Category: German Cinema

Adapting Highsmith #2: The Glass Cell (Die gläserne Zelle, West Germany 1978)

Lisa (Brigitte Fossey) and Phillip (Helmut Griem) at the railway station at the beginning of The Glass Cell

Lisa (Brigitte Fossey) and Phillip (Helmut Griem) in a publicity shot taken at the railway station when Phillip returns from prison in The Glass Cell

My second Patricia Highsmith adaptation in the touring film season was The Glass Cell at HOME in Manchester. This time it looked to be a DCP from an old video copy. The image was degraded but the subtitles were pristine digital and the sound was the same loud and ‘over bright’ mono as at the Hyde Park in Leeds in Deep Water (France 1981). The image didn’t really do justice to the work of cinematographer Robby Müller and, as with editor Peter Przygodda, this was his second Highsmith adaptation in a row, following Wim Wenders’ Der Amerikanische Freund (1977), based on the novel Ripley’s Game (1974). The Wenders connection is also carried through in the shape of director Hans W. Geissendörfer who was a founder member of the Filmverlag der Autoren which produced or distributed many of the films of the ‘New German Cinema’. The Glass Cell is a more ‘popular’/conventional film than most of the New German Cinema films, but it is still a film that deserves attention. The ‘production supervisor’ on the film was Bernd Eichinger, one of the most important figures in German cinema from the mid-1970s up until his death in 2011. The three leading players were all well-known in European cinema. Both Helmut Griem and Dieter Laser were leading German players with international production experience and Brigitte Fossey was borrowed from French cinema.

The film’s plot is familiar and very much what we might expect from Highsmith (it’s an adaptation of a 1964 Highsmith novel with the same title) – it even includes the train which brings Phillip Braun (Helmut Griem) back to Frankfurt after a five-year prison sentence for causing death and injury through shoddy work as an architect on a building project. Quickly explained in an expressionist flashback in the first few minutes of the film, this is quite difficult to grasp in terms of detail and I’m not sure that the subtitles explain enough about the legal questions. Phillip is still convinced that he was set up by Lasky (Walter Kohut) the crooked accountant/speculator on the building project. Somehow, a large sum of money is missing and the assumption is that Phillip has taken it and used cheap and unsafe substitute materials. During his nearly five years ‘inside’ Phillip has suffered mentally and also seems to have lost something of his status as husband and father with his wife Lisa (Brigitte Fossey) and his son Timmie, both of whom seeming to have fallen for the slick lawyer David Reinalt (Dieter Laser) –  who was supposedly Phillip’s top legal counsel in his defence. Reinalt still maintains that Lasky is behind all Phillip’s problems. He tries to help Phillip find a job, but also seems to be overly supportive of Lisa and Timmie.

Lasky and Phillip have both taken part in a police line-up and the officer in charge (Bernhard Wicki) knows something doesn't add up

Lasky and Phillip have both taken part in a police line-up and the officer in charge (Bernhard Wicki) knows something doesn’t add up

As in Deep Water, Highsmith’s story is about a faltering marriage in which the husband is prompted to take drastic action. In this case, however, there is a more acute police presence placing the criminals in jeopardy. I won’t spoil the narrative pleasure, but I found the resolution of the narrative curiously satisfying. There are several recurring Highsmith tropes and direct similarities with Deep Water. Once again there is a bright child of the marriage – Timmie plays the flute and he gives a performance attended by his parents. There is a party where Phillip loses control. As in Der Amerikanische Freund, one of the marriage partners is engaged in art work. Lisa decorates pots and she works in a bookshop. There is mileage in the possibility of an expressive mise en scène based around artworks but because of the murky print it was difficult to see much detail. The whole film is dark and brooding (underlined by the soundtrack early on) but whether deliberate or a function of the degraded image, I can’t be sure. The main action is set in mid-winter so the darkness is realistic. In his notes on the touring season’s website, Pasquale Iannone praises Müller’s streetscapes and there is indeed a deep sense of gloom and despair in Helmut Griem’s walks through the city. As Iannone also points out, the adaptation changes the novel by focusing much more on the ‘post prison’ events, but heightens our understanding of Phillip’s internal anguish by having the letters to him in prison from Lisa read out on the soundtrack. The violent action in the narrative is well-handled and one scene in particular in a raucous beer hall is very effective. Other scenes in apartment blocks feel Hitchcockian in chance encounters with potential witnesses – a nice bit of play with a dog in a lift.

