Category: German Cinema

LIFF#9: In den Gangen (In the Aisles, Germany 2018)

Marion (Sandra Hüller) and Christian (Franz Rogowski) in the coffee room

In the Aisles is a German comedy-drama. Nick didn’t like it all but I found it very satisfying and several others I spoke to after the screening said it was excellent. However, I can see how it may appeal differently to different audiences. Reading some of the reviews after its appearance in official competition at Berlin at the start of the year, I can see that many reviewers have a different reading to me. Perhaps it’s because I’m always looking for the setting and social context of films. Some reviews refer to a ‘sweet romance’ but though that is an element it certainly doesn’t define the film. My favourite shot in the film is a large tank full of carp (a popular Christmas dish in parts of Eastern Europe) in a dingy section of the store. One attempts a futile leap to escape.

The film opens in the nighttime setting of a large supermarket – Lidl on steroids. Our focus is on the stockmen – and women – who are mainly forklift operators  moving pallets from the warehouse to the shelves in the supermarket. The credit sequence sees forklifts sailing gracefully down the aisles and almost dancing as they meet to the sound of ‘The Blue Danube’. The stately progress of the forklifts will make many think of Kubrick’s ship and space station in 2001. But the mood is broken by the introduction of a new worker, Christian (Franz Rogowski) who has been hired as an assistant for Bruno (Peter Kurth) in ‘Beverages’. Christian appears at first to be clumsy and impulsive, but almost mono-syllabic. We fear for him in a section where any mistake might mean broken glass and showers of beer. But Bruno turns out to be a good trainer and eventually Christian will pass his training and become a competent forklift operator. He will also become infatuated with Marion (Sandra v) aka ‘Ms Sweets’ and gradually an attraction develops between them, though Marion gives no sign that it will develop further. These three characters are the focus of the narrative and each is given a section of the film named after them. Most of the action stays within the main supermarket building until Bruno, smoking a cigarette in the yard, begins to tell Christian something about himself and how the supermarket came to be built. From this point on, the narrative slowly begins to change, not least in exploring something of the world outside- primarily, the homes of Christian, Marion and finally Bruno.

Christian and Bruno (Peter Kurth) take a fag break and Bruno thinks about his trucking days

The supermarket was built on the site of an old trucking company – the company for which Bruno and several of the other workers in the supermarket once worked. Its location is close to a major autobahn route through what was the GDR or East Germany. This film is in many ways an ‘Eastern’ German production, with regional funders from the East and most of the main cast and crew, including co-writer and director Thomas Stuber and stars Sandra Hülller and Peter Kurth. Bruno refers specifically to ‘re-unification’ and the assumption is that the trucking company closed and the supermarket opened as a result at some later date after the formal process of re-unifying the country in 1990. Bruno loved being a truck driver and the camaraderie he experienced. Some of that sense of collective responsibility survived the transfer to the supermarket and we see it still in operation at the Christmas Party. But now Bruno is getting towards retirement. Marion would have been a child – young teenager in 1990 but she is still possibly affected by memories of the East. Christian is younger. He made mistakes as a teenager but now he sees that he has a second chance. I’m not going to spoil what happens but my reading is that the way the three central characters deal with the enclosed world of the supermarket is some kind of metaphor for how German workers have come to terms or not with capitalism in the 21st century. This ties in to some extent with the concerns of other German directors such as Christian Petzold and I note that Franz Rogowski also appeared at Berlin this year in Petzold’s Transit (Germany 2018). I may be completely wrong in this but that’s how I see it.

A stately glide down the aisles . . .

The film is a comedy-drama but the comedy comes from observation of the many nuances of the inter-relationships of the workers. The sense of observing is enhanced by camera position and framing and occasional overhead shots. Much of the camerawork (by Peter Matjasko) employs shallow focus fields so that much of the image is slightly out of focus when we see the central characters. I assume that this is intended to convey the sense of being enclosed and having a limited perspective on events outside. The fantasy of ‘outside’ is also conveyed (as in many similar films) by the large photograph of a tropical beach which covers the wall of the small room with a coffee machine where Christian and Marion meet briefly (see the first image). Nick might not have enjoyed the film but he was better than me in spotting the subtle uses of sound, including the reference to the ‘sounds of the ocean’ inside the warehouse which are eventually revealed (by Marion) to be made by the forklift. I enjoyed the use of music throughout the film in a score that includes classical and ‘roots’ music.

The only outright comic moment is, fittingly, included in the sequence dealing with forklift training and if you’ve ever had to endure po-faced Health and Safety training you’ll probably find it very funny. I did. But truth to be told, there aren’t too many laughs in a film that moves slowly through its 125 mins. But I never felt that there was a wasted minute and I’m glad I spent the time with Christian, Marion and Bruno. This is a pretty good trailer:

  

Der traumhafte Weg (The Dreamed Path, Germany 2016)

Theres (Miriam Jakob) and Kenneth (Thorbjörn Björnsson), the young couple in Greece

The Dreamed Path was the fourth feature by Angela Schanelec that I managed to catch in MUBI’s special section on her films before they disappeared. It is her latest release on the festival circuit and in some ways the most austere and ‘formally rigorous’, as one critic has put it, of the films I’ve seen. It’s relatively straightforward to outline the sparse plot details but much more difficult to read the possible meanings. The film opens in Greece with a young couple busking and singing Wimoweh (The Lion Sleeps Tonight) in the summer of 1984 in Greece. Close by young people are celebrating the ‘New Europe’ (even though Greece gained accession to the Economic Community in 1981). The young man receives news of his mother’s severe illness and heads home to the UK. The woman (who is German) doesn’t accompany him. Some thirty years later in Berlin another woman, an actor, is in the process of separating from her husband. They have a young daughter. When filming takes place with the actor in the large square in front of Berlin’s main railway station, we see that the Englishman is present with his dog and is apparently homeless. The German woman he knew years ago in Greece is also in Berlin. That’s more or less the plot minus a couple of dramatic and emotional moments.

