5 Favorites Redux #36: Favorite Udo Kier Films

Welcome to 5 Favorites. Each week, I will put together a list of my 5 favorites (films, performances, whatever strikes my fancy) along with commentary on a given topic each week, usually in relation to a specific film releasing that week.

German character actor Udo Kier has appeared in over 100 films since his first appearance as a young boy in the short film Road to Saint Tropez. Since then, he’s appeared in films by some of the most prominent directors in world cinema, including films by Gus Van Zant, Lars von Trier, Werner Herzog, Dario Argento, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder to name a few. With such a prolific resume, it’s easy to find great films to highlight in a series like this.

And why exactly have I chosen Kier? He has a role in this coming weekend’s release of The Painted Bird. The five I ultimately selected are an eclectic bunch with a surprising three titles from von Trier, with roles spanning multiple genres and in both small and bit parts. Regardless, his impressive filmography bears examination and these are the titles I’ve selected. As an added bit of trivia, the seventy-five-year-old Kier was finally invited to join the Academy this year, 54 years after his cinematic debut.

Suspiria (1977)

Dario Argento’s horror classic gives Kier the biggest role of any of the film’s I’m highlighting today, that of Dr. Frank Mandel, who is a friend to a dancer who goes missing at the German dance academy at which star Jessica Harper has won a prestigious residency. As Harper’s character Suzy investigates the mysterious happenings around the academy and she eventually uncovers a hidden occult background to the studio that its faculty would kill to protect.

Argento’s film is a horror masterpiece filled with stirring music, haunting visuals, and a narrative that’s as creepy as it is frightening. The cinematography is masterful and helps keep the story moving along in dramatic and fascinating ways. It’s a film that any serious horror aficionado should track down. While it might not be to everyone’s taste, that does not blunt its superiority to nearly everything that has come after it.

Breaking the Waves (1996)

The first von Trier film I ever saw was probably one of his most mainstream and that’s saying a lot for a film about a devoted wife (Emily Watson) who seeks sexual gratification at the urging of her husband (Stella Skarsgard), who has suffered a debilitating accident on his oil rig. It’s all done in an attempt to save his soul. The religion at the heart of the film is both villain and saint, a dichotomy that plays out in the motives of the devout Watson who believes that not only did she cause her husband’s injury through willful prayer, but that she can bring him health by engaging in increasingly dangerous and deviant sexual acts.

Von Trier’s film is gorgeous to look at and well acted. That the film at times feels misogynistic in the sexual objectification it conveys makes it more difficult to appreciate and more than a little problematic. That said, its themes of sexual repression and the insidiousness of church doctrine that can allow a mentally disturbed woman believe without question the piety of her actions still feels as relevant today as it did in 1996. Kier plays a bit part in this one, so it’s not a true test of his talent, but in a film so full of other notable moments, it’s hard not to recognize it.

Dancer in the Dark (2000)

If you look at von Trier’s career, you can see a trend in how shabbily he treats his female characters. Although he would get more aggressive with his mistreatment of women as his career progressed, he undeniably created complex and compelling roles for women. A supreme example of this is when he cast Icelandic pop star Bjork in this film about a woman slowly going blind and her heinous act to protect her child from a similar fate by getting him the operation he so desperately needs.

What makes this film so fascinating is that it’s a musical with Bjork’s quirky musical style infusing each moment. Each of her songs, terrific in their seeming and simultaneous simplicity and complexity, takes atmospheric elements of the scenes in the film and turns them into music whether it’s the rhythm of a train traveling down the track in “Overture,” the complex machinery of a factory in “Cvalda,” or basketball court scuffs for the “In the Musicals” number set during the film’s dramatic court trial. The music makes the film and Bjork does a tremendous job in the leading role. Kier has a minor supporting role.

Halloween (2007)

Horror director Rob Zombie took a terrific stab at reviving the long-foundered Halloween franchise with this extremely violent return to the story of the 1978 original, with a new twist, giving audiences a glimpse into the psychotic past of young Michael Myers, the ten-year-old boy sent to an asylum for the murder of four people. Udo Kier plays a small supporting role as the asylum director. In the Donald Pleasance role in this re-imagining, Malcolm McDowell gives the film his all in a film that is as outrageous for its unflinching depiction of bloody violence as for anything else.

It’s difficult to imagine a quality Halloween film without the tremendous talents of Jamie Lee Curtis. While Curtis played the lead female role in the original, Pleasance was ostensibly the lead of that picture. Here, McDowell is an even bigger focus and that suits the film just fine as the rest of the cast doesn’t quite stack up to McDowell or the film’s 1978 originator. It’s easy to look at the increasing bloodiness of horror films and say that it’s unwarranted. That’s especially problematic when you consider how hard John Carpenter worked to avoid showing the gore and viscera on the big screen. Zombie has no such compunctions, which makes this reboot the kind of film that only hard core lovers of horror could find an appreciation for. I certainly have.

Melancholia (2011)

The last von Trier film on the list, it is also the last film he received an abundance of praise for. Herein, Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg play sisters, the former getting married. The first half of the film focuses on Dunst’s marriage to Stellan Skarsgard as she sinks into a state of melancholy while others around her make all of her decisions. Gainsbourg’s husband Kiefer Sutherland resents being put in the position to pay for the wedding and this section covers a lot of resulting inter-family drama.

In the second half, Gainsbourg’s character takes central focus as news of a rogue planet on a trajectory that is supposed to take it past Earth. The planet, named Melancholia, ends up on a collision course with the Earth forcing Gainsbourg to dip into her own fits of melancholy while she and her sister fight different emotional battles leading up to the film’s tragic conclusion. Udo Kier has a bit part here as a wedding planner, so the film’s focus stays firmly on Gainsbourg and Dunst, who each give superb performances in a film that is thematically rich, emotionally hefty, and would have made a fitting conclusion to any great director’s oeuvre. Von Trier’s post-Melancholia work has not only failed to live up to his prior filmography and they’ve each proven to be more intensely misogynistic than any of his films prior, which is saying a lot.

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