This film has a similar title to the classic Claude Chabrol film from 1960 (Les bonnes femmes, France-Italy) which has by chance drawn a few visitors to this blog recently. Both films have question marks about how to translate their titles into English. It’s the ‘good’ part that’s the problem. What exactly does it mean? Chabrol’s film about four working-class shopgirls received criticism at the time but has since become recognised as one of his best films. Las niñas bien is about a group of upper middle-class women in Mexico City in 1982. The film was written and directed by Alejandra Márquez Abella and most of the ‘creatives’ on the crew were also women. This was noted on the film’s first big festival appearance at Toronto in 2018 where reviewers praised the film and Márquez Abella was selected by Variety as one of its ’10 Directors to Watch’ in 2019. The film has since gone on to win prizes at festivals and was released in March in Mexico. However, I wonder how it might now be viewed by those audiences who so enjoyed Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma (2018) which deals with same world at an earlier time of crisis in 1972?
Las niñas bien is adapted from a book of essays written in the early 1980s by Maria Guadalupe Loaeza, one of a group of ‘Good Girls’, who exposed how these women spent their time and their money and how they treated each other and the others (servants, receptionists, shop staff etc. as well as the nouveau riche) who they met. In the interview below, Alejandra Márquez Abella explains how she decided to use this source material which she thinks is still relevant thirty years later as the same social class divisions remain and Mexico has suffered recurring cycles of economic ‘boom and bust’. She recognises that the original was a satire but argues that she hasn’t created a satirical film but rather a form of detailed character study looking at how these women behave and how surface appearances relate to what might be happening ‘underneath’. She feels that satire doesn’t really work in exploring this kind of world any more – there have been so many such satirical films about social class in Latin America.
I have to say that as I watched the film I was very uncomfortable. Part of me was admiring the direction, the acting, the cinematography and the production design – this is a very well-made film. But the other half was raging against these wealthy dilettantes who contribute nothing to society and look down their carefully made-up noses at the rest of Mexico and indeed the country itself. After the screening I spent a long time thinking about the film and I haven’t quite resolved the conflict in my feelings about it.
The plot of the film follows roughly a year, I think, in the life of the central character SofÍa played by Ilse Salas. This is a stunning performance and I didn’t recognise the same actor who was also very good in Güeros (Mexico 2014) in a very different role. SofÍa is a woman from, presumably, a ‘good family’ who has been advised to marry Fernando because he too is from the right kind of family. When the narrative begins SofÍ is hosting a lavish party for her birthday. Everything is ‘just right’ except that she hasn’t achieved her fantasy result in which Julio Iglesias appears as a guest (this and the references to the Spanish department store El Corte Inglés is a sign of deference to the ex-colonial power in Mexico). The next day however Fernando learns that his uncle is pulling out of the business he had started as a ‘migrant’ (from Spain?) with Fernando’s father. There is a crisis coming with the falling value of the peso and anyone who doesn’t hold dollars is in trouble. From this point Fernando is in deep trouble – and so is SofÍ. Having packed her children off to summer camp with instructions not to mix with ‘Mexicans’ (!), SofÍ seems only marginally affected by the financial crisis when her credit cards are refused and her cheques bounce.
An important parallel plotline is the appearance of Ana Paula (Paulina Gaitan) as a young woman from the country with ‘uncouth’ manners who marries a successful financier (?) and aspires to join the ‘Good Girls’. She takes SofÍ as a role model and aspires to be like her, wanting to know how to speak, what clothes to wear, how to behave. SofÍ behaves very badly towards her but gradually the tables are turned as Ana Paula becomes the dominant figure in the social life of the group.
A great deal of time is spent on clothes, make-up and interior decoration. Some commentators argue that this is unusual and shows the care and attention of a female crew. DoP Dariela Ludlow must take some of the credit for her presentation of the women alongside costume designer Annai Ramos. The film is set in the early 1980s which, from my perspective was one of the worst periods for fashion and I was reminded of Margaret Thatcher – not a pleasant memory. At the end of the film, SofÍ tears out her shoulder pads and I thought this might mark a change for the good, but the actual resolution of the narrative suggests ‘business as usual’. Earlier I mentioned a comparison with Roma. There is one shared moment between the two films when a drunken husband crashes his car into a post, but otherwise the two films are very different. Roma offers us several perspectives on Mexican society and in particular promotes the maid and the children to central roles and effectively narrators of the film. The ‘Good Girls’ marginalise both their servants and their children.
