Thursday, August 16, 2007

Acting Up: Anton Walbrook

From time to time here on Cinema Styles I've mentioned The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and for good reason. Not only do I consider it the finest of Michael Powell's achievements but it is far and away one of my favorite films. It's central performance by Roger Livesy is one of the great performances in all of cinema. He takes the character of Clive Candy from a blustering old man in the beginning to a younger man through a series of flashbacks and back again, filling him with honesty, integrity and humanity every step of the way. But I'm not profiling Livesy for this edition of Acting Up because there is another less heralded performance in the film, one that is the equal of Livesy's in almost every measure, but in a supporting role that has been overshadowed by the towering character of Candy. That performance is by Anton Walbrook, as Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff. At first he is Candy's adversary in a duel, then his rival in love, then his enemy in war and finally his friend. And Walbrook, so effective five years later in another beautiful Powell film, The Red Shoes, as the demanding impresario Boris Lermontov, plays it subdued and nuanced to heartbreaking effect.

Throughout his career Walbrook had a tendency to overplay a role and occasionally in roles such as Bavarian King Ludwig (Lola Montes) or Johann Strauss (Vienna Waltzes) this was evident. But here, in this film, he achieved his perfect performance, one that includes nary a raised voice or arch of the eyebrow. Candy is all emotion and bluster, Schuldorff is deliberate and reserved. An overplayed performance by Walbrook against Livesy as Clive Candy would have created a clash of performances, but played as an observational bystander it produces a performance mesh that by the end leaves the viewer with no doubt that these two men lived full lives, together and apart.

When we first meet Theo it is in a duel. Clive has offended the entire German army with an insult at a cabaret and they have selected their best swordsman to challenge him, Theo. Our first glimpses of Theo are simply that of a silent duellist, staring intently at his mark across from him. And that's it. As the duel begins the camera pulls back until it leaves the building entirely, pulling back from a beautifully rendered model (how I miss models and miniatures in film) to a carriage where Edith Hunter (Deborah Kerr), a recent friend of Candy's, anxiously awaits the results.

Later in the hospital, we learn that both men are there. Clive won the duel then slipped on some ice tearing his upper lip open while Theo suffered injuries from the duel itself. He would very much like to meet Clive and when they are introduced it is awkward. Theo cannot speak English except for "Not very much" and "Very Much." As Theo begins to learn a little English and spend more time with Clive and Edith (who speaks fluent German) Walbrook plays him as a lovable little boy. He eventually falls for Edith, marrying her and taking her from Clive, unaware Clive has any feelings for her. He fills this early part of the performance with an utterly convincing naivete that becomes all the more impressive later in the film when his character is forced to confront Clive's naivete head on as a cynical yet concerned friend.

Later in the film Walbrook must play Theo quite differently. After World War I has concluded Candy finds out that Theo is being held in one the prison camps run by the British on the mainland. Candy is thrilled to see Theo again but in a shocking moment for Candy, Theo turns his back and refuses to speak to him. Later at a dinner party hosted by Candy, Theo arrives and apologizes. He did not want to show his friendship for a British officer in front of his men. But despite this apology, Theo is completely out of place as he is patronized by the other British officers, including Candy, who tell him that Britain will patch up Germany and all will be right again. In this scene again, Walbrook's role is mainly silent. He listens and watches and creates an unease and tension with his face and body that signals to the viewer immediately that he has much to say but restrains himself. After the party, on the train with other prisoners now freed and heading back to Germany he finally speaks at length. For the first time in the film, we see Theo in a new light. He seems cynical and angry.

'We want to trade with Germany,' said one! A General said: 'We don't want to keep an army just to occupy your country!' A General! They are children. Boys playing cricket! They win the shirts off our backs and now they want to give them back, because the game is over! War is the most unpopular thing in England. They are already organizing pacifist societies, their newspapers are anti-militarist — Here can we get to something! This is our chance! Their childlike stupidity is a raft for us in a sea of despair! Do you know what my friend, Brigadier General Candy said? He said 'We'll soon have Germany on her feet again.'

Because of the gentleness and naivete we have seen in Theo up until now this moment stuns us and puts a knot in our stomach. Walbrook does not shout the scene or over-emote, but lets each word slip out with a smoldering sense of anger and resentment. The knot in our stomach comes from our knowledge of history. We know how everything turned out. Because of that, after this speech on the train, we are sure that the next time we see Theo he will have a swastika armband on his uniform and there will be no British dinner parties for Theo to attend. But this movie is too smart for that.

