Kings of the Road (Im Lauf der Zeit, West Germany, 1976)

Would be superman

Would be superman

Rüdiger Vogler, who also featured in Alice in the Cities, plays an itinerant repairman, Bruno Winter, who journeys through Germany fixing film projectors. He meets up with Robert Landler (Hanns Zischler), who crashes his iconic German Volkswagen into the Elbe (the border between East and West Germany). Landler’s upset due to his wife leaving him and Winter clearly struggles to communicate with others. The overall feel of the film is one of ‘alienation’ however this is seen as natural condition of the time. Director Wim Wenders, with his location shooting, 11 weeks on the road mostly along the East-West border, offers a lament for the small town cinemas that are being forced to close or were reduced to screening ‘sex films’ . The overall tone, however, is often light as the friendship between the two men develops.

The film is a long (nearly three hours) investigation of issues of German identity, men’s relationship with women and the decline of cinemas. The love-hate relationship that Wenders obviously had with American culture is summarised by Winter’s comment that, ‘America has colonised our unconscious.’

Incidentally, the film also includes a peculiar scene were we witness Winter excreting.



World on a Wire (Welt am Draht, West Germany, 1973)

Mirror images

Mirror images

I stumbled across this, Rainer Werner Fassbinder + SF, recently and was intrigued to see what the master of melodrama would do with the genre. Predictably, I guess, Fassbinder did what he normally did: use a highly stylised mise en scene to great effect. The two-part television production, Fassbinder made a number of TV films, was based on Daniel F Galouye’s novel, Simulacron-3 (1964); later remade as The Thirteenth Floor (Germany-US, 1999). I won’t give too much away of the intriguing narrative which, while it may not have inspired The Matrix, certainly was a precursor.

Sensibly Fassbinder eschewed SF iconography though, as this excellent essay points out, they shot some scenes in Paris shopping malls, places that looked futuristic in West Germany at the time. Instead Fassbinder ramps up his usual stylised mise en scene with elaborate set-ups, such as the one in the image above. He also uses telephoto zooms imaginatively to give the narrative world an unsettling quality. Mirrors are typically used in melodrama to signify issues of identity and so Fassbinder was clearly at home with much of the plot which focuses upon Fred Stiller’s (Klaus Lowitsch) attempt to find out the truth about the computer simulated world he is working on.  Lowitsch is one of many Fassbinder regulars and recognising the actors adds a surreal quality to the film as they are playing out of their usual genre.

I thoroughly enjoyed part one but the first hour of the second episode focused on a fairly unconvincing ‘chase Fred’ narrative; and the ending didn’t satisfy. However, Fassbinder wasn’t simply addressing melodramatic questions of identity, he was also making a political point about private interests influencing government policy. Forty years on issues of identity (privacy) in cyberspace, and the influence of business interests, are more relevant that ever. World on a Wire is certainly worth a watch by fans of SF and Fassbinder.

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, Germany, 1920)

Expressionist mise en scene

Expressionist mise en scene

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is indisputably a landmark film; it made a massive impact when it was first released and is as near a unique film that you are likely to see. Its uniqueness (well there are one or two that are similar) resides in its painted Expressionist sets that remain extraordinary to look at even 100 years on. Siegfried Kracauer’s history of German cinema (published 1947), From Caligari to Hitler, suggested that we can see the antecedents of authoritarian Nazis in the character of the director of the asylum, who has a sideline in serial killing. Such teleological historical methods are both out of  fashion and rubbish; Lotte Eisner’s The Haunted Screen suffers similarly in talking about ‘mysticism and magic, the dark forces to which Germans have always been more than willing to commit themselves’ (p9).

I think it’s useful to look beyond this historical ‘baggage’ and simply consider it was a film. Of course contextualising film is of utmost importance, it’s just that Kracauer and Eisner’s views may have ‘tainted’ perceptions of Caligari.

As one of the first ‘art film’ successes, it’s ironic that if suffered from producer interference regarding the ending; something that is usually reserved for commercial cinema. But then Caligari was always a commercial enterprise it’s just that it doesn’t look like that, then or now. SPOILER ALERT: to what extent does the framing device that exonerates the director (brilliantly played by Werner Krauss) alter our

Werner Krauss' Caligari (lfet) is wrapped as tight as a cotton reel

Krauss’ Caligari (left) is wrapped as tight as a cotton reel

understanding of the film? Does the fact that the ‘Expressionist’ sets merely indicate the ravings of a madman diminish the subversion of the suggestion that the ruler of the asylum is a lunatic? My view is that it doesn’t because too much of the film focuses upon Caligari – as manipulator of the somnambulist Cesare – as a dodgy character for that to be alleviated at the end. It could even be that Francis, the protagonist, has been entrapped in the asylum by director. Too often those in power are able to cover up their own incompetence.

Horizontals and verticals disallowed

Horizontals and verticals disallowed

Regardless of the narrative the key to the film is the marvellous mise en scene where the world is a place of artifice. The wonderful town clerk’s chair that emphasises his superiority; the bunch of houses on a hill; the triangular windows. These are what matter most in Caligari.

Lore (Ger-Aus-UK), 2012

The losers' version

The losers’ version

I going to have to watch director Cate Shortland’s other film (Somersault) after seeing her brilliant direction in this tale of what might happen to children of the SS just after the end of the war. To further confuse matters, it’s also a ‘coming of age’ story of Lore who finds herself discovering her sexuality whilst being responsible for getting her four younger siblings to Hamburg from the Black Forest.

Shortland uses extreme close ups of the environment to counterpoint the often disturbing images of collapse in post-War Germany as children embark on their ‘road trip’. The film shows the ‘ordinary’ German’s reactions to images of concentration camps (American actors) as the seek solace in denial. Of course Lore encounters a ‘Jew’ on her journey to, in true melodramatic tradition, confront her own prejudices.

Saskia Rosendahl is spellbinding in the lead; the performances throughout are as good as the direction (particular mention for the baby who’s woeful eyes follow his departing mother). The film’s shot in super 16mm, the grainy image gives a surreal quality, accentuated by the close ups, that befits a disturbing time.

The White Ribbon (Das weisse Band, Germany/Austria/France/Italy, 2009)

Paying obedience

Paying obedience

Probably the most critically lauded movies of the year The White Ribbon left me bored after 30 seconds and I was faced by another 288 such units of boredom. You should probably stop reading now… as my critical faculties are obviously atrophying with age: how can you make a decision about a film in 30 seconds. Well: I didn’t like the cinematography or the voice over and the execrable CGI of the horse falling… Overall the experience for me was of a badly shot Bergman film.

I agree with Henry K Miller, in the December issue of Sight and Sound: ‘the film is left as a catalogue of unpleasant events with no particular insights to impart.’ Its portentousness was overwhelming but if all it had to say was that fascism had its roots in feudal society then two and a half hours is too long to make that point in such a feeble way. I’m not anti-Haneke, Code Unknown (Code inconnu: Recit incomplet de divers voyages, Fr-Ger-Rom, 2000) is terrific, but Cache (2004) did nothing for me. His cinema now seems to strain for significance: it looks profound but any meaning is merely trite.

To emphasise the vileness of the doctor by having him as pedophile (I know it’s not certain but if he isn’t then what’s the point?) suggests to me that Haneke is straining to shock (and Funny Games, Ger-Fr-It, 1997, was shocking) and, unfortunately, the sexual abuse of children in cinema doesn’t shock any more.

I guess I’ll have to bow to the majority for this Palme d’Or winner but I thought it was crap.

The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen, Germany, 2006)

Humanising the inhuman

Humanising the inhuman

It was no surprise that The Lives of Others should win an Oscar: technically proficient, superbly acted and humanist whilst bashing the ‘commies’. It is a gripping thriller but, as Anna Funder points out in Sight & Sound (May ’07) utterly ridiculous. The Stasi member who is humanised by music and a poem by Brecht! Great to think so: play that music to Bush!

Funder, who’s book Stasiland (2004) is excellent, also points out that the Stasi are currently trying to rehabilitate themselves and so this sympathetic portrayal of a member of that organisation is politically dubious to say the least. But the film’s excellent for the reasons cited above and who wouldn’t want to believe that art can humanise a monstrous system? Well, those who run that system I suppose.

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.