Films by Valeska Grisebach: Be My Star (2001), Longing (2006) and Western (2017)

She’s only made three feature films, but on the basis of just that work Valeska Grisebach is one of the most interesting German-language filmmakers of the last few decades. She was trained at the Vienna Film School, though she isn’t Austrian (she was born in Bremen), and is often included in the so-called ‘Berlin School’ with Angela Schanelec (whom I’ll cover later this week), Christian Petzold and others. She makes unglamorous films with non-professional actors that often resist the more florid aspects of storytelling, not a million miles from say Kelly Reichardt or Claire Denis. This perhaps accounts for why she’s been able to make so few, but those she has made are all excellent and well worth checking out (though her graduate film, Be My Star, is somewhat rougher aesthetically).

Mein Stern (Be My Star, 2001) [Germany/Austria]

The film may be a tight 65 minutes, but there’s no real sense of anything missing in this story of (atypically, for the movies) bashful and inarticulate teenagers growing up in Berlin. Grisebach does plenty with her simple, static camera, capturing moments that define the passing emotions of these kids, and naturalistically avoiding expressing it through dialogue (though they occasionally manage to string a sentence together). It focuses primarily on one girl, Nicole (Gläser), whose dalliances with a few boys seem to be partly a learned habit from those around her, partly a natural growth and curiosity, but mostly just seem a bit awkward — which is how you imagine it might be. It’s not so naturalistic as to be really dull, but there’s a fine sense of these people growing through their awkward encounters, put across ably by these non-actors.

Be My Star film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Valeska Grisebach; Cinematographer Bernhard Keller; Starring Nicole Gläser, Monique Gläser; Length 65 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Tuesday 10 April 2018.

Sehnsucht (Longing, 2006) [Germany, classification 15]

A lot of films like to tell the audience how to feel, or hold them by the hand as they unfold the narrative, and sometimes that can be comforting. Valeska Grisebach, however, isn’t interested in that, so her editing is as concise and elliptical as, say, Lynne Ramsay in You Were Never Really Here (though the two are working within different genres). The story is almost kitchen-sink level naturalism, of a young man (Andreas Müller) in a small provincial town who’s a handyman and also does some volunteering for the local fire brigade. He loves his wife (Ilka Welz) but he feels a little disconnected, so when the fire brigade takes him away to another town for a training weekend, he falls for a woman there (Annett Dornbusch). That’s all really quite straightforward, but the way the scenes are cut together, a lot is put on the audience to fill in the characters’ emotions so it requires a certain attentiveness to small gestures and associations made in the editing. Perhaps I missed a little of the nuance, but the film itself is made with authority and a sense of the ineffable mystery of human feeling, which makes it absolutely tonally perfect when we cut to some kids at the end imperfectly recapping the story to each other.

Longing film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Valeska Grisebach; Cinematographer Bernhard Keller; Starring Andreas Müller, Ilka Welz, Annett Dornbusch; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 22 August 2019.

Western (2017) [Germany/Austria/Bulgaria, classification 12]

The title suggests a certain generic familiarity, and though I feel like a German film set in Bulgaria (i.e. Eastern Europe) is a bit of a stretch, at a wider thematic level it does make some sense as a western: it’s about men in a lonely place, bonding with one another and forging some performative sense of what it means to be a man. It reminds me of Chevalier or Beau travail (being other woman-directed films about masculinity), where you get a sense of characters questioning the dominant paradigm or else collapsing straight into it and thus failing as humans. The lead character amongst these non-actors, played by Meinhard Neumann, turns out to be a moustachioed laconic engineer with a shady past (he suggests he was a legionnaire, but it’s also hinted that this may not be true), but he also seems to be looking for something, a man who has taken the work because he’s unable to settle. The way he interacts with the locals sets him apart from everyone, and he seems fairly comfortable at being a loner, in a way that’s rare in modern cinema. There is drama, but it all seems to develop organically out of the characters and situations, and is a beautifully judged piece of filmmaking all told.

Western film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Valeska Grisebach; Cinematographer Bernhard Keller; Starring Meinhard Neumann, Reinhardt Wetrek; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 16 April 2016.



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