Gojira

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“The theme of the film from the beginning was the terror of the bomb.  Mankind had created the bomb, and now nature was going to take revenge on mankind. . . .  As long as the arrogance of human beings exists, Gojira will survive.”  — Tomoyuki Tanaka, Producer of Gojira

Although mainly ignored by the first wave of film historians due to its “escapist” trappings, no analysis of modernist Japanese cinema would be complete without pausing to examine the postwar classic that sparked a 20th-century export business unto itself: 1954’s Gojira, or Godzilla, King of the Monsters as it was released in the United States. I confess that it is difficult for me to view the original film today without seeing it through the haze of nostalgia for its copious (and often unintentionally hilarious) knock-offs, so synonymous was the lizard king with cheap Saturday afternoon programming on WTBS throughout the 1980s, where rubber suits wrestled clumsily atop a sea of pagodas and Japanese men in cool skinny ties and horn-rimmed glasses pointed skyward, shouting asynchronous English dubbing. Often he would heroically come to defend Tokyo from some mutated antagonist only to destroy it himself in the next film; this, my young brain could not reconcile. What was wrong with him? He seemed a capricious beast at best, and I never did understand how he ended up with that creepy son.

But before the goofiness of Destroy All Monsters, there was Ishiro Honda’s classic original, Gojira (on a technical note, Godzilla is not an inaccurate American translation but an alternate of Gojira using a different transliteration scheme; Toho Studios themselves assigned the film this title for export abroad, feeling it would be more “pronounceable” to westerners.) The film did not exist in a cultural vacuum and is but one of a long string of outstanding 1950s science fiction films with deep humanist undertones and leftist subtexts–The Day the Earth Stood StillThem!Invasion of the Body Snatchers, to name but a few of the better A-list titles. These films stood as bold counterpoints to the proto-Fascist attitudes that would soon come to embody the great McCarthyists’ witch hunt for Hollywood’s elusive “Bolshevist fifth column.” In fact, burying these allegorical themes within the innocuous escapism of the science fiction genre became one of the few ways for artists, many of whom were highly-politicized radicals, to openly oppose the American political status quo. Gojira, of course, has nothing to do with Communism, or even overt anti-Americanism for that matter. But the film nevertheless asserts its own humanitarian message, and a message that has a surprising amount of complexity and depth, given that it is essentially about a giant lizard stomping on things.

Two separate events acted as catalysts for the film. First, King Kong was re-released to Japanese audiences in 1952, on its 20th anniversary. It was a massive success, and Tokyo’s film studios all began toying with the idea of creating special effects films, then still a very small industry. This goal intensified following 1954’s The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, whose plot shares more than a few passing similarities with Gojira, albeit with fewer radiation overtones.

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“Castle Bravo” H-Bomb, March 1 1954, Bikini Atoll

But the biggest influence on the film, or at least on how its script resonated with its contemporary Japanese audiences, was Castle Bravo and the fate of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru, or Lucky Dragon #5. On March 1, 1954, the crew of this tuna fishing boat watched in shock as a massive atomic mushroom lit up the horizon–so massive that it took a full eight minutes for the sound to reach them. It was the first H-bomb detonated by the United States as part of the Castle Bravo program, from the Bikini Atoll of the Marshall Islands. There was no advance warning. Native islanders of the closest atoll were evacuated, but the blast was twice as large as anticipated, with fallout raining down on at least a dozen inhabited islands officially outside of the danger zone. Lucky Dragon #5 pulled in their nets and headed home, realizing that they would probably be unable to escape the approaching radiation and fallout, which fell upon them several hours later. The boat’s radio operator became sick in the coming days from radiation poisoning and died a drawn-out and excruciatingly painful death over seven months. His dying wish was that no one else on earth die as a result of atomic weapons. The growing resentment at the United States, kept mostly in check throughout the occupation, now exploded in a widespread wave of anti-American rage. The Japanese public was furious that they were given no advance warning of these dangerous tests (the U.S. intentionally kept this a secret lest the H-bomb fail to detonate and embarrass them in front of the world, particularly the Soviets.) To make matters worse, it was learned that the Lucky Dragon was the closest tuna boat, but not the only one in the area impacted, many of whose catches had already been sold to market and entered the Japanese food chain (also mirrored in the script, as other boats “vanish” due to unknown forces.) In all, between 1946 and the partial ban in 1963, the U.S. carried out 105 above-ground nuclear explosions in the Pacific, at which point they were moved to Nevada.

And it is here that Gojira vs. Godzilla becomes its own ideological showdown of sorts. It is a unique moment in film studies, where two products are produced, for two separate markets, both from the same source material, one by the conquered, the other by the conqueror. Unfortunately, for those at the time waiting for a smoking gun of censorship, they were disappointed I suspect. There are passing references to the contaminated tuna, and a striking scene where a Japanese woman tells her three small children, all of whom are about to die, that they are about to “go see Daddy now,” the implication being his death in the war. Most intriguing is a scene showing the open public debate in the Diet (the Japanese parliament) between those wanting to suppress Gojira’s H-bomb origins and those angrily demanding that it be announced to the world, thereby exposing the falsehoods of the bomb-testers. You can sense at once that this scene would be destined for the cutting room floor when edited for U.S. distribution, which it was. Gone also are the poignant hospital scenes where Emi attends to the child victims of radiation sickness. Other references to Hiroshima and Nagasaki are also eliminated, and while some involved have claimed that this was not intended to alter the message of the film, the deleting of all passages that mention past U.S. war atrocities is surely no accident done for the sake of just “tightening a script.” The original references were hardly vitriolic or accusatory, and their paranoid omission clearly says more than the statements themselves. In fact, the American cut of Godzilla does not delete large swathes of content and keeps the humanitarian, anti-nuclear message fully intact. Newly-shot footage of Raymond Burr, as reporter Steve Martin, was shot and included to tie the various plot threads together. This has the added consequence of removing the viewer from the immediacy of the action, and these non-political aesthetic issues are the most common criticisms leveled at the U.S. version today.

After watching Gojira again, I was struck by the sheer scale of its apocalyptic vision, its sense of utter hopelessness and nihilism. Its contemporaries, from King Kong to Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, used stop motion animation and kept destruction to a minimum; a few collapsed buildings, a few dead. In Gojira, Tokyo burns from end to end. And I can’t help but wonder what these visuals did to a citizenry that had just endured the worst incendiary fire-bombing in history less than ten years earlier, torching miles of the city (87% residential) and leaving over 100,000 dead, another million injured and homeless. Given the time and proximity, I would have a hard time classifying that as escapist entertainment.

Fists in Pocket

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“In Italy, the family is an almost holy institution, a pillar of society, and to criticize it is considered outrageous.”  — Marco Bellocchio

In many ways, the Spirit of 1968 started three years earlier in Italy, thanks to Marco Bellocchio’s Fists in the Pocket (I pugni in tasca), released in the relative calm of October 1965. The incendiary film sent shock-waves through Italian culture and was vilified for its irreverent and irresponsible attitude towards traditional Italian family values and Catholicism.

At a mere 26, Bellocchio is the first director in our Italian film series that comes from the babyboom, a generation of bourgeois-bred, highly-educated children rebelling against the conventions of their parents. “Disrespectful” mouthy kids with attitudes was nothing new, of course, but the 1960s crop held considerable cultural clout due to the massive shift in postwar demographics. And they weren’t just pissed off about the usuals, like not having access to a car and unrealistic curfews. They were pissed off about war, about church, about sex, about inequality, and, above all, about traditional family structures that they considered oppressive and outdated. In Italian life, the sacrosanct nature of the core family was something always held in high regard: in Rossellini’s Rome Open City, the family structure is disrupted and ultimately destroyed by outside forces, the Nazis and Mussolini’s fascists; in De Sica’s Two Women, mother and daughter struggle united against all obstacles to survive; and in virtually all Italian neorealist cinema, children embody the hope of the future, doing their bit dutifully in the reconstruction of their nation, never questioning the sanctity of the church or the supreme wisdom of their elders. Even the modernists to follow toed this line: Fellini’s closing shot for 8 1/2 is of his boy alter ego, his anima/animus; and Antonioni’s familial bond between mother and son in Red Desert is unquestioned, if a tad destabilized.

So, given its predecessors, Bellocchio’s anti-family, anti-hope, anti-everything manifesto was the molotov cocktail of Italian modernism, intended to burn both Pope and parents. Aesthetically, it was a return to extreme minimalism, far away from the increasingly baroque works of Fellini and Rossellini, both of which Bellocchio disregarded as has-been, sell-outs; he particularly loathed Fellini’s conflicted hand-wringing over Catholicism. But this wasn’t strictly an issue of young turk vs. his elders, as Bellocchio admitted his admiration for the great Spanish director Luis Buñuel, a man with a penchant for mocking religion and societal hypocrisy. Indeed, ideologically-speaking, Bellocchio shares more with Buñuel than with any of his Italian counterparts, the notable exception being Marco Ferreri and his caustically satirical “western” Don’t Touch the White Woman!

As always, the reality of Bellocchio’s vision is somewhere in the middle. He openly admits the film is not autobiographical in any way. His parents helped to finance the film, and it was shot at his mother’s country villa, so not quite the sea of bourgeois discontent he belittles so mercilessly on the screen. Still, Bellocchio’s bleak vision is the first taste of what would quickly balloon into a full-scale international counterculture in a few year’s time, with riots in the streets of Paris, the “levitating” of the Pentagon in the U.S., and Baader-Ensslin’s “Red Army Faction” carrying out terrorist attacks on the Springer Press corporate headquarters in Hamburg.

Red Desert

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“Modern man lives in a world without the moral tools necessary to match his technological skill. He is incapable of authentic relationships with his environment, his fellows, or even the objects which surround him because he carries with him a fossilized value system out of step with modern times.” — Michelangelo Antonioni, Cannes, 1960

If Federico Fellini was the flamboyant, self-reflexive modernist of the 1960s, Michelangelo Antonioni was his brooding, existential twin, a sort of shadow self. Both directors, along with Jean-Luc Godard in France, essentially reinvented cinematic narrative over the course of the decade. After starting off  rather conventionally, Antonioni embarked on a unique trajectory with L’avventura in 1960, with its unresolved central conflict, creeping slowness, and sparse, almost non-existent dialogue. Its Cannes premiere caused boos and catcalls from the crowd, with star Monica Vitti and Antonioni fleeing the theater, or so goes the legend. L’avventura became one of the most polarizing and debated works in the history of Italian film. The two films that followed–La notte (1961) and L’eclisse (1962)–moved along similar thematic lines, with all three loosely called a trilogy by film scholars today.

Although it was De Sica who initially filmed La ciociara (see other blog entry on that film), Antonioni is really the artistic spiritual kin of existentialist writer Alberto Moravia, who was at the very forefront of Italian literature throughout the 1950s-1960s. La notte, in particular, bares more than a passing resemblance to Moravia’s seminal 1954 novel Il disprezzo (Contempt), which Godard later filmed in 1963. Above all, Antonioni and Moravia are equally obsessed with the inability of human beings to interconnect in a real and genuine manner, to get beyond the facades of the everyday. Their protagonists are often embedded in inner conflict, stranded in situations of social and psychological alienation that are as self-perpetuating as they are unavoidable. And it was Antonioni who codified this shared vision of modernist isolation for the cinema, perhaps none more successfully than Il deserto rosso (Red Desert), from 1964.

Red Desert is Antonioni’s finest moment, combining his earlier stark visions and narrative ideas with a full Technicolor palette (all films prior were black-and-white). Admittedly obsessed with cinematography (he was an avid artist growing up), every frame of the film is a tightly composed work of art. Antonioni has often commented on how Red Desert is often misinterpreted as his “anti-industrialism” film, with its spewing nuclear reactors and factory landscape. In fact, his intent was quite the opposite and reflected popular Italian attitudes of the day: these were symbols of civic progress, of modernity, of entering a new era in Italian history. Environmentalism was not on the radar, as there was still an “away” for Italians to throw things to in 1964. Watching the film today can leave quite a different impression. Shot during the winter months, the landscape still lacked the bleakness Antonioni required, so, in an inspired fit, he had the ground and foliage covered in a dust of grey paint in order to accentuate the colors he had carefully selected as the psychological focal points for certain scenes.

