Wednesday 24 July 2019

Rutger Hauer (1944–2019)

Dutch actor Rutger Hauer will probably be best remembered - at least by Anglophone audiences - for his performances in 80s classics Blade Runner and The Hitcher.  But long before these Hollywood adventures, the Breukelen-born Hauer had featured in a slew of Dutch-language films, including four for Paul Verhoeven: Katie Tippel, Turkish Delight, Spetters and Soldier of Orange; prior to these features, Verhoeven had directed Hauer in 60s TV series Floris.  The pair would also collaborate in the mid-80s on the English-language historical drama Flesh+Blood, which failed to replicate the duo's earlier successes.  Despite this misstep, the 1980s proved to be Hauer's most successful period, and it was during this decade that he began to star in a series of hugely popular TV ads for Guinness.

From the 1990s on, Hauer's profile was significantly lower as he opted for a number of roles in low-budget films; that said, he still appeared in the occasional lavish production, such as Luc Besson's Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins.  His final film (of those released in his lifetime) was Jacques Audiard's outstanding The Sisters Brothers, which we reviewed back in April.  In addition to guest starring in HBO's vampire show True Blood, he also played Van Helsing in legendary horror director Dario Argento's Dracula 3D, a role which sat in direct contrast to his turn as vampire king Lothos in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  He died on July 19 at his home in Friesland, after a short illness.

Darren Arnold

Image: DWDD [CC BY 3.0]

Thursday 18 July 2019

Henri Storck, Part 3: De patroon is dood (1938)

The final film we'll look at in our overview of Henri Storck's "social films" is an appropriately solemn documentary of the funeral of Belgische Werkliedenpartij leader Emile Vandervelde.  De patroon is dood was one of five films made by its director in 1938, and it closes out the Cinematek "social films" set in a manner which underlines Storck's greatness.  It may lack the immediacy of Borinage or De huizen van ellende, but De patroon is dood shows another side of Storck as he records a sober state occasion in an inventive yet unfussy manner.

Emile Vandervelde was a leading figure in both Belgian and international socialism, and earned the nickname "The Boss" long before it was hijacked by a certain singer-songwriter from New Jersey.  He held several ministerial posts, with his final cabinet role being Minister of Public Health in Paul van Zeeland's government.  Critical of King Leopold II's creation (and direct rule) of the Congo Free State and eager to intervene in the Spanish Civil War, Vandervelde was a strong proponent of internationalism, but he would nevertheless come under pressure from younger members of his party as his career (and life) headed towards its conclusion.  His strong socialist ideals very much lined up with those of Henri Storck, so the existence of this film isn't too surprising, and it serves a dual function as both tribute and public record.

Storck's deftly edited short film - it's less than half an hour long - captures both the scale and spectacle of the obsèque as huge crowds take to the streets of Brussels.  The funeral was held on the penultimate day of 1938, and it was a cold, grey and wet Friday, but this didn't deter those who wished to pay their final respects to a man who'd served his people right up to the end.  Storck expertly records the mourning, the flags, the flowers and, most poignantly, the torches which are held aloft as the brief December daylight fades.  We also hear from two future Prime Ministers in the form of Léon Blum - who by that stage had already held office twice in France - and Camille Huysmans; their presence here serves to further underline the great importance of Emile Vandervelde to Belgian politics, and De patroon is dood does much to secure the legacies of both its director and his subject.

Darren Arnold

Image: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday 10 July 2019

Henri Storck, Part 2: De huizen van ellende (1937)

The booklet which accompanies the Cinematek Blu-ray/DVD set which includes De huizen van ellende refers to the film as a "fictional documentary".  While this may sound like an oxymoron, it's actually a pretty fair description of a film in which non-professionals play out scenarios closely matching real events they were directly involved in.  As such, De huizen van ellende isn't far removed from the work of Jean Rouch, that master of the ethnographic film, who correctly observed that subjects will always be affected by their awareness of the camera.  Four years on from Borinage and minus Joris Ivens (who at that time was in Spain with Ernest Hemingway), Henri Storck had overhauled his technique and now included dialogue in a film which took an unblinking look at Belgian slum housing and all its attendant problems.  In many ways this is a companion piece to Borinage, as the subject of the earlier film - the 1932 miners' strike - chiefly served to highlight the truly terrible living conditions of the workers and their families.  There's a further link in that the French titles of these two films share a highly apt word: misère.

