Movie review: Frantz (2017)

War. Nationalism. Things not appearing as they are. Frantz deals with all of these topics in interesting ways.

The story begins in Quedlinburg, Germany in 1919. The war is over but anti-French feelings persist. Anna, a young woman, visits the empty grave of her fiancé who never returned from the war. She continues to live with her fiancé’s parents as sort of the daughter they never had. Clearly, she has been a comfort to them following the death of their only son.

A mysterious Frenchman appears, leaving flowers at the grave and ringing doorbells. The Frenchman enters their lives, presumably a friend of their son from his time in Paris where he studied before the war. Adrien reluctantly relates tales of Frantz and their time in Paris. He comes to dinner. He takes Anna to the spring ball. But the facade cracks and then crashes to the ground.

Adrien went along with their assumption that he was a friend laying flowers at Frantz’ grave. In fact, he came to assuage his conscience, having killed Frantz in the war. Anna is understandably distraught and tells Adrien that she will tell Frantz’ parents herself rather than Adrien telling them.

Only she never does. She maintains the second facade in the movie. Rather than allow them the pain of knowing the lies and that they let their son’s murderer into their home and their lives, she does not tell them the truth.

Adrien writes her, assuming that she will transmit the letter to the parents. Only she doesn’t. She reads a fake letter to them—facade number three. By the time she gets around to writing him, he has moved; her letter is returned to sender.

Frantz’ parents decide that she must track him down in Paris. A German man has been pursuing her, but they feel that Adrien is the one she should be with.

So off to Paris she goes. She stays at the same hotel that Frantz did when he was a student and another facade crumbles. The hotel is less than reputable and perhaps Frantz was not the stand-up guy they thought.

Adrien is not easy to track down. She ends up at the hospital, looking through records to see what happened to him. (A conversation with a doctor suggests depression and possible suicide.) She sees his name in the records. When she learns that he has been buried at a certain cemetery, she realizes her feelings for him. She lost Frantz. And now she lost Adrien.

Only the person at the cemetery is an uncle, not Adrien. Through relatives, she tracks him down at his mother’s estate in the country. Adrien is from money. (His mother’s house is a castle.)

Anna is relieved and all seems well. Until she meets Fanny, the fiancée—another facade. Adrien is to be married to a childhood friend that his mother approves of. Either Adrien is trapped in this marriage-to-be or never really loved Anna.

In any case, Anna boards a train for Paris, never to return to Germany. She continues the facade by writing letters to her adopted parents about the wonderful times she and Adrien are having.

The film touches on post-war ultra-nationalism. Adrien is reviled by Germans during his visit. In one scene, bar-goers break into singing Die Wacht am Rhein. In a parallel scene, when Anna is in Paris, café-goers break into Les Marseillais. She too faces xenophobia.

Another theme throughout the movie is suicide. Adrien is fragile, bedeviled by poor health, which is not helped by the guilt he carries for killing Frantz. He flirted with suicide after the war. Anna herself attempts to drown herself but is saved. In a later conversation, Adrien confesses that one has to live for others.

Interestingly, the painting that he claimed Frantz liked so much in their pretend trips to the Louvre, was Manet’s Le Suicidé, a copy of which hangs in the room that Anna stays in at Adrien’s mother’s castle. It is as if after discovering Adrien is betrothed to another, Anna is being mocked. In the end, she overcomes suicide, visiting the painting in the Louvre again as a strong, independent woman living in Paris.

The movie is shot in black and white with certain scenes in color. Memories that Adrien constructed of him and Frantz in Paris are in color. Adrien and Anna visiting the spot by the lake where Frantz asked for her hand in marriage is in color. The scene when Adrien plays Frantz’ violin is in color. Memory of the war when Adrien kills Frantz is in color. And in the end, Anna’s visit to the Louvre to see Manet’s painting Le Suicidé is in color. I am unsure of the common theme—some are fake memories, all but the last involve Frantz.

The movie is inspired by Broken Lullaby, a 1932 American film, which was based on a 1930 French play, L’homme que j’ai tué [The Man That I Killed]. Frantz is a moving story that will keep you spellbound. The dialogue switches between German and French with English subtitles. The use of black and white film makes you feel as though you are in Germany and France in 1919.

Silent Halloween at the Indiana Landmarks Center (2017)

Nosferatu?! Nosferatu?! The famous 1922 silent film? Count me in.

I originally saw this movie years ago in Bloomington, Indiana. A graduate school colleague played in a band that composed an original score for Nosferatu. Each year M played their original composition as the silent film was shown at a local venue. This time I would be hearing Mark Herman accompany the film on an organ, the traditional musical instrument for silent films.

And Sammy Terry, the iconic horror film host in Central Indiana, was back. He posed for photos with fans and emceed the event. The audience was entertained with his standard guillotine act.

The participants in the scream contest were amazing this year. The winner was a man. My favorite? The woman who when asked by Sammy Terry to describe a favorite horror movie or recent horror experience replied, “The night that Trump won.” (As you can imagine, in a state where two-thirds of voters voted for Trump, her response didn’t go over so well. But it did delight several of us in the audience.)

Sammy Terry also hosted the costume contest. This year’s theme, keeping with the film, was vampires. Awards were given for best traditional vampire, best creative vampire, and best couple vampire. Of course, not everyone came dressed as a vampire. The winner of the traditional category left me perplexed; I don’t know what she was but she was not a traditional vampire. Honestly, I wasn’t sure what the creative vampire winner was either, but it was a cool costume. (A steampunk plague doctor perhaps?)

One thing was new this year: live streaming on Facebook. A cameraman followed the action on the stage and in the audience. At the end of the evening, Sammy Terry announced that 10,000 people watched their inaugural living streaming.

As usual, Mark was happy to be back playing in Indiana. (He lives in California but is from Indiana.) And also as usual, the audience loved him.

The movie Nosferatu was, of course, delightful. It was creepy but, like other silent films, some things did not age well and produced laughter instead of horror. The scenes of Count Orlok walking down empty town streets with his coffin tucked under his arm elicited laughter—the scene was so absurd. The creepiest bits were when the camera showed his shadow walking up the stairs to Ellen’s bedroom. The tall slender form of the vampire with long fingers and nails cast a frightful sight: shadow on the stairs.

The movie was well attended. I sat in my usual spot wondering if my companions would show up this year. (Three years ago I struck up conversations with people sitting by me. Each year since then we have sat in the same spot.) Alas, they didn’t show up and I was left thinking that perhaps they had other engagements this year—until Dave stopped by to say hello. They had arrived late and found seating elsewhere. And then at intermission I looked for his daughter, only to turn around and see that she sought me out too.

Indiana Landmark’s tradition of Silent Halloween (now in its fifth year) is an awesome way to celebrate the season—Sammy Terry, Mark Herman, and silent horror films. Oh yes, and if you are lucky, you may encounter acquaintances made and renewed during previous Silent Halloweens.

Silent Halloween at the Indiana Landmarks Center (2016)

I continued the Halloween tradition of celebrating the festivities at the Indiana Landmarks Center. For the past several years, the center has shown silent films accompanied by an organist in their renovated 19th century Methodist church.

The night consisted of organ music, audience-participation activities, a costume contest, a raffle, and films—a silent film short and the feature presentation.

Mark Herman returned again this year from Pasadena to provide the organ music for the films as well as music for other evening activities. He clearly enjoys his role at Silent Halloween and the audience loves him, reciprocating with standing ovations.

Sammy Terry, the iconic horror film host in Central Indiana, also returned this year to emcee the event. Sammy Terry is also beloved by many in the audience who grew up with him—Sammy Terry is the longest running TV horror film host. Robert Carter started introducing horror films on TV as Sammy Terry in 1962; his son Mark took over the role in 2010.

Before showing the night’s silent films, Sammy Terry entertained the crowd with typical Sammy Terry activities. He picked volunteers from the audience to come on stage and answer trivia questions about Indiana. Which was the first city in the world to be completely electrified? (Wabash) Where was baseball invented? (Fort Wayne) (I realized that some of the answers I knew, I knew from watching the state bicentennial documentary Hoosiers: The Story of Indiana!)

As another activity, Sammy Terry picked volunteers from the audience to attempt to provide the most blood-curdling scream. Several of those screamers were quite impressive.

The short silent film of the evening was Laurel and Hardy’s Habeas Corpus (1928). A rich doctor, who is slightly off of his rocker, hires the goofball pair. Their task? Steal a body from a gravesite for the doctor to use in his experiments. (Not an uncommon thing in the late 1800s. I thought back to a recent story I heard about Benjamin Harrison’s father unexpectedly being discovered in the Ohio Medical College when the authorities were looking for a different body that was snatched from an adjoining grave.)

The feature film of the evening was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920), starring John Barrymore. Barrymore gained praise for his performance as the two main characters. And I could see why. The story is a well-known tale by Robert Louis Stevenson that explores man’s dark side. Dr. Jekyll, an upstanding young doctor who selflessly devotes himself to helping the poor, is corrupted by his father-in-law to-be who cannot fathom how a man could be as good as Dr. Jekyll. Once unleashed, Dr. Jekyll’s dark side cannot be contained but takes over and destroys not only himself but in a twist of justice, the father-in-law to-be who caused Dr. Jekyll’s downfall.

The night was a great way to kick off the long Halloween weekend. In a delightful twist of fate, I found myself sitting next to the same couple that I did last year (!) and making the acquaintance of the fabled daughter I heard about the previous year.

I was surprised this year that the event did not sell out—there appeared to be seats still available. I was then surprised a second time when people started leaving in the middle of the feature film. Perhaps these were no movie buffs or silent film aficionados? Perhaps they only attended to see (and get pictures with) Sammy Terry? Perhaps they are early birds rather than night owls. It was perplexing?

In any event, I’ll be back next year. I am curious which silent films they will show in 2017…

Movie review: The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1965)

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is an adaptation of a John le Carré novel. I don’t tend to enjoy movies made from his novels. At least with this 1965 movie, I could (mostly) follow the plot.

Richard Burton stars as the spy who, despite the title, didn’t come in from the cold. Alec Lemas had one last assignment. He was to defect to the East and by doing, implicate an East German spy as a double agent. Well, more accurately, he allowed an East German spy (Fiedler) to believe that a fellow East German spy (Mundt) was a double agent, all the while vigorously denying it himself.

Only things start to go terribly awry. Mundt has Lemas and Fiedler arrested and a secret tribunal is held. The very plot that the British had hatched—to draw the East Germans into thinking that Mundt is a double agent—is described in the tribunal. As if Mundt knew what the British had planned.

Lemas’ new girlfriend, a British woman who is a devout Communist, travels to party gatherings in East Germany. She is brought in as a witness in the tribunal. Nan is depicted as an innocent, idealistic Communist in contrast to the hard-nosed real Communists behind the Iron Curtain. As a Western Communist, she is into free love. Things do not end well for her.

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold was shot in black and white, which gives it a grittiness. Black and white is the perfect medium for a spy movie set in the bleak Cold War era. For example, the opening scene occurs at a border crossing between the Allied and Russian sectors of Berlin. The lights at night glisten on the damp cobblestones, giving the spy movie an air of film noir-ness and reminding me of The Third Man (1949), which influenced so many movies.

Movie review: Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

Welcome to the absurd. Nothing is what it seems. Old ladies are serial killers. The above-board nephew is named Mortimer while his criminal brother is Jonathan. The uncle thinks he is Teddy Roosevelt, charging the stairs as if they were San Juan Hill and digging in the basement as if it is Panama.

Arsenic and Old Lace is a silly, silly movie that will leave you laughing and wondering how mishap after mishap will straighten itself out.

Mortimer (Cary Grant) is a play critic who rails extensively in his writings about marriage. And yet in the opening scene he is getting married. He stops by his aunts’ house before heading out of town on his honeymoon. And this is when things go awry.

He slowly discovers that his aunts have just murdered a man and stuffed him in the window seat before the reverend (Mortimer’s new father-in-law) stops by for a visit. The motive? Apparently a potential renter stopped by once and died as he was having tea with the sisters. He looked so peaceful. So they decided it would be charitable to murder any single man who seemed lonely or down on his luck.

Oh OK. Wait a minute. What happened to the first guy? Remember Teddy going to Panama (aka the basement) to dig a lock? What about the others? Are there other locks in the Panama Canal?

Mortimer is stunned. The aunts are oblivious to the fact that they have done anything wrong, let alone illegal. Mortimer is left to figure out what to do. His recent marriage and waiting wife have been forgotten. He hatches a plan: blame it all on Teddy. He sets out to gather the signatures he needs to have Teddy committed.

Then his brother shows up after decades of estrangement. And a dance ensues….to keep Jonathan from knowing about the recently deceased Mr. Hoskins whom the aunts keep trying to have a funeral service for and to keep the aunts and Mortimer from knowing about the recently deceased Mr. Spenalzo.

Jonathan is hiding from the police. In addition to wanting to hide the body of Spenalzo, he needs Dr. Einstein to perform another surgery on his face. Thanks to Dr. Einstein, he currently resembles Boris Karloff—not really the non-descript face he needs.

The police come bumbling into the scene and miss the obvious. In the end, all is well (except for the 12 deceased men buried in the basement). To his great relief, Mortimer finds that he was adopted. He is not really a member of the Brewster family, whose tree grows thick with leaves of mental instability. He is spared the insanity of his uncle, the general clueless criminality of his aunts, and the brutal violent nature of his brother.

Arsenic and Old Lace? The old lace is the unsuspecting murderers in the form of sweet old ladies. The arsenic is one of the poisons in the wines they serve their victims. Arsenic and Old Lace is a classic movie about an absurd situation where nothing is what it seems.