Thursday, August 15, 2019

The BRD Trilogy

Veronika Voss

THE BRD TRILOGY: THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN, 
VERONIKA VOSS, LOLA (Fassbinder, 1979-1982)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date July 9, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long

I'm often torn as to which Fassbinder period is my favorite. Sometimes I lean toward the less-than-no-frills frenzy of the “Love Is Colder Than Death” (1969) era. Just stand against that white wall and knock out your lines so we can wrap this thing – for God's sake, we've already been shooting for nearly a week! And we've got five more films to finish by the end of the year.

Other times, I prefer the expansive ambition of “Berlin Alexanderplatz” (1980), the mini-series that takes longer to watch than it takes to read the book it's based on. But who can resist the easy formal elegance of the BRD trilogy, among Fassbinder's last films and the subject of this review?

Then I remember that if the “mature” Fassbinder of the BRD trilogy wasn't cranking out six features a year anymore, he still preferred shooting single takes and barreling through production at a frenetic pace that would leave most young filmmakers gasping for air. Then again, he was still a young filmmaker, just 33 when he began shooting “The Marriage of Maria Braun” (1979), approximately his 34th feature (it's tough to keep an exact count). All Fassbinder is early Fassbinder, and maybe his forty-plus films should really all be considered of a single period. So I guess my favorite Fassbinder is all of it.

With the BRD Trilogy (BRD = Bundesrepublik Deutschland, i.e. West Germany), Rainer Werner Fassbinder turned his unflinching gaze to his home country's post-war years. He was particularly keen to examine the so-called “economic miracle” (mostly in the 1950s) that produced a startlingly swift recovery from the ruins, and the willful denial required to manage such a rapid transition. Move forward, never think back. Fassbinder chose to filter this history through the experiences of three title women: one who adapts confidently to post-war society, one who negotiates the new landscape with more mixed results, and one who remains mired in a past that everyone else is trying to forget.

“The Marriage of Maria Braun” opens with a depiction of the title event, first with audio of vows being exchanged under a poster of Hitler, then with bombs dropping around the wedding party. As buildings crumble, the still blissful bride makes sure that the Justice of the Peace signs the marriage certificate even as he lies cowering in the rubble. Maria (Hanna Schygulla) intends to get what she wants no matter the obstacles in her path.

When her husband Hermann (Klaus Lowitsch) deploys the next day and is soon lost in battle, Maria adapts to life as a war widow (though she steadfastly believes Hermann, her one true love, will return) in a methodical fashion. Climbing the business ladder by any means necessary, she consolidates power on her own terms, giving ground to nobody except the absent and therefore idealized Hermann. As for the rest of the characters, they can either get out of her path or just follow obediently in her wake.

Schygulla's magisterial performance is so confident and so layered, it's impossible to reduce Maria to any simple category, to price her as a consumer commodity, the defining aspect of the economic miracle she exploits so brilliantly. She's ruthless, but no Machiavellian sadist; loyal to her husband of “half a a day and a whole night” but no shrinking faithful maiden (nowhere close). She simply knows the score. “It's not a good time for feelings” is her sober assessment of post-WW2 Germany, a motto that could also be the organizing principle of much of Fassbinder's work.

Where Maria Braun resists being bartered, “Lola” (1981) does her best to set her own price. The titular cabaret singer/prostitute (Barbara Sukowa) faces a dreary set of choices as Fassbinder populates the film with a bevy of faux-macho posers puffing fat cigars in boardrooms, preening men circling each other in snarling, impotent displays of authority. Lola is ostensibly “owned” by one of them (Mario Adorf), a corrupt property developer and ersatz alpha dog among the equally corrupt power brokers in the city.

When the urbane, morally upright Von Bohm (Armin Mueller-Stahl) is appointed as the new building commissioner, he foils everyone's plans, but Von Bohm's growing obsession with Lola entraps him as well. Like any (mostly) innocent character in a Fassbinder film, Von Bohm faces two choices: destruction or capitulation. Von Bohm's only chance at happiness requires an act of denial in tune with the nation-wide act of forgetting necessary for an economic miracle. As for Lola, maybe she really can have everything, at least at the right price.

Loosely inspired by the tragic story of German actress Sybille Schmitz, “Veronika Voss” (1982) tells the tale of a faded actress from the war years who has now fallen on hard times. Voss (Rosel Zech) still clings to her identity as a top-line star, but both work and fame have become increasingly elusive. She now spends most of her time under the “care” of a dubious doctor who may actually be keeping her hostage.

