The Best of the 29th Haifa International Film Festival

A film by Billy Wilder, a Harold Lloyd comedy and documentary films about Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman. This excellent selection attests to the Haifa International Film Festival’s commitment to both contemporary cinema and films of the past.

One of the most famous scenes in the history of cinema has comic actor Harold Lloyd, whose principal claim to fame is rooted in the silent film era, hanging from the hands of a clock at the top of a skyscraper which is falling apart. At the 29th Haifa International Film Festival, which opens on Thursday, israeli audiences will finally have the opportunity to view a restored copy of “Safety Last!” (1923), a delightful, romantic situation comedy which includes the scene.

Lloyd, who was born in 1893 and died in 1971, is perhaps not as well remembered or as esteemed as the two giants of silent comic films, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton; however, his relative oblivion does Lloyd a historic injustice. Even if his image, the trademark of which was his eyeglasses, is not as deeply inscribed in the awareness of cinema fans as is that of Chaplin or Keaton, his influence on the development of cinematic comedy is just as great as theirs. Like them, he was a brilliant comedian with amazing physical abilities (he did many of his trick stunts himself).

In “Safety Last!” which was directed by Fred Newmeyer and Sam Taylor, Lloyd plays a young man who travels to the big city in order to realize the American dream and become a success story. Although he fails in his various efforts to achieve that goal and becomes entangled in an entire series of situations, he hides all this from his girlfriend, whom he has left behind, and weaves a web of lies about his glorious successes. Lloyd appeared in some 200 short and feature-length films, most of them silent, and the uniqueness of the screen image he created was the audience’s perception of him as a representative of young American wheeler-dealers. This image of the ambitious day-dreamer was rooted in the heart of the urban experience in America in the 1920s. It is a sheer pleasure to see his films, of which “Safety Last!” is the most well-known, thanks to the scene in which Lloyd climbs to the top of a skyscraper.

“Safety Last!” is only one of the superb selection of films of the past that have been incorporated in the program of this year’s festival and which are being screened in restored copies. Another thoroughly entertaining silent film that will be shown at the festival is “The Thief of Bagdad” (1924), directed by Raoul Walsh. This was one of the greatest hits of the finest action star of the silent era, Douglas Fairbanks. Just as “Safety Last!” is an excellent opportunity for filmgoers to become familiar with the genius of Harold Lloyd, “The Thief of Bagdad” provides a wonderful glimpse of Fairbanks, a gifted acrobat with an effervescent personality who obviously enjoyed every stunt he performed and whose enthusiasm spread to his audiences. This film by Walsh, whose career extended to the 1960s and includes such films as “High Sierra” (1941) and “White Heat” (1949), is a captivating fairy tale, steeped in irony.

In the film, Fairbanks plays a thief who falls in love with the daughter of the Khalif of Baghdad, who is vehemently opposed to his daughter’s liaison with such a disreputable fellow. Fairbanks’ acrobatic feats sometimes appear like perfectly executed dance performances. In fact, many years later, Gene Kelly was compared to Fairbanks; in “Singin’ in the Rain,” Kelly’s most famous film, he plays the role of a silent film star based on Fairbanks. “The Thief of Bagdad” is a pure delight.

The ghost of films of the past hovers over Billy Wilder’s penultimate film, “Fedora” (1978), and the screening of a restored copy of this movie is one of the festival’s most important events. In the late 1970s, after a series of box office flops, Wilder found himself, at age 72, a deserted figure in Hollywood, whose young executives no longer relied on his ability to direct films, if they even knew who he was. With German and French funding and with the help of a relatively minor production company in Hollywood, Wilder produced and directed “Fedora,” and wrote the screenplay with I.A.L. Diamond, with whom he collaborated in the screenplays of all his films from the late 1950s onwards, including “Some Like It Hot” (1959) and “The Apartment” (1960).

The screenplay of “Fedora” is based on a novella by Thomas Tryon, an actor who became a successful author. The film is a cinematic follow-up to “Sunset Blvd” (1950), which is one of Wilder’s best-known movies and which portrays the story of a movie-star of the past who dreams of making a comeback. Without revealing the plot, I will say that “Fedora” tells the tale of a movie-star of the past who remarkably retains her youthful looks. It is a macabre, gothic comedy that is darker, more caustic and more melancholic than “Sunset Blvd.”

