film

Old School Review: “Until The End of The World” Director’s Cut (1991)

For my 250th blogpost here, I wanted to review and write about something that felt as monumental as reaching this number of articles. Wim Wender’s 1991 globe-spanning road-trip, mystery, romance etc.. felt like the appropriate choice. At nearly five hours long, I’ll be reviewing the Director’s Cut version of the film, and it was a feat simply to find the time to sit through the road trip epic. I’ve only seen one other film from Wenders, “Wings of Desire”, which many call his Masterpiece, and you can read my thoughts on that film here on the blog as well; (https://spacecortezwrites.com/2018/08/24/old-school-review-wings-of-desire-1987/). If I were to try to describe all of the story beats, all of the character moments, or even the bulk of the visual/audial hallucinatory imagery that takes up a considerable volume of the last hour of the film- then this review would be nearing the 8,000-10,000 word mark with ease. Instead, I’ll try to give an authentic sense of the film’s perceived meaning and chatter along about the aspects I thought were especially poignant or prescient.

Sam Neill, Chick Ortega, and Rüdiger Vogler together in the Australian Outback.

Written by Peter Carey and Wim Wenders, “Until The End of The World” was based off of an idea conjured up by Wenders and Solveig Dommartin, who stars as Claire Tourneur, the lead of the film. “Until The End of The World” is a hard film to narrow down to any one genre other than that of journey and discovery. The film mainly follows Claire on a journey that spans the world, however she herself is chasing another individual, Trevor McPhee (William Hurt), an Australian with an American accent that she bumps into in France. However, there are a few key details to digest first before getting into that. While the film was released in 1991, it is set in 1999, aka “The Future“. In this version of the twentieth century’s final year an Indian Satellite outfitted with Nuclear weapons has spiraled out of control and the unknown impact of this slowly falling doomsday device has the world on edge. Millions of people are constantly migrating away from the next best guess on wherever it may land, but Claire could care less. We begin the film with her in an eclectic Venetian Party as she tries to forget about Gene (Sam Neill) her former boyfriend, an English Author living with her in Paris. Gene’s infidelity drove Claire away, and even though he loves her, she quickly falls for Trevor after a few encounters in Europe. On her way back north to Paris Claire gets in a car wreck with a couple of amicable French Bank Robbers, namely Chico Rémy (Chick Ortega) who becomes fast friends with Claire as she allows them a ride for awhile. There’s a huge bag of cash involved but getting bogged down in the details won’t help in analyzing a movie that’s almost five hours long. Anyways, on the road to Paris she meets Trevor, who’s in dire need of transport as he’s also being pursued by another Australian in a trenchcoat, but he’s armed. When she finally gets back to Paris, Trevor departs, and she returns to Gene’s apartment. After Claire showcases the huge bag of stolen money to Gene, she realizes that Trevor has stolen some of the money. She vows to track down Trevor, she says it’s to retrieve what’s been taken from her- but as we hear in the plentiful narration, Claire couldn’t really even articulate her reasoning for herself other than a sensation of purpose in doing so. Meanwhile, Gene’s been writing a new Novel with Claire as the protagonist, and as such, he too follows her across the world. In fact, the narration within the film is all from Sam Neill’s Gene, by the end we realize that the narration we’ve been hearing for roughly four hours, is from Gene’s second book he starts on this journey when he has a profound realization about Claire, humanity, and life in general. There’s a lot of chasing, following, love loss, forlorn nostalgia, and newfound friendships in this film. In truth the first half of the film is Claire following Trevor around the world from Paris to Berlin, where we meet a German Detective (Rüdiger Vogler) that Claire hires to track down Trevor, to Moscow, Beijing, Tokyo, San Francisco, and then to central Australia. There’s A LOT that happens in that time. Relationships between those involved in the Love Triangle evolve, we learn more about Trevor, why he’s being pursued, what his personal mission is, and that his real name is Sam Farber and that he’s the son of brilliant scientist Henry Farber (Max von Sydow). *I must stop for a moment to acknowledge the nod of cinematic respect for Yasujiro Ozu’s work with the short but notable inclusion of the legendary actor and longtime collaborator of Ozu’s, Chishû Ryû- seeing him appear in this film even for only but a moment was like seeing an old friend again, and I personally adored that moment.*

Solveig Dommartin, William Hurt, and Lois Chiles in San Francisco as Hurt’s Character, Sam, attempts to record a video clip of his sister, Elsa, for their Blind Mother to see with their father’s latest invention.

