Blu-ray Debuts: Two by Rohmer, ‘Tenderness of the Wolves,’ and Ford’s ‘Hurricane’

MarquiseThe Marquise of O (Film Movement, Blu-ray, DVD) – After Eric Rohmer completed his “Six Moral Tales,” and before launching into the “Comedies and Proverbs,” he tackled two projects very different than anything else in career. The first of these, The Marquise of O (1976), based on the novel by Heinrich von Kleist, leaves the young intellectuals of Paris for Italy of the late 18th century Napoleonic wars. During the Russian invasion the beautiful young Marquise (Edith Clever) is saved from certain assault the handsome and dashing Count (Bruno Ganz). She spends the night guarded by her chivalrous savior, who returns months later to rather insistently court her. Only when he leaves does she discover that she is, unaccountably, pregnant. Rohmer’s style is both more lush (shot in rich colors by Nestor Almendros) and less intimate than his previous romantic comedies, directed in painterly compositions from a removed distance. Unlike the self-obsessed young adults of his modern films, the Count and the Marquise act out of moral duty and social responsibility, and their actions reverberate through family and community.

Yet this is still a Rohmer film, filled with carefully tooled dialogue (spoken in German) and informed by irony. The story of innocence and corruption, and the shades that lay within even the best of men, ends on a note of delicate forgiveness and understanding. Rohmer followed this with an even more unexpected stylistic experiment, the beautiful and beguiling Perceval, which I hope is in consideration by Film Movement.

With archival interviews with director Eric Rohmer and star Bruno Ganz and a new essay by David Thomson.

FullMoonFull Moon in Paris (Film Movement, Blu-ray, DVD), the fourth of Rohmer’s six “Comedies and Proverbs,” stars Pascale Ogier as Louise, a restless designer bored with sleepy suburban life outside of Paris, lives with her lover Remy (Tcheky Karyo), a stable architect happy with a calm home life and a long-term relationship. The independent minded Louise decides to move back into her old Paris apartment during the week, losing herself in the bustle of dinner parties and nightclubs and single men, while spending her weekends back with Remy. Like an inversion of Rohmer’s “Six Moral Tales” Louise becomes briefly entangled with another man, a spontaneous musician who is the opposite of Remy, but in a neat twist on the formula Remy himself drifts to another – at the suggestion of Louise herself.

This is the most ironic and, in many ways, judgmental of Rohmer’s films. Willowy Ogier’s kittenish sexuality and zest for life are wrapped in a self-absorbed determination that borders on indifference, but for the most part this is another wryly witty look at modern love from the master of the sophisticated romantic comedy. Fabrice Luchini plays Louise’s best friend and conniving confidante Octave and Laszlo Szabo appears as a café patron who pontificates on the magical effects of the full moon. Ogier, who died shortly after the film’s release, designed many of the handsome sets.

With an archival interview with actress Pascale Ogier and a new essay by David Thomson.

TendernessTenderness of the Wolves (Arrow / MVD, Blu-ray+DVD), based on the same true story that inspired Fritz Lang’s M, is a stylish and visually striking but narratively confusing and unpleasantly explicit thriller starring Kurt Raab as murderer, black marketeer and police informant Fritz Haarman, a pedophile who used his position to sweep the train stations and pick up young runaway boys.

Living well in the depression of post-World War I Germany, Haarman lured the boys to his attic apartment with the promise of a warm meal and bed, only to emerge alone the next morning with second hand clothes and black market “pork.” Director Ulli Lommel melds images from M and F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu with the elegant camerawork, evocative sets and tableaux-style direction associated with the films of New German cinema auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who produced the film and appears in a small role. Screenwriter/star Kurt Raab suggests Peter Lorre by way of the vampire Nosferatu with his shaved head, child-like smile and hunched walk, an insidiously beguiling boy-man who turns feral to strangle and feast on the blood of his innocent young victims. Fassbinder’s inspiration is all over the elegant camerawork, handsome design, and tableaux-style direction and the film is well performed by cast made up of Fassbinder’s regular troupe. But it gets muddled in the middle, tangling the many threads before finally winding them together in a bold, baroque climax. Though lacking in the rich irony of Fassbinder’s works, it’s a striking, often startling film dominated by Raab’s unsettling performance.

In German with English subtitles. Newly restored and remastered by the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation, the Blu-ray debut (the release is a Blu-ray+DVD Combo) features commentary by director Ulli Lommel with moderator Uwe Huber, an introduction by Lommel, new video interviews with Lommel, director of photography Jurgen Jurges, and actor Rainer Will, and an appreciation by European horror expert Stephen Thrower, plus a booklet with art and essays.

HurricaneThe Hurricane (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD) is frankly speaking one of John Ford’s weaker films. Based on the novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall (authors of “Mutiny on the Bounty”) and directed for high-rolling independent producer Samuel Goldwyn in 1937, it’s a drama of western civilization colliding with native culture in the South Seas, the same theme as Murnau’s Tabu but with more focus on the European characters and without the poetry or the power.

Jon Hall is the young Polynesian hero Terangi, a Tahiti native with a foot in both worlds, beloved by the islanders and the respected first mate of an American ship, and Dorothy Lamour his innocent Tahitian bride. They get top billing and it is ostensibly their story but the film spends a lot of time with the Caucasian characters in paradise debating culture, morality, and justice: the alcoholic doctor with a philosophical take on Tahitian life (Thomas Mitchell), the priest devoted to the islanders (C. Aubrey Smith), and the new island Governor (Raymond Massey), a strict, stiff martinet whose devotion to the letter of the Napoleonic code makes no room for justice or compassion, let alone the moral code of the local culture. Mary Astor is both his wife and his conscience, and he refuses to listen to either when he sentences Terangi to six months hard labor for punching a racist white man, and then extends his sentence by years for his failed escape attempts. This is paradise invaded by civilization, which casts judgement and punishes accordingly.

It’s clear that Ford’s heart isn’t in this one. Ever the professional, he delivers a handsome drama, but this kind of exotic romanticism is a poor fit for America’s film poet. The characters of the script (written by Dudley Nichols) are more debate positions than developed personalities, the natives are holy innocents, and the film is shot largely in the studio, which does no service to the tropical setting. Ford signed on because of the opportunity to shoot on location in the South Pacific and apparently lost interest when the production was relocated to the studio, with Catalina Island standing in for Tahiti in the film’s few outdoor scenes.

The title of the film arrives in the final act, whipping up a deadly storm while Terangi struggles to get home, and it’s quite the spectacle even if it was created in the studio, but it is also a confused metaphor for a film that sets up Terangi as a kind of Christ figure and the storm as the wrath of God. If this is Old Testament punishment, it’s taking it out on the wrong folks: the hurricane destroys the church and kills the innocent islanders (who are no better than extras in the drama) while sparing the westerner interlopers. If this is all just a lesson in compassion and multicultural respect for the Governor, there’s a lot of collateral damage. Still, it was a big commercial hit for Ford and Goldwyn. It was also the last film Ford made for Goldwyn.

It looks great, a good quality transfer with no evidence of damage. No supplements.

DevilsDIn The Devil’s Disciple (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD), an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play of the American Revolution, friends and frequent co-stars Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas teamed up for the third time. It’s an odd kind of American-British co-production: produced by Lancaster’s production company and directed by British filmmaker Guy Hamilton (who replaced Alexander Mackendrick, director of Lancaster’s “Sweet Smell of Success”), it is written by Brits, set in revolutionary America, and shot on England.

Lancaster is the idealistic, soft-spoken parish priest whose faith mother England is destroyed by the cruelty of British soldiers and Douglas is wanted criminal turned rabble rouser and revolutionary guerilla Richard Dudgeon, a nemesis who becomes a compatriot in a complicated triangle that involves the priest’s younger wife. Kirk is rather old for the role but a good match for the rebellious nature of the character and Lancaster is still and subdued as the priest, at least until the final act. Both are shown up by Laurence Olivier, the very model of cool, calm authority as a savvy British officer surrounded by thickheaded underlings.

What could have been turned into a swashbuckling revolutionary war adventure with witty characters remains largely stagebound. It’s shot largely on studio sets from a script that remains grounded in conversations and debates. The witty dialogue and energetic performances keep the film moving along but it never seems to break out of its constraints. There is also a creative and clever use of cut-out figures and 3D stop-motion animation to stand in for expensive battle scenes.

Strong image, crisp focus, excellent source material. No supplements.

Film Detective is a new company releasing public domain films on Blu-ray. It’s an idea that has been done right by Kino Classics, which partnered with George Eastman House, Library of Congress, and UCLA Film Archive to find the best quality materials from which to master their editions, and has been done wrong by companies like HD Cinema Classics, which tried to overcome damaged and inferior source prints with the digital scrubbing of digital noise reduction (DNR), which removes the blemishes and smoothes over the image. Film Detective looks to be following Kino’s model in two of its first releases, though it doesn’t quite meet the bar set by Kino.

BeatDevi;Beat the Devil (Film Detective, Blu-ray) is a cult film with an incredible pedigree. Directed by John Huston from a screenplay written on the fly by Truman Capote and starring Huston’s buddy Humphrey Bogart with Jennifer Jones, Gina Lollobrigida, and Peter Lorre, it’s something of an anti-“The Maltese Falcon” with Bogart as a down-on-his-luck businessman fronting a group of swindlers attempting to take control of a uranium mind in Africa. Heavy with irony and black humor, the shaggy dog tale was a flop with audiences but it found admirers years later for the games of lies and flirtations played by the stars and the dry wit of the script and wry attitude injected by Huston’s direction. It feels much more modern than many films of its era, but because it fell into the public domain it has been victim to poor home video editions since the days of VHS.

The image on the Film Detective release is a little soft but it’s clean and detailed and in the proper aspect ratio and does not appear to be scrubbed with DNR tools. It’s an acceptable Blu-ray and superior to other public domain labels. No supplements.

SaltEarthSalt of the Earth (Film Detective, Blu-ray), the only American film ever to be blacklisted in the U.S., is an independently produced 1954 drama inspired by a real life strike in New Mexico by Mexican-American mineworkers. The cast is comprised largely of non-professionals (many of them participants in the real strike) and the film was financed by the mineworkers union and produced by socially-motivated artists that had been blacklisted from Hollywood, including producer Paul Jarrico, director Herbert Biberman, screenwriter Michael Wilson, and actor Will Geer (who plays the cruel sheriff that protects the strikebreakers).

It takes on issues of racial prejudice, social injustice, and economic inequity, often with a didactic approach, and delivers a message of collective action to improve working conditions and receive a fair wage. Remarkably it is built on the ordeal of the Mexican-American characters and there is no white movie star to save the day. But perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of the film was the recognition of the participation and strength of the women, who rise to positions of leadership in the community and demand the same respect from their tradition-bound husbands and fathers that the men have been demanding from their bosses. This was all at the height of the Red Scare and the film was branded communist propaganda. It’s a remarkable portrait for its time, a landmark production that is still a powerful film. It was added to the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 1992.

The Blu-ray debut comes from a worn print and looks pretty scuffed up, but the transfer also presents a reasonably sharp image. A restoration is called for but until then this is an acceptable substitute. No supplements.

Videophiled: John Ford’s ‘My Darling Clementine’ on Criterion

My Darling Clementine (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), John Ford’s sublime reinterpretation of the Wyatt Earp story and the Gunfight at OK Corral, rewrites history to become a mythic frontier legend and one of the most classically perfect westerns ever made.