The next time we see Theo it is twenty years later and he is at a customs tribunal to gain entry into England. He is being questioned on why he wants to leave Germany and move to England. He gets the usual suspicious questions and replies bluntly, with respect, but bluntly. When the judge remarks that most citizens fled Germany in 1933 and asks why Theo didn't leave when Hitler came to power Theo remarks,

I had nothing to fear from Hitler. At least I thought so. It took me eight months to find out I was wrong

The judge wonders what took him so long. Theo replies,

Please, I mean no offence - but you in England took five years.

The judge asked if he is married and he informs the judge, and us, that Edith died in 1933. Asked if he has any children he replies,

Two. I have no connection with them. They are good Nazis - as far as any Nazi can be called good.

Theo then describes his life in Germany and his longing to come to England. It is this scene, this speech, all done in one long unbroken take, that ranks Walbrook's performance among the finest of all the forties cinema, perhaps all of cinema period. It is acting that Roger Ebert called "sublime" in his review and I couldn't agree more. Ebert referred to Walbrook's "mastery of tone and mood" and that is the key. There is no crying, no anger, no emotion. No actor's tools. But there is an overwhelming sense of sadness and defeat that is conveyed by Walbrook so deftly that it is, quite simply, breathtaking to behold. Here I will not quote for the words themselves would be meaningless without the experience of witnessing Walbrook deliver them. Suffice it to say that upon my first viewing of this great movie this was the moment that truly had me mesmerized. But it works as well as it does only if one witnesses Walbrook's Theo in his other forms before this moment. Knowing the cheerful Theo, the naive lovable Theo and then the bitter and angry post-war Theo before arriving at this moment provides the framework that Walbrook must navigate to confidently arrive here: A Theo that now, at last, understands the world around him and is no longer willing to pretend he does not.

In his final great moment in the film Theo councils Candy on the state of the world. Candy is a distinguished old British General, trained in the rules of war and thoroughly unprepared for the new state of evil that knocks at his door. Candy would rather lose the war than use ungentlemanly methods where advancing and retreating do not win the day. It is Theo that must assure him that this is no ordinary adversary and that Britain must fight until its last breath, and again Walbrook delivers it as truth, not monologue, not acting:

You have been educated to be a gentleman and a sportsman - in peace and in war. But, Clive, dear old Clive, this is not a gentleman's war. This is a life and death struggle, with your backs to your cliffs against the hordes of barbarism. This time you are fighting for your very existence against the most devilish idea ever created by a human brain — Nazism. And if you lose there won't be a return match next year, perhaps not even for a hundred years.

Anton Walbrook was christened with the name Adolph. Anton Walbrook was also a homosexual living in Austria under Nazi rule. Life was intolerable for him there and by 1936 he knew time was running out. It wouldn't be long before Adolph Wohlbruck would be made to disappear. In 1936 he was required to fly to Hollywood to re-record dialogue for an international film. He saw it as his chance. He never returned and promptly changed the spelling of his last name and changed his first name entirely, from Adolph to Anton. He settled in Hampstead, England and one can only surmise that his circumstances played no small part in his delivery of such a magnificent performance. Perhaps that is why there is so little emoting, so little "acting", so much mood and tone. Perhaps the reason the viewer feels such a sense of truth from Theo is because Anton felt it too. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp was made in 1943. The war was not over yet. While making the film, the outcome was still uncertain. But in Anton Walbrook Michael Powell had an actor that understood the struggle the world was involved in on a personal level and was willing to allow that to shine through in his performance. It was 1943 and Anton Walbrook, at last, understood the world around him and was no longer willing to pretend he did not.


Friday, August 10, 2007

Director's Commentary: Segregated Celluloid

Records in sports are a tricky thing. With each new generation comes new training methods, new equipment, sometimes even new rules. When someone breaks a record someone else will inevitably point out that it wouldn't have been possible under the stricter rules twenty years earlier. Or perhaps if someone holds on to a record long enough, we also accept that maybe the record has stood so long because the situation was so different when it was set. In baseball especially, the argument has long been that into the forties the Major Leagues and the Negro Leagues did not compete against each other so all of their records are suspect. If Babe Ruth had to face off against Satchel Paige would it have seemed so easy for him? If Josh Gibson had to stare down Bob Feller would he have hit so many home runs himself? Or more importantly, if the Babe and Josh had to face, in an integrated league, a Satchel Paige followed by a Bob Feller week after week what would have happened? Given the extraordinary talents of both Ruth and Gibson, most likely not much would have been different. But there is one difference that cannot be denied: Ruth is in the record books, Gibson isn't. For that matter we don't even know accurately how many home runs Gibson hit. Such was the lot for the African-American ballplayer, even into the fifties, several years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.

A similar problem was occurring in the arts for much of the twentieth century but unlike athletics, its sins of omission cannot be so easily quantified into numbers and statistics.

After the first films starting showing in the late 1800's countries all over the world got into the act. The leader, in both quantity and quality, quickly became America. But like sports, only white people were let into the gates. As movies became big business just a little over fifty years after the Civil War, African-American men and women were bitterly oppressed, pushed back by Jim Crow laws that effectively kept them in servitude. As a result, black faces on the big screen were often white faces in disguise. And more disturbingly, no one seemed to mind. An extensive essay on The Birth of a Nation was written previously on these pages, entitled The Myth of a Nation, detailing the cornucopia of horrors in that film and how readily it has been accepted in the pantheon of film history. But what wasn't discussed was just how many other films swam in the same sewer. As Donald Bogle details in his introduction to the excellent book, A Separate Cinema, such early short films included Wooing and Wedding of a Coon (1905) and The Dancing N*g (1907). Others he didn't mention were Tossing a N***er in a Blanket (1898) and A N***er in the Woodpile (1904). And if you don't think racism was pervasive consider this: The latter film's entire plot concerns the theft of a woodpile, an explosion and discovery of the thief, a white actor in blackface. There was absolutely no need to make the thief black except it seems so they could use that particular word in the title.

The book A Separate Cinema, edited by John Kisch and Edward C. Mapp, phd., is an excellent chronicle of the film history of what were known as "Race Movies." These were movies made for and by African-American filmmakers dedicated to getting a more honest portrayal of their lives onto the screen. That history is chronicled in the extensive introduction, written by the aforementioned Donald Bogle. The remainder of the book is a collector's dream: Page after page of Race Movie posters, rare and antiquated, treasures to behold.

The poster themselves are an important look into the history of the race movie as the movies themselves have not been properly preserved and few remain in good condition today. Even fewer are available on DVD to the home viewer. A search for Oscar Micheaux, the foremost race movie maker of his day, on DVD reveals only a smattering of titles available: Body and Soul (1925) Lying Lips (1939) and Murder in Harlem (1935) to name three with only the last two available on the DVD giant, Netflix. It is a subject many would love to study more but with so few films available it is a difficult task indeed. For now, most will have to rely more on books and posters than celluloid itself.

By the forties Hollywood had only produced a select few movies geared towards Black audiences (Hallelujah! (1929), The Green Pastures (1936), Cabin in the Sky (1943)) and even fewer movies with central black characters geared towards both black and white audiences (Imitation of Life (1934)). Of course, all of those movies are much better known than Lying Lips or Murder in Harlem. Hollywood had the budget and the talent to put out polished efforts that the black filmmakers could only look upon in envy. While Oscar Micheaux had to scrape together whatever financing he could for his efforts, movies like The Green Pastures and Cabin in the Sky were given sizable studio budgets and top black talents like Eddie "Rochester" Anderson and Rex Ingram. Anderson and Ingram worked in race movies too, at reduced salaries, but the quality of those films suffered due to the lack of the technical magic a major Hollywood studio could provide. However, as Bogle notes in the introduction, because of this the films take on an odd "realism", using actual locations rather than sets, that gives them a more modern feel at times then their Hollywood counterparts.

After World War II Hollywood began producing more films focusing on racial themes like Home of the Brave (1949), Intruder in the Dust (1949), No Way Out (1950) and Bright Victory (1951) which spelled the end for the race movie studios as black audiences were seeing those films in much larger numbers. Eventually black filmmakers and actors like Melvin van Peebles and Pam Grier would revive the spirit of the race movie with films like Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971) and Coffy (1973), films anyone could enjoy but clearly designed for black audiences.

It's been nearly fifteen years since I bought my copy of A Separate Cinema and since that time the collection managed by Kisch and Mapp has only grown. They have a website where you can view much of the artwork as well as find out details about upcoming exhibitions. Currently they are supervising the exhibit "Chicago's Black Film History" at the DuSable Museum in Chicago, Illinois. It began May 10th and runs through September 3rd of this year. If you're in the area give it a look. It's a largely forgotten part of our collective film history but one that richly deserves to be remembered.