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.
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
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
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 Orpheus. 3
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,
Video: Good - -
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 14, 2004
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)
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
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.
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.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2004 Glenn Erickson
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