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The Camera Moves #3: Caravan (Charell, 1934)

How a tracking shot saved Europe.
In honor of Béla Tarr's The Turin Horse, three successive shots from another film of lavish absurdity, tracking shots, and gypsies, Erik Charell's Caravan (1934), with Charles Boyer and Loretta Young. The first two shots are each about two minutes long; the last about eight seconds, but in a movie that seems mostly made up of minutes-long tracks, every cut becomes more significant as Charell suggests he might have just left his camera running. In Caravan, even when the camera is still, Charell, rather than cut, tends to triangulate the composition among actors whose small gestures of hands and eyes flit about from one to another: a minute choreography that keeps the viewer's eye tracking and the point of focus fluctuating through latent lines of motion.
Other sequences in the movie are even more audacious conceptually: one follows a supporting character slipping in and out of a past memory as she walks around the room; another reverses The Turin Horse's opening shot in an extended nighttime sequence from the carriage, first behind its passengers, then imperceptibly assuming their position behind its horses, as Charell's camera-eye pirouettes back and forth in a concourse of dancing, grape-crushing gypsies lining the side of the road. But the above shows the exact limits Charell applies in his spatial logic. 
Lithe as the choreography is, Charell, a student of Max Reinhardt, depends on a strict order to get an open effect: his shots usually start like Ophülsian unities, matching characters' gaits as the camera's own for a certain few moments of grace, a measure of the song or lovers' seclusion—but, unlike Ophüls, then continue onward in the movement or double back on it after the song has changed or the character disappeared. So even the scene's focus can slip away, only to reemerge just as the camera completes its movement and establishes a neat unity to the scene there all along.
The camera movement extends from the characters' long after the characters have dispersed; Charell extends entire sequences from lines of motion. But despite his unities of time and space within a shot, in a kind of catch-release effect, his cuts can displace the characters into the culmination of a scene minutes later—even as a song continues steadily, and even as the character moves in continuity, as if every step they take propels them closer to their fate. It can take a minute to realize these are jump cuts. Almost all of Caravan seems to grow out of the sequence in his first film, The Congress Dances, as a common girl, in the space of a song, sings her way across a countryside of bouncing peasants into a castle, princess' clothes, and new-bought destiny.
So a bubbly filmmaker betokens some strange similarities to the buoyant, spectacular Tarr of The Turin Horse: a Tarr facing the same fractured fairy tales of Lubitsch not with Lubitsch's syncopation and synecdoche, but real-time sequences of the most unreal things. As in Tarr, a continuous camera movement can starts off following a character, quickly corral the entire the scene into its line of motion, and end by panning in figure eights around an axis of track-ins and -outs that seem to carry the scene forward, literally, even when nothing is progressing on-screen.
In the above sequence, it is up to the camera, somehow, to visually carry the sonic force of the gypsies' song as it deflects a marching army, then insinuates itself among soldiers until the whole parade of Aryan officers and dark gypsies are ushered into a twirling carouse: somehow, what Charell's camera does with literal force, as if it were the song itself. In shot one, the camera only moves forward and then back, repelled by the gypsies' violins against arms; this line of movement follows one army, then leads another of showgirls back, only to reveal Boyer as the hidden focus of both parts. A cut so the camera can change course: following the whirligig of officers and gypsies, the camera opens up, in a long 360 degree pan rotating even as the camera descends a palace staircase and moves to the entryway—again pushing forward and pulling back all at once. Shot three abstracts the scene into a perpetual moment, signaled only for a few instants: a summary of the scene as conclusion. And thus, as in Tarr, the nonsense is consecrated.
Caravan was Charell's second film, and first American production; Dreyer had already edited Vampyr, he said, in response to the SA on the streets outside, and in Vienna, Berg was writing Lulu. In Charell's native Germany, Nazi sterilization orders against anyone leading a "gypsy lifestyle" had gone into effect in 1933. The power of violins and tracking shots against bayonets and institutions turned out to be too wonderful even for Hollywood: Fox suppressed its mega-production for months and eventually—it's said—released the film only in France. It's been suppressed ever since; Charell was 39 or 40 when he made it, and it would be his final film.
***
Very special thanks to Dave Kehr.
Very nice. Thank you. A lovely blend of history and technical insight. I’ve always felt Tarr’s long tracking shots are ultimately about cinema in it’s purest form, i.e. he is showing us something that can only be conveyed cinematically. I got a little bit of that sense in Shot 2 here, when the camera starts descending the stairs. Mainly, though, I thought these shots were meant to serve as POV-like angles, to put us in the action. Comparatively, Tarr’s camera is the ultimate objective view.

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