Az Ember Trédiája [HU 2011]

International title: The Tragedy of Man

Info: I embedded the full movie with English subtitles below.

THE PLOT

Az Ember Trédiája (international title: The Tragedy of Man) is an epic, animated adaption of a famous Hungarian play by the same name. It draws on Christian beliefs about the origin of the world and mankind (cp. the biblical books “Genesis” and “Exodus”) and uses historical achievements of Western culture to tell the story of Adam, the first man, and Lucifer, an evil demon and counterpart to the good Creator, as he wonders through different epochs to find a possibility to transcend his own mortality. The featured epochs are among others, Ancient Greece and Rome, Medieval Times during the Crusades, the French Revolution, and Great Britain in the 19th century – all of which have their own unique animation style, influenced by real-life paintings during the respective period.

WHAT I LIKE

While many episodes are not impressively animated, when compared to more recent feature films with a higher budget, the overall art style in most sequences is beautiful and clever. Although sometimes the movie’s budgetary limitations show, some scenes are very creative, e.g. when a pyramid in Ancient Egypt is made of slaves or when Adam and Eve are composed of different historic paintings in the Garden of Eden. There are episodes that are truly remarkable and stunning to watch, like the Renaissance or Ancient Greece, and really achieve to build an atmosphere that draws viewers into the narrative. Also, the sheer amount of different art styles and the symbolic use of certain artefacts (e.g., the wheel of time or the cross) make for an intriguing watch.

WHAT I DON’T LIKE

Due to being produced over a span of about 20 years (cp. section below), some episodes are weak and have a choppy animation style (e.g., the transformation of Adam in space), with a low framerate and movements being cut off (e.g., the futuristic ice land), sometimes even stylistically resembling visual novels (e.g., the Bronze Age). As the broad range of animation quality is noticeable, it can become distracting, which is facilitated by the long runtime of 160 minutes. Lastly, the movie features graphic depictions of naked bodies, sex scenes (e.g., in Ancient Rome), and killings (e.g., during the French Revolution). Therefore, in addition to the historic settings and philosophic questions, the movie is for a mature audience. While this is no inherent drawback, it should still be noted, as many viewers consider animated movies to be family friendly and entertaining, whereas Az Ember Trédiája is neither.

WHY IT MATTERS

Although the story is based on the Christian interpretation of the creation of the world and uses a linear narrative of the Western perspective to depict the fate of mankind throughout the ages, the philosophical and existential questions posed will be intriguing for many people: What is creation? And can humans create something that lasts over time? Most segments deal with these questions and critically show that culture, science, and tradition can sometimes lead to striving for power and dominating others (e.g., Adam’s discussion with Lucifer about the Crusades). The presented ideas and elaborated philosophical concept, are sometimes hard to follow on the fly, which makes the movies’ deeper levels difficult to grasp, but also worthwhile to explore. The original play was written in 1861 by the Hungarian author Imre Madach which was compared to “Goethes Faust” [1802/1832] and Milton’s “Paradise Lost” [1667], both featuring similar themes. However, due to the complex and highly symbolic Hungarian language, most translations have been regarded as lacking. Finally, the director also added newer historic events in a later segment featuring criticism of 20th century fascism, communism, and socialism to make the story’s message timelier. On a personal note, I wholeheartedly recommend the movie to fans of 2001 [1968] or Shinseiki Evangerion [1995-1996] (original ending).

THE VERDICT

Az Ember Tragédiája (international title: The Tragedy of Man) is a Hungarian animation epic about the first man and his search for how to transcend his own existence. The movie draws heavily on Christian mythology (e.g., the Biblical origin story) and Western culture (e.g., Renaissance or Ancient Rome) to present mankind’s everlasting struggle for transcending mortality and fighting against the decay of cultural achievements. Thus, the presented themes are complex and for a mature audience who look for a narrative that poses these questions in a clever and sometimes stunningly animated way. Due to the movie’s troubled production history, the animation quality differs vastly between the various segments, but most are still stunning and/or animated in a clever way.

Overall 8/10

 

INTERESTING FACTS

– The future city features ideas and concepts of Orwell’s “1984” [1948] and Huxley’s “Brave New World” [1932]. This includes, but is not limited to, total surveillance, a restriction of books, and total control over newborns. However, also concepts of other dystopian fiction is incorporated, e.g. processing dead people into food, as in Soylent Green [1973].

– In the original Hungarian play Lucifer is called “The primeval spirit of defiance”.

– As indicated by the credits, the film was made from 1988 to 2011 – the screenplay even dates to 1983. It was released in segments due to lack of funding for the project after an American investor dropped out. In 2011, prior to the film’s release, it had to be completely re-dubbed and most of the voice actors had to be replaced because their voices were deemed too old.

– The segments were produced in the following order: Space (1990), France (1991), Egypt (1992), Phalanstery & Future Ice Age (1993), Prague (1996), Creation & Ice Age (1997), Outside the Garden of Eden (1998), Garden of Eden (1999), Rome (2000), Greece (2003), Constantinople (2006), London (2009).

