Despite the fact that Sir Mix-A-Lot’s knighthood is clearly invalid, I’ve still opted to quote him because his long/strong/down to get the friction on line from the timeless “Baby Got Back” perfectly pertains to several fantastic bits of cinema. These are films that show up on “Greatest” lists all the time. They’re influential, and some of the best movies ever made. They’re also, unfortunately, endurance tests that require 4 hours or more of viewing. In at least a few cases, it’s best to think of them as a mini-series, viewed an hour or two at a time. Here’s my checklist of insanely long movies that I have seen or that I intend to see.
La Roue (1923)
Not surprisingly, Abel Gance’s 4.5 hour sweeping silent French epic about… um… wheels is very challenging. But it’s also incredibly rewarding. Gance’s camera techniques were mind-blowing, the narrative structure is neatly organized, and the symbolism is rich. I can’t deny that I was gasping for air around the 3 hour mark, but the film’s conclusion was satisfying.
Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980)
Fassbinder’s “15-1/2 hour episodic exploration of the character of Franz Biberkopf” (IMDb’s plot description) was cut into bite-size portions of an hour to an hour and a half apiece. It took me a few weeks, as watching nearly 16 hours all at once would have been insanity. I wrote in greater depth about it upon completion last June. What impresses me about it, in hindsight, is how well Fassbinder paced everything. You can clearly delineate Biberkopf’s character arc by whichever one of his many women he’s involved with at the time. When you’ve got 16 hours to play with, displaying a gradual descent into madness takes a deft touch. Jump the gun, and you’re left with several hours of useless footage. Take too long, and you’ll lose your audience.
The Sorrow and the Pity (1969)
When I first mentioned that I had seen this film, my friend laughed and said, “That sounds like one of those movies they’d go to the theater to see on Seinfeld“. At 251 minutes, it’s not at all for the faint of heart. What makes it so impressive to me is the totality of the subject covered. For four hours, you get to see the occupation in France via the perspectives of politicos, Germans, Nazi sympathizers, resistance fighters, the British, the Jewish, collaborators, informants, the man on the street… just about any type of person involved in the Nazi occupation of France is interviewed. Director Max Ophuls weaves propaganda films from the era with interviews and other footage to paint a painstakingly detailed portrait of mistrust, xenophobia, anti-semitism, paranoia, and raw apathy in the face of evil. It’s a telling film that portrays a France that was politically splintered, and ripe with unstable politics.
Fanny and Alexander (1982)
Bergman created two versions of his most autobiographical work- a theatrical cut, and a television mini-series. The mini-series includes everything from the theatrical version plus a whopping two extra hours, for a grand total of five hours. Just when I thought Bergman couldn’t knock me off my feet any more because I’d seen so much of his work, it happened again. The extra two hours allowed Bergman to flesh out the ancillary characters more and it gives the film a much larger punch. That’s quite a feat, considering how much of a punch was packed into the theatrical version to begin with. Additionally, there are some artistic scenes that ended up on the cutting room floor in the transfer from TV to theatrical. As great as the theatrical version was, the TV version was that much better. If you’re trying to decide which version to watch and you haven’t seen either, do yourself a favor. Spend the extra two hours and go for the TV version.
Gone with the Wind (1939)
At just under four hours, this is one of the shorter films on the list. Gone with the Wind is a must-watch for movie nerd street cred, the stunning visuals, and the heart of the story is excellent. I’ll confess, Scarlett O’Hara might be my least favorite movie character of all-time but there’s no denying her endurance in cinematic history.
Gance strikes again, this time with a technically innovative masterpiece. There are several versions, each of varying length. The copy that I saw was “only” 240 minutes, right at four hours. But there are 5+ hour versions available somewhere in the world. I couldn’t believe how quickly the four hours went, and Gance unveiled one new camera trick after another as the film unfolded. “Impressive” comes to mind as the best adjective to describe this movie and it instantly rose towards the top of my personal list of favorites.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Nobody did the sweeping epic quite like David Lean. The list of Lean films includes The Bridge on the River Kwai, 161 minutes; Doctor Zhivago, 197 minutes; The Greatest Story Ever Told, 199 minutes; A Passage to India, 164 minutes; and Ryan’s Daughter, 195 minutes. Perhaps his best was Lawrence of Arabia, which comes in at a tidy 216 minutes. Lean’s acting troupe- Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn, and Alec Guinness- shines brightly, as does the cinematography. One of the first extremely long film selections that I watched was also one of the films that made me realize just how much you could get out of the experience.
There’s also a batch of incredibly long films that I haven’t seen, but intend to see. I recently came into possession of the 10-hour film serial, Les Vampires (1915). With any luck, I’ll tackle it in the next few weeks.
The uncut version of Das Boot (1981) weighs in at 293 minutes and is a noticeable gap in my film-viewing.
The standard version of Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900 is 245 minutes, and the uncut version is over 5 hours. I’ll attempt to tackle it at some point.
The Human Condition (1959) is a trilogy of films that times out at a whopping 579 total minutes, placing it around Les Vampires and Berlin Alexanderplatz as the longest items on the list.
I made a very weak attempt at tackling Louis Malle’s 6-hour documentary, Phantom India (1969). I cracked the two hour mark but no further despite the high quality of the documentary. I will finish it some day.
Shoah (1985) comes in at 9 1/2 hours and may be the most gut-wrenching film on the list. 9 1/2 hours of Holocaust survivor interviews, while obviously important, will not be an easy watch.