It doesn’t look at the moment as if this film will make it into UK distribution. I wish it would because I think it could generate discussion about what a film by women and arguably ‘for women’ might be in the current climate. I’m not sure whether I’m in tune with what Alejandra Márquez Abella attempts to do here, but I’m definitely interested in what she might do next. The film has been taken by Netflix so you may be able to find it there. The interview below is well worth exploring.
This title was screened in the Berlinale Classics programme and marked the return of a film that was the Golden Bear winner in 1975. It was also the film that established its director, Márta Mészáros, as a internationally recognised film-maker.
A widowed working woman in her early forties would like to escape the emptiness that surrounds her by having a child with her married lover, to whom she is attached only as a matter of habit. . . . One day, a girl who has run away from a home seeks shelter with her.”
The home is a state orphanage. The girl, Anna (Gyöngyvér Vigh), is in her late teens and already involved in a sexual relationship. The older woman, Kata (Katalin Berek), works in a factory but also has an interest in wood work, which she does in a small workshop at home. Her home is near a small town but separated from other houses and Kata is also separate from the other residents. The orphanage is very free in its control of the young people. This seems to be, in part, because it is under-resourced. But the manager does seem fairly sympathetic. This culture enables the young inmates to indulge in activities outside the home, so Anna regularly meets her boyfriend, Sanyi (Péter Fried) who lives and works in a nearby city and travels down to meet Anna.
The films gives a sense of these characters and the operation of the home when we see Kata, returning from work. Anna, in a group of teenage girls, teasingly confronting Kata begging cigarettes. And we also get a sense of Kara’s relationship with Jóska (László Szabó) at a tryst, he is clearly less involved than Kata. In a later scene in a park he is definitely troubled when Kata raises the issue of children. Even later he takes Kata home on the pretext of her being a colleague from work. His wife seems unsuspecting whilst there is also a young child in the family. Jóska is obviously a male chauvinist and that is his role in the narrative. But the much younger Sanyi displays a strong affection and responsibility for Anna. Whilst the manager at the home is seen later showing both sympathy and practical assistance to Kata and Anna.
We only get a representation of the Hungarian state at this time at a remove, but the sense is of a rather underfunded and inadequate bureaucracy rather than the stereotypical representation found in western films at the period.
The film has fine black and white cinematography by Lajos Koltai. Mészáros uses frequent long takes, not just for action but also for contemplation. Several times we see Kata at her work table and the sense of her ruminations on her situation. The film editing by Éva Kármentõ carefully juxtaposes the several repeated settings; Kara’s house, the orphanage and the places where Kata and Jósha have their trysts. There is much location work but production design by Tamás Banovich marries studio set-ups with the natural settings. And by the end of the film we see a traditional celebration with a convincing sense of ordinary people enjoying an occasion. The film sound and music by György Kovács fits in with a general naturalistic feel.
Mészáros scripted the film with two colleagues, Ferenc Grunwalsky and Gyula Hernádi. The writing both presents characterisations that seem taken from life; that are unconventional in terms of the European cinema of the time; and which develop with a real sympathy for ordinary people and everyday life.
In 1975 the ‘Berliner Morgen post’ commented;
The Hungarian director, a woman, has come up, not with a drama but a low-key reticent everyday story that is full of tenderness and hope. In a succession of filmed-to-the-life occasions, Kati Berek makes her mark as a sort of Budapest Annie Giradot. Quiet, strong and true.” (Giradot is a fine French actress who at this stage of her career had graced Rocco and his Brothers (Rocco e i suoi fratelli, 1960) with an outstanding performance).
