“I am big … it’s the pictures that got small” : Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Sunset Blvd cover 1Sunset Boulevard. Paramount Pictures; producer, Charles Brackett; writers, Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder and D.M. Marshman, Jr.; director, Billy Wilder; cinematographer, John F. Seitz; music, Franz Waxman; costume designer, Edith Head. Originally released as a motion picture in 1950. Performers: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich Von Stroheim, Nancy Olsen, Fred Clark, Jack Webb, Cecil B. DeMille, Hedda Hopper. Summary: a down-on-his luck scriptwriter finds a new line of work as screewriting consultant and reluctant companion to an aging film star.

style ****
substance ****

How much more noir can you get than a dead guy narrating his own slow demise from beyond the grave?  - Maurizio Roca, Wonders in the Dark (review)

And how much more can be written about a movie that’s had so much written about it? Well, inspired by a recent viewing on the big screen, I’ll offer my two cents and see what happens.

Sunset Boulevard is the crown jewel of the mid-century cinematic triumvirate which gave us the first warts-and-all portrayals of the nasty yet ever so seductive business we call the film industry, the other two being The Bad and the Beautiful and In a Lonely Place. Truth be told, despite their lofty status none of these is actually about the technical, financial, or even aesthetic aspects of making movies.

But what they are about is the peeling away of the curtain to reveal Hollywood’s mystique in its darkest, most transmogrified light, manifested through the foibles and follies of the characters. Like Nathanael West’s novel The Day of the Locust, these movies, Sunset Boulevard in particular, are not about glamour and success, but much more about failure, disappointment, and the futile attempt to recapture past glory and success, and of the resultant psychological ramifications.

Sunset Blvd cover 2Among other things, the movie is a treat for writers. This is mostly due to the crackling script, but also because writers, specifically their psyches, i.e. egos, play a big part in the story (even Norma Desmond is a writer, of a sort). Thus no surprise that we sense the long shadow of onetime Billy Wilder collaborator Raymond Chandler hovering over Sunset Boulevard: the jaundiced tone, the corruption behind Southern California’s faux-glamour, the first person narrator always ready with a pithy one-liner. Even Joe’s arrival at the faded mansion recalls Marlowe’s visit to Gen. Sternwood and similar well-heeled clients.

For all the snappy repartee and humor – the most memorable lines this side of Casablanca – this is one of the saddest movies I know. All the eminently flawed characters live with an inflated self-assurance and sense of their own rightness, perhaps a way of covering up a certain nihilistic despair. It all borders on, and sometimes spills over to, outright delusion.

Probably the saddest aspect of Sunset Boulevard is that many of the stars in the movie, Gloria Swanson most of all, are portraying the kind of movie types they were in real life (sometimes playing themselves, as in the case of the bridge partners Joe rather uncharitably refers to as the waxworks). To their credit they all play it straight without a touch of camp or self-deprecation. Even the legendary Cecil B. DeMille literally plays himself – a sympathetic portrayal to be sure – and it’s a tribute to his strong sense of identity that he agreed to appear in such a blisteringly gloves-off portrait of Hollywood. By the way, DeMille shows some real flair as an actor.

What we’re seeing in Sunset Boulevard is a group of idealists and true artists given the brush, as DeMille’s realpolitik assistant puts it so crassly. They’ve been dissed and discarded, not for a higher good, which is still no excuse, but rather for the crude expediencies of marketing, current fashions, and the all-pervasive power of the dollar.

Sunset Blvd photo 1
Of particular interest to film buffs is the mixture of Real Hollywood, complete with real names of actors and directors, etc., (John Gilbert, Mabel Norman, Garbo, D.W. Griffith), references and homages (Norma’s wonderful Chaplain vignette), real companies (Paramount), real places of L.A. local color (Schwab’s drugstore, Bullock’s), and other things, within the fictional context.

