Category: German Cinema

High Life (France-Germany-Poland-UK-US 2018)

Robert Pattinson and the baby Willow

At last I have managed to catch the latest Claire Denis film High Life. Many of the films by Denis get only a limited release but, perhaps because this is her first English language film with a ‘Hollywood star’ and because it is ostensibly a science fiction film, High Life has stayed around for a little longer (with a different approach to distribution from Thunderbird Releasing). As several commentators have pointed out, cinephile fans might have worried that this change of approach meant Denis was ‘selling out’. It does seem that some audiences and some mainstream film journalists took that line to mean that High Life is conventional and ‘accessible’ and attended screenings at Toronto and London film festivals – only to subsequently discover that it is still a European art movie and that keen observation and a working brain are required to make any sense of what is happening on screen.

High Life was screened in Toronto partly perhaps because the independent US distributor A24 was involved in the international production process. But the film was made in Germany with some work carried out in Poland and France. The narrative takes us on board a space ship heading out of the solar system, a journey that will last decades and will probably end in oblivion. The purpose of the trip is scientific investigation and the passengers are all criminals, most (all?) on Death Row. They have chosen to ‘volunteer’ for this mission. The crucial aspect of the scenario is perhaps that there are no hierarchies on the ship and all are equal except that Dr. Dibbs, the medical scientist played by Juliette Binoche, has the knowledge about how to use the medical technologies available. The film is in English because Claire Denis (who wrote the script with her long-time writing collaborator Jean-Pol Fargeau) wanted the ship to be sent into space by a society where Death Row was still operational and that meant the US. The cast is drawn widely and mainly from English-speaking Europeans. Robert Pattinson is the Hollywood star but he too is European (at least until Brexit is sorted out).

Mia Goth is Boyse

The film’s aesthetic is European, especially in terms of the design and ‘dressing’ of the spaceship. Fittingly, because of the Polish connection, Claire Denis seems to have drawn on ideas from Tarkovsky’s film of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (USSR 1972) and possibly Tarkovsky’s other science fiction film Stalker. I don’t know if she is familiar with British sf films (and TV series) but I was reminded of Duncan Jones’ Moon (UK 2008) and Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s Sunshine (2007). The spaceship is a rather endearing utilitarian ‘box’ looking like a large transport container tumbling through space. With its dark, cluttered and gloomy interior it reminded me of the TV comedy series Red Dwarf. It does contain a small area of cultivation, perhaps derived from Silent Running (US 1972) but less spectacular. There are genre conventions in the film but very few CGI effects and no gloss. The computers seem to date from the 1980s and the moving images on screens feel more like videotape. If there is a Hollywood connection it might be to a film like Gattaca (1997) – which was written and directed by a New Zealander (Andrew Niccol), photographed by the Polish cinematographer Sladomir Idziak and designed by the Dutch Jan Roelfs.

André Benjamin is Tcherny enjoying the solace of the garden

The biggest difference from conventional science fiction or other Hollywood style genre films is that Claire Denis tells us as little as possible and prefers to show us actions and let us work out for ourselves what is going on. Although there is a narrative resolution, it is neither happy nor sad, we have to decide what we would expect to happen next. The many IMDb users who scored the film as a ‘1’ or ‘2’ (the lowest scores) find the film boring, pointless, lacking a story etc. Claire Denis ‘takes no prisoners’ with her films. She makes films about questions and ideas that interest her and her films are always interesting to watch (and listen to) and even if the ideas are difficult to discern, the performances are usually terrific and there is an intelligence at work in every scene. The narrative structure of the film is non-linear and includes ellipses. The narrative begins with Robert Pattinson as ‘Monte’ as seemingly the last survivor of the original crew looking after a baby girl and tending his garden. Various flashbacks suggest something about his possible back story (or his memories of certain moments in his life as a child) and about the mission. But these are obliquely presented, distinguished by use of different filming formats – 16mm film for sequences on Earth, different digital formats for sequences aboard the ship. The projected film also utilises different aspect ratios – 1.66:1 for most of the running time, but also 1.33:1 and 1.85:1 in the closing sequences. I didn’t notice most of these changes, but I was conscious of the overall 1.66:1. The main narrative proceeds as a series of extensive flashbacks to show how we got to the opening sequence and then leaps forward to the closing sequence.