The paper’s note of the director being a ‘woman’, picked up on the Mészáros being the first woman director to win a Golden Bear Award. And she and the film won a number of other awards as well. Márta Mészáros was there to introduce the film. She spoke with emotion of her memories of the visit to the Berlinale, she was then an unknown in western Europe and this her first experience of a major festival and major awards.
There was also a staff member of the Hungarian Film Fund Film Archive who have produced the digital restoration of the film onto a 4K DCP, with English subtitles. The restoration was based on the original camera negative and a magnetic tape of sound. This was supervised by the original cinematographer, Lajos Koltai. The restoration differs in an important manner from the original 35mm. Mészáros had wanted to shoot the film in a scope format but was unable to do so and the film used the academy ratio. This restored version has been produced in 1.85:1; closer to the desired scope format. In other ways it reproduces the original. The change of ratio is unusual. The Berlinale staff were unsure but thought the version at the Festival might have been in 1.85:1 as well. This presumably would have involved plates or masks in the projector. I think when I saw the film, long ago, it was in academy. I have to say that in 1.85:1 there was no obvious cropping of the image. We did not hear the technical description of how the reframing was achieved.
The archive have actually restored ten other titles directed by Mészáros between 1969 and 1999, including the famous ‘Diary’ series. They have all been restored digitally at 4K and will be available this year and in 2020. Given Mészáros’ status,
together with her contemporaries Agnès Varda, Larissa Shepitko and Vera Chytilova, she ranks as one of the most significant female authors in the world.” (Restored Films of Márta Mészáros, Hungarian Film Fund).
We should expect this title and the other titles that follow to get a British release. This film was a deserved winner of the Golden Bear in 1975 and has maintained its quality and relevance; Mészáros’ other films equally offer both quality and satisfaction.
This is an unconventional story film that incudes autobiographical experiences. The writer-director was a refugee at the end of World War II. Her family were ethnic Germans who had to leave Sudetenland which became part of Czechoslovakia. In the film Marianne, five years of age in 1945 (as was the writer) arrives in the village of Straubing in Lower Bavaria; about 80 miles north-east of Munich.
In the film the father, an ex-soldier, gets a job as a teacher. One of the key characters is the village priest whose sermons and sermonising have a strong effect on Marianne and her young friends. The effect is counter-productive because it fuels an interest by the young girls in sex as well as religion. The counterpoint to this is a US G.I. who is part of the local occupation forces. ‘Nicknamed ‘Mr Freedom’, (an ironic comment on US values) the G.I. has a relationship with a local girl and the children become aware of their sexual activity.
The priest’s moralising includes holding forth on the evils of the Soviet Union and what he calls the ‘Ivans’. This feeds into Marianne’s traumas of war memories. The solace provided by the actions and friendly behaviour of ‘Mr Freedom’ ends when he receives a posting to Korea; involving both US ‘freedom’ and Soviet ‘Ivans’.
The film effectively catches the attitudes and behaviour of girls at a particular point when aspects of adult behaviour impinge on their consciousness. The film, in often bizarre combinations of imagery, counterpoints the various values encountered by the children. There is kitsch air about some of these sequences.
The film uses unconventional imagery and sound, with the scenes that are mainly realist in black and white whilst what seem dream-like sequences are in colour. The camerawork is often idiosyncratic, emphasising the constructed nature even of the realism. And the editing sometimes produces clashes of disparate images.
The Retrospective e Brochure comments:
Made in 1983, during the era of rearmament debates, Marianne Rosenbaum’s alternative take on history in this Heimatfilm, with its Bavarian and star cast, can be considered a political statement.
The last phrase seems a little odd. I found the film’s political treatment somewhat contradictory. The critique of war is clear. And the ironic treatment of tropes from more conventional Heimatfilms (‘homeland’) is plain. The Heimatfilms tended to be set in areas like Bavaria, to use extensive exterior rural settings, and had relatively simplistic moral values, typically those associated in the countryside as the antitheses of the city. Whilst the realist sequences seem similar to other Heimatfilme, the dream sequences subvert this through parody and even surreal happenings.
