Christian Petzold’s new film Undine is due for release in the UK in the next few weeks. In the meantime, MUBI have announced a Petzold season and the first title that has popped up is this film from 2008. I actually bought the DVD of this title from Germany a few years ago but, as is often the case, I didn’t have time to watch it when it arrived so this was a real treat with the knowledge that whatever happened I could finish it this time round. We are big Petzold fans on this blog and possibly even bigger Nina Hoss fans. She stars in this alongside Benno Fürmann who I remember from an early Thomas Tykwer film The Princess and the Warrior (Germany 2000).
In Jerichow Fürmann is Thomas, who has recently left the Germany army with a dishonourable discharge after a stint in Afghanistan. He has returned to his mother’s house in Jerichow, a scattered community along the Eastern bank of the River Elbe in the East of Germany. His mother has just died and after an altercation with a gangster acquaintance he finds himself penniless. But soon he gets a job with Ali (Hilmi Sözer), a retail entrepreneur who runs a chain of local snack bars and, having lost his licence, needs a driver. Nina Hoss plays his wife Laura. Thomas quickly spots that Laura is abused and eager for a new man. At this point, most critics make a reference to James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice first published in 1934 and filmed at least four times in direct adaptations.
I thoroughly enjoyed the film and I find the few online reviews rather baffling. Christian Petzold had already emerged as one of the first of the so-called ‘Berlin School’ to get wider recognition outside Germany and this film played in competition at Venice in 2008. Petzold had already achieved a profile outside Germany with Yella (2007) which also starred Nina Hoss and explored capitalism in the new Germany (i.e. from the perspective of East Germans). Prior to that Nina Hoss and Benno Fürmann had been paired in Petzold’s Wolfsburg (2003) which I haven’t managed to find yet.
Part of the problem for critics, especially in North America I think, is the temptation to make the James M. Cain inspiration more important than it is. The context for the triangular relationship is not the Great Depression of the 1930s but East Germany less than 20 years after re-unification. In addition, Ali is an important character as a Turkish entrepreneur whose chain of snack bars includes some run by other migrants. Ali is a complex character. Some readings suggest he is named in reference to the character in Fassbinder’s film Fear Eats the Soul (1974) but that film takes place in the early 1970s in West Germany, in a period when Turks in Germany were just beginning to think about what would happen after the Gastarbeiter scheme ended in 1973. (And Fassbinder’s Ali is Moroccan, not Turkish). Perhaps Ali had been brought to West Germany as a child in 1973/4? Though Petzold gives us some background to Ali’s plans (to return to Turkey, buying a house in the Taurus Mountains), he doesn’t develop this as Turkish-German directors such as Fatih Akin might do. (I note from a Senses of Cinema essay on Petzold that he deliberately attempted to respond to the Gastarbeiter films in Jerichow – but I don’t know which films these might be.) The focus in Jerichow is on the economic impact of reunification on East Germany. The location of Jerichow is significant in that the Elbe was earlier part of the border between West and East Germany. (The filming was actually carried out in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern nearer the Baltic Sea coast.)
Jerichow offers an almost procedural study of the snackbar business. Ali soon susses out that Thomas has the intelligence and the skills (including hand to hand fighting) to quickly learn the business and take over while Ali briefly visits Turkey. Ali explains that many of the operators of the snack bars attempt to pocket small amounts of money which over time can mean that he loses a substantial sum. On occasions Ali terminates their contracts and gets someone else to take over. Ali then takes Thomas to a supplier where they spy on Laura. Is she also ‘on the take’ or is she having an affair? I don’t want to spoil more of the plot but it is important to note that Laura’s marriage to Ali is about money and at one point she rejects Thomas with the cry that nothing is about love, it’s all about money. We get only a little background on Laura and nothing about Thomas apart from the intimation that he had an East German childhood. Ali presumably grew up in West Germany and I’m not sure about Laura. Would the German audience notice things I’ve missed?
Several reviews suggest that Laura and Thomas have a very cold relationship. It’s complicated because their sexual attraction is obvious but Laura must be affected by Ali’s abuse. At one point Ali pushes the two of them together to dance, almost as if he is showing off Laura to Thomas. Rather than the film noir about a doomed man who would be the Thomas character in the earlier adaptations, Petzold’s film is a character-driven acting tour de force in which money underpins the lives of all three characters. The ending of the narrative moves further away from the Cain novel. It makes more sense to view the film alongside Yella than to think about it as an adaptation. I’m surprised that there hasn’t been more interest in the UK in looking at Petzold’s output since his first fiction feature in 2000. Nine films in 20 years would make a good season and Nina Hoss appears in five. She is also due more exposure. I should also add that Jerichow features several important collaborators who have been with Petzold on many of his features including cinematographer Hans Fromm, editor Bettina Böhler and music composer Stefan Will. There is more to say about this film and I hope to return to it at some point.
Giraffe uses footage of an animal in a Danish safari park to introduce a story about displacement and globalisation. What follows is in some ways a familiar European ‘festival film’. It first appeared at Locarno, then won a prize at the Viennale in 2019. My first thought was that it seemed like another example of a film associated with the ‘Berlin School’. Writer-Director Anna Sofie Hartmann is Danish but she trained at the German Film Academy (FFFB) in Berlin and this film has Maren Ade as one of its producers and Valeska Grisebach and Bettina Böhler are listed in the credits as mentors/consultants. Maren Eggert has a secondary acting role in the film and she has previously appeared in two films for Angela Schanelec. These names suggest that the Berlin School links are strong. They also signal a film with a predominantly female creative team and a female perspective at the centre of the narrative.
Dara (Lisa Loven Kongsli) is an ethnologist and photographer on Lolland, one of the main Danish islands, where she grew up. Though she is now based in Berlin, she is back in Lolland for a few months on a project to document the buildings and the people associated with them who will be displaced because preparations are being made for construction of a tunnel which will link Lolland to Northern Germany. There is very little plot in what is a relatively short film (85 mins). Dara meets various people and delves into local archives to research earlier inhabitants and artefacts. But there is a romance in which Dara, a woman in her thirties, becomes involved with Lucek, a younger Polish worker who is part of a gang laying a cable for services to be used by the construction workers on the tunnel.
My main interest in the film, apart from the aesthetics of its production and the performances, is in the geography of the location and what it means for the economics and sociology of the region. Although I’ve learned something through reading Nordic crime fiction and watching films and TV from Sweden and Denmark, I hadn’t before appreciated just how interconnected the countries around the Eastern Baltic Sea were, and especially how important the network of ferry services is to Denmark, Sweden, Germany and Poland. Hartmann includes various extracts from diaries and personal testimonies in ways which sometimes suggest we are watching a documentary. (Some of the characters in the film are clearly ‘real people’.) We listen to Lucek’s fellow Polish workers who sketch out the economics of why Poles take up contract work elsewhere in the EU since 2008 and these seem like authentic conversations. Lisa Loven Kongsli is actually a Norwegian actor which adds another layer to the film’s meaning with its mix of Danish, German and Polish actors and crew. Maren Eggert’s role is as a woman working on the main ferry to Germany. She has time to simply observe the passengers and she gives us her thoughts about who they are and where they are going – and again Jenny Lou Ziegel’s camera films these passengers in observational documentary mode.
I was reminded in several ways of the French film Fidelio – Alice’s Journey (France 2014) in which a young woman is a ship’s engineer who works with various nationalities, both officers and crew, and has a traditional masculine sailor’s idea about a sexual life in every port. Like Alice, Dara finds a young man even though she has a partner in Berlin and like Alice she is shown to be a highly competent and professional young woman. Both films use diaries and video calls/filmed material to communicate with lovers/friends overseas. A final similarity in the two films is a narrative strand in which the globalised workforce finds itself at the mercy of layers of sub-contractors who come between them and the multinational company who is ostensibly their employer. So in Giraffe, Lucek and his colleagues fear that they might not be paid. I’m not clear on who is paying Dara but she seems to be ‘secure’ in some way. This kind of interaction between workers from different countries often means that conversations are conducted in English, even if in this case, the countries themselves are often geographically quite close. Dara and Lucek make love in English.
I enjoyed watching this film but a quick trawl through other online responses reveals a mixed audience response. In Berlin School style, the narrative is not laid out as a conventional story. Instead each viewer simply needs to watch and listen carefully and piece together their own story. That said, I found some scenes to be humorous and some quite moving as Dara delves into the lives of the people who owned the houses that are to be demolished. The performances are all good and I found simple pleasure in watching Dara at work. Giraffe is currently available on MUBI.
Here’s the only trailer I can find, but no English subs:
Phoenix, Brad Prager, German Film Classics: Camden House 2019, ISBN 9781640140387, £12.99, 88pp, 40 colour illus
My first reaction on reading this title was to wonder if a film can become a ‘film classic’ after only five years. Not that this observation worried me much since there are at least three blog entries on the film on this blog. I reviewed the film when it appeared at the London Film Festival, and both Keith Withall and Rona Murray discussed the film on its release. There is little doubt that Christian Petzold is the most successful of the so-called ‘Berlin School’ of contemporary German filmmakers. It is his films that are selected for international festivals and which tend to receive releases in film markets around the world – something increasingly difficult for many European auteurs these days. Most of Petzold’s successful films have seen him working with Nina Hoss as his leading player and Phoenix is the film on which they last worked together.
It might be worth offering a brief note about Phoenix first as this guide sticks very close to the text and assumes familiarity with the film. Nina Hoss plays Nelly Lenz, who we first see with her head swathed in bandages being driven by her friend Lene through an American checkpoint on her way back to Berlin in September 1945. Later we will learn that Nelly was a well-known singer before the war, but her Jewish heritage meant she was taken to Auschwitz. Somehow she escaped, but was shot in the face. Lene is driving her to meet a plastic surgeon who will re-construct her face. Lene then hopes that Nelly will accompany her to Palestine. However, Nelly hopes to find her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) and when she is recovered she begins a search. ‘Phoenix’ is the name of a nightclub attracting Americans in Berlin. The film is loosely adapted from a novel by Hubert Monteilhet, Return to the Ashes (1961), which sets the narrative in France. J. Lee Thompson made an English language film adaptation in 1965 featuring Ingrid Thulin and Maximilian Schell.
Brad Prager is Professor of German and Film Studies at the University of Missouri and he opens his guide by reminding us that Petzold co-wrote Phoenix with his old friend and mentor Harun Farocki. It was Farocki who suggested that the opening shots of the film should recall Robert Siodmak’s 1946 film The Killers [from the Hemingway short story] in which two contract killers are in a car at night searching for a man. Prager refers to Petzold’s comment about Siodmak as a Jewish German migrant in Hollywood, having fled the Nazis in the early 1930s. Siodmak carried with him that sense of being a persecuted exile when he returned to Germany after the war and Petzold sees Nelly as experiencing the same kind of feeling. Siodmak was one of the German directors identified as developing Hollywood films noirs and Petzold has said that film noir was the genre he thought about most in his preparation. He suggests that just as Fassbinder went back to the films of Douglas Sirk when he made his melodramas such as Fear Eats the Soul (1974), he, Petzold needed to go back to the films noirs of the 1940s and to directors such as Siodmak.
Prager offers us a very close reading of the film which I certainly found illuminating, especially in terms of the connections he finds to wider examples of German culture and particularly German Jewish culture. This means he explores similar films made both about 1945 and made in the immediate few months after the war and tracks the links to Jewish figures such as Kurt Weil, whose song ‘Speak Low’ plays a significant role in the film. As well as Robert Siodmak, he also refers to his screenwriter brother Curt/Kurt and to the Central European Jewish actor Peter Lorre. Prager’s first task is to demonstrate to us that Nelly experiences a a strong sense of dislocation in these first few months of what is a period of ‘limbo’ for German identity. Germany at this point simply doesn’t exist – it is an occupied territory. Nelly wants to re-discover her own German identity and her husband will fail to recognise her even though her new face will not be that different – it is more that he is incapable of seeing her. I know something about this period in Berlin but I learned a great deal more from Prager’s analysis. The real question, however, is who is the target readership for this guide?
I suspect that the intended readership is German studies students taking a film option. There are several other study guide series which deal with a specific ‘National Cinema’ through individual texts on key films. Readers need a certain investment in that National Cinema to get the most from the guides. The downside is that such guides don’t always suit the more general Film Studies student. One missing element for me was a sense of the German cinema audience. Checking the Lumière Database for European films I discovered that Phoenix had a smaller audience overall than Barbara (2012), the previous film by Petzold featuring both Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld. Not only did Phoenix have little more than half the audience of the previous film (530,000 across Europe) but the biggest audience was in France. Barbara, set in East Germany in the 1980s, attracted 1.05 million admissions across Europe and did, just, attract a larger audience in Germany. Prager does perhaps suggest reasons why this might be the case, but I don’t think he addresses what it means for German Cinema. But that’s the only disappointment for me in the analysis. What is the book like as a study guide?
As our other reviewers have pointed out, these are quite attractive guides in terms of presentation, especially since they use digital screengrabs nicely presented in colour. The A5 size is fairly standard for these little guides. In this case the text is presented in an attractive font, but the pages have small margins and the text is fully justified. There are no line spaces between paragraphs and the entire guide is divided into just four sections, corresponding to the linear progress of the narrative of the film. Each section is separated by just a couple of line spaces (rather than a new page). The overall effect is of a solid block of 80 pages of text enlivened only by the illustrations (which thankfully are used relatively frequently). All of this does make the text feel less accessible than it should be. Worse, however, is that there is no index as such, but instead seven pages of endnotes in lieu and a page of credits. The guide is printed on good quality paper, but these seeming cost-saving features rather undercut the overall quality appeal.
Brad Prager is an expert guide having written widely on German cinema and on that basis I would recommend this guide, but I hope Camden House re-consider their design for the series.
All three of us currently contributing to this blog have written about Ingmar Bergman’s films. I think Keith would be happy to accept the position of fan. But I and possibly Nick are more wary. I admire the skills of his filmmaking and I like some of the early films, but I struggle to enjoy the later films I’ve seen. Margarethe von Trotta, however, is a filmmaker I certainly admire and I’ve found all her films interesting. This is her documentary and therefore I approached it with some trepidation, knowing that she was a Bergman fan too.
The film opens with von Trotta on the beach where Bergman shot The Seventh Seal (1957) as she takes us through her first experience of watching his films and then moves to Paris as she tells us how in 1960 she intended to study at the Sorbonne. She then admits that, after meeting some young French cinéphiles, she spent much of her time in cinemas catching up on la nouvelle vague and, through the young directors like Truffaut, discovering Bergman. We realise that this will be a ‘personal journey’ type of documentary and what follows sees the German director discussing Bergman with other directors, several of his female actors and then several members of his family as she visits Bergman’s home on Fårö, the small island in the Baltic where he spent most of his later life. As several reviewers have pointed out, this is a performative documentary – Margarethe von Trotta appears in the film herself and we see her interacting with her interviewees. What could have been a dull series of talking heads interspersed with clips from the films becomes something more personal and engaging. It’s good to see von Trotta talking with, for instance, Liv Ullman. Here are two successful female filmmakers, both of whom have been actors as well as directors, talking about a man who seemed to have the ability to find strong, beautiful and intelligent women (and skilled actors) to be the leads in his films – something eloquently confirmed by the Spanish director Carlos Saura. Bergman was also a man who married five times and seemingly left his wives after they gave birth, unable to engage in any way with his young children.
We do meet Daniel Bergman, one of Bergman’s sons who had a difficult time in later life working with his father on Sunday’s Children (1992), a film written by Ingmar and directed by Daniel and drawing on memories of Ingmar’s father, the cleric Erik Bergman. Von Trotta also shows us a photograph of the whole Bergman clan, over three generations, taken when they travelled to Fårö. On this occasion several of the eight Bergman children met each other for the first time. The documentary does also begin to explore Ingmar’s deep psychological problems with his father and his own need to endlessly explore his childhood rather than engage with his children. This is just one example of how the documentary doesn’t ignore Bergman’s darker side but this isn’t enough to appease some of the film’s reviewers and several see von Trotta as creating a hagiography. She is a fan and she shows us Bergman’s list of films he selected for a publication related to the 1994 Göteborg Film Festival. It reveals that von Trotta’s own film The German Sisters (1981) is the only film in the list directed by a woman and the only one by a filmmaker who is still alive.
