Archive for the ‘Germany’ Category

The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb

October 24, 2012

These can perhaps be regarded as typical of German movie poster art of the 1950’s.

It was left to the Italians to show them how to do it right.

By the late 1950’s, Fritz Lang’s Hollywood movie career had come to end. There were no more studio executives left for him to piss off. It was at this time that the German film producer, Artur Brauner, approached Lang and suggested he do a remake of his silent film The Indian Tomb, (which had been completed without Lang’s supervision). Lang agreed, and the resulting work was released as two films: The Tiger of Eschnapu and The Indian Tomb. They were two of the last three films that Lang made before he retired due to failing eyesight.

Lang regarded film as a visual art form rather than as a form of literature, so he had no reservations about using “genre” subject matter: science fiction, detective stories or, in the case of these two films, Orientalist fantasy. In this respect, he is similar to such contemporary directors as George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and James Cameron. Unlike them, however, Lang’s films are never coy or campy. He always treats his subject matter seriously and with respect. For that reason, I consider Lang’s work to be artistically superior to that of these other directors.

From the moment one begins watching The Tiger of Eschnapur, one can see right away that this is an example of what the late Edward Said called “Orientalism”. More than once some character mentions that Europeans can never really understand India. (It doesn’t help that most of the Indian roles are played by Europeans in brown face.) This “Mysterious Orient” nonsense was, of course, used to justify Western imperialism. (The “clash of civilizations” is a more sophisticated, contemporary version of this argument.) This film is based on a 1918 novel written by Lang’s former wife, Thea von Harbou, who wrote the silly story for Metropolis and who later joined the Nazi party (although, interestingly, she secretly married an Indian man). One can, however, enjoy these films on their own terms without worrying about the politics of it. It is simply a remnant from a defunct way of looking at the world.

Harold Barger (Paul Hubschmid) is a German architect who has been hired by Chandra (Walter Reyer), the maharajah of Eschnapur, to design public buildings for his kingdom. On his way to Chandra’s palace, Harold meets Seetha (Debra Paget), a temple dancer with whom the maharajah has fallen in love. The carry out a secret affair, which Chandra eventually discovers. Chandra throws Harold into a pit with a man-eating tiger, but Harold manages to kill it. (The tiger is obviously fake. Don’t worry, no animals were harmed in the making of this film.) Chandra then tells Harold that he has until sunrise to leave Eschnapur. Harold, however, has an assignation with Seetha in a temple, and the two of them flee into the desert. There, they are overcome by the heat and dust. Harold deliriously shoots at the sun just before he collapses. A message then flashes across the screen promising that we can see the miraculous rescue of the lovers in the sequel, which will be “more grandiose” than the first film.

The Indian Tomb is, indeed, more grandiose. Seetha and Harold are rescued by a caravan. Shortly afterwards, however, they are captured by Chandra’s soldiers. True love eventually wins out, though not without a lot of people getting killed in the process.

These are not among Lang’s best films, but they are nonetheless entertaining movies to watch. Lang directed them in a beautiful manner, although he clearly had to deal with a limited budget. Some of the sets and costumes are not quite convincing. And some of the special effects are embarrassing, such as the fakest looking cobra you will ever see. On the other hand, Debra Paget gives not one, but two, erotic dances. Paget, an American, was, like Lang, a refugee from Hollywood. She had refused to abide by the rules of the studio system, so she was blacklisted. She had to go to Europe to find work. I’m told that in her later years Paget became a born-again Christian, and she had her own religiously themed TV show. I wonder if she ever discussed temple dancing on her show.

