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 25, 2012

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The 50th New York Film Festival, which runs from September 28th – October 10th, marks the end of an era. Richard Peña, the Program Director of the Film Society at Lincoln Center, as well as the Festival’s Committee Head, is retiring after 25 years, to be replaced by the well-respected critics and curators Kent Jones and Robert Koehler. This year’s main slate, made up of 32 features from around the world, presents directors that Peña has long championed, including Alain Resnais (You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet) and the late Raul Ruiz (Night Across the Street), but also features artists poised to take their place in the fest’s firmament. Christian Petzold makes his long overdue main slate debut with the meticulously stunning Berlin Wall-era drama Barbara, while the astonishingly productive image-grabbers from Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab make their second main slate appearance, following  Sweetgrass (2008) (Foreign Parts was a sidebar selection in 2010), with Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s immersive fishing documentary Leviathan . Also making his second appearance is Leos Carax, with his weary ode to cinema Holy Motors, his first feature since Pola X (1999), which was his NYFF debut. Petzold is a classicist, the Ethnography Lab a group of experimentalists, while Carax is a bit of both – a provocative trio to kick off this year’s festival.

Barbara is the most unassuming feature of the three, a slow-boil suspense film in which the most action occurs in the eyes of actress Nina Hoss. She plays the title character, an East Berlin doctor in 1980 who is banished to a country hospital after being incarcerated for an unknown crime. Even at this distant outpost she is hounded by the police and forced to endure humiliating searches, as she plans to escape with the help of her slick West Berlin boyfriend. Only the attentions of the sympathetic wreck Dr. Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), and the decrepit state of a teen girl abused at the Torgau workhouse crack her determination to leave.

Petzold presents a world that is manifesting Barbara’s justifiable paranoia, one that constantly pokes and prods at her inviolable wall of privacy. He generally frames her in medium shot, with Hoss placed in corners, her eyes slathered in mascara so they pop out of her pale face, looking with the same intensity as the doctors in the reproduction of Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulip that hangs in Dr. Andre’s office. She is alert and pensive, scanning a mise-en-scene that is rebelling against her. Her apartment’s electrical outlets blow out, the doorbell sounds like a clattering death rattle (and usually portends worse), and her bike’s tires pop at regular intervals. Then while at the office, she has to aid Dr. Andre in a lumbar puncture – with work the only place she can project her fears outward. Otherwise she is in constant surveillance of her environs, woman as prison-guard tower. Nina Hoss presents Barbara as an imposing edifice, a stone-faced sphinx who speaks in brief bursts, transmitting as little information as possible. But her eyes tell the tale, climaxing in an ecstatic close-up in the hospital, in which encrustations of anxiety fall from her face, and Barbara is ready to accept her fate.

The fate of the fish in Leviathan is never in any doubt. They will end up on our tables and in our bellies. Filmmakers Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel are interested in how they get there – not the facts of it, though, but the experience, and from every conceivable perspective. The duo used waterproof digital cameras and tied them to fisherman’s heads, shoved them into a pile of the writhing new catch, and dipped them underwater on long poles off the coast of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Herman Melville worked as a whaler in New Bedford, and used the town as a model for Moby Dick, in which great whales are called “leviathans”.

This association reflects on the changing industry in New Bedford, which was the number one dollar value fishing port for the 12th consecutive year, thanks to the sea scallop industry, although it’s a long way from the dominant whaling port it was at the turn of the 20th century. But while the fish are smaller, the sense of awe is still present, as Castaing-Taylor, Paravel and sound designer Ernst Karel cut between the brute reality and industrial noise of life on the boat with the awesome beauty and gurgling solitude of the nature outside of it. When the cameras bob up and under the surface of the water, catching flickering visions of seagulls manifesting out of the dark, it looks as if the world is being created before your eyes. The filmmakers told Dennis Lim in the NY Times that while Melville, as well as philosopher Thomas Hobbes (“life is nasty, brutish and short”), were the original touchstones of their work, it was the original, biblical sense of leviathan as sea monster that ultimately animated their vision. It is a primal, visceral and overwhelming work, one of those artistic breakthroughs that intimates what it might have felt to view the Lumiere’s train riding towards you for the first time.

If Leviathan feels like something bracingly new, Holy Motors is obsessed with the old – with old films, old actors and old age. After years of failing to secure funding for his work, Leos Carax fueled all of his rage at the business and love for the medium into this weary spectacular. Denis Lavant plays Oscar, a burnt-out itinerant actor who travels in a stretch limo around Paris (which has a similar tomb-like quality to that of Cosmopolis), heading to nine “appointments” in which he performs scenes in a variety of genres, from softcore porn to tearjerking melodrama to a grandly romantic musical reminiscent of Jacques Demy. His whole life is performance, and performance is life, acting for an invisible crowd that we see in the opening scene lolling contentedly in their seats.

This is no celebration, though, for Oscar is exhausted, as Michel Piccoli notes in a crucial cameo. These forms and characters that Lavant so imaginatively embodies are losing their force – these grand emotions are as outdated as the lugubrious limo that creeps through town. Oscar’s tour is a joyous kind of eulogy, a superb rendering of these spectacles that is also their last. He straps on a motion capture suit, a human disco ball in a dark room, and engages in an intensely erotic pas de deux with a similarly outfitted blonde. Their bodies heave and contract as one – but their efforts result in the slick, inhuman CG of writhing dragons. Later, a movingly melancholic Kylie Minogue breaks out into a heartsick ballad, singing of her past love for Lavant, a gorgeous number in which Carax tracks the camera up a desolate building onto the roof, where they part. All that is left afterward will be some broken glass on the sidewalk, another performance ended.  In Holy Motors cinema still works, and gloriously so, but it is fated to die anyway. The film is Carax’s form of mourning this passing, and here’s hoping this film and his career will have a lengthy afterlife.

  In the coming weeks I’ll discuss the sidebar programs, including the Views From the Avant-Garde program and an ultra-rare screening of Manoel de Oliveira’s The Satin Slipper (1985) , along with more selections from the main slate.


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.