Category: Book Reviews

Fitzcarraldo by Lutz Koepnick

Fitzcarraldo, Lutz Koepnick, German Film Classics by Camden House, ISBN 9781640140363, £12.99, 92pp

An exciting new series for enthusiasts, students, and scholars of German film. Each concise volume analyses a single classic film, delving into such factors as genesis, production, reception, and key personnel. Each book entails archival research and provides not only an introduction to the film but the author’s own ‘take’ on it.

To date the series offers this volume and Wings of Desire, Phoenix and The Golem.

The author is the ‘Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of German, Cinema and Media Arts’ at Vanderbilt University. This ‘private research university’, was founded by the famous or even infamous C19th ‘robber baron’ magnate who specialised in railways and shipping. Gertrude Conaway was a member of the Vanderbilt family in the C20th and a ‘socialite and philanthropist’. So there is an ironic connection between this academic setting and the representation of C19th capitalism in Werner Hertzog’s film.

Lutz Koepnick appears to be a skilled linguist. He has published on film, media theory and aesthetics, including German cinema. Intriguingly one of his other publications is on the US director Michael Bay; ‘World Cinema in the Age of Populism’.

I found this a difficult book to read, taking it slowly and in sections. It is also a difficult book to review. This is partly because of the approach taken by the author..

It draws on recent writing on the Anthropocene to probe the relationship of art, civilization, and the natural world in Fitzcarraldo. (Publishers’ description).

Anthropocene is a relatively new discourse in academia. Helpfully, Wikipedia offers the following:

The Anthropocene is a proposed geological epoch dating from the commencement of significant human impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems, including, but not limited to, anthropogenic climate change.

The important word is ‘proposed’. There is not a consensus regarding this concept. And it has quite varied meanings; some argue that as an epoch it dates back to the earliest engagement between humans and the rest of nature. Others see it as a modern phenomenon which is only relevant to recent decades. What will be clear is that this is a concept that ties in to concerns about changes in nature and the climate and the whole issue of ‘climate change’.

Koepnick opens with ‘Spectacle in the Forest’ where the author discusses the production and release of the film. He notes the chronicle of the production in Burden of Dreams (1982) which detailed the treatment of indigenous communities and which created a volume of criticism of the director Werner Herzog. Koepnick also discusses how this and other issues around the film fed into its reception. An important aspect is his discussion of Herzog’s public statements and interviews on the film. Herzog has a tendency to talk in broad rhetorical terms rather than in concrete detail; and this did not always play well in the media.

In ‘Dreams (That Money Can’t Buy)’ Koepnick lays out the overall narrative of the film. He also introduces an aspect that in part structures his analysis; the idea that Herzog’s film work is centred on dream worlds. This is something that is found all over discussions of cinema. However, in Herzog’s film world,

. . . [it] is to think of dreams not as Freudian ciphers of repressed desire and distorted wish fantasies but as alternate realities, as engines of world building.

‘Beyond Nature and Culture’ discusses the film in its geographical aspects. Koepnick sets out how the protagonist, Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (Klaus Kinski), as an entrepreneur, relates to the these American lands and the way his venture impacts on these. Here Koepnick set out his sense of the Anthropocene;

The Anthropocene, as the reunion of human (historical) time and Earth (geological) time, between human agency and non-human agency, gives the lie to this – temporal, ontological, epistemological and institutional – great divide between nature and society that widened in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

This gives a sense of the generally academic style in the book. In terms of Herzog, Koepnick sees his film as an early example of an art work that critically dramatises the problems of what he calls the ‘anthropogenic’.

