Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Through a Noir Lens: Adapting Film Noir Visual Style (Book) (2024)

For the first time, my work in publishing and my passion for film noir overlapped: I was finally assigned a project about film noir late in 2023. Through a Noir Lens: Adapting Film Noir Visual Style, by Sheri Chinen Biesen, was that very project, and it is a fascinating read for anyone interested in film noir.

Film noir fans are probably already familiar with the influences on the film noir style of the 1940s. It is an understatement to say that World War II had a huge effect on American life, and Biesen reminds us of its pervasive effects on the film industry in particular. Wartime restrictions meant, for just a few examples, fewer resources, a smaller labor pool (at least initially, until women entered the workforce), and tighter restrictions on essentials like electricity and rubber. Films noir and other B films were made on wartime-friendly, tight budgets. But these restrictions often led to greater creativity in producing films in the 1940s.

Cultural factors also played a role. People fighting war on the front lines or facing deprivation on the home front wanted to see films that reflected their experiences. They were ready to accept darker themes in their entertainment because their lives were hard—and not for just a few months. The wartime generation came out of the Great Depression and landed in more hardship when war was declared.

Biesen also talks about the use of nitrate film as a factor in the beautiful, shadowy chiaroscuro of film noir. Although it was dangerous to use because it was highly flammable, nitrate film allowed for the rich contours that were necessary for shooting in black and white. Thus, film noir was not just a product of wartime fighting and restrictions; it was also a function of the technology available at the time.

Biesen takes readers into the history of noir as it evolves along with changing times and changing technologies. The expressionistic style of 1940s film noir changed to brighter, grayer shades on acetate film, which replaced nitrate film. Films could be shot on location after wartime restrictions were lifted, which also contributed to the high-key, low-contrast look of films produced in the late 1940s and 1950s. Many films noir of the 1950s were told in a semidocumentary style, which was based on realism, not the expressionistic style of the early 1940s. Competition with television pushed many filmmakers to abandon a dark, shadowy, expressionistic style. The film industry shift to the use of color film stock was one more factor that signaled the end of the 1940s black-and-white film noir style.

U.S. film noir style didn’t disappear, however. Film styles may have been changing in the United States after World War II, but the end of hostilities meant that international trade, including the export of U.S. films, could resume. Biesen reminds us of the influence that film noir had on filmmakers in other countries. Their enthusiasm for the style meant that many transnational productions influenced U.S. neo-noir in turn, a reciprocal influence that continues to this day in both domestic and international digital productions.

Biesen ends her book in the present day. She tells readers that, by the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, the film industry had transformed once again, but it didn’t abandon the noir style. Online streaming companies continued to provide noir content in the form of original films and long-form series that subscribers embraced. Evolving cultural conditions and technological improvements did not mean the end of noir; noir adapted and often improved, and viewers can expect to see more noir content in the future. This is good news for someone like me: I should have plenty of noir to write about for some time.

I knew much of the information that Biesen writes about because I have been viewing film noir and reading and writing about it for several years. But it is very different learning snippets of information here and there compared to having it laid out decade by decade, which is the approach Biesen takes to her subject. I found it fascinating because she offers a chronology of noir and ties everything together in her book. I can recommend it for that reason alone.

Biesen discusses many films as examples to make her points, and when she discusses the modern era, she also provides some examples of neo-noir films and television shows, many of which I hadn’t heard of before. One is Babylon Berlin, a German television series that I enjoyed immensely. I have seen the first three seasons so far and wrote about it for this blog. (Click here to read my article about Babylon Berlin.)

Another example of a neo-noir television series is Perry Mason—and not the one starring Raymond Burr. This one stars Matthew Rhys as Perry Mason in a sort of a prequel, before Mason is the famous courtroom lawyer. In this new series, he is a private investigator wrestling with his own demons in a much darker version of Los Angeles than Raymond Burr encountered on television. It is supposedly much truer to the novels by Erle Stanley Gardner, which were the basis for both Burr’s and Rhys’s Perry Mason.

In addition to the insights about technology’s impact on the changes in noir over the years, readers also come away from Through a Noir Lens with a list of noir films and shows to watch. And maybe even more novels to read. It looks like I won’t have to worry any time soon about running out of noir to watch, read, and write about. Fans of noir will appreciate this feature of the book, too.

Through a Noir Lens: Adapting Film Noir Visual Style, by Sheri Chinen Biesen    New York: Columbia University Press, 2024

The image of the front cover above is from the Columbia University Press (CUP) publication.

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Babylon Berlin (Television Series) (2017–)

The German-language television series Babylon Berlin is noir on a grand scale. It takes place in Berlin, Germany, in 1929, during the interwar period (between World War I and World War II), and it includes many characters and many themes. To describe the time period as turbulent is an understatement. Although the characters don’t know what the future holds for them, viewers always have the nagging feeling that the characters’ lives will get even more complicated—and quickly—as the Great Depression hits and Adolf Hitler continues his rise to power. (This nagging feeling for viewers that the series inspires is one of the many reasons the series can be called noir.) Nazism is part of the storyline, but the series doesn’t take viewers into World War II, at least, not in the first three seasons; it focuses instead on the hedonism and violence in Berlin before political repression became really ugly and much more violent.

(This article about the television series Babylon Berlin contains some important spoilers.)

Type on the screen at the start of episode 1 orients viewers right away to location (Berlin) and period (1929). But the first sequence is a bit of a mystery. A hypnotist works with a young man and tells him, “I’ll take you back to the source of your fear.” The sequence takes viewers through various scenes that are described by the hypnotist, including the young man preparing to go to war, and a woman that the young man loves on her wedding day marrying another soldier. Viewers learn later that the hypnotist is Dr. Anno Schmidt, the brother of his subject, Detective Inspector Gereon Rath, and the groom is the same man, a plot twist that took me completely by surprise.

The series cuts to the opening credits, which appear over kaleidoscopic images from the first season. They are replaced one after the other as the previous one breaks apart and disappears from the screen. The music on the soundtrack is not melodic and builds to a crescendo, and then the screen goes black. An iris shot opens onto a train with the sound of a steam locomotive moving on tracks through a forest. The iris shot was used more widely in early cinema, and it is a nice touch for a series taking place in 1929. The train is held up and then hijacked, and its original engineers are murdered and left for dead on the side of the tracks.

At this point, none of the characters have been identified, but viewers are rewarded as the series unfolds. As is true about so many noir and neo-noir films and television series, it helps to pay attention to details. The series covers many interconnecting plot threads. Many of them, of course, get their start in season 1. Here are just a few examples of the more general themes:

German citizens attempt to smuggle war materiel for the new and illegal German ghost army, the Black Reichswehr, which, its members hope, will fight to regain Germany’s pride and win back all it lost in the Great War, as World War I was called at the time.

Russians in Germany try to smuggle gold through the country to help Leon Trotsky, who is living in Istanbul, mount a revolution against Joseph Stalin. One of the Russians living in Berlin, Svetlana Sorokina, betrays the Russians to agents working in the Russian embassy. Only one Russian revolutionary, Alexei Kardakov, survives.

Domestic order becomes of prime importance because of the fear of foreign political unrest in the Soviet Union and other countries spilling into Germany.

The Berlin police force is ready to crack down on the city’s residents because of political unrest between Communists, Social Democrats, and other political parties in Germany.

Poverty and unemployment are rampant at the end of World War I, which makes it easy for people to seek others to blame for Germany’s defeat in the war.

In addition to Communists, Social Democrats, and members of other parties, German citizens are quick to blame the very people who fought in the Great War. They are especially hard on war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress (PTSD) (also known as shell shock, bombshell disease, and war neuroses in the interwar period). They allege that these war veterans were too cowardly to continue fighting and are thus responsible for Germany’s defeat.

The characters in Babylon Berlin are caught up in these narrative threads to varying degrees. All the themes are tinged with elements of noir: PTSD, betrayal, murder, corruption, violence between rival gangs in the city, blackmail. And there are many characters. Almost all of them cross paths in one way or another, which makes for a very complex and satisfying story overall. It would have to be to hold viewers’ attention over three seasons (a total of twenty-eight episodes, each almost an hour long) so far.

The two main characters in the first three seasons are Inspector Gereon Rath and Charlotte Ritter. Rath has been transferred to vice in Berlin at his father’s request. His father tells his son that he needs to solve a specific blackmail case originating in Cologne, their hometown. He also tells Gereon that the case involves the mayor of Cologne, who is running for reelection. The upcoming election and the campaign preceding it naturally put a deadline on the investigation: The case must be solved before the information has a chance of being leaked and ruining the mayor’s chances of reelection. When Gereon Rath solves his father’s case at the end of season 1, he learns about his own father’s lies and involvement in the case he sent his son to investigate. Gereon Rath takes morphine or something similar to self-treat the lingering effects of PTSD, a result of his service in World War I. He needs to keep this a secret because he could lose his job if his superiors discovered his dependency. He is a potential danger to himself and his fellow officers if a traumatic event triggers his PTSD and he becomes incapacitated.

Charlotte (“Lotte”) Ritter lives in a small tenement-type apartment with her extended family, including her grandfather, mother, two sisters, a brother-in-law, and several of her sisters’ children. She is the main support for all of them; she picks up temporary work at the police station and works as a high-class prostitute at Moka Efti, one of Berlin’s popular upscale nightclubs. The nightclub is run by a local gang lord, Edgar Kasabian, also known as the Armenian. Viewers are introduced to Charlotte’s living situation and her work at the police station before they learn that she supplements her income at Moka Efti (and before meeting even more characters). One of Charlotte’s first work tasks at the police station is cataloging crime scene photos of various gruesome murders, which have been taken by the staff police photographer Reinhold Gräf. One of the junior officers, Stephan Jänicke, helps her get this particular job because he is attracted to her.

When Gereon Rath and his partner, Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Bruno Wolter, lead a police raid on a pornography film production, Wolter steals money that is supposed to be confiscated by the police from the filmmakers, one of whom is Johann König. König is the filmmaker that Rath is particularly interested in because of his father’s request, but he cannot explain any of this to Wolter or any other police officers. Wolter also roughs up Franz Krajewski, who ran from the scene when the vice squad showed up. Krajewski is another veteran suffering from PTSD, and he is also a police informant. Stephan Jänicke is a member of the vice squad, but he is also gathering information on Wolter, his boss. Councilor August Benda of the Berlin police department is convinced that Wolter is involved in corruption and illegal arming of civilians for another war, and Benda is not wrong.

It isn’t just the many plot threads and characters that make Babylon Berlin so compelling. Whether or not you are interested in history and historical accuracy, the attention to detail in the production of the television series also makes it worth watching. I am not a student of the Weimar Republic so I cannot say one way or the other how accurate all the historical details in the series are. But viewers should believe they are being transported to the late 1920s, and Babylon Berlin certainly succeeds on this point.

In this article, I discuss mostly what makes Babylon Berlin noir, but I was fascinated about the background setting and time period of the series to do some online research. If you, too, want more information about the film’s setting, time period, and production, you can click on each list item below for more information:

“The Truth about Babylon Berlin”: This blog article is extensive. The author, Mark Vallen, offers plenty of information about the Weimar Republic, the historical setting for Babylon Berlin. He covers art, film, history. It really is a treasure trove of all the ways the series got things right in season 1.

Wikipedia: Babylon Berlin: What’s great about this entry at Wikipedia is the comprehensive list of characters, both main and recurring, in the series. It’s a big help, especially for English-language speakers.

I have seen the first three seasons of Babylon Berlin (all three of which are available on DVD), but I concentrate only on the first season for this article because the series is so broad in scope. Netflix broadcast the first three seasons but then dropped it. Until recently, finding information about the fourth and fifth seasons was a bit difficult here in the United States. I haven’t been able to view the fourth season, not yet anyway. According to MHz Choice, a Kino Lorber streaming service, season 4 will be available on its service in the United States starting on June 25, 2024. The fifth season is supposedly heading into production by the end of 2024.

I’ll find a way to see the fourth and fifth seasons eventually because Babylon Berlin is worth the effort. The cinematography, the music, the costumes, the characters—all work exactly so. I can’t recommend it enough.

October 13, 2017, to October 8, 2022 (four seasons, forty episodes), broadcast dates (renewed for a fifth season)    Directed by Henk Handloegten, Achim von Borries, Tom Tykwe    Written by Henk Handloegten, Achim von Borries, Tom Tykwer    Based on novels by Volker Kutscher    Theme music by Tom Tykwer, Johnny Klimek, Reinhold Heil, Kristjan Järvi, Gene Pritsker, Larry Mullins    Series in-house band: The Moka Efti Orchestra    Edited by Alexander Berner, Claus Wehlisch, Antje Zynga    Cinematography by Bernd Fischer, Philipp Haberlandt, Christian Almesberger, Frank Griebe

Volker Bruch as Inspector Gereon Rath    Liv Lisa Fries as Charlotte (“Lotte”) Ritter    Peter Kurth as Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Bruno Wolter    Matthias Brandt as Councilor August Benda    Leonie Benesch as Greta Overbeck    Severija Janušauskaitė as Countess Svetlana (“Sveta”) Sorokina/Lana Nikoros    Ivan Shvedoff as Alexei Kardakov    Lars Eidinger as Alfred Nyssen    Anton von Lucke as Stephan Jänicke    Johann Jürgens as Rudi Malzig    Mišel Matičević as Edgar Kasabian (“the Armenian”)    Henning Peker as Franz Krajewski    Fritzi Haberlandt as Elisabeth Behnke    Karl Markovics as Samuel Katelbach    Jens Harzer as Dr. Anno Schmidt    Ernst Stötzner as Major General Wilhelm Seegers    Jördis Triebel as Dr. Völcker    Christian Friedel as Reinhold Gräf    Denis Burgazliev as Colonel Trokhinl    Thomas Thieme as Karl Zörgiebel

Produced by ARD Degeto, Sky Deutschland, X Filme Creative Pool, Beta Film    Broadcast by Sky 1 channel, Sky Deutschland