The Ear (Ucho, 1970)
The personal is political in Karel Kachyňa’s claustrophobic satire, in which the authoritarianism of the Czech Communists is filtered through a long night’s journey into day inside the home of a senior party official. The domestic space isn’t a respite for Ludvik (Radoslav Brzobohatý) and his wife, Anna (Jiřina Bohdalová). It’s a magnifying glass for the paranoia of living in a surveillance state and the fissures in their marriage, destined to erupt. Naturally, the film was banned as soon as it was completed.
After attending a party function, the couple returns home to find things awry. Their keys have disappeared and the power has gone out, despite neighboring homes remaining illuminated. Anna, drunk, and Ludvik, suspicious, can’t agree on what this means, initiating some cruel verbal sniping that has plenty of runway to escalate over the course of the evening. Eventually, both become convinced every odd occurrence is the result of party surveillance. They scour their home for listening devices and Ludvik begins burning documents that might have incriminating evidence in the toilet.
Kachyňa’s tight framing accompanies nimble camerawork as Ludvik and Anna circle each other like caged rats about to turn on their cellmate. Intercut with the domestic horror are Ludvik’s flashbacks to the party earlier that evening, as he attempts to remember any signal that his standing among his peers was in jeopardy. We feel Ludvik’s intense disorientation, an imbalance he seeks to remedy by returning to what seems like a familiar pattern: taking it out on Anna. Kachyňa lets the bitter taste linger, with a wry ending that doesn’t do anything to mitigate it.
Second Run’s Blu-ray upgrade features a 1.37:1, 1080p transfer, sourced from a new HD remaster by the Czech National Film Archive. Unlike many of Second Run’s recent Czech Blu-rays, this one does not get a 4K remaster, possibly due to the materials’ condition. One party scene features significant damage, and the film as a whole has more speckling and wear than most other films Second Run has given the high-def treatment to.
Still, the upgrade is appreciated in solid grayscale separation and fine detail. Damage rarely affects the overall clarity of the image. The 2.0 mono LPCM soundtrack has some hissing and clicking, but it’s not too obtrusive. It’s a testament to the consistently high quality of the label’s Blu-ray releases that this one ranks near the bottom technically.
Carried over from the 2005 DVD release is an introduction by Peter Hames. Newly added: a commentary track from the Projection Booth podcast, Vlastimil Venclík’s 1969 short The Uninvited Guest and an expanded booklet, with essays by Hames, Steven Jay Schneider and Graham Williamson.
The BRD Trilogy (1979-1982)
The tragedy of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s early death isn’t entirely ameliorated by his astonishingly vast output — imagine having dozens more of his films to savor — but it’s difficult to argue that his oeuvre feels unfinished. Given the elasticity and voracious appetite of any given Fassbinder film, a single work can feel like a worthy encapsulation of his mad genius.
And then you have The BRD Trilogy, which seems to contain histories of entire film genres within, to say nothing of its withering gaze at the fundamental rot of post-WWII West German society. These are towering films, stylistically bold and thematically blunt. They may represent the apotheosis of Fassbinder’s career — though he no doubt would have refuted that notion with further cinematic advances if he hadn’t died shortly after the trilogy’s completion.
The Marriage of Maria Braun begins with a literal explosion in the middle of the wedding of Maria (Hanna Schygulla) and Hermann Braun (Klaus Löwitsch), as the Allies bomb Germany. As she will throughout the film, Maria persists with a blind optimism often indistinguishable from delusion. When Hermann, a Nazi soldier, goes missing during the final months of the war, everyone presumes he’s dead but Maria.
Schygulla plays Maria with a fierce single-mindedness, and Maria’s cognitive dissonance is continually astonishing as she maintains her undying loyalty to Hermann and the bygone way of life he represents. This continues even as she pursues relationships with American soldier Bill (George Byrd) and rich entrepreneur Karl (Ivan Desny). Fassbinder’s well of sympathy for Maria is boundless even as he traces her self-destruction to its inevitable combustible bookend.
In Veronika Voss (1982), made last but positioned second in the post hoc trilogy, Fassbinder twists notions of what a pastiche can be, amping up the look and feel of Hollywood black-and-white melodrama to dizzying heights, even as the juicy plot devolves into a dour, dread-soaked mood piece. Rosel Zech stars as Veronika, a onetime star of German propaganda films whose career as an actress is barely hanging on. She meets sports reporter Robert Krohn (Hilmar Thate), whose infatuation is immediate and unthinking — and covered by a thin veneer of supposed journalistic interest.
As Robert digs deeper into Veronika’s past, a number of troubling details emerge, but Fassbinder’s plotting, which is plenty lurid on paper, doesn’t leave a deeper impact than the film’s bone-deep bleakness.
Lola (1981) traverses a nearly opposite route stylistically and thematically. An acrid satire of the insatiable lust of capitalism, the film is unrepentantly garish, bathed in neon color and stupefying key lights.
A riff on von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel, the film stars Barbara Sukowa as Lola, a singer at a brothel during the reconstruction period of West Germany in the 1950s. Everything is transactional in this world, a fact Fassbinder painstakingly underlines with scenes of overtly corrupt business dealings.
Lola attracts the attentions of sleazy developer Schukert (Mario Adorf) and principled building commissioner von Bohm (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a three-way configuration full of using and being used. There’s something bracing about the film’s complete lack of restraint, the camerawork, the performances and the lighting all feeding off one another to push Lola into new heights of artificiality — a tool Fassbinder used to reveal the truth like almost no other filmmaker.
Criterion’s long-awaited Blu-ray upgrade of the DVD set, which languished for a while in OOP status, is a phenomenal release. The 1080p transfers, sourced from new 4K restorations for Maria Braun and Lola and an HD restoration for Veronika Voss, are across-the-board excellent. The earthy palette of Maria Braun looks rich and detailed, and the bold colors of Lola are consistent and true, with a transfer that features exceptional clarity. Despite not receiving a 4K restoration, Veronika Voss is a solid black-and-white transfer, with nice grain. Maria Braun and Lola now are presented in their original 1.66:1 aspect ratios, while Veronika Voss is still in 1.78:1. The uncompressed mono soundtracks are all in very good shape.
All extras from the loaded DVD set have been ported over, including commentaries for all three films; a host of interviews, including ones with each of the films’ three leads; a 1978 interview of Fassbinder; 1992 doc on Fassbinder, I Don’t Just Want You to Love Me; a featurette on Ufa film star Sybille Schmitz, the real-life inspiration for Veronika Voss; trailers; and a booklet with Kent Jones’ insightful essay and detailed production histories of all three films by Michael Töteberg.
Sweet Charity (1969)
Kino Lorber Studio Classics
Sweet Charity is a strange amalgam. Adapted from the Broadway show, the film smashes together Neil Simon’s corny self-deprecation, terrific set pieces built around Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields’ songs and a visual sensibility somewhere between au courant singularity and quaint hippie excess — all wrapped together in an outsized two-and-a-half-hour musical package that was mostly out of fashion by the time it arrived.
It’s also a great film, thanks to the restless creative energy of Bob Fosse, who directed and choreographed the Broadway show, and made his film directorial debut here. Equally important: The staggering screen presence of Shirley MacLaine, whose sunny optimism and deeply rooted melancholy make her the perfect successor to Giulietta Masina, cinema’s sad clown supreme and star of Nights of Cabiria, the inspiration for Sweet Charity.
There are some superfluous moments in this tale of dance hall hostess Charity (MacLaine) who encounters disappointment after disappointment in her quest for love, but Fosse ensures most of the film’s episodes land — either as tightly choreographed musical numbers (the endlessly copied cool restraint of “Hey Big Spender,” the joyous kitsch of Sammy Davis Jr.-featuring “The Rhythm of Life”) or as showcases for MacLaine’s boundless charisma. (“If My Friends Could See Me Now” is a showstopper, but every tiny gesture and line reading in the sequence where Charity spends an evening with Ricardo Montalbán’s film star is sublime.)
Ever the showman, Fosse comes equipped with a bag of tricks — wild zooms, freeze-frames, images reversed to negative. But his fundamental skill as a film director already looks fully formed in his debut. Musical setpieces are visually cogent, the pacing can be languorous but individual scenes thrum with energy and the character’s relationships have real depth, especially Charity’s friendship with fellow dancers Nickie (Chita Rivera) and Helene (Paula Kelly). That the film’s third act focus — a budding romance with mild actuary Oscar (John McMartin) — is its weakest doesn’t undo this.
Kino’s Blu-ray release is excellent, featuring two cuts of the film on separate discs, both 1080p, 2.35:1 transfers sourced from a 4K restoration. Colors are vibrant and true, film grain is tight and stable, and fine detail is quite good. The “alternate” version is several minutes shorter than the primary roadshow edition, and the most significant change to the content is a happy ending tacked on to the alternate version, which also hacks off some of MacLaine’s most heartbreaking moments. 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and 2.0 tracks are offered, and they generally sound good, though there’s a slightly muffled quality to the dialogue not present in the crisp musical elements.