Signs of Life

July 29, 2012

Werner Herzog’s first feature film, shot in black and white in 1968, deals with themes that were to reoccur throughout his later works. Signs of Life is set during World War II. Stroszek (Peter Brogle) is a German soldier who is severely wounded in an attack by partisans on the island of Crete. To give him a chance to recuperate, his officers transfer him to the small island of Kos. There he is stationed at a Venetian fort that was built in the fourteenth century, where an ammunition dump is now kept. It is on a hill overlooking a town below. He is accompanied by his Greek wife, Nora (Athina Zacharopoulou) and by two other solders, Meinhard (Wolfgang Reichmann) and Becker (Wolfgang von Ungern-Sternberg). Meinhard is obsessed with killing cockroashes, while Becker is fascinated by the ancient Greek tablets that the Venetians embedded along with the stones in the fort’s walls. They find various ways to try to deal with the heat, isolation, and boredom of the place, such as building fireworks.

Strozsek is deeply unhappy in this place, and his behavior becomes increasingly erratic. One day he goes into town and asks the commanding officer of the island to send him out on patrol, just so he can have something to do. The officer agrees. The next day, Stroszek and Meinhard go on patrol. They come across a valley that has windmills in it. Stroszek has a sort of breakdown at this point, but Meinhard eventually brings him to his senses. The next day, Stroszek learns that Meinhard has reported the incident to their superiors. He goes berserk, and he chases the others out of the fort with a rifle. He then begins shooting at the town below. A delegarion of solders, along with Nora, cautiously approach the fort to try to reason with Strozsek. He tells them that he is now “alive”, and that if they try to capture him, he will blow up the ammunition dump, which would destroy the town. The town is evacuated, and an uneasy stand-off ensues. From time to time, Stroszek sets off some of the fireworks that he and the others made. One night, while he is doing this, some soldiers sneak into the fort and overpower him. They take him away to a hospital. At the end a voice-over tells us: “thus it always ends with people of his kind.”

A recurring theme in Herzo’s films is the world’s indifference to the fate of the individual. In an early scene in Signs of Life, the camera moves through a narrow winding street on Crete. It suddenly comes out on a broad street running along the ocean. We see people moving around in the far distance. The camera suddenly pans over to two dead German soldiers lying on the ground, presumably killed by partisans. After a moment, the camera pans back to the scene in the distance and lingers on it. The deaths of these two men mean nothing to the world at large.

In one scene, a gypsy gives Stroszek a small wooden owl figurine. Its eyes and ears move. Determined to find out how this is possible, Stroszek finds that there is a fly trapped inside the figurine. This foreshadows Storszek’s won fate. After he rebels, we only see Stroszek in long shots. He looks like an insect while making his way around the huge fortress. He is trapped like the fly in the figurine. His attempt to liberate himself from the boredom and routine of his life has only puts him in another kind of prison.

Herzog’s grim fatalism doesn’t offer us much hope, but the breadth and originality of his work make him one of the greatest filmmakers of our time.

Pandora’s Box

July 20, 2012

Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box.

G.W. Pabst’s 1929 German silent film is based on two plays by Frank Wedekind, Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box. Wedekind’s plays were meant as attacks on sexual repression and moral hypocrisy. The star of this film, Louise Brooks, has become something of a cult figure. When I lived in New York, I knew a guy who had a tattoo of Brooks’s face on his arm. (I remember he insisted on showing it to everyone he met. It was actually a pretty good likeness of her, I must say.)

Lulu (Louise Brooks) is the mistress of Dr. Schoen (Fritz Kortner), a newspaper publisher. She lives with Schigolch (Carl Goetz), who appears to be her father, although the exact nature of his relationship to her is never made clear. Schoen tells Lulu that he is going to marry Charlotte (Daisy D’Ora), the daughter of a high government official. Lulu is not happy about this. Schoen is unaware that his son, Alwa (Francis Lederer) has fallen in love with Lulu. Alwa’s artist friend, Anna (Alice Roberts) is also in love with Lulu. (The film indicates her lesbianism by the fact that she sometimes wears men’s ties.) Schigolch wants Lulu to start a trapeze act with Rodrigo (Krafft-Raschig), but then Alwa, at his father’s urging, invites Lulu to join his musical revue. One night, as Lulu is about to go on stage, she sees Schoen with Charlotte. Lulu angrily announces that she will not perform in front of “that woman”. Schoen takes Lulu into a back room to plead with her. They argue for a time, and then they start making love. Alwa and Charlotte walk in on them. Charlotte angrily leaves. Schoen decides at that point that he has no choice but to marry Lulu, in order to maintain his respectability, although he does not relish this prospect. “This is my execution,” he tells Alwa.