Robert (Hilmar Thate) makes the mistake of acting kindly to Voss (who he's never heard of) one night, thus being dragged into her shady world, marking him as another ill-starred noir dupe, though with Voss as a decidedly unusual femme fatale. The film is shot in sultry black-and-white with an intentional preponderance of massive camera flares (more like mini-supernovas ), especially in scenes related to Voss's diminishing movie career. The nefarious doctor's office may be the whitest space ever created on film – overblown white on overblown white. Considering Voss's vulnerability and the seeming decency of both Robert and his faithful girlfriend (Cornelia Froboess), you might start to wonder if the cynical social realist director has gotten sentimental in his old age (he was about 35 when he shot the film). But then Fassbinder delivers an ending as pitiless as the one he reserved for himself in “Fox And His Friends” (1975).

It's understandable why many viewers deem Fassbinder to be one of the cruelest filmmakers of his or any generation. But if he was just wallowing in miserabilism for cheap sadistic thrills, his films wouldn't provoke such powerful reactions from his devoted fans. Fassbinder observes with a remorseless eye, seeking out the flaws and finding all the dirt swept under the rug, but also with so much tenderness, the emotions spill out beyond the edges of the frame. He tried so desperately to find a happy ending, but he just saw too clearly.

The BRD Trilogy is among Fassbinder's crowning achievements, though I have been grossly negligent in not previously mentioning that all three films were scripted by Peter Marthesheimer and Pea Frohlich. Both “Marian Braun” and “Veronika Voss” are genuine masterpieces, and if “Lola” is the weakest link, it's only due to a difficult comparison.


Video:
The BRD Trilogy was originally released by Criterion on DVD in 2003. Those transfers looked quite strong at the time, but we've become spoiled in the more than fifteen years since then. These 1080-p high-def upgrades represent substantial improvements over the previous release.

Each of the three films appears to have been digitally restored by different companies. “Maria Braun” and “Lola” are both presented in their original 1.66:1 aspect ratios, “Veronika Voss” in its original 1.78:1 ratio.

“Veronika Voss” particularly benefits. With the massive camera flares and several spaces being so intensely white, this is an image that needs the high-def treatment not to wind up looking washed out and indistinct. Here, it looks fantastic. The high-def transfers for the other two films look strong throughout as well.

Audio:
All three films are presented with modest, clean LPCM mono tracks. They sound crisp and get the job done with no noticeable distortions or weak spots. Optional English subtitles support the German audio.

Extras:
The BDR Trilogy is a boxed set with three Blu-ray discs on three separate keepcases. Along with the squarebound insert booklet, the three cases are tucked into a sturdy cardboard container that holds the entire collection. Each disc includes one of the three features and an array of extras.

The old 2003 release of this Criterion set contained four DVDs, the fourth devoted just to the supplements. All of the extras on this Blu-ray re-release are now spread out among the three filmdiscs, and have all been imported from the prior DVD release. All of the previous extras are included here, and there are no new extras for this set.

Each disc includes a Theatrical Trailer for each of the films.

On the “Maria Braun” disc, we get the old commentary by cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and director Wim Wenders.

This disc also includes a 2003 interview with actress Hanna Schygulla (32 min.) in which she discusses first meeting a young Fassbinder. There's also a 2003 interview with critic Eric Rentschler (20 min.) who provides some context for the release of the BDR trilogy and its emphasis on the experience of women during the economic miracle.

“Life Stories: A Conversation with Rainer Werner Fassbinder” (1978, 48 min.) is a lengthy interview conducted by film scholar Peter W. Jansen at Fassbinder's Paris home. Fassbinder is surprisingly frank in answering some very personal questions. It's compelling material, but be aware that lengthy excerpts from this are included in “I Don't Just Want You To Love Me”, a feature on the next disc.

The “Veronika Voss” disc includes the 2003 commentary by critic Tony Rayns, which is as jam-packed with information and analysis as you'd expect from the always astute Mr. Rayns.

We also get a 2003 conversation (29 min.) between actress Rosel Zech and editor Juliane Lorenz. Fassbinder had long admired Zech's stage work, and wanted to work with her because he considered her the best Hedda Gabler the German theater had produced in his lifetime.

“Dance with Death” (2000, 55 min.) is a tabloid-y feature about the suicide of German actress Sybille Schmitz, the loose inspiration for the film.

