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Ken Russell influences


Russell, Fritz Lang and others

Russell was born in the year that two influential films came out- The Jazz Singer which brought synchronised speech to the movies, and Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

Lang's Metropolis was used by Russell in a number of films, most explicitly in Aria...

Fritz Lang Metropolis  Ken Russell Aria

...but its influence on Russell goes much further


Fritz Lang     Ken Russell

Fritz Lang Metropolis   Ken Rusell The Devils

from the massive outer walls of Metropolis and Loudun (The Devils)...

Fritz Lang Metropolis     Ken Russell The Devils

...to the inner arches and white brick

Fritz Lang Metropolis     Ken Russell Savage Messiah

and the studio of Gaudier in Savage Messiah.

Metropolis Lang     Ken Russell The Music Lovers

The Music Lovers when Tchaikovsky becomes his own statue on the pedestal

Fritz Lang Metropolis     Ken Russell Tommy

and Daltry undergoing treatment in Tommy

Fritz Lang Metropolis     Ken Russell Tommy Ken Russell Gothic

Tommy and Gothic on the rooftops

Fritz Lang Metropolis     Ken Russell Lisztomania


Fritz Lang Metropolis     Ken Russell Lourdes


Fritz Lang MetropolisFritz Lang Metropolis Ken Russell Salomes Last Dance

The robot Maria seduces with eyes and gestures as does Salome

Fritz Lang Metropolis   Ken Russell The Music Lovers

Running through rain (Metropolis) or fireworks (The Music Lovers)

Fritz Lang Siegfried     Ken Russell The Lair of the White Worm

The snake of Siegfried being killed comes back as a direct reference in The Lair of the White Worm

Fritz Lang Siegfried     Ken Russell The Lair of the White Worm Ken Russell Mahler

Lair and Mahler

Siegfried by Fritz Lang     Elgar by Ken Russell

The famous image of Elgar on the horse can find its inspiration in Siegfried

Fritz Lang Siegfried     Ken Russell The Lair of the White Worm Ken Russell Gothic

A figure silhouetted in a doorframe walking down stairs or along a corridor is a favourite Russell shot (Lair, Gothic and most Russell films)


Metropolis has a religious message as the people turn from the faith (Maria) to idolatry (the robot Maria), but the workers reject the new hedonism (Tommy's we're not going to take it) and the films ends, just as The Devils, with a public execution by burning as the walls of the city collapse.

And like Russell, Lang can get a brilliant performance from an inexperienced actress (Brigitte Helm playing Maria and the robot was 17 years old), and despite this both have a reputation for being unable to handle actors.

Although Lang's career after Metropolis (1927) lasted up to 1960, it was the early silent Lang that Russell is influenced by. The films Russell saw in his youth.


Early cinema

Russell mentions in his book The Lion Roars his other influences: Cocteau, René Clair, Vigo and Orson Welles.

Cocteau Ruy Blas     Ken Russell The Devils

Two inquisitions: left Jean Cocteau's Ruy Blas and right The Devils

Albert Lamorisse The Red Balloon     Ken Russell The Lair of the White Worm

His major amateur film Amelia and the Angel is a remake of The Red Balloon (left) by Albert Lamorisse and owes much to Jean Cocteau.

And in Salome's Last Dance the scenery is a direct tribute to the film pioneer Georges Méliès, as is the film shown on television in Lair of the White Worm.  Ken's Salome with the artificial moon and clouds...

Ken Russell Salomes Last Dance

...and the scenery in the 19th century films of Meliés.

Melies Voyage to the Moon



Borrowing and lending

The amateur film Peepshow is a version of Robert Wiene´s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Russell used the structure of Orson Welles´ Citizen Kane in Valentino and Lion's Mouth. Billion Dollar Brain included a modern version of the soldiers crossing the frozen lake then crashing under the ice, from Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky (1938), though this was mentioned in the original novel.

At times Altered States suffers in comparison with the "psychedelic" sequences of 2001 A Space Odyssey, conversely Kubrick borrowed a memorable image from Russell's Song of Summer.

Ken Russell Song of Summer Delius 2001 A Space Odyssey

The hut by the lake bursting into flames which starts Ken's Mahler.

Ken Russell Mahler   Ken Russell Mahler


Coppola pays homage in the opening of Apocalypse Now!

Apocalypse Now!

Apocalypse Now!

and Tarantino in Kill Bill vol 1

Ringo Starr in Lisztomania   Kill Bill Vol 1

Ringo Starr (left) as the pope in Lisztomania and Kill Bill (right) by Tarantino 28 years later.



Ken Russell Gothic The credit sequence of Gothic (1986), with the camera slowing zooming into a skull is a weaker copy of John Carpenter's Halloween (1978) with the camera closing in on the Halloween pumpkin. Hohn Carpenter Halloween
Ken Russell Altered States Altered States (left, 1980) and Kenneth Anger's The Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome from 1954 (right). Kenneth Anger The Inaugeration of the Pleasure Dome

The storm scene in Gothic (1986) when the tree is hit by lightning and bursts into flame is similar to the storm/tree sequence in Poltergeist (1982).

In his 1974 review of Wicker Man (in Films and Filming) Alexander Stuart says "the burning sequence... ends up a poorly executed parody of Russell's The Devils".

Ken Russell Lisztomania

Passing references in Russell's films include Charlie Chaplin (Lisztomania, left), Death in Venice (Mahler, right), Citizen Kane (The Lair of the White Worm), Frankenstein (Listzomania, Tommy) and The Jazz Singer (Mahler).

Ken Russell Mahler



Ken's early films had the same snappy editing as Dick Lester (A Hard Day's Night). He cites Orson Welles (Citizen Kane) and Alfred Hitchcock as a major influence. Directors influenced by Russell include Derek Jarman. Russell is probably unique in combining imagery with commercialism. Whereas Kenneth Anger can bring in more striking images (The Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome) and Jarman is at times more controversial (Sebastian) and daring (Blue) neither can produce a film that the general public wants to see. Women in Love is an example where Ken has mainstream success with a film that includes homo-erotic imagery.

Conversely conventional mainstream directors such as Attenborough and Spielberg end up making staid films. And in the period that David Lean took to make a single film after Ryan's Daughter, Russell made nine cinema films, four television films and four operas.

Fritz Lang

Fritz Lang Metropolis

Fritz Lang and Metropolis

Jean Cocteau and La Belle et La Bête

Cocteqau La Belle et La Bete

Jean Cocteau

Orson Welles

Citizen Kane

Orson Welles and Citizen Kane

Dick Lester and A Hard Days Night

A Hard Days Night

Richard Lester

Derek Jarman

Derek Jarman Wittgenstein

Derek Jarman and Wittgenstein

Kenneth Anger and The Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome

Inaugeration of the Pleasure DFome Kenneth Anger


Maverick directors

Perhaps two directors come closest to Russell's talent and maverick ability. Robert Altman has a background in TV (Bonanza) and mainstream success (M*A*S*H) combined with experimentation (Nashville). And Jean Luc Goddard has Russell's eye for colour and the visual (Weekend). All three are on the Aria set of short films.

A recent example of a film that owes a lot to Ken Russell is The Cell.

Even Ken's worst film (Mindbender) contains an image of beauty. And his best films are jam-packed solid with them.


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