Book Review: The Golem by Gustav Meyrink (Trans by Mike Mitchell)

41wjshy8otl-_sx309_bo1204203200_

Labyrinthine expressionist horror novel.

A contemporary of Kafka, Gustav Meyrink was the illegitimate son of a minister of state and a Bavarian actress. Before the publication of his best-known work, he spent 20 years as the director of the Meyer and Morgenstern Bank in Prague. Clinically depressed he suffered a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide. In 1891 Meyrink stood in his apartment with a revolver in his hand fully prepared to end his life when he was distracted by a scratching sound. Crossing the room he noticed that someone has slipped a pamphlet under his door. The leaflet saved him from attempting suicide again. Promoting an occultist group the pamphlet inspired an interest in mystical teachings that would become a recurrent theme in his writings.

Meyrink’s best-known work was originally published as a serial. German director Paul Wegener helmed three cinematic adaptations. The first two of Wegener’s trilogy are now considered to be lost. Wegener’s 1920 film The Golem: How He Came into the World is a classic example of German expressionism. A restored version was released in 2011 featuring a new score by alt.rock band Pixies frontman Black Francis.

An omnibus edition of The Golem was published after the release of the first film in Wegener’s trilogy. Its initial print run is reported to have sold 200,000 copies.

Frequently compared to Frankenstein, Meyrink’s novel was inspired by Jewish literature and Prague legends of a mythical creature said to have been created in the seventeenth century by Rabbi Judah Loew. A disturbing and occasionally bewildering work which at times reads like the outpourings of a troubled mind seeking acceptance and understanding. Meyrink’s obsessions and life experiences are written into the unsettling narrative of a strange creature who visits Prague’s Jewish ghetto every 33 years and strikes terror into the hearts of its inhabitants.

Meyrink’s reputation was destroyed and career left in tatters when he was accused of financial impropriety. Maintaining his innocence he was sent to prison. His time in custody is dramatised in the novel.

Robert Irwin’s introduction draws the reader’s attention to similarities with Kafka’s work. Both authors wrote about trials, castles and Prague and were acquainted with Max Brod. Meyrink’s writing is infused with Cabalistic mysticism and is more explicitly horrific than Kafka’s work.

Meshing classic horror themes with Jewish mythology and offering a nightmarish vision of the now vanished ghetto, The Golem is a classic novel from the author regarded as Czechoslovakia’s Edgar Allan Poe.

The Golem is published by Daedalus Books.

Advertisements

DVD Review: Maigret

91jcd9q4ll-_sl1500_

Sacré bleu, ITV’s over hyped adaptation of Simenon’s Maigret novels is très boring.

Ranking alongside Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and Phillip Marlowe as one of the world’s best-known fictional detectives, Jules Maigret was created by the prolific Belgian writer Georges Simenon. First appearing in 1929’s Pietr the Latvian,75 novels featuring the pipe-smoking detective were published between 1931 and 1972.

maigret_itv

Staking a claim to inventing the police procedural, Simenon’s innovations also included an emphasis on the social, emotional, and psychological aspects of criminality. Transforming the genre, Simenon used its conventions to show what could push a person over the edge. Illustrating the authors belief in man’s fundamental irresponsibility the crimes featured in the Maigret novels are a response to a moment of crisis.

With Maigret Simenon didn’t just invent a new type of hero, he also created a distinct sub-genre. Standing apart from any fictional detective published up to that point, Maigret’s methods and raison d’être established the character as unlike anything published before. Equal parts secular priest and psychologist, biographers have suggested that the detective represents the person Simenon would like to have been while the criminal elements are literary representations of who he might have become had his life taken a very different turn.

i160317_112819_167901otexttrmrmmglpict000084997538o

One of the novels many innovations was its rejection of tired tropes exhausted by the puzzle school of crime fiction which focused on unmasking the killer and made little attempt to dramatise his emotional backstory. Written from a humanistic perspective, the Maigret novels seem less concerned with apprehending the assailant than discovering what had tipped an ordinary person over the edge and led to them committing horrific criminal acts. Emphasising his difference from other literary detectives Maigret’s compassionate approach to policing involved offering the perpetrators one last chance of redemption before the judicial process took over.

