Sunday, October 03, 2010

Karusellen

(Svensk Filmindustri, SE 1923) D: Dimitri Buchowetzki; SC: Dimitri Buchowetzki, Alfred Fekete; DP: Julius Jaenzon; AD: Hans Dreier; cast: Aud Egede Nissen, Alfons Fryland, Walter Janssen, Waldemar Pottier, Jacob Tiedtke; 35mm, 1736 m., 85' (18 fps); from: Filmarkivet vid Svenska Filminstitutet, Stockholm. Svenska texter. Viewed at Teatro Verdi, Pordenone (GCM) with e-subtitles in English and Italian and Antonio Coppola on the grand piano, 3 Oct 2010

Jan Olsson in the GCM Catalogue: "Dimitri Buchowetzki (1885-1932) studied political science before becoming an actor in Russian theatre and cinema. Emigrating to Berlin after the Revolution he made his debut as director in 1919, and a series of films based on literary masterpieces, including Othello and Danton, won him praise from the perceptive critic Harry C. Carr as “one of the finest directors the cinema has ever produced” (Los Angeles Times, 10 February 1924). Peter the Great (1922), starring Emil Jannings, convinced Jesse Lasky to sign Buchowetzki for Paramount – partly with the aim of reviving the somewhat eclipsed stardom of Pola Negri, who had remained a fervent admirer since Buchowetzki had directed her in Sappho (Mad Love, 1921).
Before departing for Hollywood, however he was to complete a last European assignment, Karusellen. Financed by Svenski Filmindustri and with a Swedish technical crew under Julius Jaenzon, the project was nevertheless cosmopolitan, with a script by Buchowetzki and the Hungarian writer-director Alfred Fekete. Casting began in Prague and Budapest. Initially the Czech actress Suzanne Marwille was announced for the main role, but eventually the love triangle was played by the Berlin-based Norwegian actress Aud Egede Nissen, the Viennese Alfons Fryland as the lover and the German Walter Janssen as her husband. The Swedish press reported that the army of extras for the nightclub scenes were largely Russian émigrés used to a pre-revolutionary life in tailcoats. The film was mainly shot in Berlin, with some exteriors and the circus sequences in Stockholm.
The impetus for the story is Mrs. Benton’s infidelity, following a riveting opening scene with her husband and son at home practicing target shooting. After the wife’s brush with death, the Fryland character is invited to stay at the family’s plush country villa. Their subsequent affair causes her devastated husband to return to circus work, placing his son in an extremely precarious and dangerous situation as the partner in his routine. Meanwhile, his wife and her lover are sucked into the vortex of post-war Berlin’s whirlwind of high-rolling nightclub life and spending sprees, supported by treacherous transactions in a stock exchange gone sour. The nightclub scenes are spectacular in scope and décor, with plenty of inventive directorial touches. For some critics the dexterous evocation of a desperate grasp at decadent splendour and quick money placed the film above Erotikon and Foolish Wives. The big scenes were shot in a gigantic studio at Johannisthal outside Berlin, in what once was a zeppelin hangar, which adds yet another layer to a film predicated on modernity’s rapid transactions and modes of exchange and displacement.
The critical accolades in Sweden turned Karusellen into a template for how to reconfigure a stagnant studio, as Sjöström and soon Stiller were out of the production equation. International coproductions featuring cosmopolitan casts and plotlines turned into a Svensk Filmindustri mainstay in the late 1920s, until sound offered novel market opportunities. Some, at least, of these films met with considerable box-office success as well as critical acclaim. Swedish film historians have largely written off the strategy and its resulting films. Karusellen returns to the roots of early Scandinavian feature films and their penchant for erotic intrigues in upper-class settings, with an eye to popular culture in the form of circuses with colourful artists and relaxed standards of interaction. Add to this spectacular attractions: the one on which Karusellen’s intrigue pivots is indeed memorable, and dramatically supercharged.
Unfortunately, the only extant copy lacks the reel containing most of the circus scenes. However, Buchowetzki is primarily interested in style, and at times deploys his characters as marionettes, wrapped in a type of Expressionist lighting. He also invents clever cinematic devices offering segues for the audience into the unruly minds of the protagonists. He takes the settings to extremes in terms of lavishness, and by way of a spectacular attraction rounds off the story with a final spin that returns the symbolic carousel back to its idyllic point of departure, and with a mischievous wink at melodrama.
To have this film repatriated, irrespective of its blatant but liberating “otherness” vis-à-vis the Swedish style of previous years and its limited domestic contribution on the creative side, might inspire a novel perspective on Swedish cinema from 1920s. Historically, the provincial and the marginal have virtually without exception been celebrated as the true Swedish screen mission. Karusellen is open to a novel reading, and the reappraisal of a parallel, cosmopolitan track. Dimitri Buchowetzki’s career was tragically cut short by his early death in Los Angeles, at a time when he was primarily directing international versions of Paramount talkies. – JAN OLSSON".

Jon Wengström in the GCM Catalogue: "In 2009 the Swedish Film Institute acquired an interpositive of Karusellen made from a duplicate negative with Russian intertitles preserved by Gosfilmofond in Moscow, and made a new duplicate negative from it in 2010. The Swedish intertitles were recreated based on an original list of intertitles and using the font and design of other Svensk Filmindustri films of the period; these were then inserted into the new negative, from which this print was struck. Act 5 was missing from the Russian material, so two explanatory titles have been inserted to cover the missing narrative. As neither the manuscript nor the synopsis submitted to the Swedish censorship board survives, the explanatory titles are based on information from an original programme and contemporary reviews, and from the actual intertitles of the missing reel.
As Jan Olsson’s note points out, Karusellen was an international production, primarily shot in studios outside Berlin. The story’s milieux – the stock exchange, the circus, and a luxurious nightclub – are familiar from many other films of the period, but they are all rendered with some originality, not least thanks to the work of set designer Hans Dreier (who would follow director Buchowetzki to Paramount, where he eventually made history with von Sternberg) and cinematographer Julius Jaenzon. Once again Jaenzon proves that his mastery was not confined solely to spectacular location footage, but that he also did excellent work with lavish décor and subtle shifts in artificial studio lighting. The film’s many visual qualities are still there to enjoy, and it is difficult at times to tell that the new print is now several generations away from the original. – JON WENGSTRÖM."

I had to laugh reading Jan Olsson's claim that "Historically, the provincial and the marginal have virtually without exception been celebrated as the true Swedish screen mission". Really. Watching Karusellen at 22.30 Italian time (23.30 my time) after a long day I was not able to pay justice to its qualities. But I could appreciate the loving care of the reconstruction and restoration. Jon Wengström told the print is seven generations removed from the camera negative, but it looked much, much better. Karusellen is one of the many films of the silent era and the early sound era devoted to the worlds of the circus and the variety (one of my favourites is the circus episode of the La Maison du mystère serial). In the best of them the circus and the variety are metaphors of the world, and there is stark symbolism in circus figures such as the clown, most profoundly in Der Blaue Engel. The rediscovered Karusellen is a strong title in this tradition, but I need to see it again to be really able to assess it.

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