Whilst popular cinema in the 1920s was focused on fictional dramas there were a variety of non-fiction films. This was the decade in which John Grierson coined the word ‘documentary’ for films that presented the actual world about us. Germany, as elsewhere, produced films that utilised film shot in and about recognisable places, peoples and institutions. The travelogue, one of the earliest examples of feature-length non-fiction film, was popular. There were also experimental and avant-garde film-makers who offered films that emphasised cinematic techniques and explored the way that film represented reality.
Across Two Worlds by Car (Im Auto durch Zwei Welten, 1927 – 1931) is a travelogue but also an adventure.
“For this prototype road movie, race car driver Clärenore Stinnes (1901 – 1990) and Swedish cameraman Carl-Axel Söderström covered 46,758 kilometres. Travelling in an Adler sedan and sponsored by companies like Bosch, Aral, Varta and Continental, they drove through 23 countries and once round the globe – ..”
This epic journey took two years and started out east from Frankfurt, through the Balkans, the Middle East, Iran, the USSR to Siberia, across the Gobi Desert into China and Japan. The crossing the Pacific it continued up the backbone of South America along the Andes. Then by boat to the USA, ending up in New York. Another boat across the Atlantic bought them back to Europe and finally Germany. Söderström claimed that he did ‘more pushing than filming’ and in fact there are long stretches where the filming is sparse. All we see of the USA is the West Coast and then the East Coast. There was also a van or truck accompanying the sedan, presumably all the stores and equipment.
After the journey Stinnes had the film edited by Walther Stern and added a commentary and a musical score by Wolfgang Zeller. The commentary accompanies the images but these are intercut with shots of Stinnes talking direct to camera. The score is European in style even for the far-away places.
The sponsorship by German firms was an important aspect of the production. In her opening comments Stinnes stresses the German composition of the team, then noting that the cameraman is Swedish. She adds, in a comment that is mirrored by others later in the film, that Scandinavian are Germanic ‘fellows’. The filming does tend to stress the backwardness and poverty of the lands through which much of the journey travels. In fact, even discounting the boats, the round-the-world journey is only partly driven. There are frequent sequences where local people are persuaded or paid for hauling the vehicles, often through mud, sand or rocky terrain. The most gruelling, for the labourers, is when they cross the mountains and deserts of Peru. So her comment that ‘the automobile makes the big world small’ is as much rhetoric as actuality. The film is interesting but conventional: Stinnes is not Riefenstahl. However, she clearly is an independent and adventurous woman.
Short Films 2: ‘Experiments in Sound and Colour’ (‘Kurzfilme 2: Experimente mit Ton und Farbe’) offered nine film made between 1922 and 1934, the majority from the early 1930s. They consisted of actuality film, advertising film, puppet animation and conscious experimentation. All of them used varied colouring techniques for the period. Staff from the Deutsche Kinemathek introduced the programme providing illuminating detail on the various colour formats used.
The Victor (Der Sieger, 1922) and The Miracle (Das Wunder, 1922) used hand colouring and tinting processes, techniques that had appeared in the earliest days of the new medium.
Colour tests (Farmfilmversuche, Demo-Film für Sirius Farbverfahren, 1929) used a Dutch subtractive two colour system. In the earlier experimentations in colour systems relied on two rather than three primary colours. This produced acceptable results and could utilise the two sides of the film print.
The Joy of Water at the Zoo (Wasserfreuden im Tierpark, 1931) relied on Ufacolor. This was another subtractive two-colour system introduced in 1931 by Germany’s major production company.
Palm Magic (Palmenzauber, 1933/1934) was an advertisement using Ufacolor.
Two Colours (Zwei Farben, 1933) was a more experimental advertisement using Ufacolor. It made great use of the two primary colours in the system, red and blue.
Tolirag Circles (Alle Kreise Erfasst Tolirag, 1933/1934) was an experimental work by Oskar Fischinger, a major cinematic artist in this period. Gasparcolor was a subtractive three -colour system, the technical advance that made Technicolor a dominant system for several decades. It was developed by a Hungarian scientist. Fischinger used it in several of his works in the period and at least one Len Lye animation also used the system. The palette was different from Technicolor but it looked really fine.
Pitter and Patter (Pitsch und Patsch, 1932) was a drawing-based animation. In a distinctive set of techniques the sound was created by wave-like drawings that produced an equivalent of the soundtrack patterns printed on film stock.
Bacarolle (1932) used the same techniques but married with puppet animation.
This was a fascinating programme and I had great pleasure in watching the different colour palette and imagery. The different films came partly on 35mm film and partly on DCPs. Günter Buchwald provided accompaniment for the non-sound films.
The Great Unknown (Milak, Der Grönlandjäger, 1927) is a fictional drama presented in documentary mode. An opening title explains that the film is inspired by the exploits of polar explorers such as Roald Amundsen and Captain Robert Falcon Scott. Elements of both explorer’s stories figure in the plot.
Filmed largely on location in Greenland and Norway’s Spitsbergen archipelago, the film combines impressive landscape footage with ethnographic observation. With their athletic way of filming in the open air, the camera staff from Arnold Fanck’s ‘Freiburg camera school’ used the natural world as a key player, even blowing up ice sheets to create high drama.“
The film follows an expedition crossing Greenland to a high point in the north. The team consists of explorers Svendsen, Eriksen and Inuit Milak, an expert dog handler [who is titular in the German title]. During the course of the expedition we also watch their families at home waiting to hear how they managed.
The film seems to have been successful: critics at the time suggested that it was ‘Germany’s answer to Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922). The connection is obvious. Apart from being set in Polar regions the films also features Inuit. The difference is that whilst Flattery did not just record but directed Nanook and his actions, in this film the Inuit are placed in a completely fictional narrative.
I found the tropes from other polar stories, especially that of the British expedition led by Captain Scott, lacked conviction. The expedition is trekking across Greenland and there is a contest, a US team with the same objective. They struggle over ice slopes, snow slopes and crevasses. Eriksen sickens and we follow a sequence where he does a ‘Captain Lawrence Oates’ style exit from the tent in a snow storm. Then the team run low on food and face the possibility of failing to reach stores, fuel and safety. The plot avoids the tragedy of Scoot and his team, but the sequences are clearly modelled on that actual disaster.
What undermines some of the narrative is that the film combines excellent location work with rather obvious studio sets. This is the case in the sequence where Eriksen attempts ‘suicide’ during a storm and in the scenes where lack of food and exhaustion threaten the team and the expedition.
The team also use two dog teams, more like Roald Amundsen. Twice the dog teams fall into crevasses, the second time they do not survive. In each case it is down to an oversight of Eriksen. I have to confess that I hope his fellows would save the dogs rather than Eriksen. What makes it odder is that one dog does survive. But it is clearly not one of the dog team, all black or dark-haired huskies. This sole survivor is brown and more like Labrador. This is a shame, because the location work and the sequences of the Inuit are well done. The ethnographer parts of the film work better than the dramatic episodes during the expedition. The film was screened from pretty good 35mm with Günter Buchwald essaying a balancing accompaniment between actuality and fiction.
The final film of the day also combined actuality with fiction. The Light of Asia (Die Leuchte Asiens, 1925) was a joint German/Indian co-production directed by Franz Östen for Indian producer Himansu Rai. They worked on three productions in the 1920s, titles that are rare survivors of Indian cinema’s silent heritage. In this film English tourists are regaled by an old Buddhist monk with the story of a C6th monarch who has to choose the material and the spiritual; a choice that figures in several Indian mythic tales. Essentially most of the film is a flashback to this story. The film uses actual Indian locations and cast for its narration.
The film had been transferred to DC P and had an added music track by Willy Schwarz and Ricardo Castagnola, Schwarz playing traditional acoustic instruments and Castagnola contemporary electronic music. This was a problem. The soundtrack was far too loud during the opening credits: I saw other audience members winching. The staff did lower the volume but I still found it too loud, especially with the harder tones of electronic music. So I left shortly after the flashback commenced. I checked later and the level of sound had been requested by the composers. This is a tricky issue as composers and performers are entitled to have their music presented as they intend. But in the case of film the music is an accompaniment and I do think it has to be subordinated to the image. In fact, I have noticed in recent years that increasingly some accompaniments are too loud or forceful and distract from the image. I suspect this is a follow-on from the increasing use of ‘live music’ as a way of attracting audiences to silent film screenings.
Fortunately I had seen the film previously. At Le Giornate del Cinema Muto with live accompaniments on traditional Indian instruments.
The Light of Asia was the only film that I gave up on in the programme. I thought that the live musical accompaniments were well done. Models of assisting and informing the imagery whilst respecting the primacy of what is on the screen.
Quotations from Weimarer Kino neu gesehen Brochure.