Famously written over several days, each of the novels is an economically told stark exploration of society’s disenfranchised and dispossessed. Deliberately using a restricted vocabulary, Simenon’s atmospheric descriptions bring alive a now vanished France. Widely read, according to the UNESCO Translation Index Simenon is the seventeenth most translated author.

A number of accomplished actors have played the pipe-smoking detective on screen and radio. For a generation, the Rupert Davies starring series is the definitive version. More recently Michael Gambon and Bruno Cremer have introduced successive generations of TV viewers to Simenon’s work.

Maigret

Following in the footsteps of some illustrious predecessors, Rowan Atkinson is the latest actor to play Maigret in a series which promised so much but ultimately failed to deliver. Simenon’s work seemed to be bullet-proof and was able to withstand a mercifully now forgotten production starring Richard Harris who seemed to be under the misapprehension he was playing the then Labour leader Michael Foot. This latest heavily promoted series reaches the screen as Penguin books is issuing newly translated editions of the books.

On paper, this series should have been a sure-fire winner. Expectations were high for the lavishly budgeted production. Initial optimism soon faded when critics realised ITV had delivered a misjudged adaptation which transforms two of the twentieth century’s most notable crime writer’s novels into a tortuous yawnfest.

Rowan Atkinson reportedly devoured the novels prior to playing the part. Physically he bears very little resemblance to the stocky detective in Simenon’s novels. Previously known as a comic actor his performance is too rigid and downplays the books’ humour. Lacking the passion of Bruno Cremer’s interpretation, Atkinson’s understated portrayal occasionally comes across as a one-note performance.

Expanded for the small screen, Simenon’s tightly-plotted novels rich with social detail have been transformed into ponderous and unfocused period police dramas devoid of anything resembling atmosphere.

A diversion to kill a few hours, even if the slow pace will make them feel like forever, Maigret is a misguided adaptation which does a great disservice to Simenon and his most famous fictional creation. Filled with a supporting cast unsure if they should play it straight or parody the material, it is an uneven series. Bland cinematography adds to the show’s many deficiencies. Avoid and buy the books instead.

Maigret is available to buy from Amazon.

Baltic View – Putting Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian Cinema on the Map

15355824_1639684829665240_3844014738225351304_n

New online portal showcasing the best of Baltic filmmaking.

Waving the flag for Baltic cinema, a new digital hub is a place to watch and celebrate a selection of contemporary feature-length films, classics, short films, animation, and documentaries.

Officially launching in January with a selection of award-winning films from Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. A selection of short films is available to view now for free. If you want to see the short films send an email to hello@balticview.online to register your interest.

Live screenings and events are planned for 2017.

Follow @baltic_view on Twitter.

A Facebook page has the latest information on screenings.

DVD Review: Three Wishes for Cinderella

915nrewvval-_sl1500_

Enchanting reinvention of a classic fairy tale

A yuletide TV tradition in several European countries, Václav Vorlíček’s adaptation of Božena Němcová’s fairy tale is a radical alternative to the better-known Brothers Grimm and Disney versions.

Aside from a solitary screening on BBC 2 in the 1980s, the film has been unavailable in the UK until now. Relatively unknown outside of mainland Europe, in several countries it is a firm fixture in the festive TV schedules. Since 1975 one million Norwegians gather round their TVs each year on Christmas Eve to watch the film.

vlcsnap-2016-12-19-16h32m19s191

A Czechoslovakian-East German co-production, the film is one of the most significant examples of Czech fairy tale films. Credited with reviving the genre and ensuring its longevity Three Wishes for Cinderella is a classic for all ages.

