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Archive for the ‘German Cinema’ Category

Fatherland (UK-West Germany-France 1986)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 28 June 2014

Klaus in the machine shop where his stepfather works. The sign says "This machine does the work of 40 men". The added graffiti says "Bet it won't replace the Central Committee [of the Party]"

Klaus in the machine shop in East Berlin where his stepfather works. The sign says “This machine does the work of 40 men”. The added graffiti says “Bet it will never replace the Central Committee [of the Party]“

Fatherland was the only cinema feature by Ken Loach that I hadn’t seen so I was pleased to find the Region 2 DVD from Park Circus. This is an unusual film for several reasons and although it presents some problems I did enjoy watching it. It raises a range of interesting questions.

Loach found it extremely difficult to work in the UK in the 1980s, partly because of the lack of television commissions in a climate of Thatcherism and partly because the UK film industry hit bottom in terms of audiences and films produced. Fatherland was the last cinematic outing for Loach with Kestrel Films, the company he founded with Tony Garnett, and funding was forthcoming from the only source readily available in the 1980s – Channel 4. Even so the film needed to be a co-production with French and German partners. Although the European market had been a consideration for earlier Kestrel/Loach films (e.g. Black Jack), Fatherland was Loach’s first venture abroad in terms of production. Later he would make films in Spain, Nicaragua, the US, Ireland and Italy etc. Fatherland was a genuine international co-production and Loach shot partly in Germany with a German crew and UK department heads.

Outline

This is one of the relatively few Loach films not written by one of his three regular writers Jim Allen, Barry Hines and Paul Laverty. However, Trevor Griffiths had been on the Loach/Garnett radar for some time and by the mid-1980s he had become well-known as a playwright and a film and television writer – often of stories with a political setting. Fatherland refers quite literally to ‘my father’s country’ and also to the wider usage of ‘my homeland’, in this case Germany – in the guise of East Germany (the GDR). The central character is Klaus, a ‘protest singer’ (played by the real singer Gerulf Pannach, who had a similar biography and who provides some of the music – which I liked very much). He finds himself persona non grata in East Germany because of his songs and is effectively deported (given a ‘one-way visa’) to the West. There he finds himself caught up in a propaganda war and treated like a commodity by an American record company which offers him a lucrative contract in return for exploitation of an image as a ‘defector’. But his family circumstances are of more immediate concern. Before his departure his mother gives him the key to a safe deposit in West Berlin where some of his father’s papers have been stored. Klaus hasn’t seen his father, also a dissident musician, since 1953 when he left the GDR. Where is he and what has he been doing all this time? Klaus sets off to find him with a young Dutch-French woman who also seems to be searching for him and already has a lead.

Commentary

The first thing that I want to say is that the presentation of the film on the Park Circus DVD is very good and that Chris Menges’ cinematography is a thing of wonder. Menges worked with Loach intermittently over a long period between Kes (1969) and Route Irish (2010) and by my count is second only to Barry Ackroyd in terms of Loach collaborations as a cinematographer. He brings a certain kind of ‘romantic naturalism’ to Loach’s films, unlike the documentary style of Ackroyd (which I think is still the defining Loach ‘look’ for many audiences). Menges works here with the other long term Loach collaborators, Martin Johnson as ‘Art Director’ and Jonathan Morris as editor, offering us contrasting views of East and West Berlin and finally of a trip through East Anglia to Cambridge. Menges is also required to present some black and white ‘dream/nightmare material’ – representing Klaus’s disturbed state. I mention these aesthetic ‘tasks’ for cinematographer and art director because they have been picked out by John Hill, one of the film scholars most associated with studies of Loach’s films, as indicators of the problems in the film. Hill (1997) argues that the script pushed Loach towards the European art film and away from his familiar sense of using characters and locations he understood so well. Loach doesn’t speak German and much of the dialogue in the first section of the narrative is in that language. Similarly he had some difficulties working with the German crew. The ‘modernist’ devices such as the dreams, the use of intertitles for the three separate locations (political slogans in German) and the jumps in narrative time created through editing were part of Loach’s repertoire in the 1960s but again here they disrupt the transparency of realism/naturalism. Loach himself in Graham Fuller’s book of interviews (1998) argues that he ‘failed’ on the film and was unable to deliver what the script required. He refers to his own ‘observational style’ as inappropriate for the material.

