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Hungary

Silents Please! – ‘Beggars of Life’ with Louise Brooks, ‘Varieté’ from Germany, and more

Catching up on some of the silent films released to Blu-ray and DVD in the past months…

Beggars of Life (Kino Lorber)

Kino Lorber

William Wellman was one of the most versatile directors of his day, making everything from comedies and musicals to gritty dramas and war movies, and his World War I epic Wings (1927) won the first Academy Award for Best Film, but in the late 1920s and 1930s he directed some of the most interesting films about struggles before and during the depression. Beggars of Life(1928) was made before the stock market crash but released in the aftermath, so while it’s not technically a response to the Depression, its portrait of hoboes riding the rails and forming a kind of outsider society was in tune with the times. Today, however, it is best known for Louise Brooks, the petit dancer turned actress who never became a star in America in her lifetime but starred in two great German silent films, Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl, and became a cult figure in retirement.

Brooks is Nancy, a young woman who kills her violent stepfather in self-defense (presented as a flashback, it’s a startling and powerful scene which Brooks underplays with haunting pain), and Richard Arlen is Jim, a boyish beggar who stumbles across the body and helps her escape. He dresses her in men’s clothes and teachers her how to ride the rails with the rest of the tramps on the road, landing in a rough hobo camp where Oklahoma Red (Wallace Beery) rules through intimidation. Figuring out that this delicate “boy” is actually a girl (and seriously, who was she fooling?), he claims Nancy as his property and puts the couple through a kangaroo court, a great scene that straddles comedy and horror. Beery delivers a big, blustery performance as he transforms from predator to protector, the handsome Arlen at times he reminded me of a young Paul Newman, and Brooks is incandescent in her best role in an American films (she immediately left for Europe to make the movies that made her reputation).

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Blu-ray/DVD: Son of Saul

SonofSaulSon of Saul (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) drops the viewer into the horror of the Holocaust with its first images. Saul (Géza Röhrig) is a Sonderkommando, chosen from the prisoners of a concentration camp to work in the gas chambers, and we are plunged into his crushing routine: moving the prisoners through the dressing rooms, sifting and sorting the belongings after they are locked in the gas chamber, then dragging the bodies out and clearing way for the next group. Serving as a Sonderkommando didn’t save the men from death, it only postponed it, and Saul knows he hasn’t long.

But Son of Saul doesn’t linger on the horror. Rather Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes shoots it entirely in close-up, with a handheld camera uncomfortably close and constantly in motion as it follows Saul through the grind of his routine. We remain locked on Saul throughout the film. Nemes shoots in a squarish format, similar to the pre-widescreen era of movies, with a short lens that keeps only Saul’s face and his immediate orbit in focus. Everything else is blurred and indistinct if not completely out of frame, suggested more than seen. It’s not just to keep us from seeing it clearly, but it suggests his own state of mind: detached out necessity, numb and exhausted, going through the motions of living, focused only on the activity.

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