Whenever discussing Orson Welles’ final masterpiece, F for Fake, I’m reminded of Rembrandt, his great painting “The Polish Rider,” and one of his contemporaries, the lesser-known Willem Drost. “The Polish Rider” is fascinating late work from Rembrandt and has been a topic of discussion among many art historians. It depicts a man dressed in what appears to be a Polish garment riding on a horse. But aside from that, little else is really known of the piece: the identity of the rider, the intentions behind the work, or even the historical context. Whether or not the work should be attributed to Rembrandt is also in question. Around the 80’s, many historians have found inconsistencies with the painting and have even theorized that while Rembrandt started the work, another artist finished it. This other artist is Willem Drost, one of Rembrandt’s most talented pupils. Interestingly this wasn’t the first time Drost’s works have been mistaken for a Rembrandt. His painting “The Prophetess Anna Instructing a Child,” and his “Portrait of a Young Woman with her Hands Folded on a Book” were both incorrectly credited to Rembrandt for a number of years. But despite Drost’s involvement in “The Polish Rider” being more of an accepted theory, the painting is credited to only Rembrandt. Drost will never be as appreciated as some of the great artists and his place in history might never even be highlighted. Yet behind the names of other artists, his work not only survived but also had been renowned and lauded by art historians and enthusiasts for almost over 300 years before he was actually credited. This brings up the question of whether or not Drost’s paintings could have survived with his own name?
While the answer to that remains hypothetical, one can’t say the same for Elmyr de Hory, one of the subjects of Welles’ film. The famous art forger who gained notoriety for his work from the mid-1940’s to 1960’s found his way to museums and art collections also under the names of artists far more famous than him. The irony of it all is that Elmyr became a big art phenomenon because of this. His forgeries of Matisse, Modigliani and Renoir were pitch perfect and soon enough he would reach a celebrity status. Elmyr attracted the attention of French filmmaker François Reichenbach. Elmyr’s story was fascinating to say the least and combined with the art forger’s off beat and grandiose personality, Reichenbach saw enough to make a documentary. Sadly it never came to fruition and all that was leftover footage of an unfinished portrait. With the permission of Reichenbach, Welles took over the project. But rather than finishing the work, he set out to make another type of film all together; one that doesn’t exactly fit any real genre specification.
In Welles’ film, however, Elmyr ceases to become the center of attention, taking a backseat to his biographer, his documentarian, the mysterious beauty Oja Kodar, Howard Hughes, and Welles himself. Right from the film’s opening, the first person the audience sees is Orson Welles, proudly proclaiming himself a charlatan through narration, performing a magic trick to a child in a train station, and all the while telling us that there is no symbolic gesture to it. In the background, we see François Reichenbach and his film crew capturing the whole event, demonstrating Welles’ love for self-conscious filmmaking. A filmmaker taking on the persona of “the magician” was hardly a new connection, dating back to as long as Georges Méliès’ editing experiments from the turn of the century (example: Illusions Fantasmagoriques or Le Magicien). Yet, it still perfectly demonstrates, in the most literal sense, what Welles’ film is about: fakery. The beginning sequence is very much a visual thesis statement, perfectly stating his argument through the art of an illusion. But by acknowledging this, I’m also categorizing Welles’ film as a film essay, which may the most widely accepted opinion of the film as far as genres go. Welles’ film, while in a way a documentary, shares little with what one expects from the genre. Welles’ refusal to follow convention has always lifted his films to another level and F for Fake is no exception.
The film in itself feels controlled chaos, with Welles’ focus constantly changing on subject but all the time connecting all of them in a coherent manner. But it all begins where Reichenbach leaves off and that’s with Elmyr. We see footage of him at his most extravagant, throwing lavish parties, hanging among socialites (one whom is Welles) while we see Reichenbach interviewing the great forger and others, the most prevalent being his biographer Clifford Irvin. Irvin’s analysis and ultimately negative views on art critics, or “experts” is rather convincing when he shows a catalog to an art museum consisting of a Modigliani done by Elmyr. Elymr’s own knowledge of the meticulous details of each artist he replicates is rather impressive and it’s hard not to be watching him boast in front of the camera. But it’s Irvin’s reactions to the painter as well as his fascination with his achievements that capture Welles’ attention. Welles then, in his narration, goes through Irvin’s biography of Elmyr “FAKE: A story about faker, written by faker.” This was of course in reference to Irvin’s infamous Howard Hughes fake autobiography scandal, which Welles’ also dives into. Its from there where the next character of the film, the billionaire tycoon, Hollywood producer, avid aviator, and national enigma, Howard Hughes. It’s when describing Hughes that Welles’ explores a strange connection; not to him particularly, though both were rebellious icons of the old Hollywood era, but to his most popular character, Charles Foster Kane. Welles, along with his friend and fellow actor Joseph Cotton and producer Richard Wilson, recount how it was originally going to be Howard Hughes’ life that would be the model for Kane before they eventually went with William Randolph Hearst. Cotton discusses how he would have played the lead had they had chosen Hughes, who resemblances the man more than DiCaprio did in The Aviator. Wilson also interestingly makes a point by saying: “who could possibly believe that someone like Howard Hughes could have ever existed?” Yet as far as characters goes for Orson Welles films, Hughes fits right in among the complex, larger than life enigmas like Gregory Arkadin, Hank Quinlan, the Advocate, and of course, Charles Foster Kane. Welles, also, can’t help making parallels between Hughes and Kane as evident by him creating a fake newsreel about Hughes and starting it with title “News on the March” (the same fictitious newsreel opening he gave to Kane in the beginning of Citizen Kane).
