Robin Ashenden

Streaming killed the video star

What happened to the director’s commentary?

  • From Spectator Life

One small but significant loss to culture that streaming sites like Netflix or Amazon Prime have ushered in is the slow death of the DVD commentary. Usually given by a film’s actors or director (or both), they could be played over the film and were packed with insights on filmmaking, the artists’ take on life or simply acute observations of human psychology. Masterclasses from people like Tarantino, Scorsese, Gary Oldman or Sharon Stone, DVD commentaries were, as Alexander Larman (of this parish) pointed out in a 2020 essay, often fascinating and ‘far cheaper and even more comprehensive than a film school degree.’ Their emergence, in fact, softened the blow of programmes like The South Bank Show and Arena (and what they represented) being sidelined so much in British cultural life. I decided to go back to a trio of them – chosen out of many – that have stuck with me over the years.

The whole enterprise – and that actor’s snub to the Stasi – might be summed by Goethe’s maxim: ‘Be bold – mighty forces will come to your aid’

The first was Max, Menno Meyjes’ criminally underrated 2002 drama about Hitler’s relationship with a Jewish art dealer in post-world war one Munich – a time of angst and exhaustion, soup kitchens and amputees, and a radicalism in politics out to crack skulls. It’s a culture that’s died and is waiting for rebirth, a vacuum into which come artists like the rampantly creative Max Ernst and George Grosz, or anti-Semitic demagogues like Hitler. Meyjes’s film may seem at times like a love letter to Europe (the Dutch-born director left as a child for the US) but it’s also clear-eyed about a continent whose spirit he describes as ‘so weary, so bitter, so cynical, so sad.’ Europe could produce Bauhaus, Freud and Picasso, but also Mussolini’s Blackshirts and the smokestacks of Treblinka.

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Written by
Robin Ashenden
Robin Ashenden is founder and ex-editor of the Central and Eastern European London Review. He is currently writing a novel about Solzhenitsyn, Khrushchev’s Thaw and the Hungarian Uprising.

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