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SPECIFICATIONS
  • 1.37:1 Standard
  • German PCM Mono
  • English subtitles
  • 1 Disc
FEATURES
  • Interviews from 1973 and 2015 with Volker Schlöndorff
  • New conversation between actor Ethan Hawke and playwright Jonathan Marc Sherman about the play and adaptation
  • New interview with actor and filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta
  • New interview with film historian Eric Rentschler
  • An essay by critic Dennis Lim

Baal

Blu-ray
Reviewed by: Chris Galloway

Directed By: Volker Schlöndorff
1970 | 80 Minutes | Licensor: Les Films du Losange

Release Information
Blu-ray | MSRP: $39.95 | Series: The Criterion Collection | Edition: #914
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Release Date: March 20, 2018
Review Date: March 8, 2018

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SYNOPSIS

Volker Schlöndorff transported Bertolt Brecht’s 1918 debut play to contemporary West Germany for this vicious experiment in adaptation, seldom seen for nearly half a century. Oozing with brutish charisma, Rainer Werner Fassbinder embodies the eponymous anarchist poet, who feels himself cast out from bourgeois society and sets off on a schnapps-soaked rampage. Hewing faithfully to Brecht’s text, Schlöndorff juxtaposes the theatricality of the prose with bare-bones, handheld 16 mm camera work, which gives immediacy to this savage story of rebellion. Featuring a supporting cast of Fassbinder’s troupe of theater actors as well as Margarethe von Trotta, Baal demonstrates the uncompromising nature of Schlöndorff’s vision and forged a path for New German Cinema.


PICTURE

Volker Schlondorff’s adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s play Baal makes its home video debut in North America with this Blu-ray (and simultaneous separate DVD) from the Criterion Collection. Made initially for television the film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1 on a dual-layer disc. Criterion makes use of a 2K restoration of the film performed in 2014, which was scanned from the 16mm original camera negative. It is presented here with a 1080p/60hz encode.

This is a rough one. By design (as Schlondorff mentions in an included interview) it’s an ugly film, almost going out of its way to be as ugly as possible. Schlondorff even smothered Vaseline around the edges of the lens to uglify it more and he even skipped the colour correction process during post-production to—you guessed it—make it even uglier. So yep, you get it in all of its ugly glory. Colours are washed out and dull (though there are some nice pops of red or pink here and there), black levels vary from milky to fairly deep, lighting is minimal, and you get that blurry outer edge of the frame thanks to that Vaseline. If Schlondorff was looking to visually match the nastiness of the source he has pretty much succeeded.

Impressively, though (especially since it sounds as though the original source materials were thought lost), the restoration work has cleaned up the image fairly well. Specs of dirt still pop up, along with tram lines and some heavier scratches, but these are still fairly infrequent. Still, in all honesty, I wouldn’t be shocked if Schlondorff wanted to leave some of this in just to further enhance the unpleasantness. The film is also incredibly grainy but it is at least cleanly rendered, keeping a natural look. The image as a whole is rarely all that sharp, though some close-ups deliver some excellent detail, but any time the image could pop that Vaseline coating ultimately stops that. Getting past all of this, though, this probably turned out far better than it had any right to: Schlondorff explains the film had been stored for around 40 years in some forgotten vault so the fact these aren’t in far worse condition is probably short of a miracle, as is the fact they found it at all since the materials were apparently mislabeled.

So the source ultimately is what it is (and probably better than it should be) but how does the encode itself look? Excellent, thankfully. The image keeps a filmic look and doesn’t present any noticeable artifacts while in motion. Having said that, though, there is one thing that should probably be addressed. The notes for the restoration don’t actually mention this so I am admittedly just guessing but since the film was initially made for European television I suspect it was shot at 25fps. Since North American televisions can’t cleanly deliver that frame rate Criterion has converted it to a 60hz signal here. The good news is that it’s actually a progressive presentation, not an interlaced one, so most of the frames here are clean and filmic, but there are inserted “interlaced” frames—basically blending the previous frame and the next frame— to fill in the gaps. Thankfully these inserts are infrequent and this technique has been done so well that nothing stands out when you’re watching the film on a television. I only noticed the combing effects when taking screen grabs (some have been provided below for reference).