However, it is the second half of this film that captured my attention more. The whole of the second half of the film is set in Australia. The characters discover that the U.S. Government actually did nuke the Indian Satellite, resulting in an planet-wide N.E.M.P. (or nuclear electromagnetic pulse) that shuddered all non-shielded electronics. People everywhere are unsure of the devastation, without a connection to the world, they fear for their fellow humans all over the planet, not knowing if the atomic winds will turn in their direction. The whole gang of characters, Claire, Gene, Sam, Detective Winter, and even Chico, gather at the home and laboratory of Dr. Henry Farber. They all engage in pleasantries and we meet Sam’s mother Edith Farber (Jeanne Moreau) as well, the person he’s traveled the world over for, just to help her see once more. They spend what seems like weeks or months there trying to get the science of the project down as they ignore the greater significance of world events and look inward on their little project, which brilliantly foreshadows the next stage of events. On December 31st 1999, the group reestablishes radio contact and realizes that the world has been spared, the nuclear explosion and fallout was entirely contained to space. They also had some successes in transmitting images and video into Edith’s brain and visual cortex with the help of Claire, a natural at transmitting brainwaves apparently. However, all of this exhaustive testing has wrought too much from Edith and she passes with the twentieth century. After the news that the Earth is indeed intact, each character except for Gene, Claire, Henry, and Sam leave for home which sets the tone down to a more personal one. Sam’s father Henry may be a genius- but he’s as obsessive as his son in his pursuits and after Edith’s death he moved towards a new goal; transmitting people’s dreams into digital images and video. Henry thinks it will win him a Nobel Prize, but the truth is he needed to make the device, for his dreams where the only place that Edith lived for him, or at least, his memory of her. After some trial and error the headset and accompanying monitor reveal their dreams to both Sam and Claire and it immediately consumes their interests to an unhealthy level. Neither or them can take their eyes off of their monitors as they stumble through the world and ignore everything around them. Sound familiar? Obsession with screens and the nostalgia of the mind aren’t the only things Wim Wenders correctly predicted with this film. The only reason Detective Winter could track down Sam earlier in the film was with a rudimentary search engine that combs the digital world for traces of the footprint you’ve left through credit card uses among other variables. The film also had video-messaging, VR-like headsets, and devices comparable to large Ipads. I’d also like to take some time to mention that the audio in the film was something that was clearly, heavily, considered. Throughout the film there are a litany of songs used that not only reiterate themes resonant with the story, there’s also a huge amount of atmospheric tracks in the soundtrack that are big players in the overall texture of the film.

Max von Sydow as Henry Farber, a brilliant Scientist living off the grid in Australia to continue his experiments into extracting imagery from brainwaves.

“Until The End of The World” is a fascinating experiment in cinema’s history. There are parts of the film that I found quite charming, other sequences felt a bit too elongated for my taste however. There are stretches of the runtime that I found to be too meandering for me personally, but there’s enough unique choices to keep my own attention. The cast itself is certainly a major factor in choosing to check this one out, the performances were compelling, though I had a tough time understanding or relating to Claire and her decision making for most of the film. It was, however, quite nice to watch a movie with Max von Sydow in it the day after his passing, obviously he was a gigantic player in cinema’s history and he changed it for the better. This one was a very mixed-bag in my opinion, it was worth a watch to sate my own curiosity, but not everyone will appreciate this one though I’m afraid. “Until The End of The World” is just too long, too vague, and without a coherent sense of direction. Watch at your own risk.

Final Score: 11 Countries

film

Old School Review: “The Seventh Seal” (1957)

Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman in 1957, “The Seventh Seal” is a fantasy drama set during the Middle Ages in which a disillusioned Knight returns to Sweden after the Crusades have ended. The Knight, Antonius Block, (Max Von Sydow) is met by the personification of Death (Bengt Ekerot) on a seaside coast and engages in a ‘running’ game of Chess over the course of several days to determine his fate. If this sounds familiar, a knight playing chess with the grim reaper, it may be because of the parodies that this film has inspired over the years. Take Ian McKellen’s cameo in “The Last Action Hero” for example:

lastactionhero1

McKellen’s character even emerges from the set of a film with the same title as Bergman’s classic, sporting the simple yet effective look of Death. However my favorite example of this imagery being parodied happens to take place in a little movie called “Bill and Ted’s Bogus journey” the sequel to “Excellent Adventure”:

bill-ted-grim-reaper

Other aspects of the film have been mined for laughs as well. “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” famously depicted their own version of the flagellant scene by having a roving group of monks smacking themselves in the head while reciting lines from the Dies Irae (A Latin Hymn):

HolyGrail024

So, why all references you might ask? To press upon you (for the uninitiated) that this film is heavily lauded around the world-and therefore has been ripe for a good ribbing for over half a century now. The story deals heavily with religious themes and seriously questions organized religion through allegory and rich dialogue. In the film, every character deals with doubt in some way shape or form- it is one of the central ideas of the story after all. The two opposing ideologies of the film are represented in both the Knight Antonius, and in Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand), his nihilistic squire who rides with him. Both characters’ personalities color Bergman’s own differing thoughts on the subject of God, “Since at this time I was still very much in a quandary over religious faith, I placed my two opposing beliefs side by side, allowing each to state its case in its own way. In this manner, a virtual cease-fire could exist between my childhood piety and my newfound harsh rationalism.” -Ingmar Bergman.

The other major theme of the story is the silence of God and how people react to this. Antonius may be dour and depressed by all of this but he never rejects the possibility of God, he simple wants some reinforcement that can prove that his life has not been wasted. He says as much when he and Jons enter a small chapel. Jons chides a local artist there for creating artwork depicting the dance of death and embracing the religious and ideological fervor that led to the Crusades while Antonius goes to confess. He asks, “Is it so terribly inconceivable to comprehend God with one’s senses? Why does he hide in a cloud of half-promises and unseen miracles? How can we believe in the faithful when we lack faith? What will happen to us who want to believe, but can not? What about those who neither want to nor can believe? Why can’t I kill God in me? Why does He live on in me in a humiliating way – despite my wanting to evict Him from my heart? Why is He, despite all, a mocking reality I can’t be rid of?” Shortly thereafter Antonius reveals that he is playing chess with Death and boasts of the move he has planned to cheat the supernatural foe. However, it was not a priest that was listening to the woes of the Knight, but Death himself.

During this exchange Antonius reveals his understanding of religion and the organization of it, “We must make an idol of our fear, and that idol we shall call God.” Once Death vanishes from the chapel both Antonius and Jons head into the small village and see the traveling theatre troupe we had been introduced to earlier in the film. They are composed of a married couple, Jof (Nils Poppe) and Mia (Bibi Andersson) with their infant child and Skat, the director of the troupe. Jof occasionally has visions and is the only other character to actually see Death other than the Knight near the end of the film. After a spat in the local pub involving Jof, Antonius meets the married couple outside of town and shares a meal with both of them and oddly enough- he finds his meaning in that moment with Jof and Mia on a hillside, he is inspired by the simple love of the two and embraces the gift of the natural world, not a fate handed down from above, but of the fellowship of mankind in the natural world. He then extends an offer to them to travel with him and Jons through the forest rather than risk getting the plague along their original route, even going so far as to offer shelter in his castle from the plague.

In his next turn in the game Antonius appears exuberant and Death takes notice, deviously asking if he plans to take the troupe through the forest. Antonius also takes note of the grim reaper’s inquiry and becomes well aware of the threat his newfound friends face with him. Once deep into the woods the Knight engages with Death one last time, in which Jof notices who Antonius is playing chess with and decides to escape while Death is distracted by the game. Antonius sees the troupe attempting to leave and knocks over half the board to let them escape Death’s grasp.. for now. It is this act which completes Antonius’ quest to do one meaningful deed before Death takes him. In the end Jof sees Death and the Knight’s remaining travelers doing a solemn dance of death as he guides them away from the land of the living.

Much like my initial viewing of “Citizen Kane” I found this film to be more enjoyable than I had expected. This sensation can be condensed down to two major reasons why the film worked for me as a modern audience; humor and truth. Gunnar Bjornstrand’s character Jons was an unexpected source of humor in the film as the first half of the film paints the squire as a cynical brute with a penchant for singing tunes. We see him rough up a would-be rapist, Raval (Bertil Anderberg), while searching for water in the first act. However, Jons quickly recognizes Raval, the theologian that had convinced the knight to leave for the Crusades in the first place, and promises to brand him on the face if he sees him again-which he does, and he immediately fulfills that promise. The second half of the film shows his other half though, his comfortable acceptance of the world and its darkness, which leads into his sense of humor. One scene in particular has Jons providing lines to Plog the Blacksmith as the local smith tries to insult and threaten the theater troupe director that had run off with the blacksmith’s wife earlier in the film. It’s wonderfully played as the squire’s attention is piqued when the insults begin to fly and he makes his way to Plog’s ear to aid for his own enjoyment. There are other times throughout the film’s runtime when the darkly comic humor emerges, though the film is indeed mostly concerned with Antonius’ quest for answers.

Which leads me to the second reason the film worked, the truth in Antonius’ universally relatable problem, having doubt. Questioning the larger machinations at work can be applied to religion, but it could also be applied to government rule, as an example. Having a sensation of existentialism after experiencing doubt as to what was previously considered the standard way of life can be disorienting to say the least. Many people throughout time have felt that same sensation, it’s part of what makes a revolution so unsettling to some- and just as invigorating for others. The truth in the film is likely so well done because Bergman drew from his own inner turmoils about religion but also because of the way he crafted the world of his film as well. By creating a sensation of anxiety and fear from a threat as menacing as that of the black plague Bergman made the medieval world’s problems comparable to that of the 1950’s and now again in 2017, the fear of nuclear annihilation. Bergman thought of his film as an allegory for the 20th century, or the modern era, with the threat of the black plague resembling the cloud of anxiety that nuclear weapons now bring in its place. He was also inspired by the idea of art existing in dark times, which is brought to life in the film by the troupe of traveling actors bringing song and dance to various small villages even under the looming threat of the black plague. “In my film, the Crusader returns from the Crusades as the soldier returns from the war today. In the Middle Ages, man lived in terror of the plague. Today, they live in fear of the atomic bomb” – Ingmar Bergman. “The Seventh Seal” is a classic for a reason and if you want an entry point into the acclaimed filmmaker’s body of work, this is a fine start. “The Seventh Seal” is in the Criterion Collection and can be found on Filmstruck, a classic film streaming service that works with the Criterion Collection, as well.

 

Final Score: 1 Knight & 1 Bishop

 

*For more analysis of “The Seventh Seal” I suggest giving the video below a look, it helped me to more fully understand the film, hopefully you’ll find it of use as well.