Aleksander Ford’s “Wages of Sin (1968)
and Sergei Eisenstein and Grigori Alexandrov’s
Misery and Fortune of Women (1929)
Volume 10, Wages of Sin, presents two European dramas from major filmmakers, again proving that seriously intended art can be fashioned for exploitation purposes. The two films are separated by 35 years, yet in many ways they’re the same. The older film, Misery and Fortune of Women (Frauen Not, Frauen Glueck, 1929), was never marketed as an exploitation product; it’s thrown in as a wonderful bonus because of its connection to Wages of Sin (1968).
The films share a producer, Lazar Wechsler. Both are Swiss productions featuring footage of birth and both are concerned with problems associated with pregnancy and abortion. Both films cover multiple case studies, and both feature a woman who unsuccessfully seeks a legal abortion and ends up dying from amateur butchery. Strangely, both unfortunate women have the same short androgynous haircut, despite the 35 years difference.
What’s most extraordinary about this 1929 film is its pedigree. Two major Soviet filmmakers, Sergei Eisenstein and Grigori Alexandrov, toured Europe and America in 1929 along with Eisenstein’s cinematographer, Eduard Tisse. They stopped briefly in Switzerland to accept this project, with direction and photography credited to Tisse, script to Alexandrov, and editing to Eisenstein.
Mind you, to say Eisenstein worked on editing is like saying Picasso worked as art director, and that’s why one occasionally finds the picture described as Eisenstein’s film. The film constructs its emotions and stories by linking hundreds of carefully framed shots, especially closeups. One sequence uses parallel editing to compare the hygienic conditions of a gleaming professional hospital with a slovenly matron’s back-alley apartment. Although this film is a talkie, most of it is handled as a silent film, one of sober documentary and didactic purpose.
The same earnest sincerity can be found in Wages of Sin, the grossly misleading US title for a recut and English-dubbed rendition of Der Arzt stellt fest or The Doctor Speaks Out, another film boasting an astounding array of artists for its sociology.
Director Aleksander Ford is the most significant Polish filmmaker of the mid-20th Century. His reputation for important drama and documentary was unshakable, though he’d soon find himself exiled from Poland. His films combined the prevailing Socialist-Realist imperatives with an elegant, sincere sense of style. That he should be tapped by for this Swiss-West German co-production from the heart of bourgeois Europe feels almost surreal and can perhaps be attributed to Polish-born co-producer Artur Brauner, a monumental figure in West German commercial cinema of the 1950s and ’60s.
Ford’s DP, Eugen Schüfftan, is among the most dazzling names in the history of cinematography. An Oscar winner for The Hustler (Robert Rossen, 1961), he’s most famous for the trick-mirror process that bears his name. Nothing in this film requires him to show off such giddy creativity, and he contents himself with a sleek, sharp, black and white Bauhaus geometry of the modern city.
Wages of Sin begins with a newsreel lecture on the Malthusian concept of population explosion, which provides a high-minded if morally questionable First-World-to-Third-World framework to discuss abortion, as historian Alexandra Heller-Nicholas points out in her excellent commentary. Much of the film will be straight-up science lecture, complete with animated illustrations on the uterus and various medical procedures, the better to render women’s messy bodies safely scientific and abstract.
The first scene of drama introduces our heroic young doctor, a beeper continually sounding in his breast pocket. He’s played by prominent Polish actor Tadeusz Łomnicki. US producer K. Gordon Murray had him dubbed by a very familiar voice known from all over 1970s American TV–so I’m sorry to confess that I haven’t been able to remember this character actor’s name. It’s on the tip of my tongue, but the slight Swiss accent throws me off. Nor has that impeccable minefield of research, the interwebs, been able to help me. I hang my head.
Our doctor is explaining to a distraught woman, pregnant with her fourth child, that she’s too healthy to be recommended for an abortion. As I’ve indicated, this scene replays, almost with the same dialogue, a similar scene in The Misery and Fortune of Women, although this time it refrains from having the doc jump up in the middle of his speech and, evoking Pontius Pilate, literally wash his hands of the issue.
This is the doomed woman in the story, destined to die at the hands of a sketchy quack as the story jumps between various pregnancy dramas, and now and then a gooey newborn is shown slipping into the world amid grating wails. As in the older film, this one huzzahs modern medicine and the men who perform its miracles upon women’s bodies in sterile sexless clinics.
Such themes were shared with the American “sex hygiene” movies explored elsewhere in this Blu-ray series. In fact, as Heller-Nicholas observes, the reason this perfectly high-minded drama could be so easily packaged on the exploitation circuit is that its tropes, symbols, arguments, and images so exactly echo the exploitation genre’s dance of legitimacy. The long history of earnest European sex instruction and propaganda films, going back to the silent era, parallels the exploitation films so closely that it can be hard to separate them at 20 paces.
I suspect that Murray re-edited the picture’s chronology, or else the dialogue took some liberties, because one scene finds our hero complaining to his wife about how a colleague upbraided him “at that trial”, and then we later see the abortionist’s trial, and still later we see the woman going to the abortionist and dying. Maybe it’s more avant-garde editing.
In Murray’s exploitation package, the feature was followed by a lecture that was actually a book-selling pitch, and then more recycled birth footage intended to edify the audience in search of information and queasy thrills. This extra material can be found among the bonuses. The original Swiss version would have been nice for comparison but perhaps that’s asking too much.
While the extras are historically interesting, the two features go beyond sociology footnotes into the realm of controversial topicality that hasn’t dated much. The continuing relevance shows why the realm of exploitation cinema–even in the case of films never conceived in those terms–tells us so much about our world. It’s icing on the cake when the films are well-made too.