This year’s programme, organised by the Deutsche Kinemathek, offered,
“Self-determined. Perspectives of Women Filmmakers” with the sub-title ‘The Personal is Political’.
There were 26 feature length titles and 21 short titles; all produced and released between 1968 and 1999. The majority of titles came from the Bundesrepublik Deutschland [West Germany before 1990] but four features and six shorts were produced in the Deutsche Demokratische Republik [East Germany – DDR]. The Retrospective Brochure commented:
“In the decades between those films [from 1968 and 1999], women film-makers left their formative stamp on German cinema, and at the same time, the idea that a female director was an ‘exception’ gradually receded.”
The point is made that prior to 1968 and the advent of a recognised women’s movement there were only ”isolated film directed by women …” in West Germany; The commentary notes though that this was not same in the DDR;
“The state film school in Potsdam-Babelsberg was founded in 1954. A handful of women were among its first graduates ..”
but one speaker claimed that they primarily worked on children’s films and animation.
I was able to see 22 of the features and sixteen of the shorts. A variety of themes did indeed emerge in the span covered by the programme. There were features and documentaries. There were film that were relatively conventional with recognisable narratives and a style familiar to viewers of mainstream films. Other titles were definitely avant-garde and provided a range of experimentation. I intend to post on the individual films but the following selection gives some sense of the programme.
1968 was represented by Go For It, Baby / Zur Sache, Schätzchen, directed in West Germany by Mary Spils. She also directed the accompanying short film Manöver / Manoeuvres. I preferred the short film but both were typical of the late 1960s independent films, with both the vices and virtues of the period. The feature did have good freewheeling camera style. However, it seem to lack any sense of a feminist perspective. But it was successful. Apparently seen by six million people over two years in West Germany.
I was more taken with the earliest DDR title, Do You Know Urban? / Kennen sie urban? (Ingrid Reschke, 1971). Much of the story takes place on a construction site relying on effective location shooting. The film develops a relationship between a construction worker and ex-offender with a student trainee. The characters were believable and the environment at the site and later in Berlin convincing.
A West German film of 1978, The All-round Reduced Personality – Redupers / Die allseitig reduzierte Persönlichkeit – Redupers offered a stand-out feature. Falling between a fictional drama and a documentary director Helke Sander played the protagonist Edda. She is divorced, a single mother and working photographer. We watch her working as a freelance, as part of a collective and processing her films in the home made lab she has constructed. Sander and her fellow players are excellent; the use of locations offers a real sense of the city; and the working life of a photographer-cum-mother is portrayed with subtle comment.
Helke Sander was among a number of directors who were there to introduce their films. So I also saw and heard Margarethe von Trotta introducing The German Sisters / Die bleierne Zeit (1981), a film that retained its power for me, seeing it again after a gap of many years.
The East German films were particular interest for me. Another very effective title was The Bicycle / Das Fahrrad (1982). This offered a portrait of another single mother. This time Susanne was a factory worker. Her life style represented the alienation that was the lot of workers in a state supposedly superior to capitalism. Her independent spirit and the apparently realistic depiction of working class situation did not endear the film to either critics or film bosses.
One of the short East German films was Nude Portraits – Gundula Schilze / Aktfotografie, Z. B. Gundula Schulze (1983), directed by Helke Misselwitz. Gundula was a young photographer who researched stereotypical nude shots of women in the DDR. Her own practice aimed to present women in their own right as ‘whole women’. The contrast was highlighted by regular cuts to 16mm footage of working women. An instructive study.
From the same year in West Germany a group of women filmmakers, touring with a programme of titles, recorded their journey on hand-held Bolex camera; Umweg / Detour. The style was experimental in black and white. The changing views, of wintry landscapes, of the train and its passengers, and of their own filming was graceful and almost hypnotic.
Dorian Gray in the Mirror of the Yellow Press / Dorian Gray im Spiegel der Boulevaerdpresse was an example of an even more radical and experimental approach. The director Ulrike Ottinger developed her [episodic] narrative by combining ideas from Lang’s Dr Mabuse and Wilde’s ‘Dorian Gray’. This was a fairly epic film running 150 minutes in Eastmancolor. The film combined a subversive mix satire, camp musical sequences, avant-garde design, video techniques and [intervening in the narration] an island-set opera that mirrored the main narrative.
The 1991 documentary Locked Up Time / Verriegelte Zeit followed the point when the wall and the division of the Germany ended. The director, Sibylie Schönemann, together with her husband, was imprisoned as a ‘political prisoner’ under the DDR. They were the only DEFA film-makers to suffer this fate. So, in the early months after the collapse of the East German state, she went back to visit the prison and other places in her incarceration. She also tracked down officials and challenged their role in the process. Like other explorations of authoritarian regimes this was a chilling story extremely well done.
The most recent film was a documentary made for television in 1999. Two film-makers, Crescentia Dünßer and Martina Döcker, interviewed six women born in the first two decades of the C20th. Their questions explored the personal lives of the women and also how the larger social and political discourse affected these. The women were fascinating. And the film-makers structured the sequences of dialogue with extremely large close-ups of the women’s bodies, skin and hair. These shots were lit with luminous skill.
This was one of the films screened on 35mm, we also had some 16mm screenings. About half the programme was on film and half on digital. The latter were mainly well transferred and looked and sounded fine. The projection teams worked skilfully and coped well with the changes in formats.
Most of the screening shad introductions; in many cases the women who had directed, and often scripted, these titles. And the Kinemathek had organised translators so that their comments and memories were available in German and English.
I could see the point of 1968 as a nodal point; less so 1999. So I wonder what interesting themes would have emerged if the programme ran from 1958 to 1990 when the reunification took place. Ingrid Reschke, one of whose films was in the programme, started directing in 1963. An earlier film might well be interesting. This was a rewarding experience but at the end I still retained a reservation about the scope of the programme. And I have reservations about the sub-title ‘The Personal is Political’. This was true in some cases but also true of may was how the political sphere determined the personal: a point I made regarding the films of Margarethe von Trotta.
It was a fairly demanding week. Even with the efficient Berlin transport system I often was having to move smartly from venue to venue. The saving grace is the excellent selection of coffee shots, especially around the Potsdam Platz. The Berliner’s take their film-going seriously. So the queue for a screenings can start oven half-hour before entry; just to ad to the demands of the Festival. But worth all the effort. I doubt that there will be many opportunities to see many of these films in Britain. There are videos and collections; including of East German films. And there are increasing number of books. Unfortunately the Deutsche Kinemathek accompanying book is only available in German.
The Berlinale, Berlin’s International Film Festival, opens this coming Thursday, February 7th. The Festival is a vast terrain with a wide selection of contemporary films from all over world cinema. The key films are often landmark titles and the Festival Awards are rightly prized trophies. But the Festival also offers opportunities to visit fascinating aspects of cinema history. The Retrospectives, organised by the Deutsche Kinematic, are significant filmic events. Last year we enjoyed a return to Weimar Cinema in an impressive and rewarding programme. And the presentations, of film in both celluloid and digital formats, were really well done. The silent titles enjoyed live and skilful musical accompaniment.
This year the Retrospective moves forward three decades to celebrate the contributions of women filmmakers to German cinema.
The Retrospective of the 69th Berlin International Film Festival takes as its subject women filmmakers between 1968 and 1999. The programme encompasses 26 narrative and documentary features from the former East and West Germany, as well as German films after re-unification in 1990. In addition, the Retrospective will show some 20 shorter films on their own, or as lead-ins to the features. What the filmmakers and their protagonists have in common is an interest in exploring their own environment, and the search for their own cinematic idiom.
