Friday, October 07, 2011

Der junge Medardus / Young Medardus

[the title in Finland was:] Napoleon (Sascha-Filmindustrie AG, AT, 1923) D: Michael Kertesz [Michael Curtiz]; P: Alexander Kolowrat; SC: László Vajda, Arthur Schnitzler, based on the play by Arthur Schnitzler; DP: Gustav Ucicky, Eduard von Borsody; AD: Artur Berger, Julius von Borsody; cast: Mihály Várkonyi (Medardus Klähr), Anny Hornik (Agathe Klähr), Maria Hegyesi (Frau Klähr), Egon von Jordan (Etzel), Mary Stone (Anna), Franz Glawatsch (Berger), Julius Szöreghy (Eschenbacher), Josef König (Wachshuber), Ludwig Rethey (Duc de Valois), Agnes d’Ester (Hélène de Valois), Carl Lamac (François de Valois), Ferdinand Onno (Marquis Albert de Valois), Mihail Xantho (Napoleon Bonaparte); filmed: 1.1923-5.1923; première: 29.8.1923 (Wien); released: 5.10.1923 (Wien); 35 mm, 2010 m, 79’ (22 fps); from: Filmarchiv Austria, Wien. Deutsche Zwischentitel. Viewed at Teatro Verdi, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone, with e-subtitles in English and Italian, grand piano: Gabriel Thibaudeau, 7 Oct 2011.

+ Das Spielzeug von Paris trailer (AT 1925) 35 mm, 96 m /24 fps/ 4 min. From: Filmarchiv Austria, Wien. No intertitles. AA: Excellent visual quality, a fine erotic radiation in Lily Damita's appearance.

Miguel A. Fidalgo (GCM Catalogue): "Late to establish itself, Austrian cinema entered on a golden age in 1919, with the arrival in Vienna of exiles from every part of the disintegrated Empire. Kertész came at the personal call of Count Alexander “Sascha” Kolowrat (1886-1927), a visionary as passionate and visceral as himself. Born in New York to a rich Bohemian aristocrat and a tobacco heiress, and fascinated by technology, Kolowrat established his first studio in 1910, in Bohemia. By 1918 his Sascha-Filmindustrie AG was the most important film concern in Austria, as producer and distributor, with extensive international connections that soon would include the exclusive distribution rights for Paramount films throughout most of Europe."

"Kertész found an immediate rapport with Kolowrat, and rapidly adapted to the new environment, thanks to the presence of many old Budapest colleagues and the dedicated autonomy of his producer, who could facilitate any production. Mihály Kertész now became Michael Kertesz. His first movie for Kolowrat, Die Dame mit dem schwarzen Handschuh (The Lady with the Black Glove, 1919), was followed by eight films of increasing interest and quality, before the spectacular Sodom und Gomorrah (1922) ensured his international reputation. Kertész considered several projects before deciding next on Der junge Medardus (The Young Medardus), a tragedy based on a monumental play of 1910 by Arthur Schnitzler, which Kolowrat had wanted to film since 1919. A relatively prolific writer of plays, novels, and short stories, the Viennese-born Schnitzler was a friend and disciple of Freud, and his plots and characters reveal his deep interest in psychology and the thin line that separates illusion and reality – a theme close to Kertész’s own artistic tastes. The first problem of adaptation was to reduce a 5-hour play to manageable film length. In this the reclusive 61-year-old author, inexperienced in film, was helped by another Hungarian exile, László Vajda."

"Shooting began in Vienna in early 1923. The enormous sets designed by Artur Berger and Julius von Borsody, recreating the city at the beginning of the 19th century, were built at Laäerberg, where the exteriors of Sodom und Gomorrah had been filmed, and location shooting was at the palaces of Schönbrunn and Wagram. The great cost of the film, over 3 billion kronen, was a risky decision at a critical period in Austrian production. Set in the Vienna occupied by Napoleon’s army, between April and October 1809, the story centres on the tortured figure of Medardus Klähr, a Viennese student, whose father was killed by the French at the battle of Austerlitz in 1805, torn between his romantic passion for a French royalist exile and his hatred for the occupiers. Around him, like a Greek tragedy, are woven a series of parallel histories, affecting his own but also Austria’s destiny. Kertész cast his fellow émigré Mihály Várkonyi and the aristocratic Agnes d’Ester (Esterhazy) as the distressed protagonist and the woman he loves."

"Kertész recognized that the actions of Medardus could only be understood from the perspective of his youth. His abhorrence of everything French, together with the inflexibility of the Gallic Royalists, provokes the suicide of his sister Agathe and her lover François. His own initial rejection of Hélène, François’s sister, whom he blames for Agathe’s death, turns to adolescent love but ends in jealousy and murder. Medardus goes from patriot to lover, and from lover to unexpected saviour of Napoleon. Várkonyi, although older than the character, magnificently conveys his pain at the death of his sister and the nobility of his death before the firing squad. But Medardus is only one of the sides of the triangle of passions that articulates the plot – passionate but not affectionate, because the passion comes from complex feelings: in Medardus, love, and tangentially pain; in Hélène, unapproachable, hieratic and cold, the division between passion for power, family obligations, restitution of the French monarchy at any price – and attraction for the young Viennese. The triangle’s third side is Napoleon himself, serious, implacable, equally passionate in his control, but never shown as a heartless tyrant. This strange triangle acts with a certain fatalistic sense, with Destiny as backdrop, as in some of Kertész’s other Austrian films."

"Another crucial motive in the fate of the characters is pride, which drags the Klährs and the Valois directly to tragedy. Agathe and François choose death because the pride of their families prevents their impossible love. Hélène, trained by her (in all respects) blind father, will sacrifice her relationship with Medardus in favour of family pride, when the death of her brother forces her to marry his cousin Albert. Medardus feels his pride hurt by Hélène’s supposed deception, and in the end prefers death to the pardon he receives from Napoleon himself, since the young idealist cannot accept anything that he considers unjust. In fact, the war between Austria and France, like so many wars, is motivated by issues of pride."

"Never until now had Kertész been so serious, restrained, and poetic. His camera moves with moderation, generally distanced from the drama, respecting the theatrical game. The rhythm is slower than usual, though not ponderous. An excess of intertitles slows down the action, yet these serve to punctuate particular thoughts or actions, to explain the reactions of the characters. It is the interior action that matters. Correspondingly, the battle scenes are filmed in static shots, with movement and action limited to mise-en-shot: generous deployment of masses, cavalry assaults, explosions and smoke effects give internal rhythm to these shots, without contradicting the quieter overall tone of the movie. There is, on the contrary, much space for visual poetry and a clear pictorial intention: the suicide of the lovers, framed delicately in a general shot, with the silhouette of Vienna in the background and a brief kiss of farewell; the duel on the shore of the Danube between Hélène and the cunning Duc de Valois, visualized between two columns of smoke; the appearance before the injured Medardus of a luminous Hélène; the continuous use of the horizon, against which silhouettes of the troops or the characters are minimized, diminishing their importance in relation to the enormous conflict. A multitude of visual details reveal familiar Kertész stylistic hallmarks: the treatment of shadows (with some especially celebrated effects, like Napoleon’s enormous silhouette appearing to asphyxiate Hélène); the expressionist design of the inn where Medardus rests before going to war and the jail where he spends his last moments. The three-dimensional physical spaces have the non-naturalistic realism the director so loved, with big empty walls and strategicallyplaced furniture."

"Everything enhances our sensation of being present at an enormous and avoidable tragedy: pride and misunderstood passion lead to an end that is noble, desired, but useless – even though for Napoleon, Medardus’ is “the last heroic death of the war”." – Miguel A. Fidalgo

AA: A historical epic, a historical tragedy. At first this seems like a trite and banal revenge story, but there are surprising changes of perspective in the tragedy. Curtiz was a war veteran, himself, who had seen action in WWI, and he had seen the bloody revolution in Hungary. At Warner Bros. he had a sense of history especially in the masterful The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, but that sense is also evident in Casablanca, which rises above a potentially banal intrigue. The beginning of the print is heavily truncated but it is rewarding to see this movie to the end. It is a huge production, and Curtiz has full command of the epic scenes. The battle scenes are truly impressive. Regarding cinema's obsession with the cancelled wedding, Medardus almost succeeds in having Hélène's wedding with the Valois arrangement cancelled, but Hélène spends her wedding night with Medardus, anyway, and if there would have been an heir, it would have been one conceived by Medardus. "If I become the mother of the king, that moment has to be celestial." "Rausch, Traum, Tod." The visual quality is good often enough to have a real impression of this big film. Finally, this is a Napoleon film, whose sense of world history Schnitzler embraces: "die Weltgeschichte geht weiter". In that vision there is no room for revenge and for living in a past glory.

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