I was less sure about the treatment of the US/Soviet conflict. There is no equivalent to ‘Mr Freedom’ from the East and casting a minor star like Peter Fonda is obviously meant to give him a certain charisma.
There are telling actions as when the portrait of Hitler has to be removed by the parents. A trope that is repeated in the recent British The Aftermath (2019). The ambiguity of all these conflicting values and characters is there at the end as the film offers a mid-shop of the young Marianne. ‘Mr Freedom’ is gone as indeed is her childish innocence.
The film was screened from a good 35mm print and ran for 108 minutes. Marianne Rosenbaum has only made one other feature and a television drama and series. She clearly has talent and an interesting take on drama, I wonder if her unconventional approach has limited her opportunities.
This was an experimental documentary that plays with style, representation and recreation. The subject is a young woman, Carmen who lives with her mother Ruth and brother Tito in a high-rise housing estate.
Her father, a Puerto Rican soldier, abandoned the family. All that is left to remind them of him is a handful of exotic postcards and his record collection of Caribbean and Hawaiian music.
The film is a documentary and includes observational film: for example Ruth leaving the tower block in the morning to go to work. We also see her and Carmen carrying out the cleaning duties involved. Then there are interviews, with Carmen, Ruth and Tito, talking direct to camera.
But these are intercut with far more oddball sequences. In these Carmen dresses up in flamboyant clothes and enacts fantasies for the camera;
I dream of a great love.
In other sequences the title is made sense as the collection of post-cards and records are presented. In the case of the records Carmen [for most] translates the lyrics, variously in English, Spanish and Portuguese, into German. The English sub-titles translate the German dialogue not the original sound tracks. Something similar happens when Carmen quotes poetry, here by Paul Éluard and another French poet.
The film mainly uses colour but some of the fantasies by Carmen are in black and white. The emphasis is on mid-shots and close-ups which generates a strongly subjective feel. The film runs for eighty-five minutes and nearly half of the film must be non-realist sequences. The film also lacks an obvious chronology which gives it a Brechtian feel. The film does have an opening and closing sequence, in both cases we see Carmen on the Berlin S-Bahn. It is as if the bulk of the film is a dream sequence.
The director Elfi Mikesch was there to introduce the film. She owns that the film was
“Inspired by the camp aesthetics of American (USA) underground films …”
This was her first film and she continued in a career that predominately worked on documentaries.
Some of the fantasy sequences have a definite kitsch sense. But there is also a sense of montage techniques in the manner of the Soviet avant-garde. Visually we have discontinuities and disruptions and aurally we have asymmetrical sound. This is really a melange of stylistic tropes.
In fact we were fortunate to see the film. It was shot of 16mm reversal stock and when the technicians at Deutsche Kinemathek came to attempt the restoration they found much of the print had decayed. But they were able to rescue the film and produced a digital restoration which we watched on a DCP.
I noted that this is very much Carmen’s world. Ruth, the mother, is mainly presented in terms of her work. The brother Tito appears several times talking to camera but I did not feel we learnt about his world. He did seem to be unsympathetic to Carmen’s point-of-view.
The setting of the film is important. The family lived in one of the towers in Berlin’s Gropiusstadt. This was a housing project designed by the modernist architect Walter Gropius. He was the founder of the famous Bauhaus School. This was a post-war housing complex designed along the lines and values of the Bauhaus. However other factors intervened. The erection of the Berlin Wall restricted the space for building which resulted in tall tower blocks. Apparently by the 1970s the complex was dominated by poor families with the resultant economic and social problems. As a background to this portrait the sense of that area was important.
I did notice one oddity in the Brochure, which suggested that Carmen’s ‘tropical world’ provided a counter-point to the ‘barren projects’;
. . . it suddenly seemed as if the conditions in these petty bourgeois living rooms could, in fact, be changed.
Everything about Ruth, her work, and her children, as indeed about the projects, suggested a working class environment. I suspect the reference to ‘petty bourgeois’ refers to the content of Carmen’s dreams of escape.
