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Greed, corruption, ignorance, and disease. Midsummer, 1349: the Black Death reaches northern Germany. Minstrels go to Hamelin for the Mayor's daughter's wedding to the Baron's son. He wants her dowry to pay his army while his father taxes the people to build a cathedral he thinks will save his soul. A local apothecary who's a Jew seeks a treatment for the plague; the priests charge him with witchcraft. One of the minstrels, who has soothed the Mayor's daughter with his music, promises to rid the town of rats for the fee. The Mayor agrees, then reneges. In the morning, the plague, the Jew's trial, and the Piper's revenge come at once. Written by
Neither musical nor children's film but a grim fable
Jacques Demy's The Pied Piper is neither musical (though there are three songs) nor children's film, more an almost resigned fable about the foibles of human nature. The Piper isn't even the main character. Rather it's an ensemble piece, with the town of Hamelin, with all its pettiness and everyday corruptions, that takes centerstage. It's the kind of film that could only have been made in the 70s, set in a vividly realised medieval world that at times threatens to make Monty Python and the Holy Grail look glamorised, though it doesn't revel in the filth or the grotesque. Aside from the travelling players, almost everyone is out for whatever they can get - even Donovan's piper, for all his hippie folkie songs (and there are only three of them) wants a thousand gilders for a spot of pest control he knows won't prevent the plague from coming to Hamelin, while Donald Pleasance's baron won't pay up because he's bankrupting himself buying his way out of Hell by building a cathedral for the Church. The Church would much rather he provided them with troops for another civil war ("The Pope wants a new emperor because the emperor wants a new Pope."). Even the nominal love interest is far from a Disney princess, but the Burgomaster's bored young daughter bartered to the baron's callous son (John Hurt) for political power by her father (Roy Kinnear) and for a bit of adultery with the husband-to-be by her mother (Diana Dors). It's not so much a portrait of superstition versus reason as one of superstition versus superstition with the hint of the seed of reason that may take generations to flower: as Michael Hordern's Jewish alchemist tells his inquisitors, where once he had hoped the world would learn from his discoveries, now he can only hope the world learns from their mistakes.
The film isn't entirely successful by any means, but it's constantly fascinating and even manages not to seem as clumsy as most Euro-puddings - in this case an English picture (one of David Puttnam and Sandy Lieberson's first) directed by a Frenchman and shot in Bavaria on some excellent locations - probably because it keeps the cast almost entirely British so there's no jarring clash of accents. Donovan's not exactly a great actor but he's mostly harmless as the Piper (although his wardrobe isn't terribly pied), though he's infinitely less hopeless than Patsy Puttnam in a thankfully brief role as the player's wife. Jack Wild shows his limitations as the most famous cripple in fairy tales, Richard Eyre has a nice turn as an increasingly disillusioned pilgrim, Peter Vaughn brings the church into disrepute as a pragmatic Bishop and it's strangely appropriate to see John Hurt playing Pleasance's son considering the way his career has evolved into a modern-day Pleasance's as a stock feature in undemanding low-budget movies.
Long out of circulation, Legend's extras-free Region 1 NTSC DVD isn't a great transfer but it's acceptable enough considering the film's rarity and Paramount's disinterest in releasing it themselves. In France the film is available in an English-friendly 10-disc boxed set of Demy's features. Very unusual and worth a look.
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