On the night of the wedding, Alwa slips away from the reception and finds Lulu in the bridal chamber. He confesses his love for her, and he begs her to run away with him. Schoen walks in on them. He is horrified by what he sees. He tries to force a gun into Lulu’s hands, telling her that she must kill herself. As they struggle, the gun goes off, killing Schoen. Lulu is then put on trial for murder. The prosecutor demands the death penalty, even though Lulu flirts with him. The judges, however, find her guilty of manslaughter and sentence her to five years in prison. Schigolch and Rodrigo set off a fire alarm, and in the ensuing confusion, they whisk Lulu away. They take her to Schoen’s home, where Alwa finds her. At first, he is incensed at her being in the place where his father died, but he is still in love with her, so he eventually gives in to her demand that he run away with her. On board the train, Lulu is seen by Marquis Casti-Piani (Michael von Newlinsky), who recognizes her, knowing she is wanted by the police. He blackmails Alwa into giving him money. He then tells Alwa that he knows of a place where he and Lulu will be safe from the police.

We next see Lulu and Alwa on board a docked ship where people gather to gamble and drink. Schigolch, Rodrigo, Anna, and Casti-Piani have all followed them there. Casti-Piani “sells” Lulu to a pimp from Cairo. He tells her that if she doesn’t go along with it, he will turn her in to the police. At roughly the same time, Rodrigo demands that Lulu give him money so he can start a new trapeze act. He, too, threatens to go to the police. Lulu turns to Schigolch for help. He devises a plan. He gets Alwa to cheat at cards, so they can get enough money to pay off Casti-Piani. He then has Lulu persuade a reluctant Anna to pretend to be in love with Rodrigo. Anna lures Rodrigo to her cabin room, where Schigolch murders him. He then ties up Anna and leaves her there. (It’s not clear why he does this. Does he dislike Anna because she is a lesbian? I suspect some scenes may be missing from the version I saw, which was released by Janus Films in 1983.) Alwa is caught cheating, which results in a riot. Someone calls the police, who promptly show up. In the confusion, Casti-Piani grabs Lulu, but she manages to escape. She finds Alwa and Schigolch, and they get away in a row boat.

The three of them go to London, where they live in poverty. Desperate for money, Lulu, at Schigolch’s suggestion, turns to prostitution. Her first client turns out to be Jack the Ripper (Gustav Diessl).

Wedekind’s Lulu plays are a study in how society’s ideas about sex and “respectability” ultimately victimize women from disadvantaged backgrounds. A lesser artist than Wedekind would have tried to make this point by making Lulu a saintly character, but Wedekind wants us to see life in all its rawness. (Wedekind makes the “hard argument”, as Troskyists would say.) Lulu is not a good person. She is deceitful, manipulative, and sometimes cruel. Yet one gradually realizes that the men around her are far worse. Lulu is one of the great tragic figures of world literature.

Pabst was able to get strong performances from all the actors in this film. This is particularly striking in the case of Alice Roberts, who, I’ve read, initially expressed horror at the idea of playing a lesbian. I’ve also read that when Pandora’s Box premiered in Germany, Brooks’s performance was harshly criticized. I can only assume that this was due to nationalism. (Brooks was American.) Brooks actually gives an amazing performance. She exudes so much energy, that her character actually seems like the “primal form of woman” that Wedekind melodramatically described her as. Brooks began her career as a dancer, which perhaps explains her striking feline gracefulness.

Pandora’s Box is one of the greatest films ever made. The current attacks on women’s rights have given it a renewed relevance.