Antonioni’s following three films were done in English for MGM, including the immensely popular Blowup (1966) and the counter-culture manifesto Zabriskie Point (1970); Antonioni’s failed attempt to get 10,000 extras for a lovemaking scene in the California desert should clue you in about the latter. The director was frustrated by Hollywood interference and, after The Passenger with Jack Nicholson, he returned to Italy. Although finishing several other projects, his legacy today rests on his hypnotically spartan early-1960s output, which revolutionized modern film narrative.

8 1/2

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By the early 1960s, Neorealism had run its course. The scars of war and the abysmal social conditions that gave rise to the movement were finally receding into the past. More importantly, Italy was embarking upon an age of intense industrialization and progress, and their cinema reflected this desire for modernity. Much of this was driven by an energetic youth culture, not unlike that found in France, Britain, and the U.S., where the pop markets became dominated by a new demographic. Italian composers Ennio Morricone and Nino Rota were redefining the role of the film score by using unconventional approaches to sound and questioning the rules of what constituted “acceptable” instrumentation, adding anvils, whistling, manual typewriters and dissonant harmonicas to the mix. Sergio Leone “out-Westerned” the Western with Per un pugno di dollari (A Fistfull of Dollars) and Il buono il brutto, il cattivo (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), creating an odd international hybrid of the classic American genre which came to be known as the “spaghetti western.” On the “artsier” side, Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni were redefining modern narrative and pushing the boundaries of linear storytelling.

Like so many others, Federico Fellini started his career during the war years, at first as a screenwriter, and then moving on to camera work in 1943; never one to feign intellectualism, he acknowledged later that this was to avoid conscription and not from some deep innate love of cinema art. Nevertheless, he found that he enjoyed his work and quickly developed a knack for organizing cast and crew. His first major artistic contribution of the postwar period was acting as co-screenwriter on Rossellini’s Rome Open City, and several of the film’s moments of dark comic humor are undoubtedly his. Despite the film’s anti-fascist views, Fellini was notoriously apolitical for the entirety of his career and admitted this openly, a position for which he often caught flak from Italian progressives. By 1963, he had already achieved international recognition with La strada (1954), Il bidone (1955) and Le notti di Cabiria (1957) to his credit. But it was 1962’s scandalous La dolce vita, starring Anita Ekberg and then-unknown Marcello Mastroianni, that had him proclaimed a “public sinner” by the Pope, a title Fellini no doubt wore with great pride.

History shows that the biggest success can segue into the biggest paralysis. So it was with tentatively-titled “La bella confusione” (The Beautiful Confusion), the project following La dolce vita. Fellini later described this terrifying moment of paralysis with an affinity that seemed to reflect its central importance to his creative maturation. By his own account, he unexpectedly hit the creative doldrums for what was to be his eighth feature film (the “1/2” is for an earlier co-credit). Things became so dire that both friends and financial backers began to question his ability to get things going again, with the project stopping and starting several times over the course of the year. His initial idea was to have Marcello Mastroianni play a disillusioned writer, not realizing that Mastroianni had just done the disillusioned writer bit in Antonioni’s La notte. Fellini found his sole idea dead in the water. Then, the what-seems-altogether-obvious-now dawned on him: why not make him a disillusioned filmmaker instead? The elimination of this barrier between himself and his protagonist was a bold and risky autobiographical move but one that ultimately paid off. After that switch, the problems in the creative process evaporated and things fell into place rather quickly.

One cannot really talk about the transition between “neorealist” Fellini and “oneiric” Fellini without acknowledging the revolutionary impact of psychology on his narrative and visual style. To treat the sudden onset of acute depression, he began psychoanalysis in the early 1960s and became an ardent admirer of Jungian thought, of Jung’s theories of anima/animus and subconscious archetypes. Seeds planted in La dolce vita came to fruition by 8 1/2, with its meandering and self-reflexive narrative. Fellini later talked at length about his supervised experiments with LSD during this time period, and it is clear that this drug had some impact upon his fractured approach to narrative, the merger of plausible and impossible, the solid with the symbolic. From this point onward, and for the next twenty years, “Felliniesque” would gain cultural ground on “Kafkaesque,” eventually becoming the de facto shorthand for all situations surreal, circuitous, or dreamlike. And it is this odd intangibility that makes 8 1/2 still so engaging today.

The Battle of Algiers

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It’s ironic that one of the finest film indictments against Western colonialism sounds like the title of a bad History Channel documentary. Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, released in 1966, stands, along with Costa Gavras’s Z, as one of the few meaningful political films to come out of Europe in the 1960s and, even today, holds great relevance to the current political situation in North Africa and the Middle East.

America’s post-1945 plans are well documented: secure the world’s markets, control its resources, convert war production to domestic goods, remake West Germany and Japan into hi-tech capitalist satellite states, and leverage them to help the U.S. dominate the global economy. Above all, avoid sinking back into another Great Depression by forcing the world to buy our toasters and guns, both designed to break periodically. What would be the developing world’s role in all of this? Enrichment of a tiny percentage of global elite loyal to American business interests, who would control their civilian populations by force and crush any leftist populist resistance to the siphoning of their natural resources. Anyone against this agenda would be against freedom.