In West Germany, this development was embedded in the 1968 student movement, and closely linked to the new women’s movement and the New German Cinema wave. In East Germany, by contrast, all films were made within the state-controlled studio system. That studio, DEFA, gave a few women a chance to direct as early as the 1950s, however they were mainly assigned to children’s films. Towards the end of the 1960s, everyday life in the socialist country became the focus of East Germany’s women directors.
The length of the period covered means that this is likely to be a series of snapshots. One of the best known directors, Margarethe von Trotta, has only a single title, The German Sisters / Die bleierne Zeit (1981). This though is a welcome presentations, a film that I have not seen for a considerable period but which I remember finding powerful and stimulating. (It currently has a limited release in Britain courtesy of the ICO).
Other well known filmmakers are also featured.
Helma Sanders-Brahms – Her early films engage critically with the themes of labour, migration, and the situation of women in West Germany. Under the Pavement Lies the Strand / Unter dem Pflaster ist der Strand (1975, Federal Republic of Germany / Bundesrepublik Deutschland) was a central film for the German women’s movement and for the student movement, as well as for the director’s own emergence as an explicitly feminist film-maker. (Wikipedia)
For me, the bulk of the titles, are unknown and promise to offer an exciting exploration of German film. There has always been a limited selection of German films circulating in Britain, but in recent years hardly any cross over the channel or the territories barriers.
There will be films from four women filmmakers working in the German Democratic Republic / Deutsche Demokratische Republik. I have seen only a small proportion of the films produced in the GDR. And I cannot recollect seeing a film directed by a woman. So this will fill an unfortunate gap in my film knowledge.
And there are other titles from the FGR or contemporary Germany. From the FGR in 1984,
The Image of Dorian Gray in the Yellow Press / Dorian Gray im Spiegel der Boulevardpresse.
Our organisation will create a human being whom we can shape and manipulate according to our needs. Dorian Gray: young, rich and handsome. We will make him, seduce him and break him.
Director and writer: Ulrike Ottinge. (Details on IMDB).
As well as the features and documentaries there are several short films, including more from the GDR. And there is animation work. So it promises to be a great cinematic week.
Added to this are the regular Berlinale Classics. There are six titles, five of which I welcome seeing again and one, for me, completely new; Ung flukt (The Wayward Girl), dir: Edith Carlmar, Norway 1959. They are all digital restorations. Certainly the digital versions I saw last year were all of good quality. Moreover, several of these are in 4K versions, a quality rarely seen in Britain.
For people of my generation, when children, World War II hovered as an impalpable presence even though we were born many years after 1945. For the British it was a marker of former brilliance as the country divested itself of its empire. In Germany, it was a reminder of its shameful past or, possibly, if New German Cinema of the late ’60s/1970s is to be believed, something that was shamefully forgotten. Unfortunately in Britain some are still weirdly attracted to the war and use it as evidence we can survive outside the EU (as if surviving was a laudable benchmark) and ideas of empire remain instilled in their idea of Britishness as a high watermark of civilisation rather than shameful plunder from the rest of the world. Both the British new wave, of the early ’60s, and the German new wave held a mirror up to their country: for the British the main focus was on social class; for the West Germans it was the authoritarian nature of the recovery from war. In addition, Wim Wenders investigated how Americanised West German society had become.
Based on Austrian Peter Handke’s novel of the same name, he also contributed dialogue to the script, the ‘angst’ (sometimes translated as ‘fear’) is an existential one derived from French philosophers, particularly Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre. Indeed the protagonist’s motiveless murder early in the film, of a cinema cashier (film’s another recurring theme in Wenders’ work), is a direct reference to Camus’ L’Étranger (The Outsider published in 1942). He, Bloch the goalkeeper who gets sent off at the start of the film, sort of goes on the run to a small village but the genre elements only linger in the background as the lassitude of everyday life is examined. If that sounds boring it isn’t, partly because of the brilliant cinematography (by regular collaborator Robby Müller) which looks exceptional in this restored print. Wenders had never cleared the rights to the American popular music played in the film and apparently it was unavailable for three decades though I’m pretty sure it played in a double bill with Hammett (US, 1980) in the ’80s.
Famously in Wender’s King’s of the Road (Im Lauf der Zeit, West Germany, 1976) a character states the ‘Americans have colonised our (Germany’s) unconsciousness’ and references to America proliferate in Goalie’s. The metaphoric meaning of the film’s title is revealed at the end but as to whether you find Bloch’s disconnect to his world a convincing metaphor of West Germany’s disconnect to itself is up to you. However, it is certainly a film that is worth viewing and I’m hoping there will be more Wenders I haven’t seen in the forthcoming MUBI season.
This title is one of four films directed by Margarethe von Trotta being distributed by the Independent Cinema Office with support from the Goethe-Institut London and German Screen Studies Network. It is also the first one to be screened in West Yorkshire; at the Hyde Park Picture House this coming Tuesday January 15. Let us hope that it will be followed by the other three. This film was screened at the National Media Museum a couple of years ago. But two other titles, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum / Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum (1975) and The German Sisters / Die bleierne Zeit (1981), have not been seen for years. Whilst the fourth title, The Second Awakening of Christa Klages / Das zweite Erwachen der Christa Klages (1978) is getting it first British release.
This film is a biopic of one of the most important and in influential revolutionaries of the early twentieth century. Rosa Luxemburg was a lifelong critic of capitalism and the reactionary governments in her native Poland and in Germany where she worked politically. She was an important contributor to Marxist theory and analysis. Read her ‘Reform or Revolution’ (1900) now and sections offer an astute and detailed critique which applies directly to the recent 2008 crisis of capitalism. Most notably Rosa was one of the few Marxists, along with Lenin and the Bolsheviks and our own Sylvia Pankhurst, to oppose the imperialist war of 1914 – 1918. Finally she was murdered in 1919 after the failed Spartacist uprising.
[[See the recent demonstration to commemorate Rosa and Karl Liebknecht].
“Red Rosa now has vanished too. (…)
She told the poor what life is about,
And so the rich have rubbed her out.
May she rest in peace.” (Bertolt Brecht).
Von Trotta’s film covers most of Luxemburg’s adult life. It is selective, of necessity with a running time of just on two hours. The film opens in one of the many spells in prison; here in 1916 and then cutting to an earlier prison spell in Poland in 19106. This film continues to use changes in time to explore Luxemburg’s adult life. The key characteristics of Luxemburg are dramatised, including her break with the reformism of the German Social Democrats. Luxemburg spent a number of spells in prison and these show the steely conviction of this heroine. The film uses well chosen extracts from Luxemburg’s letters and speeches. The weakness of the film is that whilst it shows the complexity of Luxemburg herself it is not able to do this for her comrades and her enemies. The film does not attempt to explicate the Marxism of the period but concentrates on her battle within the German party and her opposition to the war. It details both her political and personal lives but does no completely integrate them. The film does emphasise Luxemburg’s political action as a woman; making it seem relevant to the present. But it also means that the male revolutionaries do seem pale by comparison. Oddly Lenin and the Bolsheviks only get one brief mention.
Luxemburg is played by von Trotta’s long-time collaborator Barbara Sukowa, who won awards in Germany and at the Cannes Film Festival. Deserved awards as Sukowa creates a complex character who generates sympathy but who also is a difficult person with whom to deal.
Margarethe, as is her wont, has also scripted the film. Her production team is, as usual in her films, excellent. The music, by Nicolas Economou, is orchestral and marks the more dramatic sequences. The cinematography is by Franz Rath, who also worked on the earlier films. The palette, given the subject and settings, is often suitably grim and gloomy. This is especially true of the prison sequences but at other times there are impressive long shots of Rosa against settings that are both realist and symbolic. The Film Editing is by Dagmar Hirtz and Galip Iyitanir in a film that has a complex structure, cutting back and forth in time and space. And the film’s look, with Set Decoration by Stepan Exner and Bernd Lepel and Costume Design by Monika Hasse, catches the period accurately. In the latter part them film also uses archive film to weave this biography into the seismic events at the end of the war and in the immediate post-war world.
