Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
The Seattle International Film Festival begins on May 17 and runs halfway into November. I kid! It only feels like it runs halfway into November. Among its hundreds of titles are a handful of “archival” (oy, that word) presentations, which represent an important mandate of any film festival: to value the cinema of the past.
A couple of giants are acknowledged in SIFF’s first weekend. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the obscenely talented genius who burned out in 1982 at age 37, was so prolific his filmography is still issuing forth “new” works. New, that is, in the sense they haven’t been screened outside Germany in decades. One such project is Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day, a TV miniseries Fassbinder made in 1972, reportedly a saga of the joys and hardships of factory workers. Because this blog series is about connecting movies to Scarecrow’s collection, I’ll call attention to Fassbinder’s range by mentioning three films released consecutively (astonishingly!) in 1974.
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is one of RWF’s most accessible films, a heartbreaking portrait of affection between an older widow (Brigitte Mira) and a younger North African immigrant (El Hedi ben Salem). It’s a warp on Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, but played out in drab apartments and lonely bars and, in one memorable scene, Hitler’s favorite restaurant.
Martha also has affinities to Sirk’s films, especially in its rigorously-composed frames, most of which seem to trap a woman (Margit Carstensen) married to a sadistic upper-class husband (Karlheinz Böhm). The film’s baroque visual style is a riot of bric-a-brac and mirrors, as though reflecting a society that makes its citizens miserable by design.
And then there’s Effi Briest, a black-and-white costume drama based on Fontane’s great 1894 novel, a tale of a young woman married off to an older man. Fassbinder’s blend of the classical and the postmodern is dazzling to behold, and in Hanna Schygulla he has a movie star to draw out the tragic qualities of an unfortunate heroine. That’s one year of Fassbinder’s career; get lost in the Scarecrow Fassbinder section and you might not emerge until mid-November.
The other giant hailed at SIFF is Kenji Mizoguchi, the Japanese master, and another filmmaker whose interest in female characters is a striking part of his greatest films. SIFF is showing Sansho the Bailiff, Mizoguchi’s staggering 1954 masterpiece, a film that will not leave you unchanged. The director’s best-known work is probably Ugetsu (1953), but do not miss The Life of Oharu (1952), in which an aging prostitute (Kinuyo Tanaka) recalls the disasters that led to her sorry state. Mizoguchi doesn’t so much photograph this story as he sees and feels it through the camera, with absolute command of the language of film. I was going to end by saying that although Fassbinder and Mizoguchi don’t have much in common, they stray across similar subject matter in these films—but now I wonder if they have quite a bit in common, including a baleful eye for how systems and societies can crush the unsuspecting.
Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.