Frantz is a very beautiful and deeply moving film that is likely to be one of my films of the year. It’s another film that doesn’t seem to be destined for a long run in cinemas in the UK. That’s a shame because the film demands a big screen in a cinema rather than a TV set at home. Director François Ozon is remarkably prolific in the context of contemporary cinema. Frantz was screened at Venice in September 2016 and his new film is in competition at Cannes later this week. I didn’t follow his early work in the 1980s and 1990s but since 2000 he has managed just less than one film a year on average. He has ranged across genres and film aesthetics and featured an array of interesting European stars, so in one sense it isn’t surprising to discover that Frantz is something different.
Frantz is an ‘extension’ of a story (a play?) written in 1925 by Maurice Rostand. The title of this work gives away a crucial plot point of Frantz which could spoil the film narrative for some viewers so I won’t reveal it. Rostand’s work was then adapted for a film by Ernst Lubitsch in 1932, titled Broken Lullaby and featuring Lionel Barrymore and Nancy Carroll. Ozon and his writing collaborator, Philippe Piazzo, have extended the story and, I think, significantly altered its perspective by making the woman and not the man the central character. The film begins in the small town of Quedlinburg in the centre of Germany in 1919. (The ‘old town’ I now learn is a World Heritage site.) Anna (Paula Beer) is a young woman tending the grave of Frantz, her fiancé killed in 1918 during the fighting on the Western Front. She is surprised to discover fresh flowers on the grave. Meanwhile her would be father-in-law Doktor Hoffmeister turns away a young man from his surgery when he learns that he is French – the old man can’t deal with a meeting so soon after his son’s death. Anna now lives with the Hoffmeisters and eventually she and the couple she refers to as her ‘parents’ will finally meet the young man who is Adrien Rivoire (Pierre Niney). He tells them that he and Frantz were friends in Paris before the war and after their initial caution the Hoffmeisters are pleased to hear his stories. Adrien and Anna begin a delicate relationship based on their mutual affection for Frantz. All this takes place amidst the mutterings of many of the townsfolk, including the group of men with whom Doktor Hoffmeister used to meet in the local inn (where Adrien is staying). Eventually, the truth must out. Frantz tells Anna the truth but there are also lies in this difficult dialogue. Ozon and Piazzo then extend the story by sending Adrien back to Paris and exploring what happens when Anna follows him several months later.
It sounds a very simple story that in the 1920s would have had great resonance. It still raises questions about war and reconciliation in 2017 but also now has the added sense of a message about European unity. The new French President Emmanuel Macron met Angela Merkel just a few days ago expressing the co-operation of the two countries as leaders of the EU while the UK undergoes a ‘Brexit election’. Unfortunately, I don’t suppose many Brexiteers will be in the audience for the film. However, it’s also possible to remove the discourse about war and focus just on the central set of relationships and the age-old problem of telling lies (even for the best of intentions) when those involved are in fragile emotional states. Frantz is a very particular kind of melodrama that is expressed through music, camerawork and mise en scène as well as sensational performances. Ozon decided that the camerawork of Pascal Marti should be presented mainly in black and white with brief passages in colour. I’m not sure if there is a consistent logic to when the changes to colour happen but some of the transitions are truly magical. I suppose the most likely reason is to enhance the moments of great emotion. Philippe Rombi looks after the music (both he and Marti have worked with Ozon before) providing an extensive score and there are also moments of Chopin and Tchaikovsky.
The combination of music and the well-chosen locations creates the perfect backdrop for the difficult conversations between Anna and Adrien. It’s difficult to describe how everything fits together, except to say that it’s perfect. If it wasn’t for the fact that it is presented in 2.39:1 with the clarity of modern lenses, it would closely resemble the melodramas of early 1930s Germany. For Lubitsch the original film was something of an anomaly (most of his films were comedies) so I think my point of reference is Max Ophuls. Because of Pierre Niney’s pencil moustache, however, I did also think of Truffaut’s black and white ‘Scope presentation of the same period in Jules et Jim (in which Henri Serre wears the ‘tache). The narrative of Jules et Jim does have some similarities as well. The small German town with its old centre and the hills and lakes just outside occupies the first part of a narrative that is contrasted with the modernity and sophistication of Paris. I was impressed by the preserved railways on show.