I enjoyed the film despite the image quality and, as in Deep Water, the real pleasure came from the performances and the direction. Helmut Griem as the central character is excellent with a look of utter calm that suggests both coldness and possibility of despair. Brigitte Fossey is equally compelling. I’m definitely going to try to see more of the films in this season. The Glass Cell was a West German entry for Best Foreign Language film in the 1979 Academy Awards. There are four more films in the season coming to HOME and also more screenings at the Hyde Park in Leeds, Showroom, Sheffield and Rio, Dalston and other venues. Please support this excellent season.

Nowhere in Africa (Nirgendwo in Afrika, Germany 2001)

Regina as a young girl (Lea Kurka) reads a story to the village children

Regina as a young girl (Lea Kurka) reads a story to the village children

Nowhere in Africa is an engrossing film and it is no surprise that it won the Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2002. It is adapted from an autobiographical novel by Stefanie Zweig in which she explores her childhood experience of arriving in Kenya in 1938. On the Region 2 DVD Zweig says that one of the features of the film that she appreciated most was the representation of rural Africa. She felt that writer-director Caroline Link had captured the beauty that she had experienced as a child without resorting to the simply picturesque or exotic (“no lions or leopards”). This is an important observation which rings true. The film raises a number of unanswered questions but in respect of its images it is certainly one of the best European perspectives on Africa in the mid 20th century.

Outline

1938. Walter Redlich (Merab Ninidze), a successful lawyer in Hesse, has left Germany and taken a job as farm manager in Kenya. He fears the rise of the Nazis and as a (non-practising) Jew thinks it wise to leave his comfortable middle-class existence for rural Africa. Stricken with malaria he has arranged for his wife and small daughter to join him. Jettel (Juliane Köhler) enjoys her comfortable life and ignores her husband’s plea to bring useful items. 8 year-old Regina is less happy in Germany and immediately takes to Africa and especially to her father’s cook Owuor who has used local knowledge to care for Walter during his bout of malaria. When war breaks Walter is interned by the British and Jettel and Regina lose their home but with the help of Nairobi’s Jewish community solutions are found and the family are soon together again on a different farm. The film follows the family up until their departure from Kenya in 1947 when they return to Germany. The drama comes from the different experiences of each member of the family as well as the relationships between them (and with Owuor and the local Pokot people). The fifth major character is Süsskind, another German Jewish man who migrated earlier than Walter and who helps the Redlich family at various times.

Owuor (Sidede Onyulo) always looks out for Regina

Owuor (Sidede Onyulo) always looks out for Regina

Narrative

The narrative is constructed in retrospect by Regina as she travels back to Germany in 1947. The film begins and ends with her voiceover. The three central characters each represent a different approach to the problems of migration. Walter is the rationalist (though he also claims to be an idealist). They had to leave. He doesn’t want to be a farmer but he’ll buckle down. The war changes him – he joins the British Army in Kenya and he uses the demobilisation scheme to get the family back to Germany. Jettel follows a classic Hollywood ‘journey’. Initially she finds it hard to adjust and her middle-class, European stance makes it difficult for her to get on with Owuor and the local people. Eventually though she becomes a farmer and is reluctant to return. Jettel’s story might have made a conventional melodrama. Regina ‘blossoms’ in Africa. She is the narrator of the story and she mixes not only with Owuor but also the local children. It is not until she attends an English boarding school in Nairobi that she feels ‘alien’. Since she makes the transition over nine years from little girl to bright teenager it is more difficult to assess how she feels in the closing scenes (since she now understands more about her parents’ marriage).

Jettel and Walter during one of their reconciliations

Jettel and Walter during one of their reconciliations

Nowhere in Africa is a long film (140 mins) and some critics/reviewers have argued that the narrative drive is lost in the final third. There is something in this charge and sometimes the film does feel more like a memoir of a period than a filmic narrative in the mainstream sense. This might also take something away from those unanswered questions.

British colonial Africa

Nowhere in Africa was commercially successful in Germany ($10 million) and in North America ($6 million). The third biggest territory was Spain (over $2 million) and then Australia. In the UK, Box Office Mojo quotes $400,00 – not bad for a subtitled film, but half the Australian total and not much more than Argentina ($370,000). The first three UK reviews of the film that I found each see the film as underwhelming, simplistic, ‘safe’ etc. These reviews also tend to be inaccurate as well as missing some of the interesting angles. Perhaps the film suffered from comparisons – to Polanski’s The Pianist and Out of Africa, the Isaak Dinesen story that became a Hollywood melodrama with Meryl Streep? I’m not sure that either is a useful comparison, though Out of Africa does share several important elements. The reviews don’t really pick up the colonial melodrama issues that interest me. In several ways, the most interesting link would be to the Claire Denis film Chocolat (France/WGer/Cameroon 1988) – which also features the daughter of middle-class Europeans and their family servants.

Kenya has always been prominent in British cinema’s relationship with colonial Africa – and with the whole ideological terrain of colonialism, independence struggles and post-colonialism. Putting aside the specific case of South Africa, Kenya was perhaps the most attractive colony for European settlement, based to some extent on plantation development for tea, coffee and maize. The climate and the fertility in the ‘White Highlands’ of Central Kenya meant that were reserved for white settlers by the colonial administrations – displacing local farmers and reducing grazing land for nomadic peoples. The settlers were mainly middle-class British, but also other Europeans and in UK popular culture their lifestyle was seen as hedonistic in the ‘Happy Valley’ region – later represented in the film White Mischief (UK 1987). The exclusivity in this region also helped to encourage local political independence movements which began to be active in the 1920s and grew in strength immediately after 1945. In the early 1950s the same area became an important location for British adventure films including Where No Vultures Fly (1951) – which dealt with game poaching and the struggle to establish national parks in Kenya.

Regina as a teenager (Karoline Eckertz) with one of her now grown-up friends from the cillage

Regina as a teenager (Karoline Eckertz) with one of her now grown-up friends from the village

Nowhere in Africa is interesting in not really featuring the British upper middle-class settlers and instead offering more practical settler-farmers with few graces. One farmer has to use the cook as a translator as Walter has learned some Swahili but not English. When Jettel and Regina are interred in a hotel in Nairobi, however, it is a very upmarket establishment and their other experiences include meeting the Nairobi Jewish community, who are British and middle-class, and experiencing the boarding school. When they do begin effective farming, the crop is maize which was mainly introduced by the British as a cash crop. The simmering political unrest is not directly represented – though arguably it is still there. One of the telling lines of dialogue is from an old man who Walter meets when he starts work on the second farm. The man says he knows the land and can help – he’s known in for 40 years. He then says that “if someone steals your cow and eats it, you can forget it. But if they steal your land it is still there and you’ll never forget it”. He is prepared to help because Walter is not a ‘bwana’ who seeks to get rich by stealing more land. This is one of the scenes in which Regina is not present and therefore one she must invent from what she understands happened to her parents. The whole narrative is narrated from her perspective – which was a child’s and then a teenager’s. She was at that age less interested in politics and more in love with the country and its (native) peoples.

I would recommend Nowhere in Africa for several reasons, including excellent performances by the principals. It offers a different European perspective on Africa, one that is still eurocentric but is less trapped in the coloniser-colonised binary. It’s also a film about a girl growing up that to my ageing male eye seems to be authentic and well worth engaging with. I’d also be interested in a film which told the parents’ story in more detail. I found the film in the bargain bin at Fopp (£3 for a DVD) and I consider it money well spent.

Victoria (Germany 2015)

Laia Costa as Victoria

Laia Costa as Victoria

Victoria has received attention first because of its formal conceit – a single take used to present an ‘adventure’ covering 138 minutes in the early morning before dawn (roughly 04.30 to 07.00). The film’s narrative otherwise features a relatively familiar genre set-up drawing on two or three different repertoires and set in Berlin. Because the plot requires two separate sections – a slow build-up and then a rapid action sequence interspersed with moments of high drama and tension – we can experience the different effects that the ‘no cutting’ rule imposes.

In the first half of the film we see a young woman in a small basement club. After a few minutes she leaves the club and bumps into a group of four lads in their early twenties who are being refused entry. We learn that ‘Victoria’ is Spanish and speaks virtually no German and that the lads are from East Berlin – ‘real’ Berliners. Only one of them, ‘Sonne’ speaks English (which Victoria knows pretty well) and so they can converse while the other three are excluded. This sets up a second interesting constraint for the filmmaker Sebastian Schipper which enables him to play with the narrative information that the English language audience can get from the dialogue and subtitles. Only Sonne has the same access. Victoria is to some extent dependent on Sonne in order to understand what is happening and the other lads don’t know what he is telling her. For about an hour or so, the ‘no cuts’ rule means we have to follow the antics of the lads as they try to keep Victoria amused and Sonne in particular wants to keep her with them. This long sequence draws on various ‘youth’ narratives including late night shops, prowling police cars and rooftop drinking. I was reminded very much of La haine (France 1995) (except that Victoria’s presence changes the dynamic). Around the hour mark it starts to become clear that the lads have to do something that requires all four of them, so when one feels unwell Sonne is forced to try to persuade Victoria to be the fourth person. The audience suspects that this is a bad idea but soon the action revs up and we don’t really have time to think about what might be sensible. I should say also that the four lads are clearly distinguished with Sonne like a young and friendly Brando or Richard Dreyfus, while Boxer has a shaved head and seems a little out of control. Blinker and Fuss seem younger and less confident, but the four do seem likeable and I think we worry for them as much as for Victoria – we don’t think that they will do her any harm, but what they have to do as a task is another matter.

In the second half of the film everything happens fast and the camerawork often becomes blurry. The no cutting policy works very well in this context and we definitely feel part of the action, whereas in the first half it is tedious in parts. I think that the formal strategy is worthwhile. A conventional take on the same narrative would be shorter but might not enable the audience involvement in the action of the second half. I couldn’t help thinking of another very different film, Lola rennt (Germany 1998), which also featured a young woman on the Berlin streets desperately trying to do something for her boyfriend. Rather like with Lola rennt, the audience has to seek clues to really understand why characters behave in the way they do. The central question is why does Victoria allow herself to get mixed up with these lads? We have to think about a couple of dialogue exchanges in the script by Schipper and Olivia Neergaard-Holm. If I’ve got this right,  she has only recently arrived in Berlin and got herself a job in a café close by. Later she explains to Sonne what she did in Spain and combined with other clues we should realise that she is a confident young woman who has given up something that was constraining and that she is looking for ‘adventure’. It’s a great performance by Laia Costa as Victoria, playing a few years younger than her real age. I don’t want to spoil enjoyment of the narrative so I’ll just point out that the issue of Victoria’s attitudes towards what happens and her sense of her own moral position come more into focus in the film’s concluding section.

Overall, I enjoyed the film and it raises interesting questions. I was quite surprised by the make-up of the audience at HOME with more of us old people than I might have expected for what definitely seems a younger person’s film. (I closed my eyes for much of the opening to the film with the strobe lights in the club – I just don’t understand clubbing.) The cinematographer is Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, Norwegian by birth, who lives and works mostly in Denmark. I also loved his very different work on Rams (Iceland 2015), the surprise arthouse hit in the UK. He also speaks English but not German. The music from Nils Frahm worked well with the camerawork. I picked up some comments about interviews with the director and commentaries on the DVD release in Germany? It seems that originally Victoria was a minor character and that the script didn’t really work until she became central. That makes sense. The (very) long take that encompasses the whole film narrative was recorded three times on successive mornings at 4.00 am which must have been a heroic effort for all concerned. The film is released by Curzon/Artificial Eye in the UK. I hope it is widely seen in cinemas since aspects of the narrative won’t work as well on a TV screen.

[I thought of adding the trailer, but it gives far too much away about the plot.]

Beyond Silence (Jenseits der Stille, Germany 1996)

Lara (Sylvie Testud) at her audition.

Lara (Sylvie Testud) at her audition.

