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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Liliom
Liliom
Kino // Unrated // March 30, 2004
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by DVD Savant | posted April 15, 2004 | E-mail the Author
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Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Kino has once again given us a genuine classic to rediscover. Liliom is Fritz Lang's "fugitive" film; like Billy Wilder's Paris experience with Mauvaise Graine, he made it in France en route to the United States.

Americans already know the basic story as the Rodgers and Hammerstein Carousel, but this 1933 film blanc is far richer and thematically more sound. Lang's amazing record of innovation continues with a visual idea that became a major theme of its own - the heavenly waiting room for souls in judgment seen in everything from A Matter of Life and Death to Defending Your Life. What's most surprising is that Liliom is Lang's lightest drama about life, death and fate. It has a sense of humor to go along with its irony, and its flawed hero isn't entirely crushed by powers outside of his control.

Synopsis:

Handsome carnival barker Liliom Zadowski (Charles Boyer) attracts crowds of girls for carousel proprietress Mme. Muskat (Florelle), but she becomes jealous and fires hims when he gives too much attention to the starstruck chambermaid Julie (Madelieine Ozeray). Julie also forfeits her job by staying with the uncouth, selfish Liliom after her curfew. But she loves him, and they live together. While she works, he remains a bum and resents her kindnesses; when Julie turns up pregnant, Liliom foolishly decides to get involved in a crime to make some money for the baby.

(various plot spoilers in the following discussion)

Compared to this lively, creative picture, Henry King's film of the musical adaptation has the stage play's wonderful music and not much else. Carousel (1956) takes place on mostly cheap sets and softens the story for American consumption. The musical moves the action to New England and makes poor Billy Bigelow and Julie look foolish as the luckless couple - vagabond lovers might survive in Paris, but what do they do when the seasonal freeze comes in Maine? Bigelow seems like an arrogant dolt, and Julie a fool to love him; we have to take the whole concept on faith. The concluding "moral" has battered wife Julie state that "sometimes there's hits that don't hurt." In context, it really comes off as offensive.

Apparently Fox had rights to Ferenc Molnár's play Liliom way before the musical ever came to be. The film was made by a French partnership called Fox-Europa. Its technical standards are very high, and unlike the Rodgers & Hammerstein show, the full context and complexity of the original concept is retained.

Lang was adept at creating ominous & fateful fantasy worlds in shows like Metropolis and Die Niebelungen. His very early Der Müde Tod (Destiny) set the standard for eerie fantasies split between this world and the afterlife.

That's how Liliom seems so atypical of Lang's work, at least at first. Lang's magical carnival world is far lighter than his usual settings, with the randy barker-tout Liliom bursting with exuberant joy like a peacock excited with being the center of attention. The pride of the carnival, it's Liliom's jokes and attractiveness that make the carousel the hit of the midway, with every girl and woman rushing to buy a ticket and with it perhaps a flirt. He sings songs and moves among the riders like a celebrity. Obviously in love with him, Mme. Muskat is proud of his ability to attract crowds to the Carousel, and also proud of her own prowess in keeping him - she has the illusion that Liliom's heart is hers. The carousel spins, Liliom sings and we get one of the most magical carnival setpieces ever. Tod Browning made the sideshows and cheap attractions seem perverse, but Lang makes the carnival and the carousel a joyous wheel of life - where people fall in love, and their fates are determined.

The wonderful title theme for Carousel evokes this exact same feeling, but the cheap visuals of the musical movie undercut the mood.

Liliom snags Julie, and impressed by her shameless interest, allows himself to be fired over her. Young, innocent and totally guileless, Julie sets her cap for the brash apache, the boastful rogue. Liliom at first sees an easy conquest and brushes off Julie's girlfriend to clear the way. But the spell works on him too, when Julie would rather stay with him even though it means losing her job, even after some good advice from the police. Liliom is touched. Julie knows he's no good, and wants him anyway. Although he'd never admit it, fate has struck him as well. He's hers, for better or worse.

Seen from the outside, their common-law marriage is a disaster. Julie doesn't fault Liliom even when he slaps her at the slightest frustration. He's a true ne'er do well, a proud artist without an art. An aunt tries to rescue Julie by arranging a meeting with a solid carpenter who will accept her on any terms. The aunt stresses the advantages of a legit marriage with a house and kids and enough money and respect to make a go of life. But it's too late - Julie would rather be battered by her true love than choose otherwise.

