Adapting Highsmith #2: The Glass Cell (Die gläserne Zelle, West Germany 1978)

Lisa (Brigitte Fossey) and Phillip (Helmut Griem) at the railway station at the beginning of The Glass Cell

Lisa (Brigitte Fossey) and Phillip (Helmut Griem) in a publicity shot taken at the railway station when Phillip returns from prison in The Glass Cell

My second Patricia Highsmith adaptation in the touring film season was The Glass Cell at HOME in Manchester. This time it looked to be a DCP from an old video copy. The image was degraded but the subtitles were pristine digital and the sound was the same loud and ‘over bright’ mono as at the Hyde Park in Leeds in Deep Water (France 1981). The image didn’t really do justice to the work of cinematographer Robby Müller and, as with editor Peter Przygodda, this was his second Highsmith adaptation in a row, following Wim Wenders’ Der Amerikanische Freund (1977), based on the novel Ripley’s Game (1974). The Wenders connection is also carried through in the shape of director Hans W. Geissendörfer who was a founder member of the Filmverlag der Autoren which produced or distributed many of the films of the ‘New German Cinema’. The Glass Cell is a more ‘popular’/conventional film than most of the New German Cinema films, but it is still a film that deserves attention. The ‘production supervisor’ on the film was Bernd Eichinger, one of the most important figures in German cinema from the mid-1970s up until his death in 2011. The three leading players were all well-known in European cinema. Both Helmut Griem and Dieter Laser were leading German players with international production experience and Brigitte Fossey was borrowed from French cinema.

The film’s plot is familiar and very much what we might expect from Highsmith (it’s an adaptation of a 1964 Highsmith novel with the same title) – it even includes the train which brings Phillip Braun (Helmut Griem) back to Frankfurt after a five-year prison sentence for causing death and injury through shoddy work as an architect on a building project. Quickly explained in an expressionist flashback in the first few minutes of the film, this is quite difficult to grasp in terms of detail and I’m not sure that the subtitles explain enough about the legal questions. Phillip is still convinced that he was set up by Lasky (Walter Kohut) the crooked accountant/speculator on the building project. Somehow, a large sum of money is missing and the assumption is that Phillip has taken it and used cheap and unsafe substitute materials. During his nearly five years ‘inside’ Phillip has suffered mentally and also seems to have lost something of his status as husband and father with his wife Lisa (Brigitte Fossey) and his son Timmie, both of whom seeming to have fallen for the slick lawyer David Reinalt (Dieter Laser) –  who was supposedly Phillip’s top legal counsel in his defence. Reinalt still maintains that Lasky is behind all Phillip’s problems. He tries to help Phillip find a job, but also seems to be overly supportive of Lisa and Timmie.

Lasky and Phillip have both taken part in a police line-up and the officer in charge (Bernhard Wicki) knows something doesn't add up

Lasky and Phillip have both taken part in a police line-up and the officer in charge (Bernhard Wicki) knows something doesn’t add up

As in Deep Water, Highsmith’s story is about a faltering marriage in which the husband is prompted to take drastic action. In this case, however, there is a more acute police presence placing the criminals in jeopardy. I won’t spoil the narrative pleasure, but I found the resolution of the narrative curiously satisfying. There are several recurring Highsmith tropes and direct similarities with Deep Water. Once again there is a bright child of the marriage – Timmie plays the flute and he gives a performance attended by his parents. There is a party where Phillip loses control. As in Der Amerikanische Freund, one of the marriage partners is engaged in art work. Lisa decorates pots and she works in a bookshop. There is mileage in the possibility of an expressive mise en scène based around artworks but because of the murky print it was difficult to see much detail. The whole film is dark and brooding (underlined by the soundtrack early on) but whether deliberate or a function of the degraded image, I can’t be sure. The main action is set in mid-winter so the darkness is realistic. In his notes on the touring season’s website, Pasquale Iannone praises Müller’s streetscapes and there is indeed a deep sense of gloom and despair in Helmut Griem’s walks through the city. As Iannone also points out, the adaptation changes the novel by focusing much more on the ‘post prison’ events, but heightens our understanding of Phillip’s internal anguish by having the letters to him in prison from Lisa read out on the soundtrack. The violent action in the narrative is well-handled and one scene in particular in a raucous beer hall is very effective. Other scenes in apartment blocks feel Hitchcockian in chance encounters with potential witnesses – a nice bit of play with a dog in a lift.

I enjoyed the film despite the image quality and, as in Deep Water, the real pleasure came from the performances and the direction. Helmut Griem as the central character is excellent with a look of utter calm that suggests both coldness and possibility of despair. Brigitte Fossey is equally compelling. I’m definitely going to try to see more of the films in this season. The Glass Cell was a West German entry for Best Foreign Language film in the 1979 Academy Awards. There are four more films in the season coming to HOME and also more screenings at the Hyde Park in Leeds, Showroom, Sheffield and Rio, Dalston and other venues. Please support this excellent season.

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