So, yes, it’s an ugly film but Criterion presents it quite well. The digital presentation looks filmic and doesn’t present any digital anomalies, even though Criterion has converted it from 25fps to 60. The score below may not necessarily reflect this but it manages to be quite impressive.

7/10

All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.

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AUDIO

While the picture has held up rather well (again, all things considered) the audio, unfortunately, hasn’t. The audio overall is pretty flat to begin with but the track is further hampered by a noticeable distortion, particularly heavy in the voices. I’m assuming that this is all a limitation of the source and not anything to do with the actual restoration.

5/10

SUPPLEMENTS

Criterion packs on some great material for this release, starting with two interviews with director Volker Schlondorff. One is a 5-minute segment from 1973 filmed for French television (around an airing of Baal) with the director talking a bit about what led him to do this adaptation at that time in his career, while the other is a beefier 48-minute discussion filmed in 2015. It’s here Schlondorff talks about first discovering Rainer Werner Fassbinder and his troupe of actors and how this led to a desire to make a film with him. Here Schlondorff suggests it wasn’t too difficult to get Fassbinder to agree (in another interview on this disc, Margarethe von Trotta implies there was more begging on Schlondorff’s part) but it was on the condition that the filmmaker also cast actors from his troupe. This then led to Schlondorff’s small group of actors and Fassbinder’s troupe mixing it up on this film and unsurprisingly there sounds to have been some issues. Schlondorff then talks about the look of the film (the Vaseline around the edges for starters) and then the issues that arose with Bertolt Brecht’s widow after the film first aired, leading it to be hard to come by. Schlondorff loves chatting (most of his interviews are lengthy if I recall correctly) and he covers just about every facet of this film, but he’s always engaging and energetic and the backstory to the film proves enthralling.

Margarethe von Trotta next pops up for an exclusive interview and it’s a fairly eye-opening one. Von Trotta spends most of the interview talking about Fassbinder and his working method, explaining how she was taken by his acting style and how he was always pushing himself, always working. She would work with Fassbinder after this film but acknowledges she was always a bit of an outsider despite his efforts to get her into his circle. There was a reason she kept herself at a distance, though. She admired him and his art but she was repulsed with how he would treat people, particularly women, making parallels with the relationship between her character in the film and Baal (she also confesses to not caring all that much for her character, finding it ridiculous how, like the women around Fassbinder, she kept crawling back to him despite his abuse). Of all of the interviews I’ve seen with those that knew and/or worked with him I felt this was one of the more forthcoming ones, von Trotta refusing to sugarcoat things or really give him an excuse for his actions. She is thankful she was able to work with him, feels she learned so much from him, and she did admire him, but she refused to put up with his his more toxic traits (and somewhat telling is how Fassbinder refused to work with her after she married Schlondorff). It’s a terrific interview and really rewarding despite its scant 12-minute running time.

Following this are then a couple of more academic additions. Film historian (and Arthur Kingsley Porter professor of Germanic languages and literature at Harvard University) Eric Rentschler first shows up for 17-minutes to offer his analysis of both the film and Bertolt Brecht’s original play. He provides some background and perspective behind Brecht and the play, looks at its episodic structure and then how all these conflicting personalities (Brecht, Schlondorff, and Fassbinder) collided on this film adaptation.

To provide a bit more background to the play and how one would go about adapting it for modern audiences Criterion gets both playwright Jonathan Marc Sherman and actor Ethan Hawke together to talk about their recent stage adaptation of Baal called Clive. The interview can be a bit obnoxious at first but once it gets its footing it offers a fairly amusing look at how one should approach the play, the saying apparently being that “if the audience hates the play you did it right.”

Together with Rentschler’s contribution these two interviews do offer some needed contextualization around Brecht and the play. Dennis Lim, in the included insert essay, looks at the film as an “interesting intersection of two filmmakers on opposite trajectories,” seeing it a little as a blackly comic adaptation, while also providing further details what Brecht was trying to accomplish with the play.

All told it may not be an especially stacked edition but I found the material to be wonderfully well-rounded, giving a viewer everything they will need to, at the very least, appreciate the film.

8/10

CLOSING

It’s an ugly and unpleasant film, but this Blu-ray really does an exceptional job in delivering it. It’s a rough looking film but the encode handles it well while the included supplements work to better contextualize the play and the film. It’s a pretty solid edition.


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