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The 1970s blossomed into a great decade for ambitious filmmakers, who, by now, had a lot of twentieth century angst to work through – and plenty of great predecessors to emulate or against whom to rebel.
This selection of undervalued dramas from the late 70s reflects an incredible quintet of great filmmakers, making works that are not recognised as their most famous, but can all the same be considered minor masterpieces. Curiously, these most notable but overlooked films each revolve around a domestic setting or situation, their characters variously blaming the neighbours, the authorities or each other for the uncomfortable circumstances they find themselves in.
The remarkable differences these films display are testament to the uniqueness of their creators – Polanski’s paranoia, Altman’s expansiveness, Kieślowski’s rich emotional worlds and Fassbinder’s cruelty are all taken in new directions in a period when these young masters were finding their stride. The final choice, from Béla Tarr, is an angry riposte to the over-sophistication of the filmmaker’s political and cinematic peers, a raw analogue to the thriving punk movement of the west.
If you cut off my head, what would I say… Me and my head, or me and my body? What right has my head to call itself me?
Polanski’s Kafka-esque nightmare remains in the shadow of his previous movie, 1974’s ‘Chinatown’ – but with its intimate setting and unnerving humour, personally, ‘The Tenant’ has always been the more affecting movie. Polanski himself takes the lead as an apparent everyman who moves into an apartment vacated – via the window – of a young woman who now lays bandaged head to toe in hospital.
Absurd moments – a tooth found buried in the apartment wall, a new friend who likes to listen (and march) to marching music – build an unsettling atmosphere, as our hero’s neighbours begin to turn on him and direct him towards the same fate as the apartment’s previous tenant. Uncanny, artificial performances and spot-on dialogue create an atmosphere that looks like life, but seems wrong: city living as a melting pot for weirdoes, ready to bubble over.
Ever since you moved in here you’ve been causin’ me grief. Nobody wants to hang around you. You don’t drink, you don’t smoke. You don’t do anything you’re supposed to do!
Pinky (Spacek) runs away from her old life and starts work at a California health spa, where she is immediately smitten with her mentor Mildred “Millie” Lammoreaux (Duvall) – a doll-like oddball who seems to live her life directly from an instructional magazine, cheerily immune to the insults this provokes.
Soon, Pinky moves into Millie’s dollhouse apartment, but Millie’s efforts to advance herself – and Pinky’s to keep up – create tense conditions and a situation that is bound to explode.
An exquisite colour palette, spot-on dialogue and pitch-perfect performances from the leads make for a rare and beautiful movie – inspired by, it’s not too surprising to discover, a dream that director Altman had.
Witek: What are you filming?
Filip: Anything that moves…
Kieślowski is perhaps best known for his later French works, the ‘Three Colours’ trilogy (1993-4) and ‘The Double Life of Véronique’ (1991), but this earlier Polish work is just as moving and displays a down-to-earth sense of humour that is perhaps lacking from the later films.
Jerzy Stuhr (you probably know his face) plays factory worker Filip, whose life takes a new direction when his daughter is born – but less because of fatherhood, than the amateur film hobby he takes up to record the event.
Becoming obsessed with this new hobby, Filip’s intimate films soon catch the attention of film festivals and the Communist Party. As his obsession spirals out of control, Filip’s home life – and his freedom – come to be seriously compromised by the impact of his little camera.
A deceptively simple story with layers of political and existential meaning, ‘Camera Buff’ is a charming, funny and sad approximation of real life in the Polish People’s Republic.
If you don’t have potatoes, you eat turnips. When the turnips are gone, you eat gruel. But every girl loves her one and only. He goes to war; five months later he’s dead, and you mourn the rest of your life. Does that make sense to you, Grandpa? It drowns you…
Set among the ad hoc structures that approximated family life in post-war Germany, ‘Maria Braun’ tells the ironic tale of an apparent war widow who believes her husband will return, chronicling the brave, desperate but always proud steps she takes to ensure her own survival in the meantime.
Fassbinder’s trademark cruel sense of humour is in full view here, expressed through bittersweet encounters, vicious dialogue, and muse Hanna Schygulla’s determined and unstable lead performance. Fassbinder borrows and twists classic Hollywood tropes to shape a drama both hilarious and tragic in its scope.
The holy family’s all here…
The Hungarian maestro’s debut movie is a far cry from the meditative masterpieces of Tarr’s later career, but hints of his predilection for formal consistency are already present in his disciplined use of framing and cutting. ‘Family Nest’ is a furious look behind the closed doors of a troubled family in communist-era Budapest.
Tarr was proudly influenced by Fassbinder, but in Tarr’s passion to create a new cinema in Hungary, the only real parallel between the two filmmakers on show here is the deep empathy they have for their often flawed characters.
Around the world, filmmakers were looking indoors to analogize the changing society outside. The tragic plight of these everyday individuals was set against an imaginative but familiar backdrop: home life, and the tussle of quotidian existence.
Little could these filmmakers or their heroes know, the overblown 80s were waiting right around the corner to slap them in the face…