Transit (Germany-France, 2018)

On the road to nowhere

Transit is a fascinating and disorientating adaptation of Anna Seghers’ WWII novel based on her experiences escaping the Nazis via Marseille. Daringly, scriptwriter-director Christian Petzold sets the film in the present day with some period touches (such as a typewriter and retro-clothing) so drawing parallels between the fascists of then and the increasingly fascistic now. This Brechtian aesthetic reinforces the Kafkaesque influence on the novel which includes the protagonist Georg (Franz Rogowski) taking on the identity of a dead writer to try and escape and when he has to prove, to the authorities, that he wants to leave in order to be granted leave to leave. In addition, the writer’s wife, Marie (Paula Beer), mistakes Georg for her husband briefly a couple of times and their lives become entangled.

One indisputably modern element is the African migrants who Georg befriends which adds to the difficulty he has in leaving due to the emotional bond he forges with a youngster, Driss (Lilien Batman). In one superb scene he returns to his friend’s address to find it populated by bewildered migrants; Driss and his mother have gone. Marie, meanwhile, is involved with a doctor who needs to leave but is incapable of doing so without her and she is waiting for her husband and doesn’t believe Georg when he tells her he’s dead. The characters are caught in a liminal space which is, as shown in a parable told by Georg, hell.

Petzold brilliant captures the constant anxiety of living on the edge as police sirens disrupt the soundscape and raids are commonplace. Beer channels Nina Hoss’ (a Petzold regular) distanciated acting style: she’s there but not there which can be seen in a number of Petzold’s films; for example Phoenix and Yella. Both Beer and Rogowski are brilliant in their roles of people trying to act normally in extraordinary circumstances.

Kafka may be the novelist of our time as politicians insist that lies are true and people act as if nothing is seriously wrong in the world (be it Covid-19 or climate catastrophe); Trump suggesting that left wing fascists are a threat is his latest idiocy and Johnson blames care home for deaths that was the fault of his government. But as Kafka (and TS Eliot) showed, human beings don’t have a strong grip on reality so most people don’t seem to realise we’re on the ‘road to nowhere’; which, incidentally, is the Talking Heads song that plays out Transit.

Another Brechtian dimension to the film is the suggestion that what we’re seeing is fiction (which of course it is). A voiceover narrator (who is revealed to be the manager of a restaurant where Georg leaves the manuscript), it is suggested, is reading the novel left by the writer (which Georg takes and which, apparently, is Seghers’) and there’s occasionally a mismatch between what is said and what we see; exactly like today’s world then! James Latimer, in Cinema Scope, is worth reading after seeing the film which is on MUBI.

Tehran Taboo (Germany-Austria, 2017)

On the margins in Tehran

Directed and co-written (with Grit Kienzlen) by Ali Soozandeh, this is a startling representation of Tehran from the perspective of a prostitute. Startling because it is impossible for films made in Iran to show such things; Soozandeh emigrated to Germany over 20 years ago. In the 1990s Iranian cinema produced a ‘new wave’ of films with directors such as Abbas Kiarostami, the Makhmalbaf family and Jafar Panahi that were ‘validated’ by western criticism. Even in these films censorship meant that it was impossible to represent the earthier side of human life, if the directors had wished to do so directly. So the films are a bit like mid-20th century British cinema, exemplified by Brief Encounter (1945), where the only stiff things in the narrative are lips. Hence seeing Tehran Taboo is something of a shock especially as the first scene shows a prostitute attempting to give a blow-job in the front seat of a car whilst her five-year-old son is sitting in the back.

The woman, Pari (Elmira Rafizadeh), is the character around which three narratives are woven: her attempts to look after her boy; a neighbour’s wife stifled by Islamic orthodoxy; a young would-be musician being conned into providing proof of virginity after a one-night stand. If the narrative around Pari seems to contradict her actions described in the first paragraph it is a tribute to the film that we understand that she has no choice but to do what she does. The hypocrisy of the ruling clerics is laid bare as is the stifling patriarchy that many women suffocate under.

As can be seen from the image, the film is rotoscoped: live action film is rendered as animation. Soozandeh explained he chose this method as he couldn’t film in Tehran and didn’t want to fake the city by shooting in Jordan. Hence, the animation’s lack of photo realism ensures that the representation of the setting is not compromised as it’s clearly not realist. The impact on the spectator is not unlike that of Waltz with Bashir, another serious rotoscoped film. However, unlike in the earlier film where the visuals conveyed the dreamlike memories of the protagonist, here it is obviously reality that is being rendered. The impact of this is to emphasise we are seeing what ‘shouldn’t’ (at least as defined by the censors in Iran) be seen: it’s both unreal and real. ‘Unreal’ because it is animated; ‘real’ because no doubt that such events depicted in the film happen.

This was Soozandeh’s debut feature; I look forward to the next one.

In the Fade (Aus dem Nichts, Germany-France, 2017)

Seeking justice

Writer-director Fatih Akin is probably known more for arthouse fare, such as The Edge of Heaven, however In the Fade is genre-based. That said it did play at Cannes and Diane Kruger won a well-deserved best actress award for her powerhouse performance. Generically it is a thriller, with a revenge narrative, but Akin doesn’t play the genre elements straight as the pacing, after the initial narrative explosion, is fairly slow as Kruger’s Katja comes to terms with her loss. The human element is as important as the genre’s urgency.

I usually find court room scenes the least interesting aspect of crime thrillers but here it was interesting to see how the German judicial system works. However Akin, through the reptilian performance of the defence lawyer Haberbeck by Johannes Krisch, possibly unbalances the presentation by suggesting the system is loaded against the victim. Of course it may be true but this is also a well-worn trope of Hollywood and often used to justify vigilantism such as that practised by the eponymous Dirty Harry (1971); Akin does not have such right-wing sympathies.

What makes In the Fade particularly interesting is the focus on generic elements that are usually glossed over in the desire for narrative pace; such as the protagonist’s grief noted above. There’s also a brief, telling exchange between Katja and one of the witnesses for the prosecution.

Spoiler alert: another key divergence from generic norms is the conclusion which is particularly bleak. As Katja is primed for vengeance she suddenly demurs and we sense a humanist, arthouse, conclusion about not reducing oneself to the level of the aggressors; here the neo-Nazis who have murdered Katja’s husband, of Kurdish extraction, and son. However, the film doesn’t leave it there.

Akin has said he was inspired by actual neo-Nazi attacks on ‘immigrant communities’ and how the police tended to focus on the immigrant group itself rather than right wing extremists. This proves to be a very minor part of the narrative as the focus is on Katja who is in virtually every scene; the police investigation happens offscreen. Hence the film becomes more about personal trauma (her relationship with her parents and in-laws is well-drawn) and so neglects the wider political implications. That would be a different film and one that may be more interesting.

The reason to watch the ridiculously titled In the Fade (it is called more appropriately Out of Nowhere in German) is Kruger’s performance coupled with the generic variations; it’s available on Netflix.

System Crasher (Systemsprenger, Germany, 2019) – LIFF6

Close to the knuckle

The last film I saw at this year’s Leeds International Film Festival proved to be the best: it had me weeping. Are films that make you so sad that you cry the antithesis of escapism or do they (hopefully) make us feel better about our own lives and so escaping to a worse place makes us feel better? In System Crasher we are taken into the world of Benni (played with astonishing brilliance by Hannah Zengel), a traumatised nine-year-old that even the seemingly robust German social services system cannot contain. Aristotle argued that the purpose of narratives was catharsis: the audience is purged of emotion and so feels satisfied. System Crasher just left me feeling sad but, importantly, empathetic to people with mental health problems and those that try to help them. Watching a wide range of films aids empathy for others, something that our divided times lacks in many instances.

Writer-director Nora Fingscheidt has produced a gripping narrative that sees social workers trying to do their best for Benni; though there is an implicit critique of the use of drugs. Interestingly, the Variety review sees this criticism as divisive and presumably in America there is more belief in pharmacological solutions? There is a moment, early in the film, when Micha (Albrecht Schuch) takes Benni under his wing and they spend three weeks in the woods. I’m sure in an American retelling this sort-of Walden would lead to a resolution; we are in Europe and such sentimentality is thankfully absent from this film. Incidentally, Variety‘s jibe about the film not really blaming anyone, even Benni’s mum, is wide of the mark for there is a heartbreaking scene when the social worker breaks down because of the mother’s uselessness. That said, Fingscheidt does not go for designating anyone as evil; that would be too simplistic. My partner trained as a therapist and worked with disturbed children; she confirmed the utter authenticity of the portrayal of traumatised youngsters. If the film was set in the UK, no doubt, the cuts to social services by the Tory government would have also formed an impediment to helping these children.

If I have one quibble, it’s with the final freeze frame which didn’t, for me, sum up the film; that said, it opens in the UK next week and I strongly recommend it.

The only film I was disappointed by at the festival was Synonyms (Synonymes, France-Israel-Germany, 2019) where a self-indulgent male gets into various situations in Paris. At first it seemed as if it was going to be a critique of Israel, but co-writer and director Nadav Lapid eschews politics, as far as I could tell, and the film becomes a mush where everything disappoints the protagonist.

 

Phoenix (Germany-Poland, 2014)

Doppelgänger?

I’m sorry I missed this in cinemas as, after (for me) the disappointing Barbara (Germany, 2012), it was a return to the brilliance of Yella. In addition, the ghost of Fassbinder haunts the mise en scene and performance style, which can only be a good thing. The ‘phoenix’ is Nelly/Esther (Nina Hoss) who returns to a highly-stylised, rubble-strewn Berlin after World War II, and tries to pick up the pieces of her life. While the plot strains credulity, she’s no longer recognized after surgery, that matters not at all as the symbolic nature of the narrative is carried with great dexterity.

The ‘phoenix’ is also a nightclub shot in a lurid red that Fassbinder would have celebrated. Shades on pre-Nazi cabaret Berlin are also haunting the time and place. Hans Fromm’s cinematography emphasises the noir mood and The Third Man also looms in the shadows amongst the bombed-out sites.

Hoss isn’t a performer I warm too but she is absolutely perfect in this role. Hoss’ ‘not quite thereness’ suits Nelly/Esther’s character whose trauma, that of concentration camp victims, fundamentally altered her psyche. If her motivation, in seeking her lost husband, seems a tad unconvincing at the start, as we learn more about her (and his) circumstance the narrative makes perfect sense. It also has an absolutely brilliant ending.

The Goalkeeper’s Anxiety of the Penalty (Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter, West Germany-Austria, 1972)

A particularly German angst

For people of my generation, when children, World War II hovered as an impalpable presence even though we were born many years after 1945. For the British it was a marker of former brilliance as the country divested itself of its empire. In Germany, it was a reminder of its shameful past or, possibly, if New German Cinema of the late ’60s/1970s is to be believed, something that was shamefully forgotten. Unfortunately in Britain some are still weirdly attracted to the war and use it as evidence we can survive outside the EU (as if surviving was a laudable benchmark) and ideas of empire remain instilled in their idea of Britishness as a high watermark of civilisation rather than shameful plunder from the rest of the world. Both the British new wave, of the early ’60s, and the German new wave held a mirror up to their country: for the British the main focus was on social class; for the West Germans it was the authoritarian nature of the recovery from war. In addition, Wim Wenders investigated how Americanised West German society had become.

Based on Austrian Peter Handke’s novel of the same name, he also contributed dialogue to the script, the ‘angst’ (sometimes translated as ‘fear’) is an existential one derived from French philosophers, particularly Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre. Indeed the protagonist’s motiveless murder early in the film, of a cinema cashier (film’s another recurring theme in Wenders’ work), is a direct reference to Camus’ L’Étranger (The Outsider published in 1942). He, Bloch the goalkeeper who gets sent off at the start of the film, sort of goes on the run to a small village but the genre elements only linger in the background as the lassitude of everyday life is examined. If that sounds boring it isn’t, partly because of the brilliant cinematography (by regular collaborator Robby Müller) which looks exceptional in this restored print. Wenders had never cleared the rights to the American popular music played in the film and apparently it was unavailable for three decades though I’m pretty sure it played in a double bill with Hammett (US, 1980) in the ’80s.

Famously in Wender’s King’s of the Road (Im Lauf der Zeit, West Germany, 1976) a character states the ‘Americans have colonised our (Germany’s) unconsciousness’ and references to America proliferate in Goalie’s. The metaphoric meaning of the film’s title is revealed at the end but as to whether you find Bloch’s disconnect to his world a convincing metaphor of West Germany’s disconnect to itself is up to you. However, it is certainly a film that is worth viewing and I’m hoping there will be more Wenders I haven’t seen in the forthcoming MUBI season.

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.