Saturday, April 28, 2018

Review - Harakiri (1919)

April 28, 2018

Harakiri – Germany, 1919

I wish Haibblut and Master of Love were not lost films. Now, it goes without saying that I wish all lost silent films could still be seen, but I have an unusual reason for singling out these two. They were both directed by Fritz Lang, a director I’ve admired since I was awed by his 1921 film Destiny. See, Haibblut and Master of Love were the first two films that Lang directed, and if they still existed, there would be less chance that Lang’s The Spiders – Part 1: The Golden Sea and Harakiri would be the first two of his films that someone might watch, The Spiders being a narrative mess and Harakiri a film that is only intermittently interesting and which fails to capture the power and emotion that has made Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly one for the ages.

The film is simultaneously unnecessarily long and unwisely short. This is an odd description, I realize, but I have a feeling that were certain scenes shortened and a particular character removed, the film would have been better. Conversely, were more scenes added that fully developed the relationship between the film’s ill-fated lovers and which better explained the motivation of another, the film may have had the necessary backdrop to achieve the level of tragedy that the story truly deserves.

By now, I imagine most people are familiar with the story of Madame Butterfly. In Lang’s film the lead character’s name is O-Take-San. O-Take is the daughter of a successful businessman who is not quite as devoted as the priest that advises him would like him to be. In an early scene, we see O-Take playing with a western-style doll and very much acting her age, providing that the character is supposed to be as young as she is in the opera rather than a mature woman in her twenties. (The movie does not explicitly state her age.) The priest wants O-Take to become a priestess and warns her father to beware the wrath of the Buddha.  However, O-Take’s father tells him that the decision is hers and hers alone to make. This dilemma is resolved in one of the film’s more peculiar moments. In it, O-Take appears to be talking to one of her dolls, and as a result of this “conversation,” she offers the doll up as a sacrifice instead of herself. I’m sure someone at the time believed such a scenario was realistic; looking at it today, it’s hard to believe people could have been so misinformed.

The priest soon gets his revenge, and the walls begin to close in on O-Take. Cue the heroic music, for no sooner does it look like it’s the priestess-hood for her than her knight in shining armor arrives to crash the party and rescue her from a life she dreads. He does this of course by trespassing on her father’s land and hitting on the first woman he sees. Fortunately, he’s charming enough to make it all seem so romantic, and just like that, O-Take falls hard. No more talking to dolls for her. From here on out, it’s love, secret rendezvous, marriage… and eventual heartbreak, of course.

Unfortunately, the film rushes the couple’s initial encounter, and while this may work when two characters sing a duet onstage, it is a misstep when they do not. O-Take simply starts to smile, and her supposedly dreamboat, a seaman named Olaf, just stands to the side and slightly smiles. I wasn’t convinced that either of them suddenly couldn’t live without the other, and while this might make sense for Olaf, given his later actions, it hurts the audience’s ability to take O-Take’s later ones seriously. From here on, the film seems to be playing a variation of that children’ activity, paint-by-number, for it just starts to go through the motions, hitting all the parts of the story it should, but never establishing the connection with the audience that it needs in order to truly impact viewers emotionally. As O-Take, Lil Dagover gives it her best effort, but this is a story that desperately needs to be felt, and Dagover is only partially successful in making the audience understand what is going on in O-Take’s heart and mind. Perhaps a song would have done the trick.

Alas, the film was made eight years too soon, so instead of a stirring emotional ballad, we’re treated to a lot of dead moments, ones in which characters travel on sedans, look menacing, and storm off shaking their heads. Also, a character named Prince Matahari remains a bit of a mystery. He is first seen eves-dropping on two men as they discuss O-Take’s plight, and then just a few moments later, there he is rushing in to take O-Take’s defense and offering himself up as a possible husband because by this time Japanese law no longer recognizes O-Take’s marriage to Olaf. Is the prince a cad trying to take advantage of a woman in a terrible situation or another love-struck soul whom fate has seen fit to strike with one of Cupid’s arrows? The film seems to be taking the second position, but I was never entirely convinced.

Perhaps it is difficulty of the source material that makes Harakiri so much of a letdown, yet as a say this I’m reminded of Anna May Wong’s moving film The Toll of the Sea, which was also inspired by Puccini’s work. That film worked, partly because it focused on her character and kept the story moving along at a suitable pace. Harakiri, in contrast, can feel like a chore; the film moves through inconsequential moments at a snail’s velocity when it should be doing so rapidly, and it should slow the pace when emotional moments arise. In this, it succeeds only part of the time, and I must confess that my eyes began to close several times during the film.

There’s little here that reminded me of Lang’s later, more accomplished work. For the most part, he plants his camera in one place and leaves it there. Few of the visuals are as memorable as those he created just two years later, and he seems unsure how to present moments that were illuminated onstage by professionals with rather impressive-sounding operatic voices. Here, all too often characters just stand around, and we are meant to see something meaningful in their inactivity. It’s asking a lot of the viewer.

Still, I didn’t hate the film. When the narrative moves along briskly, which it does more successfully in the second half, the film is indeed watchable. It just didn’t resonate that much with me, and this is a problem. In Madame Butterfly, we have a tragic tale that should bring tears to the eyes and make us lament the callousness of a man more interested in having a memorable experience than in keeping his promises. I just didn’t feel it, and the film suffered as a result. (on DVD as part of Kino’s Fritz Lang: The Early Works)

2 stars

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