Juliet of the Spirits (1965)

The title character in Juliet of the Spirits begins to suspect her husband is cheating on her, so she hires a private detective, who confirms that he is having an affair. However, she is trapped in the marriage because she loves her husband so much that she is afraid he will leave her. But her real problem is that she is trapped in a Federico Fellini movie for over two hours, which was produced under the assumption that if you have a lot of strange people in a movie saying weird things, and then fill the movie with all kinds of symbolic stuff, people will think it is profound and deep. She thinks that it is better to have a husband who does not love her and who cheats on her than to have no husband at all. And I guess she believes it is better to be in a Fellini movie than no movie at all. Wrong on both counts.

Diary of a Country Priest (1951)

The title character in Diary of a Country Priest is in ill health. He cuts out all meat and vegetables from his diet, which consists of wine with sugar in it and stale bread. So we wonder, Is he unable to eat because he is sick, or is he sick because he does not eat? Another priest tries to get him to eat more, but to no avail. At one point in the movie, he sees God. It made me think of Bertrand Russell’s remark to the effect that one man will get drunk and see pink elephants, while another will fast for a week and see God: both are abnormal perceptions arising from an abnormal physiology. We wonder why he does not go to a doctor, and finally he does. It is stomach cancer. He dies.

L’Avventura (1960)

Are people as weird in foreign countries as the movies that are made in those countries?  If so, I am sure glad I live in America.  L’Avventura would still have been a weird foreign film even if it had been shorter, but at least it would have been a better movie because there would have been less of it.

A bunch of people get on a boat and end up on a small volcanic island.  After they walk around for a while, they decide to leave and discover that Anna is missing.  They search everywhere, but she is gone.  There is only one possibility:  she drowned and her body drifted out to sea with the tide.  Of course, we can still wonder if it was an accident, suicide, or murder.  But one thing is certain:  she didn’t just vanish into thin air.

Wait a minute!  What am I saying?  This is a weird foreign film by Michelangelo Antonioni.  When you enter the theater to watch one of these movies, you have to check your reason and common sense at the door, or it will just get in the way of experiencing existential wonder, if that’s what you’re into.  So, of course she might just have vanished into thin air or teleported off the island or was abducted by aliens or whatever.

In any event, Anna’s friend, Claudia, and Anna’s boyfriend, Sandro, don’t have much reason and common sense either, because they leave the island and start looking for Anna.  I mean, they actually think she might be wandering around Italy, visiting museums, staying at a hotel, or anything that someone might do who wasn’t last seen on a small island with no way off except by boat.

They recognize that she might have drowned, but that doesn’t stop them from knocking off a quick piece, because though they just met, yet they are wildly in love with each other and just have to have some right in the middle of an open field.  Of course, that doesn’t stop Sandro from knocking off a quick piece the next day with some woman on the couch in the hotel lobby.  When Claudia catches him, he cries.  He shed not one tear for Anna, but this is different.  No problem, because Claudia still loves him.

And Anna?  You mean you’re still wondering what happened to her?  What do you think this is, an American movie?

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933)

Sometimes a book or a movie gets more praise than it deserves because it was banned somewhere.  And what could be better for a movie than to have been banned by Joseph Goebbels himself, the Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany!  Other than that, there is no explanation for why anyone thinks this movie is any good.

If Dr. Mabuse:  The Gambler (1922) was over the top, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is absurd.  The title character went insane in the first movie and was confined to an insane asylum.  Then, Hofmeister, a criminal who once was a police detective, but was cashiered for bribery, goes mad out of fear of Dr. Mabuse.  By the end of the movie, Dr. Baum, who runs the asylum, goes mad as well and has to be confined.  But it does not stop there.  The plot is so outrageous as to make one think the movie itself was produced by a madman.

For starters, while Dr. Mabuse is in the insane asylum, he still manages to run a criminal organization, planning crimes down to the last detail.  His motives are as mad as he is.  Whereas in the first movie, he simply wanted power and the pleasure of manipulating the lives of others, in this movie he wants to drive the whole world mad by getting people hooked on drugs, which he supplies for free, and by causing so much terror and destruction that civilization will collapse, leaving nothing behind but crime as a way of life.

Mabuse communicates with his henchmen by willing his thoughts onto a record, which plays when he so wills it, while a cardboard image of himself sits behind a curtain, casting a shadow.  Do you dare ask how this curtain, cardboard image, and record player came to be set up in this room where criminals go to get their orders when commanded to do so by a piece paper with a typewritten message on it?  Why, Mabuse just wills it all into place!

Things get a little easier for Mabuse when he dies and wills his spirit into Dr. Baum, so now he has another body to occupy that can leave the asylum.  But he loves the record gimmick so much that when Dr. Baum wants his servant to think he is in his quarters, the record player is turned on whenever someone wiggles the door handle, causing it to play the message, “I don’t wish to be disturbed.”

Kent, a man who killed his girlfriend and her lover and went to prison for it, is forced by economic circumstances into Mabuse’s criminal organization.  Together with Lilli, the woman he loves, he decides to go straight.  But before he can make it to the police station, he and Lilli are captured and brought to the room with the curtain, the cardboard image, and the record player.  After the door is locked behind them, the record tells them they will never leave the room alive.  Eventually, Kent and Lilli pull back the curtain and discover the setup.  Then they hear ticking, the sound of a time bomb.  What better way to have a couple of people killed than to blow up your own headquarters!  But when you can will yourself into another body, will your thoughts onto a record, will your thoughts through a typewriter onto a piece of paper, and will an entire setup consisting of record player, curtain, and cardboard image, and finally will a time bomb into existence as well, then I suppose it is child’s play to will the whole setup into existence somewhere else after you destroy it with that time bomb just to kill two people.

But all is not lost.  We can just say to ourselves that this movie was an attempt by Fritz Lang to warn us of the danger of Adolf Hitler and that will make the movie profound somehow.

Dr. Mabuse:  The Gambler (1922)

At its longest running time, Dr. Mabuse:  The Gambler is almost five hours long, and it really overstays its welcome.  Long movies should be epics, spanning many years, accompanied by stirring music.  This movie is just a crime drama taking place over a matter of weeks, perhaps months.  It might have been more palatable had it been presented today as a television series, divided into weekly segments of forty minutes each, allowing for commercials, but just barely.

When the movie begins, our credulity is strained by the elaborate conspiratorial network that has been set up to do what could have been done in a simple, straightforward manner.  For example, when Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), the mastermind of a criminal organization, wants to meet secretly with one of his henchmen, does he just have the guy come over to his apartment where they can talk in private?  It would seem reasonable enough, inasmuch as Mabuse’s henchmen can often be found at his apartment where he gives them instructions.  But no!  Mabuse puts on a disguise and pretends to have an automobile accident with his henchman, who then offers his car to Dr. Mabuse, as if he is just giving him a lift out of courtesy.  Inside the car, Mabuse then gives his henchman the secret instructions.  And how did they arrange to have this accident at just that time and at just that intersection, you ask?  Why, they probably discussed it over at Mabuse’s apartment the day before.

The point of the secret meeting in the automobile has to do with the creation of a panic in the stock market concerning a stolen trading agreement between nations, allowing Mabuse, in disguise, of course, to sell high and then buy back low when the trading agreement is found, still sealed, just as Mabuse planned.  That might have been interesting, had not the whole thing been rendered silly by the automobile accident nonsense.

Before going over to the stock exchange, Mabuse, in another disguise, goes over to a secret apartment where he has a counterfeiting operation going on.  Does he keep the key in his apartment until he needs it?  Of course not.  He has a woman sit outside the apartment with the key hidden in a ball of twine, which he extracts when he wants to go inside.  Once in the apartment, we find five blind men counting the counterfeit money and putting it in bundles.  Presumably, all the bills are of the same denomination.  They are never allowed to leave the place, and since they are blind, they don’t know who it is that runs the operation.  We never see the money being printed, just counted.  Perhaps it is being printed in another room by five deaf men who cannot hear Mabuse’s voice and thus do not know who runs the operation.

You might think that between these market manipulations and counterfeiting operations, Mabuse has all the money he needs, but as we later find out, money is not Mabuse’s ultimate motive.  He does not want money so that he can live in comfort and luxury.  In fact, he cares nothing about happiness, and indeed, his moods range from morose to grouchy to angry.  What he wants is power, of which he can never get enough.  Money is simply one manifestation of his power.  Another is his ability to manipulate people.  Finally, toward the end, he says he regards himself as a state within a state, with which he is at war.

Regarding his desire to manipulate people, we discover a new aspect of the movie that makes the counterfeiting and stock market machinations almost seem realistic by comparison.  It turns out that he has mesmeric powers so great that he can compel people to do things from across the room simply by concentrating his gaze.  Such are his powers that he compels several people to commit or attempt suicide.  Also, his mental powers enable him to create illusions.  In one case, in a different disguise, he puts on a performance displaying such skills, which includes making the entire audience see people emerge from a desert and enter into the aisle, only to vanish before their eyes.  I found myself saying, “Mabuse gestures hypnotically,” in allusion to Mandrake, the Magician, a comic strip I never cared for.

