Tuesday, 7 January 2014

The Man Who Was Sherlock Holmes (Der Mann, der Sherlock Holmes war), Germany 1937

It is easy to assume that all films made in Nazi Germany were overtly propagandistic.  In fact, apart from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will and Olympia, even avid filmgoers outside Germany will be hard put to think of other films made under the regime, so effectively have they been airbrushed from world cinema (in marked contrast to those of the Weimer era).  Yet propaganda films constituted a small proportion of production during the Third Reich.  On the contrary, as Roger Manvell and Heinrich Fraenkel say in their 1971 book The German Cinema, in general ‘German films became escapist and politically harmless’, so a bit like most films made anywhere.  Manvell and Fraenkel add that they were ‘technically impeccable,’ and ‘notable for the absence, rather than the presence, of a swastika.’  This was a policy that Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda, was keen to pursue in order to fill cinemas; it was generally the newsreels and documentaries supporting the main features which carried overtly ideological messages.

The Man Who Was Sherlock Holmes (also known as Zwei Lustige Abenteurer, Two Merry Adventurers), directed by Karl Hartl, was released in 1937, the year the studio that made it, Ufa, fell under state control.  It completely conforms to Goebbels’ template of escapism and political harmlessness.  What is more intriguing than the complete absence of Nazi references is the affectionate take on the British figure of Sherlock Holmes, a familiar presence in German culture, as Siegfried Kracauer in From Caligari to Hitler (1947) notes.  The project was designed to show ‘that Germany can produce a detective comedy that can hold its own with the best American films of this kind,’ as a contemporary newspaper had it (quoted in The Ufa Story: A History of Germany's Greatest Film Company, 1918-1945, by Klaus Kreimeier, 1999).

However, despite the title, this is not a Sherlock Holmes film.  It is the story of two apparent chancers, Morris Flint (played by Hans Albers, whom Kracauer called ‘the embodiment of popular daydreams’) and Macky McPherson (Heinz Rühmann).  The film opens with them flagging down a passenger train at night in the rain.  Showing considerable authority, Flint immediately starts to interrogate the staff.  Word goes round that Holmes is on board, a rumour the penniless newcomers do nothing to dispel, though as Flint later points out, they are careful never to refer to themselves as Holmes and Watson.  Instead they call each other ‘Master’ and ‘Doctor.’  It is other people who make the assumption that they are the famous consulting detective and his assistant, an assumption aided by their clothing, manner and accessories, notably a violin case.  By telling people not to say who they are, they reinforce the impression that they really are Holmes and Watson working under cover.

Having met two attractive sisters on the train, a commission to recover some rare stamps that have been stolen leads them to a nasty gang of forgers, and it transpires that the castle the sisters have just inherited from their uncle is significantly involved in the case.   The fast-paced action is punctuated by an incredibly catchy song composed by Hans Sommer, Jawohl, meine Herr'n (Yes Indeed, Gentlemen), which Morris and Macky sing in the bath – not the same bath of course, but separate ones flanking the enormous suite they have occupied in a smart hotel.

At the end of the film Flint and McPherson find themselves on trial charged with impersonating Holmes and Watson.  As the police had requested the pair to work on their behalf, assuming natürlich that they were asking Mr Holmes, this leads to some red faces.  A large man in an extremely loud checked overcoat who was at the hotel and found the idea of Holmes and Watson staying there uproarious is also present, still laughing like a drain, and he reveals himself to be none other than … Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  The reason for his amusement, he tells the court, is that Holmes and Watson are not real people at all, but are his creations!  It is hard to see how you can illegally impersonate somebody who does not exist, so the case is dismissed.  Things are brought to a satisfying conclusion as Flint wraps up the mystery of the stolen stamps and demonstrates that he and Macky are not actually confidence tricksters, but real detectives who had been trying to drum up business.  Still amused at the duo’s audacity, ‘Conan Doyle’ offers to write their story with a 50:50 split, to be called The Man Who Was Sherlock Holmes, perhaps the very film we have been watching.

Labelling a film as having been made during the Nazi period might not be considered a sound marketing strategy, and the packaging of the film for the 2012 Cornerstone Media DVD release nowhere alludes to its context; in fact the information on the back gives the release date as 1957, perhaps a clerical error, perhaps an attempt to distract attention from its background.  True, one might feel guilty watching a film produced under such a barbarous regime, as if it is somehow a tacit endorsement of totalitarianism, while Manvell and Fraenkel were sniffy about German films made when the Nazis were in power, considering the results ‘empty’ of human values.  Those made during the Thousand-Year Reich are not unique in that regard, and on its own terms The Man Who Was Sherlock Holmes has a warmth and energy that belie its origins.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

George Albert Smith at 150

George Albert Smith

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the birth at Cripplegate in London of George Albert Smith on 4 January 1864.  His name is often mentioned in connection with the development of film language as a member of the “Brighton School,” film pioneers living on the south coast who flourished at the turn of the twentieth century, and also as the inventor of Kinemacolor, the first commercially successful film ‘natural’ (though it wasn’t quite) colour system.  The producer Sir Michael Balcon called him “the father of the British film industry.”  That may seem hyperbolic, however, Smith clearly had a profound influence on the formulation of film language as it developed from its single-shot origins.  Even so, this recognition, while merited, fails to acknowledge the breadth of his achievements, and it is that breadth that I think makes him such an absorbing figure.

As well as on film, Smith’s impact was also felt in psychical research, where he participated in telepathy experiments with the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in its very early days, beginning while he was still a teenager.  These experiments contributed to the foundations of the Society’s theoretical edifice.  In addition, he investigated paranormal phenomena for the SPR (including spending thirteen months living in a haunted house with his wife Laura Bayley), and performed significant secretarial duties for one of its key figures, Edmund Gurney.  Trevor H. Hall, whose books were marked by hostility to the early figures in the SPR, and who span a yarn which involved Smith triggering events that led Gurney to commit suicide, called Smith “one of the most interesting and bizarre characters in the history of psychical research.”  “Interesting” is certainly accurate.  In addition for a period Smith ran a pleasure garden, St Ann’s Well, at Hove with great energy, and was a lantern-slide lecturer.  What tied all these seemingly disparate activities together was a vigorous entrepreneurialism.  He ended by investing in property and enjoying a long retirement until his death at the age of 95 in 1959.

Unfortunately the heterogeneous nature of his accomplishments has meant that he has remained an elusive figure, with the exception of his filmmaking years at St Ann’s Well.  Worse, the fact that he is better known in some areas than others has led to distortions in past discussions of his career, as specialists focus on those aspects of direct relevance to their own work and rely on a narrow range of secondary sources for the parts with which they are less concerned.  As attention has mostly been directed to Smith’s contribution to film language, his psychical research efforts have often been presented in a bastardised form, partly because the minutiae of the theoretical discussions can be difficult to unravel, and partly because experiments with which he was associated have been dogged by accusations of fraud.  There is much to be done to provide an integrated account of all these strands.

Smith’s life has long been an interest of mine, to the extent of producing a PhD thesis on him.  I am continuing my study, and would be pleased to hear from anyone with unpublished material (letters, documents, photographs etc.) relating to Smith, or information on surviving relatives.  In the meantime, let’s toast a fascinating man who deserves to be even better known.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Vehicle 19: Paul Walker Gets to Drive

[This contains spoilers, but it doesn’t really matter as the plot is so basic]

If you ever thought that all you needed to make a film was a girl and a gun, a specific demographic if ever there was one, Vehicle 19, which has both, may disabuse you of the notion.  It is essential to have a decent story as well.  Vehicle 19 (2013) is the sort of film that shortly afterwards will have you asking yourself, ‘now was that Vehicle 19 or 17 I watched the other day?’  The makers presumably chose a number above ten in case filmgoers assumed it was a sequel, rather like the production-line Fast & Furious films with which the late Paul Walker was largely associated.

Vehicle 19 was written and directed by South African Mukunda Michael Dewil, an inexperienced filmmaker.  The concept must have seemed an interesting one on the drawing board: a thriller filmed entirely within the confines of a car, showing the character arc of a flawed individual caught up in an increasingly fraught situation who moves from frustrated confusion, anger and fear, to determination to come through against the odds and redeem himself.  The claustrophobia engendered by filming in a confined space is reminiscent of Phone Booth (2002), though in formal terms, but not much else, Vehicle 19 has more in common with Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten (also 2002).

Walker plays Michael Woods, an ex-prisoner who breaks his parole in the United States to fly to Johannesburg in order to see his estranged wife, now working at the city’s American consulate.  Having spoken to her on the phone he knows that if he messes up once more it will be the end of their relationship, her move to the other side of the Atlantic having given him a hint.  Unfortunately he has been allocated the wrong hire vehicle by Hertz, a minivan rather than the saloon car he requested, and as he tries to navigate the city’s traffic jams and tricky youngsters he learns that he has collected much more than he bargained for.

The first question you ask yourself after you and he realise that the van comes complete with bound woman in the boot, then discover that she has been abducted on behalf of corrupt police, is why would they leave a car with a gun and a kidnap victim in a rental lot where a clerical error could assign it to the wrong person.  There must be simpler ways of disposing of government officials who have stumbled on to their misdeeds.

The second is, when later on we find Michael has no money, how he managed to rent the car in the first place, or why he needed to when there must have been less expensive public transport options available from the airport to the city centre; it can’t be far, given that Michael tells his wife that he will be there in twenty minutes, despite not having a clue where he is going or what road conditions are like.  It is certainly a relief that when he hides from police in a car wash it doesn’t require him to pay, as that could have been tricky.

In an effort to ramp up the tension there is a pointless bit of business with his mobile phone when, after some drama with his battery running out while making an important call to the single trustworthy individual in the South African judiciary, he gets out his charger and plugs it into the dashboard.  The only problem caused by the crisis was an interrupted call to the judge, which he is able to resume once he has got some power in the phone.  Why didn’t he just plug the thing in earlier?  It only takes a moment.

Walker, the star in the affordably-priced minivan, has a strikingly chiselled face reminiscent of a young Henry Fonda, circa The Grapes of Wrath (1940).  He carries the film almost single-handed (apart from the section where he first spars with and then teams up with – once he realises they are in the same boat – his unexpected passenger, ably played by Naim MacLean) and he makes a good job of portraying the rising tension as Michael wonders how he can explain the bizarre state of affairs in which he finds himself to a sceptical spouse all too ready to believe the worst of him, while trying to work out what to do for the best.  Unfortunately Walker is let down by the underdeveloped script.

 Of course seeing Paul Walker drive will always now put the viewer in mind of the manner of his death.  If he is best known for the Fast & Furious films, Vehicle 19 might be included as a more sedate entry in the franchise as Michael spends most of his time lost in the streets of Johannesburg, depicted as a kind of enormous South Los Angeles that does the South African Tourist Board no favours, interspersed with bursts of action.  The strapline ‘He picked the wrong car.  They picked the wrong guy’ and advertising showing Michael holding a gun mis-sells the tone of the film.  This is not some kind of Man-on-Fire revenge thriller, it is a fish-out-of-water tale of someone who realises he can’t just walk away from the obligations that have been thrust upon him.

Despite the happy ending to the adventure Michael must know that he has to face up to his parole violation (sadly for him the United States and the Republic of South Africa have an extradition treaty).  However, the film does not conclude with Michael, but with the titular van.  After all that mayhem, we discover that Vehicle 19 was not written off even though it must have been a hell of a mess.  We see it back in the rental car park waiting to be hired out again, with just a seat cover pulled on to hide a bullet hole and unsightly blood stains.  The implausibility of the van being put back in the pool after all it has been through seems to sum up the plot’s weaknesses.  You wonder what a director with a more developed script might have done with the concept of Michael on the run in a strange land, and what Paul Walker would have achieved if he had been stretched by better, uh, vehicles for his talent.