. . . and with the American record label representative (played by Cristine Rose) in an apartment in West Berlin

. . . and with the American record label representative (played by Cristine Rose) in an apartment in West Berlin

I’m not going to disagree with John Hill and obviously I can’t argue with how Loach himself felt about the film, but I do want to suggest another approach. Hill uses the Bordwell and Thompson definition of art cinema but doesn’t refer to any specific films. I was struck by similarities with various German films both closer to the period of Fatherland‘s production and more recent. Such comparisons also suggest the generic concerns of German (and other European and American) films. For instance, there is a mix here of two familiar narrative themes. Klaus faces similar questions as a dissident in the East who moves to the West as do some of the characters in Margarethe von Trotta’s Das Versprechen (The Promise, 1995) and Christian Petzold’s Barbara (2012). Once in the West the search for the father takes on a familiar thriller mode and given the real sense of being ‘watched’ ties together Klaus’s fear of the Stasi in East Germany and the conspiracy thrillers of US and and UK filmmaking in the 1970s and 1980s. Hill argues that Loach is not able to develop his usual approach to characters and locations and that he ‘resorts’ to shooting Cambridge as a tourist destination. I think that this misses the point. Cambridge is the appropriate location for these genres – it is home to exiles, fenland villages are the preferred ‘hiding places’ for certain kinds of exile and East Anglia in the 1980s ‘fits’ the conspiracy thriller because of the American air bases still in use and relatively close in Mildenhall and Lakenheath. In addition, I don’t think Loach treats Cambridge as a tourist destination. Apart from one shot down a main street, the main location is the open-air market where Klaus and the journalist/investigator Emma go to buy second-hand clothes.

The main problem with the narrative is that the two stories don’t really mesh and that Loach’s discomfort with Griffiths’s script is evident in the seeming lack of confidence with which Loach handles the narrative and the actors. Or at least that is what I get from Loach’s own comments. He tells Fuller that his own observational style didn’t fit with Griffiths’ more literary script – he just couldn’t do it justice. The action needed to be more plot-driven whereas he was more used to allowing actors to find the ‘natural’ way to act out the scene. Loach implies that it wasn’t that he and Griffiths had a disagreement, rather that their approaches were simply different. Loach also admits that at this point he simply wasn’t “competent at filmmaking” (Fuller 1998: 60) – the difficulties he faced in getting work transmitted/screened were presumably having an effect on his confidence.

Political discourse

Whether or not we accept Loach’s comments at face value, the script and the completed film still offer some interesting ideas about politics in the mid-1980s. Klaus is a hero for the anti-Stalinist socialist. His dissent in East Germany is voiced against the regime, not against socialism and it does not imply any compromise with ‘social democracy’ in the West. The press conference at which Klaus is introduced to Western journalists is shown twice – once in the title credit sequence and then again in the chronology of Klaus’ journey to the UK. Klaus refuses to say he is happy in the West and then insults the West German Minister for Culture when the politician trots out the “I disagree with what you say, but I defend your right to say it . . .” line. Klaus says that he sees West Germany as a continuation of the ‘fascistic state’ under the Nazis. I enjoyed this sequence very much – it’s so refreshing to see someone not prepared to kow-tow to convention and to maintain a thought-out political position. The exchange reminded me of the time around the late 1970s/early 1980s that teachers in the UK were asked to support their fellow trade unionists in West Germany who were faced with the Berufsverbot – a ‘professional ban’ on political activists from appointment to various public sector jobs, including teaching. These responses are matched later when Klaus under pressure to sign a recording contract, does so only after crossing out the majority of its clauses. It’s perhaps worth pointing out here that the three slogans which introduce each location are: ‘Actually existing socialism’ (Ost Berlin), ‘Grosse Freheitstrasse’ (Great Freedom Street – West Berlin) and ‘Stalinism is not socialism, capitalism is not freedom’ (on the train to the ferry in Holland).

Klaus and Emma (Fabienne Babe) in disguise in a 'stakeout' of a post office in Cambridge.

Klaus and Emma (Fabienne Babe) in disguise in a ‘stakeout’ of a post office in Cambridge.

The link between Klaus’ experiences of the FDR (West Germany) and his ‘quest’ in travelling to Cambridge is his father’s letters and the other materials in the safe deposit box. These refer back to his father’s journey to to fight in Spain in 1936 as a German communist – but what then put him in back in Germany under Hitler and then exiled him to the US before his final exile in the UK? At this point the thriller/conspiracy narrative takes over. (Ironically of course, Loach would return to related questions about socialists fighting in Spain in (Land and Freedom, 1995). When I think about it, the two plot points in the car journey to Cambridge do seem rather heavy-handed in showing the UK to be just as repressive as West Germany (which was probably ‘true’ in 1986). What is odd, perhaps, is that a socialist like Klaus would come to the UK with a young woman he didn’t really know (i.e. in regards to her politics) without seeking to find some British socialist contacts who might help him in his quest. This for me is the ‘disjuncture’ with Loach’s British films rather than the aesthetic differences noted by John Hill. Dialogue with Brits at this point might help the political discourse to cohere. The introduction of Emma also tends to hint at a possible emotional involvement that I’m not sure the script knows how to handle (or perhaps it was intended to but got cut?). Klaus is concerned about his son but his divorced wife has re-married. Personal emotions are part of the political but we don’t really see this with Klaus.

