Search results for: "Thomas Arslan"

BIFF 2011 #18: Q&A with Thomas Arslan plus In the Shadows (Germany 2010)

Another beautiful composition in an Arslan film. Trojan (Misel Maticevic) and Dora (Karoline Eichhorn)

Bradford welcomed Thomas Arslan for the UK première of his latest film In the Shadows (Im Schatten) and after the screening he was interviewed by festival programmer Neil Young. There wasn’t a big audience, but it was appreciative and for the small group of us who had seen all, or most, of the preceding four films, Im Schatten was a real treat. Like Arslan’s other fiction films, Im Schatten is quite short (85 mins) with a pared-down storyline and a spare shooting style. However, it gallops along by comparison with the earlier character studies and works convincingly as a classical European crime film. Neil Young suggested Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le samouraï (1967) as a model, but later Arslan himself referred to the same director’s Le cercle rouge (1970) and that does make more sense in terms of the plot. He also told us that he was a crime fiction fan (I knew this guy had good taste) and that one of his influences was Don Siegel’s work.

The Alain Delon character (i.e. from Le cercle rouge) in Arslan’s original script is ‘Trojan’ played by the Berlin actor Misel Maticevic – unknown in the UK but a veteran of German TV. He is very well cast and able to portray the extremely precise actions of this cool criminal. Trojan arrives back in Berlin looking for a new job. He visits a couple of local mobsters, stealing from one (and trashing the thugs sent to get the money back from him) and turning down job offers that involve working with undisciplined men. Eventually he learns of a possible heist via a bent lawyer played by Karoline Eichhorn, familiar from Arslan’s Ferien. Unfortunately, Trojan’s meetings with Dora are being monitored by a rogue police inspector. Thus the professional criminal gets himself into a situation where he is being effectively chased by the local mobster’s thugs and a dogged policeman and then there is Dora – is she reliable?

I enjoyed the film very much, partly I’m sure because of my engagement with the previous four films shown in the retrospective. All of the films are in a sense, calm, cool and ‘clean’ – even when characters are falling out. Im Schatten was shot on a budget of €550,000 (I asked Thomas Arslan) and as he explained, that did restrict the shooting time available, the parts of Berlin that he could close off and the spaces on location he could organise. On that kind of budget you can’t stage a high street shoot-out in the style of Michael Mann in Heat. Instead, the action scenes are generally confined to rooms and corridors. Moments like the shot through the glass above have to be caught just when the opportunity arises. All of this worked well, except perhaps for the heist itself which became perhaps a little too unlikely. If I’m honest, I perhaps ‘admired’ the first half of the film more than I got fully wrapped up in it, but by the second half I was fully committed and I was sad when the film ended – I could have taken more and wanted to know what happened next (the ending is ‘open’).

In conversation Thomas Arslan proved to be an engaging but self-effacing filmmaker. He appears to be committed to his work, simply trying to achieve the best results possible. He spoke about the shooting of Im Schatten. Cinematographer Reinhold Vorschneider used the digital Red One camera which seemed to work well with the overall production design representing the clean, open lines of Berlin – a city we were reminded that is much smaller than London. It emerged that Vorschneider had also shot another German crime film, Der Räuber (based on a true story) at roughly the same time as Im Schatten – an interesting double bill, perhaps? I don’t think that Thomas Arslan had worked with Vorschneider before but he did have his regular editor Bettina Blickwede on board and I’m guessing that continuity is a feature of his work.

The audience was clearly with the film and interested in their guest. The questions were interesting, but on one key issue, Arslan seemed fairly reluctant to say too much. It was clear that several people in the audience (me included) were interested in his position as a director from a culturally-mixed background who had made films about German-Turkish characters (One Fine Day is the last of a trilogy about Turkish-Germans in Berlin) as well as the documentary on going back to visit Turkey, Aus der Ferne. He made the understandable point in reference to the Turkish documentary that he couldn’t say how Turkey had changed (he went to school in Ankara before moving back to Germany where he was born), only how he had changed and how he now saw things differently. He did say that he didn’t have any particular interest in Turkish Cinema and that as a child in Turkey he only remembered seeing American movies. To be fair, the Turkish Cinema of the 1970s had largely collapsed by the time he was watching films and it has revived only since he left. However, despite what he said he featured Nuri Bilge Ceylan in his documentary so he must be noticing what is going on! The crucial question for me is whether there is a distinctive difference between what might be called a ‘Turkish diaspora filmmaking culture’ and that of the Asian/African/Caribbean diaspora in France and the UK.

In response to one of the questions Arslan confirmed that one of his aims was to explore characters ‘in space’ – how they operate in terms of the narrative space allowed them by the mise en scène. And this is certainly evident in his films – and in this film is bolstered by Maticevic’s performance. He responded to a question about the ‘Berlin School’ by saying that on the one hand it didn’t really mean anything but on the other hand it was helpful in getting his films some promotion. This latter issue was something several of us raised. We all clearly enjoyed watching the films on a big screen (courtesy of prints from the Berlin Film Museum) but apart from Im Schatten, most of his films appeared only on German TV even if some of them made it onto DVDs. We pressed him as to whether he could get more funding by getting TV channels and distributors from France, Italy, UK etc. on board. He seemed quite diffident about this, worrying that more production partners possibly meant more interference. That is clearly a worry but it would be sad if films as well made as these were denied a cinema audience. Perhaps we might have egged him on to look for better distribution. I hope so.

We should thank the festival and Neil Young in particular for bringing Thomas Arslan over.

Neil Young’s ‘Jigsaw Lounge’ has an extended interview with Thomas Arslan about Im Schatten here.

A detailed Thomas Arslan bio is on the German Film portal which also has a section on Turkish-German film (which helps to explain Arslan’s position).

There is an interview with Arslan about Im Schatten on Cineuropa’s YouTube site:

and a trailer (in German without subs):


BIFF 2011 #10: Two films by Thomas Arslan

An Istanbul shot from the window in 'Aus der Ferne'

The second and third films in Bradford’s Thomas Arslan retrospective confirmed that the stylistic traits of Ferien shown earlier in the festival have deep roots. Turn the Music Down (Mach die Musik leiser) (Germany 1994) is recognisably the work of the same director, albeit with non-professional actors. There are the same perfect compositions on which the camera lingers – perfectly still but seemingly waiting for something that doesn’t necessarily happen. Or perhaps it is to allow us to reflect on the lives of the young characters in the story? I found myself happily watching a film in which nothing really happens in the sense of the generic narratives found in ‘teen films’ of any kind. I think this was because I was watching on a big screen and it was pleasurable to watch the scenes roll by and muse about the characters – but if this had been on television (it was shot for ZDF in Germany) I would probably have ignored it.

Turn the Music Down focuses on a group of four lads aged 16-20 (I’m not sure of their ages because the German school/college system is different) plus a similar number of girls (probably slightly younger). They live in Essen in the Ruhr and the major source of entertainment for the lads is music – ‘death metal’. They also go to a drive-in cinema and a music bar, but otherwise simply ‘hang out’. So far, so good, but these are bloodless teens by US or UK standards. They appear to have little testosterone – there’s no sex in the movie, no fights, no blazing rows with teachers or parents or police, no drugs. They drink beer but don’t get drunk. Their only vice seems to be to smoke too much and occasionally to shoplift or steal petrol. On the other hand, they are closer to what I imagine German youths of the time to be like (confirmed by some of the comments on IMDB etc.). I think the closest British film I can think of would be Ken Loach’s Looks and Smiles (1981), set in Sheffield and also made for TV, but that film has much more plot and an anger about unemployment. The German youths seem to have lost anger and found ennui – the global affliction of the 1990s? The most interesting comment comes from the older brother of the central character when he warns that “you mustn’t show fear – that’s what they want to feel” (the ‘they’ being, presumably, parents, education authorities, employers etc.).

Arslan himself lived in Essen and must have observed young people like this – I wonder what they did next? The oldest youth was due to start his Army Service at the end of the film.

From Far Away (Aus der Ferne, Germany 2006) is a documentary about Arslan’s journey through Turkey in 2005. It adopts the familiar style of the earlier features. A static camera, carefully positioned, creates landscapes, views over the city from windows, street scenes, closer shots of groups etc. The structure is the journey – starting in Istanbul and then moving to Ankara. In Istanbul Arslan joins Nuri Bilge Ceylan – editing Climates as far as I could make out. In Ankara he takes us to his old house and tells us about the school he went to. The journey then moves south to nearly the Syrian border and then East towards Iran. There are a couple of other short commentaries (about the Kurds and the history of persecution against the Armenians). Otherwise we are left to make our own minds up about what we see – which is fine by me. What it meant to me was an introduction first to busy, secular Instanbul, literally the gateway to Europe (with the image of people leaving the station) and then to calmer Ankara, the ‘modern’ capital. But as we travel south and east, an older, more complex image develops – not without its issues of security (the constant checkpoints on the road) and struggles for identity in a multicultural society, but also with beautiful landscapes. I’ve seen a negative review of the film but for me it acted like an invitation to the South and East of this large country which I’d certainly like to visit. In a later Q&A session, Arslan denied any strong identification with Turkish Cinema and in answer to a question about what he thought about Turkey (this documentary was his first visit for many years, I think) he said only that things looked different from his perspective simply because he had been away for some time and he had changed – the perfect response, I guess, from someone making a largely observational documentary.


Further thoughts on Phoenix (Germany 2014)

A move towards expressionism?  Christian Petzold's 'Yella' (2014)

A move towards expressionism? Christian Petzold’s ‘Phoenix’ (2014)

Christian Petzold is no stranger to dealing with the idea of ghosts. Even though this film differs significantly from his earliest films, and forms part of the recent ones which have dealt with aspects of Germany history very much in the vein of the vergangenheitsbewaltigung tradition, there are resonances with his Ghost trilogy which gained him such International visibility as one of the Berlin School of filmmakers. These were directors, such as Petzold, Christoph Hochhäusler (Unter dir die Städt reviewed here), Thomas Arslan (an interview from 2011 here) and Angela Schanalec ( a trailer for Orly (2011) here). A disparate group but who all looked forward towards and at a modern Germany and the challenges faced in the new constitution of Europe. Thus, the first feature in the trilogy Die Innere Sicherheit (The State I’m In) dealt with what life was like as the daughter of two ex-terrorists (implicitly from something like the Red Army Faction) constantly on the run and never allowed to settle or make relationships. Similarly, Gespenster (Ghosts) cast Julia Hummer as a young, rootless girl trying to survive in Berlin. In Yella, Nina Hoss gives an eerie performance as a woman trying to move from the economically-deprived East to the more affluent West. Without giving any of the details of these plots away, Petzold’s characters definitively experience what it is like to be ghosts within the new economic Europe and to be a shadow within your own life. Watching Hoss play the role of Nelly in Phoenix, returning to her old life from the camps, was a further revelation of this theme with melodramatic intensity. Nelly is a ghost in her own life, unrecognised by her own husband and forced to act as her own doppelganger. All the unsettling, psychological associations having a double are at play here as in other such narratives and a scene in the hospital where Nelly is undergoing facial surgery made direct visual reference to it. Whilst Nelly as a shadow is a cultural metaphor, Hoss captures the emotional fragility so naturalistically that her performance protects the film from being schematic or overly symbolic. It works, as Keith and Roy have said, perfectly on a thematic level. It expresses exactly what might have been the emotional dislocation of returning from such an experience to attempt to take up your old life and relationships. And that the ending works is testament to the emotional conviction in the playing – from Hoss and Zehrfeld but, importantly, also from Nina Kunzendorf who offered such a convincing protective warmth and love – and a different response to circumstances – as Nelly’s devoted Jewish friend. The ending of the film, as Keith and Roy say, is incredibly moving, retaining an emotional ambiguity whilst being so satisfying. It generally reached back, for me, to Fassbinder in a way I haven’t know Petzold do so much before especially the post-war relationship in The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979).  Weren’t the nightclub scenes quite parodic – with an uncomfortable sense of victors moving in to take the place of Nazis? 

Some reviews have talked about Petzold employing naturalism. I tend not to agree. Petzold uses his landscapes and his characters to create parables and to explore moral issues quite overtly and schematically. His style is better described as restrained and resists visual or aural excess but it does not lack elements of fantasy or melodrama. He often relies on the controlled intensity of actors such as Hoss or underplaying in performance in very extreme, narrative circumstances (as happens in Barbara (2012) or Jerichow (2008)). Part of what is fascinating about his work for me is this exploration of how to marry these disparate kinds of styles of expression. His collaboration with Harun Farocki – the great social documentarian –goes back to his film school days where Farocki taught him. Farocki was an inspirational documentarian on social issues as they related to the modern economic world. In returning to themes of the post-war era, crafting what some see as very conventional dramas for an international market (and therefore see Petzold as reneging on some of his principles) do these two collaborators suggest there is unfinished business there that can no longer be resisted?


Das letzte Schweigen (The Silence, Germany 2010)

Victims in the police station: Ruth (Karoline Eichhorn), the mother of the missing girl, watched by Timo's bewildered wife Julia (Claudia Michelsen)

Several reviewers have noted that Das letzte Schweigen bears similarities to the first series of the Danish TV drama The Killing. The formats are different but the central story about the impact of a police investigation of the murder of a young girl is similar and importantly the story is as much about the effects of the investigation on the girl’s parents and the internal wranglings of the police team as it is about the ‘solving’ of a crime.

The Nordic crime connection is not surprising since crime fiction is as popular in Germany as it is elsewhere in Northern Europe. The novel by Jan Costin Wagner, which has been adapted by Swiss writer-director Baran bo Odar, won the German ‘crime prize’ in 2008. Wagner, though writing in his native German, sets his novels in Finland where he lives for much of the time with his Finnish wife. For the adaptation, a Swiss-Finnish perspective is then realised in a South German summer landscape of cornfields, forests and lakes and an oddly sterile collection of new-build houses, municipal flats and nondescript public buildings. This, I’m guessing, replaces the snowy wastes of a Finnish winter.

The film’s German title translates as the ‘final silence’, but I’m not sure why it was necessary to change the novel’s original ‘The Silence’. The title could be a reference to several things but the most likely is to the silence of Timo, who we first see in 1986 when he is witness to, and passive collaborator in, the seemingly random rape and murder of a pre-teen girl, whose bicycle is thrown into a cornfield. Timo immediately splits from the murderer and we see him again 23 years later as a successful architect with a beautiful house, wife and two young children. But then another girl on a bicycle goes missing on the anniversary of the earlier unsolved murder with her bicycle discovered in exactly the same spot. After a police retirement party, the news of the missing girl is taken badly by the retiring officer who failed to crack the earlier case and he sets out to investigate the new one. He’s aided by a younger detective returning to work in a dishevelled state after the death (from cancer) of his wife. The new case stirs the memories of the mother of the girl killed in 1986 and we witness the bewilderment of the parents of the girl who is now missing. Timo is immediately traumatised by the news, having kept his silence for 23 years. Is the missing girl a victim of the same man who was his friend – or is it just a terrible coincidence?

The presentation of this relatively uncomplicated story is stylish with good use of a CinemaScope frame and the dramatic landscape properties of cornfields/forests/lakes seen in occasional overhead aerial shots. I was particularly impressed by the use of music and sound. I found the Sight and Sound review of the film by Matthew Taylor (December 2011) to be rather snotty about the film’s presentation, using words like “portentous”, “over-emphatic, almost pompous” and “lugubriously self-importance”. I think that there is a fear in some parts about genre films that attempt to use the full range of cinematic techniques. Well, it worked for me. I accept that this isn’t a realist film in the sense that the police are a motley crew and nobody who opens the door to them seems to think it would be a good idea to ask for an ID – even though the dishevelled character looks very unlike a responsible copper. But then, invesigators in crime fiction often have behavoural tics and an odd dress sense. The heavily pregnant detective is a nice touch I think and well used in a couple of scenes.

The cornfield brings to mind one of the best crime films of recent years, Memories of Murder (S. Korea 2003). Bong Joon-ho’s film managed to combine the antics (comic, but also brutal) of a similarly bizarre crew of local investigators with a subtle commentary on Korean society and politics in the 1980s. I’m struggling to find the same sense of political purpose in The Silence. However, the film’s ending and certain aspects of the police procedure do leave a lingering sense of ‘disturbance’ –just as the stylistic aspects of the film allow a sense of dread to build throughout the narrative.

The lasting impression is a well-made and highly ‘cinematic’ film which seems to have played mainly on German TV and the joint German-French channel Arte. It wasn’t just the presence of Karoline Eichhorn that made me think of similar Thomas Arslan films (and possibly also Christian Petzold’s Yella). I’m glad that Soda picked it up for UK cinema distribution and I was pleased to see it on a big screen. (This press release seems to indicate that the film received state support in getting distribution in the UK, Denmark and Hungary.)

The trailer gives a good idea about the look and ‘feel’ of the film:


BIFF 2011 #15: A Fine Day (Der schöne Tag, Germany 2001)

Deniz (played by Serpil Turhan)

The fourth festival film from Thomas Arslan was another short feature made for television – one of a trilogy, I think, about characters in a particular district of Berlin. We see 24 hours in the life of Deniz, a young Turkish-German actress. On this day Deniz (played by Serpil Turhan) will try to split up with her boyfriend, go to work in a dubbing studio, visit her mother, go to an audition, meet her sister and spend time with a guy she notices on the street. There is no ‘plot’ as such, unless we create one in the form of some kind of ‘journey of discovery’ for Deniz.

As with all Arslan’s films that we’ve seen in the festival, this is beautifully shot and edited. Even the simplest actions – opening a door, entering a room, walking down the street – involve perfect compositions held for just a little longer than usual. There is a lot of movement across Berlin – mostly walking or riding on the U-Bahn or S-Bahn – and on this sunny summer’s day the city looks attractive and inviting. I happily watched Deniz move through it with her purposeful stride.

Deniz gets to the point when she meets people. She says what she thinks in a matter of fact way. She’s trying to work out what relationships are all about – how and why she should nurture them and how she will know when it is worthwhile to stick with someone. The only clunky moment in the film for me was when she approached a woman in a coffee bar for a cigarette and eventually prompted a lecture about the meaning of romance. Perhaps it is unfair to call it clunky – if she’d asked me about romance I would probably have given the same explanation that ‘romantic love’ is an eighteenth century social construct.

This was one of my favourite films of the festival and it set things up nicely for the last Arslan film screening – at which he would be present. Watch this space.


BIFF 2011 #3: Ferien (Vacation, Germany 2007)

Karoline Eichhorn as Laura and Anja Schneider as Sophie

German-Turkish auteur Thomas Arslan is one of the festival guests appearing alongside a five film retrospective. This feature was the first of the five to be shown. As the title suggests, it belongs to the genre of family dramas set in holiday retreats. In the UK this is usually restricted to the wealthy middle-classes and programmer Neil Young suggested an affinity with UK director Joanna Hogg’s Archipelago (2010) in his introduction. I haven’t seen that film, though I had major problems coping with the characters in her earlier film Unrelated (2007). The class issue seems more to the fore in certain French films but Arslan’s family here seemed remarkably ‘ordinary’.

The family house belongs to Anna and her second husband Robert and is situated in the woods and lakes of Brandenburg, north of Berlin. During the Summer Anna’s two daughters visit from Berlin. Laura is with her husband Paul and their two small children. Sophie arrives later seemingly after a long absence. The son, Max, who is younger is still at school and spends much of his time with his girlfriend during the holidays. Finally Anna’s mother arrives, also from Berlin.

The drama arises from Laura’s problems with her marriage which, though evident early on, aren’t explained until later. Laura’s behaviour also irritates her mother when she suggests that the house is now too big and Anna should think of moving back to Berlin. Robert bought the house and he isn’t inclined to move. As far as I can see, all the children were brought up there. However, the area was originally in East Germany and Laura and Sophie would have been born before re-unification. None of this is explained/explored but presumably a German audience would be aware of nuances. Max is taunted by his mates to the extent that his father looks “a bit weird and dresses like a tramp” – is this a veiled reference to an East German past?

Anna is also disturbed by her mother’s health. She is clearly ill and has refused to get medical advice. Is it now too late? All these questions/problems are explored in a sensitive way and the film is beautifully photographed and edited. The calm long shots of the woods and pathways and the rustling of the wind help to create an ambience of rural tranquillity with suggestions of storms on the horizon. But the film doesn’t feel like a family melodrama. The two small children play happily on their own and with each of the adults. The screaming anger is confined to a few scenes. My main reaction was to be grateful for an insight into family life in a different European tradition. Although I enjoy a full-blooded melodrama, I can appreciate a quiet drama like this when it is presented so expertly. On the other hand, not a lot happens and I wasn’t surprised to learn that the film doesn’t appear in Lumière’s database of European cinema films apart from a brief outing in France. Ferien was funded by the publicly-funded German TV channel ZDF and broadcast over the public cultural TV network Sat3.

I’m now intrigued at the prospect of more work from Arslan. I understand that he usually works with small budgets but has used non-professionals in some of his earlier work. Here the cast includes well-known German actors. Arslan is also one of the directors associated with the so-called ‘Berlin School’ (as a graduate from Deutsche Film und Fernsehakademie Berlin (dffb)). This term has now been used much more loosely but still marks the recognition of the emergence of directors who don’t make conventional films about the Nazi period, the Stasi or re-unification. This useful Cineaste article maps out the background.

The film is available from Amazon UK as a German DVD import (Region 0).

Here’s what appears to be a ‘music video’ which shows the visual style (I don’t remember the song being in the film):


17th Bradford International Film Festival: Preview

This year’s Bradford International Film Festival (BIFF) offers visitors to UNESCO’s ‘World City of Film’ a range of treats between 16th and 27th March. Many of the familiar strands from previous years are included in the programme. The Widescreen Weekend is again at the centre of the festival, utilising all the facilities and expertise of the National Media Museum’s fantastic team of projectionists. I’m looking forward to rare 70mm outings for Kurosawa‘s Russian shot Dersu Uzala (1975) and, a real treat, a DEFA biopic of Goya (East Germany 1971) making its première appearance in the UK. The weekend includes tribute screenings of David Lean epic, an intro to How The West Was Won (1965) by Christopher Frayling, the 1981 Dance Craze in 70mm and plenty more.

Claire Bloom and Julie Harris in The Haunting (1963)

The featured filmmakers this year are Claire Bloom with six films, Terry Gilliam with an extensive retrospective and German auteur Thomas Arslan with five titles.

Honey ('Bal', Turkey 2010)

The main festival is divided into several distinctive strands. The most extensive is Moviedrome – ‘premieres and previews from around the world’. Bradford often has a strong flavour of North and East European films and as well as Arslan’s films there are new films from several well-known directors such as Werner Herzog, Jerzy Skolimowski and Márta Mészáros – and several other films from Germany, Poland, Hungary, Russia etc. In fact, there are far too many interesting films to mention. I’ll just note that we’ll get the first chance to see the Berlin 2010 Golden Bear winner Honey (dir. Semih Kaplanoglu, Turkey 2010) plus new films by Miike Takashi, Kelly Reichardt and Fred Cavayé. There isn’t a separate Canadian film strand this year, but three titles appear in Moviedrome. Finally, given the long drought, it’s great to see that at least one African fiction feature is on its way to us as Viva Riva! (Congo/France/Belgium 2010) is being previewed and presumably later released by Metrodome.

A private screening for Tito in 'Cinema Komunisto', a 2010 documentary about Yugoslavian Cinema under Tito showing in the CineFile strand.

Returning strands include American Independents, CineFile (documentaries on filmmaking and filmmakers), Family Films, Festival Shorts and a Northern Showcase of independent features made in the North of England. Two new strands this year are ‘Film as Subversive Art: A Tribute to Amos Vogel’ and ‘Bradford After Dark’, a one-day horror film mini-fest. And that’s not to mention the mainstream previews including the new Woody Allen and a screentalk with Jim Loach, son of Ken, following the screening of his new film Oranges and Sunshine.

Emily Watson as the social worker investigating the scandal of the history of British children 'in care' sent to Australia in the post-war years in 'Oranges and Sunshine'.

The full Festival Programme can be downloaded here. BIFF uses the National Media Museum’s two cinemas (plus some associated television archive material in TV Heaven) and the nearby Cineworld multiplex. There are extra events/single screenings this year in Saltaire, Otley, Hebden Bridge, Whitby, Sheffield and Leeds plus the Impressions Gallery (also close to the Museum). On most days, the festival programme starts around 11.00 am and runs till 10.30 pm, so there is plenty to see. What are you waiting for? Hope to see you there – we’ll have reports regularly throughout the festival.