At one point in the movie, another motive arises for Mabuse, lust for Countess Told.  He kidnaps her and takes her to his apartment, but she keeps refusing his advances, saying she wants to return to her husband.  As an act of revenge, Mabuse compels her husband, Count Told, to slit his throat with a razor.  Why Mabuse didn’t just use his mesmeric powers to make the Countess get naked and hop in bed, I don’t know.

Prosecutor von Wenk finally figures out that Mabuse is the evil super villain behind all the bad things that have been happening.  He gets an armed force together to arrest him, leading to a big shootout.  But it doesn’t make sense that Mabuse would resist being arrested, because he could mesmerically compel the judge and jury to find him innocent, or, in a pinch, compel the guard to open the prison doors and let him go.  And then he could gesture hypnotically to make it appear that that he was still in his cell.

I guess the people who made this movie realized that Mabuse’s powers could exceed any brought against him by the state, so they stooped to a deus ex machina.  They made Mabuse go mad, seeing ghosts of those whose deaths he was responsible for.  Reduced to a blithering loony, he is carted off to jail, or, as we find out in the sequel, to an insane asylum.

Eyes Without a Face (1960)

In Eyes Without a Face, mad scientist Docteur Génessier, whose specialty is transplanting tissue from one person to another, is working to overcome the tendency of the recipient to reject the foreign tissue.  He also has a practical purpose, which is grafting a new face on his daughter, Christiane, who was disfigured in an automobile accident that was his fault.  His Igor is Louise, played by Alida Valli, whose disfigured face was restored by Génessier, for which reason she is extremely loyal to him and willing to aid him in his evil doings.  In particular, Louise picks up young women who look the way Christiane did before her disfigurement, takes them to Génessier’s house so he can remove their faces and transplant them onto Christiane.  Unfortunately, he has thus far been unsuccessful, the result of which is that a bunch of dead women’s bodies without faces keep turning up, all of whom seem to be of the same physical type.  In fact, we see Louise dump one such woman into a river at the beginning of the movie.  One way in which all the women are similar is that they all have blue eyes.  Now, this makes no sense, because Christiane’s eyes are fine, hence the title:  she has the eyes; what she needs is a face.  So why the women whose faces are being removed have to have blue eyes is a mystery.

Génessier identifies the woman found in the river as his daughter so that people, including her boyfriend Jacques, a doctor who works in Génessier’s clinic, will think she is dead and not wonder where she is, for only Génessier, Louise, and Christiane know of her horribly burned face.  In the meantime, Christiane wears a mask around the house so as not to gross everyone out including herself.  The mask is an immobile version of what she used to look like.  One of the amazing things about this mask, which allows us a clear view of her eyes, is how expressive her “face” is.  We have all heard the expression, “The eyes are a window to the soul.”  This movie really demonstrates it.  We get a good sense of what Christiane is feeling and thinking as she walks around the house owing only to the expressiveness of her eyes.

Louise’s next victim is Edna.  She tricks her into getting into the car with her, and the next thing you know, Edna is strapped to the operating table having her face lifted, so to speak.  We actually get a glimpse of her face after the skin has been removed, squarely placing this film into the category of Grand Guignol.  At first the transplant seems to be a success, but eventually it becomes necrotic and has to be removed again.  Back on goes the mask.  For some reason, Génessier keeps Edna alive, as if he is doing her a favor, but she leaps to her death.  Adding to the creepiness of this movie are all the big, howling dogs Génessier has locked up in small cages to be used for his transplant experiments.

One of Edna’s friends reports her missing.  She tells the police about the woman that Edna said she was going somewhere with, but all she can say by way of identification is that Edna said the woman wore a pearl choker (Louise wears a choker to hide the scar on her neck).  Later, Jacques receives a strange phone call from Christiane, who misses him terribly.  She only utters his name, but he recognizes her voice.  He goes to the police, and when Inspector Parot mentions the pearl choker in passing, Jacques thinks of Louise.  As a result, she and Dr. Génessier become suspects.

A woman named Paulette, who fits the profile of missing girls, blue eyes and all, is picked up by the police for shoplifting.  Parot and another inspector threaten her with prosecution unless she acts as a decoy.  She agrees to go to Génessier’s clinic and fake an illness.  And here is the point in the movie where police incompetence becomes so absurd that it is laughable.  Do they have a plainsclothes officer watching the clinic to see what happens to her when she is discharged?  No.  And so, when Paulette is released late at night and walks down the street to get a bus, she is offered a ride by Louise and accepts.  Too bad nobody is around to see her get in the car.

Jacques calls Inspector Parot to let him know Paulette has left the clinic.  Parot concludes that this puts Génessier and Louise in the clear, since they obviously did not kidnap Paulette, but let her leave the clinic instead.  However, Parot decides to make sure she got home all right.  Gosh!  She never got home.  So the two inspectors drive out to Génessier’s clinic just to be sure.  They ask Génessier if Paulette was released from clinic.  Yes she was, he tells them.  The inspectors shrug and go home, concluding it was just a false trail and the choker was just one big coincidence.

Before Paulette’s face can be peeled off, Christiane releases her from the table, stabs Louise in the neck right through the choker, and releases the dogs, who then go after Génessier, ripping half his face off.  Christiane wanders off into the woods with one of the doves she also released perched on her hand, just to give the movie a little symbolism.  You see, this is a French film, so you can’t expect it to make sense the way a Hollywood production would.

The Virgin Spring (1960)

Being an atheist, I have always found it challenging to review a religious movie, because I worry that my criticism will be more about religion than about the movie.  This difficulty is compounded if it is not clear what the attitude of those who produced the movie is toward that religion, whether they intended the movie to be a criticism of religion or a defense of it.  In other words, it is not clear to me whether The Virgin Spring looks upon the simple faith of some fourteenth century peasants in the same way that parents will smile at their child’s belief in Santa Claus, or whether the movie actually shares that faith in God and encourages us to do likewise.

Anyway, as I said, there is this fourteenth century family of Swedish peasants headed by Töre (Max von Sydow).  His daughter is Karin (Birgitta Pettersson), who is a blonde virgin.  Well, her body may be pure, but her soul is not.  She is lazy, vain, and spoiled, smug in the fact that she is so cute and adorable that she can do as she pleases.  She has a foster sister, Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom), who is a brunette, a bastard soon to give birth to a bastard of her own.  The two of them set out for church to do something or other, and on the way it turns out that the other night Karin was flirting with the man that got Ingeri pregnant.  Though there is no hope that he will marry Ingeri, yet Karin’s dalliance with him infuriates Ingeri.  Just to rub it in, Karin taunts Ingeri for no longer being a virgin, while gloating over the way she will someday be married in all her virginal purity.  She really made my flesh crawl.

They get separated, and soon after Karin comes upon three goat herders that rape and murder her.  They strip her body of her beautiful clothes.  Later, they ask for lodging at Töre’s house, not realizing he is Karin’s father.  That night, they present Karin’s clothing to her mother as a gift, saying it belonged to their sister.  She tells Töre about it.  He asks Ingeri what she knows, and she admits that she witnessed the rape and murder and feels guilty because she wanted Karin to get her comeuppance.  Töre then murders the three goat herders, one of whom was just a boy, who had nothing to do with what happened to Karin.  Then Töre feels guilty for having committed murder.  The whole family goes out to where Karin’s body lies dead.  When they find her, Töre raises the ancient problem of evil, asking why God let this happen and then let him commit murder, while at the same time saying that he begs God’s forgiveness.

Now, this is what I was talking about.  Are we supposed to approve of Töre’s attitude or should we be disgusted?  I mean, I’m disgusted.  In fact, it is even a little disgusting that he had to wait until his daughter was raped and murdered before questioning how an all-powerful, loving God could let this happen.  After all, God has been standing by and letting girls get raped and murdered for centuries, and it is only now, when his daughter is a victim, that he takes exception to God’s indifference.  So, am I being disgusted with the movie or with the religion that this movie is premised upon?

It gets worse.  Töre promises to build a church on the spot where Karin died, in hopes of being worthy of God’s forgiveness.  Then, when they lift up her body, water begins to gush from the ground where she lay, becoming a spring.  The family treats the water as if it is a miracle, a replenishing gift from God.  That’s right.  Karin’s rape and murder have been worth it, because now we are going to get a church with a little spring nearby.  Perhaps I should point out that there is no shortage of water in that area, the family having crossed a large stream on their way to get to Karin, so it is not as though the spring will bring needed water to a parched region.  It’s just more water.

Here we go again.  I don’t know whether we are supposed to regard that spring as a real miracle or not.  If it is a miracle, then we have to wonder:  as long as God was willing to perform a miracle, why didn’t he miraculously save Karin instead?  If it is not a miracle, are we supposed to despise or admire the family for thinking it is one?

I give up.  I’ll have to let someone who actually believes in God tell me what I am supposed to make of this movie.