BluRay/DVD Reviews

LILIOM

By • Mar 30th, 2004 •

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(Kino International) 1934

Cinema legend tells that hours after Nazi Propaganda Chief Josef Goebbels approached Germany’s star film-maker, Fritz Lang, to make films for the Third Reich, Lang fled for Hollywood. On the way to sunny California, Lang and two other German refugees, Writer Robert Leibmann, and Producer Erich Pommer stopped in France, and made a film version of Ferenc Molnar’s supernatural romance drama – LILIOM. The resulting film is very Germanic, dark, orderly, with shadows playing an important part. The star of LILIOM is pure French – the then-popular stage actor Charles Boyer. Boyer’s Liliom is a super-charming, ultra-cool carnival barker, who loves enticing young girls for rides, and maybe more. Carnival-goers love this crass braggart, (Boyer even sings along with a merry-go-round’s music.) This being a Fritz Lang film, we soon learn the randy Liliom’s dark side. He’s a wife beater, and part-time street mugger. Rather than letting the police capture him during a botched hold-up, Liliom commits suicide.

Liliom finds heaven to be a bureaucratic tangle, complete with a rule-bound police station, and guardian angles assigned like parole officers. The heavenly court provides Liliom a theatre showing a filmed account of his life. The film of Liliom’s life comes with an optional soundtrack playing Liliom’s inner thoughts during his earthly scams. (Hey, we have the world’s first commentary track here!) Later on, Liliom gets the opportunity to return to earth to visit his now grown, fatherless daughter.

Upon it’s 1934 release, LILIOM was denounced by young radical French Catholics and by the church itself. “The church decided LILIOM was anti-Catholic and it showed Fritz Lang’s conception of heaven as too much against that of the church.”, recalled one of LILIOM’s producers. LILIOM has many characteristics found in German expressionism and in Lang. The merry, noisy carnival where Liliom works and flirts is photographed in a shadowy, spooky manner. LILIOM has a scene that must be very personal to Lang. In 1921, Lang’s first wife, Lisa Rosenthal committed suicide by shooting herself in the chest. (She had just discovered Lang with screen-writer Thea von Harbou in a “state of undress”) Some people speculate Lang may have shot her. Many Lang characters in later films are on self-destructive paths or they wind up in suicide, (such as the master spy in SPIES, Edward G. Robinson’s botched suicide in SCARLET STREET, or the politician’s death in the opening of THE BIG HEAT) Liliom commits suicide by stabbing himself in the chest.

LILIOM was never released in the United States. Charles Boyer later on often told horror stories of working with task-master Lang. Lang loved showing his own print of this film to his American cast and crews. Up until his death in 1976, Lang considered LILIOM his best film. Occasionally, unsubtitled, worn 16mm prints wound up in rare revival house showings and on bootleg video. This new Kino-Video DVD has a beautiful transfer and clear subtitles. It wonderfully displays Lang’s simple visual effects that employed miniatures, rear screen, animation and lighting.

One of the reasons LILIOM had troubles finding an American release may have been with the censors. Check out the way Boyer handles (and I mean handles!) women. Then there’s the tiny outfit worn by that cute typist in heaven. It’s not one of Lang’s best films, but it is a rather charming, dark view of the popular conception of Heaven. Years later the story would find itself remade yet again, this time by Rodgers and Hammerstein as a musical – CAROUSEL. The 1956 film version is currently available on DVD, and the two make a fascinating double-bill.


Crew:
Produced by Erich Pommer
Written by: Fritz Lang and Robert Leibmann
Based on the play by Ferenc Molnar
Directed by Fritz Lang
With Charles Boyer, Madeleine Ozeray, Florelle, Pierre Alscover, Robert Arnoux
Fox Europa

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