Kino adds a couple of new extras: Kat Ellinger’s commentary track for the alternate version of the film and a booklet essay by Julie Kirgo. Archival featurettes on Edith Head’s costume design and the transition from stage to screen are also included, along with a selection of trailers.
Cluny Brown (1946)
Ernst Lubitsch’s final completed film (he died during the production of 1948’s That Lady in Ermine) is a slight but delightful class comedy, and its long unavailability on home video has finally been remedied by Criterion. Lubitsch’s lightness of touch is one of his hallmarks, of course, but Cluny Brown is probably a little too light to rank among his masterpieces. Still, if you can’t appreciate the interplay between a delightfully unconventional Jennifer Jones and an effortlessly charming Charles Boyer, why even watch movies?
Jones’ Cluny and Boyer’s Belinski meet-cute at a pre-WWII London party neither was invited to — her responding to a plumbing emergency, him looking for a previous owner. When Cluny’s uncle sends her to the countryside to work as a maid for aristocrats, she again crosses paths with Belinski, an author running from the Nazis and not averse to the generosity of strangers.
Cluny Brown skewers the uptightness of class-conscious types, but it’s not all comedy. There might not be a more devastating moment in Lubitsch’s films than when the owners of the manor mistake Cluny for someone else and afternoon tea in the parlor is suddenly doused in cold water when she’s identified as the new help. Jones, a great melodramatic actress, is used perfectly in a comedic context in Cluny Brown, but that scene is a stomach-dropper.
Fortunately, she’s irrepressible — and it’s clear a misguided romance with a town chemist and stern warnings from a stuffy household staff won’t prevent the Jones-Boyer repartee we’re all here to see.
Criterion’s Blu-ray features a 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer, sourced from a new 4K restoration. This is a solid, if unspectacular transfer, with a pervasive softness that prevents a truly clear or sharp image. Still, the image is quite clean and grayscale separation is decent. It’s an enjoyable watch. Uncompressed mono audio is clean and adequate.
There’s quite a nice selection of extras on this disc. Newly filmed: Critics Molly Haskell and Farran Smith Nehme discuss their appreciation of Lubitsch’s female characters and Kristin Thompson offers a video essay on Lubitsch’s visual comedy. A 2004 interview with Bernard Eisenschitz offers an overview of Lubitsch’s career. Also included: a 1950 radio adaptation of Cluny Brown, starring Boyer and Dorothy McGuire, and an insert with an essay by Siri Hustvedt.
Cheng Cheng Films
Calling Yang Chao’s Berlinale Silver Bear winner Crosscurrent “mesmerizing” feels like a lazy way to sum up such a peculiar film, but the description couldn’t be more apt. To watch Crosscurrent is to fall into a trance as its images of the Yangtze River (captured by the inimitable eye of cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bing, a frequent collaborator with Wong Kar-Wai and Hou Hsiao-Hsien) slip past one another, the near-constant drone of ship noise as the foundation.
Crosscurrent is a film with its fair share of mysticism; nominal protagonist Gao Chun (Qin Hao) encounters the same woman, An Lu (Xin Zhilei), at every port as he guides a cargo ship up the river, and he becomes convinced she’s connected to a book of poetry by an unknown author he discovered. If the film’s overt mysticism and use of poetry can feel a bit overdetermined, it’s mainly because the images themselves don’t need the help. Lee captures the unknowable majesty of the river in a way that makes every shot feel enormous and full of portent.
The film begins with a ritual: After a father dies, his son expected to pull a fish from the river and keep it in an incense urn until it dies, thus releasing the departed father’s spirit. Gao Chun succeeds at capturing the fish, but the rest of the ritual does not go as planned. Similarly, his fleeting relationship with An Lu — who, if not a literal ghost, can’t be completely corporeal — follows an orderly, expected path until it suddenly doesn’t. The one constant is the Yangtze, a seemingly ceaseless path affected by the throes of modernity (the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest power station, has a cataclysmic effect on Gao Chun here), but fundamentally unchangeable and unknowable.
Cheng Cheng Films’ release of the film is pressed on BD-R. I noticed some stuttering while navigating the menus, but did not see any issues while playing the film. The disc features a 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer that showcases Lee’s 35mm photography pretty well. Colors are rich and saturated, even as the film has an overarching subdued look. Fine detail is strong. Long shots of the river and passing vessels have excellent clarity. Damage is nonexistent. The 2.0 stereo LPCM track is cut very loud and offers a solid presentation of the film’s soundscape of natural river noise and cello playing. English subtitles are available, but not turned on by default.
Extras include “Messenger’s Four Chapters,” which appear to be camcorder-shot outtakes of the trip down the river, along with a trailer and an insert with an essay by Bart Testa.