Category: German Cinema

Further thoughts on Phoenix (Germany 2014)

A move towards expressionism?  Christian Petzold's 'Yella' (2014)

A move towards expressionism? Christian Petzold’s ‘Phoenix’ (2014)

Christian Petzold is no stranger to dealing with the idea of ghosts. Even though this film differs significantly from his earliest films, and forms part of the recent ones which have dealt with aspects of Germany history very much in the vein of the vergangenheitsbewaltigung tradition, there are resonances with his Ghost trilogy which gained him such International visibility as one of the Berlin School of filmmakers. These were directors, such as Petzold, Christoph Hochhäusler (Unter dir die Städt reviewed here), Thomas Arslan (an interview from 2011 here) and Angela Schanalec ( a trailer for Orly (2011) here). A disparate group but who all looked forward towards and at a modern Germany and the challenges faced in the new constitution of Europe. Thus, the first feature in the trilogy Die Innere Sicherheit (The State I’m In) dealt with what life was like as the daughter of two ex-terrorists (implicitly from something like the Red Army Faction) constantly on the run and never allowed to settle or make relationships. Similarly, Gespenster (Ghosts) cast Julia Hummer as a young, rootless girl trying to survive in Berlin. In Yella, Nina Hoss gives an eerie performance as a woman trying to move from the economically-deprived East to the more affluent West. Without giving any of the details of these plots away, Petzold’s characters definitively experience what it is like to be ghosts within the new economic Europe and to be a shadow within your own life. Watching Hoss play the role of Nelly in Phoenix, returning to her old life from the camps, was a further revelation of this theme with melodramatic intensity. Nelly is a ghost in her own life, unrecognised by her own husband and forced to act as her own doppelganger. All the unsettling, psychological associations having a double are at play here as in other such narratives and a scene in the hospital where Nelly is undergoing facial surgery made direct visual reference to it. Whilst Nelly as a shadow is a cultural metaphor, Hoss captures the emotional fragility so naturalistically that her performance protects the film from being schematic or overly symbolic. It works, as Keith and Roy have said, perfectly on a thematic level. It expresses exactly what might have been the emotional dislocation of returning from such an experience to attempt to take up your old life and relationships. And that the ending works is testament to the emotional conviction in the playing – from Hoss and Zehrfeld but, importantly, also from Nina Kunzendorf who offered such a convincing protective warmth and love – and a different response to circumstances – as Nelly’s devoted Jewish friend. The ending of the film, as Keith and Roy say, is incredibly moving, retaining an emotional ambiguity whilst being so satisfying. It generally reached back, for me, to Fassbinder in a way I haven’t know Petzold do so much before especially the post-war relationship in The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979).  Weren’t the nightclub scenes quite parodic – with an uncomfortable sense of victors moving in to take the place of Nazis? 

Some reviews have talked about Petzold employing naturalism. I tend not to agree. Petzold uses his landscapes and his characters to create parables and to explore moral issues quite overtly and schematically. His style is better described as restrained and resists visual or aural excess but it does not lack elements of fantasy or melodrama. He often relies on the controlled intensity of actors such as Hoss or underplaying in performance in very extreme, narrative circumstances (as happens in Barbara (2012) or Jerichow (2008)). Part of what is fascinating about his work for me is this exploration of how to marry these disparate kinds of styles of expression. His collaboration with Harun Farocki – the great social documentarian –goes back to his film school days where Farocki taught him. Farocki was an inspirational documentarian on social issues as they related to the modern economic world. In returning to themes of the post-war era, crafting what some see as very conventional dramas for an international market (and therefore see Petzold as reneging on some of his principles) do these two collaborators suggest there is unfinished business there that can no longer be resisted?

The release of Phoenix (Germany 2014)

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(We first reported on Phoenix at the London Film Festival, where it was our ‘best of show’. Keith now offers a view on the UK release of the film on May 8th.)

This was a preview screening for Members and Guardian readers at Picturehouse at the National Media Museum. There were about sixty people in the audience: most of whom seemed very appreciative. I would have expected more, even on a Sunday morning, as the director Christian Petzold and the star Nina Hoss have already collaborated very successfully in Yella (2007) and Barbara (2012).

The film is set in Berlin immediately following the end of World War II. Berlin is still an occupied city and the survivors, ordinary Germans and ex-camp inmates, return to find their old life or try to find a new life. A woman confronting a new situation or a new life was the central theme of both of Petzold’s earlier films and it is once again here. Nelly (Nina Hoss) is still recovering from trauma and from injury, assisted by Lena (Nina Kunzendorf) who is involved in assisting Jewish victims and who is involved the Zionist movement: she also is probably in love with Nelly. On the road to recovery Nelly seeks out her friends and family from the past, including Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld).

The film vividly recreates the Berlin of the period and also takes in the wartime and the pre-war world. This still haunts the protagonists. Nelly was a singer before the war and the film makes good use of the songs of Kurt Weill. The film’s title is taken from the name of a night-club that figures in the story.