We are still waiting for The Young Karl Marx to appear in West Yorkshire but it is good that the portrait of this outstanding and fascinating woman revolutionary is with us. And fortunately the film is of the quality that she deserves. The film is in standard widescreen and colour with English sub-titles. And the German transfers to digital are usually of a high quality.
In the Aisles is a German comedy-drama. Nick didn’t like it all but I found it very satisfying and several others I spoke to after the screening said it was excellent. However, I can see how it may appeal differently to different audiences. Reading some of the reviews after its appearance in official competition at Berlin at the start of the year, I can see that many reviewers have a different reading to me. Perhaps it’s because I’m always looking for the setting and social context of films. Some reviews refer to a ‘sweet romance’ but though that is an element it certainly doesn’t define the film. My favourite shot in the film is a large tank full of carp (a popular Christmas dish in parts of Eastern Europe) in a dingy section of the store. One attempts a futile leap to escape.
The film opens in the nighttime setting of a large supermarket – Lidl on steroids. Our focus is on the stockmen – and women – who are mainly forklift operators moving pallets from the warehouse to the shelves in the supermarket. The credit sequence sees forklifts sailing gracefully down the aisles and almost dancing as they meet to the sound of ‘The Blue Danube’. The stately progress of the forklifts will make many think of Kubrick’s ship and space station in 2001. But the mood is broken by the introduction of a new worker, Christian (Franz Rogowski) who has been hired as an assistant for Bruno (Peter Kurth) in ‘Beverages’. Christian appears at first to be clumsy and impulsive, but almost mono-syllabic. We fear for him in a section where any mistake might mean broken glass and showers of beer. But Bruno turns out to be a good trainer and eventually Christian will pass his training and become a competent forklift operator. He will also become infatuated with Marion (Sandra v) aka ‘Ms Sweets’ and gradually an attraction develops between them, though Marion gives no sign that it will develop further. These three characters are the focus of the narrative and each is given a section of the film named after them. Most of the action stays within the main supermarket building until Bruno, smoking a cigarette in the yard, begins to tell Christian something about himself and how the supermarket came to be built. From this point on, the narrative slowly begins to change, not least in exploring something of the world outside- primarily, the homes of Christian, Marion and finally Bruno.
The supermarket was built on the site of an old trucking company – the company for which Bruno and several of the other workers in the supermarket once worked. Its location is close to a major autobahn route through what was the GDR or East Germany. This film is in many ways an ‘Eastern’ German production, with regional funders from the East and most of the main cast and crew, including co-writer and director Thomas Stuber and stars Sandra Hülller and Peter Kurth. Bruno refers specifically to ‘re-unification’ and the assumption is that the trucking company closed and the supermarket opened as a result at some later date after the formal process of re-unifying the country in 1990. Bruno loved being a truck driver and the camaraderie he experienced. Some of that sense of collective responsibility survived the transfer to the supermarket and we see it still in operation at the Christmas Party. But now Bruno is getting towards retirement. Marion would have been a child – young teenager in 1990 but she is still possibly affected by memories of the East. Christian is younger. He made mistakes as a teenager but now he sees that he has a second chance. I’m not going to spoil what happens but my reading is that the way the three central characters deal with the enclosed world of the supermarket is some kind of metaphor for how German workers have come to terms or not with capitalism in the 21st century. This ties in to some extent with the concerns of other German directors such as Christian Petzold and I note that Franz Rogowski also appeared at Berlin this year in Petzold’s Transit (Germany 2018). I may be completely wrong in this but that’s how I see it.