In Carousel Billy Bigelow's slapping Julie is not presented as daily abuse, but she looks like an uncomprehending idiot rather than someone truly in love. Julie's girlfriend Carrie goes the respectable route, clearly to give the "uplifiting" show a wholesome alternative to the shady Billy Bigelow-Julie marriage. Carrie sings a song about her Mr. Jones and all the kids they'll have, a dream-life that corresponds more to the postwar domestic fantasy than it does anything in Liliom. In the musical, Julie's crazy about Carrie's marriage idea and foolishly thinks she'll have the same with Bigelow. She just comes off as deluded. The Julie of Lang's film is so deeply in love, she wants nothing from her man and is incapable of thinking beyond the perceived happiness of the present. Her abject devotion is too much for Liliom, who feels the frustration of being so worthless next to her goodness and purity. Like the brute he is, he strikes out at her, in emotional self-defense.

Carousel's Billy Bigelow doesn't go along with Julie's friends to a clambake; Julie is on good terms with her conventional community and Billy seems like the odd thug out. He goes along with a dumb robbery plan and accidentally falls on his own knife. In Liliom, Julie lives in romantic isolation. Liliom cheats on her, plays cards and hustles people but can't get ahead. When he finds out she's going to have a baby, his joy can't override his bad judgment. Tellingly, he chooses suicide rather than face the shame of capture - that pride again. Liliom alone - not bad luck - is responsible for his fate.

Julie in Carousel is despondent over Bigelow with a conventional level of self-concern; Julie in Liliom is so pure and generous that she comforts her dying love with no regard for herself. She's like the faithful lover in Destiny, willing to sacrifice anything for the object of her love.

Carousel's heaven is a dreary cheap set with plastic stars, and Bigelow gets sent back to Earth as a matter of pointless protocol. Liliom's heaven is vastly more interesting. First, it's a parody of the injustice Liliom receives on Earth. He's made to wait pointlessly, just as he was in the police office back home. The 'heavenly' police do the same, and even let a rich man go ahead in line. Grieved for his own foolishness - but still loathe to admit it - Liliom accepts all of this favoritism with a shrug, even when the fat turnkey to perdition - a fiery furnace - tells him he'll be spending 16 years burning in torment. 1

The picture refuses sentiment even when Liliom discovers he can go back to Earth to see the daughter he never knew, now 16 years old. The angels show him the slapping incident from his past, playing it back on a movie screen tagged with a date and time just as in the Albert Brooks movie Defending Your Life. The two sober heavenly policemen who accompany him between Earth and Heaven would seem to have inspired the cosmic messengers in Cocteau's later Orpheus3

The final chapter finds Liliom in a judgment situation ignored by Carousel, which instead descends into bathos. Weighing a literal balance against the subdued (but not entirely repentant) Liliom, a demon is gleeful when Liliom repeats his crime by slapping his own daughter. Julie hears about her daughter's encounter with a stranger and is moved to shed one single teardrop - but a teardrop of such purity that it sways the balance in Liliom's favor. It's the masterstroke, and it puts Liliom in the company of such great mythopoetic stories as B. Traven's Macario.

Even with such a magical touch, Liliom never becomes saccharine or gushy. Liliom is defeated but never exactly contrite. He's a bit like Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux - if God created Liliom the way he is, why is God so shocked at his poor behavior?

By contrast, Carousel seems to have been battered about by censors. I say seems because I'm ignorant of the forces that would have reshaped the Broadway musical. Billy Bigelow can't commit suicide because it's too blasphemous. And Ferenc Molnár's heaven might not have been "Christian" enough for 1950s America. They preferred martial-law heavens back then, as in the sickening wartime film A Guy Named Joe where only allied fliers need apply at the pearly gates.

The ending motto basically remains "there are hits that don't hurt," but the meaning is different. In Carousel, Julie seems to be in denial and making excuses for Billy Bigelow. In Liliom, Julie is just describing the illogical nature of love. It's quite beautiful.

I haven't described the clever design and art direction in Julie and Liliom's world next to the carnival, or how Liliom is almost lured away from Julie back to the Carousel and Mme. Muskat. The design of heaven is a real treat as well. Liliom sings a special song to the young, starstruck Julie, and elsewhere the young composer Franz Waxman provides a sterling accompaniment, especially the heavenly music to accompany the galleries of angels Liliom meets above. 3

I think it's possible that Fritz Lang treated Liliom as a straight job to earn the money necessary to tide him over on his way to America. He might not have chosen this material on his own and if he had more control might have altered it, perhaps making it heavier. As it is, this is a perfect accident, the most affecting and sophisticated fantastic romance of the 30s.

Charles Boyer is quite different here than his later 'Casbah' persona - a red cheeked apache sinner proud of his sins. Madeline Ozeray is captivating as the patient and sweet Julie and Florelle makes an interesting portrait of possessiveness as Mme. Muskat. When she hears of Liliom's death, her distraught silencing of the Carousel makes for an eerie moment. It redeems her somewhat as well.


Kino's DVD of Liliom isn't a beauty, but it's not bad either. The basically intact print is obviously not from original elements and is a tad contrasty. The only really frustrating section is a part of the heaven sequence. Several mistakes of timing make scenes go darker, then lighter, in the middle of shots. It's altogether possible that the reason this print survived is because it was misprinted in the first place, and set aside. The audio is also serviceable but is not from the best elements.

The print carries a Fox logo. We're informed by Lotte Eisner that it was never shown in the United States when it was new. Perhaps it got some minor distribution when the Broadway play came out. Eisner says that Liliom was a few minutes longer in its original cut, but what we see seems fairly intact and coherent. Her description of the story doesn't describe additional scenes that we missed. 3

There aren't any extras, just a filmography for Lang. I can't wait to show this one to my family. Let's hope some entity eventually rounds up a perfect print. 2


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Liliom rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good - -
Sound: Good
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 14, 2004


Footnote:

1. There's a chilling moment when Liliom learns that a knife sharpener was really his guardian angel. The peddler rolls his cart around like the blind balloon seller of "M". The Knife Sharpener is played by Antonin Artaud, the stage talent famous for the origin of the "Theater of Cruelty." (fact courtesy Benoit Racine)
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2. 4.15.04: I've already received some emails from people who don't care for Liliom because it's "pro-wife beating." I don't think it is, although not liking a show about a wife suffering is certainly no crime. Here's an answer, the best one I could put together:

... freed from the modern, correct, humane attitude toward wife beating, Liliom is simply about love. Men have been treating women this way forever, and it obviously needs to stop. But everything about the world of the lovers in Liliom is unjust, and Julie is just this beautiful creature of love and giving in the middle of it all.

Liliom is scum, but he's no worse than 70% of men - especially outside a minority of Western cultures. And all relationships have their own screwy balance of fairness and injustice. I still think it's a beautiful story about reality, maybe from a different age of perception. It's also important to remember that the film is heavily expressionistic - when he is moved, Liliom clutches his heart, just as characters do in Metropolis. It's a fantasy.

Julie's teardrop is about her love, not the author's acceptance of wife abuse. Liliom is great because its 'hero' isn't some pure guy necessarily worthy of being saved. He's just an ordinary sinner.

That said, Liliom is definitely not P.C.. Our first reaction in 2004 is to worry for poor "clueless" Julie, as if everyone's supposed to go into a love affair with a fairness contract. Have you never known a relationship that seemed obviously unfair, yet the dominated party thought they were happy just the same? It's the same reason I like Almodóvar's Atame!. Relationships only stick to P.C. guidelines in TV movies.
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3. Various helpful notes and corrections from Benoit Racine, 4/30/04:
An older sinister cinema tape is from a print in much worse shape, but it has the same gross timing errors in the same places mentioned above. It does have shots of a nude heavenly secretary that the Kino version seems to be missing.
James Whale met Franz Waxman at a Hollywood party and hired him for The Bride of Frankenstein based upon Waxman's "heavenly" music in Liliom.
Jean Cocteau also borrowed one of Charles Boyer's dialogue lines for the final words of the Prince in his later Beauty and the Beast.

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