Search results for: unter dir die stadt

Unter dir die Stadt (2010): German Screen Studies Network #1

Cordes_Fenster_und_Stadt

Twenty-first Century Man in ‘Unter dir die Stadt’ (from: hoehnepresse-media.de)

At the inaugural symposium of the German Screen Studies Network at King’s College, London in July, a number of films were screened at London’s Goethe Institut to complement the conference’s theme of ‘The Return of the Real.’ See details on the network here.

Unter dir die Stadt (literally ‘below you the city’)  is a 2010 film directed by Christoph Hochhäusler and is an example of the ‘New’ New German Cinema of recent years, which also includes film-makers such as Christian Petzold. Similar to Petzold’s Yella (2007), this film examines the construction of relationships in Germany post-Wende. How does the human function in the world of glass and steel that is the modern capitalist nation and in an economy that creates human migrants across borders in modern Europe? Hochhäusler examines the relationships of the people in power in the business world and explores the spaces which sit hight above the street (where the little people move around). Under these business men lies the city – sitting in rooms with uninterrupted views of the cities, with expensive artwork on the walls. What happens when human emotions intrude on the machine-like efficiency of money-making?

These films are fascinating because they represent a reinvigorated film movement in Germany which does not always  get the play outside of the country that it should (where the recycling of the historical dramas examining Germany’s troubled past are much more likely to receive distribution and global film awards – see Das Leben der Anderen (2006) for example.  Das Leben was an Oscar-winning success and is a very emotionally satisfying film, through its melodramatic structure. Meanwhile, a number of film-makers have been exploring a new kind of language to represent social worlds and problems now. Like aspects of Godard, these films are not the most accessible in the slow pace of plot development or in the way in which they marry visuals and soundscape. Like aspects of Godard, this is a minimalistic kind of film practice which looks to go back to zero to reinvent how to tell the story. These film-makers (many of them trained at the Berlin Film School) are interested in film critique and their film knowledge has led them to be seen as the inheritors of the French New Wave’s mantle in lots of ways – being referred to as la nouvelle vague Allemande.  See this article by Marco Abel, who has written extensively on these film-makers, here:

Visually, the film is arresting.  Hochhäusler (and his cinematographer Bernhard Keller) construct a number of frames where the world is reflected in windows and the clarity of what we are looking at is obscured. In the opening sequence, we appear to be moving through a bank of leafy trees, until we discover it is simply their reflection in the windows of a department store and suddenly we are staring directly at the plastic mannequin (the copy of a woman). We begin to follow Svenja, an ambiguous heroine who finds herself following a woman wearing the same shirt as herself. The film enjoys playing throughout with ideas of copying and originals – back-stories are apparently invented by characters to hide their true origins (a metaphor for the work of economic migrancy) and the successful, middle-aged banker, Roland, works in offices in Germany (it was shot in Frankfurt and Cologne) and London which have exactly the same design including the same art on the walls. It’s a corporate world which is shown to sponsor art and music, but which is hopelessly out of touch with reality.  As Roland and Svenja embark on a more human kind of relationship (this much is in the trailer), the film explores what happens when the real intrudes from the streets.

The film is heavy in its use of symbolism, but like Yella it is part of a series of films in recent German cinema which directly engages with effects of globalised capitalism on Germany and the Germans and tries to find a visual language for conjuring up what it is like to live in these times.  Both films are very potent in their minimalism and avoidance of melodrama – dialogue is spare and characters’ motivations are not always fully explained.  Here’s a trailer (unfortunately no English version available, but shows the visuals):

Second Thoughts on Elena (Russia 2011)

elena train

Petzold's Yella and Zvyangintsev's Elena - women on the move in New Europe.

Petzold’s Yella (above) and Zvyangintsev’s Elena (top) – women on the move in the New Europe.

[This is a second posting on Elena, the third film by Andrey Zvyagintsev. The original posting is here. The film was screened on a day school focusing on Zvyagintsev’s films and his potential status as a ‘film artist’.]