By far the best feature on this loaded set is the exceptional documentary “I Don't Just Want You To Love Me” (1992, 96 min.) Directed by Hans Gunther Pflaum, this feature-length documentary mixes together interviews with many of Fassbinder's film “family” including Hanna Schygulla, Harry Baer, Ingrid Caven, Lilo Pompeit (Fassbinder's mother), composer Peer Raben, and many others. The interviews offer many perspectives on Fassbinder's life and career, and remarkable footage of a very young Fassbinder in his early Antiteater (his Anti-Theater acting group) days provides an added bonus. This is the rare supplemental feature substantial enough to merit its own separate release on disc.

The “Lola” disc has a 2003 commentary by film scholar Christian Braad Thomsen.

It also offers four of the old 2003 interviews. Actress Barbara Sukowa (20 min.) talks about meeting Fassbinder in theater, and the years they planned to work together before finally getting the opportunity on “Berlin Alexanderplatz.” Peter Marthesheimer (33 min.) co-wrote the screenplays (along with Pea Frohlich) for all three BDR films, and was also a television producer who developed several other Fassbinder projects.

We also get an interview with cinematographer Xavier Schwarzenberger (27 min.) who tells a great story about his first meeting with Fassbinder, which started out looking like a disaster and turned into a happy meeting of the minds. The final interview sees editor Juliane Lorenz back for a conversation with author and curator Laurence Kardish. Lorenz speaks at length about the unique editing method she employed on Fassbinder's work, almost instantly churning out near final cuts from the previous day's footage, trying to keep pace with the fast-working director. If you only check out one of the interviews on this disc, this is your best bet.

The square-bound 52-page insert booklet kicks off with an essay by critic Kent Jones which covers the entire trilogy, then includes essays/production histories on each of the three films by author Michael Toteberg. The booklet is almost identical to the one included with the 2003 release except, oddly, it doesn't include listings of cast and crew at the end.

Final Thoughts:
Criterion's Blu-ray release of “The BRD Trilogy” faithfully reproduces the 2003 DVD release – all the same extras, no new ones. The high-def transfers represent marked upgrades, and surely the best versions home viewers have ever gotten to see of these remarkable films.

Fassbinder died at the age of 37 in 1982, the same year “Veronika Voss” was released, with over forty films on his resume. You can appreciate the trilogy for its greatness, or take it as a bitter reminder of the many, many Fassbinder films we never got to see. I choose both options.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

La Vie de Jesus



LA VIE DE JESUS (Dumont, 1997)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date June 18, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long

Director Bruno Dumont was frequently likened to Robert Bresson early in his career. This comparison may have been overblown, not to mention lazy, but Dumont's debut film “La Vie de Jesus” (“The Life of Jesus”,1997) does remind me of a specific scene in Bresson's “L'argent” (1983).

At the end of Bresson's magnificent final film, a crowd of townsfolk gather outside a restaurant to watch as a notorious ax murderer is led out by police. When he's finally paraded by, they barely notice and keep looking, still waiting for... what? A REAL ax murderer, perhaps? Maybe one who actually looks like the blood-soaked monster who just chopped a kindly family to bits for no apparent reason, and not that harmless kid the cops just guided past them. You mean that was him? You can't be serious.

The protagonist of “La Vie de Jesus” is as seemingly innocuous as can be. Freddy (David Douche, a non-professional actor like the rest of the cast) is a teenager in a small rural town in France (Bailleul, near the Belgian border) who likes to ride his motor scooter, hang out with his do-nothing friends, and who especially likes to make love to his devoted girlfriend Marie (Marjorie Cottreel). Freddy still lives with his attentive mother (Genevieve Cottreel) who makes sure he gets to his frequent hospital appointments where doctors monitor his epilepsy. Nothing much happens. Freddy just whiles away one listless day after another on the path to nowhere, just like everyone else in town. Bored, alienated, mostly harmless, Freddy is just the young man next door. Which is the scary part.

Dumont roots his filmmaking firmly in the physical world (the movie generated some controversy for its close-up depiction of sexual penetration) and a sense of place. From the instant Freddy falls face first off his bike onto the hard dirt ground, he is directly linked to his bleak environment. Dumont frequently cuts away from characters just hanging out to shots of the countryside, or to the clouds drifting by, perhaps reminding viewers of possibilities the unimaginative, earthbound characters fail to notice. These brief moments of sublime beauty startle, but still fail to break up either the monotony or the deepening gloom.

(SPOILERS FOLLOW)

Once Kader (Kader Chaatouf), a young man who appears to be of North African heritage and is labeled an “Arab” by locals, begins to show interest in Marie, Freddy finally discovers an outlet for the resentment he had previously turned impotently against a body that betrays him and a town that provides no opportunities. Long free-floating bitterness crystallizes into rage which eventually erupts into murder, leading to an enigmatic final sequence as Freddy, now a killer just escaped from police, thrashes shirtless in the grass and finally takes a good long look at the sky Dumont's camera has shown us before. He sits upright, a tear trailing down his cheek.

An extension of the Bresson comparison might encourage a reading of this ending as a moment of redemption or grace, though not so much if we're talking late-Bresson like “L'argent.” But Dumont offers no obvious cue to viewers in this final shot. It certainly doesn't appear to be a plea for sympathy (aw, gee, that poor racist murderer Freddy) and isn't necessarily even an insight into Freddy's burgeoning inner life. Perhaps it's an acknowledgment that real people are too complex to be expressed in anything like a traditional character arc. 


Video:
The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. From the Criterion booklet: “The new 4k digital restoration was undertaken from the 35 mm original camera negative at Eclair in Vanves, France.”

I understand some previous DVD releases have been underwhelming and suffered from yellow tinting. I don't own those as comparison points, but this 4K restoration looks fantastic in Criterion's 1080p transfer. Image quality is sharp throughout, as is contrast. Everything looks great in motion. Nothing to complain about at all.

Audio:
The LPCM 2.0 stereo mix is crisp if not particularly robust. It's not called on to do all that much, and does it well. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.

Extras:
Criterion has only included a few extras with the first Dumont film in their collection.

We get an interview with Dumont (16 min.) in which he discusses how his philosophy studies influenced his first feature. He believes we don't need any more films that entertain us, we need films that awaken us instead.

The disc also includes a 2014 interview of Dumont conducted by critic Philippe Rouyer (39min.) and two excerpts from 1991 episodes of the French TV show “Le cercle de minuit” (26 min. total). There's also a Trailer (2 min.)

The slim fold-out insert booklet features an essay by critic Nicholas Elliott.

Final Thoughts:
I'll be honest. I'm not sure yet what to make of Bruno Dumont's debut film. Perhaps it would help if I had seen more than just one other Dumont (“Camille Claudel 1915” - which I liked a lot). All I know is I'm still thinking about it a week after first seeing it.

Criterion's Blu-ray release doesn't include many extras, but you get a too-notch high-def transfer and an introduction to a filmmaker whose critical reputation has grown considerably in the past twenty years. He's one of John Waters' favorite contemporary directors, which is pretty neat seeing that they're now both in the Criterion Collection.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

War and Peace



WAR AND PEACE (Bondarchuk, 1965-67)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date June 25, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long

Taking advantage of the brief cultural Thaw under Nikita Khrushchev, Paramount distributed King Vidor's adaptation of Tolstoy's“War and Peace” (1956) in the Soviet Union in 1959. It was a hit as Russian audiences found Audrey Hepburn irresistible as their beloved Natasha Rostova and apparently managed to keep a straight face at the sight of Henry Fonda as Count Pierre.

Soviet authorities were less thrilled by the idea of a commercially successful American adaptation of the greatest Russian nationalistic novel, and they soon brought the full power of the state apparatus to bear in producing a home-grown response. Sergei Bondarchuk, an accomplished actor with only one directorial outing under his belt, emerged as the unlikely (and largely unpopular) choice to helm a project that would be both blessed and cursed with nearly unlimited resources along with an open-ended timeline. Bondarchuk was charged with putting Hollywood to shame by any means necessary, and boy did he ever take advantage.

Bondarchuk began shooting before “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962) was released and didn't finish until well after “Dr. Zhivago” (1965) charmed audiences around the world, but the Soviet director had an epic vision whose scale made David Lean look like a penny-ante operator (Ed. Note: OK, not really. Nobody could ever make David Lean look small). With over 300 speaking parts and battle sequences that employed more than 100,000 extras, Bondarchuk's “War and Peace,” released in four parts running over seven hours total, assumed the burden of representing the very soul of the world's largest nation, often soaring above the sprawling action with the kind of god's-eye view that only unfettered access to the Soviet Air Force can grant. The film begins and ends by gliding through the clouds, and you better believe it takes every opportunity to fly with the angels (and, yes, there's even a literal angel at one point). The great critic Manny Farber groused about the grandiosity of “white elephant” art – “War and Peace” puffs its hairy, nationalistic chest all the way to “blue whale.”

