October 2014, arsenal cinema

Magical History Tour – No Man's Lands and Shady Underbellies in Film

LA COMMARE SECCA, 1962

Gangsters, corruption and dodgy dealings but also solitude, isolation and emptiness are the watchwords for the epoch- and genre-straddling overview of cinematic no man's lands and seedy underbellies we are presenting in October's Magical History Tour. The series maps out a diverse mix of different universes, each with their own specific aesthetic and dramatic topography. What unites them is how they show that the parameters of social coexistence or human relationships have come apart at the seams and give an impression of just how wafer-thin the boundary between the centre and the periphery can often be.

WERCKMEISTER HARMONIAK (The Werckmeister Harmonies, Béla Tarr, Hungary 2000, 1. & 5.10.) In the bitter chill of winter, a foreign world violently imposes itself of a small town in Hungary, threatening to suspend the normal social order. A travelling circus captures the interest of the town inhabitants, hundreds of whom stand in line to see the main attraction, a stuffed whale behind which a mysterious prince is concealed. Their waiting culminates in an inexplicable uprising. A dark atmosphere hangs over Béla Tarr's expressive black and white film, an apocalyptic vision of the fight between barbarism and civilization in images of dreamlike intensity.

LES AMANTS DU PONT-NEUF (Léos Carax, France 1991, 4. & 7.10.) Shortly before renovations are due to start, the oldest bridge in Paris becomes the point of convergence and refuge for two people in search of a home: Alex (Denis Lavant), a young drifter, and Michèle (Juliette Binoche), a painter gradually going blind, both withdraw from the raw, hostile world that extends beyond the Pont Neuf. But the bridge turns out to be fragile as the time and world spanning no man's land Alex und Michèle construct there

LE SANG D'UN POÈTE (The Blood of a Poet, Jean Cocteau, France 1930, 9. & 12.10.) Cocteau's surreal adaptation of the legend of Orpheus into a cinematic poem has an artist enter the underworld through a mirror at the behest of a statue come to life, unleashing a stream of images "free in their selection of faces, forms, sounds, gestures, plot and location." (J.C.)

ORPHÉE(Jean Cocteau, France 1950, 9. & 12.10.) A mirror is once again the portal into a no man's land, the realm of the dead, a strange world in which the poet Orpheus (Jean Marais) falls in love with a princess (María Casarès) whilst also trying to save his wife.

M – EINE STADT SUCHT EINEN MÖRDER(Fritz Lang, Germany 1931, 8. & 10.10.) Lang's blend of a thriller, gangster film and psychological drama shows a society unsettled in lasting fashion. The fear of a psychopathic child murderer (Peter Lorre) pervades all social strata and does not stop at the members of the underworld. Lit in effective fashion, their leading lights meet in dark cellars, plan the hunt for the killer and eventually try him before a self-appointed tribunal.  

LA COMMARE SECCA (Bernardo Bertolucci, Italy 1962, 11. & 17.10.) The first fiction film by the only 21-year-old Bernardo Bertolucci, which was produced based on a treatment by Pier Paolo Pasolini, leads straight into the demimonde of Rome’s suburbs and its prostitutes, layabouts, small-time crooks and pimps. A dead prostitute in the park forms the starting point of the film, as the police interrogate all the suspects in the park that day. Their respective stories are translated into wonderfully flowing images by Bertolucci, with the focus clearly on the everyday and the incidental.

DET SJUNDE INSEGLET(The Seventh Seal, Ingmar Bergman, Sweden 1957, 14. & 21.10.) Ingmar Bergman's study on belief, doubt and the eternal question of the existence of God is set in the realm between life and death. In the late Middle Ages, knight Antonius Block returns from the Crusades to a Sweden ravaged by pestilence and poverty. He meets Death personified, who demands his life.  Not yet ready to die, he negotiates a respite for the length of a chess game with Death. He ultimately finds answers to his questions from traveling actor Jof, his wife Mia and a small child whose sense of savoir vivre is rooted in the everyday. 

DAS CABINET DES DR. CALIGARI (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Robert Wiene, Germany 1920, 15. & 29.10, with a live piano accompaniment by Eunice Martins) Perhaps the most famous film of German Expressionism, which was presented in a newly restored print at this year’s Berlinale, leads the viewer into an in-between realm of hallucination: at a fair, Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauß) puts his medium, the somnambulant Cesare (Conrad Veidt) into a state of trance, whereby he is able to tell the future of the various bystanders present. At night though, the gaunt sleepwalker creeps through the small town under the influence of Caligari, killing those he finds. The search for the murderer leads to a terribly discovery.

UNDERWORLD (Josef von Sternberg, USA 1927, 17. & 19.10., with a live piano accompaniment by Eunice Martins) A notorious gangster sentenced to death escapes from prison to find out whether his lover has been unfaithful. As a forerunner of "Little Caesar" (1930) and "Scarface" (1932), UNDERWORLD also lets feelings of fear and loneliness shine through the protagonists' all too thin facades. Mental states are revealed through everyday gestures, the lighting of a cigarette or the lifting of a glass: the further you enter the underworld, the more gripping the melodrama.

THE THIRD MAN(Carol Reed, GB 1949, 18. & 28.10.) Expressionistic shadows set at a suitable slant dominate the labyrinthine ruined landscape of postwar Vienna, where an initially unsuspecting American writer  (Joseph Cotton) sets out to discover the truth behind the alleged death of his friend (Orson Welles). The latter is revealed to be a cold-blooded criminal, whose death at the appropriate location made film history.

NIGHT ON EARTH (Jim Jarmusch, USA 1991, 22. & 24.10.) Across five episodes consisting of five taxi journeys taking place simultaneously in five different cities, Jim Jarmusch portrays the taxi as a no-man's land in which meetings between the most varied of people are possible. With his usual laconic approach to narrative, moments of unforeseen intensity emerge due to the random meetings that take place inside the taxis, under the cover of both night and urban anonymity. The episodes take place in Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Rome und Helsinki and bring together an international star ensemble ranging from Gena Rowlands to Matti Pellonpää, Armin Mueller-Stahl and Béatrice Dalle to Roberto Benigni.

THE ELEPHANT MAN (David Lynch, USA 1980, 23. & 25.10.) The titular Elephant Man is John Merrick, who must eke out an existence as a derided and humiliated fairground attraction due to his bizarrely deformed face, rejected by the society of his fellow human beings. Dr. Treves takes him in at a hospital to carry out scientific research on him. He soon realizes though that the subject of his research is a sensitive, intelligent man who remained mute for years due to his forced isolation and attempts to enable him to lead a life of dignity. A parable on human loneliness before the backdrop of London's rapid industrialization in the second half of the 19th century.  (al/mg)