Saturday, 31 October 2009

A Star Is Born, William Wellman, USA 1937; George Cukor, USA 1954

Last night, I watched Wellman's - or should I say: Selznick's - version of A Star Is Born, which I'd of course heard of, but had never see before. As always the case with films of which multiple versions/ remakes exist, one can't help but comparing them with, and weighing them up against, each other. It is not unlike looking at the transformation of a story from literature to screen although there, the added complexity of dealing with two different mediums make it arguably more difficult to form a fair and sound opinion as to whether the 'director and screenwriter have done justice to the novel' - or similar such contemplations - or not.

In the case of A Star Is Born, the 1937 version - although the original - has forever stood in the shadow George Cukor's 1954 remake. I bet, that many people aren't even aware that, in fact, the 1954 version is a remake, since it is so firmly associated with Judy Garland, but is equally famous for its iconic use of colour, its costumes, the choreography ('Born In A Trunk') and, or course - Garland's singing. So, talking about A Star Is Born really means talking about the 1954 version since, in my opinion, it is superior in almost every respect to its predecessor. While Janet Gaynor is a good enough actress, it is somehow hard to be believe that she would have risen to fame so quickly - and effortlessly - as she does in the film. Garland, however, with her charisma and voice, makes this rise to stardom easily believable. The same applies to the male lead: Frederic March surely is not a bad actor, but he is simply no match for the calibre of a James Mason who portrays his decline into oblivion far more subtly and much more nuanced than March. Granted, this may also be due to Wellman's direction and, of course, Selznick's meddling, for Selznick may have been accused of many things, but subtlety isn't one of them. While both versions seem slightly constructed, I find Wellman's version to be more so than Cukor's which again, are problems related to the direction as well as the editing.

The Trocadero on Sunset Boulevard

The best thing about Wellman's version are, to me anyway, the Technicolor images of old Hollywood. If you happen to be interested in vintage, early, Hollywood - as I am, for instance - then Wellman's version offers some intriguing shots of the Trocadero (which by the 1950s was no longer in existence), as well as stunning vistas from the Hollywood Hills onto the sprawling city of Los Angeles below, such as it was then, all in colours that really do look like a vintage postcard.

Janet Gaynor

Judy Garland and James Mason in A Star Is Born (USA, 1954)

Friday, 30 October 2009

Pretty Baby, Louis Malle, USA 1978

Today, 30th October, happens to be Louis Malle's birthday (he would have been 77), so seeing as I did, his film Pretty Baby last night for the first time, I use Malle's birthday as an excuse to say a few things about this, his first American film.

Set in 1917 in New Orleans, Pretty Baby is, basically, a portrait of one of several whorehouses which were part and parcel of that city's Storyville neighbourhood. Although there's not much of a story to speak of, Pretty Baby homes in on Violet, a precocious child in her early teens who is one of the brothel's permanent residents, along with her mother who, needless to say, is one of the brothel's star attractions. Even at her tender age, Violet is exposed to all the usual goings-on in the brothel. And this is obviously what fascinated Malle about Polly Platt's story on which the film is based: how matters of sex, nudity, seduction, virginity, etc. are stripped of all their illicit - verboten - aura when they are 'naturally' integrated into process of growing up without fussing over them. Brooke Shields, in fact, plays Violet with such astonishing freshness ans sassiness, making it hard for the viewer to even feel sorry for her for growing up in such conditions. The questions of whether it is right or not to expose Violet - any child - to this kind of life hovers over the film constantly like a big question mark. But Malle, of course, never makes any judgment or even statement. What stunned me, though,is how the film even got made in the first place, and I can only assume that it was due to the spirit of the freewheeling 1970s that Malle managed to find backers for so risque a subject.

Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby

Another thing that struck me when watching Pretty Baby, was the European angle, of how a European film maker, in this case Malle, sees America. I've often thought - for instance when watching Hitchcock's American films - that there was something particularly European in the way he portrayed, say, San Francisco in Vertigo (USA 1958) or Pheonix in Psycho (USA 1960). And I think the same applies to many European film makers working in America (although somehow, I don't think it works the other way round, too, or does it?), including Wenders in Paris, Texas (France/ Germany 1985), and of course, Malle. I'm not sure an American film maker would have found the same visual language for Pretty Baby or Malle's subsequent film, Atlantic City (USA 1981) - or even picked Atlantic City as a location or topic. This is not intended as a judgment regarding a film's quality, I'm merely suggesting that a European film maker may have a different point of view, and may see different things - or may be intrigued by different things - in an American story or location, than his American counterpart.

Louis Malle on the set of Pretty Baby

Thursday, 29 October 2009

The 53rd London Film Festival

Jacques Audiard

Jacques Audiard (De battre mon coeur s'est arrete, France 2005) has just won the inaugural Best Picture Award for his film Un prophete (France 2009)at this year's London Film Festival.
Un prophete had already been shown at the Cannes Film Festival, where it lost out to Haneke's Das weisse Band (see entry below).

Another award?
Another film festival?

Anything to promote films, particularly those whose producers lack the necessary coin to invest in big publicity campaigns, is of course a good thing. Even if it means that trying to get a grip on the world of the world's film festivals is equal to trying to click away annoying pop-ups on your computer: they spring up one after the other, and before you've realised one is there, the next one is already on its way. From Sao Paulo to Tribeca, from Zurich to Pusan, from Rome to Nyon, and from Toronto to Telluride, to say nothing of old, established film festivals such as Karlovy Vary, San Sebastian, or Locarno - and, of course, Cannes, Berlin, and Venice. It seems that nowadays, if a town or city wants to give itself an edge, all it takes is founding a film festival. The best example is Dubai, which also has a leg up on most other film fests inasmuch as money is not an issue, and thus is able to splurge where other festivals, like Berlin, for instance, have to cut corners and still have to constantly woe sponsors and government officials alike, as it is funded in equal parts by the state as well as outside sponsors.

Actress Anjelica Huston, Head of the jury at the 53rd London Film Festival

The London Film Festival, though, is in its 53rd year, which makes it a (relative) veteran among the world's film festivals, and surely, it is the last city on earth that needs to prove that it has an edge by staging a film festival. Still, unlike Venice, Cannes, or Berlin, it is not a so-called A-Festival, primarily showing films (like Un prophete) which have already been shown on other festivals, and traditionally its main purpose was that it served as a UK launching pad for all sorts of films which hope to benefit from the added publicity and the hu-ha that generally surround most film festivals. But now they're giving away awards, too ... We - in the Western world - are indeed living in an inflationary world too much of everything: inundated with images, information, impressions, data, and ... awards. So the award Audiard has just received, is it simply another award that disappears in a flood of similar awards given out by other festivals, bodies and organisations - or does it indeed still mean something, stand for something, in spite of it?