Bondarchuk (who fired a series of cinematographers, eventually settling on the relatively inexperienced Anatoly Petritsky for most of the project) prefers to film his massive battles from a remote vantage point, either from the heavens or the crest of a hill. The camera frames some of the most elaborate clockwork dioramas cinema has ever witnessed, with thousands of tiny soldiers surging across muddy terrain in tightly-controlled geometric patterns, billows of smoke enveloping them (and often the camera) in the chaos.

The movie occasionally cuts in to details in the great pageant, the tortured faces of wounded soldiers or bystanders and dozens of horses falling to the hard ground (maybe hundreds – far too many for my sensibility anyway), but Bondarchuk generally maintains an imperial distance, emphasizing the historic sweep over individual experience. This propensity for spectacle achieves a glorious and frightening apotheosis during the 1812 Battle of Borodino, the bloody, senseless culmination of which consumes much of the third film in the series, leaving viewers as shaken as the overwhelmed and largely helpless combatants of both the Russian and French armies. Ditto for the burning of Moscow depicted as a literal hell on Earth, flames stretching to both ends of the wide-screen frame. 


Bondarchuk displays a similar interest in the choreography of masses of people when he turns his attention to the elites in St. Petersburg. Safe and distant from the horrors of war, they gather for one ornate ball after another, to glorify Russian power brokers or to introduce debutantes to society. Once again, viewers are treated to the sight of hundreds of small bodies in formations, vying for attention in on the battlefield of courtly society. Petritsky had to got innovative to film the numerous dance sequences, placing his camera operators on roller skates, though with relatively quick cutting, these shots still lack the sinuous virtuosity of a Max Ophuls ball (admittedly, a lofty comparison.)

The film's monumental approach leaves less room for intimacy, and omits much of the copious detail Tolstoy devoted to the ruthless machinations behind the numerous marriage arrangements that account for much of the “Peace” portion of the novel. Vyacheslav Tikhonov is handsome and heroic as the dour Prince Andrei, great at suffering nobly but not terribly expressive. Petite teenage ballerina Ludmila Savelyeva brings an elfin grace to the role of young Natasha but (as in the novel) she's left to do little save be sweet, na├»ve, and occasionally a bit foolish. Andrei and Natasha's doomed love affair manifests mostly through a series of longing glances.

Count Pierre emerges as the most intriguing character, convenient since Bondarchuk chose to play the role himself, despite being about fifteen years too old for the part (he was still much younger than Henry Fonda). The timid yet quietly courageous humanist cuts quite the absurd and sometimes striking figure, a portly dandy prowling the hectic battlefield in his white top hat, blinking in confusion behind his glasses at a world full of people who refuse to behave according to the theories in his books.

“War and Peace” is big on grandeur, but sometimes too straitjacketed to breathe, to celebrate the pure joy of creation. Regardless, in sheer scope the film is nothing short of breathtaking, the epic of all epics. Even at seven hours, it can't hope to capture more than a fraction of Tolstoy's magisterial doorstop, but this is a film that had the resources of an entire nation behind it, and Bondarchuk proudly flaunts every bit of it. I'm not qualified to judge whether the film encapsulates the identity and soul of Russia – I'm not sure what that would even look like – but you have to admire a director and his cast and crew who were bold enough to make the effort.


Video:
The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. From the Criterion booklet: “This new 2K digital restoration was undertaken by Mosfilm from multiple partial 35 mm negatives from various archives, using a complete 35 mm positive print as a reference.”

Considering the multiple sources used and the massive scope of the restoration, the image quality is quite consistent throughout the four films, though I'll admit it's hard to track over seven hours spread out over a few days of viewing. The 1080p image is perhaps not quite as razor sharp as the very top-end Criterion transfers, but it looks strong overall, showing no problems in motion (even with thousands of bodies in motions and explosions all over the place). Colors are somewhat muted, but they're supposed to be.

Audio:
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track is at its most robust during the elaborate battle scenes. I can only imagine how immersive the experience must be in a theater with a booming audio system. At home, it's still quite impressive. Optional English subtitles support the Russian audio. Some French audio isn't subtitled, some is – all as Bondarchuk intended.

Extras:
As mentioned above, “War and Peace” was released as four separate films, totaling about 7-hours running time. Criterion's two disc Blu-ray release houses two films on each of the discs.

The only extra on Disc One is “Woina I Mir” (1966, 48 min.), a German B&W documentary by Thomas Schamoni. It provides some information about the production and includes an interview with Bondarchuk, but is pretty dry and not all that enlightening.

All of the other extras are stored on Disc Two.

We get a new interview with cinematographer Anatoly Petritsky (14 min.) in which he acknowledges some of the tensions on set with Bondarchuk (who seemed to alienate or at least stress out virtually everyone) but is also justifiably proud of some of his innovations on set, including a “flying” camera he put on cables to soar over the battlefields as well as his idea to put camera operators on roller skates to film the ballroom scenes.

The disc also includes a short new interview with Fedor Bondarchuk (6 min.), the director's son, who provides a little background regarding his father's career, and some of the resistance his father faced from fellow filmmakers unhappy that he was picked for the job.

By far the best feature on the disc is “Cold War Classic” (2019, 46 min.), a lengthy and substantive interview with historian Denise J. Youngblood. The author of a book about the film (and novel), Youngblood brings an astonishing amount of knowledge to this feature – I took almost a full page of notes, just about a record for me for an interview. She contextualizes the film as a response to the release of Vidor's “War And Peace” during the Thaw, discusses the numerous logistical challenges during production, and argues that, if you count access to the military, all state museums, etc., Bondarchuk's epic may be the most expensive film ever made with an estimated effective budget around $700 million to $1 billion! She also talks about the unhappy end to Bondarchuk's career, and his life in 1984. This is simply a fantastic interview, worth watching from start to finish and then watching again.

Criterion has also included an excerpt from the Nov 18, 1968 episode of the French TV program “Les Sovietiques” (27 min.) It touches on the film in general, but focuses mostly on actress Ludmila Savelyeva, framed here more or less as the Russian Anna Karina, and Western European viewers' idea of the modern Russian woman.

Disc Two offers another documentary, “The Making of 'War and Peace'” (1969, 31 min.), a Mosfilm release which functions mostly as propaganda about the glory of Bondarchuk's and, therefore, the Soviet Union's achievement. It's of interest, but don't take it too seriously.

The collection wraps up with the Janus Re-Release Trailer (2 min.)

The surprisingly slim fold-out insert booklet includes an excellent essay by critic Ella Taylor.

Final Thoughts:
Sergei Bondarchuk's “War and Peace” often soars to majestic heights and occasionally devolves into pompous showmanship. It never lacks for ambition, and is as epic as epic filmmaking can get. Criterion's two-disc release provides a strong transfer and a solid collection of extras to do justice to this recently restored classic.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Macbeth



MACBETH (Polanski, 1971)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date September 23, 2014
Review by Christopher S. Long

Roman Polanski's 1971 adaptation of Macbeth is long on action, but pointedly short on grandeur. Yes, this is a history of “great men” crossing swords for control of a kingdom, but what a shameful, shabby affair it all is. When the king (Duncan, before he gets MacSnuffed) and his courtiers gather in the throne room to celebrate victory in battle, they look like precisely what they are: a tiny group of poorly-groomed sycophants clustered in a filthy little room in order to curry favor and get drunk.

Macbeth (Jon Finch) only distinguishes himself from the pack by the extent of his ambition. Where Shakespeare's villain was at least courageous and valiant in his own way, this Macbeth is just a cruel opportunist. He's not particularly cunning or even charismatic, just an efficient and willing brute. Even his frequent expressions of guilt for his misdeeds fail to convince; this thug cannot feel remorse, only fear for his own well-being. Though he mounts an impressive final stand, by the time his head winds up on a pike the viewer is left with one main thought, “What a loser.”

The script, co-written by Polanski and famed British theater critic Kenneth Tynan, exhibits no admiration for its wretched subjects. Francesca Annis initially sparks interest as the scheming Lady Macbeth, her innocent appearance a stark contrast with her sadistic impulses, but her descent into madness plays out as good riddance to bad rubbish. She's gone and quickly forgotten, and soon the same will happen to her husband.

Cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, a long-time Polanski collaborator, develops the visual equivalent of the script's jaundiced perspective, depicting 11th century Scotland (shooting on locations mostly in Wales and England) as a grimy, murk-shrouded patch of nothing hardly worth fighting for. There is intermittent beauty in some of the more distant wide-screen panoramas and the silhouetted hills and forests, but nothing the Scottish tourism board will be using in its brochures.


The release of “Macbeth” in America was overshadowed by the circumstances of its production. It was the first film produced by Hugh Hefner's Playboy Production which meant it was preceded by expectations that it would be tasteless (it's not) and graphic (it is). “Macbeth” was also the first film Polanski made after the murder of his pregnant wife Sharon Tate, and critics (both then and now) couldn't help but see echoes of the real-life tragedy in the movie, particularly when Macbeth's soldiers murder the wife and children of his foe Macduff (Terence Bayler).

Perhaps this explains why so much of the commentary lingered on the film's alleged extreme gore and violence. The film does shift the murder of Duncan from off-stage to on-screen with a nifty geyser of blood as punctuation, but there is nothing exploitive or gratuitous in the movie. Polanski needed a brutal film to highlight the brutishness of his characters. An early scene in which a soldier stands over a wounded man lying face-down in the mud and promptly bludgeons him to death is the first subtle hint that we're not in King Arthur's chivalrous court.

Essentially, Polanski's interpretation of Macbeth boils the story down to another round of the time-honored game of “crown goes on, head comes off.” And Macbeth doesn't matter one whit more than any of the other fools who played and lost. Few directors were better suited to portray the futility and absurdity of their schemes than Polanski.

The film may suffer a bit by comparison to some of its peers. As an adaptation of the Scottish play, it is no “Throne of Blood,” but then nothing is. As a cynical deflation of medieval heroism, it is certainly not the equal of Robert Bresson's “Lancelot du Lac,” released just a few years later. But then nothing is. And in Polanski's oeuvre, it surely slots behind “Chinatown,” “Rosemary's Baby,” and several other works. Good thing there's plenty of room beneath the highest of bars for quality cinema.


Video:
The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Criterion's 1080p transfer is typically excellent with a rather muted color palette throughout – of course it's hard to tell under all the cloudy skies. Image detail is sharp enough to enhance the grimy, run-down feeling of it all. From the Criterion booklet, “The picture was restored by the Criterion collection... (and) additional restoration work was performed by MTI in Los Angeles and Sony Colorworks in Culver City, California.”

Audio:
The DTS-HD Master Audio offers a slightly unusual 3.0 surround track, staying true to the original source. The clanging of swords and thumping on castle gates ring loud and true in a mix that provides a real sense of depth and place. Music by The Third Ear Band (including a fantastic end credit track) is well-preserved. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

Extras:
Criterion offer a lengthy feature which intercuts new 2014 interviews with Polanski, producer Andrew Braunsberg, assistant executive producer Victor Lownes, and actors Francesca Annis and Martin Shaw (who played Banquo). I winced when Polanski dismissed “Throne of Blood” as not being a real adaptation (he's not criticizing the film, just making the bizarre claim that since it's in Japanese it's not really Shakespeare) but there's plenty of detailed information here, though the various commentaries lean heavily towards a defensive position, i.e. this amazing film was horribly treated by distributors and critics.

“Polanski Meets Macbth” (47 min.) is a 1971 making-of feature with lots of on-set and behind-the-scenes footage. It was directed by Frank Simon and is clearly promotional in nature but still of interest.

The disc also includes two television excerpts. “Two Macbeths” features Polanski and British theater director Peter Cole discussing their different adaptations of Macbeth. The footage (30 min.) is from the Jan 27, 1972 episode of British program “Aquarius.” Of much greater interest is an excerpt from the May 7, 1971 episode of the Dick Cavett Show with co-screenwriter Kenneth Tynan as guest. Only the last few minutes of this thirteen minute segment addressed “Macbeth” but Tynan is such a magnetic raconteur, and Cavett such a fine reviewer, you'll want to watch if only to pine for the days of substantive talk shows.

A Trailer (4 min.) played at the Playboy Theater and promised patrons both a major renovation and the world premiere of “Macbeth.”

The slim fold-out booklet features an essay by critic Terrence Rafferty.

Film Value:
I don't know that there's a clear winner in the contest for Roman Polanski's bleakest depiction of human nature. But “Macbeth” is indisputably in the running. This Criterion Blu-ray offers a strong transfer and a substantial collection of extras, making it the definitive North American release of the movie.