Category: German Cinema

West (Westen/Lagerfeuer, Germany 2013)

Alexei and Nelly

Alexei (Tristan Göbel) and Nelly (Jördis Triebel)

West is likely to be one of my films of the year. I was particularly impressed by the performance of Jördis Triebel in the central role and at times I found her mesmerising. I’d go as far as saying that the film reminded me of aspects of Fassbinder’s films and that Triebel made a similar impact on me as Hannah Schygulla when I first saw The Marriage of Maria Braun. I’ve seen West described as a psychological thriller but, although I can understand why, for me it seemed more like a melodrama.

Nelly Senff (Jördis Triebel) and her small son Alexei (Tristan Göbel) are introduced first in 1975 when Alexei’s father, a Russian physicist is about to go on a trip and gives his son a warm sweater to protect him from the cold. Three years later we meet Nelly and Alexei again, this time attempting to leave East Germany for the West with a man who Alexei calls “my new Dad”. Nelly is forced to undergo a humiliating strip search but is eventually released by the East German border control staff and she and Alexei arrive at a reception centre for refugees (Notaufnahmelager) in West Berlin. Lagerfeuer (‘campfire’) is the title of the original novel by Julia Franck– and is itself based on the author’s personal experience. The film was adapted by Heide Schwochow and directed by her son Christian Schwochow. I think this helps to explain why it felt very much like a female-centred melodrama.

Once Nelly and Alexei have gone through initial processing at the Aufnahmelager, she assumes that she will quickly be able to obtain a job. In the East she gained a PhD and worked in an organic chemistry research laboratory. However, her hopes are wildly optimistic. Although some refugees from the East are processed in a few weeks, others are months if not years in the camp. Nelly has left surveillance in the East only to discover that the security services in the West use similar methods. When she is asked why she has left the East she, perhaps naively, replies “for personal reasons”. This doesn’t satisfy the security services and the questioning continues. In the meantime life in the camp goes on and the narrative introduces other ‘refugees’ with different individual stories. As the narrative develops, the audience is required to consider whether Nelly really is naive, whether she knows something she is not telling or whether in fact she is even imagining some of what happens (one reviewer suggests she is developing schizophrenia). The central issue is Alexei’s father Wassilij (who was not married to Nelly – the West German man who helped Nelly leave the East was not a ‘real’ husband either). Did Wassilij die in an accident in Moscow? Is Nelly hoping to find him alive in the West? Is/was he a spy sent to international scientific conferences? A double agent perhaps?

The narrative is not concerned with finding answers to any of the questions above. Instead the focus is on what happens to Nelly and Alexei and how this is represented on screen. For instance, Nelly ‘sees’ Wassilij on the streets of West Berlin or around the camp. These ‘sightings’ are reminiscent of aspects of Christian Petzold’s Yella (2007), another narrative about a woman from the East, this time moving into contemporary western Germany after re-unification. Petzold made another melodrama with Nina Hoss, set in East Germany in 1980 in the form of Barbara (2012) and one of the earlier films to cover similar ground was Margarethe von Trotta’s Das Versprechen (The Promise, 1995) which featured a woman who had left the DDR for the West and the young man (also a scientist) she left behind in the East. All of these film are essentially female-centred melodramas set during the Cold War and featuring the impact of ‘crossing’ the wall built to keep East and West apart. However, the film which drew the biggest audiences in the West was The Lives of Others (Germany 2006) – much more clearly a thriller about how the Stasi, the East German security police, spied on citizens. I must revisit that film but my first impression during its successful initial release was that it did not work for me as well as Das Versprechen and then subsequently the Petzold films. I think that it isn’t helpful, as some reviewers have done, to relate West to The Lives of Others. Instead, it’s worth reflecting on what the experience of leaving the East and undergoing interrogation in the West has on Nelly.

Nelly confronts John Bird (Jacky Ido)

Nelly confronts John Bird (Jacky Ido)

I don’t want to spoil the narrative, but it’s worth pointing out that one of the three significant characters who Nelly spends time with is an African-American intelligence agent – a character who once again invokes Fassbinder (e.g. in The Marriage of Maria Braun the American sergeant who Maria takes up with is played by an actor called George Bird – the character in West is ‘John Bird’). The developing relationship with Bird has a definite effect on Nelly and leaves us wondering about her behaviour. Similarly we wonder about the ‘truth’ behind the story of Hans, a single man who has been in the camp for over a year and is seemingly unable to cope with life in the West. Is Hans a Stasi ‘plant’ sent to spy on refugees like Nelly or a genuine survivor of maltreatment in the GDR? Hans and Alexei become close as the latter struggles with his new life. Meanwhile Nelly befriends a woman nearer her own age, a Polish mother of a small girl and protector of an ageing father. These are German-speaking Poles and so unsure about new life in the West that they are reluctant to reveal their cultural accomplishments. Through these various encounters we gradually begin to recognise that the mistrust between East and West is destroying the possibility of meaningful relationships between people.

The film’s ending is in one sense inconclusive – we don’t get the ‘answers’ a thriller genre narrative promises – but I found it optimistic in terms of potential future relationships. The three writers of this material all made the journey from East to West, either before or after 1989, and I take this to be an informed representation of what that journey meant to large numbers of Germans. I wonder what those same people think about the fate of the Greek population in the current Eurozone banking crisis – with ordinary people trying to live their lives governed by a system that seemingly cares little about their daily lives. I’m looking forward to seeing West again and I’d like to see more by the cast and by the Schwochows. The film’s UK distributor New Wave Films has useful material on its website, including interviews with the Schwochows.

Here’s the trailer from New Wave. Interestingly, the American trailer is slightly different emphasising the thriller, Cold War and geo-political issues.

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.