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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.

Transit (Germany-France 2018)

Georg (Franz Rogowski) on the streets of Marseille. Photo by Marco Kruger Schramm

Christian Petzold (b. 1960) is arguably the most visible member, in the international film marke,t of what has been termed the ‘Berlin School’ of writer-directors. This is a loose term for a group of filmmakers, some of whom studied in Berlin and others in different German-speaking film schools. Most of the films from the school might be considered ‘non-commercial’, often made with TV money and broadcast by German PSB channels. As well as Petzold, the other members of the group discussed on this blog include Thomas Arslan, Angela Schanalec and Valeska Grisebach. Petzold with four and Grisebach with two are the only ones to get UK cinema releases. Otherwise the school is known via festival screenings.

The Berlin School films do not adhere to a manifesto or to specific styles but they are generally low-budget and focused on relationships. However, Petzold’s films have made distinctive movements into genre territory and the last two have featured period drama in Barbara (2012) and Phoenix (2014). He has also been associated with a star actor – Nina Hoss has appeared in five of his films. Like others from the actual Berlin School (dffb), Petzold had a strong relationship with the filmmaker and teacher Harun Farocki and they were both interested in the 1944 novel Transit by Anna Seghers. Petzold’s film adaptation of that novel is dedicated to the memory of Farocki who died in 2014.

Seghers was a Jewish writer who managed to leave Germany for Paris in 1934 and, after the invasion of Northern France in 1940, to get a passage to Mexico via Marseille. The novel uses that experience to explore the problems faced by refugees in Marseille in their desperate attempts to leave. After the war, Seghers returned to Berlin and eventually settled in the GDR. She became known as a writer exploring the moral experience of the Second World War.

Petzold decided to reverse his original decision to make an adaptation of Transit as a period film. Instead he shot ‘on the street’ in contemporary France but kept the novel’s narrative events and characters, playing down the specific historical references and allowing similar present-day concerns to seep in. The characters themselves seem to exist in a kind of timeless bubble. While events around them are contemporary, they don’t use mobile phones and their costumes are simple and classic rather than ‘modern and fashionable’. In a terrific opening sequence we meet Georg (Franz Rogowski), a German in Paris with a friend in a bar. Georg is given some papers and charged with delivering them to a local hotel where a prominent German Jewish writer (who may also be a Communist) is hiding before leaving for Marseille and then Mexico. But the writer is already dead and Georg will find himself travelling to Marseille with the writer’s papers after avoiding the French police who are already starting a round-up of ‘undesirables’. We realise that France is about to be occupied and that Georg and Germans like him have to leave. In Marseille we will eventually learn more about Georg and follow him as he tries to use the papers to get a visa and a passage to Mexico via the US. I don’t want to spoil the narrative but it is important to know that the dead writer’s wife Marie (Paula Beer) is also in Marseille, looking for her husband – and we know that she and Georg must meet eventually.

Marie (Paula Beer) walks into the pizzeria where Georg is eating. The pizzeria is like ‘Rick’s’ bar in Casablanca. Photo Christian Schulz

This is the kind of film which if approached ‘cold’ with no background information is likely to lead to bewilderment. It needs a second viewing or some research. Jonathan Romney interviews Petzold in Sight and Sound (September 2019) and there are Press Notes with more material (I found then on the website of Music Box, the US distributor). Perhaps the way in is to think of similar narratives and associated genres. Seghers is said to have been inspired by Kafka and at least one reviewer has summarised Transit as “Casablanca re-written by Kafka”. Romney suggests Albert Camus and cites La Peste (The Plague 1947) set in Oran, Algeria. I can see that the sunny dusty streets of Marseille do suggest the enervating heat of Spain, Portugal and the Maghreb, all locales where ‘disappearing’ suddenly seems a possibility. In Petzold’s narrative there are no airline services and the Spain and Portugal of the 1940s were both fascist-controlled even when neutral. Port cities are always settings for migration and exile issues. I was reminded of the films of Aki Kaurismäki and of Marcel Carné’s Le Quai des brumes (1938) in which Jean Gabin is an army deserter trying to get a boat to Venezuela from Le Havre.

‘Transit’ is an interesting title since in English the term has two slightly different meanings. While it refers to the movement of goods or people between two places, it is also used to describe the ‘condition’ of being ‘in transit’ – between two places with no fixed status. In the Press Notes, Petzold discusses these kinds of meanings at some length. He refers to the German term Geschichtsstille, literally translated as “history standing still’. Petzold found the term in the writings of another 1940s refugee, Georg K. Glaser, also a German Jew. Glaser and Seghers experienced the same sense of loss and displacement but they seem to have ‘come out of it’ in slightly different ways. I find all of this quite fascinating but it’s difficult to follow Petzold’s ideas and to trace how he has worked them through in the film narrative. I’ll try and just give a few examples here and leave some other ideas until I can see the film again.

Watching the film before I was aware of the idea of Geschichtsstille, I thought about the idea of ‘limbo’ and of being in a world where a small group of characters exist in very tight emotional relationships but with few options about how to act or to move forward. Meanwhile, the world around them changes. One way to represent this is to provide the narrative with a separate ‘observing’ narrator. Such narration via voiceover is often not popular with contemporary cinema audiences, though it doesn’t bother me. Petzold’s idea is to include some narration but to eventually reveal that it comes from a character in the film narrative. Allied to this is the writer’s manuscript that Georg found in Paris and which seems to offer him the possibility of being someone else, to be like an actor in another narrative, which he must be in order to ‘become’ the writer who hopes to get a visa. The Kafkaesque state in which Georg and Marie and a third German refugee character find themselves is neatly summed up in a scene when Georg is looking for a hotel room in Marseiile and the owner says that he must have a transit visa to prove that he is leaving France in order to be granted permission to stay in the hotel.

Marie and Georg wait outside a visa office

Transit is a mesmeric narrative and much depends on the playing of the two leads, both of whom are excellent. Franz Rogowski as Georg may be best known in the UK as one of the young men in Victoria (Germany 2015) but more recently he was the lead in the intriguing In the Aisles (Germany 2018). I’ve already swooned over Paula Beer in discussing the François Ozon film Frantz (France-Germany 2016). What makes her performance so unnerving in Transit is that she so much resembles Nina Hoss, not facially perhaps but her hair, the way she wears the classic 1940s clothes and sometimes the way she moves reminded me of Hoss in Yella, Barbara and Phoenix. Not that she offers an imitation of Nina Hoss but these resemblances add to the sense of ‘other worldness’. There is also a narrative twist to Marie’s story that recalls Yella. The film is shot in CinemaScope ratio by Hans Fromm, Petzold’s regular DoP. Petzold explains:

It was important to me that the spaces we were working in allowed for a choreography where the characters not only communicate with each other through dialogue. Instead, their presence, their movements, and the distances they maintain from each other, tell so much more than them constantly talking ever could. CinemaScope gives you that space to move in, and it allowed us to do long takes and follow the actors’ choreography.

I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of everything that Transit offers. I haven’t mentioned the uncanny ways in which the contemporary refugee issues in Europe begin to creep into the film and how Petzold uses the Maghrebi presence in Marseille as a factor in the narrative. This will be one of my films of the year and I’m now enthused to review the previous Petzold films I’ve managed to accumulate.

Nachmittag (Afternoon, Germany 2007)

Agnes (Miriam Horwitz) in a long shot showing the lake view from the house

Nachmittag is the third of six films by Angela Schanelec offered on my MUBI stream. I’ve posted on the first, Passing Summer (Germany 2001), but I was only able to watch the first part of the second film,  Marseille (2010), before it disappeared from the stream during one of my busy periods. That’s the problem with MUBI, I fear. Still, perhaps I will be able to find it elsewhere later. Marseille did look a little different with its single central character – a photographer exploring the French city. In Nachmittag, Schanelec returns to a summer in Berlin, though the characters are rather different.

Angela Schanelec as Irene

Angela Schanelec’s strategy seems to be ‘never explain’ – or give any background. MUBI have used the title ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ for the season of her films. I have assumed that the main location is a house by a lake in the Berlin region, possibly Potsdam. In a prologue, Schanelec’s familiar static camera offers us a view from the back of a stage in theatre during a rehearsal. On the stage is a woman who sorts out a prop with a stagehand and then walks towards a dog and pets the animal. We next see her in long shot arriving at the house by the lake where an older and younger man have been having a conversation. Later we will learn that this the woman is Irene, played by Schanelec herself (she began her career as an actor). Gradually we meet five other main characters but we must try to work out who they are and what the relationships are between them. It took me the whole 95 minutes and I still wasn’t certain by the end, but I’m fairly confident that MUBI’s synopsis of the film is inaccurate.

Jirka Zett as Konstantin holding Agnes Schanelec as Mimmi

When I started watching the film I was unaware that its premise is taken from Chekhov’s play The Seagull. Perhaps that’s a good thing. I’m not a theatregoer and I don’t really know Chekhov. My thoughts instead turned to similar films in this setting. I thought of Thomas Arslan’s Vacation (Ferien, Germany 2007), on the reasonable basis that Arslan is another member of the ‘Berlin School’. I was also reminded of The Farewell (Abschied – Brechts letzter Sommer, Germany 2000). The point here is that the situation – a group of people meeting at a ‘summer place’ where their different relationships are explored – is potentially a familiar dramatic and even generic narrative proposition. Yet Angela Schanelec challenges our assumptions about how any drama might develop. She does this in several ways.The use of long shots and of close-ups by DoP Reinhold Vorschneider can sometimes mean that we are not quite sure who we are watching or where we are. But what is even more disruptive is her use of dialogue. We are used to mainstream cinema’s use of dialogue to provide ‘narrative data’ and to move forward the events of the narrative. Schalenec’s dialogue comes as a shock – it is so close to the ‘real’ conversations that we have with people we know (well at least I do!). There are seemingly inconsequential remarks that actually convey emotional relationships such as when Irene tells her son who is ironing shirts to dampen the collar. Often too, dialogue is with a character who is offscreen for long periods – sometimes wth responses coming from offscreen.

Angela Schanelec with Reinhold Vorschneider shooting by the lake

Critics have increasingly praised Schanelec’s aesthetic approach. Mattias Frey in a ‘Senses of Cinema’ festival report suggests that “Nachmittag is a challenging hypnotic that bespeaks further development in Schanelec’s craft”. Ekkehard Knörer in a ‘Sign and Sight’ report offers the most detailed critique. Knörer suggests that the opening shot of the stage introduces the sense of a theatrical space in the house looking out over the lake. He makes the point that the characters are so engrossed in their own concerns that dialogue is rarely about communicating but instead about each character’s ‘struggle with words’. Ironically, two of the characters are writers. If you know the Chekhov play you may wonder just how ‘free’ is this adaptation. The answer is very, but one action in the original play is obliquely presented in the closing moments of Schanelec’s script. I realise that the film is now gone from MUBI and I should have rewatched that ending. I’m certainly intrigued by this filmmaker and I will try to watch more.