Throughout the book Koepnick focuses on particular sequences to illustrate his analysis and he frequently accompanies these with specific stills from the sequence. Here he looks at an exchange between Fitzgerald and the captain of the ship in which they sail up a river in pursuit of rubber wealth. The ship has been renamed the ‘Molly Aida’, a tribute to Fitzgerald’s amour, the owner of a bordello, and to opera. Here the author points up the disjunction between Fitzgerald’s use of maps and his awry sense of the lands. And here, as he does often, Koepnick draws a parallel with an earlier Herzog film, Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972). This film was also set in the Amazonian regions though back in the C16th, and it also starred Klaus Kinski as the main protagonist. In addition, as with Fitzcarraldo, there were problems about how Herzog used people and resources. He released monkeys featured in the final and famous sequence live into the jungle. And the film was shot on a camera that Herzog had purloined from the Munich Film School. Something, as with his behaviour on Fitzcarraldo, Herzog later justified.

Klaus Kinski in Aguirre, the Wrath of God

‘Flow’ addresses the central setting of the river and the broader category of water. This discussion takes in comments on the ‘historical moment’ of the film and, importantly, Herzog’s psychology as it affects the film and the parallels between Herzog and his fictional creation. He references the German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel. The latter’s idea of ‘historical greatness as individuals who followed:

an unconscious impulse that occasioned the accomplishment of that for which the time was ripe.’

This gives a sense of the driven nature of Fitzgerald but also his domination not by the actual settings and situations but a personal sense of imminent possibilities. In this, Koepnick argues, the character attempts to use the existing world for a rather different purposes. In this story Fitzgerald’s navigation of the river ends not with his stated intent but the film’s finale when he returns to the town of Iquitos with an operatic troupe. Despite what appears to be failure Fitzgerald is ecstatic, apparently feeling that he has achieved a historical moment.

‘The Sounds of Music’ addresses the distinctive treatment of opera in the film.

It is finally time to address what Fitzcarraldo at heart is all about, namely the power of sound and music to express emotions, channel desire, connect different bodies, minds, and souls, and – most importantly – build alternate worlds within and in opposition to the dreary routines of the real.

Koepnick discusses this central plot and motif and focuses onto particular sequences. One is the famous moment when Fitzgerald plays a record of Caruso on the wind-up gramophone to the watching Indians.

The other is the final sequence with the operatic troupe arriving in Iquitos. Koepnick recognises how central is opera to Hertzog’s output; indeed his films have a strong operatic feel. But in term of this film he suggests whilst opera is an expression of the driven and romantic nature of the protagonist he also argues that it serves an alienating impulse which critiques the film itself.

‘On Dangerous Ground’ continues this as one aspect in discussing the way that Herzog and his team actually produced the visual spectacle of the film. The most famous sequences are those when Fitzgerald leads and cajoles the indigenous Indians into hauling a large steamship over an isthmus us between two rivers. It is well recorded that the production used an actual ship on an actual setting, eschewing some of the techniques of special effects to achieve this.

A lot of comment has been made on this, including the toll on the people involved. Koepnick notes these but then argues that for Herzog this ‘real’ effort both creates spectacle but also creates a reflexive take of the spectacle. He quotes from Herzog’s ‘Minnesota Manifesto’ (1999).

There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylisation.

‘In the Wake’ is the final section. Koepnick retreats to take an overview and to look back at the film. Here he uses several other artworks that have been influenced by the film. One is a Polish video construct, Halka /Haiti (2015) and a novel ‘Stromland’ (2018). I have not seen or read either. I could see the parallels that Koepnick drew between them and the film but I did not find this illuminating. This was another point when I found the academic stance of the book tricky to navigate.

Overall the book has an amount of stimulating commentary on the film. The author relates Herzog’s vision to the vision that the film presents of its protagonist. As you might expect there is a lot of discussion of the environmental aspects. Much of this is convincing though I did feel at times that whilst the comments revised the film for the present it was debatable how much all of this was in the minds of the filmmakers when the production took place. My other reservation was that the overall sense of the film that is presented is tied closely to the sense of an authorial vision. I think aspects of the film, for example the way the title privileged actual production over effects, is also a reflection of the times of the film. And the author does seem to accept Herzog’s later rationalisation regarding the way the production treated people; in particular the indigenous peoples. It has to be written that Herzog has a unacceptable record of this type of approach. Apart from Fitzcarraldo, there is the aspect of Aguirre the Wrath of God already mentioned; and there is the scandal that erupted over the rats used in the 1979 Nosferatu the Vampyre / Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht.

I also wondered about the choice of the title directed by Werner Herzog, presumably made by the publisher. Technically the film is a West German production, but whilst it addresses European C19th colonialism there is very little in the film which offers a sense of Germany. This reflects my personal estimation of Herzog output; I think the first six titles, ending with the 1977 Stroszek, are his best work. Since then I think his work has allowed uncontrolled expression of his vision; and indeed he has become a film wanderer across the globe. And I think the early films are more expressive of the New German Cinema.

The volume is quite brief, ninety pages. It includes detailed credits and notes, the latter are very helpful. There are sections rather than chapters and no index. There are 40 excellent film stills, well above the usual quality in contemporary publications,. They are in colour and either half-page or quarter page illustrations. And they are well chosen and carefully related to the discussion on the accompanying pages.

I noted this was a slightly tricky book to read but it is illuminating on the film. I suspect that the keener the reader is on this film the more they would take from the book.

Wings of Desire by Christian Rogowski

9781640140370

Wings of Desire, Christian Rogowski, German Film Classics: Camden House 2019, ISBN 9781640140370, £12.99, 96pp

I was pleased to receive a review copy of this book, in the German Film Classics series, as I was interested if it could persuade me that a film I’d failed to complete viewing twice was actually the classic critical opinion suggested. It must be 15 years since I’d last failed to get through Wim Wenders’ film but since then I have visited Berlin so I was looking forward to re-viewing the film; but first I read the book.

Wings of Desire debuted at Cannes in 1987 and won Wenders the Best Director award. It is a portrayal of life, and Berlin, before reunification when the director was at the top of his arthouse reputation; his previous feature had been the well-regarded Paris, Texas (West Germany-France, 1984) and his role in the New German cinema of the ’70s was feted. Paris, Texas was filmed in America and one of the constant themes in Wenders’ work was the (his) relationship between Germany (Europe) and America in the post-war era. Like Godard, in the ’60s, there was a love-hate tension: the love of American culture and democratic values and the hate of its imperialism. For Godard, there was a linear progression from one half of the dichotomy to the other during the 1960s; Wenders remained conflicted, as the protagonist of Kings of the Road (Im Lauf der Zeit, West Germany, 1976) said, “The Yanks have colonised our unconsciousness.” This film was the third of the road movie trilogy; the others were Alice in the Cities (West Germany, 1974) and Wrong Turn (West Germany, 1975), all starring Rüdiger Vogler as Wenders’ ‘stand in’. Wrong Turn was scripted by Peter Handke, who also contributed to Wings of Desire and, after the revelation of Handke’s support for Slobodan Milošević’s Serbia, which hit the news again recently after his award of the Nobel Prize for Literature, casts something of a shadow over the film.

Alice in the Cities, Wenders’ best fiction film in my view, is set both in America and West Germany but of Wings of Desire, as Rogowski says:

. . . the decision to film in (West) Berlin, in German, to address specifically German issues in a highly poetic, literary, manner and to enlist the help of none other than Peter Handke . . . the film seeks to reclaim something that is authentic, significant, and unique, both to the (divided) nation as a whole and to the individual person. (18)

The ‘poetic’ emphasises the arthouse elements to Wings of Desire, where being obtuse is anything but a problem. So it is helpful that Rogowski diligently unpicks the references and offers enough context, for those who are younger, about Berlin just before the Wall came down. Although he obviously admires the film, that doesn’t prevent him having a critical gaze. The climax of the film, where Bruno Ganz’s (fallen) angel finally meets Marion (Solveig Donmartin) in the flesh, is dissected in some detail showing the problems in Handke’s script (the attempt to recoup Nazi discourse) and the uncritical celebration of heteronormative union. Rogowski is fair to Wenders as he acknowledges the last point is not something that would have been widely understood in 1986.

Donmartin and Wenders were a couple at the time of the film and (from 2020) it does look to me like an indulgent love letter to her, utilising the trope of the ‘mysterious woman’ who will ‘save’ the man (Handke names her Woman in the script but at least Wenders humanises her in the film with a name). Although I did get to the end of the film this time it was only because I forced myself. Much of my irritation was rooted in the constant reverse shot of the angel Damiel watching the world go by; Ganz is an actor I admire but I found his patronising smug smirk insufferable.

Screenshot 2020-01-16 at 09.53.05

Insufferable smug smirk

The gender politics has (inevitably) dated but that is no reason to condemn any text as all are of their time. However, I didn’t like the film when it came out so my view hasn’t changed.

Monographs on individual films are a popular publishing format; the BFI Classics and Modern Classics have been running since 1992. Their obvious strengths are offering an in-depth consideration of a film; which, of course, are also its weakness for although the monographs usually contextualise the film, the focus has to be on the text. Exactly what breadth of scope is ideal for writing about film I wouldn’t like to say; it depends upon the film, genre, director, producer and so on.

As noted, Rogowski offers an excellent guide to the film and an example of how useful he is can be seen when he points out that there is a key reference to Walter Benjamin’s philosophy of history that could be “lost on English-speaking viewers, since it is not translated in the subtitles . . . ” (68). This refers to Benjamin’s concept of the ‘Angel of History’ which witnesses (as does Damiel and his companion Cassiel, played by Otto Sander) “history as perpetual catastrophe” (69). Hence the guide does more than contextualise in that it offers clarity for non-German speakers.

Rogowski is also generally sound in his analysis of the specifically filmic elements but betrays his background, as a Professor in Language and Literature, when he questions whether two pairs of men walking in the same frame, one pair in the background, was intentional (72). Film students know that everything is assumed to be of significance.

The quality of the film stills in the book is superb; they are large enough to be seen clearly and printed on high quality paper. However, the book isn’t structured by chapters, so there’s no Contents (or index), which compromises its use as a reference book. Recommended if you (think you’ll) like the film.

Book Review: World Cinema Through Global Genres

GlobalGenres

World Cinema Through Global Genres, William V. Constanzo, John Wiley 2014, £21.99, 432pp ISBN 9781118712924

The US publisher John Wiley now has a major global brand for academic and professional texts after its 2007 merger with Oxford-based Blackwell. This means that there is now UK promotion for a Wiley US textbook like this title. In the standard, squarish large format for textbooks, its 400 plus pages add up to a hefty tome. Inside there is a relatively simple structure. After 40 pages of introductory material on film studies, William Constanzo offers four sections, each focusing on what he terms a ‘Global Genre’.

The four genres are well-chosen and comprise ‘The Warrior Film’, ‘The Wedding Film’, ‘The Horror Film’ and ‘The Road Movie’. Within each section is a general essay on the specific ‘genre cluster’ and a ‘Deep Focus’ on one specific national or regional industry, followed by four shorter ‘Close-ups’ on specific film titles. So, 120 pages are devoted to ‘The Warrior Film’ with a Deep Focus on Chinese Cinemas and Close-ups on The Magnificent Seven, Seven Samurai, Sholay and Enter the Dragon. Across the other three sections students are offered focused studies of Indian, Japanese and Latin American Cinemas.

One of the quandaries for any textbook writer taking on this topic (i.e. a textbook on ‘World Cinema’) is what to include and what to leave out. Unless the book is intended as a kind of gazetteer, it isn’t possible to cover every film industry, or indeed every genre. By selecting ‘Global Genres’, Constanzo implies that he isn’t covering ‘art cinema’ or documentary or political filmmaking etc. But he still has to decide on which film industries. It seems that he has opted for those that American students are most likely to encounter as popular entertainment and perhaps feel closest to – Latin America and East Asia/South Asia.