Petzold’s film combine genre plots with art film sensibilities. So at one level the film works rather like a thriller, with the audience likely trying to foresee the developing permutations. But at a more subtle level it works as a study of character, ably presented by the fine performances of the lead actors, especially Hoss and Zehrfeld. And Petzold and his production team bring their usual excellent and finely judged mise en scène, camerawork, editing and sound to the film: this time in 2.39:1.

But Petzold’s films also work at a deeper metaphorical level, casting a critical eye on German societies and culture. Yella was set in the post-reunification Germany with some acid representations of that market economy. Barbara took the audience back to the divided German and the DDR, a noirish narrative that suited the depiction of that closed society. Now we have the world of the immediate post-war Germany, with the associated guilt, traumas and resentments of the characters. I wonder if Petzold, with Hoss, already has a plan for a film set during the Third Reich or even the earlier Weimar Republic. Like his other films this work also references the earlier cinemas of Germany.

The film has a general release from 8th May. It is definitely worth seeking out and most enterprising Independent cinemas will presumably screen it. Stay right to the end, the climax and resolution of this film is the most compelling I have yet seen in 2015.

About a Girl (Germany 2014)

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There are not that many screenings of German films these days, so this title in the Leeds Young Film Festival looked promising. It amply repaid the time at the Picture House. The Festival Brochure recommends:

See this if you liked: Heathers, Girl Interrupted, Juno.

In fact the last title is nearest in tone: a fresh and engaging look at a moment (a sort of rite de passage) when a teenage girl finds herself re-examining life, family, relationships and the larger meanings. In some ways the film seems blackly comic, as one of its main themes is ‘death’. However, this is contrasted with ‘life’ and the drama is not only affirming but is more questioning than sardonic.

The protagonist is fifteen and three quarter years Charleen (Jasna Fritzi Bauer). She lives with her mother Sabine, (Heike Makatsch, her nickname from her own teens is Bini); her younger brother and internet savvy Oscar; her granny Emmi (Dorothea Walda, much sharper that she first appears; and Sabine’s boyfriend Volker (Simon Schwarz, sometimes called Holger). In the course of the film we also find out about her father (not around). We meet her school friend Isa (Amelie Plaas-Link). And several schoolboys including Linus (Sandro Lohmann). Apart from being bright at maths he appears to also be an amateur taxidermist.

The Festival Brochure reveals that:

One day she (Charleen) decides to commit suicide. Waking up in hospital after her failed attempt, both her, her family and her friends are forced to reassess their lives and relationships.

This takes up the rest of the narrative. In the course of this we meet an unconventional psychologist Dr. Frei (Nikolaus Frei). We visit a funeral parlour, Charleen’s school, and a cemetery. We also meet Dr. Frei’s talking Budgie and Linus’ pet hamster Archie. We listen in on school sex lessons and watch the dynamics of teenagers in this environment; including their tendency to cruelty.

All this is treated with a relatively light touch. The film does become more serious in the last 40 minutes or so, but even here the plot allows the odd moment of wit or whimsy. One sequence I enjoyed was a near accident as the driver took her eyes off the road: the wandering eyes of drivers always worry me in films. A subjective viewpoint is also introduced with Charleen’s momentary imaginings about friends and people she meets. Several of these have real panache.

One of the virtues of the film is the style. It is more naturalistic than realist. But the techniques used, which include a couple of overhead shots and a crane, a slight slow motion effect and a series of freeze frames, is always completely apt. I was especially pleased that the Steadicam shots did not attempt to emulate a handheld camera.

My sense of teenage years is now all down to memories: but I found the confusions and angst depicted completely convincing. The film does attempt to include possibly too many issues: we have a gay relationship. But even here it fits. The final resolution of the relationships is slightly pat, but seems to work.

It looks like the film does not have a UK distributor as it does not have a BBFC Certificate: the Brochure recommends 15. It is to be hoped that some bright company picks it up. It is a rewarding 104 minutes and with the right publicity should surely win an audience. The film is in colour, 2.39:1 and has English subtitles. Well spotted by the Festival programmers.

Director and Writers: Mark Monheim. Music by Sebastian Pille; Cinematography by Daniel Schönauer; Film Editing by Stine Sonne Munch; Casting by Stefany Pohlmann; Production Design by Cinzia Fossati, Christina Heidelmeier; Costume Design by Carola Raum. The film is in German with English subtitles: oddly, I could not find a German title for the film.

Early Sound Films at Leeds International Film Festival

The Blue Angel

The Blue Angel

Alongside a number of silents the Festival features two early examples of working with the ‘sound on film’ technology which arrived in the late 1920s. There were various systems in Europe and North America, but they were all fairly primitive. Cutting or overlaying sound in the manner that filmmakers used celluloid was not developed until the 1930s. Two avoid extraneous sound on the tracks film cameras were enclosed in padded booths, which limited camera movement. This was at a time when filmmakers had just developed the technology of the moving or ‘unchained’ camera. However, talented directors and their production crews quickly developed methods to use sound in an innovative and entertaining/dramatic fashion.

First we have The Blue Angel (Der Blaue Engel, 1920) filmed at the great UFA studios near Berlin. It was directed by Josef von Sternberg, a rather maverick filmmaker who had already established a career in Hollywood. His 1927 Underworld was a pioneer film in the gangster genre. Von Sternberg was born in Vienna but raised in the USA. He returned to Europe at the invitation of Eric Pommer, the great German producer. The film is famous partly because of its casting. It is the first sound film of Emil Jennings. Even more notable it introduced Marlene Dietrich to von Sternberg and the international public. Whilst Dietrich had already made a number of silent films in Germany, von Sternberg bought a new sensuous and dangerous side to the Dietrich persona. Later von Sternberg took Dietrich back to Hollywood where they made a series of provocative and sensuously inspired films. Sternberg’s career declined in the late 1930s but Dietrich became one of the great icons of Hollywood cinema.

Part of the film’s quality is due to the skills of the German film technicians at the UFA Studio. The Cinematography is by Günther Rittau and Hans Schneeberger: the Editing is by Sam Winston: the Sound Effects by Fritz Thiery: and Production Design by Otto Hunte and Emil Hasler. All of these craft people can be found on the credits of other German films of the period. The UFA studio was the centre of excellence during the 1920s and filmmakers from elsewhere in Europe were eager to work there – Alfred Hitchcock would be a prime example.

The film is adapted from a novel by Heinrich Mann, though the story is fairly truncated, removing the political critique found in the book. Instead Sternberg, who authored much of the script, produced a story of infatuation and its consequences.  Dietrich plays Lola, a night club entertainer, Jannings a professor at a local institute.

John Baxter writes of Dietrich’s Lola, “Her feline stroll on stage, her pointed mocking stares, her casual use of her own sexual allure to beguile the giggling, simpering Jannings became elements in a screen persona Dietrich was too exploit for the rest of her career.”

Sternberg, a director noted for his use of mise en scène and chiaroscuro, “plastered then [the sets] with scores of posters, hung the café with nets, dangling cardboard angels … and everywhere, low hung lamps that give the whole film an air of scented, smoky claustrophobia.”  The combination was an instant success. Sternberg and Dietrich returned in triumph to Hollywood and the film has become a classic of the period

M

M

The second feature was also made in Germany and in the UFA studio in the same period. This is Fritz Lang’s classic M, with an outstanding performance by Peter Lorre in the title role. The film has been transferred onto a DCP using a restoration made by the Deutsche Film Museum and other archives in 2003. The film was banned by the Nazi Party in 1934. It resurfaced in the 1960s but with numerous cuts amounting to over ten minutes of film. In addition the aspect ratio had been changed, leading to the cropping of character’s heads and other such anomalies. And the film’s soundtrack, famous for the effective and eerie use of silence, had been filled with rather tinny accompanying music. The restoration has recreated the film almost entirely as it was when released in 1931.

There is the memorable soundtrack that offers innovation in the new technology of sound on film. There is also impressive use of chiaroscuro, the moving or ‘unchained camera’, and studio built settings. All of these were skills that had placed German cinema in the forefront of European film in the 1920s. The production team included Fritz Arno Wagner on Cinematography, Production Designers Emil Hasler and Karl Volbrecht, Editing by Paul Falkenberg, and on the relatively new sound technology Adolf Jansen. The only music in the film is diegetic [within the story], famously using a passage from Edward Grieg’s ‘Peer Gynt’. Lang was noted for the use of architectural design in his films. And he places motifs, both visual and aural, that bind together the drama and point up aspects as it develops.

His previous silent films, scripted together with his wife Thea von Harbou, had been both popular and critically acclaimed. Lang also had a penchant for stories taken from real life including newspapers. This film follows the hunt for a serial killer (M), a topic that paralleled the trial of a real-life child murderer in Düsseldorf. However, Lang was also interested in moral judgements, so the film follows a hunt, not just by the police, but also by the criminal underworld, whose work has been disrupted by the search.

The film culminates in a trial scene, and one of the most memorable performances on screen as Lorre’s emotional responses question the judgement that can or should be made. The moral portrait of the film can also be seen as a critical view of the wider society. Some critics see it as a coded warning against the Nazi Party, who assumed power in 1933. This caused both Lang and Lorre to leave Germany, both ending up working in Hollywood. At another level some critics see the film as anti-death penalty, others as a justification for mob justice. The latter seems most unlikely; Lang’s earliest US film was a savage indictment of lynching, Fury (1937). In fact, like the best of Lang’s work, the film presents the characters and drama ambiguously, placing the audience in the position of evaluating and possibly judging.

Despite the travails of the film prints this drama has been enormously influential. One can see the influence in the work of Alfred Hitchcock in the 1930s: on much of the Hollywood film noir canon, and still in a number of the contemporary serial killer films. This is one film that is undoubtedly worthy of the cachet classic.

Note, the other good news is that Leeds Central Library have just acquired a copy of Tom Gunning’s excellent study, The Films of Fritz Lang, bfi publishing 2000.