Too bad the ancients never divined movies. That way the celluloid art could take its rightful place among the other nine Muses. Instead if old enough in the eyes and opinions of the young and callow, films of certain vintages do not share wine’s ability to age well.
Sad how a modern invention, one which once extended storytelling, entertainment, and data across swaths of humanity in manners the ancients may’ve deemed godly, gets backhanded today by the most dependent consumers of this our Information Age. It is quite disheartening to hear and read how younger generations are disdaining what mine deemed classic movies.
The rejection criteria are simple. Our successors and inheritors increasingly give arbitrary thumbs down to black & white films or those which are clever, witty, atmospheric, or subtle in the belief audiences are smarter than clams.
Jump cuts and special effects have minced attention spans and are timed to keep the interest of instant gratification viewers from wandering. Exposition has been sacrificed to explosions.
Learning that modern moviegoers may no longer possess the ability to absorb deft life lessons as those presented in, say, Rules of the Game, how is it that venerable theater works from those of the antique Greeks, Restoration and Enlightenment playwrights aren’t met with the same scorn of movies produced before Jaws? Admittedly creative staging and updating, or often relocating the era, place, even switching genders, transforms the old into the current.
Nonetheless the stories, the themes espoused remain the same. Julius Caesar is Julius Caesar whether betrayed by Brutus in Rome B.C. or in a modern dress version playing out inside a corporate boardroom. Romeo and Juliet begat West Side Story but it wouldn’t take much for Maria to become a Capulet or Tony to forego cuchifritos for braciole.
How is it that The Lysistrata is now more in vogue than ever but some mid-20th century studio production decrying what then passed for corporate avarice – and could aptly fit our times – rates a yawn? Reflecting the disinterested milieu, have elegance and eloquence become turnoffs for generations grown accustomed to casual into sloppy; has reduced articulate speech into slang and word-trendiness that swallows meaning while sparing feelings when not obscuring both?
In the last year or so, German film archivists have restored two Weimar Era movies. M, which is a classic, and Kuhle Wampe, a curio on this side of the Atlantic. During the second title’s original run between the demise of representative Germany and Hitler’s takeover, it managed to anger the first and infuriate the second.
Now that’s effective moviemaking!
America habitually neglects its culture. In general, when we find our pasts distasteful, we try flipping those instances into redemptive “feel goods.” If events register badly, if they’re disreputable, we try burying them.
Americans prefer legends to the truth. We transform legends into truths. That’s the American Way.
Societies far older and more mature than ours have lost their tender sensibilities. This softness has been vanquished through experience and longevity. Instead of wincing at mirrors’ images, denying them as Americans do, they seek understanding of themselves through self-exploration. Such clarity arrives through age.
M and Kuhle Wampe can be considered among the first of what would come later in explanatory and message celluloid endeavors.
Besides introducing actor Peter Lorre and director Fritz Lang to American audiences, M should be acknowledged as perhaps the first movie to portray a criminal’s motive as psychologically incited. What crime story before then hadn’t been rooted in such Biblical basics as theft or revenge or jealousy?
Irrationality motivated Hans Beckert, the movie’s killer. Well, what reasonable people ought to see as irrational. A need possessed Beckert. It overwhelmed him. One which rendered him powerless to resist. In fact, the urge so powerful it overtook the behavioral brakes common among us. Self-aware of this as Beckert confessed himself to have been, and struggle against it as he did, he still submitted to his murderous thrall.
Indeed, he’d lost control of himself.
Now, such aberrance wasn’t a modern man invention. Surely the same mental maladies had beset mankind since he’d started walking upright. However, given that less complicated men occupied simpler times how could they explain these character deviances? Unsophisticated as we see them, they possessed enough native intuition to invent deities. For more than worship. The inexplicable needed ascribing to somebody, something. So why not hang conduct good and bad, fate whether deserved or not, on conjured figures?
Until analysis hasn’t this sufficed for the longest? It sure relieved a lot of effort into finding deeper meaning.
What movie that delves into the mental haywiring of maniac killers doesn’t spring from the denouement of M? That in itself is also unique. Not only does authority seek apprehending Beckert, but so does the underworld. Not from civic obligation. There is a practical reason. His spree increased law enforcement’s pressure on them. This crimped their thieving. The quicker the culprit off the streets, the sooner police attention would ease.
It’s not so novel the manner that the lawless elements used to sweep streets of a murderer, but the aftermath once he was in their grasp. Instead of summary execution and public disposal which would’ve confirmed to decent society the menace no longer existed, the madman received due process from crooks.
Yes, a trial.
Throughout the process, one that wasn’t cut and dried as a viewer might’ve expected, the thieves peeled back the layers which made Beckert a lunatic killer. Through them curiosity was sated. Audiences got answers. In 1931, shining light into such a dark corner as Beckert inhabited must’ve been revelatory. Now, the method is commonplace in life and on screen.
Compared to M, and despite written by Bertolt Brecht, Kuhle Wampe is an obscure entertainment. As mentioned before, the movie is a curio. One that in its time irritated centrist authorities and right-wing ideologues.
The Depression had again hobbled Germany. This time lower than armistice terms had. Saddled with onerous Great War debts, economic catastrophe dropped the country to its knees. Vast armies of unemployed roamed Germany in search of work, of dignity, of regaining meaning in life.
The “Kuhle Wampe” of the title is a settlement outside Berlin where the dispossessed, the discarded, have made homes. Its pleasures and comforts are meager. Filmed before the severity of conditions and the hardening of lines, the kind which purposely incited masses, maybe even had audiences singing – okay, humming – L’Internationale, Kuhle Wampe shows proles further numbed by the double whammies of a conflict which erased old orders and the socio-economic upheaval that followed.
Rather, one should see Kuhle Wampe as cinematic reportage. Despite Brecht’s leftist leanings, the movie isn’t propaganda per se.
Brecht’s script didn’t hammer viewers. It was unnecessary. At this period in Germany, three years into the Depression, hourly and salaried workers, their families and friends, were being financially lashed. Only the wealthy could afford to dismiss the gales around them. Tenuous middle-class and working poor audiences either saw themselves onscreen or if life went sideways, what arduous status awaited them.
Nonetheless Brecht issued a message.
His being the state’s ineffectiveness, okay, indifference, and that of its supportive financiers willingly failed combating public misery. And without the backing of powerful mechanisms individuals in straitened lives believe themselves hopeless. They readily become accomplices for those opportunists whose promises seemingly offer relief.
What does it take to sway a distressed nation? Insistent, incessant screamers promising respite, return to the familiar, bread, and the most elusive though illustrious reward of all, regained honor.
Leftist as he was, no doubt Brecht saw his effort as moving masses in his direction. After all, the Russian Revolution and the lies behind its “Peoples’ Paradise” convinced multitudes of the early 20th century’s disaffected and desperate that capitalism was a devil, not a savior.
With so much in flux, with long-time foundations crumbled, early 1930s Germany ought have been ripe to follow Russia’s course and turn red. Instead for utmost infamy, the left’s idealism, its altruism, these virtues let reactionary gangsters easily obtain the levers of utmost post-Wilhelmine/Weimar German power.
As the left did, the right saw the same signs. They presented blunt solutions in equally strident ways. Those did superior jobs of coopting that disaffection which harnessed people to their cause.
The left’s appeals to reason were no match for the right’s shrill demands. Black shirts assigned blame. They preached direct cures. A fearful populace which sought immediate succor gladly chose simplicity and scapegoating.
Kuhle Wampe fairly vanished because reactionaries always need complete erasures or loud smearing of competing narratives. It’s the only way they can freely promote their misleading versions.