Juliette Binoche is Dr Dibbs – complete with long black hair-piece

High Life has also been criticised because of its presentation of violence, including what is now often singled out as ‘sexual violence’. It is indeed disturbing to watch but it’s crucial to the narrative. Because nothing is explained directly we don’t know the extent to which the investigations into ‘human reproduction’ under the stress of space travel is a primary objective of the ‘mission’. Another objective that I didn’t really understand concerns the energy sources in black holes. (There was a science consultant, astrophysicist Aurélien Barrau, on the film.) Perhaps the drive to reproduce is generated by Dr Dibbs’ own obsession? She tries to collect sperm and to initiate pregnancies, partly through routinely medicating the rest of the crew. I won’t spoil that bit of the plot but two important narrative developments arise from her obsession and perhaps provide the major talking points about the film. The first is to recognise that this drive to reproduce is enacted in the context of a journey which everyone knows is doomed. Why do humans (and all sentient life forms) have a compulsion to reproduce in this context? Secondly, the child that is ‘born’ as a result of Dibbs’ efforts seems to be Monte’s daughter and that might raise problems about social taboos as she grows up as ‘Willow’. (The willow is a fascinating tree, spread across the temperate Northern hemisphere with properties which make it symbolic/metaphorical. Wikipedia’s entry is fascinating.)

One of many colour-filtered scenes. Everyone wears the ‘7’, the number of the ship.

If you want to know more about what Claire Denis set out to achieve I recommend the Press Pack with its Denis Interview. She says the film isn’t ‘science fiction’ as such and she explains how the production came about. She’s effusive in praise of Robert Pattinson, who I think is excellent in the film. Juliette Binoche came late to the production after her stint on the previous Claire Denis film, Let the Sunshine In (France-Belgium 2017). She is as brilliant as she always is, whatever the film. Here she battles with Claire Denis’ version of an orgasm machine which made me think of Dusan Makeveyev’s WR – Mysteries of the Organism (Yugoslavia 1971) as well as Barbarella (1968) and Woody Allen’s Sleeper (1973). Denis has a more brutal Anglo-Saxon term for this device. She stresses, however, that she is concerned here with:

Sexuality, not sex. Sensuality, not pornography. In prison, normal sexuality isn’t really on the agenda.But if the prison is also a laboratory destined to perpetuate the human species, sexuality becomes evenmore abstract, if it is just to reproduce.

The rest of the cast in the film have smaller parts but all our well cast and do a fine job. I was a little concerned in the first section of the narrative that this film might not work, but soon I was fully engaged and now I would happily go back and watch it again. Music is by Tindersticks/Stuart Staples, great as usual in his Denis films and do stay for the end titles during which Robert Pattinson sings. Cinematography is by Yorick Le Saux, new to work with Denis but an experienced DoP on some of my favourite European films. Some of Claire Denis’ earlier work is on MUBI in the UK and is highly recommended.

Here’s the French trailer for High Life (English with French subs):

The Keeper (Trautmann, Germany-UK 2018)

This is an enjoyable and well-produced German-UK co-production focused on events in the life of Bert Trautmann, a German POW in Lancashire in the closing stages of the Second World War who became a famous goalkeeper at Manchester City with a career spanning 15 years from 1949. It’s not a full biopic of Bert Trautmann nor is it a generic sports drama. Instead it’s an unusual romance with both the war (and its aftermath) and sport as major elements. It’s also a largely ‘true story’, but with significant omissions and possible misrepresentations. But these changes don’t negate a strong narrative. Unfortunately, the independent UK distributor Parkland Entertainment has been unable to exploit the film fully with a release on 84 screens. The result is that despite audience support and some strong reviews, it’s actually been quite difficult to find the film in UK cinemas. Wherever it has played, audience responses have been good so perhaps it will succeed on DVD and VOD? The film received a wider release, I think, in Germany in March 2019, but despite making No 10 in the chart only lasted a couple of weeks making around $600,000. In the UK it had made £300,000 after six weeks.

