The Berlinale, Berlin’s International Film Festival, opens this coming Thursday, February 7th. The Festival is a vast terrain with a wide selection of contemporary films from all over world cinema. The key films are often landmark titles and the Festival Awards are rightly prized trophies. But the Festival also offers opportunities to visit fascinating aspects of cinema history. The Retrospectives, organised by the Deutsche Kinematic, are significant filmic events. Last year we enjoyed a return to Weimar Cinema in an impressive and rewarding programme. And the presentations, of film in both celluloid and digital formats, were really well done. The silent titles enjoyed live and skilful musical accompaniment.
This year the Retrospective moves forward three decades to celebrate the contributions of women filmmakers to German cinema.
The Retrospective of the 69th Berlin International Film Festival takes as its subject women filmmakers between 1968 and 1999. The programme encompasses 26 narrative and documentary features from the former East and West Germany, as well as German films after re-unification in 1990. In addition, the Retrospective will show some 20 shorter films on their own, or as lead-ins to the features. What the filmmakers and their protagonists have in common is an interest in exploring their own environment, and the search for their own cinematic idiom.
In West Germany, this development was embedded in the 1968 student movement, and closely linked to the new women’s movement and the New German Cinema wave. In East Germany, by contrast, all films were made within the state-controlled studio system. That studio, DEFA, gave a few women a chance to direct as early as the 1950s, however they were mainly assigned to children’s films. Towards the end of the 1960s, everyday life in the socialist country became the focus of East Germany’s women directors.
The length of the period covered means that this is likely to be a series of snapshots. One of the best known directors, Margarethe von Trotta, has only a single title, The German Sisters / Die bleierne Zeit (1981). This though is a welcome presentations, a film that I have not seen for a considerable period but which I remember finding powerful and stimulating. (It currently has a limited release in Britain courtesy of the ICO).
Other well known filmmakers are also featured.
Helma Sanders-Brahms – Her early films engage critically with the themes of labour, migration, and the situation of women in West Germany. Under the Pavement Lies the Strand / Unter dem Pflaster ist der Strand (1975, Federal Republic of Germany / Bundesrepublik Deutschland) was a central film for the German women’s movement and for the student movement, as well as for the director’s own emergence as an explicitly feminist film-maker. (Wikipedia)
For me, the bulk of the titles, are unknown and promise to offer an exciting exploration of German film. There has always been a limited selection of German films circulating in Britain, but in recent years hardly any cross over the channel or the territories barriers.
There will be films from four women filmmakers working in the German Democratic Republic / Deutsche Demokratische Republik. I have seen only a small proportion of the films produced in the GDR. And I cannot recollect seeing a film directed by a woman. So this will fill an unfortunate gap in my film knowledge.
And there are other titles from the FGR or contemporary Germany. From the FGR in 1984,
The Image of Dorian Gray in the Yellow Press / Dorian Gray im Spiegel der Boulevardpresse.
Our organisation will create a human being whom we can shape and manipulate according to our needs. Dorian Gray: young, rich and handsome. We will make him, seduce him and break him.
Director and writer: Ulrike Ottinge. (Details on IMDB).
As well as the features and documentaries there are several short films, including more from the GDR. And there is animation work. So it promises to be a great cinematic week.
Added to this are the regular Berlinale Classics. There are six titles, five of which I welcome seeing again and one, for me, completely new; Ung flukt (The Wayward Girl), dir: Edith Carlmar, Norway 1959. They are all digital restorations. Certainly the digital versions I saw last year were all of good quality. Moreover, several of these are in 4K versions, a quality rarely seen in Britain.
The most commercially successful film set in the last years of East Germany was The Lives of Others (Germany 2006) which had an enormous international impact through a story about a Stasi surveillance operator and his ‘targets’ which used many of the conventions of the thriller. Surprisingly, however, there have been rather more films about life in the old East Germany and what it meant to think about and then to move to ‘the West’ which work as forms of melodrama, exploring the emotional lives of characters rather than first as thrillers (there have also been comedies). Mostly too these have been films about women rather than men.
