Judge Daryl Loomis has some choice words for you, which he will now pantomime.
Our reviews of Harakiri: Criterion Collection (published September 5th, 2005), Harakiri (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection (published October 27th, 2011), and Harakiri (Region 2) (published September 2nd, 2011) are also available.
The birth of a genius.
Truly, Fritz Lang (Metropolis) is in the pantheon of all-time great directors and, arguably, he was the very best filmmaker of early cinema. Now, from Kino International, his fans have the opportunity to view three of his very first films with Fritz Lang: The Early Years and, while they may not reach the heights of his work that would soon follow, it is a fascinating look at the rise of a master.
Facts of the Case
Harakiri: This retelling of Puccini's great opera, Madame Butterfly, presents the story of O-Take-San (Lil Dagover, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), a beautiful young Japanese woman who is committed to being a Buddhist priestess until she meets a handsome European soldier named Olaf (Niels Prien). She falls in love with him instantly and they marry, but within a few months, Olaf must return to Europe. Four years later, Olaf returns with his new wife in tow, only to find that he now has a son from O-Take-San, who has remained faithful to him for all these years.
The Wandering Shadow: Irmgard Vanderheit (Mia May, Love Tragedy) is exiled from her town in the wake of a sex scandal and finds solace in the solitude of the Bavarian Alps. There, she confronts her past and the men who drove her away, only to find a chance at redemption when one of those men is in danger.
Four Around the Woman: On her wedding night, Florence Yquen (Carola Toelle, Kean) is found tied up in her bed. It appears to be a simple robbery, but soon, she starts receiving blackmail notes threatening to tell her husband the real story of that night. Now, she must navigate a web of crime and conspiracy while trying to clear her name.
While there is no doubt that the three films presented in Fritz Lang: The Early Works don't match the greatness of his work to come, silent film fans are in for a real treat with this collection.
Harakiri, only Lang's fourth film, shows how adeptly he could adapt a work for silent cinema. Without the operatic trappings and in spite of fairly significant changes to the story, he gets the heart of the plot exactly right, giving all the sympathy and humanity to O-Take-San and making Olaf a genuine heel. This is in sharp contrast to how it might have been resolved in an American production where, even at this early stage, the finale would have likely been changed to reflect romance and happiness. Not here, though; it comes out exactly the way it should, in total sadness and tragedy. The performances are very solid and Niels Prien is hilarious as Olaf. His reaction when he gets word of his wife's predicament is absolutely priceless, with a shrug and a "Meh" attitude that hammers home his churlishness. It's not a great film, but there's a lot to enjoy in it.
The Wandering Shadow suffers the most from its age. Half an hour is missing from the print and, as explained prior to the start of the film, it was discovered in a Brazilian archive in the state that it is. This is a very interesting picture, with a strange plot that probably would make a lot more sense if the remainder of the film was intact, and some absolutely gorgeous views of the Alps. Of note, this is the first of many collaborations with wife and cowriter Thea von Harbou, who worked with him on nearly all of his best productions before he left for the US (and she joined the Nazi party). There is much that is excellent about the film, but it is a little bit too disjointed and fractured to recommend to anyone but the most avid silent film fans.
Finally, we have Four Around the Woman, another interesting but odd entry that would mark his final film before Destiny, his first masterwork. In tone and spirit, it anticipates Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler, one of the most entertaining of all the silents, with its focus on the criminal underbelly and the diabolical machinations of those criminals. It's mostly effective, with very strong performances and more visual style than in the previous films, but it is a little scattered and ends very abruptly.
Together, Fritz Lang: The Early Years is an excellent collection for fans of early film in general and Fritz Lang fans specifically. You aren't going to find the masterpieces that Lang would deliver a few years later, but they collectively give a great sense of what the director was capable of and what he would soon deliver.
The three films come on three separate discs from Kino. Given they're all bare-bones presentations, it's a waste of plastic, but otherwise the collection is just fine. All three films look better than anticipated, though they all suffer the kind of damage I've come to expect from silent film releases. There is some print degradation here and there, along with a plethora of scratches and pops, but the transfers are all very good. The biggest problem with all of them is the missing footage, which is most pronounced in The Wandering Shadow, which has nearly a third missing. The other two are less dramatic, but there are frames missing throughout and Four around the Woman, according to an apology before the film, is missing around ten minutes, which might help to explain why it's so confusing at times. The sound on each of the films fares basically the same, with no noise to speak of, though that's not surprising given that they all feature new scores by Aljoscha Zimmerman. I really liked the scores for the first two (odd, given my track record of hating modern silent scores), but hated the score for Four around the Woman. Plainly, it's repetitive and far too peppy for what is a fairly dour film. There are no extras on any of the three discs.
So what if the three films on Fritz Lang: The Early Works aren't masterpieces? They're still good films with shades of the greatness to come. It's too bad that the three discs are bare bones, but silent fans will still delight in seeing one of history's great directors at the start of his career.
Highly recommended. Not Guilty.
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Scales of Justice, Four Around The Woman
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