This is the highest profile film in my selection, winner of the Silver Bear at Berlin this year. I chose it partly because Nick Lacey had written about Happy Hour (2015) on this blog, the five hours plus earlier film by Hamaguchi Ryûsuke. I didn’t think I’d make it through the five hours but at only two this more recent film looked doable. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is an odd title that conjures up for me a different kind of film than that offered here. The original Japanese title is ‘Coincidence and Imagination’ which is a little more helpful. It’s a compendium or anthology film comprising three separate episodes each written and directed by Hamaguchi. The characters and settings are different in each short film. In each case the narrative is built around strained meetings and conversations, behind which are other relevant relationships.
Episode 1 ‘Magic (or Something Less Assuring)’ deals with two twenty-something female friends. The coincidence in this case turns out to be that Tsugumi meets a man and they appear to fall for each other almost immediately (thus the ‘magic’). But as Meiko listens to her friend’s story she realises that this is Kazua who was once her boyfriend. What will she do? Will she tell Tsugumi and if so, how? Is she jealous? Does she still love Kazua? Episode 2 ‘Door Wide Open’ is rather different. Nao, a mature university student who is married with a small child takes another, younger, student as her lover. They have both taken a French course with Professor Segawaya who always keeps his office door ‘wide open’, mindful of harassment charges. The young man has been held back in class by the Professor and seeks revenge. When the Professor wins a prestigious prize for his novel, the young man dreams up an entrapment plan which he forces his partner to carry out. But what can she do when the door is always wide open and any passing student or staff could look in?
Episode 3 ‘Once Again’ involves only two characters, but there are other missing characters who are important to the narrative. Natsuko returns to her home city of Sendai to attend a high school reunion of the class of 1998. She hasn’t been back for twenty years since she started work in Tokyo and she discovers that she doesn’t know anybody, until a woman does recognise her but Natsuko can’t remember her name. Next day on her way to the station she sees another woman on the escalator. Is this her old lover? After an entertaining chase around the escalator the two women manage to find each other. But will this ‘reunion’ work out? They go to the woman’s house to make tea. This last episode has a ‘speculative fiction’ aspect to it in that the world has experienced a computer virus which has caused personal files on computers to be dispatched to contacts, sharing secrets and causing disruption. Hamaguchi made this episode after COVID struck and this idea was his response.
There are several notable aspects of each of these encounters. Most of the ‘action’ is simply a conversation between two people and in one case the two characters are framed in a continuous two-shot for what seems like several minutes with sustained dialogue. To do this, the actors must be very well prepared and at ease with shooting. Hamaguchi discussed acting in his online Introduction and in the Q&A. He stresses that his main motivation was working with his actors and he outlined his methods. What was most interesting for me was his revelation that it was his prior production experience on documentaries that enabled him to understand the issue of anxiety on a shoot, both for himself and the actors or the subjects of the narrative. He works with all the actors together on their lines, repeating them so many times that they internalise the words and relax.
As to the three scenarios, he argues that he thought about seemingly impossible set-ups and how the characters might react to the events in realistic ways. Of the three episodes I found the second most gripping because it generated an erotic tension and the third the most interesting in the way the script developed what seemed a not unusual occurrence when two people meet and they are not sure whether they know each other or who the other person is. What happens is very interesting. The first episode was in some ways the most conventional scenario, but even so did hold my attention because of the quality of the performances.
What surprised me about this film was that I assumed it would feel slow with long conversations but I was very surprised to discover just how quickly the time had flown by because I was so engrossed. Hamaguchi’s work has been compared by international critics to several other directors but mostly I think to Eric Rohmer. He himself mentions the French New Wave plus John Cassevetes and his film Husbands (US 1970) as a major influence. These comparisons represent high praise but the startling thing is that Hamaguchi completed a second film in 2021 and it is also in the LFF programme. Ride My Car (2021), adapted from a Murakami short story is the Japanese Oscar entry for 2022 (and it won the Cannes screenplay this year). It must be very good. One of our regular correspondents, John, has seen it, however, and stated that for him it dragged a little during its three hour running time. I’ll be interested to see it after watching Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy. It does seem that with these two films, Hamaguchi is being accepted as the latest international auteur to emerge from Japan.