Variants of the Cinderella fairy-tale have appeared in several countries. Folk historians have traced versions dating back to 7BC. Charles Perrault’s tale is the best-known version in Western Europe. Introducing the magic pumpkin, fairy godmother, and glass slippers, it has inspired countless screen adaptations and stage pantomimes. The Brothers Grimm tale is the most widely-known version in Germanic countries. In this version, instead of a fairy godmother, Cinderella is aided by a gift-giving hazel tree. Božena Němcová’s tale is the best-known version in Czechoslovakia. A Czech equivalent of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christan Anderson, Němcová recorded fairy tales for future posterity. Read by Franz Kafka, her image has been used on Czechoslovakian stamps and currency. Němcová’s version of the Cinderella fairy tale also dispenses with the fairy godmother and has the heroine receive a gift from a farmhand of a magical twig with three hazelnuts.

vlcsnap-2016-12-19-16h35m44s081

Made with a budget far exceeding the amount normally allotted to fairy tale films, Three Wishes for Cinderella was produced for two markets. The film features Czech and German actors. During shooting dialogue was recorded in the actors native tongues. The completed film was dubbed into German and Czech before releasing prints to specific territories.

Regarded by critics as a proto-feminist reinterpretation, the film is set in eighteenth-century Czechoslovakia. The realistic setting is a stark contrast to other films based on Cinderella that have accentuated the fairy tale’s magical elements. A last minute decision to shoot the film in winter instead of Spring proved to be a shrewd move, the shots of snow-covered forests adds to the film’s intrinsically captivating qualities.

vlcsnap-2016-12-19-16h33m39s794

Stronger than most other screen Cinderellas, Libuše Šafránková’s title character is a defiant downtrodden stepdaughter who has been defrauded and is forced to endure routine abuse. Adored by the estate workers and her animals she is a sympathetic young adult with a strong appreciation of nature.

When news breaks that the king and his son are to visit the area, Cinderella’s wicked stepmother plots to ensure the bachelor prince picks her daughter as his bride.

Posing as a male hunter Cinderella wins a hunting contest and tames the prince’s horse. The prince and Cinderella are free spirits trapped by circumstance. In Three Wishes for Cinderella the title character does not see the prospect of marriage as an opportunity to escape from a life of humiliation and servitude. Subverting the traditional fairy-tale, it is the prince who must win over Cinderella’s heart and prove he is a worthy suitor.

Charming and delightful, the film has been extensively restored by the Czech National Film Archive in Prague and the National Library of Norway. The definitive Czech Christmas DVD.

Three Wishes For Cinderella is available to order from Amazon.


Blu-ray review: Modus – Complete Season One

modus_2d_dvd

Murder in a Winter Wonderland: A forensic psychologist and her daughter are drawn into the investigation of a series of murders.

Nordic Noir goes all festive with a Christmas thriller based on best-selling author and former Norwegian Minister of Justice Anne Holt’s novel Fear Not.

modus_6

Inger Johanne Vik (Melinda Kinnaman) has returned to Sweden after several years working for the FBI as a criminal profiler. Alongside her new career as a part-time university lecturer, she has published a book. Back in her homeland, she is determined to focus on her two daughters. Plans go awry when Inger attends her sister’s wedding reception.

A massive hit when it aired in Sweden, Modus was seen by 1.2 million people. Several other Anne Holt books have been optioned and a second season of Modus will start shooting in 2017. It’s Swedish broadcast coincided with Nordic Noir’s fiftieth anniversary. The series, and Anne Holt’s novel, follows in a long tradition of Scandinavian crime fiction highlighting the cracks in society.

Dark and dense, it explores the highly topical issues of hate crimes and radicalisation.

modus_3

The book was the fourth in Vik/Stubo series. Bringing it to screen the producers have shifted the action from Norway to Sweden. Changing location without weakening its cultural focus or softening its dramatic punch, Emmy award-winning screenwriters Mai Brostrøm and Peter Thorsboe zoned in on Anne Holt’s searing social commentary and crafted a series with international appeal. Already shattering records for ratings the series attempts to add to its list of achievements with an award for most characters in a Nordic drama. Boasting 52 speaking parts, more than any other Swedish series, it requires careful watching to get to know and keep up the seemingly constant stream of new faces.

A variation on the tried and tested amateur sleuth and police procedural formats, it occasionally plays out by-the-numbers. Nothing wrong with cliché in a genre but over-reliance on tried and tested routines and the audience will zone out. Pacing is uneven, the series loses momentum half-way through the run and only regains its stride in the final episode.

modus_5

Not top-drawer Scandi-drama but it does have thrilling moments. Occasionally playing out like a Nordic Noir greatest hits compilation it’s a stop gap until the next prestige series arrives.

The glue that binds Modus together and makes it watchable despite its faults, and dodgy American accents is some excellent performances. Esmeralda Struwe comes close to selling the series on her own with her convincing portrayal of an autistic teenager who has witnessed a murder and is unable to communicate what she has seen. Krister Henriksson demonstrates precisely why he is one of Sweden’s most in demand actors with a performance which constantly draws your attention. As the husband of a murdered bishop, he convincingly inhabits the character’s skin and is the centre of gravity for every scene he appears in.

Modus – Complete Season One is available on DVD and Blu-ray

EuroDrama Awards 2016

Celebrating the year’s best film, TV, and print.

Was 2016 a vintage year? We probably had more European content than ever before. Some of it was outstanding. Sifting through 2016’s offerings here are the year’s best TV series, film, and books.

case_main

Best Foreign Language TV series: Case

The darkest Nordic Noir to hit TV screens. A spin-off from Iceland’s first ever homegrown legal drama. Undoubtedly the most disturbing series you will see this year. An investigation into an apparent suicide offers a washed up lawyer one last shot at redemption. Inspired by a real-life criminal case, Case is a psychological puzzle box which will haunt you for days.

p01xl740

Best English Language TV series: Happy Valley

The second series of Sally Wainwright’s gripping drama has found a cult audience in the US. More than a crime series, it is filled with rich characters and paints a vivid picture of a decaying community.

As Catherine Cawood, Sarah Lancashire proves there is life after soaps

a_man_called_ove_-_2

Best Foreign Language Feature-Film: A Man Called Ove

Hannes Holm’s adaptation of Fredrik Backman’s bestselling novel is an unashamed tear-jerker. An intricate study of grief and resentment, the film is perhaps the closest Sweden has come to producing a home-grown equivalent of It’s A Wonderful Life. A Man Called Ove is a tragi-comedic exploration of loss and acceptance.

sleigh-ride_4

Best DVD: All Aboard! The Sleigh Ride

The surprise hit of last year’s Christmas’ TV schedules. With no commentary or music, and just the sound of hoofs crunching in the snow and reindeer bells, All Aboard! The Sleigh Ride is a hypnotic introduction to the lifestyle of a pair of Sami tribeswomen as they cross an ancient route on their reindeer sleigh.

30965660

Best Translated Crime Novel: The Crow Girl by Erik Axl Sund (Trans by Neil Smith)

Relentless psychological thriller. First published in Sweden in 2010, it is credited to the pseudonym Erik Axl Sund and was written by the duo Jerker Eriksson and Hakan Axlander Sundquist. Originally issued as a trilogy, the UK edition combines all three novels. The book begins with the discovery of the mummified remains of a boy. At nearly 800 pages it will require some dedication but don’t be intimidated by the thought of getting to grips with a massive text. Expertly plotted, the novel builds to a grimly satisfying conclusion. Not for the faint hearted, some readers may be deterred by the graphic depictions of gruesome acts.

cover-jpg-rendition-460-707

Best Reissued Translated Crime Novel: The Snow Was Dirty by Georges Simenon (Trans by Howard Curtis)

Simenon’s masterpiece. Darker than the Maigret novels, The Snow Was Dirty is frequently compared to Camus’ The Outsider. In an unnamed country under military occupation a son of a brothel owner borrows a friends knife and kills an officer. A visceral portrayal of an alienated young man’s descent into amorality. Previously issued as Dirty Snow, the clumsy name change is unnecessary. An existential novel wearing crime fiction’s clothes.