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Premiere of Romy, Thorsten C. Fischer, Germany 2009

Although it is 'only' a made-for television film, the much hyped and talked about biopic on the legendary German-Austrian actress Romy Schneider had its premiere last night at the Delphi Palace in Berlin.

German actress Jessica Schwartz attending the premiere of Romy last night at Berlin's Delphi Palace

Romy will be aired on German television on 11 November. A second biopic on the actress - a German/ French coproduction - this one intended for cinematic release and was to star Yvonne Catterfeld in the title role, fell through due to quarrels between the producers and the Romy Schneider estate. Romy Schneider, who made her first film at the age of 15, later rose to international fame in films by Orson Welles and Luchino Visconti. She eventually settled in Paris, and in 1980 was voted the most popular 'French' actress in a poll by Paris-Match, thus beating heavyweights such as Catherine Deneuve and Jeanne Moreau. Schneider, after Marlene Dietrich and Hildegard Knef, was one of the few German actress who had an international career and were known outside the borders of Germany. Nevertheless, the reason why today Schneider is again primarily remembered in Germany and Austria, may be because there 'is not a single film she made which is considered a classic', as Schneider herself once lamented. When she, at the beginning of the 1980s, compiled a list of all her films, she managed to come up with merely ten which she deemed 'good', but nothing more.

On the left: Romy Schneider in all her melancholy, mysterious, beauty. On the right, Jessica Schwartz.

I, however, beg to differ. I believe that at least her five collaborations with director Claude Sautet have yielded interesting films which, although very much 'time capsules' of the 197s, are nonetheless excellent films which stood the test of time. Films like Cesar et Rosalie (France 1972) or Une histoire simple (France 1978), for which Schneider received the second of two Cesars for Best Actress, is a film along the lines of Scorsese's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (USA 1973), in other words, a product of its time where topics like Women's Lib, abortion and sexual revolution were on everybody's lips. However, in today's cinematic landscape where women are only allowed to concern themselves with marriage and children - and, perhaps, with juggling a 'successful' career on top of it - these portraits of independent women, stand out as almost revolutionary and provocative. Compared to many of today's 'women's films', they seem as fresh as dew on an English lawn on a Spring morning! So, could some clever film distributor please take the Schneider-Sauter collaborations out of their mothballs and re-release them?!

Les choses de la vie, Claude Sautet (France 1969), Scheider's first collaboration with Claude Sautet (1924 - 2000).

'La chanson d'Helene', from the film Les Choses de la vie, sung by Romy Scheider

Cesar et Rosalie (France 1971), the third Schneider-Sautet collaboration, which is a sometimes touching, often funny, film about a menage-a-trois, which in many ways echoes Francois Truffaut's Jules et Jim (France 1961).

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

A Propos de Michael Haneke

The Cinematheque Francaise is currently showing a retrospective of all of Michael Heneke's films. The retrospective ends on 21 November and includes the entirety of his output, starting with his first cinematic release (Haneke had previously worked for television in Germany and Austria), 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (Austria/ Germany 1994). For a complete programme, please visit:

Monday, 26 October 2009

Das weisse Band (The White Ribbon), Michael Haneke, Germany/ France/ Austria/ Italy, 2009

German filmposter for The White Ribbon

During a recent visit to Germany I had the opportunity to see Haneke's Palme D'Or winner, Das weisse Band, which has recently been submitted as Germany's entry for next year's Oscar race.
As a result of having followed the making of this film while it was still in production, I was somewhat underwhelmed by its actual topic or, if you will, argument - of how the militarism and nationalism of imperial Germany may have served as breeding ground for fascism. However, it is to Haneke's credit, that the words National Socialism or fascism are never mentioned in the film and that he never once claims to have all the answers. What Haneke, who was born in Munich in 1944, does do, though, is hinting at a possible explanation as to how 'the strange events that happened in this small, northern German village may be connected to other events that occurred some time later', as the film's narrator cryptically explains. In his film, Haneke merely suggests, but never makes any claims he may not be able to prove.
The film's subtitle says that it is 'a German story for children', and children indeed are the villains in his film. But these children, who were molded and educated according to strict Prussian rules, were consenting adults in 1933, when their country succumbed to Nazism - and they, presumably, along with it.
While all this may seem vague to some and pretentious or questionable to others, the film's true strength is its mise-en-scene, notably the camera work by Christian Berger. Filmed entirely in black and white, Haneke successfully manages to avoid nostalgia, painting a claustrophobic, bleak, almost eerie, picture of a Germany on the onset of WWI. This claustrophobia, of course, matches the theme of the film perfectly.

German actress Susanne Lothar, the former wife of the late Ulrich Muehe (Das Leben der anderen, Germany 2006)

The performances are excellent throughout, particularly by Haneke-regular Susanne Lothar, who starred in virtually all his previous German films. In Das weisse Band, she portrays a midwife who has an affair with the local doctor, gets ditched by same under a vicious torrent of abuse, but also is the sole person in the whole town prepared to do act against the violence and brutality which have held the whole village in their grip.

Michael Haneke receiving the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival

Carrie, William Wyler, USA 1951

Here in my self-imposed, temporary exile in the North of England I seldom get the chance to go to the cinema. In anticipation of the cinematic dearth, I signed up with, giving me a chance to catch up on my classics.

Last night it was Carrie, one of William Wyler - unjustly, as I was to realise - lesser known offerings. Having once read Theodore Dreiser's book on which Wyler's film is based, called Sister Carrie, I didn't think it possible to squeeze such a rich and dense story into just two hours of screen time, Wyler's talent as a consummate expert on drama and tight story-telling notwithstanding. However, I was pleasantly surprised: Wyler once more proved that he was one of the unrivaled masters when it came to telling a story - often literary adaptations - by abstaining from sentimentality and predictability and focussing on the characters and mise-en-scene instead.
Old-fashioned? Yes! Boring? No!
In fact, Carrie went down like a bottle of Bordeaux: although it didn't offer any revelations, it sucked - almost lulled - you in, much too good to put down!

Sunday, 25 October 2009

US Weekend Box Office Estimate, October 23 - 25, 2009

Halloween's approaching: The US majors are unleashing their annual slew of horror flicks.

1. Paranormal Activity (Paramount ) 1,945 $22,000,000
2. Saw VI (Lionsgate) 3,036 $14,800,000
3. Where the Wild Things Are (Warner Bros.) 3,735 $14,420,000
4. Law Abiding Citizen (Overture Films) 2,890 $12,713,000
5. Couples Retreat (Universal) 3,074 $11,097,000
6. Astro Boy (Summit Entertainment) 3,014 $7,017,000
7. The Stepfather (Sony) 2,734 $6,500,000
8. Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant (Universal) 2,754 $6,347,970
9. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (Sony) 2,741 $5,600,000
10. Zombieland (Sony) 2,447 $4,300,000

This is the US weekend box office estimate according to Variety. Without intending to harp on about 'the good old days', but doesn't the sheer lack of quality of the majority of the films that made the above top-ten list say something about the times we're living in? Although I do not have comparable figures for an October weekend in say, the 1970s, in 1972, however, according to among the top ten box office hits were classic - and classy - films such as Deliverance, Cabaret, The Getaway, while The Godfather Part 1 ranked in top position.
That gives me pause.

Deliverance, UK-director John Boorman's classic film from 1972

I've long been wondering as to why the quality of the output by the majors has continuously declined since the beginning of the 1980s. Neither Peter Bart's book, Who Killed Hollywood, nor Peter Biskind's, Easy Riders/ Raging Bulls, nor Mike Harris' Scenes From A Revolution - although the latter is better in my opinion than the former two - managed to provide me with a satisfactory answer.
Does anybody have any suggestions that go beyond the usual big-blockbuster-bucks explanations that links the demise of the New Hollywood with the dawn of disaster films such as Jaws, Star Wars, etc.? Because I, for one, believe that it's not that simple as the drop in quality (major US-) films went along with a 'depolitication' of society which increasingly began to concern itself with money, celebrity, and status, preferring to be entertained rather than using their brains and, possibly, rock the boat.

Mike Harris' engrossing study of an Old Hollywood on the verge of change, using as case studies all five 1968 nominees for the Academy Award for Best Film. A highly recommended read!

Gay Male Cinema In Europe Since The 1970s: From Critique To Consensus

The purpose of this essay is to examine European gay male cinema in the late 1970s with regard to the development and the changes gay cinema has undergone since then. I will start by looking at two films in particular from that era, Frank Ripploh’s Taxi zum Klo (Germany 1980), and Ron Peck’s Nighthawks (UK 1978). In the first part of this essay I intend to compare the two films while in the second part I will take a look at more recent gay cinema by forging a link with the developments and changes in gay culture and the gay community.

Both films, Taxi zum Klo and Nighthawks, were made roughly ten years after homosexuality had been legalized in both countries, Germany and the UK. In the UK this happened in 1967 and in West Germany in 1969. East Germany, unlike West Germany, did not have any laws in regards to homosexuality, which, of course, did not mean that is was widely accepted. The matter of homosexuality was simply swept under the carpet as if it did not exist. But in spite of its legalization - which by the early 70s had taken place in much across Europe - and despite Sexual Liberation, the topic of homosexuality was largely ignored by film-makers. In fact, it would take another twenty years until the term queer cinema was coined or until a substantial amount of gay films produced actually justified to speak of the emergence of a gay cinema.
However, there were exceptions such as Rosa von Praunheim’s Nicht der Homosexuelle ist pervers sondern die Situation in der er lebt (Germany 1971), Sunday, Bloody Sunday (John Schlesinger, UK 1971), Die Konsequenz (Wolfgang Petersen,Germany 1977) and many of the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, most notably Faustrecht der Freiheit (Germany 1975). It is thus no surprise that both, Nighthawks and Taxi zum Klo caused a considerable stir in their countries when they were first released, even though both films were shot on a shoestring budget and did not reach a very wide audience. But what made those two films different was the fact that they did not (only) focus on the repressions homosexuals had to endure at the hands of an oppressive society, dominated by heterosexuals, but revolved around gay life itself, depicting a truthful picture of the life of a gay man with no holds barred. That their view of a gay man’s life included realities that were unfavourable in the eyes of a few, earned them the praise of some and the outrage of many members of the gay community. This is particularly true in the case of Taxi zum Klo.
In his film Frank Ripploh himself plays the leading role, a character called Frank,
which leads us to assume that his film is to a large degree autobiographical, an assumption that is underscored by the fact that prior to becoming a film-maker he was a schoolteacher, just like the character in his film. Out to his parents, we learn that Frank is nicknamed Peggy by his pals, has a female colleague whom he is friends with and that he joins his colleagues in a weekly bowling-game. He appears to fit right into the free-wheeling spirit of 1970s Berlin, when the city was a haven for any German who considered West-Germany too small-town and too conservative. Berlin, then a divided city, attracted draft-dodgers, left-wingers and of course gays in large numbers. Berlin, unlike West Germany, was anything-goes-territory: liberal, open-minded and, boasted the biggest gay community in Western Europe next to Amsterdam. A wall of photos in Frank’s apartment at the film’s beginning shows a picture of a leather man, obviously by well known gay artist Tom of Finland, next to a sticker that says Gays for Socialism. We also learn that Frank has a constant preoccupation with sex. And in scenes that are at times hilarious and at times shocking we see that he goes to considerable lengths to satisfy his sexual urges, as for instance when he corrects his pupils’ tests in a public toilet while cottaging. And yet although it was precisely the blatant - and honest - depiction of Frank’s obsession with sex that provoked harsh reactions from the gay community, the film remains entirely non-judgemental about it and neither accuses nor exposes him. The film never points the finger at him or makes fun of him and if anything, we sympathise with him for his inability to suppress his sexual urges, for I am convinced that most every man - homo or heterosexual – has experienced phases like this where one’s whole self seems to be controlled by the lower part of one’s body. And although there might or might not be more opportunities for gay men to satisfy these urges, sex - or the hunger for it - can never be just a matter of homosexual men, but of men in general. This is underlined by a quote by Richard Isay:

Human males in general are more promiscuous than females if they
are left to their own devices and if there is the opportunity (Isay 1993:84).

