A site devoted to the exploration of the moving image.

Location: Germany

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Windows on Monday

Montag kommen die Fenster
(Ulrich Köhler / Germany / 2005)

“Are they dead?”
“No, they are just sleeping.”
“I think they are dead.”

Sometimes the beginning of a film already sums up everything that is going to follow. The first moments of “Windows on Monday” reveal to us the world through the eyes of a child. A hospital, patients resting in their beds, and the first line of dialogue spoken by young Charlotte. An innocent question, which is nevertheless emblematic for the whole movie.
What is it here in Germany (and it’s not only Germany) that gives you the impression that some of the people have become the living dead when you are walking through town? That if you’d try to talk to them they would probably keep on staring while realizing that they have lost the ability to speak. Something they probably haven’t noticed for a long time. That I am not alone in my perception of our present-day society, can be witnessed in numerous films by a new generation of German filmmakers whose films need to be seen.

Germany 2005. A normal life, a normal couple. Nina works as a doctor, her husband seems to have quit his job. They have a bright young daughter and are building a new house. Money isn’t the problem. She may be getting pregnant, though. Some movies need a second chance. When I watched “Windows on Monday” for the first time at the Berlinale in 2006, I was already a firm believer in the talents of Ulrich Köhler, an emerging new talent, who already startled the movie world (or the ones who were paying attention) with his first feature-film in 2002. But although assured by the mastery of Köhler’s direction through a couple of rewatches of his masterpiece Bungalow and his earlier student film Rakete (1999) – both available on an excellent subtitled DVD from the German quality label "Filmgalerie 451" – I still wasn’t prepared for the impact which “Windows on Monday” would have on me. It’s not so much the possibility that Köhler has changed his style (I think he hasn’t) or that I didn’t like the movie. It’s simply the fact that you shouldn’t watch certain films when you are depressed. As the film has finally been officially released into german cinemas, I decided that my initial reaction to it needed some balance. What can I say after I’ve seen it again? The second viewing not only reaffirmed the qualities of the film, but was also a pleasant experience in itself. Next time I watch a film by Ulrich Köhler it will hopefully be in a relaxed frame of mind.

Although his films seem to be treading the surprise formula, the biggest surprise may be that nothing much seems to be happening. People come people go, they eat, they @#%$, they talk, and more than anything else they walk. Movement is the only constant in Köhlers work, where everybody seems to be connected with everybody else, but even the characters aren’t able to decide what it is exactly, this unseen bond between people. In this way, Köhler's cinema might be related to the mysteries of Jacques Rivette. The relations between people are the focus of the films, as well as the search for meaning in their lifes. The characters aren’t able to figure out what they want. Having only a vague idea of their dislikes they practice rebellion. But a rebellion that seems to be related more against the self. There is the sense of being trapped in something one doesn’t understand, and the world has become unfamiliar as the usual strategies of perception seem to lose their absoluteness.

What if we don’t follow the rules anymore, what if we choose to ignore the structures of society? What if? Köhler isn’t interested in revolutions. His protagonist’s acts seem more as a reworking of a situation, opening up a parallel world because of an extra step which has been taken. When Nina leaves her family she simply does it. There are no grand gestures, no dramatic scenes in the usual sense. The spilling of blood happens between the images. What’s left is silence. It’s hard to decipher emotions when a face appears motionless, the body only functioning in its basic routine. Still, there are moments when you notice a change, a slight adjustement to each singular situation. With the beginning of Köhler’s films, the movement has begun.

The camera keeps following the characters, observing them, and showing us what they are observing in return. But an explanation isn’t given. Another act of rebellion, this time from the filmmaker himself. Ulrich Köhler avoids simple explanations. His cinema is rational in the best sense, as he doesn’t pretend to know more about the characters than they do themselves. As such, it is up to the viewer to decide - if he wants to decide at all that is.

If we ask what reality is, Köhler maybe answers that it is something which happens and which we can change through our actions. But can we change ourselves? When the Windows arrive, they are the wrong ones. And as our characters follow a funeral, the question remains.
Death is not a solution.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Monte Cristo

Monte Cristo
(Henri Fescourt / France / 1929 / 223 min.)

Alexandre Dumas’ tale “The Count of Monte Cristo” first appeared in France in the middle of the 19th century. Published in a newspaper (something that was common practice for many writers in the 19th century, including Dostoevski), it was instantly a huge success and hasn’t gone out of print ever since. Considered a popular novel at the time of its writing it has come to be regarded as one of the best novels of the 19th century, as well as being included in many canons of world literature.
In the 20th century there have been numerous adaptations of this novel for the cinematic medium, though none of them have received any special attention outside of the time of their making. Although I have only seen a few of the many film versions - imdb lists over 50 titles associated with the novel, the earliest from 1908 – I assume that the lack of critical interest is connected to the modest qualities of the films themselves. The (mostly commercial) decision of condensing the plot of a novel that is over 1000 pages long in its printed format into a movie with a running time of only a few hours, along with a cinematic tradition which regards film as a mere illustration of a written text, has lead to many problems in the history of adaptations of Dumas’ work for the screen. Unfortunately Henri Fescourt’s Monte Cristo (1929) is no exception.

