Film and Television Features

Home Cinema – September 2014

In this monthly column we look at the best releases each month in home cinema Blu-Ray and DVD, which a particular focus on the best of cult and classic films. This month we take a look at the grandfather of horror cinema, one of the most unrelentingly bleak film noirs ever made, and a surprising rarity from an often forgotten master of animation.

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Blu-Ray & DVD, Masters of Cinema)
A gaunt young man flees across an impossible landscape with an angry mob in close pursuit. The buildings around him are twisted into jagged shapes, as if they’re trying to physically contort themselves away from the ground and stretch upwards to the night sky. The man is suspected of murder, despite the fact he’s also spent his entire life in a perpetual trance-like sleep. This is the dreamworld of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, a film often dubbed the ‘grandfather’ of horror cinema and among the most visually influential films ever made. Unsurprisingly for a horror film, the story focuses on a series of murders, which the film’s hero Francis (Friedrich Fehér) sets out to investigate. Top of his list of suspects is the villainous Dr Caligari (Werner Krauss), a carnival hypnotist who claims the skeletal young man he keeps in a cabinet is able to predict the future. As Francis digs deeper into the mysterious doctor’s past his discoveries only seem to get stranger, and the reality of the already warped world we’re shown begins to unravel.

Caligari’s narrative can occasionally feel a little plodding, and the film lacks the sophisticated storytelling that many silent films would develop in the decade that followed. However, it’s never really been the pacing of the story or quality of characterisation that earned Caligari its place in history. This is a film all about visual invention. The expressive forms that were sweeping through the German art scene at the time found their way onto the screen in the form of German Expressionist cinema, where they gave birth to some of the best German films ever made. Caligari remains one of the very finest and most iconic examples of this movement, and is a film that still retains the power to surprise despite the hordes of films it went onto influence. This is the world as seen through the shards of a broken mirror. Scene after scene reveals stunning set design and imaginative use of shape and light. Hand painted shadows, with still visible brushstrokes, give the world of the film a wonderfully expressive, and subjective, quality. Caligari is a like a half-remembered dream, lovingly recreated by artists rather than technicians, and projected onto the screen. Though few films ever dared go to this stylistic extreme again, Caligari is a film that has cast a long shadow over cinema, seen most obviously in the gothic horror genre.

Given the importance of Caligari’s visuals, there’s been a lot of discussion about this latest restoration. Thankfully, it’s all been stunningly realised, with many scenes of the film barely showing even a decade of their over-nine decade history. That a film released only two years after the end of World War I can look this sharp again is particularly impressive. While it would be easy to let the restoration stand for itself, Masters of Cinema have also thrown in a variety of special features and essays that discuss the film’s production history and artistic importance. The best of these by far is the documentary ‘Caligari and the Birth of Horror in the First World War’, which serves as a cultural history of Germany during the period, and explores how the hopes and fears of the nation found their way into its cinema. Combined with the quality of the restoration itself, this is an outstanding release of one of cinema’s most visually iconic creations.

Brute Force (Blu-Ray & DVD, Arrow)
The same stylised shadows and paranoia that defined Caligari’s legacy reared its head again two decades later in the thriving cityscapes of America, this time evolving into ‘film noir’. These films revealed a dark mirror image of America, transforming the bustling streets and seemingly safe suburbs into sites of betrayal, greed and death. So, how then would the dark mirror of film noir reflect the already nightmarish world of the American prison system? The answer was found in Jules Dassin’s tough, pulpy classic Brute Force.

Joe (Burt Lancaster) is the leader of one of the prison’s many gangs, which includes a varied mix of professional con artists, war veterans and accidental thieves. With little else to do, this disparate cast of characters dream of their previous lives on the ‘outside’, allowing the film to indulge in a series of flashbacks. These pulp short stories can occasionally descend into cliché, but they also add some much needed humanity to our characters in an environment where revealing too much about yourself can occasionally be dangerous. With so much unfinished business waiting on the outside, their thoughts inevitably turn to escape. To pull this off they’ll need to enlist the help of Gallagher (Charles Pickford), the wise old man of the prison who has already seen countless escape attempts stutter and fail. At the top of the prison’s food chain is the manipulative Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn), whose polite manners barely disguise the ambitious sadist that lurks beneath. Like many other characters, Munsey recognises that the prison is a ‘human bomb’, only his sadism and ruthless ambitious means he spends much of the story working tirelessly to bring this bomb to detonation.