The film is a comedy-drama but the comedy comes from observation of the many nuances of the inter-relationships of the workers. The sense of observing is enhanced by camera position and framing and occasional overhead shots. Much of the camerawork (by Peter Matjasko) employs shallow focus fields so that much of the image is slightly out of focus when we see the central characters. I assume that this is intended to convey the sense of being enclosed and having a limited perspective on events outside. The fantasy of ‘outside’ is also conveyed (as in many similar films) by the large photograph of a tropical beach which covers the wall of the small room with a coffee machine where Christian and Marion meet briefly (see the first image). Nick might not have enjoyed the film but he was better than me in spotting the subtle uses of sound, including the reference to the ‘sounds of the ocean’ inside the warehouse which are eventually revealed (by Marion) to be made by the forklift. I enjoyed the use of music throughout the film in a score that includes classical and ‘roots’ music.
The only outright comic moment is, fittingly, included in the sequence dealing with forklift training and if you’ve ever had to endure po-faced Health and Safety training you’ll probably find it very funny. I did. But truth to be told, there aren’t too many laughs in a film that moves slowly through its 125 mins. But I never felt that there was a wasted minute and I’m glad I spent the time with Christian, Marion and Bruno. This is a pretty good trailer:
The Dreamed Path was the fourth feature by Angela Schanelec that I managed to catch in MUBI’s special section on her films before they disappeared. It is her latest release on the festival circuit and in some ways the most austere and ‘formally rigorous’, as one critic has put it, of the films I’ve seen. It’s relatively straightforward to outline the sparse plot details but much more difficult to read the possible meanings. The film opens in Greece with a young couple busking and singing Wimoweh (The Lion Sleeps Tonight) in the summer of 1984 in Greece. Close by young people are celebrating the ‘New Europe’ (even though Greece gained accession to the Economic Community in 1981). The young man receives news of his mother’s severe illness and heads home to the UK. The woman (who is German) doesn’t accompany him. Some thirty years later in Berlin another woman, an actor, is in the process of separating from her husband. They have a young daughter. When filming takes place with the actor in the large square in front of Berlin’s main railway station, we see that the Englishman is present with his dog and is apparently homeless. The German woman he knew years ago in Greece is also in Berlin. That’s more or less the plot minus a couple of dramatic and emotional moments.
‘Formally rigorous’ refers here to Schanelec and her cinematographer Rheinhold Vorschneider’s use of long shots and close-ups. In this film there is the pronounced use of close-ups of feet and other parts of the body which many critics/reviewers recognise as a reference to the later films of Robert Bresson. I haven’t seen enough of Bresson’s work (and certainly not enough recently) to comment on this. What is clear, however, is that Schanelec is, as usual, more interested in exploring how the filmic image in its composition and framing and in the context of editing and the presentation of characters in narrative space evokes responses in audiences rather than how the narrative events themselves are understood in a causal sequence. So, the camera’s focus on the young man’s feet when he makes a phone call home and hears about his mother is a very precise way of attempting to present an emotional moment. This, for me, is in contrast with a relatively long sequence set in an indoor swimming pool. In extreme long shot we can just see a young boy in a wheelchair with his legs strapped but who is stripped and wearing swimming trunks implying he intends to get into the water. As we watch him struggling to free his legs and move the wheelchair to the edge of the pool we hear but don’t immediately see a group of children in the water. Gradually they appear from the bottom of the screen and swim towards the end where the boy is attempting to get into the water. They will reach the end and turn and the boy will slip into the water. The scene ends with a cut to a closer shot of a small group in which one of the girls is checking the boy’s knee which he seems to have grazed in getting into the pool. One reviewer suggests that the girl licks the graze to help it heal but I don’t remember this clearly. Why did this sequence, especially of the image of the group of children swimming so catch my imagination? I don’t know but this ability of Schanelec and Vorschneider (and her two editor collaborators) to construct sequences like this is remarkable and consistent across their films.
Angela Schanelec’s films are coming to London courtesy of the Goethe-Institut later this year, see this MUBI Notebook essay by Patrick Holzapfel (who is curating the London showings). MUBI’s title for its Schanelec ‘Special Discovery’ season was ‘Showing not Telling’ – and so it proved to be. I still haven’t adjusted to MUBI’s ‘watch it before it’s gone’ policy. The Dreamed Path has been received as one of the films of the year on the festival circuit but I found it difficult to watch. I’d like the chance to watch it again without the time pressure. I’ve discovered some of Schanelec’s films are available but expensive on Amazon UK.
The two trailers below, one in German, the other subtitled in English, give an impression of the shooting style (in Academy ratio, 1.37:1) with the ‘feet’ shots in the first trailer:
Orly is the fourth Angela Schanelec film to be streamed on MUBI. A brief synopsis might suggest it has generic possibilities as a narrative but really it is almost anti-narrative in conventional terms. I wonder if watching Schanelec’s films is like developing addictive behaviour. I find the films frustrating because I’m so used to conventional narratives – but I can’t stop watching them, partly because I’m in awe of the camerawork and the editing and the overall choreography of movement and control of the fictional space.
The genre here ought to be that of the ‘waiting room’ film with several groups of characters, each with different stories and each with different relationships. But, conventionally, these would come together in some way and there would be an underlying theme. Schanelec offers us four pairs of characters and a handful of others who are more peripheral. The pairs don’t interact directly except for a fleeting moment and the film ends with a largely unexpected event which denies us a ‘resolution’ of any of the four central narratives.
There seem to be possible clues to Schanelec’s intentions that are introduced in subtle ways. The opening images of the film include half of a vinyl record sleeve which I took to be a 12″ of Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, which includes the lines:
And resentment rides high but emotions won’t grow
And we’re changing our ways, taking different roads
Love, love will tear us apart again
Each of the characters in the film are experiencing emotions as they wait in the departure hall.
The setting is mainly Orly Airport in Paris in Spring. Why did Schanelec choose Orly rather than Charles De Gaulle, Roissy? Probably because permissions were easier, but Orly does have significance for cinéastes. It was the setting for Chris Marker’s avant-garde science fiction short film La jetée (The Pier, 1962) – a film anyone with a film education is likely to be aware of. One of Schanelec’s couples has a digital camera and the woman looks at a succession of still images taken in Paris earlier that day – La jetée is entirely constructed from still photos.
The four couples are a mother and teenage son going to the funeral of the ex-husband and father, a pair of German tourists, a couple splitting up (one of whom we see at Orly as she reads the a letter from her husband) and two expats who meet by chance and discover that they are both returning to North America. The peripheral characters include a young woman on an airline counter, a young barman, taxi drivers etc. and a woman with a baby she is trying to comfort. Although there are brief moments of contact with these individuals by some of the couples, the main way in which Schanelec links her characters is through her camera (or rather the camera of her regular cinematographer Rheinold Vorschneider). For example, in one sequence we are offered a long shot across the departure waiting area with many people sat waiting and others moving in the background, but careful use of the field of focus is able to pick out one face in the crowd. This character will be identified later in the film as the man in the fourth couple. I recognised him as Jirka Zett from Schanelec’s earlier Nachmittag (Germany 2007). See also the shot above in which the same character briefly makes eye contact with the woman separating from her husband. I’m still not sure how this camera shot was achieved. At other times I wondered if Schanelec was using radio mikes for her characters. It is clear that in the Orly shots, the fictional characters are simply placed amongst the crowds of ordinary passengers at the airport. Vorschneider shoots from some distance away so that there are figures in the background and moving across the foreground. You can see this in the trailer below when the two expats (Natacha Régnier and Bruno Todeschini) are talking. The only way to capture ‘direct’ sound for dialogue would be to use concealed radio mikes. Does anyone know if Schanelec uses this method? I was first aware of it in Michael Winterbottom’s Wonderland (UK 1999), one of my favourite films for representing a city through a form of realism. Most of the time the soundtrack uses only dialogue plus the direct ambient sound of the airport. It is a shock therefore when after an hour of this we hear a voiceover reading a letter and Cat Power’s performance of the song ‘Remember Me’
In the interview here Angela Schanelec discusses how she works with ‘real’ spaces like the terminal in Orly:
The trailer below is mainly in French, subtitled in German but it is useful in showing the main characters and the ‘real’ space which Schanelec uses in her own distinctive ways:
Nachmittag is the third of six films by Angela Schanelec offered on my MUBI stream. I’ve posted on the first, Passing Summer (Germany 2001), but I was only able to watch the first part of the second film, Marseille (2010), before it disappeared from the stream during one of my busy periods. That’s the problem with MUBI, I fear. Still, perhaps I will be able to find it elsewhere later. Marseille did look a little different with its single central character – a photographer exploring the French city. In Nachmittag, Schanelec returns to a summer in Berlin, though the characters are rather different.
Angela Schanelec’s strategy seems to be ‘never explain’ – or give any background. MUBI have used the title ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ for the season of her films. I have assumed that the main location is a house by a lake in the Berlin region, possibly Potsdam. In a prologue, Schanelec’s familiar static camera offers us a view from the back of a stage in theatre during a rehearsal. On the stage is a woman who sorts out a prop with a stagehand and then walks towards a dog and pets the animal. We next see her in long shot arriving at the house by the lake where an older and younger man have been having a conversation. Later we will learn that this the woman is Irene, played by Schanelec herself (she began her career as an actor). Gradually we meet five other main characters but we must try to work out who they are and what the relationships are between them. It took me the whole 95 minutes and I still wasn’t certain by the end, but I’m fairly confident that MUBI’s synopsis of the film is inaccurate.
When I started watching the film I was unaware that its premise is taken from Chekhov’s play The Seagull. Perhaps that’s a good thing. I’m not a theatregoer and I don’t really know Chekhov. My thoughts instead turned to similar films in this setting. I thought of Thomas Arslan’s Vacation (Ferien, Germany 2007), on the reasonable basis that Arslan is another member of the ‘Berlin School’. I was also reminded of The Farewell (Abschied – Brechts letzter Sommer, Germany 2000). The point here is that the situation – a group of people meeting at a ‘summer place’ where their different relationships are explored – is potentially a familiar dramatic and even generic narrative proposition. Yet Angela Schanelec challenges our assumptions about how any drama might develop. She does this in several ways.The use of long shots and of close-ups by DoP Reinhold Vorschneider can sometimes mean that we are not quite sure who we are watching or where we are. But what is even more disruptive is her use of dialogue. We are used to mainstream cinema’s use of dialogue to provide ‘narrative data’ and to move forward the events of the narrative. Schalenec’s dialogue comes as a shock – it is so close to the ‘real’ conversations that we have with people we know (well at least I do!). There are seemingly inconsequential remarks that actually convey emotional relationships such as when Irene tells her son who is ironing shirts to dampen the collar. Often too, dialogue is with a character who is offscreen for long periods – sometimes wth responses coming from offscreen.
Critics have increasingly praised Schanelec’s aesthetic approach. Mattias Frey in a ‘Senses of Cinema’ festival report suggests that “Nachmittag is a challenging hypnotic that bespeaks further development in Schanelec’s craft”. Ekkehard Knörer in a ‘Sign and Sight’ report offers the most detailed critique. Knörer suggests that the opening shot of the stage introduces the sense of a theatrical space in the house looking out over the lake. He makes the point that the characters are so engrossed in their own concerns that dialogue is rarely about communicating but instead about each character’s ‘struggle with words’. Ironically, two of the characters are writers. If you know the Chekhov play you may wonder just how ‘free’ is this adaptation. The answer is very, but one action in the original play is obliquely presented in the closing moments of Schanelec’s script. I realise that the film is now gone from MUBI and I should have rewatched that ending. I’m certainly intrigued by this filmmaker and I will try to watch more.