Film / Film Reviews / The Story of Film

The Story of Film: An Odyssey – Chapter 3 “The Great Rebel Filmmakers Around the World”

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George O’Brien and Margaret Livingston in F.W. Murnau’s SUNRISE (1927)

Here at The Moviola, we will be covering Mark Cousins’ 15-part documentary The Story of Film: An Odyssey every week, providing you with an overview of each episode of The Story of Film as well as a closer look at some of the accompanying movies set to air on TCM. Today, we examine the third installment, “The Great Rebel Filmmakers Around the World,” (1918 – 1932) which premieres tonight, September 16th, at 10PM EST.

The history of film reads like a novel, not a tweet.

This still-new artform, really just over a century old, possesses all the elements found in a narrative work: foreshadowing, multiple plotlines, conflict, symbolism, changing points of view, not to mention a little thing called character development. It reads with all the scope and scape of a novel—not our woefully shortened forms of communication that often do not exceed 140 characters. It, like all history, requires us to surrender our 21st century inclination towards smug suppositions. Mark Cousins’ epic documentary The Story of Film understands this organic landscape of cinema: That the shades of one era sculpt the shape of another; discovery, failure, revolution, regression—all these elements intertwine, informing each other, to create a grand cinematic tapestry.

Therefore, Cousins correctly presents his studies within the context of their day, but he forces us to examine our present through the poetic lenses of the past. And, more to the point, vice versa. Do not be misled by the numbers on a calendar: There is, in fact, no such thing as linear history. As Einstein said, it’s relative.

The third installment of this 15 part documentary focuses primarily on the years 1918 through 1932–”The Great Rebel Filmmakers Around the World,” which encompasses the  golden age of world cinema. We are presented with eight styles of cinema that emerged during those years of explosive artistic creativity as alternatives to the Western romantic cinema, meaning that the American film is scarcely mentioned. This is, remember, a history of world cinema, not the American film industry, and there are in fact only two American films from the period put under the microscope–both American on a technicality (produced in the States, and starring American actors) but are deeply European in content and style. Cousins observes that the sublime finale of F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), one of the first Academy Award-winning films, could easily have been a German Expressionistic painting.

As comfortable as it is to believe otherwise, our cinema was not the only cinema.

Nor was it necessarily the best.

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Sergei’s Eisenstein’s BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN (1925)

The landscape of world cinema during the 1920s was kinetic to say the least. “Rebel filmmakers,” Cousins says, “used film as their laboratory–getting under the surface of what it meant to be alive.” It was, he says, a battle for the soul of cinema. A battle that would make the artform ‘splendid.’

As mentioned in a previous review, it is impossible to touch on every filmmaker and their films in a 60 minute episode. For example, Abel Gance’s revolutionary La Roue (1923) and Napoleon (1925) gets mentioned here, while J’Acusse does not. The point, instead, is to immerse the viewer in a thoughtful, I daresay artful, composite of time, place, and technique. German Expressionism, that brief, brilliant style, that still influences film today, are given context: those rough, jagged edges like broken glass; their painted shadows and extreme angles that reflect the anger and frustration of the society that created them. From the broody shadows of Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), to the soaring geometry of Metropolis (1927) they are bold, rather frightening, and beautiful.

As Cousins dissects Luis Bunuel’s (and Salvador Dali’s) purposefully shocking images from 1929’s Un Chien Andalou (a knife slicing open a woman’s eye; ants crawling out of a man’s palm) and Eisenstein’s bloody massacre on the Odessa Steps in 1925’s Battleship Potemkin (as well as the animated abstract experimental films of Dadaists) we are made to realize that Bunuel’s avant-garde surrealism and Eisenstein’s biting Soviet social realism are opposite sides of the same coin. They are works of anti-establishment rebellion, manifesting frustration and contention by means of a powerful new medium.

Film, the surrealists said, was their most important tool.

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Luis Bunuel’s revolutionary 16 minute short film UN CHIEN ANDALOU (1929)

But while the surrealists and expressionists rejected the content of Western romanticism, the filmmakers of the East rejected its form.  Japan’s great Yasujiro Ozu, rightly placed among the greatest directors of all time, created some of the most ‘deeply humanistic’ films of his day in spite of national politics. Cousins calls Ozu, and those like him, the East’s “gentle rebels.”  Cousins focuses on Ozu’s marvelous silent film I Was Born, But…(1932), an exquisite coming of age comedy with a sober subtext: growing up is to become disillusioned with the world. Ozu’s seminal Tokyo Story, although filmed in 1953 fits seamlessly within this episode’s framework as legendary Japanese actress Kyoko Kagawa recalls what it was like to work under the master on that film, discussing his unusually low camera angles, his rhythm and pace. Kagawa also worked with Kurosawa (who we’ll spend plenty of time with in a later episode) and the Chinese master of women’s pictures, director Kenji Mizoguchi.

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Yasujiro Ozu’s I WAS BORN, BUT… (1932)

On a personal note, this is where I confess to having been forced to eat my hat, so to speak, believing that a cursory knowledge of Ozu and Kurosawa meant I had a grasp on early Asian cinema. Cousins’ team travels to China and in one moment I found myself strangely emotional. He holds up a 3×5 headshot of Chinese actress Ruan Lingyu to a group of women. They look at the strikingly beautiful woman in the photograph and immediately, all of them respond with her name: “Ruan!” There is an ardor in the women’s recognition of Ruan–this is someone who is not just famous, but important on a personal level. Ruan is shown in one of her final film roles 1934’s The Goddess, (she overdosed at age 25 one year later) and Cousins brings to the table an idea: That Ruan, who was known as the Chinese Greta Garbo, is actually the first Marlon Brando.

He makes a similar statement that Mizoguchi, with his 1936 emotional powerhouse Osaka Elegy first filmed the staging made famous in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. Cousins is not, by any stretch of the imagination, taking away from the import of films like Kane. He is simply bringing to our attention facts that might not have been brought to our attention in popular Western histories of film.

He illustrates the direct influences of these rebellious filmmakers on cinema by bringing their craft to reckon with films of the ’40s, ’70s, and ’80s. As we see:

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Kenji Mizoguchi’s OSAKA ELEGY (1936) and Orson Welles’ CITIZEN KANE. Both films utilize the same approach of foreground/background “deep” focus.

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Eisenstein’s BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN (1925) and Brian De Palma’s THE UNTOUCHABLES (1987). De Palma paid homage to Eisenstein in the film’s climax.

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Yazujiro Ozu’s TOKYO STORY (1953) and Chantal Akerman’s JEANNE DIELMAN (1975). Akerman uses the unique, low-angle framing pioneered by Ozu.

The crowning achievements of this bold era, Fritz Lang’s dystopian horror Metropolis and F.W. Murnau’s expressionistic sonnet Sunrise (the only work filmed in the states to get significant appraisal in this episode), are the high watermarks of the era–masterpieces whose influences are still seismic.

It was as Cousins notes a dazzling time–the excitement of which should have lasted forever. Were it not for the obvious: The inevitability of sound.

The Story of Film: An Odyssey – Chapter 3 airs tonight on Turner Classic Movies. Following is the schedule of films that will accompany this third installment of the documentary (all times are Eastern). Don’t miss any of them– it’s a true cinematic feast.

Monday, September 16
8:00 PM Sunrise (’27) (U.S.A.)
10:00 PM The Story of Film – Episode Three: The
Great Rebel Filmmakers Around the World (’12)
11:15 PM Battleship Potemkin (’25) (Soviet Union)
12:45 AM The Goddess (’34) (China)
2:15 AM The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (’20) (Germany)
3:30 AM Metropolis (’27) (Germany)

Tuesday, September 17
8:00 PM La Roue (’23) (France)
12:30 AM Un Chien Andalou (’28) (France)
1:00 AM I Was Born, But… (’32) (Japan)
3:00 AM The Story of Film – Episode Three: The Great
Rebel Filmmakers Around the World (’12)
4:15 AM Osaka Elegy (’36) (Japan)

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