Everywhere around the Potsdamer Platz one sees the Festival logo and the Berlin ‘Bear’. I read in Walking in Berlin, A Flaneur in the Capital, (Franz Hessel, 1929 – translation Amanda DeMarco) that, contrary to myth, the capital’s name is not related to the animal but to a Polabian word for ‘swamp’.
This day started with a programme of a short film and a feature.
Mit der Kamera durch Alt-Berlin was a nine minute film from 1928 on 35mm.
“It finds traces of old Berlin in the modern city. It juxtaposes drawings and engravings made about 1800 with the 1928 reality.“
Central to the tour is water and the River Spree. The director is unknown.
Die Unehelichen, Eine Kindertragödie (Children of No Importance, 1926) is an example of a genre of the period addressing the exploitation and oppression of children and often dramatising a ‘child tragedy’. The director was Gerhard Lamprecht, but here in the socially conscious mode. I had seen this film before in a programme at I Cinema Ritrovato and it was more typical of the work of the director.
We had an introduction by Daniel Meiller who explained that as well has having a long career in German film Lamprecht was also an avid collector of films and film memorabilia. He was a key person in advocating archives in post-war Germany. And his collection formed the basis of the Deutsch Kinemathek when it was set up in 1960.
The film centres on four children who have been placed with foster-parents. The adults are mainly interested in the income. The man drinks and is often violent The woman is feckless. An early scene shows the trauma for the children when their pet rabbit is killed. The two older children are Lotte (Fee Wachsmuth) and Peter (Ralph Ludwig). Lotte succumbs to the poor treatment and dies. Peter is given hope by kindly neighbours and then a woman who is prepared to adopt him. However, this prospect recedes when Peter’s father, who works on a barge, turns up and wants his son as additional labour. Peter has to pass through a traumatic and climatic ordeal before the film closes.
“The basis for making the film was an official report from a society for the protection of children against exploitation and cruelty and socially committed directorate Gerhard Lamprecht brought to light a deplorable state of affairs that was widespread in the Weimar Republic.”
Seeing the film again I was impressed. This time it was a digital transfer rather 35mm. It is well done and the children are convincing. However I did find that the narrative and representations were rather conventional and used stereotypes to a degree. Once again we have the ‘deserving’ and undeserving’ poor with not a great degree of nuance in the characterisation. The film does effectively offer contrasts. The film opens with a privileged child of a bourgeois household playing in the garden and watched, on the other side of the railings, by Lotte and Peter. Late in the film, when Peter appears to have found an equivalent home, he plays with friends in a well-appointed garden.
Frühling Erwachen (Spring Awakening, 1919) was another Eine Kindertragödie. However this film dealt with school students in their late teens: at a time before the ‘teenager’ had not been invented. The film was based on a Franz Wedekind play dealing with the ‘sexual tragedy of youth’. There are a group of students but at the centre are Moritz (Carl Balhaus) and Melchior (Rolf van Goth). Moritz’s family would seem petty bourgeois. His father harbours ambitions beyond Moritz’s abilities. But Melchior from a bourgeois family, [like Hubble in The Way We Were, 1973] is gifted and finds school life easy. We also follow the boys’ relationship with two girl students. Melchior has a close relationship with Wendla (Toni van Eyck) who lives alone with her mother. Whilst Moritz engages with Else (Ira Rina). Her father is a successful businessman. Ilse, the vibrant person in the group, organises a party at her home on one of his business trips. There is sexual experimentation. And a veiled description of this in a notebook causes Moritz to face expulsion, despite his innocence. This incident is the one that mainly determines the tragic outcome.>
The film was directed by Richard Oswald. I have seen his films before and found him a pedestrian film-maker. Spring Awakening is well produced and the cast are good. But the drama only takes off in individual scenes; shots in the cemetery are well done. And the treatment of awakening sexuality is timid. There is a sequence by a river with a young couple: I deduced rather than knew that coitus occurred. Of course, there was Weimar censorship. But other films, like those adapted from Wedekind’s other plays, are more explicit.
We had a good 35mm print to watch. And Stephen Horne provided a well composed score that was complimentary.
Die andere Seite (The Other Side, 1931) was an early sound version of R. W. Sherriff’s 1928 play, Journey’s End. So we had a German cast playing the British soldiers on the Front Line in 1918. The lead actor was Conrad Veidt as the commanding officer, Richard Stanhope. Once I got used to the German language for ‘Tommies’ I was really involved. Intriguingly we had two German performances of ‘It’s a long way . . .’, one the English original and one a German variant.
The film follows the play very closely. Its makes really good use of the moving camera, high and low angle shots, sound effects and inserts shots. The claustrophobia of the dug-outs, the squalor of the trenches and the desolate landscape between the lines are very effective. I thought that it worked better than the 1930 British/US version. The last time I saw that film it struck as rather studio bound, even with a pretty good cast. And I also found it superior to the newly released British version in colour and widescreen. That film adds additional scenes, apparently to fill out the pilot. In fact these rather dissipate the drama. And Die andre Seite works better at placing the placing the conflict and battle. In an early scene Stanhope shows the positions on the map and one has a clear sense of the lay-out of the opposing sides.
The last film of my day was a rather crazy drama, Opium (1919). I had seen the film once before but this was a new restoration presented on digital. We had an introduction on this from Stefan Drößler and Andreas Thein. Using nitrate elements at the Düsseldorf and Munich Archives at the Austrian Film Archive they achieved a longer version closer to the original. But notably they also reconstructed the vibrant tinting (lots of reds) of the film. This was a transformation from the version I saw a few years ago.
Made during a censorship free period, Opium combined the thrill of the exotic with them titillation of the erotic . . .”
The film is full of scenes of indulgence in opium and the vivid and bizarre dreams that the smokers experience. These in particular stand out in the film,
[Robert] Reinart and his cameraman Helma Lerski developed a brilliant, hallucinatory cinematic language . . .”
Another of Reinart’s films is Homunculus (1916), a serial about a Frankenstein creation. This also has vivid tinting and hallucinatory sequences. The plot of the film is picaresque, taking us from the USA to China, to Europe, back to the USA, to India and back again. There are supposed scientific investigations and good deeds. But there are also extra-marital affairs, long-term revenge journeys and, predictably with drug addicts, hospitalisation and death. This is a bizarre but powerhouse film. Keeping, I would think, the audience agog for its 91 minutes.
So back to the hotel after a full day. By now I had worked out the buses and U-bahn. These are very efficient. You can get a weekly ticket for 30 euros. They are frequent and there is an all-night service. Mealtimes take some fitting in. But there are the Berlin coffee shops, with excellent drinks and their splendid pastries. And I have managed a meal and a beer at a Beer Keller.
I have now also viewed films in the alternative venue for Weimar, CinemaxX. This is a multi-screen venue right in the heart of Potsdamer Platz. Consequently it is popular and very busy. The screen dedicated for Weimar [with other titles] is CinemaxX 8. This is a 250 seat auditorium with a fairly steep rake and thus has good sight-lines. Friends warned me though that the front three rows are rather too close to the screen: Jenny Jugo (the Weimar Carmen) could drop straight into one’s lap. They have installed a piano for the silent accompaniments. And, for the space of the Festival, pop-corn and bought-in drinks are banned.
The day opened however at the Zeughauskino.
Menschen im Busch, Ein Afrika-Tonfilm (1930). We had an introduction from a member of the Deutsche Kinemathek who provided the background and context to the film. The film-makers, Gulia Pfeffer and Friedrich Dalssheim, filmed in the interior of Togoland [later part of Ghana and the Togolese Republic]. The land had been a German colony before World War I and post-war it became a British Mandate: a method used by the British to grab land in many places. This political dimension was not addressed by the film. Whilst the film used footage shot on location the sound was dubbed in Berlin. Some of this was clearly voiced in Germany but some appeared to be actual sound incorporated. I hope to check this out. The use of actual African voices was a first in ethnographic film; a parallel to Edgar Anstey’s film Housing Problems (1936).
The film opened with an introduction from the former German Governor. We had been warned that his comments were littered with what are now ‘politically incorrect’ descriptions. He compared the Africans to ‘children’ and described their culture as ‘inferior to European Civilisation’. All was not lost, because most of his talk was heard over images of the coast line of the territory. The opening was very well done, we watched fishing boats landing their cargoes, battling through the surf to the beach. This, like the rest of the film offered excellent camera shots and movements.
The film presented a day in the life of the Ewe people in Chelekpe village. In fact the majority of the film followed one family, a village man, his two wives and children. The narrative ran from daybreak to late evening. There were meals, work, and leisure. The village had a division of labour, both in harvesting and hunting, and in the technologically dependent activity of weaving. Animals were a full part of the village life: goats, pigs, chickens, and some smaller animals we could not identify. In the evening there was a religious/social dance ritual. This was accompanied by drumming as both men and women, some in special costumes, swayed and rotated. The dancing and drumming reached a frenzied climax before darkness fully fell.
We then had a two-part film adapted from a novel by Jacob Wassermann. I do not know the novel but the plot of the films suggested a vast picaresque narrative.
Christian Wahnschaffe, Teil 1: Weltbrand (Part 1: World Afire) was directed by Urban Gad in 1920 and in a digital form ran 80 minutes. The opening title explained that the film is set in 1905 in several European countries. Conrad Veidt played the titular role. Christian is the son of a wealthy industrialist. He lacks purpose though he has secret desire for his engaged step-sister. Spoilt and lacking direction Christian is introduced to a popular Pairs-based dancer with whom he begins an affair. Eva is a man-eater and later in the film she has another affair with a Grand Duke, [a stand-in for the Romanov Tzar]. This links the film to the Revolutionary Year of 1905, though it is not actually presented in name]. In the course of the film we have become acquainted with anarchists and a secret group called ‘The Nihilists’: appropriately their political programme is never explained. They are involved in protests and suffer in the repression ordered by the Grand Duke. In one scene he watches a s a machine gun opens up on a civilian demonstration. In the later stages the plot develops round an envelope of secret papers. The story ends pretty badly for everyone, except the Grand Duke and his henchmen: but Christian does survive.
The film followed the style of many early films in this period. Full of parallel cutting between characters and events, often in very short scenes. So the events and characters move at speed and it becomes quite complicated following the plot. It is however full of conventional tropes and stereotypes, and combines motifs from several familiar genres of the period. In that sense it was probably easy for a contemporary audience to follow. Stylistically the production is not that well done. The editing leaves a certain amount to be desired though it was not clear how much was due to missing footage. The cast are reasonable but it is not one of Veidt’s great performances.
Christian Wahnschaffe, Teil 2: Die Flucht aus dem Goldenen Kerker (Part 2: The Escape from the Golden Prison, 1921) is a sequel. The ‘golden prison’ is Christian’s family home where he feels bored and guilty over his privileges. A different friend takes him to a working class district in the hope of excitement. This they find, and Christian assists, a poor prostitute attacked by her pimp. He thus meets a young social worker, Rose. Partly due to her attraction and partly due to acquiring a social and religious conscience, Christian starts to ‘give all he has to the poor’. However, in this slum we find few ‘deserving poor’ and an amount of ‘undeserving poor’. The film resembles Part I in that once again the story ends badly for most characters.
However, this film has a coherent narrative thread and avoids the endless parallel cutting. So it works in a more constrained and effective manner. In addition, whilst the film has the same director as Part I, it has new scriptwriters. Most noticeably it has a new cinematographer, Willy Hameister. His work offers frequent high angle shots of the slums. The exterior use both low-key lighting and effective tinting. It looks much better than the first part. And there are some excellent set-pieces in the slum tenements as the mass of working class denizens are involved in varied agitations. Part 2 seems a much better film than Part 1. A colleague thought that the second part might have been re-edited after release: the digital versions relies mainly on a Dutch print.
Stephen Horne provided the accompaniment for both films. He worked effectively with Part 1 but Part 2 provided greater scope for drama and emotion. Stephen is a multi-instrumentalist, so we had several instruments; one at least, the accordion, provided a musical motif for working class scenes in both films. Escape from the Golden Prison is a definite film to see but watching the whole two-part drama makes better sense and the contrasts alone are entertaining.
Der Himmel auf Erden (Heaven on Earth, 1927) was the first film that I viewed at CinemaxX. This was a social comedy. The lead character, Traugott Bellmann (Reinhold Schünzel, who also directed the film), is a Member of Parliament who achieves famed by condemning centres of vice. He specifically names the night club, ‘Heaven on Earth’. However, newly married he discovers first that his new father-in-law sells the copious amounts of Champagne consumer in the club; then, that it belongs to his step-brother, not seen for years. His embarrassment creates problem in both his public and personal life.
The situation opens in a very witty manner with a delightful satire of parliamentary action. The night club itself is only mildly unseemly and hardly at all immoral. The main consumption is the champagne. The dancing girls are leggy but not overtly sexy. And the nudes on the drapery are really quite prim. The comedy in the club is probably stretched out too long: I found the humour and wit dissipated at times. But it come together in a great and comic climax And the scenes of the moral guardians and some of Bellmann’s discomfiture are very funny.
The film was screened from a pretty good 35mm print. Maud Nelissen provided a score that included light sequences, lively dances and touches of ragtime.
Another good day. As the retrospective develops it is emerging as an intelligent and rewarding exploration.
The Weimar retrospective runs throughout the Berlinale. There are in most cases two screenings. The ones at the CinemaxX sited at Potsdamer Platz tend to be fully booked. However, the Zeughauskino, a brisk 30 minute walk away, is not usually packed out. This is a typical Museum auditorium, designed for multi-purpose use. It seats only 160 but the seating is comfortable, the rake is good and the sight-lines are fine. The acoustics, including for live music, are good. And the screen is a good size, masked for ratios. The cinema has a range of formats, 16mm, 35mm and Digital. The foyer is small and it gets crowded before a popular title. However, the staff are efficient and affable. And we get a brief introduction before a screening, including in English. So I spent my first day here. The first two films are ones that I wish to return to at fuller length.
Der Katzensteg / Regina, or the Sins of the Father was released in 1927. It was directed by Gerhard Lamprecht and adapted from a novel of the same name from 1890, by the noted author Hermann Sudermann. It is a period drama set in the times of the Napoleonic wars. The key characters are a Baron and his son; a Vicar whose daughter the son is taken with; and at the other end of the social scale a drunken coffin-maker whose daughter works at the Baron’s castle. The first act of the film presented events in 1797 with the French invading Prussia. There is treason which sets in motion a chain of catastrophic events. The acts of the fathers haunt the children.
By 1813 the wars near their end but revenge continues to blight the lives of the children. The conflicts come together in a powerful and tragic conclusion. This film was a dramatic tour de force though if often used conventional situations. Stylistically it was filmed with real panache. In particular the opening sequences involving night-time conflicts between French and Prussian troops were really gripping.
The film was projected from a 16mm print from the Deutsche Kinemathek. It was old and the definition was only fair but one could still enjoy the excellent use of the moving camera and effects like superimposition. The screening also benefited from a fine accompaniment by Maud Nelissen. Much of her music offered a slow and somber accompaniment and there were finely timed silences at key moments.
Kameradschaft – La tragedie de la mine – Comradeship (1931) is a famous German/French co-production. It was directed by the highly regarded George Wilhelm Pabst. Based on a mining disaster of 1906 the film shows how German rescue teams rushed to aid their French comrades after an explosion. The film opens by stressing the borders that separate France and Germany, including a reference to the French occupation of the Ruhr industrial area in 1921.
The digital restoration was introduced by Julia Wallmüller from the Deutsche Kinemathek. She explained that there had been two versions on release, German and French. The German release did not fare well but the French version was popular. In Germany a final ironic ending was cut leaving a more upbeat conclusion. The restoration now included that ending.
The film is bi-lingual, German and French. It is extremely well done and blends effectively the actual film footage with studio recreations. We follow the general direction of the disaster but also are encouraged to identify with sympathetic individuals from both communities. The underground sequences combine almost documentary sequences, with tension, pathos and relief. The film focuses on the working class communities either side of the border and there is a sense of class and craft solidarity. The management and authorities remain in the background. The changed ending in Germany was symptomatic of the future when the organised German working class failed to halt the rising Fascist Party. Predictably the Nazis did not like the film.
Der Kampf ums Matterhorn / Fight for the Matterhorn (1928) dramatized events leading up to Edward Whymper’s famous ascent of the key Alpine peak. The first six reels of the film chronicle the relationship between Whymper (Peter Voß) and Italian guide Jean-Antoine Carrel (Luis Trenker). Carrel lives in the village of Breuil with his wife Felicitas (Marcella Albani), his mother (Alexandra Schmitt) and step-brother Giaccomo (Clifford McLaglen): plus two dogs. The mountain drama is filled out with a triangle of passion with Giaccomo attempting to stir up enmities because of his desire for Felicitas. I found this melodrama distracted from the main mountaineering narrative. It appeared to be an attempt to provide dramatic aspects to the false rumours that Whymper had cut a rope when the later tragedy occurred.
The mountain sequences, with early attempts on the Matterhorn by Carrel and Whymper, are excellent (this is 1860 and 1863). The film generally blends location work with studio shots effectively. And it enjoys striking panoramas across the Alpine mountains. The cast involved skilled mountaineers and there are impressive shots of climbing on rock faces and steep snow slopes.
The film also has memorable canine moments. The house dog, a terrier, at one point nips at the dancers during a village celebration. The outhouse dog, a Labrador-cross, has an epic sequence. It races over snow, ice and rocks to call Carrel to aid his wife who, fleeing Giaccomo, has fallen down a slope on the glacier.
In the last three reels the film moves to the tragic events of 1865. Following the record fairly closely we see the party led by Zermatt guide Michel Croz with Whymper and the competing party from the newly formed Italian Mountaineering Club led by Carrel. Whymper reaches the summit first but there is a fall on the way down with the loss of four lives. The ascent is well filmed though the latter stages are presented through an iris (a telescope – long shots): presumably as they were not able to film high up the mountain.
There follows the accusation of a cut rope against Whymper. Here the film dramatises and we see Carrel climb up the Matterhorn and return with the rope to vindicate Whymper. The drama here works better than in the earlier reels which provide a reference point. But again I found it distracted from the central mountaineering story which is visually stunning. The DCP had introductory titles explaining that the restoration relied on several different print versions. The restoration and transfer were at 4K which produced an excellent and well-defined image. I did think the location and reconstruction shots were distinguishable, down I assume to the harder edges of digital. We enjoyed a piano accompaniment by Maud Nelissen: she made the melodramatic scenes passable and the mountain sequences imposing. The film runs for 117 minutes. There are shorter versions, including I believe a 9.5mm version of three reels.
The three films offered a fine introduction to what promises to be a week of cinematic treats.
The Berlinale, or Berlin International Film Festival, is one of the great Festivals. It has a vast and varied programme. And its honours are prestigious because they seriously award cinematic merit.
Alongside the offerings of world cinema, mainstream productions, documentaries and experimental fare are well designed retrospective programmes. This year, in a treat for cinephiles the Festival offers a focus on the era of Weimar Cinema, German film production from 1918 to 1933.
“In the heyday of German film-making, a variety of styles developed such as Expressionism and New Objectivity, inspired in part by American methods, a division of labour developed which led to greater professionalism and specialisation in many film production jobs.”
‘Expressionism’ is fairly well-known in the cinematic examples, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, 1920) is the famous example. The ‘New Objectivity’ was an artistic movement which in some ways was a reaction against Expressionism. The films espoused a more naturalistic style, in keeping with their socially conscious themes. A late and favourite example of mine is People on Sunday (Menschen am Sonntag, 1930). The latter the work of a bevy of future Hollywood talents: Curt Siodmak, Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer, Billy Wilder and Fred Zinnemann,
Some of the results are rightly famous; The Last Laugh (Der letzte Mann, 1924) by F. W. Murnau with Karl Freund; and Metropolis (1927) from Ufa and Fritz Lang; both films were trailblazers of the Silent Era. But this retrospective offers a fresh insight,
“But with ‘Weimar Cinema Revisited’, that prolific period of German film itself becomes the subject of a review for the first time. The attention is primarily on work that is often omitted from the core list of Weimar films.”
There are 28 titles and 18 short films screened over the ten days of the Festival. I have seen a variety of early German films but I have only see three of four of these titles before. So the retrospective offers a feast of new cinematic treats. Given that quite a lot of cinephiles will want to enjoy the programme most titles are screened twice. Many will be from the silent film period and will have live musical accompaniments. And whilst there are several restoration screening in digital formats most of the titles should be on 35mm film. There are three strands to the programme.
“Exotic – worlds are portrayed in a variety of ways and genres. Travelogues, already very popular in early cinema were also a common genre in the Weimar era.”
And there are early ethnographic films and traits of ‘Orientalism’.
“The mountain film, at the time a primarily German genre, can also be seen as a variety of the exotic.”
The most well-known example in the programme is Das blaue Licht (The Blue Light, 1932) directed by Leni Riefenstahl with Béla Balázs.
“Quotidian – In turning to the New Objectivity of the second half of the 1920s, elements of contemporary reality and social issues were incorporated into the narratives of many films.”
The programme includes titles by the film-maker Gerhard Lamprecht, including Children of no importance, 1926). I saw several of Lamprecht’s films in a programme at Il Cinema Ritrovato and he appeared a talented and socially conscious film-maker of the period.
History – Lavishly produced period films, such as Der Favorit der Königen (The Queen’s Favourite, 1922) were very popular in the Weimar Republic.”
We also have an early version of the much characterised Ludwig II of Bavaria (Ludwig der Zweite, König von Bayern, 1930). This should offer an interesting comparison with the several later versions.
The films will be seen in two cinemas. The CinemaxX is a multi-screen venue: one of a the many sited around the central space of the Festival, Potsdamer Platz. This teems with screens, facilities, and in the Press and audience sections so many programmes and publicity offerings that I should have bought a second suitcase. The Press facilities also ask you to bring your own coffee/tea cup, to cut down on non-bio waste. Fortunately a German comrade reminded me just before I left.
The other venue is Zeughauskino sited just off the Unter den Linden. This is set among in an area of museums and cultural venues. It is a trip from Potsdamer Platz; there is both a subway and regular buses, but it is also the opportunity for a bracing walk and some exercise.
The retrospective will occupy most of my days but hopefully I will manage to see some other programmes. There are also interviews and talks and exhibitions. I have to seek out one on ‘October 1917’. Note, so far the weather is better than in Britain.
The complete Festival Journal and the Retrospective Programme are both online.
Quotations from the 2018 Berlinale Journal.
This title opened the 2017 Leeds International Film Festival. It was screened in a fairly packed Victoria auditorium at Leeds Town Hall. This has a large well placed screen for the occasion and the illumination levels are suitably low; though you get extraneous light when people enter or leave during the feature. The acoustics are less favourable, especially for dialogue. This feature offers Swedish, English and Danish with part sub-titles. Presumably because of the English dialogue the soundtrack was fairly loud but one could manage.
The film itself won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. I am not totally convinced by the Jury’s choice but I could see why the film received the award. It was written and directed by Ruben Östlund whose Force Majeure was one of the stand-out releases in 2014. The bad news for those who enjoyed the earlier title is that Fox have acquired ‘remake rights’.
The Square is a worthy follow-up and the style and themes of the film are recognisably similar. However, I thought this title lacked the tight focus and some of the subtlety of the predecessor though I found the ending stronger. This is rather like a picaresque novel as it follows the travails of a curator of a museum devoted to contemporary art in Stockholm. One nice touch is that the museum is called ‘X-Royal’ because it is sited alongside and uses part of the original Royal Palace.
In the course of the narrative we follow Christian (Claes Bang) at work and outside of the museum. And we meet a range of other characters including his managers and colleagues, his children from a separated marriage and the privileged members of the ‘Friends of the Museum’. The Museum and its patrons are the main target in a feature that is predominately satire. The museum elite and the patrons are holders of what French intellectual Pierre Bourdieu termed ‘cultural capital’. And the film draws a contrast between these members or hangers-on of the bourgeoisie and a range of characters from the lower depths of the working class, possessing literally no or minimal cultural capital.
Some powerful and at times sardonic sequences in the film focus on this class conflict. And Christian’s metaphorical journey in the film appears to be designed to accomplish something similar in audiences. So the film veers between almost slapstick humour, sometimes heavy-handed satire and emotive dramatic moments. It is a long film, 140 minutes. I do not think it is too long but in the weaker moments I was conscious of the length. A member of the audience opined that
‘the film tried to include too much’.
I think this is accurate but it is also that the film has too many targets whereas Force Majeure limited itself effectively to gender and family contradictions. The Square reminded me of the 2016 festival entry Tony Erdmann. Both films follow a picaresque form, both are partly satirical partly dramatic; and both target aspect of European political culture. But both are scripted by the director and I think a specialist scriptwriter would have improved the work. It is the sort of film that Jean Claude Carriere would have been good on.
The film is very well produced. The cast are excellent. Even in some of the more bizarre scenes they are completely convincing. The technical aspects are extremely well done in terms of settings, cinematography, sound and editing. The last named technique uses abrupt cuts frequently positioning the audience to fill in an ellipsis and its consequences. The production team are especially good at the use of stairwells, two finely presented settings. The title was shot on the Codex digital system and on Alexa cameras. It is distributed in a 2K DCP which looks fine.
It is a film I think I will see again. It goes on general release via Curzon (who follow somewhat restrictive practices) in 2018. It has a couple of genuinely shocking sequences. The BBFC have not released their certification yet but I would expect it to receive a ’15’.
Keith has already posted his review of the films of 2017. I agree with many of his picks, but disagree on a couple and want to list a few different titles.
It was a strange year for me in the sense that I was overseas for nearly a month in February/March and most of what was on offer were ‘awards movies’. I also missed the Glasgow Film Festival which in the last few years has provided me with access to ‘festival films’ I might have missed. On the other hand it has been a good year for festivals at HOME in Manchester. Somehow, I still managed to watch over 100 films in the cinema and many more on DVD/download. Here are my highlights:
Most overrated films of the year
La La Land and Dunkirk (2017)
These were two of the most lauded and most discussed films of the year. Neither of them are ‘bad’ films and both have many good points to recommend them. Yet, overall, they didn’t move me or suggest that they deserved prizes. I saw La La Land in Canada with a large and appreciative audience a few weeks after it opened and all I can think is that they might never have seen or might have forgotten what a classic MGM musical might be like. As for Dunkirk, I might have felt differently if I hadn’t first seen the 1958 version of the story and explored documentary material. I suspect that the spectacular nature of the film, especially on IMAX/70mm screens was far more important for some audiences than the meanings the film generated.
Mainstream films of the year
It is significant that the four mainstream films I’ve chosen include three African-American films and three films with women as the central characters – the two key issues in 2017’s film releases.
Two outstanding films about North American life
These two, very different, films were both directed by women. Both explore women’s lives in specific regions of respectively, Maritime Canada and America’s Mid-West. Neither found a large audience but I suspect that those who did see them enjoyed them very much.
European film of the year
Frantz (France-Germany 2016)
I thought this was an astonishing film. There were plenty of other European films I enjoyed but also several I was unable to find in cinemas or that haven’t yet been released in the UK.
British films of the year
Lady Macbeth seems to have divided audiences, including my colleagues. I don’t understand why. Alongside the magnificent God’s Own Country it has figured prominently in both British and European awards competitions. These two début films give me hope for British cinema.
Asian releases of the year
It is getting harder to see important films coming out of South and East Asia at the cinema and I’ve chosen two films here from the handful of titles I was able to see. There was also another Koreeda film this year, After the Storm (Japan 2016) which was up to the same high standard this master has established. I also enjoyed many of the films in HOME’s ‘Not Just Bollywood‘ programme.
Archive films of the year
Cloud-Capped Star (India, Bengal 1960)
Overall, I would have to concede that this year I have been more interested in the archive programming provided via HOME’s ‘States of Danger and Deceit‘ and also the archive elements of other HOME seasons and festivals. I wish there were more current films that matched the artistry and intensity of these archive gems.
Festival film of the year
The Rider (US 2017)
I hope this gets a UK release soon. It matches Maudie and Certain Women in its vibrant presentation of the local in North America.
Your Name (Japan 2016)
The success of this film (and The Red Turtle) gives me some hope that anime will finally get established in the UK. I just hope we can still get to see the Japanese versions in cinemas.
The films I missed that I wish I had seen
The Levelling (UK 2017), I Am Not Your Negro (US 2016)
I’ll try to find these two on DVD at some point in 2018.
December has been terrible in UK cinemas with nothing but family films and mainstream blockbusters on offer and now we await the usual flood of American ‘awards films’. We’ll be struggling to find the foreign language releases and then looking forward to festivals such as Glasgow in February.
I did not think that this was a great year for new releases. There were some very fine films, though often one had to seek them out.
I thought that the Palestinian film 3000 Nights / 3000 Layla (2015) was a powerful portrait of the effects of occupation.
Certain Women (2016) was another fine film from Kelly Reichardt with four excellent performances.
I am Not Your Negro (2016) was a very good documentary though I thought it was weakened by not directly addressing James Baldwin’s homosexuality.
After the Storm / Umi yori mo mada fukaku (2015) was another fine family drama from Kore-eda Hirokazu.
Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan patriotic epic, is here in its 70mm/IMAX version: a true cinematic experience.
Sally Potter’s The Party was one of the wittiest films of the year, standing out from some of the more heavy-handed satires.
Happy End was typical of Michael Haneke and of equal quality to his earlier films.
And Mountains May Depart (2015) was a distinctive but finely made Chinese drama.
Praise for Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea (2016) and for Sallie Hawkins in Maudie (2016).
The year was improved by quite few classics re-exhibited and/or in Festival programmes. However, some of these were transferred to digital formats and that is a lottery for viewers. So I seek out those on 35mm prints.
Odd Obsession / Kagi (Japan, 1959] was a discovery, a sardonic family drama from Ichikawa Kon.
Humanity and Paper Balloons / Ninjô kami fûsen, directed by Yamanaka Sadao in 1937, was a film I knew of but only now had the opportunity of seeing: it has one of the great endings in world cinema.
West Indies (1979) is Med Hondo’s exhilarating take on slavery, the African Diaspora and European racism.
And one film that transferred to digital with such care and attention that it retained its cinematic qualities was The Bride of Glomdal / Glomdalsbruden, directed in 1926 by Carl Theodor Dreyer.
I was fortunate to see Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky / Aleksandr Nevskiy (USSR, 1938) in a nitrate print which gave a luminous edge to the famous ‘battle on the ice’ sequence’.
At the opposite end of the scale there were a number of filmic duds but the title that seemed the most interminable was The Killing of a Sacred Deer, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. Interesting directors from national cinemas tend to lose that interest when they move into English-language International co-productions.
The wooden spoon goes to The Lost City of Z (2016). It was a rare 4K DCP distribution but the files that I saw included digital break-up and colour distortion. Friends had the same problem with different exhibitors. But the distributor Studio-Canal, declined an explanation for this.
But equally reprehensible is whoever controls the policy at the BFI of access to archive prints. I saw both Battleship Potemkin / Bronenosets Potemkin (USSR 1925) and The End of St. Petersburg / Konets Sankt-Peterburga (USSR 1927) in 35mm prints with excellent musical accompaniments, but the prints were copies of sound transfers rather than the proper silent prints with the correct frame rate and framing. Lenin’s adage about cinema clearly falls on death ears despite the Centenary of ‘The Great October Revolution’.
State of Siege is the third film of a loose trilogy of political thrillers made by the French-based Greek filmmaker usually known as Costa-Gavras. Z (1969) deals with the rise of the military junta in Greece in the 1960s, L’aveu (The Confession, 1970) focuses on the repression of Czech dissident politicians in the late 1940s/early 1950s and State of Siege is set contemporaneously in Uruguay with the struggle of Tupamaros guerillas against a repressive right-wing regime. In each case, Costa-Gavras ‘personalised’ the struggle and cast the major French star (and well-known socialist) Yves Montand as the figure at the centre of a political thriller. Z and State of Siege are two of the films that are central to the HOME season of ‘States of Danger and Deceit: European Political Thrillers in the 1970s’. They were also shown at the Leeds International Film Festival where I saw both in the same afternoon. It was well worth spending over four hours on the uncomfortable seats of the Victoria Hall in Leeds City Hall. I did see L’aveu on its initial UK release in the early 1970s and I remember it made an impact on me as a personal story, but at the time my knowledge of East European history was limited. Z was a huge success internationally but State of Siege had a lower profile. Seeing them together more than 40 years after their first appearances, I enjoyed both films but found State of Siege more impressive as a political film.
Both the films seem to have been restored with Costa-Gavras’ involvement in 2014. The restorations were projected digitally in the correct 1.66:1 ratios and I thought they both looked very good. Both also have a music score by Mikis Theodarakis. State of Siege was photographed by Pierre-William Glenn who had at that time been working for both François Truffaut and Jacques Rivette. The film’s script was written by Franco Solinas (writer on Battle of Algiers) and Costa-Gavras. The story is set in Uruguay in the early 1970s but filmed in Valparaiso in Chile, standing in for Montevideo. The events depicted in the film were based on real events and with the same regime still in power, filming was not possible in Uruguay. The script never refers to Uruguay but various signs make clear that the action is meant to be set in Montevideo (see the car number plate above).
The narrative is based on real events in 1970 when an American official posing as a ‘communications expert’, but in reality a senior police officer and expert in torture techniques, is captured by Tupamaros guerrillas. He is one of three kidnap victims who the guerrillas hope to use in negotiating a release for political prisoners. The narrative begins with a police search which finds the body of the American who has been executed. The story of how the execution became inevitable is then told in flashback, mainly through a focus on the interrogation by the guerrillas of the American, who eventually agrees that all the evidence collected by the guerrillas about his activities is indeed genuine. Meanwhile the Montevideo police are closing in on the Tupamaros and their ‘People’s Prison’. Will they find the kidnap victims before the government is forced to resign? We know the answer is that the American dies and the government survives, but the point of the film is to expose the methods of the police and the role of US ‘advisors’.
Watching State of Siege in 2017 is interesting because we have learned a great deal about what actually happened across various Latin American countries in which US foreign policy supported fascist regimes during the 1960s, 70s and 80s. The filming in Valparaiso is particularly ironic since Allende’s democratic government was ousted by Pinochet, with US backing, in the same year that State of Siege opened in the UK and US and in the last few years we have seen the documentaries about the period made by Patricio Guzmán (Nostalgia For the Light 2010 and The Pearl Button 2015). I also realised that the street scenes in State of Siege reminded me of Argentinian films about the same horrors and how the references to Brazil in the 1960s made me think back to some of the films in HOME’s Brazilian ‘Weekender‘ in 2016. I mention this simply because what is most interesting about this new restoration is that it sends us back to the context of the State of Siege‘s first release in 1972-3.
When I looked back at the reception of the film in 1973 in the UK, I was amazed at the critical response. In Monthly Film Bulletin (August 1973), Tom Milne dismisses the film, claiming it simply doesn’t work. One of his main gripes is that everyone speaks French in this French co-production! To be fair, he points out that Yves Montand playing the American agent speaks fluent French but the other Americans speak English. I didn’t really think about this. Montand is made up to look like a suave agent (the real agent was seemingly less so). Making Montand the villain does, I think, help to make the narrative work. Milne’s point might be linked to the regular complaint about films set in various European countries where everyone seems to speak English – some with accents, some without. But for an English-speaking audience, watching subtitled French films is more or less the same as subtitled Spanish films and I doubt Milne’s concern was widely shared. More important is the clear inference that mainstream critics are keen to dismiss the film because of their own political backgrounds. (This isn’t a personal criticism – most leftist critics dismiss much of Hollywood’s output for similar reasons.) Another odd objection to the film was the appearance of O.E. Hasse, the German actor known for many international films such as Hitchcock’s I Confess (1953). I can’t remember if he is dubbed in the subtitled but it didn’t bother me. His role is to act as a senior newspaperman who acts as the typical investigative reporter, asking the awkward questions about government policy and responses to the kidnappings.
The American reception of the film was quite complex and requires careful analysis. The history of the film’s release in the US is recounted by Costa-Gavras in a Cineaste interview in June 1973 when he was in New York to work on the American dubbing of State of Siege. (Most cinema screenings were subtitled so I’m not sure where the dubbed version would be shown.) He recounts how the first reviews in the US from Judith Crist and Vincent Canby were very positive. Even Time magazine was favourable – but not Newsweek. From other things I’ve read, there was opposition to the film but it also clearly got support. Costa-Gavras also reveals that support came from two American businessmen, Max Palevsky and Dun Rugoff. These were partners in a production company Cinema 10 and Rugoff was also President of Cinema 5, a company that distributed and exhibited films, including Z and State of Siege. What is noticeable is that over the next forty years, while Z remained in the public consciousness, evidenced by the relatively large number of IMDb entries on the film, State of Siege seems to have disappeared from view in the US. Z with an IMDb score of 8.2 and 68 external reviews (88 ‘user’ reviews) contrasts with a score of 7.9 for State of Siege and 16 external reviews (25 ‘user reviews’). The simple explanation may be that Z received five Oscar nominations, winning two. In addition, it received a cinema re-release in 2009 alongside its Criterion DVD release. State of Siege did not appear on Criterion DVD until 2015. So, perhaps it was these distribution factors that restricted access to State of Siege? Or did it disappear in the 1980s when American covert operations and support for right-wing regimes in Latin America was so widespread? My memory of US films and TV is that there were significant examples of filmmakers eager to criticise US policy so I don’t think that was an issue (though I don’t discount the possibility of such ‘conspiracies’). More important is the decision by Costa-Gavras not to copy the the thriller structure of Z. In the same Cineaste interview quoted above he tells us that his political aim was:
Simply to present a situation, a specific example of neocolonialism, and in doing so to show the faces of events that are hidden to the public.
That simplicity is key to the film’s political impact.
An essay on State of Siege by Mark Danner is included on the Criterion website for the BD/DVD of the film. The short clip below is from the Criterion series ‘3 Reasons’ to buy this film.