William Holden’s persona, especially his voice and delivery, is perfect as the Chandleresque, wise guy narrator who’s not quite as sharp as he thinks and harbors a barely self-concealed self-loathing. He looks just as great in a swimsuit as he does in all those vicuna and camel’s hair suits Norma buys for him. Of course Miss Swanson’s miraculous performance has been praised to the skies and this writer has little to add.

sunset blvd house 2My own, perhaps slightly novel, take would be that the decaying, echt-creepy house, a synthesis of California Gothic and Castle Dracula, complete with wheezing organ that plays itself, is the real star of the picture, a symbol for a puffed-up Hollywood already in decline. Indeed, despite its noirish/black comedy bonafides, Sunset Boulevard is closest in spirit to the Gothic Horror film, or its first cousin, the Brontë noir as represented by films like Rebecca and Wuthering Heights

Or perhaps the house is a metaphor for Norma herself. Consider Joe’s comment:

“…the whole place seemed to have been stricken with a kind of creeping paralysis, out of beat with the rest of the world, crumbling apart in slow motion.”

But is Sunset Boulevard really about the movie business, or is it about us? It conjures up, however obliquely, some not so comfortable yet universal existential issues: what does one do when the star power (youth, vitality, marketability) fades; the sobering reality that none of us is irreplaceable; the dangers of unbridled opportunism and getting ahead at any price; the human costs of unchecked self- delusion.

The film’s mildly leftist subtext which contrasts the callous rich (Norma, movie moguls) with the more sympathetic little people (Joe, Betty, Artie) is softened by the ethically challenged character of Joe, who isn’t interested in Norma as a woman or her harebrained ideas. He submits to her machinations out of financial exigencies, an inconvenient fact she’s all too happy to point out. But there are some compensations along the way: he enjoys the good life ride, for as long as it lasts, and sneaks away for a little real writing when he gets the chance. And even the relatively normal, über-wholesome Betty (Nancy Olson) smolders with the ambition to graduate from reader to screenwriter.

Sunset Blvd cover 3Joe may well be correct in his assessment that Norma suffers all variations of deluded grandeur, but he never takes seriously her valid point that the good old days were more than just nostalgia, but represented a purer type of filmmaking (“we didn’t need dialogue; we had faces then”). Could her clinging to the silent film aesthetic be a belief in the superiority of a particular, and unique, art form?

In any case, in a movie where irony is piled upon irony, one of the best touches is that Joe, who is so good with the witticism that puts the movie business, and by implication, Norma, in its place, is himself such a true believer in the dream. The real common thread between Norma and Joe is that both exist in a twilight world that fends off a pesky reality.

But ultimately there are no heroes – or outright villains – in Sunset Boulevard. There’s lots of shadings rendered in sepia and similar tones, and it’s one of the things that makes it so good. The tension then is not so much hero v villain, but rather artist v commodity purveyor. Deluded or no, Norma wants to create something great. Joe wants to cash in on the best deal available, which for the moment is Norma.

Gloria Swanson photo

happier days

The closest thing we have to a hero is Max (Erich Von Stroheim), Norma’s fawning, ever-protective butler and Man Friday who shares quite a bit of history with Norma, aesthetic and otherwise. But even Max isn’t totally innocent, far from it. In our current pop psychology lingua franca he’s Norma’s enabler-in-chief, shielding her from a world where she’s been relegated to forgotten has-been. But we can’t lay too much blame at Max’s door: pretty much everyone who is around Norma – her faded glory movie pals, Joe, musicians, beauty and health consultants – contribute to the conspiracy of silence to keep her from seeing the elephant in the living room. Even C. B. DeMille is a kind of enabler. Like the others, he simply doesn’t have the heart to tell her the truth.

And yet … for all its brittle wit and irony, Sunset Boulevard has a great humanity and compassion, nowhere more so than the final scene where, onlookers agog, Norma descends the staircase while Joe muses from beyond the grave that fate can be merciful. The one fleeting shot that stays with me is that of the hard-bitten Hedda Hopper unable to hold back the tears of sadness as Norma descends both the staircase and further into her own madness.

