March 2012: The Mysterious Stranger

by April 18, 2012

 

Film of the Month March 2012

The Mysterious Stranger

The title card tells us that this story was found by Mark Twain at the bottom of a jar. Loosely based on Twain’s last novel of the same name, sometimes referenced as “No. 44”, this is one of several takes of squeezing it into a movie. This was the first work of the Austrian filming company “MR Filmproduktion”, done in a co-production with the ORF in 1981 and first released in 1982. There’s also a version in English available.

So, should this movie have stayed at the bottom of the jar or should we be happy it was found?

Let us find an answer to this question together!

At the beginning, we are dropped off shortly before the turn of the century to the 20th century at a print office currently busy printing a newspaper. Here we meet our main character, a printer’s apprentice named August, played by Chris Makepeace. The other printer craftsmen are giving poor August a hard time struggling to become one of them. The foreman wants August to carry a set of letters to the master to have it checked before they start printing the pages and this leads us to our first encounter with Waltz’s character, a bully named Ernst who trips poor August to make him drop the precious letters. The most memorable thing about Ernst, who isn’t granted any back story except of being a bully, is probably that he’s wearing his hair long and loose.

Poor August is getting shouted at by the foreman named Katzenjammer (yes, “katzenjammer”) until the master enters the scene. While he doesn’t want to kick August out just because he tripped, he still tells him that he will have to understand that printing is an old and noble art if he wants to become one of them. The master tells him something about the great Gutenberg which apparently gets stuck in August’s head which offers enough space to stock up information it seems. Other characters we see here except the working team are a doctor named Hoffmann and a beautiful girl, totally out of reach for August.

Let us come to the first flaw in this movie here. Makepeace gives us an one-and-a-half dimensional take on his character at best and apparently has found inspiration for his range of face expression in the Keanu Reeves Guide to Acting.

Whatever happens to August, he bears it with the same hollow look on his face.

So we see him staring out of a window with a hollow gaze, then we see him outside eating an apple with the same hollow gaze on his face, and then he dreams himself off into the days of Gutenberg and ends up in… a sort of castle in a small Austrian town in the 16 century! His attempt to get himself linked with Gutenberg ending up not only at the wrong location but also in the wrong time proofs that there is something amiss with this boy’s education. Small wonder he has a hard time keeping up. *

To emphasize that we have gone back into the past, a bucket of scrim diffuser was poured over the screen to give everything an “old” look. After we are shown around in a brief walk through the castle place, we get introduced to our characters being transformed into this setting. The master has rented (!) them into the castle where he, his entourage and the printer lot are living. Currently, they are struggling to get an order of 200 Bibles (I guess this is supposed to be our Gutenberg connection…) for the university of Prague done who doesn’t seem to take it too well when an order gets delayed and sues everybody who keeps them waiting.

The master, Mr. Stein, played by Bernhard Wicki, is a homely and friendly enough fellow for a master, but he makes a terrible business man. His business stands or falls with on order alone, not getting the Bibles done in time would mean he’s broke. Yet he resides in a castle and keeps an entourage there, including their daughter (?), apparently doing nothing at all instead of being pretty, some serving maids and a cook, a father saying prayers before their meals and doctor Hoffmann, played by the late Fred Gwynne, who is currently hired to keep Stein’s loud and annoying wife entertained by playing alchemist for her, and has recently started to get himself skilled in the dark arts.

How does he pay for them all between orders?

Not before long, our main character August is getting himself into trouble again. Mr. Stein’s loud and annoying wife finds him staring at their daughter, he tells August off for being a naughty boy and Hoffmann decides that he is possessed by the devil. Mr. Stein, annoyed that his wife’s outburst stands between him and his meal, just tells August to behave better. To make it worse, August has to feed their evil dog and then Ernst steals his food.

 

But help is on its way! Out of nowhere, a boy of August’s age appears in their hall, announcing that he is oh so hungry. While Mrs. Stein wants to kick him out, which is probably the reaction a person who’s not stupid usually shows in such a situation, and Hoffmann declares that he is possessed by the devil (in his view, everything is possessed the devil though). But cunning Mr. Stein decides they’re both stupid and invites the Stranger to stay for the meal, to his wife’s anger. She goes on a rampage again and so the master invites him to stay to pay his wife back for her behavior.

Apart from being awful at business, this master is just too trusting.

A random stranger wants to live under my roof – what could possibly go wrong!

The doctor I hired is practicing dark arts instead of medicine – what could possibly go wrong!

My wife thinks alchemy and treasure hunting make for a good business model – what could possibly go wrong!

The fate of my company is depending on one order alone – what could possibly go wrong!

So the Stranger introduces himself as No. 44 and says he wants to work – for free! Shouldn’t that have arisen some kind of suspicion? It’s fine with Mr. Stein anyway. Then the cook walks in and right away decides, for no apparent reason, that she has a soft spot for No. 44. So she marches No. 44 and August into the kitchen and has them fed and also finds some nice new clothing for No. 44.

Mrs. Stein wants to get No. 44 busy and out of sight so she has him chop a huge stack of wood. No. 44 literary finishes the job in the blink of an eye, the master should be suspicious at least now but isn’t, and instead decides to take him on as an apprentice although he never has studied.

We cut to the printing room where, surprise, August gets sent flying on his face by Ernst again. At least the printers think that something is odd about “44” and thus decide that nobody is allowed to befriend him. August does anyway.

Then he learns that “44” indeed is a very strange sort of stranger and has magical powers, like talking to August through telepathy and making himself invisible. “44” claims that he came to him from a future where everybody is capable of working magic like he does.

Together they are up for all kinds of mischief (August sees no problem in that as long as “44” is getting the work done for him). So the plot trots on until we come to our big problem. The printers don’t like “44” doing all the work and making them look like the useless lazy lot they are and so they decide to tell the master to kick “44” out or they go on strike!

Let us look at the major problem of the movie at this point. Most of the reactions and actions the characters show are either out of place, poorly thought up or downright illogical. Many things seem rather unmotivated. It’s never really explained why the characters react like they do as nobody really has any back story that would us help to understand why the characters do what they are doing.

Like the printers who go on strike because “44” might cost them their jobs which would result in, the Bibles not being printed, them not only certainly losing their jobs but also their home. Mr. Stein even tells them so yet they do everything to stop their employer from finishing the job that pays for their food and, more importantly, beer. What a well thought out and sensible plan!

When illness befalls the master because of this dismay, it should at least occur to them that it doesn’t serve them when they send their master to his grave. But NO!

Do they have another working opportunity? We never know so it surely would be the wiser choice for them to come up with a different plan to rid themselves of “44”.

And why does the cook just assume that “44” is a good boy? We never see him work magic on her so it must be in her back story – if she had one. A less lazy writing would at least have come up with something as thin as “44” resembling her lost son or something similar.

To be fair, some scenes are amusing. Like the fight between the printers and their doppelgangers, magically brought up by “44”.

The rest of the movie deals with August trying to save the company and Hoffmann’s desperate search of the hidden treasure he assumes he can find nearby the castle. As the movie goes on, No. 44s japes grow meaner which supposedly is meant to bring up a moral question and make us think.

So, will the university get their Bibles? Does Hoffmann find the treasure? Will August ever find out where Gutenberg lived? Is the movie really predictable enough and August gets the girl? Was whiskey in that jar the story was found in?

At least some of these questions will be answered in the rest of the movie!

Waltz’s sideshow character isn’t saying or doing much to add to the story which makes it hard to really get a grip on the character. While he’s not given much to work with, he’s delivering a solid performance as the not really smart bully who is spurred on by the older printers in the team. It’s not on the list of the best performances of his career, but doesn’t make the list of bad ones either.

To be fair with it, it’s not a terrible movie. It does have its own charm and the “old” look works well on it. Other movies have done a worse job at capturing a “medieval” look. The basic problem is that the makers of the movie didn’t really seem to know where they were heading to though. By easing the story, that was originally written for adults, they also ease the moral question it was supposed to let us think about. As an example, the original “44” was named Satan (pretty obvious), while this movie version gives the character a more playful edging, displaying him more like a boy who is playing a funny game. That way, the movie fails to deliver the message in a way that is still interesting for adults. They were clearly trying to make it fit for a family movie but fail at that as well. The moral is not worked out well enough for a young audience to understand the lesson they are supposed to learn. Either making it darker for adults or lighter for kids would have worked better.

The acting range in the movie wasn’t overstrung, a better script would have helped the actors doing a better job. Most of the characters are bland and stereotyped so there isn’t really given much to work with.

While it’s not a masterpiece, despite of the flaws it has, it is worth giving it a try, especially if you are interesting in seeing Waltz with long hair and a medieval outfit. You shouldn’t expect it follow one of the original Twain versions closely though as much has been changed to adapt it for the small screen.

In case anybody is interested in the original Mark Twain novel, it is available for free in the Project Gutenberg (see, we finally found a link to Gutenberg!) library: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/3186

- Ghost

* Yes, this apparently makes sense in the original story, but in this movie screenplay they don’t really give us a reason why we are in 16th century Austria.

Christoph Waltz Fans