November 26, 2013


“I watch old [soccer] games on YouTube. Gladbach against Cologne in 1973, Ernst Huberty is broadcasting. Four camera positions, few cuts. Berlin School.”

-Christian Petzold (quoted in epigraph to Marco Abel’s The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School)

This tongue-in-cheek quote from director Christian Petzold identifies the severe economy of style associated with the “Berlin School” of filmmakers, now receiving a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Petzold, Thomas Arslan and Angela Schanelec each attended the Deutsche Film und Fernsehakademie Berlin (dffb) in the early 1990s under the tutelage of Harun Farocki and Hartmut Bitomsky. The three directors made recalcitrant, intensely observational genre films as a reaction to the 1990s “cinema of consensus” in Germany, as described by Eric Rentschler. The end of East Germany became the fodder for comedies like Go Trabi, Go (1991), along with the sober historical dramas that continue to this day (Downfall, The Lives of Others). This first generation of “Berlin School” directors instead wished to focus on the dislocations of the present, whether of the influx of Turkish immigrants, or internal displacement wrought by the shift from socialism to capitalism. Other directors with similar interests, who did not attend the dffb (including the editors of Revolver Magazine, Benjamin Heisenberg and Christoph Hochhausler), were later grouped with Petzold, Arslan and Schanelec as the “Berlin School” of filmmaking, which would produce the most critically-acclaimed German films since the “German New Wave” of Fassbinder, Herzog and Schroeter. It is a critic’s construct, first coined by German reviewer Merten Worthmann, and perhaps has led to the films being ignored in the United States. While “New Wave” suggests the vibrancy of youth, “Berlin School” elicits visions of pedantic schoolmasters chastising viewers with ruler thwacks to the wrist.


Hopefully the series at the Museum of Modern Art will begin to change all that. The series is more of an introduction than a deep dive, with 17 films by nine directors, including the New York premiere of Thomas Arslan’s Gold. The series also coincides with the publication of three English language studies: Marco Abel’s The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School, Jamey Fisher’s Christian Petzold for the University of Illinois’ Contemporary Film Directors series, and the Berlin School Glossary from the University of Chicago Press. It seems like a tipping point has been reached, at least in small academic presses, but the vast majority of these movies have never been released in the United States, although the success of Petzold’s Barbara from last year is a step in the right direction. Then again, it’s the only Berlin School feature set in East Germany before the wall fell, and may simply have fooled audiences into thinking they were seeing a feel-good Stasi movie like The Lives of Others. It’s not encouraging that the very sellable Gold still lacks a distributor.  A (north) Western, it tracks a doomed caravan through the Canadian Yukon as they trek towards the remote city of Dawson, and a rumored gold rush.

It stars Berlin School muse Nina Hoss as Emily, a tight-lipped divorcee who emigrated to Chicago from Bremen. A housemaid now determined to strike out on her own, she is the most self-reliant of the group of money-hungry scalawags. The caravan is led by an incompetent con-man, and followed by a bibulous reporter, a cowardly father and bickering husband and wife cooks. All are escaping the American dream and chasing a similar one in the wilds of Canada, this time without the burden of family or societal constructs. In escaping one freedom they get trapped in another. Shot digitally on the Arri Alexa, Arslan obtains an uncanny effect – his long shot landscapes seem to enclose his protagonists instead of set them free. Nature is against them from the start, during which a wooden axel shatters on an overgrown path, their one mechanical luxury – a wagon – rendered unusable. Then there are broken bones, bear traps and amputations. This host country is as malevolent as the one they left, but Emily is determined to survive by any means necessary.


Arslan is the son of a Turkish father and a German mother, and experienced firsthand the traumatic dislocations of immigration. He first funneled these experiences into his “Berlin Trilogy”, a series of portraits of Turkish youth navigating life in Berlin. Brothers and Sisters (’97) is a loose, improvisatory drama about teens in the Kreuzberg neighborhood of Berlin. Once a community for poor immigrant families, it’s now one of the more gentrified parts of the city. Under Arslan’s roaming handheld camera, though, it’s a maze of flourescent delis and abandoned parks. The non-professional actors wander aimlessly, imbibing metric tons of Coca-Cola and wondering how they’ll escape this city. It follows one family and the assimilationist divisions therein. The older brother Erol (Tamer Yigit), who looks like a curly haired James Franco, still has vivid memories of Istanbul, and chooses to accept his induction in the Turkish army. His younger brother Ahmed (Savas Yurderi, now one of Germany’s most popular rappers), avoids ethnic signifiers, ready to accept his nascent German-ness. Their sister Leyla (Serpil Turhan) is thrashing at the conservative yoke of her father, and eager to break free. Arslan uses Mean Streets as a template, channeling the live-wire indolence of its hangout scenes, where boredom can snap into violence with the snap of a pool cue. He places the same actors in different parts and locales in the next two parts of the trilogy, Dealer (’99) and A Fine Day (01), in which he reconfigures the crime drama and Rohmerian romance. These are not deconstructions of genre but engaged revivals, as in his cool Melville-esque heist film In the Shadows (’10), which was somehow never released here.


Christian Petzold is another recombinator of genre, as he places his stories of East German phantoms into templates of Hollywood narratives. The State I Am In (2001) opens MoMA’s series, and was his (and the Berlin School’s) breakthrough feature, winning the German Federal Film Prize. Two exiled RAF (Red Army Faction) terrorists and their daughter make their way back to Germany, only to discover their own ghostly irrelevance in the new neoliberal state. Petzold modeled his film on Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark, as he told Jamey Fisher: “They drive all over the country, cannot really die, but also not really live, living in the dark, hanging around transit spaces, in bars, in campers, in trailer parks.” They “cannot really die” because it seems the police are no longer looking for them, more concerned with rounding up the illegal immigrants at a rest stop than these aging totems to an archaic radicalism. Their former Baader-Meinhof colleague greets them with incredulity that they are still active – only aiding their escape after some physical re-education. Their daughter Jeanne is the only one visualized to be alive and connected to this new world -as she is eager to acquire the material trappings of the West. Early on she dreams of a rich boy’s villa, lingering on the phrase “underfloor heating”, as if it were an incantation. She gets her wish, and the new reality awaits.


Another such phantom exists in Christoph Hochhausler’s debut Falscher Bekenner (I Am Guilty, 2005). Hochhausler is one of the younger generation of Berlin School directors, who, along with Benjamin Heisenberg, edits the film journal Revolver, which acts like a tendentious house organ for Berlin School arguments. One such argument led to the making of Dreileiben (2011), a triptych about a serial killer loose in the Thuringian forest, inspired by critiques of Berlin School form by old school genre director Dominik Graf. Graf, Hochhausler and Petzold contributed to this rather astonishing work (which I wrote about here, and of course, was never distributed stateside). I Am Guilty is another youth film, like Brothers and Sisters, but there does not seem to be any assimilationist moves for Armin (Constantin von Jascheroff) to make. Already a blonde-haired blue-eyed German youth, he has been given every opportunity to become a part of Germany’s economic boom. Instead he lurks and broods and fantasizes. Hochhausler shoves him to the edges of the frame when around groups of people, uneasy with the success of his middle-class family, whose only concern is that he get a job. Their entire lives seem like performances, every bit of advice he receives regards the stagecraft of job interviews, of proper tone and outfit. All Armin wants to wear is leather, and escape to his dreams of lithe biker boys straight out of Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising. Where Jeanne is eager to accept entry into the German dream, Armin wants to develop his own subterranean fantasies, and discovers it in the back of a cop car with a smile.

I am an arriviste to the Berlin School, but am entranced by their command of formal language as well as film history – and how they continuously confront the contradictions and dislocations that writhe underneath their still booming country. This is a major movement that has barely seen screens in the United States, so if you live in the NYC area try and catch the remaining shows. The series runs through December 6th.


September 27, 2011

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The 49th New York Film Festival begins this Friday, September 30th, with a main slate of 27 features and an abundance of sidebar and retrospective screenings, including a massive survey of Nikkatsu Films. All of my favorite entries so far share an obsessively detailed sense of place, locations that subsume central characters and emerge as active agents of memory, myth and fate. Dreileben, a group of three features made for German television, is set near the Thuringian Forest, folkloric heart of German culture, and former home to Wagner, Schiller, Bach and Goethe. Ancient fables are invoked as templates for the tragic circlings of the unlucky few who come in contact with a man-made monster.  The Turin Horse utilizes a perpetually wind-thwacked dust bowl as a bluntly metaphorical vision of the barren, anxious souls of its poverty-stricken leads, while Two Years at Sea follows the hermit and former merchant seaman, Jake Williams, as he goes his silent bearded way in the beatific and lonely Caingorm Mountains of Scotland.

Dreileben began as a series of e-mail exchanges between directors Christian Petzold, Dominik Graf and Christoph Hochhäusler, which were published in Revolver magazine in 2007. All three men are grouped under, or have pushed back against, the “Berlin School” of German cinema. Marco Abel wrote in Cineasteabout the genesis of this somewhat misleading description: ” The label, coined by German film critic Rüdiger Suchsland, originally referred to what is now known as the first generation of the Berlin School: [Angela] Schanelec, Christian Petzold, and Thomas Arslan. All three attended and graduated in the early 1990s from the Deutsche Film und Fernsehakademie Berlin (dffb)…and were taught by avant-garde and documentary filmmakers Harun Farocki and Hartmut Bitomsky.” The style is associated with cool, restrained dramas that analyze the minute psychological dramas of everyday life, and are generally ignored by local audiences.  Hochhäusler was part of a second wave of directors, who studied at the Hochschule für Fernsehen und Film München, along with Benjamin Heisenberg (The Robber) and Maren Ade (Everyone Else). The turn to genre subjects (The Robber and Arslan’s In the Shadows), as Dennis Lim (NYFF programmer) notes in a Cinema Scope piece, could be “partly a reaction to the marginalization of the early films.”

Dominik Graf has criticized the Berlin School for their avoidance of emotion, as he told Abel in an interview in Senses of Cinema“This is part of my debate with the Berlin School directors. I tell them that I have the feeling—not always!—that they are not doing anything in order to move away from their glass-like, distanced position towards the world and feelings.” Dreileben is the extraordinary result of this generational debate.The three films circle around one motivating event: the escape of convicted killer Frank Molesch (Stefan Kurt) from a mental hospital. The first film, Christian Petzold’s Beats Being Dead, profiles a bitter affair of one of Molesch’s young potential victims. The second, Graf’s Don’t Follow Me Around, follows a police psychiatrist around anyway, who is on the case of pursuing Molesch, but also gets entangled in a decades old love triangle. The closer, Hochhäusler’s One Minute of Darkness, tracks the killer as he stumbles through the Thuringian woods, a gentle monster roused to violence by the fumblings of the humans around him.

Beats Being Dead is the zombie-like love story between Ana (Luna Mijovic), a working class Serbian immigrant, and Johannes (Jacob Matschenz), a brilliant medical student screwing around for a summer, working at an empty hospital (which Molesch eventually visits). Petzold based the story on the German myth of Ondine, the water nymph who would lose her immortality if she bore a mortal man’s child. Ana and Johannes meet, in various states of undress, by the water. They gravitate to each other instantly, magnetically, their mutual seduction occurring during a series of hypnotic walks to and fro, down the tree-lined paths that separate them physically and economically. The spectre of money and class is never far from the surface in Petzold’s films (see his Postman Always Rings Twice adaptation, Jerichow), and here it is the key that wakes them both up from their trance. Ana, with mascara streaming down her face, has been felled from the euphoric heights of love and made human. Johannes, less than that.

Don’t Follow Me Around is Graf’s play for a communicative cinema, shot in soft, sun dappled 16mm, shifting from the hard-edged 35mm and HD of Petzold and Hochhäusler. In it, police psychologist Johanna (Jeanette Hain), travels to the forest to investigate Molesch’s disappearance, and stays with her old friend Vera (Susanne Wolff) and her husband Bruno (Misel Maticevic). During long nights of wine-fueled reminiscence, they discover they had both loved the same man before they met, sending them deeper into the past. The presiding myth here is of Emperor Barbarossa, mentioned by Johanna’s father before she leaves. He says that Emperor Frederick of Barbarossa, “and all his soldiers have been sleeping for 1,000 years in the mountains, waiting for Germany to finally become an empire again.” Johanna’s father says this as a historian’s idea of a joke before her departure, but what Graf’s story awakens is not an ancient leader but repressed memories. Johanna’s lost love emerges as a ghost by her side, an unwanted guest to eliminate with as much prejudice as Molesch, still roaming the countryside.

The trilogy comes to a brooding close with One Minute of Darkness, in which the forest emerges fully as a character – magical, threatening and aloof. Here Molesch is Barbarossa, stumbling into a tourist’s bedroom that contains maps of the Emperor’s caves and a book of “Wagner’s Thuringen” on the desk. He faces the myths, and he goes on to embody them. His gambol through the verdant wood has him hallucinate a masked creature and tend delicately to a young runaway, as sympathetically as Karloff’s Frankenstein. In Hochhäusler’s patient thriller, Molesch is cross-cut with lumpy inspector Marcus Kreil (Eberhard Kirchberg), the man who had imprisoned him the first time on circumstantial evidence. The jumps between Molesch and Kreil are between incantatory fantasy (the shape-shifting forest, a satanic inferno) and banal reality (a family BBQ). These two strands, woven throughout the whole series, come thudding tragically together as Ondine comes undone, the immortal brought down to the cold earth.


The Turin Horse and Two Years at Sea are two disparate versions of the solitary life. In the first, the outside world is a face-wrinkling terror that is best seen through a window, the dividing line between a father and daughter and encroaching obsolescence. In the second, there is no difference between outside and inside, as winding branches and tall grass take over lounge chair and an RV is magically lifted in the arms of a tree. Bela Tarr claims that The Turin Horse is his last film, and it acts as a summation of his work. It begins with the story of Nietzsche’s last sane days, written by frequent collaborator László Krasznahorkai. Nietzsche sees a horse being beaten by its owner. He rushes to stop the abuse, weeping. He would spend the rest of his days as an invalid. The narrator goes on, “of the horse, we know nothing.” Thus begins the Old Testament penitence of the father and daughter. The silvery B&W cinematography by Fred Kelemen begins – a low angle of the bedraggled horse, with matted hair like a stray dog, pulling the carriage of Ohlsdorfer, the father (János Derzsi, whose craggy bearded visage has the perpetually stunned look of oncoming senility like Richard Bennett in The Magnificent Ambersons). Thus begins a murderous daily routine in gale force winds, with Ohlsdorfer returning home to his gouged-out shack, with walls that look like they’ve been gnawed on by muscular beavers. His already wizened daughter (Erika Bók) undresses him, cooks him his nightly scorched potato, and shuffles off to bed.

