TALKING FILMS

A Billy Wilder double bill kind of Saturday: Revisiting ‘Sunset Boulevard’ and ‘Fedora’

The celebrated American director’s films have twinned themes and a yearning for ‘the way movies used to be’.

Sunset Boulevard (1950) is Billy Wilder’s macabre expose of art imitating life. It opens with dead leaves at the kerb and a corpse floating in a private swimming pool. It fades out on a psychopathic diva reaching for an audience that has long vanished.

Not without discomfort, opportunist-turned-gigolo Joe Gillis sums up the self-reflexive story: “It’s a very simple set up. Older woman who’s well to do, younger man who’s not doing too well. Can you figure it out yourself?”

Scriptwriters Charles Brackett, DM Marshman Jr and Wilder create film noir at its most mind-bending by adding cruelty to eeriness. The reel cast play versions of their real and near- fading selves. Silent film star Gloria Swanson, who had not been seen since 1941, gutsily plays Norma Desmond, a forgotten silent screen star planning her return (she hates the word “comeback”). William Holden, whose broad shoulders hadn’t carried much since The Golden Boy (1939), plays Joe Gillis, an out of work script writer. Film director Erich von Stroheim plays Max von Mayerling, Norma’s one-time director, husband and now butler. Extras on sets are played by real life extras. Cecil B de Mille and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper play themselves. Can a meta movie get greater?

It can and it does.

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Sunset Boulevard (1950).

Norma’s dark lair is 10086 Sunset Boulevard. As Gillis takes his first fateful steps towards it, his voice over sums up a yesteryear Xanadu “stricken with a kind of creeping paralysis, out of beat with the rest of the world, crumbling apart in slow motion”. Rather like its owner whom “30 million fans had given the brush”.

Drunk on denial, 50-year-old Norma surrounds herself with paintings and photographs of her prime (Gloria Swanson in stills from her early films). She has a projection screen running her pictures every other night. The audience? Just herself and Max and later, Gillis, because Norma is “mad about the boy” and cannot let him out of her sight. Norma travels in a grand Isotta-Fraschini with leopard skin seats. On her finger, she wears a bizarre contraption for a cigarette, around her throat she wears ropes of jewellery and her bed is designed like a gondola.

Art direction (John Meehan and Hans Drier), costume (Edith Head), set design (Sam Comer and Ray Moyer), and music (Franz Waxman) give Sunset Boulevard all that it takes for cinematographer John F Seitz to assemble a furtive chiaroscuro. Shadows form bars of “that peculiar prison” Gillis ultimately allows himself to be trapped in. Giant mirrors reflect a claustrophobic inner world. Also built into the screenplay is a chilling and recurring motif of watching, whether it is Norma gazing through the blinds at Gillis or the voyeuristic audience peering through eye like sockets of lockless doors.

For all this and the performances which are outstanding (Swanson even does a jaw-dropping impersonation of Chaplin), the real draw of Sunset Boulevard is Wilder’s stinging and witty dialogue. “You say the cutest things,” a desperate Gillis tells collectors from the auto finance company just before he gives them the slip. Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson) is a script reader who can see when a screenplay is “written from hunger”. After Gillis finishes a swim in her pool, Norma rubs him down with a towel and asks Max about a phone call he has just attended to. Max says it was “someone asking about a stray dog” – probably what he views Gillis to be. And of course, there is Norma herself who imperiously informs us of her eternal presence: I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”

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Sunset Boulevard (1950).

In Fedora (1978), Wilder’s “tepid imitation” of his earlier masterpiece, independent producer Barry Detweiler (played by an older William Holden) spells out that success in Hollywood is all about “sugar and spice on the outside and cement and stainless steel on the inside”.

Fedora begins in medias res. A melodrama that is part narrated and part stumbled upon by Detweiler himself leads us to Countess Sobryanski (Hildegard Knef), a Machiavellian battleaxe who holds the secret of the glamourous Fedora (Marthe Keller). Now locked up in a villa in Corfu and guarded by German Shepherds both human and canine, Fedora has had all 51 mirrors taken down from the villa walls and drawers have been filled with new, white gloves.

Based on a novella by Thomas Tryon, Fedora relies on the same techniques as Sunset Boulevard – flashbacks, voice-overs and actors (Henry Fonda and Michael York) playing themselves. This time, the yearnings are not for silent cinema of the ’20s but for the films of the ’40s, which earned the world famous Fedora valuable fan mail from Winston Churchill and Jean Paul Sartre, among other luminaries.

The indubitable Janet Maslin describes Fedora as “old-fashioned with a vengeance, a proud, passionate remembrance of the way movies used to be, and a bitter smile at what they have become”.

True as this is, production designer Alexandre Trauner, composer Miklos Rozsa and cinematographer Gary Fisher do not give Fedora the sense of foreboding or the sinister ambiance of its monumental predecessor. Exteriors are often overexposed and contrasts are washed out. There is one unforgettable blue Santa Monica sunrise, however, before we lose sight of eye candy Stephen Collins (the young Detweiler). Vando, (Jose Ferrer), the accidental vandal of the charade, gets some smart lines and Marthe Keller plays her role with panache.

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Fedora (1978).

“You find my body boring?” Fedora asks young Detweiler, point blank after she has done a nude scene on set.

“No,” Detweiler blushes. “I think you have a very nice body.”

“I do not.”

“No?”

“I have a terrific body.”

Fedora has its moments for sure, but 67 years later it is Wilder’s devilishly clever Sunset Boulevard, a film on failures that makes for resounding success. That is what explains Glenn Close as Norma Desmond making a spectacular return after 22 years in the Rice-Lloyd Webber opera of Sunset Boulevard whose lyrics rely heavily on the words of the original screenplay.

“No one ever leaves a star!”

Right you are, Ms Desmond. And we are ready for your next close-up.

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Glenn Close on playing Norma Desmond.
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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.