The ancient Germanic and Scandinavian tales of Siegfried or Sigurd were vital building blocks for much middle and northern European folk culture. This was true long before Richard Wagner conflated them for his delirious, impossibly long, musically ostentatious opera cycle, and certainly long before J.R.R. Tolkien absorbed them into his The Lord of the Rings tales. Tolkien’s variation, in repositioning the material as a battle against tyrannical evil, tried to present a completely opposite contemporary tilt on the stories to that assumed by Hitler and the Nazis, who annexed aspects of them through Wagner as lynchpins for their own mythology. Siegfried, the anointed, pure hero who defeated the dragon and yet fell to a spear in the back, presented to post-WW1 German nationalists a powerful metaphor for what they saw as the betrayal of their great struggle by politicians. The possibly apocryphal story of director Fritz Lang’s encounter with Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, who, as Lang later recounted, asked him to become their master filmmaker, is today known by just about anyone with pretences to film scholarship. It’s one of those singular moments where, as with Eisenstein’s contretemps with Stalin or Ronald Reagan’s co-opting a popular sci-fi adventure for a planned weapons system, where cinema history and political history suddenly unite with genuine import. In Lang’s account, he was approached on the back of their adoration of his two-part 1924 film of the epic poem Die Nibelungenlied, and its science-fiction follow-up Metropolis (1926), works riven with Lang’s malleable sense of human masses and colossal design bound together as expressive instruments that seem to dwarf individualism in the face of historic forces. The fact that Lang’s wife and collaborating screenwriter, Thea von Harbou, became a Nazi (albeit, so she said, to protect Indians, like her later lover, living in Germany), and that many of his cast and crew would be doomed, like or not, to keep working in a Goebbels-run film industry, deepened the seeming surety of Lang’s links to the new regime.
However, there were dimensions of Lang, half-Jewish and Austrian-born, and his aesthetics that the Nazis had not understood or had wilfully ignored, and this was one dragon he decided not to cuddle up to. Lang left Germany, arrived in Hollywood as an artistic hero, and finished up as a near-forgotten B-movie helmsman, albeit one who would be rediscovered just as his career was ending. Such is the lay of Lang’s fall from his pinnacle as the world-shaking cinema titan who bankrupted UFA and inspired the likes of Luis Buñuel and Alfred Hitchcock to become filmmakers. It’s neither fair nor entirely apt that the original mythology or Lang’s film of it should have to withstand such evil cultural and historical associations, but they still remain. Made nine years before Hitler’s rise to power, Die Nibelungen’s dedication “To the German People” in the earlier context reads as encomium to a beaten and deeply depressed nation trying to struggle its way out of a dreadful collapse in political structures, economic terrors, and appalling loss, whilst the film radiates the sensation of the pre-war neo-classical love for mythology and fantasy now scratching beneath the fanciful veneer of the iconography and finding the real emotion and hard lessons such surviving tales still contained. The tale’s depiction of a maddened clash not only of individuals and peoples, but also values and world-views, fighting each-other to a bloodily apocalyptic nullity, reflects the still sharp memory of the Great War as noble yet incoherent tragedy.
Lang himself hated Wagner’s chauvinistic mash-up, and based his films squarely on the saga written by an anonymous poet who was probably part of the court of the Bishop of Passau at the turn of the thirteenth century. The poem was a product of a phase in European history when rulers were attempting synthesise new loyalties and codes of behaviour, as well as put the burgeoning numbers of poets and troubadours to some use, through formalising national mythologies in the pattern of Homer’s epics: most of the Arthurian tales came out of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s court a little earlier. Like such works, Die Nibelungenlied, which obviously combined transmissions of Greek myth, passed on from hazy sources, with folk memories and legends, was a study in medieval ethics and social constructs, which stressed ambiguity on a human level by presenting cast-iron order and morality imbued on a cosmic level: heroes fall because of their blind spots, and the righteous often appear to be uglier than the villainous in attempting to assert an absolute ethic, and finally history, or fate, or society, wins over the individuals even as each venerate the fallen. The poem also neglected most of the oversized mythological details, like Siegfried’s descent from the Norse gods, and instead presented a story squarely set in an historical context, and in spite of fantastical touches like the dragon Siegfried kills and the magical helmet he wears, the tone is largely that of this earth.
The first part of Lang’s work thus kicks off, rather than climaxes with, Siegfried’s greatest mythical hits and, in the total scheme of the films, moves through them at lightning speed. Lang’s film preserves the feudal flavour and fearsome, atavistic sensations of the poem, and yet is also a prototypical version of the same modern moral universe, inflated in scale and resonance but still recognisable, as that Lang explored through less distant prisms in subsequent films as diverse as M (1931), Fury (1936), Scarlet Street (1945), and The Big Heat (1953). Such was a universe where a daemonic quality in human nature wreaks havoc, and mankind on a social level is often disturbingly mindless and reactive. The nobility and ethical strength of the individual barely keeps afloat when such forces are unleashed, the heroes’ loving impulses often transmuting into a hard and unforgiving vengefulness, one that risks becoming monstrous and inhuman in the name of maintaining a human, moral shape to the universe. Lang’s sensibility thus intuitively grasps some of the subtler inferences of the original myth and many like it. In the immediate context of Lang’s run of ‘20s work, where the Dr Mabuse films explored the paranoid mindset of the contemporary and Metropolis posited fables in the future, Die Nibelungen looked for same in the distant past. In each, a similar, sinister sense of plots laid and hatching evil is facilitated by borrowed guises as the means to insidious ends: Siegfried’s use of his magic helmet equates with Mabuse’s use of disguise and the robotic Maria in Metropolis. Lang’s personal art was perhaps most strongly defined in and contained by Die Nibelungen, because, as has been noted, the essential figurations of the tale recur again and again in Lang’s films. Clearly, for Lang, Die Nibelungen was more than a national myth: it was his own.
The early stages recount how Siegfried (Paul Richter), son of the king of Xanten, has been residing for years with bedraggled old blacksmith, Mime (Georg John), of a race of barely-human mountain men, learning hardiness and craft in a lofty cave. Siegfried is introduced forging a sword sharp enough to cut a feather that falls upon its edge, impressing Mime, who tells his charge that his apprenticeship is over, and that he can return to his father. But another mountain man speaks of the castle at Worms, seat of the king of Burgundy, and of the beauty of the princess Kriemhild (Margarete Schön). Siegfried decides instead to do deeds mighty enough to win Kriemhild. Fate gives him his chance right away, as he encounters, on his way, a colossal dragon that rules a mountain grove, in order to present to the world his own vision for mankind’s conquest of death and terror. Siegfried kills the dragon and showers under the blood that runs from its carcass, making him impervious to physical wounding, except at one spot on his back where a leaf from a lime tree falls and sticks. This is the first and most overt moment in the film which seems like a progenitor with endless resonance through subsequent fantasy cinema, perhaps the first great leap forward from Georges Méliès’ rough sketches, with the proto-animatronic dragon moved by steam-powered puppetry, glimpsed drinking from a pool and lashing out at the miniscule but dogged attacker with tail and fire: just about every special-effects driven movie made subsequently owes something conceptually or technically to this scene, from King Kong (1933) through to Jurassic Park (1992) and on to the present.
Siegfried’s legend begins to precede his approach, as his deeds are recounted in Worms to Kriemhild, her mother Queen Ute (Gertrud Arnold), and her brothers, the King Gunther (Theodor Loos), and the younger Gernot (Hans Carl Mueller) and Giselher (Erwin Biswanger), by court troubadour Volker of Alzey (Bernhard Goetzke). Meanwhile, Siegfried, continuing his journey, encounters Alberich (John again), a Nibelungen or goblin metal-smith, who possesses a fabulous treasure, as well as the magic helmet, which confers invisibility. Alberich assaults Siegfried whilst wearing the helmet, but Siegfried overpowers and kills him, leaving Siegfried with his treasure and the great sword Balmung. Now, invincible and able to command the loyalty and needs of men, Siegfried conquers and then commands twelve petty kings, and brings them as his followers to Worms. Siegfried, a king in his own right, hopes to forge stronger bonds between the various European kingdoms. Whilst Siegfried and Gunther become friends, and the court’s band of fraternal warriors are dubbed ‘Nibelungen’ to celebrate the new compact, at the insistence of Gunther’s truculent advisor Hagen of Tronje (Hans Adalbert Schlettow), Siegfried won’t be allowed to marry Kriemhild until he helps Gunther marry too. For Hagen has convinced Gunther to expand his realm by wedding the Queen of Iceland, Brünhild (Hanna Ralph), who lives in a fire-ringed castle with an army of shield-maidens. The prodigious Queen has set no easy requirements for suitors: they have to beat her in three tests of strength, on pain of death. Gunther is anything but a champion, and he prevails upon Siegfried, donning his magic helmet, first to invisibly guide his actions in the joust, and then to take his own guise to subdue her on the wedding night when she continues to reject him. In gratitude, Gunther not only lets Siegfried marry Kriemhild, but also goes through a ceremony of blood brotherhood with him.
Lang’s eye, with the tools of the amazing set design and decoration by Otto Hunte, Karl Vollbrecht, and Erich Kettelhut, and the costuming by Paul Gerd Guderian and Aenne Willkomm, allows the essential conflicts and thematic tensions of the early stages of this drama accumulate through distilled signifiers. The initial sight of Worms as described by the mountain men appears like a dream vision, rising above the primal landscape of craggy mountains and colossal forest trees, tangles of wilderness and stygian depths of the unknown, through which Siegfried makes his heroic advance. It’s impossible to miss the similarity of imagery in the moment in which Siegfried follows Albrecht into his cavern to the scene in Metropolis where Fredersen follows Rotwang into the catacombs, although the journey is closer in spirit to that of Freder in the latter film, a trek into the underworld where the hero risks his life but emerges with riches. Siegfried, simultaneously, moves from the very fringes of the world, through the midst of the forest via the dragon and various semi-human races he encounters, to Worms, which, with its soaring battlements and radiating aura of centrifugal power and gravitas, seems like a bastion of all humans can achieve.
The formalistic world of the Burgundian court sees the characters and architecture arrayed in geometric precision, revealing the increasing influence of modern art styles like Cubism infiltrating Lang’s visuals, whilst also channelling the simple precepts of medieval heraldic decoration: such motifs do not however merely look impressive, but communicate ancient assumptions of hierarchy and power, encoded in the very scenery of the drama. Individuals are dwarfed by the might of the church and the palace, and they move into place with precision in obedience to feudal hierarchy at the court. When Siegfried, pretending to be Gunther, overwhelmed Brünhild, he did not actually deflower her, but he took her armlet, a symbol of chastity, and kept it as a trophy. When Kriemhild finds it and innocently sports it, Siegfried confesses his loyal act of deception. Meanwhile, Brünhild, still harbouring misgivings and gnawed at by her actual ardour for Siegfried, starts throwing her weight around in preferring to destroy what she can’t have. She describes Siegfried as a vassal and claims pre-eminence over Kriemhild upon entering the church, an act of contempt that angers Kriemhild so much she retaliates by telling Brünhild the truth about her wedding. Brünhild, maddened to mania, lies to Gunther that Siegfried actually slept with her when pretending to be him. Hagen, who has wanted an excuse to pilfer the Nibelungen treasure, sides with Brünhild when she demands Siegfried’s assassination.
The dialectic of values that permeates Die Nibelungen is reflected not only in the visuals, but in the opposition of characters. Siegfried, whilst embodying classical ideals of Germanic tribal youth, is also imbued with the nascent patina of Christian idealism in borrowing St George’s mantle (although some have also suggested, interestingly, that this aspect of the myth could have roots in the infamous defeat of the Romans by the Germanic tribes at the Battle of Teutoberg Forest, when the Romans wore scaled armour), penetrating the stygian depths of the forest and extending the bulwarks of civilisation, but utterly at a loss when drawn into the orbit of the political, human world. Defined against his virtue is Gunther, whose essential lack of personal direction and strength contrasts Siegfried’s meritocratic gifts carefully imbued by experience and upbringing, a warning against the dangers of mere inherited power. Even more polarised is Hagen, the unrefined old Teutonic, virile, amoral, fearless, shameless, and loyal to the interests of his nation and the improvement of his king, whether the king likes it or not. The demure Kriemhild seems, at first, the polar opposite of the awesome Brünhild: Kriemhild, quiet, eyes constantly downcast, appears the perfectly deferential, decorous medieval maid, whereas Brünhild is a more ancient kind of women, physically dynamic and wildly tribal, carrying associations with Greek mythical heroines and huntresses like Diana and the champion Atalanta, given superpowers by her intractable chasteness, and Lang and von Harbou stack her portrayal heavily towards hues of misanthropic lesbianism. Initial appearances are partly deceiving, as Brünhild proves increasingly volatile and vindictive once her virginity and sovereignty are surrendered, whilst Kriemhild, who early in the film interrupts a violent quarrel between Siegfried and Hagen with a pacific gesture, grows after marrying Siegfried exponentially in character and stature, until she becomes an all-powerful engine of wrath.
Siegfried and Kriemhild embody the persistence of idealism in civilisation, being reconstituted as the Roman world, distant and increasingly irrelevant, is assailed by Attila and his Huns. But idealism is not necessarily positivist in such a realm: it invokes justice and order as well as liberty and socialisation, and the occasional harshness of those concepts. Hagen and Brünhild, who are both, tellingly, constantly sporting helmets with winged crests that evoke more distant tribal roots and totemistic meaning, are refrains from older times, potent and powerful, but also destructive and self-defeating in their extreme sensibilities. Upon her arrival in Worms, Brünhild, who has before clearly been pagan, consulting an old völva who cast the runes, must kiss the cross in the first act of domestication. This historical world depends utterly on codes of behaviour and ritual that enforce and allow assumptions of trust. The gullibility of Siegfried and Kriemhild and the weakness of Gunther are heightened to amusing extremes, and yet of course it’s actually about demonstrating the level of trust invested in those one fights with and lives with. Hagen violates those presumptions in the most profound manner possible, as he tricks Kriemhild into sewing a cross on the back of Siegfried’s robe that marks out exactly where the leaf that despoiled his invincibility stuck, under the pretext of wanting to protect Siegfried in battle. Out on a hunt, whilst Siegfried drinks from a pool, Hagen spears him in the back.
