Category: German Cinema

Toni Erdmann (Germany 2016)

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This was the closing film of the Leeds International Film Festival. It is one of three titles competing for the European Parliament’s LUX Prize. [It won the prize.] The other two contenders are My Life as a Courgette (Ma vie de courgette ,Switzerland-France and a late addition to the LIFF programme) and As I Open My Eyes (A piene j’ouvre de yeux, France, Tunisia, Belgium, UAR). All three films should receive distribution across the EU, which still includes the UK. The aim of this is to support and publicise  ‘quality’ films that address important social and political issues and contribute to building a European identity. The Selection Committee of professionals appointed by the Parliament select a winning title. However, there is also an Audience Award and UK citizens are still able to vote in this. Toni Erdmann is a strong contender as it has received good reviews and is an impressive film that certainly addresses important issues. It is at times very funny, though increasingly I found the humour overpowered by the sadness of the situation and central relationship

The film centres on a father and daughter, Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) and Ines Conradi (Sandra Hüller). The title character is imported into this relationship by the father.

Ines works for a consultancy firm, presumably venture capitalists. She is the lead person in discussion with Romanian ministers about privatising the country’s oil industry: i.e. downsizing. She is part of the highly paid jet set, moving round for the company. Currently she is based in Bucharest and her father comes to visit her there.

Over a period of weeks we watch both their personal relationship and also aspects of Ines’ work. The latter involves company executives, working acquaintances with whom she socialises in expensive bars and restaurants; and people in the Romanian industry. Her father also meets them. He has a tendency, established in the opening sequences of the film, to play at practical jokes. So he is an ironic and slightly bizarre addition to this privileged circle.

We see a certain amount of the wheeling and dealing, both in the firm where Ines works and between that company and the Romanian government. Only once do we see the actual working people who are pawns in this financial play: this is on a visit to an oil platform. It is clear that for the workers the alternatives of state or private exploitation are equally injurious.

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The director of the film, Maren Ade, is quoted in the Festival Catalogue on the characters as ‘comedians’,

“because comedians often have their alter egos, . . . “

Les Grignoux in an extensive review of the film, [which includes nearly all the plotline], picked up on this and discusses the two protagonists in these terms:

“The humour provides a key to interpreting the film, however, and digging slightly deeper beneath the surface quickly reveals the similarities between the contrasting couple of the father and the daughter and two traditional circus characters: Auguste and the whiteface clown.” [In a LUX information pack].

Whilst I’m not fully convinced, this does provide an interesting angle on the film. And in the later stages Ines surprises us by following her father’s penchant for jokes. Up until this point the film has tended to be realist, with sequences often running on in an extended fashion. From this point I found the film’s ending closer to the surreal as the filmmaker sought to offer a resolution.

The film is well produced with some fine cinematography, though this aspect along with the sound and music is subordinated to the working of the relationship and settings.

It is an absorbing though also quite long film. I was engaged and impressed throughout it length. But I was not completely convinced by the way that the changing relationship between father and daughter was handled. Also the back stories to the characters are not that clear and I was aware of this during the film. Much of the action take place in Bucharest but the film apparently opens in Germany, but where is not clear. And Winfried seems to work as a part-time music teacher but in Bucharest he seems to have access to an amount of spending money. And there are characters in Bucharest and other family members who are important important in the film but the focus on the main pair means these are often sketchy as people.

Definitely worth seeing but prepare for two and half hours of viewing. The film is in colour and offers a mixture of German, English and Romanian dialogue, with English sub-titles.

Wild (Germany 2016)

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Wild doesn’t just promise to be transgressive. It delivers. But it’s transgressive in a carefully structured and composed way with a strong central performance and a coherent aesthetic approach. Technical credits all round are excellent. I’ve seen references to a host of other films and I understand why most of the references are made – but this film stands on its own. Citing the references is needed for us as readers, so we can negotiate the text.

Ania (Lilith Stangenberg) is an office worker in an IT company. She’s alienated by the petty jobs she is given by her boss Boris who summons her by throwing a tennis ball at his glass office wall, behind which Ania works. She lives in a flat with her sister, who then moves out with her boyfriend. Meanwhile, her grandfather is in hospital and has gone into a coma. Ania is now seemingly ‘alone’ when she sees a wolf lurking in her local park on her journey home. She becomes obsessed with the animal and seems determined to not only capture it, but to become ‘one’ with this wild creature. It occurs to me at this point that there is a large genre repertoire of narratives that deal with alienated workers and what happens to them. Kafka’s Gregor in Metamorphosis might be one example.

Try to imagine what this obsession with the wolf might mean in reality. Believe me, writer-director Nicolette Krebitz goes further than you imagined and Lilith Stangenberg seems prepared to do virtually anything that her director requires. The wolf is played by a pair of animals named Nelson and Cossa and as far as I know no CGI was used (or at least non visibly) so the wranglers deserve enormous credit. Stangenberg is just extraordinary.

Woman – wolf – Red Riding Hood is one possible line of investigation. Rabbits as food offer a link to Polanski’s Repulsion. Is Ania losing her sanity? One of the strengths of the film is that it switches direction – so at one point Ania stalks the streets like a vampire looking for bloody meat. At other times it feels as if a kind of feminist revenge is uppermost in her mind – this fits with the growing number of female-centred horror film narratives over the past twenty years. One reviewer mentions Ginger Snaps (Canada 2000) and that sounds a good call. Ania’s only recreation prior to her fascination with the wolf appears to be on a deserted shooting range. The film certainly plays with political sub-texts, including in its use of migrant workers. Ania’s sexuality seems equally malleable and we are also asked to try to work out what is fantasy and what is ‘real’. I was certainly never bored. On the whole the film has received positive responses from film festival critics, but as many point out its transgressive nature is likely to offend the more staid end of the arthouse market. Perhaps it is destined for the smaller niche of cult cinema. That would be a shame. This isn’t in any way a ‘trashy film’ (and that term in itself doesn’t imply a film that is not worth seeing). Instead, this film intelligently explores aspects of our personalities that we usually keep under wraps. I suspect that Wild may be more disturbing to dog-lovers than to those of us who look after (domestic) felines. A wolf is both more dangerous and potentially more loyal.

Here’s a German trailer that gives less away than the English subtitled version. The film was released in Germany on 40 screens in April.

Greetings from Fukushima (Grüße aus Fukushima, Germany 2016)

Marie is the gawky young woman, out of place as an entertainer in GREETINGS FROM FUKUSHIMA

Marie is the gawky young woman, out of place as an entertainer in GREETINGS FROM FUKUSHIMA (photo © Mathias Bothor/Majestic)

Writer-director Doris Dörrie is well-known for a series of comedy-dramas among a total of thirty films. She also writes novels and directs operas. I very much enjoyed her 2008 film Kirschblüten (Cherry Blossom) and I was therefore looking forward to her new film, her fourth made in Japan. She says she has visited Japan 25 times but that she still doesn’t understand everything Japanese. That may be so but the Japan she depicts in her films looks recognisable as the Japan of films and novels that I am aware of. It may still puzzle audiences in Germany and North America on the basis of IMdB comments and that’s a shame, but it works for me.

Satomi by the tree near her home which is at once an important as a location in the narrative, but also symbolic of ideas about Japanese art and landscapes

Satomi by the tree near her home which is important as a location in the narrative, but also symbolic of ideas about Japanese art and landscapes. (photo © Hanno Lentz/Majestic)

Kirschblüten took an older German to Japan where he develops a friendship with a young Japanese woman to their mutual benefit. Something similar happens in Greetings from Fukushima, but this time it’s a young woman from Germany and an older Japanese woman who build a relationship. Marie (Rosalie Thomass) is heartbroken when she is jilted on her wedding day and she makes the decision to join an aid organisation offering entertainment to the almost forgotten victims of the Fukushima disaster of 2011. A small area of the Japanese coast suffered three disasters all at once – an earthquake, a tsunami and a radiation leak from a nuclear plant. The younger people from the area have already moved to the city. Only a few older people are left in temporary accommodation. Marie joins a pair of entertainers, supposedly as a clown. She isn’t a very good clown and her own misery doesn’t help. She wants to go home. One day an older woman among the survivors persuades (forcibly) Marie to drive her to her old home in the ‘zone’. Marie is a reluctant assistant but eventually begins to help Satomi to patch up and clean the house and then to stay with her. Slowly it emerges that Satomi (Kaori Momoi) was a geisha whose American customers had taught her enough English to enable her to converse with Marie. Slowly, she begins to teach the gawky (and very tall) young German to be more ‘elegant’ (she refers to Marie as an ‘elephant’ because of her clumsiness – and the fact she eats so much). Eventually we learn that at the time of the disaster, Satomi had a pupil Yuki who was swept away by the tsunami and that this memory haunts Satomi.

Marie meets the cat on both her entry and exit from Japan (photo © Hanno Lentz/Majestic)

Marie meets the cat on both her entry and exit from Japan (photo © Hanno Lentz/Majestic)

The film is also known as Fukushima Mon Amour – seemingly a reference to Alain Resnais’ 1959 film Hiroshima mon amour. The earlier film sees a French woman on a ‘peace and reconciliation’ mission to Hiroshima to remember the devastation caused by the atomic bomb explosion and the intense relationship she has with a Japanese man. The similarities in the narratives of the two films was also there in Kirschblüten which to some extent ‘riffed’ on Ozu Yasujiro’s 1953 film Tokyo Story. Dörrie makes these references sensitively and carefully. Greetings from Fukushima is shot in black & white CinemaScope recalling that favourite Japanese format of the early 1960s (I haven’t yet found Dörrie’s explanation as to why she chose it). She begins the film with almost surreal shots of Marie’s trauma after rejection on her wedding day. Later, she includes sequences with the ghosts that haunt both women. Yet her presentation of Fukushima is essentially ‘realist’ and at times like a documentary. She used the real location of the Exclusion Zone, explaining in an interview that she was shooting alongside the workers who were lifting the radiated soil (which is stored in bags along the roadside). I recognised the landscape from Sion Sono’s Himizu (2011) which also used locations associated with the impact of the tsunami. The documentary feel and the narrative of a European observer of Japanese customs also suggests the remarkable ‘essay film’ Sans Soleil (1983) by Chris Marker. I was reminded of this by the cat figure (a man with a large cat’s head) who Marie meets at a Tokyo station. Marker’s film includes a sequence exploring the various local rituals and ceremonies associated with animal statues around Tokyo. Dörrie’s film is rich in provocations such as these. Though her film might be seen as conventional and therefore predictable – young woman learns from older woman and becomes a better person – I enjoyed it very much because it most of all justifies the director’s interest in observing and recording her impressions of Japan, its cultures and the lives of ordinary Japanese people. It is a gentle and slightly absurdist comedy as well as a sensitive commentary on a combination of disasters and their impact on a local community. By default, it may also be a critique of how both Japanese and international authorities have responded to the plight of the victims.

Grüße aus Fukushima was released in Germany in March 2016 and has appeared at various international film festivals since then. I’m really pleased that the Leeds International Film Festival has managed to show it. It screens again at the Hyde Park Picture House today and again on Wednesday 9th November at 15.30. I can’t find anything about a UK distribution deal for the film but I hope that someone does take a chance. This is an enjoyable and thought-provoking film with excellent cinematography (by Hanno Lentz) and music (score by Ulrike Haage).

Here’s the German trailer:

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.