Category: German Cinema

Victoria (Germany 2015)

Laia Costa as Victoria

Laia Costa as Victoria

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.]

Beyond Silence (Jenseits der Stille, Germany 1996)

Lara (Sylvie Testud) at her audition.

Lara (Sylvie Testud) at her audition.

This film was given to me (on DVD) by a member of the audience for one of my introduced screenings of La famille Bélier (France 2014). The suggestion was that it was similar in many ways to the later French film. There are certainly some close similarities in the script – but also several important differences. The two films are also different in their use of genre repertoires and the way they are positioned for audiences. I don’t think that the French producers need worry about plagiarism charges.

The main similarity is that the central character is a girl, Lara, who grows up with deaf parents and from an early age she must ‘translate’ for them with officialdom. When she is 8 she is given a clarinet by her aunt Clara and she will eventually decide that she wants to train as a professional musician and therefore needs to audition for a conservatory. Beyond these two central features, the narratives of the two films are quite different and where La famille Bélier is primarily a comedy and a ‘feelgood film’, Beyond Silence is a family drama.

The family drama comes about mainly because of the antagonism between Lara’s father Martin and his sister Clara. Their family is middle-class with tensions about Martin’s deafness (with bad advice for the parents) and Clara’s pursuit of music (a frivolous career?). The adult Clara hasn’t had a child, her relationship with Gregor is not going well and she possibly sees Lara as a kind of surrogate musical daughter (a position which she knows will anger Martin). There are important flashbacks to Martin and Clara as children in the 1960s and family history weighs heavily. Lara’s mother Kai is on the outside of this and she doesn’t appear to have a family. When later she gives birth to a second girl, also with hearing, things seem to look up.

One of the ‘users’ on IMDB suggests that Beyond Silence is a kind of German ‘problem picture’. I can understand the suggestion but I think that it’s more that this is a family drama, pushed further towards the art cinema end of the spectrum. There is tragedy in the film, which Martin foolishly suggests is partly Lara’s fault, and the ending is positive but not conclusive. It really is that this is a story in which things happen much as they might do to anyone outside of studio genre movies.

Tatjana as the young Lara.

Tatjana Trieb as the young Lara.

Because the narrative spans ten years, the producers had the problem that Lara had to be played by two actors, one 8 years-old and the other 18. Tatjana Trieb and Sylvie Testud sound as if they are both too old (Testud being 24?) but they are both convincing and the transition works. All the other adult family roles have to age 10 years and again this works OK. Lara’s parents are played by deaf actors. Howie Seago is American and Emmanuelle Laborit is French. The search for authenticity meant that Emmanuelle Laborit was possibly too young for the role (she is roughly the same age as Sylvie Testud who plays her 18 year-old daughter). Again, I didn’t notice this and it wasn’t a problem but it does point to casting issues with deaf actors. (Testud was also born in France.)

The film was co-written by Caroline Link and Beth Serlin and directed by Link. One of the arguments for the casting of La famille Bélier was that major stars were needed to promote the film widely. Most of the cast for Beyond Silence were not well-known actors, never mind ‘stars’. It was Link’s first feature film as director. Through screenings at festivals the film began to pick up many awards and was eventually selected as Germany’s entry for the Foreign Language Oscar. It didn’t win but five years later Link did win the Oscar with her third film Nowhere in Africa (Nirgendwo in Afrika, 2001). Beyond Silence finally got a limited release in the UK in 1999. The Arrow DVD eventually appeared in 2010 and should still be available. In Europe, Beyond Silence attracted nearly 2 million cinema admissions, mostly in Germany and Switzerland. Surprisingly it doesn’t seem to have been released in France.

I’ve seen some criticism of Beyond Silence on the grounds that it doesn’t explore enough what Lara’s success/musical talent means for her parents. There is some justification in the charge, even if the deaf/hearing relationship is explored a little more via Lara’s romance with a deaf teacher – a man who has hearing himself, but who is the son of a deaf father. Compared to La famille Bélier, Beyond Silence lacks the emotional immediacy of the French comedy, partly because the clarinet music is less easy to engage with and we, the audience, don’t see much of Lara learning it, whereas much of the comedy of La famille Bélier comes from the choir rehearsals. On the other hand, Beyond Silence offers a more nuanced view of what the situation means for the young woman at the centre of the narrative.

Des informs me that there is an Indian film with a similar theme, so I’ll pursue that one soon.

German trailer:

West (Westen/Lagerfeuer, Germany 2013)

Alexei and Nelly

Alexei (Tristan Göbel) and Nelly (Jördis Triebel)

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

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

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

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

Nelly confronts John Bird (Jacky Ido)

Nelly confronts John Bird (Jacky Ido)

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

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

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

Further thoughts on Phoenix (Germany 2014)

A move towards expressionism?  Christian Petzold's 'Yella' (2014)

A move towards expressionism? Christian Petzold’s ‘Phoenix’ (2014)

Christian Petzold is no stranger to dealing with the idea of ghosts. Even though this film differs significantly from his earliest films, and forms part of the recent ones which have dealt with aspects of Germany history very much in the vein of the vergangenheitsbewaltigung tradition, there are resonances with his Ghost trilogy which gained him such International visibility as one of the Berlin School of filmmakers. These were directors, such as Petzold, Christoph Hochhäusler (Unter dir die Städt reviewed here), Thomas Arslan (an interview from 2011 here) and Angela Schanalec ( a trailer for Orly (2011) here). A disparate group but who all looked forward towards and at a modern Germany and the challenges faced in the new constitution of Europe. Thus, the first feature in the trilogy Die Innere Sicherheit (The State I’m In) dealt with what life was like as the daughter of two ex-terrorists (implicitly from something like the Red Army Faction) constantly on the run and never allowed to settle or make relationships. Similarly, Gespenster (Ghosts) cast Julia Hummer as a young, rootless girl trying to survive in Berlin. In Yella, Nina Hoss gives an eerie performance as a woman trying to move from the economically-deprived East to the more affluent West. Without giving any of the details of these plots away, Petzold’s characters definitively experience what it is like to be ghosts within the new economic Europe and to be a shadow within your own life. Watching Hoss play the role of Nelly in Phoenix, returning to her old life from the camps, was a further revelation of this theme with melodramatic intensity. Nelly is a ghost in her own life, unrecognised by her own husband and forced to act as her own doppelganger. All the unsettling, psychological associations having a double are at play here as in other such narratives and a scene in the hospital where Nelly is undergoing facial surgery made direct visual reference to it. Whilst Nelly as a shadow is a cultural metaphor, Hoss captures the emotional fragility so naturalistically that her performance protects the film from being schematic or overly symbolic. It works, as Keith and Roy have said, perfectly on a thematic level. It expresses exactly what might have been the emotional dislocation of returning from such an experience to attempt to take up your old life and relationships. And that the ending works is testament to the emotional conviction in the playing – from Hoss and Zehrfeld but, importantly, also from Nina Kunzendorf who offered such a convincing protective warmth and love – and a different response to circumstances – as Nelly’s devoted Jewish friend. The ending of the film, as Keith and Roy say, is incredibly moving, retaining an emotional ambiguity whilst being so satisfying. It generally reached back, for me, to Fassbinder in a way I haven’t know Petzold do so much before especially the post-war relationship in The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979).  Weren’t the nightclub scenes quite parodic – with an uncomfortable sense of victors moving in to take the place of Nazis? 

Some reviews have talked about Petzold employing naturalism. I tend not to agree. Petzold uses his landscapes and his characters to create parables and to explore moral issues quite overtly and schematically. His style is better described as restrained and resists visual or aural excess but it does not lack elements of fantasy or melodrama. He often relies on the controlled intensity of actors such as Hoss or underplaying in performance in very extreme, narrative circumstances (as happens in Barbara (2012) or Jerichow (2008)). Part of what is fascinating about his work for me is this exploration of how to marry these disparate kinds of styles of expression. His collaboration with Harun Farocki – the great social documentarian –goes back to his film school days where Farocki taught him. Farocki was an inspirational documentarian on social issues as they related to the modern economic world. In returning to themes of the post-war era, crafting what some see as very conventional dramas for an international market (and therefore see Petzold as reneging on some of his principles) do these two collaborators suggest there is unfinished business there that can no longer be resisted?