Sunday, January 09, 2005

FILM COMMENT. Saw Hitler's Hit Parade at the Film Forum tonight. I was expecting a straight showcase of Nazi inspirational pop, like the swing band Charlie and His Orchestra, who regaled Third Reich audiences with songs like the anti-Churchill "The Man with the Big Cigar" ("Who is that man with the big cigar?/He is the friend of the USSR... and he'll get more than he bargained for/That fat friend of the Jew!"). But though there is a lot of swinging music -- much of it excellent -- I was surprised to get instead a poetic montage in the manner of Bruce Conner.

The source material is from sanctioned German entertainment of the period, and some clips are overtly expressive of the party line. One features a sinister fellow informing the audience, through a disdainful grin, that though some musicians have gotten "in the swing" of things, others have gotten "out of step," and had been consigned to "Concert Camps" where they would soon learn to adopt the meter of the Reich. There is also cartoon footage of a prototypical Jew stealing golden leaves from the Tree of Life.

Each of these by itself would be horribly instructive, but the filmmakers, Oliver Axer and Susanne Benze -- a designer and a historian, respectively -- chose to focus on the flotsam of German pop film and music, intercut with instructional film footage (including an obstetrician who tells a grateful husband post-partum, "Don't thank me -- thank your wife's ancestors!") and clips of ordinary German people, going about their business as the Nazis went about theirs.

If the film has a theme, it is social regimentation. Cheerful young Germans exercise in unison, like high school rhythmic gymnasts. (Hitler was the originator of the phrase, "Work hard and play hard.") A cartoon couple of geese approve of its high (goose)-stepping children -- until one comes by sashaying effeminately, and is spanked till its gait is corrected. One splendid passage is centered around a bolero dance number; the dancers, in flamenco costumes, perform with what we might be forgiven for calling German efficiency, slightly crisping and squaring the traditional movements. Axer and Benze intercut with this sequences of animated pen nibs, coffee cups, and cigarettes falling into patterns -- a dream of order that incorporates a (then politically friendly) foreign culture.

Late in the film discordant images -- decrepit, despairing Jews festooned with yellow stars; the public humiliation of a Polish-German couple; slaughtered German soldiers -- begin to appear; the romantic music keeps playing. Only at the very end -- in a section titled, in heroic Nazi style, "Awake, Germany!" -- do we see Allied footage of ordinary Germans forced to confront the reality of the concentration camps.

Going into the movie I was defensively joking about Woody Allen's references to The Sorrow and the Pity and the long string of Oscar-winning Holocaust docs. I'm always on guard against what Manny Farber called the "gimp" -- the easy tug at popular prejudice to create a cheap emotional effect. What might the Nazis have done, had they won the war and inherited the power of the camera, to comment upon our deceased, decadent ways? Nothing like this, probably. Hitler's Hit Parade is so artfully far from propaganda that I can honestly say, if you didn't know who the Nazis were going in, the film would give you an honestly bad impression of them. At a time in which the distinction between truth and lies appears to be growing alarmingly fungible, that's a very high recommendation.

To close less grimly, also saw Broadway Melody of 1936. Moss Hart, of Kaufman & Hart, wrote the story, which figures; his screenwriter, Jack McGowan, seems to have specialized in musical froth, which also figures, and co-scenarist Sid Silvers has a scene-stealing turn as the sidekick of the Winchell manque played by (gasp) Jack Benny -- which doesn't figure at all, but works very nicely. This is assembly-line Hollywood-on-Broadway fluff of the better sort. It would make a nice double bill (assuming, unfairly, that Howard Otway didn't already do it) with 42nd Street -- and sort of does, in Singin' In The Rain, which cribbed the Freed tunes and sprightly air from the Broadway Melody franchise and the big numbers and dark undertones from the Berkeley masterpiece. Like 42nd Street, it has a hometown gamin and a hardened Broadway producer -- but the gamin is plenty resourceful and the producer is her high-school sorta-sweetheart and not as hard as all that; the friction, such as it is, comes from Benny's wiseguy, and to a lesser extent from the producer's hard-hearted backer/lover. (It may reflect a significant cultural change that, in Singin' In The Rain, the source of friction is the pitiless, powerful dame; a reporter as foil would have been absurd in 50s Hollywood as it would have been in... well, Hollywood today.)

Also revisited Kubrick's Lolita. Like Wilder in Kiss Me, Stupid, Kubrick was doggedly exploring the terrain of 60s sex comedy; unlike Wilder, he has no skill at sex comedy of any sort -- the best male sex-comedians dance at the edge of misogyny, whereas Kubrick had long since progressed from misogyny to misanthropy. I can see why he was attracted to Humbert's obsession, but having to deal with the female half of the equation appears to have baffled him: The moments of sympathy for Charlotte Haze seem tacked on like guilty afterthoughts and Sue Lyon is practically exterminated as Lolita -- only her body and brash tone survive. The film is more at home with the absurdity of Humbert, which, like nearly every Kubrick lead role, reduces the actor playing it. James Mason, Kirk Douglas, Ryan O'Neal, Tom Cruise, even the great Keir Dullea: all mere puppets in the hands of the master. The only leads to benefit from the Kubrick treatment were Jack Nicholson and Peter Sellers, who were intelligent and voracious enough to meet Kubrick at his level, and Malcolm McDowell, who was not so bright as they, but simply born to play Alex (and, the rest of his career shows, no one else -- at least none well, but Wells). Still, it's a crafty piece of work, and much better than Adrian Lyne's, which has always seemed to me Lolita as told by the psychiatrist in Nabokov's prologue.

UPDATE. Correx and suggestions from my editorial board implemented.

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