Sunset Boulevard staircase 2

“You see, this is my life. It always will be. Nothing else. Just us, and the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark.”

In spite of, perhaps because of, the nasty, catty tone throughout, Sunset Boulevard is much beloved by people who, well, love the movies. It just plain gets better with each viewing, and they sure don’t make ’em like this anymore.

FUTHER READING

Culbertson, Andrew “Who Owns This Place?”: Clashing Values in Sunset Blvd.
Mazur, Matt, The Devil is a Woman: Sunset Boulevard, Norma Desmond and Actress Noir
Staggs, Sam, Close-up on Sunset Boulevard : Billy Wilder, Norma Desmond, and the Dark Hollywood Dream, N.Y., St. Martin’s, 2002.
Sunset Boulevard (screenplay), by Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, D.M. Marshman, Jr., intro. Jeffrey Meyers, Univ. of Calif. Press, 1999.

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An unlikely decade of elegance

Elegance Age Crisis (cover)Elegance in an age of crisis: fashions of the 1930s. Edited by Patricia Mears and G. Bruce Boyer; essays by G. Bruce Boyer, William DeGregorio, Ariele Elia, Colleen Hill, Patricia Mears, Mei Mei Rado. New Haven: Yale University Press; New York: Fashion Institute of Technology, 2014.

style ****
sybstance ***1/2

This is the companion volume to an exhibition of the same name at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York in 2014, and even by the standards of high-class coffee table books, this is a sumptuous, scrumptious volume. Elegance shines with its insightful, detailed text, but of course the highlight is the visual aspect in all its glory as captured by the mouth watering photographs of the incredibly beautiful designs worn by the smart set who found their clothes in Paris, Havana, Shanghai, London, and yes, Hollywood.

Joan Crawford photo
To be sure, the book has a mildly misleading title: there’s nary a breadline or bank run anywhere in these pages. Rather, it’s a visual romp featuring beautiful people – mostly models, high society luminaries, and film stars – who dressed beautifully. The revival of the classic look and other artistic cross-currents helped create a moderne look in fashion which mirrored trends in architecture as well as the decorative arts. Accordingly, fashions of the 1930s – clean, minimal, no frills – emphasized movement which showcased the natural and classically idealized body.

AugustabernardFocusing on craftsmanship, aesthetics and mechanics rather than the business or marketing aspects, Elegance describe the various innovations in design, for example, the developments of lightweight silks and synthetic textiles. The usual suspects of high couture are well-represented: Vionnet, Chanel, Balenciaga, et al. But there are fresh names as well, principal being one Augustabernard, an all but forgotten, all too fleeting sensation of the 1920s and early 1930s known for designing gowns so sleek they made Chanel look plodding by comparison. Alas, she was much more successful in the ways of artistry than in those of business, and her couture house closed in 1934. The other discovery is the Chinese fashionistas of the 1930s, with their beautiful, sophisticated designs nicely covered in one compact chapter.

Weaknesses include the lack of an index (a fairly significant omission in such a name- and concept-rich book), also the small print. Nonetheless, highly recommended for fans of Golden Age fashion and 1930s cultural life in general.

Woman in Crepe Romain Pajamas

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The tough guy who wrote love poems

Forest of love coverPalance, Jack. The Forest of Love: A Love Story in Blank Verse. Columbia, SC: Summerhouse Press, 1996. Summary: Jack Palance ruminates on the love of a woman and the love of nature.

We remember actor Jack Palance as a quintessential bad guy who played rogues, outlaws, sadists, Roman gladiators, hired killers, etc. Occasionally the part of romantic or tortured hero was tossed his way (Sudden Fear, The Big Knife, Requiem for a Heavyweight). But more often than not he was cast as a violent man of action who possessed little pity or remorse.

My favorite Palance role is one of his earliest, and most typical: as the ice-cold gunfighter in Shane. The scene where he dispatches a hapless Elisha Cook, Jr., thunder rumbling in the background, is a classic and still carries an emotional wallop.

It may then come as a surprise that this seemingly one-dimensional guy was in real life a sensitive individual who was also a writer of considerable accomplishment. Moreover, he wrote poetry, and of all things, love poems. But there it is.

His Forest of Love is by turns wispy, wafty, elegant, thoughtful, sad, in other words a meditation on the vicissitudes of love. Consider this passage:

The years between, when will they be too many?
Will it be soon, or was it yesterday?
It’s raining, my love, wild and soft,
like you, like that musical giant.
I want to love you, today and tomorrow
and then for many tomorrows.
But not all, not all the tomorrows,
I can’t ask for that much.
Do you think of the years as much as I?
Could all this have happened if I were younger,
If you were older?

Yes, this guy could write, and he wrote very well. Apparently he liked the activity so much he wanted to devote himself in his later years to writing rather than acting. But this is the only book I know of that he penned. In any case there was a lot more to the man than we might suspect. To wit, another happy surprise: the pencil sketches and Matisse-esque color illustrations for Forest of Love, done by Palance himself.

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Cloak and dagger on the margins: Pickup on South Street (1953)

pickup on south street posterPickup on South Street. 20th Century Fox; screenplay by Samuel Fuller, from a story by Dwight Taylor; produced by Jules Schermer; directed by Samuel Fuller. Originally released as a motion picture in 1953. Performers: Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Thelma Ritter, Murvyn Vye, Richard Kiley, Willis Bouchey, Jerry O’Sullivan, Harry Carter. Summary: Petty crook Skip McCoy lifts a strip of microfilm bearing confidential U.S. secrets. Tailed by the Feds and the unwitting courier’s Communist puppeteers, Skip and Candy find themselves in a precarious gambit.

style ****
substance ***1/2

“So you’re a Red, who cares? Your money’s as good as anybody else’s.”

Surprising that so few films noirs are about espionage, given that the spy Weltanschauung corresponds so closely with that of the noir gestalt. Both abound in double and triple dealings, rampant paranoia, issues and choices always in tones of grey, never black & white, and most of all, flawed characters pushed to the edge of madness, about to descend into their own moral and emotional hearts of darkness. Moreover, the noir heyday years of roughly 1946-1953 correspond almost perfectly with the peak of anti-communist fervor in the U.S. at the time.

Pickup on South Street photo 4It all fed into noir’s sense of dread and desperation, usually as background, but in Pickup on South Street, we have that rare exception in which the Cold War, specifically its spycraft vagaries, looms front and center as an integral part of the plot. The irony of Pickup is that the protagonists don’t care a whit about all the high-powered Cold War politics, which only become a problem when it inconveniences their lives, and in most dramatic fashion. Samuel Fuller turned out to be the perfect, eminently un-auteurish, toughest-of-tough-guy directors, to helm this near masterpiece of overstated understatement.

Fuller began his career in the 1930s, writing for the New York Evening Graphic, a sleazy tabloid that was something of the National Enquirer of its day, just more so. No surprise then that even in his most polished A pictures like Pickup, he never totally shed his pulpy, journalistic instincts. His crusty cigar-chomping persona and seen-it-all background added to the mix. However, Pickup on South Street, for all its toughness, beats with a heart of exceptional warmth, all rendered through the three principal characters (a call girl, a stoolie and a professional thief), most of all through their inter-relationships. These are far from perfect human beings, but for all their failings, each has a basic streak of goodness and a kind of moral code. Thus we tend to root for them, even though their motivations and goals are often in conflict with each other.

pickup on south street photo 1Fuller came by his insight honestly: he knew marginal types like Candy, Skip and Moe personally through his experience as a journalist and through, well, life itself. Indeed, he probably identified with them through his perpetual outsider status in the film industry. Fuller’s lurid, un-pc side comes to the fore only once, and that’s the scene where Joey (Richard Kiley) beats up his onetime girlfriend and (probably unwitting) partner in crime Candy (Jean Peters). The sequence is done with a visceral realism and level of violence that was extreme even by the standards of film noir and still delivers a jolt sixty years later.

Are you waving the flag at me?

Richard Widmark continues the mold of self-destructive anti-heroes he created with Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death and Harry Fabian in Night and the City. He’s an amoral professional who will steal from – and deal with – anybody, and in this respect he’s not so different from the much less likeable Joey. But unlike Harry in Night and the City (‘an artist without out an art’) the character of Skip McCoy is indeed an artiste with his hands and fingers, which are employed not in musical, writerly or painterly ways but in the much dicier profession of pickpocket who has already gone to prison three times. Once more and its life.

pickup on south street photo 2Widmark and Jean Peters have great screen chemistry and their steamy romantic scenes entice with a deliciously languorous quality we don’t often find in this most frantic of film genres. And Thelma Ritter is terrific in her portrayal of a of a multi-dimensional, ultimately sympathetic character. The script gives her a bevy of one-liners (“I don’t know much about Commies, except that I don’t like ‘em.”), and she nails every one of them. It may well be her finest hour as an actress.

Pickup confirms Fuller’s reputation as a subversive artist, most specifically through Skip’s brutal, near homicidal, quest, which has a purely personal, not ideological basis. Skip does the right thing but for the wrong reasons, and this is apparently what J. Edgar Hoover took exception to, along with the character’s flip attitude toward patriotism and his absolute indifference to all the Cold War huffing and puffing [1]. But Fuller offended liberals as much as conservatives throughout his career with his take-no-prisoners approach, and to be sure the film does depict the FBI agents in positive if rather bland light. In similar fashion the Joey character and his Red masters are given the obligatory treatment for films of that era: humorless, all business, effete, intellectual, and faintly lavender.

pickup on south street photo 3Pickup has a beautiful monochromatic look, especially the scenes of Jean Peters in white dress slinking around in the moonlight. The script also scores some of the best dialogue this side of Double Indemnity. Additional little touches surprise and beguile: a shady character named Lightning Louie slurps down Chinese food aided by chopsticks which he also uses to lift cash placed on the table; the rickety waterfront dive which serves as Skip’s retreat from the world; Skip’s terse response when he’s asked if he knows the meaning of treason: “who cares?”; the desperate, intense characters at a meeting of Reds and sympathizers, especially a sweaty, very nervous looking Joey, and Candy’s subsequent reaction as she gradually figures out what’s going on.

This is not to say Pickup a perfect film. I’m not thrilled about the jangly main title music, the cop character is a little overdone for my taste, and the ending strikes me as a bit strained. But on balance Pickup on South Street is a wonderfully entertaining, often wise film that gets better with each viewing. I’d call it my current pick as the most under-rated film noir ever.

[1] Pickup won the Bronze Lion at the 1953 Venice Film Festival, selected by a Red-leaning jury. The jury’s president, Luchino Visconti, opposed giving the award to Fuller. Visconti was a committed Leftist and considered the film anti-communist. But the jury overrode Visconti’s wishes because they appreciated the film’s artistic value. Fuller didn’t care about awards, and the whole affair amused him to no end.

Further reading : Edgar Chaput, Pickup on South Street sees Cold War tensions put the ‘heat’ on the criminal underbelly; Dombrowski, Lisa. The Films of Samuel Fuller: If You Die, I’ll Kill You! Wesleyan University Press, 2008; Jon Lanthier, To Slap a Dame: Sexual Violence in the Age of Reason; Review by Robert Cashill, Cineaste, Summer 2004, pp.54-55; Samuel Fuller, “Don’t Wave the Flag at Me,” in program booklet for Pickup on South Street (DVD), Criterion, 2004.