Wilder originally wanted the two female starring roles to go to Marlene Dietrich, who appeared in two earlier successes, “A Foreign Affair” (1948) and “Witness for the Prosecution” (1957), and Faye Dunaway; however, they both turned him down. He was therefore forced to replace them with actresses who were less well-known: Hildegard Knef, who was often compared with Dietrich, and Marthe Keller. The most powerful bond between “Fedora” and “Sunset Blvd.” is the appearance of William Holden in the leading male role: Holden had starred in “Sunset Blvd.” “Fedora” also features Henry Fonda and Michael York, who play themselves.

When “Fedora” was first screened, it was panned by the critics and, as a result, the company that produced it did not invest in publicity. It was shown in a few American cities and in a small number of countries (it was screened in Israel and, as I recall, was a relative box-office winner here). Since that time, it has rarely been shown and it was almost forgotten until it was restored this year and screened again – for the first time at the Cannes film festival. Fans of Billy Wilder and fans of films that deal with the cinematic industry should not miss the opportunity to view this film, which is a bizarre movie that borders on the grotesque and which will hypnotize viewers from start to finish.

The festival will also feature a restored copy of “Children of Paradise” (“Les enfants du paradis”), the greatest film of French director Marcel Carné which was produced in 1945. Its brilliant screenplay, written by Jacques Prévert, depicts the birth of 19th century Paris’ theatrical demimonde. Cinema fans in Israel are familiar with the film, which is directed with a romantic, colorful, sweeping flourish. However, this is a unique opportunity to view a restored copy of the film on the big screen and to once more be thrilled by its wonderful actors and actresses, such as Arletty as Garance, one of the most enchanting femmes fatales in cinematic history, Jean-Louis Barrault, Pierre Brasseur, Maria Casares and Pierre Renoir, the elder brother of director Jean Renoir and the son of Impressionist painter Pierre Auguste Renoir. The film was produced during the World War II German occupation of France and is regarded by some as an attempt by Carné and Prévert to raise the morale of France’s citizens by reminding them of their glorious past. Whether or not this was the intention of Carné and Prévert, the result is magnificent.

'Providence'

In 1977, French director Alain Resnais created his English-language film "Providence," based on a screenplay by British playwright David Mercer. Resnais always showed admiration for British plays and many of his films were based on them, including Alan Ayckbourn's works, but with the setting in France.

That's not the case with "Providence." The wise and fascinating plot of this film is set in England, but mainly in an England as reflected in the mind of an old and sick writer who undergoes a night of physical and mental torment during which he develops a story involving the members of his riven, divided family. Like some of his best-known early films, such as "Hiroshima, My Love," from 1959, and "Last Year in Marienbad" from 1961, "Providence" is a journey into the subconscious, involving reality, memory, dream and hallucination.

Resnais was always a stalwart in highlighting words and voices and there are those who characterized "Providence" as a concert of the four different voices and forms of expression of the five major protagonists of this movie, in which John Gielgud plays the elderly writer. Gielgud once said this was the film that he was the proudest of. The movie also stars Dirk Bogarde, Ellen Burstyn, David Warner and Elaine Stritch. If you haven't yet seen this movie, or at least not on the big screen, you are in for a powerful movie experience.

Satyagit Ray's 'Charulata'

Satyagit Ray, who was born in 1921 and died in 1992, was one of the greatest Indian directors of all time, thanks to films like "Pather Panchali" (1955), "Aparajito" (1956), "The Music Room" (1958), "The World of Apu" (1959), "Days and Nights in the Forest" (1970) and "The Chess Players" (1977.) Also notable was the 1964 film "Charulata," a restored copy of which is to be shown at the Haifa festival.

The film is set in upper class, 19th century, British-ruled India and is one of Ray's most exemplary works as a director. It tells the story of the lonely wife of the editor of an English-language newspaper. He is aware of her isolation, but his attempts to help her take an unexpected turn when she meets his young brother, whose intellectual interests are in keeping with hers. The softness reflected in Ray's work, whether he is dealing with the lower classes or the upper class of Indian society, and his avoidance of sentimentality are expressed clearly and particularly beautifully in this film, as is the realism mixed with lyricism which became Ray's trademark.

Films by and about Federico Fellini

Federico Fellini’s film “Eight and a Half,” one of the landmarks of modern film, will be shown at the festival on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of its release, along with a documentary called "On Fellini's Footsteps," by Gerald Morin, who was an assistant director to Fellini in the production of "Amarcord" (1973) and "Casanova" 1976.)

'Liv & Ingmar'

The work of another great director, Ingmar Bergman, will be featured at the festival, thanks to the documentary film “Liv & Ingmar,” by Indian director Dheeraj Akolkar. The film deals with the ties between Bergman and actress Liv Ullmann, which developed over four decades, from a great love affair and close creative collaboration to a no-less-powerful friendship. The two met on the set of the film "Persona" in 1966, when Ullmann was 25 and Bergman 46. Most of the film is centered around interviews with Ullmann. Akolkar actually brought Ullmann to the house on the Swedish island of Faro where she and Bergman lived. He includes clips from the films that Bergman and Ullmann did together. The narration includes selections from Ullmann's autobiography and from Bergman's biography and his letters. For those familiar with Bergman's work and the story of Bergman and Ullmann, there is not a lot new in this film and the directing is somewhat marred by its manipulative style. But those who admire Bergman's work and Ullmann's acting ability will still want to see it.

In one of the interviews with Ullmann in the film, she says she eventually became disgusted with how closely her name was associated with his. Life with Bergman was not easy and ultimately led to their parting ways, she said. Her expression of disgust was a bit surprising, considering the great extent to which she cooperated with Akolkar on the film. It should also be noted that vitrtually every film that Ullmann directed had some connection to Bergmann or his influence.

Marcel Ophüls' 'Ain't Misbehavin'

Speaking of reminiscences, one movie at the festival presents the issue front and center. It's Marcel Ophüls' documentary "Ain't Misbehavin," a film whose name in English is derived from a Fats Waller song. The film delves into the lives of Ophüls and his father, director Max Ophüls. Marcel Ophüls, who in the past attended the Cinema South Festival here, will be a guest at this year's Haifa Film Festival.

The elder Ophüls directed such classics as "Letter from an Unknown Woman" (1948), "The Earrings of Madame de" (1953) and "Lola Montes," (1955 ) his last film. He died in 1957, at the age of 54.

Marcel Ophüls, who is 85, is best known for his major documentary films about World War II, "The Sorrow and the Pity" and "Hotel Terminus." Most of his other work has dealt with historical and political topics. He is rightly considered one of the great documentary film makers in the entire history of film. His newest film, which came out this year, takes a journey into his life although not always chronologically, beginning with his childhood in Germany and the rise to power of the Nazis and his family's flight, first to France and then to Hollywood. It portrays his return to France, where he met Francois Truffaut and the other members of the French New Wave movement, along with the actress Jeanne Moreau. A long talk with Moreau is featured in the film.

The movie appears to be lighthearted, but it is ultimately a portrayal of the 20th century as told through the lives of father and son. Film buffs will enjoy the anecdotes that Marcel Ophüls recounts of his father's life and his own. (He had a romantic relationship with Marlene Dietrich, who was twice his age.) It also recounts his memories of Hollywood, where his father ran afoul of billionaire Howard Hughes, as well as meetings with some of Max Ophüls' greatest admirers, including Stanley Kubrick and Otto Preminger.

In one entertaining scene, Marcel Ophüls recalls a thank-you note that he got from Woody Allen, after Allen made use of Ophüls' film "The Sorrow and the Pity" to comic effect in "Annie Hall" (1977.)

Tribute to Japanese director Yasujiru Ozu

The Haifa festival will present a tribute to the great Japanese director Yasujiru Ozu on the 50 anniversary of his death, at age 60, and marking the 110th anniversary of his birth in 1903. Ozu's best-known film, "Tokyo Story" (1953), and two other outstanding examples of his work, "Equinox Flower" (1958 ) and his last, "An Autumn Afternoon," (1962), will be featured.

The fine selection of films scheduled for this year's Haifa International Film Festival is testimony to its continuing commitment not only to contemporary film but also to the movie industry's past, for all of which the festival deserves kudos.

Eyal Toueg