As we applaud the wave of women making (still far from equitable) inroads into film directing, let’s pause to appreciate a veteran in the field. Primarily a choreographer, songwriter, and performance artist in the early part of her career, Sally Potter began making experimental films in the 1960s. Her cinematic breakthrough was the surprise 1992 arthouse hit Orlando, an adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel, with Tilda Swinton as the gender-hopping protagonist. Since then Potter has sometimes hit the mark, as with her hothouse coming-of-age picture Ginger & Rosa, but more often I’ve found her work insufferable. If you’ve seen the relentlessly politically correct Yes, in which all the dialogue is rhyming iambic pentameter, you know the desperate wish for large wads of ear-stuffable cotton.
It’s a pleasure to report that Potter’s newest, The Party, is a nasty little gem.
The American Friend (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – “What’s wrong with a cowboy in Hamburg?” Dennis Hopper’s Tom Ripley is nothing like the character that Patricia Highsmith created and explored in five novels, and while Wim Wenders’s adaptation of Ripley’s Game, the sequel to The Talented Mr. Ripley, remains more or less faithful to the plot (with additional elements appropriated from Ripley Underground), the personality and sensibility belong to Wenders.
The cool, cunning sociopath of Highsmith’s novel becomes a restless international hustler, selling art forgeries and brokering deals (some of which may actually be legal) while travelling back and forth through Germany, France, and the United States. His target, renamed Jonathan Zimmerman here (a Dylan reference? Wenders loves his American music, you know) and played with an easy (if at times arrogant) integrity by Bruno Ganz, is a German art restorer who now runs a frame shop due to the effects of a fatal blood disease. In true Highsmith fashion, the motivation is purely psychological and emotional—a small but purposeful social slight—and the reverberations are immense. Ripley concocts a medical con to convince Zimmerman he’s dying so a French associate (played by Gerard Blain) can tempt him to be his assassin, and then comes to his rescue as the French criminal extends the cruel little act of revenge to pull Zimmerman into additional murders.
As a German filmmaker, we had no real fathers to learn from, no points of reference. Our father’s generation sided with the Nazis or was forced into immigration so we were a generation of orphans. And you can’t work without having some sort of reference as to your own culture and the connection and continuity, so it was our grandfathers–Murnau, Fritz Lang, Pabst and others–who were our teachers, our guidance. For me, Murnau’s film Nosferatu is the best German film ever, and I somehow needed to connect, I had the feeling I had to go back my own roots as a filmmaker. As an homage to him I chose to make this film.”
—Werner Herzog, 1999
One could never accuse Werner Herzog of choosing projects by their commercial prospects. This is, after all, a filmmaker who hypnotized his cast for Heart of Glass and made a documentary about waiting for a volcano to erupt. So the decision to follow up his devastating Stroszek with a remake of a revered masterpiece of world cinema with a cast of international stars—Isabelle Adjani, Bruno Ganz and Klaus Kinski reunited with Herzog for the first time since Aguirre, the Wrath of God—was about more than making money from a vampire movie. (While the film is based more on Murnau’s film than Stoker’s novel, Herzog maintains that is “not a remake, it’s a free version of his Nosferatu…”) It was a tribute, of course, and he kept the title Nosferatu even though he renamed the character Count Dracula (one instance of Stoker over Murnau). It was also a natural subject for a filmmaker who focused on outcasts and obsessives and landscapes rich in natural grandeur and mythic power.
[Originally published in Movietone News 55, September 1977]
The personal style and vision evident in Jeanne Moreau’s directorial opus one has as much to do with movies, and with a career—and a life—on film, as with the so-called “real world.” The opening title sequence is a flashy and rhythmic clash of type-styles evoking the media hype of film advertising: names in lights, the calligraphy of stardom. Constantly throughout the film the language of movies becomes, or replaces, the language of life. Thomas, the has-been boyfriend being slowly eased out of Sarah’s life, “directs” her leavetaking from him in a prophetic early scene: “She kisses him and turns to go,” he says, as Moreau the actress does just that; and then, “she leaves…. Cut!”—and Moreau the director cuts. And just as movie talk replaces “real” talk, and montage replaces the duration of real time, so, in Lumière,movement is camera movement. The camera is virtually never still during the opening sequences, which form a present-tense prologue placing the remainder of the film firmly in the realm of memory. Moreau’s composition conveys the sharpness of painful memory, even while her ambling camera and almost random continuity carry with them the atmosphere of the process of human reflection. Sound often precedes image, as if inspiring it (in the archetypal creative act, the word of creation always precedes the object created): several sequences begin with a bridge of dark frames accompanied by a sound that will be explained only when the next image meets our eyes. So even while keeping us aware of her medium and its limitations, Moreau reminds us of its power of suggestion, its extension beyond mere light, into feeling and meaning.
[Originally published in Movietone News 57, February 1978]
September 30, 1976
Could you tell me what Kings of the Roadis about and how you came to make it?
It’s a film about two men and they’re making a journey across, along the border of East Germany from the North to the South, which is about a thousand miles, in an old truck, and they are repairing the projection equipment in the small villages.
How did you choose the subject?
Well, that’s not an easy answer. There are different subjects in the film. It’s not only the journey of the two men, but it’s also the situation of cinema, small cinemas in Germany that are dying out. It’s a little bit about the end of cinema altogether. It’s about the situation of men who are 30 now, born after the war like me. It’s about Germany nowadays. It’s about a lot of things. It’s about music and it’s about rock’n’roll just as well as about cinema.
There’s quite a lot of rock’n’roll on the soundtrack. How did you pick what you used?
I picked some favorite things.
There’s a profound feeling of alienation in the film, emphasized by Bruno’s scream at the end. Are you trying to make any larger statement about men as a group being alienated, or do you limit this sense of alienation to these two men? .
It’s more or less Tarzan’s scream. Well, it’s not only the alienation of these two because in the film … As soon as you pick somebody as the hero of a film, it turns out to be statement, not only about him but about mankind. So it is, rather, a film about men than about these two men. In a way, it’s a film about men totally in an American tradition—the road movie tradition—but on the other hand, it’s just the opposite of all these films because it’s not dealing with men the way all these films used to deal. It’s not reassuring them. On the contrary.