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Sunday, 27 May 2007

Othello (1922) Dmitri Buchowetzki

Shakespeare's story is pretty basic and can be summed up by saying that Iago is a classic villain and Othello has pissed him off royally. Othello, a Moor, is a great warrior serving the Duke of Venice. On arrival back from the wars he is expected to choose his new lieutenant and he names Cassio, a devoted and worthy soldier who is probably the best man for the job. Unfortunately Iago, certainly not the best man for the job, wants it with a passion and has done all he can to ensure it. On being passed over for the position he plots against Othello and being a sneaky little so and so plots very well indeed.

While this is far from the first version of the film, even though it dates from as long ago as 1922, Emil Jannings stamps authority on the role. He is a believable Moor, the son of an Egyptian prince and Spanish princess, though the dark makeup doesn't always stretch as far down his neck as it should. Jannings was a heavyweight actor of the time with forty films behind him in only eight years, films that included parts like Henry VIII, Louis XV and Dimitri Karamazov, along with other generals, pharaohs and double roles. He was also the first actor to win an Oscar, for The Way of All Flesh and The Last Command, highly interesting given that he was a Swiss actor known primarily for German films. This one was even directed by a Russian expatriate, Dimitri Buchowetzki, so the international flavor continues.

His love, Desdemona, who he marries early in the film and of whom Iago plots to make him acutely jealous, is payed by the Hungaran actress Ica von Lenkeffy, and she's duly lovely though hardly interesting, this being a man's play about men. Iago is Werner Krauss, who unfortunately postures around like an early silent screen villain, all dressed up in tight fitting black clothes, overdone makeup and a terrible moustache, though that's understandable as in this instance he is an early silent scren villain. Cassio and Iago's friend and co-conspirator Rodrigo, posture abominably too, in the forms of Theodor Loos and Ferdinand von Alten respectively.

These aren't unimportant actors either. Krauss was already notable, having played Dr Caligari a couple of years earlier in the groundbreaking The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Loos had been prominent in the early German science fiction/horror genre in the serial Homunculus and would soon become a Fritz Lang regular, with roles in both parts of Die Nibelungen along with Metropolis and M. Von Alten would soon have a prime role in The Student of Prague, along with Conrad Veidt and Werner Krauss, though he would die in 1933 of the flu.

That's an insight into the era as great as these silent movies themselves, medical care not being anywhere near as advanced as it is today. Another actor here, Lya de Putti, who plays Iago's wife Emilia, and who would soon play a prominent role in F W Murnau's Phantom, was the daughter of a baron and a countess, yet died at 32 of pneumonia following an operation to remove a chicken bone from her throat.

None of which gives any insight to this film. It has power though it's overplayed to a large degree. Grand acting is very much the order of the day, which works in the main part for Jannings and surprisingly Krauss during the second half of the film, but not so much for everyone else. Nothing else really shines either, though it's far from a bad movie.

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