A film about orphans (or more generally, ‘children in care’) immediately evokes memories of Oliver Twist (1948), Annie (1982), Holes (2003) etc. But I felt that this French-Swiss stop-motion animation brought me closer to the experience of such children than these or the many other live-action films in the same mould. Director Claude Barras called it “Ken Loach for kids” and that is not so far-fetched, with its mixture of realism, melodrama and indeed comedy.
There was a lot of interest in the film after it premiered at Cannes in 2016, and was nominated for both the Oscar and Golden Globe and won Best Animated Film and Best Adaptation at the 2017 Césars, but I was also interested in it because I had seen a short animation by Barras, The Genie in the Ravioli Can (2006), in a collection of French shorts put together by the BFI. His first full-length feature indicates the progress he has made in the decade that has followed.
The protagonist is a nine-year-old boy whose name is Icare but he insists on being called by the nickname his mother gave him – Courgette. His father abandoned the family when he was little and he lives with his mother, a violent alcoholic who spends her time drinking beer and watching TV soaps, and from time to time she administers a thrashing to her child. He mostly plays alone in his attic bedroom, his toys being self-made: a kite with a drawing of his imagined father as a superhero; and his mother’s empty beer cans. It was these which cause a dramatic change in his life as the pyramid which he was building with them fell down, causing his mother to angrily ascend to the attic with threats of a severe beating. When he slams closed the attic door to protect himself his mother falls down the stairs to her death.
A kindly policeman, Raymond, questions him gently, then takes him to an orphanage; the boy’s only possessions are the aforementioned kite and empty bear can – and his nickname which he is stubbornly determined to hold onto. Raymond comes to visit him in the orphanage, not because it’s his job as Courgette at first thinks but because Raymond likes him, and they exchange letters, Courgette’s being accompanied by colourful sketches – he is gifted in drawing – which chronicle his life in the orphanage.
Here Courgette meets his fellow residents, all with problems as serious or more serious than his. Simon, who has a tell-tale scar on his forehead and whose parents are drug addicts, is the self-appointed leader and bullies Courgette at first but when Courgette fights back they become best of friends. (The character of Simon is a good example of how the film avoids stereotypes and provides complex well-rounded characters). Simon catalogues the reasons the other children are in the home. Alice is victim of paternal sexual abuse and is subject to obsessive. Bea’s mother was deported back to Africa while her daughter was at school and every time she hears a car she rushes out shouting “maman”. Ahmed’s father is in jail for armed robbery of a service station and Ahmed wets the bed while Jujube’s mother is afflicted with OCD and endlessly opens and closes the fridge and cleans the toilet non-stop for weeks end. Simon wearily sums it up matter-of-factly: “We are all the same. We have no-one to love us.”
The outlook for Courgette lights up when 10-year-old, football loving, Kafka-reading Camille arrives by court order. When she arrives at the orphanage she immediately puts Simon in his place, showing that physical confrontation isn’t the only way to deal with a bully, and she helps the almost mute Alice to come out from behind her fringe and join the others. And Courgette immediately falls head over heels for her, which is reciprocated. But she has been sent to the orphanage after she has witnessed her father killing her mother for infidelity before turning the gun on himself.
A French film about an orphanage and children in care is bound to evoke Francois Truffaut’s 1959 film, The 400 Blows/Les 400 coups but My Life as a Courgette is in contrast with these films in that the pattern is reversed as abuse is suffered from the outside world while the orphanage is a place of safety and recovery. The small staff couldn’t be less Dickensian – the wise and calm and compassionate principal Mme Papineau, the children’s teacher Mr Paul, and his partner Rosie, the children’s carer, are dedicated and compassionate, a representation which is in contrast with the frequently negative portrayal of the “caring professions” (and the policeman Raymond would be included in this description).
If the mood is frequently dark, the saddest scenes are often alternate with comic ones: the children speculate on what adults get up to in bed, a trip to a ski resort, a snowball fight, a disco. This is a major contribution by Céline Sciamma who has adapted Gilles Paris’ s source novel, “Autobiography of a Courgette”. As a film director herself, her own films (Water Lilies/ Naissance des pieuvres, Tom Boy, Girlhood/Bande de filles), are coming of age stories which explore the difficult world of childhood and adolescence. There is little in the way of plot, just an accumulation of scenes from the daily life at the orphanage, until Camille’s aunt, who mistreated her when she had short-term custody, arrives wanting to make it permanent to get her hands on the state benefit which would accrue if she were Camille’s foster parent. This causes to children to band together to thwart her.
As for the film’s target audiences, in France and Switzerland Courgette is deemed to be suitable for 8-year-olds and it does have the cutesy angle which is a staple for children’s films. However (and notwithstanding the Bambi experience) not many 8-year-olds would cope with the characters’ backstories, and they would perhaps be mystified by the sex references and not be very familiar with Kafka. But Barras said in an interview that it’s more of a childhood film than a children’s film. This is true but it seems that the film is “double-encoded” for two separate audiences. This is reflected in the exhibition policy (at least in Aberdeen’s Belmont Cinema, and no doubt others,) of using a dubbed version for daytime screenings and subtitles for evening ones. Sub-titling could be problematic for a very young audience in relation to reading age.
The film’s emotional realism is all the more remarkable as the characters are 9-inch high plasticine puppets with enormous heads, extra-long arms, multi-coloured hair (blue for the protagonist, Courgette), red noses and ping-pong-ball-like eyes. It is hardly naturalistic and there is no danger of the characters travelling in the “uncanny valley” (a term used in animation to refer to the phenomenon whereby a computer-generated figure bearing a near-identical resemblance to a human being arouses a sense of unease or revulsion in the person viewing it.)
We sometimes forget to attribute the cinematic aspects of animation films – and not just the incredibly labour-and-time-intensive work involved in stop-motion – which we take for granted in non-animated films, but I think I would need at least another viewing to fully explore this. What I would look at in particular would be the editing (the long takes allowing the film to ‘breathe’); the lighting which was very effective in bringing the puppets to life, particularly the use of “catch-lights” on the puppets’ eyes which helps to intensify emotional engagement. I should also mention the acting, the children’s parts being voiced by children of the appropriate age. And Sophie Hunger’s excellent musical score.
Finally, the film runs to only 66 minutes (of which 5 are end credits), a commercially-awkward running time but it would have been a mistake if it had been padded out and I was perfectly fine with that running time.
Here is the trailer with English sub-titles. If you want to see the dubbed version you’ll find it on YouTube under the title, My Life as a Zucchini.
The Red Turtle is every bit as good as the rave reviews make it out to be. It seems pointless to add another general review so I’m just going to focus on a few points. Subscribers to Sight and Sound are lucky to have an excellent review by Kate Stables and an interview with the film’s director Michaël Dudok de Wit (by his son Alex) in the June 2017 issue. This short (81 mins) animated feature has a narrative that riffs on the original Robinson Crusoe story by Daniel Defoe. The new idea from de Wit and his writing collaborator Pascale Ferran introduces a magical/mystery element in the form of a large turtle. If you have knowledge of the legend of the ‘selkie’ from Celtic and Nordic culture you’ll know what to expect. There isn’t a great deal of plot – instead there is the pleasure of interaction between a very limited number of characters and a real sense of humanity recognising its place in the ecology of the South Pacific. It’s no wonder Studio Ghibli is a partner.
The most interesting institutional issue is that this is the first co-production outside Japan for Studio Ghibli. Sadly, in the UK, we are used to experiencing Studio Ghibli’s output in cinemas being filtered through the distribution muscle of Disney and having to choose a subtitled screening (if we can find one) or a ‘re-voiced’ American version with big name actors. But that ‘re-voicing’ is the only ‘creative’ input by Disney. The Red Turtle has no dialogue (beyond cries of alarm, warning, greeting etc.). Studio Ghibli actually approached the animation director Michaël Dudok de Wit after his Oscar success with the short Father and Daughter (2000). Dudok de Wit is Dutch, but trained in the UK (at West Surrey College of Art & Design). He has worked in London and in Paris and Barcelona. He decided to take up Studio Ghibli’s offer when it became possible to work with French and Belgian film funds. Having not made a feature before he decided to use a large group of animators but hoped that they would respect his unique style which combines European and Japanese-Chinese styles. I found an interview with de Wit which appears to have been conducted for Positif magazine. Here are de Wit’s thoughts on the techniques he developed:
[Interviewer] Let’s talk about technique: apparently, you discovered digital at Prima Linea Productions.
That’s right. Prima Linea is the studio — in Paris and Angoulême — where we made the film. While we were doing our first animation tests, another crew was finalising the film WOLFY, THE INCREDIBLE SECRET, using Cintiq, a digital pen that allows you to draw on a tablet that is also a monitor. With this tool, you can instantly visualise the results of your animation, without having to scan drawings separately. It’s more economical, gives you more creative freedom and increased control for retouching. We animated two versions of the same shot, one with pencil on paper and the other with this digital pencil. The line of the digital pencil was more beautiful and that convinced us.
