From Kubrick to Murnau – Notes on Four Great Films

Film Forum, here in New York, is currently showing a series called “Return of the Double Feature,” which offers two features for the price of a single admission. This series runs through September 13th. Each pair of films is linked by director, actor, or genre (here’s the schedule). On Monday of last week, there were two double-feature programs, Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory and The Killing, followed by F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise and Nosferatu. Though I’d seen these films before, the idea of seeing all four of them together appealed to my sense of overkill. Also, I liked the prospect of being able to say I’d done such a thing, for what that’s worth. In retrospect, it was probably too much to properly process in one day — like eating four rich meals one after the other — but they’re great films and I couldn’t pass this up.

I saw the films in the following order, so that’s how I’m writing about them.

Paths of Glory-poster6Paths of Glory (1957)  I’ve seen this film many times and it always works. No studio had wanted to finance a film version of Humphrey Cobb’s 1935 novel about French soldiers chosen at random for execution after a failed attack in World War I. Stanley Kubrick had previously read the novel and wanted to film it as his follow-up to The Killing. Kirk Douglas became interested after he read a script written by Kubrick and Calder Willingham (Jim Thompson also contributed to the screenplay). The lead role of Colonel Dax was perfect for Douglas, the kind of tough, uncompromising character he’d played and would continue to play throughout his career. With Douglas on board, United Artists was willing to make the film.

Some have found Kubrick’s films cold and clinical, but I’ve never been bothered by this, to the extent that it is true. Though I have to admit, at times it seems like he’s an alien intelligence observing events in a laboratory. Kubrick was an avid chess player, and he brings those skills and strategies to his filmmaking. Much of Paths of Glory was filmed in the Schleissheim Palace, an opulent chateau near Munich in Bavaria. In contrast to the muddy chaos of the trenches at the front lines, these scenes, shot in cavernous, mathematically precise spaces, display a formal rigor and control that foreshadows Kubrick’s brilliant Barry Lyndon (1975). The following image of the court-martial gives a sense of this. Note the space and light, the deep focus and the composition of the soldiers. Douglas is seated in the foreground at the right.

Paths of Glory-courtroomThe following clips are excellent examples of Kubrick’s use of tracking shots. First we see General Mireau (George Macready) on a tour of the trenches with Richard Anderson as his aide-de-camp. This is followed by Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) walking purposefully through the trench in the moments prior to a hopeless infantry assault on an impregnable objective. The camera is always moving, and this continues with lateral tracking from the beginning to the end of the attack.

An interesting aspect of Paths of Glory is that these are French soldiers with French names, all of whom are played by American actors speaking English dialogue in their normal speaking voice . There are no attempts at French accents, which is probably for the best — though it can be a bit jarring when you have someone like Emile Meyer as a French priest speaking like a dock worker. The foot soldiers in the infantry are blue collar working class, so it’s appropriate that they sound like guys from Queens or Brooklyn. Martin Scorsese used a similar strategy for Jesus’ disciples in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).

The three soldiers chosen by lot to be executed as examples after the failed attack are played by Ralph Meeker, Joe Turkel, and the wonderfully eccentric Timothy Carey. Turkel and Carey were both in Kubrick’s previous film, The Killing. Carey has a great scene with Turkel that takes place the night before they’re due to be executed. Turkel points to a cockroach crawling on the table and bitterly says that in the morning he’ll be dead and that cockroach will still be alive. Cut to a close-up of Carey’s face as he smashes his hand down on the roach and says, “Now you’ve got the edge.”

Paths of Glory’s running time is just 88 minutes, but it covers a lot of ground. Kubrick was ruthlessly efficient in the editing. For example, when General Broulard (Adolph Menjou) says that a general court martial will be convened at 3 o’clock that afternoon, Kubrick cuts directly to that event. There’s no fat in this film. It gets right to the point.

The following trailer makes Paths of Glory seem like more like an action-packed war movie than it actually is. For me, the focus of the film is on bureaucratic army officers who use the soldiers as cannon fodder to achieve their own success and advancement. The efforts of Kirk Douglas’ Colonel Dax, a top criminal lawyer in civilian life, to buck the system and prevent the execution are at the heart of things. Dax is Paths of Glory‘s moral center, and Douglas brings his full intensity and gritted teeth to express outrage, contempt, and sadness at the lack of reason and compassion on display.

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Killing-lobby cardThe Killing (1956)  I wrote about this film three years ago. You can access that post here. The following trailer doesn’t make The Killing seem much different from other crime films of the time, but it certainly was. I never tire of seeing it.

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Sunrise-poster4 Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)  This is widely considered to be one of the greatest films ever made, and I definitely agree. I’m not sure exactly what makes Sunrise great, I just know it is. I tend to respond to films first and foremost on an emotional level, without necessarily understanding why I’ve been affected the way I have. I’ve been thinking about Sunrise a lot since seeing it sandwiched in the midst of my quadruple-feature binge last week. In an effort to sort this out, I’ve been reading Lucy Fischer’s excellent BFI Film Classics monograph, Sunrise – A Song of Two Humans (1998), and Dudley Andrew’s chapter on Sunrise in his book Film and the Aura of Art (1984), both of which help to reveal and clarify the many layers of this extraordinary film. Seeing Sunrise again last night (via Amazon streaming) reinforced my feelings about the film.

Sunrise was the first film F. W. Murnau made in this country, after emigrating from Germany in 1926. He had virtually total control over the making of Sunrise and basically created the landscape of the film from the ground up. The scenes in the City are rather amazing.

An opening title reads, “This song of the Man and his Wife is of no place and every place; you might hear it anywhere at any time.” The next title screen reads, “For wherever the sun rises and sets… in the city’s turmoil or under the open sky on the farm life is much the same; sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet.” The characters have no names; they are referred to as “the Man,” “the Wife,” and “the Woman from the City.” The village where the Man and his Wife have their farm seems European, with houses out of a fairy tale. Across a large lake is the “City,” modern and fast-paced, noisy and sophisticated, with honking cars driving every which way. We’re in two different worlds; it feels like a fable. There’s something elemental about Sunrise that’s difficult to quantify.

Sunrise-posterSunrise-poster3

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Sunrise tells a seemingly slight story that has great depth, much like Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953). In both, descriptions of what happens don’t sound like much. The plot of Sunrise is the stuff of melodrama or film noir. The Man (George O’Brien) is tempted by the Woman from the City (Margaret Livingston) to sell his farm and go with her back to the City, but he’ll have to get rid of his Wife (Janet Gaynor) first. The Woman urges him to drown the Wife in the lake and make it look like an accident. Tortured and conflicted, the Man agrees, but has a crisis of conscience at the last minute. As soon as they reach the far shore of the lake, the Wife, realizing he meant to kill her, runs from him in terror. The Man follows her onto a trolley that somehow has a route through the woods into the City. Once there he slowly regains his wife’s trust. The feeling that passes between them is profoundly powerful.

Sunrise-boarding tram carThroughout the film, the music score by Hugo Risenfeld contributes greatly to the overall effect. I mentioned Ozu earlier, and at times the feel of the score reminded me of music in Ozu’s films. It contains a depth of feeling. Ostensibly a silent film, Sunrise has a synchronized music and effects track. Released several weeks before The Jazz Singer, it’s a link between silent and sound films.

That’s not all, but I won’t describe any more of what happens — or rather, how it happens, because I don’t think I can do it justice.

Here are some random notes:

When the Woman from the City is talking to the Man about killing the Wife, the dialogue title reads, “Couldn’t she get drowned?” As this title holds on the screen, the words begin to drip down the screen. You can see this in the second trailer below.

In many scenes, interior spaces are askew; i.e. tilted floors, oversized doors, and strange perspectives.

George O’Brien appeared mostly in Westerns before and after Sunrise. He was in John Ford’s The Iron Horse (1924), and his last film was Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn (1964).

The very first Academy Awards ceremony took place on May 16, 1929, and honored the best films of 1927 and ’28. Sunrise received three awards: Janet Gaynor for best actress, Charles Rosher and Karl Struss for cinematography, and the award for “Unique and Artistic Picture” to the film itself. This was the first and last time this award was given. Wings received the Best Picture award that year.

I was interested to learn that Edgar G. Ulmer was an Assistant Art Director on Sunrise. Ulmer went on make three of my favorite films: The Black Cat (1934), Detour (1945) and The Man from Planet X (1951).

Murnau died young at age 42 in 1931. He’d made four films since coming to Hollywood. A week before the opening of his final film, Tabu, Murnau was riding up the coast from Los Angeles in a hired Rolls Royce driven by a 14-year-old Filipino servant. There was a crash. Murnau hit his head and died the next day in Santa Barbara. There has to be more to that story. A trivial detail about Murnau that caught my attention is that he was reportedly 6 feet 11 inches tall. That’s taller than John Wayne.

Here are two trailers. I think they’re both worth seeing.

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Nosferatu-poster3Nosferatu (1922)  What may be Murnau’s most famous film is an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula (1897). Stoker’s widow Florence successfully sued and got a court ruling ordering all prints of the film to be destroyed. Thankfully, a few survived, and here we are today. Nosferatu is best known for its depiction of the Dracula character, here called Count Orlok. This vampire is definitely not Bela Lugosi in cape and evening dress, or Christopher Lee. Orlok is something entirely Other; a praying mantis, a rat crawling out of the grave. His appearance becomes more distorted as the film progresses, the hands more claw-like, the ears more pointed. I find my attention flagging whenever Orlok is not on screen. He’s definitely the main attraction.

A bonus to this particular screening was hearing Steve Sterner provide live piano accompaniment. I first heard Steve at the old Thalia Theater. He’s written music for over 300 silent films, and has been affiliated with Film Forum for at least 25 years.

Here’s a scene on board the ship Orlok is on with his coffin and several boxes of earth. Crew members have been disappearing one by one during the voyage. The first mate goes below to check things out. Not a good idea.

Orlok emerges from the hold of the ship. Note the rat on his left arm. Nice detail.

Nosferatu-up from the hold__________________________________________________________

Nosferatu has had a long life. It’s undead, so to speak. Werner Herzog’s remake, Nosferatu the Vampyre, was released in 1979. Klaus Kinski was suitably freakish as Count Dracula, with Isabelle Adjani as Lucy Harker and Bruno Ganz as Jonathan Harker. By then, Dracula was a public domain title, so character names from the novel could be used. Herzog considered Murnau’s original to be the greatest ever to come out of Germany. In 2000, E. Elias Merhige directed Shadow of the Vampire, which depicts the making of Nosferatu, with John Malkovich as Murnau and Willem Dafoe as Max Schrek, who happens to be a real vampire in this fanciful imagining. These are just two examples of Nosferatu‘s reach.

Nosferatu-Herzog posterShadow of the Vampire-poster2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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With the exceptions of The Iron Horse (1924), Wings (1927), and Shadow of the Vampire (2000), all of the films referenced in this post are available for streaming from Amazon. — Ted Hicks                                                                      

About Ted Hicks

Iowa farm boy; have lived in NYC for 40 years; worked in motion picture labs, film/video distribution, subtitling, media-awards program; obsessive film-goer all my life.
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3 Responses to From Kubrick to Murnau – Notes on Four Great Films

  1. Davi M. Fromm says:

    Terrific reflections on these films.

  2. Pingback: SANGUE E CELLULOIDE – Carmilla on line | HyperHouse

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