The technical credits of Wheel of Fortune are all strong but I’d like to pick out the cinematography of Iioka Yukiko which is a crucial element in the success of the acting. I thought the ‘light classical’ piano soundtrack was effective but it doesn’t appear to be credited. I don’t want to pick out any of the actors, all of them were very good for me, though studying performances and following subtitles does mean missing some facial expressions and gestures as the BFI host of the screening Hyun Jin Cho suggested. I realise that I haven’t emphasised that in both Happy Hour and Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, Hamaguchi has presented female-led stories about women’s desire, but without any sense that this is unusual. This shouldn’t need to be said but still seems necessary. I enjoyed this film very much, especially the opportunity to explore these scenarios.
Modern Films have acquired this film for UK and Ireland distribution. I recommend seeing it and discussing the scenarios. Would you act differently in the same situation as these characters?
Bank Holiday is notable for several reasons. It’s an early directorial effort from Carol Reed, borrowed from ATP for a Gainsborough production. It’s also an early outing for Margaret Lockwood, already looking ‘smashing’ and an experienced ‘leading lady’, but not yet the huge star she became in the 1940s – it was the third of her seven films made with Carol Reed. In her autobiography she argues that the success of this film made her a real film star in the UK. The photography is by Arthur Crabtree who would go on to become a major director at Gainsborough Studios. The strong supporting cast includes several notable players including Kathleen Harrison in her ‘Cockney’ persona. The film is a comedy-drama mixed with a romance. (In the US the film was retitled Three on a Weekend with one sequence excised to comply with the Hollywood Production Code.)
The first half of the film perhaps provided the model for the later propaganda picture Millions Like Us (1943) with its depiction of a seaside holiday in Brighton (disguised here as ‘Bexborough’). Reed and Crabtree offer us an almost documentary record of the British working-class August Bank Holiday (which was thensensibly at the start of August, rather than the end as currently). I particularly enjoyed the sequence at the London railway terminus (presumably meant to be Victoria). There are two, for me, unusual features of the film. The first is the casting (with top billing) of John Lodge, possibly for the US market. I confess that I wasn’t aware of Lodge as an actor and an American ‘blue-blood’. Lodge was a tall man with a severe demeanour and a face seemingly etched from marble. I’m not surprised that his biggest role was opposite Marlene Dietrich in Joseph von Sternberg’s The Scarlett Empress in 1934, early in his short acting career. Later he appeared in several British films plus a French production but he gained a naval commission in 1942 and never returned to acting. He was part of the two great New England families, the Lodges and the Cabots, and after the war he became first a US Senator and then Governor of Connecticut. When the Republicans returned to power in 1968 he moved into diplomacy as an American Ambassador. With his background, Bank Holiday sounds an unlikely production on which to utilise his talents. In fact Lodge as ‘Stephen Howard’ provides the serious drama which to some extent bookends the comedy and romance. As the film opens, he is waiting for the birth of his first child and his wife is being tended by hospital nurse Catharine Lawrence (Margaret Lockwood). The birth is difficult and the mother dies. Catharine is very moved by Stephen’s distress but like so many other workers in London, she is expecting on this Saturday lunchtime to travel to the seaside with her boyfriend Geoffrey (Hugh Williams). Can she enjoy the Bank Holiday with Stephen’s despair hanging over her? On her train journey we meet the other characters who provide the two main comic adventures.
Kathleen Harrison plays the mother of three young children, travelling with her not very supportive husband. This Lancashire actor (born in Blackburn) solidified her persona as a cheerful Cockney character in the post-war ‘Huggets family’ films at Gainsborough, starting with Holiday Camp in 1947 (which is also ‘topical’ in detailing the post-war surge in holiday camps). The other main comic narrative in Bank Holiday features René Ray as Doreen, the winner of the ‘Miss Fulham’ beauty contest hoping to win a prize in a contest at the Grand Hotel in Bexborough. With her is her friend Milly (Merle Tottenham) and this narrative also plays on the social class differences as all the film’s characters end up at the Grand Hotel for various reasons. (There is an interesting glimpse into the world of ‘girls’ papers’ discussed by Doreen and Milly at the newsstand in this piece from the Jill Craigie Project.) The original story idea and final script for Bank Holiday were written by Rodney Ackland (with Hans Wilhelm and Roger Bruford). This was Ackland’s first major success and he went on to have a hand in many more stories and scripts.
I’m interested in Bank Holiday partly because it seems like Gainsborough’s answer to ATP’s success with Sing As We Go (1934) starring Gracie Fields on her trip to Blackpool. Fields was the biggest British female star of the 1930s and Blackpool was Brighton’s main rival as the premier seaside resort. I’m biased in favour of Blackpool, but I’m intrigued by some of the Brighton footage, especially the outdoor swimming pool which I’m assuming was the Black Rock Pool. The 1930s was the age of the Lido in the UK, with 180 built between 1930 and 1939 (see the history of Grange-over-Sands lido). Margaret Lockwood in 1938 couldn’t match Fields, but she was at the top by 1945. They were, however, very different kinds of film star. Lockwood could sing but I don’t think she did in films?
The film’s script cleverly brings the three narratives together through the Grand Hotel (and the idea of the ‘dirty weekend’ as Geoffrey finally gets a room with a double bed for his girlfriend Catharine). I find the tonal shift between the drama of Catharine’s concern for Stephen and the comedy of the Brighton adventures to be startling and Stephen’s behaviour at the hospital is shocking by modern day standards but it doesn’t seem to have bothered the 1938 audiences. In some ways the film feels like a war-time picture with its tragedy and comedy mix and the fears of war are presented through newspaper hoardings. Reed and his crew are I think quite brave in the way that they represent dreams and interior thoughts, such as Catharine’s about Stephen as she handles the cigarette lighter that he left behind at the hospital. Linden Travers has the small but significant role as Stephen’s dead wife Ann. The first occasion, when Catharine thinks about Stephen is presented, I think, as a parallel narrative, with Stephen staring into the Thames while Catharine gazes into the sea. The second longer sequence, when Catharine plays with the lighter, offers something I haven’t seen before. Catharine’s thoughts about Stephen conjure up a flashback to Stephen and Ann together watching a royal event which could be the Coronation of George VI in 1937. Has anyone else seen this kind of narrative device? Does it have a special name?
But above all this is Margaret Lockwood’s film. She went to Hollywood soon after her next film, The Lady Vanishes for Alfred Hitchcock, but she didn’t enjoy her time at 20th Century Fox (Fox had a ‘star-exchange’ scheme with Gainsborough and Ms Lockwood found herself playing opposite Shirley Temple rather than Tyrone Power as she hoped. After a second Hollywood production loaned out to Paramount she came back to the UK with her husband just a few weeks before war broke out in 1939.
Here’s the Talking Pictures TV trailer for Bank Holiday:
Wife of a Spy won the Best Director prize for Kurosawa Kiyoshi at Venice in 2020. It’s an unusual film in several ways. Kurosawa, well-known mainly as a horror/crime genre director from the 1990s and early in his career in the 1980s as a director of pinku eiga and roman porno films for Nikkatsu before the studio’s collapse, now offers a different kind of genre film distributed by the revived Nikkatsu. Wife of a Spy is a co-production between independents and NHK, the PSB (public service broadcaster) in Japan. NHK required the production to use 8K digital cameras so that the film would become an experimental/promotional vehicle for the technology. I didn’t know this until after the screening but I did notice that the HD print streaming on MUBI was sometimes very cold and bright, but at other times cinematographer Sasaki Tatsunosuke used shallow focus to blur backgrounds and sometimes low light (?) to produce a grainier image.