Fatherland is certainly flawed, but its problems are interesting and now I feel that I need to re-watch Riff-Raff (1991), usually seen as the ‘comeback’ or ‘re-launch film for Loach  and to consider it alongside Fatherland and Hidden Agenda to appreciate the changes.

References

Graham Fuller (ed) (1998) Loach on Loach, London: faber & faber

John Hill (1997) ‘Finding a form: politics and aesthetics in FatherlandHidden Agenda and Riff-Raff‘ in George McKnight (ed), Agent of Challenge and Defiance: The Films of Ken Loach, Trowbridge: Flicks Books

Posted in British Cinema, German Cinema, Politics on film | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Generation War: Our Mothers and Fathers (Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter, Germany 2013)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 14 May 2014

2014-01-20-filmsgeneration_warGeneration_War_3

Volker Bruch as Wilhelm, the narrator of the story

After the final episode of Generation War, BBC2 in the UK offered a discussion of the series by three distinguished academics alongside the series producer. The discussion was chaired by Martha Kearney, a regular presenter of cultural programming on the channel. This strategy was once fairly common on the BBC after controversial films or television productions but this is the first time (that I can remember) when a foreign language production received this kind of attention.

The discussion was intelligent and stimulating and the three academics, specialists in this period, historians Richard Evans and David Cesarani and writer/literature professor Eva Hoffman, all expressed their agreement on how well-made and exciting the film was as well as the range of problems it raised in terms of the history of East/Central Europe during the Second World War. The programme also included some brief interviews with two writers but my main problem with the discussion was that no one was prepared to discuss the film ‘as a film’ and there was no other filmmaker’s voice apart from the producer Benjamin Benedict. Richard Evans, while asserting that the film was not plausible in historical terms, noted that it was as if five young Germans from today had been parachuted into the events of 1941-45. He also admitted that it was impossible to represent characters from the 1940s in a modern drama in an historically accurate way. Of course, he is right and that’s why the film needs to be discussed as a modern drama, not a historical reconstruction. Its artistic intention is to engage younger Germans in an exploration of what their parents and grandparents might have experienced.

The second major issue raised was the depiction of the Poles, Ukrainians and Russians in the film and specifically their treatment of Jews. Again, the academics agreed that the events shown did have a historical basis but that they weren’t representative of the whole experience – and yes it wasn’t possible to cover the whole war in 4.5 hours! My argument is simple, let’s discuss this fascinating mini-series as a long-form film narrative. It is intended as popular entertainment on mainstream television. Inevitably it will use the conventions of mainstream cinema, including the generic conventions of the combat picture and home-front melodrama. We should consider the riveting performances and the stupendous production design as well as the music and cinematography. As a popular film it does have some flaws and we need to address these – but it captured its audience and got audience members talking to each other. Finally, we should consider how it compares to films from other combatant nations in 1941-5.

Charlotte and Greta on the home front

Charlotte (Miriam Stein, left)) and Greta (Katharina Schüttler, right) on the home front

Outline story (no major spoilers about what happens to the characters)

The film begins in the Summer of 1941 when five young people are celebrating in Berlin before they split up and the war takes them into different stories. The five are aged from roughly 18 to 21. This is important since they are just old enough to have known Germany before the Nazi regime took complete control, but have also been bombarded with propaganda as adolescents. They are Berliners so possibly more liberal than those elsewhere in Germany, but even so, two of them have approached the war in the spirit of fighting for the nation. “I represent German womanhood” Charlotte says when she presents herself as a nurse at a frontline hospital. Wilhelm has already fought in Poland and France and is a Leutnant in the Wehrmacht. Greta and Viktor are lovers. He is a Jewish tailor’s son and this character attracts most of the critics’ attention. Is this plausible they ask? I don’t know – but it is a useful narrative device, requiring Greta to act in a way that will help Viktor escape Berlin. Friedhelm, Wilhelm’s younger brother is the most problematic character for me given the narrative structure. The scriptwriters send three of the friends to the Eastern front and Greta will visit the front as a popular singer for the troops. After the party in Berlin, the five are never together again but four of them meet up on the front and at various times Wilhelm and Friedhelm fight in the same unit and meet Charlotte. Viktor goes his own way but meets Friedhelm. At the end of the story, three of the five are together again in Berlin.

Viktor has a different kind of story

Viktor (Ludwig Trepte) has a different kind of story

Analysis

The scriptwriters contrive to weave the five separate stories together so each of the three 90 minute films, subtitled ‘A Different Time’, ‘A Different War’, ‘A Different Country’ features something of each of the five characters’ stories. This means that the coincidences of melodrama are more obvious as the writers bring characters together in different ways. Friedhelm seemingly changes the most in his behaviour, yet it may be that his understanding of the psychology of war remains the same. I couldn’t work it out. He begins as the ‘rebel intellectual’ (rebelling against his father and to some extent against his older brother) almost unable to fight but in time becomes a ruthless killer. Wilhelm travels in the opposite direction, recognising quite early that Germany will lose the war. Charlotte becomes a better person. Greta perhaps gets ‘above herself’ but arguably suffers more than she should. Viktor becomes the catalyst in the story, both for Greta’s actions and for a lengthy sub-plot about the anti-semitism of some members of the Polish ‘Home Army’ – but also the courage of other Poles.

Friedhelm is the most difficult character to understand?

Friedhelm (Tom Schilling) is the most difficult character to understand?

I wonder if the series would have worked better as a longer narrative in which each of the five characters had their own one hour episode plus an opening and closing episode where the five stories coalesce. This might have allowed more attention to character development and required less manipulation of the separate stories. In a sense, Viktor’s story is different, simply because he exists ‘outside’ the central German narrative (i.e. in relation to the German military, Gestapo etc.). I think that overall I reject much of the criticism that the series has taken re the representation of Jewish characters and the ‘too positive’ representations of the young (and attractive) German characters. The films don’t ignore the Jewish question and they certainly represent both the cruelty and viciousness of some of the Germans and the political naivety and ideological confusion as well. Having said that, I do think the final scenes in 1945 don’t represent the horror of Berlin as well as Anonyma– Eine Frau in Berlin (Germany-Poland 2008).

The main problem for film viewers and critics in the Anglophone world is that we don’t know enough about the Eastern front from 1939 to 1945. There are a couple of UK/US films that do engage with the range of issues in Generation War. Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron (UK/West Germany 1977) and the recent Defiance (US 2008) by Edward Zwick are both worth exploring but mostly it is German, Polish and Russian films that should be the basis of comparative analysis. Sophie Scholl (Germany 2005) is a very different kind of film but it shows very well what kind of ideological ‘work’ is possible in stories about Germany from 1943 onwards when the ‘final victory’ becomes increasingly less likely for some young Germans – as distinct from the younger teenagers recruited into the German forces in 1944-5 who are depicted in Generation War as completely driven by propaganda.

The Russian and Polish films discussed on this blog include Trials on the Road (USSR 1971/85) and Katyn (Poland 2007). These films view the events of the war through the eyes of Russians and Poles as much as Generation War focuses on the views of young Germans. What all the films explore is the sweep of the action across a huge swathe of territory disputed over centuries by different occupying powers. Individuals in 1939-45 often changed sides and changed uniforms, atrocities were committed and great courage was shown. Notions of ‘friend or foe’ must have been very difficult to negotiate and concepts of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ soldiers or morally correct civilians seem hard to apply. Of course there were internal conflicts in all the countries occupied by the Axis powers in Western and Southern Europe during 1939-45 (and films have been made about them in those countries) but I don’t think those conflicts were quite as complex in terms of identity as in the disputed lands of Eastern Germany, Poland, Ukraine and Belarus etc. Generation War offers another perspective on what happened in the East as far as five twenty-something Germans were concerned. Now it would be good to see a bit more about what happened at home in Berlin (the father of Wilhelm and Friedhelm is a mysterious character and I’d like to know about Charlotte’s and Greta’s families). I’d also recommend Lore (Australia/Germany/UK 2012) as a good follow up to Generation War (which is now available on DVD in the UK). And of course it’s always good to go back to Edgar Reitz’s mammoth TV serial Heimat (West Germany 1984), also on DVD.

US Trailer

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TmyGPX23px4#t=15

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

German television makes history?

Posted by Roy Stafford on 1 May 2014

Five friends toast to their future in Berlin in the summer of 1941

Five friends toast to their future in Berlin in the summer of 1941

I enjoyed the first episode of Generation War: Our Mothers and Fathers broadcast on BBC2 last Saturday. In the UK this is being broadcast, as I think it was in Germany last year, in three 90 mins episodes. In the US it is being shown theatrically in two parts. The action covers June 1941 to May 1945 and offers a combined combat picture-home front melodrama. At a reported cost of €14 million it has been argued to be a relatively high budget series from Germany which has now got international distribution.

I’m not going to review the series as such until I’ve seen all three episodes but I’m intrigued/disturbed by some of the responses that I’ve come across already. I quickly stumbled into what appeared to be an almost neo-Nazi blog (i.e. it questioned the Jewish experience and deaths in WWII and quoted David Irving with approval) and then some American reviews which took the opposite view and complained that no concentration camps are shown and that this is airbrushed history making it possible for a new generation in Germany to see their grandparents in a more favourable light. So clearly, this series, as well as attracting big audiences and prizes in Germany, is going to be the site for a major ideological struggle.

I’m just a little surprised that so many commentators seem to have ignored the great many films that have been made about both the fighting in Poland/Ukraine/Soviet Union by Polish and Russian filmmakers and the domestic lives of Germans at home by German filmmakers. To be fair, most of the films I could quote tend to deal with the latter part of the war and in that respect this series is different in starting from the high point of German expansion. On the other hand I’ve recently watched Douglas Sirk’s last film A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958) which although set in the winter of 1944 includes some of the same incidents contained in this new series.

At this point I’ll just comment that Generation War: Our Mothers and Fathers is very well staged with exciting action, good performances and detailed production design. But I am sick of reading that the director must have been studying Steven Spielberg in order to handle a narrative like this and to show action so realistically. He may have done of course – but there are also plenty of other directors, especially Russians, who know how to make convincing combat pictures and home front melodramas. The war in Eastern Europe was extremely complex and many layered. Knee jerk analysis isn’t going to help. But perhaps the Saving Private Ryan reference does have some relevance since the series seems to have got families in Germany talking amongst themselves about what actually happened under the Nazis.

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

Two films by Alexander Kluge

Posted by keith1942 on 27 November 2013

Alexander-Kluge-in-Prag-Oberhausen-Manifesto1

A young Alexander Kluge at the time of the Oberhausen Manifesto

As part of the European Catalyst theme at the Leeds International Film Festival there were two films directed by Alexander Kluge in the 1960s. Kluge was the moving spirit behind the Oberhausen Manifesto (1962) which led to the New German Cinema. He was also a key negotiator in obtaining the state funding that enabled many of the early films of this movement to be produced.

The first film was short documentary Brutality in Stone (Brütalitat in Stein, 1961 12 minutes in black and white). The film uses stills, found footage and recordings from the period to produce a montage of the fascist period displaying Nazi architecture, designs and sketches and statements on art. An opening voice-over [and subtitle] informs the viewer that ““very structure expresses the attitude of the builder.” Then, through a series of both discontinuities but also of parallels and continuities in the images, the film evokes some of the ‘brutal’ aspects of Nazi culture. The effect is powerful and provoking and the editing of the material draws out allusions and significant symbolism. One particular technique alongside the cutting is the use of tracking shots that emphasise the mammoth and often bleak Nazi designs. The film appears to being strongly influenced by Alain Resnais’ key documentary from the 1950s Night and Fog (Nuit et Brouillard, 1956).

The second film was a feature length drama Yesterday Girl (Abscheid von gestern, 1966, in black and white. The cinematography was by a co-signatory of the Oberhausen manifesto Edgar Reitz: later director of the successful Heimat series for German Television. The film follows the travails of a young woman [Anita G. played by Kluge sister Alexandra) who leaves East Germany (Deutsche Demokratische Republik) when her parents are arrested and she moves to the West. The film shows her problems with authorities, landladies, state institutions and in prison as well as several relationships with men. But what is most noticeable is the style, a variation on montage. This includes abrupt edits; the insertion of found sound footage, silent film footage, asynchronous sound and unmotivated ellipses. The film is as much about how we respond to the telling of Anita’s story as it is about the actual events and relationships. Kluge was strongly influenced by the work of Jean-Luc Godard and this film reminded me in particular of Vivre sa Vie (My Life to live, 1962, also in black and white).

Both films were clearly intended to be challenging for an audience. We had the advantage of an introduction by Jo Gilbert, a post-graduate students at Leeds University who is researching Alexander Kluge’s early films. She talked about his importance for the New German Cinema, both in his film work but also in his activities in making funding available. He was influenced by Theodor W. Adorno and by Walter Benjamin. He felt, as certainly did Adorno, that film audiences were too passive. This led to his unconventional style designed to ‘interrupt’ the film viewing and stimulate an ‘active viewer’. He wanted to constantly question the viewer. So his films tended to the non-realist, anti-naturalist and to render narrative continuity problematic.

These aspects were strongly apparent in both films. I tend to think that the view Kluge espoused over-estimated the passivity of viewer. Hence I found that Yesterday Girl overdid the disruptions and discontinuities. The film did not strike me with the force that I found in Godard’s films of the same period. To be fair it was his first feature. I think that a later film like Occasional Work of a female Salve (Gelegenheitsarbeit einer Sklavin, 1973) achieves greater coherence and impact.

However, it is now extremely difficult to see films directed by Kluge, or indeed his fellow directors like Rainer Werner Fassbinder or Volker Schlöndorff, at the cinema. So top marks to Leeds Festival for screening. And top marks for Jo Gilbert for giving us a helpful introduction. I should add that the film was only available for screening in the Digibeta format, which meant that the image quality was not especially good. So finally, bottom marks to the Goethe Institut. They had a whole catalogue of films by Kluge, Fassbinder, Schlöndorff and others available in London in 16mm and 35mm prints. Then they packed them off to Germany early in the digital transition.

Posted in Festivals and Conferences, German Cinema | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Hannah Arendt (Germany/Lux/France 2012)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 24 October 2013

Barbara Sukowa as Hannah Arendt covering the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem.

Barbara Sukowa as Hannah Arendt covering the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem.

I fear that I don’t have time to do this marvellous film justice, but I’ll do what I can. At the beginning of the film I found it a little difficult to engage with and I’ve seen criticism of the direction and performances. However, whatever the problem was, I overcame it quite quickly and became completely absorbed. It was only afterwards that I realised what a controversial film it has become. Although there have been the occasional gainsayers, most of the reviews have been very good and Barbara Sukowa gives one of the performances of the year.

Background (There are some spoilers here, but the film is largely based on historical record)

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) was a brilliant philosophy student in Germany in the 1920s and her PhD was supervised by Martin Heidegger. He eventually joined the Nazis but she was from a secular Jewish family and left Germany for France in 1933. In 1941 she fled France as well when the ’round-up’ of Jews began and landed in the US, eventually establishing herself as the first female university lecturer at Princeton in 1959. In the immediate postwar period she helped Zionist organisations to take Holocaust survivors to Palestine.

The film begins in 1960 when Israeli agents from Mossad captured Adolf Eichmann in Argentina and smuggled him to Jerusalem where a show trial was organised. Eichmann was one of the principal administrators of the transport of Jews to the gas chambers and the trial was an international event. Hannah was commissioned to write about the trial for the New Yorker magazine. Even before the trial her friends and colleagues were divided about whether and how she should cover it. By this time, Arendt described herself as a ‘political theorist’ – certainly she wasn’t a journalist and the New Yorker had to wait for the long articles that were published first in the magazine and then in book form as Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil in 1963. Arendt’s arguments in her report proved highly controversial for three reasons. Firstly she criticised the whole basis of the trial, since it was an attempt to put an ideology on trial, but only a man was in the dock. Second, she descred Eichmann as a man who had ceased to behave like a thinking person – in his statements to the court he didn’t display anti-semitism as such and he claimed to be an efficient bureacrat. From this observation Arendt developed her ideas about the ‘banality of evil’. Third, she suggested that some Jewish leaders had, through their behaviour in responding to the Nazis in an orderly manner, indirectly contributed to the extent of the deaths in the Holocaust.

Commentary

The film is not a biopic as such. It focuses mainly on the events surrounding the arrest of Eichmann, the trial and its aftermath from 1960 to 1964. There are also two flashbacks to Hannah as a philosophy student (played by Freiderike Becht) and then to a second meeting with Martin Heidigger in Germany after the war. It is a film largely about ‘thinking’ – and the greatest compliment that could be paid to director and co-writer (with Pamela Katz) Margarethe von Trotta is that she makes long scenes of Hannah smoking and thinking supremely watchable. Margarethe von Trotta is the New German Cinema director who has struggled the most to get a decent film release in the UK. Some of her films have had pretty bad reviews but I’ve only seen the two releases which got some support, Das Versprechen (The Promise) from 1995 which I liked a great deal and Rosa Luxemburg from 1986 which I enjoyed, but can’t remember very well. Rosa Luxemburg was another great German Jewish figure, also portrayed by Barbara Sukowa. Margarethe von Trotta has been careful to avoid the tag of ‘woman’s film’ or ‘feminist director’ but it is worth noting that she works closely with other women as creatives and often features women as central characters in her narratives. Hannah Arendt was photographed by Caroline Champetier and edited by  Bettina Böhler.

One of the social gatherings at Hannah's New York apartment.

One of the social gatherings at Hannah’s New York apartment.

A few days after seeing the film I came across the concept of ‘prosthetic memory’ at the Chinese Film Forum (in conjunction with films about the Nanking Massacre in 1937). This suggests that film and other media can act as a kind of constructed historical memory coming between an individual and a historical event. I was profoundly moved by Hannah Arendt, partly through the excellence of the filmmaking and the performances but also because of my own personal memories. I was 11 when Eichmann was captured and I remember the furore surrounding the trial. I didn’t fully understand it at that age but I was aware of the issue and I think it was a defining moment re representations of the Holocaust (though I didn’t know that term at the time). But perhaps as important was the film’s use of costume and hairstyles etc. My mother was born the year after Hannah and she wore similar boxy suits in the early 1960s. The film brought back a lot of memories associated with that time. Margarethe von Trotta’s direction and Barbara Sukowa’s performance captures a thinking woman, but also a real emotional woman in a loving relationship and with a group of friends and supporters. I believed everything that Hannah said and I followed the arguments carefully – but I also responded to her as a recognisable woman. Her relationship with her husband (an interesting character in his own right as played by Axel Milberg) is also very well presented.

I must have missed the moment near the start of the film when Hannah’s American friend is introduced. She is played by Janet McTeer, a remarkable physical presence who defends Hannah like a mountain lion. It was only afterwards that I realised that this was Mary McCarthy whose novel The Group I read as a teenager. I hadn’t previously researched McCarthy’s interesting political background. The only disappointment for me was that Julia Jentsch has such a small role in the film as Hannah’s loyal assistant. She is one of the many German actors in the film which features both English and German dialogue.

Thinking and smoking . . .

Thinking and smoking . . . (photo: Véronique Kolber)

If Hannah Arendt sounds like a film filled with speech and long periods of solitary smoking, it is – but it’s also about ferocious arguments and it includes one of the most impassioned public lectures you are ever going to have the pleasure to watch. If you can find it in a cinema, go for it – I’m hoping we get it in Bradford in December.

Press pack to download.

Posted in Films by women, German Cinema, Politics on film | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

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

Posted by nicklacey on 3 September 2013

(Not) SF iconography

(Not) SF iconography

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 and playful imagery, such as the one 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.

Posted in German Cinema, TV | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Wolke Neun (2008): German Screen Studies Network #2

Posted by Rona on 25 July 2013

Love in the Third Age: Wolke Neun (2008)

Love in the Third Age: Wolke Neun (2008)

At the inaugural symposium of the German Screen Studies Network at King’s College, London in July, a number of films were screened (including some at London’s Goethe Institut) to complement the conference’s theme of ‘The Return of the Real.’  (for further information, see:  http://germanscreenstudies.co.uk/).

Andreas Dresen’s 2008 feature film (translated as Cloud Nine) presents us with the kinds of relationships rarely seen on the screen.  We might think that there are taboos still to be broken regarding the representations of sexuality.  There was the breakthrough representations of gay and lesbian themes in 1990s American Independent Cinema (“We’re here, we’re queer – get used to it”, as B. Ruby Rich famously wrote). In 2013, Blue is the Warmest Colour ‘s depiction of explicit, non-heterosexual sex still has the ability to shock audiences and to generate journalistic screed, as well as win the Palme d’Or.  However, in a very naturalistically filmed, understated film, Dresen has captured the unthinkable in a story about falling in love – passionately and sexually – in your sixties and seventies. The film begins with an explicit scene of spontaneous lovemaking between Inge (Ursula Werner) and Karl (Horst Westphal), a client for her tailoring and alteration services. Back at home and feeling guilty, she attempts to put the momentary fling behind her and resume her life with her husband, Werner, (Horst Rehberg) a dependable and loving man, and with her children and grandchildren. I think one useful comparison is with Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation where the emotions, the complex and tangled relationships – and where nobody has to be a hero or villain – emerge through carefully crafted scenes which, on the surface, appear spontaneously filmed.

Dresen’s protagonists look their age. At times, in the experience of falling in love again he artfully uses soft filters to imply the girlish glow that returns to his female protagonist’s features. More artfully, the players are often filmed through the doorways of their cramped flat, keeping us distant from the unfolding melodrama and emotion. I feel this is a useful device, just as in Farhadi’s A Separation to remind us (unconsciously) that we cannot know everything about the intimacy in other people’s relationships. An action against conventional film-making which makes us believe this constantly with its close-ups.

Dresen is well-established as a director of the everyday, telling stories sympathetically and empathically. He has been quoted as saying: There may not be any message at all. You see, you don’t make a film because you have all the answers, but to discover something. This is reflected in his filming style, where there is an relaxed and improvisatory feel to the action.  It has much of the feel of the social realism of someone like Ken Loach and certainly the same move towards difficult or tragic subjects. His latest, Halt auf freier Strecke (2011) (Stopped on Track) won a Prix Un Certain Regard at Cannes, for its portrayal of a man dying from brain cancer.

There are moments of intense melodrama that parallel the film with Valeska Grisebach’s Sehnsucht (Longing, 2006), especially in the languorous pace set in scenes and in the focus on everyday minutiae in people’s lives, punctuated by changes (forced or desired) and sometimes tragedy. A key strength here (as in other films by Dresen) is the reliance he places on his actors and their ability to live these roles in a completely convincing way. This is visible from his first feature film (after working in television) Halbe Treppe (2002), set in the border town of Frankfurt (Oder) right through to his prize-winning outing in Halt auf freier Strecke. Here’s a link to an English language German film digest, Kino, which features Dresen: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ofkZcec17e8. Significantly, Abdellatif Kechiche shared the Cannes Festival award with his two lead actors, a testament to the collaboration of artistic contributions on that film. Dresen is another example of the kind of director who uses a skill in letting the performances breathe to bring out the emotion fully in these kinds of intense stories, all too rarely seen. Wolke Neun is certainly worth seeking out on DVD, if only to remind yourself that there’s a long list of real emotional taboos to be dealt with sensitively in the cinema. If only this was the beginning of an (albeit) mini-revolution:  ‘We’re older, we’re bolder – get used to it.’

Here’s an English language trailer (which doesn’t do it justice unfortunately)

Posted in Directors, Festivals and Conferences, German Cinema | Leave a Comment »

Unter dir die Stadt (2010): German Screen Studies Network #1

Posted by Rona on 24 July 2013

Cordes_Fenster_und_Stadt

Twenty-first Century Man in ‘Unter dir die Stadt’ (from: hoehnepresse-media.de)

At the inaugural symposium of the German Screen Studies Network at King’s College, London in July, a number of films were screened at London’s Goethe Institut to complement the conference’s theme of ‘The Return of the Real.’ See details on the network here.

Unter dir die Stadt (literally ‘below you the city’)  is a 2010 film directed by Christoph Hochhäusler and is an example of the ‘New’ New German Cinema of recent years, which also includes film-makers such as Christian Petzold. Similar to Petzold’s Yella (2007), this film examines the construction of relationships in Germany post-Wende. How does the human function in the world of glass and steel that is the modern capitalist nation and in an economy that creates human migrants across borders in modern Europe? Hochhäusler examines the relationships of the people in power in the business world and explores the spaces which sit hight above the street (where the little people move around). Under these business men lies the city – sitting in rooms with uninterrupted views of the cities, with expensive artwork on the walls. What happens when human emotions intrude on the machine-like efficiency of money-making?

These films are fascinating because they represent a reinvigorated film movement in Germany which does not always  get the play outside of the country that it should (where the recycling of the historical dramas examining Germany’s troubled past are much more likely to receive distribution and global film awards – see Das Leben der Anderen (2006) for example.  Das Leben was an Oscar-winning success and is a very emotionally satisfying film, through its melodramatic structure. Meanwhile, a number of film-makers have been exploring a new kind of language to represent social worlds and problems now. Like aspects of Godard, these films are not the most accessible in the slow pace of plot development or in the way in which they marry visuals and soundscape. Like aspects of Godard, this is a minimalistic kind of film practice which looks to go back to zero to reinvent how to tell the story. These film-makers (many of them trained at the Berlin Film School) are interested in film critique and their film knowledge has led them to be seen as the inheritors of the French New Wave’s mantle in lots of ways – being referred to as la nouvelle vague Allemande.  See this article by Marco Abel, who has written extensively on these film-makers, here:

Visually, the film is arresting.  Hochhäusler (and his cinematographer Bernhard Keller) construct a number of frames where the world is reflected in windows and the clarity of what we are looking at is obscured. In the opening sequence, we appear to be moving through a bank of leafy trees, until we discover it is simply their reflection in the windows of a department store and suddenly we are staring directly at the plastic mannequin (the copy of a woman). We begin to follow Svenja, an ambiguous heroine who finds herself following a woman wearing the same shirt as herself. The film enjoys playing throughout with ideas of copying and originals – back-stories are apparently invented by characters to hide their true origins (a metaphor for the work of economic migrancy) and the successful, middle-aged banker, Roland, works in offices in Germany (it was shot in Frankfurt and Cologne) and London which have exactly the same design including the same art on the walls. It’s a corporate world which is shown to sponsor art and music, but which is hopelessly out of touch with reality.  As Roland and Svenja embark on a more human kind of relationship (this much is in the trailer), the film explores what happens when the real intrudes from the streets.

The film is heavy in its use of symbolism, but like Yella it is part of a series of films in recent German cinema which directly engages with effects of globalised capitalism on Germany and the Germans and tries to find a visual language for conjuring up what it is like to live in these times.  Both films are very potent in their minimalism and avoidance of melodrama – dialogue is spare and characters’ motivations are not always fully explained.  Here’s a trailer (unfortunately no English version available, but shows the visuals):

Posted in Festivals and Conferences, German Cinema | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

 
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