But, finally I have to confess that what really engaged me was Paula Beer’s performance. For such a young actor (21 when she made Frantz) with relatively little experience, this must have been a very difficult role, requiring fluent French. Yet she remains calm and still without being wooden or passive, exuding intelligence and also hinting at the passion beneath the exterior. I had seen the excellent trailer for Frantz and was determined to see the film. I certainly wasn’t disappointed. As the final credits rolled I saw that in the acknowledgements, François Ozon thanked the German director Christian Petzold. Petzold is my favourite current German director and I immediately wondered whether he would want to use Paula Beer in a future project. Imagine my delight when I discovered that Ms Beer has two ‘forthcoming projects’, the first for Florian Henckel von Donnersmark and then in 2018 for Christian Petzold. I’m looking forward to them already. I should also say that I enjoyed Pierre Niney’s performance very much too – Frantz is blessed by excellent casting all round.
Here’s the UK trailer from Curzon (quite mischievous in not showing any colour scenes and the way it plays with the possibilities of the narrative):
Keith reported on Toni Erdmann as the closing film of the Leeds International Film Festival (LIFF) back in November 2016. The film had wowed Cannes in May 2016 and there was general dismay that it was not recognised by the Festival Jury despite almost universal acclaim. After the all too common long delay before a UK release (well done Soda for acquiring the title), Toni Erdmann has become one of the most hyped/heavily promoted arthouse releases I can remember for a long time. Most of the promotion has come on social media from people who have seen the film at festivals or on release in other territories. It is also significant that it is the first foreign language film to get a release on more than a handful of screens in the UK for two months (since the Dardennes’ Unknown Girl). I’m bored now with repeating the shaming fact that the UK exhibition sector offers no foreign language releases in December/January and that this has been the case for several years.
In these circumstances, I think it’s necessary to revisit the film and Keith’s festival report. Two quick points first. The film is 162 minutes but to me felt like 100 minutes. Second, it is at times very funny (raucous laugh-out-loud funny) and I have to agree with all those comments I read beforehand. I agree with a lot of what Keith said about the film as well, though I think we read some scenes differently.
I’ve seen reviews that describe Toni Erdmann as a ‘screwball comedy’ and others that compare it to Renoir’s La Règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game) and I can see that both descriptions have some merit. The film’s length gives writer-director Maren Ade the opportunity to move from one genre to another and to shift the tone of different sequences. The result is that most audiences will find something they really like in the film, but also that they might be frustrated by other parts. If you have managed to avoid reading about the film so far, let me briefly outline the narrative without spoiling it. The film’s title is the name of the alter ego adopted by Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), a sixty-something living on his own in suburban Germany (although I guess it could be Austria). He seems to be a music teacher, probably retired, with an aged dog and an aged mother and ex-wife both living nearby. His daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) is a management consultant in her mid 30s, working too hard and juggling projects in Bucharest and Shanghai. Events convince Winfried to make a surprise visit to Bucharest where he attempts to challenge Ines to reflect on her life. His strategy involves donning a wig and clip-on dentures and posing as ‘Toni Erdmann’, a ‘life coach’, who introduces himself to Ines’ colleagues and friends – with predictable, and sometimes unpredictable, results. There are several amazing set pieces that depend on script, direction and wonderful performances by the two leads.
Many reviewers have commented on the father-daughter relationship and this certainly runs throughout the narrative and carries an emotional heft. However, my own interest and enjoyment was mostly in the different perspectives and strategies the two characters adopt in their engagement with the work and social environment that Ines inhabits in Bucharest. I’ve had only a limited experience of working on international projects but my viewing companion worked as an executive for an oil industry services company and we both agreed that Maren Ade had captured the tone of business presentations and small talk at receptions/parties perfectly. Ines works for a consultancy company called ‘Morrison’. There are several real consultancy companies called Morrison/Morison some with a global reach but it was odd seeing the film in Bradford, home of the major UK supermarket chain ‘Morrisons’. Ines is a consultant who has to devise a strategy for a team with Romanian and German members to present to a multinational which is attempting to ‘modernise’ the Romanian oil industry (one of the oldest in the world) and this inevitably will mean reducing the workforce with all the subsequent social damage that will cause. This is an environment in which Germans and Romanians use their own language to talk to their compatriots but English to talk to each other in public. Nobody ever says what they really mean in public discourse and this provides the basis for comedy (and satire) – and tragedy. Ines is prepared to play the game, Winfried/Toni finds it more difficult. The contrast between the glamorous world of global capitalism and the reality for the mass of Romania’s population is well captured in the dialogue (the observation that the new shopping malls are far too expensive for Romanians) and by the camera when Winfried looks down from Ines’ cold and minimalist designer apartment to see in the streets below a working-class household living behind a high fence. The sexism inherent in the ex-pat world of consultants is another well-observed element in Maren Ade’s script. Overall the treatment of modern global capitalism reminded me of Christian Petzold’s Yella (Germany 2007). Sandra Hüller is herself from East Germany – like the character played by Nina Hoss in Yella.