Despite the strength of the noirs he directed (including The Naked City, Thieves’ Highway and the superb London-set Night and the City), director Jules Dassin is usually only discussed today in relation to his 1955 film Rififi, which to be fair remains one of the greatest crime films ever made. However, Dassin’s earlier noirs, Brute Force included, are also well deserving of reappraisal. Dassin crafted shadowy and well-realised worlds, filled with detestable characters and danger. The cramped cells and prison politics of Brute Force is perhaps one of the best examples of this. This is a harsh and uncompromising thriller, even by the typically pessimistic standards of film noir. Though it never quite makes the full transformation into a social commentary film, Brute Force is also a noticeably anti-authoritarian film, with those in charge portrayed as inept at best, and explicitly fascistic at worst. Though the script serves the material well throughout and has some stand out moments, it rarely displays the wit and creativity shown in the scripts of top tier noirs. The stars of the film put out solid performances regardless, with Hume Cronyn’s slimy portrayal of Captain Mumsey being particularly memorable. Much of the film’s success also hinges on the sheer charisma of Burt Lancaster, seen here in his second ever film role. Lancaster is celebrated in one of the disc’s special features, which offers an exhaustive analysis of his career both leading up to and beyond Brute Force. This is joined by essays on the film’s background and its producer, Mark Hellinger. Brute Force is film noir at its blackest; a harsh mix of noir, social commentary and prison break action fully deserving to be explored.

A Jester’s Tale (DVD, Second Run)
While western pioneers of animation such as Walt Disney and Ray Harryhausen remain frequently discussed, and the reputation of Japanese masters such as Hiyao Miyazaki seems to grow with each passing year, the same could never really be said for the animators of central and eastern Europe. This is a shame, because the cold war years saw an impressive quantity of daring and often surprisingly political work emerging from the other side of the iron curtain. While fiction films may have been closely monitored by the communist authorities, animation was often allowed to slip past the censors, resulting in some artistically adventurous creations. Karel Zeman was one of the great names to emerge from Czechoslovakia’s impressive animation scene, and remains an influence on many of today’s most prominent directors of fantasy cinema. Despite the respect many hold for his legacy, only a miniscule amount of his work is available today in the English language. This makes Second Run’s release of A Jester’s Tale (its first home video release in the English speaking world) a particularly welcome prospect.

Petr (Petr Kostka) is a young farmer trying to avoid being swept up in the devastating chaos of the Thirty Years War. His efforts do not protect him for long, and he is soon forcibly ‘enlisted’ as a ‘volunteer’ in the service of a local general. Switching identities and personas as the situation demands, Petr drifts through the chaos around him, finding his fortunes rising and falling in a manner reminiscent of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. Often the situations he finds himself in are ridiculous, such as when Petr attempts to quickly don another guise to avoid being captured by an approaching army, only to realise he has accidentally put on the clothes of the opposing force. Along the way Petr meets Lenka (Emilia Vasaryova), who becomes his love interest, as well as the jester of the film’s title.

Most of the story is told with live action, but Zeman mixes the performances of his actors with animation in ways that are often innovative and surprising. Animation can often lend a film the sense that anything is possible, and Zeman manages to extend this to the whole of his story. A Jester’s Tale has a sense of magic, and the rules of logic and physics are broken with pleasing regularity. Meanwhile, the animated sequences themselves have a charmingly handcrafted quality which will likely remind many of Terry Gilliam, whose work bears many Zeman influences. Whereas a great deal of animation has focused on crafting believable fantasy worlds, Zeman’s directing here continuously (and gleefully) draws attention to its own fictitious nature, yet somehow without ever drawing attention away from the power of the moral messages at the film’s core.

Despite its often light, swashbuckling tone, A Jester’s Tale also doubles as a successful anti-war film. Conflict is depicted here as something pointless and completely out of control, manifesting itself as a literal ‘god of war’ in the sky who blows across the landscape in a seemingly random fashion. This is helped by the film’s focus on the smallest and most insignificant characters, caught up in a chaos they had nothing to do with creating. The anti-war values of the film are expanded upon in the essay that accompanies the film, which also places it into the context of Zeman’s career. With such a tiny amount of Zeman’s work readily available, it’s great to see a company taking the time to present one of films again, and I only hope Second Run follow it with further releases.