The family in Berlin, David (Phil Hayes), Ariane (Maren Eggert) and Ariane’s daughter Fanny (Anaïa Zapp)

‘Formally rigorous’ refers here to Schanelec and her cinematographer Rheinhold Vorschneider’s use of long shots and close-ups. In this film there is the pronounced use of close-ups of feet and other parts of the body which many critics/reviewers recognise as a reference to the later films of Robert Bresson. I haven’t seen enough of Bresson’s work (and certainly not enough recently) to comment on this. What is clear, however, is that Schanelec is, as usual, more interested in exploring how the filmic image in its composition and framing and in the context of editing and the presentation of characters in narrative space evokes responses in audiences rather than how the narrative events themselves are understood in a causal sequence. So, the camera’s focus on the young man’s feet when he makes a phone call home and hears about his mother is a very precise way of attempting to present an emotional moment. This, for me, is in contrast with a relatively long sequence set in an indoor swimming pool. In extreme long shot we can just see a young boy in a wheelchair with his legs strapped but who is stripped and wearing swimming trunks implying he intends to get into the water. As we watch him struggling to free his legs and move the wheelchair to the edge of the pool we hear but don’t immediately see a group of children in the water. Gradually they appear from the bottom of the screen and swim towards the end where the boy is attempting to get into the water. They will reach the end and turn and the boy will slip into the water. The scene ends with a cut to a closer shot of a small group in which one of the girls is checking the boy’s knee which he seems to have grazed in getting into the pool. One reviewer suggests that the girl licks the graze to help it heal but I don’t remember this clearly. Why did this sequence, especially of the image of the group of children swimming so catch my imagination? I don’t know but this ability of Schanelec and Vorschneider (and her two editor collaborators) to construct sequences like this is remarkable and consistent across their films.

Angela Schanelec’s films are coming to London courtesy of the Goethe-Institut later this year, see this MUBI Notebook essay by Patrick Holzapfel (who is curating the London showings). MUBI’s title for its Schanelec ‘Special Discovery’ season was ‘Showing not Telling’ – and so it proved to be. I still haven’t adjusted to MUBI’s ‘watch it before it’s gone’ policy. The Dreamed Path has been received as one of the films of the year on the festival circuit but I found it difficult to watch. I’d like the chance to watch it again without the time pressure. I’ve discovered some of Schanelec’s films are available but expensive on Amazon UK.

The two trailers below, one in German, the other subtitled in English, give an impression of the shooting style (in Academy ratio, 1.37:1) with the ‘feet’ shots in the first trailer:

Orly (Germany-France 2010)

Orly is the fourth Angela Schanelec film to be streamed on MUBI. A brief synopsis might suggest it has generic possibilities as a narrative but really it is almost anti-narrative in conventional terms. I wonder if watching Schanelec’s films is like developing addictive behaviour. I find the films frustrating because I’m so used to conventional narratives – but I can’t stop watching them, partly because I’m in awe of the camerawork and the editing and the overall choreography of movement and control of the fictional space.

The genre here ought to be that of the ‘waiting room’ film with several groups of characters, each with different stories and each with different relationships. But, conventionally, these would come together in some way and there would be an underlying theme. Schanelec offers us four pairs of characters and a handful of others who are more peripheral. The pairs don’t interact directly except for a fleeting moment and the film ends with a largely unexpected event which denies us a ‘resolution’ of any of the four central narratives.

There seem to be possible clues to Schanelec’s intentions that are introduced in subtle ways. The opening images of the film include half of a vinyl record sleeve which I took to be a 12″ of Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, which includes the lines:

And resentment rides high but emotions won’t grow
And we’re changing our ways, taking different roads
Love, love will tear us apart again

Each of the characters in the film are experiencing emotions as they wait in the departure hall.

The setting is mainly Orly Airport in Paris in Spring. Why did Schanelec choose Orly rather than Charles De Gaulle, Roissy? Probably because permissions were easier, but Orly does have significance for cinéastes. It was the setting for Chris Marker’s avant-garde science fiction short film La jetée (The Pier, 1962) – a film anyone with a film education is likely to be aware of. One of Schanelec’s couples has a digital camera and the woman looks at a succession of still images taken in Paris earlier that day – La jetée is entirely constructed from still photos.

Sabine (Maren Eggert) briefly makes eye contact with Jirka Zett as the young tourist

The four couples are a mother and teenage son going to the funeral of the ex-husband and father, a pair of German tourists, a couple splitting up (one of whom we see at Orly as she reads the a letter from her husband) and two expats who meet by chance and discover that they are both returning to North America. The peripheral characters include a young woman on an airline counter, a young barman, taxi drivers etc. and a woman with a baby she is trying to comfort. Although there are brief moments of contact with these individuals by some of the couples, the main way in which Schanelec links her characters is through her camera (or rather the camera of her regular cinematographer Rheinold Vorschneider). For example, in one sequence we are offered a long shot across the departure waiting area with many people sat waiting and others moving in the background, but careful use of the field of focus is able to pick out one face in the crowd. This character will be identified later in the film as the man in the fourth couple. I recognised him as Jirka Zett from Schanelec’s earlier Nachmittag (Germany 2007). See also the shot above in which the same character briefly makes eye contact with the woman separating from her husband. I’m still not sure how this camera shot was achieved. At other times I wondered if Schanelec was using radio mikes for her characters. It is clear that in the Orly shots, the fictional characters are simply placed amongst the crowds of ordinary passengers at the airport. Vorschneider shoots from some distance away so that there are figures in the background and moving across the foreground. You can see this in the trailer below when the two expats (Natacha Régnier and Bruno Todeschini) are talking. The only way to capture ‘direct’ sound for dialogue would be to use concealed radio mikes. Does anyone know if Schanelec uses this method? I was first aware of it in Michael Winterbottom’s Wonderland (UK 1999), one of my favourite films for representing a city through a form of realism. Most of the time the soundtrack uses only dialogue plus the direct ambient sound of the airport. It is a shock therefore when after an hour of this we hear a voiceover reading a letter and Cat Power’s performance of the song ‘Remember Me’

In the interview here Angela Schanelec discusses how she works with ‘real’ spaces like the terminal in Orly:

The trailer below is mainly in French, subtitled in German but it is useful in showing the main characters and the ‘real’ space which Schanelec uses in her own distinctive ways:

Nachmittag (Afternoon, Germany 2007)

Agnes (Miriam Horwitz) in a long shot showing the lake view from the house

Nachmittag is the third of six films by Angela Schanelec offered on my MUBI stream. I’ve posted on the first, Passing Summer (Germany 2001), but I was only able to watch the first part of the second film,  Marseille (2010), before it disappeared from the stream during one of my busy periods. That’s the problem with MUBI, I fear. Still, perhaps I will be able to find it elsewhere later. Marseille did look a little different with its single central character – a photographer exploring the French city. In Nachmittag, Schanelec returns to a summer in Berlin, though the characters are rather different.

Angela Schanelec as Irene

Angela Schanelec’s strategy seems to be ‘never explain’ – or give any background. MUBI have used the title ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ for the season of her films. I have assumed that the main location is a house by a lake in the Berlin region, possibly Potsdam. In a prologue, Schanelec’s familiar static camera offers us a view from the back of a stage in theatre during a rehearsal. On the stage is a woman who sorts out a prop with a stagehand and then walks towards a dog and pets the animal. We next see her in long shot arriving at the house by the lake where an older and younger man have been having a conversation. Later we will learn that this the woman is Irene, played by Schanelec herself (she began her career as an actor). Gradually we meet five other main characters but we must try to work out who they are and what the relationships are between them. It took me the whole 95 minutes and I still wasn’t certain by the end, but I’m fairly confident that MUBI’s synopsis of the film is inaccurate.

Jirka Zett as Konstantin holding Agnes Schanelec as Mimmi

When I started watching the film I was unaware that its premise is taken from Chekhov’s play The Seagull. Perhaps that’s a good thing. I’m not a theatregoer and I don’t really know Chekhov. My thoughts instead turned to similar films in this setting. I thought of Thomas Arslan’s Vacation (Ferien, Germany 2007), on the reasonable basis that Arslan is another member of the ‘Berlin School’. I was also reminded of The Farewell (Abschied – Brechts letzter Sommer, Germany 2000). The point here is that the situation – a group of people meeting at a ‘summer place’ where their different relationships are explored – is potentially a familiar dramatic and even generic narrative proposition. Yet Angela Schanelec challenges our assumptions about how any drama might develop. She does this in several ways.The use of long shots and of close-ups by DoP Reinhold Vorschneider can sometimes mean that we are not quite sure who we are watching or where we are. But what is even more disruptive is her use of dialogue. We are used to mainstream cinema’s use of dialogue to provide ‘narrative data’ and to move forward the events of the narrative. Schalenec’s dialogue comes as a shock – it is so close to the ‘real’ conversations that we have with people we know (well at least I do!). There are seemingly inconsequential remarks that actually convey emotional relationships such as when Irene tells her son who is ironing shirts to dampen the collar. Often too, dialogue is with a character who is offscreen for long periods – sometimes wth responses coming from offscreen.

Angela Schanelec with Reinhold Vorschneider shooting by the lake

Critics have increasingly praised Schanelec’s aesthetic approach. Mattias Frey in a ‘Senses of Cinema’ festival report suggests that “Nachmittag is a challenging hypnotic that bespeaks further development in Schanelec’s craft”. Ekkehard Knörer in a ‘Sign and Sight’ report offers the most detailed critique. Knörer suggests that the opening shot of the stage introduces the sense of a theatrical space in the house looking out over the lake. He makes the point that the characters are so engrossed in their own concerns that dialogue is rarely about communicating but instead about each character’s ‘struggle with words’. Ironically, two of the characters are writers. If you know the Chekhov play you may wonder just how ‘free’ is this adaptation. The answer is very, but one action in the original play is obliquely presented in the closing moments of Schanelec’s script. I realise that the film is now gone from MUBI and I should have rewatched that ending. I’m certainly intrigued by this filmmaker and I will try to watch more.

The Misandrists (Germany 2017)

Two of the young punks with a photo of Emma Goldmann (“a freethinking rebel woman”) as their room decoration. (All photos © Salzgeber & Co. Medien GmbH)

Bruce LaBruce is a Canadian writer/photographer/director active since the late 1980s. He is known as an art-pornographer and the founder of ‘queercore’ via his punk magazine J.D.s. His work has previously been outside the mainstream, although he did have a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2015. MoMA’s website announced the retrospective like this:

For over a quarter-century the auteur/provocateur known as Bruce LaBruce has been disrupting, dissecting, and disrobing in the name of cinema.