Triumph of the Will

June 6, 2012

I recently saw Triumph of the Will. I felt obligated to watch it because it is considered the penultimate example of a political propaganda film. Such is its notoriety, that when Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911 first came out, right-wing pundits immediately tried to smear it by comparing it to Triumph of the Will. Of course, they only revealed their intellectual poverty by doing so, since Moore’s approach to film making is nothing at all like Leni Riefenstahl’s.

The early scenes depict Hitler’s arrival in Nuremberg for a party rally. The creepy thing about these scenes is how normal they seem. Take away the gaudy uniforms and raised arms and Hitler could be just your ordinary politician, shaking hands with people, smiling for the camera, and engaging in small talk with the plebeians. It’s not until Hitler addresses the Reichsarbeitsdienst, a sort of paramilitary construction group, that we begin to sense that something profoundly weird is going on here. From a visual standpoint, this is the best part of the film, because there is something slightly surreal about the sight of hundreds of uniformed men marching around with shovels as if they were rifles. This cuts to a spooky scene of storm troopers gamboling in the woods at night. (At least I think that’s what they’re doing. It’s hard to tell.) Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from there: seemingly endless scenes of people marching around, with an inexplicably large number of them carrying Nazi flags, occasionally interspersed with speeches by Hitler.

The most striking thing about this film, however, is how physically unimpressive the Nazi leaders are. Many of them are fat: Goering, Wagner, Ley, Streicher. Wagner, Rosenberg, and Ley sweat profusely. Schirach has sweaty armpits. Hess, however, looks underfed, and he has a strangely high-pitched voice. (I must say, though, he did know how to give a crisp salute.) Lutze also has an annoyingly high-pitched voice. (Did Hitler have a thing for male sopranos?) Goebbels looks like a weasel. As for Himmler, why didn’t they just put at bag over this guy’s head? Seriously, he could have had a lucrative career as a character actor in Hollywood, playing ignorant rubes who get taken in by the likes of W.C. Fields. (“Here’s all my life’s savings, mister. Give me all the bottles you can of that there miracle elixir!”) Even the storm troopers and SS men are unimpressive. They look a bit scrawny, and their uniforms often don’t seem to fit quit right. Hitler, however, looks well-fed. Yet the plumpness of his face makes you uncomfortably aware of how silly his tiny moustache looks. And he has too much Brylcream in his hair. (Or whatever was the German equivalent of Brylcream in the 1930’s.) And his uniform makes his ass look huge. (This is true of some of the other people in this film. I wonder, did Hitler think that having a big ass was a sign of racial superiority?)

The reason I bring all this up is that it has often been said that Triumph of the Will was a highly effective advertisement for Nazism. I find this hard to believe. This film is mostly boring. A lot of it is just people marching around to bad music. Riefenstahl knew that rapid cutting and moving the camera around can make things appear more interesting than they actually are, but these tricks can only do so much, and sometimes they can even be counter-productive. When, for example, we see the stage at a rally from a camera that’s being lifted upwards, the effect is merely showy. Indeed, it actually seems a bit naive. True, this was the 1930’s, but they were already using more sophisticated techniques than this in Hollywood – or in Germany’s own cinema, for that matter.

Early in the film, there are evocative shots of the amazingly beautiful city of Nuremberg. Alas, these are marred by the ubiquitous presence of Nazi and German imperialist flags.

Even the speeches are not all that interesting. There are repeated calls for “national unity”, as well as a lot of talk about how the Nazi Reich will last thousands of years (heh, heh). I must say, though, that Hitler did occasionally inflect his voice in interesting ways. There are, however, some ominous references to the notion of “racial purity” in the speeches of Hitler and of Streicher.

In her later years, Riefenstahl collected many awards from film festivals. (Her fellow propagandist, Streicher, was hanged.) Since Triumph of the Will was, far and away, her most famous movie, one must wonder about the people who decided to give her all these honors. Riefenstahl claimed that she was a neutral observer, but this assertion is contradicted by her own film. At the beginning, it says it is Das Dokument der Reichsparteitag 1934 – hergestellt im Auftrage des Fuehrers. (The Documentary of the Reich party conference of 1934 – produced according to the Fuehrer’s instructions.) Well, you can’t get any more explicit than that, can you? Also, it’s clear just from watching this film that Riefenstahl could not have made it without plenty of help from the Nazis. Also, there are some scenes that were clearly staged specifically for the camera.

There’s one scene in the film in which we see Hitler and his cronies watching soldiers riding around on horseback. While I was watching this, I was reminded of the fact that during World War II, 90% of the German army’s supply transport was horse-drawn. The truth was that Germany was actually under-prepared for the war. My father rarely talked about his wartime experiences, but one story he did tell more than once was about when his unit captured a German army base. In the mess hall there was a gigantic soup tureen, which was apparently what everyone ate from. It always amazed my father that a government that could only afford to feed its soldiers gruel actually believed it could conquer the world.

Two Films about Dance: Pina and Crazy Horse

April 19, 2012

A scene from Pina.

I recently saw two documentaries about two very different approaches to dance. I find it very hard to write about dance, since I don’t know very much about it, though I like to watch it. Last year, I saw a production by the Eugene Ballet of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. I found it deeply moving, but I don’t know how to explain in words why it affected me so much.

I’ve never been very good at dancing. Many years ago, I was, for a brief time, a theatre major in college. The department head told me that I was required to take a dance class, so I would “know how to use my body”. So I signed up for a ballet course. There were 25 people in the class, and I was the only male, besides the teacher and the piano player. I learned how to plié and stretch. I got to be pretty good at it, or so I thought. One day the teacher made us do this exercise, in which one by one each of us would run across the room and jump in the air. After I finished my turn, the woman behind me started to follow, but the teacher immediately stopped her, saying that she wasn’t moving in time to the music. She protested that she was following my moves.

“Oh, don’t pay any attention to Austin,” he said casually. “He follows his own beat.”

I dropped the class.

The people we meet in Pina clearly had happier experiences with their first dance classes than I did. This documentary by Wim Wenders is about Pina Bausch, who was the choreographer for the Tanztheater Wuppertal. Bausch died while this film was being made, so it is really a memorial to her. The film starts with an amazing performance of The Rite of Spring. Later, we see members of the troupe dancing in the streets of Wuppertal, as well as on the city’s elevated railway, the Schwebebahn. (Now, why can’t they build something like that in LA?) There are also interviews with the dancers, who come from all over the world. They all talk about how Bausch inspired them. They describe a woman who was patient and understanding with them. This is in striking contrast to the popular notion of dancing masters as barking autocrats. (An idea that is vulgarly portrayed in the critically acclaimed potboiler, Black Swan.)

I highly recommend seeing this film.

Crazy Horse, a documentary by the legendary filmmaker, Frederick Wiseman, is about the famous club in Paris that features nude dancing. This place is not like your ordinary strip club, however. The people who work here all take what they do very seriously. They regard their work as art, just like the dancers at the Tanztheater Wuppertal. (The artistic director says that the government should require everyone in France to visit the club.) As with his previous films, Wiseman has no narration. Instead, his camera follows people around as they carry out their business, leaving it to the audience to draw their own conclusions from what they see. Of the various people we meet in this film, the one I found the most affecting was the head costume designer. She agonizes over every detail of the skimpy outfits the dancers wear. Crazy Horse seems to take us into another world, where things like wigs and g-strings acquire enormous importance.

This is another film I highly recommend seeing.

Soul Kitchen

October 24, 2010

Soul Kitchen is the latest film from the German director, Fatih Akin. I’ve seen two previous films by Akin: Im Juli and The Edge of Heaven. The first is a mildly amusing romantic comedy, and the second is a “serious” film that I found shallow and dishonest. (The Edge of Heaven won the Cannes Film Festival award for best screenplay. I guess that tells us how reliable film festivals are.) His latest film is a return to comedy, a move that seems to me to be well-advised.

Soul Kitchen tells the story of Zinos Kazantsakis (Adam Bousdoukos), a restaurant owner in Hamburg. Zinos does all his own cooking, but when he injures his back, he hires a hot-tempered cook, Shayn (Birol Ünel) to take his place. Shayn’s innovative menu makes the place a hit with Hamburg’s trendy art crowd. However, a greedy businessman, Thomas Neumann (Wotan Wilke Möhring) covets the building that Zinos owns. When Zinos leaves for China to join his journalist girlfriend, Nadine (Pheline Roggan), he puts his criminally inclined brother, Illias (Moritz Bleibtreu), in charge of the restaurant, with disastrous results.

Soul Kitchen is a better film than the earlier works I mentioned. The characters are more well-rounded and believable, and there is none of the high-minded pretentiousness of The Edge of Heaven. I found the film mostly funny, though I thought some of the slapstick was overdone. (In one scene, we are supposed to laugh when a man is thrown against a cement floor.)

Akin is the son of Turkish immigrants, and his previous films have touched upon the problems confronting immigrants in Germany. There isn’t much of that in Soul Kitchen, although it is perhaps significant that the odious Thomas refers to Zinos as “the Greek”. In one scene, it is implied that Shayn has difficulty finding work because he is Roma. Aside from that, there aren’t any politics in the film, although, considering the dismal preaching in The Edge of Heaven, that is probably a good thing.


October 5, 2010

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) is famous for its depiction of a futuristic city, but what is not so well appreciated is its depiction of the dehumanizing effects of capitalism. It is one of the few cinematic works I know of that have tried to represent this.

I’ve seen several versions of this film over the years. Each successive version contained additional footage that had previously been lost, with the result that each time the details of the story became clearer. This year a new version has been released, containing thirty minutes of newly restored footage. It also has the original film score that was composed by Gottfried Huppertz. I must admit that I found the score disappointing. The nineteenth century romanticism of Huppert’s music seems at odds with the film’s modernism. Also, it was recorded in front of an audience, with the result that there are sounds of people coughing on the soundtrack.

Despite its criticism of captitalism, Metropolis is politically problematic. Among other things, it takes a deeply pessimistic view of workers’ struggle. When the workers in the film finally rise up against their exploiters, they destroy vital machinery, which results in water flooding into the underground tenements where their children are. The idea seems to be that in the frenzy of revolt, the workers are incapable of thinking rationally. (The problem of mob violence was a recurring theme in Lang’s work. He would return to it later in M and, most notably, in the anti-lynching film, Fury.)

Also problematic is the film’s ending, in which the worker, Grot (“the hand”), is united with the capitalist, Frederson (“the brain”), by Frederson’s son (“the heart”). The meaning here is explicitly spelled out in the film: “The mediator between the hand and the brain must be the heart”. This really doesn’t mean anything; it’s not even a platitude. The political problems with this film perhaps were foreshadowing of things to come. Lang wrote the film with his wife, Thea von Harbou. When Hitler came to power in Germany, Lang fled to the United States, but Harbou remained and became a supporter of the Nazis. In later years, Lang expressed distaste for Metropolis, calling it “silly and stupid”.

There are also problems with the film’s narrative. Towards the end, for example, there’s a sequence in which the deranged inventor, Rotwang, abducts the heroine, and, Quasimodo-like, carries her onto the roof of a cathedral, where he does battle with the film’s hero. I found this just silly, and it merely detracts from the film’s main story.

Although Metropolis is Lang’s most famous film, it is not one of his best. I would argue that M, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse and Fury are all better films. Still, Metropolis was a visually innovative film for its time, and it remains important for that reason.

Führer Ex

September 19, 2010

I recently saw the 2002 German film, Führer Ex. I found it an odd and somewhat disappointing film. It is ostensibly about the neo-Nazi movement that flourished right after the re-unification of Germany. However, because most of the film takes places inside an East German prison, it’s really more about the brutality of prison life than about Nazism. (Judging from this film, the prisons in East Germany weren’t any worse than prisons anywhere else.) It is ostensibly based on a memoir by Ingo Hasselbach, though it bears no resemblance to the excerpt that I read in The New Yorker.

Tommy (Aaron Hildebrand) and Heiko (Christian Blümel) are two bored, disaffected teenagers living in East Berlin just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. They try to cross the border into the West but are caught. In prison, they gravitate towards an unrepentant Nazi, Friedhelm (Harry Baer), because he offers them protection from the other prisoners. When Heiko is put in solitary confinement, the Stasi use this to pressure Thomas into becoming an informer. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, they join an open neo-Nazi group in Berlin under Friedhelm’s leadership. One day Friedhelm tells Heiko that Tommy was a Stasi agent, so he must kill him. Heiko is unaware that Tommy became an informer to save his life. Meanwhile, Tommy has become disillusioned with the Nazis, after they kill a friend of his, a young girl. Heiko confronts Tommy, but he can’t bring himself to kill him. Tommy is subsequently killed by other Nazis. Heiko then quits the Nazis.

As I said before, most of the film takes place inside a prison. In these scenes, the prisoners are all concerned with power relationships between one another. These relations are enforced through the use of rape. When, for example, Heiko humiliates another prisoner, his cellmate demands that Heiko submit to him. The film seems to be saying that in the absence of the normal rules of society, these power relationships become an obsession for people. It may also be that these actions are a response to the boredom and dreariness of prison life.

One of the weaknesses of the film is that we’re not told much about Friedhelm, who only appears in a couple of scenes, even though he’s clearly an important character. We don’t get any sense of why people are attracted to him. Also, a large chunk of the film is devoted to a pointless subplot about Thomas’s efforts to escape from the prison. I don’t know why the fimmakers saw fit to include this, especially since we know that Heiko and Tommy are going to be released from prison anyway.

This film didn’t give me any insight into why some people are attracted to far right and racist ideologies. It seems to imply that the neo-Nazi movement in the wake of re-unification was a reaction against the East German state. (In one scene, one of the Nazis claims that they were all taught “lies” about Hitler in the Communist-run schools.) However, this doesn’t explain why there were (and are) neo-Nazi groups in western Germany as well as in the east.

All in all, this film is really more of a melodramatic adventure movie than a social analysis.

The White Ribbon

March 16, 2010

I recently went to see The White Ribbon, a film by the Austrian director, Michael Haneke. It is set in a small town in northern Germany, Eichwald, just before the outbreak of the First World War. The story, which is told in a series of vignettes, takes place over the course of one year. During this time, a number of violent crimes are committed. The local school teacher (Christian Friedel) gradually comes to the conclusion that a group of children are behind them.

Life in Eichwald is suffused with brutality, mostly psychological, but sometimes physical. This brutality stems from two things: the feudal social relations in the town, and the severe Lutheranism preached by the pastor (Burghart Klaußner). Most of the people in the town are peasants, and half of them work for the local baron (Ulrich Tukur). The tensions this creates are illustrated by, among other things, the fact that the residents of the town are servile towards the baron, while the baron’s pampered son, Sigi, becomes a target of violence by the local children. (The town doctor (Rainer Bock) is the only character who doesn’t seem to fit into the class dynamics of this situation. Unlike the others, he seems to be motivated by pure selfishness. Perhaps this is Haneke’s view of the middle class.) It’s not hard to see that we’re meant to view the events of this film in the context of Germany’s history in the twentieth century.

The White Ribbon is a haunting and disturbing film, all the more so because the issues are left unresolved at the end. It’s the type of movie that you keep thinking about for days after you see it.