This is their entire life, both of them perpetual work machines chipping away at their life expectancy one day at a time. Tarr sets up the visual dichotomy early on, of inside/out. The camera, and the characters are constantly peering outside its frame, denoting an absolute otherness to the nastiness outside. The daughter sees their first guest, a nihilist philosopher-drunk over to buy some palinka (a Hungarian fruit brandy), depart through the precious window. His thunderous presence dissipates to a shadow seen through glass, his sub-Nietzchean pronouncements (twisting Nietzsche’s “beyond good and evil” and death of God pronouncements into a world of eternal subjugation – similar to how the Nazis perverted his work) already forgotten. Ohlsdorfer had already called “rubbish” on him anyway. Their only purpose, their only thoughts, are geared towards work. And once the horse stages a quiet rebellion, refusing to eat or move, their lives of sullen, productive enervation now become entropic and drawn to dissolution. Eventually they go through the looking-glass, and become the travelers on the other side of the window, searching for an escape. Presumably finding only worse deprivations on the other side of the hill, they return, irrevocably changed. The camera, for the first time, shows the outside of the cabin, and the daughter looking out, trapped.

Jake Williams, the subject of Ben Rivers’ Two Years at Sea (in the Views from the Avant-Garde) program, is totally, frighteningly free. Living alone in the Scottish mountains, he is shown cleaning, reading, chopping wood and sleeping – without saying more than a few words. His living quarters have become intertwined with the nature around him, birds and plants and insects have as much a foothold on his property as he does. Shot in anamorphic B&W (although projected on compressed video, sadly), the film is immersive and cordial. It’s clear that Jake wouldn’t mind if you napped along with him, lulled along by his blissed out existence. The pacing gets so gently buzzed it’s no surprise when his mini-RV gets raised heavenward by unseen hands (or winches). The film consists of staged re-enactments of Jake’s daily life, with hints of his past appearing in photos lying on a desk. Stills of children, a woman, an old man shoveling snow, these are the narratives and mysteries that clang around in Jake’s head that we don’t have access to. We project stories onto his invitingly open face, or at least I did, of a wife who couldn’t hack the back-to-nature bit and hustled her kids back to civilization. Or maybe the photos were simply (likely) planted by Rivers to enact such fevered speculation. Whatever the reason, it is a film that encourages such idle thoughts and wild guesses. Filled with flickering light and the squiggles of processing stains, Rivers is playing with the form as well as narrative expectations, mirroring the play of light on leaf with light through film. This comes to the fore in the astounding final shot, a long take of Williams’ face as he nods off in front of the fire, his eyelids and the flames both fluttering, closing to another day and to my prying eyes.


June 7, 2011

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Today Olive Films releases two lesser known Rainer Werner Fassbinder films to DVD in strong transfers: I Only Want You to Love Me (1976) and Despair (1978). The first is a bare-bones TV movie, the second a big budget international co-production starring Dirk Bogarde. According to Thomas Elsaesser,  Despair cost 6 million deutsche marks, when his previous works averaged 4-500,000. Despair was his bid to become a major European auteur, and to work on a larger palette. For this he received pushback from his growing cult (see Philip Lopate’s essay “A Date With Fassbinder and Despair” for a personal take on it), and it has generally drifted into disrepute, hence its unavailability on home video.

Seen on its own, the film is a mordantly funny black comedy that imperceptibly tips into tragedy. As Despair marks a major change in Fassbinder’s directorial identity, it’s appropriate he chose to adapt Vladimir Nabokov’s novel of the same name. It concerns Hermann (Bogarde), a Russian emigre chocolate factory owner in 1929-1930 Berlin, who suffers from dissociative episodes and then fatefully encounters Felix (Klaus Lowitsch), whom he considers to be his doppelganger. Eager for a new life, he plans to kill Felix and take on the role of a poorer, but freer man. It’s a delicate tonal shift handled with care by Fassbinder and DP Michael Ballhaus’ lush house-of-mirrors cinematography, which starts with broad caricature (kitschy frosted glass of endlessly doubling images) and ends with visual rhymes that recontextualize the earlier laughs (a drip into broken porcelain calls back to the opening shot of a tacky cocktail mixing). Their ever-intricate tracking shots are supplemented here by zooms, both puncturing and retreating from these dynamic spaces, shifting from clarity to opacity. Reportedly one of Fassbinder’s favorites, it is overdue for re-evaluation.

