Killer of Sheep (US, 1977)

Stan (Henry G. Sanders) in the film KILLER OF SHEEP, a Milestone Film & Video release.

Stan (Henry G. Sanders) in the film KILLER OF SHEEP, a Milestone Film & Video release.

Staying close in adversity

16mm black and white does look good particularly in this film where Burnett uses long lens and unusual angles to great effect. The elliptical storytelling works well too, almost a collage of events with kids doing what kids do punctuated by Stan (Henry G Sanders) trying to make ends meet.

The ‘killer of sheep’ metaphor works well as we’re left to observe his work in the slaughter house and so it never becomes heavy handed. Great to see this film revived; that’s what the Bfi should be for.

From the Life of the Marionettes (Aus dem Leben der Marionetten, W.Germany, 1980)

Consoling passion?

It was interesting watching this ‘German’ Bergman in the midst of the New German films I’ve been looking at. Whilst I think of Bergman as a ‘philosophical’ filmmaker often dealing with characters’ metaphysical angst, watching these characters try to deal with their anomie, after yesterday’s Fassbinder, suggests that – in this film at least – Bergman is critiquing the bourgeoisie.

This probably out-grims the Fassbinder. Partly this is to do with the bleak monochrome cinematography (Nykvist: brilliant of course); partly the devastating, opening murder – shot in lurid red – that sets the rest of the film up as an investigation into the protagonists’ motivation.

The Merchant of Four Seasons (Händler der vier Jahreszeiten, W.Germany, 1972)

Hans holds court

It’s striking that this bleak, overtly stylised film should have been a commercial hit. Whilst Fassbinder draws upon Sirkian melodrama, no one would mistake this for a Hollywood film. Fassbinder had the talent to create an almost surrealist mise en scene from a banal setting. For example, Irmgard is framed against a shop window featuring a wedding dress when she’s mistaken for a prostitute in the street; the image above shows Hans pontificating about how hard done by he is to an almost mute coterie of men.

The stylisation is probably most notable in the performances; the robotic-like postures and glances of dehumanised bourgeoisie. Except Hanna Schygulla’s Anna, the commentator on the corruption of her family; even Renate, Hans’ and Irmgard’s daughter, looks like (a Hitler youth) automaton though she may just be traumatised by her parents.

If Herzog and Wenders, in the films blogged recently, were searching for identity then Fassbinder explains why they are looking.

Alice in the Cities (Alice in den Städten, West Germany, 1973)


On the road in America

On the road in America

This film is a terrific, improvised road movie. Wenders, apparently, based the idea of the film on the rapport between his actors (pictured above) in The Scarlet Letter (Der Scharlachrote Buchstabe 1973). This fits well with Stroszek (blogged three days ago) as here the movement is opposite: from America to West Germany. Phil (Rüdiger Vogler) is trying to write an article about America but his experience of its commercial soullessness has emptied him of identity. He watches Young Mr Lincoln (1939) on television but finds it infuriating that it’s interrupted by advertising – he destroys the TV. Later, he reads John Ford’s (Lincoln‘s director) obituary – his disillusionment with America is complete as what he loved about it has died.

It’s striking how debates about the malign, commercial influence of America have subsided considerably since the 1970s. The post-World War II anxiety about Americanisation still exists, but the commercial aspects of American culture are generally accepted in Britain now; and, probably, Europe.

The search for identity was an important theme of New German Cinema: trying to rebuild self-respect after the Nazi-inspired atrocities tempered with disillusionment with the authoritarian nature of the West German state in the 1970s.

Although the film sags a bit in the middle, the visualisation of ‘souless’ America is brilliant. The final, unresolved, journey is to Munich – is that meant to be into the heartland of the Fatherland?


Sophie Scholl (Germany, 2005)

Sophie tells the Nazis what she thinks

This is an intensely moving film. It dramatises the strength of will required to stick to your principles whatever the circumstances. However, the individual needs to ‘collective mass’ to resist the tyrants and it was the failure of the German people to stand up to the Nazis that precipitated the War. The characterisation of Sophie’s interrogator, however, gives an understated insight into why many ordinary people collaborated. It is the ‘strength’ of fascism that it guides people who don’t want to think for themselves (a bit like religion).

The judge, the representative of Nazi bile, was the double of Norman Tebbit – a terrific piece of casting.

Stroszek (West Germany, 1977)

Stroszek tries to earn a living

Bruno S plays Stroszek and there are clearly autobiographical elements in the character; whilst he’s patently a non-actor this works well in the role but might be off-putting at first. He and two other misfits go to live the American Dream where everyone who works hard can get rich. Does anyone outside of America still believe this; or are many people in such desperate straits that even badly paid dead-end jobs in America can count as riches?

The getting into debt is perfunctorily done but that works as part of the episodic narrative. The climax is truly bonkers with Stroszek clinging on to two American icons: a thanksgiving turkey and a gun. The final 10 minutes are hallucinatory.

Stroszek is from Berlin, then a centre of Cold War politics. Now East and West are reunited (see Yella) the political dynamics have changed. America, ‘the leader of the free world’ could then more readily justify its hegemonic position. After the invasion of Iraq and its concomitant abuses, such as Guantanamo, the lack of morality in America’s leadership of fawning nations – such as UK – is evident to all except cynics. Would Stroszek even be allowed into American now?

Herzog is great at framing scenes and offers a compelling view of the middle of nowhere.

Into the Wild (US, 2007)

Lost in the wilderness

Add a ‘coming of age’ (or not, in this case) movie to a western and road movie with an arthouse aesthetic where the beauty of the image has portentous echoes, then you might get Into the Wild. It’s true story of Chris McCandless who rejects his family, and their bourgeois aspirations, to do the American thing: find yourself in the wilderness. There’s terrific direction from Penn where the portentous imagery (extreme slow motion in a rigged up outside shower) allows audience to see beauty in the everyday – something that cinema is very good at – and so reflects McCandless’ attempts to find a role in his life.

Even if McCandless was rejecting bourgeois values, the family is rooted at the heart of the film. Not just McCandless’ family, but the ruptured families he encounters, most movingly in Hal Holbrooke’s ‘lonely old man’.

I reckon Penn is a ‘must-see’ whether he’s in front or behind the camera; I rate this film as good as The Assassination of Billy the Kid…, hitherto my favourite film of 2007.

Adulthood (UK, 2008)

Noel Clarke: Bitten off more than he could chew?

Kidulthood (see June 24) was terrific; Adulthood? It’s an adage that sequels are never (rarely) better than the sequel; is it because all the good ideas have been used or because filmmakers feel they have to out-do the original so strain too hard? Whilst Clarke wrote and acted in the original, here he also directs. He is talented but maybe he’s overstretched himself. Adulthood seems to be straining to hard to be significant whilst the first film loaded 21st century London into a kitchen sink and planted it on celluloid.

That said, I found the reflective aspects of the film successful: both Lexi and Sam’s attempt to break away from their past. The ‘genre’ elements, especially the risible ‘Mexican’ standoff with a gun and baseball bat, didn’t mesh very well with the ‘philosophical’ aspects; though the climactic fight is well staged the idea that Sam’s brother could possibly kill Sam without knowing it was not convincing.

Maybe Clarke shouldn’t try and do ‘everything’; I thought

Menhaj Huda did a better job on the first film. That said, Clarke’s definitely a talent.

Tell No One (Ne le dis à personne, France, 2006)

The death of love’

Marvellously labyrinthine thriller (still haven’t worked out the significance of the bouquet) that manages to inject excitement into the ‘coming back from the dead’ trope; based on convincing performances, a terrific chase sequence, and humanising humour (the good cop).

At the heart of the narrative labyrinth is fatherly and sexual love. The stakes are so high that the violence becomes understandable rather than simply a function of plot. This is why the film is so engaging; as the maze is untangled the punchline convincingly delivers on its promise.

Wanted (US, 2008)

Who’s watching the watchers?’

Up until the last 20 mins I quite enjoyed this routine (ie heavily generic) action feature with some eye-popping stunts. Then its subtleties kicked in and it revealed itself as a very clever play on the action genre (with its boring rites of violence passage). The visuals are impressive throughout, presumably from the source graphic novel; particularly the weaving room – especially when it was destroyed into a web of chaos (shades of Wagner’s norns?).

Jolie sleepwalks through (as does Freeman until the end – though he’s nicely cast against type); but McAvoy inhabits his role well. Can’t understand why it was an 18 in the UK.

‘Who watches the watchers?” is an old question given vitality by this movie.