The ‘real’ Bert Trautmann playing against Wolves

David Kross as Trautmann, dealing as best he can with hostile supporters

My personal attachment to the story is that the first televised football match that I watched was the 1956 Cup Final in which Manchester City beat Birmingham City. It became known as ‘the Trautmann final’ and what happened to Bert Trautmann on that day is an important element of the film’s narrative. However, the wider story of Trautmann’s first twenty years in the UK features many other important elements. The story, written by the director Marcus H Rosenmüller with Nicholas J. Schofield and producer Robert Marciniak takes the main points of Trautmann’s story and smooths them into a satisfying romantic drama in which Bert Trautmann emerges as a heroic figure in the UK. There is rather more in the full true story. It seems to have taken some time for the German producers to find UK partners and put the funding together. Like several other recent UK productions, the whole UK shoot seems to have been based in the North of Ireland with Belfast and its hinterland standing in for Lancashire. Effective CGI recreates both the former Manchester City ground at Maine Road and the old Wembley stadium. A German shoot based in München provides some wartime scenes and flashback material. Cinematography by Daniel Gottschalk and the production design, art direction and costume design make a good stab at representing the late 1940s/early 1950s. The supporting cast is led by well-known character actors such as John Henshaw, Dervla Kirwan and Gary Lewis which gives it heft, but the film stands or falls on its pairing of David Kross as Trautmann and Freya Mavor as Margaret, the young woman he marries. Both are excellent.

Margaret and her father (John Henshaw) confront Sergeant Smythe (Harry Melling)

Rather than outline the narrative I think it is useful to spell out some of the interesting facts in Bert Trautmann’s story in order to explain the film’s appeal. Trautmann was a tall and handsome man with blue eyes and fair hair. He volunteered for the paratroopers aged 17, won an Iron Cross  and survived the war, being captured and escaping several times before becoming a POW in early 1945. He was a good footballer and played as a POW alongside farm work. When professional football re-started after 1945, crowds were enormous and unlike today, big city clubs attracted a mainly male working-class audience from the local area. Manchester City had a significant section of potential support from the large local Jewish community. It is a measure of Trautmann’s ability as a player that he did eventually win over the fans despite the doubts about his wartime exploits. The obvious issue for the filmmakers was the question of how to deal with the ‘Good German’ – i.e. how to humanise the character and to avoid creating either a saintly figure or one who may appear duplicitous. Two other recent films come to mind, The Aftermath (UK-Germany 2019) and Land of Mine (Denmark-Germany 2015). Both are relevant here in different ways. In The Keeper, there are two strategies. The first is to deflect the questions about Trautmann’s potential Nazi past by including more obvious Nazi characters amongst the POWs and by creating what seems like the exaggerated figure of the British sergeant in charge of the camp’s work details and who displays no sense of any tolerance or understanding whatsoever. This character also appears in the other films but I wonder if Rosenmüller found it difficult to direct the acting performance by Harry Melling? The other strategy here is to put the onus of defending Bert onto Margaret as his wife. Freya Mavor does very well with what I think is a difficult role. It would be interesting to compare Margaret as the younger, working-class/lower middle-class woman in the same position as the older, upper middle-class Rachel (played by Keira Knightley) in The Aftermath.

The narrative emphasises the romance between Bert and Margaret (Freya Mavor)

I’m not going to spoil the last section of the narrative covering the Cup Final and its immediate aftermath. All I’ll say is that there is tragedy that leavens the expected feelgood factor. The film finishes with titles that tell us what happened to Bert Trautmann as a footballer (he played his last City game in 1964). But apart from telling us that Margaret died in 1980 and Bert died in 2013, it says nothing more about the years after 1964. This is understandable in the attempt to streamline the story and there is enough incident in both the sports story and the romance to satisfy audiences. (If you want to know more about this remarkable man see this biography page.)

I recognised David Kross but couldn’t place where I’d seen him before. Later I realised he was the lead in the excellent youth picture Tough Enough (Knallhart, Germany 2006) when he would have been 15. I was pleased also to see Freya Mavor. I was most  aware of her from Sunshine on Leith (UK 2013) but researching this film I discovered that she has experience in French film and theatre as well as in Scottish cinema. I wonder if she speaks German as well? The Keeper was dubbed into German for its release there in 2018. The film’s credits are long at the end but it’s worth sitting through them to hear a Noel Gallagher song (he and his brother are massive Man City fans).

Peppermint Peace (Peppermint Frieden, Bundesrepublik Deutschland, 1983)

Peppermint Frieden, Bundesrepublik Deutschland 1982; Regie: Marianne S. W. Rosenbaum

This is an unconventional story film that incudes autobiographical experiences. The writer-director was a refugee at the end of World War II. Her family were ethnic Germans who had to leave Sudetenland which became part of Czechoslovakia. In the film Marianne, five years of age in 1945 (as was the writer) arrives in the village of Straubing in Lower Bavaria; about 80 miles north-east of Munich.

In the film the father, an ex-soldier, gets a job as a teacher. One of the key characters is the village priest whose sermons and sermonising have a strong effect on Marianne and her young friends. The effect is counter-productive because it fuels an interest by the young girls in sex as well as religion. The counterpoint to this is a US G.I. who is part of the local occupation forces. ‘Nicknamed ‘Mr Freedom’, (an ironic comment on US values) the G.I. has a relationship with a local girl and the children become aware of their sexual activity.

The priest’s moralising includes holding forth on the evils of the Soviet Union and what he calls the ‘Ivans’. This feeds into Marianne’s traumas of war memories. The solace provided by the actions and friendly behaviour of ‘Mr Freedom’ ends when he receives a posting to Korea; involving both US ‘freedom’ and Soviet ‘Ivans’.

The film effectively catches the attitudes and behaviour of girls at a particular point when aspects of adult behaviour impinge on their consciousness. The film, in often bizarre combinations of imagery, counterpoints the various values encountered by the children. There is kitsch air about some of these sequences.

The film uses unconventional imagery and sound, with the scenes that are mainly realist in black and white whilst what seem dream-like sequences are in colour. The camerawork is often idiosyncratic, emphasising the constructed nature even of the realism. And the editing sometimes produces clashes of disparate images.

The Retrospective e Brochure comments:

Made in 1983, during the era of rearmament debates, Marianne Rosenbaum’s alternative take on history in this Heimatfilm, with its Bavarian and star cast, can be considered a political statement.

The last phrase seems a little odd. I found the film’s political treatment somewhat contradictory. The critique of war is clear. And the ironic treatment of tropes from more conventional Heimatfilms (‘homeland’) is plain. The Heimatfilms tended to be set in areas like Bavaria, to use extensive exterior rural settings, and had relatively simplistic moral values, typically those associated in the countryside as the antitheses of the city. Whilst the realist sequences seem similar to other Heimatfilme, the dream sequences subvert this through parody and even surreal happenings.

Peppermint Frieden – Bundesrepublik Deutschland 1982; Regie: Marianne S.W. Rosenbaum

I was less sure about the treatment of the US/Soviet conflict. There is no equivalent to ‘Mr Freedom’ from the East and casting a minor star like Peter Fonda is obviously meant to give him a certain charisma.

There are telling actions as when the portrait of Hitler has to be removed by the parents. A trope that is repeated in the recent British The Aftermath (2019). The ambiguity of all these conflicting values and characters is there at the end as the film offers a mid-shop of the young Marianne. ‘Mr Freedom’ is gone as indeed is her childish innocence.

The film was screened from a good 35mm print and ran for 108 minutes. Marianne Rosenbaum has only made one other feature and a television drama and series. She clearly has talent and an interesting take on drama, I wonder if her unconventional approach has limited her opportunities.

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

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

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

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

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

I dream of a great love.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the translation of films into other languages . . .

including both the silent and sound eras. So,

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

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

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

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