LaBruce’s films have shown at international film festivals since 2004 and three have previously been released on DVD in the UK. The Misandrists was shown at Berlin in 2017 and is in some ways the closest to mainstream cinema that Bruce LaBruce has come (it is linked to the earlier underground film The Raspberry Reich (2004)). As the title suggests, the film’s narrative concerns a group of ‘revolutionary’ women led by ‘Big Mother’ (Susanne Sachße) and their attempt to overthrow patriarchy. The narrative is set in Germany (Brandenburg) and begins with two young women cavorting in a field and then coming across a wounded young man stumbling through the woods. One of the young women, Isolde (Kita Updike) takes the initiative and hides the young man, Volker (Til Schneider) in the basement of the secluded country house where the girls are part of a female community. It is a serious offence to bring a man into the building. Big Mother has created a community with four older woman as teachers and eight young women they have rescued from the streets as students. The aim is to become a revolutionary group. In order to raise funds they must create lesbian pornography – which Big Mother decrees is ‘liberating’. To the outside world the group gives the appearance of a group of nuns teaching ‘wayward girls’ in a country retreat.

Volker (Til Schneider) and Isolde (Kita Updike)

The iconic soft porn image of the pillow fight

As one viewer has suggested, Bruce LaBruce makes a better stab at re-making Don Siegel’s The Beguiled than Sophia Coppola. As well as that Hollywood reference, the narrative is also redolent of fairy tales with the forest setting and the invoking of female mythologies by Sister Dagmar. It’s a German forest (and several of the actors speak heavily accented English, as well as snatches of German). Somewhere in the background is LaBruce’s play around Nazi iconography and the gay world. The two major questions for mainstream audiences are probably: “Is it any good?” and “Is it ‘art’ or ‘pornography’ or both”? Before I try to respond to those questions, I should note first that the film looks very good in a ‘Scope frame with accomplished cinematography by James Carman, interesting mise en scène and an excellent use of limited locations. I was intrigued to read that LaBruce was a graduate student in film at York University in Toronto and studied under Robin Wood. I thought I discerned several classical film references including a pillow fight which could be both soft porn imagery and a nod to Jean Vigo’s Zero de Conduite (France 1933). Perhaps there is also a sense of Mädchen in Uniform (Germany 1933, remade in 1958)? Throughout the film, LaBruce uses the iconography and the narrative devices and settings of porn, but always in a careful, controlled way. What he is attempting is both a celebration and a satire of lesbian, feminist and revolutionary communities. My understanding, from some of the extensive commentaries on his work, is that he rebelled quite early on in the face of what he saw as ‘safe, conservative’ gay male culture – and this led to his interest in punk (two of the young women in this film are signed as punks). He also criticised the ‘separateness’ of gay and lesbian movements, wanting gay men and lesbians to work together against capitalism and patriarchy. I don’t claim to understand all of this history but there is a substantial essay by Jasmine McGowan on the Senses of Cinema website: ‘Making Revolutionary Love: Radical Sex and Cooptation in the Films of Bruce LaBruce’. This was written soon after the MoMA exhibition and the release of Gerontophilia, (2013) “the first of LaBruce’s films to feature sexual activity demure enough to avoid the adult classification”.

‘Big Mother’ (Susanne Sachße) leads the group in an ‘invasion’ of a local cinema

It’s clear from this that LaBruce is a serious artist/activist who is prepared to attempt a very difficult task – to make a film that is entertaining but also thought-provoking, using story material that mainstream audiences may find offensive/distasteful. Personally, I had no problems with the film’s use of pornographic images which are not used frequently (as they would be in a porn film) – only when they are necessary for the narrative, to show the young women studying porn and then, towards the end of the film, to show the results of their efforts. I was much more disturbed by a detailed sequence of a surgical procedure (credited in the end titles to the ‘Belgrade Centre for Reconstructive Surgery’). I won’t spoil the narrative but you can probably guess what it entails. Anyway, I was too squeamish to watch it properly. More than the pornography, LaBruce’s main difficulty is to present the rhetoric of Marxism and feminism within the context of his narrative in a satirical but not necessarily negative way.

I thought at first that the film was too conventional and too ‘clean-looking’ to be effective seeming to work against the attraction of the cult film. I thought about The Duke of Burgundy (UK-Hungary 2014) and how that film successfully developed the look of 1970s exploitation films. But as time went on I started to think more about the characters and the script and by the end of The Misandrists I was on board the project, at least in terms of following some of the arguments. The film is humorous and I liked the performances and the music. One critic suggested that the acting is “stilted B-movie” style. Make of that what you will, but Kita Updike as Isolde seems well-cast. She has the pivotal role which also makes the film topical. Do stay for the credits. LaBruce and his team have found some wonderful photographs of women at work and at war, emphasising solidarity and struggle.

If this is the kind of film and the kind of ideas that interest you, I think you’ll like what Bruce LaBruce has to offer in The Misandrists. It’s released on DVD in the UK on April 30th by Matchbox Films.

Stations of the Cross (Kreuzweg, Germany 2014)

This paper was written by Shabanah Fazal

Dietrich Brüggemann ’s arresting fourth film about Catholic fundamentalism was a departure from his previous major features Renn wenn du Kannst (Run if you Can, 2010), 3 Zimmer, Küche Bad (Move, 2012). And Heil (2015), the wild satire on neo-Nazis he followed it with, looks like a determined over-reaction to it. Yet what links them all is self-aware comedy and a concern with darker aspects of contemporary German culture. All his films are available on DVD but take note that Neun Szenen and Heil do not have English subtitles. Brüggemann studied Directing at Potsdam Film and Television Academy and his interest in formal composition is also evident in his work as photographer, musician and producer of music videos. His short films are critically acclaimed and Stations of the Cross was widely feted at international film festivals. It is his first film to be screened on British television and I saw it late night on BBC4. I was deeply affected by it, perhaps because its small-scale but shocking narrative is served well by the intimacy of the television screen.

Brüggemann tells the story of 14 year-old Maria, who is preparing for her confirmation with Father Weber. She belongs to the Society of St Paul (based on the real Society of St Pius X), a fundamentalist off-shoot of the Catholic Church that rejects the reforms of Vatican II. With dwindling numbers, they see themselves as the embattled guardians of the Church’s original, pure teachings. Father Weber enjoins his young flock to fight a daily battle in their hearts against the ‘satanic temptations’ of the world and to sacrifice simple pleasures such as music, films, provocative clothes and even food. These restrictions are strictly reinforced at home by Maria’s domineering mother, who struggles to bring up her mute four-year old son. Caught between these twin pressures and eager to please both adults, Maria decides to sacrifice her life for the sake of her brother. She becomes anorexic and so begins the self-destructive journey of martyrdom signalled by the title. Brüggemann structures the film in chapters matching the 14 stations of the cross, which in Catholic tradition mark the stages of Christ’s suffering on the way to crucifixion.

Brüggemann wrote Stations of the Cross with his sister and regular collaborator Anna, who has also starred in many of his films. They were justly awarded the Silver Bear for Best Script at the Berlin Film Festival, a fact many reviewers seem to overlook in their focus on the film’s visual stillness. On the first viewing, it is the dense script – the power of the Word, especially in the long but compelling opening catechism scene – that drives the narrative forward. The intertitles also intensify the impact of a narrative that takes place over just seven days. They create a sense of inevitable doom (‘Jesus is condemned to death’ – in the first scene, by Father Weber’s indoctrination), comment ironically on the action (‘Jesus falls the first time’ – Maria’s chaste attraction to a fellow Christian boy) and point to a metaphorical purpose (‘Jesus is nailed to the cross’ –  Maria is a victim of Catholic ideology). Above all, their sheer incongruity underscores the tragi-comedy of a vulnerable teenage girl sacrificing her whole life for so little.  And Brüggemann’s choice of names seems to support this: the comically tautological ‘Maria Göttler’ (evoking a divine Virgin Mary), and ‘Christian’, the innocent evangelical boy she befriends.

Unlike other films about the Catholic Church such as The Magdalene Sisters (Peter Mullan, 2002) and Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2015), Brüggemann’s film does not set out to expose direct physical and sexual abuse.  Rather, his focus is the deeper psychological and emotional abuse that results from indoctrination into any kind of ideology. The film is devastating because of what church and family make Maria do to herself through mind control.  The director’s stated motivation for making the film was concern about the 21st century global upsurge in Islamic and Christian fundamentalism. He does not object to benign forms of religion and understands how the sense of community it offers for many fulfils a human need.  For Maria it becomes part of the surrogate family she creates around herself: Father Weber and Bernadette replace her own ineffectual father and unloving mother, and she herself plays surrogate mother to her young brother. Some reviewers see the film as a savage criticism of those who live by religion.  But it is clear to me that the director draws a distinction between the teachings of the Church and the central characters: Maria, Bernadette (her family’s au pair) and Christian are entirely sympathetic. The deeply vulnerable, naturalistic performance he draws out of 14 year old Leah van Acken in her first film role made me feel the desperation of a parent powerless to help. Even Father Weber (played by a young, attractive Florian Stetter) is a skilled, fair-minded teacher whose quiet charisma would cast a subtle spell over any impressionable teenage girl.  I had no trouble understanding why Maria would be seated at the right hand of her god and be so eager to tell him what he wants to hear.

Maria (Lea van Acken) in the car with her mother (Franziska Weisz)

Brüggemann plays out the conflict created by the imposition of ideology chiefly through family melodrama, the aspect of the film that resonated most with me.  In interviews, he urges the viewer to ask themselves “What are we doing to our kids?” when we use any ideology – whether that be religion, socialism or feminism – to torture our children.  Brüggemann’s friend Franziska Weiz, a seasoned professional actor, gives an indelible performance as Maria’s controlling mother.  Some reviewers have described her as a caricature with her near-hysterical imprecations against the dangers of “gospel and jazz!”  However, to anyone brought up by a strict religious parent, she is frighteningly familiar and convincing. Brüggemann says he based her on his own father during a fundamentalist phase of his life when he made his children attend a Society of Pius X church. Maria’s mother is arguably portrayed less as a Carrie-style demon mother but as a woman struggling to cope with a young autistic son, and an adolescent daughter whose sexuality she has been taught it is her duty to monitor at all times. She can also be read as a tragic victim of a patriarchal ideology that limits her role in life to home and motherhood.  It warps her energies into control of her daughter, so that in the domestic realm at least she has some power.  She repeatedly grinds Maria down and forces her to bend to her will, rewarding her with approval and affection.  In turn, like so many intelligent but powerless young women growing up in a patriarchal system, Maria comes to realise her only means of resistance to her mother is to outdo her in religious devotion. Her method is self-mortification, her body now being the only thing she still has any control over.  We see their power struggle being played out painfully in Station 2, where Maria’s mother forces her to put on her cardigan and pose smiling for a family photo, and the car scene, which acts as a visual metaphor for their entrapment in a destructive power-dynamic.

Brüggemann first experimented with a fixed camera and long static shots in his 2006 feature Neun Szenen (Nine Scenes). In Stations of the Cross, he works with long-time collaborator Alexander Sass to take it to another level: in the whole film, the camera moves only three times. The effect is to create a series of carefully composed painterly tableaux that evoke the traditional Christian iconography of the 14 stations of the cross.  On second and repeat viewings we are reminded of the original contemplative purpose of these images, but I feel Brüggemann’s aim is less spiritual than ironic. The opening tableau for example, reminds us of da Vinci’s Last Supper, foregrounding Father Weber as a false prophet whose ‘meal’ is a perversion of Christ’s. Credit should also go to production designer Klaus Peter-Platten for mise en scène decisions that intensify what Brüggemann calls ‘locked-in’ shots. In the first and the later confessional scenes, dim lighting and austere stage sets with tiny windows, severe horizontal and vertical lines signify the imprisonment of vulnerable minds like Maria. Through the confessional grille, Father Weber even admonishes her for ‘sins’ of her innocent imagination: pride in hoping that a boy would find her attractive and conceit for knowing the truth – that she would be a better mother to her brother. Time and again, she is presented as powerless and invisible, pushed to the edges of the frame. For example in Station 2 and 7, when she battles with her mother and then her gym teacher, she is forced to the other side of the frame, underscoring the futility of her resistance. In Station 9, as she awaits confirmation, her pale profile is lost amongst those of other children, and at the critical moment she even disappears below the frame.

Maria is isolated in the gym

For some, this kind of framing (not forgetting publicity material portraying Maria as Christ on the cross) make her too simply a victim to be truly interesting.  And arguably Brüggemann’s film is less subversive than either Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene (2012) or Bruno Dumont’s Hadewijch (2009). Both provide a more obvious sociological/political insight into the attraction that ‘exotic’ fundamentalist ways of life might have for rebellious young women alienated by the shallow materialism and dysfunctional family structures of the west. However I believe the aesthetic Brüggemann outlines in an interview with Indie Outlook is political in the best sense: his distancing of Maria and choice of wide shots in particular “liberate the spectator’s gaze . . . to observe the whole system” and find for themselves truths about ideology and power. We see an intriguing example of this in Station 7, where Maria is confronted with the demands of the world, having to dance to ‘satanic’ music during a mixed-sex gym class. In Stations 1 and 2, Brüggemann opts for planimetric shots (see Catherine Wheatley’s 2016 paper) to depict the rigid order of church confirmation class and family life. In ironic contrast, in the gym scene a line of classmates in the background of the shot rebel against their well-meaning teacher’s efforts to integrate Maria into the lesson by running in all directions. They then mock and insult her, leaving her isolated. Their comments reveal as much disdain for her indigenous brand of religious conservatism as for the head-scarfed Muslim girls who are exempted from PE. Brüggemann seems to suggest both are seen as alien and his visually disruptive shot perhaps represents the wider cultural conflicts of contemporary secular Germany.

Fr. Weber joins Maria’s mother at her bedside

The most debated aspect of the film is undoubtedly how far Brüggemann’s film aesthetic acts as an endorsement or a criticism of faith, as distinct from religion. There is no doubt that his story of martyrdom and the miraculous stands within the tradition of directors such as Carl Dreyer, Robert Bresson and Lars von Trier. It has clear parallels with von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (1996) but he rejects what has been dubbed von Trier’s ‘sado-modernism’ – a term that could also apply to Katrin Gemme’s 2013 horror-thriller Tore Tanzt (Nothing Bad can Happen), about the abuse of a naïve male ‘Jesus freak’.  He acknowledges the influence of these directors and speaks in interviews of believing in ‘Something Out There’. He also describes how his single-shot no-edit approach puts pressure on the actors to be ‘spiritually engaged in getting the scene right’. He clearly borrows elements of what Paul Schrader terms ‘transcendental style’ (distancing techniques such as slowness, long, static unedited shots, an absence of non-diegetic music etc).  But ultimately does he do so in order to offer a subtle critique of it?

Firstly, we see this in the vein of black comedy running through Brüggemann’s work.  He has spoken of his love of Monty Python and his early features were labelled ‘fresh comedies’ by the German press. He also clearly has a predilection for meta-cinema and his 2011 short One Shot takes mise en abîme to self-parodying extremes. Most interesting of all, he cites as his greatest influence Swedish director Roy Andersson, saying “I watched [his films] on my knees, spiritually”. Andersson’s cinema illustrates his theory of ‘trivialism’, whereby profound truths can come into focus in the most banal, absurd moments of everyday life. And by exaggerating these, the director can bring the viewer closer to those truths. Hence Brüggemann’s own definition of comedy as ‘truth and pain’. We see this played out in the tiny, absurd battles Maria is urged to fight on her way to the cross – whether persisting in taking off a cardigan to mortify her flesh, resisting a harmless Christian boy with whom she bonded over quadratic equations, or sacrificing Father Weber’s biscuit after confirmation class only to later choke on the same priest’s wafer. The idea that a biscuit can become the means by which an ideology kills a child is subtly satirical. Even the hyper-minimalist opening titles, intertitles and closing credits seem less of a reading challenge than a joke.

If all this isn’t apparent to some viewers, it is because of the director’s refusal to comment or condemn directly. For me, it is this very detachment that gives the film its paradoxical power: he appeals to the heart via the head. The viewer is held so far back in a position of helplessness from the protagonist that we are forced to see how she is caught in a larger system that will inevitably crush her. That makes it hard for us to shed the tears for her that we long to. In a TV interview Brüggemann stated: “the best way to make a comedy is with a straight face, and let the bomb explode on the audience’s side” – and the same applies to tragedy.  It describes exactly how I have felt on every viewing, as if something very big I didn’t even notice being planted had imploded unseen inside me.

Here’s one of Brüggemann’s short films, One Shot (no English subtitles but you can turn on German subtitles):

The ‘miracle ending’ (spoiler warning)

Secondly, we should consider his treatment of the ‘miracle’ ending – a very small one compared to the miracles at the end of Dreyer’s Ordet (1955) and Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves. Is it a similar reaffirmation of faith and or a bitter mockery of the very notion of miracles that demand such an extreme sacrifice? There is an equally ambiguous ending to Jessica Hausner’s Lourdes (2009), a film with a similarly restrained aesthetic in which a spiritual struggle is played out on a woman’s body – this time a paraplegic. Catherine Wheatley (2016) argues that both films are examples of ‘cinematic agnosticism’, that emphasise the fundamental ‘unknowability’ of spiritual experience. Brüggemann also insists his film can be viewed from many angles at once – serious or ironic. His final, most striking camera move is withheld till the final station ‘Jesus is laid in the tomb’. Unlike von Trier, he does not offer the thrilling consolation of a god’s-eye view shot and ringing of celestial bells. Instead, a sudden crane shot takes us up over the graveyard, with a final tilt up to cloudy, impenetrable skies, and then returns to silent, black closing credits. We are left to find meaning for ourselves – if there is any.

If you need an uplift after watching Stations of the Cross, I recommend Louise Ní Fhiannachta’s daring, comic short Rúbaí (2013), about an 8 year-old Irish girl preparing for confirmation. Her joyous, life-loving spirit has not yet been crushed by the Catholic Church or her mother. Not only does she question and utterly discombobulate her priest during catechism, but defiantly rejects the life they have mapped out for her.

References

Schrader, Paul (2017) ‘Revisiting Transcendental Style in Film’, YouTube lecture for TIFF based on his 1998 book

Wheatley, Catherine (2016) ‘Present Your Bodies: Film Style and Unknowability in Jessica Hausner’s Lourdes and Dietrich Bruggemann’s Stations of the Cross’, Religions,Volume 7, Issue 6

Passing Summer (Mein langsames Leben, Germany 2001)

In the opening scene of the film Valerie (Ursina Lardi, left) and Sophie (Nina Weniger) meet in a café – with an unhelpful waiter in the foreground

Writer-director Angela Schanelec trained at the ‘Deutsche Film und Fernsehakademie Berlin’ (DFFB – German Academy of Film and Television Berlin) in the early 1990s which means that she has been seen as part of the so-called ‘Berlin School’ of filmmakers. In the UK the best known names of this group are Christian Petzold and Thomas Arslan. Valeska Grisebach trained at Vienna’s Film Academy but returned later to Berlin and has self-identified with some of the directors in the Berlin School. MUBI has started a streaming programme of Schanelec’s films, none of which I’d seen before. From my viewing of this first title, I can see some resemblance to Arslan’s early films, but Schanelec seems much more austere and eschews a conventional plot altogether. She doesn’t appear to be aiming at the kind of international festival attention that Petzold and Grisebach have achieved, though research suggests that she has found it on some occasions. Wikipedia’s entry suggests that she belongs alongside more avant-garde directors such as Chantal Akerman. Schanelec herself has mentioned the influence of Robert Bresson. A very useful account of the development of the Berlin School can be found on this Senses of Cinema page.

Passing Summer is an odd title. What on earth does it mean? Did Schanelec decide on the English title? Is there a careful play on words – a summer that literally ‘passes’, a summer of no consequence or a period of time ‘passing’ as summer? The German title is much more direct in translating as ‘my slow life’. The narrative comprises a series of ‘encounters’ of a group of people over six months, largely in Berlin. There is one character who seems to be at the centre of the group and seemingly it is Valerie who has the slow life. The other characters are friends, one of whom seems to be her current partner and at one point Valerie travels south to meet her brother and to go with him to see her father who is ill in hospital. There are children in the group and their care is one strand (as far as I can see, the two children are both moving between divorced/separated parents). There is also the marriage of one character. We know that six months ‘pass’ because the narrative begins with a meeting in a café between Valerie and her friend Sophie who then leaves for Rome. At the end of the film she returns to Berlin after her six month contract has been completed.

Marie (Anne Tismer) keeps an eye on one of the children in this Long Shot

The focus is on the seemingly inconsequential details of daily life for the group and it is here that the aesthetic of the Berlin School suggests we will find some kind of insight into ‘reality’ rather than in the artifice and contrived narrative set-ups of conventional mainstream genre cinema. Having excised any conventional narrative devices from her film, Schanelec distances us from her ‘characters’ further by careful camerawork. The camera is nearly always static, though the shot sizes vary considerably. Within the compositions, figures are often placed closer to the edge rather than the centre of the frame and our view of them might be obscured by windows, doorframes or other characters/objects in the foreground. The static camera also means that characters will move out of frame but still be talking. In the image below Valerie arrives back in Berlin by train to be met by Thomas. We hear her voice over the static shot, presumably talking to Thomas, but we don’t see them meet. This is perhaps the most extreme example. Earlier the little girl swimming in the image above asks Marie to dance for her. We hear the music and assume Marie is dancing but the camera stays on the image of the girl listening – we never see Marie dancing.

Valerie, off-screen, talks about her father.

What to make of this aesthetic and how much we learn about Berlin life – and about cinema – seems to be the question. The first point to make is that I didn’t feel totally alienated. The static compositions are often strangely beautiful. Perhaps that’s not quite the right word, but looking at them for what seems like a minute or two is not annoying and I felt engaged throughout the film without the need for narrative drive. The camerawork is by Reinhold Vorschneider whose work I admired in Thomas Arslan’s Helle Nächte. He has worked with both Schanelec and Arslan on several projects and has presumably developed this ‘Berlin School’ technique with the directors. I should also note that the lack of artifice on the shoots extends to the use of diegetic sound only. The sequences in which characters dance have music from a disc, a DJ or a live performance. The actors in the film are a mixture of the experienced and inexperienced. Angela Schanelec was herself an actor first and she appears in the film in a minor role. Ursina Lardi as Valerie was in her first film but she has since gone on to significant roles in films like The White Ribbon (2009) and Lore (2012). The performances, the cinematography and the editing (by Schanelec herself and Bettina Böhler, a Petzold collaborator) work seamlessly. I’m happy to watch more Berlin School work and certainly more films by Angela Schalenec. But I’m not sure what I’ve learned about German culture or about cinema. Mostly. I think, I’ve got a sense of a calmness about watching ordinary lives. I’m puzzled though at the difference between the drama of Christian Petzold’s films and the approach of Angela Schanalec. It’s difficult in Schanelec’s film to follow the individual characters and how they relate to each other and there are frustrations in the way in which we find out something interesting about characters that is not followed up in any direct way – much like in ‘real life’ I suppose. I need to find out more about Berlin film culture. For a more detailed analysis of Angela Schanelec’s “notoriously evasive films” look at this paper by Blake Williams in CinemaScope.

MUBI also carries an essay on Angela Schanelec to accompany the season which extends to June 3rd with several films to come.

Helle Nächte (Bright Nights, Germany-Norway 2017)

I first came across Thomas Arslan in 2011 when five of his films were shown at the Bradford International Film Festival. He also visited the festival and took part in a formal Q&A as well as chatting to several of us in the bar. He seemed like a really nice guy, but perhaps a little diffident for a film director. I enjoyed his films and I’ve looked out for them ever since but I don’t think any of them have got a UK release and I haven’t caught any of them at festivals.

Thomas Arslan press photo for Bright Nights

I got the chance to see Bright Nights because of a promotion offered at the Glasgow Film Festival by the streaming service MUBI. I’ll report in full on what a month of MUBI films might look like a little later. Bright Nights is a title that refers to a trip to Northern Norway in the summer undertaken by Michael (Georg Friedrich). Michael is a guy in his late 40s, a construction site manager living in Berlin with his younger partner Leyla (Marie Leuenberger). At the beginning of the narrative he has just heard that his father, who he hasn’t seen for five years, has died from a heart attack in Norway where he has been based since his retirement. When Michael’s sister says she won’t be going to the funeral, Michael decides to take his 14 year-old son Luis (Tristan Göbel) who he has barely seen since his divorce.

One of the typical static shots as Michael and Leyla look out over the city

Thomas Arslan has a very distinctive film style. His films are often short and this one lasts just under 86 minutes. Arslan’s DoP Reinhold Vorschneider carefully composes static shots which are sometimes held without any discernible action on screen. In an interview on Cineuropa, Arslan responded to the suggestion that he had chosen a ‘relaxed’ pace:

I don’t really think about films in terms of fast or slow. That’s too formal a way to look at it, and I don’t work like that at all. I tried to bring the appropriate rhythm to this very particular story, without being bound by general conceptual rules.

That strikes me as the answer of someone who thinks a lot about how he does things. My own feeling is that he is a good judge of pacing. Yes, shots are held a long time but I didn’t find that off-putting. I should also note that the music by Ola Fløttum (who has worked with Ruben Östlund and Joachim Trier) and the film editing by Reinaldo Pinto Almeida complement the camerawork very well. Added to the pacing is Arslan’s wish to show not tell so the viewer needs to be alert to look around the image for visual clues rather than expecting dialogue to do the job.

Michael and Luis don’t talk much in the car or when they are hiking

After the initial scenes in Berlin (in which Michael learns that Leyla is going to be working in the US for a year, unsettling him further) father and son arrive in Norway for the funeral and then a trip to the far North involving some camping and hiking. Since Luis barely speaks to his father we know this is going to be a difficult trip. When they pick up their rental Land Rover Discovery the film could become a familiar road movie, but there are few ‘adventures’ or interesting encounters. It might be an ‘anti-road movie’ but actually in some ways it becomes a film which conveys very well the the feelings and emotions that can arise on a journey, especially on empty roads in a wild environment. There is a standout sequence lasting over 4 minutes in which the camera simply stares through the windscreen at the road ahead as the vehicle moves through the fog on an upland road. I found this almost a spiritual experience, especially with the music, a synthesiser drone that rises imperceptibly as the car rolls on with the only other sound that of the tyres on the road and the low thrum of the engine. The snow poles which look so odd in the summer landscape reminded me of some roads in the Pennines. Not surprising perhaps but such areas of wilderness are so much more extensive in Norway which looks terrific through Vorschneider’s lens.

The long single take through the windscreen with snow poles showing through the summer mists

Rebuilding a father-son relationship is a relatively common theme in films, but it is rarely achieved with such subtlety as in Bright Nights. At the end of the film, which is mainly composed of long shots, there is none of the emotional catharsis of mainstream movies. There are just a couple of shots in which we search for and find some emotional meaning – and that’s enough.

If you like calm, intelligent and beautifully crafted films, Bright Nights is for you. If you want excitement or a popcorn movie experience, it isn’t. The two leads are both excellent. I thought they seemed familiar and Georg Friedrich was indeed the lead in Aloys (Switzerland-France 2016) which I saw on a plane last year. I’ve got a bit more of an excuse for not recognising Tristan Göbel who was equally good as the 10 year-old boy in the excellent Westen (Germany 2013). I’m delighted to have had the chance to see Bright Lights, now I must find Gold from 2013 with Nina Hoss.

Here’s the German trailer for the film (no English subs), but at least you can get a sense of the cinematography: