September 27, 2011
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.