I first came across Thomas Arslan in 2011 when five of his films were shown at the Bradford International Film Festival. He also visited the festival and took part in a formal Q&A as well as chatting to several of us in the bar. He seemed like a really nice guy, but perhaps a little diffident for a film director. I enjoyed his films and I’ve looked out for them ever since but I don’t think any of them have got a UK release and I haven’t caught any of them at festivals.
I got the chance to see Bright Nights because of a promotion offered at the Glasgow Film Festival by the streaming service MUBI. I’ll report in full on what a month of MUBI films might look like a little later. Bright Nights is a title that refers to a trip to Northern Norway in the summer undertaken by Michael (Georg Friedrich). Michael is a guy in his late 40s, a construction site manager living in Berlin with his younger partner Leyla (Marie Leuenberger). At the beginning of the narrative he has just heard that his father, who he hasn’t seen for five years, has died from a heart attack in Norway where he has been based since his retirement. When Michael’s sister says she won’t be going to the funeral, Michael decides to take his 14 year-old son Luis (Tristan Göbel) who he has barely seen since his divorce.
Thomas Arslan has a very distinctive film style. His films are often short and this one lasts just under 86 minutes. Arslan’s DoP Reinhold Vorschneider carefully composes static shots which are sometimes held without any discernible action on screen. In an interview on Cineuropa, Arslan responded to the suggestion that he had chosen a ‘relaxed’ pace:
I don’t really think about films in terms of fast or slow. That’s too formal a way to look at it, and I don’t work like that at all. I tried to bring the appropriate rhythm to this very particular story, without being bound by general conceptual rules.
That strikes me as the answer of someone who thinks a lot about how he does things. My own feeling is that he is a good judge of pacing. Yes, shots are held a long time but I didn’t find that off-putting. I should also note that the music by Ola Fløttum (who has worked with Ruben Östlund and Joachim Trier) and the film editing by Reinaldo Pinto Almeida complement the camerawork very well. Added to the pacing is Arslan’s wish to show not tell so the viewer needs to be alert to look around the image for visual clues rather than expecting dialogue to do the job.
After the initial scenes in Berlin (in which Michael learns that Leyla is going to be working in the US for a year, unsettling him further) father and son arrive in Norway for the funeral and then a trip to the far North involving some camping and hiking. Since Luis barely speaks to his father we know this is going to be a difficult trip. When they pick up their rental Land Rover Discovery the film could become a familiar road movie, but there are few ‘adventures’ or interesting encounters. It might be an ‘anti-road movie’ but actually in some ways it becomes a film which conveys very well the the feelings and emotions that can arise on a journey, especially on empty roads in a wild environment. There is a standout sequence lasting over 4 minutes in which the camera simply stares through the windscreen at the road ahead as the vehicle moves through the fog on an upland road. I found this almost a spiritual experience, especially with the music, a synthesiser drone that rises imperceptibly as the car rolls on with the only other sound that of the tyres on the road and the low thrum of the engine. The snow poles which look so odd in the summer landscape reminded me of some roads in the Pennines. Not surprising perhaps but such areas of wilderness are so much more extensive in Norway which looks terrific through Vorschneider’s lens.
Rebuilding a father-son relationship is a relatively common theme in films, but it is rarely achieved with such subtlety as in Bright Nights. At the end of the film, which is mainly composed of long shots, there is none of the emotional catharsis of mainstream movies. There are just a couple of shots in which we search for and find some emotional meaning – and that’s enough.
If you like calm, intelligent and beautifully crafted films, Bright Nights is for you. If you want excitement or a popcorn movie experience, it isn’t. The two leads are both excellent. I thought they seemed familiar and Georg Friedrich was indeed the lead in Aloys (Switzerland-France 2016) which I saw on a plane last year. I’ve got a bit more of an excuse for not recognising Tristan Göbel who was equally good as the 10 year-old boy in the excellent Westen (Germany 2013). I’m delighted to have had the chance to see Bright Lights, now I must find Gold from 2013 with Nina Hoss.
Here’s the German trailer for the film (no English subs), but at least you can get a sense of the cinematography:
Bradford welcomed Thomas Arslan for the UK première of his latest film In the Shadows (Im Schatten) and after the screening he was interviewed by festival programmer Neil Young. There wasn’t a big audience, but it was appreciative and for the small group of us who had seen all, or most, of the preceding four films, Im Schatten was a real treat. Like Arslan’s other fiction films, Im Schatten is quite short (85 mins) with a pared-down storyline and a spare shooting style. However, it gallops along by comparison with the earlier character studies and works convincingly as a classical European crime film. Neil Young suggested Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le samouraï (1967) as a model, but later Arslan himself referred to the same director’s Le cercle rouge (1970) and that does make more sense in terms of the plot. He also told us that he was a crime fiction fan (I knew this guy had good taste) and that one of his influences was Don Siegel’s work.
The Alain Delon character (i.e. from Le cercle rouge) in Arslan’s original script is ‘Trojan’ played by the Berlin actor Misel Maticevic – unknown in the UK but a veteran of German TV. He is very well cast and able to portray the extremely precise actions of this cool criminal. Trojan arrives back in Berlin looking for a new job. He visits a couple of local mobsters, stealing from one (and trashing the thugs sent to get the money back from him) and turning down job offers that involve working with undisciplined men. Eventually he learns of a possible heist via a bent lawyer played by Karoline Eichhorn, familiar from Arslan’s Ferien. Unfortunately, Trojan’s meetings with Dora are being monitored by a rogue police inspector. Thus the professional criminal gets himself into a situation where he is being effectively chased by the local mobster’s thugs and a dogged policeman and then there is Dora – is she reliable?
I enjoyed the film very much, partly I’m sure because of my engagement with the previous four films shown in the retrospective. All of the films are in a sense, calm, cool and ‘clean’ – even when characters are falling out. Im Schatten was shot on a budget of €550,000 (I asked Thomas Arslan) and as he explained, that did restrict the shooting time available, the parts of Berlin that he could close off and the spaces on location he could organise. On that kind of budget you can’t stage a high street shoot-out in the style of Michael Mann in Heat. Instead, the action scenes are generally confined to rooms and corridors. Moments like the shot through the glass above have to be caught just when the opportunity arises. All of this worked well, except perhaps for the heist itself which became perhaps a little too unlikely. If I’m honest, I perhaps ‘admired’ the first half of the film more than I got fully wrapped up in it, but by the second half I was fully committed and I was sad when the film ended – I could have taken more and wanted to know what happened next (the ending is ‘open’).
In conversation Thomas Arslan proved to be an engaging but self-effacing filmmaker. He appears to be committed to his work, simply trying to achieve the best results possible. He spoke about the shooting of Im Schatten. Cinematographer Reinhold Vorschneider used the digital Red One camera which seemed to work well with the overall production design representing the clean, open lines of Berlin – a city we were reminded that is much smaller than London. It emerged that Vorschneider had also shot another German crime film, Der Räuber (based on a true story) at roughly the same time as Im Schatten – an interesting double bill, perhaps? I don’t think that Thomas Arslan had worked with Vorschneider before but he did have his regular editor Bettina Blickwede on board and I’m guessing that continuity is a feature of his work.
The audience was clearly with the film and interested in their guest. The questions were interesting, but on one key issue, Arslan seemed fairly reluctant to say too much. It was clear that several people in the audience (me included) were interested in his position as a director from a culturally-mixed background who had made films about German-Turkish characters (One Fine Day is the last of a trilogy about Turkish-Germans in Berlin) as well as the documentary on going back to visit Turkey, Aus der Ferne. He made the understandable point in reference to the Turkish documentary that he couldn’t say how Turkey had changed (he went to school in Ankara before moving back to Germany where he was born), only how he had changed and how he now saw things differently. He did say that he didn’t have any particular interest in Turkish Cinema and that as a child in Turkey he only remembered seeing American movies. To be fair, the Turkish Cinema of the 1970s had largely collapsed by the time he was watching films and it has revived only since he left. However, despite what he said he featured Nuri Bilge Ceylan in his documentary so he must be noticing what is going on! The crucial question for me is whether there is a distinctive difference between what might be called a ‘Turkish diaspora filmmaking culture’ and that of the Asian/African/Caribbean diaspora in France and the UK.
In response to one of the questions Arslan confirmed that one of his aims was to explore characters ‘in space’ – how they operate in terms of the narrative space allowed them by the mise en scène. And this is certainly evident in his films – and in this film is bolstered by Maticevic’s performance. He responded to a question about the ‘Berlin School’ by saying that on the one hand it didn’t really mean anything but on the other hand it was helpful in getting his films some promotion. This latter issue was something several of us raised. We all clearly enjoyed watching the films on a big screen (courtesy of prints from the Berlin Film Museum) but apart from Im Schatten, most of his films appeared only on German TV even if some of them made it onto DVDs. We pressed him as to whether he could get more funding by getting TV channels and distributors from France, Italy, UK etc. on board. He seemed quite diffident about this, worrying that more production partners possibly meant more interference. That is clearly a worry but it would be sad if films as well made as these were denied a cinema audience. Perhaps we might have egged him on to look for better distribution. I hope so.