As I was watching this film, I couldn’t help thinking of the picture books of Wilhelm Busch, which were hugely popular in Second Empire Germany. These often told stories of children who play cruel tricks. The most famous of these is Max und Moritz, which inspired the first American comic strip, The Katzenjammer Kids. The book is funny, but at the same time there is something kind of awful about it, because of the sheer nastiness of the children’s pranks. In one episode, they put gunpowder in a man’s pipe. When he smokes it, it explodes, blackening his face and burning all his hair away. (Needless to say, Busch graphically illustrates this.) Elsewhere, we see Max and Moritz laughing and cheering while a man falls into a rushing river and nearly drowns. It could be argued that that Max and Moritz are the literary forebears of Bart Simpson. I would be interested to know if Matt Groening has read Busch’s books.

The reason I bring all this up is that I suspect that Haneke may have had Busch in the back of his mind when he was writing the script. However, there is nothing humorous about the children’s crimes in this film. I must say, though, this movie might have benefited from a bit of comedy. The scenes in which the schoolteacher awkwardly tries to woo a painfully shy girl, Eva (Leonie Benesch), are vaguely humorous and provide a much needed respite from the brutality in much of the rest of this film.

As I said before, though, The White Ribbon is worth seeing. It is one of the more memorable movies that I have watched recently.

Divided Heaven

October 24, 2009

In an effort to round out my required credits, I am currently taking a college course devoted to German cinema during the Cold War. There is one film that I saw recently that I found particularly interesting. It is called Divided Heaven (1964). It was made in East Germany and was directed by Konrad Wolf, based on a novel by Christa Wolf. It tells the story of a young woman, Rita (Renate Blume), who falls in love with Manfred (Eberhard Esche), an ambitious chemist. Rita spends part of her time attending a training institute for teachers and part of her time working at a factory that makes train cars. Manfred gradually becomes frustrated with the reluctance of authorities to adopt a new process he has developed for making dyes. He leaves for the West. Rita soon follows. She eventually becomes disenchanted with what she regards as the aimlessness of life in the West; she misses the sense of purpose she had in the East. She reluctantly decides to leave Manfred and return to the East.

One of the things I found most interesting about Divided Heaven was the portrayal of the factory workers. It quickly becomes clear that there are tensions between individuals: resentments, rivalries, petty jealousies. There are suspicions that the foreman, Meternagel (Hans Hardt-Hardtloff) is too eager to please management, and one of the workers, Wendland (Hilmar Thate) is regarded as a loud-mouth and a show-off. This is very different from the standard Stalinist portrayal of heroic workers selflessly devoting themselves to the cause of socialism. Another way in which the film departs from Stalinist “art” is that it doesn’t take a worshipful view of the Communist Party. For example, Manfred is contemptuous of his father, who was a Nazi during the Second World War, but joined the CP afterwards. (When Manfred departs for the West, his parents regard this as a good career move.)

In the scenes at the teachers’ institute, problems are caused by a student, Mangold (Uwe Detlef Jessen), who is a self-appointed enforcer of political orthodoxy. He tries to have a student expelled simply because she concealed that fact that her father had fled to the West. It takes an impassioned intervention by the institute’s director, Schwarzenbach (Günther Grabbert) to defeat his witch-hunt. Interestingly, political orthodoxy is not an issue for the factory workers. Perhaps because of the concrete nature of their work, it is simply impossible for them to concern themselves with ideological nit-picking. They are more concerned with practical questions, such as how much labor is reasonable to expect of people in a single day. The students at the institute, on the other hand, perhaps because of the more abstract nature of their concerns, are sometimes prone to drift into dogmatism and phrase-mongering.

Divided Heaven provides a sharp contrast to the cartoonish depiction of East Germany in another film I saw for this course, One, Two, Three (1961), an American film made in Germany , in which East Germans are shown marching around with signs saying “Yankee Go Home”. From what what I’ve read about this film it appears that, at the time of its release, critics thought this was brilliant satire.

I found Divided Heaven a bit hard to follow at times. The film jumps back and forth in time, and the characters are constantly referring to events in the distant past. (The voice-over narration doesn’t help much.) The fogginess of this film might at least be partly due to the fact that five different people worked on the screenplay. Nevertheless, Divided Heaven provides an interesting glimpse into that strange and evanescent place known as East Germany.