I’m not sure that it is fair to describe the film as a ‘hagiography’. Von Trotta does interview two of Bergman’s prominent contemporary disciples in the shape of the French directors Olivier Assayas and Mia Hansen-Løve. The latter made a visit to Fårö to make a (fiction) film which appears to be still to be released. However, another director of a ‘post-Bergman generation’, Ruben Östlund, points to the split in Swedish film culture that came about in the 1960s. Östlund explains that he was trained at the Göteborg film school where there has been more of an influence of the younger directors from the 1960s, led by Bo Widerberg, whereas in Stockholm there is still the sense that Bergman is the important figure. This view, which I confess I have long held, preferring Widerberg to Bergman, is confirmed by the writer, director and critic Stig Björkman who explains that in the 1960s Bergman began to feel threatened by the rise of a new generation. To be fair to Bergman though, he did include one of Widerberg’s films in that 1994 list.
I think Margarethe von Trotta could have delved a little deeper into some of Bergman’s darker places and it’s unfortunate that she doesn’t/couldn’t interview some of Bergman’s male actors. Many of them are no longer with us. Perhaps my major disappointment with the film is that it fails to fulfil the blurb in the sense that although Margarethe von Trotta does probe a little about Bergman’s childhood, she doesn’t attempt to say anything about Bergman’s early work. He had made 16 feature films between 1946 and 1956 when he started on The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries. Apart from Summer with Monika (1953), which was a big influence on Truffaut and Godard, there is no mention of the early career in film – or theatre. It is the early films that I have enjoyed most. There is a clue as to why the early films are excluded. What does emerge from the documentary is that above all, Bergman saw himself as a writer. In those early films he was often constrained by working on somebody else’s original material. Von Trotta’s film does feel like a gathering of auteurs. It is an entertaining gathering and I was most impressed by the directors fluency in discussing the life and work of Bergman in French, German and English and at least I now know how to pronounce properly a range of names and titles in German and Swedish. In summary, this is a film that will interest Bergman’s fans and anyone interested in the history of European cinephilia. But if you don’t know Bergman that well it might not be the best place to start? On the other hand, it is a well-made documentary and Margarethe von Trotta is an engaging guide.
Directed and co-written (with Grit Kienzlen) by Ali Soozandeh, this is a startling representation of Tehran from the perspective of a prostitute. Startling because it is impossible for films made in Iran to show such things; Soozandeh emigrated to Germany over 20 years ago. By the 1990s the ‘new wave’ of Iranian films from directors such as Abbas Kiarostami, the Makhmalbaf family and Jafar Panahi was beginning to be ‘validated’ by western criticism. Even in these films censorship meant that it was impossible to represent the earthier side of human life, if the directors had wished to do so directly. So the films are a bit like mid-20th century British cinema, exemplified by Brief Encounter(1945), where the only stiff things in the narrative are lips. Hence seeing Tehran Taboo is something of a shock especially as the first scene shows a prostitute attempting to give a blow-job in the front seat of a car whilst her five-year-old son is sitting in the back.
The woman, Pari (Elmira Rafizadeh), is the character around which three narratives are woven: her attempts to look after her boy; a neighbour’s wife stifled by Islamic orthodoxy; a young would-be musician being conned into providing proof of virginity after a one-night stand. If the narrative around Pari seems to contradict her actions described in the first paragraph it is a tribute to the film that we understand that she has no choice but to do what she does. The hypocrisy of the ruling clerics is laid bare as is the stifling patriarchy that many women suffocate under.
As can be seen from the image, the film is rotoscoped: live action film is rendered as animation. Soozandeh explained he chose this method as he couldn’t film in Tehran and didn’t want to fake the city by shooting in Jordan. Hence, the animation’s lack of photo realism ensures that the representation of the setting is not compromised as it’s clearly not realist. The impact on the spectator is not unlike that of Waltz with Bashir, another serious rotoscoped film. However, unlike in the earlier film where the visuals conveyed the dreamlike memories of the protagonist, here it is obviously reality that is being rendered. The impact of this is to emphasise we are seeing what ‘shouldn’t’ (at least as defined by the censors in Iran) be seen: it’s both unreal and real. ‘Unreal’ because it is animated; ‘real’ because no doubt that such events depicted in the film happen.
This was Soozandeh’s debut feature; I look forward to the next one.
I sometimes remember the cinemas I have visited more clearly than the films I watched in them. This is certainly true of Fedora which I watched in the Theater Tuschinski in Amsterdam, one of the most beautiful cinemas I’ve ever visited, in December 1978 on its first release. I seem to remember being taken to our seats by a uniformed usher. I think some of the audience might have had glasses of wine (I might be making that up). At that time the 1921 art deco/art nouveau theatre was still a single screen. There now seem to be six screens in an enlarged complex. All this is, if not clear, at least a memory. About Fedora I remembered very little. Possibly I was too young at the time to understand it.
Fedora was the penultimate film directed by Billy Wilder, who helmed his last film in 1981 and then lived another 20 years, making it to 95. I hope he remained sharp until the end. Fedora is currently streaming on MUBI in its collection of ‘Perfect Failures’, which the curators suggest are films not appreciated at the time of their release but which are worth a second chance. It’s a strange selection so far. Southland Tales (Richard Kelly 2006) and The Countess of Hong Kong (Charles Chaplin 1967) are films I’ve never really been interested in seeing. Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt 2013), however, is a film I found intriguing, perhaps not my favourite film from Ms Reichardt but in no way a ‘failure’. But what about Fedora?
Fedora sees Wilder returning to a film about ‘Golden Age’ filmmaking and specifically to his own key title Sunset Boulevard (1950), signalled by both its subject – ‘Fedora’ is a European star of Hollywood in the 1940s/50s – and its investigator played by William Holden. The plot is relatively straightforward. A prologue shows a woman in black leaping in front of a steam train followed by a TV report of Fedora’s death. Then a flashback shows us Holden’s character ‘Dutch’ Detweiler travelling to Greece to find the renowned star Fedora who is in a form of purdah in an isolated mansion on its own island. A further flashback will show that Dutch, as a young assistant director, once spent a night on a beach in Southern California with Fedora. Now he has a new script with which he hopes to lure Fedora out of retirement and into a new film he will produce as an independent.
What happens in the rest of the plot is fairly predictable. Most audiences will guess the twist in the narrative long before the ‘reveal’. But the film doesn’t seem to be too concerned about plot. I find myself having to agree with Roger Ebert whose review of the film back in 1979 nails it. He recognises that audiences could be easily bored by the predictability of it all and then suggests:
If you can see Fedora and not get hung up on what it’s about and who the characters are, which is admittedly a large order, there’s a real pleasure to be had in sitting there and letting it happen to you. It is not a great movie, but it has the form and feel of a great movie.
The script is actually an adaptation of a story by Tom Tryon, himself an actor in the 1950s/60s. I find it impossible to outline the plot without revealing the twist. As soon as you start to work out how old Fedora must be, you will realise what must have happened. William Holden was himself 60 in 1978 – he died just three years later. If he was supposed to have been a young man when Fedora was already a major star, she must be a woman in her mid-60s at least. The two ‘leading ladies’ in the film are Marthe Keller (born 1945) and Hildegard Knef (born 1925). It’s a strong cast. José Ferrer plays Doctor Vando, the physician who tries to keep Fedora young. Mario Adorf plays the hotel manager who takes pity on Detweiler as he tries to find a way into Fedora’s mansion – today in his 90th year Adorf has 219 credits for mainly Italian and German films. Henry Fonda and Michael York play themselves, Fonda as President of the Academy offering Fedora an honorary Oscar and York as the young man she fell for on her last production.
I watched the opening ten minutes of the film on MUBI and wasn’t overly impressed but I went back a day later and found myself watching the whole film. Ebert is right, there is a fascination in watching a master filmmaker who has scripted the film himself and knows just how to handle his starry cast. There is a one-liner which suggests that Wilder just couldn’t come to terms with a contemporary Hollywood “full of young men with beards” (Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg and others). Fedora is in fact a German-French co-production, based in Munich and Paris and widely distributed in Europe. I’ve always like William Holden and all the leading cast are impressive here. The latter part of the film is a joy, especially after we have dispensed with the reveal and can deal with the characters as they are. Wilder is astute in recognising the problems with what Hollywood was becoming in 1978 but I’m not sure he had enough energy left to sustain and attack beyond this feature. I haven’t seen his last film, Buddy, Buddy (1981), but the reviews aren’t that great. If you take note of Ebert’s verdict you may well enjoy Fedora.