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 itself 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, she 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 naively, 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 naive, 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.
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.
I’d heard mixed reports about this film. I’ve seen some but not all of the François Ozon films released in the UK and the last two I saw, Potiche (2010) and Dans la maison (2012), were a hoot. This new film promised something rather different, being adapted from a Ruth Rendell short story. Perhaps it is a cliché but ‘continental’ adaptations of Ruth Rendell often seem much more serious/sophisticated than UK adaptations. I still remember with pleasure Almodovar’s Live Flesh (Spain 1997), Chabrol’s La Cérémonie (France 1995) and Claude Miller’s Betty Fisher and Other Stories (France 2001) – and there are more I haven’t seen.
The promotion of this film seems quite coy in the way it tries to avoid ‘spoilers‘ but to say anything sensible about the film I have to reveal the central issue. (So be warned, if you want complete surprise, DON’T READ ON.) The film begins with a stunning opening sequence, virtually without dialogue, in which we see the funeral of a young woman, Laure, and the eulogy from her best friend Claire (Anaïs Demoustier) who pledges to look out for the widowed David (Romain Duris) and the couple’s daughter Lucie who is only a few months old. The opening also gives us flashbacks to the intense relationship between Claire and Laure that began when they were small children. A few weeks after the funeral Claire visits David and is taken aback to find him dressed as a woman and feeding the baby from a bottle. He explains that by wearing a dress belonging to his wife, he is able to calm the baby. The narrative then begins to explore the relationship between Claire and David – and to deal with the complication of Claire’s husband Gilles. Things don’t quite work out as some audiences might suspect and I’ll leave it there.
Like Pedro Almodóvar, Ozon is a gay man adapting a female novelist who was herself prepared to explore all kinds of characters and relationships. Ruth Rendell is generally thought of as a crime writer but she also explored the psychology of unusual relationships. I wasn’t familiar with the short story ‘The New Girlfriend’ but I’m certainly interested in finding it now. The narrative that Ozon constructs sometimes plays like Hitchcock (especially when the score by Philippe Rombi kicks in). I’ve also seen reviews that reference Douglas Sirk. This is certainly a melodrama and it takes place in the milieu of the upper middle class. All That Heaven Allows (1955) feels like an appropriate reference. At other times the tone is comic and I also found the film to be intensely erotic in parts.
Visiting IMDB, I note both big supporters and major detractors. Two ‘users’ claim this is the worst film they’ve ever seen. I’ll put my cards on the table. I loved every minute of the film. Romain Duris is for me a major star of French cinema. I realise now that I have seen Anaïs Demoustier in several other films but up until now I hadn’t really ‘noticed’ her. Now I feel foolishly in love. What is interesting is that the film places her almost in the masculine role – she’s ‘on top’ in sexual encounters and she generally wears the trousers when David is in drag. Personally I preferred her this way – or at least with her freckles on display when ‘Virginia’ (David) is in full warpaint. You’ll gather from this that Ozon is ‘playing’ with gender identities big time. Sometimes his storytelling teeters on the edge of farce but he is in control and he’s well served by great performances from the three lead actors.
Nuff said. This is a melodrama par excellence.
A good trailer:
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?
The Last Five Years is a film musical based on an off-Broadway 2002 stage musical by Jason Robert Brown (which I hadn’t seen nor heard of until now) and directed by Richard LaGravenese (whom I only know for his screenplay for Behind the Candelabra, the Liberace biopic.) It is a musical melodrama rather than a musical comedy, largely a two-hander, about the rise and fall of a love affair and marriage. It’s the story of a young couple who fall madly in love only to be pushed apart by the complications of life and their relative success and failure in their respective careers. Cathy (Anna Kendrick) plays the small town girl trying to make it in the city as an actor and singer. She meets Jamie (Jeremy Jordan), an ambitious young writer (the “new Jonathan Frantzen” according to his agent) searching for a publishing deal. As Jamie’s new novel projects him to the top of the literary scene, Cathy is still doing summer stock musical theatre in Ohio, and their diverging levels of success pose pressing and dire challenges to their relationship.
In a way the film reminded me of the various versions of A Star Is Born in that one of a couple feels the pain of their partner’s success. But whereas A Star Is Born involves the formerly successful partner declining while the other one rises from obscurity, Cathy in The Last Five Years never actually makes it and Jamie’s success combined with Cathy’s failure poisons the relationship.
The film is structured around sixteen scenes, each based on a song, eight for Cathy, seven for Jamie and only one where they sing together in the same scene. This occurs at the halfway point where they are in Central Park and Jamie proposes to Cathy and then the scene segues to their wedding in the same location. They sing first of all separately and then in a duet, the only one in the film. The fact that they don’t sing together, with the exception of this scene, derives from the original stage musical where the two characters sing on the stage alone in alternate scenes, appearing together only in the Central Park scene. I don’t know how effective this was in the stage musical but in the transition to film it could have been problematic. As one of the couple sings, the other stays mostly silent, reacting with looks, gestures, occasional grunts and minimal verbal responses. Sometimes the problem is dealt with one of the couple speaking to the other on the telephone and we infer the other’s responses. And in one scene, the action is conveyed by a Skype conversation. It could have resulted in mannered, one-sided interactions between the characters, but overall, I found this stylistic trope strangely beguiling in the way that it embodies visually the couple growing apart.
The first scene in the film, based on Cathy’s ‘I’m Still Hurting’, (“Jamie is over and Jamie is gone / Jamie’s decided it’s time to move on / Jamie has new dreams he’s building upon / And I’m still hurting.”) tells of the end of the relationship. This revelation might be considered a spoiler; however, the film itself opens with this spoiler as it is the first scene in terms of the plot and the last of the story. (I’m referring here to the distinction between plot and story with story consisting of all the events we see, hear, and infer in chronological order; and plot as the way these events are presented to the audience and which sometimes departs from chronological order.)
After this scene I expected film would flashback to the beginning of their relationship which indeed it does with Jamie’s song, “Shiksa Goddess” but rather than continue the narrative chronologically, we cut to the penultimate scene (in terms of the story’s chronology) – “See I’m Smiling” – which marks the beginning of the end of their relationship five years later. It then reverts to Jamie’s song, ‘Moving Too Fast’, showing the relationship developing in its early stages. What becomes clear is that all of Cathy’s songs begin at the end of their marriage and move backwards to the beginning of their relationship while Jamie’s songs start at the beginning of their affair and move forward to the end of their marriage. This can be a little confusing at first but you soon grasp that it ‘s neither in chronological order nor a simple flashback. Of course this (double) departure from conventional narrative structure can be seen as gimmicky but, on balance, I found it an effective way the portray the couple drifting apart.
It is a musical as well as a drama and so performance is of paramount importance in both fields. Producers of musicals have the problem of actors who can’t sing (the film has fun at the expense of producers of musicals when Cathy expresses her frustration at a casting session of not being paid enough attention with the lines, “Why am I working so hard, these are the people who cast Russell Crowe in a musical. Christ!”) and singers who can’t act. Classic Hollywood film musicals used to solve the singing problem by providing – uncredited – dubbing for the voices of well-known actors; for example, Marnie Nixon is only recently getting the credit for her work as the voice of Deborah Kerr in The King and I, Natalie Wood in West Side Story and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. But in The Last Five Years the performers cope more than adequately (Jeremy Jordan) and much better than that (Anna Kendrick). With the exception of Into the Woods, I wasn’t too aware of Anna Kendrick as I’m not exactly the demographic for the Twilight films where she got her break as the friend of the character played by Kristen Stewart (whom I wasn’t aware of until Still Alice). An interview in the Guardian last Friday reminded me that I must have seen her with George Clooney in Up In The Air but I don’t remember her. But in this film I found both her acting and singing to be excellent. She handles the fundamentals of dramatic singing — like phrasing and placing enunciation in the right places — so well. And her acting expresses very effectively the extremes of emotion Cathy is subject to.
It helps that Cathy gets the best songs and her characterisation is more nuanced than Jamie’s. Both characters get a comedy number. Jamie’s ‘The Schmuel Song‘ – which I don’t think really worked – is a story about a tailor who achieves his dreams and, apart from cheering Cathy up after another rejection, contains a kind of ‘follow your dreams’ message. Much good it did her. Cathy’s comic song, ‘A Summer in Ohio’, relates to Jamie (by Skype) just how miserable she is while doing summer in Ohio as Jamie remains in New York. She cheerfully belts out lyrics like, “I could wander Paris after dark / Take a carriage ride through Central Park / But it wouldn’t be as nice as a summer in Ohio / Where I’m sharing a room with a former stripper and her snake, Wayne”.
Brown’s score is an eclectic mixture of musical styles drawing on a number of genres – jazz, rock, pop, Yiddish folk, ‘Sondheimian’. The songs are occasionally soulful. The best song, the break-up song that the film opens with, is quite poignant. The problem is that the subsequent songs don’t match up to this. Only a few of the songs stand out musically as opposed to being acceptable vehicles for developing the drama (though certainly no less than the much vaunted Wicked which I saw last week). This is a pity given the talent available.
Another problem for me is that, apart from a few words of spoken dialogue, it’s a sung-through musical (i.e. virtually all the dialogue sung – cf Les Misérables, Eva, Miss Saigon) and often this leads to a kind of relentlessness, depriving the audience of breathing space. One way of avoiding this is to create a soundtrack where big numbers alternate with a sort of melodic recitative with recurring musical motifs but this is not – with the exception of a section in the I’m Still Smiling scene – the approach of The Last Five Years, which is simply a sequence of songs that lack organic unity.
It seems to have been such a minimal theatrical release that it is more like an advertising campaign for its VOD release (which is where I found the film). The interview in the Guardian with Anna Kendrick I referred to above didn’t even mention the film. This is a pity as, despite the caveats I have expressed, I found the film engaging and enjoyable.
The information on the stage musical comes from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Last_Five_Years
and the film from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Last_Five_Years_(film)#Musical_numbers
Here is the UK trailer.