Lockdown watch: Mark Cousins on why he's only seeing films from 1940

Mark Cousins

For absolutely no good reason, I’ve decide that the theme of my quarantine should be the number 40. To pretend to keep fit, I’ve been doing 40 sit-ups and 40 weight-lifts a day. I did an online talk for film students and called it 40 Days to Learn Film. And I decided that, in my free time, I’d watch films released in 1940.

I skipped the famous ones – Hitchcock’s Rebecca, Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story, etc – because I’d seen those and I seldom watch a film twice. I wanted to know what I didn’t know about movies in 1940. I wanted an adventure. I feel alive when I’m discovering something new.

My first try was Son of Ingagi, a schlocky African American horror flick about a woman who keeps an ape-man in her basement. It is inept and visually flat, and I got a kick out of it as a predecessor of blaxploitation.

Next was a Russian family film, Vasilisa the Beautiful, which starts bucolic then spirals off into the magic realms of a gnarly forest, backward walking cows, a rat man and a massive three headed dragon. It’s naively, fantastically charming and extravagant.

My third choice from 1940 is a masterpiece: Mikio Naruse’s Travelling Actors, a poetic comedy about two kabuki performers playing the front and back of a horse. The fourth was even more of a discovery, a beautiful film about a little girl who gets lost in Moscow. Streets ahead of the Shirley Temple films of the same period, it was directed by one of the first female film-makers, Tatyana Lukashevich, and ends with the line: “Mama, let’s get lost together tomorrow.” Wow.

Next up for me is the Austrian musical Operetta, directed by Willi Forst. I love getting lost in 1940. Mexico, Japan, the US, Britain, France, Russia, India – so many countries were making films then. Often they were comedies, or utopian stories about everyday life. I feel I’m travelling the world from my sofa, just as I did as a boy when the movie magic casement first opened up to me on TV.

If these discoveries continue, if my picture of 1940 builds, then I think I know what tattoo I’ll get when the crisis ends: “40.”