One overarching concern began to preoccupy capitalist planners: there were tens of thousands of liberated partisans across Europe, and most of them were still armed. All had suffered greatly under the occupation, where they cut communication lines and staged quick attacks. In short, they had done their bit, and they all now wanted some say in how the governments returning from exile patched up their nations. Support for former leaders, while easy to keep congealed during the Axis occupations, started to dissolve rather quickly as the parades ended. In Italy, this took the form of increased radicalization away from the right wing, with Communists, Socialists, and to a lesser extent Anarchists, all making giant political headway. In 1946, the Italian Communist Party and the Socialist Party took the majority of seats in the Constituent Assembly, the provisional body in charge of drafting a new constitution for Italy, which meant that the Christian Democrats were now the minority clerical party. This was totally unheard of and reflected an increasing public hostility towards Catholicism and its complicity in the dissemination of Fascist doctrine. U.S. policy makers were terrified by this power shift and now saw a legitimate Communist victory in the 1948 electoral process–not a Bolshevik-style coup–as a real possibility. To compromise and control these free elections, the U.S. government funneled huge amounts of money into a propaganda campaign and used Italy as the first testing ground for its newly-formed National Security Council, which was created to advise the President on matters of foreign policy. That crucial counterinsurgency operation is beyond the scope of this blog but does make for enlightening reading of declassified government documents; suffice it to say, the Fascists would have been proud, particularly since many of them were elected back into the posts from which they had only recently been displaced. This became the pilot project for subsequent CIA-backed attacks throughout Latin America, where the violence and atrocities mounted tenfold.

For North Africa, the rotating door of European imperialists fighting self-serving wars on the backs of their colonial subjects meant the arrival of an unexpected power vacuum. The same occurred in southeast Asia, where the Japanese occupiers vacated parts of French Indochina (Vietnam). The U.S. put the final nail in Britain’s colonial coffin by stipulating, in the terms of its Anglo-American Loan of 1945, that the U.K. first liquidate its overseas assets in the Commonwealth, thereby ensuring American global dominance for decades to come. Britain would be paying annually on that bill until 2006. As for France, I’m not sure of the whys behind its staunch determination to stay in the colonial game when it was so outclassed by the new heavies, but they went at the task with considerable arrogance. Vietnam’s war of independence against French and U.S. invaders is well documented. The last-minute cancelling of the North/South unifying elections due to fear of Communist victory, just as in Italy, says all you need to know about the U.S./French dedication to democracy abroad. In Algeria, France also had some trouble letting go.

Gillo Pontecorvo is the best directorial example of the swing towards radicalism in postwar Italy. His output next to his peers is minuscule, with primarily The Battle of Algiers and Quiemada commonly discussed today in film circles. It was Italian socialist Antonio Gramsci who first coined the term subaltern, which advocated that indigenous histories be told from the perspective of the colonized rather than the colonizers; and although Algiers cannot be said to be a true subaltern film due to Pontecorvo’s direction and Italian financing, it nevertheless reflects a thorough understanding of the mechanisms of oppression and dominance, and their impact on human rights. More importantly, the idea for the film originated with the Algerians themselves. It was Salash Baazi, a former member of the FLN (the Algerian freedom fighters, by then victorious) that first approached Italian producers with the idea of filming the memoirs of Saadi Yacef, the FLN commander imprisoned by the French and later freed to become a long-standing member of the Algerian government. The first draft, done by an Italian screenwriter before Pontecorvo’s involvement, reflected the angle still so prevalent today, that is, the narrative vis-a-vis the conscience-stricken imperialist soldier who uncovers the “truth” about his nation’s actions. Thankfully the FLN rejected this idea and a second draft was produced that provided a more balanced approach. This persistence of the FLN, that their story be told with some modicum of fairness, is a very important point to keep in mind since it is this exact fairness to which Pontecorvo respectfully adheres when coming on board. Indeed, Pontecorvo went to great lengths to include the past participants, including the casting of Yacef himself as the FLN leader. The secular, politically-driven FLN were as ruthless and tenacious as their French occupiers; in that sense, it mirrors almost exactly Israel’s ongoing dominance of the Palestinians through their illegal occupation of the West Bank, with the endless checkpoints, harassment, torture, and indiscriminate bombings.

The film’s significance today is multi-faceted. The Battle of Algiers has been used by both the oppressed and the oppressor, depending on the spin, and yet it still stands as a strong political statement, created at least in part by then-powerless voices attempting to eradicate imperialist systems of tyranny and control.

La ciociara / Two Women

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Although Italy did have a nascent film industry in the silent era–its most significant contribution being Cabiria, which influenced segments of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance–it never achieved the heights of other nations. Its mediocrity was further cemented by the Fascists’ 1922 “March on Rome” and their assumption of power. From then on, artists and intellectuals were subject to suspicion. Some, like politician Giacomo Matteotti and Marxist intellectual Antonio Gramsci, were assassinated or imprisoned until death; others, like writer Alberto Moravia, author of the 1957 novel on which Vittorio de Sica’s film is based, were luckier.

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Alberto Moravia, 1943

While his peer Italo Calvino is more familiar today in the U.S., Alberto Moravia was one of the most widely read and translated Italian writers from the 1950s-1960s. When he was barely into his twenties, he self-published his first novel, Gli indifferenti (The Indifferent Ones/Time of Indifference) in 1929, setting off a literary firestorm in Italy. The darkly comic novel of a corrupt and crumbling bourgeois family earned Moravia a coveted spot on the infamous Index Librorum Prohibitorum, the list of banned books maintained by the Vatican. Politically, the Fascist state saw Moravia as a bit of a dilettante with leftist leanings; that is, a corrupting influence on Italian culture, to be sure, but not really worth their time otherwise, and certainly not a threat to match that posed by their Marxist opponents.

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Elsa Morante, early 1940s

Because of this, Moravia wouldn’t really hit his creative stride until after the war, when most of his greatest works were written–La ciociara (Two Women), Il conformista (The Conformist), La noia (Boredom), Il disprezzo (Contempt)–most of which were transformed into classics of European cinema during the 60s and early 70s. La ciociara (literally The Woman From Ciociaria but released in the U.S. as Two Women) was the first adaptation to be filmed. It was based on the experiences of Moravia and his wife, writer Elsa Morante, as they took refuge from the war in the countryside east of Rome, in the hills of Ciociaria. There, the couple slept in barns and lived off the hospitality of the rural village communities, Elsa Morante working on the initial framework of what would become her great first novel, Menzogna e sortilegio (House of Liars). The awful events in Ciociaria that followed provided Moravia with his own inspiration.

On the night of May 19th, 1944, as the hills and valleys around Ciociaria were liberated by the Allies, Moroccan colonial troops of the French Expeditionary Corps went on a celebration spree to commemorate their victory over the Germans. The numbers are still contested, but it’s estimated that between 2,500-4,500 Italian women, including children and the elderly, were raped in the region. Estimates of the murdered go as high as 800, some of these the rape victims themselves but the majority being family members who tried to intervene. For hours, the hills echoed with screams and gunshots. Eventually, 15 Moroccans were court-martialed and shot for their participation, with scores of others sentenced to hard labor. In Italy, the raped came to be known as “marocchinate”, or roughly “those who’ve been ‘Moroccaned’.” Concerned about the brewing public relations firestorm, it is rumored that the Allies clandestinely arranged for women from North Africa to be brought in and “serve” in the expeditionary corps’ camp as “volunteers” in hopes of preventing future incidents. The “marocchinate” later received compensatory pensions from the Italian government for their suffering. Moravia shows the origins of this suffering for what it is: random, indifferent, “liberating.” Obviously a film from 1960 cannot push the same boundaries as its fiction counterparts, but de Sica’s naturalistic approach to the material does justice to the indictments in Moravia’s source text.

In a genre dominated by plots about Roman males, La ciociara stands apart from other neorealist films through its emphasis on women protagonists and provincial Italians. Cesira and Rosetta drift from place to place, directionless and in survival mode, wanting only to exist and be left alone. The character of Michele (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is the conflicted, schooled voice of intellectual conscience, embodying elements of both priest and partisan, ready to assume his measure of guilt for twenty years of his nation’s destructive apathy. His gentleness, inner conflict and existential hopelessness is a far different amalgamation from the black-and-white, good vs. evil stereotypes so prevalent in earlier war films, like Rossellini’s Rome Open City; to some degree, this shift reflects a greater willingness for Italians to question their own complicity ten years after the fact.

Since the script sticks closely to the novel’s narrative, it can be argued that La ciociara owes more to the combination of Sophia Loren and Alberto Moravia than to director Vittorio de Sica and screenwriter Cesare Zavattini. While the latter can be felt as the driving creative force behind their early collaborations Umberto D. and Ladri di biciclette (The Bicycle Thief), the strengths of La ciociara really lie elsewhere, which is probably why it is the most overlooked film of de Sica’s career. When Anna Magnani turned down the role due to other obligations, it was she that suggested Sophia Loren to de Sica. The director took a lot of heat for her casting, both because of her young age and her attractiveness, which critics saw as a softening of the novel’s hard edge. But after seeing her, it’s hard to imagine anyone else commanding the role of Cesira with such power and strength. At the 1960 Academy Awards, Loren achieved the unimaginable feat of taking Best Actress for her performance, the first ever given to a non-English language role and a huge coup for the Italian film industry (the fully-fluent Loren did her own English dubbing for the film, which no doubt carried much weight in this decision.)

La ciociara was Loren’s big break and sparked a creative resurgence in de Sica as well, as he entered the last decade of his career. Over the next four years, he would complete two more outstanding films with Loren–Oggi, ieri, domani (Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow) and Matrimonio all’italiana (Marriage Italian-Style)–making her an international sensation on par with Marcello Mastroianni, with whom she often starred.

Rome, Open City

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“Back then it was inconceivable to film in a real location, to shoot in a passageway, to bring cameras into stairwells. Shooting in the streets was unheard of. ROMA, CITTA APERTA represents something new because I tried to make a film the way it should be done, accessible to everyone, outside the control of the big studio system and all the slavery that entails.” — Roberto Rossellini

Despite their “Pact of Steel” and heads-of-state handshakes for the newsreels, the Italians and Germans had a long history of hating one another both before and during the Second World War. Behind their chest-beating about the founding of a new Roman Empire, the Italians always seemed only marginally interested in what was going on. It took them five years to defeat Abyssinia (now Ethiopia), this stalemate broken only when they violated the Geneva Conventions by using poison gas. Their 1940 invasion of neighboring Greece, intended as a display of machismo to Hitler, turned into a fiasco from which they needed a full-scale German military bailout. On the Germans’ end, Italians were incompetent buffoons and they didn’t even bother to tell them what they were doing most of the time. Mussolini read about the outbreak of war with Poland after the fact, and that lack of communication, and underlying distrust, would be repeated again and again. Germans were Nordic supermen who fought to the end, Italians were lazy Mediterranean prone to surrender: so goes the logic even today among many military historians. To their credit, most Italians, apart from ardent fascists and anti-Semitic contingents within the Vatican, saw the biological superiority aspect of Nazism for what it was: an empty ideological tool used to justify domination. Although he did pass racial decrees in 1938, Mussolini dragged his feet on any broader Italian participation in the “Jewish question” for a long time, although more out of fear of civil backlash than any humanitarian concerns. As Germany exerted more influence over the nation’s affairs, over 7,000 Italian Jews would be deported and executed by war’s end (see De Sica’s The Garden of Finzi-Continis for one narrative on this). 

Everything collapsed in late-1943/early-1944, the setting for Rossellini’s film. American and UK Commonwealth forces landed in Sicily in the summer of 1943 and began moving north. Italy surrendered immediately and was split into a Fascist north, run by an exiled Mussolini and occupied by the German army, and a south that was cooperating with the Allied occupation. A slow grind through the mountainous regions south of Rome commenced. How to handle the city was a touchy situation. No one wanted to be held responsible for its destruction, particularly the Allies, who were taking heat for their highly-publicized flattening of the ancient monastery atop Monte Cassino, mistakenly labeling it as an outpost for German artillery spotters. As they lost control of Cassino, the Germans declared Rome an ‘Open City’, a military term for a city left undefended in hopes of not having it destroyed by invading forces. Rossellini’s love for dark comic irony is on display here, as we quickly come to see within the first five minutes that Rome is not quite as “open” as its title implies, as German SS, fascist police, and “Communist” (often anarchists or apolitical working-class, to be more precise) partisans fight for control. As in most German-held territories, the partisan movement gained steam as liberation drew nearer and suppression efforts intensified, with roundups of suspects and 5:00 PM curfews becoming the norm.

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Although often overlooked when discussing the film, its shocking pivotal moment has foundation in fact. On March 3 1944, Teresa Gullace was in downtown Rome with scores of others whose relatives had just been detained due to suspicious activities. As she cried out for her husband and fought to get past the German blockade to pass bread and clothing through the bars of his cell, a German soldier withdrew his pistol and shot her in the neck. Six months pregnant with her fifth child, she bled to death in front of the horrified crowd, including her husband. The killing of Gullace and her unborn child incensed Italians and became a galvanizing focal point for Roman resistance. Fabrizi’s Don Pietro is an amalgamation of two priests, Giuseppe Morosini and Pietro Pappagallo, both of whom provided assistance to the underground against the wishes of the Vatican, and were executed by the Germans. This spirit of cooperation and mutual respect between clergy and “godless” communists would quickly unravel after the war but it does show some measure of help coming from rebellious elements within the Holy See, who we now know, at its higher levels, secured secret passage for numerous wanted Nazis via their so-called “ratline” to South America.

Despite the occasional lapses, there is no disputing that Rossellini’s Rome, Open City stands as a seminal moment in the new post-fascist Italian cinema that came to be known as Neorealism: it was shot on low quality black-market film stock; the German army shown are actual surrendered P.O.W. Germans; portions of the city were still being fought for as filming began; and bombed out locations were just that. To put it mildly, the chaos and discombobulation of the city provided the perfect backdrop that needed little assistance from art design. Such gritty realism was eons away from the escapist “telefoni bianchi” films of the Fascist years, as they were derisively labeled, where Roman mistresses in opulent penthouses called their rich industrialist lovers on large white telephones.

There are, however, clear signs of melodrama and Hollywood artifice, from the swelling score, to the subjective point-of-view camera shots. Rossellini did take some flak from his hardcore Neorealist peers for hiring Anna Magnani and Aldo Fabrizi in the title roles, both of whom were well-known comedic actors of the day that began their careers in vaudeville. The interior sets, such as the Nazi headquarters, were built in the basements of buildings in downtown Rome, and it is here that artificial lighting and more conventional studio set-ups come into play. The Nazis themselves are what you would expect, i.e. 2D stereotypes of evil incarnate, with the notable exception of the Austrian defector from Monte Cassino. Modern viewers might also notice the effeminate nature of lead Nazi officer Bergmann, paired with his lesbian femme fatale informant. Even at this early stage, homosexual “deviance,” sadomasochism, and Nazism were being merged in subtle and not-so-subtle ways for popular consumption.

By all accounts, director Rossellini and co-scriptwriter Fellini shared a love for dark humor and irony that is evident in several scenes, particularly involving children. Children were of vital importance in Italian culture of the day, and they figure prominently in much Neorealist cinema; here, they are small adult partisans, taking comic beatings from their parents for staying out past curfew, when in reality they are not playing bocce but setting explosives. From Rome, Open City to The Bicycle Thief to The Children Are Watching Us, they come to embody rebirth, hope, and the potential for progress and modernity.

Overall, Rossellini is pretty easy on the Italians for their part in the war. This can be annoying, especially given his three preceding propaganda films, with their heroic pro-war message, albeit a state-mandated heroic message. And while that can be understood, although not justified perhaps, under the watchful eye of Vittorio Mussolini, Benito’s son and head of the fascist film industry, the same cannot be said of Rossellini’s independent postwar efforts, when he had full freedom to explore civilian complicity in war aggression. To his credit, in his subsequent film, Paisan, Rossellini does delve into more murky moral territory, criticizing both occupiers and liberators. By war’s end, Italian crimes in Abyssinia and Greece were pretty low down on the atrocity list, and self reflection didn’t really pull in returns at the box office. Rome, Open City with its tragic humanism and empathy, was a huge success for Rossellini and opened countless inroads for Italian cinema abroad. His refugee cohort from the fascist film industry, including Antonioni, Fellini, De Sica, and Visconti, would all have new opportunities as Italy reconstructed itself and Cinecitta studios became one of the prime movers on the European film scene.

Image1ffdAs for the lasting impact of Rome, Open City almost seventy years on, I find it fascinating that Anna Magnani’s tragic scene seems to have become so interwoven with Italian popular consciousness that its  narrative inventions appear even on a postage stamp commemorating Gullace, as the latter watches the truck driving away with her husband, thus mirroring the film, not the reality.

M

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The fact that, after viewing Fritz Lang’s M, one will never hear Grieg’s Peer Gynt in quite the same way again speaks volumes of the film’s most brilliant asset: its innovative use of sound. M is, without question, the high water mark of Weimar era cinema, and the best film of Lang’s career in the eyes of many, including his own.

But let’s back up a bit. Any meaningful discussion on the merits of M must be properly placed within the context of the coming of sound to the medium itself. Through the din of today’s hyper-accessible, multi-media white noise, it is hard for many to comprehend silent film as anything beyond an inferior and defective medium that was only improved upon with the sonic innovations of the late 1920s, when the sound-stripping of celluloid finally synchronized aural with visual. But this is unfair; at the least a simplification, at the worst a gross injustice to the sophistication of the medium. By the coming of the first sound feature The Jazz Singer, silent film had evolved into its own complex film language, with its own rhythm, its own set of aesthetic rules; for example, by his masterwork Der Letze Mann, German director F.W. Murnau had managed to purge the ubiquitous intertitles altogether in favor of a universality of vision that transcended all languages and national demarcations. The artists’ protectiveness of this evolution can be seen by the reaction to the proposed transition, particularly from the creative elements. Producers and studio heads saw the gimmick and the novelty, and the subsequent dollar signs. Actors and directors saw the destruction of their craft by technicians and artless “inventors” who capriciously hocked their wares to an industry that could not resist this shiny new toy. After all, this was no small change; it was jumping off a cliff so to speak. The film medium was still relatively new and on tenuous footing. One misstep and all could come crashing down. For Germany, France, and the other European nations struggling to get films exported abroad, the problems went far beyond microphone placement and minimizing set noise: the coming of sound can be seen as an early instance of American dominance via cultural hegemony, an attempt to assert control over the international entertainment market under the dubious guise of “innovation.” At home, the new sound medium allowed studio heads the freedom to abolish existing star contracts and renegotiate on terms favorable to them, which they did with impunity, getting rid of a lot of squeaky wheels along the way. So no, it wasn’t just about getting to hear Al Jolson sing.

So back to Lang….Okay, a brief digression. In 1952, baritone-sax-great Gerry Mulligan moved to L.A. and started performing at the Haig with some other newcomers, including Chico Hamilton and Chet Baker. Red Norvo had just finished a tenure there and the upright piano had been removed from the stage to accommodate his older style of jazz. Mulligan–partly out of convenience, partly out of curiosity and the desire to push himself into uncharted territory–asked the management to leave it as is. As is evidenced in the earliest surviving demos, without the piano for harmony, this new quartet struggled with odd arrangements and awkward attempts at improvisation. But within weeks, their own unique song structures emerged, a West Coast jazz language built as much around communicative silences and pauses as East Coast bebop’s was all about bombast, speed, and notes-per-second.

M is Lang’s “pianoless quartet” moment, the point at which he struggled with a shifting technical variable–his first sound film–and ultimately envisioned something new, a use for audio beyond the banal conveyance of dialogue. He pioneered how sound could be manipulated to heighten the impact of constant intercutting between scenes, such as M‘s two concurrent discussions on how best to approach the capture of this troublesome child murderer, one happening at the police station, the other among the various “union” representatives of the criminal organizations, with Lang drawing ironic parallels between these two seemingly-opposed entities. In today’s films, such a montage is standard and barely noticeable, even a tired cliche. But in M, it still somehow feels fresh and revolutionary. Similarly, his use of operatic leitmotiv to impress upon the viewer the disintegrating chaos of a killer’s internal psyche is also highly advanced. And above all, the incredible intro sequence, with the girl’s abduction told through the repetitive, increasingly-distressed, off-screen calls from her mother, stretched across a triage of haunting sequential images: a human silhouette on a “Wanted” poster; a child’s rolling ball; a balloon snagged on a power line.

Lang’s oft-repeated tale of fleeing to France in the “dead of the night” after being approached by the Nazis to direct propaganda films has always held more than a whiff of fish story, with its self-aggrandized danger and egocentric escapism, as if his notoriety and position would have had no impact on his fate. Perhaps that is true. But like Pabst, who also declined to serve, I suspect he would have been simply ignored and marginalized. Contrary to his version of events, he did flee with all of his money and resources intact and also made several return trips to Germany from Paris before the outbreak of war.

Although fellow ex-pats Douglas Sirk and Billy Wilder achieved a level of success in the US rivaling Lang’s, it is only the latter whose cinematic greatness is divided equally between the pre and post war eras, with a cinematic canon spanning two languages. Lang would go on to direct some of the biggest and most important film noirs of the Hollywood era, particularly 1953’s The Big Heat, starring Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame. In M, within Peter Lorre’s complex serial killer, we see the early blueprint for what would become Lang’s trademark motif, and a cornerstone of practically the entire film noir genre: the doppelganger in conflict, the intermarriage of good and evil, and the non-judgmental exposure of the “grey zone” between the two.

 

Maedchen in Uniform

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Like Gray Gardens, Eat the Document, and Superstar: the Karen Carpenter Story, Mädchen in Uniform is one of those rare films whose only availability in the pre-Internet days came through the grainy bootleg copies that film buffs passed around hand to hand. Examples of female directors from the Weimar years are almost non-existent. The first one often discussed is the technically-gifted, politically-clueless Leni Riefenstahl, an actor until 1932’s The Blue Light, her directorial debut. She is of course better known for aggrandizing the Nazi rally at Nuremberg in her Triumph of the Will (1935) and was handpicked by Hitler to accompany the Wehrmacht into the invasion of Poland to get action footage for newsreels; the first “objective” embedded journalist I suppose.

Luckily, for a little leftist balance, we have Leontine Sagan. Sagan started her career with Max Reinhardt, acting and directing for the stage before turning her attention, albeit briefly, to filmmaking. Of the two feature films she directed, Mädchen in Uniform (1931) is her only surviving work, released just at the launch of German sound film; and while not as sonically groundbreaking as Fritz Lang’s M, it nevertheless stands as a great achievement from that difficult transitional period and pushes boundaries in other areas.

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Upon release, Mädchen in Uniform was a huge success in Germany and the most acclaimed film by a woman director to date. It also sold well in most countries that chose to import it, although an initial U.S. ban was purportedly only lifted after the direct intervention of Eleanor Roosevelt. Part of its German popularity surely stems from its being an adaptation from a novel, The Child Manuela by Christa Winsloe, which is based on her own boarding school experiences. While it remains unclear how Sagan was brought on board to direct, the film is one of those rare occasions where both director and screenwriter were women, as was virtually the entire cast. Since Sagan had zero experience in filmmaking, the experienced director Carl Froelich was brought on board to supervise the technical aspects and act as a “consultant.” To this day his influence on the film is still a point of considerable debate among film historians, particularly with regard to how much pressure he exerted on the narrative. Feminist film theorists tend to undermine any positive contribution, or at least remain leery of his intentions, while actors like Hertha Thiele later sang his praises and offered belated insights into the onset dynamics between the cast, Sagan, Winsloe, and Froelich.

Looking back on the film’s critical readings, one sees an interesting shift through the decades. In 1931, while the underlying homosexual overtones were noted and commented upon, this was not seen as a particularly important aspect of the story, at least with regard to media attention. Perhaps this had much to do with context, given the over-the-top sexual liberation of Weimar Berlin, where a suppressed love affair between headmaster and pupil would have been quaint compared to Marlene Dietrich’s raunchy performance in The Blue Angel, the film that took the LGBT subculture in Berlin by storm, according to Hertha Thiele. Hence, until the 1960s, scholarship and critical reception focused almost exclusively on the film’s indictment of Prussian militarism and its dehumanizing and destructive influence upon German society, which was by far a greater concern among the nation’s cultural cognoscenti. Thiele says that this was also the narrative angle emphasized by Froelich, despite his later collaboration with the Nazi Party.

But times, and interpretations, change. And today, first and foremost, Mädchen in Uniform is seen as a landmark moment in lesbian filmmaking, not only because of its content, but also because of the team responsible for its creation, with the openly-lesbian Winsloe and somewhat-more-closeted Sagan overseeing all stages of the creative process. It was a fleeting moment not to be repeated by either of them. The following year, Sagan co-directed a watered-down male version for British audiences, Men of Tomorrow, an odd title given its retrograde ideals. She later moved to South Africa and directed for the stage for the next forty years. Winsloe’s end is more tragic: near the end of World War II, she was murdered in a French forest for “associating” with a suspected collaborationist. The four Frenchmen who murdered them said that they thought the two women were Nazi spies; Winsloe, a staunch anti-fascist with Communist leanings, was anything but. All four were acquitted of any crime.

As for the actors, the success of the film resulted in the hugely-popular teaming of Thiele/Wieck being reunited for Carl Froelich’s Anna und Elisabeth (1933), where they again played lovers, albeit ultimately punished for their transgressions at the film’s end. More notably, Thiele had a significant role in Bertolt Brecht’s radically progressive Kuhle Wampe, or Who Owns the World? (1932). Although the Nazis had already banned most of the films in which she starred, Goebbels approached Thiele with an offer to work for the Party’s propaganda machine, to which she famously declared “I do not switch direction every time the wind blows,” and shortly thereafter left for Switzerland, where she remained for many years, working in medicine.

When interviewed shortly before her death in 1984, Thiele said that she still received fan letters weekly, not from her then-current television work in West Germany, but from new generations of lesbians deeply affected by her anguished performance as Manuela from fifty years before.

Nosferatu

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One has to wonder what actually succeeded among German moviegoers during the 1920s, since most of the films now lauded as classics were so maligned in their day. Amazingly, given its accessibility and continued fame nearly a century on, F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror falls into that sad category. It was the first effort by the newly-formed Prana-Film, one of the first “indies” that attempted to compete with the state-sponsored Universum Film AG, or UFA, which enjoyed a virtual monopoly in German film production. But an unexpected intervention by outside parties ensured that Prana-Film’s first release would also be its last.

German-born Murnau himself came from a comfortable life, if harsh and disciplined by today’s standards. Formally trained as an art historian, he abandoned an early painting career after realizing his efforts were, in his own words, “like Raphael without hands.” His time spent as a reconnaissance pilot in the First World War and the death of a close friend altered him considerably, and Murnau, already fragile psychologically and physically, withdrew further into himself. His alienation was not helped by his hidden homosexuality; or, to be more precise, its legal interpretation as defined by Paragraph 175 of the penal code, Germany’s infamous and long-standing law on “unnatural fornication” that equated homosexuality with bestiality. Although there was an increasing grass-roots call for 175’s repeal from 1919-1929, there was a parallel movement for its expansion, which would ultimately come to fruition under the Nazis in 1935. Thus, much of Murnau’s private life, compared to egocentric peers like Fritz Lang, remained shrouded in mystery for many years.

His first project, an anti-war film, never got off the ground due to the overall unwillingness from financial backers (the topic was not broached on German celluloid until its literature ventured there first.) Falling in with other artist friends with connections, his luck improved. Subsequent projects, including an early version of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde starring Conrad Veidt from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, are now sadly lost through a combination of bombs, neglect and nitrate. With 1921’s Schloß Vogelöd (The Haunted Castle), some took notice of his knack for horror, and Prana-Film, formed by filmmakers with an affinity for the occult, approached Murnau with their idea.

Inspired by Hugo Steiner-Prag’s illustrations for Gustav Meyrink’s fantastical novel The Golem (1915), Nosferatu took its design aesthetic from an entirely different source than the cliched, 19th-century Victorian romanticism that so defined the vampire genre of the day. There was nothing suave, debonaire, or attractive about the ratlike vision put forth by Murnau and actor Max Schreck, a then-unknown that, due to his last name meaning “to frighten or terrify” in German, many believed to be a pseudonym for some more prominent actor who wished to remain anonymous. Unlike his peers, Murnau abandoned the elaborate studio sets and filmed on location in parts of Poland and Czechoslovakia, which was virtually unheard of in those days.

It is, of course, all the more ironic and satisfying that what became the quintessential vampire film in the history of cinema is the very one ordered destroyed by the Stoker estate. The film’s producers naively believed that altering the storyline and changing names could circumvent rights claims by Stoker’s widow. The courts didn’t see it that way. At her request, all prints were to be recalled from distribution and destroyed immediately. One print leaked out to the international market and never made its way home; that was the oft-circulated legend anyway. As it turns out, prints surfaced piecemeal for decades and were slowly reconstructed to match Murnau’s production notes, including tinting specifications–many black-and-white German silent films were intended to be screened this way–and mood preferences for the score.

Murnau emigrated to Hollywood and made Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, which was nominated for an Academy Award and still believed by many to be his greatest work, despite his disillusionment with the American system. In 1931, he died in a car accident in California, at the age of 42.

At this late stage, the massive gaps in Murnau’s oeuvre will likely never be filled, with fewer and fewer lost films being discovered from the “archives” of broom closets and theater basements. But as a recent jackpot of “lost” John Ford films found in New Zealand shows us, film preservation can often take freakish and unexpected turns.