The Thief of Bagdad [US 1924]

Info: I embedded the full movie below.

THE PLOT

The Thief of Bagdad is a free adaptation of the classic story collection “Arabian Nights” and centers around the titular thief who doesn’t believe in Allah, mocks clergymen, steals food and money, and lives in the streets of Bagdad. One night, he even breaks into the caliphate, trying to steal a treasure. However, as he sees the young princess, he falls in love with her and thus plays the role as the royal Prince Ahmed to get the chance to marry her. One of his competitors, the evil Mongol Prince who tries to rule the city, finds out about Ahmed’s lie and makes the Caliph capture him. Still, the thief slips away and decides to go after a rare treasure to redeem himself, marry the princess, and save the city from the Mongol Prince.

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WHAT I LIKE

The Thief of Bagdad is a wonderful adventure movie that looks stunning: from the large set pieces of the streets of Bagdad (e.g., the city gate or the inner court) to the impressive costumes (e.g., the amazing entrance of the prince suitor), and the performances. Technically, the movie is extraordinary and the practical effects, e.g. the magic carpet or the invasion of the magic army in Bagdad, were groundbreaking at the time. Most performances are great, if often overly theatric as was commonplace during the silent era, and Fairbanks’ charisma and stunning stunt work is magnificent. Lastly, the soundtrack – at least in some versions – is based on the original sheet notes and feels grand, epic, and entertaining, especially the score in the early scenes in Bagdad.

WHAT I DON’T LIKE

As the movie will approach its 100th anniversary in a few years, several aspects have not aged as good as others. Fairbank’s performances are the center pole of the movie and his stunt works is always great to look at, however, some scenes are a bit stagy, e.g. when he argues with his friend about stolen food or when he first sees the princess in the palace. These few moments can feel a little over the top. Also, while technically the movie was groundbreaking, the monster fights have aged poorly, as the viewer sees obvious strings and recognizes the monsters as probs, especially the underwater spider. Finally, due to the long runtime, the pacing is quite slow, which is no problem per se, however, the introduction to the central characters and the explanation of the premise would have been handled differently and more efficiently today.

WHY IT MATTERS

The movie was inspired by “One Thousand and One Nights” or simply “Arabian Nights”, a collection of Middle Eastern folk tales compiled in Arabic during the Islamic Golden Age. Interestingly, hugely popular stories like “Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp”, “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”, and “The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor”, were not part of the original Arabic versions but were added to the collection by European translators at the beginning of the 18th century. Stories from Arabian Nights have been popular subjects for movies – the earliest example being Georges Méliès’ short film Le Palais des Mille et une nuits [1905]. However, The Thief of Bagdad doesn’t follow one exact story and the characters are also freely interpreted. Although being subject to criticism due to white washing of the main characters and an obvious racist depiction of East-Asian characters, the movie is still by many critics believed to be one of the best adaptations of Arabian Nights and a stellar example of an adventure epic from the silent era in general.

THE VERDICT

Based in part on the classic story collection Arabian Nights, The Thief of Bagdad centers around a young thief living in the streets of Bagdad. As the wants to marry the princess, he travels to fantastical places to find a magical box that grants wishes. The movie is a stunning example of an adventure epic from the silent era that mostly still holds up today. Technically groundbreaking at the time, some practical effect may seem mediocre at best, by 2019 standards. However, the stellar performance of Fairbanks, the great stunt work, and the marvelous orchestral soundtrack make the movie impressively entertaining and easy to watch, giving its hefty runtime.

Overall 8/10

 

INTERESTING FACTS

– This version of the Arabian Nights has been remade 5 times – although some versions primarily reference the popular 1940 version.

– The practical effect of the magic carpet was done with a thick sheet of steel rigged to the top of a crane, connected with piano wires.

– The underwater scenes were shot through a curtain of thin gauze and Fairbanks had to move slowly, to achieve the swimming effect. Also, the scenes were tinted blue in post-production.

The Thief of Bagdad was one of the most expensive films of the 1920s, with production’s cost being estimated to about $2.5 million. However, Fairbank’s biographer Jeffery Vance revealed in 2008 that the actual production’s cost was only $1.1 million, which equates to about $17 million dollars in 2019.

Freaks [US 1932]

Info: This review was originally written on 11/29/2017. Also, I embedded the full movie on YouTube.

THE STORY

Freaks depicts the lives of several sideshow performers with abnormalities – hence, the derogative word “freaks”. At its core, it is a drama about a beautiful trapeze artist Cleopatra taking advantage of a midget (Hans), because of his wealthy background. However, he soon discovers that she wants to lethally poison him, therefore betraying the familial bond of the circus performers. The movie ends both with a shot of the now disfigured trapeze artist (“The Human Duck”) and with a happier scene in which Hans is reunified with his former fiancé.

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WHAT I LIKE

Technically, the movie is very beautifully shot. Due to its age and its controversial history, most copies of the film have very low-quality picture and sound. Music is used very efficiently, e.g. circus music in some scenes, but often the lack of music rather contributes to the eeriness of the atmosphere. Also, for today’s viewers, the washed out, black-and-white images really delivers in terms of obscurity.

The cast was rather controversial at the time – and to a certain extent it still is. Director Todd Browning [Dracula, 1931; The Unknown, 1927] gathered an ensemble cast of social misfits who were already performing in circuses: people with microencephaly, people lacking various limbs, midgets etc. The movie does a great job in portraying these social outcasts in daily situations, like smoking, eating, and even dating. Thus, the atmosphere of living in a traveling circus at the time is convincing. Also, the performances of some actors were very memorable, especially of the midget couple (played by a real-life brother and sister).

The characters are presented with all the faults and flaws every human being has. Therefore, the movie never patronizes or glamorizes the group of social “freaks”, but rather shows their most humane feelings: love, anger, envy, and humor. In portraying most characters three-dimensional, the viewer is never spoon-fed the central message, what it means to be human. Although, in the end the antagonists Cleopatra and her secret lover Hercules are themselves dehumanized and made social outcasts. This emphasizes that what it means to be human is not based on outer appearances, but rather on moral decision-making.

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WHAT I DON’T LIKE

Historically speaking, the movie had a troubled premiere, with approximately 30 minutes being cut. Even the ending was starkly debated, eventually cut, and given a much happier tone. Most of the cut scenes are considered lost, therefore it should come as no surprise, that sometimes the movie lacks cohesion. Several subplots are introduced, that are never developed further, and do not contribute anything to the plot. Granted, most of the scenes do contribute to the overall atmosphere – however, it does break the viewing flow.

Though not as controversial as in the 1930s, the content is still very problematic. People with disabilities are portrayed as social misfits and the ending revolves around these people avenging one of their own. It was a deliberate creative decision to draw attention to their way of living, which is why some people claim it would exploit their obvious shortcoming. However, I do feel that, it was not intentional to use shocking imagery for financial reasons, especially considering the overall message the movie tries to convey (also considering Tod Browning’s backstory at a traveling circus).

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WHY IT MATTERS

The introduction reads: “In ancient times anything that deviated from the normal was considered an omen of ill luck or representative of evil.” Freaks openly plays with these social stereotypes, e.g. when the “pinheads” meet the two men in the woods. Yet, the movie never spills out, what one should think about these characters. Involving the viewers in this decision-making about what is or should be morally correct was an achievement of this era in cinema. Just like M [1931] asks the viewers directly whether a murderer unable to control his actions should be killed, Freaks asks the viewers what it means to be human, and whether a perceived normative idea should be used to oppress minorities. Combined with probably the most daring vision of the old Hollywood directors, the introduction’s statement is truly correct: “Never again will such a story be filmed”.

A very haunting scene – in every sense of the word – is “The Wedding Feast”, where because of her wedding with Hans, Cleopatra breaks the initiation ceremony. Clearly, she does not want to be part of a group of “freaks”, mocking the people at the table and driving them away; just moments, after the viewer himself/herself experienced a strong friendly or even familial bond between the characters. I would claim, this scene encaptures the spirit of the movie perfectly.

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VERDICT

Rightfully considered as standing alone in a subgenre of one, Freaks has well-balanced characters, an engaging atmosphere, and a controversial yet important message, that still holds up. Historically condemned and met with lackluster contemporary reception, Freaks is now considered culturally and aesthetically important – for several reasons, ranging from the daring vision of its director, to the unsettling plot, making the viewer confront his/her own stereotypes.

Overall 7/10

 

INTERESTING FACTS

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– The on-screen romance between Hans and Frieda was very subdued because the roles were being played by real-life brother and sister Harry Earles and Daisy Earles.

– In some states of the United States, it is still technically forbidden to screen the film, because the laws were never officially repealed. Also, this movie was originally bann

ed in Australia and it was banned for 30 years in the UK, which is a record.

– The film initially ran over 90 minutes but was severely truncated following the horrific reactions it provoked. That extra footage is now presumed lost.

– A woman who attended a 1932 test screening for the film claimed later that she suffered a miscarriage resulting from the film’s shocking nature, and threatened to sue MGM.

– Director Tod Browning worked at a circus in his youth, both as a clown and a contortionist. His familiarity with circus folk inspired him to create this film.

So I decided to start fresh …

About 2 years again, I decided to start my own blog. All beginnings are simple, and I went for a blogspot account: movie-discourse.blogspot.com. Since then, I reviewed 46 movies, 1 series, and wrote 2 small articles on the movie reviewing process. Overall, these articles have accumulated a few thousand reads, and while I know that’s not spectacular, I still thinks it’s quite an achievement. Moreover, I thoroughly enjoyed writing about older, unknown, and/or independent movies … and perhaps helping them to get a bit more attention. Therefore, I started a new blog on WordPress to provide a better user experience (and frankly, a better domain name): max4movies.blog.

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The blog domain may have changed but I’m still writing movie reviews and I’m planning to migrate all the older reviews to this new blog. Stay tuned for more!