Ten Great Films

Stan­ley Kauffmann
  • Review
By – December 2, 2013

Review­ers advise the gen­er­al pub­lic whether to see (read, hear, vis­it, etc.) cre­at­ed works. They help us flip a coin. Crit­ics help a small­er pub­lic re-exam­ine works already read (heard, viewed). They lend us their eyes and ears, their com­pre­hen­sion of the social, polit­i­cal, spir­i­tu­al, and tech­ni­cal his­to­ry of the art. Movie review­ers abound, and like movie stars, they are crowned and deposed accord­ing to pop­u­lar taste. Great film crit­ics are rar­er. In the brief cen­tu­ry of the art form’s exis­tence, no oth­er crit­ic has had the breadth, grace, and sure­ness of style to match Stan­ley Kauff­mann, who passed away recent­ly at age nine­ty-sev­en, in his fifty-fourth year of writ­ing film crit­i­cism for The New Repub­lic (see http://​newre​pub​lic​.com/​a​u​t​h​o​r​s​/​s​t​a​n​l​e​y​-​k​a​u​f​fmann for con­tem­po­rary pieces). Ten Great Films is a rich col­lec­tion of ten essays writ­ten most­ly in the 1970s that show the growth of film from its silent begin­nings to the art form it has become.

Three of the films are silents: by Eisen­stein, Grif­fith, and Chap­lin; the talkies” are in French, by Renoir; in Japan­ese, by Kuro­sawa and Ozu; in Ital­ian, by Anto­nioni and Felli­ni; in Swedish, by Bergman; and in Amer­i­can Eng­lish, by Wilder. Only the first and last men­tioned direc­tors were born Jew­ish, and Eisen­stein, though he suf­fered an anti-Semi­tism he refused to acknowl­edge, had reli­gious faith only in Com­mu­nism. Bil­ly Wilder, a dou­ble Euro­pean ex-patri­ot skip­ping only steps ahead of a spread­ing Nazi wave, absorbed the Euro­pean Jew­ish film cul­ture and spread it into sev­er­al major Amer­i­can films before implant­i­ng it in that won­der­ful farce, Some Like It Hot.

Kauff­mann thinks Grand Illu­sion is an erro­neous Eng­lish title for Claude Renoir’s La Grande Illu­sion. As every French high school stu­dent knows,” he reminds us, this means The Big Illu­sion.” Kauff­mann shows how Renoir fus­es a panoply of sus­tain­ing beliefs that will be turned into an illu­sion by the pas­sage of time, like the larg­er beliefs of class and of war-with-a-pur­pose.” One sus­tain­ing illu­sion is mind­less anti-Sem­itism, seen when two escaped pris­on­ers, Maréchal, a work­ing-class Gen­tile, and Rosen­thal, a rich Jew, form a friend­ship nec­es­sary to get them safe­ly over the bor­der under fire from Nazi patrols. Kauff­mann remarks, We know… [Maréchal] … real­ly does have anti-Semi­tism in him and that Rosen­thal knows it and is pre­pared to live with it because he knows that Maréchal regrets hav­ing it…” This insight sup­ports Kauffmann’s assess­ment that Renoir is… among the most humane of men; and your admi­ra­tion for him grows for his insis­tence on draw­ing Rosen­thal with hon­esty, instead of mak­ing him a saint­ly mar­tyr, as coun­ter­pro­pa­gan­da against the times.” It is but a small sam­ple of what makes these ten essays Great.”

Kauff­mann places every film, and every great per­son­al­i­ty work­ing before or behind the cam­era, on a direc­to­r­i­al learn­ing curve of absorp­tion and trans­for­ma­tion — from nin­teenth cen­tu­ry the­ater act­ing, to the melo­dra­ma of ear­ly silent film, to sophis­ti­cat­ed cam­era move­ments and splic­ings for mul­ti­ple points of view, to let­ting sin­gle pro­tag­o­nists give way to mul­ti­ple, to open­ing black holes of per­son­al­i­ty or of pur­pose and mak­ing the sto­ry a search to fill them, to cre­at­ing, and sat­is­fy­ing, audi­ence expec­ta­tions in unlike­ly dodges and rever­sals. Along the way we come to appre­ci­ate Chaplin’s clown as a com­ic char­ac­ter whose stan­dards are bet­ter than our own… an unsen­ten­tious agent of exem­plary val­ues… In his mag­i­cal move­ment and in his code, even in his cun­ning, he is what we feel we ought to be.” And we see how phys­i­cal ren­di­tion of a superb script makes Some Like It Hot time­less.

Each of Kauffmann’s ten essays, if savored between fore-and-aft view­ings of its titled film, will trans­form enter­tain­ment into — the goal of crit­i­cism — abid­ing appreciation.

Alan Coop­er teach­es Eng­lish at York Col­lege, CUNY. Notable among his numer­ous con­tri­bu­tions to peri­od­i­cals, reviews, and books is his Philip Roth and the Jews (SUNY Press, 1996). His lat­est book is the young-adult nov­el Prince Paskud­nyak and the Giant Bats.

Discussion Questions