Following mostly the adventures of Edmond Dantes, the film is split into two parts with an overall running time of approximately four hours. While it remains mostly faithful to the written text, the film often falls into the trap of following it too closely without adding much of its own, although there are some moments and tableaus which enrich the story and add a fresh perspective to it. On the other hand, the producers have decided to leave out some of the underplots of the original novel, focusing plot-wise on the “important” events, which results in a rather dull retelling of the well known story. But the shortcomings of the film can’t be found in its faithfulness to the text, or the reinvention of certain moments. As can be expected, the problem lies in the presentation of these events.
As a silent film, most of the attraction naturally lies in the visual presentation. Being one of the last European big-budget productions during the advent of sound, the film affords the luxury of employing four cameramen, one of them having already worked on a serial of the same story in the 1910s. Alongside impressive shots of nature on the island of Monte Cristo and of ships at sea, the talented crew also hasn’t any problems when it comes to the characters interactions. Large crowds of people are rendered as successfully as intimate moments between tow lovers. There is even a remarkable sequence involving a murder, clearly inspired by the expressionist film, which also displays some fine editing. But while the visual poetics of the camera are in certain moments used to a staggering effect, the direction lacks the energy and imagination needed to sustain our interest throughout the entire film. Transferring such a visually imaginative writer like Dumas to the screen is a huge task, and Fescourt’s direction is lacking the courage to be original. What we get instead is a rather lifeless distillation of the novel’s narrative chord. If I return for example to the sequence depicting the murder of a public servant, the clumsy direction doesn’t match the cinematography and the editing. The timing feels somehow wrong when Fescourt tries to achieve some suspense in it, dragging out certain moments far too long. This lack of a successful rhythmic structure for the film can be felt in many scenes. A lot of times things happen too fast, with scenes being cut short, while in other moments we are stuck on events and treated to numerous different positionings of the camera that serve no apparent purpose.
A lot of the money probably also went into the interesting set pieces, and Boris Bilinsky who can be credited as being responsible for the look of the film did a very good job. The chosen locations are presented in a way that gives the viewer an authentic feeling of seeing early 19th century France come to life, stimulating his imagination in various ways. The costumes are also remarkable and add further life to the characters - something Bilinsky also managed successfully in Alexandre Volkoff’s Casanova (1927).
The cast assembled for this film is of varying quality. The most interesting for me was Lil Dagover who is probably familiar to most viewers because of her role in Robert Wiene’s Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari / 1920). She often plays with a restraint that wasn’t common in silent cinema and she is able to express a lot through her eyes. Some of the supporting actors are noteworthy, mainly Henri Debain in the role of Carderousse and Robert Mérin as his stepson, while others are carrying more or less the same expression on their face throughout the film (e.g. Gaston Modot who plays Fernand de Mortcerf, one of Dantes’ enemies). The bad thing is that Jean Angelo who is playing our hero Edmond Dantes and is clearly too old for the role in the first part of the film, tends to the latter. In my opinion, he has the charisma and acting abilities of a piece of wood, and the only reason I can imagine for him being chosen (besides his popularity and subsequent box-office appeal, which I will simply assume here) is the fact that he fits perfectly into the description of what we may call an honest and innocent french everyman. But while Dumas’ novel begins with this rather dull inscription, after the internment at the Chateau d’If his character goes through a transformation which will not only lead him to his outward freedom, but will turn him into a cynical and disillusioned individual after the discovery of the change in the personality of his former lover Mercedes and the life she has turned to. Jean Angelo isn’t able to display much of this on screen.

Dumas leaves the inattentive reader with an optimistic ending, in which Edmond turns his back to Marseille and its people after he has had his revenge, to travel the seas forevermore with his newly found Arabic love. But despite the skillful description of Edmond’s disentanglement from his past and the disclosure of a new perspective through his acceptance of the present - something which complements and counteracts the revenge plot - another reading of the farewell letter and the sudden departure reveals the hero’s virtual death - the noble humanistic instructions as the last words of a dying martyr. Through his death he redeems the other characters from their debt and their guilt. But isn’t this noblesse of character something which in its literally treatment verges on absurdity, and seems to mock the humanist ideals it has been promoting? Edmond Dantes, turned into some kind of Socrates after his revenge has been completed? What world is this, in which the only decent person (and the one who has gone through most of the suffering) has to sacrifice himself for the sake of others to fullfil an ideal of the enlightenment? Whatever the case might be, the novel isn’t able to resolve the inherent conflict in every human person between the forces of nature and the forces of his spirit (if I might put it this way), and it remains for the reader to decide if Dantes is all too human or the precursor of an idea which would culminate at the end of thentury in the creation of the “Ubermensch” in the writings of Nietzsche.

The complexities of these modulations can be seen only rudimentary in the film, and only in the way that they are inherent in the portrayed dynamics. This means they are present rather by accident than on purpose, and it is questionable if anybody noticed cared about it at the time of its first screening. The ending in the movie seemed to me to be a happy one, with the ambiguities from the book put aside. This isn’t a bad thing per se, but Fescourt executes it without much interest, having most of the important characters assembled in a room while Mercédès reads Dantès’ farewell letter to them. Clearly more important were the production values which can be appreciated immediately.

Although made in 1929, Monte Cristo isn’t a swan song for the silent film era. Occupying a place in the long history of adaptations of the novel, it doesn’t stand out and will probably remain only of historical interest as an example of the French film industries last silent large-scale production.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Wedding Director

Il regista di matrimoni
(Marco Bellochio / Italy / 2006)

A Wedding.

A religious ceremony, set in a church. The choir chants, the bride and bridegroom seem happy, and the guests are there. But when the camera notices the gloomy face of Franco Elica (Sergio Castellito) we suddenly realize that something must be amiss. The rest of this sequence will be a slow but steady descent into the banality and cruelty of our modern society in the setting of present day Italy.
We learn that Elica is a somewhat famous wedding director, and that’s even the role he is supposed to play in this particular event, while numerous cameras already pierce the bodies of the newlyweds, exposing their personas to the public, intruding into their privacy and threatening to take away their dignity. The intimacy Franco achieves through the use of a digital camera on the monitor is revealed to be a very repugnant act of voyeurism in reality. The beauty we see through Elicas eyes on the monitor, can be seen only in this restricted space, with the bigger picture revealing the ugliness which surrounds the moment. Maybe a desperate attempt from the director to resist the surrounding reality, what is ultimately exposed is not only the lie inherent in the event, but the falseness of cinema itself. At first a reason for utter despair, the other side of the coin is also the possibility of cinema to construct a different truth. When unable to reveal, the utopic goal of a reorganization of life, another kind of realization of the world, becomes desirable. An old dream that was already proclaimed during the 1920s by the likes of Dziga Vertov or Luis Bunuel. Marco Bellochio will prove to be an ardent follower of this visionary concept, though the 21st century remains a rough place for an idealist. The past 100 years of additional human experience haven’t made it any easier.
But before we get to see the light,. Bellochio pushess us even deeper into the mud. A shoe, pieces of lace, people stumbling into each others arms, a sentence whispered into Franco’s apathetic countenance. “I will never forget you” – the promise of an old lover. Still, the worst seems the wedding itself, the occurrence of the event in its totality. When the bridegroom doesn’t know you at the wedding of your daughter…

Elica is fed up with the world from the beginning of the film. Like a living dead he seems to barely manage to stay on his feet, keeping his mouth shut most of the time, and when it says something it seems like the epitome of half-heartedness. If his introduction in the film already revealed him to be disconnected from his surroundings, it becomes obvious pretty fast that he has also become disconnected from himself. Not knowing what he is actually doing, let alone why, he is a lost, dejected, estranged and completely @#%$ up shell of the person he once might have been. All of the awkwardness which can be felt during the first minutes of the film reflects this. As a viewer we are thrusted into this surreal situation, and the task which is set for the protagonist becomes our own. As he will be trying to find some sense in his life we will be doing the same.
At an audition a woman falls on her knees in front of his feet, in front of our feet. The line between fiction and reality gets blurred again, and just what exactly is the commentator on TV proclaiming this very moment? When the sound gets turned on we are informed that a famous director has just died. On top of all that Elica gets accused of raping an actress, something which is probably very close to the truth. The meaning of truth is another question which this film poses in an admirable way.

As life always moves in a spiral, we will get many beautiful fragments of it in Bellochio’s new film. Technically versatile, the expediency of the kinematic contraption in regard to the production design elements will be a delicate issue. The mixing of various narrative forms is accompanied by the use of a disrupted but interconnected system of different camera formats as Bellochio tries to adapt a sampling common in music to the possibilities of his film.
What else is there? Let me see. After Elica drops off the train at an unknown location, there will be a count, a princess, and yes, another wedding. But more important than the wedding is love itself. In the setting of this fairy-tale, Elica will attempt to recover it. Who would have believed it? There will be numerous resurrections, on various levels, and I even forgot to mention the castle and the fireworks, let alone the magical bonds of friendship. But it’s still a rough world, and poetry alone sometimes isn’t enough. Learning a lesson or two, our protagonist will also acquire a talisman when he meets a black guy on yet another train.
The poem itself will end on a train, though sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between an end and a beginning. Isn’t there always an ending in a beginning, or vice versa?

Contrary to Jean-Luc Godard, the cinema is alive with Marco Bellochio, it’s bursting with life, not only opening up spaces for reflection, but trying to open up life itself. Magic should be the one word to describe this film, when the unresolved ambiguities point not only to the mystery inherent in every cinematic experience, but to the mystery of life itself. For what else is this world, if not a chaotic mess where it’s hard trying to find any sense. Nevertheless, it’s well worth trying to do exactly that. Like Il regista di matrimoni, life is what you make of it.

The End.

Oh, but didn’t we forget something? Exactly – the question of Truth.
Bellochio’s answer makes for one of the most interesting you will be able to find at the cinema. What should I say in this humble review of mine, to give you an honest impression of it? Yes, you have probably already guessed it.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Pauline at the Beach

Pauline á la plage
(Eric Rohmer / France / 1982)

"A wagging tongue bites itself"

The third film in french director Eric Rohmer’s Comedies and Proverbs series, Pauline a la plage, was made in 1982 and discusses the romantic adventures of the titles protagonist, the fifteen year old Pauline (Amanda Langlet), and her older cousin Marion (Arielle Dombasle) during vacation.
The proverb placed at the beginning of the film, could apply to Marion, when she openly adresses the topic of love, after having met a former boyfriend as well as a new admirer on the beach, but in fact adresses the entanglements which will develop in the days following this event.

Besides the two cousins, Rohmer will introduce only four other characters to the viewer. Pierre (Pascal Greggory) Marion’s former lover and friend, finds out that he has still some strong feelings about her when they meet after five years. Marion has an unsuccesful marriage behind her, and also the bad habit of getting engaged with men with whom she seems to be a bad match. One such person is Henri (Féodor Atkine) who is a bit older than Pierre, and presented as something of an opposite to him. When Marion falls in love with him, he takes advantage of the situation but quickly gets tired of her, only to leave in the end. He is presented as a superficial and somewhat egoist person, who has had enough troubles in his life and has decided to enjoy himself in the future. À free-spirited person, he is reluctant to take on responsibilities for his actions. Sylvain (Simon de La Brosse), the love-interest for Pauline on the other hand is a more honest person, but with a notion of loyalty that will also leave him alone in the end.
The outsider to the quintett is the flower girl Louisette (Rosette). She has a life of her own, but is eager to get (sexually) involved with some of the men. As a character she is rather disposable, as she is used mostly as a catalyst for the plot, and an exemplar which Rohmer uses to emphasize the differing characterizations of the other protagonists.
Marion is contrasted with Louisette, a peddler who seems rather proletarian compared to Marion’s more sophisticated behaviour from what one would call in England “upper middle-class”. Nevertheless, Marion is more naïve than Louisette, who seems despite her lack of education (or maybe even intellect) witty and sure of herself. And she definitely knows what she wants – something Marion is not even close to. Pauline on the other hand, while still being a child, is presented as the most adult of the characters, the one who is most aware of her actions, and the one who will be changed most at the end.
Rohmer plays a game of appearances in which the attitudes of the characters and their ideas of themselves are contrasted with their actions. In the end, none of them are what they appeared to be at first, though after all is said and done there is usually not much to be found behind the appearances.

Unlike most of Rohmer’s films, Pauline a la plage was not shot in the academy aspect ratio (4:3 on TV’s) he is usually associated with. The cinematography by long time collaborator Nestor Almendros plays with some colors, mostly white and blue, which are contrasted quite often. His camerawork is also the one thing which brings some depth into a rather formulaic endeavour. While Rohmer at times seems to be rehearsing for another film, or trying out some rather old ideas, Almendros is always in control, giving the characters more nuanced performances through his placing of the camera while adding to the way that a situation can be interpreted. This is used in a good way at the very end of the film, where the first shot of the movie is being mirrored, and we get a sense of closure in a film where not much has been happening. Judging by the plot, which is definitely the movie’s weakest construct, there has been happening quite a lot. But the plot is cliched and the dialogue and the character’s behaviour often predictable. What elevated other films by Rohmer like the wonderful Conte d'automne (1998) or the breathtaking L’anglaise et le duc (2001) from “filmed theater” (if I might use this derogative term) was his extraordinary sense of pacing combined with the complexity of the characters expressed through their language as well as their surroundings. But the pace is too fast in Pauline a la plage, and there are very few scenes where nothing is happening to the characters and the beauty of the places and of nature can be felt to the full extent. When Pauline is walking through the garden, touching the flowers, or when we see some of the characters bathing in the sea, these are only glimpses of the wonderful “wandering” camerawork we are able to witness in Conte d'automne. But Rohmer could have also used the dramatic acceleration of events like in L’anglaise et le duc, where he achieved a gripping form of suspense when he contrasted them with a downplay of the sensational aspects of the story as well as the “de-dramatization” of the material through the underacting of the characters and the observing camera which could be seen as a silent commentator.

None of these strategies are fully developed in Pauline a la plage, making the film appear like a preparation for bigger things to come. If we compare this film with Rohmer’s Le rayon vert, which he made three years later in 1986, we can see a tremendous development. While the characters and situations in Pauline a la plage at times feel artificial and much takes place on the surface, Le rayon vert makes them come to life, and only a few hints are necessary in an even more compressed storyline, to make us aware of the richness and complexity of every single character, even when he is only a few minutes on screen. Seeing how these films play in two different leagues makes Pauline a la plage appear as somewhat of a failure. But that would be too harsh a term considering the expertness of its makers and the entertaining qualities of the film, which both cannot be denied.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

New German Films - Love, Money, Love

L’amour, l'argent, l'amour
(2000 / Germany, Switzerland, France / Philip Gröning)

Marie and David. Two loners. Both living in Berlin, both in the 20s, and both with a crappy job. He a scrapyard worker, she a prostitute. Employment at its lowest, with no future in sight, the moment being all one can think of, all one has to think of. The lowest of the working class. At least she gets a bigger amount of money than he does, and she can work anyplace – her kind is always wanted - and, even more important, there is no pimp in sight. So both are also self-employers in the worst of ways. What can come out of such a situation, such a constellation. A love story, probably a dedicated denouncement of society. Well, yes and no. What Gröning offers us instead of a melodramatic and cliché-ridden didactic play, is an essayistic and fragmented self-discovery trip towards inner freedom.

In her first acting role, Sabine Timoteo plays the seemingly self-assured but emotionaly troubled Marie who gets teased out of her shell through an insistent and sensitive human being, played by newcomer Florian Stetter. Though amateur actors, both give incredible performances, once again proving the importance of a talented director who brings the best out of both. Especially Timoteo, who delivers a performance that isn’t easy to stomach. Alongside other awards she deservedly won the Bronze Leopard for Best Actress at the 2000 Locarno Film festival. Besides the fabulous actors there is the remarkable camerawork of Sophie Maintigneux, who is maybe best remembered for her work on Eric Rohmer’s “The Green Ray”. She uses the 1:2.35 widescreen format not in a static way as one could expect, but is always on the move, generating an equivalent to the character’s inner unrest and giving the feeling of being on the road, always searching for something that keeps slipping out of reach.

When Marie runs into David during her working hours on the street both instantly fall in love. But as the characters themselves, Gröning keeps the viewer in an uncertainty regarding their feelings or motivations. Following a night after which David proposes that they both go on a trip, together, towards the sea the displacement of the characters becomes also more obvious. They don’t seem to fit in their environment, while merging ceaselessly with it. The locations keep changing, while the situations keep repeating themselves. After Marie has thrown David out of her apartment in the morning after both spent the night together, he visits her on the street. She seems both pleased and disturbed by his presence, once more rushing him off. A few days later it is she who storms into his apartment, finally starting the trip that will change both lifes’ forever. The game soon gets repetitive. New town, new people, new problems. Money, carelessly spent on the way has to be earned in a hard way. It doesn’t help much that in the course of the film David gets both arms broken. Soon Marie has to start working again, employing David as her pimp. But while Marie is more or less resistent to the luxuries money has to offer, she seems the whole film obsessed by it. For her it is some kind of fetish, an object that in represents all she is capable of achieving in a materialistic world. David on the other side, at first concerned about every cent, becomes less and less reluctant in spending it. Additionally there is the problem of physical contact. While both seem spiritually connected from the beginning, any physical or sexual contact that isn’t alienated from one’s feelings becomes a huge obstacle for Marie to overcome. They fight, split, reconcile, fight again, all the time victims of their surroundings and a system that keeps them locked and is supportive of their problems. But as the title suggest, in the end love overcomes all obstacles. Deprived of their car and their belongings, they are stranded at a forlorn seacost, where Marie finally regains her hope. She burns the remaining money and admits her love to David. What is left is the sea and the sky, and the changing of tides in the neverending flow of time.

The person in charge of the whole operation is clearly Philip Gröning. Besides directing and producing, he also edited the film, wrote the script and sometimes even did the camerawork . An auteur in the best sense, Gröning nevertheless doesn’t try to impose any personal “style” on the film, that keeps unfolding in a most natural way, seemingly born out of itself. The characters and the locations all exist in their own right, never giving the impression of a forced or ego-driven project. Fast-paced as the film appears, viewers might by irritated that the same director is also responsible for the three hour meditation about life and spirituality “Into Great Silence” that keeps touring the festival-circuit after having won The special jury Prize at last year’s Sundance Film festival. All the more credit to Philip Gröning for letting each film determine its own rhythm. Like Kurt, the dog David and Marie take with them everywhere they go, the very flexible camera follows each and every step of the protagonists, registering banal as well as intimate moments. Gröning is always the perfect observer. Never judging, never preaching, always showing. The love, the hate, the desperation, the alienation, the people, the landscape, coldness and warmth, sometimes from afar, and sometimes so near that it hurts. The shots presented are at once immediate and allegorical, the daily events gaining an importance and relevance that also transcends them. Out of the monotoneous repetition grows an awareness for the realities that cannot be grasped easily, cannot be categorized. If you only engage with it. Same goes for the viewers of this film. You won’t get any answers, but if you observe closely you might start giving them to yourself.

Featuring an eclectic mix of music, from Calixico and Snowpatrol over The Velvet Underground to Bob Dylan and even Mozart, the whole film can also be seen as a long fugue, an ode to life, and to its basic principles. Everything changes, everything is constantly in movement. And what can keep the whole together and offer some kind of sense could be love – for those who are able to find it.


I watched the film on a Region 2 DVD under the shorter title L’amour. Released in Germany by the company Epix it has German, English and French subtitles. Picture format is 1: 2.35, running time 124 min, and the audio track is optionally stereo or dolby digital 5.1. Extras are very extensive and include amongst others an alternative ending (c. 30 min), Interviews with the director, Behind the scenes, deleted scenes, the original treatment of the film, and the short film Sehnsucht by Tobias Müller. The extras are also subtitled. You can import the film via

New German Films (1990 - 2005)

Here's the german film thread that will concern itself with great films made in Germany from 1990 till 2005. I chose this timebracket, because not much attention has been given in or outside of Germany to the huge variety and quality of German films that have been made since the Unification. While in the 70s "New German Film" became known around the world and some of its directors were hailed like celebrities, the last fifteen years of filmmaking in Germany seem to have gone by unnoticed - hence giving the impression that there was nothing worth noticing.
This is as far from the truth as possible, as beside a huge mass-production of mainstream films, there have remained many artists at work whose output can be compared in terms of quality to that of any director working today. And besides the already established, there has emerged a wide variety of talented young filmmakers, comparable to the tendencies in other industrialist countries like Japan or South Korea. But it seems that as long as no label can be put on a country's output - no unifying tag, no "new wave" to be named - critics and filmfestivals tend to ignore them, focusing instead on more bankable regions, until another one comes along. Luckily, I don't get paid to write still another praise on the new Iranian cinema to remind even the most ignorant cineaste of what has been apparent for over 15 years now, but am instead free to focus on more important - which means ignored - issues. This thread is aiming to present such a neglected area.

I'm not a filmhistorian, and I'm also not the most knowledgable person when it comes to pointing out an evolution that has been taking place for over twenty years now, but after the supposed end of "New German Cinema" in the 80s (which btw. only included filmmakers from the western part of Germany) it has become apparent that if anything, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the unifiying of Eastern and West Germany has fueled the creativity of most artists working with film, leading them to seek new ways to relate to this historical situation. Though it may have taken some time until these events could have led to a view that wasn't neither "West" nor "East". The early 90s in Germany were thus cinematically not a blooming landscape. Though creativity surely wasn't missing, money was, and it took some measures until things improved economically. But suffice to say that this wasn't too big an obstacle for the most determined filmmakers, many of which chose TV instead of cinema to be at least able to realize some projects. However the exact situation, the amalgamation of "eastern" and "western" talent soon led to some artistic highpoints, which I will try to present here in the future.

Beside commercial cinema that was overall going its usual course with ups and downs every few years (the last years seem to indicate an up again), there remained filmmakers with their own personal vision which paved the way for a new generation. Michael Klier, Dominik Graf, Heinz Emigholz, Rudolf Thome, Hartmut Bitomsky or Elfi Mikesch are some of those who inspired younger artists to respond either in similar or opposed attempts of their own. Not to mention older German filmmakers who had left a rich cinematic legacy after they had stopped working.
Some of the new talents are already beginning to get a reputation, others are still struggling. To list a few names (only a selection): Achim von Borries, Tom Tykwer, Michael Hofmann, Sören Voigt, Phillip Gröning, Hans-Christian Schmid, Angela Schanelec, Christoph Schlingensief, Thomas Arslan, Ulrich Köhler, Benjamin Quabeck, Valeska Griesebach, Matthias X. Oberg, Andreas Dresen.

I have limited myself to the years 1990 - 2005, because I think that newer films will have it much easier, because a change of attitude has also become apparent. Films from Germany have started to tour the festival circuit more frequently during the last few years, and have garnered some awards and attention. And when the "Cahiers du Cinema" critics focused their attention on a couple of films from Berlin in one of their issues some time ago, this also lead to a rethinking of the quality of German cinema among the more ignorant writers at home. I'm not sure though if I can be overtly enthusiastic about this, as I still think the (recent) past needs a reminder.
I realize that this write-up of mine is very selective and insufficient in describing even the basic processes which were taking place in the area of film during the last twenty years in Germany. But this isn't its aim or purpose. I'm neglecting most of the negative trends and effects here, because more than enough has already been said and written about this. Anybody interested can look up the publications and writings on this subject if he or she wants to (and if the German language doesn't present too big a challenge). What I want, is merely to point out a few films and directors who made great films in Germany which were for the most part ignored. I think it is as important to appreciate what is, as the pointing out of faults and that which could have been but is not. Sadly I have the strong feeling that most of the critic activity of the past years concerning films and filmmakers in Germany has been focused on the negative side. Here I will hopefully succeed in presenting a counter-balance, so that everybody complaining about German films and their quality will be able to sit down and watch some of the worthwhile products of this "maligned" period. And as it is said that some of the best products usually aren't appreciated in the homecountry...
I strongly wish that at least some of the recent great german films will be recognized and appreciated in the future. Or maybe now and here by you.

In the late 90s, I was as disappointed and bored by German movies as the regular audience and the more inattentive cinephiles whom I was slowly becoming a part of. German films were for me either bad comedies or heady history-lessons without much entertainment value (not to speak of any artistic aspirations). Thus my initial surprise was huge, when I saw something worthwhile for the first time. 23 (1998) directed by Hans-Christian Schmid, was not only a good film with a good script, direction, camerawork, editing and acting, but it was also entirely made in Germany by Germans. This ray of light was for me shortly after followed by a viewing of Oliver Hirschbiegel's Das Experiment (2000)- which I sadly still didn't get the opportunity to revisit. While a couple of years ago it had only taken me to see Takeshi Kitano's Hana-Bi (1997) on TV to get converted to Japanese and World Cinema, German films needed some more attempts to denounce my doubts. But the search for more buried treasures had begun.
The final and last change came when one day by accident, I saw Matthias X. Oberg's Unter der Milchstraße (1995). I had taped it from TV purely out of curiosity over the title (and the fact that Christiane Paul played in it), and it had already been lying on my shelf with other unseen films for quite some time when I decided to give it a chance. I haven't seen the film in years, but at that time, it had seemed to me one of the greatest films I had ever had the joy to experience. In my eyes it was on the same level as some other excellent films from 1995, like Dead Man, Xich lo, To vlemma tou Odyssea or Underground. When I'll revisit the film for this thread, I hope I will be as inspired by its second viewing as I was by the first.
After this event I had an incredible stroke of luck with subsequent German films, culminating around 2004 with my having been able to experience three masterpieces at the Cinema. Heinz Emigholz' Goff in der Wüste (2003), Rudolf Thome's Frau fährt, Mann schläft (2004), and Angela Schanelec's Marseille (2004).

Other films that will be revisited and - if worth - presented here include:

Identity Kills (Sören Voigt / 2002)
Die Polizistin (Andreas Dresen / 2000)
Lichter (Hans-Christian Schmid / 2003)
Verrückt bleiben - verliebt bleiben (Elfi Mikesch / 1997)
Sophiiiie! (Michael Hofmann / 2002)
Bungalow (Ulrich Köhler / 2002)
Der Felsen (Dominik Graf / 2001)
Verfehlung (Heiner Carow / 1991)
Die tödliche Maria (Tom Tykwer / 1993)
Nichts bereuen (Benjamin Quabeck / 2000)
England! (Achim von Borries / 2000)
Madrid (Daphne Charizani / 2002)

I'm sure there will also appear some other unknown films which I too will be seeing for the first time. Along with the reviewed films, I'll try to give as much information as possible on the availability and content of a DVD or Video edition.

The beginning is going to make another revisit, L'amour, l'argent l'amour by Phillip Gröning, which began production in 1996 but was finished as late as 2000.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Two Films by Pierre Coulibeuf

Amour Neutre is from 2005 and concerns itsel with the relationship between man and woman. Two different couples - which can be seen as parts of a whole - are wandering through a forrest and a château during a misty autumn/winter day. Both seem lost and disconnected, talking about their respective relationships, using the same phrases over and over again. Lost in time and space, the film tries to deliver its message through a discontinuous editing that jumps from scene to scene, and through dialogues - superimposed as off-voices over long camera-takes of the surrounding landscape - which play out like monologues in the best tradition of Huillet/Straub. Added to this is a loop-like sampling of various scenes, repeating several numerous times and disrupting a flow based on analogy. Instead the rhythm resembles more an associative montage, the images beginning to talk to themselves, but always discontinued through the power of the director. A dialogue isn't possible, a monologue neither, a story in a traditional sense doesn't take place, but neither does a "traditional" theoretical discourse. What we have is always in between, as the characters say themselves numerous times. A Waiting for
something that never happens. Coulibeuf's films seem to be located in the currently popular discourse between "art" and "film", though for me these terms have no direct meaning. A film is a film is a film, while a discourse is often taking place only on sheets of paper . An interesting discourse - but nevertheless one that rarely concerns the filmic image per se. When I remember the two films, the things standing out most claerly are a feeling for beauty and a precision in the composition of the frame and the structuring of film in general, meaning a rare sense for aesthetics and rhythm. Speaking in more conventional terms, this is a director to look out for if you are a lover of the filmic image. The films are filled with a sensitivity for the absurdities of life in which melancholy and its counterparts are frequent visitors. Coulibeuf's comic pacing reminded me of Tati, and seemed to come out of an understanding of human beings in general, rather than being a remedy to spicing enclosed l'art pour l'art products. Thus what we have is a humanist auteur in the traditional sense that has fully arrived in the 21st century. Kind of a MTV-Generation Renoir and Marker, without the term's bad implications.

The second film was Balkan baroque (1999) that centers around the life and work of performance artist Marina Abramovic, it is a large private travelogue and filmic diary reported through the voice of Abramovic and showcased through numerous remarkably staged and choreographed performances. Just how much credit goes to Pierre Coulibeuf and how much to Marina Abramovic is anyone's guess, as it is clearly as much her film as his. Again the rhythmical structuring of the film is remarkable, but so is Abramovic herself. A tremendously energetic and photogenic woman, she seems always in control of her world, even when she is retelling tragic events that were out of her control at that time. The strategy of letting her reenact some of her life proves a fruitful endeavour, as the contrast between present and past is always evident. In this way, the viewer is always aware of the change that is constantly taking place in life. Born in 1946, through her life-story we also learn a bit about Yugoslav history. Her parents were both Partisans who came together under miraculous circumstances during WWII. This tale, which the director puts shortly before the end of the film, also shows a hint of forgiveness for the atrocities she had to endure from her communist parents as well as the "communist" state. Obviously a very sensitive person, her early years seem to have been characterized through an attitude of utter ignorance from her surroundings, concerning her nature and feelings. But as the Yugoslav society was being moulded she started working with her own body. That's what most of the performances are. Set against a stark white background, the stylized and ritualized performances concern themselves with "bodypolitics" that call to mind "Aktionskunst" from the 50s. Using her body as a canvas (in one scene she cuts the communist Red Star with a razorblade onto her stomach), she is at the same time personal and political, using the expressiveness and shock-value to talk about society in general. But as the performances in the film are a mixture of past and present, it is never exactly clear what is now and what was then. Only at the end are we reminded, as she herself expresses it in the last words of the film: "But that was then and this is now."

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Shuji Terayama

Just found some old notes on Terayama's shorts, which I had taken during the screening. It wasn't much, but it gave me back some of the feelings I had when I experienced them for the first time. Hopefully I'll get the possibility to see them again in the future. A DVD release would be a small wonder, but who knows what the japanese companies will try in the future. Most of the films are without dialogue anyway, so that would be an option. But I guess it's more a dream than an actual possibility.
Terayama himself was throughout his creative life surrounded by controversies and misunderstandings. Starting to write early in his life after a childhood full of complications and misery, Terayama in the beginning earned his life as a writer of broadcasts or theatric drama. But his interest in film was also developed early, and by the age of 25, he had already been responsible for the screenplays of some shorts.His first feature length film was the notorious Emperor Tomato Ketchup in 1970 which some accused of pedophilia. When he died at the early age of 49, he left a legacy of nearly 200 published literary works, over 20 short and full length films as well as numerous works of theater.

From what I have seen, his films are not only some of the best japanese avant-garde films, but should be put alongside the most innovative work world cinema has to offer. Clearly coming from surrealist art, his films openly play with the grotesque, but without trying to be understood as simply another counter-attack against established rules. They are far more effective through the seeming casualty with which they are presented and discussed. The disintegration of inherent norms and perceptive rules a viewer might have formed thus happens organically. Organical is also one of the feelings that came to my mind for the films themselves. They don't seem so much a deliberate construct, than an unconscious act of Terayamas creativity and personality brought immediately onto the screen - the work of an auteur in the best sense of the word.

The films I saw are listed without an english title, because I saw them in a german theater, where they were shown without subtitles or further explanation. Almost no info on "imdb" is available on them, and I didn't search the net any further. These were, in the order I saw them:

Issunbushi o kijutsu suru kokoromi (Japan / 1977)
Kage no eiga - nito onna (Japan / 1977)
Keshigomu (Japan / 1977)
Maldoror no uta [without subtitles] (Japan / 1977)
Meikyu-tan (Japan / 1975)
Shoken-ki (Japan / 1977)

After watching the films only one thing seemed definite. This is a filmmaker I will steal from blatantly when I make my own movies. The films are hard to pin down and to evaluate not only because of their surreal imagery, but also because the music used throughout most of them is pure genius. At times eerie but always hauntingly beautiful, the music alone is able to evoke such strong feelings that the image becomes secondary. Of course this may be intended by Terayama - an inspiration for the viewer to find his own corresponding memories to the universal challenges presented. You definitely have to consider the acoustics and the visuals as equal. Nevertheless, when it was extremely powerful, the music seemed to almost distract from the overall concept. I'd love to have the opportunity to listen to it seperately, but as I don't read japanese, I didn't get the name of the composer.
Everything derives itself from memory. The plot, the structure, the music, all indicate a fascination with the workings of the human mind. Loss and remembrance being not only the primary sources of inspiration, but the main reason for the existence of the films and their characters itself. The films are drenched in a melancholic feel that sometimes overshadows everything else, while the characters are mostly occupied with their past which keeps them trapped in the present. The silent pictures and photographs often give the impression of old home-videos. Through their silence the secrets are kept.But this is by far not all that can be found in these short gems. Terayama is constantly playing with the surface of film itself, recalling the work of Peter Greenaway, though the latter seldom achieves a comparable depth or complexity. Using scratches and erasures on the filmmaterial itself, some sequences become like a short by Stan Brakhage, though they are only an added layer to the rest of the film, never overpowering the other devices used. And despite the recurring attempt to erase and destroy the film, (a trace of an omnipresent and struggling god/director) the image itself turns out to be much more powerful than its source. Repression is presented as a futile act, the emergence of the subconscious as unavoidable. But nothing is final. People and objects disappear and reappear in the frame, or in added integrated framings like doors or windows, which are opening up seemingly new dimensions for our conventional world. If this is only an illusion or an actual possibility remains for the viewer to decide. Meaning upon meaning is layered in a suggestive way, with the camera using mainly long and static shots. Repetition is an ever-present process of not only the fugue-like music, but life itself. A frame in a frame in a frame...Also important seems to be the color-quality of the film-stock, which has a distinctive "non-color" look whenever used. Like tinting in silent films, it relies much more on blue and brownish tones, which perfectly complement the removed but intense atmosphere and the melancholy mood.The films also appear like a form of self-therapy for Terayama, where he can negotiate and re-evaluate his past through various new placings of perspective.In the end they never offer a depressing or hopeless perspective on life, because the recurring themes of change and transformation are omnipresent. In Terayama's world nothing is definite, the fluidity of time and space conquering everything and everybody.