Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Lost Ones

The really frustrating thing to people like me, and I assume you, aren't films like London After Midnight that been been destroyed, wiped off the face of the Earth by fire and other forms of bad luck, or films that sound fantastic but never got made for one reason or another, like Charles Laughton's The Naked and the Dead. To me, "frustration" implies that a certain amount of hope exists, and in those cases the film is simply gone forever, or was never made in the first place. Whatever longing you might feel to see them comes closer, I think, to nostalgia than actual frustration. No, what's frustrating are movies that were made, are out there, can be seen, have been seen, but not by you because of some legal mess, or indifference, or ignorance. I'm talking about films that aren't lost, but rather hiding.

Recently, I was very fortunate to be able to see one such film, Peter Lorre's sole credit as a director, Der Verlorene, or The Lost One. Filmed in Germany in 1951, it features Lorre first as a kindly, efficient doctor in a refugee camp and then, in a flashback to 1943 as a quiet Nazi scientists who is slowly revealed to be a psychopath. Der Verlorene is a strange film, its story occasionally oblique, but in such a way that doesn't leave the viewer lost, but rather uncertain. It somehow manages to be a story of post-war Germany, a film noir, a spy film, and a serial killer film without ever inducing whiplash, and it boasts a final image for the ages. If you wanted to program a triple feature of The Serpent's Egg, The Great Dictator and Der Verlorene, then you could probably go ahead and do that. Why Der Verlorene is missing, or hiding, I don't know. Apparently there's a German DVD -- there must be, otherwise I wouldn't have been able to see it -- and it has been screened in America, for instance at the Film Forum in 1984 (a screening that led Vincent Canby to call the film "a curiosity". Okay, well, thanks), but otherwise the English-speaking world (or the Spanish, or the French, I'd guess) can't be bothered, apparently.

Sometimes these films aren't even hiding. For many years, I imagined that Frederick Wiseman's Titicut Follies would simply be unavailable, due to its controversial nature. For at least some of those years, this was no doubt the case, but for I-don't-know-how-long, Titicut Follies has in fact been available on DVD, mainly through Wiseman's own website. I got my own copy not through the site, but in the lobby of the IFC Center in New York, when I was up there a few weeks ago. So "hiding in plain sight" might be a better description of the status of Titicut Follies.

But what of Michael Reeves' The Sorcerers (once released on DVD in England, now out of print)? Joseph Losey's remake of M? Fassbinder's adaptation of Nabokov's Despair? Or Der Verlorene again, which I only saw because of this network of blogs I'm a part of, and comments left at one that I'd almost forgotten about until I received a surprising e-mail? This stuff has a tendency to go in cycles, of course -- Salo was one of these for many years, but Criterion "corrected" that (I'm glad it's available, but I have a hard time sounding too positive about it). The major films of Alejandro Jodorowsky, too -- I remember reading about those on an old, early internet film discussion board, and first seeing El Topo when I rented a bootleg of the Japanese laserdisc from a video store in Norfolk, VA, but all those movies are available in handsome DVDs now. It must be a pisser for those sorts of video stores when being able to provide even a shitty copy of El Topo no longer makes them special, but frankly I'm ready for all that specialness to be wiped away. I know there's a certain element who mourns the day when you really had to dig for this stuff, far more than you do now, so the people who found it were the ones who really cared. Well, I really care. I can care my ass off all day long and still not be able to see Losey's M, though. That's the frustration. You can care and care and care, and you can read about people who have seen one of these movies you've been tracking forever, and they'll say "Yeah, I saw that" like it's fucking nothing, and you won't be any closer to seeing it for yourself because it's simply out of your hands.

Der Verlorene was dropped into my hands, though, and for that I'm grateful. It's an elegant, weird, and bleak little struggle with one country's recent history by a man who'd fled that country, his home, long ago, and I'm very glad I got to see it. I hope this experience has set some sort of precedent.


Rockysds said...

Yeah, this stuff can be really frustrating and I'm personally really pining for early Ophüls, some more Naruse and, yes, Losey's M, but Fassbinder's "Despair" is actually getting released on dvd in a couple of weeks by Olive Films along with his "I Only Want You to Love Me". Two of the Fassbinder I've never seen, so I'm pretty excited about it!

bill r. said...

but Fassbinder's "Despair" is actually getting released on dvd in a couple of weeks by Olive Films along with his "I Only Want You to Love Me".

Oh, well, see? Right there: cyclical, or whatever I said. Anyway, that's great news, and thanks for the tip!

Greg said...

Back in the eighties, there was this video company Roger Ebert used to push (can't remember it now) that specialized in hard to get movies. Now, I imagine they're all readily available on DVD.

I'm endlessly happy about not having to hunt down every other movie like I had to in the late seventies/early eighties. I'm thrilled now that DVDs, streaming and big-business art theatres like the AFI Silver, make seeing what was once obscure, easy.

Robert H. said...

I'm going to go out on a limb and say out loud what everyone is aware of - yes, piracy is Wrong, Evil and Bad;copyright and capitalism must be respected; where are one's morals, etc. - but the plain fact is that were it not for bootlegs, torrents and the like, most of these films would probably have completely disappeared, or could only be found searching in reference books and periodicals.

Yes, things SHOULD be found legitimately - but for various reasons or another (most of which boil down to who's actually going to end up with your dollar), there's lots of obstacles placed in the path. Some films end up only being released overseas, so one needs to also locate region-free players in order to screen those... and that's if there IS a release.

It's even questionable if most of the films produced during the indie boom of the last 30 years or so will even survive for future audiences - I suspect that a lot of the digital films won't survive past the next 50 years.

It could end up that films that aren't judged to have a proper marketability for studios to remaster/restore them might have to depend on groups of like-minded people (a la Kickstarter, Indie-Go-Go) to contribute funding to save them for future generations... sort of like what the Film Noir Foundation did with Losey's THE PROWLER, and several other 'lost' films (and maybe Losey's M might be a future candidate, if no studio is willing to even release it as a burn-on-demand disc).

Greg said...

But Robert, what I'm saying, for my part, is that I now have all the films I need available by purely legitimate means. If there is one or two titles here or there that aren't, honestly I still don't bother downloading a bootleg because there's a thousand other legitimately available movies I still haven't seen. Really, right now, it's a treasure trove of delights for a cinephile.

bill r. said...

The bootleg thing can be tough. Only sometimes, but I suppose the copy of DER VERLORENE I now have is technically a bootleg of the German DVD. If I could have bought it, I would have, or rather, if it would have done me any good -- see, the subtitles were fan made. They're decent, and I can't complain, but it indicates that the DVD has no English subtitle option. So what good would buying it do me?

But i'll always buy the DVD if I can. Then again, what good buying used copies of TO BE TWENTY or THE SORCERERS, as i've done, does for the people who put in money to produce those films/DVDs, I don't know.

And Robert, region free players aren't something you have to find. Go to Amazon and find a cheap one. They're plentiful.

Robert H. said...

Or hacking your player - 5 minutes on the Internet and 3 minutes to actually implement it.

My point about the bootleggers & pirates is that it's those very same "scum" that gradually made people become aware that there's value to this stuff.

Right now, it IS a treasure trove of riches to dive into, the only bright spot of mainstream cinema, since the current MC doesn't seem to know what to do with movies that aren't based on a comic book or a defunct tv show...

Ask about your cinema collection in, say, 10-15 years from now.... hopefully, there'll still be a cornucopia of riches to explore.

bill r. said...

No offense, but saying, during the time of the greatest and most accessible cinematic wealth, that ten years from now it'll be really bad just sounds like an excuse.

And no pirate or hacker has ever led me to a greater understanding of the worth of any film. I don't get that at all.

Robert H. said...

None taken - it may well be an excuse.

As to availability - I was lucky enough to live in an area during part of the 90's where repertory theatres and great video stores helped open areas of cinema I barely knew existed. Where I live now is not quite as cool or as culturally advanced, and the repertory theatre has turned into mainly a DVD player and TV, and more recently, computer.

I'm not saying that bootlegger and/or hacker led me to a greater understanding of the worth of a film - unless you count making viewing of a film available so I could come to that understanding via direct viewing, rather than reading someone's account of it without ever seeing a frame of footage.

So, in that sense, I WAS led to a greater understanding of Losey's M, via torrent. It would have just remained an intriuging curiosity to me otherwise.

Cheryl Morris said...

Thanks for your interesting blog entry on Peter Lorre's Der Verlorene (1952).

The film in fact was released to commercial DVD in Germany by Kinowelt Home Entertainment -- a 2-disc DVD with many extras, but in Region 2 only, although there are plans to bring it to U.S. DVD. You can read more about this DVD here:

In addition, the full-length Lorre biography, The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre, by Stephen D. Youngkin, contains a full chapter on the making of this movie.

You can get more information on the book here, on the official website:


Bryce Wilson said...

Confession I still have the bootleg version of El Topo that my old video store used to rent. To me it's not an issue of caring so much as the way the act of digging out certain films left them with a kind of aura.

I still say my first viewing of Eraserhead was immensely improved by watching it with burned in Japanese subtitles.

bill r. said...

Losey's M is, as far as I'm aware, entirely unavailable through standard commercial video means, and never has been, and may never be. So in those cases, although I don't really want to be doing any of that internet ripping that you kids like to do, I suppose one does what one must. But with something like THE SORCERERS that's been out there, and good used copies are available, I don't feel like it's the same situation. Needing a region-free player is not an excuse, given how cheap and easy to get they are.

The other thing about all this, which ties into Bryce's point about aura, is that, at least in my experience, there was, and still is, a real danger of overselling the movie to yourself. When I was young, I had all these readily available movies pegged as "hard to find" simply because I hadn't looked hard or basically at all, and so built them up in my mind. One of those was RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY, which I found one day in a newly opened Hollywood Video (that's how hard it was to find RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY; you had to go to Hollywood Video). Anyway, I was let down by the film, because of the aura I'd bestowed upon it. That's my guess, anyway. In any event, I still haven't watched it a second time.

As for ERASERHEAD and burned-in Japanese subtitles, well, I'm sure if Lynch read this he'd think "Damn it, why didn't I think of that?"

Dean Treadway said...

My feeling is that if you are perfectly willing to pay for the piece, but no one will let you do that, then it's perfectly okay to see it whichever way you can. In that spirit, Bill, I offer you this:

David B. said...

Two movies that I've been wanting to see fall into this category: The Prize with Paul Newman and Chimes at Midnight by Orson Welles (i think it might be available on a British dvd titled Falstaff)