The screening at Kala Sangam in Bradford brought out several interesting film comparisons. A brief warning – there are no direct SPOILERs here, but there is a discussion of scenes and the tone of the ending.  I completely agree with the reference to Christian Petzold in the original post on this film. I thought of his Ghost Trilogy several times and wondered whether the shared austerity of these two filmmakers reflects a desire to strip away ‘noise’ in the mise en scène so that they can ‘forensically’ examine what modern economics in the New Europe has done to its people. Interestingly, Petzold utilised landscapes in a similar way, for example in Yella, to create a commentary on economic power and class, both films seeming to represent the soullessness of the no-man’s-lands each female protagonist has to cross or inhabit.  Petzold’s film also alludes to a particularly German history of economic divide between East and West in his country which reinforces the need of his protagonist to move. (And movement also is a key feature of Ulrich Seidl’s economic migrants through the film frame in Import/Export (2007)). This moral emptiness is not confined to the poorer landscapes – Yella‘s boardrooms and Elena’s home with Vladimir both reverberate with the emotional coldness of minimalist chic. (A trope present in Christoph Hochhäusler’s Under dir die Stadt (2010)).

Inscrutable faces of domestic labour? Akerman's Jeanne and Zvyagintsev's Elena.

Inscrutable faces of domestic labour? Akerman’s Jeanne and Zvyagintsev’s Elena.

There were also resonances for me of Chantal Akerman’s masterpiece, Jeanne Dielman 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). Both Zvyagintsev’s film and her’s present the rhythm of domestic routines undertaken by these women although different choices in mise en scène highlight each directors’ different aims. However, there are parallels in the representation of sexual relationships as comprising fundamentally economic transactions, more literally of course in Jeanne’s case. Elena, like Jeanne, is a gnomic figure. Never do we go behind her inexpressive face to be given a direct insight into her emotions and thoughts. This invests the narrative with greater power and realism – who knows exactly why they do things so why should our faces always show it? – and her pivotal action seems both spontaneous and a response to deeply-held feelings about her partnership with Vladimir. Elena seems to have held a particular understanding of the ‘deal’ that had been struck over the past ten years she has stayed with him on which he has lately appeared to renege. This is reinforced for me as Zvyagintsev seems to allude to this theme of transactions again through a short sequence foregrounding an office secretary during a visit made by some of the main characters. Whilst she is young, slim, blonde and conventionally beautiful – dressed in a professional outfit that accentuates her figure – her movement in making and bringing in teas and coffees is an exact echo of Elena’s daily movements around the flat earlier. Significantly, she closes the door on leaving the office – mimicking Elena’s exits from her husband’s bedroom. Her action – as part of her job as secretary – is domestic labour as part of economic work. It elegantly and lightly alludes to Elena’s work in her marriage. How much she is ‘owed’ for that work remains part of the moral debate handled in an fruitfully ambiguous way by the writer-director.

all that heaven tv

Jane Wyman, the young widow, framed in the reflection of the TV screen in ‘All That Heaven Allows’ by Douglas Sirk

Allusion and symbol is a poetic technique and the use of visual symbols featured in today’s discussion about Zvyagintsev’s status as a film artist within Russian cinema. We might want to recall a more overtly expressionistic use of mirrors in Douglas Sirk’s posing of Cary (Jane Wyman) in front of her mirror in All that Heaven Allows (1955) as her romance with Rock Hudson’s Ron blossoms and then founders. Even more expressive is the construction of her reflection in the ghastly TV set her children buy for her to replace her young lover with a more appropriate ‘companion.’ Aspects of Elena’s love for her feckless and generally ungrateful son might recall aspects of these classic, Hollywood melodramatic plots. (An interesting analysis of mise en scène in Sirk and Fassbinder here).

Sirk was considered to be a master of ‘aporia’ – of creating a mood that was emotionally unresolved at the end of his films despite their conventional endings. Elena certainly strikes several notes of ambiguity – in our feelings towards all of the characters in what is both a narrative about very Russian concerns of class, power and money but one which still feels immediately empathic for a Western international audience. This narrative is filtered through the perspective of the female protagonist – quiet, unassuming (like Jeanne) her inner world is not opened up to us as it would be through Sirk’s expressionistic style. However, Elena exerts the greatest power in the narrative, driving it forward as the men stay inactive or relatively powerless. Still, we may be left wondering what her personal actions really mean for wider society and class mobility in modern Russia; the film’s ambiguity (or aporia) adding impact to its social commentary through (rather than despite) its irresolution. In other words, whilst the family story may be (temporarily) settled, the future for all feels rather uncertain.

I Often Think of Hawaii (Ich denke oft an Hawaii, Bundesrepublik Deutschland, 1978)

This was an experimental documentary that plays with style, representation and recreation. The subject is a young woman, Carmen who lives with her mother Ruth and brother Tito in a high-rise housing estate.

Her father, a Puerto Rican soldier, abandoned the family. All that is left to remind them of him is a handful of exotic postcards and his record collection of Caribbean and Hawaiian music.