The film was also the object of a particular discussion in a seminar organised by Deutsche Kinemathek. ‘The Translation of Films’. This engaged with the
the translation of films into other languages . . .
including both the silent and sound eras. So,
director Elfi Mikesch. film restorer Julia Wallmüller, and translator Rebekah Smith will discuss the subtitles created for the 2018 digitally restored version [of this title] . . . A comparison of the new subtitles and the ones from the film’s release year demonstrate how standards and available methods have changed over the years . . . (Retrospective Brochure)
It was clear that the new subtitles offered a more accurate rendering of the German and also that they fitted into the editing of the film more effectively. Unfortunately there is no surviving material about the process of translation in 1978. But comparing clips demonstrated that the titling did not give complete rendering of the German. Rebekah and Julia made the point that modern digital methods enabled a higher degree of pinpoint accuracy in inserting these titles.
Elfi Mikesch made an interesting comment that she had felt that the 1978 subtitles made the film seem slower and longer. Unfortunately there was not an opportunity to explore this issue further. I had to leave for another screening but a friend advised me that the discussion only considered the issues around subtitles. So it seems there was no discussion of the translation from several languages into German; in that case German viewers heard not the original but a translator version; and English language viewers would be twice removed from the original lyrics of the songs and the words of the poetry.
So this is a complex issues that only in the last decade has become the subject of detailed research. The film was interesting in its own right as an example of avant-garde cinema and with its portrait of a subjective take on a particular place and people in 1970s Germany. But as a ‘text’ it offered an object for exploring the medium of cinema.
This was another title in the Berlinale retrospective and the audience were fortunate in that the director, Margarethe von Trotta, was there to introduce her film. She first talked about the title of the film which was variously translated and changed during its international release; (there seem to be at least six variants). The German title is a quotation from a famous poem;
Trūb ists heut, es schlummern die Gäng’ und die Gassen und fast will
Mir es scheinen, es sei, als in der bleiernen Zeit
(Gloomy it is today, sleepy are the pathways and lanes and it seems as almost, we are, in the leaden times.) (Friedrich Hölderlin) (Translation Jane Buekett).
The last three words provide the title and a metaphor for the 1950s, a crucial decade for the story and the characters; and for von Trotta herself.
Von Trotta went on to recount how in 1977 she was with fellow film-makers who were working on a portmanteau film addressing in various ways the actions and the current trial of the Red Army Faction [often called the Baader-Meinhof Gang]; Germany in Autumn (Deutschland im Herbst, 1978). Von Trotta was not actually filming and she had a number of long conversations with Christina Ensslin, the sister of a member of RAF Gudrun Ensslin. This inspired her to start work on a screenplay, later this film, which studied the lives and relationships of two sisters. Von Trotta also remarked that the story was influenced by the Sophocles play Antigone, where Antigone is a rebel whilst her sister Iamene is more dutiful. However, in this story, the roles change as the narrative develops.
The younger, Marianne, has joined the ‘armed resistance’ in West Germany and disappeared into the political underground. Juliane is an editor at a feminist magazine and is judgemental of her sister’s radicalism. (Retrospective Brochure).
But the film develops far more complexity than is suggested in these bald sentences. Marianne is another brilliant and convincing performance from von Trotta’s regular collaborator Barbara Sukowa. Juliane, an equally good performance, though a more restrained character, is played by Jutta Lampe. We also meet their partners though the male characters pale alongside these powerful women. The exception is Jan, Marianne’s son by a failed marriage.
Early in the film we get a sense of the radically different lives and relationships of the sisters. There is a brief glimpse of the ‘armed resistance’ training with Palestinian fighters in North Africa. The film moves into it most intense mode when Marianne is captured and imprisoned. Juliane visits her regularly and we witness the emotional and sometimes overcharge relationship. We also see, in flashbacks, the earlier life of the two women, including a very strict religious upbringing in the 1950s. The ‘leaden’ 1950s and its silences on German history were a frequent target of attack for the New German Cinema.
It is in the latter stages that Jan becomes an important character. It is also the stage where Juliane has to confront her sister’s death and her suspicions, (widely shared at the time with regard to the deaths of RAF members) of her secret murder by the West German State.
