“I have heard this insensible and necrophilous oath, ‘¡Viva la Muerte!’, and I, having spent my life writing paradoxes that have provoked the ire of those who do not understand what I have written, and being an expert in this matter, find this ridiculous paradox repellent.”–Miguel de Unamuno
FEATURING: Madhi Chaouch, Núria Espert, Ivan Henriques
PLOT: Fando is a boy growing up in Spain in the early days of the Franco regime, raised by his mother, about whom he has sexual fantasies. One day he discovers that his mother turned his father in to the authorities because of his “dangerous progressive” political views. In between fantasies, Fando decides to go searching for his father, but his quest is interrupted when he contracts tuberculosis.
Like the father in Viva la Muerte, Arrabal’s own father was imprisoned by the Fascists during the Spanish Civil War (one report claims it was for an assassination attempt). After five years he escaped from custody and was never seen again.
The title refers to a quote from the Fascist General Millan Astray: “Down with intelligence! Long live death!,” a line barked during a political debate with philosopher Miguel de Unamuno.
The movie is an adaptation of Arrabal’s 1959 novel “Baal Babylone” (which does not appear to have been translated out of the original French).
The sadomasochistic torture sketches first seen in the opening credits are by Arrabal’s fellow Panic movement member Roland Topor (for more on the Panic movement, see the background information section of I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse).
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Fando’s papa, buried in the sand with only his head showing, and a quartet of riders fast approaching.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A howl of protest at the horrors of the Franco regime, as well as an autobiographical attempt to exorcise some serious mommy issues, Viva la Muerte uses surreal vignettes as a savage expression of personal outrage.
“The Lord arranged it very well when he told people: ‘Remember, dust thou art and to dust thou returnest.’ A crematorium, dear friends, is clearly a God-pleasing object, because it helps God to speed up the transformation of people into dust.”–Kopfrkingl, The Cremator
FEATURING: Rudolf Hrusínský, Ilja Prachar, Milos Vognic, Jana Stehnová, Jirí Lír
PLOT: Kopfrkingl is a crematorium operator in Czechoslovakia in the late 1930s who holds odd opinions about the liberating nature of death, based largely on his self-study of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Because he has German blood, an old army buddy recruits him into the Czech branch of the Nazi party. His beloved wife’s half-Jewish parentage, however, soon becomes an issue that threatens his advancement both in the party, and in his chosen profession.
The movie is based on a novel by Ladislav Fuks, a Czech who had been a forced laborer (arbeitseinsatz) during the Nazi occupation. Fuks collaborated with director Juraj Herz on the screenplay.
Although he was their contemporary, Herz did not consider himself part of the Czech New Wave. In school he studied puppetry (in the same class as Jan Svankmajer) rather than film, and had few friends in the New Wave clique. (One exception was director Jirí Menzel, who plays the small role of Dvorák in The Cremator). He did sneak in to film screenings at FAMU (the national film school that incubated the New Wave movement) and filmed a segment for the 1966 anthology Pearls of the Deep, which was rejected because of its length (30 minutes).
The Cremator began filming during the Prague Spring, but was interrupted by the Soviet invasion in 1969, which made completing it a challenge. The film was released and screened but removed from circulation soon after.
Czechoslovakia submitted The Cremator to the Oscars as Best Foreign Film, but the Academy did not grant it an official nomination.
The Cremator won best film, actor (Rudolf Hrusínský) and cinematography (Stanislav Milota) at the Sitges Film Festival, but not until 1972, three years after its initial release.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Most likely it’s frequently tuxedoed cremator-in-chief Rudolf Hrusínský’s round face, the subject of so many closeups, that will stick with you the most. We chose to highlight the moment when he is invited into the rear tent at the freaskshow to gaze at the embalmed two-headed specimens and faces ravaged by syphilis, in which he shows a strange fascination.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Buddhist Nazism; the throne in Lhasa; girl in black
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A WWII drama soaked in an atmosphere of Gothic psychological horror, The Cremator seems like a screenplay Edgar Allan Poe might have written if he’d lived to see the Holocaust. Distorted lenses and madcap montages track the cremator’s bent descent from eccentric mortician to megalomaniacal tool of ultimate evil.