Having chosen his genres and film industries, how does Constanzo’s approach work out? On the whole pretty well I think. He devotes his space to quite detailed analysis of his chosen films and finds ways to introduce students to unfamiliar cultures. He’s fond of quoting David Bordwell and, like Bordwell (and Thompson) he uses many small screengrabs to illustrate sequences. On the positive side these grabs are presented in their correct aspect ratios – something that makes immediately apparent the difference in presentation between The Magnificent Seven in ‘Scope and Seven Samurai in Academy. Unfortunately, all the grabs are presented as sometimes quite murky greyscale images, losing much of their impact in the process. Significantly too, the single still from Sholay is not in the correct ratio since the only DVD available in 2013 would have been ‘pan and scan’.

William Constanzo has been teaching a long time and he is both widely travelled and a fan of the films he analyses. There are many insights here and students should get a thorough introduction to the genres he tackles. In some ways his discussion of ‘The Wedding Film’ is the most interesting since it isn’t a genre category recognised as such by the studios. He starts from the success of My Big Fat Greek Wedding (US 2002), a small independent film that became a big global success, and notes that similar films have been successful across the globe. This is a category that draws upon different repertoires such as the romantic comedy, the social comedy and the family drama/melodrama and when he lists Monsoon Wedding (India 2001) alongside Four Weddings and a Funeral (UK 1994) and other titles from Iceland, Poland and Taiwan, the possibilities are immediately appealing. However, things get a little trickier when Constanzo chooses three films set in Israeli ‘Occupied Territories’, one directed by the Israeli (but self-proclaimed ‘international’) director Eran Riklis and the other two by Palestinian filmmakers. Again the analysis is thorough and some of the political context is explained – but not enough perhaps to fully understand the meanings in these specific films. There is also the problem that Constanzo doesn’t explore the institutional differences between the films in terms of production – how the diverse film titles that he chooses are likely to be distributed and received by critics and audiences. Again we have to accept that this isn’t the purpose of the book and there isn’t space to explore ‘film as institution’.

The selection of film titles in the book is mostly very good and provides both students and teachers with useful entry points. The quartet of Halloween (US 1978), Suspiria (Italy 1977), The Devil’s Backbone (Mexico-Spain 2001) and Ringu (Japan 1998) in the Horror section has great potential. I’m a little baffled however by the inclusion of both La strada (Italy 1954) and A bout de souffle (France 1960) as ‘road movies’ in the final section. These two European art movies seem out of place. They require more space in order to explain their significance in film history and their relationship to film movements such as Italian neorealism and La nouvelle vague as well as their relationships to genres. They also hint at that academic sense of discussing the canon rather than engaging with the popular genre films that have appealed to broad audiences. What I mean, perhaps, is that they offer examples ‘known’ to US scholars and cinephiles rather than enjoyed by contemporary popular local audiences.

As this is a textbook I should add that each of the four sections includes timelines showing major historical events in the ‘Deep Focus’ region plus selected film releases and an extended list of titles from around the world in the ‘genre’ section. These are useful references as are each chapter’s reading lists and the questions that accompany each case study film analysis. There is also a glossary, a full index and a companion website with a teacher’s manual and other support materials (though you need to register as an ‘instructor’).

I think this could be a useful book for any teacher wanting to introduce students to films beyond Hollywood through a focus on genres. I suspect that in the UK the Wedding and Horror sections might work best. One word of warning. I found the Deep Focus sections to be variable in that the Chinese section is dominated by an analysis of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and the Indian one is flawed because it underestimates the so called ‘regional’ film industries and the recent growth of independent productions. The Japanese one is OK but rather limited, but the Latin American section is more detailed and a good introduction.

[This review first appeared in Media Education Journal No. 59, Summer 2016 and is published here with permission – see http://www.ames.scot/mej.html]

Book Review: Delivering Dreams: A Century of British Film Distribution

DeliveringDreams

Delivering Dreams: A Century of British Film Distribution, Geoffrey Macnab, I.B. Tauris 2015, £16.99, 272pp, ISBN 9781784534899

Distribution is the sector of the film industry that remains mysterious to many film and media students – and many teachers. There are very few books or other resources that properly explain and analyse the film distribution business. Geoffrey Macnab is a highly respected film journalist and critic. He isn’t a film scholar as such but he has written very useful industry studies such as J. Arthur Rank and the British Film Industry (Routledge 1993) as well as works on directors and individual films. He’s well placed to write about distribution and this paperback is certainly a valuable resource that every film/media library or staffroom bookshelf should acquire. It’s not without weaknesses, however. Some derive from the book’s publishing context and some from the difficulties inherent in a pioneering project.

The book has been published partly to celebrate the 100th anniversary of what was first known as the Kinematograph Renters’ Society Ltd. and which now calls itself the Film Distributors’ Association (FDA) – the trade association for the film distribution sector in the UK. The book opens with a preface by David Puttnam, the current president of the FDA and closes with a postscript by Mark Batey, the FDA Chief Executive. In between Macnab offers eleven chapters covering the main issues in UK film distribution during the century of KRS/FDA operation from 1915-2015.

Each chapter is given an important film title as its heading. Chapter 1 is Chaplin’s The Tramp (1915) and Chapter 11 is The King’s Speech (2010). Most readers will probably make a good guess at which films appear as the titles of other chapters – although you do have to understand the nature of the British rather than US business. Apart from Chapter 7 covering the 1970s and titled Star Wars (1977), each other chapter carries the title of a successful British film – and Star Wars was indeed made at Elstree and represents one of the ‘Hollywood UK’ titles that have done so much to characterise UK production and exhibition ever since.

Each chapter is not solely focused on a single film, but it is significant that, as a good journalist, Macnab knows how to structure a story to bring out the highlights of the history of UK distribution in an entertaining read. Important issues such as the changing policies of the British Board of Film Censors (which since 1985 has changed ‘Censors’ to ‘Classification’) crop up alongside other institutional changes (e.g. the coming of sound and the competition from television in the early 1950s). Macnab also introduces us to accounts of working in the distribution business from the 1930s through to setting up the new distribution company Optimum Releasing in 1999.

Many of these accounts are fascinating and invaluable for any kind of ‘institutional’ study of British film. They also remind us that, ultimately, distribution is all about making sure the film print gets to the cinema in time for the screening.

The endnotes reveal how much time Macnab must have spent poring over Kine Weekly and the Kinematograph Yearbook in the BFI Library to find material for the earlier chapters. He must have been able to go back to his own research for earlier publications and he has clearly got very useful contacts for his current film journalism practice. On that note, the book feels very up-to-date in its concerns. However, things are moving very quickly in film distribution and during 2016 Macnab himself has already been writing in Screendaily about the end of the VPF (Virtual Print Fee) – the mechanism which saw distributors helping to fund the digitisation of UK cinemas – and what might come next as the unwieldy business model of exclusive ‘windows’ for product on different platforms gradually disintegrates.

Because the book is for the general reader who may be a film fan or the industry professional with an interest in the history of their own business, Macnab sensibly keeps the narrative flowing rather than taking a more distanced position and trying to analyse how distribution functions as a business model in the context of the international film market. The book also lacks coverage of aspects of the distribution business like Sales Agents, Film Festivals and Film Markets – and indeed distribution practices in other territories. In terms of what it does do though, it’s generally very good – though some of the historical accounts are ‘broad brush’ and lack insights from more detailed research.

Delivering Dreams carries a ‘Select Bibliography’ of books on British Cinema and the British Film Industry and endnotes/references for each chapter. The contents page lists an index but, because I was sent a proof copy to review, the index was not yet completed. Teachers definitely need an index for this book, so check it out before you buy.

[This review first appeared in Media Education Journal No. 59, Summer 2016 and is published here with permission – see http://www.ames.scot/mej.html]