This is an undoubted classic of the New German Cinema. It won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. The central performances are memorable, but the film is carefully constructed as well. There is fine cinematography from Franz Rath. This covers the modern apartment and more traditional family house which contrast with the grim and stark prison interiors. And exteriors range from a wintry wood to sun-baked Africa and then to the forbidding walls of the prisons. The settings and costumes, by Georg von Kieserite and Minka Hasse respectively, are excellent. The sound is fine and at times very atmospheric. And all of this is edited into a complex tapestry between past and present by Dagmar Hirtz. The now veteran composer Nicolas Economou, (recently working with Koreeda Hirokazu) produces an effective score, at times minimal, occasionally more forceful.
The film has been restored and was screened from a DCP. It seemed from memory a reasonable transfer and it was a pleasure to see this again in a cinema after a wait of many years. And now I can see it again at the Hyde Park Picture House this coming Sunday. It is one of the films directed by Margarethe von Trotta in the Independent Cinema Office retrospective programme. This is titled ‘The Personal is Political’. This is partly accurate as von Trotta, as in other films, is concerned to bring out how personal relationships feed into political issues. But it is also true that in this film, as in most of her other films, the political both determines and limits the personal. This indeed is where the film leaves us with a stark and complex scene that speaks volumes about the sisters and the future of Juliane and Jan.
The film runs 106 minutes in colour and with English sub-titles. The latter on this digital version are reasonable but in the traditional white-on-background; so occasionally, in lighter scenes, you have to focus carefully. A small challenge to what is, for me, probably the finest film made by Margarethe von Trotta. And she has turned out a number of really fine film including Rosa Luxembourg (featuring Barbara Sukowa], shown earlier at the Picture House.
This DDR film is full of unintentional irony, offering a portrayal of the East German state only a short time before its collapse. Whilst this documentary does not address the social and political contradictions in East Germany the portrait it offers clearly presents a state that is mired in the out-of-date technologies and social administration: the writing is on the wall.
The ‘bogeyman’ of the title is the coal delivery man. A literal translation would be ‘Who fears in front of Black Man’. We visit a private coal company which is run by a woman but whose workforce is entirely male. One sign of outmoded technologies is how many of the homes, including apartments in tower blocks, rely on coal as a heating fuel. Besides running on long after the use in advanced western economies the coal delivery business in Berlin has other distinctive features. The coal can come in sacks but also pre-packed in what look like small suitcases. And the wood for fires comes in neatly bound bundles. When we see customers calling in to place order we hear them asking for hundredweights of fuel. This is a different world from Britain, even when the working class kept their coal ‘in the bath’.
The seven man team faces heavy physical labour and dirty work. By the end of a day they are covered in grit and grime. Whilst there are showers at the depot they are fairly primitive. This applies to all the machinery. The deliveries are made in a motorised truck with some sort of petrol engine but with very low horse power. In the course of the film what seems to be an axle needs repair. The repair work is completely heath-Robertson. It seems to take a couple of days, with hammers. sledgehammers, acetylene torches and sundry other tools. Finally and triumphantly the axle is removed, but how the truck is then made roadworthy stretches beyond the length of this film.
The owner of the business is a resolute and extremely competent woman. She is assisted by her daughter who would take over thee businesses one day. Whilst the machinery might seem primitive the organisation is efficient. The owner is also articulate and talks of her firm and of it social context with fluidity. There is something similar when we hear the workforce answering questions.
The discussion subjects range from the building of the Berlin Wall and possible escape, [one tried], to child abuse and suicide as well as prison and alcoholism.” (Retrospective Brochure)
All are extremely good natured. The view of this segment of society suggests a working class with solidarity and satisfaction. There is no hint of impending doom. As one historian remarked the film has an air of whimsicality but its characters and their situation are completely engaging. The less than sixty minutes of the film offers us in their lives and their work with both sympathy and affection.
The director, Helke Misselwitz, was there to introduce the film. She remarked that when the topic was broached she was determined to find a firm with a woman at the helm. She successfully found one and also one that offered a fascinating set of portraits. The film was also visually satisfying, down to the cinematography of Thomas Pienert which captures the place and the people with unassuming grace. Pienert also worked on the screenplay with Helke Misselwitz. It does seem that this narrative emerged from their working study at the depot.
