Tagged: Berlinale

Die Bleierne Zeit (The German Sisters, Bundesrepublik Deutschland 1981)

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.

Berlin – Prenzlauer Berg (Deutschland 1990)

The actual full title is Encounters between 1st of May and 1st July of 1990 / Begegnungen Zwischen dem 1. Mai und dem 1. Juli 1990. This documentary offers a portrait of one area in that hiatus between the capitulation of the DDR and the formal reunification of Germany.

bracketed chronologically by International Workers Day and the monetary and economic unification of the two Germanys. Retrospective Brochure).

The district of Prenzlauer Berg is close to the centre of Berlin and dates from the 1920s. Its population is now about 160,000. In 1990 part of the district ran right up against the dividing wall.

We meet a rock band playing on abandoned east German border territory, Antifascist demonstrators from both sides of the Berlin Wall, and squatters trying to turn an occupied building into a cultural centre.

This is what the Brochure calls the ‘short summer of anarchy’.

In between these actions we see an hear from local residents. Seniors at a dancing session; bohemians involved in squatting along with transvestites; women workers at what was a state run textile factory; and owners/managers of a clothing store and snack bar. In the early stages of the film the sense of anarchy is powerful. Institutions appear to have stop operating. Some people carry on as before, like the dancing pensioners,; others strike a radical new note as with the squatters.

But in the latter stages as unification approaches the economic dominates. The Osmark (East German currency) is replaced by the West German mark. On July 1st suddenly people must change over their currencies, bearing in mind the exchange value. For ordinary citizens the rate was at par; but large holdings were at lower rates. The liveliness in the film is replaced by emptier streets. It is early in the day but it seems like a metaphor of the uncertainty for people.

The director Petra Tschörtner worked with cinematographer Michael Lösche and then editor Angelika Arnold to produce this tapestry of activities and people. We saw the film in its original format of of 35mm. The director commented

I wanted to document the special attitude towards life in this neighbourhood. The people of Prenzlauer Berg always tolerated greater freedom of action than others.

The local people appear to have enjoyed the licence and freedom associated with Carnival. The area itself is changing, not necessarily for the better. The final shot is of a demolished building disappearing in clouds of dust. An ambiguous symbol of the changes.

Varda by Agnès (Varda par Agnès, France 2019)

This film was screened in the Berlinale Out of Competition at the Berlinale Palast. The Brochure commented,

Agnès Varda takes a seat on a theatre stage. The professional photographer, installation artist and pioneer of the Nouvelle Vague is an institution of French cinema but a fierce opponent of any kind of institutional thinking.

And Agnès Varda received a Special Camera Award during the Berlinale.

What is offered is a journey through Varda artistic career, primarily that of film. The approach is partly chronological, partly thematic. Taking account of the changes in the medium the first part treats

‘her analogue period’ from 1954 to 2000 in which the director is in the foreground . . .

In the second part, Agnes focuses on the years from 2000 to 2018, shows how she uses digital technology to look at the world in her own unique way.

She includes her work on installations, and an aside her photographic work.

The film combines a series of illustrated talks by Varda. The opening one is in a palatial opera house remarked on by Varda. Another is a seminar for Higher Education students. In the latter Varda is reading from notes; I do not think this was the case in her talks for the general public. In either case she is articulate, informative, at time ironic, always charming and engaging. And her points are constantly illustrated by extracts from her films, extracts that are well chosen and make the point she is presenting. This is far better done than in some recent television programmes on cinema; and one intelligent head is better than a constant series of ‘talking heads’

One film that receives attention is the first of her features to make a real mark, Cleo from 5 to 7 (Cléo de 5 á 7, 1962). She talks about the making of the film, its star Corinne Marchand and the way in which the film presents ‘real time’. She added an amusing comment, that Andy Warhol remarked that he would have carried on filming to 7 p.m. (the film ends just after 6.30 p.m.). The film was innovative in a number of ways and it is worth noting that here Varda is really part of the Left Bank Group rather than the better-known film-makers of the Nouvelle Vague, In fact Alain Resnais was the editor for her first film La Pointe Courte (1955).

Another film is Vagabond (Sans toit ni loi, 1985). I think this is one of Varda’s finest films and has at its centre a marvellous performance by Sandrine Bonnaire. Her character Mona’s final weeks are reconstructed in the film in a collage of flashbacks and interviews. Varda talked about working with the actress and her contribution. She also talked about the style of the film where repeated tracking shots emphasize Mona’s travels across the countryside. This is a bleak film but one that demonstrates the humanist values that are embodied in all of Varda’s work.

In the digital works one discussed is The Gleaners & I (Les glaneurs et la glaneuse, 2000). The original French title makes the point of the commonality between the film-maker and her subjects. Varda films and interviews many people who ‘glean’ their existence, both in urban areas such as Paris and in rural areas. Varda’s ability to pick up on fresh and unconventional subjects as well as her skill in constructing visual and aural tapestries is exemplified in this film. It is both a moving and fascinating set of portraits.

The Beaches of Agnès (Les plages d’Agnès, 2008) presents recurring settings, images and motifs that appear across her work. Besides the beach we have innumerable mirrors, references and homages to visual art and, a favourite with Varda, cats. She also revisits her first film, La Pointe Courte. In one of those inspired and totally unconventional tropes we watch as people originally involved in the film revisit it as it is projected on a cart that they push through the village.

This was one of Varda’s homes in her younger years and autobiography runs through her talks and the film examples. This includes the films about her one-time partner and fellow film-maker Jacques Demy, as in Jacquot de Nantes (1991).

Towards the end of this film Varda talks about recent work on installations, including the now famous potato [referencing The Gleaners and I at the Venice Film Festival]. There is a section on her work as a photographer, which goes right back to her youth before she took up film. One can see in these examples her fine visual sense.

This is a fine two hour self-portrait full of humour, intelligence and revelations. Born in 1928 in Brussels, at 91, Varda is one of those long-lived European film-makers. She is also one of the most important. She now has 54 credits as a director, plus those as writer, producer, editor and more. [About a third of these are illustrated here]. Her reputation has risen, fallen and risen again. Some of the films presented, such as Black Panthers (1968) have [unfortunately] not been successful. But Varda has continued always to work in her own idiosyncratic way. Now she is an established and revered artistic voice. One aspect of this means that this new film should certainly get a proper British release. I am sure, when it comes, that it will be one of the outstanding experiences in cinemas at that time.

Do You Know Urban? (Kennen sie Urban?, Deutsche Demokratische Republik 1971)


The question runs through the film until the end, where is Urban (Manfred Karge)? Before that we watch as “Hoffi” Hoffman (Berndt Renné) and his friend Keube (Harald Wandel) look for the titular character or tell people about him. Several flashbacks fill in the acquaintance of “Hoffi” and Urban which started in a hospital.

Hoffi and Keube first appear walking along a beach with their suitcases. They are looking for a construction site where they believe Urban, an engineer, will be working. They do not find Urban but they do find jobs labouring on a large housing construction. Hoffi also meets Gila (Jenny Gröllmann) who is a student trainee. A relationship develops but then Gila returns to her home in Berlin.

Help by his workmates who sort out permission for Hoffi who is banned from Berlin because of an assault. The assault of an old man by Hoffi and a teenage group is shown in a flashback. They are dressed western style listening to westerns style popular music. And it is the music that sparks the argument and subsequent assault.

Arriving in Berlin Hoffi finds that Gila is pregnant. So his workmates continue their help in assuaging opposition by Gila’s parents and then finding an apartment for the young couple. There is a housing shortage in East Berlin and they convert a disused shop.

Shot largely on location, the film hews to the tradition of the ‘Berlin films’ of the 1950s and 1960s to depict a tolerant, cosmopolitan society.

a committed social worker, members of East Germany’s Socialist Unity Party also have a hand in making the prophecy expressed in the film’s working title, “even problem children can become people” come true.” (Retrospective Brochure).

Hoffi, Gila, Keube and Lenin

The male characters have interesting back stories. Urban has worked all round the world on engineering project. The countries are all in some sense socialist, I noted Algeria, Cuba and Vietnam. When we finally meet him it is on a railway station as his family wave him off to another project. Hoffi is a young tearaway but in the course of the film he acquires maturity and responsibility. Gila’s story is less developed and the flashbacks are focussed on the men. The actors present these characters convincingly and sympathetically.

This was the final film of four features directed by Ingrid Reschke; she died in the same year in a car accident, only 35 years. She was one of only a few women directors working on features. On the evidence of this film her death was a real loss for DEFA. The drama is engaging, there is recurring humour and the depiction of social life is completely convincing. The cinematography by Claus Neumann makes excellent use of the locations. Other members of the crew include several women; the story by Gisela Karua, assistant editor Marie-Luise Ullmann and editing by Barbara Simon.

The film had been digitally restored in 2018 and was screened from a DCP. The 96 minutes devoted to this story were engaging and informative in some ways of the working culture of the DDR.

Under the Pavement Lies the Strand / (Unter dem Pflaster ist der Strand, Bundesrepublik Deutschland 1975)

“Grischa (Grischa Huber) and Heinrich (Heinrich Giskes) are actors in West Berlin, who become a couple after spending a night together backstage.” {Retrospective Brochure).

The film opens with a rehearsal for a television production in the Greek tragedy mode. Grischa and Heinrich find themselves locked in together. They spend the night there but Grischa declines to have sex. But later she does visit Heinrich and they become a couple. Their relationship is up and down. Whilst Heinrich wants to have child together Grischa is wary of this. But becoming pregnant she is reunited with him. There are also a pair of Labrador, Babs and Ben, who accompany Heinrich nearly everywhere.

Whilst the relationship goes through its up and downs Grischa becomes active in the developing women’s movement and starts on a project about women’s lives, domestic violence and abortion. The fictional drama is intercut with black and white film and stills of actual events, the most important being a demonstration for abortion rights and against anti-abortion laws.

Both characters were involved in the 1968 protests; the title seems to be a play on a famous ’68 situationist slogan. Both suffer from a sense of frustration over the fading away of radical protest. Heinrich has opted for

a ‘revolution a deux’ in love

Grischa’s is motivated

to tackle Marx’s “second contradiction” of women’s repression.

The latter seems a slight misnomer. ‘Marx’s second contradiction’ originally was a revisionist position which aimed to take up questions of ecology. However, in doing so it lost the central concepts that analyse capitalism’s inherent recurring crisis. This crosses over with some of the analysis found in the economic writings of Rosa Luxemburg, but I did not note any reference to her in the film. Some women theorists have appropriated the term ‘second contradiction’ and applied it to contradictions about gender.

The writer and director Helma Sanders-Brahms became a key figure both in the New German Cinema and in feminist film-making in Germany, though not all critics rated her work. This title, along with Germany, Pale Mother / Deutschland bleiche Mutter (1980), is probably her most influential film. The film uses extensive location filming and a degree of improvisation. The black and white cinematography by Thomas Mauch is well done. And Elfi Tillack edits the different footage and sequences so that the film maintains momentum. As a dog fan I noted that there is one setting where the Labradors are missing, but apparently this was because it was an actual cramped bedsit and this had no plot significance. The original film had been transferred to a DCP and looked and sounded fine. I watched at the Zeughauskino, a small auditorium at the Deutsches Historisches Museum, that I really enjoy visiting.

Tremors (Temblores, Guatemala-France-Luxemburg 2019)


There appear to be quite number of films produced in Guatemala but I cannot remember the last time that I saw one. The portrait provided here is of the power of religion in a sector of the middle classes. The country has suffered from military regimes, revolution and civil war, and most recently government corruption. But in this film we only get a sense of a particular fraction and cult. This title was screened in the Berlinale Panorama programme; definitely challenging and controversial.

The film opens as Pablo (Juan Pablo Olyslager) drives into the grounds of a mansion to find both his family and that of his wife waiting for him. The heavy rain presages all is not well; a sense reinforced by the grim visages of the men and a note of hysterias in the women. It takes some time for the crisis to become clear but one gradually realises that either Pablo ‘has come out’ or that he has been ‘outed’ by an acquaintance. How shocking this news must be is emphasized by an earthquake shortly afterwards.

Initially Pablo has to leave home and set up his own apartment, assisted by his current gay partner, Francisco (Mauricio Armas). The film spends quite an amount of time showing Pablo adjusting to this change of life. Whilst initially coy, the first use of the word ‘gay’ is only heard thirty minute into the film, in these sequences the life of gay men is fairly explicit. The apartment is in what seems to be a slum area and we do see life on the nearby streets.


Whilst this has been taking place we have seen the family members attending a revival type religious meetings. This bears all the hallmarks of a cult with a dominant leading male and female pastors. It seems at first that Pablo will settle into his gay life. But the family are efforts to ‘rescue him’. The cult, clearly homophobic, actually has rituals to cleanse such sinners. And we see Pablo sent [more or less willingly] to a rehabilitation centre. This is a really oppressive set-up. There is religion, a sort of secular confession, group therapy and more masochistic actions. At one point we see Pablo receive an injection into his testicles.

Rather to my surprise this actually works and the film ends with Pablo, his own family and the relatives of himself and his wife, all singing, waving hands, and heavily involved in a cult ceremony.

For me there was definitely an overdose of religion in this film. And there is little sense of the theology of the cult. The cult  espouses fairly reactionary values and is extremely hierarchical. The congregations seem to be required to sing, shout, wave their hands and adulate their pastors.

The film intends a critical view of all these religious practices. The last shot of the film shows a young woman, Luisa, looking at the compliant Pablo. She is a servant in the family household but also one of the rare members who sympathises with Pablo’s situation. But I would have liked more distance throughout the film; some idea of what the cult actually stood for; and a sense of where this faction fits into the wider urban society. I would have engaged more with the film if the critical stance was more explicit.

The style of the film emphasises the intensity of the cult and of the relationships among members. Most of the film is shot in a shallow focus and with extensive use of close-ups and large close-ups.The feel of this is stronger as the film uses the widescreen of Panavision in 2.39:1. I think it is this close almost subjective feel that inhibits the sense of the critical. It is also in colour and the digital version I saw had English sub-titles.

Overall the cast and the technical work are good. I am possibly less able than some to sit through a lot of religion. I have thought that last year had an extra large slice of religion, including two films about Jehovah Witnesses. These cult members in Guatemala make them look rather limp.

The film is written and directed by Jayro Bustamante. I also noted that the actor playing Pablo has carried over his name. I incline to think that the intensity of the film is based on actual experience by someone involved in its production. The director studied in Paris and his first film at home was Ixcanul (2015), the title won a prize at the 2017 Berlinale. He has founded his own production company, and, interestingly, Guatemala City’s first cinema dedicated to independent film.

This title has been supported by European funding and Memento Films were involved. So a British release is possible and it is a powerful drama to watch.