Tagged: New German Cinema

Adapting Highsmith #2: The Glass Cell (Die gläserne Zelle, West Germany 1978)

Lisa (Brigitte Fossey) and Phillip (Helmut Griem) at the railway station at the beginning of The Glass Cell

Lisa (Brigitte Fossey) and Phillip (Helmut Griem) in a publicity shot taken at the railway station when Phillip returns from prison in The Glass Cell

My second Patricia Highsmith adaptation in the touring film season was The Glass Cell at HOME in Manchester. This time it looked to be a DCP from an old video copy. The image was degraded but the subtitles were pristine digital and the sound was the same loud and ‘over bright’ mono as at the Hyde Park in Leeds in Deep Water (France 1981). The image didn’t really do justice to the work of cinematographer Robby Müller and, as with editor Peter Przygodda, this was his second Highsmith adaptation in a row, following Wim Wenders’ Der Amerikanische Freund (1977), based on the novel Ripley’s Game (1974). The Wenders connection is also carried through in the shape of director Hans W. Geissendörfer who was a founder member of the Filmverlag der Autoren which produced or distributed many of the films of the ‘New German Cinema’. The Glass Cell is a more ‘popular’/conventional film than most of the New German Cinema films, but it is still a film that deserves attention. The ‘production supervisor’ on the film was Bernd Eichinger, one of the most important figures in German cinema from the mid-1970s up until his death in 2011. The three leading players were all well-known in European cinema. Both Helmut Griem and Dieter Laser were leading German players with international production experience and Brigitte Fossey was borrowed from French cinema.

The film’s plot is familiar and very much what we might expect from Highsmith (it’s an adaptation of a 1964 Highsmith novel with the same title) – it even includes the train which brings Phillip Braun (Helmut Griem) back to Frankfurt after a five-year prison sentence for causing death and injury through shoddy work as an architect on a building project. Quickly explained in an expressionist flashback in the first few minutes of the film, this is quite difficult to grasp in terms of detail and I’m not sure that the subtitles explain enough about the legal questions. Phillip is still convinced that he was set up by Lasky (Walter Kohut) the crooked accountant/speculator on the building project. Somehow, a large sum of money is missing and the assumption is that Phillip has taken it and used cheap and unsafe substitute materials. During his nearly five years ‘inside’ Phillip has suffered mentally and also seems to have lost something of his status as husband and father with his wife Lisa (Brigitte Fossey) and his son Timmie, both of whom seeming to have fallen for the slick lawyer David Reinalt (Dieter Laser) –  who was supposedly Phillip’s top legal counsel in his defence. Reinalt still maintains that Lasky is behind all Phillip’s problems. He tries to help Phillip find a job, but also seems to be overly supportive of Lisa and Timmie.

Lasky and Phillip have both taken part in a police line-up and the officer in charge (Bernhard Wicki) knows something doesn't add up

Lasky and Phillip have both taken part in a police line-up and the officer in charge (Bernhard Wicki) knows something doesn’t add up

As in Deep Water, Highsmith’s story is about a faltering marriage in which the husband is prompted to take drastic action. In this case, however, there is a more acute police presence placing the criminals in jeopardy. I won’t spoil the narrative pleasure, but I found the resolution of the narrative curiously satisfying. There are several recurring Highsmith tropes and direct similarities with Deep Water. Once again there is a bright child of the marriage – Timmie plays the flute and he gives a performance attended by his parents. There is a party where Phillip loses control. As in Der Amerikanische Freund, one of the marriage partners is engaged in art work. Lisa decorates pots and she works in a bookshop. There is mileage in the possibility of an expressive mise en scène based around artworks but because of the murky print it was difficult to see much detail. The whole film is dark and brooding (underlined by the soundtrack early on) but whether deliberate or a function of the degraded image, I can’t be sure. The main action is set in mid-winter so the darkness is realistic. In his notes on the touring season’s website, Pasquale Iannone praises Müller’s streetscapes and there is indeed a deep sense of gloom and despair in Helmut Griem’s walks through the city. As Iannone also points out, the adaptation changes the novel by focusing much more on the ‘post prison’ events, but heightens our understanding of Phillip’s internal anguish by having the letters to him in prison from Lisa read out on the soundtrack. The violent action in the narrative is well-handled and one scene in particular in a raucous beer hall is very effective. Other scenes in apartment blocks feel Hitchcockian in chance encounters with potential witnesses – a nice bit of play with a dog in a lift.

I enjoyed the film despite the image quality and, as in Deep Water, the real pleasure came from the performances and the direction. Helmut Griem as the central character is excellent with a look of utter calm that suggests both coldness and possibility of despair. Brigitte Fossey is equally compelling. I’m definitely going to try to see more of the films in this season. The Glass Cell was a West German entry for Best Foreign Language film in the 1979 Academy Awards. There are four more films in the season coming to HOME and also more screenings at the Hyde Park in Leeds, Showroom, Sheffield and Rio, Dalston and other venues. Please support this excellent season.

Two films by Alexander Kluge


A young Alexander Kluge at the time of the Oberhausen Manifesto

As part of the European Catalyst theme at the Leeds International Film Festival there were two films directed by Alexander Kluge in the 1960s. Kluge was the moving spirit behind the Oberhausen Manifesto (1962) which led to the New German Cinema. He was also a key negotiator in obtaining the state funding that enabled many of the early films of this movement to be produced.

The first film was short documentary Brutality in Stone (Brütalitat in Stein, 1961 12 minutes in black and white). The film uses stills, found footage and recordings from the period to produce a montage of the fascist period displaying Nazi architecture, designs and sketches and statements on art. An opening voice-over [and subtitle] informs the viewer that ““very structure expresses the attitude of the builder.” Then, through a series of both discontinuities but also of parallels and continuities in the images, the film evokes some of the ‘brutal’ aspects of Nazi culture. The effect is powerful and provoking and the editing of the material draws out allusions and significant symbolism. One particular technique alongside the cutting is the use of tracking shots that emphasise the mammoth and often bleak Nazi designs. The film appears to being strongly influenced by Alain Resnais’ key documentary from the 1950s Night and Fog (Nuit et Brouillard, 1956).

The second film was a feature length drama Yesterday Girl (Abscheid von gestern, 1966, in black and white. The cinematography was by a co-signatory of the Oberhausen manifesto Edgar Reitz: later director of the successful Heimat series for German Television. The film follows the travails of a young woman [Anita G. played by Kluge sister Alexandra) who leaves East Germany (Deutsche Demokratische Republik) when her parents are arrested and she moves to the West. The film shows her problems with authorities, landladies, state institutions and in prison as well as several relationships with men. But what is most noticeable is the style, a variation on montage. This includes abrupt edits; the insertion of found sound footage, silent film footage, asynchronous sound and unmotivated ellipses. The film is as much about how we respond to the telling of Anita’s story as it is about the actual events and relationships. Kluge was strongly influenced by the work of Jean-Luc Godard and this film reminded me in particular of Vivre sa Vie (My Life to live, 1962, also in black and white).

Both films were clearly intended to be challenging for an audience. We had the advantage of an introduction by Jo Gilbert, a post-graduate students at Leeds University who is researching Alexander Kluge’s early films. She talked about his importance for the New German Cinema, both in his film work but also in his activities in making funding available. He was influenced by Theodor W. Adorno and by Walter Benjamin. He felt, as certainly did Adorno, that film audiences were too passive. This led to his unconventional style designed to ‘interrupt’ the film viewing and stimulate an ‘active viewer’. He wanted to constantly question the viewer. So his films tended to the non-realist, anti-naturalist and to render narrative continuity problematic.

These aspects were strongly apparent in both films. I tend to think that the view Kluge espoused over-estimated the passivity of viewer. Hence I found that Yesterday Girl overdid the disruptions and discontinuities. The film did not strike me with the force that I found in Godard’s films of the same period. To be fair it was his first feature. I think that a later film like Occasional Work of a female Salve (Gelegenheitsarbeit einer Sklavin, 1973) achieves greater coherence and impact.

However, it is now extremely difficult to see films directed by Kluge, or indeed his fellow directors like Rainer Werner Fassbinder or Volker Schlöndorff, at the cinema. So top marks to Leeds Festival for screening. And top marks for Jo Gilbert for giving us a helpful introduction. I should add that the film was only available for screening in the Digibeta format, which meant that the image quality was not especially good. So finally, bottom marks to the Goethe Institut. They had a whole catalogue of films by Kluge, Fassbinder, Schlöndorff and others available in London in 16mm and 35mm prints. Then they packed them off to Germany early in the digital transition.