The Lorenza Mazzetti Collection

BFI Blu Ray (2003)


Franz Kafka was a major influence on director Lorenzi Mazzetti (1927 – 2020).  Kafka’s real and fictional sense of anxiety and persecution helped to both disguise then channel the trauma of Mazzetti’s childhood – in 1944 her Jewish guardians’ family where murdered by the Nazis in Tuscany: she and her sister only managing to escape death because their surnames were not Jewish.

As a refugee in London, in 1953, Mazzetti got into the Slade School of Art by literally screaming, during her interview, on being told there were no places available.  The screaming was overheard by the school’s principal William Coldstream.  Convinced of Mazzetti’s talent, with her confident assertion that she was a genius, he decided to give this passionate and unorthodox Italian a chance.  Mazzetti immediately collared some students to help her make a short film called K.  She charged all her expenses to the Slade School that didn’t produce films.  Coldstream told Mazzetti that that if after screening the film the students liked it then she wouldn’t go to prison.  They applauded K.  This was followed by an offer from the BFI Experimental Film Fund to make another film.

Backtracking then to Kafka.  Is her first film K and her recently discovered other Slade effort, The Country Doctor any good? Do they now look like dated and messy arty screams?  They’re definitely in a specific 1950s avant garde mould accompanied by serial music atonality (composer Daniele Paris).  Both films have technical deficiencies but they are still amongst the most focussed, involving and original Kafka films ever made.  In fact K was the very first Kafka film to be produced.  Max Brod, Kafka’s literary executor, objected to Mazzetti’s request to film Kafka but she went ahead anyway.

Unlike Orson Welles’s The Trial or Steven Berkoff’s Metamorphosis her films are genuinely Kafkaesque.  With Welles and Berkoff you always sense their artistic egos are over-controlling.  The results are frequently wonderful though that it means Kafka ends up playing second fiddle.  Whereas with Mazzetti we feel that Kafka is eerily in control of his adaptor, enabling his uniquely disquieting and absurd universe to be manifest.  And in Together we get Mazzetti’s most mature work: the film that comfortably assimilates Kafka and conveys her original filmmaking vision.

K at 25 minutes long is based on ideas in Kafka’s Metamorphosis and shows the influence of Jean Vigo.  It’s angularity of viewpoints reminded me the promenade scenes in A Propos de Nice and the camera placement in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.  The shots of salesman Gregor Samsa, carrying his suitcases along rooftops, recalled Conrad Veidt, with female captive, overhead on Caligari’s expressionist set; though the absurdity of the moment when K’s hoisted up on a crane to meet a builder, in order to try and sell his clothing samples, hinted at a risky Harold Lloyd stunt that was about to happen but didn’t!

Metamorphosis is a difficult story to adapt.  Do you employ special effects to show that Gregor Samsa is turning into an insect? Or go with animation? Mazzetti opts to do nothing.  leaving Gregor physically unchanged if highly disturbed.  Using POV shots she shows him crawling along the floor of his bedroom and into the family’s living room.  His fingers being splayed like animal claws, especially when he’s touching a window beaten by the rain.  When Gregor (a persuasive and touching performance by Slade student Michael Andrews) is caught standing up on his bed, cowering in his long nightshirt, the shame of his predicament is cruelly exposed.  These disturbing scenes beautifully culminate in the humiliating and moving shot of Gregor, at floor level, near a picture of a ballerina and a tiny wriggling worm he finds on the floor.  Bowls of food are gingerly placed on the floor and the bedroom door is closed.

Sometimes the deliberate jerkiness of the camerawork feels too technically awkward as it attempts to align itself with K’s walking along the street.  I would have preferred cleaner editing without ever upsetting the film’s rawness of mood.  And Gregor’s (deliberate?) out of synch salesman patter, delivered to his employer, at first annoyed me.  Yet on a second viewing, whether this was by accident or design, it gradually didn’t matter for it had the strange effect of alienating the salesman even more from his employer who’s constantly ignoring him.  What this brilliant short admirably sustains is a detached terror about Gregor’s transformation: a change in the family’s attitude transitioning from revulsion, acceptance and finally indifference to their son.  Mazzetti powerfully captures these stages.  And that’s pure undiluted Kafka.

If The Country Doctor is less successful than K it’s because Kafka’s parable is more hermetic.  One winter night a country doctor is summoned to attend to a sick young man.  On arriving at the sickbed he examines the patient only to conclude he isn’t ill at all.  But the young man asks the doctor to let him die.  His family lay the doctor down by the side of the patient.  The doctor says the young man has a deep inner wound that he is unable to heal.  Then the doctor leaves, as he came, on horseback.

