10 films — Gesamtkunstwerk

by Matt Olver

Created 08/19/12

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The following films in my list exhibit artistic totality, universal art, or in some of these films a complete synthesis of various art forms. Gesamtkunstwerk, as unsung New German Cinema director Hans-Jürgen Syberberg calls it. These films are not necessarily my top 10 of all time but are Criterion films that achieve this concept.

  • When I think about this film I think about space, color, and architecture. Nicholas Ray weaves all of these things together in 50's CinemaScope which never looked better than it does here. Ray was a protege of Frank Lloyd Wright and even received a Taliesin Fellowship to study under him. The influence of Wright is obviously noticed in the layout and set design. The carefully ordered space is contrasted with the James Mason character's addiction to the experimental new drug Cortisone, and its painful mental destruction over his psyche.

  • Who would have known that English-born actor Charles Laughton was a natural born filmmaker? If only he had made more films than just this one. The [German] expressionistic use of shadow in this black and white film contrast good and evil. Lurking in the shadows is the ominous Robert Mitchum with love and hate tattooed on his knuckles. This is one of Mitchum's best roles.

  • Only Peter Watkins' Edvard Munch (1974) stands out to me as being on the same level as this film—one of the very best films about the life of the artist and artistic creation. Tarkovsky tells the story 15th Century Russian icon painter Andrei Rublev and all of his obstacles, struggles, and inspirations encountered in medieval Russia. Tarkovsky is a complete master of tracking and elevated camera shots and has demonstrable knowledge of the black and white medium even going back to his first film — Ivan's Childhood. The final shot of this film is one of the most memorable endings I have ever seen.

  • Chaplin talks! I can only imagine what this film was like to view in the theaters when it came out. It must have jolted the collective conscious in the English speaking world. Released in 1940, people were just waking up to the evils of Hitler. Chaplin presents a genial physical acting portrayal of the Jewish barber mistaken for the Tomainian Dictator. All of these things are part of the brilliance of Chaplin's satirical condemnation of the world affairs of "machine men, with machine minds and machine hearts". The end speech is one for the ages.

  • Director Jean Renoir combined realism and poetry and was clearly a major influence for American film director Robert Altman. Renoir's film is a take on aristocratic upper-class French society. I know right? Sounds like a bore. It's not. The masquerade ball, the hunt, the romantic liaisons, and double crossings make for an interesting plot. The things going on in the background of this film are just as important as those in the foreground of the shot. Renoir turns up as a physical actor playing the character Octave inhabiting a bear suit in the film. Altman's style and specifically his film Gosford Park are both an homage to the French master.

  • Mary Shelley's Romantic radical Gothic horror tale serves the revolutionary spirit and setting of the film. A young child discovers death through the film Frankenstein shown in a small Spanish village. This is a story that shows the power of film. How a film can awaken a sense of existential crisis in even the youngest and smallest among us. The film has amazing cinematography and is something to behold. Especially the use of light in the film. Filmmaker Monte Hellman says that DP Luis Cuadrado shot Spirit while 95 percent blind. He had his assistant describe the sets to him, then told him where to place the lights, and the intensity of each.

  • Dreams and the unconscious struggle of a filmmaker searching for his next creation. Notably a very Catholic film. The desirable female figure archetype for Fellini was shared by American independent director Russ Meyer.

  • A foreboding tale of a brilliant mad criminal mastermind running his operation out of the asylum and influencing his henchmen throughout the city through the powers of hypnosis, psychoanalysis, and mind control. There is a lot going on in this film. This film is a subversive and profound cultural statement on the horrors of Nazism that were about to be establishing themselves in the German speaking world. One wonders if Sigmund Freud ever saw this film, and what he would have thought of it.

  • Cybernetics. Engineering. Government. Corporate Conspiracy. Paranoia. Fassbinder. A dangerous mix of high and low level informational binary patterns for a film that fundamentally undermines and challenges a viewer's conception of reality as we know it. All of this before the Wachowskis filmed The Matrix (1999).

  • A motion picture meditation on being and war. Terrence Malick is a philosopher filmmaker and his style resonates with me. He is deeply influenced by Martin Heidegger and his philosophy of 'being in the world'. Malick is also elusive and rarely gives interviews so I'm curious about his personality too.

1 comment

  • By Quinn
    August 04, 2013
    03:20 PM

    Great list!