This film was given to me (on DVD) by a member of the audience for one of my introduced screenings of La famille Bélier (France 2014). The suggestion was that it was similar in many ways to the later French film. There are certainly some close similarities in the script – but also several important differences. The two films are also different in their use of genre repertoires and the way they are positioned for audiences. I don’t think that the French producers need worry about plagiarism charges.

The main similarity is that the central character is a girl, Lara, who grows up with deaf parents and from an early age she must ‘translate’ for them with officialdom. When she is 8 she is given a clarinet by her aunt Clara and she will eventually decide that she wants to train as a professional musician and therefore needs to audition for a conservatory. Beyond these two central features, the narratives of the two films are quite different and where La famille Bélier is primarily a comedy and a ‘feelgood film’, Beyond Silence is a family drama.

The family drama comes about mainly because of the antagonism between Lara’s father Martin and his sister Clara. Their family is middle-class with tensions about Martin’s deafness (with bad advice for the parents) and Clara’s pursuit of music (a frivolous career?). The adult Clara hasn’t had a child, her relationship with Gregor is not going well and she possibly sees Lara as a kind of surrogate musical daughter (a position which she knows will anger Martin). There are important flashbacks to Martin and Clara as children in the 1960s and family history weighs heavily. Lara’s mother Kai is on the outside of this and she doesn’t appear to have a family. When later she gives birth to a second girl, also with hearing, things seem to look up.

One of the ‘users’ on IMDB suggests that Beyond Silence is a kind of German ‘problem picture’. I can understand the suggestion but I think that it’s more that this is a family drama, pushed further towards the art cinema end of the spectrum. There is tragedy in the film, which Martin foolishly suggests is partly Lara’s fault, and the ending is positive but not conclusive. It really is that this is a story in which things happen much as they might do to anyone outside of studio genre movies.

Tatjana as the young Lara.

Tatjana Trieb as the young Lara.

Because the narrative spans ten years, the producers had the problem that Lara had to be played by two actors, one 8 years-old and the other 18. Tatjana Trieb and Sylvie Testud sound as if they are both too old (Testud being 24?) but they are both convincing and the transition works. All the other adult family roles have to age 10 years and again this works OK. Lara’s parents are played by deaf actors. Howie Seago is American and Emmanuelle Laborit is French. The search for authenticity meant that Emmanuelle Laborit was possibly too young for the role (she is roughly the same age as Sylvie Testud who plays her 18 year-old daughter). Again, I didn’t notice this and it wasn’t a problem but it does point to casting issues with deaf actors. (Testud was also born in France.)

The film was co-written by Caroline Link and Beth Serlin and directed by Link. One of the arguments for the casting of La famille Bélier was that major stars were needed to promote the film widely. Most of the cast for Beyond Silence were not well-known actors, never mind ‘stars’. It was Link’s first feature film as director. Through screenings at festivals the film began to pick up many awards and was eventually selected as Germany’s entry for the Foreign Language Oscar. It didn’t win but five years later Link did win the Oscar with her third film Nowhere in Africa (Nirgendwo in Afrika, 2001). Beyond Silence finally got a limited release in the UK in 1999. The Arrow DVD eventually appeared in 2010 and should still be available. In Europe, Beyond Silence attracted nearly 2 million cinema admissions, mostly in Germany and Switzerland. Surprisingly it doesn’t seem to have been released in France.

I’ve seen some criticism of Beyond Silence on the grounds that it doesn’t explore enough what Lara’s success/musical talent means for her parents. There is some justification in the charge, even if the deaf/hearing relationship is explored a little more via Lara’s romance with a deaf teacher – a man who has hearing himself, but who is the son of a deaf father. Compared to La famille Bélier, Beyond Silence lacks the emotional immediacy of the French comedy, partly because the clarinet music is less easy to engage with and we, the audience, don’t see much of Lara learning it, whereas much of the comedy of La famille Bélier comes from the choir rehearsals. On the other hand, Beyond Silence offers a more nuanced view of what the situation means for the young woman at the centre of the narrative.

Des informs me that there is an Indian film with a similar theme, so I’ll pursue that one soon.

German trailer: