DVD of the Week – ‘Lubitsch Musicals’ – February 12, 2008

Ernst Lubitsch was the master of the silent movie comedy of high society manners and lusty passions and he crossed over to sound with the grace of his cultured characters, adding music and dialogue sparkling with veiled suggestion to his opulent romantic comedies of manners and mischief. Lubitsch Musicals presents four of the delicious, delectable, deft sex comedies, musicals as earthy and randy as they come, but presented with such wit and elegance that the innuendo isn’t dirty, it’s just fun. The rich and beautiful are just as lusty as the rest of us, but they have style, at least when Lubitsch is directing them

I review the four-disc set in my MSN DVD column:

One would be hard put to actually describe the legendary Lubitsch Touch – it’s as much attitude as style – but there’s no mistaking the smooth elegance, continental wit, and winking innuendo of his best films. This set, from Criterion’s no-frills Eclipse series, charts Ernst Lubitch’s first sound films with the DVD debuts of his first four playfully adult musicals, three of them starring the perfectly-cast Maurice Chevalier. “The Love Parade” (1929), starring Chevalier as a womanizing military attaché with eyes for American in Paris Jeanette MacDonald, was not just Lubitsch’s first talkie but a sophisticated musical at the birth of the cinematic genre. The film marked MacDonald’s film debut and she returned for Lubitch’s next musical, Monte Carlo (1930), playing a countess romanced by a sly count (Jack Buchanan) who poses as a hairdresser to get into her boudoir. How Lubitsch!

The set also features The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), a seductive triangle with Chevalier, Claudette Colbert and Miriam Hopkins, and One Hour With You (1932), a remake of Lubitsch’s silent masterpiece The Marriage Circle with Chevalier and MacDonald.

Another highlight this week is Academy Awards Animation Collection: 15 Winners, 26 Nominees, a three-disc collection of animated shorts from the libraries of MGM, Warner Bros., and the Fleischer Studios. I’m actually far more enchanted by the two discs of nominated films than the disc of winners, which is dominated by Hanna-Barbera “Tom and Jerry” cartoons. But then I’m a Chuck Jones guy, and most of his pieces (as well as work by Tex Avery and the Fleischers) are among the nominated films:

“From A to Z-z-z-z” (1954) is the first of only two cartoons featuring the unlimited imagination of schoolboy Ralph Philips, “High Note” (1960) is a memorable Merry Melody featuring a drunk musical note stumbling and hiccupping through “The Blue Danube,” and “Now Hear This” (1963) is a delightfully abstract tale of sound effects morphing into surreal imagery.

The set includes numerous cartoons released on previous sets (only 15 are new to DVD), but for those who haven’t invested a few hundred dollars in their animation collections, they make a great sampler of the best, the funniest, and the most creative cartoons from the classic age of studio animation.

Also check out the box sets Joan Crawford Collection Vol. 2 (which includes George Cukor’s A Woman’s Face) and Charlie Chan Collection: Volume 4 (which collects the first four features starring Sidney Toler, who took over from Warner Oland). Continue reading “DVD of the Week – ‘Lubitsch Musicals’ – February 12, 2008”

DVD of the Week – ‘Jean-Luc Godard: 3-Disc Collector’s Edition’

“Why must there always be a story?” asks a director (Jerzy Radziwilowicz) attempting to create a film of beautiful images, modeled on the masterpieces of western art, in Jean-Luc Godard’s Passion (1982). Of course he’s speaking for Godard, who returned from his self-imposed video exile with this lush production. Perhaps the most physically beautiful of all of Godard’s films, he uses cranes, dollies, an elaborate set, and a vivid palette of rich colors to suggest the styles of the great European directors. But there must be a story, so the fictional director flits between his rich lover (Hanna Schygulla) and a working class protester (Isabelle Huppert) while agonizing over his film. This framework seems like an afterthought, but perhaps that’s the point: who needs a story when you have these amazing images?

Passion makes its DVD debut in Lionsgate’s new Jean-Luc Godard: 3-Disc Collector’s Edition, reviewed here in my DVD column:


“Passion,” perhaps his most physically beautiful film to date, launched a whole new phase in his career, where he played with ideas of human relationships and cinematic representation with the tools and techniques of his video work. This new three-disc set features four films making their respective DVD debuts.

The other three features are First Name: Carmen (1983), Detective (1984), and Helas Pour Moi (aka Oh, Woe Is Me, 1993), and the disc features the half-hour documentary “Jean-Luc Godard: A Riddle Wrapped in an Enigma,” with film critics and historians Kent Jones, Winston Wheeler Dixon and David Sterritt.

Also new on DVD this week is a new collector’s edition of Billy Wilder’s The Apartment:

After striking screwball gold with “Some Like It Hot,” Billy Wilder cast his eye toward the modern urban romance in a corporate culture, circa 1960, and came up with a sad and sweet story of adultery, opportunism and compromise. Jack Lemmon is the everyman who, struggling to break out of the pack of insurance adjusters, lends out his bachelor apartment to a group of cheating executives for extramarital trysts. He gets his promotion and trades the revolving door of sleazy execs running through his place for just one recurring tenant: big boss Fred MacMurray (who plays the biggest jerk of his career with cool hypocrisy).

And Sergei Paradjanov’s debut feature Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) makes its DVD debut this week, available as a single-disc special edition or in a box set with the director’s other three feature films.

Continue reading “DVD of the Week – ‘Jean-Luc Godard: 3-Disc Collector’s Edition’”

DVD of the Week – ‘El Cid’

“What a noble subject. If he had only a noble king.”

El Cid, Anthony Mann’s exceedingly handsome historical epic starring Charlton Heston as Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, aka The Cid, debuts on DVD this week. You might think that El Cid means The Stud, as Heston is truly macho and unwaveringly chivalrous throughout, but it’s a term of respect bestowed by a Moorish prince on the Catholic Spaniard for his humanity and his respect of the Muslim citizens of Spain, a people who are under assault by Rodrigo’s intolerant Catholic king. There’s a theme more timely now than ever. I review it in my DVD column on MSN

You can argue over what is the greatest historical movie epic, but “El Cid” is surely the brawniest. Not in the gladiator sense of muscled bodies and mano-a-mano combat (like “Ben-Hur”) but in the strength of its storytelling and its visual display of force and pageantry.

The story is pure melodrama centered on a larger-than-life romance between Rodrigo and Sophia Loren’s Chimene, his lady love turned mortal enemy (the two performers did not get along, which may explain the rather formal quality of their love scenes). But director Anthony Mann uses his stunning locations and choreographs his armies and crowds magnificently, not just showing off the budget but corralling it into the frame like an old master and creating a dynamic, powerful, living landscape.

Read the complete review here. It’s available in both 2-Disc set and in a deluxe Limited Collector’s Edition.

Also new on DVD this week: special editions of Monty Python’s Life of Brian and Groundhog Day and the home video debut of the documentary Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows, Continue reading “DVD of the Week – ‘El Cid’”

DVD of the week – ‘4 by Agnes Varda’

4 by Agnes Varda Agnes Varda, a key director of the French Wave, never belonged to the group proper. By her own admission she had seen less than two dozen films before she embarked on her own first feature, La Pointe Courte (1954), a study of a marriage on the rocks starring Silvia Monfort and Philippe Noiret. Instead she remained – and remains – happily on the fringe following her own muse and defying expectations with glee. Her debut feature debuts on DVD in new Criterion box set 4 by Agnes Varda, along with three of her best and most well known features. From the easy rhythms and delicate naturalism of Cleo From 5 to 7 (1961), her first critical success, to the rosy romanticism of the controversial Le Bonheur (1965) to the harsh beauty and alienation of Vagabond (1985), Varda shows herself a hard director to peg. Where Cleo, the story of a ninety minutes in the life of a flighty pop singer (Corinne Marchand) as she awaits the results of a cancer test, gives us rounded, vivid characters in the bustling real world of Paris, Le Bonheur, a lovely tale of a tragic love triangle, offers archetypes in a sun-drenched Eden, an impossibly idyllic world where even tragedy is transformed into a happy ending. The immediacy of Cleo becomes distanced in Le Bonheur and reaches its apex in Vagabond, where Varda’s removed observations chart (in flashback) the lives touched on by Sandrine Bonnaire’s drifter, who seems incapable of actually connecting with anything around her. Where Cleo suddenly clings to the life she sees with different eyes while awaiting news of her cancer test results, Bonnaire’s vagabond seems to skip along the surface, alienated from everything and everyone around her. Even the playful techniques so effective in Cleo (intertitles marking off and punctuating the scenes) and Le Bonheur (flashcuts, out of focus portraits, visual wordplays) are stripped away for the sobering drama of Vagabond. What ties these films together is a richness of detail and a consistency of style – a compelling form created for each individual film.

It’s featured on my MSN DVD column, along with other highlights this week. The John Frankenheimer Collection offer the DVD debuts of The Young Savages and The Train along with previously released discs The Manchurian Candidate and Ronin.

“The Young Savages” (1961), his sophomore theatrical feature, is a social drama produced by and starring Burt Lancaster as a passionate district attorney who investigates the racially charged murder of a blind Puerto Rican gang member by three Italian teens. Lancaster also produces and stars in the World War II resistance drama “The Train” (1965), a gritty, vividly directed thriller about a resistance leader (Lancaster) who reluctantly risks his agents and civilian hostages to stop a Nazi officer (Paul Scofield) from looting French art treasures during the German retreat from France.

Continue reading “DVD of the week – ‘4 by Agnes Varda’”

DVD of the Week – ‘The Naked Prey’

Cornel Wilde’s The Naked Prey is not the first survivalist drama of man hunting man, but it is arguably the definitive, most visceral and primal example of the genre. Part Run of the Arrow (the story is inspired by a real event in American history but shifted to turn of the century colonial South Africa) and part The Most Dangerous Game, director/star Wilde strips the set-up to the essentials. There are no names in the safari crew and all we know of the Man is that he wants out of the safari biz and return to his farm, and that he has a wedding ring. You can’t miss the influence of the film on Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, which trades the searing austerity and matter-of-fact savagery of the African veldt and jungle for the lush South American rain forests and adds complications, but otherwise charts the escape of a captured man from warriors hunting him down, first as sport, and then as vengeance.

I reviewed the new Criterion disc in my MSN DVD column and you can find the review here:

The film is notorious for the tortures unleashed upon the captured hunters for tribal sport and spectacle, but the blunt slaughter of elephants is as grotesque as any of the cruelties faced by the humans. Wilde so effectively matches his beautifully shot film with the wildlife footage of the animal food chain in action that the most telling difference is the contrast in film grain. The restored digital transfer looks great and the color balance helps match the otherwise disparate film sources.

[Note: click on titles for the complete review; click on DVD cover to find it on Amazon]

Continue reading “DVD of the Week – ‘The Naked Prey’”

‘Zodiac’ – DVD of the Week

Zodiac debuts in a 2-disc special edition.

When Zodiac was originally released in a bare-bones, single-disc edition six months ago, I suspected that a special edition would follow. After all, this is a painstakingly crafted David Fincher film, and Fincher… well, he likes DVD and he’s happy to share his work and let the audience peek behind the curtain. And why not? Fincher is appropriately obsessive in his attention to detail as he recreates seventies San Francisco and American culture, right down to his filmmaking choices, which evokes the period cinema without aping it. One of the most technically accomplished directors working today, he avoids all temptation to impress us stylistically to draw us into a complex story and a complicated investigation that spans years and reverberates through the culture even longer.

I really couldn’t pick out the new footage in the extended cut, which is only a few minutes longer. Fincher talks about some of it in his commentary, but there are no major new scenes and the structure and storytelling are essentially the same.

My MSN review is here.

Also new on DVD this week: Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, a visually spellbinding science fiction film that overcomes a creaky B-movie plot with sublime imagery; Clive Owen in the gonzo action blast Shoot ‘Em Up, an adrenaline-driven affair that refuses to take itself seriously; and Emanuele Crialese’s gorgeous Golden Door. I also want to call out Takashi Miike’s Big Bang Love, Juvenile A, an expressionist juvenile prison drama by way of Jean Genet, and a film he called his masterpiece. On TV, the first season of the Showtime/BBC co-production The Tudors and the FX comic drama The Riches, starring Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver, debut, as well as all four mysteries in the An Unstuitable Job For a Woman series, starring Helen Baxendale as P.D. James’ fledgling detective Cordelia Gray.

My complete DVD column can be found here.

DVD News – Blu-ray triumphs?

Have you been waiting for the industry to settle on a standard before committing to a new high definition DVD system? Warners, the last of the studios to release its HD offerings in both Blu-ray and HD DVD formats, has tipped the balance (ostensibly past the point of return) by announcing its commitment to the Blu-ray format solely. They will honor their HD DVD commitments through the end of May, and then drop the format, leaving only Paramount Pictures, Universal Pictures, and Dreamworks Animation supporting HD DVD.

“The high-definition DVD war is all but over,” opens the New York Times piece by Brooks Barnes.

Hollywood’s squabble over which of two technologies will replace standard DVDs skewed in the direction of the Sony Corporation on Friday, with Warner Brothers casting the deciding vote in favor of the company’s Blu-ray discs over the rival format, HD DVD.