We should thank the festival and Neil Young in particular for bringing Thomas Arslan over.
Neil Young’s ‘Jigsaw Lounge’ has an extended interview with Thomas Arslan about Im Schatten here.
A detailed Thomas Arslan bio is on the German Film portal which also has a section on Turkish-German film (which helps to explain Arslan’s position).
There is an interview with Arslan about Im Schatten on Cineuropa’s YouTube site:
and a trailer (in German without subs):
The fourth festival film from Thomas Arslan was another short feature made for television – one of a trilogy, I think, about characters in a particular district of Berlin. We see 24 hours in the life of Deniz, a young Turkish-German actress. On this day Deniz (played by Serpil Turhan) will try to split up with her boyfriend, go to work in a dubbing studio, visit her mother, go to an audition, meet her sister and spend time with a guy she notices on the street. There is no ‘plot’ as such, unless we create one in the form of some kind of ‘journey of discovery’ for Deniz.
As with all Arslan’s films that we’ve seen in the festival, this is beautifully shot and edited. Even the simplest actions – opening a door, entering a room, walking down the street – involve perfect compositions held for just a little longer than usual. There is a lot of movement across Berlin – mostly walking or riding on the U-Bahn or S-Bahn – and on this sunny summer’s day the city looks attractive and inviting. I happily watched Deniz move through it with her purposeful stride.
Deniz gets to the point when she meets people. She says what she thinks in a matter of fact way. She’s trying to work out what relationships are all about – how and why she should nurture them and how she will know when it is worthwhile to stick with someone. The only clunky moment in the film for me was when she approached a woman in a coffee bar for a cigarette and eventually prompted a lecture about the meaning of romance. Perhaps it is unfair to call it clunky – if she’d asked me about romance I would probably have given the same explanation that ‘romantic love’ is an eighteenth century social construct.
This was one of my favourite films of the festival and it set things up nicely for the last Arslan film screening – at which he would be present. Watch this space.
The second and third films in Bradford’s Thomas Arslan retrospective confirmed that the stylistic traits of Ferien shown earlier in the festival have deep roots. Turn the Music Down (Mach die Musik leiser) (Germany 1994) is recognisably the work of the same director, albeit with non-professional actors. There are the same perfect compositions on which the camera lingers – perfectly still but seemingly waiting for something that doesn’t necessarily happen. Or perhaps it is to allow us to reflect on the lives of the young characters in the story? I found myself happily watching a film in which nothing really happens in the sense of the generic narratives found in ‘teen films’ of any kind. I think this was because I was watching on a big screen and it was pleasurable to watch the scenes roll by and muse about the characters – but if this had been on television (it was shot for ZDF in Germany) I would probably have ignored it.
Turn the Music Down focuses on a group of four lads aged 16-20 (I’m not sure of their ages because the German school/college system is different) plus a similar number of girls (probably slightly younger). They live in Essen in the Ruhr and the major source of entertainment for the lads is music – ‘death metal’. They also go to a drive-in cinema and a music bar, but otherwise simply ‘hang out’. So far, so good, but these are bloodless teens by US or UK standards. They appear to have little testosterone – there’s no sex in the movie, no fights, no blazing rows with teachers or parents or police, no drugs. They drink beer but don’t get drunk. Their only vice seems to be to smoke too much and occasionally to shoplift or steal petrol. On the other hand, they are closer to what I imagine German youths of the time to be like (confirmed by some of the comments on IMDB etc.). I think the closest British film I can think of would be Ken Loach’s Looks and Smiles (1981), set in Sheffield and also made for TV, but that film has much more plot and an anger about unemployment. The German youths seem to have lost anger and found ennui – the global affliction of the 1990s? The most interesting comment comes from the older brother of the central character when he warns that “you mustn’t show fear – that’s what they want to feel” (the ‘they’ being, presumably, parents, education authorities, employers etc.).
Arslan himself lived in Essen and must have observed young people like this – I wonder what they did next? The oldest youth was due to start his Army Service at the end of the film.
From Far Away (Aus der Ferne, Germany 2006) is a documentary about Arslan’s journey through Turkey in 2005. It adopts the familiar style of the earlier features. A static camera, carefully positioned, creates landscapes, views over the city from windows, street scenes, closer shots of groups etc. The structure is the journey – starting in Istanbul and then moving to Ankara. In Istanbul Arslan joins Nuri Bilge Ceylan – editing Climates as far as I could make out. In Ankara he takes us to his old house and tells us about the school he went to. The journey then moves south to nearly the Syrian border and then East towards Iran. There are a couple of other short commentaries (about the Kurds and the history of persecution against the Armenians). Otherwise we are left to make our own minds up about what we see – which is fine by me. What it meant to me was an introduction first to busy, secular Instanbul, literally the gateway to Europe (with the image of people leaving the station) and then to calmer Ankara, the ‘modern’ capital. But as we travel south and east, an older, more complex image develops – not without its issues of security (the constant checkpoints on the road) and struggles for identity in a multicultural society, but also with beautiful landscapes. I’ve seen a negative review of the film but for me it acted like an invitation to the South and East of this large country which I’d certainly like to visit. In a later Q&A session, Arslan denied any strong identification with Turkish Cinema and in answer to a question about what he thought about Turkey (this documentary was his first visit for many years, I think) he said only that things looked different from his perspective simply because he had been away for some time and he had changed – the perfect response, I guess, from someone making a largely observational documentary.
German-Turkish auteur Thomas Arslan is one of the festival guests appearing alongside a five film retrospective. This feature was the first of the five to be shown. As the title suggests, it belongs to the genre of family dramas set in holiday retreats. In the UK this is usually restricted to the wealthy middle-classes and programmer Neil Young suggested an affinity with UK director Joanna Hogg’s Archipelago (2010) in his introduction. I haven’t seen that film, though I had major problems coping with the characters in her earlier film Unrelated (2007). The class issue seems more to the fore in certain French films but Arslan’s family here seemed remarkably ‘ordinary’.
The family house belongs to Anna and her second husband Robert and is situated in the woods and lakes of Brandenburg, north of Berlin. During the Summer Anna’s two daughters visit from Berlin. Laura is with her husband Paul and their two small children. Sophie arrives later seemingly after a long absence. The son, Max, who is younger is still at school and spends much of his time with his girlfriend during the holidays. Finally Anna’s mother arrives, also from Berlin.
The drama arises from Laura’s problems with her marriage which, though evident early on, aren’t explained until later. Laura’s behaviour also irritates her mother when she suggests that the house is now too big and Anna should think of moving back to Berlin. Robert bought the house and he isn’t inclined to move. As far as I can see, all the children were brought up there. However, the area was originally in East Germany and Laura and Sophie would have been born before re-unification. None of this is explained/explored but presumably a German audience would be aware of nuances. Max is taunted by his mates to the extent that his father looks “a bit weird and dresses like a tramp” – is this a veiled reference to an East German past?
Anna is also disturbed by her mother’s health. She is clearly ill and has refused to get medical advice. Is it now too late? All these questions/problems are explored in a sensitive way and the film is beautifully photographed and edited. The calm long shots of the woods and pathways and the rustling of the wind help to create an ambience of rural tranquillity with suggestions of storms on the horizon. But the film doesn’t feel like a family melodrama. The two small children play happily on their own and with each of the adults. The screaming anger is confined to a few scenes. My main reaction was to be grateful for an insight into family life in a different European tradition. Although I enjoy a full-blooded melodrama, I can appreciate a quiet drama like this when it is presented so expertly. On the other hand, not a lot happens and I wasn’t surprised to learn that the film doesn’t appear in Lumière’s database of European cinema films apart from a brief outing in France. Ferien was funded by the publicly-funded German TV channel ZDF and broadcast over the public cultural TV network Sat3.
I’m now intrigued at the prospect of more work from Arslan. I understand that he usually works with small budgets but has used non-professionals in some of his earlier work. Here the cast includes well-known German actors. Arslan is also one of the directors associated with the so-called ‘Berlin School’ (as a graduate from Deutsche Film und Fernsehakademie Berlin (dffb)). This term has now been used much more loosely but still marks the recognition of the emergence of directors who don’t make conventional films about the Nazi period, the Stasi or re-unification. This useful Cineaste article maps out the background.
The film is available from Amazon UK as a German DVD import (Region 0).
Here’s what appears to be a ‘music video’ which shows the visual style (I don’t remember the song being in the film):