The best moments are the ghostly appearances of the neighing horse through the open window and the family, holding candles, singing a kind of absurdly worded requiem or folk chant.  Here Mazzetti achieves a weirdly effective atmosphere that Kafka would have loved: even though the technical unevenness of this even shorter film (10 minutes) means it’s not for me as accomplished as the incisive K.

Mazzetti’s Together (1956) both belongs to the The British Free Cinema movement of the fifties and yet doesn’t.  Lindsay Anderson’s O Dreamland, Tony Richardson’s Momma Don’t Allow and Karel Reisz’s We Are the Lambeth Boys are its most well known films.  Together (the only female contribution) equals their achievements and, with its poetic emphasis on society’s outsiders, often betters them.

Together is a poetic film…I remembered how Lorenza Mazzetti used to insist, when we were editing Together, that she wanted it to be the most boring film ever made.  Of course she meant she wanted it to be a film whose beauty and significance would be expressed precisely in those elements of style (extreme slowness and austerity) which the desensitised, conventionalised audience would fail to understand – and therefore be bored by.  This was the kind of lingering, poetic concentration I tried to create on the stage.’

Lindsay Anderson, Vital Theatre, Encore 1957

Anderson’s word “lingering” well describes the part documentary and part fictional Together.  Very little happens in this account of the everyday life of two deaf and dumb workers who work at London docks.  They are played by Eduardo Paolozzi (a famous sculptor of the 60s) and Michael Andrews (divested of playing Kafka but with haunted looks).  Paolozzi is fat and Andrews is thin.  Superficially the children in Together probably see them as Laurel and Hardy figures, not to be loved but ridiculed and tormented.  And it’s the muted Lord of the Flies like behaviour of East End kids, racing round WW2 bombed waste ground, who tragically determine their fate.  With a few exceptions the adults in Together also act badly towards the two men especially their landlady at mealtimes who glares hatefully at them.

Together alternates between intense noise and intense silence.  At the dockside the men fail to respond to the sound of a lorry behind them; in the pub an old man talks constantly at Michael Andrews who generously takes an interest but can’t understand a thing and more sadly he watches an attractive woman performer dancing in the street but doesn’t hear her music.  When it switches to us, the audience hearing the soundtrack, denied to the main characters, the effect is poignant.  As a drunken man sings lustily in the pub Andrews moves forward in his chair with a look of frustration to appreciate the boisterous activity of pub life.  The silence of his world excludes him and his partner.  None of these scenes is treated sentimentally.  Mazzetti gives us detachment with great empathy.  Her sad reflection on them being ignored and outside of complete societal engagement, is an awful persecution, if not on par with the intensity of Kafka’s, but hurtful and disempowering (No adult in Together ever attempts to communicate with the men by writing things down).

Paolozzi’s ‘playful’ picking up of a young boy, who’s been annoying him, and twirling him round; the acute tension at meal times when the inhibited Paolozzi waits for Andrews to appear before he will eat his meal; their endless walking through empty streets using sign language; Andrews’s reminders to Paolozzi that he could do with a shave and most touchingly Andrews’s fantasy moment when he imagines he’s invited, back to his room, the woman who tried to chat him up in the pub: all are subtle and beautifully understated incidents full of ordinary but never boring details.  Mazzetti has a compassionate eye for the mistreated that reminds you of neo-realism (Anderson aptly cites De Sica’s Umberto D).

Together was highly praised at Cannes.  Both Lindsay Anderson and Tony Richardson were keen to raise finance for Lorenza Mazzetti’s next project – a film about Teddy Boys.  But it fell through as she was breaking up with her lover Denis Horne from the BFI and felt in need of psychotherapy.  She returned to Italy and worked on documentaries, made another feature called Bad Guys Go to Heaven (1959), is this her Teddy Boy project idea? She acted in other peoples’ films, took up painting and wrote The Sky is Falling (1961) an autobiographical novel.

What might have been possible for Mazzetti if she’d been able to work in the British Cinema to develop features?  Maybe her lyrical poetic style would have been ignored in the early sixties with its slew of kitchen sink realism?  Still we have two outstanding shorts and her beautifully lingering Together – there is nothing like this in British cinema of the fifties.

The BFI should be applauded for making the remarkable Lorenza Mazzeti Collection available to us again.

Alan Price©2023