Wednesday 15 August 2018

On Blu-ray - David Hare looks over new box sets of films by Josef von Sternberg, Samuel Fuller, Douglas Sirk, Budd Boetticher and Fassbinder's BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ

These four mostly welcome boxsets all landed in the last few weeks. Between them they show the best and in one case the most disappointing outcomes of current and older film conservation. 
The Criterion Sternberg/Dietrich box has been a long time coming and it was worth the wait. The movies have all had relatively recent high quality 4K scans and mastering from elements that in all but one case were well preserved and close to original nitrate sources. The exception is not unexpectedly Morocco (1930) for which the closest Universal and Criterion could get to O-neg was a dupe safety (acetate 35mm) from UCLA. This is softer and less detailed than the others for fine grain but it was still worth doing it at this 2K level, simply because we will never see it again in its original 1930 35mm nitrate, first gen glory. 
Von Sternberg & Dietrich
The box is lifeblood for old timers, going back to the 60s when we first saw these masterpieces, and Sternberg's career was kick-started in serious ways around the world, beginning with the Venice FF in 1961 which included the revelation of Dietrich's personal 35mm nitrate print of Devil is a Woman, a title that had not been seen at all since it was unofficially "banned" after complaints from the pre-Franco government of Spain in 1935. 
Another small missing piece of history, still missing is four lines of dialogue in English (and two in French) from a fifteen second splice made to Shanghai Express, another victim possibly of complaints from yet another government in its death throes - the Daladier shambles in France before an even greater shambles would take over in 1936 with the Parti Communiste Front Populaire which quickly killed itself off by 1938. 
The restoration of these titles, first to 4K, and Morocco to 2K and thus to Blu-ray is an act of preservation and commercial risk taking that is immensely satisfying and now typical of the synergy between Archival/Curatorial restoration and commercial availability to collectors, cinephiles and festivals.
The two boxes of Fuller and Sirk films released by UK label Indicator from sources held by Sony are another two objects of cinephile delirium which also happen to replicate two superb older DVD boxsets with identical movies released around ten years ago by Sony when it was still doing its own in-house Home Vid. 
Douglas Sirk
I have not one word of negativity to add to the recommendations for both new boxsets. For anyone who doesn't already know, only two titles from the Fuller box are directed by the great man - Underworld USA and The Crimson Kimono, and for many of us these have probably already been purchased as individual earlier releases. I think the boxset still remains worth considering for double dipping if only for the very high quality HD masters of Sirk's superb Shockproof (1948) from a Fuller script (almost wrecked, but not quite, by a moronic happy ending written by Helen Deutch.) I think Shockproof survives as one of Sirk's top three 40s pictures (Summer Storm and Scandal in Paris the others.) It's indispensable. The two thirties and one forties Columbia B pics, It Happened in Hollywood, Adventures in the Sahara and Power of the Press, with Fuller screenplays are extremely entertaining, and the transfers have clearly been made from pristine original nitrate 35mm elements. You can see the silver halide folks! 
Budd Boetticher
Similar comments apply to the Boetticher Ranown box originally released on DVD only ten years ago and now in the new Indicator Blu Ray set called Five Tall Tales. These are all but two of the great Ranown cycle now in best available prints and new HD encodes. One title only – The Tall Thas been given a new 2K scan and a full restoration but all of them look great. 
And that leads me to the fourth boxset. The new Region B, 5 disc Bluray of Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz from 1980 which is, alas taken from the original 2006 restoration, itself performed in 2K from the 16mm masters. This was used for the earlier DVDs, including Criterion's. Criterion’s set was compromised by its scanning NTSC speed of 24fps (from 25fps masters) which adversely affected both image and audio. I had hoped this new version might have at least heralded a new restoration but that's not the case. 
Rainer Werner Fassbinder
The new 1080p which has obviously been laboriously worked on by Technical guru Dave Mackenzie and the Second Sight team is itself fatally compromised by the original work. The people in Fassbinder Foundation who did the first 2K scan, including DP, Xavier Schwarzenberger have pushed the pedal down and held it there on DVNR (Noise Reduction ) and the scan they produced engages so much over the top grain removal the image quality they subsequently tried to correct is hardly ever able to achieve the appearance of natural 16mm film stock. 
Other Fassbinder movies including World on a Wire and Martha which were also shot on 16mm have responded more recently extremely well to carefully calibrated 2K scanning and restoration work and the technicians on those titles seem to have absorbed the lesson that grain equals detail and sharpness. In basic English, grain is the breath of film. Without it there's no life in it. And that's how this 1080p Berlin Alexanderplatz looks. Only rarely does a wide shot or even a close-up look natural, or display any filmic image quality. The whole enterprise looks forever like pastel, soft focus, vaseline smeared, remembered blurry image. 
It's a disaster, and none of it is the fault of the Second Sight technical team. The original 2K is simply rubbish and the RWF Foundation needs to find the money to go back to elements and start all over. These are images I cannot watch for more than ten minutes without getting eye strain.

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