Pickup_on_South_Street- (Belgian poster)

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A glimpse of ‘Paradise’

Cover (complete) Front Oct 28 JPGAfter numerous revisions, seemingly endless proofings and the usual other trials, stops and starts in a book’s evolution, the final version of the latest Kay Francis mystery is now a reality. It’s the third novel which features the 1930s movie star sleuth but actually the first one that’s set in Golden Age Hollywood.

So, drum roll please . . . . PERIL IN PARADISE is now available via Amazon in print or Kindle. In addition, signed, reduced rate copies can be ordered directly from me by emailing: bcstoneb444@gmail.com.

A sneak preview, including chapters 1 and 2 and vintage photographs, can be found here.

 

There’s something about a print copy

IMG_0524

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“Spies are notoriously poor businessmen … ”

5 fingers (poster)5 fingers. Twentieth Century Fox; produced by Otto Lang ; directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz; screenplay by Michael Wilson, L.C. Moyzisch. Originally released in 1952 as a motion picture. Performers: James Mason, Danielle Darrieux, Michael Rennie. Music by Bernard Herrmann. Summary: In Turkey during WW2, the valet of the British ambassador offers the German ambassador priceless documents about the Allies for huge fees. But the British soon suspect the leaks and dispatch an investigator to learn the spy’s identity. Based on the memoirs of a German agent.

style ***1/2
substance ****

5 Fingers is arguably the most intelligent spy movie ever, dealing as it does with the principals’ interior motivations and passions, and focusing on spycraft mechanics instead of the sensationalist elements we’re all too familiar with in spy films nowadays. All the more remarkable is that 5 Fingers is (more or less) a true story. Certain details are fudged, e.g. the Countess character was a fabrication, but in the main the story sticks pretty close to the historical facts.

Jaames mason photoFingers is also something of a comedy of manners which sends up British class consciousness and old boy attitudes. There’s also the twistiest ending this side of Agatha Christie. So much of the success is due to screenwriter Michael Wilson’s and director Joseph Mankiewicz’s brittle, spot-on script which wears well over time. Supposedly the screenplay was so pungent it contributed to writer Wilson’s getting blacklisted for a decade.

Also noteworthy is the remarkable even-handedness in the portrayal of the Germans, who are depicted almost more sympathetically than their equally clueless British counterparts. In any case neither side could quite keep up with all the goings on and myriad double dealings. Mason’s unlikely spy is always one step ahead of both sides, but could he himself keep up with … but I can’t ruin it for you.

Great little touches abound. To wit: Edith Piaf tunes waft in the background while Mason conspires with partner and romantic interest Danielle Darrieux. 5 Fingers also benefits from a near perfect cast. Über-British and dry as always, Mason is wonderful but costar Darrieux is just as good and her character matches Mason’s, deceit for deceit, double-cross for double-cross. The superb casting extends to the supporting cast and bit players, especially the bad guys: Oskar Karlweis, Herbert Berghof, John Wengraf. The svelte Hannelore Axman, best known for her sinister turn in The Red Menace, here has a fetching cameo as Von Papen’s secretary.

James Mason & Danielle Darrieux

My only minor quibble with this DVD is that there are no special features. This kind of story would seem ready made for the customary behind-the-scenes or documentary bonus. Filmed partially on location in Istanbul and Ankara, Turkey. Later made into a short-lived TV series.

Further reading: L.C. Moyzisch, Operation Cicero, Coward-McCann, 1950; Elyesa Bazna, I Was Cicero, Harper & Row, 1962; Richard Wires, The Cicero Spy Affair, Praeger, 1999.

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Propaganda of the deed : The Baader Meinhof complex (2008)

baader poster 2The Baader Meinhof complex [videorecording (DVD)]. 2 discs. Presented by Constantin Film and Bernd Eichinger; directed by Uli Edel; written and produced by Bernd Eichinger; co-writer, Uli Edel; director of photography, Rainer Klausmann; executive producer, Martin Moszkowicz; a production of Constantin Film in co-production with Nouvelles Éditions de Films and G.T. Film Production and NDR … [et al.]. Based on the book by Stefan Aust.
Performers: Martina Gedeck, Moritz Bleibtreu, Johanna Wokalek, Nadja Uhl, Stipe Erceg, Niels Bruno Schmidt, Vinzenz Kiefer, Simon Licht, Alexandra Maria Lara, Daniel Lommatzsch, Sebastian Blomberg, Heino Ferch, Jan Josef Liefers, Hannah Herzsprung, Tom Schilling, Bruno Ganz.
Summary: Germany 1967. Murderous bomb attacks, the threat of terrorism, and the fear of the enemy inside are rocking the very foundations of the still-fragile German democracy. The radicalized children of the Nazi generation, led by Andreas Baader, Ulrike Meinhof, and Gudrun Ensslin, are fighting a violent war against what they perceive as the new face of fascism.

style ****
substance ****


If you throw one stone it’s a crime. If you throw a thousand stones, that’s a political action.
- Ulrike Meinhof

I’m ashamed to admit that prior to watching this film I didn’t know much about the Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF), aka the Baader Meinhof group, a terrorist faction active in Germany in the 1960s and 1970s. I’d only heard about it vaguely and seen a few snippets of present film.

baader photo 2Though relatively little known in the U.S., the activities of the RAF are still a subject of great interest and fascination, if not quite nostalgia, in Germany. Revolution was in the air in 1967-68, and Baader Meinhof’s principal targets were American militarist expansionism and interventionism, especially in the Middle East and Southeast Asia; the creeping authoritarianism in their own country; and the excesses of capitalist greed everywhere. The RAF’s rampage peaked in the 1970s, when their swath of terror included bombings, murder, kidnapping and hijacking.

Those of us of certain years are old enough to remember similar movements, protests and riots of the late 60s and early 70s in this country, and Baader Meinhof Complex does a nice job of capturing the flavor of the times both from the standpoint of the passionate revolutionaries and the beleaguered forces of established order. It’s to the filmmakers’ credit that the story walks such a fine line of not taking sides, presenting events objectively and portraying each side in a neutral, faintly sympathetic light.

baader photo 3
BMC
is a brilliantly edited and well-paced piece of work, albeit with a few slow patches. The film is done in a semi-documentary style in the manner of much better known movies like Day of the Jackal, though in this case the message is presented in far more visceral fashion. To wit, amongst the best scenes is one of the earliest: a virtuoso recreation of the demonstration against the Shah of Iran’s visit, the subsequent riot, and, most important, the excessive police response.

Kudos to the relentlessly edgy performances by the principals who play the historical figures, and who incidentally bear uncanny resemblances to the originals. The male leads all do a fine job, but even with the presence of such a heavyweight as the great Bruno Ganz, it’s the women who walk away with top acting honors. The always compelling Martina Gedeck gives another finely nuanced performance, here as journalist turned revolutionary Ulricke Meinhof. Likewise for Nadja Uhl as Brigitte Mannhaupt, the leader of the RAF’s ‘second generation.’ But the real standout is the steely faced, unbending Johanna Wokalek as Baader’s girlfriend and the group’s motivator-on-chief, Gudrun Ensslin.

baader_meinhof_complex image 1

Regardless of one’s ideological bent, BMC will inspire an emotional roller coaster of anger, bewilderment, and, for some viewers, grudging admiration. More than just a formidable technical accomplishment, this is one terrific movie that ranks right up there with the best political films ever, in spite of, or just maybe because, it plays it down the middle. My only complaint is that at an intense 144 minutes it goes on a bit too long.

Further reading: Christopher Hitchens, Once Upon a Time in Germany, Vanity Fair, August 17, 2009; J. Smith, Andre Moncourt, The Red Army Faction: A Documentary History, Vol.1: Projectiles for the People, PM Press, 2009.

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