The only other Kurosawa film that I’ve seen which shares some of the same elements is Tokyo Sonata (Japan 2008). That film too had appeared at major festivals and was treated as an arthouse film for cinema distribution whereas Kurosawa’s genre films were generally only on DVD in the UK. Like Tokyo Sonata the new film is a melodrama of sorts but it also plays with the spy film, the mystery film, the marriage drama etc. The setting is the city of Kobe (Kurosawa’s home town), Japan’s second-largest port on the Bay of Osaka in 1940-41. Fukuhara Yusaku is a wealthy and still relative young man, running his own textile trading company. The first few scenes introduce the main characters. In a long shot sequence, a British businessman is arrested by the kenpeitai (military police responsible for security). An angry young man, Fukuhara’s nephew Fumio, protests. Then in his office Fukuhara receives a visit from the ‘squad leader’ of the kenpeitai. This turns out to ‘Taiji’, a childhood friend of Fukuhara’s wife Satoko, offering a ‘friendly’ but formal warning about the arrested spy who is a client of Fukahara. Finally we meet Satoko, masked and stealing something from a safe. She is caught by a young man, who turns out to be Fumio. We hear ‘one more time’ and realise that this an amateur film shoot organised by Yusaku.
The quartet introduced in this way offer the basis for a family melodrama of some kind Taiji still has feelings for Satoko, though his embrace of the militarism of the 1930s is a problem. The real ‘disruption’ which pushes the narrative forward is Yusaku’s decision to visit Manchuria on business in early 1941, taking Fumio with him. After his return Satoko becomes suspicious when she realises that something happened in Manchuria, which by 1941 was formally a puppet state of Imperial Japan and one which after years of Japanese occupation and repression of the Chinese population was seen as a valuable colonial territory in Japan. At this point it is perhaps helpful to correct some of the initial reviews of the film. Satoko is not an ‘actress’, she is a bored wife of a wealthy man. 1940 is not ‘before the Second World War’, Japan had been active in different ways in China since 1905 and the full-scale Sino-Japanese War began in 1937. Elsewhere in East Asia, events were influenced by the war in Europe, so at one point in the film, Satoko and Yusaku go the cinema and watch a newsreel in which a large Japanese fleet arrives in Saigon in June 1941, ostensibly to help support Vichy France to defend Indochina. The ‘Pacific War’ didn’t start until Pearl Harbour but much had already happened by then.
The critics liked the film at Venice but there have been negative comments since. Some of these refer to the slow pacing of many scenes. The Hitchcock references used in MUBI’s introduction don’t help even if I can see why Hitchcock is invoked. The image of Satoko at the safe reminds me of Marnie (1964) but the obvious reference is to Notorious and the marriage between Ingrid Bergman’s and Claude Rains’ characters. The title ‘Wife of a Spy’ also perhaps suggests a Hitchcock narrative since the famous Hitchcock ‘romance thriller’ often hinges on the trust or lack of it between the two central characters. But in the end the reference isn’t very useful. I think there is a real emotional depth to some of the scenes between Satoko, Yusaku and Taiji. I suppose there is even a ‘MacGuffin’ of sorts in the form of a document Yusaku brings back from Manchuria and also a murder mystery at one point. Even so, Kurosawa seems to be attempting something else. Whatever possessed large numbers of Japanese to embrace militarism in the 1930s comes up here against personal relationship and codes of honour. There is also a strong sense of the dilemma for the Japanese middle-class (i.e. those with some control over their lives because of social position and/or wealth). Should they fight the West or embrace its culture? Taiji warns Satoko and Yusaku that their attachment to Western dress (and drinking Scotch not Japanese whisky) marks them out. The only escape for the couple is to trust each other and try to get to the US. But the Pacific War is on the horizon. Can they get out in time? The ending of the film will no doubt frustrate some audiences but it seems appropriate to me, ending on a beach.
