Where Forgotten Films Dwell

Welcome to this site! It exists for one reason: to preserve the memory of films that have been forgotten about or under-appreciated throughout the ages. Take a seat, read an entry, leave a comment. You might discover your new favorite movie!

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Die Puppe (The Doll)

Directed by Ernst Lubitsch
1919
Weimar Republic


In a tight black room, a svelt young man gently removes the lid from a chest. Placing it upside-down on the table, a verdant field sprinkled with flowers and split by a wandering road is revealed. Reaching into the chest, the young man pulls out a number of figurines and models which he assembles on the lid: a dollhouse, paper trees, a sky, and finally two dolls. With a cut, we are transported inside a life-size reconstruction of the tableau. From the dollhouse door the two dolls emerge as humans: a stringy youth who tumbles down the curved road into a pond and his plump caretaker who pulls him out with an umbrella. From this opening begins Ernst Lubitsch’s The Doll, a fantastical romantic comedy that seems more at home in the realm of postwar German Expressionism than with his later genial American productions. Never has Lubitsch’s artifice been so pronounced. And never has he been more joyfully delightful.


The Doll follows Lancelot, the effete youth from the opening sequence, who schemes to marry a life-like doll in order to placate his uncle, the Baron of Chanterelle, who is desperate for an heir. The local doll-maker Hilarius constructs him a mechanical replica of his high-spirited daughter Ossi that is capable of actions as complex as autonomous dancing. But Hilarius’ careless young assistant accidentally breaks it. To spare the boy her father’s wrath, the real Ossi takes the doll’s place. And so begins her strange and wonderful journey through villages, castles, and monasteries; to parties, suppers, and even a wedding. She dutifully keeps up the illusion (breaking now and then to flirt and dance with others while Lancelot’s attention is diverted) until one night the sight of a mouse causes her to scream. Ossi’s secret is revealed to Lancelot. But another revelation is due for the young man: she has fallen in love with him.


Here is a story that can only inhabit the realm of fairy tales. To tell it, Lubitsch creates a diegetic world of playful artificiality: sets of hyperbolic caricature (the sun has a face and carriages are drawn by men in horse costumes), serendipitous coincidences (Hilarius literally drops from the sky at the end to give his blessing to the newly married couple), and just a touch of white magic (Hilarius’ hair literally stands on end and turns white when he learns of his daughter’s deception).


As so many historians have pointed out, The Doll was released mere months before the debut of Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). While they both feature similar themes concerning people being physically controlled by forces outside of their own will, what is most astounding is how similar their visual language is. But where one film covets shadows and gloom, the other cherishes bright, open spaces and jubilation. If The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is the nightmare of German Expressionism, The Doll is its daydream.


But one of the key elements of The Doll’s success was the casting of Ossi Oswalda as Hilarius’ daughter, the eponymous doll. Trained as a ballet dancer, Ossi made her screen debut in Lubitsch’s Shoe Palace Pinkus in 1916. From there she would go on to become one of Germany’s great silent film stars, appearing in numerous comedies (many of which were also helmed by Lubitsch). Film historians Hans-Michael Bock and Tim Bergfelder described her as having a “cinematic alter ego of a hyperactive, coquettish, spoilt Lolita whose anarchic antics caused havoc amid the films’ sedate and ordered Prussian surroundings, but who invariably got tamed in time for the happy end.” In some of her earlier films, Ossi’s persona bordered on the childishly petulant and infantile.


But she hit the right balance in The Doll: playful without being irresponsible, flirtatious without seeming puerile, and just kind enough that we can believe that she is a woman who would actually volunteer to act like a doll. The genius in Ossi’s performance is that we never get the sense that she isn’t in control of her situation. She could easily escape her predicament, but she chooses not to. At first it’s because it’s an adventure and she’s just having too much fun playing along. But then, unexpectedly, her feelings evolve into love.


