The 1923 French feature L’Inhumaine (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray), which translates to The Inhuman Woman, is not exactly about a femme fatale, though singer and social diva Claire Lescot (played by real-life opera star Georgette Leblanc) does enjoy the power she wields over the rich and famous men who attend her exclusive salons. They compete for her attentions and affections, which she withholds with a twisted smile. Leblanc doesn’t quite convince us of her overpowering charms—she’s confident and even commanding on the screen playing the arrogant superstar but she radiates little sex appeal—but then the melodrama itself is a conventional construct used to show off director Marcel L’Herbier’s ambitions. There’s a suicide, a scandal, a romance, and a resurrection, plus jealousy and vengeance, and forgiveness rolled through the two hour drama.
Jaque Catelain plays the young engineer and scientist Einar Norsen, a figure of youthful idealism and emotional impulsiveness who proves to be much more formidable and visionary than his initial impressions suggest. His angular face could be carved from stone and he cuts a striking figure in both his tuxedo and his laboratory coveralls, which look more like a space suit than a jumpsuit. His amazing laboratory all but wins the heart of Claire, who proves less inhuman than simply arrogant and haughty. But she also has a stalker or two among her spurned suitors and they plot their revenge against her, one of them in a plot that he could have stolen from Fantomas.
L’Herbier, the director of The Late Mathias Pascal (1924) (released on Blu-ray and DVD by Flicker Alley in 2012), was a modernist and an innovator in the lively culture of French cinema in the twenties. L’Inhumaine is, as the credits read, “A fantasia by Marcel L’Herbier,” and he gathered an impressive collection of collaborators. The modern mansions (seen from the outside as delightful miniatures, complete with toy cars crawling past to park) are designed by architect Robert Mallet-Stevens with the interiors given expressionist grandeur by future filmmakers Alberto Cavalcanti and Claude Autant-Lara and a magnificent fantasy of a modern laboratory, more spectacular than functional with its moving parts and electrical arcs zapping across the screen, designed and constructed by painter Fernand Léger, who also designed the animated credits. The next year he made his own directorial debut with the avant-garde classic Ballet Mécanique (1924). These elements are marvelous but it’s L’Herbier who brings it all together with cinematic brio and dazzling visual intensity.
The film has been tinted as originally conceived by L’Herbier, using archival notes. Features French intertitles with English subtitles, choice of two excellent musical scores (both newly composed for this release), and two featurettes, plus a booklet with notes on the director and the film.
Fritz Lang’s sprightly, adrenaline-driven Spies (1928) (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD) harkens back to the cliffhanger thrills of early twenties adventure serials against an exotic backdrop of international espionage. A super spy and financial mastermind with the ominous name of Haghi runs an international espionage network literally under the cover of a bank: his secret headquarters is located under the foundation of his public bank. A master of disguise (in the tradition of Louis Feuillade’s Fantomas) who controls a vast surveillance and communications network (just like Lang’s own Mabuse), which he uses to steal state secrets. In fact, Rudolph Klein-Rogge played Dr. Mabuse and the mad scientist Rotwang in Metropolis, making him the greatest supervillain of his day. There’s a beautiful cold-blooded super-spy named Sonia (Gerda Maurus), henchmen (Fritz Rasp), a femme fatale (Lien Dreyers), and the heroic Agent 326 (Willy Fritsch), the “good” spy who falls in love with Sonia on his mission to stop Haghi.
Murnau was a master at this kind of serial-style pulp fiction. He began by writing the exotic cliffhanger thriller The Indian Tomb (1921), which was directed by Joe May, and writing and directing Spiders (1919) and the popular two-part Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922), both focused on a criminal empire headed by a mysterious, diabolical mastermind. Spies is a return to his roots, but he comes back with the technical virtuosity and exacting perfectionism he had developed in the intervening years, including Metropolis, which earned tremendous critical acclaim but lost money for the studio.
Spies was his answer to a sure-fire hit with his own obsessions stirred through. Lang creates a fluid, fast-paced, visually inventive film that weaves enough intrigue, double dealing, secret identities and criminal conspiracies in the underworld of pre-Nazi Germany for an entire serial into one whizzing feature. This was quite high-tech for its day, with science fiction buttonhole cameras along with the classic invisible ink messages, periscopes, peepholes, assassinations, seductions, drugged victims, and a spectacular train wreck woven through the machinations of the competing spies. In many ways it’s his most exciting silent movie, and arguably his most purely entertaining.
Like Metropolis, surviving prints of Spies were severely edited and the original cut was unavailable for decades until, in 2004, the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation restored the film with over 50 minutes of missing footage, reconstructed from surviving film materials from archives all over the world.
Woman in the Moon (1929) (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD), Lang’s final silent film, practically plays as two separate film stitched together at the middle. The first part plays like sequel to Spies, a conspiracy of industrialists and scientists where experimental rocket plans are stolen back and forth until the ringleader (Fritz Rasp) secures a seat on the inaugural moon flight. The second part is science fiction, romantic melodrama, and a lunar Greed rolled into one. It is madcap and thrilling and pure pulp fun, with a tremendous visualization of space travel and rocketry for its day. The unveiling of the rocket is an awesome sight and the rocket science and flight details (right down to the countdown) are startlingly prescient. The story isn’t quite sturdy enough to support the epic production, but Lang’s masterful direction and magnificent sense of design and scale makes this pulp adventure in an epic shell an often thrilling and always impressive feat.
Both discs present the Blu-ray debut of the respective 2K digital restorations by the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation.
Spies features a piano score by Neil Brand, the very informative feature-length documentary “Spies: A Small Film with Lots of Action,” and the original German trailer.
Woman in the Moon features a piano score by Javier Perez de Azpeitia and the featurette “Woman in the Moon: The First Scientific Science Fiction Film.”
The Taviani Brothers Collection: Padre Padrone / The Night of the Shooting Stars / Kaos (Cohen, Blu-ray, DVD) – Italian filmmakers Paolo and Vittorio Tavianni have been collaborating on films for over 50 years, drawing from the cinematic traditions of neorealism, literary magic realism and fantasy, and their own journalistic interests in politics and society. This collection presents three of their most acclaimed films.
Padre Padrone (1977) adapted from autobiographical novel by Italian scholar Gavino Ledda, recounts the life of a young boy in Sardinia who is pulled out of school by his tyrannical father and forced to live the almost solitary life of a shepherd while he struggles to educated himself. I won the Palme d’Or at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival. Night of the Shooting Stars (1982), their delicate and delirious story of war and survival as seen through the eyes of a six-year-old girl, is an epic filled with a sense of wonder and absurdity amidst the acceptance of brutality and death. The Italian villagers are caught between the vindictive actions of the Nazis and Italian fascist soldiers and the advancing Americans in 1944 and the climactic battle in the wheat field between the partisans and the blackshirts is a chaotic and messy farce without a punchline. It won the Grand Prix at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival. They followed up with a Kaos (1984), an anthology film of four tales of life in old Sicily based on the short stories of Luigi Pirandello, with an epilogue starring Tavianni favorite Omero Antonutti as Pirandello himself. Filled with scenes of rural beauty and magic realism, it runs over three hours and won two David di Donatello Awards, the Italian equivalent to the Oscars.
All three are Italian classics. All three films have been newly restored from the original elements for DVD and Blu-ray. In Italian with English subtitles, with a two-hour interview with the filmmakers.
Pauline at the Beach (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray, DVD) – After completing his “Six Moral Tales” (plus a pair of terrific literary period pieces), French filmmaker Eric Rohmer embarked on “Comedies and Proverbs,” a series of female-driven romantic comedies with headstrong characters, mis-matched couples, and the criss-crossing plots of a Shakespearean farce.
Where many of Rohmer’s films could be described as intellectual sex comedies without the sex, Pauline at the Beach (1983) embraces the earthy passion of sexual play as seen from the perspective of 15-year-old Pauline (Amanda Langlet). She gets an eye-opening lesson in the games grown-ups play on a two week summer vacation with her recently divorced older cousin Marion (Arielle Dombasle, every inch the vivacious blonde goddess). Smitten Pascal Greggory turns aggressive with jealousy when the smooth, seductive, happily shallow writer Feodor Atkine wins the fancy of the “perfect” Marion while continuing to fool around on the side. The tangled affairs, mistaken identities, and white lies are the stuff of sex farce, but Rohmer, true to form, doesn’t judge. He is more interested in the folly of love and the impulsive, illogical workings of human nature and his generosity of character rounds out everyone caught up in the tangled affairs and mistaken identities. Rohmer deftly crafts a gentle and sexy little human comedy that ends with Pauline learning perhaps the right lessons after all.
In French with English subtitles. The Blu-ray and DVD release is a significant upgrade from the earlier (long out of print) DVD and includes an archival interview with Rohmer from 1996.