deeply personal and the expansive that makes Sofia’s Last Ambulance so engrossing.

Joining the main feature is Metev’s 2008 short documentary Goleshovo, set in the Bulgarian village of the same name. It seems as though the young departed this village long ago, leaving only the elderly to remain and reflect. Goleshovo is also a place that seems to have frozen in time, where old customs and ways of life are preserved. The documentary isn’t so much a narrative as a series of unobtrusive snapshots. The result is an often moving film that’s a great companion to Sofia’s Last Ambulance. This Second Run release also features a conversation with the film’s director, which functions in much the same way as a strong post-film Q&A, and provides insight into the decisions behind Sofia’s Last Ambulance’s unusual filming style.

Spione (Blu-Ray & DVD, Masters of Cinema)
With so many notable works spread across his filmography (Metropolis and M in particular), it’s easy to forget just how many films Fritz Lang directed and how varied they could be. During the 1920’s, Lang worked on everything from fantasy epics (Die Nibelungen), to science fiction adventures (Frau Im Mond, which we covered in our August column), to paranoid crime thrillers (Das Testament des Dr Mabus). Spione captures Lang right in the middle of this creative peak, just one year after he’d released arguably his most famous film, Metropolis. As such, it’s a film that shows off the talents and ambition of one of silent cinema’s finest storytellers.

Those expecting to again see the monumental visual style of Metropolis may be initially surprised by how low-key Spione feels by comparison. Visually, this is a simpler and less extravagant affair, in part because Lang no longer had access to the sprawling budget of his previous film. However, this doesn’t seem to have curbed Lang’s ambition. This is a hugely ambitious spy epic with an expansive cast of characters, all of whom are engaged in a complex web of plans and counter-plans. Pulling the strings from the shadows is the film’s villain Haghi, who is both a banker and a criminal mastermind (a plot detail that will likely resonate with many contemporary audiences!). When Haghi dispatches one of his best agents Sonja (Gerda Maurus) on a mission to seduce a colonel, the intelligence services respond by sending a skilled agent of their own, the mysteriously named ‘Agent 326’ (Willy Fritsch) to bring down Haghi’s empire. Events quickly complicate when Sonja and Agent 326 meet, and find themselves falling in love. The plot allows Lang to delve headfirst into the glamour, conspiracies and paranoia of Weimar Republic Germany; a world which proves a lot of fun to navigate through.

Spione is a light and entertaining, rather than thematically rich, film. In many ways it feels like reading a dusty spy paperback, but one clearly told with a great deal of skill. Particularly entertaining is the film’s wonderfully exaggerated villain with his devilish beard, who spends much of the film surrounded by a cloud of smoke like some sinister underworld creature. It’s also interesting to see just how many aspects of Lang’s vision have been repeated in the espionage films that followed it in later decades, most notably the James Bond franchise. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a film with the generic title of ‘Spies’, Spione feels like we’re watching many of the tropes of the spy genre being established before our eyes.

We unfortunately only got a chance to look at the DVD release of the film this month, which looked impressive regardless. Given Masters of Cinema’s track record with high definition restorations we can assume the Blu-Ray release probably looks fantastic. Spione has long been considered one of Lang’s ‘minor’ works, but the bundle of extras that come with this release go some way to readdressing this. The new Blu-Ray release comes with a 69 minute documentary about the film’s production, as well as two essays which offer a critical appraisal.