FEATURING: Paolo Bonacelli, Giorgio Cataldi, Umberto P. Quintavalle, Aldo Valletti
PLOT: Four Italian fascists kidnap dozens of young boys and girls and imprison them in an isolated villa to sexually torture them in bizarre rituals of sadism.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: There are a lot of words that can be used to describe Salo: disturbing, intense, perverse, depressing, extreme. “Weird” is pretty far down the list. (I did not find any critics who used the word “weird” in discussing Salo). So many of our readers have nominated it for review that I am forced to confess that it may be found lurking somewhere in the outermost penumbra of the weird—but if you want to see a truly weird treatment of the same source material, look at how Luis Buñuel ended L’Age d’Or with a Surrealist reference to the same de Sade novel adapted in Salo. Casting Jesus Christ as Duc de Blangis is less obscene but far more provocative than anything Pasolini could depict in his literal rendition of the book.
COMMENTS: “Although these crimes against humanity are historically accurate, the characters depicted are composites… and the events portrayed, have been condensed into one locality for dramatic purposes… We dedicate this film with the hope that these heinous crimes will never occur again.”
Salo, The 120 Days of Sodom may seem stranger to someone who comes to the movie with no foreknowledge of the source material, the Marquis De Sade’s “120 Days of Sodom,” than it does to someone who knows the backstory. De Sade, of course, is the 18th century writer whose name inspired the now commonplace words “sadism” and “sadist.” He was an aristocrat devoted to literature, philosophy, and pornography (not in that order), and he produced some genuinely accomplished works. His most powerful books, such as “Philosophy in the Bedroom” and “Justine: the Misfortunes of Virtue,” mix shocking depictions of sexual cruelty with virile intellectual monologues wherein the characters philosophically justify their depravity and smash moralist objections.
“The 120 Days of Sodom” was not one of those books. It was De Sade’s first major work, written while was imprisoned in the Bastille (for a string of crimes including the beating of a prostitute and consensual homosexual sodomy). “Sodom” is an obsessive catalog of perversions, with almost none of the philosophical speeches that would add meaning and value to De Sade’s later work, arranged according to a mathematical progression: 30 days of orgies in each set of four escalating perversions, moving from “simple” passions (such as urine drinking) to “murderous” ones. The novel was probably intended for De Sade’s own sexual gratification. The result is the Continue reading CAPSULE: SALO, THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM (1975)→
Henri Xhonneux and Roland Topor also make far stranger references to the book in their twisted De Sade biopic, Marquis. [↩]
“The 120 Days of Sodom” was unfinished and the ending only sketched, so it is conceivable De Sade would eventually have inserted philosophical reflections later. [↩]
“[Günter Grass] called our [first draft] script ‘Protestant and Cartesian.’ It was lacking the irrational dimension of time, the nodal points where everything becomes confused and collapses in an illogical and tragicomic way. He wants more hard realism on the one hand, and on the other, more courage in the unreal. Imagination as a part of unreality –Oskar’s reality… Another visit to Grass, almost a year after the first, this time with the finished script. It is now more ‘Catholic,’ and less rational…”–Volker Schlöndorff, in his Tin Drum production diary
DIRECTED BY: Volker Schlöndorff
FEATURING: David Bennent, Mario Adorf, Angela Winkler, Daniel Olbrychski, Katharina Thalbach
PLOT: At the age of three, Oskar, a boy who always carries his beloved tin drum and whose scream can shatter glass, decides that he does not want to grow up, and throws himself down the cellar stairs to stunt his growth. As Hitler rises to power, his mother becomes depressed and kills herself by eating raw fish; his uncle, who may be his real father, is killed by the Nazis. Still looking like a child, Oskar lives through Fascism and World War II and has love affairs, eventually joining the Nazis and entertaining the soldiers with his drum.
Die Blechtrommel [The Tin Drum] is based on Nobel Prize winner Günter Grass’ schizophrenic 1959 novel of the same name. The film adaptation only covers approximately the first half of the book.
Actor David Bennent had a “growth disorder” and was actually twelve years old when the movie was filmed.
The Tin Drum is set in Danzig, which at the time of Oskar’s birth was a Free City located between Germany and Poland, although the population was mostly German.
The Tin Drum shared the 1979 Palme D’Or with Apocalypse Now. It also won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.
In the United States, New World Pictures—Roger Corman’s company—distributed the picture. Some of New World’s other releases that year were Humanoids from the Deep and Shogun Assassin.
The movie ran into censorship problems due to brief sex scenes between David Bennent and Katharina Thalbach (then 24 years old, but portraying a 16-year-old). The oddest case occurred in Oklahoma in 1997, almost twenty years after the film’s release, when a judge ruled that the film violated state child pornography laws which banned even non-explicit depictions of sex between minors. Police seized videotapes from the homes of people who had rented the movie. The documentary Banned in Oklahoma, included on some editions of The Tin Drum as an extra, details the controversy. The film was later vindicated, and today Oklahomans no longer need fear being labeled as pedophiles for watching 1979’s Best Foreign Film winner.
In 2010 Volker Schlöndorff created a director’s cut of the film, restoring about 20 minutes of footage which had been removed to shorten the running time.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Wild-eyed Oskar pounding away on his drum in an insane, trance-like fury is undoubtedly the film’s emblematic image, although the horse’s head filled with eels is probably the most shocking one.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Tin Drum is a comic nightmare about “little people’s” acquiescence to Fascism in the 1930s and 1940s; as Germany goes insane, children refuse to grow up, eels breed in horse’s heads, and Santa Claus turns into the Gas Man.
The Great Dictator (1940), released to DVD and Blu-ray on May 24th, 2011 is the second of Charlie Chaplin‘s features to receive the Criterion treatment, following 2010’s release of Modern Times (1936). Times was Chaplin’s last silent feature, produced nine years after the advent of sound. Chaplin stated that when, and if, his famous character the Tramp ever spoke, it would be as a farewell. He found a reason for the Tramp to break his silence in the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich; this was the birth of The Great Dictator.
Few people wanted Chaplin to make this anti-Hitler satire, and the speech at the end of Dictator was even seen by some as communist propaganda. It securely put Chaplin on the subversive list. Within a few years, Chaplin was thrown out of the United States, only to be invited back by the Academy Awards for a honorary Oscar (he never actually won one) in 1971. Chaplin accepted the honor as a sign of mending.
Chaplin later said that if he had known the actual extent of the horrors perpetrated in Nazi Germany, he could never have made The Great Dictator. His detractors went so far as to accuse him of merely being angry at Hitler for stealing his mustache. Of course, Chaplin had been making films against government oppression and the struggle of the little man almost from day one. Additionally, Chaplin’s half-brother’s father was Jewish, giving him further motive to lampoon the dictator. Chaplin’s mistake was that he spoke out against Hitler and the Third Reich before the United States entered the war.
Whether or not the Jewish Barber is the Tramp has been debated for years. He is not referred to as the Tramp, but he is certainly a Tramp-like character, and that is really enough. But, for the first time, Chaplin is uneasy with his iconic character. After seeing the Tramp in all of his silent eloquence for years, hearing him speak in the opening WWI sequence is greatly disconcerting. This opening is awkward, and Chaplin reveals that verbal humor is not his strength. Jokes about gas and, later, plays off the words “Aryan” and “vegetarian” fall Continue reading THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940) CRITERION COLLECTION→
FEATURING: Christian Friedel, Burghart Klaußner, Leonie Benesch, Maria-Victoria Dragus, Leonard Proxauf
PLOT: A doctor’s horse is tripped by a wire strung between two trees, and soon
other unexplained “accidents” start happening around a German village on the eve of WWI.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: I wouldn’t have even considered covering this fairly conventional film in this sacred space devoted to weirdness, except that as I was leaving the theater, I heard an old man ask the old woman beside him, “Wasn’t that the strangest movie you ever saw?” The old woman agreed. My initial reaction was sadness at the thought that they both had reached an advanced state of decrepitude without having ever witnessed the miracle of a truly strange film. My second thought was, I have to get out there and nip this rumor in the bud.
COMMENTS: As a historical drama, a novelistic examination of small town immorality, The White Ribbon is superb. It immerses us in the life of a quiet, one-bicycle German hamlet on the eve of World War I, where order is harshly enforced in public but cruelty and hypocrisy are the rule behind closed doors. The story begins by evoking a mystery—who strung the invisible steel wire that tripped the doctor’s horse?—then moves on to explore various village subplots involving characters from every strata of society. Among others, there’s the humane schoolteacher who romances a shy nanny; the Baron, who employs half the village and acts as if feudalism is still in fashion; a Farmer and the rebellious son who blames the Baron for his mother’s death; the Doctor, an eminent man hiding shameful secrets; the Midwife, who lives with the Doctor since his wife dies and cares for her mentally retarded son; and most significantly the Pastor, who is obsessed with enforcing purity among his children, binding his son’s arms at night to help him resist the temptation to touch himself and tying white ribbons on the elder children to remind them of innocence. And there are the children themselves, whose eerily blank faces and frustratingly proper responses to interrogations mask unknown motives. Led by creepy and unflappable Maria-Victoria Dragus, a gang of tykes seem to be present at the periphery of all the tragic accidents that start popping up around the village. The question of whether the kids are just curious spectators drawn to the hubub in a quiet town, or if they have some deeper involvement in the plague of catastrophes, is the mystery that Haneke leaves unsolved. But the real unsolved mystery may be why the director chose to structure his story as an unsolved mystery. When the tale focuses on exploring of moral hypocrisy, exposing the domestic cruelty of upstanding pillars of the community, the film is first-rate drama; there are excellent, tense scenes where a man callously dumps his mistress and parents inflict sadistic punishments on their children for minor infractions. Haneke apparently did not feel that this searing drama was enough to grant his film Palme d’Or-type gravitas, and so we have the ambiguous mystery arbitrarily piled on top. Not only is the plot obscure, but the purpose of employing an obscure plot is obscure.
Perhaps it’s because Haneke’s thesis isn’t as meaty as it seems. The reminders that these wan, detached and abused children will be the generation that grows up to embrace Nazism are not subtle. But if Haneke’s trying to say that a morally rigid, patriarchal society set the ground for the rise of Nazism… well, that’s a small part of the puzzle. But the same types of societies existed all over the Western world. Change a few details—replace the feudal Baron with a capitalist robber baron—and the story could just as easily be set in small town America in the 1910s. What’s specifically German about this story that supposedly helps to explain the rise of Nazism (as the film’s narrator suggests in his opening lines)? If, on the other hand, Haneke isn’t blaming a particular social order for nurturing fascism, but trying to say something universal about human societies and their capacity for institutional evil, the point gets a bit lost by locating the story in such an incredibly specific historical time and place. The movie ends up perched uncomfortably between ambiguity and a definite argument, between a universal message and a historical one. Maybe these unresolved tensions help explain why The White Ribbon, with its impeccable acting and classic production, feels thematically awkward.
“And the king, Nebuchadnezzar, answered and said to the Chaldeans, I recall not my dream; if ye will not make known to me my dream, and its interpretation, ye shall be cut in pieces, and of your tents shall be made a dunghill.”–Daniel 2:5, the passage Barton reads when he opens his Gideon’s Bible (Note that the Coen’s actually depict it as verse 30, alter the wording slightly, and misspell “Nebuchadnezzar”).
“Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”– Gene Fowler
PLOT: Barton Fink is a playwright whose first Broadway show, a play about the common man, is a smash success; his agent convinces him to sell while his stock is high and go to Hollywood to quickly make enough money to fund the rest of his writing career. He arrives in Los Angeles, checks into the eerie art deco Hotel Earle, and is assigned to write a wrestling picture for Wallace Beery by the Capitol pictures studio head himself. Suffering from writer’s block, Barton spends his days talking to the insurance salesman who lives in the room next door and seeking writing advice from alcoholic novelist W.P. Mayhew, until deadline day looms and very strange events begin to take center stage.
At the time, it was widely reported that the Coen brothers wrote the script for Barton Fink while suffering from a mean case of writer’s block trying to complete the screenplay to their third feature film, Miller’s Crossing. The Coens themselves have since said that this description is an exaggeration, saying merely that their writing progress on the script had slowed and they felt they needed to get some distance from Miller’s Crossing by working on something else for a while.
Barton Fink was the first and only film to win the Palme D’or, Best Director and Best Actor awards at the Cannes film festival; after this unprecedented success, Cannes initiated a rule that no film could win more than two awards. Back home in the United States, Barton Fink was not even nominated for a Best Picture, Director or Actor Oscar. It did nab a Best Supporting Actor nom for Lerner.
The character of Barton Fink was inspired by real life playwright Clifford Odets. W.P. Mayhew was based in part on William Faulkner. Jack Lipnick shares many characteristics, including a common birthplace, with 1940s MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer.
Following a definite theme for the year, Judy Davis also played an author’s muse and lover in another surrealistic 1991 movie about a tortured writer, Naked Lunch.
According to the Coens, the final scene with the pelican diving into the ocean was not planned, but was a happy accident.
In interviews the Coens have steadfastly disavowed any intentional symbolic or allegorical reading of the final events of the film, saying”what isn’t crystal clear isn’t intended to become crystal clear, and it’s fine to leave it at that” and “the movie is intentionally ambiguous in ways they [critics] may not be used to seeing.”
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Barton Fink is full of mysterious images that speak beyond the frame. The most popular and iconic picture is John Goodman wreathed in flame as the hallway of the Earle burns behind him. Our pick would probably go to the final shot of the film, where a pelican suddenly and unexpectedly plummets into the ocean while a dazed Barton watches a girl on a beach assume the exact pose of a picture on his hotel wall.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A nightmarish, expressionistic, and self-satirizing evocation of the difficulty of creation, Barton Fink pokes a sharpened stick into the deepest wounds of artistic self-doubt. A pure mood piece, its amazing ending achieves the remarkable triumph of leaving us with nothing but unanswered questions, while simultaneously feeling complete and whole.
PLOT: While blood trickles backwards from the ground into a prone girl’s nostril, a voiceover tells of a princess of the Underworld who escaped to the mortal realm and forgot her divinity. We then meet Ofelia, an eleven-year old girl who is traveling with her pregnant mother to stay with her new stepfather, a brutal Captain in the employ of the dictator Franco, who is hunting the Communist/Republican resistance hiding in the forest around a Spanish mill. With her mother’s difficult pregnancy and the cruel Captain’s indifference to her needs, Ofelia’s life becomes intolerable, until she is visited by a faun who promises to restore her to her rightful place as an immortal fairy princess if she can complete three tasks.
Despite the English language title, the faun in the movie is not the Greek nature god Pan.
Pan’s Labyrinth is intended as a “companion piece” to del Toro’s 2001 ghost story The Devil’s Backbone, which also features the experiences of an imaginative child during the Spanish Civil War.
Del Toro has tended to alternate making artistic, genre-tinged, Spanish language movies with smarter-than-usual big budget Hollywood fantasy projects. He followed the innovative Mexican vampire movie Cronos (1993) with Mimic (1997), and the psychological ghost story The Devil’s Backbone [El Espinazo del Diablo] (2001) with Blade II (2002) and Hellboy (2004), before returning to his Latin roots in 2006 with El Laberinto del Fauno. Since then he has made Hellboy II: The Golden Army and is slated to direct the upcoming live-action version of The Hobbit. If he holds true to form, we can expect another daring Spanish language film to follow his Tolkien adaptation.
Pan’s Labyrinth was in competition for the Golden Palm at Cannes, but the fantasy lost to Ken Loach’s Irish troubles drama The Wind That Shakes the Barley. It was also nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, but lost to the German Communist-era drama The Lives of Others.
Perhaps the most gratifying praise the movie received was a reported 22 minutes of applause from the Cannes audience.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The Pale Man, murderer of children, who sits eternally in front of an uneaten banquet with his eyeballs lying on a golden plate in front of him.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Pan’s Labyrinth is the textbook example of our rule that the better a movie is, the less weird it has to be to make the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of all time. On one level, by blending a realistic wartime drama with a fairy tale that could almost be viewed as a conventional fantasy, the movie could be seen as merely novel, rather than weird. The way that Ofelia’s “fantasy” terrors bleed into and ominously echo the real world horrors of Franco’s Spain creates a sort of a weird resonance even when we are lodged in the “real” plot. The film is also suffused with weirdness’ close cousin, ambiguity, in that it never proves the realm of fairies and fauns to be a phantasmagoria; the evidence is deliberately conflicting on whether these wonders are all in Ofelia’s head or not. The film is filled with masterful, memorable, visionary images, such as the moving mandrake root that resembles a woody baby and the giant toad that coughs out its own innards, though such marvels might be glimpsed briefly in a regulation fantasy films. Those elements are enough to nudge Pan’s Labyrinth from a mainstream fantasy in the direction of the surreal, but it’s the nightmare centerpiece with the Pale Man that tips Pan‘s scales into the weird.
Original (and somewhat misleading) trailer for Pan’s Labyrinth
PLOT: In Madrid in the 1920s, with Dadaism in full flourish and Surrealism in its infancy,
soon-to-be-famous poet Federico García Lorca flirts with soon-to-be-famous painter Salvador Dalí while soon-to-be-famous director Luis Buñuel hangs around.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s subject is Surrealism, but its style is conventional historical romance.
COMMENTS: A supposed collegiate love affair, supposedly unconsummated, between stuffy poet Lorca and flamboyant painter Dalí is the subject of this pleasantly lensed and generally competent costume affair. Spanish society in the 1920s is socially repressive (although the three idealists have no clue how much worse it will get in a few years with Franco’s arrival), and the budding geniuses yearn to upset the established order. Beltrán imbues Lorca with a sense of dignity, although his thick accent is frequently a practical impediment for the viewer. Pattison makes for a distractingly pretty Dalí; his failure to capture the spirit of the eccentric painter is probably more the failing of the simplistic script. Buñuel is an underdeveloped third wheel and utility player: a homophobe when the story calls for a homophobe, a foil when it needs a foil, a mediator when it requires a mediator. We hear bits of Lorca’s poetry, get glimpses of Dalí’s canvases, and see the shocking bits from Un Chien Andalou (1929), but we get no real sense of what motivates these men as artists. Though Beltrán shows suitable young romantic torment when he’s rejected, it’s hard to credit the suggestion that this awkward fling would have made enough of a impact on either man to influence their future art, much less be a driving force. Dalí postures and lectures about the need to “go further” and “go beyond” in art; not only do we not see concrete examples of what he means, but there’s irony in the fact that the filmmakers don’t heed his advice. Other than one mental montage where Lorca mixes up impressions of a bullfight he’s watching with jealous fantasies of Salvador and Luis living it up in Paris, and an odd pseudo-ménage à trois that may make some giggle, the film is extremely conventional and predictable in its approach. These are fascinating men in a fascinating time, so the decision to put the overwhelming focus of the film on a bit of gossip about who did or didn’t sleep with whom, while humble, is a let down.
I can’t help but be amused by the thought of the few tween Twilight fans, showing up to see vampire heartthrob Pattison in action, getting slapped in the face by the eyeball slitting scene from Un Chien Andalou. It still makes me squirm, and it must seem incredibly weird, random and shocking—particularly in this context—to anyone who doesn’t know it’s coming.