Liliom (Fritz Lang, 1934)
Liliom (Charles Boyer), a carousing rascal who gets fired from his barker job by the aging and jealous carousel owner Madame Mouscat (Florelle, about 50 years before the single stage moniker was cool) who has had enough of his overt flirtations with the young ladies on the merry-go-round, ends up stuck in an unhappy relationship with the woman who directly led to his firing, the patient-to-the-point-of-sainthood waif Julie (Madeleine Ozeray) who tolerates his physically abusive and roustabout drunken ways out of unconditional love and duty. After Julie gets pregnant however, Liliom tries to turn his fortunes and commit… only for it to get all wrong… leading to death, resurrection, and a completely unexpected turn into Heaven Can Wait surreal fantasy in which Liliom is granted a single chance to redeem himself before the very woman who loved him.
After far too numerous distractions, I got back on track with my on-going goal of not only chronologically (with a little cheating here and there) viewing of all the films of great German filmmaker Fritz Lang, but staggering with viewings of the many cinematic faces of the megalomaniacal super-criminal (and hypnotist, and master of disguises, and on and on) who, like the crazed Nazi leader with the little moustache that he ominously forecasted by only a few years, rose out of the overwhelming despair and dark paranoia of post-World War I Germany, known as Doctor Mabuse, who Lang cinematically kicked off with his brilliant silent epic Dr Mabuse: The Gambler in 1924 leading to over fifty years of increasingly wonky sci-fi/espionage/crime/noir-ish hybrids.
I realized as I sat down to watch this Lang entry, that I didn’t have particularly high hopes for it, mostly because I had never heard anyone ever speak about it before. It was Lang’s only French language film, made between his escape from an increasingly terrifying Nazi-ruled Germany and his settling into Hollywood and the extensive second half of his filmmaking career (which, while still more than worthy and which I look forward to visiting – mostly re-visiting, actually – film by film, would never reach the audacious and epic cinematic heights of his mostly silent film German years). On top of that, the box cover art displaying a wildly enthusiastic Boyer in a sort of horizontal striped sailor’s shirt didn’t do much to raise my interest level, especially from a director whose forte was intense, epic dramatic work.
And what a pleasant surprise it turned out to be. Even without the fantastical turn I didn’t see coming from any direction (I mean, it happens in only the last thirty minutes of an almost two hour movie — there isn’t even the slightest sign it’s coming before that!), Lang creates a genuine world of struggle and financial hardship (another example of a filmmaker showing us a side of the world long ago given up by most contemporary studio films, unless within the context of some offensive context of following someone rising out of poverty through hard work, love and effort to make the ‘haves’ go home feeling good about themselves), filled with uneducated brutes and the presence of the law to keep people in their place.
Yes, the character of Julie is a mere sketch (and, by the end, that’s only gonna get worse), but their ramshackle home and the sense of destitution feels real. Liliom’s pained decision to join in on a potentially violent crime in order to bring home money to support his wife and just arrived child is quite powerful, with the drama played out nicely between actor and director. While I had seen Boyer before in just a few films, I had no idea of his athletic physical capability; the scene where, in a moment of uncontained exuberance over the news of his coming baby, he chases down a cat through an alley, is impressive to see (and well choreographed by Lang).
From all the versions of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait, I’ve always been somewhat of a pushover for films where a less-than-moral protagonist is forced in death to face heavenly judgement and recognize himself for the cad he is (though to be fair, the aforementioned films are a genuinely pretty great lot so they didn’t require much slack on my part), so when the sudden supernatural turn came in Liliom, a moment in which I was thinking we’d reached the conclusion of the film, and instead an exceedingly creepy pale skinned twosome of apparitions suddenly arrived to lift the resisting spirit of Liliom from his bloody unwashed corpse, with his ever-faithful unaware wife kneeling over him, up into the heavens, the initial unsettling surprise as I realized the film was suddenly veering into wildly different territory soon wore off and I was able to enjoy it all.
The wonderfully clever conceit that the laborious bureaucratical conditions that Liliom and his fellow downtrodden reprobate deal with on Earth end up replicated at the gates of Heaven are a very nice addition (perhaps straight out of the play the film was based on).
What further surprised me, however (and might speak not particularly favourably to why Lang, I later learned, eventually would think of this as his favourite film) was the final takeaway from the closing celestial passage, in which, unlike both the miserly Scrooge and the lecherous playboy Van Cleve (from Heaven Can Wait) who redeem themselves by recognizing and making amends for their sins, the rascal Liliom, with a defiant wink and a nod before his heavenly judges (even after spending sixteen years in burning Purgatory where his hair turns white and his demeanour grows noticeably – and affectively — more haunted) remains stubbornly unrepentant… and, yet, is saved regardless, by the fact that, down on Earth, the main victim of his scorn, the sacrificial lamb Julie, remains remarkably loyal to his memory, refusing to condemn him to her daughter, with her very tears serving as the catalyst for Liliom’s ascension.
It’s clearly a concept of salvation that wouldn’t have a chance in hell of being developed in today’s atmosphere. While you can definitely argue it’s an iffy and self-serving (to the wife batterer in every man) relic of a message, at the same time, it daringly speaks to concepts of forgiveness not normally broached, not in these types of films anyway (as good as they are), with the idea of redemption as not only there for the forgiver, but for those forgiven; that the act of forgiveness itself is a larger canvas than just self. Kinda the reason Christ allowed himself to be crucified. Not that I believe in any of that on a literal level, but, hey, on a thematic level it’s got things to consider, if not outright offer. Certainly doesn’t work in the vengeance-fueled time we live in, however.
What a pleasant surprise of a film. Proving that, even on the run, Lang was turning in superior work at the time.