Berlin Express (1948)

4 08 2010

There’s a few redeeming qualities here, perhaps most obvious is Tourneur’s ability to create beautiful images out of what would otherwise be extremely mundane. That’s sort of a good way to describe the movie as a whole, too. If it wasn’t for Tourneur, the cinematography of Lucien Ballard (who did Mikey and Nicky!) and Robert Ryan’s presence, this would be pretty much unwatchable. Sure, there’s some nice documentary-esque footage of war-torn Germany and yes, Tourneur finds a perfect balance between that and his most stylized compositions. The problem here, though, is that the story is so run of the mill and tacky.

To begin, there is an extremely annoying voiceover which serves as a sort of news reel narrator, a la Anthony Mann’s (better) T-Men from the previous year. This isn’t really a bad idea on paper, but the execution is so damn awkward. We see the narration continue after multiple cuts and shots of Robert Ryan looking in the distance. Third person voiceovers are almost always terrible, but this one has to be the least graceful one I’ve seen in a long, long time. It really shows the movie’s potential “B” status.

Again, I think Tourneur should get a lot of credit for making the film as watchable as it is. The Berlin footage is astonishing, and immediately reminds one of Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero. The fact of the matter is, I don’t think many other Hollywood-based directors would have done this, even though in this case, the quality of the script doesn’t really warrant such dedication. The film remains a curiosity, though, if only for the footage of Frankfurt-am-Main and the IG Farben building. I can’t really recommend this to anyone, unless they are interested in Tourneur (as I am) but there’s still enough things here to make the movie interesting, which should count for something.

Nihon shunka-ko (1967)

4 08 2010

This actually starts out as being a much more gentle film for Oshima. Sure, that lasts all of 15 minutes before we get into death, rape, sex, and politics but even after that, he does seem to have a more matured vision and general approach to things. It might be the static, precise compositions, or the fact that the film is sort of a musical (at least in Oshima’s world) but overall, it doesn’t feel as overtly dramatic as his earlier stuff. I think maybe movies like Cruel Story of Youth and The Sun’s Burial are nothing more than childish “rebel” films that draw from Godard. I suppose it’s sort of fitting, then, that at around the same time Godard started finding his more unique vision, Oshima did the same.

The story begins rather innocently. Four friends convene outside Tokyo University to discuss how they did on a college entrance exam. They act like teenage boys – they poke fun at one another and discuss the attractive female who was in the same classroom. It seems like a very frivolous, yet poignant view of adolescence, but in true Oshima fashion, things take a sour turn. To give him credit, they do so rather slowly. One minute the four protagonists are drinking with their teacher, the next minute (uh, not literally) they’re fantasizing about raping women.

The entire film is sort of a fantasy, in which one can’t help but question the actuality of every scene. They characters describe sequences, then we see them happen, but Oshima’s tight editing melds the entire experience into one strain. I’ll confess: when the film finally becomes extremely Oshima-esque I sort of rolled my eyes, but the fact of the matter is, Oshima’s technical skill can overcome some of the more violent and tragic elements of his stories. In his defense, he treats men and women with the same sort of cynicism, but through some sort of paradox, makes him care about his characters.

Sure, there’s a lot of “men are such pigs” stuff, but the fact of the matter is there is no one in this movie that fits the mold of the public normal. The four boys are extremely messed up in the head, and the fact that some women don’t immediately run away from them is enough proof that they are similarly messed up. It sounds a bit reductive on my part to just classify everyone here as “crazy” but I think Oshima had the same thing in mind for this, and all of his movies. The fact that he consistently drew his attention to such outcast doesn’t mean he disdained them, but rather he was fascinated by them.