De huizen van ellende, in both content and message, bears similarities to the 1935 John Grierson production Housing Problems, which documented how the same issue was presenting itself on the other side of the English Channel, where the Greenwood Act - which encouraged councils to demolish slum housing and build new homes - had been passed in 1930.  These two films charted the same, very real problem, and both stood as pieces of propaganda in which the filmmakers' feelings could hardly have been more obvious.  Despite the awful living conditions witnessed in both works, there is a shared optimism as these films look to the future and the promise of the new, planned housing estates which would significantly raise the living standards of those who had endured (and survived) life in the slums.  As De huizen van ellende comes to a close, we are shown the demolition of slum dwellings, and the viewer can share in the joy of the onlooking crowds, who are delighted to witness the razing of these miserable, unsanitary buildings.

Before this most welcome release, however, Storck presents us with a suffocating, claustrophobic litany of deprivation: overcrowding, pitiless landlords, tuberculosis, maternal mortality, evictions, lack of schooling, loan sharks... surviving another day amidst such squalor and disease was about as good as it got for the slums' forlorn inhabitants.  And although this impressive slice of docufiction does end on a relatively uplifting note, we are all too conscious of the sad fact that the outbreak of WW2 would soon see Belgium facing far bigger problems than slum accommodation; the UK of Grierson's film, which during wartime would host many exiled Belgians as well as the Belgische regering in Londen, would endure an even greater housing crisis as the Luftwaffe bombs rained down.

Darren Arnold

Image: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday 2 July 2019

Henri Storck, Part 1: Borinage (w/ Joris Ivens, 1933)

It is hard to overstate the importance of Henri Storck's contribution to documentary film.  The Oostende native was one of the founders of the Royal Belgian Film Archive and appeared in two classics of 20th century cinema: Jean Vigo's Zero for Conduct and Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.  These achievements alone would make for a formidable CV before you even begin to consider Storck's 50+ years as a director.  Storck died 20 years ago, but we can still see much of his pioneering work thanks to the archive he helped establish; Cinematek (as the KBF is now known) have released an excellent series of Blu-ray/DVD sets featuring some of the director's best documentaries.  Over the next few posts, we'll take a look at one of these sets, a dual-format release containing three titles known as "the social films".  Although rather expensive, this release (and Cinematek's work in general) is definitely worthy of your time and money.  The discs are region-free, and Dutch, English and French options are included, as is a nice booklet with notes in all three languages; it's clear that Cinematek are really pushing for Storck's work to reach as wide an audience as possible.

The first film in the set, Borinage, is arguably Storck's finest (half) hour.  It is a collaboration between Storck and Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens, and it documents the effects of the miners' strike of 1932 in the area of the title.  Ivens and Storck initially set out to make a balanced, objective documentary on a subject most of Belgium was indifferent towards, but upon arriving in the Borinage and witnessing the abject poverty and appalling living conditions firsthand, the pair soon changed tack.  The unsympathetic nature of both mine owners and police is plain to see, and Storck and Ivens formed a good relationship with the striking miners and their families.  While the filmmakers were able to capture genuine footage, they also collaborated with the workers in order to film reconstructed scenes (a practice Storck would return to in future films), with the impoverished miners accepting nothing more than bread as payment for their efforts.

The scale of the poverty on display here really has to be seen to be believed, and it is incredible to think that this is 20th century western Europe on film.  The inhabitants of the overcrowded hovels are shown resorting to increasingly desperate measures, ranging from using their own floorboards as firewood to drinking from a flooded cellar in the absence of potable water.  It's the sort of thing you might read about in Zola (whose Germinal, filmed by Claude Berri in 1993, unfolded against the backdrop of a miners' strike), but seeing real footage of starving, unwashed, uneducated children facing yet another interminably bleak day is a most upsetting experience.

Borinage was originally a silent film which played with Dutch and French intertitles, although in the 1960s these were replaced by a voiceover by Cinematek co-founder André Thirifays; this later version is the one included on the Cinematek DVD.  The absence of dialogue somehow lends a greater authenticity to the work, although Storck would change his approach when it came to the next entry in the "social films" set (De huizen van ellende), which we'll discuss in an upcoming post.  Henri Storck didn't stay wholly rooted in the documentary format, and even directed a fictional feature film (1952's The Smugglers' Banquet); his working methods were a clear influence on many, including his compatriot Agnès Varda.  Please give half an hour of your time to Borinage if you've never seen it - it's a remarkable documentary, and its preservation alone is a major cause for celebration.

Darren Arnold

Image: NOS [CC BY-SA 3.0 NL]