Tag Archives: banned films

The Kaiser’s Lackey (1951)

 “If your political dilettantism continues, there will be an explosion.”

Director Wolfgang Staudte’s marvelously understated satire, The Kaiser’s Lackey, a 1951 film, was recently released on DVD. Set mainly in the 1890s, the film is based on Heinrich Mann’s novel Der Untertan. Originally banned in Germany, The Kaiser’s Lackey is now considered one of the 100 greatest German films ever made.

kaiserThe film’s protagonist Diederich Hebbling is hardly a hero; as a boy Diederich is terrified of everything. From his father’s impassioned, tyrannical rants to his mother’s ghastly tales of what happens to children, little Diederich learns to never take chances, and dog-like he follows the rules. The very first glimmer of Diederich’s character appears in an early classroom scene when he curries a teacher’s favour by tattling on a fellow student.

By the time Diederich (Werner Peters) is an adult and attends university, his character is set. Attracted to Agnes Gopel (Sabine Thalbach), he scurries away when threatened by a rival, and turning from the challenges of love, instead he becomes enthralled with the Neo-Teutons–a group that gives a sense of identity and kinship and that ultimately shapes his notions of German superiority and imperialism. Dabbling with contrived duels to gain obligatory, status scars, he “experienced a sort of suicidal élan,” and gradually Diederich’s inclusion in the Neo-Teutons becomes a substitution for personality. He evades military service by pulling strings, and lacking imagination, spontaneity, and individualism, Diederich becomes the perfect material for a politician. Eventually, with the confidence and comfort gained from extensive drinking rituals and the superficial camaraderie of the Neo-Teutons, he despoils Agnes and then casts her aside due to his notions of ‘unblemished’ womanhood.

When Diederich inherits his father’s paper factory, he returns home to Netzig and becomes a petty tyrant. Rabidly anti-Semitic, he prides himself on his patriotism and harsh treatment of his workers. In unsettled political times, Diederich learns to curry favour from the socially superior bombastic governor, but he also gains cooperation from the oppositional Social Democrats by bribing one of their leaders. Some of the scenes involving the governor and his dog are hilarious. Diederich, who’s beneath the governor’s dog on the totem pole of power, must suffer various indignities without complaint in order to gain access to the governor’s presence, patronage, and privileged inner circle. And like the good little underling he is, Diederich knows better than to complain when the dog treats him like some sort of squeaky toy.

Eventually elected to the town council after gaining notoriety through a preposterous trial, Diederich’s pomposity and vanity have no limits. Courtship to a local heiress whose inheritance and bovine nature suit Diederich’s ambitions results in marriage and a honeymoon. Once Diederich learns that the Kaiser is expected in Rome, he diverts his honeymoon plans, and abandoning his wife temporarily in the street he succeeds in gaining a glimpse of his idol. Running alongside the Kaiser’s carriage like a faithful dog, Diederich is the last person to realize how insufferable and ridiculous he is.

The film, however, makes it perfectly clear that even though Diederich is a buffoon, and a cretinous underling, as an autocrat shaped by the “corps, the army and the Imperialistic spirit” he’s a destructive force, and this is established in the film’s final prophetic scene. Diederich gives a thundering patriotic speech given at the unveiling of the town’s statute of the Kaiser, and with a captive audience, he becomes carried away–even ignoring the governor’s order to stop. As Diederich’s speech becomes more impassioned, the weather turns sour and his speech’s militaristic, nationalistic tone parallels the gathering storm. Admonishing the crowd that the nation’s greatness is “forged on the battlefield,” Diederich finishes his speech ignoring the collateral damage occurring around him. This brilliant symbolism presages Germany’s coming destruction and a barking, insane and obsessed fuehrer whose notions of racial purity, militaristic traditions, and German imperialism plunged the world into war.

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Filed under German, Political/social films

Zero de Conduite (1933)

 “Do you want a zero in conduct?”

French director Jean Vigo made only two feature length films (and two short films) before dying at the age 29. L’Atalante is an much acclaimed film–but Zero de Conduite has fallen into obscurity. Upon its release, Zero de Conduite–a short tale of schoolboy rebellion–was banned in France. Perhaps it was judged too subversive–Vigo’s father Eugene Bonaventure de Vigo (AKA Miguel Almareyda) was in his youth, a prominent anarchist. Vigo’s father later abandoned his anarchist beliefs, became mired in some shady political activities, and was murdered in jail.

zero-de-conduiteThe film begins with the return of various schoolboys to a strict boarding school. The school environment serves as a microcosm of French society–with those in charge, corrupt and dictatorial. The boys live on a diet on beans, and teachers search for sweets, which are then confiscated. The teachers threaten the boys with the dreaded “zero in conduct” if they misbehave, and of course, that principle only works if one cares about such things. It’s not long before three troublemakers–instigators Bruel, Caussat, and Colin–are identified. The film depicts a number of ridiculous rigid rules, and the boys’ reaction to them. While one teacher is tolerant–the Chaplinesque Huguet–other teachers are notoriously strict. One of the teachers even seems to have a questionable taste for one of the boys. After a particularly trivial infraction, the boys lead a revolt against authority on alumni day. In one unforgettable scene, a pillow fight rains feathers down on the rebellious boys as they somersault in a crowded dormitory.

Unfortunately, this is a terrible print. One scene takes place in a railway station at night, and it’s very difficult to make out some of the action. The sound is crackly, and white splotches appear on the print. In spite of all this, however, the film evokes the magical, irrepressible spirit of childhood, and it certainly revived the ecstasy of my rebellious schooldays. In French with English subtitles

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Filed under France, Jean Vigo, Political/social films, Silent

Nazarin (1959)

“I might be a harlot but I have my dignity.”

Luis Bunuel’s film Nazarin examines the viability of Christianity in a world fraught with corruption. The film follows the trials and tribulations of the young, unworldly, Roman Catholic priest, Father Nazario (Francisco Rabal)–a decent good man who struggles to survive and keep his faith in spite of the adversities that reign upon him, and that are partially caused by his naivete. The film is set in a small Mexican town in the early 1900s. Father Nazario doesn’t bother to lock his door, and consequently, almost everything he owns is stolen. He is treated with contempt and disrespect by the prostitutes who ridicule him for entertainment, and by the beggars who come regularly for alms, but then complain about the pittance he gives them.

After a prostitute brawl in the streets ends in the almost fatal stabbing of the prostitute Andara (Rita Macedo), she begs for shelter inside Father Nazario’s rooms. He keeps her there while he decides exactly how to proceed, but this act of charity ends in disaster. Kicked out of his position, he takes to the road and eventually both Andara, and failed suicide Beatriz (Marga Lopez) become his traveling companions. The three travelers–Father Nazario, Beatriz and Andara form a peculiar trio (and the potential foundation for a cult). While there is nothing sexual in the relationship between Nazario and the two women, it doesn’t stop everyone else’s imagination from working overtime. Both women worship Nazario; Andara, unable to distinguish between supersition and religious faith mingles the two and concocts a bizarre worship of Nazario. Beatriz’s love for Pinto, the man who heartlessly dumped her seems to transfer to Father Nazario.

As Nazario and his two followers beg their way through the countryside, Father Nazario leaves nothing except disaster in his wake. This is not deliberate–but the consequence of his natural goodness. He would rather go hunger than contribute to any social injustice, and while his self-sacrifice should bear good results, his actions only bring chaos and social disorder. Ironically, while Nazario is the living embodiment of Christian precepts, he’s ultimately viewed as a danger to society. Nazarin is a very subtle film, and unfortunately Franco, who banned the film in Spain, certainly didn’t appreciate it. In Spanish with English subtitles.

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Filed under Luis Bunuel

Party Girl (1930)

“Don’t call me Madame!”

Party Girl is a tepid little melodrama directed by Victor Halperin and featuring Douglas Fairbanks Jr. The film is one of the morality tales that is supposed to simultaneously titillate and preach to its audience. Unfortunately, it does neither.

Maude Lindsay (Almeda Fowler) runs a shady “party girl” escort business, and the term “party girl” doesn’t carry the same meaning it has today. For the purposes of the film, it’s a euphemism for prostitute. Mrs. Lindsay provides her party girls for various informal meetings. They’re a sort of ‘perk’ for the businessmen who attend and are supposed to encourage contract signing, etc. One evening Mrs. Lindsay holds a party–complete with a bevy of her naughty girls–for the United Glass Company.

Jay Rountree (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) the wastrel son and heir of another glass manufacturer crashes the party, and although he’s seeking a good time, he finds himself up to his spoiled little neck in trouble when he becomes involved with “society trollop” party girl Leeda Cather (Judith Barrie).

Simplistic, and not particularly noteworthy, the best part of the film is the role of Leeda as the bad girl. Although the party girls are just the female version of playboy Jay Rountree, while his drunken faux pas are considered mere foibles, the females’ behaviour is interpreted, by the script, as morally reprehensible. Flippant Leeda, the worst of the bunch, callously teaches Jay a painful lesson on the need to stay sober. Made in 1930, Party Girl was originally banned, and it’s just recently been unleashed on an unsuspecting world. This DVD from Alpha video has some sound problems. The speech of some of the characters is not particularly clear, and there’s a loud background hiss for most of the film. The picture is acceptable, but it’s a bit faded in spots.

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Filed under Exploitation