MUBI and streaming

Paul Thomas Anderson’s documentary Junun available for rental on MUBI

Netflix and Amazon don’t interest me as subscription services – except that not being a subscriber means that it isn’t possible for me to fully understand what they mean for other cinephiles because I don’t know the full extent of what they show. I have used both iTunes and Curzon World to watch films, paying a fee each time, but MUBI represents something different. After 30 days of free viewing with a promotional voucher I’m now a subscriber at £1 per month for three months. They are certainly prepared to give me a long taster before charging me the standard £7.99 a month. At this point I do feel I’ve got a reasonable idea of how the service works and whether I would recommend it.

The MUBI model is to offer a new film (i.e. added to the current slate) each day. Once added that film is then available for the next 30 days. These titles are free to watch and re-watch over the 30 days for all subscribers. In addition, MUBI offers a rental section which is much more select than the big providers – just 128 films are currently available. These titles are available for rent for as little as £2.49 with a handful of current films costing £4.49. The rental period is standard – once you’ve paid you have 30 days to organise a viewing which must be completed in 48 hours once you start viewing. What kinds of films are on offer as rentals and as selected ‘film of the day’? On the whole these are definitely cinephile offerings. Many are ‘festival films’ – films which you are unlikely to find easily on a cinema release or even on DVD or Blu-ray in the UK. MUBI operates in several territories and has deals which enable it to put films in front of UK subscribers that could not otherwise be seen. I’ve already blogged on films by Thomas Arslan and Angela Schanelec that certainly fall into that category. All of the titles are ‘curated’ in some way, selected in accordance with various criteria according to auteur status, avant-garde, documentary etc. There are American independents and Hollywood auteurs such as the melodramas of Douglas Sirk at Universal or Jacques Tourneur’s Technicolor Western Canyon Passage. There are films from Europe, Latin America and Asia with a couple from Africa, but nothing so far that I’ve noticed from India. There is a small selection of films that MUBI has distributed itself  – to cinemas and online. What else does MUBI offer? Curation means that you can dig quite deep into MUBI’s archives to find pieces written for its ‘Notebook’ on a wide range of films and topics. These pieces by writers, some of whom are familiar to me, are of varying lengths and complexity/access. MUBI’s sense of community is also fostered by its Twitter feed (and subscribers receive email alerts). One feature that is both useful and annoying is the provision of pages on lots of films that have been available in the past, may be available on other MUBI sites in different territories – and may return to the UK site. To give an example, there are eight films for rental from Walerian Borowczyk, but all 40 of his films have a page on the MUBI site. On these pages are cast lists and user reviews as well as links to appropriate Notebook articles.

I’ve actually been registered with MUBI since 2010 (it was previously known as The Auteurs), but have not subscribed up until now. I always understood that the idea behind MUBI was to generate a ‘conversation’ about films that was properly global, something this blog is obviously going to support. For a long time though I thought that I could be satisfied by the films on offer in my local cinemas. Alas I’m increasingly beginning to despair at what’s on offer and to worry that as I become more decrepit I won’t want to travel so far to watch films in cinemas. I haven’t actually reached that point yet, but it is comforting to know that there is a service out there. In the last thirty days I have watched around eight films on MUBI and dipped into a few more without as yet finishing them. The service is clearly worth £7.99 per month. My home broadband signal (very fast by UK standards produces a very efficient streaming service and I’ve no complaints about the quality of the image. I want to watch around a third of the films on offer, perhaps another third I’ve already seen and the rest don’t interest me that much, though I’m game to try some of them. The problem remains that watching on my TV doesn’t equate to seeing the films in the cinema – but the possibility of re-watching them is very appealing. Overall, I’d say that it is a worthwhile service that I look forward to exploring further.

MUBI was founded in 2007 by Turkish engineer and entrepreneur Efe Çakarel. It has had partnerships with several film-related organisations over the last eight years and is now available in several parts of the world via Mac and PCs, iOS and Samsung Smart TVs. In 2015 it was reported to have a global subscriber base of over 7 million.

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Absence of Malice (US 1981)

Michael (Paul Newman) and Megan (Sally Field) on his boat, ‘The Rum Runner’

MUBI also includes in its streaming schedule some Hollywood films from the recent past (see below for definitions of ‘recent’). This last week saw two Sydney Pollack titles added to the roster (the other is Tootsie with Dustin Hoffman). Pollack had a forty-year career as a director, producer and actor working with the leading stars from 1965 to 2005. As a director he made conventional mainstream films with strong narratives, often dealing with outsider figures from a ‘liberal’ perspective. Absence of Malice pairs Paul Newman and Sally Field. I was a fan of both actors in 1981 but I don’t remember watching this at the time. I always loved Newman as a star, wishing only that he would make more films as a director – Rachel, Rachel (1968) and Sometimes a Great Notion (1971) are films I’d happily watch again. Sally Field is still active but her peak film career was probably from the mid 1970s to the mid ’90s when Hollywood’s sexism cast her as the older woman destined for character parts. Earlier she had often been paired with male stars ten or more years older (Burt Reynolds, James Garner et al.) and therefore a romance with Newman was par for the course.

‘Absence of malice’ is a legal term relevant to libel law in the US. A newspaper may print a story that may not be true about a person as long as they do so in good faith, not knowing that it is false. Whether the film’s plot actually works in terms of the US legal system appears to be open to question. The basic premise is that Megan (Sally Field), a news reporter for a local Miami paper, runs a story about an FBI investigation of a local rum importer, Michael Gallagher (Paul Newman) who is assumed to be a suspect in the disappearance of a local union leader. Michael’s father was a ‘rum runner’ during prohibition with contacts in organised crime. Michael was sent to good schools and is ‘clean’. The news report creates major difficulties for Michael with the withdrawal of labour by his unionised workforce and loss of business with local restaurants. He begins his fightback by confronting Megan about where she got the story.

Newman is still a star in 1981.

As the narrative progresses it becomes clear that the local FBI boss is ‘fishing’ for leads and that the District Attorney has his own election issues. Throw in that Michael and Megan have an attraction for each other plus there is a third person with an emotional attachment involved in Michael’s situation and an intriguing narrative develops. The Miami setting is well handled and the film begins with a documentary montage detailing the hot metal process for newspaper printing that should be an eye-opener for younger viewers. Megan is an interesting character. She’s without a significant back story and it could be argued that she finds herself trapped between her boss (the editor played Josef Sommer) the FBI team (at least one of whom is an admirer) and Michael – all older men. But she remains her own woman. It’s good to see Sally Field playing her real age (34) and coming across as a professional woman rather than simply as the plot’s romance interest. In her best line she reminds Michael that she is a woman of 34 who doesn’t need courting. Some reviewers at the time saw her character as an example of a ‘bad journalist’ (in the context of All the President’s Men in 1976). That seems a mis-reading to me. Megan certainly uses the tricks she knows to get a story but I don’t think that makes her ‘bad’, especially given the pressure on her to sensationalise – which she tries not to do.. I won’t spoil the narrative by explaining Melinda Dillon’s character as Teresa, but she won an Oscar nomination for her part. There were also nominations for Newman and for the main writer Kurt Luedtke who had been a newspaper reporter and editor – he wrote two further scripts for Pollack, Out of Africa in 1985 and Random Hearts in 1999.

A more relaxed Megan with her cynical editor McAdam (Josef Sommer)

A couple of days before I saw the film, someone suggested to me that some younger film programmers saw 1980s films as ‘classic cinema’ now. I was initially shocked but now I can see that there is evidence to support this. Absence of Malice seems more like the tail-end of 1970s Hollywood. Aspects of the plot are similar to several of those 70s movies that find darker, ‘murkier’? elements in cities like Miami. I did find some of the costumes odd. Newman is beautiful in his mid fifties, still slim and still with those piercing blue eyes, but in one scene he wears high-waisted jeans with a tight check shirt which didn’t work for me in terms of the character. Sally Field has a smaller version of that 80s ‘big hair’ trend and a succession of suit outfits with heels which make her look uncomfortable in the heat of Miami (especially when clambering into Michael’s boat. But these are minor worries. What does seem ‘classic’ is that this is engaging entertainment over 116 minutes for an adult audience without a contrived tacked-on ending. It’s good to be reminded that Hollywood could once do this on a regular basis.

Rare 4K treats!

The Sight & Sound letter page in the March issue had a good letter from Adam MacDonald raising the issue of identifying 4K releases into cinemas. He suggested that this was something that the magazine could offer readers. Unfortunately the only response printed to date is from Patrick Fahy who supervises the ‘Credits’ for the magazine. He suggests asking at cinemas: what is called ‘passing the buck’.

In Leeds Vue used to have a little box on their Online pages which gave this information. That has disappeared and now if you ask at the desk they have to try and find someone who actually knows about this. On my one visit to The Everyman they thought I was asking about the sound! Other multiplexes with 4K projectors offer a similar ‘service’.

The one venue with 4K projectors who do provide the information is Picturehouse at the Science + Media Museum in Bradford. The Picturehouse CityScreen in York also has a 4K projector but they do not seem to offer similar information. So good news. This coming week there are, not one, but two films on DCP in 4 K. Over the whole of last year I only counted ten releases in 4K, so this is a feast.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a joint USA/British production. It is an adaptation of the novel by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer. This title is in colour, standard widescreen and has 7.1 sound.  It was directed by Mike Newell.

Custody / Jusqu’à la garde, a French film from 2017 scripted and directed by Xavier Legrand. This is in colour and 2.39:1 ratio with English sub-titles.

Of course, you need to attend a screening in the Pictureville auditorium which actually has the 4K projector,. Note, Custody seems to only have one screening in Pictureville on Wednesday April 25th: the rest are in Cubby Broccoli which only has a 2K projector.

Is this a positive portent for the future or just one isolated highlight?

By The Time It Gets Dark (Dao Khanong, Thailand 2016)

One of several compositions looking out through windows

This Thai film is exceptionally beautiful and invites the viewer to experience something at once universal but also highly specific. I had two different personal responses to it which I’ll quickly get out of the way, but which are both germane. The film’s English title makes me think of a song written and performed by Sandy Denny which was recorded in 1976 but not released until several years after her death in 1978.

Yesterday’s gone and will be forgotten
And today is where every new day starts
Got to be free as the leaves in autumn
You may be sad but it never lasts.

And maybe, by the evening we’ll be laughing
Just wait and see
All the changes there’ll be
By the time it gets dark.

It’s a beautiful song and has since been covered by Mary Black and others. It doesn’t appear in this film but the year 1976 is key. That was the year in which the film’s director Anocha Suwichakornpong was born. It was also the year that an infamous massacre of students by the Thai military took place at a university in Bangkok. This incident is central to the ideas behind the film. I’ve only visited Thailand once, for a few days in Bangkok en route to Japan in 1977. I’m ashamed to think that I don’t remember anything about that massacre (or even whether I was aware of it at the time). And in a sense that is what the film is about too – the impossibility of representing history through film as an art form. (The Thai title refers to a district of Bangkok but the filmmaker has said that it isn’t a ‘destination’ as such.) Anocha Suwichakornpong trained as a filmmaker in the US. She might have heard the song title there.

The young political activist from the 1970s

The film has no conventional plotting but it does have a narrative. It opens with compositions of individual women looking out of windows. One of them has a camera and we are looking at them from behind. Such framings through windows and doorways, sometimes emphasised by mirrors, occur throughout the film. We soon realise that this will be a film about filmmaking and that it will include a form of mise en abîme – a film within a film, or rather, different versions of the same film? A conventional film narrative appears to begin when two women arrive at a spacious and elegant country house. The younger woman, ‘Ann’ is a film director and she has invited the older Taew (Rassami Paoluengton), who was a student in 1976, to accompany her to the house and to be interviewed about her life. Before this moment we have seen what appears to be a re-staging of a military assault on young people. Ann is played by Visra Vichit-Vadakan who directed Karaoke Girl in 2013. The conversations between the two women skirt around Ann’s motives in making the film and Taew’s reluctance to see herself as an important historical figure. But the significant comment is made by a much younger woman who serves the couple breakfast at a forest café. This character, Nong, is played by Atchara Suwan, and she will appear in many scenes in the film. She’s a kind of ‘every working woman’ in Thailand – a waiter on a river cruiser with a restaurant, a cleaner in a hotel and head-shaved Buddhist novice. When she meets the two women in the café and learns why they are there, she tells the director that Taew should write her own story.

‘Ann’ has a mystical moment in the forest

The events of the past with the political activity of the students and the repressive actions of the military are played out at various points. Later in the film an almost documentary study of workers on a tobacco plantation slides into a study of a young actor and pop musician, Peter (Arak Amornsupasiri). This shifts the focus away from the countryside to the city and the modern world of the celebrity. Ann and Taew re-appear but played by different and more ‘starry’ actors. Finally, we are in an edit suite. Is this the film about Taew about to be completed? There is a possible narrative twist in this sequence, but equally important is the focus on the artificiality of the filmic image. The final shots of the film reminded me of the extraordinary colours of The Tears of the Black Tiger (Thailand 2000), Wisit Sasanatieng‘s fabulous tribute to the Western and the romance film. During the sequence in the edit suite, which features some English dialogue, one of the characters appears to be named ‘Pang’. The Pang Brothers, Danny and Oxide Chun, grew up in Hong Kong before becoming well-known filmmakers sharing the main creative work on actions films and horror films in Thailand since 2000. I don’t know if this is a deliberate reference. I also noted the use of a simple but very emotional piano and string arrangement of a musical piece to accompany footage of Peter and his girlfriend and this reminded me of various East Asian romance films.

Colour grading in the edit suite

If all these seemingly disparate elements make this film sound as if it is difficult to watch or that it might feel incoherent, nothing could be further from my experience of watching it. What is surprising, perhaps, is that the film seems so calm and thoughtful, despite dealing with what is an almost despairing argument about a society which seems to be unable to confront its own history and narrativise and narrate it so that succeeding generations can learn how not to repeat the mistakes. But perhaps the calm approach is ultimately more fruitful? It isn’t really a problem solely for Thai cinema. We all have problems with our history and how it is represented. I should watch this film again and look out for more work by Anocha Suwichakornpong. I probably also need to learn more about Thailand’s history – as an Asian country that wasn’t colonised by the West, but has had close ties with Japan and conflicts with its neighbours (before and after colonialist periods). There are a couple of scenes in the films of almost deserted roads, some at night, which some reviewers have referred to as nods towards ‘Lynchian surrealism’. I didn’t get that, but I did think about Thailand as a ‘left-hand drive’ country, like Japan and India (and Hong Kong), despite the influence of the US and the switch to right-hand drive by the country’s neighbours. I guess what I’m saying is that By The Time it Gets Dark feels like more than an art film and that it appears to be saying something about Thai culture. But the film is a product of the festival circuit. Electric Eel Films is the Thai producer looking to make quality films but support also comes from Rotterdam and Doha Festivals, the Hubert Bals Fund and producers in several countries.

 

Cannes Preview 2018 – Female Directors

Director Nandita Das and her lead actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui in MANTO, one of the selections for Un Certain Regard

Perhaps predictably there has been plenty of adverse comment about the Cannes list of titles ‘in competition’ for the Palme d’Or this year with only three titles directed by women. I’m a very strong supporter of more access to Cannes and other festivals for films by women, but the recent upsurge of support and the impact of #MeToo will take time to produce results in terms of completed films of high quality directed by women who have finally got the opportunity to develop their careers. I’m not really a fan of festival competitions anyway, so I usually look at the other strands of a festival like Cannes as well as the main competition. In ‘Un Certain Regard’, the second strand, there are six films directed by women out of a total of fifteen titles selected. This compares favourably with the three out of eighteen in the official selection.

Un Certain Regard looks like a very encouraging selection. The strand presents “original and different” works which seek international recognition. There is a significant monetary prize and titles are also eligible for a range of jury prizes. It’s wonderful to see Nandita Das returning to Cannes with Manto, her biopic of the controversial writer Saadat Hasan Manto (1912-1955), played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui. Ms Das is no stranger to Cannes, having appeared on festival juries. She has an international profile as an actor and social/political activist and Manto is her second feature as director after Firaaq in 2008. Joining Nandita Das in the selection are Wanuri Kahiu from Kenya and Gaya Jiji from Syria plus Valeria Golino from Italy, multi-disciplinary artist Vanessa Filho with her first feature (a French production) and the French-Moroccan director Meryem Benm’Barek. Most of these women are represented by their first or second features as director. They join the three directors selected in the ‘Official Competition’. Nadine Labaki from Lebanon, whose two earlier films, Caramel (Lebanon-France 2007) and Where Do We Go Now? (Leb-Italy-Fra-Egypt 20111) both feature on this blog, joins Alice Rohrwacher whose The Wonders (Italy-Switz-Germany 2014) was much appreciated here. The third director to achieve ‘official selection’ is Eva Husson with Girls of the Sun (France-Belgium-Georgia-Switzerland 2018) starring the France-based Iranian actor Golshifteh Farahani as a female Kurdish fighter, commander of a batallion, the ‘Girls of the Sun’.

So, eight films by women to look out for. Amongst the men are some familiar names such as Spike Lee, Kore-eda Hirokazu, Pawel Pawlikowski, Jia Zhang-ke, Jafar Panahi, Matteo Garrone, Stéphane Brizé, Asghar Farhadi, Lee Chang-dong and the return of Jean-Luc Godard. I don’t know much about the other male directors, Hamaguchi Ryūsuke, Christophe Honoré, David Robert Mitchell, Kirill Serebrennikov and A.B Shawky. It will be interesting to read about their films and particularly about A. B. Shawky with his first film Yomeddine (Egypt-US-Austria 2018). This looks a strong line-up. I just hope we get to see many of the films in UK distribution.

Stations of the Cross (Kreuzweg, Germany 2014)

This paper was written by Shabanah Fazal

Dietrich Brüggemann ’s arresting fourth film about Catholic fundamentalism was a departure from his previous major features Renn wenn du Kannst (Run if you Can, 2010), 3 Zimmer, Küche Bad (Move, 2012). And Heil (2015), the wild satire on neo-Nazis he followed it with, looks like a determined over-reaction to it. Yet what links them all is self-aware comedy and a concern with darker aspects of contemporary German culture. All his films are available on DVD but take note that Neun Szenen and Heil do not have English subtitles. Brüggemann studied Directing at Potsdam Film and Television Academy and his interest in formal composition is also evident in his work as photographer, musician and producer of music videos. His short films are critically acclaimed and Stations of the Cross was widely feted at international film festivals. It is his first film to be screened on British television and I saw it late night on BBC4. I was deeply affected by it, perhaps because its small-scale but shocking narrative is served well by the intimacy of the television screen.

Brüggemann tells the story of 14 year-old Maria, who is preparing for her confirmation with Father Weber. She belongs to the Society of St Paul (based on the real Society of St Pius X), a fundamentalist off-shoot of the Catholic Church that rejects the reforms of Vatican II. With dwindling numbers, they see themselves as the embattled guardians of the Church’s original, pure teachings. Father Weber enjoins his young flock to fight a daily battle in their hearts against the ‘satanic temptations’ of the world and to sacrifice simple pleasures such as music, films, provocative clothes and even food. These restrictions are strictly reinforced at home by Maria’s domineering mother, who struggles to bring up her mute four-year old son. Caught between these twin pressures and eager to please both adults, Maria decides to sacrifice her life for the sake of her brother. She becomes anorexic and so begins the self-destructive journey of martyrdom signalled by the title. Brüggemann structures the film in chapters matching the 14 stations of the cross, which in Catholic tradition mark the stages of Christ’s suffering on the way to crucifixion.

Brüggemann wrote Stations of the Cross with his sister and regular collaborator Anna, who has also starred in many of his films. They were justly awarded the Silver Bear for Best Script at the Berlin Film Festival, a fact many reviewers seem to overlook in their focus on the film’s visual stillness. On the first viewing, it is the dense script – the power of the Word, especially in the long but compelling opening catechism scene – that drives the narrative forward. The intertitles also intensify the impact of a narrative that takes place over just seven days. They create a sense of inevitable doom (‘Jesus is condemned to death’ – in the first scene, by Father Weber’s indoctrination), comment ironically on the action (‘Jesus falls the first time’ – Maria’s chaste attraction to a fellow Christian boy) and point to a metaphorical purpose (‘Jesus is nailed to the cross’ –  Maria is a victim of Catholic ideology). Above all, their sheer incongruity underscores the tragi-comedy of a vulnerable teenage girl sacrificing her whole life for so little.  And Brüggemann’s choice of names seems to support this: the comically tautological ‘Maria Göttler’ (evoking a divine Virgin Mary), and ‘Christian’, the innocent evangelical boy she befriends.

Unlike other films about the Catholic Church such as The Magdalene Sisters (Peter Mullan, 2002) and Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2015), Brüggemann’s film does not set out to expose direct physical and sexual abuse.  Rather, his focus is the deeper psychological and emotional abuse that results from indoctrination into any kind of ideology. The film is devastating because of what church and family make Maria do to herself through mind control.  The director’s stated motivation for making the film was concern about the 21st century global upsurge in Islamic and Christian fundamentalism. He does not object to benign forms of religion and understands how the sense of community it offers for many fulfils a human need.  For Maria it becomes part of the surrogate family she creates around herself: Father Weber and Bernadette replace her own ineffectual father and unloving mother, and she herself plays surrogate mother to her young brother. Some reviewers see the film as a savage criticism of those who live by religion.  But it is clear to me that the director draws a distinction between the teachings of the Church and the central characters: Maria, Bernadette (her family’s au pair) and Christian are entirely sympathetic. The deeply vulnerable, naturalistic performance he draws out of 14 year old Leah van Acken in her first film role made me feel the desperation of a parent powerless to help. Even Father Weber (played by a young, attractive Florian Stetter) is a skilled, fair-minded teacher whose quiet charisma would cast a subtle spell over any impressionable teenage girl.  I had no trouble understanding why Maria would be seated at the right hand of her god and be so eager to tell him what he wants to hear.

Maria (Lea van Acken) in the car with her mother (Franziska Weisz)

Brüggemann plays out the conflict created by the imposition of ideology chiefly through family melodrama, the aspect of the film that resonated most with me.  In interviews, he urges the viewer to ask themselves “What are we doing to our kids?” when we use any ideology – whether that be religion, socialism or feminism – to torture our children.  Brüggemann’s friend Franziska Weiz, a seasoned professional actor, gives an indelible performance as Maria’s controlling mother.  Some reviewers have described her as a caricature with her near-hysterical imprecations against the dangers of “gospel and jazz!”  However, to anyone brought up by a strict religious parent, she is frighteningly familiar and convincing. Brüggemann says he based her on his own father during a fundamentalist phase of his life when he made his children attend a Society of Pius X church. Maria’s mother is arguably portrayed less as a Carrie-style demon mother but as a woman struggling to cope with a young autistic son, and an adolescent daughter whose sexuality she has been taught it is her duty to monitor at all times. She can also be read as a tragic victim of a patriarchal ideology that limits her role in life to home and motherhood.  It warps her energies into control of her daughter, so that in the domestic realm at least she has some power.  She repeatedly grinds Maria down and forces her to bend to her will, rewarding her with approval and affection.  In turn, like so many intelligent but powerless young women growing up in a patriarchal system, Maria comes to realise her only means of resistance to her mother is to outdo her in religious devotion. Her method is self-mortification, her body now being the only thing she still has any control over.  We see their power struggle being played out painfully in Station 2, where Maria’s mother forces her to put on her cardigan and pose smiling for a family photo, and the car scene, which acts as a visual metaphor for their entrapment in a destructive power-dynamic.

Brüggemann first experimented with a fixed camera and long static shots in his 2006 feature Neun Szenen (Nine Scenes). In Stations of the Cross, he works with long-time collaborator Alexander Sass to take it to another level: in the whole film, the camera moves only three times. The effect is to create a series of carefully composed painterly tableaux that evoke the traditional Christian iconography of the 14 stations of the cross.  On second and repeat viewings we are reminded of the original contemplative purpose of these images, but I feel Brüggemann’s aim is less spiritual than ironic. The opening tableau for example, reminds us of da Vinci’s Last Supper, foregrounding Father Weber as a false prophet whose ‘meal’ is a perversion of Christ’s. Credit should also go to production designer Klaus Peter-Platten for mise en scène decisions that intensify what Brüggemann calls ‘locked-in’ shots. In the first and the later confessional scenes, dim lighting and austere stage sets with tiny windows, severe horizontal and vertical lines signify the imprisonment of vulnerable minds like Maria. Through the confessional grille, Father Weber even admonishes her for ‘sins’ of her innocent imagination: pride in hoping that a boy would find her attractive and conceit for knowing the truth – that she would be a better mother to her brother. Time and again, she is presented as powerless and invisible, pushed to the edges of the frame. For example in Station 2 and 7, when she battles with her mother and then her gym teacher, she is forced to the other side of the frame, underscoring the futility of her resistance. In Station 9, as she awaits confirmation, her pale profile is lost amongst those of other children, and at the critical moment she even disappears below the frame.

Maria is isolated in the gym

For some, this kind of framing (not forgetting publicity material portraying Maria as Christ on the cross) make her too simply a victim to be truly interesting.  And arguably Brüggemann’s film is less subversive than either Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene (2012) or Bruno Dumont’s Hadewijch (2009). Both provide a more obvious sociological/political insight into the attraction that ‘exotic’ fundamentalist ways of life might have for rebellious young women alienated by the shallow materialism and dysfunctional family structures of the west. However I believe the aesthetic Brüggemann outlines in an interview with Indie Outlook is political in the best sense: his distancing of Maria and choice of wide shots in particular “liberate the spectator’s gaze . . . to observe the whole system” and find for themselves truths about ideology and power. We see an intriguing example of this in Station 7, where Maria is confronted with the demands of the world, having to dance to ‘satanic’ music during a mixed-sex gym class. In Stations 1 and 2, Brüggemann opts for planimetric shots (see Catherine Wheatley’s 2016 paper) to depict the rigid order of church confirmation class and family life. In ironic contrast, in the gym scene a line of classmates in the background of the shot rebel against their well-meaning teacher’s efforts to integrate Maria into the lesson by running in all directions. They then mock and insult her, leaving her isolated. Their comments reveal as much disdain for her indigenous brand of religious conservatism as for the head-scarfed Muslim girls who are exempted from PE. Brüggemann seems to suggest both are seen as alien and his visually disruptive shot perhaps represents the wider cultural conflicts of contemporary secular Germany.

Fr. Weber joins Maria’s mother at her bedside

The most debated aspect of the film is undoubtedly how far Brüggemann’s film aesthetic acts as an endorsement or a criticism of faith, as distinct from religion. There is no doubt that his story of martyrdom and the miraculous stands within the tradition of directors such as Carl Dreyer, Robert Bresson and Lars von Trier. It has clear parallels with von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (1996) but he rejects what has been dubbed von Trier’s ‘sado-modernism’ – a term that could also apply to Katrin Gemme’s 2013 horror-thriller Tore Tanzt (Nothing Bad can Happen), about the abuse of a naïve male ‘Jesus freak’.  He acknowledges the influence of these directors and speaks in interviews of believing in ‘Something Out There’. He also describes how his single-shot no-edit approach puts pressure on the actors to be ‘spiritually engaged in getting the scene right’. He clearly borrows elements of what Paul Schrader terms ‘transcendental style’ (distancing techniques such as slowness, long, static unedited shots, an absence of non-diegetic music etc).  But ultimately does he do so in order to offer a subtle critique of it?

Firstly, we see this in the vein of black comedy running through Brüggemann’s work.  He has spoken of his love of Monty Python and his early features were labelled ‘fresh comedies’ by the German press. He also clearly has a predilection for meta-cinema and his 2011 short One Shot takes mise en abîme to self-parodying extremes. Most interesting of all, he cites as his greatest influence Swedish director Roy Andersson, saying “I watched [his films] on my knees, spiritually”. Andersson’s cinema illustrates his theory of ‘trivialism’, whereby profound truths can come into focus in the most banal, absurd moments of everyday life. And by exaggerating these, the director can bring the viewer closer to those truths. Hence Brüggemann’s own definition of comedy as ‘truth and pain’. We see this played out in the tiny, absurd battles Maria is urged to fight on her way to the cross – whether persisting in taking off a cardigan to mortify her flesh, resisting a harmless Christian boy with whom she bonded over quadratic equations, or sacrificing Father Weber’s biscuit after confirmation class only to later choke on the same priest’s wafer. The idea that a biscuit can become the means by which an ideology kills a child is subtly satirical. Even the hyper-minimalist opening titles, intertitles and closing credits seem less of a reading challenge than a joke.

If all this isn’t apparent to some viewers, it is because of the director’s refusal to comment or condemn directly. For me, it is this very detachment that gives the film its paradoxical power: he appeals to the heart via the head. The viewer is held so far back in a position of helplessness from the protagonist that we are forced to see how she is caught in a larger system that will inevitably crush her. That makes it hard for us to shed the tears for her that we long to. In a TV interview Brüggemann stated: “the best way to make a comedy is with a straight face, and let the bomb explode on the audience’s side” – and the same applies to tragedy.  It describes exactly how I have felt on every viewing, as if something very big I didn’t even notice being planted had imploded unseen inside me.

Here’s one of Brüggemann’s short films, One Shot (no English subtitles but you can turn on German subtitles):

The ‘miracle ending’ (spoiler warning)

Secondly, we should consider his treatment of the ‘miracle’ ending – a very small one compared to the miracles at the end of Dreyer’s Ordet (1955) and Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves. Is it a similar reaffirmation of faith and or a bitter mockery of the very notion of miracles that demand such an extreme sacrifice? There is an equally ambiguous ending to Jessica Hausner’s Lourdes (2009), a film with a similarly restrained aesthetic in which a spiritual struggle is played out on a woman’s body – this time a paraplegic. Catherine Wheatley (2016) argues that both films are examples of ‘cinematic agnosticism’, that emphasise the fundamental ‘unknowability’ of spiritual experience. Brüggemann also insists his film can be viewed from many angles at once – serious or ironic. His final, most striking camera move is withheld till the final station ‘Jesus is laid in the tomb’. Unlike von Trier, he does not offer the thrilling consolation of a god’s-eye view shot and ringing of celestial bells. Instead, a sudden crane shot takes us up over the graveyard, with a final tilt up to cloudy, impenetrable skies, and then returns to silent, black closing credits. We are left to find meaning for ourselves – if there is any.

If you need an uplift after watching Stations of the Cross, I recommend Louise Ní Fhiannachta’s daring, comic short Rúbaí (2013), about an 8 year-old Irish girl preparing for confirmation. Her joyous, life-loving spirit has not yet been crushed by the Catholic Church or her mother. Not only does she question and utterly discombobulate her priest during catechism, but defiantly rejects the life they have mapped out for her.

References

Schrader, Paul (2017) ‘Revisiting Transcendental Style in Film’, YouTube lecture for TIFF based on his 1998 book

Wheatley, Catherine (2016) ‘Present Your Bodies: Film Style and Unknowability in Jessica Hausner’s Lourdes and Dietrich Bruggemann’s Stations of the Cross’, Religions,Volume 7, Issue 6

24th ¡Viva! Festival at HOME, Manchester, 12 April – 5 May

This year’s ¡Viva! Festival opens at HOME on Thursday. Don’t get confused, but the brochure looks almost identical to last year’s, at least in design terms. This year’s festival has the banner title ‘La revolución’ and the mix of Spanish and Latin American theatre, film, music and exhibitions is this time skewed more towards Latin America in the film section. Having said that there is the usual range of co-productions which involve both Spanish and Latin American funds/producers and filmmaking talent.

The opening weekend focuses on Cuban cinema with premières and the classic Cuban film Memories of Underdevelopment (1968) from Tomás Gutiérrez Alea. Later comes Wim Wenders’ documentary The Buena Vista Social Club (1999). For cinephiles and serious politicos there is a rare opportunity to see The Hour of the Furnaces (dirs. Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanos, Argentina 1968) (16mm) on Sunday 22nd April. There are 19 films in all with some well-known directors such as Álex de la Iglesia from Spain and Fernando Pérez from Cuba with recent films. Fans of Guillermo del Toro will be intrigued to note that one of his favourite actors, Ron Perlman, turns up in a Cuban political satire, Sergio and Sergei (2017). Many films will be introduced and there are six Q&As with visiting filmmakers and events with presentations on ‘Cuban Cinema’, ‘Álex de la Iglesia’ and ‘Latin American Revolutions and Cinema’. ¡Viva! is the only place to get such a concentrated dose of Spanish and Latin American cinema in one go. Click on the image above to get the brochure.

I’m going to make some of the dates but not as many as usual, I’m afraid. Whatever I can get to, I’m looking forward to it!

Passing Summer (Mein langsames Leben, Germany 2001)

In the opening scene of the film Valerie (Ursina Lardi, left) and Sophie (Nina Weniger) meet in a café – with an unhelpful waiter in the foreground

Writer-director Angela Schanelec trained at the ‘Deutsche Film und Fernsehakademie Berlin’ (DFFB – German Academy of Film and Television Berlin) in the early 1990s which means that she has been seen as part of the so-called ‘Berlin School’ of filmmakers. In the UK the best known names of this group are Christian Petzold and Thomas Arslan. Valeska Grisebach trained at Vienna’s Film Academy but returned later to Berlin and has self-identified with some of the directors in the Berlin School. MUBI has started a streaming programme of Schanelec’s films, none of which I’d seen before. From my viewing of this first title, I can see some resemblance to Arslan’s early films, but Schanelec seems much more austere and eschews a conventional plot altogether. She doesn’t appear to be aiming at the kind of international festival attention that Petzold and Grisebach have achieved, though research suggests that she has found it on some occasions. Wikipedia’s entry suggests that she belongs alongside more avant-garde directors such as Chantal Akerman. Schanelec herself has mentioned the influence of Robert Bresson. A very useful account of the development of the Berlin School can be found on this Senses of Cinema page.

Passing Summer is an odd title. What on earth does it mean? Did Schanelec decide on the English title? Is there a careful play on words – a summer that literally ‘passes’, a summer of no consequence or a period of time ‘passing’ as summer? The German title is much more direct in translating as ‘my slow life’. The narrative comprises a series of ‘encounters’ of a group of people over six months, largely in Berlin. There is one character who seems to be at the centre of the group and seemingly it is Valerie who has the slow life. The other characters are friends, one of whom seems to be her current partner and at one point Valerie travels south to meet her brother and to go with him to see her father who is ill in hospital. There are children in the group and their care is one strand (as far as I can see, the two children are both moving between divorced/separated parents. There is also the marriage of one character. We know that six months ‘pass’ because the narrative begins with a meeting in a café between Valerie and her friend Sophie who then leaves for Rome. At the end of the film she returns to Berlin after her six month contract has been completed.

Marie (Anne Tismer) keeps an eye on one of the children in this Long Shot

The focus is on the seemingly inconsequential details of daily life for the group and it is here that the aesthetic of the Berlin School suggests we will find some kind of insight into ‘reality’ rather than in the artifice and contrived narrative set-ups of conventional mainstream genre cinema. Having excised any conventional narrative devices from her film, Schanelec distances us from her ‘characters’ further by careful camerawork. The camera is nearly always static, though the shot sizes vary considerably. Within the compositions, figures are often placed closer to the edge rather than the centre of the frame and our view of them might be obscured by windows, doorframes or other characters/objects in the foreground. The static camera also means that characters will move out of frame but still be talking. In the image below Valerie arrives back in Berlin by train to be met by Thomas. We hear her voice over the static shot, presumably talking to Thomas, but we don’t see them meet. This is perhaps the most extreme example. Earlier the little girl swimming in the image above asks Marie to dance for her. We hear the music and assume Marie is dancing but the camera stays on the image of the girl listening – we never see Marie dancing.

Valerie, off-screen, talks about her father.

What to make of this aesthetic and how much we learn about Berlin life – and about cinema – seems to be the question. The first point to make is that I didn’t feel totally alienated. The static compositions are often strangely beautiful. Perhaps that’s not quite the right word, but looking at them for what seems like a minute or two is not annoying and I felt engaged throughout the film without the need for narrative drive. The camerawork is by Reinhold Vorschneider whose work I admired in Thomas Arslan’s Helle Nächte. He has worked with both Schanelec and Arslan on several projects and has presumably developed this ‘Berlin School’ technique with the directors. I should also note that the lack of artifice on the shoots extends to the use of diegetic sound only. The sequences in which characters dance have music from a disc, a DJ or a live performance. The actors in the film are a mixture of the experienced and inexperienced. Angela Schanelec was herself an actor first and she appears in the film in a minor role. Ursina Lardi as Valerie was in her first film but she has since gone on to significant roles in films like The White Ribbon (2009) and Lore (2012). The performances, the cinematography and the editing (by Schanelec herself and Bettina Böhler, a Petzold collaborator) work seamlessly. I’m happy to watch more Berlin School work and certainly more films by Angela Schalenec. But I’m not sure what I’ve learned about German culture or about cinema. Mostly. I think, I’ve got a sense of a calmness about watching ordinary lives. I’m puzzled though at the difference between the drama of Christian Petzold’s films and the approach of Angela Schanalec. It’s difficult in Schanelec’s film to follow the individual characters and how they relate to each other and there are frustrations in the way in which we find out something interesting about characters that is not followed up in any direct way – much like in ‘real life’ I suppose. I need to find out more about Berlin film culture. For a more detailed analysis of Angela Schanelec’s “notoriously evasive films” look at this paper by Blake Williams in CinemaScope.

MUBI also carries an essay on Angela Schanelec to accompany the season which extends to June 3rd with several films to come.