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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.

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.

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.