What to get the continentally inclined cinephile who has everything? Last year’s must-have DVDs were the long-awaited director-authorized releases of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman and Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó. This year, Facets—which, in late 2007, brought out an authorized edition of Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s phantasmagoric masterpiece Hitler, A Film From Germany—completes Syberberg’s “German trilogy” with companion double-DVD editions of Ludwig: Requiem for a Virgin King (1972) and Karl May (1974), listing for $59.95.
Not just a forgotten giant of the neue kino, Syberberg is one of the great innovators of ’70s cinema. His bargain-basement historical epics, cluttered with detritus and brooding over the cultural origins of the Third Reich, are movies like no others. With their overt stagecraft, rear-screen projection, pervasive dry-ice vapors, and old radio music, they’re deconstructed opera—part Wagner, part Brecht—or midnight rituals played out on an abandoned stage. Syberberg criticizes German culture even as he appropriates it. His romantic temperament gives his films a conviction more reasonable work could never have. The first installment of his trilogy is devoted to Mad Ludwig of Bavaria (and subject of a lesser biopic made almost simultaneously by Luchino Visconti); the second, somewhat more “normal,” concerns 19th-century pulp writer Karl May, still popular in Germany today. Here, Syberberg’s assemblage is implicit in his casting: May is played by wartime director Helmut Käutner; his wife by Kristina Söderbaum (female star of Nazi superproduction Kolberg); and even Lil Dagover, the love interest in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, makes an appearance as well.
The rarest and least expected cinephilic find of the year is the 1926 Soviet adventure satire Miss Mend (Flicker Alley, $39.95). I first saw this cubo-futurist, faux-American serial in Berlin, six months before the Wall came down; if you had asked me then, I’d have said that ever finding this crazy comedy on home video was a lot less likely than the unification of Germany. Co-directed by Fyodor Otsep and the great Boris Barnet (who also appears as an American reporter for the Little Town Megaphone), Miss Mend captivated Soviet audiences and bugged humorless ideologues. It’s impossible to resist: Plots! Disguises!! Acrobatic chases!!! Evil millionaires!!!! And the excellent transfer includes a new score by Robert Israel.
No doubt that the 25-DVD colossus in the room this season is Criterion’s deluxe Akira Kurosawa centennial edition. The original fusion filmmaker, Kurosawa orchestrated a post World War II synthesis of Japanese content, Soviet montage, and American action. Rashômon (1950), a descendent of Citizen Kane, gave the world a working model for subjective experience; Seven Samurai (1954) provided the Hollywood western with a new epic model; Yojimbo (1961) invented a contemporary hard-boiled attitude and provided Sergio Leone with a career. And those are just my favorites. Superbly packaged in a Japanese box (and listed at a luxurious Japanese price of $399.95), this uniform set includes most of the Kurosawa oeuvre films and is accompanied by elegant hardcover program notes. Criterion has brought out a number of Kurosawa films over the years, but to have the box is to feel that you’ve got a lifetime supply.