Henry Fonda plays a hard, serious Wyatt Earp leading a cattle drive west with his brothers when a stopover in the wild town of Tombstone ends in the murder of his youngest brother. Wyatt takes up the badge he had turned down earlier and tames the wide open town with his brothers (Ward Bond and Tim Holt), waiting for the barbarous Clanton clan, led by a ruthless Walter Brennan (“When you pull a gun, kill a man!” is his motto), to give him an excuse to take them down. Victor Mature delivers perhaps his finest performance as gambler Doc Holliday, an alcoholic Eastern doctor escaping civilization in the Wild West and slowly coughing his life away from tuberculosis.

Ford takes great liberties with history, bending the story to fit his ideal of the west, a balance of social law and pioneer spirit. Though the film reaches its climax in the legendary gunfight between the Earps (with Doc Holliday) and the Clantons, the most powerful moment is the moving Sunday morning church social played out on the floor of the unfinished church. As Earp dances with Clementine (Cathy Downs), Fonda’s stiff, self-conscious movements showing a man unaccustomed to such social interaction, Ford’s camera frames them against the open sky: the town and the wilderness merge into the new Eden of the west for a brief moment. It’s a lyrical ode to the taming of the west when manifest destiny was an unambiguous rallying cry. Ford’s subsequent westerns became less idealistic.

Along with the 97-minute release version, Criterion has included a new HD transfer of the 103-minute pre-release version (which was also on the earlier DVD), which features footage cut from the release version as well as alternate scenes and other minor differences (such as alternate musical cues). The differences are illustrative of the differences between Ford’s artistry and love of communal atmosphere and 20th Century Fox boss Darryl Zanuck’s efficiency. Ford’s preview cut (which is not a director’s cut) is more open and lanky, always responsive to the community around him, and quieter (he resists burying scenes in orchestral scoring). The release version is tighter, more dramatically pointed, scored more emphatically, and features new shots inserted into Ford’s scenes. It’s a companion, not a replacement, for as we may mourn the loss of Ford’s sensitive and subtle moments, the release version is still the Ford masterpiece. It just got some help from Zanuck, who pared Ford’s loving background to strengthen the characters at the core.

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Victor Mature and Henry Fonda
My Darling Clementine has been released in multiple editions on DVD by Fox. Criterion has created a new 4K digital master from the 35mm nitrate composite fine-grain held by the Museum of Modern Art for the Blu-ray debut and DVD upgrade. The previous DVD edition looked very good. Criterion’s release looks amazing, crisp and clean with a rich gray scale. The 103-minute pre-release version is an HD master which has not gone through the same digital restoration and shows scratches and grit but otherwise looks mighty fine in its own right.

Criterion has packed this edition with supplements. New to this release is informed and informative commentary by John Ford biographer Joseph McBride (who provides historical and production background as well as critical observations), the 19-minute video essay “Lost and Gone Forever” by Ford scholar Tag Gallagher (one of the best practitioners of this relatively new form of critical analysis), and a new interview with western historian Andrew C. Isenberg about the real Wyatt Earp. Carried over from the Fox DVD is the 40-minute documentary “What Is the John Ford Cut?” with UCLA archivist Robert Gitt, comparing the versions, commenting of the differences, and filling in the gap with production details and studio records.

First among the collection of archival supplements is the 1916 silent western short A Bandit’s Wager, directed by Francis Ford (his brother) and starring John and Francis. This is not a restoration and shows a lot of wear and tear but this transfer is stable and shows great detail, and it features a bright piano score by Donald Sosin.

Also features excerpts from the TV programs David Brinkley Journal (on Tombstone, from 1963) and Today (on Monument Valley, from 1975), the Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of the film from 1947 starring Henry Fonda and Cathy Downs, and a fold-out leaflet with an essay by critic David Jenkins.

More new releases on disc and digital at Cinephiled

SFSFF 2010: The Iron Horse

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The Iron Horse

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the biggest and most well-curated silent film festival in the United States, celebrates its 15th edition by adding a day of screenings, opening Thursday, July 15 with a screening of John Ford’s The Iron Horse (from Dennis James’ personal 35mm print) and then launching into the weekend with the Friday evening screenings of Rotaie (1929), a late silent from Italy, and the newly restored Metropolis (1927), in a digital presentation with accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra, all at the historic Castro Theatre (in this case, historic also mean no air conditioning, so attendees are dressing in layers and watching the weather).

I won’t launch into a big preview—that’s been ably done by Michael Hawley at The Evening Class, Hell on Frisco Bay and Anne Hockens on SIFFBlog (with links to short previews of the individual films by David Jeffers), while Michael Guillen anticipates the restored Metropolis and reprints an essay on the restoration by Bret Wood on The Evening Class. I’ll be dedicating my coverage to reviews and ruminations, starting with The Iron Horse, which launched the festival on its new Thursday opening night.

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Stagecoach: John Ford Redefines the American Western

John Ford’s classic western is a landmark of the genre for so many reasons: mature, classically constructed and superbly directed, it made a star of John Wayne, revitalized the western genre and introduced Ford to the breathtaking landscape of Monument Valley, which would become the mythic backdrop of his west. It was once nicknamed Grand Hotel on wheels but Ford’s mix of high culture, working folk and disreputable characters tossed together under the threat of Apache attack is much more egalitarian and, for all of the melodramatic potential of the personal stories that collide, human than the famous, glossy MGM melodrama. A cross-section of the high and low of the new America setting the west—from a haughty southern socialite (Louise Platt) out to reunite with her cavalry officer husband to a “dance hall girl” (Claire Trevor) driven out of town by the new, judgmental forces of morality, from an Eastern whisky drummer (the appropriately named Donald Meek) to a lovable souse of a country doctor (Thomas Mitchell) who serves as the wry commentator of the changing social fabric of the west—board the stage to Lordsburg as an Apache uprising brews on the plains.

John Wayne's entrance in Stagecoach: a star is born

John Wayne’s Ringo Kid is the last of the passengers to be introduced but his entrance is a gift to this young actor, fresh out of his apprenticeship as a B-movie cowboy hero and handpicked for the role by the mentoring director. As the stage comes upon a lone figure on the trail, the camera rushes in to a close-up of this young cowboy, escaped from prison and hauling his saddle behind him (his horse died in the escape), and reveals a soon-to-be-star completely at ease in the desert and on the screen, waving down the audience as he waves down the coach. It’s not that Wayne is a great actor, but Ford presents him as a magnificent screen presence and Wayne communicates a sense of justice and integrity in every piece of dialogue and movement.

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DVDs for 09/22/09 – Trips to Hunger Steppes, the Israeli desert and the foggy port towns of yesteryear France

Tulpan (Zeitgeist), the first narrative film from Russian documentary director Sergei Dvortsevoy is fiction steeped in the landscape and nomadic lives of the shepherds of unending plains of Kazakhstan. Asa (the optimistic and upbeat Askhat Kuchinchirekov) is a young Kazakh man who returns home from service in the Russian navy to join his sister’s family as a shepherd scraping out a living on the barren Hunger Steppes. He must have a wife if he wants his own flock and (dressed to impress in his naval uniform) he woos the shy Tulpan, unseen but for eyes only glimpsed behind a chador, but this is no romantic fable. The sheep are starving, the potential bride is unwilling and Asa’s buddy, a rowdy young man whose truck in the only link these folks have to rest of the world, wants Asa to leave it all behind and go with him to the city.

Hunger Steppes of Kazakhstan are alive with the sounds of music!

The film has a distinctive, deliberate rhythm that suggests the different pace of life here and Dvortsevoy shoots each scene as a single, unbroken handheld shot, which gives adds unexpected drama to the scenes, notably a live sheep birth that Asa must midwife without an assist from his gruff but experienced brother-in-law. There is plenty of life and humor to the film, thanks to the little kids scrambling around the yurt and singing their hearts out, and to a determined camel relentlessly following a calf wrapped in gauze and tucked into the motorcycle sidecar of the area vet. While it is no documentary, this lovingly made film captures a culture and a rural way of life with a mix of realism and poetry. In Kazakh with English subtitles.

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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

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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

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“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.