The final third of the film shifts into what might be seen as surrealism. At one point I did think of Buñuel. But I still think the situation is believable given the circumstances. One of the funniest scenes involves Ines trying to get into and then out of a particularly tight-fitting dress. I’m trying to resist pointing out that such a scene is much more likely in a film written and directed by a woman – as is the unusual sex scene earlier in the film. I don’t want to give away what happens in the final scenes because the shifts in tone are surprising and revealing.
But is this like Renoir? I suppose it is in the sense that there is certainly a ‘game’ and that the film reveals the inequalities that exist in the globalised world of Romanian ‘modernity’. We get to know just about enough of the lives of a small group of characters to realise that none are totally ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Having said that, the multinational boss Ines has to please is very worrying. Some audiences appear to find it difficult to identify with either Ines or Winfried but I think we get to know both well enough to see them as ‘humanised’ characters. What at first might seem like a comedy of embarrassment eventually becomes a humanist drama. Winfried/Toni is, as Catherine Wheatley in Sight and Sound (March 2017) points out, a child of the 1960s. For those of us similarly inclined he’s ideologically and emotionally ‘correct’ – but not necessarily entitled to force/coerce/persuade Ines to feel the same. The film’s ending is worth thinking about. It’s a terrific film and I’d really like to see Maren Ade’s two previous films.
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.
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 its 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 subtitles.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
Nowhere in Africa is an engrossing film and it is no surprise that it won the Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2002. It is adapted from an autobiographical novel by Stefanie Zweig in which she explores her childhood experience of arriving in Kenya in 1938. On the Region 2 DVD Zweig says that one of the features of the film that she appreciated most was the representation of rural Africa. She felt that writer-director Caroline Link had captured the beauty that she had experienced as a child without resorting to the simply picturesque or exotic (“no lions or leopards”). This is an important observation which rings true. The film raises a number of unanswered questions but in respect of its images it is certainly one of the best European perspectives on Africa in the mid 20th century.
1938. Walter Redlich (Merab Ninidze), a successful lawyer in Hesse, has left Germany and taken a job as farm manager in Kenya. He fears the rise of the Nazis and as a (non-practising) Jew thinks it wise to leave his comfortable middle-class existence for rural Africa. Stricken with malaria he has arranged for his wife and small daughter to join him. Jettel (Juliane Köhler) enjoys her comfortable life and ignores her husband’s plea to bring useful items. 8 year-old Regina is less happy in Germany and immediately takes to Africa and especially to her father’s cook Owuor who has used local knowledge to care for Walter during his bout of malaria. When war breaks Walter is interned by the British and Jettel and Regina lose their home but with the help of Nairobi’s Jewish community solutions are found and the family are soon together again on a different farm. The film follows the family up until their departure from Kenya in 1947 when they return to Germany. The drama comes from the different experiences of each member of the family as well as the relationships between them (and with Owuor and the local Pokot people). The fifth major character is Süsskind, another German Jewish man who migrated earlier than Walter and who helps the Redlich family at various times.
The narrative is constructed in retrospect by Regina as she travels back to Germany in 1947. The film begins and ends with her voiceover. The three central characters each represent a different approach to the problems of migration. Walter is the rationalist (though he also claims to be an idealist). They had to leave. He doesn’t want to be a farmer but he’ll buckle down. The war changes him – he joins the British Army in Kenya and he uses the demobilisation scheme to get the family back to Germany. Jettel follows a classic Hollywood ‘journey’. Initially she finds it hard to adjust and her middle-class, European stance makes it difficult for her to get on with Owuor and the local people. Eventually though she becomes a farmer and is reluctant to return. Jettel’s story might have made a conventional melodrama. Regina ‘blossoms’ in Africa. She is the narrator of the story and she mixes not only with Owuor but also the local children. It is not until she attends an English boarding school in Nairobi that she feels ‘alien’. Since she makes the transition over nine years from little girl to bright teenager it is more difficult to assess how she feels in the closing scenes (since she now understands more about her parents’ marriage).
Nowhere in Africa is a long film (140 mins) and some critics/reviewers have argued that the narrative drive is lost in the final third. There is something in this charge and sometimes the film does feel more like a memoir of a period than a filmic narrative in the mainstream sense. This might also take something away from those unanswered questions.
British colonial Africa
Nowhere in Africa was commercially successful in Germany ($10 million) and in North America ($6 million). The third biggest territory was Spain (over $2 million) and then Australia. In the UK, Box Office Mojo quotes $400,00 – not bad for a subtitled film, but half the Australian total and not much more than Argentina ($370,000). The first three UK reviews of the film that I found each see the film as underwhelming, simplistic, ‘safe’ etc. These reviews also tend to be inaccurate as well as missing some of the interesting angles. Perhaps the film suffered from comparisons – to Polanski’s The Pianist and Out of Africa, the Isaak Dinesen story that became a Hollywood melodrama with Meryl Streep? I’m not sure that either is a useful comparison, though Out of Africa does share several important elements. The reviews don’t really pick up the colonial melodrama issues that interest me. In several ways, the most interesting link would be to the Claire Denis film Chocolat (France/WGer/Cameroon 1988) – which also features the daughter of middle-class Europeans and their family servants.
Kenya has always been prominent in British cinema’s relationship with colonial Africa – and with the whole ideological terrain of colonialism, independence struggles and post-colonialism. Putting aside the specific case of South Africa, Kenya was perhaps the most attractive colony for European settlement, based to some extent on plantation development for tea, coffee and maize. The climate and the fertility in the ‘White Highlands’ of Central Kenya meant that were reserved for white settlers by the colonial administrations – displacing local farmers and reducing grazing land for nomadic peoples. The settlers were mainly middle-class British, but also other Europeans and in UK popular culture their lifestyle was seen as hedonistic in the ‘Happy Valley’ region – later represented in the film White Mischief (UK 1987). The exclusivity in this region also helped to encourage local political independence movements which began to be active in the 1920s and grew in strength immediately after 1945. In the early 1950s the same area became an important location for British adventure films including Where No Vultures Fly (1951) – which dealt with game poaching and the struggle to establish national parks in Kenya.
Nowhere in Africa is interesting in not really featuring the British upper middle-class settlers and instead offering more practical settler-farmers with few graces. One farmer has to use the cook as a translator as Walter has learned some Swahili but not English. When Jettel and Regina are interred in a hotel in Nairobi, however, it is a very upmarket establishment and their other experiences include meeting the Nairobi Jewish community, who are British and middle-class, and experiencing the boarding school. When they do begin effective farming, the crop is maize which was mainly introduced by the British as a cash crop. The simmering political unrest is not directly represented – though arguably it is still there. One of the telling lines of dialogue is from an old man who Walter meets when he starts work on the second farm. The man says he knows the land and can help – he’s known in for 40 years. He then says that “if someone steals your cow and eats it, you can forget it. But if they steal your land it is still there and you’ll never forget it”. He is prepared to help because Walter is not a ‘bwana’ who seeks to get rich by stealing more land. This is one of the scenes in which Regina is not present and therefore one she must invent from what she understands happened to her parents. The whole narrative is narrated from her perspective – which was a child’s and then a teenager’s. She was at that age less interested in politics and more in love with the country and its (native) peoples.
I would recommend Nowhere in Africa for several reasons, including excellent performances by the principals. It offers a different European perspective on Africa, one that is still eurocentric but is less trapped in the coloniser-colonised binary. It’s also a film about a girl growing up that to my ageing male eye seems to be authentic and well worth engaging with. I’d also be interested in a film which told the parents’ story in more detail. I found the film in the bargain bin at Fopp (£3 for a DVD) and I consider it money well spent.
Victoria has received attention first because of its formal conceit – a single take used to present an ‘adventure’ covering 138 minutes in the early morning before dawn (roughly 04.30 to 07.00). The film’s narrative otherwise features a relatively familiar genre set-up drawing on two or three different repertoires and set in Berlin. Because the plot requires two separate sections – a slow build-up and then a rapid action sequence interspersed with moments of high drama and tension – we can experience the different effects that the ‘no cutting’ rule imposes.
In the first half of the film we see a young woman in a small basement club. After a few minutes she leaves the club and bumps into a group of four lads in their early twenties who are being refused entry. We learn that ‘Victoria’ is Spanish and speaks virtually no German and that the lads are from East Berlin – ‘real’ Berliners. Only one of them, ‘Sonne’ speaks English (which Victoria knows pretty well) and so they can converse while the other three are excluded. This sets up a second interesting constraint for the filmmaker Sebastian Schipper which enables him to play with the narrative information that the English language audience can get from the dialogue and subtitles. Only Sonne has the same access. Victoria is to some extent dependent on Sonne in order to understand what is happening and the other lads don’t know what he is telling her. For about an hour or so, the ‘no cuts’ rule means we have to follow the antics of the lads as they try to keep Victoria amused and Sonne in particular wants to keep her with them. This long sequence draws on various ‘youth’ narratives including late night shops, prowling police cars and rooftop drinking. I was reminded very much of La haine (France 1995) (except that Victoria’s presence changes the dynamic). Around the hour mark it starts to become clear that the lads have to do something that requires all four of them, so when one feels unwell Sonne is forced to try to persuade Victoria to be the fourth person. The audience suspects that this is a bad idea but soon the action revs up and we don’t really have time to think about what might be sensible. I should say also that the four lads are clearly distinguished with Sonne like a young and friendly Brando or Richard Dreyfus, while Boxer has a shaved head and seems a little out of control. Blinker and Fuss seem younger and less confident, but the four do seem likeable and I think we worry for them as much as for Victoria – we don’t think that they will do her any harm, but what they have to do as a task is another matter.
In the second half of the film everything happens fast and the camerawork often becomes blurry. The no cutting policy works very well in this context and we definitely feel part of the action, whereas in the first half it is tedious in parts. I think that the formal strategy is worthwhile. A conventional take on the same narrative would be shorter but might not enable the audience involvement in the action of the second half. I couldn’t help thinking of another very different film, Lola rennt (Germany 1998), which also featured a young woman on the Berlin streets desperately trying to do something for her boyfriend. Rather like with Lola rennt, the audience has to seek clues to really understand why characters behave in the way they do. The central question is why does Victoria allow herself to get mixed up with these lads? We have to think about a couple of dialogue exchanges in the script by Schipper and Olivia Neergaard-Holm. If I’ve got this right, she has only recently arrived in Berlin and got herself a job in a café close by. Later she explains to Sonne what she did in Spain and combined with other clues we should realise that she is a confident young woman who has given up something that was constraining and that she is looking for ‘adventure’. It’s a great performance by Laia Costa as Victoria, playing a few years younger than her real age. I don’t want to spoil enjoyment of the narrative so I’ll just point out that the issue of Victoria’s attitudes towards what happens and her sense of her own moral position come more into focus in the film’s concluding section.
Overall, I enjoyed the film and it raises interesting questions. I was quite surprised by the make-up of the audience at HOME with more of us old people than I might have expected for what definitely seems a younger person’s film. (I closed my eyes for much of the opening to the film with the strobe lights in the club – I just don’t understand clubbing.) The cinematographer is Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, Norwegian by birth, who lives and works mostly in Denmark. I also loved his very different work on Rams (Iceland 2015), the surprise arthouse hit in the UK. He also speaks English but not German. The music from Nils Frahm worked well with the camerawork. I picked up some comments about interviews with the director and commentaries on the DVD release in Germany? It seems that originally Victoria was a minor character and that the script didn’t really work until she became central. That makes sense. The (very) long take that encompasses the whole film narrative was recorded three times on successive mornings at 4.00 am which must have been a heroic effort for all concerned. The film is released by Curzon/Artificial Eye in the UK. I hope it is widely seen in cinemas since aspects of the narrative won’t work as well on a TV screen.
[I thought of adding the trailer, but it gives far too much away about the plot.]