"His later work, which I promise you will see and remember, seems to have its roots in some private world of dreams, perhaps never otherwise expressed."
Produced as part of the BBC's Omnibus arts documentary strand rather than by its drama department, 1977's Schalcken the Painter feels like a close relation to the channel's revered Ghost Story for Christmas specials. Using Sheridan Le Fanu's 1839 Strange Event in the Life of Schalcken the Painter as its starting point, it weaves a story around the real 17th Century Dutch artist's paintings that's a combination of ghost story and twisted morality play, but those coming to it expecting a conventional horror story are likely to come away disappointed. Director Leslie Megahey's idea was to subvert an art film and turn it into something else, but the art is very much in the foreground, with its story unfolding slowly and subtly, with much of the horror unfolding between the brushstrokes.
It begins with Godfried Schalcken (Jeremy Clyde) a student of Gerrit Dau (Maurice Denham) and quietly in love with the master painter's niece (Cheryl Kennedy) - or, as Charles Gray's narrator notes, "as much as a Dutchman can be." But the appearance of the deathly Vanderhausen (John Justin, looking like a freshly exhumed corpse, his appearances heralded by the creak of a floorboard and always discovered in the frame rather than making an entrance) changes all that when he makes Dau an offer he cannot refuse for her hand: "You need not pledge yourself unnecessarily, but I think when you see the value of my commission you will find it is necessary." Rather than run away with her, Schalcken breaks her heart by promising to buy back her marriage contract once he has made his name and fortune, only for both Vanderhausen and the niece to disappear without trace until one night the manic and terrified girl returns begging for protection and repeating "The dead and the living can never be one"...
Along with the deliberate pacing, the veiled nature of the plot may frustrate some, and the film is in many ways more about mood and atmosphere than plot - at times it's more interested in the shifting light and shadows as a candle moves around a statue's face. Yet that emphasis on the visual over the narrative seems entirely appropriate for a film about an artist and the look of the of the film is remarkable, the lighting and colour looking uncannily like a living painting of the period, with careful composition and a measured editing style that allows you to feel like you're in a private gallery viewing with plenty of time to take in each detail. Like Barry Lyndon, it uses natural light and candlelight, the latter burning brightly but still unable to cast any light on the surrounding darkness to mirror both Vermeer and Schalcken's own visual style (and not just Schalcken's: at one point Rembrandt makes a brief appearance looking just like his self-portrait). There's a documentary-like attention to detail too, with the scrubbing and clothing of the artist's model carried out without any regard for either her comfort or even her humanity, reducing her to an object to be reproduced on canvas. And it's that rejection of the human comforts for artistic success that's at the heart of this dark tale: Schalcken's damnation, like Dau's, comes from forsaking and ultimately damning the human being who should be closest to them. It's a simple enough moral, but delivered with a spellbinding style rare in television work of any era.
There's an intriguing interview featurette on the BFI's Blu-ray/DVD combo with director Megahey, editor Paul Humphries and lighting cameraman John Hooper that reveals the development of the piece and the casting process. The narrator was originally intended as an onscreen figure and written with Vincent Price in mind, hoping that his love of art would attract him to the project, and when he passed on it was offered to Peter Cushing, who found the script extremely distasteful and rejected it in no uncertain terms. Similarly the role of Schalcken's mentor was originally intended for Arthur Lowe. There's also an explanation of why the final painting was an original work created for the film after they found themselves unable to locate the one Le Fanu referred to or even confirm it had ever existed. Additionally, there are two short films, The Pit (a stylised half hour adaptation of The Pit and the Pendulum from 1962 that includes some production design sketches as well) and The Pledge from 1981 (in which a trio of petty criminals resolve to cut down a colleague from the gallows tree) as well as the customary booklet.
on 20 November 2013
Schalcken the Painter
Let's go back to the days when you got really good value for your BBC licence fee, way back to 1979. I can remember sitting in front of the TV just before Christmas to watch an Omnibus programme which presented something quite startling that lingered in the memory, that being a strange tale about the Dutch painter Schalcken. Since that day it has never reappeared on television and despite many people asking for it to be released on DVD, it's only now that it has become available through the British Film Institute on their Flipside label.
What's Flipside? "Developed from its popular monthly screening slot at the BFI Southbank, the Flipside series is designed to revisit and reappraise British films that have slipped through the cracks of cinema history - films that were overlooked, marginalised, or undervalued at the original time of release, or which sit outside the established canon of its time recognised classics."