9781447255017the-constant-soldier

Best English Language Crime Novel: The Constant Soldier by William Ryan

Cementing his status as one of the most significant contemporary Irish crime writers, William Ryan’s The Constant Soldier is an atmospheric, thought-provoking, and engaging read. The horrors of World War II and consequences of fighting on the wrong side are explored in a multi-layered and memorable novel.

the-poisoned-chocolates-case-anthony-berkeley-cover

Best Reissued English Language Crime Novel: The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley

The British Library’s Crime Classics range has dusted down some long forgotten titles and introduced a new generation to the Golden Age of detective fiction.

First published in 1929, The Poisoned Chocolates Case is an expansion of a short story published earlier in the year. Six amateur detectives take it in turns to solve a case of poisoning. Poking fun at the genre’s conventions it invites you to be the seventh sleuth and solve the case before the killer is unmasked.

9781843446408

Best Crime Non-Fiction: Brit-Noir by Barry Forshaw

Following on from his critically acclaimed volumes on Nordic and European crime fiction Barry Forshaw casts an investigative eye over the UK’s crime fiction. His region-by-region analysis highlights the best contemporary writers. Demonstrating that British Noir is an umbrella term for a variety of subgenres Barry Forshaw presents a near-definitive overview of the current scene.

maj-sjowall

Hall Of Fame: Maj Sjöwall

As one-half of the couple who invented Nordic Noir, Maj Sjöwall paved the way for Stieg Larsson, The Killing, The Bridge and numerous other books, TV series, and films. The ten Martin Beck novels she co-authored with Per Wahlöö continue to exert a powerful influence on the genre. Demonstrating the books continued relevance, in 2012 BBC Radio 4 broadcast adaptations of all ten novels. More recently, BBC Four has been screening selected episodes from Sweden’s long-running TV series.

DVD Review: Braquo – The Complete Season Four

braquo_2d_dvd

Eddy Caplan confronts the Turkish Mafia in an explosive final season.

The hardest-hitting series on French TV. Compared to The Wire, The Shield, and Breaking Bad, it was created by former police officer turned screenwriter Olivier Marchal. Hyper violent, filled with Michael Mann-style shootings, torture, and murder, the series gripped France and has become a cult smash in the UK and USA.

braquo-s4_4Fans had been led to believe that the third season was to be the final outing for Eddy Caplin and his crew but with too many plot lines left dangling it was inevitable that one further batch of episodes would bring a definitive end to the story of France’s most brutal screen detectives.

braquo-s4_7
Jean-Hugues Anglade (Betty Blue) plays morally compromised cop Eddy Caplin. After a colleague’s suicide Eddy and his team crossed the line as they set out to clear the deceased’s name. At the start of the fourth season the team takes on the Turkish Mafia and confront’s Marseille’s godfather. Eddy visits his brother in prison and asks him to arrange an execution. Chief Superintendent Henri Brabant (Thierry René) has been sent by Internal Affairs to keep an eye on Caplan and his cohorts.

braquo-s4_1

When series creator Olivier Marchal departed after the first season critics accused the show of becoming ever more preposterous and losing its bite. This final series maintains its trademark levels of violence, murky characters and unexpected plot twists. Bowing out with a run that once again blurs the boundary between police officers and criminals the fourth season restores Braquo‘s reputation as it comes close to matching the quality of its first series.
After a previous false alarm fans might be tempted to think Braquo will return for a fifth season but the producers have unequivocally stated this is the definitive end. This viscerally exciting series is an essential purchase for those who like hard-edged and occasionally bonkers crime drama.

Braquo – The Complete Season Four is available to order from Amazon.