For the backgrounds, we chose a different process. The drawings were made with charcoal on paper, very freely, with broad strokes smudged with the palm of the hand. This artisanal quality was very important and gave the image a lovely, grainy texture. Only the raft and turtles were digitally animated. It would have been hell to animate them in 2D. As everything is finalised in the same graphic style, you can’t tell it’s digital. During the production I didn’t do any animation or scenery, only small touch ups.
I can vouch for the effectiveness of these decisions. I sat in my usual seat in the centre of the second row close to the screen and I could appreciate the ‘graininess’ and the subtlety of the backgrounds. Kate Stables suggests that some of the backgrounds depend on a style similar to ‘grisaille’ – creating depth through careful shading in grey or another single colour. One reason for preferring anime to contemporary American animations with computer generated backgrounds is the use of drawn backgrounds and The Red Turtle is a standout example of what can be achieved. It’s also interesting to think about the use of long shot compositions, especially in the earlier part of the film where ‘the sole survivor’ is coming to terms with his position in a setting that can move from idyllic to dangerous very quickly.
One of the genuine pleasures of the film are the tiny crabs that often accompany the actions of the man on the beach and act like a comedy chorus. For a while I couldn’t work out why the affected me so much, then I realised that they reminded me of a classic Daily Mirror cartoon strip, ‘The Perishers’ (1959-2006). Every year the children and their dog would go on a seaside holiday where they would meet the crabs in a rock pool – crabs who believed the large eyes of the dog were mystical ‘eyes in the sky’ as the crabs saw them from beneath the water-line.
There are so many pleasures in The Red Turtle, ranging from the cartoon-like fun with the crabs to the ecological questions, the folk tales and mystery and the emotions created firstly in relation to the turtle and then to the human family. Like all the best animations, The Red Turtle has something for everybody. It’s especially thrilling that the film achieves its effects without dialogue. There is music, however, as Michaël Dudok de Wit acknowledges :
The music is key as there is no dialogue. I didn’t have a clear idea of a specific musical style. Laurent Perez del Mar made a few suggestions including a very beautiful melody that was perfect for the main theme. I was delighted. He was quick to suggest music where I would not have thought to have any, and he was right. He often surprised me. [Same interview as above.]
Some reviewers have suggested that there is too much music but it seemed fine to me and served the narrative well. You can hear the main theme in the UK trailer and glimpse the style outlined above:
This new anime by director Shinkai Makoto has prompted comparisons with the great successes of Studio Ghibli and specifically with the work of Miyazaki Hayao. It isn’t difficult to understand the comparisons. The narrative deals with adolescents, both of whom have the potential for heroism. Mitsuha lives in a small town in the mountains but Taki lives in Tokyo. Mitsuha is a typical Ghibli young female, living with her grandmother and younger sister and estranged from her father, the town mayor. Her late mother had inherited her own mother’s spiritual powers and Mitsuha is expected to follow the family tradition, tending a shrine and helping her grandmother who weaves braids for ceremonies. But Mitsuha wants to try something different: she wants to experience Tokyo and the kind of lives that boys have.
In Tokyo, Taki is a high school boy with excellent drawing skills and a part-time job in an Italian restaurant where he has a crush on an older co-worker. Writer-director Shinkai Makoto has fashioned a narrative that enables these two adolescents to interact and learn from each other — using a mixture of romance, fantasy and adventure in new ways, even if the device of switching identities is familiar from universal romance/fantasy genres. But what starts and perhaps ends as one kind of film takes a very different turn part way through and moves into the kind of discourse familiar from manga and anime. As well as Ghibli, I was reminded of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time which is a case study film in The Global Film Book. That film used science fiction to create a narrative around one adolescent’s discoveries about herself. In Your Name, although it is first fantasy that brings the couple together, there is also a real interest in science — and in the natural disasters which befall Japan.
The animation is detailed and sometimes very detailed. I enjoyed the music too, though I know there are critics of the pop group Radwimps. It is no surprise that this has become one of the biggest box office hits of all Japanese cinema and the only anime to challenge Miyazaki. (I should be clear though — this is not a Ghibli film.) If this film could charm me on a long haul flight, I’m sure it would be an emotional storm on a big screen. If you haven’t seen it yet, look out for the Japanese language version.