Five Film Favorites: Foreign Films

As you know from last week, F.T. Rea has handed off his Five Film Favorites column. For the foreseeable future, we’re inviting a different person each week to offer their list of five favorites. The beauty of the Five Film Favorites concept is that it is not a top five or a best five — just one person’s favorite five. Rea was always quick to add that any given list of five might be different if made on another day. That’s the way I am with movies (and books and music) — my favorites are always changing because I keep finding new (to me) stuff. On top of that, I don’t always remember some of my favorites when asked. With that in mind, I’m offering you my list of five favorite foreign movies — the five that came to mind today.

As best I can recall the first foreign film I ever saw was when I was in college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In addition to the films offered at the student union, there was the Varsity Theatre, located on Franklin Street, the main drag bordering the campus. One afternoon, my best friend Rodney Honeycutt and I decided to catch the matinee, to see whatever was playing at the Varsity that day. It just so happened to be Jean de Florette, a film neither one of us had heard of. We bought our tickets, entered the darkness and for the next couple of hours were spellbound by this movie. It’s something that rarely happens to me anymore — seeing a film without having read or heard anything about it … at all. When we left the theatre, still reeling from the experience, we immediately bought our tickets for the sequel, Manon of the Spring, went next door for a slice of Pepper’s Pizza, and dove right back into the darkness for another couple of hours of movie magic. In addition to loving these two films, we were both madly in love with the adult Manon, played by the beautiful Emmanuelle Béart. I’ll never forget the feeling of discovery, the thrill of the adventure.

Wings of Desire was a similar experience. I’d never heard of Wim Wenders, nor seen one of his films. I’m pretty sure it was Rodney and me again; definitely at the Varsity. The black and white was a revelation. Peter Falk was surprise; after all, he was our Columbo — what was he doing in a foreign film?! Several years later, I encouraged my wife Katie to watch it with me, convinced that she just had to see it and would love it. Like the angels who “fall” from heaven to earth in the film, so did my opinion of it the second time around. Who knows, maybe Wings of Desire was a film I needed at that particular moment when I first saw it. I know I was a different person by the time I saw it the second time. Thinking it about it today makes me want to see it again, to see what I think of it now. Regardless, I had to include it because of the exhilaration of that first viewing.

I saw Carl Dreyer’s little seen They Caught the Ferry (1948) when we invited Tom Verlaine and Jimmy Rip to bring their Music for Experimental Film to Richmond as part of the 7th James River Film Festival in 2000. The program featured Verlaine and Rip playing original scores live to a bunch of avant garde shorts. My favorite of the bunch, They Caught the Ferry, is about a couple on a motorcycle who take the ferry from one place to another. When they get to the other side, they travel a winding dirt road, where they collide with a truck. The film ends with the lovers catching the ferry back … in coffins. Those haunting images, combined with a beautiful, original score performed by the effects-laden guitar duo of Verlaine and Rip, make this a film experience forever ingrained in my mind, but faint, like a dream. According to what I’ve read, after WWII, Dreyer (The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928) had a difficulty getting financing to make films so he ended up taking a job making public service films for Denmark. What a revelation to discover that They Caught the Ferry is a safety film! By the way, when Verlaine and Rip released the fantastic Music for Experimental Film DVD, it was the only film from their tour that wasn’t included (it’s still a solid DVD, especially if you attended any of the live performances). For now, my dreams will have to do.

Mike Jones programmed Rene Clair’s À Nous la Liberté (1931) in the James River Film Society’s Fall 2010 Films for Lunch series at the Richmond Public Library. If you’ve seen Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), you’ll be familiar with À Nous la Liberté. Why? Because Chaplin pretty much robbed Clair blind (so much so that Clair filed a plagiarism lawsuit). I believe À Nous la Liberté is the better film, but why don’t you watch them and decide for yourself. Both are Criterion releases and available via Netflix.

I avoided Fritz Lang’s M for a long time. A film about a man who murders children? No way. When I finally watched it, thanks to the encouragement of friends, it immediately became one of my all time favorite movies. It is a masterpiece. And those images: a murdered child’s balloon caught on a power line; Lorre whistling Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” whenever he’s about the kill another child! (I really wanted to include a clip, but I’d rather you rent the movie and watch it all the way through. The opening is a punch in the gut.) But, what really moved me was Lorre’s “trial” by the criminals who catch him. They heatedly debate the question of who has the right to take another person’s life, even someone as evil as Lorre’s character. If ever a movie has made me think about capital punishment, this is it.

So, to recap, here are my five favorite foreign films as of today:

1. Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring (1986). France/Switzerland/Italy. Directed by Claude Berri. Cast: Yves MontandGérard DepardieuEmmanuelle Béart, and Daniel Auteuil.

2. Wings of Desire (1987). West Germany/France. Directed by Wim Wenders. Cast: Bruno GanzSolveig DommartinOtto SanderCurt Bois and Peter Falk.

3. À Nous la Liberté (1931). France. Directed by René Clair. Cast: Raymond CordyHenri Marchand and Rolla France.

4. They Caught the Ferry (1948). Directed by Carl Dreyer. Starring: Joseph Koch.

5. M (1931). Germany. Directed by Fritz Lang. Cast: Peter LorreEllen Widmann and Inge Landgut.

Now, it’s your turn. What are your five favorite foreign films?

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One Response to Five Film Favorites: Foreign Films

  1. Peter Schilling says:

    Great post, James! Off hand, my five foreign film favorites, right off the top of my head:

    1. Seven Samurai
    2. L’Atalante
    3. Amelie
    4. La Jetee
    5. Wings of Desire–though you’re not making me feel like I should see it again! (One of Dad’s favorites, too…)

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