What was strange about Schalcken the Painter? It was a film of exceptional quality, a dramatised version of events in the life of the artist tied up with a fictional account by the Victorian Irish author, J Sheridan le Fanu. Not only immersing the viewer in 17th-century Dutch life and art, it brought a chilling sense of horror to shake the depths of your soul. However, before we go into the story let's look at some of the background history which gives the setting to the events.
The 17th century is often referred to as Holland's golden age. Breaking free from the shackles of Spain, the 80 years war being a culmination of this, the country became a magnet for craftsmen, entrepreneurs and explorers, its geographical situation making it the centre of a trading empire which stretched out to Germany, the Hanseatic League, Britain and France. They developed the best Navy of the time, even sufficiently strong enough to take on the British with impunity. Their ships sailed all around the world, having a monopoly with Japan and many countries in the Far East, importing great wealth and power. Roughly the century can be divided into three zones. It began with austerity where people were beginning to find their feet and starting to make progress. The next-generation ushered in a period of prosperity, realising the wealth that they were beginning to make from trading conquests and when the third generation came along, used to money and power, there was a certain amount of decadence. With an economy growing rapidly, they even had an economic bubble all to do with the price of tulips.
With all that money going about, there was sufficient for extra things in life such as art and science. It's art that concerns us here. Being a Calvinistic society, commissions from the church were virtually non-existent but there were wealthy merchants wishing to put themselves in vogue by commissioning paintings. That's why we get a lot of portraiture, still life and landscape from this era. A number of painters appeared in the community to meet this demand, with notable well-known names such as Rembrandt and Vermeer being the most popular in the art galleries of today.
Godfried Schalcken (1643 - 1706) was one such painter. He was exceptional at reproducing works illuminated by candlelight, often creating a soft and eerie glow to the subjects and surroundings. A pupil of the famous artist Gerrit Dou (1613 - 1675), who in turn was a pupil of Rembrandt. Schalcken became quite successful and even moved to England for a period of time. Because he was apparently a bit of a yob, he was shunned and spent the rest of his days at The Hague, as a painter and not as a prisoner under trial. This was long before the place became a centre for prosecuting international criminals.
The story was then taken up by J Sheridan le Fanu (1814 - 1873). One of the leading Victorian writers of Gothic and mystery tales, he is renowned for his classic ghost stories. This is a guy we would be featuring regularly on our website if we lived in the 19th century! Some of his best known works include Carmilla, Uncle Silas, and The House by the Churchyard. Many of his stories were later adapted by movie companies, Hammer in particular, when making films about vampires. In 1851 he wrote "Strange Event in the Life of Schalcken the Painter" (there are varieties of spelling of the name Schalcken). If you want to read this story it can be found along with other le Fanu's stories at the University of Adelaide's website.
It's well worth reading this story just to give you an idea of the author's work and style. On this is based the BBC Omnibus edition which was made into the film. If you read the story and watch the film you will notice that there are some differences between the two. Also, if you look for the painting featured in the movie, you will be disappointed because it doesn't exist. It's a composite picture made up by the director as he explains in an interview on the disc.
As le Fanu knew, 17th-century Holland was a golden age in their history. In the UK we are centred on our own exploits and often don't give full credit to the achievement of other nations. We all know Captain Cook discovered Australia, but the Dutch visited it first. Despite the exploits of explorers and traders, they were not immune to death. They suffered along with everybody else from the great plagues that devastated populations during the century and, as in the middle ages, death was always going to be a part of life. That's why, in the midst of prosperity with Schalcken and his tutor Dou, death comes to dinner!
The film Schalcken the Painter doesn't have much dialogue. Almost a fusion of documentary and drama, it is narrated very effectively by the well-known English actor Charles Gray who introduces us to the painting and the characters. Some artificial authority is implied when saying that the painting still exists and a distant relative knew the painter and could verify the story. Dou comes across as a man interested in money. Observed counting his guilders with rather dodgy eyesight, it's evident that everything is measured by the worth of their coinage. Schalcken is a pupil but being diligent he gets past the others to become a dinner guest, proverbially getting his feet under the table, from where he can continue his interest in Rose, who is Dou's niece. Schalcken is played by Jeremy Clyde who still appears on television screens, Dou by Maurice Denholm, an instantly recognised actor, now deceased, who had a long and successful career. Rose's part is taken by Cheryl Kennedy. She doesn't appear much on screens now but had a varied career for approximately 30 years on stage and screen.
Schalcken appears to be a tentative character, obviously knowing where he wants to go but in order to do so he toes the line, not overstepping his authority with Dou. He too has a desire for money as well as the lovely Rose. In declaring his interest in the girl he states that he will make enough to realise prospects of marriage and by all accounts Rose seems to be quite happy with this proposal.
As an interesting diversion, Dou is visited by Rembrandt. No words are exchanged but it's definitely Rembrandt, a remarkable likeness to the 1663 self-portrait. However, I'm wondering if something rather strange had taken place because at the time this film was set, Rembrandt was probably dead. He died in 1669. Maybe this is conjecture but it could be an interesting prelude to the events about to take place.
While Schalcken was working, a stranger came to the door. A very odd fellow, there seemed to be no sound of approach from outside. He just appeared and announced laconically in a monotone voice that he had business to attend to with Dou. After he disappeared, Schalcken could see no signs of departure except for weird bubbles in the canal. The problem with Dou was that he couldn't see properly and when the stranger returned at the appointed time, he didn't really take in the ghastliness of his appearance. Named as Vanderhausen, he stated his intentions directly and promptly, saying he wished to marry Rose, having observed her before at a church in Rotterdam. He offered a casket of gold and demanded that the contents be verified immediately. The casket was corroded, almost as if it had been lying in a grave for years. Schalcken could only stand by and look on in amazement but nevertheless he did seem interested in the money.
Vanderhausen is played by John Justin who also appeared in the BBC production of Dorabella. He was the father, the main vampire, a completely hideous creature! Jeremy Clyde was also in this episode as the unfortunate man enslaved by Dorabella's evil charms. When appearing for dinner with Dou, Schalcken and Rose, he sat at the head of the table, said nothing, ate nothing and didn't even blink. While Dou tried to make conversation, the others could only look on with shock and horror at the ghastly appearance sitting before them. Despite Rose not wishing to be married to this abomination, looking only at the money Dou gave his approval.
Strangely Schalcken accepted the situation with ineffectual resistance saying only he would work hard and make enough money to win her back. Everyone had a price, so it seemed, and therefore she was doomed to be married to Vanderhausen. As time passed, work at the studio carried on. Painting of classical scenes, choosing models, and visits to the brothel seem to be Schalcken's habits and despite trying to find Rose all he could find was a young woman with a similar name but with a price to charge for her favours.
One evening an extremely distressed Rose enters the Dou household. Dishevelled and bruised, she begs food and sanctuary. The last thing she wanted to do was return to Vanderhausen. She shouts out, "the dead and the living can never be one." They try to help her, but Rose disappears into the night, to another world so it seems.
Schalcken continues his life, marries another woman and settles down to become a successful painter, specialising in small-scale work illuminated by candlelight. His nature becomes emotionally callous, haughty and disrespectful. One of his models, an attractive girl of common birth, asks about a pose, a scene involving a sparrow, Lesbia's sparrow from the works of the Roman poet Catullus. Thinking the girl beyond explanation all he said was, "it's just a story."
However, Schalcken was to meet Rose and Vanderhausen for one last time. This meeting, which took place in a church, gave him the inspiration to paint the picture which is the subject of the story. It was a fateful meeting and one which showed up Schalcken and his opinion of people and money to be shallow and conceited. It also brought him face to face with death!
Although the film is 70 minutes duration, it contains lots of irreplaceable scenes which stick in the mind. The characters and the sight of Vanderhausen are not overemphasised but nonetheless they are very powerful and cannot be denied. Many people will remember a more recent film set in the Dutch 17th-century. Girl With the Pearl Earring focused on the works of Vermeer and contain so many hypnotic scenes where the camera stopped just for a few seconds and each still somehow became a work of art, a picture from the artist himself. Well, on a much smaller budget, Schalcken the Painter preceded that in 1979.
How exactly would you categorise this film? It's art, drama and horror. Just why it wasn't rereleased many years ago remains a mystery because so many people asked about Schalcken wondering if it was available on tape or DVD. Now, 34 years after it first appeared on television it's available from the BFI but there is actually much more on the disc. First of all we have The Pit, an adaption of Edgar Allan Poe's tale, The Pit and the Pendulum. Made in 1962, in black and white and lasting 27 minutes, it is utterly horrific in every sense. Condemned to death, a man is incarcerated in a dark prison with nightmarish images, the pendulum and a pit which contains bones and a slithering thing of indeterminate identity. Not to be watched late at night.
In addition, there is also a short film entitled The Pledge which is about three criminals from the 18th-century trying to recover the hanged body of one of their friends. The best of the extra material is the 39 minute interview with Leslie Megahey, the director/writer/producer of Schalcken and John Hooper, the director of photography. This is essential viewing if you liked the film and wish to learn more about its creation. You will also get an illustrated booklet in the package which has a variety of essays and film credits.
Okay, by now you will have gathered that I liked Schalcken the Painter. It's a film that you will watch and never forget and I can only suggest that you do your utmost to secure a copy for yourself.