The Case for Global Film

Discussing everything that isn't Hollywood (and a little that is).

Archive for November 2nd, 2012

Barbara (Germany 2012)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 2 November 2012

Andre and Barbara as Bogie and Bacall?

There was a moment when I was watching Barbara – which admittedly means quite a lot of watching the wonderful Nina Hoss – when it occurred to me that if there was a film like this to watch every week, I’d be very happy. When the film finished, my viewing companions surprised me by not agreeing with my sense of satisfaction. Perhaps they’ll comment on this post and explain why?

Many of the press reports have compared Barbara to The Life of Others (Germany 2006) which proved a major international hit. Barbara is similar in theme, but not in ‘feel’. Some aspects of Das Versprechen (The Promise, Germany 1994) seemed more apposite for me. I think director Christian Petzold set out to make a film quite unlike The Lives of Others in its depiction of life behind the Berlin Wall.

The setting of Barbara is East Germany in 1980. Barbara (Nina Hoss) has arrived in a small town in Pomerania near the Baltic coast to take up a new post in a hospital. Gradually we learn that she has been forced to leave a prestigious hospital in Berlin following her request to leave the country. Having angered the authorities with this request, she is now not to be trusted and is therefore subject to routine surveillance in her allocated apartment and suffers doubly in the hospital. It will take her time to sort out who is unfriendly because they think she is a stuck-up metropolitan type and who has been assigned to watch her closely and report back.

Barbara knows the score and therefore she is reluctant to respond to the overtures of Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld) who is effectively her boss. He seems warm and welcoming, but is he too good to be true? Forced into moments of close contact (they are paediatric surgeons, working together) he at one point tells her a story to explain why he too has been ‘sent to the provinces’. Is he lying? Zehrfeld, who comes across as a slightly podgy but much nicer Russell Crowe, is very engaging but the film’s production design and cinematography creates a narrative space so pregnant with distrust that we are equally as unsure as Barbara about who to trust. (He clearly is under surveillance himself, but this might be a cover, a double-bluff.)

There is an excellent Press Pack for the film available here (as a pdf) in which Petzold discusses the film at length in terms of what he was trying to achieve and how he and the cast and crew prepared themselves. He tells us, for instance, that the two films that were most important in influencing the story and how he approached it were Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not in which Bogart and Bacall develop a romance in Martinique under surveillance by the Vichy French police in 1940 and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Merchant of Four Seasons. The latter is one of several Fassbinder melodramas which present the feel and tone of life in post-war West Germany. Petzold showed the Hawks picture to his would-be lovers before the shoot and then looked to create something similar to Fassbinder’s mise en scène in representing the GDR in 1980. He argues that in recent films, the GDR has been portrayed in greys and browns – too symbolically drab and desperate. Petzold claims to have steered away from symbolism as such and tried for a very realist presentation, meticulously recreating hospital rooms etc. Certainly he shows the late summer as full of vibrant colours in the fields, but some scenes still seem to have an expressive edge (on several occasions when Barbara makes dangerous journeys by bicycle near the sea in order to secretly meet her West German lover  or to hide incriminating evidence, there is a howling wind blowing). Overall though I think the approach works and the atmosphere is created more by narrative suspense than clunky symbols.

The last section of the narrative is both the most emotional in terms of the potential romance and the most suspenseful. It is also the sequence in which Petzold seems to contrive a thriller narrative with a plot that is either full of holes or too obvious in its direction. I can see these criticisms but neither of them bothered me as I watched the sequence. The careful mise en scène and slow pace – even as the tension mounts – kept me enthralled. I felt both the horror of living in a society where every sound of a motor vehicle or a step on the stair means possible discovery and arrest and the romantic intensity of choosing between security on the one hand and genuine passion but no security on the other. This kind of desperate choice is really what the film is about. I though the film’s ending was appropriate and satisfying and overall I found the film to be humanist in its approach.

Posted in German Cinema, Romance | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Leeds IFF 2012: Rust and Bone (De rouille et d’os, France-Belgium 2012)

Posted by keith1942 on 2 November 2012

This was the opening film at the 26th Leeds International Film Festival. A winner at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the screening was a late addition to the programme. This probably explains why the Town Hall venue was less than half-full for a new film by one of France’s most talented and interesting filmmakers. There was also a slight delay whilst the staff set up the digital projector and sound system – time well spent because I found the acoustics better that I remembered from previous years.

Essentially this is relatively typical Audiard fare (thoughtfully dedicated to another fine French filmmaker) – the lives of people set at the margins of society. However, it is rather unlike his recent successes such as The Beat That My Heart Skipped (De battre mon coeur s’est arrèté, 2005) and A Prophet (Un prophète, 2009). Whilst a damaged hero, Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), is at the centre of the story, romance is a much more noticeable strand. Indeed the female protagonist Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard) is arguably the emotional centre of the film. Both actors give fine, sensitive performances, which are among the most effective aspects of the film.

The production values are equally good. The anamorphic cinematography by Stéphane Fontaine is impressive, with some very fine montages of light on sea (as with the opening shot), foliage and even the less aesthetic facades of urban life. The film was shot on Red digital camera, presumably with 4k facility. As in earlier films the editing, down to Juliete Welfling, works both to position characters and events but also places them in a believable but also evocative enrolment. A good touch is the cut from Marineland where Stéphanie works to Ali jogging as ambulances race pass. Alexander Desplat’s score is sometimes very noticeable, but effective and there is a great mixture of popular songs on the soundtrack. Audiard’s direction of his talented team shows how the auteur depends on the creativity of a larger group.

However there is no doubt that his films do offer a ‘personal vision’. And what makes his films so interesting is his ability to fashion (partly as a co-scriptwriter) film stories that address personal and social issues in a very distinctive fashion. From this point of view Rust and Bone is his weakest film for some time. One is conscious of the contrivance of the plot for both melodramatic and emotional moments. Thus is a key relationship in the film between Ali and his son Sam (Armand Verdure). So at a climatic moment in the film there is a serious accident, which requires a frenzied almost masochistic rescue by the father. I was conscious at this point that there was a simpler method available, but one that was less dramatic.

Another development in the story is an accident that leads to an amputation and the later the fitting of artificial limbs. This is done fairly impressively in the film, including frequent shots of the amputated limbs. I am not sure how this was done technically, presumably through some digital technique? But it was so well done that I actually found the perfection distracting.

But the film is never less than absorbing, and at times powerfully emotional. It also includes scene of disturbing violence: another frequent strand in Audiard’s films. In this case it is bare-knuckle fighting: visiting the strata of the lumpen-proletariat, another frequent Audiard depiction. It is out the travails of the fight arena, and of the major accidents in the film, that the protagonist’s relationship develops. And it is in the developments within the central relationships, including with the son Sam, which the film works its way to a resolution and redemption.

The resolution does feel a little pat but it is worth noting that it includes a dry, detached voice-over that provides the sort of ambiguity to the resolution that is also present in earlier Audiard films.

In an interview in Sight & Sound (November 2012) Audiard referred to his pleasure in older Hollywood films by Tod Browning, including The Unknown, 1927) starring Lon Chaney. “They made a sort of expressionist cinema that speaks about the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s (and the films often featured physical disabilities). I wanted to try and find a form of melodrama that could talk about today’s economic crisis, in which the setting of a Marineland (where Stéphanie works in the film) would be like a circus.”

This is a revealing comment on the film, and is interesting when one reflects on his other recent films. In fact my memory of The Unknown is that it was implausible but packed an immense emotional kick. I think Audiard’s new film achieves something similar.

I should finally note that the screening was followed by the Gala Opening of the Festival: the film, the USA feature Argo. This apparently sees Ben Affleck rescuing ‘stranded Americans in Iran’. Whilst I was happy to see Audiard symbolically revisit the 1920s, the prospect of Yanks revisiting and rewriting the 1980s was a little too much.

Posted in Festivals and Conferences, French Cinema | Tagged: , | 5 Comments »


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