To me it is exactly this honest and frank depiction of a (gay) man consumed by his sexual desires that makes Taxi zum Klo such an important film and one of the reasons why it has stood the test of time. Nevertheless, upon doing research for this essay among a group of gay men in their early twenties I was not only surprised to learn that of eleven men interviewed only one was familiar with this film, but also that this one man “did not know what its point was” nor “what to make of it”(interviewee chose to remain anonymous). Although Frank’s pursuit of sex permeates the film, the main topic of Taxi zum Klo is actually how they stand in the way of finding and forming a functioning relationship. The man he eventually ends up with (Ripploh’s real-life partner Bernd Broaderup) does not share Frank’s incessant preoccupation with sex and has a hard time accepting his boyfriend’s constant unfaithfulness. To Bernd, a relationship has precedence over the thrill of a promiscuous life-style, which although temporarily exciting is ultimately empty and meaningless. Towards the end, after the two lovers had an awful quarrel which leads to their (temporary) separation, the film takes an almost woeful turn when Frank, mumbling to himself, says “can we do more than repeat ourselves ?”, obviously asking himself if it is
possible to change, deploring the fact that in life one can almost never have both - the constant kicks his promiscuous sex-life affords him and the comfort of a lasting and loving relationship - and in order to have the former Frank must do without the latter. - Or does he? That is just one of the questions the film raises. Is it maybe possible to separate physical and emotional love? Do we, as gays, have to emulate the patterns of a straight society or are there perhaps other, more modern or realistic ways, to lead a relationship. Isn’t there more than just one way, the film seems to say, of going about it; a way that allows us to keep the emotional side of the relationship afloat without having to abandon the notion of a stimulating sex-life, which, it must be said, is bound to wear thin in any relationship - homo or
heterosexual - after a number of years.

Frank Ripploh (1949 - 2002)

But to anyone who might be tempted to point their fingers at the gritty and promiscuous life-style of (some?, most?) gay men, Ripploh shows that the heterosexual world is not beyond reproach, either. A woman, physically abused by her husband, knocks at their door one night. Let in by Frank, Bernd contacts a woman’s shelter where she may seek refuge until she is ready to file for divorce.
Furthermore, in another example of juxtaposing the heterosexual and homosexual world we see Frank at the doctor’s evidently suffering from some venereal disease he had caught during one of his ex-marital escapades. Sitting in the waiting lounge he is addressed by a hooker who appears to have a similar condition and in gross and elaborate detail she goes on to tell him about not only her illness but also about
the scruffy and grubby men she has to put up with in her profession. Yes, the film seems to say, promiscuity can lead to a venereal disease, but while gay men give it to each other, heterosexual men give it to hookers. Although Frank is no doubt a man driven by his sexual urges, the film also shows how much he loves his job as a teacher, correcting his pupils’ tests in a public toilet notwithstanding. When he arrives late for class one morning we see him turning an awkward situation into a lesson in pantomime. Similarly, having partied all night at Berlin’s fabled Tuntenball, he arrives at school in full drag, coming out to his pupils with considerable chutzpah and aplomb by explaining to them in a matter-of-fact way that he is a gay man.

As stated above, Taxi zum Klo marked a clear departure from the few films
depicting gay life made until its release in 1980. By having the courage to show gay
life in all its facets and all its ups and downs, Ripploh not only held out the mirror to the gay community, but he did so with honesty and a sense of humour. Taxi zum Klo received the Max Ophüls Award at the Saarbrücken film festival in 1981 and subsequently enjoyed a highly successful run in New York. Having since become a classic, what is also notable about the film is the fact that in spite of its sexual explicitness it was released with a 16 certificate in Germany (meaning audiences sixteen years and older were allowed to see the film), a fact that was previously unheard of (

Ron Peck’s Nighthawks, made two years earlier, shares more than a few similarities
with Taxi zum Klo. To begin with, Nighthawks is equally unknown among young gay guys as Taxi zum Klo. Among the eleven participants in my research there was not one who had ever seen Nighthawks. Like Frank, Jim also works as a teacher and is close friends with one of his female colleagues. And like Frank, he comes out to his pupils at the end of the film. Jim, too, claims to be desperate for a relationship but has comparable difficulties discarding his promiscuous habits for a steady partner. However, it is there that Nighthawks slightly differs from Taxi zum Klo: While Frank actually finds himself a boyfriend, albeit one on whom he cheats all the time, Jim is incapable of striking up any relationship at all. Whenever a guy whom he had met on one of his frequent nocturnal escapades suggests to meet again, Jim
backs out and never returns his calls. The same goes for the guys Jim himself is keen on: each time he fancies somebody and is eager to pursue the guy – nothing comes of it. Unlike Frank, who found somebody but is unwilling or unable to keep his sexual urges in check, Jim appears to suffer from a different but related dilemma: the always-wanting-what-one-cannot-get-syndrome, a vague and wistful hope that there might be something (or rather: somebody) better for him round the corner. Like a child, the minute Jim has succeeded in his conquests, has obtained what he was after, the object of his previous desire loses its interest for him. He needs to move on to someone new. This delusion, that the right man just hasn’t come along yet, this yearning for Prince Charming, although certainly not only prevalent among gays, appears to be wide-spread in the gay community. This inability to commit oneself may have various reasons, one of which is quoted here by Richard Isay:

Gay men may have particular difficulty with intimate relationships,
which often evoke an unconscious recollection of the rejection and
injury that they may have experienced during their childhood (Isay 1993: 85).

And for Peck to address this uneasy topic at a time when gays themselves were still in the process of liberating themselves from the shackles of society was no mean feat. Although doubtless equally admirable, insightful and courageous as Ripploh, in hindsight it seems almost strange that in a time when gays were seeking the acceptance of their heterosexual oppressors, both film-makers would come up with films which in their frankness and criticism of gay-life confirmed the prejudices of society against gays. Almost as if Peck and Ripploh were playing gays off against main-stream society so as to find acceptance by blatant self-criticism. In other words, knocking themselves down before anybody else does. That approach stands diametrically opposed to that of another minority some thirty years earlier: the Jews of Hollywood’s film community in the 1930s and 40s whose fear of anti-Semitism
was so great that they not only assimilated to a degree that they effaced nearly all traces of their Jewish identity, prompting them to be heavily self-conscious about their Jewish origins, but they were also anxious to avoid Jewish subjects in their films. For instance, when RKO’s Adrian Scott intended to produce a film attacking anti-Semitism called Crossfire (Edward Dmytryk, USA 1947), it was “actually the Jewish Community outside Hollywood that was lobbying to stop the picture” (Gabler 1988: 349). Unlike Peck and Ripploh, who were blatant, flamboyant and unabashedly frank in their approach, Hollywood’s Jewish community of those days were anxious to keep a low profile.To be sure, while Peck’s film is certainly distrustful of a hedonistic gay life-style and thus may also be holding out the mirror to the gay community before heterosexuals get a chance to do it themselves, Ripploh’s film was certainly a strong dose for a straight audience to take, especially in those days when explicit sexuality had not yet entered main-stream cinema. Thus I wonder if Ripploh’s intention, more so than Peck’s, actually was to shock people, so as if to say, “yes, I want you to accept me, but all of me - ugly or beautiful - with all my faults and shortcomings!”. Nighthawks on the other hand, although it does contain
some scenes of nudity, is more subdued - some would say more subtle - than Taxi zum Klo. Ripploh’s film features stark images of erect penises and sado-masochistic sex, things Peck avoided in his film. This might either be due to the fact that Nighthwaks was made two years earlier, and in those days two years was a long time in terms of changes in society’s approach to homosexuality and how far one could go in its depiction. Or else, it might simply be a cultural phenomenon and a result of the fact that Germany has always had a reputation for being less uptight about sexuality and the depiction of it than their British counterparts. Even today Great Britain has still very strict pornography laws, “…ancient and draconian besides most other countries in the world” ( In Germany, by the time Taxi zum Klo was made, images of male nudity had already been
seen in various Fassbinder films, not to mention the consequences of sexual liberation, which certainly left their mark on the German media, where images of male nudity were, although not common, were nothing unusual, as I remember from my childhood. But even so, we must never forget that Taxi zum Klo, like Nighthawks, was a low-budget film and entirely privately financed. And I doubt that any high-flying German producer of the time would have cared to fund a project as unpopular as Taxi zum Klo, let alone stood for the amount of explicit male nudity.

Another remarkable difference between the two films is the mood in which they are
told. Nighthawks, regardless of its frequent use of disco music, is suffused with a moody, if not poignant, undercurrent. In contrast, Taxi zum Klo, even if it is equally tinged by a grim undertone, is often downright hilarious. And more often than not, the viewer is choking on his laughs, on the fence between pitying Frank and laughing with him (i.e. the scene when he sneaks out of the hospital, his sex-drive once again getting better of him, and makes out with a guy in a park, until the guy discovers Frank is actually wearing a nightshirt and runs off!). Although Ripploh’s sense of humour might be gross, at times even stark and unsubtle, given
the wit and funniness the British are generally associated with it strikes me as notable that in this case it is the German film and not its British counterpart that sees the comical side of the story. Having said that, Ripploh himself stated that

“in spite of all the hilarity, (his) film is actually a sad film, about the longing for a relationship and its failure”

And this surely is what both films have in common. Taxi zum Klo as well as Nighthawks were both very innovative, daring films for their time, and could even be considered daring and innovative by today’s standards. Not simply because of the candour and freshness with which they approached their subject-matter but also because their topics (promiscuity, the search for “Prince Charming”, how to combine sexual urge and the longing for a relationship) are still central to a gay man’s life. Something which has not changed since the advent of AIDS in 1983. If anything, with the arrival of the Internet - with its promises and temptations just a click away - it got worse. In fact, it would be interesting to see how, if Ripploh and Peck were to make the same film again, the dire reality of AIDS, the emergence of the gym cult and the omnipresence of the Internet would alter their approach. Both films never wag their finger and remain entirely non-judgmental about their main characters, which, along with their subject-matter, contributes to their timelessness. Also, both films offer an alternative to Frank’s and, respectively, Jim’s, promiscuous life-styles, and it is never claimed that all gay men are like that. In Taxi zum Klo this is exemplified in the character of Bernd, who is keen of sharing his life exclusively with Frank. And in Nighthawks Jim himself tells us that he had had a previous relationship which lasted three years. Ron Peck underscores this in an interview, given more than twenty years after the film was made and which is featured on the film’s DVD, when he declares that “this is not a gay film, but a film about a gay character”, implying that yes, Jim is gay and incapable of committing himself, but that does not mean that all gay people are like that. But
then, you could argue that he felt compelled to add that to appease members of the gay community who do not take lightly to having a mirror held out to them.

A lot has happened since the time ever since Nighthawks and Taxi zum Klo were
made. Being gay has become widely accepted across Europe and, at least in the big cities, is not an issue anymore. Even gay marriage has now - to various degrees - been legalised in a lot of European countries such as Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain and Sweden. AIDS sent shockwaves through the gay community when it first appeared in the early 1980s, but with tri-therapy available since the mid 1990s, AIDS has now turned into a chronic, albeit not curable, rather than terminal disease. British pop-stars like Elton John and George Michael have not only publicly come out, but they also married their respective spouses in ceremonies that were reported across the continent. With so many topics at the film-makers disposal, and with all these astonishing developments, which Ron Peck and Frank Ripploh certainly did not even think possible at the time, one is led to believe that the quality of gay films has, if anything, improved. Yet, by looking at the recent output of films with a gay topic one is beginning to realise that the viewer is treated to the same topic over and over again, with crowd-pleasing coming-out films dominating the screens above all else (i.e. Coming Out, Heiner Carow, GDR 1988; Beautiful Thing, Hettie Macdonald, UK 1996; Ma vie en rose, Alain Berliner, France 1997 ; Ma vraie vie à Rouen, O. Ducastel./ J. Martineau, France 2002 ; Sommersturm, Marco Kreuzpaintner, Germany 2004 ; etc.). These coming-out films not only have very little to do with the actual reality of coming-out, but film-makers are also depriving their audiences of very relevant topics that need to be told. Why has the subject of AIDS disappeared entirely from the screen, so as if it did not exist anymore? Or why is the significant topic of so-called bareback sex (= unprotected sex) ignored entirely? A topic which in my opinion more than merits being dealt with as a whole new generation of young gays is
deluding themselves of either being immune to the HIV virus or else, do not care; I am not sure which one is worse. With gay marriage now legal across Europe, why has it not been turned into a film about, for instance about a gay couple from different cultural backgrounds, etc. And I have yet to see a film about gay-bashing, which, with the recent incident in London’s Clapham Common, strikes me as a more than relevant issue, for with gay marriage now legalised across Europe, it is easy to forget that intolerance towards gays is still part of our reality. And because we do live in an age where youth is adored and people of a certain age are relegated to the back-burner, I deem it important and necessary to see a film about a gay man in his thirties or forties and the problems he faces in his life. However, the actors in gay films are getting ever younger and ever more beautiful and brawny as if this was how all gay men of today looked like – or are supposed to look like. But if it has to be a coming-out film, then why not at least one that tackles the pain, shame and loneliness that more often than not, precede it? Or the pain, shame and loneliness that almost inevitably follow? Restricting themselves to almost one single topic would be excusable if the respective film-makers treated the topic of coming-out adequately and with the respect it deserves. Or at least with a sense of humour. Taking Kreuzpaintner’s Sommersturm as an example, the film deals with the subject of coming-out as little more than a passing episode in a young man’s life. None of the aggravation, depression and sadness that tend to be part of it is even hinted at.

A feel-good movie, Sommersturm entirely lacks bite and is not the least bit provocative, raising practically no questions or problems whatsoever. That the actors in the film are as young and cute as the narrative is conventional, and that Sommersturm has the inevitable happy-end that seems to characterise all films of this peculiar genre – all that goes without saying. Even if the process of coming-out were as smooth and easy as this film leads us to believe, Sommersturm never
dares to go further, exploring, for example, the -most probably uncomfortable- territory of what lies beyond the coming-out. What happens next? How about his parents? How do they react? His classmates? His future love-life? I personally find it hard to believe that society should have changed to such a degree that all these things weren’t an issue anymore. There can be no doubt that gay cinema has taken a deplorable turn to the main-stream that makes Ripploh’s and Peck’s films look as fresh and provocative as they were when they were first released. However, I could even live with the fact that gay films have gotten worse over the years. What I find truly worrisome is the fact that gay communities around the globe are raving about Sommersturm in unison. Is this, in this day and age, the kind of film we need to represent gay men?
But the developments in gay cinema are paralleled by the changes within the gay
community itself. Political and organised in the 1960s and 70s, gays of today are too busy going to the gym or going shopping. To quote Paul Burston:

Study them closely, and you’ll be forced to agree that our booming
‘Gay’ scene has spawned a generation of Stepford Boys – sorry, ‘Boyz’
(Burston, 1995:99).

It seems to me that the average gay man of today is unconcerned with issues such as AIDS, equal rights, bareback sex, etc. After all, the bulk of the work is done - done by a previous generation of gay men, I might add - and so with little left fighting for (so they seem to reason) they are opting for a purely hedonistic lifestyle. John Weir puts it this

The gay community is not moving towards legal rights. It’s not
focused on mourning its dead, or insisting self-preservingly on safer
sex, or on finding a cure for breast cancer or AIDS. The collective
impulse of the chic lesbians and the brave young gay Republicans
who captivate the media today and titillate each other is shopping
(Weir in Simpson, 1996:27).

Although Burston and Weir are quite polemical in their judgment, as a gay man who grew up in the 1970s and 80s, who had a hard time coming out to his parents and having seen a whole bunch of friends dying from AIDS, I do share some of their anger, finding the complacency prevailing in today’s gay community nauseating.
Coming back to films, what I find startling is the fact that today, with the tolerance level of the heterosexual society considerably higher than it was 26 years ago, gay cinema in turn has become a lame and tame imitation of what is offered by the mainstream. One should think that film-makers would regard the progress and changes in society as a challenge to deal with new, exciting and relevant topics. And yet, the opposite is the case. In fact, that the string of coming-out films should follow rather than precede Ripploh’s and Peck’s ultimately bolder and more audacious films strikes me as rather ironic, considering that both, Taxi zum Klo and Nighthawks, were bona fide milestones -trailblazers- of gay cinema at the time of their release. The same, though, can not be said of the coming-out films. They might have been daring and relevant thirty years ago, but with all the developments in society in general and in the gay community in particular, they are little more than a footnote in today’s cinematic landscape.

In summary, with their unabashed frankness and criticism, Taxi zum Klo and Nighthawks are more modern, more daring and more of-the-moment than the majority of
contemporary gay films, which tend to mainly revolve around the subject of coming-out. Although a potentially intriguing topic, it is generally treated with a total lack of zest and originality as exemplified by Marco Kreuzpaintner’s Sommersturm, which in its glib portrayal of a young man’s coming-out process, entirely disregards the darker sides that are inevitably part of it. Unlike Taxi zum Klo and Nighthawks, which both had the audacity to tackle uncomfortable but crucial subjects of a gay man’s life and treated them with a sense of humour and with the honesty they deserve, Sommersturm displays a slickness which deprives its audience of a truthful depiction of what it means to come out, and thus betrays its subject and the people it is primarily targeted at: gay men. Compared to Ripploh’s and Peck’s films, gay films appear to have lost their edge and their bite and gone entirely mainstream, dealing only with crowd-pleasing subjects such as coming-out, making it easy for a straight audience to feel sorry or pity for the travails of a cute young man. This development is reflected in the changes of the gay community itself, which compared to the 1970s and 80s, also seems to have lost its edge and has shifted from the
radical-political to complete conformism, which by and by seems to erase all divergence between gay and straight at the expense of gay culture and gay identity.


Burston, Paul (1995): What Are You Looking At? , London: Cassell
Gabler, Neal (1989): An Empire Of Their Own, New York: Anchor Books
Isay, Richard (1989): Being Homosexual, London: Penguin
Simpson, Mark (1996): Antigay, London: Freedom Editions


Berliner, Alain, Ma vie en rose, France 1997
Carow, Heiner, Coming Out, East Germany 1988
Dmytryk, Edward, Crossfire, USA 1947
Ducastel, Olivier, Ma Vraie Vie A Rouen, France 2002
Fassbinder, Rainer Werner, Faustrecht der Freiheit, West Germany 1975
Kreuzpaintner, Marco, Sommersturm, Germany 2004
MacDonald, Hettie, Beautiful Thing, United Kingdom 1996
Peck, Ron, Nighthawks, United Kingdom 1978
Petersen, Wolfgang, Die Konsequenz, West Germany 1977
Praunheim, Rosa von, Nicht der Homosexuelle ist pervers sondern die Situation in der er lebt, West Germany 1971
Ripploh, Frank, Taxi zum Klo, West Germany 1980
Schlesinger, John, Sunday, Bloody Sunday, United Kingdom 1971

The Reader, Stephen Daldry, Germany/ USA 2009

The original hauntingly beautiful poster for the film, which later was replaced as it was deemed not commercial enough.

In spite of the controversy Schlink's book as well as Daldry's film have caused around the globe, I must admit that I was moved and intrigued by both. The book I read a long time ago, the film, however, I only saw recently as mixed reviews and similar comments by friends didn't exactly inspire me to rush to see it. Perhaps, with my expectations so low, it is no surprise that I ended up liking the film - for rather than just being faithful to the book, I found that David Hare's screenplay added another layer to the narrative which made watching the film a provocative, interesting, experience.
First of all, I thought the performances were excellent throughout (Winslet's Oscar win is well justified, in my opinion, and I also liked the production values - production design, costumes, the camera - and, because the film has, I think, at least four different time levels, I found it didn't matter too much that there were two cinematographers (Roger Deakins and Chris Menges: as Deakins had another assignment, Menges got on board to shoot what was left) who obviously both have their separate approaches to lighting, camera angles, etc.
The heart, the essence, of the film, in a way, to me were the law school and courtroom scenes (with Bruno Ganz and Burkhart Klaussner respectively) and, of course, the end (with Lena Olin and Ralph Fiennes) as, to me, the film touches on two very tricky, yet important topics: the difficulty if not impossibility, to apply the laws of our time, meaning the laws of a democracy, to judge over the crimes committed under a - lawless - dictatorship. How can justice ever be done when evil prevailed? And now evil is being put on trial by laws which, in fact, are far too benevolent amd lenient in the light of the crimes committed ... Also, as one character rightly points out: by sheer coincidence Schmitz was convicted because of the book published by a survivor, but how about the many others? Is that fair? Is that democracy? Bruno Ganz rightly points out at some point that ‘in order to prove murder you have to prove intent’. Yes, that how it works in a democracy - but what’s on trial are people who were collaborators in mass murder. And making one woman pay while many others - if not the majority of a nation, many of whom were either bystanders or guilty of crimes themselves - got off 'unscathed'.
The other important topic is that of forgiveness; of reconciliation and, perhaps, the impossibility of it. Schmitz, surely, was not the worst of the perpetrators as one courtroom scene shows, since it is quite obvious that there was at least a certain level of remorse on her part regarding the crimes she committed. It is clear that (her shame for) her illiteracy was not the only reason why she claimed to have signed the order (leading to the death of 300 women!) which, of course, she couldn’t have done due to her illiteracy. I believe that she - and perhaps she was indeed the only one of all the women who were put on trial - was the one who realised that it didn't matter at all who signed the paper - fact is, they were all in it, 'the dead are still dead', as she herself says - and the least she, Schmitz, could do to atone for the crimes - as if atonement was ever possible - was admitting to them, even if it meant taking the rap for her partners in crime, too.
Olin, as the survivor, plays her role masterfully in my opinion, for one notices in the subtlety of her acting that although she is ever so slightly touched by Schmitz's gesture, too much has happened for her to accept Hanna's money, too much suffering has taken place for her to be able to forgive.

Kate Winslet on Oscar night.

My Comments on Berlinale 2008, 7. - 17. February 2008

Upon receiving his two Silver Bears (for Best Director and Best Artistic Contribution) at this year’s Berlinale, Paul Thomas Anderson thanked the jury and added that, “he’s amazed at how Festival Director Dieter Kosslick manages to run the annual filmfest as if it was a party in his living room”. Although Anderson may have meant it as a compliment, perhaps it is part of the reason why the Berlinale has lost some of its lustre in recent years: Kosslick, who used to run the Filmfonds North-Rhine Westphalia, seems to be unaware that he’s not in his living room but on the world stage. To say nothing of the embarrassing fact that two jury members - Susanne Bier and Sandrine Bonaire - walked out on him this year, offering only the flimsiest of excuses for their sudden pull-out.

By looking at the uninspiring films in Competition since Kosslick took over seven years ago, it is easy to forget that filmmakers like Todd Haynes, Jean-Luc Godard, Ang Lee, Roman Polanski and Pedro Almodovar first got their big break in Berlin - a long time ago.

The Berlinale today suffers from an identity crisis: having never had the cachet of its rivals, Cannes and Venice, it used to be known as a political festival with an almost alternative bent, not afraid to show films by exciting newcomers whose films had not yet been known to a larger audience. Instead of remaining the gritty, slightly renegade festival it once was - thus keeping its authenticity - meant-to-be glitzy red carpet extravaganzas and opening and closing galas have since become part and parcel of Berlinale’s bid for glamour and exposure in the ever expanding festival circuit. The selection of films shown in Competition in recent years prove my point as clearly, more often than not they are chosen for their ‘star power’ and its associated glitter, rather than their quality.

Although the local press appears to be blissfully unaware of the worsening identity crisis of its annual filmfest, revelling instead in the increasing number of visiting celebrities in attendance by ignoring the decline in quality of the films on offer, Kosslick needs to realise what’s at stake and urgently make up his mind where he wants the Berlinale to go and what he wants it to be(come).

Berlinale, 11. - 21. February 2010

To commemorate its 60th anniversary next year, the Berlinale has just announced a section called 'Berlinale Flashback', encouraging all former attendees to write about their past Berlinale expriences and memories. If you want to participate, write to:

Berlin International Film Festival
The Berlinale’s 60th Anniversary
- Berlinale Flashback -
Potsdamer Strasse 5
10785 Berlin

Or e-mail to:

Unlike Cannes, strikingly beautiful posters that would become collector's items have never been a feature of the Berlinale. This was this year's:

Faye Dunaway

Dunaway, born in 1941 in Bascom/ Florida, definitely is (or should I say: was, considering the frequent, sometimes frightful, changes in her appearance) one of the most beautiful, and certainly most talented, faces ever to grace to the silver screen. At the time Chinatown was made, Dunaway was at the peak of her fame, one of Hollywood's most sought after actresses, all of which culminated in her Acadmey Award win for her role as Diane Christensen in Sydney Lumet's ahead-of-its-time television satire, Network (USA 1976).

The photos below are stills from Chinatown.

Chinatown, Roman Polanski, USA 1974

All the hu-ha regarding Polanski's recent arrest in Switzerland threatens to overshadow his achievements as a film maker. Roman Polanski’s second collaboration with producer Robert Evans - made at precisely the time when the events that led to his recent arrest occurred - turned into what would become one of the landmarks of cinema history.

Moulded on Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled prose and on a string of films known as film noir (a term invented by French film critics), which flourished in the Hollywood of the 1940s and 50s, Chinatown’s central character, the private eye J.J. Gittes is every bit as cynical and world-weary as Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, without sharing the latter’s disregard for women. In fact, compared to his famous predecessor, J.J. Gittes has come a long way: we wears custom-made suits, his office is spacious and elegantly furnished, he’s got a secretary and two assistants to boot - all that, Marlowe could only dream of. Only that Marlowe didn’t dream. Dreaming was not is style. He just wanted to get on with it, stay out of trouble and have enough dough at the end of the day to buy himself a well-deserved glass of scotch. Furthermore, unlike Marlowe, who had little or no illusions about his job, Gittes considers his profession honest and reputable. In any case, it’s a whole lot better than what he did before, which was working for the District Attorney in Chinatown, a job where it was best to do ”as little as possible” for fear of finding oneself inadvertently on the wrong side of the law. It is, however, a lesson Gittes fatefully doesn’t heed. Overanxious to clear his name he delves deeper and deeper into the mess, whereby digging up more and more dirt, not realizing what he’s up against until it’s too late.

Watching Chinatown begins with the opening credits. Using an unmistakable Art Deco font, the letters are sepia coloured against a black background. This quintessential 1930s feel is accentuated by a jazzy, melancholy tune, which begins with strums on a Chinese harp. In a masterstroke, Polanski set the film’s tone without the film even having started. In fact, in a way, Polanski tells the film’s story without even showing anything, without a word being uttered. The credits give way to the film’s first actual image, which is in black and white, of a couple having sex with a man groaning. Coming right after the opening credits, Polanski leads us to believe that we are indeed seeing a film of the 1930s or 40s. But what we assume are the man’s lustful groans are in fact the doleful groans of somebody who’s just given proof that his wife is having an affair. This we realize as the camera slowly pans away from the black and white photo, which is starred at by the cuckolded husband, opening up to the colours of J.J. Gittes office. Thus, Polanski is telling us two things:

Firstly, he leads as astray by making us think that we’re watching a 1930s film, but by panning away he makes it clear that what we are about to see is a film set in the 1930s seen from a 1970s perspective. And secondly, that things are evidently not what they seem. Something, which Gittes should be the first to know, but which he -just like the audience- blinded by what he sees, seems to forget. With this Oedipal twist Polanski elevates Chinatown from a film noir to a Greek Tragedy.

Although Chinatown’s central theme -or as Hitchcock would put it: the MacGuffin, which moves the story forward- revolves around a water-scandal, there are two recurring codes in Chinatown woven into the plot. One is referring to ‘eyes’ and ‘seeing’. Both, Hollis Mulwray and Noah Cross wear glasses; Gittes discovers a flaw in Evelyn Mulwray’s iris (“a birthmark”, so she says); anticipating the ending, Evelyn leans forward in her car and accidentally hits the horn with her forehead; the ending: Evelyn’s death by being shot through her left eye, and her forehead hitting the horn, its honking filling the screen, followed by Catherine’s scream; like Oedipus, so Gittes, too, was unable to see what had been before his eyes all the time!

The other code refers to the film’s title. As stated earlier, the film starts with strums on a Chinese harp; We learn about one third into the film that Gittes used to work in Chinatown; Gittes’ barber tells him a racist joke about the Chinese which Gittes subsequently relays to his associates; two of Evelyn Mulwray’s servants are Chinese, with Khan, the butler, in fact living in Chinatown, hence the location of the dénouement; Faye Dunaway alias Evelyn Mulwray actually looks a bit Chinese, with slightly slanted eyes, thus indicating that Chinatown, although the location of the showdown and the site of Gittes’ tragic past, is also a metaphor for Evelyn Mulwray’s mysterious, impenetrable frame of mind, which is at once bewildering, mystifying and fascinating, yet full of riddles, wonders and potential dangers.

One of the features that typifies traditional film noir, apart from that they are all shot in black and white and that it seems to rain permanently, is that the action takes place mainly at night. Polanski, however, did away with all that and turned the genre upside down: one of Chinatown’s most striking, blatant characteristics is that unlike the films noir of an earlier period, Chinatown is set almost entirely at daytime, and what’s more – in gleaming sunlight, so as if to create a contrast between the unrelenting glare, shining down on LA’s palm-studded boulevards, and the muck and the rot that are festering beneath.

But not only that, Polanski also had an altogether radical approach to mise-en-scène and lighting compared to the cycle of films Chinatown is paying homage to. Not just is he using colour and a good part of the action is set outside in broad daylight, he is also making extensive use of fill lights thereby creating almost no shadows or contrasts, which again is atypical for film noir. In terms of composition, Polanski often has Nicholson’s Gittes shot off-angle from the waist-up, which puts him in the position of an on-looker, an observer, onto a sinister, depraved world he is too small for.

The water scandal, which is the core of the plot, is borrowed from Los Angeles history where something similar happened about 25 years before the incidents in the film. Robert Towne used that as the foundation for his masterfully crafted screenplay and added a dash of Greek Tragedy in the form of the Noah Cross character. The portrayal of Noah Cross is without equal in film history. Never before has evil looked so eerily harmless and innocuous, the only hint at the madness that’s lurking behind Cross’ mind being him persistently addressing Gittes with Gitts. And it is never quite clear if he does it on purpose or if it’s indeed an oversight, but whatever it may be, we feel that Noah Cross has nothing but contempt for him. It is testimony to John Huston’s greatness as an actor (which, of course, derived from having been an -outstanding- director himself, not to mention the son of the great Walter Huston!) of having played Cross the way he did – it perfectly matches the tremendous scope of the crimes Cross is guilty of. “He owns the Police”, his daughter shouts just before she gets killed by one of Cross’ cronies. There is no Hollywood ending here. Evil prevails. Just like it does in real life, I’m tempted to add, although I’m certain that many people will disagree, accusing me of being a pessimist and cynic. Polanski, however, certainly would agree. “Blondes die in Hollywood”, he famously said. And there can be little doubt that the majority of his films are influenced, not only by his upbringing in the Warsaw ghetto and the subsequent murder of his mother in Auschwitz, but also by the brutal killing of his wife Sharon Tate, who was slaughtered by the Charles Manson gang in 1968, while 8 months pregnant with Polanski’s child. Polanski fought hard to get the ending he wanted because neither Robert Evans, the producer, nor Robert Towne were particularly keen on his bleak and pessimistic world view. But eventually they came round. And later, both had to admit that Chinatown owes its status as one of the greatest films of all time to its ingenious and daring ending. Without that ending Chinatown would have remained an excellent detective story, a film with a noir-ish plot, whereas we know it today as the film that redefined film noir. The ultimate neo-noir. Producer and screenwriter both stated that a film like Chinatown could not be made in present day Hollywood since there’s no audience for it among today’s moviegoers. People, they say, would find it too demanding, too challenging and too downbeat. That audiences at the time were more receptive to a film like that speaks volumes about the times we’re living in. The 1970s – the peak of the Cold War; when Americans, particularly students, had a profound distrust in their country because of Watergate and the war in Vietnam; the 1970s also were the time of NATO’s rearmament, which resulted in peace-movements that sprang up across the Western world; the consumerism of the money-obsessed 80s was still light-years away. The prevailing mood among the public was critical, sceptical and full of doubts, which was echoed in films such as Dog Day Afternoon, Coming Home, Klute, The Conversation – and Chinatown. Today, with money and shopping having replaced most everything else -certainly idealism- films like Chinatown are indeed too disturbing, too disquieting, for they are a reminder that it is undeniably the Noah Cross character who will always prevail.

But haven’t we all become a little bit like him? “What more can you buy that you don’t already have”, J.J. Gittes asks him, whereupon Cross replies, “The future!, Mr. Gitts (sic), the future!”