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Introducing Brother of Sleep, the tale of a mountaintop musical savant, the camera of director/cinematographer Joseph Vilsmaier quickly establishes that the film will be as sweeping as its setting and as crazed as its protagonist. But is it a good kind of crazy? Well, some of the time.
Scripted by Austrian novelist Robert Schneider from his European best-seller, Brother of Sleep indulges a sort of Teutonic mysticism that will only be familiar to American audiences (if at all) through the films of Werner Herzog. Indeed, the central character, star-crossed church-organ prodigy Elias Alder, is played by André Eisermann, who appeared as the title character in Peter Sehr’s Kaspar Hauser, a recent film that re-examines the subject of one of Herzog’s best-known efforts, Every Man for Himself and God Against All (also released as The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser). (Herzog apparently doesn’t like the comparison; when he appeared at the National Gallery in February, he denounced Eisermann as “a bad actor.”)
Though Vilsmaier rejects any link, Brother of Sleep also recalls the most feverish moments of the mountain film, a popular German genre in the ’20s and ’30s. The early mountain films simply celebrated such alpine sports as skiing and climbing, but later ones, like Leni Riefenstahl’s The Blue Light and Luis Trenker’s The Prodigal Son (which screened last year at AFI), posit the mountains as exalted places, closer to God and/or nature and detached from the corruption of lowland and urban life. Eschberg, the Austrian village of Vilsmaier’s movie, is not an idyllic spot—it’s marred by envy, ignorance, adultery, and unrequited love—but it’s better connected than the valleys to sublime feelings and the music of the spheres. (This cosmic awareness is evoked by Norbert J. Schneider and Hubert von Goisern’s neo-Romantic—and occasionally neo-psychedelic—score.)
Music is the essence of this tale, for Elias is perfectly attuned to the sounds that buzz about him. The illegitimate son of Eschberg’s minister, who loses his mind over the course of the story, the yellow-eyed Elias is shunned as a devilspawn. (The semi-Christian superstitions of early-19th-century Austria, where the devil was reputed to have cold semen, are vividly evoked.) In church, however, Elias is the perfect boy soprano, and he manages to coax a magisterial racket out of the decrepit organ in the local church. When Elias plays the organ, the bellows are worked by his faithful acolyte, Peter (Ben Becker). Peter is interested in something more than friendship with Elias, and he seethes because Elias is romantically interested in Peter’s younger sister, Elsbeth (Dana Vávrová). Peter’s jealousy leads to a local cataclysm, although it’s not one that Elias takes as seriously as the opportunity to enter an organ competition in the nearby city of Feldburg.
In the musical/mystical equivalent of the big-game scene in a sports movie, Elias is required to play an extemporaneous fugue based on the melody of “Come on Death, Brother of Sleep,” a hymn he’s never heard. His performance initially causes outrage, but as it becomes both more frenzied and more assured the mood of the audience is transformed. In a moment suitably fragrant of late-’60s psychedelia, Elias launches into a heavy-Bach improvisation that lacks only a light show. (The listeners actually applaud—highly unlikely behavior in a 19th-century cathedral.) After this performance, Elias could write his own ticket in the city, but he decides to return to the mountains. Concluding that his love for Elsbeth has failed because he thought of her only while he was awake, he vows never to sleep again.
This parable is told in a high Romantic (and not always strictly coherent) style that aspires to the effect of hallucination. (Again one thinks of Herzog.) The movie is full of brutal, lurid, and grotesque incidents—a retarded boy is tormented, an innocent recluse set on fire—and the emotions are pitched at a level that suits Eisermann’s possessed performance. Though the film achieves some of the transcendental effect it intends, unsympathetic viewers may find it simply laughable. The remote altitudes that Vilsmaier extravagantly conjures will probably convince non-Romantics that they’d rather stay somewhere near sea level.
Walter Hill’s most galvanizing films were shot in shades of hot neon and wet asphalt, but for some reason he’s come to think of brown as being more mythic. Last Man Standing, the writer/director’s latest, finds him once again in the sepia-toned dustiness of last year’s Wild Bill, although this time the Old West isn’t dying—it’s already dead. Last Man Standing is actually set during Prohibition, and the scenario is derived (quite faithfully and with attribution) from Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 comic samurai noir, Yojimbo. This plot already has some miles on it: Kurosawa took it from Dashiell Hammett, and in turn saw it borrowed by Sergio Leone for A Fistful of Dollars.
Things are a bit off from the opening scene, in which an unidentified miscreant “on the dodge” arrives in Jericho, a “jerkwater town” near the Texas/Mexico border. This man (Bruce Willis) is terse in his dealings with the two bootlegging gangs he encounters in the town—he goes by the alias John Smith, an American equivalent to the anonymous Sanjuro that Toshiro Mifune announces as his name in Yojimbo—but he can’t help flaunting his tough-guy flair in the voice-over. Whether Hill fell in love with the sound of his own hard-boiled authorial voice or was simply afraid mainstream audiences would find the film too laconic, all this chatter undercuts the cool demeanor Smith affects as he plays the two gangs against each other.
After blowing away some of the hoods who work for the Irish-American gang headed by Doyle (David Patrick Kelly), Smith is recruited by their Italian-American rivals, run by Strozzi (Ned Eisenberg); later, he defects to Doyle’s camp, where he’s regarded suspiciously by the principal enforcer, machine-gun-toting Hickey (there had to be a part in here for Christopher Walken). A natural-born snoop, Smith also trades information with corrupt local Sheriff Ed Galt (Bruce Dern) and Joe Monday (William Sanderson), who runs a bar and hotel where Smith is the only guest.
“I was born without a conscience,” Smith confides, but that’s only where men are concerned. He takes a dangerous interest in freeing the abused mistresses of both gang bosses, Strozzi’s Lucy (Alexandra Powers) and Doyle’s Felina (all-purpose exotic beauty Karina Lombard), a Mexican Indian the gangster won in a card game but genuinely (if uncomprehendingly) loves. Smith claims to be exploiting the feud only for personal gain, but it’s clear that his reckless chivalry will get him in trouble. Too clear, in fact: Hill’s script foreshadows this development with a hammer when it has Galt warn Smith that “when you go down, it’s going to be over a skirt.”
Of course, as the title forecasts, almost everyone in this film is going down. The only question is how broken-down and busted Smith will be by the time he’s filled the town with corpses—and how poetically pitiless Smith will reflect on it all in the voice-over as he drives out of town. As he muses earlier, “Everyone ends up dead. It’s just a matter of when.”
That’s true, of course, but such a sense of mythic inevitability doesn’t make for very engaging storytelling. Though shot and scored elegantly (by regular Hill collaborators Lloyd Ahern and Ry Cooder, respectively), Last Man Standing doesn’t jump like the best (and even some of the not-so-great) films in Hill’s canon. The director’s new meditative style doesn’t really suit his skills, which have always been more attuned to the visceral than the psychological. And ultimately the film is so archetypal that it didn’t need to be made: Serious western/samurai buffs could dream Smith’s hard-bitten commentary in their sleep. (Some of them probably do.) Perhaps Hill should consider adding some twists to his cold-blooded fantasias, rather than continuing to strip them down to their utterly predictable essence.CP