Die Nibelungen is very long – the two chapters in their full-length cuts take five hours to unspool – in part because Lang plays every scene with a smouldering, slow-mounting intensity that registers with electric fixation and precise weightiness the characters’ actions and reactions. In the sequence of Kriemhild’s confrontation with her dead husband, the slow burn pays off for one of Lang’s brilliant little pirouettes of style, as Kriemhild awakens in the night and wanders from her bedroom, the castle now suddenly a trap of voluminous, haunted space, the hunting party returning from the stygian night with Siegfried’s body on his shield. When Kriemhild comes upon Siegfried laid out, she bends over his body in utter devastation. Whilst there’s much less of the overtly experimental and symbolic technique Lang would use in Metropolis here, Lang employs such elements sparingly and exactingly, and here interpolates a livid piece of imagery as Kriemhild envisions Siegfried standing before the blossoming tree where he was kissing her earlier, the tree of spring then waning in wintry fashion to take on the aspect of a glowing skull. Violent tragedy has been prefigured by an earlier dream Kriemhild had as Siegfried first entered her life, of a white bird being torn apart by black ones, rendered in abstracted animation. Kriemhild’s squall of shock soon segues into realisation that Hagen is the murderer, and she rises from Siegfried’s corpse pointing her finger at the warlord with abysses behind her electric eyes, demanding he be punished. But Gunther, who acquiesced to the crime, his brothers, and Volker all, for the sake of the loyalty that is their own, absolute value, step in front of Hagen, announcing their intention to stand by him. Kriemhild vows revenge, and later finds, when Siegfried’s body has been laid out in the cathedral, that Brünhild, having already revealed to her husband that she had lied about Siegfried’s actions, has killed herself there with a dagger in her heart, and rests bent over his corpse, bringing the curtain down on the first chapter.
The bipolar swing from the transcendental adventure of dragon-slaying to this ugly scene seems to chart a grimmer side to the evolution of human civilisation, out of the forest’s shadows and into the different shadows of human emotional and societal conflict. Kriemhild must evolve further and find a way to slay this entirely different kind of dragon. Like her dead husband, she embarks on a single-minded pilgrimage through the forests to fulfil a vow that will change the shape of the world. Strong female characters in Lang’s work were remarkably common even after his marriage to the imperious Von Harbou broke up, and although at first the drama is driven ironically by a clash of intemperate ladies, Kriemhild and Brünhild, later Kriemhild, like the diptych of Marias in Metropolis but contained within one body, is both goddess and succubus, saviour and annihilator, lording over men as she commits unremittingly to her programme no matter the horror that ensues. Whilst Brünhild comes to resemble a femme fatale of the order of Joan Bennett’s Kitty March in Scarlet Street, Kriemhild, like Spencer Tracy’s Joe Wilson in Fury, Henry Fonda’s title character in The Return of Frank James (1940), and Glenn Ford’s Dan Bannion and Gloria Grahame’s Debby Marsh in The Big Heat, is slowly transformed by her dedication to vengeance into a merciless, inhumane force.
If that dedication is held far higher than the mob mentality, here presented in the form of the Huns, invoked throughout Lang’s films, it’s because it retains a fearful kind of beauty, a singular force that stands rigidly opposed to nihilism and defeatism, and thus constitutes as sure a bulwark against utter moral chaos as Worms’ battlements, but which in any other setting but this demands better answers. The formerly demure, ultra-feminine Kriemhild now becomes the baleful icon, resembling Klimt’s vision of Pallas Athena, cowering grown men with her gaze, her brothers downcast and ashamedly tentative before her, as she accepts an offer from Attila (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) to become his new wife, as he promises to avenge any offence done to her: Kriemhild forces first Attila’s envoy, Rüdiger von Bechlarn (Rudolf Rittner), a Germanic vassal of the Asian conqueror, to swear this oath. She demands it again when she reaches Attila’s keep, in a spellbindingly intense sequence that sees the magnificently ugly Hun warlord and the beautifully icy German widow find a deep understanding in unflinching gazes and oaths of binding import. Attila is later so nervous about the well-being of his wife and his child she’s giving birth to, he can’t prosecute the siege of Rome he’s started, and when news comes of the baby’s safe delivery, he charges with his men back to his stronghold to cradle his babe with childish glee, and grants Kriemhild’s request to invite her brothers for a stay. Along the way he passes by the film’s oddest piece of symbolism, a gaggle of naked children dancing around the one tree in an otherwise blasted plain, emblems of the endangered but growing state of civilisation in this age.
Whilst Metropolis, with its genetic heritage passed on through so much of science fiction that followed and its giddy, frenetic sense of technique, is the most famous of Lang’s films, Die Nibelungen has all of its virtues and none of its faults, not simply in telling a more lucid story – it is admittedly easier to transcribe a work of great classical literature than compose one’s own parables – but also in conceptual depth, narrative integrity, and consistency of acting. The performing is practically cabalistic in its concentration, particularly from Schön, who does some of the most operatic eye-acting in the history of silent cinema, and that’s saying something. As Metropolis is to science fiction, watching Die Nibelungen feels very much like encountering the ür-text of just about the entire canon of historical fantasy-adventure cinema. Whilst many entries in these genres had been made before, Lang’s boldly composed visions seem to have sunk the deepest roots in the imagination of filmmakers, even those who have never seen them, but rather seen the films they inflected. Beyond the impact of his use of special effects, Lang’s visual alchemy presented an indelible model for anyone working with such material. The temptation to completely reinvent the world presented in a movie according to aesthetic choice and artistic desire is always theoretically open to filmmakers, but as it’s so often a realistic medium, few feel free to do so with material set in the modern world, a choice that is however less fraught in fantastic and historical settings. Thus Lang’s holistic sensibility, turning everything within the scope of his camera into an expressive instrument, could find free reign here, and gave to followers an expressive palate that could be used in endless and intricate variations. The influence spreads over a vast spectrum of cinematic icons: the compositions and stylisation of Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938) and Ivan the Terrible (1946-58), the historical swashbucklers of Michael Curtiz and epics of Cecil B. DeMille, the visual motifs of Alfred Hitchcock, Carol Reed, and Orson Welles, through to Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings (over and above the poem’s influence on Tolkien), John Boorman’s Zardoz (1974) and Excalibur (1981), and historical dramas like Anthony Mann’s El Cid (1961), Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971), and Fellini Satyricon (1969). Even sci-fi like Star Wars (1977) bears its imprint; Hagen – or is it Kriemhild? – can be called the absolute original Darth Vader. Lang’s way of settling his camera down to absorb a set composed in precise, static geometry prefigures the self-conscious reproduction of such effects by Sergei Paradjanov. The finale seems to have particularly inspired the core battle sequence in Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (1985).
Die Nibelungen moves with the relentless stateliness of classical tragedy, which is indeed a genre into which the story finally moves, even as the narrative finally erupts with action in an hour-long final sequence of transfixing force. Structurally, it is broken, like an epic poem, into “Cantos” that commence with brief explanatory, pre-empting notes. Kriemhild’s determination to uphold the values she considers sacred – justice and oaths of loyalty – runs headlong into Attila’s own specific absolutes, in this case the nomadic leader’s insistence that an offer of hospitality cannot be violated, so that even whilst he puts the Burgundians in his wife’s lap, he won’t prosecute the vengeance she wants. So, she carefully whips up the Hun warriors, who, wanting to aid the woman whose beauty and statuesque strength seems to them practically god-like, will do anything she asks, so that when the Burgundians arrive, a fight erupts between the partying soldiers of both sides. When a Burgundian soldier runs into Attila’s banquet hall in the keep, shouting, “Treason!”, Hagen promptly, punitively slaughters Attila and Kriemhild’s baby. At the pleading of another of Attila’s German vassals, Dietrich of Bern (Fritz Alberti), he’s allowed to lead Attila, Kriemhild, Rüdiger and others out of the keep, before the Nibelungen close the doors and defend themselves against the waves of Huns who try to hack through the doors and invade via ladders to the roof. The Nibelungen, with their shields and mail as well as fighting prowess, prove near-invincible for the unarmoured, swarming Huns, and so Kriemhild invokes Rüdiger’s oath and demands he lead his own men in, an act which entails the worst possible crisis of conscience: Rüdiger has promised his daughter in marriage to Giselher. But the power of the oath wins out, and Rüdiger moves ominously in to attack. When he tries to strike down Hagen, Giselher leaps in front of the villain in trying to plead with his would-be father-in-law, and dies instead. In the battle that follows, Volker kills Rüdiger, whilst the Huns swarm over Gernot as he pleads with his sister to call them off. Hagen mocks Kriemhild from the keep’s steps after another wave of attackers is beaten off, and finally Kriemhild gives the order to burn the keep to the ground with the remnant Nibelungen inside.
The power of these scenes is virtually indescribable in the infernal concision of the images, especially as the end comes for the Nibelungen, Volker defiantly playing his instrument – in pointed contrast to an earlier scene where he smashed another after Kriemhild left Worms without making peace with any of them – and leading the warriors in song. Attila, outside, in a maniacal trance, rocks his hands to the time of the song, and Kriemhild, at the suggestion from another German vassal that’s she’s been consumed by hate, gestures to the keep and states, “I’ve never been more filled with love,” in admiration for her brothers’ fidelity to their principles. They won’t even let Hagen go out to hand himself over when he proposes to do this. Finally, Dietrich, who, like Attila, is another real historical personage brought into the drama (his real-life analogue was Theodoric the Great, the Visigoth king who conquered Italy), ventures into the keep and overpowers Hagen, dragging him and the king, the last left alive, out to meet the final act of the tragedy. The bleak and dizzying beauty and emotional force of this ending come not simply from the feelings evoked within it and by it, but from the moral ambiguity of it all, as characters one despises suddenly prove themselves heroic beyond measure and true to their private code. Even Gunther gets himself wounded in trying desperately to pluck the fiery arrows from the roof, and Hagen tries to protect the prone king by standing over him with his shield as blocks of masonry crash upon it. The various postures of the characters, their world-ordering sensibilities, finally meet in a mutually annihilating showdown where each major character is forced, one way or another, to destroy what they love most. It’s the darkest possible ending in many ways, and yet bizarrely elating, and it makes, by comparison, most modern descendants of this truly great film experience look childish.
Films that use the ideas of the science fiction genre to genuinely serious investigatory or poetic ends are pretty few and far between in today’s cinema. If they are taking those ideas seriously at all, it’s more likely to be on a conceptual, rather than psychological or emotional, plane. A coldly beautiful and quietly dazzling exercise in psychosexual provocation, as well as a meditation on mortality and personality with a blend of genre with high Freudian perversity, Womb easily bests the last mainstream film to tackle the moral and humanitarian ramifications of cloning, 2010’s unfocused and soapy Never Let Me Go, for narrative density and effect. Fleigauf’s film expands its ideas with genuinely unsettling and affecting permutations that retain a touch of the otherworldly and yet also proceeds with a nerveless logic.
Strangely, Womb has gained little attention, though not too surprisingly, as it’s inevitably noncommercial; I only came across it by chance, dumped onto DVD, in spite of sporting two excellent young stars: Eva Green, an actress who embodies something intelligent yet provocative and insinuatingly decadent even in the most humdrum of parts, and the rubbery-limbed Matt Smith, currently inhabiting the role of Doctor Who. Indeed, it’s been a good year for dumped Green films, also including the lesser but still interesting Cracks.
At the outset of Fleigauf’s film, Green is a solitary woman sitting on the balcony of her remote house, perched on stilts in the midst of a tidal plain, cradling a belly bulging with pregnancy, thanking, in voiceover, someone for this gift. Fliegauf then jumps back many years in the past to when Green’s character, Rebecca, was nine years old (played at that age by Ruby O. Fee), and staying for a vacation with her grandfather. She encountered a boy, Thomas (Tristan Christopher), when he took a break from being chased about by local hooligans to say hello, and they swiftly became inseparable friends, with Rebecca practically absorbed by Thomas’ parents, Ralph and Judith (Mike Leigh regulars Peter Wight and Lesley Manville), into their family. The two children spent an idyllic vacation in spite of the typically northern European, tempestuous, and glowering atmosphere of the seaside locale, with its pebbly beaches and beautifully blasted shores and sands, until Rebecca finally had to leave to join her mother who was taking a job in Tokyo. The night before she leaves, Tom announces he’s going to see her off and give her a going-away present, but he never shows up.
Rebecca returns over a decade later, having gained a degree and a profession as a designer of software for acoustic devices, to take over her since-deceased grandfather’s house and to look for Tom. When she finds him, he’s grown into the agreeable adult form of Smith. When Rebecca finds his current abode, still in the same seaside town that he loves too much to leave, she finds Rose (Natalia Tena) sitting on the floor in her undies, reading a book. But she’s just a casual pick-up, and she gets frustrated and stomps out when faced with Rebecca and Tom’s instantaneously resumed mutual fascination: “Maybe you two should start sniffing each other.” Tom gives Rebecca the present she was supposed to receive, a matchbox containing a snail, now long dead.
Tom, who is now a biology student and an activist, is planning a demonstration at a new cloning centre called Sparkling Park, and has a crate full of cockroaches ready to release to cause alarm amongst the security staff. Rebecca joins him for this jaunt, but when she gets him to pull his car over so she can go take a pee in the grass, and he starts to get out after her, she hears the unmistakeable sound of another car hitting him at speed. Fleigauf and Green pull off this scene with terrific dispassion and a proper sense of the jarring shock of sudden, complete, irretrievable loss registered in the ever so slightly widening eyes of Rebecca as she surveys Tom’s broken body. Except that it’s not irretrievable, not anymore. As Tom’s parents grieve, Rebecca retains her sphinx-like smile, and presents them with a solution: that they clone Tom, and she will act his surrogate mother. Judith rejects the notion, stating that, “We’re atheists…but that doesn’t mean we can rummage in our deceased’s grave…we are not farm animals…we accept what life gives us!” Rebecca presses ahead, however, going to Sparkling Park, where Rose, who works there, catches sight of her. Months later, Rebecca gives birth to Tom redux, and begins to raise him as her own son.
What end such an act can possibly have, and all its manifold and troubling imputations, looms with constant tension throughout Womb, as Fleigauf describes young Tommy’s growth from bulge in Rebecca’s belly to upright young man. Whether Rebecca can continue to treat Tommy as simply her own child who happens to also be giving the genetic material of her great love a second chance at life, or if she’s nursing a darker, if still possibly inchoate, plan to make him a substitute, and what his reaction to the inevitable, practically Greek tragic moment of realisation will be is the crucial question, one that hovers as not entirely resolved until the very end.
In the meantime, Rebecca keeps the truth of Tommy’s origins from him, and when he has an encounter with another cloned youngster, Dima (Gina Stiebitz), he learns of the intense social hatred toward clones. Other concerned mothers, worried when Rebecca invites Dima unknowingly to Tommy’s birthday party, meet with her and explain, in a note-perfect transposition of such anxieties from more familiar worrisome types, how they don’t want their children exposed to the unknown influence of these strange, unnatural entities. But word soon reaches the parents of Tommy’s friends about his genetic origins, thanks to Rose, and when Tommy asks Rebecca why nobody came to his party, Rebecca only says, “Because they’re stupid!” The next day she packs up and moves them both out to the remote house glimpsed at the beginning, where Rebecca continues to live until Tommy is grown, burgeoning into a man eerily similar to his earlier incarnation, with a deep interest in nature and a loopy sense of childish fun. When he moves a girlfriend from college, Monica (Hannah Murray), into the house, the stage is set for possibly the strangest ménage-a-trois, seething beneath the surface and constantly sensed by all parties without quite taking shape, in cinema history.
Fliegauf maintains a tremendous formal control over Womb, which could easily have toppled into torpid psychodrama or arty sterility. His film bears a distinct resemblance, in setting as well as style and the chilly anthropological deconstruction, to the early work of Roman Polanski. Shot in the Sylt region in Germany, near the Danish border, with its many gradations in hazy beauty, the setting presents a perfect barometer for the oedipal drama unfolding with the mood of increasing isolation from the real world. As far as films that use natural settings to define and dominate the mood of a film, Womb stands far above just about any work of recent cinema, except ironically Polanski’s The Ghost Writer (2010).
The womb of the title is both Rebecca’s physical womb, of course, cradle and battlefield of this experiment in human intransigence and longing, but also the house into which she moves to continue her experiment in peace. Fliegauf pieces together telling detail as he effectively describes a warped family situation with cues, usually subliminal and yet constantly accumulating, occasionally to overflowing, as when Rebecca offers herself to a barely adolescent Tommy in a fashion he doesn’t at all understand. Simultaneously, there’s a distinct echo of biblical myth in the very Garden of Eden where the second-generation man Cain must marry his mother Eve as a precursor to new life: Rebecca retreats into her own little Eden. Images of mother and infant bearing distinct similarities to those seen in The Tree of Life flow by, except whereas there is mystery in familiar human growth—no one’s ever quite sure what a child will look like as it grows—here there is a chilly, preordained sense of how Tommy is going to grow up, what he’ll think, feel, what he’ll be excited by—and what he’ll be turned on by.
There’s a particularly keen condensation of parental affection, childish destructiveness, and unspoken suspicion in a movement in which Rebecca gives Tommy a toy robotic dinosaur, as cruelly adorable as possible, which Tommy along with a boy he befriends then buries in the sand: it’s the sort of thing a boy his age does to toys, an act that’s usually thoughtless but that parents can feel is somehow a rejection of them, and imbued here with another layer as Tommy acts out a detestation of simulacrums. Fliegauf relies on the audience blanching at a lifelike thing being treated in such a fashion, aware that Tommy himself would be considered such a thing, requiring Rebecca’s retreat to the edge of the earth to pillow him from that treatment. “Dima is the victim of artificial incest!” one of the village mothers says in a key, wryly amusing, yet highly discomforting scene: “Her mother gave birth to her own mother!” The ground seems set for another portrayal of small-mindedness and reactionary impulses through a gimmicky prism, but Fliegauf loads the situation thanks to the awareness that Rebecca’s intentions for her own clone are not entirely wholesome. Rebecca, sensing the danger of being caught outside the herd, immediately acquiesces and plays along. Where exactly all the ethics review panels went to in this brave new world isn’t stated, but it’s clear the act of cloning has already been commercialised out of sight, as one of the reasons Tom was protesting the cloning centre was its plan to make most of its money out of “cyberbitches”, cloned prostitutes, and endlessly reproduced household pets.
At the outset, Womb seems cast in the mould of something like Julio Medem’s Lovers of the Arctic Circle (1999) in portraying Rebecca and Tom’s intense connection as something almost sublime and preordained, and Tom’s quirky energy seems quite in line with that familiar variety of lively young man. Smith, however, has a gift for suggesting something slightly alien and asocial in his characters as well as charming and zany. When Rebecca walks back into Tom’s life after years, she doesn’t even need to say her name for him to recognise her, and soon they’re so fixated on each other that they completely ignore anyone else in their world. Their initial reuniting is painfully brief, so Rebecca seems to hope that this innate bond will be sustained as Tommy grows into a man. Yet, for the most part, she plays the almost-perfect mother, with a job that allows her to work from home and continue constant interaction; when Tommy’s grown, she tiptoes into his bedroom to lay down a breakfast tray for him and Monica, whom she’s never met. Monica’s arrival starts a breakdown in Rebecca’s equilibrium: she’s lived without any kind of sexual contact all these years—it’s revealed in the most alarming fashion possible that she’s still a virgin—and her still-manifest physical desire for Tommy, and, it becomes increasingly clear in spite of all his presuppositions, his for her, begins to boil over.
Incest seems to be emerging as a new subject for would-be provocateurs in the artier cinema brackets, whilst films that try to describe and encompass the repetitive chains of birth, growth, and creation that govern human life seem to reflect a current wave in the zeitgeist: some of the year’s other top films, include The Tree of Life, Hanna, Attenberg, and Mysteries of Lisbon, all present some consistent thematic concerns with this developmental theme, as children become products of, and vessels for, the ambitions and mistakes of their parents. Rarely has the most profound taboo been approached with such supple, nerveless skill as in this film, whilst the theme is carefully leavened by the story frame: there is awareness that Tommy is not a natural son as it would once have been defined, and yet he’s bound to Rebecca in the most intimate way as a product of her body, if not of her genes. Whether Tommy retains an actual bond with Rebecca that transcends the liminal, or whether he’s just responding to endless subtle signals in her manner over the years, is impossible to discern; nor, is it easy to tease apart the specific ramifications of the situation it presents, with their scifi impetus, from any normal mother’s relationship with a grown son who in some ways personifies her husband grown young again. In any event, Womb is a film infused with a sonorous cool and an emotional intensity that builds to an inevitable outburst, which comes when his other mother, Judith, turns up at the house, looking like a gorgon of gnawed conscience, not speaking a word as she partakes of this remake of her son and reels away with profound and baleful knowledge.
This episode lodges a fresh disquiet in Tommy which Smith realises as a marvellous climax of actorly slow burn. Tommy, Rebecca, and Monica are at the breakfast table, his final exhaustion with Rebecca’s evasions and estrangement exploding as he slams a clogged salt shaker repeatedly upon the table and turns the kitchen upside down until he procures a handful of salt to smother his meal, before pointing to his mother and saying the fateful words in regards to Judith, “I know her.” Monica’s pathos in trying to plead for her lover to emerge from the bathroom where he locks himself and realising that she’s the superfluous point in this triangle, causes her to flee. At last, Rebecca delivers self-knowledge to Tommy, and he rests for a bleak and terrible moment on an edge of powerful feeling that will resolve either in matricide or sex—either way, a primal taboo. As it happens, sex prevails. Tommy finally ends Rebecca’s virginity and then flees the house, having fulfilled exactly what Rebecca wanted—to have a real child by Tommy—and finally free to find some purpose for himself. The mood seems at last unbearable, except that in the final shot, as Tommy disappears into the murk, Rebecca switches on a light within the house: now, at last, each is only just recommencing life. Womb is a strange, troubling, fascinating waking dream.
The world of cinema was shocked by the not-unexpected, but relatively premature death of Chilean-born filmmaker Raúl Ruiz on Friday. The 70-year-old director was known for his parodic approach to film styles, his lush canvasses, his sometimes overstuffed plots, and his extremely fecund output. For those seeking a deep dive into this complicated, experimental filmmaker, I recommend this survey/memoir by Jonathan Rosenbaum for starters and a date to view his Mysteries of Lisbon (2010), which has started to show in the United States and likely will be booked in more venues in tribute. As a Ruiz novice, I will try to honor his legacy as best I can with a review of Klimt, one of his more recent and accessible films, and a style of biopic more filmmakers should adopt.
Ruiz takes an ingeniously elliptical approach to film biography, one that puts the spirit of artist Gustav Klimt and fin-de-siècle Austria at the forefront as it drops the details of his life almost subliminally into our consciousness. As such, the film does something that is nearly impossible to do—find a channel, however speculative, into the creative process itself.
The film opens with Klimt’s protege Egon Schiele (Nikolai Kinski) going to visit Klimt (John Malkovich) as he lays dying in a bath. The doctor greets Schiele by swinging a skeleton in front of him and pointing out the various bones that comprise it, each from a different donor, all of different nationalities. Schiele comments that while there may be a scarcity of many things, there is no shortage of dead bodies. Klimt died of syphilis February 6, 1918, a few months before the “cure” for all war, World War I, formally ended. Klimt was treated with mercury, the standard remedy of the time and a poison that may have hastened his death and one that did not save him from the madness that accompanies advanced syphilis. Thus, the parallels Ruiz sets up between Klimt’s private disintegration, delusions, and madness and those of Europe at this time are established. Klimt’s mental free-fall through his life comprises the rest of the film.
Klimt’s life could be a template for the stereotypical successful Artist. He was a sensualist who bedded many women and fathered many children out of wedlock, who enraged the art establishment while still enjoying great popularity. We meet him in memory first in his studio, as three naked models move above his head on swings of cloth and another lays down on a bed in the background. Klimt ignores all of them as he pours water on a square of glass to examine the images it creates. He dismisses the models. The one on the bed remains. He says, “What about you?” She answers provocatively, “What about me?” Malkovich lets virtually nothing cross his face to indicate his state of mind, though perhaps the tiniest of smirks does escape by the end of the scene; it’s a bold choice, to keep Klimt in the state of sexual abstraction he must have needed to do his work when faced with an off-hours temptation.
This containment marks much of Malkovich’s performance, even in scenes where he declares his ardent love for an actress (Saffron Burrows) who plays dancer Lea de Castro (Georgia Reeve) in a short film by Georges Méliès (Gunther Gillian). Their embrace is one of the more awkward in film history, though Brown is wonderfully natural in her nakedness considering that her character is being watched from behind a two-way mirror by the real Lea to see how Klimt behaves. The fracturing of personality, the real and the false fronts, the interchangeability of human beings as seen in the mix-and-match skeleton in the first scene, all are preoccupations of both Ruiz and the Klimt he has written. Indeed, any representational artist is faced with how his or her creations poach from many sources and create illusions that are, nonetheless, physically real and real experiences for those who take them in.
Ruiz’s hallucinatory touches are inspired. Klimt’s long-time companion Emilie Flöge (Veronica Ferres), called Midi here, quarrels with him in his studio while he is applying gilding to a painting. Suddenly, her lips are gilded as well, an incarnate inspiration that Klimt would transfer to his canvas. When she slams the door to his studio, she blows the small squares of gilding into the air, sending Klimt, childlike, chasing after them to catch them on his brush. His cat starts mewling, and Klimt comes face to face with the Secretary (Stephen Dillane), a government functionary who becomes Klimt’s projected guide through his life and desires and, finally, his death. The Secretary, though sympathetic to Klimt’s art, seems to contradict Klimt’s outsider stance as part of the Vienna Secession, and suggest that his life was a function of bureaucratic manipulation.
Ruiz isolates the artistic claptrap of the day in a wonderful scene in a Vienna coffee house. A waiter takes orders from some of the patrons, calling their names and having them respond “as usual.” Klimt is dining with a friend who gives him the lay of the land of the different artistic schools of thought. A camera tracks around them, the background spinning one way, and Klimt and his friend spinning in the opposing direction, suggesting Klimt’s contrarian state of mind and bringing a liveliness to the Viennese art scene that ends with Klimt pushing a cake into a rival’s face.
The proper Viennese bourgeoisie, represented by Klimt’s mother (Annemarie Düringer) and sister (Marion Mitterhammer), are placed in a cool, utilitarian setting. His mother scolds him for his many illegitimate children, and his sister insinuates something unnatural about him for choosing only Jewesses to bear his children: “I didn’t make it up, I read it in the paper.” Klimt retorts, “You didn’t have to make it up because the papers already did it for you.” The poisonous atmosphere that would later engulf Austria gets a brief, but effective airing, but so do the distortions of media about celebrities, a very modern concern.
Apparently, no expense was spared in putting this film together. The costumes and sets are utterly sumptuous, and artists were brought in to recreate the scandal-inducing paintings Klimt produced for the University of Vienna that were destroyed in a fire in 1945, as well as a fictitious portrait of Lea and various Klimt canvasses in different stages of completion. Little is known about Klimt’s life, so the decadence of the times is brought to bear on his womanizing reputation while creating an atmosphere that helps the viewer sense the forces that influenced his sensual art. For example, Klimt goes to the Moustache brothel, where gentlemen play games in various rooms—Klimt is locked in a cage wearing a gorilla head in the African room—before going off with one or more of the moustachioed whores.
The anteroom of Klimt’s death is filled with the atmosphere of his life—the ever-present Viennese snow, stuffed cats, a bare-bones studio, and doors opening onto different paths. I hope Ruiz’s anteroom was just as inviting.
The filmmakers of the Berlin School have caught the interested and often admiring eye of serious cinephiles around the world since they began releasing their deceptively simple films at the beginning of the new millennium. The Berlin School filmmakers, of whom Christian Petzold (The State I’m In , Yella ) is perhaps the most iconic, generally shun the overtly political breast-beating other German filmmakers have engaged in with regard to Germany’s fraught past; instead, their stories are quite personal in scope. Yet there is an underlying seriousness of purpose that often puts difficult choices and feelings of guilt at the center of their films, thereby coming at the problem of the moral legacy with which Germans are still struggling from a less sensational, but no less acute angle.
These films vary in the degree to which they work; sometimes stripping them down too much takes some of the urgency of the questions they pose out of them. Such was the case, I felt, with Longing (2006), Valeska Grisebach’s Lady or the Tiger parable that never really fleshed out its dilemma for me. So, too, Hans-Christian Schmid’s most recent film, Storm (2009), seemed a hybrid of the overtly political and the politics of personal betrayal that didn’t do either perspective much justice. However, with Schmid’s earlier film, Requiem, the tone is perfect, and its tale of possession leading to tragedy is a perfect allegory for Nazi Germany’s brutal mindset.
Requiem, which tells the story of a modern-day demonic possession and exorcism, is based on the true story of German college student Anneliese Michel. Schmid’s take on this story, which certainly must be well-known in his country, focuses intensely on the possessed woman herself. In using this approach, Schmid does a remarkable thing. He takes us inside the life of someone who eventually comes to believe she is possessed by demons.
Unlike the makers of another film released about the same time that is also based on this story, The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), Schmid isn’t interested in deciding for us—and especially for the woman herself—whether her claims of possession are real. If we want to draw our own conclusions, screenwriter Bernd Lange has provided “evidence.” It must be kept in mind at all times, however, that this so-called evidence is the interpretation of a writer, and therefore not truly factual.
Michaela Klingler (Sandra Huller) is a 21-year-old woman with a strong and completely natural desire to become independent of her family and start her own life. She receives a letter in the mail informing her that she has been accepted to a college in another town. Her father (Burghart Klaussner) and younger sister (Friederike Adolph) are happy for her. Her mother (Imogen Kogge) reacts by saying, “How can you go there with your thing?” and reminds her of her previous failed attempt. A predictable fight ensues, during which Michaela accuses her mother of not wanting her to have anything of her own. This could be any family, anywhere in the world.
Michaela prevails with the support of her father, who arranges a dorm room for her. He drops her at her new home with a smile and a hug, and Michaela begins her first steps into freedom. On her first day of class, she is late. The professor stops her on the steps of the lecture hall as he describes a theory of teaching. He then asks her if she agrees with the theory. She answers that she doesn’t know. He asks her what she does believe in. She says, “In God.” The room explodes in titters—this is the rebellious ’70s after all. The professor cautions them that their response means they may not believe in much of anything, and that is a problem. In this not terribly subtle, but effective, way, Schmid is cautioning the film audience to suspend judgment about spirituality and its power. It also, however, provides a much subtler set-up for the rest of the film that believing in something too deeply can have grave consequences.
Michaela sees a woman from her hometown leaving the lecture hall at the end of class. At first, Hanna (Anna Blomeier) rebuffs her, but when Michaela later gives her a cheat sheet during an exam, she warms up. They become fast friends, especially after Hanna finds Michaela collapsed in her room and learns her secret—she has epilepsy. Michaela and Hanna have some carefree times together, including going to a mixer at which Michaela meets Stefan (Nicholas Reinke), a handsome young man who appears merely to want to get in her pants. She ends up as his girlfriend, however.
Michaela confesses to Hanna that she hears voices. Hanna thinks Michaela should see a doctor. Michaela argues that she’s seen doctors, been to hospitals, and taken pills all her life, and they have done her no good. She decides to follow her instinct to seek spiritual help.
Michaela goes home to see her parish priest to complain about the voices. He sternly chastises her for believing in demons, calling God and the Devil symbols rather than facts. Michaela sees another priest, who wants to perform an exorcism once he sees how agitated she becomes when he tries to pray with her. She has lost the ability to pray, touch the cross, and hold a rosary.
Events snowball, including a major fight with her mother and a break-up with Stefan, and eventually, Michaela ends up at home. Her mother and father are now convinced she is possessed, and they call in the two priests to start the exorcisms. The movie is almost over by the time the exorcism begins.
We recognize Michaela’s swearing and rude behavior from The Exorcist (1973), and it does seem demonic coming from such a pious girl. But it’s not horrifying. It could be the result of many factors, such as being off medication, heartache, school pressures, her mother’s disapproval, her own identification with St. Katherine, who suffered possessions all her life. What becomes obvious is that medical science is as primitive as religion at this point in time, and that a troubled girl brings out the worst in everyone, from her long-suffering mother to an eager young priest in love with the idea of exorcism.
The cast is uniformly superb, but Huller, who is in nearly every frame, gives one of the great performances I have ever seen. She brings to life a complex woman with a view of her condition consistent with who she is. Schmid adds to the verite feel of this film by shooting with a handheld camera and concentrating on close-ups, making us feel as though we are trying to peer into Michaela’s soul. I don’t know what was going on in this girl, but I found this film to be a fitting requiem to her spirit.
I learned a couple of days ago that the venerable Howard University in Washington, D.C., a bastion of learning for African Americans at a time when they were barred entrance to other colleges and universities and still a educator of choice in the African-American community, is dropping its 90-year-old philosophy degree programs. Said Richard A. Jones, professor of philosophy at Howard, in a recent interview in The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, “The loss of this program—for fiscal considerations—reflects a growing trend: the elimination of humanities and social programs for more ‘practical’ training programs. It is a postmodern reenactment of the debate between W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington over liberal education versus vocational training.”
This is only the latest example of how educational programs that train the mind are losing ground in the United States. Those lucky enough to go to college these days no longer see value in taking classes that have no “practical” application, and given how expensive higher education is and how difficult it is to get a decent job, even with a college education, it’s hard to fault them.
Nonetheless, when people lose the ability to recognize issues that go beyond their basic concerns and, more important, to grope toward answers, we will truly be lost. It is with urgency over the loss of our intellectual capital at a time when globalism has brought acute problems from around the world to all of our doorsteps that organizers were inspired to create the dropping knowledge project. From their website:
Founded in the summer of 2003, the dropping knowledge project was initially based in Berlin, Germany, and San Francisco, USA.
After the Table of Free Voices, on September 10, 2006, the organization divided into two independent groups. The Berlin-based team became Mindpirates e.V. and the US-based team dropping knowledge International. Today, Mindpirates e.V. remains solely responsible for the curation of the Table of Free Voices and of this website.
It is the Table of Free Voices that forms the substance of the different kind of documentary that is Problema. The film “documents” a real-life circumstance, but it is the opposite of what I usually like in a documentary: it is nothing but talking heads. Problema records what happened when 112 people the organizers wanted to hear—primarily heads of nongovernmental organizations and activists like human-rights champion Bianca Jagger and physicist Hans-Peter Dürr, artists like Wim Wenders, and professional thinkers like Cornel West—talked about the great challenges of our day. The unusual format of the roundtable discussion (and yes, it literally was conducted at a round table in Berlin’s Bebelplatz, where Nazis burned books) was to have moderators Willem Dafoe and Nigerian human-rights advocate Hafsat Abiola alternately read each of the 100 questions culled from the dropping knowledge forums and have each participant give his or her answer simultaneously. A camera set up in front of each seat recorded their messages, and these messages, shots of the event taken by Schmerberg’s cameras, and thousands of images illustrating the various topics under consideration comprise the documentary.
Questions came from people of all ages from all parts of the world. A child’s question “What is God’s religion?” is treated with as much consideration as an adult asking “Is there a modern form of colonialism?” The answers vary. To the question, “Should a person have the right to live anywhere they want?”—a question near and dear to my heart as a person who thinks nationalism has outlived its usefulness—some gave a simple, “Yes, of course.” Others delved into the issue of resources versus need and how the exploding global population has made traditional strategies of nomadism impractical. The reverse question occurred to others—do people have the right to stay where they are?—and cited eminent domain and expulsions, such as what happened to Native Americans, as another population problem. In answer to the colonialism issue, one woman smiled and said, “Yes. It’s called debt.” We’re all concerned about economic policies in the United States, but the problems of smaller debtor nations could soon be ours.
It took me a while to realize that everyone was speaking at the same time. The din of voices was distracting before I came to this realization, and then it was like a symphony of the world, a perfect illustration of the dialogue the organizers of this event have orchestrated on the Internet and that they wish to encourage in face-to-face meetings. As cinema, the film leaves something to be desired. It seemed that the same faces kept popping up; a Maori woman was shown several times, but we don’t actually hear her speak until nearly the end of the film. The quick-cut images that show everything from the famous look at the earth from outer space and the Chinese student standing up to a tank in Tiananmen Square to film clips from Wings of Desire and Things to Come provide some visual interest, and one certainly has to credit the production team for tackling the permissions that must have been a nightmare to negotiate. But the montages didn’t add much. I think I would have preferred fewer images, more carefully chosen, and more questions.
The important thing about Problema is that it recognizes that the world needs to relearn how to talk about its common concerns. That does not mean leaving it all up to politicians to take care of for us—we’ve seen the folly of that. Indeed, Schmerberg deliberately left government officials out of the conversation because, he asserted in the Q&A, they have access to all the major media outlets and can have their say all they want. He offered the welcome news that all of the questions and answers will be available for download and recutting, so that communities can tailor presentations to specific issues they might want to address. Thus, the documentary I saw will never be the final documentary; like Sita Sings the Blues, the public is welcome to enter the creative process and use the materials to invent new uses for the footage. I’m planning to join the discussion. I hope you will, too. l
There are no more screenings of Problema, but the free worldwide online premiere of Problema will occur on December 6, 2010, here.
Previous CIFF coverage
The Happy Housewife: A buoyant young woman falls into a dangerous depression following the birth of her son and must deal with her past. (The Netherlands)
Southern District: The decline of the Bolivian upper class gets a very personal treatment in this close examination of one La Paz family and the natives who work for them. (Bolivia)
Asleep in the Sun: Ingenious period film that shows the transformation of a troubled woman into someone whose personality her husband doesn’t recognize after a stay in a mental health clinic. (Argentina)
Tuesday, After Christmas: A beautifully photographed story of adultery poses a potent metaphor for Romania in its new prosperity. (Romania)
On Tour: A French TV producer returns from “exile” in America with a troupe of burlesque dancers to try to get back on top in this amiable, improvisational comedy. (France)
Circus Kids: The St. Louis Arches youth circus travels to Israel to join forces with the Galilee Circus to help bridge the gap between Arabs and Jews in this optimistic documentary. (Israel/USA)
The Matchmaker: Magical coming-of-age drama in which a teenage boy learns a message of love and tolerance from a Holocaust survivor. (Israel)
Ten Winters: Emotionally honest and lyrical study of a man and a woman whose initial attraction goes through many changes as they experience 10 years worth of living. (Italy)
Certified Copy: Elliptical tale of seduction by renowned director Abbas Kiarostami in which two strangers pretend to be a married couple in crisis. (Iran/Italy/France)
The Princess of Montpensier: The French Catholic persecution of Protestants forms the backdrop for this period drama about the travails suffered by a beautiful noblewoman desired by four men. (France/Germany)
The Last Report on Anna: A dreamy, romantic film centering on Anna Kéthly, real-life Hungarian minister in exile, and a spy’s attempt to silence her by seducing her into returning to their communist-controlled country. (Hungary)
The Princess of Montpensier was booed by some critics at its Cannes press screening, and it’s not hard to understand why. The lavish, period, literary adaptation they had just seen must have seemed like a return to the “bad old days” of the “quality films” the Nouvelle Vague filmmakers were rebelling against. Indeed, in the United States, such films are often seen as Oscar bait—inert displays of wealth and old-fashioned values that have no relevance to modern life.
While it can’t be disputed that this film looks expensive, takes place in France’s far past (the 16th century), is based on a literary work from that period by Madame de Lafayette, and concentrates most of its 139 minutes on a sort of love story, there is nothing inert or irrelevant about it. The Princess of Montpensier may seem like just another costume ball concerned with a beautiful woman all want to possess. But that modern audiences accept as commonplace such a plot—a woman as a prize in a macho contest—is evidence that we haven’t progressed as far as we think. And the background of religious persecution and warfare also resonates in many parts of our world today.
The film opens on a battlefield. Survivors of a routed fighting force of French Protestants (Huguenots) attempt to hobble out of sight, but are cut down by a trio of soldiers on horseback who are fighting for the Catholic cause. As they ride off the battlefield, three Huguenots on horseback pursue them and confront them as they retreat into a farmhouse. “In the name of Christ,” yells the Count of Chabannes (Lambert Wilson) before they all fire pistols into the house and break in. Swords are crossed, and during the fray, Chabannes runs a pregnant woman trying to defend her dying child through with his sword. A close-up of her stricken face communicates the horror of the moment. After this terrifying fight, Chabannes deserts, disillusioned with the senseless slaughter in the name of a Christ both Protestants and Catholics worship. Banished by both the Catholic King Charles IX and his Protestant compatriots for deserting, Chabannes turns to his former pupil, the Prince of Montpensier (Grégoire LePrince-Ringuet), for sanctuary.
The prince and Chabannes have a surprise waiting for them when they return to the prince’s home. The Duke of Montpensier (Michel Vuillermoz) has persuaded the Marquis de Mézières (Phillippe Magnan) to end the betrothal of his daughter Marie (Mélanie Thierry) to Mayenne de Guise (Césare Domboy) and to give her to his son. This is a very serious breach of promise, one that Marie and Mayenne’s brother Henri (Gaspard Ulliel) take very badly—the two are in love and are tormented by the idea that they will be parted. Marie’s mother (Florence Thomassin) advises her to submit, telling her that she and Henri have been indiscreet and that being so close to Henri while married to Mayenne would bring ruin to her and her family. Reluctantly, Marie agrees and warns the headstrong Henri not to fight their fate.
Sadly, the prince and Marie are all but strangers, and he lacks the charm and confidence to woo her. While she dutifully mouths words of affection toward him, she cannot match them with her feelings. It is also Marie’s misfortune to be breathtakingly beautiful, causing the prince’s jealousy—particularly toward Henri—to bubble out of control, further alienating Marie. He is summoned to battle time and again, leaving her alone with only Chabannes, his trusted tutor and friend, as a companion, with instructions to educate her before she is presented at the court of Versailles. She is intelligent and eager to learn, easy around the older Chabannes, and therefore quite shocked when he tells her he, too, has fallen in love with her.
Her problems are compounded when the Duke of Anjou (Raphaël Personnaz) and Henri happen near the prince’s estate, encounter Marie, and she offers them the hospitality of her home. The duke covets her as well, quite openly, and poor Marie must contend with four men at the dinner table eyeing her like a prize goose. Things come to a head when Marie finally travels to Versailles and Henri tempts her to renew their love affair.
Bertrand Tavernier is a very versatile director who can make any subject he chooses to tackle come to life. You might catch yourself wanting to swat flies while watching the goings-on in the colonial backwater of his Coup de Torchon or rub your elbows in pain after a cop takes down a drug dealer in L.627. So, too, does The Princess of Montpensier put you into the times these characters lived through and make you identify with their struggles and restrictions. The warfare in this film is brutal and realistic; we watch a fighter on the ground stab a horse to death with a lance to unseat its rider and witness the lack of mercy shown to civilians, women, and children during battles and in the pogroms carried out in Protestant areas. The Duke of Anjou is shown studying Polish while encamped with his army, explaining to the prince and Chabannes that the Polish king is the weakest in Europe and his family thinks he should simply take the crown—he behaves similarly with Marie, yelling at Henri for wanting something that should rightfully have been his, and assuming his authority as heir to the throne will cause the prince to just step aside when the moment is right. This is the arrogance of hereditary rule that would see his kind lose their heads in France two centuries later.
One feels for the prince, hoping that his beautiful wife will love him, only to have her say she will if he “orders” her to, but his irrational explosions are horrible and his intentions to basically lock her away after he learns that Henri is back in the picture are barbarous. Marie, who has had little agency in the film, tells him she will ride back to their estate on horseback rather than be conveyed in a carriage to her confinement; when she arrives, she nearly falls off her horse in exhaustion, showing this act of free will to be merely masochistic. Marie’s life in this film is commodified at every step. Her wedding night, another excrutiatingly authentic scene, is a horror of having a crowd watch as her naked body is washed and perfumed—her father inspecting the proceedings as he would a horse being brushed down in his stable—and a group of family and servants waiting at the foot of her curtained bed for her cry of pain when her hymen is broken. The servants are sent immediately to the bedside to gather evidence that blood was shed, and the new fathers-in-law tip glasses at this sealing of the deal. Perhaps worst of all, the aggressive attentions this young, unsophisticated woman is subjected to by her admirers are covetous rather than sincere and are rather frightening to watch. Only Chabannes, because of his age and wisdom, remains chivalrous toward her, even sacrificing his place with the prince to save Henri. He will sacrifice more in defense of the innocent before the picture ends, acting as a moral compass in a rather immoral film.
I think it is to Tavernier’s credit that he continues to plumb the depths of French history and bring a less pretty sort of period drama to life. His message about the senselessness of religious warfare and the horror of “collateral damage” isn’t hinted at but plainly spoken and shown—a lack of subtlety that seems suitable, not something to criticize. His choice to tell a drawn-out love story has rankled many critics for its apparent puffery, but women at this time were little more than property, a specific situation that Western cultures have outdistanced but that still informs the inferior status women hold throughout the world. Finally, Tavernier has argued with French critics for ignoring the financial pressures of the European Union on the French film industry by denigrating the efforts of commercial filmmakers:
In a series of interviews and letters, Tavernier issued an impassioned attack on the state of film criticism in France. He accused critics, lost between the savage tastes of the public and their own self importance, of employing a cynical triple standard, giving a free pass to virtually all the Hollywood blockbusters, championing marginalised filmmakers from around the world, while ignoring or dismissing French commercial cinema. (Source: Carloss James Chamberlin, “Bertrand Tavernier,” Senses of Cinema)
The Princess of Montpensier, in the mold of the successful The Duchess, is a film that can compete in the world marketplace. Thierry is an appealing actress who holds the center of the film quite well. She is ably supported by the quartet of men who play her suitors. I especially liked LePrince-Ringuet, a handsome actor who manages to contain his charisma and appear a man more comfortable crossing swords in battle than exchanging words with his own wife. The film goes beyond its commercial appeal with its extraordinary attention to detail, as well as a dedicated and talented crew in front of and behind the camera.
The Princess of Montpensier screens Sunday, October 10, 8:15 p.m., and Tuesday, October 12, 8:15 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.
The Last Report on Anna: A dreamy, romantic film centering on Anna Kéthly, real-life Hungarian minister in exile, and a spy’s attempt to silence her by seducing her into returning to their communist-controlled country. (Hungary)
Among those in the wave of new German cinema to emerge from the mid-1960s and into the ’70s, the most restless, protean, and tragic figure was Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Fassbinder’s relentless pace of work between 1970 and his death in 1982 would have been admired by old studio pros, whilst maintaining the strictest standards of artistic experimentation and expressive engagement. Fassbinder’s importance as a film artist manifested on several levels: in his rummaging through cultural detritus and worship of Douglas Sirk, he was a pop ironist, but also a fearless innovator and a key inventor of queer cinema. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, an adaptation of his own play, is considered one of the pivotal works in his career in that he gained complete control over various themes and stylistic impulses here, ironically by zeroing in on the most limited drama imaginable: the film never leaves the ground floor of the title character’s house, and barely even moves from her bedroom space. As has proven true for many of the best directors, the challenge of such a limited, theatrical setting stimulated the most refined cinematic reflexes in Fassbinder: the visual style of Bitter Tears is subtly epic and consistently, arrestingly beautiful.
Petra (Margit Carstensen), our antiheroine whose capacious bed is the centrepiece of the film’s geography, story, and the fraught emotional and sexual warfare about to take place, is awakened by her servant Marlene (Irm Hermann), who draws up the blinds, abruptly showering Petra with sunlight. Petra’s at a crossroads in her life: a former model and jet-setting wife now gaining fame as a designer, she relishes requests for work from fashion houses that had turned her down not long ago. Petra’s marriage ended within the past couple of years, and she has a teenage daughter, Gabriele (Eva Mattes), who is a milk-fed calf of the most innocent and irritating sort.
Petra is visited at the outset by her sister, Sidonie (Katrin Schaake), who’s lodged comfortably in a standard relationship with her husband, a baron, and she attempts to understand Petra’s lengthy, abstract explanation of why her union with her once slavishly adored husband Lester failed. Sidonie trumpets her own success in achieving a familiar balance in her own union—she lets her husband maintain an illusion of authority, but gets her own way in the end. This is precisely the kind of dishonesty Petra dislikes, for the refusal to sink into such hypocrisies defined her marriage, which actually disintegrated when she began to outearn her husband. Accompanying Sidonie is a young friend of hers, Karin Thimm (Hanna Schygulla), who instantly fixates Petra. When Petra invites Karin to come back later, she does, dressed, like Petra, in the most ornate and displaying clothes imaginable. After a delicate process of teasing out Karin’s troubled past, including the fact she’s recently abandoned her Australian husband, Petra declares her love for the girl.
What follows is the definition of a chamber piece, but Fassbinder renders his limited setting almost impossibly lush by several tricks of décor, including, most obviously, a wall covered with a detail from Nicolas Poussin’s “Midas and Bacchus,” with a nymph’s feminine form prominently sprawled. Mannequins and busts to support Petra’s array of wigs lend a kind of immobile chorus to the proceedings, and later, to mock her own situation, Petra arranges those mannequins in sexual positions. Fassbinder uses the layout of the apartment for the most cunning effects of mise-en-scène, like having Marlene watch Sidonie and Petra from a another room via two windows and fingering the glass with hopeless, alienated angst, or, later, using a bench top to divide the frame in such a way as to perfectly realise the sudden schism between lovers. He even plays games with the amount of available space in the apartment: in early scenes, Petra’s bed dominates the set, but later it’s pushed away so that Petra’s bedroom is a great wilderness of white shag carpet in which she flounders in an alcohol-pickled rage. The almost maddening closeness of the space is pushed even further in the scene of Petra’s seduction of Karin, as Marlene, present as always yet rendered a nonperson by Petra’s regime, bangs away relentlessly on a typewriter, her noise almost omnipresent and yet unprocessed. Pointedly, Marlene only stops typing, as she had earlier stopped working, when Petra begins to speak of her own failed amours. Marlene’s desire for knowledge of Petra’s mental landscape is matched only by Petra’s complete uninterest in the mental landscape of others.
That’s not to say that Petra is intended as a villain, but she is a thoroughly flawed human whose prejudices, blind spots, and self-delusion are gnawed to the bone as if by a school of piranha. Fassbinder’s drama carefully warps perspective and emotional response with such skill that it’s possible to hate and empathise with every character. Petra is able to write herself into the role of the distraught Pygmalion spiralling in despair of the amoral, ice-cold work of art she’s given birth to and been betrayed in the lowest way when Karin abruptly abandons her to return to her husband, now armed with the contacts and experience she’s gained as a model. But Karin, even in her stony, apparently contemptuous kiss-off, insists she loved Petra in her own way—that of a blithe young swinger whose willingness to take advantage of situations she stumbles into shouldn’t be confused with Petra’s own still instinctively materialist concept of love: having spurned her husband for trying to assert economic control over her, Petra has simply repeated the process.
As a fashion designer, Petra is an artist after a fashion, but a lazy one—she has Marlene do the colouring in her sketches—and her art form is always implicitly one of altering surfaces as though those acts could reconstruct the interior. Thus, putting on make-up and dressing are elaborate and overt acts throughout: Petra, after her rude awakening by Marlene, goes through the paces of adorning herself until she’s the image of what she wants to be: an empress, in command of the erotic, the fiscal, the emotional, and the social. Later, when she meets Karin, they have both dressed up in a fashion that’s both flesh-revealing and ornate: they’re like super-stylised fantasies of ’30s high fashion, pagan priestesses forming a new cult of love and ditzy narcissists all at once. It’s camp, of course, but subtler and less overtly amusing than that form is usually seen to be: Fassbinder’s love of femme glamour and formalist aesthetics is tempered by a coolly unsentimental, relentless study of games, pretences, cruelties, and vulnerabilities.
Rhetorically, Fassbinder achieves a number of entwined, but distinct ends. Overt gay themes were still relatively fresh to the screen in 1972, and Fassbinder’s disquiet about exploring his own homosexuality is partly distilled through the use of lesbians (he’d get around to looking at gay men with 1974’s Fox and His Friends). But that is not to mistake the film for naïve or shy in any fashion, and it’s a choice he makes the most of, considering he could also encompass questions of women’s lib and social restructuring through his protagonists here in a uniquely holistic tale. Fassbinder manages to tease the strands apart with surprising care at the end, chiefly through the late entrant to the tale, Petra’s mother Valerie (Gisela Fackeldey), who separates her surprise and emotional uncertainty over her daughter’s homosexuality (“My daughter loves a girl…how peculiar!”) and her solicitous rebukes over Petra’s willingness to hurt others to make herself feel better. Thus, Petra’s sexuality and her personality are carefully distinguished. Petra’s in rebellion against familiar patriarchal structures and convenient fictions, but also utterly in thrall to them and, though she doesn’t perceive it, she’s actually an enforcer of a system of power. She emphasises the freedom that she and Lester sought in their marriage, which finally curdled when financial freedom was in her grasp (“That way, oppression lies, that’s obvious. It’s like this, ‘I hear what you’re saying, and, of course, I understand, but who brings home the bacon?’”), at which point she developed a loathing for what she describes as the “stink of men.” And yet, the tendency to turn a lover into a possession to be bought, however subtly and in whatever good faith, is one that Petra reproduces in her relationship with Karin.
In the third act, months after Petra and Karin’s relationship began, Petra needles a calmly indolent and purposefully resistant Karin about who she was with when she went out dancing the previous night until she delivers what is, tellingly, both the film’s funniest and most merciless line: she was with “a big black man with a big black dick.” It’s a memorable crux not only for the way the revelation acts like a bucket of cold water on their relationship, but also for the instantly codified racial and sexual anxieties with which Karin skewers Petra. The title’s specificity is worth noting: Petra von Kant weeps a lot of bitter tears indeed, but only for Petra von Kant. Even her name has meaning as one that marks her as a member of the German aristocracy (she herself notes with humoured weariness, “Nothing ever changes in Germany.”), and her rhetoric about freedom is entirely hypocritical: “It’s a waste of time being nice to servants,” she says with contempt for the slavishly devoted Marlene. Fassbinder here manages the genuinely sophisticated job of pointing out that liberation in one segment of a society quite often comes at the cost to someone else, and he refuses to let Petra off the hook for her sense of entitlement and personal arrogance.
If Petra is still doggedly interesting and compelling in spite of all her appalling behaviour, it’s because she’s absolutely fearless in confronting her shifting sexuality and is at least searching for a genuine alternative. The film’s course has an almost Buddhist logic to it, as it essentially strips her of everything she possesses at the start, until she’s left alone, dishevelled, and humiliated, but finally, fundamentally aware enough to smile as she watches Marlene pack her things and walk out on her. She even finally comes to doubt she loved Karin, but rather that she made her a doll to act out a psychodrama (Sidonie sparks Petra’s vicious final tirades with the gift of a blonde doll that resembles Karin), but the evidence that Petra’s emotional reflexes, intensity of feeling, and commitment to an ideal make everyone around her look puny is hard to ignore. Bitter Tears has a lot of similarities to the first mainstream, lesbian-themed film, The Killing of Sister George (1968), but unlike in Robert Aldrich’s film, where Beryl Reid’s George is left alone and devastated by her unremitting nonconformity, Petra’s journey to a similar end entails more contradictions and even a degree of desired necessity. Petra needs her betrayal to take the liberty to firebomb every smarmy platitude and straw-dummy social role around her, and the sequence in which she tries to terrorise and emotionally flay her mother, sister, and daughter with truly loathsome force,sees her spurning not just them, but also what they represent—the nagging, settled aspects of femininity and the inevitable of past and future.
Bitter Tears is a bitterly funny film in spite of, and partly in service to, its intensity of feeling, as in the spectacle Petra makes of herself and her insults to her family, at once mortifying and giddily hilarious as Petra is unspeakably honest in calling her daughter a nasty little monster and accusing her mother of having been a passive whore with a fancy title who never did a day’s work in her life. Although there’s nothing to entertain anyone searching for vicarious soft-core thrills detachable from context—Petra and Karin only even kiss once—it’s also a lividly erotic film. That’s because of the way everything on screen is charged with beauty through the terrific, crisp cinematography of Michael Ballhaus. The carefully coordinated colours in the set design and costuming start to resemble art nouveau in their careful clash of tones, and those great nude figures on the wall in turns mirror, mock, and contrast the characters in front of them. The film builds to a conclusion that seems initially funny and facile but is actually curiously cryptic: Marlene’s final walkout, packing away belongings including a revolver, in her declaration of independence, comes not from some final straw of humiliation, but because Petra, having attempted to free her, takes away even the dignity of Marlene’s masochism, a dignity Petra herself has indulged to the limit. l
When films were born, the inventiveness of the many, many film production companies that sprung up all over the world boggles the mind. In Berlin alone, in addition to the state-sponsored studio, there were nearly 300 independent film producers jostling for a place in front of a public eager to consume this new form of entertainment. Among them was a well-off fellow named Louis Hagen, who bought literal tons of film stock at a low price believing that his investment, a hedge against rising inflation, would grow exponentially as the demand for movies continued to grow. Lotte Reiniger, a gifted silhouette artist who ran in avant-garde art circles in Berlin, taught art to Hagen’s children and benefited from his largesse by being given film stock and a place in his attic to film what became The Adventures of Prince Achmed, the oldest surviving, feature-length animated film.
Reiniger apparently could create intricate silhouettes out of paper in nothing flat, and this ability gave her the confidence to create an entire Arabian Nights world, inspired by the fantasy novels she loved to read, using paper characters that had up to 50 hinged components. She and her small crew, including Carl Koch, her cinematographer and husband, bent for hours in the cramped attic, exposing 300,000 frames of stop action with the fragile and easily disturbed silhouettes and sets. Filming and editing took three years, and at first, no one would book the film. It took many years to earn back its investment, but there was no doubt that it eventually would when the standing-room-only audience for the first screening left the theatre dumbstruck at the marvel they had just seen. Some 84 years later, I and the hubby joined their ranks after we were privileged to attend a live-music screening of this important and awe-inspiring film at the Portage Theater, a surviving movie palace on Chicago’s Northwest Side that has done more than its part to keep vintage films alive and on display.
The Adventures of Prince Achmed tells interrelated stories, though they are mainly centered on Prince Achmed. He, his sister Princess Dinarzade, and their father The Caliph of Persia, hold a great reception on the palace grounds at which visiting dignitaries pay tribute with fine gifts. The finest of them all is a horse that can fly, offered by the scheming African Sorcerer. The Caliph offers bags of gold to buy the horse, but the Sorcerer will only accept Princess Dinarzade as his wife in exchange. When Achmed runs to her side to defend her, the Sorcerer has him mount the horse and sends him up in the air—without telling him how to return to Earth. The Sorcerer is imprisoned, but Achmed is set free to have the adventures he always dreamed of.
Achmed’s ascent is beautifully shot, with dark clouds obscuring his form as he rises higher and higher, then snow to reflect the cold outer atmosphere, and finally a blanket of stars. He discovers how to descend only after he has traveled far from his home—as the Sorcerer intended—and lands on the island of Wak Wak, home to spirits, including their beautiful ruler Pari Banu. They make him a warm welcome and fight for his attention in a scene of comic bawdiness, but once he sees their queen, he will have no other.
Interestingly, Achmed becomes a Peeping Tom when Pari Banu and her attendants fly with the aid of their bird-shaped cloaks to a pond where he is hiding and strip nude to bathe. Achmed is one of the few characters who has eyes, and they very expressively suggest his lust; the nude figures of the women even have nipples. It’s actually quite an erotic scene, and one that ends in outrage when Achmed steals Pari Banu’s cloak and forces her to leave with him on his flying horse.
The pair ends up in China, and Pari Banu must be rescued from being married off to the Emperor’s Fool. Achmed and Pari Banu meet the Witch of the Fiery Mountains. We marvel along with them as fire explodes from the mountain scenery, and the witch becomes their ally against her sworn enemy, the African Sorcerer. But the spirits return to recapture Pari Banu and bring her back to Wak Wak, where they intend to punish her for agreeing to leave them because she has fallen for Achmed. At this point, the story of Aladdin intrudes, as only the one who possesses the lamp may enter the spirits’ lair. We learn how he found the lamp and won Princess Dinarzade by created a palace and riches for her, but how the Sorcerer then stole the lamp, the palace, and the Princess in one fell swoop. An epic battle between Achmed, Aladdin, the Mountain Witch, and the Sorcerer ensues that’s really quite thrilling, and soon all is made right again.
The silhouettes themselves and the multiplane settings in which they interact are highly detailed and absolutely beautiful. For example, elaborate star-decorated robes, amazing in their cut-out detail, clothe Pari Banu and Princess Dinarzade, and set pieces such as the stolen palace floating on a cloud back to Persia have mystery and wonder written all over them. But I was most impressed by the amount of personality Reiniger was able to infuse through posture and natural-looking actions. When Pari Banu and Achmed kiss, it looks more real than many of the Hollywood kisses I’ve seen in countless movies of the Golden Era. Her attention to detail, not only in the forms but also in the actions the characters take, is astonishing. For example, Achmed is fighting a hydra-like demon summoned by the Sorcerer. Every time he cuts off one of its heads, it grows back. The Mountain Witch comes to help him by cauterizing each neck that has lost its head, thereby preventing it from growing a new one. This attention to a small plot point shows more care than many of the CGI action films we see today. And the color tints, restored to this film in 1998, give a jewel-like brilliance to this fantastical tale.
Reinigier, we were told before the screening, was a product of Victorian-era thinking, and her silhouette art comes from that era. Yet she was embraced by the avant garde and created a work that looks startlingly modern even today. Perhaps not coincidentally, animator Nina Paley used hinged forms (though they were not animated via stop action) and shadow puppets in her film Sita Sings the Blues, another tale of the exotic Orient that many consider ground-breaking for another reason—it is under a Creative Commons license. These two women showed the future the way, and I, for one, am thrilled and grateful. l
Among the giants of theatre, I have always considered Bertolt Brecht to be at the top of the heap. A gifted poet, Brecht created a new theatre for a new, more threatening time, one that refused to allow audiences to melt into a naturalistic setting and identify sympathetically with the lives and morals of the play’s immoral characters. In the Germany that would soon succumb to blind devotion to the myth of the Übermensch peddled by a genocidal dictator, Brecht’s unreal realism and his and music collaborator Kurt Weill’s most successful drama, the cabaret-style musical The Threepenny Opera, would be banned.
Before that happened, director G. W. Pabst and producer Seymour Nebenzal attempted to capitalize on the phenomenal success of the musical by contracting with Brecht to film it. Brecht, moving even more radically to the left than he had been as a bohemian artist of the intelligensia, turned in a treatment oozing with communist ideology. Pabst and Nebenzal mainly discarded the transformed material and created still another, completely different work—a fully cinematic drama in the Expressionist mode that eliminated half of Kurt Weill’s songs, most of Brecht’s biting, poetic lyrics, and very nearly the one actor who breathes authenticity into the work, Lotte Lenya. We are left with a somewhat tepid tale of corruption, with evocative images and a searing, but too-brief performance by Lenya that isn’t all that different from the more bourgeois Marlene Dietrich vehicle of the same period, The Blue Angel (1930).
Rudolf Forster as Macheath, aka “Mackie Messer” (Mack the Knife), emerges from a brothel, with Jenny (Lenya), a whore he had once been close to, hanging on him lovingly. He shakes her off brusquely when two attractive women pass by, then disappears into a crowd that has gathered at the London dockside to hear a street singer (Ernst Busch) who will be our narrative guide through the film sing “Mack the Knife” and put up illustrations of the murderous deeds attributed to—but never pinned on— Mackie. Mackie sees a young lady (Carola Neher) and her friend admiring a wedding dress in a shop window. He engages them to have a drink with him. He stares at a pair of men sitting at his usual booth until they leave, orders a waiter to clean the table, and signals one of his burglary gang to come take the lady’s friend off his hands. Before they finish their drinks, Mackie and the woman are engaged. Mackie sends his gang scrambling to procure food, wine, and furnishings (“Don’t forget the grandfather clock”) for their wedding reception and love nest—an empty dockside warehouse—and a preacher (Hermann Thimig) to marry them. One of the gang steals the brocade wedding gown from the shop window for the occasion. Another hand-delivers an invitation to the police chief Tiger Brown (Reinhold Schünzel), who keeps Mackie out of jail for a small fee.
Mackie’s new bride is none other than Polly Peachum, daughter of the powerful beggar king (Fritz Rasp). Peachum and his wife (Valeska Gert) vow to see Mackie hanged rather than be husband to their daughter. Threatening to force Brown’s dismissal by unleashing an army of beggars to confront the queen during her pending coronation parade, Peachum convinces the police chief to arrest and hang Mackie. After a long chase, the police finally apprehend him with the help of Jenny, who is jealous that Mackie has married. But all turns out for the “best,” as Mackie, having escaped from jail, learns he needn’t have bothered. Polly has purchased a prestigious bank in Piccadilly and made him the bank president, whom no one would dare execute. All of their thieving will be done on the up and up from now on.
Much as my colleague, Rod Heath, commented in his review of Public Enemies about the odds against the lone outlaw battling corrupt overlords, Mackie, an unorganized, violent thug, is coopted—though not at all to his distress—by the organizational skills of Polly, learned from a father who created a empire of beggars forced to march to his commands. Yet, both he and Mackie learn a lesson—while both count on the cooperation of confederates who are personally loyal to them, when Peachum cannot stop the mob he organized to disrupt the parade, he learns the power of the people. Together, they come to understand that a marriage between corrupt overlords and dependent masses can move mountains. In a nutshell, Pabst has given us a picture of the evolution of National Socialism.
Yet far from horrifying us, we come to admire these genial rogues. Mackie, in his Brecht-prescribed stage make-up, casts a threatening gaze that Pabst’s camera sometimes captures. But more often, he is surrounded by adoring women and eager-to-please, cartoonish lackeys who are used by Pabst almost exclusively for laughs. Mackie dresses smartly, with a jaunty bowler hat and a cane whose hidden sword is never unsheathed after its first reveal in the opening minutes of the film. When I saw the full stage production of the original The Threepenny Opera, Mackie’s deep kiss and stabbing of his betrayer, Jenny Towler (it’s unclear whether Lenya’s Jenny is this murdered Jenny or destined to share her fate), brought the lyrics “Jenny Towler turned up lately / With a knife stuck through her breast / While Macheath, he walks the embankment, / Nonchalantly unimpressed” horribly to life. Despite Busch’s effective rendering of the song, the timid use of illustrations of Mackie’s crimes have no power to convey just what an animal we’re dealing with. It certainly can’t help that this dark song is known to contemporary audiences mainly as a tune popularized by a mainstream singer, Bobby Darin, who doesn’t seem to know what the words mean.
Nonetheless, the film passes muster on the strength of strongly impressionistic sets strongly lit and photographed and Lotte Lenya’s savage delivery of “Pirate Jenny,” a tune originally sung by Polly. In this context, of Jenny having been betrayed by Mackie and about to return the favor, the apocalyptic vision of an armada of pirate ships gunning down all but the brothel where Jenny lives and works is extremely effective. Once heard, Lenya’s voice and interpretation become unforgettable and definitive. And to think Lenya almost didn’t play this part because Pabst thought she was too ugly for movies. Indeed, this film could have used a lot more ugly and a little less art.
Following the massacre at the Munich Olympics and the domestic insurgency of the Baader-Meinhof gang, West Germany—not yet united with the East—reverted to some of its bad old ways. Any group who protested against the loss of freedoms under a more vigilant government and police force could find themselves under threat of physical violence and imprisonment. It is the story of one man with ties to one such group that director and co-screenwriter Reinhard Hauff takes up in Knife in the Head.
Biogenetist Bernhard Hoffman (Bruno Ganz) putters about in his laboratory one evening, putting away cells he has been working on and closing things up. He makes a phone call. We don’t hear the other end of the conversation, but he says, “I’m coming to pick you up.” Where he is headed is a community center rife with anti-oppression slogans. The police have surrounded the building and are holding back crowds. Hoffman is initially stopped from going into the building, but he breaks away and enters as a man and a woman being pushed into a paddy wagon yell his name. He moves to the back of the community center, in which police are scuffling with civilians, presumably to look for the person he spoke with. At that moment, the frame freezes and a loud gunshot is heard. Fade to black.
When we next see Hoffman, he is on a hospital gurney, his head in bandages obviously applied in the field, and being rushed to surgery. Apparently, a policeman was stabbed by Hoffman and shot him in self-defense. He’s being attended to as well. Hospital personnel can’t say whether either man will make it.
The next time we see Hoffman is postop. He’s just waking up, and the two people we saw yelling to him from the paddy wagon are there to visit. Ann (Angela Winkler) appears to be Hoffman’s wife. The man, Volker (Heinz Hoenig), protests as the police make them empty their pockets. Just to show him whose boss, a cop pats him down for weapons. Ann and Volker don gowns; Ann goes in to see Hoffman. His eyes are deeply bruised from the surgery, and he has an almost greenish look about his skin. His lidded eyes look at Ann without recognition. She kisses him. He sputters out imperfectly, “Those bastards” and “Ann.” His life still hangs in the balance.
Once he is over the first hurdle—surviving—his long rehabilitation commences. His verbal and motor skills have been damaged, as well as his memory. He looks at a picture book and repeats with his therapist the words that match the pictures, “dog, spoon.” He has trouble with “banana.” He writes with his left hand, considered progress until Anleitner (Hans Christian Blech) his lawyer and friend says, “he used to be right-handed.” No more of that—his right side is mostly paralyzed.
More of Hoffman’s larger story starts to emerge as he relearns just about everything. His wife and he separated several months before the incident, and she is living with Volker. She visits Hoffman dutifully but does not intend to take care of him for long after his discharge. Oh, and officials are claiming Hoffman is a terrorist working with the community center group, whose headquarters they plan to raze. Hoffman becomes something of a minor celebrity in the hospital. When he is practiced enough to walk, he goes to the patient lounge on the neurosurgical ward and orders a beer. One fellow patient asks for his autograph on an article that has his picture and the headline, “Bernhard Hoffman – Terrorist?” and purports to tell of his double life.
As the pressure comes down hard on Hoffman’s doctor (Eike Gallwitz) to release Hoffman to a prison hospital, Anleitner works hard to persuade zealous detective Scholz (Hans Brenner) that Hoffman was not involved. Scholz assures an incredulous Anleitner that he not only thinks Hoffman is a terrorist, he “knows it. Don’t let the absent-minded professor act fool you.” In a face-to-face confrontation, Hoffman has been positively identified by Schurig (Udo Samel), the stabbed officer, as his attacker. Soon, in an attempt to take back control of his life, Hoffman escapes from the hospital, and after a difficult reunion with Ann and recapture, eventually confronts Schurig to find out if he is indeed a knife-wielding terrorist or simply has a knife in his head.
The script and direction of this film layer it with ambiguity and suspicion. We don’t know who Ann is at first. When she and Volker come to the hospital to see Hoffman, the estrangement between the married couple seems more like an activist trying to take advantage of a brain-damaged man. For what purpose, it’s hard to say, but her insistence that Anleitner get him out of the hospital as soon as possible might indicate that Hoffman has something she wants or could reveal something damaging to the police—or maybe something else entirely. Right before his escape, we know his wits have returned to him in some measure when he finds the policeman guarding his hospital room playing chess with himself, and handily puts the guard into checkmate with one move. His escape isn’t particularly difficult because he seems to be counting on hospital staff to assume he is too handicapped in mind and body to attempt one. Is Hoffman really a terrorist adept at fooling people, or is he just gaining back some measure of the intelligent man he once was, as well as the desire to be free?
It would be easy to sympathize with Hoffman if Ganz had portrayed him as the type of brain-injured victim we are used to seeing in movies. Think Regarding Henry, and you’ll know how wrong and false it is to think that injury is ennobling. Ganz’s performance is nothing short of miraculous. His rehabilitation is slow and painful to watch, his frustration palpable, his desire to become a whole man—including a sexual being who can win his wife back again—relentless. We can’t really be sure of the reality of his double life until the very end of the film because we don’t see him before his fateful night. That superb choice by Hauff keeps us focused on Hoffman as a complex man with unfortunate ties to a political enemy of the state who can arouse doubt as well as sympathy in us.
Last year’s Oscar-winning foreign language film from Germany, The Lives of Others, is heir to Knife in the Head. As that win shows, the paranoia and police-state measures that have reemerged in modern times have made Knife in the Head relevant again. Bruno Ganz, with his uncanny ability to play everything from a devil to an angel, always was. l
There is a secret at the heart of Yella, and as the saying goes, if I told you what it was I’d have to kill you. This atmospheric film, which won for its star Nina Hoss the Silver Bear for best actress at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, has a curiously basic quality. The story is straightforward, but details are lacking. Like Waiting for Godot, Yella and the people she encounters behave purposefully and aimlessly at the same time.
Yella (Hoss) lives in a small town in Germany with her father (Christian Redl). When we first encounter her, she is on a train, changing her red blouse behind the curtains of her compartment for a simple black sweater set. As she walks home from the train station, an SUV pulls alongside her. Yella registers alarm at the man behind the wheel. It’s Ben (Hinnerk Schönemann), her estranged husband and former business partner. He climbs out of the SUV and starts walking alongside her at a respectful distance. At first, he is complimentary. He guesses that she got a new job, a good one. “I can tell by the way you walk.” When he tells her how much he misses her, Yella becomes defensive. This turns Ben hostile. He blames her for the bankruptcy of his business and for going on with her life. Yella hurries home.
In fact, Yella has gotten a new job in Hanover, two hours away. Her loving father and she share a last evening at home, and he tries to send her off in the morning with a roll of cash. She tells him to keep it because she is making money. When they go to the front door to wait for the taxi, Ben is there. He wants to take Yella to the train station. At just that moment, a frightening sonic boom rings out overhead. Nonetheless, Ben persuades Yella to let him drive her to the station. He detours from the route on the pretext of showing her a place where he plans to start up a new business. As they cross a bridge, Ben says, “I love you, Yella” and turns the wheel. Yella tries to stop him, but it is too late. The car crashes through the railing, sending them into the river below.
The crash is horrific, but both Yella and Ben escape from the SUV and make it to shore, where they lay in exhaustion. Yella hears the sound of a crow, the rustle of leaves above her head on the river bank. Yella recovers first. She sees that her bags have floated to shore as well. She collects them and slips away, walking to the train station and just catching the train to her new life. A wave of fear and fatigue overcome her in the compartment as, dripping wet, she collapses into a deep sleep.
Once she arrives in Hanover, she goes to the hotel where she has taken a room until her trial period on the job is completed. The hotel manager says she has not put down a deposit. None of her credit cards work. However, when she reaches into her coat pocket, the roll of bills her father tried to press on her is there. She settles into her temporary home.
While eating dinner in the hotel, she notices the screen saver of a laptop at the table next to hers. It shows a giant wave breaking. Yella is mesmerized. The owner of the laptop, Philipp (Devid Striesow), asks her rather sarcastically if she is interested in balance sheets. Brought out of her reverie, she answers that she is. Although she has a model’s looks and carriage, Yella is actually an accountant. She says she has a job and mentions the name of the company. Philipp registers surprise, not aware that they were still hiring. He asks if Schmitt-Ott (Michael Wittenborn) hired her. Surprised that he knows this, she answers “yes.” His look becomes more rueful. “Well, good luck tomorrow,” he offers and goes up to his room.
When Yella arrives at the company, her new boss is talking on a cellphone in the parking lot. He asks her to take his keys and go to his office to retrieve a portfolio. She is unlocking his desk when a man comes in and shoos her off the premises. Schmitt-Ott, it appears, has been sacked that morning. Yella returns to the hotel and tosses her suitcase in frustration. She has left her door ajar, and Philipp enters. He learns of her problem, then says he needs someone to accompany him to a meeting the next day. He will pay her for her trouble.
Philipp is a bank negotiator who specializes in making risky loans. Although Philipp instructs Yella on some body language to use during the negotiation, he underestimates her. She is able to negotiate more effectively by actually reading and interpreting the balance sheets. Philipp and Yella turn out to be a very effective team—and a larcenous one. Philipp takes kickbacks from his clients and Yella tries to steal from him—she says to get Ben off her back. He’s still stalking her, and has shown up in Hanover. She feels guilty for not loving him anymore and for leaving him in his hour of need. Philipp understands that her guilt isn’t genuine. The pair grow closer and eventually fall in love. But one final deal creates a moral dilemma for Yella unlike any she has experienced before, and we flash back to the day of the crash.
Throughout the film, Yella appears to be experiencing posttraumatic stress disorder. She is unusually attracted to water. She hears the harsh sound of a crow, the sonic boom, and the rustle of leaves at odd moments. Ben appears to have been in her hotel room. When he chases her down the hall, she runs to Philipp and hugs him. When she turns back to look at Ben, he has vanished. She wears the same red shirt and black skirt every day, only suggesting after several days that she needs to buy some clothes. There is something questioning, bewildered, provisional about Yella.
The acting is uniformly superb in this film. Although I was a bit distracted by the resemblance that Hoss and Striesow bear to Sela Ward and Whit Stillman regular Chris Eigemann, the pair had a great chemistry that was, nevertheless, filled with a sense of dread. Schönemann scared the bejesus out of me, and that created a disconnect for me. Why did Yella keep putting herself near him, not only letting him drive her to the train station but running out into the night to look for him in Hanover? These actions set a fatalistic tone, setting the narrative on its ear in a subtle way that another director might have accomplished with skewed camera angles and odd lighting.
Puzzling, urgent, and fascinating, Yella is an amazing film, an excellent example of films of its type. But remember, if you value your life, don’t ask which type that is. l
Whenever you go into a film by Werner Herzog, expect the unexpected. The idiosyncratic director with a taste for the grotesque never does anything by half, and frequently inflicts the same fate on his characters. His feature Stroszek comes close to defining the word “offbeat” while still clinging to a fairly linear plot and recognizable characters. In fact, his characters are played by nonactors and, indeed, many play themselves in a film that spans from Berlin to serial killer Ed Gein’s hometown of Plainfield, Wisconsin (called Railroad Flats in the movie because of a feud Herzog had with documentarian Errol Morris about—oh never mind, it’s just too complicated).
The film opens on the day that Bruno Stroszek (Bruno S.) is released from jail. The nature of his crime is not revealed, but the warden warns him away from taverns. My guess would be that he was drunk and disorderly and playing music in public for money without a license. I guess this because when the articles he had when he was taken into custody are returned to him, they included an accordion. Bruno immediately heads into the nearest pub and orders a beer, which he downs in one swill.
In the pub, he meets up with his old friend Eva (Eva Mattes) and the pair of loathsome pimps (Wilhelm von Homburg and Burkhard Driest) she works for. After being rejected by the pair, Eva goes home with Bruno to the apartment his friend Scheitz (Clemens Scheitz) has been keeping for him. Scheitz, a little old man in a black topcoat and beret; Bruno; and Eva form an odd family for a short time. Soon, the pimps come into the apartment and trash the place; later, Eva comes home beaten and bruised. Scheitz has a relative living in Wisconsin who will hire Bruno and get Eva a job in a truck stop. The trio review a map to find out where Wisconsin is, fantasize about mobile homes, pack up, and head for America.
At first, things go pretty much as planned. Eva is shown working like a well-oiled machine at the diner. Bruno goes to work for Scheitz’s relative, a mechanic (Clayton Szalpinski,) and the threesome get a brand-new mobile home to live in. All seems miraculous in America, that is, until the three find out they actually have to pay back the loan they got to buy their dream trailer. Inevitably, Eva starts turning tricks again, eventually running off with a trucker to Vancouver. Bruno and Scheitz decide to rob the bank to which they owe money, but go when the bank is closed. Instead, they stick their shotgun in a barber’s face and steal $30 from his register. Then they cross the street to buy groceries. Scheitz is apprehended by the police. Bruno, all alone, does what anyone would do—he steals a tow truck from the mechanic shop and drives off to find Eva, shotgun and a frozen turkey from the grocery store in tow.
It’s tempting to think of this movie as a lampoon of the American dream, but listening to Herzog’s explanation of how the film came about shows it to be an excuse for Herzog to create a dark comedy populated with an odd assortment of characters he met by chance in Berlin and Wisconsin. Bruno S. was a tragic human being, raised by a prostitute and beaten into temporary deafness. He also played the lead in Herzog’s Kaspar Hauser: Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle, which tells the true story of Hauser, who was locked in a cellar for most of his life and then set into the world. Bruno S. picks up where he left off from that film as a man who doesn’t quite fit into society and carries a childish optimism and adult melancholy with him wherever he goes. Wilhelm von Homburg was a pro wrestler and boxer who had served time in prison; Herzog reported “I liked him very much.” The mechanic actually fixed Herzog’s car some time before. When Herzog came back to shoot Stroszek, he asked for the mechanic’s Native American assistant to be in the film. Szalpinski didn’t even remember the guy, then realized he had hired and fired him the same day. Of course, Herzog tracked him down, and the man, Ely Rodriguez, is in the film.
Stroszek ends with a Native American police officer somewhere in the vicinity of Vancouver phoning in as Herzogian a line as any: “We have a 10-80 out here, a truck on fire, we have a man on the lift. We are unable to find the switch to turn the lift off, can’t stop the dancing chickens. Send an electrician, we’re standing by.” Naturally. l
It is human nature to love stories, and for people with a particularly philosophical or analytical bent, a favorite type of story is the parable. Some fairytale creatures, such as princesses and paupers, are slotted into their appointed positions and set in motion, cranking out a plot that gives the observers a chance to uncover a human truth. One of the more famous parables, Frank Stockton’s “The Lady or the Tiger?”, leaves it up to the reader to decide whether a princess aids or destroys her imprisoned lover. The princess is fearful that in choosing a judgment from behind one of two doors, her lover will be devoured by a tiger, but she is also mad with jealousy that he might marry someone other than her if he chooses the door that conceals the lady. Like most such stories, we get only the most general, if impassioned, description of the princess’ torment. We must then use what we know about human nature to guess her actions. These parables sometimes teach, but often they simply are used for the pleasant exchange of ideas.
Longing, in essence, retells the “The Lady or The Tiger?”, preserving the sketchiness of stock characters but creating a common human dilemma to which many viewers can relate—sin. Markus (Andreas Müller) is a handsome young metal worker who lives in a very small town in Germany with his charming wife and half-grown son. The couple seems very loving and happy. Unfortunately, when the film opens, Markus, a volunteer firefighter, is tending to an injured man by the side of the road. The man has deliberately run his car into a large tree, intending in a possible suicide pact to kill both himself and his wife. His wife lays dead, but thanks to Markus, the man survives.
The incident weighs on Markus, who can’t help feeling he ruined the man’s plans. His wife Ella (Ilka Welz) thinks the idea of dying for love is romantic, like Romeo and Juliet. Markus looks deeply into his wife’s eyes and says he’d do anything for her.
Markus is off with his squad to a firefighting training in a town about and hour’s drive away. At a banquet on the first night, the beer and schnapps flow freely. Several of the men dance with the waitresses. Markus is shown dancing alone, almost in a trance, to a song in English about tragic love. When we see him next, he is rousing from a deep slumber. He is in the flat of Rose (Anett Dornbusch), one of the waitresses. He doesn’t remember what happened. Over the next few days of the training, he spends all his spare time with Rose.
After he returns home, he tries to reconnect with his wife in a sexual union that looks awkward and tortured. Finally, he asks for some time alone. He returns to Rose’s town, where he determines to spend one more night with her, and then never see her again. Unfortunately, Rose is injured, an investigation ensues, all is revealed to Ella, and we are in for a shock. And in the end, we see several children retelling the story on a playground and trying to decide whether Markus returned to Ella or Rose.
The film was made with nonactors and very little dialogue, thus giving us people we can’t recognize who aren’t very good at helping us feel what they are feeling to help us make sense of the moral dilemma. I tend to think it was the director’s intention to make this an everyman story in this way, but for a film that is only 88 minutes long, the journey is tedious and without any truly meaningful clues as to what these people are really like. It is impossible to know what choice Markus made—or was made for him by the women in his life—because we don’t really know anything about these people. The situation of sin and regret certainly is universal, but when we are left with children making the guesses, it’s obvious that this film is really just a philosophical game we’ve been led to play. I must say that I didn’t feel intrigued or challenged—only frustrated.
In the mountainous region near Grenoble, France, sits the Grande Chartreuse, the centuries-old home monastery of the reclusive Carthusian Order of the Roman Catholic Church. The monks, whose lives of contemplation, prayer, and isolation are considered the most strict and severe of all monastic orders, are extremely sheltered from secular eyes. This sheltering is not in opposition to the outside world, but rather to prevent distraction from their constant prayer.
Therefore, when director Philip Gröning first approached them about documenting their lives, they did not say “no,” only that they were not yet ready. When they were ready, 16 years later, he was invited in. The result is the rare and singular experience that is Into Great Silence.
The first image is a grainy, almost pixellated close-up of a man’s profile. He appears to be laying on his side with his fist close to his mouth, as though he were sucking his thumb while in the fetal position. This still, ineffable image perfectly captures the mystery of the Carthusians, as well as their state of emergent grace that will be realized at death. Indeed, Gröning, with this grainy shooting technique, seems to suggest the eye of God, the unseen character who propels every action in the film, from the trimming of celery for dinner to the often-repeated ringing of the church bell for morning devotion.
Gröning takes a calendar approach to the monks’ lives. A harsh, mountain winter gives way to a shy, then gloriously verdant spring. Eventually, we find ourselves buried in snow again, emphasizing a very simple life governed primarily by nature’s rhythms. Primarily, but not exclusively. The monastery has its accountant, who uses a laptop to keep track of the bills and correspondence. One monk prepares for a plane trip to Seoul. Electricity, not candles, lights each monk’s cell. Obviously store-bought fruit sits in an artistic still life Gröning composes for our contemplative use.
Nonetheless, the bulk of this movie is given over to observing the devotions of the Carthusians. We witness the initiation of two novices to the order, and Gröning follows one of them, a black African, during his first year in the monastery. We watch him get his head shaved at the monthly trimming. We watch him in prayer in his cell, kneeling at an altar for one, and returning to a seated position in quiet prayer, his cowl pulled over his head. We see him sit at a window counter to eat his dinner, passed to him through a normally locked service window in the hall by a monk pushing the dinner trolley.
The only meals the Carthusians share are Sunday dinner and special feast days. During one Sunday meal, a monk reading from the rule of the Carthusian Order, emphasizes that this communal dining is to give the monks the pleasure of family life. The monks also take a weekly walk for exercise and to receive the refreshment of nature. In the warmer months, we see the monks walk and talk, finally gathering in a circle. Here they discuss the necessity of washing before dinner; one order has already eliminated the practice. One monk chimes in, “They were Trappists.” That got a chuckle from the audience. A more serious discussion about symbols follows. One monk offers the opinion that there is nothing wrong with symbols such as handwashing; if doubts arise about them, the problem is with the monks themselves, not the symbols, and must be meditated upon.
There are moments of transcendence in this film. A dark chapel in which all the monks lie prostrate on the floor, with only a candle burning in a red glass visible. The haunting chants of the monks in prayer. Gigantic snowflakes falling on the pitched, tiled roof of the monastery. Wildflowers and trees waving in the mountain air.
Intemittently, Gröning puts up a title card (in French, with German subtitles for the film’s original German audience, and a further layer of subtitles in English for us). Only a few phrases are included on these title cards, and these are repeated throughout the film. One is “Lord, you have seduced me, and I was seduced.” Looking at the miraculous beauty surrounding the Grande Chartreuse, it’s easy for an audience to be enticed by its majesty. However, another admonishment—that only those who give up everything they have can become Christ’s disciples—meets resistance.
The Carthusian way of life cannot be understood at our emotional core, and the modern world, so out of touch, craves emotional revelation like a drug. Without it, this nearly 3-hour-long film can be a slow and tedious slog. Gröning provides full-face close-ups of the monks, three at a time like an altar triptych, as a means to uncover the source of their devotion. The eyes may be called the windows to the soul, but it is not possible to feel their faith in this way. One elderly monk who has gone blind says he thanks God every day for blinding him. He sincerely believes that God does everything for our benefit and that God thought blindness was necessary for the monk’s soul. Even this welcome interview in the mainly silent film does not really clear the confusion.
Into Great Silence is a documentary whose point of view is subtle, undocumentary-like. Unlike this year’s Oscar winner, An Inconvenient Truth, the meaning of this film is neither propagandistic, educational (except as a document of a mainly hidden way of life), nor necessarily feel-good or feel-outraged. The monks experience joy (reference the scene where they slide down a snowy hill on their bottoms or their ski-less feet), but most of it we cannot experience with them. Nonetheless, outer progress is not the only form of real life, and inner progress may not be truly achievable through once-a-week devotion or 15 minutes of meditation. This film is seductive, and some viewers will be seduced. l
Opening night of the European Union Film Festival brought us a lot of dignitaries from EU consulates, a lot of speechifying, and chastening comments about how much work goes into a festival like this. I have learned over the years that unlike most of the actors whose films they show, festival programmers always want people to see them sweat. At last, the lights dimmed, the black curtains parted, and the first film of the festival began with a shock opening.
A lot of barbed wire. It looks as though the Berlin Wall still stands, and this is the dividing point. Faces glimpsed in small, confining windows. Not the Wall. It’s a prison. Then bare feet suspended in air behind something. Yes, a bunk bed. The camera pans up to a young woman asleep on the top bunk. What of the feet? Is someone holding onto a bar or window ledge? No, we clearly make out from limp arms and a dropped head half cut out of the frame that a woman is hanged behind the bed. The sleeper awakes, glances at the body, and then grabs the dead woman’s cigarettes from her pocket and lights one up. Yes, Mr. Kraus, you have our attention.
Cut to some driving rock music. Is it the soundtrack signaling a mood change? No. Two large, tattooed men are in the cab of a truck, listening to a cranked radio. A withered old woman sits hugging the passenger door. She reaches over and changes the station to classical. The two men shrug and keep driving.
In these two scenes, we are introduced to the protagonists of the film—Jenny von Loeben (Hannah Herzsprung), an incarcerated murderer, and Traude Krüger (Monica Bleibtreu), a piano teacher and the organist for the church at Jenny’s prison. Their characters are shorthanded to us quickly and effectively. Both women are hard, no-nonsense, accustomed to rough, not smooth. This is going to be a barbed movie.
The two men—ex-cons who are not allowed on the prison grounds by the by-the-book guard Kowalski (Richy Müller)—are delivering a new piano for Frau Krüger. The prison warden, Meyerbeer, (Stefan Kurt), however, is threatening to cut the piano program. Krüger has only four students. Krüger says five. No, one of them has hanged herself. Krüger says her first warden was skeptical about the program, too. Who was that, asks Meyerbeer. “SS,” is the reply, and we are treated to one of many flashbacks that will piece together a story of Traude’s first love and loss in the final days of World War II.
One day, when Frau Krüger is playing organ in church, she spies in a broken piece of mirror she uses to watch the service Jenny, fingering the notes of the piece on the back of a pew. When it’s time for the piano lessons to recommence, Jenny is waiting outside the practice room—a cell on her block where she is taunted by another inmate who was upset that Jenny did nothing to stop her cellmate from hanging herself. “I was sleeping,” said Jenny.
After several disappointing lessons, Frau Krüger sees Jenny ushered into the room by Mütze (Sven Pippig), a guard with whom Krüger has a somewhat friendly relationship. In fact, Krüger is a brittle, prickly woman with no intimates. She has kept company with her loss for 50 years. Even so, she betrays an interest in Jenny. Although she refuses to teach Jenny that day because Jenny has picked the skin on her hands apart, Krüger has had a glimpse of Jenny’s extraordinary musical talent. Jenny protests that she wants her lesson. When Mütze grabs her to remove her from the practice room, Jenny loses control and beats him near to death. Krüger stands by, frozen like a statue, and moves wordlessly out as guards come rushing by. Krüger visits Jenny on her straitjacket bench and begins the delicate negotiation that will bring the two women into an alliance of music, culminating in a four-minute per- formance in the finals of a com- petition at the Berlin Opera House.
Kraus orchestrates this film like a fugue, cutting through time and space. He builds suspense about Jenny and the very real possibility that she might kill Traude or be killed herself by the revenge-minded Mütze and other prisoners. Unfortunately, his film’s technical originality and an extraordinary performance by Bleibtreu can’t quite overcome the incredibly clichéd story. A clash of a teacher insisting on discipline and forbidding anything but classical music, and her rebellious student who finds expression in modern music, is as old as the hills. Making the teacher and student such extreme characters dulls the cliché but still doesn’t rescue this story. In addition, there are many moments that happen strictly to cobble the story together and create moments that ring false from their opening chord.
Further, giving us Krüger’s entire backstory is really not necessary. We see a photo of Wilhelm Furtwängler on her wall. This extraordinary conductor was supposed to have been Traude’s teacher and mentor. He chose to continue his career in Germany during Hitler’s reign of terror and paid a heavy price for it. Most likely, it is his influence that has made Traude so dedicated to Jenny’s gift, overlooking her terrible crime and extremely dangerous temperment. The remarkable film Taking Sides (2001), with one of Harvey Keitel’s most compelling and original roles and performances, truly engages this ethical dilemma in a way that Four Minutes might have liked to, but didn’t. Instead, we are weighed down by the current vogue of lesbians on film and nonlinear story lines. We lose the greater significance of the ages-old debate of whether an artistic gift forgives all personal failings.
Despite these shortcomings, however, the final, redemptive composition Jenny performs is a truly exciting piece of music, and Herzsprung gives the performance her all. If you choose to see Jenny as a representative of the new generation of Germans—and this wouldn’t be the worst way to interpret this film—she does it very well. She shows their desire to be free of the crimes and culture of the past. If they are going to be criminals, let it be in the cause of fighting the rigidity of the German state and the oppression of patriarchy. So it seems that Kraus was bogged down by the past, but trying to break free. I’ll be interested to see what this young director comes up with next. l
Sixty years after the end of World War II, filmmakers are still wrestling with the legacy of Nazism and the horrors of the concentration camp. Documentaries such as Shoah and The Sorrow and the Pity take up the big picture with such brilliance and moral heat that later documentaries have been boxed into smaller corners of history, examining perceptions of Hitler by his secretary, for example, or the Kindertransport. Feature films, of course, do not face this possible handicap. Their nature is to focus on the particular to illuminate the universal; the moral agency of the main character normally puts the viewer in the seat of righteousness or pity, as with Schindler’s List and Au Revoir Les Enfants. See enough of these films and you’ll get to feeling very virtuous (I’m told that not even Downfall entirely escapes a certain level of pity for its main character, Adolf Hitler). The Ninth Day does not depart significantly from the feel of other films about Nazism, but it does something quite unique for films made these days—its narrative spine is firmly planted in philosophical debate.
The film’s protagonist is Rev. Henri Kremer, an influential priest from Luxembourg who has been sent to the priest block at Dachau for his activities opposing the Nazis. The beginning of the film sets out in relatively economical fashion to orient Kremer and the audience to his new environment—one filled with regimentation and horrifying cruelty resisted mainly by prayer. Kremer shows himself to have a bit more backbone when he runs to the aid of a Polish priest who is being beaten with a metal poker for being unable to sing a song in German. Ulrich Matthes, whose much-commented-upon hollow cheeks and black eyes make him seem born to play a witness/victim of atrocity, fills Kremer with a certitude of purpose that comes from being a member of a very influential family and a highly placed member of the Roman Catholic Church. It is for these reasons, apparently, that he is allowed the highly unusual privilege of being released from Dachau.
Kremer is intercepted by an SS officer named Gebhardt (August Diehl) as he disembarks the train in his hometown and is told to report to SS headquarters the next day. When Kremer returns home, his sister informs him that their mother is dead. When Kremer reports to Gebhardt the following day, he is told his release is only for 9 days, supposedly a bereavement leave. Naturally, there is another reason for Kremer’s release—he is to convince the bishop of Luxembourg to endorse national socialism to legitimize the actions of Germany in the Catholic countries of Europe.
The film counts down each day of Kremer’s leave, adding a sense of doom to the grim, gray look of the film and putting a limit on the amount of moral debate Kremer can engage in with himself, his family, his fellow clergymen, and Gebhardt. Flashbacks to Dachau reveal a secret guilt Kremer has been harboring regarding the death of a fellow cleric whom he felt he might have been able to save if he had been less selfish. Is this sin the chink in the armor Gebhardt will be able to chip away at to secure what he is after? The men engage in a short and savage debate on the true meaning of the life and acts of Judas.
It is in this and other exchanges with Gebhardt that the audience is invited into areas I can’t remember visiting in this way since the release of A Man for All Seasons in 1966. It is one only philosophers and ethicists frequent with any regularity—the philosophical underpinning of social interactions, including moral utilitarianism and relativism. In trying to convince Kremer to capitulate, the bishop’s secretary says that resistance to the Nazis sent 20,000 Dutch non-Aryan Christians to their deaths. Wouldn’t it have been better to save those lives at little cost to the Church? We wonder along with Kremer what the true cost of capitulation would have been. Does an absolute moral good of condemning the Nazis demand blood sacrifice in the name of all humanity? In posing these questions within a true life-and-death situation for Kremer, the audience is forced to think in more than just a kneejerk way. This is the great strength of The Ninth Day.
Ultimately, Kremer utters a line that will linger with me for many years to come. In considering how he should decide, he poses a question to Gebhardt: “What does a killer want most from his victim after the victim is dead?” The answer may have little to do with Nazism, but it is a question individual Nazis may have asked themselves and one we all should to ask ourselves in considering how we conduct our lives.
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