Kanopy Film Project: Death of a Salesman (Volker Schlöndorff, 1985)

This week’s Kanopy choice was prompted by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s extraordinarily beautiful and complex film Salesman, which just won the Academy Award for best foreign-language film. Farhadi’s story unfolds in the life of two actors, a husband and wife, performing in a contemporary Iranian revival of Arthur Miller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1949 play, Death of a Salesman.

This 1985 television production of Miller’s masterpiece, by German director Volker Schlöndorff (best known for his film version of Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum), is one of the few films that have won 100 percent ratings by Rotten Tomatoes – which is to say that all of the reviews of the film consolidated by the site were favorable (though there were only eight). One reason for that achievement was Dustin Hoffman’s reprise of his performance as Willy Loman in the 1984 Broadway revival. He is joined here by a phenomenal supporting cast, including Steve Lang and John Malkovich.

I don’t think one has to have seen or read Miller’s play to appreciate Farhadi’s film, which explores a relationship between text and life that is complicated, surprising and ironic. But it adds a dimension that Farhadi probably wanted resting in the back of the viewer’s mind. As artists performing under the eye of an authoritarian regime (whose censorship is frequently referenced in the film), Farhadi’s characters mirror Miller’s experience with political repression, as a left-wing playwright persecuted during the McCarthy era.   And like Farhadi, Miller often explored political issues indirectly (as in his 1953 allegory of McCarthyism, The Crucible); in this case approaching the disappointment and tragedy at the heart of American capitalism obliquely, through family melodrama.

This is the fifth in a series of weekly films selected and introduced by Film Studies faculty from the Kanopy streaming service subscribed to by Schaffer Library. You can access the Kanopy service so long as you are on campus or using the college VPN: at https://union.kanopystreaming.com.

(Notes by Andrew Feffer, History)

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