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Moving Image, The
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by Jay Seaver

"2/3 of a pretty good movie."
3 stars

It is unfair to review this movie on a certain level; it's incomplete, with roughly an hour remaining from a notably longer running time, and barring yet another remarkable discovery (the film was considered entirely lost until a Brazilian print was discovered in the 1980s), this abridged version is how we must know it. It's worth seeing, but you can't help it winds about what it was.

This version starts with Wil Brand (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) speaking to his lawyer; he was named the prime benefactor of cousin Georg Vanderheit's estate and worries about the man's common-law wife Irmgard (Mia May) trying to stake a claim - at least until he sees her on a train, apparently quite distraught and sincere. He follows, but the pursuit she is trying to evade is that of Georg's brother John (Hans Marr). She flees across a lake to a mountainous area, where she meets a mysterious man (Marr) with secrets of his own.

At least, that's one version of the story. With so much gone and the intertitles having been translated from German to Portuguese and back to German then subtitled in English for this screening (and the whole thing quite possibly altered during that first step), it's hard to know exactly what director Fritz Lang and writer Thea von Harbou were going for; I've seen the film's plot described in different ways. What comes through in this pair's first collaboration, I think, is a story of a man with the sort of unwavering principles that lead him to live an isolated ascetic life, a romantic ideal that nevertheless can also be very selfish and no counter against the actively malicious, as the woman who loves him discovers. It's a bit of a mess, but even this early on, Lang is a natural-enough storyteller that the audience can go with it.

If the story is a bit wobbly, the filmmakers are able to contact that somewhat with the striking look of the film, which is often striking. Lang is said to have built it around one of its central images - a statue of the Madonna in the center of an empty, snowy expanse - and he does a fine job of translating the power that image had in his head to the screen without any obvious tricks. He gets a set that had previously seemed open and inviting to suddenly become claustrophobic when characters are trapped there and brings tension to chases that don't necessarily look particularly close just from the picture.

(The latter, admittedly, is something that can be strongly affected by the soundtrack; this particular screening had local accompanist Jeff Rapsis on piano & organ doing his usual fine job; I can't speak for any of the home-video editions.)

The cast does good work as well, notably Mia May as Irmgard; she spends most of the movie playing her character as stressed in one way or another without it necessarily coming off as her natural state. Hans Marr is also impressive, making the man in the cabin formidable but also kind of deluded without him coming across as a joke, even if we don't really see enough of John (in this version) for his having a double role to have much in the way of weight or symbolism (it seems like something Lang & von Harbou enjoyed doing whether it was a major boon to the picture or not). Rudolf Klein-Rogge gets to play a fairly decent guy here, an amusing contrast to his villainous roles in later Lang films.

It's a pity that we will likely never get to see the actual version of "The Moving Image" that the filmmakers created again; a restored edition may not be great but would certainly be an even more fascinating and complete look at the early days of a great filmmaker, a noteworthy partnership, and a still-developing medium. What exists still intrigues, but in some ways it is necessarily something to be studied as opposed to consumed the way its makers intended.

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originally posted: 11/14/14 21:06:47
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USA
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  DVD: 06-Nov-2012

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Australia
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Directed by
  Fritz Lang

Written by
  Fritz Lang
  Thea von Harbou

Cast
  Mia May
  Hans Marr
  Rudolf Klein-Rogge



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