The appeal for silent movies comes not from imagining how a moldy piece of nitrate might have entertained our great grandparents more than staring at a blank wall but in catching a unique type of storytelling that's just about impossible to pull off today.
Such is the case with Louis Feuillade's 1915-16 French serial Les Vampires. If you watch all six and a half hours of Les Vampires close enough, it's easy to see how much of a debt Alfred Hitchcock and anyone else who's ever made a thriller owes to Feuillade. More importantly, there are sequences that are still jaw dropping, nearly a century later.
The title characters aren't bloodsuckers as one might imagine. Instead they are a network of criminals who prey on Paris, striking without warning. While their most prominent member Irma Vep (Musidora), may walk around in a form-fitting catsuit, but it's hard to tell who's in the group because some of Paris' elite are secret members, and seemingly ordinary citizens may really be master assassins.
Fighting to expose the people behind the Vampires' reign of terror is an intrepid journalist named Philippe Guérande (Édouard Mathé) and his goofy but astonishingly capable sidekick Oscar Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque). The two stumble in and out of a seemingly endless series of close scrapes and try to properly interpret clues before the Vampires attack again. One hint: Look at the spelling of Irma Vep's name. It might offer a clue to her identity.
Feuillade wrote and shot all ten installments on a shoestring budget with a camera that seemed to be permanently embedded in the floor. Critics at the time complained that his filmmaking wasn't as fluid and creative as that of American filmmaker D.W. Griffith (The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance), whose movies were entering the French market as the installments of Le Vampires were.
Today, however, Feuillade's work seems oddly prescient. Terrorists, like the Vampires, specialize in blending in with their targets. Knowing that any person we could encounter could kill us isn't a comforting thought, and that certainly makes for a brisk, eerie viewing experience.
In addition, Feuillade could be viewed as a sort of proto-feminist. Irma Vep makes monkeys out of any of the men who make the mistake of tangling with her, and spending any time with Philippe's mother (Delphine Renot) proves that his courage and ingenuity are inherited.
There's also something about Les Vampires that no contemporary filmmaker could or should replicate: the stunts. When you see performers flinging themselves from windows, there's no wondering about the danger. It was real. Musidora was an acrobat, so she did a lot of her own stunts and still managed to live a relatively long life. No insurance company would back these kinds of productions today.
The new Kino-Lorber edition of Les Vampires doesn't offer anything in the way of extras, but new Blu-Ray is probably the best way to catch the 10 films, which range from 15 minutes to an hour. Les Vampires has been carefully cleaned up and restored with the cooperation of Feuillade's grandson. The score by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra is appropriate for the era and fits nicely. You may not sleep well after watching Les Vampires, but you certainly won't be bored.
Janusz Korczak (born Henryk Goldszmit) was a Polish writer, physician, educator, radio commentator,child advocate... I'm stopping here even though I've hardly begun to describe what he did during his almost 64 years.
His stories are taught to kids along with Peter Pan, and his insights into childhood education are still valid long after his death in 1942. And as Andrzej Wajda's powerful 1990 film Korczak illustrates, he was also courageous enough to back up his commitment to children, even if it meant his death.
Wajda starts Korczak as Poland is falling into the grip of the Third Reich. Poles are justly proud of Wajda and his filmmaking, but he's blunt about his nation's failings. As local authorities begin fearing that Korczak's radio comments could offend the Germans, he's pulled off the air. The fact that he's a Jew doesn't help.
While Korczak (expertly played by Wojciech Pszoniak) is probably the ultimate Renaissance man or hyphenate, his chief concern is the welfare of the children in his Jewish orphanage. Korczak is such a popular figure that Polish gentiles frequently offer to shelter him. He flatly refuses because he won't abandon the nearly 200 kids under his care. For an astonishingly long time, he manages to keep the youngsters under his care safe, fed and healthy despite the fact that they're stuck in the Warsaw ghetto.
Korczak's story is undeniably fascinating, but Wajda and screenwriter Agnieszka Holland (who also directed Europa Europa, In Darkness and the debut episode of Tremé) manage to pull off an impressive feat. People who knew Korczak had unambiguously fond memories of him. His dark side was lighter than the bright side most people have. The actual dilemma in Korczak is whether he could do more good n hiding than by staying with his charges no matter what.
Nonetheless, Pszoniak, who was terrifying as Robespierre in Wajda's Danton, makes him still seem real. Korczak has the same uncompromising principals as Robespierre, but he's a hero because he tries to save lives instead of end them. It also doesn't hurt that Pszoniak actually looks like Korczak in his later years.
The new Kino-Lorber Blu-Ray renders Robby Müller's supple black-and-white photography beautifully. Müller is best known for his work with Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire) and he knows how to create environments that look sterile or gritty with equal finesse. I should disclose that Holland is a friend of mine, but I fell in love with this movie long before I met her.