We also had as short film from the DDR, Nude Portraits – Gundula Schulze / Aktofotografie , Z. B. Gundula Schulze, directed by Helke Misselwitz in 1983. It seems that Gundula Schulze, a young graduate at the time, has become a famous photographer. Then she wrote a thesis on ‘nude photography in East Germany’. At the start we are shown some fairly stereotypical nude portraits, not any different from those that circulate in capitalist societies. Then the film introduces two strands. Nude photographs taken by Schulze of women aiming to present them as ‘whole women’. At times this colour footage is intercut with black and white 16mm footage of working women, here as cashiers at a line of tills in a supermarket. The contrasting images make the point well. And Schulze’s portraits are fine examples of women presented with their own character.
This film ran 11 minutes and had been copied onto a DCP. The feature documentary was screened from a good 35mm print. Both films had English sub-titles.
The catalogue described the film thus:
A portrait of a woman’s life between 1915 and 1975, in Jutta Brücker’s documentary, her mother looks back at the 60 years of her life . . .
In fact, I felt that this was only part of the film and most notable in the early stage. This in part due to the style and content that is used,
An ingenious collage of picture and sound accompanies the mother’s narrative, a tapestry of proverbs [as in the title], pop songs, marching music , and the noise of war.
Jutta’s mother provides much of the narration, some of it personal some of it commentary on the incidents displayed. The picture that emerges if a complex interaction between one life and the broader social canvas.
This is less a criticism that noting how the film works. The key element are family photographs together with 100s of photographs taken by August Sander between 1901 and the 1940s; and more recent photographs by other artists. This is effectively a montage as is the soundtrack. Black and white photographs, when handled effe3ctively, are powerfully resonant of their subjects.
The film does generate a sense of the mother’s milieu, lower-middle class, but at the same time takes in other classes and situations, both of the bourgeoisie and of the proletariat. As the Brochure adds,
references that transcend the personal.
The photographs are well chosen, Sander has become a famous artist in more recent years. The sixty years of the film, [presented in 62 minutes], contain some of the most dramatic and tragic events in modern German history. And the series develops a real sense of the times and the people involved.
Jutta Brückner was there to introduce her film. Her project was decided before she was able to develop an effective form. There were only limited photographs from her family. The discovery of Sander’s photographs enabled her to broaden the narrative into the social and historical area. She remarked that when she made the film Sander was not well known. This meant that she was able to acquire access to the photographs at a low rate. She reckoned now that he has an international reputation the photographs would be beyond any likely budget.
The film was shot on 16mm and in black and white academy. So there is little reframing of the photographs. We watched a digital version restored by Deutsche Kinemathek in 2016. Like most of the digital versions at the Festival it looked fine. Note, IMDB has another German film with the same title from 1976, but with little detail.
The main feature was preceded by a 16mm black and white short documentary, The Father (Der Fater, 1986). [The change in formats was something that the projection team handled with aplomb]. This was a compilation of films shot by the director’s father who was doctor based in Shanghai in the 1930s. The home movies also included Egypt and India. The film was intercut by colour film shot by the director, Christine Noll Brinkmann. I did not find these particularly revealing though the aim was,
to make the father’s footage speak, so it would reveal its meaning to the daughter
But the footage of Europeans benefiting from a colonial situation was interesting.
This East German film offers what seems to be a frank and fairly realistic portrait of a working class woman. The protagonist is Susanne (Hiedemarie Schneider) divorced and caring for a young son. When we meet her she is working as a punch press operator; repetitious work in a dingy factory. Outside of work she cares for her son. Her main leisure activity appears to be drinking in a bar with her friend and dancing in its disco. Susanne and her friends are all marginalised people. They are in part outsiders in this society and far from the ‘all-round developed person’ which is the officially approved stereotype.
The film opens as Susanne leaves her apartment to take her son to the nursery on the titular red bicycle. The son’s bright yellow jackets stands out in the grey rush hour traffic. But when the rain starts they are splashed and then drenched by other traffic.
A the nursery Susanne is overdue with the money for her son’s lunches. It is clear that Susanne’s lives on the edge of penury, just about balancing her income and expenditure. Something of a ‘free spirit’, when she packs in her boring job her finances come apart. A friend explains how she can make some ‘illegitimate’ money; an escapade that comes back to haunt her later.
There is an interesting sequence when Susanna enters a factory celebration. The main hall is full of smartly dressed people and Susanne in her everyday wear stands out. This partly explains how she catches the eye of Thomas (Roman Kominski) a rising young engineer; endlessly congratulated at the social on being promoted to management. Susanne continues to her usual haunt, a bar beneath the hall, with lurid lighting and far less sedate music. It is like ‘hell’ beneath the official ‘socialist ‘heaven’ above. Thomas follows her. Thus starts a hesitant relationship which will finally lead to their becoming partners for a period.
The film catches the different aspects of working class life really well. Susanne’s apartment lies alongside an older woman, ‘granny’. Neither is especially integrated into the society of these buildings and they help and support each other. Susanne and her son have a strong relationship as well. Susanne’s regular bar is a marginal site, lacking all the prized virtues ascribed to the working class in a supposedly workers’ state.
Thomas’s work as a manager, including dealing with the ordinary workers, is closer to this. However, he is frustrated by the out-of-date techniques and management. This is a recurring sense in all the East German films; they are decades behind the western style seen in West Berlin; in factories, in streets, in homes and in social centres.
Susanne’s relationship leads to her obtaining a job in the factory managed by Thomas. But her scam now threatens both the relationship and her job. This segment of the film is interesting in terms of East German employment practice. Susanne works with a female group who are split in their sympathies when they learn of her earlier action. However, factory rules include ‘conflict resolution committees’ where Susanna’s fellow workers have an input. It seems that this mechanism will save her from the law.
The relationship with Thomas however does not survive this episode. And it is Susanne, ‘self-determining’, who makes the break. At the end she seems more confident in herself and her economic situation has improved. Her relationship with her son, finely represented in key scenes, remains positive and rewarding.
The film was shot in colour and widescreen by Roland Dressel and was scripted by Ernst Wenig. The film’s style is conventional but the use of locations offers a real sense of the environment. The editing takes us forward in a mainly linear fashion. There are two dream sequences when we get a sense of Susanne’s emotional state; she does become desperate at one point. The cast is convincing and Schneider, dominating the narrative, is excellent. She is at times refreshingly forthright but also capable of generating a sense of strong emotion.
The East German film system, like the western mainstream, preferred conventional characters.
Dismissed by critics and the studio heads as “confusing” and “flawed . . . ” (Retrospective Brochure).
The director Evelyn Schmidt was there to introduce the film. Because of the disfavour the film was refused invitations to International Festivals. [It was screened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in a retrospective in 2005]. In East Germany itself it was only screened for a few days. The problems included
showing the working class divided
In other words an accurate depiction of the disguised class structure in the state. It also affected Schmidt’s career. She made only seven features, three of them scripted by herself, including The Bicycle. And for much of the time she was reduced to working as an assistant director. She also gave us an enigmatic comment,
watch for when the colour red is taken out.
I did not actually spot this exactly but I think it was during the deterioration of the relationship between Susanne and Thomas. However, I was aware of red as a sign. The colour is prominent in the lower bar when Susanne and her friends relax. Whereas the staid social, like the factory spaces, has only an occasional red. There are a lot of exterior sequences which have a lively colour palette. As with ‘red’ the colour contrast contributes to the film’s representation. The bright yellow jacket and red bicycle are followed later by the drab, grey factory interior. When Susanne gets a new job later she works with a group of women in a workshop full of light from large windows. At another point we see Susanne in a cramped grey telephone box talking to her brusque ex-husband. But later, in a park with her son, the image is all sunshine with bright blues and greens. The grey alienation of East Germany was presumably registered by her censors. Unlikely to be easily available but definitely a film to see.