My Week of Film – October 14 to 20, 2019

 

This was a slow week with regard to watching film as I only managed to view two.  Instead, I binged on Season 3 of the dystopian A Handmaid’s Tale.  I know I will watch Season 4, along with many other series such as Homeland, Mindhunter, the best and worst being The Fall, but I have come to the conclusion that I shouldn’t.  Unfortunately, I don’t much care for comedy and these stories are so well written and intriguing, that I find it hard to “put them down”.  It’s the same with reading fiction.  Give me a crime story over light fare.

A friend recommended the 1944 film Address Unknown which she said I could see on YouTube.  It was a good print as well.  I’m always interested in films depicting what was going on in Nazi Germany, especially when they were made during the war years.  This film takes place just when Hitler came into power in 1933 and ends before the start of the war.

What made it especially intriguing was that it was directed by William Cameron Menzies.  I’m probably not the only one who mostly thinks of him as an art director, so when he sits in the director’s chair, I’m curious as to how the film plays out.  It would be of interest to know how Menzies worked with established art directors Lionel Banks and Walter Holscher, and cinematographer Rudolph Maté on the film.  There were a number of noticeably striking sets and shots which I’ll mention in a moment.

The two actors I was most familiar with were Paul Lukas and Mady Christians, who played a German married couple with four or five sons.  Martin and Elsa Schulz had moved to San Francisco along with their lifelong friend Max (Morris Carnovsky) and his daughter Griselle (K.T. Stevens) and have opened a high-end art shop.  They have expanded their horizons by arranging for Martin to go back to Germany to buy and ship artwork for this art enterprise.  At the same time, Max’s daughter Griselle has decided to work on the German stage as an actress.  At first, the families were a bit disappointed with her choice because they were hoping they would be bonded by the marriage of Griselle to the Schulz’s oldest son Heinrich (Peter van Eyck).  But the engagement is put on hold until Griselle returns in what she hopes is triumph the following year.

Peter van Eyck and K.T. Stevens

When the Schulzes settle in Germany, Martin is befriended by influential Baron von Friesche (Carl Esmond) who enlightens him about Hitler and Nazi ideology.  At first, you think Martin may be uncomfortable with this information, but things change along with all the main characters’ relationships.  Considering that fascism was able to gain a strong foothold in Los Angeles during these pre-war years, it was interesting to see how a handful of Germans and their different ways of thinking were portrayed–and how one’s thinking, in particular, Martin’s, could be changed so drastically.

Peter van Eyck and Morris Carnovsky

There were several visuals that stuck out for me.  The first was the look of the home that the Schulzes moved into when they lived in Germany.  The foyer floor was checkered and it was shot from all sorts of unusual angles making the room look vast and empty.  There were many shots from down low making you feel small and anxious.  A third scene that was almost fairytale looking in what would have been a nightmare situation was when Griselle is running through the woods towards the Schulz’s house in the dead night of late autumn under a starlit sky.  The sets in San Francisco are busier while the German sets are stark.  I imagine this is a reflection of the two ideologies.

Carl Esmond and Paul Lukas

Perhaps the one situation that appeared a little far-fetched was when Elsa gives birth to the couple’s fifth or six son.  She seemed a bit too old to still have so many children in their early teen or preteen years, never mind the unlikely possibility that she would still be producing them.  Both Christians and Lukas were in their early 50s when they made this film, and their oldest son in the film appeared to be in his late 20s, while in reality van Eyck was already 33.

Mady Christians, Paul Lukas and K.T. Stevens

Neither Lukas nor Carnovsky were German.  Lukas was born in Budapest and didn’t arrive in the US until he was 36.  He used his accent to believably portray a number of different nationalities in film, possibly because the studios knew North Americans can’t always hear the subtleties of country of origin.  Although Carnovsky, who did most of his acting on the stage, was born in St. Louis, Missouri, he comes across as having a slight accent, although I wouldn’t call it German.  Still, with these two fine actors, you could easily accept who they represented.

The second film I watched with a couple of friends this past week was Babies, a 2010 documentary directed by Thomas Balmès on the development of four toddlers who come from different races, cultures and vastly different geographical corners of the world.  I don’t think it actually mattered what sex the child was, but I thought I was watching three males and a female throughout the documentary when in fact two of what I thought were males were actually females.

We’re first introduced to Ponijao who lives in Opuwo, Nambia playing with rocks beside her slightly older brother.  Watching over them is their mother and she comforts Ponijao when she’s “tormented” by her older sibling while he goes on obliviously playing.  They looked so alike physically that I had concluded that Ponijao was a boy.  They lived in a hut on a terrain of land that was vast and appeared arid.  We never learn what the family does to maintain such healthy-looking people who seem to own almost nothing, but that wasn’t what the documentary was about.

Next, there was Hattie whose name I didn’t notice.  She appeared so boyish to me that it was quite a surprise to see what she was called in the credits at the end of the film,  much more of a surprise than finding out Ponijao was a female.  Hattie made me think she might be Swedish at first, but it turned out she was living with her parents in San Francisco, California and was the most coddled of all the children.  Although children can entertain themselves with almost anything, her life was the most structured and boring-looking of the other three.  But, with that said, I think it was very typical of how North American children are basically raised, including my own.

The third child was recognizable as a boy, Bayar from Bayanchandmani, Mongolia.  He was cute, funny and appeared good-tempered.  The family lived in a rural area and there were some incredible scenes of Bayar playing amongst such animals as goats, calves and (possibly) yaks.  Bayar also had an older brother and there was a scene where his mother was exasperated with this younger child when she finds he has made a mess of himself and the floor when the two children played with a dirty bucket and a spoon.  Again, what entertains young children is pretty fascinating.

The fourth child was Mari from Tokyo, Japan.  We first get a good glimpse of this very bright child while she’s playing with a tinker toy made for toddlers.  She is in the midst of wooden circles with a hole in the middle and she’s attempting to insert the right-size pole into its centre.  When Mari fails, which is more times than she succeeds mainly due to her motor skills and lack of dexterity at such a young age, she lies on her back and has a meltdown.  It’s so cute and so sad.  She’s also very tired, you can tell.  But just the fact that this child so strongly communicated that she can choose the correct-sized pole, knows where it’s supposed to go, is frustrated that she doesn’t have the ability to always succeed, is just fascinating to see!  Her parents are also quite incredible taskmasters, choosing very specific toys to enhance their child’s intellectual skills.  Perhaps not all children would be this advanced cognitively but perhaps it’s partially because we haven’t seen the steps the parents have taken to bring their child to the level we’re viewing in these single snapshots.  It also brings subtly to mind that failing is what enables humans to persevere and advance, something we aren’t usually consciously aware of.  After all, who likes failing?

I think the majority of us would enjoy this film because most people are made to find babies a source of entertainment.  How boring it is to watch anyone from the age of about two or three and upwards do most activities, yet it can be fascinating to watch a baby sleep, never mind balance things on their heads, learn to walk, or resourcefully be constructive with all sorts of objects that we would consider disposable and useless.

Potentials are also an observable factor.  Mari clearly is exceptionally bright while the others are certainly average or even above-average children.  The fact of where they live in the world and the education that’s available to them will also play a part as to how well they succeed.  In the end, it’s their own will to learn and whatever passions they may have that will play a part in what they become in the future and what it will mean to the world at large.

There’s a little follow up you can read after viewing the film which makes you almost hope that Balmès will consider going the route of directors Paul Almond and Michael Apted who made the series of films Seven Up!  But these people most likely would rather be left to live their lives in privacy and if you just look to the people in your own circle, you will find children you can watch develop and grow to your own heart’s content.

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