Should the cruel arctic gods send another polar vortex to the Twin Cities, we must be prepared to spend a large chunk of our winter indoors. But what a wonderful opportunity to watch some of the immersive, super-long films currently streaming online. After all, if we can binge-watch entire seasons of TV series like The Wire and Breaking Bad in a few sittings, a four-hour epic film should be a piece of cake. With that in mind, here are five lengthy works of cinema to ward off cabin fever.
Title: Norte, the End of History
Length: 4 hours, 10 minutes.
Plot: When Fabian, an aimless college drop-out in northern Philippines, murders a cruel pawnbroker and her daughter, Joaquin, an innocent family man, is arrested for the crime and sentenced to life in prison. We then follow the two men along their life paths, as Fabian begins to crack under the burden of his guilt and Joaquin seeks to survive and find dignity in prison.
Reason to Watch: Taking his cues from Dostoevsky, Filipino auteur Lav Diaz has crafted a multifaceted social drama which uses its considerable run-time (which, at a little over four hours, is short by Diaz's standards) to engage in intricate storytelling against an expansive, richly detailed backdrop. As each politically charged plot strand is allowed to work itself out, the full burden of history -- be it personal, economic, national -- is brought into devastating relief. The result is fascinating and often heartbreaking.
Where It's Streaming: Netflix.
Title: The Last of the Unjust
Length: 3 hours, 39 minutes.
Plot: Filmed largely in the 1970s during the making of his monumental Holocaust documentary, Shoah, Claude Lanzmann's The Last of the Unjust profiles troublesome figure Benjamin Murmelstein, the last "Jewish Elder" of the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, and the only Jewish Elder to survive the war. Theresienstadt was used by the Germans as a model camp, the subject of propaganda films and Red Cross visits meant to convey to the outside world how well Jews lived in the Nazi camp system. As an intermediary between the Nazis and the Jewish prisoners at Theresienstadt, Murmelstein had to balance the demands of the Nazis against the lives of the Jews under his authority, while securing his own personal safety as well. The controversial decisions that he made in this capacity are the subject of Lanzmann's film.
Reason to Watch: The making of Shoah (1985) was such an enormous undertaking that all of Lanzmann's subsequent films have been derived from footage left over from its production. In this light, The Last of the Unjust is a digression which could not be fitted satisfactorily into Shoah, but could be better explored at leisure as a film in its own right. The uncomfortable moral questions raised by Murmelstein's actions, which Lanzmann does not hesitate to ask, are some of the most important of our time, and are an excellent justification for the long-form movie, which is better equipped to explore them than a film with a more standard length.
Where It's Streaming: Netflix.
Title: The Human Condition trilogy
Length: 9 hours, 39 minutes.
Plot: Over the span of three epic films, Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai), a young, idealistic Japanese pacifist, attempts to preserve his humanity while experiencing the horrors of WWII. Coerced into the Japanese imperial system, we follow him as he oversees Chinese slaves in a labor camp, is drafted into the army, and subjected to the brutality of combat. Eventually, he is captured by the Soviets and forced to engage in slave labor. Throughout these ordeals, the selfless Kaji attempts to mitigate the suffering of others, but often just makes things worse.
Reason to Watch: Although perhaps best known in the U.S for his samurai classics Harakiri and Samurai Rebellion, Masaki Kobayashi's Human Condition trilogy -- No Greater Love (1959), Road to Eternity (1959), and A Soldier's Prayer (1961) -- forms the spine of his body of work, and constitutes one of the greatest achievements of post-war Japanese cinema. Kobayashi depicts the struggle of human decency to survive in a world more likely to punish for it than reward it. While the catalog of cruelties on display here could, in the hands of weaker filmmakers, become dreary and alienating, Kobayashi's deft storytelling and the crisp, elegant compositions of cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima keep the viewer deeply engaged throughout the film's demanding run time.
Where It's Streaming: Hulu.
Title: Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler
Length: 4 hours, 30 minutes.
Plot: It's early 1920s Germany, and the catastrophe of WWI is giving way to the excitement and decadence of the Weimar era. In the shadows of the Berlin underworld lurks the archetypal criminal mastermind, Dr. Mabuse. Harnessing the power of mind control, Dr. Mabuse and his army of followers carry out a campaign of fraud and manipulation. The only thing standing between the evil hypnotist and unlimited power is resourceful state prosecutor Norbert von Wenk, who engages him in a nail-bitingly suspenseful game of cat-and-mouse played out in swinging night-clubs and sleazy gambling dens.
Reason to Watch: Directed by the legendary Fritz Lang -- whose most well-known masterpieces, Metropolis and M, were still to come -- Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (1922) represents the first flowering of the filmmaker's maturity. It is a work of stirring suspense and excitement, just as thrilling as anything to come out in the 90 years since its release. The film hearkens back to the French adventure serials of the 1910s while also anticipating Hitchcock. Lang and screenwriter Thea von Harbou created one of the first (and greatest!) screen villains in the evil genius Dr. Mabuse, and Lang would return to him twice more in the course of his career, with The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) and The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960). Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler is an excellent introduction to his criminal reign of terror.
Where It's Streaming: Netflix, Amazon, Fandor.
Title: Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce,1080 Bruxelles
Length: 3 hours, 21 minutes.
Plot: A seemingly average Belgian housewife (Delphine Seyrig) goes through her normal routine over the course of a few days. She cleans, she cooks, she peels potatoes, she helps her son with his homework. And in the afternoon, she sleeps with johns who visit her in her home. As the days tick by, small disruptions in her routine auger a crisis of terrible proportions.
Reason to Watch: A watershed piece in feminist cinema, Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman is an epic film about all the things that usually get left out of film. The quiet details of Jeanne's routine, which make up so much of human life, become unexpectedly thrilling as we grow familiar with their rhythm and the subtle variations that Akerman weaves into it. Jeanne Dielman stakes out new territory for film, and remains a revelatory must-watch for any cinephile. The movie also treats us to a delicate, deeply felt performance by the great Delphine Seyrig, in what might very well be her finest role.
Where It's Streaming: Hulu.