From Our Film Correspondent It has yet to be proved that biography is a subject for the film—Rembrandt has not succeeded in doing that for us. The KordaLaughton production has many great points not least among them the biographer's sympathetic power to show how the processes of time will tame the most extravagant character. But processes of time are too abstracted to become heroes of the concrete medium of the film, and the slow working out of such processes on the violent and impetuous Rembrandt are not alone sufficient to provide design and tension— and design and tension are necessary to every film, I am told.
That may be so. I personally have got to be convinced that design in the limited sense of story-form, and tension in the sense of theatre climax is absolutely essential to a film. But although I think the film will eventually free itself from the story and the play shape, and find other moulds into which to fit itself, I still do not think that the shape of biography is any solution.
It must he Simplified
The trouble about the biography shape is that it is too shapeless. Its canvas is too vast, of its nature it must range through all the variations of the man's character and actions. Biography preserves no mood— and it seems essential in film productions to preserve a mood and to simplify, rather than to welcome many aspects of the same subject which tend to complicate.
Korda's enormous success, The Private Life of Henry VIII, was only half as interesting as is Rembrandt, but it does not need the gift of prophecy to guess that Rembrandt will only be half as successful. The whole reason is that Korda has forgotten simplicity of theme in his new film and has given us more than we can be expected to digest.
In Henry VIII, he took the many sided monarch and portrayed him as a one-sided man, ruthlessly disregarding everything in Henry that did not subscribe to the theme. In Rembrandt, Korda has made no such selection, has accepted the man in the round, has helped himself to a slice of the painter's life and has showed us the biographer's pages just as they might have been written. The difference in result is the difference between clarity and diffuseness, design and no design.
A. Courageous Work In spite of all its elaboration, its emphasis on everything, its loud pedal down all the time, I liked Rembrandt better than any film I have seen since The Petrified Forest—which it somehow resembles although its subjects are widely divergent. Both have shown the same sort of courage in the face of the supreme difficulty— that of treating high things, even poetic things.
Rembrandt, overlaid a little by the Laughton mannerisms, emerges however, unscathed in his own humanity. From the days in which he was a successful and popular as well as a brilliant painter cornmissicsned to paint the city councillors, he strides through the picture a great man. Even when success and popularity leave him; even when minor vices assail him, in spite of greed, of sensuality, of a certain laziness, he is still Rembrandt the Great. Nothing diminishes his power, and the long passages of pure poetry, as his speech in honour of woman and his relating of Bible stories, which often break into bawdy scenes, lift him into sublimity.
As the gradual breaking down of the Rembrandt fortunes take place (and it begins to do so at the outset of the picture) so does the gradual building up of the Rembrandt man begin, and the rich painter at the opening sequence becomes the poor philosopher of the end. This therefore is the explanation of those awful tragedies that happen in unending series and leave the audience very nearly unmoved. The tragedies have no tragic ending—through them Rembrandt van Rijn may lose his fortunes and en his delights—but through them he finds his genius and himself.
Getting away from the subject of the film—which is very difficult to do as Isaughton rightly dominates the set always, there are other things about the production which are very pleasant to remember. The reconstructions of Dutch scenes are as happy as a collection of Breughels or de Ffoocbs, and good characterisations by Elsa Lanchester and Roger Livesey, John Bryning and Gertrude Lawrence are not less commendable than the lovely script for which Carl Zuckmayer is responsible.