It’s possible to trace the development of a group of films about female characters caught up in the emotional turmoil of Germany, and Berlin in particular, between the collapse of the Nazi regime in 1945 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Nelly the lead character in West (Lagerfeuer, Germany 2013) is one of the most recent examples of these women. We first see her in East Berlin in 1975 in what seems like a settled domestic situation but then suddenly it’s three years later and she’s entering West Berlin as a refugee with her young son. What follows is a drama about Nelly and her conflicted emotions about being held in a refugee ‘processing centre’ – an Aufnahmelager. There is an element of the thriller in what follows since Nelly finds herself being interrogated about her past in East Berlin and in particular about her partner. Rather than being ‘moved on’ and helped to find employment, Nelly is detained. Yet the thriller element seems to be there to underpin the melodrama. Is Nelly starting to imagine the threats she perceives? Can she trust anybody? Why does her son find it easier to adapt?
West is based on a novel by Julia Franck – and is based on the author’s personal experience. The film was adapted by Heide Schwochow and directed by her son Christian Schwochow. All three of these ‘authors’ moved from East Germany to the West and we must assume a high level of authenticity in the depiction of the refugee camps. When The Lives of Others was very successful it was heavily promoted and celebrated in the US where one commentator hailed it as ‘The Best Conservative Movie’ of the last 25 years. When West opened in North America it was marketed on the back of celebrations for the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Neither film deserves to be hi-jacked in this way. The attraction of a film like West is its humanity – the way it tries to deal with the personal lives of characters caught up in an ideological conflict. When Nelly answers her interrogators’ questions about why she has come to West Berlin with the response ” . . . for personal reasons” it cuts no ice. What should she say? “I want to be free!” That would be ironic since Western intelligence agents won’t let her go until she tells them something ‘useful’.
There are moments in West when Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun come to mind – although the two women are rather different. Maria fights her way through the rubble and chaos of Berlin in 1945 to succeed in the economic miracle of the 1950s. Nelly is perhaps more akin to the trio of heroines played by Nina Hoss in the films of Christian Petzold. In Phoenix (2014) another ‘Nelly’ has plastic surgery and seeks out her husband in the ruins of Berlin in 1946. In Barbara (2012) the eponymous character is a doctor in East Germany trying to get to the West in 1980 and in Yella (2007) Ms Hoss is a woman leaving the East after unification and finding the soulless capitalism of the West is not necessarily the answer. Interestingly, this film uses questions of what is ‘real’ to underline the stress on the character who moves across the border. Finally it’s important to remember Margarethe von Trotta’s Das Versprechen (The Promise 1994) in which a young woman escapes to West Berlin in the 1960s but then meets her ex-boyfriend, a scientist who has stayed in the East, at various international gatherings over the next 20 years. The story ends with the wall coming down in 1989 but again this is not a triumphant ending – the burden of living in the divided Germany is too great for pat solutions to work. Perhaps that’s true for all refugee stories – which stay with the people concerned for the rest of their lives rather than just as fleeting news stories for the more fortunate majority.
West is likely to be one of my films of the year. I was particularly impressed by the performance of Jördis Triebel in the central role and at times I found her mesmerising. I’d go as far as saying that the film reminded me of aspects of Fassbinder’s films and that Triebel made a similar impact on me as Hannah Schygulla when I first saw The Marriage of Maria Braun. I’ve seen West described as a psychological thriller but, although I can understand why, for me it seemed more like a melodrama.
Nelly Senff (Jördis Triebel) and her small son Alexei (Tristan Göbel) are introduced first in 1975 when Alexei’s father, a Russian physicist, is about to go on a trip and gives his son a warm sweater to protect him from the cold. Three years later we meet Nelly and Alexei again, this time attempting to leave East Germany for the West with a man who Alexei calls “my new Dad”. Nelly is forced to undergo a humiliating strip search but is eventually released by the East German border control staff and she and Alexei arrive at a reception centre for refugees (Notaufnahmelager) in West Berlin. Lagerfeuer (‘campfire’) is the title of the original novel by Julia Franck – and is based on the author’s personal experience. The film was adapted by Heide Schwochow and directed by her son Christian Schwochow. I think this helps to explain why it felt very much like a female-centred melodrama.
Once Nelly and Alexei have gone through initial processing at the Aufnahmelager Nelly assumes that she will quickly be able to obtain a job. In the East she gained a PhD and worked in an organic chemistry research laboratory. However, her hopes are wildly optimistic. Although some refugees from the East are processed in a few weeks, others are months if not years in the camp. Nelly has left surveillance in the East only to discover that the security services in the West use similar methods. When she is asked why she has left the East she, perhaps naïvely, replies “for personal reasons”. This doesn’t satisfy the security services and the questioning continues. In the meantime life in the camp goes on and the narrative introduces other ‘refugees’ with different individual stories. As the narrative develops, the audience is required to consider whether Nelly really is naïve, whether she knows something she is not telling or whether in fact she is even imagining some of what happens (one reviewer suggests she is developing schizophrenia). The central issue is Alexei’s father Wassilij (who was not married to Nelly – the West German man who helped Nelly leave the East was not a ‘real’ husband either). Did Wassilij die in an accident in Moscow? Is Nelly hoping to find him alive in the West? Is/was he a spy sent to international scientific conferences? A double agent perhaps?
The narrative is not concerned with finding answers to any of the questions above. Instead the focus is on what happens to Nelly and Alexei and how this is represented on screen. For instance, Nelly ‘sees’ Wassilij on the streets of West Berlin or around the camp. These ‘sightings’ are reminiscent of aspects of Christian Petzold’s Yella (2007), another narrative about a woman from the East, this time moving into contemporary western Germany after re-unification. Petzold made another melodrama with Nina Hoss, set in East Germany in 1980 in the form of Barbara (2012) and one of the earlier films to cover similar ground was Margarethe von Trotta’s Das Versprechen (The Promise, 1995) which featured a woman who had left the DDR for the West and the young man (also a scientist) she left behind in the East. All of these film are essentially female-centred melodramas set during the Cold War and featuring the impact of ‘crossing’ the wall built to keep East and West apart. However, the film which drew the biggest audiences in the West was The Lives of Others (Germany 2006) – much more clearly a thriller about how the Stasi, the East German security police, spied on citizens. I must revisit that film but my first impression during its successful initial release was that it did not work for me as well as Das Versprechen and then subsequently the Petzold films. I think that it isn’t helpful, as some reviewers have done, to relate West to The Lives of Others. Instead, it’s worth reflecting on what the experience of leaving the East and undergoing interrogation in the West has on Nelly.
I don’t want to spoil the narrative, but it’s worth pointing out that one of the three significant characters who Nelly spends time with is an African-American intelligence agent – a character who once again invokes Fassbinder (e.g. in The Marriage of Maria Braun the American sergeant who Maria takes up with is played by an actor called George Bird – the character in West is ‘John Bird’). The developing relationship with Bird has a definite effect on Nelly and leaves us wondering about her behaviour. Similarly we wonder about the ‘truth’ behind the story of Hans, a single man who has been in the camp for over a year and is seemingly unable to cope with life in the West. Is Hans a Stasi ‘plant’ sent to spy on refugees like Nelly or a genuine survivor of maltreatment in the GDR? Hans and Alexei become close as the latter struggles with his new life. Meanwhile Nelly befriends a woman nearer her own age, a Polish mother of a small girl and protector of an ageing father. These are German-speaking Poles and so unsure about new life in the West that they are reluctant to reveal their cultural accomplishments. Through these various encounters we gradually begin to recognise that the mistrust between East and West is destroying the possibility of meaningful relationships between people.
The film’s ending is in one sense inconclusive – we don’t get the ‘answers’ a thriller genre narrative promises – but I found it optimistic in terms of potential future relationships. The three writers of this material all made the journey from East to West, either before or after 1989, and I take this to be an informed representation of what that journey meant to large numbers of Germans. I wonder what those same people think about the fate of the Greek population in the current Eurozone banking crisis – with ordinary people trying to live their lives governed by a system that seemingly cares little about their daily lives. I’m looking forward to seeing West again and I’d like to see more by the cast and by the Schwochows. The film’s UK distributor New Wave Films has useful material on its website, including interviews with the Schwochows.
Here’s the trailer from New Wave. Interestingly, the American trailer is slightly different emphasising the thriller, Cold War and geo-political issues.
There was a moment when I was watching Barbara – which admittedly means quite a lot of watching the wonderful Nina Hoss – when it occurred to me that if there was a film like this to watch every week, I’d be very happy. When the film finished, my viewing companions surprised me by not agreeing with my sense of satisfaction. Perhaps they’ll comment on this post and explain why?
Many of the press reports have compared Barbara to The Life of Others (Germany 2006) which proved a major international hit. Barbara is similar in theme, but not in ‘feel’. Some aspects of Das Versprechen (The Promise, Germany 1994) seemed more apposite for me. I think director Christian Petzold set out to make a film quite unlike The Lives of Others in its depiction of life behind the Berlin Wall.
The setting of Barbara is East Germany in 1980. Barbara (Nina Hoss) has arrived in a small town in Pomerania near the Baltic coast to take up a new post in a hospital. Gradually we learn that she has been forced to leave a prestigious hospital in Berlin following her request to leave the country. Having angered the authorities with this request, she is now not to be trusted and is therefore subject to routine surveillance in her allocated apartment and suffers doubly in the hospital. It will take her time to sort out who is unfriendly because they think she is a stuck-up metropolitan type and who has been assigned to watch her closely and report back.
Barbara knows the score and therefore she is reluctant to respond to the overtures of Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld) who is effectively her boss. He seems warm and welcoming, but is he too good to be true? Forced into moments of close contact (they are paediatric surgeons, working together) he at one point tells her a story to explain why he too has been ‘sent to the provinces’. Is he lying? Zehrfeld, who comes across as a slightly podgy but much nicer Russell Crowe, is very engaging but the film’s production design and cinematography creates a narrative space so pregnant with distrust that we are equally as unsure as Barbara about who to trust. (He clearly is under surveillance himself, but this might be a cover, a double-bluff.)
There is an excellent Press Pack for the film available here (as a pdf) in which Petzold discusses the film at length in terms of what he was trying to achieve and how he and the cast and crew prepared themselves. He tells us, for instance, that the two films that were most important in influencing the story and how he approached it were Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not in which Bogart and Bacall develop a romance in Martinique under surveillance by the Vichy French police in 1940 and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Merchant of Four Seasons. The latter is one of several Fassbinder melodramas which present the feel and tone of life in post-war West Germany. Petzold showed the Hawks picture to his would-be lovers before the shoot and then looked to create something similar to Fassbinder’s mise en scène in representing the GDR in 1980. He argues that in recent films, the GDR has been portrayed in greys and browns – too symbolically drab and desperate. Petzold claims to have steered away from symbolism as such and tried for a very realist presentation, meticulously recreating hospital rooms etc. Certainly he shows the late summer as full of vibrant colours in the fields, but some scenes still seem to have an expressive edge (on several occasions when Barbara makes dangerous journeys by bicycle near the sea in order to secretly meet her West German lover or to hide incriminating evidence, there is a howling wind blowing). Overall though I think the approach works and the atmosphere is created more by narrative suspense than clunky symbols.
The last section of the narrative is both the most emotional in terms of the potential romance and the most suspenseful. It is also the sequence in which Petzold seems to contrive a thriller narrative with a plot that is either full of holes or too obvious in its direction. I can see these criticisms but neither of them bothered me as I watched the sequence. The careful mise en scène and slow pace – even as the tension mounts – kept me enthralled. I felt both the horror of living in a society where every sound of a motor vehicle or a step on the stair means possible discovery and arrest and the romantic intensity of choosing between security on the one hand and genuine passion but no security on the other. This kind of desperate choice is really what the film is about. I though the film’s ending was appropriate and satisfying and overall I found the film to be humanist in its approach.