The film is a documentary and includes observational film: for example Ruth leaving the tower block in the morning to go to work. We also see her and Carmen carrying out the cleaning duties involved. Then there are interviews, with Carmen, Ruth and Tito, talking direct to camera.

But these are intercut with far more oddball sequences. In these Carmen dresses up in flamboyant clothes and enacts fantasies for the camera;

I dream of a great love.

In other sequences the title is made sense as the collection of post-cards and records are presented. In the case of the records Carmen [for most] translates the lyrics, variously in English, Spanish and Portuguese, into German. The English sub-titles translate the German dialogue not the original sound tracks. Something similar happens when Carmen quotes poetry, here by Paul Éluard and another French poet.

The film mainly uses colour but some of the fantasies by Carmen are in black and white. The emphasis is on mid-shots and close-ups which generates a strongly subjective feel. The film runs for eighty-five minutes and nearly half of the film must be non-realist sequences. The film also lacks an obvious chronology which gives it a Brechtian feel. The film does have an opening and closing sequence, in both cases we see Carmen on the Berlin S-Bahn. It is as if the bulk of the film is a dream sequence.

The director Elfi Mikesch was there to introduce the film. She owns that the film was

“Inspired by the camp aesthetics of American (USA) underground films …”

This was her first film and she continued in a career that predominately worked on documentaries.

Some of the fantasy sequences have a definite kitsch sense. But there is also a sense of montage techniques in the manner of the Soviet avant-garde. Visually we have discontinuities and disruptions and aurally we have asymmetrical sound. This is really a melange of stylistic tropes.

In fact we were fortunate to see the film. It was shot of 16mm reversal stock and when the technicians at Deutsche Kinemathek came to attempt the restoration they found much of the print had decayed. But they were able to rescue the film and produced a digital restoration which we watched on a DCP.

I noted that this is very much Carmen’s world. Ruth, the mother, is mainly presented in terms of her work. The brother Tito appears several times talking to camera but I did not feel we learnt about his world. He did seem to be unsympathetic to Carmen’s point-of-view.

The setting of the film is important. The family lived in one of the towers in Berlin’s Gropiusstadt. This was a housing project designed by the modernist architect Walter Gropius. He was the founder of the famous Bauhaus School. This was a post-war housing complex designed along the lines and values of the Bauhaus. However other factors intervened. The erection of the Berlin Wall restricted the space for building which resulted in tall tower blocks. Apparently by the 1970s the complex was dominated by poor families with the resultant economic and social problems. As a background to this portrait the sense of that area was important.

I did notice one oddity in the Brochure, which suggested that Carmen’s ‘tropical world’ provided a counter-point to the ‘barren projects’;

. . . it suddenly seemed as if the conditions in these petty bourgeois living rooms could, in fact, be changed.

Everything about Ruth, her work, and her children, as indeed about the projects, suggested a working class environment. I suspect the reference to ‘petty bourgeois’ refers to the content of Carmen’s dreams of escape.

The film was also the object of a particular discussion in a seminar organised by Deutsche Kinemathek. ‘The Translation of Films’. This engaged with the

the translation of films into other languages . . .

including both the silent and sound eras. So,

director Elfi Mikesch. film restorer Julia Wallmüller, and translator Rebekah Smith will discuss the subtitles created for the 2018 digitally restored version [of this title] . . . A comparison of the new subtitles and the ones from the film’s release year demonstrate how standards and available methods have changed over the years . . . (Retrospective Brochure)

It was clear that the new subtitles offered a more accurate rendering of the German and also that they fitted into the editing of the film more effectively. Unfortunately there is no surviving material about the process of translation in 1978. But comparing clips demonstrated that the titling did not give complete rendering of the German. Rebekah and Julia made the point that modern digital methods enabled a higher degree of pinpoint accuracy in inserting these titles.

Elfi Mikesch made an interesting comment that she had felt that the 1978 subtitles made the film seem slower and longer. Unfortunately there was not an opportunity to explore this issue further. I had to leave for another screening but a friend advised me that the discussion only considered the issues around subtitles. So it seems there was no discussion of the translation from several languages into German; in that case German viewers heard not the original but a translator version; and English language viewers would be twice removed from the original lyrics of the songs and the words of the poetry.

So this is a complex issues that only in the last decade has become the subject of detailed research. The film was interesting in its own right as an example of avant-garde cinema and with its portrait of a subjective take on a particular place and people in 1970s Germany. But as a ‘text’ it offered an object for exploring the medium of cinema.

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 Schanelec ( 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?