Adapted into a screenplay by Tom Stoppard, the theme of unstable identity is elaborated by giving Hermann a history of shifting allegiances: “I was a black shirt fighting the Reds in the White Army. After the revolution I got out as a Caucasian fighting the Brown Shirts in the Red Army. Now I am just a yellow belly in a brown hat”. He says this while armies of little chocolate men roll by on a conveyor belt in the foreground. With Nazism slowly on the rise, Hermann has the creeping fear he’ll just go along to get along again, a monstrous accommodation that introduces one of the many seams in his psyche. No longer certain that there is a core to his being, Hermann depends on class-based masks to get through the day. Bogarde is done up in the height of haute-bourgeoisie. He is a businessman with a blonde wife, swank apartment, and impeccably arranged coiffure. His suits are pressed and his eyebrows dutifully cocked in response to an appropriate innuendo. Mostly he slags his wife Lydia (Andrea Ferreol) for lacking his worldly smarts. This despite his refusal to acknowledge her affair with cousin Ardalion (Volker Spengler), a sloppy painter and slobby human.  He tells Lydia that “Wall Street collapsed”, and she responds, “were people killed?”. Later, he speaks of a “merger” and she mis-hears, “murder?”. Money is equated with violence, and once Hermann’s business collapses, his psyche goes down with it.

His breakdown is first visualized during a sex scene, when Hermann has his first dissociative episode. Still fully clothed in tasteful smoking robe, he tries to mount Lydia’s Rubenesque figure, but fails to feel physically present. Instead, he sees his split-self sitting across the room, watching his impotent pawing with calm resolve. He had told Lydia that “intelligence would take the bloom off your carnality”, but it’s clear his bravado is an impotent show for his little middle class apartment theater. His space is a brightly-lit, garish labyrinth, illustrated with art-deco ladies cavorting in frosted glass . This rhymes with the dour fishbowl darkness of his other glassed-in space, at the office of his chocolate factory. Situated in the far right-hand corner of the office’s frame, he can see all his exhausted minions as they type away to do his bidding. At home he’s an actor, at work a director.

Needing desperately to escape these spaces and his unmoored mind, he finds a solution in another glassy plain, in a fairground mirror maze (the headlining image). There he sees a confused Felix searching for a way out, and Hermann gives him one, believing him to be his doppelganger. Hermann’s idea was hatched in the cinema, where he had watched a gangster melodrama in which a cop switched places with his criminal brother, ending in both of their deaths. Ignoring the ending, he latches on to an identity switch as his only path to salvation. Their relationship is practical, and Hermann offers Felix cash to switch identities, but their time together is also intensely homoerotic – Hermann trying on one more identity before moving on. In their scenes together Fassbinder and Ballhaus shoot them in very low light, and in the scene of the “switch”, Hermann tenderly gives Felix a manicure and pedicure before sending him on his way, and giving him a bullet in the back. In creating Felix as a new man, he re-asserts his dissipated sensual powers, lost with Lydia, and celebrates it by shooting Felix dead.

Ecstatic at his new found freedom, he fails to realize his dead doppelganger is half a hallucination. Felix existed, but had no visual resemblance to Hermann, who simply created a twin in his mind’s movie theater. Morose and broken in a hotel room, a loose faucet drips rhythmically into a shard of broken porcelain, recalling his middle-class cocktail heroics in the opening shot, when a drop fell into a halved egg. He doesn’t put up a fight when arrested, this gaunt fabulist now believing himself a movie star.


This was my write-up of I Only Want You to Love Me (1976) when the Film Comment Selects series screened it earlier this year:

This little-seen Rainer Werner Fassbinder TV movie is an occasionally entrancing exercise in style. The narrative is a failed allegory about a kid who can never please his parents, and so he displaces this insecurity in his marriage by constantly buying his wife presents, running up their credit and driving them into poverty. It’s poised between absurdism and realism but never settles into a coherent tone. He builds a house for his parents, and they forget about it two weeks later, a blackly comic sequence. But then the rest of the film is a starkly realist portrait of a working class family sliding into the poorhouse. It’s held together by Fassbinder’s dynamic compositions, lots of angled mirrors, smoked glass and foreground/background interaction, but in the end it feels like a test case for his future triumphs  [Update: Like Despair two years later!].


February 22, 2011

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In its 11th year, the Film Comment Selects series at Lincoln Center, which runs February 18th – March 4th, is as staunchly idiosyncratic as ever. The slate is chosen by the venerable magazine’s contributors and editors, with an assist from the Asian genre aficionados at Subway Cinema, who are co-presenting three features. Pulling from brows both high and low, they open with the historical excavations of Jia Zhangke’s I Wish I Knew and close with the horror kicks of James Wan’s Insidious and the  morbid comedy of John Landis’ Burke and Hare. In between lies an entire range of obscure festival titles (El Sicario), forgotten repertory gems (Fassbinder’s I Only Want You to Love Me, Peter Yates’ Robbery) and the latest philosophical doc from Werner Herzog, the 3D Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Herzog’s film is one of the few with U.S. theatrical distribution (from IFC Films), so for many of these titles this series is the only opportunity to see them on the big screen.

I’ve seen five films in the program so far, and Jia Zhangke’s I Wish I Knew stands out. As Tony Rayns reported in CinemaScope, Jia was commissioned to make a film about Shanghai for that city’s World Expo in April 2010. As with his last documentary feature,  24 City (2008), Jia uses personal histories to explicate the wider story of his country, from the communist revolution through the introduction and explosion of capitalism. 24 City focused on the industrial city of Chengdu, in which the lifeblood of the town, Factory 420, was being torn down to build a gigantic condominium complex. In the midst of the documentary interviews he introduces a fictional story about the factory, starring Joan Chen.

I Wish I Knew deals with a wider canvas, examining the Shanghainese diaspora created by the Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War. Jia talks to survivors in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Taiwan, whose entire lives were uprooted or destroyed, nationalists and communists both. Woven in between these interviews are wordless shots of actress Zhao Tao, Jia’s frequent collaborator, strolling through the ruins of old Shanghai, as skyscrapers get erected all around her. This is an extension of the Joan Chen sequence in 24 City, but also of Jia’s entire corpus, extraordinary documents of living history in which China’s economic miracle inevitably buries and denies the history of the country. From Platform on, Jia has been trying to capture the last breaths of bulldozed and drowned neighborhoods and memories  before they disappear under steel and glass.

The people Jia interviews are natural storytellers. There is Yang Xiaofo, whose father, leader of the Chinese Civil Rights Alliance, was assassinated upon the order of Chiang Kai-Shek. Yang remembers the days when he and his dad would stroll down Nanjing Road and look for coffee shops. Jia then takes his camera and strolls down the modern-day strip, slowly weaving his way through a cafe, until  he settles upon Zhang Yuansun. Zhang informs us his father was a hugely popular Peking Opera performer, and owned a yacht.  But during the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards declared him a reactionary, ending his career and forcing him to live in poverty. Then Zhang attends a senior dance, twirling to Dick Haymes’ “I Wish I Knew”.

There is an endless list of lost fathers. The most devastating is the story of Wang Peimin, whose dad was executed by firing squad by the KMT weeks before her birth. She has photos of him shortly before his death, handled by impossibly young-looking guards, and with a beatific look on his face, defiantly proud. And despite all of the impossible trials of their youth, all of the subjects share this  stubborn refusal to give up on life, and Jia honors their incredible perseverance. Zhao Tao wanders through the rubble-strewn streets of their past, now abandoned by the city, as the film itself tries to inscribe these spaces back into history. The film is currently without U.S. distribution, but there is a Region 3, English subtitled DVD available at outlets including YesAsia.


Cave of Forgotten Dreams was the hottest ticket, as seeing Werner Herzog’s mischievous mug in three dimensions is apparently too provocative to miss. I even spied David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson in attendance, which hopefully means an extended blog post from them both looms in the future. But of course the main pull was seeing the 32,000 year old paintings that cover the interior of France’s Chauvet cave, which the government rarely opens to non-specialists. The spectacle of these ancient masterpieces can be overwhelming, especially the ingenious way in which they were adapted to the undulating surfaces of the walls. Many compositions were arranged in circular groups that lead the eye around the crevasses, imparting a sense of motion. This kinetic aspect appears in the figures themselves, as Herzog notes a bison drawn with eight legs, conveying an idea of speed, which he describes as “proto-cinema”, but which is more proto-Futurism, which is still pretty mind-blowing. The 3D image gives a wondrous sense of depth and curvaceousness inside the cave, but the large segments of interviews with scientists and researchers are a drag in the format. Herzog’s patented mystical madman commentary is pushing into self-parody, but in this case the footage alone is worth the price of admission.



The Silence (2010) is a heavy-handed but refreshingly downbeat police procedural from Germany, directed with precision by Baran Bo Odar. A little girl is murdered in the same spot as another child was 23 years earlier, and a jowly retired detective with his burnt-out former partner try to link the two cases. The characters are thinly drawn, but the actors are superbly worn-down, committing completely to the ornately doom-laden scenario.

Sodankyla Forever (2010): this is only part one of four segments from Peter von Bagh’s history of  the Midnight Sun Festival in Finland, but it makes me want to watch the whole thing. Each section culls from the voluminous director interviews von Bagh has conducted over the years.This section focuses on a variety of directors’ experiences of war, with a lot of emphasis on Eastern Europe, with many pointed comments from Milos Forman, Jerzy Skolimowski and Ivan Passer, who all attended the same boarding school with Vaclav Havel. There was also a striking exchange between Krystof Zanussi and Dusan Makavajev as they discuss their refusal to attend a screening of Battleship Potemkin (those who celebrate it haven’t lived through its philosophy). Also, plenty of prime Sam Fuller.

I Only Want You to Love Me (1976): this little-seen Rainer Werner Fassbinder TV movie is an occasionally entrancing exercise in style. The narrative is a failed allegory about a kid who can never please his parents, and so in his marriage he constantly buys his wife presents, running up their credit and driving them into poverty. It’s poised between absurdism and realism but never settles into a coherent tone. He builds a house for his parents, and they forget about it two weeks later, a blackly comic sequence. But then the rest of the film is a starkly realist portrait of a working class family sliding into the poorhouse. It’s held together by Fassbinder’s dynamic compositions, lots of angled mirrors, smoked glass and foreground/background interaction, but in the end it feels like a test case for his future triumphs.


Unknown (2011): This is not a part of Film Comment Selects, but Jaume Collet-Serra’s sleekly beguiling thriller certainly belongs with that ragtag group. Following up the cold precision of his ace horror flick Orphan, Serra again churns out a film of with strong compositional lines and an entertainingly ridiculous scenario. What stands out this time is his tactile sense of place, a multi-cultural Berlin of five-star hotels and seedy flop-houses. It’s a huge improvement on its model, Taken, the previous Liam Neeson Euro-sploitation outing, which was directed by Pierre Morel. While that film took place in a world of Eastern-European stereotypes and chopped its action sequences to bits, here the city still seethes with racial tension (a taxi dispatcher blames the city’s perceived decline on immigrants), but Neeson is assisted in his quest by a Bosnian cab driver (played convincingly by Diane Kruger) and her African immigrant pal named Biko (a nod to South African activist Steve Biko, played by Clint Dyer). As with Orphan, its actions sequences are concise bits of legible brutality . Bruno Ganz steals the movie as a proud former Stasi member who aids Neeson in his quest for identity. In what is surely to be one of the finest scenes of the year, Frank Langella swings by to cradle Ganz in his arms, as they discuss how to die with dignity.


April 20, 2010


A heady piece of sci-fi from German wunderkind Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the long-forgotten World On A Wire (1973) resurfaced at the Museum of Modern Art last week for a short run. Produced for the German national television channel, NDR, it was adapted from the novel SIMULACRON 3, by the American Daniel F. Galouye (which was also the basis for The Thirteenth Floor (1999)). Restored in a shimmering print by The Fassbinder Foundation, it’s a visually kaleidoscopic oddity peppered with the director’s uniquely deadpan sense of humor.

The Institute for Cybernetics and Futurology has initiated the Simulacron project, who are building up an artificial universe on their computers, endowing consciousness to individual “identity units”, programmed by the researchers. It is intended to be used as a predictive device, running simulations about shifts in the economy and society. But when technical director Fred Stiller (Klaus Lowitsch) starts noticing fissures in his own reality, he begins to wonder if he is not an “identity unit” for yet another world above his own.  Or, as Fassbinder himself put it, quoted on the Foundation’s site:

“There is a very beautiful story named World on a Wire. It talks about a world where you can create projections of people with a computer. And this brings about the question to what degree we are all merely projections, because according to this thought model, the projections are equal to reality. Maybe another, larger body has created us as a thought model? We are looking at an old philosophical model that produces a certain horror. With this movie I have attempted to work as perfectly and orderly as possible, using all available technical means.”

A two-part, 205 minute opus, it has plenty of lag in its stop-start narrative – but Kurt Raab’s set design and Michael Ballhaus’ cinematography makes every shot worth examining like a jeweler. As you can see in the stills, it’s a fantasia of gleaming plastics and endless refractions. Ballhaus has a penchant for placing objects in the extreme foreground with some surreal action in the far background. This shot, seen in the top photo (and to the right), establishes the world as unbalanced and strange. The normal sense of scale is thrown off, confused.

Ballhaus also places mirror-like objects in every possible composition, bisecting the frame into worlds of illusion and reality. Early on, the original technical director, Professor Vollmer, harangues a state official by shoving a hand mirror in his face and asking him what is inside. Vollmer’s mental breakdown is the tremor which sets Stiller’s world on edge.

Fassbinder frames Stiller’s investigation as a kind of existential film noir. Lowitsch is a squat fireplug of an actor, very brute and athletic for a high profile scientist. Fassbinder loves playing with and honoring genre, and Stiller’s insolent personality and blunt humor recalls both Bogart and the American animals of Sam Fuller. Vollmer’s mysterious daughter Eva (Mascha Robben) takes on the role of femme fatale, with nods to Marlene Dietrich. In a nightclub sequence early on, a Dietrich impersonator lip-synchs to “Boys in the Back Room” before re-enacting the finale to Dishonored (checking her lipstick on a saber before falling to the firing squad). Robben’s veils and breathly line readings are other oblique references to the Berlin-born star.

There’s an air of burlesque to the whole enterprise, with Fassbinder’s usual array of intense grotesques, highlighted by the scrunched mien of Gottfried John as the only “identity unit” aware of his origins. There are also cameos from Ingrid Caven as a stylish newspaper girl, recently deceased director Werner Schroeter as a callow lad at a bar, and Eddie Constantine (Alphaville), as a flummoxed gent who picks up a hitchhiking Stiller. These bits of self-reflexive japery, along with some surreal comic sequences, give the film a wild, lurching tone. At its core it’s still hard sci-fi, tackling questions of alternate worlds and the ultimate meaning of consciousness, but it’s done in the rambunctious, conglomerate style of Fassbinder – who tosses in everything he loves. His favorite friends, colleagues, genres and faces congeal into a carnivalesque vision of computerized mania.

It anticipates the alternate-world philosophical noodlings of The Matrix by 25 years, and, as J. Hoberman notes in his review, is an avatar of Avatar, as Stiller is able to enter Simulacron by putting on the helmet seen a few paragraphs above. The film’s run at MoMA ended yesterday, and it’s currently only available on a German DVD without English subtitles, but the Foundation’s website says they are “presently negotiating with our partner Criterion in the USA.” So hopefully within a year or two this forgotten curiosity will have an extended, idiosyncratic life of its own in the United States.


June 2, 2009


Ah, the love triangle. Perhaps the most cinematic of storytelling devices, it can be effortlessly visualized in combative group shots, a trio of conflicting motives expressed in daggered glances and dewy-eyed stares. The most venerable of these tales is told in James Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934). First adapted by Pierre Chenal with the little known  Le Dernier Tournant (1939), it was then transplanted to fascist Italy in one of the earliest neorealist films (without authorization) in Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione(1943) , until it was buffed clean by Lana Turner and director Tay Garnett in 1946. It was given an explicitly sexual, neo-noir makeover by Bob Rafelson in 1981, and with that the murderous adultery had seemed to run its course. But the much buzzed about German auteur, Christian Petzold, has taken a stab at the material with the mournful and spare Jerichow.

Petzold is classed with the Berlin School of filmmaking, a movement associated with three directors (Petzold, Angela Schanelec, and Thomas Arslan) who “graduated in the early 1990s from the Berlin Film and Television Academy (dffb), and were taught by avant-garde and documentary filmmakers Harun Farocki and Hartmut Bitomsky.”  A loose grouping of similar-minded filmmakers have also been folded into the group (Valeska Grisebach among them), which was coined by German film critic Rüdiger Suchsland. The group, as Marco Abel has stated, pursue an “esthetics of reduction” that is on full display in Jerichow. The filmmakers prefer to show instead of tell in their rigorously understated stories. Petzold focuses on the first half of Postman’s story, that is, the planning and attempt to murder a pretty young housewife’s husband. The duplicitous courtroom drama, which takes up the rest of the book, is eliminated, and the tragic ending is refigured to emphasize the lovers’ moral hell. It’s instructive to compare it to the Hollywood version, which hews closer to the letter (if not the spirit) of Cain’s original.

The template is the same for both: a middle-aged drifter finds a job with an aging businessman and his dissatisfied wife. Petzold tweaks this setup to engage with his time and place: instead of working at a roadside diner, the drifter (Thomas – Benno Furmann) works for a döner chain. His employer is a boozy Turk named Ali (Hilmi Sözer) who has violent side. The ’46 version figures the husband as a more lovable, passive drunk (Cecil Kellaway), and is completely absent of the ethnic tension that rumbles underneath Jerichow. Thomas has just been dishonorably discharged from the army, and falls in with Ali by accident, a striving immigrant who has started a thriving chain of snack bars around the town of Jerichow. The traditional power structure has been flipped, but Petzold leaves this unspoken, buzzing silently underneath the doomed romance (according to a recent study, the Turks are the least integrated immigrant group in Germany, despite being the second largest in number). And instead of the spoiled pretty girl of Lana Turner’s Cora Smith, Nina Hoss’s Laura is an exhausted, weathered survivor. Deep in debt and rescued by Ali, her middle-class existence is both prison and salvation.

Aside from Jerichow‘s narrative elisions, the biggest divergence from the ’46 version is stylistic. It is interesting to see how much the equipment defines style – as Garnett’s Academy ratio image necessitates cramped, frontal groupings, while Petzold’s 1.85 widescreen frame lends his triangles to form deep into the frame. The beach scenes are pivotal. Soon after they first meet, Ali invites Thomas for a picnic on the beach with his wife Laura (Nina Hoss). Ali tipsily traipses to the edge of a cliff, slips, and hangs on for dear life. Petzold had already established Laura’s POV on Thomas standing on top of the overhang, and now he machine-guns a quick shot-countershot between the two – before their attraction has been consummated. This sequence, both in its choreography and editing, will be repeated at the end of the film, which subtly underscores the psychological changes that occurred between the two bookend sequences – the look that led to Thomas hoisting Ali to solid ground, later takes place during their clumsy murder attempt. The landscape remains the same, but the psychological landscape is riddled with guilt.

Hollywood’s Postman buzzed on Lana Turner’s glamor and little else. Tay Garnett didn’t have much of a visual sense, but it’s a tribute to the studio system that this rather uninspired piece of noir still contains multifarious pleasures, not the least of which is Lana Turner’s purring presence and Hume Cronyn’s wonderfully oily defense attorney. But it is not nearly as complete a work as Petzold’s Jerichow, which has the visual patterning to match it’s narrative – the value of the Garnett is only at the edges, while Petzold cooly burns as a  story-image-acting whole.