Wife of a Spy works for me, primarily I think, because of the strong central performances by Aoi Yu as Satako and Takahashi Issey as Yusaku, who manage to make the marriage believable. The script is by Hamaguchi Ryûsuke and Nohara Tadashi, younger writers who I think have an earlier connection with Kurosawa. The music by Nagaoka Ryosuke has also been criticised but I found it effective. I’m intrigued most I think because of the ‘feel’ of the film as historical drama. I don’t think there are as many Japanese films about this period as there are in American or European cinemas, but I have recently noted other films from South Korea and China/Hong Kong covering the period. The 8K images have something to do with that ‘feel’, but I’m not sure what as yet. There is also the suggestion that the film could be controversial in Japan where issues about the conduct of the war, especially in China, are still sensitive. Finally, I did find some echoes of other Japanese films in Wife of a Spy. One was Grave of the Fireflies, the terrific anime from 1988, also set in Kobe. The other intriguing aspect of Wife of a Spy is the use of 9.5mm film which is central to the plot. It made me think of both the earlier Kurosawa film Cure (Japan 1997) and in some ways back to the Ringu films. I don’t want to explain these references in detail at this point but it is worth remembering that in the 1930s Japanese studios were the biggest producers of films in the world, with a studio system that rivalled Hollywood but not in export terms. Moving images had become an important part of Japanese culture and as well as the newsreel that Satoko and Yusaku watch in the cinema, there is a brief clip from the feature in the programme, a ‘Nikkatsu Talkie’, Priest of Darkness (1936) directed by Yamanaka Sadao. If you get the chance to see Wife of a Spy, I’d recommend it to you.
Alice and the Mayor is an intriguing little film that I found both interesting and enjoyable. It doesn’t appear to have been released in cinemas in the UK or US but is now streaming on MUBI in the UK. Again, as with the Indian films on MUBI, there is little in the way of extras, just one review. I wonder if it is a problem with cinephiles who don’t seem to have much interest in ‘everyday politics’? Not that this is a realist film about politics in any way but it does raise a number of questions and one or two moments did ring true for me.
The writer-director Nicolas Pariser is here making only his second feature after working as a film critic and earlier spending a fair amount of time as a postgraduate student. He reveals that the film is actually the result of melding three different story ideas and producing a final narrative that he tackles with reference to an approach associated with Éric Rohmer, Pariser’s only film tutor at the Sorbonne. Rohmer himself made a film about a Socialist mayor, L’arbre, le maire et la médiathèque in 1993.
The story is set roughly around 2014-15 during the François Hollande Presidency of France and ends with a coda set during the Macron Presidency (i.e. post 2017). The national picture is not directly relevant except that the central character of the Mayor of Lyon is a senior Socialist Party figure and therefore a potential presidential candidate. Lyon is the second or third major French city depending on how boundaries are drawn and it is interesting for me to compare it with Greater Manchester in the UK, in a similar position in terms of size and importance. Manchester too now has a mayor, Andy Burnham, a Labour Party politician. Mayors as executive (i.e. not simply ceremonial) leaders constitute a relatively new phenomenon in the UK and Burnham is now arguably the second most powerful directly elected political figure after the London mayor. ‘Paul Théraneau’ (Fabrice Luchini) probably has more direct local power in Lyon than his UK counterparts. The ‘inciting incident’ of the film’s narrative is the arrival of Alice Heimann (Anaïs Demoustier) in a new post in the mayor’s office. Slightly bewildered/bemused by what her new job might entail, Alice is informed that the mayor, a seasoned veteran of 30 years in politics, has suddenly lost the ability to think up new ideas. She is charged with stimulating his thinking as an ‘ideas woman’.
This central plot point could lead to different kinds of narratives. The casting of the talented comic actor Fabrice Luchini suggests a comedy with Alice creating mayhem with naïve, revolutionary or simply daft ideas. We are used to British and American parodies or satires of government. But though there are comic moments in Alice and the Mayor, there are also interesting references to literature, philosophy and politics which form the basis for genuine discussion. Alice is not a ‘whizz-kid’ or a ‘policy wonk’. She’s a thoughtful young woman who graduated in Lyon and has recently been studying and teaching in Oxford as a literature scholar. She isn’t pushy and is possibly a little embarrassed by her sudden elevation when the mayor begins to believe that she can really help him. Despite her embarrassment she behaves in a professional manner at all times.
Reflecting on the film after screening it, I think I can see the separate stories that Pariser has put together, or rather I can see three different stories that don’t quite match the three that Pariser mentions in the Press Notes, but I think I’m close enough. One story is about the Mayor and his relationship/friendship with Alice, one is about Alice herself as an intelligent and charming young woman who doesn’t yet know what she wants to do with her life and one is about politics as a contemporary professional practice. Pariser reveals his affection for The West Wing in his presentation of the political machinations in City Hall.
Why did I enjoy the film so much? Partly because I’ve previously enjoyed several Fabrice Luchini films and appreciated his acting skills and partly because I’m an admirer of Ms Demoustier. I knew I’d seen her before and I later realised that she has been in several films by Robert Guédiguian, the Marseilles-based director whose left politics inform his narratives, as well as playing the eponymous character in The New Girlfriend (France 2014). It’s rare these days to come across a film in which genuine political questions are raised. Alice is required to provide the Mayor with ‘notes’ each day. Concise questions, quotations and ideas to get him thinking. At one point she mentions a George Orwell quote about ‘common decency’. This is Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) in which he tries to explain what he thinks ordinary working people expect from socialism and contrasts it with the outlook of left intellectuals. Alice intends it to remind the mayor that it is very easy to become too distant from his constituents. Later on Alice talks to an old friend who remarks that some renegades in the Socialist Party have started taking ideas from Orwell and Pier Paulo Pasolini as if this is an apostasy. Alice seems to float above all of this, able to deal efficiently with most of the tasks that the Mayor sets her without becoming involved in any kind of sectarian struggle.
Perhaps the melding of three different narratives and a final coda means that it is difficult to summarise what the film is trying to say and possibly frustrating in terms of its narrative resolution. On the other hand, perhaps the film accurately conveys politics as practice as viewed by someone who approaches it from literature and philosophy? Alice gives the Mayor Rousseau’s Reveries of a Solitary Walker (1778) and Bartleby by Melville (1853) with an introduction by Gilles Deleuze. But she’s also very aware of ecological issues and able to see through the vanity projects that the Mayor’s search for new ideas is in danger of encouraging. It’s a film for politicos and philosophes but also for those of us who worry about whether Alice will find her own future happiness. Socialism might be struggling in France but surely there is hope for Alice? One last point. I can’t find any stills which deal with Alice’s life outside the Mayor’s office – I think the film’s Press Office have failed on this score.
It’s rare that I sit down to write about a film without any background information at all but Salvador is a recent film that has not been reviewed outside the Hispanic language press as far as I can see. I’m therefore reliant on Google Translate to make sense of Spanish and Latin American websites. Another shortish feature of under 90 minutes, Salvador tells a familiar tale of a middle-aged romance but situates it in a very dangerous time and place – the centre of Bogota in 1985 during action by the guerrilla forces of ‘M-19’, which included the occupation of the Ministry of Justice building in the city centre. A début feature by César Heredia Cruz, the film is inspired by the director’s own memories of his childhood and by the figure of his grandfather who was a tailor in the city. But it is a fiction, the director’s grandfather was not like the character in the film and did not react to events in the same way.
Salvador Velazquez (Héctor García) is a 46 year-old tailor. He is single and lives on his own except for his dog Laika. Each day he travels into the city centre and takes the lift up to the seventh-floor of a traditional office block and his workshop. It’s an unusual location for a tailor. He works on his own and his customers come to see him in his workshop. Salvador doesn’t have much of a social life but he visits his sister-in-law and his nephew, a university student, on most days. One day he finds there is a new lift operator in the office building, an attractive woman in her late thirties, Isabel (Fabiana Medina). Over the next few days/weeks, Salvador gradually gets to know something about Isabel, though he is slightly taken aback when she has her daughter, a school-child, with her in the lift one day. Gradually a romance develops, but at the same time, tension in the city mounts as M-19 become more of a threat. The local security forces are stopping people on the street to check ID cards and a curfew is brought in.