From Hughes, Welles then focuses on a section for another charlatan: himself. Welles takes time to go through his past as a poor American artist traveling through Europe as well as his infamous war of the worlds broadcast. It all leads up to the films most memorable scene and easily one of the great moments in film history: Welles reciting his ode to Cathedral of Chartres, a monumental piece of art and architecture that has stood for centuries without any signature. Welles deconstructs the whole idea of authorship and to only view the art. As he says in the end of his monologue:
“Our works in stone, in paint, in print, are spared, some of them, for a few decades or a millennium or two, but everything must finally fall in war, or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash – the triumphs, the frauds, the treasures and the fakes. A fact of life: we’re going to die. ‘Be of good heart,’ cry the dead artists out of the living past. ‘Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.’ Maybe a man’s name doesn’t matter all that much.”
Welles’ passionate speech is saying so much more than just of Elmyr’s work or Irving’s book or fraud and art in general. “I am a charlatan,” Welles tells us in the beginning and we as an audience could assume many things of what he really means. Maybe it was his background as a magician or even his War of the Worlds hoax. But as we see the image of the Cathedral of Chartres, framed in the same way as Xanadu, it’s hard not to think back to Citizen Kane again. Oddly no other film from Welles’ canon is as self-referential. So often in the film, Welles reminds us of Citizen Kane. In a film as meticulously constructed as F for Fake, we know that this can’t be just coincidental. The film came out a few years after Pauline Kael’s infamous article, Raising Kane. In it, Kael argues about the authorship of the screenplay of Citizen Kane by saying that the sole writer of the film was actually Herman Mankiewicz rather than Welles. The actual script writer for Kane has always been in question, with more and more siding with Mankiewicz over the years. Mankiewicz had even gone to the Screen Writers Guild to try to have him be the sole writer for the film. Interestingly when the film was released and nominated for the Oscars, many voters in the Academy, supposedly, weren’t very taken by the young Welles. It is often believed that this was the reason that the film only won one Academy Award for writing; the one area, Frank Mankiewicz (the son of the screen writer) says, where Welles didn’t actually didn’t have a hand in. But of course, the “Best Original Screenplay” was the only Academy Award — aside from the Lifetime Achievement Award (which Welles never accepted) — the great director ever won.
But was Mankiewicz’s fate similar to that of Willem Drost? His name in history will forever be mentioned second to Welles when discussing Citizen Kane, as Drost will always take a backseat to Rembrandt when discussing “The Polish Rider.” In many ways, some could make the same assessment for Reichenbach, who one could easily argue is deserving of a co-director spot on the film. In the end, Welles questions the worth of an artist’s name; as time passes on, it will be lost in the dirt while the work forever lives on. This was the case for Willem Drost’s works, but who would have known how he would have reacted knowing what had happened to his works three centuries after his death. Would he have been grateful for that fact that his painting have survived the obstacles of time, or would he have been disappointed about how little he is remembered in contrast to some of his contemporaries? One could assume a little of both but the real answer will, obviously, forever be left blank. In the last act of Welles’ film, he acts out a story, with the help of his muse Oja Kodar, of an encounter between the great painter Pablo Picasso and a mysterious art forger. Welles, behind the persona of the art forger, tells us that he must believe that art itself must be real. In the end, Welles suggests art must become its own life form, separating itself from its maker. Even if Rembrandt didn’t sign “The Polish Rider” or if Citizen Kane didn’t have a credit sequence, they would still be considered the highest example of their art forms.
Also during this segment, Oja Kodar says of the mysterious art forgers, “A man who never signed his own name to a picture. What could be more modest than that?” The word “modest” would probably never have been used to describe either about Irving or Elmyr. Elmyr committed suicide two years after the film released and Irving served 17 months in prison for his Howard Hughes autobiography. Interesting since then, both figures have actually benefited through notoriety; Elmyr’s forgeries have become popular enough to be expensive collectibles while Irving would not only see his fake Howard Hughes autobiography actually issued for publication in the 1990’s but a Hollywood film made about him. I’m sure Welles would have been amused, if not proud, to see these forgeries reach the level of high art.