The Doll was made during a period of explosive creativity for Lubitsch. In just a few years he would direct, in addition to a number of straight dramas, a group of excellent romantic comedies that pushed the boundaries of gender norms and sexual ethics. Three of the best were also collaborations with Ossi. I Don’t Want to Be a Man (1918) featured her as a woman who cross-dresses to escape the boring life and societal expectations of a young lady. The Oyster Princess (1919) saw her as a bratty American heiress whose father “buys” her a prince to marry. And finally, The Wild Cat (1921) saw her at her most anarchic as the leader of a group of mountain bandits who falls in love with a lothario lieutenant assigned to a nearby border fortress.


Along with The Doll, these films were stylistically audacious and featured tightly knit endings where Ossi was neatly paired off with the character she was most meant to be with (don’t let her affections for the lieutenant in The Wild Cat fool you). But the romantic intrigue in The Doll is the most convincing by merit of the film’s deliberate evocation of the fairy tale.


A closing word, then, about the Lubitsch Touch. The elusive Touch is a much discussed je ne sais quoi that permeates Lubitsch’s work. Nobody can seem to agree just what the Touch is. But it exists.


And I see it displayed in a marvelous scene near the end of The Doll. When Lancelot takes Ossi to the monastery where he has been staying, he leaves her in the dining room with a group of gluttonous monks. They peer over at her and she begins to dance. The monks gleefully join her until their abbot comes in and chases them away. Close-up on the abbot’s face. Cut to a close-up on Ossi’s bare ankles. We fear the worst. But then he positions himself next to her and begins to mimic her movements. It wasn’t sex he wanted, but to join in the dance.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Moonrise

Directed by Frank Borzage
1948
The United States of America


By 1948, Frank Borzage, that old master of Hollywood, that unapologetic romanticist whose work triumphed during the Twenties and Thirties, had fallen by the wayside. The man who had won the very first Academy Award for Directing in 1927 was now struggling to secure projects. Perhaps Borzage’s brand of earnest melodrama turned sour in the mouths of a generation who had struggled through the hell of World War Two. As the years marched on, war-time idealism melted into nihilistic cynicism. This was no longer a time when a director who concluded an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms with doves and church bells could flourish. And yet, as his career began to crumble, Borzage managed to release one more true masterpiece; a film that reconciled his passion for lovers facing adversity with the nightmare psychoses consuming America ego. That film was Moonrise.


The opening few minutes of Moonrise set the tone for the rest of the film. It begins with the execution by hanging of a man accused of murder. The proceedings are shown via shadows that seem chiseled onto the wall behind the gallows. As the hangmen pulls the lever, smash cut to the crib of a newborn. A grim outline of a toy doll literally hangs over the bedsheets as the criminal’s infant son, Danny Hawkins, wails and wails. Jump cut to Danny as a schoolboy forced to endure the taunts of his classmates. “Danny Hawkins dad was hanged! Danny Hawkins dad was hanged,” they chant as their ringleader Jerry Sykes wraps his hands about his throat and pretends to choke himself to death.


Another cut, another few years pass. Danny’s torment continues. And finally, one night as Jerry beats him senseless, two things break: Danny’s mind and Jerry’s skull.


Those who know Borzage purely by reputation as a romanticist may be shocked by the jagged, neo-expressionist visual grammar used in these scenes: extreme shadowplay, stilted frame compositions, and high-contrast chiaroscuro lighting. But Borzage had been using such techniques for decades, having first picked them up from his contemporary F.W. Murnau while they were both working at Fox in the 1920s. Though Borzage’s films were rich in sentimentality, they demonstrated acute stylistic acumen. As the film continues, Borzage continues to reveal bold stylistic techniques. One of the most apparent is his consistent use of crossfades between charged images: a young woman wringing her hands in church into an old woman’s hands knitting; a paranoid man’s face into a raccoon. Indeed, Moonrise is not a film that can simply be watched passively. It demands to be watched, not merely observed.


From Danny’s desperate act of murder, the film charts his mental decimation, emotional reconstruction, and psychological reconciliation with his actions. A few kind souls help in his rehabilitation. The first is Mose, a retired brakeman who lives in self-imposed isolation in the woods with his hounds and guitar. Played with great dignity by Rex Ingram, Mose may be a kindly old Black Man who helps the White Protagonist, but instead of solving Danny’s problems, he helps force him to confront them.


But the other is sweet Gilly Johnson, a schoolteacher who quickly forms the other half of Borzage’s romantic universe. It is here that we find the major difference between Moonrise and many of Borzage’s other films: the forces that seek to tear the lovers apart. Often these forces are external ones such as World War One in A Farewell to Arms (1932), the sinking of a lavish ocean liner in History Is Made at Night (1937), or the rise of Nazism in The Mortal Storm (1940). But in Moonrise the adversity springs from Danny’s tortured mind. It manifests itself physically, such as an early scene where traumatic flashbacks cause him to crash a car while she was in the passenger seat, and  mentally. During a coon-hunt with Mose he has a minor breakdown while shaking a raccoon out of a tree. Borzage cuts to a pile of logs next to a cabin...a pile suspiciously similar to the one where Danny murdered his tormentor. Does Danny project himself on the raccoon? If so, then what does it say about his desperate attempts to capture it?


Danny’s internal dilemma of coming to terms with a forced act of violence takes on new meaning when evaluated in the context of post-World War Two American society. One of the cornerstones of film noir were protagonists who were damaged, either physically or mentally, by their time in the armed forces. If we consider Danny’s psychoses as allegorical, then Moonrise becomes more than just a dark melodrama; it enters the realm of bona-fide film noir. Consider Danny as America: haunted by the specter of a violent tragedy (Danny’s father’s hanging/World War Two), the protagonist is goaded into violence (murder/World War Two) by an incessant attacker (Jerry Sykes/the Axis) that leaves him broken, beaten, and bruised.


Of course, this is merely one possible reading. While it isn’t absurd to believe that Borzage may have deliberately made such comparisons, there is no doubt that at the end of the day his primary concern in Moonrise was Danny Hawkins and Gilly Johnson. Their love is no panacea, but it offers hope that Danny can rebuild his life. And therein is Borzage’s secret: the belief that despite everything the world may throw at you, love can be a force for salvation and goodness. His romanticism does not deny the world, it burns in spite of it.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Hellzapoppin'

Directed by H. C. Potter, Joseph A. McDonough, Edward Cline
1941
The United States of America


Deep within the bowels of Hell, demons stuff victims dressed in lavish fashions into giant barrels labeled “Canned Guy” and “Canned Gal.” As they sharpen their pitchforks, turn women in expensive dresses on spits over open fires, and torment the eternally damned, they sing a happy song.

Hellzapoppin/Ol’ Satan’s on a tear
Hellzapoppin/They’re screamin’ everywhere
See the Inferno/of Vaudeville
Anything can happen/And it probably will!!


Suddenly a taxi appears and two beleaguered men fly out onto the ground after a tidal wave of ducks, dogs, and other animals inexplicably crammed into the back seat. One looks up and mutters to the other: “That’s the first taxi driver that ever went straight where I told him to!” These two unfortunates are vaudevillian legends Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson. They have arrived in Hell for possibly the most nightmarish reason of all: making a Hollywood film. For they have been given the grim responsibility of making Hellzapoppin’, perhaps the most subversively anarchic comedy to ever spring from the forehead of the Hollywood studio system. Is it any wonder why at the beginning we are treated to a title card reading: “......any similarity between HELLZAPOPPIN’ and a motion picture is purely coincidental.”


Hellzapoppin’ was an “adaptation” of a musical revue written by Olsen and Johnson that had been a smash hit on Broadway, running for more than 3 years for 1,404 performances. At the time, it was the longest-running Broadway musical in history. The revue was a model of controlled chaos. As reporter Celia Wren recounted: “The smash hit "Hellzapoppin" was a smorgasbord of explode-the-fourth-wall nuttiness: sight gags; comedy songs; skits abandoned partway through; cameos by audience stooges; an absurdist raffle; and in a trademark stunt, a man who wandered through the theater hawking an ever-larger potted tree.” So Olsen and Johnson were confronted with a problem: how do you adapt a musical with no real plot that heavily relied on an interactive circus atmosphere?


The answer was to make a movie about Olsen and Johnson trying to make a movie of Hellzapoppin’. Confused yet? Let me explain.


After the opening number in Hell, it is revealed that it is all a Hollywood sound stage. They are confronted by a director (Richard Lane) and a nervous screenwriter (Elisha Cook Jr.) who want to pitch them a script for the film. The suggested film is about a love triangle between three “disgusting rich” aristocrats: “young fella” Woody Taylor (Lewis Howard), playwright Jeff Hunter (Robert Paige), and wannabe actress Kitty Rand (Jane Frazee). Kitty is putting on a Red Cross benefit at her estate and Olsen and Johnson are hired as prop-men. As Woody, Jeff, and Kitty play their game of romantic musical chairs, Olsen and Johnson run about trying to gather all of the outlandish props that the show will need. Later, when they realize that Kitty will marry the wrong man if the show is a success, they sabotage the benefit with a menagerie of pranks and tricks. Other notable characters include Hugh Herbert as Quimby, a detective and master of disguises who bounces around the film spreading chaos wherever he goes like a mythical trickster, Mischa Auer as Prince Pepi, a lecherous European aristocrat who poses as a fraud for free food and sympathy, and Martha Raye as Betty Johnson, Chic’s man-hungry, vivacious sister.


To add to the mayhem, there is another layer to the narrative: an easily distracted projectionist played by Shemp Howard who literally runs the film from his booth. Throughout the film he interacts with both Olsen and Johnson in the framing narrative and Olsen and Johnson in the film-within-the-film. Many of the film’s best gags come from their interactions: he repeatedly fails to keep the camera focused on the principle characters (instead turning the camera to beautiful women), he gets reels mixed up and throws the unfortunate duo into a Western, and, in the film’s most ingenious gag, gets the film stuck, thereby trapping half of the characters onscreen in the bottom half of the frame and the other half in the top half of the frame. These gags are not only effective; they also demonstrate the duo’s ability to appropriate the capabilities (and limitations) of the cinematic medium for comedic purposes.


It’s an unwritten rule that a musical is only as good as its musical numbers. So, thankfully, Hellzapoppin’ does not contain any musical misfires. Two numbers in particular almost knock the house down. The first is Watch the Birdie, an impromptu ode to photography wherein Raye almost steals the whole damn picture away from Olsen and Johnson. As she sings and swings with all of the skill and abandon that only a lifelong vaudevillian can muster, footage of people diving into a pool is paused, reversed, and played over and over again.

 
The second number is a show-stopping Lindy Hop performed by the black employees of Kitty’s estate. Much like a similar sequence in the Marx Brothers classic A Day at the Races (1937), the Lindy Hop number gave a chance for otherwise disenfranchised black performers to demonstrate their ferocious talents.


Also like many of the Marx Brothers’ films, Hellzapoppin’ devotes a couple of musical numbers to the bland romantic couples who, for the most part, serve as dull straight-men (and women) to the madcap antics of the film’s stars. But surprisingly, Hellzapoppin’ managed to make these segments memorable as well. One early sappy love ballad is frequently interrupted by title cards announcing: “Attention Please! If Stinky Miller is in the audience -- GO HOME!”


Another ballad is intercut with sequences of choreographed synchronized swimmers, predicting similar numbers in future films starring Esther Williams. But even more fascinating is how the filmmakers transitioned between shots of the singers and shots of the swimmers: they would frequently take a close-up of an inconsequential object, like a white rose or a fan, and do a fade-in of the swimmers arranged in a similar pattern.


These sequences speak to the underlying genius of Hellzapoppin’: it is just as much a piece of cinema as it is an adaptation of a theatrical musical. Instead of simply moving from one to the other via an edit or a tracking shot, the filmmakers utilized a technique that would have been nearly impossible to replicate on stage. But in fact, most of the film could be described that way. I couldn’t imagine a film like Hellzapoppin’ existing (and succeeding) in any other medium. Ingeniously metafictional, distinctly cinematic, ruthlessly creative, joyfully anarchic, and most importantly, deliriously entertaining, Hellzapoppin’ is a treasure of the American musical comedy tradition.

Friday, February 28, 2014

The Steel Helmet

Directed by Samuel Fuller
1951
The United States of America


In his landmark study The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968, Andrew Sarris wrote of Samuel Fuller:

[His] ideas are undoubtedly too broad and oversimplified for any serious analysis, but it is the artistic force with which his ideas are expressed that makes his career so fascinating to critics who can rise above their political prejudices...It is time the cinema followed the other arts in honoring its primitives.

With all due respect to Mr. Sarris, there is nothing primitive about Fuller’s greatest films. His 1951 Korean War film The Steel Helmet may have only been his third film, but it demonstrates a clarity of vision, a ruthlessness of purpose, and a single-minded skill the likes of which eluded many of his contemporaries who were industry veterans.


Largely inspired by his service during World War Two fighting with the 1st Infantry Division of the US Army, The Steel Helmet follows a rag-tag patrol of US Infantry who are tasked with capturing a Buddhist temple and establishing an observation post. First among them is the cynical Sgt. Zack (Gene Evans), the sole survivor of his unit after they were captured and executed by North Koreans. A bitter, grizzled veteran of World War Two, he is rescued by a South Korean orphan (William Chun) that he quickly nicknames “Short Round.” Despite his wishes, Short Round follows Sgt. Zack as he meets up with Corporal Thompson (James Edwards), an African-American medic whose unit was also wiped out.


In a foggy jungle (in reality a tiny set that Fuller tricks the audience into thinking is a sprawling jungle via tight close-ups and clever frame compositions), they meet up with a straggling patrol led by the inexperienced Lieutenant Driscoll (Steve Brodie). Once together, they have their first fire-fight with a small group of North Korean snipers. It is here that the ingenuity of Fuller’s technique comes into focus: the fighting is portrayed as a dirty, terrifying, and intimate affair via close-ups, realistic fighting (weapons jam, enemies are largely obscured and unseen, and the violence occurs in occasional spurts interspersed throughout panicked calm), and a palpable sense of fear.


In creating The Steel Helmet, Fuller had deliberately wanted to portray an accurate cross-section of the US Infantry. Therefore the patrol is made up of characters who defy the traditional war genre stock characters like the ingenue farm-boy and the tough-talking, cynical Joe Whats-His-Name from Brooklyn. There’s the war-weary Nisei Sgt. Tanaka (Richard Loo), an ex-conscientious objector who lugs around his old priest’s hand organ named Private Bronte (Robert Hutton), a soft-spoken radio operator who lost all of his hair to Scarlet Fever nicknamed Private Baldy, and a mute pack mule caretaker known simply as Joe.


Once at the temple, Joe is killed by a hidden North Korean soldier who is quickly taken prisoner. Sgt. Zack wants blood, but Lt. Driscoll’s superiors want a prisoner for interrogation. For the next few hours their prisoner tries to sow discord among their ranks. He asks Thompson how he can fight for a racist country that deprives him of rights and freedoms. He asks Tanaka how he can kill other Asians for a country that locked up Japanese citizens in camps during World War Two. Both of these scenes caused great controversy with the US Army which had provided the production with stock footage. In fact, The Steel Helmet was reportedly the first American film to acknowledge the Japanese internment camps. Ever the hard-hitting reporter, Fuller refused to back down from these controversies.


In one last moment of scandal, Sgt. Zack guns down their prisoner for mocking Short Round after he is killed by sniper fire. The Army was appalled by Fuller’s implication that Americans executed POWs, but he fought back by having his former commanding officer, Brigadier General George A. Taylor, contact the Pentagon and confirm that such instances were historically accurate.


The film climaxes with a devastating North Korean assault on the temple in which most of the patrol is killed. The sequence is both a breath-taking piece of film-making and a semiotically charged phantasm. The entire film was shot in only ten days for $104,000. As per the film’s shoestring budget, Fuller was forced to transform 25 extras from UCLA into the rampaging North Korean Army. For scenes that he couldn’t replicate with stock footage, Fuller filmed the extras in long distance shots and swift medium close-ups that obscured his actors’ faces. Much like how Sam Peckinpah managed to create the French Army in Major Dundee (1965) by filming a small group of costumed extras several times in different locations, Fuller tricks the audience into thinking that they are watching an entire army.


One of the reoccurring symbols in The Steel Helmet is the massive, towering Buddha located in the temple. It is Fuller’s semiotic invocation of the Buddha that proves that he is not an enthusiastic amateur. Utilizing what Christian Metz referred to as “bracket syntagma,” wherein individual shots are grouped together to create certain associations,  Fuller transforms the Buddha from scene to scene. When the soldiers first arrive, the Buddha seems like an imposing enigma from an unknowable culture. When they make camp, Fuller’s continuous framing of the Buddha in the background of shots transforms it into an omnipresent spectator. When their prisoner finally dies, the Buddha’s bleeding hand makes him an angel of mercy. And finally, as the temple is obliterated by artillery shells and gunfire, the Buddha becomes a stoic monument of the impermanence of humanity against the implacable nature of infinity.



Fuller’s means may have been primitive, but his creations were not. The film was a hit when it was released, grossing more than $6 million and becoming the first independently produced film to play at Loew’s State Theater in New York City. The Steel Helmet also brought Fuller to Hollywood’s attention, scoring him a contract with Fox.


From there on Fuller would direct some of the most daring and iconoclastic films of the late Hollywood Studio System. Fuller’s ultimate masterpiece is widely considered to be The Big Red One (1980), a film that followed the exploits of his beloved 1st Infantry throughout World War Two. But I still feel inclined to declare The Steel Helmet as his best war film. With its go-for-broke mentality and sweaty aesthetic, The Steel Helmet is as good a war film as was ever made about the “Forgotten War.”

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

მონანიება (Repentance)

Directed by Tengiz Abuladze
1984
Georgian SSR


A smartly-trimmed mustache lies nestled in his philtrum. Thin, frameless glasses dig into the ridge of his nose. A black shirt and leather suspenders stretch over his plump frame. His lips straddle a cavern from which escape sweet lies, manic ramblings, and operatic arias. Stretched into a smile, they betray the empty promises of a hollow man. In the evening he will charm you. In the morning he will arrest you. And for reasons apparent only to himself, you will disappear.


For years Varlam Aravidze served as the mayor of a small town in Soviet Georgia. His death was marked by public mourning and a pompous funeral. But the next morning his rigid corpse seemingly materializes in the garden of his son Abel’s house. The body is quickly reburied. But again, the next morning the body appears in Abel’s garden. The exasperated police take the only option they can think of: arrest the dead body so it can be held for an inquiry. This Kafka-esque farce continues for several more days. The body is reburied and dug up again night after night. Finally the grave is covered in a massive metal cage. But still, the body returns.


One night the perpetrator is finally caught in the act. She is revealed to be a local pastry chief named Ketevan Barateli. She is swiftly brought to trial where she freely admits to exhuming Varlam’s grave but refuses to admit guilt. “As long as I live Varlam Aravidze will not rest in the ground,” she declares. And so she begins the flashback which will engross most of the rest of Tengiz Abuladze’s Repentance, a brave and powerful film that seeks nothing less than the catharsis of an entire nation in the wake of decades of Stalinist control. Originally shot in 1984, the film was shelved for several years by Soviet authorities. Premiering at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival, the film was seen by an estimated 60 million Russians and was celebrated for being one of the true masterpieces of post-glasnost Soviet filmmaking.


The journey through Ketevan’s past as she witnesses the rise of the despotic Varlam is painful and heart-breaking. At first Varlam, played by esteemed Georgian actor Avtandil Maxaradze, appears as little more than an oafish buffoon. His inauguration plays like a scene from a Charlie Chaplin film: as his speech is swallowed up by a booming brass band he is soaked by a burst water main. He receives pleas from Ketevan’s artist father Sandro to save a historic church with apparent compassion and sympathy. One night he arrives at Ketevan’s house with two assistants - who are dressed like they just came from a reception given by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - bearing gifts of flowers and caged birds. A swish of Varlam’s cloak materializes a playmate for Ketevan out of the aether in the form of a young Abel. Varlam and his assistants belt out jaunty opera tunes before jumping out of the window onto horses which whisk them away into the night.


That night monstrous dreams plague Sandro and his wife; dreams of dark corridors, fields of mud, and above all the smiling figure of Varlam being speed through the Georgian countryside  in a blue automobile. In the morning Sandro is suddenly arrested by soldiers clothed in medieval metal armor. As Sandro is removed, one soldier clumsily plays the piano while another spirits away the paintings on his walls. The same paintings, one should mention, that Varlam was so enthusiastic about praising the night before.


Soon much of the entire town vanishes. The once charming Varlam has morphed into a gibbering madman, spewing out nonsensical rhetoric during speeches like “Four out of every three people are our enemies!” Without warning, Sandro’s church is demolished in the night. And finally, the men in metal armor come for Ketevan’s mother.


Certainly Varlam was a composite of numerous 20th century dictators, what with his Hitler mustache and Mussolini build. But it is his similarities with Joseph Stalin, Georgia’s home-grown tyrant, that warrant the most attention. After all, for all of its fame as a Soviet film, Repentance is first and foremost a Georgian work of cinema. The film is steeped in metaphors for the rise and rule of Stalin. Much like Varlam, Stalin was well-known for his chameleonic abilities to change his personality depending on the situation. As Julie Christensen writes, “Another central link between Varlam and Stalin, as the Georgians understand him, is the changing face of the evil dictator: concerned patriot, enlightened ruler, scheming maniac, and sadistic pervert. Stalin was well-known for his ability to don masks and change his identity, and [Maxaradze’s performance] centers around that motif.”


If we accept the interpretation that Varlam was a Stalin stand-in, then the film takes on a greater, richer meaning than it would if it was a simple treatise on despotism and man’s capacity for cruelty. An essential element of Georgian culture is their treatment and veneration of the dead. Continuing her astute analysis of Georgian society in Repentance, Christensen elaborates: “The past and its remains are holy...[Ketevan], a Georgian woman, denies Varlam proper treatment of a dead hero and violates his grave.” The third part of Repentance deals with Abel and his son Tornike coming to terms with Ketevan’s revelations about their patriarch. Unable to cope with the guilt, Tornike commits suicide and Abel personally steals Varlam’s body and unceremoniously throws it off the side of a cliff. These scenes involving the confrontation of a dictator’s true legacy and the decanonization of his status as a cultural hero provided catharsis for Georgian audiences in a manner other Soviet countries could not appreciate as fully.


Of course, to view Repentance as a mere metaphor would be to rob it of its simple visceral pleasures. The film is full of heart-breaking images such as Ketevan and her mother searching for Sandro’s name among messages scrawled into logs by prisoners upstream. Abuladze delights in warping the boundaries between different times, spaces, and cultures. The soundtrack will sway between austere classical music and blaring pop. In one scene a blindfolded Lady Justice stands in a prison courtyard next to a political insider merrily playing a white piano. In another Sandro and his wife lay buried up to their chins in dirty muck in the countryside. Elsewhere Varlam’s ghostly spectre peels the skin from a fish in a dark church while Abel begs for Absolution.


While the rest of the world’s socially-conscious cinema seems to be trapped by the limitations of stark realism, Abuladze dares something more. In Repentance, the sword of surrealism is wielded in the name of social commentary and Georgian justice.