The romance narrative is structured as a slow but conventional courtship. Salvador is a quiet man but tall and not unattractive, especially when he smiles. Even so, he seems an unlikely partner for Isabel who is lively and adventurous. She attracts the attention of all the men in the office block. What does she want from Salvador? His name of course denotes ‘saviour’ and she is separated from her husband and worries about her daughter. But is Salvador the man for the job? Without wanting to spoil the plot development in any way I should perhaps state that though the pleasures of the romance are present in the film, the other element in the narrative remains important throughout. The film is about the real physical, and moral, difficulties of living in a city under threat of violent action by both guerrilla groups and government forces. Writer-director Cruz provides a kind of running commentary on the escalation of the conflict with snatches of news reports on the TV set in Salvador’s sister in law’s apartment, in the cafés and bars he visits and from the radio in his workshop. This is contrasted with the music that is associated with Isabel. Their early encounters include a discussion of her love for boleros. From his position high up in the city centre Salvador is also conscious of the helicopters above and the soldiers on the streets.
A tailor is an interesting character in this kind of atmosphere. Salvador has customers who might be associated with the military or the guerrillas. His is an intimate business. He deals with potentially dangerous men who he must measure accurately and fit their suits. He doesn’t usually make clothes for women, so Isabel’s entry into his workshop is provocative and creates genuine tension and excitement. Salvador is in some ways a surprising film and it marks a notable début. Colombia is a mid-range Latin-American film production centre with the potential to develop further and I enjoyed this opportunity to see a new release. Salvador plays again at HOME in Manchester on Sunday 15th August at 14.00
Christian Petzold is one of our favourite directors and Undine is a film that we couldn’t miss. It is being streamed by several platforms and I caught it on MUBI which is also offering a retrospective of Petzold’s earlier films. I was vaguely aware of the European myth and folktale/fairy tale about the water nymph Undine/Ondine, but I decided to leave my research until after I’d seen the film. I think now that perhaps I should have done the research first. On the other hand, my seeming struggle with the film narrative might simply be down to watching a streamer rather than sitting in a cinema watching the film on a big screen. Either way I still enjoyed the film and I will think about watching it again soon.
Undine is love story, a fantasy and a form of social commentary/historiography about Berlin. Its echoes in Petzold’s earlier work are most clearly there in Yella (2007) and also in Phoenix (2014) but there are also numerous references across European narratives more generally. Undine (Paula Beer) is a historian working as a freelance lecturer at a museum in Berlin. She delivers talks based on the dioramas of Berlin’s architecture at different periods in its history. We only hear snippets of her talks but that’s enough to learn something about the history of the city and especially its beginnings as a settlement built on a marsh. The modern city straddles the River Spree and much of it is given over to trees, parks and water. An eventful day sees Undine breaking up with her lover Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) and then meeting Christof (Franz Rogowski), an industrial diver who works maintaining underwater installations such as pipeworks etc. Christof and Undine rapidly fall in love but there is a lingering sense that Undine may not have finished with Johannes completely.
It’s difficult to discuss Undine without spoiling particular scenes which I have no desire to do, so I’ll limit myself to more general comments. The film has been generally well-received by critics but, even more than some earlier Petzold films, it poses problems for audiences. What is it ‘about’ and how should we approach a reading? My feeling is that it is definitely a love story and it is also saying something about history, the ‘layering’ of historical events and their changing interpretations over time. Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of films like this is the blending of a form of realist filmmaking with elements of fantasy in the narrative. Some audiences embrace this eagerly, others find it too difficult and it often becomes a reason to dismiss films. It is also something which spills over into the distinction between ideas about art cinema and commercial genre cinema. A good, relatively recent, example of a film which presents similar problems might be Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water (US 2017). OK, that film won 4 Oscars as a more obvious fantasy, but it represents an attempt to use fantasy as a vehicle to explore culture and social commentary. Petzold has been classified as part of the ‘Berlin School’ of German directors, a loose grouping that refers to directors who trained in Berlin in the 1990s and became recognised in the international art and festival film market from the 2000s on wards. One shared feature of the films of several of the directors is a depiction of life in contemporary Germany, often in Berlin itself (e.g. in some of the films of Angela Shanelec). Petzold constructs narratives presented in realist terms, but often drawing on intertextual references to other films, literature or historical events or periods. Yella concerns a young woman from former East Germany who travels to the West, becoming involved with the airless world of advanced capitalism – but is she really there, is she what she seems? I was reminded in that film of the introduction of ghosts in Japanese cinema which began to appear in realist environments in J-horror films of the late 1990s and early 2000s. In Phoenix, Petzold drew inspiration from a French novel that first became a British film. He transferred the narrative to a setting in the immediate post-war rubble of Berlin, thus perhaps stressing the generic ‘rubble-film’ as his realist base for what is a preposterous but highly engaging story.
After thinking about Undine for a long time, and reading many reviews, I’ve finally managed to get a handle on my own reading of the film. The myth of the nymph is present across many cultures and is probably most familiar via the mermaid or in the Celtic/Nordic form of the ‘selkie’ (seal-woman). The German folk tale of Undine appears to derive first from the work of the Swiss philosopher Paracelsus and was then formulated as a fairy tale novella in 1811 by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué as an example of German romanticism. In 1811 Berlin was the capital of Prussia – previously it had been the capital of Brandenburg. After 1871 it became the capital of Germany with the founding of the nation state. The layering of Berlin’s identities is represented in the museum which offers the dioramas of Berlin’s building phases described in her lectures by Undine. Petzold has been particularly scathing about the development of contemporary Berlin which attempts to sterilise the past even while presenting this history. A few years ago this might have been discussed as an an example of postmodernism. The romanticism of the Undine myth then becomes a disruptive force that constantly reminds us of the past. It also powers the love between Undine and Christof which negates the sterility of the recent urban development. It is this tension which makes the narrative so fascinating for me.
But I’m also bowled over by the romance itself. Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski are terrific together, even more so than in Transit (2018). I’ve been impressed with Rogowski since I saw him in his lead role In the Aisles (2018). Paula Beer blew me away with her performance in Frantz (2016) by François Ozon. As Undine she transforms herself again, making the most of her role as a freelance historian. She seems to be both efficient and organised but also hinting that she has come from ‘another place’ – and is about to go back there. As a reviewer remarked, her appearance in a white blouse and dark skirt and shoes is formal in the museum but her loose hair and slight dishevelment also indicates her fluidity. She won Best Actress when Undine screened at the Berlinale in 2020. I was intrigued to read that Beer was recommended to Petzold by Nina Hoss who featured in six of Petzold’s previous films. Petzold has hinted that one day Hoss and Beer might appear together. That would certainly be worth seeing. Petzold has spoken a great deal about Undine and here’s a quote from a Cineuropa interview:
Undine made me think of the relationship between directors and main actresses as well as the one between muses and artists. Isn’t it a sort of perpetual betrayed love for all the Undines of this world? Don’t men always dominate everything? It’s not that Undine wins in the story; she has to go back in the water and wait for the next man to come along. She exists only through men, and that is a horrible curse. Our story aims to explore an Undine who is struggling against this. Then along comes a man, a proletarian, an industrial diver, who interferes with the curse. He is not suspicious; he’s innocent and for the first time seems to see her primarily without any sexual desire and without wanting to dominate her. This is new for her, and a path to a new world seems possible.
I hope all these attempts to read the film don’t put you off. Undine is one of the best films I’ve seen since the lockdown began. It requires ‘work’ but it’s very much worth the effort. It is available to buy or rent from many outlets.
In this clip from the film we get a subtle reference to the underlying theme to the film and we experience the moment when Undine is with her new lover and sees her old lover: