Category: German Cinema

GFF20 #10: The Audition (Das Vorspiel, Germany 2019)

Anna attempts to stimulate the playing of her tutee by asking her own son to play a duet – he’s not keen

Nina Hoss is a star and a very talented actor and I have enjoyed all her work with Christian Petzold. Now it seems she is keen to support the work of German women as directors and I was excited to see how The Audition, one of two films Hoss made with women in 2019, would pan out. The film was co-written and directed by Ina Weisse, an actor who has now directed three features. Her co-writer here was Daphne Charzani.

 

The Audition is a complex drama about music and the passion of expert performers. It’s also about tuition and pedagogy and the emotional intimacy of one on one tuition. All of this concerns Anna (Nina Hoss), a violinist who has had to abandon an orchestral career because of anxiety about her playing and who now teaches in a music school in Berlin. Anna is married to a French luthier, Philippe ( Simon Akbarian), who works beneath their apartment and she has a son, Jonas (Serafin Mishiev) who is clearly also a talented musician but as a young teenager is beginning to rebel against his mother. Finally, Anna also has a caring responsibility for her elderly father. It’s a great deal to contend with, especially when Anna takes on a new student, Alex (Ilja Monti), and when she has an offer to join a string quintet led by a fellow teacher.

Anna and Philippe. Photo Judith Kaufmann Lupa Film

 

Female-centred melodramas often feature the woman who has to be wife, lover, mother and daughter but here she must try and be teacher and performer as well. Nina Hoss can manage to represent all of these challenges and she is supported by the script, the ensemble of other players and the direction. Watching the film I had a real sense of just how complex and intelligent was the script and how much Nina Hoss had to express herself through posture and gesture. In an interview she revealed that she could play the piano but had to learn how to hold the violin and how to use the bow. I also thought about how much high art culture seems to be venerated in Germany and other countries of mainland Europe for its own qualities and not, as sometimes in the UK, because of social cachet. I’m not knowledgeable about classical music but I was engaged by the intracacies of the music teaching processes here. I’ve seen some reviews that mention similar American films like Whiplash. I haven’t seen that film but I did think about several European films. Two that sprung to mind were Vier Minuten (Four Minutes, Germany 2006) and La tourneuse de pages (The Page Turner, France 2006). Both of these films share elements about tuition and performance with The Audition, although all three titles offer different narratives. Crucially they all deal with passion related to music and tuition.

Anna joins a string quintet

The Audition is a good example of a contemporary melodrama. The music drives the passion which in turn needs a release in Anna’s sexual behaviour but also causes an anxiety. There is a great deal happening in the narrative which is difficult to sort out and analyse after a single viewing. Anna finds herself in some form of ‘contest’ with a range of male figures – her husband, father and son, her tutee and two of her colleagues at the music school. Unusually for a female-centred melodrama she doesn’t have a close female friend and the two women she does communicate with are both in some way competitors. One intriguing aspect of the interpretation of Anna concerns the costumes that Nina Hoss wears. One reviewer refers to them as ‘matronly’ and it’s true that I did notice the lack of glamour. There also seems to be a tension between the elegance that Nina Hoss brings to any role and the awkward stances taken up by Anna on occasion. An issue with her skirt also adds to her anxiety at one moment.

As the audition deadline looms Anna begins to become more anxious and pushes Alexander harder

In many traditional melodramas the woman who has ‘too much’ passion is ‘punished’ in some way by the resolution of the narrative – a punishment that brings her back ‘into line’. We hope that we’ve moved on from that ideological position and the resolution of the narrative in this film is much more complex. It is a very dramatic ending and it isn’t necessarily all about Anna. In one sense she triumphs but in another she fails. There are consequences for several other characters. 

This is certainly one of the best dramatic narratives I’ve seen for some time and I’m still processing it. I’ve read several reviews that I don’t agree with on a range of points. It was sheer joy to watch Nina Hoss present the complex world of Anna Bronsky. The good news is that distributors New Wave have acquired the title for UK distribution but no details of a release are available yet. When it does appear I hope to be able to use it in teaching.

The clip released for Toronto below shows a short scene between husband and wife. The German trailer (no English subs) gives a better impression of the range of incidents in the film.

Little Joe (Austria-UK-Germany 2019)

Chris (Ben Whishaw) and Alice (Emily Beecham) in the laboratory greenhouse

Little Joe was funded by a range of European public funding agencies and is now distributed in the UK by the British Film Institute. Its profile within the European film world is based on its Austrian director Jessica Hausner’s previous Cannes screenings and its Cannes 2019 Best Actor prize for Emily Beecham. But apart from a handful of critics, the film audience has not taken to it – at the time of writing it has a 5.9 score on IMDb. I think the problem is that the film falls into a contemporary bear-trap – the sense for audiences that an arthouse director is making a genre film but not carrying through the expectations they have for that specific genre. It’s a different version of the problem which also affects The Lighthouse.

‘Little Joe’ is the name given by a senior ‘plant breeder’ to a new plant she has created as part of a project to develop a house plant that will produce excessive amounts of pollen and a very distinctive smell.  The project team believe that inhaling the smell will be calming and will promote ‘happiness’ – thus tying in to the latest ‘wellness’ craze, though nobody mentions that in a film shot in 2018. The plant name refers to Alice Woodard’s son, Joe a young teenager who she fears she may be neglecting. As well as the central narrative about the plant, a parallel narrative explores Alice’s relationship with Joe (she is a single parent, her estranged (?) husband lives out in the wilds, in the fells). Alice is visiting a psychotherapist (Lindsay Duncan) to deal with her anxieties about parenting.

Joe and Alice with another takeaway meal

The genre narrative here is seen to belong to either horror or science fiction/speculative fiction and most critics and audiences seem to have assumed that this is a re-imagined version of the famous Body Snatchers novel (1955) by Jack Finney which has been adapted four times by Hollywood. Although I read this suggestion before I saw Little Joe, I forgot about it completely and instead thought about a range of other horror/SF narratives. Two Ira Levin novels sprang to mind, both of which later became Hollywood hits – Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Stepford Wives (1974). These may seem peculiar references but the key element is the fear that all of us feel when we think that somebody we know well still looks the same, but that they seem now to be somebody else. This sense of paranoia makes for a quiet but devastating psychological thriller. I was pleased to discover that the writer-director (with co-writer Géraldine Bajard) was aiming precisely for this:

. . . our concern was to create an atmosphere within the scenes that allows the audience to question the integrity of the characters involved.

We wanted to offer different ways of interpreting what is happening: the so-called changes in people can either be explained by their psycho­logical state of mind, or by the pollen they have inhaled. Or alternatively, those ‘changes’ do not exist at all and are only imagined by Bella [the first of the breeders to notice something] or Alice. (from the Press Notes)

The issue for audiences here appears to be that, first, the narrative moves at a glacial pace and there isn’t as much ‘plot’ as we would expect from a genre horror/SF film and second that because we know the story we can predict the next event. I don’t buy this, partly because I’m quite happy to accept the arthouse approach. Hausner herself offers a conversation in the Press Notes with a neuroscientist to suggest that the basis of her narrative is at least plausible. Plants do contain chemicals which humans choose to ingest in various ways and which we accept as behaviour-changing and mood-altering (cannabis and nicotine are just two examples). The horror factor in this narrative is terrifying because the film doesn’t have a clear resolution. In all the Invasion of the Bodysnatcher films at least we know that the pod people are replacing humans. In this film we never know if it is actually dangerous to inhale the pollen. Have we changed? Or, because we are happy, do we just not notice?

The film’s colour palette is presumably created with this red of the mature plant as a starting point

My gripe with the film is not with the ideas, the arthouse pacing or the complex relationship to genre, but with the aesthetics of the film. The costumes are designed by the director’s sister Tanja who has worked on Jessica Hausner’s previous films and those of the Austrian auteur Ulrich Seidl. I found them ugly especially in their cut and in the clashing pastel shades designed for the overall colour palette of the film. But I can see that they help to create the sterile world of the plant breeders. They are matched by the camerawork of Martin Gschlacht and Hausner’s decision to use some of the avant-garde Japanese music of Teiji Ito (1932-1981). Ito is credited with melding traditional music from noh and kabuki theatrical forms with American avant-garde music. Hausner came across his work because of his collaborations with Maya Deren (who he married at the end of her life). This music has been one of the most disturbing/irritating aspects of the film for some audiences, especially those expecting a conventional horror/SF score (even though conventional scores for such genre films do sometimes use unusual musical forms). Finally, it is important to add to the aesthetic mix, the acting styles that Hausner has urged some of her well-known actors to adopt. I find it difficult to describe this style other than to say that it feels stilted and unnatural. I did wonder if any of it was associated with this being Hausner’s first film in English, but I would have expected the actors to have overcome any issues with the script. It must be deliberate and is most apparent in scenes which would otherwise carry emotional force such as those between Alice and Chris (Ben Whishaw) and between Alice and her son and his girlfriend.

There were times watching Little Joe when I was strongly reminded of Peter Strickland’s In Fabric. That film has the same sense of ‘timelessness’ – but it also has plenty of humour, violence, horror, sex and passion, all absent in Little Joe. I sound as if I am damning Little Joe, but actually I did find it intriguing and always interesting. I’m not sure why Emily Beecham won her acting award. Perhaps it was because she gave Jessica Hausner precisely the performance the director wanted? I do wonder if I’ve fallen into the trap of ‘seeing’ Alice only through a ‘male gaze’? It’s interesting that the three other female roles of the psychotherapist, the former lead plant breeder, Bella (Kerry Fox) and Joe’s girlfriend Selma (Jessie Mae Alonzo) are all characters with more vitality and emotion reflected in their costumes and acting than that of Alice.

The production, with its Austrian, British, German and French funding was shot mainly in Liverpool and North West England, Austria, Germany and the Netherlands (for the plant breeding). I have seen comments from critics complaining about ‘another Euro-pudding’ but I think the different locations add something to the ‘otherworldliness’ of the narrative. If you go in to Little Joe thinking that you will see a horror or SF genre film I expect you will be disappointed. You might enjoy it more as an art film exploring a specific set of ideas. I’m now going to try to watch Jessica Hausner’s earlier success Lourdes (Austria-France-Germany 2009) which has just popped up on MUBI in the UK. I’m expecting a similar arthouse approach but without the genre narratives.

Wings of Desire by Christian Rogowski

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Wings of Desire, Christian Rogowski, German Film Classics: Camden House 2019, ISBN 9781640140370, £12.99, 96pp

I was pleased to receive a review copy of this book, in the German Film Classics series, as I was interested if it could persuade me that a film I’d failed to complete viewing twice was actually the classic critical opinion suggested. It must be 15 years since I’d last failed to get through Wim Wenders’ film but since then I have visited Berlin so I was looking forward to re-viewing the film; but first I read the book.

Wings of Desire debuted at Cannes in 1987 and won Wenders the Best Director award. It is a portrayal of life, and Berlin, before reunification when the director was at the top of his arthouse reputation; his previous feature had been the well-regarded Paris, Texas (West Germany-France, 1984) and his role in the New German cinema of the ’70s was feted. Paris, Texas was filmed in America and one of the constant themes in Wenders’ work was the (his) relationship between Germany (Europe) and America in the post-war era. Like Godard, in the ’60s, there was a love-hate tension: the love of American culture and democratic values and the hate of its imperialism. For Godard, there was a linear progression from one half of the dichotomy to the other during the 1960s; Wenders remained conflicted, as the protagonist of Kings of the Road (Im Lauf der Zeit, West Germany, 1976) said, “The Yanks have colonised our unconsciousness.” This film was the third of the road movie trilogy; the others were Alice in the Cities (West Germany, 1974) and Wrong Turn (West Germany, 1975), all starring Rüdiger Vogler as Wenders’ ‘stand in’. Wrong Turn was scripted by Peter Handke, who also contributed to Wings of Desire and, after the revelation of Handke’s support for Slobodan Milošević’s Serbia, which hit the news again recently after his award of the Nobel Prize for Literature, casts something of a shadow over the film.

Alice in the Cities, Wenders’ best fiction film in my view, is set both in America and West Germany but of Wings of Desire, as Rogowski says:

. . . the decision to film in (West) Berlin, in German, to address specifically German issues in a highly poetic, literary, manner and to enlist the help of none other than Peter Handke . . . the film seeks to reclaim something that is authentic, significant, and unique, both to the (divided) nation as a whole and to the individual person. (18)

The ‘poetic’ emphasises the arthouse elements to Wings of Desire, where being obtuse is anything but a problem. So it is helpful that Rogowski diligently unpicks the references and offers enough context, for those who are younger, about Berlin just before the Wall came down. Although he obviously admires the film, that doesn’t prevent him having a critical gaze. The climax of the film, where Bruno Ganz’s (fallen) angel finally meets Marion (Solveig Donmartin) in the flesh, is dissected in some detail showing the problems in Handke’s script (the attempt to recoup Nazi discourse) and the uncritical celebration of heteronormative union. Rogowski is fair to Wenders as he acknowledges the last point is not something that would have been widely understood in 1986.

Donmartin and Wenders were a couple at the time of the film and (from 2020) it does look to me like an indulgent love letter to her, utilising the trope of the ‘mysterious woman’ who will ‘save’ the man (Handke names her Woman in the script but at least Wenders humanises her in the film with a name). Although I did get to the end of the film this time it was only because I forced myself. Much of my irritation was rooted in the constant reverse shot of the angel Damiel watching the world go by; Ganz is an actor I admire but I found his patronising smug smirk insufferable.

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Insufferable smug smirk

The gender politics has (inevitably) dated but that is no reason to condemn any text as all are of their time. However, I didn’t like the film when it came out so my view hasn’t changed.

Monographs on individual films are a popular publishing format; the BFI Classics and Modern Classics have been running since 1992. Their obvious strengths are offering an in-depth consideration of a film; which, of course, are also its weakness for although the monographs usually contextualise the film, the focus has to be on the text. Exactly what breadth of scope is ideal for writing about film I wouldn’t like to say; it depends upon the film, genre, director, producer and so on.

As noted, Rogowski offers an excellent guide to the film and an example of how useful he is can be seen when he points out that there is a key reference to Walter Benjamin’s philosophy of history that could be “lost on English-speaking viewers, since it is not translated in the subtitles . . . ” (68). This refers to Benjamin’s concept of the ‘Angel of History’ which witnesses (as does Damiel and his companion Cassiel, played by Otto Sander) “history as perpetual catastrophe” (69). Hence the guide does more than contextualise in that it offers clarity for non-German speakers.

Rogowski is also generally sound in his analysis of the specifically filmic elements but betrays his background, as a Professor in Language and Literature, when he questions whether two pairs of men walking in the same frame, one pair in the background, was intentional (72). Film students know that everything is assumed to be of significance.

The quality of the film stills in the book is superb; they are large enough to be seen clearly and printed on high quality paper. However, the book isn’t structured by chapters, so there’s no Contents (or index), which compromises its use as a reference book. Recommended if you (think you’ll) like the film.

LIFF 2019 #11: System Crasher (Systemsprenger Germany, 2019)

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Hannah Zengel is astonishing as Benni

The last film I saw at this year’s Leeds International Film Festival proved to be the best: it had me weeping. Are films that make you so sad that you cry the antithesis of escapism or do they (hopefully) make us feel better about our own lives and so escaping to a worse place makes us feel better? In System Crasher we are taken into the world of Benni (played with astonishing brilliance by Hannah Zengel), a traumatised nine-year-old that even the seemingly robust German social services system cannot contain. Aristotle argued that the purpose of narratives was catharsis: the audience is purged of emotion and so feels satisfied. System Crasher just left me feeling sad but, importantly, empathetic to people with mental health problems and those that try to help them. Watching a wide range of films aids empathy for others, something that our divided times lacks in many instances.

Writer-director Nora Fingscheidt has produced a gripping narrative that sees social workers trying to do their best for Benni; though there is an implicit critique of the use of drugs. Interestingly, the Variety review sees this criticism as divisive and presumably in America there is more belief in pharmacological solutions? There is a moment, early in the film, when Micha (Albrecht Schuch) takes Benni under his wing and they spend three weeks in the woods. I’m sure in an American retelling this sort-of Walden would lead to a resolution; we are in Europe and such sentimentality is thankfully absent from this film. Incidentally, Variety‘s jibe about the film not really blaming anyone, even Benni’s mum, is wide of the mark for there is a heartbreaking scene when the social worker breaks down because of the mother’s uselessness. That said, Fingscheidt does not go for designating anyone as evil; that would be too simplistic. My partner trained as a therapist and worked with disturbed children; she confirmed the utter authenticity of the portrayal of traumatised youngsters. If the film was set in the UK, no doubt, the cuts to social services by the Tory government would have also formed an impediment to helping these children.

If I have one quibble, it’s with the final freeze frame which didn’t, for me, sum up the film; that said, it opens in the UK next week and I strongly recommend it.

The only film I was disappointed by at the festival was Synonyms (Synonymes, France-Israel-Germany, 2019) where a self-indulgent male gets into various situations in Paris. At first it seemed as if it was going to be a critique of Israel, but co-writer and director Nadav Lapid eschews politics, as far as I could tell, and the film becomes a mush where everything disappoints the protagonist.