In some ways, the fight is a replay of the VHS versus Betamax battle of the 1980s. This time, however, the Sony product appears to have prevailed.

“The overwhelming industry opinion is that this decides the format battle in favor of Blu-ray,” said Richard Doherty, research director at the Envisioneering Group, a market research firm in Seaford, N.Y.

You can also get more information in this Variety article:

Warner Bros. will throw all its weight behind Blu-ray later this year, a decision that could serve as a death blow to the rival HD DVD format.

Continue reading “DVD News – Blu-ray triumphs?”

A Christmas DVD Wish List… plus “Diva” and David Cronenberg

Inspired by the possibilities of DVD releases seen this year alone in terms of special editions and box sets, I put together an initial wish list of essentials I would like to see in the coming years and published the piece on GreenCine:

What a year we’ve seen for domestic DVD releases. Marvelous special editions of Breathless and I Am Cuba. A deluxe presentation of Berlin Alexanderplatz. The release of such long-awaited films as Killer of Sheep (an amazing 2-disc special edition), Ace in the Hole (Criterion, no less), Witchfinder General (in the uncut British version), and Duck, You Sucker (restored and reconstructed), just to name the first that come to mind. And new standards of quality and exhaustive completeness have been set with the sprawling, unprecedented box set Ford at Fox and Blade Runner: Five-Disc Ultimate Collector’s Edition.

And the hits keep on coming. Warner has been working on mastering elements for a The Magnificent Ambersons special edition for years (modest editions are already available in France and Britain) and Paramount is reportedly working on an extensive restoration of The African Queen. Criterion has a Max Ophüls set in the works (the only confirmed titles are Earrings of Madame de… and Le Plaisir, and perhaps La Ronde – I hope they add Lola Montès to replace the inferior Fox Lorber edition) and is considering the films of Kenji Mizoguchi (including Street of Shame and Life of Oharu), Shohei Imamura, and Mikio Naruse (either in Criterion editions or Eclipse box sets), not to mention all those Rialto re-releases. There are Lon Chaney classics, Forbidden Hollywood collections, Looney Tunes boxes, and sets of such series as The Saint and Falcon in the works, as well as the rollout of the entire Andy Hardy series (gosh, dad, that’s swell!).

Yes, we go on and on about what’s not yet on DVD, but it is not in spite of these releases that I offer my own dream list of DVD Special Editions and Box Sets. It is because I am inspired by their example to dream big. This is no fantasy of lost films found (like the 132-minute version of Magnificent Ambersons, the 40-reel Greed, or magically rediscovered prints of London After Midnight or Four Devils), but a modest proposal to pull out films from the vaults, restore and remaster them where necessary, and give them the presentation they deserve on DVD.

What kind of releases did I choose? Here’s my top pick in a “best of” list of my dreams:

1. Touch of Evil: The Ultimate Collection

Continue reading “A Christmas DVD Wish List… plus “Diva” and David Cronenberg”

‘Blade Runner’ – DVD of the week

My last DVD column of 2007 wraps up the home video releases for the last two weeks of the year.

Twenty five years after Ridley Scott‘s visionary reworking of Philip K. Dick’s novel flopped at the box office (and was subsequently reborn as one of the pre-eminent cult movies of the past three decades), Scott delivers what he promises is his final take on the compromised classic.

The ultimate release of Blade Runner is the release of the week. I’m still going through the discs – the epic 3 1/2 hour documentary is astounding, the outtakes and deleted scenes are cut together into a kind of narrative, a stranger alternate universe companion film with completely different credits and a completely different narration by Ford. I’ll be writing about this in more detail later on this site.

The Simpsons Movie

The big-screen debut of America’s favorite yellow-skinned family plays like a supersized episode with gags crammed into every verbal and visual nook and cranny of the wide-screen format and an afterthought of a story…. It’s as puckish and irreverent as the television show, but with PG-13 parameters (resulting in, among other things, an inspired gag sprung during Bart’s naked skateboard ride through town), awfully funny and fairly unmemorable.

Also new in this week’s column: Once (“the sweetest little musical of the year”), Eastern Promises (which arrives on DVD on December 23), and new special editions of The Evil Dead and Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York.

Also new this week is my tribute to the fictional history of rock and roll: the Greatest Bands that Never Existed.

The alternative history of rock ‘n’ roll is filled with class acts: The Swanky Modes, Steel Dragon, the Luminaries, and who could forget the upstart grrrl group the Stains? Most people do forget … because these bands don’t exist outside of the movies. In fact, there’s a veritable alternative history of rock ‘n’ roll that only exits in film. Many nonexistent bands are bad; many are surprisingly good; some are downright inspired.

If you’re a fan of Strange Fruit, The Venus in Furs, The Bang Bang, and Max Frost and the Troopers, then this is for you. If you haven’t heard of these bands, then jump in:

5. The Venus in Furs
Big-screen appearance:Velvet Goldmine
Musical definition: Glam rock redux
Signature song: “The Whole Shebang”
Liner notes: Jack Slade became the poster boy for androgyny rock and “the first true dandy of rock” in his taboo-busting phase as the flamboyantly bisexual singer/songwriter fronting the Venus in Furs. His career never recovered from the staged assassination at a concert and he disappeared, possibly into a new persona.
Behind the music: Todd Haynes recreates the pop-culture earthquake of glam rock with a fictionalized take on David Bowie‘s Ziggy Stardust phase (incarnated by Jonathan Rhys Meyers with a pouty, androgynous pose and a fabulous wardrobe), directed as a cheeky tribute to “Citizen Kane.” The period-perfect music was created by members of Radiohead, Mudhoney, Sonic Youth and Ron Asheton of the original Stooges.

Click here to read the other nine picks and more…

New reviews: ‘Juno’ and ‘Mala Noche’ plus Top Ten lists

The annual running of the lists is usually kicked off by the (often laughable) National Board of Review’s awards (and really, any group that lists The Bucket List as one of the Top Ten films of year earns the term “laughable”). Now I and my fellow MSN writers toss our opinions into the ring, along with other goodies.

The Top Ten 2007 Films poll can be found here with individual ballots found here. My top pick (at least for this list) was Into the Wild.

The Best (and Worst) of 2007 TV, meanwhile, is here.

For the record, my top pick for 2007 TV is Mad Men, and my pick for worst (which didn’t make the list): Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Upon reflection, however, I realize that I had forgotten a much worse show from another major creator: The Black Donnellys. Must have just blocked it out to save myself the pain of remembering.

For another take on the year in review, check out the delightful “Moments Out of Time” by Richard T. Jameson and Kathleen Murphy. If the name sounds familiar, maybe it’s because you used to devour the annual recounting of cinema moments in “Film Comment,” or before that, in “Movietone News,” where it was born decades ago.

Also new this week:

My review of Jason Reitman’s Juno: “the feel-good film of the pregnant teenager comedy genre,” is at the Seattle P-I. That description may sound like a glib dismissal, but it’s actually an appreciation of the film’s wit: it is actually quite smart and mature as well as clever and entertaining.

The original screenplay by Diablo Cody ricochets with askew dialogue, a fantasy of youth slang gone wild that borders on precious and contrived. In this skewed cinematic universe it’s both defiant and defining, a private language for a bright high school non-conformist.

Under the cleverness is a very human and humble story of growing up, and Page is engaging and energetic and palpably vulnerable under her self-possessed eccentricity. We watch her rise to responsibility as she watches how adults face up — or don’t — to their own.

My review of Criterion’s release of Mala Noche is new on Turner Classic Movies this week:

Gus Van Sant’s intimate black and white tale of l’amour fou has been hailed as a precursor to the American wave of queer cinema that started to swell in the late eighties. Its credentials are established in the opening lines as Walt (Tim Streeter), a counter jockey at a hole-in-the-wall liquor store, gazes upon Johnny (Doug Cooeyate), an illegal Mexican immigrant with fleshy lips, a wide, youthful grin, and a streak of juvenile machismo. “I want to drink this Mexican boy, Johnny Alonzo,” he rhapsodizes in voice-over, and he spends the rest of the movie doing all he can to get next to this beautiful boy (“He says he’s 18, but he’s probably 16,” Walt confesses). Johnny is full of attitude and sass and contempt for his gay admirer, but not too proud to take advantage of Walt’s desire for his company to score a handout at the store or a turn behind the wheel of Walt’s car (which he pilots with the reckless mania of a teenager on a video game).

Best DVDs of 2007 and more on Berlin Alexanderplatz

My list of the Best DVD releases of 2007 went up on MSN today.

If there is one glaring omission, it is due to the fact that my deadline arrived before the new “Blade Runner” box set did. Based on the little I have seen, it likely would have placed quite high on the list.

My top pick? Do you have to ask?

1. “Ford at Fox
Wipe the drool away, movie geeks. Fox is bucking for DVD sainthood with this astounding release…. Has there ever been a DVD release with such commitment to rescuing and showcasing both established classics and rarities and forgotten works (both major and minor) of a Hollywood master? In a word: No. Essential for Ford fanatics, classic film buffs and DVD completists alike.

And for TV:

1. “Twin Peaks: Definitive Gold Box Edition
David Lynch’s cult TV show had previously been available in incomplete chunks, and until now the pieces never added up to the entire run. Paramount finally cleared the complicated rights imbroglio surrounding the missing elements of the series, notably the original feature-length pilot (for so long available only as an import), and has pulled it together into a single set — including the home video debut of both the broadcast pilot and the extended European cut (complete with its alternate ending).

I have ten picks in movies and movie-related releases, five picks in TV, and honorable mentions. Here are some of the those mentions that, on other days, would have found their way onto the list:

Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film, 1900-1934


The third collection of the brilliant “Treasures From American Film Archives,” which showcases 48 rarities made between the years 1900 to 1934, is loosely organized around themes of social issues and engagement and reveals a side of early cinema forgotten in the popularity of the comedy legends and silent screen heartthrobs. The four features are the highlights, but the totality celebrates the diversity of cinematic forms in early cinema: 30-second “actualities,” newsreels, cartoons, political tracts, documentary exposés, and more. It sprawls across genres, it tackles everything from prohibition to women’s voting rights, worker safety to unionism, police corruption to organized crime, and it showcases slices of our cinematic history that just don’t get seen outside of film archives and “educational” screenings. It turns out that they can be damnably entertaining. The four-disc box set also comes with a 200-page illustrated guide to the treasures within.

Cinema 16: European Short Films

Cinema 16

Cinema 16’s two-disc collection of some the best of short cinema from Europe is the most well-curated and compelling short film compilation I’ve seen on DVD. This set pays more attention to superior work than to familiar names and showcases some of the most inventive, powerful and provocative films you’ll see in the three-minute to half-hour format, including Roy Andersson’s brilliant and disturbing 1991 “World of Glory,” Virgil Widrich pitch-perfect high concept twist on Xerox art “Copyshop,” and Andrea Arnold’s searing piece of social realism, the Oscar-winning Wasp,” as well as early films by Christopher Nolan, Ridley Scott, and Lars Von Trier. Features sixteen shorts on all, with commentary on all but three of the shorts.

The Jazz Singer: 80th Anniversary 3-Disc Collector’s Edition


“Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” This newly restored version of the legendary hybrid silent film, the absurdly maudlin melodrama starring Al Jolson as a cantor’s son who mugs and shimmies his way through songs like “Toot-Toot-Tootsie Goodbye” and “Blue Skies,” is remastered from earliest surviving nitrate film elements and original Vitaphone sound-on-disc recordings. But the three-disc set as an entirety is a lavish tribute to the birth of sound and the early Vitaphone shorts (many of them featuring the kinds of acts that killed vaudeville). A true work of cinema archeology.

New at Turner Classic Movies:

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s fifteen-hour-plus adaptation of Alfred Döblin’s novel, one of the most revered classics of German literature, is the German auteur’s most lavish and complex production ever. It’s also his most personal, a dream project with roots that reach back to Fassbinder’s youth, when he read the novel for the first time at age 14. Fassbinder, grappling with his own identity and his emerging homosexuality, saw himself in the character of Franz Biberkopf, the trusting, emotionally naïve, almost childlike hero who begins the novel wandering an alienated Berlin plunged into depression and enters into a destructive relationship with a cruel thug. Five years later he re-read the novel and “it became clearer and clearer to me that a huge part of myself, my behavior, my reactions, many things I had considered a part of me, were nothing other than things described by Döblin in Berlin Alexanderplatz,” he wrote in 1980. “I had, quite simply, without realizing it, made Döblin’s fantasy into my life.”

Berlin Alexanderplatz became Fassbinder’s touchstone throughout his career. He named the protagonist of Fox and His Friends, which he portrayed on screen himself, Franz Biberkopf, while the central characters of many other films were named Franz (including those played by himself in his first feature Love Is Colder Than Death and in The American Soldier). His own pseudonym used for editing credit, Franz Walsh, is a mesh of Döblin and the American director Raoul Walsh. Even the plots of two early films (Love is Colder Than Death and Gods of the Plague) have their roots in Döblin’s novel.

Read the complete piece on the film, its production, and the Criterion DVD at Turner Classic Movies.