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Liliiom

Liliom, in the foreground, reacts to a scene from his past

Liliom

1933. S.A.F-Fox Europa. Directed by Fritz Lang; written by Fritz Lang, Robert Liebmann, Bernard Zimmer. With Charles Boyer, Madeleine Ozeray, Antonin Artaud.


Between scenes 5 and 6, the setting of Ferenc Molnár's 1909 play Lilion shifts abruptly from Budapest to "the Beyond." Here the sad romance becomes a fantasy, and the stage or film director gets to have some fun. (Liliom was the basis for the musical Carousel, and you might remember a clinking crystalline heaven in the awful movie version.) In Fritz Lang's charming Liliom, the only film he made in France en route from Germany to America, heaven is wittily imagined as a combination of whimsy and technology. All celestial personnel wear little white wings on their shoulders and at the same time they shout into telephones, tune in radios, bang at typewriters and, most significantly, show movies.

These movies serve as evidence about life back on earth. In the current case, the suicide Liliom has been hauled before the Commissioner of Purgatory. He denies that he ever loved Julie, the wife he left pregnant and penniless. With an insouciant purse of the lips (Charles Boyer seems like a different man when speaking French, and he's so young here!) Liliom insists that he would get so fed up with Julie that he would beat her. "I'll prove that you are lying," says the Commissioner, and he picks up the phone and orders "Roll the corroborating footage!" The lights dim and across the room a film starts up. It is called "Liliom Zadowski, July 17, 8:40 a.m."

This footage replays a key scene that we have seen earlier in the film: Liliom discovers that he has drunk all the coffee and left none for Julie. Embarrassed, he picks a fight and ends up throwing the coffee pot and slapping her. It is not just the same event; it is the same piece of film: same angles, same cuts, same line readings. The only difference is that this time we have Liliom in the foreground watching himself onscreen. At certain points he turns back to the Commissioner to remark "Now watch what's going to happen!" He turns around satisfied when the film ends; he believes it has proved his point.

But the Commissioner tells the invisible projectionist to run it again, "this time with Liliom's thoughts on the sound track." (Only a few years into the sound era, and films could already record thoughts!) We see the scene a third time. This time we hear only Julie's lines; Liliom's are replaced by a sort of internal counterpoint: "Selfish again…I'm disgusted at myself…I'd like to ask her to forgive me but the words won't come out." As he winds up to strike her, he is saying to himself "No—I don't want to! no! no!"

(The upshot is that Liliom agrees to return to earth for a day to try to resolve this unfinished business, and almost despite himself is able to console Julie and their daughter.)

In one sense, Lang is serving Molnár here, with this touching and economical way of conveying the soft heart of the swaggering Liliom. In another sense, Molnár is serving Lang. His scene of supernatural reflection on a past episode provides Lang with an opportunity to play with the way a piece of film can be reused in different contexts to evoke different responses. Unlike real-life events, which disappear once they have happened, filmed events can be replayed, commented upon, and understood more deeply upon reexamination.

Two years later, in Fury, Lang again used a film within a film to bear witness, to insist upon what people are denying about themselves, and to make sure, in the words of Liliom's heavenly Commissioner, that "justice is done."

 

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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein